| His old withered hand, barely an ounce of fat on it, tugged on my pink hair. The peasant, pitch black hair tangled into knots, gazed up at me with large eyes set in a shrunken face. He was scrawny and gangly, though what muscle he had left was well-defined.
“Please, my lady, spare a coin for your servant?” His voiced was cracked, and his breath smelled like the horses that the peasants care for. The fact that he had even approached me showed that rumors of royalty getting rid of the caste system had reached the ears of the peasants. Dromen was standing next to me, watching where Czalin, that beautifully fat man, had ridden off six months ago to take news of our proposed change to our sister kingdom in the west. He wasn’t looking at me and I slipped a small coin to the peasant, smiling at him as quick as I could. Scandalous. I chuckled to myself.
Dromen is an object of perfection to the people, a prince with immaculate pink hair, the symbol of pure-bred royalty, though Czalin acts far better than Dromen. We meandered down the packed dirt road that led to our castle in the east. Dromen played with my hair, smelling it with his angular nostrils. I had oiled it with the fragrance from dianthus flowers, hoping that the scent would distract anyone from the streaks of black that could be found. Dromen let my hair fall back in place and smiled at me, letting his white teeth shine in pale rose skin.
“Jacynth.” I love when he says my name. It rolls off of his tongue and over beautifully fat, ruddy lips, sounding like laughter. Sometimes I wonder if he’s actually laughing at me. His orange eyes gleamed at me, temptingly delicious. “Let’s go to Swine Hide.” We jogged to the only meadow, Swine Hide, to be found for miles around, located between the castle and Hairui’s Path. We swam across Hairui’s Path without incident and dried ourselves off in Xuude’s light pink, bright warmth.
“Jacynth,” Dromen said again as we walked. Dromen was feeling his face over for clogged pores, cleaning out the discovered.
“What, my love?” for according to the system, he is my love, paired with me a year ago.
“Do you love me?” He has to ask so often, as though he doesn’t trust my devotion.
“Yes, Dromen, of course I love you. We have been paired together by the royals, almost inseparably joined. Whatever befalls you also befalls me. It is necessary that I love you. And you, do you love me?”
“As I must; you are nearly as pretty as I, your eyes are the colour of my beautiful blood, and your skin is as smooth as the hide of a newborn pig.” He is so cute when he’s trying to be romantic, even when his flagrant vanity shows through. It’s taken him a while to compare me to a pig, but I suppose that he was just waiting for the appropriate time. He gazed in one of the many motionless pools, preening his hair with manicured nails, checking to make sure that the one black hair on his head was still cut short enough so that the nobles wouldn’t notice. Scandalous.
“You can’t surely mean that my skin is as glorious as a pig’s. Perhaps a cow’s; they are almost as noble.” I was teasing him because he blushes slightly purple when I do, though not like Czalin. Czalin is not as vain as Dromen, nor does he blush Dromen’s ugly purple.
“No, Jacynth. I mean it. Your skin is as beautiful as a pig’s.” He flirtatiously held my rolls of stomach fat and let my head rest against his chest. “Jacynth, I have to tell you something about my mother.”
“Odella? What is she griping about this time?”
“Not just griping. She said that I went too far last night.”
“You’re aware of the King abolishing the caste system? Well, he told me more about his plan in detail last night, saying that it would be put into complete effect as soon as Czalin returned. I stated that the problem with politics is that we need a harsher caste system, not his evil plan of horse-fodder democracy.”
“So that’s why the peasants are feeling the audacity to approach us…. Why didn’t Azvaeq strike the King down?”
“I waited the entire time during the argument for Azvaeq to intervene and punish the King for destroying the natural order of the gods, but nothing ever happened. I took it in my own hands to kill him.”
“You tried to kill the King? Dromen! The only one who has express permission from the gods to kill another person is Odella; don’t you realize what could happen to you now?” I had stepped away from him, secretly wishing that the worse would happen so that I could be paired with Czalin instead of this horse I had been bound to; death was the only known separator.
“It isn’t exactly what it sounds like, okay!” He was rolling his weight back and forth from his toes to his heels, like he always does when he’s angry. “The King wants to make it easier for people to attain the status of royalty. He wants to get rid of the caste system and change the hierarchy so that the people will have more power. It’s almost like he cares for those horses, them and their black manes!” He was truly angry, his left eye twitching erratically.
“But he’s the King! Why would he ever give up his position? Doesn’t he realize that he would lose all of his power, that he would no longer be respectable?”
“Of course he does! He said he wants to revolutionize our world; take a step back from tradition!”
“So you went to kill him?”
“Yes. I am next in line for the throne. Killing him would ensure that his evil would not succeed and that my good would win out in the end. If the plan was put into motion, I would no longer have a place on this planet. My life would be utterly ruined. And if I had no place in this society, I could no longer care for you, love.” He grabbed my rolls of stomach fat again. “What I did was stupid; I should’ve thought it out more to formulate a plan that would’ve succeeded. Odella is bringing me in today for my judgment.”
“And it sure doesn’t help that she’s the judge.”
“No, it doesn’t. Nor does it help that I have no choice but to go.”
He was referring to the magical powers given to the Judge from the gods. Odella was the Judge in this generation. She had had to go to the holy pig shepherds, kill and skin an old pig, and eat the inner layer of fat. Scandalous. The magic allows the Judge to bind a person for whatever punishment they deserve in accordance with the wills of the gods. Dromen was about to tell me more when he abruptly turned and walked toward the castle. He had been called by Odella’s magic.
I reviewed the conversation in my head while wandering aimlessly, wondering when he would come back with news of the outcome. I gazed in one of the silent pools. Some peasant was laying shirtless there, unable to move, barely able to breathe, bound by the magic. He had been there for almost four months, the punishment for his crime. I walked away from the sick creature, wondering when Dromen would return, wishing for the return of Czalin even more.
Azvaeq had passed his peak, meaning that it would be night in an hour after Hairui had set. There are five suns in all, each a different color, some a different size. Clever gods they are, having different appearances so that we can tell them apart. The first, Xuude, comes by every single day, setting at the exact same time as Hairui. Haefaa is the peasant’s god. He is the darkest, near black, and only comes through our skies on the four peasant festivals throughout the year. The third god is Iurnfea, and he also spins around once each day. Azvaeq, the fourth god, runs through our skies three times each day.
The priests say that Hairui is the only female god and the only one who would care enough to listen to the prayers of the royal. But she excludes the peasants. It’s what they deserve, I guess. If they were not blessed enough to bear the pink hair of Xuude, then they should not be able to reach any god. This makes them heathens, then. Scandalous. I decided to offer up a prayer to Hairui on behalf of Dromen that she might talk to Azvaeq, who is the warrior and protector. Maybe if the gods intervene Dromen will be spared. I walked to the royal pig grounds and went to the grazing field. I found a healthy pig and placed my forehead on the majestic creature’s left ear.
“Hairui, if you’re up there and can hear the prayer of your royal servant, then I ask that my beloved, Dromen, be spared his punishment. And if he cannot be spared a punishment, then I ask that the punishment be beneficial to the greater good of the gods, save Haefaa, may he sing the peasant’s grating melody and drink of their spit for eternity. Praise be yours.”
Not exactly the prayers of the reverent shepherds, but a prayer nonetheless. I went back to Swine Hide to wait. It was long after Hairui and Xuude had set that I finally returned to the castle. Dromen had not returned, and that did not bode well. It was late the next morning when I awoke from a dream about Czalin. I ran to the courtyard in hopes of finding Dromen there, as it was my duty as his partner to be with him at all possible times. He wasn’t there or anywhere in the castle. I reasoned that Dromen had gone out to Swine Hide and would be waiting there.
“Stop! Don’t come any closer!” he bellowed before I could get two strides past the edge of the meadow.
“But Dromen, I want to come near and hear all about the judgment!” my voice did not carry nearly as well as his, and his could not carry as far as Czalin’s.
“I would not be able to bear the shame!” he replied, his superior hearing making up for my feeble vocal chords.
“Please, love, let me come near! Our love can bear any weight and shame!” I took a few more steps toward him, hoping that he would not yell at me to return to the edge of Swine Hide.
I frolicked to him, gleeful that he would allow me to be in his presence. But as I drew near, I saw that something wasn’t right with him. I stopped ten feet away, gawking at Dromen.
“Dromen… I… I don’t know what to say.”
“I know that it must be hard for you, but I promise that I’ll find a way to fix it.” He wasn’t looking at me.
“How can you fix this?!” It wasn’t right for me to yell at him, but he looked so hideous. His hair had turned blacker than the blackest hair I had ever seen. His eyes were a matte black, not even reflecting Xuude’s bright glory. His face had elongated and the structure had been rearranged to reflect that of a horse’s head, a scandalous monstrosity with a black tail flicking behind him. Not what I had been hoping for, but this curse might provide a way to be rid of him. Dromen was glancing away from me. He shook his head and started walking toward the castle.
“Where do you think you’re going? I can’t just let you walk into the castle looking like that!” I said as he walked past me; I still had my bound duty to fulfill.
“What?! Me looking like this? I’m not the one who’s been cursed by Odella. Take a look in the mirror Jacynth!” So he is laughing at me when he says my name. Czalin wouldn’t. “Your face looks like a horse’s; it’s even covered in their ugly hair! Your eyes look like the lifeless void between stars and reflect Haefaa! And your hair? It’s revolting! It looks like a horse’s mane; even your ears stick up and out like that abominable creature’s! Away from me, savage!” Tears welled up in my eyes, but I did not let them fall out of spite.
“Look in a mirror, yourself, clod.” He had hurt me, and I didn’t let anyone hurt me and get away with it unscathed.
“The mirror would be broken from your ugliness.”
“Haefaa whore.” There was no worse insult. I tried to punch him in the stomach, but he easily thwarted my attempt.
“Don’t ever come near me again Jacynth. I know that we’re paired, but I can’t stand to be by your wretched figure.” He pushed me from himself and cantered back to the castle. I galloped back past the pool with the peasant still stuck in its frigid waters and through the back passageway to my room. I avoided Dromen, and all others for that matter, for the rest of the day and could only assume that he was doing the same. The Curled Tail Feast was going to happen in two nights. It only happened every six years when all our gods, save for Haefaa, set at the exact same time. It is the custom for all of the princes and princesses to approach the King and Queen in pairs, attain their blessing, and then present an infant piglet to the holy pig shepherds as a trade-offering for another six years of peace and prosperity.
Dromen and I were a pair, and there was no way that I would subject myself to the scandal that would arise were I to go to the Curled Tail Feast with him. I want to win Dromen back just long enough to survive the ordeal, but his hatred of the peasant-folk runs too deep in him. Tomorrow evening we must go to the holy pig shepherds and choose our piglet. If we are not able to lift our curse by that time, we would be the scandalous talk of royalty for years to come. If only Hairui had heard my prayer and gotten Azvaeq to intercede on our behalf.
Late the next afternoon, Dromen and I managed to get in the same room to discuss our dilemma. We were both wearing cloaks with hoods that fell far over our faces.
“Hello, Jacynth.” His voice was as flat as the minds of the peasants.
“Hello, my love,” I tried to say sweetly, though my speech was impaired because of my deformity.
“You are no more my love than you are born of Xuude.” I would’ve replied with a nastier comment, but we needed to figure out what we were going to do to solve our problem.
“Tonight we must choose our holy piglet. You know as well as I that we do not dare go to the Curled Tail Feast in our current condition. We would be ostracized from the land or, even worse, handed over to the peasants. Scandalous,” I muttered more to myself than to him.
“Fine. Odella, that mare, told me that compassion would be the key to lifting the punishment.”
“Why didn’t you mention this earlier,” I hissed at him, knowing that Czalin would never leave out such important information.
“Because that horse said that the compassion must be toward a peasant.” He was pacing.
“She wants us to show compassion to... them?” I sat on the table, knocking over a goblet.
“I don’t know anyone who needs compassion.”
“Look at the bigger picture, Jacynth. We don’t know any peasants.”
I shook my head, running my horse-tongue over my large, leathery nostrils. Dromen didn’t wait for a reply and galloped out of the room, leaving me to find my way back to my room without accidentally running into anyone. Almost two hours later, I was safe.
“Who could it be that needs compassion?” I was talking absent-mindedly to the pig I had been given, nearly a month ago, and had great privilege of watching over. “I don’t know any peasants at all, let alone ones who need compassion. If I can’t find a way to lift this curse…” I was suddenly interrupted by Dromen bursting through the now-broken door.
“She lied to me!” he was frothing at the mouth, through those horse teeth and over thin, spider-veined lips, a stark contrast to Czalin’s flawless beauty.
“What do you mean?”
“I went to the peasant’s stinking village and gave a rich-looking peasant-horse a small coin. I then came here to see if the act had worked. I looked in the mirror right outside your door and I wanted to break it for allowing such a hideous reflection to appear in Xuude’s holy dwelling!” He didn’t even bother waiting for a response as he hurdled back the way he came, throwing a piece of the door wreckage at the mirror on his way.
“Compassion doesn’t work?” I whispered again to the pig. I kept tumbling the thought in my head, wondering why his deed had not lifted the curse. My maids were coming to prepare me for the piglet-choosing, but I could not go in my current condition. I escaped through the side gate that only the thin peasants could ever fit through and galloped to the fateful meadow. I thundered past the peasant still lying in the pool, looking even more bloated with water than before. I raised my hands to Xuude, bowing my head, not caring for formality.
“Compassion… why didn’t Dromen’s deed free him? He gave a gift to a peasant. Then why didn’t it work? The peasant didn’t really deserve it, did he?” I stopped praying as the thoughts kept flashing faster and faster. “He gave a coin to a rich peasant. He gave a coin, not even a pig’s whisker. Just a mere coin. And to a rich peasant. If the peasant was rich, he wouldn’t have needed the coin. That peasant didn’t need compassion in the form of monetary value. What Dromen did wasn’t compassion at all. It was self-rewarding pity!” I thought that I understood now. I ran to the peasant, stretched painfully over sharp shale in the pool of water.
I went to step in the water, but then stopped. He was so ugly. His entire face was sallow, puffy. There were wrinkles of water-logged skin folding over his neck, chin, and every feature, making him unrecognizable. The stench that came from him smelled like fermenting urine and horse manure coated in the rotting corpses of flies. I turned my face away, not wanting to go anywhere near the vomitus body. The worst part was that he wasn’t dead. He had been there for nearly four months, rotting away, alone, without family, friends, and comfort. Not even the fish would go near him, swimming on the far side of the pool.
This was my chance. The maids would raise the alarm within Hairui’s sixth setting, which would happen soon. After that, I would be discovered, and there would be no life left for me. The peasant moaned, as though he could sense my presence; a plea for compassion. Compassion. I turned back to the peasant and was startled to see Dromen coming from the castle toward me through the woods on the other side of the pool.
“I thought that I might find you here, Jacynth.” Still laughing at me.
“What brings you here?” I asked in a demanding tone.
“I came to see if you would try your hand at the impossible. You are as na´ve as the wild flowers, daring to display your beauty to the cruel, what with giving the coin to that peasant a couple days ago. But I know you better than that,” he had crossed over the nearby stream and was approaching with a look of menace. “You won’t actually be able to help that wretch, Haefaa-spawn. Compassion doesn’t work, remember?” He grabbed my wrist and started to drag me away from the pool.
“No! I’m not like you! You are a disgrace to the gods!”
“Coming from the one who isn’t religious? I’m not so inclined to believe you.”
“No.” I dug my hooves into the ground. “I’m not going with you.” I reared and ran back to the pool of water. I choked on my bile as I splashed to the peasant, the disturbed water swirling large sheets of dead skin away from the body. I grabbed his hand, ready to help him out of the water. I hesitated, muttering to myself.
“But he’s so ugly. And even if this works, I’ll still be paired to Dromen. I’ll never have Czalin, not ever.” I grimaced, watching the peasant’s eyes set behind grotesque slits. “He’s revolting. And yet… and yet he is like me. Rather, what I used to be like. And he is like how Dromen is now. He is what the royalty is like on the inside!” I pulled the peasant up with this revelation. Dromen was on the edge of the pool, glowering at me, left eye twitching erratically.
“May you and your goblin children, born of your flesh and of Haefaa, walk the desolate land with neither water nor food, nor hand to help you along. May your hair be black and body like a horse, Haefaa whore. By Xuude’s name may this be done.” Then he galloped off, black mane flying out behind him, tangling with his tail. I turned to the peasant, surprised to find myself holding Czalin’s hand. His orange eyes gleamed at me.
“Jacynth.” I love when he says my name. It rolls off of his tongue and over beautifully fat, ruddy lips, sounding like laughter. He isn’t laughing at me, I can tell. We began to walk back to the castle, catching glimpses of ourselves in the reflective pools, seeing that our punishments had been purged.
“Welcome back, Czalin. Tell me, how is it that you ended up a peasant in a pool, bound under Odella’s magical punishment?” He smiled generously, splaying his fat cheeks wide, emphasizing the toothy grin.
“Odella had a consultation with Iurnfea about the King’s plan to change the political structure of our world. She was given a vision showing that Dromen would likely try to kill the King if he learned of the plan. Odella, the King, and I formulated a plan that might save you both from starting civil war amongst royalty, which would’ve caused a needless bloodbath. Even so, there will be bloodshed because Dromen is still cursed and will seek his revenge. Odella has foreseen the death of many peasants and royalty before he is stopped.
“I rode out to deliver the message, but left far earlier than necessary. I took the guise of a peasant and committed a petty crime that would befit the sentence needed for our ploy. I laid in that pool of water, waiting for Dromen to commit the act, both of you to be punished, and then for you, Jacynth, to realize true compassion. By the time I rode out to deliver the message, we knew that Dromen was too far gone. So I laid in wait, just for you, that you would come and set me free.”
“What next? Am I still bound to Dromen, or am I free to be paired to someone else?”
“You and I are both free to be paired to each other, and we can be crowned as the next rulers in the first step of the King’s restructured political system.” Screams could be heard from the village. Czalin kissed me tenderly on the tip of my nose and held my hands like Dromen used to, but he was better than Dromen ever could’ve been.