Three-thousand miles off the mainland is a small, widely-spaced cluster of islands called the Umut Islands that are officially documented but not entirely explored, mostly due to the fact that the farthest-reaching island is crawling with all sorts of frightening fauna. Obviously this volcanic speck jutting from the Pacific is not your destination, but as luck would have it, it is in fact where your Asia-bound convoy is deposited by the violent typhoon.
Your ship suffers minimal damage; the same cannot be said for the three others that joined you in setting off from the ports of Heart. No great loss. You do, however, don your chainmail and armor before disembarking and encourage your remaining men to do the same. Not a soul is speaking, but the island is unnervingly loud.
The beach, if you can call it that, is no more than a sliver of yellow sand before it's choked off by a snarl of jungle, and it is on the sparse shore that you see him. He stands far off, close to the edge of the forest, watching your crew, little more than a smudge of brown skin and black hair against a wall of too-green foliage. Your men follow your gaze and spot him, hands going to the hilts of their swords until you wave your hand and order them to stand down and stay behind. You are the Prince of Heart and you will make first contact.
Although judging from the fact that he's clutching a spade, you observe as you approach him, he might not be as untouched as you thought. Your hypothesis is made even sounder as you get closer and really get a good look at him. His hair is matted with dirt and sweat, and his skin and clothing are covered in a thick layer of earth; the sun has burned him pink in exposed patches. Hollow eyes betray lost sleep and the blood from his burst blisters where he clutches his spade make it clear what he's spent at least the last 48 hours doing. Ultimately it's the stench of death clinging to him and punctuating the air that gives it away.
So you ask in English, "Who did you bury?"
He answers, "My grandmother."
You suppose there's nothing left for him here and that's why Jacob English agrees to come back to Heart with you. Your offer is not made out of kindness, but when you follow him to his home deep in the thicket where each breath you take fills your mouth with swarms of insects and the stone steps leading to his hut are lined with human skulls, you think it's safe to assume he doesn't particularly care. As per your suggestion, he packs all the clothing he has to his name (a whopping three pairs of trousers and two shirts, no shoes to be found other than the ones on his feet) and you tell him he won't need much else; these clothes are for the voyage home, and when you make landfall in Heart you will provide him with what he needs. He takes two enormous, dusty tomes and one of his skulls with him.
He washes himself clean in the stream that trickles behind his home, scrubbing away grit and grime and hissing as the water touches his blisters. You're not homeward bound with him yet, which is why when he looks over at you, you avert your gaze. When he looks away, you watch him. Back muscles move fluidly under sun-darkened skin, and when something terrible screeches in the distance, Jacob English doesn't flinch; a life on this island has made him strong. Strength is not a job requirement for a servant, but you want him to be your page. In any case, there is always room for improvement. He may be strong, but he's no match for you.
It will take more than one douse in a river to get rid of the sour, rotten smell of his grandmother that has sunken into his very bones, but when your crew wrinkle their noses at the odor, Jacob either doesn't notice or doesn't mind. He regards them with mild curiosity before coming to stand next to you at the starboard, peering down into the teal water. The crew bustles about, releasing the mooring lines, readying your battered but unbroken ship to leave the shore, and you look at Jacob, who is staring off at the firm line of the horizon.
"It's a very big world outside of your island," you inform him.
"Oh, I imagine," he says, shrugging one shoulder. He doesn't look at you when he speaks to you, which is something you're not used to from people lesser than you.
"It's quite different."
That's when he looks at you and graces you with his first fangle-toothed smile, and says, "Well, I always have fancied myself an adventurer."
The 137 days it takes to sail across the Pacific to return to Heart is an adventure of sorts, and watching Jacob English adjust is fascinating. He knows nothing of you or the royal family, and while his understanding of monarchy is limited, he acknowledges your status as prince. It doesn't take long for him to bend just a bit awkwardly and a bit late at the waist alongside your men and crew when necessary, which satisfies your sense of self-importance, but the way he bows and holds your gaze skeptically as he does it is massively intriguing.
Even more intriguing is his sea sickness, which strikes him as easily as a new and yet unseaworthy cabin boy, and the way he heaves over the side of the ship with streaming eyes and throws his head back and laughs, "Alas! The iron stomach from a lifetime on Hellmurder Island, undone by a small case of no sea legs!" Your crew is unnerved by his too-loud voice and bile-choked cackle, undoubtedly further alarmed when Jacob English's vomit turns black. The fever ravages your ship, killing your men and crew within weeks, until only you, Jacob, and seven others remain. You, naturally, are untouched.
"You've killed my whole ship," you tell him mildly as he sips clean water shakily with the help of the physician.
"Have I?" he says placidly, glancing at you sidelong for the briefest of moments like he has better things to do than address you to your face. When you nod, he laughs his familiar harsh bark of a laugh that makes the physician flinch. "My apologies, Your Highness. Are you upset?"
"Not particularly." Everyone on the ship except for you is replaceable.
Jacob grins, wide and buck-toothed and stained with stale, black blood, and says, "No great loss, then."
No great loss.
Only three crew members remain, the captain included, so your three knights left work to assist in the handling of the ship. You stand by with your hands clasped regally behind your back, and a recovered Jacob stands at your side, watching them work.
"I brought you from your island because I have a job offering for you," you tell him suddenly, staring at the side of his face, waiting for him to meet your eyes.
"Yes, I thought you might have," he says evenly, attention on the man in the crows nest. Unless he's regaling you with stories of impossible heroes or beautiful cerulean women, Jacob English rarely ever looks at you. What would normally be interpreted as a sign of submission is the exact opposite—you're not worth his full attention. It's maddening and thrilling.
"You shall attend to me in Heart."
Finally he looks at you, deadpan. "You want me to be your servant."
"Page," you correct him casually. "Valet, gentleman's gentleman, personal manservant…" He snickers at the last one, which eases your suspicions that he might be belligerent in regards to such employment. "Will this be a problem?"
He laughs and makes it sound like a sigh, looking away again. "No."
"Hm?" You stare at him again, your gaze boring holes through his skull until he feels it and looks back at you.
His expression is torn between amusement and mild incredulity as he understands what you're waiting for. He ducks his head in what would be a perfect show of contrition, if it weren't for the faintest of sardonic smiles that just barely turns one corner of his mouth upward and the way he holds your gaze with green eyes that are suddenly blazing, and he revises, "No, my lord."
You incline your head. "Better. First order of business—I don't suppose you know any more about handling a ship than my knights do, but they could use all the assistance they can get. Help them."
He leaves you then without even the slightest imitation of a bow and goes to fumble alongside your knights, just as unused to boating as they are. It's a bumpy voyage home, but he's a fast learner, and soon he's helping to pull the ship into port. He's reasonably distracted by the bustling movement of the harbor ("So many people!" he breathes in quiet amazement), so you tell a crew member to double check Jacob's knotting of the mooring lines, just in case.
The closest you get to dirtying your hands when you disembark the ship is showing him how to throw a saddle onto a horse and strap your belongings to it. He follows your instructions clumsily but manages to secure the saddle on the creature and your things to it, peering at the horse with some bewilderment all the while.
"Have you ever seen a horse?" you ask him.
"In my grandmother's books," he says. "I didn't expect them to be so…small."
"Small?" You glance at the palfrey—he's one of the larger ones you've seen.
"There are similar creatures back home," says Jacob. "Only with human torsos, not this…odd-looking head. The biggest I've seen towered taller than your boat."
You very nearly tell him not to make up such fantastical stories, but his face is like an open book and is startlingly sincere. You wonder what sorts of monsters Jacob English has faced in his lifetime. He falls off his horse four times on the ride to Heart, and if it weren't for the fact that you've seen Hellmurder Island yourself, you'd say he's faced none.
And he doesn't stop talking. "It's so flat." "God, it smells strange!" "I've never heard such silence outside." "Not a single dragon in sight, you must be a very coddled society!"
You're not sure if he's just making observations or complaining, but it makes your eyebrow twitch in irritation. "Jacob—"
You've neared the valley inside which your kingdom rests, close enough to see your castle, and Jacob has just laid eyes on it. His mouth is open slightly, hands abandoning his horse's reins so he can clutch its mane and pull himself up higher, leaning to see more of Heart.
You've forgotten your annoyance. "Jake." He looks around at you, drawn by the nickname. "You're veering off." His horse clops lazily to the right while you and your three knights remain in formation.
"Oh!" He jerks his reins to the right, and his horse lurches accordingly.
"Other way, moron."
"Shut up!" He steers back on track.
"Shut up, sire." He flashes you a grin that's almost feral in its intensity.
"I believe you'll become intimately acquainted with the stocks before too long with that attitude, Jacob," you say loftily, looking away when the jagged edges of his teeth make your chest constrict. His low laugh and quiet "I'm sorry, sir" scrape against your senses, and you refuse to look at him again until you've arrived in the heart of Heart.
You chuckle softly when he dismounts his horse in the main courtyard and clutches his backside, groaning, "Ugh, my arse." He glances around, fascinated by his surroundings, and watches stablehands and other servants come closer to take the horses off your knights. Already Jacob seems to know his duty, turning to you and holding his hand out for your palfrey's reins.
"Where do I—"
"Follow them," you interrupt, pressing the reins into his hand. You capture the attention of a servant. "This is Jacob English, and by tomorrow I want him trained and prepared to begin working as my page. Arrange a space for him in the servants' quarters."
The servant bows obediently, touching Jacob's sleeve and directing him to follow. Jacob looks at you, mildly concerned, and you nod for him to go.
"Behave and you'll be fine."
And he is. You request an audience with your brother and tell him about the typhoon that claimed your convoy (the only words King David has to spare on these events are, "Ain't no thing, bro,") and receive no word of Jacob misbehaving. When you retreat to your chambers and glance out the window at the warm light of the setting sun, you spot Jake in the courtyard with a wicker basket full of clothes in his arms, looking slightly befuddled but walking with determination. You snicker to yourself and lean on the windowsill, watching him, and you wonder if he's been told or figured out yet that as your personal valet, he has the authority to order someone else to wash your clothes. If he hasn't, you won't be the one to tell him.
You settle down at your desk and look over your maps, fledgling plans of a new route to Asia blooming from your quill. You're not sure how many hours you pore over the maps and pinpoint coordinates on your globe, but when you next draw your eyes away from your work, it's to look at the candles and ponder whether you ought to light a few more since it's so dark or to snuff them out and crawl into bed. You're prepared to go with the latter when there comes a rapping at your chamber door.
Jacob enters, clutching a stack of primly folded clothes and wearing an amusing expression of irritation and relief.
"My God, I've found you at last," he exhales, aiming for your armoire. "This palace is stupidly big."
You lean back in your chair, watching him with a smirk. "Training going well, Jake?"
"Oh, swimmingly." He opens the doors to your wardrobe and stares inside it, clueless, then puts your clothes in whatever spot he deems fit. "The training is fine, but I must admit I don't really know what the hell I'm doing."
"You'll learn. Tomorrow should be fun." He closes your armoire and looks at you, curious. "Your first official day on the job."
His forehead thunks against the wood of the wardrobe and he sighs. "Am I allowed to quit?"
You're fairly certain he's not serious, and he is allowed to quit, but you don't want him to so you say, "No."
"Ugh," he mutters, and you can tell it's for theatrics only by the way he straightens his spine easily enough and turns to address you. "Anyway, is there anything you require?"
"I was just planning on retiring to bed, actually," you say, suppressing a yawn and rising to your feet.
Jake nods, beginning to turn and remembering to bow halfway through it. "Right. Goodnight, my lord."
You nearly let him go, struck by sudden discomfiture, but you shrug the feeling away (it is his job, after all) and call his attention back to you. "Jacob."
He turns back to you, eyebrows raised.
"You have a duty to attend to." Amusement battles your shyness at his confusion, watching him glance around the room.
"And…that would be…?"
"I'm ready for bed," you tell him slowly. In response he says, "So?" and you would laugh if you were prone to that sort of thing, but you're not, so you say simply, "Undress me," and you refuse to be embarrassed.
Jacob stares at you for a moment, startled by the order, but he comes forward with a small frown. "Can't you do that yourself?"
"Oh, I certainly can, but that's what servants are for," you say dismissively, raising your chin and watching his face carefully, preparing to meet his peculiarly sharp eyes.
"I didn't realize I'd been hired as a gentleman of the bedchamber," he says flippantly, fingers working on the strings of your shirt.
"Don't be ridiculous," you scoff. "You're hardly that high up. No, but as my personal servant, you have varying duties. Really, it all depends on what I ask of you. That's your job."
You lift your arms and he pulls your shirt up over your head, slipping it off. When it no longer obstructs your vision, you search for his face, curious to see any reaction, but he's already crouching before you, working on your boots.
"I thought I was your page?" he says, sliding the left boot off. "Training in sword fighting and all that or whatever."
The other boot comes off, and you wriggle your toes. "Well, tomorrow you will be assisting me in battle practice, if that counts for anything."
You thought you were prepared to meet his gaze, but when he surges upright and into your face it's clearly not that easy. His hands fall heavily on the drawstrings of your trousers as he says eagerly, "Battle practice?" Jacob English's expressions are still bizarre to you, with a grin too intense and eyes that are severe, glinting too green, setting your skin on fire.
"Careful," you growl at him through clenched teeth, struggling to breathe. You're capable of maintaining eye contact only through a glare.
"Battle practice, sire?" he repeats, and you think he might be quieter but it's possible that your pulse is just thrumming hard in your ears. He loosens the drawstrings of your trousers slowly, unaffected by the intensity of your glower (others would quail and remember your reputation for putting your enemies' heads on pikes), and you have to look away.
"Yes, battle practice." You pretend to be fascinated by something over his shoulder as your breeches fall to your ankles. "Are you interested in battle?"
"I like fighting," he says as you step out of your trousers. At that, you have to look at him again, bemused.
"Have you fought another human being in your life?" you ask. "I hope you didn't make a habit of dueling with your grandmother on that island."
"All right, in theory I like fighting," Jacob says sheepishly. "Good ol' fisticuffs have always appealed to me. But it's actually a bit difficult to cold-clock a crabdad."
"Never mind." He moves to pull back the dressings of your bed and then sets about gathering your clothes to be washed. You climb into bed, watching him, and the chill of the empty sheets brushing against your overheated skin makes you shudder. You drape your forearm over your eyes, listening as he shuffles about your chambers, snuffing out the candles.
"Goodnight, my lord," he says at last, his voice closer to the door.
It might have taken a whole three months for it to finally happen, but when you drop off to sleep tonight, you dream about him. It's nonsensical and erratic, naturally, as dreams tend to be, but you don't mind; the end is the part you'll scrabble at your memories for when you think you might forget. Callused palms shoving your legs apart and a close, wet heat bobbing between your thighs as green eyes spark up at you from beneath a stolen crown. You unravel in your bed with a sharp cry that wakes you up minutes before he comes in to wake you himself with breakfast on a platter.
You punish Jake for his uninvited presence in your dream by working him into the ground during battle practice. He clutches the shield you equipped him with and tries to hold his ground, but the force with which you attack and slash at him drives him back. The screech of your blade against Jake's shield is grating and persistent with your fast tempo, and when it sends Jake toppling into the grass for a fourth time you only bark at him, "Get up."
"Frustrated, are we?" Jake says, rising to his feet and lifting the sword he has yet to try to use against you—he's been too busy deflecting your vicious attacks. His clothes are grass-stained and he's glistening with sweat.
"En garde." And you thrust, again leaving him no time to even attempt to maneuver his weapon. He ducks behind the shield again, leaning into it and trying to withstand the blows. "You've got a sword, Jacob. Use it."
"I don't—" He raises his shield against the slash of your sword. "I'm not familiar—" Metal shrieks again. "I've never—" You drive him back several more steps. "Jesus, Dirk, what's gotten into you?"
The use of your name and not an honorific makes you pause incredulously and stare at him, unsure if you ought to feel disrespected or not, but entirely certain you had to have heard wrong. "I beg your pardon?"
You have to hand it to him—it's a nice try, when he makes a move other than cowering behind his shield when you're distracted. A clumsy, wild reverso with too much brute strength behind it and easily parried, but a respectable attempt all the same. You drive his blade into the dirt with a circular flick of your wrist; the weight of his weapon is still unfamiliar in his hand, and he loses his grip. You advance on him and drive him back again, and he hits the ground for the fifth time in thirty minutes.
"You're not very good at this, are you?" you say dryly, standing over him and casting a shadow over his grimacing form.
"I haven't ever handled a sword, now have I?" Jake says breathlessly, defensive. He tosses his shield away and rubs his arm.
"No, I suppose you haven't," you say with a put-upon sigh, and you sheathe your sword. Jake looks good there, aching and sprawled uselessly at your feet in the dirt, but you reach down to give him a hand and help him to his feet.
He grasps your hand and it's hot and slick, and that's all you have time to take note of before it slides up to circle around your wrist, tugging you down, and he hooks his other arm around the back of your knee and the world tilts strangely. You manage an indignant "Hey!" before your face becomes intimately acquainted with the sweet, natural scent of grass and there is a warm, heavy weight on your back.
"Ha!" He sounds incredibly proud of himself as he presses his knee firmly into the small of your back, twisting your arms up behind you and pinning your wrists between your shoulder blades. Your chain mail is pinching the hair on your arms. "Got you!"
"What the hell, English?" you snap, an uncomfortable flush of embarrassment creeping up the back of your neck. Your wrists strain against his hold, and he pushes them further up your back. You exhale sharply in discomfort.
"I win," he says smugly. Jacob English is a stupid, stupid boy, which you suppose is why you're not as outraged as you could be by his impudence, and why you're not throwing him off like you know you could if you wanted to.
"You don't win a sword fight by wrestling your opponent to the ground when no weapons are drawn as he tries to help you to your feet, you idiot," you growl at him. "Now get off of me or you will spend a week in the dungeons."
He sighs heavily, disappointed, "You're absolutely no fun, my lord, you know that?" His grip on your wrists loosens and his knee moves away from your back so he is astride you. He sags sulkily, hips pressing against your ass, and you suck in a breath.
He stands up, and you quickly do the same, brushing grass from your clothes. Jake clutches the shoulder of the arm he'd used to hold his shield, rotating it and wincing. You gain some satisfaction from the reminder that even though your lithe, wiry strength alone is no match for Jacob English's solid, forceful muscle, he still could never stand a chance against you if you truly thirsted for his blood. Hellmurder Island is not the battlefield of civilization.
"That," Jake grunts, pulling his sword from the soil and sheathing it with some difficulty, "was not as fun as I thought it would be."
"What led you to believe battle practice would be fun?" you ask with mild disdain.
"Well!" He looks a bit self-conscious for once, floundering for an answer. Obviously he's realizing how dim he's been. "I figured…y'know, battle…fighting…that sort of thing."
"Battle is a very different kind of fighting, Jake," you say with exaggerated patience. "It's not one-on-one. It's very strategic, very bloody. Battle is not fun. War is notfun, Jacob."
You expect him to look properly cowed, but you only see a flicker of it in his eyes briefly (which is better than nothing, you guess) before he turns his gaze elsewhere (frustratingly elsewhere, you hate it when he doesn't look at you) and says, "You do know how to be the most obstinate stick in the mud, Your Highness."
"Is that so?" You shed your armor and drop it where you stand, throwing your sword and your sheathe at Jake's feet. Your expression is perfectly unfathomable as you say lightly, "You haven't even seen an obstinate stick in the mud yet, Jacob."
"Clean my armor and shield, sharpen and polish my sword—strike that, swords, plural, I have seven in the armory—clean my chambers, and help yourself to mucking out the horses' stables," you tell him brusquely, turning on your heel and marching importantly back in the direction of the castle. You toss over your shoulder as an afterthought, "And finish by four o' clock so that you may draw me a bath."
You can't help the smirk that blemishes your impossibly cool demeanor as you listen to him groan and kick at the grass behind you.