The Pauper Prince 6
“Believe me that we would have preferred giving an earlier warning,” said Kenneth to Erick the next morning, “But given the circumstances of our respective situations… er…”
“Yes, well,” said Erick, wiping the counter apathetically, “I suppose the best man won, hm?”
“I… wouldn’t call it a competition,” said Kenneth, glancing back at Mara, “But thank you.” Both he and Mara had packed all of their belongings in their respective sacks, bags, and packs. Her sword was strapped to her side again, where it belonged. All of her belongings fit into three sacks, which she wore in a manner that distributed their weight evenly. Kenneth’s lute was strapped again to his back, his cap’s brim pulled low.
“Good luck and life to you both, then,” Erick said flatly. He looked at Mara, who flashed him a half smile at best. She nodded to him and turned to leave the inn for the final time. Kenneth did, too, but was called back discreetly by Erick. Erick leaned in closer and kept his voice low.
“You treat that girl well,” he said. “Hear? She deserves better than a homeless minstrel, but who am I to say?”
Kenneth was in too high of spirits to get involved in a last-minute pissing contest. “Erick, my good man,” he said with a smile, “I swear to you by all I hold dear, that she will be treated like nothing less than a princess.”
Mara indulged Kenneth’s insistence that he visit a barber before leaving town. He hadn’t been near a razor since arriving clean-shaven in Allcourt, and had grown a respectable beard by now. The barbershop visit would have been less painful for her if Kenneth hadn’t needed to borrow money from her. The night before, when she had to tell Erick that she would not marry him, she worried that he might take back his gift of silver coins, but he did not. At least he was true to his word about that.
She liked the work that the barber had done, and realized that she was more fond of a clean-shaven face. She did not indulge Kenneth’s suggestion that they find a bathhouse, though, since all of its amenities would be paid from her purse. Neither had bathed in at least a week, so at least their odors shared the same pungency. He seemed more concerned about it than she, but did not say why. He had promised to repay her for the barber visit, though, and she would hold him to it when they arrived at his hometown. He had divulged that it was five miles along the northwestern road. Mara thought about it, but could not remember if she had traveled that way before.
Before they left Allcourt for the last time, Kenneth pulled out a brown cloak, then switched his cap for the cloak in a quick, smooth movement. He kept the hood up. Mara didn’t think the sun shone especially brightly this morning, but she set down one of her bags, rummaged through it, and pulled out a cloak of her own. It almost matched his in color, which seemed to please him. Then they headed for the road out of town. Mara gave the Eleanor Elaine a final look back, before looking ahead, occasionally glancing at Kenneth as they walked.
Buildings and people eventually thinned out until they were walking past open fields, some being farmed, some supporting livestock. Any farmers or shepherds were in the distance, tending to their business. The merchant carts that had left before them were slowly dwindling into specks on the horizon. It was quiet, save for their footsteps on the soft road. He wanted very, very much to take her hand and hold it for the whole journey, but she would never stop worrying if anyone outside could see them. He could respect that, though, for some circles considered public affection as “unseemly.”
“Would you like me to play something for us?” asked Kenneth, already reaching for the lute on his back. Mara shrugged.
“I have no objection to it,” she said. “Just don’t put my name into any of the songs.”
“I remember that,” he said. “But what if a song were written especially for you?”
“I don’t want to hear any songs like that,” she said. “But it would be nice to hear something cheerful.”
“‘Cheer’ is all that’s in my heart right now,” he said with a smile and a wink. He strummed the lute a few times and plucked the strings, and satisfied that it was adequately in tune, played his happiest song. Mara listened politely, even when he stumbled on some of the notes and words. He wasn’t used to playing while walking at a steady pace, and was a month out of practice, to boot. Near the end of the song, he played faster and louder, as was intended for its ending, then suddenly hit a chord of sour notes.
“Augh!” he groaned, and stopped walking. Mara looked back, then saw the source of his distress. That last chord had caused some of the strings to break. He pulled at the broken strings sadly, then returned the lute to its harness on his back.
“And that concludes this morning’s performance,” he said. She giggled, then cut herself off, mortified by the immature sound she had uttered.
“I giggled like a girl, didn’t I?” she said. “Tell me I didn’t just giggle like a little girl.”
“I didn’t hear a sound,” he said.
“Good, deaf as a post,” she said with a smile. “Kenneth, I have a confession: I liked that song. It’s a merry tune, and I admit that I’m also in a merry mood.”
“Or a ‘marrying’ mood?” he said, bumping her arm with his elbow. It took her a moment, but then she understood and replied appropriately: with a groan. They walked quietly in silence for a minute. It turns out that Mara was gathering some courage to ask her next question.
“Kenneth,” she said, “Will you tell me about your parents? What will they think of me?”
“You’re going to meet them soon enough,” he said. “Would you like to be surprised?”
“Ah… I suppose I don’t need too many details,” she said. “But I do have one big question about them, and I don’t want a surprise for it: Will they accept me?”
“That is a good question,” he said, and paused to consider his words. “I only wish I knew the true answer. I will say this about my father, though: he is not a man given to rash decisions or expressions of, uh, emotions. I don’t think he’s made a single important decision without having given the deepest of consideration and thought to it. For good or ill, then, when he’s made his decision, it is final. There are no debates or arguments to turn him from it.”
“I tell you that,” he continued, “Because I have my own confession: whom I would marry is one of the decisions my parents expected to make for me,” he said. “But I believe that it’s too important a decision for it not to be mine, as well. And so, I will attempt a prediction: he will be… frustrated with me, for the mere fact that I found my own bride-to-be without his input. But not from disappointment in you.”
She scoffed. “Yes, because I’m such a catch,” she said. “You make it sound like you left home just to find someone to marry.”
“I did,” he said, and glanced her way and smiled. The best reply she could muster at first was another scoff and a skeptical look.
“And then almost starved,” she said. “And ended up working for scraps and a hard, cold bed.”
“It was worth it,” he said. “I found you.”
“I mean it,” he said. “When I was out there like a damned fool, thinking I could sing my way into the heart of a passing stranger, and as you wisely pointed out, almost starving instead, I had realized that I was about to die in Allcourt, and knew I had to return home. So I used all of my money to buy one last night in a real bed.”
“Oh,” she said, turning red. “That night.”
“Yes,” he said. “That one. The night that I fell in love.”
Mara chuckled in embarrassment, then struggled to compose herself. “All that over a bowl of soup?”
“Quickest way to a man’s heart,” he said.
“Oh, of course,” she said. “I… I hope it doesn’t hurt you to learn that I did not, um, ‘fall in love’ that same night?”
“Oh,” she said. “That’s good. I mean, not that… there was never such a time. Except that I– can’t think of a true moment like you can, when that happened. I just, um… do.”
Kenneth considered her words in silence, then nodded and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. She did not pull away, but looked about to see if any strangers were nearby to see the public affection. Satisfied, she reached up to take his hand from her shoulder, then intertwined her fingers with his.
They walked like this for a distance, saying nothing, their arms joined at the hand and swinging in tandem. Then Kenneth broke the silence.
“Do you mind if I make another confession?” he asked. “It’s one that I hope you won’t mind.”
“Are we both in church today?” she said. “So many ‘confessions.'”
Kenneth chuckled, and then took a slow, deep breath. “You see, um… My name is not ‘Kenneth,'” he said, and looked to her for a reaction. He got a quizzical look. “Not exactly. My full name is Kelvin Edmund Nathaniel. I took the K, E, and N – the first letters of my names – and made ‘KEN,’ then lengthened it to ‘Kenneth.'”
She was silent at first, but Kenneth(?) could tell by her expression that she was pondering his words.
“Is that – a reading trick of some kind?” she said. “You know that I can’t read?”
“I know,” he said. “But calling myself Kenneth was not meant to be a trick against you. It’s only that I had to use a different name than my own, Kelvin.”
“I think I prefer ‘Kenneth,'” she said. “‘Kelvin‘? Really?”
“Hey,” he said in mock disdain. “Kelvin is a perfectly fine name.”
“Forgive me; I meant no disrespect,” she said. “So, ‘Kenneth’ is your nickname?”
“Then I don’t understand what you’re telling me,” she said. “Do you want me to call you ‘Kelvin’ now? What are you called at home?”
“An excellent question,” he said. “People call me different things, depending on who they are. My parents, of course, call me ‘Kelvin’ or ‘son.’ Others call me… mmm… ‘Your Highness.'”
“Yes,” he said. “Or ‘Your Royal Highness,’ which is more accurate. Informally, ‘My Lord.’ Or ‘Prince Kelvin.'”
“Oh. I see,” she said, nodding, then said no more.
“I am Crown Prince Kelvin, Duke of Moorcliff, heir to the throne of Gildern,” he said, and waited again for her response. Again, she was silent.
“Have you heard what I’ve said, or are you just ignoring it?”
“I’ve heard you,” she said. “But I’m not ignoring you. I’m just trying to work out why you’re telling me this.”
“Because it’s the truth?”
“No, that’s not it,” she said.
“Ohhhhh,” she said, “Now I understand. Yes. I have my own confession: my name is not ‘Mara.’ It’s ‘Daisy.’ That is, Princess Daisy. Duchess of… Pomegranate, and Countess of… Countinghouse.”
He sighed. “My father is King Silas and my mother is Queen Lily,” he said.
“My father is… an emperor,” she said. “He has three kingdoms.”
“I live in the castle that we’re walking to right now,” he said.
“We have so many castles, I’ve never slept in the same one twice,” she said, and smiled. Kenneth did not reply, nor return her smile. “Your turn now,” she said. “Or do you yield the game to me?”
“Mara, I’m telling the truth,” he said. “It’s no game. I am Kelvin Edmund Nathaniel, Crown Prince and heir to the throne of -”
“Please,” she said. “How can this not be a travel game? It would’ve saved us both time if you’d announced it first, though. And I still won, because you repeated yourself!”
“This is not a game,” he said, not hiding his exasperation. “You have no idea how much I wanted to tell you, but I could not. I was forbidden from it.”
“If this is not a game,” she said, “And it cannot be the truth, either, then you’re starting to worry me. Why are you telling me this? If it’s to make me feel better about marrying you and not Erick, there’s no need.”
“I’m very grateful that you’re marrying me and not him,” said Kenneth(?), “But it is the truth. I only wish I could prove it to you here and now, but I haven’t the means. But I’ll have it the moment we’re at the castle. Will you trust my word until then? It’s much to ask of you, but I swear that I never lied to you in all this time; it’s merely that one truth about me that I had to conceal.”
Mara considered his plea, but ultimately shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll need your proof. If that marks me as faithless, then I beg forgiveness but cannot change it. You know me to be a practical woman who doesn’t indulge in flights of fancy… or fantasy, for that matter. I’m trying to work out, but cannot, how or why a Prince would pretend to be a peasant and… well, live as you did. And then ask me, a girl as far from being a Princess as the imagination can go, to marry him. Kenneth, I’ve not changed my mind; I will stay with you, but please: end this tale now. I couldn’t bear to start imagining a life of indulgence and luxury, when our reality will be hard work, frugality and sacrifice. You know that I’m not one for idleness.”
Kenneth sighed in mild frustration. Still, her words lingered with him. Her practicality was one of the attributes he admired, but which now worked against him. He could not fault her for demanding proof, then. It was a relief to him that the castle had been gradually looming larger and closer at a steady pace. Mara was starting to become aware of its true size. It was a large, walled structure of stone a half-mile wide and eighty feet high, with an iron double-door at its center and a raised portcullis partly visible above the doors. From the outside the walls were broken up by guard stations, and large stone and iron towers, peppered with archer loops, at each corner. She could tell at a glance that any enemies laying siege would need to be well-armed, well-organized, well-supplied and patient.
She whistled, then pointed towards it. “I’m willing to believe that you make a home there,” she said. “That’s large enough to be its own village.”
“It is,” he said. “I hope that you’ll be content there.”
“There must be many different tradesmen and artisans, yes? What does your family do, then?” she asked. “I mean really do?”
“I’m afraid that I can say no more until you have your proof.”
“Really?” she said. “You’re going to hold to it?” She sighed. “Kenneth, you know that I expect no riches, or even power, from you, so there’s no need to invent them. I would–” She halted, and then took a deep breath to steel her courage, “I will still– love you. No matter your station.”
Kenneth knew that saying that word took as much of her courage as had saying the word “Yes” only the night before. He smiled to himself, then caught her hand as it swung back and forth, brought it to his lips, kissed it gently, then let go, without breaking the rhythm of his stride. Then, for the first time since their journey began, he pulled back the hood of his cloak so that his face was unhidden. The castle was here.
A detachment of guards kept watch at the main gate, and Mara caught glimpses of the unknown number of sentries patrolling the walls. For the first time she felt anxious about their approach, and fought the urge to put her hand on the pommel of her sword. But she did not know how well-trained these men were, and so did not know how they might react to such a movement. Ultimately she pulled her vest forward a bit to make the sword less noticeable.
As they approached, two of the guards stepped forward and held up a hand to them.
“Halt and state your business,” said one of them. Kenneth slowed his pace, held up both hands and smiled.
“Greetings… John, is it?” said Kenneth. ‘John’ cocked an eyebrow. “I have returned home and wish to see my father, King Silas, and my mother, Queen Lily.”
‘John’ was still puzzled, but then his companion widened his eyes in surprise and realization, then gasped.
“Your Highness!” he said, and began dropping into a bow, making sure to pull on John’s arm to follow. John finally recognized his Prince, and gave the proper greeting. Behind them, the rest of the detachment made their own realizations at their own pace. Kenneth still had both hands up and was now attempting to quiet them.
“Gentlemen,” he said firmly, “Thank you for your greetings. I’m very glad to be home. And as you can see-” he gestured towards Mara. “-The lady is with me. But please: do not annou-”
“PRINCE KELVIN HAS RETURNED!” someone shouted from the back. Sentries along the wall suddenly leaned over, then carried along the message.
“PRINCE KELVIN HAS RETURNED!”
“PRINCE KELVIN HAS RETURNED!”
“PRINCE KELVIN HAS RETURNED!”
“Huzzah! Prince Kelvin has returned!”
“…Announce me,” Kelvin finished, and could only stand and listen to the great clamor coming from outside and inside the castle as news of his return was heard by possibly everyone on the grounds. His parents, too, no doubt. He turned to Mara, shrugged, and gave her a half-smile. She looked back at him, wide-eyed, frozen in position. He was unable to decipher her thoughts from the expression, which, while the eyes showed alarm, the rest showed: nothing.
“I had hoped to spare you any surprises,” he said. “Do you accept this as proof?”
Before she could answer, the guards suddenly surrounded them both and began guiding them inside. Kenneth reached out to Mara, who did not take his hand, and neither did she change her expression. Once inside, the crowd quickly grew larger as well-wishers called to him and waved and bowed and curtsied and if bold enough, blew kisses. And while making sure to acknowledge the high spirits of the crowd, Kelvin’s main concern was to keep him and Mara from getting separated.
Seamus, Captain of the Guard, pushed his way through the crowd and greeted his Prince first with a bow, and then a manly embrace. Kelvin was distracted by his greetings and began to inquire after his parents, then stopped walking and looked about. He did not see Mara, and called for her. Seamus then bade the crowd to disperse. That it took him more than one time before the people listened was an irritant, but it was allowable, given the circumstances. Eventually the people returned to their old activities, and parted until Mara was in view again. She was a full ten paces behind Kelvin, having stopped walking at some point and letting the crowd carry him away. Kelvin smiled in relief and ran to her. Seamus was equally quick to stay at the Prince’s side.
She was still stunned into speechlessness, and looked about in a jerky motion, like a startled bird getting its bearings. Then her gaze fell on Kelvin’s.
Seamus said, “Your Highness, do you know this woman?”
“I should say so,” said Kelvin. “Seamus, this is the Lady Mara: my betrothed.”
“Oh! My Lord, congratulations!” said Seamus, and bowed to her. “My Lady.”
“And Lady Mara,” said Kelvin, “This is Seamus, our Captain of the Guard. He taught me everything I know about combat.”
“But not everything I know,” added Seamus with an impish smile. Kelvin chuckled; Mara joined in awkwardly.
“…Proof,” she finally managed to say, keeping her gaze on Kelvin. “You… proof.”
“Proof,” he said, smiling and nodding. “Now, are you certain that you don’t want a life of indulgence or luxury? I’m afraid it will be difficult to avoid.”
“MAKE WAY FOR THE KING AND QUEEN!” somebody called out from somewhere. Seamus and Kelvin turned towards the castle proper, the three-story royal residence that sat in the center of the castle grounds, and which Mara was somehow only just now noticing. Two figures that were clearly of a monarchical nature headed their way, surrounded by a phalanx of attendants and personal guards. The group moved as one, keeping perfect distances from each member, until reaching Kelvin, Seamus and Mara, where the attendants and guards moved aside in order to allow the King and Queen to step forward and greet the Prince – their son. Seamus also bowed and stepped aside to give them room. Mara noted that, like the Prince, she was taller than both of them, and yet still felt quite small in their presence. She was also entirely ignorant of royal protocol and did not know if she was supposed to bow, curtsey, step aside, or leave their presence entirely.
It was the Queen who spoke first, after a gasp at the sight of her son. “Oh, dear Lord,” she said, touching his cheeks. “Son, you’re– you look half-starved! Your color is ghastly! Your clothes have become tatters! What happened to you out there??”
Kelvin took her hands gently into his own and patted them. “Fear not, Mother — Father. I am well, but yes: I really–” He turned back a little to indicate Mara– “That is, we could use food, drink, and hot baths right now.”
The King and Queen noticed Mara for the first time and glanced her way. She froze, uncertain if she was supposed to speak for herself now, or again, start bowing, curtseying, singing, dancing…
The King pointed at her while addressing Kelvin.
“What, who is this, now?” said the King. Kelvin released his mother’s hands, then stepped back to take Mara’s hands before facing his parents again. If Kelvin had thought to put an ear to her chest, he might have started dancing a jig to her heartbeat. Mara was uncertain how much longer she could remain conscious.
“Father — Mother,” he said, his whole face beaming, but somehow also with a hint of caution, “Believe me that I understand that this day is full of surprises. And I understand that this will be the largest. But please let me introduce to you: the Lady Mara. She is the woman whose hand I asked for in marriage. And last night, without knowing anything of-” He used his head and eyes to indicate the castle grounds. “-This, she accepted.”
If it was possible for a busy, enclosed village to fall into dead silence, now would have been the time for it. As for Mara, she could only hear her own heartbeat and breathing to a point of near-deafening. She did not even hear Kelvin leaning closer to whisper “Curtsey” from the side of his mouth. After two times, he gave up and resumed smiling at his stone-faced parents. Even if Mara had heard him, she would not have known how. Women she had seen doing it always had their legs hidden by skirts and dresses, so she could only have guessed – incorrectly, no doubt – what they were doing.
Suddenly a raven’s cry in the distance broke the silence.
“Did she,” said the King flatly.
“Father, I understand that you and Mother will wish to discuss this-”
“OH,” said the King. “Of that, there is no doubt whatsoever.”