Mauve was not the prettiest girl in Horsesettle.
In fact Mauve was quite plain to look at. Mud colored hair of no distinguishable shape hung against her flat and wide-set face. Not even was she of notable frame, she was peaky figured and long limbed, and to make matters worse, she was a scullery maid for the great castle Isador.
"Mauve the potato girl!" the courtly girls called her, a title she had earned not only from the potato-sack like dress she was forced to wear, but also because she spent most of her time locked in the kitchen pantry, peeling the skins from potatoes for stews, pies, and soups.
But despite all her flaws, from her unremarkable looks, to her lowstanding title, it didn't stop her from loving Prince Tristan, and loving him with all her heart.
She was so infatuated in fact, when she wasn't peeling potato's, she spent her time following him about the castle, pretending to be sweeping corners and scrubbing floors, when really she would study him.
It was because of Tristan that Mauve didn't mind being a pantry maid, in fact she quite liked it, it gave her an upper hand. Unlike the court girls, she knew things about Tristan that they could only dream.
She knew when his studies were and when they ended, where he bathed, when he trained in the yard for knighthood, and she knew where he slept. In fact, she had made his bed often.
Mauve sometimes even smelled his clothes, memorizing his scent; like crisp fall apples and pine trees. It was a scent that made her stomach bubble and her chest tighten then explode all at once.
She would often pretend they were friends.
Mauve didn't have many friends, even among the maids. She was by far the lowest stationed, and many of the other maids would push her in walls and kick over her wash buckets. But that's what happened to orphans. In fact, Abella, the head maid, reminded her quite often how lucky she was to be taken into the palace at all.
"You should be thankful! Most orphans, when picked off the streets, are chopped up and served as next mornings gruel," she would scold, swinging her spoon at Mauve with a disapproving look.
"One more slip up, and I'll feed you to the house dogs," she warned often.
Mauve was pretty certain this was a lie, but Abella, despite her slim stature, had a certain nature about her that made Mauve worry that there was some truth in these threats. So she did her best to do things quickly and well, but even then it was difficult to please Abella.
Once Mauve had forgotten to let the stew boil before adding the potato's and Abella had punished her with no sleep, and in its stead, she had to shave all the potatoes for the following night.
Oddly enough, Mauve didn't think back bitterly on that night, for it had been when she met Sir Thomas the knight.
Sir Thomas loved pie. Any kind of pie, really, ranging from fruit to root, but by far his favorite was potato.
Before Mauve had made his acquaintance, he had come down often to sneak them in the weak hours of morning while the kitchen maids slept.
On the night of her punishment, she had given him quite the fright when he had found her hunched over in the corner peeling potato's, but they had become fast friends when she had found out he was the Princes' personal guard.
Sometimes, when passing through the courtyard, she would sneak Thomas potato pies in exchange for details about Tristain. Under the oddest circumstances, they had secured quite the friendship, and Mauve was grateful to have him in her life, as much of a tease as he was.
This night, as she sat in the kitchens, amongst the many dirty bags of potatoes, Thomas appeared in the arched doorway as usual, still wearing his armor.
"Do you ever sleep?" he pestered, striding in, in a scrape of metal. He removed his sword and lay it on the counter with the rising dough, his red hair slipping over his forehead as he smiled warmly at the girl barely visible between the large sacks of potato's.
Mauve spat her tongue at him, and continued to peel the potato with a dull knife, trying not to cut herself. Abella didn't trust her with anything sharp enough to wound when she wasn't around. Perhaps she feared Mauve would slit her throat while she slept.
Mauve was still uncertain about that, but she was certain that without a proper knife, the potato peeling took double the effort.
"So do you have my pies then?" he asked, standing across from her and looking down expectantly.
"Do you have my information?" she asked, meeting his gaze. There was a familiar impish twinkle in his expression and Mauve matched her mud colored expression to his. Perhaps it was due to her own boring color, but Mauve always enjoyed the eyes of others and almost always took a moment to live in them, not matter how many times she had seen them.
For example, Thomas' stare reminded her of a storm on the horizon; teasing of thunder but never breaching. Their steady color even, fleckless, defined only by dark outlines which seemed to contain the tempest within, like a midsummer rainstorm just on the brink of release but rarely conceding. A perfect reflection of his own character.
"I do spend all hours of the day with him," he retorted lightly, she could almost feel the warmth from his summer storm eyes, so never took his mocking seriously.
Mauve felt a twinge of jealousy for this fact before excitement quickly overcame her. She had spent all day in the kitchens today and hadn't managed to catch a glimpse of him even once, or the sun for that matter.
She rose and stretched her stiff muscles, before hurrying to fetch Thomas' pies. She had made three extra for him hours earlier, and stored them in the baking cabinet, hidden with the day old bread they often gave to beggars.
Thomas reached for them eagerly at her approach. He lifted the covered pastries to his nose and inhaled deeply, before sliding down to the floor in a clang of metal; resting his back against the central counter.
"Bloody hell I'm exhausted" he said to her, unfolding the cheesecloth and revealing the fine, brown pastry. "Well sit down!"
Mauve scurried to fetch him a utensil, and sat again with her potato's trying not to pry as he dug in eagerly to the crisp pastry, bursting at the crusts with golden- brown potato's and cheese curds.
"Alright, that's enough eating until you've given me my share," she said finally, after watching him shovel several gulps into his desperate lips.
'Tell me all about Tristan today."
Thomas rolled his eyes and swallowed a large gulp of filling. "What he always does, the prince's schedule is always consistent," he said, attempting another bite, but Mauve stopped him with a sharp intake of breath.
"I don't mind, for me it's always like hearing about it for the first time."
Thomas held her gaze and a soft smile took his lips. He wiped the juice from his chin with the back of his gloved hand before pulling it off all together and tossing it aside.
"Well, he went about his lessons as usual, spending time in academics, courtly behavior, and war management. Afterwards, he came to the courtyard for horseback riding and hawking, and spent several hours learning to throw a spear. I helped him tie his armor on for sparing practice, and we shared a few drinks before dinner I think we talked about the weather for a while, if you must know every detail."
He attempted another bite, but once again she stopped him, if he thought that story was detailed he was a simple man indeed.
"What did he wear?" she prompted.
Tristan had many outfits, a characteristic not unusual for a prince, but she took pride in her memorization of most. He had tunics of every color made from the finest fabrics from all across the kingdom, but her favorite was a blood red in color and he often wore with his riding trousers, and a silver crown incrusted with only one gem of cannery yellow, situated directly at the center of his forehead. There was something about this assemble that made his incandescent blue eyes shimmer and burst as if the ocean itself was trapped behind his pupils yearning to break free. She had never been close enough to study them thoroughly, the way she had with Thomas, but even from a distant his eyes were the truest she had ever seen, so full of life and depth.
She also hoped he had worn his leather boots that strapped with heavy buckles, they always smelled heavily of mud and earth a scent that welcomed nostalgia for her, for it reminded her of her childhood and the years she spent playing with her brother in the swamp cricks behind her farm. Without fail they had always returned home covered to their knees in mud, cheeks aching from laughing as their mother scolded them for dirtying their only clothes.
Thomas looked slightly bothered as he answered, perhaps trying to recall. Mauve suspected Thomas spent far less time studying the princes apparel then she did and suspected the detail to be lacking.
"A linen tunic, and riding trousers, nothing princely or of great finery."
"Blue like his eyes…he looked dreamy. May I eat now?"
Mauve scoffed at his sarcasm, quite certain he had announced the first color that came to mind, but she closed her eyes anyway attempting to imagine him. She hadn't seen him in a while, but unlike the sun, he was not an easy sight to forget.
Tristan was by far the perfect specimen. His hair was like rivers of black satin that lay across his forehead in perfect folds; occasionally catching the light of an open window or terrace and then glossy flecks of ebony could been seen throughout his tresses only deepening the colors richness. His eyes were both as profound and animated as the sea, and he sported a lean but sturdy figure from years of hunting and training.
But his appeal didn't lay only in appearance. He was not as you would expect a prince to be; spoiled and haughty like his cousin Christopher or younger brother Trevor. He was kind and soft spoken, his voice like the texture of churning butter, concentrated but without harshness or edge. Not once had she heard him utter a cruel word to servant or dog alike. Not once had she seen him with an ill look in his eye, brewing and thoughtful maybe, but never bitter.
But if his outward expressions weren't enough, his acts of kindness spoke blatantly. Other than assuring the well being of his commonfolk by frequent visits to the cities, Thomas said he even spent time in the poorhouses near Corrows peak, giving food and clothing to the unfortunates and sickly. An action most surprising as most servants didn't dare enter the sick houses out of fear of plague, but Prince Tristan served his people no matter their standing.
"You're doing it again."
She opened her eyes disappointed Thomas had woken her from her daydream.
"What?!" she snapped.
"Drooling," Thomas teased, and started for his second pie.
She watched as he slurped the filing and dug into the soft pastry with his fork, licking at his fingers.
She scrunched her nose in disgust. "At least I don't eat like the hunting dogs. You eat as though you were starved for months," Mauve mocked, although she knew the feeling all to well, though she doubted that was Thomas's reasoning for eating so hungrily.
"Its' a compliment, you're pies are the finest in the land. I haven't decided yet if your a witch or not but I've never tasted cooking better than yours. Perhaps I should arrest you for witchcraft!" Thomas chuckled wholeheartedly at his own joke and continued with his supper.
She smiled thoughtfully at this compliment. It had been her mother who had taught her to cook, before she had died. She had many lovely memories of the old farm house near the thicket where she had grown up, but her favorite were of those baking together.
Her mother had taught her to bake many things, it had been always after her father left for the mill, and always while little Gareth played in the yard. There was always a summer breeze settling in through the open window as the orange sunset kissed the open doorway where delighted squeaks from her younger brother could be heard as he chased his ever lengthening shadow.
Mauve sighed audibly, but that was before her father had left and before he had taken little Gareth with him and her mother had died not long after. The memories following were not so pleasant, she had spent many years begging on the streets until Abella had picked her up and brought her here.
Thinking on Abella, she realized she still had two bags more to peel and started once again.
For a while they sat in silence, one peeling and the other eating and both feeling silently better in the others company.
"I have a question for you lass," Thomas asked after some time.
"You always have questions," Mauve said, not bothering to look up from her work.
Thomas ignored her comment and pressed on with his question.
"It would seem we are having a bit of trouble in the lower reaches of the kingdom, there has been quite a dispute rising between the free tribes over land, it would seem they are having a bit of trouble with trolls. The King has asked us to assist before war ensues."
Mauve made a face, she didn't like trolls, nor the free lands for that matter. It was dangerous territory south of the city, and she had heard one to many wives tales from gossiping maids about knights seeking glory in attempts to civilize the free people, or slay the monsters that lay beyond Thornby Woods, and meeting grim fates.
"Will you be going with them?" she asked, a little bit sad to think she would be losing her only friend for a time.
"Well naturally, as head knight it is my duty to-"
"Sir Ferdinand is head knight," Mauve corrected, eyeing her friend in hopes to see annoyance at her correction. It was visible.
"A travesty!" he exclaimed. "And not for much longer, Sir Ferdinand can barely remember his own name after the accident, he is in the makings of a jester and is in no position to lead his men! The other morning I found him in nothing but his knickers roaming aimlessly through the corridors! If the gods are good the King will grant my plea to have him removed and me instated before he hurts himself!"
Mauve stifled a giggle, at the thought of Sir Ferdinand lost and naked in the halls he had grown up in. Once a proud, handsome knight just into middle adulthood It was a sad fact indeed that he was lost in the cuckoos nest after being kicked in the head by a unbreakable stallion, but seeing the storm of passion flash in Thomas's usually steady eyes always made Mauve laugh, especially since he had been after Ferdinands' job as long as she had known him.
Thomas took a moment to calm his frustration before continuing with his question. "However, the journey will be long and tiresome and quite a ride from the castle, a two week journey. Old Patty is too sick to travel and it would seem we are in need of a cook."
She blinked at him with confusion. "I'm afraid I don't understand?" she blinked.
Thomas rolled his eyes. "I'm asking you if you'd like to come along, you goose! Unless of course you'd prefer to stay here. What is it all those servant girls call you, Potato girl? Quite suits you, with all that grub on your face you're even starting to look like one."
Mauve folded her scrawny arms across her chest, and studied her friend.
"You're not selling your case very well," she said. "I may spend my days peeling potatoes, but I would say that is a far better fate than running from trolls and hiding from flea bitten savages."
"There will be no running from trolls, and your one to speak of fleas…" Thomas said with a laugh. "You will be well protected, trust me, if anything is important to trail- tired men, its' food. You'll stay behind and take care of the camp while we handle the natives, it will be no different then your existing life, cept you'll be free from the confines of this dungeon." He looked around disapprovingly. "I'm uncertain how you breath down here with so little air. I fear your head might explode from the excess oxygen of the outdoors, but I daresay it is a far better risk then breathing in the cinders from the furnace."
"What's in it for you?" She asked, adding another roughly shaved potato to the ever growing stack, and reaching for another. She had grown quite accustom to the lack of air, and was more interested in Thomas's agenda. So she attempted to remain diplomatic, although she had never been on quest before and anything that meant escaping the four cobblestone walls of the kitchen sounded intriguing, but she wasn't about to let Thomas see her eagerness, not until she heard him out.
"For nothing but the pleasure of your company," he said with mock suave and a little bow of his head, unlike Tristan, his red locks fell around his forehead in scraps as he gestured, and despite the uniformity of his short military fashioned cut, his tresses always seemed untidy in nature.
Mauve glared at him, tiring of his mockery.
Thomas' face softened. "But in all honesty, the knights become quite dry, and I could use your temper during those long rides. Not to mention, your potato pies, and I have heard talk of a certain heartthrob…"
"Will Tristan be there?" Her heart fluttered and she straightened up considerably. She hadn't thought King Greogras the thoughtful, Tristan father, would have let his first heir go on such a dangerous adventure. King Greogras never seemed to let his son leave the safety of city limits because God forbid anything happen to his smart, well thought sun, the Kingdom would be left in the hands of Tristans' brother, who yet no older than five, had already proven to be quite mad.
"Does it matter?"
"You know it does…" she said.
Thomas provided her with his lopsided grin. "Against better judgment, I've heard he'll be in attendance."
Mauve felt the familiar bubble fill her stomach, and her cheeks light up as red as apples ripe for picking. She did her best to calm herself, knowing Thomas would mock her for being too excited.
"I thought women weren't allowed on these sorts of adventures?" she asked, thinking of the courtly ladies as they said farewell to their knights, tossing flowers after their horses as they set out beyond city walls.
Thomas shrugged. "Well usually, but I don't really think that will be an issue with you."
Mauve's flush instantly faded and she scowled at Thomas.
"So is that a yes?" He smiled wryly.
Mauve frowned harder at him. "I'll have to think on it," she said.
She had learned long ago never to give in to Thomas's requests without first striking some sort of deal first, some advantage or exchange of goods like the proper deals the officials struck in their chambers far above her head.
Thomas re-covered his third pie and rose to his feet. "Well don't think about it too long because we leave the day before next."
Mauve nodded curtly. "I said I'd think about it didn't I? I'm not really gaining much from coming along."
Thomas snorted. "Would you stop playing games you lout! The moment you found out Tristan was coming I would have to lock you in a cage to keep you from following."
Mauve lunged a potato at him and he jostled back laughing.
"If you weren't my only connection to Tristan, I'd poison your food!" she called as he hurried toward the stairwell.
"I'll see you tomorrow! Have my pies ready!" he called, and clanged up the stairs.
The kitchen fell silent once again and Mauve felt a smile escape her lips. She would never admit it, but Thomas had been right. The thought of spending two weeks with Prince Tristan was probably the most wonderful thing she had heard in a very long time, and she was quite ready for an adventure.