The Black Thorn
By lady moonlight and Lady Glass

Prologue

Beauty is more important to me than anything in the world. If God had not granted me the gift of beauty, I am sure I would have taken my life years ago. In all my nineteen years, I had never seen a more beautiful creature than my bride, Nacienne, adorned in lace and silk, kneeling beside me in front of the priest as he chanted the ancient Latin words that would unite our beauty forever. She was more beautiful than any woman I'd ever seen in my entire life. Our marriage was not uniting two people deeply in love, but instead was the marriage uniting two of the most beautiful people in all of France. Her thick, dark hair cascaded to her hips in waves of glossy locks. Her deep brown eyes were like the most delicious chocolate in the land. Her skin was like ivory, smooth as satin.

Our wedding was as perfect as our beauty and so was our marriage for a time, but even the most beautiful wife cannot please someone as beautiful as me. I needed more. So I sought them out, each one more beautiful than the next. Sometimes I never even knew their names. All I remembered were their beautiful faces, their eyes, their hair, their skin, the way they stared at me adoringly. Nacienne never even suspected that I might be disloyal but what could one expect of a French prince as beautiful as I?

"Gale," Nacienne whispered into my ear one day as we walked through the royal gardens, the birds – only the most colorful, beautiful birds – chirping their sweet songs, the flowers brushing our legs.

"Yes, mignon," I answered, turning to face my beautiful wife. Her porcelain face gazed at me adoringly, not admiring my beauty, I realized, but admiring the husband she was in love with. Love. The word almost scared me – me, Prince Gale, the prince. Fear was not allowed to a prince. Especially not fear of love.

"You've never told me you love me," she said in her soft voice, a sweet voice that sounded like the light tinkle of a bell. "Tell me you love me."

One might think me cruel to never tell my wife that I loved her but a prince does not lie, especially to his wife. Honesty was one thing that had been drilled into my beautiful mind and I did not like to pretend that I didn't know honesty, but this one thing I knew could ruin my beautiful wife so I did the unspeakable. I lied to my wife.

"Of course I love you, mignon," I said, feigning shock at the very thought of not loving her. I raised her beautiful face to mine and our perfect lips touched in a kiss more passionate than any others before it.

-

My real troubles began with a gypsy. Her name was Mai and she was more beautiful, more different than any other woman I had ever seen. So fresh, so new. Her hair was so blond it was almost silver, her eyes so blue they were like the sky on the perfect morning. Her sweet, round face was so young and deliciously adorable.

I never told Mai who I was for there was no need. Why should she need to know that I was the prince? How would she ever know? The people of France almost never saw their prince unless he rode through their town and even then he was usually hidden in a carriage. Mai wasn't even from France. She never did tell me where she was from and I could never place her accent even though she spoke French.

I did tell Mai my name and I told her I lived in the royal château but I told her that I was a servant. She seemed to believe and I admit she had no reason not to. I had never lied to her before, as I had to Nacienne, but I did feel guilty lying to Mai, guiltier than I had felt about lying to Nacienne.

I left Nacienne alone for the first time that night so I could spend it with Mai. I told Nacienne I had business to attend to and she did not question me. I met with Mai and spent the night with her. She told me she loved me and since lying had recently become something I'd found I was good at, I lied again and told her I loved her too. I think she believed that lie as well, or at least until she woke the next morning to find me missing.

She found me on my way back to the royal château and stopped me with her small, frail hand. Such a beautiful hand. Beautiful everywhere, I'd realized last night. Mai really was a special girl. So beautiful, but not my wife and never would I marry a gypsy anyway, no matter how beautiful.

"Don't leave," she said. Her voice was so different from Nacienne's, yet some how the same. Mai's was louder, more demanding of attention, Nacienne's softer and more pleasing to the ear, yet how they both contained the same silent plead, hidden within each word they spoke. Each wanting my love so badly. But my love belonged only to beauty. "Please, stay with me. Won't you marry me? I am carrying your child. I can feel it already."

"I cannot marry you," I told her. One night had been enough, but a lifetime? Laughable. The very thought actually made me laugh aloud. And it was there I left her. Alone. I did not hear from her again for twelve months. Twelve months. Long enough to carry the child, to birth the child. Yes, it was twelve months later that she returned. By then I had forgotten about the beautiful, round-faced gypsy who had stolen my gaze for no more than twenty-four hours.

The night she came knocking – no, it was more like pounding – on the large, wooden doors of the royal château it was dark with the thick, black clouds, the rain falling heavily, thunder pounding. The guards almost didn't hear her pounding on the door over the screaming thunder. But they did hear her and they heard the little baby crying.

"Please," she said softly, pleadingly as I approached the round-faced gypsy. "My love…"

"Love?" Nacienne asked, her voice apprehensive. "He is married." As though to prove her point, Nacienne wound her arm around mine and took a step closer to my side.

"Who are you?" I asked, for I honestly did not remember the young girl. The baby shrieked in her arms, as though screaming at me, "Don't you know your own child? Do you not recognize the mother of your only child?"

"Please, my love," Mai whispered again. "Don't you remember me? Mai? You must remember me!" Her wet, matted hair was stuck to her round face, her once beautiful blue eyes turned gray with the sadness of raising a child without a father.

"Mai…" The name struck the memory of the face of the round-faced gypsy and I feigned confusion. "Your love? You must be thinking of another person. Perhaps one of the servants? Shall I call them in? I am Prince Gale, I have a wife. I am not your love." At least one thing was true, I was definitely not her love. I was just the father of her child.

"Prince?" Mai repeated sounding shocked. "Prince? You're a prince and you did not tell me?" Her voice grew loud, hysterical. The weeping baby in her arms screamed. "How could you not tell me you were a prince? How could you hold me in your arms and not tell me you are a prince? That you have a wife? How could you lie to me? How could you just leave me that day and pretend you had never met me? How!"

"My lord," Nacienne said softly, her perfect face watching me sadly. "She is lying, yes? You did not sleep with her? You did not betray me, yes? You would not do this to me?" All she said was a question and her lovely brown eyes studied my face, unable to tell if it was me, her husband, or Mai, a gypsy with a shrieking newborn, who was lying. The thought saddened me but I continued to lie.

"Of course she lies, mignon," I assured her in my most soothing voice. "She is but a gypsy looking for the father of her child." I laid my hand on the small of Nacienne's back, entangling my fingers in her thick, dark hair.

"Yes," Mai hissed. "I am looking for the father of my child and I have found him!" She looked to Nacienne and spoke directly to my beautiful wife. "Do you not remember this same night one year ago? Was your beloved sleeping in your bed, or did he make an excuse to leave?"

Of course Nacienne remembered the night, the only night I had left her on her own. Nacienne's eyes grew sad, disbelieving. "Yes," she said in a hushed voice. "I do remember." Her sad eyes could not look into mine and she stepped away from me, my fingers slipping out of her beautiful hair. "Why did you betray me?" she asked softly, her head down, angelic face to the floor.

"I would never betray you, mignon," I assured her, stepping toward her to reach for her hand. "I love you."

"Lies!" Mai shrieked. "Love, you use the word lightly! Love, a feeling you have never felt! Love, just a lie you continue to spread!" Nacienne took another step away from me, toward Mai.

"Nacienne." Her name was the only thing I could think of to say. I tried to sound afraid of losing her, but her beauty next Mai's was so overwhelming. It was not Nacienne I was afraid of losing, but her beauty. Her slim neck, her porcelain skin, her doe-like eyes, her lithe figure, all so beautiful, so enchantingly perfect.

"Do you want to punish him?" Mai asked Nacienne, her voice softly dangerous. "Make him pay for the hurt he has caused you? I know a curse…"

"Nacienne, please." Ah, to be reduced to mere begging. The very thought made me sick. How could my beautiful wife betray me like this? The irony was not lost on me, but a man was expected to be disloyal to his wife, but a woman? The very thought was unheard of.

But Nacienne's eyes were locked onto Mai and to my horror my perfect wife nodded her lovely head and muttered a single word that would destroy my life, my beauty. She said, "Yes."

Mai wasted no time. She turned to face me and even in her miserable, crazed state, her round face, large blue eyes, matted blond hair, they were so beautiful. "In my language, your name means crow," Mai hissed. "And so a crow you shall be, cursed to walk the earth as a human for only twelve months – the time I spent alone with a baby, both in and out of the womb – every two-hundred years. To break the curse, you must learn to love and to be loved in return."

The pain was unbearable as my body shrank and cracked and popped to take the form of a crow. The black feathers stung as my hair fell out only to be replaced by feathers, sprouting from my skin. My screams were no longer human, but a crow's helpless caws. Nacienne turned away from me and I could see her offer to hold the child. Betrayal stung me everywhere, it seemed, but the heart. I was not heartbroken and I knew it, I didn't think of denying it. Mai was right, I knew, but I would never accept that. I could never love anyone or anything except beauty. There was something I did believe, and I believed it stronger at that moment than any other moment in my entire life. And it seemed my life was going to last for quite some time.