Hello again, humanoids. I have a question: am I the only one who finds it a lot easier to write when I know that I should be doing something else (i.e. homework)? Because really, when I get home from school and am completely aware that I have things to do, some subconscious part of my brain (which must freaking hate me) comes up with the best idea ever and I just can’t control my actions anymore. “Oh, it’s fine,” I said. “I’ll just write for an hour or so,” I said. “I’ll have plenty of time for Spanish homework,” I said.
Anyway, this took me like three hours to write because I kept changing parts. Hope you like it, and feel free to tell me if you think I should tweak it here and there. :)
Was Nico supposed to be fantasizing about strangling the only person in the palace who could actually help him?
Was he doing it anyway?
Jason’s little friend was seriously annoying. He introduced himself as Leo Valdez, bad boy supreme, a mischievous grin on his face. He had dark skin and brown, curly hair that fell in his eyes a lot, but it didn’t seem to distract him from making sarcastic comments and odd jokes - Nico immediately noticed the slight Spanish accent. His clothes seemed a little casual for working at the palace - what with the tattered and oil-stained white button up, jeans with suspenders and a tool belt around his waist - but Nico didn’t say anything. He also took notice of how long his fingers were and how calloused his hand was when he shook it as they met. It wasn’t hard to guess he worked with tools a lot.
Leo sat on the island in the center of the kitchen, swinging his legs back and forth and spinning a screwdriver between his fingers. “So.” He said, stealing Nico’s attention away from the other workers scurrying around the kitchen like ants on red bull. “This is where the magic happens, my friend. Food.”
“So, what do you do in the palace?” Nico asked.
Leo’s eyes seemed to light up even brighter than they already were. “Oh! I’m a fix-it man! I’m mostly in my workshop or in here, though. Not many things are broken elsewhere.”
“Why in here?”
“Because someone manages to break the stove about every ten min-”
“Leo!” Someone called from the back of the kitchen. Leo chuckled and shook his head, his hair flying everywhere.
“Speaking of which- gotta go.” He hopped off the counter and pointed at Nico firmly. “Sit.” He commanded. Nico stared at him. “Stay.” Again, Nico remained silent, blinking. “Good boy!” Leo then hurried to the other side of the room, weaving around the other chefs and assistants to go fix the stove.
Nico started wandering - mostly because Leo told him to stay - doing his best to smile back at people he passed, walking up to random chefs and watching them work. At one point, someone asked what he thought of their Tiramisu. Nico took a small bite with a very tiny plastic fork. “Little more choco?” He suggested. The chef tried a bit himself, and nodded in agreement, thanking Nico as he moved on.
He came to an unattended oven and crouched down to look through the glass at what was baking. It looked like pastry dough for cannolis. Glancing at the dials on the oven, he frowned. They weren’t at the right temperature or time. Rolling his eyes, he fixed it without even thinking.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Someone asked sharply from behind him. Nico jumped and turned around, facing a very pretty Native-American girl with her hands on her hips. She was about the same height as Leo at 5-foot-six, slightly darker skin, chocolate brown hair that was cut choppy and uneven with two braids down the sides of her head, and eyes that glistened and seemed to change color. One second they were brown, then green, then blue. It was confusing.
“I-I, I was just… are - are these yours?”
The girl glared at him for a solid minute, arms crossed and eyebrows knitted. Suddenly, her demeanor relaxed and she started laughing, throwing her head back. “You should have seen your face!” She made her eyes wide and glossy and shrunk down, pulling her arms in. “I-I-I- I was just- Just-” She stammered, mimicking Nico’s deeper voice.
Nico frowned and crossed his arms defensively, looking away as he felt his face heat. She ‘awww’-ed and patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry, I was just joking.” She sent him a smile, which he returned with a roll of his eyes. “I’m Piper.”
Leo practically skipped up to them and beamed at Piper. “Hey, Pipes! I see you’ve met Mr. Lord-Of-Darkness,” he said, sending a look Nico’s way. Piper smirked, probably thinking of Nico stuttering under her glare. She winked at him fleetingly, as if to say our secret, k?, before turning back to Leo and striking up a random conversation. Nico smirked as he watched the two talking animatedly, and wasn’t surprised that Jason was friends with the two.
“So,” Nico cut in, looking at Piper, “what do you do here? In the Castle, I mean.”
She chuckled. “Nothing, actually. I just kinda show up and they let me in. I don’t think anyone truly cares, at this point.” Nico nodded, suppressing a smile.
“Follow up question,” Nico continued, now turning to Leo. “what do I do at the Palace?” Leo still hadn’t told him.
“Oh, right!” He exclaimed. “You’re a maid - servant, really. Very glamorous, you’ll love it.” Leo winked and Nico groaned. Great. Being told what to do and when to do it. Because Nico was so used to that.
“Not the best I could ask for, but I’ll take what I can get,” Nico muttered. The two nodded approvingly at him and Leo went on explaining Nico’s job.
“-but for today, you can just watch. Comprendes? I’ll show ya the ropes, don’t worry.” He leaned closer and whispered, “I basically run this place. Got everyone here in the palm of my hand.”
“Your ‘workshop’ is in a storage closet.” Piper pointed out.
“Only temporarily!” Leo said defensively. Nico chuckled and the three of them continued talking - well, Leo and Piper did, Nico mostly listened. After a while, a man wearing very fancy clothing walked over to them. For a moment, Nico thought he was going to tell Leo and Piper not to be so loud, but he thought it was fine since they were in the kitchen anyway. The entire room was filled with clinking dishes and meals being called out for someone to take care of.
Instead, the man turned to Nico. “You are the new maid, correct?” Nico glanced at Leo for a moment before nodding. “The Prince was requested you deliver him his meal.” Nico’s eyes widened.
Sure, it was a god-sent opportunity to get some information he needed, but Nico hadn’t expected to confront the Prince so quickly. It was only his first day, he was just supposed to watch and learn the ropes, to blend in. How was he supposed to act in front of the man he was plotting to kill?
Nico clenched his hands to keep them from trembling. “W…Why me?”
“Do not question his Royal Highness. Please do as you are told.” With that, the man turned and walked away. When Nico turned to Leo and Piper again, they were both staring at him, surprised.
“Wow!” Leo exclaimed, breaking the silence. “Day one and you’re already in trouble. I gotta say, quite impressive.”
Nico rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Just- where’s his dinner?”
Leo looked around. “Um, I think it’s that one - over there.” He pointed to a covered tray on the counter across the kitchen. “You remember where his room is, right?” Nico nodded and headed for the tray, trying not to feel nervous.
It took Nico exactly two minutes to get lost.
He turned down several hallways, but they all basically looked the same. He sighed and growled at the ceiling. Not only was he going to die and deteriorate into a skeleton in the hallways of this god-forsaken castle, if he ever was found, his carcass would probably be penalized for letting the Prince’s dinner get cold.
Turning another corner angrily, Nico collided unexpectantly with something and almost dropped the tray in his hands. Once he had steadied himself, he glanced up and saw it was actually a someone that he had run into. The girl stumbled, but righted herself and sent him a glare. “Mind watching where you’re going?” Her piercing black eyes seeming to cut holes in Nico, her eyebrows pulled down in annoyance, glossy black hair pulled into a single braid.
Nico had an overwhelming urge to shoot a sarcastic comment back at her but held his tongue. He needed directions. “Uh, sorry.” He got out. “I don’t really know where I’m going. I’m supposed to give this to the Prince…?”
She started at him with a freezing gaze for a moment longer before pointing down the hall. “Second right, down the hall, third door on the left.” Nico blinked.
“Whatever. I don’t have time for this.” She checked a watch and continued down the hall. Her short white dress - which she was probably forced to wear - and pocket watch made Nico think of the Rabbit from Alice and Wonderland.
“Better hurry!” He called after her. “You’re late, you’re late!” The girl sent a glare over her shoulder and Nico chuckled and continued to the Prince’s room. Upon coming up to the double doors he knocked, trying to make it sound confident (if that was a thing).
The door opened and there stood the Prince, his blond hair wet and falling in his freckled face, a towel resting on his bare shoulders. Surprisingly, he was wearing worn-out blue jeans that hung precariously low on his hips. Nico swallowed and forced himself not to blush. It was incredibly difficult, but not impossible. The Prince appeared to notice Nico staring, but only smiled at him, then turned and walked back into the room, waving for Nico to follow.
The Prince’s quarters was about twice the size of Nico’s bakery back in town, accompanied with giant windows to the right side that came just six inches off the ground and ceiling. There was a giant bed in the back left corner, set at an angle from the wall. The covers were brightly colored, with yellow and blue designs and a golden headboard. The walls were simply light blue. On the corresponding wall as the bed was a door to a walk-in closet, and to the other side was an exorbitant dresser and a desk.
Nico couldn’t stop his slight intake of breath as he took in the paintings on the wall, all the furniture, and just the sheer size of the room. His vision began to whirl - until his eyes found Will staring at him with a smirk, and everything was grounded again. Nico tried not to scowl as he extended the tray toward the boy, raising his eyebrows in a way that said, you gonna take this, or what?
“So, you’re the new guy?” The Prince asked as he benevolently took the tray from Nico’s outstretched hands and set it on the bed.
“No,” Nico answered, “I’ve worked here all my life, I just try to avoid large groups of people, expensive decorations, and castles in general. That would be why you’ve never seen me.” He rolled his eyes as the Prince chuckled.
“Nice to meet you. I’m-”
Nico scoffed. “I know who you are.” The Prince hesitated for a moment, probably baffled that Nico had had the nerve to interrupt him.
“Right - of course. Uh, but you can call me Will, if you want.”
Nico had to keep from rolling his eyes again. He plastered on a fake smile. “I’d love to, but even if I am new I believe I am correct to assume that maids are required to remain formal when around the Royal Family.”
Will waved it off as he moved across the room and straightened a frame on the wall. “Don’t worry about that. Everyone knows that I don’t care for those formal terms all too much. You get it, right?”
Nico smirked. “I don’t believe I do, your Highness.” Will shot him a look, but let it go.
“Alright, I get it. You can call me whatever you want.” Will turned toward him again and raised an eyebrow. “But, doesn’t it bother you?” Nico looked at him questioningly, wordlessly asking for elaboration. Will explained, “When you said that just now. Even if you were being sarcastic, I could tell you really didn’t like saying it. I’m guessing you’re not used to this sort of thing, huh?” Will took a few steps forward. “So, what are you used to?”
Nico cleared his throat and took a step back to put more distance between them. “Why do you even want to know?” He asked skeptically.
Will didn’t seem to get why Nico had used that tone of voice until realization dawned on his stupid, beautiful face and he laughed. “Oh, no. I wasn’t asking in that way. You see, I make it an obligation of mine to know everyone who works in the palace. In my opinion, none of anything my family does would be possible without them. I guess I kind of see everyone as one big team. You know, equals.” He smiled.
What the heck, Nico thought. Why would he think that way? This guy has had everything he could ever hope for in life handed to him on a silver platter. He was born with a freaking silver spoon in his mouth. Why would he care about those lower than him? Why would he care about Nico?
Nico was so caught up in being confused, he didn’t realize he had let a long silence drag out until Will called him out for it. Nico silently reprimanded himself for not staying focused and quickly tried to come up with a response.
“Well, that’s admirable of you.” He offered, though it didn’t at all sound sincere. Will caught it as well. He nodded awkwardly and glanced at the wall, his eyes skimming absentmindedly at various pictures hanging there. Nico pointed at the images, asking silently for permission. Will nodded and Nico walked over, his eyes dancing over them and trying to commit them all to memory. They might turn out to be beneficial - somehow.
A few of the photos were of Will and the queen. In some they were looking at the camera, Queen Naomi’s easy smile lighting up her face and hair curling around her ears. Others must have been taken secretly as the two danced around the halls or kneeled side-by-side in the garden. Nico scanned the other pictures but didn’t see any of the King, which was understandable.
Other photos were of people who Nico assumed were Will’s friends. Nico remembered reading somewhere that he was home-schooled in the palace, and he inferred that these friends of his must work there somewhere. He noticed Will wasn’t in some of them - Nico also remembered the Prince going through a phase where he refused to let the press take pictures of him. No one knew why, but Nico always liked to think he was self-conscious about acne.
Nico was about to turn away from the pictures when he noticed one that he had missed. He glanced at it and did a double take. The picture depicted Will with a sword gripped in one hand. He stood comfortably, full of confidence. But it wasn’t Will who made Nico’s heart start beating faster. It was the girl next to him, a wide grin on her face, dark and familiar eyes gleaming, silky hair pulled into a high ponytail. She was clad in bronze-colored armor, a gun resting in the holster at her hip, a green hat held in one hand.
Nico’s hands clenched. Why on earth did Will have a picture of her? Why on earth was she looking at him like that? Why on earth was Nico shaking? “You okay?” He heard Will ask, but Nico ignored his voice and continued staring. Nico didn’t move when the Prince came up to stand behind him and followed his gaze to the photo.
“Oh.” Will’s voice was suddenly dismal. “I’m guessing you saw her in the news a few years back, right?” Nico nodded, though it was a complete lie. He hadn’t seen her in the papers; he was too terrified to look. “She was really great. Extremely brave. All she wanted was to help people and-”
“Yeah, I know,” Nico snapped, and Will stopped abruptly. ’Was’. His heart constricted painfully. He forced himself to turn away and wandered to the middle of the room again, trying to refocus his mind.
Forcefully switching rails, he decided he needed to find a way back into this room when Will was busy elsewhere so that he could have a proper look around for anything valuable. But at that moment, he just wanted to get out of there. Nico glanced at the tray still sitting on the bed. “It’s probably cold by now.”
“Huh?” Will asked, still staring at the picture on the wall, blending in with the others, yet somehow still managing to stick out. It might as well have been on fire for all Nico cared; it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
“Your food. You planning on eating it or not?”
“Oh.” Will glanced at the tray on his bed. “Um, probably not. Sorry about that, it was really just an excuse to talk to you. I always do this when we have someone new working in the palace. Besides, I’m not hungry very often anyway. Uh, do you want it? If you want, you can eat in here and-”
“Your Royal Highness should eat,” Nico ground out tightly before turning and leaving the room. He walked briskly down the hallways, taking flights of stairs two steps at a time, trying to calm his breathing and relax his fists. It wasn’t working well.
Marching into the kitchen he caught sight of Leo and Piper still chatting away and stomped up to them. “Leo. I’m going to crash for the night. Where am I staying?”
Leo raised an eyebrow, noticing how pissed off he looked, but didn’t comment as he nodded his head and told Piper he would be right back. Then he lead Nico down the halls once more, explaining that since his home was so far away (Venice was what Jason had apparently told him) and probably wouldn’t have anywhere to stay near the palace, he was just going to sleep in one of the guest rooms on the third floor. Nico huffed at the fact that he just came from this floor.
Leo walked up to a set of white, french-style double doors and pushed them open, letting Nico walk in and look around. It was about a third of the size of the Prince’s room, but still massive compared to what he was used to. A bed slightly bigger than a twin sat in the far right corner of the room, set a foot or two from the walls, a small table standing next to it.
There was one window, which overlooked part of the garden behind the castle, a walk-in closet and a desk with a connected mirror on the left wall. To the right of the door was a full-length mirror, and he averted his eyes automatically.
Leo made yet another partially relevant joke before taking his leave when Nico didn’t even acknowledge that he’d said anything. He heard some muttering about talking to a shadow as the door closed. Once Leo’s footsteps had faded down the hallway, Nico collapsed to his knees right there in the middle of the room and forced out deep breaths. His hands were still shaking.
Why was this bothering him so much? Nico knew that the Prince had known her, it was the reason he had hated him since he was thirteen. He swallowed. It must have been shock from seeing her face again after so long.
For five sequential years, Nico couldn’t bring himself to look at a picture of her, to remember how amazing she was, the advice she would give him, how empowering and motivational her smile was. Over those years, that smile had grown fuzzy in his mind, as well as her face. But he couldn’t look at a picture of her without breaking down.
Sort of like what he was doing now.
It had been half a decade, and he knew that he shouldn’t still be so sensitive about it. He also knew that she would sure as heck hate the fact that he was. But five years didn’t seem like enough time for him to get over it completely, for him to truly let her go. To move on. Not with someone like her.
He took a deep breath, stood shakily, and grabbed his bag, which had been taken to the room beforehand. He fished through and yanked out a medium-sized book bound in soft leather. Gathering his courage, Nico opened the cover carefully and bit his lip as he scanned page after page of pictures of her. He wasn’t exactly sure what made him grab it at the last minute before he left that morning, but he did.
Sighing, he closed it again and set it on the desk, locking his eyes on the table and turning sharply away. After sliding his suitcase under the bed, Nico yanked off his button-up, glad to finally be rid of it, and flopped onto the bed. He didn’t bother to change out of his jeans or get under the covers. Bending his legs, he pulled off his boots and dropped them on the floor, keeping the knife in his hand and inspecting it in the dark.
His mind wandered easily and landed on the Prince, on the blade, on what he was doing there. After actually meeting him, the whole thing seemed about ten times more real. Before, voices, faces and inevitable actions he knew he couldn’t avoid, conversations, worst-case-scenarios - they were all still just figments of his imagination. Now that he was here, that he had met Will, that he was already trusted and welcomed, the weight on his shoulders increased tenfold.
He may not be the one to pull the trigger at the coronation in a month, but he was the one sneaking around the palace. He was the one lying to everyone. He was the one who came up with the whole idea in the first place.
Nico di Angelo was going to be responsible for the Prince’s death. And no matter how much he tried to convince himself that it was fair: an eye for an eye, a life for a life, or whatever else - that this was what he had wanted for years - he knew it wasn’t true.
Feeling like he was trying to swallow glue, he slid the knife under his pillow and grabbed the deck of cards the had put on the bedside table. Thalia told him before he left to practice shuffling cards to train his fingers to move more quickly. He mostly did it when he was nervous and needed something to do with his hands.
He laid there for who knows how long, shuffling the deck over and over, staring at the blank ceiling, watching shadows move across the room as the sun slowly rose back up. He didn’t sleep at all that night. He wasn’t sure if it was a bad thing or not. Something told him he wouldn’t have had pleasant dreams anyway.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Nico muttered as he inched his way down the dimly-lit hallway. Slipping around the corner, he continued down another corridor - almost tripping over a coffee table against the wall and streaming a slur of hushed curses - then resumed forward again and counted the doors he passed. One… two… Nico came to a halt at the third and slid down the wall next to the door frame. He put his hand over his mouth to silence his heavy breathing and brushed his dark and still-tangled hair away from his forehead.
After managing to calm down he began to wonder what he was even doing there. Sure, he couldn’t sleep, but how does that explain why he had ended up outside the Prince’s bedroom? What was he even there for?
Biting his lip, Nico shifted onto his knees and pressed his ear to the door. He was met with silence on the other side. Was Will asleep? Wait, Nico thought to himself, of course he was. It was past three in the morning, why wouldn’t he be asleep?
Finally thinking clearly again, Nico decided he didn’t want to wake him up and began to get to his feet, using the door handle to push himself up. With a click, the handle dipped and the door swung open. He bit his lip so hard he could have sworn he tasted blood. He slowly leaned into the room and strained to see through the dark. “H-Hello?” he whispered. Feeling his hands shake slightly and his stomach lurch and twist into knots, Nico stepped forward, crossing the room quietly to stand at the edge of the bed - empty and neatly made.
Nico let out a breath, then turned and left the room, closing the door as silently as he could. Muttering to himself about how stupid that had been, he headed back to his own room. Why had he even left it in the first place?
When he gave up trying to figure that out, his mind flicked to the reason the Prince wasn’t in his room. Where would he be? Was he alright? - Not that Nico cared, of course. But if Will was taken by a cereal killer before the coronation, things would get complicated with the alleged ‘client’ Jason was talking about.
Huffing, Nico decided to just push it from his mind and flopped back onto his bed when he got to his room. For the second time that night, he found himself staring at the ceiling and tracing the pattern on the wallpaper with his eyes, sighing. “What am I doing here?” Feeling miserable, he flung his arm over his eyes and let out a trembling breath.
It was hard to tell how long it was before he fell asleep. In his dream, he saw the Prince wearing a navy blue tailored suit, walking confidently onto a platform at the front of a massive room full of people. The King and Queen stood to the right of the stage. Nico watched the scene from behind the three of them.
There was deafening applause from the crowd as Will took his place and waved at them. Nico felt himself smile a little. But the rare smile quickly faded as the applause came to a sudden halt and a hush settled over the entire room. Gasps traveled through the crowd, eyes widened, jaws dropped. Small children started wailing, their parents scooping them up and holding them tightly. Will and his parents spun around and their eyes locked on the strange boy standing behind them.
Nico could hear their hearts beat faster, as well as his own - a percussion orchestra banging against the inside of his head. Fear overcame their features as they stumbled back from him. Nico looked down to find his dagger gripped in his hand so tightly his knuckles turned milky. Before he even knew what was happening, he was striding toward the Prince, who fell backward and tried to scramble away.
Kneeling over him, he put a hand on Will’s throat to still his movements, though Nico wasn’t in control of his actions. His hands clasped at Nico’s forearm and he could see the terror in the Prince’s eyes. It was only until he followed Will’s horrified gaze that he realized his other hand was slowly raising the blade.
“No,” Nico wanted to yell. He wanted to scream, he wanted to stop. He couldn’t. The knife came down, Will cried out in pain, and Nico woke with a start. He pushed himself up on wobbling arms, gasping and struggling to breathe.
With a sigh, he pulled off his shirt, which was soaked through with sweat. Nico rubbed at his eyes and tried to get the look on dream-Will’s face out of his mind, but it was a futile attempt. He shook his head. Whatever, he thought. It wasn’t like he was going to be the one to actually kill the Prince, anyway. He was just a spy. Nothing anything like that dream was ever going to happen.
Nico laid back again and reached blindly for his phone on the bedside table. He checked the time. “Ten o’clock?!” he yelped as he jumped up, got tangled in the sheets, and toppled head over heels off his bed. “I’m three hours late! Shit shit shit!” For the next fifteen minutes, Nico scrambled around his room as he got ready. Hopping on one leg, he yanked on his pants, then swept his hair into place without bothering to comb out the knots while simultaneously brushing his teeth.
After going through a mental checklist of everything he needed, and then once again to make sure he didn’t forget anything, he bolted out the door and tried not to sprint to the kitchen. Thank god he didn’t have to punch in with one of those timeclock things.
Still struggling with the last button on his shirt, Nico walked toward Leo and Piper as they talked with one of the younger chefs about who-knew-what if Leo was involved. But they seemed to be pretty excited. Piper was the first to spot him approaching and waved. Leo looked over next and raised an eyebrow.
“You look like literal death,” he informed Nico once he was close enough.
“Thanks, I try,” Nico replied.
Raising a brow, Piper asked, “Do you know how late you are?”
“For three hours?”
Nico muttered something under his breath, then straightened and squared his shoulders. “Look, it was a long night, okay? Can we just drop it and talk about something else?” Of course, he didn’t mean to sound so harsh - it must have been the lack of sleep. The others seemed to catch on and reluctantly restarted the conversation they were having, sending him weary glances every once in awhile.
While they continued talking, Nico promptly zoned out, probably appearing as if he was staring at one of the chefs and effectively freaking them out, but Nico’s mind was nine miles away.
His head snapped back to Leo, Piper, and the other dude - who still hadn’t walked away, oddly enough - all of whom were now looking at him expectantly. “Uh, what? Wasn’t listening.”
“I asked you what you think about coming to a party tonight,” Piper explained patiently, though Nico picked up on the slightest hint of playful annoyance. “We’re all getting off early, and there’s a really cool bar a few blocks into town. You in?”
Nico paused and made a face. “Nah, wouldn’t be a good idea. Parties aren’t my thing. Plus… uh, I should probably call home. My family wants me to stay in touch.”
“Oh, come on!” Leo whined. “It’ll be fun! You’ll get the chance to get some more friends around the town.” Leo still thought Nico had come from Venice - though why he hadn’t questioned the lack of an accent and that he was ‘already’ fluent English Nico didn’t know. “Also,” Leo continued. “I am extremely curious to see what kind of drunk you are.”
“Ten bucks says he’s the reckless type that tries to jump off buildings and see if he can fly,” Piper added.
“I’m going with bipolar emotional sap.” Leo and Piper shook on it and Nico rolled his eyes.
For the next two hours and for the first half of Nico’s shift he went around the kitchen and took care of chores. He was already used to having to take care of the bakery basically by himself (because Hazel was no help at all, saying she had to study - even though it’s still freaking summer).
As Nico was stepping through the back door after taking out two bags of trash, the same sharply-dressed man that had approached him on his first day at the palace sauntered up once more. He stood straight and tall and adjusted his bowtie before speaking. “It has been requested you complete a task for His Royal Highness,” he stated, voice nasally.
The boy quirked a brow and turned impulsively, grabbing a broom leaning on a counter and sweeping the floor a few times before he paused and faced the man again, leaning on the handle. “Alright, and why is that?”
“I have told you before, please do-”
“-as you are told,” Nico finished. “Yeah yeah. Am I entitled to know what this ‘task’ entails?”
“This information was not disclosed to me. In any case, please report to-”
“Sorry, bud. I wish I could, really.” Nico feigned a distressed sigh and inspected his nails. “But, I’m a bit swamped with work here in the kitchen and if I don’t know what I’m passing my initial responsibilities up for, then I’m afraid I can’t help ya.”
The man’s eyebrows bristled and his face turned slightly red. He looked like a beet with bushy eyebrows and a mini mustache. “I assure you, any work His Royal Highness has made the decision to trust in you is far more salient than an obligation to complete such lowly kitchen chores.” He spat out the last part like Nico was some sort of cockroach for doing his job.
Feeling himself becoming agitated, Nico replied in a steady voice from between gritted teeth, “Well, then I’m sure such prestigious work should be taken care of someone a little more important than a kitchen maid, huh?” He smirked as the man searched for an argument. Evidently not finding one, he tugged on the hem of his vest and walked off the way he had come, trying to keep his posture straight. Nico chuckled in victory - before realizing he now had to get back to cleaning. He groaned and continued sweeping the floor.
For the rest of his shift, Nico tried to listen for any gossip being spread around the staff as he finished up his chores. But no such luck. Either there were too much clattering and clanging and oven-beeping for the boy to hear, or these people didn’t talk as much as he assumed they would.
Before noon, three more people had come up to Nico, asking him to tend to something for the Prince. Nico found a way out each time, telling them he had prior obligations and that there must be someone else who could take care of it. It was getting annoying.
Finally, just as Nico finished cleaning the counters, his hair tied back and plastic gloves covering his hands, the clock struck half-past noon and various people took their lunch break. Nico quickly put away his cleaning supplies and yanked off the hair tie before heading for the main entrance to the kitchen. Leo and Piper tried to get his attention before he left, but he waved them off, spouting out a quick lie about how he forgot something in his room that morning.
He grabbed a bagel from a woven basket on the counter on his way out the double doors, crossed through the dining room outside the kitchen, then into the corridor. Taking big bites from his small lunch, he roamed around the castle, trying yet again to memorize the layout. He had pretty much gotten the first and third floor down, but there were still three others.
After exploring the second floor, Nico advanced to the fourth and roamed wherever the hallways took him. He had long since finished his bagel and was wishing he had a drink for the third time when he approached a door, slightly ajar, further down the hallway. As he neared, he heard familiar voices softly floating out into the hallway, keeping their tones hushed.
Nico slowly crouched down and inched his way toward the door, trying not to think about how similar this situation was to the one he was in that morning. Once he reached the edge of the door frame, he gradually leaned forward so that he could just see around the door.
It was a wide room, the walls lined with dozens of overstocked bookshelves and lamps hanging on the walls here and there. In the far corner from where Nico sat was a large maroon desk, scattered with papers, books, letters, and pens that had run out of ink and had been haphazardly tossed aside. There were two people, a man sitting at the desk with his head in his hands, and a woman with a straight and slightly stiff posture in a chair in front of him.
“He will do absolutely fine, Lester,” the woman assured him, “I believe he is ready.”
“Yes well, shall we agree to disagree?” the man replied bitterly, glancing up from where he had been staring at the wood desk. “He is just not ready to rule a kingdom! The mere thought is - just astonishing. He’s practically still a child.”
Nico had to bite his tongue to keep quiet. There was a reason he had recognized these voices. The King and Queen. And they had to be talking about Will.
“You’re being rash,” Queen Naomi informed him. “Still a child? You said the same thing when I suggested the coronation take place three years ago. Then, I could understand your concern for his maturity, but he’s almost twenty! I believe he is more than ready.”
The King shook his head. “I’ll believe it when I see it. He’ll have to really step up if he wants my blessing.”
Nico bit his lip. For about 0.2 seconds, he felt a pang of pity for the Prince, that his own father didn’t believe he could run the kingdom well - but it quickly dissipated when Nico remembered that he and the King shared the opinion. Stay focused, he told himself.
The King and Queen continued to argue, but Nico didn’t get to hear the rest of the conversation after something wrapped around his bicep like a vise and yanked him backward, dragging him all the way down the hall while he tried to regain his balance. It didn’t work and he stumbled over his feet until he was jerked to a halt.
“Just what,” A voice hissed in his ear, “do you think you’re doing?” Nico swallowed and chanced a glance at his captor’s face. Recognition flicked through his face as he remembered the girl in the white dress with the black eyes and glossy hair pulled into a braid that rested on her right shoulder.
Nico struggled to find a way out of this one. “I-I was just,” he paused, clearing his throat as he tried to come up with an excuse, keeping his voice low. “I was passing by and stopped to tie my shoelaces.” He pointed to his foot for good measure.
“So you mean to tell me,” she started slowly, her voice low and perilous, “that you just happened to be passing by the King’s study while they happened to be discussing a topic of confidentiality and just happened to have to tie your shoe at that exact moment?” She raised a brow.
“Uh, yes. That is exactly what I mean to tell you.” Nico nodded firmly. She hummed skeptically and pushed him to his feet, allowing him to gain his balance before yanking him down the hallway again.
Once they were far from the King’s study where he and his wife continued on with their argument, the girl pulled Nico to a stop again and grabbed a fist full of his shirt. “Look, I don’t know what your problem is-”
“No problem,” Nico interrupted. “I tied my shoe, so I’m all good now.” She glared at him and he glared right back.
“I better not catch you trying anything funny with the Royal Family. Got it?” There was something weird in her eyes, the expression on her face. Her tone of voice and words tumbling from her lips gave the feeling that she was willing to protect the Royals at whatever cost. But Nico could see the flicker of doubt behind her eyes. It was almost as if she was forcing herself to come off as she was; forcing herself to seem loyal to them.
Nico wanted to ask but knew it was pointless. So instead he used her technique and put it in his eyes, hoping she noticed. “Got it,” he answered. She paused before letting him go.
“What are you even doing in this hallway? The kitchen is on ground level.” She crossed her arms.
Nico shrugged. “I was just walking around. I’m on lunch break.”
The girl rolled her eyes and scoffed. “That doesn’t justify you walking around in restricted areas of the castle. You shouldn’t be up here.”
“And you should?”
“Yes. I’m the Princess’s lady-in-waiting.” She looked him over once again. “You’re the same kid who needed directions to the Prince’s room about a week ago, correct?” Nico nodded. “I assume he wanted to get to know you like he does with all the other staff?” Another nod. “Did you let him?”
“No…” Nico knitted his eyebrows. Why was she asking?
“Good. But, he can be obstinate at times. He won’t give up, you know that right?” The boy grumbled and ducked his head angrily, dark hair falling in his eyes, as he explained about all the people telling him to go find the Prince and take care of something for him. He assumed that if bringing him his dinner a week before had been an excuse, it was justifiable that the reasons he was presented with earlier that day were excuses as well. He knew the Prince just wanted to dig up his past - for whatever odd reason - and The boy couldn’t let that happen, for more reasons than just the fact that he was a spy.
“It’s going to be hard to avoid the people he sends for the rest of today.” Nico sighed and rubbed his neck, trying to work out the knot that had been there for the past few weeks.
“Well,” the girl hesitated. “I guess I could help you out with that.”
Nico straightened and met her gaze. “You could? How?”
“I’m going to be busy for the rest of today and I need someone to watch the Princess while I’m gone. I was just on my way to meet up with someone and ask for their help when I ran into you. Now, I don’t trust you as far as I can throw you, but I don’t think you’re stupid enough to mess this up.”
She simply nodded. “Kayla’s room is on the third floor, east wing. It’s two corridors over from the Prince’s. You can’t miss it, trust me.” Nico nodded. “You’ll just have to watch her for a few hours while I take care of a meeting. Think you can handle it?” Nico gave her a two-fingered salute and she turned and walked the way they had come - back toward the King’s study.
“Alright, then,” Nico breathed. “Guess I’m a babysitter now.”
Feeling much more confident about his navigation skills, Nico headed off toward the stairs and climbed down to the third floor, then set out to find Kayla’s room. As he walked down the hallway against the east wall of the castle, he got distracted by the view from the windows - which took up the entire wall. Below was an extravagant garden, full to bursting with white roses accompanied by eccentric tulips and violets and other flowers and plants.
Nico forgot to watch where he was walking as he stared out the window, and bumped into someone heading the opposite direction. Books went clattering to the floor as the other person grunted in surprise and papers flew all over the hall.
“Ack, sorry,” Nico muttered, bending down and reaching for a book.
“No problem…” Nico’s hands froze at the voice. You have got to be kidding me, he thought bitterly. “Hey, are you who I think you are?” Nico looked up and met the Prince’s gaze, a scowl on his face. “Ah, you are.” Will bent down as well, but not to pick up his things; solely to just be eye-level with Nico. “I’ve been sending for you all day. I don’t believe we’ve finished our conversation from last night…”
Nose twitching slightly, Nico shoved the books back into Will’s hands and stood. “Odd. I seem to remember it ending fairly quickly.”
“That’s the problem.” Will stood up as well. “I didn’t even get your name.”
Nico shrugged. “Call me whatever you like, your Highness.”
Will sighed. “I told you I didn’t like that.”
“Too bad.” Nico’s eyes widened and he clenched his fists as he realized the mistake. “I mean… I’ll… take that into consideration… Sir.” Nico ground the sentence out, each word practically causing him physical pain to let past his lips.
Will groaned as Nico pushed past him. “‘Sir’ is even worse! Is it so hard to just call me by my first name?” he yelled after Nico, but he never got a response. “Fine then.” Will sighed again and continued down the hallway after collecting a few more papers.
Nico eventually found Kayla’s door, plastered all over with posters and signs saying Please knock, and I may think about granting entrance - maybe, and Off with their head ye who barges in. There was one nailed to the center of her door, hanging on a string so that it could be flipped over, currently displaying the words HER ROYAL HIGHNESS IS AVAILABLE, in green glitter. Nico peeked at the other side, which read HER ROYAL HIGHNESS DOES NOT WISH TO BE DISTURBED. COME BACK NEXT MILLENNIA, in blue glitter.
Not wanting to have his head chopped off - according to the sign - he knocked and the door immediately opened. A girl of around ten years of age stood in front of him, ginger hair pulled into a high ponytail, a green headband to keep wisps from falling out.
“Who’re you?” She asked.
“I’m Nico,” he told her, offering his hand. When all she did was stare at it, he put it back down. “Your lady-in-waiting sent me to watch you for the rest of the day,” He explained, wearing a small smile.
“Oh.” Kayla opened the door wider to let him in. “I guess that’s fine then. But if you try to kidnap me, you’re in a heap of trouble, got it, Mister?”
“Right. And anyway, I don’t get why I have to have a babysitter for just a few hours. I mean, I’m almost eleven!” She brushed a few dolls to the foot of her bed and jumped on, pouting. Nico stood there awkwardly, not having the slightest clue what to say to the kid.
Her room wasn’t much smaller than Will’s, Nico noted. But it was drastically different. Her bed was smaller, a twin, and sat in the far right corner of the room. The walls were a light green with gold and white patterns. She had a pink beanbag chair, two chests full of toys, and Christmas lights looped the entire room where the walls met the ceiling.
“Are you bored?” she asked suddenly. “I’m bored. Let’s go exploring!” She hopped off her bed and grabbed Nico’s hand, pulling him out the door and turning down the hallway. “You’re new here, right? I’ll show you my favorite places in the castle.”
Before Nico could respond, he was being yanked down the hallway, vaguely thinking that maybe the small Princess had learned it from her lady-in-waiting. Kayla dragged Nico all throughout the castle, giving him her own personal version of the tour he received a week prior. After a few stops, she tugged him into the ballroom.
“Look, my big brother showed me how to dance that really fancy one that they always do at the big parties.” She positioned her feet and straightened, raising her arms around an invisible suitor and spun around the room, humming a waltz. Nico chuckled. Kayla glanced at him over her shoulder as she continued. “Do you know how?”
Nico shook his head. “Oh, no. Definitely not. Besides, I don’t think that I’ll ever need to use it.”
Kayla frowned and stopped dancing. “Of course you will. How else will you meet your Prince Charming?”
Nico smiled and shook his head, before fully registering what the little girl had just said. “P-Prince Charming?!”
She nodded, humming. “It’s in all the fairy tales. Will talks about it all the time. Seeing your Prince Charming from across the ballroom and feeling drawn to them like a magnet,” she explained, a wistful expression on her face, “and then you meet and take each other’s hands and dance together and fall in love and kiss at midnight!” She giggled.
Nico’s eyebrows furrowed. He highly doubted she knew what she just implied. And as for Will talking about it all the time, that was probably just because he read her the stories so often. “Yes, right… uh, how about we move on now?” Kayla nodded eagerly and continued on her favorite place tour.
Next stop was the garden that Nico had seen from the windows. Kayla navigated through the maze-like rows of plants and flowers taller than Nico, while he did his best to keep up. He was less afraid of losing her than he was of getting lost himself. The garden was at least three times the size of the massive ballroom, taking up an enormous space of land behind the castle. As he had seen from inside the palace walls, the majority of the garden consisted of white roses, but there were eccentrically-colored tulips and hydrangeas and countless others.
Suddenly, Kayla looked up from admiring a ladybug marching across a leaf, squealed, and ran off down the row. Nico’s voice rang through the garden when called out for her to wait, then hastily followed. As he rounded a plant he couldn’t name to save his life, Nico saw Kayla being swung in a circle by a girl in a single-strap white dress, caramel hair braided over one shoulder.
Nico wondered briefly if a white dress and braided hair was the dress code for women of the palace or something.
The girl - maybe around Nico’s age - set Kayla down gently and adjusted the young girl’s headband for her. Then she straightened and sent a glowing smile Nico’s way. “Hello!”
She smiled brighter and closed the distance between them, offering her hand. “I assume you’re the new guy I’ve been hearing so much about? Nico, was it? I’m Calypso. You can call me Caly.”
“Uh, nice to - wait, how do you know my-”
She chuckled. “Sorry, I’m sworn to secrecy.” She winked.
What the heck?
“I’m the palace gardener,” Caly explained. She gestured to the foliage surrounding them. “To me, this place is my palace.” Smiling fondly all around her, Nico couldn’t help but admire how happy she seemed to be. He also couldn’t help but wonder if that smile would last longer than a month. He doubted it; the coronation was in four weeks.
Not wanting to be rude, Nico let Calypso show him around the garden, telling him the names of the various plants and flowers, although he didn’t even remember one. However, he didn’t say anything and simply let Cally prattle on about them. There was something soothing in her voice that made you want to do nothing but listen - no matter what she was saying.
After Nico didn’t know how long and him trying to politely refuse a flower crown but Cally insisting and giving him one anyway, Calypso let them go and Nico followed Kayla back inside, where she turned off down a hall and continued onto their next destination. They walked for about ten minutes before she stopped in a random hallway, the walls covered with portraits of the Royal Family. Nico quirked a brow.
“This is one of your favorite places in the castle?” Kayla nodded. “Why?” A sly smile spread across her face and she raised an eyebrow.
“What, you didn’t notice?”
“Notice what?” Nico watched as Kayla stepped toward a painting sitting low on the floor, just barely bigger than she was, and pulled it aside. It slid to the left along a hidden track and revealed a small door that opened into the wall. Nico stared, dumbfounded. Giggling, Kayla pushed the door open and gestured to the hidden corridor it leads through.
“This goes all throughout the castle walls. I always win hide-and-seek.” She grinned. Meanwhile, Nico was trying not to make his own too obvious. He pressed his tongue to the inside of his cheek, shifting his weight onto one foot.
“You want me to show you? I’ve never told anyone, so you should feel special.” With that, Kayla grabbed his hand and pulled him into the secret hallway. He had to duck to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling, and his shoulders were constantly pressed against the walls, but he didn’t have a single complaint. After a week, his luck was finally turning. Nico had noticed that the people who worked at the palace didn’t gossip much - which wasn’t any help to him. But who knew what they talked about behind closed doors?
The Princess guided Nico all over the third floor, passing a surprising amount of empty rooms - including Will’s. While Nico was wondering (against his better judgment) where the Prince was, the door opened and a boy with dark skin and curly black hair crept in. Leo, Nico thought without hesitation. Assuming Leo was going to pull some prank on him, Nico opted to move on.
Nico let the Princess gain a lead a few times to pause and listen in on conversations between maids and other castle workers. Unfortunately, the topics never sparked Nico’s interest.
That is until he found Kayla’s lady-in-waiting.
They had climbed up a ladder to the fourth floor and continued through the tunnels when they came across a room with only a few cabinets and a small window, the girl standing stiffly in the center, talking quietly into a phone. Kayla got bored after a few minutes and continued ahead, but Nico hung back.
“Yes, I know,” she said. There was a pause. “I promise, things are moving forward. It’s just taking longer than I thought.” Another pause. “Because… let’s say…” she glanced around the room, not noticing Nico peeking in from behind a fake air conditioner. “There’s a… rat in the kitchen.” Nico’s hand flew to his mouth to keep from gasping. She couldn’t be…?
“No one else else knows; I’m keeping it under wraps to prevent a panic.” She nodded as someone spoke on the other end. “Yes… yes, I’ll take care of it.”
Nico slowly backed away from the vent and took off as quickly down the tunnel as he could, whispering Kayla’s name. “Kayla! Come on, where are you?”
Kayla’s head popped up from another ladder. “You rang?” She smiled. “I was waiting for you here.”
Nico let out a breath. “How do you even know that reference?”
She quirked an eyebrow. “What reference? It’s just something Reyna says all the time. Though, she always sounds kinda mad.” She shrugged and ducked down the ladder, Nico climbing on after her.
Nico and Kayla made it back to her room just before Reyna (Nico assumed her name was). After asking how things went and questioning Nico thoroughly, she allowed him to go back to his own business. By now, it was early afternoon. He still had a few more hours left to work in the kitchen. Nico’s mind was still reeling about Reyna’s conversation, and he didn’t even complain about having to go back to work; the distraction was welcome for the time being.
Hours later, Nico was cleaning up the dining room outside the kitchen when Leo and Piper, along with three other kitchen workers, burst through the doors, smiles on their faces. Nico paused from setting a table. “What’s up?” He asked.
Piper looked at him, exasperated. “You forgot?” Nico shrugged.
“We’re going to par-tay! Whoo!” Leo punched the air.
“I thought I told you guys I wasn’t going.” Nico shook his head and returned to struggling to remember which side of the plate a fork went on - whenever he tried to set tables at the bakery, Hazel would switch up the utensils and managed to thoroughly confuse him.
“Too bad.” Piper crossed her arms and nodded to one of the bigger kitchen workers accompanying them. He then stepped forward and grabbed Nico, then proceeded to drag him along behind the group like a ragdoll, him trying to get away all the while.
“Seriously, I’m not going! I’m underage anyway!” He yelled, clawing at the hand gripping his forearm. “Let me go!”
Leo turned his head to look at Nico over his shoulder. “Can’t do that, bud. See, Piper and I raised the bet on what kind of drunk you are, and I’m getting that fifty bucks if it’s the last thing I do.” Nico sighed.