The Pauper Prince 7
Guess Who’s Hosting the Dinner?
Inside the castle, on the first floor and in the grand dining hall, only four people occupied the massive table used for royal feasts, celebrations, or in this case, a private lunch. Mara wanted the opportunity to roam the hall freely and view its craftsmanship – the carvings on the pillars, patterns of the mosaic tiles, colors in the stained glass and embroidery of the tapestries – but she kept this thought to herself. Not when her every movement and word was about to be judged by a King and Queen, for the crime of accepting a poor minstrel’s marriage proposal.
Her and the poor minstrel’s belongings had been stacked against a wall. She almost sat with her sword still on her belt, except that Kelvin successfully mimed to her that it was a good idea to leave it behind. A swarm of servants bustled in and out of the room, laying out the place settings, bringing platters of food and drink, pulling out chairs for the diners, and… bustling in general. Kelvin heard her give a soft “thank you” to the servant that helped her be seated, making a note to himself to do the same for his next meal.
The King was seated at the head of the table, with Kelvin to his left and the Queen to his right. Mara was seated beside the Queen, and had no idea what to do after that. She watched the servants bringing more and more food to the table, and wondered if there was to be a banquet after all. Bowls of fruits and vegetables, a platter with a roasted suckling pig and garnish, tureens of soup, wine and ale, bread, cakes, biscuits, and generally more food than Mara had seen at one sitting. This from someone who had worked at a tavern for four months.
A servant filled the King’s goblet with red wine. He swirled the drink a few times and then examined its bouquet. Apparently satisfied, he took a taste, then set it down. Servants than busied themselves filling the others’ drinks, in the order of Queen, Prince, and… Prince’s guest.
“Of course there’ll be a banquet in honor of your return,” the King said to Kelvin. Mara was thinking that this was the banquet. “But not this moment. You need to clean up and regain your strength.”
“Thank you, sire,” Kelvin said. “But if I may, perhaps something in honor of our engagement instead?” He indicated Mara, who blushed and suppressed a smile.
“But that remains to be seen,” said the King, unmoved. “Doesn’t it?”
“I understand, sire,” said Kelvin. “Of course, though I am invoking the law of the land, I want you both to know that your blessing is of utmost importance to me.”
“If that were the case, you would have decided amongst the women we selected for you,” said the King, piling food to his plate. He gestured to a servant to begin cutting the pig. Mara realized that it was good that she had decided to watch the others’ actions and behave accordingly. Duly noted: no one else got food until the King did. If Mara made the rules, the hungriest people would eat first.
Kelvin sighed. “Sire, we won’t have the same arguments as before,” he said. “I made my decision about them, and invoked my right to choose my own wife. I believe that she will make a better Princess than any of the others could hope to be.”
“Careful,” said the King. “Wars have begun over kinder words than that.”
“You’re right, Father. Forgive me.”
“And one of them is your cousin.”
“Of course,” said Kelvin. “My words were, indeed, too harsh. But my decisions about them are unchanged.”
“Hmph,” said the King, taking another swig of wine. “You’re as stubborn as I am.”
“On the contrary,” said Kelvin. “Like you, I give all my decisions careful consideration and thought.”
“We’ll see about that,” said the King, and let his gaze drift on Mara. She was still ogling the obscene display of food before her, trying not to openly drool in front of royalty. Fortunately Kelvin was just finishing piling onto his main plate, which he then held out for Mara. He smiled and nodded once. She nodded back and hesitantly took the plate. She then handed him her empty plate, which he used for himself. The King and Queen observed this with bemusement.
“So,” said the King. “Mary: it seems that our son, the Prince, has achieved the impossible. He claims to have found someone among the common folk with a royal pedigree.”
“Sire,” said Kelvin.
“I’m addressing the ‘Lady Mary,’ son,” said the King.
“I understand, sire, but it’s Mare-uh. Not Mar-y.”
“Be that as it may,” said the King, his gaze not leaving Mara, “The Prince proposed marriage to you, did he not?”
“He… Yes, he did,” Mara said quietly, uncertain if she was supposed to meet his gaze or not. To play it safe, she did not.
“Are you speaking to me, or to the table?” said the King. Not safe, then. Mara straightened up immediately, and forced herself to look him in the eye.
“T-to you, of course,” she said. “Kenneth– I-I mean, Kelvin— asked for my hand last night, and I accepted.”
“And,” he continued, tearing up some of his bread and dipping it in soup, “Did you, at any time, discover his royal heritage prior to this occasion?”
“I…” she said, glancing at Kelvin, then back, “I’m not sure I understand-”
“Did you know that he was a Prince when he asked for your hand?”
“Oh!” said Mara. “Oh. No, I did not. In fact, I-” She looked at each seated at the table in turn, then stayed on Kelvin – “I’m still having trouble believing it now. It’s so dreamlike. Perhaps that’s not the right word?”
“Hmph,” said the King, his mouth full of marinated bread. He took his time to swallow it. “I suppose this is a dream come true for you. Spending your days wishing at wells and on shooting stars that you’ll have a rich, handsome Prince come rescue you from poverty?”
Kelvin held up a finger. “Actually, Father-”
“Again, I am addressing your ‘Lady Mary,'” said the King. Now the Queen spoke up.
“Oh, Silas, he said her name is Mare-uh,” she said with slight indignation. “You’re pretending to not hear again.”
“I’d like to be ‘pretending,'” the King grumbled. “Very well; I stand corrected, ‘Lady Mare-uh.’ You claim that his true identity was unknown to you. I’m very, very good at detecting lies, and do not sense this from you. Meaning, you’re telling the truth, or I am no longer very good at detecting lies.”
“I-I wouldn’t dream of lying,” said Mara. “I truly did not know. I don’t understand why it’s so important that I didn’t, but it’s the truth.”
Kelvin shrugged. “It’s a long story. I can give the details later.” The King rolled his eyes.
“Tradition dictates that our marriages are carefully chosen amongst our own kind to protect, secure, or even strengthen political, social, economic and military bonds,” said the King. “A tradition with a good backbone, in other words, and not one to be ignored lightly. But the law is that the King or Prince may choose his own bride, and the law is, unfortunately, vague on said bride’s lineage. It’s a point that shall be attended to, but until now, tradition had not been ignored, and so did not need to be attended to.”
“I did not ignore tradition,” said Kelvin.
“Ultimately disregarded, then,” said the King. “And thus our sole heir, our only remaining son, somehow convinced us to allow him free rein in a strange town to ‘make his own way’ and ‘find his own bride.’ By our mandate, without revealing himself as the Prince. If that were discovered, he had to return home and choose from our selections.”
“Why couldn’t he reveal himself?” asked Mara.
“Imagine if I had ridden into town in the royal coach with a full complement of guards and vassals and attendants, in my finest attire, and asked if any available woman had any desire to marry me?” said Kelvin. He smiled and shrugged. “And so I walked into town as ‘Kenneth,’ a would-be bard. Mara, not to deceive, nor make a fool of you, nor of anyone else for that matter, but to find the woman who was, dare I say, perfect for me. And I found you.”
The King clapped lightly in mock applause. “That was a lovely tale, son,” he said. “In fact, I’d like to hear more. Do tell us why this girl will make such a fine Princess, over all the others already of high birth and upbringing? Tell us of her perfection.”
Kelvin’s mouth tightened. Mara could see in his eyes and demeanor a scene played out many times before in her own life: furious with his own father, desperate to defy him, ultimately managing – barely – to keep himself in check, for his own safety. Or was it for hers? When Kelvin spoke again, he used a quiet tone, but she recognized it as a dangerous one.
“I’m tired, Father,” he said. “We-” indicating himself and Mara- “are tired from our long journey here. It’s– home, of course, but it would be more so if both of us were welcome here.”
“I never said she is not welcome here-”
“No, you did not say it,” said Kelvin. The King glared at his son, then tried to exchange a look with the Queen, whose expression did not match his. “Let your quarrel be with me, and only me,” said Kelvin. “I did not ‘ignore’ or ‘disregard’ tradition; I gave it careful consideration and the deepest of thought, before ultimately invoking my right by law. And so, like yours, my decision is unchanging. But what also does not change is that I – We – want your blessing, Father — Mother– because without it, we will forever be at odds, and that would be an unbearable life. It is only us now, remember? God called Flora and Robert home to Him. It is only us.”
Mara heard a soft whimper to her left, and glanced at the Queen, who was making a royal effort to maintain her composure at the memories of her lost children.
“I missed you both so much while I was away,” said Kelvin, his anger gone now, “But it was something I had to do. You know this. I could not tolerate a carefully-orchestrated, strategically advantageous, but ultimately cold and loveless marriage. Blame my youthful lack of wisdom if you wish, but I could not do it. You want her credentials? Here they are: I love her. I would do anything for her. And that makes her a better Princess for me than any of the others.”
Somebody sniffled, and it was not the King. “Oh, Mother,” said Kelvin, “I didn’t mean to bring you to tears.”
“You have not,” said the Queen indignantly, dabbing at her eyes with a cloth. “You know that onions affect me this way.” She handed the cloth to Mara, who was also suffering from onion-related tears.
“So there it is,” said the King. “You’re willing to risk the safety of the kingdom for True Love. We couldn’t be more proud.”
“Please answer me this, Father,” said Kelvin. “Are there any kingdoms that would not come to our aid if asked, or for whom we would not pledge our aid? And no matter who I chose, somebody would end up disappointed.”
“Yes, best to disappoint all of them,” said the King.
“Silas – My Lord,” said the Queen, “Our son has just returned from a terrible ordeal and is spent. Let him bathe, rest, greet his friends, have a proper homecoming. And the Lady Mara is at least his guest, so she is due all courtesies for that alone.”
“Whose side are you on?”
“All of ours, of course, My Lord,” said the Queen.
“Well said, Mother,” said Kelvin, who pushed back his chair and stood. He bowed to each of them and held out a hand to Mara. “Now: which guest room should I take her to?” Mara did not know if she was allowed to stand up before the King and Queen did.
“Ohhhh, no,” said the King. “Not you. A servant will do that.”
“You two have been together long enough,” said the King, and he laid down his decree: Kelvin and Mara were not to associate with one another until the King and Queen had come to their decision regarding the blessing of their marriage. They were allowed to speak with each other only when in the presence of the King and Queen, such as at meals, and no other time. The King’s spoken reason was to prevent Kelvin from “coaching” her into saying or doing whatever they wanted to hear, to influence their decision. Kelvin, of course, argued against this enthusiastically, but ultimately acquiesced, especially since the King claimed that this was an uncontestable decision.
Servants were summoned to gather their respective things and accompany Kelvin and Mara to their rooms: the Prince, to his royal chambers, and Mara to a well-appointed guest room that was larger than any single house that she had lived or slept in. The servant placed her effects where she instructed, and then assured her that the room was at her disposal alone and was not going to be shared with a dozen other women, as she had inquired. Then the servant made a respectful departure, and left. Mara was alone in the room now.
This guest room was on the third floor of the castle. There were four narrow windows facing the west so as to catch the afternoon and evening sun. Two of the windows could be opened. She was tempted to try, but decided not to touch anything just yet.
The bed was larger and more elaborate than any she had seen. It seemed large enough for four adults to sleep on and still have elbow room. It was a four-poster bed with soft curtains and a canopy. Bright, soft pillows were arranged decoratively at one end. She leaned over and pressed hesitantly on the mattress, which was remarkably soft and smooth. She pressed a bit more and realized it was a featherbed, covered with fine linen and a wool blanket. Only for herself? That could not be. A swarm of women were sure to arrive at any moment and inform her that her place was in the corner, on the straw bedding. But there was no straw in the corner. There was a dressing table with a looking glass in the corner. And nightstands on either side of the bed, each with several candles and matches. A large chest at the foot of the bed. A fireplace opposite the bed. Paintings of tranquil scenery on the walls. And portraits of former occupants? She made a note to tell Kelvin that a portrait of her would not be necessary.
Finally she went to one of the windows, undid the latch and pushed it open. A cool breeze blew in immediately. She closed her eyes and breathed in slowly and deeply. It would help clear the dull smell of stone, both dry and damp. She peered outside and glimpsed castle workers plying their trades, delivering goods, conducting business, or perhaps simply trading the latest gossip.
Mara left the window open and returned to the bed. Staring at it, she finally realized just how tired she was, though it was only midday. Odd that she could labor a full day at the Eleanor Elaine and feel less tired than she did now. Perhaps there was something to be said about taxing the mind versus taxing the body.
She went to her belongings and pulled her sword and scabbard from the pile, drew it out halfway, then clacked it back in. When in an unfamiliar place, nothing helped her sleep better than that “security blanket.” Or, as she learned soon enough, what also helped her sleep was an unbelievably comfortable bed.