The Pauper Prince 8 – The Lady in the Water

The Pauper Prince 8
The Lady in the Water

.

Heather, an apprentice royal handmaiden, arrived at the bedroom of the Lady Mara, whom she had been told was a personal guest of His Royal Highness Prince Kelvin and was to be attended to. Her first task was to draw a bath for the Lady and see to any other personal needs. It was Heather’s first solo assignment, which she was eager to complete to perfection. She allowed herself to wonder about this woman’s true rank and station, not to mention how she had become the Prince’s “guest,” but knew well enough not to speak any of her speculations aloud. To be the Prince’s personal guest was high-ranking enough for her.

Heather reached the bedroom door and held the fresh towels, blankets, oils and perfumes in one hand while knocking. She leaned close to the door but heard nothing, so she knocked more vigorously. Still no answer, so she gingerly pushed on the door, which was unlocked, until it was ajar.  Heather peered inside.

“Lady Mara?” she said quietly. No answer, except… some deep breathing somewhere inside. Heather pushed the door open all the way. The Lady Mara lay on the center of the large bed, in as deep a sleep as a person could be. Heather quietly set down the bathroom effects and tiptoed forward.

“Lady Mara?” she whispered. “My Lady?”

She wondered if the Lady was from another country, given her uncommon clothing: a well-used, long-sleeved blue shirt under a brown vest, an unwomanly belt, what appeared to be a wrap around her waist to make a skirt of sorts, and boots. The Lady was also quite tall – much taller than most in this country – and slender, as though not as well-fed as other high-ranking women. Heather was uncertain what to do. She wanted to leave the Lady be in her rest, but her orders came from the Queen herself, and she did not want her first assignment to end in forfeiture. Heather looked about nervously, then stepped forward quietly, extending a hand, and gently laid it on Lady Mara’s arm. Still she did not stir, so Heather began shaking it slightly.

“Lady Mara?” she said. “Are you well? Lady-”

Mara woke with a start and a yell, fumbling in half-sleep for her sword, which rested on the side away from Heather. Still partly dreaming, Mara managed to snatch up the scabbard and draw out the sword. Heather screamed and turned to flee the room in terror. That finally woke Mara all the way. Heather’s scream got a yelp from her, as well, and Mara looked over in time to see the back of a young, red-haired girl in flight.

“Wait!” Mara called after her, struggling to climb off the luxuriously soft, but sunken-in bed. “WAIT!” The girl was already past the door before Mara’s own feet were back on the floor. She chased after the girl, sword still in hand, calling to her, until the girl finally slowed her running enough to look back, only to yelp again. Mara caught up with her, and, realizing how she must have appeared to the girl – as a maniac chasing her with a blade – she held out her left hand, turned the sword so the blade pointed down, slowly set it against the wall, then stood up slowly and held out both hands. Having to calm someone down like this was uncommon in her experience. To her credit, the girl was clearly trying to calm herself, as well. Heather knew that a proper handmaiden must be unflappable, and she was failing already. Two guards arrived behind the girl who had raised such an alarm.

“What’s this?” said one. “What’s happened here?”

“Heather, is that you?” said the other.

“What?” said Heather, peering at the guards. “Oh! Hello, Leonard! Yes, all is well.”

“Are you certain? said the first guard.

“And you are…?” said Leonard to Mara.

“She is the Lady Mara,” said Heather. “The blame for this is mine. Really. Thank you for showing such concern.”

Leonard and his colleague exchanged looks, then nodded, bowed quickly with overlapping “My Lady”s, and moved on. Mara watched them leave, then remembered to retrieve her sword. She and Heather spoke simultaneously.

“I’m so sorry,” they both said. Heather stepped back and bowed her head.

“My Lady,” she said. “I hope you will forgive my foolishness. It was unwarranted.”

“What?” said Mara. “But I’m the one who– Actually, what is it that you needed from me? Heather, is it?”

“Yes, m’lady,” she said with a curtsey.

“That!” said Mara, pointing. “How do you do that?”

“Pardon?”

“…You know what; never mind,” said Mara. “First, we should go back to that room.” Heather nodded and followed Mara as they walked back.

“And are you all right?” said Mara. “Really, I am so sorry for what happened. I can’t believe how– how deeply I was sleeping. I hope you can forgive me. You had to shake my arm to wake me? And did I yell? I think I yelled.”

“Yes, m’lady.”

“I’ve been a light sleeper all my life,” said Mara. “Perhaps it was the bed. It was so comfortable. I don’t even remember laying my head down. Heather: did I hurt you in any way? Please tell me that you’re uninjured.”

“Only… my pride, m’lady,” said Heather with a forced smile. “But of course you’re not to blame. It’s mine alone. I did not wake you properly.”

Mara regarded her for a time. Heather hid her discomfort and hoped that she was not being judged harshly.

“There’s no convincing you that my waving a sword about like a madwoman is not your fault, is there?” Mara asked. Heather only shrugged and smiled.

“And that you don’t have to keep calling me ‘Lady?’ ”

Another small shrug. “I… cannot stray from proper manners,” said Heather. “My Lady.”

“Hmph,” said Mara, putting her hands on her hips. “You came for a reason other than being chased down a hall. Did Kelvin send you? Are we allowed to see one another?”

“I… do not know, m’lady,” said Heather. “I have been sent to draw your bath, attend to your bathing and dressing, and whatever else you require.”

“Oh,” said Mara. “That’s very kind of you, but I don’t have the money for a fancy bath, and I can dress myself. See– Heather– I-I’m not quite the ‘Lady’ that people here think I am. For one, I’ve always looked after myself. Forgive me if I’m using the wrong term, but are you a servant?”

“Royal handmaiden,” said Heather. “Apprentice. But, My Lady, I am fully qualified to attend to your needs! The Queen herself appointed me to you. She honors me.”

“…How old are you?”

“Fourteen, m’lady.” Heather made another little curtsey. Mara was quiet now, deep in thought. Heather had been trained to take her lead from her mistress, whoever it may be, and waited as patiently as she was able. Then Mara sighed and shrugged.

“Very well,” she said. “But know this: I am unaccustomed to ‘handmaidens’ and having people do things for me. Especially things like bathing and dressing. Really, people here have… helpers… that dress them? They don’t dress themselves?”

“I’m… certain that some do,” said Heather. “It depends on their station, how elaborate their garments are… Um… begging your pardon, m’lady, but shall we attend to your bath now?”

“Um… Lead on, then, My Lady!” said Mara. Heather gasped and appeared genuinely distressed.

“Oh!” she said. “No no no, I am not a-”

“I know, I know,” said Mara. “Never mind, a poor joke. But please do lead on.”

*******************

Mara felt the water in the large wooden tub in a first-floor room filled with several other tubs. It was half-full and room temperature, which was warmer than many places where Mara had bathed. She had been lucky – once – to encounter a hot spring during her travels, but had otherwise been confined to cool or even cold waters when she felt dirty enough to wash up. Erick had had a wash basin available for her, Kenneth/Kelvin and himself to use, but there never seemed any time to use it. In fact, she was unable to remember the precise time she had last fully bathed.

Mara’s unspoken question about what to do now was answered by Heather, who brought a screen over to the tub. Mara realized it was to provide privacy for her to remove her clothing and climb in to the tub on her own, and she stepped behind the screen to begin this, but Heather begged for her patience. Heather began retrieving buckets of very hot water from a metal tub being heated by a wood fire. The purpose was to add the hot water to the wooden tub until it had become the ideal temperature for the Lady Mara’s bathing pleasure. Mara attempted to help, but there was only one bucket available.

After several trips back and forth, the wooden tub was adequately filled, and Mara insisted that it was the “perfect” temperature. She went behind the screen, removed her clothing, stepped inside the tub, paused to gasp at how warm the water was, and then sat down and immediately curled up tightly in the water.

Heather gathered the oil, perfume, towel and scrubber and stepped quietly behind her. Mara was leaning far forward in the tub, her arms wrapped tightly around her legs, the knees pushed up against her chest. She was dipping a hand into the water carefully and rubbing it on herself while still keeping the arm tight to her body.  Heather was uncertain if the Lady was indicating to have her back scrubbed first, or was simply overly modest and trying to maximize her privacy. But then, would not a modest women go to lengths to prevent others from seeing scars, such as the ones on her back, arms, shoulder and sides? Heather began wondering what had caused so many, then invoked her training to keep from counting the Lady’s wounds, and set down her equipment to begin her task.

Mara started at the sound of this and flinched.

“Wait – no no,” she said, turning her head partway back. “I’m going to bathe myself. Don’t help me!”

“Is the Lady certain?” asked Heather. “It’s very relaxing when someone else assists.”

“What are you trying to do?”

“Well, apply some oils and fragrances and- See?” said Heather, taking her bottles to Mara’s front and showing them. Mara responded by curling up even tighter, which was somehow possible, and leaning away.

“No no! Not closer to me! Go away!”

“I– beg your pardon, My Lady,” said Heather, moving away. “I was told to bathe you, and– Please forgive me.” She put the bottles back on the stand behind the tub and moved from Mara’s sight. “Do you wish me to leave the room entirely,” she asked from the other side of the screen, “Or shall I remain nearby in case you need me?”

Mara was lost in thought, ashamed of her words but uncertain how to make amends.

“My Lady?” said Heather.

“Just Mara,” she said. “Please. Heather?”

“Yes?”

“Will you come over again?”

Mara had scarcely finished the sentence before Heather was at her side again. After a moment, Mara made herself look Heather in the eyes, but was still curled up. Just not as tightly as before. “Please forgive me,” said Mara. “You didn’t deserve my harsh tone. I know you’re just trying to please the Queen. I’m just not used to being served, and– behaved unkindly. So, please: do whatever you were told to do. If she asks, I’ll give you a good report.”

“Oh, that would be lovely, La–! That is, Mara,” said Heather.

“I’m changing that,” said Mara. “I will tell the Queen that you’re very good. I won’t wait.”

Heather was all smiles as she busied herself with Mara’s bathing. She added some oil and perfume to the tub and stirred up the water a bit to begin its mixing. Then she scrubbed Mara’s back gently, careful not to irritate her scars, in case they were tender or still healing. Mara began to relax and loosen the death grip on her own legs. She dipped a hand in the water and smelled it, then let out a quiet hum of satisfaction.

“I shouldn’t be in here long,” Mara said a little sleepily. “The water will grow cold for you.”

“Do you want more hot water?”

“No, this is…” Mara closed her eyes and took a deep breath, letting her legs stretch out for the first time. “So warm. So comfortable. When it’s your turn, I’ll bring more hot water for you.”

“My turn?”

“Yes, when you bathe,” said Mara. “You’ll have a turn, yes?”

“Oh… No, My La— I mean, no,” said Heather with a light chuckle. “We don’t bathe here. Only your kind.”

” ‘My’ kind?”

“Well, yes. The high-born,” said Heather. “But really? Where you’re from, everyone uses the same facilities?”

“Where I’m from…” said Mara quietly. “Yes. Yes, they do.”

********************

The two women walked in silence to Mara’s guest room. She had admitted to Heather that she would need a guide to return, unfamiliar with the layout of the castle as she was. But at the same time, not expecting Heather to remain at her side every moment, waiting for scraps of assistance to be offered. She had to have more important duties to attend to. Friends to visit. Something.

Heather opened the door for her and waited for Mara to walk inside before following. Mara made a habitual scan of the room to find her belongings, which had not been touched from where she’d left them. In a bit of irony Mara had put on her old clothes after the bath, emphasis on “old,” which had in essence negated the intent of the bathing. She herself smelled lightly of flowery fragrance, while the fragrance of her clothing was… something other than flowery. But she had no other clothes, so there was nothing to be done for it.

“My Lady,” said Heather, “This appears to have been left for you.”

Mara turned to see Heather holding a piece of folded parchment. There was a small bit of wax on it to keep it sealed. “Just Mara,” she said, taking the parchment. “You don’t need to call me ‘Lady,’ remember?”

“Not if there’s a chance to be overheard,” said Heather, indicating the open door. Mara practically glared at the door, then broke the seal on the parchment and opened it. She frowned at its contents: words.

“My Lady, will there be anything else you need from me?”

Mara turned the parchment the other way, as if this would help her make sense of it. “I told him I can’t–” she whispered to herself, then sighed.

“Well…” said Heather, curtseying, “I’ll take my leave of you, then.”

“Wait,” said Mara. “That is, please wait. Heather, do you…?” She glanced at the parchment. “Can you read?”

“Of course I can!” Heather squealed in unexpected glee, then covered her mouth in embarrassment and calmed herself. “That is, yes, I can, m’lady.”

Mara handed back the parchment. “I can’t,” she said quietly. “Will you read this to me?”

“Of course!” said Heather with a big grin. She studied the words for a moment, her expression softening as she read.

“Out loud?” said Mara.

“Hm? Oh. Of course, m’lady, but… Are you certain I should be reading this?”

Mara shrugged. “I can’t know what it says unless you read it.”

“Well…” said Heather. “To begin, it is from His Royal Highness the Prince, and-”

“Oh! Read it! Read it!”

“Yes, at once, m’lady,” said Heather, and cleared her throat. “Hm. His writing is quite neat! Hm. Well… ‘My dearest, sweetest Mara…

“Ah,” said Mara. “Hm.”

“Er, do you wish me to-?”

“Please! Continue!”

” ‘My dearest, sweetest Mara, But a few hours have passed and I already ache for your presence. I–‘ ” Heather stopped, went quickly to the door, shut it, and then resumed her place with the parchment. “Sorry,” she said. ” ‘I ache for your presence. I am in pain for us both at the edict of the King, but must be patient and trust in God to show him the truth of our love for each other. Know this, my Darling: I will never abandon you nor forsake you. I beg for your patience and understanding during this trying time for us both. Together I know we will make them see that there is no folly in the love of a husband for his wife, and she for him.’ ” Heather stifled a gasp. ” ‘It is not only for the low-born or for secret affairs of the high-born, but for everyone. Servants will attend to all your needs and you will want for nothing.’ Do you think he means me?”

“…I don’t know.”

“Sorry,” said Heather, and found her place. ” ‘…want for nothing. Today, visit the royal seamstresses for your first of many fine garments. If they have nothing for you now, they will take measurements and create something just for you. No, at no cost to you, ha ha.’ Why would he add laughter?”

“It’s something humorous for me, I think,” said Mara. “We can speak of it later.”

“Ah,” said Heather. ” ‘And forgive this admonition, but it is important: when addressing the King and Queen, you must call them Your Majesty. In the first sentence will do. Please remember this, and also the curtsey. Everything will help! I long to hold you and lose myself in your emerald eyes and luscious lips, my one and only. Forever yours, Kelvin, Pr.’ ”

“Oh!” said Heather, folding up the parchment and fanning herself with it. “Oh, my goodness! Would that I find someone half like that!”

Mara looked down to smile, then forced it back as she took the parchment from Heather. She unfolded it and touched the words as though they might make themselves known to her that way. It did not matter; all of them were beautiful. “I don’t deserve him,” she whispered.

“Oh, I’m certain that you do,” said Heather. “And… forgive me if I misunderstood his words, but was he referring to you to being married?” She became quite excited now. “Are you his betrothed??”

“Well…” said Mara, and then became fully alert. “Hold on! Heather, please tell me that you’ll be discreet about this letter! That you’ll say nothing of it?”

“Oh, I swear it! Upon pain of death!” She giggled.

“You don’t need to go that far, but thank you,” said Mara, then sighed. “This has been by far the oddest day of my life,” said Mara. “And it’s not even over, is it? But– Yes, the Prince proposed to me, and I accepted-”

Heather squealed with delight and clapped her hands.

“BUT…” said Mara, “It is not— fully decided yet. I think. We’re supposed to have his parents’ – ah, I mean the King’s and Queen’s- approval. Their blessing. This – really – needs to be quiet. I don’t think it’s a secret, exactly, but there shouldn’t be a fuss made. And I will not be the one to make a fuss of it!”

“Nor I!” said Heather. “I am wholly without fuss.”

“Good!” said Mara. She folded up the parchment and took it over to her pile of belongings. After some thought, she opened her largest sack and hid the letter inside, closed it up, then returned to Heather.

“Now, he wrote that he wants me going to a seamstress?” said Mara uncertainly.

“Yes,” said Heather, nodding and giggling. “Would you like me to take you?”

“Not if you’re going to keep giggling,” said Mara. “They’ll wonder if you’re hiding something. And they’d be right. Savvy?”

“Yes, yes, I ‘savvy,’ ” said Heather. It helped her to relax by tugging at and adjusting her dress. Eventually she regained the proper composure. “May I ask a question, though? How you and the Prince met?”

“At an inn,” said Mara, nodding. “I gave him soup. Listen: before we go to these seamstresses…” She rubbed her hands nervously. “Can you show me how to curtsey?”

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