Abel looked over his reflection carefully, eyes skimming from top to bottom to search out any imperfections.
His long dark blond hair hung down over his shoulders, over the pristine uniform of a royal personal attendant and to his waist. The blue and silver of his attire complemented his pale skinned colouring and the blue of his eyes. He liked his uniform, the very colour and style and cut each flattering his every feature for it was as though it had been made for him.
He took a dark silver ribbon from his dresser and carefully pulled back his hair, smoothing it into a tail at the back of his head, securing it there with the ribbon, before winding the ribbon cross over and under down the gathered tail to bind the strands together. The ribbon was long enough only to bind it half way and Abel tied a neat little bow, the other half loose and whispering at his middle back. He liked it that way and even if he didn't, he would not use any other ribbon than this one.
He stood and smoothed his uniform down, fingers checking the buttons down the front, at the tabs across his shoulders and at each sleeve cuff. He skimmed over the silver piping of the blue coat, checking for rips or tears. Finally, he turned to put on his boots, tucking in his black trousers and tying the silver laces carefully just below his knees.
Swiftly now, he strode for the kitchens to find something to eat. As it was early still the halls were barely populated. But the guards were changing and he quickly looked them over as he passed, mentally making notes of who was coming on morning duty, knowing all the guards by name and face.
"Good morning to you, Abel," called one off-duty guard as he passed, face weary from a night spent on his feet.
"To you as well, Gallant," Abel returned softly with a polite dip of his head. When he'd made pace further down the hall, he heard the familiar whispers behind him,
"You made him speak?" came an incredulous voice.
"Come off," Gallant replied. "He's sociable enough."
"Rubbish. Hardly anyone in the entire castle has ever heard Attendant Abel speak," said another.
Abel rolled his eyes and Gallant merely laughed, telling them to leave him be and that they should all get some rest. As he rounded a corner and into an unlit hallway, the shadows whispered to him. He slowed his pace and listened to them as he walked, hearing of the night's discussions, the times when someone spoke His Highness' name or of His Highness with any of the nick names commonly or otherwise used.
There was a vast list, and Abel had spelled the words so that should anyone speak them within the spell's domain within range of a shadow, the conversation would be listened upon. The spell wasn't as complicated as most word spells, Abel long ago having adjusted the difficult incantation to trap not the words of the conversation but the inflection and tone to it, the emotion behind the context.
It took Abel plenty of effort and resources to keep and renew the many spells and contracts he used, but he felt it was worth it. After all, this little trick had brought ill intentions for His Highness to his attention in the past.
A shadowling took form and stepped from the darkness below a covered window toward the end of the hallway, no bigger than a child, wraithlike and sharp featured as though sliced from Darkness itself. It had no detailed form, merely a vague shape, a body of non-light which in its lack of detail seemed all the more inhuman.
As Abel approached the hallway end and the little figure, he drew a knife from his arm brace and drove the tip into the thickest flesh point between his thumb and forefinger. He paused before the creature and offered his hand, allowing the grisly little shadowling to grasp it with both its claws, mouth descending, sharp little teeth biting down and it began to suck hungrily. He felt the pull, felt the force with which it drank the blood out. It hurt but he remained still… and when the pain began to lift,
The shadowling regretfully sucked one last pull of blood then lifted away, a tongue sliding out to caress over the wound, magic prickling along where it touched Abel's skin, the cut closing almost immediately and even the bite marks disappeared. The creature gave a short bow and retreated, an oddly happy smile curving its little face as it disappeared into shadows, and Abel continued on.
In the kitchen, he nodded politely before moving toward the already prepared breakfast counter.
Many other Attendants or servants would be up and about soon, would need to simply fetch a few things to eat en route to beginning their day. Already, a few of the stable hands had gathered and were talking noisily; they quieted when Abel entered, pausing to tip their caps or give short bows.
"Good morning then, Abel," the motherly head cook called to him.
"Good morning to you as well, Mistress Beth." Abel gave a polite nod. He snatched up a peach pastry and a few slices of cheese then approached Beth to say, "I'll not bother you with details so early this morning, but my Pages will be by through the day to fetch food and drink for the Prince's guests."
"Ach, boy, that'll do," Beth smiled. "Thank the Gods ye don't go blathering about things ye need for the day and expect me 'ta remember them all. I've got enough to think about, I do!"
"Of course, Mistress Beth," Abel nodded again and moved away. "Fare you well."
He filled a plate of select items for the Prince's breakfast then left, and behind him followed the usual expressions of surprise he had spoken at all.
He nodded to the guards stationed before His Highness' rooms and entered when they pulled the doors open for him. Behind him he heard the scuttle of following maids, only just arriving behind him. Four of them assembled when he turned to assess them; one brought a washing basin, another a warmed towel, the third held a glass of orange juice and the last stepped into the line having only just collected a dressing robe from the Prince's clothing chest.
"Fetch another," he told the last girl calmly. "He has a guest." She blushed and did as bid.
Abel stepped before each, fingertips skimming over the items as he searched for hidden enchantments. He also slipped at least a finger over each girl's wrist, assessing whether there had been outside influences or spells cast upon them. The shadows whispered nearby; there was no danger.
He nodded to them when he finished and they curtsied.
He turned when the door opened once more and two other attendants entered. They paid Abel no other mind than an acknowledging nod, as he did them, before moving to the Prince's bedroom doors and sweeping them open. They were too used to him arriving early and double checking everything. Together they crossed the large room like a small army, the two attendants each moving to draw back the bed and window curtains.
"Good morning, Your Highness," the two Attendants chanted as they moved. The one by the bed flushed and turned away, obviously startled to find the Prince was not alone.
"Good morning to you all, as well," came the lazy reply from His Royal Highness and tenth crown heir of the Sterling family, Prince Jaret. His voice lowered as he said softly to his companion, "And good morning to you, too…"
Abel set the Prince's breakfast down then took the spare robe from the maid and moved to one side of the bed, eyes lowered in a respectful manner, and offered the robe to the young lord unabashedly rising naked from the Prince's bed. The girls gasped and tittered before turning away.
"I shall see you later then, my prince," Lord Stefan murmured, sliding his arms into the robe before tying the sash himself as he bent to press a gentle but searching kiss to Jaret's lips.
As the lord left and the girls proffered each of their offerings to the prince, Abel moved quietly about the room. He disguised checking on the wards he'd placed about the room by tidying up the place, as he usually did. But this morning, Jaret called to him,
"I don't know why you bother with that, Abel. The maids will see to cleaning everything later."
"Your Highness should not have to suffer the sight of a mess in the meantime," Abel politely replied and continued on.
"As you please, I suppose." Jaret crossed the room and sat at his breakfast table, the sunlight streaming in and reflecting off the smooth marble table as brightly as it shone off his midnight-black hair. "Come and sit with me this morning, Abel," he called suddenly, dismissing the other Attendants and all but one maid to whom he gestured at his hair.
Abel sat, politely folded his hands before him on the table, meeting the Prince's emerald gaze and waited.
Jaret chuckled, an oddly challenging light to his eyes. "Must you always be so solemn?"
He calmly returned, "I behave as is befitting your Attendant, Highness."
"Hm," Jaret said noncommittally as he ate, the maid quietly working at fixing his hair in its customary weave. When she curtsied and left, "How long have you been my attendant now?"
"Six years, Highness."
"It would be needless of me to tell you how you have always served me well," Jaret mused aloud. "You have become more than a mere attendant and more like a personal assistant, a role model for the other royal attendants." He paused meaningfully, "And something else besides." Abel said nothing. "Why do you serve me so well, Abel?"
"It is my duty and honour to--"
"Don't. We are alone now," Jaret said softly. "Ever have you spoken honestly to me. Perhaps only when I asked, but honestly you have spoken. Tell me what you would truly wish to answer."
Abel hesitated. He did not know what his Prince wanted to hear. "Your Highness, I do as you bid not only because you ask it of me but because I wish to do as you bid. I wish… for you to be happy."
Jaret stared at him.
Abel lowered his gaze.
"Are you displeased with me to find another in my bed?" Jaret asked quietly.
Again Abel paused before he slowly replied, "It is not my place to…" He trailed off at the irritated sound from across the table and amended on a whisper, "Yes."
Jaret ate in silence, the quiet heavy around them. When he finished he pushed the plate away and looked out the window, and Abel resisted the urge to tell him they should be preparing for his day and not sitting as though they had the day to sit about. Instead, he admired the Prince's profile.
"This morning, like all mornings similar," Jaret said softly, looking into the distance. "You have come to wake me and each time you dress my guests without protest." Abel watched as the Prince met his gaze. "Despite everything that had changed between us, despite the company and… warmth… we had shared, you pulled away from me. I had thought we were growing closer but you returned to and even now remain distant. Why?"
There was a wretched feeling in the pit if Abel's stomach. He buried his feelings a little and steeled himself to answer honestly… but there weighed insinuation heavy in his words, "I am but an attendant in Your Highness' service."
Jaret frowned, "If you did not wish to share such--"
"I did," Abel interrupted. "And you know this is true." He sighed, "I know that I am not esteemed enough in Your High--" there was another irritated sound and he corrected himself , "esteemed enough in your favour to demand things of you. You had asked me into your bed and I had accepted. I did not and will never presume anything more."
Jaret gave him a weary smile and admitted, "I had hoped you would not say that." It was Abel's turn to stare. "I had hoped you would say something, do something, to show me that you wished… wanted me. Not as your prince but as a man. As your lover." He waved his hand dismissively, "I know you will not even begin to hear of it being made public, but when we are alone… I wanted that."
A hundred different emotions rushed through Abel until one settled firmly on his heart. He stood and calmly gestured to the clothing he had himself laid out the night before for the Prince to wear today, a new confidence in his movements he knew would not be there for long. A light but heartfelt frown shaped his expression and he said rather coolly, "Then perhaps, Jaret, you should not have turned away from me and so casually gave yourself to others."
Jaret had the decency to blush, look away, and speak no more on the topic.