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The Pauper Prince

Chapter Text

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A young, lanky, dark-haired, would-be minstrel arrived late morning in the town of Allcourt of the county of Kingsbrook of the kingdom of Gildern with a lute on his back, a spring in his step, a hum in his throat, and no coins in his purse. He had the attitude of a young man leaving home for the first time to make his own way: confident, apprehensive, eager and anxious. Not bad for a start. He had heard the people of Allcourt were friendly enough. Whether or not they were generous, too, would soon be determined. They had better be if his purse was to be fed, and by proxy, him, when he had enough for food and drink.

The best way to find out which spot would bring the most listeners - and donations - would be through trial-and-error, he decided, and stopped, pulled out his lute, set down his wooden bowl, tugged down the brim of his cap, and began the first of the eight songs that he knew by heart. Like most songs of his time, they were ballads about love, good and bad, true and false, lasting and tragic, serious and comical. One of each for the eight songs that he knew.

As he played, some people lingered, a child or two stopped, more people slowed down but did not stop, and others paid him no mind. So far nobody tossed a coin into his bowl, but the day had just begun.

Across the way, Erick, the owner of the inn Eleanor Elaine, paused in his work when he heard the minstrel playing outside. After a short time he shrugged and continued his duties. Nothing worth going outside for. His worker, Mara, came downstairs with a pile of dirty bed sheets and spent candles. Customers who paid extra got candles; the others slept in total darkness. She set the candles on the bar and turned to take the sheets outside for laundry. Erick collected the candle stubs so he could melt them, with other remnants, into new candles. Whatever saved a copper.

From upstairs, closer to the windows, the minstrel could be heard a little better. Only then did Mara notice any of his noise. She paused and listened just long enough to see if she could recognize the song. No such luck. Hopefully he wasn't one of those minstrels who tried to get work inside the inn as a singer. First, Erick wasn't about to hire an entertainer, and Second, Mara had yet to convince him to hire another innworker, period. Erick at least concurred that the work was hard, but hard work was nothing to be afraid of, and it wasn't enough to warrant hiring another employee, etc etc. Of course, if she were willing to share the table scraps - her only source of food there - and fit another cot inside of the dry goods storage, then he'd consider it. Erick was not the most generous employer, but he was one of the few willing to hire a woman, and possibly the only one willing to leave his female employee "alone," if that meaning is clear.

He also begrudgingly accepted her choice of clothing, which could be described as pseudo-feminine at best. No dresses or skirts or even bodices for her; she made do with a small leather vest over a worn, light-blue shirt, and would be wearing leggings, a belt and boots, but Erick also had her wrap a large bit of fabric around her waist for a makeshift skirt. The most "arranging" she did with her long, honey-colored hair was to tie it back in a tail to keep it off her face while working.Mara was mildly grateful for not being made to fancy herself up. On the other hand, twelve hours each day of cleaning rooms, laundry, cooking, waiting on tables, cleaning the dining space, emptying pisspots, running errands, and whatever else Erick needed that day, left her exhausted each night, which threatened to dispel any lingering gratitude.

After hanging up the laundry to dry, it was time for Mara to buy the day-old bread from down the road. Also the day-old vegetables, eggs, meats and other "mature" ingredients. Erick's most common meals were stews and soups, so no need to pay for the fresh stuff. She was allowed to buy fresh(er) meat and fish for the roasts, though. The minstrel was playing something that sounded like whatever he'd been playing before. He was smiling as he played, wandering a little bit but remaining in the general area. Mara kept her eyes to herself as always when she went out in public, but accidentally glanced his way. He caught her glance, smiled more broadly, played and sang more loudly, and strolled her way as she passed, but the actions were not reciprocated. There was work to be done and she had no time to frolic with street musicians.

*********************

The end of the day was much like any other: Mara and Erick put up the chairs in the dining area. Mara swept while Erick put all the dishes into the soaking tub for Mara to get to later; this was after she'd taken the scraps for her bowl . Then she went outside to trim the lanterns lining the inn. The minstrel had stopped playing long before and had gone - somewhere - for the night. Probably home. And just as well, because the night was chillier than usual. For that Mara worked more quickly than usual. Back inside soErick could lock the front door. Finally he went into his own room while she finished cleaning off the dishes and setting them to dry for the next day.

She took her bowl of scraps into the dry storage room. Before bringing in her candle, she checked to make sure that there was no flour in the air or outside of its container. Satisfied that she was safe from a flash fire or explosion, she sat on the edge of her cot, licked the bowl clean, blew out the candle, and pulled the blankets over her. The cot was hard and the room cool, but she had slept in much worse places before, many times.

*********************

The minstrel surprised Erick the next morning by being at the door as soon as Erick unlocked and opened it.

"Pardon me, my good man," said the minstrel, bowing slightly. "I hope that I didn't startle you. But if you're open for business, might I come in for a morning draught and a morsel?"

"...W-Yes, of course, my good man," said Erick, and let him in. The minstrel went to a table in the corner and set down his lute. His cap was still on, brim pulled low.

"What can I get you?"

The minstrel pulled out three coppers. "What can I get with this?" he asked.

"Uhhh.... some of yesterday's stew, perhaps?"

"That would do nicely."

"Very well. MARA!" said Erick, startling the minstrel. A moment later she thumped-thumped-thumped her way downstairs and saw right away that there was a customer. "He'll have yesterday's stew," said Erick.

"Stew?" she said. "But..." then whispered, "We're out from last night. There was half a bowl at best. I had to eat something."

The minstrel forced a smile. "I don't want to be the cause of any trouble. Ale?"

"Ale it is," said Erick.

Mara left to fetch the breakfast beer. The minstrel kept Erick's attention and gestured to his lute. "My good man," he said, "I don't suppose you saw or heard my playing yesterday?"

"Uhhhh, yes, we did."

"Ah, good. And, if you happened to enjoy it, perhaps your customers might enjoy-"

"No."

"I'm...sorry?"

"No to hiring you to entertain my customers. If that's what you were going to ask."

Mara's back was turned to them both, allowing her to indulge in a wicked smile.

"I... Yes, actually," said the minstrel. "But... I assure you from experience that many diners enjoy a good entertainment. It makes the meal more pleasant."

Erick sighed. "Perhaps some other inn in town, but not here. I've got food, drink and rooms, and that's enough for the people who stay here. Enjoy your brew," he added as Mara brought over the drink.

"Two coppers," she said before setting it down. The minstrel pushed over two of his three coins, then took the tankard, mimed a toast, and took a sip. He grimaced at the taste, but forced a smile and kept sipping.

"Let us know if you need anything else," she said flatly and started to leave.

"My good lady," he said, "Perhaps you could sit with me for a moment. Some company?"

She didn't need to look to Erick for his approval or lack thereof; hearing him clear his throat from the other room was sufficient. "Your pardon," she said, "But I have much work to do. Enjoy the drink."

The minstrel tried to be discreet about watching her walk away. He continued sipping at the drink and ignoring the growls of his stomach. There was, of course, much work for him to do that day, whether he had the voice for it or not.

*********************

Once a week the butcher had lamb on sale, which Mara bought for Erick along with the other meats. She made a lamb stew that some of the inn's regulars liked very much. For her it was a two-edged sword: a popular meal brought more customers and more orders, and also decreased the chance of any proper leftovers. Mara did like her own stew, after all. Erick couldn't make it because she wouldn't share the recipe, and also because she "cheated" and bought fresher ingredients than he would have liked. Which meant that on lamb stew days, she paid the difference out of pocket. Fortunately her salary of three coppers a day was usually saved for another day. She could always buy her own meals rather than fight for scraps, but she did that only once a week, again, to save money. This was not a place she wanted to work at forever. Erick had no heirs, so if she were inclined, she could work towards securing a chance to inherit the inn, most likely by wooing him into a marriage or some other partnership. But she was not inclined. Mara was saving her money to help her survive the next time she needed to travel and seek other employment. She was not a native to Allcourt, Kingsbrook or Gildern and had not set roots in any land for more than a year at a time. A consequence of how she had been raised.

Near-closing time for the inn. Mara was outside trimming the lights as always and did not notice someone approaching the front doors. She did hear Erick being startled and then speaking to someone in muffled tones. Then he called to her to hurry up and see to their "last customer of the night."

By now the droning of the minstrel outside had become that: droning, so she had not been thinking about him, and had almost forgotten his previous visit a few days earlier. It was just as well; the people of Allcourt had not been generous to him. His clothes still had a look and smell of newness to them, but were already showing wear and tear. For a moment she was slightly impressed that he was actually as tall as she, since few men of the time even reached 6' 1", let alone surpassed it. It turns out that his posture betrayed his real height. It was as if in barely a week's time he had been beaten down and could scarce take the weight of the world anymore. There seemed to be a new gauntness to the face and a sullenness to the eyes that actually made her feel a slight amount of pity. The fool, thinking he could sing a living here, she thought.

"He's taking the back room," said Erick, interrupting her thoughts.

"...Very well," she said. "And... will he have anything to eat?" Ahhh, why did I ask that?? Not the stew, not the-

"Oh, I'd love a-" said the minstrel.

"He only has enough for the room," said Erick. "Sorry, my good man." Phew!

"Of... course," said the minstrel. "I've had to decide each day if I would eat, or sleep. Tonight, I will sleep." Now she noticed that his voice was hoarse, too. He was rubbing his fingers a bit, as well, as though all the lute playing had made them sore. Even worse for trying to make a living as a musician.

The back room was the smallest and cheapest room. Usually the most drunken customers got it, if they'd spent most of their money on food and drink, and had no more than the four coppers needed for the room. It was behind the dry storage room and facing the back of the inn. The "view" consisted of the alley and smelled vaguely like the hole where Mara dumped the contents of the pisspots and old cleaning water. One good thing about Allcourt is that it did have what some might refer to as modern conveniences, such as sewers, well-maintained roads and bridges and generally clean water wells.

The minstrel was hardly a drunkard; he was just in a poor situation, emphasis on "poor." Nevertheless, he sighed relievedly at the sight of the bed and set down his belongings. It was easy to tell that the bed was shorter than he, so there would be no stretching out tonight. But it was at least warmer and dryer in here than outside.

"Thank you, my good woman," he said. "I think I might actually sleep tonight."

"Oh... Well, I hope that you do sleep well," she said. "Ah, should I replace your candle?"

He looked at the candle remnant on the room's small table, then shook his head. "Nay, good woman. I'm told that a new candle costs extra, and I can only afford the room itself. So... I must bid you good night, then."

"Very well," she said. "Good night."

Back to the rest of the chores before her own bedtime: soaking the dishes, cleaning the food containers and checking all doors and windows. She had made just a little bit more than usual of the lamb stew, but had lost track of how much had been sold. Pleasepleaseplease be at least a bowl's worth! It was to her relief that she found enough for just over a full bowl. Her aching legs and back would thank her for the extra fuel.

Erick had retired to his room to balance the day's finances, which Mara was convinced was his favorite "chore." She checked the doors and windows in the front area, then filled her first bowl. And followed the routine of making sure that no stray flour in the storage room would catch fire and kill her, but this time she simply stared at her candle without lighting it. Half of it was left. She could use one of the reconstituted candles - one she had remelted and reshaped herself, in fact.

With a sigh she went back to the pot of stew and stared at the bottom, then at her bowl, and alternated a few times before taking another bowl and scraping out the rest of the stew into it. Then she compared the two bowls and traded some of their contents until they were as even as she could make then. And then took a moment to stare at the floor in thought before carrying them both to the storage room. There she retrieved her half-candle and matches for it.

She had to knock, quietly all the while, several times before the minstrel finally opened it. He kept it at a peek's width until recognizing her, and then opened it all the way.

"My good woman," he said. "Is there something wrong? Please tell me I don't have to leave."

"Hm?" she said, a little startled that he was now standing at his full height. It turned out that it beat hers by at least two inches. "Um... no," she said quietly. "Not that I know of? I just... I-I thought you might be hungry. This is lamb stew."

His face and shoulders fell. "Ohhhh," he said. "I have no money for food, only the bed. If I think of food tonight, I won't-"

"It's not--" she said. "That is, you won't be charged. This is a portion that didn't sell. And a half-candle, in case you wanted light. You won't be charged for that, either."

For some reason he just stood there, staring at her with an expression that she couldn't interpret.

"Do you..." she said, "Want these? Or not?"

"I..." he said, "Good woman, of course!" then stepped aside and gestured into the room. He was thanking her over and over, but she was not responding, instead handing him one of the bowls and setting the candle down on the table. The first match was a good choice, and sputtered to life and brought light to the room.

She turned to leave, but he was there, holding his bowl up and gently tapping hers like they were supposed to be toasting, or somesuch. Her first instinct was to get closer to the door, just in case. This was her first instinct when interacting with any man: make sure an escape route was nearby. The exception by now was Erick, who was too dull to fire any of her instincts.

The minstrel smiled broadly. To her surprise Mara noticed that his smile was... nice to look at. But then suddenly his face was buried in the bowl as he gulped down every drop hungrily and happily. It was such a sight that she was too engrossed watching him to begin her own meal.

"You were... very hungry, I see," she said.

"Yes," he said, suddenly pensive. "Very. This was delicious! It's been a long time since I've had something this good."

"Ah... Thank you," she said.

"Why, did you make this? Not the owner?"

"Right, I did," she said. "Um... Well, you said something before about deciding between a meal or a bed. So... I... thought you might like both."

"Indeed. You're truly an angel, my good woman."

"What?" she said, stifling a laugh at that. "Uh... Hardly. And why do you keep calling me 'good woman'? It doesn't suit me at all."

"It's... a proper way to address strangers and acquaintances, nothing more," he said. "We've not been formally introduced, and even so, it wouldn't be appropriate to address a woman with familiarity. And I assure you that it 'suits you' quite well. You've shown me more kindness than anyone here has so far. I am in your debt." He held out a hand and began to bow. Mara had no idea what he was trying to do, and shrank back.

"Oh, no, no!" she said. "You... You owe me nothing. No debts."

"A kindness should be repaid-"

"No. Stop making this into more than it is."

"Please, I had no intention of upsetting you, dear lady," he said. "I'll say no more, then."

"Good," she said, visibly relaxing. "I just don't like the idea of... That is, I wasn't trying to..." She sighed in frustration. "Forgive me, I'm unable to find the words."

"That's... quite all right." His voice was still hoarse, but strangely soothing.

"I-I should get back to my chores," she said, and started for the door.

"Still? Does he never let you rest?"

"Er... I didn't mean chores," she said. "I'm off to bed myself, that's all. I.. hope that you sleep well tonight... 'my good man.' "

"Oh," he said, more sadly than she was able to notice. "I was hoping we might share our meal for a little while. But then, it appears that I've gulped mine down without waiting for you. That was rude of me. I hope you'll forgive me, dear lady."

"Now I'm a 'dear lady'?" she said. She paused at the door, but only turned enough for him to hear her. "You worry too much about being polite. But good night."

"Good night."

She shut the door behind herself, leaving the minstrel to his thoughts.

"Dear lady," he whispered.