Snow outside sparkled like a thousand diamonds in a royal vault. William didn’t feel its warmth. Instead, he wielded a poker to stoke dying embers until they glowed bright and hot enough to send fresh logs smoldering. A simple task, but it warmed William’s spirits—as a young man he’d relied on servants for such chores. The weight of cold iron in his hands was welcoming, a reminder of swords he’d forfeited long ago for her.
She’d stolen his heart the night she strode into the last ball he held as the crown’s heir. Merger of his life with its palaces, and hers as a scullery lass, sent stinging words ricocheting in his father’s marble chambers, and stirred a turbulent mood among peasants straining against the king’s yoke. William wasn’t about to let his father, the king, tell him who to marry. He stormed out of royalty the day after his father dispatched Royal Guards to deal with what he called village miscreants.
“You’re not a prince anymore?” She asked William as he ushered her on to a wagon.
“My father can send the guard,” William answered, “but he can’t stop change. He’ll have to step down, or settle for a figurehead regency. We’ll be fine. I’ve joined the regular army to be an airship navigator.”
William dipped his hand into a sack of oats, their bristly but soft texture against his skin reminded him how his decision and clapboard quarters at his garrison didn’t set well with her. But for him each mission was like turning storybook pages—he sighted dragons circling misty peaks, tracked orc movements in distant foothills, and spent nights in raucous outposts full of wannabe magicians, gamblers, and enough lore to fill a library.
Excitement of flying was intoxicating enough that William ignored what was right before his eyes when he came home after weeks plying skies: for her, his choice had been a shove down a ladder toward the life she’d endured before fae magic gowned her, and delivered her to his last ball.
When William was gone, she volunteered on garrison with other wives, mending uniforms, then visiting with conscripts in the infirmary. It wasn’t fae magic that kindled her heart’s fading embers for a lanky southerner with midnight-colored hair and a voice full of music. During their talks, he’d sing a verse, then promise, “Ma’am, once I’m better I’m going to be the kind of knight that slays dragons.”
As William watched icicles start to drip off his cottage’s eaves, he laughed away memories of tears that had rolled down his face when he first learned of her and the conscript. The conscript’s words were the first cuts of many that severed whatever love wasn’t lost between William’s stolen heart, and hers he wasn’t able to fill.
His laughter came easy, in a stone cottage where he lived amongst memories—there were framed charts he’d plotted on the walls as reminders of exceptional missions, medals in a case on his mantel and to its left, a lone glass slipper.
It was the same slipper she’d lost at his last ball as a prince, that afterward he’d taken through a half-dozen villages, until he found that her foot was the only one that fit it perfectly.
Sunlight refracted a kaleidoscope through its heel that brought back memories of palatial wardrobes, with robes that were soft against his skin the way her body had once been against his own.
He’d smashed that slipper’s glass a thousand times. Magic always restored it for William to endure.
This story previously appeared in 365 Tomorrows, 2023.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Andrew writes science-fiction and fantasy from the state of Maryland, often drawing ideas from jogs through forest trails at sunrise. His work has previously appeared in AntipodeanSF, 365 Tomorrows, Daily Science Fiction, Penumbric Speculative Fiction, and in MetaStellar as reprints and MetaStellar Anthhology – his work has also short-listed in several writing contests. Andrew welcomes reader feedback at [email protected].