Lila stopped dead in her tracks and carefully read the sign again. Then she smiled, a surge of excitement flowing through her. It was a beautiful day in her hometown Mirth, a small village east of the Lana River. Today the farmers could be heard talking and selling their goods in the market. The herds of cows, pigs, and sheep in the nearby fields were loud and often drowned out the marketplace. Out here in the countryside such sights and sounds were common, but as of today there was something new happening in the village square. A royal contractor from the castle had come, and he was offering people the job of a lifetime.
Lila walked passed the sign and approached the elegant stall hesitantly. She saw a man inside sitting next to a tall stack of papers, while another man stood outside shouting to those passing by. She took a moment to listen to his announcement carefully.
"We are seeking the most skilled men and women in all the land to come and serve in the royal castle. Come and serve His Highness!" He repeated loudly.
Lila smiled once more. It was just as she thought! These men were offering a good paying job to anyone interested, male or female, young or old! This was just what she needed. She took a deep breath and slowly walked up to man inside the booth. He was busy writing something down on a large scroll.
"Hello, good Sir!" She said quietly.
The man stopped what he was doing and looked up to face her. His skin was very pale and his eyes had dark bags under them, as if he had not been in the sun or slept in years. Still, he gave a friendly smile and tipped his hat to her.
“Oh, hello! Have you come to accept a contract?" He asked.
“Yes, I have," She replied.
The man nodded. "Very good milady!"
He then grabbed a paper from off of the tall pile next to him and handed it to her.
"Just sign your name here," He said, showing her the fancy dotted line.
Lila took the paper and signed it with her best writing. Then she held it up with pride and smiled. This was just so amazing! She could never have imagined such an amazing opportunity like this would come her way!
She gave the paper back to the man. He rolled it up, tied it with a ribbon, and placed it in a new pile of similar scrolls.
"The carriage will pick you up along with the others in two days. When you arrive at the station, you will be given back the contract. After you reach the castle, you will present it to the administrators there," He instructed.
"Thank you, Sir!" Lila said with growing excitement.
The man smiled and tipped his hat again. "Not a problem, lass! Good-day to you."
She nodded back and then turned and headed back home. She was so eager to tell her father the great news that she ran the whole way there. The sun setting in the distance cast an orange hue along the road surrounding her, causing even the fields nearby to glow in its light. Lila admired the lovely view as she crossed over the little creek leading to her family's farm.
Beauty, it was such an odd thing. It was subjective to opinions and preferences, to people’s own thoughts and desires. Yet, surely sights such as this were considered lovely even to the most critical of people. Lila knew a thing or two of beauty, like that she held none in herself. Her hair had always been orange like the sun and untamed like the weeds, coupled with dull grey eyes and freckle covered skin. Indeed, she was not pretty by anyone's standards, except to her father of course, who often said she perfectly reflected the features of her late mother.
Not that such things truly mattered to her. There was nothing one could do about the way they looked, you were born without control. The only thing you did have a say about however, was how you turned out to be as a person.
After a long mile Lila reached the house she burst through the door and ran straight up to her father's room. There she found him in his bed, just the way she had left him that morning. He smiled when she entered and beckoned her over to him.
"Hello my dear! How was your day?" He asked in a weak voice.
Lila ran right into his arms and squeezed him tightly.
"Excellent Papa! I have good news to tell you!" She exclaimed.
His eyes lit up with surprise. "Oh really? What is it?"
Lila proceeded to explain the day's events to him as quickly as she could, unable to control her excitement as she did so. Though when she mentioned the part about accepting the contract to work in the castle, her father's face suddenly went pale.
"No! You cannot agree to this job my dear, it is far too dangerous!" He said with alarm.
"But I have to father! You know we need the money," She said stubbornly.
"My dear, there must be another way...," He replied, looking very anxious.
"I have already signed the contract. I will be leaving in two days," Lila said with her arms crossed.
Her father just sat there in his bed looking helpless. "But it would be better for you to stay here and work, even though it affords less pay."
"Father nothing around here can pay nearly enough for our needs! I have looked high and low already," She replied persistently.
Her father groaned and closed his eyes. "My child, why do you cause me such distress?"
Lila blushed with embarrassment. For a split second, doubt crawled into her mind. Was she perhaps being foolish right now? It was possible she supposed. But even if that was the case, it didn't really matter, because this was the way it just had to be!
"I do not care what the rumors say, Papa. I am not afraid to work in the royal palace."
Her father shook his head. "I have heard many things from the neighbors who have family that already work there! These are not mere rumors we hear!"
Lila crossed her arms again stubbornly.
"I shall do my utmost to avoid trouble then. I am sure my stay there will be quite uneventful, so there is nothing at all to be worried about."
He shook his head and rubbed his forehead, looking distraught.
"Remember father," Lila began, always getting emotional whenever she had to mention this. "Your illness is not getting any better. I fear that if I do not earn money for some medicine then you will never be able to recover! Besides, our debts are getting larger by the day, and you know we cannot borrow any more money."
Her father sighed deeply. "So, this is all my fault then?"
Lila came over and sat on the edge of his bed, putting her hand in his. He would not look her in the eye as he squeezed it back. Her father was such a tall and strong man, and to see him so sick and frail was absolutely heartbreaking. He tried to hide his true concerns about it, but his dark eyes betrayed his thoughts much like her own often did. Both of them knew full well his condition was serious, and that he might not be able to recover on his own. He might even get worse if things continued this way.
"Papa, I am twenty-two, plenty old enough to make my own choices! And you know that I will take good care of myself," Lila said gently.
Her father shook his head and looked away. She gently leaned in and hugged him again.
"I will send back the money for your medicine and return as soon as I have earned enough to pay for it all," She promised.
Her father squeezed her back and rested his head on hers.
"I guess it is too late for me to stop you. But please be careful my dear! I could not live if I lost you…" He said quietly.
Lila nodded. "Of course I will father."
"You know I will miss you every day and worry greatly for your safety until you return," Her father said, still trying to guilt her a little.
Lila rolled her eyes. "I will be okay Papa! Nothing is going to happen."
He grumbled. “Well, I suppose I have no choice but to hope from my sickbed that such an outcome never takes place."