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Five Visits to the Smallest Closet in the Imperial Capital

Hayley Stone is an award-winning author and poet best known for her weird western, Make Me No Grave, and the post-apocalyptic sci-fi series, Last Resistance. Her short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and more. Hayley loves connecting with readers at her website: hayleystone.com.

You aren't told much, only that His Imperial Highness is cold and to grab a spare blanket from the nearby closet. They neglect to tell you the closet door is paneled identically to the rest of the wall, practically invisible. You search for several minutes before finally mustering the courage to ask an older servant for help.
After your delivery you linger outside the prince's bedchamber, trying to glimpse the young royal. Prince Chartran is supposed to be your age, barely twelve. They say he was born under a rare phoenix sign and burns with sickness, but maybe they only say that because of his flame-red hair and the tremors in his legs that cause him to rely on a cane.
He spots you from his bed, pale face barely visible over a hump of silken sheets. He looks in need of more comfort than a blanket can provide so you offer a smile. You don't expect one back, a brave thanks before the doors close in your face.
The next time the groom sends for more blankets he allows you inside, instructing you on the proper way to blanket His Imperial Highness.
"Hi. I'm Char," the boy whispers.
"It's nice to--"
The groom ushers you out before he can say more, and by the sadness in the prince's parting expression, you get the feeling it wasn't another blanket he wanted.
His Imperial Highness is permitted to play with other children to help him stay fit and strong. Hide-and-seek is his favorite even though he's complete rubbish at it.
The closet is the perfect hiding spot though it does smell weirdly damp from time to time, the airflow surprisingly good. After noticing the prince struggling more than usual, you take pity, pulling him inside with you.
"You can sit down." You go first so he won't feel awkward. "No one's going to find us for a while."
"Is this where you've been hiding all this time?"
"Pretty clever, right?"
"Yeah." Char grins like he's getting away with something. Maybe you both are, sitting here in the dark, shoulders pressed together.
The closet feels much smaller with two people inside it. But it's less lonely too.
As the years pass, many things change while the closet stays the same. Not much can be done inside the space comfortably, but two desperate teenagers make it work. An elbow here or kneed groin there is a small price to pay for a few private moments.
The king is sick. If--when--he dies, Char will inherit the throne. You try not to think about it. When you're here with him, this boy you love, you try to be here, but it isn't easy. The future catches you up in the teeth of its possibilities.
There have been protests in the city recently against the king's stringent laws and his family's divine right to rule, and where there is smoke fire usually follows. The king's death won't improve their discontent; it will only make it Char's problem.
Char's face is tight as you hand his cane back to him. "Father blames me."
"You don't make the laws."
"He says I'm evidence of poison in the royal line."
Anger flares inside you, white-hot. "Bullshit. Besides, you haven't been sick in years."
"I still don't move well. Sometimes that's all it takes for the wolves to gather. A little sign of weakness."
"Fuck that. Your father is such a--"
He shakes his head, interrupting your treasonous outburst. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything."
"It's fine." But it isn't. Because outside the cramped shelter of the closet, you can't make the person you love most in the world feel loved himself.
Char pulls you into the closet late one night, face serious.
"There's something I need to show you." He bats away your hand when you reach for him. "Not that. Watch."
He locates a concealed lever behind some long-unused blankets and uses it to open the back wall. A hidden passage. No wonder it always smelled like weather, pressed tightly against the outside of the palace.
"I need you to promise me you'll come here if anything happens."
You're not sure you like the sound of that. "You know something."
"I know that I love you," he says. "I know that the people who are unhappy with my family have every right to be. I know that if I stay, I will only become my father, repeating his legacy to hold on to a country ready to rule itself." He takes your hands, eyes softening. "Will you come when I call?"
It isn't the first oath you've sworn to him here in the dark.
Some weeks later, just past midnight, a note slides under your door. It's time.
You grab the bag you squirreled away, packed with oranges, hard biscuits, and a couple water skeins, and make your way to Char's floor--only to find it unexpectedly flooded with smoke and servants rushing to put out flames.
Char's already inside the closet when you arrive.
"That should buy us some time," he says, leading you into the passage.
"Char--did you set your bed on fire?"
He grins, face smeared with soot. "I finally found a use for all those dusty blankets."
Char is shaking and leaning heavily on his cane when you finally exit the tunnel. The night is bitterly cold, but you trade body heat supporting each other. You stop to give Char a break, and when he turns back to look at the Imperial Capital you do as well.
The palace is burning. There are cries of horror in the street, but more of celebration.
"It's a shame," Char says, "about the prince."
You understand immediately what he's suggesting, the scope of his plan. A smile comes to your lips.
They say Prince Chartran was born under a rare phoenix sign, and before soaring phoenixes must first burn. Perhaps some good will come from these ashes, but for now, you take the hand of the boy you love and together, you fly.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 19th, 2022
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