Prince Damian was trying his very hardest not to fall asleep on his feet as three-- or was it four?-- royal tailors fluttered around him, making the most miniscule adjustments to his ensemble that they possibly could. It was almost funny: he had absolutely no trouble sitting at his desk for hours on end, pouring over books or projects. But standing here while the tailors painstakingly stitched up his new coat was, apparently, another matter entirely. It was all he could do to keep his eyes open.
Not that he blamed the tailors, exactly. It wasn’t their fault that standing there being fussed over was incredibly boring. Nor was it their fault that he had been up so late last night. No, that was entirely his own fault. Though he had to admit that Julian, his tutor, had something to do with it as well. He wondered if Julian had gotten any sleep after that mess... there had been an awful lot of cleanup involved, and Julian had taken it upon himself to make sure the library was put back to normal before Queen Nadia found out, despite Damian’s protests and offers to help. It didn’t seem fair to Damian that his tutor had ended up essentially taking the punishment for Damian’s own mistake...
The prince was jolted out of his half-aware train of thought by yet another tug on his sleeve. One of the tailors had a habit of pulling things closer to themselves. Usually without warning. The sudden movement made Damian jump, accidentally yanking his sleeve out of the tailor’s grip.
The tension in the room was instantly palpable. Every single tailor stopped short, pulling back. It was as though something far more dangerous had happened than someone being startled.
“Oh, beg bardon, your highness,” said the tailor nervously.
Damian held back a sigh. “No, it was my fault. I was distracted. I didn’t ruin your work, did I?”
The tailor shook his head. “Not at all, Highness. No harm done... unless you were stuck by one of the pins...?”
The tailor sounded absolutely terrified at the idea of Damian accidentally being poked.
“I’m perfectly fine,” Damian assured him.
The tailor let out a sigh of sheer relief. “Wonderful. Are you ready to continue?”
Damian would have loved to say that the only thing he was ready for would be a nap , but he knew that wouldn’t go over well. At all. So he resigned himself to a simple nod.
The tailors instantly went back to work.
Damian straightened himself up and went back to idly staring in the general direction of the mirror. His mind wandered again, drifting back to his experiment. He’d been trying to find, or make, the world's fastest-growing crystal. It hadn’t gone remotely as planned, but that was part of the reason Damian enjoyed alchemy so much: the thrill of finding what worked, and the puzzles that came with what didn’t. Sometimes, the thrill even came from what didn’t work. He certainly hadn’t intended to cover the library carpet in a mysterious goo...
He was jerked out of his thoughts once again. Someone knocked on the door, hitting a very familiar, rhythmic pattern. Damian would know that signature knock anywhere.
“Come in, Julian,” he said, his tone far brighter than before.
The door creaked open. Somehow, Damian managed to look without moving his arms out of the tailor’s grips again. Julian eased his way through the door backwards, a tray carefully balanced in his hands. He turned, nudging the door shut with his foot. He stepped casually up to the dias where Damian stood. A lock of his auburn hair fell in front of his eye as he moved. Julian completely ignored it, instead presenting the tray to Damian.
“Figured you might be hungry,” said Julian with an almost rakish smile. “You’ve been up here for quite a while.”
Damian couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you, Julian. Perhaps something to eat would help me stay awake.”
Julian chuckled, setting the tray on a nearby table. “That project of yours did last a little longer than expected, didn’t it?”
“Much longer,” Damian agreed. “Did you manage to get to bed at all? I would have helped you clean up, but...”
“But that’s hardly work appropriate for a Prince, is it?” Julian said easily. He was setting up the snack now, elegantly arranging several little cakes. “Speaking of work... do you think your captors will allow you to break away for enough time to eat, or are you far too tied up at the moment?”
“They have me completely surrounded,” Damian joked.
Julian chuckled. “Shall I call the guards to come sweeping to your rescue?”
“I have heard their pins are very dangerous,” said Damian, trying to keep his tone completely serious.
But all semblance of anything serious was instantly gone when Julian laughed. Damian couldn’t resist chuckling right along with him. Even the tailors were smiling. Julian tended to have that effect on people.
“That was a good line, Damian,” said Julian, setting out a teapot. “It seems you’ve gained the upper hand once again. I’ll have to work on my witty comebacks.”
“When you’re the one who helped me learn the fine art of conversation?” Damian shot back. “ I should be practicing to make sure I don’t fall behind. I can’t count the number of guests who have fallen for your stories.”
Julian shrugged. “Can’t really call them my stories when I’m only repeating what I’ve heard.”
“Oh?” Damian’s smile was closer to a knowing smirk. “Then the tale of how you chased off a group of bandits single handedly when you were only twelve years old was something someone else came up with?”
“Oh, no,” said Julian casually, “ that one was completely true.”
“That’s not what Portia tells me,” said Damian.
It was only half a jab. Portia, Julian’s sister and Queen Nadia’s favorite maid, had her own version of that particular story. One that painted Julian in a far more comedic light.
Julian coughed. “Ah, yes, she does tell that tale a little differently, doesn’t she? You must admit my version is far more exciting, though.”
“That’s one way to put it,” Damian teased.
This, Damian thought, was exactly how he would like to spend every royal fitting. Time went by much faster when Julian was there. It didn’t matter whether Julian told stories, or took their lessons on the go, or simply chatted with him. There was never a dull moment with Julian around.
“Well, either way, I have your snack ready for any moment you can attempt an escape from your perilous fight against unkempt clothing,” said Julian.
He twisted a teacup a bit to make sure it was in the perfect spot on its little plate. Portia had never allowed him to set foot in the kitchens, so Damian tended to doubt that Julian knew anything about making tea. But Julian could always be counted on to set up a great presentation.
“Thank you, Julian,” said Damian. His tone was utterly heartfelt.
Julian chuckled. “Any time. Now, then. If I could possibly pull you away...?”
He shot Damian a smile that was caught somewhere between teasing and pleading. Damian really didn’t know what to do with that smile. It made something in his gut seem to lurch in a way that had nothing to do with hunger. But he didn’t ever get the chance to figure it out, or to even so much as ask the tailors if he could take a small break. At that moment, they were interrupted by another knock at the door.
The door creaked open before Damian could reply. A young woman with a mop of red hair poked her head in.
“Your Highness?” she called. “Are you decent?”
Damian sighed. “It’s alright, Portia. I’m dressed.”
Portia slid easily into the room, closing the door silently behind her. A long list hung loosely in her hand, nearly trailing to the floor. She had barely even opened her mouth to speak before Damian let out another sigh.
“Let me guess,” said the Prince. “I’m running late?”
Portia’s eyes sparkled with humor as she replied. “Almost. You have twenty-five minutes before we need to rush over to the Historical Society gathering for your speech.” She checked a watch that dangled from the sash around her waist. “Scratch that: twenty- two minutes.”
“Do you really think this will take twenty minutes to finish?” Damian asked no one in particular.
“That depends on how many sleeves you have,” Julian piped up. “Apparently each one takes an hour.”
Normally, Damian would have at least attempted a laugh. This time he didn’t even bother. The thought of his endless schedule made all the humor in the situation evaporate.
“Seems I won’t have time for that tea after all,” said Damian pointedly.
“We could prepare something for the road,” said Portia.
Her tone made Damian certain that she was already making a mental list of his favorite travel snacks to rattle off to the head cook. The fact that he had very little interest in snacking on the go didn’t really make much difference at the moment with schedules so tight.
“Are you sure we’re really all that busy?” he asked.
Portia simply lifted up her list, letting it unfold all the way. It turned out that it actually did reach the floor. And then some.
Damian let his shoulders slump, which sent the tailors in a slight frenzy. He quickly straightened up.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness,” said Portia. “But you know we have to get all of this done before our guest arrives. And with Count Lucio due to return soon...”
She trailed off. Count Lucio had been something of a palace fixture for as long as Damian could remember. At least, when the Count was actually in the castle. When he wasn’t giving Queen Nadia advice on how to run her kingdom, he would often go out to report on the daily goings-on of the city. At the moment, he was on a longer journey across the entire kingdom. Nadia always said that his research was invaluable. Damian always thought that the Count probably spent more time in local taverns and/or clothing shops than he did actually seeing what was happening in the kingdom, but Damian would never admit that aloud. Still, absolutely everyone knew that Count Lucio tended to keep the tailors to himself for long periods of time, which made it all the more important for Damian to get his own fittings done on schedule.
“I know,” said Damian. “I was only hoping we’d have a few spare seconds to rework last night’s project, that’s all.”
Portia’s eyebrows instantly raised. “A project?”
“A little extra research, yes,” said Damian lightly.
Portia huffed, giving Julian a decidedly exasperated look. “Are you really giving His Highness a research project right now? This week? When we have so much else to do?”
Julian cleared his throat. “Well. I, uh...”
Portia put her hands on her hips. “Iliya. What have you been doing to our Prince?”
“Nothing!” Julian said quickly. “I mean, er... it was entirely his idea.”
Portia’s accusatory stare instantly turned to Damian. “Your Highness, what have you been doing to my brother?”
“Nothing,” said Damian smoothly. “Just a little extra credit alchemy assignment, that’s all.”
Portia bit her lip nervously. “Your Highness, you know we don’t have the time or resources to worry about alchemy right now.”
“Don’t worry, Pasha,” said Julian, giving his sister a playful smile. “Damian had everything we needed already at hand. And the library’s good as new, so there’s nothing to worry about.”
“The library?” Portia’s eyes narrowed. “What happened to the library?”
It was Damian’s turn to try to hide a laugh. “Nothing. Just a rather large pile of orange goop. Entirely my fault. My calculations were a bit off.”
“On the bright side,” Julian cut in, “the cleaning agent you came up with works like a charm.” He tipped his head towards Damian in a slight, friendly bow. “You always did have a knack for finding the perfect solution.”
Damian coughed. He ducked his head a bit, trying hard to hide the heat creeping up his cheeks.
Portia groaned. “You’re both incorrigible.”
Julian laughed, completely unashamed. Damian, on the other hand, just turned even redder than before. He was the Prince. He wasn’t supposed to be incorrigible. He was supposed to be a proper paragon. The one who would guide his people. To find the perfect solution, as Julian had said. Far easier said than done, of course, but Damian wasn’t about to let that stop him from doing everything he could.
Portia turned her attention to the tailors. “How’s it going? Almost done?”
“The coat is nearly pinned,” one of the tailors replied. “After that, we only need to check the hem of his trousers, and the sleeves of his tunic.”
“More sleeves?” Damian said weakly.
Julian tried to turn his laugh into a cough. It didn’t quite work out.
“Don’t worry,” said Portia with a teasing wink. “At least these won’t show when you meet up with the Majestro.”
“Right,” Damian sighed. For one wonderful moment, he’d completely forgotten what this new suit was actually for.
“He should be arriving within the week, by the way,” Portia added. “Oh, and I was supposed to tell you that the falconer wants to speak with you when you come back after your speech. Something about bats hiding out in the east forest?”
Damian was far too tired of hearing all the things he had to do to care about being polite at the moment. At least to Portia. He knew she could handle a bit of sass very easily.
“I’d forgotten I was suddenly the foremost expert on bats,” said Damian dryly.
Portia giggled. “Blame Oswald. You take such good care of him, I can’t blame half the castle for thinking you’re a bat-whisperer or something.”
Almost automatically, Damian looked up to the perch specially fitted to the far wall. There was one like it in nearly every room in the palace. Queen Nadia herself had made sure they were installed the moment that Damian had officially chosen Oswald to his Royal Pet. At least, that’s what most of the staff called the little purplish fruit bat. Damian, on the other hand, called Oswald a close friend.
Oswald had been dangling contentedly from his perch, completely asleep. His large ears twitched when he heard his name. He opened a single beady eye, regarded the crowd below him, and instantly tucked his head back under his wings.
Damian made a noise that was somewhere between a fond chuckle and a bittersweet sigh. Oswald was skilled at falling asleep practically everywhere. Damian wished he had that talent. And that opportunity.
“Aww,” Portia cooed. “I’ll just let him rest, shall I? And, Your Highness, if you really do need a break, you’re more than welcome to take one. I’m sure the Historical Society can wait.”
Damian shook his head. “No, I’ll be alright. I wouldn’t want to keep them.”
“And the sooner you get in, the sooner you can leave, I’m guessing? Smart move. I like it.”
Julian’s voice had come seemingly out of nowhere. Somehow, Julian had managed to slide himself across the room and end up right next to Damian, tea tray in hand. Damian hadn’t even noticed him. Damian was so startled that he jumped. One foot slipped off the dias. He flailed wildly for purchase, nearly knocked over the entire gang of tailors in the process.
“Damian!” Julian cried.
Julian instantly dropped the tea tray, sending tea spilling all over the floor. He lurched forward in an attempt to catch Damian. Damian just barely managed to right himself, accidentally grabbing a tailor’s shoulder. Julian was left almost floundering, his hands uselessly outstretched.
“I am so sorry, Damian,” Julian blurted out. “I should have warned you I was coming around, but I--”
“It’s alright, Julian,” said Damian. He let out a slight grunt as he righted himself, pushing off the tailor's shoulder. “No harm done. I hope.”
“None, Your Highness,” said the tailor, straightening her uniform.
“Well, aside from the tea stains on the floor,” said Portia, eyeing the mess.
Both Julian and Damian looked down at their shoes in almost identical expressions of utter embarrassment.
Portia sighed. “I’ll find the mop.”
With that, she slid right back out the door, rolling her to-do list up as she went.
Now that Damian was standing upright again, he could take a closer look at his coat. Thankfully, nothing had spilled on it. And the tailors went right back to their work. Aside from the dropped tray and the stain slowly spreading across the floor, it almost looked like the event had never even happened.
Damian let out another sigh, this one even longer than the others.
“Something still bothering you, Damian?” Julian asked, concerned.
“Nothing,” said Damian.
Julian gave him a very pointed look.
This just led to another sigh. “I’m just tired, that’s all. Things have been busy lately.”
Even busier than usual, he added silently, but didn’t dare say.
Julian nodded. “They have. Poor Pasha’s been going a mile a minute, hasn’t she?”
It was Damian’s turn to nod. Julian never called his sister by her more common name, instead using her name from Nevivon, where both she and Julian-- or Ilya, as he was known to his family-- had grown up.
“Was it like this when you were younger?” Damian asked idly. “Back in Nevivon?”
“Hard to say,” Julian shrugged. He crouched down to pick up the scattered tea set. “I certainly wasn’t working in a palace back in Nevivon, so...”
“What’s Nevivon like?” Damian asked. “You never told me.”
Julian chuckled. “Salty. Both the seas and the people. A far cry from most polite society.”
“I wouldn’t mind a bit of salt at the moment,” said Damian almost wistfully.
“You need rest,” Julian declared. “I could go speak to the falconer for you so you can--”
“I can’t ask you to do that,” said Damian, cutting him off. “You already have enough to worry about.”
“You don’t need to ask,” said Julian.
Damian shook his head. “Really, Julian, I’m fine. Besides, it’s my duty to make sure the falconer has everything he needs.”
“You certainly have a lot of duties,” Julian said pointedly.
Damian couldn’t manage a civil reply to that. So he just nodded.
Julian seemed to understand. He set the odd pile of teacups and saucers onto the table and stepped over to the tailors. He whispered something to them that Damian didn’t quite catch. Whatever it was, the tailors quickly scattered. In an instant, Damian and Julian were left completely alone.
Julian smiled, pleased with himself. He dusted himself off.
“Now, then.” He shot Damian a grin. “Would you care to tell me what it is that’s really bothering you?”
Damian desperately wanted to hold back again. It was his job, as Prince, to be the one helping others. But with Julian looking at him like that, he couldn’t restrain himself any more.
“ One day, Julian!” he sighed. “Is that too much to ask?”
“Apparently so,” Julian grumbled.
“I know I shouldn’t complain,” said Damian quickly. “And I know there are so many things I don’t have to worry about.”
“Doesn’t mean you have a completely worry-free life,” Julian put in.
“Exactly,” Damian agreed. “On an average day I barely have time to wake up before my entire life is dictated to me. And now, with all the preparations for meeting the Majestro of Zalanait...”
He trailed off. Dread gnawed at his stomach. Even Julian didn’t have a reassuring word or entertaining quip ready for that particular detail.
Vesuvia was in trouble. The kingdom was quickly sliding into bankruptcy. On the other hand, across the ocean, the kingdom of Zalanait was ever prosperous. Queen Nadia had been sending letter after letter to the rulers of Zalanait for nearly a month, now. And she had been discussing those letters with Damian in great detail.
Asra, the Majestro of Zalanait, was due to visit the palace of Vesuvia in less than a week. And then, as Nadia had put it, they would finish all the details, and the two kingdoms would be joined.
That, of course, meant only one thing. Both Damian and the Majestro were unmarried. For the moment. And nothing joined two kingdoms as easily and perfectly as a royal wedding.
Julian’s hand hovered forward and then instantly dropped down, as though he were about to reach out for Damian’s shoulder and then thought better of it.
“The Majestro might be wonderful,” said Julian softly. “You never know.”
“You’re right,” Damian sighed. “I don’t know.”
He’d never seen any of the Majestro’s letters himself. He had no idea what Asra even looked like. Not to mention knowing virtually nothing about Zalanait as a whole. It was largely desert, and not too far from Queen Nadia’s birthplace, Prakra. That was all the information Damian had on hand.
For a moment, Julian was silent. Damian didn’t quite dare look at him, didn’t dare see what the expression on his tutor’s face might be. He waited for any sort of answer. But when Julian took a breath to reply, he was cut short by another knock on the door.
“Damian? May I interrupt for a moment?”
Damian’s heart instantly felt a little lighter. He’d know that voice anywhere. Of course he would: Queen Nadia always sounded refined, even when she was discussing the frustrations of ruling that she only felt comfortable mentioning to Damian. Not exactly the most common mother-son bonding activity, but it certainly worked for the two of them.
“Of course,” Damian called. “Come in. We were thinking of taking a short break as it was.”
Julian practically tripped over himself in his rush to open the door. He eased it open with a flourish that was far too over-the-top for anyone else, but was exactly the right kind of over-the-top for Julian.
Queen Nadia didn’t even seem to notice. She simply swept into the room. If anyone else were there, they all would have immediately snapped to attention. With her long, deep purple hair, her immaculate makeup, and her perfect poise, Nadia would have been an imposing figure even without the gown and jewels. But the perfect outfit certainly didn’t hurt.
To Damian, though, her arrival was a breath of fresh air.
“I apologize for any disturbance, Damian,” said Nadia smoothly. “The tailors were simply insistent that I come see your new ensemble before they make the final alterations.”
Damian shot Julian a very pointed look. Julian did his level best to blend in with the wall.
Nadia either didn’t notice or simply ignored the prince’s antics completely. She was too intent on giving his outfit a full inspection. After a moment, which including having Damian do a full turn for her, she beamed. She placed a delicate hand on her heart in pure joy.
"Look at you," she murmured. "You look absolutely resplendent, my dear."
Damian looked, for once actually inspecting his reflection instead of staring blankly in the general direction of the mirror. In all honesty, he didn't think he looked much different at all. His eyes were still that odd, almost gold color. His hair was still muddy brown with just a hint of curl, and that one strand of it still managed to flop over his simple golden crown and dangle between his eyes. He still stood tall, the way he had been taught, and the cut of his coat did nothing to hide the fact that his shoulders were still annoyingly narrow. He supposed the new coat looked nice, but so did all the other ones the palace tailors made for him. And with all the pins still in it, he felt rather more like a breathing dress form than a prince.
But he would never say any of that aloud. He simply didn't have the luxury to.
"It's a wonderful suit," he said instead. "Just my color."
"It really does bring out your eyes, doesn't it?" said Nadia with a fond smile. "Though perhaps the sleeves could be taken in a bit?"
It took all of Damian's resolve to bite back an annoyed groan. Not those sleeves again!
Julian couldn’t quite hide a chuckle. “I’ll be sure to tell them, Your Majesty.”
Damian fired a glare in Julian’s general direction. Julian just laughed.
“Thank you, Julian.” Nadia spared Julian a quick glance before turning back to Damian. “I am glad I stopped by. I wanted to personally bring this to you.”
She held out a small parcel that Damian hadn’t noticed before. He recognized the handwriting on the label, even if he hadn’t met the person who sent it before. Majestro Asra had sent him many similar packages, all with the same signature.
“The Majestro has sent another goodwill gift,” said Nadia unnecessarily. A soft smile still played across her lips. “He seems very eager to meet you.”
Very eager seemed an understatement. Majestro Asra had sent over so many gifts. All of them with strings attached. Well, one string, really. One incredibly long, life-changing string.
But Damian couldn’t argue with his mother about this. He knew that it was his duty to take care of his people above all else. Besides, Nadia had given him everything. He couldn’t let her down.
“I’ll open it after the fitting,” said Damian.
“Of course,” said Nadia.
She gently set the gift aside on the table where the messy tea tray was still stacked. If she noticed the mess, she made no comment. Damian was almost certain she did notice the mess, but Damian was such a clutz anyway that a dropped tea tray probably wasn’t much of a surprise.
Then Nadia gave Damian a searching sort of look. And, to his surprise, she put a gentle hand on his shoulder, right there in front of Julian.
“I know this can all be a bit overwhelming,” she said gently. “But I also know how strong and capable you are. Vesuvia’s relations with Zalanait couldn’t be in better hands.”
Damian couldn’t manage a reply. So he just nodded.
Nadia’s smile turned even warmer, reassuring. “You know that if I can ever assist you with anything, you need only ask.”
Nadia seemed satisfied with that. Without another word, she swept out of the room. Julian once again scrambled to get the door for her. For one impossible moment, there wasn’t a single pair of eyes on Damian.
Damian took the opportunity while he had it. He went over to the window and tossed it wide open. Bracing himself on his forearms, he leaned out the window, letting the last traces of the morning mist wash over him. He stared down at the city far below, just barely able to make out the bustling blots of color that must have been the people. His people.
For the span of a few heartbeats, Damian allowed himself to imagine what life must have been like down there. He daydreamed about strolling through those streets, perhaps with a basket for groceries in his hand. He pictured a life without a thousand responsibilities looming over his head. Without the worry of being forced into a marriage that he had never asked for, and certainly never wanted. A world where he and Majestro Asra would never have crossed paths, a life where the fate of the kingdom wasn’t settled firmly on his shoulders.
A part of him was so desperately tempted to leap out the window right then and there. To just go into the streets, or maybe even go to the docks and jump on a ship and leave for somewhere far away, somewhere he didn’t have to be the prince anymore.
Then Julian cleared his throat. And Damian was brought crashing back to reality.
Damian bit back the umpteenth sigh of that morning and turned around. The tailors had returned. Damian didn’t need Portia to pop up again to know how insanely late they were going to be if he didn’t get right back to work.
Technically, Damian knew he could simply order them away. He could cancel the fitting. He could avoid speaking with the falconer. He truly could just run off and leave it all behind.
But he never would. As much as he may have longed to, he would never abandon his people. Or his family.
He would do his duty, even if it meant ignoring his heart.
He stepped back on to the dias, head held high, facing the tailors and their pins as though they really were an army with swords aimed at his chest.
“I’m ready,” Damian said firmly. “Let’s finish up.”