The Pauper Prince
The Queen and her entourage arrived at Mara’s new chambers, which had previously belonged to the Princess Flora, to inform her of a new duty, for which her training was to begin immediately: running the castle. All of it. As she explained it, the King ruled the kingdom, but she ruled his home. All decisions regarding the operations of the castle were hers alone, with one exception: the King’s Guards. This duty fell to the Prince, as well as the King himself. There had been times when, in the King’s absence, the Queen had ruled on his behalf, as had the Prince, but she assured Mara that this was not expected of her. At least, not any time soon.
To Mara’s relief, the Queen understood and abided that she was not yet proficient enough at reading or writing to take notes while the Queen explained each duty pertinent to the castle’s area. A servant was appointed the task of writing and followed the women closely. What Mara did for herself, though, was to silently make a point of remembering the names of everyone they encountered, from masters to apprentices and everyone in between. There were quite a few names to remember, so she worked out different ways to do so, knowing that her system would be tested the next time she walked the grounds with the Queen.
As she was introduced to the various workers and craftspeople, Mara became aware of an odd feeling within herself. Each person who was introduced to her made some effort at royal courtesy, either calling her “My Lady” or “Your Highness” (prematurely, but no one was corrected), and bowing according to their sex. What Mara soon realized was that she did not look forward to being greeted this way by other women… but did for the men. Still, anyone watching her expression or movement at the time would not have been able to tell. Being perfectly stoic when needed was something she’d learned early and well, thanks to her father.
In most cases it was not the Queen’s task to simply walk around and tell everyone what to do. She could hardly tell a master blacksmith how to forge or a master carpenter what kind of joins to use. She could and did, though, check for any delays in scheduled projects, listen to concerns of all kinds, mediate disagreements, keep on top of needed supplies, and evaluate workers for promotion, demotion or dismissal. The areas where the Queen was very much involved were the kitchen, attendant staff, and handmaidens. The King and the Prince knew what they wanted and needed for their valets; the Queen’s job was to find their matches, as well as being in charge of the handmaidens and other attendants. As for the kitchen, setting the menu for banquets, ensuring that the proper ingredients were ordered in the proper quantities, and guiding the overall quality of the food was her top priority. Food, in her mind, ran the kingdom. It was during their first visit here that the Queen put Mara on the spot, urging her to provide the kitchenmaster with the recipe for her vaunted Lamb Stew – the one that had supposedly won the heart of the Prince. Mara tried to beg it off, insisting that a starving man would find any meal delicious, but the Queen insisted back, with far more weight than she. Mara acquiesced and listed whatever ingredients she could remember. The kitchenmaster wrote down the ingredients, regarded them with minor suspicion, and promised to create the stew as best as he could with them. Mara would be satisfied if no one spat it out after a taste.
The Queen had attempted to talk Mara out of her request for Heather as her personal handmaiden – the girl was still a mere apprentice, after all – but Mara was gently, respectfully insistent. The Queen was intrigued by this persuasive approach, and finally allowed it. She was even allowed to set her own “rules” for Heather’s conduct towards her. The first two “rules” were no curtseying or royal addresses, unless being watched by others. Another “rule” was that she was Mara’s assistant, not servant. Heather was also encouraged to speak her mind about any subject. She had been conditioned, though, to do anything but that, so there was much progress to be made. Mara herself had far to go for her own journey towards royalty. She had made a private vow to herself to never forget her beginnings, and was counting on Heather reminding her if the vow wavered.
Setting the date of the wedding, making the guest list and planning the engagement banquet was entirely out of her and the Prince’s hands. The Queen was at least telling them what to expect, but in such a way that did not invite differing opinion. Mara found it interesting that Kelvin, so quick to argue about almost everything with his father, never spoke up to his mother. In fairness her plans for the engagement celebration and wedding did not seem overly elaborate or bizarre, even to Mara’s still-common mind. Perhaps there really was nothing to disagree with. Or perhaps their relationship was just that amenable. There was still so very much for her to discover.
Nearly three weeks after the King and Queen had given their blessings to the marriage, Mara was in her study/parlor/sitting room/library, borrowed papers and books spread all over the serving table. Learning the alphabet and reading simple words were coming along smoothly and quickly for her. What was troublesome was mastering the pen and ink for writing. She had pages covered with letters, numbers, symbols and words that seemed to have more smeared black blobs on them than anything legible. As a result she had quickly developed the bad habit of reading more than writing. The various papers and books strewn about were perhaps beyond her reading level, but she preferred this challenge. Better to get through history and law more quickly. Especially the law.
She was engrossed enough in trying to slog through the obtuse language known as Legalese, to have missed the first knocks at her door. The next round of knocking was loud enough to startle her. She was still holding one of the books on her way to answering the door.
It was Kelvin, whom she would always make time for. She beamed and threw the door open wide, but made sure to close it behind him before burying herself in his embrace. Propriety still mattered much more to her than to him. When they parted, he paused to stare into her eyes and comment on how Heather had arranged Mara’s hair that day. He was yet to be displeased with her results.
Kelvin noticed her book, not to mention the piles of papers at the other end of the room. “I hope I’m not interrupting something important?” he said, offering his arm to her. She smiled and shook her head, then awkardly switched the book to her other hand so she could take his arm. They walked slowly together to a settee and sat down. “It’s good that you have such a passion for reading,” he said. “And learning in general.”
“I don’t want to be ignorant anymore,” she said.
“I’d say that you’ve made good on your promise not to be ‘idle’ around here,” he said. “I hope you know that I’m very proud of you?”
Mara looked away and blushed to rival the garden’s reddest rose. Between his declarations of love and of being proud of her, she found the latter to be far more heartwarming. “Yes,” she said. “And you know that I’m… very grateful, yes? For everything.”
He leaned over and shared another, quick kiss with her. “You do like to read,” he said. “I’d love to see how your writing is coming along.”
“Oh!” she said. “Um….” She shifted uncomfortably, “I don’t think that you’d be very proud of that. It’s… messy.”
“Why don’t you show me?” he said. “I could probably give pointers. It takes a lot of practice; believe me, I know.”
“Um…” she said, looking back at the pile, “I think most of it is buried somewhere. Do you really need to see it now? If I knew you were coming-”
“That’s fine,” he said. “Later, then, as you wish. I really came for a different reason. May I?” He gently took the book she was holding and set it aside. A second later she realized that her place was now lost, but beat down the frustration in her face and smiled.
“When we were in the tower of the Crown Jewels,” he said, “And you were measured for Elisabeta’s ring, it dawned on me that… well, that you don’t have anything like that for yourself.”
“…I’m not sure I understand what that means,” she said. “I’ll have a gigantic wedding ring, but… not?”
“What I mean is,” he said, “That it’s a family heirloom. It belongs to this family, not you, per se. Flora’s tiara was made for her, though you’ll inherit it. I realized that you don’t have anything that’s truly… yours. Something truly nice.”
“Something ‘nice?'” she said, then chuckled. “Dearest Kelvin, I’m surrounded by nothing but ‘nice’ things. Things that I never thought I’d even see, let alone have. What is it you think I’m missing?”
He reached into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a small box, but kept it partly hidden from her. “I should just show you, then,” he said, breathing heavily now. He wiped at some sweat on his brow. This concerned her.
“Is something wrong?” she said, trying to feel his forehead. He took her hand gently and kissed the palm before letting go.
“I’m fine,” he said. “I feel splendid. Just… a bit more nervous than I expected. I know you said, said that you don’t expect fancy things, and I’m glad of that, but also… you make me want to. Uh, uh, give you fancy things. Nice things. You don’t ask, and certainly not demand, so… I enjoy it. And so… I hope that you like this.”
He held out the small box, and opened it, then realized it was facing the wrong way and almost dropped it in his haste to turn it around. Inside was a ring, but not Elisabeta’s ruby. This one was topped by an oval emerald of at least two carats, and surrounded by eight alternating rubies and diamonds – four of each kind, and each at least one carat. The band was all gold and wide enough all the way around to include carvings on each side, mostly of a floral nature. Kelvin’s nervousness caused his hand to tremble; the light coming through the window caught the quivering gems and lit them up like tiny, shimmering torches.
Mara reacted by widening her eyes to near-perfect circles and gasping – twice – then unintentionally holding her breath while staring. Kelvin peered at her, trying to gauge her thoughts, but eventually gave in.
“I admit that I was also speechless when I saw Roderick’s fine work,” he said. “He took my idea and raw materials and made this masterpiece. I wanted the emerald to be the centerpiece, like the ones in your eyes.”
“Wh– What’s in my eyes?” she said, tearing her gaze away.
“I was just– comparing them to emeralds,” he said, blushing at his own words. “That’s all.”
She smiled. “Oh, that’s very kind. I never really thought of them as being especially green. Kelvin? You… say that I make you… want to give me things like this?”
“I thought it would be a nice way to show your betrothal,” he said. “Until the actual wedding, and you get Elisabeta’s ring. But this… this would be yours, to do with as you please. See, I… Aside from the Crown Jewels, over time we accumulate a personal wealth of gems, precious metals, custom jewels. So, I took some of my own gems, and some of my own gold, showed Roderick what I wanted, and he made this.”
“If everything came from you, that means it’s yours.”
“NoNo,” he said. “It’s yours. Remember my promise to you. Please. Allow me?” He reached first for her right hand, then remembered its purpose and took her left hand instead. It took all of her restraint to keep from yanking it away, especially when he slipped it on her finger. A perfect fit. He held her hand by the very tips of the fingers. For a long time she couldn’t do much more than stare at it and silently curse herself for being struck so dumb by a piece of jewelry. But then, it was quite a piece. It was large, and her fingers were long and slender, but it somehow seemed just right for her hand.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “You wondered if I ‘like’ it. I love it. Is it all right if I show this to Heather?”
“Assistant,” she said.
“I’ve said before, it’s yours to do with as you please,” he said. “Of course I’m hoping that what you please is to wear it and show it to everyone, not just your ser– assistant. Did you mean show it to her right now?”
“No,” she said. “I meant show her first. Before other people.”
“You’re very fond of her.”
“In a way, she’s as new at her job as I am,” said Mara. “We’re both learning. And… I enjoy her company. Er, Kelvin… there’s something I’ve been thinking about of late, and I think this is the perfect opportunity.” She arose from the settee. “Wait here,” she said. “Will you wait here? I’ll just be a second.”
Mara hurried into her bedroom, then returned moments later, holding something behind her back. “Um,” she said clearing her throat. “I’ve been thinking about how you’ve given me so much, and… I haven’t really been able to return the favor. You know that I never had much.”
“Dearest, it’s not ‘things’ that you give me.”
“Well, I hope you tell me someday what I do give you, but until then… I want you to have this.” From behind her back she produced her sword, and held it horizontally before him. “It’s what I’ve had the longest, so I think that makes it my most… precious possession? Or perhaps just the oldest. Either way, I’ve been thinking that, you’ve given me so much, and I don’t have much of my own, but I have this, so… I hope you’ll take it.”
“Oh, Mara,” he said, rising, “I couldn’t take this from you. As you say, it’s your most precious possession. It’s been your weapon, your protector, for most of your life. Please; you must keep it.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but had no words. Still holding it aloft, she started noticing its flaws. The wearing and weathering of the leather scabbard, splotchy coloring, fraying straps. She pulled out the blade part way, each ding and dullness on the edge now an eyesore to her.
“You’re right,” she said, resheathing the blade. “This is old and shabby. Straps barely hanging on. The scabbard’s tip worn through to the blade. This is no gift for a Prince. It’s junk. You must think I’m a fool.”
“What?” he said, waving his hands. “NoNoNo, that’s not what I meant at all! I meant that there’s no reason for you to give up–” He stopped, looked about, rubbed the back of his neck, fidgeted. “I’m the fool,” he said. “Please forgive me.” He reached out to try to take the sword from her, but she held it tight.
“You’re just accepting it out of pity,” she said.
“It is not pity,” he said with a hint of irritation. “I am honored by your gift. Truly. You know, it’s said that those who have little or nothing, but still give all that they have, are greater than those with much, but only give from their surplus. Please, Mara; I accept your gift with all my heart.”
“You mean it?” she said, one eyebrow cocked.
“Do you mean it?”
She was silent, and then released her hold on the sword. He took it and felt along the scabbard, turned it around, pulled out the blade and popped it back in. “It is flawed,” he said. “But beautiful. If, Lord forbid, I must ride into battle someday, I promise that I’ll have this with me.”
She scoffed. “You don’t want to ride out with that,” she said. “Not without a lot of repairs, anyway.”
“I won’t change any of it,” he said. “It would be with me to remind me of you. To remind me what I would be fighting for.”
“Well, if there were ever a war,” she said, “I’d be fighting with you, of course. It wouldn’t have to be with my old sword. I wouldn’t need anything fancy, though I suppose you’d want me to have one. Really, I’d be fine with a common soldier’s broadsword. Something strong, and sturdy.”
Kelvin regarded her in silence for a time, then smiled, set down his gift, and pulled her into a tight embrace. “No matter where I go,” he said, “You will be with me.”
Much time was spent buried in kisses, which nearly became far more than that. Kelvin managed to hold himself in check in time. Mara sensed some frustration in him but did not know the exact cause. She also noticed that Kelvin took longer than usual to compose himself after their passionate exchanges.
“Darling,” he said, wiping sweat from his mouth. “I was wondering if you’d be willing to read to me? I’d love to hear how far you’ve come.”
“I’d be willing,” she said. “But please don’t laugh at me. I still have to sound out the letters for many words. It sounds odd, but it helps me remember.”
“I learned the same way,” he said. “And I would never laugh at you.”
“Well… I hope you would if I said something funny? Then you should laugh.”
Which he did.