The guard hurried after his prince.

He followed the flashes of gold darting across the white, marble walls, until they vanished into the green gardens of the palace. Fingers tightening around the hilt of his sword, he scanned the area for any hidden dangers, assassins lurking in the lilies, spies among the jasmine, and even the occasional cobra nestling in the grass. To his relief, they were safe, both from harm and the eyes and ears of the court.

At last, the guard found his prince sheltered in the shade of an orange tree, cradling his knees to his chest, hidden from the prying eyes of the moonlight.

"Your highness," said the guard. The prince flinched. He turned towards the voice with anxious eyes, but as the guard's face came within his sight, he let out a sigh of relief. Approaching his liege, the guard bowed his head and kneeled before him in one, fluid motion. It was act so familiar to him it came second to drawing his own sword.

The prince's lips curled into a smile. He unraveled his arms, letting his legs fall to the ground. "Hello, Naos," the prince said, motioning for him to rise. The guard raised his head, but stayed kneeling in place, waiting. The prince grew tense. Cautiously, he asked, "Have… Have you come to escort me back to the banquet?"

Neutrally, the guard replied, "As a knight of the royal guard, it is my duty to escort his highness wherever he goes."

The prince raised a brow. "Is that so?" Relaxed, and more curious, he asked again, "His majesty and her grace—have they noted my absence?"

The guard didn't answer.

His smile grew wider. "So, they haven't. Not yet."

Once again, the guard didn't answer.

The prince reached out to touch the guard's gloved hand. He chuckled, feeling him stiffen in surprise. "Then come," he said, "sit with me, just for a little while."

Hesitantly, the guard obeyed. As he sat, he undid his cloak, dusting off the invisible dirt and grime before carefully, meticulously, draping it across the prince's shoulders. "The flowers may be in bloom, your highness," he said, "but the winter still claws at the night. I may escort you to a private part of the palace. Indoors."

The prince scoffed. "I'm not a sickly child anymore, Naos. A light breeze won't leave me bedridden." But the prince drew the cloak closer around him, nuzzling his nose into the rich, red fabric. "And besides," he added, "I like it here."

The prince sighed, leaning his head against the trunk of the orange tree. "Parties are a bore," he said, "Bland exchanges with honeyed words and bitter gossip. But worst of all-" he clutched at his heart, "dessert always has to come last."

The stoic guard cracked a smile. "The greatest injustice of man," he concurred.

"But!" The prince raised a finger. "The conventions of mere men are not written in holy stone." Reaching into the sleeves of his robes, the prince took out a bundle of cheesecloth, which, unwrapped, contained a menagerie of sweets. Delicate cakes and tarts, candied fruits, squares of chocolate and toffee, roasted nuts rolled in honey and fine sugar, they were all rich delicacies that made the guard's mouth water.

"Even at the cusp of twenty one, his highness never ceases to smuggle sweets from the kitchens," Naos remarked. The guard seldom let the prince roam away from his sight, let alone willingly. But sharing the spoils of the young prince's conquests was too sweet of a sin to resist.

The prince presented the guard with a piece of cake. "A gift, Naos," he said, "for your unending loyalty to your prince." And it was a gift the guard accepted without hesitation. He chewed slowly, savoring the cake. It was unbelievably rich, bursting with vanilla and a citrusy zest, almost intoxicatingly sweet. It was the taste of nobility, a rare delicacy for a knight born outside the white, marble walls. It was nearly impossible to hide his pleasure.

And his prince, didn't seem to mind. "Lemon cakes are your favorite," he noted.

"They certainly are, your highness."

"Then, I shall offer you an innocent bribe." He presented Naos with three cakes from his treasury, candied lemons twinkling in the moonlight like gold coins. Simply, the prince said his price, "Twenty more minutes."

The guard turned to the sky, where the balconies of the palace burned bright, and the light shining through the stained glass windows danced across the marble like jewels brought to life, vanishing only at the sight of a shadow.

After careful judgment, the guard decided that twenty minutes, wouldn't do much harm. And so, the two sat under the orange tree, enjoying the rest of the prince's stolen sweets in pleasant silence.

When his belly was filled with cake, the prince collapsed into the grass, letting out a pleasant sigh. He let his hands roam through the blades, until his fingers caught a fallen stem of orange blossoms. He held the flowers above his eyes and gently stroked its petals. "I like it here," he said softly. He turned his head towards the guard, who was patiently watching. "It's quiet."

And it was quiet. The sounds of the banquet from the gardens were the distant cries of crows. Yet even from here, the guard could still recognize them. He heard the drunken laughter of courtiers drowning themselves in wine, the harsh jangling of their heavy jewelry drowning out the music. He heard the king's loud, fervent speeches and the sinister silence of his closest advisors. But the most sinister noise of all, was the gossip.

And the guard knew the prince heard these sounds as well, for he whispered, "Flowers don't gossip."

"Pay them no heed, your highness," said the guard.

The prince let out a hollow laugh, resembling more of a sob. "How can I not?" he asked the guard, his voice cracking with despair. He rolled to his side, away from the guard and away the palace. He wrapped the cloak around his body like armor, and cradled the stem of orange blossoms to his chest.

The guard furrowed his brows, and turned back to the balconies. He heard the clinking of cups, and the hearty roars of lower-born noblemen.

The king had just finished a speech.

The king… Was a fool. A proud, naive fool. But his majesty was never arrogant, never cruel. The king was a kind man, too kind. Had he been born a noble, the guard would have honored him, respected him. Yet, he was born a king, and so the knight felt only pity for the poor man.

But, the guard would rather pity his current king than suffer under a regent.

The king was a fool, but he wasn't an idiot. Behind his pride, he knew he was growing weak, through sickness, age, perhaps even from traces of poison in his mulled, winter wine. He knew what would happen if he couldn't bring forth a heir. But more importantly, the queen, birthing and burying child after child, knew this even more. And so, when the king, wrinkled and grey-haired, saw a miraculous infant in her arms, he questioned nothing.

The guard turned back to the prince. He was trembling.

The prince drew in a quivering breath. "How can I not" he asked the guard again, "when voices whisper outside my door day and night? When I have more names than the titles of his majesty's relatives combined? When words like, 'fraud' and 'impostor' hang heavier in the air than the finest of fruits served at the banquet?"

"They are mere rumors, your highness," Naos insisted, "You can't let them poison your mind."

"But what if they're true?!".

The guard sat frozen in shock. The prince's face was inches from his own. He could see his cloak bundled around his waist, the creases in the fabric where the prince had clasped it in his hands. Blades of grass were tangled in his hair, already tousled from the outdoors. He could see the pulse in his neck beating rapidly, like a hummingbird caught in a snare. He saw his eyes, misty with tears, but straining to keep them from falling. And in those eyes, the guard saw the prince's doubt, his anxiety, his insecurity.

His fear.

Suddenly, they widened. The prince looked down at his hands, clenched into tight fists. He slowly unraveled his fingers, and saw in his palms, the stem of orange blossoms, crushed to a paste.

He sobbed.

The prince felt his body grow weak, but the guard was quick to catch him, and he fell into his breastplate with a dull 'thud'. He wrapped his arms around the guard's neck, the only small, sliver of flesh beneath the layers of leather and metal.

"What if the rumors are true, Naos?", the prince asked. His voice lowered to a whisper. "What if… What if I am not your prince?"

The guard gazed at his liege. Even through his tears, the prince was... a beautiful man. Dark curls tumbled down his face, his skin golden from the sun, His emerald eyes shined bright, brighter than the eyes of the proud king, or of his cold, cunning siblings. The guard knew that the blood that flowed through the prince's veins was warmer than the quicksilver that flowed through the royal bloodline, even if the prince's blood was deemed impure.

But blood be damned.

"Then his highness would still be my liege—"

This man was his prince.

And he was his guard.

"—And I shall serve him until the very end."

Even through his armor, the guard felt the prince's lips curl into a smile. "Thank you, Naos," he whispered.

And with that, he rose to his feet.

The guard sat, stunned, shocked by the prince's sudden recovery. He felt the warmth of the prince's skin leave him for the coolness of cloth. He had draped his cloak back across his shoulders.

Blinking, the guard slowly rose as well. "I—uh...Your highness?" he asked quizzically.

The prince was already tidying himself. He combed the grass out of his hair, dusted the dirt off of his robes, adjusted his jewelry, and dabbed at his face with a handkerchief dampened with dew. He even brushed the crumbs out of his cheesecloth and stored it back into his sleeves, possibly for later use. His fingers flew with expert grace, and the process took little to no time. When he was finished, the prince was as charming as when he first left his chambers. Or perhaps—the guard thought—even more.

"Your price has been paid, Naos," the prince explained, "Twenty minutes has passed. I must return. Whether the court wants me or not, as crown prince, it is my duty to attend all formal events." The prince was much calmer, more composed. But in his eyes, his fear was still lingering, and he looked at the guard warily.

"But…" the prince reached towards the guard, holding out his hand. "Will you stay with me? Until it's over?"

The guard took it in his own.

"Always, your highness."


Notes

Yo, gimmie suggestions for the prince's name. I'm stumped.

I decided to write this because I really like important person/fiercely loyal guard relationships. But unlike the original prompt, I prefer it when the power dynamic of the relationship (romantic or platonic) shifts towards the guard. It kinda balances things out, the important person holding a higher status than the guard, but the guard being wiser and much more experienced.

Oh man, but when the stoic guard tries to hold back his overprotective instincts and gets flustered at the smallest display of kindness from said important person. Sign me up sign me up.

Hope you enjoyed this! This was meant to be a short story, but hey, let me know if you want another chapter. I'm kinda in the mood to write more.