Spring was surprisingly mild this year. A soft breeze was stirring up the warm midday air around the castle but there was no hint of summer heat yet and the nights were still cool enough to warrant long sleeves. Jared and Chad were hiding from their philosophy teacher in the hayloft over the stables. They were both wearing long linen pants with short sleeved shirts, their boots toed off and scattered on the ground. Jared was lying on a hay bale, his feet propped up against the wall as he absentmindedly played with the drawstring of his shirt’s front lacing.
“I’m boooored,” Chad groaned from another bale of hay where he was lying spread-eagle, bare feet dangling in the air.
“We could take a ride,” Jared suggested, even though he had no intention of getting up. They had stayed up way too late last night, playing cards and drinking wine stolen from the castle’s cellars.
“We go riding every day.” Chad was the best rider in their generation, and he loved honing his skills but even he reached his limit sometime.
Lazily, Jared batted a fly away from his nose. “We could play cards.”
Chad let out a displeased grumble. “When is Felicia coming back from the convent?” he asked after a while.
“Two weeks, I think,” Jared said. “Learning magic takes time, apparently.”
Chad harrumphed, then fell quiet again.
From below, sounds of the horses shifting and huffing drifted up. The smell of hay was pleasantly heavy in the air and Jared would fall asleep if he wasn’t so damn hungry. Ever since he’d started growing so quickly, he was always hungry. It didn’t matter how much he ate, he didn’t put on any weight at all. His legs and arms were thin, only sinewy muscles and tendons under his suntanned skin, and when he looked at his back in the mirror he could count every vertebra in his spine. Only his broadening shoulders gave any indication that he was slowly growing into an adult.
His older brother Jeff had laughed at him when Jared had pointed it out. “You’re fourteen, Jay. Just because you have hair in your pants now doesn’t make you an adult.”
Jared had sulked, because he was growing up. He was already close to six feet tall, the hair had been growing for years and he’d had his first romp in the hay with the son of the court’s silk supplier just a few months ago. He was training with adult weapons and his horse Jova was just as fiery as any warrior’s steed. So he was only fourteen, so what? Sure, the growth spurt made him more uncoordinated, but it felt like every morning he woke up in a new body and had to adjust his sense of balance.
A clump of hay hit him in the face. “I’m still bored, asshole,” Chad said.
“You should have a little more respect for your prince,” Jared said mildly and started picking the hay out of his hair.
Chad just snorted. “I’m bored, Your Highness.”
Jared grinned. “Better. And I’m hungry.”
This made Chad move. He sat up, his short blonde hair sticking up in all directions and his blue eyes comically wide. “We just ate. Like two hours ago. You ate twenty chickens.”
“Chicken legs,” Jared corrected him.
“Yeah, and bread and dip and a giant pot of peach salad for dessert.”
“Speaking of dessert,” Jared said slowly. “The kitchen is preparing all kinds of cakes and cookies for the arrival of the Alendan ambassador.”
Slowly, a beatific smile spread over Chad’s face. If he hadn’t been Jared’s best friend since they could ride a horse, and if Jared didn’t know everything about Chad, including how he looked when he picked his nose, Jared might have crushed on him like half the castle residents their age this summer. Chad hadn’t grown as tall as Jared but he was a year older and — to use one of the gardener’s words — just too damn cute for his own good.
Chad pointed at Jared. “I like the way you think, Your Highness.”
He slipped into his boots and Jared followed suit.
Jared stood up and brushed hay off his pants and shirt. “After you, Your Lordship.”
Chad bowed exaggeratedly and then climbed down the ladder. Jared followed right behind and together they made their way up to the castle. Cor Calidor had been the Padalecki family’s ancestral seat since the first lord of Padalecki had defeated his rival and carved out this territory for his family. Since the family’s rise to the throne of Scayen two-hundred years ago, constant remodeling and additional construction had turned a simple manor house into a large royal castle built of light brown stones, with high towers and sprawling courtyards.
Stealthily, Jared and Chad raided a giant plate of honey cakes and a bag of coconut cookies from the kitchens. By the time the theft was discovered, they’d be long gone and even though everyone knew about Jared’s sweet tooth, he was still the second prince of the king and queen of Scayen. Besides, Sam, the grumpy matron who presided over the kitchen, had taken a liking to him. She wouldn’t rat him out.
In the evening, he still got a firm scolding from his mother because he’d skipped his classes. She didn’t care about the Alendan envoy coming to Cor Calidor — Jared would have to make up the time with Master Julian and write an extra essay on the vice of idleness and why it was especially unbecoming for a prince. Jared was fine with that. He wasn’t interested in showing around a bunch of stuck-up ambassadors anyway.
The envoy from Alenda arrived two days later. They came by boat because, due to mild weather, the river Tahl was carrying enough water to bring the ambassador’s ship right to the palace. Jared stood with his parents and his older brother to welcome the ambassador’s party.
Relations between Scayen and Alenda had always been tenuous. Jared’s brother said it was because the people of Alenda kept to themselves and mostly sought trade with the countries to the west and over the Eastern Ocean, not with Scayen, the land at their southern borders marked by the high Astri mountain range.
With wars ravaging the countries across the Eastern Oceans, trade between Scayen and Alenda had become crucial and so the king and queen of Alenda had sent the king’s younger sister as ambassador to Scayen.
Lady Briana was nothing like Jared expected. People from up north were pale and haughty, with cold eyes and even colder demeanor. Or so his brother Jeff had said.
Lady Briana however, was short, round, and smiled a lot. She was charming in an awkward kind of way. Jared wasn’t sure how competent she was, but she could definitely break the ice. She had Jared’s father joking with her in no time and even conspiratorially whispered something to Jared’s mother that made her smile. But when Lady Briana introduced her party, Jared lost all interest in her — or anyone else for that matter — because when she introduced her nephew, Prince Jensen, third child to her brother the king, Jared couldn’t look at anyone else.
Prince Jensen was the most beautiful human being Jared had ever seen in his entire life. He looked a few years older than Jared, maybe seventeen or eighteen — not too old, Jared’s overeager mind supplied — and he was as tall as Jared’s brother. His country’s fitted clothes — tight, dark pants and a dark green jacket — revealed a slender build with broad shoulders. His hair was dark blond, and cut similar to Jared’s, parted in the middle and down to his ears, but Jared had never seen waves so soft and perfect. Big, green eyes watched the reception attentively, and his full lips were curved in a beautiful, if distant, smile. He was graceful when he was introduced to Jared’s family, and when he smiled at Jared, Jared lost all control over his words. He thought he mumbled out a “Hi, welcome,” which he hoped sounded at least halfway acceptable, but Jensen had already turned away. His backside was just as appealing as his front and Jared realized with horror that he was getting hard, right there, in front of a diplomatic envoy.
He looked down and forced himself to think of something disgusting that would make his dick behave — a bunch of tangerines he’d forgotten in his coat pocket and the sticky squishy feeling when he’d pulled them out; the grotesque masks people put on for carnival; the leeches that had once stuck on his leg when he and Chad had gone swimming where they shouldn’t have; his brother having sex. Finally.
Jared looked up and his family and the advisors were escorting the party from Alenda inside. Well shit. He could not embarrass himself every time he saw Jensen. He would need to get a grip.
Jared did not manage to get a grip. To Chad’s great delight, Jared turned into a stammering, blushing mess whenever Jensen spoke to him. It didn’t help that Jared’s formerly vague wet dreams turned into vivid pictures of him and Jensen kissing, him and Jensen undressing together, him and Jensen touching each other and — Jared forcefully stopped his thoughts because they were at dinner. Jensen was sitting diagonally across from him, carefully picking food from his plate. The kitchen had outdone themselves and served the Scayen specialty of puff pastry. The delicately folded dough pieces were filled with meat, vegetables, creams, and fruits.
Jensen clearly had no idea what he was eating but was slowly, almost methodically trying everything on his plate.
“I like the spinach ones best,” Jared said to no one in particular. Since he was the prince, everyone paid at least superficial attention when he spoke but Jensen was looking straight at him.
To make his point, Jared held up the spinach one. “Do you like spinach?” he asked and when Jensen smiled faintly and nodded, and then picked the one spinach pastry from his plate to eat next, Jared thought his heart would burst from joy.
After the meal, when Jensen was dancing first with one of Jared’s older cousins and then with a string of other courtiers, Jared’s heart splintered into tiny pieces. He was, of course, old enough to dance, but he’d never been a great dancer and recently he was more likely to step on his partner’s feet than anything else. He had a feeling that he would embarrass himself horribly if he were to dance with Jensen. Especially because Jensen moved so gracefully and confidently across the floor. Jared was not the only one watching him adoringly.
The only thing that soothed his jealousy was the knowledge that Jensen left the feast with his aunt, who was a little tipsy from the wine. Stony-faced, he walked her out of the great banquet hall, leaving behind a series of hopeful nobles who’d offered to show him around the gardens. At least Jared could go to bed with the knowledge that no one else had made any headway either.
Over the next couple of days, Jared saw Jensen only during official meals. He pleaded with his mother to allow him to accompany the Alendans on their outings during their stay, but she didn’t waver.
“Maybe this will finally teach you some responsibility,” she said. “Skipping out on classes and neglecting your studies will have serious consequences later. Since you’re not taking that seriously, there will need to be consequences now.”
Jared was so mad, he couldn’t even say anything. He raged to Chad later, who raged with him about the unfairness of parents and the exorbitantly harsh punishment.
Later that night, when Jared was sulking in his rooms, his brother came to see him.
“Remember how you told me that you’re becoming an adult?” Jeff asked.
“Yeah?” Jared asked suspiciously.
“Well, being an adult is not about doing what you want. It’s about doing the right thing, the responsible thing. Learning how to be the brother of a king is part of that.” He leaned over to ruffle Jared’s hair. “When I’m king I want to be able to rely on you, little brother.”
Jared hung his head. He hadn’t even thought about it like that. “I’m sorry. I won’t let you down, I promise.”
“I know you won’t,” his brother said. “But I still won’t talk to Mother for you.”
Jared stuck his tongue out at him.
His brother sighed. “It’s a good thing it’ll be a long time before I become king.”
With his mother’s punishment, Jared continued to see Jensen only at meals. He never managed to do more than comment clumsily on food, but Jensen never looked like he was laughing at Jared’s awkwardness. Instead, he smiled kindly and once even said that the spinach pastry was still his favorite. While Jensen was in trade negotiations with Jared’s parents, Jared spent the entire afternoon bugging Sam, the head cook, to make spinach pastry for the farewell banquet.
Resolutely, she pointed a giant spoon at him. “Prince Jared, I will not! Spinach pastries are common food! They were only included at the welcome banquet to show the variety of food we offer. But for tomorrow, we will have only the most elegant—”
“But they’re Prince Jensen’s favorite!” Jared begged.
That stopped Sam. “Oh, they’re for Prince Jensen?”
Jared could feel himself flush. Damn, he’d given himself away.
But Sam gave him a kind smile. “I’ll make sure we have spinach pastry tomorrow.”
Jared gave her a grateful smile and practically ran from the kitchen. Later, when he told Chad, his friend laughed mercilessly at him.
“It’s not funny,” Jared grumped. “I’m in love, okay?”
“You don’t know him at all,” Chad pointed out. “What you are is in lust.”
“Who even talks like that?” Jared asked.
“People experienced in matters of the flesh,” Chad declared grandly.
Jared snorted. “Just because you’ve already slept with everyone who wasn’t up in a tree at the count of three doesn’t mean you get to talk bullshit.”
“Fine.” Chad pointed a finger at Jared with fond annoyance on his face. “So what do you want, Jay? I mean, I get that you want him. If I were the least bit bi, I’d wanna jump his bones; the guy is that pretty. But he hasn’t hooked up with anyone. Neither has anyone else from their party, by the way. Seems like people from Alenda aren’t really casual about sex.”
“It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t see me like that anyway,” Jared said sullenly. “To him, I’m nothing but the little awkward prince.”
Chad was quiet for a while. No matter the situation, no matter that Jared was the prince, his friend never lied to him, never sugar-coated things. Usually Jared loved that about their friendship. Now, he could use some support.
“Well,” Chad said finally. “The trade negotiations were successful, so there’s a good chance you’ll see him again. And if the way you’re growing right now is any indication, you won’t have any trouble impressing him in a few years.”
Jared walked over to Chad and hugged him, quick and short. “Thanks.”
Chad patted his back. “No problem. Now help me run interference, my parents are coming to the banquet tomorrow and I don‘t want to have to spend any time with them.”
“Don’t worry about it. I convinced my brother to take your father hunting and your mother is invited to the garden tour my mother is giving to Lady Briana. And at the banquet you’re sitting with me at the first table while your parents are at the second table.”
Chad squeezed his shoulder, hard. He knew how much Jared had to convince people to stretch court etiquette to pass this through. “Thanks.”
“No problem. Now let’s go see if Sam has some leftovers for us.”
Chad groaned but followed Jared to the kitchen.
Jensen and his aunt left two days later. During the farewell dinner, Jensen ate five of the spinach pastries and Jared couldn’t stop smiling. Unfortunately, Jared still couldn’t think of anything to say in the face of Jensen’s beauty, so he spent the dinner unusually quiet.
When Jensen and his aunt said their goodbyes, Jensen shook everybody’s hand, as was customary in Scayen. Jared thought he’d faint when their hands touched and he must have imagined that Jensen’s smile was just a little brighter, hints of crinkles around his eyes.
“Goodbye, Prince Jared. May the wind always be your friend.”
Jensen’s eyes were so green, his lips berry-pink and plush. Again, Jared had to force himself to think of his brother’s pasty-white butt.
He didn’t know how much time had passed — maybe a second, maybe a lifetime — when Jensen pulled back. Jared scrambled to say something meaningful but all he could come up with was, “safe travels.”
Jensen nodded and turned away. Jared would have slammed his head against a wall if he wasn’t standing in front of the entire court.
When the envoy left Cor Calidor, walking the short distance to the ship waiting for them on the river, Jared felt his young heart break. He didn’t even have a chance to get to know Jensen, show him that he was more than just an awkward little prince.
That night, he stole out of the castle and ran down to the stables. He wasn’t surprised to find Chad already there, standing in his horse’s box, brushing out Nexa’s dark mane. Even though she was the sister of Jared’s palomino mare, Jova, she was as dark as a moonless night.
Together, Jared and Chad saddled their horses and rode out of a side gate. The guard told them they had two hours before he’d send a search party for them. Jared pressed a few coins in his hand and vowed that this would be the last time he’d get up to irresponsible shenanigans.
“So,” Jared broke the silence when they reached the river. “How did it go with the parents?”
Chad smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I didn’t have to spend more than a few minutes with them. Thanks, again.”
“How’s your heart?”
Jared shrugged. “We didn’t really spend a lot of time together. You were right. I don’t really know him, he’s just really beautiful. Really, really beautiful. And graceful. And nice. And kind. And responsible.”
“And you exchanged maybe ten sentences with him,” Chad remarked dryly. “About food.”
Jared wanted to argue that he didn’t need to talk to Jensen to know he was perfect but he was aware that that would sound silly. “You’re right,” he said instead. “I’m sure I’ll get over him.”
“So,” Chad said slowly, dragging the word out. “First that merchant son, now a prince. Still not interested in girls?”
Jared thought about all the courtly ladies he hadn’t even looked at twice. “Nope.”
Chad clapped him on the shoulder. “Well, then I think it’s safe to say you’re probably gay. Congratulations.”
Jared snorted. “My parents won’t exactly be thrilled.”
“Eh, your brother is going to carry on the royal line and you have a ton of cousins. I’m sure they’ll be fine if you want to marry a prince or a lord or some other guy.”
“A lord, eh?” Jared asked and eyed Chad up and down provocatively.
Chad almost fell off his horse. “Dude, you’re like my brother!”
Jared couldn't stop laughing until they reached the tree that marked their usual race line. By the time they returned to the castle, sweaty and grinning, he felt better. He knew he wouldn’t be able to forget Jensen, his beauty and his confident grace, but who knew, maybe he would see him again.