Chapter Six (working title: THE TSARITSA’S GIFT)

Chapter Six

 

“You smell of beets.”

These were the first words to leave the princess’s lips in the four hours of their journeying together. Diogenes hadn’t minded the silence. It was what he liked best about his trade: the quiet of the woods on a long journey. The longer and quieter, the better. Especially after the lecture he’d received from the duke’s man concerning what fate would befall him if he “dallied” with the princess. It was insulting. He lived by his reputation, and where would that be if he harassed the young women entrusted to his care? Yes, the peace of the woods was most welcome after that harangue. Still, he had been fighting drowsiness these two hours, and conversation would help him to stave off sleep.

“I thank you, highness,” replied Diogenes.

He knew perfectly well she had not meant to compliment him with the remark about beets. But if he were stuck conversing with a spoilt and rude girl, it would be more amusing to pique her anger than to allow himself to take insult.

She took the bait. “It was not spoken as praise,” she murmured.

“Is it not high praise in your country, then? But what is sweeter than a beet, that noble vegetable whose growth is shrouded in mystery until it is plucked forth and its ruby glory revealed?”

In truth, he had eaten but few beets from the richly spread table offered before he departed the serving quarters of the duke’s estate. Heavy eating lent drowsiness to long drives. Now that he thought of it, though, if the duke fed his servants from such a table, how wealthy was the man? Should Diogenes have demanded a higher fee?

The girl interrupted his musings. “I do not know all of your words. I speak a little Rosiyska only.”

“A princess, and not to speak the tsar’s tongue?” Diogenes exaggerated his surprise, hoping to goad her into continued speech.

“My grandmother was a princess—”

Diogenes cut her off. “Mine was daughter to a swineherd, I am told. Or perhaps it was goatherd. I do not imagine she smelled sweetly of beets.”

“You interrupted me,” Astrid said, sounding annoyed.

Diogenes grinned. Conversation had been a blood-sport in his family, and he missed the jab and parry.

“Your speech is difficult to parse,” he replied. “I conclude that your father the king was much taken in by whomever he employed to teach you correct speech, princess.”

“My father is not king.”

“Are you certain your mother would approve you spreading such rumors?”

This jab galled her enough to bring color to her pale cheeks.

“I do not mean to say that I am a … a …”

“Bastard?” Diogenes said, supplying the word.

“Yes. I am not that. My grandmother was a princess—”

“I believe we have established that much, as well as that mine was not.”

She snapped, “Hush, will you?”

Diogenes gave her a sidelong glance as if to indicate he would comply. And he would, for just as long as it amused him.

“My grandmother—”

“This again?” muttered Diogenes.

“—was the daughter of a king, but I am not. I am the daughter of a prince. So it is not correct to address me as princess.”

“As you will, Princess.”

At this, the not-a-princess cried out in exasperation and began a rather long speech in the tongue of her kin, or so Diogenes surmised. He recognized a Viklond curse or two.

“You will call me Astrid and not Princess,” she said at last, having evidently run out of bad things to say in the Viklond language.

“Will I, indeed?”

“You … shall,” she said, trying a different verb. “Or you may. Or … you are able to. Perhaps I mistake which word is correct.” She was sufficiently roused that he began to feel badly for toying with her.

“I shall call you Astrid,” he said at last. A smile twitched on the side of his mouth nearest her.

“You mock me,” she said. At that, all of the huff and fight seemed to go out of her.

He considered various apologies before landing on one.

“My mother, God grant her peace, loved nothing more than to warn me that my mocking tongue would be my downfall.”

“Did she speak true?”

“That I am great mocker?”

“No. Not that. Are you fallen down?”

At this Diogenes laughed, a true and hearty laugh. “It depends on who you ask. If you were to ask my grandmother the swineherd’s daughter, I think she would answer that I have done well enough. I am my own man.”

“What would your mother say?”

The girl was perceptive. Did she mean it as a barb?

“My mother is dead,” he replied curtly.

Was he allowing the girl to get to him after all?

“You must be very clever, I think,” said the girl.

“Oh?”

“To find your way through this forested wasteland. I could not do it.”

“This is no wasteland,” said Diogenes. “We would have to journey far north of these lands to reach anything that might be called such. And even there, great beauty is to be found.”

“I have traveled only from the village of my birth to the tsar’s city,” admitted the girl. “That, I have done many times. And I mean to journey to Talisfarne for schooling, if I can persuade my father.”

“What brought you to the tsar’s great city of Nyiv?” Diogenes asked, curious.

“My father wished to marry me to the duke’s son,” she said tartly. Then she seemed to reconsider. “Or perhaps he did not wish it. Perhaps he felt bullied into it. Duke Bartholomes is a dangerous man, they say.”

“And you? Did you wish to marry the duke’s son?”

“I do not care for beets,” she replied.

The two were silent for a count of three and then laughed aloud at the same moment.

“Fortunately for me,” she said, “the duke saw something in me that he could not like for his son. We never even met, the son and I.”

“You would have been very wealthy,” Diogenes said. “I am sorry for your disappointment.”

“I am not disappointed. Wealth does not bring happiness or kindness or anything worth having.”

“Those with empty bellies might beg to disagree,” said Diogenes.

She paused for a moment before saying, “I spoke carelessly. I beg pardon.”

“It is yours before asking,” Diogenes replied politely in Rosiyska fashion.

“I have known hunger,” she said, “but only for a week at most, at winter’s end. It is grievous that some know it daily.”

“A sentiment worthy of a princess,” Diogenes said.

“I am not—”

“A princess. Yes, I know, Princess.” And then, abashedly, he added, “Yes, I know, Astrid. Also? You speak the Rosiyska tongue quite well. Do not sell yourself short on that account.”

As this, Astrid seemed to perk up a bit. She smiled, at any rate.

“Diogenes?”

“Yes, Astrid?”

“I am hungry.” She said it as if with reluctance. “It can wait, if you do not wish to stop.”

“I do not wish to stop,” said Diogenes, “nor need we stop.” He reached for a packet nestled under their seat. “Do you care for cake with dried fruit?”

“Oh, yes! Please,” she added politely. “I wish we had such cakes at home. Perhaps we might save it so that my cook can study how it is made?”

“There will be more of the like at the cottage tonight. It is a common provision.”

“We stop at a cottage? I thought we would sleep in the cart. That was the way of things on my journey here.”

“I am told the duke keeps a cottage from which he can hunt or fish when the mood takes him,” explained Diogenes. “It is off the main road, but his steward gave me careful directions so that we might find it and take our rest in down-filled beds tonight.”

“And you are certain there will be such a cake?”

“Assuredly. It preserves well,” said Diogenes. “That is its principal virtue. We can expect such a cake, and perhaps a honey cake too, along with strips of dried venison, dried fish, and as much knackebrot as you can eat. We are to take stores from the cottage for the remainder of our journey.”

“How odd,” said the girl.

Diogenes frowned. It was a little odd that the merchant should prefer them to deplete his stores at a far-away cottage when his table at home groaned with food.

“There is no accounting for the whims of the wealthy,” Diogenes said with a shrug. And then, because the girl was probably among the wealthy, he added, “Present company excepted, of course.”

The girl laughed in response. Her laugh was at once merry and musical and pleasant, and Diogenes decided that perhaps he had been wrong to goad her, if the reward for kind speech was such laughter.

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