There was a ringing. It was a very shrill ringing. Eli rolled over and coughed, his chest seizing up.
"Wh-what?" he groaned at nothing, rolling out of bed and onto his feet. He stumbled towards the bell and repeated his question, as if the bell would answer. He felt delirious and his mind seemed to roll around inside his head as he questioned the bell. What seemed like several minutes later but was actually encroaching upon a half-hour, Albert appeared at the door, demanding his appearance. Eli could barely get two words out before his vision and consciousness gave out and he collapsed.
He was immediately sentenced to a guest bed. If he had the mental capacity at the time, he would have wondered about his sisters' sudden sympathy for him in his ill state for them to grant him one of the extremely extravagant guest rooms. But the thought never really occurred to him as he collapsed on the cushions and fell asleep. We awoke several times, groaning at a pounding headache, groaning at the light peering in through the curtains, groaning at a bed that was so soft that it was uncomfortable, groaning at anything he could. He was waited on all day, to a degree that he was thoroughly disturbed by the amount of helpful attention that he was receiving. Eventually he pulled himself out of the bed and locked the door. He remained undisturbed for the rest of the day.
He woke again early the next day, before true morning light reached the earth. He found himself on the floor, his face and neck warm. Somehow he made his way down to the kitchens for any kind of nourishment they had to offer before resigning himself to his room. The door opened slightly as he crawled into his bed.
"Don't bother coming out," he heard Maria say. "You were an embarrassment at the ball, and I don't want to see you." Eli let out a loud groan in response and the door closed.
He spent the next several days like that, curled up in bed, trying to beat down his fever. He soon got better, and tried to take advantageous of his theoretically sick situation. He gave up on that little plan when he started to tie of Henry ranting through the window about the marvels of crocuses and eventually submitted himself back to housework. Life seemed to return to normal in the house. For the time, that is.
One day the bell rang dreadfully. Eli groaned and held his hands over his ears and pulling a pillow over his head. It didn't stop the bell from ringing. After several more minutes of glaring at the covers, Eli pulled them off and got to his feet. Another couple of minutes he was dressed and trudging up the steps to the parlor. Albert opened the door for him and Eli tried to slip in unnoticed. He stood by the door, trying to look invisible, examining the room. He looked up at the guest.
His felt his entire body stiffen, his chest seemed to fill with ice. The Prince--their guest--was also frozen, wine glass halfway to his mouth, eyes wide in astonishment. Eli fumbled with the door handle and stumbled out the door, running into Albert in his escape. He pushed by him and took off down the hall back towards his own room. He could hear Maria yelling behind him, demanding his return.
He dashed into his room and locked the door and leaned against it. After a moment, he glanced around the room, looking for a way out or somewhere to hide. His gaze landed on the fireplace and he pulled the screen and door back and gently crawled inside, careful not to send poofs of soot into the air. He pulled the screen back partway across, effectively hiding him from view from both doors. Within several minutes Albert had arrived at the door, unlocked it, and walked into the room. He stepped aside to allow his followers to enter. Maria and Erica came in and, after a quick glance around the room, left through the back door. The butler bowed to the Prince as he entered and followed his mistresses outside.
The Prince didn't follow. He looked around, taking in the relatively shabby accommodation, the dingy bed, the cold tub. After a moment or two of walking around the room, he paused by the fireplace and knelt down, peering inside.
"What..." Benjamin slowly pulled the door back. "What are you doing in there?"
"I... uh.." Eli stammered, running a hand through his hair, smearing his face with dust. Benjamin pulled off a glove and whipped away the soot with his fingers. Eli gawked. "I, uh, I'm hiding from them..." He gestured vaguely towards the outside door. Benjamin glanced briefly over his shoulder.
"What for?" he asked, looking back at Eli.
Neither of them spoke for a moment. "When you..." Benjamin started, and frowned slight
"I've been told that my birth mother died in labor with my little sister, who died hours later as well. Several years later my father married Charlotte, and then himself died in a drunken stupor. Charlotte was also a widow and already had Maria and Erica when she married my father. Why my father was still sick in stupor, my step mother sick in bed, and my sisters... just sick."
Eli shrugged hesitantly. "Myself."
"Well," Benjamin said presently. He then took a deep breath and said, "So what exactly have your sisters done to you?"
"That's not..." Eli sighed, leaning his elbows against his knees, holding his head in his hands. He sighed, feeling very acutely aware of his heart pounding in his chest, which seemed to pump more poison than blood through his veins. "I shouldn't..." He looked outside the window, watching the forest and countryside vegetation give way to houses and people. Benjamin didn't say a word, just waiting patiently for him to reply. "I--I can't really tell what they did or how they did it... but they knew what to do." He sighed again and leaned against the carriage door. "It was some time after my mother died... I was spoiled, thinking that I could do whatever I wanted, I could order the servants around, make them do things for me that I had no right to make them do. It got worse after my mother died, you know, demanding more sweets and for the servants to clean everything up simply so I could run in and track mud everywhere," Eli said, shrugging. He turned toward Benjamin, who nodded understandingly. "But then my father fell in love again, with Charlotte, several years after my mom died. She was nice, she gave me little cakes when she came over and told me stories and everything. She was like a nanny, almost, except, I guess I had the 'privileged' that I couldn't order her around or anything like that. She was sick sometimes--to much bile or something like that--but all in all, it was nice, when my father was courting her. But, then, I met her daughters.
"Charlotte was a widower as well, her husband taken during military service. She needed someone to help support her two daughters. So, when they got married, she brought them over to live at the house. I thought I would be able to order them around because, they're girls, you know? You're supposed to be allowed to do anything to girls, and they couldn't do anything back."
Eli sighed and leaned back against the seat, arching and stretching his back slightly. "I was completely wrong.
"I'm not exactly sure what they did, but whatever it was, it worked. They were even more spoiled than I was, several years older as well. But what they demanded wasn't treats or to be a nuisance to the servants that took care of them. They desired... playthings," Eli spat. "First it was dolls, I was told, just little things, dress up the dolls, make her look like a duchess, make her look like a slave... They loved it. Then it was the servants. 'Let's see what Joanne looks like with her hair powdered!' 'Why, let's have Brittney wear a corset simply because she's never worn one in her life!' " Eli sympathetically wrapped his arms around his midsection.
"Soon, they moved on to playmates, inviting little friends over before dressing them up as well. And then, they moved to my house. None of their friends would come over any more, so they only had one thing left to play with." Eli sighed again.
"You," Benjamin said.
"Me," Eli acquiesced, nodding. "They knew what to do. The servants were forbidden to give me anything, under pain of a beating. For a toffee, I had to wear a wig, for a cake, stockings. The price was moved up almost every day. Eventually, for a little wrapped sweet, I had to wear a full dress, wig, makeup, gloves, chemise or petticoats... Whatever they wanted. Eventually, I got tired of it, it was just too much. But, by then, it became habitual to do what they wanted, so, even when I wanted to, I couldn't be free. I was trapped."
Benjamin frowned. "It seems as though dresses aren't the only thing that they burdened you with."
Eli gave a soft wry chuckle. "Not hardly." His demeanor darkened. "It's a sad thing when a brother can embroider better than his sisters."
"That's a rather despicable thing for any girl to have her brother do her own work," Benjamin muttered, barely audible. "Well, I won't have you embroider anything."
"At least that's some consolation...why would you consider having me embroider anything for you?"
"What... you said that you wouldn't have me embroider anything..." Eli said slowly. "What did you mean?"
"I mean what I say." Benjamin shrugged nonchalantly. "And what I'm saying is if you would like to live with me at the castle."
"What!" Eli felt a rush a cold pit in the bottom of his stomach, the images practically before his eyes, the abuse from being treated as a scullery maid by some particularly sadistic regent who had spontaneously decided to take an interest in him, the humiliation as he's forced to wash the dishes and lick the floors and kiss his shoes, of being emasculated, more than he was already, lower than any female servant of the castle, and who knew what else...
Eli pushed himself back against the bench, trying to physically get as far away from the Prince as he possibly could without falling out of the carriage. "I've already spent most of my life in that sort of humiliation; I'm not going to submit myself to any more of the such, even if you are the prince!"
Said Prince looked alarmed. "What on earth are you talking about? I'm not going to make you submit to anything you don't want to do!"
"What do you mean? I would think the only reason you would..."
"You might be misunderstanding me," Benjamin said. "I want you to be as you are now." Benjamin grasped Eli's arms again gently. He leaned forward, and paused, nose to nose with Eli, who's face was a faint red. He closed his eyes and kissed him lightly on the lips. Eli gasped, jumping slightly at the contact. Benjamin placed a hand on his cheek and pressed a bit harder against him, before drawing back and seating himself back. "If you understand what I mean," he said, a bit shyly pressing the back of his hand to his mouth, but leaving his eyes boldly unaverted.
Eli gaped at him, lips tingling at the contact, before quickly twisting around to look out the window. "I... s-so long as I don't have to wear any more dresses," he muttered, his voice barely reaching the Prince's ears.
"Personally, I would prefer you didn't," Benjamin replied mystically. Eli couldn't stop the smile from reaching his lips before admitting, "I don't understand you."
"Then think, that I'll always be a surprise," Benjamin replied, smiling enigmatically. He leaned back against the seat, one eye on Eli, the other on the sights of the city passing by them.
The sun was waning into late afternoon by the the carriage reached the castle. Even though he had already seen the castle once before, Eli was still eager to see it once again. The castle rose quickly within view and the carriage passed underneath the perpetually open gates. The carriage tumbled along the drive. Benjamin leaned over and opened the windows on both doors, letting the smell of fresh grass waft in through the opened windows, riding on a cool breeze that came with the evening. Eli leaned out against the open window, sticking an arm out against the wind. He felt Benjamin lean a little closer as the Prince pointed out the window at a statue in on the front lawn, which was surrounded by a small garden. There were several gardeners taking advantage of the cooling weather to tend to some of the plants.
Eli felt his heart pounding as Benjamin leaned a little closer. The Prince placed his arm on the back of the seat behind Eli, and leaned closer. He breath brushed against Eli's ear as he spoke, "That's a statue of my great-great-grandfather, who lead the kingdom's highest military in the campaign against King Albert seven decades ago. Did you know that?"
Eli shivered, looking out at the gardeners, feeling lips on his neck.
Then he found himself running running across the lawn, heart pounding, neck burning. He stopped by one of the men on the lawn, sputtering.
"Henry--what?" Eli said, stopping in front of the old gardener. "What are you doing here?"
"What's it look like? I'm gardening," Henry said, bent over and meticulously pulling a few small weeds out of the ground, acting as if he had been working on the castle lawns his entire life.
Eli chuckled slightly at the answer, rather out of breath. He took a deep breath and shifted his weight, placing a hand on his shoulder, fingers lightly touching the skin. "But... aren't you--?"
"But...?" Eli looked at Henry and placed his hands on his hips and huffed slightly, irritated at how confused Henry habitually made him. For a moment he tried to figure out why Henry would possibly be working in the royal gardens rather than in his sisters' gardens. Henry shrugged cryptically before bending down and pulling up a few more weeds. Henry watched him for a moment, until the Prince came tearing up behind him, carriage sent away and horses on their ways back to the beds in the stables.
"What is it?" Benjamin asked, stepping up behind Eli and tentatively placing a hand on his shoulder.
"I--I don't know," Eli stammered, looking back towards Henry. The gardener himself was looking towards the sky, his old and weathered face crinkled slightly in a small grin that seemed to glow in the poor light of the night. Eli followed his gaze upwards, noticing a bird circling high above them in the sky. Henry held out an arm and the bird fluttered down to him, alighting on his shoulder. It was a raven, sleek and glorious, with glittering black eyes. The bird turned towards and cocked its head slightly, sending him a rather wise look and gave him a knowing "Caw."