The Pauper Prince – Part 27

The Pauper Prince
Chapter 27

There were no comfortable positions anymore at this stage, at least not when lying down. This time Mara did not care, for it had been five months since her husband had warmed his side of the bed. Rather than her usual post-coital position of lying on her side, her arm draped across his chest, her breath gently warming his shoulder, she was on her back, staring at the ceiling. Kelvin had fallen asleep in an odd position that was fine for him but uncomfortable for her, and she was indulging it as long as possible. He was lying on his side, facing her, with his head resting between her extra-large belly and breasts that seemed larger than the last time he’d seen them. He was slumbering very contentedly.

She ran her fingers idly through his hair while thinking about the end of the war and the return of the fighters. She had been reunited with her husband, who was whole and unharmed as far as she could tell. Several hundred widows could not say the same. Even more children were now fatherless. Almost four hundred men from Gildern lost. Given the span of the war – nearly five months – it could be argued as a small loss, but not for a kingdom that had been ravaged half a decade before. Any loss was too much. And now Seamus. Kelvin had described him as “teacher, mentor, father, brother, friend,” and she had seen all of it while observing them in the past. During her brief time taking lessons from him, he never condescended, never treated her as a “woman,” or even as though doing his Prince a favor just by letting her swing a sword around. He had treated her like any other man under his tutelage. She had the bad bruises and wounded ego to prove it. She’d have lasted a few minutes against him in real battle, if lucky, but he had told her, “Not bad.” Kelvin had consoled her later by insisting that it was his second-highest compliment, just under “Not quite there.” Kelvin had received that one for years and had no idea if there was any higher. Now they would never find out. No one would.

*****

It was the sheer contentedness with which he slept that prompted her to tolerate it this long, but finally the pain in her back got the better of her. She carefully tried to shift and stretch underneath him to alleviate the soreness, but he was roused. His eyes opened, and he blinked a few times before smiling at her. She smiled back and stroked his cheek.

“Good morning, my Lord,” she murmured.

He sat up, glanced out the window, then smiled lazily. “Good afternoon, my Lady,” he said.

She frowned, then sighed. “I did it again. It’s become a habit now.”

“We’ll break it.”

“Mm. I was trying to move so as not to wake you,” she said, sitting up on her elbows and letting her head roll back to try more stretching. “Ohh, that didn’t help, either,” she groaned, and dropped back down. He lay on his back beside her. She sighed again. “And this is how it goes for me of late. Sitting feels better. It’s getting up, though; that’s the challenge.”

He chuckled. “But the baby will be here soon,” he said. “And you can lie comfortably again. And by the way,” he said, leaning closer to her, “I think you should be ‘on top’ more often. Well done, Darling.”

She blushed and failed to suppress a giggle. “I’m pleased that you were pleased, my Lo-Ahhhh! Not again. Forgive me.”

“Listen,” he said, “You’ve done nothing wrong. I couldn’t be more ‘pleased’ with you right now. My parents, on the other hand…”

He scoffed to himself, then laid back down. She could tell that he was brooding. Lying on her back wasn’t helping her soreness, so she turned – with a bit of effort – and resumed her usual post-coital position. What was different for them now was that her belly pressed against his side, but not uncomfortably for him. While she had been moving into position, he had lifted up his arm, then let it rest on her belly after she was done. Her lying beside him this way did seem to ease his mood.

“Kelvin?” she said. “You do what you think is right, and say what you think you must, but bear in mind that I do want to be a good wife. And mother, God willing. They did mean well.”

“I disagree,” he said. “From the start they had their own view of the ‘perfect’ wife for me. The women they chose for me were near-matches to it. But I could not have been more clear that you are the best woman for me, and the moment I’m called away – to fight in a war, no less – they preyed upon your fears, your insecurities, your… guilt, possibly, and-and tried to remold you in their own image. That is not just a violation of you, but of me, also. How dare they bless our marriage, and then do this to you?”

“Kelvin, please,” she said. “Couldn’t you just forgive them? I don’t want to be a, a wedge between you and your parents.”

“It’s not that I don’t forgive them,” he said. “But they will be made to understand that they brought the ‘wedge.’ They respected neither of us. They know I never wanted a– a walking-behind-me, shuffling, submissive, won’t-speak-unless-spoken-to wife, or Princess, or future Queen. Of all people to do that to you – my mother? Have you met her?”

She giggled, then became serious. “I’m not angry with them,” she said. “With her. I-I suppose I can’t be. She is the Queen, and– Darling, you should know. You remember how poorly I behaved, the day you left?”

“Yes,” he said. “Water under the bridge.”

“So you say,” she said, “But days later I was still being angry and foolish and selfish. Mother Queen took me to task – hard – but it was well-deserved.”

“But that’s the problem,” he said. “She didn’t stop there.”

No,” she whispered. “I suppose she didn’t.” A silence followed, then: “Kelvin, it’s– not so much what she did to me that makes me sad, but what’s been done to my friends.”

“Oh?”

“I’ve been… forbidden, for lack of a better word, from being friends with anyone other than a ‘peer,’ as they say. You know: anyone with a title. To anyone without one, I’m to be distant and ‘regal,’ and… and I cannot let them use any but formal address.”

“Ah,” he said. “So, your assistant Heather, for instance?”

She nodded. “She must call me ‘your Highness’ and curtsey and… avoid eye contact. I hate it, Kelvin! I loathe it, but they tell me that it must be so! And poor Heather, who must feel as though I’ve betrayed her, even though I’ve tried to explain what’s happened, and have apologized. I’m so confused. At one time Mother Queen complimented me on being a ‘Princess of the People,’ but then tries to take that from me! You speak to the staff with respect; does that bother them, too? Does it mean nothing to them that you yourself lived as a commoner? Worked as one? That I’m one? Or was, or whatever I am.”

“You’re a Princess,” he said emphatically. “And you are one of the people. I love that about you. Ah, but I admit that I haven’t give them… many details about what it was like. Can you imagine if I described everything about how we lived? They’d send twenty guards to burn down Erick’s inn, as though working there was worse than any other place.”

“Now that would be harsh,” she said. “Oh, Kelvin, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do anymore. How I’m supposed to be. And don’t mistake me; I am friends with ‘peers,’ but to be blocked from all others. I… I don’t…” Her voice began to waver. He took up her hand, kissed it, then held it against his chest.

“Calm yourself, Darling,” he said gently. “Things will be right once more. I promise. In fact, as of now, you speak and act towards any of the servants, however you like.”

“But your parents-”

I will deal with them,” he said. “You are who you are, and they’ll be reminded of it. And whatever business they would have with you, they would have with me first.”

His words sounded very familiar, and then she remembered who had said them before: she had, in defense of Heather.

“A word to the wise, though,” he said. “As fond as we may be of anyone here, it’s important to bear in mind that, ultimately… they are servants.”

Staff,” she said. “Assistants. And in some cases, friends.”

“Perhaps,” he said. “Dear, I’ve seen how you speak to the ser– staff. You treat them with respect, kindness, and patience. You say that I treat them with respect, too, and I try to. Not just because of my own time living as a commoner, but… well, in deference to you. To emulate you.” She suppressed a smile of pride. “I think most of them are fond of you, but as a mistress. As a friend? Most wouldn’t go so far, and this may be difficult for you to believe, but most don’t want to, no matter how kind you – or we – are to them. But I don’t blame you for trying. Do you really still think of yourself as a commoner?”

“Not exactly,” she said. “But I don’t want to forget that I ever was.”

“Then don’t,” he said, kissing her temple. “But also don’t forget what you are now.”

She almost replied by asking about Seamus, gently challenging him to explain the exception, then thought better of it. Of course he was an exception. Though ultimately subject to his Prince’s command, they were in all other ways equals. No, partners. That explained them better. There was always an exception to rules, even these about etiquette and royal behavior and whatnot. She ought to be able to have her own exceptions, then.

She smiled to herself, then gave him a look of her deepest love, even though he was in profile to her and didn’t see it. She leaned in to kiss his shoulder, then neck, and he turned his head to trade two kisses with her before lying back again.

She rolled – with some effort – onto her back and closed her eyes, believing his words that everything would be all right. Just then she felt the baby kicking. “Oh!” she said, and took one of his hands and placed it low on her stomach. He was perplexed but said nothing, and waited. Soon enough there was another kick, and another. His face lit up with delight, and they shared a laugh and another kiss.  The baby seemed to calm down and was still once more. Kelvin rolled onto his back again and closed his eyes. She suddenly became somber, and rested both hands on her stomach.

“Kelvin,” she said, “I want you to promise me something.”

He opened his eyes and shrugged mildly. “Anything.”

She opened her mouth to speak, then paused to make sure the words would be just right. “I’m not going to use pretty words,” she said. “Nothing with extra meanings. No… metaphors.”

“Darling?” he said. “Is something wrong?”

“Please,” she said. “You must let me speak all the way through. We mustn’t ignore the fact that… whether there be such a thing as a curse or not, there is the possibility that… that I will not survive the birth. I could very well die the same way my mother did. Or even some other way.”

“It’s not something I-”

Please,” she said again. “You must let me finish. Will you do this?” He nodded. “Thank you. My promise-” She clasped her hands around one of his. “-Your promise to me, is that, should the worst happen, you will raise the child with a love that I never had. And I don’t mean things. Trappings of wealth and royalty and privilege. I mean love. The child must never be blamed for what happened to me. Must never be made to feel… worthless. Or stupid. Or unworthy. Teach the child about giving whole, unconditional… love. Like you’ve given me. Do you promise this, Kelvin?”

“Of course,” he said. “This would happen no matter what.”

“I know,” she said, “For you are a good man. But I just wanted to say that, and hear it from you, because… the possibility is there. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. And I have one more thing to ask.”

“Anything.”

“Again, if I don’t live, please tell the child that I died declaring my love for it. No curses, no anger, not even regret– other than the regret of not being there for it. Please tell the child that. And I don’t care what my actual final words might be.”

“I promise,” he said. “With all my heart, I promise.”

“Thank you,” she said, patting his hand. There was a long silence as her words sank into them both. Then she turned towards him a little. “Of course you know that I don’t want to die.”

“Oh, yes, yes, absolutely,” he said.

“Good,” she said. “I’m just trying to be prepared. Prepare you. I’m just trying to be practical.”

“Yes, practical as always,” he said. “That you are.”

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

Heather held a pile of her Highness’s carefully-folded undergarments and had just opened the wardrobe, when the Princess waddled into the room with much enthusiasm, giggling to shame a hyena, and her smile as wide as her hips.

“Oh, happy day!” she proclaimed. “The chains are lifted!”

Heather hid her amusement, and took a step back to dip to her. She kept her gaze askance while speaking. “Ah,” she said, “Pleasing news, indeed, your Highness.”

“No no no no,” said the Princess, wagging a finger. “Stand up straight, look me in the eyes, and call me Mara!”

Heather hesitated on the first two and did not attempt the third. The Princess continued smiling and motioned for her to straighten up. Finally she did, and looked in her Lady’s eyes with uncertainty.

“I may be kind to you again!” said the Princess. “To all of you. Dear Heather, I want to make up those months of coldness to you. In fact, uh– I relieve you of duties! Right now! Stop working!”

To her surprise, Heather looked extremely concerned. Worried, even. “I’m… I’m being dismissed??” she said with an unexpected waver in her voice.

“Wh-? No no, I don’t mean like that!” she said, holding up reassuring hands. “I meant that you don’t have to work anymore today. A day of freedom! That’s it. Doing whatever we like, instead of work.”

“Ohhhhhh,” said Heather. “Your Highness, I am so relieved.”

Mara,” she said with a tiny hint of impatience, then returned to cheerfulness. “What should we do, though?”

“I-I don’t–”

“A ride through the country?” said the Princess. “A picnic in the garden? Time in the pub?” She flashed an impish grin. “What would you like to do?”

“I… Whatever you wish, your H– Mara.”

“I know!” said the Princess. “A ride into town! Into Allcourt! Just the two of us! Have you ever been there? It’s small but rather pleasant. And you can see where I used to wo– Where I met Prince Kelvin.” Her best friend, and even she couldn’t know her whole, true origin. It was maddening.

“Oh,” said Heather. “That ought to be pleasant. And I have been there, but-”

“Well, drop your work, then, and let’s go!”

“Er…” said Heather. “As you wish.”

The Princess paused to plan in her head what sort of activities they’d do in town. Some of it she muttered and mumbled out loud, and giggled and sighed to herself, and in the process, began to calm a bit. The Princess’s smile – and breathing, and heart rate – gradually faded into something more natural.

Then something in her eyes changed. “What am I doing?” she said, half to herself. “What am I thinking?”

“…Mara?”

She looked Heather full in the face and took a few seconds to speak again. “A day of ‘freedom’ wouldn’t be spent with me,” she said quietly. “It would– You should be with family. Friends. Leonard.”

“Oh,” said Heather, blushing, “Mara, i-it’s not that– not that I don’t–”

“No, no, no,” she said. “There are no explanations needed. No apologies. I was being a fool. As long as you’re with me, you’re not truly ‘free,’ are you?”

Heather shook her head. “I would never dare to say that.”

“You don’t have to,” said Mara. She smiled again, but warmly. “Go. Stop working right now, and go do what you want to do. Away from me.”

“My La– I mean, Mara. Are you certain? For how long?”

“I could not be more certain,” she said, then shrugged. “And I don’t know. At least the rest of the day. And then, um, see me tomorrow morning, and we’ll talk.”

But Heather stayed where she was and stared with a disbelieving expression. Mara gestured grandly – twice – for her to leave.

Go,” she said. “Drop the work you’re holding, and leave this room.” Heather glanced at the pile of undergarments she still held. “Yes, that work. Drop it this instant and go do something you enjoy!”

Heather grinned, giggled, then whipped both hands away with a flourish and watched her work drop to the ground. Mara clapped in mock applause, then pointed dramatically to the door. Heather ran from the room without further hesitation, pausing only to shut the door behind herself.

Mara held her dramatic pose a few seconds more, then relaxed and smiled to herself. She loved Heather. She would do anything for her, possibly even die for her. But the young woman, just as the Prince had gently reminded, still worked for her. Still did chores for her. Still walked a few steps behind when her Lady’s “peers” were around. The Prince was right. The Queen was right. She knew it from the beginning, but had pretended to herself otherwise. Pretended that everyone she knew could do anything and everything together without barriers. Pretended that “my Lady” was a term of endearment. But there it was: she could be the greatest mistress who ever lived, but they could never be truly equal. Never truly… friends. Mara sighed. Greatest mistress who ever lived, then. It was good to have goals.

She decided to lose herself in more reading, and turned to head for the parlor. There was a pile of undergarments on the floor, left there on her orders. “Ah. Hm.” She could still pick up things from the ground, but not without a bit of difficulty.

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

Kelvin delivered a eulogy for the heroic fallen, saving Seamus for last, that left everyone present wiping away at least one tear. The Queen and the Princess openly wept; it was not only because of the intensified emotions caused by pregnancy, but she had finally embraced the idea that tears were not always a sign of weakness. Tears of grief could be very cleansing, she discovered. The Prince had a moment before the service when he insisted that he could not go on and speak of fallen comrades, but his family, including his dear wife this time, rallied for his courage and gave him the strength just to stand before the assembled mourners, let alone present his speech. The King had offered to speak in his place, but ultimately the Prince realized that no one else could have. He had been there. He had fought with them, eaten with them, suffered with them, laughed with them, bled with them. He needed to speak for them.

There were informal receptions and banquets that lasted for days, and bled into strategic meetings over how to divide parts of Breech and absorb others. Emissaries were sent to speak on behalf of King Silas, and plans were made for the King himself to travel, if truly needed. Mara drifted in and out of such meetings, but spent more time in the receptions, meeting and speaking with other survivors and the injured, and comforting grieving families. During quiet moments she began researching her law books to see how the kingdom provided for the widows and children of its fallen soldiers. Provisions were made, but she was dissatisfied with them overall and made a point to discuss them with the family as soon as was feasible.

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

Solomon arrived one day to escort her to their Majesties’ private conference room – a room she had come to know well. Her apprehension came from never knowing if their meetings with her were for good or ill, from her point of view.

Upon arrival Solomon pushed open the door for her, then took his respectful leave. Inside were the King, Queen… and the Prince. None of them appeared pleased. Something was wrong. She had done something wrong? Something that upset even her husband?

“Darling,” he said. “Thank you for coming. Please; let us all sit.”

The room had a small conference table to one side. The King and Queen seated themselves, and Mara waited for her husband to, but he gestured to her seat. It became immediately clear that he was there to help her sit in as dignified a way as a heavily-pregnant Princess could. Finally he took his own seat, and clasped his hands together and ignored their frowns masked by years of practiced dignity.

“Father. Mother,” he said. “Please. Let us begin.”

The King cleared his throat and threw his son an extra look of subtle irritation before speaking. “We – the Queen and I – have agreed to, henceforth, leave any – shall we say – domestic improvements upon yourself, to the ministrations of your husband.”

Mara watched the King and waited for more, and when there was none, snuck a glance at Kelvin. The King leaned back in his chair and relaxed some. “There,” he said, giving the Prince a wave of his hand, “It is done.”

The Prince forced a laugh and shook his head. “No, sire,” he said. “I don’t believe it is.”

“What is done?” asked Mara.

“What else is there?” said the King. “You convinced us that you alone are to be her gatekeeper, and she has been informed. We’re done here. And good luck to you both.”

“Gatekeeper?” said Mara.

“Father,” said the Prince, hiding his frustration, “There is more than just the agreement. You both know this. I did not ask her here to hear an announcement, but also an apology.”

“Son, you go too far,” said the King. “We are not in error.”

The Prince struggled to keep his tone even. “You very much were. Are. She is my wife and therefore my responsibility. You know what my feelings have been from the start, yet you chose to ignore them-”

“Ohh, no, we have been through this ad nauseum,” said the King.

“Apparently we need to keep going until you understand my argument!” said the Prince.

“You’ve been arguing?” said Mara with mild alarm.

The King and Prince were seated across from each other, with her in the middle, leading to her shifting her focus one to the other as if watching a sporting match. The Queen, for her part, was looking down and did not seem to be paying attention to the men at all. Mara could not tell if she was bored, asleep, somehow prevented from looking up, or reading something.

“We understand your side,” said the King. “That was your goal. There was no requirement that we agree.”

“That has been my goal all this time,” said the Prince. “There is no need for ‘improvement’ or ‘reparation’ or  even ‘retraining.’ How could you have blessed our marriage while hiding this dissatisfaction all the while?”

“Wait,” said Mara. “Is this about-?”

“As always, son, you are making mountains of molehills,” said the King. “Small adjustments, at best. People are not static beings; they change, they grow. They improve.”

On their own, yes,” said the Prince. “When it’s forced upon them, where is the growth? It becomes oppression.”

“I would choose your words more carefully, son,” said the King.

“Father,” said the Prince, allowing some exasperation to sneak out, “Are you going to apologize… or not?”

“May I just interject for a moment-?” said Mara.

“There is no need,” said the King. “We are not wrong, we are your sovereigns, and forgiveness of us is required and therefore automatic.”

The Prince groaned and buried his head in his hands. The King made a noise that was more like a growl or grumble. He leaned back in his chair, folded his arms, and scowled. Mara looked one to the other, and, convinced that none were going to speak, hesitantly held up a finger.

“If it pleases your Maj-”

Suddenly the Prince slammed his hands down hard on the table and began to stand up.

“Well!” he said, holding his hand out to her. “I’m afraid that our purpose here is unfulfilled. Father. Mother. By your leave?”

“Kelvin,” said the Queen, finally raising her eyes to meet his. “Do you think you’ll be allowing your wife to speak today?”

He furrowed his brow and looked to Mara, who remained seated and failed to pretend that she was not distressed. Even worse that all eyes were now on her, waiting for her to say something terribly noteworthy.

“Darling?” he said. “Have I been disregarding you?”

“Um…”

“You have,” said the Queen. “Sit.” The Prince hesitated, then reseated himself and took one of her hands.

“Dearest,” he said, “What have you been trying to say?”

“I-I think this is about,” said Mara, looking one to the other in the room and finally focusing on her husband, “About my being ‘trained’ to be a better wife. Yes?”

“Yes,” said the Prince, now clasping her hand in both of his.

“Oh,” she said, “So… I have become a wedge between you. Between you and your parents.”

“I’ve already told you,” he said. “You’ve done nothing wrong. They brought the ‘wedge.'”

“Nevertheless,” she said, “You’ve all been arguing. About me. I didn’t want that, Kelvin. I-I was hoping there could be… forgiveness and, and no strife. Do you remember that I said that?”

“Yes,” he said, “And I said that I would still talk to them, for they needed to know their actions were wrong. You remember that, yes?”

“Kelvin, I…” she said, and then sighed. “Are you understanding what I’m trying to say?”

“Darling,” he said, “What kind of man would I be – what kind of husband would I be, if I did not come to the aid of my wife? If I offered no support? Would you have me leave you defenseless?”

Mara gritted her teeth, then quickly closed her lips to hide her displeasure of that word: defenseless. It meant being vulnerable. Being weak

“No,” she made herself say calmly. “But I would have you forgive them. You have just fought a war. Please don’t start another one. Not with them. And not because of me.”

The Prince sighed now. “Is that you speaking, or their ‘improvement?'”

She gasped, but said nothing. The Queen finally brought her hands up from under the table, and casually set aside a piece of paper that had been thrice-folded. There were words, so she had been reading. A speech? The Queen clasped her hands together.

“Son,” she said, “How many enemies do you plan to make today?”

“I beg your pardon!” he said.

“You have explained to us that we did not respect you or the Princess in our attempts to reform her according to our wishes, rather than yours. And… you are correct. Mara,” she said, looking her full in the face, “We are sorry. We apologize for this, and we hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive us.”

The King did not hide his irritation. “Lily-”

You might think yourself infallible and therefore immune to regret,” said the Queen. “But I am not.”

“Well said, Mother,” said the Prince.

You are not innocent, either,” she said, pointing accusingly at him. The Prince was perplexed.

“Your Majesty,” said Mara quietly. “Mother Queen. Thank you. Yes. Yes, o-of course I forgive you. I think that you… both meant well, though the result was– not as well-received as you’d hoped. But with all my heart, I forgive you.”

“How am I not an innocent?” said the Prince.

The Queen arched an eyebrow. “As we are guilty of deciding for ourselves what is best for her, are you not guilty of the same?”

“I know what is best for her,” he said, placing his hand on top of hers. She did not acknowledge the gesture, but was instead fixated on the letter or speech near the Queen. She pointed to it.

“Is that my letter?” she asked, and looked to him.

The Prince tore himself away from his righteous indignation and followed her finger. He looked back to her and nodded. “Yes, Darling,” he said, taking it from the Queen. “I realized that what you wrote in it shows better your true nature than any words I could give. This was to show that-”

“Why did you show it to them?” Her tone carried a note, or two, of hurt. She took the letter from him and held it to her chest.

“Er… As I was saying,” he said, “I wanted them to see for themselves that their reformation was unneeded. That you already were – are – the perfect wife for me.”

She held it out and skimmed the words, then refolded it and held it again to her chest. She looked askance rather than in his eyes. “I wrote this for you,” she whispered.

“Wh-I know you did,” he said. “But what you wrote… The words were better than I-”

“It was for you only.”

“What’s that?”

Mara closed her eyes and drew in a breath, let it out slowly, and opened her eyes. “Kelvin,” she said, “I wrote this… for you. No one else.”

The King scoffed, and began chuckling. “Well, then,” he said, “It appears that she’s now surrounded by people owing her apologies.”

Silas” was the Queen’s only warning to him. And the King was silenced. Not even a chuckle.

“But…” said the Prince, “But, Darling, I… My only desire was to help you. To protect you.”

Again, she needed to hide gritted teeth. More words to make her seem weak. “You could have done that,” she said, “Without my letter. If your purpose was to share it with them for its own sake, I could… overlook that. But instead you used it as– as evidence in your case against them. You made it– ‘Exhibit A.’ ”

Kelvin raised an eyebrow, then smirked. “Hm. We’ll need to find something other than law books for you to-”

Do not mock me!!” she snapped, then immediately closed her eyes and took deep breaths to calm herself. The Prince looked to his parents for aid, but they had, after all, promised to leave her concerns to him alone. He reached out to touch her, to comfort her, but realized it would do more harm than good. In time she was able to supplant her anger and breathe normally. It was difficult to look him in the eyes, but she straightened up and made it so.

“Kelvin,” she said, speaking in measured tones, “I love you. I always will. And I am… honored that you would stand by me. Support me. Defend me. But… I would ask… that you let me decide for myself… if it is my wish. And… that you understand… what is between us alone… and what may be shared. Or if you do not… that you ask. There is no shame in asking. But there can be shame in assuming.”

When he did not reply, she swallowed and glanced away, then looked him in the eyes again.

“That is all I wished to say,” she said.

Again the Prince looked to his parents, who were united in offering no words of advice nor comfort in their expressions. He tried to re-meet his wife’s gaze, but found that he lacked the power. He blew out a breath and rubbed the back of his neck. Then he dared to put a hand on hers. That she did not yank it away was a good sign, he hoped.

“Father is correct,” said Kelvin. “As is Mother. They’re… not the only ones who tried to act for you. Speak for you. Think for you. You…. being as you are, is what made me love you. But then I let my pride and righteous anger take over, and ignored your wishes over mine.”

She clasped his hand in hers and smiled. “Kelvin, there’s no need-”

“There is,” he said. “There is. I was pig-headed and stubborn, in your name. I was… a poor husband. And I am sorry for it.”

Mara opened her mouth to reply, then took last looks at those assembled in the room, and began to weep. Naturally this alarmed her husband, and to an extent, her in-laws, though she could not give a reason for the tears, and likened it to the intense feelings that Adrienne had warned her about. The wildly fluctuating moods that she’d been experiencing with an entire lack of prediction.

After a minute or so of tears she managed to stem the flow, and apologized quietly for making a scene. Calling attention to herself was the last thing she ever wanted or made attempts to do. It occurred to her that she had an apology to respond to. She smiled and held Kelvin’s hand, wiping away one last bit of moisture in the eyes before speaking.

“Kelvin,” she said, “You know that I accept your apology with all my heart.”

“I didn’t ‘know,’ ” he said. “But thank you.”

“I love you.”

“I love you more.”

The King groaned loudly and deliberately and began to stand. “Uhhh, we are definitely done here,” he said. “You two have private chambers; use them.”

Kelvin couldn’t help a chuckle at his father’s quip, then remembered his royal manners and quickly stood up, making sure to assist his wife to her feet afterward. She thanked him quietly and accepted the elbow he offered.

“Such a strange day for me,” she said, smiling. “First I was-Oh!” She grimaced, felt her stomach, then relaxed and smiled again. “Well! Every day brings some new experience.”

The Queen spoke quickly. “What did it feel like?”

“Oh, it’s nothing, Mother Queen,” said Mara, waving it off. “I probably stood up wrong. Pulled something. You remember how it was, yes? Odd little pains, gurgling, limbs swelling-”

Hush,” said the Queen. “No more prattling. What did you feel?”

Mara kept up her forced smile, looking one to the other in the room. To a person they had a look of great concern. She forced a laugh. “So serious. No fussing over me, please. I’ve had enough of that today. I’ll go lie down, if you wish-Oh!”

“That’s it,” said the Queen, coming around the table and taking her arm. “Describe it; now.”

Please, Darling,” said Kelvin.

“Just… just a twinge,” she said. “I’m sure it’s– It was like a squeezing. A tightening. A spasm, perhaps?”

“Come,” said the Queen, leading her from the room. “To Sir William.” The men kept pace behind them.

“Mother Queen,” said Mara, tugging gently on her arm. “Mother Queen, please. You know I have been seeing a midwife. If you think I should see to this pain, let us visit herNot Sir William. You know that I-”

“To the midwife, then,” said the Queen. “Do you need assistance? Can you walk?”

Mara sighed in frustration. “Such fussing over me,” she said. “You know I don’t like being the center of–!” She stopped after seeing the Queen’s Look, which her own was but a pale imitation of. She was instantly calmed, and cleared her throat quietly.

“Yes, Mother Queen,” she said. “I’m able to walk. Thank you for your concern.”

Without a word, the Queen continued leading her from the room and through the corridors. She beckoned to some nearby servants and gave instructions about summoning the royal carriage. They ran ahead of the family immediately to make arrangements.

“I only just saw her yesterday,” said Mara, struggling to keep up. “She said that I’m looking fine. She knows all about these things, you know. She said that it’s normal to have all sorts of sudden feelings. Sudden pain, sudden discomfort. I-I know, she did say that the baby could, could come any time at this point, but I’m sure that there are at least a week left. That’s a reasonable time. Mother Queen, do you think that’s a reasonable time? …Mother Queen?”

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