Melody had managed to find her way back to her chambers, feigning sleep as Ariel peeked inside her bedroom. Though her heart was still racing, she plunged into sleep the instant she closed her weary eyes, curling up under the damp sheets. No one bothered to check on her until morning, when a quiet servant came in to light the lamps for her. As the day drew on, she was still left unbothered behind the canopy of her four poster bed, wide awake, listening to the rustling sounds of her clothing being packed, a broad beam of sunlight seeping through the canopy as the curtains were pulled open with a soft 'wsh', warming her bare shoulders and lighting up the sparkles still nestled in her hair.
Contentment had nestled up in her soul, like a lithe cat taking in the sun, with no intention of moving. One ear pressed to the mattress, Melody could hear the muted sounds of the castle bustling on around her, like a scurrying mass of ants, and the odd sensation of slowly passing time washed over her. The memories of the night before skirted around in Melody's mind, making themselves known without demanding her attention, as if the fire of the ovens were still flickering around her body.
When her mother finally sent for her to dress and come down to the carriages, Melody had to pry herself from the sheets. Leaving them twisted on the bed, she slipped on her simple marigold traveling dress, leaving her hair in a mussed ponytail low on her neck. The royal family was sent off with much less fanfare than they'd been received, with only the Duchess and a handful of servants they'd exchanged waiting in the gardens for the trio. Still half asleep, Melody barely protested as her aunt wrapped her in another vanilla scented hug, and her parents ushered her into the carriage. As it set off, the horses tossing their silken heads merrily, Melody had just enough awareness left to notice the blonde courtier riding amid their bevy of new servants before the rocking motion lulled her back into the calm safety of sleep.
The morning repeated itself, as she was left undisturbed until the castle loomed along the road. Even when the carriage door was swung open and the sea breeze hit her face, Melody still felt like she was stuck in a dream. Declining her new handmaiden's offer to bring up her trunks, she trudged her way up the carpeted stairs, entering her room with the air of someone who hadn't slept in days. The room had been prepared for her arrival, the windows flung open like she always preferred, filtering the breeze throughout the room and sending the curtains fluttering like dragonfly's wings. The bed was turned back, parched cotton sheets waiting for her, the brushes on the dresser arranged neatly in order of height.
Then she spotted the familiar wooden basin, filled to the brim with steaming water, tucked in the corner of the room closest to the balcony. Melody let out a contented sigh. "Thank you, Constantine."
Shedding her clothes onto the floor with little care, Melody even forsake her favorite robe, sending the water sloshing just over the side as she slipped in. Taking a deep breath, she ducked her head under the surface, setting her hair free to swirl in the water. She could spend all evening here.
Melody was finally consigned to exiting the water once it was as cold as the breeze coming through the windows. As she slipped her pale pink robe on, Melody fumbled for a candle, realizing just how late it was. Sunset had come and gone, and murky dusk was descending on her, coloring the room in dark blue and gray. As the match flared into life, she tiptoed throughout the room, lighting as many candles as she could find, until a steady golden glow illuminated the chamber.
A small tray was nestled in the cushions of her duvet, it must had been left by a maid while she was bathing. Lifting the lid off of the bowl, the delicious smell of stew reached her nose and she burrowed into the fluffy pillows, hunching over the food tray, ignoring the little note attached. Cramming the spoon in her mouth, Melody let the thick flavor seep in, the meat falling apart like paper, the rich juices almost dribbling out of the corners of her mouth. She was alone, she couldn't care less for manners, continuing to inhale her dinner with savage speed.
"Easy there, Princess, it's like they don't feed you in this place."
It was all she could do to keep from spitting the dregs out onto her bed. The clattering of her spoon against the bowl echoed around the room as she peered through the shadows. It couldn't be…
"Surprised?" the smug look on Jim's face was the single most infuriating thing she'd ever seen.
Spluttering over her words, Melody stumbled to her feet, drawing her robe tighter around her. "Wha-I, who-, what on earth are you doing in my room?" Her eyes darted to the now cold bathing basin. "How long have you been here?!"
He pushed himself off of her armchair, laughter and fire dancing in his eyes. "Relax, Princess, I didn't see anything. Though I am beginning to wonder why you seem to be half naked every time I see you."
Her mouth hung open as she watched him shamble across the carpet, running a rough hand over her armoire. Melody's heart was hammering so hard, she could barely hear her own chaotic thoughts battling each other. Fury rose in her throat, and she cinched the waist of her robe, storming over to the boy, grabbing him by the shoulder and ripping him around to face her with a force that surprised the both of them.
"I want to know two things." She said firmly. "What are you doing here and how did you get in my room?"
Jim held up in hands, a grin crossing his face, making her all the more enraged. "I work here now," he said dryly. "Just doing my job."
Melody narrowed her eyes at him, feeling a twinge of annoyance that she had to look up at him. "You're following me, aren't you?"
Genuine surprise crossed his face, at least she thought it was genuine. "I saw an opportunity, and I took it, as did a lot at the Duchess's. A smaller staff to cook for means less work and more play for yours truly."
Melody raised an eyebrow. "Play?"
"Have you never had fun before, Princess Melody?" He tipped his head down a bit patronizingly, and she realized she was standing on the tips of her toes, practically bristling. "You should try it sometime. I'd be more than happy to give you lessons."
"If anyone needs teaching, it's you, and on manners."
"Ouch. I'm beginning to think you don't like me."
Melody assessed him one more time, his scruffy hair and worn clothes striking against the wealth of her room. When her eyes flitted up to his face, some small part of her brain traitorously sent a little shiver down her spine. "I'm trying my best," she said, one hand mussing her own hair. "Though I'm getting a bit frightened that I'm failing."
The smile on his face lost some of its mocking nature, eyes following the action of her hands. "Then I'm doing my job in more ways then one."
Relaxing back onto her heels, Melody glanced down at her own hands, feeling shyness replacing anger. She'd never had a boy in her room this long before, she wasn't as apprehensive as she imagined, though she got the feeling that his explanation for his being here wasn't completely true. A comfortable silence settled over them, the candlelight mimicking the fires of the night before. There was a small rustle as Jim slipped his hands into his pockets, shifting his weight in a gesture Melody realized was a nervous one.
"Oh, wait." Jim scrounged around in the left pocket, with-drawling his hand in a fist. Melody instinctively leaned closer, curious as to what he was holding. "You left this in the kitchens." The pearl hairpin shone in his tanned palm, the candlelight flickering in its creamy depths.
"Thank you." Her slender hand closed over his, stomach tingling a little as the smooth clip was transferred to her palm. "I thought I'd lost it."
"That pin almost got me killed," he said. "Abigail found it in my pocket and nearly skinned me alive for stealing from nobles."
The tension finally left her shoulders, registering that he was just as uncertain as her. That was when she suddenly became conscious of just how close they were. She could just smell the leather of his jacket. If she leaned a little forward, her head would be resting on his chest or-
Whipping her hair over her shoulder, Melody strode back over to her bed, slamming her rump down onto the duvet. The pin dug into her hip as she hunched back over the tray, hefting the goblet of juice to her lips. A small chuckle came from Jim's corner.
"When will you be returning to the kitchens?"
"Whenever I'm needed." He said, meandering over and wrapping one arm around the pole keeping the canopy up and leaning against it.
"I shouldn't be distracting you from your work." She returned, the tiniest teasing tone veiled in her words.
"I consider you a quality distraction."
She cradled the goblet in both hands and cocked her head to the side, thoroughly disarmed. Did he know he was doing this? Making her stomach leap with one casual sentence? Pursing her lips, she smiled softly at the blankets and let her eyes lift from the tray, her spine curved into a "C" as she took a tiny sip, peeking at his face with her chin down.
Jim had been focused on the family portrait on the opposite wall, but her steady gaze diverted him one more time. For the first instance that evening, his face was absent of a cocky smile, sincerity etched in every pore. After a few intense seconds, Melody dropped her eyes again, lowering the empty goblet onto the tray, hoping the candles didn't show how red her cheeks were. Princesses shouldn't fawn over kitchen boys, she reminded herself.
Jim seemed to read her mind, reaching out to take the empty tray from her. "I'd better get back."
"I've got some work to get done."
"Yeah, of course."
"You should probably get some sleep."
Melody stayed silent at this. She'd been sleeping for hours, these past twenty minutes seemed like the few moments of clarity in her day. The evening before played through her mind at incredible speed. Staring at her hands, Melody could just hear the soft thud of Jim's feet as he was making for the door.
"Wait!" Her own feet hit the floor as she jogged over to him. "Can I come with?"
She'd gotten him that time. "Excuse me?"
"Can I come with you? To the kitchens? I've done nothing interesting all day, and I'm sure you could use some company that isn't fifty years older than you." She felt as breathless as if she'd run a mile.
He raised one eyebrow. "You want to go to the kitchens?"
"Naked, with no shoes?"
She planted her hands on her hips. "In a robe, and yes, no shoes."
"Would you rather I wear my thickest winter parka?"
Jim chuckled, shaking his head at her. "I'm okay with this. But if anyone asks, you were hungry and came down for a snack."