The Pauper Prince – Part 23

The Pauper Prince
Chapter 23

Bells rang, people shouted “Huzzah!,” well-wishers came or sent emissaries to do so, gifts were sent, feasts were held, and there was joy in Gildern. The Princess Mara was with child. For three weeks there were festivities almost daily of one kind or another, both in and out of the castle. In fairness, it did not take much reason for rich and poor alike to drop what they were doing and celebrate with music, singing, dancing, games, food and drink. Mostly drink. When one party spontaneously broke out in Allcourt upon the news, a day or two later most of the participants would be hard-pressed to remember the original reason for it. The people’s hearts were in the right place, though.

It was at this time that Mara realized that she had scarcely left the castle grounds since first arriving there, other than for tightly-controlled riding lessons. The farthest she had been was to see the five acres of land bestowed upon her by King Silas. Most of it was forest with, true to its name, a winding or “bending” river. Other than that she had not been back to Allcourt. Kelvin had, for official business as the Prince, and while he had not paid a surprise visit to Erick at the Eleanor Elaine, it surprised him that he encountered no one who had remembered him as Kenneth the Minstrel. Clothing, and a different demeanor, apparently really did make the man.

She talked him into riding into town for an impromptu visit and a bit of nostalgia. She could not talk him into arriving in town incognito, nor on foot. He reminded her that it had taken a painfully long time to convince his parents to allow his mad, but ultimately successful, undercover mission to find a wife. Further diminishing the  fun was that the King and Queen refused to allow fewer than six guards accompanying them at all times. Her pleas that she could defend herself if needed fell on deaf ears. In a most base betrayal, Kelvin agreed with them. Her own husband sided with them in insisting that she be surrounded by protectors while riding through the very streets where she had once roamed freely without molestation. “Because you were just another commoner,” he tried to explain. “You’re a royal Princess now, not a pauper. And don’t be surprised if people don’t recognize the old you.”

The entourage of six mounted guards was led by Seamus, with two more seated behind the couple on their royal… cart. That was about the only compromise the royal family made with her; their vehicle was allowed to be open-air. The driver also doubled as an armed protector. Once they reached town, Mara made the best of it and smiled and waved at the surprised passersby they encountered. It was an impromptu visit, so there were no banners or decorations or people lining the streets to throw flowers or gifts to them, and she preferred it that way. People noticed and recognized them as they rode by – as the Royal Couple. Kelvin was correct; Mara waved and called out to people that she recognized, some of whom she had interacted with almost every day, and they waved back, but clearly not knowing why a Princess was giving them extra attention.

The farther into town they rode, the larger the crowd became. The mounted guards tightened their circle around the cart, but not so much that passersby could not see in between. Most men removed their hats and bowed; the women attempted dips of varying success. People who waved got a big wave and smile back from the Princess, and a polite nod from the Prince. Those who called out congratulations or huzzahs received clear and strong thanks.

They had no real plan or destination. If passing a familiar location, she would point it out and give Kelvin a “Remember that?” Most of the time he did not, but smiled and nodded to please her. It helped that the town was pretty much just as she had remembered, but then, it had only been about a year. He did, on occasion, need to remind her to keep her hands, arms, feet and legs inside the vehicle at all times, such as when she started leaning too closely to enthusiastic greeters.

The cart and its entourage turned around near the end of the main road, and it was then that they saw how large the crowd had become. People had formed a parade of sorts behind them. It was going to be a bit of a challenge to get out of town at the same pace. She caught the beleaguered Seamus’ attention and apologized. He responded with a mildly cynical smile. It was a minor miracle and testament to the leadership and skill of the Captain of the Guard, and his men, that they were able to make the return trip without being swamped by revelers. Even so, at one point, when the crowd was particularly loud and enthusiastic, she traded looks with her husband and silently acknowledged his “I told you so” expression. No longer “just another commoner,” indeed. She unconsciously took his hand and held it tight the rest of the way through town.

By the time they made it back to the Eleanor Elaine, the hubbub was enough to rouse Erick’s curiosity. Mara saw him emerge from the inn, holding one of his typically old rags for wiping down tables. His eyes were not great for distance, so he peered for several seconds as the entourage drew closer. Mara had been waving all the while with no reaction, and she was starting to wonder if even he, like all the others, would not recognize her. Then Kelvin leaned forward, looked his way, gave something like a wave-salute, and smiled. The lamp of recognition inside Erick’s head finally lit up, and he dropped his rag, and his jaw, and watched this very familiar Royal Couple ride by. The Princess who had once emptied pisspots for him now gave him a good-natured shrug, blew him a kiss, and turned around to keep watching him as they finished riding out of town and back on the road to the castle.

“I wish we could have stopped,” she said, taking Kelvin’s arm and leaning close to him. “It would have been nice to talk to Erick again. See how he’s doing these days.”

“Probably still underpaying his workers,” said Kelvin. “And your walking about would have presented Seamus and his men too much of a challenge, I’m afraid,” said Kelvin.

“I know,” she said and was pensive. “My walking about, you say. When you’ve been back there several times already.”

“They won’t let me come unguarded, either,” he said. “My days as Kenneth the Minstrel are over.”

“In that case,” she said, “I’m very glad I was able to meet him.” She took his hand and kissed it reverently. “Thank you for indulging me, Darling.”

“Always,” he said, and put his arm around her.

“Hmph,” she said. “Perhaps we should try to return incognito next time. Sneak out late at night or something.” He looked at her in alarm, until she flashed him an impish grin. He smiled back mildly, then exchanged many long kisses with her. The first time they had taken this road together, she was worried that far-off peasants would see them holding hands. Now their accompanying guards could watch them make out for the next several miles, and she did not care.

*******************************

Under normal circumstances Mara would have found the humor in the royal family’s presentation of her as the beatific bearer of the throne’s next heir (assuming the child was male), versus the reality of her spending many of her mornings on her hands and knees, spewing into a bucket. But she felt just too horrible to even muster a chuckle. It was only because her midwife, and Sir William, for that matter, had warned about this experience that she did not entirely believe that she was dying… even if it often felt that way. As much as Kelvin wanted to make her discomfort go away, the best he could offer were comforting touches and words.  They helped her more than she could convey to him.

She complied with the family’s wish for her to visit Sir William for monitoring of the child’s growth and medicine meant to “balance her humors.” Once she was done with those visits, she went to Adrienne and followed her advice instead. The midwife was careful not to speak ill of the Royal Physician’s advice, but Mara felt free to be dismissive. Ultimately nothing that either practitioner gave her stopped the nausea or all-around lousiness, but crackers and sucking on ice did help more than the doctor’s foul-smelling, and tasting, herbs and potions. The latter ended up taking trips down a toilet hole after making her feel worse. All fine as long as the family didn’t catch her at it.

It was when her taste and smell had altered enough to make her vomit immediately after entering the kitchen, that her duty of running the same was removed. Some would argue forcibly, given the strength of her protestations against the decision, but the Queen, and in yet another base betrayal, the Prince, would not budge. While inwardly conceding that they were correct, for she was no good to the staff if she could not stand being around raw food, she had been getting into a “groove” for the work, and as always, liked being busy.

Suddenly her only “duty” was to lie or sit around and do nothing but feel nauseated, with little except sedentary activities to pass the time. Riding her horse was forbidden now, lest the child be shaken from the womb, to say nothing of her combat lessons with Seamus. For the latter, she had finally swallowed enough of her pride to ask for and receive them. Then the lessons became no-nos as soon as her pregnancy was confirmed. At least she could still practice archery, as long as she kept her movements to a minimum.

She was also permitted to sit with the family while they held court. As always nobility of all ranks drifted in and out, unloading their problems, offering advice but usually being offered it, attempting to influence decisions, attempting to gain favor, or attempting to just look cool in the royals’ presence. Count Richard often asked about roads and bridges. The Duke of Gimsley was concerned about the kingdom of Breech pressing against his northern borders. Mara cringed inwardly at the mention of her homeland and hoped no one would remember where she was from. The most distant visitor of late was a Prince from Dunhoart, who… just seemed to be there. She guessed that his purpose was to suss out Gildern as a potential ally. Hopefully an ally, that is.

A highlight of these times in court was the bestowing of knighthood on worthy subjects. She had learned that gaining a knighthood took years of work, loyalty and devotion to King and Country, so it was a joyful occasion to see the pride in their faces, and in the faces of their gathered loved ones, as the King dubbed them “Sir.” Aside from Sir William the physician, there were other knights in and around the castle grounds, including Seamus, who for reasons of his own never insisted on being addressed by a title. At least she knew she wasn’t the only one with that inclination, even if her in-laws only just tolerated that “quirk.”

Commoners also came to present grievances. They were typically elected representatives, such as mayors or guild masters. Some came to represent themselves. Mara noticed that the family listened to all visitors, regardless of their station, and seemed to lay down fair judgments. All this time in court required quite a lot of sitting, but at least she was learning something.

*************************

The day came when Gimsley called for aid. Now Breech was not just pressing borders, but actively trying to erase them. And Gildern answered: ride to its ally’s aid. Just like that, its army was being assembled. King Silas had led men to war three times in his lifetime; now it was, to his and the Queen’s great regret, Prince Kelvin’s time to take his place. He had never been called upon to fight before, but had trained with Seamus and others for most of his life, and been tutored in the ways of leading in battle for just as long.

Mara was as alarmed and dismayed as any of them, but perked up when she realized that she could finally make good on a promise she had made to him. That they had made to each other. And at last, she had gone a full week without being debilitated by nausea, so that horror was surely behind her.

****

Heather did not understand what she was helping her Lady pack for, but did so nonetheless. She was tasked with selecting clothing for her lady, but everything she picked was dismissed outright. Finally the Princess heaved them all aside and made a final search in the wardrobe before slamming the doors shut.

“Nnngh, I have nothing to wear!” she said, and paced in frustration.

“I beg your pardon, Mara, but I wish I knew what you need? Is it something in which to see off your husband and our soldiers? Something elegant, but solemn?”

“Hm?” said Mara, her brooding interrupted. “No, no, I need protective clothing, suitable for travel and combat. Armor, in fact. I can’t find my old leather and leggings. I didn’t throw them away myself, I know that! Who would do that?? And Kelvin has my sword, which is his now, so I won’t take it back, but I’ll need a weapon. Something from the armory.”

“I–!” said Heather, then froze. When she was flustered, her conditioning kicked in. “My Lady, I am here to serve, but I know not how!” She held out her hands in supplication. Mara stared at her, then shook her head and smiled gently. Her assistant was always so well-meaning and sincere, she couldn’t be angry with her.

“It’s all right, dear,” she said. “You’ve done nothing wrong. I just need to talk to my husband. Please, just– do nothing else for packing until I return. Relax.”

“Yes, My Lady.”

****

The Prince had his own attendants helping with packing. His parents were also there to offer final words of advice and encouragement. Mara burst in on this, already talking, then froze. The Queen took her by the hand and led her to join the others.

“Now we are all here for you, my son,” said the Queen. “We are…” She took a deep breath. “We know that you are doing your duty, and we are all proud of you.”

“Thank you, Mother,” said Kelvin, pausing in his packing to give her and his wife kisses on the cheek. Mara opened her mouth to speak, but-

“I prayed this day would never come,” said the King, and tried to say more, but tightened his mouth and was silent.

The Queen put a hand on his shoulder. “Come,” she said. “We should leave him to his preparations. We will see him off with the others soon.”

The King nodded, and they made to leave. The Queen paused after noticing Mara lingering, and gestured for her to follow.

“I-I was hoping to…” said Mara. “I still have questions, so…”

The Queen and the Prince exchanged nods, and Mara was left with him alone but for the attendants. Kelvin caressed her face before exchanging a long kiss. When he moved away, she took his hand to stop him and held it while speaking.

“I haven’t been able to pack,” she said. “I have nothing but frilly things these days. I need your help to find proper protection. And weapons!”

Kelvin opened his mouth to speak, then shut it and just stared for a few moments. Then: “What?”

“Protection,” she said. “Weapons. Armor, if there’s anything that will fit me. You remember my promise to fight by your side?” Kelvin, still staring, managed to point at her belly, but she ignored or did not understand the gesture. “And you promised that wherever you go, I’d go, too.”

“I…” he said, then shook his head vaguely. “What?”

“Why do you keep saying that?”

“When did I say you’d be going with me to war?”

“When I gave you my sword,” she said impatiently. “You said you would– Well, first I said that I’d fight with you if you ever had to go to war. Darling-” She clasped both her hands around his. “-I have fought before; you haven’t. You haven’t seen what a battle is like. I can… help you through those things. And even if, for whatever reason, I’m unable to wield a weapon, I should still be there, with you. And you said that wherever you go, so would I. Why this confusion?”

Kelvin looked away slightly, thinking back on that day. “I said…. I said you would be with me. Not actually at my side.”

“Not–?” she said. “What on earth was it supposed to mean, if not that?”

“In my heart,” he said, touching his chest. “In my thoughts. You will be with me. Do you understand? I– Darling, it was a metaphor!”

“A what?”

“You gave me your sword,” he said, looking about the room for it. An attendant found it and handed it to him. “Your most prized possession. This represents you. It’s with me, and so will you be. Now do you understand?”

It was her turn to stare in confusion, then annoyance. “That is the most ridiculous-!”

Mara!” he cried with such force that she shrank back. “You are with childMy child! The kingdom’s child! There is no battlefield for you!”

“I–! I am not helpless!” she said, regaining her courage. “Why is everyone treating me that way??”

“No one has said that you’re helpless,” he grumbled.

“I’m being treated that way!”

“I don’t have time for this,” he said, throwing up his hands. “You must leave now. I– You cannot come with me. That is no metaphor; you are literally not accompanying me to a war! It is done!”

Metaphor,” she growled. “I curse the day I ever heard the word. A lie is what it is!”

Kelvin beckoned an attendant to him and pointed at Mara. “Please,” he said. “Please see her out.”

“Yes, m’lord,” said the attendant.

“!! I’m being dismissed??”

The attendant held out a hand to her. “Your Highness?”

She recoiled at his gesture, but began backing up to the door. “I will see myself out,” she said. She pointed at Kelvin. “You promised. I was not the one who broke mine. You need me with you!”

“I need you here,” said Kelvin quietly, his eyes moistening, but she was too angry to notice. She opened the door and prepared to storm out, and pondered adding a dramatic slam. “Mara,” he said again, and she paused. “I love you.”

Her anger was barely abated, but it was enough to convince her to close the door normally.

***********************

Wails of sorrow, tears, sad songs and music filled the courtyard as guards and soldiers prepared to depart. Those with wives and children attempted to comfort them. Friends embraced. Not all guards were leaving, only those who had fought or trained as soldiers before, and the castle was not to be unguarded, either way. As a matter of example, Seamus would accompany his Prince to Gimsley and fight. Leonard, the guard Mara had met the same day as Heather, would stay behind and help defend the castle if needed.

She stood with the royal family and their attendants as Kelvin finished up his business with Seamus and other soldiers. They were all going to ride out to meet up with the army and shorten the three-day journey if possible. She noticed that the King and Queen were keeping up their dignified appearances in spite of the dramatic overtures around them. It was a struggle for her to do the same, given her anger with her husband. “Metaphor,” indeed!

Now came the time for him to approach them and make his farewells. He hugged his father tightly and held it, then parted and traded kisses on the cheek. For his mother, the same, followed by one more embrace. For his dear wife, he took her hands and tried to exchange a loving gaze, but she had trouble meeting it. Her hands were shaking. He attempted a smile.

“Will you be strong for me?” he said softly.

She tightened her mouth and held up her chin. “I am strong,” she said.

He pulled her into a hug, rested his chin on her shoulder and closed his eyes. She kept her eyes open and tried to fight back tears. After they parted, he took a moment to lay his hands on her growing belly.

“Darling,” he said, “If I don’t make it back-”

“Son!” said his mother, dabbing at her eyes.

Kelvin shook himself from those thoughts and held out a hand to her. “Mother, forgive me,” he said. “We’ll not speak of that again.” To Mara, “Before I go, perhaps I could take your favor with me?”

Mara looked to the Queen, then back to him. “I… You have my sword. So I can ‘be with you.’ That is my favor.”

“So it is, Darling,” he said, and kissed her hand several times before leaving them. An attendant had brought his horse. He mounted it smoothly and looked back at his family one last time before galloping through the courtyard.

Mara could stand it no longer. The dam holding back her tears burst, and she began to run after him. “I should be with you!” she cried. “You promised! Why can I not be with you? Whyyyyy?

“What in the world-??” said the King, exchanging startled looks with the Queen. He pointed at some guards. “Why are you standing there?? Don’t let her leave the grounds!”

For a pregnant woman, she gave her pursuers a good chase. Their strategy was to block her path over grabbing or pushing, considering her rank and condition. Mara dodged them angrily and tried to order them away, but they were answering to a higher power. She managed to reach the main gates, but stopped herself and leaned against the wall, bitter tears blinding her vision of the Prince as he disappeared quickly into the distance.

Suddenly her strength failed, and she slid down to the ground, sobbing all the way and repeating, “You promised… You promised…” Most of the guards were uncertain what to do, and kept their distance, until after a minute, Leonard was the one who stepped forward to offer his hand. She just stared at it a long time before finally allowing herself to be pulled onto her feet and escorted back to the King and Queen.

The King glared at her for her grossly undignified display. The Queen put a comforting hand on her as they made their way back inside, their solemn silence occasionally interrupted by Mara’s shudders.

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