The Pauper Prince – Part 9

The Pauper Prince
Chapter 9

The Prince had taken the liberty of sending the royal seamstresses a note to explain that they were to measure and clothe the Lady Mara to the best of their ability, and send him the bill. Thus there was no surprise when Heather brought and introduced her to them. Then Heather proceeded to giggle, causing Mara to use a subdued form of “The Look” to quiet her. In practice the full version of “The Look” is what she used to intimidate men on a battlefield.

The surprise that the seamstresses had, then, was Mara’s size. If she were somewhere at 5 feet or under, and well-fed, there were plenty of garments to be had, but clothing a slender giantess was another matter. Still, they were royal seamstresses and thus the best in the land, and rose quickly to the challenge. Her slender frame was used to their advantage; there was more material in a dress for a Rubenesque woman and would hang lower on her. They also searched for items that had been returned to be shortened.

Mara, for her part, kept her disdain for the whole concept of wearing a dress to herself. Most of the ones she’d seen on rich women made them look like they were trapped inside fabric prisons, constricted and limited to stiff movement. Hardly amenable to vigorous activity, flexibility, or most importantly, defending themselves in combat. But she did not need to be told that her current attire would only cause impediments to her goal of marrying Kelvin. It still struck her as strange that she was suddenly to call him that rather than “Kenneth.” Or rather… “Your Highness?” Mara stifled a groan at that. Majesties, Lords and Ladies and Highnessesseses… How did these people keep all of this straight?

The apparent leader of the seamstresses was named Beatrice, based on the others referring to her as such; Mara also heard “Abigail,” “Clarisse,” and forgot the rest. Beatrice called Mara over to take measurements. She used a ribbon with notches on it and called out numbers to the others, who wrote them down. Sometimes she grabbed part of Mara unexpectedly and pulled it into an unexpected position. Mara clenched her teeth and tolerated it. At least the woman was measuring and letting go quickly. Still, a man doing the same would have been met with more forceful resistance.

The women took turns holding up different dresses to Mara, and finally decided on a blue one with magenta trim. All of their decorative belts were too long, so one seamstress was busy trimming it to size and making new holes for the laces. Mara was directed to the dressing screen in the corner and was handed their chosen outfit. The fact that it was meant for a heavier woman made it a loose fit that alleviated, somewhat, Mara’s concern about ease of movement. She thought she was done with it, but then the women surrounded her and pulled and folded and tucked in and tied off and all sorts of things to make it fit more tightly. The belt had been altered to size, as well. Mara asked for and received a pouch for the belt. She didn’t like having no way to carry anything, whatever it might be.

The women stepped back and regarded their work with a professional eye. They murmured to each other, using terms that, for Mara, may as well have been a different language. Sometimes they pointed at different areas, sometimes reached in and adjusted, until finally all of the women nodded amongst themselves and looked her in the eye.

“Is this to your liking, My Lady?” said  Beatrice. Heather came over, all smiles and clasped hands. Mara only shrugged. “Ah! Of course,” said  Beatrice, and led her over to a full-length looking glass, something that must have cost somebody a pretty copper.

It was actually the first time Mara had seen herself in a full reflection, apart from bodies of water and shiny materials. Erick had a small looking glass in his room, so she at least knew her own face, but could not remember ever seeing her full body at one time. And most definitely never wearing a dress. The seamstresses had given her layers, which to Mara’s credit, she had worked out herself in which order to put them on. The undergarment, of satin, was a lighter blue than the long-sleeved coating, made of a thicker material that she was not familiar with. The wide belt held it all together.

Mara couldn’t decide if she was looking at herself, or a different woman playing her part from the other side of the looking glass. Practicality demanded the former answer; she dismissed her indecision as foolishness. Of course this was herself; just a “herself” she had never seen before. One of the seamstresses stepped up behind her and draped a green, velvet cloak over her shoulders, then adjusted it for symmetry. Heather was at her side again.

“If I may, My Lady,” she said, “I think this suits you very well.”

“If you say so,” said Mara quietly, still watching herself in the looking glass. “I-I wouldn’t know. I’ve never worn anything like this.”

“Pardon?”

“Hm?” said Mara, then broke from her thoughts. “Uh… uh, never mind. Ladies, this is very nice. Truly. But how is this to be paid for, again?”

“His Royal Highness the Prince has written to us that he will make payment,” said  Beatrice. “But much of this is simply being borrowed until we’ve made something that fits you properly.”

“He’s buying my clothes?”

Beatrice held up the Prince’s instructions. “According to this, yes,” she said.

“Are they expensive?”

The seamstresses exchanged looks, then burst out into fits of laughter and giggles. Heather joined in to cover her nervous excitement.

“Why are you laughing?” said Mara, irritated. “Is that a yes or a no?” Beatrice went to her and put a reassuring arm around her and led her back to the looking glass.

“My Lady, if His Royal Highness is offering to treat one to new clothes, one should not question it,” she said. The others smiled and nodded in agreement. Mara did not meet their smiles, but stared at her reflection in silence.

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

Before Mara left the seamstresses, there was a brouhaha about having her boots replaced with “proper” shoes. The seamstresses reacted as though she were leaving the room with an uncovered buttocks, rather than simply the wrong kind of footwear for a Lady. Unfortunately, like the rest of her body, her feet were larger than most women’s, and no Ladylike footwear was available. That, too, would need to be custom-made, so Mara just had to hope that no one noticed the boots.  Also, she ultimately needed to demand the return of her original clothing, before they could follow up on their suggestion to use it as fuel for a fire. Luckily for them she had left her sword behind in the guest room. She did agree that a good scrubbing for the clothing was in order, though.

Back in the guest room, a messenger informed her and Heather that supper was due to be served in the banquet hall, and that she was expected to attend. This led to some panicky practice sessions on curtseying and the proper addressing of royalty and nobility. Heather wondered how it was that a Lady could be so unschooled in court etiquette, but kept her questions to herself. Mara had mentioned something earlier about not being “as much” of a Lady as people thought, so perhaps that was part of it? And then Heather’s last “favor” for the day, which for some reason the Lady kept calling her duties, was to lead her to the banquet hall.

They had made it to the final hallway leading to the room when both women were startled by someone from the shadows calling Mara’s name. It did not help that she was already a bundle of nerves, feeling more like she was walking towards a trial than a meal. Out of habit she reached for her sword, which was, again, elsewhere.

“Mara,” said Kelvin again from her right. He stepped into the light long enough to beckon her over. Mara’s face lit up. She started to run, and immediately tripped on her dress and all but flew forward, but was caught just in time by Kelvin. Heather rushed over to help her back up and adjust her dress.

“Thank you,” he said to Heather. “That will be all.” Heather curtseyed quickly and left.

“I knew that women’s clothing was designed to kill us!” said Mara. Kelvin was taken aback, then laughed and dove right into a kiss. Mara briefly joined in, then pulled away and looked about nervously. “Wait!” she whispered. “We’re not supposed to see each other! Won’t this make them forbid the marriage?”

“Shhhh,” he said. “Calm yourself, darling. I just wanted to see you before we start supper.” He seemed to notice her new clothing for the first time. “And Oh! Look at you!” He stepped back to take in all of her, starting his gaze at her feet and slowly working his way up. Mara became more nervous, the longer he took.

“Kelvin!” she whispered, snapping her fingers twice, which broke him from his reverie.

“Mm?” he said. “Oh, yes. Uh.. I need to remind you of a few things before we enter the hall.” He led her away from the main hallway and into a dim corridor. “First: did you get my letter? You must have, because clearly you visited the seamstresses.”

“Yes, I did,” she said. “But Kelvin: I told you that I can’t read.”

“What? Ah! You’re right; I’d completely forgotten. But then, how did you…?”

“Heather read it to me.”

“Who?”

“The girl with me, who just left. And I swore her to secrecy! She insists that she won’t tell anyone.”

Kelvin frowned at this and sighed. “But… did you not just meet her today?”

Mara shrugged. “She said the letter was from you, so of course I wanted to know what you wrote. What choice did I have?”

“I understand,” he said. “And since it was the only way I could ‘speak’ to you… She read all of it, then? Including how to address the King and Queen?”

“As ‘Your Majesty,’ yes, Heather and I went over all that,” said Mara. “Aaaand curtseying.” She sighed. “Rich people…

“May I see it?”

Mara eyed him quizzically a moment, then took a step back to execute her first womanly greeting to royalty. The Prince appeared satisfied. “Excellent!” he said. “Did Heather also teach you that?”

Mara nodded. Then Kelvin bent his right arm and held it out to her. “Now, I’ll be escorting you to the different people here tonight,” he said. “Place your left hand on my hand. Let your arm rest on mine.” Mara looked at him quizzically. “Here’s my idea: you rest your arm on mine, and I’ll take you from person to person and introduce you.” Mara nodded in understanding and placed her hand on his. He intertwined his fingers with hers. “If there’s anyone that you need to greet, I’ll squeeze your fingers gently. Like so.” He demonstrated this, and Mara nodded.

“What do I say to people?” she asked. “Am I allowed to say anything?”

“Of course,” said Kelvin with a chuckle. “But you don’t have to say anything, if you don’t want to. Other than addressing them when you curtsey, that is. After that, if you want to be silent and take cues from them, do so. I can say from experience that the favorite subject of most of the ruling class is themselves.”

Mara thought about this for a moment, then understood his joke and chuckled. He smiled and winked, then straightened up and began escorting her from the side corridor, but she stopped and pulled him back into the shadows.

“Wait!” she whispered. “If we’re not supposed to be with each other, should we come in at the same time?”

Kelvin pondered this a moment, then shook his head. “We just happened to arrive at the same time,” he said. “But as a compromise to the King and Queen, will you accept my introducing you as the Lady Mara, but not include that you’re my intended?

It was Mara’s turn to ponder her response for a moment. Then she sighed. “Kelvin, I’m… In one day I’ve learned that I’m promised to a Prince, had a private meal with a King and Queen, been bathed, slept on the most comfortable bed ever made, and… this now is a banquet? Also with a King and Queen and other Lords and Ladies?” Kelvin nodded. “Then you may call me whatever you wish.”

“I’ve been contemplating ‘Princess Daisy,’ but I’ll save that for later,” said Kelvin. Then he led her back to the light of the main hallway. Already there was a hum of conversation heard from the banquet hall, as well as musicians providing background music.  Mara recognized the room as the same one where she’d eaten earlier, but now the dining table was fully laden with food and drink of almost every kind she’d ever seen, and some she had not. She saw the King and Queen, but not together. In one part of the room he was surrounded by various Lords who seemed to hang on his every word; the Queen was in another part, likewise surrounded by Ladies.  Three of the Lords saw Kelvin as soon as he entered and made a great cry of delight. They came over and clasped hands, clapped shoulders, engaged in manly embraces and otherwise gave a warm welcome. In the process his arm was pulled away from Mara, leaving her not a little bit distressed. The Ladies had also noticed his entrance, but responded with demure smiles and head bows to His Royal Highness. They also noticed Mara, but did not smile or bow their heads.

The Lords were guiding Kelvin over to their little gathering, when he remembered his date for the evening and pried himself away, politely, to retrieve her. He held out his arm as they had practiced earlier, and escorted her to his father and friends. She was introduced to Wilford, Duke of Gimsley (squeeze); it took her an extra second to remember their signal, and then dipped down into her second curtsey of the evening, adding “My Lord” as practiced. And introduced to Reginald, Duke of Brookhurst (squeeze), Thomas, Duke of Ballanch (squeeze), and two other Lords, all of whom, it turned out, needed a womanly greeting. Kelvin saved the “last but not least” introduction for the King. She paused for half a second and then dipped extra deeply for him, only just remembering in time to call him “Your Majesty” rather than “My Lord,” though the latter would not have been incorrect.

Now that the introductions to the men were complete, she was back to having no idea what to do. Kelvin verbally excused himself to the Lords and was about to escort her over to the women, but the Queen intercepted and “relieved” him of the burden of keeping Mara occupied all night. Kelvin hesitated, and then released his arm from Mara’s, gave her as subtle an apologetic look as he could, and returned his attention to his companions. Mara followed the Queen nervously over to her three companions. There were other women nearby, but standing near the walls as if at attention and dressed less extravagantly than the others.

“We leave the men to their own talk,” said the Queen to Mara. “Ladies, this is the Lady Mara, guest of the Prince tonight.”  No squeeze, so Mara was unclear to whom to greet appropriately.

The woman closest to the Queen had been fanning herself and regarding Mara with a discerning eye. “And how do you know His Highness, exactly?” she said. She was a woman of a certain age, with features that were not severe, but not kind, either.

“I… We met while he was traveling,” said Mara. “And then we happened to be on the same road one day, and… he invited me here.”

“How very thoughtful of him, to take you in for the night,” said another. The Ladies joined her in a titter. The Queen frowned. As always, Mara had the height advantage over all of them, but did not feel it now.

“Ladies…” said the Queen, giving them a Look. “You are amused by the Prince’s generosity?”

The snickering stopped, and the Ladies immediately bowed heads and muttered apologies and “Your Majesty”s. Mara swallowed some bile, then showed a small smile.

“The Prince is indeed kind and generous,” she said. “As is Her Majesty, of course. I’m very grateful that I’m allowed to join you all tonight. Thank you so much, Your Majesty.” Mara had finally remembered her curtsey, and executed her best one of the evening to the Queen.

The women, including the Queen, were silent. The first woman continued fanning herself, but more slowly. Then the Queen spoke. “You are welcome,” she said, then as if in afterthought: “Lady Mara.”

A servant announced that the evening’s meal was ready, and the aristocrats showed a slight lack of decorum in their haste to take their seats. Mara hung back to observe the seating order, which appeared to be King and Queen a bit off center, with the rest of the gentry seated according to sex and rank, in that order. The Queen and the other Ladies took their places. Each guest, of course, had a servant behind them to push in their chairs. Mara did not mind that her place appeared to be at the far end, until she saw the last of the Ladies take the final seat on the Queen’s side of the table. The Lords had filled up their side of the table, as well.

Mara stood at the end of the table, wondering if she was allowed to sit there rather than in a line like the rest. The guests were too busy chatting amongst themselves to notice her predicament, but an observant servant did, and set some others to the task of finding an extension for the main banquet table. She saw Kelvin lean forward from his side of the table and shrugged slightly at him. By the time he left his place at the table to confer with any servants, two of them were already carrying over the extension. They briefly needed to set it down to explain the situation to the King, and only proceeded when he allowed it.

“I’m sorry,” she said to the two servants. “I didn’t mean to be any trouble.” They either did not hear or were ignoring her, and busied themselves setting up utensils, goblets, food and drink for her faster than she could have ever done at the Eleanor Elaine. The final touch was a servant pulling out her chair in such a smooth move that did she not realize at first that he was waiting for her. She whispered her thanks and then attempted to scoot it in herself, but the servant beat her to it.

A woman with hair only slightly darker than Mara’s, but with an elaborate hair arrangement involving braids and loops, watched all of this with a neutral expression. “That was quite a production, wasn’t it?” she asked while Mara was just finishing being seated. It took Mara a moment to realize that she’d been addressed.

“Sorry? What was that?”

“Are you settled in, then, Lady Mary?”

“A-actually, it’s Ma-”

“We have not been introduced yet,” said the woman. “I am the Countess Lucinda, wife of Count-”

“-Richard,” she and Mara said simultaneously.

“I beg your pardon?” said the Countess.

“I– beg your pardon,” said Mara. “I interrupted. I shouldn’t have. It’s just that when the Prince introduced me to the men, I made it a point of memorizing their names.”

The Countess stared at her just long enough to make Mara wonder if she had broken any royal etiquette rules, and how many. “That’s impressive,” said the Countess. “You must have excellent control of your faculties.”

Mara opened her mouth to reply, but then it occurred to her that she had no idea if she’d been complimented or insulted. She was grateful, though, not to have to work it out, because the Countess’ attention was taken by the woman to her left, leaving Mara alone at the end and with her thoughts.

Suddenly a loud tapping was heard near the center of the table. It was the King, tapping his goblet after it had been filled with wine. He held it and then stood up, prompting all other guests to mimic him. Mara did likewise and held an empty goblet. Then more servants arrived to fill the guests’ goblets while the King was speaking.

“My Lords,” he said, “And Ladies.” He nodded toward each group as he spoke. “Today my son Prince Kelvin has returned from his recent sabbatical, slightly older, perhaps not all that much wiser-” The men chuckled, and one of the Dukes nudged the Prince’s arm – “But returned he has. Everyone: raise your goblets in a toast to Prince Kelvin!”

“TO PRINCE KELVIN!”

Mara noticed that a few of the servants had paused to watch, and did seem genuinely pleased by the Prince’s return. She sipped from her goblet and was pleased by the quality of the wine.

“Thank you all,” said the Prince. “I learned and experienced so much while I was away, but it’s good to be home again. And I also want those present to know that the Lady M-”

The King cut off the Prince with a gesture, leading to a brief exchange between them that was too low for anyone to hear. She dared to lean in just enough to glimpse the scene, and could tell that the Prince was displeased with whatever the King was telling him. Then the King ended the talk abruptly and returned his attention to the guests.

“Why are you all standing about?” he said. “Sit! Enjoy the meal and the entertainment tonight!”

The guests immediately resumed their conversations and were all smiles as they were re-seated. Although this meal was even larger than the lunch from earlier that day, if such a thing were possible, Mara couldn’t help thinking of it as her last meal. In which case, she was determined to enjoy every bite and every drink tonight, but while still making sure to leave scraps that she herself would have loved to find at the Eleanor Elaine, in case these servants had to feed themselves the same way.

There was entertainment in the form of musicians on lute, flute, recorder, drums, and other instruments whose names she had forgotten or never heard. The musicians played all night, by themselves and also for singers, dancers, and even two jugglers. Only the drummer played for the last entertainer of the evening, the Fool, who focused most of his attention on the Prince, with rare asides directed at the King, but never the Queen. The Prince seemed to be enjoying the good-natured gibes sent his way, and laughed more loudly than the other guests. Mara was greatly impressed by the high quality of each entertainment, and applauded each act enthusiastically, even if the other guests made tepid noises.

Finally the entertainment was done, which marked the end of the evening itself. Now the servants busied themselves clearing the banquet table and helping the guests out of their seats. Other than during some of the acts, the conversations amongst the guests had not ceased, lending some credence to Kelvin’s earlier comment about the aristocracy’s favorite subject. Imagine if there had been no interruptions.

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