The Pauper Prince
Mara had grown fond of her future in-laws, especially the Queen, whose facade was cool but whose heart was warm. The King was still something of a cypher to her, but since giving the blessing to the marriage, he had been treating her to flashes of tenderness. Sometimes it was a kind look or warm smile, and his tones when speaking to her in private had become… softer. Sometimes he would let slip a joke that she was usually too surprised to react to, if she caught it.
One of the most amazing things that happened was the King giving her permission to call him “Father” or “Sire,” but only when alone or in the presence of the rest of the family. She stifled a happy shiver, then quietly thanked him for the privilege. What she needed to compromise on was referring to the Queen as “Mother.” It seemed a dishonor to her real mother’s memory to do so. The compromise was to call her “Mother Queen” – again, only in private.
She continued to enjoy and thrive in her various academic lessons: reading, writing, mathematics, science, and so on. The Queen had ordered less academic lessons, such as courtly manners, dance, and diction, which Mara did not enjoy at all. Yet the Queen insisted that they were as much, if not more important than, Mara’s preferred subjects.
While with her assistant Heather, Mara had at first gleefully dropped the “queenspeech” for the more common tones familiar to her. Then Heather made the gentle suggestion to use the new intonations all the time so there would be, eventually, no thought behind them. Mara sulked at the very thought of it, until Heather dropped into the accent she’d been brought up in until her apprenticeship: it was, with only a few differences in vowel pronunciations, strikingly similar to Mara’s and most of the castle’s staff. Then she just as abruptly shifted back to the manner of speech familiar to Mara.
“Take heart,” said Heather. “There will not be as much change to your speech, either.”
Mara thought of a reply, likening these small steps to a feeling of becoming lost to someone not herself, but kept mum. These were superficial things, these changes in speech and demeanor. As long as no attempts were made to control her thoughts, rebellion could wait. Even her father, always ready for a fight, had taught the importance of choosing one’s battles wisely.
She had also taken Kelvin’s advice and visited one of the two midwives employed in the castle grounds. Three if a daughter/apprentice were being counted. She had met them all while accompanying the Queen on her rounds, and on her own had sought the counsel of the older midwife named Adrienne. Her youngest daughter Annabelle was the apprentice in question. Adrienne had appeared to Mara to be, at the very least, the most experienced, and perhaps the one least likely to laugh in Mara’s face if she asked the most basic questions about womanhood. Her instinct was correct; while taken aback by the near-complete misunderstanding of all things womanly, after hearing a part of Mara’s story – a royally-sanctioned version of it, that is – Adrienne approached Mara’s education as if explaining to a child for the first time, albeit one with a larger vocabulary.
Mara kept a blank face while listening, even when Adrienne’s descriptions became more… detailed, all the while imagining that she was going to be in a lot of pain. That was one of her questions, in fact. Adrienne was quiet now. She appeared to be giving the question much thought, and leaned back in her seat. She looked up at the ceiling while thinking.
“I have seen you and His Highness taking walks about the castle grounds,” she said, looking at Mara now, “And while I am not one to pry, linger, or eavesdrop, would it be impertinent for me to say that you two are very fond of each other?”
It took Mara a moment to fathom what she’d been asked, and there was much blushing when she did. She stifled a giggle. “Ah…. Yes, it– I mean, no, it would not be impertinent. We are very fond of each other.”
“I only ask that,” said Adrienne, “Because, while I cannot say for certain how much pleasure – or not – you would have on your wedding night and beyond, it’s been my experience that husbands who truly love their wives are as interested in her pleasure, as in their own. Put another way, I suspect that His Highness would try very hard for you to enjoy it.”
Mara tried to speak, but was overcome by embarrassed giggles. Adrienne held up a reassuring hand. “M’Lady, I meant no disrespect.”
“Hm?” said Mara, looking up and stifling her tittering. “Oh, I felt none. I want to thank you for not– For being so understanding and patient. I know it’s ridiculous for someone my age to know nothing about these things, but…”
“From what you told me, it seems that yours was a sheltered life,” said Adrienne. “The lengths that some parents go to to ‘protect’ their daughters from the world, hm?” The royally-sanctioned version of Mara’s life did not include the parts about being dirt-poor and beaten daily. Mara smiled sadly and nodded.
“Miss Adrienne,” she said, “I know this is changing the subject some, but as a midwife and a woman of much experience in, in birthing children…”
“Would you happen to know anything about curses?”
The Queen was gladdened that Mara was taking some of her lessons to heart and was hosting tea parties for her friends. What did not gladden her was that Mara’s friends were, thus far, those of a lesser nature – servants and staff like Heather, Adrienne and Annabelle – versus Ladies of a higher station, such as the oft-visiting Duchesses, Countesses, and other Ladies of the court, some of whom she had met during Mara’s First Banquet. Of course she knew never to turn down the Queen’s invitations to tea, where said Ladies would always be, and behaved properly, and never said anything impertinent or untoward, but this is because she rarely spoke at all. She had no husband to complain about, and even if she did, could think of nothing about the Prince that warranted complaint. She also had no personal wealth and so could not complain about the tarnishing of her jewels or second homes needing minor, cosmetic repairs. Few things ruined a good airing of grievances than a quiet declaration of gratitude. She did not do such things on purpose; one of the noblewomen had tried an “Am I right?” on Mara, and she had replied with pure honesty. Mara was quiet after this, allowing the women to resume their mirthful conversation.
“It’s a great shame, really,” said the Queen during one of their private walks. Private if the Queen’s handmaidens were discounted. Mara walked alone. “Some of the Ladies think of you as dull. I happen to know that you are not.”
“Do I embarrass you?” asked Mara with genuine concern. “I-I just don’t know what to say around… the upper classes.”
“You know what to say to me,” said the Queen. “I happen to be the most ‘upper’ of the classes.”
Mara allowed a small laugh. “What should I do, your Majesty? Should I talk about the things I’ve been reading? History? Science? Law?”
“I would not recommend trying to dazzle them with tales of torts,” said the Queen. “Have you not been reading poetry? Plays? Tales of romance and adventure?”
“Uh…” she said, shrugging a bit, “Not really. Or not yet. Should I?”
“Hm,” said the Queen. “You are a… different woman, I will give you that.”
They walked on in silence. Then Mara had to ask, “You mean that as a kindness, yes?”
“I would call it both a kindness and a criticism,” she said. Mara’s face fell. “Kelvin ultimately did not choose amongst the women we had selected, because in his mind, they were like any other woman of means or rank. ‘Interchangeable,’ he once called them. He chose you because you are… well, you, but at the same time, there is an advantage to at least trying to match one’s peers.”
Another silence followed. Then: “I think I understand your meaning,” said Mara. “I suppose my troubles come from not feeling as a ‘peer’ to the others.”
“You are a Countess.”
“But I was not born one.”
“No,” said the Queen. “You earned it. And you will have earned the title of Princess by marriage. Remember that and use it.”
“Your Majesty,” said Mara, then looked about, and decided that the handmaidens’ presence still counted as ‘private.’ “Mother Queen,” she continued, “I will do my best to ‘match my peers,’ as you say, but it worries me that, if it goes too far, I will become like the sort of woman that Kelvin would not choose.”
Another silence. “Then never stop worrying,” said the Queen.
For the engagement banquet, Mara strongly protested their idea for her to be brought out and introduced after the party had begun. It was bad enough that she would be scrutinized by everyone in attendance, but to be blatantly made the center of attention was more than she could have borne. Kelvin had mistakenly assumed that she wanted to be given special attention, when blending into the crowd was her true wish. Anyone curious enough to seek out the mysterious woman who had stolen the hand of the Prince, would have plenty of opportunities later.
She was given a dress complicated enough to require Heather’s and another handmaiden’s assistance. Trying to move about in it proved challenging, so she took some time practicing basic movements: standing, walking, sitting. Anything else would be left to the whims of chance. She was allowed to – or rather, told to – borrow an elaborate necklace from the Crown Jewels made of many gems, mostly diamonds, and some flecks of sapphires, rubies, and pearls. This was so she could spend the evening terrified of breaking or losing them. A spectacularly failed attempt was made to convince her to create holes in her ears. Her years of unwarranted pain were behind her now, she had decided, and she did not yield. Fortunately the royal family knew how to pick their battles, as well.
Before stepping from the room, Mara practiced smiling, pleasant greetings and chitchat with Heather, though her mood was closer to “getting it over with.” It was no secret to her that this banquet was as much a diplomatic mission as it was her big debut to the upper crusts.
Heather followed her Lady all the way to the Great Hall, but then, like the other attendants, was required to leave her side and enter a separate room prepared for them. This was not Mara’s rule at all. If she could have worked her will, everyone would mingle freely.
The Great Hall was a bright, merry hubbub that did nothing to quell her worries. Kelvin, as always for similar occasions, made it a point of meeting her just outside of the room and escorting her in. It was easier to smile when her hand rested on his, though it was not easy to keep breathing as he guided her into the room. To her great, great, great relief, the room did not suddenly fall silent, with all eyes upon them. That was because Solomon first needed to announce them loudly to the group.
“My Lords and Ladies!” he bellowed. “Give welcome to His Royal Highness Prince Kelvin of Gildern, and his intended, the beauteous Countess Mara of Riverbend!”
Now it was time for the room to fall silent, with all eyes upon them. And so it was that she and the Prince were introduced after the party had begun, and were the centers of attention.
The court musicians immediately altered their tune to something suitable for a grand and royal entrance. The crowd then applauded politely, upper and lower classes alike. She felt as though her entire weight were being held up by Kelvin’s arm, though her knees were as steady as always. She glanced at him to see what sort of expression he held. It was a closed-mouth, dignified smile, with regal nods of the head to those gathered before them. By the time she forced a smile and polite nods out of herself, the applause was diminishing, and Kelvin was leading her towards the main banquet table. The King and Queen were already waiting for them on the center dais. Kelvin released his hold on her, then kissed her hand with a practiced flourish before standing beside the King. Her place was by the Queen.
The other guests hurried to the take their seats at the other tables, with some minor debates occurring about the seating arrangements. The castle servants were experienced at quelling any true disagreements, and soon enough the guests were waiting for the royal family’s cue to sit. Now it was time for Mara to put all her practice at sitting in this gown to good use.
As soon as she managed to sit down and settle into her seat without destroying the gown, the King stood again, picking up his goblet, prompting all others present to do the same. Mara sighed quietly and went about the task of trying to stand up again. An attentive servant stood behind her, ready to pull back the seat once she needed it to be, which took longer than it ought to have. She stifled grunts while pushing and pulling her way up, and now was ready to hold up her own goblet. She was the last one in the room to do so.
The King looked her way briefly, than began his speech. “My Lords, Ladies, friends and allies, assembled guests,” he said. “We are honored by your presence at this, to announce and celebrate the betrothal of our son, Prince Kelvin of Gildern, to the beautiful Countess Mara of Riverbend. Raise your glasses and toast their long and fruitful marriage, and long life to them both!”
A hubbub of echoed words, “huzzahs!” and more applause erupted in the room. The guests followed the King in sipping from their goblets, then seated themselves after him. Mara managed to sit down just slightly more quickly than before. Then the King suddenly clapped his hands twice. She stifled a groan, wondering if it meant more standing, then brightened as servants bustled into the room, pushing carts loaded with food and drink. They stationed themselves at all tables, but the servants at the King’s table doled out food and drink first. As it was all laid out, Mara stole looks at the various guests, recognizing some, but most were strangers to her. She was particularly curious if any of the women that Kelvin had rejected were there. She caught sight of one young woman fanning herself and attempting to hide the fact that she was staring at this “Countess of Riverbend.” To Mara’s immediate right, though, was Ruth, Duchess of Gimsley, who also fanned herself constantly, but for a different reason. It was only Mara’s status as Kelvin’s intended that allowed for this break in seating arrangements. Ruth would have normally been beside the Queen.
In fact, the seating arrangements made for awkward conversation. The Duchess preferred conversing with the Queen, and needed to speak with her around Mara, while Mara had managed to begin a budding friendship with Countess Lucinda, and likewise needed to speak with her around the Duchess. They had bonded on a mutual interest in history, and had been building on this.
The food and drink, as always, were delicious and plentiful. Mara was feeling stuffed just as the desserts were wheeled out and served. They looked very tasty, but she could not bring herself to eat another bite. Instead she pushed the food around just enough to look like she had eaten some. It turned out that, similar to the Eleanor Elaine, servants took the good scraps for themselves, and the rest went to the livestock. Somebody would get a good helping of dessert that night.
Suddenly the musicians began playing loudly. She looked up; this usually marked the start of an evening’s entertainment. She watched and waited for the entertainers to emerge. Instead she felt somebody’s hand on her shoulder. Looking back, it was Kelvin, smiling warmly at her. He stepped back and held out his hand, adding a minor bow. She smiled back but did not understand the significance. The musicians dragged out the song’s introduction. Then the realization hit her like a rock to the face: No. Not a dance. Not a dance!
She shook her head vigorously, eyes almost fully round in terror, when her gaze managed to fall on the Queen, whose expression was not one of approval. Kelvin patiently kept his hand out, until the Queen took it upon herself to grab Mara’s hand and place it in his. She realized this had happened an instant before Kelvin squeezed and began pulling her gently from her seat. A villainous servant assisted him in his evil plot by pulling out her chair, forcing her to stand up and be led to the center of attention.
Once she was standing, she leaned in closely to whisper. “Please don’t,” she said.
“We must, darling,” he murmured. “No one else will dance unless we lead the way.”
She swallowed, put a hand on his chest, closed her eyes, and steeled herself. Then she opened her eyes, met his gaze, nodded, and allowed herself to be led to the center of the room, which was framed by the three banquet tables. She had been practicing dance, per the Queen’s mandate, but until now, only with her instructor. She had not yet danced with Kelvin, and certainly not before an audience. They took their positions as the musicians kept repeating the song’s introduction. She could tell by its beat that it was going to be a waltz. She struggled to breathe deeply and evenly, and kept looking at his feet to compare starting positions with her own.
“Mara,” he heard her say, and she looked up. It had been a long time, but he smiled at her the way he had done that one morning at the Eleanor Elaine. That one morning when she had been compelled to smile back just as brightly. She was not compelled to this time, until he spoke those words that gave her a chill every time: “I’m proud of you.” Her lips parted on their own into a mirror of the smile she had given him back that day, but this time, she found herself unable to look away from him. Her fear melted away. Her breathing, deep and even. The hubbub of the room died away into a dull drone. Only the music became sharper and clearer. The introduction segued into the melody, and suddenly he was whirling and twirling her around. She was unaware of her feet touching the floor. She felt like she was floating, with Kelvin merely guiding her about. The guests, the servants, the furniture, even the music – everything faded away, and they danced in a state of bliss and a world of their own.
She began leaning towards him, intending to rest her head on his shoulder or chest, but he guided her back gently and subtly shook his head. It was only then that she became aware again of others in the room. While they danced, other guests had come to the floor and joined them. They had been surrounded, and she had never noticed. They and the guests had been dancing in a circle; Mara had only been following Kelvin’s lead and had been unaware where they had been going.
When the music stopped, and the guests stood about applauding, Kelvin led her away from the dance floor and over to an area where other guests had been mingling. As they approached, the guests applauded politely, bowed, curtsied, uttered respectful greetings — and Mara became keenly aware that she was going to need Heather’s assistance very soon. Before Kelvin could begin introducing her, she pulled him closer and explained that she had “urgent business” to take care of. He eyed her curiously.
“I-I need,” she whispered, leaning in even closer, “I may have drank too much too quickly. I need to find Heather and– She needs to help me with this dress, and-”
“Ohh,” he said, nodding. “Yes, yes, of course.” He released her hand, and she smiled and nodded to the others before gathering up her dress to leave hastily.
Some of the guests watched her leave, confused, and turned as one to look at the Prince.
He shrugged. “She has urgent business to conduct,” he said.