I really hope I managed to write these guys together in a believable way. I just really hope for it. Also, if anyone has a better title to suggest, please do so.
"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet . . .
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho' they come from the ends of the earth."
- Rudyard Kipling
The town center was even more crowded than usual today thanks to the ball King Xavier was throwing tonight for his prestigious guests. Cora, the miller's daughter, grunted at every maneuver she made with the heavy flour cart.
With her thick layered clothes and forceful efforts with the vehicle, she was certain most people would mistake her for a man. The thought annoyed her, which gave her more energy to push the cart over the cobblestones. She would have happily traded her coarse shirts and musty cloak for a fine gown. They wouldn't, however, help her sell her wares and stave off hunger for yet another day.
Silent curses buzzed in her head and mouth like an enraged swarm. Everyone seemed determined to get underfoot of her. Children ran in front without looking where they were going. Elders trudging along on feeble legs slowed her progress. At last she reached the castle and was allowed through the gate to deliver the hefty bags for her royal customers. The king, of course, never met her in person; it was always a servant who paid for and accepted the flour that probably went to the castle kitchen and never met Xavier's eye. Cora rarely gave the presence of this lowly middle man much thought. It was simply the way things operated. But now and then she was deeply tempted to glance up at the turrets and spanning windows of the edifice and wonder what the inside looked like. Probably draped in silk tapestries and laid with soft carpets and shiny marble slates. Reeking of luxury and power. The miller's daughter spent too many nights dreaming of being immersed in the lovely stench of wealth. It far exceeded the stench of cow dung, saw dust, and her father's liquor-coated breath.
An empty spot along one of the courtyard's walls appeared before her. Cora gladly took it and set her cart down. Her arms throbbed from the weight, but they could still bear a few flour sacks so long as she also used her back for support. She squared her shoulders and bent her knees before slinging them over. Their mass pressed on her. Her legs kept steady nonetheless. She lumbered in the direction of the servant's entrance where the usual man, tall and hoary and no doubt tapping his foot with impatience, was likely waiting. Again, her progress was stymied by the bodies around her, most dressed in expensive garbs. The ladies' satin skirts peeked beneath velvet capes. Men showed off their fur-lined doublets as if they'd caught and skinned the animals they wore themselves. Cora did her best to ignore them, though her fingers itched to sample the texture of laces cuffs and diamond necklaces.
Try as she might, she could not help noticing a small bevy of royals walking toward her. One was a man in his forties, judging by the incoming grey sheen in his short dark hair. The others were younger–one man and two women about Cora's age. They were all quite attractive, particular the women.
The first woman she saw stood tall and haughty. Her black hair was wrapped in a high chignon to show off her lily-white face. Cool eyes stared out, beholding all without betraying a hint of emotion. The other woman was shorter, a little fuller in body, with wavy brown tresses falling around her shoulders. She looked around with a little more uncertainty, as if she were seeing the courtyard for the first time.
To Cora's surprise and embarrassment, the brunette's eyes met hers. She immediately dropped her gaze, more out of shyness than haughtiness, but peered up again right after. Cora snorted and looked away. She could still feel the girl's bright eyes on her. Curious about the peasant folk, no doubt, without feeling any genuine concern for their poverty. The miller's daughter hurried her steps. She would not be made a spectacle for some princess' amusement.
It didn't occur to her until too late just how closely Cora was walking by the royals. She brushed by the taller woman and despaired at not being able to feel the fabric thanks to her occupied hands. But she was ready to put the incident out of mind until something snagged her toes. Her feet were too slow to stop her and her flour from tumbling forward.
Her right knee knocked into the cobblestones. Her hands otherwise broke her fall and suffered only a few shallow scrapes. It was the sight of the spilled sacks and the realization that she'd been tripped that brought Cora's blood to a boil. "You stupid girl!" she shouted before she could stop herself. Her neck burned as her own words sunk in. She brushed her fear away. It didn't matter if they were royals and she was beneath them in status – she'd been publicly embarrassed and deserved an apology. Injured righteousness pounded in her head until a hand gingerly grasped her elbow.
"Are you all right?" asked a kind, deep, feminine voice.
Cora's heart paused. Had the rude royal come to her senses so quickly? She looked up. She sank from disappointment. It wasn't the raven-haired woman, but the petite one who'd stared at her. The crease between her slender eyebrows and the concerned frown made her look older.
"I'm fine," Cora grumbled. She half-heartedly shook away the girl's hand while pushing herself to her feet.
"Why are you helping her?" another woman's voice demanded. Cora needed only one guess to know whose it was. "That peasant tried to trip me!"
"I think you're mistaken, your highness," said the smaller woman before Cora could speak. "It was an accident."
An accident, indeed. Cora stepped away from the girl. She didn't need her help. Her faith in that notion lasted until the older man spoke. "Yes, an accident that she fell. Not that she showed such disrespect to royalty."
"It was she who tripped me!" said Cora, nodding toward the cold-eyed princess.
"How dare you!" The older man stalked forward. Only now did Cora recognize the royal crest–an enormous tree overlaid with a dagger–hanging over his chest. She was being berated by King Xavier himself. "This is Princess Eva. Our esteemed guest from the northern kingdom. How dare you spew falsities at her!"
"Your majesty," piped up the brunette, "this is just a misunderstanding."
"I'm sure it is," the young man chimed in, hidden behind the king. He spoke over the monarch's shoulder. "Father—"
"I will make no remark upon your misplaced sympathy, Lady Belle," said the king to the brunette. "But you, Henry, I can remark on. And you'd do well to show Princess Eva the courtesy and respect she deserves!"
Princess Eva smiled her triumphant icy smile. Regardless the support she had somehow earned from Lady Belle and Prince Henry (a royal and a noble as her advocates - she never thought she'd see the day), Cora wanted to flee. But her stubbornness decided to take charge of her tongue. "I wonder just how much she does deserve when she trips peasants for her own amusement."
Lady Belle winced. A part of Cora wanted to cringe, too. But only a small part.
"What is your name, miller's daughter?" growled the king.
She balled her hands and looked him dead in the eye. "Cora."
"Well, Cora, believe me when I say I could have your head for this." The king sounded as though he could unleash a thunderstorm. "Consider this a mercy. Kneel and apologize to Princess Eva, or I will no longer buy flour from your family."
Lady Belle opened her mouth. She slowly shut it when Eva and King Xavier fired burning glares at her. Prince Henry simply looked on in unhelpful distress. As much as her soul screamed and cursed at this injustice, Cora acquiesced. What choice did she have? She dropped to both knees (the right one still ringing with pain) and declared her deadpan apology to the princess. Her mind was already working on how she could get back at them – all of them. This incident reached a new level of mortification, but Cora had long suffered the arrogance of the royals. She more despised how they viewed her: a worthless miller's daughter. Someone they could push around on a whim without fear of reprisal. She would show them their faulty mentality.
Cora continued to glower as the king and the foreign princess turned away satisfied. The prince was forced to follow suit by his father's formidable hand. Cora failed to notice that the remaining member of the group lingered behind until Lady Belle stepped in front of her.
"I'm . . . I'm so sorry about that," she said.
"I don't need your pity," said Cora.
"It's not about pity. It's about fairness. You did nothing wrong, I know it. Eva is . . ." Lady Belle raised her shoulders underneath her warm green cloak. "She's not a bad person. But her sense of humor can be cruel."
Cora smirked. "So can mine." She checked her hands. The scraped skin started to redden. After a quick wipe with her homespun cloak, she bent to pick up the rent sacks. Two of the bags lost quite a bit of flour. The third not so much, so she tied a knot where the hole was and hauled it onto her shoulder.
"Do you need help with that?"
The miller's daughter whirled on the sweet-faced noblewoman. "No. Leave me alone. I don't need your charity."
Lady Belle's gaze and voice never faltered. "How much is each sack worth?"
She could see where this was headed, and Cora for the life of her felt the gumption to resist it seep away. "What is it to you?"
"Please tell me."
The sack was getting heavier, even though it technically should have felt lighter. Cora sighed through her nose. "Ten coppers."
"That's it?" Belle scrunched her eyebrows again while her hand went for the purse inside her cape. A moment later two silvers appeared, glinting in the sunlight. "Here. You shouldn't lose a day's profit over something that wasn't your fault."
"I told you," Cora uttered through her teeth, "I don't want charity."
"I'm buying two sacks of flour. It's the same price the millers back home charge."
"It's still charity. You can't use it, so you get nothing out of it."
Belle smiled as if she wanted to laugh. "Take it, or I'm going to buy all three sacks!"
Cora couldn't help it. It was a challenge, and she never backed down from a challenge. She dropped the sack. "Please do so! At least you'll have something to lug home with you."
The lady laughed and shook her head. "Won't the king be annoyed he won't have his flour today?"
"I wish. We're not the only poor millers trying to get by in this kingdom."
"Fine." Belle withdrew another silver. Cora reached out and watched in awed reverence as the coins dropped into her hand. Three silvers was barely a drop compared to the royal treasury, but it was more than she'd ever earned in a single day. She liked how they sounded falling into her palm and clinking against each other. They were sprinkles of water to one dying of thirst.
Nothing could distract Cora from admiring the coins and dreaming about what this meant. She and her lazy father could have a proper meal today. Not just aging bread and vegetables from their garden, but a small cut of mutton. Or maybe some cheese. Her fantasies started to weave into an elaborate mosaic of dishes served at the king's table. Movement in the corner of her eye brought her out of them.
"What are you doing?" she asked when she saw Lady Belle taking her one good sack. The noblewoman was much too small and fragile for the burden. "Don't you have servants to do that?"
"I sent my manservant on an errand to the market," Belle said. She grunted and smiled, adjusting the sack on her back. "It's all right. I've got it."
"You're going to drop it." Cora took the bag back. "I won't let you be all self-righteous on my account."
Sighing, the lady relented. She straightened and stretched her spine so it make a crisp crack. "If you insist. We'll take it to the castle's pantry. I'll see if they'd be willing to store it for me."
Cora hefted the sack and followed the path she'd intended to take anyway, except with Belle's status she was allowed to enter the hall where servants in color-coded uniforms bustled about, arms full and brows dripping. Belle led the way with the two ruined sacks folded in her hands. Thanks to her gentle manners she was soon directed to the head of the kitchen staff. She asked the old lady permission to keep the flour here until she returned home. After tossing a puzzled look at Cora, then another at the noblewoman, the cook agreed.
"Thank you. But please, feel free to use the flour if you should happen to run out," Belle added. Cora would have loved to object, except that it wasn't her flour anymore. And, really, there would have been no point. She still loathed the king for his behavior. She'd started enjoying the idea of leaving his supply dry without her usual contribution. Had Belle not bullied her way into helping, though, she would have needed to sell her one sack to the kitchen staff after all.
"Thank you for your help," said Belle after they escaped the stuffy kitchen fumes. Cora had retrieved her cart and they both reached the castle gate. Belle returned the empty sacks, dropping them in the cart.
"Shouldn't I be the one thanking you?" said Cora.
"Well, yes." Belle pursued her lips in a teasing smile.
Cora rolled her eyes. "Thank you. How can I ever repay you?"
Her sarcasm earned an echoing eye-roll from the noblewoman. "Getting a taste of bread made from another kingdom's flour will be enough."
"Flour is flour, milady. It's not that different from . . . wherever you're from."
"The Marshlands. To the west. And it depends on the grain, which is not the same everywhere. The soil and climate play an important role in how the food made from it tastes."
Cora angled her head. "How do you know that?"
Belle bit her lip. "I read more than is good for me. So say most of the men in my father's court."
"Funny," said Cora, raising her eyebrows. "I thought nobles and royals didn't bother reading anymore."
"Oh, we do," countered Belle. "If only to make sure none of our books go missing on account of some uppity peasants or servants."
Cora laughed and mentally shook Belle's hand. "I wouldn't hesitate stealing a few for myself if I had the time or energy."
Up above a bell rang, marking the hour.
"I should head back home." Cora picked up the handles. "Have fun at the ball tonight. That is, if you're planning to go instead of hiding away in a dusty library."
"A dusty old library all to myself?" Belle giggled. "It's tempting, but I guess I will go to satisfy the king. He's throwing it for his son, and he insists every eligible maiden among his guests be in attendance." Her smile wavered. She nipped her lip again. "I don't suppose you'd like to . . ."
"I doubt the king considers miller's daughters as 'eligible maidens'," said Cora.
Belle nodded. "It's a shame."
She seemed genuine enough, but Cora still wondered just how sorry Lady Belle was that their acquaintance had, in short, come to an end. Well, it didn't matter. There were chores waiting for her. And a napping father to rouse and prod into helping her clean the mill, which would involve moving crates and stone slabs too heavy even for her to handle alone. Giving a final nod to Belle, Cora rolled her cart out of the gate.
Tension snaked into her shoulders. She looked back at Belle. The girl was the vision of all the good and beautiful things a noblewoman–and a woman for that matter–were expected to be. Cora secretly hated her for it, and for her rose-pink dress offset by the pale green cape. She could see in the curves and color of her healthy face the cushy life she led. The girl could afford happiness and respect. Yes, Cora hated it all, yet Belle's small, mischievous smile and warm eyes made it impossible to hate all of her.
"In case you were wondering, it's a masked ball."
Cora blinked slowly. She'd been giving the idea of attending the ball a good deal of thought already. Now she smiled knowingly. "I'll keep that in mind."
Lady Belle of the Marshlands beamed, waved, then picked up her skirts to run into the belly of the castle. Cora let her eyes follow her for a moment before she shoved the cart on with renewed gusto. This second wind helped her hurry home and drove her like a work horse through her chores. She did it all happily. She didn't even berate her father as much as she wanted. Tonight was the masked ball at the king's castle, and she could hardly wait.