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Apples, oranges, and other poisoned fruit

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It is a market day much like any other when Dolores clutched my arm and points, with a hum, at a girl with pink hair that's coming down the street, staring around like she'd never been happier to be sent to buy goods. "Look at that!" she says, as if I know what I should be looking at.

I give the woman next to me a mild look, and she rolled her eyes rudely in return. "Ah, haven't been paying much attention to the gossip, have you?" she says to me, and lets go of my arm. "You'd think you'd have better habits, after all those years!"

"I thought the idea was to get away from what we were," I say, but I don't mean it cruelly, and Dolores laughs; we've known each other long enough, now, to not bristle and bite when we rub against each other, though I don't think Dolores will ever stop baring her teeth.

"Ouais, well, you should look at her and tell me what you see all the same," Dolores says, fishing an apple from the display and propping her feet up on a crate as she eats the fruits of our labor.

Fighting with Dolores is ever a futile battle, and so I turn my head and examine the girl.

She doesn't seem too remarkable at first glance, though I can see why her pink curls and slender form would catch my companion's eye. The resemblance to Cassidy stops there, though, the girl younger by some years and blue-eyed (and such a blue, that I can see it from several booths away!), and with considerably less grace in her gestures and excited grin as she buys a sweetbun.

She doesn't haggle for the bun, and I hum, softly. "A noble daughter," I say, "and first in line." I, of all people, know well enough that second daughters aren't allowed this kind of freedom of expression. It's unlikely that she's supposed to be out here, either, but a first daughter can get away with willful disobedience, as long as it doesn't impact her social standing.

Dolores laughs, coarsely, and I turn an inquiring smile on her. "Am I wrong?" I ask her, and she shakes her head, a grin overtaking her face.

"Not wrong at all, Madeleine," she says, "that's the princess they've been hiding up in the castle."

I stiffen, and glance out the corner of my eye, a frown overtaking me. I knew this land, so distant from my home, was different, but-- surely she should have a valette or servant at her side, even if she was sneaking out? Oscar and I had certainly been inseparable, until... well, until.

"Now, now, don't go getting your unmentionables in a twist," Dolores says, without a word crossing my lips to prompt it, her eyes sharp on my face. She crunches another bite of apple, and the juice shines on her lips before she swallows and licks it away. "She ain't supposed to be out, I'm sure, but you said it yourself-- that life's what we got away from, isn't it? And I hear the royalty of this place has magic behind them. She'll be fine."

"I suppose," I said, but old training, old instincts, don't just vanish even when you do, and I keep an eye on the girl as she makes her way through the market, spending her money on treats and baubles like her pockets are endless and seeming very pleased indeed when she's treated like an ordinary village girl.

• • •

"I'll say this, she has more guts than Cassidy ever did," Dolores says, out of the blue, and I spare her a glance before finishing my transaction, selling the woman a bag of quince that could make a hundred tarts and made us considerably richer than we had been some minutes before.

I tuck the coins into my purse, then turn to see who Dolores is looking at.

The princess is back, I realize, winding between the stalls. Her apple-blossom curls are braided into a knot and a common straw hat perched on her head, but her blue eyes are unmistakable.

She has misplaced her impetuous grin sometime in the past few weeks, and I'm almost pleased on behalf of whoever's been tutoring her; they've made more progress on her noble carriage in weeks than I did in years with Oscar.

Then she comes close enough for me to see the exhausted blue bruises under her eyes, and my pride in her tutors fades to concern.

Dolores is looking sharply at me, I realize, her grin gone. "What?" I ask her, and then the princess is before our booth, breathing in deep the sweet smell of our fruits and pies.

I straighten, though my back never truly bent, and smile at the princess, who looks both younger and older than I'd thought. Dolores, with a rather pointed scowl, slouches lower, resting her elbow on our table and her chin on her palm.

"Good morning, misses," she says, politely, "how much for a tart?"

"Ten Lassi," Dolores says, which is truly an outrageous price; even the princess blinks, and while her hand goes for her purse, she looks mildly confused as she starts to count it out.

I waver; the girl will be queen someday (and not merely a king's wisdom, as she would have been back home, but a ruler in her own right), and she should know the value of goods in her own kingdom. If Dolores can trick her with such a bald-faced lie, then she's failing in her education.

On the other hand...

"Haven't you ever been taught to haggle?" I ask the princess, softly, and she pauses, mouths out the word, shakes her head. "Well, now's as good a time to learn as any. Tell her that for ten lassi, you could buy fifteen pies from the bakery right there on the corner, and you will if she doesn't offer them for a more reasonable price."

Dolores's eyes flit across me, a frown tugging at her cheek, and the princess frowns too; then she echos, rather bemused, "For ten lassi, I could buy fifteen pies... maybe you should sell me a tart for..."

She glances at me, for guidance, and warmth blooms in my chest. "A quarter lassi," I tell her, and she echos it, looking even more confused. A quarter lassi is deeply underselling the tart, and all three of us know it.

Dolores doesn't say anything for several seconds, then gives me a rather disgusted scowl and straightens up. "A quarter? A quarter wouldn't even buy the crust, miss, let alone the sweet, fresh apples I picked with my own hands. Five lassi, and not a bit less."

"Oh-- okay," the girl says, and starts counting out the money; I sigh, and reach out, and cover her hands with mine.

She glances up, startled, but I pretend not to see it, and pretend even more that I don't know she's a princess.

"Five is still ridiculous," I tell Dolores, rather haughtily. "That's almost more than there are bites of the tart. Is each bite worth a whole lassi? Two and a half."

"Bite me," Dolores says, and the princess gasps, though it's hardly the rudest thing Dolores has said in front of me today, let alone in our long acquaintance. "Three, and that's my final offer."

I pause, consider this, then nod and agree, "Three is acceptable." Then I unclasp my hand from the princess', and she dazedly counts out three lassi and passes them to Dolores, who passes them to me to put in our purse and hands over a tart for the princess to enjoy.

She wanders off, and at the next booth she stops at, I hear her say, uncertainly, "Maybe four and a half lassi, instead of five...?"

Dolores is giving me a look, and I look back, and we hang in silence for a long few seconds; then she snorts, looks away, and says, "You just can't resist pampering them, can you?"

"Excuse me?"

"You know what I mean," she says, and then doesn't talk to me for the rest of the day.

• • •

She's right, I realize, the third time the princess comes to the market, and I can't keep from watching the girl from the corner of my eye. I do know what Dolores means, that long-ingrained instinct to look after her like she needs me. Like she's Oscar.

We fled to get away from this, yet here I am, thoughts falling back into the old, familiar patterns, watching the way she behaves and noting how it could be improved, keeping an eye out for her causing herself trouble-- it's ridiculous, it's no longer my only purpose in life, the princess doesn't even know who I am, and I can't stop.

Half an hour later, I'm glad I was paying attention.

"Dolores," I say, and I'm surprised at my own urgency, "where's the princess?"

She's been cleaning under her nails, and barely looks up as she shrugs. "None of our business where she is," she says.

It's really not, but all the same I slide out from behind the booth and slide down the street, pace hurried but demeanor calm. It was completely possible that the girl had finished her shopping, that she had turned back towards the castle-- but she had passed our booth going one way; shouldn't she have passed us coming back?

I hear her cry out before I see her, and in an instant my trot turns into a run, my knives drawn from under my skirt within a few steps. The alleyway I find them down is clean and bright, but the boxes stacked by some business's door blocks the view from the street, and the footpads are tall and broad enough that I cannot see the princess; but I do hear her cry out, "Stay back, I'm warning you!"

One of them laughs, and another says, "What are you going to do, rich girl, throw lassi at us?", and I dart forward; the quiet third is down before the others know I'm there, and my eyes meet the princess' over his falling body.

I hold the knife tightly and let his weight pull the it out of his lung, knowing it will damage him beyond any hope of healing, and hop over him, twisting as I go, to stand in front of the princess, blades raised. "You've made a mistake," I tell the men, and my voice is calm even as my heart races. "She's not your prey; you're mine."

There's a shocked moment of silence as the men realize their companion is gurgling blood between them.

"Oh," one of them says, before cussing and backpedaling; the other calls me a word that makes the princess gasp, and shrieks, "We'll remember this!" as he flees.

The man laying on the ground chokes, quivers, and falls silent and still, the blood that had been spurting from him dying to an oozing dribble.

The princess makes a distressed noise, and I turn to her, concerned. "You're not hurt, are you, miss?" I ask, and her eyes flit down to my bloody knife, behind me to the corpse of my own making.

Oh, of course. The violence must be... more than she's used to, and I tuck my blade still-bloody into the sheathe on my thigh, soften my voice even more."You don't have to look," I tell her, and reach out to lift her hat off her head and hold it between her and the body. "Just tell me you're all right."

I see the pink crown of her head nod, and a sniffle from behind the hat.

"Good," I say, gently, and keep her face covered as I take her hand, guide her out of the alley-- I step over the body as I guide her around it and its growing pool of blood-- and back into the clear daylight of the street. "You'll be all right," I tell her as I feel her hand quiver, and plant the hat back on her head, tug her along with unhurried purpose. It wouldn't do to make ourselves memorable by running. "We'll go sit at my booth-- you can have one of the tarts, if you like. You remember them?"

She's silent and tremulous for a second, then says, "Yes," voice as soft as the color of her hair. "It was-- you taught me to haggle."

My heart warms, that she remembers that little interaction with someone she doubtless believed to be a peasant.

"Right," I say, and steer her into the booth and set her in my chair beside Dolores, who gives me a look that I find hard to decipher, even after a year of living together. "Dolores, this is-- what's you're name, miss?"

The next look Dolores shoots me, I'm all too familiar with-- it says, Is this what we're doing? and I'm annoyed that I trust you. The princess says, with a nervous glance at us both, "Elo-- Ellie. My name is... Ellie."

I pretend to believe her. "Dolores, this is Ellie. Ellie, this is Dolores, my friend, and I am Madeleine. We're farmers."

"Ellie" nods, despite her glance flicking towards the hem of my skirt (doubtless remembering the battle-ready knives I was wearing and tucked away with such practice), and says, manners coming back to her now that we're away from the body, "It's a pleasure to be introduced, Misses."

I smile at her, and pick out a pear tart for her to enjoy, offering it with the gloved hand that doesn't have a red spray of blood across the knuckles. "Here, sit with us for a while, until you feel recovered. Do you need us to walk you home?"

• • •

In the end, the princess declines an escort-- I expected as much, for I doubt she wanted us to know who she was or where she came from. After eating her tart and having a drink of water, "Ellie" left Dolores and me with a promise to be more careful in the future, and a pink-blushing curtsey when I told her that, if she's going to be incautious, she should do it when within shouting distance of someone who could come help her.

"You're cold-blooded, you are," Dolores tells me, once the princess is out of earshot.

"What, for killing a man?" I ask, though I keep my voice low. It's not the first time I've done so, but no one here needs to know such things about me.

But Dolores waves her hand, dismissively. "No, though I'm surprised you did so in the city." I shrug; was I supposed to let the thugs do whatever they wanted to the princess? "I'm impressed at how you've wrapped the princess around you finger. Yearning for palace life again, are you?" She laughs at the face I make, and leans her stool back on two legs, elbows on a crate of fruit behind her. "Oh, no, not Madeleine, you've never done a selfish thing in your life," she mocks, "certainly not left your life behind for another one, when you saw there was nothing left for you-- are you already so bored of farming?"

"It's not like that," I say, quietly, looking away to fuss with our display. It's not. I do enjoy life with Dolores, with the farm, days spent laboring and the fruits of our efforts before us on market day.

"As long as you don't abandon me while you go traipsing off after another royal," she says, and there's a bite in her voice that draws my eyes to her.

We stare at each other, silent, and Dolores' hardened shell has a crack in it. She's afraid of betrayal, I realize, suddenly, afraid the attention I've been giving the girl is a precursor to her being left alone once more.

Impulsively, I reach over to her and clasp her hand. "I won't abandon you," I promise, and I think we are both surprised by how heartfelt the declaration is. "I just... you were right, that old habits die hard." A generous rephrasing, but she lets it go. "It's hard to not help, even when my help isn't asked for, but my life here is with you."

Her face turns away, and she complains, "Don't be so sentimental," but her hand stays in mine.

• • •

"Her Highness Elodie, Crown Princess of Nova, requests your presence in the castle," Dolores reads, and I stop with my fork half-way to my mouth; her glance at me is from the corner of her eye, the fringe of her rough-cut hair falling across her cheek and hiding her expression as she reads the letter we were delivered this morning.

I had thought little of it-- after a year, we were well-known enough to warrant invitations to our nearest neighbors' barn-raisings and less intimate festivities, enough that I'd left the letter for after the animals were fed and breakfast prepared.

Now I wish that I had opened it the moment it had arrived, instead of letting Dolores read it first.

"-- For purposes of instructing the princess in combat? Surely there are guards in the castle that can teach the girl," Dolores complains, "don't they know we've fruit to harvest and animals to tend? Your presence is kindly requested on the day of this letter's delivery-- is it now! The nerve!"

Numbly, I lay down my fork. "Well, she is the crown princess. She could have ordered." Dolores may have her face turned more away from me than towards, but I can see the roll of her eyes all the same.

"You shall be expected by noon," Dolores reads, with a little snort, and I glance out the window; noon is only about three hours away, and it's a two hour walk to the castle.

"I suppose I should start getting ready," I say, pushing my plate away, and Dolores turns and stares at me.

"You're not going!"

"I am." Before Dolores can do more than scowl, I point out, "She saw me kill a man. In her defense, and while she was someplace she wasn't supposed to be, but a gentle invitation is very different when you can be tried for murder if you displease the person sending it." I don't think the shaken, blushing girl I helped would do such a thing-- but I hardly know her, and I certainly don't know anyone else in her castle.

And it's not a terrible idea for the queen to know how to wield a blade, if she keeps leaving the castle without protection.

Dolores has no response to that, though she looks upset; I promise to myself to make it up to her as I ready myself for the trip, pulling off my work clothes and replacing them with my market day dress. Once my clothes are almost presentable, I braid my hair neatly, strap my knives under my skirt, and set off for the castle, leaving her watching me from the front stoop and pointedly eating my abandoned breakfast.

• • •

The castle feels smaller than I expected.

It's not that it's truly small, or cramped; only that I am very far from the grander, more expansive palaces of Ocendawyr and Gwellindor, and looking up at the cold, undecorated stone walls that I've seen so often from the marketplace, it strikes me how very... defensible those towers are, how someone climbing the walls could be seen and shot from their narrow windows. The large stone blocks, worn smooth by centuries of rain, give few enough handholds even if someone did risk it.

I do not plan to scale the castle, but I also cannot help but think about it.

Presenting myself to the guards with the letter gains me easy access, and I am escorted to the courtyard and given water and food; I have almost finished them when the chapel bell tolls noon, and the princess appears shortly afterwards, dressed plainly in close-fitting black and white clothing with her curls tied in tails behind each ear. "Madeleine!" she says, gladly, flushed to match her hair, "you came!"

"Well, one doesn't ignore a royal invitation," I say, indicating the letter next to me, and pause for a moment. Should I play ignorance until the princess tells me the truth, or... no, might as well air it out now, instead of letting this become awkward. "Though I thought you had wanted to keep your rank a secret from us apple-sellers, Your Highness."

She gasps, a hand covering her mouth, and then looks slightly guilty, letting the hand fall to curl against her chest. Guileless as she is in every gesture, I'm almost amused that she thought she had lied to us all successfully, when even strangers to Nova could pick her out from the crowd. "How long have you known?" she asks, worried.

I could say, since about a minute after I first saw you. "Dolores figured it out," I answer instead, and let her suppose which time they've interacted that my friend did the figuring.
"Oh," she says, and it seems her nerves settle as she reaches her own conclusion; she comes closer to me, and sits beside me on the stairs, hands folded neatly in her lap. "It's not that I wanted to lie," she tells me, painfully earnest, "but I'm not supposed to leave the castle without guards and an escort and..." She waves a hand, at the bleak grey walls around the courtyard.

I nod, and say, calmly, "I'm not hurt by the lie, your highness. It's smarter to mislead than to let people of unknown character know how valuable a target you are."

She looks like this is only just now occurring to her; I suspect she lies only so her father wouldn't hear she'd been buying trinkets and toys and sweets at the market. But it's not too late to teach her--

No, I tell myself, because she's not Oscar. As Dolores keeps reminding me, we came here to escape servitude, escape royalty, escape the politics of our homelands before the bear-trap jaw closed on us.

Combat lessons, though... well, those were directly requested, and, pleasantly, I direct the princess, "The summons asks me to teach you to fight. Have you taken any lessons before?" She shakes her head, wide blue eyes looking up at me, and I smile back and shrug a shoulder. "Well, your Highness, I'm only a farmer, but I can show you what I know."

• • •

When I arrive home, an hour past sundown, Dolores is back on the front stoop; I join her there, watching her idly carving a chunk of wood into something unknown, not yet formed enough to identify.

"So," she says, eventually, "that was a one time thing, ouais?"

I look up at the starry sky, shake my head, and say, "For fifty lassi a lesson..."

Dolores chews over that number, then sighs. "It'll fill the coffers, certainly." She doesn't like it, I know, and I know I shouldn't either.

"The princess is a quick study," I tell her, "and she has many other things to learn; I probably won't be called on often, nor very many times." The thought makes my heart ache with a desire to tutor, to guide, to help, to do what was my purpose in life for so long. Dolores wouldn't like that either, so I don't mention it. "I won't leave."

She stiffens a little as I put my arm around her shoulders, glances at me with unconvincing annoyance, and leans into me. "You'd best not," she says, "I'll need your help around here."

• • •

"I need your help," Elodie says, looking at me with her wide, earnest eyes. Near the top of one of the castle's trees, tucked together hip to hip into a broad, sturdy fork in the trunk, we're basking in the soft breeze and softer late-afternoon sunshine; it's part of Elodie's education, finding handholds and footholds to gain advantageous ground or escape pursuit in a fight she doesn't want to have, or to avoid detection.

It's also a nice break from the combat training she originally called on me for, and she seems to appreciate it at least as much as I do.

I nod to her, and ask, "How may I serve you, your Highness?"

"Well," she says, and looks up into the sky, "I've been studying internal affairs and politics, the last few weeks, and... I'm a little worried," she confides, the breeze carrying her voice to me and me alone. "There's a lot more going on in Nova than I knew about. A lot of..." She shakes her head, and looks at me again. "I don't think I'm going to have more time for lessons with you."

I wait for her to continue for a few seconds, then prod, gently, "What did you need help with?"

"Will you live in the castle with me?"

I startle, a little, and only long-honed reflex keeps me steady in my seat. "No! I can't," I say, and her face falls to heartbreak in an instant, my heart clenching in sympathy.

"Is it your farm? I can hire someone to take care of it for you," she says, and her hand comes up, clenches in my sleeve. "Or we can buy it from you, so you don't have to labor ever again--"

Shaking my head, I say, "It's not that-- I don't want that. It's Dolores..."

"She can come live in the castle too," Elodie says, though less enthusiastic. I can hardly blame her; Dolores isn't easy to get along with, and I doubt Elodie has forgotten my friend's attempt to swindle her.

Beyond that, though, the suggestion is so ill-advised that I have to laugh, and she frowns, somewhere between pouting and noble disapproval, hand curling tighter still in my sleeve.

"That is a terrible idea," I tell her, once I have control of myself, "for many reasons that all have little to do with you. No, Princess, I cannot come live in the castle with you, no matter what you tempt me with. I love the farm. I love working with my hands, and knowing I have earned the fruits of my labors, and sitting in a little booth haggling my wares." I hesitate, then say, more gently, "I enjoy not being beholden to others for my future, and not worrying that my life can be ruined or ended by their choices."

She bites her lip, then says, small and sad, "I'd miss you."

That strikes my heart, and her blue eyes, sun-pinked cheeks, wind-tossed curls, all drive the point home about the innocent, maidenly pain she'd suffer without me.

Impulsively, I put my arm around her shoulders, and kiss her forehead, my impropriety hidden by the leaves under and around us. Only the kindly sun can see when she sniffles and presses her face to my shoulder, no longer a princess but a girl with the weight of her world on her. "I would miss you too," I confess to her, "but my place isn't at the side of royalty, Princess. I have chosen a different life."

"I wish," she starts, then shakes her head, pulls away slightly, dashes tears from her eyes before they can fall. "I understand. You... you have the freedom to choose, after all. I can't take that away from you."

Her expression says that she wishes I'd chosen her, but there's little I can do about that except let her wish.

"It's not like I'll be gone from your life for all time," I say. "I'll still be selling apples in the market every week. And if you are ever in the countryside, you can stop by the farm, and I'll treat you to the decadence of a commoner's lunch."

She laughs, weakly, and rests her cheek on my shoulder. "Do you promise?"

"Of course, my Princess."

"Well, if I'm to be a guest in your commoner house," she says, softly, "you should call me Elodie. Like I'm a common girl come to call."

I nod, and rest my own cheek against her hair, and we sit in the tree a long while, watching the shadows stretch towards us as the sun sinks into a sunset halo of orange and pink.