Neil wiped his forehead with his sleeve, leaving a smudge of flour in its wake. He brushed off his soiled sleeve in annoyance, running a hand through his hair and realizing, in hindsight, that he had only spread the flour farther. He grumbled quietly to himself as he started wiping down the counters, moving bowls of dough waiting to rise and various ingredients out of his way as he went.
He rinsed off the rag and set it in the sink to deal with later, glanced at the clock to calculate when the muffins would be done, and stepped back to survey the extent of the damage. He got the counters, but the kitchen floors would need to be swept and probably scrubbed as well. There were other servants who would be making their way in later who could deal with it, but this was Neil’s workspace to keep clean and he couldn’t continue to work with such a mess.
He grabbed a broom and set about dusting the particles of baking into a dustpan. Afterwards, he wrung out his rag and crouched down to start the tedious task of getting day-old oil and frosting stains out of the tiles. Just as his knees were starting to ache, a quick look at the clock again told him that the dinner rolls were about finished. He stood up gratefully, stretching his back as he went.
He opened the oven containing the biscuits, the glorious scent of freshly baked bread rolling out to meet the ever-present smells of the kitchen. He inhaled deeply, a small smile appearing on his face. He used his oven mitt to carefully maneuver the pan onto the counter, then bent to a different cupboard to unload the cooling racks.
When the rolls were cooled enough to not fall apart when touched, he laid them out expertly on the racks, putting his hands on his hips as he stood back to admire them. Giving them an approving nod, he gave himself a mental note to start on making some new strawberry jam, as the ones he’d packaged a few days ago were going on empty. He’d start when he finished with the floor.
He re-rinsed his rag, wrung it out, and crouched farther back in the room to reach the corners he hadn’t gotten to yet. Five minutes in, he heard the sound of footsteps joining him in the kitchen. He assumed it was a maid gathering materials to make a quick snack for an inhabitant or a servant on their lunch break, so he kept his eyes on his work.
A few moments later, however, he heard a quiet sharp inhale of breath behind him, and he turned. Leaning against the counter, freshly made biscuit in hand, stood a short blond man clad in white. He was chewing a bite of said freshly made biscuit, and his knees were covered in grass stains, with a few twigs and leaves nestled into his mussed hair.
“Hot,” The man stated, holding up the roll as if that was all the explanation needed.
Neil groaned, rubbing his eye with the back of his hand, hoping it was clean. “Andrew, those are for tonight. And of course it’s hot, I just got them out of the oven.”
Andrew shrugged nonchalantly, taking another bite of the baked good that just burnt his tongue a second before. His eye twitched once, before he took another bite, as if proving to the biscuit just how much he cared about its temperature.
Neil sighed once and stood up, knees popping. He winced and slung the rag over his shoulder, making his way to Andrew. He deliberately slid the cooling racks further away from him, hoping to dissuade him from grabbing another roll. “Were you out hunting? You better not be tracking mud in my kitchen or I’ll kill you.”
Andrew huffed, like he was amused at the prospect. He pointedly lifted up his dark brown boot slightly off the floor, to show that it had left no unsightly sort of print on the tiles. Neil nodded once, then moved his gaze from Andrew’s boots upwards to take in the rest of his attire. He had forgone the mantle he often wore around the halls and at mealtimes, for a high-collared buttoned jacket of the same coloring. White with orange accents of leaves adorning his shoulders and travelling slightly down either side of his chest. His britches were a matching white and hugged his legs snugly, certainly fit for riding, as they wouldn’t get caught on anything.
Neil wiped his hands off on the rag, set it on the counter, then lifted his palms in the proximity of Andrew’s head. “You have leaves in your hair, you beast,” Was his way of asking.
Andrew’s lips quirked as he inclined his head in assent, and Neil started picking out the foliage that had lodged itself in the prince’s royal locks. Neil huffed through his nose satisfiedly when he finished, running his hands once more through the strands to see if he had missed anything. “Don’t you have servants for this?”
Before Neil could move away, Andrew reached out to wipe the smudge of flour off Neil’s forehead with his thumb. Andrew smirked as he quipped back, “I do.”
Neil turned on his heel maybe a little too quickly, hoping to hide his newly flushed face. He had a feeling Andrew caught the tail end of it anyways. He snatched his rag off the counter and moved back to the large sinks.
“Did you go with Kevin?” He hoped to change the subject, “Bring me back something next time you go, I’ve been dying to make up a meat pie. All the animal produce seems to make it to the chef’s kitchen these days, completely bypassing mine.”
Neil started washing out a bowl, his mind filled with the scent of the forest and the rustling of leaves, and almost dropped it when Andrew spoke up, “Why don’t you come with us and catch it yourself?”
Neil whipped his head around to stare at Andrew in surprise, worried that he had read his mind. But Andrew’s eyes were back on the cooling rack and his hand was extending towards it.
“Hey!” Neil threw the first thing in his hands with no other thought than save the rolls! Andrew’s eyes only met his when he caught the only partially wrung out, soapy rag from the air. He stared at Neil, unimpressed, the rag dripping on the floor. Neil stared back, completely serious.
Andrew waited another second before tossing the rag back at him, Neil leaning slightly to the side to let it fall back into the sink. Andrew didn’t reach for the biscuits again. Neil straightened back up, satisfied, and finally responded to Andrew’s earlier question, “I can’t come with you, you know that’s not allowed.”
“Who’s gonna stop you?” Andrew shrugged, crossing his arms. Neil searched his face, and realized that Andrew meant it. He didn’t make offers like this lightly.
Neil gave a quiet little laugh in disbelief, a smile creeping on his face despite himself. He leaned his hips back against the counter, hands helping support his weight. “You’ll teach me to ride?”
Of course, Neil already knew how to hunt. It was how he’d survived before making it to Sionnach. However, he’d never had a chance to properly ride a horse before, only blurred bouts of holding onto his mother’s waist as she steered them to their next destination.
“Well, it’d be hard for you to keep up on foot, wouldn’t it? Besides, you’ll need to know if you’re gonna come with us next week.”
Neil’s eyebrows pulled together in confusion, searching his brain for anything significant happening in the next seven days. It came up blank. “What’s next week?”
“Didn’t you hear? I thought word traveled quickly down here,” Andrew was no doubt referring to the endless gossiping that transpired between the help in the castle. Indeed, the servants talked, and it was great entertainment when the long work hours seemed to stretch for days. Neil knew more about Aaron and Katelyn’s sex life and how long Kevin took to bathe than he had ever wished to know. Nevertheless, Neil hadn’t heard a word about an event involving Andrew next week.
Andrew must have recognized it on his face, for he continued, “Prince Riko has invited me for a little tea and treaty negotiation. I’m permitted to bring a guard and a servant to accompany me.”
Neil attempted to hold in his panic at the thought of returning to Raven territory. He hadn’t been back for nearly five years and his memories were filled with red and black, blood and shadows. He could almost hear the clashes of metal as he was forced to stand up, over and over, hold up his weapon and fight. His arms shook a bit, remembering the overexertion of his muscles, and he swallowed hard. He hoped his confusion showed as his primary emotion.
Prince Riko was hardly in charge of operations within that kingdom, and Andrew was a prince only in name. He wasn’t in line for the throne in any way other than formality. It was widely known that Prince Nicholas Hemmick would be the one taking that office, once his father stepped down. “Why is he asking you?”
Andrew acknowledged his clear confusion, but watched him carefully, as if he sensed Neil’s discomfort and hesitation. “It seems the prince has some more personal matters to discuss, second born son to second born ‘son’.”
That only answered about a third of Neil’s questions though. “But why only you? Wouldn’t Prince Aaron be included in that kind of discussion?”
“My brother is already married and focused on his medicinal studies. I assume Riko sees me as having the least amount of ties to this kingdom, and therefore the least amount of risk for his tea party.”
Neil brushed some leftover flour off his pant legs and thought. It was true that Riko didn’t like taking risks. He was a coward, through and through. But he was also reckless, and that combined with his uncontrollable temper and thirst for blood was a dangerous combination. “What do you think he wants?”
“Probably just some useless trade agreement. Anything to make him feel like he has a semblance of control within that kingdom. His uncle is granted considerable leeway that is passed on to the prince, so long as it doesn’t interfere in any real way,” Andrew shifted, unbuttoning the top few buttons of his jacket, looking like he was ready to get out of those stiff clothes, “Basically, he wants to play house and presumably try some petty power play tactics and see how we hold up against them.”
“So why did you agree to go?” Neil wondered. It sure sounded like Riko, but Andrew had no obligation to an unwanted child of a tension filled nation.
Andrew heaved a great sigh, as if he were suddenly exhausted. “Nicky thought it’d be a good opportunity to strengthen relations between the kingdoms. Even though Riko hardly counts as part of it, forging some kind of relationship with the second born can have its perks. I’ll see what he offers up.”
“And even as an estranged son, he has some troops of his own. You shouldn’t underestimate him.” Neil added, lost in his thoughts. Riko was basically like a spoiled child no one wanted to deal with. His family just gave him whatever shiny new toy he wanted so he left them alone and stayed quiet.
Andrew looked at him strangely for a moment, and Neil realized he’d screwed up. A poor baker who’d lived his whole life in this kingdom could only know so much about a foreign prince. Neil had just crossed the line of ‘interested in politics’ to ‘insider info’. “Right. That as well.”
Neil’s heart sped up, but he tried to keep his face blank. He turned back the counter and grabbed the woven basket that had been filled with freshly picked strawberries this morning. He got a cutting board out of the drawer below him and removed a knife from the block. “When shall I be ready to break the rules and go out hunting with you two?”
Andrew was silent for a couple more beats while Neil started finely chopping the berries in front of him. Finally, he answered, “Meet us at the stables at o nine hundred.”
One thing that Neil did not stop to consider about horse riding is that he would be sore. Unbelievably sore. Terribly sore. Indescribably and horribly-
“Have you been stretching after?” Kevin’s unimpressed voice came from over his shoulder as Neil waddled uncomfortably towards the blueberry bushes.
It was two days since Neil had started his grueling lessons with the prince and guard duo and he was already wishing for death. Currently, Neil was in the gardens, hoping to pick some of the recently ripening blueberries for some recipes tonight. It wasn’t necessarily his job to pick them himself, but he didn’t feel like waiting and the weather was nice. He didn’t get outside much between baking, cleaning, and other necessities like eating and sleeping.
He painstakingly sat down cross-legged in front of a vibrant patch of berries, setting his basket beside him on the grass. He glared over at Kevin. “Of course I haven’t been stretching. Do you think I have time for that between all my work? I’m practically hopping off a horse straight into the kitchen, then back again.”
Kevin huffed. “I’m able to stretch every day and I’m working just as much as you are.”
Neil rolled his eyes, leaning back on his hands. “Yeah, but all you do is follow Andrew around all day. It’s not really that hard.”
The man in question was twirling his sword around his hand, presumably having been taking a breather from tussling with Kevin when Neil arrived. Kevin had opened his mouth to respond, appearing miffed, but Andrew had lunged at him, restarting their training and effectively shutting Kevin up.
Neil smiled smugly, letting the delightful sun rays wash over him as he admired Andrew in a tank top. His view of the muscles rippling through Andrew’s arms as he swung his sword was only obstructed by a pair of ever-present black arm guards.
About ten minutes later, they halted their match and Andrew turned to Neil who had yet to start on actually picking any fruit. Andrew ran a hand through his sweaty hair, partly from exercise and partly from the sun which was progressively beating down harder on them.
Andrew held up his sword and raised an eyebrow, a silent offer. Neil thought about it. He’d been trained in weapons from a young age. The first half of his life was spent learning painful lessons of knives, while his time at Karasu had been ruthless training of the sword. Where the sword lessons he’d had with his mother more recently had been self defense based and rehearsed with frantic need, his training with Riko had been competitive and showy, but nonetheless brutal.
It’d been awhile since Neil had been able to practice. He’d settled maybe a little too comfortably into the monotonous lifestyle in the palace, and the most activity he could do was half an hour or so in his room before bed. The horse riding was a good release so far, but he found his body yearning for more. It wasn’t used to sitting still.
Neil was saved from answering when Kevin looked between the two and recognized the offer. “No. Absolutely not. The riding is already pushing it, the servants aren’t permitted weapons, that includes training with them.”
Andrew rolled his eyes, shifting his weight and leaning the flat of his blade against his shoulder casually. “There’s knives in the kitchen you know.”
Neil met Andrew’s eyes and his face made it clear that his offer still stood, whether or not Kevin agreed with it. Neil couldn’t risk it though, Kevin was right. It was pushing it and he could get in trouble if it were discovered, no matter that Andrew suggested it. He’d have to pretend he’d never held a sword in his life as well, and that wasn’t much more productive than not training at all.
Neil tried not to let his disappointment show as he shook his head at Andrew. “It’s alright. I should be starting on dinner pretty soon anyways.”
Andrew stared at him for a few more moments and Neil shifted to face towards the blueberries again. Then, Andrew only shrugged and settled back into a stance, facing Kevin.
Neil hadn’t smelled the scent of cooking meat in his kitchen in a long time. It mixed with the aroma of freshly baked bread and berries in an odd, but exciting way. He hummed to himself as he cleaned up his workspace, a hefty meat pie baking beside him.
He had finally been able to catch something on one of their hunts. It was a bit embarrassing for it to have taken this long, but shooting arrows on horseback was significantly harder than it looked. That, coupled with the fact that he’d only been riding by himself for about five days now, made his catch of a fairly large grouse seem impressive. To himself, at least.
He’d made blueberry tarts to go with it, taking advantage of the abundance of fruit the season had been providing them with so far. He was proud of this meal, even if it was late and the only person actually going to be eating it was Andrew. It was well past dinner time when Neil had found the time to actually bake something for fun.
He was just taking the pie out of the oven when Marissa, a maid who often visited him, entered the kitchen. He glanced over at her as he set the pie down carefully, then reached into the cupboard above him for a serving tray. “I just need to plate everything out, then it’ll be ready to be delivered.”
“Uhm...That’s the thing, actually.” She shifted a bit uncomfortably, watching him still trying to get the serving tray down from the top shelf.
“Hm?” He asked distractedly. His fingers were only just brushing the edge of the tray, and he was starting to get annoyed. Who put these things so high up? This was his kitchen, there was no reason that things shouldn’t be put within reach.
“Uh, here.” She came around behind him and reached over his shoulder, grabbing the tray for him easily with her superior height.
He clenched his jaw slightly, frustrated, as he took it from her. “Thanks.”
He took a knife from the block and set about cutting the pie neatly. He heard Marissa clear her throat behind him, having moved a couple of steps away. He sighed quietly, “Yeah?”
“Prince Andrew wants you to deliver the meal.” She gripped her wrist lightly in front of her, watching for his reaction. It sounded like a strange request to her, he was sure. Neil outright refused to be used as a regular servant, running to and fro in the castle halls. He was a baker, dammit, and he wasn’t going to be an errand boy. So she was probably waiting for his outburst or outright refusal.
Neil only bit his lip to keep himself from smiling though. “Alright. It’ll be up in a minute, then.”
The maid seemed at a loss for words and didn’t move. Neil glanced at her from the corner of his eye as he poured tea into two cups, placing them on the tray. “You should get to bed. Don’t you have to go into town tomorrow to pick up a package from that jewelry maker you like?”
Marissa blushed immediately at the mention of Allison and only gave him a hurried bow before scurrying out of the room. Worked every time.
Neil smiled to himself as he placed four tarts on a small plate and fit it on the tray next to the pie. He finished it off with cutlery and a couple napkins before hefting the tray into his arms and heading towards the stairs at the end of the hall.
His hands were occupied when he made it up to Andrew’s door, so he lightly kicked at the frame of it with his boot. Andrew, most likely figuring that it was Neil, came and opened the door for him, rather than simply calling for him to enter.
Neil grinned when he saw Andrew already in his night clothes. It was always like a weight coming off his shoulders when he got to see Andrew in private, looking comfortable and relaxed, not standing straight to uphold any pretense. “Hungry?”
Andrew only opened the door wider and stepped out of the way to let him in. Neil entered and toed off his shoes next to the door. He set the tray on the low table in the middle of the room, kneeling on the cushion on one side as Andrew closed the door behind him. He set out the other plate he brought with him and used the knife to carefully leverage a piece of the pie onto it. Neil set out a napkin and laid the cutlery on it next to the now occupied plate. Andrew sat down cross legged across from him.
Neil set Andrew’s cup of tea in front of his plate, and picked up his own cup when Andrew picked up his fork. He took a sip of his still scorching tea, then hid his anticipatory smile behind the cup as he watched Andrew cut himself a bite.
Andrew’s eyes flicked up to meet his. “What’s got you so excited?”
Neil just shook his head slightly, taking another sip of his drink. He didn’t get a lot of chances to be in Andrew’s bedchambers between both of their responsibilities, but he was never disappointed when he was. His toes curled in his wool socks behind him in memory of his first night in this room.
He glanced back at Andrew and found him already half way through his piece of grouse pie, and Neil perked up. “It’s good?”
Andrew grunted in affirmation. “Try it yourself if you’re so curious.”
“Oh,” Neil said, surprised. “It’s alright, I already taste test enough in the kitchen throughout the day. Besides, I caught it on your grounds and I already had dinner, so-”
“Shut up. You hunted it, so it’s yours. Just eat.” Andrew was already adding a tart to his plate and Neil was nearly glowing with Andrew’s praise, verbal or not.
He assented and unfolded a napkin to serve as his plate, maneuvering a piece of the pie onto it between the knife and a fork. And it was good. He would always prefer meat baked into a pie as opposed to having it by itself. It was just so much sweeter, and there wasn’t a hint of chewiness to the grouse, the whole bite just melted in your mouth. He hummed in appreciation, washing down the bite with a drink.
He opened his eyes, not realizing he’d closed them, to find Andrew looking at him. Neil licked his lips as he reached for a tart, smirking when he noticed the way Andrew’s gaze flicked to his mouth.
“Made good use of those blueberries, didn’t I?” Neil asked before biting into the treat, everything still warm and gooey from its trip out of the oven.
Andrew just looked at him as Neil took another bite, unable to help himself. He startled a bit then, so focused on the fruit that he didn’t notice when Andrew’s hand reached across the table to swipe a thumb underneath his bottom lip, collecting the blueberry juice that had dripped there. Neil glanced up at him, and nearly dropped his tart when Andrew licked the juice off his thumb, eyes boring into Neil’s.
Neil swallowed, placing his half eaten tart on his napkin. He thought they might be done eating, but he still felt hungry for something. Andrew jerked his chin just slightly for Neil to come over and he obliged happily. Using his hands to maneuver his folded legs off the cushion, he half crawled, half pulled himself the small distance from one side of the table to the other. It was awkward, but standing up fully just to sit back down again seemed a precious waste of time, and Andrew was already turning in his seat towards him. “Yes or no?”
Neil nodded quickly, whole body tingling with excitement. It had been too long. “Yes.”
Andrew tipped his chin up and to the side with a firm hand, and Neil leaned in greedily. His hands instantly sought out the safe zone of Andrew’s hair, tangling his fingers in it securely. Their mouths found each other easily, warmth immediately coursing through him.
Andrew’s free hand slid down to Neil’s waist, gripping his hip firmly. Neil melted into him, opening his mouth eagerly when Andrew sought to deepen the kiss. The sensation of their tongues meeting was coupled with Andrew’s hands adjusting to hold under his thighs and suddenly Neil was no longer on the ground.
Neil made a noise against Andrew’s mouth that was a bit higher pitched than he would have liked in surprise. His hands gripped Andrew’s shoulders to keep balance as he carried him quite easily to the bed. Neil’s hands trailed absentmindedly down Andrew’s shoulders and around his biceps as he remembered watching him train. Those muscles weren’t just for show.
Neil relaxed against the duvet when he was laid down, Andrew kneeling between his legs. He tasted of blueberries and a hint of jasmine, and Neil couldn’t get enough.
It was a good night.