Under the Context

Niall hates school as much as he loves books: in fact, there's one book in particular he can't get enough of. If anyone knew how many times he has read and reread the sweet little fairy tale she found in the library, especially the popular kids, he'd be sent to social Siberia... forever.

To Niall, though, this fairy tale is more than just words on the page. Sure, there's a handsome (well, okay, hot) prince, and a castle, and an evil villain, but it feels as if there's something deeper going on. And one day Niall finds out there is. Turns out, this Prince Charming is real, and a certain fifteen-year-old loner has caught his eye. But they're from two different worlds, and how can it ever possibly work?

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1. The Beginning

Once upon a time in a land far, far away there lived a brave king and a beautiful queen, who were so much in love that wherever they went, people would stop what they were doing just to watch them pass. Peasant wives who were fighting with their husbands suddenly forgot the reason for the argument; little boys who had been putting spiders in the braids of little girls tried to steal a kiss instead; artists wept because nothing they could create on canvas came close to approximating the purity of the love between King Yaser and Queen Trisha. On the day they learned that they were going to have a child, it is said that a rainbow righter and grander than anything ever seen before arched across the kingdom, as if the sky itself was waving a banner of joy.

But not everyone was happy for the kings and queen. In a cave at the far edge of the kingdom lived a man who had sworn off love. When you have been burned by fire once, you don't leap into the flames again. Once upon a time, Simon had expected to be living in his own fairy tale, with his own happy ending, with a girl who had looked past his scarred face and gnarled limbs and had shown kindness to him when the rest of the world didn't. In his mind, he replayed the day he had been shoved roughly into the mud by his schoolmates—only to find the most slender tan hand reaching out to help him up. How he had grabbed on to her, this angel, imagining her as his lifeline! He'd spent days composing poetry in her honour and painting portraits that never did her beauty justice, waiting for just the right moment to confess his love—only to find her in the arms of a man he could never be; someone tall, strong, and destined for greatness. Simon had then grown darker and more twisted by his own hate every day. His portraits of his beloved had given way to intricate plans for revenge against the man who had single-handedly ruined his life; King Yaser.

One night, a roar rose from outside the gates of the kingdom, unlike any other sound heard before. The ground shook and a streak of fire shot through the sky, burning the thatched roofs of ye village. King Yaser and Queen Trisha ran out of the castle to see a monstrous black beast with scaled wings the size of a ship's sails, its eyes as red as embers. It stormed through the night sky, hissing sulphurous breath and spitting flames. Simon had painted a dragon onto a magical canvass, and the demon had come to life. The king looked at the panicked faces of his subjects and turned to his wife, but she had called to her knees in pain. "The baby," she whispered. "It's coming."

Torn between love and duty, the king knew what he had to do. He kissed his beloved wife where she lay in bed with her maids attending to her, and promised to be back in time to meet his son. Then, with a hundred knights armoured in glinting silver, he raised his sword high and rode out across the castle drawbridge on a wave of bravery and passion.

But it is no easy feat to beat a dragon. As he watched his loyal soldiers being torn from their mounts and flung to their deaths by the fiery beats, King Yaser knew that he had to take matters into his own hands. He grabbed the sword of a fallen knight in his left hand and, holding his own sword in his right, stepped forward to challenge the dragon.

As the night grew deeper, and the battle raged outside the castle walls, the queen struggled to bring her son into the world. As was tradition for royal babies, the kingdom's fairies arrived bearing gifts just as the newborn was delivered. They hovered, incandescent, above the queen, who was out of her mind with pain and worry for her husband.

The first fairy sent a spray of light over the bed, so bright that the queen had to turn away. "I give this child wisdom," the fairy said.

The second fairy sprinkled a flash of heat that surrounded the queen where she lay. "I give this child loyalty," she promised.

The third fairy had been planning to gift the royal child with courage, because every royal child needs a healthy dose of bravery. But before she could offer her gift, Queen Maureen suddenly sat up in bed, her eyes wide with a vision of her husband on the battlefield, in the fierce clutches of the dragon. "Please," she cried. "Save him!"

The fairies looked at each other, confused. The baby lay on the mattress, silent and still. They had attended plenty of births where the baby never drew its first breath. The third fairy tossed aside the courage she had been planning to give the child. "I give him life," she said, the word swirling yellow from her lips into her palm. With a kiss, she blew it into the mouth of the newborn.

It was said in the kingdom that at the very moment Prince Zayn cried for the first time, his father, King Yaser, cried out for the last.

~~~|•••|~~~

It's not easy to grow up without a father. At age sixteen, Prince Zayn had never really been given that chance to just be a kid. Instead of playing tag, he had to learn seventeen languages. Instead of reading bedtime stories, he had to memorize the laws of the kingdom. He loved his mother, but it seemed to Zayn that no matter who he was. He would never be the person she wanted him to be. Sometimes he would hear her in her chambers, talking to someone, and when he entered there would be nobody with her. When she looked at his black hair and brown eyes, and remarked on how tall he was getting and how much he looked like his father, she always seemed to be on the verge of tears. As far as he could see, there was one critical difference between himself and his heroic father; courage. Zayn was smart and loyal, but he was a complete disappointment when it came to bravery. In an effort to make his mother happy, Zayn overcompensated, spending his teenage years trying to do everything else right. On Mondays, he led court so that the peasants could bring him their disputes. He conceived of a was to rotate crops in the kingdom so that the storerooms were always full, even in the harshest of winters. He worked with Liam, the kingdom wizard, to create heat-resistant armour just in case there was ever another dragon attack (although he nearly passed out with anxiety when he had to test the armour by walking through a bonfire). He was sixteen, fully old enough to take over the throne, yet neither his mother nor his subjects were in any hurry to make that happen. And how could he blame them? Kings protected their countries. And Zayn was in absolutely no rush to go into battle.

He knew why, of course. His own father had died wielding a sword; Zayn preferred to stay alive, and swords didn't figure into that plan. It would have all been if his dad had been there to teach him how to fight. But his mother wouldn't even let him pick up a kitchen knife. Zayn's only recollection of mock violence was at age ten with a friend named William, the son of the royal baker, who would pretend to fight dragons and pirates with him in the courtyard, but one day William vanished. (Zayn, in fact, had always wondered if his mother might have been behind this disappearance, in an effort to keep him from even playing at battle.) The only friend Zayn had ever had after that, really, was a stray dog that appeared the very afternoon William disappeared. And although Louis the hound was a fine pal, he couldn't help Zayn practice his fencing skills. Thus Zayn grew up nursing a colossal secret; he was thrilled that he hadn't ridden off into battle or hoisted in a tournament, or even punched someone during an argument... because deep down, he was terrified.

This secret, however, could last only as long as peace reigned. The fact that the dragon that had killed his father had slunk over the mountains and lain dormant for sixteen years didn't mean he wasn't planning a return visit. And when that happened, all the law Zayn had memorized and the languages he spoke wouldn't do any good without the sharp blade of a sword to back them up.

One day, as dispute court was winding to a close, Louis started barking. Zayn peered down the length of the Great Hall to see a lone figure, wrapped in a black cloak from head to toe. The man fell to his knees in front of Oliver's throne. "Your Highness," he begged, "save her."

"Save who?" Zayn asked. Louis, who had always been a good judge of character, bared his teeth and growled. "Down, boy," Zayn muttered, and he held out his hand to the man to help him to his feet. For a moment, the man hesitated, and then he grabbed on as if he were drowning. "Your grievance, good sir?" Zayn asked.

"My daughter and I live in a kingdom far from here. She was kidnapped," he whispered. "I need someone who can rescue her."

This was very different from what Zayn usually heard—that a neighbour had stolen another's chicken, or that the vegetables in the south corner of the kingdom weren't growing as fast as the ones in the north. Zayn had a flash of a vision—himself riding out in armour to save a damsel in distress—and immediately felt like he was going to lose his lunch. This poor man couldn't have known that of all the princes in the world, he'd picked the biggest coward. "Surely there's another prince who's better suited to this," Zayn said. "After all, I'm sort of a novice."

"The first princeI asked was too busy with a civil war in his kingdom. The second prince was leaving on a journey to meet his bride. You are the only one who was even willing to hear me out."

Zayn's mind was racing. It was bad enough that he knew he was timid, but what if news of his cowardice spread beyond the kingdom? What if this man went back to his village and told everyone that Prince Zayn could barely fight a cold... much less an enemy?

The man mistook Zayn's silence for hesitation and pulled a small oval portrait out of his cloak. "This is Perrie," he said.

Zayn had never seen a girl so lovely. Her hair was so pale it shimmered like silver; her eyes were the violet of royal robes. Her skin flowed like moonlight, coloured only by the faintest blush on her cheeks and lips.

Zayn and Perrie. Perrie and Zayn. It sort of had a nice ring to it.

"I'll find her." Zayn promised.

Louis looked up at him and whined.

"I'll worry about it later," Zayn murmured to him.

The man fell backward with gratitude, and for just the briefest of moments, his cloak opened enough for Zayn to see a twisted, scarred face, and for Louis to start barking again. As the girl's father backed out of the hall, Zayn sank back down in his throne, his head in his hands, wondering what on earth he'd just agreed to do.

~~~|•••|~~~

"Absolutely not," said Queen Trisha. "Zayn, it's a dangerous world out there."

"There's a dangerous world in here too," Zayn pointed out: "I could fall down the castle stairs. I could get food poisoning from tonight's dinner."

The queen's eyes filled with tears. "That isn't funny, Zayn. You could die."

"I'm not Father."

The minute Zayn said it, he regretted it. His mother bent her head and wiped her eyes. "I've done everything I can do to keep you safe," she murmured. "and you're willing to throw that away for a girl you don't even know?"

"What if I'm supposed to know her?" Zayn said. "What if I fall in love with her the way you fell in love with my father? Isn't it worth taking a risk for love?"

The queen lifted her face and gazed at her son. "There's something I need to tell you." She said.

For the next hour, Zayn sat transfixed as his mother told him about a boy named Simon and the evil man he'd become; about a dragon and three fairies; about the gifts that had been bestowed upon him at his birth, and the one gift that wasn't. "For years I've worried that Simon would return one day," she confessed. "That he'd take away from me the last bit of proof I have of your father's love."

"Proof?"

"Yes, proof, Zayn." The queen explained. "You."

Zayn shook his head. "This has nothing to do with Simon. Just a girl named Perrie."

Queen Trisha reached for her son's hand. "Promise me you won't fight. Anyone or anything."

"Even if I wanted to, I probably wouldn't know how." He shook his head, smiling: "I haven't exactly worked out a plan for success."

"Zayn, You were blessed with many other talents: if anyone can succeed, it's going to be you." His mother stood, reaching for a leather cord tied around her neck. "But just in case, you should have this with you."

From the bodice of her dress, she pulled out a tiny circular disk that hung on the end of the necklace and handed it to Zayn.

"It's a compass." He said.

Queen Trisha nodded. "It was your father's," she said. "And I was the one who gave it to him. It's been passed down in my family for many generations." She looked at her son. "Instead of pointing north, it points you home." She smiled, lost in her memories. "Your father used to call it his good-luck charm."

Zayn thought of his bold and daring father, riding off to fight a dragon with this looped around his neck. Yes, it had brought him home, but not alive. He swallowed, wondering how on earth he could rescue this girl without even a sword by his side. "I guess Father never got scared," he muttered.

"Your father used to say that being scared just meant you had something worth coming back to," Queen Trisha said. "And he used to tell me he was scared all the time.

Zayn kissed his mother's cheek and slipped the compass around his neck. As he walked out of the Great Hall, he resigned himself to the fact that his life was about to get very, very complicated.

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