The Pauper Prince – Part 24

The Pauper Prince
Chapter 24

“He promised I would go with him,” she told Heather.

***

“Wherever he goes, so would I! He said that!” she told Adrienne.

***

“Even if it was to war, I said I would fight by his side!” she told a very puzzled Lucinda.

***

The Queen’s latest tea gathering included Princess Anne, Lucinda as always, and Cecily, the Duchess of Warbon, who Mara had learned was Kelvin’s fourth cousin. To her relief, the Duchess appeared to have forgiven Mara for so brazenly stealing her cousin from her for a husband, but that may be because she had finally become betrothed herself. These ladies and several others were gathered and talking and laughing about many things, but mostly Mara’s growing belly, Cecily’s betrothal, and the solemnity of the war. All present were affected in some way by the event, whether by their own husbands taking part, or friends, or acquaintances. Duchess Ruth was present because her husband had sent her away from Gimsley as a form of protection. Whether or not she preferred to be by her husband’s side, she did not say.

Mara was the only one who kept silent during this gathering, other than to respond as briefly as possible to questions and comments. Most offerings of comfort were directed to the Queen, when Princess Anne remembered her peer.

“Oh, Mara,” she said. “We’ve been thoughtless. Scarcely out of your wedding dress and your husband is called away to war! And he has never fought until now.”

“He has trained for this his whole life,” reminded the Queen.

“Of course, your Majesty,” she said. “That was not a reflection on his abilities. Gildern will surely rout the enemy!”

“I’m supposed to be with him,” said Mara flatly.

Anne tilted her head, glanced at the Queen, then back to Mara and patted her hand. “That’s so sweet of you, dear,” she said. “You must miss him terribly.”

Mara turned slowly to look at her. Her expression was a blank. “I should be with him,” she said. “Fighting with him. He promised me that. I promised him that.”

Again, Anne looked to the Queen in puzzlement. The Queen straightened up and cleared her throat.

“Ah, Ladies,” she said. “I do beg your pardon, and your indulgence. Let us… temporarily… disband our gathering, and the Princess and I will rejoin you posthaste. Please, take anything you wish with you, go out, visit the garden or just gather and talk. We’ll be along presently.”

Some ladies took their tea and snacks with them, while others left empty-handed, but soon enough, Mara and the Queen were alone. The whole while Mara had watched them with a mix of confusion and concern. Her gaze lingered on the door after the last of them had left.

“So,” said the Queen, clasping her hands together. “Let us have it out.”

“Mother Queen,” she said, “I-I don’t understand what’s happening.”

“We have not really spoken since he and our army left,” said the Queen. “I am giving you the opportunity to do so. To unburden yourself.”

“…That’s very kind of you, Mother Queen.”

“Be that as it may, speak your mind. Go. Have at it.”

After a silence, Mara shrugged. “I don’t know what else to say, other than what I have been already.”

“And what would that be?”

She shrugged again. “That I should be with him.”

“We all wish that, child,” said the Queen. “I myself want nothing more than to take him in my arms, and keep him here, safe. But of course I cannot. He is a man – a Prince – and must… do his duty.”

“But he promised I would always be with him,” she said. “We exchanged promises the day I gave him my sword. I would fight by his side.  And then… then when I reminded him of this, he said… he said he didn’t mean that at all. That it was a metaphor. A word I’ve quickly come to loathe.”

“Ah,” said the Queen. “He meant that you would always be ‘with him’ in his heart. Silas told me the same thing, whenever he had to lead his own men in battle. That is what a metaphor is-“

“I know what it is,” she snapped. “He’s told me all of this.”

“Watch your tone, child,” warned the Queen.

“Forgive me,” said Mara. “I just… I…”

“I understand, child,” she said, offering a comforting hand. “It’s as Princess Anne said: newly married, and your husband is called away so abruptly. But that is the way of duty.”

“Duty,” Mara grumbled. “I’m coming to loathe that word, too. Mother Queen, my promise to him was prose, not poetry. He’s never fought before, but I have. He needs me there. He needs me to-!”

“Wait, wait, wait, wait,” said the Queen, holding up her hands. “What is it you’re saying, now? That– That you expected to actually accompany him to Gimsley? To fight there?”

“Well– Yes!”

The Queen stared at her, long and hard. Mara wondered if she was expected to say more, when: “Have you lost your senses??”

“Mother Queen, I am tired of being treated like some fragile thing of glass! I am not glass! I was raised to be strong! Not only that, but to fight! And– and he tells me his promise was a ‘metaphor.’ A lie is what it really is! I cannot help but wonder what other ‘metaphors’ I’ve been told. When he says he loves me, is that one? Or when he’s proud of me? Or are those all lies, too, like his promise??”

Enough!”

Mara was startled into silence, then recovered after a few moments. “Mother Queen-“

I said Enough!”

Mara was silent again, and stayed that way.

“It is ‘your Majesty’ until I say otherwise,” growled the Queen. Mara felt a chill in her spine. “I cannot believe what I hear now. I do not believe it! All this time, all these days, I thought you were grieving his absence, as were the rest of us, but this– this is the true cause?”

“Your Maj-“

“Silence!” said the Queen. She was. “I have listened to your words, and now you will listen to mine! It is madness enough for you to grieve over your own foolish, wounded pride, but I will not sit here and tolerate your calling my son and your husband a liar! He was sparing your feelings, you insolent, uncaring child! In all this time, I have not heard one word – not one word of concern from you over him! Over his safety! His welfare! Nor the welfare of any others out there, fighting for these lands! Who now is the liar? Do you truly care a whit for him, or is that your own ‘metaphor?'”

Mara gasped. “How dare you-??”

For the final time, Silence!” bellowed the Queen, smashing a hand on the table. Mara flinched, this time in true fear. “Yes, I dare! You impudent, selfish, foolish girl! One more word – any word – from you without my leave, and I’ll have you clapped in irons! You’ll spend a night in a prison tower with naught but a hard cot, a chair and a pisspot! And the only reason you would have more than bread and water for a meal is because of the child, which you apparently don’t give a damn about! Yes, I dare! You have shown only concern for your wounded pride and none for him, nor for the child you bear now! I have lost two children of my own, right in their coming of age! Is this something you have forgotten??”

Fighting back tears, Mara dared not speak, but dared to shake her head.

“If I could work my will,” said the Queen, “Kelvin would be here, safe, forever. But then he would be abandoning his duty to King, Country, and to our allies! And as much as it pains me to see my only son – my only child! – leaving for God knows what horrors, there can be no other way. He cannot hide from his duty and still be King. For that, we must be proud of him, no matter our own selfish desires. And what of your duty? Your first duty to the kingdom? Do you remember that?”

Mara looked over, uncertain if this was a test to trick her into speaking.

“I give you leave,” said the Queen. “Answer me!”

“My… first…?”

“Your first duty to the kingdom!” said the Queen. “You swore to it! Among other things!”

“Heirs!” blurted Mara, quivering. “Heirs to the throne. Your Majesty.”

“And how are you fulfilling it?”

Mara, puzzled, indicated her belly. The Queen scoffed. “There is more to it than a baby in your belly,” she said. “What was your first thought towards it, with all that’s happening now? What were you thinking?”

“I don’t-“

“Do not answer!” said the Queen, pointing. “You no longer have leave. I will tell you. Your first thought was not to protect the child, to keep it safe and healthy. It was to strap on some armor, grab a sword and shield and rush yourself – and it – into a field of battle! Do not deny it!!”

Please…

“What was that?” said the Queen, leaning closer. “Was that a word? A word without leave? Do you prefer a cot over your warm bed? Is that it?” Mara clamped her mouth shut and shook her head. “I thought not. Should I regret having blessed the marriage? Should I??”

Mara shook her head again. The Queen always sounded like herself, but Mara could not help but hear her father’s voice, ranting and screaming in a drunken rage, though the Queen’s anger was not fueled by alcohol. Mara unconsciously shrank in on herself and braced for a strike, which was how her father had usually punctuated his tirades. The Queen had not raised a hand against her, but it did not matter. She was in the same mental state now as she’d been for most of her childhood: terrified, but taking it. Tears flowed freely, but she made no effort to stop them or wipe them away.

“You offered a promise of your own free will to support him,” said the Queen. “To stand by him, no matter the consequences. Your own words, and this is how you ‘support’ and ‘stand by him?’ By heaping abuse on his name? By calling him a liar? Ridiculous, stupid girl! I am ashamed of you! Ashamed!”

Mara could not stop the whimper that came from her. She clamped her hands over her mouth and prayed that the Queen did not mistake it for a word. The Queen did pause and stare as if daring her to make any other noise. Mara closed her eyes and shuddered.

“I suppose I’ve said enough,” said the Queen, with a veneer of calm. “You have leave to speak now. Freely, in fact. Words in your defense. A challenge. An explanation. Whatever you wish to say, you may say it.”

She waited, but Mara had neither the strength nor courage to speak. The Queen poured herself more tea and fixed it with her condiment – just a bit of lemon – and sipped at it while Mara made a supreme effort to compose herself. The Queen took the teapot and silently offered some, but Mara shook her head quickly. She uncompressed her body and unconsciously let her hands rest on her belly. It did not steady her hands, though.

She said something so quietly that the Queen needed to lean forward. She peered at the Princess.

“Did you say something?”

Mara gathered what little strength and courage she had to straighten up and take in a breath. “I miss him,” she whispered. The Queen opened her mouth as if to speak, then only nodded.

I have… lost my mother,” she said. “In childbirth. And my father, in combat. But this is the first time I–” The tears caught up with her again, and she broke down, but just as quickly fought them back in order to continue. “The first time I’ve… that someone I truly care for… love… has left me. I love him, your Majesty. You may not believe me, but I love him… so much… with every– everything within me, and– and I know what he’s going through now. I have been there. It’s terrifying. I’m terrified. I’m terrified… for him. It’s why I lost my senses and reason and thought of nothing but being with him, no matter the consequences.” She touched her belly. “I spent so much of my life alone, yet now, I cannot bear to be without him! And if something ever happened to him–!”

No,” said the Queen. “I cannot bring myself to say or think… such things. I cannot. He will come back to us. And not if he does. Will.”

“I understand, your Majesty,” said Mara. “I can’t let myself think the worst, either. I must not. But…” She covered her face in her hands. “You’re right. I have brought shame to the family. I have ignored my duty. I am unworthy of him. Of you. Of the King. Of… of everything I have here!”

“Child…” said the Queen, setting down her tea and tugging at one of Mara’s arms.

“I spoke in anger to him,” she said. “My last words to him were in anger, and he… his words to me came from love. What have I done, your Majesty? What have I done??”

The Queen stood up, then moved to the sofa to sit beside Mara, who withdrew and leaned away, shaking her head.

“No,” she said. “I don’t deserve your touch. Please don’t!”

“Silence,” said the Queen, but gently this time. She did not embrace Mara, but put a comforting hand on her back and rubbed it. “Love makes us foolish, child. And makes us strong. You see now the true price of duty and responsibility.” Mara nodded. “But we must always pay it. Just remember that we pay it together.”

“I… I’m not sure I’m following you, your Majesty.”

The Queen laughed once. “Yes, I should speak plainly,” she said. “I mean that you are not alone. He is our son, and your husband, and we all love him. We all miss him. We all wish we could be with him. That is what I meant about ‘paying it together.’ And I hope and pray that he knows how much we love him, and uses it to find the strength and courage to do what he must.”

“Yes,” said Mara. “I pray it, too.” She stopped and became somber again, her voice once again a whisper. “And yet I last spoke to him in anger.

“And when he returns,” said the Queen. “When he returns… you will make it up to him.”

I will,” she said. “A thousandfold. Or however much it takes. I pray that he forgives me.”

“He will,” said the Queen, and they were both silent. The Queen stopped rubbing her back, and began pulling her into an embrace. Mara begrudgingly accepted it now, and eventually reciprocated. They held each other silently for a minute. The Queen patted her back twice, and they parted.

“Daughter,” said the Queen. Mara felt a flush of warmth. “You may call me Mother Queen, if you wish.”

“…Thank you.”

The Queen finished off her tea while Mara put her hand on her belly.

“My first duty,” she said, mostly to herself. She and the Queen traded looks. The Queen offered a small smile, which Mara returned, but uncertainly.

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

It was two days later that Heather informed her Lady excitedly that, now that she had come of age – began bleeding, that is – she could be married. Her parents had been busily searching for a suitable husband even before that time, and it was with undignified giddiness that she could finally announce their decision: Leonard, the young guard and her long-time friend and now, her intended. It had taken some effort on both their parts to convince their respective parents to allow the union. To start, her parents’ preference had been a man of equal or greater rank, which was a challenge, for a personal attendant to royalty was a very high rank indeed for a servant. Conversely, his own parents needed convincing for their son to marry someone of greater rank than he. They had been looking at cooks, seamstresses and others who would not overshadow a guard.

To Mara’s surprise Heather had used her marriage to Kelvin as an example of the odd concept of “love” being a suitable reason for such a union. If a Prince could marry a Countess for love, than why not the same amongst the servants? The Princess was touched and pleased to have given an unknowing stamp of approval to it.

Mara reacted to the happy news with the traditional shouts of glee, tight embraces, and cheek kisses. Her assistant babbled happily about their plans – her parents’ plans, that is, for they were the ones paying for it. Mara felt the shock and guilt from the Queen’s blistering attack melt away as she just relaxed and let herself be swept up in the girl’s joy. She could not help but smile and laugh with her and finally forget her own concerns, even if just for this moment.

The only regret that Heather let slip was how much of a challenge it was to find time alone with her betrothed. This puzzled Mara, until she was reminded that those of the gentry could afford privacy. Even the highest of the servants shared quarters and common areas. Heather herself shared a room with three other handmaidens, and Leonard’s “room” was the guards’ barracks. Whatever time they had together was while alone in a crowd.

Mara offered her sympathies, and then an idea came that excited her greatly. She offered her parlor to them for a private meal. To obscure the reason for their fancy meal, she would order it for herself and then serve it to them personally. They could even ring a bell to call her for anything they needed, and the Princess was getting so excited about the idea that her assistant could scarcely get in a word of uncertainty, let alone protest. Finally there was a pause in her narration that Heather took advantage of.

“Mara, it would be too much,” said Heather. “We shouldn’t be alone in royal chambers. It wouldn’t be proper.”

“Anyone may be my guest,” said Mara. “There’s no rule that I have to be there with them. Please; let me offer that gift to you. The first of many, I hope.”

Many gifts?”

“Well…” she said. “I won’t be the only one helping you in your new life. But… I want to be one of them, if you’ll let me.”

Heather pondered her offer in silence for a time, and then ultimately… did let her.

The private meal happened just as Mara had described it to Heather. She ordered it for herself “and a guest,” but why the Princess insisted on taking each course to her room personally was beyond the staff’s comprehension. At one point she was balancing three plates on her left arm and a platter of drinks on her right hand, which impressed an awkwardly gushing Leonard. If only he’d known how often she’d done just that sort of thing at the Eleanor Elaine, but to her great vexation, that part of her life was a closed book to the public.

The young couple were dressed in their finest, but given their differing stations, her finest outstripped his, but only he noticed. The Princess herself insisted that they both looked stunning together. Whenever she brought the next course, she quickly took the old dishes to her bedroom and stacked them up there before returning them to the kitchen – again, baffling the staff. Mara eventually told them that she had lost a wager with her guest and was supposed to do all the servant work that night, as the punishment. She loathed the lie, but better that than letting rumors get started. In between courses she returned to her bedroom and read while waiting for the bell. It took some convincing on her part for them to use it, but how else would she know she was needed?

She almost regretted that it was now time for dessert, and walked a slower pace with the small tray, for she was having as much fun in her own way as the young couple. They were always smiling and laughing and chatting excitedly whenever she entered the parlor. She listened at the door, but heard nothing this time. It likely meant nothing, too, so she opened the door and stepped in.

The couple was so engrossed in their mad kissing session that they did not hear or see her enter. Mara’s eyes went wide, and she almost spoke, but first had the presence of mind to shut the door behind her quickly and quietly. And they still did not hear.

She carried the tray to them, and still they carried on. She could not possibly have been treading that softly. After a few moments of looking one to the other, she bent over the table with the tray and held it several inches above, then let go. At least they heard the clatter. Heather shrieked, Leonard yelped, and they parted and sat up straight in an instant, as though that would erase what they’d been doing.

“My Lady…” said Heather, hyperventilating.

“I beg your pardon, your Majesty!” said Leonard, standing up and trying to rush past her. Mara caught his arm and held him in place. She gestured towards the settee with her head. He hesitated, then bent his head low and made his way back.

Leonard, it is… it’s ‘your Highness,'” Heather whispered after he sat back down.

What?”

You called her ‘your Majesty,'” she explained. “The proper address is-

“Dear, that’s not important right now,” said Mara. “Both of you: please stand up.”

“Please, your Highness,” said Leonard, once again standing. “Don’t tell our parents. Or have us executed!”

“Oh, Leo,” said Heather. “She wouldn’t have us executed.” Then she suddenly became alarmed and concerned. “Right, my Lady?”

Her Lady rolled her eyes. “Please turn around,” she said. “Slowly.” The couple did so. When they had made a complete turn, Mara folded her arms, hmm’ed to herself, then nodded. “You seem to be fully clothed,” she said. “The whole truth, Heather: was your virtue compromised at any time?”

“No, my Lady!” said Heather. “A most emphatic no! He-he has been a perfect gentleman. My virtue is… unblemished.” Leonard stared at the Princess and nodded his head vigorously.

She pondered her reply in silence, long enough to make them both uncomfortable. Leonard made a noise to speak, but Heather silenced him with a wave of her hand and a shake of the head.

“Your parents should be told,” said Mara finally. “But whether it is by me or by you, is what I’m trying to decide. I say this because…” She cleared her throat. “Uh, because Prince Kelvin and I also… embraced… as you were doing, before we married. And we did confess this to the King and Queen.”

“And they still let you marry?” said Leonard. This earned him a mild version of the Look, but even a mild version was powerful. He blushed and looked down. “O-of course they did, your Highness,” he said. “I meant no disrespect.”

“I’ll tell you what I will do right now,” said the Princess. She pushed the tray of desserts to the center of the table and fixed their arrangement. “As you can see, I’ve brought your final course, and like before, I will retire to the room next door and occupy myself, and wait for your bell. And please do try at least one cake; they’re my favorite kinds. We can work out later the who and the how of telling your parents.”

The couple watched her in stunned silence as she entered her bedroom and quietly shut the door behind her, just like she had all night. On the other side of the door, Mara paused, then dropped her regal facade and smiled and chuckled to herself. Marrying for love, indeed.

The next morning Heather silently went about her duties for her Lady. Mara was also silent, preferring to let her offer anything she might wish to offer, and suppressed any smiles, which was especially difficult given the absolute glow that the girl was giving off. After Heather was done with her morning routine, and was about to take her leave, she paused at the door.

“Mara?” she said.

Her Lady nodded slightly and waited patiently for her to continue. Heather seemed to be having trouble getting out her words. Finally she gave up and rushed at her, almost knocking her over, and held her in a tight hug. Once the Princess regained her composure, she wrapped her arms around her assistant/friend and rested her chin gently on top of the girl’s head. She would let Heather decide how long it lasted. About half a minute, it turned out. When they parted, Heather’s face still glowed, and her smile had never been brighter.

“The food was that good, hm?” said Mara, tucking her chin playfully.

“I have no words,” she said. “My Lady. Except ‘thank you.'”

“The pleasure was all mine,” said Mara, stroking her curly, red tresses. “I wish you both every happiness. And what good is a ‘master’ who doesn’t ever help the ‘servant?’ So to speak.” She pulled the younger woman into another, quick hug, then kissed the top of her head before letting go.

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

Mara realized that she needed to confess about her “gift” to the King and Queen, in the spirit of keeping no secrets. Well, one secret was kept. They took the news with a certain amount of detachment, as if used to the strange way that she treated the help.

They also noticed that the Princess’ spirits and attitude had greatly improved of late; for one, gone was her constant gloom since the war had begun. In the King’s case, the cause was unknown, for the Queen had not told him of her tirade against the Princess. While harsh, the Queen’s talk had apparently been very effective. But the harshness came from her own anger, which she no longer felt. Affecting other improvements would require other methods, but fortunately she had several. It dawned on the Queen that she could take advantage of the Prince’s absence and see what other flaws in the Princess’ behavior and character could be corrected before he returned. For instance, this business of telling every servant she saw to forgo her proper title and address, to say nothing of personally serving them meals, and other oddities. These corrections would be a fine welcome-home gift for her son.

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