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   Chapter 4 Prince

Clockwork and Cinders By m i c h e l l e p a k Characters: 19018

Updated: 2018-01-19 15:01


Jasper runs. Rain pours from a sponge of gray clouds overhead, but he doesn't notice. He's already shivering from his earlier dunking. There are new bruises all over his body, but right now he can't think of ways to hide them.

He's thinking of the man who saved him.

The hills shrink from sight, patches of grass crunching under his boots. His waistcoat hangs in tatters, and he tosses it over his head. The town jol into view, a shadow against the moonlight that glints off slants of rain. Voices dog him from behind, that and howling. He shudders and throws himself hard into a wire fence.

It's silver, highlighted against the red brick of the town. Jasper climbs. His hands scrabble up the links, his eyes blind in the dark. The goggles lay broken around his neck, rust dripping off them in patches. He draws up a shaky breath, the clinking of the fence pounding in his ears like a second heartbeat. Rain stings the open cuts on his face, and yet, he turns his head up toward the moon. The pain washes over him. Good. He's still alive.

He glances back at the warehouse across the hills, a foreign building of corrugated metal. It doesn't belong, silhouetted against the countryside. And it's as obvious as the people who hurt him. His legs dangle over the fences wire edge, the rungs creaking under his weight. Letting out a wheeze of a gasp, he slips over the fence and into the alley. It is silent. Few people dare the city square at night, and for good reason. Patrols.

He flattens himself against a wall, brushing strands of hair out of his face as he looks up for slivers of moonlight to guide his way. The gas lamps have been blown out elsewhere, leaving him to the mercy of the darkness and the rain. He clutches his heart, the only sound in the world of black the drum of the rain on the cool cobbles underfoot and the pound of his heart. And he waits.

A procession of women glides through the outer street, the sound of their boots muffled by the whisper of petticoats and skirts. Their goggles glimmer in the starlight, a glint of brass, a glint of rust. They carry pistols at their sides, low enough that their gold-gilded barrels hardly show against their blue uniforms.

Jasper prays to the coven, and as quick as they come, as quick as they're gone.

Thunder cracks overhead as he slips through the back alleys. A flash of lightning illuminates the busted Kitty's Cigs, the old smoking house he used to slip into with his friends. Now, ivy curls down the sloped-in walls, the once freshly painted red walls chipped and faded to an ugly gray.

Jasper stares at the broken front. If he strains, he thinks he can hear the ghosts of the laughter he shared there, smell a hint of rich cigar smoke. But when he looks on, he knows it's gone.

He's gotta bring it back.

These walls weren't made to be scaled, and boy, he could use a ladder. But he has the rubble, bricks and crushed stones, scattered like dust through the alley. Some have been stacked. Tall and gray like gravestones. One throbbing leg after another, he stumbles forward, balancing on a stack of crumbly brick. It makes him feel like a child. His hands find the shredded remains of a canopy over the back door, a thick lilac sheet over a creaky iron frame. Another animal howls, long and mournful and low.

He swings. Up he goes, soaked through to the skin in the cold, rancid mix of rain and bucket water. His entire body aches like he himself is one miserable malady. And yet he climbs. Tick tock. Though he left his pocket watch hidden under a stack of books, he can still hear the tick tock tick tock of time slipping by. He can't be missed. If he is, then the underground could be laid to waste.

Rooftop to roof top, he jumps. He moves with soft steps, the softest he can make while running for the sake of the resistance. Faster he pushes himself, shingles slippery from the downpour. Each step makes him slide, every breath as ragged as his pulse. Faster, faster, faster. The words loop through the back of his head, as natural as his own breathing. Hot sweat pours down his neck, and he snuggles his chin deeper into the collar of his jacket.

The man's jacket.

Jasper has never seen him before, not in all of the kingdom. And he was such a peculiar looking man, his features slim, his eyes so big they made him look as gentle and nervous as a doe. He has a soft voice, softer than Jasper had ever heard before. That, and there was something off still, something, unlike any other man Jasper had ever seen before. This close copy of reality, it smelt of magic. He could sense it in the man's voice, too musical to belong to any man he's ever known, yet too unlike any other creature's to be anything else. Peculiar.

Moonlight glistens through the clouds, slivers of gold forming a broken path to guide his way. Above him, the floating gardens begin. The platforms glitter like ice. The glass bottoms, carved to a sharp point. Seven-sided, glow dancing off them so they spill light across the better side of town like a second moon. They sway to the rhythmic swells of the breeze, each platform stretching ten or so paces across, enough standing room for a crowd of men if they stood chest to chest. But tonight, as usual, the floating gardens are empty. They belong to anyone who can reach them them, but it seemed these days Elizrians stayed as far from the castle as they could.

Good on them.

Green spills over the edges of the platform, and Jasper grasps a thick tendril of flower, the honeysuckle sweet easing the pinch of pain throbbing between his eyes. He hangs from the curly ropes and swings himself up. All the muscles in his shoulders pulse with a wave of fresh pain, and Jasper holds back a yelp of pain by stuffing his face in the soft, feathery petals of the garden flowers. Breathe in. Breathe out. The sweetness and the familiarity of the flowers' perfume ease the pain with a cold shiver, but he can't stay. Tick tock. Tick tock.

The bandages of black silk wrapped around Jasper's knuckles are stiff with blood, his back burning from the rungs of new scars. He stares up at the ascending platforms with a huff. Even the sweetness of the flowers won't ease this pain. His captors had planned on one thing, that breaking out of the castle would be a lot easier than breaking back in.

A muscle feathers under Jasper's jaw. Faster, faster now. He'll have to move quicker than this is he ever wants to help the resistance. He swings up on to the next platform, then the next, then the next. The perfume, so sweet, so soft. He wants to curl into the brush, his head tucked against the leathery leaves, and let himself unravel. The pain too, let it all fall away in his cocoon of sleep.

But he can't. Not yet. Tears streak his face from the raw, acid burn in his shoulders and neck. Threads of the faded black jacket rub against his throat, and he pulls it tighter around him. It's too small. The man was as small and slim as a doll, and the muscles in Jasper's shoulders bulge from pulling himself into and out of the gardens. The threads crack. He hopes he can find the man a replacement. If he ever sees him again.

He stumbles into the highest garden. It's covered in a moss that squishes under his scuffed boot, the smell of it as spicy as that of the forests far east and far, far below.

The castle glimmers just above. Jasper throws his goggles down and crushes the lenses out under the toe of his boots. The rain is relentless, washing the blood and sweat clean off his skin.

His heart pounds in his fingertips as he clenches at the smooth stones that make up the castle walls. They shine with a reflection that glimmers with a rainbow of colors, in it, Jasper's, a warp of brown and purple and black. He blinks and scrambles onto a low ledge. The window is made of glass enchanted with an ancient spell, a spell illegal today. No go. He climbs higher and higher, pearly ledge after ledge, the pain now so harsh it's almost numbing.

And then he finds it. A low roof for a small alcove, sloping up into a pipe built of the same glittering material as the walls. It would look like a spire to an untrained eye, as the palace is obscured by clouds and a thick, magic mist. But Jasper knows his ways in and out. This isn't just the palace, this is his home.

He draws in a breath. No smoke. He pulls himself up, the pain now so intense he squeezes his eyes shut and thinks of anything he can to forget. The man. He wishes he could thank him.

As a child, crawling into the chimney was easy. He was small for his age, and with a quick shimmy, he'd slide through and topple into the hearth with a few scratches from the rods in the walls. Now, he has to scratch his way down, pushing against the metal. Sounds come in a garble. A lilting voice trickles up. "Now where did that little Prince go?"

Wedged up in the chimney, Jasper chokes. Black soot fills his eyes and nostrils. Clumps stick in his hair and under his nails. He scrambles to stay put, gripping the rods so hard his arms tremble. Soot sticks to his lashes and burns his eyes. Footsteps clip louder through the castle's echoing halls. "Little prince, little prince?" A woman whistles, low and sweet. Cinder clogs his nose and throat in thick, suffocating clumps. A silent scream catches in the back of Jasper's chest. His grip has become painful. As shivers roll through his drenched arms, his fingers slide. The rod slips out of his grasp, and his scream comes now, a dry,

choked thing as he flails and kicks. Nails, scratching smooth, slippery metal, black dust clinging to his skin.

He tumbles back and hits the hearth, his vision a sea of stars and darkness. Soot swirls in the air like smoke, and Jasper gags and sputters, dust in his throat, dust curling up through the chimney, dust everywhere. The world is a spinning carasoul, and as he grabs at the hearth for something to pull himself up with he finds nothing, a coating of black and gray. His hands slip.

"Oh, Little Prince." The woman laughs, her lilting voice high and dripping with contempt. All the guards where it with their matching sneers. "I see I've found you."

Jasper falls to his knees. His jaw tenses at the wave of pain, but he smiles a graceful, painted smile at the scratches in the fireplace. Please don't look, he thinks. His boot itches. The contraband rubs against his ankle, and his heart thumps a heavy, constant rhythm in his chest.

"Yes ma'am?" He lifts his eyes, careful to meet hers. Behind, a gas lamp lights the library. A splash of red carpet gleams in his bleary eyes, a sheen of stained wood shelves. There, where it's always been, the little ship he crafted with his mother out of parchment paper and wood scraps. The rest of the library is piled with rusty parts. A cog here, a foot chipped, a clock, its face bashed into dangling shards of glass. Jasper used to hide here, and seeing it used as a storeroom makes his bloodied hands tremble, itching to ball into his fists. "I was cleaning the hearth." Believe this. He swipes his tongue over his teeth, tasting a thin layer of grit. Please, he thinks, believe this.

"I was worried." Her hand slides down to her hip, fingers tracing the barrel of her gun. "I thought you'd left, and I'd hate to hunt down a native. Dragging royalty through the streets." Jasper's heart clenches in his chest. Being dragged through the streets is one thing, and after torture, Jasper doesn't find the thought all that scary. How could it be? But the woman slides her pistol out of its leather holster, rolling it through her hands.

"I'd hate to cause an incident." Her voice dips, and she smiles. Slow and easy. "Wouldn't want to hurt your people."

Heeled boots click on wood slats, silencing as they slip into the plush carpet. And then the laughter commences. Sharp, dripping with the same mocking of the woman's false sweet. Guards, invaders, fanning out around him. They speak with the woman, more with their hands than with their voices. Choppy gestures. Quick shrugs. The smell of whiskey clings to their uniforms, polished buttons up to their throats. Jasper's hands curl, knuckles scraping the fireplace.

"Even their royalty rolls in their own filth." Someone's white teeth flash in the gold glow of the lamp. Jasper snaps his head up. Tries to keep his expression blank while he imagines tearing the man's colorless eyes out of their sockets. The contraband takes weight in Jasper's boot, crushing now. "Prince." The man scoffs, speaking as if Jasper were an animal too dumb to understand him. "Prince of what? Cinder?" The man asks. He combs limp strands of blonde hair behind his ears, smiling as if he told a joke. Or a funny one, anyway.

"Cinder, Cinder." The word passes in a ripple through the guard. Drunken smiles and giggles handed throughout like the latest fad, and Jasper grits his teeth. When did they ever leave? Time is running out. Do they know that? Do they know what they're keeping him from?

Paranoia jolts Jasper upright, his back laced with pain. They smile back, coy. Despite the circumstances, Jasper can't make himself meek. The guards look at him and he looks back. Their images reflect back wavy to his hurt eyes. His trembling hands, clenching, and unclenching. Down with them, down with their empire. The words sear in his chest, his eyes burning from soot that he refuses to rub away. He doesn't want them to think he's crying.

The woman squats down, smearing cinder off the bridge of his nose with a slim fingertip. Jasper blinks hard, forcing back tears in the instinct to recoil from her touch. "Finish, " she tells him, the edge of her lip curling into what Jasper supposes is meant to be a smirk. As it is, it's only a half-smile. A haunting sort of grimace that makes him go cold. The musky tinge of rich cologne mixed with that of smoke and whiskey and sweat makes his head pound and the images blur. "Then you can scrub this castle hall to hall." She wrinkles her nose. "It reeks of magic."

Jasper smiles, a quick reaction to mask the panic making his knees quake. Her eyes trail down his body, narrowed into thin, sinister slits. He folds his booted leg closer behind him. His heart thumps so hard against his chest he can't help shrinking back in case she can hear it. She looks so unassuming, her hair yanked back into a tight bun with so many pins Jasper wonders if its painful. "Of course." His jaw trembles, his voice dripping with venom he isn't sure if he wants to hide. So he doesn't.

She flicks her eyes over him one more time, settling her gaze on the heavy brass buckles of his boots. Then she shrugs. "Come on, girls." She turns and Jasper holds his breath because he knows if he exhales it'll come out one, long, relieved sigh. Her voice drips with honey. "Let the Prince of Cinder alone with his filth."

She tears her eyes away from the dirty buckles, dark and round. Her hand-sewn leather shoes sink into the carpet, her blue skirts swishing as she moves. Lace drags on her tulle petticoats, and he watches the white sway as she leaves. The guards file out, drunk on a whiskey made miles and miles away from here, where the queen is supposed to be. His mother.

The door squeaks shut with the softest of clicks. Jasper finally lets out his breath and collapses. Puffs of soot flit into the air with the acid-burn in the vein of Jasper's throat. His fingers fumble with the boot buckles, leather scratching old scrapes. He wriggles his toes free and strips away his stocking, the thin fabric sticky with rain and sweat. And there it is, glittering in the low light of the gas lamp. A feather with silky gold bristles, soft in his fist. Jasper sighs, squeezing it so tightly If the feather were anything other than enchanted, it would snap in the man's fist.

"What a terrible fate, " a woman whispers outside. A lock clicks. Jasper rolls on his side and stuffs the feather in his boot. His head throbs with a new incessant ache. "Poor Clara. Marrying an Elizrian."

"You forget she's grown up with them. Surely, she wouldn't mind too much." Jasper presses his hands into the floor, squeezing fistfuls of carpet. He wishes everything, his heartbeat, his breathing, even his thoughts to fall away. Don't let them come in, he internally begs, though begging even the witches is starting to make his insides feel like slush. He's supposed to fight back. Protect his people. But right now, all he can do is sit on his knees at the invader's feet while they insult his homeland. The world is broken now. As the rain pounds the castle, he can only pray. And wait. His time to fight will come.

"Just not yet, " he whispers, peeling away the man's jacket. Covered in cinders, the guards didn't even notice it. Jasper wipes away the crust of dirt, running his fingers over the harsh threading, the sleeves coming undone at the seams. Even for the man, Jasper thinks, it seemed a little tight. "Just a little longer." The silk wrappings slide off his knuckles, the skin underneath swollen and caked in blood. He clasps his hands behind his back to avoid looking at them.

"Besides, he may be dumb, but he's a looker." Jasper clenches the jacket so hard it tears in his fists, his pulse pounding in his ears. "That's all a queen needs in a husband anyway."

Queen. The word fills the prince's chest with molasses. He lies flat on the carpet, the pains in his body an ebb and flow, a prick here, a stab there. Here, he remembers curling up as a child, reading. Maybe drawing spell circles too, his pen dripping with ink and his fingers with blackberry juice from the berry bowl. Husband. As their voices slip away, he stares at the jacket, his lungs heaving now. The faded sewn in patches, the buttons hanging loose despite multiple stitches to keep them intact. Jasper lays it down gently.

He wishes he were looking into a puddle, so he could swirl his fingers into it and splash away his reflection. He wishes his mother were here, she would know what to do. But weeks have passed. And with no way to contact her, not with the invaders lounging in the castle halls and scrounging through the cabinets of every room, all communication equipment smuggled away in the guise of night.

Jasper draws up a breath, looking out at his library through bleary, squinted eyes. The carpet, he knows woven out of wool that comes from the shepherds' flocks in the east, the shelves sawed from trees grown in the enchanted forests by the river a little south. His castle doesn't smell of magic, it smells of home. And snuggled between the ancient tomes he fell asleep reading, he knows of something else that the invaders don't.

Spell pages.

Jasper closes his eyes, feather tucked under the jacket, the smell of them both smoky and sweet. Dirty and shivering, his mind and heart racing, Jasper's last thoughts before he sleeps are of the man and his gentle smile. A stranger, who spoke up for him and wiped the blood off Jasper's cheek.

A Cheng?

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