A caveat: certain kinds of education are a lot better today than in this mythical, “Middle Ages” setting.
The Pauper Prince
The midday meal was also brought to her room, this time by a male attendant whose name she did not hear before he left. Like Siobhan, he was efficient, mannered, and quiet. She wanted to decline his offer to pour tea, but knew better than to turn away any sort of food or drink, other than purely rotten bits. This meal was anything but rotten, of course, and after the attendant left, she dove in, but gave the tea plenty of time to cool itself.
The solitude did not bother Mara like it had during her breakfast. The happy memories of the castle tour notwithstanding, the quiet afforded her the opportunity to reflect on the morning’s talk with the King and Queen. There had to be some use for a Princess other than “producing heirs to the throne.” What about doing everything the Prince did for the kingdom? If she actually knew what the Prince did, that is. She needed to ask him about that. And needed to find the courage to tell him about her curse, before he learned of it the hard way.
A vigorous knock at the door roused her from her thoughts. She also realized that she had stopped eating while pondering her situation. She made it to the door just as another round of knocking began.
The Prince flashed his heart-melting smile and waited for her response. When she only smiled back, he leaned through the doorway and whispered, “Another fifteen minutes.”
“We have fifteen minutes again,” he said, “And I want to show you something.”
She wasted no time following him through the hallway and to the second floor. He spoke as they walked.
“Did Solomon find you? Did you get a tour of the grounds?”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes! Thank you. Thank you so very much. It’s just what I needed. It feels like I’ve been inside for a week, though I know that isn’t true.”
“Same here,” he said. “I’m glad you enjoyed it. He’s a fine storyteller, isn’t he?” She nodded. “And please accept my apologies that you’ve been eating alone today. My father has wasted no time throwing me back into the day-to-day workings of the kingdom. It’s all been business, business at each meal.”
“Oh, I take no offense at all,” she said. “It’s been… helpful. It’s given me a chance to think about things.”
“You’ll join us for dinner, I promise,” he said. She only replied with a smile. Soon enough they reached a door that she recognized.
“Oh, I remember here from the tour,” she said. “Solomon said that you and your parents are in this wing, but I can’t enter any of the rooms.”
“Can’t you?” Kelvin said, opened the door to his chambers, and gestured for her to enter first. She blushed before stepping inside, and gasped. The room was twice the size of her guest room, with a larger bed, larger dressers, wardrobes, fireplace, looking glass– larger everything. He also had a shallow balcony with two thick doors leading out to it. Each corner of the room had stone pillars covered with carvings resembling ivy and vines. Other than the ubiquitous stone, given this was a castle, the walls and ceilings were accented with oak stained to a rich reddish-brown that gave Mara a subtly warm feeling.
Kelvin indicated the whole of the room to her. “What do you think?” he asked.
“I think… I think you must be very comfortable here,” she said. He smiled and took her hand to guide her to another door in a far corner. It led to a second room which appeared to be a mirror image in terms of size and location of fixtures, but was not a bedroom. It appeared to be a library or study of sorts. Large shelves along two walls contained books, scrolls, stacked papers, and all sorts of odd knick knocks and collectible items. There were more wardrobes and dressers, too, so perhaps he used it for extra storage. One person with two whole rooms.
“This used to be Robert’s bedroom,” he said. “We were given the opportunity to have our own chambers, but we decided to have these adjoining rooms instead. When he died, I– repurposed it a little, but kept many of his keepsakes. Mementos. Other things.” He led her to a large, painted portrait over the fireplace, which was surrounded by sitting furniture. The portrait was of two young men, and a young woman seated between them. The young men stood behind her with somewhat regal poses and expressions, but each with a gentle hand on her shoulder. The young woman sat straight in her chair, but had a relaxed look to her face, and the slightest of smiles. The young man on the portrait’s right looked familiar.
“It’s the three of you,” she said quietly.
“Yes,” he said. “We sat for it a year before the plague struck.” He tugged slightly on her hand and gestured to this room’s door. “Come. I have something else to show you.”
“The likeness to you is very good,” she said, still looking at the picture. “Is it the same for them?”
Kelvin stared at the painting a few moments. “Yes,” he whispered, and gestured again for her to follow. She did so now, and he led her back into the hallway, to a room right next to the study. He opened it and let her enter ahead of him.
The room was the same size and layout of Kelvin’s bedroom, including a similar balcony, but with the stone walls somehow white-washed, and the oak lacing the walls and ceilings painted yellow. The carefully-preserved furniture had also been painted light colors that either matched or complemented each other. The furniture, curtains, the decor, the bedding, the paintings – everything spoke instantly of a young woman’s room.
“Flora,” whispered Mara.
“Yes,” said Kelvin, stepping up beside her. “Flora’s room. Do you like it?”
“It’s lovely,” said Mara. “I-I mean I’m not just saying that to be kind. It’s very light, and there’s a cheerfulness here.”
“Shall we see her parlor?”
The adjoining room, also painted in light colors, was a parlor, a sitting room, a study, a receiving room. A small, round table near four large windows still had a tea set on it as if ready to serve guests. There was no dust, dirt or grime to be seen, so somebody had been tending to it all these years.
“Do you like it?” said Kelvin.
“You’ve asked me again,” said Mara. “Why does it matter?”
“Because,” said Kelvin, “I shouldn’t make promises this early, but this could be your room.”
“My–? Oh, I couldn’t,” she said. “This is her room. You should keep it as is, yes?”
“Was her room,” said Kelvin. “And like you, Flora was sweet and kind, but practical. She wouldn’t want the room to never be used again. That would be a waste.”
“What about your parents? Won’t they object?”
Kelvin gave his answer some thought. “Possibly,” he said. “But they, too, are practical people. After all, Robert’s room wasn’t left as a museum. I made it my own, but preserve his memory nonetheless.”
“I don’t know,” she said quietly. “And this is so large. What would I do with two rooms?”
“Think about it,” he said, and leaned over to kiss her gently. He withdrew, then placed his hand on her cheek. Now she lunged forward into a deep kiss that lasted over a minute. When they parted, she rested her head on his shoulder, and he did the same to hers.
“You spoke with my parents this morning,” he whispered.
“I hope that it was a pleasant talk.”
She did not answer right away, but closed her eyes and breathed deeply several times, then straightened up so they could see eye to eye. She opened her mouth several times to speak, then took several more deep breaths for courage.
“Kelvin,” she said, “If we’re married… do you expect me to bear children?”
“Of course,” he said with no delay.
“Of course,” she whispered, and looked down briefly. “It really was– ssstupid of me to think otherwise. But is it because– you want them, or because it’s just– what people do?”
“First, you’re not stupid,” he said. “Second, yes, I do want them. I always have. And not just to continue the royal line. And yes, it is ‘what people do.’ I said that before, remember? Marriage, and then children follow.”
“Yes, yes, you did say that,” she said. “I remember.”
“Mara, what’s wrong?” he said. “You seem troubled by this.”
She forced a laugh. “That’s what your par- the King and Queen said,” she said. “They wondered if I’m troubled by it.”
Mara forced another smile, which broke down quickly. She looked down to focus on gathering her courage.
“Please tell me,” said Kelvin. The pleading in his voice gave her the fortitude to be out with it.
“I have…” she said, her voice wavering, “I have reason to believe, that I would not survive… bearing a child.”
“You… speak of the dangers of childbirth?” said Kelvin. “Darling, I know it would be a lie to claim there is no risk, but you’re young. Strong. Healthy. You’ve survived so many hardships, surely you’d-”
“I don’t mean that,” she said. “Please forgive me, Kelvin. I should have said this before, but I lacked the courage. In fact, I’ll understand if you want no more of me after learning this.”
“Enough,” he said, a little impatiently. “Be plain with me. What- is- the matter?”
“I have been cursed!” she spat out. “I– was cursed to die, if I ever bore a child.”
“…What?” said Kelvin. “Why? Who– By whom? Who would do such a thing?”
“My mother,” she said. “And I don’t blame her. She-”
“Your mother? How could-??”
“Please let me tell this,” she said, and he calmed himself. “I didn’t before, and I should have. When you asked about her, I stopped you and said never to ask again. But I should have told you. I should have–” She took another breath. “I killed my own mother, Kelvin. She– died because of me.”
“…Words fail me,” he said, taking a step back. “What did-? How-?”
“I came out the wrong way,” she said. Kelvin tilted his head. “I wouldn’t come out because I was turned around the wrong way – legs first, I think – and couldn’t come out. And then… my father… he finally had to cut her.”
“I wouldn’t come out unless I was cut out,” she said, her lips trembling. “So– he did and– then as she lay dying, bleeding to death from a wound that I had caused, she cursed me to die the same way. To die if I ever bore a child. I– I suppose it would also come out the wrong way, too. I don’t know.”
“May I…?” said Kelvin, holding up a hand, “May I ask something? Just for a moment?”
“Am I to understand,” he said, “That when you say you ‘killed’ your mother, you mean that she died in childbirth? And he- your father – blamed you for it?”
“What else do you think I meant?”
“I know, I know,” he said. “I just wanted to make certain of that.”
“What difference does it make?” she said. “The very first thing I did in this world, I did wrong. Dead wrong. And every year, on my birthday – her deathday – Father would send me away so he could be alone, but was sure to remind me of what I’d done.”
“I don’t believe this,” said Kelvin, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose. This only irritated her.
“Wh-? Don’t believe-? Do you think I’ve lied about this?”
“Not you,” he said, then opened his eyes and reached out to hold her by the arms. “NoNoNoNo, not you. Of course I believe you. You lost your mother in a most tragic way; there is nothing to doubt about that. But your father: he lied to you.”
“What??” she bellowed, pulling away from him. “You be careful, sir!”
“Listen to me,” he said. “Please listen to me. I must beg your forgiveness. Out of respect, I have been silent when you tell me these stories of him, but I can be silent no longer. I– I cannot. Forgive me, but your father– If your father were here, before me now, I would need to be dragged from the room, lest harm come to him!”
She gasped. “You call him a liar, and now say that, too?!”
“Hear me!” he said, “Hear me. This is because of your own words, Mara. All I know of him, I learned from you. And from you, I have learned that your father was an angry, hateful, cruel and… and a brute of a man who twisted the final memory of your mother and his own wife, a-and raised you to believe yourself a murderer! And that you were stupid, and ugly, and– worthless! And I will tolerate no more of it!”
“How dare you say such things about him!! Would I say such things about your father? Never!”
“I understand that I speak out of bounds – I don’t blame you for your anger – He was your father and you feel obliged to honor him-”
“He alone raised me!” she spat. “By himself! No one else! H-he was all I had! How could I not honor him?”
“Why did he not honor you??” said Kelvin. She only glared. “Hm? I want to be wrong about him. Please, Mara. Tell me of any moment of kindness from him. Any tenderness. Telling you stories at night. Comforting you when you were afraid, or sad, or ‘just because.’ Did he ever smile at you? Praise you? Hold you?”
She was too overwhelmed with a paralyzing mix of anger, confusion and sadness to speak.
“Mara?” said Kelvin. “Was there any love from him at all?”
“Why would there be??” she snapped. “Did you not hear anything I said? I- Killed- My- Mother! The woman he-he loved. And my first act being born was to kill her! And you think he lied to me about the curse? I have proof of it! Not long ago, five, six years ago, I began bleeding. There was no wound at all, and yet I bled. And he told me… He told me it was a sign that the curse was starting. He didn’t need to remind me every year anymore, for she herself was doing that. And it hasn’t stopped. Every month – every time of the waxing moon, in fact – I bleed. Again, from no wound. Not enough to die and it stops in days, but enough to remind me: she’s watching me. Waiting.”
Kevin’s mouth was open, but he appeared unable to speak.
“So,” she said, trembling, “Yes. There it is. You say he lied to me, and there it is. Someday this curse will catch up to me. So I ask you again: do you really, really want me to bear children?”
“He actually told you… that your monthly bleeding is a curse from your mother?”
“A reminder of it,” she corrected.
“You had no sisters,” he said. “No cousins, aunts, nieces, grandmother… no female relatives or friends? No one to talk to about these things?”
“No,” she grumbled. “You know that already.”
“I must ask your forgiveness again, Mara,” he said with an odd calmness. “I cannot withdraw my words. Your father… was a monster.”
Mara tensed every muscle in her body, and glared with an intensity that only pure rage could manage.
“Your bleeding,” he said, still calm. “Forgive the indelicacy of this question, but is it from there?” He pointed down. Mara looked down, then up, and could tell by the angle of his finger where he meant. She squeezed her legs tight.
“Yes,” she growled. “How did you guess that?”
“I just wanted to make sure,” he said. “Mara – My Love – what you described is common for women. It’s not a reminder of a curse; it’s a natural act for women.”
“How would you know?”
He held up a hand. “I know, I am a man, so I understand you’ll think I know nothing at all about women, but I have been taught and tutored all my life. Many subjects, including Medicine. It happens to all- well, most- women at certain ages. You’re in that age.”
“That can’t be,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s ridiculous. There can’t be– Every woman isn’t under a curse like mine.”
“It is not a curse,” he said. “It is natural. That’s why I said what I said about your father. Perhaps he himself was ignorant of that, but I doubt it. He had to at least know it from his wife – your mother – but then to convince you that this– natural thing is something to be feared? Something that heralds your doom? And no, I was not there, nor did I know your mother, but I still cannot believe that she died with a curse on her lips. It is always a great sadness and a tragedy when a woman dies in childbirth, but do you truly believe that every woman who died so, cursed her own child? That they all blamed an innocent babe of matricide, and not a tragic accident of birth? Accident, Mara. Without intention. Without malice. An accident. A mother knows this. She knows. Yours had to, too. You just have to trust me.”
“But…” she whispered, “But why would he tell me that if it wasn’t true? Why would he…?” Her voice trailed off.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know why he directed all of his rage and his hatred at you, but he did.”
“I spent my whole life hoping she’d forgive me,” said Mara, her lips trembling. “And when I started to think that– perhaps she had, but then the bleeding started– Why does that happen? How could bleeding for days be ‘natural?’ You say all women do this? Why?”
Kelvin threw up his hands. “You must ask someone more knowledgeable than I,” he said. “The royal physician, perhaps.”
“Should I ask the Queen?”
“No!” he cried, startling her. “Sorry. That is not a question for her, is all.”
“I know!” he said. “You should speak with a midwife. Yes, a midwife could answer probably any question you had about women. Perhaps even why ‘it’ happens.”
“No,” he said. “Ask about women’s medicine.” He held out his arms to her. “Mara: please come here.”
She tilted her head and took a step forward. He leaned over enough to take both of her hands, and squeezed them gently. “Hear me,” he said. “You are not worthless. You are not stupid. You are not ugly. And you absolutely did not ‘kill’ your mother. If she were here, now, I think she would be proud of you. I am proud of you. You are the most-”
Mara had been listening to him with a jumble of chaotic emotions, yet had been still and betrayed none of her feelings, until his last words. Then to both of their surprise she burst into loud tears, and after a moment, fell forward and buried her face on his shoulder. He was taken aback, but recovered quickly and held her, making no effort to stop the weeping.
“You were right,” she bawled.
“Shhhhh,” he said. “You don’t need to speak.”
“No, you were right,” she said, fighting to get the words out. “Everything you said about him. You’re right. I had those same thoughts for years. No, all my life! But I pushed them down, always. I was ashamed of those thoughts. He was my father; I had to honor him! He had raised me! Yet he hated me– so much— and I wanted– I tried so hard, all the time, for him to just– I wanted him to be proud of me, just once, and he never was. He never was!” Her words dissolved into a sea of tears. Kelvin said nothing, but kissed her once on the nape of her neck, then rested his chin on her shoulder.
There was a rapid knocking at the door. Mara fought to quiet her tears, but Kelvin parted and gestured for her to stay. He went to the door and opened it only a crack. It was Solomon, looking frantic but contrite.
“Please pardon me, Your Highness,” he said, “But the King has requested your presence. Immediately.”
“Thank you,” said Kelvin. “I will be out in a moment.” He started to shut the door, but Solomon pushed on it.
“He was rather insistent on this, Your Highness,” he said. “Something about a time limit?”
“I will bear his wrath, Solomon,” said Kelvin. “I will join you in just a moment.”
He shut the door and hurried back to Mara, who had managed to push down her tears for now.
“I heard him,” she said, wiping her nose. “You should go. I’ve made us go over our time.”
“It’s a cruelly small amount of time,” he said.
“But better than none?”
“I will not leave you until I’m assured that you’re all right,” he said. “Perhaps not all right, but can you manage? Just say the word and-”
“Go,” she said. “‘Go’ is my word. These have been… good tears, I think. The only good tears I’ve had. I have much to think about, but– No, go. Please. I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll see you tonight?”
Kelvin hesitated, then snatched up one of her hands, kissed it, let go, then fixed his hair and his clothes as he made his way from the room. He looked back one last time before shutting the door. Mara closed her eyes and let out one long, loud sigh, then practiced relaxing herself with slow, deep breaths. In time she felt a calmness that she had no memory of ever feeling before. Almost, but not quite, a true peace. Then a sudden coolness surrounded her body; the hairs on her arms stood up, and she felt something like, but could not be, a person’s embrace. Her eyes still closed and her breathing still slow and deep, Mara held out her arms just slightly as if returning the embrace, but held only cool air.
She opened her eyes, but saw nothing. The coolness went away. There was an eerie silence and stillness to the room.
“Flora?” whispered Mara, but there was no answer. Of course there was no answer. Without another word, and as quietly as possible, Mara left the room and returned to her own on the third floor.