It's far from the first time this had happened.
In fact, at this rate, this is becoming a regular occurrence. It's not his fault, though, he constantly reminds himself every time he feels a swoop of guilt just as he swipes his next meal. If he hadn't been turned out as a child, if he'd been given a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance… If situations had been different…
Blaine couldn't afford to blame himself, not anymore. He was homeless, and that had been a fact of life since before he could remember. Occasionally there had been patches of his life where he'd been taken in by others, once or twice to be apprenticed before the man declared him useless, but for the most part it had been constant living on the streets. At first his youth had given him advantages. People took pity on the cute little kid pouting at them outside the bakery or the fruit stalls, so they'd buy an extra something and hand it off to him.
But then he'd grown, and it had stopped being cute. He was a nuisance, and people told him to go home or get a job or find somewhere else to beg, because they had nothing to give him. That's when the stealing started, when he'd been about eleven and the last bits of baby fat had gone from his cheeks, sucked in by prolonged exposure to starvation. He couldn't rely on others anymore; he needed to fend for himself.
It was hard at first. He'd gotten caught more times than he'd gotten away, so people had learned to look out for him. Once or twice he'd almost gotten a finger chopped off as a punishment, managing to wheedle his way out of it by promising to work off his crime. Those were the worst times, the times when he was forced to mop up after someone and not given anything in return. Atoning for attempted robbery was the worst kind of punishment, and after having to wipe up and toss out perfectly good bits of food that had barely even touched the ground, while his stomach rumbled and the man minding the shop had watched him carefully to make sure he didn't smuggle any of it out, Blaine had decided never to get caught again.
This really was no way to live. He'd always thought that it would be temporary, that eventually he'd find someone who would take him in, find someone who would hire him, and he could start working his way back to an honest life. Instead, the years dragged on and the opportunities slammed their doors in his face, and before he knew it he was nineteen and still homeless, living in an abandoned building and praying every day that nobody came to knock it down.
He'd started snatching coins after he'd lost his first apprenticeship at the age of fourteen. It was much harder to steal money than it was to steal food, because people actually paid attention to how much money they had. Nobody noticed if he pinched an apple, but steal the equivalent of an apple in coins and suddenly the person would be on his hands and knees searching for it. But Blaine knew how the world worked. If he wanted to be able to finally get somewhere, he'd need money.
So he'd started saving, never spending any of it on anything, because everyone around here knew he was a thief who lived on the streets. They wouldn't give him anything for his money; they'd just take it as compensation for all the times he'd stolen from them. No, Blaine wasn't stealing so he could buy food. He was saving so that he could run away.
He didn't know where he was going to go just yet. He lived in a sizable city, but people knew who he was in at least three of the five rings. And the middle ring was where all the rich people lived, the very center of the city being where the palace had been built, and there was no way Blaine would ever make it behind those walls. No amount of money could let him buy his way in, and he'd never be hired as anything, not even a servant. His only choice was to leave the city altogether and travel until he found another one, and hopefully be able to start over there.
And today was that day.
Blaine had counted his money the night before, deciding that he finally had enough to ensure that he could pretend to have held a decent, honest living without being found out. The only thing that was left to do was to wash.
It sounded silly, washing before he left, only to dirty himself traveling, but people were smart. They could tell the difference between someone who kept himself clean and someone who had been forced to live in filth, and if Blaine wanted people to buy his story, he needed to look the part. So he snuck his way up towards the inner circle of the city, where he knew there was a small lake right outside the walls of the palace. He'd just take a quick dip in there, enough to wash away the worst of his dirt, and then he'd be on his way.
It was unbelievably fancy up here, even outside of the inner ring. The food stalls didn't just offer fruit and vegetables and everything a person needed to make their own dinner, but prepared food. The smells wafted through the air, more tempting and mouthwatering than anything Blaine had smelled in the lower ring, and he found himself walking without caution in the middle of the street, his pace slow and his breathing deep. Nobody knew who he was up here, and aside from a few glances that were no doubt thanks to his messy and dirty appearance, nobody paid him any mind.
His stomach began to rumble after he turned down the fifth consecutive street selling seemingly nothing but food. At this rate he'd end up stealing something out of desperation and to stop his stomach from growling, and not just because everything looked delicious. He dug in his pockets, hoping to find a forgotten coin, but that was just silly. Every coin was always accounted for, and he'd never leave them forgotten in his trousers.
So he started scanning the streets for dropped coins instead. If anyone in the city were to drop and forget their money, it was the people up here. But now that he was looking, he couldn't find a thing. There was nothing anywhere, and short of stooping down and checking underneath every stall, he was never going to find anything. So preoccupied with looking at the ground, Blaine forgot where he was going, and only realized he'd lost his way when he walked straight into someone else.
"Sorry!" he said hastily, backing away and looking apologetically up at the person he'd bumped into. It had been a girl, and she was well-dressed, which made it even worse. Appearances alone would lead people to jumping to conclusions, and no doubt this looked like he'd been attempting to mug her. So he held up both hands, still backing away, repeating, "Sorry."
"Watch where you're going," she snapped at him, to the murmur of agreement from those around her. She was with a rather sizable group, all of them freshly washed and richly dressed, at the center of the group a young man riding on horseback. He was fixing Blaine with the ugliest look of distaste Blaine had ever seen. He turned to go, not wanting to start any trouble, but someone reached out and grabbed his shoulder, forcing him to turn back around.
"Do you know who you just bumped into?" The man on horseback was speaking to him now, his lips curled up in a snarl. Blaine tried to shrug away the hand on his shoulder, but the man it belonged to just tightened his grip, another man coming to stand on Blaine's other side.
"No," Blaine admitted, shaking his head.
"No," the man echoed, still sneering. "I thought not. Otherwise you would have shown some manners."
Blaine's face flushed with color. Him? Show manners? He'd apologized the second he'd bumped into the woman. This man was the one having him manhandled and kept here. He would have been perfectly content to walk away and leave them in peace, but this man was the one causing problems.
"Take your own advice," Blaine snapped in return, his tongue not in sync with his brain.
Instantly, the two men on either side of him took ahold of each of his arms, holding him painfully in place as the man on horseback steered his horse closer. He raised his right hand, and Blaine caught the glint of a ring before the man slapped him across the face with the back of his hand, the force of the heavy ring making a spot near his cheekbone throb. His eyes watered from the pain.
"You are a worthless street rat," the man told him, still sneering. He hopped down from his horse, taking a few steps closer, his nose wrinkling - probably for show - when he stepped into Blaine's personal space. "You were born a street rat, and you'll die a street rat." He leaned in closer, as if to whisper in Blaine's ear, but the volume of his voice didn't change. "And your fleas will be your only mourners."
He stepped away, looking proud and haughty, and Blaine's eyes were stinging for a new reason. He knew he shouldn't let it get to him, because who was this man, anyway? But he'd tried to do the right thing all his life, tried to make an honest living and failed. And now here he was, on the day he had planned to make a break for it and start fresh, someone was throwing all that back in his face.
The man turned to get back on his horse, but before he could step close enough, another man stepped in his way. The first man stumbled backwards, and though Blaine couldn't see his face, he was sure that this newcomer had taken him by surprise.
"And you're a foreign scumbag whose only purpose here is to marry your preteen daughter off to the crown prince," the newcomer said sternly. He turned his head slightly, calling over his shoulder, "Guards!" Within an instant, at least twenty men in uniforms Blaine knew all too well had amassed behind him. Despite himself, Blaine flinched, not even realizing they weren't here for him, or that the two men that had been holding him had let him go.
"Kindly escort our unwelcome visitor to the city's outer ring, and see that they are safely on their way back home before nightfall," the newcomer ordered. The man who had struck Blaine was babbling, no doubt trying to say something in his own defense, but this man was having none of it. Rather than listen to the man's ramblings, he cut him off, saying, "And if I ever hear you've spoken to one of my subjects like this again, I'll have your tongue cut out."
"You can't!" the man spluttered.
"My city; my rules."
And then this newcomer punched the man in the face, hard enough to draw blood. Blaine gaped as the entire party was marched away, the man clutching his bleeding nose, wondering who had smiled down on him today and decided he deserved to be cut a break.
He looked away from the retreating party, noticing that the man who'd come to his aid was still there, looking at him with an expression of slight confusion on his face.
"What?" Blaine asked, confused and probably sounding stupid.
"Your face," the man pointed to the cheek that had been slapped. "You're bleeding." He dug into the pocket of his trousers to pull of a handkerchief, handing it over. Blaine took it, holding it up to the spot he presumed was bleeding. He couldn't feel anything; his cheek was still throbbing. The man chuckled and reached out, his hand covering Blaine's and moving it up slightly to the correct spot.
"There." He grinned. "I saw him coming from inside, but I didn't think he'd actually start a fight with someone before I came out to tell him to leave. What'd you do, anyway, to piss him off?"
"Uh, I bumped into someone," Blaine admitted sheepishly. "A girl."
"His daughter," the man supplied with a heavy sigh and an overly dramatic eye-roll. "He's been trying to arrange a marriage between that kid and me since his wife got pregnant. Idiot."
"What?" Blaine did a double take. He'd never seen this man before in his life, and had he just admitted to being-
"Oh, you don't know who I am?" The man sounded surprised, but he chuckled anyway. "You get used to assuming these things, when you're the crown prince." He smirked, but it was in a way that wasn't altogether unkind. "I'm Jesse St. James, heir to the throne and protector of all wayward vagabonds who look tired and dirty and hungry and who don't know my name."
Blaine gaped at him. Jesse laughed again, then turned and started walking back up the street. It was then that Blaine realized his feet had taken him all the way to the outer walls of the palace, not noticing in his hunt for dropped money.
"Come on, then," Jesse beckoned. "No offense, but you reek. And no doubt even a scratch like that would get infected and end up killing you if you stay in that dirty state. Let's get you cleaned up."
Blaine pinched his thigh. It hurt.
Jesse kept walking, kept going through the opened gates of the wall, then looked back. When he realized Blaine hadn't moved, he stopped and turned around, looking at him expectantly.
Blaine didn't need to be told twice. He all but galloped after the prince, wondering for the second time that day who had smiled down on him and blessed him with good luck. Except this was so much better than the first time, especially when his stomach rumbled and Jesse, hearing it, said, "And looks like I'll have to feed you, too."