Lena spent her entire life watching the city’s young lords and ladies from kitchen doors and servant’s passages. The bright people flooded her establishment each night with beautiful smiles, cruel words, and raucous laughter.
Their tide caught the careless. A maid or stableboy might draw an eye, accept a drink, or blush just a little too much. It was never long before the aristocracy’s nasty penchant for use and abuse revealed itself beneath their stolen kisses and gilded gifts.
When Lena inherited the establishment and grounds, she advised her staff to keep their smiles chaste and their hands to themselves. Their glamorous patrons were clientele to be served, plied with food and drink, wrung dry for coin, and then sent off the next morning with hazy but pleasant memories.
Lena kept her own distance, managing the ebb and flow of staff, city folk, travelers, and nobles with two feet firmly planted on her establishment’s floorboards.
But he was alone on the back kitchen steps and so obviously miserable Lena found herself curious.
The despondent lord looked to be about her age, old enough take the ferry over to the lake’s island and enjoy himself in her bars, gambling dens, and dance halls, though sufficiently young enough that such behavior would be expected, perhaps even encouraged. Even through the night, she could make out the sun-streaks in his hair and the almost golden cast to his dark skin.
A discarded coat lay crumpled next to him on the step, a green silk sleeve soaking up mud. This late in the evening, he should be inside sweet talking someone up to a room with what Lena knew must be a handsome smile. Instead, he was hunched on her steps.
Lena hovered at the corner of the stables. She needed to get into the kitchen, but was remiss to break the melancholy spell about him. The issue resolved itself when he looked up and noticed her stare. As if caught doing something far worse than sulking on back steps, he pushed himself to his feet as Lena walked up.
“Sorry.” He said. She had been right, this close she could see the gold in his dark hair.
“No harm done. Are you lost?” She asked. Occasionally drunks found their way into the oddest places, but there was no sour smell on his skin or breath.
“No, not really. Just–am I not supposed to be here?”
“Not really.” Lena bent to pick up his coat. It was ruined, the fine silk and soft lining thoroughly soaked with dirty water. “Are you okay?”
His smile was guileless if still a little morose. Lena felt her face warm like she’d wandered into sunshine. He didn’t seem to notice his soiled coat in her hands. “Better now. My friends left, and my purse…”
“Stolen?” It happened sometimes. But it meant he wouldn’t have anything to pay the ferry back to the city with. Not a tragedy, his family would come get him quickly enough, but probably not the night and morning he wanted. If he hadn’t ruined his coat, he might have been able to barter with it. Lena stepped around him and opened the kitchen door. The air was warm within.
The lord shrugged. “Or lost. I don’t know. I just sat down to think, didn’t know what else to do.”
Lena nodded and stepped into her kitchen, dropping his coat in the only open sink. He followed her in without invitation, which didn’t annoy her as much as it should. “Would you like an alternative to sitting and thinking?”
He nodded. “Sure.”
Despite herself, she smiled at him sideways. Then she tossed him a rag and pointed to the heaps of dirty dishes spilling over the counter from most the sinks. “Try not to break anything. An hour of washer’s wages will cover the ferry ride.”
He blinked at first, and Lena thought he’d bluster and refuse. But then his face broke into the most handsome smile she’d ever seen. Lena put a hand on the counter as the lord turned uncomplaining to the dull work and tried to recall a bit of advice she’d heard once.