The sun breaks low on the horizon.
As indifferent as it is magnificent, it finds the land below concealed behind a thick blanket of dark clouds and swirling snow on one particular morning in February. It breaks low, and fights hard, but only a few precious rays manage to pierce the impending storm to touch the ground below. From the ground, the light is weak and straining, the palest pink and faintest purple streaking haphazardly against the darkest of grey.
The sun breaks low on the horizon - and the royal subjects of Fairdell gather in the castle’s courtyard with a disproportionate amount of anticipation.
From here the world is narrow and frigid, pinpointed somewhere beyond the rather imposing castle walls rising up above their heads, but though the falling snow threatens to soak through the worn leather soles of their boots this occasion is unquestionably joyful. What was just yesterday a group of citizens with only their sovereign rulers in common has now become a brotherhood; should the reigning king glance down through any of the windows dotting the outer walls of the castle, he would find his winter-white grounds littered with the dark, cloaked masses huddled together, their breaths rising skyward in misty plumes like merrily burning smokestacks.
The king, as it happens, does not glance out the window.
He thinks that even if he could - if he were in a room that offered such a view out on the courtyards below - he wouldn’t even be tempted. He knows his subjects are outside waiting for the long-anticipated announcement, and for just a moment he closes his eyes against the familiar pulse of anxiety in his chest at the realization that he’s expected to make a public appearance soon.
He’s never particularly liked public appearances. Really, any of the painfully public parts of being king.
At the guttural, blood-curdling scream that pierces the very air around him, his eyes pop open again.
There’s a flurry of activity before him, centered around the large bed in the middle of the room, and though he longs to make himself useful or to ease the pain and suffering in progress before him, he remains where he stands with his back pressed firmly to the wall. The queen - his wife - collapses against the mattress with a choked sob, her head lolling to one side as a handmaiden dabs at the sheen of sweat against her brow. Her eyes are closed but even from this distance, he can see them rolling.
It's been carrying on like this for hours.
He clenches his fists beneath his robes.
“Roger,” her voice is raw as she calls for him, audibly grating in her throat, and he starts forward automatically. A rather severe look from the midwife freezes him in place.
“I love you, Karen,” he mumbles as he slowly retreats, and even he can’t ignore how helpless he sounds. His face burns with shame and indignance and something else entirely when he catches two handmaidens exchanging a furtive glance.
“You’re doing so well, Your Majesty,” the midwife says, shifting at the foot of the bed. “It’s almost time.”
Karen releases another strangled groan and turns her head away, like if she buries her face far enough into the pillow, the pain of her current reality will disappear. “Please,” she whimpers, and Roger feels his heart break over and over and over again. “Please, please, please… ”
Her whole body seems to convulse for a moment before going taut, the loudest, longest scream yet seeming to wrench itself out of her chest. Roger turns his face away, certain his heart and lungs and very soul are all about to escape his body and splatter across the cobblestone floor at his feet -
The scream cuts off with a loud, grating gasp, and a new cry - a far more shrill cry - takes its place. Roger snaps to attention at once, shoving forward off the wall toward the huddle of handmaidens now gathered at the foot of the bed, but before he can so much as demand to be let through, the midwife emerges from the throng, shuffling toward the head of the bed.
With a squirming, screaming bundle in her arms.
His world narrows down to a pinpoint as the midwife passes the child - his child, his first child - off into Karen’s trembling arms. He’s so focused on the bundle that he’s hardly even aware of moving forward until he’s there, knelt at the side of the bed, one hand on the back of his wife’s head and the other lightly ghosting over his newborn’s round and ruddy cheek.
“It’s a boy,” the midwife says softly, and Roger closes his eyes, the joy washing through him so monumental it steals all semblance of coherency. His son is tiny, and beautiful, and he settles into sleep mere moments after the handmaidens and the midwife clear out of the room, and Roger knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that a more perfect child has never existed.
“We have to name him,” Karen murmurs hoarsely after a while. Roger can hardly bear to glance up at her where she practically sags with exhaustion near her wardrobe, the pain of tearing his gaze away from his son’s face impossible to overcome. “We can’t present him without a name.”
“We talked about David, before,” he says, tracing the delicate line of the infant’s nose with the lightest of fingertips. “He doesn’t look like a David.”
“No,” Karen agrees, voice soft with a wonder Roger’s never heard before. “We also talked about Andrew, but…”
Her voice trails, and Roger doesn’t have to hear the end of her sentence to know they’re thinking the same thing: he simply isn’t an Andrew, either.
“What about...what about Jacob?”
An overwhelming sense of rightness settles light as air over Roger’s shoulders as he turns the name over in his mind. Jacob. Prince Jacob. Prince Jacob of the House of Peralta, Duke of Southport. “Jacob,” he murmurs, and he could swear his son smiles.
The sun breaks low on the horizon the morning of Prince Jacob’s birth - and far, far away, across a vast forest and a roiling sea beyond it, a lurking Duchess begins to plot.
It does occur to Jake, on a certain level, that what he’s doing might be considered mean.
The realization is a particularly difficult one to care about where he’s crouched down in the shrubbery, peering through the greenery as mildly irritated members of the Royal Guard sweep past him. He has to bite down hard on the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing at them, an overwhelming childlike sense of satisfaction at outwitting highly-trained men twice his age bubbling in his gut. The two guards pass him without so much as a backwards glance - he holds his position another half-beat before cautiously emerging from the bramble.
The grounds are no busier than usual for a Saturday morning in mid-May, affording Jake the opportunity to spring up from the brush and confidently stride toward the outer fields, quiver and bow bumping lightly against his back. The next set of guardsmen won’t be by for another ten minutes yet - plenty of time to sneak down to target practice.
Truthfully, he doesn’t usually make it a habit to defy his own schedule outright. It’s just that this particular morning has teased him since dawn with a sea-blue sky so deep and rich and uninterrupted and a warmth so invigorating that the thought of spending a second more indoors feels like a crime against nature herself.
So he got dressed in secret and snuck down to the servants’ quarters, only just managing to avoid being spotted by an overzealous kitchen hand as he slipped out the back door.
If they didn’t want him to sneak away, they’d train the guards to be more watchful, he reasons.
Much of the initial excitement has worn off by the time he makes it to the target practice alley, but the sun on his skin has only served to stoke the flames of contentment crackling in his belly on the walk. The promise of uninterrupted practice time free of a loud and controlling coach or a disapproving guard breathing down his neck quickens his steps along the final slope toward the alley gate. It’s a perfect day.
Or, it would be perfect - if not for the dark-haired woman he catches sight of just as his hand closes over the alley gate.
Sir Amelia Santiago does not appear the least bit surprised to see him here. It seems she somehow anticipated that the beautiful weather would be too strong a temptation for him to resist; her Royal Guard uniform is pristine, not a single hair on her head out of place even as she leans against the fence, the tail of the blood red cloak secured to her shoulders flicking around her calves in the breeze rolling in from the south. “Funny,” she says as she examines her nails, “I don’t remember seeing target practice on your itinerary today.”
He opens his mouth, willing some suave and debonair excuse to fall from his lips - but all that escapes is an odd, airy kind of groan. “Gimme a break, wouldja?” he grumbles as he shoves the gate open. “A guy needs a little fresh air sometimes.”
She arches an unimpressed brow, but otherwise does not move from where she leans against the fence. She’s a perfect image of relaxation, but he knows from experience just how thin the facade is; the second she senses another person’s presence she’ll snap upright, every ounce of anxiety and tension simmering beneath the surface suddenly bursting forth like a geyser through a wagging finger or a sharp reprimand. The facade, it seems, is solely for his benefit.
“You realize how unprofessional it is for a king to be late to his appointments, right?” she quips as he pulls an arrow from his quiver and lines up to take his shot. He acknowledges her with a grunt, too focused on the target at the far end of the alley to bother with anything more articulate.
The arrow lands squarely in the bull’s eye.
“Good thing I’m not king yet.” Jake says cheerfully.
She rolls her eyes disparagingly. “ Yet .” she repeats, finally pushing off the wall to approach him. “Your coronation is coming faster than you realize, Your Highness, and if you don’t start taking these lessons seriously -”
“They’ll bring in a replacement king?” he interrupts, already notching another arrow. “I am who I am, Amy, they’re gonna have to learn how to deal with it.”
“It’s Sir Amelia ,” she sharply corrects, and he briefly closes his eyes against a pulse of genuine regret. “And I have no doubt that your people will love you, Your Highness, it’s just - these lessons are designed to make you the best ruler you can be. By taking them seriously, you’re showing your people that you take them seriously.”
This time, the arrow lands in the white just outside of the bull’s eye. Jake stares for half a moment before sighing and lowering his bow, the pulses of regret growing stronger by the second. “I know you’re right,” he mumbles, eyes downcast. In his periphery, he sees her lean closer. “Doesn’t mean I particularly like it, but I do know that you’re right.” He peers up at her through his lashes to find her smiling, an odd cross between smug triumph and gentle understanding in her eyes.
It makes his heart lurch for reasons he can’t immediately identify.
“Also, we’re the same age. How many times do I have to remind you that it’s Jake, not Highness?”
“One more time, as always,” she says through a grin. “And technically, you’re a fortnight older than me.”
He reaches up on instinct and tugs at the silken twine of her cloak, pulling one side of the knot loose. At once, she goes stiff, gaze never deviating from his face despite the tension visibly straining her muscles. “I can leave it like that.” she mutters, lips stiff.
His smirk is so broad it’s almost painful. “Totally.” he says, nodding amiably.
“It doesn’t bother me.”
She lasts only a moment longer before her face folds in exasperation and defeat and she turns away to retie the knot. “There she is,” he laughs, taking the opportunity to line up one last shot.
This one lands in the bull’s eye.
She insists on carrying both his quiver and his bow back to the castle, like if he has easy access to them he might be more tempted to escape back to the alley, but in truth the thought never crosses his mind. Instead he studies the way the long end of his bow bumps against the backs of her knees as she marches toward the castle, how the quiver hangs just a bit too loosely against her back, in danger of swinging forwards under her arm to dump his arrows on the ground at any moment. He’s briefly reminded of the few times his father let him try this hunting gear on, back before his growth spurt and before Jake inherited it all, when every item he wore seemed comically oversized against his smaller frame.
For all that she lacks in stature, she more than makes up for in sheer tenacity. It exudes from every conceivable facet of her existence, from the way she carries herself to the way she speaks, down to each precise knot of her laces. Even her preferred title of Sir screams of a fierceness whose depths he’s still uncovering.
(He won’t lie - it took him a while to get used to calling her Sir Amelia. He’s never been one to insist on traditional gendered titles, but every Royal Guard who’s taken the mantle as his principal guard has been at least ten years his senior - except her. Technically, her proper title would be Lady Amelia, but he’s almost positive she’d skewer him in a heartbeat if he ever dared to call her that - according to her, not many foreign dignitaries take young female Royal Guards seriously in general, and fewer still respond well to the title Lady .)
(It also doesn’t help that sometimes - only sometimes - she actually lets him get away with calling her Amy.)
Despite her never-ending quest for pure perfection, gravity seems to have other plans for her hair on this particular morning. What started as a neat, meticulous bun secured near the nape of her neck has quickly unraveled, the familiar black ribbon she uses to tie it falling loose over one shoulder, allowing her raven-colored locks to fall free down her back. He’d never even dream of telling her this, but he rather likes it when she wears her hair down. It’s a rare occasion to see it like that, but the way it flows like a tide at sea, the way it catches and reflects the iridescent shades of red and blue and purple in the sunlight, is hypnotizing enough to make him almost long to see it again.
She turns her head back toward him suddenly, eyes narrowed in suspicion, and he raises his brows and hopes he looks innocent.
He must, for she returns her gaze to the castle after only a moment.
“Come on,” she urges him, voice low as she pushes the kitchen door open. The sudden lack of sunlight is disorienting but she’s got a firm grip on his arm now, just above his elbow, so he lets her guide him while he scrubs his eyes with his free hand. He can hear the tell-tale racket of a meal in progress unfolding around him but can’t absorb much beyond the pleasant hiss of the burners running and Charles, the resident cook, shouting orders to his kitchen hands. He’s nearly to the other side of the kitchen when the familiar scent of turkey reaches him; he very nearly yanks his arm from her grip from the force with which he jerks to a stop.
“Charles!” Jake calls, blinking the last of the spots from his vision.
Charles is practically bouncing in excitement, already waving enthusiastically from his place in the center of the kitchen. “Good morning, Your Majesty!”
Ignoring Amy’s impatient huff, Jake ventures closer, eyeing the turkey slowly turning over an open flame a meter to Charles’ left. “Are you working on a feast?”
“I am,” Charles beams, quickly shuffling two onions and a clove of garlic away so that he can plant his hands flat on the table between him and Jake. “For supper this evening!”
“I didn’t know we were having a feast.”
The statement is pretty bland, as far as statements go - but Charles seems to know the path of Jake’s train of thoughts. “I don’t really know who they are - just that we have guests visiting, and they want five courses.”
“Guests, huh?” Charles nods, and again, Jake eyes the turkey. “Think they’ll notice if I steal a little bit of that now?”
“You’re joking, right? It isn’t even cooked ! Come on !” Amy seizes his arm and nearly drags him away, leaving Charles looking utterly crestfallen.
“I’ll be back!” Jake shouts as he stumbles through the kitchen doorway.
Whatever semblance of calm she was projecting before has vanished now, giving way to the chaos seemingly constantly brimming just below the surface. “Mr. Holt is going to absolutely kill me,” she mutters, eyes wild.
Jake rolls his eyes and picks up his pace. “No he’s not,” he says, doing his best to pitch his voice low enough to soothe her anxiety. “It’s not your fault that I’m late.”
“I’m your principal guard , Highness,” she mutters over her shoulder. “It’s my job to -”
“- to keep me safe, not to make sure that I’m on time for all of my appointments,” he interrupts. “We’ve been over this before. It’s not your fault that I’m late, just that I’m still alive. And I’m sure Mr. Holt will figure out a way to forgive you for that.”
Despite the stress creasing valleys between her brows, her answering smile is grateful.
The dining hall is bustling with activity as he and Amy hustle past, and though he only manages to catch a brief glimpse inside, Gina’s nasal voice shouting instructions rings clear down each end of the hallway. Servants and handmaidens alike rush to and fro across the corridor - some hefting impossibly large floral arrangements, others cradling spools of fabric, others still balancing towers of fine china - and even though Amy’s pace never wavers, he can tell by the spark in her eyes that she’s just as curious as he is.
“D’you think any of the other guardsmen know what’s going on?”
Amy shrugs, pushing him forward toward the last staircase, her hand laying flat in the space between his shoulder blades as they quickly mount the stairs. “I’ll try to ask if I see anyone,” she mutters, “but don’t worry about it now.”
From the end of the hall, Jake can see that Mr. Holt’s chamber door is standing open - an invitation and impassive judgement in one - and for all the earnestness with which he’d assured Amy before that his tardiness was his fault alone, dread floods the pit of his belly at the sight of it. “Are you sure you don’t want to come in with me and say hello?” he hisses as they hurry toward the door.
“Not a chance,” she hisses back, pushing him forward so that he nearly trips over the thick rug at their feet. “Get in there and pay attention .”
He’s stumbling through the door before he can so much as think to argue; the second his heel crosses the threshold she’s slamming the door shut behind him.
(He’d never seriously consider it, but he knows that if he were to try to open the door again to escape, he’d be met with resistance in the form of Amy standing firm, feet planted directly in front of the door.)
“Your Highness,” a deep, smooth tenor says from the shadowy bowels of the room, and Jake gulps. “Your lesson started ten minutes ago.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Holt,” he says, raising a hand to rub the back of his neck as he slowly paces further into the room.
Mr. Holt doesn’t respond right away. He’s seated where he always is - that is, the soft armchair near the hearth, turned at an angle so that when the fire is lit, his feet are warm without burning. He chooses instead to merely stare at Jake over the top of the well-worn book in his hands, a brow raised in a similar unimpressed expression as the one Amy shot him out on the target alley - somehow, this one pierces deeper.
“You know,” he says as he marks his place in his book, “I think it’s time I have a word with Sir Amelia regarding your punctuality -”
“No,” Jake interrupts sharply. “No, it isn’t her fault. I snuck out this morning and she stopped me. Or, she tried to stop me, but I ignored her and did it anyways.”
“You seem to forget that I have a view of the target alley,” Holt says, gesturing to the window near the far corner of the room.
Jake very nearly winces. “It still isn’t her fault,” he says, ignoring the way his face burns. “It’s not - it’s not her fault. It’s mine. Please don’t say anything to her, okay? She’s doing the best she can, I’m the one making things difficult.”
Holt’s eyes narrow a fraction, but otherwise, he remains stoic. “What would happen if I were to say something to Sir Amelia about your tardiness?”
Dread drips like ice down his spine. “She’d freak out,” he mumbles, “and it would kill her. Like, actually kill her. I’m pretty sure her heart would just stop.”
“And so, the knowledge that it would affect her that way - how does that make you feel?”
“I mean...bad. Guilty. I just don’t want her to get in trouble because I’m being stupid, I’d want her to get in trouble because she finally ties her cloak too tight around her neck and her head explodes in the middle of dinner.” He grins at the mental image, but Holt merely continues to stare; after only a moment, Jake feels his face fall. “Please, please don’t say anything to her.”
“You are on the cusp of becoming a sovereign king, Jacob. Every single one of your actions has a consequence - sometimes many consequences. Those consequences are guaranteed to affect other people. In this scenario, you’re late to one etiquette lesson and it only affects Sir Amelia, but consider that formula for a moment. Consider you’re late to a summit with other sovereign rulers, and because of your tardiness - your flagrant disregard for their time and their significance to their own nations - they have decided to exclude your kingdom from any treaties they’ve designed. Or, worse yet, they decide to declare war . The consequences of your actions then affect an entire kingdom -”
“Okay,” Jake says loudly, closing his eyes against the sudden ringing in his ears. “Okay, I get it. My actions matter. I understand. I’m sorry.”
Holt is still staring at him when he splits his eyelids open once again. “Do not make this a repeat offense, Jacob. The future of your kingdom depends on it.”
Jake bites down on the inside of his cheek as he nods. “Are you going to say something to Sir Amelia?”
The question is small and hesitant, and it seems to give Holt some pause. “No,” he finally says, openly studying Jake’s face.
Relief surges through him so powerfully his knees nearly buckle. “Thank you, Mr. Holt. And again, I’m so sorry for being late.”
Holt merely nods to the empty armchair to his right. “Have a seat. Today, we’re going to cover proper posture. Again.”
When Jake pushes Mr. Holt’s door open an hour later, Amy is gone.
Sir Rosa Diaz stands directly across the hall from Mr. Holt’s chambers, eyes dark and glittering as a half-smile tugs one corner of her mouth up, her amusement barely discernible beneath the wild mop of curls cascading down her shoulders from the crown of her head. “Majesty,” she greets with a nod.
“Amy already done for the day?” Jake asks, heading back toward the staircase.
“Said she needed a break,” Rosa says as she falls into step beside him. “Something about chest pains. Or maybe it was pain in the ass…”
Jake snorts. “Sounds about right. Any idea what’s going on down in the dining hall?”
“Feast, I think. Kitchen smelled good earlier.”
“Yeah, but like...feast for who?”
From the corner of his eye, he sees Rosa shrug. “No clue. Santiago asked the same thing when I came to relieve her. Based on all the crap Gina’s having hauled in from the florist and the seamstress down in the village, I’d say some kind of foreign dignitary, or maybe a whole royal family. Honestly, though, I don’t have a clue.”
Jake hums as they descend the last of the stairs, eyes already tracking the shadows moving along the wall at the far end of the hall - servants and handmaidens still rushing to keep up with Gina’s demands. “Think anyone’ll miss me if I disappear for a little while?”
Rosa pretends to ponder it for a moment. “Just be back in an hour or two, okay? Santiago may put up with your sneaky shit, but I’m not about to get my ass chewed out by Gina and Sir Victor because of you.”
Jake nods solemnly, already reaching to untangle the knot at his throat. He sheds his cloak at once, his family crest embroidered across the shoulders catching in the firelight illuminating the hallway around them as he drapes it over Rosa’s extended arm. “I won’t be late,” he says, the image of Holt’s disapproving expression bursting behind his eyelids.
With a knowing smirk, Rosa steps to the side.
Sneaking off of castle grounds has become second-nature for Jake. It’s a fact he’s sure some might see as highly unfortunate, but he reasons that it may come in handy someday, should he ever have the need to actually escape undetected. There’s only one weak spot along the wall - a carefully concealed passage of sorts, so narrow he has to slide through on his belly - and as long as he times it right, he can slip through the Royal Guards’ rounds and be in the heart of the forest in under ten minutes.
And once he’s in the forest - once he’s traipsing through the roots and the underbrush, the path back to civilization virtually non-existent - he’s finally, finally free.
His release, his sanctuary lies amongst the trees. It always has, he thinks; it was only a matter of time before he discovered it, before he tasted the ambrosia and fell in love. His first foray into the forest was an accident - the hundreds that have followed have been anything but. There’s just something enchanting about it, about the flecks of sunlight spilling through the foliage over his head and the songbirds’ cheerful chorus echoing further than his eyes can see and the warm breeze snaking through the labyrinth of tree trunks surrounding him on all sides.
He inhales deeply as he walks, nostrils filling with the scent of the earth and the firs and the distant salty sea, and feels the tension leaking slowly out of his shoulders. This is the first time in a long time that he’s had the chance to venture out, and even though Rosa’s warning sits heavily in the back of his mind, it’s easy enough to ignore out here.
It’s easy to ignore just about anything out here.
About five miles from the castle, nestled among the trees, lies a clearing ten meters wide all around, full of delicate white wildflowers, that he first discovered when he was fifteen years old. It’s the halfway point between the castle and the sea, usually serving as a resting place when he was young for both himself and his horse (on the rare occasion that he took his horse all the way out to the shoreline), but today it is his final destination. Already he can smell the sweet perfume of the flowers dancing in the breeze and his pace quickens, heart leaping.
Amy’s waiting for him in the clearing.
“So I’m a pain in the ass, huh?” Jake calls as he emerges from the trees. A playful smirk graces the delicate lines of her face, and he can’t help but to snort.
He discovered a long time ago that he shared his sanctuary with his principal guard. For every ounce of tranquility that courses through his veins here, it’s reflected back at him in Amy’s face; every hardened and practiced edge to her very existence melts away to something softer and more graceful here.
“I believe that what I said was ‘that stupid ass is giving me chest pains,’” she says mock-indignantly. “I would never openly mock you on castle grounds, someone might hear me .”
He laughs outright at that, stooping down to snatch a small, fallen tree branch and lightly tossing it in her direction. “Y’know, Amy, I think I’d believe you if I hadn’t caught you openly mocking me on castle grounds before.”
She shrugs, unrepentant, and kneels down to pull a fist full of wildflowers from the earth. “I have no regrets, except that I haven’t outright slapped you yet.” she says as she straightens.
Jake presses his hand against his heart. “Hurtful.”
“Oh trust me, it will be.”
He shakes his head, grinning, and stoops down again - this time to gather more wildflowers. “Did you find anything out about the feast tonight?”
“No,” Amy sighs, examining the uneven stems of the flowers already in her hand. “Even Gina didn’t know for sure. I do know that there won’t be a ball afterwards, though.”
Jake straightens, releasing a sigh of his own - one borne entirely of relief. “Good,” he grunts, shuffling closer to pass his flowers off to her. “The last thing I ever want to do after a feast is dance .”
“It really is poor planning on their part,” Amy concedes, pinching two of the longer stems and breaking them even with the others. “I’d rather take a nap. Or come out here and sweat some of that off. Not press up against some stranger and have my toes stepped on all night long.”
She shivers, a look of disgust flashing across her face, and he grins. “Not to mention trying to cram all that food into a corset. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to dance with girls whose corsets were about to pop after a feast.”
“That’s just how corsets are , Jake,” Amy deadpans. “They’re supposed to be practically suffocating on an empty stomach, nevermind after a five-course feast.”
“Well that seems like torture,” he says, and she nods vehemently. “Why would anyone voluntarily do that to themselves?”
“I don’t know, societal pressure? The need to be fashionable? It’s all they own?” She pulls a small piece of twine from the pocket of her breeches and carefully winds it around her bouquet, lifting the flowered end toward him for him to hold so she can tie the knot. “I try not to think about it, honestly. I can’t imagine trying to do this job while wearing a corset.”
Jake snorts, transfixed on the movement of her nimble fingers knotting the twine around the bouquet. “Yeah, your job is the worst. I don’t understand why you haven’t just quit yet. Your boss is such a pain in the ass.”
He glances up to find her already grinning at him. “True,” she says, “but he can be kind of fun, sometimes. When he isn’t sneaking out or running late.”
Jake grimaces. “Yeah, uh, Holt gave me an earful about that. I’m really sorry.”
She pulls the bouquet from his grip. “Don’t worry about it,” she says, her smile warm and reassuring. “I really do get why you do it. It’s just, y’know. My job.”
He nods, briefly dropping his gaze to his toes. “You’re really good at your job.” he says earnestly.
A blush tinges the skin of her cheeks and neck a delicate shade of pink. “So are you.”
His grin is mirrored in her face.
“We should head back soon,” Amy says, and Jake sighs, resignation dragging like weights around his ankles. “You know how much time Gina needs to get you prepped for a feast.”
He groans, briefly wondering whether it would be more unpleasant to drown in the sea or to drown in the sheer volume of perfume that will be poured across his skin in just a matter of hours. Amy’s footsteps are light and even, crunching softly through the grass behind him, and her hand is warm where it lands along his shoulder. “It’s one feast,” she says soothingly, and he drops his head in defeat. “One feast, one day. You’ll be back to sneaking out of the castle by tomorrow morning.”
“Is that a promise?” he grumbles.
“Not if anyone else asks.”
Chortling, he stoops down one last time to pluck a final wildflower out of the earth. “Fine,” he says, twisting the stem and snapping it up high toward the flower itself. “I’ll go to this stupid feast and I’ll let Gina dress me up like a stupid doll, but only if you keep this right here.”
He turns and tucks the flower behind her ear in one quick motion, his hand following her movement as she jerks her head back on instinct to ensure the flower is secure. “You know I can’t do that, it’s against uniform code,” she says, already reaching to pull the flower out of her hair.
He slaps her hand away, answering her scandalized glare with an overbright grin. “At least wear it there until we get back to the castle. Please?”
“Because it makes me happy?”
She hesitates, looking very much like she’d like to go ahead and slap him now, before sighing in defeat. “Fine. Just until we get back to the castle.”
“It makes you look like a fairy.”
She pulls a face. “ You look like a freak.”
“Don’t be upset! It’s nice.”
She narrows her eyes suspiciously, and prods him in the back, in the direction of the castle. “Just start walking, Your Weirdness.”
He does - but not without another blinding grin.
It seems that Gina has emptied the entire contents of his wardrobe.
Every single flat surface available in his room is covered with an item of clothing and she is standing in the center, looking not unlike a crater at the center of an explosion. “Finally,” she sighs when she spots him and Amy slowly pushing through the door to his chambers, “I thought I was gonna have to send someone out into the forest to drag you back in again.”
“Gina,” Jake says, and no other words will come.
Beside him, Amy releases a small, nervous laugh. “What hap- actually,” he turns his head to find her grimacing at Gina and backing toward the door. “I don’t wanna know. I’ll leave you to it.”
“Okay thanks bye!” Gina trills, and the door latches behind Jake, and he’s overcome with the sudden feeling of being locked in a lion’s den. “Oh, god, you absolutely reek . Did you roll around in the wolf piss or something?”
He drops his head and sniffs, met with the scent of sweat and earth. “Some people find that attractive, you know,” he says indignantly.
“Others find it absolutely repulsive .” Gina snaps without missing a beat. “Go strip down and get in the bath and so help me god, if you even think about trying to splash or seduce any of my handmaidens to get out of bathing again, I’ll drown you myself.”
“Cool. Cool cool cool cool cool.”
He’s confined to the bathtub for a full ninety minutes, trying and failing to ignore the fact that he looks like a drowned rat for the duration of that time. The handmaidens work in diligent silence, scrubbing every last inch of skin they can find down to the space beneath his nails. He’s certain he’s been scrubbed absolutely raw by the time they finally allow him to stand and dry off again, and despite the fact that it’s relatively warm outside, he finds himself shivering from the frigid water even as they wrap him up in a clean, dry cloth.
“Oh, my god, you’re ten shades paler now that all the dirt is gone,” Gina says when he emerges from the washroom. “I bet you’ve even lost some weight now that half the forest isn’t packed into every available crevice of your body.”
“Stop talking about my crevices, that’s weird. You don’t see me talking about your crevices,” he mutters as he reaches to push his still-sopping hair away from his forehead. The chaos of his upended wardrobe seems to have calmed, if only slightly; many of the items he’d passed on his way into the washroom are now nowhere to be seen. “Where did the rest of my clothes go?”
Gina rolls her eyes, rounding the foot of his bed to peer curiously out his windows. “Relax, I haven’t burned anything yet. They’re all back in your wardrobe. I’ve narrowed it down to those six options.”
At least it isn’t ten this time , says a voice that sound suspiciously like Amy’s in his mind.
It takes nearly four hours and three rotations through every single possible combination of the clothes Gina laid out for him, but finally - blessedly - she makes up her mind. It’s quite possibly his least favorite outfit of all time - the crushed blue velvet coat and cloak combination suffocatingly warm, the gold embellishments along the collar and the seam of the cloak stiff and unrelenting - but as he examines himself in the mirror, he only feels relieved.
Gina declares his hair a hopeless mess, and judging from the alarming way his hair stands in every possible direction but the one she seems to want, he’s inclined to agree. “Just leave the crown on and do not take it off under absolutely any circumstance. Got it?”
He watches her carefully place his crown on his head, studying the way the gold seems to glow in the firelight, before heaving a sigh. “Wouldn’t even dream of it.” he mumbles.
“You don’t have to sound like I just sentenced you to death, you know.” she says as she wipes a smudge off of his crown with a spare cloth. “I’d probably fight a wolf to have one of these for myself.”
“Yeah, well, no fighting necessary. I’m probably gonna be the worst king ever and the people will kill me and then you can just have this one.”
She meets his gaze in the mirror. “Will you put that in writing?”
“Very funny. If I don’t go right now I’m gonna be late, and it’ll actually be someone else’s fault for once. Are you done?”
She edges around his side, adjusting clasp of his cloak to nestle perfectly in the hollow of his throat, and then steps back for one last sweeping gaze. “I am truly an artist,” she sighs when she meets his eyes again.
Amy’s brows shoot toward her hairline the moment he emerges from his chambers. “Wow,” she marvels, “I didn’t even know there was that much blue velvet in Fairdell.”
“You’re gonna pay for that one tomorrow,” he mutters as he brushes past her. She laughs, hurrying to keep up as they sweep down the hallway toward the grand staircase. “How fast can you sneak me out of here tonight?”
“Depends. How much turkey are you trying to eat?”
“All of it.”
“I'm afraid you’re in for a long night, then.”
The sunlight pouring through the windows over his head is golden, tinged around the edges with the brilliant orange-red unique to a sunset, and his mother and her guard, Sir Terrance, are waiting for them in the foyer outside of the grand dining hall.
“Mom,” Jake calls, and she turns toward him as if on a cloud, the movement smooth and graceful. “I’m not late, am I?”
“Not at all,” she says with a warm, kind smile. “Good evening, Sir Amelia,” she says with a nod in Amy’s direction.
“Good evening, Your Majesty,” Amy says with a deep bow.
(For all the false reverence she shows toward him, she genuinely worships his mother.)
“Terry,” Jake says with a nod.
Sir Terrance shoots him a disapproving look, but nods his head in greeting all the same.
“Our guests for this evening haven’t arrived yet,” Karen says, taking Jake’s arm and beginning a slow, meandering walk toward the dining hall. Terry and Amy fall into step behind them, allowing a respectful distance to build. “I wanted you here early so I could...warn you, I guess.”
“Our guests are a royal family from a kingdom far to the east. It’s actually...kind of funny.” Karen pauses, and Jake finds himself holding his breath. “They have a daughter close to your age. This feast is to give the two of you a chance to...get to know each other.”
Jake stops in his tracks, bringing Karen, Terry, and Amy to an abrupt halt as well. “Mom,” he says slowly, “is this what I think it is?”
“You know I’d never force you into an arranged marriage, honey,” Karen says, patting his arm soothingly. “You don’t have to be married before your coronation. I just want you to be happy , and I know how hard it is to meet girls your age when you’re cooped up in this castle all day long, so I thought…”
She trails, and Jake has to work very hard at not rolling his eyes. “I appreciate the thought, mom, but this is so unnecessary -”
“Just meet her,” Karen interrupts. “Don’t think of this as an arrangement. Think of it as an opportunity to make a new friend. New friends are good, right?”
He can’t help it - he sighs. “I mean, I guess…”
“I know that your father would agree with me,” she says, and already Jake knows he’s been defeated. “If he were still here today he’d be encouraging you to go in there and to have dinner with this pretty girl -”
“- and her parents and my mom and half our Royal Guard plus their Royal Guard - not exactly a cozy get-to-know-you.”
“You’ll barely even notice we’re there.”
Karen squeezes his arm and he sighs again, his defeat palpable. “Fine. Fine, I’ll meet her and I’ll have dinner. But I can’t promise that anything will happen or that I’ll even like this girl, okay? So if I say that it’s a no-go, then that’s it, that’s the end of it. You can’t guilt-trip me about this for the next year. Okay?”
“That’s fair. That’s a fair trade. I’ll agree to that.”
Disembodied shouts echo through the windows over their heads and Karen tenses, turned toward the noise. “Sounds like they’re here,” she says with another squeeze to his arm. “Let’s go out and greet them together, okay?”
Amy stays close to his back as he descends the stairs outside, but he doesn’t have time to gauge her expression - his attention remains focused on the carriage pulling up to the front gates, the memory of this particular etiquette lesson sharp in his mind. He wets his lips with the tip of his tongue nervously as a girl who appears to be his age emerges from the carriage, all tan skin and flowing dark hair, and for one split second, his heart skips a beat.
Her father greets his mother loudly, a clear familiarity pulsing beneath the formality, and Jake has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from calling his mother out on her lie. Clearly this feast has had some premeditation; with irritation burning along the back of his neck, he wonders if he was the only one left out until the last second. Her father is a tall, broad man, broad enough to conceal both his daughter and his wife as they approach the castle doors directly behind him, his shoulders nearly doubling the width of Jake’s. His skin is just as tan as his daughter’s, cropped hair just as dark, and his smile is broad and infectious.
“Well, this must be Prince Jacob!” the man - the father - says cheerfully upon ascending the first three stairs.
“Yes, this is my son, Jacob.” Karen says, beaming with pride.
“Good evening,” Jake says, squaring his shoulders as he shakes the man’s hand. “It’s really wonderful to meet you.”
“Not as wonderful as it’ll be to meet my little girl,” the man says with a boisterous laugh, stepping to the side to reveal the girl in question.
“Hi,” Jake says, reaching forward to take her hand. Her knuckles are cold beneath his lips. “Jacob.”
“Sophia,” the girl says confidently. “It’s very nice to meet you, Jacob.”
so the ORIGINAL PLAN was to wait and publish the next chapter on friday, and to publish each update on each subsequent friday (y'know, like an adult with a plan), but SOMEONE just couldn't wait that long
it was me, i couldn't wait that long
anyways here's the next chapter buckle up
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Duchess Sophia Perez has an incredibly grating laugh.
It’s loud and shrill, a series of high-pitched staccato bursts, and Amy’s certain that her ears are on the verge of bleeding by the second course of the evening. Sophia’s very pretty - stunning, some might even say - but it’s very, very difficult to appreciate Sophia’s beauty over the brain-melting sound of her laughter.
Amy screws her eyes shut at the latest trill - and when she finally opens them, it’s to the sight of Jake staring at her from across the room, looking about ready to run himself through with the turkey carving knife on the table before him.
She shoots him a sympathetic smile but his dead-panned expression never falters, and the wildflower she pulled from her hair earlier is soft beneath the pad of her thumb. Sophia laughs again, this time leaning sideways so that her shoulder brushes against Jake’s arm and her cocoa-colored curls tumble down his chest, and Amy nearly pinches the wildflower petal between her thumb and forefinger.
She probably would have gone and plucked the petal completely off, if not for the look of repulsion on Jake’s face when Sophia leans away.
Sophia is, as far as Amy can tell, exactly Jake’s type. It’s a fact of which Amy has been keenly aware from the moment Sophia first emerged from her carriage some three hours earlier, not unlike a goddess floating down from his daydreams. She’s exactly his type, from the bounce of her hair to the curve of her hips to the hypnotic brush of her eyelashes against her cheekbones each time she bats her eyes at him. Amy knows for a fact that had Jake happened upon Sophia in some ill-lit tavern with a head swimming pleasantly and a frothing beer in hand, he wouldn’t have hesitated to flirt his stupid, reckless ass off.
She’s exactly his type - if not for the circumstances.
The fair Prince of Fairdell has never been one for meeting expectations, as Amy has discovered firsthand. He’s lucky to have cultivated enough charisma to have enchanted the villagers (and half the staff), but truthfully, the heart of the matter is that he simply isn’t interested in any traditional princely demands. And each time that outright resistance comes round to bite him, he always manages to charm his way out of the consequences.
Amy would be lying if she said it didn’t drive her crazy.
(She would also be lying if she said it hasn’t worked on her in the past. As recently as last week.)
The fifth course has just been served and Jake isn’t even pretending to look engaged anymore. It’s hard to tell what Charles is serving from this distance, but it looks to be some sort of dessert - and Jake is leaned away from Sophia, his head propped up on his hand, absently pushing the contents of his bowl around with his spoon. Sophia’s back is now essentially facing him - she’s completely engaged in conversation with her equally loud father. The man’s frame is absolutely massive, so much so that she’s positive at least three of her brothers could fit comfortably inside his coat, and when he laughs, the windows rattle in their frames. He’s talked more than anyone else at the table combined, and it’s getting to the point now where even Queen Karen in all of her infinite patience is beginning to look weary.
To her left, along the wall, another guard coughs. Amy turns her head toward the sound and spots the guard in question - her red-faced and terrified-looking younger brother. Tony visibly gulps and turns his head, his bulging eyes darting across the feast in progress before landing on her.
She smiles, as warm and encouraging as she can, and the tension drains from his face in a long, slow exhale through his nose. She still remembers with embarrassing clarity how nervous she was on her first night out from training - it would appear her brother is following in her footsteps.
Jake’s looking at her again when she returns her attention to the feast.
He’s got a single brow raised and the corners of his mouth are pulled back in a grimace, and though she’s yet to learn how to actually read his mind, the message is clear: get me out of here .
Slowly, she shrugs, and glances at Sophia’s father. Not yet .
The flower petals are soft beneath the pad of her thumb.
Sophia’s mother has not uttered a single word.
The Duchess is by all accounts her husband’s polar opposite, both in demeanor and in stature. Amy might even call the woman frail - but perhaps it’s the juxtaposition that makes her seem that way. She’s been near-silent since ascending the staircase behind her husband and daughter and, as Amy studies her now, seems to be doing her best to take up as little space as possible. Amy almost feels bad for her.
Until the Duchess turns her head to peer at Jake around her husband’s shoulder.
Her expression almost seems calculating from where Amy stands. She stares at Jake hard, as if he is a riddle she’s working hard at solving, and it makes the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Jake is unaware - what else is new - but Karen is not. She’s glancing between Jake and the Duchess, a calm curiosity painted across her features, and before Amy can avert her gaze, Karen catches it.
She smiles and her brows raise a fraction, as if to ask if Amy sees it, too.
Amy has to work hard to fight off a smile.
Sophia seems to take one last reckless chance at flirting with Jake but it seems he can’t even be bothered to pretend to be paying attention. He’s staring at Amy outright now, a single brow still arched - this time in curiosity. Amy merely smiles, closes her eyes, and shakes her head.
His disgruntled huff is audible from across the hall.
“I do so appreciate you making the trip out here,” Karen says, and Amy adjusts her stance so that her feet are spread just a little bit wider. Jake appears to be at the furthest edge of his seat, glancing back and forth between her and Karen, waiting for his cue to take off running - Amy gently eases the delicate little flower into her pocket, tucking it down far enough so that should he leave in a hurry, it won’t fall out when she gives chase. “It was really wonderful to meet you all.”
It takes longer than usual, thanks in large part to Sophia’s father, but eventually the families and their guards end up back in the foyer, waving goodnight. Amy watches as the reigning family of the House of Perez packs up in their carriage - they haven’t even made it to the gate before Jake’s tugging none-too-gently at her cloak.
“If I’m not out of this coat and cloak in the next twenty seconds I will turn into blue velvet.” he hisses in her ear.
“Come on,” she says, holding back a laugh - a useless endeavor, really, considering the way his eyes spark with a knowing kind of mischief. She prods him gently in the back, toward the staircase, and he falls into step ahead of her at once.
“D’you think we could go to Shaw’s tonight?” he asks over his shoulder once they’re upstairs, away from the other guards. “That feast was complete torture and I could really use a beer. Or ten.”
He stops and turns toward her suddenly, looking stricken. The clasp of his cloak and the top button of his coat are both undone, giving her the perfect view of his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. “But it’s been almost a month since the last time we went,” he says, voice high and pleading. “I’m starting to forget what beer even tastes like!”
“You should have thought about that this morning before you decided to be late for Mr. Holt’s lesson,” she tells him loftily, and if he rolls his eyes any harder she’s certain they’d get stuck.
He throws the door to his chambers open and stops on the threshold, turning around to lean against the doorframe, contorting his face into an almost grotesque pout. “You’re really not gonna let me go?” he asks softly.
Brow arched, jaw set, smile repressed, Amy shakes her head.
Jake drops the facade at once. “You are so lame.” he mutters.
“And you are so about to miss curfew.”
He heaves a loud, long-suffering sigh and turns so that the back of his head leans against the doorframe. “Were you flirting with that other guard earlier?”
She stares, blinking rapidly. “What?”
He turns his head back toward her, a knowing, suggestive wiggle to his brows. “I saw you smiling at him,” he says, “the one who coughed.”
Her mouth drops open, but no words will come.
“Oh, come on, you were being so obvious - you were smiling and winking at him and he looked really happy about it -”
“Sir Tony is my younger brother.”
A gratifying amount of color drains from Jake’s face. “Oh, god, please don’t tell your dad I said any of that.”
A disbelieving laugh escapes her still-gaping mouth. “You’re a strange type of prince,” she murmurs softly.
For whatever reason, that seems to quell the anxiety still visible in his face. “Okay, back up, let’s pretend that conversation didn’t just happen. Can we go to Shaw’s tomorrow ?”
“Can you be on time for tomorrow’s lessons?”
Without turning his head, he eyes her suspiciously. “Maybe.”
“That’s your answer, then.”
He kicks off from the doorframe and grabs the door, swinging it forward until only his face is framed in the space between it and the frame. “Fine. G’night, Sir Lamey .”
“Goodnight, Your Stupid-ness.”
He gasps as a look of mock-indignation flashes across his face. “ So unprofessional.”
The door slams shut before she can respond, and at the sound of his muffled, cackling laughter, she rolls her eyes.
The last hour of her shift is inevitably - and predictably - the most boring. It wasn’t that long ago that it was her only solace while on-duty, but now it drags on almost endlessly. She will never be one to abandon her post (like so many of her predecessors have) but she has taken to passing the time by pacing back and forth across the corridor, measuring how many footsteps fit between Jake’s door and the wall across from it. It helps quiet her anxiety, easing the thoughts that spin and chase each other down into a gentle stillness, until all she hears is the steady count inside her mind.
It isn’t helping tonight, however. Despite how hard she concentrates, all she can hear in her mind is Sophia’s brain-melting laughter; behind her eyelids, all she sees is the Duchess’ cold gaze tracking Jake’s every move.
In all likelihood, she’s probably never going to see the Perez family ever again. It would be a certainty if Jake had anything to say about it, that much she knows without question, and Karen probably won’t force him into it. But the reality behind the matter still very much exists - Jake is now old enough to at least consider the idea of getting married.
She isn’t sure why, but the knowledge sits like spoiled milk in her gut.
The wildflower petals are soft beneath her thumb.
She’d rather dive head-first off the tallest point of the tower than tell him this, but truthfully, Jake is her closest friend. It’s rather pathetic, when she thinks about it - a girl her age having no close friends outside of the man she’d sworn an oath to protect - but really, that’s the short end of it. He’s her best friend, has been for nearly three years now, and though she’s watched him train in sword fighting and horseback riding and archery for the express purpose of fighting in a hypothetical war, she’d never given much thought to the idea of him getting married.
Being king, sure. Reigning over Fairdell, of course. Having a queen - having a wife - to reign alongside him?
The wildflower petals are soft beneath her thumb.
She can’t imagine he’ll have much time to spare for friendships once he’s married.
The last hour of her shift is the most boring - but tonight, they are the most anxiety-inducing. Which is why she practically jumps for joy when she sees her replacement for the evening come strolling around the corner.
The castle is an odd, almost-silent husk in the evenings after Jake and Karen have both retired to their chambers. Amy rather likes it, truth be told - she likes being able to move about freely, not worrying about what trouble Jake’s gotten himself into or brought on other people. It’s almost as freeing as her breaks in the forest - if not for the lack of fresh air and invigorating sunlight, they would be one in the same. The castle in the evenings is her favorite castle.
Sir Victor spots her in the foyer from the dining hall. “Sir Amelia,” he calls, and she pauses mid-step. “I was wondering if you had a moment?”
“Yes, sir,” she says.
She starts toward him quickly, nearly cutting off two other guards passing by on their patrol, but barely makes it two steps before he’s waving for her to stop. “I’ll walk with you,” he says as he hurries toward her. “I know you haven’t had a chance to eat yet.”
“I appreciate it, sir,” she smiles as he falls into step beside her. “How can I be of service?”
“I just wanted to follow up with you about whether or not you’ve had a chance to look over the schedule I drew up for next week.” Amy furrows her brow, and Victor flashes her a smile. “For overnight duties.”
“Oh! Oh, yes, I have. I’d say everything looks good except maybe Thursday - you have Sir Tony on guard by himself, and I’m worried he’s still a little too new to not be shadowing someone for that.”
“Really? It’s overnight duty, I thought -”
“With all due respect, sir, he coughed during dinner earlier and I thought he was going to have a heart attack. I can’t imagine he’d do much better guarding the prince by himself for eight hours, even if it is overnight.”
A look of faint amusement crosses Victor’s face, just barely visible in the flickering torchlight above their heads. “Maybe it is a little too early for Sir Tony. I’ll add Sir Peter to the watch on Thursday, then.”
They’ve made it to the kitchens by then, having passed what seemed like half the Royal Guard on their own patrols or missions; aside from a distant, haunted howl of the wind passing through the windows upstairs, the corridor is silent and abandoned apart from the two of them. “How’s he doing?” Amy asks quietly.
Victor sighs, glancing over her head before pinching the bridge of his nose. “He’s getting there,” he says eventually, the words partially muffled into his palm. “He’s more nervous than even you were.”
A grin tugs at the corner of her mouth. “I could tell. He really did look like his head was about to explode when he coughed earlier. I thought I was gonna have to fall out of formation to calm him down.”
Victor drops his hand as he shakes his head. “I’ll talk to him.”
“Just be gentle with him. He’s trying, and that’s what’s important.”
Victor hums, and gestures toward the kitchens. “Charles left the leftovers out. You should get in there before Trevor and Christopher finish their patrols.”
She huffs out a laugh, briefly dropping her gaze down to her feet at the thought of her gluttonous co-guards converging on the leftovers like buzzards. “That’s where I was headed, actually. Have you had a chance to eat?”
“Earlier, before inspection. Nice job on that, by the way.”
She smiles, a familiar swell of pride expanding in her chest. “Thanks, dad.”
Victor reflects her smile before leaning forward to plant a kiss against her brow. “Go eat and get some rest, Amy. You’re definitely gonna need it for tomorrow.”
Amy lets her shoulders slump forward. “He’s the worst after fencing lessons,” she mutters, forlorn.
His smile is good-natured, but the warning flashing in his eyes is genuine. “Eat. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The leftovers are mostly cold, but they are plentiful, and Amy has never been one to complain about free food. The kitchen is abandoned and Amy hums quietly to herself as she loads a plate, picking around the places she’d seen Jake grab with his bare hands.
(Even after a bath, he somehow finds a way to be disgusting.)
There’s a glass of water left sitting on the far counter, near where Charles stores his parchment and wax paper, Amy notes with a smile. It still looks cold, too - as if it was the last thing Charles did before leaving the kitchen earlier. Her plate is full and her chambers await, and she only pauses to slip a sheet of wax paper from the pile and tuck it up under her arm before taking the glass of water and heading back out into the corridor.
She’s one of only a handful of guards with their own private chambers - one of the perks of being a principal guard - and once inside, she feels the last vestiges of professionalism melt away. In this space - however small it may be in comparison to Jake’s or even the other guards’ - she revels in the freedom, the ability to be completely and totally herself. Along the walls she’s posted small paintings and hung bouquets of now-dried flowers, and across her bed lies the worn and faded quilt her mother made for her prior to taking the Royal Guards’ oath. It’s a small and somewhat narrow space - but it’s hers.
And she loves it.
The wooden slats beneath her mattress groan beneath her weight as she settles on her bed, but she ignores it, already far too focused on what the aroma of her dinner is doing to the growling in her stomach. She’d seen Jake in this state before - he calls it hangry , the idiot - but she resists the temptation to channel him in shoveling the food into her mouth at break-neck speed. He eats to quench a need - she eats to savor.
Another hour has passed by the time her plate is empty, and she slides it carefully onto her bedside table, taking care not to bump the tin vase near the far corner, currently containing the bouquet of wildflowers she’d collected from the clearing earlier. She studies them a moment, reaches out to lightly caress the petals on the bud closest to her, before shifting slightly to slip a hand inside her pocket.
The wildflower she’s been stroking all night - the one Jake tangled in her hair earlier that day - certainly looks more limp now than it did when he first plucked it. Even compared to the way it looked when she stopped by here earlier to put the bouquet in the vase while Jake was still getting ready for the feast, there is a noticeable difference. She almost laughs at the sight of it, the droopy little thing. It would be just like Jake to pick the one flower that died immediately after losing its roots. Shaking her head, she reaches for the wax paper at the foot of her mattress, and then for the journal leaned against the other side of the vase.
Her messy handwriting litters the pages of this journal but today she does not stop to read any of it - instead, she flips to the back cover, smoothing out the page to the left before tucking the wax paper into the spine’s crease. She centers the flower on the paper and folds the paper over, covering the flower, and then folds down each open edge of the paper, until the flower is trapped in a makeshift wax paper envelope. Once it’s settled into the crease of the journal, she flips the journal closed, and then tucks the journal beneath the vase on her bedside table.
The flowers in the vase will die within the next week and then they’ll join the others along the walls of her chambers - probably near the door, in the space between the outer edge of the frame and the dried bouquet she collected six months previously. She studies the spot for a moment, head tilted a few degrees to the left, before she drops her gaze to her knees.
Perhaps Jake’s future wife will include wildflowers in her bouquet on their wedding day. She thinks he’d rather like that - that nod to the forest, where he claims his heart belongs. He might even take his future wife to the clearing so that they can gather the flowers together - and she’ll very likely be watching from the outskirts, dressed in full guard regalia, insuring that no harm befalls them while they gather what they need.
It makes her heartsick.
It’s probably foolish to think this way, but in her mind, the clearing is hers and Jake’s and no one else’s. To her knowledge he’s never brought anyone else to that clearing just as she hasn’t - they’re even the only ones who know about the hole in the wall behind that cropping of bushes on the east side of the grounds. It’s wildly irresponsible of her to not report that hole, especially considering her official title - but she hasn’t been able to bring herself to do it yet.
Not now that she knows it’s his one and only escape route to their clearing.
That’s alright, she thinks as she kicks off her boots and folds back her mother’s quilt. Tomorrow’s a new day.
From her vantage point by the stables, Jake looks as if he’s having the time of his life.
For every moment he spends utterly despising the formal, stuffy (his word, not hers) etiquette lessons he sits through every day, he covets the time he gets to spend practicing fencing. He’s practiced the footwork so many times he practically dances through it now, twisting and dodging, parrying almost flawlessly with a broad grin on his face. The fencing instructor - some lump of a man by the name of Mr. McGinley - is practically drenched in his own sweat, struggling to keep up, and Jake’s teasing laughter sails over the distance between the practice arena and where Amy’s leaning against the stable door.
He manages to land a hit to Mr. McGinley’s ample gut, and as Mr. McGinley struggles to catch his breath, Jake turns his head to shoot a bright, winning grin in Amy’s direction.
“Nice!” she calls.
They start again - this time with Jake’s sword in his left hand - and over her shoulder, she hears a familiar huff.
Jake’s horse’s head is hanging over the bottom half of his stall’s door, and when Amy turns toward him, he tosses his head in what she can only assume is excitement. “Well, good morning to you, too, Cheddar,” she says as she trots closer. He releases a quiet whinny - almost a greeting. “Been bored in there all week?”
He tosses his head again, as if to nod.
“He’s got a riding lesson tomorrow, I think,” she says, running her palm down his snout. Cheddar goes still at once, nuzzling closer, and she pats his face a few times before reaching into her pocket. At the sight of the sugar cubes in her palm, he tosses head again - and this time, the excitement is unmistakable. “You didn’t think I forgot, did you?”
“Excuse me?” Amy nearly drops the sugar cubes at the unfamiliar voice calling out just behind her. She whirls around to the sight of a man she’s never seen before standing a meter away, looking between her and Cheddar, hands raised so that his palms face her. “I heard someone out here talking, were you - were you talking to the horse?”
“Uh -” she glances at Cheddar, and then back to the man. “I was - um - who - who are you?”
The man’s still staring at her like he’s never seen anything like her before, but the corner of his mouth quirks upwards. “I’m Teddy,” he says slowly. “I’m the new stablehand. Who are you?”
Amy straightens, dusting the sugar off her hands and adjusting her cloak to ride more securely over her shoulders. “I’m Sir Amelia,” she says as firmly as she can.
He raises his brows. “ Sir Amelia? You’re a knight?”
“I’m a Royal Guard.”
Teddy whistles, and it takes her a moment to realize that his impressed expression is genuine. “I didn’t know there were female guards,” he says softly.
It isn’t the first time she’s heard that phrase - but it is the first time she’s heard it said with anything other than contempt.
“I don’t know of very many,” Amy admits slowly. “There are a few here in Fairdell, but...I’ve never met any from any other kingdom.”
He nods slowly, still staring, and a strange kind of heat is pouring over her face from the tips of her ears.
“This is - I don’t normally talk to horses,” she says, gesturing to Cheddar. “I just - I know this one pretty well, and I sometimes will bring him sugar cubes because those are his favorites, but the last stablehand knew me and he didn’t care if I did so you don’t have to tell anyone or - or get me in trouble -”
“I’m not gonna get you in trouble,” Teddy says, pacing toward her slowly, as if afraid she might get spooked if he moves too fast. “I was just...curious, I guess. They didn’t tell me the Royal Guards here were so - so beautiful.”
The heat has spread down her neck, now.
A loud - and rather foreign - laugh suddenly echoes across the grounds, originating from the practice arena behind Teddy. “I told you!” Mr. McGinley crows. “It was only a matter of time before I caught you off-guard!”
Over Teddy’s shoulder, Amy catches a glimpse of the scene unfolding in the arena - Jake straightening up, a hand flattened over his stomach, Mr. McGinley practically stumbling toward the far gate in search of something steady enough to support his weight as he recovers. It’s not the wheezing coach that holds Amy’s attention, though - that would be the strange and unfamiliar look on Jake’s face, fixated on her and on Teddy.
“Oh my god,” Teddy mutters, stumbling closer, eyes never leaving the practice arena. “Is that - is that -?”
“Prince Jacob,” Amy finishes, watching Jake quickly shed his fencing uniform and vault over the arena fence. “My - my charge.”
From the corner of her eye, she sees Teddy’s head snap toward her. “You’re Prince Jacob’s principal guard?” he asks, his disbelief palpable.
Jake’s lumbering toward them now, expression still mostly unfamiliar - aside from the dark set of his gaze and the scowl creasing his brows. “Yep.”
He’s on them before Teddy can say another word, chest heaving, sweat beaded along his brow. “We need to go, or else I’m gonna be late for Mr. Holt’s again.” he says stiffly.
He seems to be making a concentrated effort at ignoring Teddy’s presence at her side but before Amy can so much as stutter out a goodbye, Teddy steps forward tentatively. “Hi,” he says, and Jake’s gaze flickers to his face. “I’m Teddy - the new stablehand - I’ve heard so many great things about you, Prince Jacob -”
“It’s Your Majesty. Or Your Highness. Either one, take your pick.”
Amy furrows her brow, hardly registering the way Teddy’s spluttering. Jake’s breathing hard through his nose and his jaw is set and she can’t even remember the last time she saw him like this - if ever. “Of - o-of course, Your Majesty, I’m so sorry -”
“It’s fine,” Jake interrupts, tone clipped. “We really need to go. Thanks.”
He’s storming toward the castle at once without bothering to check over his shoulder to ensure that she’s following him, so with one last apologetic glance back at Teddy, Amy takes off after him. “What the hell was that about?” she mutters once she’s reached his side.
“Nothing. Bad practice.”
He won’t meet her gaze. “You’re never that mean to the new people,” she says quietly, and Jake huffs and rolls his eyes. “What, do you know something about that guy that I don’t? What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on, Amy, I just had a bad practice and I wasn’t in the mood to be polite, okay? I’m allowed to not be polite sometimes, I don’t have to be Prince Charming at all hours of the day. Just stop asking me about it.”
The urge to correct him on her title is bubbling on her lips as they speed-walk into the castle, but before she can so much as form the words a familiar voice stops them both in their tracks.
“Jacob!” A woman - an extremely bird-like woman - stands in the center of the foyer, her ball gown as voluminous as it is pink. Her skirt must have at least ten hoops supporting all those layers of satin and lace - it wobbles precariously as she starts toward them, not unlike the stack of salad plates she’d seen one of the kitchen hands balancing on the way out of the kitchen the evening before.
Though she can only see him in profile, Amy can see the vague look of disgust on Jake’s face as the woman approaches him. “Aunt Madeline,” he says, voice already strained.
Amy retreats half a pace as the woman hugs Jake tight - and shoots a look at the guard posted by the door, nodding down toward the Guards’ chambers. He nods, eyes barely visible beneath the brim of his helmet, and immediately turns toward the chambers, headed toward Sir Victor with the unspoken warning:
Duchess Madeline Wuntch has come to visit.
If Amy couldn’t read Jake’s mind the night before, she certainly can now.
He’s outright glowering at her from across the dining hall, not even pretending to look engaged in whatever conversation Madeline and Karen are having to his right, and she gives him what she hopes is her most sympathetic expression. She’d tried to remind him of the silver lining prior to dinner - at least his etiquette lessons were canceled for today - but it seems even that isn’t enough to make him feel better.
Her irritation at his earlier outburst toward Teddy is still very much alive, but she’s sequestered it to a far corner in her mind for now, with every intention of picking back up again once his least favorite - and only - aunt has retired for the evening.
Madeline is several years younger than Karen, though it isn’t obvious by looking at them. Where Karen is soft and kind, Madeline is harsh and severe - the lines around her eyes and the corners of her mouth speak of an age far greater than Madeline actually is. She truly is birdlike in every sense of her appearance - from the point of her chin to the beediness of her eyes - everything, except her smile.
There’s no way for Amy to know for certain, of course, but according to some of the older guards, Madeline has Roger’s smile. And Amy thinks that’s probably the reason Karen allows Madeline to drop by unannounced as often as she does. Madeline may be severe, but she is Roger’s younger sister - and the last living tie Karen has to Roger.
Aside from Jake, of course.
He was only seven years old when Roger died. He claims not to remember much, but Amy has a sneaking suspicion that he remembers more than he lets on about. After all, she remembers being seven - remembers being there the day her youngest brother was born - while the memories are fuzzy, they certainly exist. He hadn’t been with him with Roger died, but he had been with Karen. He’d been right there beside her when the guards Roger was hunting with returned, their empty hands stained with Roger’s blood; he’d been right there beside her when she’d fallen to her knees in despair.
A hunting accident. That’s what killed him. At least, that’s what they say killed him - he’d split off from the rest of the group in an attempt to flush out a fox from the underbrush in the forest outside the castle, only to be found half an hour later in the brush, run through with his own sword, his horse grazing nearby. No one saw it happen - no one else was around when he was found.
So the story goes.
She’d spent her formative years training in the period that followed Roger’s death - when Karen had agreed to take on the responsibilities of the crown in the interim, her claim only lasting until Jake is old enough to inherit the throne himself. Whether he abdicates or not has been a near-constant headache for everyone around since Jake’s twelfth birthday - the start of his rebellious streak.
At the sound of Madeline’s chalice hitting the dining table hard, Amy starts back to reality. “Jacob!” she trills. “I had no idea you were old enough to consider arranged marriages! Oh, there are so many lovely ladies in the neighboring kingdom, I know they’re all just dying to meet you -”
“Sir Amelia,” Jake interrupts loudly, jaw stiff, looking like a mouse caught beneath a cat’s paw. “Didn’t you mention that I have to leave early before dinner started?”
Amy stares, mouth open, before glancing at Karen - who nods once. “Y-yes, Your Highness,” she says, pacing toward him uncertainly. “You have - you have an etiquette lesson. With Mr. Holt.”
“And when does that start?”
His eyes are wide, pleading, desperate. “In ten minutes.” she says.
“Sounds like it’s time for me to go, then,” he stands and quickly drops his linen napkin over his half-empty plate, hardly sparing a glance back at Madeline before grabbing Amy by the forearm and hurrying them both toward the dining hall doors. “It was good to see you, Aunt Madeline, have a nice night!”
“You couldn’t have been more obvious if you tried ,” Amy hisses over the muffled sounds of Madeline protesting.
“I don’t care,” he mutters, grip still firm around her forearm. “I wanted out and I wanted out now , I’ll deal with her tomorrow between lessons.”
“Tomorrow’s your busiest day of the week, there is no time between lessons.”
He flashes her a grin. “I know.”
His manic pace finally slows upon landing in the corridor outside his chambers, and his grip around her forearm finally loosens and slips away as he backs toward the door. “I was on time to all of my lessons today,” he says, shoulders bumping against the door.
She purses her lips and nods. “You were,” she says. “But you were also really rude to that new stablehand.”
He at least has the decency to flush at her words. “I know,” he admits. “Like I said, I had a really bad lesson and I was frustrated, and I took it out on that kid. I’ll go down to the stables and apologize to him first thing in the morning.”
Amy narrows her eyes. “Promise?”
He raises his right hand, his expression deathly serious. “I swear.”
A quiet laugh escapes through her nose. “Alright, I believe you. Go ahead and ask.”
Slowly, he lowers his hand. “Can we go to Shaw’s tonight?”
“Let me go change out of my uniform.”
Aside from the dagger hidden beneath the folds of her woolen cloak, neither she nor Jake bears any obvious mark of the crown in their disguises.
“Y’know,” Jake murmurs as Amy frets over his hood, “if anyone’s gonna recognize me, it’s gonna be because of you. Without the royal whatevers,” he gestures over his torso, where his family crest is proudly displayed on his coats during public outings, “no one ever even sees me. You , on the other hand, are down in the village all the time, with or without the Royal Guard crap on. You’re a celebrity.”
“And you’re a prince,” Amy mutters, pulling at the edge of his hood until it covers his eyes. “I may be recognizable, but I don’t rule a kingdom.”
“Well technically, neither do I,” he retorts as she pulls the hood of her own cloak up over her head. “As far as the villagers are concerned, all I do is sit in the back of a cart, wave at people, and try not to step in horse shit at the end.”
“Yet somehow, you always manage to fail at that last one,” Amy sighs.
It’s hard to tell beneath his hood, but she’s pretty sure he’s glaring at her. “You’re hilarious. They teach you that in Royal Guard training?”
The walk from the castle to the village is a little over two miles, and though much of the moonlight is concealed behind thick cloud coverage, both Amy and Jake know the path like the backs of their own hands. Encountering a villager that close to the castle is a rarity, so for the first mile and a half, she lets Jake lead - knowing that even though he can’t see further than a meter ahead due to his own hood, he won’t trip.
Something in his demeanor always shifts after a certain distance away from the castle - whether he’s conscious of the shift or not, she’s yet to figure out. It’s not anything overtly obvious; rather, it’s an invisible weight suddenly lifting from his shoulders, an invisible spring slipping beneath his heels, like the spirit of the forest has suddenly taken residence in his body. He’s youthful, somehow, beyond the childish and immature antics he carries out in the castle on a daily basis. He’s downright blissful .
It should probably be disconcerting on a certain level that it’s the second happiest mood she ever sees him in, headed down to the tavern for a drink.
They subtly switch places once they get closer to the village - once the peddlers on the side of the road become more common - and though he’s no longer in her line of sight, she feels him sticking close, the heat of him radiating along her left side. They’ve never had any serious issues coming into or out of the village, though more than once Amy had to drag him away from a peddler whose trinkets caught Jake’s eye. Still, it’s a precautionary measure - one Jake’s only too happy to entertain so long as it gets him to the tavern.
Once inside the village, Jake stays close enough to actually touch her. He’s not normally one to touch her so freely - only when a large throng of people pass and the danger of losing each other in the crowd rises does his hand land along her shoulder or, once, her lower back. It lends itself to the facade that they’re a couple out for an evening together, which is why she’s never protested it. Usually the villagers are still out at this hour, having already finished their suppers. Some are traveling from home to home visiting friends - others are headed toward the taverns, like them.
Shaw’s is a smaller, dirtier tavern near the heart of the village, and the moment it slides into view, Jake’s moving past her, already set on what lies inside. Amy lets him go with a smirk - his childlike eagerness is at an all-time high, increasing tenfold when he shoves the doors open and the bartender catches sight of him framed in the doorway.
“Jake!” Doug Judy shouts as Amy pushes through the tavern doors. Jake’s already seated at the bar, hands beating against the countertop, and Doug produces an already-poured beer from behind the counter to slide into Jake’s waiting hands. “Where you been, man? It’s been so boring!”
Jake holds a finger up to Doug - a signal to wait - as he drains half the beer in one go. “Sorry, Judy,” he gasps through a foam beard once he’s swallowed the beer. “Things got busy at work.”
They exchange a dramatic and obvious wink, and Amy doesn’t bother hiding it when she rolls her eyes. “And Amy,” Doug says, round cheeks dimpling as he raises his arms in welcome. “You want a beer?”
“No, thanks.” she says as she slides into the seat two down from Jake’s. “Just a -”
“- water,” Doug finishes, producing another stein from beneath the counter - this one full nearly to the brim with sloshing water. He winks as he slides the stein into her hands. “One of these days you’re gonna take me up on that offer for a beer, you know.”
She lifts the stein and smiles, before pulling a long, slow sip.
There are certainly worse ways to spend an evening, Amy thinks.
She could be on overnight duty, or grounds duty. She could be working a parade. She could be cleaning out the kitchens or running inspections on the bunks in the general guard chambers. The list is long and extensive and she goes through each point meticulously as she watches Jake drain his fifth beer of the evening. There are definitely much worse ways to spend an evening.
Of course, there are also much better ways to spend the evening as well. She could be in the library reading instead of watching Jake sway in his seat to the rhythm of a tide only he seems to feel. She could be painting instead of reciting all the other duties worse than glorified babysitting a grown, drunk man in a bar. She could be sitting with her father, helping him draw up a schedule for the week after next, instead of heaving a sigh and turning her gaze away from Doug pouring Jake’s sixth beer until it’s frothing over the rim of his stein to the rest of Shaw’s patrons growing rowdier by the minute.
There’s a group of oily, leather-clad men in a cluster toward the back singing drinking songs at an increasing volume, the empty steins and shot glasses littering their table far outnumbering the men gathered around them. Pirates, she thinks, probably anchored at the dock nearby. She watches them sing for a few minutes, watches them flirt and grab at the waitresses that pass them, before stifling a yawn behind her hand. There are three women on the other side of the tavern eyeing the pirates with increasingly hooded gazes, their cheeks and necks flushing, their plump lower lips caught between their teeth. She thinks ten, maybe fifteen more minutes will pass before they drum up enough courage to approach the men; from there, it’s only a matter of time before they all clear out and head toward the inn next door. There’s a young couple sitting closer to the bar, on the women’s side, hunched over their meals - their exhaustion is clear in their posture even from this distance. They’ve likely been traveling all day, if not also the day before; she wonders if this is the first meal they’ve had since departing wherever it is they came from.
Four waitresses bustle between tables with beers and plates of food in hand, expertly dodging the swiping hands from the pirates as they pass, and littered amongst the tables are several loners hunched over their own beers. One is an older man with grease stains on his shirt and a glaze to his eyes that spells either exhaustion or blindness; one is a weathered looking gentleman no older than 35, hand curled around the handle of his stein that he’s yet to actually drink from since he first took it some forty-five minutes earlier. There’s a man with his hood pulled low sitting in the shadowy back corner, face concealed, just as still as his weathered counterpart, though judging by the way he sags in his seat, Amy would venture to guess that he’s probably asleep and won’t be awake for some time yet. And then there’s the woman sitting closest to her, the one with nervous eyes, dirty clothes, and stringy hair; the one twisting a coin around her fingers.
Jake’s drank half of his sixth beer and he’s now singing along with the pirates, and Amy rolls her eyes as she finishes off her second water.
Usually, around this time in the evening, he’d be casting around the other patrons looking for a girl with whom he could flirt. Someone with long, dark hair, with warm brown eyes, with soft, tan skin - someone just like Sophia, she recalls with a twist in her stomach. She’s lost count of the number of women he’s flirted with here - lost track of the number of women she’s stopped from robbing him here. A drunken Jake is a happy Jake, but it also tends to be an extremely stupid Jake.
It’s no matter this evening, though. Aside from the three women now giggling on the laps of the pirates and the nervous woman with her coin, he has no outlet for his pent-up drunken idiocy.
Except her, it seems.
He slides into the seat beside her with a sloppy wink, and she arches an eyebrow at him, hoping her indifference will be enough of a buffer. “You never drink with me,” he slurs, pushing his stein closer to her for emphasis. “I always have t’drink ’lone .”
“ One of us has to be coherent, and that’s clearly not ever gonna be you.” she says, drumming her fingers along her own stein.
He points a finger at her, and he would probably look accusatory if not for how bloodshot his eyes are. “That’s boring. That’s the boringest thing you’ve ever said to me.” He leans heavily across the countertop and tilts his stein sideways, pouring a good fraction of the contents over his sleeve and across the bartop rather than in his mouth. He blinks, head lifting unsteadily, glaring down at his now-soaking sleeve. “Who did that?”
“Okay,” Amy says, pulling his stein away despite his loud protest. “I think that’s enough for one night.”
“Oh, c’mon, one more!” Jake says, stumbling backwards off of his barstool, nearly careening into the coin woman’s table. “I’ve earned this, Ames, I get one more for the trip back…”
Her protests die on her lips as he staggers back around to the seat he’d previously occupied, motioning for Doug to pour one more. The pirates and their new friends are gathering their things and the tired young couple is already gone, and the hooded man is now awake, draining the last of his beer as he pulls coins from his pocket. “This is the last one, and then we’re going home.”
Jake waves her off as Doug finishes pouring the beer, and as the pirates file out of the back door, the hooded man begins heading toward the bar. The other door is to Amy’s right and it’s been propped open to allow some of the cooler night air to infiltrate the heat building within the bar, and as the hooded man approaches, Amy shoots him a small, tight smile.
She almost misses it - she’s about to glance at the coin woman again - but as the hooded man moves to pass Jake, he deliberately, violently rams his shoulder into Jake’s back.
Every muscle in her body tenses at once but she remains in place - for as often as Jake flirts with random women in this bar, he participates in random, drunken fistfights as well. Hardly anyone ever recognizes him when initiating said fights - for all they know, he's just another villager come to drink his night away. She learned after the first one not to intervene, to let him pull his own weight - strange as it is, it’s a form of blowing off steam for him, for whatever reason.
A very odd way to feel normal.
She’s seen him in his fair share of drunken tavern fights, but right away, she knows this one is going to be different.
Jake is as drunk and uncoordinated as he always is as he swings around, toppling his barstool and losing his cloak in one stagger, fists swinging wide and sloppy toward the hooded man. That part of it is normal and, unfortunately, completely expected - what’s unexpected is the sure, practiced, and clearly sober way the hooded man deflects Jake’s hits and lands a few of his own. Jake’s temple, Jake’s chest, Jake’s gut - in three quick jabs, the prince is disoriented and wheezing, and his attacker is clearly none the worse for wear.
A familiar determined snarl has taken residence on Jake’s face as he straightens, one arm still crossed over his stomach. Amy’s on her feet but motionless, a hand concealed beneath her cloak wrapped tight around the handle of her dagger, watching the hooded man accurately predict and circumvent Jake’s next volley of hits. It’s clear to her that Jake is outmatched, badly so, by a man who does not seem to have any mercy for his inebriated state.
She’s still teetering back and forth on the decision to intervene when she sees it - the quickest, barest glint of silver in the torchlight following the movement of the hooded man’s hand.
With a shout she leaps forward, adrenaline drowning all else out, and it’s as if she’s seeing in slow-motion through a long tunnel as the hooded man swipes his blade hard across Jake’s gut. Jake’s entire body concaves and a clearly surprised, pained grunt reaches her ears, but she doesn’t have time to absorb it - all she can think to do is throw her entire body weight into shoving him to the ground.
He catches the edge of a table on his way down and it flips, the plates and cups not yet cleaned by the waitresses adding to the chaos as they dance across the floor, and she only has time to check that his eyes are open, alert, and on her before the hooded man reclaims all of her attention.
He starts toward her at once, his dagger raised, apparently unaffected at the sudden change of target. Amy’s ready for him; she deflects his hit and produces her own dagger in one move, using his momentum as he yanks his arm back as leverage, her goal his right side. He knocks her hand away, but not before she nicks him - clearly, he hadn’t anticipated her being left-handed.
She hears him grunt in pain as she skids to a stop behind him, and has just enough time to raise her arms as he whips around and charges after her.
“Oh, shit !” Doug’s voice sails over the chaos as Amy grapples with the would-be attacker. She can’t take the time to glance back and confirm, but it sounds like whatever patrons are still left in the bar are racing out the door as they fight; the hears no protest as she clambers backwards over the table previously occupied by the woman with the coin, nor is there any resistance when she throws the hooded man into the blind man’s table. It’s for the best, considering this man is clearly as highly trained as she is - the entire tavern floor has devolved into their arena.
She has the upper hand as they fight, deflecting and dodging and jabbing over and over again. The hooded man seems to be getting more frustrated, breaths escaping his bared teeth in loud growls that crescendo into roars each time she breaks skin with her dagger. She’s certain that victory is within her grasp; that is, until he dodges her by leaping up on a table that collapses beneath his weight. He dives toward her, catches her round the middle, and knocks her to the ground with that momentum; she loses her grip on and her sight of her dagger in the wreckage of the pirates’ tables and has to leave it in order to twist away from the hooded man’s dagger.
She’s fast, but not fast enough - he manages to sink half of his blade into her upper arm. He grins as she screams, and through the shock of pain, she registers with startling clarity that the man’s eyes are a bright and piercing blue beneath his hood.
He’s distracted then, and she knows it, so she rears her knees back toward her chest and plants her boots against his hips - and in one motion, she kicks, sending him flying backwards and yanking the knife out of her arm with the motion. He loses his grip on the knife as he falls and she’s already clambering after it before he can right himself.
The dagger skitters beneath one of the only tables still standing and Amy dives, ignoring the slickness of her own blood along the handle as her fingers close around it. She knocks the table over on top of herself as she struggles to stop her forward momentum, heart hammering, certain the hooded man is already on top of her - but when she whirls around brandishing his knife, he’s gone.
There are footsteps pounding through the dirt outside.
She’s on her feet racing after him a moment later, his dagger still in her hand, but by the time she makes it outside, he’s vanished. The streets are completely abandoned, though, so she’s already devising a search method to track him - but reality catches up to her before she can.
Jake’s still inside the tavern.
He no longer lying where she left him when she stumbles back inside, but Doug Judy is pointing wildly behind the bar before the gravity of that realization hits her. “He’s back here, back here,” Doug gasps as Amy scrambles past him, shoving the hooded man’s dagger into the holster at her hip. Jake’s leaned back against the whiskey barrels stored along the wall, legs splayed before him awkwardly, blood dotting the ripped material of his shirt. He reaches for her when she drops beside him on her knees, a half-terrified, half-awed expression that she’s never seen before on his pale face. “Jake,” Amy mumbles, “oh my god, oh my god, Jake -”
Her fingers shake violently but she still manages to rip his shirt open wider, and his blood is dark where it’s smeared across the pale skin of his stomach. He may be talking to her, she isn’t sure - all she knows is that he’s bleeding, he’s injured , that man hurt him and she stood by and let it happen -
“ Amy !” He’s got a grip around her arms now, a tight, warm, steady grip, and he shakes her slightly, jolting her out of her panic. “I’m fine.” he says firmly, and she can’t look away from his face. “I’m okay. He barely got me. I jumped back and the knife barely grazed me. Look, see?” Her gaze flicks down to his stomach - and through the blood smears on his skin, she spies a long, thin cut, angled down to the left just slightly. “This is nothing. I’ve had worse from the thorn bushes at the castle. I’m okay.”
He repeats the last part slowly, thumbs moving to stroke a soothing pattern over her arms - and now his gaze is fixated on her left arm. She follows his gaze down to his right hand, stained with blood, with her blood, currently pouring down her arm from the wound the hooded man inflicted.
The alarm building in his eyes is truthfully quite nauseating. “He stabbed you,” Jake says, voice funny and clogged. “Holy shit, Amy, he - he stabbed you -”
There are footsteps outside now, curious voices growing louder, and the fact that the man escaped is now keen in her mind. “Nevermind,” she mutters, yanking him to his feet, clambering out from behind the bar. Doug Judy is gone. “We need to leave, now .”
“You’ve lost so much blood -”
“ It doesn’t matter ,” she snaps, seizing his cloak from the floor beneath the barstools and throwing it haphazardly over his shoulders. “Get your hood up, we need to get out of here right now .”
He does as he’s told, face ashen, and the moment the cloak is secured over his shoulders Amy seizes his hand and races toward the still-open door. People are beginning to converge on Shaw’s - she nearly shoves one unlucky man out of the way - but luckily, they slip away before any have a chance to recognize them or to finish the hooded man’s job.
The trip back to the castle is completely silent - aside from the anxiety spiraling in her mind, of course. Every snapping twig in the shadowy forest towering around them, every distant crunch through the dirt road behind them, every last noise aside from her heart pounding in her throat and Jake’s labored breathing in her ears is a high-pitched siren warning of their impending demise. She has no idea which direction that man went or if he was actually alone or where he is at that moment; she checks over their shoulders every few meters, positive they’re on the verge of being ambushed.
Jake’s warmth is steady and reassuring against her side, though - he doesn’t seem interested in whatever dignified pleasantries he learned in etiquette lessons with Holt when it comes to the way he should interact with his principal guard. He leans into her right side almost blatantly, his shaking hand balled into a fist against her left hip; whether it’s the alcohol or the adrenaline, whether he’s looking to stay close to her or to keep her close to him, she isn’t sure.
Truthfully, she doesn’t care about any of it.
She doesn’t feel herself begin to relax until the castle gates come into view around the last bend of the path - with her relieved exhale comes the sharp, stinging pain of her wound and the keen awareness of the blood slick and cool all down her arm. As if sensing it, Jake pulls her closer to his side, and when she glances up at him, he’s already looking down at her.
Like he’s worried.
Like he’s scared.
And it hits her all at once: someone tried to kill him. Someone tried to murder him right in front of her. Someone tried to sink a dagger into his chest, someone tried to end his life.
Jake swallows hard; apparently she isn’t the only one feeling the latent fear.
Someone tried to kill him tonight, and if not for her, they would have succeeded.
His fist against her hip flattens, his fingers splaying wide, as the castle gates slowly swing open before them.
:-) :-) :-)
He manages to drag himself over to the closest wall this time, slumped in such a way that the ache radiating up his spine is little more than a dull throb. His hands don’t shake when lying limp across his thighs; he stares down at them as his chest heaves, something akin to panic igniting like a wildfire in his mind.
Oh, he’d been stupid. He’d been reckless. He’d been so, so drunk.
there are quite a few mentions of blood in the first half of this chapter - nothing super graphic or anything, but if that makes you squeamish you've been warned!!!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jake’s mouth is completely dry.
The tapestries hanging across the top bars of his four-poster bed frame are blurry, moving like flags in a breeze he can’t seem to feel; the mattress beneath him pitches slowly from side to side. Air drags in gradually through his lungs and something is stirring in the dredges of his gut - a prowling lion, searching for an escape. His fingers clench against sheets - and his mouth is completely dry.
The lion in his gut roars.
His legs are tangled in the damp sheets and they nearly tether him to the bed as his body takes up its own agenda, hurling itself up and out of bed, hands flattening briefly against the floor as the sheets come uncoiled before scrambling across the short distance to the washroom. There are buckets still littering the floor here from his last bath - he collapses to his knees over the nearest one, a jolt of pain singing up and down his legs, and in one heaving motion, the contents of his stomach evacuate violently.
The abrasive gasp for air that follows brings oxygen flooding into his brain - and with it, the vivid memories of the night before.
Pain bursts forth from every atom in his body all at once. Gasping, writhing, trembling - there’s the splitting between his eyes and the smart stinging across his gut and the stiff ache to his lower back and the feeling of having been dragged behind a carriage for miles and miles. Even his throat burns as he lets out a hoarse and pitiful groan.
He collapses to his side, the cold cobblestone floor sharp and unforgiving against his skin for all of one moment before fading into something cool and refreshing. Eyes closed, lips parted and chapped, he lies very still aside from the quick, steady rise and fall of his chest. He can feel his hands shake when he lifts one to palm his own forehead.
And when he manages to peel his eyelids open, he’s met by the sight of his fingers stained red with dried blood.
He has to scramble to reach the bucket in time for the second evacuation of his stomach.
He manages to drag himself over to the closest wall this time, slumped in such a way that the ache radiating up his spine is little more than a dull throb. His hands don’t shake when lying limp across his thighs; he stares down at them as his chest heaves, something akin to panic igniting like a wildfire in his mind.
Oh, he’d been stupid. He’d been reckless. He’d been so, so drunk.
And the blood that stains his hands isn’t his.
His eyes are still open - wide and unblinking, burning - but his vision is flooded with the image of her . Her ashen face twisted into a grotesque mask of terror. Her blood, smeared across her cheek and up near her hairline, flecked along her jaw and her neck, dripping off her fingertips. Her hands clenched to fists, swinging and stabbing, trembling and grabbing. Her sheer desperation when she’d skidded down on her knees beside him behind the bar and ripped his shirt open wider to check his wound - her blood mingling with his in the stains on the tattered material of his shirt.
He screws his eyes shut, feeling his breath coming in sharper, higher-pitched gasps, and his heart clenches with panic and agony and paranoia all over again. The walk from the village to the castle had never been so long; despite his most valiant efforts, Amy had never felt so far away. His veins were still singing with alcohol when they made it back last night, but the image of Sir Victor’s face the moment he registered the severity of Amy’s wound when he met them on the front path is sharp and painfully clear in his memory.
As is the small mountain of linens that were piled at the foot of Amy’s bed in the sickbay last night, each one soaked through with her blood.
For the third time that morning, he lurches forward and heaves into the bucket.
It’s the last mental image he has of her - concealed amongst a flurry of frantic nurses, blood loss steadily mounting. He couldn’t see her then, but he could hear her hissing and groaning in pain each time a fresh linen was pressed against her wound; he could hear her even over his mother’s voice, demanding that he meet with her privately in her chambers.
He hasn’t seen her since.
Every sinew of muscle in his body feels to be on the verge of utter collapse, but when he slumps against the wall, the prowling lion in his gut has finally disappeared. He tilts his head back and opens his eyes, forcing himself to focus on a single point above his head while inhaling deeply and steadily through his nose. The air is colder in here - it burns his throat. It’s just another pain on top of all the others, but it’s the one upon which he hinges his entire existence. This pain is small and manageable; this pain is comprehensible.
This pain pins each corner of the room down, and simmers until his head stops spinning.
The wall remains steady beneath his clammy hands as he paws his way up into a standing slouch; the stones are cool to the touch, unforgiving against his bare skin. The drop of his head feels natural in this stance - the examination of his own body does not.
His torso is wrapped tight with gauzey linens, pure and white and dotted in a few places with his own blood, likely due to his violent movements this morning reopening whatever managed to scab over in his sleep. Each twitch of his abdomen sends a keen sting through the wound. Even just groaning hurts.
He shifts his weight experimentally and his lower back throbs in protest. He reaches back carefully, brushing his fingers over the area with as light a touch as he can manage; a quick, painful probe proves the area to be shaped like a table’s edge.
The sunlight flowing in through the windows to his right grows brighter; the splitting pain between his eyes grows stronger.
The fact that he has no idea what happened to Amy after he left the sickbay gnaws deeper.
A new prickling has started up in his gut - one borne of pure anxiety - and it licks up his spine like flames, threatening to raze every modicum of sensibility in his brain. The air is still cold in his lungs, and his knees are quaking beneath him.
He clenches his jaw and focuses on the painful grit of his teeth knocking together.
The walk from the washroom to the wardrobe is the longest walk in history, but he forces himself to focus on each individual step, each rug fiber beneath his feet, each cool stone against his toes. He forces himself to focus on each grain of wood in the wardrobe doors, each creak and whine of the hinges moving as he slowly opens both doors.
There hangs a dozen nearly-identical day shirts, and a dozen nearly-identical britches. Leisure clothes, Gina calls them; uniforms, in no uncertain terms.
Not unlike those of the Royal Guard.
Not unlike Amy’s uniform.
The uniform that makes her feel ten feet tall and invincible. The uniform she wasn’t wearing last night.
He closes his eyes against another onslaught of nausea, and that mountain of stained linens sears across his vision.
She is so strong, so fierce . No one else could have protected him better last night, of that he has no doubt. But Terry alone is twice her size, and he’s not even the biggest guard in the castle; he just isn’t sure how much more blood she could have possibly stood to lose.
But she’s Amy, a voice whispers in his mind. She’s Amy .
She’s never been anything but strong and fierce and whole.
The nausea slowly eases.
She’s going to be standing outside of his door, he thinks to himself as he dresses. She’s going to be in the corridor waiting for him, her exasperation probably mounting by the minute, and when he opens his door he’s going to be greeted by the sight of her wildly gesturing for him to hurry up. Just like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that.
He flings his door open a bit harder than usual.
She isn’t standing in the corridor outside.
Sir Rosa is all but scowling at him from Amy’s usual spot. “Morning, Majesty.” She grunts. “You’re late.”
His heart sinks all the way down to his toes. “Where’s Amy?”
Something like relief diminishes the splitting pain between his eyes. “She’s alive?”
Briefly, Rosa’s scowl softens. “Yeah. And you’re late.”
Questions flit like a swarm of bees in his mind, but he forces his mouth shut, forces himself to fully emerge from his chambers, forces himself to fall into step beside Rosa.
Amy is alive.
That’s all that matters for now.
“How could you have possibly been so irresponsible ?” Jake bites back a sigh and shifts in his seat, wincing at the faint protest from his still-stiff lower back. Mr. Holt paces back into view for what feels like the hundredth time in the last hour - Jake’s not positive, but he gets the feeling Mr. Holt hasn’t stopped pacing since he woke up this morning - and Jake waits, gaze firmly fixated on his knees, knowing without looking that the question is rhetorical. “You came within a hair's breadth of dying last night, you realize?”
That one is rhetorical, too - but that doesn’t stop the words from bubbling up from his gut. “I wasn’t gonna die,” he mumbles.
“Are you honestly telling me that you don’t believe that your life was directly threatened?”
“No, that’s not - no,” he scrubs the heels of his hands over his eyes and a quiet, involuntary groan slips through his teeth. “I know that I was - I just - I don’t know what I’m trying to say -”
“No, you don’t know, do you? You have absolutely no concept of what you risked!”
“Of course I know what I -”
“Because it wasn’t just your life , Jacob! Surely you’ve realized that by now! You risked the entire kingdom last night! Every single one of their lives, their families, their livelihoods - all for a pint in some filthy tavern! No, scratch that - for a pint and a drunken brawl with an assassin who was likely lying in wait specifically for you in some filthy tavern.”
“He wasn’t after me - he was asleep when we got there, I saw him all slumped over on his table before I even sat down -”
“I truly thought you’d learned this in our last lesson,” Mr. Holt interrupts, and for the first time all morning he stops pacing. He stands in perfect silhouette of the narrow window over his desk, and though the sunlight spilling through said window is weak and straining, it exacerbates the splitting pain between his eyes again, making it near-impossible to maintain eye-contact with his tutor. “And yet, here you are again - your complete disregard for the people around you, the people depending on you, putting those very people at risk. Sir Amelia could have died .”
Another violent wave of nausea rears up from the pit of his gut, and when he closes his eyes against it, he sees her face twisted with terror once again.
“She was seriously injured protecting you .” Mr. Holt’s voice is calmer now, more controlled, and though Jake’s eyes are still closed and the vision of Amy’s face still floods all of his senses, he can feel Mr. Holt crouching down before him, forcing himself to be in Jake’s line of vision when Jake opens his eyes again. “She swore an oath to protect you at all costs, and you very nearly threw her life away for a pint . Would it have been worth it?”
“Stop,” Jake gasps, feeling his hands trembling violently as he reaches to grip the arms of his seat. “Stop it, please -”
“She is sworn to pay the ultimate sacrifice for you should it come to that and she almost had to for the sake of your foolishness -”
“ Enough !” Jake roars, springing up from his seat so quickly Mr. Holt nearly topples backwards to avoid Jake’s flailing limbs. His chest is heaving and there’s a new sensation amongst the general pain and soreness plaguing his body - a dryness and a stinging at his eyes. “I would never do anything to put her in harm’s way, not on purpose,” he says raggedly. “I’d never knowingly risk her life, and she knows that -”
“But that’s precisely what you did last night!” Mr. Holt interrupts, tone suddenly quiet, though no less vehement. “You placed more significance on your desire for pleasure than you did on her life -”
“ I said enough !” Mr. Holt retreats a step - the barest flash of regret in his eyes. “You don’t get to tell me how much I care about Sir Amelia. Trying to fight that guy was a mistake, one that I wish more than anything that I could go back and undo, but that does not define how much I care about her or value her. Especially since I already know that she knows it was a mistake. I may be a prince, and I may someday be a king, but before any of that I am a human being . And human beings are allowed to make mistakes.”
“Not when those mistakes risk everything that you risked last night,” Mr. Holt says quietly. “I have no doubt that your intentions were not to cause her harm, but clearly, your intentions don’t matter - Sir Amelia still had a very close brush with death last night as a direct consequence of your actions. And that’s just one example - what happened to her, what almost happened to her, perfectly symbolizes what almost happened to the kingdom as a whole! I have no doubt the wound to her arm was intended for her heart - and had he succeeded, he would have come for you next, and clearly he would have finished the job. The state of panic this castle is in already would have been a thousand times worse, and not just because both you and Sir Amelia would both be dead -”
“Sir Amelia isn’t dead.” he hears himself snarl.
“This time.” says Mr. Holt. “She may not be so fortunate next time.”
“It was one mistake. One. I shouldn’t have tried to fight that guy and believe me , I know that, I will never do that again -”
“It was a long and winding series of mistakes, Jacob, and I can see quite clearly that you still haven’t grasped just how grave this is. You travelled several miles away from the castle with nothing more than a single guard, armed with a single dagger, as your protection, to some filthy and unsecured tavern god only knows where , an establishment apparently frequented by highly-trained assassins, for the express purpose of getting inebriated. How are you not understanding how dangerous that is?”
“Because it wasn’t - I didn’t -” he releases a frustrated sound, something like a growl, and scrubs his hands over his face again. “I travelled to my village with my principal guard to a tavern I’ve visited before to enjoy the same beer my future subjects drink - aren’t you the one who’s always telling me to be a man of the people, Mr. Holt? I was doing just that! The only mistake I made was picking a fight with a pissed-off assassin.”
He expects immediate derision - he expects a verbal crucifixion. He does not expect Mr. Holt’s fury to leave him so quickly he visibly deflates. “You truly believe that, don’t you?”
“I’ve already told you what I believe and exactly how I feel about it -”
“Jacob,” Mr. Holt interrupts, a single hand raised. Jake pauses, his chest heaving, something akin to fury and regret swirling unpleasantly in the cavern around his heart. “Your mother has sacrificed more than you will ever know for you. For your right to the throne, for your future.” he says slowly. “What you did last night - and anything you’ve done in the past that is even remotely similar to what you did last night - essentially spits on all of that. Everything she’s worked for, everything she’s sacrificed, you poured it all out into the dirt.”
It’s become very difficult to breathe around the sharp lump in his throat.
“I can’t force you to understand or appreciate that.” Mr. Holt says, turning his head slightly, facing the hearth on the far wall. “Your actions last night and your resulting attitude this morning have made it abundantly clear that you are going to do whatever you want, whenever you want, with a complete disregard for anything and anyone else around you. All I can ask is that you be a touch less flippant and dismissive when dealing with the consequences next time.”
He turns his whole body then and moves toward the hearth - and Jake remains frozen, watching him slowly sink into his chair, eyes stormy as they reflect the crackling flames. The pain is still pounding slowly through his entire body, not unlike the waves crashing along the shore on the other side of the forest, and when he blinks he finally recognizes the dull sting in his eyes as unshed tears. “I’m sorry, Mr. Holt,” he whispers.
Mr. Holt waves him off without bothering to look up at him. “You and I both know that I am not among those to whom you should be apologizing, Jacob. You may go.”
Something like desperation cleaves deep in his chest. “But we haven’t even started the lesson yet -”
“Our hour is up. You’re due down at target practice any minute now. Besides - the consequences of your decisions are a far more significant lesson than any I could teach you here.”
The fire crackling seems louder now than it did before, and Jake hesitates, gaze flicking from the flames to Mr. Holt’s face. There’s a yearning in his heart - that cleaving desperation growing stronger with each second that passes - but in the end, all he can manage is a quiet sigh before he shuffles away toward the door.
Rosa’s waiting for him out in the hall, looking profoundly unimpressed by his obvious plight. “You’re still running late.” she tells him.
Not an ounce of sympathy betrays her cool, stony expression.
Pure and unadulterated misery seems to drip from every facet of his being as he trudges down the corridor; his limbs feel heavy with it, his head hung low. Rosa keeps pace behind him, occasionally prodding him between the shoulders when his feet move just a little too slow; he wonders what would happen if he gave in to his weak knees and crumbled to dust right here on the cobblestone floor.
She’d probably sweep up what’s left of him and dump him at the target alley, he thinks.
“Can I ask you something?” he mumbles once they’ve made it to the foyer.
She gives him no response, aside from another prod between his shoulders.
“Do...do you think what happened last night was as big of a deal as Mr. Holt says it is?”
“I think you’re lucky that both you and Amy made it out alive and you should be grateful that your mother is even allowing you to leave your chambers at all today.” Rosa snaps. “I think you’re an idiot for thinking that there’s even a chance that anyone would think that it wasn’t a big deal. I think you should keep your damn mouth shut and your damn head down and do what it is you’re supposed to do.”
He nearly crashes into a suit of armor on display at the far end of the foyer for how weak his knees have suddenly gone.
She doesn’t speak again until they’re nearly in the kitchens. “Look,” she mutters, flattening her hand against his spine in that space between his shoulders to keep him facing forward. “I’ll be honest with you - the whole fighting thing, that was clearly a really, really big deal. That was stupid and dangerous and you shouldn’t have done that. But I know that you already know that.” Jake nods as vehemently as he can, ignoring the swelling feeling of vertigo at the back of his skull. “As for everything else you did...okay, going to a tavern and getting drunk was definitely not the smartest, most princely thing you could have done with your evening. But it also isn’t necessarily bad . The fact that you took Amy with you tells me that you at least understand that it isn’t the smartest thing to do by yourself, and that you took the time to think things through and to take some precautions. Not enough,” she grunts as she pushes the kitchen door open and ushers him through, “but some. And that’s more than you would have done had you truly been feeling reckless. I’m more inclined to think that the fighting was a drunken reaction more than an intentional thing.”
“That’s exactly what it was,” Jake says, turning in spite of her hand against his back. “I was just drunk - I never would have done that otherwise. I know that Amy knows that, so I don’t get why Mr. Holt was so -”
“You tried to fight an armed and dangerous assassin, dude. That’s why. That’s what’s pissed everyone off - you just jumped right into it with zero hesitation, and not only did you get your ass kicked, but Amy almost didn’t make it out of that tavern alive. He’s not asking you to be perfect - he’s asking you to take some responsibility for your actions.”
“I’m sorry,” Jake rasps, and Rosa presses harder and harder against his back until he slowly turns forward again. “I - I didn’t mean to -”
“Don’t apologize to me, I’m not the one who leveled Shaw’s protecting your ass. Your Majesty.”
He pushes the side exit open and nearly balks at the sunlight that blinds him, stumbling forward only when Rosa gives him a firm shove. “Well,” he mutters, “at least that assassin wasn’t in there specifically to kill me.”
“What - you think he was ?”
Her brows are nearly to her hairline. “Seems like an awfully big coincidence for him to just happen to run into the disguised prince in a random tavern.”
“He was asleep when we got in there, I saw him - I bet he’d been in there all day!”
“We’ll find out soon enough, there are guards out there now questioning the bartender.”
“He was asleep , and he ran into me on accident , and I was the one who started the fight. If he was actually there to kill me, he would have poisoned the knife - there’s no way he would have taken any chances. I think he just needed to blow off some steam.”
“And, again - he just happened to blow that steam off by trying to kill the prince .”
He winces - partially at her tone, partially at the pain that radiates up his spine as he stumbles slightly over uneven ground. Rosa’s brow furrows, head tilted, gaze on his lower back. “It’s nothing,” he mutters, smoothing his fingers over the area before forcing his hands down to his sides. “Still a little sore from last night, that’s all.”
“I heard she slammed you into a table.”
“She didn’t - god. She shoved me out of the way and I just happened to hit a table on my way down. She didn’t slam me into anything.”
She quirks a brow and remains quiet, gesturing for him to continue walking.
“Even if she did - she saved my life. She could have thrown me out the window and I’d still be thankful for it.” He shakes his head, eyes closing briefly. “Have you seen her yet?”
“Sort of. Caught a glimpse of her this morning when I talked to Sir Victor. He was coming out of her chambers and she was still in bed, asleep.” There’s another lump in Jake’s throat and he forces himself to stare straight ahead, ears burning as he nods. “He told me that she’s okay, y’know. She’s just tired. They kept her really late in the sickbay.”
A powerful wave of relief crashes over him; a knot he hadn’t even fully noticed comes unclenched in his chest. “Good,” he mumbles. “Good, I - I was worried.”
“D’you think, if there’s time, I could - I could go down there and see her before lunch? Like, after target practice - d’you think that would be okay?”
“Uh, maybe,” Rosa says, “but I’m not sure if she’s still gonna be down there.”
He turns his head, the question ready to fall from his lips, but Rosa isn’t looking at him - her gaze is fixated on something to their left.
And as he turns his head to follow her gaze, he realizes it isn’t a some thing - but rather, a some one .
Even from this distance, Jake can tell that Amy is just a touch unsteady on her feet. The sight of her sends his heart shooting straight into his throat - her hair’s been brushed and pulled back into a long plait, likely secured with that entrusted black satin ribbon - and as she walks, he feels himself turning, blossoming, drawn to her like a moth to a flame.
She’s walking away from them. She’s walking toward the stables. She’s not in uniform. She’s stumbling slightly on the uneven ground - just like he did - only instead of a surly Royal Guard prodding her in the back, there’s an excruciatingly familiar stablehand steadying her with an arm around her waist.
Amy’s walking away from him, toward the stables, in civilian clothes, with Teddy.
“Don’t.” Rosa says sharply, and all the air in his lungs escapes him at once, the shout he hadn’t even been conscious of forming dying in his throat. “She doesn’t get days off very often and she never gets hurt - you really think she wants to do anything even remotely related to work right now? Besides, you’re late to target practice. Just leave her alone.”
The distance between them is growing - but even from here, Jake can see the dazzling smile on Amy’s face when she turns her head up to look at Teddy.
Slowly - slowly - he turns away, toward the target alley.
He isn’t sure how much more he can take.
Between the screaming lecture from Holt this morning and the absolute reaming from his archery coach after he missed every single shot , he’s fairly certain he’s hit capacity for the amount of sheer torture he can handle in one day. Thankfully, Rosa seems to understand - she stays quiet except for one single murmur of consent when he mutters that he doesn’t want lunch, would rather use that time to sleep.
He has no appetite, anyways. He thinks he probably left it on the tavern floor last night.
He isn’t sure how much more he can take - but he knows he can’t take a single word from Madeline.
“Jacob!” his aunt trills, coarse voice echoing off the stonework in the foyer as he rounds the corner from the kitchens. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere, my dear, I’ve been so worried - are you alright?”
“M’fine,” he grunts, fixated on the staircase just barely visible over her shoulder - the last barrier between him and his blessed feather-down bed. “S’cuse me -”
Her bony fingers betray a surprising amount of strength as they close around the top of his shoulder, forcing him to a halt. “I was absolutely worried sick when I heard what happened to you last night, darling,” she frets, reaching up to brush her fingers through the hair at the crown of his head. The movement aggravates his still-pounding headache. “You certainly inherited your father’s sense of adventure - I just hate to imagine how he would have felt had he been here last night, too.”
It takes every single ounce of self-control he possesses to keep from shoving Madeline away.
“There’s a difference between adventurous and reckless , sweetheart, surely you’ve realized that by now? Dangers lurk around every corner, especially for a handsome young prince such as yourself. Vigilance is key, constant vigilance. Oh, but it isn’t your fault, of course it’s not your fault - you couldn’t have known how much danger you were in! Your job is simply to protect yourself when situations like that arise - it falls on your guard to keep you from wandering into dangerous territory like unguarded taverns . I’ll tell you, your mother’s decision to show mercy has been a point of contention between us since her pardon last night - had that tart of a guard worked in my castle, she would have lost her job so fast her head would still be spinning just for having the audacity to even consider letting you leave the castle in such a vulnerable state -”
“ Stop .” he snaps. Rage courses through his blood, rising like steam to fully encompass and muddle his brain. Madeline pauses, eyes widening a degree. “I would have gone to that tavern with or without Sir Amelia last night - if it wasn’t for her, I’d probably be gutted in the alley behind that tavern right now. She protected me, she saved my life, and nearly lost hers doing so. Don’t ever speak about her like that again.”
He yanks his shoulder down, out of her grasp, and skirts past her, leaving her gaping in the middle of the foyer. His vision is blurry to the point of blindness with unshed tears but he recognizes the grim lines in Rosa’s face as that of a bone-chilling glare - he has just enough wherewithal left to understand that she’d leveled that glare at his aunt as she passed. He storms up the staircase and prays by some miracle that Rosa can’t hear his quiet and involuntary sniffling.
He doesn’t bother looking back before slamming his chamber door shut - it’s all he can do to fling himself down on the bed, bury his face in his pillows, and wish with all his might that when he wakes he’ll discover that this was all some horrible foggy nightmare.
Several hours have passed by the time he emerges from the nest of pillows he’d subconsciously created. He blinks at the low light spilling in through his windows, almost as disoriented as he was the night before. It’s dusk. He’s missed all of his afternoon classes.
He doesn’t even have the will to care.
His headache is finally gone, at the very least. His headache and some of the soreness in his throat. He supposes the last of his consumed alcohol’s vengeance has left his system - leaving only the soreness from the fight in its wake. It radiates through his very bones as he forces himself to stand, to slowly stretch his arms up over his head until his fingers brush against the top of his four-poster bed frame. He feels human again.
He feels hungry .
Perhaps Rosa will let him go down to the kitchens to swipe something from Charles. It wouldn’t be the first time she’s let him do it - of course, she only did it to annoy Amy, who was decidedly not letting him do it - but the hope remains. He pauses once in front of the mirror over his vanity to retie the strings of his shirt and to fix the bits of hair in complete disarray, before adopting his most pathetic pout and shuffling toward the door.
Rosa isn’t standing in the corridor outside.
His heart automatically drops out of his body. He’s aware of the fact that he’s gone completely immobile - frozen in place, fingers gripping the doorknob and the door frame respectively - but he can’t seem to form a conscious thought. Amy’s here, she’s standing right in front of him, she’s wearing her Royal Guard uniform and studying his face with a small and rueful smile and she’s here .
“I-I thought - I thought Sir Victor gave you the day off,” he hears himself say.
Her rueful smile grows a touch wider. “Yeah, well...I got bored.”
“I’m so sorry, Amy,” he breathes, and a crease appears between her brows. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry . I was a total jackass and - and I got you hurt, and I’m so, so sorry -”
“Jake,” she murmurs his name softly just as she closes her fingers around his wrist - and for the first time since he woke up that morning, a slow and quiet peacefulness radiates upwards from her touch even after she lowers her hand again. All at once the buzzing in his head goes quiet and he holds his breath in spite of himself, watching the way her jaw moves as she seemingly struggles to find the right words. “It’s - it’s okay. You don’t have to apologize to me. It was a mistake.”
The breath escapes his lungs slowly, leaving only relief in its place.
“I don’t blame you for anything that happened last night. I mean, not totally .” A quiet, strangled laugh comes from somewhere in his throat and her answering smile seems genuine, if a little small. “I could have said no when you asked. I’m really glad I didn’t, since you would’ve definitely gone without me, but...I’m partially responsible, too. Mostly I’m just relieved that you’re safe and not injured. The whole thing is just a really huge mess and I’m ready to move past it and never acknowledge it again. Deal?”
“Deal,” he says, shaking her outstretched hand, unable to stop his grateful grin from spreading across his face. “How’s your arm?”
She lifts her arm slightly and drops her head at the same time, as if to glance down at the wound now concealed beneath the sleeve of her uniform. “It’s fine. How’s your stomach?”
“Fine - are you sure your arm is okay? That you’re okay? It’s just - you lost so much blood -”
“It’ll be fine,” she says confidently. “Honestly, I didn’t lose as much as you probably think I did. Trust me, I’m fine. The sleeves are a little annoying, but I’m already getting used to it. Besides, comfort isn’t exactly top priority for a Royal Guard.”
A faint wave of guilt pulses in his chest. “Did you get in a lot of trouble last night?” he asks quietly.
She seems touched by the question, based on the way her gaze softens. “Not too much,” she says, eyes dropping briefly to their feet. “I’ve definitely had way worse. Don’t worry.”
She’s probably lying - she always glances down when she’s lying - but when he nods, his vision clouds, Karen’s face and the sheer disappointment that had radiated off of her last night after she’d dragged him out of the sickbay flashing in his memory. He swallows, banishing the image, forcing himself to focus on Amy’s face.
She’s not so pale anymore.
“I’m really, really glad you’re okay,” he tells her honestly.
“I’m really, really glad that you’re okay.” she says with a smile.
And he finds that when he mirrors it, it’s the first genuine happiness he’s felt all day.
“Sir Rosa told me you skipped lunch - you must be starving.”
“Uh, yeah, a little -” his stomach groans loudly, as if on cue “- but I wanted to - I mean, I haven’t seen you all day, and I’ve been wanting to ask you something about last night.”
“That guy, that assassin - do you think he was in there specifically for me?”
Her brows furrow and her lower lip disappears between her teeth, and again, Jake holds his breath. Her gaze never leaves his face as she ponders it; so long, he finds himself resisting the urge to bounce on the balls of his feet just to alleviate some of the nervous energy building in his legs.
He doesn’t get the chance.
“Amelia?” a quiet voice calls from the far end of the corridor. Jake turns sharply and freezes at the sight of Teddy timidly peeking around the corner, his eyes as wide as saucers. From his peripheral Jake can see Amy turned toward Teddy as well, though she recovers faster than Jake does; she’s already looking back at him by the time he returns his gaze to her face, her eyes lit with her unvoiced question.
And it’s remarkable, just how reluctant he is to nod once in affirmation.
Amy scurries off down the corridor immediately, leaving him to watch her go. Teddy’s still looking at him when Amy reaches his side, and only glances down at her after she hisses his name twice - even then, Jake knows by the pitch of his whisper and the nervous glance thrown his way that Teddy is very keenly aware of the fact that Jake is watching them. Another pulse of guilt works its way down Jake’s spine - he’d promised Amy that he would apologize, and he most definitely hasn’t yet.
She can’t blame him for that. Not after what happened last night.
He can count on one hand the number of times he’s been allowed to wander the castle unaccompanied by his principal guard throughout his life. Of course, he’s gone and done so without permission more times than he can count - but according to the unspoken rules of princehood, he is to be chaperoned at all times. It’s certainly been a point of contention for him for quite some time - in truth, it’s only been since Amy was appointed as his principal guard that his constant required supervision has been somewhat tolerable. She may be a stickler for the rules, but she understands him in a way no previous principal guard ever has.
He understands her in a way he never has with any previous guard.
All of that to say, he very, very rarely feels the desire to sneak around the castle without Amy anymore. He’d even venture to say he’s craving her company on certain days - this day in particular.
But it is damn near impossible to stand here waiting for her when he hears her soft, melodious giggle echoing down the corridor in response to something Teddy has whispered to her.
They’re grinning at each other like love-struck fools, like they’re the only people in the world that they can see. Teddy shakes his head as he reaches to tuck one stubborn lock of hair fallen from her bun back behind her ear; Amy smiles up at him and her eyes are full to the brim with an emotion Jake has never seen before, as if Teddy is the one who hung the moon and every star in the sky surrounding it specifically for her.
Heart clenching, latent nausea stirring, Jake grits his teeth and drops his gaze down to his feet.
It lasts another minute before her footsteps echo off the walls at the end of the corridor - and he makes the mistake of glancing up at her. She’s still facing Teddy - her back is to him - but over her shoulder, Teddy’s grinning broadly, directly at him. “Good evening, Your Highness!” he calls with a wave.
Jake lifts his hand and plasters on the best grin he can manage - little more than a tight grimace. Teddy, it seems, does not notice; Amy certainly does.
“That was a little better,” she murmurs through a smirk as she reclaims her previous place before him. “You looked like you’d just been told you have to sit in on another parliamentary meeting, but that’s a step up from open hostility.”
“I had a long night.”
“So did I.”
He can’t think of an argument against that.
“I’m sorry, y’know,” he mumbles.
Her right hand is warm where it closes over his arm, just above his elbow. “I know.”
“Do you remember what I asked you before - before?”
“You wanted to know what I thought about whether or not you were specifically targeted in Shaw’s last night,” Amy says as she drops her hand back down to her side. “I thought about it a lot last night, honestly. There’s no doubt in my mind that he was a very highly trained assassin, and I do think it’s suspicious that out of all the people in that tavern, he picked a fight with you -”
“He didn’t pick the fight, though, I did - he just ran into me on accident as he was passing, I was the one who threw the first punch -”
“That’s true, but, Jake - he didn’t run into you on accident. I watched him. It was definitely not an accident.” The news settles like an anvil in his gut, and Amy’s brows draw together in a sympathetic upside-down V. “But just because he ran into you on purpose doesn’t mean he knew who you were, or that he picked a fight with you because of who you are. He intentionally provoked you out of all the people in that tavern, but when I pushed you out of the way, he didn’t fixate on you. He seemed perfectly happy fighting me instead, which makes me think that there’s a good chance he was just looking for a good fight.”
“And he just happened to pick the disguised prince,” says Jake softly.
A look of uneasiness flashes in her eyes. “You know this means that our little field trips to the village are coming to an end, right?”
Acceptance hangs like a noose around his neck. “I figured.” he sighs.
“I didn’t really get a good look at the guy’s face,” she says, “all I could really see were his eyes. Everything was just moving so fast, I - I couldn’t get a good look at him. And he got away. The guards are looking everywhere, but they have almost nothing to go on. He’s still out there right this second. Even if it was a coincidence, we have to start operating like it was an actual intentional attempt on your life. For the sake of your safety, the tavern trips have to stop.”
The creases between her brows are almost identical to the ones that were there last night; the torchlight throws dancing shadows across her face that dip and flicker through those valleys. “You’re right,” he hears himself say in a voice just louder than a whisper. “They have to stop.”
She appears almost surprised, as if she was bracing herself for an argument.
“They have to stop...for now ,” he adds.
“ There’s the prince I know.”
“All due respect, Your Highness, but you are completely shit at this.”
Jake peeks up over the top of his cards at Sir Rosa, seated directly across from him and currently leaned against the table upon which her cards are laying, and arches a brow. He means for it to look intimidating - judging by Rosa’s answering snort and Amy’s poor attempt at hiding a chuckle to his right, he figures he probably didn’t quite hit his mark. “I’m not completely shit,” he mutters, returning his attention back to his cards. “I beat Charles three rounds ago.”
“ Everybody beats Charles,” Amy says, no longer bothering to hide her laughter. “That’s not impressive!”
“That’s true, I’m terrible at this game,” Charles nods on Jake’s left. “It also doesn’t help that I’m only competitive when it comes to cooking. And being your best friend, Your Excellency.”
“Oh my god, Charles, how many times do I have to tell you, call me Jake -”
“No offence, y’all, but Karen and Madeline are gonna finish upstairs any minute now, Terry’s only got time for one more round before he’s gotta go,” Terry interrupts. “Can y’all get this butt-whoopin’ over with already?”
Jake snorts as he lays his hand on the table; Rosa’s chuckle turns gleeful upon studying his cards. “That’s ten rounds for Diaz,” she crows as Charles sweeps all the cards into a pile.
“Is anyone even keeping a tally?” Jake mutters through his exasperated grin.
“I am, in my head.” Amy chimes.
“No, way, we need a written tally, you’re probably doctoring the numbers ‘cause you know none of us are gonna remember -”
“You want me to write ‘em down, I’ll write ‘em down! Charles, I’m taking some of your parchment -”
“As long as it’s not the wax paper, that’s fine!”
“Wax paper?” Jake repeats as Charles shuffles the deck and Amy rummages through materials on the shelves in the far corner. “Why not wax paper?”
Charles makes a loud tutting sound as Amy reclaims her seat with a sheet of parchment and a stick of kohl in hand. “Someone keeps stealing overnight,” he says as he begins passing the cards around the circle. “I can’t figure it out for the life of me, I don’t know who they are or why they want it, but every now and then some will just go missing and wax paper isn’t exactly easy to come by -”
“I’ll buy you a lifetime supply of wax paper if you finish dealing ,” Rosa mutters.
“Please,” Charles scoffs, “d’you have any idea how expensive that stuff is? Hey, maybe that’s the guilting tactic I’ll use - it costs nearly an arm and a leg, I bet the thief wouldn’t have such sticky fingers if they knew how much they were costing the queen -”
Amy coughs loudly, and when Jake glances at her, her ears are practically maroon. Her blush has flooded her entire face, even down her neck; when she swallows, the muscles in her jaw clench and twitch. She is the perfect image of guilt.
And when she leans forward to pluck her cards up off the tabletop, the gauze wrapped tight around her arm - visible now that she’s shed the top-most layers of her uniform - are dotted with dark spots of blood.
Whatever joke he was going to make at her expense dies on his tongue.
This round goes much faster than the last, everyone but Terry folding within two turns. The song of his victory remains loud and echoing all the way out of the kitchens, leaving the rest to clear the remains of their game and respective dinner scraps away with matching broad grins on their face. Rosa leaves next - muttering something about early sentry duty the following morning - and Charles shoos both Jake and Amy out not long after, citing the need to prep for breakfast as the reason he needs them both gone.
“You think he’s actually hiding to catch whoever’s stealing the wax paper?” Jake asks as they begin the long walk back to his chambers.
“I’d say he’s probably trying to figure out a way to climb into the shelves and hide there so he can literally catch the thief red-handed.”
Jake snorts, head tilted back a degree. “Good thing the thief knows he’s onto her, then.”
From the corner of his eye, he sees her purse her lips. “It really is a shame Rosa can’t be more careful.”
This time, his laughter is bright and loud and it fills the entire foyer as they round the corner.
“So out of curiosity, how does it feel to be the worst cards player in history?”
“I won a round!” Jake cries. “I won a round, which is more than Charles - Charles is the worst cards player in history!”
“Yeah, but he’s not here right now, so…”
“You only won two rounds, don’t act like you’re some kind of genius - Gina won more hands than that the last time she played with us -”
“And she’s not here right now, so…”
Her eyes are sparkling, reflecting the torches above their heads so perfectly there appears to be two perfect flames dancing in the darkness of her irises. Her grin is taunting; her dimples look miles deep. There’s a playful air about her - and it occurs to him in a disconnected wave of awareness that around this time last night, they were changing into their disguises, about to head down to the village.
“You’re the worst.” he says, no conviction whatsoever in his voice.
“I just love the sound of a sore loser.” She sighs as they walk, her arms swinging at her sides, and though he keeps his gaze forward he notes carefully that her left arm does seem to be moving as easily as her right. “You keep this losing streak up and you may just end up wagering your crown away.”
He lets out a loud, fake laugh as he trudges up the last staircase, briefly considering stopping suddenly halfway up so that she would run into his back. He’s done it to her before, and she falls for it every time. But then she giggles - so soft and quiet he almost misses it over the sounds of their footsteps on the stairs.
He keeps moving.
“I’d take good care of it, you know,” she says as they approach his chamber door. “I’d even consider letting you visit on the weekends and wear it under strict supervision.”
“How thoughtful of you,” he murmurs.
“Is that the best comeback you’ve got?” she quips, pace finally slowing as he leans back against his chamber door. “What happened to you? Where’d the fight go?”
“I think lost it to Rosa in the fifth round earlier.”
She laughs, and he feels it burning like fire in his veins. “What are you thinking about?”
She’s still playful - still smirking - and as he struggles to remember how to swallow, she absently flicks a lock of hair fallen from her plait out of her face. She’s studying his face, and she’s so, so beautiful.
He opens his mouth, but no words come out. So he just shakes his head.
The playfulness smoothly melts into something softer and gentler. “Jake?” she murmurs his name and steps closer - and his heart throbs and skips a beat. “What is it?”
He stares, lips still parted, and there are words stampeding up his chest and into his throat, racing for the surface. The feelings coursing through his veins are new and unfamiliar and completely terrifying, and his jaw works up and down like an unsecured hatch door in a brutal storm.
“I-I’m just - I’m really, really glad that you’re okay,” he finally says. She blinks. “And - and that you’re my...my friend.”
She releases a small, nervous laugh, and it feels like his heart is about to explode inside his chest. “I’m really glad that you’re okay and...that you’re my friend, too.” she murmurs.
She reaches out to gently squeeze his arm again - her touch sends bolts of lightning through his bones. “Thank you,” he whispers, reaching up to briefly cover her hand with his own.
“Thank you .”
Her hand slips from beneath his and she retreats backwards half a pace, her gaze unwavering on his face. “I’m gonna - yeah,” he says as he fumbles for the door handle.
The metal is cool to the touch and he grips it hard, only then realizing his hands are as clammy now as they were when he woke up that morning. “Goodnight, Amy.”
He doesn’t blink until he’s inside his chambers with the door safely closed, and even then he keeps both hands flattened against the wood, just in case. His heart is pounding as if he’d just run a great distance and his hands are still clammy, and he knows without having to check that Amy’s back is now pressed against the other side of this very door, that she’s adjusting her stance right that second to plant herself firmly in the center of the doorway, her body a physical barrier between him and anyone who might want to hurt him. He knows that her relief won’t be along for a while yet; he knows she’s going to stand perfectly still and perfectly alert without a single complaint until then.
He knows, because that’s exactly what she’s done on just about every other night that has passed over the last three years and however many months that she’s been his principal guard. She’s always been right there, just on the other side of the door.
What he doesn’t know is exactly when in that time frame he developed such a massive and pathetic crush on her.
He staggers backwards a step, thankful for the thickness of the wood muffling his stuttering breath in. He’s got a crush on Amy.
He’s got a crush on Sir Amelia .
“This probably won’t end well,” he breathes.
hmm what a mystery what a cliffhanger i wonder how this will end
She marks her place in her book and sets it aside, shifting in her seat until she faces him a bit more head-on. “He was your very first guard, wasn’t he?”
“Yep. Although, back then, he was more of a glorified babysitter than an actual guard. His job mostly consisted of playing with my toys and making sure I didn’t fall down any staircases.”
“You say that like it’s not still a major part of your principal guard’s duties.”
“Saw it coming a mile away and I still set myself up for it.”
HIIIIIIIIIIIII IT'S BEEN 87 YEARS!!!!!!!!!
Um yeah so I'm still alive?? I guess?? Technically?? Just kinda chuggin along lmao
Anyways this chapter was a bitch and a half to write but I DID IT and that's what matters!!!
Over the endearing and familiar sounds of Cheddar’s hooves beating into the ground, Amy can hear Jake laughing.
It’s difficult to see with the sun in her eyes, but even in blurry silhouette she can recognize the swell to his cheeks in profile as that of a broad grin. He shifts the reins in his hand from one side to the other and Cheddar huffs and tosses his head in irritation, but changes directions as Jake leads; several meters in front of them, his trainer pulls her horse to a sudden stop as well. “He senses your hesitation, Majesty,” Ms. Crawford says, and her horse whinnies beneath her, as if accentuating her point. “Lean into it and trust that he’ll stick the landing.”
“I did lean into it, he just...leaned the other way.”
“Let me demonstrate again. Watch my posture very closely.”
She urges her horse toward the other end of the arena - the moment her back is turned, Jake shoots a comically distorted frown at Amy.
He can’t hear her laugh - she muffles that into her sleeve - but he can see her grin, shake her head, and gesture toward Ms. Crawford, a half-hearted signal to pay attention.
It’s the sixth funny face he’s made at her in the last hour, Olivia none the wiser - and judging by the delighted grin on his face as he turns to feign attentiveness, it won’t be the last. From what Amy’s gleaned from her position by the fence, the poor woman is just past the line of intensity in her lessons, too focused on her own agenda to even recognize the lack of focus in her sole student. Though he has gotten better at pretending to pay attention, at least; during his first lesson with Ms. Crawford, he actually slid off his horse and meandered all the way back to the castle undetected. Even then, he only got caught because he ran into Sir Terry in the foyer.
(She heard about all of this second-hand from Jake, of course - there’s not a chance in hell she’d have ever allowed him to even leave the arena had she been his guard back then.)
The feeling of being watched doesn’t leave her after Jake’s gaze does; she knows without looking that it’s coming from the stables some distance behind her.
For as often as Jake has shot her some secret funny face, Teddy has stared holes through the back of her head twice over. She can picture him perfectly - mucking one of the empty stalls, refilling the water buckets, all while staring down the gentle grassy slope between them at her back over the bottom half of each stall’s Dutch door. Probably biding his time until the end of Jake’s lesson so he can venture down here to the arena to refill the water trough after she’s gone.
Which is ironic, considering she’s the one avoiding him .
So he’s nice and he can take a hint, some foreign voice says in her head. She winces and glances down at the rough wood grains of the fence beneath her forearms and the splinters that catch and pull at the fibers of her sleeves. He is nice, that much is unquestionable - he’s the nicest person she’s ever met. He’s sweet and attentive and he laughs at all of her really lame jokes.
He’s also ridiculously, sinfully boring.
(Which is something she didn’t even realize bothered her until now - considering she spends the vast majority of her time most days in the semi-forced company of another person.)
From her peripheral, she sees Jake’s head turn in her direction once again; when she looks up to meet his gaze, she finds that he’s not actually looking at her, but rather at something over her head.
The stables, she realizes.
He’s squinting at the stables.
A disproportionate pulse of some feeling she can’t quite name yet throbs in her chest.
That Jake does not like Teddy is no secret - only the why behind it was, until last night. She closes her eyes as his voice rings clear and true in her memory, and behind her eyelids she sees his face made soft with a level of openness and vulnerability she’s never seen in him before.
Friend. He called her his friend. The general concept isn’t new to her - she’s done everything in her power to maintain at least a facade of professionalism in their relationship - but in all the years they’ve known each other, Jake has always done everything in his power to subtly undermine that facade. No matter how hard she tries, she’s painfully aware of the fact that she is firmly planted in the friend category in his mind.
He’s never said it out loud , though. Never said the words.
(Even if the majority of his motivation behind saying it was his own guilt over her injury or the massive hangover he’d suffered through that whole morning, she has no doubt that the sentiment itself is genuine.)
And it’s easy to make the connection here, watching him disguise a glare as a particularly vicious squint directed at the stables, between his distaste for Teddy’s presence in their lives and his friendship with her - like maybe the thought of losing some aspect of their closeness to her being married is as unsettling to him as him being married is to her. She can’t cast stones, in any case; she felt the same way toward Sophia and all her shrill, nasal glory just a few short days earlier.
And even if she could cast stones, she doesn’t think she’d want to.
Not after that vulnerable look. Not after his concern, his worry, his clearly deep and unyielding care that preceded it.
In fact, the thought of his school-boy jealousy over her slightly-diverted attention is almost thrilling - in a weird and perverse kind of way.
He must never know.
“Amelia?” She nearly jumps out of her own skin at the quiet, tentative voice murmuring her name in her ear, whirling around so quickly she falls to her left into the gate upon which she’d been leaning. She hisses in pain when her still-tender arm makes abrupt contact with the wooden stake - and before her, Teddy’s hands rise up to lightly flutter over her shoulders, concern blazing wildly in his gaze. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you - I tried coughing before I got too close but you didn’t react -”
“It’s okay, Teddy,” she says through a grimace, gently pressing the heel of her hand into the muscle above her wound, as if to massage the deep ache away before it winds its way up to her shoulder. “I’m sorry, I was just - lost in thought.” She drops her hand back to her side and watches him nod, shifting gaze fixated on the ground between them, uncertainty spilling out of every pore.
“How’s your arm?” he asks after pause.
The urge to fill the answering silence is nearly insurmountable but she forces herself to remain quiet, going so far as to bite down on the inside of her own cheek to choke back the words rising up her throat as she watches him rock forward to the balls of his feet and nod again. “Good,” he finally says, glancing up at her briefly before returning his gaze to the ground. “That’s good.”
She nods, and he remains quiet. “Did you need something, or…?”
“We just - we haven’t really talked since yesterday, and - it kind of seemed like you were avoiding me last night in the foyer -”
“I was on duty,” she interrupts, the lie falling smoothly from her lips. “As I am right now.”
She keeps her gaze on his face even as he glances into the arena - eyes tracking movement in proportion with the steady crescendo of hooves pounding against the earth - and then he’s meeting her gaze, something like grim acceptance in the set of his brow. “Right. Sorry. I’ll just - I’ll go.”
She almost calls out to him as he retreats back to the stables. Almost.
The look on Jake’s face when she turns back to face the arena makes her glad she didn’t.
“That was the longest lesson ever ,” he mutters later, climbing over the gate rather than pushing it open. He lands close enough to her side that the smell of sweat and earth floods Amy’s nostrils all at once - and she has to hold her breath until they start moving, the pleasant mid-morning breeze just powerful enough to whisk the smell away.
The amused quirk to his brow tells her he’s fully aware of his effect.
“It probably felt longer than it actually was since you weren’t paying any attention,” she chides, drumming her fingers along the handle of her sword protruding from her holster. “She had to show you the same maneuvers, like, four times each .”
“It’s not my fault she’s a bad teacher,” he mutters, gaze drifting over the castle grounds. They’re moving slower than usual - his normally-somewhat-brisk pace down to little more than a meander - and as he raises both arms over his head to stretch, she can see the tension leaking out of his back and shoulders, shirt rising just enough to reveal a narrow sliver of the tanned flesh of his lower back.
She blinks and forces her vision up and forward again, praying he didn’t notice her split-second distraction. “She’s one of the most respected equestrians in the entire kingdom -”
“That doesn’t make her a good teacher ,” he interrupts, arms flopping back down to his sides. He doesn’t particularly look like he’s about to figure her out.
Her mouth is open, but a solid argument never comes. “You’re right,” she says, feeling her shoulders drop.
His grin is triumphant, but not gloating. They walk in relative silence for a few minutes - just long enough for her thoughts to wander back to her terse conversation with Teddy - before he clears his throat. “So I, uh, saw you talking to Teddy.”
There’s something guarded about the phrase - about his demeanor as a whole.
“I haven’t - I mean, Crawford was in the stables with me earlier, so I didn’t - I’m -” he stops, and from the corner of her eye, she sees him shake his head in frustration. “I haven’t had a chance to apologize to him for being a jerk the other day.”
Amy nods. “That’s okay.”
“I mean, a lot happened. I was distracted, y’know, because - of stuff.”
“Right. Stuff .”
She glances up at him to find that he’s already looking down at her - and suddenly his pace slows even more, almost to a complete stop. “You know how worried I was about you, right? Like, actually?” he asks softly.
On instinct, she reaches up to squeeze his upper arm in reassurance. “I do. I promise. And you know how much I appreciate it, right?”
He searches her face for another moment, before nodding.
“Doesn’t mean I’m not gonna give you a hard time about it whenever I can, though,” she murmurs when she lowers her hand.
He rolls his eyes and smirks as he starts forward again. “Can’t say I don’t deserve it,” he mutters over her snort of laughter. “Anyways - what I’m trying to say is that...I promised you that I would apologize to him, and I just - I want you to know that I’m going to as soon as I can.”
She looks up - through the shafts of sunlight spilling through the foliage and slipping through the imposing castle towers over their heads - and in his steady gaze, she sees no lies, no misgivings. “I believe you,” she says.
They make it another six meters before he speaks again. “How’s - how are things going with him, anyways?” There’s a brusqueness to his voice - a forced bravado - and she has to concentrate on the dull pain in her arm as the sleeve of her shirt constricts just a hair too tightly over her wound to tamp down that same stupid thrill from earlier washing through her in response. “You guys seemed really close last night when he came upstairs.”
She resists the urge to sigh. Maybe they did - but Jake hadn’t seen them an hour later, when she’d blatantly ignored him calling her name in the foyer, mind still reeling from Jake’s quiet, stripped-down confession. “It’s not - we’re not - um,” she stops, inhales. “Teddy’s nice. And he’s good at his job. But I don’t think anything’s gonna happen.”
He turns toward her a little too sharply. “Nothing’s - you’re not - ?”
“Oh. Is that - good?”
She shrugs. “It’s not bad .”
He nods, eyes sliding out of focus as he processes. “Well, still, I’m...sorry.”
The sudden spring in his step tells her otherwise.
He’s full of frenetic energy after that, not quite speeding his pace up but moving so that he crosses in front of her path, circling around her as she walks. The sudden change in his demeanor is a little disorienting and, frankly, alarming - he’s only ever like this in the forest, on the long walk to their clearing. Another punch of keen soreness winds its way up her arm as if sensing the potential for overuse; with what she hopes is a discreet sigh, she braces herself for a winding, roundabout argument about why a trek to their clearing in the forest is a very, very bad idea.
“So I was thinking - I have the whole afternoon off. No more classes today.”
“I kind of want to go to the library.”
Her steady pace falters. “The library?” she repeats, well aware of how blatant her disbelief is in her voice.
“Yeah,” he nods, grinning, curious. “I haven’t spent any time there in a while, and - yeah. Is that okay?”
“I just - I didn’t know you even knew you guys have a library.”
“First of all, I was literally born here, I know every single nook and cranny of the entire grounds. If you’re gonna insult me, do it right. Secondly, I obviously know about the library specifically since it’s where I assumed you lived for the first year you worked here.” A pleased smile flashes across his face. “See, that’s how you properly insult someone.”
She really should take it as an insult - she should try to fire one back. “You really wanna spend the whole afternoon in the library?” she asks instead.
“Maybe not the whole afternoon,” he says as he lifts a hand to the back of his neck, a faint blush tinging his cheeks pink. “But, like, a while. Definitely. Is that okay?”
She blinks, waiting for the joke - the gotcha! - but it never comes. “Yeah,” she says uncertainly - and his answering grin is both confident and reassuring. “Okay, yeah, let’s go.”
His confidence wavers the moment he pushes the library doors open. She can see it in the nervous shift of his eyes, in the hesitation in his stature. He makes it all of two paces inside before turning back toward her; he looks smaller here, set against a backdrop of towering shelves packed with dusty tomes, everything ablaze with the glow of a late afternoon sun peeking through the windows that stretch up toward the ceiling.
He looks boyish.
She smiles in spite of herself.
Confidence blooms in his expression at once, and he strides into the bowels of the library without a backwards glance.
Once the novelty of seeing Prince Jacob Peralta quietly perusing the shelves has worn off, Amy finds herself slipping into the kind of serenity that only finds her lost amongst the stacks. The near-constant awareness of Jake’s exact location fades to some shadowy corner of her mind; before long she has a respectable stack of books in her right arm, pinned against her hip with her hand, so tall it nearly brushes against her chin, and Jake is nowhere to be seen.
“Good grief,” she hears him mutter behind her - and the next thing she knows, he’s pulling the stack from her grasp, carefully adjusting his stance so that the stack shifts from one side to the other, falling back against his chest. “You trying to make your arm fall off or something?”
“I had it under control,” she mutters distractedly, eyeing the stack as he backs away from her. “And it’s my other arm, anyways.”
He tuts and turns on his heel, toward the pair of overstuffed arm chairs angled toward each other in the back of the library. “Were you planning on reading all of these today, or are you building a fort?”
“Your tone is joking, but your words hurt me.”
He laughs, though he does not turn his head back toward her. “Seriously,” he grunts, easing the stack onto a small side table tucked against the armchair on the left, “why do you need this many?”
“Because - I mean, I don’t need that many, I just...those are my favorites.”
He turns toward her sharply, brows nearly to his hairline. “You’ve already read all of these?”
“Well I did live in here for a whole year.”
His expression falls flat as he straightens up. “So now you’re bad at insulting me and you steal my jokes? That’s bad form, Amy.”
“Sir Amelia,” she corrects.
His gaze shifts over her shoulder, and then back to her. “We’re alone.”
She blinks and glances backwards - the doors to the library are only just visible from where they’re standing, and they are firmly closed. “Oh.”
“So...care to sit, Amy?”
Hesitation flickers in his expression, and she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would absolutely honor her wishes should she correct him a second time.
She grants him a small but reassuring smile. “How very kind of you to offer with no ulterior motives.”
His answering grin is bright to the point of threatening to blind her. He makes a show of bowing out of her way, remaining hunched until she’s seated and thumbing through the pages of the first book in her stack. She keeps her eyes trained on the words before her, but in her peripheral she sees him flouncing around her, toward the unclaimed chair to her left.
He sits with a loud huff, and a cloud of dust bursts from the chair’s cushion beneath him. “What’s that one called?”
“It’s a collection of short stories,” she says without glancing up, “it doesn’t really have a title.”
“Short stories about what?”
“Fairy tales, I guess, but really it’s more about people. Different parts of the human experience.”
He sniffs, and she peeks up at him through her lashes. He’s giving the book a reproachful look. “Sounds almost as boring as Terry talking about that stuff Charles made that one time.”
“He calls it yogurt, and this is way more interesting than that. This story right at the beginning is about a king whose only daughter dies, and how he channels his grief for her passing into building a huge public monument in her honor.”
He stares for a beat. “That sounds super depressing.”
“No, no, it’s really beautiful. His daughter was beloved by the kingdom because she was so generous and kind and did everything she could to serve them, so in creating the monument for her, he’s accomplishing the very thing she dedicated her life to doing - serving the kingdom. It’s beautiful .”
He hums almost thoughtfully, before leaning back in his seat, gaze cast upward toward the ceiling. “I bet Terry would built a monument to yogurt if he could.”
“I’m so serious. I mean, he’s always been a little obsessive about stuff, but I’ve never seen him act the way he acts about yogurt. Not even when he found out he was being promoted to my mom’s principal guard.”
Amy laughs outright at that, and from the corner of her eye, she sees Jake grinning broadly. “How old were you when he got that promotion?”
“It was right after my dad died, so...seven? Eight, maybe?”
She marks her place in her book and sets it aside, shifting in her seat until she faces him a bit more head-on. “He was your very first guard, wasn’t he?”
“Yep. Although, back then, he was more of a glorified babysitter than an actual guard. His job mostly consisted of playing with my toys and making sure I didn’t fall down any staircases.”
“You say that like it’s not still a major part of your principal guard’s duties.”
“Saw it coming a mile away and I still set myself up for it.”
She laughs again, loud enough to fill the quiet air around them, and Jake’s answering grin is practically blinding. “So, who was your guard right after Terry?”
He frowns, and though his eyes never dart away from her face, she can tell by the suddenly glazed look of them that he’s reaching back in his memories - her face is likely little more than a blur in his vision now. “I don’t really remember his name,” he finally says, “just that he was about the same size as Terry and called Terry ‘little man’ or something like that. He didn’t stay very long, either, maybe about a year? Hardly any of them stuck around for very long, actually. Except Hitchcock and Scully.”
Amy rolls her eyes. Despite never having actually met them herself, she distinctly remembers her father and two oldest brothers complaining about Hitchcock and Scully - though they mostly referred to them as useless lumps in Royal Guard uniforms. They were, of course, promptly retired the day after her father was promoted to the head position of the Royal Guard.
“I do miss them, sometimes,” he says, his expression now wistful. “They were completely clueless. I got away with so much with them as my guards.”
“I know, my dad and brothers complained about them constantly. Didn’t they almost let you get assassinated at a parade once?”
“It would have been an accident, not an assassination, don’t be so dramatic. But, yeah, they definitely let a dude juggling knives get a little too close.”
“That literally gives me chest pains.”
“Relax! I dodged the guy fast enough! And you should actually be thanking them, now that I think about it.”
“They’re the reason I found that clearing out in the woods.”
“Unless they took you to that clearing, they’re not the reason - you found it because of their negligence and complete lack of attention to detail -”
“Potato, po-tah-to, I found the clearing when I was fifteen years old and it was specifically because they sucked at their jobs and didn’t even notice when I snuck off castle grounds.”
“It really was just crap timing that they were assigned to you right at the peak of your teenage rebellion years. So many bad habits developed.”
“Bad - excuse you, I have always been an absolute angel. Ask my mom.”
“You were a complete jerk to me when we met, Jake, you weren’t fooling anyone -”
“ I was a jerk? I was just trying to live my life - you’re the one who was always yelling at me for being late and crap like that -”
“Because you were always running late!”
“I’m still always running late !”
She cracks at that, laughter bursting out of her chest, but Jake’s is louder - it fills the room around them to bursting, stretching the very seams. It seems to last a lifetime and a split-second simultaneously; her cheeks ache from overuse as they both settle back in their seats, Jake discreetly wiping the tears from his eyes before tilting his head back to stare up at the ceiling.
“I’ll never forget the day you almost murdered me.” he says, and she chuckles, a protest already forming in her mind. “I legitimately thought I was going to die.”
“Please, you were never in any real danger at all.”
“Well, I know that now , but at the time -”
“I had to get through to you somehow , and obviously talking wasn’t working -”
“So naturally your next plan was to string me up in a tree. ”
She can’t help but to snort at that, the memory of him thrashing around in a rope net swinging in a gentle breeze, dangling some three meters off the ground in a tree just outside the castle grounds coming back to her in sharp, vivid color. “You were so mad,” she laughs as the image of his red, enraged face peeking down at her through the ropes eclipses his slightly-older begrudgingly amused face before her.
“I was ready to kill you.”
“I warned you about traps in the woods, I showed you all the markers most hunters leave behind, and my trap was very clearly marked. It’s not my fault you weren’t paying attention.”
“But it is your fault that I was stuck up there for half an hour . And you just stood there lecturing me .”
“Hey, you learned your lesson, and that’s what matters. You never tried to sneak out without me again. Also, I’m pretty sure that’s the day you started to actually like me as a person instead of hating my guts because I was your guard.”
“I never hated you,” he says with a roll of his eyes. “But that was definitely the day I started respecting the hell out of you. We didn’t become friends until later.”
“After my first tournament,” she says, and he nods in agreement. “When you gave me my ribbon.”
His gaze darts to the ribbon in question - currently securing the end of her plaited hair - and he flashes her another grin. “I still can’t believe you didn’t throw that thing away afterwards.”
“Oh, yeah, I was just gonna toss the only physical evidence I had to prove the fact that you have faith in my abilities as a knight? Think again, buddy.”
“Yeah, but you lost your first tournament, so the token didn’t work -”
“Um -” she plucks at the end of her braid and gently tugs a few times - and the braid holds true. “Seems to be working fine right now.”
“You just - you literally never go anywhere without it. Ever. Even when your hair’s down, it’s tied around your wrist.”
It’s an odd detail for someone to notice - truthfully, until this very moment, even she wasn’t fully aware of it. But it’s true, she realizes; aside from her dagger, the ribbon is the only accessory she keeps on her person at all times, even when not on duty. “Well,” she says, acutely aware of the heat trickling down from the tips of her ears and the dangerous, wavering warble almost audible in her voice, “it’s - it’s highly functional. I’ve used it for things other than tying my hair back.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“Like strangling a prince who asked me too many questions.”
He leans back as he laughs, until his shoulders make contact with the back of his chair; his grin fades when his gaze drops down to her arm. “How’s that healing?”
She shrugs and glances down, fingering the hem of her shirt. “I’m going back to the infirmary tonight to have the nurses check it, so I’ll find out then.”
He seems to be lost in thought when she forces herself to look up at him again, nodding so slowly she’s certain he’s not even aware of the movement. “I am really, really sorry,” he says, eyes still glazed.
“It wasn’t your fault -”
“I know, but - but still, it was really scary for a minute. Like, you were bleeding so much - and I couldn’t tell, at first, how bad it was? Maybe that’s ‘cause I was as drunk as I was, but, like, still. And you looked scared - I’ve never seen you look that scared before, I’ve never been that scared before. Plus, you wouldn’t have gotten hurt if I hadn’t dragged you down there to begin with. I just...I’m sorry. Sorry that you got hurt protecting me. And I mean, I know that’s kind of your job , but -”
“I didn’t do it because it’s my job, I did it because you’re my friend and someone was trying to kill you,” she interrupts, and he goes still at once, jaw hanging just slightly, eyes fixated on her face. “I mean - I mean it is my job, I guess, but - I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just...I was thinking about you . Making sure that guy didn’t get to you. Which, uh, probably isn’t, like, the best thing for a principal guard to admit, but - yeah. It was less about protecting the prince, and more about protecting my friend.”
It’s hard to tell in the dimming light, but for a moment, it almost looks as if he’s on the verge of crying. He nods, Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat, and drops his gaze to his knees for a long moment. “Thank you,” he finally manages - the barest hint of emotion rasping along the edges of the words.
Something heavy and warm is settling in the air around them and it’s unnerving, this version of him stripped of bravado and jest. Even he seems to be struggling to find a way back to the lightheartedness of moments ago. “Besides,” she says a bit more confidently, “I wasn’t even that scared. I was way more scared the first time we ever went to Shaw’s.”
“That’s definitely true,” he says with a laugh, the echoes of whatever emotion he was drowning in fading to the recesses of his gaze. “You straight-up almost stabbed Doug Judy.”
“It looked like he was about to grab you, how was I supposed to know you dropped your coin purse under the table?”
He’s doubled over in laughter now and Amy sighs, trying and failing to fight the urge to smile even as he gasps for air and dramatically wipes the tears out of his eyes. “I still don’t know who was funnier!” he says as he hiccups back to seriousness. “I still think he peed his pants!”
“He never tried to mess with me after that!” Amy snaps, no longer bothering to hide her grin. “Apparently the only way to get the men around here to take me seriously is to threaten them!”
“You’ve been hanging out with Rosa too much,” he sighs.
“Not as much as you’ve been hanging out with Gina,” she retorts.
“Um, how do you figure that?”
“You checked your reflection in the back of your soup spoon four times during dinner the other night -”
“To make sure I didn’t have anything in my teeth!”
“You were messing with your hair !”
“Whatever, at least I was being kind of discreet about it! Gina has no shame!”
“That’s actually very true. Is she the only one who can get away with calling your mother by her first name, without the proper titles?”
“Only one I know of,” he says. “I’ve always considered her a sister, so it didn’t always, like, register that the way she talks to us is...out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until I heard your dad ripping Hitchcock a new one for calling me ‘Jakey’ that I really realized how much Gina gets away with. And then there’s Charles, who is the exact opposite.”
“What was that one title he made up for you? Um, I think it was last year in the spring, right before they brought in Ms. Crawford -”
“Most High and Excellent Sultan of Grace and Wisdom,” Jake recites, already covering his eyes with one hand, and Amy snorts. “I love that guy to death, but he has got to cool it.”
“I was always curious about how you guys became friends. I mean, it just seems a little unlikely to me - he’s, what, twenty years older than you? And he hardly ever leaves the kitchen, except to serve dessert when guests are here -”
“I was a fourteen-year-old kid with an insatiable appetite, Amy, do you really think I wouldn’t have spent so much time in the kitchen that I got to know every single person working in there? You really think I wouldn’t have almost eaten everything in that kitchen every week? Charles hated me at first specifically because I would sneak in there and eat anything I could get my hands on. My only options were to find my own food or to become friends with him so I could keep stealing his food - the choice was obvious.”
“You only became friends with Charles because you wanted to keep stealing his food without the consequences?”
“If you ever, ever tell him, I’ll drop-kick you off the bell tower. No joke.”
“I won’t tell him,” she says, and he eyes her a moment longer before dropping his gaze down to his cuticles. “But only because I know he’s actually one of your friends now.”
“How long d’you think it would take me to get Mr. Holt to be my friend?”
“You want to be friends with Mr. Holt?”
“I mean, up until the whole tavern disaster, I think I almost kind of was. We had a good rapport going, y’know? I think he likes me. Or, well, liked me.”
There’s a grim edge to his amusement now, stealing the breath from her lungs - she hadn’t really realized just how heavily his guilt has been weighing upon him. “He still likes you, Jake,” she says softly, and the bravado melts away at once, leaving quivering insecurity in its wake. “It’s like you said a minute ago. What happened was scary for everyone , not just us, and people handle scary things different ways.”
His eyes suddenly narrow. “You did get in a lot of trouble that night, didn’t you?”
“Not a lot . But my dad did yell at me, yes. After he knew I was okay.” His expression crumbles, the guilt rising up like a towering wave ready to decimate a harbor. “But it wasn’t - it wasn’t the head guard yelling at a subordinate for breaking the rules,” she adds quickly, “it was a dad yelling at his daughter because I was reckless and I allowed us both to be in harm’s way and it scared him. So, yeah, he yelled at me, and then he hugged me so hard my back popped. They yell because they care.”
“Sounds like something you made up to make me feel better,” he mutters, “but I guess I believe you.”
“You should believe me. I’d never lie to you.”
“You once told me Charles made a second lunch to trick me into a robe fitting.”
“I’d never lie to you about this .”
The sunlight pouring through the windows behind her has adopted a rosy tint, blazing through the room with all the vengeance of the setting sun, and when Jake laughs the light catches in his hair, illuminating each translucent highlight hidden amongst the lazy curls in a dazzling array of color. And his eyes - when they flutter open - transform from their usual warm brown into pools of molten honey, accentuated by the curve of his smile and the natural blush on his cheeks.
Oh, he’s handsome. And his gaze is fixated on her.
“We should - we should go see if Charles is up for another game after dinner tonight,” she hears herself say distantly. “We’ve been sitting here so long - I know you’re bored.”
“I’d be down for another game.” He stands and briefly stretches before offering her a hand - his palm is warm and dry when her fingers slide against it, and his grip is firm and steady as he helps her haul herself back up to her feet. He lingers just a beat too long before dropping her hand.
Despite the fact that her heart is suddenly in her throat, she manages to smile and nod when he says something else - though what he says is entirely lost on her. He seems not to notice - he smiles and turns away, leading the way to the library doors. She trails just slightly, watching him go - and when she blinks the scene before her is transformed, and he’s no longer walking alone, but with a beautiful woman wearing a crown holding his arm. Whatever fluttering in her chest shifts to keen pain at once - it won’t be long, now, before this becomes her permanent place. Behind him - behind them - an ever-present, ever-silent layer of protection for this man and his future wife.
It’s the natural order of things for a person in her profession. She’s known, from the day she began her pursuit of this life, that she would end up something of a background character in the lives of the royal family. But she never, ever imagined it would hurt this bad.
Of course, she never imagined that she might one day develop feelings for a member of the royal family.
Which she has.
For Jake .
“ Shit .” she mutters under her breath.
It would be easier to express his discontent, he thinks, if she actually understood the exact degree of torture the last few weeks have been on his emotional well-being. Sir Victor had been kind enough to pull back some of the extra security measures put into place immediately following the Tavern Incident (always referred to with enough gravitas to garner extra capitalization) and while it’s certainly nice that he’s back to wandering the grounds between lessons with only Amy watching his every move, it’s been weeks since the last time his lungs were filled with the fresh smell of pine needles and untempered earth.
Weeks since he last felt his legs stretched and burning as he moved, unencumbered by walls and cloaks and titles and destiny. Weeks since the sweet perfume of white wildflowers swaying in a salt-water breeze last graced his senses. Weeks since flecks of sunlight glanced off Amy’s mahogany irises, slid across her dimpled smile, got caught in the waves of her long raven hair.
HIIIIIIIIII SORRY THIS WENT ON HIATUS FOR 10 MONTHS GUESS WHAT I'M THE WORST!!!!!!!!
Despite his uncommon lineage, Jake likes to believe he had a relatively normal childhood. He grew up on all the same fables and fairy tales as most of the other children in the kingdom. He played with many of the same toys (though to be fair, his were unequivocally of higher quality - both in materials and in detail). He even had a friend to play with - though, upon deeper reflection, he supposes on some level there isn’t anything ordinary about having Gina as a childhood friend, if only because there simply isn’t anything ordinary about Gina .
But over all, when reviewed by simple facts alone, Jake’s childhood was relatively normal.
He had no concept of his otherness - the true meaning of his royal lineage and the destiny he’s slated to fulfill - until the age of twelve.
Specifically, in his very first etiquette lesson.
“I just don’t get why I have to learn this stuff,” he’d said, dejected, as Holt’s hands forcefully straightened his spine and lifted his chin to the appropriate angle. “Gina never had to learn it.”
Above him, Holt’s lips were twitching - Jake didn’t know it then, but it’s the closest Holt ever gets to a good-natured smile. “That’s because Gina isn’t a princess.”
Despite having just been corrected not seconds before, Jake jerked his head up, brow furrowed. “Neither am I.” he'd said indignantly.
Holt sighed - the first of many over the years that have since followed - and settled into the seat opposite where Jake sat. “You are correct in that you are not a princess. However,” he’d dropped his chin slightly, eyes boring into Jake’s, radiating a seriousness the likes of which Jake had never experienced before that day. “You are a prince. And someday - someday very soon - you’re going to be a king . And there will be people who will think that because you are young, you won’t make a good king. These lessons will ensure that not only will you be a good king - you’ll be a great one.”
Jake blinked, and then blinked again. “Like my father,” he’d said quietly.
Some emotion flickered in Holt’s gaze, but it was gone before Jake could process it. “Yes,” Holt said, quieter than before. “Just like your father.”
Like his father, buried in the graveyard just outside the castle grounds. Like his father, whose tombstone is decorated with a new mourning wreath from his mother each week and bouquets of flowers from royal subjects who pick their way through other members of Jake’s family, long-gone before he was even born. Like his father, whose portrait hangs in the throne room, an eternal sentry, an impassive guard looming over the throne he no longer occupies.
Like his father, like his father, like his father.
“I don’t think I want to be king,” Jake said quietly.
Whatever Holt was expecting him to say that day so many years ago, it certainly wasn’t that - even now, years later, the precipice of that inevitable destiny inches closer and closer and Jake still remembers with startling clarity the exact image of Holt’s face, blank with shock at his quivering childhood admission.
He thinks of it now, shivering in the bath, ignoring the handmaidens lathering his back with soap in silence. He doesn’t remember much else from that day - doesn’t even remember exactly what Holt said in the aftermath. It was like a lever was flipped inside his mind, and he’s spent every waking moment since then trying to flip it back.
Not being king meant not having to endure etiquette lessons. Not being king means not freezing his ass off in the fourth bath this week.
“That’s plenty,” Gina’s voice suddenly rings out in the quiet washroom, and the handmaidens disperse at once, leaving him to heave himself up to a standing position in the tepid water and snatch the nearest cloth to secure around his waist. “We’re almost out of perfume, anyways. Gotta save enough for tomorrow night.”
He tries to brave a neutral expression at her words, but a groan escapes his chest before he can stop himself - all half-formed plans of a romp through the forest with Cheddar vanish like vapor in the wind. Gina stays quiet, to her credit, though he doesn’t miss the blatant and dramatic roll of her eyes. He lets it go without comment.
It would be easier to express his discontent, he thinks, if she actually understood the exact degree of torture the last few weeks have been on his emotional well-being. Sir Victor had been kind enough to pull back some of the extra security measures put into place immediately following the Tavern Incident (always referred to with enough gravitas to garner extra capitalization) and while it’s certainly nice that he’s back to wandering the grounds between lessons with only Amy watching his every move, it’s been weeks since the last time his lungs were filled with the fresh smell of pine needles and untempered earth.
Weeks since he last felt his legs stretched and burning as he moved, unencumbered by walls and cloaks and titles and destiny. Weeks since the sweet perfume of white wildflowers swaying in a salt-water breeze last graced his senses. Weeks since flecks of sunlight glanced off Amy’s mahogany irises, slid across her dimpled smile, got caught in the waves of her long raven hair.
“Come on,” Gina’s voice breaks him out of his unintentional reverie; he shivers, one hand dropping to the cloth around his waist as she clicks her fingers impatiently. “We don’t have time for daydreaming right now, champ.”
It seems it’s been weeks since his chambers were last cleaned, too - even in his seemingly perpetual state of misery, he can see from his peripheral vision the way the grime is beginning to creep in from the shadowy corners, encroaching like a looming plague in the form of smears of dirt along the cobblestones and leisure clothes strewn about haphazardly. In the reflection of the mirror above his vanity, he can see Gina’s nose wrinkled in distaste; it’s the only emotion she’s betrayed since first waltzing in some twenty minutes earlier.
She’s selected that same horrendous blue velvet coat and cloak combination from his feast with the Perez family all those weeks ago; he eyes it in disdain as she works a comb through his damp hair, echoing each of her frustrated curses with the state of his unruly tresses in his own mind. “I don’t know why I even bother ,” she mutters, casting the comb down atop his vanity with enough viciousness he’d think she blames it for his hair’s inability to lie flat. “It’s all getting squished under the stupid crown anyways.”
He swallows hard, fists clenched against his thighs.
What was a long, arduous process weeks ago has now become so half-hearted and commonplace he finds himself struggling to believe that the Gina standing behind him isn’t some cheap imposter of the Gina from before; she hardly looks up from her book when he emerges fully-dressed from behind his changing apparatus, gracing him with a quick once-over and an “eh,” with a dismissive hand-wave. “It’ll do,” she shrugs, attention already returned to her book.
“Do I have to go?” he asks, and Gina looks up from her book with genuine interest for the first time since giving up on his hair. “I mean, do you think she’d really notice?”
Gina scoffs as she marks her place, closing the book with a snap. “Considering you’re the reason she’s doing this in the first place, I’m gonna say yeah, she’d probably notice if you’re not there.”
“I never even spoke at the last one,” he counters. “I just sat there the whole time, I ate in complete silence. I never even introduced myself. Aunt Madeline talked the entire time.”
Gina heaves a sigh, looking torn between exasperation and pity. “I don’t know what to tell you, kid,” she says with a shake of her head. “I can’t force you to go. Technically, no one can. Or, well, I guess Karen could. If you don’t wanna go, don’t go. I think you’d be a dummy not to go, but that’s just one genius’ opinion.”
He hooks a finger into his stiff collar and pulls, trying and failing to alleviate some of the pressure against his throat. “Why’s that?” he asks.
Gina stares for a beat, and then drops her head. “Look, I know your aunt is...your aunt,” she says, “but the fact of the matter is that she’s been out there in other kingdoms - she’s met other people, Jake. I know how you feel about her and - I’m inclined to agree with most of your opinions. But just because you feel that way about her doesn’t mean she doesn’t know genuinely good people. Good women, who would be good for you, if you’d take the time to make an effort and get to know them.”
He thinks of Amy, standing tall and proud in her Royal Guard regalia. “What if I don’t want to get to know any of them?” he asks quietly.
“No one’s gonna try to make you. Actually, your aunt’s gonna try to make you, but no one else is gonna try to make you. I just agree with your mom’s opinion on all of this - I think it’s a good idea to at least see if you can be friends with some of these girls. You need friends who don’t work for you, y’know?”
He turns his head away and bites back a sigh, swallowing it like bile. “You’re right,” he finally says, and when he turns back to meet her gaze he expects to find her smirking, gloating at the words. Instead, he finds her smiling - small and sympathetic - and the knot of anxiety tightening in his gut loosens infinitesimally. “I just - god , I just wish she didn’t have to be at every single one of these. I’ve had to sit there and listen to her talk over twelve different women, Gina. Twelve . I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
Gina approaches him slowly and claps a hand to his shoulder, her sympathetic smile never wavering. “I’ll tell her we need to take a break after tomorrow night,” she says seriously. “I’ll tell her the florist is out of hydrangeas and that we absolutely cannot even consider hosting another royal family without fresh hydrangeas in our arrangements.”
He reaches to cover her hand with his own. “You’re an actual godsend.” he says sincerely.
Her smile turns cheeky. “I know.”
He feels a little better when he emerges from his chambers minutes later, but he supposes some degree of misery must still be etched into the essence of his being - Amy’s brows are knitted together in concern, her mouth pulled back into a sympathetic grimace as he steps out into the landing. “At least you weren’t in the bath for an hour and a half this time,” she offers.
It takes everything in him not to throw his head back and sink to the ground in abject anguish. “I kind of wish I had been,” he says instead, “that way I could have drowned myself and not had to go to this stupid dinner.”
“Don’t say things like that,” she chides half-heartedly. “If you drown yourself in the bath, who’s gonna give me crippling anxiety every day of my life?”
“You’ll give it to yourself, probably,” he says through a snort of laughter - and the smile that lights her face is part satisfied, part amused, wholly electrifying. He lets himself stare a minute longer, committing it to memory - the way it lights her entire frame, like lifting a physical weight from her shoulders - and then shakes his head, forcing his vision down the hallway, toward the staircase flickering with torches lit on the floor below. “Should I run myself through with your sword now , or during dinner?” he asks as he begins a slow walk toward the staircase.
“Hm…” she hums, falling into step behind him, “wait ‘til during dinner. At least then it’ll be a little exciting.”
He laughs, but it quickly wilts into a groan. “Will you please get me out of this early?” he asks quietly over his shoulder. “I don’t care what excuse you use - I just can’t keep pretending like I have night lessons, she’s getting suspicious.”
“I’ve already gotten you out with the sick Cheddar excuse twice this week, I don’t have any other viable excuses.”
“So tell her Rosa needs me for something - please .”
She prods him lightly on the shoulder as they walk, and he doesn’t need to turn around to know she’s biting the inside of her cheek to tamp down a smile. “We’ll see.” she says as they descend the staircase.
He wonders, briefly, what she might say if she knew his true motivation.
As it turns out, the only thing more uncomfortable than dinner in the kingdom’s worst coat is dinner in the kingdom’s worst coat with the world’s most uncomfortable date.
He’s hesitant to even use that word to describe the latest bachelorette his aunt has paraded into the castle - the woman is easily thirty years his senior, looking better suited to be a friend of his mother’s than his potential wife. He likes to think that he wouldn’t judge her so harshly outside of this arrangement - that he might think she’s pretty, or kind, or funny. But under the given circumstances and the ever-watchful eye of his least-favorite only aunt, Jake’s well and truly convinced that he hates the woman seated to his right.
He stabs his fork at his cold, uneaten turkey moodily, waiting until Madeline has both his mother and their guest’s attention before glancing up at Amy through his lashes. She’s standing opposite where he sits, her back to the wall, face pleasantly expressionless until the moment their eyes meet; her brows knit together again, lips pulled back just slightly, as if to say you’re dying, I get it, but there’s nothing I can do right now .
“Jacob,” Madeline trills, and Jake snaps to attention, his fork falling from his fingers with a loud clatter. “My, I thought you were asleep over there! So quiet tonight!”
“Just enjoying the food,” he mutters through a forced smile, picking his fork back up and shoveling the turkey caught on the prongs into his mouth.
“Our head chef is particularly gifted when it comes to brazing different meats -” Karen starts.
“Melanie, try some of the buttered squash - it’s delightful, their little kitchen hand is almost as good as mine.” Madeline interrupts.
Jake clenches his jaw, biting back the urge to throw his plate clear across the room. Interrupting his mother to be condescending about Charles’ cooking abilities is hardly the worst of Madeline’s crimes over the last month, though her innate ability to pick on his friends is the crown jewel of her insufferable qualities.
Amy’s gaze is firmly, resolutely fixated on the floor before her feet when he glances up at her again. He frowns, letting the prongs of his fork tap directly against his plate several times to momentarily drown out the sound of Madeline’s voice. Amy doesn’t look up, and Jake sighs, letting his gaze drop back down to his plate.
He hadn’t been there to witness it, but he’d heard about it the morning after - an hour after he’d gone to bed mere days after the Tavern Incident, Madeline cornered Amy in this very hall and laid into her, hurling insults harsh enough to make even Rosa wither. It apparently was around the time Madeline was starting in on Amy’s supposed lack of professionalism that Rosa happened upon them. It was Rosa who pulled Amy away - Rosa who walked with Amy down to her chambers - Rosa who sat with Amy as her shocked and angry tears finally erupted.
And it was Rosa who told him about it out on the landing outside his chambers the following morning, since Amy apparently hadn’t gotten much sleep and Sir Victor had given her the morning to recover. And later, when he emerged from Holt’s office to find a pale and puffy-eyed Amy waiting for him, she’d cut him off before he’d even had a chance to speak. “I really don’t want to talk about it,” she’d said, voice hoarse. He’d pressed his lips together, watched her fidget, and then released a sigh.
“Okay,” he’d muttered.
And so they hadn’t.
And later, under the guise of visiting with his mother to give Amy a break, Jake visited his aunt in her chambers and told her he was finally ready to meet the women she’s been so eager to introduce to him.
And in the weeks that followed, despite his festering bitterness over the entire ordeal, he’d done his marked best to get through each dinner with as much grace as possible.
At this point, it’s nothing short of a miracle he can even stomach being in the same room as Madeline.
Amy’s looking at him when he glances back up at her; the sight of her hidden half-smile is more refreshing than summer rain. He raises his brows at her, and she presses her lips together to hide the way her smile broadens and shakes her head once, the movement almost imperceptible.
All at once, his determination is renewed.
Melanie, it seems, is oblivious to Jake’s discomfort with the entire dinner - she leans toward him brazenly, her elbow slipping from her armrest to his, her shoulder pressing against his. And he’s thankful for the first time for that impossibly thick velvet coat, because he can’t feel anything aside from the pressure of her body making contact with his - no cold skin brushing against his arm, no hair tickling the pit of his elbow. He swallows hard and turns his head slightly, trying to catch a whiff of fresh air over the suffocating perfume that has saturated the very air around Melanie. Her eyes are cold and dark when he forces himself to meet her gaze; they glitter beneath the flickering torch mounted to the wall behind them, not unlike beetles in the dirt outside.
It’s a calculating gaze, he notes after only a moment - a hunter’s gaze. He swallows hard and reaches for his goblet, letting the wine quench his suddenly parched pallet. Melanie makes him nervous in a way he doesn’t fully understand, as if igniting some primal instincts urging him to move, to escape from some unseen threat lurking in the shadows just outside of his range of vision.
She hasn’t spoken a word directly to him outside of initial formalities, which is not outside the norm as of late, but it is something for which he’s suddenly profoundly grateful; across the dining hall he sees Amy fidgeting, her posture tense, watching the interaction with increasing alarm written visibly across her face. He swallows hard and holds her gaze, willing her to hear his silent scream for help .
He needn’t have bothered, apparently - as Melanie shifts even closer to him, her elbow catches the unused silverware to the left of her plate and sends each piece clattering to the floor. “I got it,” Jake says quickly, shoving his chair backwards despite the guards rushing forward, ignoring each voice urging him to sit back down. He’s on his hands and knees below the table in an instant, and despite the awkward angle pressing the collar of his jacket even more firmly to his windpipe, he breathes easily for the first time since sitting down.
He can still see guards moving around the table from where he’s crouched, several kneeling down in a futile attempt to assist, and voices ring loud and unintelligible through the hall over his head. It’s almost funny, for a second - like he’s a kid troublemaker all over again, insisting on sudden rounds of hide-and-seek during dinner with the guards while his parents chat over their meals. He ducks his head and smiles, grabbing the last spoon before easing backwards and back up to the surface of the table.
He slides the dirty silverware across the table and straightens his crown, ignoring the oily smile on Melanie’s face. There are far too many people looking at him, far too many people witnessing his face blushing scarlet, so he clears his throat and reaches for his goblet with little more than a cursory nod and smile directed in Melanie’s direction.
“ STOP! ” A loud voice cries just as the goblet touches his lips.
He freezes - along with every other person in the room - and now, they’re all staring at the source of the noise, the ungodly heart-stopping shout that emanated from one otherwise unassuming guard. Amy’s chest is heaving and her eyes are wide, wide and unblinking and fixated on him, on the goblet in his hand.
“You ungrateful wretch ,” Madeline hisses from the head of the table. “Remember your place and you’ll be lucky to make it to the end of this evening with your head still attached to your body -”
Amy appears not to hear her - she’s rushing across the room toward him, toward his goblet. She pulls it from his numb grasp carefully, briefly pressing one hand to his shoulder before stepping away from him completely. “I saw her put something in his drink,” she says, voice clogged and shaking.
The following silence, while brief, strikes a chord deep in Jake’s chest; Amy’s face is just as panicked an ashen as it was in the tavern, and even without the nauseating sight of her blood smeared across her face, seeing it again is no less terrifying than it was that night. He swallows hard, his pulse roaring in his ears drowning out the sudden onslaught of shouting directed at her and her shaking hands.
“I know what I saw!” Amy half-shouts over the ruckus. Jake blinks, looking from her face to the goblet and back again.
“How dare you accuse me of -”
“Turn out your pockets, then.” Amy interrupts. “Turn out your pockets.”
“I’ll do no such thing!”
“Lady Hawkins,” Karen says - and a hush falls over the room at once. Even Melanie seems to shrink away - but not Amy, Jake notes distantly. “Let’s settle the matter. Turn out your pockets and we’ll move on.”
“I-I don’t -” Melanie casts a glance toward Madeline, who ignores her in favor of glowering at Amy instead. “This is ridiculous - I’ve never been treated this way -”
“Melanie,” Karen interrupts, her tone pleasant, but persistent. “Turn out your pockets.”
Melanie deflates slightly, before reaching both hands into the pockets of her skirts. She pulls the innards out, letting the two tufts of material hang like comically small wings sprouting from the back of an oversized beast, and the sight of a single black berry falling from the right side to land against the carpet below her feet is unmistakable. Amy slams Jake’s goblet down on the table and dives toward it, snatching it before Melanie has a chance - just as she straightens with the berry held between her fingers, the kitchen door squeaks open on its hinges. “Charles,” Amy calls, and Charles is frozen in the kitchen doorway, paling quickly under the unexpected attention of every person in the room. “Would you be able to identify what kind of berry this is?”
“Oh, uh - sure, probably, I can try...” he says uncertainly, absently sliding the dessert tray atop a side table to the left of the kitchen door and stealing toward Amy. She crushes the berry between her thumb and index finger, letting dark juice drip down her fingers toward her wrist. Charles closes a hand over her forearm to steady her hand and delicately sniffs at her fingers; his eyes go wide as he rears back, his grip visibly tightening around her arm. “God, oh god,” he chokes, ripping his apron off one-handed and wiping her hand quickly. “That’s nightshade, it’s poison! Where did you find that? Oh, god, please tell me no one ate any of this -”
“She crushed these over his drink while everyone was distracted, she tried to poison him with nightshade.” Amy says loudly, pulling her hand from Charles’ grasp. She snatches Jake’s goblet again and tips it over, letting what wine remained spill across the table; while most of the liquid seeps down through the table slats, the remnants of dark, crushed berry skins settle demurely on the tabletop.
And Jake’s heart drops directly to his toes.
All at once, Melanie is thrashing toward him, teeth bared in an unholy screech even as several guards catch her round her middle. Jake scrambles up automatically, reeling backwards to escape her clawed nails, and then Amy’s grabbing his arms and yanking him backwards to stand behind her. Her arms are spread wide, shielding him should Melanie somehow escape the guards’ grasp, and Jake’s ears are ringing with Melanie’s screams and Madeline shrieking and Karen shouting. It all muddles together in his brain, the deafening cacophony of chaos unfolding before him, and he’s certain he’s physically incapable of handling one more second of this without spontaneously exploding right here in the dining hall.
“Amy,” he gasps, and she reaches back with one hand, her fingers briefly finding purchase against his hip before moving up to tangle with his own fingers.
“Go, I’ll cover,” he hears Charles mutter to Amy, and then she’s got her hands against his chest and she’s pushing, pushing, buffeting him toward the door, where the sounds of the riot are muffled and his heartbeat drowns out their clattering footsteps. He doesn’t remember turning, doesn’t remember her stepping in front of him, doesn’t remember grabbing her hand - but as he races up the staircase it’s all he can comprehend, the warmth of her hand and the break-neck speed of his heart thundering in his veins. She pulls him up the staircase and into the landing outside his room quickly, throwing his door open and yanking him in before slamming the door again, taking care to secure the latch, locking both of them inside.
And then he’s stumbling backwards, struggling to breathe, watching Amy rush toward him as though through a very long tube. He’s aware of the fact that her lips are moving and that her hands are touching him - his shoulders, his face, his neck - but it isn’t until he realizes the collar of his coat is no longer jutting into his throat that he realizes she’s unbuttoning his coat for him.
“It’s okay, Jake,” he hears her say - muffled in his own ears, as if they’re stuffed with cotton. “It’s alright, it’s okay, it’s over, it’s over -”
He reaches up to where her hands are pressing - an inch below the place where his heart is thundering - and catches her hands in both of his. “You just saved my life,” he whispers, not trusting his voice to be anything other than cracked and hoarse. “You just saved my life .”
She doesn’t look particularly proud, he doesn’t think - she just looks scared . “You’re okay,” she says softly - and when her hands disentangle with his to briefly frame his face, he thinks it may be just as much of a reassurance to herself as it is to him.
He grabs her by the wrists and pulls her hands away - and despite how aggressively Charles scrubbed her hand in the dining hall, there is still a pronounced dark stain on her fingers. He blinks and it’s blood, drenching her hand and dripping down her arm, staining and matting her sleeve to her skin; he tries to draw in a breath and finds his lungs quaking, the air ragged in his throat. “It’s still on you,” he hears himself say - voice harsh and foreign and far away in his ears.
She may say something back - may try to pull her hands from his grasp again - but he’s on his feet before she can, dragging her by the wrist into his washroom where several buckets of water remained unused during his earlier bath, shuffled to the far wall to make room for bustling handmaidens. He pulls her to the nearest one and drops to his knees, realizing too late that the motion yanked her down to her knees as well. She doesn’t complain about the pain, choosing instead to remain silent while he immerses her hand in the water and frantically scrubs his knuckles against the stains.
They seem to be fading in the distorted and rippling image the water’s surface affords him, but they’re certainly still there; with each moment that passes he feels his desperation mounting, as if he’s in a race against the poison seeping through her skin. “Jake,” Amy tries, soft and gentle despite the downright violent way he’s cleaning her skin.
“Majesty,” a new voice booms from the doorway, and both Jake and Amy jump. It’s Rosa, he realizes a beat later; Rosa framed in the doorway, Rosa stepping into the washroom, Rosa motioning for him to stand. “It needs soap,” she explains when he doesn’t budge.
“I don’t -”
“I do,” Gina interrupts - and now Gina’s here, too, stepping past Rosa, waving one hand for him to move while lifting the bottle of perfumed soap he recognizes from his earlier bath in the other. Jake scrambles out of the way at once, following Rosa’s unvoiced direction to move closer to her; Charles slips inside the washroom as he goes, offering Jake and Rosa a tentative, nervous smile before moving closer to where Gina and Amy are kneeling.
“This is the strongest stuff you have?” Charles asks seriously as Gina pours a small portion of soap into the bucket.
“The only stuff stronger would burn her skin off,” Gina mutters, setting the bottle aside before dipping both hands in the water and lathering Amy’s hand. Bubbles quickly overwhelm the rim of the bucket, spilling out onto the floor and soaking into both Amy’s pants and Gina’s skirts. For a long moment, the only sound in the room is that of sloshing water.
“Okay,” Gina says, pulling both hands back and motioning for Amy to do the same. Amy pulls her hand from the water and turns just as Charles steps toward her, neck bent to examine her; after a pregnant pause, Charles nods.
“It looks like you got it all,” he says, offering Amy another bucket with which to rinse her hand off. “But Amy, if you start feeling even a little bit sick, come find me . I’m serious. Even if you think it isn’t related, find me, and tell me. Okay?”
“Okay,” Amy says - and now she sounds just as scared as she looked moments ago out in his chambers, and Jake’s almost positive his heart is going to gallop directly out of his chest.
“We need to go,” Rosa says, nodding toward the door back into Jake’s chambers. “Terry’s making sure that asshole gets loaded into a cart to be taken straight to prison, but the second she’s off castle grounds he’s getting Queen Karen and they’re heading straight here to check on Jake.”
Gina snatches the bottle of soap up as Charles helps Amy to a standing position, and then Jake’s buffeted back out into his chambers and onto the edge of his bed by Rosa’s prodding hands. Charles goes first, scurrying out into the hallway with a guilty look thrown in either direction, and then Gina’s hurrying off after him. Rosa and Amy exchange a look in the washroom doorway before heading toward his chamber door together, and Jake’s suffocating, desperate, fisting both hands into his sheets to keep from running after them. “Amy,” he bursts.
She freezes in the doorway, head turned back toward him, eyes wide; with one last glance at Rosa, she steps back into his chambers and pushes the door closed firmly.
“I’m sorry,” he mutters as she crosses the floor and drops to a crouch before him. “I’m sorry, it’s just - I don’t - I don’t wanna -”
“It’s okay, Jake,” she says, voice steady and calm - the exact opposite of the way she sounded in the washroom not seconds before. “It’s okay, I’m not going anywhere, okay?”
He nods, jaw clenched; for a long moment, he remains very still, the image of Amy’s face shining with the most earnestness he’s ever seen in another human being burning into his eyes.
And then he’s sliding off the edge of the bed and falling to his knees before her, arms thrown harsly around her back, holding her to him even as she grunts in surprise. It only takes a moment before she returns his hug just as fiercely, her hands fisting into the material of his coat so hard he can feel the muscles of her forearms straining against him.
“I’m okay, Jake,” she says softly - so softly he almost doesn’t hear it - and he screws his eyes shut, willing himself to believe her.
“Someone tried to kill me,” he whispers into her shoulder.
Her grip around him tightens; he feels a muscle in her jaw jumping where it’s pressed against his neck.
“Someone tried to kill me again .”
“It didn’t work,” she reminds him, voice quiet and fierce. She pulls back, letting her hands land against his shoulders and squeezing gently. “As long as I’m around, I’m never gonna let that happen to you. I promise.”
His heart is still pounding and the image of her ashen face will probably haunt his nightmares for days to come, but he feels himself smiling - if only a little. “I believe you,” he says sincerely.
She pulls him back in for another tight hug - and at the gentle brush of her fingertips through the hair at the nape of his neck, he feels something close to peace.