Prince Nikola
Elaine's jaw almost drops then and there. Prince Nikola? There's no way this can be him.
But... it's not like she's ever seen him before, and this person certainly does carry himself the way she'd expect a prince would. He's handsome, tall, and kind, and that's exactly what she would have thought someone like him would be. And when she looks closely, he also resembles the child in the portrait from before. So could it be true?
"Y-You're kidding..." she squeaks without meaning to.
"Nope, not at all. And here I thought you would have recognized me," he grins teasingly. It just makes Elaine's heart pound.
"Um... A-A lot of the servants have n-never even seen you before, my lord. So I didn't realize. I'm very sorry for my ignorance!" She bows deeply, so deeply it almost feels exaggerated.
She's going to be in trouble. She has to be. Getting in the way of the prince, making him help her when she was the one who troubled him, and not even realizing who he is— there's no way that he won't be angry with her. If she's lucky, she'll have to skip dinner for a few nights. If it's the opposite, he'll demand she be whipped for her insolence. She flinches and braces for him to start yelling or scolding her.
But instead of shouting, Nikola just sighs. "You don't have to act so scared, silly girl. I'm not mad at you. Why would I be? You didn't know me, right? So there's nothing to be mad about. Come on, head up, now. Quit with the bowing."
Elaine obeys instantly. Even though it feels wrong, she stands up and faces him again. She's pretty sure she's shaking, and her face has to be scarlet-red. This situation is going from lucky to terrifying, and she still has no idea what he's going to do to her. Even if he doesn't sound angry, who knows?
Before she can open her mouth and apologize again, Nikola's hand finds her head. He pats her lightly, still smiling, and drags his fingers through the mess of black, sweat-damp hair that's still falling in her face.
"Easy, okay? I'm not angry."
Looking into Nikola's eyes, gray as a cloudy sky, Elaine actually feels reassured. There's no hostility coming off of him. He just seems friendly. Teasing. Amused.
Like Elaine herself has made him happy.
"Y-Yes, my lord," she stutters.
"There we go. That's better. I'm not the kind of prince who punishes people who haven't done anything wrong. And besides, I'm not the sort who'd get a girl hurt, anyway."
Elaine just stares. She can't get words out anymore. How can someone like him be so nice? It feels impossible. All her life, the higher status someone has held, the more arrogant and eager to use it they've been. She never would have imagined that the person higher than anyone would be kind. Especially not to someone like her. But Nikola's hand is on her head, he's promising not to be angry, and... it's calming.
"Alright," he says next, taking his hand away, "I have to be going now. All of the laundry's picked up, so you should be fine. Get going. Back to work. You do your job. I'll be hoping that I see you again sometime."
Nikola is smiling at her when he steps away and continues down the hall. Elaine is left utterly stunned. She doesn't even have the presence of mind to say anything in return. She's just frozen. And even when her thoughts do resume their normal function, she can't think of anything but the way he treated her. Anyone else would have been angry. Anyone else would have taken the chance. to push her around. Instead, she got a pat on the head and a smile from the prince who's above anyone she's ever known.
It's enough to stop her in her tracks for a full minute... at least, until she realizes that the laundry is still waiting and that by now, she's incredibly late to be getting it to the other maids.
Elaine curses and grabs the basket. She all but runs the rest of the way back to the laundry room (fortunately without tripping again) where, just as she expected, the elder maids have quite the scolding for her. Elaine nods along and apologizes as she should, but inside, her mind is still with Nikola and the encounter from before. She can't think of anything else.
The situation leaves her hopeless. Someone like her... she's truly the lowest of the low. The prince treated her like a scared puppy and encountering someone who truly leads a perfect life only serves to remind Elaine of just how meager her own really is. She's a servant. Worth less than the clothes he wears. It's a clear reminder of how pathetic she is, how weak, and how unneeded. Just looking at Nikola's confidence showed her what it's like for someone who can actually have it.
It should be depressing. An honor to meet the prince, of course, but disheartening just the same. Elaine finds herself chewing her lip as she goes about her work— and drifting off in thought far too often. She can't stop thinking about it; about him.
And... the strangest part is the giddy feeling it gives her. She met the prince. Actually met him. For someone like her, it's incredible. It's more than she could have imagined.
Thinking of Nikola's kind smile makes heat rise to her cheeks. Remembering how he dropped to his knees with no hesitation to help a mere servant mend her mistake does more of the same. She'd embarrassed herself in front of him entirely, and yet, he'd treated her with nothing but mercy.
Elaine goes about the rest of her day distracted and strangely happy. She can't quite shake the feeling of it.
He said he hoped he'd meet her again. Maybe he will. Maybe that can be true. It's a stupid, stupid hope, but for someone like her who has nothing else, Elaine clings to it. Even if it never comes true, at least she can remember that he said it and pretend like it might have been serious. Nikola was probably just being polite, behaving as a prince should, but she can let herself daydream about it having been genuine.
And that's where her thoughts lead. Until that night, when one of the upper maids tells Elaine that her next job will be attending a visiting lady important enough that she'd better not mess up.