“I’m sorry, I know it hurts, but you have to trust me okay?” the voice says.
At least Virgil, thinks the voice says it. He can’t really tell over the noise in his head and burning fire in his lungs and screaming in the background of everything that was going on. He can’t even see really, based on the rush of white and black dots all over his vision like pin needles getting jabbed directly into his eyes as his throat shreds itself apart again and again and again.
He’s not sure what is happening, not sure when he hit the floor or how the world around him compressed into just him or why his entire body seems to be trying to rip itself apart with varying levels of success.
He sure that it hurts.
And that he hasn’t cried like this since he was kid and he fell and hit his head on the cobblestone fountain in the market and there was just...so much blood everywhere and he thought he was going to die back then.
It had just been a bit of icing.
And Virgil can still taste it on his lips between the blood and the salty tears and the vomit. The avocado taste that he hadn’t had since his mother had passed from the plague a decade prior.
The burning in his lungs is agony, like he jumped into the castle furnace and breathed in the cinders for fun. He strains his arms to tear at his chest where the boiling feeling seems to bleed from, but something is holding him down, and he screams, pleads, begs-- anything, just to make it stop. He’s sorry, he’s sorry, he won’t do it again, he swears--
It’s like a white-hot poker being driven between his ribs and twisting, like a dragon’s breath right before those sharpened foot long teeth snap him right in half, like his head had been tilted back and he’d swallowed lava.
He writhes against it, but something has his left arm and his right wrist and there’s a weight on his legs that keep him from moving despite the desperation in his motions. Every inhale moves the flames--and he can’t quite tell if they’re imaginary anymore, surely something imaginary wouldn’t couldn’t doesn’t hurt like this hurts so much so badly he’s sorry sosorrypleasejustmakeitstopplease---
Then, all at once, it’s over.
The fire reels back, flooded by a cold so icy it steals the rest of the breath he had. His limbs feel like lead and they drop to the floor of the kitchen. It’s also mercifully silent, which seems eerily impossible because the Castle is never silent ever. His vision swims like dunking in and out of the river back home when he went swimming with the older kids in the river. Far over head the gaping arches of the room fade in and out of clarity. The hollowness rings faintly in him, followed by an all-consuming exhaustion that peels away the rest of his thoughts.
“Virgil?” Someone says his name.
He almost recognizes them. He should probably recognize them.
There are faces over him, people he knows, but they’re too blurry to make out. All he wants is sleep suddenly. A deep dark long sleep.
“Let him sleep, your highness,” someone else says softer. “He’s okay now.”
And then Virgil’s eyes close and he loses consciousness.
The unfortunate truth of the matter was that Virgil had no reason to be in the kitchen in the first place. He should have been mending that tapestry that the twin Princes had mangled in spontaneous duel last week, or adding the few last details to the new tunic Prince Remus had been instructed him to prepare, or fixing the tear in Prince Roman’s riding cloak, or simply catching up on sleep that he had missed while pressing himself to finish the new Birthday outfits for the Twins Ball at the end of the week.
But as it stood he had slipped from his crafting room to the kitchen in hopes that the Head of the Kitchen would take pity on him like he had done so many times before and offer him some scraps from the feast that was going on.
Some noble had arrived in the early morning and the castle had been abuzz with energy as the King welcomed him. Virgil had already heard several rumors about it, just from lurking on the corner counter out of the way of the scurrying kitchen maids and the servant runners.
“Something about him strikes me as odd,” Patton had admitted to him between cutting up strawberries, helping a maid balance a honey bun tray, and directing a newer servant boy on the proper way to refill a spare goblet. “I didn’t like the look he gave Prince Roman at all.”
And Virgil had snorted at that, swiping a glob of honey from the empty pan before it when to the stack of dirty dishes. “You don’t like any way anyone looks at Prince Roman.” He had pointed out sucking on his index finger.
Patton gave him a disapproving look but waved off his blatant theft. “I don’t know what you mean, kiddo-- Lower Terrance! If you keep trying to pour from that height there’s a chance you’ll miss and stain the table cloth-- I know that he’s an important noble, but the way he was looking at Roman was the way a butcher eyes a piece of meat before he cuts it.”
Virgil swallowed and eyed the cook carefully. “Well, how was he looking at Prince Remus?”
Virgil frowned, “Wasn’t? He ignored the second Prince?” Which seemed ridiculous on all fronts. First of all, Prince Remus was royalty, and no one ignores royalty, ever. Not even if its 3 A.M. and they send for you to discuss a different pattern for the tunic you were making for them and you barely have time to put on presentable clothes much less brush your hair. Secondly, Prince Remus was impossible to ignore even if you were trying to: between his gaudy outfits and the morning star he kept looped on his belt like a sword and his voice which echoed off the cement at all hours of the day, he stood out wherever he went. His auburn hair and green eyes made him quite the talk of the castle.
Patton wrung his dish cloth between his fingers before going back to slicing strawberries. “Well not at first. He bowed and present Remus a cake. After that Remus was too distracted to really notice anything else.”
Virgil had snuck a strawberry from the pile yet to be cut and pops it in his mouth, chews, swallows and then asks politely, “What about his consort?”
“You mean Dee?” Patton slid a sliced strawberry to the side of the wooden board. Virgil had thought was entertaining that Patton had even asked. Roman didn’t take consorts, and Remus only had one: a man by the name of Dee who had the eyes like butter and a smile too soft. His hair flowed like a golden hay field, and his voice was like a fable siren’s. Virgil hadn’t heard him sing, but he couldn’t imagine that there had ever been an instance where he hadn’t been able to get what he wanted from someone.
Dee was pretty, but in a sense that it was too pretty to be real. Like a snake oil merchant come to sell wares to the naive populace.
But Virgil was biased on all fronts: Dee had always been present when Virgil had need to take measurements of Prince Remus for his new tunic, and every time he’d been summoned after that, watching Virgil’s every move like a predator waiting for the perfect time to strike. Virgil’s hands had shaken so badly he had barely been able to read his own notes later, and even if he tried to tell himself it was the stress, he knew it was because of how delightfully attracted he was to two things that weren’t open for him to even dream about. So, he buried thoughts of Prince Remus’s muscles and of Dee’s breathy laughter and pretended that they didn’t keep him awake at night.
“Dee was impassive, you know,” Patton had said, drawing Virgil from his thoughts, “I’m never able to read him.”
“Not like I can read Prince Roman,” went unsaid, but Virgil could hear it under his words.
“What kind of cake was it?” Virgil had asked instead, because he was a merciful friend and wasn’t about to bother a man about unrequited crushes while he was kick dirt over his own emotions.
Patton had wrinkled his nose. “Avocado! Can you believe it? I’ve never heard of an avocado cake before!”
Virgil blinked. He had glanced towards the end of the counter where the cake had been placed so elegantly. He had been eying it all night, letting his mouth water how good he imagined it might be, but knowing it was avocado? “My mom...she used to make those. They were my favorite.”
“Oh, I know that look,” Patton said, pointing his knife at him, “You know that cake is for the Prince. He already declared that no one but him is allowed to have it, Virge. Even if I wanted to slip you some, that would put both of our necks at risk.”
And Virgil knew that, he did. But it was a large cake. Surely, the Prince couldn’t eat it all by himself.
And frankly he knew enough about the royal family by now to know that absolutely no one else would eat a monstrosity like that. Prince Roman didn’t even like avocados to begin with and had loudly complained the last time Patton had tried sneaking it into a meal.
Was the man really going to miss if Virgil snags just swatch of the icing?
Patton lightly hit his hand. “Don’t,” He warned with that stern voice of his which revealed his years over Virgil.
“I wasn’t!” Virgil lied.
“I’ll toss you out of my kitchen, Virgil.” Patton had told him. “Because I’d rather lose your company for the next few nights than have to watch you be run through for stealing from the crown.”
“It’s a cake.” Virgil whined.
Patton gave him another warning gaze and moved another strawberry around. He had been about to say something else, but at that moment Logan, the resident mage who always chose to stay scarce when there were visiting nobles about the halls, had chosen to flourish down the servant staircase which had appropriately distracted them both. Not that Virgil had been hoping for a distraction.
But who was he to stare a gift horse in a mouth?
Logan had zeroed in on Patton, per usual, causing the cook to blush the same way he did around Prince Roman and Logan had mentioned something about a plant they were attempting to magically grow. Virgil hadn’t really been focusing on the words as much as the fact that Patton’s eyes stayed trained on Logan while he talked.
Virgil had inched down the counter, placing a finger to his lips when Terrance noticed what he was doing. He reached out with on hand and flicked just enough of the icing that he’d get a taste, but not enough to disturb the overall look of the cake. In fact, Virgil was certain no one would even know he took some if they hadn’t seen anything.
“Virgil!” Patton yelled just as he popped his finger in his mouth.
Virgil had stiffened at the sound of his name and whirled back to face a very mad Patton and a surprised Logan. The taste of avocado had hit the back of his throat, which almost made him feel great: it tasted just as earthy as he remembered it being when his mother made it, with just the right bitter aftertaste that made Virgil want more, although he didn’t remember it being quite so prominent--
“That was the Prince’s Cake!” Patton had shouted, “As in Prince Remus! I don’t care if you are in good graces with his highness! That was a stupid- stupid -stupid-- what on earth were you thinking? Virgil--!!”
And that was when Virgil had first felt the burning, like an itch in his throat that had suddenly swept him up. Patton’s voice had faded as he grabbed for his own throat, for his chest, for anything to remove the sudden agony ravaging his body. He had toppled straight off the counter in the middle of whatever else Patton had shouted, taking the cake right down with him.
Because that was just Virgil’s luck that he’d steal a lick of the second Prince’s cake and end up poisoned within an inch of his life.
And to be honest, the price for stealing from the crown in most cases is death, and since Virgil had been pretty sure he was going to die anyway he figures when he closes his eyes that was going to be the end.
He wakes up, with someone carting their fingers through his hair the way his mother used to do, before she had gotten sick and died from that plague that had taken over half their village. His head feels like someone had stuffed cotton between his ears, his throat like someone had forced him to swallow swords. He’s warm, which was a strange concept: usually the servants’ quarters are cool, even in the summer and Virgil’s blankets are never quite been enough to stave off the tendrils of chill that seep into his cot. But here and now? Oh, he’s so warm and comfortable he never wants to move again.
“--want him killed!”
“I know you do, your highness.” Another voice says, a voice that’s closer and more comfortable, “But there’s much more to gain from keeping him alive.”
“That cake was intended for Me!” There is the sound of something shattering, something ceramic, and fancy, and expensive.
Virgil tries to shift, tries to open his eyes, but it’s just so...exhausting. The hand in his hair drags slightly, before restarting softly, more gently than before.
“It’s okay, Love,” the voice over him says softly. “I’ve got you. Go back to sleep.”
Something else crashes. And another. And another.
There are more after that, but Virgil doesn’t remember them.
The next time he wakes, he’s more aware of where he is: he can feel the luxurious goose feather blanket draped over his chest, and how several of the loose feathers tickle his chin with each inhale, can feel the soft pads of fingers dancing through his hair in a way that make him want to relax and drift off again, can feel the coolness of a wet cloth on his forehead that wards off an overheating.
Its comfortable, its perfect.
But there’s never been a perfect thing in Virgil’s entire life.
He shifts, moaning with the effort to get his body to move after so long (?) of stiffness. He hadn’t realized that there had been people talking around him, until the conversation comes to a soft stop and the hand in his hair retracts slightly.
Virgil’s eyes open and he almost believes he’s still dreaming.
He knows where he is, even though he can’t believe it: he’d know the opulent bedframe and those darkened green curtains anywhere; he’d know those grey and silver blankets, and that room shape even if he should have fallen blind with everything else that had happened. He had been in that room far too many times for him to not have known.
He’s in the Second Prince’s room, lying in the second Prince’s bed, under the second Prince’s covers, and the Second Prince’s consort was sitting beside him with his hand in Virgil’s hair and another hold a book he seems to have been in the middle of reading.
“Oh,” Dee, the consort who was far too pretty to be anything other than trouble, says softly. “You’re awake.”
“He’s awake?” The sound of the Prince Remus startles Virgil, although it shouldn’t have. It only made sense that the owner of the room would also be in his own room.
What does not make sense is why that Virgil is there.
“Softly,” Dee says to the Prince without removing his eyes from where he’s staring down at Virgil with an expression that he doesn’t dare put an actual name to. The very idea of it makes the back of Virgil’s mouth sting.
Prince Remus had been across the room, perhaps staring out that large window which he did often while waiting for Virgil to respond to his summons, but he comes to the bed almost before Virgil can form another thought. Virgil tries to sit up, tries to move because this was the Prince and Virgil had already been caught stealing a taste from his cake and he was lucky they did just let him die--
Prince Remus puts a hand on Virgil’s shoulder and lightly shoves him back to the pillows, back to Dee’s side, back down. Whatever strength Virgil thinks he has disappears right out of his limbs.
There’s something strange about the Prince, Virgil notes squinting up at him. Not that there isn’t usually something strange about him; it seemed that every time Virgil was requested to his presence there was something just off about him. Virgil had thought it had been like a tease: something that would stick in his mind while he threaded his needles and cause him to shake his head with fondness. It had seemed that Remus had made a game out of it too, on the rare occasions where Virgil almost asked if he was cultivating some sort of joke, and the Prince had smirked at him and dared him to say something (which of course he never did, because Virgil quite likes his head where it’s attached to his neck, and the feel of Dee’s eyes on made him dangerously aware of his own standing).
But this sort of strangeness was not like the other times. It’s a calmness that encompasses the Prince, much like a still pond moments before a stone plunges into the depths. There’s no extra energy, no mischievous glints, smug crude joke. There’s just Prince Remus, and a seriousness that make Virgil fear for his life.
This is the Prince who could beat most of the military with nothing but his fist and his morning star. This is the Prince who could stare down an invading army and send them running home with just a single threat. This is the Prince who would challenge Death to a duel and make it out with his soul.
There’s a fresh cut across his cheek that hadn’t been there the last time Virgil had seen him, as if he had dodged a blade by mere inches and dismissed the attack as not nearly as worthy of his attention as Virgil somehow was.
“Why did you eat that cake?” Prince Remus asks.
“Re—” Dee says sharply.
The Prince holds up a hand at him, and Dee holds his tongue. “I want to know.”
Virgil suddenly feels like the blankets are constricting, tightening around his torso and his chest like a vice. His body shakes at the very idea of the cake. The mere thought of avocado makes his mouth violently taste like blood and his throat smolders with the threat of pain.
His hands go to his neck, to relive the pressure that’s not really there, but Dee is quicker. The consort catches both his wrists and pins them softly to Virgil’s abdomen with one hand and uses the other to rub tenderly rub Virgil’s cheek.
“It’s okay,” the consort says, in a soothing tone, that makes Virgil want to cry, “Shh, you’re okay now, Virgil.”
“I’m s-sorry,” Virgil chokes out, “S-sorry.”
Whatever the Prince is looking for, he doesn’t seem satisfied. He stands up again, fiercely shoving the bedframe. He takes three steps from the bed and then spins back around with a murderous expression.
“Sorry?” He shouts. “He’s sorry!” He slips his morning star from its hook on his belt and spins to swing it against the wall.
“Remus!” Dee interrupts.
“Shut up!” Prince Remus snarls right back. The sound of metal against the stone walls explodes throughout the room, causing Dee to tense up. Its violent and cold and Virgil hates it, hates that he caused it, hates that he doesn’t know why and he’s too afraid to ask.
Dee shifts like he wants to get up, wants to go to his prince and cup his face to ground him back to a reality before he does something he will regret, but in the end he stays right with Virgil. And Virgil is selfish enough that he’s thankful more than he’s guilty. The sunlight from the windows make the consort’s hair glitter gold and the black jewels around his neck that claim him as Prince Remus’s property glint harshly. His touch is far softer than Virgil would have expected, softer than the blankets, softer than a breeze on a warm summer’s day.
The prince swings four more times at the wall, deepening darkening cracks without the slightest care in the world. Then he takes his weapon and throws it across the room where it collides something else beyond Virgil’s line of vision before falling mercifully silent.
“Are you finished, your majesty?” Dee says in a tone that’s dangerous close to being chiding.
“I will be finished when I have that skamelar’s head at my feet!” Prince Remus says nastily. “That cake was intended for me!”
“I’m sorry,” Virgil whimpers again.
“And just what do you have to be sorry for?” Prince Remus turns on him, “Tell me, Virgil! If not for you, I would be dead from having boiled from the inside! Or maybe from having clawed my way right into my ribcage. Or maybe from having ripped my own throat apart? I’m sure that would have been a lovely sight for everyone to watch!”
Virgil’s heart clenches, and he doesn’t know what to say, what he should do. The back of his throat tastes like the inside of his stomach, like blood, and poison, and avocado. And the Second Prince is saying his name like it’s the most normal thing in the world, talking like Virgil had done it on purpose, sounding like Virgil had saved his life and that meant something more than fate intervening at the right moment.
Dee says, “We came so close to losing you, Virgil. It was a matter of luck that you survived. Logan said that if he had been any further away, if you had taken any bigger of a taste... you would not have stayed alive long enough for him to figure out the cure.”
They talk like it means something. Like Virgil’s life is worth something more than the tailoring services he supplies, like he can’t just be replaced with just a single royal announcement, like they think Virgil is….
“W-why?” Virgil trembles. “Why are you—"
Prince Remus kneels next to the bed, and his head dips slightly so that his black crown bows for Virgil.
“Did you really think that all these times I just wanted new clothes?” The Prince says so quietly Virgil’s breathe catches. “That I’m not capable of fixing my own holes in my trousers, or my cloaks, or that I truly cared if what I was wearing had rips in them at all? Before you came along Father had been threatening to take all of my weapons and lock me in a tower so I would stop going through fabrics so quickly.”
Dee’s fingers ghost over Virgil’s chin lightly. “And a three A.M. summons is surely the most normal thing for the royal tailor.” There’s a teasing smile on his lips, lips that Virgil thinks might be very nice against his. “Our prince was quite inconsolable when you appeared looking just as presentable as normal, Love.”
There’s something about the way he says words--“our prince”, “Love”--like they’re the most normal and natural things in the entire Kingdom.
“Don’t pretend like you haven’t spent night waxing poetry to me about what you want to do with him, Dee!” The prince commands.
“I have no clue what you are referring to, your highness,” Dee says with a red blush across his ears.
Prince Remus looks up at both of them, before leaning forward on the bed. Like a magnet, Dee moves towards him as well and meets him for a smiling kiss in right over Virgil.
He’s seen them kiss dozens of times: soft kisses, warm kisses, kisses so openly filled with love that Virgil feels like he’s intruding when he looks at them. They’ve kissed while Virgil had taken measurements, when he had been taking notes for the specific requests the Prince had for him, when Virgil had been leaving to go about his duties.
Virgil has never left apart of a kiss like this. His lips are on anyone’s and the only touch he has is where Dee was still holding his hands, which had turned into him lacing their fingers together in a mangled knot. Prince Remus reaches out and takes his other hand, and who is he to deny his prince?
He feels faint, float, not really. Surely, he was still dreaming; the last wisps of the poison having their fun with him. Surely, he was about to wake up and find himself not nearly this lucky.
“Don’t scare us like that again, Virgil,” Prince Remus says, breathlessly as he presses his forehead to Dee’s and squeezes Virgil’s hand, “Not before I have a chance to properly court you. I’ll bring you a barbarians head on a stake or something!”
Dee merely smiles down at him and says “Love.”
Virgil thinks that if he died, perhaps this wasn’t such a bad place to spend the rest of eternity.