Loki looked at the boy staring back at him in the mirror and grinned, no one would suspect it was him, he was entirely the opposite to himself, except for his eyes, but they could not be altered, his tutors and mother taught him that, so with a last glance over himself to ensure even his clothes looked like those of a commoner, he walked down the servants hall, knowing the most of his family's servants had the afternoon off to go to the market. He had heard of the country market all the time from servants and maids as they did their duties around the palace, it was a highlight of the month for them, and he wanted to see it for himself, so this was going to be the day that he would. It was utterly undignified for him, a prince, to even ask to go his father stated before when he asked for his consent. Technically the king had not forbidden him from going, so he decided to go see it.
Getting out of the palace was relatively easy, a large proportion of the maids and servants had families, most of whom lived in very close proximity to the palace, if not in the servants quarters on the grounds of the palace itself, allowing him to slip passed the guards with ease, and into the bustling streets of Asgard's great city.
It was louder than he thought it would be. On the very few occasions he had left the palace, it was in a carriage and usually in a royal possession, so the people were quietly watching them go by, but as his presence was not known to any, the people continued as was usual for them, leading to a far more interesting experience for Loki.
He watched as traders and customers bartered and traded goods, he paid attention to what was popular and its cost, noting that some people paid in coinage, others, in foods or other goods, he was fascinated to see even basic jewellery was a form of currency in many cases. He did not get far on his first excursion, such was his fascination with taking in everything, but he learned a considerable amount, and was disappointed when he heard the bell toll for everyone to prepare for dinner, he returned to the palace. He swore he would return, and he did, every time he could.
It was another country market, three years later that Loki first came to have an issue, a simple misunderstanding that led to him coming to the attention of some guards. He knew if they were to force him to reveal himself, his father would have him cleaning the army barracks toilets for a century for the risk he was putting himself in, but to his relief, before they came over, a girl, with hair almost similar to his disguise rushed over to him.
"There you are, Mother is looking for us." She grabbed his hand and pulled him with her. When he looked into her eyes, she had a look in them that seemed to plead for him to go along with what she was saying. "Did you get the apples?"
"I was about to." Loki made his accent sound more like hers. The court had a more proper manner to language, but his time in the markets and streets had taught him the average Aesir spoke with a more relaxed yet harsher manner. "But these guards…" He looked at the two men in front of him who were still eyeing him cautiously.
"Well come on, if she hears you don't have the apples she'll lash us both." She snapped, walking over to the stall that Loki had been next to and grabbing a few apples, taking out a very meagre and dirty bag and pulling out two bronze coins, Asgard's lowest denomination of coinage, Loki had realised. The stall keeper nodded and accepted the coins before grumbling about her brother loitering near his stall, the girl just smiled back. "I asked him to get them and wait for me, he seems to have forgotten the first part," She eyed Loki in a scolding manner. "Thank you so much." She smiled and grabbed his hand before pulling him off, out of the sight of the guards. She did not stop for several streets until she came to a small alleyway. "You really need to realise when is a good time not to steal things." She commented as she eyed him up and down. "And word of advice, dress less conspicuously, you stick out like a diseased limb."
"What are you on about, I look just like you," Loki stated indignantly, not liking the girl's comments on his disguise.
She just laughed in return for a moment. "No, you do not. You are too clean, your clothes are brand new, your accent is of the city, and from what I can hear, not the streets. Why is a high-born trying to steal apples?"
"I was not trying to steal them, I was looking at them."
"Sure." She stated in a manner that stated she did not believe a word.
"I never saw them before."
"You expect me to believe you have never seen an apple? Do you think me stupid?" she half demanded, angered that he was jesting so.
"I have seen apples, just not green ones."
"Really? You are serious, you have not seen green apples?"
What he was saying was so absurd, she felt it could only be the truth. She held out one to him. "Here, they can taste different to the red ones, so I hear. "
"You have never seen a red one?" Loki asked curiously, taking the offered fruit.
"Seen, yes, I am not blind; tasted is another thing, a single red apple is a silver. No one outside of high-borns is going to pay a silver for an apple, that would be madness."
Loki eyed the girl for a moment, "What is your name?"
"Ariella, how about you?" Loki stared at her. "Do high-born's not have names?"
"Of course I have a name," Loki scoffed. "And why do you keep calling me a 'high-born' I feel like I should be offended."
"You are high-born, though, are you not? Your parents have a proper home that they own, you receive a formal education?"
Loki stared at her in shock, "Everyone is supposed to get an education, we…"
"Really? You think an older poor farmer with only one son can afford to have his only worker spend hours a day in education?" She shook her head. "There is no formal education outside the city, and even at that, only the market owners and some tradesmen can afford such a luxury, and usually only for the favourite child within the city after they learn the basics." She explained.
"I never knew, we were always told…"
"What were you told?" She asked curiously.
"That everyone is educated, a basic level must be to a certain standard, that everyone has to be fed and a home to live in, fresh water and the ability to tend to their sick, and…why are you laughing?"
Ariella took a minute to stop, "Norn's but that sounds like Valhalla." She smiled sadly. "I fear I have to be the one to tell you, it is not that way. The sick can only hope they recover or die quickly, anything else is a drain on their already poor families, as I said, none from a lower background has the luxury of school, and with a half dozen apples costing two bronzes, food is not often filling," she explained.
"No one in the poorer areas owns a home, you are lucky when you afford rent on a room," She shrugged, causing Loki to stare at her in appalled shock. "So, as I asked already, is there a name your parents gave you?"
"I...yes." she looked at him expectantly. "Fandral," It was the first name that came into his head, his brother's idiotic friend had made a comment about him the day before that had festered and as a result, it was the first name he recalled, he cursed it, but there was little could be done with it now, it was what he had said and he would have to stick with it.
"Fandral," She repeated. "Sounds high-born." she sniggered before extending her hand, "Well then, a pleasure to meet you, Fandral." he looked at her hand for a moment. "Have I done some form of faux pas?"
"Well, women don't shake hands?"
"Really, do they stand there like ornaments so?"
"No, they extend them with the back viewable," He took her hand and turned it slightly.
"Why, what happens then?" She asked, her curiosity blatant.
"The man takes it and raises it to his lips and kisses it," he explained, looking down at her hand. On it, he noticed old faded scars and dirt wedged into the small lines in her skin, as well as her broken short nails, so similar to that of the palace gardeners. "Though they are usually cleaner."
Ariella pulled back her hand sharply. "Easy knowing they do not know how to work then, us low-born have to clean and work to make ends meet." She growled, insulted.
"I meant no offence."
"Clearly," she stated, going to walk away. "Why did I even bother?"
"Thank you for helping me by the way. It was very good of you, you did not have to."
"That, I am aware of." she growled.
"Ariella, please, I am sorry, I just…I rarely get to talk with girls and when I do, they are so trained to remain almost silent that there is little point in talking to them, I apologise."
"Wait, 'Trained to remain almost silent', why are they silent?"
"There are those that believe women are to be seen and not heard."
"Are you serious?" it was her turn to stare in shock.
"Yes, husbands tend to want their wives to…that is not how it is around your parts, is it?"
Ariella shook her head. "Many women do not have husbands, and those who do have to work as hard as them, often while tending to the children too. There are women you know are not allowed speak, they are obvious, but overall, women speak." She explained. "How are you supposed to work on things if you cannot communicate with one another."
"Well, they talk in private."
"There is no such thing as private for so many, I mean, there are two families to a room in some of the tenements."
"Oh Norns, you are so innocent." she shook her head. "Some families cannot afford a room, they share a room with others."
"All of them, in one room, how big?" Loki asked.
Ariella simple pointed to a building next to them. "I was talking to a girl today that lives in one like this, three floors, four rooms a floor, two families, usually of four to six per room." She explained.
"There is no way there are four rooms, much less two families in them per floor." Loki scoffed.
"Yes, of course, what would I know?" She snarked back. "Not everyone is as well off as you Lord Fandral, so do not dismiss them."
Loki's head fell slightly, she was right, he had no idea of people's lives outside the palace. "Sorry, do you live around here too?"
"No, I live over there." She walked into a street and pointed to the trees in the distance. "About a nights walk into the forests."
"Well yes, it's this thing you do to move around, you place one foot in front of the other and move." She joked.
"Do you not have a horse and cart?"
"My father does, but it is not a horse, it is a mule, and I do not sit on the cart, it is too heavy then."
"You cannot weigh too much."
"My father will be on it, the two of us will be too much," she explained sadly. Loki sensed she was trying not to discuss something, so he said no more. "Why are you in the market by yourself, should you not have someone with you?"
"I am old enough to be here."
"I was not referencing your age, you seem to be older than me, but any high-borns I see have a servant with them." She explained.
"I am not supposed to be here."
"No, my father does not think it appropriate."
"So, you don't know your way around?"
"I know a few places, but I do not always get to see everything."
"How long have you been sneaking out."
"Three years, give or take."
"You are sneaky enough when you are not trying to steal apples."
"I was not trying to steal any," Loki stated in exasperation.
"Sure not." She smiled. "I better let you get on with your journey, it was nice to…"
"Please stay." Ariella stared at him silently. "I never have much company and you seem nice."
"I am only nice when I like people." she smiled. "Where did you plan to go next?"
The pair walked around for the afternoon, Ariella showing Loki all the major parts of the fair, including the best part, the food area. It was bland by Loki's usual standards, but it seemed wholesome, something that Loki wanted to try. But he knew Ariella's bag was empty, and he had never had a single coin in his life since princes did not require such things, but then he recalled the buckle of his belt. He had stripped most of his finery off so to evade notice in the streets, but his buckle, made of the finest silver, was worth a small fortune. When he took it off, Ariella stared at it, telling him just how little his new acquaintance was use to in life. He handed it to a stall owner, who eyed it only for a moment before asking if he wanted to trade it all or chip off the payment. Loki chose to chip it, he turned to Ariella with a large bowl of broth in his hand and gave it to her. She looked at him confused when he had another one in his other hand.
"It's for you." He explained.
"You do not have to."
"That apple was nice, more bitter than I usually have, but nice, you gave that to me when it is clear you have little to give."
"There is a difference between an apple and a bowl of broth." She pointed out.
"Yes, the apple was worth more to you, thank you for giving it to me." Ariella did not argue, she simply looked at him, her gratitude in her eyes before looking at the broth in the bowl, she inhaled it deeply before lifting the spoon. Loki watched in fascination, never realising the meaning of something as simple as a broth, his usual lunch, to someone with so little. When she was eating hers, he turned to his. Neither saying anything again until they were done.
As the sky began to darken, Loki sighed. "I better get home."
"Will they have missed you?"
"No, they don't really notice me as much as my brother."
"I know that feeling," She nodded in understanding. "My brother was my parent's favourite."
"Where is he now?"
"I'm sorry." Loki lowered his head. "When..."
"A year ago."
"It cannot be helped," Ariella shrugged sadly. "So, what direction do you need to head in?"
"Towards the..." Loki almost said palace but corrected himself. "The East quarter."
"I forgot for a moment, high-born," Ariella self-scolded. "I will come as far as I can with you, but I have to go to my father soon." She walked along beside him.
"Where will he be?"
"A tavern somewhere." She sighed.
Loki had nothing he could say back to that, when they came to the wall that divided the wealthier part of Asgard from the poorer, they stood up for a moment. "Do you come to the city often?"
"Every month for the market."
"Will you be here next month again?" Loki's hopes began to rise.
"Can I meet you again?"
Ariella took a moment to think. "Noon, the fountain in the centre of the market and dress less..."
"High-born?" Loki asked with a raised brow.
"Yes. If you are not there in ten minutes beyond that time, I am leaving."
"I promise I will be there."
"Good, I am putting trust in you Fandral, I do not do that often."
"I will ensure to be worthy of said trust." Loki's grin was not as big as he had wanted at knowing he was lying to her by saying his name was Fandral. "Goodbye Ariella."
"Goodbye Fandral." She turned and began to leave, her bag that held her five apples, some baking soda and cinnamon in her hand.
"Ariella." She turned to look at him. "I cannot wait to see you again."
"You must be very desperate to have company," she laughed as she turned and left.
Loki smiled as he walked back to the palace, his hands close to the top of his pants in case it started to fall, thinking of the shock Ariella would have when she found the buckle in her bag, knowing how much it would make life easier for her, for a short time if nothing else.