The imperial mage let himself into the menagerie long after closing. Merdesac hurried to the bear enclosure and called through the wrought iron fence, “Prince Adrian. It’s time.”
A large brown bear trundled over to him. Behind the mage, a cockatoo in a tall, ornate cage screamed.
The mage shushed the bird and said to the bear, “The war’s finally over, my prince. Your father’s won. You’re safe at last.”
The bear yawned.
“I know,” Merdesac said. “A tiresome ordeal this has been and too long as well, but had I sent you to the country our enemies might still have found you. An assassin nearly killed your father in his own bed before I stopped him.” The mage tapped the bars. “Now, come closer so I can restore you to your rightful place.”
The bear grunted and retreated. The cockatoo screamed again.
Merdesac shook his head. “Ever a difficult child,” he said.
With a flourish, the mage condensed a key from the air. He went to the gate and unlocked it, evaporating the key. As he grabbed the latch, Merdesac noticed the small coat of arms mounted above it: a white field with a black bear standing, crowned, its claws outstretched. “So much work to hide you, and, look, I gave away the game from the start!” The mage laughed, chased the bear deeper into the enclosure, then skipped in front of him.
“Please, my prince, sit while I prepare.” From his robe the mage pulled out a crooked stick, a stubby candle, a mirror and a card depicting a whey-faced young man.
Merdesac pushed the bear away to keep him from biting the components and said, “No, nothing to eat now. You won’t believe the feast awaiting us. Friends, relatives, princesses, everyone who matters that survived. They’ll be so excited to see you.”
He lit the candle with a spark from the stick, affixed it to the card with a drip of wax, and knelt to set the implements on the scrub before the bear. The mage stood and said, “They’ll be just as excited to find out where I’ve hidden you all these years. Even the king doesn’t know.”
The cockatoo’s screaming went up a notch.
Merdesac held up the mirror. “Look at yourself, Prince Adrian, while I reverse the spell.”
The bear instead rose to his full height, the picture of imperial splendor, and lifted his claws.
The mage pointed his stick at the bear’s chest while backing toward the gate. The bear roared, dropped heavily to all fours, crushing the candle, and rumbled after him.
Merdesac considered playing dead, punching the bear in the nose, and making himself seem large, options that paled before the obvious and terrible one that struck him as necessary once he reached the gate and discovered that it had swung shut and locked.
The bear charged, the stick sparked as bright as the sun, and the bear’s fur smoked, sizzled, then burst into flame. The mage danced away from the bear’s furious attempts to claw him before the bear collapsed, whimpered and turned quickly to ash.
Merdesac clumsily produced another key. He staggered from the enclosure to fall, heaving, against the cockatoo’s cage.
After he caught his breath, the mage attracted seven breezes. As they blew away the ash, he said to the bird, “I gather you’ve been trying to warn me that at some point your brother forgot himself and became a real bear. I’m sorry for not having listened to you, my princess.”
The cockatoo tutted and fluttered down to the mage.
Merdesac produced another candle and card, this one depicting a saw-toothed girl.
Seeing it, the cockatoo preened.
The mage lit the candle, then looked at the bear’s enclosure and sighed. “I’m also sorry that I really shouldn’t restore you, not after what you’ve seen.” He blew out the candle. “Already I can’t imagine what I’ll tell your father and his guests.”
All the way to the feast Merdesac heard the cockatoo screaming.
Stephen S. Power’s novel, The Dragon Round, was published by Simon & Schuster in July 2016. His work has recently appeared at AE, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online, and he has stories forthcoming in Amazing Stories, Deep Magic and Lightspeed. He’s also a Pushcart-nominated poet. He tweets at @stephenspower, his site is stephenspower.com, and he lives in Maplewood, New Jersey.