The Pauper Prince – Part 26

The Pauper Prince
Chapter 26

The two Princesses and their respective attendants were taking a final stroll through the garden. Heather, like the other handmaidens, stayed a few paces behind, and while out of sight of her Lady, she was free to appear as glum as she felt. The Princesses chatted and murmured and giggled to one another like the firm friends they had become. Heather was not paying any attention to their words and trod behind them obediently. Then she was stopped by an outstretched hand near her face. She looked up to see her Lady looking back, smiling to her and wiggling her fingers to beckon her forward. Heather stepped up and stood beside her, and Mara wrapped her arms around her in a brief hug, then rubbed her shoulder while speaking to Anne.

“I’m not sure if you heard the news,” said Mara, “But dear Heather here is recently betrothed to a delightful young man. I’m so happy for them both.”

“Oh,” said Anne, peering her way. “Well, congratulations, then.”

“Thank you, your Highness,” said Heather flatly. Only she seemed to hear tittering behind them from the other handmaidens. Mara kept her arm around her.

“The best part is that they chose each other,” she said. “Their parents agreed, but still, their marriage will be-”

My Lady, please don’t,” Heather whispered. Mara stopped and looked at her with some concern. Then she heard giggling behind them and someone whisper “Princess Heather!” in between more stifled giggling. She looked back at Anne’s three handmaidens, who managed to restrain themselves after some effort. She stared at them as they fidgeted. Heather glanced down long enough to see that her Lady had unconsciously made a fist of one of her hands. Finally, Anne stepped up.

“Is there a problem?” she asked Mara, who finally looked away from them.

“Forgive me,” she said. “I was only curious if their laughter was about what we were discussing, or something else.”

“I see,” said Anne, nodding. “Well, girls? What caused the laughter?”

More fidgeting, then one of them cleared her throat. “Nothing, your Highness.”

” ‘Nothing,’ ” said Anne. “That’s an odd thing to find amusing.”

“We meant– nothing that would be of any interest to you, your Highness,” she said meekly. “Just us being silly girls.”

Anne nodded. “Yes, well, we all need to be silly girls sometimes. Carry on, then.” She slipped her arm into Mara’s. “Come; let me show you the pond before you leave. We have the most amazing fish in there. So big and colorful! You won’t believe them. Come!”

“Oh, of course,” said Mara, glancing back at the handmaidens, then Heather. She mouthed the words ‘Are you all right?‘ to her friend, who tightened her mouth but nodded quickly.

Before they could make it to their last stop, they heard the King and Queen calling to them from behind.  The party stopped, turned, and made appropriate dips as the King and Queen approached arm-in-arm.

“Hello, dear Anne,” said King Phillip, leaning in to kiss her cheek. “How is my favorite daughter-in-law?” This was his private joke for her, given that she was their only daughter-in-law.

“Well as always, sire,” she said, smiling.

“Enjoying the fresh air with your girls, are you?”

“Of course, sire,” she said. “But also-”

“Philip, remember that not all are handmaidens,” said the Queen.

“What’s that?”

Anne took Mara’s arm again. “You remember our guest, of course,” she said. “Princess Mara from Gildern?”

“Ah, yes, Gildern,” he said. “How is old Silas these days? And Lily?”

“Very well, your Majesty,” said Mara. “Thank you for asking.”

“Married Prince Robert, then, have you?” he said. “Where is he, anyway? With Rupert?”

“Ah…”

“He’s going to make a fine King some day,” he said. “A fine King.”

Mara was at a loss for words, and looked to Anne and the Queen.

The Queen spoke, patting his arm. “Phillip, she has married his brother, Kelvin. Robert will not be King. I’ll explain that later.”

“What’s that now?”

“We will speak of Gildern later,” said the Queen. “Mara, we hope that you have enjoyed your stay in Halliard. It’s a shame you’ll be leaving soon.”

“I know,” she said. “It’s been so delightful here. Your hospitality has been boundless.”

“You mustn’t be a stranger to us,” said the Queen. “And please do let us know when the baby comes.”

“Oh, absolutely!” said Mara. “And Anne has given me so much advice, too. It’s… It’s all so terrifying, but in an exciting way. If that makes sense.”

“It does,” said the Queen, nodding and smiling. It was a kind, dignified smile, but it and her eyes betrayed a deep sadness. All of this family did, even Anne, for their King, father and husband was disappearing more and more before their eyes. Mara looked his way, and he noticed this and met her gaze, smiled and nodded pleasantly, and then his eyes seemed to glaze over again. It was possible that Rupert really did have an old injury that kept him from fighting in Gimsley, but it was more likely that he was needed to remain here and, more and more each day, run the kingdom.

****

Once the carriage was underway, Heather let out a quiet sigh and stared idly out the window. Her knitting work was out but untouched. Mara had found her place in her book and started reading, then noticed her friend’s inaction. She put a marker in the book and kept it in her lap.

“You seem sad,” she said. “From leaving new friends, or something else?”

“I’m not sad,” said Heather sadly. “Just tired.”

“Ah. I am, too, a little. And you must miss Leonard terribly.”

“Yes.”

A long silence followed. Mara reached for her book, then paused. “Well, if there’s something on your mind, you know I’m always willing to listen.”

Heather nodded, but said nothing, so Mara picked up her book and pulled out the marker.

“They made fun of me,” she said. Mara paused again, put the marker back and the book down, then clasped her hands together. “Or…” said Heather. “You know, it’s not important. I need to be more thick-skinned, is all. I wasn’t really one of them, and… they were probably just tired of me prattling on about my wedding. Please; don’t let me keep you from your reading.”

Mara did not pick up her book again, but kept her hands clasped together and stared at the empty seat next to Heather.

“They called me ‘Princess Heather,’ ” she said. “It’s ridiculous, really. I was only trying to… I was only using your marriage as an example of marrying for love, and described mine the same way and– Suddenly they acted like I was comparing mine to yours and– They started calling me and Leonard names and– Mara, I wasn’t trying to tell them I’m like a Princess, I was just–” Her voice broke, and she stopped talking. Mara moved to the empty spot beside her and put an arm around her.

“Perhaps I was bragging,” said Heather, her voice wavering. “I don’t think I was, but they must have taken it that way. I wasn’t trying to elevate myself, but once they got started, they just kept going and going. It went beyond a misunderstanding and into full mockery.”

Mara said nothing, but moved her hand to her friend’s back and rubbed it gently.

“Forgive me; I shouldn’t be troubling you with this,” said Heather. “You– you have your own concerns. Your husband away at war. A baby to worry about.”

“Heather,” she said, not looking at her but making her voice clear, “I want you to ‘trouble’ me with your concerns, any time you need to. Those other servants were fools. Jealous fools.”

“You’re too kind, my Lady,” said Heather. “But maybe I was bragging. I don’t know.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Mara. “You’re marrying the man you love. You’re entitled to a bit of crowing. You do love Leonard, yes?”

“…Yes,” said Heather. “Yes, I very much do.”

“And Leonard loves you?”

“I should hope so,” she said, forcing a laugh. “That is: yes. I’m certain he does.”

“Then is there anything else that matters?”

“Oh,” she said with a shrug, “All sorts of things matter. Money, and shelter, and… community standing. You know.”

“Do the opinions of small-minded servants matter?”

She shrugged. “Maybe…”

Mara rolled her eyes. “Do they matter?”

No!” Heather cried, startling herself. She straightened up, then stared ahead in thought for a few moments. “No, they don’t,” she said in a normal voice. Mara put an arm around her again, then pulled her closer and kissed the top of her head.

“That’s the spirit,” she said. “And I thought I’d heard one of them mutter ‘Princess Heather.’ If I’d known then what I know now…”

Heather forced a laugh. “Even so, you… you looked like you wanted to punch those girls,” she said.

“I did not.”

“You did,” she said. “My Lady. You’d even made a fist.”

“I had?” said Mara, staring at her hand. “I should be more careful about that. I think if I had known about their mocking…” She became lost in thought, then shook her head. “No, it was likely for the best. I might have committed an act of war or something.”

“Not on my account, surely.”

“On your account?” she said. “Surely. Which is why it’s good that I didn’t–” She fidgeted a bit, then moved back to her old seat. “I do have a temper to work on, to be sure,” she said.

“You’ve never directed it at me,” said Heather.

“No, but you’ve seen it before.”

Heather nodded. “I have,” she said. “But you’ve always… You’ve always looked after me. Supported me. I’m very grateful that you’re my mistress.”

Mara smiled, then picked up her book again. “Do you think of me as a friend, also?”

Heather became pensive. She stared out the window again for half a minute before looking back at her Lady. “Officially,” she said, “I should not. But I do, anyway.”

Mara smiled again, opened her book and removed the marker.

“You’re very unusual,” said Heather. “You know that?” Mara stared. “I-I hope you know I don’t mean that disrespectfully. I meant… just how you are. Compared to other… to your peers.”

“Oh,” said Mara, nodding. Then an impish smile, and finally a laugh, made themselves known. “You have no idea.”

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

Shortly after their return to Gildern, and getting settled in, and able to relax and bathe and have a meal, Mara asked the Queen about the possibility of finding a nanny, nurse and wet nurse for her and the coming baby. The Queen nodded vaguely about this and agreed to all of them, but clearly had something else on her mind. Once Mara had ended recounting her time in Halliard to the Queen, and any other assembled Ladies, the Queen took her by the arm and led the Princess to her and the King’s private conference room.

“Have a seat,” she said, gesturing to two empty chairs beside a window. “We have much to discuss.”

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

Four months later, cries of laughter, tears, triumphant songs and music filled the courtyard as guards and soldiers returned from Gimsley. The news had arrived ahead of them; Breech had been beaten back and forced into surrender. Gimsley, Gildern, and their allies were victorious. There were costs, to be sure, but paying them was part of war and the defense of their lands.

Mara stood again with the royal family and their attendants as the soldiers streamed in, tired, some being carried in, most making their own way, but all with a slight air of victory on their faces. Family members intercepted most, and hugged, kissed, fawned, then walked them back to their homes. Any soldiers that lived outside the castle grounds and in the towns had already returned to their homes. The only ones returning now were residents of the castle.

She and the others watched as the apparent last of the soldiers trickled in and went their separate ways. They traded concerned looks; no one had said a word about Kelvin not returning home. It was just when the King was calling over one of the soldiers to ask, that Kelvin was seen at the gates, leading his tired horse through the courtyard. Mara and the Queen unknowingly made the same gesture of gasping, clasping their hands together and putting them up to their chin, plus a single tear rolling down their cheek.

In the distance a servant ran up and led the Prince’s horse away so he could finish his walk unburdened. He  looked about, then quickened his pace when he recognized his family. It was all Mara could do to keep from bursting into a full run, but she had learned many lessons by now about dignity and proper behavior towards her husband.

As before, Kelvin went to his father first and embraced him wordlessly. Then his mother, who wept openly and jumbled out disconnected words of greeting, concerns about his weight, gratitude for his return, and more until he kissed her hands and shook them gently. Finally he stood before his dear wife, who was now.. huge. He began by holding her hands and locking gazes with her, now seeing nothing but love in them, unlike before, but could not help drifting his gaze down to… that… belly. Like a sofa cushion had been folded in half and shoved under her dress. He wondered if the baby might come out right then and there.

He did not hear, but Mara heard the Queen quietly clear her throat. She glanced over, and the Queen nodded. Mara swallowed, then squeezed his hands.

“My Lord,” she said, “There is no greater cause for happiness, than the sight of you.”

She smiled and waited breathlessly for his reply. He suppressed a suspicious look, wondering if she might be having fun by waxing poetic, but her words seemed to be in earnest. It was just that her smile was so… vacant.

“Likewise,” he said finally, with the slightest lilt of a question to it. His gaze drifted back to that… belly…

“Son,” said his father, yanking him from his reverie. “Forgive the interruption, but I know that we were victorious. And yet… how many were lost? Do you know?”

Kelvin alternated looks between Mara and his father. He kissed her hand with great reverence, placed his hand briefly on her belly, then murmured a quiet apology before leaving her side. She stayed where she was quietly as the Queen watched her.

“Three hundred seventy-eight of our own,” said Kelvin.

The King sighed and let his eyes close. “And what of the other…? You know what, I will find the accounts from someone else. You should go in and rest. Do you need Sir William?”

“No, Father,” he said. “But there are those who do need him. Please see that they receive our best care.”

The King looked around the courtyard. “Is Seamus with him?”

Kelvin tightened his mouth and looked away, shaking his head.

“No…” said the King.

“He, uh,” said Kelvin. “He died as he always lived, sire. Serving his King and his Country. He saved my life, countless times.”

“Not Seamus!” said the Queen.

Mara said nothing, but looked around the courtyard for his family. She spotted what she thought might be his wife and children, and possibly other relatives, but they were too far away to tell for certain. Their actions were definitely those of grief, though. Many embraces and wailing, but too far to be heard.

“-a hero’s funeral,” she heard the King say. “All of them. All of our fallen soldiers. Heroes of the realm, to a man.”

“Of course, sire.”

“Kelvin,” said the Queen, her eyes moist, “Let us handle these affairs. Go inside. Go. Rest. Bathe. Eat. Whatever you need right now. You will not be disturbed; we can assure you of that.”

“Thank you, Mother,” he said, speaking to her but looking at Mara. “I know what I need right now.” He held out a hand to her. “Come, Darling.”

He walked towards the castle, and she followed, but was several paces behind him. He looked over to speak to her, then back after realizing that she was behind him. He stopped, and so did she. He started again, and only then did she walk, still staying behind him. He stopped and held out a hand.

“I am sorry, Darling,” he said. “I didn’t realize how difficult it must be for you to keep pace.”

“What?” she said. “Er, no, my Lord, I can keep pace. It’s just that-”

He took a large step backwards and locked arms with her before she could react. She glanced at him, back at the Queen, then to him again. He flashed a broad smile and patted her arm.

You set our speed, Darling,” he said, and waited for her to make the first steps. With one last glance back to the Queen, she led him inside as quickly as she was able.

****

They ran a gauntlet of well-wishers on the way back to their bedchambers. There were no words along the way between themselves, only a quiet basking in each other’s presence. After reaching the room, Kelvin let go of her arm and shut the door behind them. She clasped her hands together in front of her and waited quietly. Their privacy assured, he stopped before her and repeated his earlier greeting of holding her hands and staring into her eyes. Before she gave in to her desires and rushed into his arms, he then held her face and leaned in — farther than he’d expected — to kiss her. He leaned in again, then stopped and looked down at that… belly…

“Let’s try this,” he said, and moved around to her side and embraced her at an angle. There was no barrier between them this time, and he kissed her several times, then paused for more eye-gazing, but she could stand it no longer, and pushed her lips hard onto his. Several minutes of impassioned kissing passed before they fell into their usual stance of forehead-to-forehead, both breathing heavily, both breathing in sync.

My Lord,” she whispered, “Can you ever forgive me? For… for being such a poor wife?”

“Shhhhh…”

“You needed my love when you left,” she said, “And I had nothing but foolish, selfish pride. Please forgive me.”

He broke away from their stance, and put a finger to her mouth.

“My Lord?”

“Sh!”

Without another word, Kelvin looked down and started pulling and tugging at her skirt. Mara did not understand what he was doing, and opened her mouth to speak, but he did not seem to want her to, so she was patient. Finally he dropped slowly to one knee and placed a hand on her belly. He looked to the side, kept his hand there and for all purposes seemed deep in concentration. Then without warning he took the bottom of her dress, pulled it up and over himself, and disappeared beneath it. She gasped quietly in confusion, then felt him pressing his ear against her belly. She froze, standing almost stock-still. She tried to hold her breath and could not, but kept it as quiet as possible. He wasn’t really-?

He climbed out from under her dress, stood, took her hands, and leaned in for another kiss. “I heard its heart beating,” he said.

“The baby’s, my Lord?” she said. He nodded. “Are you certain it wasn’t mine?”

He did not answer, but bent down enough to press his ear against her chest. He listened for a bit, then straightened up and shook his head slowly.

“The baby’s,” he said.

Mara pondered this a moment, then smiled. “I-I wish I could,” she said. “To be sure, I have felt it– kicking, but to hear its heart, or perhaps its breathing…”

“Kicking, you say?” he said, putting his hand there again.

She shrugged. “It comes and goes. Perhaps it’s dreaming about something exciting.”

He said nothing, but just smiled and kept looking at her eyes. She fidgeted a bit, then clasped her hands around his. “My Lord,” she said, “Is there anything that you wish for me to do for you?”

He was so quiet around her. It was not like him. She wondered if he had seen – or done – things during the war that had stolen his eloquence. She had seen worse things happen to men. She thought of amending her question and asking about-

“What I wish for you to do,” he said finally, “Is to stop calling me that.”

“My Lord?”

“Exactly,” he said.

“But… But it’s proper.”

“I know it is,” he said. “From any other wife I might have had, perhaps. But from you it sounds… wrong.”

“But I-I should be…” she said. “It is proper…”

“Mara, we met as equals,” he said. “We lived as equals. We fell in love as equals. If I am your ‘lord,’ then you are my ‘lady.’ But that’s not how we are. What happened while I was away?”

“I… learned how I should be,” she said. “How to be a good wife.”

“Who was it?” he said. “Father? Mother?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said. “My Lord.”

“…I see,” he said. “Without me here.. that they even wanted to try something like that… That they did, at all, is a… betrayal of the highest order. And I won’t stand for it!”

“My Lord, please, I don’t want any trouble with them-” she said, then put her hands to her mouth. He pulled them away gently as she shook her head, and kissed them one after the other. “No, no, no, please,” she said. “They– She meant well. She just wants me to be a good wife.”

“You are a good wife,” he said. “You have been from the start. But apparently they – or she, if you mean my mother – thought differently all this time. Blessing our marriage, but then doing this? Twisting you into… their vision of a ‘good wife?’ Her vision?”

“My Lord-”

“Fear not,” he said, clasping her hands. “I won’t say anything to them right now. But believe me, I will have words with them.”

Her lips quivered. “Darling,” she said. “I respect her. I admire her. I even… love her. But she was relentless. She was… I didn’t know what to do. What could I do?”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “They’re my parents. They’ll be spoken to with love. But… shall we say, in no uncertain terms, regarding their conduct towards you henceforth. Of course they ‘meant’ well. And you mustn’t blame yourself for anything they said, or did. They are King and Queen, after all. They are your sovereigns. It’s not as if you could openly disobey them.”

“At first I tried to tell her she was wrong,” she said. “That you didn’t want someone like this. But it didn’t help.”

“I know,” he said. She still had a look of terrible concern on her face. He stroked her cheek, then smiled. “I just thought of what I ‘wish’ for you to do for me.”

She perked up, and he left her side to rummage through his satchel that a servant had brought in already. After tossing out a few items, he carefully pulled out a folded piece of paper and showed it to her. She saw the name “Kelvin” on the outside, written in her own hand, and recognized it that way. He carefully unfolded it and handed it to her.

“You did get this,” she said. “I’m so glad. It’s, um, it’s a little bit soiled, but I see that you received my letter.”

“I want you to read it to me.”

She furrowed her brow. “You didn’t-? You never read it?”

“I did,” he said. “And I ‘heard’ your voice as I did, but now I can hear it for real, without imagining. Please; may I hear it from you?”

She stared at it, studying the words to make sure they were still legible. There was a smudge here and there, but nothing that had destroyed any letters. “Um,” she said, “As you wish, my L–” Her tongue caught on the “L” sound. She pinched her eyes together and sighed. “Kelvin.”

She held up the letter and cleared her throat several times.

My most darling Kelvin,” she began, glancing to him and back before continuing, “I have pondered my words endlessly, and I know I shall never capture what I truly feel, but I shall do my best, for you deserve nothing but my best effort. I have been a mere shadow of a bride for you, a wife and companion unworthy of you, and I pray that these words will serve as the start of my slow journey back into your good graces, if you will have me. You face your duty with conviction and bravery and the fullness of your heart, and I had met mine with foolish pride and cowardice. But it is all past now; I face my duty now with the same conviction and clarity as you did from the start. I still wish for nothing more than to be by your side, but for your sake and not my own. If my presence be a boon and not a hindrance, if it be a comfort and not a worry, if it lighten your burden, bring salve to your wounds, and bring a song to your heart, I would be by your side. But only then. And the child within me – your child, our child – I pledge myself to caring for and protecting with all my body and all my heart and all my soul. You have shown me that it’s possible to know happiness. You have shown me how to love, how to laugh, how to touch and feel for the first time, and I will never go back, now that I know how to live. You chose me as your own, and I am forever grateful for it. If I could be but a portion of the companion to you as you have been to me, then few could say they have accomplished half as much. I have no other words, my dearest one, other than that I love you, I am proud of you, and I pledge to the end of my days my devotion to you. Forever and always-” She lowered the letter and looked him in the eyes.

“-Your wife, Mara.”

After a very, very long pause, he slowly reached out for the letter, which she handed to him. He touched the words for a moment, then folded it back up and held it.

“Did you write this before or after they ‘taught’ you to be a good wife?” he asked.

She thought for a moment, and then: “Before.”

He nodded. “Then they were your words alone,” he said. “Not theirs or anyone else’s. Good. I read this at least once every day. Each morning for certain. Sometimes after a particularly long, or grueling, battle, I would read it. Besides devotion to King and Country, it gave me reason to keep going. You thought it was your sword that represented you, but this-” He held it up. “This, is you. This was your favor.”

She turned bright red and looked down. “I was just trying to… to make up for my poor behavior, and to offer you some comfort. While out on the battlefield. I know what they can be like.”

“There were some things I didn’t agree with.”

“…Oh?”

“You are not a ‘shadow of a bride,’ nor ‘unworthy.’ When I reread your letter, I would skip that part.”

Mara glanced down, then up. “I wrote what I felt then,” she said. “I’m very glad that you didn’t agree. Don’t agree. But… I did not feel worthy then.”

“You always have been,” he said. “So there was a misstep. There was one other thing I did not agree with. You chose me. Not the other way around.”

“Well of course you did,” she said. “You had all those suitors. All those women that were presented to you. But– you chose me. Over them. You did that.”

“I suppose you’re right,” he said. “But you forget that you had your own suitor.” She looked puzzled. “Erick had proposed to you. It took you a whole day to think about it? But you chose me over him.”

“Well, yes, but…” she said, and shrugged. “We… chose each other, then?”

He smiled and nodded in agreement, then put the letter onto the bed, stepped towards her, took her hand, and dropped to one knee. He leaned forward and pressed her hand against his forehead. She tugged gently, but he would not let go. “What are you doing?” she said.

“My Lady,” he said, looking up to meet her eyes, “I would ask, what you wish for me to do for you?”

“Ahhh, I want you to get up,” she said, waving her hands awkwardly. “I ‘wish’ for you to stand up.” He complied, but stared at her as if waiting for more. “From you,” she said, “It sounds… wrong.”

“That it does,” he said. “But my question remains. Put aside what you’ve been told that you should want. What you think I want. Think only of yourself. Your desires. What do you want?”

“That,” she said, “That you have returned, and are safe, and-and healthy, and– unharmed. That you’re here, and the baby is healthy and-”

He held out his hands. “And so I am, and so is the baby.”

“Well, then,” she said, forcing a smile. “I have what I want.”

“And that’s it?” he said. She started to reply, then shrugged. “We haven’t seen each other in months,” he said. “I could tell you what’s been on my mind all this time. Thinking what we’d do when we finally reunite.”

“What, then?”

He shook his head and folded his arms. “What- do you– wish?”

After some minor shrugs and more fidgeting, “… I think that I might want the same thing that you want,” she said, then glanced at her belly and rested her hand there. “But this is so big now and– It does seem like it will be in the way. Or perhaps not. I think we could… See, we could probably… You know, I even practiced a little bit, and… it’s definitely…” She stopped, seemed deep in thought, then nodded. “Yes, it ought to work. It should work. Except…. um, Darling? Would it bother you if I were on top this time?”

She looked at him with an expression of the utmost sincerity, and he was puzzled for a moment, until something clicked. His lips spread slowly into a big grin. She yelped as he yanked her towards the bed, and then giggled.

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