The Pauper Prince 5
An Unexpected Question
Mara was woken up by several knocks on the storage room door. She awoke with a start, and was disoriented to find that she had been sleeping in a sitting position. In fact, sitting next to Kenneth, who was still asleep, and with her left hand holding his right. Of the two, she was the lighter sleeper, but she’d been that way all her life, by necessity.
She stood up, lost her balance because his hand still held hers, and flumped back onto the cot, her head smacking the wall a bit. She winced and held her head, then fumbled again to stand up from the cot. This time Kenneth’s hand let go of hers. She glanced back to see him falling over, still asleep, as she made for the door.
Erick was preparing to knock again when she threw open the door. This startled him a bit.
“What are you two-?” he said.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry. We’re sorry. Sleep overtook us, nothing more.”
“Is that so?” he said.
“Yes,” she said firmly, pushing past him to start the work day. “It is so. Are we late?”
“Not especially,” said Erick, then pointed inside of the room to Kenneth, who was now awake but still groggy. “But he will be in a moment.”
“Not so!” groaned Kenneth. “I’m awake. I’m up. Good morning, Erick!”
Erick and Kenneth were downstairs, cleaning the dining area after breakfast. Mara was upstairs to start cleaning the guest rooms. Then Kenneth heard her soft steps as she came downstairs. He paused in his work to watch her. She was lost in thought while coming down and was a little surprised to catch him staring at her. But then he grinned at her; it was that big, broad, friendly grin that he used to have when he first came to town. Now it had returned, but this time there was much more than mere friendship behind it. Mara paused, and suddenly a warm tingle that started from the bottom of her spine shot up her back, straightening her up and bringing her lips to a smile. Not the small, forced or sad smiles she’d been managing so far. A full, big, broad, dimpled smile. For him. The light from one of the windows caught her pure, green eyes just enough that they seemed to sparkle. All of this lasted a second at most, but Kenneth would never forget that moment. It was the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen.
Mara was suddenly embarrassed by what she had done, and forced her expression to become neutral again. She looked about nervously before heading to the back room for more cleaning. But Kenneth kept watching her even after she disappeared from view. Then Erick was beside him, clearing his throat.
“Are you planning to do any work today?” he said, snapping Kenneth from his reverie. Kenneth mumbled an apology before resuming his chores absent-mindedly, since his mind was entirely elsewhere.
This time it was Kenneth who had been charged with the task of lugging the water jugs. Mara didn’t want him to do it alone, not to prove yet again that she wasn’t weak, but because she had come to prefer his company for that chore. But there was always other work, so she went to chop food in the kitchen, but Erick called her over to him instead. He stood in the doorway of his bedroom-slash-study, and waved his hand as though indicating it to her.
“What do you think?” he asked. She peered inside intently, wondering if she was meant to find something amiss. Then she straightened up and shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what you’re showing me. Did I miss something when I cleaned last?”
“Not that,” he said. “Looking at this room, would you say that it could use a woman’s touch?”
“I’m afraid that I wouldn’t know about that,” she said. “Sir.”
“I think it could,” he said, leaning against a wall. “It’s been such a long time. Mara,” he said, straightening up, “I am a frugal man, and it’s served me well over the years, but I realize now that I’ve not been as generous with you as I should have been.”
“Oh,” she said, looking down briefly, “You’re not as bad as you think. That is, I’ve worked for men who were quite… unpleasant.”
“But you shouldn’t have to,” he said. “You needn’t go from town to town, looking for anywhere and anyone to hire you. You can stay here. In fact, you can stay-” he pointed to the room itself- “here.”
She peered at him, then into the room, and also pointed. “Here?”
“Yes,” he said. “I… What I mean to say, is that I shouldn’t have been having you sleep on a hard cot or feed on scraps, like a dog. I realize that I’ve been thoughtless and ungenerous to you. I should have just let you stay in the back room, with a real bed and a window, and full meals.”
“Mm, it’s not too late to start,” she offered.
“That’s good to hear,” he said. “I know I should do better now. I’ve… not been with a woman since I lost my Eleanor, rest her soul. And my Elaine, rest her soul… She would be about your age now, I think.”
“Oh, said Mara. “I didn’t know that. I’m sorry.”
“I’ve been a fool to stay alone for this long,” he said. “That’s why… This room. It can be yours, too. In fact, the inn itself. You won’t even need to work much, but just… order the worker around. Or workers.”
“Wh– What are you saying?” she said. “You’re giving me the inn?”
“It would be in your name, yes,” he said.
“Erick: are you dying?”
“What? No, I’m not dying,” he said. “Not that I know of. Why do you think that?”
“Then why give me the inn?” said Mara. “And I confess that your room is very nice, but where would you sleep?”
“Where would–?” he said, then sighed. “You’re really not that bright, are you?”
“Wh- Hey!” she said. “It’s not my fault that I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“I’m saying,” said Erick, “That I’d like you to marry me.”
Mara swallowed once, then froze in place. Erick could have waved a hand in front of her face, and she would not have reacted. Instead he waited half a minute, then poked her in the shoulder. This got some reaction, but not much.
“Mara? Did you not hear me?” he asked.
“Oh, yes,” said Mara, swallowing again. “I heard you.”
“I… can understand why this might surprise you,” he said, began to pace slowly. She nodded to herself. “I may have seemed to be inattentive, or… dare I say indifferent, to you, but I was not. It’s just that it’s been so long for me, I fear that I’d lost the ability to… interact with women. And here I am, getting older, with no wife, no children. No heirs. This inn has been in my family for generations, and I’m in danger of ending that heritage. And here you are, working for me for months, and it took me this long to see it.”
“You, of course,” he said. “All of you. Young. Pretty. Ready for marriage.”
Mara threw up her hands and tried to speak, but all that came out were a string of nonsense syllables. Then she shut her eyes, slowed her breathing, and tried again. “I wouldn’t call myself,” she said, “‘Ready for marriage.’ That-that-that-that is not something I… think of. That I’ve ever thought of. I think.”
“Yes, because you’re a mighty mercenary, who must travel wherever there’s a battle and offer your sword,” said Erick.
“I would– warn you against mocking that,” she said. “Sir.”
“You’re of marriageable age, girl,” said Erick. “Of child-bearing age. Your youth and beauty won’t last forever, nor the fertile years. I’m not a rich man – you know that – but I can offer you comfort, and security. A comfortable bed and full meals every day. What more can a woman want?”
“Yes, what more?” she said, forcing a laugh. “Oh: you know that I’m, uh, taller than you,” she said. “That doesn’t bother you? I mean, it bothers most men. It seems to.”
“Do I seem bothered by it?”
“No,” she said, and forced another laugh. “I suppose not, hm?”
“I still wonder what your answer is,” he said. “To my proposal.”
“I-I-I-I-I don’t know, Erick,” she said. “I-I-I wasn’t expecting this. At all. Any of this. I– didn’t even think that you liked me.”
“I do,” he said. “Very much. I just– haven’t been very good at showing it. Out of practice, you know.”
“Is this something that you’ve, uh… mentioned to Kenneth?” she asked.
Erick scoffed. “Why would I tell him anything?” he said. “This is your business and mine, not his.”
“Oh,” she said. “No reason. I was just curious if he might know anything about this.”
“Why should that matter?”
“Um,” she said and shrugged. “No reason.”
“Ah,” said Erick, folding his arms. “You fancy the penniless minstrel.”
“And that’s,” she said, “His business and mine?”
“Hm. An amusing retort,” said Erick. “Tell me, Mara: what does he offer you? Other than a handsome smile and his music, does he offer you security? Comfort? Does he even have a home of his own?”
“He… says that his parents still live, and so I imagine that he also has a home. A family home?”
“He lives with his parents?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “It wasn’t mentioned.”
“A man needs a business,” said Erick. “He needs the means to support his family, to keep them fed, and clothed, and warm, and safe. To provide for his children so they can grow up healthy and strong.”
“You keep mentioning children,” she said.
“Well, yes,” said Erick. “People get married and have children. It’s what they do.”
“Ah. Yes,” she said. “Well– I confess I’d thought about children less than about marriage.”
Erick sighed and pinched his eyes together. Mara waited in awkward silence, looking about nervously. Then: “I should return to my chores now,” she said. “Right?”
“Wrong,” he said. Mara tried to swallow, but her throat was tightening. Erick opened his eyes and looked at her. “That is, why don’t you go out into town instead, and think about this? Walk around, shop, eat, whatever you wish.”
“Don’t work? But who’ll-?”
“The boy will,” said Erick. “Kenneth. He can handle a day of his own. Lord knows he owes you a day.”
“You forgot the day he was sick, and was in bed all day?”
“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t forget, I just didn’t think of it as… ‘owing’ me.”
Erick sighed again. “Mara, stop working today, and do as you please. In fact,” he said, and walked over to a chest besides his worktable, where he counted the day’s money. He unlocked the chest with a small key and removed an even smaller chest inside, which was also locked. He used a different key for that. Mara heard the jingle of silver coins. Erick turned to her, and held out his hand. There were silver coins, seven of them. He had grabbed them without even counting.
“Here,” he said, “Take these and go out. Do whatever you like with them, buy whatever you like with them. It doesn’t matter to me.”
“Oh, Erick, I could never pay this back-”
“You’re not repaying me,” he said. “Do you not know a gift when you see it?”
“I suppose not,” she said, then took them all hesitantly. “I mean, thank you. Thank you, Erick!”
“Go on,” he said, waving her away. “Think about what I’ve said. Be back before nightfall!”
“Thank you!!” she shouted back to him, already running out the front door.
Mara saw Kenneth outside as he lugged one of the water jugs back from the well. She almost went over to him to help, and to tell him what had happened, but something stopped her. Erick did have a point: this was her business, not Kenneth’s. Or wasn’t it? What would he think if she accepted Erick’s proposal? Would he leave or stay and keep working at the inn? No, of course not. Kenneth had already mentioned returning home; he would leave the inn and return home.
That thought gave her spine a cold chill. But why? Erick was the one who’d asked about marriage, not Kenneth. And Mara was a pragmatic woman, always. Erick could offer comfort and safety and all that he had talked about, even though he kept mentioning children for some reason. But she had looked after herself for years now; it was not as if she needed a man to take care of her, as men were supposed to do for their wives. So why was she even contemplating his question? She didn’t want to be a “wife” like he described, who apparently did nothing but order people around. She knew what it was like to be ordered around, and found it distasteful thinking of doing the same.
In her mind she tried to compare the two men, and only ended up frustrating herself. Barely a month ago she wasn’t thinking about men at all, and now couldn’t get either one from her head. Or really, one in particular, but Erick’s question kept coming back: What did Kenneth offer her? What more than a heart-melting smile? Or a willing ear? Or kind words? Or respect? Or infinite patience? Or a loving heart? Or luscious li-
“Miss?” someone near her called out. “Miss!!”
She snapped from her thoughts and looked over. A man was gesturing to her and pointing behind her. She looked and then gasped at the horse’s face that was right there. The merchant driving his cart had managed to stop his beast in time to avoid running her down, but he did not look happy about it. Without realizing it, she had wandered onto a main road and stopped there, oblivious to her surroundings.
She silently cursed herself and stepped onto a walkway. The cart passed. She nodded in thanks to the helpful passerby, then continued walking, now careful not to get too lost in thought. Stupid men! she thought. Thinking about them almost got me killed!
She was careful to keep the coins in her purse from jingling, lest thieves or pickpockets take notice. Silver has a distinct ring to it that called attention like rats to rubbish. She felt for her sword out of habit, and momentarily panicked when she didn’t feel it at her side. After a few seconds she remembered that it was back at the inn, still in the storage room. She started going back to retrieve it, but stopped herself. She still needed time to sort out her thoughts, and had gone out every day now without her sword, anyway, for running errands. But when she needed her “safety blanket” the most, it was gone.
Years of lean living made her disinclined to toss money about, even for an employer-sanctioned spending spree. She contemplated spending but one of the coins and saving the rest. He did say it was a gift, after all, and that he didn’t care what she did with it. Or she could spend two and bring back a pretty good sampling of food for herself and Ke–
She sighed and found a bare wall to lean against. He’s as poor as I am, she thought. Be practical, stupid girl! Money is more useful than a loving embrace. Stop thinking about that! But I’m not afraid of work; I hate being idle, so it’s not as though I expect him to support me. I was already supporting him in there. What about his parents? I couldn’t tell if they’re poor, too. Can a poor person buy a lute? I don’t know what they cost. Why am I fretting about lutes?? Is he even welcome back home? Was he exiled? Why am I fretting about this, too? Erick’s the one who asked, not Kenneth; I should be thinking about him. But why would he ask me? Why would anyone ask me? I’ve done nothing to make anyone think I want to be asked.
It was scarcely noon, and Mara was already exhausted. But she wandered some more and ended up across town, at the better inn with the better food, spending two of the coins for a veritable feast. She ate slowly, for hours instead of minutes, allowing her to finish all of it in one sitting, and also for more time to think. But Erick had bade her to return by nightfall. The sun was setting already. She pulled out one more coin and ordered a meal that she could carry back with her.
She had also decided what to do.
By the time Mara got back to the Eleanor Elaine, the lanterns had been lit. She hurried back inside. Guests had come down for dinner, as well as some of the local regulars. Kenneth was bustling the food and drink with practiced ease. He saw her enter and paused to greet her with another heart-melting smile. That same warm tingle began at the base of her spine, but she suppressed the urge this time to respond in kind, and only nodded in greeting. Kenneth looked puzzled, but quickly returned to his duties.
Mara hurried her sack of extra food into the storage room and laid it on her cot, then rushed to the kitchen to see if there was any work to be done. Erick was busy preparing the food, but saw her enter.
“You’re back,” he said.
“Yes. What do you need?” she said. “Are there any orders ready? Should I clean something?”
“I gave you the day off,” he said.
“And now it’s evening,” she said. Kenneth came in to set some dirty dishes into the watertub. He paused as he passed Mara, and smiled again, tucking a hand under her chin. This time she couldn’t resist, and beamed back at him. This seemed to satisfy Kenneth; he headed back into the dining room.
“How was your day-now-evening, then?” said Erick. Maybe he had not seen what Kenneth did?
“Um,” she said, putting on an apron, “Not as relaxing as I’d hoped.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “Did you think about what we discussed?”
“I did,” she said, taking some plates from the tub and scrubbing them. “But should we get through dinner before talking about it?”
Erick started to answer, but she had a point: it was still busy and there were customers to please. “Yes, yes, that’s fine,” he said, and spoke no more of it for the time being. Neither did she.
After guests and regulars had had their fill, and Erick was satisfied that there was naught to do but clean, he removed his apron and motioned to Mara to follow him. On the way she looked back to see if Kenneth saw them. He did, and paused to watch, but she could not read his expression. They entered Erick’s room, and Erick turned to look back at Kenneth as he shut the door.
Kenneth had finished the cleaning for the night and had just brought his bowl of scraps into the storage room, when Mara emerged from Erick’s room and shut the door behind her. Erick did not come out; perhaps he was in for the night. Kenneth also failed to read her expression when she entered their storage/bedroom. He held up his bowl to her in a silent offering. She held up a hand and shook her head. He set down the bowl and went to her, holding her shoulders and kissing her in greeting. He noticed that there was no ‘life’ in her response.
“Is something wrong?” he asked. “You were talking to Erick, yes?”
“Yes,” she said. “Did he tell you anything? About today, I mean.”
“He told me that he gave you the day off,” said Kenneth. “A day of no work. How was it? No one has earned it more than you.”
“I had a lot to think about today,” she said, “So it wasn’t as relaxing and carefree as I would have liked.”
“Is it something you want to talk about?” he asked.
“Not yet,” she said. “How was your day? You worked the inn by yourself, yes? I hope it wasn’t as busy all day as it was tonight.”
“Not especially,” he said, rubbing his neck and shoulder. “But now, I don’t know how you did it by yourself all that time. What was it, three months? Four months? How did you do it?”
She shrugged. “I just… did it, you know,” she said. Kenneth nodded and then pointed to the sack she had brought in from the nicer inn across town.
“Well, now you can relax, and enjoy the extra food you brought,” he said. “And I swear that I’ve eaten none of it.”
“Oh, that’s yours,” she said. “I brought that for you. Sorry, I didn’t get a chance to tell you.”
“I couldn’t take all that,” he said. “Please, join me.”
“You’re the one who’s been working all day,” she said. “Besides, I ate well enough today; believe me. Stop staring at me: Eat! Eat!”
“Yes, ma’am!” said Kenneth, and happily emptied the sack and started picking through its contents.
Mara watched him enjoy every morsel like a hungry man would when offered a feast.
“Erick asked me to marry him.”
Kenneth stopped eating, and stared wide-eyed. “Erick? Did you say he asked you to marry him? Just now?”
“This morning,” she said. “It’s why he gave me the day off, actually. He wanted me to think about it.”
“And did you?”
“Yes, I did,” she said sadly, and sighed again. “I spent all morning, all day, just thinking about it. I don’t know where it came from. All this time I worked here, he never said anything, or showed anything.”
“I didn’t think he even liked you,” said Kenneth.
“That’s what I said to him!” she said. “But he said that he always has, but didn’t know how to show it. And then, offered me the whole inn. That is, if I married him, he’d give me the inn, and that I wouldn’t have to work, but could be the boss of his other employees.”
“Giving you the whole inn,” said Kenneth. “A woman could be quite– tempted by such an offer.”
“He kept talking about children, too.”
“Well… if you two married, then children would surely follow,” said Kenneth.
“He said that, too,” said Mara. “Are you sure you weren’t talking to him?”
“I swear to you that I did not. I’m only agreeing about marriage and children.”
“Until this morning, I scarcely gave a thought about either one,” she said. “Then suddenly my head is filled with thoughts like that, all day. And now it’s night, so that, too.”
“Those are… natural things for people to think about,” said Kenneth. “I can’t believe you never once thought about marriage.”
“I didn’t say never. Just scarcely. There wasn’t much cause for me to think of such things. And now…” Her thoughts drifted off, taking her voice with them.
“Mara? Dare I ask your answer to him?” said Kenneth, biting his lip. “Do you have an answer?”
She smiled sadly. “You may dare,” she said. “I said no.”
Kenneth’s eyes went wide. “You– You said no?” he asked, his voice rising, his breath getting faster. He grabbed her arms again and held on tight, laughing. “Mara, I could kiss you! In fact…”
He pulled her closer quickly into a kiss, that became an embrace and a deep kiss that lasted a full minute. When they pulled apart, it was as if they had burst from water and were able to breathe again. They closed their eyes and rested their heads together, forehead to forehead. Mara was the first to look up.
“There’s still a problem,” she whispered. “I don’t think I have a job tomorrow.”
“He would fire you for turning him down?”
“He didn’t– say that exactly,” she said. “But I shouldn’t stay here. I’m hoping that… I wouldn’t leave alone, though.”
“You needn’t worry about that,” he said. “In fact, I’ve–” he started, but then his words froze. Mara waited patiently for him to continue. When he did not, she put her hand on his cheek. This brought him out of it; he placed his own hand over hers, keeping it in place on his cheek.
“I’ve wanted to ask you since the second day we spoke,” he said. “That night I slept here but had no money for food, and you shared your meal with me? That night was when I knew. But I sensed that I needed to take my time. Perhaps I was right to wait, but that hesitation almost cost me. I almost lost you tonight because another man had the courage to ask first.”
He took both of her hands into his. “I don’t have much to offer you right now,” he said. “I have but a few coins in my purse, and no home but a closet in an inn, but I swear to you, Mara: all that I have, and all that I will ever have, I will share with you. No, I will give to you, and then beg for your scraps. I don’t need to share my heart, because you already have it. All of it. I have only this left: Mara, will you marry me?”
She smiled a little, then looked slightly away and stared into the middle distance. “I think of myself as so practical,” she said. “Do you know why I spent all day wrestling with my decision for Erick?”
“Because his offer was sound,” she said, now looking him in the eye. “I still don’t think he liked me when he asked, and I’m sure he likes me much less now, or worse. But he did offer the things that a practical person would want: a promising future, stability, safety, comfort. You know, he mentioned you, trying to convince me that you offered nothing more than a handsome smile. I’m a practical person, so I should have agreed. But I didn’t.”
“Why is that?”
“I had time today to, for the first time, ponder things that I never had before,” she said. “Besides ‘marriage’ and ‘children’, what qualities I might want for a husband, should anyone remotely resembling one come my way. I kept trying to picture Erick for the part, to push and twist him into it, but I couldn’t. Another man kept filling it, perfectly, no bending or shaping needed, no matter how much I tried to pull him out.”
She closed her eyes and rested her forehead against his. “You, Kenneth,” she whispered. “There’s nothing ‘practical’ about you, but there’s no one else I would follow, except you. Yes, I will marry you.”