by Leo Gillard
He’d always been the object of desire. Not… not always in the way he was now, of course, but people had always wanted something. And they felt like they could get it from him, or because of him.
When he’d been young, it had been about power. Then again, maybe it was still about power now. People had desired his attention; a few kind words from the crown prince could get anyone one step up on the ladder of whichever thing they were trying to climb. Politics, society, a job… everyone wanted to talk to him about something, as if a five-year-old knew anything about taxation of impoverished border regions.
As he got a bit older, he realised that it wasn’t just his presence and approval that people desired. Rushed out of his bedroom in the middle of the night, clutching his blanket around his form like a cloak and paying no heed to the smears of mud he knew were gathering; there was the sound of steel striking steel behind him as he was hurried away. The noise of flames licking at something he’d never heard burn before and— and screams.
Sometimes, there were people who desired his head rather than anything else. There were lots of those people. In time, it became easier to draw them out of the crowd. The way they lurked in the shadows; the sickly sweet smile, the edge to their voice that they thought he couldn’t hear.
That desire didn’t go away, but others started to surface. Time passed, and people… people looked at him with new eyes. Wanted new things. Suddenly, every gathering was a throng of ladies a decade older than him, approaching him with eyes hidden behind screens of paper. Each step taken saw a doting father with a girl at his side.
He had never been much good at dancing, but stamina from sword training certainly served him well. The grace came later, just as his blustering was shifting from endearing to embarrassing.
But for him… he didn’t feel that desire. He felt detached, always, from the world spinning around him. It felt wrong, as if he wasn’t meant to be here. This wasn’t the path he was supposed to have taken. And the only thing that felt right was a sword in his hand, a bow and quiver strung across his back. That was the only thing he wanted; to be able to be in that familiar situation all the time.
He’d always managed to attain what he desired. As a child, nothing was beyond his reach, if he wanted it and worked for it. And before he was even an adult, he got the familiar situation he’d spent years dreaming of.
He felt wrong, now, for desiring what he had. Sometimes, in the middle of a battle where half his battalion wouldn’t see another sunrise, he felt like maybe he’d brought this war on his home. Like he’d pushed the High Priest over the edge somehow. After all, the only thing that man had ever seemed to desire was power and his death.
The war ended. He felt like he would never desire anything again, other than a really, really good night’s sleep. And his father’s arms wrapped around him in a hug. Or the sound of his cousin’s laugh – the nice one, not the one he put on when people were listening. And for the first time, he had desires he could never attain.
No amount of hard work and struggling in combat could bring people back from the dead. And the unfulfilled desires chased sleep away better than any disgusting cup of black sludge he’d had to drink legions of to get through strategy meetings.
But of course, desire couldn’t just leave him alone. Of course it couldn’t. Why would it? Why would he get to find an end to everything he’d struggled through for years? The sword through the skull of the Dragon God was meant to be the end. The culmination of everything he’d worked for, the end of years of hardship his people had suffered through.
So why was desire still finding him at every corner? Why were scores of women asking him to dance at his coronation that had come far too soon? Sure, it was strange that he’d never been betrothed before, at least it was to all the nobles who’d been expecting it since he was twelve. But it had always been his choice, and he’d never… never wanted that. He’d never desired anyone the way they all seemed to want him.
But then all that changed so suddenly. Because there was that girl, the crown princess from over the border, who’d— it had been a close run thing as to if she’d make it out of that alive. He’d barely met her before he faced her on the battlefield, and yet she was still here. Being possibly the most perfect noble he’d ever met, and not even in an obnoxious way.
The match was literally written in the stars. The moment she walked into the ballroom in the wake of his coronation (a private affair – more a funeral than a celebration), everyone expected it. He danced with her once, twice. She asked the first time, he the second. And that’s when she asked him.
‘Your eyes are wandering,’ she said. ‘Are you looking for someone?’
‘May I… be frank with you?’ he asked. People might be listening to their words given how public this space was, but people needed to know, lest the talking begin and spin out of control. She nodded. ‘I was uncomfortable. I would prefer it if we did not dance so closely.’
‘Oh!’ she said, immediately moving to put a little distance between them. ‘I apologise. I must have misread your intentions in your second invitation.’
‘Undoubtedly,’ he said, letting a small smile work its way onto his face. ‘I merely felt it prudent to ask you as you had asked me; it will not be long before we are equals in rank.’
She nodded, and the song started to come to a close. He wondered who would be next, and wondered how long it would be until he could justifiably refuse the next dance. Physically, he doubted he would tire any time soon, but the pressure of all their hopes and desires… he wasn’t sure if he could shoulder all of that again.
When the song ended, he bowed to her, and she curtsied in return. ‘If you wanted a dance a little more at your speed later,’ she suggested, ‘I could perhaps introduce my brother to you.’
He followed her gaze to a man stood off to the side. The man looked up, and met his gaze with a bright smile. He made a concerted but failed effort not to let the feeling that this gave him show on his face. ‘Perhaps later,’ he said. ‘For now, I think others may desire my company.’