It started with a line, just one line, and before I knew it, the line became a brushstroke, a smear, a shape. Once I started with that line, I could not stop until it was done. I needed to capture every detail, every hint of movement—from the biggest tree to the tiniest flower, to the way the leaves shuddered in the wind. Whether brush or pencil, canvas or pad, I could not put my tools down until that first line had become a finished work, no matter how long it would take.
Which is how I found myself standing at the edge of the waterfall in the fast-fading sunlight.
I had chosen a spot halfway up to the waterfall when I arrived shortly after midday. The rays of sun hit the waterfall just right, creating a beautiful play of shadows as the water crashed into the shaded fen, spraying drops of light everywhere. I spent hours trying to recreate the movement, the shadows, the sparkling water. The changing light made it difficult, but that first image was so clear in my mind that I hardly had to look up from my work. Surrounded by the thundering sound of the waterfall and the smells of fresh water, tangy hindra bushes and sweet yellow nara flowers, I worked until I had put the last bit of shade in.
I should have gone home then, but I had barely wrapped the painting when the water nymphs came out to play. They must have known I was there, but they splashed around as if I weren't, their lithe figures almost floating on the surface. I had never seen them so joyous and I couldn't resist painting them, losing track of time in the process.
With one last look at the water nymphs, I hoisted my bags onto my shoulders and made my way down the path leading to the castle grounds. I would have to hurry; it would be dark soon and Father would be furious when he found out I had sneaked off without my guard, Neia, again.
He had warned me over and over to not stray too far and to always take Neia with me. But it wasn't easy to paint with someone constantly watching me. Neia tried to keep her distance, but I still felt her eyes on me all the time. I itched to be alone—not alone in my room, no, alone out here, painting without being disturbed or being told when to go home.
So I tricked Neia into believing I would be in town all day with Endyrr, one of my brothers, who was visiting Kalnor, his lover. Of course, Endyrr and Kalnor firmly believed I had been at the castle since midday, because they had accompanied me back to the outer gardens. It had been easy to grab my leather painting bags from their hiding place in the hedge, and walk out again after they had disappeared from view. With no one working in the gardens at midday, there was no danger of me being seen.
My crunching steps sounded loud in the otherwise quiet forest; I could barely even hear the waterfall over them. I kept my eyes on the ground in front of me, avoiding thorns and poison ivy as best as I could and stepping over any stumps and branches in my way. I should have taken the path. It was wider and there were fewer obstacles to trip over in this fading light, but this way I'd reach the castle grounds sooner, hopefully before anyone figured out I wasn't where I said I'd be. At least Endyrr couldn't tattle; he was staying at Kalnor's for the night.
Leaves rustled behind me and I froze. I hoped it was one of the castle's cats out hunting and not a boar smelling dinner, but I still changed my grip on the bag holding my paints and palette. It was heavy enough to hit a boar with, surely. Not that I thought of moving—I was taught to be as still as possible when the boars were around— but if it moved, I would.
A twig snapped, in front of me this time, and I was tempted to close my eyes.
I sighed as I recognized Captain Ariv's deep, gravelly voice, relieved to have one of Father's men to help me, but annoyed at being caught off grounds.
Something shiny caught my eye, but before I could make it out, I heard the zing of a shooter and the boar behind me dropped with a low-pitched whine. I felt the ground tremble, but when I looked back, I saw nothing. It was probably hidden by the hindra bushes.
"Come. It'll stay down long enough for us to get out of here."
I turned around to face the captain, only to discover a shooter aimed at me. No, not at me, at the boar, but that didn't matter. The shooter was right in my line of sight, the way it always happened in my fantasies. The copper shooter glinted in the barest hint of light and I shivered as I caught a whiff of lingering magic amongst the tangy smell of the hindra bushes.
The hand holding the shooter was large and strong, a perfect fit around the shooter's handle. I was painfully aware that I wasn't alone and I swallowed the moan threatening to escape. I resisted the urge to adjust my trousers, covered by my, thankfully, loose tunic, and tried to take deep breaths that kept ending in gasps and did nothing to stop my body responding as if to a lover's touch. I wanted to look away, but I couldn't. I longed to feel the effects of a stunning spell, wanted that strong hand to pull the trigger, to...
I bit my lip to keep from making a sound and moved my bags in front of me, hoping Captain Ariv hadn't noticed my reaction. I needed to look away, needed to move, but I was frozen again. This time it had nothing to do with fear.
When he finally lowered his shooter, my head bowed with it, my eyes following its descent until it disappeared behind his back. I sighed.
"Your Highness? What are you doing out here?"
I forced myself to look up at him, held up my bags, and aimed for a smile.
Captain Ariv frowned. "You're not supposed to—"
"Stray off the grounds. I know," I interrupted him, ignoring the slight wobble in my voice. "I lost track of time."
Ouch. There was that. The story of my life. The fifth son of the King of Eizyrr, the powerless one who needed constant supervision, the one who could never fight for his kingdom. No doubt I'd be the talk of the training field tomorrow: wandering outside the castle grounds again without his guard and retrieved like a stubborn little puppy. I only barely kept from balling my fists. I wasn't a stripling any more. "D'you think you can take me to my rooms, Captain?" I said as calmly as I could manage.
For a moment he just looked at me, eyes narrowed, as if trying to see into me. Then he smiled, a wide smile that made me wonder if he was up to something.
"Of course, Your Highness. I take it you don't want the king to know?"
I doubted that was possible, but I nodded anyway.
"Well, then, Your Highness. Let me carry that for you and I'll get you past the guards."
I almost refused, but if he wanted to carry my bags for me, so be it. He looked surprised as he took them, yet hefted them both onto one shoulder without effort and turned around, clearly expecting me to follow him. Was he really going to sneak me past the guards? Probably not, but it was nice to think he was.
I looked behind me and thought of the water nymphs. I hoped I wouldn't be grounded for long.
Nearing the outer walls, I could barely even see the battlements of the castle. I could see the four towers, though, their roofs as green as the vines covering the dark gray stone walls.
Despite telling me otherwise, I expected Captain Ariv to march me straight through the gate to my father. Instead he left me standing in the shadows as he chatted amiably with the guards, distracting them so I could pass by unseen, and did the same at the inner walls. Apparently, he was a man of his word.
Out of habit, I stopped halfway into the gardens, looking up at the castle. If anyone saw me out here now, they would think I had just arrived back from town, provided Captain Ariv didn't tell on me.
I watched the flickering lanterns lighting up the high, dark walls in an eerie mix of greens and grays, broken only by wavering hues of yellow from the lamps burning in the windows. I painted the castle like this once. Mother hung it in the dining room, the private one.
There was no light in my tower, not counting the lamp I always put on the hall table in the morning. The rest were hidden away in cupboards. I used to leave them out, but their artificial glow ruined the wonderful shapes daylight created on my walls. I hated those lamps, hated having to ask others to turn them off, but mother did not trust me with candles, not when I couldn't douse them with magic. Her refusal to acknowledge that candles didn't need magic always baffled me.
I sauntered towards my tower, the only magicless rooms in the castle, if I didn't count the lamps. They hadn't always been, but when I kept bumping into the doors, got my fingers caught, and even got stuck in the bathroom once, they were rebuilt without magic. Now others bumped into my doors... when they forgot.
Neia's room at the bottom of the stairs was empty. Relieved not to have to explain myself to her, I climbed the stairs and let myself in, taking the lamp with me. My walls lit up as I placed more lamps around the room. I smiled, remembering the tantrums I had thrown when my parents refused to repaint my walls. Even at six, I was very picky about my colors. In the end they had backed down, though it had taken three tries to get a green that would look like a hint of fresh moss in daylight, but wouldn't turn budgie green at night. I reached for my bags, only to realize Captain Ariv still had them. I cursed. Now I'd have to go all the way to the northern walls, to the captains' quarters, to get them back. But when I opened my door, Captain Ariv stood in the hall, holding out my bags, with that wide smile on his face.
"You forgot these, Your Highness."
"Yes, thank you, Captain." I reached for the bags.
"May I see the paintings?"
I opened my mouth and closed it. It wasn't as if I hadn't entertained anyone in my rooms before, but never one of father's men, and certainly never someone as formidable, as desirable, as Captain Ariv. I looked behind me. My desk, a chunky dark brown piece of wood, was strewn with brushes, pencils and drawing pads, both new and filled with sketches, but the rest seemed presentable. I moved aside to let him in.
Ariv looked around as I closed the door, before walking over to my desk and putting the bag of paints down on the floor next to it. I followed him and reached for the other bag, but he ignored me and started unpacking it. He took his time, too, studying both paintings as he unwrapped them, putting the one with the water nymphs on the easel, and the one with the waterfall on my desk. "You make them come alive."
I shook my head. "They are alive. I just paint them."
His smile widened and a shiver crawled up my spine.
"Let me see your work."
I frowned. "My work can be seen all around the castle."
"The ones you don't show."
I stared at him, my heart thumping, hoping I had misunderstood.
I was tall, but I still had to look up to him, and he was much broader compared to my wiry frame. Then again, everyone was broader than I would ever be. They said I looked like my mother, with my gray eyes and long hair as red as the kozal roses, but even she was more muscular than I was. Bloody magic.
Ariv's eyes were darker than any I'd ever seen. They had to be brown, but they were so dark, they looked black, as black as his spiky hair. Black, but not cold, even though they seemed to stare straight through me, thoughtful, intent. I had to fight not to lick my lips. His presence stirred me, almost like it had when he pointed his shooter at me. I closed my eyes at the memory and swallowed, willing myself not to get hard.
He touched my cheek. It would be so easy to lean into his touch. His hand stilled and disappeared. I opened my eyes to find him standing at the door, watching me, shaking his head.
"Go to sleep, your Highness. And do not go off grounds without Neia again," he said before he slipped out of my room.
I took a shaky breath and leaned against my desk, watching the closed door. What had just happened? How had he known about those paintings?
Unsteady on my feet, my steps heavy and clunky, I finally ascended the stairs and walked through my bedroom into my private gallery, closing the door behind me. I sank down on the bench in the middle of the room and stared at the painting in front of me. I hadn't known his name when I first painted him, but I recognized the hand now that I'd seen it up close. It was beautiful. He was beautiful, his expression serious, hair sticking out on all sides, eyes half closed in the bright sunlight, squinting at something to my left.
I had never seen him smile on the training field, yet he was not a cruel man. He fought fair, fought clever, was never excessively hurtful, even though he was probably one of the strongest men out there, and wielded the shooter with skill. I looked away from his face to what made me paint him that day. The copper of his shooter reflected rays of sun. The hand looked less tanned and the position was not quite the same, but my pulse raced nonetheless.
My eyes glued to the shooter, I laid back and freed my cock, running my fingers up and down as I imagined my body yielding to the stunning spell. I imagined another's hand, Ariv's hand, jacking me off hard and fast, and bit my lip to keep from crying out as I came.