The Pauper Prince
The wedding was like a dream. Not a dream as in “dream wedding” or “dream come true,” but the sort of dream that has its own reality for itself but that makes no sense in the outside world. The sort where things seem clear and detailed at the time, but trying to remember anything later is a wasted effort. If asked to describe the day to an outsider, Mara might have done so this way:
I was wrapped in a cocoon of white silk and lace and… some other materials that were tight and loose at the same time, but still all white. I was told it was so I looked “pure.” I didn’t mind because I was “pure” the way they wanted me to be. From the waist up I could barely move, but at the bottom there was extra material just sitting out, for no other reason but to make me look like a waterfall and its river at the bottom. There was a looking glass nearby, and I saw my reflection and looked just like that – a white waterfall and its river. A waterfall wearing a tiara and a veil. There were women all around me in the room, all the time. I knew a few, but most were faceless to me. Some friends were there. Mother Queen was there. She was saying things to me that I don’t remember now, but I kept nodding to whatever she said.
I was told to leave the room and start walking. Outside the room there was loud music, and a choir singing from somewhere. I don’t remember if children or adults were singing. Both? It was hard to walk in the cocoon, which now that I think of it, must have been a dress. Oh, of course, not a river, but a train! That’s what they call that part of a dress. It was heavy and dragging, but then lightened up suddenly. It was later that I learned that my friend Heather and… another handmaiden… Siobhan? had been carrying it. Suddenly Mother Queen and the other women were gone.
The music got louder, and I was at the double doors of the church… or perhaps it was a cathedral, and the doors opened. I looked straight ahead, and he – Kelvin, I mean – was far ahead of me at the other end of the long aisle. I stepped out, and then a thousand-thousand pairs of eyes were staring at me! They had all turned as one and were looking straight at me. The aisle became a mile long. He was a speck on the horizon. A little dot. And suddenly I had no strength to move. I couldn’t breathe. I needed him to come to me, not the other way around. But he wasn’t allowed to. I remember there were all sorts of rules about this.
It was hard to see, but I think he was… I think he held out his hand, as if beckoning to me. I felt myself reaching out, too, but stopped, because all those eyes were upon me, and I was too far away. So I closed my eyes, tried to breathe again, and then opened them, and focused on his hand. Just get close enough, that’s what I was thinking. I started walking, slowly, because I could move no faster, and dared not look at those thousand-thousand pairs of eyes. I’d have been lost if I had looked; I knew that.
With every step, he never seemed to get any closer, but I couldn’t move faster, either. Then suddenly… I was there, looking at women all dressed alike, to my left. Mother Queen had chosen them, not me, but I knew half of them, at least. And they were called “maids,” even though the ones I knew were already married. I think I was still walking while I was watching them, and looked over, and Kelvin was there. His hand was there. Oh, my goodness, he was… I had never seen him more handsome, more radiant. Can a man be described that way? Even if not, he was. I stopped walking, and Heather and Siobhan stopped, too, and started spreading the train around to make it bigger.
I took his hand, and he smiled in that way that’s so calming to me. I don’t remember if I smiled back. I think I may have seemed as a deer just after it sees a hunter and just before it runs. But I couldn’t run. I had to stay and listen to the loud music and the priest… minister… clergyman… bishop… archbishop? I don’t remember what he was, but he did most of the talking. And I don’t remember very much of what he said, except there was a moment when he asked a question that utterly terrified me: if anyone objected to our being there? I stopped breathing; perhaps my heart stopped, too, and I thought he waited far too long for a reply before speaking again. Nobody had spoken. It was safe to breathe again.
Then he said Kelvin’s name, and started asking him questions, mostly about things Kelvin had already said to me, and then Kelvin said, “I will.” Then the … clergyman… said my name, and I froze, and could do nothing but listen to his questions, which were different than Kelvin’s, but also the same, in their own way. Then he stopped and stared at me, so I said, “I will!” without thinking. I hope I didn’t say that “I will” do something I don’t want to do?
And I thought we were done, but then he started feeding Kelvin some phrases to repeat, which Kelvin said to me. I only remember staring at his face while his lips moved. Then it was my turn to repeat after the whatever-he-was, and if he had ever given me more than five words to say, I’d have forgotten the whole phrase. My lips moved, but if anyone was able to hear me, I don’t know.
Then somebody gave Elisabeta’s ring to Kelvin. The priest – I’ll use that from now on – spoke on and on about it as if it were worthy of an epic poem, and then finally Kelvin put it on me. I remember that part because I had on only white, and I was so pale that my skin matched the dress, so I remember a big spot of red on my hand. I still wore my betrothal ring, but on my right hand now. A spot of green and white and red for that.
But this dream — I mean, wedding?– it wouldn’t end! The priest had us drink from a chalice, and sang praises to that, too, and then we knelt while he said prayers, and knelt for other reasons that I don’t remember what they were, and the loud music and singing began sometimes. The music and the singing were beautiful, but no one had told me just how long it would take or what to do or anything, other than “walk that way” and “repeat after me.” I could swear that none of it was real, but it had to be all real. Hadn’t it? I kept losing my thoughts, unable to think beyond what it took to remain standing. Then I heard “…kiss the bride,” and looked to Kelvin, who was lifting my veil and leaning towards me. I opened my mouth to say “Wait!” but he kissed me before I could speak. Then the priest turned us around and said we were “Prince and Princess, man and wife,” and those thousand-thousand pair of eyes were back! I realized that they had all watched as we kissed!, and I began to grow weak and lightheaded. Even worse when the faceless ones out there began clapping and whistling and yelling.
Kelvin took my hand and pulled, but gently. I didn’t mean to resist, but that happened until I could make my legs move again. I could only keep up with him because he was pulling. Heather and Siobhan went behind me again to pick up the train and lighten my steps. I think Kelvin wanted to run, but we walked, as quickly as I could, down the mile-long aisle and then outside. It was so bright out that I could barely see. Kelvin led me to a carriage waiting right at the front steps of the cathedral. I think it was a royal carriage. It was fancy enough for that. He helped me inside from behind, then climbed in after me. The carriage began moving. I closed my eyes and leaned back in the seat, and that’s when I woke up.
Mara kept her eyes closed and listened to the creaking and rustling and clip-clop of the carriage and its horses. They helped to calm her, and gave her time to relearn how to breathe normally. Somebody took her hand. Of course “somebody” was Kelvin. She opened her eyes to his beaming face.
“Hello,” he said. She gave him a gentle smile. He pointed to himself and then her. “Man… and wife,” he said, and chuckled.
“Mmmm,” she said, sitting up straighter in the seat. She was watching him but fidgeting with her new ring. “Man and wife. Why not say ‘husband and wife?’ Or ‘man and woman?'”
“I don’t care,” he said, and lunged at her. It startled her, but she, too, was lost soon enough in the throes of passion. Gone was her mortification at their first married kiss being witnessed by a thousand-thousand pairs of eyes. Closer to two hundred-fifty pairs, though her estimate was close enough. The ride from the cathedral to the castle grounds would take twenty minutes. They were prepared to grope and moan and kiss all the way, and would have, when Kelvin suddenly groaned and buried his face against her chest.
“Ahhh, this is torture,” he said to her bosom, his voice muffled.
“What?” she said, looking down. “Torture? Are you saying you don’t like them?”
“What?” he said, bringing his face right up to hers. “No! No, these are perfect!” He cupped his hands just under her breasts, yet not daring to touch them. “Except that they’re covered right now. That is the torture!” He thumped on the carriage’s ceiling. “Faster!” The coachman heard and complied, coaxing the horses into a trot, but nothing like a gallop. He almost thumped again, then realized he must be satisfied with that. Mara laughed and placed her hand on his cheek.
“What about the reception?” she said. “We’re supposed to greet everyone and mingle and dance and all that. Or could we dispense with the dancing this time?”
“We don’t have to be there straight away,” he said. “There’ll be so much hubbub that no one will even notice our absence for hours. And yes, we do have to dance. I enjoy dancing with you. What’s wrong with it?”
“I only– don’t think I’m good at it,” she said. “And how could people not notice our absence? At our own wedding?”
“I’ve been to my share of them,” he said, “And it depended on the couple, but some took… a long time to make their appearance. And looking not as well-dressed or groomed as they had for the wedding.”
She was working out the significance of that, when he leaned in for more kissing. She held up a hand. “Wait,” she said. “Kelvin, you know that I’m… That I’ve never…”
“Neither have I,” he said quietly, and they kissed up to the moment when the carriage stopped and the coachman opened the door.
They hurried as quickly as they could to the bedroom, acknowledging well-wishers in the castle along the way. At the door, he pushed it open, but stopped her from entering, and held out his arms. He beckoned to her, so she moved in for an embrace. He shook his head and pushed her back gently.
“I-I don’t…” she said. “What do you want me to do?”
“I’m carrying you in,” he said, beckoning again.
“What? Why? This dress isn’t that big. I can still fit through a door.”
“No, it’s tradition,” he said. “I carry you inside. That is, the man carries his new bride into their bedroom.”
“…Carry me? All the time now?”
“No, I-!” he said, sighing. “Please. Let me carry you this once. It’s… bad luck or something. I don’t know. But why tempt fate, right?”
“But you’re the one who told me that there are no such things as curses, so-”
“All right, all right,” she said, and struggled to assist him in lifting her and the complicated dress off the ground. Being carried was not the most comfortable position for her, but she abided this tradition of his, which lasted only until they’d cleared the threshold. Then he gently set her down, kissed her, then broke away to all but slam the door shut and bolt it. Then he began untying and unbuttoning and removing his clothing as quickly as possible.
“And you,” he said, glancing her way. She hesitated, then removed the pins keeping her veil and tiara in place and set them aside on a nightstand. She began the business of figuring out how to remove her dress without damaging it.
“Wait,” he said, holding up a hand. She froze in place and stared. “I want to do it,” he said. “Will you let me do it?”
“Uh… certainly,” she said. He stopped tearing off his own clothing, and embraced her. He distracted her with deep kisses while feeling for anything on her back meant to release the gown. Failing that, he parted and moved behind her to study the intricacies of the loops and knots keeping the dress in place. He began undoing them, starting from her neck. As each one was released, more of the dress could be opened.
“Kelvin, wait,” she said. He shook his head, though she could not see it.
“No more waiting,” he said.
She pinched her shoulder blades together in an effort to keep the dress closed. “Please wait a moment,” she said. “You remember… remember being told that I have… some scarring, yes?”
“I do,” he said, finally staying his hand.
“You told me,” she said, “That it wouldn’t change your mind about me. But I just wanted you to… not be surprised, in case you’d forgotten.”
He was still for a few moments, then rested his chin on her shoulder from behind, his mouth just under her ear. “I hadn’t,” he whispered, and renewed her undressing with feverish resolve. He opened her dress more and more as he made progress, revealing more of the scarring he’d been told about. When he had opened the dress all the way down to her waist, he paused to take it all in. There was more than he had expected, but not what he had imagined, either. With a quick move, he flipped the whole top of the dress down, revealing the rest of her back and arms all at once. Her arms were briefly pinned until she pulled them the rest of the way out of the sleeves. She tried to turn around, but he stayed her with a gentle touch.
“Is it…?” she said. “Do they repulse you?” She closed her eyes and prepared for the worst.
“No,” he said quietly, now daring to touch one. She shivered. “Does that hurt?”
She scoffed. “It’s a scar,” she said. “They don’t hurt. I just didn’t expect you to touch any of them.”
He put his hand flat on her back and began caressing it, feeling all around, then took both hands and rubbed all along her arms, feeling every bump, blemish, and healed wound as he went. He stepped forward and rested his chin on her shoulder again, breathing deeply and bringing their arms together as he held her from behind. She shivered and closed her eyes, also breathing deeply, until their breaths were in sync.
“They’re a part of you,” he said, kissing her neck. “And since you are beautiful, so are they.”
She spun around and grabbed his face, her eyes wild. “Take me,” she whispered.
The speed of her move, the intensity in her face, her everything took him by surprise. That and the first sight of her uncovered breasts. To his relief they were unblemished and just as perfect as he had imagined them to be. Apparently even her barbaric father had taken care to leave them be. He was mesmerized.
“Take me!” she cried, clapping his cheeks to jar him back to reality. It quickly became a race between the two of them who could pull off more clothing more quickly. While fighting with the bottom part of her dress, they heard a tear. They stopped at the same time, traded concerned looks, then remembered – royal seamstresses! – and finished wriggling her out of it. Off came the shoes and that garter belt thing on her leg, whatever it was for, and Mara had “won” the game of undressing. She almost dove onto the bed, then felt the borrowed diamonds around her neck. To her relief, nothing seemed damaged. While Kelvin finished off the last of his clothing, she ran to the dressing table and carefully removed the necklace, laying it just as carefully on the table and checking for missing jewels.
“Come on!” he said.
Satisfied with its condition, she whirled around, smiling, and was greeted by the sight of her new man, fully unclothed. He beckoned to her and gestured to the bed. She froze, unable to take her gaze from… all that he had to show her. He continued beckoning.
“Come on,” he said again.
She seemed to realize her own full nudity for the first time. “This is…” she whispered, closing herself up almost, but not quite, as tightly as she had when being examined by Sir William. “This is… There’s no going back. Is there?”
Kelvin did not reply, but stopped beckoning and went to her. She relaxed some but was still trying to cover up delicate parts. He tried to unravel her arms, but she resisted. “I don’t know what to do,” she whispered. “What if it hurts? What if I hurt you?”
“I don’t know what to do, either,” he said, leading her step by step to the bed. “Well, I know what to do, but have no experience. Let’s work it out together. Shall we?” He gestured grandly to the bed and bowed, which brought a smile to her. She loosened her grip on herself and let him kiss around her neck; that was enough to relax her again. Together they fell onto the bed, laughing and smiling. She laid on her back while he carefully climbed over her to take the customary, top position. Given their inexperience, he opted to start with what he knew so far. He centered himself and took a moment to watch her eyes, seeing if there was still any fear or uncertainty. There was none now. She smiled and stroked his cheek.
“Take me,” she whispered.