The Pauper Prince
Mara had somewhat lost track of time since her arrival at the castle. She guessed one week, but Kelvin assured her that it was a fortnight. By this time her meals with the royal family had become, as much as a meal with a royal family could be, routine. By this it meant that she was simply dining with them and having more or less mundane conversations, and not interrogations, tests, questioning, arguments – not about their possible marriage, that is – nor long, uncomfortable pauses. She had, in time, managed to obtain footwear other than her old boots, due to needing custom shoes that took longer to make.
True to his word, Kelvin had arranged for an instructor for her, first to teach her reading and writing. After that would follow any other subjects she wished. For now Mara was requesting law and history, and later, at Kelvin’s suggestions, literature, mathematics and science. She still showed no interest in studying music, so he relented on that. Rather than combat instruction with Seamus, she requested instead to learn archery and horsemanship. What she absolutely refused to do, though, was ride sidesaddle, which her instructor insisted was the only way for “ladies” to ride. At first the Prince had tacitly agreed with that, but finally stepped up to order her riding instructions to be identical to a man’s. This required that the seamstresses make special riding clothes for her that allowed her to spread her legs enough to sit on the horse properly.
Mara was at her dressing table, studying these new things called “letters,” and the Prince was outside, walking the grounds with Seamus, when they were both summoned to the King and Queen. Coincidentally, they arrived at the door to the consultation room simultaneously.
“Do you know what they want?” she asked him quietly.
“I wish I did,” he said, and pushed open the door.
Inside, the King and Queen waited for them. They were both standing, so Kelvin and Mara took that as their cue to do the same. They stood side by side and waited to be addressed. The King seemed to be taking his time, though, looking at them alternately before clearing his throat.
“We have made our decision about your marriage,” he said. Both of them became infinitely more alert. Mara took a deep breath and almost forgot to let it out. She let her gaze drift downward.
“Lady Mara,” said the King. “Look here.” He pointed first to her eyes, then to his.
“Yes, your Majesty,” she said. She dared not let them stray even a bit now.
“And Kelvin,” he said. “You understand that this decision is final. There will be no debates. No arguments. No counterpoints. You will accept our decision. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sire,” he said.
“Good.” The King looked first to the Queen, then back at them. “The marriage between you, Prince Kelvin of Gildern, and you, the commoner known as ‘Lady’ Mara of Breech… will not have our blessing.”
Her world was gone – washed away with a single word: not. The Prince had promised – insisted – that it would happen come hell or high water, but it was true: without the backing of the King and Queen, their life together would be hell.
“And therefore,” said the King – what other knife could he put in our backs now?? – “Effective immediately, she will be granted the title of Countess, and granted five acres of land, two miles due west of the castle grounds and known as Riverbend-” Mara, still trying to keep her gaze on the King, stole a glance over at Kelvin, who was practically vibrating from his efforts to remain still “-And will have all the rights and privileges accorded to her title and station. And it is that marriage – between you, Prince Kelvin of Gildern, and you, Countess Mara of Riverbend – that has our blessing.”
Kelvin could take it no longer. He threw his hands high into the air and let out a great cry of delight, then ran first to the King, then to the Queen, then to the King, and so on, until he threw his arms tightly around his father, loudly babbling his gratitude, then all but attacked his mother with more hugs and kisses on both cheeks over and over. For her part, she impotently protested his “unprincely” behavior.
For herself, Mara had not yet fully registered what had just happened. They were not getting married – they were getting married – she was a commoner – and then not? She had land? Where did the title come from? She was so engrossed with watching the Prince fawning over his mother, that she did not see right away that the King was watching her. Finally she met his gaze, and for the first time since their meeting, a smile crept onto his face. Not a smirk or a half-grin or a sign of sarcasm, but a warm, welcoming smile. He held out his hands to her, palms up, then beckoned her forward.
She took hesitant steps forward, then put her hands on his when they were close enough. He squeezed them gently. “Countess,” he said. That word gave her a chill. “I know that we have put you through much. Many questions, many examinations, many tests. We had to, to determine if you were worthy of our son and of our kingdom. Please forgive the misdirection in the beginning; it was really to, uh, give the Prince a bit of a jape. But we do now, truly, wish to welcome you to the family. Welcome. Welcome, daughter.”
He pulled her slowly into an embrace and patted her back once. He realized that she was shivering. He was about to let go and ask if she was cold, but she suddenly gripped him tightly and buried her face into his shoulder, her eyes closed. Kelvin, who had been watching, waited a few moments, then put a hand on her shoulder and gently pulled her away. She then became embarrassed by her impropriety and apologized to the King. He insisted that there was no need.
Once again they stood side by side to face the King and Queen. Kelvin smiled and bowed his head. “Thank you so much,” he said. “God bless you both. This means everything to us.”
The Queen stepped forward and held Mara’s hands. She seemed to be considering her words, and opened her mouth to speak, then smiled and nodded slowly. “Welcome, child,” she said finally, and withdrew.
“This is going to mean everything to the kingdom,” said the King, with a hint of warning. “You may have our blessing, but you won’t have it from others.”
“Father, no matter who I picked, some family would be offended,” said Kelvin. “We’ve been through this.”
“Yes, but at least the other families all know each other,” said the King. “She’ll have come from nowhere, from their perspective.”
“Well, technically, she has,” said Kelvin. “B-b-but can this wait? Keep this a joyous occasion, a joyous day? Let us have our celebration!”
“Yes, yes,” said the King, waving them away. “Go on, enjoy yourselves.”
Kelvin took Mara’s hand and almost yanked her from the room, knocking the doors open as they went. He was moving quickly and taking long strides, which gave Mara trouble until she managed to pull up on her dress to keep her feet from tripping.
“Kelvin,” she said, “Am I really a Countess, or is that just something we’ll tell people, like calling me a Lady?”
“If Father said that you’re a Countess,” said Kelvin, “Then you’re a Countess.”
“No,” she said. “What? Is that allowed? I mean, he can do that?”
Kelvin chuckled. “A King can grant titles, yes,” he said. “But, up to Count and Countess without consulting with the aristrocracy. Therefore, you are a Countess.” He looked back at her and grinned.
“Where are we going, anyway?” she said. “And why the hurry?”
Kelvin slowed down considerably now, allowing her to walk at a more natural pace, and released her hand. “Do forgive me,” he said. “I was overcome with excitement. You can keep up with me now, yes?”
“I was keeping up,” she said. “I’m just curious about the haste.”
The two were walking down stairs now that led to a side exit from the castle. Outside it was bright and cool. After their eyes adjusted, Kelvin offered his arm, which she took. He began escorting her across the grounds.
“Where we’re going is a surprise,” he said. “You were given a tour of the castle and grounds early on, weren’t you?”
“Um, yes,” she said. “I think I’ve forgotten most of it, though. There was a lot to take in.”
“Were you taken to that tower there?” Kelvin said, indicating a tower separate from the main wall. There were several guards at its base.
“Mm, we saw it, but didn’t go in,” she said. “He didn’t say what was in it, either.”
“That’s good,” said Kelvin. “You weren’t allowed in at the time.” He looked at her and smiled. “You are now.”
She had no answer for him. In a few minutes they arrived at the base. The guards knew the Prince but were still questioning of the woman he had with him. “Lads,” said the Prince, “This is the Countess Mara of Riverbend. My intended.”
The guards first acknowledged the Prince, and then her as they bowed their heads and overlapped their greetings. Mara blushed. This was the first time that she had heard him, other than to the Queen and King, introduce her as his betrothed. Odd that it was to a group of castle guards, but that probably made it more memorable.
“Gentlemen, are there objections to me and my fiancee entering the tower?”
“No, your Highness,” the guards answered, again in overlapping fashion. Each of them produced their own key, and took turns onlocking different locks on the iron door. The last guard pulled it open for them. Kelvin entered first, offering a hand to Mara to guide her up the winding staircase, but she insisted on ascending it unassisted.
Finally the reached the top, where a middle-aged man, and a younger man sat at separate tables – worktables, from the looks of them. At the far end of the tower, opposite where the staircase ended, was a very large, solid, metal door with multiple locks, like the door at the base of the tower. Both men looked up from their work, then stood and bowed their heads to the Prince. The middle-aged man then left his worktable to approach the Prince and Mara. Then she could see that he was shorter than they.
“Your Highness,” he said, bowing again. “This is an unexpected visit.”
“My apologies for the lack of notice, Master Roderick,” said the Prince. “And hello, Master Jason!”
The younger man seemed startled by the attention, and stood up again and bowed hastily. “Oh! Hello, your Highness. I greeted you before, as well.”
“Master Roderick, Master Jason,” said the Prince, “Please allow me to introduce you to my intended, Countess Mara of Riverbend.”
Roderick seemed taken aback by this news, then took her hand – which she did not expect- and bowed deeply to her. Jason hurried around his worktable to bow awkwardly, but did not take her hand.
“It is an honor to meet you, my Lady,” said Roderick, kissing her hand before straightening up. Mara looked to the Prince, then at her hand, uncertain what her response was supposed to be. Roderick bowed again to the Prince. “Congratulations, your Highness. To both of you.” Jason also bowed again to mirror his master, then returned to his worktable.
“Thank you,” said the Prince. “Then you’ll know why we’re here. Unless this is a poor time to see Elisabeta’s ruby?”
“Not at all,” said Roderick, gesturing to Jason, who dug around in his worktable’s drawers before producing two keys. Roderick retrieved two of his own keys from his worktable, and together they unlocked the large door and pulled it open.
It was clear to Mara now why this tower had been excluded from her first tour. They don’t show the Crown Jewels to just anyone. Everywhere she looked were crowns, tiaras, scepters, necklaces, rings, broaches, bracelets… if a person wore a type of jewelry, it was represented here. Each item had been carefully placed on its own stand or pedestal. Nothing had been thrown in haphazardly.
While she was busy being dazzled by the gold, silver and sparkling gems, Roderick was handing the Prince two sets of thin gloves. The Prince pulled his on and handed the other set to Mara, who finally noticed it after he poked her arm. She pulled on the gloves while still staring at the contents of the store room. The Prince looked around, then took a small, hinged box. He turned to show it to Mara, then opened it.
Her eyes went wide, but she made no sound. Inside was a ring of gold, on top of which was a round ruby larger than her thumbnail. And surrounding the giant ruby were tiny diamonds inset into the gold and continuing halfway down the band. The band itself appeared to have some filigree sculpted into it, as well.
“What do you think?” asked Kelvin softly. Mara looked at him, then the ring, and back to him.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I mean, do you like it?”
“Do I-?” she said, then stared at it some more. “Um… How couldn’t I? I mean it’s- It’s beautiful! My liking it or not is… unimportant, right?”
“Not so,” said Kelvin, carefully removing the ring and turning it this way and that. “You see, this belonged to Queen Elisabeta of Umbridge. She was my mother’s aunt, and Mother inherited it upon her death. Then Mother gave it to me for my 17th birthday.”
Mara raised an eyebrow. “She gave you a woman’s ring.”
“Well, not for me, of course,” said Kelvin. “The intention being to give it to my future wife, as her wedding ring.”
“Oh,” said Mara, nodding. Then both her eyes and mouth went wide again. “Oh??”
“That’s why I asked if you like it.”
“But– But– Uhhh… But this–” she said, suddenly unable to even sputter out a full sentence. “Big and– Whahh— But I’m just– I-I’m not–”
“Darling,” said Kelvin, so softly as almost whispering, “It’s all right. Slow down. Take deep breaths.”
“Is everything all right, your Highness?” Roderick asked from his worktable.
“Thank you, Master Roderick,” said the Prince. “We’re fine. We’ll be over presently.” He returned his attention to Mara, who was working on slowing her breathing, as advised. Eventually she got it under control, but covered her face with her hands, then let them slowly drop before resting on her chin.
“Kelvin,” she whispered, “I-I can’t do it. I can’t wear something this– this–”
“Fancy?” he offered. She nodded.
“I-I-I’m afraid that I’ll… that I’ll break it,” she said. “Or worse: lose it! Then I lose my head, yes?”
“You won’t lose it,” he said, “Because you’d never be taking it off. And I’m not sure what you plan to do that would break it. Here: let me have your hand.”
“W-w-well I wouldn’t be wearing it now, would I?” she said, keeping her hand from him. “We’re not married yet.”
“No, but we need to check the fit,” he said, taking her left hand, anyway, and peeling off the glove. After he was done, and held her hand in his own, he paused, then smiled to himself. “I guess this will be practice for me, too,” he said, and slipped the ring onto her third finger. It went on and came off too easily.
“Oh,” said Mara, almost in relief. “See, it’s too big. It would slip right off, I’m sure. I won’t be able to wear it.”
Kelvin did not respond to her, but removed it, put it back into the box, then took her hand and guided her over to Roderick’s worktable. He set the box on the table.
“It’s too large, my good man,” said the Prince.
“Ah, a resizing, then,” said Roderick, and he fished through some drawers before pulling out a small pouch. “Not surprising,” he added, and started pulling out plain, steel rings from the pouch and setting them carefully on the table. “I could tell by her long, slender fingers that Elisabeta’s wouldn’t fit.” He looked up at Mara and held out his hand. “My Lady,” he said, “Would you mind showing me your left hand?”
She did, and he peered at it a second, then picked up different steel rings before finding one that seemed to satisfy him. He slipped it on her third finger, and it fit perfectly. Roderick smiled. “One try,” he said. “I am good.”
“We could make this my wedding ring,” said Mara, showing the band to Kelvin.
“Ha ha,” he said sarcastically, removing it for her and handing it back to Roderick. “These are only for sizing.”
Roderick took the ringbox and opened it. “I can have this ready as soon as you need it, Sire,” he said.
“Well, there’s the question,” said the Prince. “A date hasn’t been set yet, so…in a week or so would be nice. More is fine if you need it. By the way, will you size her other hand?”
Mara looked at him. “Why?” she said. “How many weddings are we going to have?”
“We’ll just have one, for now,” said The Prince, and winked. “And you never know,” he said. “You’re going to be a Princess. What’s a member of royalty without jewels?”
“…A person without jewels?” she offered. The Prince chuckled, then left her side as she submitted to Roderick sizing her right hand’s fingers. He seemed to know their sizes just by looking at them, but still verified, and called out numbers to Jason, who dutifully recorded the information.
When she finished with them, she turned around to see Kelvin standing before her, his hands still gloved, holding a gold tiara that, compared to most of the other headdresses in storage, had a simple design.
“This is a tiara,” said Kelvin. She cocked her head and gave him a Look. “And I see that you know that. It belonged to Flora.” Her expression softened immediately. “Now, you could always have your own made, because everyone has their own style or preference for these–”
“When would I be wearing it?” Mara asked.
“Oh… just special occasions, really,” said Kelvin. “Special banquets, uh, parties and other soirees, uh-”
“That’s fine,” she said. An awkward silence followed before Kelvin raised it up slightly to her.
“Would you like to, uh… See over here?”
He and Mara walked to a mirror near the storage room. She faced the mirror while he stood behind her and carefully placed the tiara on her head. He made some minor adjustments, then stood beside her and peered into the mirror. He smiled slowly.
“Beautiful,” he whispered.
Mara was uncertain what he was referring to, herself or the tiara. She decided that it was the tiara. She felt as though she was looking at someone other than herself, and for the briefest of moments, almost curtsied to her own reflection, but came to her senses in time. There was no sound save for the two jewelers at work. Then she reached up to remove it. Kelvin took her hands gently and moved them away.
“Uh,” he said, “Need gloves, remember?” She apologized while he carefully removed it and placed it back in its proper spot in the storage room. Then he pulled off his own gloves and began shutting the vault door. “Master Roderick, Master Jason,” he said. “Unless we’re needed for anything else, we’ll take our leave of you.”
Mara shielded her eyes from the sun as they left the tower. Behind them, the guards busied themselves locking the gate with their separate keys. This time Mara and Kelvin walked in a casual stroll, now that the important business had been tended to. He offered his arm again to her, which she took, but was lost in thought as they meandered.
“After Roderick is done,” said Kelvin, “We’ll return and see how the ring fits.”
“Mm,” she said, nodding, then continued with her thoughts.
“Is something troubling you?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Not exactly,” she said. “I’m just trying to sort through all this, all that’s happened today. And… just now I’ve been shown a whole… tower full of gold and jewels, just… sitting up there. And I’m to be wearing a single ring worth more than I and probably all of my ancestors combined have ever made in our lives. Does that seem strange to you?”
“I suppose when you put it that way, yes,” he said. “But would you believe me if I said that the Crown Jewels used to need their own building for storage?”
She chuckled. “No, I wouldn’t,” she said. “But on second thought, every time I disbelieve something around here, I’m immediately shown it.”
“They did used to,” he said. “Every kingdom goes through feast and famine. In case you’re wondering, yes, sometimes this very kingdom was forced to pawn its riches, just to survive. And I don’t mean to keep us in fancy clothes, but to pay for things the kingdom needed. Then during times of ‘feast,’ most of the royal families replenished their jewels. Then repeat for the next famine, and so on.”
“So… we’re in a time of famine?”
“Actually, no,” said Kelvin. “We’re… comfortably-fed, I would say. We lost riches during the plague, both of lives and gold. The lives being worth more, of course. But our prosperity has been growing since. It’s simply that Father never made it a priority of putting the Jewels back into a building. He tries to spread the kingdom’s wealth a bit more. The Jewels we have now will stay as they are. Other than items we might wish to create from our personal wealth.”
“Oh, well, I… I’m not one for fancy things,” said Mara. “The ring you showed me is obviously a family heirloom, so I would… I will be honored to wear it. Just remember that I would never ask for something so, um… fancy.”
“I know,” he said. “That makes it more pleasant to give you things.”
“Well…” she said, “You don’t have to.” They walked on in silence, no particular destination in mind.