Caerus hurled the plate as hard as he could. It slipped out of his fingers and before he knew it there was a horrible shattering sound
Silence fell like a hammer blow.
Caerus clenched his jaw, angry at himself, angry at the serving girl for not bringing him the tarts he wanted, angry at everyone. He stormed out of the room, leaving everyone gaping after him.
There was little solace to be found in the gardens. The sun beat down on the shriveled, water-starved foliage. The stone walkway baked his sandaled feet straight through the cured leather. He walked briskly, trying to release his pent anger. He wanted to throw something, pound something, do something. Anything.
The gardens were completely empty. Who was fool enough to wander around outside in the middle of the day?
Only you, idiot, Caerus chastised himself. Already sweat dripped down his temples and burned his eyes.
He desperately wanted shade. His skin longed for it. He hurried towards the fountain in the center of the gardens, then stood stock still when he saw that someone was already there. He approached slowly, the way a wild animal approaches a human. It was a girl, sitting on the edge of the fountain and swishing her bare feet in the water. Caerus stared at her. He’d never seen anyone put their feet into the fountain before. She had her back to him and was playing with her hair with one hand.
When he was just a few feet away from her, she spoke.
“Do you want something or do you just plan to stare at me, you sweaty pig?”
Caerus was startled. Most girls avoided talking to him. He was so startled it took him a few seconds to comprehend the insult. He tried to respond in kind.
“You’re really not very pretty, are you?” he said snappishly. The girl looked up for the first time. She had large dark eyes in a pinched, heart-shaped face framed with scraggly brown hair. Her gaze bored into his.
“That depends on your definition of beauty,” she replied tartly. “Where I come from, I’m actually considered quite ravishing.”
Caerus couldn’t discern if she was being serious or teasing him. He gave a short, inadequate bark of a laugh to mask his confusion.
“Besides,” the girl continued, “you most definitely aren’t as good-looking as everyone makes you out to be. Honestly, I thought you’d actually be handsome.”
The comment stung. Anger flooded Caerus’s veins.
“Listen, girl,” he said, looming above her, “you don’t have the right to speak to me that way! I’m the Prince!”
“Really?” the girl said, her tone sarcastic. “Honestly, I didn’t know.”
Caerus felt his fists clenched. The girl gave a scathing laugh.
“Ha! What are you going to do? Hit me? Some prince you are.”
She stood and started to walk away, delicately shaking drops of water from her fingertips. Chagrin filled Caerus. He watched her retreating back for a few agonizing seconds before running after her.
“Wait! I didn’t mean to be rude,” he said, falling into stride beside her. “I actually think you’re really pretty and I wasn’t going to hit you.”
The way the girl waved her hand made it seem as if she was brushing his comments away.
“Don’t lie. You don’t think I’m pretty. Honestly, how could a Carideen think of me as pretty?” She gave her short laugh again. “Ha! That would be a new one!”
But the tension seemed to dissipate between them and they walked in silence for a few minutes.
“So,” Caerus finally said, growing uncomfortable at the extended silence, “you don’t think I’m good-looking?”
The girl laughed aloud, not harsh and short but rippling and flowing this time. She was truly amused.
“Are you really so concerned with how you look?” she laughed, smiling at him.
Caerus shrugged, embarrassed.
“Maybe. Just answer the question, OK?”
“OK, then. No, I don’t think you’re good looking.”
Caerus tried not to feel offended.
“This is the most ridiculous conversation I’ve ever—”
“Why?” Caerus insisted.
“Because,” the girl huffed.
“Because you look like everyone else!” she snapped.
Caerus’s startled expression prompted elaboration.
“Don’t you get it?” she said. “Everyone here looks exactly the same. You all look exactly the same. And it’s boring. If everyone is good-looking, then no one is good-looking, you know?”
Caerus frowned, trying to fit his mind around her logic. It didn’t make sense.
“If everyone is good looking . . .” he murmured to himself, frowning hard and staring at the ground.
The girl heaved a sigh of exasperation.
“You really are a dunce, aren’t you?” she said.
“I am not!” Caerus said, growing defensively.
“And you take offense far too easily.”
“I do not!”
“The irony is that you just proved my statement true by attempting to defend yourself.”
“W-well . . . well you’re ugly!”
She gave him a scathing look.
“Really? Is that the best you’ve got? Absolutely pitiful. You Carideens really don’t know how to give a good insult.”
“Well you’re Carideen, too!” It came out like an accusation, which was not how Caerus had meant it.
“No, I’m not,” the girl said matter-of-factly.
“What do you mean?”
“Can’t you tell?”
“Do I look Carideen to you?”
Caerus looked her up and down, at her stick-like build and pale skin and scraggly hair.
“I guess not,” he said, unsure of whether he was reluctant or relieved to admit this.
“There you have it. All Carideens look alike. You included. But since I’m ravishingly beautiful, or possibly horridly ugly, I look different.”
“You’re the weirdest girl I’ve ever met.”
“Glad to hear it. You need all the exposure your royal hiney can get.”
“My royal what?”
“Exactly. You. Are. A. Spoiled. Brat.”
“And you’re still ugly.”
“Glad we’ve come to a conclusion.”
They had reached the edge of the garden. Caerus was enjoying their conversation despite himself. It was marvelous to have someone disagree with him, to contradict him, to insult him, even. This girl was like a breath of fresh air in a stagnant room.
“What’s your name?” he asked, stalling for time. The girl appeared ready to walk away.
“Why do you want to know?” she asked.
“I want to marry you.”
“I can’t get married yet. I’m nine years old, you idiot.”
“And I’m eleven. What does it matter?”
“You’re a Prince. You have to marry someone important. Someone with big hair and fancy clothes,” she pointed out. “Someone with nothing but air in her head and men on her mind.”
“I don’t want to marry someone like that.”
“Too bad. You don’t really have a choice, do you? One of the perks of being a good-looking prince, I guess.”
“So you won’t tell me your name?”
“Because I hate it.”
“Because it embodies the unwarranted control and unjust domination of an innocent people.”
“You like to use big words.”
“I don’t like to. I just do.”
“How does a name embody unwarranted control and . . . and . . . Oh, you know!”
“It’s not the name: it’s the namer.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not the name that’s bad: it’s the intent of the name.”
“But you just said you hate your name—”
“Yes, because of the intent of the namer.”
“You are so weird.”
“Yes, thank you. I believe you’ve already pointed that out and if you’ve nothing important to say I’d really like to be going.”
“Where do you have to go?” Caerus asked, baffled. He rarely left the palace.
“I have places to go, people to see. I prefer to go places and meet people instead of sit hurling plates at poor innocent serving maids in my royal cage.”
“How did you know about that?” he demanded.
“Honestly, anyone could hear you screaming across the garden, not to mention the shatter of priceless pottery. You sound quite bratty when you cry, you know. You’re much too old for it, anyway. How old did you say you were? Eleven? Really, that’s far too old.”
“I don’t—I want—I don’t—”
“Goodbye. And by the way, get out more. You need it.”
She turned and was gone, her short, nine-year-old legs carrying her briskly along the stone walk, past the hedges, and around the corner, out of sight.
Caerus stared after her.
“She really wasn’t ugly,” he muttered to himself as he turned in the opposite direction and ambled along slowly. “And she called me a sweaty pig, or something like that.”
He was almost giddy with glee at the idea.
A final thought rested in his mind. He frowned as he turned it over, examining it and peering at it from various angles:
I need to get out more.