The Pauper Prince 2
The New Hire
Mara and Erick were up early, as always, setting the chairs down in the dining room, unlocking windows, and so on. There wasn’t much physical labor that Erick actually did, aside from most of the cooking, general hosting and of course, counting the money. Everything else was laid at Mara’s feet. Very tired and sore feet.
“I’m not looking for an entertainer,” said Erick. “You know that.”
“I do know that,” she said. “Just offer him what I do.”
“And you know that you’ll be sharing the scraps and space in the-”
“-Storage room, yes,” she finished. “Erick,” she continued, setting down the last of the stools in the room. “I’m too tired to care anymore. This is too much work for one person.”
“Is it now?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, it is. If I… have to share scraps or squeeze another cot in the room, so be it. I’m not old, and I’m not weak.” She said the last word as though it were the most offensive thing she had ever heard. “I’m strong, as my father raised me to be. And this work tires me.”
Erick sniffed. “Have it your way, then.”
Mara was in the kitchen, preparing the cooking pots for the day’s meals, and tried not to listen to the muffled conversation of Erick and the minstrel. She remembered that she had left his bowl in the room the night before, though. Something else to clean up for a guest. Just then the muffled voices stopped, and Erick appeared with the minstrel.
“Mara,” he said. “You’ve met Kenneth. He’s agreed to work here.”
“I am pleased and honored to work here,” said Kenneth. “It’s not singing, but it’s honest work. Thank you so much, my goo… uh, Erick.”
“Don’t thank me,” said Erick.
“Thank her,” he continued. “She convinced me to hire you.”
Kenneth smiled that broad smile of his. “Truly?” he said. “Another kindness to repay.”
“Nothing, Erick,” she said, “It’s nothing.”
“So be it,” said Erick. “Well: show him what to do, then!”
She showed him. And no matter what she showed him, Kenneth acted like the ever-increasing list of tasks was some exciting adventure for him, as though laundry, cleaning, cooking, scrubbing, hauling, running errands and emptying pisspots were every boy’s dream. All right, not the pisspots. Even his face fell at the thought of collecting all of them for an aromatic trip to the sewage hole. But whatever she showed him, he insisted without hesitation that he was willing and able to do it.
At least he was true to his word, that first day, anyway. In spite of a strained voice, she sometimes heard him humming to himself as he went about the new chores, and did not show offense when she corrected him from time to time. This was unusual for a man to a woman. It was good that he was a quick learner. It was also good that very little learning was required for most of the chores. Just a good constitution and a strong back, especially when carrying the filled water jugs from the town’s well. It had been Mara’s job to fill the inn’s half-dozen jugs and carry them back without benefit of a cart or wheelbarrow. And although she was the one who had convinced Erick to take on another worker, she resisted Kenneth’s assistance with the jugs. Anything that would indicate she was of the weaker sex, such as being unable to carry heavy things, she was loathe to relinquish. Kenneth was loathe to shirk any of his new duties, either, but stepped aside on this matter, for now. It was only his first day, after all.
Two surprises awaited Kenneth at the end of the day: one was that his muscles ached more than he could remember them aching before, and two was that they were not offered a free, and most importantly, full meal for a hard day’s work. Erick had promised “all the scraps you can eat,” but until now, Kenneth had not grasped what that really meant. For one person there had been enough collected throughout the day, but for two? Perhaps not quite enough. And so he and Mara sat at an empty table, combining their findings of the day. His instinct was to offer it all to her, but after so many days of near-starvation out there, his instincts were in danger of being overwhelmed.
No, he thought, fighting his way back to humanity. These are not thoughts for the woman who has shown no fewer than two great kindnesses, and to a stranger.
Erick came to the table and slapped coins down before them. Mara slid out a hand and took half of them without looking. Her eyes were always on the food.
“Welcome to your first day as a waged man,” said Erick. “You’ve done well,” then turned to walk away.
“Wait,” said Kenneth. “Erick? I noticed earlier that there is a full meal left in the pots.”
“That will be saved for the morning.”
Kenneth pushed his coins towards Erick. “Unless I buy it now.”
“That’s your day’s wage, son,” said Erick. Mara looked up at Kenneth and frowned. If he had been looking at her, he would have seen her slightly shaking her head.
“I choose to use it to fill my belly tonight.”
Erick snatched back the coins in case Kenneth was in danger of changing his mind. “As you wish. A full meal, coming up.”
Kenneth sighed to himself, then met Mara’s perplexed gaze.
She looked back at the scraps. “Nothing,” she said. “I’m saving my wages, is all.”
“He’s very clever, you know,” said Kenneth. “Only paying us enough to use it to feed ourselves. I don’t agree with it, but will live with that for now.”
“Keep your voice down,” she whispered. “You just started here, you know.”
“You’re right,” he said, sighing again. “Again, you save my life,” he added with a wink.
“Stop that,” she muttered. “I’m not ‘saving your life’ or being a ‘good woman’ or… I’m just tired.”
Eventually Erick was back, with a plate of the final meal, and set it down for Kenneth.
“Ah!” said Kenneth, pulling it closer. “Thank you, Erick!”
“You’ll be cleaning the dishes yourself, now.”
“Of course. Er…” Kenneth started. Erick stopped and looked back only a little. “I don’t suppose we have any utensils?”
“Utensils?” said Erick. “Are you talking about forks and spoons?”
“I thought we had some.”
“‘We’ don’t,” said Erick. “Customers only. Your fingers are good enough. Remember to finish cleaning and locking up, you two.” Then he left for his room and shut the door.
“You expected utensils?” she said.
“I thought he might allow us to use them, that’s all,” said Kenneth, and then proceeded to transfer half of his food onto Mara’s plate.
“Hey – what are you doing?” she said.
“Repaying a kindness,” he said. “I don’t like being in debt, either.”
“I told you, you don’t owe m-”
“So you say,” he said. “But it was still a debt, in my eyes. But if you’re not hungry,” he added, and reached for her plate. She yanked it back and all but covered it with her whole body. Kenneth paused, then smiled. “Dear lady, it was in jest,” he said. “What kind of a man would I be to steal from you?”
“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “Most of the ones I’ve known?”
She ate silently for the next few minutes, only partly aware that he was watching her and not eating his own half-meal. Then he reached out a hand and touched one of hers. She started and pulled it away.
“No!” she said emphatically enough to startle him. “Don’t touch me.”
“I… Forgive me,” he said. “I was only trying to show a kindness. But you’re right: that was too forward of me. It’ll not happen again.”
“Father told me,” she said, “Never to let a man touch me. You hear?”
“I hear, I hear,” he said. “It’ll not happen again.”
She said nothing, but resumed eating. Years of hunger had taught her to eat quickly, giving no one else a chance to steal any. In her mind she knew that Kenneth would not steal from her, but in her heart, this was not yet learned. Still…
“I suppose I should thank you,” she said finally. Kenneth had the last of his meal in his mouth, and hurried to chew and swallow it.
“For sharing this. Your food.”
“Oh. The pleasure is mine,” he said. “And I realized: last night. You didn’t buy the meal you brought me, did you?”
“No,” she said. “It was whatever we had left. Uh, the scraps, like tonight, I mean. Leftovers.”
“Well, there was,” she said, using her finger to collect the last specks of food on her plate, “More last night than tonight. I mean, before you bought that.”
“Kenneth,” she said, avoiding his gaze. “I said, don’t make it more than it was. It was just… I felt– I felt bad for you. That’s all.”
“Fair enough,” he said, and another silence followed. “Shall we finish off the chores, then?”
Kenneth was duly reminded of the dangers of lighting their candle without checking the flour. The last thing he needed on his first day of work was to blow up himself and his new friend. Erick would never let him live that down. But now there was a logistical problem to solve: there was room for two cots in the storage room, but only just. They would need to be squeezed right beside each other, leaving no room for either of them to move much, if at all. And it was just dumb luck that another bed sheet was found for Kenneth. He would be covered, at least, if not kept much warmer.
“I’m missing that room behind us already,” said Kenneth.
“Well, you can’t afford that, too, so this is it.”
“Yes, I understand,” he said. “Yet I’m a bit concerned.”
“Well, it’s…” he began, “That is, you’ve made it very clear that you won’t abide being ‘touched,’ but we have to keep these cots so close to each other that…”
“Ah,” she said, rubbing an arm, “Well… it’s unfortunate, but-”
“Wait; I know!” said Kenneth, and he started grabbing one of the tall shelves. “I think we could just-”
“What are you doing?”
“I think we could reposition some of the shelves in here to make more room-”
“Wait, wait, no, no-”
“No, really. See? Here, push on the other side and-”
“No, no, stop it-”
“It’ll only take a moment-”
“STOP IT!” she shouted, then clamped her hands over her mouth.
“Please, Mara, I’m only trying to help our situation,” said Kenneth, who had at least stopped tugging at the shelves. And then Erick’s voice behind him made him jump.
“Is there a problem?”
“Wha-! Er… No, no, Erick,” said Kenneth. “Please forgive me if you were disturbed.”
“Are you trying to rearrange the room?”
“Uh… no, not anymore,” said Kenneth, pushing the shelf back. “We were just trying to make more room in here. For the cots.”
“No, you’ll have to leave the shelves alone,” said Erick. “You two can stay awake all night if it suits you, but no more noise.”
“I’m not staying awake all night!” Mara said. “I’m sleeping right now!”
“Uh…” said Kenneth, glancing back at her. “Yes, we won’t be up all night. Again, we’ll not disturb anyone. Good night, Erick.”
Erick looked at Mara as if for assurance. She nodded, and, satisfied that she was unthreatened, Erick nodded to Kenneth. “Good night,” he said, and returned to his room, but more slowly than usual.
Kenneth sighed and turned back to Mara. “That was kind of him to show concern for you.”
“Well, he came here because you cried out,” said Kenneth. This only puzzled her. “To see if you were unharmed? To…? Never mind. This still leaves us with how to arrange the cots so that-”
“You know, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m too tired for this. Touch me all you like.”
Kenneth cocked an eyebrow at that, but Mara had turned away to arrange the sheet for her cot. Then she spun around, full of distress.
“Ah, I can’t believe I-!” she said. “I didn’t mean-! No, don’t touch me all you like! Don’t-”
“Mara,” said Kenneth in as soothing a voice as he could manage, “Dear, sweet Mara, I know what you meant. I swear I will do nothing to make you think that I’m taking advantage. If I must sleep on the floor to prove my word, I shall.”
“No,” she said, calming herself. “Forgive me. I’m being sssstupid,” she stammered, struggling to get that last word out. “Don’t sleep on the floor. It’s not ‘touching,’ it’s just… how we have to sleep.”
With a shared sigh the two of them climbed onto their respective hard, cool cots and struggled a bit to keep their sheets from getting tangled. Kenneth was the closest to the candle, so he blew it out and wrapped himself up as tightly as he could.
There was a minute of silence. Then: “Kenneth,” Mara murmured.
“I’m not ‘dear’ or ‘sweet,'” she said.
“If you wish,” he whispered. “But neither are you ‘stupid.’ Good night.”
Kenneth bought his dinner again with his day’s wages, and again insisted on sharing it with Mara. Although appreciative of the extra food, she was also concerned.
“You spend your money every day, and you’ll never have any for later.”
“I can’t help that I’m so hungry,” said Kenneth. “And perhaps someday he’ll raise our wages so I can save at least some of it. But you: you seem very careful to keep your money. Here, it’s not easy. I admire that.”
“Well, I learned very quickly that-” she started, and then leaned over to check that Erick’s door was shut, “That I need extra money whenever I travel.”
“Travel? To where?”
“Wherever the work is,” she said. Kenneth was puzzled.
“I thought work was right here.”
“I meant better work,” she said. “Like where war has broken out.”
“Where wa-? I don’t think I understand,” said Kenneth.
“Never mind,” she said.
“War is a regrettable thing. I’m glad this kingdom has been at peace for as long as it has.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m saying nothing of consequence. But back to our wages: I know it’s difficult, but you should resist the urge to spend your money as soon as you get it. Believe me, I struggle against the urge every day. But I feel better knowing that I have something extra.”
“It sounds like you have a plan for it,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say that, exactly,” she said. “I just… I just like the idea that, perhaps, if I live long enough – and I’m not saying it’s a certainty – but if it is, that I could still be able to pay for things. That is, even if I’m too old to work. I wouldn’t have to depend on anyone.”
“…My goodness,” he said.
“You’re about to laugh, I know, or say something to mock me,” she said. “Well, I’ve heard all-”
“Do you hear me laughing? I think that’s remarkable,” he said. “In fact, you’ve… All right, you’ve inspired me. Starting tomorrow, I’ll start saving my wages and live on our scraps.”
“Hmph,” she said. “I’ll hold you to it, then.”
“I told you to get him out of bed!” said Erick. Mara ran from the storage room and partly shut the door. From outside the room, Kenneth could be heard dry-heaving.
“He’s too ill to get out of bed!” she said. “He needs water or any other liquid we can get him. And another bucket!”
“Nonsense. Were you both drinking last night?” said Erick. “If you won’t pull him out, I will.”
“We were not drinking! Something’s made him ill. Remember that he had scraps last night and didn’t buy anything. Maybe he’s ill from that.”
“Are you saying my food made him ill?”
“Does it matter why he’s ill?” she said. “Please, Erick: let him rest today, and let me bring him some water and food.”
Erick did not answer, but stood in the doorway and stared at Kenneth. Kenneth’s color was particularly unpleasant, a mix of light flesh, grey and perhaps green, but it was difficult to confirm the last. He lay on his side on the cot, his back to the wall, visibly shaking. Mara had combined both of their sheets and covered him. Next to Kenneth was a bucket used to collect his vomit. Unbeknownst to Erick both Kenneth and Mara had been up all night: Kenneth from illness, and Mara quietly leaving the room repeatedly to bring him water, which he had difficulty keeping down. She had also found a somewhat clean rag that she had been wetting and laying over his forehead.
“You do look quite a sight,” said Erick. “Very well; rest today, but you forfeit your wages.”
“Erick… I would like to be able to work,” said Kenneth, in a voice so weak it seemed to take all his strength, “But I fear that I lack the strength.” Then he convulsed and leaned over the bucket to vomit, but only dry-heaved some more. Mara helped him lay onto his back and placed the wet cloth over his forehead again. Then she pulled up the covers to his shoulders.
“Try to rest,” she whispered. “I’ll bring more water and food as I’m able.”
“Uhhhh, no food,” he groaned.
“You need it,” she said. “You… Just try to eat. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
She left quietly and shut the door almost all the way.
“I’ll see if there’s medicine when I get our other supplies,” she said, pulling on the various bags she used for errands.
“What do you mean?”
“An apothecary,” she said. “I should see an apothecary, and see if he has medicine for Kenneth.”
“And who’ll pay for that medicine?”
“Who–? Do you want him to die?” said Mara. “Is that it?”
“Well, why is he ill? Were you both drinking? Are you saying it’s from my food?”
“I don’t know why he’s ill,” she said. “But not from drinking, I can say that. Do I seem hung over to you? He’s been up all night, spewing his guts out. I’ve been up all night, trying to help him. I’m exhausted before the day has begun.”
After an angry silence, Erick sighed and then fished out extra coins from his purse. He slapped them onto the counter. “Here,” he said. “Get him whatever this will buy.”
Mara’s day was spent seeing to the needs of the guests and trying to see to the needs of her coworker. Erick himself actually emptied out and cleaned Kenneth’s vomit bucket earlier that morning. It was after the last guest had finished his midday meal and lumbered back upstairs for a nap that Mara had the chance to check on Kenneth. She brought a pitcher of water, tack bread and a bowl of something with a comforting smell. He was on his back like before, his eyes closed, breathing heavily but at least clearly. She checked the bucket and saw that it was empty. There was another pitcher beside the bucket, half full of water. She set down her supplies on one of the shelves.
“Are you awake?” she whispered.
He took a deep breath. “Yes,” he whispered, his eyes still closed. She removed the cloth from his forehead and felt it.
“I’m not sure, but I think your fever might have broken. You don’t seem to be shaking. Are you still shaking?”
“Uhhhh,” he groaned. “No, I don’t think so. No.”
“Good, very good.” She picked up the first pitcher and poured some of its water over the cloth, wrung it out a little, and put it back on his forehead.
“I don’t think I need this,” he said weakly, and tried to remove it.
“Yes, you do,” she said. “It’s something I learned not long ago, and it’s helped me before, too. If something works, then I do it.”
Kenneth relaxed and let his arm drop. His eyes remained closed. “You’re too good to me,” he whispered.
“Quiet,” she said. “Try to keep drinking. Are you able to hold down any water or food? I don’t see anything new in the bucket.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t tried drinking anything.”
Mara sighed in frustration. “Don’t be stupid,” she said.
“Whaaaat? Didjoo call me-?”
“I’m going to help you up,” she said. “Come on.” At first it was like wrestling with a drunkard in a dead weight, but eventually Kenneth came to his senses and struggled into a sitting position. He seemed unsteady enough at first to fall right back over, but then seemed to stabilize. Mara watched him a few more moments, then brought the bowl and tack bread over to him.
“Here,” she said. “This is chicken soup. Some bread, too. It’s hard, so you should dip it into the soup first.”
“I didn’t know we had chicken soup,” he said. “I like it. It was my very favorite meal as a child.”
“Not from here,” she said. “I bought it from – I got it from somewhere else. Also, Erick paid for some herbs from the apothecary (if you can believe that). I mixed them into the soup to make it easier. Slowly – sip it first. Make sure you can keep it down.”
“Mara!” Erick called from outside. She grunted quietly.
“Coming!” she called back. “Um… Keep eating that,” she said to Kenneth. “Slowly. I have to go back to work. If you need anything, just vomit.”
“Ha ha,” groaned Kenneth sarcastically. “I should be fine in a few minutes. I should be working.”
“No,” she said, pointing at him emphatically. “Do not leave the room. Eat and rest. Or I’ll kill you.”
“I think it was the little bit of fish, or the little bit of pork, that I had last night,” said Kenneth, his head propped onto his hand. “Or perhaps some of both.” By the end of the day he had regained enough strength to stagger from the storage room and sit with Mara as she ate her scraps of the day. He did this in spite of her protests to keep resting and drinking water.
“I guess I didn’t have either, then,” she said. “Who knows what this stuff used to be before we get it? Anyway, I don’t know if you were awake enough at the time, but your wages were forfeited because you couldn’t work.”
“Of course they were.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “The day after you promise to eat only our scraps, you get ill. I suppose you could blame me for that.”
“I’m not certain what kind of thinking needs to be employed to come to that conclusion,” said Kenneth, his head still supported solely by his right arm.
“You know what I mean,” she said. “If… It’s your money. Of course you’re free to do with it as you wish. I won’t try anymore to tell you what to do with it.”
Kenneth had no answer for her to that. She had offered him some of tonight’s scraps, but when that almost brought on another convulsion, she quickly withdrew it. In fact she was wary of even trying any herself, but ultimately had no choice. Today had been a particularly exhausting day.
“Mara,” Kenneth murmured after a long silence. “I understand and respect what you’ve said about ‘being touched,’ but I have a request.” He slowly lifted his head until almost sitting up straight, if not for the lingering weakness.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he said, “I was wondering if you might allow me to… to hold your hand. Even if only briefly.”
“I’m very grateful to you,” he said. “I was hoping you might allow me to show it.”
“How is holding my hand showing gratitude? And you don’t need to, anyway. You just said you were grateful. That’s enough.”
“I suppose it should be,” he sighed. “It’s only… It would give me comfort. It’s something my mother always did for us when…” His voice trailed off. If the light were better, Mara might have seen his eyes moistening, just a bit. “Never mind,” he said with a wave. “Of course you’re not my mother. I’m being silly.”
She said nothing, but finished chewing and swallowing the last of her meal. Then she squeezed her right hand nervously before slowly moving it close enough for Kenneth to reach. But his eyes were closed again, so she had to muster the courage to clear her throat in an obvious way. He opened his eyes lazily.
No words. Only a small smile as he accepted her gesture, and gently took her right hand into his left. After a few moments he began to move his thumb slowly back and forth on the top of her hand. They were not meeting gazes at all; she stared at a distant spot on the floor while he stared at a wall. Then he broke the spell by speaking.
“Are you certain that you’re not an angel?” he murmured. With a sigh Mara pulled her hand back.
“Not that again,” she said, and stood and brought her plate back to the kitchen. This time Kenneth said and did nothing to stop her, but kept to his thoughts.