Peach was everything a princess is supposed to be. She was pretty and smart, and she looked good in pink. Her eyes were big and blue, her nose was small and cute, and her long, honey-colored hair kicked up in flares that framed her heart-shaped face.
Peach's mother had passed away when she was a small girl, so her father, the ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom, lavished all his attention on the young princess. Nothing was too good for his little girl. Her tutors were all famous professors from the illustrious Mushroom University. Her riding coaches were former winners of the Toadstool Cup Championship. Her governess, an elderly mushroom maid, taught her everything she needed to know in order to become a perfect lady. Peach toured the kingdom annually with Toadsworth, the court's High Magician. Everywhere she went, her father's subjects would come out of their mushroom houses and throw flowers at her feet. Everyone loved the princess, yet she remained sweet and gentle.
When Peach reached her sixteenth year, she was given more freedom to roam around the castle. Her family's ancestral home was ancient and vast, with many secret passageways and hidden chambers. Some rooms were filled with magic, and opening their doors would lead to strange and interesting places. One room was filled with snow and an ice city that glimmered like crystal. Another door opened onto a vast sea, with the ruins of a half-sunken tower visible on the horizon. Peach couldn't wait until she came of age. Not only would she ascend the throne to rule alongside her father, but she would also begin magic lessons with Toadsworth.
That was still a few years away, so for the time being Peach contented herself with exploring the lower portion of the castle, where the servants lived and worked. In contrast to the starry ceilings and glittering chandeliers of the upper palace, the rooms near the castle's foundation had a closer and warmer feel. The narrow hallways were fragrant with the scent of fresh laundry and the aroma of the food being prepared in the great kitchens. Whenever the princess descended to visit, she would always be greeted fondly and given sweets. Since it was lonely in the lofty halls above, Peach found her way into the servant's quarters more and more as she grew older.
One evening, after an important meeting with a visiting nobleshroom, Peach headed down into the kitchens to search for leftovers. Even though the audience had been catered, Peach had hardly eaten a thing. Her father had done most of the talking, but Peach was nervous about her role as a princess and had tried bravely to keep up with the half-spoken innuendos tossed back and forth over the dinner table. As soon as the meeting was adjourned, she realized that her nervousness had not dulled her appetite. On her way through the twisting passageways of the lower castle, she happened to notice a clammy, wet smell. Following her nose to its source, she came upon a small door opening onto a set of mossy steps.
Ever curious, Peach stepped across the threshold and made her way carefully down the staircase, trailing her hand along the damp stone wall. After a few twists and turns, she entered a vast chamber filled with enormous metal pipes. Kneeling in the light thrown by a lantern set on the floor was a young man wearing blue overalls, work boots, and a faded red shirt. He appeared to be scrutinizing a set of diagrams spread out on the floor in front of him. He was mumbling softly to himself.
"Excuse me…" Peach ventured.
"Ah!" The young man, startled, sprang to his feet, overturning the lantern at his side. The flame dimmed for a brief moment before he caught hold of the lantern and stood up, getting his first good look at his visitor. "Princess!"
"Who are you? What are you doing here? What is this place?" asked Peach, looking around in amazement.
"Ah, um," he stammered, suddenly aware of his uncouth appearance.
"What is your name?"
"My name is Mario, Your Highness. I'm the son of the plumber who engineered the castle pipes."
Peach gazed at the young man. He was still skinny with youth, but his arms and shoulders spoke of strength and endurance. His hands were big and awkward, and his black hair hung untidily around his face. He had a prominent nose, but it looked handsome on his round, boyish face. The shadow of a beard tinged his cheeks and jaw. His eyes were dark blue, like the night sky. He stood there bashfully, waiting for an approving response. Peach blushed and looked away.
"I wasn't aware that the castle had so many pipes. What are they here for?" Indeed, they were a sight to behold. They were fashioned out of a metallic substance that shone green in the lamplight. Some of them looked big enough to crawl into.
"Well, you see," Mario started, pleased to have found a subject he could easily discuss, "we're right up under the kitchen here, right? Well, these pipes serve the kitchen. Some of them bring in water from the river upstream, and others dump the kitchen waste into the river downstream. There are other pipes in other parts of the castle too, you know. Some control the level of the water in the castle moat, and some take care of, uh," he paused, "other types of waste. You know."
Peach didn't know, but she had a vague idea. "And your father built these?" she asked.
"Well, um," Mario stammered, overcome with a sudden modesty, "my dad designed them, and a whole slew of people helped to build them. This is before I was born, of course. Now they've all gotten old and leaky," he gestured with the lantern, throwing light onto the pipe maze, "so my old man sent me and my brother to make repairs."
"Your brother? Is he in there? Right now?" Peach pointed toward the pipes.
"In… there? Oh, no!" Mario replied, laughing. "He got hungry and decided to go upstairs to get something to eat."
Peach was charmed by Mario. She was charmed by his lowtown accent, by his arcane knowledge, and, most of all, by his deep blue eyes, which danced in the flickering light.
"I was just about to get something to eat myself. Would you mind accompanying me?" she asked, grinning.
"The pleasure is all mine." This time Mario blushed and looked away.