Happy Valentines Day everyone! ❤ To celebrate I thought I would share chapter 2 from my novel Ashes of Glass. I hope you enjoy!
A Stranger in the Market
People bustle back and forth, their shouts mix with the clatter of horses’ hooves, the braying of donkeys, and the clink of merchandise. On one side of the market, stalls are filled to overflowing with all sorts of dry goods. Beside the textile products, are booths of vegetables and across from those are the fenced in areas with livestock.
I head directly to the textiles. After comparing the prices of different stall owners, I find a set of needles. They are a few coins cheaper than the usual rate which means I am able to buy something extra. Fresh fruit or vegetables would make a delicious dinner and maybe put Lady Durante in a good mood so I might ask her for a new wheelbarrow. Every day I battle to keep the wheel on the old one and there is also a hole developing in the rotted wood.
Before I move to the fresh produce, I stop briefly to pet the horses. Many of them are old plow horses with drooping heads who will be bought for a few coins and used for meat. Poor horses – they worked hard all their lives and this is their reward. But I move on to the fruits and vegetables, it is no use to dwell on the things I cannot change.
One stall has a basket of apples that were preserved in a cellar during the winter. Eying their golden skins, I approach so I might inspect them closely. They are not badly bruised for fall apples and I have just enough money to pay for a dozen of them. I give the burly, red-haired man selling the fruit the last of my coins and carefully place the apples in the basket on my arm. With my errand complete, I stroll towards home. At the corner of an inn, I catch sight of the Captain of the Guard. I know it is him by the gold-colored epaulets upon the shoulders of his uniform. He scans the market from the back of his beautiful chestnut stallion – he seems to be looking for something, or someone.
My attention remains on the Captain of the Guard while I turn the corner into the next street so I notice the oncoming figure too late. We crash into each other, sending apples flying out of my basket and rolling across the cobblestone s.
“Watch where you’re going,” growls a heavyset man. Rudely he shoves me aside and continues on his way, not even pausing to look me in the eye.
Without giving myself a chance to be dazed, I scramble to collect the apples. Within a few seconds the apples are cleared from the street, but what are the chances that they are still good?
“I believe these are yours.”
I look up at the sound of a man’s voice. Three of my apples are held out in his hands while a pair of warm brown eyes look kindly down at me. His hair is a dark shade of brown and although it is combed away from his face, it curls at the ends. An aristocratic nose, full lips, and strong chin make up the remainder of his handsome features.
I must have been gawking because he repeats himself, “Here are your apples.”
Shaking the cobwebs from my head, I hurriedly take the apples, “Thank you, kind sir.” The instant I say the words, I feel my cheeks warm with embarrassment. What is wrong with me? Kind sir? How did those words find themselves upon my tongue?
A smile tugs at the corners of his lips, “It was my pleasure. I hope you are alright and that your apples are not too damaged.”
It takes me a moment to tear my eyes away from him and glance into the basket, “It is nothing a bit of water can’t wash off,” on my last word I gasp. “The needles! They’re gone,” I spin in a circle, desperately searching for the lost items. “No. No. Blast it all, they can’t be gone.” What will I do? I have no more money to pay for new ones, but if I don’t come home with needles Lady Durante will be furious. Perhaps she will cast me out into the street or sell Major or lock me in the cellar and only feed me bread and water for a week.
The stranger lays a hand on my arm to stop my anxious trembling and says, “Please, do not be distressed. The needles can be replaced.” He speaks desperately as if he is afraid my frantic demeanor will attract attention.
“But you see I don’t…”
“I will pay for them.”
“No, that is not necessary.”
“Please, I insist. Come,” he motions towards the market.
I give in and follow him back into the bustling crowd. What else can I do? There is really no other choice except to face the wrath of Lady Durante.
As I walk beside him, I notice he is wearing commoner’s clothes, but they lack the normal wear and tear of everyday peasant garb. He also has a sword at his side upon whose pommel, he casually rests his hand.
“Do you work at the palace?” I ask curiously, hurrying to keep up with his long strides.
He looks sideways at me, “Yes, I do. I guess you could say that my father is teaching me his trade. And you?”
“I live in a chateau just outside the city and my father was a merchant.” What else can I say? I could tell him that I am a common servant, but in a way, I am still a merchant’s daughter.
“Your father is dead then?” he asks gently.
I nod and manage a slight smile.
“I am sorry,” his words sound genuine. “And your mother?”
“She died before my father, when I was ten,” I keep my voice steady, but it hurts to talk about her.
“My mother is dead too,” he says it as a fact, not as a means to gain my sympathy.
“Do you miss her?” The words are spontaneous, I barely think them over before they fall from my lips.
“Yes. Very much. She was the one that seemed to bring order to our home and now it feels like everything is chaos. Especially since father has a difficult time looking passed his grief.” By the way his brows pull together, it seems as if he did not intend to divulge so much information.
“Did your parents love each other?”
“Yes, they did,” his words are soft and his expression is distant.
I smile faintly as memories flood my mind, “My parents did too. When my mother died, my father was heartbroken, but after four years, for my sake, he married again.”
“So you are not entirely alone, then?” His voice carries a note of relief.
I shake my head, “My stepmother dislikes me, but I think that perhaps,” I pause, turning the words over in my mind, “she doesn’t really know how to love me.”
“You say that with such compassion. Why?” He stops so he can look me in the eye.
I also halt, “Because I believe it to be true.” I keep walking and he follows closely, “And you know I am not really alone, I have animal friends.”
The way I said it must have given me away because he looks at me skeptically.
I laugh – he must think I am crazy – and say, “I have a cat named Sissi. Ever since we got her as a kitten, there has not been a single mouse in the kitchens. And I have a beautiful great, gray horse. His name is Major,” I was so engrossed with describing my animal friends that I did not notice the stranger staring at me till I stop for a breath. My cheeks turn warm from embarrassment and I pretend to study the worn ground beneath our feet, “Forgive me, I should not have run on like that.”
He smiles and his brown eyes sparkle, “No, don’t apologize. It sounds wonderful.”
There is no room for either of us to say another word because we reach the stall where I had bought the needles. I am thankful for this, when he smiled so charmingly, for some reason, the breath in my lungs suddenly decided to evacuate.
The lady at the booth eyes us curiously when my rescuer asks for another set of needles, but without a word, she wraps the needles in brown paper. The stranger, who is not so much a stranger now, pays for the needles from a leather purse on his belt and kindly thanks the woman. Then turning with a graceful bow, he holds the package out to me, “Here you are my lady.”
I laugh and take the needles from his hand, “Why thank you, Charming.”
“Actually, my name is Freddie.”
“I think I like Charming. Or maybe the Prince of Charms?”
Amusement flashes across his expression at the name, but he smiles too, “How about Prince Charming?”
“Yes, it suits you.”
Freddie looks around seeming a little lost, like he wants to say more, but can’t find the right words. Finally, he motions to the market, “Do you care to look around with me?”
“Yes, I’d like that,” I reply, knowing in the back of my mind that it is a bad idea.
As we stroll through the busy market casually looking at the goods displayed, we converse together. I learn that he is an only child since three days after the birth of his younger brother, both mother and child died from the fever. He also tells me some details of his father and his father’s fascination with elephants. Although Freddie dubs it as an odd interest to have, he does not scorn it. Many people would treat this unordinary appeal to a foreign animal with contempt, but Freddie discusses it as if it is completely normal and at times he even makes the strange, large animals sound intriguing.
In turn, I tell him of Lady Durante and her two daughters – of Josette’s needlework and Marielle’s singing. I portray them with only a small measure of their unkindness and silliness – careful not to overdo it – yet he does not mock them. I have seen the Durante’s ridiculed behind their backs by nobles and commoners alike. But even if Freddie does think little of them, he does not say so or allow it to show upon his face. It makes me admire his character more every minute I spend with him. He is not like other men I have met, there seems to be something more to him; yet, it is hard to say exactly what.
Eventually we wander over to the animals and are discussing one of the heavy horses when the clock tower in the nearby town square chimes four o’clock. With a start, I realize that I should be home already, preparing the evening meal.
“I have to go,” I say and spin on my heel, dread filling me. I will never obtain a new wheelbarrow if supper is late.
“Wait!” Freddie’s voice shouts urgently. I stop – he has been so kind, it would be rude to leave like this.
As he hurries forward towards me, he calls, “I don’t even know your name. How will I find you?”
Before I have time to think, my heart says, “Arella. My name is Arella.”
He hesitates as if he is playing my name over in his mind. I begin to turn again – as charming as he is, if I value my home, I have to leave now.
Freddie notices my movement and jumps in front of me, “Do you like riding?”
His question catches me by surprise so it takes me a moment to sputter out an answer, “Yes, I do. Very much.”
“Would you…? I mean…”
I smile at his flustered state, “Yes?”
He grins bashfully at his stuttering, takes a deep breath, then says with every bit of charm, “Would you do me the honor of riding with me in the Great Forest?”
Again he startles me and it is my turn to stumble over my words, “I… Yes. Yes, I would love to.” What am I getting myself into? Lady Durante would never approve. But then again, when has she ever approved of anything I do?
“How about tomorrow?” Freddie suggests.
“Tomorrow?” Tomorrow is wash day, but I can’t say no. What if another day doesn’t work for him? “Tomorrow sounds wonderful.”
“Till tomorrow then.”
“Perhaps two o’clock?” I ask, biting my lower lip.
In agreement, he says, “At King Albert’s Oak?”
I nod, seeing a picture in my mind of the great tree.
He slowly backs away, “Goodbye, Arella.”
I lift my hand in a wave, “Goodbye, Prince Charming.”
Freddie turns and I remember the meal needing preparation. Spinning, I clutch my basket tightly against myself and hurry home.
* * * * *
Wistfully I watch Arella’s golden curls disappear between the market crowds. Part of me wants to go after her just so I can see her blue eyes once more, but I know that would be foolish – it would probably just scare her away.
Turning, I start towards the town square. It was strange the way our conversation had flowed so smoothly, like we were old friends. At first, it was impossible to pull my eyes away from her face – her wide, sky-blue eyes were so innocent, her smile so genuine. And now that she is gone, I can only think of tomorrow when God willing, I will see her again.
“You know you’re getting a little too old to play hide-and-go-seek.”
I stop dead in my tracks, I was so busy thinking about Arella, I did not even think to keep out of sight.
“You cheated,” I turn to face the horse and rider, “You didn’t wait till I was hidden.”
The Captain of the Guard beckons for my horse to be brought forward, “You know the Grand Duke is furious, right?”
I take my horse’s reins and mount, “You’d think he’d be used to it by now. He knows I hate staying cooped up in the palace, suffering through all those long, boring meetings.”
“Tell you what, Prince Friederic,” Antonio grins at the glare I send his way when he says my formal name, “After you have escaped the clutches of the Grand Duke, I will spar with you.”
“Challenge accepted,” I reply, knowing that when I escape the clutches of the Grand Duke, might not be for another week.
Antonio smirks, “What would you do without me?”
“Well for one, I would become fat since everyone else is afraid to fight with me and two… Well, I probably would spend a lot more time away from the palace.”
With a dry laugh, Antonio urges his horse into a trot. Soon we are within the walls of the palace and footmen swarm around us. Dismounting, I send Antonio a semi-pleading expression. I ask him every time if he will invent some important task for me that will keep me busy for the remainder of the day. Once I almost had him convinced to let me do official drills with the guards, a task I regularly oversee. But in the end, he always makes me face the Grand Duke. It’s not that I’m afraid of the Grand Duke, it’s just that I hate it when he speaks to me like I am a child, like I am beneath him. He is Father’s advisor, his right hand, and has done wonders for our country, but in his eyes, I am still a boy in need of discipline.
Antonio lifts his hands, palms towards me, “Absolutely not. I have no desire to get on the Grand Duke’s bad side.”
“Great friend you are,” I reply wryly, looking towards the palace doors with dread. Last time I went off into the city and got caught doing it, the Grand Duke gave me a sore ear with his speech. Some days I am convinced he thinks I am eleven instead of twenty-one.
Deciding to just get it over and done with, I stride up the front steps and enter the palace. On my way down the carpeted hall, I distract myself with thoughts of Arella. Perhaps I am being foolish for thinking about her – just because she has a pretty face doesn’t mean she also has a beautiful character. And besides, once she discovers I am a prince her attitude towards me will change. It’s how it always goes – when women learn who I am, all they see is my wealth.
I sigh as I draw near to the Great Hall, some days I wish I was a born a poor man rather than a prince.