Chapter 4:

Their own little slice of paradise.


Weeks after they had left the village of famine, when they were so close to the Great East and the peony of hope, they had run out of food, and the boy king fell sick.

Amoria dabbed his forehead with a wet rag. She made him wrap himself in every piece of fabric they had, and beckoned him to lie close to the fire. “You will be okay. The fever is fading. With some rest, you will be healed come sunrise.”

“You must stop seeing me as a child,” mumbled the boy. After so much time spent with her, he could recognise when he was being condescended. “Tell me the truth. I deserve that much.”

Amoria lifted a herb to his lips and held it there until he bit it. “It is a mild ailment. I’ve applied all the medicine I could forage and the rest depends on you. It would be typical for a man to recover within a night’s sleep, however…”

“However, starvation has begun to seize me.” He swallowed the herb. “And an otherwise harmless fever may become fatal.”

She nodded.

“I chose this.” The boy closed his eyes in contemplation. “I made the decision, and this is the consequence. A consequence I foresaw. One I was advised against.”

“Do you regret it?”

His head was hot and it hurt to think. It felt like he was underwater, crushed underneath dark waves. When the tides pulled back, there was a moment of clarity in which he would hear Amoria’s words. When the tides returned, he struggled to recall even the most recent memory. Yet, while he could scarcely remember what he did in the village, a single emotion screamed at him. It was a sensation so lucid and striking that no amount of ocean could dilute it: conviction.

“I regret nothing,” declared the boy king.

“Good,” said Amoria, though he barely heard her.

“I thought I knew hunger,” the boy started to ramble. He was too delirious to remember who he was talking to. “That winter, when the harvest was poor, I slept hungry for the first time in my life. It was a slow pain, one I had never felt before. I had believed all pain was quick, for I had never experienced any beyond scrapes and papercuts. Though the initial hurt was great, it would halve with every day. But the pain of hunger is a pain of inches. Perhaps it never hurt as much as a knife wound in a singular moment, but it is a ceaseless agony. It is as if a monster slept in my stomach, and every minute he would try to claw his way out. He never could, though I have wished it many times.

“I understand now that that was not pain. I thought I had suffered when in truth, it was merely a pang of discomfort. It was like a child born deaf, sensing the drum of his heartbeat and believing it to be music, for he knew not any better. Even now, I don’t believe I know famine. Not when I had seen it so closely. I may claim only to have felt its echo, the last faint ripple of a tidal wave from a million miles away.”

“You must rest, my king.” Amoria wetted the rag with the last of their waterskin. She continued to wipe the sweat from his brow and neck. “Save your strength for fighting the ailment.”

The boy continued to talk, though it stopped making sense. It was only noise now. Still, Amoria listened, for silence would bring back the voice of the flame.

Finally, the boy muttered something cohesive. “Am I dying?”

No! She breathed deeply. “Yes.”

“I can’t die yet.”

Amoria watched the logs in the fire grow white with ash. For a moment, she saw his death in a flash of red and orange. His eyes, regal blue and wide with hope, frozen skyward with his lips agasp. His laugh and his dreams, faded into embers. She felt like her skin was being flayed from her flesh.

“What price are you willing to pay for life?” Amoria whispered, pulling out her knife. “Even if you forsake every god? Even if your soul becomes tarnished?”

His breathing was heavy, his eyes shut. “Yes.”

She leaned into him, one hand cupped around his cheek, gently pushing away his blonde locks. She could feel the subtle rise and fall of his chest.

“Then eat,” said Amoria, and the boy king ate.

When sunrise came, the boy king’s fever had broke and he remembered little of his time in delirium.

“I hope I did not say anything strange,” he said. “I would be quite embarrassed.”

“You said nothing of the sort,” said Amoria, and they never spoke of it again.

They still had no food, but they were a day away from the east at most, and the boy was too full of zeal to worry about the journey back.

“We will find a way,” he beamed, “for the hardest part will have been over.”

As concerned as Amoria was, she could not help but feel a little relieved. His optimism soothed her worries better than any salve, so for the rest of the day, she pushed her thoughts to the back of her mind and attempted, as best she could, to just live.

And it was a good day. The boy was full of health, the best he had been since they left the village. The return of his curiosity was the clearest evidence of this. He was asking her more often than ever, and Amoria even found herself fondly anticipating them.

“Did you ever visit the Falling Gardens?”

“Were you there when Yot’s library burned down?”

“Have you ever seen a dragon?”

Amoria was marking the time, not by the latitude of the sun, but by the boy’s questions. After she answered the tenth, and just as he was about to ask the eleventh, they came across an oasis.

It was a bright spot of green amongst endless yellow, and their eyes stuck to it from the first peek. It could not have been bigger than a tavern room, yet to have survived on such infertile sand was a true miracle.

Amoria half-thought it was a mirage. The boy ran towards it. He knew no mirage, no illusion, could capture the smell of hyacinths or the way that sunlight made dandelions glow.

Wisteria and ivy grew around broken marble pillars; lilacs and carnations smothered decadent stone statues. At the centre of the garden stood a great weeping willow, and below it, a bed of vivid yellow roses.

They sat in that rosebed, under the great willow’s shade. Amoria closed her eyes, and let the garden consume her. She leaned back, raising her face to the sun and feeling the warmth drench her. The dirt was soft beneath her hands, the pollen sweet when she breathed in. When a light breeze washed over them, and the flowers all danced, she could almost believe spring had come. Their own little slice of paradise.


She turned to him. His arms were full with yellow roses– a burst of gold more beautiful than any treasure. He knelt behind her, and with nimble fingers braided her hair. Every few braids, he would pluck a rose from the pile and weave it in with the strands.

“Where did you learn how to braid?” asked Amoria.

“My mother was a pious woman. No matter the day, no matter the occasion, she would always braid her hair in the morning. When the sickness took her strength, she taught my father so that he may do it for her. When he passed, she taught me.”

“What was she like?”

“As all sons say of their mothers, beautiful and kind.”

“I wish I could have met her.”

“I’m sure you’ve met many more beautiful and kinder.”

“Perhaps,” she conceded. “But I have not met her.”

His fingers froze, a rose stem between them. “How many people have you met in your life?”

Without missing a beat, she replied, “As many as the grains of sand in all the world’s deserts. All the cups of water in the ocean, and every handful of cloud in the sky combined.”

“In the time since the village,” said the boy. “Every time I closed my eyes, I would glimpse the mother and her daughter. And each time I am reminded that they are likely gone now, and that I shall never see them again. Never know their names or listen to their stories. That pains me. In the worst of times, I would struggle to breathe. You have lived for far longer than I. You must have lost an eternity’s worth more. If I feel this way, I can only imagine how you feel.”

He slipped the last rose into her hair and they shone like golden strands. Then, he spoke slowly and deliberately. He wanted every word heard, with no chance for confusion. “Do you regret meeting them?”

This time, Amoria thought deeply. She caressed her newly braided hair, guiding it over her shoulder. She lifted one hand, palm facing the sky, and muttered something under her breath. Instantly, the boy knew what he was about to witness: magic.

The gentle breeze began to blossom stronger. The boy snapped his eyes shut as a bit of his hair clipped them, the wind turning quickly into a gale. Once he opened his eyes, the air was thick with scattered flower petals, a symphony of colour.

Amoria gestured with her finger, and the petals joined to form shapes. Lines. After a beat, he realised they were the form of people. The first of them was an infant.

“This was Ifrit,” she said, smiling in reminiscence. “Ten thousand years ago, she would paint on cave walls with fruit juice and root paste, before the first canvas was ever weaved.”

The next, a tall man, his frightening features captured in the petals with striking similarity.

“Ovid was a great warrior, but above all, he loved to climb. He would scale the tallest mountains and at their peak, carve his name into the stone. If you visited them now, you may still see his writing.

“Langstrum wrote poems and hid crass jokes between the lines, then laughed when scholars spoke them unknowingly.

“Brixana was a little girl who was obsessed with ducks.

“Wess was a thief. When they imprisoned him, he would scratch lines into the bricks to tally the passing days.

“Xangu the monk scribbled in the margins of holy scriptures, bemoaning the boredom of his work.”

The boy watched the brief images of all who had come before. Here, a beautiful princess with a crown of laurels. Here, a bricklayer proudly gaping upon his finished work. Here, twins who wore their bangs on opposite sides of each other. Here, the mother and her daughter, their great kindness only eclipsed by their humility.

“Every man, woman, and child who have ever lived.” Amoria let the petals fall. “Each of them have shouted: I was here. I was here and I have lived. I created. I laughed. I cried. I loved. Please do not forget me. Perhaps that is why I exist. To answer their cries and their hopes. To hold their hand and say, I know and I will not forget.”

“And when I die,” said the boy king. “Will you remember me as well?”

The sunlight caught the tangles of his hair and held in them, making them shine like a golden halo.

“Always,” said Amoria.

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