I lay a gentle hand on Pigna’s shoulder, hoping she isn’t hungry. Always the more honest of the two of us, she sobs silently, leaning on a bound bundle of hay. She doesn’t like to lie even for the sake of survival, that’s why she can’t know. I pull my scarf up and peak out from under the canvas, checking our progress.
The dawn has barely broken, water droplets cling to long blades of grass, much longer and greener than anything we’d see back home. I can’t imagine what home looks like now. The harvest flask, a symbolic and mystical watering can that motivated our ancestors and cultivated our crops, went missing and in part started this miserable trip. Get the castle’s help, bring back the harvest flask and save our city.
The cart begins its ascent, and her sobbing stops as the weight pulls Pigna back against the hay.
“We’re almost there,” I smile. Her glossy eyes stare back, uncomprehending, before she crawls her way to my side.
“Do you think they’ll believe us?” She asks. “Do you think they’ll help?”
Up close, her cheeks look so red and raw she might as well be sunburned. I close my eyes, we’ve traveled so long our message blurs what can we even say. Once, there had been arousing speeches and self-righteous rebellions, now it feels like we abandoned our remaining family in search of false hope. A few days ago we were as good as dead, no money stuck between home and the castle, and yet through our ancestors and my quicking thinking we lived to finish our journey. I pray I did the right thing.
Pigna’s sniffles continue. I brush a hair from her face as she squints through the distant fog. She’ll see it in a few seconds: The castle, that icon of peace and stability. She fumbles for my hand, squeezing it painfully and I know she’s found it.
The entrance looms above us, and a chill runs down my side. Both of us sit our feet dangling above the ground, bags ready in anticipation. The cart stops and the merchant unbuckles the canvas above us. Instantly the wind whistles through me. Next to me, Pigna cringes.
“Are you okay?” I ask her, as the merchant meets my eyes.
I jump onto the marble tiles, nearly missing a patch of slick ice. I help Pigna down, leading her to the edge of a shallow fountain, sheltered from the wind. The merchant watches, his eyes tracking our every move.
“Help me with this hay, child!” He calls, an excuse no question. Pigna’s already lost in thought staring at her reflection in the pond, so I walk to the merchant. He grins wickedly. I move my cloak to the side and unfasten the leather bag by my side. Goosebumps spread across my arms as I reach for a gold coin.
The cool metal sticks to my skin as he takes it from me, smiling and drops it down his waistband. I recoil, take a deep breath, then nod to the bulky man. Pigna would hate me if she knew, I lower my eyes taking in the icy slush.
All of sudden, the wind lifts the flap of my bag. I shove it back in shock, fear flashing across my face an instance. I keep my expression level, glaring to hide my secret. The merchant holds my gaze, one breath, then another, I’m scared I might choke to keep my breathing level. He nods back and turns his attention to securing the canvas, none the wiser. I swallow a sigh of relief and walk slowly back to Pigna. She doesn’t even look up, stirring small circles in the pond with an already frozen finger.
“Let’s go inside, it will be warm inside.”
I support her as we walk towards the large double doors. Behind us, the merchant’s cart rolls out of the massive shadow cast by the building. My bag hangs heavy at my side, we climb the steps to begin our journey.
“So, this is her?” I ask, but the woman in question is already shaking her head.
“Just a moment,” She bows to the heavily dressed man that not so subtly accompanies us, her eyes follow him for a second before returning. “Would you like some tea?” The woman asks Pigna, but I answer.
Minutes later, she greets the decorated man and sets a tray of pristine desserts and a tea set too nice for daily use. “Just a moment,” she assures, like clockwork. “Just a moment more.”
I don’t really trust the carefully curated interior of the castle, the woman matches the wallpaper and drapery covered couch we’re sitting on so well she might as well be the mannequin to our ever-present tin soldier. The fact I mistook her for the princess speaks to the condition of our city. Is this how everyone else lives? In such extravagance? Maybe, I nod politely, they wouldn’t try to poison us would they?
Pigna shifts, her posture is too perfect for someone who spent the last day curled up in the back of a cart. I give her a tight-lipped smile and I can’t help but touch the bag on my other side. My eyes shy away from her and I busy myself with preparing a cup of tea. There’s no possible way she knows, but why do I feel so guilty.
I’m dumping spoonfuls of sugar with a shaking hand into my tea as the door flies open. Clearly not designed for this type of wear and tear, a lamp wobbles in tune to the out of breath young woman that saunters in. She’s simply dressed, which makes her stand out in a room of dominating patterns, however, my eye only sees the merchant behind her. That horrible man who will ruin me and Pigna.
“How dare you!” The woman shouts with the self-assured confidence of someone rich.
I take a risk, hopeful she’s the right one. “What do you mean, princess?”
“How dare you try to lie to me? This man told me about your plans.”
“Which are?” I reach for my tea, only to find my hands shake uncontrollably. Has she noticed?
“Kidnap me! Steal my riches! Burn the castle to the ground!” Her hysterics continue as she collapses like an accent piece onto the sofa.
“Please, we really mean no harm, we need help.” I glimpse Pigna nodding gingerly. “Our city lost a great artifact and now it’s suffering from a drought one too big to handle on our own. Please help us find it.”
“So, your city needs help finding this artifact?”
I smile sadly. “Yes, and the prophecy says...” Before I can finish the merchant interrupts.
“Check the bag by the child’s side.” Suddenly, the tin soldier’s not so stationary. He grabs the bag by my side at the same time Pigna dives for the edge of the princess’s dress.
I watch frozen as words pour from her mouth. “I’m sorry, we really only want help for our city. Long ago our ancestors pleaded with the castle for help, but they refused. So they stole water from the place and the guards thinking it was something valuable chased them all the way back to our city. After seeing the condition of the city the castle was brought to tears and built the aqueducts that run down from the mountain.”
I desperately want to stop her, tell her to be quiet again, but she barrels on. “We thought we could do what our ancestors did, convince you to help in our search for the harvest flask— that very same artifact your ancestors followed. It’s all a lie, but please accept our honesty now.”
Pigna bows deeply to the princess, who looks exactly how I feel: relieved.
“I accept your apology, but how can I trust you?”
I’m about to add something when Pigna continues with the condemning sentence.
“In the bag, you’ll find the harvest flask, we’ll return this piece of decorated gold to you.”
The guard opens the flap as I swallow slowly. He searches for a moment, before dumping an array of gold coins onto the floor.
Pigna turns at the sound and sweeps the space between the carpet and couch. The coins glimmer in her eyes and understanding dawns on her face.