Despite its cheery atmosphere and flora-filled environment, Zephyr Town was a town of secrets. Mostly harmless secrets, of course: Isaac would sometimes sneak downstairs in the wee hours of the morning to finish off the cake his wife had baked the night before, for example; Raul lusted after Marian to the point that it almost embarrassed the other villagers; Kevin always pretended to wash his hands before dinner, and his mother had yet to notice that his chubby palms were less than sparkling clean.
And then, of course, there were darker, more interesting secrets. Marian had had an unpleasant—to say the least—experience with a boy back in the city, and he was the reason for her life in the village. The newcomer Amir was a prince, unbeknownst to most of the townspeople. And Anita the farmer raked in a nice profit each bazaar day by selling liquor under the table.
She wasn't vending cheap moonshine; no, this booze came in a variety of flavors and high-quality brews. Beer, mead, champagne, flavored wine—name it, and Anita would already have it on hand and ready to sell it, no questions, don't tell your parents where you got it. On her rather large stand at the bazaar, she rang her little bell for the farmers and nosy neighbor types to eat up her almost overpriced pineapples or fruit yogurt, but if you knew a guy who knew a guy who knew about Anita, all you had to do was give her a subtle nod and 1160 yen, if you wanted something cheap, or sixty hundred if you were of a more refined palate.
Felix couldn't believe how much the small farm was bringing home, and how well it meant the bazaar was doing. Because his town was benefiting from Anita's labors, and because he was a rather small-minded man, he didn't bother to look into the source of Anita's gold. Surely no one was willing to pay so much for herb mayonnaise, which was frankly a little too greasy-sweet for anyone to stomach in large doses. The only one who showed any interest in Anita's winnings was Amir, but since Anita held the knowledge of his being a prince as potential blackmail material, he hadn't seemed to dig into the matter.
And so Anita kept making a tidy profit, Amir kept his mouth shut, and the bazaar continued to thrive.
The windmill had shuddered to a halt hours ago, and Anita had only just returned from visiting Freya. By her calculations, the latest batch of blueberry wine should have been ready by now. She glanced up at the stationary windmill and frowned. Clearly, this was a problem. She couldn't ask Wilbur to come over when half-fermented liquor was still being processed, lest he need to open up the processing chamber and discover where all her money was coming from.
Or maybe he wouldn't. This town was remarkably lax on authoritative measures and inquiries. Felix hadn't even questioned her criminal history—tax evasion—when she'd applied for ownership of the run-down farm. In fact, she doubted he'd even read her application, just snapped her up as soon as he'd received the packet of papers. Not many people were interested in a shabby ranch in a dying town, after all.
Anita smirked to herself as she tightened her gloves and began inspecting the windmill mechanism. Setting up this little liquor operation had almost been too easy. It wasn't so much that she craved a challenge or enjoyed doing the forbidden—she simply liked being in control of a situation, like being an agricultural region's sole supplier of decent liquor. It was why she'd enjoyed bringing the ratty—and rat-infested—farm to life the way she had.
"Need some help?"
Anita spun around, clutching her hand to her heart in surprise. Amir stood in the open doorway of her windmill, surveying her with an amused half-smile.
"You never visit, Amir," Anita said crisply, trying to regain some of the cool that he'd startled out of her. "What's the matter?"
He invited himself in, glancing around the mechanisms as he did so. "I noticed the windmill on your farm had stopped from my hotel room," he explained. "I was worried you hadn't noticed, so I came over to offer my assistance."
"Yeah, well, it's perfectly taken care of," Anita replied, looking the cogs and pumps over herself. "Thanks for your concern, but I noticed, too."
"Did you figure out the problem?"
"What?" She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. "No, not yet. But I will. It can't be too complicated, right?"
"You should ask Wilbur to help if you're confused," Amir said. "I'm sure it's a problem he could easily fix."
"No, you know me. I like to fix things by myself."
Amir gave her a long look, one that made her uncomfortable. It was a searching look, a dubious look. She bristled.
"I do," she said emphatically.
"Of course," he said, so calmly that Anita knew he didn't believe her. "Let's take a look at the processing chamber. That's usually where the problem lie—something getting stuck, or—"
Anita darted in front of him. "No," she said flatly. "I have something fermenting in there. I don't want the air to get to it."
"If there's a problem with the windmill that checking out the—"
Amir folded his arms over his chest, irritation and suspicion glittering in his eyes. "It's not like you to be this…tenacious," he said. Tenacious was obviously the politest word he'd chosen.
"Yes, it is."
He raised an ice-colored eyebrow. "What are you hiding, Anita?" he asked quietly.
"I'm not hiding anything," she said, just as softly and sternly.
"Whatever's in there isn't going to ferment properly as long as the windmill isn't working," he argued.
"Thanks for offering to help, Amir," Anita said instead. "I think I can handle it from here." She turned her back on him pointedly, pretending to poke about the mechanisms. She continued the charade until she heard footsteps leave the premises. She whipped around when she was positive he was gone and opened the processing chamber. The problem was immediately apparent. Amidst the slush of half-fermented blueberries and grapes, a huge wad of blueberry-grape was caught between two pumps, preventing them from moving up and down. Anita groped about in her rucksack for her retractable sickle, then slid the scythe between the pumps. The offending gob of fruity goo removed, the pumps began working at their usual speed, and Anita could hear the windmill churning again. She leaned back from the chamber with satisfaction.
Someone gasped behind her. She whirled around for the second time that day to find Amir peering in yet again. His eyes were fixated on the open processing chamber, and she slammed it shut, heart racing.
"Can I help you?" she bit out.
Amir's surprised gaze moved to meet her eyes. "Did I just see what I think I saw?"
"It's tea," she snapped.
Amir gave her a disappointed look before turning and leaving once more. She raced out after him.
"You didn't see anything, Amir," she called after him. He didn't move. Raising her voice, she yelled, "I meant to say, Prince Amir Ranjit Raj Singh!"
He glanced back at her once before continuing down the hill.
The next day heralded the beginning of fall, and Amir visited her farm to say goodbye. If she stared a little too intensely into his eyes and gripped his hand a little harder when they shook hands farewell, neither of them mentioned it.
The entire season, Anita slept a little easier, knowing Amir was far away. Fall was always a good bazaar season for her. Though her basement greenhouse always ensured a stock of grapes was at hand, her natural grape vines flourished in the sunshine and high-quality fertilizer she caked the plants with. Her attention was focused a little more on the upkeep of so many vines, but she still made sure to take care of her herds of animals and orchards of fruit trees to cover up her little hobby. Felix was pleased with her work, and she was making plans to add a second floor to her house when the season ended and Amir came back with the winter chill.
Winter was a difficult season enough, Amir's presence notwithstanding. Her sole source of honest income lay in her animals, and she no longer had the seasonal fruits and herbs to make her famous yogurt and cheeses, as her greenhouse was devoted entirely to grapes and apples. Covering up her side gig at the bazaar was always hardest in the winter, and Amir's suspicions were going to make it even harder.
"It's good to see you again," Amir greeted her bright and early the first of winter.
Anita's answering smile was less than warm. "The same to you, Amir."
They observed each other with growing awkwardness until Amir turned to go.
"Why don't you come over for dinner tonight?" Anita blurted out.
"I think it would be nice to have a little chat," Anita said, sugary-sweet. "We should catch up, after your long trip away."
Amir gave a slow nod. "I think we have some catching up to do, too," he answered.
She waved goodbye as he walked down the path of her ranch. She noticed he gave her sign a long look, and when she later went to check it out herself, she realized a change was in order. No good trying to barter with the man when her farm's name was written in painted grapevines. She'd grown bold, apparently.
She was busy repainting when Amir showed up around seven o'clock.
"Needed a change?" he asked, pointing to the sign.
"Needed a change," she agreed. The farm's name was written in plain gold, outlined in even plainer black. "Winter called for a more somber sign."
She beckoned him inside and seated him at the dining table. "Dinner will be just a minute. I need to add some finishing touches first." Anita headed into the kitchen, which already smelled deliciously of cooked carrots and shiitake. The wonderful aromas only increased as she removed the lid from the pot of simmering stew just enough to add some homemade sake.
Once it seemed done, she turned off the heat and scooped two bowls of the stuff. Balancing the two on one arm with a basket of fresh bread on the other, she made her grand entrance into the main room. With a sarcastic flourish, she plopped Amir's bowl in front of him. It was only after she'd seated herself and had a spoonful of soup in one hand that she realized Amir hadn't touched his meal.
"Something wrong?" Anita asked, almost genuinely concerned. If she wanted this evening to go smoothly, the most she could afford was that he enjoyed dinner.
"I'm sure it can't be coincidence, but…" Amir met her gaze suspiciously. "Stew is my favorite thing to eat. Did you know?"
She laughed awkwardly. Now he really knew she was trying to butter him up, and she hadn't even intended to be so obvious. "No, I didn't," Anita said truthfully. "Stew is just such a good winter dish that I barely even thought about it. Well, obviously I wanted to make something nice," she backtracked, seeing his mildly offended look, "but you know what, I'm going to shut up. I'm glad it's your favorite. Hope you like it."
Amir did seem to enjoy it, saying little but savoring each bite. Anita was finished long before he was. Towards the bottom of his bowl, however, he made a face.
"Is that sake I taste?"
Anita flushed. "I guess it didn't cook down all the way."
"From the premises, I assume," he said, raising an eyebrow.
She tilted her chin at him. Why not be brave and get right to the point? "Yes, it is. Are you finished?"
"I am. Thank you. It was a nice welcome-back gift."
As she began clearing the table, she made a mental note to let the stew cook for a bit longer. "The evening's not over yet, my friend," she said from the kitchen, stumbling over the forced endearment. "Stay for dessert, why don't you?"
"I'd be glad to, thank you." She heard the switch from his casual dinnertime tone to a stiff, more formal one and knew he'd be ready for discussion. She smiled.
Anita came out of the kitchen once more, this time bearing a plate of stewed apples, two wineglasses and a bottle. She noticed his gaze stray to the wine and she grinned. She wiggled the bottle in front of him. "I assume this is why you're here?" she teased, trying his temper.
To his credit, Amir didn't rise to the bait. "I came because you invited me," he responded coolly.
"Of course." Anita set the bottle, plate and glasses down. "You remember this wine, I hope? It's the blueberry I was working on when the windmill got clogged. It's made with Muscat grapes, so it should complement the apple dessert nicely."
"I see," he said indifferently, but she noticed he didn't refuse a glass.
"Dessert wines are one of my most popular bottles," she began conversationally. "The people in these parts usually just drink the swill that the local crappy vineyard offers and don't even realize that there's a whole world of drink to explore. When they discover the exquisite sweetness of a dessert wine, especially one as high quality as the kind I sell, they immediately become loyal customers. Their dinners are fancier, their palates a little happier, and I have a new best buddy each week."
"What's your point, Anita?" Amir interrupted.
Anita smiled and took a sip. Sweet, only mildly acidic. Delicious, as always. "My point, dear Amir, is that my little side business is only illegal because I don't have a liquor license, and where am I supposed to get one in this tiny little town? The city is too far away for my farm to get to. Now—"
"Joan has a liquor license," Amir pointed out.
Anita glared. "May I finish?" He gestured for her to continue. "Thank you. Now, if you turn me in to Felix, I lose a lot of business, boohoo. But a large majority of people in close counties and even this little village will be out for your neck, not to mention miserable."
"There also is the little detail about your secret princedom," Anita said a little louder. For a member of the royal family, polite prince Amir sure was fond of interrupting people. "Now, I know Felix is the only person besides myself who knows. But imagine how inconvenient that would be for you if that secret got out."
"Anita, I'm not looking to turn you in," Amir finally cut in.
Anita blinked. "Run that by me again?"
Amir leaned back in his chair with a little smile. "At least, that isn't my main goal. If you cause me trouble like you're threatening to, then yes, I certainly will. But no, my dear, turning you in isn't on the top of my agenda."
"Oh," Anita exhaled. "Well, that sure is a load off my chest. Guess I invited you over for nothing."
His smile grew. "That was rather unfriendly to say."
Anita only shrugged. "What can I say? I was worried that was what you were out to get done."
Amir laughed at her brazenness, but soon his features grew stern. "That doesn't mean I won't turn you in if you don't hear me out."
Back came the worry. "What do you want?"
"I want a cut of the profits."
Anita laughed, disbelieving. "No way."
"No way as in no, or no way you don't believe me?"
"No way both ways. You're a prince. You're filthy rich. I don't see why you need hush money."
Amir's eyes narrowed. "The prince thing is part of the problem. I'm looking to renounce my claims to the throne."
Anita whistled. "That's some serious political trouble you're gonna get yourself in, kiddo."
He gave her a sharp look. "That's why I need money. I'll lose access to my funds once my father realizes I'm serious and disowns me. I'll need money, and if you want me to keep your secret, I'd appreciate the, as you called it, 'hush money.'"
Anita grinned. "So you're in my debt more and more."
"Not really, since I want half the profits."
"Don't think so, Disillusioned Prince. That's a lot of money for me to give up."
He shrugged again. "You either lose half your funds, or you lose your entire way of life."
"And you agree to my answer of 'no' unless you want everyone at the bazaar told of a prince with a dark past and a darker, renounced-ier future."
Amir stared her down. It didn't work.
"I see we're at an impasse," Anita said more dramatically than needed.
Amir seemed to accept it. "Indeed. There must be a way we can work this out."
Anita chewed her lip. "I can think of one solution, but you're not going to like it."
"Then we might as well reject it now before we waste any more breath."
"No, no, hear me out," Anita insisted. "Look, clearly I can't just give you half my profits…"
She ignored him. "But perhaps we can work out a deal for our deal. I'm going to need to work even harder to make up for my lost profits to you. The bazaar is depending on me, and I want a house expansion. I don't think I can work that hard on my own. How about you work part-time on my farm? Since you won't be locked in your hotel all day studying, you can spend the extra time telling everyone that you're studying agribusiness for home by working hands-on. That way, you'll really be earning the profits instead of just stealing them from me."
Amir frowned. "You're right. I don't like it. Forgive me."
"Oh, come on. You just don't like the thought of manual labor."
"I've never done a day's work in my life," he said imperiously.
"So it'll be good for you. It'll be an experience. Then you'll have enough saved up so you can properly shame your father."
Amir seemed to be considering it, and she leapt upon his weakness.
"You'll get stew for lunch as often as you'd like," she tempted him.
"That's true," he muttered to himself.
Anita sipped her wine as he debated the issue. Fortunately, the wineglass covered her self-important smirk.
"Fine," he finally agreed, and held out his hand.
"Half the profits, and I'll see you at work at six AM tomorrow," she said cheerfully. She reached over the table and grasped his darker hand, and as they shook, a partnership was struck.
AN: There'll probably be at least one more chapter, if not two more. Thanks for reading, and I hope you review!