melissa_42: drawn woman in a sweater (crane)
[personal profile] melissa_42
Title: The Tin Box
Fandom: Latin Hetalia
Pairing: Chile/Fem!Peru (Manuel/Micaela)
Rating: PG
Summary: The first gifts bestowed upon Princess Micaela by her father the king were a small, gold-inlaid statuette of an alpaca and a mobile of silver and platinum pendants with the word Princesa spelled out in little diamonds on each.
A/N: Fairy tale AU based on this story. This was going to be a drabble, BUT IT EXPLODED. Oh, and these lovely characters aren't mine.


On a cool, misty evening in late autumn, after the most profitable harvest in over ten years had been brought in, the queen of the land, beautiful and beloved by all, died during childbirth. Her daughter survived her, a sweet, caramel skinned babe with rosy cheeks and a voice loud enough to shatter windows. The child was named Micaela, after her mother, and the first gifts bestowed upon her by her father the king were a small, gold-inlaid statuette of an alpaca and a mobile of silver and platinum pendants with the word Princesa spelled out in little diamonds on each.

Doted on by her father and the rest of the kingdom, Micaela grew to be a radiant young lady who was quite aware of her own charm. Lazy as only a true princess could be, at the slightest sign that she was being shortchanged in life she had only to twist her full lips into a pout and and bat her long lashes for someone, anyone, to drop whatever they were doing and dote on her hand and foot.

By her eighteenth birthday, she had accumulated a veritable dragon's stash of treasure from her admirers. She had necklaces and bracelets, rings and earrings, figurines and dolls, barrettes and brooches, all fashioned from gold, platinum, silver, diamonds and every other precious metal and jewel found in the kingdom. There was not a china doll or a book of parchment and leather to be found; such gifts were deemed too ordinary for the Princess of Peru.

-

Manuel's mother was queen of what had once been one of the richest kingdoms in the land, but also one of the most luckless. Before Manuel was weaned from his nursemaid, the kingdom was besieged by a plague of locusts that laid the fields bare and brought famine to their people.

"We still have the mines," the queen's advisers told her. "We still have the gold."

Until a small band of wizards arrived from the east, promising fortune to the queen and stripping the kingdom's mines of their precious metals with crafty spells and dark magic. The day that the queen found out that her kingdom was absolutely worthless was the last day Manuel ever saw his mother cry. Since then, she smiled through the pain of losing so much, setting an example for her people that they must carry on.

(Manuel never smiled. If his mother was forced to hide her true feelings, then he would wear them in her stead. It was the least he could do for her.)

The week after he turned eighteen, the queen and her advisers revealed their plans to save the kingdom to Manuel.

"There is a princess in a nearby kingdom who is to be married to a suitable man. Her father is quite wealthy," they said. "This could be our chance to restore glory and power to the Kingdom of Chile."

When Manuel's frown deepened, his mother dismissed her attendants and invited him to sit beside her.

"You do not like this, I know," she said, "but this is important to our kingdom. It might be our chance to help our people."

Manuel stared at his mother's feet as he talked. "I won't like her, and I know she won't like me - like us - because..."

"How can you be so sure, dear? You have yet to meet her. Please try to make this work." The queen pulled Manuel's face to her chest and pressed a kiss to his hair. "For me?"

She knew it was impossible for him to say no to such a request. He grumbled something barely audible before pulling away to ask, "What must I do? I cannot simply walk into the castle and say that I want to marry the princess."

"How right you are, love. The king has requested that every suitor bring a box filled with gifts. Whoever brings the box that most pleases the princess will have the right to ask for her hand in marriage."

Manuel thought that that sounded like a silly way to determine who would make the best husband for the princess, but he did not say anything. His mother sent him away with another kiss and a wish of good luck for his journey.

Early the next morning, when only a handful of people were mingling about the castle gates, Manuel rode off to the north with a pouch filled with enough food for a few days, a flask of water, some coins, along with a few pieces of parchment and a bottle of ink and a quill - probably unnecessary for his travels, but it was his habit to have such implements on him at all times. He was simply dressed in a ragged, brown traveling cloak that hid his tunic and stockings. While the kingdom could still afford clothing for the royal family, he did not wish to ruin a perfectly good outfit on such a stupid journey. Plus, the ornaments and fabric of his royal clothing drew quite a bit of attention, and Manuel did not like to draw attention to himself. Still, the sovereigns of the other kingdom might doubt his authenticity if she showed up in such common clothing, so he'd also tucked a nicer set of clothes in the pouch.

After riding for a few kilometers, Manuel spied what he was looking for - a blacksmith's shop just off the path. He tied his horse to a post just outside the small building and stepped inside the sweltering room.

"I'm looking for a box," he told the blacksmith, who had stopped stoking the fire when Manuel entered. "It should be..." Something worthy of a princess, but what in his land would impress a princess of such wealth? Not that he wanted to impress her with petty gifts. Still, he did not wish to see his mother's disappointment when he returned with news of his rejection. "...pretty."

"A box you say?" The blacksmith dragged a bench over to one of the walls where a row of shelves hung near the low ceiling. He crawled on top and reached behind a pile of tools, pulling out a carefully crafted tin box that fit in the palm of Manuel's outstretched hand. Tin would not impress the princess, but the lid was decorated with a beautiful engraving of a violet.

"My son's work," the blacksmith explained as he watched Manuel trace his fingers over the lines of the petals. "Is this adequate?"

Manuel gave a curt nod and handed over some coins. Once outside, he slipped the box into his traveling pouch and set off again. It would take a day and a half to reach the other kingdom, plus whatever time it would take him to find an appropriate gift to place in the box. An appropriate gift for a rich, most likely spoiled, princess who would be equating his merit as a husband with his skills in choosing said gift.

He was sure he would awaken from this nightmare soon.

'Soon' never happened, and by the time Manuel had nearly reached the border of his land, he still had not found a gift for the princess. Stopping at a small stream near the edge of the path, he dismounted and refilled his flask. The sun shone brightly on the water's rippling surface, shimmering in the bubbling rapids and throwing shadows along the right bank. Manuel stooped to gather a few small, flat stones to skip across the water, a past time for which he had often been chastised by the royal advisers as a child when he used to do it on the pond just beyond the castle walls. Most of the stones had been smoothed down by the stream's current, each one a variant of rusty reds and gleaming blacks and little flecks of crystal.

He paused for a moment, holding one of the stones up between his thumb and index finger to block out the sun. It was not much, but it was rather pretty, and it reminded him of home. He bent down and scoured the bank of the stream for the three most beautiful stones before pulling out the tin box from his pouch and carefully laying them inside.

It was a start, but something was still missing. Pulling out his writing supplies, he seated himself on a small boulder and tapped the feathered end of his quill against his lip before taking a deep breath and letting the sky and the soil and the scents and the sounds of his home flow through him and onto the page. The poem was not one of his best, he knew, but it painted an adequate picture of his kingdom, and that was what mattered.

He rolled up the parchment and slipped it into the box next to the stones, and then chanced a look in the direction of the sun. If he kept up a decent pace, he might be able to reach the castle by nightfall, but he would need to leave right away. With one last look at his land, he mounted and rode past the boundary marker, a stone post in the ground with the names of their kingdoms carved on each side.

-

Just as the sun fell below the treetops, the king received the last of his daughter's potential suitors in the massive entry hall of his castle. He frowned at the simple box the prince shoved in his hands but made no comment as he handed it off to one of his attendants before sending someone to escort the young man to his quarters.

Manuel barely heard the servant explain that dinner would be served shortly, and that he would have a chance to meet Princess Micaela at that time. Nodding distractedly, he shed his traveling cloak and continued staring at the tapestries and ornaments that adorned the guest room, so much more magnificent than anything he had ever seen at home. He was sure that they must have had such niceties at one time, but his mother must have had to sell them after the wizards had come. After spinning in place in awe for a few more moments, he quickly changed into his nicer clothing and returned to the entry hall, where
six other men, all at least a few years older than him and dressed in much fancier apparel, were already milling about. As soon as he stepped into the room, he felt their eyes fall on him, and it took every last ounce of will to replace the bright flush with a frown before it could travel any further than the tips of his ears.

He stood near the entrance to the dining hall, a little ways off from the rest of the men, and kept his chin up, even though what he really wanted to do was hide somewhere away from their stares and gossip; one of them had already muttered something about paupers. When he narrowed his eyes at the man who had said it, the man shifted his feet uneasily.

Well, at least he had managed to garner some measure of respect, but Manuel was not sure how long he could keep this up. Luckily, one of the servants stepped into the room to announce that dinner would be served soon, and if they would all follow him into the dining room, please.

Manuel absolutely, positively did not gasp as he entered into the dining room and was greeted by the rich scent of meats and spices. One long table of sturdy oak was brimming with platters of beef, ham, venison, various kinds of fish, and game hens, potatoes, rice, and tomatoes. It was a feast like Manuel had never seen before in his own castle. If nothing else came of this journey, at least he could spend one night dining in luxury.

It was not until he was seated that Manuel noticed that the other suitors were staring at the head of the table, some with their mouths agape. He looked up.

Her hair was shiny and black, rolling over her shoulders in loose, thick waves. Her eyes were dark and bright behind the curtain of her eyelashes. Her skin was a shade or two darker than his, sun kissed and vibrant. Her smile was blinding.

She was an angel.

She was an angel, and she was looking at Manuel. He stared back. She raised an eyebrow, and her smile took on a sardonic edge. Manuel blinked and looked down at his clothing - perfectly suitable for special occasions in his kingdom, but still so simple compared to the other men in the room.

The clapping of the king's hands echoed off the high stone walls of the room and interrupted his thoughts. "Thank you, all of you, for joining us tonight! I am proud to present my precious daughter, the Princess Micaela." When he brushed the back of his hand against his daughter's cheek, her smile brightened and her cheeks flushed pink.

Manuel's traitorous heart skipped a beat. Though he ducked his head, there was really nothing to be done about the blush that raced from his ears to his neck. What was he thinking - he hadn't even talked to her yet. She was probably incredibly dumb and snobby and conceited. In the back of his mind he kept replaying all the reasons why he would not like her while he tried to continue listening to the king.

"Tomorrow morning she will choose her favorite gift and will be wed to the man who brought it. Good luck to each of you, and may you enjoy our hospitality for the night. Now, let us eat!" With a flourish of the king's hand, several servants appeared from the shadows to serve the guests.

The other men were quick to dig in, but Manuel had been brought up with better manners. He waited until everyone else had begun eating before tasting the first bite of fish. It was...perfect, with just the right balance of spices to complement the natural flavor. When he looked up to see how the others were reacting to it, he caught Princess Micaela's eye again.

She was staring at him. Her lips quirked up around her fork, and then she withdrew it from her mouth, licking the tines with the tip of her tongue.

Manuel nearly choked on the forkful of fish in his mouth, which might have been a good thing because it served as a perfect excuse for his blazing red face. One of the men next to him noticed his distress and thumped him heartily on the back.

"Don't eat so quickly," the man chastised him with a grin. "We'll be sure to save some for you!"

Thanking him, Manuel nodded before turning his glare on the princess. She was the very picture of innocence, though her eyes held a rather amused glint, but there was no fooling him - he knew she must be some kind of demonic siren, luring him with her beauty and charm so he would crash upon the rocks of social graces and look like an absolute fool. Now that he was on to her games, she was less of a danger, but he still needed to keep an eye on her.

One of the servants came around and poured a pale green liquid for everyone. Sniffing it, Manuel's eyebrows shot up.

"Pisco," he murmured before taking a sip. The alcohol, a specialty originating from his kingdom, was served at every special gathering; it reminded Manuel of home.

"Pisco?" the man who had spoken to him earlier asked. "What is it?"

Manuel was about to extoll the virtues of this most famous beverage from his kingdom when the princess opened her mouth and spoke for the first time.

Her voice was deeper than Manuel had expected, smooth and melodious. "It's a liquor that originated in our kingdom," she explained with a sweet smile. "I'm sure you'll like it."

Manuel scoffed, and before he could stop himself, grumbled, "It originated in Chile." Then he snapped his eyes over to the king to see if he had heard because even if this was a matter of pride in his homeland, he really wanted to return to that homeland in one relatively healthy piece. Enraging the local ruler and father of the girl he might marry (oh God) was probably not the most intelligent way to accomplish that goal.

Luckily, the king was too busy talking with one of the other suitors to have noticed Manuel's social blunder, but the princess seemed to have heard. Her eyes narrowed. "I'm afraid you're mistaken. It most definitely comes from Peru."

"No, it seems you are mistaken, Princesa," Manuel growled. "It most definitely come from Chile."

"And what gave you such a preposterous idea?" Princess Micaela bared her teeth and rested her chin on her hands as she stared at him.

"Because I am the Prince of Chile, and I'd like to think that I know my own kingdom's history."

"Well, as you might have heard, I am the Princess of Peru," she countered, "and I'd like to think that I know my own kingdom's history, as well."

"I don't care how well you think you know your kingdom's history, Pisco is still a Chilean specialty. Your petty words will do nothing to change that fact."

"And I could say the same for you, Prince of Chile. Now, do you really want to argue with me in my own castle?"

Manuel sneered. "Do not think for a moment that sitting in your castle suddenly makes every word that leaves your mouth true."

"It is not this castle that makes my words true, but simple fact. Pisco comes from Peru. End of story."

"You are wrong, even if you refuse to admit it, you stubborn, spoiled -"

Micaela interrupted him. "Watch your tongue, Prince of Chile. It seems you have forgotten that you are here to seek my hand in marriage."

Manuel's muscles stiffened, and he was suddenly aware that he was half standing. Taking a moment to settle back in his seat, he inhaled deeply to clear his head and said, "You are right. I must prepare myself for a life of catering to your every whim."

"That's not-!"

"My sweet Micaela," the king exclaimed, reaching over to grip her shoulder with an enormous hand. "The Count of Quito was just telling me about the flora and fauna of his land. It sounds like a most wonderful place!"

"How nice," Micaela simpered, turning her attention to her father and one of the men on the other side of the table.

Manuel turned back to his meal, taking a swig of Pisco with a trembling hand. Princess Micaela was just as conceited and snobby and headstrong as he had expected, yet he could not stop himself from sneaking surreptitious looks at her throughout the rest of the meal. There was something about her, something about the way she laughed and moved with such ease as Manuel knew he would never possess, something almost magical.

At one point during the meal, Manuel knocked his fork off the table, quickly bending down to snatch it from the floor with a furious flush before anyone could notice. When he looked up, the princess was staring at him again, a light smile playing on her lips that widened in the brief second that they made eye contact. He quickly averted his eyes, ignoring her soft, tinkling giggles.

Finally, after everyone had finished dining and conversations were winding down, Princess Micaela covered her mouth and yawned. Upon noticing, the king stood and declared, "Tomorrow is a very important day for us all; I think it would be wise for us to retire for the night."

The guests muttered in agreement and slowly shuffled out of the room, sated with food and drink. As he passed, Manuel took a moment to incline his head to the king and say, "Thank you for your hospitality. The meal was extraordinary."

"No, thank you, thank you!" the king laughed as he clapped a heavy hand against Manuel's back. "But of course we would serve only the finest to such honored guests. Our cooks are excellent, are they not?"

Nodding in agreement, Manuel caught a glimpse of the princess beside her father, taking in her wide eyes and flushed cheeks.

"Good night, Prince of Chile," she said after her father had moved on to talk to some of the other men. She dipped her head and looked at him through the lattice of her eyelashes. "I hope the Peruvian Pisco gives you sweet dreams."

"You are a rascal," he growled at her. "I don't know why I am bothering to stay here." It was a lie, but she did not need to know that.

"Do your nostrils flare when you lie?" she asked.

"Good night, Princess Micaela," he muttered, but when he turned to leave, he found himself caught in her grip.

"I did not mean to..." she murmured, and then squeezed his arm. "It is simply endearing. I shall pass your praises on to the cooks." Her smile was small and pleased as she said it.

He shrugged out of her grip, the warmth of her hand lingering in his skin. "Good night," he repeated, and left her in the dining hall, praying she would not hear his racing heartbeat echo against the stone walls as he rushed to his quarters.

-

After her servants had attended to her undressing and assisted with her nightly rituals, Micaela sat alone on her bed with seven boxes strewn about her. Four were made of solid gold, one of silver with gold ornamentation, one was encrusted in diamonds, and one was...she was not sure what it was made from. The metal was dull gray, and when she tapped against the side of it, she noticed how thin the walls were. Engraved on the lid was a violet, much like the ones that grew in the small garden by the fountain in the courtyard. She set it aside to open last.

Inside the other boxes were the usual jewelry and trinkets, of which she already had piles and piles. She took the time to admire a heavy, golden bangle that she slipped onto her wrist before turning to the last box. Carefully lifting the lid away, she stroked the three, beautiful stones that lay inside with the pad of her thumb. In all her life had she never seen such stones. They were of no metal or crystal she had ever seen before, and though one of them shimmered in the low candle light, it was obviously not inlaid with diamonds. She hefted them in the palm of her hand and lay them carefully on her bed before pulling a small roll of parchment from the box, as well. Unfurling it, she traced the tight script with a fingertip, squinting her eyes as if that might help her understand the unfamiliar words. Then she lay back against her covers and thought about the cute, argumentative prince from dinner.

"The Prince of Chile, where Pisco comes from," she whispered aloud to herself and giggled. It was really a disappointment that he would be leaving the next day, she would have liked to set him straight about that little fallacy. He had been fun to talk to, even if he was a pain. And he had complimented her cooking.

He had called her spoiled. Perhaps it was true, but it was not fair of him to say that about her - he had never seen her when she was younger, when she gleefully admitted she to such a flaw. Getting away with everything under the sun and being doted on used to be fun, but now it was...boring. It held no thrill for her. Even if her father would not let her cook, it was easy as breathing for her to sneak into the kitchens and convince the servants to let her add spices to the meats and stoke the stove fires.

She wondered what the Prince of Chile would say if he knew that she had prepared the fish he nearly choked on when she was teasing him at dinner. He would probably blush and fidget, she guessed, like he had done so many times during the evening when he thought she was not watching. It would have been so easy to lean over the table and pinch his cheeks - no, she would have knocked the platters of food to the ground, she would have had to crawl under the table and pop up next to him - but her father and the prince would probably have had a synchronized conniption, so it was better that she had simply giggled at him behind her hand.

She wondered which box he had brought. Running her hands over each one on her bed, she thought about what they could tell her about the men that had come to marry her. Then sleep gradually overtook her, and she drifted off into a land of boxes and gifts and flushing, frowning princes.

-

In the soft glow of morning sunlight that streamed in through the high windows, Manuel, strode through one of the long hallways on his way to the entry hall. Still full with the meal from the night before, he wondered if he would even need to pick up provisions for the journey back. Perhaps the king would be generous enough as to let him have some leftovers from dinner, but Manuel would rather not have to ask such a favor of him.

As he was passing one of the tapestries depicting a battle between a knight and a dragon that stretched from ceiling to floor, a hand shot out from behind it and dragged him into a cramped passageway.

"What are you -" He turned to see his assailant, who was holding a small candlestick and pulling a folded piece of parchment from between her cleavage.

"Tell me what this says," Princess Micaela commanded, thrusting the parchment into his hands and holding the flickering flame close enough for him to read the words. Her hair smelled of heavy perfume, and Manuel felt a little lightheaded from standing so close to her.

He glared before looking down, his eyes widening upon seeing his own neat handwriting. Did she know...?

"What are you playing at, princess?" he grumbled, "Is this supposed to be a joke?"

"What?" She stared at him wide eyed, and then glared. "Fine. I thought you might be able to help me, but if you can't, then please give it back. It was a gift."

"A gift? Who would give a brat like you a poem as a gift; it's beauty would be completely lost on you." Manuel mentally slapped himself. Why had he put the parchment in the box? Why had even taken the time to write something for a girl he knew nothing about?

"Well, it's not my fault if I can't read it," the princess whined with a pout.

"The handwriting is not that bad," Manuel insisted, and then he paused. "Oh. Oh, can you not read?"

"That's what I just said. And it's not so strange; not many people can," she pointed out. "Stop making fun of me. Just tell me what it says."

So Prince Manuel held the parchment closer to the light, and in the stuffy, cramped passageway behind the tapestry, he read his poem aloud for the Princess of Peru. His low voice spun a web of images in the air, each one interwoven with pieces of home and pride and love. Silently, the princess listened to him, her eyes locked on his lips as they danced around the words.

When he had finished the poem, the last word hanging in the air between them, she smiled, bright and true in the low candlelight, and said, "That was beautiful." She pressed a soft kiss to Manuel's burning cheekbone. "Thank you."

"Y-you are welcome, princess," he stammered, shoving the poem back into her free hand. "Now, I really must be-"

"Micaela," she said. "Please call me Micaela. Such formalities are so bothersome, don't you think? Especially when we are alone like this."

Manuel struggled to swallow, the air pressing in tightly around him. "My name is Manuel," he heard himself tell her, his skin tingling where she was just barely leaning against him.

"Thank you, Manuel. Watch your head on the way out." And then she was gone, dashing off through the passage and leaving him in darkness. Crouching a bit, he pushed the tapestry aside and reemerged in the hallway, blinking until his eyes adjusted to the light again. Hurrying to the entry hall, Manuel shuffled in line with the other suitors and turned his attention to the front of the room, where the king sat with the princess - with Micaela. She looked radiant in the daylight, her eyes sparkling and her chest heaving a bit with heavy breaths, probably from running to the hall. Her hands lay in her lap, and she was twisting a heavy, golden bangle around one wrist with the other hand.

On Manuel's right, the man who had asked him about Pisco the night before declared just loud enough for him to hear, "That's my gift, that bangle is."

Something in Manuel seemed to deflate. He was not sure what he had been hoping for, but...Micaela had seemed to like the poem, had she not? She had seemed so happy after hearing it. He sighed and thought about how he would break the news to his mother as he watched the king rise.

"My daughter has made her decision," the king announced, resting a hand in Micaela's thick hair. "The bangle-"

"No." Micaela stood and turned to her father. "I've changed my mind." She reached into a small pouch tied around her hips and brought out the tin box. "This is the gift I like best."

The king stared at her, and then took the box into his own hands. He lifted the lid and stared at its contents. "This is not an appropriate gift for you," he exclaimed. "Why, this is a simple tin box! Rocks and parchment? This is preposterous!"

"I've never seen such materials before," Micaela replied, delicately taking the box from her father's grasp. "I already have more gold and silver than I could ever need in one lifetime. And-" she flushed and bit back a smile "-I like the poem."

"Poetry." The king shook his head in disbelief. "Poetry, rocks, and tin. Please, my dear Mica, take this seriously. Your future is at hand."

"I know, Papá. This is what I have chosen." She turned to look directly at Manuel as she said it, and he felt like he might melt into the ground.

His box. His poetry. His kingdom. He barely heard when the king called him forward and shook his hand stiffly, his ears pounding with rushing blood, and he thought he might leap out of his skin when the king joined his hand with Micaela's and announced that they were to be wed within a fortnight.

Micaela squeezed his hand, and while her father was busy discussing the arrangements with his advisers, whispered. "I really did like your poem."

"You knew it was mine..." He hoped she could not feel how much his hand was sweating in hers.

"But of course." She smiled at him. "You barely looked at the words as you were reciting it. I am not daft."

"You may not like my kingdom," he warned. "Our lives are not as extravagant as yours. You will become bored."

"Oh," she murmured, stroking his knuckles with her thumb. "I think I can manage to entertain myself."
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January 2012

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