He climbs the spiraling stairs. Bowtie dangling from his fist, he climbs and sits atop the castle wall, where the torch-dotted city folds to dark shapes. Below, vastness, empty, as he feels sitting here. His feet are heavy, pulling downward.
He doesn’t need to fall to crack into a million pieces. At tonight’s wedding, he shattered.
Clicks of glass slippers, a sweep of satin, and she appears—the queen. Fresh jewels still settling in her hair. Surrounded by lily-of-the-valley scent. She checks her phone’s screen. “They’re going to cut the cake, Hugh,” the queen says.
He pats his round shell. “Thank you, but no.”
“Shall I order you?”
“You won’t,” he says, wondering how she manages to sparkle even on a moonless night. She is extraordinary, a wonder. And I am fragile as china, he thinks. “Your king said I’m someone’s ‘Before Picture.’ That I always will be a ‘Before Picture,'” he says.
“Come. Celebrate our happiness.”
“Do you love him?”
She puts a hand on his sloped back; the queen turns to leave. “I know my duty, as does he,” she whispers. “But do you?”
He holds the bowtie out. The straps flutter as it falls into the darkness. It would be easy to follow, Hugh thinks.
Hooves clatter on the cobblestone below. Two score men boast and argue. “Humpty?” the king shouts up to him and raises a mug. “A toast to you, Humpty Dumpty!” The King’s voice is rich as musk. “I’ll have the queen save a dance for you!”
The men parrot the king, “Hump-ty! Dump-ty!”
Hugh glares down at them until they fall silent.
“You’ve dropped your tie,” the king says.
“I am still tied,” Hugh says. “Or perhaps I should say yoked.”
“A jester—Humpty, my funny, fat friend!”
“Is that all I ever was? Or is that what you decided I should be?”
The king’s horse nervously paces. Without looking away from Hugh, the king says, “Leave us.” The king and Hugh quietly sit, separated by a dozen stories.
The king splashes his ale across the cobblestones. “What?”
“I loved you,” Hugh says.
“Should I admit I hoped to break your heart now? Confess that I tried to save you from worse?”
“I love you!” Hugh shouts.
The king holds a single finger up. “Please, stop. I won’t be cruel. Come back. Smile. Laugh. Be happy.”
Hugh stands and feels his balance pitch forward.
The king holds his hands out as if to catch Hugh. To save him. To hold him safe.
“My love, if you should fall…” he begins.
Hugh feels his nostrils flare. “I won’t need you to put me back together again.” He pushes a tangle of hair from his eyes, the way the king—then a prince—used to not long ago, once upon a time. He touches his lips, the way the king used to once upon a time. Before. Before duty. Before a princess. Before they all decided to live happily, ordinarily ever after.
Previously published in Podcastle, 2017. Reprinted here by permission of the author.
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