The Pauper Prince
Mara’s apprenticeship with the Queen to become Mistress of the Castle had grown to include the task of taking notes during their inspections and meeting minutes with the master tradesmen (and women). Ordinarily this would have remained the task of an attendant or handmaiden, but she had made the mistake of admitting to the Queen that she did not enjoy writing and postponed her practices until just before the lessons. The next time out with the Queen, she was getting more “practice” than she would ever want. Whether or not anyone could read her notes, including the Princess herself, was another matter.
She thought that the kitchen would be the last place the Queen would give up, but was surprised to be handed the reins of that most important part of the castle’s life. More accurately, half the reins. Organizing banquets and other feasts was still very near and dear to the Queen’s heart, but the day-to-day running was left to her royal apprentice. This meant keeping track of the quality and quantity of all food and drink of every kind, not to mention the inedibles such as the cookware, tools and equipment, and handling the concerns of the staff. Her days became very busy, very quickly, and she was not even performing manual labor! But of course, could and would if called upon to.
“It just occurred to me,” said Kelvin in a rare instance of not falling asleep straight after their time in the bedroom. Mara had taken her usual post-coitus position of lying on her side and resting her hand on his chest. Her eyes were closed as usual, but she was not sleeping.
“Mmm,” she hummed. “Has it?”
“I think I might have become Erick,” he said.
She opened her eyes. “And I have no idea what to make of that.”
“You said that he offered to let you run his inn,” he said. “Upon marrying him, that is. I promised to take you away from that. And yet, here you are, running the castle’s kitchen. Which is much more work than running his small inn would be. Or maybe that’s not a good analogy, after all. It just struck me as a little bit amusing. Don’t you think?”
He waited for her answer and glanced her way several times. For the longest time she was silent, brow furrowed, until just before he was about to speak again, she failed to stifle a snicker, then burst out laughing. She turned onto her back and laughed heartily, dragging him into her wake of guffaws, until they were both in tears, out of breath and lightheaded. They took deep breaths to calm themselves, then turned towards each other and smiled at the same time, in the same goofy way. The laughter started all over again.
It was a cold day as Mara made her way to Adrienne the midwife’s a mere six weeks after the wedding. She carried two books with her: the Astronomy book and another for Medicine. She really was supposed to keep them indoors but had bookmarked the pages she needed and thought it wise to have visual aids, in case she lost her words.
Adrienne had a front room with some sitting furniture and end tables. As she entered, she could hear Adrienne and her daughter/apprentice Annabelle in the next room, which was for consultation and examinations. Like most of the tradespeople in the castle, they lived above their own workplace. Mara had been upstairs once, and was impressed with how well the small space was organized and kept clean. Adrienne lived with her husband Frederick, who worked in the stables, Annabelle, and Frederick’s mother. Annabelle would live with them until her own marriage was arranged. Adrienne had one other daughter and a son, both of whom were married and lived outside of the castle, to their parents’ regret.
Mara pondered whether to ring the little bell in the sitting room. She had no appointment and did not feel entitled to interrupt the examination that was in progress, from what she could determine by the sounds. She sat quietly in a chair next to the window and kept the books in her lap, sometimes flipping idly to different pages while waiting. Eventually she heard Adrienne giving final instructions to her patient, but tried not to eavesdrop, and the midwife’s voice grew louder until the door was opened. Adrienne emerged, escorting an impressively pregnant woman about Mara’s age. At the sight of her, the women stopped walking and were silent. Mara blushed.
“Oh,” she said, “I beg your pardon. I didn’t mean to stare.”
Both women replied to her apology by dipping into shallow curtsies. The pregnant woman lost her balance and started to stumble. Mara was on her feet and over to assist so quickly, she forgot about the books, which clattered to the floor. She and Adrienne helped the girl onto a bench, and then Mara groaned at herself and rushed back to the books, inspecting them for any damage. The bookmark had fallen out of one of them, but they were otherwise not much worse for wear.
“Your Highness,” said Adrienne, “Do you need assistance?”
Mara looked up quickly from her inspection, and carefully closed the books and set them aside. “I’m fine,” she said. “And the books will live. I hope. Oh! Now I remember! Um…” she pointed at the woman, who was standing again with Adrienne’s help. “Ophelia, yes? A seamstress?”
Ophelia’s face beamed. She clasped her hands together. “Yes, your Highness; I am Ophelia,” she said. “And one of our seamstresses. How kind of you to remember!”
“How long were you waiting out here?” said Adrienne. “If you rang the bell, please forgive us for not hearing it.”
“I didn’t ring it,” said Mara, waving it off. “Do you mind if I ask-” She pointed to Ophelia’s belly. “-When the child is expected to come?”
“Three months, your Highness,” said Adrienne, patting her patient’s belly proudly and smiling.
“Adrienne, you know I don’t-” said Mara, gesturing nervously, “Just Mara. Please. And for you, Ophelia. We’re all just women here, yes?” Her smile was genuine, but the laugh was nervous and forced. “You know… I was wondering, uh, Ophelia… if, after the child is born, and it’s not an imposition, if… you wouldn’t mind my… stopping by to visit? To see the child? But only if it’s no trouble!”
Ophelia’s response was to stare at her, making Mara wonder if she’d been offended somehow, or was trying to think of a polite way to say “No, thank you.” Instead her face was again brightened by a big smile. She clasped her hands together again, as well. “We’d be honored by your visit, Your Maraness!”
“Oh, that would be– Wait, what did you call me?”
“Your– What did I just say?” said Ophelia, and quite unexpectedly became agitated. She covered her face in her hands. “Oh, my goodness, what did I just say??” Her face was buried and her nose was sniffling.
“Ahhhhh, why is she crying?” said Mara, alarmed, to Adrienne. “Why are you crying??” Annabelle also emerged from the back room, no doubt curious about the noise. She and Adrienne each put an arm around the distraught woman and began leading her outside.
“It’s… what pregnant women do,” Adrienne whispered as they passed by.
“I’m not offended, I swear it!” Mara called after them. “In fact, I think ‘Your Maraness’ is quite amusing! Well said, Ophelia!”
Adrienne returned first after leaving her daughter in charge of discharging her patient. Mara pointed to the outside.
“Does she know there’s no reason for tears?” she said.
“Yes,” said Adrienne. “But that is the way of childbearing, I’m afraid. Every feeling you’ve ever had, you feel again… a hundredfold. Now: how may we be of service to you, ‘Your Maraness?'”
In the back room, Adrienne and Mara sat side by side while Annabelle busied herself with cleaning and preparing for any other patients. Mara had the Astronomy book on her lap, opened to an illustration of the moon’s phases.
“I am sorry that we’ve not had tea in a while,” said Mara. “I’ve been much less idle than I used to be, I’m afraid.”
“I can imagine,” said Adrienne. “And you need never apologize for that. Of course you’re not ‘idle.'”
“I just wanted you to know that I haven’t forgotten,” said Mara, returning her attention to the book. “Meanwhile, to the reason that I’m here: this phase here is called waxing gibbous. I knew it was a waxing moon, but not the ‘gibbous’ part, and there are actually two phases called ‘waxing,’ and two called ‘waning,’ and named the same way.” She smiled and looked at Adrienne, whose expression was one of practiced patience. Mara’s smile faded, and she continued. “Um… I show you these because… uh… you see, it has always been during the waxing gibbous moon – not the waxing crescent, you see – when I would, uh…” She moved her arm nervously in a circular motion “-I would bleed. You know. Always then.”
“Oh,” said Adrienne quietly, nodding, “Now I see what you mean.” She looked to her daughter, who had her back to them and was still cleaning. “Annabelle! Why have you not offered food and drink to Her Highness? To the Princess?”
Annabelle looked over, confused. Then: “Oh, I’m sorry, Mother! Your Highness!” she said, and ran upstairs faster than Mara could protest. Adrienne sighed and shook her head.
“Daughters of these times,” she said. “They’re raised on castle grounds and still forget all manners. Did she even dip to you?”
“I admit that I hadn’t noticed,” said Mara. “Such things don’t concern me much. You know, I really don’t need food or drink; I’m fine. But thank you; I will accept whatever she brings. But back to… It sounds like you know about the moon phases, then?”
“Oh!” said Mara. “Did you know that we only ever see the same side of the moon? The same part of it always faces the earth as it moves. Isn’t that fascinating? Also-”
“Your Highness,” said Adrienne. “Sorry – Mara. May I?” She reached for the book, and Mara let her close the book carefully and set it aside, but not before Mara grabbed the book of Medicine and put that on her lap.
“Forgive me,” said Adrienne, “But I am wondering, what it is you’re trying to say?” Mara took a deep breath, then started flipping through her new book. Adrienne put her hand on the Princess’s to stop her. “Just tell me,” she said gently.
“Well…” said Mara. “I told you that I, I bleed during the waxing gibbous moon.”
“Which happened… about a week ago?” said Adrienne.
“Yes,” said Mara. “About a week ago. You see, I have always– Ever since it began for me, I’ve been– very— on time. In sync with that phase. Always. I mean, really, it’s remarkable, when you think about it. Being so regular. When it’s near that time, I know, so… I’m able to prepare. And of course I did prepare for this last time. But then, um… then, um…” She resumed flipping pages of the book and scanning them. “There’s a part in this book that talks about women’s bleeding, and…”
She sighed in frustration from her lack of finding the right page and closed the book, but kept it in her lap. Adrienne again placed her hand on the Princess’s, and squeezed it gently this time.
“But you know all this, don’t you?” said Mara. “You told me yourself about this. You don’t need this book. But I remember what you told me about our bleeding, and what it means if we do… or don’t…”
“I see,” said Adrienne, nodding. “My Lady, are you trying to tell me that you did not bleed when expected?”
She nodded but said nothing.
“Have you spoken to Sir William about this?” said Adrienne.
Now Mara shook her head and scoffed. “Ahh, the Royal Physician,” she said. “They’ve been making me go to him since– since practically our first day together and– and give him my urine so he can study it, but he sees – or smells or tastes, too, I suppose – nothing new about it. This book mentions such a test, but it doesn’t say how to do it, or I’d do it myself. What about you? Do you know how to study urine? I’d rather you do it than him.”
“Well, let’s see if we can avoid urine samples for the moment,” said Adrienne. “First, may I assume that you and His Highness have been… intimate? You have consummated the marriage, yes?”
Mara pondered her question a moment, and then her cheeks turned a fantastic shade of rose. “Ah,” she said. “Why is everyone so keen about that? Everyone. Even my good friend, she, she wants details and stories and-”
“I beg your pardon, my Lady,” said Adrienne. “My interest is strictly professional. I don’t need details or stories, only a ‘yes’ or ‘no.'”
“Ah, I beg your pardon,” said Mara. “Of course you would need to know. So: Yes. We have consummated.”
“Very well,” said Adrienne. “Then my next-”
“…What was that?”
“We have consummated… often,” said Mara, nodding to herself. “Very often. Daily. Sometimes two or three times a d-”
“I-I understand what you mean, my Lady,” said Adrienne. Mara realized what she’d been doing and blushed at her own words. “My next question would be if you feel any… differently of late? For instance, do you feel any sort of uneasiness? Nausea, even, most commonly in the morning? Changes in appetite or appeal of foods? The… intensity of feeling that I mentioned earlier? And that you saw.”
Mara pondered all of her questions, and shook her head as an answer to all.
“That’s fine, that’s fine,” said Adrienne. “If you do experience any of that, it’s typically a month or two later.”
“Later.. since what?”
Adrienne sighed. “Well, first, I would recommend that you wait another week. I know that you have always, until now, bled regularly, but just in case, we’ll wait another week. If you still have not bled by then, and Sir William concurs-”
“Why him?” said Mara. “I don’t know why I must consult with him about anything like this. He’s not a woman.”
“You are correct,” said Adrienne. “He is not a woman, but he is the Royal Physician, and I am but a midwife to the women of the castle grounds. It’s not my place to make any proclamations.”
“Well… I am a woman of the castle grounds,” she said. “Wait, you’ve not yet said what you think. If I don’t bleed for another week, then…?”
Adrienne shrugged. “Then it would be a good indication that you are with child.”
“Oh, congratulations, your Highness!”
Annabelle had come downstairs so quietly that Mara had not heard, and was startled by the girl’s declaration. She was bearing a tray of tea and assorted biscuits, and carefully set it down on the table next to the women.
“Am I the first to congratulate you?” she said, smiling and setting out cups and saucers for her mother and the Princess.
“Annabelle, she is consulting me only,” said Adrienne. “Do not come to conclusions!”
“I’m sorry, Mother,” she said. Mara accepted tea from her and thanked her with a big, warm smile, then fixed it with her usual condiments before taking a sip. “Even so, I do wish you the best. The whole kingdom does!”
Mara froze midway at taking another sip, then set the cup back down and stared absently at a spot on the floor. She heard the mother and daughter speaking, but was not focused on their words.
“Annabelle, thank you,” said Adrienne, “But please return upstairs. This must be a private talk. And most importantly, nobody has come to any conclusions about the Princess. Understand?”
“Yes, Mother,” said Annabelle a little dejectedly, and made for the stairs, then turned and quickly dipped to Mara before resuming her journey. Mara, still looking elsewhere, did not see.
“The whole kingdom…” she said quietly to herself.
“What was that, my Lady?” said Adrienne, taking a bite from a biscuit.
“Oh, just…” said Mara, returning to alertness, “Everyone being so interested in my life. Especially about-” She indicated her belly “-This. Because there’s nothing else I’m able to do.”
“Oh, I’m sure it isn’t that,” said Adrienne, again putting a comforting hand on hers. “But yes, we’re all terribly interested in everything that the royal family does, especially when it comes to making more of them. On the other hand, if everyone suddenly lost interest in children, I wouldn’t have much to do, would I?”
Mara was lost in her own thoughts a moment, until Adrienne’s last words finally seeped in. She turned to the midwife, then laughed and squeezed her hand.
“Adrienne,” she said, now somber, “You know what I fear most, yes?” Adrienne did not seem to. “You know what happened to my mother.”
“And though…” she said, straightened up, as if steeling her courage, “And though it may be that I am not cursed to suffer the same fate, w-we have talked about it. You have… encountered it before.”
“I have,” said Adrienne. “Six times in my work thus far.”
“Six,” said Mara. “Out of many, you say. So it’s not… that common.”
“No, my Lady.”
“And yet,” she said, pausing to finish her cup of tea and set it back on the platter. “Many things do run in families, curses or none.”
“Did the mother need to be cut?” she said. “Each time?”
Adrienne fidgeted, looked away, looked back, fidgeted some more. “The child has always lived.”
Silence. Mara was deep in thought again, then nodded. The midwife did not need to say more.
“Well,” said Mara. “I suppose there’s nothing else to be done, but wait. And pray.”
“My Lady,” said Adrienne, touching her arm. “My friend. I have midwifed for the better part of two decades and have felt every bit the pain, the terror, but also the joy that bearing and birthing a child brings. It requires a strength that a woman never knew she had or will ever have again, and yet it is there, time after time. And every loss – every loss – cuts me deeply. But I tell you this: if… if you decide to honor me, that I would care for you and your children, know that I never give less than my best. The best of my knowledge, the best of my experience. Just… my best.”
Mara stared at her with a puzzled expression. “If I decide to?” she said. “There’s no decision to make. That was done the first time we met.”
“Then I am honored,” she said. “You’ve never said, so… I did not want to assume anything.”
“Then that was my error,” said Mara. “Consider it corrected… my friend.”