“Aye, that man,” she said, amusement in her voice, “But don’t let any of them hear that tone of voice in regards to their noble personages. Whimsical lot, nobles. Got a thing for whipping people to ‘set an example’, or removing their heads entirely if the mood suits.”
“They wouldn’t,” I said, appalled, but the baker’s face turned grim.
“Aye, they would. They have. I’ve seen it in the capital-. Brutal punishments for the tiniest offenses- sometimes no offense at all, just spite or boredom. So watch your tone and watch your manners and do your best to avoid them entirely.”
“But- but they can’t,” I protested, now more carefully examining the faces of the men and women arrayed before us. “They’re- they’re nobles! They’re supposed to protect the common people!”
She shook his head, plastering a fake, insipid smile on his face as one of the elegant women- with a brittle look around the eyes- happened to glance our way.
“And who’s to stop them?” she said through clenched teeth. “As far as they’re concerned, nobility means the wealth and power to do what they want- and they’re right. Whoever has the most wealth has the most power, and is therefore the most noble, by grace of God above. And no one is more noble than the king- who is probably the worst of the lot, from what I’ve heard.”
As we’d been talking, my father had continued to kneel before the young king- at first he had seemed to laugh at something, but then he grew very pale indeed, and began to tremble.
“Something’s wrong,” I said, and moved towards him. The baker grabbed my arm.
“Don’t be a fool, girl. Better to stay back out of their reach.”
I shook off the restraining hand. “Not when they have my father.”
I ran up to my father, remembered to curtsy deeply to the nobles, then dropped to my knees to support him. Before I could ask what ailed him, the king said,
“And is this the young lady in question?”
My head snapped up to meet a gaze ice cold and pale as green frost on the riverbanks. Beside me, my father blanched.
“Answer your king, peasant!” snapped one of the other nobles, this one dressed in a dashing russet that offset his sable hair. Air wheezed and out of my father’s chest, and he looked at me with panic, but he seemed unable to frame words.
“My father is ill, my lord,” I said. “But I will gladly answer what questions I can.”
“Ah, so you are the fabled miller’s daughter,” smiled the king, and in that moment he was quite handsome. Or might have been, if I hadn’t already decided I loathed him for terrorizing my father.
“His one and only, my lord.”
“And you can spin straw into gold,” he continued, as casually as if he was talking about the weather.
“I- I’m sorry, my lord?”
“Now now, my dear- no need to be overawed in the presence of your king, I know all about your special gift. I’ve come to see it for myself.”
For a moment I had no idea what he was talking about- but then my conversation with the smith came rushing back, and it was my turn to blanche.
“Spinning straw into... gold, my lord?”
His smile tightened. “Yes, as I have said- straw into gold. So your father bragged in the royal presence.”
“But… no one can spin straw into gold, my lord,” I said, and hated myself for the tremble in my voice.
His smile disappeared entirely, and he said in a voice that promised pain, “Are you saying your father lied to his king? That all the villagers in that tavern, who supported his claim, lied to their king?”
I felt dizzy, and understood my father’s trembling.
“Not- not lied my lord-” I whispered.
“Because lying to one’s king is punishable by death,” he said, loudly. “Which leaves us in a predicament. Because either your father- and everyone else in this village- lied to me about your ability to spin gold, or else he is lying now, when he says you cannot. Of course,” his voice gentled, and that was perhaps even more frightening, “I understand a father’s desire to protect his daughter from exploit- and a man’s desire to protect his income. I could forgive such a lie, if you were to tell the truth now. Come, fair maiden- be honest with your king. I have no wish to punish all these people- and I will not exploit you. I merely wish to see your skills put to use in the service of your kingdom!"