Rose sat in the back corner of the servant's eating area, forcing her spoon to go from bowl to mouth and trying not to fall asleep in the process of it.
Jake's voice crashed over her and Rose felt a little more awake.
Jake stretched his arms over his head. "I am exhausted. I couldn't get comfortable last night."
"Me either," Rose agreed. "You know, I talked to your friend Trixie last night."
"And you haven't run away screaming."
"Why?" Rose asked. "Are you scared of Trixie?"
"Oh, absolutely," Jake said with a nod. "She's got a mean right hook and she's not afraid to use it."
And use it she did – from everyone from Spud to, Jake's utter delight, Haley, when she refused to brush her teeth. The only person that Trixie showed restraint around was Lao Shi, who seemed more amused than anything by the quips that sometimes escaped her in his presence.
"I don't even think you're joking."
"I wouldn't lie to you."
"Not even if it was a really big secret?" she asked.
"Well, if the fate of my country depended on it, perhaps." Jake grinned wildly and she smiled back.
"Well, I suppose I'd understand in that case," she said.
Jake tried not to breathe a sigh of relief, though it was silly. He wasn't really as dumb as Trixie thought he was and he wasn't about to tell Rose his secrets but he did want her to trust him. He wouldn't lie to her if he had a choice about it. And Jake could sense that there was some kind of wall up around her; he didn't want to get shut out of it.
"What about you?" Jake asked. "Would you trust me with your secrets?"
Rose jutted her chin out. "Eventually."
"I'll take it."
Rose glanced at him. "Don't you want any breakfast?"
"Huh? No. Uh … perk of being a manservant is that I get some of the same food he gets."
"Then why did you ask me to breakfast?"
"Couldn't think of a better time to see you."
"Well," Rose said, "you can think of something more interesting for next time."
"Rather than a meal you don't eat."
"Fair enough. I get Sunday evenings off. What about you?"
"I as well," Rose said.
"Will you spend Sunday evening with me?"
"All right," Rose agreed. "Sunday. But, I have to start work and you're probably needed."
"Probably," Jake said. "But, you know, the prince is lazier than anyone gives him credit for. He might not even be awake yet."
"Best you go and find out."
They left the room together and that was when Spud flailed down the stairs, bumping into the two of them.
"Jake?" he squinted. "Why are you down here?"
"Spud, have you met Rose?"
Spud blearily turned to look at Rose and then at Jake.
"Right, right. I'll meet you upstairs after," Spud said. "Hi, Rose, we'll talk when I'm awake."
He headed off and Jake and Rose ascended the steps.
"Why is he called Spud?"
"Presumably they found him in the royal potato patch butt-naked as an infant."
Rose stopped and half-turned toward him. "You're kidding!"
"Yeah, I am. He used to eat raw potatoes like apples."
"Actually, his last name is Spudinski. Which is less interesting."
"You're right," Rose agreed. "I liked the other two better."
They paused at the top of the steps; she would go one way toward Haley and he was supposed to go the other way, toward his own chambers.
"I liked breakfast with you."
"You didn't eat anything."
Jake shrugged. "I'll see you Sunday."
"Probably between then … Although, if you could not run me over next time."
Jake smirked. "I'll do my best."
She gave a little wave and they went their separate ways but Jake's heart was hammering and a grin was spreading stupidly across his face.
His good mood lasted until he reported to his grandfather's study to see his mother's face in Fu's crystal orb.
"Ah, Jake," Gramps said. "You're late."
"I didn't know we had a meeting time."
Gramps's eyes slowly took in Jake' s human form and Jake sighed, transforming into a dragon.
"Your mother is just giving us reports from the most recent skirmishes."
"In the medic tent. Working," she clarified quickly, because it was always a question when it came to Jake's father. "Something's changed. Our spies in the Huntsclan's camp can't quite figure it out but, apparently, something has gone missing."
"What kind of something?"
Susan shook her massive dragon's head, the light dappling off her pale green scales. "We don't know. It's being kept hush hush but it was important. Theron is desperate to get it back."
"We must find out what it is and find it first," Lao Shi said.
"We're trying but we don't have any spies in the inner circle and that's where this thing is being kept. But, they're trying to push past us more fervently than they were before. Our assumptions are that they think we have it – possibly we've transported it back to the castle."
"Even for us, it's still a journey of several days from the front to the castle," Lao Shi said. "How long has this thing been missing?"
"We don't know. We first got reports of it two days ago. We'll keep you updated. Also, we lost the leprechaun village but managed to maintain our control of the river by transporting some of the mermaids to fresh water. They're not as fond of it but they're glad to have the Huntsclan out of their waters. But, we had some causalities and a lot more injuries in getting the mermaids in."
"Is there anything that we can do?"
"I want your opinion on the placement of our -"
Jake tuned her out, once she started talking about the placement of centaurs over the placement of the trolls, the talk of human recruitment, the flood of refugees. He knew that he should listen and that it was his job to listen but Jake had never wanted this kind of job. He didn't think it was fair that he was just expected to do all of this when there were people who would have gladly volunteered and done better. Jake had never been in a real battle before, left to train with his aging grandfather, trying to get him into peak condition before he was sent into the fray. Jake wasn't looking forward to that time. He had seen enough of his parents' reports to know that it wasn't a joke and people really were dying and he should do his best to help. He just didn't know what that was.
"Jake, are you listening?"
"Yes," Jake lied.
"I love you, Jake," Susan said. "Tell Haley I love her too."
"You too. I will. Bye, Mom."
The orb turned into just an orb and Lao Shi turned to Jake with narrow, knowing eyes.
"I set up camps again," Lao Shi said. "Go, find them. Do not return to this castle until you do."
Jake groaned and took off through the window.
Rose moved very carefully and slowly, adjusting the bedclothes along the princess's bed. For the first time, the princess was in her room while Rose was cleaning it, Trixie behind her. The dragon had the voice of a child but her dragon's body was muscled and bulky. And Rose feared her. She knew she shouldn't. She had been raised to know how to take care of herself, though great pains were taken to ensure she never had to. Those were the things she didn't want to think about while making up Haley's bed. She had told herself over and over again on her trip here that she wouldn't be afraid upon arriving. While her disillusionment with what the Huntsclan was fighting for her propelled her flight, Rose had been naïve about how her upbringing would affect her comfort level once she was actually here.
"Mom's not happy about it," Haley was saying, "but Gramps is going to start training me too. There's no reason I can't learn defence. Unless he wants me to train with Jake."
Fire spurted from her mouth and Rose nearly leapt out of her shoes. Trixie calmly put out the smoldering rug and caught Rose's eye with a smirk.
"You know how annoying he is if we do anything together! He'd get all stupid trying to make me look stupid."
"Jake has a knack for looking stupid," Trixie grumbled while Haley laughed.
Rose nearly dropped her duster. The elected master of the Huntsclan, Theron, would have had someone drawn and quartered if he'd heard them mocking him or any of the captains in such a manner. She couldn't imagine a subordinate speaking like that. Though, it seemed to please Haley. Maybe that was the point.
Rose wondered if there would ever be a time in the castle when she felt like she had her feet under her.
It didn't happen over the next few days, though Rose did begin to feel more at home. She and Trixie began to eat dinner together every night and they bemoaned their tired feet and Trixie told her tidbits of castle gossip and old scandals. It breathed a sense of familiarity into the stone walls. Rose sometimes saw Spud hurrying along the halls but she never saw Jake and, so, Trixie became her main source of conversation. Even though she didn't see Jake, he made his presence known. He had clipped a rose from the castle gardens and left it on her pillow. Rose kept it by her bed as she slept, inspiring better dreams than the ones of the home she'd left behind.
On Sunday night, Jake found her as she was leaving Haley's quarters.
"Yes. Are you?"
She hoped his response was that he was almost done. She'd been working all day and had been expecting to brush her hair and wash her face and hands before meeting him.
Jake smiled at her and offered her his arm. Rose felt her exhaustion give way to excitement and nerves as she placed her hand on Jake's muscular forearm.
"Come on. I've got somewhere to show you."
Rose felt like a lady as he escorted her through the halls. She even forgot how she hated to wear dresses and how the one she had on was particularly dirty.
"How was your week?"
"Melinda was right. Dragons do make a mess. Though I don't really even see any of them!"
Jake led Rose out a side door.
"Then, how do you know it's the dragons?"
"Well, who else would it be?"
"There are a lot of people in the castle."
"You're not that familiar with magic folk, are you, Rose?"
"No," Rose admitted as they crossed the lawn. "Where are we going?"
"Do you like flowers?"
"You're asking me this after you left me a rose?"
"I'm an obvious person," Jake admitted.
Rose rather liked that about him, though it made her a little reckless feeling around him. Just because he was a trustworthy person didn't mean that she should trust him.
"I like flowers. And I really liked the rose."
"I'm busy," Jake said, "but I wanted you to know that I was thinking about you."
Rose had been thinking about him too but she didn't quite want to admit it. Her whole world was unfamiliar territory and she had never so much as held anyone's hand.
Jake hoisted a branch of a flowering tree. "Go straight ahead."
Rose went forward hesitantly, ducking underneath of branches. Was there supposed to be something ahead? Except for branches that wrapped around her skirts and Rose wished for pants until she found what Jake had wanted to show her: a clearing, in the middle of the orchard of trees. There was a blanket on the thick green grass and Rose knew that he had set it up for her. She turned in the perfumed grove, thinking it was probably the most peaceful spot that she had ever stood in.
"This is where I come to hide," Jake said, "and I thought you'd enjoy it."
"I do," Rose said, reaching up to run her hands across one of the rough branches. "We didn't have trees like this where I grew up. My father said that wizards enchanted the grounds so that nothing would grow, in hopes that … Well, you know what happens when you can't get food."
"That's no way to grow up."
Rose could hear the pity in Jake's words. She didn't know how to explain to someone who had been raised in a castle – albeit as a servant – that it wasn't all bad. So, she stayed quiet until he spoke again.
"Where are you parents now?"
"Dead." Rose turned around to face him and he was sitting on the blanket. Slowly, she lowered herself down next to him. "It's why I finally left the camp. I hadn't agreed with what the Huntsclan was fighting for in a long time but I had felt tied there. What about your parents?"
"They're both still alive. They're soldiers, fighting in the wars." Jake shrugged. "Sometimes, I think about what it would be like to join them. Sometimes, I wonder what the point is. Humans made the decision a long time ago to not settle in villages with magic folk. If they had wanted more trade or mutual settlements, I'm sure the king would have considered it. After all, we've welcomed humans within our lands, even if the reverse wasn't true and we've been taking in refugees since the wars started."
"Perhaps. We can't know that he did consider it. We can't know that the Huntsclan even asked. But, it runs deeper than just that, you know? The humans that support the Huntsclan don't want a monarchy, particularly one headed by magical creatures. It's not about trades. It's about fear. The fear that magical creatures could hurt us so much more easily than we could hurt them. Look at the barren ground I told you about. Many people were deprived of crops off a simple act from a wizard. That's why the Huntsclan still has support." Rose sighed. "But, a few years ago, I started thinking: people can hurt each other too. We could burn someone's crops to the ground, force whole villages into starvation. Magical creatures have a king, homes, children. They're not animals who prowl the woods. They choose to hurt us, which means they can choose not to: the same choice humans face. I just think … well, maybe, I'm oversimplifying things. But maybe they simplified it when they declared war on one another too. Am I making sense?"
Jake hadn't taken his dark eyes from her face and Rose felt exposed as he watched her.
"I think it makes a lot of sense. I can't stand the thought of actually hurting someone else. I know what war is in theory but to actually do it something different."
"I know how to fight but I worked in the medics tent. The people that I watched die also made me run away. It made me realize that if the Huntsclan won, this wouldn't end. They want magical creatures exterminated but there's so many of them. They would fight back and who would blame them?"
"Trixie said you're scared of them."
"You would be too if you hadn't grown up around them!"
Jake laughed, his deep voice booming around the grove. "I guess that's true. I guess things become normal when you let them."
"I'm still adjusting," Rose admitted. "Perhaps it would be easier if I saw more of them. Most of the serving staff are human – why is that?"
"Quite a few of them were displaced at the beginning of the war. With some of the others, they were already employed. We've never shut out humans the way humans shut us out." Jake shrugged. "Don't you see the princess at all?"
"Rarely. More than I see the other dragons. It's strange, I think I see the king more than I see the prince."
Jake shrugged again, rubbing at his black hair. "Spud is more his keeper than I am. Also, look what I brought."
From under the trees, he produced a basket that was filled with soft breads, meats, along with wine for drink.
"You thought of everything," Rose said.
"I tried to. I was looking forward to tonight."
"Me too." The admission didn't even get stuck in her throat as she thought it was going to. She wasn't in a cage here. She could make friends, say what was on her mind, do anything but wear pants like she was used to.
"So," Rose asked, "you mean to tell me you've never been scared of a magical creature?"
Jake considered her question carefully, building himself a small sandwich. "The king, I suppose, and his daughter. Spud, Trixie, and I were … mischievous when we were younger."
"I'm sure that's one word for it."
Jake smirked. "What? You never got in trouble as a kid?"
"No! I was a good child!"
"I don't know if I believe that."
They ate and drank and talked, even as the sun began to go down in the grove. They moved closer on the blanket as it got darker, to be able to see one another in the dark. They finished the food and shared the bottle of wine between the two of them. They spoke of their childhoods, Jake regaling her with several stories about the things he and his friends had gotten up to. Rose tried to think of lighthearted things of her own to share but she didn't have anything to talk about but her memories of her mother. She thought those would hurt more to share or, perhaps, Jake was just the right person to share the memories with. He watched her with no less than rapt attention.
"Should we go in?" Rose asked, when the sky was nearly an even blanket of ink. It was a warm night, summer was definitely on its way to the land, and she could have been content to lay there sharing with him all night, even if it became cold. She was kicking herself for asking him to go in at all.
"If you want," Jake said. "I want to do something like this with you again."
She could see him smile. She almost didn't make herself sit up. She almost just stayed there. But then he pushed himself up and Rose followed suit. She reached out to help him fold the blanket but he handled it.
"I think you work harder than I do," Jake said, with that little smirk on his face that was already so familiar to her. "Let me do this for you."
He settled the blanket in the basket and hooked it over one arm. Rose stood to his side, wondering if she should reach out and take his arm like she had earlier – and like she wanted to do now.
"Rose, one more thing."
"I'd like to kiss you."
He was standing close to her but not as in her space as he had been when they were lying side by side. He was giving her more than enough room to run away from him but Rose found herself stepping closer to him.
"I've never kissed anyone before," she admitted.
Rose brows lifted in surprise. "Are you just telling me that to make me feel better?"
"I don't think lying about this would benefit the fate of my country in any way."
Rose took another step toward him. Now, she couldn't get any closer to him unless they became the same person. "You should lie to me about one other thing, I think."
"If I'm bad at kissing."
"If you'll lie to me about the same thing."
Rose nodded and Jake's hand touched her waist. His head dipped toward hers and Rose found herself lifting onto the tips of her toes to meet him halfway. Her heart was fluttering in her chest but she was hardly nervous; she wanted to kiss him too. Her hand wrapped tightly around his upper arm as their lips met. Rose felt flushed all over, the warmth spreading through the tips of her fingers and toes. Jake's lips moved confidently against hers and Rose clung to him. How could anything be sweeter or more soul-fulfilling than having a first kiss with Jake, in a flower-perfume filled grove on the castle grounds?
He kissed her once more softly and then he offered her his arm. Rose took it, realizing for the first time in her life that one could feel off-balanced in a good way and also the most grounded they had ever felt in their lives, all from the same event.
"I don't think you're bad at kissing," Jake said.
"I don't think you are either."
He met her gaze in the torchlight just inside the castle doors, mirth brimming in his eyes.
"I'll see you soon, Jake," Rose promised as she turned toward the servant's stairs that would take her to the women's quarters.
"You too, Rose."
Rose felt like she was floating on clouds and she barely noticed Trixie until the other girl snapped her fingers in front of Rose's face.
"Are you in there, Rose?"
"Did you eat? I didn't see you at dinner."
"Oh." Rose bit her lip. She hadn't told Trixie about her plans to spend the evening with Jake, but the two of them often talked of being close. She had just presumed Jake would tell her. "I spent the evening with Jake. He brought dinner and we talked all evening. I had my first kiss with him."
Rose nodded, glad that she had someone that she could share this with. "It felt like magic, Trixie. The closest that I'll ever get to know what that really feels like, anyhow."
"You like him a lot, then?"
"I think so. I haven't spent a lot of time with him but the more time I spend with him, the more I find myself enjoying it. I've met a lot of people in my life but I've never met anyone who makes me feel like this. And, it's all good things. We talked about bad things and heavy things and, somehow, it all felt less scary when I was talking about it with him."
"That's great, Rose. I'll hear all about it at dinner tomorrow, okay? I was on my way back up – I just wanted to make sure you'd eaten."
Rose agreed and continued to her little room. The rose that Jake had picked her was beginning to wilt but she smiled at it as though it were brand new as she readied herself for bed. When she finally lay down, the scent from the rose reminded her of the grove and she pressed her fingers to her lips with remembrance. She hoped she saw Jake tomorrow, if only for a moment.
"What time is wake up?" Jake asked, pulling off his day clothes which Spud immediately gathered for laundry and dressing in his night ones.
"Remember, I'm not to blame for this."
Jake groaned, sitting on the end of his bed. "Is he mad at me for skipping dinner?"
"Probably but who knows what he's thinking."
Jake could take a good guess but he wouldn't have given up his evening with Rose for anything.
"I'll be in to get you at four-thirty," Spud said.
Jake groaned and collapsed backward.
"And, he told me not to tell you this, but you're going to be insufferable if I don't –"
"I spent the better part of today polishing your armour."
Jake rolled over so that he was face down on the bed. As a dragon, armour might seem redundant. Except, Gramps had enchanted armour commissioned for he and Haley, one that could change shape with them. A dragon might be well protected but if Jake ever reverted to his human form, he would be an easy target. Not that Jake was ever supposed to reveal his human form but he'd never been knocked unconscious in a fight. It could happen. He wasn't sure which form would take dominance, if one ever did.
"It's fine," Jake said to the mattress, even though it wasn't, really. The next part was honest, "It was worth it."
"You were gone a while," Spud said.
"And, I'm going to do it again."
Spud chuckled. The door to Jake's room was pushed open.
"Jake, are you insane?!"
Jake pushed himself up on his bed. "Trix, I'm in pyjamas."
"Not naked and I still don't know if I'd care if you were." Trixie sat on the trunk at the end of Jake's bed. "I just talked to Rose."
"Are you out of your mind? She's a human girl, who's scared of magic! She likes you and how do you think this is going to end? Is that fair to her?"
"Did she tell you she likes me?" Jake asked, sitting up and cocking a grin that quickly faded once he saw the look on Trixie's face. "Don't look at me like that. I'm not tricking her or anything."
"Anybody Jake's going to be with would have to wait to find out the secret," Spud added. "It's not something that he can just blurt out on the first date. It was a date, right?"
"Yes. I mean, I meant for it to be."
"You're a prince," Trixie cut in, "she's a commoner."
"So's my dad," Jake said. "Gramps clearly doesn't care. And I hardly think anything I can get into with Rose is going to top my parents."
"Your mom wasn't keeping secrets," Trixie said. "And, your dad isn't anything like Rose."
Jake grinned. "You know what, I think this is sweet. You're not just concerned about me. You and Rose are friends too."
"I think you're right," Spud said.
Trixie rolled her eyes. "Does it matter? Rose is scared of any kind of magic, let alone dragons! I don't know, Jake, I've been talking to her every day and I think there's something she's hiding."
"Are you saying she's a spy?"
"No," Trixie said. "I just think a lot has happened to her. I just worry about the both of you."
Jake glanced at Spud but Spud wouldn't catch his eye in return. He thought of the things Rose had told him, about the medics tents, the lack of food, and the perpetually injured. Jake had never been in the thick of combat but he had read every report that was sent back to his grandfather and had seen the wreckage that his mother had shown them through the crystal ball. He couldn't imagine what it was like growing up in a place like that. He could believe that something more had happened to Rose than she had wanted to talk about it and he couldn't blame her for not talking about it.
"She'll tell me when she's ready," Jake said. "I'm not worried."
"That's why you have smarter friends," Trixie snorted and she stood. "I'll leave you to your own dumb devices."
"Love you too, Trix."
She paused in the doorway. "Oh, Spud, Jake's escorting Haley to the Unity Ball so we need to coordinate colours there. We need to do that tomorrow before the seamstress gets overwhelmed."
"The what?" Jake asked when Trixie had left the room. "Colour coordination? There's a war."
"And that's the point," Spud said, turning down Jake's bedcovers pointedly. "Delegates from all the species have been invited. It's for you to interact with people, let them know you're on their side."
Jake crawled into bed. "Don't let them put me in pink, Spud."
"I'll do my best. Night, Jake."
Spud dimmed the lamps around the room and then left. Jake knew that he should try to fall asleep immediately. It was late and he was going to have to rise before the sun. But, instead, he turned toward the window, replaying his night with Rose. It was a much happier thing to think about.
Chapter two of eight! Let me know what you think!