The Pauper Prince 4
Another good day: Kenneth saved his money and “feasted” on scraps, and did not become deathly ill. But he also seemed more pensive throughout the day than usual. Hardly any words except about the business matters at hand. Even their evening meal was mostly silent. It would normally be a welcome change of pace for Mara, because he did love to talk, but by now she recognized it as something uncharacteristic for him. Perhaps she should act uncharacteristically, as well, and inquire after him.
In their room, after the candle had been blown out, she was still awake.
“Kenneth?” she whispered.
“I was just wondering if you’re well,” she said. “That is, you haven’t spoken much today. It’s not like you.”
“I’m fine,” he said. “But thank you for asking after me.”
“It wasn’t my story, was it?” she asked. “Or is this a coincidence? I know that it’s an unpleasant story, but see? I lived. I’ve kept on.”
“It isn’t that,” he said. “Well… it is, a little. It got me to thinking about something.”
“Nothing sad, I hope,” she said.
“I’m afraid that it is,” he said. “If I worked it out correctly, you lost your village and your people five years ago? Four?”
“… Something like that,” she said. “But I never closed my eyes during a battle again, I tell you that.”
“Of course not,” he said quietly. Then: “You weren’t here five years ago, then?” he asked. “In this kingdom?”
“No, still up north.”
“For the best, then,” he said. “You might have heard of it later, in your travels, but five years ago, this kingdom was ravaged by a plague.”
“It was like the wrath of God upon Egypt,” he said. “No one was safe. Low-born. High-born.” He drifted off into thought a few moments, then was back. “I was the middle child, actually, of three: my brother, the eldest. Then myself, then our sister. She was behind me by two years, but my brother and I were so close in age, we were like twins. Mother even dressed us the same when we were boys. She and Father even sometimes confused us with each other, calling us by the other’s name. And we behaved us brothers, of course: fighting, teasing, hunting together, wrestling, playing together. But our sister: we had sport with her as siblings will do, but most of the time we were powerless against her charms. We’d start with the teases and the japes, but every time, she would disarm us with her laughter and smile. We had no choice but to laugh and smile with her, then hug and kiss and play the rest of the day away.”
“I can scarcely remember when she wasn’t laughing or smiling,” he said. “Or singing. It’s why I learned to play the lute. I wanted to be able to join her in song. My brother, he never took to music as we did, but was kind enough to listen if we had a new song. She did, that is: she was able to come up with songs, and I struggled along to play her melody. You don’t need to tell me that my singing is serviceable at best. But her voice…”
Kenneth drifted away again. His breathing became a bit unsteady. Mara listened intently in the darkness, and was certain she heard him sniffling. Just once.
“I already told you that a plague was here,” he continued. “And that no one was safe. Not even us. Yet I never caught even so much as a rash, but had to watch my brother and sister… my– best friends… wasting away into nothingness, and there was nothing anyone could do. By the time they were confined to beds, I never left their sides, not for a moment. I played and sang for them till my fingers bled and my voice was a whisper. Told stories. Even told jokes. My parents begged me to take a break from them, at least for a little while, but I couldn’t do it. Of course they were there, too – my parents, that is – talking to them, holding them in comfort. Holding me in comfort. That’s why I think of holding hands, and touching, as comforting. Thank you for letting me do that, Mara.”
“They couldn’t be at their sides every second, like I could,” said Kenneth. “I pass no blame on them for that. They also needed to run the— run our business. I had no duties but to Robert and Flora. And when Robert breathed his last…” he said, but trailed off. Then: “I’m grateful that I was there for him. Our parents were there, too, holding him, and me. We also managed to push Flora closer to him so she could touch him, too. And together we–” His voice quavered again, “We helped him pass on in peace.”
“I promised Flora that I would there for her, too,” he said, fighting to steady his voice. “Yet I kept holding out hope that she would beat this. Though she was small and delicate, I hoped against hope that her sheer goodness would be enough to halt the plague’s evil and cast it from the very kingdom itself.” He scoffed at his own words. “The ignorance of a boy, yes? And one night, I was playing and singing for her, and I heard her trying to join in. It was her favorite song, you see, so I played very quietly so I could hear her. But then she started coughing. I stopped playing, but she kept coughing, until she spat up blood. Blood, Mara. My parents were there at once, and I kept apologizing to them and her, thinking it was my fault she was in that state. Needless to say, I played nothing more; I didn’t dare.”
“It was her last day with us,” he said, his voice unexpectedly calm now. “Back then you could never have warned me of it, because I wouldn’t have listened, but now, thinking back, it’s clear that it was her last day. Our parents knew it, I’m sure. Again they urged me to leave, to return to my own room. I think they were this close to ordering me to do it, but didn’t bring themselves to it. I’m not sure if that’s for good or ill. But I’m delaying the inevitable, aren’t I?”
Mara sniffled, but Kenneth continued as though not hearing it. “I’d promised to be there for her, as I had been for Robert. But… it was during the night. Late. Early. I don’t know. All I know is that I’d fallen asleep, but when I woke up, I was in my own bed. And this seems amusing now, but I hadn’t been there in so long, I didn’t recognize it! I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten there, or why I was there. In a panic, I ran out of the room and back to where my sister was. Dear, sweet Flora. My parents were there, weeping and trying to keep me out, but I forced my way inside. Flora was still there, but covered in white. The white shroud of death was covering her. I fell to my knees and wailed, demanding to know how I could’ve left her side. I… I think I even cursed my parents for letting me leave – no, for taking me to my room, when I needed to be at her side. They say that they tried to wake me, as Flora breathed her last, but couldn’t, and they had someone carry me to my room. Because of that, I had broken my promise to her. My sweet, baby sister died without me at her side.”
Kenneth was quiet now, and only then heard the sniffling and soft sobbing that Mara was trying to suppress.
“Mara?” he said.
“I haven’t made you cry now,” he said. “Have I?”
“Uhhhhhh….” she said. “I’m made of stone, remember? Tears beaten out of me?”
“I never said you were made of stone,” he said. “But if you are shedding tears for Flora and Robert, I thank you.”
“Not— Not them,” she said, wiping at her cheeks. “Or yes, for them. For everything. Everyone. You know what I mean.”
“I do,” he said. Because their cots were so close, when they laid side by side, some part of their bodies were always touching. Their arms were touching now. Kenneth felt with his right hand for her left, then gently intertwined their fingers. Mara gasped quietly, but of surprise, not anger. She almost pulled away, but fought her usual instinct and let him bring her hand up to his mouth. He kissed it gently, then kept it at his chest.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
Suddenly he realized what he’d done, and let go quickly.
“I am so sorry!” he said. “I did that without asking, and– You must be furious! I beg your forgiveness.”
“I’m not furious,” she said, rubbing her fingers a little. “I’m not– I’m fine. It was… I didn’t mind it. And Kenneth?”
“You don’t blame yourself for what happened, do you?”
“I used to,” he said. “In some small way, I still do. I still wonder why I lived when they didn’t. My parents have wondered the same about themselves. Given the choice, a parent will offer his or her own life to save their child, but… not all such prayers are answered.”
“Or they are,” she said. “But with ‘no?'”
“I suppose. You know, I gave up the lute for three years,” he said. “I couldn’t bear the sound of it. It reminded me too much of her. Her favorite songs caused me pain.”
“But you’re playing it now.”
“Because I started to forget her,” he said. “I don’t mean forget her. I mean that some of my memories of her were starting to fade. To grow dull. I started to forget the notes of our songs, and that frightened me. My efforts to make the pain go away ended up making it worse. So I picked it up again and relearned to play. I suppose as a way of honoring her memory. I think it may have helped our parents, too, to listen to them.”
“So… your parents still live,” she said, “But you’re their last child?”
“I’m surprised that they let you leave their sight anymore. How is it that you’re here, sleeping on a hard cot instead of with them?”
“Ah,” he said. “That is in itself another story. But its short version is that I’m out in the world now to find my own way. To your point, it took a very long time to convince them to let me leave. I will return home someday. But there are things I must accomplish first.”
“What are you supposed to accomplish?”
Kenneth was quiet for a moment, as though searching for the right words. “There are decisions they expected to make for me, that I would rather make for myself. Perhaps it’s because I’m now their only child, or perhaps in spite of it, that they’re willing to give me that chance.”
“Decisions like, whether to be a minstrel for a living?” she said.
“Was that a tease?” he said.
“Then touche,” he said. “And yes, something like that. Of course I was too naive to realize that I’d be starving in a week’s time. The people here could learn to be more generous.”
“Perhaps they, too, are still grieving from the plague,” she said. “And you’re right, I’ve heard people mention it in passing, and so knew that there’d been one before, but not as recently as that. It explains why most people here are a bit… glum? I’m not sure if that’s the word.”
“It serves,” he said. “Of course I can’t blame them. As I said, no one was spared. Everyone lost… someone. If not related by blood, then by friendship.”
They lay in the darkness in silence now, side-by-side, still touching arms because of the cots’ closeness. Then Kenneth felt her fingers tentatively reaching for his. First she withdrew them, and then touched again, little by little. He kept his hand relaxed all the while, and smiled to himself when she finally intertwined her fingers with his. Then she squeezed, briefly and gently, but it was still a squeeze.
After a minute he brought her hand up to his chest again, paused, and then up to his lips and kissed it.
“You said that you don’t mind this?” he said.
“…No,” she said. “But why the hand?”
“In polite society, it’s how a man greets a woman,” he said.
“Oh, and you’re from ‘polite society’?” she said.
“My parents were — are, that is — rather particular about manners.” He kissed her hand again and let it rest on his chest.
“What about women greeting men?” she asked.
“Curtsies,” he said.
“Or… you know, just a ‘Hello’ or other small greeting,” he said quickly. He kissed it again.
“Is that comforting to you?” she asked.
“Is it comforting to you?”
“Um…” she said. Kenneth stopped kissing but still held her hand gently, and waited. “Yes,” she whispered. “I… I think it’s nice.”
“Is this?” he said, and leaned closer to her, and kissed her shoulder. She only looked at him curiously.
“No,” she said. “I mean, it doesn’t feel like anything.”
“What about this?” he asked, and leaned in closer. Now her instincts fired up again. She didn’t tug away her hand or recoil, but did see that he was leaning closer to her face, and quickly turned her head away. His lips landed on her cheek.
“Oh,” she said in small surprise. “That was… fine, I think.” He started to lean in again. “W-w-w-wait, Kenneth. Wait. I… You know that I’ve never… My father made me promise never to…”
“I know,” he said. “And truthfully? Neither have I. Kissed a woman, that is.”
“Oh,” she scoffed. “Of course you have. I mean, you’re so… so…”
“You’re so…” she said. “What some women would consider handsome.”
After a moment, he started to chuckle softly.
“Oh, don’t laugh at me,” she said.
“I’m not,” he said. “Thank you. I’m flattered that you think ‘some’ women would find me handsome. I think that all men would find you beautiful.”
“Oh, ha ha,” she said mirthlessly. “Many women, then. Um, most women. Just women in general, is that enough?”
“I only care about one of them,” he said. “Does she think I’m handsome?”
“Well, I wouldn’t know that,” she said, then groaned. “Oh. You must think I’m so stupid.”
“Um…” she said, shifting uncomfortably on an uncomfortable cot. “Yes. Yes, ‘she’ does. I think you’re… handsome. You know, in a handsome way.” She groaned again. “Oh, that really was stupid,” she muttered. “But ‘all’ men couldn’t possibly find me beautiful. Not even one.”
“You wound me, Mara,” he said. “You imply that I’m not a man?”
“Of course not,” she said. “I mean, of course you are. I’ve just never heard anyone describe me as ‘beautiful.'”
“I’ll describe you that way every day, if you’ll let me,” he said, and leaned in again. She gasped and put her hand on his lips, but only to stop him and not push him away.
“Wait-wait!” she said, and then withdrew her hand. “You’re… trying to kiss me, are you?”
“I said I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I don’t know how. What if you end up hurt?”
“I very much doubt that,” he said. “And I don’t know how, either, except from watching others. Please tell me if I’m doing it right.” He closed his eyes and leaned in. He heard her gasp and briefly pull away, but eventually she relaxed. Their lips touched, and she gasped again, then relaxed her lips enough to let him kiss them properly.
He opened his eyes and leaned back. Her eyes were open now, too, unless she had never closed them.
“How was that?” he asked.
“It was… I don’t know,” she said. “Interesting?”
“Was that the wrong word?” she said. “Yes, it was. ‘Interesting’ is a bit bland, isn’t it? It wasn’t bland. It was… Oh, I can’t find the words.”
“Yes or no, then,” he said. “Was it pleasant?”
She nodded her head, then realized that it might be difficult to tell in the darkness. “Yes,” she said. “Very.”
He leaned towards her again, but the sides of their cots were wooden rods, surrounding drooping fabric, making it difficult to find a comfortable position. With a sigh Kenneth got up from his cot and leaned over to collapse it and lay it on the ground.
“What’s wrong?” she said. “Why are you doing that?”
“Will you sit up?” he said. She did so, hesitantly, unsure if he was frustrated, or worse, angry. After she was sitting up, her back against the wall, he sat beside her. “Thank you,” he said, and put a hand on her shoulder. Then with his other hand, he touched her cheek and gently guided her towards him.
“Oh,” she said. “I see what you’re-” but was cut off as they met again in a kiss. This one lasted, and both novices took their time to adjust their positions, the shapes of their mouths, how they breathed, how they held each other, everything, until in time, they reached the perfect balance of mutual pleasure.
Neither of them were aware of how much time had passed by the time they finally parted, breathed in deeply as though they’d forgotten to take breaths, and rested their heads against each other’s. Mara kept her eyes closed; Kenneth, open.
“And how was that?” he whispered. There was silence for a few seconds, and then Mara chuckled. She opened her eyes and gazed into his.
“Very pleasant,” she whispered.
It occurred to them, briefly, that they might not be getting any sleep that night, but neither of them cared.