The Pauper Prince
Kelvin did not object to mingling with the commoners during the wedding reception, for this had been planned long ago; he objected to his wife’s timing for it. Nevertheless he had made the best of their hour-long visit before excusing the both of them from the room and all but running with her in tow to their bedroom. They did not leave the room until after noon the next day, and only then to get some food and drink and return.
Over the next several weeks Mara became aware of the extraordinary willpower he must have been employing during their betrothal. No, not only during that time, but almost half his life, for since coming of age he had insisted on remaining just as “pure” as any potential bride for him was required to be. It was his own way of protesting a law that he could not yet overturn. Extraordinary willpower, indeed, because now that the vows had been spoken and the pronouncement made, there was not a moment of the day or night when he was not ravenous for her. She was hungry for him, to be sure, but also saw a use for eating, drinking, resting, and having conversations with different people. Her new husband rushed through those necessities of life to get back to their wedding bed and erase from all history his first-day awkwardness.
He never forced himself on her, which was very much his right as her new lord, but relied on persuasion. Sometimes very persistent persuasion, but still only words and not force. It was as Adrienne the midwife had supposed; his wife’s pleasure was as important to him as his own. Thankfully, the importance was mutual for them.
During a now-rare time to indulge in her own interests, Mara was hosting tea for the Countess and reading from a new history book given to her as a gift. She had progressed enough in her reading ability to read almost at the speed of normal speech. Sometimes she needed Lucinda’s help with a complicated or foreign word, which the Countess was happy to give.
Lucinda and her husband, Count Richard, did not live at the castle, but given that he was the Count of Kingsbrook, which included the town of Allcourt, their presence was common enough that they might as well be permanent residents. There were many other Lords and Ladies who drifted in and out of the Great Hall at any time, for such was life at a royal castle.
The Countess had also resumed her attempt to “trade stories” with Mara, but grew frustrated with her friend’s reluctance to put forth any details. To wit, she was unsatisfied by Mara’s insistence that she was “satisfied.”
“Well, then,” said the Countess, pouring more tea for them, “I am truly happy for you both.”
“Thank you,” said Mara, fixing her cup with sugar and cream. “Look, I know you’re very keen to hear long, detailed stories, but it strikes me as… disrespectful. I wouldn’t want him telling stories about me, either.”
Lucinda stifled a snicker.
“My dear,” she said, “Men do tell stories.”
Mara stared at her open-mouthed, face paling. “No,” she whispered. “No, h-he wouldn’t do that. He couldn’t!”
“I only tell you what I know about men,” said Lucinda. “Besides, women talk, too.”
“But I’ve been trying not to,” she said. “Or have I said too much as it is? I will ask him if he’s been speaking about us. That’s what I’ll do.”
“But be prepared for him lying about it,” said Lucinda.
Mara became indignant. “We do not lie to each other! I-i-if I asked him, ‘do you speak about us?’ I’m sure he would be truthful. And I would be the same for him.”
The Countess looked away in thought while the Princess finished her tea and pulled out the history book again. “Shall I read more?” she said.
“Hm?” said Lucinda. “Oh, that. May we continue a tiny bit later? I have another question for you, if it pleases you.”
“If you wish,” said Mara, setting aside the book. “It’s not another one about the bedroom, is it?”
Mara sighed. “Lucinda, is that all that-? Never mind. Ask. But let this be your last question. And I reserve the right not to answer.”
“You have every right,” she said. “You’re a Princess.”
“I don’t think that’s relevant, but ask.”
“Thank you,” said the Countess. “I was merely curious if, by your insistence about being ‘satisfied,’ if you have… if he has managed to pleasure you to truly… orgasmic levels? There: thatismylastquestion.”
She let her gaze drift lazily about the room while waiting for the Princess’s reply, and then became curious about the long delay. Mara was staring at her quizzically. This was not something that Adrienne had discussed with her before.
“I have offended you,” said Lucinda. “I am sorry.”
“No,” she said. “I didn’t understand the question. Pleasure me to… what?”
“O-orgasmic levels,” said Lucinda. “An apex of pleasure. A pinnacle of– When you’re utterly and absolutely overwhelmed with excitement, and you lose all control of yourself, and… I see by your look that perhaps this has not happened. It doesn’t matter. I was merely curious.”
“I–” said Mara, and then paused to gather her thoughts. “I don’t know how to answer. I don’t know if I’ve reached that ‘pinnacle,’ or not. I wonder if he has?”
“Very likely,” said Lucinda. “Easy for men, not so for women.”
“That seems unfair.”
“Blame God for that, then,” said the Countess. “Or Eve, if you wish. But let’s get back to your book. I think the King’s army was just about to invade Florin’s borders, yes?”
“Er… Yes, I think,” said Mara, idly flipping open the book. “Lucinda… Could I infer that you yourself have experienced this, um… ‘pinnacle?’ ”
Lucinda stared at her a moment, then chuckled. “I have,” she said. “But no thanks to my husband. I’m afraid that I have little to tell about his prowess.” She chuckled again. “‘Little.’ Yes, there is ‘little’ to tell about him.” She grinned at Mara, who smiled vaguely but clearly did not follow. Lucinda cleared her throat. “Uh… Anyway, it’s my experience that a woman knows best what she needs, and how to achieve it. Men think they do, but we know better, yes? Do you want to know what you’ll need to find your own ‘pinnacle?’ So you can, mm, teach it to him?”
Lucinda held up two fingers, and nothing else. Specifically, her index and middle finger. Mara waited for an explanation, and receiving none, shrugged.
“These are your tools,” said Lucinda. “If it pleases you, Your Highness, and you’ll allow me, I can show you how to reach your own ‘apex.'”
“Wait,” said Mara, shifting uncomfortably. “If you’re suggesting that I wish for you to, um, touch me, in some strange way-”
“Not me,” she said. “You. I will only teach. What you do after that, to yourself, is up to you.”
“I-I don’t know,” said Mara, still shifting. “It seems… unseemly. But then, I don’t know much about any of this. Neither does he! We-we’re both so new at this, and are very interested in… in succeeding, but… I’ll ask him. I’ll ask him if he’s heard of this. Then we can… can try different things together.”
All this time the Countess had been holding up her fingers, and after a pause, she let her hand drop to her lap.
“Not that I’m not grateful for your offer,” said Mara. “Because I am. But let me try– things with my husband first.”
Lucinda smiled and patted her friend’s thigh, then let it rest. Mara looked down at the hand, then at Lucinda.
“What?” she said, then scoffed. “I’ve washed them. Silly girl. I mean… Your Highness.”
“If you curtsey to me right now, I’ll kick you,” said Mara. “Is it only me, or does all of the royal etiquette and courtly manners and such baffle you sometimes?”
“I think it’s just you,” said Lucinda. “I happen to enjoy entitlement. By the way, I understand your desire to go first to your husband. You two… You seem to genuinely care for one another. Greatly. That is so rare that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that in any couple. But if– and I stress ‘IF’ — you think I can help, I’m here for you.”
“Thank you,” said Mara, blushing. “That’s very kind.” She gripped the Countess’ arm. “Do you like Astronomy? I got a book last week about it. I’ve been reading about the moon and its different phases. Do you have any interest for it?”
Lucinda forced a smile and spread her arms. “I am at your disposal.”
Mara giggled and jump up from her seat to hurry to her expanding library. She pulled out her new book, then reconsidered and also pulled out a book devoted to the study of the earth. Her books, papers, and everything written she could find were quickly becoming her new “most prized possessions,” well over the sword she had given Kelvin.
There was a knock at the door, and she answered loudly for them to enter. It was Heather, bearing a covered platter. Mara smiled broadly at the sight of her assistant-friend.
“I hope you don’t mind more tea and snacks,” she said, removing the old platter and its scraps before setting down the new one. “Our baker is trying something new with his cakes,” she said, removing the cover. “He’s made a topping of butter and cream and sugar. I think this one has some juice mixed in, as well.” She pointed to a cake with a pink topping. Mara oohed at the sight of them all.
“Oh, that must be delicious,” she said. “Lucinda, please: you pick first.”
“I couldn’t,” said the Countess. “Highnesses first.”
“Heather, what do you recommend?” she said. “You’ve tried them, yes? And you’ll be joining us?”
“I’m afraid that I cannot, Your Highness,” said Heather, using the title because of company. “Two of the girls are ill today, so there is extra work for us all.”
“Oh, no!” said Mara. “The one that’s been going around? The stuffed-up noses? The coughing?”
“I’m afraid so,” said Heather. “Siobhan and Fiona are flat on their backs.”
“Be sure they’re being cared for,” said Mara. “If they’re up to it, I’ll visit them later.”
“Hand me that one,” said Lucinda, pointing to a cake.
“I think they’d like that,” said Heather, picking up the plate in question. “But then, you must be careful not to become ill yourself, yes?”
“I’ll be careful, dear,” said Mara with a wink.
Heather turned towards the Countess to pass her the dessert. Too quickly, though. The cake slid off of the plate and landed – new butter, cream and sugar side down – right into the Countess’ lap. The Countess pushed it off and cried out in disgust and outrage.
“My dress!” she cried. “You’ve ruined it!! You stupid cow!!”
Time all but stopped in the room. Only the constant sounds of work and play coming from outside betrayed any life at all. The Countess had seen her friend annoyed, flustered, perplexed, frustrated, irritated… but never this. Never this burning rage, so deep in her eyes, so set in the lines of her face. Both hands were clenched tightly into fists, held perfectly still, but there was no mistaking their ability to strike immediately. She knew nothing of her friend’s past on the battlefield, but did not need to. For the first time, she was afraid of this girl. This Princess.
Lucinda dared to glance over at her hand, which she had unintentionally held up as if to strike the girl. A reflex, perhaps, for she had struck her own handmaidens before as the need had arisen. But this was not her handmaiden. Slowly, very very slowly, she lowered her hand until it rested in her lap. She dared not make any other movement.
Mara opened her fists now. She put a gentle hand on Heather’s arm and nodded once. Heather nodded back and left as quickly and silently as possible.
“I. do not. like. the word,” said Mara in a much lower register than Lucinda thought she could do. “Stupid.”
“I… I understand that,” Lucinda said softly. “I spoke out of turn. Please forgive me. She is… your servant, not mine.”
“This is not about… servants,” said Mara. “You will not use that tone – or those words – to anyone -” Lucinda flinched. “-In my presence again.”
“No, Your Highness,” she said. “I will not. But…”
Mara picked out the cake she wanted at last, and put the plate on her lap. She took a bite, hummed, and closed her eyes in contentment.
“But what about my dress?” Lucinda finished.
Mara opened her eyes as if for the sole purposing of rolling them. “I will purchase a new one,” she said. Her voice was perfectly calm now.
“Oh, I would hardly expect you to– That is, you are not the one who– I don’t think I need a whole new dress.”
“I thought you said it was ruined,” said Mara, taking another bite. “Whatever you think needs to be done for it, do it. I will pay it.”
“But the girl is the one who-”
“Enough,” said Mara. “Cease your pursuit of her. Now. I don’t even like thinking of Heather as a servant. Even so, she is under my care. Under my protection, in fact. Whatever business you would have with her, you have with me first. Understand?”
“…Yes,” she said, nodding. “Yes, I do. And yet, I can’t help wondering if…” her words became a quiet mumble that Mara could not make out.
“Again, please. Louder.”
“I just…” said Lucinda, straightening up and making her voice stronger. “I was only wondering if you would ever come to my aid with the same ferocity as for your servants.”
Mara finished off her cake and set the empty plate on the platter. She took a cloth and dabbed at her mouth and wiped her hands.
“Heather’s action was clumsy, yes,” she said. “But accidental and without forethought. You responded with anger and malice. And if I understood the purpose of your upraised hand, to inflict pain. I will… overlook that, this one time. That said, if the circumstances had been reversed – if you had unintentionally brought a disproportionate retribution upon yourself – believe me, my ‘ferocity’ on your behalf would be unmatched by anyone.”
Lucinda leaned back in her seat, taking in her words. “Thank you” was all she could think of in response.
Likewise, the only response Mara had for her was to take another piece of cake and – slowly, carefully – offer it to her friend.