Eva and the Craftsman Prince

Once upon a time, there lived a Great Craftsman in a small cottage. He was such a great craftsman, in fact, that the animals and figures that he created out of clay would shake themselves, open their eyes, and fly, or run, or swim off into the forest beyond the cottage.

The craftsman had a son, the apple of his eye, a prince in nature and Prince by name. Prince was a sweet, agreeable boy, kind to everyone and resentful of none. He laughed often, smiled even more often, and always had a gentle greeting or friendly word for the animals and the servants who helped out at the workshop. Prince loved his father as his father loved him, and the two of them worked side by side in the craftsman’s little shop, designing ever more beautiful creatures out of the brown clay.

One day, the young Prince came to his father with a question.

“Father,” he said, “I notice that all of the animals seem to have a special friend, a mate. The roosters have chickens and the bulls have cows, and—Father, will I ever have a special someone like that too?”

The Father turned to look at his son, trying to speak sternly yet not quite succeeding at keeping the indulgent smile out of his voice. “My son,” he said. “Are you not satisfied to have me?”

“Oh, more than satisfied, Father!” Prince said. “I love you with all my heart and I am happy to live here with you. I simply wonder, what it would be like, perhaps, if we had someone else to love. Someone besides the beautiful birds and creatures that you make here.”

“Hmm,” said the Father. And he said no more.

That night, while Prince slept in his bed, the great craftsman went into his workshop, and quietly closed the door. He lit an oil lamp and placed it beside his worktable. Then he uncovered the tub sitting beside his table and took out a great amount of clay. He observed the clay in front of him with a furrowed brow. Then he smiled, and began.

All night long, the craftsman worked, now running experienced fingers over the clay—patting, pinching, shaping it into the form that he wanted—now sitting back and rubbing his chin as he evaluated his ongoing creation.

When the first pink rays of the sun began to appear on the horizon and the hard-working oil lamp finally sputtered and went out, the craftsman sat back with a satisfied sigh, and stretched his arms over his head. He was finished.

The craftsman could hear his son rattling about outside, washing his face, preparing the morning meal. He opened the door and called: “Son!”

“Yes, Father?” the boy immediately left his work and came to the workshop door.

“I have something for you, my son,” the father said, with not a little pride. “Look.”

And then he opened the workshop door wide.

Prince turned a pair of curious eyes to look into the room. He gasped, then laughed, clapping his hands with delight.

In the middle of the workshop, right on top of the worktable, sat a little girl. She wore a simple frock with a bow, and her ebony hair was tied in two neat pigtails. Her chubby legs dangled off the edge of the table, and her big black eyes shone with wonder.

“This,” said the craftsman, lifting the little girl off the table and placing her on the floor, “is Eva. And  Eva, this is my son Prince.”

Prince stepped forward carefully, never letting his eyes leave the little girl. “Hi Eva,” he said softly.

“Pwince,” she said, reaching out a chubby hand to touch his face.

Prince couldn’t help himself. He grinned and wrapped his arms around the child. “Is she mine, Father?” he asked. “Is she for me?”

The craftsman grinned. “She is all yours,” he said. “You will help me to teach her, and when she is old enough, she will be your bride.”

From then on, Prince and Eva were inseparable. Every time Prince went outside to gather mud from the riverbanks for clay, Eva was not far behind, tottering along on her short, stubby legs. At every meal, Prince always made sure to settle Eva in her seat and fill her plate with delicious things before he took food for himself. Every night, Prince and his father tucked Eva into bed and Prince would tell her stories and give her a goodnight kiss on the forehead before turning out the light.

Little Eva was exceedingly fond of her Prince, but even at a young age, she displayed a streak of stubbornness that sometimes frustrated, sometimes delighted her young guardian.

At mealtimes, Eva would occasionally refuse to eat her vegetables, despite the craftsman’s stern warnings or Prince’s cajoling. When she and Prince were playing in the river, Eva would often cry when told that it was time to go home and take a bath. Sometimes Eva’s obstinacy got her in trouble, as it did once when she ignored Prince’s instructions to stay close to him and wandered too far into the rushing river. Had Prince not looked up at the right moment and jumped into the water to grab her, she might have been whisked away by a rogue current. In those moments, Prince would hold the little girl close to him, fear and relief warring in his heart as he soothed away her frightened tears.  

Still, in the safety of the craftsman’s home, and under the influence of Prince’s loving example, Eva grew from a somewhat mischievous, chubby toddler into a playful, confident girl—the apple of young Prince’s eye.

One day, when Eva was about the age on the threshold between childhood and youth, the craftsman called Prince and Eva to him.

“My children,” the craftsman said, “you have been good friends and companions all these years, have you not?”

Eva and Prince looked at each other and smiled, then nodded simultaneously.

“But now, I am afraid, there must be a change.”

“A change, Father?” Prince said.

“Yes,” the craftsman nodded, looking serious. “Eva is no longer a toddler, and it is time for her to grow up and learn the lessons from the World Outside.”

Prince frowned. “But I thought I was to teach her myself.”

“Yes,” said the craftsman. “And you have done a wonderful job. But in order for Eva to learn truly how to be a woman and a bride someday, and not just a little girl, she must go to school in the World Outside, and experience life beyond this cottage.”

Prince nodded, but he did not look terribly happy. “May I go with her, Father?” he asked.

“Yes,” the craftsman said. “But not yet. First, Eva must spend some time learning on her own. You can visit her, and write, of course,” the craftsman added, trying to soften the blow.

“But Eva is so young,” Prince protested. “Who will take care of her while she lives in the World Outside?”

The craftsman smiled and turned. “Armando!” He called, and a tall, thin, silent man appeared in the doorway. He wore an impeccably clean suit, carefully tailored for his wiry dimensions, complete with white gloves and a top hat.

“Master.” He bowed to the craftsman and then to his son and Eva.

“This is Armando,” the craftsman said. “He will be Eva’s temporary guardian in the World Outside, until she returns to us.”

The man called Armando stretched a gloved hand toward Eva, who promptly hid behind Prince.

The craftsman shot her a compassionate glance, but nodded to his son, who took Eva’s hand and led her to the stranger at the door. Solemnly, Prince placed Eva’s small hand into Armando’s large gloved hand, but before he released her, he looked the stranger in the eye: “Take care of her, she is precious to me,” he said.

The stranger’s lips curled up slightly, then he bowed again. “As you say, young master.”

Eva cried when she left, afraid at the prospect of being separated from her childhood home, and from Prince. But Prince gave her a hug and kissed her forehead. “Be brave,” he said. “I’ll see you soon. And before you know it, you’ll be able to come home and live with us again, forever.”

Prince stood at the doorway, watching Eva’s small form beside Light’s tall one, until the two of them disappeared into the distance.

The craftsman came and placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. “I know you will miss her,” he said. “But you may communicate with her often—I have hired several Messengers specifically for this purpose, and they will carry letters back and forth as often as you like—and when Eva comes back, she will be ready to be your bride.”

Prince nodded, and turned to go back to his work.

:————:————:———–:

Thus began a new chapter in Prince and Eva’s lives.

Prince continued to work with his father, the craftsman, fetching clay and molding figures. He also had a new job—enlarging the cottage he and his father lived in.

“When it is time for Eva to come home,” the craftsman said, “She will need a spacious room of her own. That is your job, my son.”

Prince took to the new task with relish, imagining what Eva would look like when she was grown, wondering how she would like the new room he was building for her. He wanted Eva’s room to be the most beautiful, comfortable room she had ever lived in, and so he spared no expense or effort to prepare it.

When he had the time, Prince tried to visit Eva as often as possible in the town in which she lived in the World Outside. But sometimes, because of his work, or because of the distance, Prince was unable to go personally. In those instances, Prince would use the services of the messengers his father had hired, and send letters to Eva. The letters spoke of Prince and his fathers’ newest creations, the state of the fruit trees and small creatures that populated the area around their home, and, of course, how much he, Prince, missed her.

Eva wrote back, though not as frequently, and in her letters, she mentioned the lessons she was learning at the School in her town, and the new friends she was making among her classmates. She appeared to be acclimating to her new circumstances, and though she still missed Prince and his father, the pain was quickly receding.

When Prince did have the chance to visit, he would write ahead, and Eva would wait, sitting on the gate of her new home, looking out for him. As soon as she spotted his familiar lanky figure in the distance, she would jump off the gate and run to greet him, throwing her arms around his neck as they laughed. Sometimes they would sit in the kitchen, eating scones and drinking tea. Other times, they would walk in the garden behind the house, updating each other on all the important details of their lives. Armando was not a particularly warm guardian, and Prince knew that Eva often felt rather lonely and looked forward to his visits as he was her best and only friend and confidante, keeper of all the secrets of her heart.

Eva grew rapidly into a beautiful young woman with shining eyes and long, lustrous hair. She had an astute mind and a gentle voice, and frequently drew the attention of others with her noble bearing and innocent cheerfulness—gifts developed through her early life experience of growing up with Prince and his father. Some of the people in town admired her and wanted to be her friend, but unfortunately, others were deathly jealous of her happiness and reputation, and went out of their way to make her life miserable.

When this happened, Eva would pour out her pain to her devoted Prince, either in letters, or in tears when he came to visit. Prince would sit and listen quietly, her suffering reflected on his own face, and then he would stroke her back and hold her until she stopped crying.

The year that Eva reached adulthood, a new neighbor moved into town.

His name was Light, and he had been an acquaintance of Armando. So the first visit he made after settling in his new house was to the small cottage in the corner of the town which the craftsman had purchased for Armando and Eva.

Eva was in the front garden when Light approached the house.

“Hello, there.”

Eva looked up, startled. There was a stranger standing at the gate. He had hair the color of a field of wheat, and eyes the color of tanzanite. When he smiled, his teeth, even and white, shone as brilliantly as sunlight reflecting off an iceberg. She blinked, and opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

“I’m an old friend of Armando’s,” the stranger said. “Is he home?”

Eva nodded dumbly, and then shook her head.

“Yes. No. I mean, he just went out. But he should be back shortly.”

“Ah,” the fellow nodded, and then leaned casually against the gate. “Well, I may as well wait here for him, if he won’t be long. I have nothing else to do.”

Eva kicked herself for being so tongue-tied and awkward. “Oh, please come in and wait for him inside. I can fetch you some tea while you wait.”

“Why, thank you,” the man unlatched the gate and walked with Eva to the door. As soon as she let him in, he made himself comfortable at the kitchen table. Eva wondered how the man had become acquainted with Armando. Armando was rather an old man, while this stranger looked relatively young—certainly no older than Prince. They were not former schoolmates, that was for certain.

“I always had the impression that old Mando lived alone,” the stranger said, watching with idle curiosity as Eva set a pot on the stove to boil water for tea. “So it was rather a surprise to see a beautiful young lady here.”

“I’m Eva,” Eva explained. “I’m his ward.”

“Ah,” the stranger said. “And where are you from, Eva? What happened to your family, did they pass on?”

It was a rather personal question, but the stranger asked it with such unaffected curiosity, almost carelessly, that Eva somehow did not feel offended by it. “I’m not an orphan,” she said. “I was sent here by the craftsman to go to school and learn what it is like to live in the World Outside.”

“The craftsman?” the stranger said, and there was something in the way he said it that drew Eva’s attention. Most people who heard of the craftsman spoke of him either with great respect or total unfamiliarity. A few, mostly those bullies who tormented her in her school days, treated his name like a curse. But this man said “craftsman” in an almost intimate manner, as if he were well acquainted with, but not particularly impressed by, the man behind the title.

“So, you are the craftsman’s daughter, are you?”

“Sort of,” Eva said. “I am engaged to his son. Do you know him?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes. Yes, I do. I’m an old friend of his, actually.”

Eva cocked her head at the stranger. She had never seen him before, never heard either Prince or his father mention a person who fit this man’s description—not in all the years she had lived with them.

 “I’m sorry, but—what is your name?” Eva asked.

“Oh!” the stranger laughed. “Please excuse my poor manners.” He stood and came over to shake Eva’s hand. “My name is Light. I’m very pleased to meet you.”

“Pleased to meet you too,” Eva said politely. Before she could say anything else, there was a noise at the door, and Armando walked in. He froze when he laid eyes on the guest standing next to Eva.

Light grinned broadly and went over to clap Armando on the shoulder. “Mando! My old friend, how are you doing, dear chap?”

Armando gave his usual expressionless smile, and went to hang his coat and hat on the rack by the door. “Hello, Light,” he said.

“Why, Mando,” Light said. “After all these years, you are still cold as an iceberg. Do you not have a warmer greeting for such an old friend? Especially one who comes with an exciting new business proposition?”

A light flickered in Mando’s eyes. Light laughed, a clear, musical sound that made Eva’s heart pound. “I thought that would catch your interest.”

Eva left the men to chat, after she had prepared the tea and some small sandwiches and biscuits and placed them on the table. She slipped upstairs to start a letter to Prince. She wanted to know all about this Light, and how he knew Prince and the craftsman.

At dusk, when the sunlight began to leech from the sky, Light finally made to leave. Eva had finished her letter and was preparing dinner when the man stood up to shake Armando’s hand. “I’m glad we could catch up, old friend,” Light was saying. “Thank you for taking the time to meet with me.”

Eva came over to stand by Armando. “Won’t you stay for dinner?” she asked. “It’s very late, and you haven’t eaten.”

“Thank you, my dear, but I have some other matters to attend to. Perhaps next time.” He smiled at her, a warm smile, and then walked out of the cottage.

Eva felt a little disappointed, and then her spirits lifted when she remembered his words. Perhaps next time.

When Prince came to visit the next time, Eva ran to him as usual, but instead of asking how he had been or how his father was doing, she asked breathlessly, “Did you get my letter?”

“Yes,” Prince said. He was smiling at her, but there was a hint of concern in his smile.

“Well?” Eva prompted as they made their way to their usual spot in the garden.

“Well?” Prince echoed, looking at her with a little amusement and some sadness, which Eva did not understand.

“Well, who is he? How do you know him? How does he know you? Tell me all about him!”

“Eva…” Prince looked away and took a breath.

“What, don’t you know him?” Eva pressed.

Prince bit his lip, the way he always did before he said something he knew Eva would not like to hear. “I do know him. Very well. Eva, stay away from him.”

Eva drew back, surprised. “What? Why?”

Prince reached forward and took her hand. “Light is—he was someone Father and I knew well, once, long ago. But he has changed, utterly. He is not the person he once was. He is a very dangerous man, and a very shrewd liar. Please, Eva, for my sake, stay away from him.”

“I don’t understand,” Eva said softly, looking away. “He seemed so nice.” He was more than nice. He was a complete gentleman, and even reminded Eva a bit of Prince in some ways.

Prince tilted Eva’s chin to look into her eyes, and she could read the sincerity and concern in those familiar dark brown orbs. “Things are not always what they seem in the Outside World,” he said. “Eva, do you trust me?”

“I do trust you,” Eva said, still not sure why Prince was being so serious. He always treated everyone with such kindness and respect. What could Light have possibly done to make Prince this wary of him?

“Then please, promise me you will do everything possible to stay away from Light.”

“I promise,” Eva said.

It was a promise easier given than kept. The very next day, Light came knocking on their door again, asking to see Armando. Thankfully, this time it was Armando who opened the door, while Eva was upstairs, changing into lighter clothing as the weather had suddenly started turning quite warm in the afternoons.

“Good afternoon, old chum!” Eva heard Light’s familiar melodical voice greeting Armando downstairs. “Do you have some time to discuss that business proposition I mentioned yesterday?”

“Of course, come in Light,” Armando replied.

There was the scraping of chairs, and then Light’s voice again, asking: “Where is Eva? She isn’t out today, is she? I would be so disappointed if I didn’t at least get to say hello.”

“Eva is upstairs,” Armando said. “I’ll call her for you. Eva!”

Eva didn’t know what to do. She had promised Prince to stay away from Armando’s handsome guest, but surely she should not be impolitic by refusing to say hello, should she? Prince wouldn’t want that, would he? Of course he wouldn’t. Thus reasoning to herself, Eva hurried downstairs, telling herself she would stay long enough only to greet Light, and lay out some light snacks before going to tend the garden.

But when she came downstairs, Light’s blue-green eyes lit up in welcome, and his smile was so disarming that Eva had to smile back. “There you are!” Light said. “A sight for sore eyes.”

“Hello, sir,” Eva said. “Let me get your tea for you and then I’ll be off.”

“Oh, please. Call me Light,” Light said. “After all, you and I are not so far apart in age, I don’t think.” He appraised her thoughtfully, from head to toe.

Eva blushed and turned to the stove. She quickly heated water for tea and laid out a platter of snacks along with the pot and cups as she had before. Then she headed to the garden.

A couple hours later, the door opened, and she heard the sound of footsteps heading away from the house, then the gate creaking and clattering as it opened and closed. Eva breathed a sigh of relief. Light had gone. She gathered her basket of summer vegetables and stood to return to the house. Then she stopped, and gasped.

Light stood not four feet away from her, watching her with a slightly amused expression on his face. “I apologize for startling you,” he said. “Are those heavy? Here, let me help.”

Before Eva could say anything, he had stepped forward and taken the basket from her.

“Wh-Where’s Armando?” she asked.

Light shrugged. “Oh, he had something rather important he had to take care of, so he took off. He said to make myself at home, we’ll finish our discussion later. So I decided to come out and see the garden, and instead I saw you. Now, where should I put these?”

Eva didn’t know what to do. Here she was, alone with Light, and he made no signs of leaving anytime soon. This was just exactly the sort of situation Prince had warned her not to allow. But what could she do?

Light saw the distress on her face and his own face softened. “What’s the matter?” he asked.

Eva turned away, trying not to see the compassion in those blue-green eyes. “Nothing,” she said.

“Do you not want me here?” he said.

“Oh! No,” Eva said, gasping with the thought that she had been so ill-mannered as to make a guest feel unwelcome. “That is—”

Prince studied her for a moment, and then set the basket down. “I see,” he said. “I know what this is all about.”

Eva looked at him fearfully. “You do?”

“You’ve spoken with Prince, haven’t you?”

Eva blinked.

Light sighed, and sank down until he was sitting on one of the boulders lining the garden. “I’m so sorry,” he said, looking at the ground. “I’ve put you in a tight spot, haven’t I?”

Eva didn’t know what to say, so she remained silent.

“I suppose he’s told you to avoid me. Not let me speak to you.”

When Eva still didn’t respond, Light snuck a glance at her, then went on: “I’m not a bad chap, actually,” he said. “But I can understand why Prince might think so. It was so long ago…” he sighed again. “I’m disappointed that he is still hurt after all this time. It was all just a misunderstanding, really. Back when we were both boys. We used to be chums, you see. I helped out in the workshop—”

“You worked in the workshop?” Eva interrupted, eyes wide. As far as she knew, only the craftsman and Prince himself were able to work in their workshop.

“Yes,” Light nodded. “That must have been before you came along. Anyway, we had a small disagreement, Prince and I. A misunderstanding. I decided to leave, to let things simmer down a bit, you understand. But perhaps Prince took that as a desertion. It’s hard to lose one’s friends, you know.”

Eva was confused. “But…then…why didn’t you ever come back to visit?”

“Oh, I have, I have,” Light said. “Least, I tried. But Prince’s father—you know how the old man coddles his son—he wouldn’t let me see him and make things right again. A pity, a terrible pity.”

Eva did not particularly appreciate the way Light described the craftsman “coddling” Prince, as if Prince were a spoiled baby and the craftsman an overindulgent, doddering father. But Light appeared so sad, retelling the story of the falling out he had had with Prince, that Eva couldn’t help feeling a little moved. 

Suddenly, Light looked up and clasped one of Eva’s hands in both of his. She gasped, and tried to pull away, then stopped when she saw the tears in his eyes. “Eva, you must help me!” he said.

“Help you—how?” she asked.

“Help me make it up with Prince. Help us restore our friendship. We weren’t meant to be enemies like this. Only you can help us. Please! For Prince’s sake.”

Eva tried to tug her hand away again, but he was holding it too firmly. His words echoed in her mind: For Prince’s sake.

“You are betrothed to him, are you not? You must love him. Surely you would want him to make things up with his oldest friend, and not have this broken relationship hanging over him forever?”

Eva’s mind whirled. Prince had never mentioned having an old friend named Light to her. Obviously this was a sore subject for him. And he had looked so sad, so unhappy when they talked about him last. Perhaps Eva could help…

“I’ll help,” she said. “What should I do?”

Light smiled, and the effect was like the clouds parting to let the sunlight stream through. “Thank you!” he said, jumping to his feet. “I knew you could help us!”

He turned the full force of his smile on her, encouraging her to smile back. “The first thing, is not to tell Prince about this.”

Eva drew back in dismay. Not tell Prince? She told Prince everything! Somehow it didn’t feel right to keep secrets from him.

It was as if Light read her mind. “Not now, I mean. Later, once we are friends again, of course the secret will come out. But now, when Prince and his father are still so prejudiced against me, it would be better not to tip our hand so soon. He might get angry and everything will be worse. In time—in time we will tell him.”

What Light said made sense, Eva had to admit. Prince had always been kind to her, but she knew that behind the gentleness was a sort of power, a frightening strength, a protectiveness that usually only reared its head when he was saving her from some botched escapade or another. She could imagine how he would react if he heard that she was plotting with Light to help reconcile them.

Prince’s words came back to her: He is a dangerous man. And a shrewd liar.

But…Light looked so sincere. Eva trusted Prince, of course she did. But maybe he did not fully understand Light. Maybe he had misunderstood—

“Remember, it’s for Prince’s sake,” Light said, pressing a finger to his lip, his eyes sparkling with a playfulness that matched her own as he lifted the basket of vegetables. “Now. Where should I put these?”

Light became a regular visitor at Armando and Eva’s house, and even accompanied Eva when she ran errands out in the town. His cheerful and friendly demeanor impressed everyone, and Eva found, to her amazement, that he was even able to disarm the old bullies that used to bother her. She felt perfectly safe and comfortable in his company, and noted to herself the difference between his and Prince’s way of dealing with bullies. Prince comforted her, wrote to encourage her to be brave and kind. He encouraged her to bear the injustices, to treat their meanness with kindness, even when they continued to torment her. Light, on the other hand, either sweet-talked the bullies into being friendly, or else threatened them into leaving her alone. Eva had to admit that she preferred Light’s way of dealing with matters.

He was full of fun and personality, he laughed easily and made Eva laugh too. Even quiet, serious Armando became more lighthearted in Light’s company. The more time she spent with him, the more Eva could not understand how Light could have ever had a falling out with Prince in the first place. They were both so kind, so friendly…!

Speaking of Prince, Eva had been writing him less and less, of late. And sometimes, when Prince’s daily letters came, instead of rushing upstairs immediately to read them and then compose a reply, she let the letters pile up on her desk, choosing instead to accompany Armando and Light as they talked and laughed downstairs.

Once in a while, when Eva realized how long it had been since Prince’s last visit, she would grow sad.

“What’s the matter, dear?” Light would say, concern filling his voice.

“I haven’t seen Prince in a long time,” Eva would reply, looking away.

Light would then give her a sympathetic look, or touch her shoulder, and comfort her, saying: “I’m sure he’ll come by soon. And in the meantime, you have me, don’t you?” Then he would tell her a funny story that would distract her and have her laughing again.

Prince never mentioned Light again during his visits, which, like Eva’s letters, grew more and more infrequent. But whenever he came, he seemed more quiet, even morose. Eva tried to tell him jokes, cheer him up, but there appeared to be something serious weighing on his mind, and she could not weasel it out of him. Prince still smiled at her and asked after her well-being, but Eva was starting to feel that being in his company was not half as interesting as listening to Light share his funny, crazy stories.

“Father and I will be traveling this season,” Prince said. “I won’t be able to visit for a while.”

“Oh,” Eva said. “How long will you be gone?” she asked.

Prince bit his lip. “I am not sure,” he said.

“But you will write, won’t you?” Eva asked, feeling saddened. But to her surprise, the sadness was not quite as deep as she would’ve imagined it to be, before Light had come.

“Of course,” Prince said, and then paused. “Eva, will you read my letters? And write me often?” Eva looked up at the sorrow in his tone, and then felt a wave of guilt at the pain she read in his eyes. She hadn’t been reading his letters lately, or writing back often, if at all.

Right on the heels of the guilt, though, came a flood of anger. It was Prince’s own fault for not visiting more often! She was working so hard to get to know his friend Light, to figure out a way to help them repair their friendship. But he didn’t seem to notice, or care. Every time she alluded to Light, Prince would change the subject, or else say, solemnly, “Eva, you promised me you would stay away from him. He is dangerous.”

But Eva could not see how Light could be dangerous. If anything, he was the best friend she had in the Outside World. He protected her from bullies, accompanied her on errands, and chatted with her as she worked in the garden. Sometimes they talked about Prince. More often, they talked about her. Light was far more interested in her—her thoughts, her feelings, her life—than even Prince, who seemed to have that amount of focused adoration only for his father.

“I will write you,” Eva said to Prince at last. She did not add “often.”

The sad expression on Prince’s face indicated that he’d noticed the omission, but he did not say anything about it. Instead, he pressed her hand gently and kissed her on the forehead before he left.

Fall came and passed, and Prince did not come to visit. His letters did come regularly, but he did not answer any of Eva’s questions about where he was, or what he was doing, or when he’d come to visit again. Winter came and went, then Spring, then Summer. A year passed, and still, all Eva had from Prince were his letters. Letters which, over time, she began to read days after she’d received them, or not read at all.

“You’re unhappy,” Light observed one evening, when Armando had gone to his room to prepare for bed. Eva was walking Light to the gate. “What’s wrong?”

Eva looked away, to hide the tears in her eyes. “I’m fine,” she said.

“No, you’re not,” Light said. He reached for her chin and turned her face toward him. “Tell me.”

Eva couldn’t help herself. She let out a little sob. “Prince.”

Light’s brow furrowed as he drew her roughly into his embrace. “He still hasn’t told you where he is or when he’s coming back, has he?”

She shook her head into his chest. Light cursed under his breath. “He shouldn’t treat you this way.”

“At least he still writes me letters,” Eva said, her voice muffled against Light’s warm jacket. A part of her mind was screaming at her to break out of Light’s embrace, to push him off—after all, she was betrothed to Prince, and Prince had told her not to talk to Light, let alone touch him. Yet it felt so good to be touched, to be held, after all this time.

“Letters!” Light pulled Eva away from him, holding her at arm’s length, and Eva was shocked at the fury in his expression. “What good are letters? If he really cared about you, he would come back to you, not send you more letters. You don’t need more letters. You need someone to hold you, to be with you, to…” his eyes darkened, and before Eva knew what was happening, before she could protest, or run away, or do anything, he’d gathered her back into his arms, and his lips were on hers, his fingers tangled in her hair.

Every cell in Eva’s body screamed, in shock, in alarm, in fear.

He was kissing her lips, her cheeks, her eyes, her face, all over.

“No. Light, stop. Don’t—” she tried to push him away, halfheartedly, but he would not let go. “I’m betrothed to Prince!”

“So?” Light growled. He had stopped kissing her, but his hands were still holding her head, tangled in her dark hair. “You aren’t married yet, are you? Then you’re not enslaved to that—that—control-freak. You still can change your mind. Break your betrothal, Eva. It was made before you became a woman and had your own mind, anyway. Break it, and marry me.” He returned to kissing her face, her neck.

“I can’t…!” Eva sobbed, feeling more distressed now than she had before she’d started walking Light to the gate. Part of her felt broken, as if she’d just done something horrible, thrown away something precious. Why didn’t I listen to Prince?

But another, rebellious side of her agreed with everything Light said, enjoyed his touch, his kisses. Wanted him to continue.

Suddenly, Light stopped kissing her. He looked up, startled. Fear rose in Eva’s throat as she turned to see what he had spotted. Armando stood in the doorway, in full view of them. He was too far away for Eva to see his expression, but she started to cry out, to explain, to apologize. Before she could say a single word, Light grabbed her head and turned her roughly back to face him. He kissed her once more, deeply, and then released her and walked off into the night.

Eva stumbled back home, half sobbing, as she tried to explain. “Armando—he kissed me, I didn’t know he was going to do that. I didn’t want him to, I—”

Armando said nothing as he walked into the house and into his room and closed the door.

Eva spent the rest of the night, unable to sleep, shivering in her bed. Was Armando going to write Prince and tell him what he’d witnessed? Would Prince find out? So what if he found out? What would Prince do about it? Eva waffled between despair and anger, regret and indignation.

Armando said nothing to Eva the next day, or the next day, or the next, and Eva did not bring the subject up, either. Light did not come back. For a week, their usual routine remained unbroken, and every single letter Eva received from Prince went directly into the drawer.

At the end of the week, Light was back. Handsome as ever, and with a contrite expression on his face.

As soon as Eva saw him, a chill of fear gripped her heart. She turned away.

“Wait! Eva,” Light saw her, hurried after her. Grabbed her elbow to keep her from moving away from him.

Eva shook him off. “What do you want?” she said, glaring.

“I wanted to apologize for what I did,” Light said, hanging his head.

Eva looked at him without compassion. “You shouldn’t have touched me like that.” She turned on her heel.

“I know, I know,” Light continued to run after her, and when she tried to enter the house and lock the door between them, he jumped in front of her, barring her entrance. “Please, Eva, hear me out.”

Seeing that she had no choice—Light was bigger than her, and stronger—Eva growled, “I should’ve listened to Prince. I never should’ve talked to you.”

“Please, Eva,” Light said, his tone contrite, his eyes begging. In spite of herself, Eva softened.

“Fine. Hurry up and tell me, and then leave. Armando’s inside somewhere.”

Light shrugged at the mention of Armando. “Oh, I talked to him already, it’s okay. He hasn’t told on us. I asked him not to.”

Eva drew back, surprised. What?

Light smiled at her, a hint of the old mischief in this more contrite version of the expression. “He and I are good friends, I told you. That’s what friends are for—to help keep secrets, now and then.”

Eva wasn’t sure she liked the way Light defined “friends,” but by now she was used to his way of describing the world. She sighed and crossed her arms, leaning backwards in case he tried to force-kiss her again. “Why are you here now?”

“I told you—to apologize. To explain.” Light sighed, and looked away as his whole frame sagged. Eva glanced at him in mild alarm.

“Explain what?”

“Why I did what I did.” Light looked at her through his golden lashes, his eyes glittering with…tears? “I love you, Eva. I have ever since I laid eyes on you. I couldn’t…I couldn’t help myself that night. You were so unhappy, and I knew it was he who had done it to you, and I wanted to thrash him for making you so sad, but I couldn’t, all I could do was try to comfort you, and so I…I…kissed you.”

It was Eva’s turn to look away. She hadn’t known—or at least, wasn’t sure, but now that he’d confessed, it all made sense…the attentions he paid her, the way he protected her, the edge of something—anger, jealousy—whenever he mentioned Prince’s name. It was all for her.

Eva was flattered, of course. And she wasn’t completely insensible of Light’s attractions. He was handsome, and kind, and drew everyone’s attention in town. His confession of love for her only made him more alluring, in many ways. And yet…and yet…

A memory surfaced in Eva’s mind—Prince’s warm brown eyes, gazing lovingly into hers just before he kissed her—always on her forehead, never anywhere else. He was the real gentleman, giving her space, respecting her boundaries, advising, but never commanding. Giving, never taking. Eva’s heart constricted. She missed him so badly.

“Eva—Eva—” the voice that was calling her was not Prince’s. Her vision cleared and she saw Light’s green-blue eyes looking at her with concern, and a hint of envy. “What do you say?”

“Huh?” Eva hadn’t heard his question.

“Can we just go back to being friends again?” Light said, pleading. “I promise I won’t try to do anything like that ever again, not without your permission.”

The last part was a little unsettling. Eva wasn’t sure she could keep from giving her permission whenever Light wanted something. He could be so convincing…

Just like he was being now, with his handsome eyes and winsome expression.

“Okay,” Eva sighed.

“Okay?” A slow smile spread across Light’s face as he sighed happily. “That’s a relief!” he said. He took her hand, and pressed it gently when she tried to remove it. “I’ll be going now, then. But I’ll be back.”

Light was not good at keeping promises, Eva found.

He started visiting daily again, and each time he paid less and less attention to Armando and more and more to Eva. She found him staring intently at her every time she was within sight, and attempting to talk to her privately in the garden. When she tried to hide from him in her bedroom upstairs, he would come up with excuses to come up and give her something, say something to her, or else he would have Armando call her down to share some new treat he had just bought at the market. When she declined, he would come up with Armando and coax her down. It was tiresome, and Eva found it easier just to do what he wanted and hope he would leave sooner. Except, part of her didn’t want him to leave, and he certainly wasn’t making things easier by not going when he should.

He insisted that she walk him to the gate every evening, and would take advantage of the time to whisper loving words into her ear and to steal kisses. Eva did her best to maintain distance between him and herself, and as soon as he was within sight of the gate, she would say a quick goodbye and run back to the house. Armando had never stood in the doorway once, since that time he first caught them kissing, and Eva wished that he would. 

As time passed, Light became more and more insistent, claiming that he was dying of love, that Eva was his soul mate, that he loved her more than life itself, more than Prince ever had or ever would. His words were pretty, persuasive, provocative. Eva wanted him to stop, yet wanted him to continue. Prince had never spoken to her like this, of secret things, of deep uncontrolled attraction. She equally hated and anticipated Light’s visits, his presence, his cajoling. She was also growing more and more confused. Once in a while, she would take out one of Prince’s letters, smooth it against her lap and read it, trying to recall what he sounded like, how he looked, how much she loved and adored him. But the memories were faint, fleeting. Light’s whispered, forbidden professions of love were far more present, more exciting.

Armando, on the other hand, saw—or at least pretended to see—absolutely nothing. Eva was at turns grateful for and frustrated by his dullness.

“It’s been more than a year! Has he even been writing to you lately?” Light pressed Eva one day, when Armando, to Eva’s dismay, had excused himself to run an errand in town halfway through Light’s visit. Eva tried to protest, but Armando ignored her. And before Armando had even closed the door behind him, Light had gotten up from his chair and walked over to Eva’s. She stood up with a clatter, backing away. “Please, Light. Don’t.”

In response, he had bitten out his frustrated question.

“I—I don’t know.” To her dismay, Eva realized that she had completely stopped checking the mail. She had been entirely too occupied by her conflicting desires and fears regarding Light and his tantalizing, confusing proposals. If Armando picked up the letters to her from Prince, she had no idea where he put them.

“You don’t know?” Light crowed victoriously. “You haven’t been checking, have you? You realize it now, what I’ve been trying to tell you—Prince doesn’t love you. He never did. The only one he loves is his precious father. He only cared for you because you were a gift from his father. That old craftsman can just make him another one of you. He’s forgotten you. He doesn’t know you. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t love you for you—he doesn’t want you. Not like I do. Eva—”

He pleaded with her, tried to come closer, and she retreated, her hands in front of her. “No! No, you’re lying,” she cried.

“Am I?” he said. “Then why isn’t he here, telling you he loves you himself? What could possibly keep him so long from the woman he loves? Has he ever even told you he loves you?”

Eva bit her lip. She couldn’t remember. Had he? He must have, in the past…mustn’t he? Come to think of it, she could not recall ever seeing those words in any of his letters to her. But each letter spoke of his love for her in other ways—such as the way he described the room he was building for her, the way he asked after her health, commented on her letters, advised and encouraged her…that was his way of telling her he loved her, wasn’t it?

Light’s comment about Prince’s love for his father did sting—Eva remembered how close the two of them were, how perfectly in sync. They loved her, she could feel it, but the relationship they had with each other was—different, higher. At times, she even felt as if she wasn’t really a part of their family. What if Light was right? What if Prince only loved her because she was a gift from his father? What if he didn’t love her as her? Would he love her if she had not been a gift? If there was something wrong with her? If she let Light…

“Eva,” Light said, closing the remaining distance between them and gathering her in his arms. “Eva…”

She struggled, but not very hard. He was kissing her again, with more abandon than last time. She could feel herself slipping away, losing resistance.

Armando—where was Armando? Eva’s mind spun wildly, reaching for something firm to hold onto—and then being distracted by the insistent kisses Light was pressing all over her face. Before she knew what was happening, Eva felt herself being picked up and carried across the living room. Her jacket fell to the floor, her shoes too.

“No, Light, stop!” Eva cried, when she had her mouth free.

Eva didn’t know what to do. Her body was not listening to her mind. It screamed at her to kick him, make him drop her, but somehow her hands continued to cling to his neck, pressing him closer to her.

He kicked open the door to a bedroom—Armando’s room, then kicked the door closed behind him. Eva’s heart beat wildly. She considered screaming, but the sound that came out was the opposite of a scream. “No, Light,” she murmured.

“No?” he repeated, a devilish glint in his eye, and then he kissed her on the mouth, so deeply that Eva squirmed. When he finally released her, Eva looked into his fathomless eyes, now a dark ocean blue, and whispered: “Okay… okay.”

She was done for.

A few moments later, there was a knock at the door, and a voice—an all-too-familiar voice. “Eva? Eva, are you home?” It wasn’t Armando.

Terror filled every inch of Eva’s body, and she began to shake. Light lifted his head, looking surprisingly unsurprised, and slowly stood up. Eva opened her mouth, but couldn’t speak. With a cunning smile, Light pressed a finger to her lips and winked at her. “Shh,” he said.

He pulled on some clothing, and opened the door.

Close the door! Eva’s mind screamed, but she could not get up, her legs would not obey her. She watched as Light sashayed across the living room to the front door.

No! No, are you crazy?

Apparently, he was. Light opened the door, leaned languidly against the door frame. “Hello, Prince.” He said.

Prince stood there, his brown hair wind-tousled, his brown eyes widening, then narrowing when he took in Light. Saw how he was dressed. “Cato,” he said.

“Long time no see, old friend. And by the way, the name is Light. Just because you and I aren’t on good terms anymore doesn’t mean you can change my name. I decide what I’m called.”

“What are you doing here?” Prince said, angrily. “Where is Armando? Where is Eva?”

In reply, Light shifted slightly, and Prince looked past him, across the living room, through the open bedroom door, to where Eva huddled, shaking with horror and shame.

“Eva,” he whispered, his voice breaking. “No.”

“Prince—”

Her heart was breaking. Light had been lying this whole time. Prince did love her. She could see it in face—see it in the tears that spilled openly down his cheeks, as his entire expression caved in. She could see Light’s expression too. The unfettered hatred glittering in his blue eyes, the gloating victory. He had done what he came to do. He didn’t love her. She was simply a tool. A tool used to pierce Prince’s heart.

Prince left.

The void Eva felt as he turned and stumbled down the path threatened to consume her. Light closed the door with a laugh and tossed her clothes at her. “Get up, get dressed. We’re leaving.”

Eva shook with rage. “I’m not going anywhere with you!”

Light lifted an eyebrow. “Oh, no?” he said. “Listen, you little fool. You have no one to rely on but me now. You chose me. Do you think your precious Prince and his great Father will continue to protect you and pay for you after you betrayed them in this way? You may as well scrape up what little pride you have left and come with me before they return and throw you out.”

He stepped toward her and Eva recoiled. Light smiled, and there was nothing warm or enticing about it this time. “Don’t worry,” he said, reaching forward to stroke her cheek tenderly. “I’ll take very good care of you. I love you, after all.”

He took her into town and set her up in a squalid apartment that was in every way the opposite of the beautiful, cozy cottage she had been living in before this disaster. “There, now,” Light said, as he closed the door to the room. “That’s taken care of. You better start thinking of a way to make money, to pay for yourself. I can’t be supporting you forever.”

“Make money?” Eva asked, her eyes wide. She’d never had to do anything like that before. Prince and the craftsman had always provided for her every need.

“Sure,” Light said. “You do know what money is, don’t you? Or were you too much of a pampered pet to understand how the real world works?”

Eva didn’t answer, completely overwhelmed.

Light sighed. “Well, what do you know how to do?”

“I know how to make pottery,” Eva managed to say.

“Pottery. Right. That’s not going to work,” Light smirked. “I better teach you a new trade.”

They started with cards. Light taught her how to play various games, how to cheat by stashing cards in her sleeve, or by peeking without letting others know what she was doing. Eva had never had any experience with such practices, and she cringed each time she touched the cards, but Light merely sighed impatiently and pointed out that if she didn’t bring in any money, he wouldn’t feed her. He made good on that promise, too, depriving her of water and bread whenever she lost too much money, or whenever he simply couldn’t be bothered to remember to bring her anything.

Learning to bet on animal fights was worse. In the past, Eva remembered spending long afternoons with Prince, finding and caring for wounded animals, and laughing with delight once they regained their health and sped off on healed legs or wings. Here, Eva was pushed and crushed between big smelly bodies as loud voices clamored to place money on scrawny animals driven half-mad by human cruelty, then dumped into a cage to fight to the death. At first, Eva cried, but over time, the tears dried, and she learned to deal with the grim process—the dead and dying animals, the stink of blood and offal, the indignancies of grabbing male hands—with something close to indifference.

The worst by far was when she made no money either on the gambling or on the betting. Then, Light would shrug and say, indifferently: “Well, you know what you have to do.”

The first time, Eva did not understand. Not until Light returned with a group of men, all grinning at her as if she was a piece of delectable steak.

“One at a time, boys. And pay first.” Light said, holding out his hand.

“Light! Help me—You said you loved me!” Eva screamed, as they dragged her away.

Light grinned at her. “I do,” he said. “This is my way of showing it.”

In spite of Light’s brutality, Eva was afraid to leave—twice, she had tried, thinking she would run away from the horrible Light and find someone kind to take her in, teach her a real trade, help her survive.  But the first time she did, the large, coarse woman who took her in as a trial dishwasher ended up beating her half to death with a giant pot when she ended up breaking more dishes than she was able to clean. Light had come for her then, smirking knowingly, and dragged her back to the old apartment in her sodden clothing, before dumping her unceremoniously on the ground.

“You can try to run away, if you like,” Light told her. “But it won’t go well for you.”

The second time she tried to run, she hadn’t even gotten a block away before she was surrounded by a gang of foul-smelling men who leered and grabbed at her. Once again, Light showed up only when she was a breath away from unconsciousness.

“I told you so,” was all he said, after he deposited her on her lice-ridden bed.

Eva cried herself to sleep every night, cursing Light for his cruelty and herself for her stupidity. Whenever she thought of Prince and the craftsman, she only cried harder. That life seemed like a dream now—an impossible, distant dream. Perhaps it had not even happened. Over time, Eva learned to suppress her tears and her memories. But she could never quite suppress her dreams. Many times, she would wake up with water in her eyes and the faint sense of gentle lips pressed against her forehead. Then she would shake her head, steel her heart, and get ready to face the day ahead.

:————-:———–:———-:

Prince sobbed aloud, groaning in pain as his father laid a large hand on his head, comforting him even as tears rolled down his own weathered cheeks.

“I’m sorry, my son,” the craftsman said, feeling in his own heart the stabbing pain that tormented his son.

“I can’t bear it,” Prince said.

“I know, my son, I know.”

“I wish—” Prince looked up, his brown eyes spilling tears. “I knew he was there—had been there all this time. I knew she hadn’t listened to me.”

“We both knew.”

“I knew this could…would happen. But…Father, it hurts.”

The great craftsman knelt next to his son and put an arm around his shoulder. “We had to give her the chance to make her own decisions. That’s why we left.”

“He is a liar!” Prince curled his fists in anger. “He lied to her! She never would have…if he hadn’t…”

The craftsman sighed. “Yes. But you warned her not to listen to him. She chose not to believe you.”

“I know,” Prince said, calming down. “I wrote her—but I know she didn’t read my letters.” The tears sprang back into his eyes, as he choked out: “I could…feel her…losing her love for me.”

The craftsman paused for a pregnant moment. Then he asked: “Do you still love her?”

“Of course!” Prince said, his head shooting up in indignation. Then he caught the knowing look in his father’s eyes. “You know that,” he said softly. “You love her too.”

The craftsman nodded. “But I’m afraid she is about to go through far more hurt now than we ever intended for her.”

His son winced, then paled. “He’s going to kill her.”

The craftsman’s lips were a thin line as he nodded again. “But not right away.”

“Father! We have to save her!” Prince scrambled to his feet, desperate.

“Wait, son.”

Prince froze, staring wildly at his father.

There was a pause. A thousand years, or perhaps two thousand, condensed into one minute. Finally, the craftsman sighed. “She isn’t there anymore. Cato took her into town.”

“Town…” Prince’s face set into a steely expression. “He won’t keep her there. She’s mine. I’m going to get her back.”

 The craftsman offered his son a grim smile. “It’s going to cost—” he started.

Prince looked into his eyes. “I know,” he said. “I will pay. To me, she is worth it.”

The craftsman closed his eyes for a moment. He breathed in, exhaled. Then he nodded.

:——————-:———————:——————:

“Please, Light, I need water…bread,” Eva begged, kneeling on the grimy carpet.

“You know the rules, dear. Both bread and water cost money. You lost all of yours last week, and your debtors aren’t willing to lend you anymore. You owe them too much already.”

“You could do something,” Eva rasped.

“I could,” Light agreed. “And I have. I have fifteen friends lined up downstairs, just waiting for the signal.”

Eva turned her head away, and Light laughed. “Desperate times call for desperate measures, my dear.”

Eva ran a dry tongue over her chapped lips. “Why are you doing this?” she said.

“Doing what? It’s your choice, dear. It’s always been your choice. From the very beginning. That ole Prince warned you, didn’t he? I’ll bet he did. But you didn’t listen to him. If he could see you like this now…if he could see how filthy you are, if he knew all the disgusting, filthy things you’ve done, he’d be absolutely revolted by you. He’d sneer at your filthiness; spit in your face. And you’d deserve it, because you did this to yourself.”

Eva did not reply.

Light tapped his foot against the floor. “I’m not going to wait here forever. Are you going to satisfy the men? Or die of thirst?”

Eva’s fingers dug into the floor, creating claw marks in the greenish-gray carpet. She should just let him kill her. The pain—physical and spiritual—of selling herself to Light’s “friends” was too much for her to bear. But she hadn’t eaten or drunk anything in days. When she’d tried to slake her thirst on the tap water last time, she’d lain in agony for a week, as bacteria from the unpurified water ravaged her intestines. She’d only barely survived, and as soon as she could stand up again, Light forced her to sell herself, claiming that she owed him extra for the medicine he’d bought her. 

Eva wanted to die, but not like this, not with her throat burning for lack of water, her stomach turning itself inside out for lack of food. Either way, she was going to suffer. She just had to pick one.

“Let them in,” she said.

Light smiled. “Right away, madam.”

Prince let himself in to the dilapidated building. The various vermin and vermin-like residents scurried out of his way as he strode across the lobby, a hard, determined look on his face. One glance at that fierce expression, and no one dared ask why someone like he, who obviously did not belong, had entered their lair.

“Where is she?” Prince demanded once he’d reached the front desk.

The rat-like receptionist cowered behind his desk. “Excuse me?” he squeaked.

Prince narrowed his eyes, reached across the desk, and grabbed the receptionist by his lapel. “Don’t give me that. You know who I am. You know who I’m here for. Tell me.

“She’s on the sixth floor,” the man said, throwing Prince an access badge. “Don’t hurt me! Please don’t hurt me!”

Prince ignored the badge, dropped the receptionist, and headed for the stairs.

The column of men lined up on the stairwell leading to the sixth floor stumbled and fell back as Prince swept past them. Light stood on the sixth floor landing, giving instructions: “Now she may be a little weak, but I just gave her a draught which should keep her going long enough for all of you…” he trailed off as he spotted Prince, whose barely-concealed rage radiated off every inch of his figure.

Light took an involuntary step back. “Prince! What a…surprise. I was not expecting to see you here.”

“Of course you were,” Prince said as he turned and roared at the line of men: “Begone!”

They scattered like cockroaches, terrified out of their wits.

“Now, now, there’s no need for that. It’s not like I’m the one who asked them to come up here, she did that herself, you know.”

Prince pushed past him and reached for the door Light had been standing in front of.

“Hold on!” Before Prince could turn the doorknob, Light lay a hand on Prince’s shoulder. “You may have a lot more authority than I do in…certain things. But this is my territory. I own this building.”

“Which you stole from my father.”

Light shrugged. “Technicalities. Nevertheless, it’s mine. And so is Eva. She chose me.” He grinned at Prince, his pearly white teeth out of place against the grungy décor of the apartment complex.

Prince narrowed his eyes, then before Light had a chance to react, turned the knob and threw open the door.

Inside, Eva gasped at the suddenness of the door opening, hugging a threadbare sheet to her chest. And then she gasped again when she saw who was standing on the threshold. Her heart leaped, and then sank. No, not him—not like this, not again.

This time, though, there were no tears in his eyes. Just a steely determination.

Eva shrank away from that look, not sure what was worse—this smoldering anger or the previous hurt betrayal.

“You can’t do this! It’s not legal!” Light was ranting behind Prince. “It would be well within my rights to have you arrested, or killed!”

“Let me talk to her,” Prince said, never taking his eyes off Eva.

Light stopped protesting. He thought for a moment, then– 

“Fine,” Light said, a slow, evil smile spreading on his face. “I’ll give you five minutes.” He fixed Eva with a cold, blue glare, and mouthed a single word: filthy.

Then he sauntered away, his hands in his pockets. Eva watched him go, refusing to look at Prince, refusing to allow him into her flea- and lice-infested room.

“Eva,” Prince begged. “Let me help you.”

Eva turned away, ashamed. Light’s condemnation rang in her mind. If he could see how filthy you are, if he knew all the disgusting, filthy things you’ve done, he’d be absolutely revolted by you.

“Go away, Prince. There’s nothing you can do.” Or rather, there’s too many things you can’t undo, her brain amended.

He wouldn’t go. “Eva, come home with me. Come back. Father and I—we miss you. We want you.”

Tears sprang to her eyes. What was he saying? She didn’t understand. Why would he want her back? She was filthy. Beyond redemption. He was lying. He must be lying. He had come to rub it in, to hurt her the way she’d hurt him. Right?

“Eva, do you trust me?”

Eva winced as she remembered the last time he had asked her that question. She’d said yes so readily then. I’m the one who can’t be trusted.

“Eva?” he was still waiting for his answer. Every moment he stood her, pleading with her, pained her deeply. He was Prince, the son of the Great Craftsman. He shouldn’t be here, in her dirty apartment, in this filthy part of town, trying to help a girl who had betrayed him, who had allowed herself to become soiled beyond redemption.

“Forget it, Prince,” she said, as she closed the door on him. “Forget me.”

Prince looked at the closed door. “I can’t,” he whispered. “I won’t.”

“Told you she wouldn’t go with you,” Light said, lounging against the wall as Prince came down the stairs.

Prince fixed him with a steely glare, then turned without a word.

Light pushed himself off the wall and raced after him, calling out to Prince’s retreating back. “Give up, Prince! She’s mine. She’s utterly and completely mine.”

When Light returned, Eva was still huddled on the cot.

“I can’t believe he tried to come for you!” Light giggled. “Or no, wait, yes I can. That’s the kind of stupid that he is.”

“You shouldn’t have let him see me,” Eva said dully, hardly knowing what she was saying.

“Are you kidding? Of course I had to let him see you. That was the whole point of all of this. It’s the only way I can get him.”

Eva slowly turned her head toward him. “You did all of this to me, just to get him?”

Light looked at her as if she were an idiot.

“Why?”

Light’s face darkened into a sneer. “Because I hate him. I loathe him. I am a prince, too, did you know? I am the prince of this world, I own everything and everyone in it. And yet they adore him. They worship him, and not me. They even tried to change my name. I am light. I am the light of this world. And they can’t do anything about it.”

Light snarled. “But now I have you. And he thinks he loves you. Love,” he chortled. “What a joke! Love only makes you weak. Hatred gives you real strength.”

Eva had no idea what Light was talking about. All she could think was that she was wrong, she was wrong. She shouldn’t have sent Prince away. She’d fallen for Light’s horrible lies again. Prince was telling the truth when he said he wanted to help her, wanted her. He was her only hope of salvation. And she had sent him away.

Light continued to laugh to himself as he left her room, and Eva lay on her cot, facedown, in utter despair.

Something white caught her eye. There, in the corner of the room, by the door. What was it? Eva sat up, then climbed off her bed and went to fetch the object.

It was a letter!

Stunned, not just that the letter had somehow appeared in her room, but that it had somehow escaped Light’s notice, Eva quickly opened it. There were only six words on it: Eva, I love you. Come home.

A wave of warmth surged in Eva’s chest. She was loved! After everything she had done, Prince somehow, impossibly, still loved her.

She had to get out of there.

The door was unlocked. After Eva’s second botched escape attempt, Light had stopped bothering to keep her hostage with a physical barrier. He had other, more potent means of ensuring her continued imprisonment. Eva was weak with hunger, thirst, and lack of exercise, but she made herself stand up and open the door. She looked both ways and hurried down the stairs as fast as her doddering legs could hold her. To her immense surprise, there was no one on the stairs or any of the landings. It was as if the whole apartment complex had been completely cleared out.

When she reached the lobby, there was no one there. Not even the receptionist. That was odd. Eva took two steps, and then froze. She was wrong, there was someone waiting in the lobby. Someone with dark brown hair. And warm brown eyes.

“Prince.”

He smiled and held out his hand to her. “I knew you would come,” he said.

The sky was dark, clouds gathering on the horizon as Prince and Eva walked away from the apartment complex.

Prince walked steadily, but not particularly quickly. Eva hung back half a step behind him, afraid to walk beside him, afraid to see his face. She thought they had probably better pick up their pace, to avoid Light and his cronies catching them, but Prince did not appear to think the same way, and after everything she’d done, Eva did not dare say anything to him.

But as they walked—him in front, her half a step behind—Eva reflected on everything that had happened, from the time Prince had seen her with Light in the cottage until now. And the regret and remorse rising in her breast was so extreme that she could not help herself.

“Prince?”

He stopped and looked at her.

“I’m sorry—you don’t know how sorry—for everything I’ve done…to you.” She started to cry. “I know I don’t deserve to go home. You don’t have to take me there. Just—leave me somewhere far away from Light. That’s all. Somewhere safe from him, in this world.”

Prince’s eyes were infinitely sad. “There is nowhere safe from him in this world,” he said.

Eva opened her mouth to reply, and then screamed—or tried to, when something large and shiny whistled through the air where her head would have been, had not Prince suddenly grabbed her and stuffed her behind him.

A dagger was impaled between two cobblestones, its silver handle still vibrating rapidly from the force of its flight.

Light emerged from around the corner of a nearby building, another identical dagger in his hand. “Stop,” he said. “I let you get this far, but no farther. You cannot have her. You do not have the right. She chose me.”

Dozens of dark-clad men stood behind Light, several of them from the apartment building. All of them were armed.

Eva tugged at Prince’s sleeve, not sure why he wasn’t leaving. “Prince,” she pleaded. “Run.” She was in no shape to outrun Light and his accomplices, but Prince was healthy, strong, fast, and perfectly capable of getting away.

But he didn’t try to get away.

“What do you intend to do with her?” Prince asked the question as if he already knew the answer.

“Toy, enjoy, and destroy. The usual.” Light tried to say it casually, but Eva sensed a repressed eagerness behind his words.

Prince’s jaw tightened. “Take me instead.”

Light ran his tongue over his lips, his eyes glittering unnaturally.

“No,” Eva whispered.

“Get him, boys!” Light commanded, and the crowd rushed forward with a collective roar. Before they reached them, Prince looked over Eva’s head, and nodded. They were standing by a small, nondescript door carved into a boulder-gray building. At Prince’s signal, the door opened, and a pair of hands yanked Eva inside with surprising force, before shutting and bolting the door behind her. Eva whirled around in surprise, only to see a wizened old woman looking at her with the same sadness that she had seen in Prince’s eyes only moments before.

“What are you doing?” Eva gasped. “Let me out—they’re going to kill him!”

“And what do you plan to do about it, missie?” the old woman said. “You cannot stop them. He knew what he was doing. He chose it. He wanted to protect you.”

Eva turned to the bolt, trying to undo it. It was frustratingly uncooperative, and the old woman did not attempt to help her or stop her. Outside, Eva could hear the sounds of a battle going on—or no, a butchering. She could not hear Prince’s voice, only the ring of steel and the raucous bellows of violent men bent on killing, and Light’s clear distinctive voice over all of them—screaming in hatred and victory. Eva sobbed as her fingers fumbled with the door, knowing even as she did so that she was too late.

Just as Eva slid the bolt free, a horrendous crash reverberated through the skies, half-deafening her. She fell to the ground as the roll of a thousand drums roared to life. Dazed, Eva pushed open the door only to see the attackers running pell-mell as lightning flashed and giant pellets of rain and hail crashed to the ground.

There was a figure, slumped on the ground, a dark liquid pool quickly spreading beneath him. Eva stumbled over to the figure, brushing the hair away from his face. Prince. He was riddled with stab and puncture wounds—his neck, his chest, his arms and legs, everywhere.

Eva rolled him over frantically, calling his name, begging him to wake up. Looking at the quantity of blood gushing out of his wounds and spreading over the ground, there was little chance of that, but still she pleaded, putting her face next to his mouth to check for breath, placing her fingers against his throat to check for a pulse. Nothing.

Prince was dead.

Eva screamed. She lifted her head back and howled, not stopping for breath, not stopping for anything. It was all her fault. She had killed him. She screamed until she thought her body would explode with it, the sounds echoing off heartless stone walls. She screamed until she could not scream anymore.

A large presence materialized behind her. Perhaps one of her attackers, come to finish her off. She did not care anymore. The person knelt beside her and attempted to take his body from her. Eva snarled, not looking up, clutching Prince’s lifeless form to her. But she was too weak from malnutrition, and the person was too strong. He peeled her arms off Prince’s body, and lifted him away. As the person walked away with Prince’s body, his footsteps echoed off the cobblestone, each reverberation knelling in her head like a death toll.

Exhausted, defeated, Eva collapsed on the bloody ground in a dead faint.

When she woke up, she found herself lying in a bed, covered with blankets. A warm fire burned beside her, and a small figure hunched beside it, stirring something in a kettle hanging over it. Eva made a noise of surprise, and the figure turned. It was the old woman, and she smiled a sad, comforting smile as she looked at Eva.

“So yer awake now, missie? Just a moment, and I will have yer tea ready for ye.”

Eva’s throat burned. She tried to speak, but nothing came out.

“Now, just rest, missie,” the old woman said. “Ye’ve been out for quite a while.”

“Pri—” Eva started, her voice an unintelligible croak. She wet her lips and tried again. “Where is Prince?” she whispered. Her mind was fuzzy. She recalled him coming for her, protecting her from a dagger thrown by Light, but then…what happened?

The old woman appeared not to hear her. “There ye are, missie, a hot cup of tea.”

The woman helped Eva to sit up, and tried to place the mug in her hands. Eva’s hands were shaking too badly, however, so the woman blew on the steaming liquid and raised it to her lips herself.

Eva managed to take a couple of sips before her memories solidified and she gave a hoarse cry. “He’s dead!”

The woman startled and only just managed to avoid spilling the hot liquid on Eva—not that Eva would have cared at the moment. She turned her head to the wall and sobbed, feeling that she deserved the piercing pain in her throat that this behavior caused, and indeed, wishing that the pain would kill her. If it did not, the pain in her heart certainly would, she thought. Prince, beautiful, kind Prince, dead. Because of her. How would his father bear the pain? How could she live with herself? This was by far the worst thing she had ever done—the worst thing that had ever happened to her.

The old woman watched her cry with compassion in her black eyes. She tisked. “There, there, now,” she said. “There, there. It will be alright.”

“No it won’t,” Eva sobbed, although she could barely understand herself, her throat was in such pain and her words were so hoarse. “I killed him. After everything he tried to do for me, I ruined his life. I ruined his father’s life. It’s over.”

Eva healed, against her will. In three days, she was back on her feet, thanking her host for her kindness and refusing the benevolent woman’s request to stay and rest for a few more days. In spite of the old woman’s appeals, Eva insisted on leaving, on not taking up any more of her host’s hospitality.

She walked the few steps to the square where she had last seen Prince, last held him in his arms as he bled to death. The stains were still there, dried into the cobblestones. Eva knelt and touched the dark brown surface of the rock. The sun had just come up, and there were few pedestrians in the area. Eva knew that she could be recaptured at any moment by Light or his men, but she no longer cared. She lay her forehead against the bloodstained rock and sobbed silently. I’m so sorry, Prince. I’m sorry I hurt you, betrayed you, killed you. I miss you. I love you.

“Eva?”

Eva froze, her mind blank.

“Eva?” the voice said again. The impossible voice. A soft thump sounded beside her and Eva raised incredulous eyes to see all-too-familiar brown ones, smiling back at her.

“Prince?” Eva rasped. It was impossible! He was dead! She’d seen it. But no, it was him, kneeling next to her on the cobblestones that had drunk in his blood. And he looked—clean, healthy, alive. There were scars—puckered, dark lines that showed the places he’d been beaten and stabbed. But they were closed scars, dry and clean.

With a cry, Eva flung her arms around his neck and held on tight, sobbing loudly into his shoulder. Prince laughed and wrapped his arms around her.

“How are you—how can you be—?” Eva pulled back and tentatively placed her hands on his face, his arms, touching his familiar features, tracing the unfamiliar scars.

“My father is the great craftsman,” Prince said. “If he can bring living beings out of clay, he can probably do a whole lot of other things, don’t you think?”

Through her tears, Eva spotted familiar clay-stained shoes standing a little ways behind her Prince. She followed the shoes up the equally-clay-stained trousers, higher and higher until she saw a face she hadn’t seen in years—an older copy of Prince’s beloved features, smiling at the two of them. The craftsman.

“Father,” Eva gasped, struggling to her feet. Prince stood and helped her up. “I mean, Sir.” She hung her head. She had no right to be his daughter anymore.

But the craftsman stepped forward and put one hand on her head, one on Prince’s. “Daughter,” he said.

The tears came again. “No,” she said. “I don’t deserve—”

Prince hushed her with a look. “Eva,” he said. “Father and I don’t love you because you deserve it. We love you because you are ours.”

“But,” Eva looked down at the cobblestones, remembered all the things she’d done to Prince. All the ways she had betrayed him. All the men— “I’m filthy,” she finally whispered.

“That’s funny, because these lovely clothes that we asked our dear friend to give you don’t look the least bit filthy to me, do they, Father?” Prince said, grinning as he plucked at Eva’s sleeve.

She looked down at the white robe the old woman had given her, in place of the rain- and blood-soaked rags Eva had been wearing.

“Not at all,” the craftsman replied, grinning back.

Eva blinked at her robe, at the craftsman, at Prince, bearing the scars of her misdeeds, and gave a small sob.

“You shouldn’t have done all this,” she said. She turned to the craftsman. “Why did you let him do this?”

“Because I wanted to.” Prince said. 

“Why?”

He stepped close enough for her to look into his eyes. “Because I love you. I always have, and I always will. No matter what anyone says.”

A PERIOD OF TIME LATER…

Prince showed Eva the room he had prepared for her. Eva gasped.

“Do you like it?” Prince asked, his eyes dancing as he tried to suppress a smile.

She threw her arms around his neck. “I love it!”

“Then shall we go in?” Prince said, offering his arm to her.

Eva took his arm, but other than that, did not move.

“What is it?” Prince asked, still smiling gently down at her.

“Prince,” Eva said, her heart and her entire being so filled with her message for him that she could barely speak it out loud. “I love you.”

He smiled happily down at her as she lifted her face toward his like a flower opening its petals to the sun.

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