Giving Back

When the man walked in, Mira took a long look at the armor he wore and sighed slowly. There was no way that he, a soldier of the Imperial Guard, would fail to notice what she was doing, fail to notice that she didn’t belong here. She was the right age to fit in among the young princesses and their entourage, but she was wrong. Too skinny, too dirty, too uneducated. In short, a peasant. But Mira could hope that he wouldn’t notice. The princesses hadn’t, after all. Maybe she would be safe.
The other girls were giggling now, discussing a feast and dresses. All the while, Mira did her best to eat the light tea and cakes like one who wasn’t starving. She had expected the guard to say something by now, to cast her out of the palace. Instead, he had carefully made sure she had gotten slightly more food and a chance to clean up before sitting down at the table.
As the evening wore on, Mira waited for the other shoe to drop. It had to. Nice things like this didn’t happen for people like her. She would be fined, which she couldn’t pay. Or imprisoned. Or worse. The other girls were heading back to family estates and she would head back to her own street corner to sleep. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder and look up into the face of that man, the Imperial Guard.
“Come on, Mira”
“What?”
Mira tensed up, ready to run. Then he smiled.
“It was nice of you to wait while the other girls went home” He glanced around and gestured, showing that no one else was around. “But you should get cleaned up and ready for bed.”
As he led her through the back passages of the palace, he paused.
“Tell me the truth, Mira. You’re an orphan, yes?”
She nodded slowly.
“From the war or the plague?”
“B-both, Sir.”
He nodded again.
“If anyone asks, you’re my daughter. They know I had…” He paused. “The plague. It was as bad here as it was in the city, I promise. And if you’re clever enough to sneak in here, then I think you deserve something for it. You’re also the same age my girl would have been… So, to my mind, the gods are giving us both something back. You a home, and me a child.”
She blinked, uncertain. Then she smiled.
“Will I always get to play with the other girls like that?”
“Until they’re young ladies. I’m afraid then they’ll get conceited and think they’re better than a mere soldier’s daughter.”