“It’s my birthday,” Efrosin sang, bobbing in the air near the ceiling of his bedroom, as was his wont. He was wearing his usual silk pajamas, and Geoffry felt a prick of concern regarding his chances of convincing his charge to change into more appropriate finery.
“Indeed it is, Your Highness. Many happy returns to you,” Geoffry said.
Efrosin pushed off the stone wall with his bare feet and skimmed through the air. “As my manservant, Geoffry, it is your duty to help me get what I want.”
His short golden hair was still wet and disheveled from his usual morning routine—several hours spent swimming in the embrace of the river. Geoffry imagined that if it were not for the traditional wreath-laying ceremony upon the late queen’s grave, Efrosin would soon be ready to leave to further frolic in the depths and shallows of the river.
Not that Geoffry could blame his charge for his obsessive love of water. Due to the misfortune of having been cursed soundly by a vengeful witch when he was but an infant, in the water was the only place where Efrosin had any weight at all.
Obviously feeling anything but unfortunate, Efrosin spun about mid-air without a care in the world. Geoffry turned from him and began to set out the proper outfit—including a specially designed coat with many long, colorful ribbons sewn firmly to the hem. Each ribbon would be held by a knight to prevent Efrosin from floating into the great, blue sky. Geoffry straightened the collar on the coat and pondered how best to persuade Efrosin to put it on.
“I hope that what you want, sire, is an afternoon ceremony beside your mother’s grave,” Geoffry said. “For that is what you shall have. Come now, we should hurry. There isn’t much time.”
Efrosin pushed off the ceiling and took the white, silver and gold embroidered shirt from Geoffry’s hand. “If I must do something quite so dull, then you must entertain me with one of your fine tales first, Geoffry.”
“Put on these clothes, sire, and I’ll consent. What tale would you like to hear?”
“The one of my birth would be rather appropriate, don’t you agree?”
“You know that one by heart, sire. I’ve no doubt you could tell it yourself quite well enough.”
But Geoffry knew it wasn’t true. Due to his cursed condition, Efrosin lacked emotional gravity and could never pitch his voice to the right note sof grief, having never felt anything close to the emotion himself. Geoffry had often noted that Efrosin, in his unwitting callousness, best liked tales that evoked great sadness in others. He clearly found their unhappiness fascinating and even amusing.
Pulling the shirt over his head, and taking the pants Geoffry offered, Efrosin took Geoffry up on his suggestion. “Once upon a time, a beautiful queen—my mother—gave birth to a handsome and blessed son.” Efrosin frowned. “Hmm, maybe if I skip to the good part?” He cleared his throat and tried again, “Sadly, she was overcome with fever and never recovered from childbed. The country went into great mourning over the loss of her grace and kindness. The kingdom truly suffered when she died.”
Efrosin dove down through the air to grab hold of Geoffry, and, with his help, put on the heavy, beribboned coat. “It’s much better when you tell it,” Efrosin said, a haze of dissatisfaction almost clouding his face before evaporating. “It’s my birthday,” he repeated, and this time there was a note of determination that set off a warning bell in Geoffry. “And, as I was saying, a prince should have what he desires on his birthday.”
“Yes, your eighteenth,” Geoffry said warily. “You’re a man now, sire.” Geoffry hoped, even though he knew it was useless, that by saying it aloud Efrosin might feel even a small portion of the burden associated with his upcoming responsibilities as Crown Prince. “And as for what you desire, well, you should take that up with your father.”
The king had decided the time had come to make a strong alliance with one of several neighboring kingdoms, in order to strengthen his position for another war. To that end, Geoffry knew the king intended as his birthday gift to present his son with a selection of several princesses and princes—one of whom was to become Efrosin’s spouse.
Being fair of face and having grown into the lean, strong body of a man, Efrosin should have been an ideal husband. Yet because of his cursed condition, his temperament and urges were still very much those of a boy. And, understanding Efrosin better than anyone, Geoffry knew the marriage would be doomed to misery and unhappiness for whomever was chosen.
“Truly, I would rather not go. It’s so terribly boring.”
Geoffry said, “It is important that your people see how much you honor the woman who died giving life to you.”
Efrosin seemed to ponder this. “Well, I am very happy to be alive. It would be awfully dreary to be dead.”
“Yes, quite. Now come, let me call Sir Carlisle and the others.”
Geoffry was greatly relieved when Efrosin consented. He watched Efrosin closely during the ceremony, though, and noted that beneath Efrosin’s expression of cheerful boredom, there was an unmistakable glimmer of excitement. A hard knot grew in Geoffry’s stomach. The king, who could barely be bothered to look anything but bored himself, didn’t seem to notice. But then, that was nothing new.
# # #
Back in Efrosin’s room, the sun glowed bright in the early afternoon sky, and Geoffry’s fingers shook as he undid the buttons of Efrosin’s coat while Efrosin bobbed low to the ground where the knights held him fast with the ribbons.
As soon as the coat was off and the knights dismissed, Efrosin’s smile grew so big that Geoffry felt his middle-aged heart might fail him. It was never a good sign when Efrosin looked quite that delighted.
“I am no longer a child, you realize,” Efrosin began. “And you must follow my orders. You will tie a rope to my ankle—this one here, the right one, because the left is much too pretty for rope burn, you see—and fly me like a kite, high, high above the tallest tree. So, it must be quite a long rope.”
Geoffry’s mouth went dry. His eyes went to his time piece and he noted the king would be having his afternoon nap. The punishment for waking him was death or dismemberment, or sometimes both. He cleared his throat.
“Indeed, sire, and while I’m sure it would be a great adventure for you, it would be terrifying for me. What if I were to stumble, drop the rope, and you were to blow away? It isn’t as though you’re a balloon. We couldn’t simply have a good marksman on hand to shoot you down again.” He set about needlessly polishing the prince’s shoes. How could they be scuffed when they never touched the ground? “And I’m equally sure that we do not have a rope of such a length.” This, surely, would be enough to dissuade the young daredevil.
The prince may not have understood the gravity of the proposal, but Geoffry certainly did. He would never forget the violent lashing he’d received when Efrosin was but twelve and had managed to make a rope from lengths of sheets and float himself out the window while Geoffry slept. Though the boy claimed it was an unplanned, impulsive adventure, Geoffry had seen the glint of mischief and glee in the child’s face as he’d read the bedtime story that night, and he’d suspected that Efrosin might take his closed eyes as an invitation to adventure.
But could Geoffry be blamed for falling asleep despite his best efforts? He was no longer such a young man, with his dark hair graying at the temples and aches in his bones when he did not rest. Besides, who impulsively tied together ten lengths of bed sheets? At some point, one must begin to recognize what one is doing and it then becomes a plan.
“As it happens,” Efrosin said, pushing his foot against the ceiling to propel himself downward and drifting weightlessly toward the tall post at the foot end of the bed, “I have requisitioned such a one from the ropemaker. I summoned him last week while you were at market. Surprise! Now you have no excuse.”
Geoffry wished to call his prince a scamp and beat his tail with a birch rod, as he would his own child for such foolishness, but he knew it would do no good. He remembered well a day during Efrosin’s tenth year when the king decided to forcibly instill some gravity in his free-floating son, declaring that boy would indeed be sobered by the time he was done.
The screams of pained laughter Efrosin had let out as his father had beat him still haunted Geoffry’s worst nightmares. At times, sweating from dreams of it, he wished he had interceded—his own beating be damned—for he had known it would change nothing.
And it had not. The king had left Efrosin’s chambers with a rare look of humiliated defeat, abandoning Efrosin naked on his stomach, with his back, buttocks and thighs striped from the switch, and delirious, broken laughter drifting from his smiling mouth.
Geoffry’s own eyes had filled with tears when Efrosin had giggled, “That rather hurt a lot, Geoffry. I do so wish that I could cry. Tell me, would that make it feel better?”
“No,” Geoffry had said. “It would not.” Though, he’d thought, perhaps it would.
“Oh, well then, if only I could cry then at least Father would not be so cross.” Then he’d laughed some more. “Usually, he is so funny when he is cross.”
But something told Geoffry that, despite Efrosin’s laughter, he did not find his father so very funny at that moment. It had been a difficult night for Geoffry, applying salve to his princeling’s wounds and crying tears in Efrosin’s stead. The king had never tried such a thing again, and now seemed resigned to his son’s flighty ways.
“You requisitioned a rope so that I may fly you as a kite,” Geoffry repeated slowly.
“Indeed. And it shall be jolly and grand. Just think, Geoffry, I’ll see the top of the castle. I’ll see where the river flows. Perhaps I’ll even see—”
“You saw the top of the castle the time you broke free of your handler and floated up to the top of the highest turret. And poor Michaelson nearly fell and died trying to fetch you down.”
Efrosin’s lips curved up into a wide smile. “Oh yes, that was a brilliant day. But that was not quite the same. That was a mistake, you see, and I was a bit frightened, which made it an ever so sharp joy to float that high. This will be more sedate, and you are always imploring me to be sedate.”
“Come,” Efrosin called, gripping the poster of the bed firmly and shoving himself toward the door with the effortless grace of a balloon drifting through the air. “Let us begin.”
Geoffry’s heart sank. There was nothing to be done for it. He hoped it didn’t hurt too badly when he was hanged. And that would be a just punishment if he got caught holding onto the end of Efrosin’s rope while the boy floated in the heavens. If Efrosin should float away…well, there was no telling what would happen to Geoffry, or his wife and five children.
Geoffry crossed himself and followed Efrosin as he slowly bounced through the hallway, his feet always at least three feet above the ground.
# # #
Efrosin had never been so high before. Well, not on purpose. Well, not lately. And then he was even higher. He gazed down at dear Geoffry, who looked so tiny on the ground, both hands clenched around the end of the rope as though it took effort to keep Efrosin from floating away, when he was as light as air itself.
He could see the preparations for his birthday feast being made on the other side of the line of trees separating the field from the castle garden. He laughed as he imagined the great fright the servants would have if they would but look up and see him there in the sky like an angel of the ether.
“I should have Geoffry construct wings,” he declared, his eyes shining at the thought.
He felt a stab of high-spirited annoyance that he had not thought of it before. “It would have been the most divine entrance to my party.”
If he’d had it in him to mourn that this idea had come to him much too late, he’d have mourned. As it was, he turned to count the clouds, and called down to Geoffry the many wonders of their beauty. Then he spent a few minutes casting about for a sound other than the whistling of wind in his ears, which was so much sharper than the burble and rush of water.
“Lo, but it is lonely up here,” he said at last, his eyes following the green of the fields cutting a swath down to the path taken by the blue river.
Geoffry had argued admirably that Efrosin celebrate his birthday with another swim instead of a flight, and Efrosin had been tempted. The river, much more than the air, was his best friend. It alone held him in a snug and secure embrace, with just the right amount of gravity to prevent him from floating away.
He’d spent much of his life in the water, bobbing in his own world, splashing and laughing, and sunning for endless summer days. The river calmed him, and was the only place he could be persuaded to listen long enough to have learned his letters and numbers. Efrosin remembered his tutor in a boat, umbrella held over his bald head, teaching Efrosin to conjugate verbs as he swam in circles or floated dreamily on his back, his ears below the water, and the professor’s rumbling words lost in the tumble of the current.
In comparison, the air was an ocean of risk, at once compelling and terrifying. It was godless, empty, full of distance and height, and Efrosin could vanish into it entirely, never to be seen again.
He sometimes dreamed he’d floated as high as the constellations and the endless, cold horror of it would startle him, laughing, from his sleep. “Oh what a wondrous thing,” he’d exclaim, his blood coursing in his veins. “What a terrible thrill.”
And yet he was drawn to it like a moth to a flame.
He’d never told anyone—not even Geoffry—that it frightened him so, and that perhaps it wouldn’t be quite so very bad to have his gravity returned to him. He’d been told he was born with it, but couldn’t remember ever possessing an ounce of substance.
As fate would have it, Efrosin had no sooner decided that he’d had enough of the thin air for the day and that a swim would, indeed, be a better way to pass the time until his birthday celebration, than a black-winged bird flew past his face. It reared around and beat its wings like cupped hands scooping the air to pause mid-flight before him, and screeched.
The bird seemed to smile, something eerie and white, as red flashed in its eyes. Then it dove for the rope tied securely around Efrosin’s ankle, landed on it like a sideways clothes line, and tore into the rugged material with a razor-sharp beak.
“Stop! Whyever are you doing that?” Efrosin asked, a giddy burst of fear shaking him, and he started to laugh hysterically. “I shall float away if you break the rope.”
Panicked, he looked down toward Geoffry, who had noticed the bird’s quick work at severing the prince from his tenuous link to the earth. Efrosin descended through the air rapidly in quick, desperate jerks as Geoffry attempted to reel him in before the damage was done.
“Shoo!” Geoffry screamed. “Sire, kick him away.”
Efrosin tried, he truly did, but could not move downward through the air that wished to suck him up into its deadly embrace. Then in one dizzy moment he felt it—the moment the rope broke, and he flew free.
The wind made off with him, rushing him away from the field where Geoffry stood with the long rope coming down on his head, yelling helplessly for Efrosin. Efrosin was pierced with agonizing exhilaration. His destiny was at hand. He could feel it. The sky that had been his nightmare and fascination since youth would bear him away to his end.
The clouds whispered across his face, and he laughed in mad, spasmodic hiccups until it became quite hard to breathe. It was all so very funny. The Light Prince met his end as an escaped human kite, the people would say. Efrosin could not stop his wild laughter.
# # #
Dmitri walked the familiar path through the woods to check the traps again. It had been a full week since he’d caught anything, though he wasn’t concerned. Fishing had been plentiful, and he looked forward to harvesting fresh berries and vegetables from his garden later in the month. Still, he did need meat to cure and put aside for winter.
There was only himself to provide for, but he never knew when there might be another drought, as there had been the year Queen Inna died. He had no memory of it himself, having been just a toddler at the time, but his father had told him often of the hunger that gripped the people and animals, and of the scarcity that had ended many lives. It was one of the more exciting stories in Dmitri’s father’s repertoire, and he’d asked to hear the tale often as a boy.
There were many important lessons in the stories Dmitri’s father told, of course, but one of the most important had been to think well in advance on matters of survival. So Dmitri did just that, always putting away more than enough meat to weather any famine or provide for an unexpected visitor. Not that a visitor happened by very often. Yet when one did, Dmitri wanted to make a good impression, in case they could be prevailed upon to stay longer, or, at the very least, return for a visit.
As he rounded the bend that would take him to the boundary, a limit he could sense from several yards in advance, he happened to look up. As he did, his mouth fell open and he dropped his sack.
There, tangled in the tree limbs above him, was an angel. It had to be an angel because his face was inhumanly beautiful with rosy cheeks and lips, and his hair was such a color that it was surely made of gold itself. His white garments were covered with fine silver detail that glittered in the sunlight. He hung there as though weightless, defying the earth’s pull, actually tugging the branches up, instead of causing them to droop with the burden of holding him.
Dmitri fell to his knees, and as he stared, the angel’s eyes opened, taking him in. A tremulous laugh reached him, and Dmitri blinked in confusion.
“Blessed be the west wind,” the angel called out. “Or I should have surely been lost forever. And that would have been entirely unfortunate, because it’s my birthday, you see, and no one should be lost forever on their birthday.”
Dmitri shook his head, trying to clear the strange vision. Had he fallen asleep in the cabin and dreamed of checking the traps? Was he dreaming still? What an odd thing for an angel to say. Dmitri had never given thought to whether or not angels had birthdays. He supposed they very well might.
“So—you will fetch me down, of course.”
“But how will you go back up?” Dmitri asked, noticing now the angel’s distinct lack of wings. Had he been injured and lost them in the fall? Or had they been removed? Was he a bad sort? Tossed from heaven like Lucifer? Would God expel an angel on his birthday? If so, he must have done something especially wicked.
“Go back up.” The angel chuckled. “Well, that would be easy enough if I wanted to go up, but I assure you that I’ve had quite enough of up to last forever.” The angel shook with mirth again. “Or until tomorrow. Or whenever I’m overcome with the lust for it once more. It’s quite delightful, except that it’s terrifying. Which is, of course, how so many of the best things are.”
Was that any way to speak of heaven? Dmitri tilted his head; he took in the angel’s bare feet and the short rope tied to one ankle. “Are you an angel?” he said, deciding it was best to get that part out of the way at once.
“No. I’m a prince. Surely you’ve heard of me? The Light Prince. Efrosin? Son of Leo, King of Goldenthal? We’re truly quite famous in these parts, given that it’s our kingdom.” The peals of laughter should have been insulting, but seemed without malice to Dmitri’s ears.
Of course he’d heard of the Light Prince. But he’d thought the tales told by the old crones and beggars passing through were exaggerated, as most tales are. Yet the man hung there before Dmitri in a tree, as though he were a kite, still being tugged by the breeze.
“Truly, it is life or death,” the Light Prince said. “I know it must not seem very serious given my disposition and inability to stop laughing—because it is incredibly funny—but I assure you that I cannot help that, and should you leave me here much longer, the wind will have its way and I’ll be cast upon the mercy of the heavens again.”
Dmitri took in his blinding smile and tried to reconcile the chipper tone of voice with the professed circumstances. Hadn’t the travelers who’d told him stories of the Light Prince said that the malady extended to his manner and personality, resulting in a perpetual lack of depth to any grave feeling?
“If it’s a hope for reward money that has you dallying about, let me assure—”
“No! Of course not. Certainly I’ll help you, my good prince, but I must admit I’ve never fished a weightless man from a tree before. How do I start, sire?”
“Start by calling me Efrosin, or I will laugh myself into a stupor with your ‘good prince’ here and ‘sire’ there, and general attitude of obeisance. I am not my father, and it will only make me piss myself with giggles to have you bend and jump at my every breath. So I beg of you to take pity, and not make me laugh any harder than I already am.”
“Quite right. Now, your Efrosin believes that Geoffry usually fetches a rope—truly, he always has one handy since I must be tied down so very often. Then he climbs the tree, ties the rope to my wrist or ankle before also tying it to his own, lest he lose his grip on me. The rest I’ll tell you when we are face-to-face.”
He sounded coy and Dmitri wondered at that but only long enough for Efrosin to burst into gales of laughter. “You should have seen your expression,” he cried. “So shocked! So very funny!” And as his body shook, the branches seemed to loosen their grip on Efrosin’s body. There was no time to waste.
Dmitri grabbed his sack, ripped the cord from the drawstring closure and started up the tree. He scaled it as quickly as possible, glad the boundary only applied to the land and that the sky had no power to confine him. As he reached the limbs beneath the prince, he grabbed hold of Efrosin’s ankle, the one with a length of rope still dangling from it, and tied the rope to his own ankle.
When it was fastened, he quickly bound Efrosin’s wrist to his own with the cord and worked to unhook the prince’s silky clothes from the twigs and small branches. Then he grabbed Efrosin’s outstretched hand, jerked, and was shocked when the man flew without any resistance toward him, weighing less than a puff of cotton.
As their bodies collided, Dmitri gripped Efrosin around the waist, and he stared into Efrosin’s handsome face. Endless laughter filled Efrosin’s blue eyes, and his lush mouth was shiny with an abused look about his open lips, as though he’d been biting them in an unsuccessful attempt to stop his mirth. Dmitri had never seen a human being so beautiful.
Dmitri didn’t understand it, but he felt a heretofore unfamiliar, and yet compelling surge of need pulse through him, and before he could stop himself, he leaned forward to kiss those lips. The answering gasp, followed by more laughter that seemed to fill his own mouth and tickle against his palate, did not discourage him at all.
Efrosin’s lips were soft and his tongue was slick and he didn’t pull away from Dmitri’s clumsy attempt, but rather deepened the kiss in a way that made Dmitri’s toes curl and blood rush to his cock. For a confused moment he thought he was kissing an angel before he remembered that he was only kissing a prince. A free-floating, beautiful, powerful, laughing prince. Perhaps “only” was not quite the proper word.
“Lovely,” Efrosin exclaimed, pulling away and licking his lips. “I hope you intend to ravish me, because I have always imagined it would be quite fun to be ravished. No one’s ever tried it with me, alas.” Efrosin frowned a little and licked his mouth. “You taste like dirt. It’s delicious, though I’ve never enjoyed the taste of dirt before. How odd.”
“You taste like clouds,” Dmitri said, hoping it was a compliment.
“I ate quite a few during my journey to this tree,” Efrosin said. “I…feel a bit strange. Quick. Kiss me again.”
Dmitri, reminded of Efrosin’s perilous flight, came to his senses, and while he was not willing to say that he would not kiss the prince again, he did think there were just a few things that should be accomplished first. “We must get you down.”
Efrosin frowned, seeming much less intent on getting back to the earth now that he had company in the tree. “But you will kiss me again?”
“Once we’re safe.” Dmitri looked down to choose which limbs they should try, and immediately wished he hadn’t. His head swirled with the distance between his body and the earth below. He’d never before climbed so high.
“Safe is such a thrilling state of being. I can’t remember the last time I felt safe. Grip my hands,” Efrosin said. “Don’t let go.”
Dmitri took Efrosin’s smooth hands into his own, and Efrosin began to shake with amusement again. “Your calluses tickle. Now hold tight. It will be fun.”
“What will be?” Dmitri asked.
“We are tied hand and foot, and you have hold of my hands. All will be well. Trust me.”
It was surprisingly hard to trust laughing royalty. “We’ll die. It’s too far.”
“Too far? What a silly notion.”
# # #
Dmitri’s last thought when Efrosin kicked his feet out from under him with a strong swipe was, At least I got to kiss him. They tumbled into the air, crashing into branches below until Efrosin pushed off against the tree trunk, thrusting them both clear. It was only then Dmitri realized how slowly the ground rose up to meet them.
“Your weight to bring us down,” Efrosin sang in his ear. “My levity to keep us from being quite smashed.” There was more laughter, and then a curl of words in his ear, which, coupled with the rush of adrenaline coursing through his veins, made Dmitri’s cock stiffen against the hard bone of Efrosin’s hip. “And you will ravish me, won’t you? Once we’re on the ground. You promised. You’re so handsome, and your hands are so big. I’m aquiver at the thought of you on me, in me, touching me—”
“Oh my God,” Dmitri choked. “Do you speak to everyone who gets you down from trees this way?”
Efrosin’s face twisted in horror. “Heavens no! Geoffry is nearly fifty years old. And the knights have never kissed me.” The merriment was back, though, as Dmitri’s feet alighted on the earth, and Efrosin’s floated an inch above it. “But I would if the knights ever tried. Especially Sir Carlisle with that beard.” Efrosin eyed him. “You are quite clean-shaven; have you ever thought of growing a beard?”
“I can’t say I have.”
“Beards are nice. Scratchy along the skin. I’ve noticed this quite often when Sir Carlisle has carried me, of course.” Efrosin sighed dreamily, causing a strange, unpleasant feeling to twist in Dmitri’s stomach.
So he kissed Efrosin again.
“Oh forget about beards,” Efrosin breathed against Dmitri’s lips. “The idiot never kissed me. Unlike very handsome, very,” here Efrosin moved his hips against the length of Dmitri’s cock, “hard you. This is rather lovely. Such a grand adventure. What a good birthday this is turning out to be.”
Copyright © Leta Blake & Keira Andrews