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chamomile, rose water, and other unlikely intoxicants

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In the Kingdom of Skaia, the penitent's offering day is upon you.

There are many strange traditions and demands wrought into your rule over Skaia, the minutia of life that in turns leaves you exhausted or just with a sour taste in your mouth, but offering day is one of your least favorite. What started as a one-time event at the end of a festival stuck around like an unwanted guest until it turned into a regular event. If you'd had the foresight, you might've tried to invent some way to stop it.

You are never so lucky, and so find yourself on autumnal equinox dressed in your full regalia and sitting upon your throne in the grand hall, looking out over the various representatives of Skaia. There's is quite a crowd come to see you, a veritible rogue's gallery of influence for the kingdom, each person laden with gifts for their Prince.

As much as doing this chafes at you, it's necessary, and you know it. Half the year has slipped by, and come winter, you will have to take up your crown and go out into the woods. Outside the walls of Skaia, the shadows grow teeth, pressing in on your small kingdom from all sides. It is your responsibility to go out to meet them and turn them back.

Such a task leaves many Skaians feeling beholden to you. Apparently making you their eternal Prince is not enough, and an advisor once suggested this ceremony be added to the Skaian calendar to help them cope with their grief and gratitiude.

So here you are, trying not to look too out of your comfort zone as the court recorder announced each penitent and their gift.

From the Botanists Guild, a dark haired girl steps forward to the long table to place her offering: this year, a wide binding of flowering black iris and silverleaf.

From the Forge, you get yet another very ornate sword that you know from a glance will find its place up on a wall, not in any serious swordsperson’s hand.

From the city’s best jeweler, a new crown is laid out upon a velvet pillow. From a distance, it's looks very ornate, lightweight threads of blue silver spun into an intricate tiara. You would admit if pressed that it matches the collar around your neck, the real symbol of your royal position, very well. But you've never looked forward to the specific times when you needed to wear a crown.

The ceremony continues for what feels like hours. Four barrels of blackberry wine. A gleaming perfect violin with hand-painted details along the body. Five bundles of midnight purple silk. The gifts come in opulent droves, and you wonder how much is out of genuine desire to please you (the violin-maker, certainly) or to grandstand against their peers (a cage of glittering hummingbirds, why did the aviary think you’d like that?).

The penitent sent from the Alchemy Guild is not the same as last year. There is some familiarity in his features, though: he has enough of her handsome jaw that you assume this newcomer is one of the Master Alchemist's grandchildren. Hopefull he is simply filling in as he comes of age and nothing's happened to the matriarch of House Harley. As much as this day vexes you, you always liked to see whatever weird curiosities she brought you, like a boy eager to open his Candlenight's gift from a rich, distant aunt.

It would be a show of potential favoritism to ask after her wellbeing. Instead, you hold your tongue as the young man steps forward, smile calm and clear. Conspicuously, he is carrying nothing, no obvious gift in sight.

“Penitent Jacob English, hailing from the House Harley and the Alchemy Guild,” is announced.

He’s a full thirty feet away from you, but his eyes are vivid green in the candle light. He bows deeply, showing the back of his neck before straightening.

“Your hands are empty,” you note in a level tone.

“My hands are the offering, Your Majesty,” he says with a grin, holding both out, palms up, fingers lightly curled. Immediately there is a murmur behind him.

“Are they.” You can’t imagine you’re being mocked… There is a clear-eyed earnestness to the penitent's manner.

He bows his head again. "It's not unheard of, to offer services to the Enduring Throne instead of luxuries. This day, the Harley family offers respite and relaxation to His Majesty, administered by my hands." His grin is blinding and cocksure. “A skilled swordsman and keeper of our protectorate might benefit from a massage of the shoulders and wrists.”

It’s a lucky thing that the discussion in the hall grows. It gives you time to sort through the sheer audacity and strangeness and charm this alchemist is offering.

The penitent keeps his head bowed, but not enough you can’t see his gaze on you over the rim of his spectacles. The gleam in his eyes is alchemic in of itself, hot metal green.

Your fingers twitch against the arms of your chair. Even if your mind is spinning from the offer, you know this script by heart, and as the chatter softens, you say, “Your house always gives generously, and I’m grateful for their place in Skaia’s walls.”

You incline your head to him, and he steps back, putting those preoffered hands away, folding behind him as he returns to his place.

You’ll have to speak to him again after all this is over. It’s inevitable now, and you turn to the next representative more alert, mentally tracking how many are left to see to.

Too few. Too many.

 


 

When the final gifts are laid on the tables and the hall is cleared of guests, you make a game escape attempt before the matter of House Harley's offering can land at your feet. You can see from your periphery that their representative is still in the room, leaning on the edge of a table, speaking to one of the guards with an amiable grin.

This is something outside of the usual cycles of your life, the delicate braided loops that direct your life. The threads between your path and the paths of the guild houses cross on occasion, but this feels like something else. A tangle you are unsure how to deal with.

As soon as it becomes possible, you duck out of the grand hall through the curtain behind your throne.

Your tower is a fair walk away from the rest of the castle. Separate and quiet, a welcome balm after a long ceremony. Your rooms are still, the only sound to be heard the crack-pop of the fire and your own steps across the stone floors.

The stillness does not last long. You've only just caught your breath when there is a soft knock at your door, and one of the handmaidens arrives to ask you when you'd like to see Alchemist English.

The answer is vacillating wildly between immediately and never, thanks. You set your day crown in its place and take a bracing breath. “Now is fine. See him up.”

Momentarily, he arrives with an armed guard at his side. Which always seemed a strange precaution to you, given your unique... ability. If he's perturbed by his escort, he doesn't show it at all.

The guard breaks off to stand at the door, and the alchemist walks tentatively into your sitting room. He spies you, standin to meet him, and smiles. It has significantly less edge than his flinty grin before, warm as a sunrise. He takes two steps closer to you and bows deeply. “Your Majesty, thank you for the hospitality.”

“Rise,” you tell him, and when he straightens, you ask, “If I may inquire, how fares your grandmother?”

His lips part in silent surprise before the skin around his eyes crinkles in a delighted expression. "You remember her! Oh, she's fine. Old bones a bit whingy in this cold snap, but spry as a chicken. She'll be pleased you asked."

You nod. “So you’ve come in her stead.”

“Well, the offering was my idea.” He bites his lower lip and reaches into a satchel lashed to his hip. Out of it comes a brown glass bottle. “I remember the last exhibition, in the summer? You put on an incredible show, sire, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. Almost terrible of me, really. You put on a bloody fantastic performance, all those fancy parries and blocks against the mountainous knights. Such a show, and I just... was full of sympathetic pangs whenever I thought about your poor wrists."

You lift an eyebrow. “The way I hear, the Prince of Skaia is invulnerable. No harm can mar his frame. Do you disagree?”

For the first time, the penitent looks uncertain. You would feel bereft of his easy amicable presence, if you weren't so interested in this answer. To your relief, he clearly thinks it over carefully before saying, “I think the Prince might have a few aches after such a display.”

You like that answer. There is a scar around your throat, remnant of your first death and of your first return. But there's also the spectre of a fracture in your elbow that bothers you every time the temperature drops, the lingering ache in your feet after every court event you attend, and the aches in your hands left over from every use and abuse. Time has given you plenty of wounds, he's right about that much. You clear your throat. “Shoulders and wrists, you said? That’s… generous, Sir English.”

“Not any sort of sir, just Jake.” Then, he adds nervously, “If that’s alright.”

Jake, not Jacob, who has a bottle of presumed oil that he wants to put on you. Steeling yourself, you glance at the guard standing by the door, recognizing them and judging their discretion before you take a step toward Jake and lower your voice. “This is not necessary if… you are not at peace with the idea. It would cause no offense if you preferred to go.”

Jake’s eyes are wide behind his glasses. He shakes his head quickly. “No, I don’t mind at all. It was my idea, and I– I would be thoroughly vexed if I didn’t get a shot at this.”

There’s a fluttering in your chest, the urge to overrule him and send him away in confused battle with the eagerness to test his confidence. The courtly manners that have been drilled into you win out, and you nod. “Then, how should- what would facillitate this?”

He smiles. It’s a very handsome, honeysuckle sweet smile. He waves to one of the chairs in this sitting room. “The low backed chair would probably be best, Your Majesty.”

You take your seat, trying to keep a grasp on your nerves as Jake sees himself to his work. There are more items from his satchel that he puts on the tea table: a little votive candle in a clay pot and a bowl set on top. He lights a match against the clay and tends to the wick before waving it out, tossing the stick with its spent phosphorous into the fireplace nearby.

He pours about a third of his oil bottle into the bowl before carefully restopping it. “There. That just needs to warm up a bit!”

“What is it?” you inquire. You can smell it, but it’s a mixture of so many scents, you can’t determine anything except floral and something else, also floral.

“Oh, monkshood, oleander, nightshade–” He beams, terrifically pleased at your frozen expression. “No, of course not. That’d be mean, and tactless besides. It’s a concoction of my own devious designs. Almond oil as the base, then some lemon myrtle, good ol’ calming chamomile, rose, clary sage… A load of great herbs, I promise.”

You’ve heard of all those things. You don’t know much about their properties. The scent is pleasant, though, and growing stronger as the oil heats. Jake dips a finger in and holds out his other hand. “If you would.”

You place your hand in his, and he rubs the oil against your pulse point before releasing you.

Lifting it to your face, it… still smells very floral. The chamomile is easy to find, powdery and soothing.

“It doesn’t need much more heating. Don’t want it actually hot,” Jake says, the back of his fingers against the oil. “And, well. Erm.” He looks away from you, at his little setup. “If you’ll take the suggestion, Your Majesty, I think it’d be a damnable shame to ruin any of your fanciful threads with this. Might wanna take some of that off.”

Right. A massage. An offering of hands. Not just to look at and admire the skill of, but actually on you. With oil that, yes, could ruin your regal vestments.

It's still quite an ask, to have you strip some layers off. If nothing else, you can admire the courage there.

You stand to take your jacket off, folding it and laying it over another chair before unfastening the top buttons of your goosedown grey shirt. At first, you simply want to pull the linen away from your shoulders to offer up just enough skin but… you have a feeling that would look ridiculous, and you don’t want rumors that the Prince is some shrinking violet to leave these halls.

You take off your shirt and sit again, resisting the urge to wrap your arms around your chest or otherwise warm yourself. There’s a stern chill in the air. You sit statue still and breath steadily.

Jake’s eyes whisk quickly over you, and you think his cheeks darken again. It’s hard to tell with his complexion, and even if he did, you don’t know what it means. The urge to call this all off grows again. You squash it down. You’re a grown adult, not a child.

His hands glistening in the firelight, Jake slowly circles around behind you. Your muscles tense, wanting to follow and watch him. “Easy,” you hear whispered, and two fingers touch lightly against each of your shoulders, quelling the instinctive, indignant objection.

It is very rare that anyone but the occasional handmaiden touches you. You swallow against the knot in your throat.

The penitent of the House of Alchemy offered his hands, and you feel him ease them against the slope of your shoulders, palms pressing down. He doesn’t move at first, just rests his warm, oiled hands on you. Predictably and a little embarrassingly, you twitch, fingers tightly fisted and pressed to your legs as you consciously try to relax.

Jake lets out a soft noise, wordlessly sympathetic, and drags his palms down to your arms, then back up.

He comes perilously close to your neck before stopping and reversing again. There is a silver band around your throat, laid directly over the scar. It would not be good to get too close to it.

But he doesn’t. He spreads the smooth oil across your skin, redipping his hands to gather more and skate it down to your shoulder blades and the straight line of your spine. His knuckles dig in there, just a little, as he drags his hands back up. That alone has you humming, faint and involuntary.

“You have freckles,” Jake says quietly as his thumbs circle the knot at the base of your neck.

“I do,” you murmur back.

“If His Majesty doesn’t mind me saying so, they’re lovely.”

The hell? You inhale sharply. “Thank you. A gift from my parents.”

Jake laughs, and works the heels of his hands harder against you. You can feel the oil starting to sink into you as he massages it in, and you are already starting to see where his pride in its creation comes from. His hands are firm and calloused along the edges in ways that are very compelling, but the oil helps you actually enjoy said hands and interesting callouses.

To your measure, the massage is going well, and you feel Jake’s hands taking bites out of your wealth of tension. But it’s apparently not enough. Jake pauses, and asks, “Can I make a suggestion, Your Majesty?”

“Go ahead,” you say, surprised at how your voice has dropped an octave. You clear your throat.

“Shut your eyes.”

You do. Perhaps you shouldn’t, but you… very rarely indulge in anything, and this is quite the tempting diversion.

Jake stripes oil over your chin with a swipe of his thumb and instructs you to breathe. Now, the rose and chamomile seem to fill your lungs, expanding inside as you take the deepest breath you can. When you exhale, Jake leans hard against you, slowly coaxing warmth into your muscles with sustained weight, and you can nearly feel the pain mist out your mouth. Something loosens, and you didn’t even know the pain was there until it’s taken from you, it’s sudden absence a dull ache. Your throat clicks as you swallow a groan.

“You are a marvel, if you function like this. It might be a little bold to say, but you don’t have knots so much as you are a big knot.” Jake’s hard touch lightens momentarily as he redips his hands and spreads another layer of sweet oil over you.

“That sounds like a compliment, but I suspect it isn’t,” you say thickly. He’s only worked your shoulders and upper back, but your fingers are tingling, some screwed tight device in your body rattling loose.

“You wound me. You believe I’d speak ill of my liege?”

“I think,” you say unwisely, “You can say whatever you wish right now and you’d be forgiven.”

He has a laugh as warm as his hands and just as reassuring. “Oh, haha, I… don’t know what to do with such a generous offer. Likely something that’d make me look like a right buffoon, like…”

Whatever it is, it’s lost when a handmaiden walks in. You hear the sharp startled noise from Jake before it occurs to you that the sound of approaching footsteps means anything. But a woman in lilac robes bows as she enters, a pitcher in one hand, a few towels thrown over her arm.

“Begging pardon, I thought you might want to wash up ‘fore bed,” she says, then fills the basin in the corner with fresh water and sets the towels down. She’s gone swiftly with a departing curtesy.

But the moment– if such a long span of time can be called a moment– has broken. You straighten from the slouch you’ve unknowingly sunk into, and Jake’s hands fall off you reluctantly.

“They just come and go like that?” Jake asks. You think he might sound annoyed, but you’re not thinking as swiftly as normal. It could just be wishful flights of fancy. In a life of routine, you've gained an overactive, eager imagination.

“They’re… yes. They’re my retinue. They see to many things I tend to overlook. Their assistance is invaluable.” If sometimes poorly timed.

Jake rinses his hands and plucks up at towel, eyes on the doorway the woman disappeared through. “Huh. Handmaidens. Are they always maidens?”

You frown at him. “What are you asking?”

He colors darkly. “Oh, not– Oh, geez, I'm not asking that– just I’ve seen a couple of them since I arrived and no gents?”

It’s a very strange question, you think. Are there any men among your handmaidens? No. But… “That’s correct. There’s no such requirements on the role, but…”

“Interesting,” Jake says, brightening. He looks you over, and smiles. “You look a little more loosey-goosey, if I can say so.”

“You can. I’m not sure you should, but.”

It’s a weak joke, but he laughs again, and the sound warms you more than his massage did.

“Thank you,” you say, and mean to go on, add something polite and gracious, but your brain is full of warm chamomile and rose hips, clogging the clockwork.

“It is my genuine and heartfelt pleasure, Prince Strider.” He bows again, a gentle smile on his face. “If you’d like, I could do your wrists and arms?”

“No. No, that’s fine.” If he touches you anymore– you don’t know if you can deal with it presently.

“Another time then,” he says, and blows out the votive. “Thank you for humoring me. I– I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.” He’s blushing. No, you hope he’s blushing. Don’t get ahead of yourself. “Perhaps I’ll see you again.”

You nod, not ready to trust your runaway mouth at the moment. Luckily, he doesn’t seem to take offense and bows one final time before departing.