"It was my idea," Antonio admitted, as their carriage took off from the palace gates.
As a kid, the two of them would peer out of the window every time they were sent away for vacation, to the Key to weather out the long winters and the ski lodge the king owned in the Hinterlands when the summer heat became inescapable. Noses leaving a smudged trail beside the curtains, breath fogging up the glass, they would watch the palace disappear into the horizon before turning around. Antonio had always waved excitedly at the gardeners, the nannies, the cooks, warm and openly eager in a way that endeared the staff to him, in a way that Toph himself could never muster up the energy or childlike innocence to mirror. Now he sat before Toph, the same age physically yet mentally both wiser and more naïve, still waving out at the few staff that remained to bid farewell to the prince and his boy.
"What was?" Toph waited until they'd pulled out of the palace gates to respond. Antonio leaned back in his seat, an unreadable expression flickering over his features.
"Bringing Maya along. I suggested it to the king." Antonio rubbed his eyes tiredly, letting out a low yawn. The darkness under his eyes and the ink smudges on his fingers told Toph that the last week had been one of long days and longer nights for him. It had been so even when they were younger; but then Antonio would always fall asleep midway through the journey, head resting on the window with Toph's cloak as a pillow. Now he took a long gulp of his cocoa drink and smiled wanly as the effects coursed through him. "That's better."
Toph considered it. In the days that he'd been resting, his mind had wandered inevitably to the girl. It had been a welcome respite from the flashbacks that were a regular accompaniment to any amount of time spent solitary and sedentary, but even so, he'd had his fair share of skepticism. He had no idea what a saint or savior ought to look like, but he'd never considered one to come in the form of a slight figure and straggly dark hair. (Although moral perfection, as a concept, had always been something he'd viewed as a bit of a farce. Damn what the alchemists said, he'd lived long enough to know that goodness and evilness was a hell of a lot more complicated than a bunch of numbers and a giant scale.) "I suppose I can see the strategic value in bringing her along," Toph said.
The carriage creaked in the background. "We're moral arbiters, or we're trying to be, anyway," said Antonio slowly, each word picked out meticulously. "Right or wrong, we've crossed that point a long time ago. And having someone representing the very best side of this moral divide, someone to be inspired by and to fear, makes our side come across a lot more righteous."
"And are we?"
"You could argue so." Antonio clasped and unclasped his hands, and, finding that he was bored of it, took another sip of his drink.
"Would you?" Toph asked. He leaned back against his seat, casual as always, and Antonio relaxed. This was how they worked, after all: distant, detached conversations about very real things, debates that were more style than substance. Antonio had convictions, but was too clever to voice them, and Toph was so muddled that he could believe in anything at all, so it all worked out in the end.
"That's not an answer I ought to say in royal company," said Antonio with a smile, and Toph nodded back. And that was how it was, for the time being.
They came to a halt in the nearby town square. It was a half-hour on horseback, but four times that by carriage, and the sun had risen high up in the sky when the they creaked and groaned to a halt in front of a dark, musty-looking building. The Orphanage of the Virginian Sisters, read the plaque on the rusted black gates. Toph had seen his fair share of dark and desolate places. It was not about the exterior, per say, the mold stains or the ivy creeping up the sides: it was the way the windows seemed blank, how no voices floated underneath doorways and through cracks in the windowpanes. He was suddenly thankful for his palace upbringing.
The driver got out and rapped smartly at the gates. For a second, nothing happened, apart from the clanging that was quickly absorbed by the humid late summer air. Then the doors creaked open, and a figure appeared in the shadows.
She walked down the stairs towards them alone. Toph had expected-- he didn't know what, but something, at least. A guardian? He remembered a time when young girls did not travel alone with boys of a similar age without a frowning governess or portly grandfather hovering over them. Still, she was an orphan. He supposed they didn't have anyone to spare to protect her honor.
He and Antonio peered out of the window of the carriage, watching her walk towards them. It was slightly windy today, and the skirt of her dress fluttered around her knees. A ragged rucksack was slung across her shoulder, and she tugged her coat tighter over her shoulders before stepping inside.
"You're the prince," she said sharply, the second she'd sat down across from them. "You saved us." After glancing back to ensure that they were all settled in, the driver urged the horses forward, and they began to trundle along again.
Toph stared. "I suppose so."
"Thank you," she said sincerely. Up close, Toph could tell she was slightly nervous-- over the centuries, he'd become adept at reading expressions, and she had a few tells going all at once: the slight worrying of a lip, wide eyes, fidgeting fingers. He himself shuffled awkwardly, unsure how to put her at ease. He'd thought about the significance of her accompanying them when he was resting, but the idea that they would be living and eating and traveling with her for the next foreseeable few months wasn't one he'd considered before now. "Honest. We were all so frightened."
"It's quite alright," Toph said.
"I'm Maya," she said suddenly, turning from Antonio to Toph as if unsure whether she ought to shake their hands. She eventually settled for a slight, anxious wave. "Wow, I'm sorry. I don't know how I'm supposed to... when they told me I was to be traveling with royalty, I wasn't sure what to expect..." She shook her head.
"Don't worry about it," Antonio said warmly, leaning over the table jutting out from the wall to face her. "I'm Antonio, and this is Christopher."
"Toph," Toph corrected.
"Toph and Antonio," she repeated. "Uh, I know you're the prince... Antonio, are you his cousin, or something?" She looked between the two questioningly.
Antonio laughed. "I'm just as much of a commoner by blood as you are, Maya," he said. "My father worked in the palace all his life, and the king and him were very close. When he and my mother died of an illness just after I was born, the king ended up keeping me at the palace. Toph and I were practically raised together."
"That must be great," Maya said.
"Well, officially my job title is aide to the prince for whatever he needs, which is usually getting him to focus on his studies and not forget to eat," Antonio said with a chuckle. Toph glowered at him. "But, yes, I'm very fortunate."
Maya sighed. "To be honest, I've never even left the town, let alone the Province," she admitted. "I had no idea that any of this would happen. I'm not-- I'm not some kind of saint, you know? The Weighing, that came as a total surprise to me. I'm just an ordinary girl. I don't know that I can be of much use to you."
Outside, the carriage was now pulling out of the outskirts of the town and entering the countryside. This part of the country had always been beautiful to Toph, and it wasn't just because it was the Province he'd been raised in (or lived in, years and years ago). The tall, majestic pines; delicate butterflypeas and daisies; rolling fields of wheat and tobacco; the sunrises and sunsets that always seemed to be more colorful here than anywhere else on the planet. Sure, the towns were picturesque themselves, for the most part, but the wilderness was breathtaking in a way that compelled you to fall silent and watch it go by. Maya peered out of the window with a childlike wonder, eyes following the hills and the cows that grazed in pastures and the sun now beaming down on it all with all its September glory. "We'll talk about it later," Toph found himself saying. "For now, enjoy the view."
They stopped for lunch about an hour later. Outside of the larger towns, the Virginian Province was mostly rural, with a tavern or boarding house here and there breaking up the vast expanses of farms and forests, and when they passed by a local pub in the early afternoon, they seized the opportunity and ordered the carriage driver to pull to a stop. "Come on," Antonio said, clambering out and beckoning to Maya, and after a moment she followed them out onto the dirt road.
The pub was nearly full considering it was lunch, and it was with great difficulty that Antonio negotiated a table right in the very back. Drawing the hood of his cloak over his head in order to not be noticed, Toph followed the others weaving through tables and drunk patrons until they managed to take their seats at the slightly greasy table. Maya sat down in front of him gingerly, looking around the room with a hint of trepidation. "Don't worry, they're harmless," said Antonio, following her gaze to a bunch of particularly rowdy young men downing mugs of ale at the bar. "Pick out something you want, here," he added, handing her and Toph a menu each. Toph picked his up and leafed through it disinterestedly. At one point in his lives, he'd found joy in food. He'd even been a cook, three hundred or so years ago. Now, after having had so many meals he'd lost count, it all sort of tasted the same to him. Maya, however, was awestruck, thumbing through the frayed booklet like she was reading religious scripture. He guessed she'd never had anything richer than a bowl of gruel or potatoes.
A waitress bustled over to them, fixing them with an uncomfortably cheery beam. Toph turned away instinctively, used by now to protecting his anonymity, and Antonio took the lead in ordering. "I'll get a steak, rare, with a side of potatoes and carrots," he said. "The same for my friend?" Toph nodded. "Maya, what about you?"
"I can choose anything?" she asked, wide-eyed.
"Sure," Antonio said, with only the slightest hint of amusement showing in his voice.
Maya rifled through the menu again. "Um, can I get a pot pie? And corn. Oh, and a slice of cake too. And potato soup, please? Thank you." She smiled up at the waitress, who scribbled down their orders and took their menus from them.
"Hungry?" Antonio asked, grinning at her.
"A bit." She tucked a few strands of hair behind her ears uncomfortably. "Sorry. We don't get much to eat over at the orphanage. Not that I'm not grateful or anything, it's just..."
"Don't worry about it," Toph said, cutting in. He didn't look at Maya, or sound particularly reassuring the way Antonio did, but when he said, "you could buy everything they make here and not crack a dent in the palace fortunes," it was settled. Maya nodded, and that was that.
The waitress brought their food over in a few minutes, steaming plates that she set down on in front of each of them, weighing the table down, and they began to dig in almost instantly. Toph, though not at all concerned with the quality of the food, found that he was hungry enough to scarf down most of his plate in a few minutes. They were silent until they had all satisfied their initial cravings, and then Antonio said, "So you were wondering why you're here with us," turning to Maya.
She swallowed a bite of her cake. "Not in so many words... but yes."
Antonio looked over at him, but Toph kept eating, avoiding eye-contact with anyone except his meat and vegetables. It was better this way, he thought, Antonio doing the talking and the smiling, and him just doing his job. That was how they worked best, after all. "You might be aware of the, ah, unrest in some of the other Provinces," Antonio said eventually. "The demonstrations in the West. The warlords springing up in the south-east. And you won't hear this in any official sources, but most of the Hinterlands are effectively run by vigilante groups these days. The shooter at your Ceremony belonged to one of those, we presume."
"Sure," said Maya. "People say it's because of the Weighings."
"Well, alchemists had developed primitive forms of the scales centuries ago," said Antonio, taking on the tone of voice that Toph knew from every lesson they had taken together. "That itself wasn't the problem. Up until about eight-dozen years ago, the Weighings were private ceremonies, done only for the richest families."
"And then they found out that reincarnation isn't as much of a blank slate as we thought it was," Maya said.
"Precisely. It turns out people aren't too fond of having the sum of their former lives' deeds and misdeeds be public knowledge, even if all evidence says that your past is the strongest predictor of your present," he said with a wry smile.
Maya frowned, processing all of this. "So where do I come in, then?"
Antonio opened his mouth to answer, but fell silent as the waitress approached them again. "Could I get you all anything?" she asked, smiling down at them. "Drinks, dessert, more food?"
"We're all good," Antonio said.
"I'll have a glass of your strongest moonshine," Toph interjected simultaneously, ignoring the glare Antonio shot at him. He hummed pleasantly until the waitress returned with a slightly grubby glass of sweet, glorious alcohol. Ignoring the fact that every dish and utensil in the place seemed to be permanently coated with a thin film of grease, Toph inhaled about half its contents in one long gulp. One of the worst things about reincarnating, he'd found lately, was the twelve or so years where he was unable to drink.
Antonio, still looking slightly disgruntled, said, "Anyway. You shouldn't worry about what your job is here. All you have to do is smile and be charming and let your virtuousness do the convincing. Toph and I fill in the gaps, convincing governors and local leaders to support the king's orders."
"So I'm a symbol," said Maya.
"Precisely," Antonio repeated.
There was a second's pause where Toph entirely expected Maya to raise a few more points, more uncomfortable ones that began with "why am I a pawn in your father's authoritarian regime?" and ended with "you can't force me to be your figurehead." Even Antonio, with his patented confidence, seemed to look slightly hesitant. Then Maya said, "I'll do my best," Antonio let out a slight sigh of relief, and Toph, for some reason unknown to even himself, felt mildly disappointed.