The Pauper Prince
There was a loud, piercing noise in her dream that seemed to come from nowhere. She spent a few moments of dreamtime trying to locate it and stop it before it drove her mad, when she was shaken awake by Heather. Mara was disoriented and flailed a bit, only not so much this time to cause her assistant to flee the room in terror. Besides, she no longer had a sword to wave about.
The loud, piercing noise was… Isabel, crying to shake the walls.
“Ahhh!” said Mara, sitting up with Heather’s assistance. “Ahh, what’s wrong? Is she hurt?”
She heard the thumping of someone running downstairs, and suddenly Adrienne was there. She was wearing different clothing. Sleeping clothes, from the look of it. It took Mara a few moments to realize that she was still in the midwife’s birthing room. Somehow she had gotten to the bed, or had been carried to it. The morning sun was starting to light up the room.
Adrienne was stooped over the cradle already and removing Isabel to examine her.
“Is she hurt?” shouted Mara over the wailing.
“No!” she shouted back. “Hungry!” She sat beside Mara while holding the child. “Heather, help her!”
“Do what?” yelled Heather.
“Help her open her robe!” shouted Adrienne.
“Oh, wait, wait!” cried Mara. “I’m supposed to have a wet nurse! Right? A wet nurse?”
“If you have one picked out and waiting outside, then yes!” shouted Adrienne.
“My friend said that they’re easy to find!” yelled Mara. “That practically any woman could!”
“Perhaps they may be plucked from trees where your friend lives,” yelled Adrienne, “But in here, you’re the only one equipped to feed her!”
“Are you sure?” yelled Mara. “Heather, what about you?”
“Me??” shouted Heather. “I’m not the one who just had a child!”
“My Lady, please!” yelled Adrienne, holding Isabel closer to her. “You can’t possibly be enjoying her song?”
“No!” said Mara. “No, I am not!”
“Then here! Take her and bring her to your breast! Heather! Help her with her robe!”
“But how do I-?” yelled Mara, taking the shrieking child awkwardly. “I’ve never– How do I know I have anything for her?”
“Here’s how you find out!” yelled Adrienne, and gave instructions to the terribly nervous Princess. Heather tugged at Mara’s robe to expose a breast, and as soon as the banshee known as Princess Isabel’s mouth found its mark, there was peace at last. A near-silence, save for a quiet suckling.
The women, all as one, sighed, leaned back against the wall, and enjoyed the silence. Then Mara let her head loll forward, and found herself unable to look away from the sight of this… tiny creature, attached to her and somehow receiving nourishment.
All three of the women watched the same maternal scene. Finally, Adrienne broke the silence, but quietly. “How does it feel?”
Mara kept her eyes on the child while speaking. “More soothing than I expected. Calming. I lack the words to describe any more. Am I doing this right?”
“I wonder if she can see this,” said Mara, whether to herself or the others, it was difficult to say.
“If who can?” asked Heather.
“Hm?” said Mara quickly, as if yanked from her thoughts. “Oh… Um… Please don’t laugh, but… I wonder if my mother can see this. If she watches me at all.”
“I’m certain that she does,” said Adrienne. “From heaven above, your mother and father must be watching you and-”
“Not my father,” she said, her mouth tightening. “Not him.”
“I beg your pardon; I meant no offense.”
Mara came out of her brooding and looked to each of her friends. “None received,” she said, and watched the child’s suckling some more. “I wonder if she got the chance to do this.”
“Unlikely,” said Adrienne, “I don’t mean to cast gloom, m’Lady, but if she was– cut open, as you say… Unlikely.”
Mara nodded slowly. The room was quiet again. Then: “So…” she said, “Isabel is really–” She looked to Adrienne. “I’m the one feeding her? Right now?”
Adrienne nodded and smiled.
“How do I know there’s… anything for her to eat? Or is it drink?”
Adrienne straightened up, then stretched and yawned. “Ah,” she said. “Well, I think by now she’d let us all know. But there is a way to be sure. Um… if I may?”
“All right,” said Mara absently. Adrienne cupped her hands around the Princess’ other breast. “What are you-?”
Adrienne squeezed gently, and first a dribble, then a short stream shot out. Mara yelped and shrank back. “Ahh! What! What was that?” She had unintentionally pulled away from Isabel, who began moaning plaintively. Mara guided the girl’s mouth back into place, while Adrienne quickly used her sleeve to bat gently around the area and clean up the mess.
“Forgive me,” she said. “I was just trying to see if you’re ‘dry,’ which of course you are not.”
“That’s… fine,” said Mara, then grumbled, “You could have warned me or something.”
Heather giggled, and was silenced by her Lady’s Look. Then after a few tense moments, the Look became a sweet smile. Heather sighed in relief.
From the other side of the castle grounds, the chapel bells were heard ringing.
“I didn’t know it was Sunday,” said Mara.
“It’s not,” said Heather. “They toll for your child.”
Mara eyed her quizzically, then nodded in comprehension. “Ah, yes. The fussing is renewed.”
“Well, she is a newborn Princess,” said Adrienne. “And so the whole kingdom will celebrate.”
Mara resumed watching her child feed. “They should be celebrating you,” she said, and looked at Adrienne on the last word.
Adrienne smiled and nodded, then became puzzled. “You’re… speaking to your child, yes?”
“No,” said Mara. “You. The one who saved her. The one who… broke the curse of those women who-”
“No,” said Adrienne, shaking her head vigorously. “No. No, no, no. Forgive me, m’Lady, but… No.”
“But why?” said Mara. “Why reject any praise? What you did truly was a miracle. This is something you could teach others. You could… could save other mothers and their children. You saved me, Adrienne. I have no words… None for what you’ve done.”
” ‘Thank you?’ ” she offered.
“No, thank you,” said Mara.
“That’s what I meant,” she said. “But scarcely that. You forget that I… Others before you, I did not save. If I had– only thought of it then, more might have lived. Perhaps they… all… might have lived.” Her voice gained a waver towards the end.
“You cannot blame yourself-”
“Why not?” she said. “Their lives were in my hands. In my hands… m’Lady, and… I lost them. I knew… every one of them. Their husbands. Their kin. The… looks on their faces when they realized what was about to happen.” She shut her eyes and held a fist to her mouth. After a long pause, she sighed loudly and opened her eyes. “Yes, to atone, I shall teach what I know, in the hopes that others might live, under the same circumstances.”
“There you go,” said Mara, smiling.
“But the bells must celebrate you and your child, not me. Please; do not exalt me.”
The women were quiet again. Even the bells finished their joyful song, leaving only the infant’s soft suckling to be heard. Mara looked to Adrienne again. “I still want to repay you somehow,” she said. “Is there no gesture of gratitude you would accept? If it’s within my power.”
Adrienne thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Send more business?”
Mara scoffed. “You’re going to be stubborn, I see.”
“No, no, I really do want more business. You know, for making a living.”
Mara smiled. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said. “But I’m forgetting the others. Dear Heather, I would have been utterly lost without you.”
“Oh, you tease, m’Lady.”
“Only gently,” she said. “Really, other than my husband, there’s no one else I’d want with me for this.” Heather’s cheeks turned as red as her hair. “Where are the others? Asleep?”
Adrienne yanked a thumb at the ceiling. “Annabelle had better be,” she said. “She needs to cover for me today. I’ll be abed soon. But not before her burping.”
Mara smiled, then watched Isabel, who was pulling away from her breast and grunting quietly. “Wait, her what?”
“I’ll show you.” Adrienne carefully took the little Princess and helped the big Princess properly burp her. Afterwards she made a little flourish with her hands. “Her burping.”
Mara switched Isabel to her other breast to resume the feeding. “Her burping.”
Adrienne held up her hands. “Welcome to motherhood. There’s nothing more elegant.” She was only a little disappointed that the Princess did not laugh or even smile at her joke. The Princess furrowed her brow as if it had been a serious statement.
“I wonder if this is the ‘drudgery’ that my friend speaks of,” she said, then perked up. “She has all sorts of helpers for herself and her children. She says that they handle the ‘drudgery’ while she enjoys the ‘fun’ parts of her children. Do you know that we’ve also found a nanny? Or when I say ‘we,’ I really mean the Queen. I haven’t met her yet, but she does come highly recommended by the families she’s cared for. She has many years of experience, then. Named… mm, Daphne, I think. And I think she’s arriving tomorrow. Or is that today? Anyway, she sent us letters of recommendation and from them, seems kind. She reminds me of you.”
“Because I seem kind?”
“Because…” said Mara, then blushed. “Oh, I meant — You are kind, of course. I was referring to her experience. She may be the same age as you? I-I’m sure she knows far more than I about children. What do you think? Should I have a nanny? Nannies, even? Should I use a wet nurse?”
“It is hardly my place to say.”
“But I respect your opinion,” said Mara. “Really, I don’t pretend to know… well, anything. What do you think, Adrienne? Even you, Heather. I won’t discount anyone at this point.”
“I wouldn’t know, either,” said Heather. “I have no experience at all at such things.”
“I will say this, m’Lady,” said Adrienne. “I will not advise, nor will I suggest. I will only make this observation. I suspect that there’s not a woman – mother, that is – in the world who would not welcome her own assistant – her own servant – for her children. Whether she has one child or ten!” She chuckled, then was serious again. “I don’t blame your friend for shying away from the ‘drudgery.’ There is much drudgery to this. They cry.” She gestured to Isabel. “They fuss. They get dirty. They get sick. They fight. They get injured. They disobey. They get angry and claim to ‘hate’ you. As infants like her, they get more food on their mouths and clothing than inside their bellies. Do you see my point?”
Mara rolled her eyes. “You make this sound so delightful.”
“I know; don’t I?” said Adrienne with a grin. She patted Mara’s arm. “My point, if there is one to be made, is that, even with all the things I list above, you are still– with the child. It probably doesn’t make sense to you now, but it might, and I hope sooner than later. While being cleaned and changed, she could just as likely look up at you with love in her eyes, and a smile and a laugh, as she could be screaming her throat raw for reasons known only to herself. Now, I speak only for myself, but it made that smile and laugh the sweetest thing in the world. Now… you are a woman of means, and can have the help of many available to you, but it is you, of course, who decides how much of it you truly need.”
Mara was quiet as she considered her words. Once again Isabel began pulling away, signaling that her feeding was complete. She looked to Adrienne, who nodded as confirmation to burp the child again. She did so, then brought her legs together and raised her knees to make a slant for Isabel to lay upon. Her eyes were open now. Mother and child locked gazes, and there was no looking away for either of them. Mara brought her hand closer to stroke her face, when Isabel reached up and gripped one of her fingers. Mara paused in surprise, then fell into a joyful smile. She shared it with her two friends.
“Look at this!” she gushed. “Do you see? One whole hand for just one of my fingers! Have you ever seen such a thing?”
“Never, m’Lady,” said Adrienne.
Mara grinned at her, then went back to cooing and giggling and tugging gently against the child’s grip.
“Oh, wait,” she said to Adrienne. “You were teasing, weren’t you? Of course you’ve seen this before.”
Adrienne shrugged. “Don’t mind my bit of fun, m’Lady. What I’ve seen doesn’t matter. It only matters that you have never seen it before.”
“These are the moments she must mean,” said Mara, suddenly contemplative. “My friend, that is. The ‘fun’ parts.”
“As I said,” said Adrienne, “I give no advice or suggestions. For myself, in time there was no difference between the two, this ‘drudgery’ versus ‘fun.’ Time with my children was — is, rather — its own reward. That’s all I have for you.”
“You think I should not have a nanny, then.”
“I have not said that.”
“Heather?” said Mara. “What do you think?”
Heather gave her reply much thought. “I must work,” she said. “But for you, the work is light, yet… still fulfilling. You are a joy to work for. There are days when I cannot believe my good fortune.”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, stop that,” said Mara, but not harshly. “And what is this to do with a nanny?”
“Well, it’s true,” she said. Then off her Lady’s look of disbelief: “I think that you will need a nanny. I do. But like me, you will work with her and… make her work light, but joyful.”
Mara scoffed. “All right, all right,” she said. “In truth, even if I were against any help, my family wouldn’t have it. I will have a nanny and… possibly nurses, wet or dry, whether I’d want any or not. But I accept that. Mostly because I know that I know nothing about taking care of a child.”
“You know how to feed and burp one,” said Adrienne with a shrug.
Mara did acknowledge that joke with a little smile. “But really, Heather,” she said, “You make me seem like some sort of… saintly person, which I am not. I’m not a-”
“Princess of the People?” offered Heather.
Mara groaned. “What? No,” she said. “Wait, did you hear that from Mother Queen? She’s called me that before, but I think she was being… ah, what’s the word? Facetious.”
Heather shrugged. “I think the Queen heard it from us.”
“Oh, you know,” she said. “The servants? The staff? The assistants? The people you go out of your way to be kind to? Even during that strange time when you were forbidden to be close to us, you still found ways to show kindness.”
Mara thought of more protests, but had trouble finishing them. “Well, that’s just… People aren’t just walking about and calling me… I-I’m just trying not to be…” The words faded away, and she became quiet and serious. She was surprised by the moistening of her eyes and the catch in her throat. “They really call me that?” she whispered. “And mean it? Not to make light? Not to mock?”
“How could you think it’s to mock?” said Heather. “Don’t be silly.”
Adrienne made an indignant sound. “Don’t call her Highness ‘silly,’ you… silly girl!”
“She can call me whatever she likes,” Mara sniffled.
“Oh, that’s– Are you crying?” Heather was greatly concerned.
“Oh…” said Mara, wiping at her eyes, “I’m sure it’s just those… intensified feelings that come and go when bearing a child. Right, Adrienne?”
“Mara,” said Heather, her voice wavering now, too, “I didn’t mean to make you cry. I thought you knew all this. I thought you knew how much the people here love you.”
‘Intensified feelings’ or not, now her Lady wept loudly and openly. Heather was swept right in, and even Adrienne was not entirely immune to the wave of tears spilling in the room.
“What’s the matter with me??” bawled the Princess. “I-I must be overtired. Spent. It’s making me gush like my own little girl! And I…I want her to be Princess People.. of the… of the… Prin… I want her to be kind, too-oo-oooo!!” The last word was drawn out haltingly by renewed tears. That was Isabel’s cue to join the chorus, but because of the noise, not the emotions being shared.
“Ohhh, noooo,” said Mara, picking up Isabel and holding her over her shoulder. She looked to Adrienne, who nodded through her own tears to approve of her efforts to calm the child.
It was while all four of the females were in tears that the soft thudding of feet on the stairs heralded Annabelle, who was also clad in sleeping clothes.
“Mother?” she said sleepily. “I’ve been hearing-” She gasped. “Oh, no! What’s happened?”
“Annabelle-” said Adrienne.
She gasped again and covered her mouth. “Is it the baby?? Please say it isn’t the baby!!” With that, her imagination went wild, and she joined the tearful harmonies immediately.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, you, too?” said Adrienne, resuming control of her tears through force of will. “It’s not the baby.”
“I’m sorry, Mother, but it looked like– like-!”
“Little Isabel is fine, dear Annabelle,” said Mara, wiping at her own tears. “Thank you for your concern. We were-”
The curtain to Adrienne’s birthing room was swept aside, and the Prince rushed in, wearing a frantic expression.
“What’s going on??” he said. “I heard loud tears– Oh no!! What’s happened?? Mara?? Isabel??”
“The baby’s fine, your Highness!” said Annabelle. “It only looks like-!”
“Annabelle, please,” said Adrienne. “Do wait upstairs.” Annabelle was reluctant to comply, but ultimately did so without protest, adding dips to the respective Highnesses before returning upstairs.
“Why is everyone crying??” said the Prince, already in front of his wife and child. She was still comforting their daughter.
“It’s nothing,” she said, her tears subsiding into sniffles. “I was just being… silly, and I’m afraid that everyone was drawn into it. Heather said such a sweet thing to me, and… I… Off I went! We’re all just so very tired, I suppose.”
“You didn’t get any sleep?” said Kelvin, putting a hand on Isabel’s back. Her tears were almost subsided, as well. Her moans and gurglings were becoming quiet.
“At least a few hours, yes, m’Lady?” said Adrienne. Mara just shrugged.
At the same time Adrienne and Heather remembered their royal manners, and clambered off the bed to stumble into dips for the Prince. He was too engrossed in taking the little Princess into his arms and helping the big Princess onto her feet to notice. “Can you walk?” he asked quietly. She nodded quickly. Adrienne stepped in to help her straighten up, then stepped back and made another dip.
“Congratulations to you both, your Highnesses,” she said. “I hope that my services were to your satisfaction?”
Mara watched her for signs of jesting, and found none, but laughed, anyway, and pulled the midwife into a one-handed hug – she was habitually keeping her other hand at the base of her belly – and finished with a kiss to her temple. Adrienne was blushing when they parted, but maintained her dignity. The Prince asked the Princess to retrieve a pouch from his belt, which she did and handed to Adrienne. The midwife accepted the bag with gratitude, then paused in mild surprise, for it felt a bit heavier than she had expected.
Mara did not recognize the middle-aged woman by the curtain, nor did she know how long she’d been there. The woman then spread her skirt and dipped to her with the confidence of years of practice. “Good morning, your Highness,” she said. “I am Miss Daphne, her Highness Princess Isabel’s new nanny. I am here and ready to serve.”
“Oh!” said Mara, and was momentarily at a loss for words. “…Hello! I thought that you were arriving tomorrow?” she said, looking to her husband.
“‘Tomorrow’ was yesterday evening, my sweet,” he said, winking. “I can see how you might have lost track of time.”
Daphne stepped forward and offered to carry the infant Princess for the royal couple. Mara bade her to pause from leaving the room so she could introduce her to all others present. Daphne gave a polite head nod to each woman, but offered no smiles. The Prince then insisted that they take their leave and ride in the royal coach for the very short trip back to the castle proper. Mara was not inclined this time to insist on walking.
If asked to recount the events of the previous few hours, Mara would have failed that test. Her mind clouded over during the ride in the coach, remained as such after arriving at the castle, and during the stuff and things that occurred later. Suddenly she was in her bed, staring at the ceiling as the Queen’s voice came into focus.
“-to time, to check on you and ensure your comfort,” she said in a seldom-used, but effectively gentle, tone. Mara did not reply, but let her gaze drift lazily until she noticed her husband sitting on the edge of their bed. He grasped one of her hands and shook it affectionately, then stood up to follow his mother from the room.
“Wait,” she said, sitting up. “Where is Isabel? May I see her?”
The Queen and Kelvin paused. “Mara,” said the Queen, “You have been ‘seeing’ her for the last few hours. Her nanny is caring for her in the nursery. You both need your rest.”
“Oh,” she said, wiping the hair from her eyes. A few memories came back. Yes, she had been interacting with Isabel before exhaustion took over. “Oh, that’s right. But– does the nanny know to bring her to me if she’s hungry?”
“There are other women here prepared to feed her on your behalf,” said the Queen. “Get some rest.”
“But I know how to feed her,” said Mara. “And burp her. I’ve done both already.”
The Queen sighed, then gave her son a look that spoke to him very clearly. He sprang into action, returning to his wife’s side and gently coaxing her to lie down again.
“Her cradle should be in here,” she said, and pointed to the corner of their bed. “Right there, so there’s no delay if she needs us.”
“It’s why we have a nanny, my sweet,” he murmured.
“Now I wonder if we should,” she said. “I was given very good advice, that even the ‘bad’ times with our children is still time with them. Don’t you agree?”
“Of course, dearest,” he said. “And we’ll discuss it later. But Isabel is sleeping herself, even now. It’s time for you to.”
She closed her eyes and sighed, allowing a small smile afterwards. “I know,” she said. “It’s so difficult for me right now.” Her eyes opened again. “Wait – I’ve had food and drink lately, yes?”
“Oh, oh, yes, yes,” she said, letting them close again. “I have. I remember now.”
“Get some rest.” He kissed her hand, then laid it on her belly and began to stand again. She reached out blindly with that same hand.
He took her hand if only to stop her from groping about. “Mara, please…”
“I just want to know…” she said, her voice slurring and fading. ” ‘f you think ‘ll… beee… good… mo…”
Her hand loosened, and after waiting a few seconds more for her to finish, he was satisfied that she was finally drifting off to sleep. He peeled her hand off his and laid it back on her belly. He pulled a blanket over her, then added another and watched her pull them both tightly around herself while remaining asleep. His mother was shaking her head as he rejoined her.
“Shhh,” he said, finger to lips. His mother was properly chagrined into silence, and led the way from the room. Once outside, he shut the door as slowly and quietly as the hinges allowed.
“I was only going to say that I don’t remember fussing so over any of you,” she said. “I certainly didn’t have to be ordered to sleep.”
“Of course you didn’t, Mother,” he said. “And Father has told me stories that don’t contradict you in the slightest.”
“Well, that’s- What? What has he told you?”
Kelvin shrugged. “Stories of how… composed and dignified you were, at all times.”
The Queen stared at him, daring him to crack a smile, even just a little. Her son had had far too much practice to lose that game. With a huff, she continued leading them away from the room.
“I’m going to kill him,” she muttered. Behind her, he allowed himself a grin.
A slight clatter woke the Princess from her nap. She opened her eyes and looked about without raising her head, or moving much in general. A familiar figure was glancing back at her and carefully setting up a meal on her side table.
After completing the task, Heather placed a towel or napkin over her arm and approached her Lady. She smiled at seeing her awake.
“Gooood morning, Mara!” she said cheerfully.
Mara sat up on her elbows and blinked a few times. “Morning?” she said to herself, then to Heather: “It was morning when we returned from Adrienne’s. Have I only slept a little while? Hm. I thought I was tired enough to sleep a whole day.”
Mara scoffed. “I have not slept a whole day,” she muttered, and looked Heather’s way for confirmation. Instead Heather glanced up a bit and hummed. “No,” said Mara.
“You did order me to rest, too,” said Heather. “Gave me the whole day to rest up, and I did. Now it is the next morning, and you ought to eat breakfast before it grows too cold.”
Mara was still trying to work out how anyone could possibly allow her to sleep that long, though she did have foggy recollections of her husband joining her during the night, and… daytime visitors drifting in and out and murmuring around her.
“Ma’am?” said Heather, gesturing to the little table. “Or would you rather I bring it to you so you can continue resting?”
“Oh, no, no,” said Mara, throwing her legs over the side, but then finding the small act of standing more challenging than she had recalled. Heather was at her side in an instant, pulling her Lady to her feet almost single-handedly. She offered an arm, which the Princess took and let herself be guided to the breakfast table.
“I seem to recall being a mighty warrior at one time in my life,” Mara said quietly to herself while Heather poured out some tea.
“What’s that, ma’am?”
Mara remembered that it wasn’t part of her royally-sanctioned lifestory, and mumbled while shaking her head. “Mmmnothing, nothing,” she said, and took her first bite of the day. It was good, as always. Delicious. She gestured to the empty chair, which Heather took as if she’d been waiting for the invitation. She declined any offers to dine, having eaten already. She had only her company to offer.
“How is-?” said Mara, but was interrupted by a knock at the door.
“Will you receive visitors?” asked Heather. Mara thought a moment, then shrugged and nodded, so Heather stood, adjusted her clothes, checked her hair, then opened the door slightly. “Mm!” she said, and opened it all the way. Miss Daphne stepped in, giving Heather a slight nod of the head. She was cradling Isabel in her arms.
Mara’s eyes went fully wide, and she tossed down her napkin and stood immediately.
“Your Highness,” said Miss Daphne primly, “I hope that you have rested well? Are you up for a visit from your little Princess?”
Mara nodded and grunted and reached for her daughter. Miss Daphne executed the transfer of nanny to mother perfectly, then dipped in greeting. Mara finally swallowed the food that had been preventing her from speaking. It didn’t matter, as she still did not speak, but moved aside a bit of blanket obscuring Isabel’s eye. Mother and daughter were then free to lock gazes. Unconsciously Mara began swaying back and forth a little and humming quietly.
After a few moments, Heather put a hand on her shoulder. Mara looked up as though woken from sleep. “I’ll take my leave now,” Heather said quietly. Mara shook her head quickly and finally began forming words again.
“Mmmmno,” she said. “I was hoping you’d stay?”
“Ah, of course, Mara,” said Heather, grinning. Miss Daphne failed to stifle a quiet sigh and eye roll. Mara looked her way a few seconds. A lot could happen in a day, it seemed.
“Miss Daphne,” she said, “Has Isabel been fed?”
“Oh, yes, your Highness. Every few hours, at least.”
“Ah, that’s goo-Really?” said Mara. “That often?”
“This is expected of newborns, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne.
“Oh,” said Mara, and pondered this a moment. “So… they managed to find a wet nurse, then? Or was someone holding her to my breast while I slept?”
Miss Daphne raised an eyebrow. “I–” she said, confused, then regained her dignity. “That did not occur, your Highness. Nurses were available.”
“Is it time again, then?” said Mara. “I’m quite sore,” she groaned, patting under one of her breasts gingerly. She spoke again from the side of her mouth. “I hope she can use some of this.”
“Er… yes, it ought to be near her time again, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne. She held Isabel while Mara pulled her robe open without any thought to it. Miss Daphne betrayed the slightest surprise at the casualness of her act, then again regained her dignity.
Mara pulled out her chair a little and seated herself, took the baby into her arms, then got to the business of nursing. Her timing was good; Isabel took to the nourishment right away, and suckled contentedly. Mara gestured to the empty seat across from her. Miss Daphne clasped her hands in front of herself and shook her head politely.
“It would not be proper for me to join you, your Highness,” she said.
Mara cleared her throat quietly, then gestured again. “Please,” she said. After some more hesitation, the nanny seated herself. “I wish to apologize,” said Mara, “For being entirely… unavailable for so long. In retrospect I wonder if I could’ve been woken earlier. To be here, for her, uninterrupted.”
“Clearly you needed the rest, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne, looking her way but just askance enough to avoid eye contact.
“Yes, well,” Mara grumbled, “A whole day, though. I feel as though as I’ve missed everything. She wouldn’t happen to be walking and talking by now, would she?”
“No, your Highness,” said Daphne in all seriousness. “That would be some time from now.”
“Uh…” said Mara, glancing to Heather, “I hope to make up lost time, regardless. Meanwhile… Miss Daphne… you should know something about me. Or perhaps you’ve been told already, but I’m not the sort who insists on strict protocol or courtesies. I like to encourage those I work with, with these words: Stand up straight, look me in the eye and call me Mara.” She and Heather traded smiles.
Miss Daphne forced her own smile, and nodded. “Oh,” she said, “Her Highness is most amusing.”
“It’s… not a joke,” said Mara, but could see that Heather was still amused about something. She was behind Miss Daphne and grinning to beat a cheshire cat. “I encourage others to use my name, but I don’t insist on it. I used to, a little, but now I leave it as their choice.”
Miss Daphne straightened up and almost looked her in the eye, but shook her head. “I beg your pardon, your Highness,” she said, “But I mustn’t do that.”
“As you wish,” said Mara, nodding. “The offer is before you and will not expire. But the first two items: I’m afraid they’re not choices. I do want you standing straight, and I do want you looking me in the eye.”
“I understand, your Highness.” She made a better attempt to meet her gaze, but was not quite there yet.
“My guess is that you were trained and raised to regard people like me as your betters,” she said. “But I’m not convinced. Apparently I’ve become notorious for that sort of thinking, but it’s who I am. See, I… I don’t like to think of servants as ‘servants.’ Heather, for instance, I regard as my assistant. An indispensable one. Now… until now, she had been my only assistant. Now I have you, though your true charge is my daughter. I know that your main duty is her care and safety. That said, do you have a preference for a day of rest?”
“A–?” said Miss Daphne, then seemed at a loss for words. “Your Highness, I beg your pardon, but I don’t follow you. I would be attending church during its time on Sunday. Is that what you mean?”
“I would be, too,” said Mara, “But I meant your full day of rest, not just a few hours. Heather rests on Tuesdays and is free to do whatever she likes, then resumes her duties come Wednesday morning. So for practical purposes, it would be good to select a different day. This is something I offer you, is all. I’ve been trying to set that up for everyone in the castle, but… someone of higher rank than I am disagrees, for now.”
“I have…” said Miss Daphne, scratching her head, “Never heard of such a thing, your Highness. And an infant, well… there is no such thing as ‘a day of rest.’ Time is meaningless for them.”
“That’s what I hear,” said Mara. “But I would take on your duties for you on that day. Again, it is something that I offer my personal assistants. Think about it and let me know. And even for those other days when you’re working, I don’t expect you to be her sole caretaker. You will be my assistant. Not my substitute.”
“Oh, I assure you, your Highness, in all my years I have never dared to regard myself in that manner. You and his Highness the Prince are her parents, and that is that. I am merely your serv– assistant, as you say.”
“I didn’t mean for it to sound threatening,” said Mara. “I only meant that…” She drifted off into thought, then pardoned herself to burp Isabel and switch her to the other breast. During this time Miss Daphne instinctively began reaching out to assist, then made herself be still. The Princess did seem to be performing it all with some confidence.
Once Isabel was back to suckling contentedly, Mara continued her thought. “I have a friend who… She has many people who care for her children, but I believe that, in her case, they are servants, in every sense of that word. She says that her time with her children is always pleasant, for the others take care of the unpleasantries. The ‘drudgeries.’ I’m sure you know much more what that entails than I ever would, at least right now. And… I admit that I was very much enamored of having the same thing. But I don’t know if there’s something different about me, or if I’ll see things as she does, but now…” Her words faded. She sighed and shook her head.
“I don’t know anymore,” she continued. “I’m not the sort who’s ever shied away from work. Even the ‘drudgery’ kind. So I’m… no longer certain that her way would leave me contented. Miss Daphne… Please don’t misunderstand me. I need you. Truly, I do. We do, Isabel and I. But I also want to watch what you do. I want to– be with her, as much as I can be.”
Miss Daphne finally looked her in the eyes. She seemed to be trying to work out the solution to a puzzle that had none. Finally, she nodded slowly. “I understand, your Highness,” she said. “I have served my share of well-born households. Each mother is her own woman and has her own ways. I pride myself on being able to work within any rules, any boundaries, and I will work within yours. But know that there is one boundary of my own, and that is that I cannot work while there are eyes over my shoulder at all times.”
Mara needed a moment to understand what she meant. “Ahh,” she said after comprehension. “You might misunderstand me. I want to learn from you, not judge you. I know-” She glanced at her daughter again. “-Almost nothing about her. But I want to learn everything. I’m not proud, Miss Daphne. I’m a blank slate, an open book with no writing. I hope you’re willing to… fill it up, and… oh, that’s stupid and silly. I’ll speak plainly: I want to learn how to care for my child. No matter what it entails.”
Miss Daphne seemed to be lost in thought again. After half a minute she nodded slowly again before looking her new Lady in the eyes. “I can do that, I think, your Highness,” she said.
Mara smiled. A great, big, wide smile that warmed the whole room. Miss Daphne had not seen such a thing from someone in royalty before. She could not yet decide what to make of it. Hopefully not a sign of madness. Yet there was no ‘madness’ in her eyes. That she could detect, anyway.
“Thank you so much,” the Princess said softly. “But I was wondering…” Miss Daphne straightened up and listened. “Um… Would it be too much trouble for you to consider doing it without… um… calling me ‘your Highness’ in every sentence?”
Miss Daphne raised an eyebrow. Heather stifled a snicker.