Leonie and Sara were somewhere close in the woods. Matteo didn’t know where—they were very good at remaining inconspicuous. He couldn’t tell where they were, most of the time, other than very occasionally rustling of brush. Matteo had a feeling that was on purpose, to let him and David know they were there.
Matteo didn’t understand why they had to have Leonie and Sara trailing after them. Keeping an eye on them. He knew it wasn’t because of him, specifically—David trusted him, and he’d made that clear.
But this hasn’t happened before when they spent time together. And David hadn’t fully explained why they now had to have a guard follow them on their walk through the woods.
Or why David had to have a guard at all.
They slowly made their way back toward the village and to the wood’s edge at a comfortable pace, but it was not a comfortable outing. It was nothing like any of the other times they’d spent together, even the very first when they didn’t know each other.
Matteo did not like it much.
“David,” he said eventually.
“Hmm?” David asked distractedly. His chin was tilted up and his head to the side, one of his pointed ears carefully listening to the wind.
Matteo sighed. “Never mind,” he said, a little gloomily.
This seemed to draw David from his distractedness. His dark eyes focused in on Matteo, just Matteo, which is what Matteo wanted. Except maybe not like this.
“Is something the matter, Matteo?” David asked.
“I don’t know, is there?” Matteo blurted out.
David sighed but did not offer an explanation.
“I don’t understand,” Matteo said. “I—why are they following us?”
“They refuse to be dismissed,” David said. “Even though I have ordered them a number of times that they do not have to follow me.”
His voice was raised, and the air around them moved more, as if carrying his words away. Likely straight to Leonie and Sara, wherever they may be hidden.
“Can’t you order them?”
David’s wings, folded at his back, rustled. He looked uncomfortable. “Yes. Under most circumstances.”
“And under circumstances when you can’t?”
“When my sister puts forth an order,” David said, a little huffily. “She is older, you see, and a higher standing in the family.”
“She is not here,” Matteo said.
“She has ways of communicating,” David said. “And we have heard from her very recently. They are not to leave my side for the foreseeable future.” He sighed. “I am afraid we will not have much privacy for the time being. I am truly sorry.”
“Okay,” Matteo said. It almost felt like they did, Sara and Leonie so perfectly hidden amongst the brush, if he could only make himself pretend harder, perhaps. But it was only an illusion—Matteo and David were not alone.
“It is always like this,” David said, and he sounded just as gloomy as Matteo had. “In the Capital. I very rarely get time to myself. It is part of why I have loved being here so much.”
“Oh,” Matteo said. He didn’t know what to say.
David stopped in his tracks, and turned to Matteo. Matteo stopped beside him. All Matteo wanted to do was lean against him, and wrap his arms around him, and perhaps just hold him. Matteo now had a feeling this was going to be fleeting, this time they had together. He wanted to make the best of it.
“Matteo…” David trailed off with a sigh.
“Are you ever going to tell me?” Matteo asked, working up some bravery. He wanted to know, of course, all about David. But he’d known from the start, sensed it, that there were certain things David did not wish to speak about. Or perhaps could not.
But the time had come. Matteo wasn’t sure they could go on much longer without him knowing.
“Tell you what?” David asked.
Matteo gave him a deadpanned look. “You know what.”
Matteo sighed and tilted his head down. “Never mind,” he repeated, and turned to keep on walking.
“Wait, wait.” David reached out to him, taking his arm gently but it was enough to make Matteo stop. Any little bit of attention would have been. Matteo turned to him, though his head still hung low. David gently put two fingers underneath his chin and tilted Matteo’s head up. Matteo’s hair hung over his eyes, but he looked through it to meet David’s gaze.
David sighed, and kissed Matteo gently. Light and careful and sweet. Be damned who saw it, who lurked in the woods, Matteo only wanted more.
“I have not been fair,” David said. “In not telling you.”
“I can understand,” Matteo said. “Obviously you are in hiding, so it must be important. You had no idea if you could trust me or not.”
“Not at first, no,” David admitted. “But it did not take long to know that I could. I know you, Matteo. You let me see you. But I have not been able to do the same.”
“To keep yourself safe?” Matteo asked. He thought this must be it. And it was what kept Matteo’s curiosity and irritation over the whole thing more at bay instead of flooding over to a point of no return.
“Partly,” David said. “I wanted you to see me too. And you do. I have been able to be myself with you in ways I cannot in the Capital. I wanted you to like me for that.”
“And I do,” Matteo said. “I don’t care who you are beyond…” He paused for a moment, thinking on it. And then he shrugged. It was hard to put into words. “David. You’re just David to me. I’m sorry if that’s not enough.”
“You do not understand,” David said, and his smile was warm. “It is everything to me.”
Matteo leaned in, seeking a kiss, and David happily complied. They stood at the edge of the forest, surrounded on one side by tall trees with high branches, mist in the air, wild flowers spotting the green with a splash of colour, while fields lay to the other side. Despite his earlier reservations, Matteo had never felt happier.
He should have known it couldn’t have lasted.
A branch cracked. Movement in the trees. Leonie cried a warning.
At least, it sounded like a warning, but Matteo was confused and didn’t know who she was speaking too.
“Your Highness! Take cover!”
David turned to face the opposite direction, and he drew his sword as he pushed himself in front of Matteo.
“What?” Matteo said, confused, nearly toppling to the ground with the force of it, only his wings flapping keeping him up on his feet.
Whistling through the air. An arrow straight at them—at David, but too fast. Matteo’s mind barely made sense of it. David, who had turned and had been watching Matteo keenly, waved a hand in the air but it was a beat too late.
It was knocked off its true path, but the arrow pierced David’s upper leg. His hand went slack and the sword fell to the forest floor. David went to his knees, as if a marionette with its strings cut.
Matteo had no experience with swords but his instincts pushed him to pick it up. He held the point up as he looked around the forest. He could see blurs through the trunks, and suddenly Sara was at his side.
“Did you—” Of course she hadn’t, but Matteo didn’t know what else to think.
“Leonie is after the shooter,” she said. She stood on guard, an arrow knocked on her bow as she turned in a circle. She didn’t even glance down but said, “Do you know how to use that?”
“No,” Matteo said. He dropped it and leaned over David. With Sara here, he didn’t need to worry about protecting David. He just needed to focus on helping him.
“Matteo,” David said quietly. It sounded weak.
“Lean back,” Matteo said. He winced as he saw the arrow stuck out of David’s thigh, the arrow tip embedded deep. But Matteo was fairly certain it was not a fatal wound, though it would need to be looked after immediately.
“Pull it out,” David said. His shaky hand reached for the arrow shaft.
“No,” Matteo said, and slapped his hand away. Suddenly, Sara’s arrow pointed right at him.
“You did not just do that,” she said.
“Of course I did,” Matteo said crossly. “We cannot pull out the arrow until we’re at my shop. He’ll bleed too much and then he’ll die. Do you want that?”
“Of course I do not,” she said, just as crossly. “But you cannot touch him that way. You cannot inflict pain on him.”
“I can and I will again if he dares try to pull it out,” Matteo said, staring down the length of the arrow and past the bow at her. “You’ll have to kill me before I let him try and do anything stupid.”
“If the two of you,” David said, drawing both of their attention, especially with the barely veiled pain in his voice, “could stop bickering and help me?”
Sara repositioned herself and stood on guard again, staring out to the trees and turning in a small circle to encompass the entire area around them, and Matteo turned his attention back to David.
“We have to get you back to my shop,” Matteo said. “I really do have potions that will help with healing, and keep out infection.”
“Your shop is not here,” David said, “and I do not think I can fly.”
“I’ll carry you, if I have to. Or we’ll send Sara to go and get some help. We can trust my friends,” he said at her glare down at him.
“We cannot trust anyone right now,” she said. “Not even you.”
“Yes, you,” David said. “I trust Matteo with my life.”
Matteo ignored the glowing feeling in his chest, and he started to rip at the hem of his shirt, all along the bottom. It removed the decorative part, with its stitched leaves, but he did not care at this point. Instead, he took the length of cloth and wrapped it around the top of David’s leg, tying a tight knot.
“To help slow the blood flow,” Matteo said. He looked at the arrow. “I cannot remove it as of yet, it will let the blood flow too freely. But I’m going to snap off part of the arrow, so it does not stick out so much. It is a hazard that way.”
David nodded. Matteo reached out and snapped the arrow low down, close to his leg. David winced at the movement of the arrow, but he did not make a sound.
“Good, good,” Matteo said quietly, trying to be soothing. The reality of the situation was hitting him, and he tried not to panic. He couldn’t. He had to be strong if he was going to see David through it.
Leonie returned to them. “He got away,” she said flatly.
“Must be a good assassin then,” David said, wincing as he leaned heavier against Matteo.
“Not that good,” Sara said. “You are still alive.”
“It was Bjorn,” Leonie said flatly.
Sara cursed under her breath, and David went even paler.
“Who is that?” Matteo asked.
Leonie ignored him and addressed Sara. “It is time for us to move on.”
“I agree,” Sara said.
“You can’t go anywhere,” Matteo protested. He might not fully understand everything going on, but he knew one thing. “David is not up for it. His wound needs to be seen to.”
Leonie and Sara exchanged glances, and then look down at David. “Your command?” Leonie asked.
“We will go to the Apothecary,” David said. Both Leonie and Sara made a noise, possibly of disagreement they did not put into words. “Matteo is right,” David said. “I cannot travel like this. The injury must be tended to.”
Clearly neither of them liked this plan, but they did not argue it. Instead, they came up with a plan to get David to town and to the Apothecary as quickly as possibly. It was lucky they were not too far from the village—just a short walk away, for their stroll had taken them to the edge of the forest before they were to part. Nonetheless, it took so much time, involved taking a wheel cart from a farmer’s field, and hiding David under a canvas tarp while trying to not let him bounce around too much.
By the time they made it to the back of the Apothecary, David was as pale as Matteo had ever seen and the wound had been left for so long. Blood dripped to the cart and David was starting to fade in and out of consciousness.
“I will kill Bjorn,” Leonie muttered. “He is a dead man. He will pay for this.”
Once inside, and having David laid out on the floor, Matteo fetched potions from his Apothecary.
“Do not let anyone come back here,” he said to Abdi as he rushed around. “Including yourself.”
“Is everything alright?” Abdi asked, startled.
“I’m fine,” Matteo said. “But I have someone back there injured and I don’t want anyone to know he’s there.” There was no point in lying to Abdi, though Matteo stopped long enough to put his hand on Abdi’s arm and squeeze. “Do not tell anyone he is there.”
“Never mind,” Matteo said. “No one. No one is there.”
“But you just said—“
“Of course. Got it. There is no one here. Your strong dittany?” Abdi asked in surprise. “What kind of injury is this?”
Matteo did not answer him, but instead went back into his quarters at the back of the shop. David lay on the floor, Leonie standing next to him. Her arrow was pointed at the door Matteo just came through, though he was not worried. She was not going to shoot at him, but anyone else who might enter through the door would be in grave danger. Abdi had better listen to Matteo’s warning.
Sara was on guard by the back door.
After grabbing clean cloths and water and his potions, Matteo knelt next to David.
“This is going to hurt,” Matteo said.
“I have suffered pain before,” David said wearily.
“Been shot often, have you?” Matteo tried to jest. None of this was funny.
“No. But I’ve been through the Trials. It was—” David sighed. “Life altering. And painful.”
Matteo tried not to connect this information with how he recalled Leonie had addressed David earlier. This was not what he needed to think about. All he cared about was seeing to David’s injury.
“I don’t know how this compares, but I know this won’t be pleasant, that’s for certain. You should bite on this,” Matteo said. He held out a small branch he’d pulled from his pile of firewood. David looked wary but let Matteo place it between his teeth.
“Alright,” Matteo said. “Deep breath.”
Pulling the arrow from David’s leg was the most difficult thing he’d ever done, mostly for the squirming David did, as well as the muffled cries behind the bitten wood. It did not come out entirely smoothly, but Matteo worked as fast as he could, even if there was more blood than he liked.
But then he poured the dittany over the wound, and pressed the clean linen to it.
“Magic,” Matteo whispered to David. He took the piece of wood from David. David was so pale, face drenched with sweat, but he was more relaxed now that the arrow was out. “My magic is going to save you.”
“Sometimes I think,” David said, “it already has.”
Matteo shook his head. David was hurt and had lost blood and was delirious. He didn’t know what he was talking about.
Matteo changed the bandage twice, but the potion was working. The arrow wound had grown in and finally closed. There would be a scar, but there shouldn’t be any lingering damage and there shouldn’t be infection.
“He needs to rest,” Matteo said to Leonie. “This time, he needs to stay here. He really is not in the shape for any sort of travel. Help move him to my bed.”
Although reluctant, she complied with him. They moved David to Matteo’s bed, and she helped hold him upright enough for Matteo to administer another potion, one that should help him both rest and fully heal.
“I will keep watch over him,” Matteo said.
Leonie nodded. “I will keep watch at the front and Sara at the back. If you need anything, you call for us.”
Matteo nodded. “I will.”
Leonie turned to leave, but stopped suddenly. She turned to Matteo and though she looked pained to have to say it, she did speak. “Thank you for saving him.”
Matteo shook his head. “You do not have to thank me for that.”
“I do. You have no idea what you did for not only him, but for the kingdom.”
Matteo finally let it sink in, just a little. How Leonie had addressed him. What David said in his delirium.
“I think maybe I do,” Matteo said, voice low and maybe portraying too much sadness.
For the first time, Leonie’s face softened. “Do not be too angry with him,” she said. “He did what he had to, first to protect himself and then to protect you. You do not understand what he faces in the Capital.”
“You’re right,” Matteo said. “I don’t. And he couldn’t trust me with it.”
“To be fair, he did not know you. Not at first. And it has been eating at him, figuring out how to make it out of this without you hating him.”
“I could not,” Matteo said. “Even in anger, I could never hate him.” His feelings were too strong for that, but he couldn’t tell Leonie. He wasn’t even sure if he could tell that to David. Not anymore.
“I must go on watch,” she said, and left him in the room.
Matteo took a stool from the corner of the room and dragged it beside the bed. He sat and watched over David while he slept long into the night.
Matteo was roused from sleep by the soft calling of his name.
“Matteo,” David’s voice said quietly. “Matteo?”
Matteo’s back was sore and when he opened his eyes, he found he was hunched over the side of his bed, his head rested on the old covering. He winced and pushed himself up, but seeing David’s eyes trained on him brought him to full awareness. Dim light streamed through the dirty glass of the small window high up on the wall.
“Matteo,” David said again, softly. As if relieved to see him.
“Good morning,” Matteo said softly. He paused, swallowing, and bowed his head. “Your Highness.”
Matteo looked up through the fringe of hair that fell in front of his eyes. David grimaced and shook his head.
“You do not have to address me so,” David said.
“Don’t I?” Matteo asked. “Now that I know the truth? It is the truth, isn’t it?”
“I did not want you to find out this way,” David said.
“No, I’m certain an assassination attempt was not how you planned this,” Matteo replied. “You could have told me from the start.”
David shook his head. “I could not. I did not know you. Did not know if I could trust you.” He lifted one hand from the bed and gestured toward his leg. “You can now see why.”
“I should look at it,” Matteo said. He reached for the bedcovers to pull down, but realized what he was doing and stopped his hands mid-air. He let them drop. “I see why Sara got so angry at me for being so casual. May I?”
David sighed. “You do not have to ask permission every time you touch me.”
“I think I will,” Matteo muttered, but then drew back the covers. He carefully removed the bandage to inspect the wound. There was just a small yet vividly red scar on David’s leg. He picked up the little pot of salve he’d put on the bedside table and put a dab onto the scar. It would further help heal it and keep out infection. “You will need to be easy on it for a couple of days, but it has healed nicely.”
“Remarkable,” David said, his head lifted off the pillow to look down at the wound. “I remember that being much worse yesterday.”
“Believe me, it was,” Matteo said, drawing the covers back up. “It was deep but it healed well with my potion.”
“Thank you,” David said sincerely. He reached out and wrapped his fingers around Matteo’s wrist. “Matteo. Thank you for saving my life.”
Matteo gently pulled his arm away. “It is what’s best for the kingdom, isn’t it?” Matteo said, Leonie’s words echoing in his ears. “I should get your guard.”
“Matteo, please,” David said. “Delay fetching them. You and I need to talk.”
“If you wish,” Matteo said, sitting down.
It was only now that David let frustration show. His head fell back to the pillow and he let out a sharp breath. “Could you please stop?”
“Acting so formally. This is not you.”
“Because I didn’t know it had to be,” Matteo said, his anger finally rising to the surface. “Was this a farce the entire time? Were you using me?”
“What?” David looked horror-struck. “What are you saying?”
“Well, you said it yourself once. The royal family would love access to these lands. Did they send you here to, what? Get at me, break the curse, so all elves would be able to come back in without fear of injury.” Matteo eyed David’s leg. “If this was your task, you’re not very good at it.”
David’s laugh was hollow. “No, no that is not why I came to this land.”
Matteo crossed his arms. “I’m not sure if I should believe it.”
David sighed and let his head fall back to the pillow again. He stared at the ceiling of Matteo’s room. “This injury had nothing to do with the curse.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Matteo said.
“I am,” David said frankly. “If I remember correctly, Leonie said it was Bjorn. He is one of General Neuhaus’s top assassins. We came to this land to hide, yes, while my sister came up with a plan. It started with us being separated to split the task of their attempts at our lives. Too easy if we were together all the time.” David sighed again, and closed his eyes. “Sara and Leonie warned against revealing myself. About coming into the village. That it would put me at risk.”
“Then why did you?” Matteo blurted out. “Why did you put yourself at that risk?”
David opened his eyes again and stared at Matteo. “I thought that was quite obvious.”
Matteo shook his head. He did not want to believe it, did not want to read too much into it. His mind and his feelings, which could be ill even in the best of times, were confused and jumbled and he didn’t know how to make sense out of any of this.
“So your real name isn’t David,” Matteo said, unsure what else to say. “Is it, Prince Schriebner?”
David made a face. “Please don’t call me that.”
“David? Or Prince Schriebner.”
“That is a name my parents choose for me. An old family name.” David’s fingers picked at a loose thread on the covers. “They announced it to the court without even consulting me,” he said, with some bitterness in his voice. “I went through the Trials to become who I wanted, who I truly am, and they took even that from me.” His gaze met Matteo’s. “I would choose to be called David. I do choose it. It is my name, of my choice.”
“Prince David, you mean,” Matteo could not help but point out.
David tilted his head slightly in acquiescence. “It is my title, yes. You never have to refer to me as that.”
“I don’t think I’m allowed to call you anything other than Prince Schriebner, Your Highness,” Matteo said.
David shook his head immediately. “Not you. Never you.”
Maybe Matteo just wouldn’t refer to him as anything. David sounded too close, too intimate, than should be allowed. Prince Schriebner only reminded him of the secrets.
“You’re hiding in Mitte because of the General?” Matteo asked.
David nodded. He did not seem to mind answering Matteo’s questions. Matteo didn’t know if he’d be so forthcoming with this information to anyone else, but Matteo supposed David owned him this at least. Matteo was willing to take this offering.
“Yes,” David said.
“I remember Jonas saying,” Matteo said, “one time when he returned home—he said the line of succession was complicated now.”
“It is,” David agreed. “Only by archaic elf laws,” he added with a roll of his eyes. A gesture that was so unprincely that Matteo could barely suppress his grin. Perhaps Prince David was still delirious. His story seemed serious enough though.
“When the King has reached the end of his reign, either by death or by abdication after a certain amount of time and a waning of power, the title and power passes down to the first born son. If there is no son, it is the first born daughter. There was no son, not for a long time, not as far as anyone would accept, and my sister Laura was raised to be the next ruler.” David made a vague gesture with his hand. “Then I went through the Trials and suddenly there was a prince. But there is endless debate about the validity. I hate it.” David scowled. “I did not go through the Trials to be a ruler. I do not want it. Laura will be the perfect ruler, firm but fair. She has a good heart and she will do what is best for the people of our kingdom. The throne is rightfully hers. But the debates are causing political chaos, and the General is trying to take advantage of that.”
“By murdering you?” Matteo asked, aghast. “How would that make any claim of his valid?”
“It would not. Unless he also murdered my sister, and worked his way in through various allies. It is risky but there is no other viable option for him. That is why my sister and I separated, for a time. Make it harder for him to complete his task. But she is the rightful ruler, or will be upon the autumn solstice, so she had to stay in the Capital. She is under heavy guard.”
“And you’re in the backwoods of a cursed land.”
“Yes,” David said.
Matteo blinked at him. “That is the stupidest plan.”
David barked out surprised laughter, so unlike anything that Matteo had heard from him as of yet. David even shut his mouth quickly, as if caught off guard by it himself.
“It was a good plan,” David said. “Until I ruined it.”
Matteo looked down at his hands. “You mean, until I did.”
“You did not,” David said, shaking his head. “I knew you lived in this land. I never expected to come across you. We did not want to believe in the curse, but had strategies to deal with that and also continue to evade General Neuhaus and his allies.”
“And then there I was.”
“And then there you were.”
“I’m sure you regret that day you first spoke to me in the woods,” Matteo said.
“Never,” David said. “I will never. I only regret keeping from you who I really was.”
Matteo was cut off by noises outside the bedroom door.
“Do not shoot!” Abdi said beyond the door.
“Shit on a stick,” Matteo muttered, and was to his feet in an instant. He went into the main part of his room, and found Leonie with her arrow trained on Abdi’s face.
“You should not be here,” Leonie said.
“Yes he should,” Matteo said crossly, and went over to Abdi to stand between Leonie’s arrow and Abdi. “He is my apprentice. I’m fairly certain you are aware of that.”
Leonie did not confirm either way. “He needs to get out.”
Abdi kept his hands visible but turned to Matteo with a panicked face. “You had not come into the shop yet today, I was worried you might have elf illness!”
“There is no elf illness,” Matteo said.
“That is not true,” Leonie said, her bow and arrow never wavering. “It is rare but it can happen.”
Abdi gestured both hands at her. “See! I told you.”
“Go back into the shop, Abdi.”
“He needs to leave,” Leonie said.
“I have a business to run,” Matteo snapped at her. “This is my home and my shop and you cannot tell me who can and cannot be here. He will stay in the front and assist any patrons and if you’re worried about it, send Sara in with him. Or go yourself. Sort it out, I do not care, but I will not close my shop. It will only draw more attention.”
“Attention to what?” Abdi whispered to Matteo, not so quietly.
Neither Matteo nor Leonie said anything, but stared at each other, neither moving from their position.
“Leonie,” David called from the bedroom. “He is right.”
Only then did Leonie’s façade crack.
“Oh, is David here?” Abdi said, looking delighted. “In your bedroom?” He wiggled his eyebrows.
Matteo went back into his room without further comment and closed the door softly after him.
“Everything alright?” David asked from his spot on the bed. He’d shifted onto his side, his wounded leg facing up and not against the mattress, so Matteo supposed he’d allow it.
“Yes. You need to rest,” Matteo said. He moved to sit on the stool next to the bed, but David’s hand caught Matteo’s wrist.
“You need to rest too,” David said. “You do not look well.”
“Is this your way of telling me I look like donkey balls?”
“You are the most gorgeous man I have ever met,” David said.
“You must still be delirious,” Matteo mumbled under his breath, but he ducked his head and could not meet David’s eyes.
David paid that no mind. “But you do look tired. You must have stayed up late into the night making sure I was alright.”
“Something like that,” Matteo said. He remembered the pink dawn beginning to light the small window before he finally put his head down to rest for just a moment.
“Come and lay with me,” David said.
Matteo’s head snapped up, his eyes wide. “I… I do not think it’s the right time for—I.”
David burst out laughing, as weak as it was. “I do not mean like that,” David said. He winked at Matteo. “Though that is very forward thinking of you.”
Wishful thinking, more like. But now Matteo’s cheeks grew warm from embarrassment, for letting on how much he wanted David.
“I only mean,” David said, more gently, and he patted the bed beside him. “This is your bed and you need a rest. Come and have a nap with me.”
“I don’t know if that’s appropriate,” Matteo said.
“You were just thinking of other reasons, were you not?” David asked teasingly. “Was that more appropriate?”
Matteo put both his hands up to his face. “I will never live this down, will I?”
“I will perhaps forget your advances—”
“I was not—”
“If you promise me to rest.”
Matteo stood up off the stool. “Fine, fine,” he grumbled, and climbed onto the bed before David could say anything else.
David winced a little as the bed shifted but he did not make a sound, instead moving a little to make more room for Matteo. Matteo lay on his side, and he and David faced each other, their wings folded at their backs.
“Sleep,” Matteo said.
Matteo smiled, and reached out, pushing back a lock of hair that had fallen across David’s brow. Then he let his fingers trail over David’s ear, over the decorative clasp, with his fingertips meeting at the point. He let his hand drop but David caught it in his and brought it up to his lips, giving Matteo’s knuckles a gentle kiss.
“Sleep,” David said, reaching over and giving a light flick to the top of Matteo’s rounded ear. Matteo batted his hand away as David laughed, but Matteo sighed, content, and closed his eyes.
Matteo woke alone.
He was on his stomach, his wings stretched out over the bed, as if seeking to act like a cover. But David was no longer in the bed.
Matteo frowned as he sat up. David shouldn’t be up and moving. He needed to rest, and he needed more salve put over his wound.
When Matteo went into the main room of his quarters, he found it empty. He went into the front of the shop, noticing how dim it was. The sun was setting; he’d slept the day away, and hadn’t even noticed when David had left.
Abdi was cleaning up the worktop when he noticed Matteo, and grinned at him. “Good morning, sleepy head. Or should I say, good evening!”
“Where are the others?” Matteo asked. “Why did they leave?”
The smile fell from Abdi’s face. “I asked the shorter one—”
“Leonie,” Matteo supplied.
Abdi nodded. “I asked Leonie, but she would not say anything. All she did was buy two potions from me—quite generously, more than was necessary and she would not let me return any of the coin—handed me that—” Abdi gestured to a rolled piece of parchment on the worktop “—and she left.”
Matteo frowned. “And David?”
Abdi’s grin returned. “He was here, then? I did not see him.”
Matteo didn’t understand. Why would they leave? Without saying goodbye, at least. He walked to the worktop and picked up the parchment. As he unrolled it, there was a flash of silver and a clinking on the ground. Matteo bent down and picked it up.
He would recognize it anywhere. It was the decorative clasp that was usually clipped to the top of David’s ear. He finished unrolling the parchment and read the fanciest script he’d ever seen.
Again, I thank you for saving my life. I appreciate it more than I can say.
I am taking your advice—I am leaving Mitte.
It is not for my own safety, but to take care of loose ends. This will ensure I can return someday.
And for your own safety—I cannot take you with me. Stay in Moabit. Be safe.
This is not a goodbye. I will see you again.
Matteo’s arms dropped to his side limply and he hung his head. It felt like there was a hole in his heart, one the size of David’s smile.
“Here you are,” Abdi said, sliding the coins across the worktop. Matteo barely glanced at it, though it was certainly more than he made in a moon cycle.
“What potions?” Matteo asked. Abdi told him what was bought, and Matteo nodded. It came as no surprise—the perfect potions for helping a fresh wound, and helping alertness. Especially if a long ride was ahead.
Matteo flipped Abdi one of the coins. “For your troubles,” he said.
Abdi held the coin in his palm and then looked at Matteo in surprise. It was far more than Matteo could usually afford to pay him. “This is too much.”
Matteo shook his head. “It is not. Can you please close up? And come in tomorrow?” It was supposed to be Abdi’s day off. “I don’t feel very well and think I will sleep.”
Abdi frowned. “You just slept all day.”
“It is not enough,” Matteo said, and he made his way to the back, to his rooms, without the confirmation Abdi would be in the next day. It did not matter, either way. Matteo was not about to leave his quarters.
One would think that, with David and the other elves gone from Moabit, life would return to normal. That Matteo could and should go on with life the way it had been. He had, after all, always lived that way.
He didn’t even care that there had been a possibility of the curse breaking—because, if he thought about it hard enough, that was one conclusion. Prince Schriebner could have loved him and the curse wall could have disappeared and they could have left together.
But Matteo didn’t care about that at all. He only cared that he’d met a high elf called David, and that he’d felt for this high elf. And if Matteo had never been able to leave Mitte, that would have been all right. As long as he had David.
But he still had the curse and he didn’t have David and nothing felt normal at all anymore.
Matteo kept to his quarters, assigning Abdi the task of watching the shop. When they were getting low on certain stores, Hanna came to watch the shop as Abdi gathered in the woods.
Matteo would not go near the woods. Not right now. He wasn’t sure if he could ever again.
One evening, he sat in the back garden smoking his pipe of special leaf. He was on the ground and leaned against the stone wall, his wings cocooned around him, and he stared up at the pinkened clouds, soon to disappear into the darkness.
“Matteo.” He glanced over to see Hanna standing on the edge of his courtyard. It was hard to disconcert in the twilight, but possibly she looked worried.
“Hanna.” He puffed on his pipe.
Hanna sighed and came over to him, taking care with her long skirts as she sat on the ground beside him. “Are you ever going to talk about it?”
“About what?” Matteo puffed again.
Hanna wrinkled her nose. She did not like the smell of his special leaf, nor did she like much what it did to one’s character. He sighed and put the topper on it to extinguish the smoke.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Hanna asked gently. “What ever has you so down?”
“I am not feeling well,” Matteo said. “That is all. Elf sickness.”
“Liar,” Abdi said from where Hanna had been standing just moments before.
“You’re the one who has been insisting for months there is elf sickness,” Matteo pointed out. “Now that I have it, you call me liar?”
“Oh, there is,” Abdi said. “But you do not have it.”
“Don’t I?” Matteo asked. It wasn’t an argument; he sounded too tired and listless for it to be taken for such. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
“No,” Abdi said. “It is a sickness of the heart, I think.”
“I’m sorry you’re heartsick,” Hanna said softly.
Matteo shrugged one shoulder but did not look at her. “I do not want to talk about it. Not yet.”
“That’s fair,” Hanna said. He heard the rustling of her skirts as she stood. “But you should know,” she said, “there are a lot of people worried about you, and any one of them would listen to whatever you have to say. When you’re ready.”
It made Matteo feel worse, but he nodded his head in acknowledgement. He did not think he would go to any of them, for what could any of them possibly say?
He waited until Abdi and Hanna were gone, and then he went into his home and climbed back into bed.
Abdi had errands to run in the village and Hanna was not around, so Matteo was forced to watch over the shop. He contemplated locking up and hiding in the back, and ignoring anyone who may need in, but he knew he couldn’t do that.
Something in the back of his mind jolted with remembrance.
”I have a business to run here!”
Yes, yes he did, and it was time he pulled it together and took care of it.
He slumped against the counter, rubbing his fingers along long blades of sweet grass that were to be used to brew a popular tonic once Abdi returned. The door opened and he turned his head toward it, and when he saw it was Amira did not bother to push himself up into a more welcoming stance. They’d known each other so long she did not need a formal greeting.
His eyes drifted back down to the sweet grass, and she snapped her fingers in front of his face. He only moved his eyes to look up at her.
“It’s true then,” she said.
“Your earth magic has turned you into a lump of sod, and you can no longer move.”
“Ha ha,” he said dryly, and pushed himself off the counter.
More softly, she said, “I am sorry you are going through this.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Through what?”
“The disappearance of your elves,” Amira said.
“They did not disappear,” Matteo said. “They are merely gone.”
“That is not a mere thing. I’m sure you liked having them around.”
Matteo shrugged. The answer was, of course, yes he did. Even Sara and Leonie. But there was little he could do about it.
“I may have something to brighten your mood.” She leaned down and picked up a very small crate, one he hadn’t even noticed she’d been carrying when she came in. “This is for you.”
“From you?” Matteo asked, surprised.
“Don’t be silly,” Amira said. “It was sent along with my older brother, who had been in the city several days past. Your elf David must’ve recognized him from town, because he asked that this was given to you when my brother returned to Moabit.”
Matteo knew that Amira’s family did some business in the city as well, and that her brothers attended to it, usually the eldest one. What he did not understand is how David would have known, or why he would have sent this along.
“Is he in the city?” Matteo couldn’t help but ask. It was so close, so close even Matteo could go there. “David?”
Amira smiled sadly. “I don’t think any longer. His friends were purchasing horses and just passing through. He has moved on, I do believe. Omar said this was near a fortnight past.”
Matteo nodded. This made sense. Of course David wasn’t where Matteo could get to him.
He stared at the crate.
“Good Father Around. Well?” Amira said, demandingly. “Aren’t you going to open it?”
“I don’t know,” Matteo answered. He wasn’t sure he wanted to, and definitely not with an audience. As much as he may like Amira, he needed to do this alone.
“I suppose I can understand this,” Amira said. “Though I suspect I know what it is.”
“Do you?” Matteo asked. He had no idea at all.
She nodded. “I recognize the crate. I could be wrong, but. You’re in need of a full set, aren’t you?”
Matteo blinked at her, confused.
She rolled her eyes. “I should be going now,” Amira said. “You’re welcome, by the way. For the delivery.”
“Thank you,” Matteo said belatedly. He tapped the top of the create, though he did not move to open it quite yet. “I appreciate it, I do.”
She nodded at him, and turned to leave, waving over her shoulder. “Hope to see you in the market soon. Kiki could use your business.”
He knew what that meant, and he made a note to himself to make sure he got to her, paid her in the tonic she needed for her mother. Even if he wasn’t particularly wanting of bread or anything else at the moment, he shouldn’t forget about his friends. This reminder was good.
After Amira left, he opened the crate. Nestled carefully in the straw was a meadow-green porcelain cup with leaf designs around it. A perfect match for the other three he already had. He didn’t know the story, didn’t know why this one cup was out in the world on its own, or how David had found it, but here it was. Delivered to him especially, through someone David didn’t even know but who knew enough about Matteo to know it would get to him.
Matteo pulled out his pipe, almost an involuntary gesture, but remembered Amira’s words about Kiki. He sighed, put it back in his pocket, and waited for Abdi to return with the ingredients he’d need to brew the tonic.
He slumped back down onto the worktop, but he didn’t sleep and he didn’t escape into the haze of the special leaf.
Matteo was in the back garden one afternoon tending to his small garden when he heard someone come into the courtyard.
“I heard you’ve been ill,” Jonas said.
Matteo quickly got to his feet. It was good to see his best of friends. He went over to Jonas and allowed himself to be pulled into a quick hug.
“Hello, friend,” Matteo said.
“I see you’re ignoring my comment,” Jonas said.
Matteo rolled his eyes. “I am not. Who have you been gossiping with?”
“One guess,” Jonas said.
It was actually a difficult puzzle, because as far as he was concerned, all of his friends were busybodies when it came to each other’s lives. He knew it meant they cared but sometimes it was tiresome.
“I’ll say,” Matteo said slowly, “it was Hanna you spoke with.”
“Wrong,” Jonas said cheerfully. “Abdi. Although Hanna did seem to confirm what he was saying, so I suppose I should give this one to you, shouldn’t I?”
“Nosy busybodies,” Matteo said.
“Friends who care about you and are worried,” Jonas countered.
Matteo shrugged. That too, yes.
“I am not ill,” Matteo said.
“Heartsick. They did not say that, particularly,” Jonas said placatingly at Matteo’s sharp look, raising his hands as if defending himself. “But I have heard that the elves have left. It was not difficult to come to such a conclusion.”
“I suppose not,” Matteo said. He retreated again, going back to tend to the plants. He ended up ignoring them, and instead pulled his pipe with special leaf out of his pocket.
“Don’t you want to know about my journey?” Jonas said. It sounded casual, almost, except for the slight edge to it. It was too pointed a question.
Matteo finished lighting his pipe and took a puff. He turned to Jonas, eyeing him. “Do I?”
“You always do,” Jonas said. He came to sit on the ground cross legged next to Matteo. Matteo held out the pipe but Jonas shook his head, declining a puff.
Matteo leaned back and settled himself cross legged as well, facing Jonas. “So, Jonas,” Matteo said with false cheer, gaining an eye roll from Jonas, “how was your travels?”
“Good, good,” Jonas said. “I was to the north. Closer to the Capital than I’ve been in some time.”
“And what did you see?” That was a familiar question, and he was growing genuinely curious.
“Oh, this and that,” Jonas said. “The most interesting…”Jonas paused and looked more intently at Matteo. “Was a new painting.”
“There are plenty of paintings,” Matteo pointed out.
“But this one was new,” Jonas repeated. “It was of the Prince.”
Matteo froze, the end of the pipe in his mouth but he did not take a puff. “Oh?” he asked.
“Yes. As you know, all old images of the prince were to be removed from the public,” Jonas said. “And they are slowly being replaced with paintings of his true self.”
“Prince Schriebner,” Matteo asked, although he knew. He knew that Jonas now knew.
“Yes,” Jonas said. “Although the new word is he much prefers being called Prince David, although that is not official as of yet.”
Matteo sighed. “This is what he told me.” There was no use trying to cover up anything. It was obvious Jonas knew exactly who the Prince was, and that Matteo knew as well.
Jonas snapped his fingers. “You did know!”
“Only recently,” Matteo said. He took a deep puff of his pipe, letting the special leaf smoke fill his lungs. He exhaled it. “Only very recently. Right before he left.”
“Oh, Matteo,” Jonas said. “He was in hiding, wasn’t he?”
Matteo nodded. “This is what he said.”
“You don’t believe that?”
“I do,” Matteo said. “I just… don’t understand.”
“Don’t understand what?”
“Why he let me get so close to him,” Matteo said, a bit of anger lining his voice. “Why he kept it from me but let me get to know him. I felt… stupid, finding out about it.”
“I’m sure that was not his intention,” Jonas said softly.
“This is what he says,” Matteo said. “But that doesn’t mean…” He shook his head, and angrily put out the pipe. “It does not matter. He’s gone.”
“Is the curse not broken?” Jonas asked.
Matteo snorted. “No.”
“Are you sure—”
“It’s not,” Matteo said angrily.
Jonas put up his hands defensively. “I only ask. I don’t mean to upset you.”
Matteo sighed. He put the heels of his palms up to his eyes and pressed hard. “I know,” he said. The fight and the anger drained out of him. “I’m sorry. I just…” He didn’t fill in the rest. He didn’t know how to finish it.
“You’re just heartsick,” Jonas said softly. He clasped a hand on Matteo’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, friend.”
Matteo nodded. “I am too.”
“He had a reason to be here, and a reason to leave,” Jonas said. “There is a fight for power out there. I hope he is safe.”
“Me too,” Matteo said quietly. He slouched over, laying down on the ground in his courtyard.
Jonas patted his shoulder, and then picked up the pipe. He lit it again for the both of them.
Matteo did not think that Jonas was going to spread the word about Prince David—even though it was his purpose in life what with being a wandering minstrel. He seemed to be giving Matteo a small reprieve, so that he did not have to answer too many questions from their friends.
But word travels, and it was not much longer before the word had reached Moabit.
It came more in the form of a painting, just as Jonas had found out.
Matteo had made a venture to the market after neglecting his needs for days and being nearly out of stores completely. He was just taking a package from the butcher when he heard Kiki’s shriek ring out.
“No! That can’t be the Prince, can it?”
Matteo sighed, fortifying himself, and turned to find her.
Kiki was standing at Amira’s family’s stall. Amira was behind the table, holding an unrolled canvas, and Kiki, Hanna and Sam were all gathered around staring at it. Then Kiki looked around, and when she found Matteo in the crowd, she crooked a finger at him, calling him over.
He considered taking off in the opposite direction, but he sighed and went forward. May as well nip this in the bud while he could.
“What do you know about this?” Kiki demanded, gesturing at the canvas.
Matteo met Amira’s eyes, and hers were full of curiosity and sympathy.
“I think,” Hanna said slowly, watching Matteo carefully, “this explains a lot of late, doesn’t it?”
Matteo looked at the canvas. It was like any other painting of a royal or a noble he’d seen. David wasn’t smiling, he didn’t look particularly happy. He was David, sure, but here he was regal and esteemed. He didn’t look like himself, not to Matteo. No, he looked like the Prince Schriebner everyone expected him to be.
“You knew,” Kiki said accusingly. “Didn’t you?”
“And you let us call him David!” she shrieked at him.
“He let you call him that,” Matteo said. “I did not know his true identity until recently. Not until right as he was leaving. He didn’t tell me either.”
He hadn’t told anyone, not even Jonas, about the attempt on David’s life. It seemed something that should be kept secret. Abdi probably had an idea about it, but the coin really had paid for his silence. Or perhaps he was only helping Matteo keep David’s secret because it was the right thing to do, which was more likely.
“Did you scare him away?” Kiki asked. “You and your curse?”
“Kiki,” Hanna said softly. “That is not kind.”
“I’m not wrong, though,” Kiki said to her. She turned to Matteo. “Did you?”
He shrugged. “He would never say that. But, no, I don’t think that’s it.”
“You’re right,” she said, hand on her hip. “I’m sure he has much more important places to be.”
That stung, even when it was not meant to. “I’m sure he does,” Matteo said.
Hanna met his eyes, and without saying anything, she reached out to give Matteo a hug. It was careful, so not to disturb his wings, but he appreciated it. He sighed into her shoulder. Sam patted his arm in sympathy.
“I’m sure he’s attending to important business,” Amira said. “And that is why he could not stay. My brother was just in the city—it is where he found this—” she gestured at the unrolled canvas. David’s dark eyes stared intensely at Matteo. He wished she’d put it away. She continued, “And he also had news. The Prince had returned to the Capital, and the siblings are planning to make their move against that general. We will know soon who our new ruler is.”
“What if it’s him?” Kiki asked excitedly. “He is the son now.”
“He doesn’t want it,” Matteo said, unable to stop himself. “He supports his sister’s claim.”
“He’s good people,” Amira said, nodding approvingly. “It would be nice to have a queen, would it not?”
“I think so,” Hanna said.
“Sure,” Matteo said, with a shrug. He just didn’t want to think much of any of it. It hurt too much.
“Of course it would,” Kiki said, as if she’d hadn’t just been hoping for the Prince to be ruler just moments before. “It would be amazing. It’s about time there was some female power in this land.”
He was suddenly so, so tired. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a vial. “Bread, Kiki?”
This snapped up her attention. “Of course, of course,” she said, and walked brusquely to her stall, where her younger sister watched over their supplies.
He started to follow at a much slower pace when Amira stopped him.
“Matteo,” she said, getting his attention. He stopped and looked at her. She sighed. “I’m sorry your new friends have gone.”
“Me too,” Sam said. “It was nice to see you so happy.”
He nodded. He didn’t know what to say.
“All Father Around willing, you will see them again,” Amira said.
He offered her a small but genuine smile. “I hope so. Thank you.”
He did not want their pity, so moved along quickly to get home. When he was in his private quarters, he put his packages down on the table.
Standing in the middle of the room, unsure what to do with himself, his wings started to flutter. He let them, and focused, letting himself be picked up a little off the floor. It was not nearly as high or done as well as the last time he and David had flown, but it was the first time he had in days and days.
Taking a deep breath, he went into the back garden. He tried again. And again. And again.
Matteo, Jonas, Abdi and Carlos all sat on the grass in the meadow. The apple tree was in the distance, so close and with ripe fruit hanging, ready for picking. It was near the end of the season and it would be their last chance before autumn was through and winter descended.
The boys didn’t leave Matteo, though. Instead, they all sat in a row and stared to the world outside of Mitte, beyond the curse wall they sat so close to, even though they did not leave it.
“You sure?” Abdi asked again. “You’re really sure?”
“Yup,” Matteo said. He puffed on his pipe and then passed it to Jonas.
“Absolutely certain?” Carlos asked. “Swear on the All Mother Above?”
“Swear on the All Mother Above,” Matteo agreed. “The curse wall still exists.”
“That makes no sense though,” Abdi said, tilting his head. “You have the love of a royal. You should be able to leave.”
“Do I, though?” Matteo asked, a little bitterly.
“Yes,” Abdi and Carlos said with conviction.
“Believe it or not,” Jonas said, handing the pipe past Matteo so Carlos could take it. “I agree with them.”
Matteo shrugged. “I don’t know. David is gone, and the wall is still here. I can’t leave.”
“He must have left without saying so to you with a reason,” Jonas said. “Nothing else makes sense.”
Matteo didn’t say anything for a moment—he’d been considering it a private affair. But these were his boys and they would understand, and he didn’t think they’d bother him about this. He seemed to have only their concern.
He reached into his pocket and brought out the piece of parchment he’d been carrying around since David had disappeared. Jonas unrolled it, and Abdi and Carlos huddled around so they could read it.
“Well,” Jonas said. “This says it then, doesn’t it?”
Carlos hit Matteo upside the head.
“Ow!” Matteo said, and ducked before Carlos could hit him again. “What was that for?”
“For being a fool,” Abdi said fondly. “I am assuming.”
“Yup,” Carlos said. He gestured at the note. “You’ve been in such a sad state, but you should be happy!”
“Happy that David lied to me? That he left?” Matteo asked.
“Happy that he has you on his mind. That he wants to keep you safe. And that he wants to return!” Carlos exclaimed. He leaned back on his haunches. “That is terribly romantic. Do you think Kiki would like such a gesture?”
“I think if you disappeared, Kiki would have your head,” Jonas said.
Carlos nodded seriously. “This is true.”
“I know it must have been a hard time, learning of David and then his having to leave,” Jonas said kindly, handing Matteo the parchment. Matteo took it carefully, like the precious object it was. “But I truly believe he only left to deal with the matters of the kingdom. We’re rather sheltered here in Mitte, but it is different out there. I have seen it.”
“He’s making the kingdom safe, so you can visit it after the curse breaks!” Carlos said excitedly. “Nothing I could ever do would be as romantic as that.”
Matteo stared down at the fancy script of the letter. “I suppose,” he said slowly. All they said made sense, but it was so hard to believe. Hard to believe David would care that much for him, or that he would wish to return. He was back out in the kingdom, and his duties might keep him there forever. “What if…” Matteo found it too difficult to say the words.
“What if what?” Jonas said gently, bumping his shoulder against Matteo’s.
“What if the curse is not broken?” Matteo asked. What he was actually saying was, what if it’s not true love?
All of them remained silent for a moment. Then Abdi spoke up. “You’ve never seemed to care before.”
Matteo glanced at him. “Eh?”
“You never cared before if you could leave Mitte. Maybe you only convinced yourself of that,” Abdi allowed, “but you made it seem as though you liked living in Moabit.”
“I do,” Matteo said. He shook his head. “I never expected to be able to leave, that’s all. And I was alright with that. It’s more… more. If the curse isn’t broken, then David doesn’t…” He didn’t finish the statement. He didn’t need to.
“Maybe what David feels isn’t enough to break the curse,” Abdi said, finishing Matteo’s thought. He gestured. “This is what you’re thinking, but you must think beyond that. Into the future.”
“What do you mean?” Matteo asked.
“The wall is still here, right now maybe, but that does not mean this is the end. Maybe he has to acknowledge his feelings to you. Maybe he has to be willing to give up everything for you. We don’t know. But I think what we all know—and I hope especially you—is that David cares for you dearly. In his own way,” Abdi said.
Jonas nodded and Carlos playfully shoved on Abdi’s shoulder. “That was sweet,” Carlos said. “And very wise.”
“I know things,” Abdi said, nodding. “As much as I’ve studied the elves, I don’t know what exactly would break this curse wall. No one does. Maybe nothing can, even true love. I don’t want Matteo thinking he isn’t cared for because of it.” Abdi elbowed Matteo. “Because that isn’t true.”
The corner of Matteo’s mouth curled up. “Thank you, Abdi.” He looked at the others. “And thank you guys for being the best of friends.”
“Always!” Carlos said. “Anything for you.”
Matteo pointed at the apple tree. “Pick us some fruit, would you? The season is almost past and there won’t be any more until spring.”
This has Carlos and Abdi to their feet, and they started walking to the tree. Then they broke into a run, egging each other on, and Matteo figured a bet was in the works there.
“Who would have thought Abdi would have the words to explain,” Jonas said.
“Isn’t that your job?” Matteo teased lightly.
“It is, in a way. But I agree with him,” Jonas said. “Don’t give up hope. Your David—” he gestured to Matteo’s pocket, where the letter had disappeared “—he wants to see you again. You may have, at least, that. It is worth looking forward to, is it not?”
Matteo nodded without a further thought. Because, yes, yes it was. “You have a point.”
“I have many points. It’s about time you all started listening.”
“Tell me,” Matteo said. “Tell me if you hear anything about what is happening outside of Mitte.”
“You never cared before,” Jonas said, but Matteo knew it was a tease. It didn’t seem funny anymore though.
Matteo nodded. “That was before.” He gestured to boys, who were walking back with arms full of apples. “Apparently I have a future to look forward to.”
Matteo and Abdi went back to the Apothecary to deposit their share of the apples that were picked. Matteo, though quiet, was not in such a heart state as before, and the guys seemed to know. They did not bother him about it, but bid him goodnight. Abdi left the Apothecary with a wave and a cheery, “See you in the ‘morn.”
Matteo went into his room and picked up the one cup that Amira had delivered in the crate. It still hadn’t been reunited with its set yet… this seemed a little too personal, and he wanted to keep it close. But that was silly, he realized now. So instead, he took the little decorative ear clasp out of it, and put the cup on the shelf with the others.
Then he clipped the clasp to the top of his ear. It shouldn’t have fit well, not the way it had with David’s pointed ear, but somehow it did. It was nice to have something of David’s close to him.
Matteo exited the back of his living quarters and went into his courtyard, surrounded by plants that grew tall and wild. He practiced lifting himself with his wings, and he was getting stronger again.
After he finished with that, he stood there, looking up at the clouds moving across the sky.
He whispered to the wind.
“David. David, be safe,” Matteo said. And, after careful consideration, he added, “Come back to me. When you can.”
He considered three other little, special words to speak to the wind to be carried away to David. But he decided to keep them to himself, private and safe, until he saw David again with his own eyes and could speak directly to him. In Mitte, outside of it, it didn’t matter. The words—the feelings—were the same. And David would have to come back to Matteo to receive them.
“Stay safe, David,” he said again, because that sentiment would never change. “Come back to me.”
Every night before bed, Matteo went to the courtyard to strengthen his flying. Then he spoke briefly to the wind, to David. He didn’t know if David would ever hear, he was so far away and doubtlessly had other things on his mind, but he hoped he would.
He always finished, “Come back to me.”
The days came and they went. He did his best to keep positive. He tended to his shop and helped Abdi hone his skills, which were becoming strong. He could move jars up to the top shelves with a flick of his fingers, and they no longer came tumbling down. His potion making was spot on. He was ready to move past being an apprentice.
Jonas went out for a fortnight and when he returned, he had a song that spoke of Prince David’s return to the Capital, the abdication of the King and the royal siblings bravery in standing against General Neuhaus and his forces.
There was no definitive word, though, on who was about to rule their kingdom. That was a matter still to unfold. It was what they had already known.
“I’m sorry,” Jonas said sadly to Matteo, “that I could not give you more news.”
Matteo shook his head. He didn’t feel that dark sadness that tended to move on him. He was only relieved to hear any news, and that David had returned home in one piece and reunited with his sister was a good thing.
“That is all right,” Matteo said. “We shall have news soon enough.”
And they did.
Jonas was in a stormy mood when Stefan, a merchant’s son that was now working in the family business, had arrived in Moabit. Stefan wasn’t a bad guy, necessarily, friendly with all but clearly a rich man’s son and did not seem to quite fit in with the rest of them. He was sweet on Hanna, who’s father often worked alongside Stefan’s, which was why Jonas wasn’t particularly fond of him.
Hanna, while friendly with Stefan, did not seem to return the affections, which had to have been the only reason why Jonas didn’t completely despise him.
It was a blow, though, that Stefan had news they did not.
“Oh, yes,” Stefan said the evening he’d arrived in town. Matteo and his friends had gathered in the tavern for a drink, and Stefan had arrived uninvited. Although, it was a public establishment so Matteo supposed he hadn’t needed an invite. Stefan took a spoonful of stew. “There is such news from the Capital!”
“Not last we heard,” Jonas said with a forced smile.
“It is recent! You probably haven’t left the village much lately, have you?” Stefan asked. He smiled.
Jonas pursed his lips together, but said in a falsely cheerful tone, “Not as recently as you’ve been here.”
“Hmm, yes.” Stefan turned to Hanna. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like anything?”
She held up her hand. “No, thank you. But we would love to hear this news, I’m certain.” She gave Jonas a sweet smile. “I’m sure Jonas would love to compose a song about it. I would love to hear this.”
Jonas relaxed. Stefan’s eyes glanced from one to the other, but he kept his cheerful smile on his face.
“Of course, as you wish,” Stefan said. “We have a new queen!”
Their little group stared at him in various states of shock.
“What?” Matteo said faintly.
Stefan nodded. “It’s all over the kingdom. Of course, the elves don’t travel here so perhaps that’s why word has not been carried here as of yet. It was just a couple days past,” Stefan said with a wave of his hand. “Although, I suppose that’s a downside of living in Mitte, isn’t it? The Capital would like to forget about the whole—” he waved his hand dismissively and lowered his voice “—embarrassing curse.”
“Stefan,” Hanna said again, her smile a little more forced though she still sounded friendly. “Please. The news of the Capital?”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Stefan said, clapping his hands once. “As I said, there is a new queen. Queen Laura is our ruler now. She and her brother—” He startled only slightly when everyone’s eyes turned to Matteo, as if he was a little confused as to why. “She and her brother Prince Schriebner—”
“David,” Matteo said. Stefan looked at him in disbelief. Matteo said, “Word is he prefers to be called Prince David.”
“Oh, right, of course. So you have received a little news, then. This is not royal decree or formal as of yet, however, so I would not be comfortable in saying so.” There was an awkward silence at the table. No one agreed with him, but they did not give the reason why. Stefan coughed and continued. “Well, the siblings did indeed defeat General Neuhaus’s forces. And while some of the old guard, and his own parents, wished to have him upon the throne, he refused to take it. If they wished to keep the rule within the family, it belonged to Princess Laura—or, Queen Laura, I should say.”
Matteo’s wings fluttered. Stefan startled again, but Matteo hadn’t had them out so visibly much before while he’d been around. “And the Prince? What of him?”
“What do you mean?” Stefan asked.
“What… what is he doing now? And he’s safe?”
“Of course he’s safe,” Stefan said. “As safe as any royal could be, I’m sure. There was only a small resistance against him, and his sister, and they have stamped that out. But as for what he’s doing now…” Stefan spread his hands out. “How are we to know the personal going-ons of royalty?”
“How indeed,” Jonas said, looking at Matteo with concern.
“It’s alright,” Matteo said quietly. “I’m fine. It’s fine.” He looked at Stefan and nodded his head curtly. “Thank you for the news.”
Stefan seemed a little thrown off by it, but he nodded. “But of course.”
When Matteo went home, he tended to some flowers, making them grow beautifully, even with the chill that now overtook the autumn air. Jonas showed up later, and without a word, Matteo gave them to Jonas with a wink.
“David’s right,” Jonas said, admiring the bouquet. “No one woos with flowers quite like you.”
“Shut your mouth,” Matteo said, but he smiled down at the remaining flowers in his garden. He could appreciate a good memory such as that.
The news arrived in Mitte and Moabit only two days after Stefan had arrived. Nervous elves came into the village to make the declaration and post the royal decree of the new ruler.
They did not stay in town very long. Matteo had not even seen them, only hearing from Kiki second hand that they’d been there. He and Jonas went and read the posted decree. There wasn’t a lot of information aside from naming Queen Laura the ruler after her father had abdicated. There was also a warning to those who support General Neuhaus, but that was not a problem in Moabit. And Prince Schriebner was to be referred to as Prince David henceforth.
It was royal decree, and no one would question it. Matteo couldn’t help but smile. David was named what he wanted.
“What now?” Jonas asked.
“Now, I go on with life,” Matteo said, shrugging. “Nothing has changed for me, has it?”
“Not yet,” Jonas said. “But just wait. It will not be long before I sing the ballads of the half-elf, half-human of Mitte and his prince.”
“This we have to hear,” someone from behind them said.
Matteo startled at the familiar voice and turned around quickly. Leonie stood there with Sara, smirking.
“Ah,” Matteo said. “You are the elves who brought forward the decree, are you?”
Leonie shook her head. “No, that was not us. Those elves left the region.”
“Fled like cowards, you mean,” Sara muttered beneath her breath. Leonie carried on as if she hadn’t heard her, though a little smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.
“We do bring word for you,” Leonie said.
Matteo’s heart started to pound faster. “You do?”
“Go and pick some apples,” Sara said. “From the tree which you know of.”
Matteo frowned. He did know, but that made no sense. It was beyond the curse wall. “I cannot.”
“You are certain of this?” Leonie said. She turned to Sara. “Let us go to the tavern, shall we?”
“There is no mead like that in Moabit,” Sara said.
“I wholeheartedly agree,” Jonas said. “May I accompany you there?”
“You may,” Leonie said.
Jonas turned to Matteo and clasped his shoulder briefly. “My friend. Go and pick your apples, and give me a ballad to write.” With that, Jonas followed Leonie and Sara toward the tavern. Hanna stepped out of the Apothecary and greeted Jonas with a bright smile. The two walked away hand-in-hand trailing after the pair of elves.
Matteo sighed deeply and took the road out of town. He headed to the crossroads, to pass through the sunflower fields and the meadows, and go to the curse wall.
Once past the crossroads, Matteo flew toward the apple tree, passing the empty field where the sunflowers had grown, and the meadow with its browning grasses. As Matteo crested a hill, he let his feet gently land on the ground. It was still new and difficult, all this flying, but it was worth it to get places faster.
He looked to the apple tree, and he could see a figure in the distance standing next to it. His heart stopped. He’d recognizing this elf anywhere. His dark, stylish clothes, the sword sheathed at his belt, the curly hair. The water-coloured wings.
David was waiting for him.
Matteo lifted on his wings, still not high or fast, but he flew toward the curse wall. David, who must’ve seen him, flew to meet him part way.
Matteo landed just inside Mitte, inside the curse wall, which he could feel was still there. David landed just outside the curse wall. Maybe so that he was not stung with the hot air he would feel if he crossed it. Maybe to keep out of reach of Matteo. Maybe he’d come back just so he could say goodbye and couldn’t bear to come in.
Matteo shook his head, trying to rid himself of these thoughts that tended to creep in. He needed to wait to see what David had to say.
“Hello,” Matteo said. He shoved his hands into his pockets and rolled back on his heels. He had a hard time looking David in the eye. He was too nervous.
“You flew,” David said.
Matteo blinked and now could not help but met David’s eyes. They were warm and friendly and looked back in what could possibly be awe, or adoration, or… Matteo didn’t know.
“I’ve been practicing,” Matteo said, with a shrug.
“You are amazing,” David said.
Matteo shook his head. “Maybe not much.”
“Yes, much. You are,” David said, sounding earnest.
“You’re here,” Matteo said, not knowing how else to respond. He did not wish to get his hopes up until he knew, for certain, what this was all about.
“I am,” David said. “You asked me. Every morning when I woke up, I heard you ask me to return.”
“I asked you every evening,” Matteo said.
“The wind needs time,” David said. “But it brought me every one of your words.”
“I hoped,” Matteo said quietly. “And now that you are here… why are you here?”
“I am here,” David said, a little dramatically, “for some apples. I wish for you to pick them for me.”
Matteo barked a surprised laugh, but then clamped his mouth shut. He shook his head again. “I cannot, for many reasons.”
“And what reasons are those?” David asked, as curious as ever when questioning Matteo.
“For one, it is not the season. There are not ripe apples.”
“Falsehood,” David said. “I know you. I have a feeling seasonal changes do not much alter your magic.”
This… wasn’t a lie, actually. Matteo was known to pull on his magic in the depths of winter to treat his friends to berries or flowers or fresh herbs. It was hard work, but he could.
“Secondly,” Matteo said. He gestured at the air, and his voice went soft. “The curse wall is in place.”
“Yes, that is a challenge,” David said. He reached his hand out, his fingers curling into the heat of it. “To be honest, I was not sure if it would hold up when I left. Then again, I did leave my heart in Moabit, and the curse wall kept it safe for me, did it not?”
“Please don’t,” Matteo whispered, unable to keep his worries in. “If this is some sort of… ruse, or lie, or…”
“Matteo,” David said, gentle. “It is not. I am so sorry I left you, but I had to…” He gestured.
“Go be a prince,” Matteo said. His fingers twisted in the hem of his mended shirt.
“Go and help my sister be crowned,” David said. “And secure safety in the kingdom, as much as such can ever be done, so that you and I can go on an adventure.” He suddenly looked nervous. “If that is something you wished to do.”
“I would wish for nothing more if only it could happen,” Matteo confessed.
“It can. It will,” David said. “Matteo Florenzi, I love you. And I want to be with you. If you do not feel the same, after all I have done, all I had kept from you, after taking my leave of you… I understand. But I cannot go on without you knowing this. And if the curse does not break, then I will stay here with you. If you’ll have me.”
“You can’t do that,” Matteo said.
“I can, and I will,” David said determinedly. He added again, almost nervous. “If you will have me.”
“I will,” Matteo said. “I want nothing more. David, I love you too. Now and always.”
“Now and always,” David agreed.
The curse melted away.
Matteo could feel it, like a pinch of sugar in hot water, as it dissolved around them. David looked around in awe, up to the sky and then the air between them. Nothing was stopping them anymore. Nothing was stopping Matteo from just fluttering up on his wings and flying, away and away and away.
Instead, he flew right into David’s arms, nearly knocking them both over. David’s laugh was loud and bright.
Matteo kissed him. There was naught else he could do. Naught else that he wanted but to be in David’s arms, kissing him, and being close.
When their lips finally parted, David hugged Matteo. He pressed his nose into the crook of Matteo’s neck and breathed in deep. “Mmmm. Sunflowers,” he said contently.
Matteo laughed. He cupped David’s face in his hands and tilted his head up. He leaned his forehead against David’s. He closed his eyes and breathed in deep. “Hmm. A summer’s brook.” He opened his eyes to David smiling at him, and it was the best sight in the entire world.
“So, Mr. Florenzi,” David said. “Are you ready to see the kingdom? If you would like.”
“Don’t be daft, of course I’d like,” Matteo said. “I want to go anywhere. Everywhere. As long as you’re there, I want to go. An adventure, right?”
David nodded. “We will go everywhere. However, there is one destination I must go to, at the request of the Queen.”
“At the request of your sister,” Matteo said. It was still hard to wrap his mind around, but it would get easier day by day, to know this was something in his love’s life. That his love was royalty and his sister ruled their kingdom.
“Yes,” David said. “She has asked me to go to an island far to the south, to where an exiled elf lives.”
Matteo’s breath caught in his throat at the unexpected words. “An exiled elf?”
“Yes. Queen Laura would like to extend a hand of reconciliation to this elf, an apology on behalf of the Crown. She would also like to once again bestow the titles and lands back to this elf, and her child, should they so wish. She will have the estate restored to its former glory.”
“David,” Matteo whispered. He swallowed, and leaned his forehead against David’s once again.
David cupped Matteo’s cheeks. “Matteo. If you do not want this, or do not want to join me, I will deny the Queen’s wishes.”
“You can’t do that,” Matteo said.
“I could. I am lucky that I have her ear, and her love. She will forgive me. It is up to you.”
“But…” Matteo swallowed. “My mother.”
“Would you like to see her?” David asked.
Matteo nodded. Of course he would. It scared him, made him nervous, that maybe he would not know her, or worse yet, she would not know him. But he could not pass up this chance. Not now that he could actually take it.
“Then we will do this,” David said. “When you are ready. We will visit her island, and by royal decree she will be allowed to leave it. Both she and you are invited to the Capital, and if you want it, what is rightfully yours will be returned.”
“I don’t care about all that,” Matteo said. “I just want to meet my mother. And I want to do it with you. The land and the titles are nothing, as long as I have that.”
“I know,” David said, smiling. “And this is why I love you. One of the many reasons.” David’s fingers trailed up Matteo’s cheek, and pushed back his shaggy hair to reveal his rounded ears. His fingers traced one, and he smiled when they smoothed over the decorative clasp. “There are endless reasons why I love you.”
“I need to go back into town and get my affairs in order,” Matteo said. “Before we can take leave of Mitte. And make my promises that I will return. My friends will be happy for me, and Abdi will do well by managing the shop, but all will expect my return.”
“I would expect no less.” David nodded. “Of course. I should go to the creek and send word to Laura that the curse is broken and that you and I will be off on our adventures.”
“Adventures,” Matteo said, a giddiness to his voice that was not usually there. He could not stop it now if he wanted. “I get to go on adventures. With you.”
“With me,” David agreed. His expression became more somber. “But you and I also have to talk. There is much you need to know, particularly about my responsibilities as a prince.”
“I know,” Matteo said. He leaned in and kissed David, sufficiently distracting him.
David eventually pulled away. He put his forehead against Matteo’s. “I am serious. There is a lot about my life that may… may make you wish to not become so involved.”
“Never,” Matteo said. “Is there a lot to think about? Yes. Is there a lot you must tell me? Yes. But we have all the time in the world. We do not need to worry about this now.”
“You can change your mind whenever you wish,” David said seriously. “About being with me.”
“Not going to happen,” Matteo said.
“But if you do—”
“David, please,” Matteo said, playfully mocking. Then he smiled kindly. “I had plenty of time to mull it over while you were gone. Do you not think that I thought about it every day? What it meant to love a prince? If he loved me back? What I would have to put up with in day-to-day life? On a grander scale. David, yes, we need to talk. But never think for a moment that anything you could say would turn me away from you. It will not.”
David did not answer. He only stared at Matteo, in awe, and then exhaled deeply. He leaned in and kissed Matteo thoroughly. When they parted, they rested their foreheads against each other’s yet again. This was something Matteo would never have enough of.
“I love you, David,” Matteo said. David, his true love, the breaker of curses, and his everything. “Always.”
“Always,” David agreed. Then he backed away and quirked an eyebrow at Matteo. “Now, are you going to pick me some apples or not?”
Matteo laughed, but would not deny David anything. Not even apples. Together, they flew to the tree, hand-in-hand. It was, in Matteo’s opinion, the perfect beginning to the end of his curse.