Nilafer could not be happier to be outside the walls of the palace. The Jeweled Isles glittered in the noonday sun, the water the color of turquoise, the sky a lapis lazuli, the streets amber, and the people were rich with color. She could always smell the sea from the palace, but she could see it now. Boats docked along the white sand, carrying things from all the lands. To the west of them were the kingdoms, a continent made of a thousand tiny small lands owned by a thousand tiny small kings, and to the east of them was the empire, a land dense with mountains and rich green trees. There were countries to the south and north as well, great deserts filled with wild beasts or snowcapped mountains which housed giants, and they all brought their ships through the Jeweled Isles.
Nilafer spent most of her time behind the white walls of the palace and did not often get to see these things. Servants brought her fruits from all the lands, and her neck was usually decorated with fine jewels pulled from the richest mountains, but she was never allowed to see the grungy men pull the heavy crates from the dock, nor was she able to witness the vendors as they shouted the prices of goods and the people haggled. She was not asked to think about how the drought in the south had affected grain prices, though the women in the marketplace certainly did as they complained loudly about it. A ship carrying food from the west had been downed by pirates, and so men drank beer on their doorsteps instead.
Nilafer was ushered along by her retinue of handmaidens and guards. Six pale women in white robes followed behind her, keeping the dust off her clothes and allowing a distance from the guardsmen, who were all tall and strapping and therefore a concern for her father, who knew his daughter was at the age where distraction came easy. They walked in a circle formation around them, sending away children who ran up with their hands out and women who waved scarves for her to touch and men who bowed low and winked at the handmaidens, who all giggled in response. Nilafer sighed to herself. Her own country felt a world away. She’d only asked her father for a day out of the palace, enjoying the baths, perhaps do some shopping. She should’ve known how he’d respond.
They’d cleared out the baths for her. The whole chamber was empty, and she allowed her handmaidens to lead her past the doors into the hot room. The guards remained outside, and only the female staff were allowed inside. The handmaidens undid her hair, removed her bracelets and necklace and rings–except for one–and fawned over her as they brushed out her hair. They would say things about her beautiful skin and her large eyes and how lucky she was to have such dark, wavy hair. They gossiped about the guards, how handsome they were, the men they’d seen, gushing about the mermaids they saw from the docks, who would sit out brazenly wearing no clothes at all. Nilafer listened to them as they walked into the next chamber, filled with cold water, so that condensation appeared on the walls. She was jealous of these girls. They were able to leave the castle, they were able to flirt and be coy, they were able to sit out on the docks and wave at the mermen who came close to the shore. Nilafer had never been in the city on her own. She wasn’t even alone in the palace, not with the servants constantly ensuring she was comfortable.
It was unfair. Nilafer prided herself on her devotion to her father and to her title, but sometimes it was too unfair.
She watched the staff move in and out of the doors, bringing wine and towels and whatever they asked for. She stood up. A few of her handmaidens started to follow, but she waved them away.
“I’ll only be a moment,” she said and gave no further explanation.
They’d kept her things in another room, and she lifted up the bright fabric, embroidered with silk and jewels and drawn with the peacock that symbolized her family. She found the white shift and black pants and quickly pulled them on. Snagging a scarf as well, she wrapped it around her hair and moved towards the back door.
The staff was running in order to accommodate their guests. Nilafer moved easily through them, dodging workers who did not give her a second glance, and running for the door. Five minutes, she told herself. Five minutes of breathing my own air. Five minutes of having no one ask me if I need something. Five minutes and it’ll be like I was never gone.
She stepped into the street. The staff entrance to the baths lined up with a few other buildings, and so she was in a small alley. The main thoroughfare was beside her, and people had stopped to stare at the guards. The whole market was filled with people, mostly those who’d come to get a glimpse of the princess.
Nilafer walked into the street and no one noticed her. She looked back, where the street opened up to the market proper and then the docks, and she started to walk, and then she started to run. The warm wind pressed against her face, and the turquoise ocean glittered at her, the smell and sounds of the market everywhere. She’d never been out before, not like, not unsupervised, not without twenty people encircling her. She felt like she could do anything.
What she did was trip. Someone had stepped in front of her, and she barrelled over, right into a fruit stand, which sent apples flying down the street. She grabbed the edge of it and reached desperately to stop them, but it was no use. The merchant shouted and turned to her, eyes blazing.
“Look at what you’ve done!” he shouted.
“I’m so sorry.” She righted the stand, trying to right herself as well. “Let me help–”
“You’ve done enough.” He whirled around, where ambitious children had started grabbing at it. He waved a hand at her, before chasing off after the potential thieves.
Nilafer hesitated a moment. The appropriate thing to do was wait, perhaps bring him to the palace for compensation, since it was her fault after all. But she turned and saw the person she’d tripped over, a girl of small frame wearing loose fitting clothes. Her black hair had been cut short and she was pale. Her thin arms were grabbing at the apples, pulling them into the folds of her robe. She grinned as she looked up at Nilafer’s wide eyes.
“Hey!” the merchant shouted as he spotted the girl as well. “Thieves!”
Nilafer stared at the merchant’s pointed finger and realized he was accusing her. He marched forward, and fear kept her solid there. She felt the girl grab her arm, and suddenly they were running. Nilafer didn’t know where, could barely see as they passed building and street and people, was only aware of the girl’s hand holding hers, the rush of the sea wind against her face, her heartbeat pushing against her ribcage. Shouts sounded behind her, but they kept going. The girl dragged her down an alley and pulled her onto the ladder of a building, climbing up to the top. Nilafer climbed behind her, struggling to get over the edge. She collapsed on the other side, holding her side. The girl sat, laughing as she pulled an apple from her robe.
“You looked like a surprised goat!” the girl said, still laughing.
“You–” Nilafer scrambled up and slapped the apple from her hand. “You tripped me! You tricked me!”
“I did trip you.” She removed another one and a small blade, slicing into it. “I’m sorry. I expected him to be distracted longer.”
“You’re a thief!”
She presented a slice up to her, brown eyes wide, pink lips smiling. “Would you like one?”
Nilafer stared at her. The girl shrugged and tossed the slice into her mouth.
“I’m Dai Lan,” she said.
“Oh, I’m…” Nilafer bit her lip. “Melati.”
“Melati’s a pretty name. Will you sit a while?”
She wanted to say no. Her handmaidens certainly noticed her missing by now, and her father will be so enraged later on, but she was never allowed out. She’d never be allowed to sit on a rooftop and look at the sea. So she sat and accepted the apple placed in her hands.
“I didn’t want you to get in trouble,” Dai Lan said. “It was my fault.”
“You look like some kind of urchin.” Nilafer glanced over her dirt covered clothes, and the smudges on her skin. “You must be desperate.”
She shrugged. “My mother thinks I’m just lazy. It’s easier to do this than make the money.”
“That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard!”
Dai Lan smiled as she wiped the juice off her hands. “My mother says that sometimes too.”
Nilafer decided to ignore her as she stood and leaned over the side of the building. The bathhouse was now a few blocks away, the crowd dispersed around it, the guards standing solemnly in the paved streets. Every person wore bright, large colors, and it was like a moving painting, dabs of oil colors swimming in the eyes of the viewer. The palace was to the east, one side on the ocean, the white walls raised high with the royal crest waving in the breeze. Ships left the docks, and she could almost see the edge of the western continent like a shimmering mirage. Books and scrolls in the library depicted dragons and knights and samurai and water nymphs and creatures she couldn’t imagine. They all felt so far away, but now so did those walls.
After a minute she sighed and stepped back. “I have to go.”
“Aw.” Dai Lan pouted slightly. “Where’ve you got to run off to?”
“I have people waiting for me. Enjoy your apples.”
She moved to climb down, but Dai Lan got up and hopped after her. She had almost shy look, her brown eyes turned down.
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” she said. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
Nilafer’s fingers curled around the bright red color of the apple. “I doubt it.”
She made it back to the bathhouse and found her handmaidens frantic. She pretended she’d gotten lost in the halls of the bath, a poor lie but they were too relieved to question it. They spent their afternoon there before trekking back. Nilafer avoided her father’s gaze as she ducked into her room and closed the door.
Night fell, and Nilafer rolled off her bed and walked out onto the balcony. Below the gardens flourished: amaryllis and Birds of Paradise and lotus flowers blossomed in reds and oranges and yellows. She could see the menagerie: the rare white tiger her father had imported, the baby giraffe just starting to grow beyond its cage, the large firebird with wide golden wings. The night had cooled significantly, and she could almost see the glimmer of the moon on the ocean, and hear the sounds of ships leaving docks. The world seemed smaller here on her balcony, the sky contained, the bits of other realms a sad mockery of true beauty. She touch the ring on her finger and sucked in a breath.
Something hit the ground beside her, and she looked down at an apple that had fallen at her feet. She held it up, the same bright red color, slightly bruised now by the fall. Nilafer threw herself to the edge of the balcony, searching the gardens and the menagerie and the walls. She caught the glimpse of a shadow as it slipped back over the white walls, and she stepped back, looking at the apple. She smiled as she turned it over in her hands. Raising it to her lips, she took a bite.