Medici castle was on a scale that was rarely built on these days. Three hours ride out of Argonia at a gallop, it sat atop a cliff set just in from the sea, proudly overlooking the de'Medici's traditional holdings to Argonia's west. The land had been in the family for generations, and their line could be traced back even further than that. They were a force in politics, a well-worn family name that would come to Argonia's aid when asked and their constant grip on land so close to the city proved that.
However, it hardly made the place more welcoming in the winter. While heavy tapestries were hung up over the windows and fires were stoked at all hours of the day, there was a distinct chill to the air that crept through the walls itself. Torches lined the corridors, their shadows spooking the servant's children as their shirked their duties. The entire affair, outside of the noble's wing, felt much like a large cave.
Jaye often spent a good portion of the wintertime at his Argonian manor. It was far smaller, but also a contemporary building without the drafts and sudden chills of the castle's stone walls. Hot water ran through metal pipes - a new invention, created with magicks and engineering - and the rooms were small enough that a few heat-stones or a mage could heat it easily and it would maintain its temperature. There were parties too, in winter, lavish affairs which culminated with the Winter Solstice. The sky would be black for all but an hour of the day and many salons and nobles held parties all day, blind games magical light displays. It was the social highlight of the season, and one he hadn't missed since he was fifteen years old.
That was tonight. A shiver passed through him as the wind outside moaned, complaining about being shut out. His presence would be missed and later complained about, he knew, but he was here in Medici castle, braving the cold with the rest of his staff. His own room was always warm, of course, but the corridor felt like ice as he walked outside. They were holding their own Solstice celebrations of course, he could hear the revels down the corridor already in full swing, but he'd excused himself.
- - -
The light show had spooked him. Jaye's father always had a light show put on for the Winter Solstice but now, his father was dead and Isaiah had seen to the festival. It was more flashy this year, with invited nobles wearing masks that leered down at him. For a boy of ten, the fire dancing and raging dragons consuming screaming maidens was too much, even if he knew they were just light. He'd fled, pulling his own mask off and dropping it along the way.
The servant's quarters were alive with work, men and women scurrying around to make sure the people upstairs had the time of their lives. Food and drink were being carted back and forth, orders yelled, and a little noble boy slipped underfoot without notice. Zachary had been ill with the flu, he remembered someone saying. He'd be in his room, and even if sick, Jaye still wanted his company. He'd hardly seen the other boy in the last two weeks, Isaiah keeping him so busy, and the strain of being 'Lord de'Medici' was beginning to take its toll. To his shame, he was crying at night, alone in the master bedroom of the castle.
He needed Zachary. The other boy was always so calm, so level headed and he'd know all the answers to the questions Jaye was being asked. He just would, somehow. Finding Zachary's room had never been a challenge - as the House Mage's apprentice, Zachary had his own little room just near the kitchens - but as he pushed the door open and caught of his best friend's sleeping face, a heavy hand fell on his shoulder.
"What are you doing, Jaye? You're meant to be attending to your guests." Isaiah's smile was the thin type; when he revealed his yellowing teeth, his lips practically disappeared into the folds of his mouth. Jaye swallowed.
"I just... Zachary's sick, and I just wanted to see - "
"A Lord does not worry about one of his servant's health, Jaye." Isaiah frowned theatrically. "It's simply not done. Your father was wrong to let you run around with them for this long."
"But Father - "
"Is dead. And you have guests to attend to. The boy will recover, I'm sure. Let Rosie deal with him."
"But I... " Feeling cheated, Jaye cast a glance back at as the door shut, catching sight of Zachary's pale face caught by the torchlight staring after him. Isaiah led him away, back to the garish light shows and simpering nobles that made up 'respectable company'.
- - -
The corridor was different, but Jaye couldn't shake the feeling that, like nine years ago, he wasn't meant to be here. Any other noble would be observing the celebrations in the main hall, chatting to his knights and indulging himself with wine. It was the three days to be drunk and celebrate, safe in the confines of winter without the threat of war on the doorsteps.
Instead, Jaye hesitated in front of a door. Just down the corridor from his own, at the end of the hall, it was a far cry from the nook of the kitchens Zachary used to inhabit. Jaye knew the furnishings inside by heart; stone walls covered with bookshelves and maps, the floors draped with blue tapestries and a well-worn chessboard perched near the window. Zachary would be in the bed, likely asleep or well drugged. As his Lord, there was absolutely no reason now why he shouldn't pay a visit to what had to be his loyalist subject on the longest night of the year.
Half expecting a hand on his shoulder, Jaye turned the knob and slipped inside, blinking at the gloom. Only one torch was alight, almost tucked away by the great mahogany desk Zachary used for his studies. Its licking fingers crept towards the bed, sometimes brushing the covers but never really touching the face of the man sleeping there. Zachary was so still that, like many times in the past two weeks, Jaye wondered if he'd died. It was only the man's gentle breathing, only visible when Jaye moved closer, that indicated he still lived. Jaye let his eyes trail across the bandages wrapped thickly around the other man's head. They were thickest at his right eye and mostly obscured that part of his face, but his good eye was closed gently and his mouth was placid. He wasn't in pain. Jaye relaxed, sitting heavily in the chair someone had placed by the bedside.
Zachary would never see out of his right eye again. It was a thought that kept Jaye awake at night, lying at the ceiling and closing one of his eyes simply to see what it would be like. Walking like that was near impossible for him, and when he realised just how little he could see with only one of his eyes it left a sick, sticky feeling in his stomach. He'd brushed Zachary off for years now, even though the other man had been looking out for him. Ever since he'd been brought back from the tower, Zachary had been trying to pull Jaye down a notch, and their fights had been somewhat legendary through the castle.
And now he'd be permanently injured. For him. The smell of burning flesh still ghosted through Jaye's nose sometimes, if he thought about it too hard. If he analysed the moments, wondering how he could have lived and kept Zachary safe at the same time. If he'd just kept his mouth shut and never written the other man off as 'replaceable'; saying that sort of thing always brought trouble. Somehow, he should have known something was off that day, that Lord Grey would try to take his life. Zachary had known, he'd been on edge ever since they'd walked into the meeting room. Blissfully unaware and thinking he'd just won a debate, Jaye had left with a bounce in his step, and hadn't seen the danger until the spell was flying towards him. Zachary had. They were lucky he was still alive.
He'd reached out while lost in his thoughts, placing his hand over Zachary's, and only realised the position when the other man stirred. Nothing prompted him to move though, even when Zachary's lone, blue eye flickered open and regarded him through a haze of pain-numbing drugs.
"It's Winter Solstice." While it hadn't been a question, Jaye nodded and Zachary frowned. "What are you doing here?"
"Visiting." Jaye rubbed his thumb over the back of Zachary's hand, feeling the healing burn marks on the skin. "They won't miss me for a while."
"... I'm not very entertaining." It was said through a yawn that left Zachary wincing.
"I didn't come for entertainment."
Zachary shrugged, but didn't seem inclined to push the issue. It wasn't his first visit, and Jaye had noticed that after he'd insisted on accompanying Zachary back to the castle via carriage, Zachary had stopped questioning the arrangement. The servants had raised eyebrows at just why, after so many years of bickering, their Lord had practically flipped out when Zachary went down, but also knew better than to question. They wouldn't get an answer.
They didn't talk. Zachary dozed, occasionally waking up and asking for water, and Jaye was content to sit there in his own thoughts, his hand on the other man's. He could manage the questions and pouting of the other nobles when he returned to Argonia, it wouldn't be that difficult. The parties would continue next year. He just knew that he wasn't about to face them without Zachary standing behind him, quiet as ever, watching his back.