It wasn’t the taste of apples and honey that was offensive. In fact, Piper quite liked the two together. Every once in a while, she would get that craving, and would find herself drizzling honey over a crisp apple… it always ended in regret. There were too many memories, too many emotions. How could one fruit turn a mercenary like Piper Lancaster into a sniveling ball of mush? If any of her enemies knew…well, the chances that Piper would continue to exist were slim.
Mother had an apple orchard outside of the manor when Piper was just a little girl. For as long as she could remember, Piper would climb to the tops of the trees and shake the branches, making as many of the juicy red orbs drop to the ground as she could. She would load them up in the basket that had been weaved by some distant relative, and lug them back to the kitchen with her skinny stick arms. Pies would come out of those apples, and jam, and cider and sauce, until the whole manor smelled of the delicacies from that kitchen. Sometimes Piper was able to eat them herself; her favorite had always been the Danish that was made with a beautiful braid over the top and a glaze drizzle to make the whole thing all the more sweet. More oftentimes, she was required to take them to market, to make some sort of profit for Mother to justify keeping the brilliant chefs employed. The apple tree (and the creations of the kitchen staff) produced perfect products most every time, and Piper was always selling out with the demand for more.
That’s when he showed up. A man such as the Prince wasn’t often seen at market. He was a scholarly man, often holed up in a library somewhere, or off visiting with important people doing important Princely things. How was Piper supposed to know what the Prince did on a daily basis? He certainly wasn’t visiting the market on a random cloudy morning. Piper stared at him as he neared her cart of apple goods, her pink lips parted. She knew she looked miserable, hardly worthy of standing before a prince. Her frizzled auburn hair was in a braid over her shoulder, her freckled nose was red from the cold, even her hazel eyes had that touch of weariness that rarely seemed to go away.
“Good morning, Sire,” Piper greeted as he stopped and cast his steel gray eyes over her cart, and she immediately dropped into a curtsy. She could see his curly black hair sticking out from underneath his cloak, somehow evading all of the dampness that surrounded them. When Piper returned to her full height, he was looking directly at her, sending a frantic sort of adrenaline through her body that sent her hands shaking. “What b-brings you to our little part of t-town?”
The Prince glanced around once again, and he frowned just slightly. “You’re cold?” He said, a statement instead of a question, his voice a strange mix of gravel and softness. Immediately he swept his cloak off, leaving him in a tunic and trousers, and he swung the cloak around her shoulders just as quickly, before she could protest.
It was warm around her suddenly. Piper blushed a deep red, diverting her eyes down to the goods she was trying to sell. “I was fine, but thank you, Sire. Please, have some cider.” She made herself busy with the pot in front of her, pouring a mug of cider for her Prince, still unable to meet his eyes. Piper lifted her gaze only slightly, to see him gulp down the brew in one long swig.
“Where is this made?” He asked, his intense gray eyes boring into her.
“At our manor, all of this was made by my mother’s employees, Sire.” Still, Piper did not raise her eyes. “Does it not please you?”
“You’re a timid little mouse, aren’t you? You don’t have to avert your eyes.” He said with a little laugh, shaking his head. “It’s the best cider I’ve tasted in a long time, you have quite gifted employees. What’s your name, Mouse?”
“Lancaster, Sire. Piper Lancaster.” Had he really just called her a mouse? Was she really actually having this conversation with the Prince?
“Your father was Sir Edgar Lancaster, wasn’t he? He lead my grandfather’s army to victory in the battles against Brighton, he was practically my idol as a child.”
Piper smirked, a little bit of pride growing inside her. “He was my idol, as well,” she told him, pouring another mug of cider for him. “I used to want to be a knight, like he was, but I’m content now at the manor.”
The Prince finished his second mug of cider. “Lancasters are always welcome to come to training with my guards. Even you, Little Lancaster.” He gave her a little wink, placed his mug back down on the cart with a few coins, and turned to go.
It was because of the Prince that Piper was able to attend training with the knights of the kingdom. The royal man took an interest with her training, and she was even allowed to attend his personal sessions. This was when Piper learned that Prince Robert was not only a scholar; he could be a warrior when he had his sword at his side. He was also quickly becoming one of her closest friends—before this, Piper had only ever been close to those employed by Mother. To have someone to talk to that hadn’t been around her for her entire life was refreshing. He had a dark chuckle whenever she told stories of crawling up her apple trees and the many times that she tumbled back down to the ground. Piper had never been the most graceful of creatures.
“I’m lucky to have a lady with the reflexes of a cat by my side,” Prince Robert teased with his quiet laugh. He never laughed loudly or without thinking first. Everything about him was carefully calculated; a side effect of growing up with his every move watched. Piper couldn’t imagine living like that, but Robert didn’t seem to mind.
“Thank you, Sire,” Piper murmured, a blush crossing over her freckled nose. She wasn’t sure why he had decided to invite her to be at his side, he hadn’t explained himself to her other than the fact that she was a Lancaster. Being with him was an experience Piper was enjoying.
“You can call me by my name, Lancaster,” The Prince said, stopping his steps to turn towards her, making certain that he had grasped her attention. They had been on a walk through the woods that surrounded the castle, on their way back to the village. “We are friends, aren’t we?”
Friends? The word had caused Piper to stop in her tracks. “Of course I perceived us as friends, Sire–“
“Sire Robert,” Piper laughed in answer. “I wasn’t sure if you saw this the same way as me.”
This got a laugh out of the Prince, a real laugh. He hadn’t expected Piper’s reply. She had shocked a laugh out of him, and she beamed. “Lancaster,” he chuckled, shaking his head. “Of course we’re friends. Why else would I defy my father, and let you train with me? To be honest, though, it’s your pastries that make me want to keep you around.” He shook his head with another laugh, starting to walk again.
Piper took a moment to herself, then took a few long strides to catch up with him. “You know me, I get all my Princes with a mug of apple cider. What you didn’t know was that I laced it with drugs to keep you coming back.”
It was months later, and Piper lead the Prince through the orchard, picking apples from the lower branches, though the Prince often ate the apples that Piper threw into his basket. Collecting apples wasn’t so hard anymore, since training had started. The apple baskets seemed lighter, her spirits were brighter, and it just was less of a chore to her to lug in a load.
“There’s honey inside, stop eating my apples until we get there and it’ll make them that much sweeter.”
“Lancaster, I’ve had apples and honey before,” he told her, tossing a spoiled fruit at her.
“Oh, this is very special honey. We get it from a beekeeper outside of Brighton, he infuses fruits and spices and the most amazing flavors–”
“I get it, Lancaster. Stop, you’ve sold me on the honey. Let’s finish this, I’m hungry and I know you have apple wine somewhere in that kitchen of yours that’s better than we have at the castle.”
“Drunkard,” Piper laughed, tossing an apple back at him.
Back at the manor, Piper sliced several apples, handing him a plate of the slices, and she laid out a few bowls of the different honeys. Robert dunked a slice of apple into the honey, taking a bite. “You know, I’m used to having the honey drizzled over the apples for me. I’m a Prince, I’m not used to doing things for myself.”
“Well, you’re a big, strong man. I didn’t think you needed me to do everything for you.” Piper grinned at him, and brought a plate over to sit down next to him. The apple slice was halfway to her mouth when the Prince grabbed her wrist, brought the apple to his own mouth, taking a bite. The look in his eyes was one that Piper had seen before; he was weighing his options, only she wasn’t sure what options were going through his mind.
“I like it better this way,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper, and before Piper could think, his lips were on hers.
There was the crisp taste of the apples with the sweet heaviness of honey and cinnamon, and when it was over, all Piper could do was stare up at him. Her mind was working hard to understand what was going on, and yet no coherent thoughts were forming.
Robert wore an infuriating smirk. “Stop looking so dumbfounded, Lancaster. It’s not a good look for you. I’ve been wanting to do that for a while. With the impending war with Anoria, I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the chance.”
Piper needed wine. “Don’t talk like that, idiot,” she said, giving him a playful shove on the shoulder. The apple slices in front of them were forgotten. Piper stood and moved away, going to pour them each a goblet of wine. This wasn’t exactly how she expected today to go. A kiss from the Prince; It wasn’t anything that Piper had ever dreamed of, and yet it was everything that she wanted. More than that, it was hard to process it all. Robert wanted this as much as she did. The realization was terrible and wonderful all at the same time. But Piper needed to act normally. It wasn’t as if anything was going to go wrong with the war. She slid the goblet over to him. “Besides. You’ve got me to make sure your handsome little prince-ness gets back here in one piece.”
Robert watched her take a swig of the wine, and he did the same, contemplating for a moment. “You aren’t coming.”
“Like hell, I’m not coming.” Piper put her goblet back down, leaning against the table. “You damn well aren’t going alone.”
“I won’t be alone, Lancaster. I’ll have the whole army behind me. You’re not coming.”
“Do you think because you’re a Prince that you get the final say in this? Kiss me and then leave me behind like some helpless little housewife? I’ve been training with you, Sire. Was it all just a waste of time and energy to have me trained?”
The Prince stood, frowning at her, and he let out a sigh. “Please listen to me. You’re fierce when you’re angry, but I don’t want you in danger. You’ve been trained, but you aren’t ready for the battle this could turn into. I would worry constantly about your safety, and that could cause error in my judgements, and put all of our people at risk. Please understand.”
Piper’s eyes met his, and she almost melted with the look she saw there. “I don’t think you’re making the best decision here, Sire,” she finally murmured, looking away. “But I’ll go along with it. For now.”
Her answer brought a little smirk to his lips again, and he closed the space between him to draw her up into his arms. Robert was a Prince, after all. He got everything that he asked for. “Housewife?”
“It was all I could think of at the moment. Don’t you dare take it as an admission of anything.”
A chuckle escaped his lips, and he silenced it by pressing them to her hair. For now, things were just as he wanted them to be.
Despite what she told him, of course Piper was going to follow the Prince. With all of the troops in armor, it wouldn’t be easy for him to spot her hanging back with some of the other soldiers. So long as she kept the Prince in her sights and stayed away from him, she would be alright. Piper kept her head down, busying her hands in the mane of her horse, braiding it and unbraiding it, anything to keep her wits about her as they rode to what could be a fierce battle with Anoria.
“Bout time you showed up,” one of her comrades, Bradley, laughed, giving the girl a slap on the back. “Prince Robert said you weren’t going to show up, made it sound like you chickened out of this. Sure didn’t think that sounded like you.”
Piper was desperately trying to silence the loud man, but he continued talking, not noticing that Piper was fearfully looking at the Prince. Of course he had heard Bradley blabbering on like an idiot. No matter where the man was, everyone in the vicinity could hear him. Today would be no exception, and either would the Prince.
“Lancaster,” Robert barked, slowing down his horse so that he was back between the two. “A word.”
Here among the men, they were always polite. No one else knew about that one moment of closeness that was shared between them. Piper straightened up, bracing herself for whatever was coming. She wasn’t going to let him go at this alone. “Several, Sire,” came her retort. Bradley backed away, knowing this was going to be a conversation that he didn’t want to be involved in.
Robert’s words were soft and pressured as he spoke, his face angry. “What are you doing here? I told you to stay at home, where you’re safe.”
Piper tried as hard as she could to be serene. “And I changed my mind. No one can protect you better than me.”
“I didn’t change mine. Go home, now, before there’s danger.”
“I won’t, Sire. You need me. Think about it, we’ve trained together, side by side. I know I can help you, you just have to let me.”
If she had been thinking rationally, the look on Robert’s face should have sent her cowering. He wasn’t just angry with her, he was disappointed, and he was furious. The little vein just below his hairline was starting to bulge, the way it did when he laughed; he wasn’t laughing now. “This is over, Lancaster.” He murmured, and took a long breath. “I can’t have you around if you’re not going to listen to my orders, especially when they’re put into place for your safety. Get your things, go home. We’re done.” The final words were said almost sad, but the Prince turned and carried on with his troops as if nothing had happened, leaving Piper to sit atop her horse, watching him ride away from her smoothly.
When she rode home, she walked herself through how exactly she was going to win back his favor. She didn’t want to have to beg, but she’d do it, if that was what would work. Everything just seemed out of place without the Prince there, the loss was felt immediately when she returned to the manor. As soon as he came back, Piper was determined to fix this.
The Prince eventually did come back, on the back of a cart, with an arrow through his chest. The Royal physician stayed at his side, along with his parents, and no one else was allowed to see him. After all, no one knew of the feelings between he and Piper, as far as anyone knew, she didn’t even exist. He had come home unresponsive, and that was how he stayed until the Kingdom mourned his passing. Piper never did heal the chasm between them, he would never know how she still felt about him. She had betrayed him, and that was all Robert knew when he died.