“They still won’t eat the oranges?”
Elena sat with her hands folded in her lap; her host, Princess Kilar, sprawled across her daybed. It was hot, too hot for proper posture – unless it was expected of you. No one expected anything of a princess in her own rooms, but of Elena, a great deal was expected, including some discomfort.
“We aren’t…accustomed to them.” Elena and her family had been plucked out of the famine-riddled countryside weeks ago after the princess learned there was royal blood in Elena’s family. Kilar thought it droll to have distant cousins visiting; Elena could only think of everyone they’d left behind. “The children are daunted by the expense.”
“But nothing is an expense here.” The princess sat up. Elena suspected she was genuinely confused. “Here they can have whatever makes them happy, the poor lambs.”
Someone always pays the expense, she thought. Instead, she said, “So I keep telling them, Your Highness.”
“Eight weeks is a long time to be a guest,” the princess continued. “Surely they must have settled in by now.”
“They’re children; they miss home.”
“Even when at home there was no food? Devastating heat?”
Elena shrugged. “It was home.”
Ellen thought to challenge her to some empathy, to imagine how Kilar might feel if she had to leave this castle, but she expected the retort would be that the castle was beautiful and comfortable – a place worth missing. So Elena quietly accepted the cup of chilled wine a servant brought for her and sipped.
The next day, she came across Rohan and Reza sitting enraptured on the floor before the princess. Kilar had just finished peeling an orange, keeping the peel in one complete ribbon, which she curled it back into a simulacrum of an orange, to their amazement. By the boys’ knees were piles of coin-sized chunks of peel, and a tidy pyramid of peeled fruit stood on a platter between them.
“Look, Mama, she can make a snake!” Rohan pointed at the princess’ hollow orange.
“I made a piece this big!” Reza held up a piece of peel the size of her thumb.
“Well done, Reza, you’re learning quickly.” Elena raised an eyebrow at the princess. “How many oranges have you gone through today?”
“It’s no trouble – there are plenty.” Kilar gestured to a bowl next to her. Even after all their practice, at least a dozen oranges were still heaped inside. It reminded Elena of the solstice feast six years ago at the regional governor’s house, when each family was gifted a bushel of oranges. It was expected that they would gorge themselves on fruit before it rotted; everyone in Elena’s household savored two oranges, then she turned the rest into preserves.
“And how many have you eaten?” she asked the boys pointedly.
“Five!” Reza announced.
“I don’t feel good,” Rohan said.
“Perhaps I should take them, Your Highness.” Elena scooped Rohan into her arms.”I’m sure they’ve given you enough trouble for one day.”
“But I want to learn to make the snake!” Reza’s sticky fingers clutched her velvet skirt and she winced. Somewhere in this castle, someone did Elena’s laundry, and she had no idea who. Kilar had assured her that Elena’s household staff would be brought to the castle, but Elena wasn’t sure she’d ever followed through. It was a hallmark of the royal staff to be as unobtrusive as possible; perhaps Chari was here, watching her former family from a distance.
“The princess has responsibilities to attend to,” Elena said. “Come.”
She looked back to see Kilar disinterestedly separating the peeled oranges into segments, laying them out in rows on their platter.
“So how many did you eat, Rohan?” she asked.
Elena frowned. “But you feel sick?”
“I’m not sick at all, Mama.” He parted his vest. Heaped inside his shirt were several oranges – still, mercifully, in their peels.
“Rohan, why are there oranges in your shirt?”
“I wanted to give them to Chari. She hasn’t gotten to have any oranges at all. All Kilar wants to do is peel them.”
“Princess Kilar, Rohan.” But she hid a smile. “What about your brother?”
“I let him eat the ones I peeled.”
Beside her, Reza nodded emphatically. “They taste like solstice!”
There had been oranges after that particular solstice, but not nearly as many, nor as sweet. Chari and the other staff wouldn’t have tasted oranges in years.
She set Rohan on his feet. “Give Chari your oranges, then, and my blessing.”