Mauve lived her life as a scullery maid for the great Imperial Castle in the land of Isador.
Far from the prettiest girl in the Kingdom of Horsesettle, she was arguably plain to look at in both body and face. Her figure peaky, her limbs long and bony, and her assets boyish.
As for her face, she thought it was rather mousy. Wide set eyes large and brown, and as unexceptional as her mud colored hair which hung in no distinguishable shape around her wan complexion.
"Mauve the potato girl!" the courtly girls called her, a title she had earned not only from the potato-sack like dress she wore, but also because she spent most of her time locked in the kitchen pantry, peeling the skins from potatoes for stews, pies, and soups.
Her daily existence was altogether unremarkable.
But despite all her flaws, from her unremarkable looks, to her low-standing title, it didn't stop her from loving Prince Tristan, and loving him with all her heart.
So infatuated in fact, when not peeling potato's, she spent her time following him about the castle pretending to be sweeping corners and scrubbing floors when really she studied him.
Prince Tristan made Mauve mind less the mocking. Unlike the girls of court, who also desperately fancied him, her position allowed her to know things about Tristan that they could only dream.
She knew when his studies began and 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; in her mind, it was comparable to the scent of a thriving garden carried in on a summer breeze. A scent that made her stomach warm and her chest tighten then explode all at once.
In the solace of her days, she would often pretend they were friends. Mauve didn't have many friends, even among the maids.
By far the lowest stationed, even some of the other scullery maids would push her into walls and kick over her wash buckets. But that's what happened to orphans of no standing or family name. 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! When picked off the streets, most orphans are chopped up and served to the hunting dogs," was her favorite threat as she swung her spoon at Mauve with a disapproving look. "One more slip up, and I'll see to it myself."
Mistress Abella, despite her slim stature, had a certain nature about her that made Mauve worry that there was truth in these threats. So she did her best to do things promptly and well, but Mistress Abella proved hard to please.
Once, forgetting to let the water boil before adding the potato's, Mauve was punished with no sleep. She had to shave all the potatoes for the following night before the sun reached the middle of the window. A small circled thing centered directly above the counters. Without the ovens and hearths lit, it provided little light in an otherwise pitch black kitchen.
Mauve had curled beneath it with only a strip of moonlight to guide her fingers on the knife.
She thought back on that sleepless night often, but surprisingly, not bitterly. For along with her red, and raw fingers came Sir Thomas Pollard the knight.
And Sir Thomas, just so happened to be Prince Tristan's personal guard. He also happened to love potato pie. 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.
The friendship was quite beneficial for both parties.
On the night of her punishment, she had given him quite the fright when he had stumbled upon her hunched over in the corner peeling potato's.
Mauve had secured the friendship initially due to his position to the Prince, but had maintained it due to his candor. As for his motivation, she assessed Thomas lacked friends, for surely potato pies wouldn't keep him in conversation for long.
He seemed lonely she thought, though, his stubborn pride would never admit it. Under the oddest circumstances, they had secured a friendship she had come to cherish.
This night, as she sat in the kitchens, among the many dirty bags of potatoes, Thomas appeared in the arched entryway as usual, still wearing his decorative armor.
"Do you ever sleep?" he pestered, striding in, in a scrape of metal. He removed his sword and laid 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 in retaliation to her cruelness.
"So do you have my pies then?" he asked, standing across from her and looking down expectantly.
"Do you have my information?" she asked, matching her mud colored gaze to his familiar impish twinkle.
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, no matter how many times she had seen them.
For example, Thomas' stare reminded her of a storm on the ocean horizon; teasing of thunder, but never breaching. Their color moody, fleckless, dark outlines containing 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 said.
Mauve could almost feel the warmth from his summer storm eyes, so never took his mocking seriously. Though she felt a twinge of jealousy for this fact. She had spent all day in the kitchens today, and hadn't managed to catch a glimpse of Prince Tristan 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 once Abella had gone to bed, 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 large central counter were the maids prepared dinners for great feasts.
"Bloody hell, I'm exhausted," he said to her, unfolding the cheesecloth and revealing the fine brown pastry. "Well, sit down."
Mauve scurrying to fetch him a utensil, sat again with her potatoes trying not to pry as he dug in eagerly to the crisp pastry; bursting at the crusts with golden- brown hash 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 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 fairly 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.
"Ceremonial armor, useless," he said, pulling the glove off and tossing it aside, before continuing. "He went about his lessons as usual, spending time in academics, courtly behavior, and war council. Afterwards, he came to the courtyard for horseback riding and hawking, and spent several hours learning to throw a spear. He's quite terrible at it, good thing there has been peace in the land for a century, or I might worry more. Hmmm, I helped him fashion 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 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 the best tailors across the kingdom, some imported from across the sea. Her favorite a blood red in color and often worn with his leather riding trousers, and a silver crown encrusted with only one gem of cannery yellow.
To Mauve, this combination made his incandescent blue eyes shimmer and burst as if the ocean were trapped behind his pupils, yearning to break free. She had never been close enough to study his gaze thoroughly, the way she had with Thomas, but even from a distant his eyes were the truest she had ever seen.
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, as 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. He's always attempting to dress like the men, probably in hopes of winning their favor. Don't see that panning out though, they are a difficult bunch to appease – not to mention pack-like and obtuse and -"
"What color?" Mauve interrupted before he could ramble about his displeasure of the other Knights.
"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, not an easy sight to forget.
Tristan was by far the perfect specimen. His hair shapely and the color of black satin, and when catching the light of an open window or terrace, glossy flecks of ebony shimmered throughout his tresses. 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, who trouped about the castle like a rooster among chickens. Instead, his nature 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 creature 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 common-folk by frequent visits to the village, Thomas said he even spent time in the poorhouses at Corrows peak near the wall, 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.
"Drooling," Thomas said, 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, despite not being unusual, he made no efforts in politeness in front of her.
"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 too well, she doubted that being Thomas's reasoning for eating so hungrily.
"Its' a compliment, your pies are the finest in the land."
She smiled thoughtfully at this compliment. It had been her mother who had taught her to cook. A merchant baker, the days she wasn't traveling were spent baking with Mauve, but that was before she had died.
Mauve 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, the memories that lingered were always after her father left for the mill, and always while little Graeme played in the yard. 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 Graeme 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, despite her fingers numbed and bruised. She hoped Thomas didn't notice her hands, for they were rough from years of serving.
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 one day.
"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 north of the wall, according to our spies, there has been quite a dispute rising between one of the free tribes over land, it would seem they are having a bit of trouble with trolls. The King has asked us to assist with civil debate."
Mauve made a face, she didn't like trolls, nor the free lands for that matter. Dangerous territory north of the city, and she had heard one to many wives tales from gossiping maids about knights seeking glory in attempts to civilize its people.
Fairlings, free-folk, Wildmen, Imperials such as Mauve and Thomas had given the lawless people north of the wall many names. Merchants, journeymen, hired bounty hunters, or contracted Knights were generally the only people who made business that way, to slay the beasts that lay beyond the wall, or sell their wares in the nearest cites before Thornby Woods. Her own mother frequented those cities and would come back with stories of thoughtless Imperials 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! 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 was sad 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, now he had the makings of a fool. 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, momentarily frustrated, continued with his question. "However, the journey will be long and tiresome and quite a ride from the castle, two months or so – maybe longer if the weather doesn't hold up. Old Patty grows blinder by the day, and it would seem we are in need of a cooks assistant."
She blinked at him with confusion. "I'm afraid I don't understand?"
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 grime 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 you're 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 air 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 unkemptly 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 Rupurt Kenley, Tristans' father, would have let his first heir go anywhere near the border.
Everyone knew how over protective King Rupurt was of his first born, he never seemed to let his son leave the safety of Castle walls without escorts. He was the Kings only eligible heir, and if anything were to happen to him, the Kingdom of Horsettle 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, but the very thought of their potential proximity was almost too much.
"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. The knights speaking their maidens names one last time as they breached the forest.
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.
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 back, 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 months 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.