When Jehan came home with the first rays of the sun, Esmé was already awake.
“How was your night?” Esmé rubbed the remainder of sleep from his eyes as Jehan made straight for the hearth where a pot of water was already slowly coming to a boil.
Jehan held out his hands towards the fire and closed his eyes. The day would likely be warm but the mornings were still cool and breezy at that time of year and the walk from the tavern took some time. “You’re up early,” he said in lieu of an answer.
“I thought I’d go asking around to see if there’s work.”
“As a delivery boy or stable hand?” He said it in a flat, disinterested tone but still felt Esmé stop behind him. Jehan was not in the mood for a lack of communication. He was tired after the excitement of last night and the fact that he had to go back to work in a few hours only put him into an even snippier mood.
But instead of goading him, Esmé came and wrapped his arms around Jehan’s waist from behind. He was shorter, so the most he could do was nuzzle the back of Jehan’s shoulder. “You still didn’t answer my question.”
Jehan smirked, a little distractedly. “You saw the Prince of Vere when you were at Chastillon, right?”
A brief pause, then Esmé said, “From afar. I saw more of…his men.” Jehan could just see the boy’s embarrassed expression, the way he bit his lip. Very endearing but a little aggravating at the same time – this sort of bashfulness suited aristocrats, pretty merchants’ daughters perhaps, but not young men who had to make a living any way they could. “How would you describe him?”
“The Prince? Oh, I don’t know. Slender. Blonde, very blonde. Attractive.”
Jehan scoffed. “Yes, if you like aristocrats with an icicle for a prick. And why does everyone say he’s blonde? He’s more…mousey. If that was the Prince at all, of course.”
Esmé detached himself and came to stand beside Jehan, watching the bubbles in the boiling water as they became larger and larger. “What are you talking about? Where did you see the Prince?”
“Last night. Well, actually, I saw an odd-loocking fellow, a foreign lord or some such – I haven’t seen an aristocrat so…well-muscled in a while – and his pet. The pet was this slim, mousey-haired fellow. He did have a very highborn look about him but many of them do, pampered as they are. He was wearing a gaudy earing. Didn’t think much of it, but then I was working later and these other fellows came bursting into the client’s room, trying to arrest me because they thought I was the Prince—“
Esmé choked on a stifled laugh. Jehan ignored him.
“They were actually looking for the Prince of Vere. I don’t know what they were doing looking for him in a shabby inn, but that pet did look a lot like the description they were going off of. I kept wondering if maybe he was the Prince.”
Esmé shook his head. “What would the Prince be doing in a mediocre tavern masquerading as a pet? It must have been a mistake. I’m more amused by the fact that someone had mistaken you for him.”
Jehan threw him a dirty look. “You don’t think I could pass for the Prince?”
Esmé smiled fondly at him. “No offense, love…”
“The Prince and his men are camped not far from here. It wouldn’t be impossible. Perhaps he had wanted to get away. Experience the real world a little.”
Esmé took the boiling pot off the fire and began to bustle about, making tea. “You’ve read too many books.”
And you haven’t read any, Jehan wanted to snap. Something stopped him. Perhaps it was the morning sunlight in Esmé’s hair, or the soothing smell of tea leaves that filled their small one-room dwelling, or the warmth of the hearth – he couldn’t really say. But a part of Jehan knew that he had a sharp tongue, especially when he was tired, and that Esmé was sensitive and a little self-conscious.
Esmé had worked as a delivery boy at a bakery in town before it closed. Sometimes, the innkeeper Jehan worked for would order bread from there and Esmé would bring over the order. That was how they had met – smiles and looks over warm, fragrant, fresh bread. When the bakery closed, Esmé took odd jobs looking after the horses of customers coming to the inn. He did not make nearly enough money with that and almost ended up on the street. He had tried taking other kinds of jobs as well but Jehan had been possessive of his territory and his potential clients. For all the affection he had begun to carry for Esmé he could not allow this incursion and chased the boy away in tears one night.
After a few days later, unable to concentrate on much of anything for worry that he had driven Esmé to the unthinkable, Jehan had gone looking for him, only to find out that Esmé had gone to Chastillon where they were looking to hire new staff in preparation for the arrival of Prince Laurent and his men. He didn’t think he would ever see Esmé again.
But the boy showed up a couple of weeks later on his doorstep, looking tattered, upset and cold. Jehan had ushered him in and gave him food and a place to sleep. Esmé explained that they had been fooled and that all the new staff was fired once the Prince and his men left. “I came back and came here because you are the closest thing to a friend who could help me out that I have,” Esmé had said, staring at the floor. “I’m sorry about…what happened before I left. I wasn’t trying to steal customers from you. I’m not even sure I would be any good at that sort of work. I’m better with horses.” He then told Jehan about the Captain of the Prince’s men and how rough he had been and how they had been interrupted and how ashamed he’d felt standing naked in front of a stranger, caught prostituting himself. He didn’t even get paid in the end.
Jehan had sighed and told him he could stay for as long as he needed. He’d knelt before the boy and ran a hand through his soft hair and along the boyish soft plains of his face, thinking that he would be happy if Esmé never tried to do his type of work ever again. Horses were safer and Jehan didn’t like to share. Esmé had looked into his eyes and smiled radiantly.
They were in bed, kissing, before Jehan had to leave for work that day.
Now they sat at a small wooden table together, cradling cups of hot tea with the morning sun filling up the room with warmth and light. They were simple men living a life far removed from the ludicrous intrigues of the royal court, even if they did come in contact with its inhabitants now and then through their line of work. Jehan took out his purse and slid its contents – five coppers – toward Esmé. “Stop by the market while you’re in town, would you? We’re completely out of anything to eat. And get yourself a new jacket. Yours is downright tattered and you want to look neat if you’re going around asking for work.”
“Thanks.” Esmé pocketed the coins. “Jehan, about work—“
Jehan shook his head quickly. “Whatever you find, I’m fine with it. It’s not my place to tell you how to make a living. But… Esmé you are good with horses. Between the two of us…
You probably won’t need to take any extra work on the side. We’ll manage.”
Esmé smiled brightly. “Maybe I’ll just stick to horses.” He got up and went to sit on Jehan’s lap. His arms slid around Jehan’s waist and their mouths found each other almost instinctively. Jehan closed his eyes and enjoyed the warmth of Esmé’s mouth and the soft tickle of his fingers in Jehan’s hair.
Of all the things Jehan liked the most in life, his life with his new lover, was this: long, innocent kisses in the morning sunlight, where seconds faded into minutes and minutes into quarter-hours without a single thought. And the rest of the world did not exist.