The Kingdom of Vers was a dry country, and even with its close proximity to the border of the lush kingdom of Terra, the main courtyard of Count Cruhteo’s castle featured only a few trees and some succulents to add a bit of greenery to a scene dominated by marble and stone. On this night, by the request of Princess Asseylum, pots of blooming white roses perfumed the summer air. Lilies floated in the central fountain. Garlands of mayflowers wrapped around once-austere grey pillars. The natural chill of the Versian night was chased away by the lines of golden lanterns that hung in neat rows from elegant white poles; sunlight caught in gilded cages. Because tonight was a night of celebration – of peace, goodwill and grandeur.
Slaine watched the party from a balcony window, far from the festivities and out of sight.
People mingled, dressed their finest for the event. The ladies glittered as they moved, their dresses and hair festooned with precious stones. The men held their heads high, clad in pride and fine clothing. Counts in red, nobles in grey, the Terran visitors in silk robes patterned with flowers. Servants flitted through the spaces between the partygoers bearing trays of food and drink, busy as bees amidst spring blooms. From this distance, it was like a panorama of dolls or an oil painting brought to life. Out of sight a string quartet played a sweet, upbeat tune.
Slaine tilted his head to listen to the music – the song of the band, the conversation, the chink of glasses as toasts were made, the occasional light note of a laugh that would flare brightly within the harmony. Even from far away, Slaine could feel the enchantment in the air as cold reality was chased away by the fanciful scene below.
His feet moved of their own accord; he stepped out from behind the curtain to press his fingers to the glass doors of the balcony, drawn to the warmth and light like a moth. Slaine saw his own smile reflected back from the cold, clear surface; slightly nostalgic and a touch melancholy. Slaine scolded himself. He should be happy – tonight was the start of everything Princess Asseylum had worked for.
It’s finally happening. Your wish for peace has come true. Peace for the warring kingdoms of Vers and Terra. Slaine tried to draw strength from the thought and will his selfish unhappiness away. Jealousy was unbecoming in a servant. Idleness, too. With a sigh, he drew his eyes away from the joyful scene.
When Slaine stepped away from the balcony he came face to face with a sneer and a bowl cut – Baron Trillram looked down at his large nose at Slaine, grey eyes glinting with malice. The boy ducked his head and bowed. Out there, the night was filled with magic, but this was his reality.
“Wishing that you could be down there, Terran?” Trillram asked. The mockery in his tone was obvious. Not a day went by when the baron would not complain about the war against Terra ending before he could join the battlefield, and he seemed to try to make up for it by antagonising Slaine, the nearest thing to a Terran on this side of the border. At least, he had been, until tonight.
Normally, Trillram would be gesturing wildly as he spoke. But the man was holding something behind his back; Slaine had caught a glimpse of it before he bowed.
Slaine kept silent. Nobody needed to hear about his wishes.
“Well, today’s your lucky day!” Trillram continued. “It just so happens that we’re running short on people serving at the party. So make yourself a little less worthless, Terran.”
Trillram threw a bundle of clothes at Slaine, who straightened lightning-fast and caught it easily. The man gave a grunt of annoyance.
Slaine resumed his bow. Careful to keep his voice empty of anything but courtesy, he said, “Of course, Baron Trillram.”
His bullying thwarted, Trillram dropped the taunting and merely snapped, “Put that on and head down to the kitchens. And if I hear that you messed something up, I’ll break your scrawny arms!”
“Yes, Baron Trillram.”
Slaine hurried out of the room. As he opened a hidden door to the servant’s passages, he heard Trillram shout, “And don’t you dare think about joining in the celebrations, brat!”
Slaine wouldn’t have dared. After all, miracles didn’t happen for people like him.
Slaine breathed a sigh of relief as the panel slid shut, leaving him in the cramped hallway concealed between the walls – one of many that formed the arteries and veins of any Versian castle. Slaine knew the ones in Castle Cruhteo by heart now, after two years of being sent on every difficult or unrewarding errand that servant and noble alike could throw at him. He didn’t want to head back to his tiny, dirty room where the clothes could get damaged, so he decided to change right then and there.
I don’t deserve this, Slaine thought. But perhaps it was ironic. After all, he’d promised to never again talk to his childhood friend… would today be the day that he failed to keep his distance? It would be just like him to pick an important event like this one to jeopardise. Slaine chewed his lip in nervous hesitation for a few minutes before shaking his head; orders were orders. He simply had to stay out of sight.
Carefully selecting a clean piece of floor, Slaine put the new clothes down and took off his raggedy ones. He inspected the uniform as he donned it; it was the livery of Vers footmen, with its red collar and cuffs trimmed with golden thread, double rows of polished brass buttons and heavy blue cloth. There were matching pants as well as a pair of black boots and a belt. Normally, Slaine was not supposed to be seen, he was something of a shame to Count Cruhteo. And those that shared the views of Baron Trillram disliked the idea of wearing the same uniform as an orphaned foreign brat. So Slaine had always been kept out of sight in a cheap shirt and hand-me-down shoes, scurrying around the castle like the rat he was.
Slaine shed the rags and donned the livery.
The blue uniform felt strange. Slaine was used to feeling the Versian cold through his clothes. The uniform’s thick wool shielded him from that now-familiar discomfort, dispelling his constant shivering. He took a few experimental steps in the boots and found that he could balance a lot better with footwear that actually fitted him. He smiled. It was nowhere as comfortable or fine as the clothes in his distant memories but… it was closer than anything he had ever dreamed of wearing again.
Just for tonight, he would live in a fairy tale.
The night was young. The courtyard was crowded. A servant’s job was never finished – it merely wavered between varying levels of hectic, and tonight it peaked like an angry white foamed wave during a tempest.
Slaine was sent out into the battlefield with a silver tray as his shield and delicate tarts topped with slices of candied orange as his ammo. Their mouth-watering chocolate and citrus fragrance perfumed the air as Slaine carried his platter out of the kitchen and towards the party.
It soon became obvious that to Slaine that he was ill-suited for the elegant chaos that dictated the ebb and flow of the partygoers. After the fifth time of forging a haphazard path through the crowd – and apologising the entire way as he seemed to bump into every single attendee – Slaine slipped into a dark nook away from the candlelight and glamour to stand alone so that he wasn’t underfoot. The idea of a Terran serving food would probably disgust most of the Versian nobility anyway, and he didn’t want to cause trouble for Count Cruhteo.
From his nook, Slaine watched the drift of people from a distance. Once or twice he spotted his reluctant guardian, Count Cruhteo, who still wore his signature frown despite the festivities. In contrast, tall, dark Count Saazbaum was all smiles and joviality; Slaine caught his booming laugh a few times as he talked to Versian and Terran alike. And once, Slaine saw a girl with hair like spun gold and a dress of moonlight silver glide from one gathering of nobles to another: a swan in flight, a cloud sweeping across the summer sky. Princess Asseylum was smiling, as radiant as the sun.
As she should be. After all, tonight, she was going to meet her fiancé – the Prince of Terra.
The Princess was quickly surrounded by yet another cluster of aristocrats, as brightly plumed and noisy as a flock of birds. A woman in an elaborate silk outfit, embroidered with pink roses and orange chrysanthemums, moved to greet the Versian royal. She had long, dark hair that was adorned with an ornate decoration that shared the flower motifs of her robes. Princess Asseylum gestured at these as she talked; the Princess has a great love of flowers, despite living in barren Vers.
It was another reminder of the way Slaine had repaid her kindness with difficulties. My debt to you will never be repaid; I am only a burden. Marrying a man that you’ve never met before because of some foolish stories I told you such a long time ago… the least I can do right now is stay out of your way.
Slaine soon lost sight of the Princess. He let out a breath that he hadn’t even been aware that he’d held.
The crowd, he noticed, kept well away from where he was standing as if aware of his shameful nature – he stood in a place of shadows and silence, far from the chatter at the center of the party. In a way he was neglecting his duties as a serving boy and felt a pang of guilt at the thought, but mostly he felt relief. If any of the visiting Versian nobility recognised him there would be trouble for Count Cruhteo, and he couldn’t bear to think of what would happen if Princess Asseylum saw him.
Better, then, that he watched the proceedings alone from the safety of the quiet darkness. His was not a world of light, warmth and fine clothing. The metal tray leeched heat from his bare hands, out of reach of the bright lanterns. Unattended, the tarts slowly grew colder. Slaine stood alone and smiled at no one.
Suddenly, someone detached from the crowd; a short shadow that drifted away from the glittering congregation. He seemed to be heading in Slaine’s direction. As the servant debated on whether he could discreetly move to another location before the person arrived, the young man’s brisk pace had brought him close enough that it would be rude to leave. To Slaine’s surprise, the young man turned out to be a Terran. It was obvious from the clothes he wore – a black shirt and white undershirt, with a black silk jacket loose over his thin shoulders; the jacket was kept from falling off with white strings that came together in a knot above the boy’s dark grey trousers. Kosode, haori, hakama… the entire effect was strikingly different from the tightly pressed, stiff outfits of Versian nobility. A quick glance at the boy’s feet showed him to be wearing the sandals that Terrans preferred over boots. They clacked on the stones of the courtyard, carrying the boy closer and closer to Slaine, who bowed in response to his approach.
The boy blinked his one eye – Slaine noticed the way his brown hair was arranged so that it fell over the left side of his face, half-concealing a black eyepatch and faded scars. The other was fixed on Slaine’s face, but empty of any hint of expression. That made Slaine nervous. It was dangerous not to know what nobility wanted of you, Terran or Versian.
Luckily, the boy got straight to the point, gesturing to the tarts as he asked, “Are these for consumption?” His Versian was perfect. Slaine nodded and offered the tray to him.
Definitely either a noble or an extremely wealthy merchant, if he could afford a tutor to teach him the language.
The Terran took one of the orange tarts and ate a bite. It was impossible to tell whether he had liked it; the boy simply put the rest into his mouth without the slightest hint of either enjoyment or displeasure. Slaine watched the pastry disappear in two thoroughly chewed bites. The boy’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. There was a pause.
Then, the boy took another tart from the tray and the entire process was repeated.
After that, the boy moved onto the third tart. The fourth. He didn’t hurry. Slaine observed the way the boy moved his hand from the platter to his small, round mouth, then away to hover in front of his face, then back to his mouth. As the cycle repeated, Slaine found himself admiring the sheer efficiency of the boy’s movements – they’re not graceful, like what he remembers of Princess Asseylum, nor do they carry the air of discipline that exudes from Count Cruhteo’s sharp gestures. Even Harklight moved differently; Count Saazbaum’s valet was also efficient, but he lacked the confidence with which the Terran guided his arm as if its passage was preordained.
An odd, private silence settled in their dark corner. Slaine watched with strange fascination as the boy methodically worked on clearing the silver platter, one row after another. He knew that it was rude to stare, but there was something about the way the boy’s expression does not shift in the slightest, as if he had come specifically to eat Slaine’s orange tarts.
Of course, the fact that he was standing alone in a gloomy nook scrutinising the eating habits of a Terran noble suggested that Slaine was losing his mind. It wasn’t unusual for aristocrats to treat Slaine as if he didn’t exist, but the orange-tart connoisseur gave off such an aura of sheer indifference that it was as if everyone else at the welcoming party had ceased to exist as well. Slaine even realised that he was subconsciously making an effort to breathe more quietly so he would not disturb his single-minded patron. He stood stock still, tray in hand, his expression the one of blank obedience that was always the safest around unfamiliar aristocracy.
Slaine snuck a glance at the tarts. They were already halfway gone.
Slaine snuck a glance at the boy. Or at least, he attempted to – the boy caught his gaze and held it, even pausing with a tart halfway to his open mouth. Slaine sees himself reflected in that one brown eye, scrawny and pale with messy blond hair in a uniform that wasn’t his own.
Slaine tried to stand a little straighter under the intense scrutiny. He awaited judgement. Awaited disgust. But as far as Slaine could tell, neither of those made an appearance in that terracotta stare. Whatever the boy was looking for, he was taking a long time to find it.
The seconds crept past like molasses, time slowed down by the sheer awkwardness of the situation. Fuelled by a desperation to do something, anything, Slaine gave the boy a small, nervous smile.
The Terran blinked. His lips tightened minutely as he swallowed. Slaine wondered if he had done something wrong; was it impertinent of him to smile at a noble? He hastily dropped his gaze to his feet, or at least where his feet would have been if the silver platter hadn’t been in the way.
“Excuse me, can I get anything other than wine to drink?” the boy asked in a quiet voice. Ah, maybe he had swallowed because his throat was parched?
Slaine could recall seeing jugs of iced orange juice in the kitchen – freshly squeezed, possibly made from the same fruits as the tarts. As betrothed innocents, Princess Asseylum and her fiancé were not supposed to drink wine like the other guests; Slaine himself had often been provided with juice while he still lived in the capital. In dry Vers, the juice of fresh fruit was just as valuable fermented beverages, a symbol of wealth and status. For a Terran used to fertile fields and flowing rivers, its significance would probably be lost. Still, the fruits from the palace orchards were sweet and it took no cultural awareness to appreciate their refreshing taste.
Presumably some other blue-clad servants were carrying the trays of glasses and jugs of juice, camouflaged in the ever-shifting crowd in the middle of the courtyard. There was no reason for them to wander over to where Slaine and the Terran stood alone. Biting back a resigned sigh, Slaine said, “Would sir like me to fetch a glass?”
“Yes.” As Slaine was about to leave the boy added, “I can hold the tray for you.”
Slaine whipped around to shoot the Terran an incredulous stare, narrowly avoiding tipping the remaining tarts on the floor. “Sir, you are a guest!”
The boy glanced at the bustle of the courtyard. Slaine followed his gaze to the moving maze that the partygoers formed. He couldn’t catch sight of any orange juice-bearing servants anywhere. The boy looked at Slaine with an air of finality as he said, “A guest with the use of both hands. If you a returning to give me a glass of juice anyway, why not let me hold your tray?”
He’s got a point… but he’s also completely missing the point. Maybe I’m not making myself clear enough? Switching to Terran, Slaine said, “As a servant, it is my job to serve guests no matter how difficult the task may be. I thank you for your thoughtfulness, sir, but your comfort takes precedence over my own. Please, do not trouble yourself over me.”
The only hint of surprise that the Terran showed was a slight widening of his eye. Mimicking Slaine’s use of his own language, the boy replied, “It would be difficult to navigate the crowd while holding the tray. Since there are no tables available for you to put them down, it makes more sense for me to hold it, minimising the time needed for you to fetch me a glass of juice. I would also be displeased if the remaining tarts went to waste in the event that you dropped them, so letting me hold the tray would serve both our interests.”
“Your reasoning is sound, sir. I suppose I have no choice but to concede.” Slaine handed over the platter with a resigned smile and a small bow. When he straightened again he saw that the boy was giving him a small smile of his own –an extremely small smile, barely an upwards twitch of the lips, but after so much stone-faced staring Slaine felt like he was seeing the sun again after a spell of rain. He doesn’t look half bad when he smiles.
With the image of that smile still on his mind, Slaine made his way towards the middle of the courtyard. There’s a notably rise in temperature from both the heat of the crowd and the many lanterns that hung overhead. Laughter and conversation filled the air as he weaved his way through the press of people, trying to find even a hint of orange juice – the clink of ice against glass, the fruity fragrance, the vibrant colour. After a few moments of searching he saw a tall man in servant’s blue walking amongst the red, grey and coloured silks, a tray of orange juice effortlessly balanced in one hand as he served with his other. People continued to move... a particularly tall countess strode past Slaine on her way to talk to a noblewoman… a gathering of knights dispersed and now! A path to the tray-bearing servant opened up, and Slaine hastily stepped through before it closed again like a collapsing wave. The one-eyed boy had been right – it was definitely a lot less cumbersome without the tray. Slaine made a mental note to thank him for his thoughtfulness. I can’t recall if all Terran nobility showed such kindness. But this makes me happy. Princess Asseylum will have a wonderful life in Terra.
Having noticed Slaine walking by his side, Harklight shortened his stride to make it less difficult for the shorter boy to keep up. With his tray held perfectly level even as they turned and wove through the guests, the older man gave Slaine a secret wry smile. Harklight spoke out of the corner of his mouth, quietly enough that his words wouldn’t be overheard, with just a hint of a playful tone as he said, “I see you’ve gotten a promotion. I’d be happy for you, except that I myself have been demoted to footman for the night.”
Slaine grinned. “What a tragedy. I’m surprised your master allowed such a thing to happen.”
“Well, the reluctant host of the proceedings is a tetchy man at best, according to rumour. My master is generous and understands the importance of keeping the friendship of such a man.” Now Harklight’s voice was completely flat, as if he was simply making a statement. His thoughts were hidden but Slaine could guess them well enough. This was how Versians spoke – their words chosen with care and wrapped in concealment. It was an art that all servants learned.
Reluctant didn’t even begin to describe the way Count Cruhteo had reacted to having Terrans as guests in his home. His clan was the one that had fought most bitterly against them in the war as the guardians of the Versian-Terran border. This proximity had also been the reason why his castle had been chosen as the meeting place of Princess Asseylum and her fiancé; Versian weather was treacherous even during summer, and a few days of heavy rain could turn the dirt roads impassable. Understandably, the Terran royalty had refused to allow themselves to be stranded deep within the heart of the dry and forbidding country.
And speaking of Terran guests…
He’d left one of them standing alone in a dark corner holding a platter of food. What had he been thinking? What would Count Cruhteo or Princess Asseylum think if they saw that stupidly stubborn boy being treated like a servant? Or worse still, if the visiting Terran royalty caught sight of him.
It’s almost ironic, isn’t it though?
Slaine shook that darkly humorous thought away. There was nothing to be done about the past. What mattered now was the future that Princess Asseylum had planned, and increasing the tensions between Terran and Versian in any way would put it in jeopardy.
“I’m sorry, Harklight, but I need to fetch a glass of orange juice. I didn’t mean to take up so much of your time,” Slaine said.
Harklight skilfully poured out a drink and handed it to him. “It was nothing. But why did they send you? This isn’t for that Trillram, is it?” Harklight’s eyes, the colour of an evening sky, narrow as he speaks the baron’s name.
Slaine shook his head, alarmed at the sudden harshness in Harklight’s tone. “No, this is for a Terran noble. He said he wanted something other than wine. I hope he likes this.” In Terra, most of the nobility drank tea or rice wine. Slaine couldn’t remember being offered juice during his stay, even though fruit was abundant in that fertile country.
“I’m certain that he will – this beverage happens to be highly regarded among princesses,” Harklight said.
Slaine gave the man a small smile as he teased, “And you know many princesses, do you?”
Harklight winced but quickly schooled his features into blankness. “I am afraid I cannot say.”
Slaine knew that Princess Asseylum was partial to chilled orange juice on hot summer days. He smiled at the memory – the sweet, tangy coolness that enveloped the tongue, the feel of the glass in his hand, wet with condensation, the tinkling of ice being swirled around she dragged him off to the palace gardens, to ask about flowers and animals and distant Terra…
The glass of orange juice Harklight handed him was cold and the ice rattled harshly against its sides as they parted ways. He gave the man a nod of farewell and Harklight dipped his head in response; then he merged back into the crowd as one of the faceless bearers of food and drink, mere moving furniture indistinguishable from the tables and decorations.
When Slaine made it back to the quiet corner where the Terran boy stood, he saw that the noble hadn’t moved an inch. The boy inclined his head in greeting. Slaine bowed. He traded the glass of juice for a tray of orange tarts.
There was only one pastry left. So that’s why he wanted to hold the tray.
“You have no need to thank me, sir. It is my duty to serve.” Slaine felt a blush creeping across his cheeks and hoped that it was too dark to notice. Unfortunately, it seemed that his wish hadn’t been granted – the boy was definitely staring at his face. Judging by the intensity of that stare, either Slaine had grown a second nose or the Terran had seen. Slaine turned his head away.
The boy took a few steps to the left so that he could keep Slaine’s face in his line of sight as he said, “It is not inappropriate to thank someone if they perform their duty to a high standard.”
I don’t deserve your praise. I took too long. I dawdled. Unable to escape that one-eyed gaze, Slaine shut his own eyes. It was cowardly, but he didn’t have the courage to explain his true status to the Terran; he’s a burden, unwanted, barely tolerated. Doing his job right barely scratched the surface of his debt to Count Cruhteo and the Princess.
Slaine was startled out of his thoughts when he felt a movement in the air and opened his eyes to find the boy holding an orange tart out between his thumb and forefingers, ready to drop it into Slaine’s hands. “Do you want it? It’s the last one.”
Slaine scanned that boy’s face for hints as to what prompted his offer, but the Terran persisted with his damnably blank countenance. The way his lips pressed together could have meant anything – a disapproving frown, a suppressed mocking grin, anger at Slaine’s slowness to respond. It didn’t matter much in the end, of course. Slaine simply bowed and said, “While I thank sir for his kindness, I am afraid I must refuse. Such fine food is not meant to be wasted on one such as I.”
And it was very fine food indeed; each tart had a golden shortbread base upon which dark chocolate ganache and orange infused cream Chantilly had been carefully piped into the likeness of blossoms. The pale orange and deep, rich brown of the chocolate contrasted nicely with the delicate pieces of candied orange peel – painstakingly cut into the shape of miniscule leaves – that decorated the top of the tart.
The boy did not move his outstretched hand. “It would not be a waste for you to eat it.”
Inwardly, Slaine sighed. Outwardly, he smiled as he explained, “A servant such as myself cannot take food meant for the nobility.”
“But I’m giving it to you,” the boy said. As if to make his point, he wiggled the tart around in front of Slaine’s face. The tangy citrus scent caressed Slaine’s nose and dragged up memories of soft, buttery crust and sweet sugar… but it was only a memory, so faded that it felt more like a dream than the past.
“I cannot take it, sir,” Slaine said, with just a hint of exasperation slipping into his voice. He gripped the tray a bit tighter, resisting the urge to use it whack some sense into the Terran.
The boy blinked. It could have meant anything, but Slaine hoped with all his heart it meant that the noble had finally understood the predicament that he was putting Slaine in. Slaine felt his once-polite smile slowly sliding into something of a desperate grin, and the smell of the tart was reminding him uncomfortably of the fact that he’d had nothing to eat since his hasty breakfast of stale bread.
The Terran nodded slowly. Slaine felt the sweet, sweet tendrils of relief tentatively unfurl in his chest…
“But in the event that food meant for the nobility landed in your mouth, you would have to chew and swallow, correct?”
…and the relief gave way to the icy cold realisation that this orange-loving one-eyed sadist was one stubborn bastard.
At least if I choke to death, Baron Trillram can’t break my arms, Slaine reasoned. There didn’t seem to be anything out of his situation so the best thing to do would be to get it over with, right? He could an intense blush warming his cheeks as he said, “That’s correct.”
In the end it didn’t matter what a servant wanted, right?
“Open your mouth,” the noble said as he stepped even closer to Slaine and shifted the tart so that he could aim it. Slaine obeyed him. If this was some cruel joke, then the boy was hiding his glee well. It was a good thing they were hidden from the rest of the guests – he probably looked like an idiot. The boy leaned in, his one eye wide, staring right at Slaine’s open mouth as he raised his hand and-
“Wait! I can’t do this!” Slaine jumped back, his voice somewhat muffled since he had clasped both hands over his mouth. The tray fell to the ground with a ringing clatter. The boy, startled, shrunk back as well. He wore that damnably unreadable expression again – a slightly furrowed brow, his mouth pressed together in a tight line. Slaine took a deep breath and forced his hands back to his sides. Blank face. Empty. Don’t be selfish. Obey. In an even tone Slaine said, “My deepest apologies, sir. I hope you will forgive that outburst.”
The boy reached down to pick up the tray and tucked it underneath his arm, all while keeping the orange tart balanced in his other hand. “There is no need to apologise to me. If you do not wish to eat this, then it would be a waste for me to force it upon you.”
“I am afraid I do not understand what sir wishes me to do,” Slaine said as he attempted to take the tray back, but the Terran stepped out of his reach with surprising grace and speed.
The Terran stared at him. He was clearly frowning now. His frown is just as small and easily missed as his smile. Nonetheless, the boy spoke in his now familiar monotone as he asked, “What is your name?”
“Slaine, sir.” There was no doubt about it. The Terran intended to report his misconduct to Count Cruhteo. Slaine should have known that his involvement would ruin this night, this wonderful, magical night.
The boy nodded. “Slaine. This is not an order. It is an offer. I leave the choice up to you; please consider carefully what you wish for me to do.”
The boy took a step back. He lowered his head as if to bow to Slaine, holding the tart balanced delicately on his slender fingers. Slaine searched the boy’s face for any sign of normalcy, but all he found was that tiny hint of a smile again.
He wants… to know what I want? To demand a guest so far above his station to do anything, even if it was an offer, was unthinkable. The proper response would probably be to turn away. Feign ignorance and ungratefulness. Endure the boy’s justified wrath.
Slaine found his gaze locked onto that smile.
They were far from the rest of the party. Nobody had even responded to hearing Slaine drop the tray. Nobody would come here; nobody would catch him doing something improper.
It wasn’t as if the Terran boy had been behaving as he was supposed to, anyway. And couldn’t the same be said for the entire night? The flowers in the courtyard, the way the golden lanterns banished the night, Terrans and Versians alike mingling as violin strings sang like nightingales. This was a break from reality.
Smiling, Slaine closed his eyes. He leaned forward and opened his mouth. He felt his heart speeding up. It could have been out of embarrassment or anticipation or fear – Slaine wasn’t sure he could tell the difference anymore. He heard the sound of silk sliding against silk, loud in the private bubble of silence caused by the hypersensitivity that resulted from not being able to see. He felt the boy approach; slowly, so that Slaine would have had plenty of time to change his mind. Slaine doesn’t.
And then suddenly there’s a weight on his tongue. A symphony of flavours unfolded – the light, fragrant orange cream mingling with the smooth richness of the silky, dark chocolate, topped with bits of sweet candied orange peel. The deliciously buttery pastry melted into his mouth and Slaine could feel the smile growing on his face as he chewed, eyes still closed.
“It’s good, isn’t it?”
Slaine opened his eyes. The Terran is watching him with unnerving intensity. Embarrassed, Slaine brought his hands up to cover his mouth as he swallowed, causing the boy’s own smile to widen by the merest fraction.
Entirely out of the blue, the boy said, “Your expression is very cute, Slaine.”
Slaine almost choked.
While mostly preoccupied with the burning in his throat, Slaine exclaimed, “Don’t just blurt out that kind of thing! Haven’t you made this awkward enough?”
Ice cold fear drenched him as he realised what he’d said. But before he could bow and apologise, the Terran noble said, “I’m sorry. My sister often tells me that I say inappropriate things without thinking it through. I did not mean to cause discomfort.”
“Th-that’s alright! I was just surprised,” Slaine hastily replied. He was certain that he didn’t deserve such a gentlemanly apology for his own slip. In his surprise, Slaine almost forgot to add, “I meant nothing by it, sir.”
The boy gave Slaine a somewhat doubtful look, which involved him tilting his head and frowning – no pouting – slightly. He’s got a cute expression too. Slaine could feel a slight blush creeping up his neck and cheeks from his stray thought.
He bowed deeply and said held his hands out for the tray. “I must excuse myself, sir! I have run out of tarts! I should be getting back to the kitchen! I’m very, very sorry!”
In a gross display of ill manners, Slaine snatched the proffered tray and all but sprinted away. By the time he had jogged down the stairs to the still-bustling kitchens, he realised that he had probably deeply offended the Terran due to his lack of self-control and resolved not to return to the party where he could disgrace Count Cruhteo further. He took off his smart blue uniform and deposited it in the laundry before spending the rest of the evening washing the dishes.
His arms and back ached at the end of the night, as dirty platters, plates, dishes and more kept appearing in a parade of blissfully mind-numbing work. After the party’s conclusion, Slaine was ordered back out to the courtyard to help pack up. He had just finished folding up a tablecloth when someone said, “Slaine? I need your help with this!”
Slaine turned to the speaker: a young maid stood who was holding an assortment of bouquets, painted boxes and colourful bundles of silk cloth in her hands. She was almost invisible behind the huge pile. Nonetheless, Slaine recognised her voice from the few times they had spoken. “Eddelrittuo?”
“Slaine! They’re about to fall!” The petite girl was right – a beautifully carved wooden swan tumbled loose the moment she finished speaking. Slaine’s hand shot out and caught it before it fell to the ground; both servants breathed a sigh of relief. Pouting, Eddelrittuo said, “All of Count Cruhteo’s servants think I’m joking when I tell them that I’m Princess Asseylum’s maid and ignore me. I’m afraid that leaves only you to help me, Slaine.”
“It’s no trouble,” Slaine said as he took a good three quarters of Eddelrittuo’s burden into his own arms. “Are all these gifts from the Terran royalty?”
Eddelrittuo nodded as they began to make their way to the rooms that had been given to Princess Asseylum for her visit. With a huff, Eddelrittuo said, “These baubles might look pretty, but all the wealth of Terra wouldn’t convince me that their prince is worthy to be her highness’ husband!”
Slaine almost dropped the presents from the shock of hearing her say such a thing. “Eddelrittuo! This marriage would mean peace for both kingdoms. This is her highness’ dream!”
The maid blushed, but the angry glint in her grey eyes didn’t abate. “I can’t imagine that the Terran prince cares much for this peace if he couldn’t be bothered to show up tonight.”
“He wasn’t at the feast?” Slaine asked.
“No, nobody saw him at all! And his sister, the queen, just laughed it off and said he was too shy. The entire party was to welcome them, too. It just proves how uncouth these Terrans really are.” Slaine nudged open a servant’s door for Eddelrittuo and the pair stepped into Castle Cruhteo proper. More a fortress than a home, the entrance hall was a vast space that the many flames caged in their wrought iron braziers couldn’t banish the chill from. Voices and footsteps echoed off the walls to form a cacophonous, eerie warble. Eddelrittuo made sure to whisper when she added, “Of course I don’t mean you, Slaine. You have good manners. It really is chivalrous of you to help me like this.”
Slaine murmured his thanks. They started up the stairs that would lead to Princess Asseylum’s rooms, progress slowed by their burdens. Slaine, having become accustomed to the rough and cramped servant’s stairways and thus finding the smoothly even steps a refreshingly easy climb, allowed his mind to wander as he focused his eyes on a beautifully painted fan that had been tucked among the gifts. There was a poem written on it:
The winter blossom
Is the most beautiful
For it is unexpected
The words were bordered by roses in full bloom – Slaine had originally thought that they were white, but upon passing under a torch he saw that the flowers were the pale blue of a winter sky. Princess Asseylum will love this. Surely a Prince who was thoughtful enough to pick such a gift wouldn’t absent himself for an important event such as the feast? He must have been delayed somehow, or perhaps he had fallen ill. Slaine thought back to the Terran he’d met – a quiet young man dressed in black silk, with only one eye and a barely-there smile. Perhaps he had simply disliked the loud, crowded party. Perhaps he just really enjoyed eating orange tarts. But he had seemed both courteous and thoughtful, if a little awkward, and calling him uncouth seemed a little harsh.
Although, considering Versian attitudes to their former enemies, perhaps Eddelrittuo was already being polite. As they stepped into a noticeably better lit corridor, a couple of maids ran over and whispered to Eddelrittuo. The girl replied in the same hushed manner. Then the maids converged on Slaine and all but snatched the gifts out of his arms. One of them glared at him as she did so. Slaine didn’t miss the way the women sneered at him only after Eddelrittuo had walked through the doors to the Princess’ quarters. So they recognise me.
Slaine wondered how difficult it had been for them to serve an outsider like him, so soon after the loss of their Emperor. After a quick bow and an unheard, hastily mumbled goodnight to a childhood friend long lost, Slaine retreated from the Princess’ quarters to return to his own life.
As he made his way back underneath the castle to his bed, Slaine caught himself humming the cheerful melody that the strings had played during the party. There was a spring in his step that felt thrillingly different from his usual careful creeping in open hallways. A glance at his reflection in a window showed that a wide smile graced his face. Giddy, he stopped and waved to himself. I haven’t seen you in a long while. The smile became a full-blown grin and he laughed, louder than he had dared to in years. In the morning, the magic would be gone. But for now, the servants were busy and the nobles were drunk, and he was alone. He could laugh.
Perhaps it was wrong of him to feel so happy, since the Princess’ night had been unsuccessful. But he couldn’t help it. It was as if part of the light and music that had now disappeared from the courtyard was still stored in his chest, along with the taste of oranges.