The early summer sun cradled the valley, spilling forth from the jagged mountain peak to the lake down below. A town, bustling with commerce and boat horns, crowded a river that flowed from the lake northward, around the right-side base of the mountain. Intense greens and blues shimmered and swayed with the breeze as the horse and mule came to a stop at the cusp.
Phichit shrugged his cloak close atop the horse. Being his main purchase from the previous town, it was a soft, sturdy leather that should last him for the rest of his journey and long after— however long that may be.
He wasn’t sure where his journey was taking him, since maps were only useful when there was a destination in mind. The day he had set foot outside his home country was the day he resolved to make the most of his adventure, and thus location never mattered. As long as his paints were replenished and his pieces were loved, he would keep going.
“C’mon, Poppi, Malee,” Phichit said beneath his breath, “almost there.” He clicked his tongue and pulled the reins back toward the road. He had already committed the scene to memory.
Nearer the town’s entrance arch, music bellowed off walls and stained glass in a busy harmony. Street musicians lined paths by the river and fishermen chuckled by the lakeshore. No guards were to be found by the marble columns as Phichit guided his mounts through them, eyes glued to the oxidized copper statues that sat atop the arch. The central figure was reaching out above, but whether in yearning or in farewell, he couldn’t tell.
Perhaps the paint strokes would clue him in later.
First matter of business would be to find vacant stables. He had some food for them and himself to tide over a few more days if he was frugal, but that didn’t help much if they had nowhere to stay. Having painstakingly gestured and fumbled through the bits of the foreign language he had managed to understand, he figured he might still have enough Geld to house them. If he had to sleep in the stables with them for a couple nights, so be it. It wouldn’t be the worst place he had slept on his travels.
Phichit tapped at Poppi’s sides and snickered, ushering the pair of animals into a canter across the first bridge. This one was made of cobblestones smoothed over from exposure, but it seemed that there were other bridges further down the river and into the city. The immediate one to his left circumvented a strange stone tower that stuck out of the river, attached to nothing but the river floor beneath. There were long, slim barred windows just under the eaves, useless. The roof was octagonal and rusted red, both isolated from and matching the city around it.
In the distance, he thought he could see a white castle among the hills. Curious.
Snap. Phichit committed that to memory, too.
And while he wanted to do nothing more than break out his materials, there was a more pressing matter. A matter that became quite apparent after the umpteenth confusing attempt at haggling unsuccessfully.
All of the stables were too expensive. In fact, something he had learned about this country was that anything that cost Geld, cost lots of it. More than he had— and that was a problem.
So, like every other time he had miscalculated his circumstances, he did what he did best.
Or, he would do so once he found a place to set up. His stomach groaned.
The feeling was only exacerbated as he ambled closer to a bakery whose french doors were wide open with curtains that carried the scent of breaded goods. Malee’s long mule ears perked up as she tried to wander near, held back only by the lead in Phichit’s hand that was slowly loosening the longer he thought about food.
An airy laugh became louder when a man walked out of the bakery holding a small paper bag. He had on what Phichit would describe as commoner clothes— if commoner clothes were brand new and embroidered with golden lace. The shirt was long and flowed loose with the wind, only restricted by a rather plain belt. His hair was a sunlit field, shaved dark underneath, and his eyes were reflections of the verdant valleys. His lips curled around his words as he spoke to someone inside the building, the sound romantic enough to coil in Phichit’s stomach more than any hunger.
Snap. Phichit couldn’t contain his stare. He wanted the image burned into his mind for fear that even his talents couldn’t capture this scene before him.
If he could paint this perfectly, he resolved never to sell it.
The man bid the baker goodbye with a nod and turned away, sultry gaze catching Phichit’s. Something flashed in his eyes before a smirk settled across his face. His fingers tapped the paper bag, starting to walk past them, when he whispered something that made Phichit’s toes curl inside his riding boots.
Phichit recovered to find the paper bag leaning in front of him on the saddle.
“Ah… thanks?” Phichit muttered, eyes following the shock of blond hair back down the street. When the man disappeared, he looked down at the bag in his lap and opened it cautiously. Inside were several fanciful buns, steam curling out into the air and bringing with it the scent of melted butter.
Phichit was used to random acts of charity every now and again, but this instance struck him odd. These were fresh and clearly not purchased for him, and yet the handsome man gave them away without a second thought. Shrugging it off with a savory bite and a pleased hum, he turned back toward the river.
Phichit brought them to the riverside road, found a good area wider than the rest, and dismounted. Tying the reins around the stone fence that lined the edge of the street over the river, he pet them apologetically. He dug feed out of one satchel and brushes out of another, unclasping his collapsible easel from the top after that. Older paintings he hadn’t yet sold of the previous city— Bren— were laid out in front of him with numbers scrawled over scraps of notebook paper. He didn’t know the sign for the local currency, so he hoped for the best.
Once set up, canvas visible to the entire street, he looked to the strange tower from earlier and began marking the perspective.
It went by quickly enough, the colors easy on the eyes and the sceneries detailed to the point of realism. A couple people would stop to look, at which point Phichit would stop and attempt to sell one of the paintings. Language barrier or not, people knew when they were being sold something. Thankfully, Phichit knew how to play the face of an angel and people around here seemed more than willing to part with a few coins. He would call out to them, tell your friends, but he doubted the message was all that clear. Regardless, he painted a number of canvases consisting of things he’d seen and marvelled, selling a fair amount of them nearing late afternoon.
After a quick count of the coins he’d made over the course of the afternoon, he decided to start on the painting he was most looking forward to. Brand new canvas, cured and pristine and filled with possibilities, lay in front of him, and there was an audience around him, curiously entertained.
The background came easily to him, the light off the painted stonework of the bakery a playful flick of his brush dipped in yellow and orange. The french doors were made with straight, grained strokes of blue lighter than the sky, cloudy as it were. The river in the back had been laid down quickly at first, but he added more as the rest of the background came into focus.
The canvas was covered entirely by the time he took a break to wipe his brow. He noticed a tiny box by his feet that had been filled with coins and glanced up to see a little girl waving to him with a toothy smile. He waved back and put his palms together in a short, polite bow. The girl, not knowing intricacies of cultural customs, attempted it with gratuitous fashion. Her hair fell around her face in her bow and her giggle made what she said difficult to parse, but Phichit laughed anyway. A woman who appeared to be her mother called her back, though, and the girl left with a pout.
Phichit stretched, arms high in the air and his head lolling around until he heard a crack. He surveyed the painting with fresh eyes, mulling over minute details and tiny traces of color that were painted in certain spots, debating on adjusting them. Ultimately, he decided it would be easier to paint the man now that the background had mostly dried.
But it wasn’t long into marking the anatomy with a thin pencil that the doubt began to shake in his fingers. Phichit leaned back, brows furrowed. Starting in the center, he tried to put at least one stroke on the canvas, but it fell short. No mark could be made, no matter how long he stared nor how much he imposed the image from his mind. Something about it didn’t fit, didn’t work, and that was different.
Perhaps he was tired. The sky was beginning to fade, the sun nearing the peaks, so hours had easily passed. It wouldn’t be wrong to say he’d burned out for the day. He would prefer that be the reason rather than some inability on his part. But the crowd around him was fairly large, their stares now stifling instead of encouraging.
Phichit waved to them in consolation, wondering if any others would choose a painting to buy. There were few left in front of him, which was pleasant knowledge, but he had a feeling he was done for the day.
The crowd dispersed unevenly on one side, which caught Phichit’s attention— only for it to be completely captivated by the very man he had been trying to paint. There were bouts of shame and frustration, being faced by him knowing Phichit had failed to paint him, but they were fleeting. As was his heart rate, for some reason.
The crowd around him nodded or bowed in reverence, soon finding that there were other places on the streets to be, far away from there. Despite that, there was no uneasiness as the man continued to approach, posture relaxed and grin easy.
“Beautiful painting,” he pointed to the current canvas as he came close enough— possibly a little too close, although that seemed natural for him. His accent was thick and sounded just as potent as the first time Phichit had heard it.
It took him a second to realize it was in a shared tongue.
“Th-thank you,” he replied hastily, not wanting to seem rude.
The man chuckled. “Name’s Chris. Not many around here will speak Common, you know.”
Phichit shrugged, standing to pick up his paints and clear the easel. Chris , hmm. He tried to match the name to the face, to the painting, but it came up short. “How’d you know I did?”
Chris raised an eyebrow. “I’ve been watching for a little while, now. You’re quite talented. You’re also, if you forgive my blunt intuition, quite foreign. Enough to catch anyone’s eye.”
Phichit wrapped his stuff in cloth and brought it over to his mule. He tied the easel on top of Malee’s pack saddle after putting away everything else with practiced ease. The new painting, the one that might deservedly haunt him for awhile yet, was resting face up atop the easel, loose.
He was used to being labeled a foreigner— as he was one, indeed— but never quite in the way Chris’s voice seemed to connotate. If Phichit were honest, it was a tad strong, like samples outside a perfume shop. Chris didn’t seem to be a threat, however, so Phichit faced him again.
“Not much I can do about that, now, can I?” Phichit placed a hand on his hip.
Chris abandoned a gesture in Phichit’s direction when Poppi tilted her head to sniff him. He pet her generously, an easy motion. “A change of clothes may help. I have some at the chateau, unless you already have a place you’re staying at. If you did, though, I’d imagine you wouldn’t be out here painting for spare change.”
Phichit counted the coins over, addition made difficult with Chris’s offer fogging his brain. Not entirely certain about what a chateau was, but betting on context it was probably a guest house. Perhaps he owned or ran it and was willing to pity Phichit’s predicament. Besides, he had travelled for over a year by this point; he thought he was fairly careful with who he trusted— although he didn’t discriminate nearly as much as others. Often times, people meant well. Or, at least, Phichit had been extremely lucky.
But Chris didn’t seem evil by any stretch of the imagination. He looked to Poppi and Malee, judging with pursed lips.
“Would the change of clothes come with my own room or would I have to share?” Phichit asked, knowing fully well the intentions of some.
Chris caught it, though, and laughed. “A stable for your horses and a private room to sooth your tired body. We can discuss the other offer after you’ve cleaned up,” he suggested with a wink.
The stress from Phichit’s shoulders eased off, and he let that be his decision. “Well, my name’s Phichit. Lead the way.”
Chris attempted the name poorly. Instead of embarrassing himself a second time, he shook his head. “Petit it is.”
It didn’t take long before Phichit was leaning against Poppi more than relying on his own two feet, so Chris insisted on Phichit riding the rest of the way. Not much for argument when his limbs felt like noodles, Phichit clambered up onto Poppi and glanced at Malee for a moment of consideration. Making Chris walk felt unbecoming. Moving his stuff wouldn’t necessarily be easy, but he could always scoot forward and let Chris up on the saddle.
Well, he could. This Chris was still a stranger, though, and Phichit wasn’t sure how he felt about a stranger wrapping his arms around him. Still, it seemed rude to not offer.
“Just take in the scenery, seeing as that’s your thing,” Chris assured him, watching Phichit carefully.
Phichit bit his lip and nodded, looking away again to take in the lakefront up close. The road they were travelling on slowly morphed from smooth cobblestone to coarse dirt, the horses’ steps easing into a gaited lullaby. The late afternoon sunlight glittered over the water like a lady spinning in an evening gown, tendrils of her dress refracting in ripples across the houses that grew sparse. Phichit watched veins of watery light beam, clinging to the boarded docks and underneath the sides of boats, several reaching close as the pair meandered further out of the city.
The dying light played off Chris’s hair— skin and clothes, too. Highlights caressed the side of his face and haloed around his head. He walked like the sun and the water and the trees and grass were all in his graces, like the clothes on his back were the only thing holding him from disappearing completely into nature. And his eyes—
“Do I count as scenery, Petit?”
Phichit blinked, only to find that Chris was staring back at him while they continued onward. His cheeks heated at being caught staring. “Huh?”
“I said to take in the scenery— although it’s flattering that you would take me in, too,” Chris said with a straight face and a gleam of mischief in his eyes.
“My eyes are weary,” Phichit murmured in defense, “it would do them well to rest on something easy.”
Chris barked out a laugh. “If you didn’t look so tired and I weren’t a gracious host, I’d have taken that as an insult.”
“I believe I meant it as a compli—”
Phichit’s voice died in his throat as they passed the fifth row of a vineyard, lines leading his eyes straight toward the large house at the top of the hill. His jaw dropped.
“Welcome to Chateau Meggenhorn,” Chris bowed courteously as they stopped short of two unique stables, shaped like they were built upside down, the roof much wider than the walls.
But Phichit was wholly enraptured the the architecture on the hill. Even from this distance, the rich black roof stood out against the white and faded beige granite that made up the exterior. There was a small bell tower in the leftmost center, intersecting at the center of three of the four sides that were built up in faux battlements. Spires and weather vanes littered the tops of towers and stone fences and balconies lined several windows on higher floors. Tall hedges and bright perennials— mere prickles of color against the light background— lined the veranda that appeared to sprawl around the perimeter, extending wider on one side with small gazebos on the two outermost corners.
And on the other side a smaller stone structure stood, laced with more rounded spokes over the spires. From this distance, Phichit couldn’t quite make out what it was.
That was all from one brief but overwhelming glance— and Phichit could tell he wasn’t at some ordinary guest house. How could he have been so naive?
“Well,” Chris cut in again, “I’m sure you’re enjoying the view up there but this is where— ah, forgive me, what are your horses’ names?”
Phichit knocked his right foot out of the stirrup and flipped his reins over, allowing a nearby stable boy to take them. He hadn’t noticed the other person there, but they didn’t seem inclined to speak, so Phichit bowed his head, only slightly off-guard.
“Poppi and Malee,” Phichit answered, “but Malee’s a mule.”
Chris nodded. “Fair enough. I’ll have someone come by to drop off your things. For now, you might want to get off the horse.”
“Right.” Phichit hurried to swing his leg behind and hop off, but in his haste got his other foot snagged in the stirrup. His balance teetered with his hands already slipping off the saddle and he was fully prepared to hit the ground with no dignity left—
But found his fall interrupted by arms underneath his and around his torso, a warm, firm chest against his back. His dignity wasn’t saved in the least.
“Perhaps you should sleep before you bathe,” Chris suggested, his voice resonating in his chest, which was still pressed against Phichit’s back, “I wouldn’t want a guest drowning in my bathtub.”
Phichit unhooked his foot and stood up, almost regrettably losing the welcoming warmth behind him. He must have been more tired than he initially thought.
“I should be alright if you keep leading me,” Phichit said as he rubbed an eye with the heel of his palm.
Chris looked like he was about to say something, but held his tongue. Instead, he proffered his arm. “Lead I shall.”
Phichit took hold of his arm tentatively, but Chris kept his pace chivalrous and patient. The vineyard rows continued up the hill until they reached the fence that marked the immediate property. They came to a gate with a stone archway that looked more like a mini castle tower, complete with crenelated battlements across the top.
Opened without so much as a lock, to Phichit’s surprise, they walked through and came to yet one more set of steep stairs. Phichit sneered, putting a hand on the vine- and moss-covered wall. He didn’t know exhaustion could run so deep.
Now that they were closer, Phichit could see that the separate stone building was a chapel, different in build and atmosphere. This structure was entirely old, mossy stone, peaked with multifaceted spires and intricate wire fences that connected between them on the roofs. A black weathervane spun idly in the wind, creaking in the silence between their steps.
Before turning left toward the house, now on the veranda, Phichit saw an iron crucifix hanging above the door. The area was dark, but Phichit decided he would have plenty of time to check it out later.
Facing the chateau now, Phichit also found that there was a red brick and wood annex. It looked clean, pristine, local, and yet very out of sorts with the rest of the place. Phichit considered asking about it, but Chris was already leading him away to an entrance.
Past the large oak doors was an entryway where a small desk, vase, and large ornate mirror decorated the wall, and upon the floor lay a plush red carpet with golden frays and a paisley design.
Phichit’s polite habit kicked in and he unwound himself from Chris’s arm to take off his boots. Chris regarded him with a look.
“Custom of your country?”
Phichit nodded. “All homes are sacred.”
Chris hummed, considering the notion. “I can show you to the rooms, then. They’re upstairs.”
True to his word, Chris brought Phichit through the grand hallway, past closed off french doors that hid ballrooms and studies and kitchens. Each room had a colorful charm with plush furniture or high ceilings and Phichit realized he was falling behind. He jogged up behind Chris by the time he turned a corner that opened to a vast reception area. A wide staircase opened up to the second floor, a balcony bordering it.
Phichit stood at the base to take it all in, Chris walking ahead of him once again. Snap.
Phichit pretended not to notice that Chris’s backside had been most definitely in his mind’s frame.
Once they made it to the second floor hallway, their steps echoed against the wood all the way down to the other end where it opened up to a room that seemed more like a waiting area. There were a set of two doors in the center, and several doors on the left and right.
“You can choose any room off of this landing,” Chris gestured widely, “with the exception being that room, of course.”
“Your bedroom,” Phichit said.
“Sex dungeon, actually,” Chris corrected. Although, at Phichit’s horrified stare, he amended with a whisper: “It’s a joke.”
Phichit swallowed. “The room to the right, then.”
Chris went over and opened the door for him, waving inside. “Excellent choice, Petit. You’ll find that you can see the lake and Pitalus from here.”
“Pitalus?” Phichit asked as he entered the room. It was spread out and relatively barren— but not without little touches of intricacy. A desk, boudoir, bureau, and a closet all found their home along the walls, not built in but matching meticulously. The bed was much the same.
“The large, foreboding mountain behind the city,” Chris explained.
Phichit walked toward a sort of small bed or couch that was attached to the window, a relatively private nook, and leaned forward. Indeed, the mountain looked just as gigantic as it had when he rode around it, despite the fact that it was separated from them by a lake of equal scale.
“Ah,” Phichit pondered, “I thought it was rather majestic.”
Chris scoffed. “You’ve never climbed it.”
While technically correct, Phichit didn’t have the energy to argue that he had at least skirted the base of the mountain on his travel here. “And you have?”
“I’ve heard many a tale,” Chris said, still standing in the doorway, maintaining what seemed now like an awkward distance.
Phichit returned by the bed, hand whispering over the satin sheets. “Well, I paint what I see, not what I hear.”
“That is how artists work, I’ve been told,” Chris conceded. “The baths are back down the hall. I’ll have Sergei draw one up for you, if you wish.”
The prospect of a tub of hot water never felt so appealing. “Please and thank you,” Phichit sighed.
Chris nodded curtly. “And dinner is served at six. I’ll have them call for you. I’m sure you’re hungry— the buns must not have been filling, regretfully.”
“While that may be the case, they were delicious,” Phichit smirked.
Chris’s tongue darted out to lick his lip, a motion so quick Phichit almost didn’t see it. “In that case, I’m glad you liked my buns,” he said quickly, ducking out of the room.
“Ah— I’ll be able to discuss with you payment for lodging at dinner!” Phichit called.
Chris opened the door and ducked back in. “Consider your lodgings free of charge,” he spoke with a playful lilt.
In all of the places Phichit has travelled thus far, this was by far the most unfair— and he wasn’t complaining.
Phichit found the bath when he was ready easily enough. At the other end of a hall the sound of running water led him to the appropriate door. The room was a pale yellow, and in the corner by the floor-to-ceiling windows was an oversized tub with golden claw feet, big enough for several people. To the side was a small stool, with a change of clothes folded on top. Phichit was curious to see what they looked like, if they would fit, but the tub was filled with hot water that he didn’t want to waste.
After cleaning up and donning the clothing— slightly too baggy but overall simple and clean— Phichit helped himself to a much needed, much appreciated nap. His muscles and lungs cried out in joy as he spread out across the sheets, and it wasn’t long before he passed out.
A knock on the door roused Phichit from his slumber. He yawned and stretched his limbs, mumbling some sort of acknowledgment or apology, he wasn’t sure which.
After getting up and smoothing out the wrinkles in the borrowed clothing, he opened the door to a tall man with dark hair down to his shoulders.
“Good evening, sir,” he introduced stately, “I am Sergei. Are you well enough to dine tonight?”
“Much better now, thank you,” Phichit said, taken aback by the suit. He would have thought that if it were a formal dinner, Chris would have left him more formal clothing? A long tunic and simple trousers (that needed a rather tight belt— also supplied) hardly seemed appropriate.
Shelving his nerves, he followed Sergei back downstairs and toward doors that led to a banquet room with chandeliers strung above where the light streamed through. Chris was sitting at the head of the long, dark mahogany table, leaning back in his chair with a welcoming smile.
“Glad you could make it, Petit,” Chris beckoned in that sugar sweet voice. “Take a seat. I do hope you found your lodgings in good taste?”
“Thank you, and I did.” Phichit nodded, deciding on a chair at Chris’s right side. “I—”
“Milord,” a server came into the room, fashioning an apron, “first course will be out shortly.”
Phichit blinked. Lord. He was in a lord’s castle. He was staying in a lord’s castle for free. Phichit felt a hole open up in his stomach and swallow his appetite. Of course the handsome man that took him in had to be a lord. There had to be a price. Had to be. “L-Lord?”
Chris gave Phichit a questioning look. “Prince, actually, although I don’t much care for the term.”
Phichit shifted in his seat as several plates were laid in front of him. He didn’t feel much like eating suddenly. “Prince…?”
Another waiter came by and slowly poured a velvet wine into Chris’s flute. He held his hand up when it was filled to his liking and murmured his thanks, green eyes still on Phichit. “Yes. Prince Giacometti. Did you not recognize me?”
In a situation like this many people would have apologized, but Phichit was frozen. His lips quivered until he finally sputtered out a laugh. When he calmed, wiping the side of an eye, he cleared his throat. “As you have noted before, Prince, I am not from this region.”
“I’m wounded so,” Chris jested, “but tell me this: are you not also of royal descent? Only royalty around these nations know Common tongue, and I imagine that’s the same in further corners of the world as well.”
“You’ve done some research,” Phichit commented, forking some salad greens.
“You were an interesting puzzle,” Chris said, “and I like a challenge. So, Petit,” Chris leaned forward curiously, “who are you?”
Phichit pondered the question for a moment, but saw no harm in coming out with it. It’s not that he was hiding it, but diplomacy wasn’t his reason for traveling. He put his fork down and sat up straighter, meeting Chris’s eyes with a bit of mustered confidence.
“I am the Crown Prince Chulanont of Laithand.”
Needless to say, Chris was mildly surprised. His eyebrows arched high and his lips pursed in a low whistle. “ Crown Prince. Well, it’s a good thing I took you in then,” he remarked, gently swirling the wine glass in his hand. “What sort of Crown Prince would I be if I did not host fellow royalty?”
Phichit eased back, relieved— although on the brink of being overwhelmed by the prospect of their arrangement. He felt he still had something to set straight. “I’m merely here to paint—”
Chris held up his other hand at that, taking a gentle sip before elaborating. “No need to explain. I may not know, but I understand.”
Phichit didn’t know what Chris meant by that, but he let the comment slide without much thought.
The rest of the dinner was pleasant, waiters exchanging empty plates for full ones and replenishing wine glasses when they were low. Chris entertained Phichit’s eagerness with a calm and composed disposition, intrigued by Phichit’s animated questions about the city, the language, the people— practically everything he could think of in the moment. When it came to places Phichit could paint, Chris offered to take him around the city to both the popular and secretive spots that might yield excellent reference.
Phichit decided at some point through their evening coffee after dinner was over to politely excuse himself back to his quarters. It may have been in part due to his words slurring and yawns making his body seize in a yearnful stretch, but also due to Chris suggesting it after witnessing Phichit’s consciousness deteriorate to that level. He bid Phichit goodnight and left for his office, claiming some last minute duties required his time.
Phichit was happy to see that all of his belongings had been delivered to the room, and never felt more glad to disappear underneath the blankets and pillows.
The chateau was silent that first night.