The Pauper Prince
An hour earlier Heather had created a minor masterpiece of braidery with Mara’s hair, humming all the while, before taking leave of her mistress. As soon as the sprightly girl had left, Mara returned to her brooding and spinning of her sword. The sound of the leather scabbard’s tip on the floor changed suddenly, becoming harder and sharper. She examined the tip and sighed. The tip had finally worn enough for the blade to start slipping through. More of her stupidity in action, damaging her most precious possession.
She had just set the sword aside, when there was a knock at the door. She thought of calling out, but decided to stand up for once and get the door herself. Mara plodded over and opened it just enough to peek out. The Queen met her gaze. Mara quickly opened the door all the way and curtsied slightly.
“Lady Mara,” said the Queen. She had come alone, which was not her custom.
“Your Majesty,” said Mara, in a flat tone. She was unable to manage more than that for the moment.
“Will you walk with me?”
“…Yes, your Majesty,” said Mara, and took a step forward.
The Queen held up her hand quickly. “It was a question,” she said, “Not a command.”
Mara was uncertain if there was a difference, but finally she nodded. “I will still walk with you,” she said. “Your Majesty.”
“Good,” said the Queen. “I hope you like the garden.”
The two walked to the royal garden in silence, the Queen occasionally pausing to receive her subjects’ greetings and salutations, but discouraging anyone from lingering for conversation. When they reached the entrance to the garden, word was sent within that the Queen wanted the place to herself and her companion. The Queen led the way to the center, where there was the ornately carved wooden and metal bench that Mara had seen on her first tour of the castle grounds. The Queen seated herself, then patted the spot beside her.
“Please,” she said. “Join me for a sit.”
Mara complied silently. She stared at a spot ahead of her while the Queen breathed in deeply, letting it out slowly with a loud sigh.
“It is almost my favorite time of the year in here,” she said. “Almost all of the flowers are in bloom. Almost all of the birds have returned. But the sights, sounds and smells even now are still beyond reproach, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” said Mara, still using her flat tone. “I’m… glad that her Majesty is so pleased.”
The Queen chuckled softly, then was silent. Mara stayed as still as she could. Perhaps the Queen expected the wonders of the garden to relax and soothe her, too. Or was she supposed to be speaking? Or continue waiting to be spoken to first?
“I had the same examination myself,” said the Queen, “When I became betrothed to King Silas. Well, Prince Silas, then. But unlike you, I did not pass the test.”
Mara turned slightly towards her, but did not otherwise respond.
“This was quite unfortunate,” said the Queen, “Because, you see, I actually was a virgin. And yet the ‘test’ told the then-Royal Physician otherwise. Now, to this day I could not say for certain if it was a lie on his part, or if the test is simply inaccurate. All I know is that a great deal of money and land exchanged hands, and tongues were stilled, until our marriage was approved.”
This time Mara did try to respond, but found that she had no words.
“You realize that the penalty for you would be death, if you repeat any of this,” said the Queen. “Don’t you?”
“Wh–? Then why–?”
“After Silas and I were married, I begged him and his father, the King, to rescind that abominable law for a ‘purity test,’ when it was clearly unreliable. But they wouldn’t have it. I cannot help but wonder if he would have put… Flora… to that same test. But I did manage to convince them to remove that man that they called the Royal Physician. It wasn’t enough that he was corrupt. He also took an unseemly pleasure in making his examinations… uncomfortable… for me. Say or think what you will about Sir William, child, but he is dedicated to his profession, and is concerned for our comfort as well as our health.”
“If you say so, your Majesty,” said Mara. Another silence followed.
“And you mustn’t be angry with the Prince,” she said. “He also tried to dissuade the King from ordering the test, but ultimately had to stand aside for the law.”
“Is this law something that the King can overturn?” said Mara. “Or remove? Or something?”
“Yes,” said the Queen. “But he believes in it. A woman entering her first marriage in the Royal Family must be untouched by other men. And this test is currently the only way to determine this.”
“But it is inaccurate.”
“Or I was simply the victim of a corrupt, lying dog,” said the Queen. “The truth is long buried.”
“The man must be untouched by other women, too, correct?”
“There is no such law about that. However, the Prince has elected to keep his own purity, for his lady’s sake, whoever she might be.”
“He told me this,” said Mara. “Yet you say this is not required of him.”
“No,” said the Queen. “Lady Mara, I don’t need to tell you that this is Men’s world, and they are forever trying to keep it that way. We can make our inroads, but ours is a life of constant insults, indignities and humiliations. It is how we comport ourselves in the face of it that shows our character. And I must say, right now I am impressed by yours.”
“I am… pleased by that, your Majesty,” said Mara. “But I don’t feel very impressive at the moment. I can barely move or speak.”
“On the contrary,” said the Queen. “You see, after my own ‘examination,’ I refused to eat, drink or speak to anyone for two days. The only reason it was two days, and not longer, is that my father had the words beaten from me. The food and drink forced into me.”
“Your father had you–? But… you’re a Queen…”
“Back then, I was a Duchess,” said the Queen. “And his reasoning behind it is that Silas and his father were due to visit at any moment, and I needed to snap out of my despair and behave properly. Behave like a future member of royalty. It was a hard lesson, but I learned it well.”
Mara was silenced by the memories of the “lessons” her father had “taught” her. Different reasons. Same technique.
“Sir William tells us that you have many scars,” said the Queen. “The Prince did not seem to know of them until then. Is there anything you wish to divulge? And, Lady Mara, as I must trust you with what I have divulged, so you can trust me.”
“I… It’s nothing that I’ve shown him, your Majesty,” she said. “But I’ve not hidden my past from him. He knows what my… profession… was before we met. I was a m– a soldier.”
“Soldier?” said the Queen. “For Gildern? I thought you were a scullery maid.”
“A–? No, your Majesty,” said Mara, hiding her irritation. “I worked at the inn because I had no other choice during peacetime but to find other work. But I was not a soldier for Gildern. I was.. a solider… for anyone who would pay. That kind of soldier. The Prince knows this.”
“I see,” said the Queen.
“Your Majesty,” said Mara, “I know you said I could confide in you, and I am grateful for that, but I’d… understand if you told the King.”
“Lady Mara!” the Queen snapped, startling her. “You wound me. I have offered you confidence, and I shall keep it.”
“I-I-I’m sorry, your Majesty,” said Mara. “I didn’t mean to suggest that you would, I just– i-if it’s something that you had to tell the King-”
“-Though I hope that you would not, I only meant to-”
“Assure you that I-I would not place any blame on you, because your duty is to him, not-”
She was startled into silence. She blinked quickly a few times, then shifted in her seat and straightened up, glancing at the Queen nervously all the while. The Queen sighed, smiled slightly, then patted her thigh.
“Mara,” she said softly. “The Prince told us these things already. But no doubt you wore clothing to conceal your old wounds, so he did not see them. You might wish to know that, in spite of this news, the Prince’s resolve to marry you has not waned.”
“It hasn’t?” she whispered.
“No,” said the Queen. “Once his mind is set on something, it is not changed. Just like his father.”
Mara pondered this a moment. Then: “Your Majesty,” she said, “Would you mind if I took my leave of you now?”
“Not at all, child,” said the Queen.
Mara stood, then turned to give a farewell curtsey. “I must thank you for this talk,” she said. “It was very kind of you to grant me your attentions. And… I thought you should know that my resolve to marry him… has also not waned.” She bowed her head once more and turned to leave.
“Mara,” said the Queen. She stopped, but did not turn all the way.
“Your hair is quite lovely. My compliments to whomever arranged it.”
“Thank you, your Majesty. I will tell Heather, if I see her again.”
Mara had learned the Prince’s whereabouts from a passing servant. On the way to his chambers, she tried to think of various arguments and counter-arguments for the question she needed to ask him. No, not question: request. A demand? Not yet. She decided to leave it as a request and see where that got her. She did not have much experience at doing battle with words, and so wondered just how strong any of her arguments and counter-arguments would be, but had to start with something.
She reached the Prince’s chamber door, and knocked quietly. Well, that won’t impress him, she thought, and began to knock harder, when the door was opened by a valet.
“Yes?” he said. “What business do you have here, miss?”
Mara cocked an eyebrow. She was almost starting to expect that “Lady” business by now. “I wish to speak with the Prince,” she said, straightening up, her voice getting stronger as she continued. “Is he available?”
“Provide me with your name, and-”
“LET HER IN!” the Prince called from within. Before the valet could react further, Kelvin was already behind him, opening the door all the way. He shooed the valet aside and grabbed one of Mara’s hands, all but yanking her inside. The valet recovered quickly, dusting off his sleeves and adjusting his clothing. The Prince dismissed him with a quick motion of the head. The valet bowed crisply and left the room, shutting the door behind himself.
The Prince still had her hand in a tight grip and led her to the center of the room. Then he stopped and held onto her upper arms, squeezing them gently and rubbing them up and down. He wore a smile of unabashed joy that was hard for her not to match. But she had serious business with him and needed to practice restraint.
“I’m so glad you came, Darling,” he said. “I’ve been worried all day. Are you…? How do you feel?”
Mara nodded slowly. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “I want to-”
“I just want you to know, that I argued against that ‘purity test,'” he said. “But Father was unmoved.”
“Yes, I know. The Queen told me.”
“Oh, you did speak with her? Good. Did she explain things to you?”
“Yes. Yes, she explained quite a bit. Kelvin-”
“I hope you can forgive me for what happened,” he said. “Will you forgive me?”
“There’s…nothing to forgive,” she said, to the Prince’s relief. “But isn’t it the King who needs my forgiveness? He’s the one whose mind nobody could change.”
For once the Prince was dumbfounded. His smile dropped immediately. Mara began to worry that she might have stepped on unwelcome political, or familial, ground. After all, she had reacted strongly to Kelvin’s criticisms of her own father, no matter how true they were. But his features softened, and his smile crept back.
“You’re right about that,” he said. “But bear in mind that he will never ask for it.”
“I thought as much,” she said. “Kelvin, I’m not here to talk about that test. Er– Actually, I am, but not just yet. Kelvin: I–” she straightened herself up again. “I want to learn how to read.”
She was unable to interpret the Prince’s expression. He may have been surprised or taken aback, but she couldn’t tell. Also, she realized that she was giving him too much time to argue against it, so she sorted through her various counter-arguments to back up her request: It would make her more useful to him as an adviser. Ruling people were supposed to be educated. Even the servants of the ruling people could read.
“Then it shall be done,” he said. “Oh, I am sorry, did I interrupt you?”
“You were speaking, and I interrupted. What were you saying?”
“Um… nothing,” she said. “What did you just say?”
“That we’ll find a teacher for you for reading,” he said. “Oh, and writing, of course. You can’t learn one without the other. When would you like to start? And is there anything else you wish to learn?” Mara could only stare in response.
“Uh… I-I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just trying to figure out if you’re… mocking me?”
“Mocking you?” he said. “Why would you think that?” She shrugged. “Wasn’t your request in earnest?”
“Um… Yes. Yes, it was,” she said. “I wish to learn how to read. I’m tired of being… being ignorant. I want to study the laws of this land. Its history. But especially the laws.”
“And its literature,” he offered. “Stories, plays, poems, songs. Oh, music. Would you like to learn an instrument?”
“I… I’m not sure.”
“What about singing?”
Mara scoffed. “Especially not singing,” she said. “I sound like… a goat being slaughtered. But wait: I came in here prepared to… to have to convince you about this, because I thought…”
“You thought I would object?” he said. She nodded. “Mara. Darling. Have I given you any reason so far to make you think I wouldn’t approve? I’m glad that you sought this on your own, before being told that you’d be receiving lessons.”
“A member of royalty without any education is a poor member of royalty,” he said.
“That was going to be one of my arguments!” she said. “Well… something like it. Mostly about being useful because of being learned.”
“I’m glad that we’re thinking alike, then.”
Mara sighed. “Ah, I’m so relieved,” she said. “I’m not very good at debating. My arguments are usually fought with… well, actual fighting.”
“You could take combat lessons, as well,” he said. “Not that the King and Queen would be pleased that a Princess was handling a sword, but-”
“You know that I’ve spent most of my life in combat already,” she said, failing to hide her indignation.
“I’m only saying that the opportunity would be available to you,” he said. “You learned what you learned from one man. There’s no shame in learning from others. Seamus is not just Captain of the Guard, he is an excellent teacher. Remember that he taught me. I haven’t stopped learning; I’ll still be practicing under him.”
“I’ll… think about it,” she said, and sighed again. “This has been a long day.”
“True,” he said. “Speaking of which, I’ve been dying to do this all day, too.” Kelvin pulled her into a long, deep kiss. As they embraced, Mara felt most of her stress and tension melt away, but not altogether. This was a good thing, for once.
They parted, then closed their eyes and rested in their usual stance of forehead to forehead.
“Kelvin?” she said, their stance unchanged.
“You will be King someday, yes?”
“Mm-hm. But… since it will be upon the death or incapacitation of my father, not soon, I hope.”
“No, of course not soon,” she said. “But someday, you’ll be King. I want to ask: may a King make, or unmake, any law?”
Now Kelvin broke their embrace, and straightened up, his eyes open. “Within reason,” he said. “A King cannot make a law that the sun will no longer rise.”
“Of course I meant within reason,” she said. “I have a reasonable request – no, a demand – that you unmake the law about the ‘purity test.’ Remove it. Rescind it. Whatever will keep others from going through it.”
“I know that you think I ask this because of what happened today,” she said. “That I’m still just upset and want it to go away. But I’ve had plenty of time today to think about this, and there is more to it than just… ‘not liking it.’ More to it than just the indignity and humiliation because of that law. If you truly need a woman to be a virgin before marriage, then so be it: demand it. But find some other way to ensure it. Make her swear on a Bible. Swear on the souls of her ancestors. Something. But not that test. No more.”
Again, the Prince’s expression was indecipherable to her, but at least she could sense no anger. Finally, he cocked an eyebrow and nodded. “Didn’t you just say moments ago that you’re not good at debating?”
“Well…” she said. “I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. And you yourself argued against it, so I’d think you’d be open to removing it.”
“I am,” he said. “I just…” Then he seemed lost in thought. Mara did not like this, and stepped forward. She put a hand against his arm.
“If we ever have a daughter,” she said quietly, “Would you order her to endure that test?”
“No,” he said. “No, I– No! Why am I even hesitating about this? If I cannot convince my father to rescind it, then I will do it myself.”
She looked at him silently until he straightened up again and put his hands against her cheeks. “When I am King,” he said, “Consider that law revoked.”
“Thank you,” she said, and leaned in to kiss him on the cheek. “And I will hold you to it.”