Robert tightened the straps on his bag and stood up. His leg was twisted from the landing, and he still had a headache from the hangover, not to mention being tired from a lack of sleep.
But he was going to do what he had set out to do. He was going to explore the world from the point of view of a peasant, not from the point of view of a Prince. He was going to learn just what it was that he faced, what and who he was going to be ruling.
He would have the truth of Destria, of as much of the world as he could get before he returned.
He would start by getting some food. He had seen a farmhouse as he glided down; he’d buy what food he could from them and then move on.
Hiking his backpack higher he set off up back up the mountain he had landed on.
It was a beautiful day out. The sun was shining down, there were birds chirping, the grass was still wet with dew, and the air smelled like freedom.
He smiled as he hiked through the shrubs. The night before he had been really drunk, and it had been far too dark to see much of anything. He had glided, catching and riding updrafts as he went, for what felt like hours.
When he saw the sun rising and first felt the warmth of its rays, seen it race across the ground lighting up the world, he had realized that it had been hours.
He was amazed that he had managed to stay in the State the whole time, but somehow he had. He assumed it was because of the combination of fresh air, the idea of freedom, and the alcohol somehow combining to keep him calm and awake enough to stay in the State.
Finally, as the sun had illuminated the bottom of the valley, crossing above the mountains enough to caress the lowest reaches of the land, he had begun to spiral down for a landing. That was when he had spotted farm, shortly before he had landed badly, dropping the State too early.
Spraining his ankle he had decided that it would be best to rest for the day, try and get his bearings.
And then he had run into the barrier of a lack of food.
So he had bound his ankle as best he could, and then set off.
He entered the treeline and smiled around at the quiet cool darkness. It was a beautiful world out here, and all the more so because he knew that he was free, for the time being. He was not going home right away to a controlling family. He didn’t have guards, even friendly and sympathetic ones like Rens, following him every step of the way doing their best to hide, and failing.
He would be allowed to do whatever he wanted, however, whenever.
Continuing his climb he came out of the treeline and into shrubbery again as he approached the farmhouse.
There was a trail leading down off to his left; he must have missed it since he had landed to the right. He straightened his uniform and walked forwards to knock on the door of the smart little cottage.
He stepped back from the door and tried to look natural, however that appeared. Maybe if he stood less straight or smiled? Or would it be more natural for a soldier to have good posture and be serious?
He was still debating when the door opened and a large woman in a faded tunic and breeches stepped out.
Her eyes went wide when she saw him and she seemed to tense up.
“Hello. I am…Rens Marlan” He would respond better to his middle name than to something he had just made up, and it was a safe bet she didn’t know who Rens was “I was just passing through the area and was wondering if you had any food that I could purchase?”
The woman at first relaxed, and then stiffened again at the mention of food. She looked around and closed the door behind her.
“Is that why you are actually here?”
“Yes, of course. Would I have some other reason for being up here?”
She paused before answering.
“That is not a reason to be up here either. Nobody just ‘passes through the area’ by themselves. Its not exactly safe to wander the countryside alone, nor would you be this far up the mountain and passing by my farm unless you were looking for it. So, I ask you again. Is that why you are actually here?”
“Yes. It is. And, again, is there another reason why I would be up here?”
The woman looked around and pushed him gently away from the door.
“Lets take a walk soldier. I’ll explain”
Robert fell into step beside her. She too had excellent posture, and walked like a soldier, if one injured.
“My name is Branwen. I was a soldier in the army for a long time, but I mustered out after being badly injured. Now I live here, farm here, with my son. I am always worried that they will call me back to service. Now, you know my story; what is yours?”
Robert looked at the woman. She was maybe thirty? And yet she seemed so world weary and had had such a defeated and scared air about her.
“To tell you the truth Branwen, my name is not Rens. My name is Robert Marlan Destral”
She nodded for a moment and then turned to face him. She did not look happy.
“Are you mocking me? You think that I’ll believe that some random soldier is the crown prince of Destria? What do you expect me to do anyways? Go down on one knee, open my larders to you? I barely have enough for Irfon and I as it is. So keep moving you or I’ll cut you open right now”
A knife had appeared in her hands, a good fighting knife. Robert took a step backwards and shook his head.
“No, no, nothing of the kind! I’ll pay you for any food that you might be willing to sell me, but I didn’t expect any kind of special treatment. I just was going to tell you how I ended up here, and who I am is a big part of that”
Branwen looked at him a bit longer, then put the knife away.
“Talk fast soldier, or I’ll still gut you”
So Robert told her about how he grown up always under his parents thumb, how he had had few freedoms, and how he had been forced into the wedding situation. He had begun to say how annoying it was to have to go through with it and how that had made him want to leave when Branwen interrupted him.
“Soldier. If you are the Prince, I’m going to call you Soldier anyways. And you should not introduce yourself to anyone as the Prince, even if you aren’t. You’re lucky that I’m loyal, and a good soldier even now. Most others would try and hold you ransom, or just kill you for any gold you might have on you.
“So, soldier. Your story is ridiculous. Telling that and expecting sympathy is worse. Let me tell you about my life.
“I was born into a poor family. I was the third child, the second girl, and so my prospects were poor. My older brother was going to inherit the land, my sister was going to have a good marriage, my twin brother was going to learn a trade if he was lucky, and my younger brother was going into the army.
“I was left out, had no options. When my brother died of red fever, something I’m sure you’ve never experienced, I took his place in the army.
“I fought for ten years, and saved up enough money to buy the land. I would have fought for longer, but while hunting down the bandits that put my hometown to the sword, they were more like raiders really, one of them stabbed me in the back. I was badly injured, and barely made it to safety.
“They let me muster out since I couldn’t really fight. With nowhere else to go I came up here, bought the land, and built everything from scratch.
“I found my boy by the side of the road; his parents had also been killed by bandits. I took him in, and he’s worked hard ever since. He might inherit the land, but its poor at best, and I’d rather he learn a trade of some kind.
“Now, you say that you’re from the castle, you’re rich. And you’re complaining about having too many parties to attend.
“Soldier, I have never attended a ball in my life, and if I did I would be spat upon by you and everyone like you. You try and tell me that your life is so hard; have you ever nearly frozen in the winters, sloshed through mud ankle deep with armour on your back and a dying comrade in your arms, tried to raise a boy by yourself when you don’t know how, worried about whether you will be able to eat tonight because you’re giving all that you have to your son and there isn’t enough left for you?
“When you experience that, when you live life like that, when you lose everyone you care about to bandits, not once, but twice, then you can complain to me about how hard your life is”
“I didn’t know that bandits were such a problem in Destria. Do the armies not do anything?”
“Soldier, I was in the armies. We only tracked down bandits when they got violent enough to attack towns, and by then it was too late. Anything less than that and they were just ‘minor nuisances’ and ‘not a threat to the people’. The army doesn’t do squat about the bandits Soldier”
“I…I really didn’t know. Thats why I came out here, to see what I could learn from you, the people of this land. I-”
“Soldier. Listen to me. You have not experienced anything, not lived like us at all. You don’t know anything, because you haven’t. Until you have, go back to your fancy castle in the sky and don’t bother us ‘people of the land’ for anything more than your kind usually do; tolls in coin and blood”
Robert sat for a moment. He opened his mouth to speak several times, then closed it again.
“I didn’t know” he spoke slowly, searching for the right words “That the citizens of Destria, hated us so much”
“They don’t. Not who you mean by the ‘citizens of Destria’ anyways. No, the people who come see you in your throne room, the guards you see, the servants, are all a cut above the average. They’re all well off enough to be allowed to see you, to be allowed to interact. To afford the luxury of taking time off to come see you and ask you to solve their problems they have to be. And the guards all have connections, family ties, friends of friends in the nobility in order to get work for you. They need to be trusted, people know they need to be trusted.
“Now, thats who you mean by the ‘citizens’. And they don’t hate you because they feed off of you, instead of the other way around. They need you for their jobs, or to stroke their egos or make them feel important. And they’re well enough off that when you take something, its only a little, when you don’t hunt the bandits they can afford to hire a guard, buy a new crossbow, pool resources to hire enough mercenaries to scare the bandits to another area.
“But the ‘people of the land’ and the ‘citizens’ are very different. We’re the ones who will suffer when you people take, who will have barely enough to feed ourselves before you come and steal ‘your share’ of our efforts. We’re the ones who, when the bandits come to steal what you leave, just die. We’re the ones who hate the nobility.
“For all that, I don’t have anything against you in particular, or any one noble. You’re people, just like us, and its how you were born that makes you what you are. Its nobility as a whole that is bad. It is the fact that even if one or two try and change things nothing really will change since there will be twenty or fifty others against them.
“Even you, Soldier, or your parents. If you try and change things you will still have to fight against the words and work of, at the least, dozens of Dukes, if not more. So, its not you as individuals, but you as a whole. And maybe people even like or love you as an individual because they hope that you can change things, or you rule your own duchy well or kindly. But, as a whole, nobility is the enemy, and even a kindly nobleman can never truly be a friend, because of that fact.
“So, even if people might see you as a person, not a personification of nobility, if you try and complain about how hard it is to be you to someone who is starving they’ll likely gut you, even if you were standing naked with nothing to your name, but your name.
“Do you see why I told you now? Soldier, you’ve got to try and learn how life is before you try and pretend like you know anything about it”
Robert nodded, numbed by the knowledge that he was hated, but also so very interested to learn why and how, to get some idea of what Destria was like.
“Branwen. I still need some food. I know that you have very little, so what would be a fair price? Five gold for a day's rations? More?”
The larger woman choked and almost fell off one of the paired stumps that they were sitting on.
“Five gold? For a day’s rations?”
“Ah. Far too much I’m assuming. I will pay the five gold anyways if you wish, but I’d like if you could tell me how much would be fair. I have offered the gold, so I won’t accuse you of overcharging me, nor will I think it”
Branwen finally got ahold of herself by taking a few deeps breaths and pinching the bridge of her nose.
“Five gold marks? I could not take that much, even after my talk of how the nobility rob us and are the enemy; I would become the robber then. I-”
“Actually, sorry to interrupt, but I meant crowns, not marks”
Branwen didn’t choke this time but her eyes still goggled slightly.
“You’ve enough gold on you that you can afford to spend five golds crowns on a day’s meal? You don’t want to broadcast that Soldier. It’ll make you a prime target for bandits, unsavory sorts, thieves and rogues of every kind. Don’t do it”
“So, yes, the fair price. I’d say maybe five silver marks is the maximum you want to spend at any one time, especially on food, and even then thats pretty expensive. The more normal established price, how much it would cost to buy a sack of potatoes, some apples, and enough grain to make bread to last a week is about a silver crown. So, what, ten marks to a crown makes it about two silver marks a day. That would be the fair price, and people will likely charge you more than that.
“I presume you know how to barter Soldier?”
“Yes, although I’m used to rather larger numbers and stakes than a meal or a night at an inn”
Branwen shook her head in what might have been dismay or disgust.
“Soldier, you’re going to get yourself killed. You know what we’re going to do instead? You’re going to stay here, help me work the farm for a time. You’re going to contribute coin so I can buy extra supplies, and I’m going to teach you about how to fit in, how to not die. Does that sound amenable to you?”
“Of course. I am most honoured that you’d invite me into your home like this”
“Soldier. You’re the Prince of the country. Of course you’re welcome to stay here. You could march your soldiers in and seize it if you wanted, build your countryside retreat on top of it. I hope you don’t, but you can and might. You’re welcome within my walls.
“I say that you’ll contribute coin so we can buy food because otherwise there is not enough food to go around. And if you try and take food from my boy’s mouth I don’t care who you are. I’ll kill you myself, right away.
“Now, you may not find it up to your usual standards. But it is what it is.
“And Soldier, the reason I am being so candid with you is because you need it. You want to learn how to act like ‘one of us’ you’re going to need to be blunt, to unlearn your airy words and misdirections.
“Make sense? You’re going to have to learn how to act like us so that you don’t get stabbed, and the best way to learn is to observe. So I’m going to act normal, be candid, and if you don’t like it then you can leave. I’ll sell you rations, yes, but you can leave.
“Any questions then?”
“You’ll teach me how to work the land as well?”
Branwen dropped her head into her hands and mumbled something about ‘bloody useless know-nothing teaching’.
“Yes. Yes I’ll bloody try and teach you how to work the land. But you’re mostly going to be doing stuff that even an idiot couldn’t screw up because I don’t have time to train a hand and also feed everyone. You will be learning how to cook, since we share that duty in this house. Got it?”
“Shall we shake on it?”
“So you nobles do that?”
“Yes, we do”
The two stood and shook, one hand dirty, callused and worn, the other clean, soft and smooth.