Disclaimer: Okay, so I've not written in awhile. So I'm a little rusty. So you can expect this to be a bit of a "warm up" story. Oh, I know you're looking forward to this one, neh? But at least I can work the kinks out before I start in on a serious story, right? ^_^ Oh, and all these chars? They belong to someone else. Like Hajime Kanzaka. Or TV Tokyo. Or the Brothers Grimm. Or the FreeMasons. Or something. So there.

Feedback: So I like fairy tales. So sue me. ~ sailorN1@aol.com

King Thrushbeard

by Crystal Dawn Phoenix

The small servant girl gently ran her brush through the princess' long, blonde hair. The taller princess sat stately, in front of the glass vanity. The younger servant finished what she was doing and placed the brush on the dresser in front of the princess. Running a few fingers through the princess' fine golden hair, the attendant leaned away from the taller girl.

"So today is the day, your highness?", the younger, red-haired servant asked, sounding a little nervous. The blonde slumped forward a bit, looking a bit forlornly into the mirror in front of her.

"Yes, today is the day," she replied, "The King, my father, is making me choose a husband." The princess sighed, leaning on one of her hands as she placed her elbow onto the vanity. She absentmindedly twirled a piece of hair around one of her fingers.

"Are there no other options?", the attendant asked, "Lady Filia, isn't there some way out of that?" Filia looked back at the maid sadly.

"I've thought of everything," Filia replied, "And I've tried everything. But Father is tired of my stalling. I can't put him off anymore." Exasperated, Filia stood up, her long, white dress rustling as she did so. The servant seemed undeterred.

"Why don't you simply tell him that you would prefer to marry for love rather than for convenience or politics?", the servant asked, "He's a reasonable man. I'm sure he would..." Filia cut her off.

"He'd dismiss it out of hand," Filia said sourly, "I've already told him this time and again. He doesn't listen to me. I'll have to think of some other way to deter him." Filia walked slowly to her chamber door, reaching for the handle and preparing to head toward the banquet hall where her father and potential suitors were waiting. Suddenly, the maid reached for her shoulder.

"Lady Filia!", the servant girl said happily, "I've just had a terrific notion! What if none of the fiancés are fit for you? If they all had some terrible fault, your father couldn't possibly make you marry any of them!" Filia stopped and looked at the servant girl, the idea dawning in her eyes.

"I believe you're right!", she finally said, smiling, "If I can find something objectionable about each and every one of them, he'll be forced to go out and look for more! And that can give me at least a little more time! That's exactly what I'll do!"

Elated with the new idea, Filia took the handle of her chamber door and opened it, quickly hurrying toward the banquet hall to meet her father and the suitors. The walls of her father's castle had been lavishly decorated in honor of all the wealthy nobles that were coming to visit. Filia herself had been dressed in her own finery, a long white and gold dress decorating her slender frame. Her golden high heels clicked on the stones of the floor as she rushed toward the banquet hall.

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

Filia stood in front of the noblemen, studying each of them. They were mostly a burly lot, a little rough around the edges. There were a few foppish looking dandies, but on the whole, Filia found that none of them particularly suited her. Wringing her brain to come up with exactly what she disliked about each of them, the clever princess paced back and forth before the gathered nobles. Figuring it was best to just go down the row, Filia started at the end and sized the man there up and down.

"Father," Filia said finally, "You can't want me to marry this man. He's simply too coarse for me. And his height dwarfs me!" The burly red-headed man snorted, obviously insulted. He knitted his thick eyebrows together and looked down his nose at the princess.

"I don't have to take that from you," he sneered, "I'm leaving." The taller man turned on his heel and stomped out of the throne room. Filia looked after him, relieved. Well, that was one down, about twelve more to go.

Filia stepped up to the next suitor. The next one was clad all in red robes and had closed eyes. His lavender hair flew out at the ends and pointed up. Filia looked him up and down, trying to find fault with him. "Just look at this one's hair," Filia remarked, "It doesn't look as though he gave so much as one thought to this banquet tonight." The regal man looked down at her without opening his eyes.

"And how, pray tell, does that affect my abilities as a ruler?", the gentleman asked. Filia bit her tongue. He had a good point. Perhaps this wasn't as great an idea as she had thought it to be? Finally, the thought struck her.

"A man who can't take care of himself certainly can't take care of a country," she retorted coldly, "And if you didn't care enough about this feast to at least make yourself look presentable, then you obviously don't care about me too much either." She considered the case closed at that point and turned to walk to the next man in line. The next one was a tall, lanky man with shaggy green hair. Filia looked back pleadingly at her father. The tall, aged, white bearded man glared at her, folding his arms.

"Well," he said slowly, "What's wrong with that one?" Filia winced on the inside. He was not a happy man right now. But she could deal with that later. Right now she had to think up something to pick out about this man.

"He's too tall and thin, naturally," Filia remarked, not missing a beat, "I mean, his kingdom must be having some sort of famine for him to be so thin." The green haired youth glared at her, snarling.

"What do you mean, princess?", he sneered, "Are you suggesting I'm unfit to rule?" Filia turned her nose up into the air and turned away from him.

"I'm not suggesting it, sir," she replied curtly, "I'm saying it." The insulted man seemed to puff out like a bird ruffling its feathers and glared daggers at her as Filia walked to the next 'lucky' gentleman. Filia stopped before this man, sizing him up and down. He was tall and lean and dressed all in black with a small goatee on his chin. His straight purple bangs hid his eyes and the rest of his hair brushed his shoulders. Filia tried hard to think of a fault for him. Truth to tell, she found him rather attractive. But at the same time, something about him unsettled her, and she couldn't quite figure out what it was. Finally, she decided on an angle.

"You are too unkempt," Filia finally said, "Your hair is too long and I don't like your beard here. It looks like a thrush's beard." However, instead of being insulted like the other suitors, this one just grinned at her.

"My, my, Lady Filia," he remarked, "I thought princesses were supposed to be polite and humble. You certainly complain a lot to be a lady of nobility. I don't know that I should want to be married to a woman who finds fault in so many places." He wagged his finger condescendingly at her, smiling the entire time. Filia felt her face turn hot as her dander started to rise. This man was pushing her buttons rather quickly. She gritted her teeth and tried to maintain her composure.

"Well, I only find fault where there is fault to be seen," she replied frostily, "And your appearance has too many faults for my tastes." While he continued to smile, it was obvious that it was strained under the surface.

"Perhaps, Princess," he replied firmly, "You are only finding the faults in your mind. Surely there can't be that many imperfect men in the world. I think you are creating the faults you are pointing out." Filia's eyes got wide as the nobleman opened one of his slanted eyes at her. She could feel her cheeks turning bright red as she brought one of her hands across his face, hard.

The resounding slap echoed in the elegant banquet hall, making the other guests gasp and chatter quietly. "You thrush-bearded buffoon!", Filia screeched, taking a step backward, "How dare you! You... King Thrushbeard!" He looked at her curiously, bringing a hand up to feel his stinging face.

"What kind of insult is that?", he asked, genuinely amused by the princess. Filia fumed and balled her fists up. She huffed at him before turning her back on him and storming out of the banquet hall. The entire room followed the princess out the doors with their eyes.

"Filia!", her father barked, rising from his gilded seat at the head of the room, "Get back here this second, young lady!" The only response he heard was a slamming set of doors.

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

"You're an absolute disgrace!", the white bearded, white haired old man yelled, "I've gone to all this trouble to find suitable fiances for you, and what do you do? You throw it all back in my face like this! Is my judgement not good enough for you!?" Filia looked wide-eyed at the King, her lip trembling. She wasn't expecting him to react like this, but in reality, there was nothing else she should've expected. Of course he was going to be upset with this farce.

'I should've realized he wouldn't just accept this quietly,' Filia thought to herself. She hung her head and stared at the bottom of her dress. She knew the tirade was probably just beginning.

"You do realize that now I won't be able to find any noblemen willing to take you for wife," he growled, "Now none of them want anything to do with you. They all believe you a shrew, and I'm sure they're right!" Filia's face turned red. Why was he so stubborn?

"But how can you expect me to marry someone coarse or sloppy?", she asked angrily, "I don't want to be with anyone who'll make me mis-"

"Silence!", the King ordered, "I'm through with being diplomatic with you! This is absolutely inappropriate! If you can't get married like a worthy princess, then you won't be a princess." Filia's eyes flew wide open and her jaw dropped.

"What are you saying!?", she shrieked, "You're not disowning me, are you?!" The King glared down at her from his throne.

"As punishment for your arrogance and foolishness," he bellowed, "You will be married to the next peasant I see!" Filia was stunned. She moved her mouth, trying to form words, but they just wouldn't come out.

"B-bu-but," she stammered, "What will happen to me?" The King dismissed her with a wave of his hand and turned his face away toward a window.

"It matters not to me," the King replied, "I have other heirs. You've made your nest, now you can lie in it. I have nothing more to say to you." Filia stared at him for another second in disbelief before tears started to form at the corner of her eyes. Angrily, she wiped futilely at them and turned to storm out of the room.

"How can you be so cruel!?", she cried, tearing past the chamber guards and slamming the door shut behind her. The King scowled after the retreating form of his daughter. A second passed before the elderly man heard a light tune floating into the room through an open balcony door. A small smile curled on his lips as he listened to the musician play. Slowly, he rose from his throne and stepped over to the balcony from which the music was coming. Looking down onto the terrace below, he saw the musician: a long, thin man, dressed in black, with shoulder-length purple hair tied in a ponytail in the back of his head. He was casually picking at a guitar, making distinct notes with his fingers, sounding for all the world like a professional traveling musician.

"You down there," the King said, smiling wickedly, "Why don't you come up here and have a word with me, sir?" The musician looked up at the King with slanted, piercing eyes and grinned sharply and crookedly.

"Thank you for the invitation, Your Highness," the musician replied, amused, "I'll be right up."

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

"What!?", Filia exclaimed, infuriated, "This lean fellow!? He's practically emaciated! You expect me to marry him?! And he's not just a peasant, he's a starving musician! I can't marry someone like that!" Filia was standing before her father and beside her husband-to-be in their throne room, railing like a madwoman. She had several large pieces of luggage that her servants had packed for her behind her against a wall. Her father sat serenely on his throne, sipping a goblet of wine as she wailed.

"But Filia, dear," the musician protested, "Your father has already pronounced that we're married. Isn't that right, sir?" The King looked at his agonizing daughter and smiled cruelly.

"That's exactly right," he replied, "Do treat her well, Xellos. She was a princess, after all." Filia began to protest, but was silenced by a commanding arm sliding around her waist. She looked as if she might turn green for a second, but tried to inch as far away from him as she possibly could.

"Oh, that won't be a problem, Your Highness," the musician replied politely, "I'll treat her just fine. I think we'll be on our way now, if you don't mind." The King nodded, smiling bitterly. "Well, then, Filia dear," Xellos said, smiling happily, "Let's go home." Filia glared at him hatefully, trying to get as far away from him as possible. Unfortunately, this only made the obnoxious man hold her tighter around the waist. He bowed politely before turning to leave, nearly dragging Filia along with him.

Half an hour later, one small bag holding Filia's belongings was strapped to the back of a pack mule, heading out of her father's kingdom. Her new spouse had refused to take any more of her luggage than that, contending that the mule wouldn't be able to carry the load. Filia wasn't taking it well at all. As a matter of fact, she was currently sulking behind her new husband, fully intent on not uttering a single word to him.

"Well, Filia dear," Xellos happily, ignoring the death glare he received from Filia.

"Don't call me that!", Filia blurted out, turning red in the face, "I don't want anything to do with you!" She folded her arms unhappily and turned her head to the right, trying to look anywhere but the back of his head.

"Anyway, Filia dear," Xellos said, smirking, "What I wanted to know is, what kind of work can you do?" Filia felt a little confused. Why was he asking this? She'd been made to marry the man, not become his slave!

"What do you mean by work?", she asked sourly, "I'm a princess. That is work, isn't it?" Xellos smirked, not looking back.

"Correction, dear," he replied, "You were a princess. You don't even know what work is, do you?" Filia turned red in the face, holding her breath in anger.

"How dare you!", she growled, "I don't have to sit here and be insulted like this." Incensed, Filia pushed herself off the back of the mule and tried to jump to the ground. Her footing failed, sending her tumbling to her knees clumsily as Xellos stopped the mule. Furious, she pushed herself up off of the ground and indignantly brushed some of the mud and grass off of her skirts and began walking away from the mule. "I'm leaving!", Filia cried.

"Where will you go, Filia, dear?", Xellos asked, smirking, "You're not in your kingdom anymore." Filia began to walk a little slower.

"Well... I'll... I'll walk to this kingdom's palace and they'll take me in for awhile," she replied, not turning around, "They'll know me from my royal court..." Xellos continued grinning at her as she walked slowly.

"Oh, everyone in this kingdom knows who you are," Xellos replied smugly, "They all know how you insulted the prince of this kingdom, the one you called King Thrushbeard..." Filia stopped walking and turned back around slowly.

"He lives here?", Filia asked timidly, suddenly wishing she hadn't been quite as rude to that particularly aggravating prince. Xellos continued smirking at her haughtily.

"Oh, yes, all this land is his kingdom," he replied, "It could've been yours, too, if you weren't so shrill." He cracked open one slanted eye and fixed her with it. Filia stepped back a little, disappointed in the realization that he was right. She stood there for a while longer in indecision, not knowing whether to get back on the mule or not. "Well," Xellos finally spoke up, "Are you going to come with me, or are you going to stand out here and freeze?" Filia glared at him.

"Fine!", she yelled, finally, stomping toward the mule, "I'll go with you, but I don't have to like it." She got onto the back of the mule and situated herself before he started it moving again. "Not as if I have much choice," she mumbled to herself as she crossed her arms.

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

It was shortly after nightfall when the newlyweds reached Xellos' tiny little cottage. It was on the outskirts of the capital village of the kingdom, keeping them close to the market places. Filia stepped in, dirty and tired from her long journey, and couldn't see anything in the dark little hut. Xellos stepped ahead of her, going to light a lamp. As soon as he did, it illuminated the small room. Filia looked around in shock. Everything in the room was made of wood or straw, and the floor was made of dirt. There was a small wood burning stove and a few pots and pans lying around. There was a spinning wheel in one corner of the room and a large pallet in the back of the room that was obviously meant for sleeping. Filia looked around dumbfounded.

"Wh-where are the other rooms?", Filia asked, shocked, "I don't see any other doors... How do you get to the other parts of the house?" Xellos looked at her as if she had grown another head.

"There are no other rooms," he said dryly, "This is the house." Filia's eyes widened in horror and filled with tears as she sank to the dusty floor in despair. Xellos ignored her and sat his guitar down in one of the corners before sitting down in the floor on the large pallet of blankets. He pulled his shirt off and threw it onto a small nearby wooden stool. Filia continued to stare blankly ahead, totally oblivious to anything he might do. She was still staring blankly when a soft, somewhat musty, woolen blanket hit the side of her head. Un-dazed, she glared at the purple-haired man, who was now lying on the pallet with his arms behind his head.

"What was that for?!", she demanded, pushing the dusty blanket to one side. Xellos turned his head to look at her.

"You want to sleep, don't you?", he asked simply, "I was just giving you a blanket." Filia ground her teeth. He had to be the rudest man she'd ever met.

"Well, what do you expect me to do with it?!", she yelled, "There are no beds here! Do you expect me to sleep on the floor like a filthy dog!?" The corner of Xellos' eye twitched, but he continued to smile at her, albeit tensely.

"I suppose you could try sleeping standing up, but I really hadn't thought about that," he replied rather curtly, "I was thinking you could sleep over there, but if you want to sleep over here with me, you're more than welcome." Filia made a noise somewhere between gagging and hissing at him.

"You are the most disgusting, irritating...", Filia ranted, oblivious as Xellos reached over and turned the oil lamp down. The room was soon left entirely in darkness. Afraid, and feeling more alone than she ever had in her life, Filia begrudgingly draped the blanket around her shoulders and huddled into it. She leaned against the weak wall of the straw and wood hut, hoping it wouldn't collapse on top of her. Slowly, she curled into a little ball on the ground along side of it. Shivering and dirty, Filia's eyes began to water in anger. She buried herself in the soft blanket and sniffled unhappily. The thought occurred to her that if she went to sleep, then perhaps she could wake up and have this all have been a bad dream. Determined that that was exactly what she should do, Filia tried to will herself to sleep. Being a princess, however, and being in a strange place, she found it nearly impossible. But sleep did come, slowly enough, and before she knew it, it was morning.

The morning light from one of the wax paper windows of the little hut poured in and struck Filia squarely in the face. Wincing from the brightness, Filia tried to turn her face away and go back to what she began to loosely refer to as sleep. Several minutes later, just when she thought she was close to falling back asleep, a loud banging noise almost frightened her out of her blanket. Filia jumped up, startled and awake, and looked around the tiny room frantically. The source of the noise wasn't hard to find.

Xellos was standing beside the wood burning stove, where he'd placed a pot of water to boil. He was holding a pan and a pot, which had obviously been the origin of the noise, and grinning like a cat. "It's time to wake up!", he said chipperly, "I trust you slept well?" Filia calmed down enough to turn to face him and glare at him as he put down the pot and pan and picked up a spoon.

"Exactly how well can one sleep on a cold, dirty floor with nothing but a dusty blanket to wrap themselves in?", she asked angrily. Fuming, she flounced down onto the blanket, sending a small cloud of dust to hang in the early morning sunlight under the window.

"Oh, I don't know," Xellos replied, adding something from a canister into the pot of water, "I slept very well, thank you." Filia pulled her knees up to her chest and glared at him harder. Obliviously, Xellos stirred his pot before bringing the spoon to his mouth and tasting what he had just made. Satisfied, he dumped some of the stuff into a bowl, put a spoon in it, and offered it to Filia. She looked at it warily for a moment before cautiously taking it from his hands.

"What is this stuff?", she asked, sniffing of the tan colored, lumpy substance in the bowl. Xellos took what was left in the pot and sat down on his blanket and began eating.

"Oatmeal," he replied after swallowing a bite. Filia saw him eating it and decided that it must be at least suitable for human consumption. She slowly took a spoonful into her mouth and chewed it suspiciously. Her eyes began to water as she struggled to swallow the foul-tasting stuff. "Something the matter?", Xellos asked, watching her set the bowl down.

"It's terrible!", Filia replied, "I'm not eating food that awful!" The corner of Xellos' eye twitched, but he kept smiling at her.

"You need to eat something, because you're going to be working today," he replied matter-of-factly, "You'll need to have energy." She continued glaring at him.

"I'll starve first!", she said contemptuously, "I'm not eating that slop." His eye twitched once again at the insult before he stood and took a canister from one of the flimsy shelves lining the walls. He opened a canister and took a scoop of something out of it. He calmly walked over to Filia and poured the scoopful of white powder into her bowl. She crinkled her nose at the offering. "What's that supposed to be?", she asked in disdain, "Are you trying to poison me?"

"It's sugar, you shrew," he replied, trying to force the smile to remain in place on his face, "What would I have to gain from poisoning you? Stir that into your oatmeal and then eat it." Filia glared at him for insulting her, but conceded to eat the oatmeal anyway. It wasn't as bad with the sugar in it, but it still didn't make her happy, being forced to eat it and all.

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Aren't you good at anything?", Xellos snapped, almost teasingly, at the blonde princess. She gave him a look halfway between a glare and a pout. He snatched the wooden basket she'd been trying to weave away from her and set it on the floor. Filia was holding her fingers, which were now red and tender from cuts inflicted by the blades of reed she'd been trying to weave together into the shape of a basket. Filia's pride and hands were far too hurt for her to bother answering him at this point. She blew on the burning cuts, trying to get them to stop hurting a little bit as she whimpered.

"I should've married that stupid King Thrushbeard," she lamented to herself, "I wouldn't have to try to weave these baskets and I wouldn't have to put up with this imbecile yelling at me." She began to cry, helplessly mopping the tears on her face with her scratched up hands. Xellos didn't look thrilled with being called an imbecile at any rate. He sat the half-finished basket down and folded his arms, looking rather surly.

"If you weren't so arrogant, you wouldn't be married to this imbecile, now would you?", he asked coldly, "I'm not very happy with you constantly wishing you were married to another man, you know." This, of course, made her cry harder. "If you're trying to make me feel sorry for you, it won't work," he said calmly, trying not to look at the sobbing woman. By this point, her crying had turned into something more closely resembling a full-fledged wail. He crossed his arms across his chest and stuck his nose in the air, looking away from him. Truth be told, he really didn't know exactly how to handle the crying princess. He looked down at the half-woven basket and back up at her, grimacing at her whining. "Eh, okay, so I didn't mean it," he recanted haltingly, patting her on the back gently, "Maybe we've just not found what you're good at yet, huh? I mean, there must be something, right? Surely a princess wouldn't be so untalented and useless..."

Several hours later, after Filia had finally stopped crying, she was seated at the spinning wheel Xellos had set up in a corner of the little house. He was trying to coax her through the task of spinning thread, with little luck. Her soft fingers, already tender from the attempted basket weaving, were getting redder and redder from the string pulling across them. She made a continuous whimpering noise to match the whirring of the spinning wheel.

"Oh, come on," Xellos said, losing his patience, "It's not that difficult. See, like this..." He guided her hands across the thread, helping her use the spindle and such as she peddled the wheel. They went on like this for a few more minutes, doing passable work, until Filia pricked her finger on the shuttle. She jerked back, causing the thread she was spinning to snap and the spindle to go flying across the room. This caused the whole spinning wheel to rock, sending Filia tumbling to the floor beside Xellos. The next second, the whole wheel collapsed, falling on top of a dazed Filia.

Xellos watched, sweatdropping, as Filia shoved the wheel off her legs and began sobbing again. He sighed, defeated, and watched her hold her finger as she cried.

"Here, let me see it," he said, irritated. She glared at him and tried to keep her finger out of his reach, but he was a little too fast for her. He examined her finger. It was obvious that her finger had been cut as the end of it was covered in blood. The rest of her fingers were still red and tender from the weaving and spinning. Gently, he began to blow on the wound to ease the stinging. Filia's crying slowed down a bit as she wiped her eyes and sniffled. The hurting began to go away as Xellos blew on the wounds. He took a closer look at the injured finger before giving the cut a small kiss. Filia watched him, startled and blushing. "There," he said quietly, taking the hem of his shirt and wiping the blood off her finger, "Is that better?" Filia nodded mutely, unable to comprehend his show of compassion. She watched silently as he stood up and began to gather the pieces of the spinning wheel from off the floor, ruffling his hair with his fingers every so often. "Tomorrow," he said finally, breaking the silence, "I guess I can go and find you some pottery to sell at the market. Hopefully you'll be able to do that much at least. You've got to have some use to you." Filia glared at him for that remark.

"And what exactly do you do?", she snapped, still holding her aching hands, "I didn't see you going out to plow fields or sell fruit today. You only want me so you can make me work to support you, don't you?" The corner of Xellos' eye began to twitch again as he turned around to look at Filia, his earlier goodwill apparently forgotten.

"I sing for my supper, lady," he said with a sniff, "I lost a whole day's pay by staying here and trying to find something you're good at." He had reassembled the spinning wheel by then, and was setting it upright in the corner of the little hut. Frustrated, he walked to his pallet and lay down, turning the oil lamp down and leaving the hut in the shade of the early evening. "Go to sleep," he said, rolling to turn his back toward her, "We'll try again tomorrow." Filia sat in silence instead of making any motion to go and find the blanket she'd slept with the night before.

Slowly, the shadows in the room began to deepen until it was nighttime outside. Filia finally gave in and found the blanket she'd used before, laying down this time, and using it to lay on. However, being a princess and being used to sleeping on very soft mattresses, she found the cold, hard ground less than comforting. She tossed and turned for a long time, trying to claim sleep, but it wouldn't come.

After a number of hours, Filia found herself staring at the wall of the hut, with nothing left to do but think. Her eyes wandered over to Xellos' sleeping form. He had turned in his sleep to face her, and even though she was a good distance away, she could still see his face in the dim light. She had to admit, he wasn't bad looking at all, even for a commoner. His delicate purple hair framed his face as he slept, gently moving as he breathed.

'I wonder what it would be like to kiss him?', Filia thought idly to herself, 'I could if I wanted. I am supposed to be his wife. I've never really kissed anyone before, though. What if I don't do it right?' She continued thinking and watching him as she slowly crawled over beside him. She lay down closer to him than before, but still not too close. Curiously, she began to inch closer and closer to him, until her face was only about an inch or so away from his. She could feel his breath on her cheek as she moved in to give him a kiss.

Suddenly, Filia paused. There was something odd that she was sure she'd overlooked before. She was certain that her own perfume had worn off by now, but she could swear that she smelled some sort of cologne. Curious, she sat up and sniffed at Xellos' neck. Did peasants wear cologne? She was almost certain that only courtesans could afford to wear it. She sat up, becoming angry. He must have stolen some while he was at her father's estate. That was the only explanation she could think of for it.

"What do you want, Filia?" The sudden question startled her out of thinking as she looked down to see Xellos looking up at her. She blushed in the dark and gathered her blanket up around her. "Are you having trouble sleeping?", he asked, turning his back to her.

"No," she lied, "I just woke up. I'm going back to sleep now." She took her blanket and began to crawl back toward the other side of the room. She could feel her face burning hot as she patted the blanket down on the floor and lay down on it.

"You can take a sleeping drought if you like," he suggested, suppressing a yawn. Filia turned her back to him.

"No, I'm fine," she insisted. She curled up in the blanket and waited quietly for sleep to come.

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Pottery! Fine wares!", Filia cried, holding an earthenware pot up for the throng of shoppers to see. Xellos had acquired enough pots and dishes for her to sell during the morning and by noon, she had laid them out onto a large blanket in the market square. So far, she had sold a fair deal of it, owing mostly to her good looks. Filia was at least grateful for that much, and that she had actually found something she was good at.

Xellos had left earlier to find a crowd to sing to, leaving Filia on her own to sell the mass of dishes on her blanket. Truthfully, Filia was glad that he'd left her by herself for a little while instead of cooping her up in the tiny cabin with him for another day. She had time to think and the townspeople were comforting to talk to. She'd never been this far out among the common folk in her entire life. They were helping to take her mind off of recent events and Xellos in particular. He had been obnoxious and downright cruel to her at times. But the night before, he'd shown a much nicer side, even became gentle with her. She kept finding her thoughts wandering back to him. She pondered over the cologne she'd smelled and didn't know whether she should be furious about it or not. She even began wondering if she should give in and actually try to be a wife to him, or try to love him.

Filia took coins from one lady and handed a pot to another. She had been busy since she'd laid her blanket out and she was grateful for it. She learned about the kingdom from the peasants that were buying her wares as she talked to them. They talked about the king and taxes and weather and farming and other such mundane things. One particular little old lady had taken such a liking to Filia that she'd braided her hair with a few pink ribbons and bought several pieces of pottery from her.

It was now nearing sundown and the crowd had begun to thin a little. Filia had sold a lot of what Xellos had gathered for her, but she still had plenty of wares set out on her blanket. She had collected a whole vase full of coins that were sitting beside her on the blanket. Even though the crowd was beginning to disperse, business was still fairly good.

Suddenly, there was a rustle in the crowd as several people ran past Filia. She looked curiously in the direction they'd come from. There was a huge commotion several yards away. Filia could hear shouts and screams as the commotion moved toward her. As it got closer, she could make out some of the townspeople's cries. Filia stood to be able to hear what they were saying better. She heard shouts of "Look out!", "It's a drunk!", and "Out of the way!", as well as the sound of a horse whinnying. A few seconds passed before she realized that the whole commotion was right on top of her.

The source of the problem was a soldier on horseback, who was obviously inebriated and had lost control of his horse. The animal stomped this way and that, overturning stalls and merchandise, but somehow managing not to harm anyone. Filia gasped as the beast came within a few inches of her face and demolished the remaining pottery on her blanket and sent her money flying. Her eyes widened in horror when she realized what had just happened. She looked up at the soldier as his steed continued to thrash about. There was a helmet covering all but his eyes, but she still felt there was something familiar about him. Before she could look any closer at him, though, he had already moved on to another part of the crowd away from her.

Filia looked at the shattered pottery at her feet. Tears began to well up in her eyes as she knelt down and tried to pick up the remaining money that hadn't been scattered too far away. The coins that had been scattered beyond her blanket were being picked up by some little boys already. Having nothing left to carry the coins in, Filia began using her apron as a basket of sorts and putting them in there.

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

An hour later, Filia was sitting on her little blanket in the hut, counting out the change she'd managed to keep from being strewn to the four winds earlier. Sadly, she found that it was only about a quarter of what she'd managed to actually make that day. She sighed and recounted the coins for the fifth time. She was almost done when Xellos walked in the door, guitar in hand.

"Well, I see you found something you're good at," he said, sitting down across from her. He bowed his head over his guitar as he tightened the tuning pegs and began plucking at the strings. Filia watched in mild fascination as he tuned the instrument. After a few minutes of tuning, he finally lifted his eyes to look at her for a second. "So, how much did you make?", he asked before returning his full attention to his tuning.

Filia looked down into her lap, not wanting to look at him. "I... F-five gold pieces," she mumbled, fidgeting with her dress. There was a loud thud as Xellos dropped the guitar in shock.

"You... Where is the rest of the pottery?", he asked incredulously, "You just didn't sell anything, right?" Filia shook her head and continued to look down at her dress.

"It's all gone," she said quietly, "Someone couldn't control their horse and they smashed everything I had. I made more money than this, at least four of five times as much!" Xellos sneered and went back to tuning his instrument.

"I should have expected this," he said under his breath, "What am I going to do with a wife that makes excuses for everything?" Filia's jaw dropped and she began glaring at him.

"I'm not making excuses!", she said angrily, "It's not my fault! I can't very well sell what's been broken, can I? My money got scattered when the horseman trampled my goods and it got taken before I could pick it up!" By now she was crying and red in the face.

"I think it's more possible that royalty don't realize the value of common pottery and you got taken advantage of in the market," he replied, not looking up from his guitar, "Now you have nothing else to sell and not much to show for it. What do you intend to do about it?" Filia crossed her arms and looked away from him.

"Well, what do you suggest I do?", she replied crossly, "There's not much that can be done about it now, is there?" Xellos glared at her.

"There aren't many things that an unskilled, naive girl can do for money," he replied snidely, "Although I have a few ideas." Filia's eyes widened and she grabbed the edge of her blanket and pulled it up to her chin.

"You… you," she stammered, eyes watering again, "You're not going to sell me to a brothel, are you?" Xellos blinked and looked at her quizzically. He looked thoughtful for a moment.

"You know, I hadn't thought of that," he replied, "But now that you mention it…" He was cut off by Filia's wailing. Genuinely amused, Xellos began to laugh.

"What are you laughing for?!", she cried at him, "It's not funny!" He stopped laughing and regarded her with a bemused smile.

"Yes it is," he countered, smirking, "You overreact to everything. You're so easy to torment! All I was going to suggest was that you become a kitchen maid since anyone can do that." Filia looked up and blinked at him, wiping her eyes.

"Who needs a kitchen maid?", she asked, "Common people don't have them, do they?"

"Of course not," Xellos replied shortly, "But they're needed in castles. You can work for the royal kitchens." Filia's eyes grew large again.

"I can't do that!", she said, "I can't work for this king! I would be too embarrassed!" Xellos rolled his eyes at the simplicity of her concern.

"Then work for your father," he replied, "I'm sure they'd be happy to take you. It's not that long of a journey from here to there, either." Filia sat dejectedly and thought about this.

"But I'd have to walk," she thought out loud, "I can't walk that far…" Xellos sighed and lay back on his blanket.

"You can take the mule, just stop whining!", he teased, turning the oil lamp down. Filia hushed as she watched him roll over and begin to go to sleep. Quietly, she began to do the same.

* ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Filia! This pot needs more water!", the kitchen master yelled, "And when you're done with that, the fire needs more wood and the floor needs swept! Hurry, girl, we don't have all day!" Filia did her best to keep up with the kitchen master's commands. She was an old, unrelenting woman, and Filia could barely keep up with all of her fast orders.

She'd been working in the kitchen all of a week. Everyday at sundown, she'd trudge out to the stables and untie her mule and ride home. She had to be at work every morning before sunrise. Even Xellos had noticed how tired she'd become and was being kinder to her.

To make sure that there was food every night, Filia had tied several small pots to the inside of her apron. If there were scraps from whatever she cooked that day, she'd stuff them down into the little pots and cook them when she got home. It was an ingenious invention and she was quite proud of herself for having thought it up. Even Xellos had complimented it on its practicality. She wondered at the fact that he was being nicer to her and that they were actually almost beginning to resemble a married couple. Filia was beginning to daydream a little as she swept, when the kitchen master shoved a large tray full of seafood into her chest.

"Here, girl," the older woman barked, "Take this up to the banquet hall and get your head out of the clouds. We're not paying you to stand there and look pretty." Filia clumsily took the tray and set aside her broom. The tray was heavy and smelled of fish, and Filia just knew that she'd smell that way by the end of the day, too. She crinkled her nose as she walked up the servants' stairs to the banquet hall. The stairwell was dark and cold and musty. All of her life, she'd been accustomed to walking through the main corridors, but now that she was a servant, she couldn't go those ways anymore. She had to remain out of sight of the nobility.

Finally, Filia reached the floor that the banquet hall was on. She entered through the back of the hall, beside the large tables designed to hold the food she was carrying. There was obviously some large feast or ball going on tonight, she observed, as she watched all the myriad of royalty and nobility from other kingdoms dance through the great hall. Quietly, she looked away from them, missing the thrill of attending balls and parties.

Filia sat the tray down in its proper place on one of the banquet tables. Cautiously, she looked to make sure no one was watching. As soon as she was satisfied that no one was paying attention to her, she gathered a few of the pieces of carrots and celery from the banquet table and put them into one of the little pots in her apron.

"Well, well," a voice said from behind Filia, startling her, "If it isn't the princess. Why in the world are you dressed in such rags?" Filia jumped, dropping the handful of carrots she had taken onto the table in front of her. She turned around nervously, barely recalling the voice and cringing at the memory. Sure enough, behind her stood the prince she'd met two weeks ago and insulted, calling him King Thrushbeard. The young man was smiling obnoxiously, his face now clean shaven, and dressed in all the finery one would expect from someone of his stature. His outfit was made of fine black velvet with gold trimmings here and there, with fine black leather boots to accompany it. Filia thought briefly that he looked almost exactly like Xellos, except for the fact that Xellos wasn't dressed like royalty, nor did he have such a regal bearing.

"What does it matter to you?", she asked shortly, "It's none of your business." He didn't get the hint. Filia hadn't thought he would.

"But a princess should surely be enjoying a party and dancing," he continued, trying to keep her attention, "Not serving her guests their food. Are you being punished by your father?" Filia glared at him, fuming.

"Yes, yes I am being punished by my father, as a matter of fact," she hissed at him, "And I'm not a princess anymore." Her demeanor didn't seem to discourage the prince any, as he kept smiling at her.

"Why would you not be a princess anymore?", he asked, "I wouldn't have thought your father would disown a daughter as pretty as you." Filia glared tiredly at him, her anger being replaced by a dull resentment. She just wanted this nuisance to leave her alone so she could continue about her duties and go home.

"He married me to a peasant for being willful," she said exhaustedly, "And for not wanting to marry any of the suitors he picked for me. I don't have any business here anymore. Now, if you would excuse me…" The prince stepped into her path, grinning.

"Oh, but the party's only beginning, princess," he replied, blocking her from leaving, "I would be very disappointed if you were to dismiss yourself before dancing with me. May I have this dance?" Filia looked around at the nobility in the room. They were all staring at the spectacle the prince was making of flirting with a common serving girl. Filia squirmed, clearly uncomfortable, and before she could answer, the prince took her hand and swept her across the dance floor.

"I'm so glad you decided to stay and dance with me," he replied cheerily, "I couldn't have asked for a prettier partner." Filia's unhappy look didn't waver.

"Sir, might I remind you that I'm a married woman?", she said sourly. The prince continued smiling at her as they danced.

"Oh, to that bard that resides in my kingdom?", he asked, "I do believe I've seen him around before." Filia looked at him suspiciously.

"How did you know that?", she asked, "I never said anything about my husband being a bard." The prince smiled nervously and laughed.

"Your father told me that, now that I think of it," he answered quickly, continuing to laugh sheepishly, "But I am right, aren't I?" Filia looked away ruefully.

"Yes, we do live in your kingdom," she conceded with an exasperated sigh, "Not that it's any of your business, your highness." The prince's obnoxiously happy look didn't waver.

"Now, now, don't be that way," he replied, "So, tell me. Are you happy with him?" Filia glared harder at him, but he still continued to dance.

"Your questions are too personal, sir," she replied, trying one last time to be subtle, "I am perfectly happy with my husband, thank you." The prince looked at her with something closer to sympathy than his usual happy demeanor.

"Oh, is that so, then?", he answered, "How happy could a princess be living with a poor street bard?" Filia didn't answer his question. Truth be told, her living conditions had been uncomfortable since she'd left her royal life. But she didn't feel all that unhappy about it anymore. As a matter of fact, getting along with Xellos had made the poor little hut seem almost bearable.

Filia's attention was drawn back to the prince as he tightened his grip on her waist. He leaned closer to her ear. "One word from me," he whispered, causing Filia to shiver, "And you would no longer have to suffer the injustice of being a peasant's wife." Filia jerked her head away from his and gave him a startled look.

"What are you saying?!", she demanded, eyes wide. The prince continued to grin.

"All it would take," the prince continued, "Is for me to order your husband to give you up, and you can be my wife instead. He is my subject. That's all it would take." Filia looked up at him fiercely, more irate than ever.

"That won't be necessary," she replied coldly, "I have grown quite fond of my husband, thank you very much. I'll be staying with him." Filia was surprised at herself and by the prince's reaction. She had expected that he'd be furious at being turned down. Instead, he stopped dancing and smiled.

"Well, then," he said quietly, "I guess I can't compete with that. Please allow me the pleasure of a small parting kiss?" Filia sighed in frustration and relief. If he was going to leave her alone, what was the harm? She nodded her head tiredly.

The prince left one arm around her waist, his hand resting in the small of her back where her apron was tied, and brought his other hand up to the side of her face. He bent over to give her a small kiss on the cheek. As he did so, Filia suddenly recognized something she had been overlooking for the past few minutes. 'That smell,' she thought, her eyes opening, 'It's the same as that cologne…' He finished his kiss then straightened back up, grinning happily.

Filia opened her mouth to say something, but was stopped by the sensation of something dropping from around her waist. She looked down just in time to witness her apron tumbling off her hips and splattering the contents of her pots onto the floor. Her eyes widened in horror as she saw that everyone in the room was watching her. She stumbled away from the prince, absolutely mortified. He was grinning like a cat after eating a canary. Filia's concentration was broken from him by the sound of people beginning to laugh. Soon, the sound filled the whole room. Tears welling up in her eyes, Filia turned and bolted for the door of the large hall, leaving her apron and pots lying abandoned in the floor.

The prince found Filia several minutes later, sitting out in the courtyard, wiping her face futilely with her hands. She looked up at him, eyes filled with tears as soon as she heard him. Glaring hard, she stood up and faced him.

"Filia, I--", he said quietly, holding out his arms to her. He was interrupted as she slapped him hard across the face. Filia sat back down with a flounce, turning away from him. He rubbed his reddened cheek, wincing.

"I suppose I deserved that," he said finally. Filia didn't turn to look at him.

"Yes, yes you do," she replied coldly, "Xellos." He looked surprised for a second before smiling softly.

"So I guess you figured that out," he finally said sheepishly. Filia didn't look at him.

"That was you on the horse in the market place a week ago, wasn't it?", Filia asked stiffly. Xellos chuckled nervously and rubbed the back of his head.

"Right again," he replied hesitantly. Filia spared him a glance.

"Why?", she asked, "Why did you do this? Did my father ask you to?" Xellos smiled, nearly amused.

"Actually, I asked him if I could take you," he replied, "He thought it would be a good way to teach you some humility. So he announced you would be married to the next peasant he saw, and I came masquerading as a bard." Filia glared at him, giving him her full attention.

"Why did you do this to me?", she asked, her voice betraying that she was both hurt and angry, "Was my little insult worth this much to you?" Xellos smiled, genuinely amused but too polite to laugh.

"Not at all," he replied softly, "Well… At first, I was angry with you for it. But I admired your audacity. I wanted someone like you to love me." Filia looked at him in surprise.

"So you didn't do it out of spite," she said slowly, "You did this… because…" Filia stopped in mid-sentence to look up at him. He nodded.

"I love you, Filia," he said quietly, "And I've wanted you since I first saw you." A little less angry, she folder her arms over her chest.

"Why didn't you just tell me that in the first place instead of dragging me through nine levels of Hell?", she asked, sounding more tired than angry.

"Would you have believed me?", he asked, "How many suitors have you had that have said that to you?" Filia studied her feet for a second before looking up at him.

"Too many to count," she replied quietly, "No, I wouldn't have believed you. I would have thought you were only after my father's land." She looked at him again, not quite as angry this time. "So… what about all the humiliation?", she asked, "That's an awful strange way to say 'I love you', don’t you think?" Xellos coughed quietly as if clearing his throat.

"About that," he said, "I had to get you to come back here. I knew you'd never have done it of your own free will, so I steered you toward working in the kitchen. And I couldn't think of any other way to get you alone besides taking off your apron like that. Otherwise, you'd never have seen what was planned for today." Filia gave him a look of pure curiosity.

"Why?", she asked, "What's planned for today?" Xellos grinned mischievously and pulled a small box out of his cloak.

"A very special party," he replied secretively. Filia really wasn't in the mood to play any guessing games.

"I figured that much," she replied dryly, "I was serving the appetizers for it, remember?" Xellos continued grinning as he handed her the box.

"This is for you," he replied, watching her cautiously take the box, "Open it." Filia gave him a skeptical look as she opened the box. Inside was an incredibly expensive looking diamond ring.

"What's this for?", she asked suspiciously.

"It's for our wedding, of course," Xellos replied, as if it were the most practical thing he'd ever heard.

"I thought we were already married," Filia said flatly. Xellos continued to smile.

"Well, I suppose we are," he replied, "I just thought you'd rather have a real wedding." Filia blinked, still unable to process all of this.

"Well… yes…" she replied slowly, "But I'm not dressed for…" Xellos stood, offering her a hand up. She took it, a puzzled look on her face.

"Then go back to your room and change," he replied sensibly. Filia grinned at him for the first time in days.

"I'll be right back," she replied, this time actually sounding happy.


Feedback: I got Cheez-Its! ~ sailorN1@aol.com