Starting yet another story - which I probably shouldn't be working on. But! I couldn't help it, so here you go. It's an AU, but I hope you guys like it anyway.

Paradise Lost

The Pauper & the Princess

Chapter I

The city of István was veiled in an illusion of safety.

A young man in a white overcoat walked the icy cobble streets. He blew out a cloud of frozen air and glanced at the sky.

"... it's almost dark."

Rákóczi Avenue was crowded with shops and various establishments, their bright lights reflecting on fresh snow. From nearby - a group of early drunks stumbled out of a bar, roaring with laughter. They were rather noisy, so Abel was careful to avoid them.

"Maybe I should just skip this town - "

"Get out of my way! Move!"

"!?"

A thick arm shoved Abel into a snowbank and a large man hurried past him.

"Idiot! Don't linger in the street!"

"S-sorry... I didn't mean... I'll be careful next time..."

But the man never heard the apology, his thick frame disappearing around a building.

Abel carefully got to his feet, picking up his travel suitcase and brushing snow from his coat. Not far away, the sound of voices carried into the street. A small boy in a cap had been cornered by the group from the bar. It sounded like they were arguing over money...

"I don't owe you anything!"

The boy glared at the four men harassing him.

"I'm not paying you! I didn't break your stupid liquor bottle! You dropped it on purpose!"

"What'd you say?"

One of the men grabbed him by the collar. The boy squirmed, like a small animal caught in the claws of a large predator.

"Are you back talking us? Callin' us liars? You'd better apologize brat!" The bearded man gave the boy a firm shake. "If you beg forgiveness and hand over all your money, my friends and I just might let you off easy for insultin' us."

"Thugs!"

The man's face turned a blotchy red. He raised his fist to strike the boy's face.

"Damn street kid! I'll teach you some respect!"

" - can I ask a question?"

The man paused at the lukewarm voice.

"Sorry to bother you. But I'm new to this city and a bit lost. Could you give me directions?"

"..."

No one spoke. And the boy used the momentary distraction to kick his captor's stomach. It didn't hurt, but the unexpected attack was enough for the man let go in surprise.

"Hey! Get back here!"

The bearded man's shout was unnecessary though. The boy had already been caught - however, it wasn't the other three men who stopped him, but the young traveler with silver hair. Abel gazed down at the boy with innocent confusion.

"Please wait a moment... do you know where to find a cheap hotel? I don't have a lot of money and this city looks dangerous... I want to find a safe place to hide."

"I-I don't know!"

The boy tried to shake off his hand in his effort to escape, his face stricken with panic.

"Hey, give us that kid."

The bearded man stepped forward to grab boy again.

"We're busy. Go ask direction elsewhere."

"I really am sorry. I promise it won't take very long. By the way, I'm Abel. I recently traveled to this - ow!"

The boy elbowed him in the side. Abel let go, and he turned to make a run for it.

"Fool! Get out of here!"

Abel watched the boy's scarf ripple in the wind, then turned, his eyes widening at the sight of the numerous bloodthirsty faces staring at him. He gave a dry smile and held up his hands in a gesture of peace.

"Uh... please don't be concerned. It's only a minor bruise. I'm not seriously hurt so..."

" - Kill them!"

"Eh? K-kill us? No, wait! Let's not use violence... ah! Please don't hit me!"

Abel staggered back as one man picked up a metal pipe and swung it at him.

"This... why did this suddenly happen?!"

He sank at the waist, the pipe missing his head by centimeters. If not for the quick response, his skull would have split open. Not wasting time - Abel turned to follow the boy's example and run.

"Please wait! I'm coming too!"

"You won't get away!"

Heavy footsteps pounded against cobblestone as the group chased Abel through the large intersection where Rákóczi Avenue and Kiskörút met. They were surprisingly fast for drunks, and Abel desperately looked for the boy, but no doubt he wouldn't risk staying after such a dangerous encounter.

Hugging his travel suitcase in both arms, Abel jumped over a large ice puddle, landing like a cat before sprinting forward.

From behind him, there was muffled shouts followed by angry cursing. Abel risked a glance then ran faster. He didn't have much time. They were still to close. He had to get away now before they recovered and -

A voice cut through the frozen city. Like an angel leading a lost child through the darkness.

"Hurry! This way!"

Abel glimpsed a small figure and turned to follow him into a narrow alley. The boy lead him through the passages with familiar ease. The alleys were like a labyrinth, but the confidence of his companion assured Abel they wouldn't get lost. Garbage crunched under his boots and the sounds from the street faded. They boy lead him through several twists and turns, jumping over trashcans and avoiding ice patches. His small frame bled into the shadows, and Abel stayed close to avoid losing him.

(Where are we going...?)

They took a sudden turn into a wide alley. A chain-link fence blocked their path, but the boy didn't hesitate. He climbed the fence effortlessly, landing on the other side with the soft crunch of snow before running ahead. Abel tossed over his suitcase, then scrambled to the top with graceless enthusiasm. As he prepared to jump, his boot caught on the fence. With a sharp cry, Abel fell to the ground in a pathetic flop.

"..."

"Are you hurt?"

The boy backtracked his steps and helped Abel to his feet. Shoulders slumped, Abel miserably brushed snow from silvery bangs.

"I... I think I'm alright."

The boy nodded seriously before pointing to the alley's opening that lead into the street.

"This is Váci street of inner city Pest. It's a safe area and there are a few cheap hotels where you can stay tonight."

Abel look at the boy in shock. The scarf and cap hid most of his anxious face, but eyes reminiscent of lapis lazuli looked between the alley buildings at a sky dyed red by sunset. Abel opened his mouth, about to thank him, but was interrupted.

"You should be safe here. I have to go now, so..."

"No! Please wait!"

Abel tried to gab the boy's arm, but his hand caught the tail-end of a scarf. It fell away as the cloth was tugged loose. His mouth fell open.

"Y-you are - !"

A familiar face stared accusingly at him from under a deerstalker cap. Although he didn't know this individual personally, it was impossible not to recognize the white face and tea-red hair. Princess Esther - daughter of Crown Prince Gilbert and grandchild of Queen Brigitte II of Albion.

He vaguely remembered overhearing, while on the train from Krakov, that she was on a diplomatic visit with the Marquis of Hungary. Abel stepped back, dread crawling through his veins like ice. He suddenly wished he'd skipped town when he still had the chance...

Because, if there was one thing he knew, trouble followed royalty like the plague.

Fussing over her clothes, Esther seemed unconcerned by his reaction. Adjusting the scarf around her neck, she turned to Abel.

"I apologize for my earlier deception, but it's important no one knows I'm outside the Marquis' estate right now."

She gestured with a hand to the area around them.

"Certain areas in this city are dangerous. That's why the disguise. For now, please don't use my official title."

Abel blinked in startled confusion.

"But... if you didn't want to be discovered... why pick a fight with those drunks?"

"I didn't pick a fight. Those men wanted me to pay for an empty liquor bottle I didn't break. They were thugs. I only told them the truth."

Abel laughed nervously at the unapologetic speech and picked up his suitcase. He followed Esther to the alley opening, and they stepped out into a street lined with clothing stores, flea market shops, cafés and a dozen restaurants. The smell of fresh cooked meats, breads, and spices tickled his nose. A thousand years ago, before Armageddon, Váci street was considered a center tourist area of István, and like in ancient times, people gathered here on business despite the late hour.

"... why are you still following me?"

A voice cut through Abel's daydreaming as he drooled over the smell of cooking meat from a nearby shop. He turned winter lake-like eyes to the small figure walking beside him with a confused expression.

"Isn't it obvious? To protect you of course!"

"Protect me?"

Esther graced Abel with a flat look. For her to rely on such a clumsy person for protection was absurd. Moreover, this man had no concept of danger... and she found it rather amazing someone like him could still be alive.

Noticing her doubtful expression, Abel smiled and pointed at himself confidently.

"It's true! Even if those men found us again, with me by your side, you are absolutely safe!"

His declaration reminded Esther of a character in a third-rate opera act. It was hardly reassuring, and only strengthened her resolve to ditch him before they got into more trouble. Glancing at the sky, Esther noted it was almost full-dark now.

She reached into her coat pocket.

"Here. Take this."

Abel hesitated a moment before awkwardly holding out a hand. There was the clink of coins and a large amount of dinars were dropped into his palm. His eyes widened behind milk-bottle glasses.

Esther pointed at the dinars.

"This should cover your living expenses for a while. Use it to find a place to stay. If you're worried about safety, the City Military Police regularly patrol this area. There headquarters is also just a few blocks from here. You shouldn't have any problems."

"B-but - !"

As Esther finished her explanation, Abel became flustered and shook his head in panic at her words. He couldn't take her money, no matter how much he might need it. For someone like him, it would be impossible to repay such a large dept. He traveled far to often and didn't have a secure income.

"Miss Esther, please, I can't accept this money."

With tears of regret, Abel tried to return the dinars to her.

"If I accept this, you would surely demand compensation one day. And because I'm so poor, I could never hope to repay you. Then I would be arrested and thrown in jail because my wallet is so thin - "

"You're a strange person."

"Eh?"

There was a teasing smile on Esther's lips as she shook her head at his antics. Before Abel could give a coherent reply, Esther had already turned to leave, her quick steps following in the direction of the Chain Bridge that linked the providence of Pest to the palace on the other side of the Danube river.

"Goodbye, Abel. Thank you for the help today."

He stood in awkward silence as he watched her leave. But before she disappeared entirely, a sudden thought occurred to him.

"Wait! Don't you need an escort!?"

Abel knew he'd somehow get blamed for it if something happened to her. To answer his question, Esther stopped and looked over her shoulder.

"It's a short walk."

Abel stood there a moment - until her small body disappeared into the crowded street. People gave him odd looks, but he was otherwise ignored as they continued with their business. Alone with his thoughts, Abel stared at the glittering palace on the opposite bank of the river.

"I wonder... why was she in such a dangerous city alone?"

With a half worried, half exasperated sigh, Abel shook his head and turned away.

†††

TBC...