The Prince and the Pauper

"Prince William, please attend!" Madam Greene said sharply, drawing the nine-year old William's attention away from the window and back to her stern countenance. William scowled at his governess, who glowered right back with little fear. This one hadn't been as easy to get rid of as the ones previously. In fact, she had held out for nearly a month longer than the last governess, and was still going strong. William was beginning to suspect that he might have to devise a new set of tactics to encourage this one to quit. He kept asking his father, King Bartolby, to set him a proper tutor, but so far the man was deaf to his son's request.

"You're not quite old enough, my boy," his father would invariably tell him. "Your mother would prefer if you stayed with a governess until you're at least eleven." William always scowled and retreated, because even at the age of nine he was far too proud to beg. He would simply withdraw for a time before repeating his request at a later date.

"Now Prince William, if you would please tell me the date and significance of the erection of the Glass Lighthouse of the Kingdom of Saison...?" Madam Greene prompted, returning William's attention once more to his history lesson. The boy gazed coolly at the woman and recited the requested information, which seemed to placate her but did not stop her from continuing with the lesson. William sighed heavily as she resumed her lecture, returning his gaze to the window and the clear blue sky beyond it. Tiresome woman! He didn't know what it was about females that just...rubbed him the wrong way. He wondered if it was to do with his little sister, Briar Rose. Even at the young age of five, the girl had already managed to develop most, if not all, of the most annoying female mannerisms William had yet encountered. Granted, his experience of the female species was limited to the company of his annoying younger sister, his doting yet overprotective mother, his various governesses, and, of course, Briar Rose's three fairy godmothers, who were constantly flitting about after the child. All of those females save his sister were prone to scolding him with little to no provocation and usually no warning.

No, if there was one thing in William's life he was sure he could do without, it was women. The knowledge that he was expected to one day marry a woman constantly gnawed at him. He had a mental image of his future bride as a miniature version of his somewhat eccentric mother. He tried not to think about that too much, though...

"Prince William..." Madam Greene said in a warning tone, her sharp grey eyes flashing over her square spectacles. With another heavy sigh, William returned his attention to his lesson.

----

"I'm going!" Cinder called from the entryway as he slipped his bare feet into his favorite comfy sandals.

"Alright, dear!" Margaret, his step-mother, called back. "Have fun and be careful!"

Cinder grimaced at the motherly admonishment, but called back dutifully that he would. He was ten years old now, after all; far too old for Margaret to be mothering him still! He tucked the small irritation into the back of his mind, however, because today was a Market day in town and Margaret had given him three shiny copper coins and told him to buy himself whatever he wished. She and her two daughters, his younger step-sisters, would be along later in the afternoon to meet up with him for a late lunch.

Cinder ran down the walk and pounded onto the road, eager to get to town so that he could begin browsing the wares merchants set up in their temporary stalls in and around the town square. He was especially looking forward to the weapons merchants, who never failed to delight him with their stock.

Like many boys his age, Cinder had a great fascination with swords and daggers. He was still, much to his eternal disgust, far too small to have much hope of lifting even the lightest of the long-swords he so fancied. Not that he had the money to purchase anything as fabulous as a real dagger, much less a proper sword, but he could still dream...

Even the merchants who lived and worked year-round in Tempus put out their finest wares on a Market day; many even made special efforts for the event: Hot pies fresh from the oven sold by the slice, fresh fruit cut up and served with creamy caramel or chocolate syrup, cups of crushed ice topped with different flavored syrup...Cinder saw many things on the way to the town square that made his eyes light up and his mouth water. He would have to come back later in the day, after he had had a look at all of the other things he might purchase with his precious coppers. He surreptitiously slid a hand into the pocket of his shorts and was reassured by the feel of the knotted handkerchief Margaret had tied around his money.

The crowd of people thickened as he neared the square, and Cinder was forced to slow his quick walk to a more sedate pace. Not that he minded too much, because he was now within the most interesting part of the market, and he didn't want to miss anything because he was walking too fast.

The town square, a rather deceptively named circular plaza, was alive with human activity. Temporary stalls had been set up following the circular pattern of the cobblestone walk. There were two rows running around the perimeter – the inner row with the shop fronts facing the memorial fountain of King Tempus, the founder of the kingdom, and the outer row facing the homes and shops that lined the square.

Cinder took careful note of everything around him, eager to see everything he could. He made his way past many interesting goods and wares. He paused occasionally to listen to merchants haggling with potential buyers, ears tuned to pick up the subtle nuance of voices, eyes straining to take in the various gestures and facial expressions which were a part of the haggling process.

He was just turning away from the spectacle of a successful bargain being sealed with a handshake when he heard someone calling his name. He looked in the direction of the shout and grinned when he saw his friend Arachne pushing her way toward him through the crowd. When she saw him looking at her she waved and renewed her efforts to get near him. Cinder began walking over to meet her, and before too much longer found himself caught up in Arachne's enthusiastic embrace – her preferred method of greeting.

"Hi, Arachne," he said as she let him go. "You're looking very purple today."

The sixteen-year old grinned and tugged at one stray curl, which was freshly colored a lovely shade of deep royal purple. The complex bodice and outer sleeves of her dress matched her hair almost perfectly, though the white of her puffy blouse and the stark black of her skirt prevented the effect from becoming overwhelming. She wasn't apprentice and daughter of the kingdom's most successful seamstress for nothing, Cinder knew.

"I'm surprised I didn't see you drooling over at the sword merchant," Arachne said, even as she tugged him toward one of the narrow aisles between the leather goods and the glassworks so that they could talk out of the way of the other market-goers.

"I haven't gotten that far yet," Cinder explained. "And I don't drool!" he added with injured dignity.

"I know that," Arachne responded with a gentle smile, ruffling his hair good naturedly. Cinder scowled and batted her hand away.

"When are you going to stop treating me like a child?" he demanded, pushing his glasses up his nose in irritation.

Arachne grinned and winked. "When you grow taller than me," she responded, completely un-phased by Cinder's indignation.

Cinder crossed his arms and stood up as straight as he could, but still failed to meet Arachne's eyes by several inches. Were he old enough to be interested in such things, he might have thought that only being eye-level with Arachne's bosom made up for his lack of height, but he was still too young to appreciate or even care about the mysteries of the female body.

Arachne very kindly stifled the laughter that threatened to escape and threw her arm companionably around Cinder's shoulders. "Come on," she said, tugging him out of the narrow aisle and back into the crowd. "Let's go look at those sharp pointy things you like so much."

Cinder forgave Arachne for annoying him then; after all, she was his very good friend – he'd known her for as long as he could remember – and she had just offered to come look at the swords with him. How could he remain irritated with her after that?

----

William knew that there was a market being held in the square in town today. He wished he could see it from the window in the room where he had his lessons, but there were far too many rooftops in the way. The young prince was resolved to try his hand at sneaking out of the castle and down to the market on his own after his lesson. Whenever he wanted to go anywhere, his father either told him 'no' or insisted on a royal procession so stuffy and pompous it sucked all the fun out of whatever it was that William had wanted to do.

William wanted to see the market, and he wanted to have fun. He was an intelligent lad, and knew that there was no way those two things ought to be mutually exclusive. So when his lesson finally let out at noon, he proceeded with all possible dignity to run as fast as he could through the castle corridors. The shouted admonishment from Madam Greene to stop running like a heathen and to walk like a sensible boy was ignored, and the subsequent threat to inform his parents should he not stop only spurred him on faster. Nothing was going to ruin this chance, especially not that blasted woman.

William first returned to his bedchamber for a change of clothes – an off-white linen tunic he'd swiped from the servant's laundry, a pair of dark brown breeches swiped from the same, his oldest cloak, and his oldest boots (which were so small they pinched his feet, but he didn't dare work dirt and scuff marks into his pair that fit). As an afterthought, he placed a few gold coins in his pocket – just in case he should see something truly spectacular. Grabbing a rust-colored ribbon which he would use to tie his hair back once he was out of the castle, William left his chambers and began making his way stealthily through the castle towards one of the lesser-used servant's exits on the ground floor.

He experienced a bit of panic when he heard someone approaching him from behind in the narrow kitchen corridor, but ducked into a nearby pantry and waited for the servant to pass him by. After that, though, he made his way out of the castle successfully and with no further worrisome moments.

Tying his hair back as best he could while he walked, William joined the flow of people on the road leading up to and away from the castle. He was fairly certain he knew the way to the square on foot, though he figured if he got lost he could always ask someone to point him in the proper direction. He was a proud boy, but he wasn't stupid – normally he would consider asking for directions from some commoner to be beneath him, but by the Overpower, he wanted to go to the market! A bit of fun after Madam Greene's dull lecture was far more important to the nine-year-old William than pride

Luckily for William, most of the people walking to town around him seemed to be going to the market, so he found his way with no trouble. On the other hand, though, since he was unused to going about anonymously in crowds, he was unprepared for the amount of jostling suffered by the common folk. As a result, he ended up knocked down to his hands and knees in a muddy puddle left behind by the early spring rains.

Embarrassed, he scrambled to his feet and glanced around furtively, trying to see if anyone had noticed his indignity. No one seemed to be paying him any attention. Wiping his hands on his shirt (and leaving two muddy streaks in the bargain), William walked forward once more, resolved to pay more attention to those around him and thereby avoid any more similar mishaps.

It took about twenty minutes to get to the town square, and by the time he arrived he was feeling decidedly miserable – his boots pinched his feet something awful, and he was cold and wet on top of that.

But! He had arrived successfully; there was no one to stop him having fun but himself, and damned if he was going to become a stick in the mud now!

The general atmosphere of the market did much to help him forget his sore feet and wet britches. People came and went, talking, laughing, bargaining, joking with each other. Everyone was in a good mood.

There were many things to see besides the colorful and cheerful crowd. It seemed that each stall was crammed full to bursting with every kind of good possible – William saw booths stuffed with wonderful hand-carved wooden figures, beautiful and expensive-looking dyed cloth, leather goods, glassware, knives, daggers, and swords...everywhere he looked he saw something interesting.

He was just congratulating himself on a well-done escape from the monotony of Tempus Castle when his stomach growled loudly, reminding him that he'd been in such a hurry to get here he'd forgotten to eat lunch. Well, no matter. He had his gold, and he could make out many delicious smells wafting on the breeze. All he had to do was follow his nose...

As he walked he discovered that there were actually quite a few different food vendors; bread and baked goods could be had at one booth, fresh fruits with various sweet dipping syrups at another, roasted chicken skewered on long, narrow spikes at a third...

William decided in the end on a meat pie from vendor on the eastern side of the square, which he would follow with an apple and caramel from the northern end for afters.

The man selling the meat pies seemed to be an established merchant here in town who had temporarily moved his business into the square for the duration of the market. He was a stocky, heavy-set man who was just starting to grey at the temples and who sported the largest, bushiest moustache William had ever seen.

"Hello there, son," he said when William walked up to him. The prince blinked in confusion at being called 'son' by a complete stranger, but the man didn't seem to notice and continued blithely on, "I've not seen you 'round these parts before; You up for the market from the country?"

William paused for a moment before he nodded. It occurred to him that the man's incorrect assumption was just as good an excuse as any he could come up with, and nodding saved him the trouble of speaking.

"Here y'are, then, lad – that'll be a half-copper; careful now, it's hot!"

William produced one of his gold coins and held it out to the man, whose eyes widened in astonishment.

"Here now, boy, where'd you get that?" William was surprised at the suspicion in the man's voice. He blinked and raised an eyebrow as he answered,

"My father gave it to me," he said, which was true enough.

"Did he now?" the man responded, still in that suspicious voice. He seemed to eye William up and down, and the prince was suddenly reminded of his muddy shirt and scuffed boots. He shifted his weight a bit, uncomfortable.

"Yes. He did," William replied, his voice frosty. He began to withdraw his hand, thinking he'd have better luck elsewhere and that this suspicious commoner didn't deserve his gold anyway, when the man's hand shot out and caught him by the wrist.

"I don't think I believe you, m'boy," he said sternly, his countenance suddenly quite fierce. "Where did you really get that?"

"Unhand me at once!" William spat, ignoring the man's last question. How dare this peasant lay a hand on his royal person! William was positively outraged. Wait until he told his father about this—

--As soon as he thought that, he realized that he couldn't; not if he intended to make any more successful escape attempts. If his father found out that he'd managed to sneak out of the castle on his own, guards would be doubled, servants would be twice as alert, and he'd no doubt be saddled with a full-time care-taker, all to prevent him from leaving the confining 'safety' of the castle.

The baker man had stepped out from behind the counter of his booth and was calling for the watch. William looked around wildly and saw two officers approaching through the crowd. While he wasn't worried about being flung into prison (he figured someone would recognize him before it came to that), he was worried about being properly identified. If that happened, his escapade would be over, and any hope for repeat adventures dashed.

The watch officers were worryingly close. Desperate, William twisted his arm about in the hopes of dislodging the man's hand from his wrist, but his captor's grip was like iron. Glancing around wildly, William searched for some avenue of escape – something, anything --

His eyes fell on the baker's sandaled feet, far too close to his own booted ones, and he acted almost without thinking. Putting all of his strength and weight into this act, he lifted his right foot and brought the heel of his boot down as hard as he could on the man's toes.

His captor let out a bellow and an oath that William knew he would have to remember, even as he scurried away from both him and the watch officers. He heard one of them shout and shortly after could make out the sound of their pounding feet as they pursued him.

The boy ducked into one of the narrow aisles between the stalls, for he suspected that it wouldn't be too much longer before someone in the crowd tried to grab him when it became apparent who he was running away from.

"He went in there!"

"Follow him!"

William cursed under his breath as he heard the watch officers, trying out the oath he'd heard the baker use. He was quite satisfied with the way it felt in his mouth, and reasoned that even if he couldn't return to the market on this trip, at least the day wasn't completely ruined.

He ducked out of the aisle and into the much wider outer-circle of the market. People were still abundant here, but much less tightly packed, which made running easier for him.

"There he goes!"

Unfortunately, it also made running easier for the men chasing him.

William swore again and looked around wildly, trying to figure out which way to run. There were many streets and small alleys feeding off of the square, but he had no idea where any of them went. If he picked the wrong one and it turned out to be a dead end...

"Here, this way!"

William turned his head to regard a dark-haired, bespectacled boy who was tugging his sleeve and running along beside him. Nine-year-old logic brought the sheltered prince to the conclusion that a boy his own age was probably more trustworthy than a pair of adults employed by his father, so he turned quickly in the direction the smaller boy had indicated and followed him out of the square down one of the narrower side-streets.

The lad leading him took many sharp turns and side-tracks, and before William knew it, he was quite lost. There were few people in this section of town, and those few seemed to pay no attention to the two running boys.

At first William could still hear the sounds of pursuit, but as he and the other boy ran on, moving through the alleys and more deserted parts of town, the pounding of the watch officer's boots faded into the distance.

"In here," the boy said suddenly, after several minutes of running only to the sound of their own slapping feet. He led William into a narrow alley between two shops and moved to hide out of sight from the street behind two large rubbish bins.

The prince crouched down beside his rescuer and tried to concentrate on getting his breath back. The other boy didn't seem nearly as winded as he – William wondered if running was something the scrawny youth beside him did often.

Several minutes passed in near silence as William's heavy breathing returned to normal. The dark-haired boy seemed to be listening intently to the few sounds coming from the mouth of the alley, and it occurred to William that maybe they hadn't shaken his pursuit after all.

Just as he thought this, however, the other boy heaved a sigh and removed his glasses, which he began polishing on his shirt.

"I think we're in the clear," he said brightly a moment later, shoving his spectacles back up his nose and turning to William with a grin. William did not return the expression; he simply regarded the other with his usual calm. Now that the immediate danger of being discovered and returned to the castle was past, it occurred to William that perhaps even this genial young peasant lad might have saved him with some ulterior motive.

"Why did you help me?" the prince asked bluntly, staring hard at the dark-haired boy, who seemed taken aback by his cold stare.

"I saw what old McGregor was trying to do to you—get you tossed in jail because you have what he thinks is too much money," the boy paused to glance at him, and William said nothing, simply waiting for him to continue. After a moment he shrugged and went on, "It's not the first time he's done it, and Overpowers know it won't be the last. Last month he got the visiting duchess of Toyland's son sent to prison because he'd snuck out wearing servant's clothes and tried to buy some food with a gold coin he'd gotten from his mother."

William didn't know how to react to that bit of information. The similarity between his situation and the story told by this boy was rather unnerving. "Does that happen often?" he asked, curiosity winning out over the desire to remain aloof.

"Not if you mean McGregor getting disguised nobles sent to prison—that's only happened the one time. But he's always picking on lads who try to pay him with anything other than copper. Most can't prove they're not thieves, so they go to prison and McGregor gets a little 'thank you' from the watch—gold, it's rumored." The boy straightened from his crouch against the wall, stretched, and settled back down once more.

"Self righteous son-of-a-troll," he commented idly, as casually as if he were talking about the weather.

"Do you always jump in and save the day?" William asked. Almost despite himself he found he was warming up to the smaller boy.

"Well, no...that is to say, this was the first time I actually saw McGregor trying to get someone in trouble. I'd do it again if need be, though, if that's what you're asking." He glanced at William, who raised an eyebrow at him.

"Even thieving is a more honest way to earn money than what that man does," he said, surprising William by answering his unspoken question.

"Do you think I stole this?" William asked, producing a coin from his pocket and holding it up in the dim light.

The boy shook his head. "I honestly don't know. But it's also none of my business if you did or not." He stood again and brushed off the seat of his short britches with both hands. William watched in alarm. Was he getting ready to leave?

"Do you want something to eat?"

The prince stared up at the boy, completely caught by surprise. "Er...yes,"

"Alright. Wait here. I'll be back in about ten minutes." With a grin and a wave, the boy was gone. William listened to the sound of his sandals slapping against the cobblestones as he ran of to who knew where.

William stood and stretched, wondering if he really ought to stay put of if it would be wiser to go back home. Actually, he knew he ought to return, but he'd only been gone an hour or so...besides, he was rather curious about his rescuer. All the boys his own age in the castle were either servants or pages, and they all naturally knew who he was and treated him accordingly: when they could avoid it they would not talk to him at all, and when they couldn't they spoke only in the most reserved, formal manner. This young peasant boy who had stuck his neck out to help him was the first child his age he'd ever met who didn't know who he was. To the bespectacled lad, William was just like himself; a commoner, someone on equal footing. While being spoken to so casually by someone was somewhat bizarre, William also found it to be rather refreshing.

Mind made up, William settled back on his heels to wait for the other boy to return.

----

Cinder ran the short distance back to the market proper. While he and the young blond boy had run quite a distance to get rid of the pursuing watch officers, Cinder had done his best to run them in a sort of curve around the square, so that they were both hidden quite near the market still.

He made his way to Miranda's stall on the southern side of the square. Miranda was selling hot meat pies much the same as McGregor's, but if Cinder was going to spend some of his precious coppers on someone else, he'd rather give them to Miranda. Chances were, she wouldn't charge him as much as McGregor might, either.

After waiting impatiently for several minutes in line, Cinder finally stepped up to the counter.

"Well, good afternoon, young man!" Miranda, a large, middle-aged woman with more smile-lines than grey hairs, greeted him cheerfully when she saw who was up next. "You'll be wanting one of me pies, then?" as she spoke, she removed one of the freshly baked confections from the portable hearth she had set up behind her make-shift counter.

"Um...two, actually," Cinder said.

"Oh, yes? Hungry today, are we?" she asked with a friendly smile, placing a second pie next to the first. Cinder just grinned and said nothing. "Well, don't eat too fast, now, and be careful, they're hot. That'll be a half-copper, love."

Cinder smiled and produced a coin. Miranda took it with a nod of acknowledgement and handed him his change. "There ye are, one for each hand," she said with a motherly smile.

"Thank you, Miranda," Cinder said, picking up his pies and spinning about on his heel to turn back the way he had come. He was weaving through the crowd, trying to avoid running into random passerby as he juggled the pies between his hands – they were really hot, as Miranda had warned – when he was brought up short by someone tugging on his shirt.

"And where are we off to in such a hurry, hmm?"

Cinder gulped guiltily as he turned to face Arachne, whose green eyes were alight with curiosity.

"Um...well," he began, struggling to come up with a plausible-sounding excuse. Not that Arachne seemed to be paying much attention – she seemed to be more interested in the food Cinder was carrying than in hearing what he had to say.

"Aww, is one of those for me? You're such a sweetie," she said, reaching out to relieve him of one of his pies.

"No! Um..." Arachne blinked in surprise at his outburst, her hand half-way outstretched still. "Look, can I tell you about it later? I'll ask Margaret if I can come round for dinner or something,"

"Oh," Arachne looked a bit confused, no doubt a result of his strange behavior, but she shrugged and smiled. "Alright, that's fine. I'll tell Momma you'll be coming over later,"

"Thank you, Arachne," Cinder said, grateful for her easy acceptance and patience. "I'll see you later!"

"Bye." She waved at his back, as he had quickly spun about and gone pounding off once more. She briefly considered following him, but knew he would fully explain his rather odd behavior when she next saw him as he'd promised. So she simply shrugged and returned to browsing the cloth merchant's wares.

Cinder returned to the alley where he had hidden the strange boy, taking care to make sure no one was paying too much attention to him. He was fairly confident he hadn't been followed, and so ducked into the alley with a smile of smug sort of pride.

The blond boy looked up at his approach, his ice-blue eyes flashing in the dim light.

"I'm back," Cinder announced, rather unnecessarily. The boy nodded, and Cinder could feel himself being watched as he settled down once more between him and the rubbish bins. "Here you are," he said, offering one of the pies in his hands to the other, who took it without a word. "Careful, it's hot –" Cinder went to warn him, but was too slow. Almost as soon as he had the food in his hands the boy bit into it, hunger overriding caution.

Since the boy didn't seem interested in lunchtime conversation, Cinder shrugged and turned his attention to his own food. The pie was still hot, but not hot enough to stop Cinder eating it, practically gulping the tasty confection in order to catch up with the other boy, who ate like a starving man.

Even once they'd both finished eating, the blond boy didn't seem very inclined to say anything – not even a cursory 'thanks for the food.' To break the silence, Cinder finally spoke up, figuring he might as well introduce himself.

"My name's Cinder Montblanc," he said, turning himself about slightly to face the blond. The boy blinked at him as if surprised. After a moment of hesitation, he responded,

"My name is William."

Cinder smiled. "It's nice to meet you." William seemed surprised once more, though Cinder had no idea why.

"It's nice to meet you as well," he responded. He paused for a moment, then smiled wryly. "Under the circumstances, I should say it is very nice to meet you."

Cinder would learn later that William had just gotten as close to saying 'thank you' as he ever would. At the moment, though, he was less concerned about gratitude and more interested in finding out all he could about this boy. William was one of the few boys his age he'd met that he rather liked, though he wasn't quite sure why.

"D'you live around here? In Tempus, I mean?" he asked.

"Er, yes. I live fairly close to town," William answered, shifting his weight slightly, searching for a more comfortable place to rest his back against the wall.

"Really?" Cinder asked eagerly. "What direction?"

"Somewhat north," William replied. And then, before he could ask for a more specific location, William returned his question with one of his own.

"What about yourself? Do you live around here?"

It never occurred to Cinder until years later how skillfully and subtly William avoided answering any of his questions too directly. At the moment, though, he was much too excited that he had found a potential friend his own age who had so much in common with him: They both had younger sisters, they both thought that their respective mothers needed to stop 'mothering' them, they were only a year apart in age, they both liked swords and fencing...the list went on.

Time passed quickly, and Cinder heard the clock tower chime one-thirty before he was ready for it to.

"I have to go!" he exclaimed, jumping to his feet. "I'm meeting my mother and sisters for lunch!"

"Alright," William agreed, standing up himself. "Are you going back to the square? I'll walk with you."

"That's fine. It's this way!"

The two boys walked back to the square together, though they each kept a sharp look-out for any watch officers who might recognize William.

They parted company at the edge of the square.

"Good-bye, then," William said. "I had fun."

"Me too," Cinder responded, grinning. He grinned even more when William returned his smile. "Maybe I'll see you later."

"Yes," William said, before nodding his head in a final farewell and turning round to walk over to the north entrance of the square.

Cinder watched him go, feeling a little let down. He wondered if he truly ever would see William again.

End