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[04] First Meeting

First thing in the morning, as always, Elaine returns to her duties. As soon as she's up and out of her room, there's someone telling her what to do. Her hair is barely brushed, she hasn't eaten yet, and already, there's a chore waiting to be done.

With a sigh, she heads down to the kitchen. Even though she should probably attend to her work first, getting a quick meal sounds better than starting the job on an empty stomach. She gathers another loaf of bread (identical to last night, if perhaps a little harder), a baked potato, and a small chunk of bacon leftover from last night's dinner for the higher-ranking servants, then chugs a mug of weak ale and eats quickly.

From there, it's time to work. She combs through her hair again with her fingers because going back to her room to try to tame the fluffy mess with a brush isn't an option. And her yawning doesn't seem to want to stop. Although she slept well, Elaine is having a hard time waking up. Maybe she was having a dream?

Either way, work calls. Her job today— all of today— is laundry. Not anyone's clothes, but rags and sheets that need to be hauled from bedrooms down to the laundry room and brought to other servants when they're clean. Any work to do with the laundry is backbreaking and filthy, but Elaine is grateful that she's not one of the ones who actually have to wash it. That job is downright painful. The small blessing is exactly that, small, but it's something that brings a small smirk to her face nonetheless. Today might be a bit lucky, after all.

So Elaine gets to it. She spends the next hour or so running baskets of rags, towels, and sheets from the rooms of other workers to the laundry room and to other places after that. Carrying things around tires her out quickly. She's out of breath before long. No matter how many years it's been, the hard work of a servant is still exhausting.

But she doesn't dare make a fuss. Or stop. Instead of whining, she keeps her mouth shut and tries to do her work quickly. If Margery or anyone else were to catch her slacking...

It wouldn't be good.

By mid-morning, Elaine is really tired. She's hoping that someone will direct her to a more static job sometime soon; one that involves a lot less running around. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Instead, she's left to the laundry for what feels like forever and then some.

Some of the laundry maids thank her. The ones with good natures and soft smiles pat her head and tell her they're grateful for her work. The ones who scowl all the time and bear the wrinkles from it around their lips just tell her that she needs to hurry up. When she's alone, Elaine screws up her face in a mockery of theirs just to feel a bit better. She's glad she's not a bitter old woman... yet. If she keeps frowning, she might wind up just the same.

Once again, though, she winds up lost in thought. This time, it's nothing specific. Merely a wandering mind to occupy her through a boring job.

While lost in these daydreams, Elaine gets distracted. She's hustling from one bedroom back to the laundry area, not particularly thinking about where she's going or watching her step, when an uneven stone in the hallway trips her up.

And she hits the ground.

Elaine lets out a squeak as she falls. The basket of rags and towels flies out of her hands as she goes down. It bounces off the floor and scatters the cloths everywhere, and Elaine herself lands hard on her hands and knees. The harsh stones scrape up her palms... and she narrowly avoids cracking her head on the ground.

She sits there for a moment, stunned, before realizing her mistake. The laundry that was supposed to be brought to the maids in a hurry is now all over the floor.

Biting back a swear, Elaine scurries to pick it up. She crawls on the stone after pulling the basket upright, grabbing rags as she goes and stuffing them back into it. This is slowing her down way too much. The laundry maids will have nothing good to say if she's much later than she already is— at that rate, they might assign her an even worse chore.

And even worse, she soon hears footsteps. With the rags scattered all over the floor, no one is going to be able to walk past without stepping over all of it. Crap. If she makes a nuisance of herself to someone too important, she'll be in real trouble. Elaine scrambles to grab the cloths faster, but the footsteps reach her too soon.

"I'm sorry!" she says, directing the apology to the person above her without looking up. "These will be picked up in just a moment. Please, don't mind the mess. It should be easy enough to step around, and—"

Instead of scolding her, the person kneels.

The first thing that comes into Elaine's sight is dark, rich blue pants, a half-open shirt made of fine, white linen, and strong hands that go right for the closest rag. As her eyes travel up, she's face with sandy hair, a sharp jawline, and gray eyes that freeze her in place. The young man kneeling before her is quite possibly the most handsome person she's ever seen. He looks to be about her age, and even the way with which he carries himself exudes a sort of confidence that leaves her swallowing nervousness and awe.

A blush rises to her cheeks instantly. For someone like this, clearly, an upper-ranking member of the castle, to see her in such a state, after having made such a mistake, is beyond embarrassing. Even as a mere servant, Elaine likes to think she has some dignity in the form of doing her job well. This situation highlights the exact opposite of that.

"I-I'm so sorry," she stutters. "You r-really don't have to help me. I made the mess on my own, sir, so please, go on your way. There's no need to waste your time on a servant—!"

The spat-out words feel pathetic even to her own ears, but the young man merely meets her gaze and smiles. "No worries," he says, "it's not like I'm doing anything else. It doesn't hurt my schedule to take a moment to help a lady in need."

His voice is soft and strong at once. The same confidence held in his wide shoulders is mirrored in every enunciated word. He speaks like someone who knows exactly what he's saying and expects to be heard. Elaine can muster up no argument. She merely gapes, open-mouthed, at the person who's dropped to his knees to help her without a second thought. What blessing did she incur for this to happen?

"Th-Thank you..."

They gather up the laundry quickly from there. The young man shoves the last piece into the basket, gets to his feet, then holds out a hand for Elaine to take.

Hesitantly, she grasps it. His fingers are warm and lightly calloused, nothing like the rough surface of her own, and he pulls her up both gently and with obvious strength. And... he takes a moment too long to let go of her hand. Elaine can't bring herself to pull away either. She's in such a state of shock that it doesn't occur to her to yank her hand away properly soon.

"What's your name?" he asks her when he does let go.

"Um... Elaine Lorence," she replies hesitantly, softly. Just speaking to him is leaving butterflies in her stomach.

"Are you going to ask mine?"

Of course not. This person is so far above her that he should be walking away without so much as a glance in her direction, not standing there and introducing himself like they're on the same level. It's nerve-wracking just to be standing here. Why would she ever dare to ask his name?

But since he prompted her, she has no choice. "O-Of course. Your name, sir?" she stammers anxiously, only meeting his gaze out of fear of being disrespectful if she looks away.

"Nikola Braegon. A pleasure."

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