Jamie stood alone, anxiously anticipating his first challenge. His abilities were raw and untrained, but he was done letting fear of the unknown hold him back. He inhaled a deep, bracing breath, and centered himself in the present. Today was the day he would prove himself to his family.
"Morning, Domnall, Izzy," The entrance door opened and Mr. Shaydra stepped inside.
"Morning, William," Grandfather said. "Jamie's gonna take care of your business today."
"Well, what a treat for me!" Mr. Shaydra's eyes were wide and bright as he slowly made his way to Jamie. "How are you today, Jamie?"
"I'm good, Mr. Shaydra. Will you be having your usual order?"
"Two chocolate tarts, my boy. Agnes says it's not good for my health, but chocolate helps me think, you know? I wouldn't be able to do all that counting without your grandparents' heavenly food giving me energy."
"I completely understand," Jamie nodded and moved to retrieve the order. He carefully picked up two chocolate tarts and placed them on the counter. "That will be six cooper coins."
Mr. Shaydra extracted the payment and scooped up his desserts, taking a hefty bite. "I like to have one now, one one for the road. Good day to you all." He said with a mouthful of chocolate before making his way out of the shop. Mother flashed a smile and Grandfather gave him a thumbs-up. Jamie shrugged with a bashful grin.
"You both were right, it's not as scary as I assumed." Jamie was so certain he would do something so stupid to enrage his first customer, his grandparents would never allow him near the shop again. True, Mr. Shaydra had been friends with his family for years and wasn't known for fits of bloodthirsty rage, but the transaction went well.
"Look at that, he's a natural. He reminds me ah' me when he was my age," Grandfather said. "One day soon, he'll be the best dang worker ever to step foot in me' shop." He concluded with a laugh.
"We shouldn't get ahead of ourselves, dad, but you're right, he is a natural," Mother said. "Jamie takes to the family business well."
Jamie was going to agree, but a high, youthful voice chimed in: "Good morning, Mrs. Christiansen. Is Jamie around?"
"Good morning to you, Joan," Mother pointed to the counter. "Jamie will take your order today."
Whatever confidence Jamie recently developed began to dwindle as a red-haired girl around his age stepped into the shop. He could feel his heart pound and he gripped the edge of the counter to try and focus. The girl wore a green surcoat and greeted Jamie with a bright smile. "Hi Jamie!"
"H-hi Joan," He swallowed. "How are you doing today?"
"I'm doing well. And how are you?"
"Good. I'm doing good," Jamie had no idea why he felt so nervous around Joan. She treated him with kindness and always seemed to be in a cheerful mood when they spoke, but something about her presence made him want to turn and hide until he was certain she was miles away. "What will you have today?"
"My mother requested a marzipan cake. She said she put in the request a few days ago, I offered to pick it up for her."
He nodded for several seconds. "Uh, yes, as you wish," Jamie only now realized he couldn't remember where the marzipan cake was stored. Rather, he thought he knew, but he also didn't want to look like a fool in front of Joan. What kind of worker didn't know the layout of his relatively small shop? But he also couldn't ask Grandfather for the same reason-
"Behind you, Jamie." Mother said.
He whirled around to find the treat in question sitting on the shelf behind him, dusted with frosting and a smattering of strawberries. Jamie carefully lifted it and turned back to Joan's smiling face. "This is yours. Or, it will be once you pay for it."
"Her mother already paid for it, Jamie."
Jamie nodded again. "Oh, right, forget I said anything. Well, don't forget everything I said, but you can ignore what I said about paying for it, because you did that already. Or, your mother did."
Joan was still smiling, like she wasn't aware of his embarrassing behavior. "Thank you, Jamie, and you as well, Mrs. Christiansen. I'll let you know how they like it."
Mother waved as she left, but Jamie could still feel his heart pound in his chest like Joan was standing right in front of him long after she was gone. He rehearsed what to say and how to act countless times, but all of his preparation became useless as soon as someone like Joan walked in and said hello. As much as he stuttered and fumbled, he was proud he completed the exchange without tripping and hurling the cake in her face.
"Ya' know," Grandfather said. "That girl's always askin' about you whenever she's in here."
Jamie's eyes widened. "Really?"
"Yep. She's always askin' me or your ma' if you're around, if you're comin' in today. She must really like the way you make the food."
Mother grinned and laughed. "I suppose that's one possibility."
"If yer' up for another challenge, yer' ma' and I need to make a quick run to Royse Carpenter bout' the money we owe her from last week. Do you feel up to protectin' the fortress by yourself?" His grandfather said.
"Sure. Just, return quickly, please." He felt prepared to manage things on his own, but not if Joan stopped in again.
"Protect the fortress," His mother repeated as they exited through the front door. "Did we travel ten years into the past when I wasn't looking?"
Jamie inhaled deeply and let out a calming breath. He waited an additional ten seconds before he turned to select his prize. Mother, Grandfather and Grandmother all had a habit of walking in on him eating the inventory without permission, but he deserved something special for his performance so far. After all, he was doing very well despite intense pressure.
He moved around the counter and examined the wooden panels lining the interior of his grandfather's bakery. Row after row of increasingly appetizing cakes, doughnuts and pastries, trying to pick a favorite was impossible. Fine cakes, ryse, stuffed eggs, frutours, there were almost too many options, but Jamie knew he needed to pick fast before they returned.
Keeping that in mind, he decided on a slice of almond cake. Jamie was salivating by the time he returned to the counter, so he took a large bite, not bothering to worry about the crumbs. The treat was so scrumptious and satisfying that he closed his eyes and enjoyed being in the moment.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when he opened his eyes to find a girl standing on the other side of the counter.
A stunningly, almost impossibly beautiful girl.
"Good morning." She said, her voice sweet like honey.
Her curly, golden brown hair spilled like to her shoulders, and she was wearing a dark blue dress without any sort of embellishments or flourishes to its design. The mystery girl wasn't wearing any jewelry, but Jamie had never seen someone look so effortlessly, artlessly beautiful. The way she carried herself, every move was infused with an aura of exquisite grace, and she smelled like a fresh Spring mountainside.
"Oh, Arahkum on High, strike me down now." Jamie thought to himself. Sure, attractive members of the opposite sex turning him into a drooling oaf without saying a word wasn't an unusual occurrence, but now Jamie was smelling her and thinking about her aura . This was a new level of depravity. He was a professional and needed to act like one.
"Hi," His voice came out as a muffle with his mouth full of almond cake. It only now occurred to Jamie he was still staring at her, crumbs littering the counter and his clothing. He swallowed and recalled his grandfather's advice. Find your voice, be in the moment, let the words flow. "Would you like me to...to get, uh. I mean to say, thank you for choosing our business. Our store. What would you like for me to get you today?"
Her eyes narrowed just a touch. "Do you have anything with strawberry flavoring?"
"For you? Anything!" Jamie nodded excitedly and dashed away. "This is called strawberries in snow. Or maybe it's a strawberry in snow, I think. You probably don't care, but I think you have really good taste. This is the most delicious dessert in the whole store."
That got a tiny smirk out of her. "I'll take your word on that." She placed her hand down on the table and slid a large green coin over the counter. Jamie picked it up, certain she just made a mistake.
"I'm sorry, Miss. I don't mean to be rude, but you gave me a King's Medallion."
"Yes," She said. "You're very observant."
"But you only bought a strawberry-in-snow. That doesn't cost very much."
She shrugged. "Consider it a reward for excellent service."
Jamie was almost beaming. Indescribably beautiful, funny and generous? She had to be an angel.
Or a princess.
His smile slowly vanished. The Princess of Amorado wasn't standing in his grandparents' shop at this exact moment, right?
"Oh, uh," Jamie said, now finding incredible difficulty in maintaining eye contact. "Thank you. For being here and choosing this store. I mean, thank you for the very kind thing. The medallion. You didn't have to, but you did, and I like yo-that you did."
The girl gave him a curious look, and they stood in painful silence for a few seconds before a commotion at the front door drew their attention.
"She's in here, Your Grace!"
Before Jamie was able to confirm whether he just embarrassed himself in front of a member of the royal family, his gaze was forced to the entrance of the shop. The sudden yell came from a knight who was presently holding the door open. A moment later, Queen Mary Faraday stormed past him and into the shop.
"Caitlin! Do you have any idea how long I've been looking for you?" The Queen almost yelled.
"Because this part of the city is well known for being a den of crime and violence." The Princess said, casually taking a bite of the strawberry in snow.
"That's enough out of you, young lady!" Standing in front of her daughter, only a few feet away from Jamie, the Queen may as well have been a colossus spewing fire. "I know you took my King's Medallion, and you're going to give it back to me this instant!"
The Princess somehow acquired a spoon and began eating her dessert. "I would if I had a King's Medallion on my person, which I don't," She said. "So I'm afraid I can't."
"You," The Queen's gaze snapped to Jamie. "Did you see her with a King's Medallion?"
A surge of freezing cold overtook Jamie's body. Lying to a member of the Royal family was treasonous, but he couldn't betray the Princess's trust. He gazed up at the Queen, then looked to Caitlin, then back up. He rapidly shook his head. Queen Mary let out a frustrated noise, then turned and bolted outside, leaving her knight to supervise the situation. The Princess began to follow, only stopping at the door where she turned and met Jamie's eyes once again.
"I promise, she's usually not that bad." She winked and was gone.
After several minutes standing there with his jaw hanging slightly ajar, Jamie's mother and grandfather returned, though he didn't respond to eithers' greeting.
"You alright, mah' boy?" He said. `Ya' look like you just saw a ghost with three heads dancin' in the street."
"Yes, Jamie, is everything alright?" His mother said.
"Byei-uh," Jamie said. "I-uh, got a King's Medallion." He held it up for them and the two moved to the counter to investigate.
"Am I dreamin' or is that a real King's Medallion?"
"It looks real to me, dad." His mother said.
He took it from Jamie and smiled wide. "You bet it is!" He bellowed. "This is at least three month's profits! How'd ya' get it, Jamie?"
Despite a long day working at the shop, the encounter with Princess Caitlin gave Jamie a burst of energy which hadn't relented until long after he returned home. He was in the middle of helping his mother cook dinner when his father returned home from work. He barely stepped inside before being ambushed by his son, eager to regale him with the day's events.
"She gave me a King's Medallion for the pastry! And then Caitlin went to follow the Queen, but she turned around and winked at me! I almost thought I was dreaming! Grandfather and mother came back a few minutes later, but they were gone by then."
"I'm happy to hear that you had such a great day," Jamie's father said as he sat down at the dinner table. "Izzy, did you hear Jamie had an encounter with Princess Caitlin Faraday?"
"I did," His mother said, taking the seat next to him. "I'm not sure if you heard, but the rumor is she gave Jamie a King's Medallion for a pastry. Dad almost started dancing and I imagine my mom felt the same way when he showed her. I'm still trying to figure out whether Jamie's more excited about the payment or the chat with the princess."
"Hard to say, but I think we'll know for sure when she comes back." His father agreed.
"Really? Do you think she'll stop by again?" Jamie asked.
"As long as we have our best employee to put the charm on her." His father shared a rueful smile with his mother.
Jamie felt his face flush and he tried to change the subject while refusing to look up from his food. "I mean, it'd be good because she'd give us more King's Medallions."
"And you'd be able to see her again." She added.
He knew his parents were only lightly teasing him, but the humiliation was painful. How could they already know about his thoughts on Caitlin? Was it so obvious?
"Don't be embarrassed, Jamie, it's only natural; she's kind, funny, and beautiful." His mother said.
He shrugged. All those things were true, but talking about them out loud made him flush with shame. "I guess."
"You don't think Caitlin is pretty?" His father asked.
"Of course I do!"
The snickering turned into full laughter at that.
Jamie lay awake that night in bed, still replaying the encounter with Caitlin in his mind. Despite his best efforts to get to sleep, he couldn't think about anything else.
The brief conversation was enough. In less than sixty seconds, he developed a thunderstruck crush on the Princess, and he knew she was the most beautiful woman on Earth. Gorgeous, funny, cunning and fearless, never had he encountered someone so enchanting. Just picturing her was enough to make his heart race with unbridled joy.
The new feeling of wonder coincided with a sense of painful dread, as Jamie was forced to acknowledge there was a better chance of the sun careening into his house than her returning his feelings.
It might not be so bad if the whole world wasn't able to see it from miles away. He only hoped Caitlin wasn't cognizant of the truth. She didn't say anything to that effect, but she hadn't cursed his soul and sped off in disgust, which was a good sign.
Still, what if his parents were right and she returned to the shop? At first, the thought of being able to see her again was enough to make a legion of butterflies overtake his stomach, but the harsh reality quickly doused the flames of hope. If, by some miracle she came back, Jamie knew he'd say or do something so unbelievably awkward and stupid that the Princess would be repulsed. Someone like her would never tolerate the idea of him having a crush on her. If Caitlin knew, she'd want to be as far away from him as possible. In all probability, she would demand the shop be demolished and his family be banished from Amorado forever. Not only would he humiliate himself in front of his dream girl, but his family would resent him forever.
But there had to be something he could do to prevent that, right? The future wasn't set in stone, and his destiny was his own, if he could figure out what appealed to the Princess.
Did Caitlin like funny guys?
Did Caitlin like smart guys?
Did Caitlin like strong guys?
He wasn't an objective critic of his own character, but Jamie felt he wasn't especially funny or smart. The lone positive was that he was decently muscular for a thirteen-year-old thanks to all the time he spent running around with his friends and working on the farm with the O'Doererys. Still, he was far from the type of guy who could effortlessly sweep a girl off her feet, let alone a beautiful princess. The type of guy princesses liked were noble heroes or warrior princes with lots of money. The dashingly handsome types found in epic tales about saving the world from an evil ogre or a wizard with a magical sword. A farm boy commoner without a drop of noble blood in him? Not so much.
Jamie turned over on his side and looked out the window, moonlight illuminating the night sky with its calming glow. He raised his hand to cover it, but when his fingers enclosed over the moon, it slipped away. Somewhere, in the Castle that stood like a beacon of hope in the heart of the city, Caitlin was probably gazing out her window at the same space. Knowing he was occupying the same city at the same time as someone so beautiful, it was...strange. Almost like a privilege.
Then, as if hit by divine revelation, clarity struck. His mind became as clear as the night air.
Jamie's destiny was to follow in his father's footsteps and become a knight.
Obviously, that alone wouldn't be enough to win Caitlin's heart, but it wouldn't hurt his chances, right? Even if he never saw her again, protecting the people of Amorado was a righteous, noble life, one that would make his family proud. Maybe if he worked hard and proved himself, Jamie might find himself among the Auburn Blades tasked with protecting the royal family. If he succeeded, he had a one in four chance of being assigned to work with Caitlin…
But that was allowing the fantasy run too far afield. First, he'd have to become a knight before considering the possibility of such an achievement.
Satisfied, he put his head down and shut his eyes. Tomorrow, he'd tell his parents the good news.