The snow is melting, but it'll freeze to ice overnight.

I sit with my coat unfastened and the fire sputtering at my feet - with my flute in my hand, but I can't bring myself to play, because my bones feel as unresponsive as sodden parchment. I failed again today. Nobody would hire me or even offer up some change. I don't need a mirror to see that my eyes are starting to glaze over with detachment.

I'm getting tired of telling myself it's getting better when I know it's getting worse.

The snow is melting, and drops of it spit into the thinning snow from the crooked trees above. The familiar forest seems off balance with the light shining around the stilted trunks and glaring on the too-wet snow.

Nobody at the village knows who I am. If they did, they'd string me up like a petty thief - in the gallows tree, a couple miles south. I know this because they did it to a castle sentry a while ago. They don't have any respect for the old order any more. But nobody at the village knows who I am. Nobody knows I'm still alive.

When I woke up, I didn't know who I was. I woke up with blood drying on my face and frost settling on my coat; all I knew was that my head ached like it had split, and the trees seemed to shift around me. I wandered around for hours before I could remember my name, and it was days before I could remember more than smudged, out-of-context portraits.

Really, I'm not so better off now.

The snow is melting, but it'll freeze to ice overnight. I know this because of Caden - he took everything and left me to die in the snow, and before that I never fucking cared what the snow did because I was inside instead of outside, soaked to the bone, shaking.

I'm living in a makeshift camp a couple miles away from the castle. It's dangerous, but for some reason the castle guards never come down here, and I don't worry about why. It's degrading. I'm not a threat enough to chase off public land, living just outside the ruins of my old life. I'm lost - floating through limbo. But this country is all I've known, and I can't bring myself to abandon it.

Do you know, I used to own these woods. Do you know that?

A drop of melted snow lands on the burning wood - not a fire any more, just burning chunks of charcoal. It hisses and flickers. Patches of soggy brown are poking up through the snow, and the wind is scraping through the branches.

What you have to understand about Caden is he isn't perfect. He isn't who he seems. Caden will take everything from you if you give him the chance. As a lowly citizen, you probably see him as shining and perfect, but you won't know the real him until he knocks you unconscious and dumps you in the forest - until he kills your father and takes your throne, when he was the only person who'd made you feel wanted.

Angry? If I could, I'd slam that rock over there against his head until his skull caved and his brains spilled out into the snow. Even that doesn't calm the disquiet - the feeling that your destiny has been reversed, stolen, torn. If that's anger, then yes.

The snow is melting, but it'll freeze to ice overnight - and while he sits up in my warm castle, I'll be freezing in the shadow of the throne, thinking of ways to make him wish he'd killed me when he had the chance.


The market squirms with life. A stream of people presses through the muddy road down the center, and others crowd at the stands to buy fruits, meats, and breads. This is the illustrious heart of the city. This is the old, the poor, the weak, picking at whatever their starved wallets can manage.

Anthony tries not to let the sloppy peasants brush against him as they pass. He watches his master stand over the apple cart and watch the people over his shoulder.

"Is there any news from Pallen?" Caden asks, passing an apple to Anthony.

"No, master." He drops the apple into the sack. "None of your messengers have returned."

Caden hums and looks behind him again. The muddy crowd steps around him and gawks at his bright robes and discrete circlet - not that Caden notices.

This is why Anthony avoids taking his master grocery shopping.

"Master, don't you think you have better things to be doing right now? There's a whole line of people waiting for you back at the castle. Other people can pick out your groceries."

"I like to do it myself," Caden says. He cranes his neck to look at somebody sitting against a building several feet away.

"You never pick up enough when you do it yourself, and I have to go back and do it later, master."

Caden turns around all the way to survey the people passing him, and his elbow knocks an apple off the stand behind him and into the mud. Splotches of mud are already congregating on the hem of his robe. It'll have to be cleaned, along with his boots.

"Master," Anthony says. "You create a spectacle when you do your own shopping."

He frowns but doesn't say anything. "We should get bread."

"I just bought bread yesterday."

Caden hums, nods, and makes his way over to the bread cart without paying. Anthony hands the vendor a coin, making sure not to knock over any more apples, and turns to push through the crowd to find the king.

"This is dangerous," he tells him, when he finds him poking various loafs of bread. "Anybody could see you, and I can't protect you from anything. It isn't worth the risk."

"You are my servant and you will do as I say."

Anthony sighs. He takes two of the loaves from his hands and puts them in the bag, too. A small, crooked man stops to stare at them before the people behind him push him forward.

"Besides," Caden says. "I'm trying to connect with the common people."

He looks passed the common people now, and Anthony follows his gaze over the sides of the buildings and the alleys nearby. Several men sit or lie in the gutters and alleys. Caden tries to hand Anthony another loaf of bread, and he takes it out of his hand and sets it back down on display.

"You need to do something about Pallen," he says.

"Of course." He turns away from Anthony to look down the other side of the street.

"Your messengers should've come back by now. Some of them, at least."

Caden runs a hand through his thick blond hair and almost dislodges his circlet. Anthony puts his hand on his arm to get his attention.

"Master," he says. "They should be back by now. Don't you think something is going on?"

"Anthony, if I thought there was a problem, I would handle it myself." He says it sternly and gives his servant a hard look. "We need honey."

"Mater, we don't need honey. We already have some in the kitchen. Besides, tt's getting dark. They'll be cooking supper in the kitchens."

Caden nods and looks over his shoulder again. A pale man is sleeping against a nearby pub.

"Whoever you're looking for isn't here," Anthony says.

"What?"

"You keep coming here looking for somebody, and they aren't ever here. I don't know why you insist on doing your own shopping when you aren't finding who or what you're looking for," he says.

"I'm not looking for anybody." Caden hands the baker two coins and turns to face Anthony. "If you were anybody else, I'd fire you for making assumptions. It's disrespectful." He takes one more sweeping look at the crowded marketplace.

"You'd never fire me. We need to get going."

Even as they leave, Caden shoots glances over his shoulder until the city escapes from view.


[rewritten 2/14/2012]