The Shadow Prince by Susan K.H. Newman
Once there was a proud and independent prince. Although respectful in his duties and affectionate with his family, he was the first to leave state dinners and wander the gardens alone.
The queen worried his independence would turn to loneliness. She often prayed for him and whispered her hopes to the palace blooms. But on the night of her untimely death, her young prince found himself alone with dreams of dark and pressing clouds. When he awoke, his toes were dark and stiff as if bruised by his dreams. With a hard swallow, he stuffed his feet into thick socks and stepped silently through the day’s doleful duties.
On his second night without her, the dark clouds came with growing speed. They rushed like tides of smoke, blotting out blue patches and casting familiar shores in sickly, shifting shadows.
In the morning, his body was heavy with change. His blackened toes felt neither silk carpets nor stone floors. His ankles were hard as stones, and purple shadows mottled his legs. With clenched teeth, he ordered tall boots and walked stiffly through another day.
For seven nights, his dream clouds churned and piled. For seven mornings, he awoke to heavy bruises that climbed his body and sent out spidery streaks of festering green. He sought to cover them with dark britches, long robes, and flasks of whiskey, but on that seventh day, a beaten prince gulped for air and rang for help.
The king responded with his best physicians, but their draughts proved powerless. He requisitioned augurers and holy men with incense and oils, but still the shadows pressed the young prince. He even called the red-faced nurse of the prince’s infancy with her porridge, but the darkness continued to spread.
With a worry beyond pride and prayers, the king issued a public decree offering gold, titles, and even the prince’s hand in marriage to any who could cure his son.
The noblewomen of the palace city came first with gifts of broth and flowers. Then came the wealthy women of the north with their fine firs and packets of ash tea. Even the golden maidens from the farthest coasts came with briny scrubs and cloudy stews, but no one could save the prince.
His nightmares and their piercing winds increased. He was bruised to his neck, feverish, and sucking shallow gulps of air when a freckled maiden knocked at the service door. Her eyes were bright and blue as orchids, and she spoke with such calm assurance that a kitchen maid led her straight to the prince’s side.
They found him confined to bed, thin lipped and sinking in his pillow, but the young woman did not quail. She took from her basket a candle, dark as his deepest bruise, and lighted it on the table beside him. She breathed in, slowly lifting her toes and lowering them as she exhaled.
“Who is with you in your storm?” she asked.
He closed his eyes like a weary cat, and she understood. Drawing from the basket a small pot of dark soil, she pressed into it a tiny, purple seed and sprinkled it with pearly feather down. She placed it near the candle and sang a lilting tune that drew from the prince his first public tear. This she caught on a golden spoon, warmed in the candle flame, and used to water the seed.
“Who is with you in your storm?” she asked again, but the prince only blinked. So, she called his father King, his young sister, and a maiden aunt to his side. Each heard her strange tune, offered a single tear, and watched as she warmed it in the candlelight and watered the seed.
When the last family tear had been added, she held the little pot to show him a small and waxy stem peeking through the dirt. Without a word, she filled herself with a long, slow breath, lifting her toes and setting them gently down again. Then, she sang her little song until exhaustion overcame his fears, and for the first time in days, he slept without dreaming.
When the prince awoke, his cheeks were pink as if kissed by a warm wind, and the heavy shadows had receded below his shoulders. In relief he shed another tear, and this too she warmed on her golden spoon and poured over the little leaf which stretched tall as a lark beside him.
“Who is with you in this storm?” she asked. But the prince merely pressed his lips together and looked towards the door.
By way of her own answer, she took another measured breath, lifting and lowering her toes and then began to call the palace staff to his side. One by one she brought them; the befuddled valet, the red-faced nurse, the dusty maid, the cook with her tea, and even the kitchen girl who had opened the door to his orchid-eyed savior. They, too, heard the strange tune, added their tears to the spoon, and watched them used to tend the little plant. And when they had gone, she took another measured breath and sang him to sleep.
In the morning, she asked again, “Who is with you in your storm?” and he replied with a small nod towards the window. So, she called to his side the Queen’s gardener, the royal grooms, and even the boy who saw to the barn cats. They had tears of their own to share, and these, too, she warmed in the candlelight and added to the pot.
There could be no secrets with such a system, but no one could argue her results. Life returned to the prince. He breathed deeply, sat tall against his pillows, and hummed a lilting tune.
So, when she asked again, “Who is with you in your storm?” he knew it would always be her. Together they sang the lilting tune, and she watered the waxy stalk and its first of many buds with her own candle lit tear.
Susan K. H. Newman is a teacher from Northern Virginia and a Teacher Consultant for the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project. When not at her desk, Susan enjoys laughing with her book club, long walks, and baking cookies with her husband and kids.