He wasn't sure what to do. There were too many things to be done, and no way to do them, so Ike wandered around the festival, wondering morosely how long it would be until his landlord kicked him out.
He turned at the sound of his name, shouted by two maids who were rushing towards him.
"Marian. Shelly. What's wrong?" he asked as they reached him, panting.
"Oh, Ike, you have to come!" Marian said, pulling on his arm, dark hair loosened from its bright ribbons.
"Yes, Ike, you have to!" agreed Shelly, her red hair fairing better than her friends. "It's such an impossible puzzle!"
Ike brightened. "Puzzle?" He loved those. Working out puzzles was his favorite pastime, and the one thing in which he had any skill. And maybe the prize money would cover some of the debts that plagued him so. He let the girls drag him through the crowd, more cheerful than he had been in a while.
"No one can figure out how to solve it! Everybody's tried…"
"Except you, of course, Ike. Everyone knows you're the best at these."
"And you're the only one who could possibly solve the cursed thing!"
"Alright, alright," laughed Ike as they approached the crowd gathered around a wooden platform that was built in the town square. "You can stop flattering me. I'd do it just because I need the money."
The crowd parted, many grinning as they saw Ike. The letter writer's errand boy in the long tattered jacket had become well-known at festivals for solving puzzles.
Marian and Shelly shoved him up the steps and he stumbled onto the platform, nearly tripping on his jacket. He glared at them. They smirked back.
Turning to face the pole where a complex-looking knot was tied, Ike nearly stumbled again. There, in a beautiful pavilion, watching everything, was the royal family. Suddenly suspicious of the girls' true motive, he bowed, sneaking a look at the prince before turning to face the knot.
It wasn't as if he didn't know what the prince looked like. In fact, he was one of the few that did. A clumsy accident had allowed him a brief glimpse of the reclusive but breathtaking Prince Zeke.
Short, golden-brown hair framed his remarkably tanned skin, and eyes like cool water were set in his slight, if rather angular, face. His build was slight too, though strong, a swordsman's build, with long fingers exactly the right length to hold a sword. He was tall too, taller only by a finger length than Ike, who was generally considered tall and gangly, emphasized by his worn old coat. Prince Zeke was absolutely stunning.
And never to be his. Sighing, unconsciously running a hand through his thick dark hair, Ike focused on the knot. If the King and Queen were here with their two offspring, it was probably because the reward for solving this puzzle was something more than money. He should really check to see what the reward was, but the knot commanded his attention like so many other 'unsolvable' puzzles, and Ike unthinkingly fell victim to its call.
How long he stood there on the platform, muttering and tugging, cursing and pacing, he wasn't sure. He only came to himself when someone tapped his shoulder.
"Wha-" he blinked in surprise at the girl at he shoulder, holding a glass of water and a plate. "Fern. What are you doing here?"
Fern handed him the glass, which he gratefully gulped. "Marian and Shelly stopped by and said that you had been standing up here for the better part of a candle, and I figured you could use the relief."
Ike blinked at the plate, which contained a meat pie and some early spring vegetables. "Thanks, Fern."
While he devoured the fare, Fern examined the knot. "How goes it?"
Finishing up and washing it down with another gulp of water, Ike replied, "I'm close, I think. It's cursed tricky though. Gods all bless, has it really been almost a candle?" He squinted at the sun.
Fern shrugged as she took the dishes from him. "What's the prize?"
"I'm not sure." Eyes narrowed, Ike scanned the crowd, looking for Shelly or Marian or—more probably—both. " I thought it was just money, but with the royals here…" he shrugged. "I meant to ask, but, well." He gestured ruefully at the knot.
Fern smiled, a rare thing from the quiet girl. "Take care of yourself, Ike. You sister would never forgive me if you dropped dead from exhaustion."
Ike smiled back. "Alright. You tell sis I'll visit you guys soon."
After Fern left, Ike frowned at the knot. He should just give up. The sun was unmerciful, and he really hated removing his jacket. He didn't even know what the prize was, and he was probably making a fool of himself in front of the prince. He snuck another glance at the prince, who looked extremely bored by the entire affair.
Ike could still remember the look on his face when he had stumbled upon him in the palace.
He had been delivering a letter to a kitchen maid from her mother when he had fallen and twisted his ankle. The maid, a sweet little thing, insisted on his staying the night so the baker could carry him home the next morning in his wagon. Limping to the library to pen a letter to his master, he had found the prince.
Apparently he had been writing a letter as well, because there had been a bottle of ink and a quill on the table, with a piece of parchment in his hand. His eyes had flickered up to Ike's when he had hopped through. Ike had immediately blushed and bowed awkwardly, explaining his reason for disturbing him and apologizing profusely.
"No need for that," the prince had said. "Just write your letter."
Red and horribly embarrassed, Ike had quickly scrawled his letter and left, still apologizing. The prince had utterly ignored him, picking up his quill and switching it to his left hand to correct a sentence on his…
His left hand.
The prince was left-handed.
If he assumed the prince had tied the knot, that meant…
"A left-handed trick knot," he muttered, feeling a familiar thrill that meant he was close to the solution. Slowly he worked through it in mind, and grinned in sudden delight.
Moving quickly, but carefully, he pulled and wrapped, tugged and loosened. And soon, the rope was undone, lying in his hand. Ike beamed down at it.
Cheers exploded around him, and he looked up, quite suddenly brought back into the present world of heat and sound. People were yelling, shouting, screaming, and generally acting more excited than any crowd should be about the solution to a puzzle. Ike scowled and wondered what exactly Marian and Shelly had gotten him into.
"Silence!" shouted the King. The people slowly quieted. "What is your name, boy?"
"I-Ike, your Majesty," that personage got out.
"Have you no surname?"
"Oh! Ye-Yes, your Majesty. Dellingworth. Ike Dellingworth."
"Very well, Ike Dellingworth. As promised, to the one who solved the puzzle. My son!"
Ike blanched as the crowd burst into more cheers. His eyes darted to the prince, who had stood up and was examining him critically. The blood returned to his face in a flush.
"What say you, Ike Dellingworth?" asked the King, waving the crowd to silence.
"I…" Ike didn't know what to say. He glanced again at the prince, who smirked. Suddenly he felt like crying. What did he, a poor peasant who couldn't even pay his debts, have to offer a prince? Even if he agreed, the prince would never feel anything but contempt for him, a peasant who married a prince to pay off his debts. Ike was certain that the prince didn't deserve such a burden, and quite frankly, he didn't think he deserved the prince.
"I'm deeply sorry, you Majesty, but I cannot accept." Ike focused on the rope. "I fear I am not worthy of such a prize."
Then he did the only thing he could. He fled.
"You have to admit, Z, it made a wonderful scene," snickered the Princess Sera as she fanned herself.
Her brother stood by a large window, frowning pensively out at the estate.
"Yes…it did that…" he finally responded, "What puzzles me are his parting words. If he did not feel worthy, why did he attempt the puzzle?
"I'm sure I don't know. Have those reports come in yet? Maybe they will say."
"Hm," Zeke hummed disbelievingly as someone knocked on the door. "Come in."
"Prince Zeke, guests for you. They claim to have knowledge of Master Ike's whereabouts."
Zeke turned from the window. "I will see them in the small audience hall, Jared."
"Well, I will leave you to you mystery, Z," Sera said as the door shut. "I have other matters that demand tending."
"Then I will see you at dinner," Zeke said, striding from the room.
In the small audience hall, two maids conferred anxiously. Zeke immediately recognized them as the two girls who had pushed Ike onto the platform. They stopped their hurried conference to curtsy as he entered.
"First, tell me your names," he said, noting how while both acted miserable, there was a devious glint in their eyes. They were up to something.
"Marian Gawen, your Majesty," the dark-haired one said, curtsying again.
"Shelly Finnegan, Majesty," murmured the other, mimicking her friend.
"Now, what's this about Dellingworth?"
"We're terribly sorry, Majesty," blurted Marian, "We didn't think he would run like that. It's just—he's been mooning for months, and this seemed the perfect chance—"
"We should have told him what the reward was," added Shelly miserably, "but we were sure he would run then, and we wanted to force his hand a little, get him to, well…"
"We thought you'd come around, begging your pardon, Majesty, and then Ike could be happy and you could be happy, and everything would work out…"
"But we never meant for this."
"We thought Ike'd be too stunned to protest, and then everything would be done before he could…"
"So we're sorry, Majesty, for playing like this, and we hope you'll forgive us."
Oh, they were good at this game. Giving just enough 'unintentional' information so as to make him curious, and still managing to look completely innocent. Only a life living at court had granted him the ability to see the mischievous quirk to their mouths. Zeke gave in. "Too stunned to protest what?"
Marian looked startled, but Zeke could see satisfaction flare in her eyes. "Why, you paying off all his debts, Majesty."
"To be sure, Majesty, they're more his parents' debts than his. Terrible wasters, his parents."
"And his poor sister having that weak constitution…"
"Well, she's all taken care of, he's made certain of that."
"Aye, increased his debts to make sure that she'd be well provided for all her life."
"Left nothing for himself though. That's why he's living like he is, about to be kicked out of his current place, scrounging for job to help keep flesh and bone together and still pay off the mongrels."
Zeke raised an eyebrow. "His parents had gambling debts?"
Marian snorted, some of her natural character showing through at last. "Ha! As if. They were just too lazy and selfish to work for their money. Instead they just borrowed and borrowed, till, gods bless, they died in the landfall. Left Ike and his sister with nothing but a bunch of expecting hands. Fortunately that old lady took to Fina, and promised to care for her. Getting to her cost Ike, though. And poor Ike isn't much use at anything. He's good at puzzles, and knows his letters and numbers, but not much else. Most people in town feel sorry for him, but he doesn't take charity well."
Shelly nudged Marian slightly, and the girl cut off. "Your pardon, Majesty. Mari tends to go on. We'll take our leave now, begging your pardon."
As the two girls turned to leave, Zeke called, "Wait."
They turned as one, puzzled.
"How did you know that would get me intrigued in finding Dellingworth?"
Identical smirks formed on their faces, despite their obvious differences. "I don't know what you're talking about, Majesty," they chorused together.
Marian winked. "Although, we do admit that we think that you're probably the curious type, and seemingly made of better stuff than your sister, so you could say we took a gamble, your Majesty."
"You took a—" But they were already gone, arms linked together, snickering. Zeke stared after them, frowning vaguely and thinking. Bogged down with debts? Perhaps that's why Dellingworth thought he wasn't good enough for a prince. And, thinking more, Zeke realized that if Ike was the type of person the maids had said he was, he would be ashamed to ask for the prince to pay them off, especially if he had been 'mooning' about said prince.
But how would he know what Zeke looked like? Zeke tended to avoid most social affairs outside the palace, so very few of the common people even knew what he looked like. That was one of the things that had started this entire fiasco. 'The people need to know what their future king looks like,' his mother had said sternly. 'And if you wind up married in the process, so much the better!' As if Father and Sera hadn't been trying to arrange a match between him and his cousin, Princess Cire, since birth…
That's where he'd seen that tattered coat before! A few months earlier, when he had been writing to his 'esteemed uncle', when that letter writer's assistant had stumbled in. Remembering his flushed face and stammered apologies, Zeke almost grinned. He recalled he had laughed loud and long, after the assistant had left, at the poor man who would've been so terrified at walking in on the 'reclusive prince'. The laughter had been kindly meant, since Zeke had mostly felt sorry for the fellow. Zeke also recalled too-long black hair and bright green eyes, over-large shirt and leggings of indeterminable color, and that old coat. Since that matched the description of Ike—hell the man could have been wearing the same shirt and leggings!—perfectly, Zeke guessed that was when the great puzzle-solver had seen him.
He did grin when he realized that he had another clue as to where to find Dellingworth, now that the maids were too far gone to call back.
Ike was miserable. He stared at the long list of numbers and slowly added them up, wrote the sum on another piece of parchment, then sighed and put his quill down. It wasn't that he couldn't do the figures, it was just that he felt empty, lost. Even puzzles had lost their charm. Gods all bless, engaged to Prince Zeke! It was like a dream come true and his worst nightmare all rolled into one. How cruel must life be to him to be satisfied? To force him into this despicable situation, destroying all his hopes and dreams of ever getting the prince to love him.
They were stupid dreams, sure, but they were a cheerful point in his otherwise terrible life. Even if there was no way they would come true, they still brightened his day. And now this.
Damn that Marian and Shelly. Damn them.
The door opened suddenly, and Ike jerked up. The old woman who was his sister's caretaker smiled gently at him. "Letter for you, my dear."
"Thank you, Anna." Ike sighed inwardly as he took the letter. He didn't even have the guts to run very far away, just outside town to the mansion his sister now lived in.
After the door closed, Ike slit open the letter, frowning at its contents.
If you run away again, I will personally beat you and hang you from the palace gates. Stay where you are. Give the man a chance.
Ike frowned. Why would his master send such a short, useless letter? It's not like he had anywhere else to go. His landlord probably wouldn't let him back in, and if he sought lodgings elsewhere in town the royal family would learn and probably track him down. Ike winced. He dared not show his face for a long while, until this whole mess sorted itself out. Until then, he'd earn some coin figuring sums. And what did that last part mean? Master Alumi was the kindest of men, but a little strange, sometimes.
Returning to his duties reluctantly, Ike tossed the letter to the side. Slowly he fell into a pattern, losing himself in the endless lists of numbers. The sun was setting in a darkening sky when he suddenly stopped, frowning. What was going on? He could hear raised voices in the other rooms. Had the cat gotten into some mischief again?
Then the door burst open, revealing Prince Zeke.
Ike felt his blood freeze.
"Ah, here he is. If you'll excuse us, ladies, Dellingworth—" the prince emphasized the word, sounding irritated, "and I need to have a little talk."
Ike could do nothing as the prince closed the door and turned to face him. He knew that his quill was still poised over his parchment, and was probably dripping ink over all his careful calculations, but Zeke's blue eyes were hypnotizing, even more so with the spark of irritation he could see in them.
Suddenly Ike realized that Prince Zeke was here, now, and that Ike had to get out of here immediately. He stood up, almost knocking his chair over. "Maj—"
"If the next word out of your mouth is 'Majesty'," the prince said cheerfully, "I will throw this ring at your head. I've had quite enough of being 'Majesty'ed for one day."
Ike blinked. "A-alright, Maj—ah…" Wasn't he supposed to be escaping?
"Zeke. My name is Zeke, Dellingworth. Say it."
Ike bristled a little. "And my name is Ike, prince. Say it."
"I will if you do."
There was tense silence for awhile.
"Well, now that we know each other's names," the prince—Zeke—said lightly, "Catch."
Ike's reflexes had never been good, and hours of sitting almost completely still hadn't helped them any. He fumbled with the thrown item for awhile before finally securing it. Curiously he stared at the ring in his hand.
"My official ring," Zeke continued casually, "you'll have to wear it constantly now that we're engaged. At the wedding you'll receive a different ring, one that signifies you're partner to the prince. By the way, the ceremony is planned for a month hence. Gives Mother and Sera enough time to organize a huge ball and invite everyone who'll need to be invited."
"But—" Ike tried to protest.
"In that time, you'll need to come live at the palace," Zeke went on ruthlessly, ignoring Ike's squeaked comments, "not only because you'll need to be fitted and properly instructed, but it looks good if the prince's intended is at least in the same building as the prince." He gave Ike a significant look.
Ike flushed. Zeke's mouth twitched as if he were fighting a smile, but all he said was, "Any questions?"
"Yes," Ike said promptly, "Why are you doing this? I'm hardly fit company for a prince and certainly not a fit companion. Why are you going through with this?
"Is this about your parents debts?" asked Zeke, tone almost flat as he pulled out a wad of familiar paper. Ike turned red again. He must have stopped by Ike's old room, to find all the debt papers.
"That's part of it," he snapped, too embarrassed to act politely, "But there are other things. You're a prince. I'm a peasant. You've lived your whole life in court. I've lived at the very edge of acceptable society. Also…" Ike gulped. "I'm sure that there's a princess or prince somewhere out there that it would be more advantageous to marry."
"There is, but frankly, I don't care for her, Mother just wants me to be happy, Father will go along with whatever Mother says, and Sera can throw all the little princess hissy fits she wants, because nobody's going to pay attention to them. Well, nobody directly involved anyway. Maybe one day she'll choke on her arrogance and die." Zeke looked dreamy.
Ike swallowed his laughter and continued relentlessly, "Well, then, there are still the debts to cover. I'm not stupid, I know that's a lot even for royal standards."
"You're right about that, your parents must have been real sluggards. But given the circumstances, I think the royal purse can fit to cover it. Oh, and by the way, though your intentions were honorable, running off and hiding like this hasn't bettered anyone's reputations by any means. You could have just explained the situation, you know. We do listen occasionally."
"Yes, but would you have believed me to be anything more than a peasant who had found an easy way to be rid of debt?"
"Maybe not at first, but I'm sure that I would've have been flooded with letters telling me of your honest and good-natured attitude from all the members of the city, if the way I was accosted coming here is any judge." Zeke rolled his eyes.
Ike flushed again at hearing so many people had commended him to the prince. "But…what about you?"
"Hm? What about me?"
"Well…surely you have someone that you…like, and prefer to be with." Ike's eyes had dropped down to the desk, and his voice was nearly a whisper.
"Not really, actually. No one really caught my attention. Well, except for you."
"You have to admit, running away from marrying a prince and a raised status is not a characteristic found in most people," Zeke laughed, "And apparently you're quite intelligent, and a little feisty as well. So you promise to be an interesting partner." The prince smirked. "And you're cute, another point in your favor."
Ike was beginning to resent how easily Zeke could make him blush. "I am not," he muttered.
"You are too, especially when you're blushing like that."
Which of course made him blush more. "I don't want to force you into a marriage."
"Didn't I just say that you would be an interesting partner? I'd probably at least go after you even if it hadn't been for the silly puzzle. But, if you insist on more proof…" Zeke walked toward Ike purposefully.
Ike watched him cautiously. "What are you doing?" he asked as the prince walked around the desk and pulled the still-dangling quill from Ike's numb fingers.
"Convincing you," Zeke replied, reaching out and pulling Ike to him.
"Wh-what are—" Ike was cut off as the prince kissed him thoroughly.
Zeke tasted like spiced wine and apples, with a certain tang that Ike thought must be how Zeke himself tasted. Ike felt all his resistances crumble to dust. Nothing mattered as long as he could have this forever.
"There, you stupid letter-writer. Now will you stop complaining?" Ike vaguely noticed that his hand was tangled in Zeke's hair.
"No," he said decidedly, "I won't."
Zeke rolled his eyes. "Why not?"
"Because you stopped kissing me," Ike told him.
He laughed. "That, at least, can be fixed immediately." And he proceeded to fix it, very well.