The Solstice Prince – S.J. Himes

He blew a short breath, frost gathering on the wavy glass instantly. Jaime scratched a small star in the ice formed from his exhalations, watching as the glass steadily frosted again in the trail left by his fingertip. Dawn was an hour off yet, the stars shone brightly overhead, and the herb garden just outside the window was covered in frost and a thin blanket of snow. The view was peaceful, and somehow, welcoming despite the freezing temperatures. Part of him wanted to walk out there and stand in the silent, brittle cold while watching the sunrise over the mountains. “Boy! Quit your dreaming and come chop these roots,” the head cook shouted, and Jaime startled. Cook was glaring his way, the big man covered in flour and holding a knife. Jaime grabbed the brown sack of roots he was sent for in the first place, jumped down from the stack of crates piled under the small window, and went back to work. Dumping the onions out on the wooden table, he began cleaning and cutting. Mindful of the knife’s keen edge, Jaime ducked his head and lost himself in his task. The fire in the large brick hearth poured out plenty of heat to counteract the chilling cold emanating out of the stone wall that held the room’s lone window. The change in temperature was enough to make him start sweating, and he feared he might get ill, but the extreme variation between the far ends of the room helped when the fire became too much. The kitchen never stopped working, not here in the palace. Breakfast was still a couple hours away, but with so many guests arriving for the upcoming Solstice Ball, the servants were working at all hours. From what he’d seen so far in his few short weeks here, the royal family was considerate of their servants, rarely asking for meals outside of the usual hours, and the staff could catch decent sleep and rest.

Though, with the holiday approaching and more guests appearing by the dozens every day, the palace servants were running at all hours. Many of the arriving guests were nobles, and while they had their own servants for immediate personal needs, they were less considerate of their demands of palace staff and the kitchens. Plenty of the nobles asked for all sorts of things throughout the day and night. Jaime couldn’t blame some of them, not really—even to a noble, the palace must be an amazing place full of luxury and wonders, and to not take some advantage of an invitation to the palace would be wasteful. Servants came and went in increasing numbers, picking up trays and trolleys bearing meals, and in the outer room, far from the oppressive heat of the ovens and hearth, the Bell Room was bustling. Metal wires that ran from every suite and office chimed in that room, each attached to a small bell that rang when a cord was pulled. The number of chimes indicated what was needed, using a code that Jaime was glad he wasn’t responsible for deciphering. More experienced servants handled the orders. There was one bell that Jaime learned to recognize, which wasn’t hard, considering the bell tolled with a sweet and clear song, a sound that cut through the cacophony of discordant music that heralded the awakening of the nobles and ministers. The Royal Bell hung above the others, made of a metal that looked like gold and sang like a songbird.

Jaime had no way to know of it was gold or not, as he’d never seen gold before in his life. He thought not, since it was left in a room surrounded by the lower ranks of servants, but maybe the thought of stealing the bell was never considered. He wouldn’t steal it—he was fed, warm, safe, and unmolested by both master and peers. Stealing wasn’t a necessity here in the palace, so maybe that was why the bell remained untouched. As if his thoughts conjured it, the sweet clarion ringing of the Royal Bell cut through the oddly timed song from the lesser bells. Even Cook paused, the staff stopping mid-task as the servant in charge of deciphering the chimes took down the order, scribbling madly. It was short and simple, or so Jaime assumed, as the servant soon bustled through the wide doorway from the Bell Room into the kitchen, heading straight for Cook. Jaime held his breath, curious, and waited impatiently while Cook took the paper and read. “I need porridge, bacon, and cold sliced fruit with a full tea service readied immediately,” Cook ordered, and several of his helpers jumped into action. Jaime was still new and had no idea how to do anything yet, aside from cut things up and stir, so he was exempt from doing any real cooking.

His previous life as a poor student and his even briefer life as a slave chained to a cell wall, left him with little experience. Thankfully, Cook was far more patient than his surly demeanor indicated, and Jaime was given the time to learn how to be useful. It was the least he could do for the people who saved him. He resumed cutting the roots and onions, the sulfurous fumes making his eyes burn, and he blinked back tears. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve, and the bleached linen covering his wrist made him pause for a moment. Jaime made a fist, the skin of his wrist tingling and stretching, but it felt far better than it did weeks ago. The servant on his right gave him a questioning look, and he ducked his chin, not wanting conversation. He scraped the chopped vegetables into the large bowl in front of him, keeping his eyes down. “Jaime! C’mere lad, I’ve a task for you.” Cook waved him over, and Jaime gulped, wiping his hands on his shirt front.

He went to join Cook at the door that led out from the kitchen to the servants’ halls, a shiny silver trolley next to the bigger man. “Yes, sir?” “Take this to His Highness’s suite. All my experienced hands are busy preparing breakfast for the court.” Cook scowled down at him from his impressive height, making Jaime feel even smaller than he was—he wasn’t a big man by any means, and he looked younger than his nineteen years. Jaime’s head only came to the middle of Cook’s chest. His nerves must have shown, as Cook’s expression relaxed, and he put a big meaty hand, scarred from years of burns and blade nicks, on Jaime’s shoulder. “You’ll do fine. Just follow the golden arrows on the walls in the servants’ halls, and exit where you see the smaller diadem symbol for the Prince’s suite. Small crown for the Prince, big crown for the King. The other royals live closer to the King’s suite, and Prince Maxim’s room is right next to the exit marked by the small crown.

Knock loudly once, then go in. Set up the table for one, politely ask if the prince needs anything else, then come back here the same way you left. Make sense?” “Yes-s, Cook,” Jaime managed to say, biting his lip. He gripped the rail along the rear of the silver trolley and took a deep breath. Cook pat his shoulder once more, then gave him a gentle nudge. “Hurry along now, don’t want Prince Maxim’s breakfast to get cold.” “Yes, sir!” Jaime pushed the trolley; its well-oiled wheels were soundless, and it was easy to maneuver. He took the halls as quickly as he could as the stone corridors were only lit by a lamp at each intersection. Sure enough, there was a golden arrow etched into the stone above the other arrows, all colored differently. He knew some of the colors already, like red for the Guard’s Barracks, green for the upper servants’ offices, and blue for ministers.

There were yellow, purple, and brown as well, but those he had yet to decipher and asking after their meaning always got him looks of exasperation from the other servants; so he figured he would learn eventually on his own. He gulped when he took a corner following the golden arrow and the turn came to one of the lifts powered by pulleys and counterweights. He had been shown how to use one and took a short trip on one his very first day in the palace, but the thought of being lifted several stories in the air by only rope and wood in a narrow stone shaft left him shaking in his thin leather shoes. He had no time to be afraid though, as the lift doors opened with a creak right in front of him, and a servant stepped out from the small cabin. “Oh, sorry! You’re the new lad, yeah? Where you headed?” the stranger asked, a kind smile on his weathered face, arms full of a large wicker basket with a lid. He moved to the side, letting Jaime push the trolley to the lift doors. “Umm, breakfast for Prince Maxim?” Jaime replied, hands sweating. “Ah! That’s an easy one. See the gold lever here in the wall?” The older servant pointed with his chin, and Jaime nodded. “Right, all you do is pull the lever down all the way until you hear it lock in place, get in the lift, close the doors, and wait.

It’ll start moving after a moment or so, and it’ll stop on the floor you need. Then just follow the gold arrows. Really easy.” “Um, thank you?” He didn’t mean for it to sound like a question, but the older man grinned at him, shifting his load that must be heavy from just standing there. “You’ll be fine! The prince is a kind man. Just don’t be late with his food; he gets cranky when he’s hungry. Remember, gold lever, gold arrows.” The other servant took off, and Jaime wiped his sweaty, onion-scented hands on his rough linen shirt, pulled the gold metal lever down all the way, and heard it lock in place. He pushed the trolley into the lift with just enough room in there for himself and the cart, and turned to close the sliding doors. His fingers ached from clutching the trolley, and his heart jumped beneath his ribs when the lift shifted then jerked upwards.

Cut, smooth rock was visible through the bars and slats that made up the small box he was trapped in, and the scent of hemp rope and oil was strong. Jaime trembled as he waited, holding his breath, certain he’d hear the snap of ropes followed by a long, horrible plummet to the cellars far below. The floor beneath his feet shook once then the whole contraption came to a stop. What was he supposed to do now? Did he open the doors? Did they open on their own? Nothing happened for nearly a minute; so he braved moving. He tugged on one of the sliding wooden panels, and it released easily, withdrawing. The other half of the doors opened in response, pulled by hidden ropes and weights. He breathed out and quickly pulled the trolley from the lift. He didn’t know if he was meant to shut the doors or not; they stayed open and the lift remained still. He shrugged and looked for the gold arrows marking his route. He was afraid he’d already taken too long, but surely it wasn’t a hanging offense to be a little late.

Maybe the prince was busy dressing for the day and wouldn’t notice his breakfast appeared later than usual. Following the gold arrows, he found a small crown carved into the stone, the lines painted with gold. It was next to a door that exited the servants’ hall. He wiped his hands again and quietly opened the door. He peeked out, saw the main hall was empty, and pulled the trolley out. He shut the door behind him then looked for the door to the prince’s rooms. The large double doors were a wood dark in color and shined to a high sheen, the handles a bright golden metal and ornately carved. The entire hallway was festooned in artwork and paintings with deep red carpets beneath his feet. He felt drab and vulnerable in his simple servant’s uniform, but at least he was clean. A bit sweaty, and he smelled like onions, but he worked in the kitchens—that was expected, right? Jaime knocked, once, loud like Cook instructed.

He waited a heartbeat and jumped when a deep voice bid him enter. Gathering his courage, he opened the door, trying not to appear as nervous as he felt. His first sight of Prince Maxim was of the man’s broad back and strong shoulders clad in a pristine white shirt topping a trim waist and skin tight black breeches that flowed down thickly muscled thighs to feet encased in black leather boots. He all but swallowed his tongue, and it took him a second to find his own extremities and recall how they functioned. He pulled the trolley into the room, leaving the door open as he looked about for a table to set up breakfast. Prince Maxim still hadn’t turned around; his head was bowed as he read some papers. His thick, brown hair obscured his features when the chin-length locks fell forward, and Jaime had an errant wish to see the prince’s face. There was a table beside the fireplace, and he hurriedly set up breakfast, arranging the tea service and bowl of porridge while trying not to make too much noise. He was sure most servants would be in and out in seconds, with nary a sound. Jaime was so focused on his task that he never noticed the prince walking up next to him.

Jaime turned and gave a most unmanly squeak, clutching a fork to his chest. Prince Maxim smiled down at him, so close Jaime could smell the pine-scented bathwater he must have recently used and feel the warmth that poured off the taller man. Jaime blinked, working his mouth, but nothing resembling sound emerged. “I’ll take that,” Prince Maxim smiled, and Jaime marveled at how his honey-brown eyes seemed to glimmer with mirth. “Huh?” Jaime sighed out, utterly captivated. A warm, big hand engulfed his, and Jaime swayed on his feet. The fork was gently tugged from his hand, placed on the table, and then, the warm hand was back, pulling his hand away from his chest. “What’s this?” Prince Maxim murmured as Jaime stared fixedly at high cheekbones and a lush mouth, totally distracted. Prince Maxim tugged his sleeve back from his wrist, and callused fingertips smoothed over his sensitive skin. The scars on his wrists reacted, the skin tightening as if cold, and Jaime gasped, the spell broken.

The prince was holding his right arm in both of his hands, caressing the ravaged skin that had been flayed open by the cruel shackles of his slavery. “That’s, that’s nothing,” Jaime gasped, tugging his arm free and backing away a step, shoving his sleeve back down. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you,” Prince Maxim reached out a hand, palm up, as if coaxing a shy wild creature to come closer. “You’re new here, aren’t you? Are you the lad the Royal Guard brought in a few weeks back?” “How…how do you know? I mean, yes, that’s me,” Jaime stuttered out, backing up until his rear end smacked into the now empty trolley. He recalled why he was there and his duties, and he sketched bow and dragged the trolley to the door. “Enjoy your breakfast, Highness.” Anxious not to make a fool of himself any further, Jaime exited swiftly, closing the door far too hard. His last glimpse of the handsome man was of him frowning in puzzlement and concern. Jaime cringed at the slam of the door and hunched his shoulders as he all but ran for the servants’ hall.

Long minutes later, and after a frantic battle with the lift that left him shaking and sweating, Jaime stumbled back into the kitchen, barely managing to replace the trolley along the wall. He returned to his designated spot and began chopping veggies, praying Cook would pay him no mind and leave him alone for the rest of the day.

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