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The Elven Boy With Rounded Ears

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In all honesty, Matteo was not much of a morning fellow. If he had his way, he would sleep late into the morning, rousing once the sun had passed overhead.

That was not his fortune for this day, however.

There was a banging on the door to his personal chambers at the back of the Apothecary.

“Wake up, Matteo!” Abdi, the shop’s apprentice, yelled. “Time to rise.”

“Go piss up a hill!” Matteo yelled back. Even though Abdi was not at the door to the room where he slept, the knocking could be heard. It was still an irritant.

Abdi laughed but knocked on the door with three more sharp raps. “You were the one who told me to wake you. I am following orders!”

They were low of certain stores in the Apothecary, and there were some plants and herbs that were best picked at the break of dawn. Matteo could have sent Abdi, a fledgling mage, to do this job because he would have to learn. But despite his untoward feelings for waking up, it was a task Matteo did not mind once he was out and about doing it.

It was the getting out and about part that Matteo found difficult.

There were three more sharp raps. “Matteo!”

“I will ban you from this place!” Matteo yelled back but they both knew his threats were empty. He slowly lifted off the straw-filled bedroll and stood just as the tell-tale creak of the main entrance to his chambers opened. “I’m up!”

The door shut but he could hear Abdi’s laughter on the other side. “Then I won’t pour this bucket of cold water over your head!”

“I’ll curse you if you ever do,” Matteo said, but that was the emptiest threat of all and they both knew it.

Matteo stretched the tightness of sleep from his body, including extending his translucent green-tinged wings out to the side. They were not used often, usually folded against his back and hidden from prying eyes at the oddity under cloaks he tended to favour, but at times when he had privacy, he stretched them out for comfort’s sake.

Matteo splashed water onto his face from a fine meadow-green porcelain bowl with painted leaves and petals decorating it. It was one of the few family heirlooms rescued from his mother’s destroyed estate. He had no idea what else to use it for. He ran his fingers through his messy hair. It was shaggy, with flyaway locks falling across his forehead, and others hanging down over his rounded ears. He placed on his bycocket, a style of hat with a wide brim turned up in the back but pointed in the front, and would hold his hair in place.

Matteo pulled on his traveller’s cloak. He huffed to himself at the name—he was not allowed to be much of a traveller under his family’s curse—but that was what it was all the same.

He folded his translucent pale green wings against his back to pull the cloak over, buttoning it at the neck, and then pulled up the hood.

High elf wings and human rounded ears were not attributes that tended to be combined. And while he was rather proud—or at the very least, not ashamed—of either, he did hate being stared at when people realised he was half-human and half-elf. And half high elf to boot. Disguised, he could walk through the village and to the meadow and forest beyond and even if anyone was awake to see him, they would not be able to tell what he was.

Though all the villagers knew exactly who he was, and in that, what he was. There was not much point in hiding it any longer but one never knew who they may or may not come across. The region of Mitte did not attract many, especially not their little village of Moabit but those outsiders who did venture to it did not need to know of Matteo’s heritage, or his story; he hated answering the questions about it once they realized who he was.

It was a metaphorical curse of being literally cursed.

He slipped the strap of the satchel with empty vials clinking in the bottom over his head to sit across his shoulders. He made sure he had his pipe and his favourite leaf to smoke, and he was ready to be on his way.

He went into the front space of the building, which was the Apothecary. It had passed to Matteo through the paternal and human side of his family. He was all that was left, so now it was his.

“There you are, friend!” Abdi greeted. There were only two candles lit but he waved his hand and a third one lighted. In the dim light of the room, Abdi looked positively delighted. It was a new skill he had recently learned.

The wooden shelves of the shop were full of jars and vials and baskets containing animals parts and potions and plants. Some Matteo traded with the villagers for food or work he needed done. Others would be bought by those who came from the nearby city to purchase his product, which was rumoured to be better than any other in the region of Mitte. And some he kept in case of sudden illness and injury to villagers.

There was a light rap on the main door and Matteo peered out the dirty glass. He grinned to himself and opened it. “Hanna,” he greeted. “You are up too early.”

“I saw the light through the window,” said the Merchant’s daughter. She glanced around and noticed that he was only with Abdi. He could tell she tried not to let her face drop with sadness, instead keeping a bright if somewhat forced smile on her face.

“Is it only you two in here this early morning?” she asked.

“Jonas has not yet returned,” he said, grinning at her.

“Oh, I did not mean—”

“Yes you did,” Matteo said, hitching his satchel strap to rest more comfortably over his hidden wings.

“Oh, are you going into the forest?” She wrinkled her nose. “At this time of day?”

“It is a true miracle,” Abdi said. “Bless the Good Mother Above.”

“Bless the Good Mother Above,” Hanna said, the corner of her mouth tugging up in a grin.

“I am going to the meadow first,” Matteo said. It would not make a difference to their teasing, but he felt as though he should make that clear.

Her eyes brightened. “Would you care for some assistance?”

“I inquired first!” Abdi said immediately.

“You both stay here,” Matteo said, and they made noises of disappointment. “Abdi, if you would like to brew a Invigoration Draught, that would be much appreciated.”

“We are almost out of lovage,” Abdi said.

Matteo nodded. “I will find some today.” To Hanna he said, “I am certain he could use some assistance there. And there may be purchasers from the city today, it would be wonderful if you could assist.” Hanna did not have much to do when her father was away on his business other than maintain their home, for she was not permitted to travel with him, and she’d been making her way through the village trying to be of assistance to stave off her boredom, or hone skills of her own perhaps. Matteo enjoyed the days she helped at the Apothecary, for he hated dealing with people, and he always made sure to compensate her.

“Should I be offended?” Abdi ask, without sounding any of the sort. He turned to Hanna, “It’s an elf magic situation. Why he does not wish us to join him.”

“It is not,” Matteo lied. Neither of them appeared to believe him. He pointed at Abdi. “Do your job before I rid of you.”

“Matteo,” Hanna said, “that is not kind of you.”

“He threatens this daily,” Abdi said cheerfully. “I have no concern. Matteo, light is approaching.”

“I must go,” Matteo said. “Do not destroy my Apothecary.”

“Will do,” Abdi said. Then he frowned. “Or won’t do? You know what I mean.”

Hanna waved at him as Matteo slipped through the front door and quietly closed it behind him.

The blanket of sky cloaking the village in darkness was indeed getting lighter, the midnight black turning into a velvet blue. Matteo hurried down the central road of the village, most of the buildings still dark, and made his way to the meadow beyond.

 

**

 

Matteo did not spend much time in the meadow, thankfully finding the lovage and foxglove petals at exactly the right time. From there, he walked through the sunflower patch, and to the forest beyond.

The forest was dark and wild. Trees grew thick and spindly, with moss and mushrooms and a rainbow splash of coloured flowers amongst the brown bark and dark green leaves. The branches canopied overhead, like a high ceiling, and rays of sunlight broke through, casting a dim glow.

Apparently it had not always been that way. There were whispers in the village that it was Matteo’s birth and his presence that had made it grow so. He could not claim this nor could he say it was false. And he really didn’t care, either way.

He did know that, although he did not always spend a lot of time here sometimes because it was a burden on his heart, it did have a certain feeling of home.

Matteo waved his hand over the sneezewart plant and the white petals he needed fell silently to the forest floor, the main stem intact. He waved his hand back over it and little buds replaced the missing flowers. He smiled.

He stepped barefoot over the moss covered ground, his light cloth boots now stowed away in the satchel that was increasingly full along his walk. He had found most of what he needed, though he was missing some of the typha plant.

It grew near water. Matteo tilted his head and closed his eyes. He had no power over water, his skills more in tune with earthly magic, but when he put in an effort he could at the very least locate it. He knew this forest well, though the deeper he went into it, the even more thick and wild it became. It was important to pay attention to make his way around.

Smiling to himself, he walked amongst the tall, thick trees, entering the part of the forest that few villagers ever wandered too, and soon came across the creek. He followed it until he found a small patch of typha growing out of the creek bed on the far side, peeking up through some rocks.

Matteo put down the satchel and unclasped the cloak. Though the daylight was creeping into the forest, it was still damp and cool. Nonetheless, it would be easier to make his way without the weight of it.

His wings stretched out now free of the material. He rolled up the cuffs of his pants and then stepped across the rocks, using his wings to steady him and even lift him slightly so that his feet barely touched the rock tops.

He landed where he needed, and bent to pluck some of the typha. He waved his hand again and murmured a low incantation he’d learned from the travelling mage Hans two summers before. He hoped it was enough to replenish this bit of earth he’d taken.

Making his way back over the rocks, light and flitting, almost like a dance, he made one last jump and landed near his cloak. He laughed and smiled, feeling alight with the burst of energy.

“You could have flown across.”

Matteo was so startled he dropped the typha from his hand and spun around, trying to locate the voice. He had no idea there was another in the forest with him.

“Who said that?” he called out, and spun around again.

“I did not expect to see another of our kind here.”

Matteo spun around again, staring at a tree he’d just looked at. No one had been there a moment before, and now it was as if this figure had appeared out of nowhere.

A young man—no, a young elf—leaned his shoulder against one of the thick trees, his head tilted curiously. He had dark hair, thick with flyaway curls on the top but shorn short on the sides, his pointed ears on display. His brown eyes appeared to take in everything, watching Matteo intensely. His pink lips were pursed, bemused.

Matteo stared at him, not only out of confusion for seeing another elf in these woods, but also because he would find it hard to look away. He had not seen someone quite as handsome as this. Not even Jonas could compare.

When Matteo did not answer the elf, he pushed away from the tree to walk closer. It was then that Matteo saw the wings, blue-tinged, folded at his back, the tips just visible behind his knees.

Good Mother Above, not only was this another elf, but he was a high elf, with wings like that.

If it wasn’t the wings that revealed his status, it would have been the clothes that gave it away. The elf wore a black jacket with a deep rectangular neckline that revealed a graceful water-blue shirt worn beneath that matched the shade of his blue-tinged wings. He wore black breeches with a leather belt decorated in silver and blue stones, and soft black leather shoes that make no sound as he walked. There was a decorative ear clasp right near the point of his left ear, and a glint of a silver ring through the middle of his nose. It was a simple outfit, but one of the most finely made that Matteo had ever seen. Even Amira’s family did not carry cloth as fine as that.

Matteo paled in comparison. He wore a rustic light brown tunic with thin green thread in the design of leaves along the collar. A simple belt of rope was tied around his waist with an intricate knot, and dark brown loose pants with frayed hems that brushed against his ankles. Good Mother Above, he was still barefoot and probably looked a ragamuffin next to this elf. Matteo had never cared what he looked like, and still did not, but it was going to be abundantly clear to this elf that Matteo was not of his class, even if he did have wings.

“You could have flown,” the high elf said. He gestured at the creek. “Instead you hop rocks.”

“Nothing wrong with hopping rocks,” Matteo said evasively. It was partly the truth, there was nothing wrong with it, but there was no need in revealing the whole truth. And that was Matteo could not lift himself much higher than a hand’s width into the air. The human side of him kept him tethered to the ground.

“No, I suppose there is not,” the high elf said, looking over the rocks.

“What are you doing here?” Matteo blurted out.

The high elf turned to him with an eyebrow raised. “Are you always so forward?”

A flush rose to Matteo’s cheeks. He was not, to be honest, but he was so surprised by this meeting he couldn’t help it. “There are not many elves that visit these woods. None, as far as I know.”

“This is not true,” the elf said. “You are here.”

“Yes, but.” Matteo’s wings rustled at his back, as if confused why they were allowed to be stretched out for such a time. “Who’re you?”

“Forward indeed,” the elf said. He tilted his head to the side again, as if considering Matteo and his worth. “If you are so interested in this of me, know I am of you. Would you give me your name, Lord…” He trailed off with another raise of his eyebrow.

Matteo winced. “Not a lord.”

“But you are a high elf,” he said. He gestured to Matteo’s wings. “That is the correct title. Although,” he said, “I must admit, I do not believe I have ever seen you attend court. And I thought I knew all that did.”

Matteo schooled his face to go blank at this. He hated talking about it. It really was no one’s business, and it was his own curiosity to learn of this elf that he was willing to part with information regarding himself. “I wasn’t raised at court.”

“No?”

“No,” Matteo said shortly.

The elf tilted his head, as if considering. “I apologize,” he eventually said, which made Matteo blink. “I did not mean to push. I should leave you—”

“It’s fine,” Matteo said quickly. He didn’t want the elf to leave. “No harm was done.” Matteo took a deep breath. “I’m Matteo. And you are? Lord, I assume?”

A small smile played on the elf’s lips, but he tilted his head in acknowledgement. “You may call me David.”

“All right, Lord—”

“No. No need for titles. David would be fine.”

Matteo smiled at him. “David.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Matteo,” David said.

“And you, David.”

David stepped closer, his feet light over the mossy ground. Matteo took him in completely—it was only now that Matteo noticed the sheathed sword hanging from the belt and he frowned.

He gestured at it. “Imagine yourself in battle in the middle of these woods?”

David blinked, as if surprised at the insinuation, and then his cheeks flushed a rosy pink. Matteo couldn’t help but stare in fascination.

“Habit, I suppose,” David said.

“Carry around swords often?”

“Always,” David said.

“Ah.” Matteo did not know what to do with that. “Are you part of the Royal Family’s high guard?” It was the only thing he could think of that would explain it.

David tensed for a moment, going into the eerie stillness that only elves could accomplished. Matteo was no master of it but his human friends had commented on it more than once.

And then the moment broke and one corner of David’s mouth tilted up and he gave a minute shake of his head. “No, not exactly.”

He did not elaborate and Matteo had enough sense to not push, not at this moment.

He stayed frozen in spot, even as David approached him, and then was surprised when David knelt to scoop up the typha that Matteo had dropped.

“Here you are,” David said softly, holding it out to Matteo. Matteo did not know what to do, other than take the plants from David. David also picked up the satchel that Matteo had put down before he hopped the rocks. He put it over Matteo’s head, so careful of his wings. “Are you a healer?” David asked.

“Of a sort, I suppose,” Matteo managed to stammer out. With David this close, he felt as if he couldn’t breathe. As if everything about him was stuck in time, in this place with David, and he was not sure he ever wanted that to change. “I own the Apothecary in the village of Moabit not far from here.”

“This makes sense.” David tilted his head again. “You have earth magic.” He closed his eyes and appeared to take a deep breath before he opened his eyes again. He smiled, and it was wide and beautiful. “You have the smell of grass and flowers about you.”

“I—” Matteo had no idea what to do with that statement. No one had ever said such a thing to him before. Well, that was not entirely true. The travelling mage Hans had once stated that Matteo had smelled like bark and stinkweed, but it did not seem the same as what David had said. “You can tell that from my smell?”

David laughed lightly, filling the air with the lovely sound. “I can.”

“Huh.” Matteo shrugged one shoulder. “I have some magic.”

David looked to where Matteo had pulled the typha. There were already little sprouts poking above the water’s surface. “I would say more than some.”

Matteo shook his head. “Nah.”

David smiled at Matteo and opened his mouth, as if to say something, but then suddenly frowned. His head turned to the water again, but his eyes were not focused on the plants. He walked to the creek’s edge and knelt down, fingertips brushing the surface of the water. It rippled beneath them in an odd pattern.

“David?” Matteo came to stand next to him cautiously. David said nothing, and perhaps did not even hear him. Matteo asked a little louder, “David?”

David stood suddenly, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. “I must go.”

“Wait, you don’t—”

“I must.” David smiled at Matteo ruefully. “Though I certainly wish I did not have to. Goodbye, Matteo.”

Before Matteo could protest further, David’s wings stretched out to the side, flapping and lifting David from the ground. He did not go high, but he quickly flew away, easily making his way around the trees. Matteo stood on the creek bed, typha in his hands and satchel over his shoulder, and his once lively wings drooping at his back.

“What,” he said to himself, “was that all about?”

 

**

 

Matteo visited the woods more in the span of half a fortnight than he had in an entire moon cycle but there were no more sightings of David.

He huffed to himself after emerging from the woods the fourth time. It was time to give up this chase, especially when he knew the chase was no good. He had no idea how to locate the random elf in the woods, one who had probably moved on to a new location, and it was probably best to pretend that moment they’d met was a figment of his imagination.

He dragged his feet along the dirt path toward the village, gnawing on his fingernail and deep in thought, when a voice drew his attention.

“Do you usually visit the woods this often?

Matteo startled and spun around. David was there, his shoulder leaned against a tree and his arms crossed in front of him, all casual. Sunlight fell upon him, casting a glow, making him more beautiful and ethereal than before.

Matteo stared, not answering, and David lifted an eyebrow. He smirked. “Searching for something in particular?” David asked. His voice was light and teasing. “Or perhaps someone?”

“I look for what I need to,” Matteo said immediately. Heat rushed to his cheeks. “Not that I need—I was gathering… ingredients.” He lifted his empty basket. Not that David could tell that. Probably.

“I see.” David pushed off the tree with ease and sauntered over to Matteo. “A lot of need for your Apothecary, if the number of times you have been in here is an indication.”

“Are you trailing me?” It was to be a tease, but then Matteo frowned. “Or avoiding me. I can take my leave if you don’t want me here—”

“No, no,” David said immediately, and put out his hands. “It is not that. I have been missing you, it appears. But I can tell. I can tell when you have walked through these woods.”

Matteo frowned. “How?”

David stopped in front of Matteo, just inches away. The air felt thick. Then David leaned in, ever so close to Matteo’s neck, and took an exaggerated sniff.

He pulled away, grinning happily. “Sunflowers.”

“I don’t smell like sunflowers,” Matteo protested, but he couldn’t help but tilt his head down, trying to hide his grin. “The sunflower patch is to the west, and I have not been there in quite some time.” Not since that first day he’d met David, when he’d walked through them on the way from the meadow.

“Nonetheless,” David said, with a careless wave of his hand. “I can tell when you have been through these woods. I am sorry I keep missing you.” The blush rose to his cheeks this time, making them rosy and unexpectedly adorable. Matteo would have never believed that a high elf, with his shining blue wings, was supposed to be called adorable. But this is what he was.

“It’s all right,” Matteo said. He lifted his basket. “I didn’t find what I needed, but perhaps another look. You can join me?”

“I do not have much earth magic,” David said. “But I would be happy to accompany you.”

Matteo turned on the spot, heading back to the forest. He would not miss this opportunity. “Let us go, then.”

He picked his way through this part of the woods he knew like the back of his hand, and he could not see anything out of place, could not tell that another elf had been here at all.

“Are you setting up camp in here?” Matteo asked. It would be hard to believe, save for David indicating he kept missing Matteo. Which would be a hint that he’d been through these woods more than once before, if he was not taking shelter there.

“Why do you ask?”

Matteo shrugged. “Curious. I know you are not staying at the Inn in the village—I would have heard the talk of another elf being in the area.”

David’s steps were light alongside Matteo’s heavier once. “Not a common occurrence, is it?”

“There is only me nowadays,” Matteo confessed. “And they’re used to me.” And the young commoners around here did not think twice about Matteo’s wings or his magic any longer, they’d become so accustomed to it. And those who were older remember the days when elves came around and even lived in this area. “And,” he added, “being an elf, a high elf in particular, surely you’ve heard about the curse?”

“I may have,” David said. “But it is hard to believe.”

“Hard to believe? How is that?”

David gestured with his hands, an imitation of a shrug, perhaps. “An entire territory cursed against elven folk? I have seen a great many things across the land—”

“Have you?” Matteo breathed out, trying to tamp down his jealousy. He had seen naught beyond the Mitte region.

David nodded gracefully. “I have. But a place cursed against our kind? Cannot be.”

“You do not believe in curses?”

“I am sceptic,” David said. “Surely it cannot be true. You are here, are you not?”

“What makes you think I’m not the curse?” Matteo asked.

David laughed. “Please. One elf cannot hold the curse of the entire land.”

“Huh.” Matteo paused and looked at David carefully. He imitated his head tilt, which made David smile. But Matteo was being quite serious when he put out the question. “Has the court not heard of the Florenzi curse? I would have thought so, since that is where it was cast from.”

David went unearthly still. His eyes flicked to Matteo’s ears, which were covered by his shaggy hair pushed down by his hat but it was indication enough.

“Ah,” Matteo said. “You have heard then. Let me introduce myself again. Hello, I am Matteo Florenzi.”

David was quiet for a moment before he spoke softly. “It is hard to believe you are not fully elven. I truly thought so when I first met you, and it was not until after I took my leave that it came to my mind that, perhaps…”

“Perhaps I’m the cursed elf,” Matteo said cheerfully.

“You are in rather good spirits about it,” David said, and a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth again.

Matteo shrugged. It was an incredibly human gesture but he’d lived among them for his entire life. “What else should I be? I’ve come to accept it. There will be no breaking it.”

“You do not know that,” David said softly.

“I do, and I’ve reached my peace with it a long time ago,” Matteo said. This might be a little cover up of the truth, but Matteo didn’t think David wanted to hear about the sadness that overcame him from time to time. He felt none of it right now, that was for certain. “The curse was set up very well. There’s no getting around it, no getting out of it. And it is impossible for me to find the one who could end up breaking it. This is the legacy my elven mother left me, and it is mine to bear.”

“Do you not want more?” David asked.

“More what?”

“More…” David gestured around. “Everything. Travelling beyond the borders. Seeing the kingdom.”

“Of course,” Matteo said easily. “But I accept what I have, and make the best of it. Ah, look.”

Matteo crouched down and picked a bundle of scurvygrass from where it was growing amongst the roots of a large tree. He placed it in his basket, then waved his hand over the spot, muttering a small incantation. Little bits of scurvygrass poked up in the soil.

“There we are,” he said quietly. He stood up and turned to David, who had a soft look about his face.

“You are rather remarkable,” David said, a smile playing about his mouth yet again. It was as if David was trying to hide it out of habit but could not keep it back entirely in Matteo’s presence.

Matteo felt the curve of his rounded ears heat up, and was very grateful David could not see them.

“No, not really. It’s not difficult magic.”

“It is not one that I posses, nor have I met anyone who could cast such strong earth magic,” David said. His head turned suddenly and he frowned as he looked to the east. “The creek is not far from here, is it?

“Uh, no. It’s not. Come,” Matteo said. He led the way through the woods but he had a suspicion that David could have found the way quite easily himself. That suspicion was confirmed when they approached the creek and David walked right up to it, crouching beside it and running his hand over the surface. It rippled ever so slightly, as if by his ministrations, like before.

“You have water magic,” Matteo said. “I should have realized that last time.”

David turned his head slightly to Matteo, though his smile was distracted. “That I do.” He stayed with his fingers on the water just a moment longer, and then stood. “And wind.” He waved his hand, and a breeze made its way through the woods, ruffling the fringe of hair across Matteo’s neck.

“Amazing,” Matteo said, with a smile. Like he did not meet elves very often, he did not meet those with magic very often either. The traveling mage Hans, not an elf but a human with remarkable magic, did not have elemental magic like he or David, but rather a very keen sense of how to manipulate objects. Abdi’s magic was much more like Hans’ as well.

David softly smiled at him but there was regret on his face. “I must go.”

“How peculiar,” Matteo said.

David frowned. “What is?”

“That you’re always running off. One wonders what it is you are running off too. Especially since you’re not of this place.” Matteo frowned. “Or is it who you are running to I should be concerned about?”

“You do not need to concern yourself over me,” David said. “Nor do you have to come searching for me either.”

“I never said I was searching for you.”

“If you insist,” David said with an air he didn’t believe that in the least. “I would like to meet with you again. In two day’s time? If you are able.”

“Yes,” Matteo said before the words were even out of his mouth.

David laughed. “I would like to see your sunflowers.”

Matteo groaned. “Fine, fine,” he grumbled, though he didn’t mind. “And how will I find you? What time of the day?”

“When the sun is at its highest? But call my name on the wind. I will know you are there.”

“All right, if you’re sure—“

“I am sure. Until then, Matteo.” And with that, David’s wings fluttered and he took off in flight through the trees.

 

**

 

“Keep your dirty fingers off of that,” Amira scolded. She snapped her fingers in front of Matteo’s face. “All Father Around, if you get that dirty, Matteo, you will pay.”

Matteo, who had been in a bit of a daze, snatched his hand back. He’d been in his garden earlier that day and had, apparently, not cleaned his hands thoroughly enough. At least, not to Amira’s standards.

He was at the market in Moabit to buy some bread from the baker’s stall, and some meat from the butcher. But he found himself at Amria’s family’s table. They sold a large variety of supplies, but they always had the most beautiful cloth. And Amira’s mother had always been willing to sew something especially for him to fit around his wings.

“Do you need new clothes?” Amira asked. She frowned. “Did you not get some a few moons ago, for the change of season?”

“Yes,” he said. He had. He had his usual dull and sturdy clothes. But he thought about David and thought that perhaps he could— “Never mind,” he said. He didn’t need anything new. It was a silly thought.

“It is rather fine, isn’t it,” Amira said, indicating the cloth Matteo had been looking at. She probably realized her mother would not be happy with her scolding a potential customer that way. Although, Amira and Matteo had known each other for a very long time and he could not imagine them being any different.

“It is,” he agreed. “But I am not in need of it.”

“Alright,” she said. “If you could excuse me.”

He nodded his head as she went to the other end of the stall to speak to a potential customer, though she glanced back at him with a small smile. He returned it, and walked down the way.

“Have you heard?” Kiki said in greeting as he approached her stall. Matteo was there to buy a loaf of bread—though he’d avoid the obvious experimental loaves at the far end—but he could not avoid her gossip, it would seem.

“Probably not,” he said. It was true—he wasn’t much to listen to village gossip, though he knew it was Kiki’s favourite past time.

“There have been two unknown women through town. Oooooh,” she added dramatically, but smiled widely. “Mysterious.”

Normally, Matteo could care less about mysterious people through town, other than perhaps wanting to avoid them but even that was a lot of work. But, given the elf in the forest who wasn’t usual there, it piqued his curiosity.

“What women?”

“Didn’t think you’d be interested,” Hanna said as she stepped up beside Matteo, giving him a little wink. Kiki gave her a happy smile and leaned over, and the two kissed each other’s cheeks.

“Ha ha,” Matteo said dryly, rolling his eyes. “That’s not what I meant. Whatever. I don’t care.”

He didn’t care. But now he was curious.

His off-hand attitude did not deter Kiki, which he had been hoping for.

“They came through the market yesterday. Purchased bread and meat.” Kiki lowered her voice. “People think they might be rogues.”

“If they were thieves,” Hanna pointed out, “then they wouldn’t have purchased anything.”

“Maybe it was a ploy,” Kiki said defensively. “They paid for a loaf but stole three.” She looked over her stall in alarm. “What if they stole from me!”

“You are meticulous,” Hanna said. “You would have noticed.”

“Oh. Yes,” Kiki agreed. “They would not have got away with that with me. But what if they stole from another?”

Matteo tried not to huff in annoyance. This was not giving him any information. “What makes you think they were rogues?”

“It was what they wore. Women do not typically dress like that,” Kiki said loftily.

Matteo wasn’t getting anywhere here. He turned to Hanna.

“They were not in dresses,” Hanna said. Her hint of a smile showed she knew Matteo was getting annoyed with Kiki. “They wore breeches and long shifts and swords on their belt. One had…” She put her hand up to her inner forearm arm and frowned. “I don’t know what it was called. For archery maybe? She didn’t have a bow though.”

“Were they elves?” Matteo blurted out.

They both blinked at him. Then Kiki got a supposedly knowing look on her face. “Did you want them to be? Do you want lady elves to be here?”

He huffed.

“Maybe he wants any elves to be here,” Hanna said softly.

Matteo took a vial out of his pocket and gave it to Kiki. He knew her mother needed it. “This will pay for a couple loaves?”

She took it greedily, clasping it in her hand. “And then some. You can come back twice more to get it when it’s fresh.”

“Thank you,” he said. He turned to walk away.

“I don’t know if they were elves,” Hanna said. He turned back to them.

“Of course they weren’t,” Kiki said immediately. “They did not have wings.”

“Not all elves have wings,” Hanna said, her gaze flitting to Matteo’s shoulders. His wings were under his cloak. “Only high born.”

Matteo and Kiki both snorted. They both knew Matteo was nothing of the sort, even if he did have the sign of it.

“But I didn’t see their ears,” Hanna said slowly. “They each had long blond hair, and they were wearing a bycocket like yours,” she said, pointing to Matteo’s hat. “It pushed down their hair over their ears.”

“As if hiding them!” Kiki said with a little excitement. “Like you do!”

“Let’s not start that rumour,” Matteo said instantly. “I’m sure I would know if there were other elves here.”

“Why?” Kiki looked very interested. “Do you have a secret sense that can spot them out? Even without seeing them?”

“No,” Matteo said. “They’d end up in my Apothecary.”

They both blinked at him again. He sighed.

“The curse? Elves aren’t safe in Mitte. They’ll end up to me sick or injured eventually.”

“Oh, right.” Kiki wrinkled her nose. “You are the reason we don’t have any elves here anymore.”

“Other than you,” Hanna said quickly. She smiled friendly. “You’re elf enough for us.”

Kiki waved her hand dismissively. “He’s barely elf.”

“Kiki!” Hanna scolded.

It was Kiki, and it wasn’t entirely meant as an insult, and the thing was—Matteo didn’t take it as such. He only grinned and shrugged. “She has a point.” He nodded to each of them. “Have a good day, ladies.” He took leave of them to go purchase from the butcher.

 

**

 

Matteo stood on the edge of the village, facing to the west toward the sunflower fields. He wiped his hand over his brow. It was a warm day, so he did not have his cloak or his hat on. But he wished he knew if calling on the wind would really work. There did not seem to be much of a breeze today.

“Okay,” he said to himself. He tried to find confidence. Was it really that easy?

He opened his mouth to call out, but snapped it shut again when he heard his own name being called. Not on the wind, not exactly, but from the road beyond.

“Matteo!”

Matteo looked over and saw Carlos, the town’s stonemason and carpenter, walking along the road, carrying a bucket. Carlos was also Kiki’s sweetheart, and of all Matteo’s friends, likely the first to be wed. Kiki certainly hinted at it enough.

“Carlos,” Matteo said, nodding in greeting. He liked Carlos, he did, but now was not the time he wanted to see his friend.

“Off to the woods? Again?” Carlos said, coming to stand next to Matteo.

“Again? How do you know I was there more than once?”

“Abdi,” Carlos said predictably. The two of them were thick as thieves—as close as Jonas and Matteo were. When they were younger, the four of them were known to give the village fits with the trouble they’d created.

“He’s too loose with words,” Matteo said.

“Nah,” Carlos said. “But you know who is?” Carlos looked at Matteo pointedly.

Matteo sighed. He knew exactly where this was going.

“Kiki said there might be elves here!” Carlos said, excitedly. “Are you happy about that?”

Matteo shook his head. “I didn’t see the rogues—”

“Not rogues. They didn’t steal bread,” Carlos said.

“Well, whatever they may be, I don’t think they’re elves.”

“If they are not elves, we think they might be rangers,” Carlos said. Then his face brightened. “What if they’re elf rangers?”

“There aren’t elves here,” Matteo said.

Matteo wasn’t one to lie to his friends, under most circumstances. But there was something about knowing that David, a high born elf, was wandering the woods, that Matteo wanted to keep to himself. For now, anyway. And given that David hadn’t ventured into the village as of yet, when he’d had plenty of chances, it was likely David didn’t want his presence known at this time either.

“Okay, okay. It is possible they were just travellers and have made their way through,” Carlos said. Matteo nodded. This was likely the case. “But, you’re not ill, are you?”

“I—what?” Matteo asked, confounded. “Why would you ask that?”

“Abdi said,” Carlos said, and Matteo rolled his eyes. “He said you keep wandering to the woods to gather supplies. More than you usually do! Are you hiding something?”

“I’m not ill,” Matteo said.

“You’re not acting like you, either,” Carlos said, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

“I am acting myself just fine,” Matteo protested. Even though that wasn’t entirely the truth either. He didn’t normally go into the woods that often. He knew it, and his friends knew it, and now they were getting suspicious.

“Where are you going now?” Carlos asked. He pointed to the woods. “The woods, perhaps?”

“No,” Matteo said. That was the truth, at least. He was going to the meadows.

“Sure, sure,” Carlos said disbelievingly.

“It’s an elf situation!” Matteo said. That was the truth too. It was an elf thing… a David the elf situation but no need to reveal that.

“That…” Carlos said, pausing dramatically. He must have picked up that from Kiki. “Is sheep’s swallop.”

Matteo punched Carlos’ arm and Carlos laughed, ducking away before a second blow could hit.

“Alright, alright then,” Carlos said. “Go into the woods. Be an elf. I must go help Kiki repair one of her brick stoves.” He held up the bucket of mortar. “I will not hear the end of it if I don’t.”

“You go do that,” Matteo said.

“And you’re sure you’re not ill?” Carlos said.

“I am not, promise.”

“Alright then, my friend. Have a good day.” They shook hands and parted, Carlos walking down the road further into the village.

Finally by himself, Matteo took the moment to build up his confidence again. He was not going to be deterred by a momentary hold-up by running into one of his friends. He wanted to see David, and he had an arranged meeting to make.

“David,” he whispered to the wind. Would that be enough? Once he believed he was out of earshot of anyone, he said a little louder, “David. I’m on my way.”

It was not much longer before he ended up at the crossroads outside the town, and he turned to the west. Moments later, he spotted David. David was leaning against the one tree at the edge of the sunflower field. Arms crossed, casual as can be, but Matteo could feel David’s intense gaze follow him. But as he approached, he saw a soft look to David’s face and a smirk playing on his lips.

“You are late,” David said. He looked up at the sky and pointed. “The sun is not quite overhead any longer.”

Matteo looked up and then made a face at David. “It is directly overhead.”

“Not directly. It has passed,” David said, pursing his lips in what seemed to be an attempt to hold back laughter. Matteo huffed.

“Direct enough,” Matteo said. “Were you waiting for me, or…”

“I was on my way when I heard you call,” David said.

“Ah. That is convenient. Do you hear everything over the wind?”

“No,” David said. He pushed off the tree and came to stand by Matteo. “Only when I know to listen.”

“Still convenient,” Matteo said.

“It can be,” David agreed. “Shall we?”

“Shall we what?” Matteo gestured in front of him at all the sunflowers. “You wanted me to show you the sunflower field. There it is. That’s about it. Shall we go back to the village for a drink?”

David laughed but shook his head. “I think we should inspect it further.”

“If you say so,” Matteo grumbled but to be honest, he was pleased to have David to himself for a time longer. “And, while I’m not admitting to being late, I should apologize for being held up in the village.”

“Is that not contradictory?” David asked, amused.

“No, shush.” Matteo stepped carefully around some sunflowers, and listened to them. He found a path that would make walking amongst them without any damage easy. “I was held up by a friend of mine, who thinks I may have some random elf disease and I’m afraid to tell anyone about it.”

He glanced over his shoulder and saw David close behind, his wings folded at his back, and a frown on his face. “Are you ill? I do not sense that.”

Matteo laughed and shook his head, looking forward again. “Of course not,” he said. “But they want an explanation as to why I keep disappearing into the forest. I don’t leave the village nearly this often.”

“What did you tell them?”

“That I am communing with nature, like a real elf should,” Matteo said easily.

“You are a real elf,” David said immediately.

Matteo flapped his hand dismissively behind himself. “Yes, yes, but you know what I mean.”

Matteo startled when David grabbed his wrist and stilled his hand. Matteo looked back at David. David had his head tilted in consideration.

“To be truthful,” David said. He rubbed his thumb over Matteo’s wrist, seemed to realize what he was doing, and let Matteo go. Matteo wished he hadn’t. David cleared his throat. “To be truthful,” he said again, “I do not know what you mean.”

Matteo turned to him fully. “I thought I had made it clear. I… don’t spend much time with any of my kind. Virtually none, in my entire life. And those I have met…” He trailed off.

“What?” David asked. “What about the ones you have met?”

“They were curious, like you,” Matteo said. “But they were not… kind, like you.”

David’s entire body tensed, and he frowned. “They were not… unkind, were they?

“No, no.” Matteo shook his head. “But they were… dismissive, and possibly very… haughty. In the politest way possible. If that makes any sort of sense.”

“Completely,” David said wryly. “You just described a day at court.”

Matteo’s face scrunched up. “Then perhaps I should be grateful to not be of that place.”

“Perhaps you should,” David said quietly.

Matteo winced at his own blunder. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend”

David blinked in surprise. “You did not. Why would you think that?”

“You’re from there,” Matteo said. “I may have insulted it.”

David shook his head. “You did not. To be honest, there are times I wish I was not from there.”

“Is that why you’re here?”

It was the first time David’s face closed up and Matteo could not read it. He did not like seeing this much.

“Now I’m truly sorry,” Matteo said. “I really have offended.”

David shook his head. “You have not. But I really do not wish to speak of it at this time.”

“Alright,” Matteo said awkwardly. As usual, he had blundered. His fingers toyed with the hem of his loose tunic, one that still paled in comparison to David’s, the material much more course. He should have ordered a shirt from Amira’s mother.

The sunflowers around him danced a little, swaying back and forth from the roots.

David watched them and smiled. “You are doing that.”

“I—what?” Matteo noticed David watching the sunflowers and stilled his hands. The sunflowers stopped moving. “Sorry. Nervous habit.”

David tilted his head to the side. “Do I make you nervous?” he asked. “I do not mean to.”

“Only after I spoke out of turn. Now I don’t know what to say that won’t upset you further.”

“You have not upset me,” David said, and his face was soft again. “But tell me of better things.”

“Like what?”

“Like you,” David said. “Tell me about you.”

Matteo’s cheeks flushed and he had to bite back a grin. “There is not much to tell.”

“That,” David said, “I do not believe.”

Matteo led David down the path through the sunflowers, and he spoke about his Apothecary. How it came into his hands—he’d been raised by his paternal grandmother who was a gifted mage and he took over the business after she’d passed—and about Abdi his apprentice and his friend Hanna who helped out on occasion. He spoke of his best friend Jonas, the wandering minstrel who occasionally brought news back to Mitte of the outside regions and the kingdom as a whole. And of his friends who were to be married someday, the town stonemason and carpenter Carlos and the baker Kiki.

By this time they had reached the edge of the sunflowers, and in front of them was a meadow of soft green grass and spotted with patches of wild flowers.

“It sounds like you have a nice life here,” David said.

“I suppose,” Matteo said. He plopped down onto the grass, done with all this walking. He’d walked more in the last fortnight then he had in a number of moon cycles, and lay back with his wings folded beneath him, cradling him. David sat down on the grass next to him, cross legged, his wings stretched out behind him.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” Matteo asked.

David blinked down at him in surprise. “Smoke?”

From the deep pocket of his baggy pants, his pulled out a pipe packed with the special leaf he liked, and a small rock and flint. He gestured it in David’s direction.

“Whatever you wish,” David said.

Matteo sat up and struck the flint and rock with practiced ease, able to light the pipe. He took a puff and held it in before releasing it. With a wave of his hand, David moved the wind to make the puff take shape like a boat.

Matteo let out a laugh and then coughed, pounding his fist against his chest when he did.

“Better let me take this,” David said with a smirk, reaching for the pipe. Matteo relinquished it easily. “Before you choke yourself on it.”

David took a puff, but then started coughing just as Matteo did. It was Matteo’s turn to laugh.

“Strong,” David coughed out. “Unlike anything in the capital.”

Matteo took it back, a smirk mirroring David’s previous one on his face. “I grow my own special plant. You won’t find anything else like it in all the regions.” He paused for a moment. “So I am told.”

“I would agree with this,” David said.

“Hmm.” Matteo took another puff, and then gently toppled to the side, getting comfortable on the grass again, right at David’s knee. They each had a couple more puffs and then Matteo extinguished it. When it cooled, it went back into his pocket.

“What do you want more than anything?” David asked after a few moments of comfortable silence had passed.

“To leave Mitte,” Matteo said immediately. “To see anywhere else.”

“Is it so horrible here?” David asked softly.

“Of course not,” Matteo said. “This is my home. I’d always end up back here, I think. But given the choice to leave, even for a little while, I would.”

“You really can not?” David asked.

Matteo shook his head. “No. I will take you to the place some time, if you’d like. The very edge I can go. But the curse prevents me from going one step further.” He and his friends used to test it when they were younger, but he hadn’t been there in a long time. There was no point. “We call it the curse wall.”

“I am sorry,” David said softly.

“Why? You didn’t put the curse in place. The royal family did,” Matteo said. “And it wasn’t even really because of me but my mother. My father was dead before I was even born, and the curse was placed when I was but a babe. My mother was exiled and I’m left here as a reminder to all other elves who might wish to betray the royal family.”

“Do you know where she is?” David asked quietly.

Matteo shrugged. “No, but I wish I did. Not that I can use that information at all. Maybe she’s gone too. And maybe she’s not. Maybe I’d try to find her,” he mused allowed. “If I was allowed to leave.”

“You might be able to someday.”

Matteo rolled over. His wings unfolded into the air above him, fluttering slightly in the light breeze there was now. He pushed his hair from his eyebrows. “I won’t,” Matteo said.

David reached out, his hand pausing in the air, but then he seemed to find the confidence to finish. His fingers brushed through Matteo’s hair. Matteo froze in spot, did not move, and allowed David to do it.

Matteo’s ears, his rounded, human ears, were exposed.

“You might,” David said again.

Matteo shook his head. “Only true love can break the curse.”

David’s hand hovered beside Matteo’s head, waiting, and he raised his eyebrows as if in question. Matteo nodded.

“You might find true love,” David said quietly. The pads of his fingers very lightly touched the rounded tip of Matteo’s ear.

“A very specific true love,” Matteo said, just as quietly. He closed his eyes and rested his chin on David’s knee. “One of royalty.” Matteo snorted. “The royal family does not come to Mitte. They avoid it, and with good reason. The lands are cursed.”

David’s fingers rubbed Matteo’s ear a moment longer, then withdrew. “I am sorry,” he said again.

Matteo opened his eyes but left his chin resting on David’s knee. “Again… not your fault.” He pushed himself up suddenly, his wings flapping. David’s body jerked a little, as if startled. “My turn!”

David said, “Your—what—” When Matteo touched his ear, he went completely still.

Matteo ran his thumb up one side of David’s ear and his finger up the other, edging over the decorative clasp there, and they met at the very tip of David’s pointed ear.

“I used to think I would give anything for pointed ears,” Matteo said. But then he flicked the tip of David’s ear. David yelped in surprise and Matteo laughed brightly. “But they really aren’t any better than any other ears, are they?”

He flicked David’s ear again.

David batted Matteo’s hand away, and covered his ears with his hands. “You are incorrigible,” he said, though it looked as though he was trying to suppress a smile.

“I think you like that,” Matteo said.

David sighed but did not protest. He opened his mouth, though, as if to give back a playful, scathing remark, but then he stopped. He tilted his head, as if he was trying to listen to the wind with the pointed ear Matteo just caressed.

“Let me guess,” Matteo said. “You have to go.”

“I am sorry,” David said, and stood gracefully, even with the strong leaf he’d taken a puff of. His wings extended out to the side and began to flap, easily lifting him from the ground. “Come, I will fly with you back to the crossroads.”

Matteo shook his head. “It’s okay. I think I’ll walk. I might come across something I need for the shop.”

David frowned down at him. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.” Matteo stood, much less gracefully, and brushed the grass from his pants. “Can I see you again?”

“Yes,” David said, and began to fly away.

“When?” Matteo called out.

“Soon!”

But with that, David was gone as easily as he appeared.

“That is so annoying,” Matteo muttered to himself.

Glancing around and making sure there was no one in eyesight, Matteo stretched his wings to the side. He let them flap, and maybe they weren’t as fast as David’s but he thought they did okay.

He could only get about a foot above the ground before he felt too heavy and let himself fall back down. His landing was not smooth.

He hadn’t put much effort into it, not in a long time, but he still wasn’t able to fly. Matteo wandered back to the village, taking the path through the sunflowers, and thinking of David’s sudden disappearances, tried not to let his heart feel heavy too.

Chapter Text

“Not that one!” Matteo said, and slapped the mushroom out of David’s hand.

David looked startled, as if disbelieving anyone would dare do such a thing. “What? You just said—”

“That one is poisonous,” Matteo said. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to hit you. Just, for the Good Mother Above’s sake, not that one!”

Matteo and David were walking through the woods, as they’d be want to do lately, and David had started asking questions about the different plants there. More specifically, about the ones that were edible. Matteo worried that perhaps David was not getting enough to eat but David said it was fine, he was eating, it just seemed a waste to not use the resources around him.

It was a good thing David hadn’t been as of yet. He was horrible when it came to picking out edible plants.

“You have to be careful,” Matteo said. “One wrong plant, and you can be dead in an instant.”

“That would be—” David tilted his head to the side, thinking. His fingers drummed on the hilt of his sword that was always sheathed on his belt.

“Awful,” Matteo filled in for him. “It would be awful, David.”

“No, no, of course,” David immediately agreed. “It would be… unexpected, that’s for sure. Is death truly instant?”

“Depending what it is. You are not allowed to gather,” Matteo said crossly. “Let me do it for you.”

David laughed. “I will admit, I have not had to worry about this much in life.”

“Everything handed to you on a silver platter, was it?” Matteo said. He winced when David’s face closed up. He hated that reaction to anything he said. There was so much Matteo didn’t know about life in the Capital. “I’m sorry. That was rude of me.”

David sighed but the tension left his face immediately. “Perhaps, but it was also the truth.”

“You should have been taught,” Matteo said. “If you were going to hide in the countryside in a cursed land, you should have been taught to survive.”

“It was not in my parents’ plans,” David said. It was the first time he’d ever mentioned them. “They would be aghast to know of it.” He bent down and picked up the mushroom Matteo had slapped from his hand. “Why not this one? Other than the poison, I mean. How would I know?”

“I will do gathering for you, if you wish,” Matteo said. “I know all about the edible mushrooms and plants and tubers you can find.” Matteo took the mushroom from David, and turned it over so that the gills showed. They were blue. That was the mark of their poison. For this particular kind of mushroom, anyway. “There is one that looks so similar, but it is green. You can eat those ones.”

“I would appreciate your help,” David said. “But do not feel like you need to.”

“I don’t feel like I need to, but I’d like to. We can do it together.”

“I would like that,” David said softly, watching Matteo throw the poisonous mushroom into the woods.

“We need water,” Matteo said. “Can you locate it?”

“Why?” David asked. It was almost absent, as he tilted his head, and appeared to be concentrating on something else. Likely locating the water.

“We need to wash our hands,” Matteo said.

David frowned and held up his hands to inspect them. “Why?”

“Because we touched pois—no!”

David had brought his hand up to his face to smell or maybe taste or something completely naïve and ridiculous. Matteo slapped his hand away again.

“You really must stop doing that,” David said with an exasperated sigh, but he also sounded fond.

“We need to wash our hands before we touch anything else,” Matteo said again. He took David’s hand in his and held it tight so that he would not do anything else stupid. But he also did not wish to let go.

“That way,” David said with a tilt of his head.

Hand-in-hand, they made their way to a nearby pool that led off the creek and knelt beside it to wash off. David, the show off, bent so far over the surface that his fluttering wings held him up from toppling right in.

“When you are finished, could you back up for just a moment?” David asked quietly.

“Uh. Of course.” Matteo stood and backed up a little, brushing his wet hands on his breeches. He saw the water slip right off David’s fingers, as if he’d willed it, and it was fascinating. Then he dragged one finger over the now-still water surface, and it rippled oddly under his touch, like it had the first time he’d met David.

“May I ask?” Matteo said quietly.

“What?” David said, just as quiet.

“What is it you’re doing? Also, sorry if I’m interrupting.”

David leaned back with a disappointed sigh and glanced over at him. “No, you did not interrupt,” David said at the look on Matteo’s face. “This is how I communicate with my sister. She is back home in the Capital.”

“You can do that?” Matteo asked, astounded. That sounded incredibly powerful.

“Yes. She also has the magic of water,” David explained, and that did make it clearer. But he frowned down at the little pond. “But it is getting increasingly difficult.”

“Because she’s so far away?” Matteo hazard a guess.

“That, among other reasons,” David said. He did not seem to wish to explain further.

“What did she say?” Matteo asked, even though he knew perfectly well it was not his business. He was curious.

“Nothing today thus far,” David said. He gave a small smile. “But I am not surprised, though it would have been nice.”

“Yes, I suppose it would have,” Matteo said. He did not have any family left that he communicated with so he didn’t know what else to say.

He bent over to pick a mushroom and David yelled out. “What?” Matteo asked as he stood, mushroom in his hand.

“You just washed. Why would you pick it again?” David asked with a groan.

“Promise me,” Matteo said.

“Promise you what?” David asked, confused.

Matteo turned his hand over and opened it. There lay the green gilled mushrooms, ones perfectly safe for consumption.

“Promise that you will never, ever gather for yourself.” Matteo popped one of the small mushrooms into his mouth. “Would you like to try some?”

David looked at it sceptically but when nothing happened to Matteo, he took a mushroom for himself.

“This is not too bad,” David said, though he was obviously trying to put on a brave front. Clearly he was used to fancier dishes.

Matteo laughed. “No, not too bad.”

 

**

 

They walked a little more and they were going toward the edge of the forest, an indication that their time together for the day was nearly done. He never knew what to say at these times—it was not a goodbye but more of a ‘see you soon.’ At least this was what Matteo hoped, though he did not know how to ask if that was true or not.

Matteo was lost in his thoughts when David’s voice drew him from them.

“I should thank you.”

“Eh?” Matteo glanced over to David, who was staring intently at him.

David’s face softened, and a small smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “I said,” David said, sounding like he was feigning annoyance but it came out more affectionate, “I should thank you.”

“For what?” Matteo asked.

“For saving my life. Just now, with the mushrooms.” David made a playful face. “It could have been life and death, after all.”

Matteo shook his head. “No need to thank me.” They paused beside a large oak tree, where wild flowers grew out of the bark where no wild flowers should ever grow. They bloomed in a rainbow of colours, and Matteo took a moment to pluck one of each colour. He made sure to wave his hand, trying to let his magic seep back into the tree so the beautiful flowers grew back.

“I should be thanking you,” Matteo said. He turned to David and held out the flowers. He had a moment of fear, that David would think it childish or silly or miss the romance in it. Matteo knew nothing about romance, but Jonas had asked him more than once for beautiful flowers to take to Hanna.

David paused for a moment, staring at them, but then a smile more wonderful than any flower blossomed across his face. He reached out and gently took the handful of flowers.

“What could you possibly want to thank me for?” David asked quietly. He still held onto the flowers, though Matteo reached out and plucked one from the handful.

Matteo slid it into the collar of David’s tunic so it sat against his throat. Matteo smiled.

“Thank you,” he said again, “for allowing me to get to know you. You did not have to. You could have kept hiding and I would be none the wiser that you were here. So…” Matteo let his arms drop to his side and shrugged. “Thank you.”

“It is I,” David said, “that should be thanking you for that as well.”

“I suppose we’ll both have to give and accept gratitude then, shall we?” Matteo asked.

David smiled. “I think we shall.”

 

**

 

It was never easy to leave David—it was, in fact, increasingly harder and harder—but Matteo had business in the village he had to attend to. He left David that morning with a smile on his face and flowers in his hand, and Matteo could not help but whistle as he walked through the village.

He visited the patrons he needed, and then walked through the market on the way back to the Apothecary.

Amira was busy with a customer when he passed by her stall, but something on display caught his eye and he could not help but stop and take a look.

Three little porcelain cups, each painted meadow-green with a trimming of leaves and petals decorating it. They perfectly matched the bowl that he still had, passed from his grandmother to him but had belonged, at one time, to his mother’s family.

He trailed his finger around the rim of one of the delicate cups.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?”

Matteo glanced up at Amira in surprise, not expecting to be addressed nor the porcelain ware to be mentioned.

He drew back his hand. “Yes.”

“My father found them at the market in the next region,” Amira said. “But he said those—” she pointed to the leaf design “—are a mark of an old Mitte elf family.”

“I suppose it is,” Matteo said quietly. He did not offer up the information that it was his elf family. And technically these cups were supposed to belong to him.

Amira asked, “Would you like to—“

“Sorry,” Matteo said, and stepped back. This was—he didn’t think he wanted to talk about this, not only Amira but with anyone. “I have to go.”

Amira frowned. “If you’re sure. Matteo, are you all right?”

He glanced down at the cups once more, at the leaf design, and shook his head. But he said, “Yes, I’m fine. Thank you for your time.”

He turned and left, head hung down as he was lost in thought. Something like this would not have bothered him, previously. He didn’t think it would. But now his wings rustled at his back and he’d met another elf and he knew, more than ever, he was going to be in Moabit for a long time. For forever.

 

**

 

“How far can you go?” David asked.

They lay in the meadow beyond the sunflowers, in the soft green grass surrounded by wild flowers. It was increasingly becoming one of Matteo’s favourite spots in the world—but that could also be because he was with David. David seemed to relax even more here, laying on the soft grass next to Matteo. They stared at the fluffy white clouds above, but their fingers were linked. Matteo wished he could do this every day, lay in peace and quiet with David at his side.

“What do you mean?” Matteo asked.

“The curse. You said you cannot ever leave these lands.”

“I cannot.”

“And you have tried?”

“Yes.” Matteo shifted over to his side so that he was facing David, and David turned his head slightly to watch him back. Matteo shrugged one shoulder. “It is not too far a walk from here. This is near the edge of Mitte. The city is further into the region, and I can go there. I’ve never travelled beyond the city to the south, so I don’t know how far that way. But here? Here, I am close.”

David’s voice was so quiet, and low, but respectful. “Will you show me?”

“If you’d like.”

David reached out and pushed back a lock of Matteo’s hair from his forehead, and his fingers lightly brushed the top of Matteo’s rounded ear. “I would like that,” David said. “I do not want to believe in curses. I do not want to believe this land is cursed, or that you are.”

“But it is, and I am.”

“So show me,” David said.

Matteo pushed himself up off the ground, his wings flapping slightly to assist. He used them more now, he noticed, when he was out of the prying eyes of anyone but David.

“Alright,” Matteo said. “I will.”

They walked through the meadow, further from the village than Matteo had been in a long time. He didn’t usually wander this way. There was no point. There was nothing he could get to that he wanted that he couldn’t get elsewhere.

They walked until the familiar apple tree came into focus.

“You can eat an apple from that,” Matteo said, elbowing David in the ribs and then stopping. “It’s just apples.”

“Ha ha,” David said dryly, and Matteo grinned. David was a lot more proper and obviously raised differently than Matteo or any of his friends, but he had such a sharp wit. Matteo loved getting that wry smile out of him, the one he tried to hide.

“I’m serious,” Matteo said. “Pick us apples?”

“If you insist,” David said, and made for the tree more determinedly.

Matteo knew it was coming, so he stopped straight in his tracks so he didn’t make a fool of himself. David kept walking, seemingly not noticing Matteo wasn’t his shadow anymore.

At one point—the point—David’s steps stuttered for just a moment, as if nearly tripping on air. His shoulders shook, as if a chill ran through his whole body. He paused in spot, and turned to face Matteo, an eyebrow raised.

“Did you notice? When you came into Mitte?”

“I did not come through this spot,” David said with a frown. “But I remember—”

“Did it feel like a cool wind?” Matteo asked.

“A hot breath of air,” David said.

“Ah.” Matteo shrugged. “It’s different for all elves. And apparently you can feel it stronger when I’m there.”

“I—yes,” David agreed. He reached out his hand but then pulled it back sharply, as if scalded by hot water. His voice was so low, and full of—sadness, maybe? “Matteo. I—I am so sorry.”

“Not your fault,” Matteo said, not for the first time. David always looked guilty, as if it was his fault, but it couldn’t possibly be. But Matteo liked that he felt—something, at least, for Matteo’s predicament. “Now, are you going to pick us apples or not?”

David blinked at him.

“They are the best tasting apples you’ll ever find,” Matteo said. “I used to make my friends go and get us some when we were testing the curse wall.”

“The curse wall,” David said slowly, rolling the words around on his tongue.

“That what we call it. It’s like I walk right into a wall. And then get stung as if by lightning and thrown backwards through the air. It is hilarious, really, when you think about it. I’ll show you—”

Matteo started to walk forward, but David yelled out, “No!” He was in the air with his wings flapping and landing in front of Matteo in a breath’s moment, as if he hadn’t felt the effects of the curse wall at all.

David landed in front of Matteo and grabbed his hands. “Do not show me this,” Davis said. “I do not wish to see it.”

“You won’t find it funny?”

“No.”

“Come now, not even a little?” Matteo let his wings stretch to the side. “I can stop myself from falling too hard.” Probably not too much, but maybe a little, and David didn’t have to know that.

David shook his head, though a little smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “Do not,” he said. “Do not hurt yourself to show me.”

“Do you believe me now?” Matteo asked.

David sighed. “I always did. I was only ignoring the truth, but because I did not want this to be true for you.”

Matteo leaned his forehead against David’s. David’s head jerked a little, maybe in surprise, but then he leaned in too.

“That is kind of you,” Matteo said. “Now go pick me some damn apples so I don’t try it myself.”

David laughed, the sound so close and wonderful. “All right, then. I’ll pick us apples.”

Matteo watched him fly to the apple tree quickly, and only felt a minor pang in his heart that he could not join. David came back to him, though, proudly carrying the fruit, and that would have to do.

 

**

 

“There is no elf sickness.” Matteo shook his head and took a sip of his tankard of mead. He and Abdi sat in the tavern having a meal and a drink at the end of a surprisingly long day at the Apothecary.

“Of course there is,” Abdi said. “I have studied. I know elves can get sick. Rare, but they are not immune to everything. Look at you.”

“I am never sick.” Matteo could not think of a time he’d ever been taken with a physical illness.

“You do not have to pretend,” Abdi said kindly. “I know sometimes you are not well.”

Matteo shifted uncomfortably on the wooden bench he sat on. Sometimes he did not feel well, true, but it was more a matter of sickness to the heart, or maybe the head, that made him feel that way. He did not wish to explain that, however.

“I get tired sometimes,” Matteo allowed. “But it is not sickness.”

Abdi opened his mouth, likely to protest, but it snapped shut again. He got a soppy look on his face. Matteo glanced over and saw that Sam, the daughter of the barkeep at the tavern, was carrying their bowls of stew over to the table.

“Thanks, Sam,” Matteo said when she placed one bowl in front of him. It was the reason Matteo and Abdi were at the tavern—they had closed up the shop for the day, and needed to get some dinner. Matteo did not have anything in his stores to make right now, mind too distracted on the woods to remember silly necessities like preparing meals.

“Thank you, Sam,” Abdi said, too formally. “You look lovely tonight.”

She smiled at him but shook her head, her curls bouncing lightly in the air. “I look the same as every other night.”

“You always look lovely,” Abdi said with a bright smile.

She shook her head and walked away, though she seemed to be quite happy when she saw Hanna and Kiki come into the tavern.

Carlos was with them and made a beeline right for Matteo and Abdi.

“Brothers,” Carlos said, clapping hard on Matteo’s shoulder and taking a seat on the bench next to Abdi. He stole a piece of Abdi’s bread, ignoring his protests.

“Should you not be seated with your lady?” Abdi asked.

They all glanced over. Kiki and Sam and Hanna all had their heads together, clearly deep in conversation.

“I think it’s preferred I stay out of it,” Carlos said. “They are likely talking about the elf.”

Matteo looked up sharply. Carlos mistook the gesture. “Not you,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “The one spotted at the edge of the woods.”

“Who saw?” Matteo said, feigning casualness. “And how do they know it’s an elf?”

“Wings,” Carlos said, flapping one arm. Matteo’s rustled at his back as if in answer.

“Ooooh,” Abdi said, and reached over to punch Matteo’s shoulder. “Another you!”

“There is no other,” a voice from behind Matteo said, “like our Matteo.”

They all spun around and saw Jonas standing at the door that lead from the back of the tavern. All three of them jumped up with cheers and rushed over to greet him.

“Friend!” Carlos said happily, pulling Jonas into a hug after he’d put down the case with his lute in it carefully. “It is good to see you.”

Matteo shook Jonas’ hand and Jonas pulled him into a quick hug. Not many would hug Matteo, but Jonas had for years and knew how to do it while being careful of his wings. Matteo was grateful.

After his greetings, and shooting Hanna a smile and giving her a wave, Jonas sat down at the table with them.

“Our fellowship is back together!” Carlos said happily, as he did every time Jonas returned to the village. “You were not gone too long this time.”

“I was not,” Jonas agreed. He grabbed a piece of bread from the edge of Matteo’s bowl while waving to Sam, indicating the same be brought to him.

“Where did you go? What did you see?” This is always what Matteo wanted to know.

The girls had come over to the table too. “What did you hear?” Kiki asked. This was always what she wanted to know.

“There is a lot going on in the Capital,” Jonas said. Sam brought over a tankard of mead and Jonas took a grateful sip. “Nothing like home.”

Kiki flapped her hand. “Forget the drink.”

“What words, woman!” Carlos said playfully. Kiki huffed and slapped him upside the head. He only laughed.

“There is unrest in the Capital among the high court,” Jonas said.

“Maybe that is why the elf is here,” Kiki said excitedly.

“There must be a reason he would come to Moabit,” Hanna agreed. “It is not safe for him otherwise.”

Jonas nodded. “I do not know this elf nor have I talked to any elf recently.” He grinned at Matteo. “Any others, that is. But talk in the next region is that there is a General who would like to overthrow the ruling family, especially if the King follows through on his plan to abdicate. It has become complicated, the line of succession, and the General sees it as a weakness he can use.” His gaze flitted to Matteo briefly. “Princess Laura and Prince Schreibner are, apparently, under high protection. There is a rumour that they and some of their followers may have even fled the Capital to avoid the General’s assassins.”

“What if the Prince is in the woods?” Kiki gasped. Sam’s eyes went wide and Hanna shook her head in disbelief.

Matteo snorted. “Not possible.”

All eyes turned to him.

“Do you know something we do not?” Carlos asked with interest. He had to have picked that up from Kiki.

“I know that no royalty will come to the lands of Mitte,” Matteo said flatly. “There is literally a curse against it.”

“The curse doesn’t say they cannot come,” Abdi said slowly, in thought.

“If they are trying to hide, and keep safe, then they would not risk coming here.”

“Unless that’s what they want you to think,” Hanna said.

“I thought you’d have more sense to get caught up in this nonsense,” Matteo said. “Sorry,” he added after a moment of hurt crossed her face, and Jonas frowned. Matteo pushed his bowl of half-eaten stew away from him and stood. “But it is nonsense to think that’s who it is.”

“Of course,” Jonas said quickly. “It could be someone who supports the royal family and is trying to keep safe.”

“Again, why would they be here then?”

“You make a point. Remember what happened to the last elf that came here?” Abdi said.

Kiki sighed and put her hands over her heart. “He fell in love with Mia, a human, and swept her away to the Capital.”

“First of all,” Jonas said with a grin, “Lord Alexander almost died being here.”

“And Mia was going to the Capital to study anyway,” Sam said. “And Lord Alexander followed her like a puppy.”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Matteo said. He wasn’t really a fan of Lord Alexander, who had been one of the dismissive elves Matteo had met. Or perhaps he was just too taken with Mia to care about anyone else, especially an elf that was half human. Either way, his stay in Moabit had not been long, and he had suffered an injury while here.

Matteo frowned. He did not want that for David. He would have to speak to him seriously about this.

“I need to go,” Matteo said, and swung his leg over the bench.

“I’ve only just returned,” Jonas said, tugging on the sleeve of Matteo’s shirt. “And I will be leaving again soon.”

“You will?” Hanna asked with a small voice.

“Come and see me tomorrow,” Matteo said. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see Jonas, but for now, he just needed to get away from this conversation. “But for now, I must go.”

 

**

 

He was naught but twenty paces from the tavern door when he stopped short and sighed. He felt a fool for how he acted, and considered turning around to go back to his friends and apologize.

He also thought about finding David, and warning him of this place or making sure he was, indeed, still safe.

Instead, Matteo went home. He smoked a pipe of his special leaf, and he went to bed, pulling the covers over his head and trying to tune out the world. It all felt a bit much at the moment.

 

**

 

He was roused from sleep in the middle of the night. There was harsh knocking on the door to his private rooms at the back of the Apothecary.

“This better be no joke,” Matteo muttered to himself. Or his friends sick from drink and looking for a remedy.

He lit the small lantern at his bedside and carried it as he stomped from the room where his bed was. He went to the back door and flung it open—perhaps he should have checked out the window first, you never know who is standing on the other side of a closed door, but in his tiredness he hadn’t thought of it.

Two women stood there. Short in stature perhaps but with determined, fierce looks about them. They could only be the women that Kiki had been talking about—Matteo had never seen them before, but they were dressed in breeches and shifts and had sheathed swords hanging from their belts and bows at their back.

Their blond hair covered their ears. But these two women? They were elves. Matteo just knew.

He wished he had been better prepared for this.

“Yes?” he asked after moments of their intense stares.

They passed a look to each other, then the slightly taller one turned to him. “You are the half elf Matteo?”

His wings fluttered at his back. “The one and only,” he said. “Literally. There are no other elves in this town. So why are you here?”

“We need to come in and look at your potions,” the shorter one said.

“First of all,” Matteo said, prickling with annoyance, “I don’t know who you are—”

“I am Sara,” the taller one said. “And this is Leonie.”

“Great,” Matteo said dryly. “But I don’t know you and you can’t just come in the middle of the night and demand to go through my shop—”

“Matteo,” a soft voice said from the shadows. “Please.”

Matteo startled and he pushed passed the two elves into the small courtyard behind his shop. David stepped into the dim light from the lantern Matteo held up.

“David,” Matteo breathed out. He thought he heard one of the other elves make a displeased noise but to the depths below with both of them. Why was David with them? And why was he standing in Matteo’s courtyard looking like death?

His face was pallid and dripped with sweat, and it was like his entire body drooped. His wings hung listless at his back. His hands shook in front of him.

“I made an error,” David said.

“You ate poisonous mushrooms,” Sara said from behind Matteo.

“You what?” Matteo asked. He’d just had a talk with David about this.

“Here,” Leonie said. Matteo turned to her. Her arm was outstretched and small mushrooms sat in her hand. He immediately recognized them but took them, just in case he made a mistake. He turned them over and looked at the gills of the mushroom. They were blue. Matteo groaned.

“Why would you eat these ones?”

“You said I could,” David protested weakly.

“Come here, come here,” Matteo said, reaching out for David. Leonie immediately stepped around him and came to David’s side, glaring at Matteo as if he would do something wrong. “Come in.” Matteo glared at the women. “All of you.”

“You pointed those ones out,” David said. He allowed Leonie to take his elbow and lead him in. “I ate specifically the ones you said were edible.”

“You mustn’t have,” Matteo mumbled. He pointed to three chairs at the small table in the corner by the unlit fire. “Put the mushrooms down.” He got the porcelain bowl from his room and brought it back, dipping his hands in it. “Wash your hands immediately. And sit. I’ll be right back.”

“I will come with you,” Sara said, and followed Matteo into the main part of the shop, even despite his protests.

“You don’t need to,” Matteo said. He went straight to a shelf. He knew where all the potions in his shop were, and exactly what each one did, and the one he needed to cure David of this. He brushed right past her again to go back into his living quarters. David sat in a chair, and was just pulling his hands out of the bowl. His hands did not immediately drip dry.

David looked so unwell. “You said,” he said again weakly. “I swear I ate the ones you said were safe—”

“They look very, very similar,” Matteo said. “One has green gills and the other blue. Remember?” Matteo shook the vial and then popped the cork, and handed the vial to David. “Drink this.”

“Do not,” Leonie said. She reached for the vial but Matteo batted her hand away. This was not the right move—suddenly there was a sword tip pointed right at his chin.

Matteo took in a shaky breath. “He needs to drink that. Now.”

“How do I know you are not just trying to finish the job?” she asked, eyes narrowed. “Maybe you did tell him to eat those mushrooms, knowing exactly what would happen.”

“I ate the green. You said green,” David said. “We ate those together earlier.”

Matteo frowned. “Yes, I said green.” He pointed to the discarded mushrooms on the table. “Those are blue.” He glared at Leonie. “I did not try to harm him. Why would I do that? I would never.” Then his eyes went wide. “Is someone trying to? Is that why he’s in Mitte?”

“We can discuss this after,” Sara said.

“No we cannot. If this does any more harm,” Leonie said to Matteo, “you will pay for it.”

“It will not,” Matteo said. He put his hand over his heart. “I promise this. But you’re wasting time. He needs to drink.”

Leonie slowly withdrew the sword tip from under Matteo’s chin, and Matteo rushed to David.

“David,” he said, again with the disappointed noise behind him, “please drink this. Now.”

“But I swear they were green,” David said, still holding the vial and looking confused.

“Good Mother Above, just drink that,” Matteo said snappily. He grabbed David by the elbow and Leonie flinched, as if wanting to draw her sword again, but allowed Matteo to guide David’s arm so the vial was held to his mouth.

“All of it,” Matteo said, and David tipped all the liquid back. Matteo took the vial and put it on the table. He took David’s cheeks into his hands, tilting his head up, and looked into his eyes. The blacks of them went smaller, and he already looked better.

“You should not touch him so casually,” Sara said, as if she couldn’t stop herself. But then David brought his hands up, and rested them lightly on Matteo’s arms.

“You said I could eat the green,” he said, and his voice already sounded stronger.

“I did,” Matteo said softly. With reluctance, he pulled away from David. And it hurt his heart to say this, but he must. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mislead you, but I fear this is my fault.”

Sara and Leonie looked ready to attack, and disappointment crossed David’s face.

“What do you mean?” David asked softly.

Matteo picked up the mushrooms again. The underside was green now. Perfectly edible.

“The curse,” Matteo said. “The curse of this land. It is because of my family. Because of me.” He shook his head sadly. “You should leave this place. I do not want you to,” he added quickly when David looked hurt. “I wish you did not have to. But it would be safer for you, and your companions—” he nodded toward Leonie and Sara “—if you did. You are not safe here.”

“I do not believe that,” David said.

“You saw the curse wall. You just got sick!”

“Does not matter,” David said. “This is not your fault.”

“What makes you think anywhere else is safer for us?” Leonie asked. “We knew of this supposed curse. It did not keep us away.”

He held out the mushrooms to her. “Do you believe it now?”

Leonie and Sara exchanged glances with each other.

“And what do you mean, nowhere else is safer?” Matteo asked. None of the three said anything. Leonie and Sara watched David, as if waiting for permission to speak on it.

“We came to Mitte,” David said, “because I wanted to. And here we will stay.”

Matteo remained silent and stared at him. As the moments passed, David looked healthier and healthier. He hoped that proved to the women that he knew what he was doing.

“My best friend came home today,” Matteo said slowly. “He’s a wandering minstrel.” He noticed David became tense at this. “I did not listen to much of his news—usually, I do not care. It is not as if I can do anything about anything outside of this region. And even here, all I can be is a burden—”

“Don’t say that—” David said softly.

“But my friend did mention that there was unrest in the Capital.” Matteo paused. It was deathly silent in his home. “Are you involved in that somehow?”

No one answered.

“Well?” Matteo demanded.

“Like I said,” Leonie said smoothly, “it is safer here for us than in other places.”

They were involved, somehow. Siding with the royal family. Or maybe opposed to them. Matteo had no idea how to disconcert one from the other.

“I cannot tell you what to do,” Matteo said slowly.

“No, you cannot,” Leonie said shortly.

Matteo ignored her, and looked right in David’s eyes. “And whether or not you listen to me, I want you to know—” His heart sank. “I think it would be better if you took shelter in another region.”

“I will take that into advisement,” David said formally. Matteo tried not to wince at how distant it sounded.

David stood, but he was a little wobbly on his feet and nearly toppled over. Matteo easily caught him, arm going around his waist. David rested his forehead against Matteo’s temple.

“Thank you,” David said, much softer now. “For your help.”

“Of course,” Matteo said. He helped David straighten. “You should rest for the next full day. You are in the clear, but you must rest.”

“I will,” David said.

“You—you could stay here, if you wanted,” Matteo said. “You seem to be avoiding the inn, which is silly, but I don’t know where you’re actually staying.”

“We have shelter,” Sara said.

“He will be comfortable,” Leonie added. “We will make sure he is safe while recovering.”

“If you’re sure,” Matteo said slowly. He really did not mind if David were to take up in his bed—for rest, only for rest, and to recover.

Although—

“Thank you for your kindness,” David said. “But we will be on our way.”

Matteo frowned. “If you’re sure.”

“We are sure,” Leonie said abruptly, and stood between David and Matteo, forcing Matteo back a couple feet. Sara led them from the room and Leonie supported David as they walked. They exited the back door.

Matteo followed them, but they were gone as suddenly as they appeared.

Matteo thought about whispering onto the wind, but he did not know what to say. Instead, he closed the door to his rooms and sighed. He had a feeling sleep would be elusive the rest of the night.

 

**

 

“You’ve met the elf, haven’t you?” Jonas asked.

Matteo nearly spit in the potion he was trying to brew. He looked up from the cauldron, noticed Jonas’ smirk, and tried to school his face to something blank. It did not work.

“You are too obvious,” Jonas said with a laugh.

“Just to you,” Matteo mumbled.

“This is true. I know you best,” Jonas said. “Also, it was just a guess but you do not have a face for hiding anything from me.”

This was not entirely true, for Matteo had worked hard in his youth to keep his true feelings from Jonas. But those had changed as they matured and became adults, and now Jonas really could read Matteo better than anyone. Matteo had no problem with this but he wished it wasn’t true at this moment.

“Be quiet,” Matteo said. “And hand me that.” He pointed to the dittany that sat on the far end of his worktop.

Jonas easily complied, handing over the green plant. “What is it you’re making right now?”

“A potion to put on surface cuts,” Matteo said. “Helps healing better. I think I’ll make it particularly strong, so it will help with deep wounds.”

“Do you expect anyone to get severely wounded?”

Matteo tried not to think of David and the curse. “You never know with Carlos and his carpentry.”

“Truth,” Jonas said, nodding. “Now, are you going to speak about the elf?”

Matteo shrugged. He leaned over the cauldron and took a sniff. He shook his head to himself and put in a drop of dandelion milk. Much better.

“I don’t know what to say, “ Matteo said. “I met him.”

“Is he as handsome as they say?” Jonas asked.

Matteo looked up sharply. “Who said? Who’s been looking?”

Jonas laughed, deep from his belly. “You are gone on him, aren’t you?”

“No,” Matteo lied, and Jonas could probably read that too. “I think he would like to be left alone. I just want to know who is bothering him and why.”

“I don’t think anyone is,” Jonas said gently. “If an elf wishes to hide in the woods, I don’t think anyone could find him. Except maybe you.”

Thinking about the number of times Matteo went wandering the woods in search for him, it was only a partial truth Jonas spoke. Matteo had a difficult time with it too.

“It’s not easy even for me,” Matteo admitted. “I’m surprised anyone saw him at all.”

“Then he revealed himself,” Jonas said. “On purpose, even if he did not speak to anyone.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Why indeed,” Jonas said, though looked intensely at Matteo.

“Don’t make anything of this,” Matteo said. “Do not get attached to having an elf around either. I have already warned him to leave.”

“Because of the curse,” Jonas said.

Matteo nodded. “I don’t want him hurt.”

“You have met him, then?” Jonas asked.

Matteo nodded again. He did not really want to speak about it, the time he’d had with David. It seemed too precious and rare and he wanted to keep it to himself. But he could not nor would he lie to Jonas.

“He didn’t want to speak of home much,” Matteo offered. “Instead he inquired about me. Asked about my life here and such.”

“Ooooh,” Jonas teased. “Interested in you, is he?”

“Ha ha,” Matteo said sarcastically. “Any elf that passes through is at the very least curious. Curious enough to ask and then leave.”

“Unless you’re Lord Alexander and you fall in love and stay long enough to get injured,” Jonas said.

“Unless that,” Matteo agreed.

It made Jonas look at the potion Matteo was brewing. “I hope this does not happen to your elf.”

“It’s not love that keeps him here,” Matteo said, eyes downcast on the potion but his cheeks heating.

“That isn’t what I mean,” Jonas said kindly. “Though if it were the truth, that would be nice, wouldn’t it?”

Matteo shrugged. He stirred the potion once more and when it became the right shade he removed it from the flame.

“You reveal your wings more now,” Jonas said. At his back, Matteo’s wings fluttered. He always was less likely to hide them around Jonas or in his own home, so he did not know why Jonas would bother pointing that out at all.

“I do not,” Matteo said.

“You really do,” Jonas said. “It’s nice. Is it because of him?”

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Matteo said shortly.

He could feel Jonas’ eyes on him but Jonas did not push any longer. “All right, then,” Jonas said. “What would you like to talk about?”

“Tell me about something you saw. When you were gone.”

Jonas laughed fondly. “I did not go far. You have heard all about the places I went to before.”

“Tell me anyway,” Matteo said. “I would like to hear it.” It had been this way since they were younger and Jonas started travelling. Matteo wanted to know everywhere that Jonas went and what he saw, and Jonas always complied.

“If you insist,” Jonas said. “Would you like it in a song?”

“I do not want stories of the kingdom,” Matteo said. He did not want information. “I want to know what you saw.”

“Alright,” Jonas said. He settled on a stool at the workbench, across from Matteo who was letting the potion cool before bottling it. “I will tell you.”

Matteo folded his arms onto the tabletop and rested his chin on them. He gave Jonas his full attention, though, and listened as he told Matteo all about where he went and what he saw in his latest trip from the region.

 

**

 

In the evening, Matteo sat in the little garden behind the Apothecary, leaned against the stone fence surrounding it. His head hurt, or maybe his heart—sometimes he had trouble distinguishing between the two. He smoked his pipe with his special kind of leaf, hoping to mellow out and be able to sleep soundly that night.

He watched the sky as the sun set, the blue going golden and pink, until it started to turn to its velvety dark blue. Eventually, he pushed himself up from the wall and went into the back of the Apothecary to his living quarters. It was time to get ready for bed.

Only inside for a few moments, a knock on the door drew his attention. He frowned but went to answer—calls this late at night often meant trouble. David’s recent appearance was a perfect example. But when he opened the door, he did not see anyone.

“Hello?” he called out. He did not receive an answer.

Shrugging, he went to close the door, but something on the ground caught his eye. It was a small wooden crate, pieces of straw sticking through the thin slats. He stared at it, considering. He was not expecting a shipment, and he didn’t know who would leave anything on the doorstep.

But a piece of rolled parchment caught his attention. He picked up the parchment and unrolled it carefully. It was written in the fanciest script he’d ever seen.

Dearest Matteo,

Thank you.

-David

Against his will, the corners of Matteo’s mouth drew up into a smile. He brought the little crate into his home and put it on the wobbly table he took meals at. Prying open the lid of the crate, he pushed aside the straw until it revealed what was inside.

He stared down at the gift in awe.

It was the three porcelain cups that had been at the market in Amira’s family stall. He picked one up carefully and held it next to the porcelain bowl still sat on the table from when he and the other elves had washed their hands free of cursed poison.

The match was perfect.

He placed it carefully back in the crate, unsure what to do with them right yet—use them? Put them on display? Store them away carefully so he never lost them?

That was to be decided, but when he went to bed, he fell asleep with a smile on his face and thoughts of David on his mind.

Chapter Text

“I need you to gather some supplies,” Matteo said to Abdi one day.

Abdi looked delighted. “Of course!” Then Abdi frowned. “But perhaps you should go? It would do you good to get out of the shop.”

It had been nearly a fortnight since David had shown up in Matteo’s private rooms poisoned by the curse. And despite the gift left on his doorstep of David’s thoughtfulness, the seriousness of the situation had not escaped Matteo. It would never escape Matteo.

Matteo had made the difficult decision to not wander into the woods. He stayed away on purpose. He wasn’t sure he should get any closer to David, not when he’d insisted that David should leave Mitte. Find shelter somewhere safer. Matteo was nothing but a hazard to David, and he didn’t want to bring down anything else upon him.

“No. No, it is important for you to go,” Matteo said. It wasn’t a lie, exactly. Abdi did need to go, and Matteo had been selfishly keeping these tasks to himself lately. “It is part of your responsibilities as well.”

“Alright,” Abdi said slowly. “I will do this, but only if you come to the tavern tonight. Carlos and Jonas will be meeting me there, as Jonas will be on his way again soon, and I insist you join.”

“I will,” Matteo agreed. Perhaps seeing his friends would be helpful. Remind him of what he has right here, at home. “I will join you tonight.”

“Good!” Abdi said, and hurried from the shop as if Matteo was about to change his mind and take the task for himself.

Matteo tried to busy himself in the shop while Abdi was gone, doing a little bit of inventory and making a list of potions and tonics he would have to make soon—or, rather, should observe as Abdi made them. The afternoon passed, and Abdi came back and dropped off what he’d gathered, and asked for a quick leave to run errands in the village, but not before making Matteo promise again he would meet them in the tavern soon for dinner.

Matteo was just finishing up the last of his inventory when the front door to the shop opened. He took a deep breath before turning around, because he really wasn’t in the mood to deal with anyone but this was the penance for letting Abdi go. He hoped he could assist them and get them out as soon as possible, for now that it was on his mind, he could badly use a tankard of mead.

Turning around, he froze on the spot when he saw David standing just inside the closed door. His wings were folded at his back, just as Matteo’s were at his. But if David came into the shop in the late afternoon looking like that, then surely he would have been noticed by some of the other villagers.

“You’ll be seen,” Matteo said stupidly.

David raised an eyebrow.

“By the villagers,” Matteo said. “If you came to my shop during the day like—” He gestured at David. Then he frowned. “What are you doing here?”

“Are you avoiding me?” David asked.

Matteo blinked. “No?”

David didn’t look like he believed him. “You have not been to the woods,” David said stiffly. “And you sent someone else to do your bidding, did you not?”

“My apprentice needs to learn,” Matteo said.

David raised an eyebrow again.

“And I wasn’t sure if you should see me,” Matteo admitted. “Or if you wanted to.”

David sighed. “Is this about the curse?”

“I don’t want you hurt. Not because of me.”

“It is not because of you. You are not to blame for any of this—”

Matteo waved his hand, cutting David off. “What are you doing in the village?” He didn’t want to talk about curses. They weren’t going to see eye-to-eye.

“Is that not obvious?” David asked. He stepped further into the shop, his eyes sweeping over the shelves before landing on Matteo, his gaze bright and intense.

This was all it took—this one look for the warm little feeling right in the middle of Matteo’s chest to start growing again. It was all it took, David being here, in front of him, for Matteo to forget all about being worried about the curse. How could he worry when David looked at him like that?

“No,” Matteo lied.

“Liar,” David said, a small smile playing on his lips. “Would you care to go for a walk?”

“No,” Matteo said, and it wasn’t a lie. There was much he would like to do, but going for a walk wasn’t on the list. When David’s smile faltered a little, he knew he had to make up ground. “First, I must thank you. For the cups.”

David shook his head. “Not necessary. They were a gift of thanks from myself. For your assistance with the mushrooms.”

“And that was not necessary. You are not beholden to me because I helped you in such a situation. But I appreciate it all the same, so accept my gratitude so we can move on.”

“You are welcome, then,” David said with a smile.

“Second… I can not go for a walk as I am going to the tavern to have dinner with some of my friends. I promised.” Matteo shifted uncomfortably on his feet. “Would you care to join?”

He fully expected David to decline. He was surprised when David immediately nodded. “I would be honoured to meet you friends.”

Matteo blinked. “Are you sure? They are—they are amazing people. But I’m quite sure not the kind of people you are used to spending time with.”

“Most certainly,” David said, nodding again. “But that would be a change I welcome.”

Matteo smiled. And again it that easy to be taken with David, to realize how incredibly stupid it had been to try to stay away. He didn’t want to, and he was relieved David had come back to him.

“Alright then,” Matteo said, gesturing to the door. “After you.”

“Oh no, I insist,” David said. He opened the door for Matteo and bowed him through.

Matteo looked up and down the street. There were still people out and about, though they were hurrying around to finish their day. A couple paused momentarily, looking astonished at the second high elf standing at the Apothecary, but quickly realized what they were doing and hurried on their way again.

David put on what appeared to be a brave smile, but it faulted on the ends just a little. “People are always like that. When I am amongst them.”

Matteo raised his eyebrows. “Everywhere?” David’s eyes cut to him but he didn’t answer. “Elves are not common here,” Matteo said. “There may be pointing and whispers, but it’s because they find you new and fascinating. That is all.”

“Is it like that with you?” David asked, easily falling into step beside Matteo.

“Nah, not anymore. They are used to me,” Matteo said. He gestured up the street. “The tavern is not far.”

“Alright,” David said. He continuously looked around the village with curiosity as they walked through it. People still stared, though not to be rude Matteo was quite sure, and they nodded to Matteo. Matteo tipped his head in greeting.

“Why,” David said suddenly, “do you live in this small village rather than the city? It is but half a day from here.”

“My father’s family was from here,” Matteo said with a shrug. “This is where I was raised. This is where my friends are. The shop is here. I think—” He shook his head. “I don’t think I would fit in the big city. People here know who I am and what I am and I am as content as I can be.”

“As content as you can be,” David said slowly. His eyebrows furrowed. “Are there times when you are not?”

Matteo smirked at him, but his voice was soft. “You can’t tell me you’re content at all times, can you?” He gestured to the edge of the village, where the tops of the tall forest trees could be seen. “I don’t think you’d be hiding out there if you were.”

“You may have a point,” David said.

They came to the tavern and Matteo stopped. He stared at the door and took a deep breath.

“You have to open it,” David said. “To go inside.”

Matteo glanced at him and David was suppressing a smug little smile. “Thank you,” Matteo said dryly. “I know how doors work.”

His friends were already inside. Carlos, Jonas and Abdi were at a table in the corner. Jonas saw him first and his eyes lit up. They turned knowing as his gaze slid over to David. Carlos and Abdi don’t see them until they stand right next to the table.

“Greetings, friend,” Carlos said, turning to Matteo as he took a sip of his mead. He nearly spit it out as he saw David. Abdi only stared at them with wide eyes and a slack jaw.

“This is exactly the impression I wanted you to make,” Matteo said. “It shows your true selves, and makes me wonder why we remain friends.”

This caused some action as they shouted protests and clapped him on the shoulder and lightly punched his arm.

“Boys,” Matteo said. He inclined his head toward David. “This is a new friend. David.”

All three of them stared David, then turned to Matteo.

“How should we address him?” Carlos asked quietly, though of course David could hear.

“As David,” Matteo said, blinking.

Abdi shook his head and even Jonas gave a weak smile.

“That,” Abdi said, his gaze flitting to David’s wings, “is not appropriate.”

Ah, there it was. Elves and nobility did not spend a lot of time in Mitte anymore, but even his friends knew when it was the right moment for propriety. Matteo turned to David helplessly. He didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what David wanted. Hadn’t realized he’d made a huge mistake.

David gave him a small smile and then turned to the table. “You may call me David. Please. I insist.”

The other three stared a moment longer, and then Jonas stood up and held out his hand. “Pleasure to meet you, David. I’m Jonas.”

David tilted his head to the side, as if not completely sure what to do and Matteo wanted to slap his palm to his forehead. But then David smiled and took Jonas’ hand in a firm grip. “Pleasure is mine.”

Carlos and Abdi both introduced themselves and Matteo let out a breath. Maybe not entirely smooth but not a bad introduction. Matteo hadn’t realized how important it was to him until it was over, and had gone well enough. As well as could be hoped.

The boys shuffled around at the table and left a bench free for Matteo and David with their wings to sit comfortably. Matteo couldn’t help but notice how their eyes, while trying to pretend not to stare, stole glances when they could. David did not fold his wings down as neatly as Matteo did, as if he was not used to trying to hide them. As if he did not care to. Matteo didn’t think he was trying to stand out in the crowd, but with his wings, his sword sheathed at his belt, and the piercing ringing the middle of his nose and the decorative clasp on his ear—his overall dashing looks, really—he did just that.

Sam came to the table to ask what they would like, but she stopped short and grinned wide. “How lovely!” Matteo almost expected her to reach out and touch their wings but she did not. “Matteo, we rarely see your wings. And now there’s another with them!”

He felt his cheeks go warm. “Yes. Here we are.” He did not know what else to say.

She didn’t push. “Would you like the usual?”

“Please,” Matteo said. He turned to David. “You? Same?”

He almost expected David to go along easily, for he didn’t think this was the sort of place David usually dined, but David narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “What is the usual?”

Matteo asked. “Tankard of mead and whatever stew is available.”

David took a moment to consider and then addressed Sam. “I will have the same, please.”

“Coming right up,” Sam said. She winked at David before flouncing away, and it was only at this David finally looked taken aback.

Matteo laughed, as did Carlos and Jonas, but Abdi’s face went blank.

“He’s not going to go after your girl,” Matteo said with a laugh. He stopped up suddenly and then narrowed his eyes playfully at David. “You’re not, right?”

“My intentions are purely for the mead and stew,” David said lightly. He bowed his head to Abdi. “You need not worry.”

“There’s no worries,” Carlos said and threw an arm around Abdi’s shoulders. “Sam’s not really his girl. He’s just sweet on her.”

“I keep telling him to pick her flowers. You can woo with flowers,” Matteo said. “I’ll even help you with that! I’ve helped Jonas.”

“Anybody can woo with flowers,” Abdi said, distressed.

“Not like Matteo can,” David said, side glancing at Matteo. Matteo’s cheeks flushed warm and his friends looked absolutely delighted by this piece of information. Good Mother Above, he was never going to hear the end of it.

Matteo was certain the teasing would start right then and there when both Carlos and Jonas’ attention fell away from him and David and was instead directed to the tavern door. Two women with long blond hair who were not trying to cover their elf ears any longer had walked in.

Sara and Leonie. And both looked over at Matteo and David with hard expressions.

“Did you not tell them where you were?” Matteo asked David quietly.

“It may have slipped my mind,” David said, all too casually, though his eyes were intense as he watched the two walk over to them. He smiled brightly. “Sara. Leonie. Good evening to you.”

“And to you,” Leonie said. Her eyes were narrowed.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Sara said. “We had no idea this is where you would be.” It sounded hard and pointed.

“Fancy that,” David said, as if he did not have a care in the world. He turned to the rest of the table, who was watching the exchange avidly. “These are my travel companions. Sara—” he gestured at Sara, and then to Leonie “—and Leonie. Sara and Leonie, these are Matteo’s friends and my new acquaintances. This is Jon—”

“You should have told us where you would be,” Leonie said, interrupting. She looked cowed at David’s sharp glance. Matteo had the impression that David was not used to being interrupted like that, or perhaps in being told what he should or should not do. She added graciously, “Only because we were quite worried.”

That seemed to placate him. “Please, will you join us?” he said, gesturing to the table.

“We will take that table over there,” Sara said, pointing to a nearby, smaller table. “This one looks quite full, and we would not want to interrupt your visit.”

“Too late for that, I’d say,” Matteo said cheekily. Sara glared at him, but David looked like he was suppressing a grin, and that’s all Matteo cared about.

“If it’s all the same to you,” Leonie said.

“Of course,” David said with an easy gesture. “As you’d like.”

As they walked by the table, Matteo noticed a Leonie had a slight limp. It seemed so out of place for what he believed was a light and agile elf. He reached out and touched her arm, and though she pulled it back, at least she did not draw her sword on him.

“Are you alright?” he asked. He did not mean to draw everyone’s attention to her, but with the way her gaze swept around before meeting his, he had a feeling that is what he done. He just focused on her. “Are you injured?” What he really wanted to ask was, was it the curse? Because, of course, she was an elf too. Maybe not a high elf with wings, but an elf nonetheless and this was who the curse was targeted at.

“A little mishap in the forest,” she said lightly. “Nothing to worry about.”

Matteo frowned. He did not believe that, though he decided not to say anything. She passed by him without another word. He decided not to pursue the topic further at this moment; she did not want to speak about it, and he knew David did not want to talk about the curse much either. It was not the time or place, though he kept it in the back of his mind.

It was amazing how seamlessly David fell into conversation with Matteo’s friends, since he clearly wasn’t raised the way they were. But he showed interest and asked questions about them and their lives, and easily evaded questions about himself. The others didn’t seem to mind. They didn’t seem to notice, though Matteo did.

“I would love to hear a song,” David said to Jonas after one of his stories about his travels.

Jonas’ eyes lit up, and he reached under the end of his table. He pulled out his lute.

Matteo laughed. “Really? You have it with you?”

“I was sitting down by the creek before coming up here,” Jonas said. “I was writing my latest tune.”

“And on the day I was not by the water to overhear,” David said with a smile. “Then you should sing it now.”

“Here, here,” Carlos and Abdi said in unison, holding up their tankards.

Jonas shifted in his seat, clearly uncomfortable, though Matteo knew it was not because of the hard wood bench. “Perhaps an older one,” Jonas said.

David raised his eyebrows. “Is there something wrong with your new one?”

Jonas shook his head. “No. But I do not—” his gaze flitted to David’s wings “—wish to offend.”

Carlos and Abdi shared confused looks. Matteo shared one with Jonas, and they both grimaced at the same time. Matteo had a feeling he knew what this was about, and why Jonas would not want to sing it in front of David.

“I will not be offended,” David said.

“You don’t know that,” Jonas said, even as he stood and held the lute in front of himself. “But if you insist. Please do not have me hanged.”

“Why would he do that?” Abdi asked, alarmed. “How could he even?”

“His obvious connections, numbnuts,” Matteo answered, rolling his eyes. He glanced at David. “But if David gives his word not to use them, I am certain you can trust that.”

David inclined his head. “You can.”

Jonas took a deep breath and looked nervous to perform in a way he hadn’t since he was a child. “Alright, if you insist.”

Jonas strummed his lute a couple times, and then began singing in his smooth, deep voice. David, who had never heard him before, immediately smiled. Matteo and Carlos and Abdi did too, though they’d heard Jonas sing for all their lives.

David’s smile slipped off his face as the song went on, as the words came out and Jonas sung his story.

The song’s lyrics told about the high elf King who used to be strong. But he wanted Mitte under his rule and destroyed the high elf family of Mitte when things did not go his way. First, the Florenzi curse and then the King’s counter curse were put in place, and now theirs was a land almost free of elves. Moabit felt distant and ignored by the rest of the kingdom because of old elf curses, which had its usefulness but at other times hardships. The King’s reign was coming to an end because his power had begun to diminish after the curse, but the power would rise through his bloodline and the rightful heir once he abdicated. Though the line of succession was a complicated matter, there were outside forces wishing to take advantage. The King’s once loyal General Neuhaus aimed to rule with his iron fist. The King’s good and kind children stood in the General’s way, and the fate of the kingdom depended on how long they would resist him or if they could defeat him. Only time, now, held that answer for the subjects across the lands.

Jonas’ lyrics were smooth and methodic with a beautiful rhythm, though they wove a desperate story. It was not only a story, though, but things happening right in the kingdom now. It was history, yet it was current news, and it was important to hear.

By the end of the song, the entire tavern was quiet and intently listened. Sara and Leonie had left their own table and were standing right behind David, one on the left and one on the right.

“Those words could get you killed,” Leonie said immediately, her hard eyes narrowed as they took in Jonas.

“Those words are the happenings of the Capital, and of our region,” Jonas said, quite bravely in Matteo’s opinion.

“They could still get you killed,” she said. Her hand noticeably tightened on her sword.

“They are the truth,” Jonas said. Stupid and brave Jonas. He had noticed her hand too. “And I will sing the truth, even if you wish to stop me.”

“She never said that,” Sara said immediately. “She only said they would get you killed.”

“Are you sympathizer, then?” Jonas said. “To the siblings?”

“What do you mean?” David asked suddenly.

Jonas raised his eyebrows. “If I had a guess, I would say that is what you are. You may not support the King directly but you would support the Princess’ claim to the throne. And her brother’s support in her. Or, perhaps, his new claim to the throne.”

The three elves did not answer, but all of them exchanged looks.

“This is what they’re calling them,” Jonas said. “The sibling sympathizers. Last I heard, Prince Schreibner was in hiding because General Neuhaus likes him least. Or, perhaps, would like to rid of him first.”

“And Princess Laura?” David asked immediately.

Jonas shrugged. “Safe at the moment. But that was a fortnight ago.”

David sighed deeply.

“If you agree with the King’s harshness—” Jonas started to say.

“You should watch your tongue,” Leonie said again.

“—then you may not find friends in Moabit. Look what he did to Matteo.”

“He did nothing to me,” Matteo said mildly.

“To your family, then,” Jonas said. “And the curse wall? That is against you.” He turned back to the three elves and narrowed his eyes. “Anyone against Matteo is against us.”

Carlos and Abdi, though a little nervously, nodded in agreement.

“I do not agree,” David said softly, “with what was done to Matteo.”

“Nothing was done to me,” Matteo said again.

“And I do not support ruling in such a way,” David said. “What happened to his mother and father and Mitte was not right.”

The tension in the room relaxed, and the other patrons began speaking amongst themselves again.

“Then perhaps you would like to hear a better song,” Abdi said brightly. “I like the one about the Prince.”

“You have a song about the Prince?” Sara asked.

“But of course,” Jonas said.

“This we have to hear,” Leonie said, smirking at Sara. They both looked at David and for the first time for the evening, he looked uncomfortable.

“You do not need—” David began, but he was interrupted by Jonas strumming on his lute once more. It was a more upbeat tune he strummed, happy and playful.

It told the story of the brave, kind Prince. He was the second born of the high elf King and Queen, though not born a Prince, although he’d always felt as one. When he’d reached his coming of age, he passed through the valley of the Good Father Around, and went to the top of the mountain of the Good Mother Above to withstand the Trials. All knew the Trials were a test of the soul and were long and hard and put one’s life in peril. But the good and brave and strong can withstand, and they are rewarded. The Prince came through the Trials as his true self, declared by the royal family as Prince Schriebner, to be known and accepted as such forever more.

When the tune ended, Carlos held up his tankard. “To the Prince!” he bellowed. The others at the table, including Matteo, and even other patrons at the tavern lifted their mugs and bellowed back, “To the Prince!”

Leonie and Sara also lifted their drinks, for the first time with relaxed smiles on their faces.

Matteo glanced at David, who looked stunned and confused. “What?” Jonas asked, grinning. “I suspect now that you are a supporter of the Prince. Perhaps you know him personally? Does this song not suit?”

Leonie said, “It suits well.”

“You…” David’s brow furrowed. He turned to Matteo. “You have more inclination for the Prince than the King? You, who should not like the royal family at all.”

Matteo shrugged easily. “I do not like the King, no. But I can respect the Prince.”

“Why?” David asked, the word coming out like he hadn’t meant it to but he really could not stop himself.

“I respect what he did,” Matteo said. “Could not have been easy. I hear the Trials are… well, they’re life or death, aren’t they? Quite an amazing feat.”

“But you don’t like the king,” David said again. “Should you not hate the son in return?”

“Sons are not necessarily their fathers, are they?” Matteo asked softly.

“Would you ever do it, Matteo?” Carlos asked suddenly. Matteo startled. He’d almost forgotten about his friends, so lost in his conversation with David.

“Do what?” Matteo asked him.

“The Trials? Come out on the other side as your true self,” Carlos said.

“That is not a guarantee of the Trials,” David said. “There are different reasons for taking them. The Prince did his to be… the Prince, rather than…” He trailed off, but he didn’t need to finish. He shook his head. “Why would Matteo do the Trials?” He turned to Matteo. “Do you want to?”

Matteo grimaced and shook his head. “No. I don’t have the courage for that.”

“I think you do,” David said.

“Me too,” Abdi said suddenly.

Matteo blinked, considering this. But then he shook his head. “Not only can I not get to the valley nor the mountain, I have no reason to do the Trails even if I could.”

“You could come out on the other side as fully elf,” Carlos said.

“Or fully human,” Abdi said.

Jonas looked as if he wished to say something, but instead stared at Matteo intently. Matteo considered what his friends had said, and though it had been a lifelong struggle of acceptance… meeting David had changed his view on things.

Matteo shook his head yet again. “No,” he said. “I do not need to be either of those things. I am who I am, aren’t I? Don’t get me wrong,” he hurried on, glancing at David. “I do respect the Prince for doing what he did.” If David was a friend with the Prince, or a supporter, or whatever he happened to be, he should make that clear. “But I…” Matteo shrugged. “I am the elven boy with rounded ears.”

Jonas smiled approvingly.

“And such cute ears they are,” Abdi said playfully, swatting at Matteo’s hand. Matteo batted him away.

David leaned in close. “I like them too,” he whispered into one, so only Matteo could hear.

 

**

 

When they left the tavern, David sent Leonie and Sara ahead of them, telling them to go straight on to the forest and not to worry about David. After a brief resistance that David ended quite quickly, they did as he said, though not looking very happy about it.

“They are guards of yours, aren’t they?” Matteo asked as he and David walked toward the Apothecary. “Or, I don’t know. I don’t know how it works in the Capital,” he admitted. “They are not high born but they are elves, and they’re obviously… protecting you?”

David grinned, bright teeth flashing in the moonlight. “It is not obvious if it sounds like such a question.”

“You know what I mean,” Matteo said.

“I do,” David said. “I am happy to have them with me. They are companions as much as anything.”

They stopped at the door to the Apothecary. “Would you like to come in?” Matteo asked hopefully.

David smiled, though it looked sad around the edges. “If only I could. I have spent too much time in the village. More than I had meant.”

“Where are you staying?” Matteo asked. “Is it in the city?”

David shook his head. “Would you like me to show you?”

“I would,” Matteo answered.

“Tomorrow. Can we spend time together tomorrow?”

“We can,” Matteo said. “Though we could spend time together now.”

“We could,” David agreed. “But then we would have to face the wrath of Sara and Leonie. And believe me, you do not want this to happen.”

“I do believe it,” Matteo said. Then he frowned. “You’re not, uh. I mean.” He did not know how to put this.

David tilted his head. “I am not what?”

“Betrothed?” Matteo hated himself for an even asking. What an idiotic assumption to have. Or maybe it was not, but surely David would have mentioned something? Surely he wouldn’t have been so interested in spending such time with Matteo.

David’s little smile was soft. “No, I am not. No longer.”

“No longer?” Matteo’s eyebrows shot up to the sky.

“My parents tried to make an arrangement a very long time to go. It did not pan out.” David sounded relieved by this. “There is little I can control in my life, but I have made it clear that I will make my own decision about this.”

“Oh. Well. That is… good,” Matteo said.

“I agree.” David leaned in and Matteo went entirely still. David smelled like a gentle breeze and a summer brook. He kissed Matteo on the cheek. “I must go,” David said, pulling back slowly, though put his forehead against Matteo’s. “I will see you tomorrow?”

“You will,” Matteo promised.

David stepped back and unfurled his wings, using them to lift him from the ground. “Call for me. I will see you then.”

And then he was gone.

Matteo let himself into the Apothecary with a smile on his face. It would not be too long before they saw each other again.

 

**

 

“Come with me,” David said. “I will show you where I’ve been staying.”

Matteo had thought a lot about this since their conversation the night before. “You trust me with this? Truly?” David was hiding in the forest for a reason, one made rather clear the night before with the songs that were sung and David’s reaction to them.

“Of course I do,” David said.

“Yes, but do Sara and Leonie?” Matteo asked.

David didn’t answer, instead tilting his head and scratching the back of it.

“Thought so,” Matteo said, but he laughed.

They stood at the crossroads, the village behind them and the sunflowers and meadows to the west and the forest to the east.

“I can do as I please,” David said, head raised and sounding rather haughty. But then he grinned sheepishly, looking rather adorable. “And they are otherwise busy today.”

“Not being your shadow?” Matteo asked.

“I have asked them not to be,” David said. “Now, will you join me?”

“I think I will,” Matteo answered, knowing it was a certainty.

“Let us fly,” David said. “You seem to prefer walking, but this will be quicker. It is a distance to get there.” He spread his wings and took to the air so easily, as if it was nothing. “Follow me,” he said, and started to fly away.

Matteo was frozen, but only for a moment. He couldn’t let David just leave.

“David!” he called out. Hopefully he wasn’t too far. Then again… Matteo made sure he focused on the wind. “David. Wait.”

It was only one moment before David heard, and he turned in the air, sunlight glinting off his blue wings. He came back and landed neatly in front of Matteo, though he frowned.

“Is something that matter? Do you not wish to go?”

“Of course I do,” Matteo answered. “I would like nothing more. However…” He wings drooped behind him. “I can not fly.”

David blinked at him, as if uncomprehending. “You…”

“Can not fly,” Matteo said gruffly. “I know I have the wings for it, but.” He stretched them out behind him and let them flutter. They moved so much slower than David’s. They lifted him off the ground—shockingly, higher than he’d ever been before, perhaps ten hands high worth. But then it was if his shoes were filled with rocks, weighing him back down to the ground again. He let himself drop, much less graceful than David.

“I’m too human,” Matteo said. He couldn’t meet David’s eyes. “I know they are the mark of an elf—”

“Of nobility,” David interceded.

Matteo pretended not to hear. “But I still am… human.”

David reached out a hand. “Then let me help.”

Matteo looked up in surprise. “Excuse me?”

“Take my hand,” David said. “We can fly together.”

“Do you know what you’re talking about?” Matteo asked sceptically, even as he was taking David’s hand.

“Of course I do,” David said. His wings started to flap and Matteo’s did too, as if trying to keep up a rhythm.

They lifted off the ground—higher and higher—the highest Matteo had ever been. And he felt light and airy, like he was meant to be like this. “Don’t let go,” he said, even with the laughter in his voice. “You’ll break me if you do. I’ll fall to the ground.”

“I will not let you,” David said. “Though I suspect you would be more than fine.”

“If you say,” Matteo said, and held on tighter.

David smiled. “Let us fly, then.”

They flew.

Despite their initial take off, they did not fly too high. If Matteo was to fall, it wouldn’t be far. But he didn’t fall—he never felt once like David was going to let go, like David would let harm to come to him. They darted around trees easily, keeping to the edge of the forest where it wasn’t thick with trunks and brush. They went so much faster than if they’d been walking, and they travelled quite far. But it was further into Mitte, no where near the edge, and Matteo did not worry about hitting the curse wall. He had never felt so free.

Finally, David slowed and Matteo slowed with him, and they lowered to the ground, landing neatly and gently.

“This is quite far from the village,” Matteo said. He did not think he knew this part of the forest well at all, but it felt familiar somehow.

“I can get there quite quickly,” David said. “When I need.”

“It would be closer to the city, wouldn’t it?”

“It would,” David said. He did not elaborate further, but Matteo had the sense that David was choosing to avoid the city as much as possible. “We have a bit further to go yet, but it’s easy enough to walk. Might be safer.” He grinned playfully at Matteo. “I would not want you to accidentally strike a tree.”

“Ha ha,” Matteo said. He made a gesture. “Lead the way.”

They went a little deeper into the forest, which was the thickest and wildest he’d ever seen. But an eerie feeling took over Matteo, as if he should know this. As if this was home, somehow.

They came across a path. It should have been more like a road made with gleaming marble pieces, though it looked as though there’d been attempts to destroy it. There were random pieces of marble but spaced out, and thick grass and even some low bushes grew in the spaces between.

Matteo froze. He knew where they were. He should have known sooner. But it’d been years since he’d been here, only once as a child when his grandmother came to show him after a bout of endless questions.

It looked different now. The forest had moved in, thick and wild and almost unnatural. The plants that grew in the roots of the tall, thick trees should not belong there.

“Come,” David said. But then his wings spread and he had a playful look. “I know it is not over water, but perhaps we should use your technique of hopping rocks?”

David let his wings carry him lightly over the spaces between the marble slabs, his black shoes barely touching the marble before he lifted off and made it to the next rock.

Matteo followed, though he did not feel the light joy David obviously did. The darkness that occasionally visited him was beginning to descend, and he did all he could to push it away. This was supposed to be a good day—he was here, with David.

They came to the gates of a large manor, though the iron was bent and rusted, covered with creeping ivy vines. The thick, tall stone walls looked mostly intact, though some of the towers had been knocked down.

“Come,” David said again, and he made his way through the gates and onto the estate.

Matteo took a deep, steadying breath and followed him.

“We were surprised to find this,” David said as he walked along the path. “Obviously it was once an elven homestead, probably abandoned after all the elves left Mitte.” He looked over the estates to the building in the far back, barely seen through the high bushes growing around it. “The elf estates in the city were preserved,” he mused. “As if waiting for their owners to return. But not this place. It is a shame. It was probably once so beautiful.”

Matteo found it beautiful now. The civilized parts of it destroyed, maybe. He knew the mansion in the back had been ravaged, burned and knocked apart, but some of it stood.

But here beautiful plants grew tall, splashes of bright coloured flowers everywhere. Some looked exotic and unlike anything that grew anywhere else in Mitte. It did not seem real.

“It was my mother’s family estate,” Matteo said. There was no use in hiding it. “Before they exiled her.”

David fell silent for a moment, and then he sighed. “I had wondered. I had no confirmation, but perhaps I should have warned you. I apologize, perhaps I did not think this through properly—”

“It’s alright,” Matteo said with a small smile. He reached out and let his fingers trail over the tops of a tall flower, the feather-like petals tickling his palm. He looked around slowly, and his smile spread. “It’s been a number of years since I’ve been here. And that was only once.” He turned his smile to David. “I’m glad to see it again. Thank you for bringing me. Shall we explore?”

David nodded cautiously. “If you are sure?”

“Absolutely.” Matteo reached out and took David’s hand, which caused him to blink in surprise but then a soft smile tugged at his mouth.

David squeezed his hand. “Then let us explore.”

They walked through the tall grass towards the mansion in the back of the estate. After a few moments of silence, Matteo asked, “Do you know the story of my mother?”

“I was quite young when it happened,” David said evasively.

Matteo rolled his eyes. “As was I, but I’m sure you’ve heard about it.”

“Of course,” David said. “All elves in the Capital—probably everywhere, honestly—know the curse of Mitte.”

“And yet here you are,” Matteo said dryly. “Like a fool looking to be cursed.”

“I would not say I am looking for it,” David countered.

Matteo hummed in disbelieve but did not wish to argue it. Instead, he said, “Her circumstances were what yours where to be.”

David full stopped, Matteo being tugged back when he tried to walk on. David looked confused. “What do you mean by that?”

“Betrothed when she didn’t want to be,” Matteo said.

“Oh, yes. That.” David nodded.

“Did you hide another love and go behind your parents backs?” Matteo asked.

“No, not that,” David said.

“Did you go and fall in love with a commoner human mage?”

“Not at all.”

“Did you have a child in secret?”

“Absolutely not,” David said.

“Most importantly… did you betray a betrothal to the royal family while doing all of that?”

“Since I did none of that,” David said, “I would say not.”

“Ah,” Matteo said. “Then perhaps the situations were not the same at all.”

“Perhaps,” David said.

“And I am quite certain you did not leave your newborn son with his paternal grandmother to go to the Capital to rage in the throne room in front of the King and Queen.”

David was quiet for a moment, and then said, “They say she was quite mad. Angry and powerful and cursed the land of Mitte to keep any elves out of the land. Harm would come to them if they were to come here. None were safe, save for her half-elf, half-human child.”

“All because she did not want to marry the King’s brother,” Matteo said. “Because it was the reason for the betrothal anyway—rumours that the royal family wanted to take the lands.”

“They would love access, yes,” David muttered under his breath.

“Then they stripped her of all titles and land, and counter cursed her—rather, her descendants in retaliation,” Matteo said with forced cheerfulness. Most times it did not bother him, but the conversation was weighing on him, being on the lands that should have been his, talking about something completely out of his control.

“To be unable to leave the land of Mitte,” David said.

“Except with the love of a member of the royal family,” Matteo said. And then he laughed.

“Why is that funny?” David asked quietly.

“They don’t come here. Elves rarely do because of the curse. You are only the second of noble birth I’ve seen in a handful of years.” Matteo shrugged and held onto David’s hand tighter. “I do not need the love of the royals.”

“No?” David asked, still quiet. He paused again, and Matteo tugged to a stop.

“Of course not,” Matteo said, trying to keep the heat from his face. To keep from blushing. “I can stay in the land of Mitte, live in Moabit, and be quite content. I just need the love of someone who understands me. Who… loves me for me.”

He did not meet David’s eyes in that moment. He was too nervous to.

Instead, he looked around. David said, “Matteo, I—”

“Look,” Matteo breathed out. He pointed with his free hand. They had reached the mansion, which was even in worse repair than the only time he’d seen it. It would have been beautiful once. Grand and elaborate and stunning. Now half the roof was missing and some walls and turrets were crumbled down, and the wild had started to overgrow it.

“What is left is solid,” David said. “We have a shelter made in there.”

“Who cares about the mansion?” Matteo said.

“It would have been your home,” David said.

Matteo shrugged. “I have a new home now. But look.” He pointed again.

Just to the west of the mansion there was a beautiful pond, though the edges grew thick with water plants. He did not know if those were supposed to be there. But at the far end, there was a waterfall streaming down over rocks, the sunlight hitting the mist and creating a rainbow.

“It is my favourite part of this whole estate,” David said. His eyes lit up as he watched the water, his smile serene.

“Of course it is,” Matteo said. He tugged on David’s hand again. “Let us go closer.”

They approached hand-in-hand but as they did, David flicked the fingers of his free hand. Little balls of water splash around, and with another flick, they turn into the shape of fish. It looked like the fish were jumping in and out of the pond at the base of the waterfall, but also as if they were somehow jumping up it to the top.

Matteo laughed, delighted. “That is amazing.”

“Fancy a swim?” David asked, smirking at Matteo.

“Is it deep enough for one?” Matteo asked, walking to the pond’s edge. Even before David answered, Matteo saw it was bigger, deeper than he initially thought.

“Yes, actually, it is quite deep.” David pointed. “Especially over there.”

“Then let’s go in,” Matteo said. He removed his cloth boots and put them on a flat, dry rock. He turned to David and flung out his arms to the side. “Ready.”

David did the same, as well as removed his belt with the sheathed sword, and they stepped their way over flat rocks, some wet and a little slippery from the mist of the waterfall. Despite the vegetation growing around it, and the lily pads floating on top, the water was beautiful and crystal clear. There was a magic about it—or, perhaps, David had something to do with it.

David slipped into the water like it was nothing, half of his wings beneath the surface. He moved through the water with elegance and grace, and twirled before going under.

“Show off,” Matteo muttered, but he lowered himself in. It was cool and refreshing, and his wings fluttered, pushing him easily through the water closer to David.

“Can you go under the water?” David asked after he reemerged.

“I can, though I don’t know for how long,” Matteo said. “My wings usual keep me afloat.”

“Then control them differently,” David said, as if it was an easy thing. It probably was, for him, who had a lifelong time to practice with them, when Matteo had only recently begun to accept that he could and probably should give them attention and care.

“As if it were that easy,” Matteo muttered. His clothes were wet and felt heavy but his wings light and fluttery. He had no fear of drowning below the water, but he did not know how long he could go under.

“It is,” David said. He grinned mischievously. “Bet I can hold my breath underwater longer than you.”

“Bet I can eat mushrooms without being poisoned,” Matteo shot back. David rolled his eyes at the taunt and laughed.

“Bet you can,” David agreed. “Want to try anyway?”

“You control water,” Matteo muttered. “But alright. I’ll play your game.”

They swam closer together, the pond water so calm and still except for the slight beat of their wings, causing little ripples around them.

“On three,” David said, right in front of Matteo. “One…two… three.”

Matteo used his arms and his wings to push himself down under the water’s surface, getting further down than he thought he could. They beat at his back slowly, treading him downward, though he did not go to far. The sun shone onto the water and broke beneath in beams that gave them some lighting. There was nothing in the water—no life, no plants below the surface.

Nothing but David, his lips pursed together in a closed-mouth grin. The hem of his black shirt floated around his waist, little slivers of beautiful skin shown. His light blue wings almost blended in with the water around him, but caught crystal sparkles of light in the beams that shone on him. He was beautiful and ethereal and everything that Matteo wasn’t.

Matteo knew he wasn’t going to stay below the water much longer, his chest starting to burn with the lack of air. He was about to point up when David swam to him, only a breath away from his face.

He reached out and trailed a finger over the top of Matteo’s rounded ear—his hair must be floating in the water around his head, clearly exposing them. He had a sudden urge to reach up and try to push it down, but it would be useless in the water so he did not.

Then David did something he hadn’t done before, and something Matteo had privately wished for but never ever expected.

David’s face darted in and he pressed his lips against Matteo’s. Matteo’s eyes went wide and he let out a breath of air when David pulled away, which wasn’t the brightest thing to do because he needed that air to live. He started to sputter and then pushed himself up.

When he broke the surface of the water, he coughed. David emerged too, though he had a bright smile on his face and he laughed when he caught sight of Matteo

“That’s not funny,” Matteo said. He splashed water at David, who only laughed more. His shorter hair curled against his head in an attractive, springy way and he looked good, droplets of water on the end of his nose and dripping from the end of his pointed ears.

Matteo’s hair was flat across his head, pieces of it stuck to his forehead in a random pattern down into his eyes. He tries pushing it up but it only made David grin. Matteo probably looked like a drowned rat next to him.

“Why did you do that?” Matteo asked.

The look on David’s face faltered. “Matteo—”

“When I’m obviously not a good swimmer and it caught me by surprise and I want a kiss from you but I want a real kiss. A good one.” Matteo splashed David again. “I demand you do it again.”

A smile crossed David’s face. “Demand, do you? I do not often get demands, nor do I have to abide by them.”

“Well, you’re getting one now.” Matteo wasn’t going to back down on this. Not on something he wanted. “So get over here, then.”

Matteo wasn’t sure it would work, but when David’s wings pushed him quickly through the water, causing a bit of wave to hit Matteo in the face, it was not the smooth kiss he wanted. Instead he started sputtering on the water again, coughing too much.

David laughed. It was light and airy and filled the air wonderfully.

“Not funny,” Matteo said grumpily, but he smiled too. In truth, it was a little funny. But only a little. Matteo still did not get his proper kiss.

“This will not work, will it?” David asked, and Matteo tried not to let his heart sink. Because in the next moment, David was reaching out and taking both of Matteo’s hands in his. “You really do not have any water magic, do you?”

“None,” Matteo said. He did not let go of David. “I’m a bit useless with it, really.”

“You are staying afloat,” David said. “But I think you are better with feet on solid ground.”

“Not a lie,” Matteo said. It was true in so many ways.

“Let me get us to the ground, then,” David said softly.

Matteo expected David to pull him through the water so they could climb out of the pond, but this is not what happened.

Instead, the water around them started twirling, as if caught up in a strong current. And David and Matteo started to… no, sink was not the right word. They were not going under the water, but it was as if the surface of the water was sinking and took them along with it. There was a tunnel of water remaining in high walls around them, but they got closer and closer to the bottom of the pond, until eventually their bare feet planted on little flat pebbles and they were not submerged in water any longer.

Matteo laughed, surprisingly loud and joyful. He let go of David’s hands, but only so he could turn in a small circle to look around. The water shimmered around them, and if David’s magic broke, he did not doubt that it would come crashing down on them.

But he trusted David. The magic would not break. They were here, in the middle of the pond’s bottom, and they may be dripping wet with water, but they were standing on the ground, not swimming in the water.

“Remarkable,” Matteo said. He turned to David, smiling brightly. “You are rather remarkable.”

“Interesting,” David said softly, “that I think the exact same of you.”

It was time for Matteo to do the only possible thing he could do in such a moment.

Matteo kissed David.

It wasn’t light or a surprise or out of the blue. He stepped up to David deliberately, and leaned in, pressing his lips firmly to David’s. David either expected it, or he wanted it, because he was ready. He was ready for Matteo and his kisses, and returned them in kind.

Matteo didn’t know how long they stood there, soaking wet and water dripping from the hems of their clothes or the ends of their hair, with the tunnel of water shimmering around them. Hidden here at the bottom of the pond where no one could find them.

They pulled away from each other so they could breath, the air cool and misty, and leaned their foreheads against each other. At their feet, little sprouts of grass now poked up around the little pebbles they stood on, tickling their ankles.

“Remarkable,” David said quietly, bumping his nose against Matteo’s. “You are rather remarkable.”

“Interesting,” Matteo repeated softly, “that I think the exact same of you.”

Chapter Text

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.”

“Do I?”

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.”

“Who?”

“Never mind,” Matteo said. “No one. No one is there.”

“But you just said—“

“Abdi.”

“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?”

“Stop what?”

“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.”

“Why did—”

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.

“You first.”

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.

Dearest Matteo,

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.

Sincerely,
David

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.

“What is?”

“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?”

Matteo nodded.

“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.

From Stefan.

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—”

“I won’t.”

“Matteo, please—”

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.