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by Luke Saldanha

Prince Lortho was a child with many dead creatures in his wake. He frequently captured animals on the palace grounds. It was not due to malice that these animals died, but a typical juvenile carelessness; he adopted them as pets but they invariably perished despite his care.

His was a cold, distant family, and he never had a playmate, but the royal gardens were a source of limitless wonder and adventure. The vast moat surrounding the palace teemed with gobfin, which the young Prince observed jumping and caught to toss back frequently. But what he found under a rock one summer afternoon was quite a treat, even for a child like him.

The three lizards were tiny. The Prince marvelled at their silver bodies, glassy wings of chitin folded against their spines; terrific amidst the inevitable woodlice and worms. Against the Queen’s instructions, with a young boy’s natural fascination, he took one prisoner, trapped it in a box and placed it in an empty fish tank. He watched it climb the sides, illuminated by a flaming torch he provided for warmth and light. He’d take extra care this time. He’d nourish the lizard, feed it and rear it well. He watched it all evening and went to bed happy, vowing to cherish the beast.

* * *

The next morning, the Prince woke excitably and ventured over to visit his prize. He was horrified to find the lizard absent, the tank roof cracked, the leaves he’d placed inside already turning brown.

It was not long before he discovered its fate. The servant had been sweeping the hallway outside Lortho’s dormitory, when the continuous sound of the broomstick ceased. He heard the voice of his mother: “What on Earth have you stopped for, Roma? I want this place to sparkle!”

“My apologies, Your Highness, but I believe I’ve found one of the little one’s playthings!”

Lortho hurried to his door and cautiously peered around it.

The servant was pinching a shiny object between her thumb and forefinger. The young boy’s eyes filled with tears to see the lizard’s skin dangling. Roma suddenly jumped and dropped it in morbid realisation.

Swinging around to rap on Lortho’s door, the Queen saw him standing there watching, which only irritated her further. “I told you,” she cried, wagging her finger, bracelets clanging. “I told you to leave those damned things alone. Look at it! The poor beast has dried out and died! How many more creatures must suffer for your own selfish curiosity?!”

The disgraced child hung his head in shame. He trudged out onto the grounds, deciding he’d feel better to see the other lizards thriving in the wild. But he lifted the rock to find only a bland scene of ordinary insects. “They’ve fled because I discovered them,” he reasoned. “If a giant came to the palace and snatched me, I’m sure my family would move.”

The Prince spent a solemn day brooding on the grounds. Lying in the grass, he became aware of a hideous noise: the drone was nasal, like that of a pestering bluebottle, but offensively loud, with the steady rhythm of a heartbeat. Looking up at the sky, he saw a sphere of metallic light hurtling across it, sparkling as it travelled. He scrambled to his feet, but the shape had already disappeared from sight, and he was left once more to mourn the tragically cooked reptile. It, too, might have explored the sky one day. Nothing could cheer him up; yet again he was a murderer. Everything he touched turned to dust. The luncheon bell he normally ran towards left him cold and motionless.

* * *

Night had fallen before Roma discovered Lortho and urged that he prepare for bed. He rose without protest and complied with her instruction.

The child woke with a start in the small hours before dawn. He recognised that same awful whirring, as if his brain were the hive of a thousand bees. He jumped out of bed and made over to his window. Peering out into the darkness, he saw two silvery balls of light expanding and contracting below. They seemed to throb in unison with that horrifying, modulated buzz.

Lortho rushed downstairs and fumbled with the huge wooden doors. Some way into this task, the lights flashed on. He jumped to see the servant standing there. She was tutting, rubbing sleep from her eyes, and yawned before addressing him irritably. “You really are putting me through my paces, Master Lortho. What are you doing now? You ought to be in bed!”

The Prince was about to reveal the phenomenon, but a smug sense of secrecy restrained him.

“Well, you can explain it to your mother in the morning. I’m putting you to bed. God help us if the Queen is roused.” She took him by the arm, leading him up the marble staircase.

From his dormitory window, the Prince watched the orbs grow with every pulse, producing a glittering nebula. He observed the gradual explosion of light, like a dying star, and then a return to black as the incessant buzzing faded into silence.

* * *

The servant dressed him for breakfast that morning. He sat at the round table, under his mother’s disapproving glower.

“Roma has told me of last night’s events, Lortho. I don’t know what got into you. Don’t think you’re going to wander about the palace at all hours of the night. I hear you were trying to sneak out!” She glared at him. “And you played truant at luncheon yesterday. This rebellion ends.” Her expression grew sterner. “It ends now.”

The diligent servant laid out the morning’s offerings. Lortho found his hunger returning.

“Go on. Eat. You have a long day of learning ahead.”

Lortho took a hunk of bread from the basket and began to spread lard on it, when, through the windows of the breakfast hall, he noticed the palace cat investigating something on the grass. The idea came to him that if he were to rescue its prey, he might atone for the trail of corpses behind him.

He charged out back, ignoring the shrill Queen. Seizing the feline, he tossed her aside. He looked down, and threw himself on the ground: there lay the silver skins of two small lizards. “Glory be to all living creatures!” he rejoiced, dancing a jig on the spot.

The Prince looked up at the sky, wondering how far they might have travelled. He was particularly warmed by the thought of his prisoner, free from man’s meddling fingers.

Copyright © 2019 by Luke Saldanha

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