Tessa stood in the kitchen watching Marta bake. Marta carefully continued, her hands sure, her eyes on her work. Finally she set down the dough she had been working on.
"Is there nothing you would rather be doing?" she pushed her hair out of her eyes, smearing corn flour across her forehead.
Tessa leaned on the counter, peering over Marta's shoulder. "Not really – is that too much flour?"
"No. The flour is fine. Is there a reason you are bothering me so?" She turned her age-old eyes on Tessa, calmly.
"To irritate you," Tessa shrugged. "Is there going to be sugar in this?"
"Not anymore," said Marta, firmly. "Why don't you go into town?"
"Well I'm going to," said Tessa, impatiently, "as soon as you're done baking. Are you almost done?"
"To see the doctor," Marta nodded. "I see."
"You don't see," Tessa countered, hastily. "What's there to see? There's nothing… to see…" She sighed.
"He doesn't care for Tessa Alvarado," said Marta, patiently. "He cares for her: the Queen of Swords." She went back to kneading dough. "You know, he has been spending a great deal of time with Mariah Delgado."
"Mariah Delgado? Alejandro's daughter? She's been sick a lot."
"She looked as healthy as a horse to me." Marta's eyes never left her work.
"Well then, she's a flirtatious little minx. Doctor Helm would never fall for…"
"You are thinking about Camilla?" Marta guessed. "His former fiancée-"
"Who he left for me," interrupted Tessa.
"For the Queen." Marta's voice was quiet but steady. "You have seen how happy he looks when a beautiful woman smiles at him. I am not saying he does not love the Queen-"
"No," said Tessa. "You are saying he should not love the Queen."
"I am not saying that either." Marta sighed.
There was a pause then: "well, perhaps you should." She looked down. "Maybe he would be happier without her."
"I do not know that that is true," said Marta, kindly, stroking Tessa's face with her flour-covered hands. "I am just saying that perhaps you should give love a second chance as well. It is spring - the time of rebirth. If you could just bring yourself to look around at a few of the gentlemen-"
"And which of these gentlemen has ever held my interest? And if you say Grisham I'll kill you." Tessa sighed, hard.
"There," said Marta. "Almost done. Then we can go to town."
"Don't bother," sighed Tessa, unhappily. "I've no interest in going to town today. Or tomorrow for that matter." She rubbed her side where the Queen had received a bad bruise. "Just don't bother."
"Tessa," Marta began. But just then there came a loud knock on the back door.
Tessa turned her eyes on her loyal servant. "Marta?" she raised an eyebrow.
Marta nodded. "I'll see to it."
She disappeared around the corner, and headed for the back door. A few moments later she returned, bringing a man with her.
"Senorita, this young man wants food. What should I do?" Marta's face was calm and unreadable. Tessa's was not. She gaped.
The young man in question was about six feet tall, with dark brown hair, almost black, that clung to his head in polished ringlets, and deep, deep brown eyes, that despite their slanted twist, were full and shining. His coffee-colored lips were curved in a small, mischievous smile, and his strong, stubble-covered jaw was smudge with dirt. Truthfully, most of him was smudged with dirt. From his peasant clothes to his bare feet, he was coated in dust, which did nothing to diminish his innate beauty.
Something about his face made a part of her believe she could trust him with her deepest secrets – with her life, and a part of her believe she couldn't trust him with a hair ribbon. Tessa hurried to pull herself together.
"Yes, of course Marta, get him some food and drink. Do you have any of those delicious cookies left?"
"I'll see what I can do," said Marta, making her way to the pantry.
"Thank you, senorita..." He raised his eyebrows daring her to tall him her name.
"Alvarado," Tessa answered with an incline of her head. "Tessa Alvarado."
"Ahh…" he nodded, as though tasting the name – memorizing it. "I am Nicademo. Do you live here all by yourself?" He looked taken aback at the idea.
"Along with Marta, the servants, and the farm hands – yes." Tessa tried to keep a cool demeanor about her. She could wear more than one kind of mask.
"You don't have to pretend around me," encouraged the young man. "I am safe." He gave her a… smile. It was hard to put a finger on why it was so comforting, and warm – perhaps because it was so unguarded, and kind – but Tessa suddenly felt so relieved at the feeling of being able to be herself, that for a moment she forgot that it was only a stranger's word that had released her.
She tried to pull together the scraps of her mask as well as her dignity. "I never would have thought you were not, senor - but what of you? Where are you from?"
He looked down, as though he didn't really want to answer the question, then looked slowly back up. "A long way from here. You?"
"The same." She drew herself up and smiled, and he did the same. They exchanged the next few words while each was trying to stand taller than the other.
"Let me guess," said Tessa lifting her heels off the ground, "You are the father of…?"
"No one you have heard of," said Nicademo, doing the same. "He is dead." His eyes held the same dull, grey pain that Tessa knew so well.
"Then we are alike." Tessa went up onto her toes. "And my mother is gone as well."
"And so is mine," Nicademo rose onto the balls of his feet. "Though I do not remember her. I am told she was a good woman."
"As am I." Tessa looked around for a moment, then grabbed a chair, climbing on top of it. "on a cheerier note, I love blackberries, apples, and Marta's home cooking."
Nicademo glanced around the room, and grabbed another chair, scrambling atop it like a splendid monkey. "I have never tried blackberries, but I love apples, and I am about to sample Marta's cooking for myself. I am sure it is exquisite. I love fighting, and running, and dancing, though I am terrible at it."
"I'm sure I've never had to fight or run far, but I" Tessa looked around irritably, then seized on the table, climbing on top of it, and bending down so her head wouldn't hit the ceiling, "adore dancing, and am quite good at it."
"Are you sure about that," he asked mischievously, joining her on the table. He had to bend over almost double to avoid the ceiling. "Perhaps the people who watch you dance just say that because you are so beautiful." He was grinning, and his eyes were twinkling softly.
Somehow, Tessa was unsure what to say. She had been complimented all her life, but this - this impish peasant, who actually seemed to mean the things he said? This was new.
He leaned slightly closer to her... Then slightly closer…
Marta entered, carrying a bundle of food in her arms, and two things happened at once. Firstly, Tessa Alvarado pulled away, and fell off the table. Secondly, Nicademo threw himself from the table, wrapping his arms around Tessa and pulling her on top of him.
There was a thud as the two hit the floor, and Marta looked up. "Tessa!" she dropped the food she was carrying and ran to her mistress' side.
Tessa pulled back to look at the peasant man beneath her, then climbed off of him, quickly "Are you alright? Your head-"
"I have never felt better," he said with a smile. "Tessa Alvarado," he climbed to his feet, "I have decided that you are going to fall in love with me." He gave her a sweet, cocky grin.
"I," said Tessa, still trying to see the back of his head, "think that's up to fate."
"He grinned at her before darting out the door. "Then call me 'Fate'."