“You brought him!”
Arthit looked up to see Prince Kongpob striding toward him and Bonus, sounding far too excited to simply be meeting them. Arthit resisted the urge to roll his eyes as he bowed in greeting.
“Of course I did. How else will you learn how to work with a hunting dog?”
Prince Kongpob shook his head, a smile tugging at his lips. He didn’t say anything in response as he knelt down to face Bonus. Offering his hand, Bonus sniffed him curiously before nuzzling the open palm. Prince Kongpob immediately made a soft cooing noise, running a hand over Bonus’s head before beginning to scratch behind the dog’s ears. His hands were surprisingly gentle in their motions.
“Awww, aren’t you a good boy?” he asked sweetly. Bonus nosed at Prince Kongpob’s hand again before moving closer, sniffing at his shirt. A low whine slipped from Bonus’ throat before he began pawing at one of the Prince’s pockets. Arthit was quick to admonish Bonus but Prince Kongpob merely laughed and shook his head.
“I think he smells the treats I have,” Prince Kongpob said. Immediately Bonus’ ears perked up.
Arthit raised his eyebrows. “You have treats?”
Prince Kongpob nodded eagerly. “I asked Tew for them.” He patted the pocket of his pants where Bonus had been sniffing. He hesitated, and then asked, “Can I?”
Arthit was met with two pairs of wide, pleading eyes. If he didn’t say yes, Arthit suspected Bonus would somehow end up with them anyway, but he nodded all the same. Prince Kongpob’s smile brightened and Arthit quickly looked away, instead watching the eager way Bonus lapped up the treats.
Arthit watched their interaction carefully. He had long believed that Bonus was better than most people at reading others and while he liked the prince, he wanted to see if he’d been right. Unsurprisingly, Bonus seemed to like the prince. It was both irritating and relieving how quickly Bonus had come to the same conclusion Arthit had.
“How long have you had him?”
Arthit shook his head, bringing himself back to the present.
“Since he was a puppy. Almost eight years.”
Prince Kongpob nodded, glancing down at Bonus. “Eight years old huh?” he asked the greyhound affectionately, eyes soft. They made a domestic picture, Prince Kongpob sitting beside and almost leaning against Bonus as he fed Bonus treats. Prince Kongpob looked back up at Arthit after a moment. “He’s older than I thought,” he said.
“He was the oldest of his litter,” Arthit said proudly.
Arthit’s smile turned melancholy. “There were six. Three of them went to other people, and I got the others.”
Arthit’s voice trailed off at the end. He hadn’t thought of Lotus or Obsidian in some time.
“Where are they?” Prince Kongpob asked, and Arthit swallowed.
It was silly, to still be so affected by a pair of dogs after so many years, but he couldn’t help the way his throat tightened. They had been his constant companions since they were first brought to him, and kept the loneliness at bay on the nights the world seemed a little too large for a man alone in his home.
He still had nightmares about the hunts they had died at. When he didn’t answer, understanding crossed the prince’s face. Prince Kongpob reached out, placing a hand on Arthit’s shoulder. He didn’t say anything, and somehow that was more of a comfort than any words he could have said.
A low whine broke the silence, Bonus having stepped away from Prince Kongpob to nuzzle at Arthit’s hand. His fur was soft against Arthit’s fingers, a welcome warmth that grounded him. Arthit blinked rapidly to push away the wetness gathered in his eyes, petting Bonus gently in thanks.
“Bonus loves you very much,” Prince Kongpob observed. His left hand was still stroking Bonus’ back.
Arthit cleared his throat, quickly looking away. “He does.”
“I can see why.”
Prince Kongpob looked up at him from where he was still kneeling on the ground petting Bonus. Arthit swallowed, the intensity on Prince Kongpob’s face leaving him unable to look the prince in the eye.
“Your Highness,” he said lowly, the title half admonishment, half thanks.
Prince Kongpob seemed to recognize his discomfort, pulling back slightly. Arthit breathed easier when Prince Kongpob’s eyes turned back to Bonus.
“Have you thought of finding new dogs?” he asked lightly.
“I have,” Arthit said. He was grateful for the quick change of subject. “But they’re often already promised to others.”
The prince hummed in acknowledgement, a thoughtful expression on his face. He fed Bonus another treat before speaking again, easily drawing Arthit into conversation about how he’d trained Bonus. Bonus lounged comfortably between them, looking nothing like the fierce hunting dog he was trained to be, nudging Prince Kongpob’s hands for treats. Arthit soon joined them sitting on the ground, all thoughts of the day’s lesson gone as he debated the uses of greyhounds versus falcons in hunts.
It was late, nearing dusk as Arthit made his way through the castle. The air was hot, the humidity thick against his skin. Without any breeze to cool him, Arthit tugged at the top of his shirt, a poor replacement for a fan. In the near dark, the castle’s shrubbery that followed its winding pathways were little more than indistinct landmarks. Still, he had traveled the path to the garden’s first gazebo often enough that he no longer needed to count the number of turns or look for familiar bushes.
As Arthit continued down the path, golden seeped into the air ahead of him, turning the near black of the shrubbery into a dark, rich green. Curiosity quickened his steps until Arthit caught sight of the gazebo. His steps slowed as he looked at the small building. Along with the lanterns that hung from its ceiling, new lanterns of gold and blue now encircled the gazebo, turning the air a gentle gold. When he was close enough to see inside, he raised his eyebrows. There were strings of tiny Ratchaphruek lining the gazebo’s walls, their yellow petals a stark contrast to the dark wood of the gazebo. The air smelled distinctly of orchids, though Arthit thought he could also detect the smell of cooked meat. A delicate blue cloth now rested atop the gazebo’s center table, where a large basket sat in front of the man who had summoned Arthit.
“Your Highness.” Arthit spoke quietly as he bowed, as though deferring to the calm and still of the night.
Prince Kongpob turned to look at him, quickly standing.
“You’re here!” His smile far outshone the lanterns around them and rivaled the moon above.
The clear joy in his expression made Arthit’s breath catch. It was truly a privilege, to see Prince Kongpob like this, with the golden light softening his sharp features and casting a gentle haze over the night.
“Did you think I would ignore your summons?” Arthit teased, and Prince Kongpob laughed.
“I knew you would come.” Prince Kongpob strode forward, placing a careful hand against Arthit’s back in an attempt to lead him forward. Despite the layers of clothing between them and the prince’s light touch, Prince Kongpob’s palm was heavy and Arthit quickly stepped forward, shaking his head. Prince Kongpob frowned but said nothing, instead waiting for Arthit to sit down before proffering the basket to him.
“I brought this for you.”
Arthit had guessed Prince Kongpob had summoned him for a similar purpose, and despite his worries about how easily Prince Kongpob seemed to forget their differences, was touched. Still, he murmured a protest he knew would be pointless, and was proved right when Prince Kongpob simply smiled and pushed the basket closer to him. Arthit frowned at him but opened the basket.
There was a surprising assortment of fruit inside, what looked like sangkhaya, and-
“Pad krapow,” Arthit said, looking over at Prince Kongpob in surprise. There was a large container filled with it, and beside it a small container of red chilis.
“Your Highness,” he started.
“Just take it Arthit,” Prince Kongpob said firmly. “It’s a gift.”
Arthit considered arguing but quickly decided against it. He decided to blame it on the calm atmosphere and scent of familiar food that made him soft as he said, “Of course. Thank you, Your Highness.”
To keep his hands busy and to avoid looking too long at the prince, Arthit began to take the food out and divide it between them. The fruit went onto a plate between them, and Arthit carefully split the pad krapow between them, taking out the small bowl of chilis but avoiding placing any chilis in Prince Kongpob’s. He left the sangkhaya inside the basket, deciding they could take it out later.
“Thank you,” Prince Kongpob said, smiling at Arthit in that way that both thrilled and worried him.
Arthit gave him a shy smile in return as they began eating, fidgeting slightly in his seat. The food was some of the best he’d ever tasted, the gazebo was well-lit and beautifully decorated, and he was with someone who had inexplicably become more important to him than Arthit preferred to admit. And yet… Arthit felt uncomfortable.
Such pleasures were not meant for people like him, no matter how much he enjoyed them. He was merely a huntsman, and it should be a princess where he sat now, or at least someone whom it would not embarrass Prince Kongpob to be seen with in the day.
“Arthit?” Prince Kongpob’s voice was worried.
Arthit fidgeted with the spoon in his hand, resisting the urge to fiddle with his sleeves.
“Is something wrong?”
Yes, Arthit knew he should say. He was not unaware of the change in the way the prince viewed him, was well aware of how… intimate this meal was. He knew he should scold the prince, knew that the Arthit of just a few months ago would have. But today’s Arthit knew Prince Kongpob, liked him even. He knew his favorite food and the way he would ramble when bored and worries he had about the future. Today’s Arthit was selfish.
“I,” he started, but stopped just as quickly. There was a hesitant smile on the prince’s face, but beneath that, worry.
Foolishly perhaps, Arthit did not want to make that worry turn into sadness. For tonight, he decided he would be selfish. Just this once and then he would reinforce the boundary between them. He made an effort to relax, letting his shoulders loosen and giving Prince Kongpob a cheerful smile.
“Nothing, Your Highness. I was just worrying about Bonus,” he lied.
“Oh? Is something wrong with him?” Concern colored Prince Kongpob’s expression, and it was terribly endearing how worried he seemed for a dog he’d met twice.
“No. I was just thinking he’ll be upset I’ve been gone for so much of the day,” he said.
Prince Kongpob nodded solemnly. “I’ll apologize to him next time I see him,” he said seriously, though there was a hint of laughter in his tone.
“Your Highness,” Arthit said, letting some of his exasperation leak into his voice.
Prince Kongpob laughed, dispelling the uncertain air of before. Arthit relaxed further, allowing himself to simply enjoy this moment so he could remember it later. He let Prince Kongpob guide the conversation as they ate, making their way through the pad krapow while they spoke about Bonus and the prince’s last hunt. Once that was gone, Arthit listened to Prince Kongpob’s latest stories from his tutors as they finished the fruit and over the sangkhaya they discussed the falconer’s newest acquisition.
“Emeret? I thought you named Pak’s newest falcon Zazu,” Arthit said, raising an eyebrow.
Prince Kongpob’s eyes brightened as he smiled warmly at Arthit. “You remembered.”
“It was a memorable story, Your Highness.”
Prince Kongpob nodded in acknowledgement. He took another bite of sangkhaya before looking at Arthit.
“We’ve known each other for some time now. You don’t have to call me so formally. You can use my name,” Prince Kongpob said easily.
Arthit’s reply died in his throat as he realized the implications of the prince’s words. Prince Kongpob had always said he saw Arthit as an equal, but this was the closest he’d come to acknowledging they weren’t. That they could never be. Not really, not when there was so much of a divide between them.
You don’t have to call me so formally. You can use my name. He knew Prince Kongpob had meant it as a kindness, a way to bridge the gap between them, but for Arthit it merely reminded him of how different they were.
“I could not be so informal, Your Highness.”
“What if I asked you to?”
Arthit swallowed. He wished the prince would stop giving him such ridiculous hopes.
“I would like to hear my name on your lips, even if just once,” Prince Kongpob continued. Surrounded by golden light and with the lingering cheerful atmosphere, it almost felt like a request Arthit could grant.
“If you could only hear it once, would you really want to hear it now?” he asked in lieu of an answer.
“I would hear it whenever you wished to say it,” Prince Kongpob answered immediately. “Today, tomorrow, a fortnight from now. I would wait until this year’s first frost arrives or longer. As long as you are the one speaking, I will always be ready to listen.”
Arthit inhaled sharply at the declaration, unable to look away from Prince’s Kongpob’s intense expression. He struggled to find some combination of words that would make sense, that could encompass all that he was thinking and feeling but there was too much going on in his head. The words tangled together like wind battered wires, catching on his teeth and tongue, scattering all the words he can’t bring himself to say.
“I- you,” he tried, but the words he wanted were just out of reach.
Prince Kongpob’s voice was gentle but he still jumped in surprise.
“I will always be here to listen, but only when you’re ready.”
Arthit nodded, though the words only slightly lessened his anxiety. He let Prince Kongpob shift the conversation and spoke at the correct moments, silently resolving to do better at maintaining the distance he’d let lapse over the past months.
Despite his resolve, Arthit found it difficult to keep distant from Prince Kongpob. The prince continued to seek him out, often at the most unexpected times, and Arthit enjoyed their meetings too much to truly dissuade him. Not to mention they still had their archery lessons, which Prince Kongpob insisted on continuing. Those had devolved somewhat from the original lessons, becoming less for learning and more of an exercise to see how many times Arthit could convince Prince Kongpob to hit the target.
Today’s lesson was no exception. If anything, both were more distracted from the original intent than usual, Arthit’s attention often wandering to the large gift he’d brought, obscured by a thick brown cloth. Prince Kongpob had asked about its presence, but after being told he could look at it after their lesson, redirected his attention without further questions.
There was the dull thud of an arrow hitting its mark, just the fifth for today’s lesson Arthit noted. It was an abysmal number for how long Prince Kongpob had been practicing, but Arthit was far too nervous to scold the prince like he usually did. He watched Prince Kongpob nock the final arrow in his quiver, right hand just brushing the side of his jaw before letting the arrow fly. It landed with a solid thunk in the outer rings of the target, tearing the paper of the target. Prince Kongpob glanced over at Arthit.
“One more round, and then you can be done for the day,” Arthit said.
Prince Kongpob nodded. Arthit watched carefully, studying the prince’s form as he nocked the next arrow. He made a striking figure in the moments before he let the arrow fly. A dark silhouette against the fading light, he could have been a painting. The lines of his body were sharp and clear, the strength of his arms visible in the steady way he drew back the arrow until it was parallel to the lean lines of his torso.
Arthit watched as Prince Kongpob adjusted his hand until his fingers just grazed his jaw before letting the arrow go. It glanced off the side of the target as Arthit expected; he had long ago observed the prince’s lack of hits came from the angle at which the prince released the arrow. The prince continued until the quiver was empty and a total of three arrows were stuck in the target. By unspoken agreement the two of them collected the arrows, and it wasn’t until the last arrow had been collected that Arthit spoke.
“Your Highness,” he started but Prince Kongpob cut him off.
“That’s not my name you know.”
Arthit frowned at him as he said, “It’s what is proper for me to call you.”
“Arthit,” Prince Kongpob said softly, but Arthit quickly interrupted him. He had an idea of what the prince was going to say and it would do him no good to hear it.
“One of your tutors informed me your birthday is in two days,” he said.
Across from him Prince Kongpob blinked and then nodded slowly. His eyes moved to the cloth covered shape behind Arthit and a flicker of excitement crossed his face.
“It is.” There was a mix of excitement and curiosity in his voice.
“I will not see you then, but I wished to give you a gift.” Arthit stepped backwards until he was behind the cloth covered object, gesturing to it as he said, “This is for you.”
To his surprise Prince Kongpob stayed where he was, an expression between a frown and a pout on his face.
“How do you know we will not see each other?”
Arthit wondered when they had become so familiar the prince would ask such a question.
“I’m sure you will be too busy with the celebration in your honor to think of visiting me,” he said, pretending to count the arrows in his quiver. Prince Kongpob’s celebration was one that had been weeks in the making, and though closed to people such as him, widely anticipated.
“I could never be too busy for you,” Prince Kongpob said, flashing Arthit one of his brightest smiles that never failed to make Arthit simultaneously fond and embarrassed. Arthit’s objection died in his throat as Prince Kongpob moved forward and kneeled down to reach for his gift. Arthit was abruptly uncertain of his choice of gift. It wasn’t anywhere near the quality Prince Kongpob deserved or was used to, and now that he thought about it, seemed too practical for something as personal as a birthday.
As Prince Kongpob pulled back the cloth to reveal the large yew bow Arthit had spent the last few weeks preparing, Arthit began to babble. It felt important to make Prince Kongpob aware of how though Arthit was not an expert in bowmaking, he’d gone to the castle bowyer to ensure the bow was made of the best yew wood and accompanied by the smoothest poplar arrows Arthit could carve. Prince Kongpob lifted the bow experimentally, and for a moment Arthit thought he was going to dry fire the arrow. Thankfully, Prince Kongpob only seemed to be testing the bow’s weight before studying the arrows and their fletching.
“You made it well,” Prince Kongpob said eventually, effectively stopping Arthit’s babbling.
“I don’t think-”
“Arthit.” Prince Kongpob’s voice was firm but fond. The well of insecurities that had steadily been making its way out of Arthit’s mouth abruptly dried, rendering him silent. “You made it well,” Prince Kongpob repeated. He carefully set the bow down beside the quiver of arrows, rising to his feet so that he was standing in front of Arthit.
Arthit swallowed, acutely aware of how close they were standing. Of how if he were able to look up, he’d be able to see the small dimple and fluffy cheeks that only appeared when Prince Kongpob was at his happiest.
“You’re welcome, Your Highness,” he said, just barely avoiding stuttering.
“Your Highness,” Arthit whispered, and he wasn’t sure if it was an admonishment or plea.
“Say my name, please,” Prince Kongpob whispered back, leaning forward just enough that their foreheads touched. Arthit inhaled sharply, eyes darting up to see Prince Kongpob looking at him with wide, pleading eyes. “Just once? For my birthday?”
Arthit wondered if Prince Kongpob knew just how powerless he felt in this moment, so close to being able to give what Prince Kongpob wanted but knowing he shouldn’t. The hope in Prince Kongpob’s eyes was so bright.
“I already gave you a present,” Arthit pointed out.
“But I would much prefer to hear how sweet my name sounds when you say it.”
“You shouldn’t say such a thing,” Arthit murmured, barely a whisper. Prince Kongpob heard it clearly from how closely they were pressed together.
“Why not?” Prince Kongpob asked, as though it were merely a matter of Arthit shaping his mouth around the syllables of his name. “It’s the truth.”
“Your Highness,” he said again, feeling his resolve wavering.
“You can call me by name. I would like you to.”
The last sentence was spoken softly, a whisper in the still summer air that lingered. Arthit tore his eyes away from where he’d been staring at Prince Kongpob. Distance, he reminded himself.
“Perhaps for your next birthday.”
“I will take this as your promise then.”