A young prince with a serious brow and mischievous eyes sneaks past the palace guards to play in the unfenced gardens. His dark curls catch in the pollen-rich breeze blowing from the Darkwood.
Clutched in his jam-coated fist is a string of his mother’s pearls. He likes how cool the round beads feel against his skin, and the awe in others’ eyes as they shimmer against the olive hollow of his queen’s throat.
The boy prince darts past the broken stones at the end of his family’s cemetery, dances through the copse of blue trees encircling a small pool of mountain water, ducks beneath an archway of wild vines crowned with pink flowers, and arrives at a small hollow in the throat of a large tree where the prince keeps his poetry.
He writes of love and dragons, of stolen plums and shame-coloured dresses, of soft thin wool that pulls apart like spun sugar in a brother’s grip.
He places the string of pearls between his teeth as he writes, savouring the way they rattle. He confesses to paper all his loneliness and sketches himself friends of ink. He sings to the frogs, and he almost understands when they sing back.
He hears the song of a wood witch as she approaches his most sacred domain of shrub and shade. Her voice sounds like soft bark and coral berries. The boy sits at the mouth of his hollow, guarding his treasure from the interloper.
The wood witch crouches by the young prince, holding out a posy of honeybelle blooms. “I’ll trade you one for a poem?” the wood witch offers. Entranced, yearning, the boy prince caresses the velveteen petals, coaxing a plume of sweetened scent from the blossom.
“I would… only those are girls’ flowers,” the boy prince grumbles through a chocolate-smeared pout. “Girls put them in their hair, makes them smell real nice when they dance. But my brothers say boys aren’t allowed.”
“What a dilemma,” the wood witch murmurs, tapping a thoughtful finger against her smile. “How strange a boy wouldn’t be allowed a flower, but is allowed a string of pearls.”
The boy flushes pink as petals, rebellion in his jaw. “These aren’t for boys neither. But I like them anyhow. And I like honeybelles, and I like long swords, and I like love songs, and I like bumpy black toads.” The boy prince sighs. “I like the things I ought to… but it only feels like half of me. I like too many things I oughtn’t.”
“Well,” whispers the wood witch, her ginger hair billowing beneath her broad hat. “It sounds like much more fun to be a whole sort of self. Don’t you think?”
The royal youngling grins, a slow and spreading smile like syrup over pastry. The wood witch places a honeybelle in the child’s wild curls as he reaches for his secret book of writings.
Choosing carefully, the boy tears out a page and hands it to the wood witch, who reads it thrice on the spot. The poem sings of forgotten cupboards bursting with silks, and flowers growing from dark places, and jars of orange marmalade which smell of summer even when they’re washed clean and empty.
“Marmalade… it’s such a scrumptious word, isn’t it?” the wood witch muses as the prince watches sunlight gleaming from the teacup on her belt. “Sweet and bitter and warm, even when cold. Yes. You can call me Marmalade, little girl prince.”
With a smile filled with promises of posies, the wood witch Marmalade strides into the dappled green and is gone.
The young prince, who is called Stephan Graham Seth of Royal House Grimwood, grins back at the forest shadows and whispers, “You can call me Steph.”
The laughter of a wood witch named Marmalade rings like chimes through the trees, and the prince starts a new poem about boys who wear girls’ flowers.