An Unexpected Party – Short Story – The Swan King

Article | Nov 2023

Co-published by Get YA Words Out and edited by Seth Malacari, An Unexpected Party brings together the stories of emerging authors from the LGBTQIA+ community.

Read a short story from the collection.


by Alexander Te Poe

The whole room seems to sparkle around Eros Avian – the chandeliers above, the faeries swirling just overhead, the shimmering jewels adorning those attending. He relishes in it, his white skirts brushing against the floor as he dances. He clasps the waists of a procession of beautiful gentlefolk – delighting in their smiles, their laughs, the soft touch of fine fabric, and the delicious tidbits of gossip. It is the same as every night here in the palace except for the tall figures of The Eagle Queen and Diana, The Queen Consort. Even when the music sweeps his gaze away from theirs, he can feel their judging eyes on him. Tomorrow they will tell him he danced too little with Olive, Consort Olive as they so often corrected him. She was to be his queen – this he would debate them on, with a smile and a laugh to stay in their favour. But that is tomorrow. Tonight is not for tedious duties, but for frivolity.

The crowd of dancers part, side-stepping servers carrying plates of tiny desserts and small glass cups filled with amber liquid. A stern looking knight strides towards Eros, dressed in a black robe imprinted with Eros’ swan sigil. His knight, Bradley Freesia.

‘Consort Olive wishes to see you privately,’ says Bradley, his tone stilted.

It was their pre-arranged signal. Instead of going to Olive, they’d sneak out. All the appropriate arrangements had been made and the servants paid for their silence. This way, they could spend uninterrupted time together.

Eros smiles mischievously. ‘Dance with me first?’

Bradley frowns, his hazel eyes darkening. ‘That would not be proper.’

The man had always been a touch too bound to duty. Eros had once found it endearing – their strained public conversations a fun game. But now that marriage is in his sight all he wants is the kind, soft spoken man to drop his mask.

Eros is tempted to hook his arm around Bradley, but he holds back. ‘You always spoil my fun.’

‘Come along your highness.’ He drops his voice, ‘They are watching.’

Eros makes a show of looking straight at his mothers. His mothers are both tall and their matching black feather cloaks make them appear like two imposing eagles. They watch him leave without intervening. Eros can always count on the Queen not wanting to draw further attention to his misbehaviour.

Eros’ white heeled boots clack against the black marble floors as they make their way through the castle. Bradley stays a few steps behind, moving silently through the halls. It has been like this from the time they could both walk. Always Eros in front and Bradley behind – a reminder of their stations and the Great Shame that originally locked their families together.

As usual, the guards and knights do little to conceal their whispered insults. Eros ignores them but only because that is what Bradley has asked him to do.

They descend the creaky stairs into the old servants’ passages and join hands. The buried tunnels are dark and damp, the limestone walls partially covered in moss. Here they can be two anonymous young lovers. Still, Bradley walks stiffly beside him. He’d often told Eros of his dislike for this place. It made sense. It holds the history of Bradley’s cursed ancestors – the Freesians. The tunnels were just one part of their sprawling stronghold. Bradley’s royal bloodline culled their own citizens and turned the once fertile land to dust. It is a past that Eros wants to erase. Scrub away the blood, the uprisings and slaughters led by Avians desiring to snatch the crown back. But it is that very tangle that brought him Bradley.

They exit the passage into a barely used back alley beyond the palace walls and jump into the waiting carriage. It is plain and small, but in it they’ll make their way through the city undetected. Their driver takes them through the heart of the city. The inner city is beautiful — the buildings made from black stone, the streets lit by green faerie lights, and the eagle sigil is carved above every doorway. Stores are open, street vendors are serving food, people sing in public houses and perform on the streets. Eros drinks in the scents, the sound of rumbling applause and twittering laughter. The commoners enjoy these freedoms in a way Eros is envious of. He’s tasted that life but always in disguise and only for an all too short period. He peeks out the window, towards the gothic palace perched in the middle of the city. His life – his duties – at the palace always close around him eventually.

The driver turns and they enter the western part of the city. It’s much older than the rest of the city and still has the original red limestone buildings. Here there is less light, the buildings smaller and crumbling in parts. White freesia flowers are painted on walls, signs, and above doorways.

Bradley frowns, worry pinching his brows. ‘There’s more than usual. We should take an alternative route next time.’

Eros wraps his hand around Bradley’s. ‘It’s just a symbol. It means nothing.’

‘People are behind that symbol – that means something.’

‘If you’re that worried about it, I’ll alert the Queen.’

Bradley squeezes his hand. ‘Thank you.’

There is truly nothing to be concerned about, but Eros can’t stand to see Bradley flustered. He’ll tell the Queen and she’ll have those flowers painted over. Crisis averted.

They hit the road leading to the ocean. The buildings dwindle to wooden shacks and the gravel becomes dirt. Pinpricks of light flicker on the sand and as they get closer, Eros can see Princess Phoebe and her servant, Bradley’s sister Rosamund. They have at least a dozen guards with them all dressed in black.

Eros crosses his arms in frustration. ‘What a waste of a night.’ He turns to Bradley, flicking his long white hair over his shoulder. ‘Did you tell them?’

‘Of course not,’ Bradley says. ‘But–’

Eros groans, anticipating another one of Bradley’s grand speeches.

His partner ignores him and continues, ‘It’s for the best. Your safety is paramount.’

‘What’s there to be afraid of?’ asks Eros.

‘The Six,’ Bradley replies.

‘Those dried up petals? They’re nothing to worry about.’

The carriage stops. Bradley opens his mouth to speak, but Eros steps out of the carriage before he can say anything. The old supporters of the Freesian’s may have been strong in number many centuries ago, and sure, their members had risen from a decade ago and yes, the Freesian symbol is sometimes painted here and there, but flowers are nothing to be afraid of.

Phoebe approaches them, smiling weakly, with Rosamund following behind her. Phoebe’s hands are dirty and the hem of her patchwork skirt is stained. Eros’s sister has come straight from the palace gardens dressed like a servant. If not for the golden duck pendant in her short brown hair, she might have been mistaken for one.

She dusts her hands on her skirts. ‘I’m sorry about this Eros. Rosamund let slip about your secret outing and I had to tell Mother. She has allowed it so long as the guards remain here.’

Rosamund doesn’t meet his glare, but in the dim light he can see her trying to fight back a smile. She always accidentally spills their secret. And she always seems to enjoy it. Rosamund shares Bradley’s black hair, hazel eyes, and brown skin, but that is where their similarities end.

Bradley steps forward, a picnic basket in his arms. Eros raises a brow at his boldness. ‘I apologise for speaking out of turn, but I would like to accept the Eagle Queen’s kind proposal.’

Eros had been prepared to offer a quick no and turn his heel on this shamble of a night, but he will stay – for Bradley.

‘Then we shall accept,’ says Eros.

‘Very good. I’m departing for the gardens. There’s a particularly interesting carnivorous flower that requires my attention. Don’t have too much fun,’ says Phoebe, poking his arm on fun for emphasis.

The Princess bows to Eros and heads for the waiting carriage with Rosamund. Bradley squeezes his sister’s arm as she passes and her expression softens somewhat.

The guards scatter across the sand, some staying close and others patrolling further away. A few of the Eagle Queen’s faeries sit on their shoulders, providing Eros and Bradley with a little light. The faeries nibble pieces of bread and watch the scene curiously. Bradley acknowledges the guard closest to him and the guard curses under his breath. The faerie on his shoulder giggles – their green light shining a little brighter. The creatures hold great power but their light has become a novelty over the centuries; the price of their power is too great for anyone to desire it.

‘I can punish him, if you wish,’ says Eros. The guard deserves at least a little time in solitude.

‘It’s really nothing. I’m used to it,’ says Bradley.

‘But you shouldn’t have to be.’

Bradley strolls away, his shoulder length hair ruffled by the breeze. He sets up a blanket and their basket close to the water. Eros reclines next to Bradley and watches the man eat pieces of fish and bread. He feels himself relax for the first time all day. Finally, he can just be.

One of the faeries lands on his shoulder. Up close the faerie has the same features as a human, save for the pointed ears. The creature points at the basket so Eros hands them a slice of cheese. They snatch it from him and fly away. The faeries all love human food. It is one of the reasons they allow their light to be used. That and their desire for destruction. Eros had watched them delight in it and even encourage it. Without it, they would leave this place.

‘You should eat,’ says Bradley. ‘When was the last time you had a proper meal?’

‘I’ve had bubbles and tiny treats all night long,’ says Eros. ‘You should eat. It’ll make me happy.’

‘Wine and desserts are not food.’

Eros quickly devours some fish and bread. ‘There.’

The faeries giggle to themselves. They think the same thing as his mothers and every person in the kingdom: that this union is doomed.

‘How was your day?’ asks Eros.

‘Bow practice, sword fighting, hand-to-hand combat. The usual things we do when we’re not on a mission,’ says Bradley.

‘What about your poetry?’

Bradley’s hand immediately goes to the dagger sheathed at his hip. ‘There’s no time for that.’

‘Tell me one of your old ones then?’

Bradley peers cautiously at the guards nearby. Their disgust has been replaced by distant stares of boredom and apathy. He clears his throat, ‘bury me beside you / where flowers grow / birds shall sing / as our hearts become dust // be with me always / from sweet sunrise / to bitter sunset / keep me always // whether love blooms / or dies / never leave me / i shall always be at your side.’

Eros kisses the blush rising on Bradley’s cheeks and that only makes it deepen. ‘You would do quite well at my poetry evenings.’

‘My poetry, maybe. My person, absolutely not.’

‘I’ll get you there one day.’

After their meal Eros and Bradley strip off their clothes and wade into the ocean. Their skin-deep differences become clear under the moonlight. Eros has always been different in body to Bradley, the scars on his chest were enough of a reminder, but they share the same heart. Eros dives beneath the still water and emerges as a beautiful white swan. The faeries fly above them, dancing and laughing to themselves. Eros and Bradley float atop the ocean long into the night. Even under the watchful eyes of the palace guards it is peaceful. Eros wishes they could stay like this forever.

Rain pinpricks the water in the early hours of dawn. As the sun rises, the Eagle Queen arrives to fetch them. She stands on the shore under the cover of many umbrellas. Half of her flock traverse the sands to call Eros out of the water. He emerges from the waves — his wings became arms, the webbed feet skin once more as he changes back into his human form.

Under the cover of umbrellas he’s dried and helped back into his clothes; Bradley hurriedly dresses beside him, damp from the drizzle. Only when they’re dressed does the Queen speak with them.

‘Someone will be here soon to bring you back to the palace,’ the Queen tells Bradley. She turns to Eros. ‘Come, my son. You’ll be in the carriage with me.’

The Queen’s black eyes are expressionless as she leads Eros to the carriage. His mother had given him her brown skin and prominent nose, but he’d gotten his green eyes from Diana.

‘We expected you to return to the palace much earlier,’ says the Queen, dabbing at her damp face with a black handkerchief.

‘We were—’

‘I don’t need the details. It’s time this foolishness ceases. From tomorrow more of your time will be devoted to Consort Olive. Do you understand?’

Eros feels his throat tighten, but forces a half-smile. ‘Yes, of course your Majesty.’

‘Very good.’

The rain picks up, pelting all sides of the carriage. Eros peers out the window and through the grey he just makes out Bradley’s blurred figure on the shore.


The next morning at breakfast Eros finds himself seated across from Olive, his bride-to-be. Her strawberry blonde tresses seem to glow in the dawn light. At this early hour she’s dressed in an elegant white gown with long sheer sleeves, perfectly matching Eros. Crowned with a pearl encrusted golden circlet, she certainly looks the part of a princess.

‘How are you this morning?’ asks Olive.

‘Well,’ replies Eros, without looking up from his seafood soup.

‘I missed you at the ball last night.’

‘I was busy.’

The conversation continues in this stilted way. It has been like this for their entire courtship. Olive exudes the quiet and wholesome beauty the Eagle Queen loves. But no matter how handsome, she could not tempt him.

The Queen and Diana do not appear for breakfast. Instead, Eros is given a letter and a pile of books. The letter specifies that the Queen has a cold and that Eros is to study with Olive. Two of the Queen’s ladies make sure Eros and Olive depart for his rooms after breakfast.

Eros is kept in his rooms with Olive for three days. His time with Olive is dull and although she is kind, he cannot suppress the inkling that something is not quite right. He petitions the Queen to leave, but each letter is returned with an official order to stay. The guards go so far as to forcefully push him back in whenever he steps even a toe outside.

On the third day, Phoebe arrives. Her face is damp with tears and she’s barely able to speak before she bursts into tears. An accompanying guard coolly tells Eros that he is to go directly to the Queen’s chambers.

Eros bolts out of his room; this time no-one stops him. Wings rip out of his back, tearing holes into his gown, and he flies through the castle, gliding down hallways and soaring up staircases. He doesn’t stop until he lands at the Eagle Queen’s bedside. His mother lies with her head in Diana’s lap. Her breathing is shallow, laboured. With each cough, black feathers ripple across her skin; an attempt from her body to break away from the sickness. Eros’s heart drops. This is all wrong. She is only supposed to have a cold. She’d been fine.

Diana gestures for him and he sits at her side. She tells him that the Queen has been unwell for years. He can’t understand. Was her face always this thin? Her skin always so pale? He’d shadowed her for years and she’d never had one day off. It doesn’t make sense. None of this made any sense.

The Queen slips away in the early morning. Eros, Phoebe, Diana and Olive spend the next twenty-four hours with the Queen’s body. Diana and Phoebe clean and dress her, scattering black feathers over her form. They tell stories about her, cry, sleep beside her, and at dawn, her body is burned and her ashes scattered in the gardens. Bells ring throughout the city to mark her passing and there is the unexpected sound of cheering from the palace gates.

Although pale and unkempt, Eros rushes to Bradley’s private rooms. He needs him to make sense of all this. But his room is empty and covered in a fresh layer of dust. Eros stumbles out, asking a passing servant where his knight is.

‘The knights’ quarters, your Royal Highness,’ replies the servant.

His heart thumps erratically in his chest. These have been Bradley’s rooms since he was a child. He belongs in the palace, not in the shared rooms of the knights. He races to the knights’ quarters, but once there he is told that Bradley was sent on an important mission days ago. He left no note and even his poems, scribbled on scraps of parchment, are gone.

The Swan King returns to his rooms. As soon as he’s through the doors he collapses in a fit of tears – grief compounded by isolation and the growing fear of being not a prince, but a king: a king with the responsibilities of the entire kingdom and all its subjects.

In his first act as king, Eros signs orders allowing Phoebe and Diana to temporarily rule in his place – Phoebe will take care of the palace and Diana the affairs of the kingdom.

He stays in his room for days on end. The silence is broken only by Eros’s crying and the screams of the rebels at the palace gates. He sees them every morning (just before he shuts the curtains that Phoebe opens on her morning visits), dressed in their well-worn and patched-up clothes, waving signs painted with the white freesia flower. They call for Bradley, their king, every day and well into the night.

be with me always / from sweet sunrise / to bitter sunset / keep me always. That’s what Bradley had said to him. But he hadn’t come back. Hadn’t visited. All that exists of Bradley is the drumming of his name beyond the gate and in Eros’s heart.

Three months pass in this melancholy state. His wedding to Olive is planned, Phoebe sits with him every morning and evening, but Bradley does not return. One early morning, hours before sunrise, Phoebe arrives with three of her ladies and Rosamund. Eros, caught in a tangle of grief, does not know how to feel upon seeing her. Rosamund wears a gleeful expression. She is likely enjoying his despair.

The crowd of gentlefolk murmur amongst themselves as the shouts by the gates grow in volume. Faeries watch from above, their faces split with wide grins.

‘Brother, it is time,’ says Phoebe.

He is fed, bathed, and dressed. Phoebe links her arm in his and leads him to the gardens. For once she is in her formal wear: a long brown shirt with golden buttons, a brown skirt flecked with black, and a brown feathered cloak.

‘Have you heard from Bradley?’ he asks.

Phoebe pats his arm. ‘No, not yet. I’ll send him to you when he returns.’

He’d lost count of the times she’d told him this. He still wants to believe it, believe the lie, even after all this time.

It is still dark in the palace gardens. Faeries dance between the still-closed flowers like fireflies. The guests stand amongst a grove of trees with heart-shaped leaves. They bow to their king as he passes. He searches their faces and doesn’t find Bradley anywhere.

Eros waits for Olive in the middle of the grove. The crowd of gentlefolk murmur amongst themselves as the shouts by the gates grow in volume. Faeries watch from above, their faces split with wide grins.

Olive arrives wearing a matching outfit to his: a thin white gown with a thin golden belt. Olive’s ladies slip thick white gowns over their heads and place feathered cloaks over their shoulders. They add accessories: golden circlets, necklaces, bracelets, and dangling pearl earrings.

Phoebe hands them each a white feather. Olive extends her arm and holds hers out to Eros. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t move his arm. He does not want this.

There is a loud crash as the garden walls are breached, and half a dozen of his own knights surround Eros, dragging him away from his wedding. They carry him to the palace gates, to the rebels with fire burning in their blood and there, at the front of the pack, is Bradley — his Bradley, his knight – sword in hand and hundreds of people at his back. Eros is pushed forward. Instead of welcoming him into his arms, Bradley spins him around, pins his arms to his back, and puts the sword to his neck.

‘What are you doing?’ hisses Eros.

‘Be quiet!’ says Bradley.

Eros’s entire body goes numb. He floats somewhere above himself, watching as he is shoved into the palace by Bradley, the Freesian King, followed by the masses. They break and tear down everything they can, some stopping to hastily paint white flowers over the portraits. They arrive at the throne room. Sitting in his mother’s marble throne – his throne – is Rosamund. She is dressed in a delicate white gown with a long white cloak. Adorned with strings of white pearls around her neck and wrists, she almost appears to be a princess.

Bradley takes him towards the throne and forces him to his knees.

‘Do it – kill him,’ commands Rosamund.

‘Not yet. We agreed you’d tell him why. Humiliate him, in front of everyone.’ Bradley’s voice, once so soft, has become cold.

Rosamund crouches in front of Eros and slaps him across the face. His head swims and Bradley holds his shoulders to keep him from falling. Rosamund tells him that he is selfish, his mothers cruel, and that the royal family has abandoned the people most in need of their help. She lists all his failures in excruciating detail.

Now,’ says Rosamund to Bradley, ‘kill him.’

Eros’s body trembles as Bradley forces his head down and places the blade upon his neck. He doesn’t want to die, not like this, not at the hands of his love.

‘I still have the poison,’ says Bradley. ‘It would be the humane option.’

Rosamund laughs, high pitched and without mirth. ‘Humane? There is nothing humane about this kingdom. Our bloodline, these poor people, will only be free once he is dead and you are king.’

Sweat drips from Eros’s forehead. He wants his mothers and his sister with him instead of the cheering and jeering crowds. Even the faeries watch, their laughter like high-pitched bells.

Bradley raises his sword, and swings. There are screams from all around as palace guards flood the throne room. Eros blinks — his hands are free. He’s jerked to his feet and suddenly he’s running with Bradley beside him. Arrows, rocks and bits of broken furniture rain all around. A faerie clings to Eros’s gown. Bradley takes Eros’ hand and leads him through the castle. They turn this way and that, racing through the halls until they arrive at the old Freesian tunnels.

Bradley pushes Eros in front of him and they run for their lives. In the dimness of the tunnels, Eros fails to see the thin tripwire. He stumbles over it, the metal cutting into his ankle. There is a loud BOOM behind them. Eros and Bradley are flung forward as the tunnel rumbles and stones fall around them. Bradley hauls Eros out of the tunnels, using the light of the faerie. Eros’s ankle bleeds, but Bradley pushes him along from behind. Finally, the exit appears. They stumble into a back alley, where a carriage waits. Bradley stops. His face is much paler than normal and when he coughs, blood splutters out.

‘What’s wrong?’ asks Eros. ‘Are you hurt?’

Bradley touches his hand to Eros’ face. That’s when Eros sees them: the arrows piercing Bradley’s back which is slick with blood. Bradley’s eyes roll back into his head and he collapses. Eros tries to find Bradley’s pulse but there is none. He’s dead.

Eros grabs the faerie hovering joyfully beside him. ‘Give him his life back!’ He hadn’t waited all this time just to see Bradley die.

The faerie opens their mouth and what comes out is not words, but a three-dimensional picture of the scene. In it, Eros vanishes and Bradley rises in his place.

Without thinking Eros says, ‘Make it so.’

The faerie slips from his grasp and waves their hand. Eros’s heart seizes and he falls backwards onto the black cobblestones.

Bradley gasps and rises from his death, the arrows in his back dropping to the floor.

He scrambles over to Eros and searches for any sign of life. He finds none.

‘Please,’ he begs, ‘open your eyes.’

All he wants is to see those green eyes once again.

The faerie lands on the Swan King’s chest. They pretend to wring their neck and close their eyes in a mock death.

‘What did you do? Bring him back!’ yells Bradley. He hadn’t wanted any of this. After he was stolen away by the rebels, he’d played the king they’d wanted, only so he could save his Eros. In the end, he’d suffered for nothing.

The faerie opens their mouth. The image they project shows Bradley dying and Eros coming back to life. This must have been what Eros had done. If this continues they’ll be trapped in an eternal cycle of death and revival. ‘There has to be another way. We both have to live.’ Bradley holds out his hand. The faeries flutters into his open palm. ‘Please.’

The faerie sighs and holds out their hand. They want something. Bradley gives them all the jewellery on Eros’s person, the gold in his pockets, but still, it’s not enough. The faerie throws the trinkets aside and waits. So, Bradley gives them the only thing he has: his poems. This intrigues the creature. They handle each one gently, stopping at the one that begins with bury me beside you. They point one hand at Eros, the other at Bradley and clasp them together. Bradley’s heart skips a beat and on the next, Eros inhales.

Eros and Bradley grasp onto each other. Their hearts beat in sync and they realise, at the same time, that they now share a heart. Their lives belong to each other – they both live or they both die.

Eros and Bradley take the carriage out of the city and vow to return to the kingdom, united. As they travel they discuss everything: the riots, why it happened, the poverty, how Rosamund was right. Eros has the heart to listen now and Bradley the strength to speak the truth.

They discuss the future, the changes they could make, how they would both be kings — Avian and Freesian bloodlines combined. They will unite the kingdom under both their banners and rule more fairly than their ancestors.

When the rioting is over they return to the city, they hug Phoebe and Diana, apologise to Olive, and visit Rosamund in her private suite. Eros takes every verbal sting of hers and in the end, he learns a great deal. They promise to take action on it all with her, but not tonight. First, they need rest.

At last, they retire to their rooms and embrace each other. Finally, they are home.


Alexander Te Pohe authorAlexander Te Pohe is a Māori trans man living on Whadjuk Noongar Land. His prose and poetry can be found in the collections Australian Poetry Anthology (Volume 9, 2021-2022) and To Hold The Clouds (2020, Centre For Stories), as well as publications such as Djed Press, Portside Review, andStrange Horizons.

Follow Alexander To Pohe on Instagram

Author: Seth Malacari

Category: Children's, Teenage & educational

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Fremantle Press

ISBN: 9781760992699

RRP: $19.99

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