A short story from before the events in To Love a Prince. Prince Eli has been in my thoughts lately.
Prince Eli burned with restlessness, clenching his fists at his sides. He needed an outlet, but it was the day the Knights of Valor trainees were using the royal training facilities.
He’d have to wait. He despised waiting.
Prince Eli growled, as annoyed with himself as anything. He should have better control over his emotions.
Glancing at the wall in the direction of the gardens, he could almost see them through the alabaster stone. He hated those gardens even more than he hated waiting.
She’d died there, surrounded by a hundred flowers he couldn’t name, and while her body rotted in the cold ground, the gardens had the audacity to continue to bloom. The same damn roses she’d been tending that day, the roses that had once been spattered red with her blood.
And he’d been forced to stand in those gardens all that afternoon, surrounded by the things and their stench. The entire area reeked of them. But his father had received the diplomatic delegation there, and as expected, they’d been charmed by the gardens.
To the seven hells with the delegation and anyone else that professed love for roses. Prince Eli wanted to burn the whole thing to the ground and lay pavers over top of it.
Perhaps he would when he became king.
“Your Highness.” Sligo emerged from the shadows and bowed to him.
Prince Eli grit his teeth. He’d been so lost in his own thoughts that he hadn’t noticed his shadowguard. Though the boy wasn’t much older than the prince, Sligo was already among the best in the shadowguard. It was as much a testament to Sligo’s skill as Eli’s preoccupation that he hadn’t noticed his guard, but the prince didn’t care.
He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
He would see the next assassin before it struck and know how to respond. The smell of blood and roses assaulted him, and Eli squeezed his eyes shut. He was too late to save his mother, but Eli wouldn’t forget the lesson the gods had taught him.
“You are restless, Your Highness. You need to focus during dinner with the delegation.”
Prince Eli tightened his fists, but he said nothing. Sligo was correct, but then Eli already knew it.
“We should go to the training rooms.”
“The Knights of Valor are using them today.”
“We will exercise royal privilege.”
Prince Eli seldom did that, but he seldom needed to as most simply stayed out of his path. And Sligo wouldn’t recommend it unless he truly thought Eli needed it.
The prince nodded.
Sligo led him down to the spacious training rooms. The space was brilliantly lit as the warm afternoon sun streamed in through the wall of leaded glass windows. A servant had arrived before them and laid out fresh leathers for the prince.
Prince Eli trained in heavy armor, too, should the day ever come that he needed to lead Tamryn’s forces from the front lines of battle. But for kings and queens, the forces of the dark god Uzakiel and His assassins were of far more concern. That meant not relying on armor.
Forgetting about the gardens, his mother’s death, and the diplomatic dinner he would have to attend with his father, Prince Eli picked up the practice daggers and faced Sligo.
The sparring match began.
Sligo charged the prince, then feinted to the left before coming up behind him. But Prince Eli dodged to the right, avoiding the blow altogether. A fortnight ago, Sligo would have succeeded in getting past his guard. Eli was getting better, but that just meant the Shadowguard would throw something new at him.
Prince Eli relished it.
It was a game of cat and mouse, as much a thinking match as raw physical strength. He had to be fast, adaptive, and cunning.
He learned something every time he sparred with Sligo, and he took that with him, would use that when he faced the diplomatic meetings as king, or when he faced the nobles and their demands.
Flow like water. Cut like steel.
A noise to his left drew his attention. The Knights of Valor had arrived, and rather than waiting for him to be done, they were watching.
The boy at the front of the group drew his attention. Though younger than Prince Eli, he was taller, broader, stronger. His blond hair all but shone in the sunlight, and he already wore the heavy shining armor of a Knight with an ease Eli would never master.
Prince Eli glanced down at the black leathers he wore. He knew what he looked like beside the other boy. Slim and dark-haired, nothing like the Tamaryn ideal of righteousness and valor.
The prince clenched his fists at his side. Dracor might have done nothing while his mother was murdered, but Eli was still a Dracasan. Still a member of the royal family that had been blessed by Dracor to rule Tamryn since its founding.
Tension thrummed through him again.
“I’m sorry to have disturbed you, Your Highness.” The boy bowed.
“Too bad you did.”
“If you are done practicing, Your Highness, would you teach me your style of swordplay?”
“That’s not very Knightly,” one of the other squires behind the blond boy said.
“But we’re going to face more than Knights of Valor on the battlefield. We need to learn how to fight against that, too.”
Prince Eli tightened his grip on his daggers. He wanted to knock the golden squire on his bottom and maybe bloody his nose while he was at it.
Sligo moved to stand between Prince Eli and the Knights. “You may not spar with His Highness.”
“I suppose that is a bad idea. I am sorry.” The boy bowed again to Prince Eli.
The prince glanced at his bodyguard and shrugged. “If you want to go a round with him, you have my permission.”
The squire stared expectantly at Sligo.
Eli moved to the sidelines and motioned to the shadowguard to proceed.
Sligo glanced at him then at the blond-haired boy. Sligo nodded once at the Knight-in-training.
The boy grabbed a sword and shield, wielding both with a skill that far exceeded his youth. Sligo stalked around him, but this was a very different game than the one he played with Prince Eli, and Eli instantly recognized the difference.
The squire was taller, stronger, his reach longer.
He was also a very skilled combatant despite his youth.
The blond-haired boy narrowed his eyes as he dodged another strike from Sligo. “You’re toying with me.”
With a burst of speed that seemed like it should be impossible given his size and armor, the boy sprinted past Sligo and charged toward Prince Eli.
Prince Eli froze, and for a moment, it was like it had been in the gardens all those years ago. Then he reached for his daggers. This time, he was ready.
The squire then spun around, his blade already raised to block Sligo’s.
The Shadowguard had Marcus flat on his back with a dagger to his throat in less time than it took Prince Eli to blink.
He gaped at Sligo just as the rest of the knights-of-valor in training did.
“Yes, that,” the boy said. “That’s what I want to learn. I couldn’t have defended His Highness from you, and I must.”
“It is not your place to protect him.”
“For what Dracor wants of me, I must be able to stand against even worse than you. I must be able to protect Tamryn.”
The earnestness in the other boy’s words tore at Prince Eli. If only he’d been born twenty years sooner, Eli’s mother would still be alive.
It wasn’t fair, but then when had the gods ever been fair? Even the god of justice and righteousness didn’t follow His own path. Eli would carve his own.
Prince Eli dropped his daggers and left the training room.