The Pauper Prince
The first of Mara’s “staff meetings” took place one bright morning that was, unfortunately, not warm enough to conduct outside. She, Heather, and Miss Daphne sat around her parlor table while Isabel dozed in a cradle beside her mother. The Princess insisted on pouring the tea and doling out the breakfast food herself. This was nothing terribly unusual for Heather, who was as able to accept the offerings as to serve them. Miss Daphne accepted both the food and drink with some reluctance. She waited for her Lady to take the first bite before starting her own meal, noting that Heather had already started. Her Lady was in high spirits and did not appear to notice any impropriety.
Mara took a sip from her tea, set it down, and dabbed at her mouth. “Now,” she said, “I don’t know if these will be useful to us, but I thought it would be good for us to dine and talk together.” She giggled once. “I’ve never had a ‘staff’ before. I want things to go well for us. Heather, until now you didn’t have to ‘share’ my time, but I’m afraid that you’ll have to now. But that’s probably good for you, right?” She grinned and winked.
“Oh,” said Heather, “My days will still be full. Don’t worry.”
Mara giggled again and patted her knee, then turned her attention to her newest assistant. “Miss Daphne,” she said, still smiling, “I was wondering if you’ve managed to settle in? Are your accommodations to your liking?”
“I have no complaints, your Highness,” was the reply.
Mara waited for more, but there was none. “Well,” she said, “Please let me know if there’s anything out of place, or if anything puts you out of sorts. We want you to feel comfortable and welcome here.”
“That is kind of you to inquire, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne.
Coaxing conversation from the nanny was a skill that Mara was still learning by necessity. It was unclear if she had been taught to speak only when spoken to, or was naturally reticent. She cleared her throat. “Um…” she said, looking to Heather as well, “And how have you two been getting on? You met that first day, while I was unconscious, yes?”
“Unconscious, your Highness?” said Miss Daphne.
“You know,” said Mara. “When I was asleep for so long. ‘Unconscious.’ But really: I hope that you two are getting on well?”
“Oh….” said Miss Daphne with a poorly-disguised sigh, “Well enough, your Highness.”
While Mara waited for more, Heather rubbed the back of her neck, then stopped as soon as her Lady’s attentions were on her again. Heather pasted on a smile.
“Well enough,” she said.
Mara looked from one to the other several times, then took a small bite of her breakfast. “That’s good,” she said. “Sometimes I think I was sensing some… tension between you two, but you both tell me that things are well, so I shouldn’t worry.”
“No worries from me, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne.
“…That’s good,” said Mara more quietly. After another silence, she pulled out a small piece of paper and handed it to Heather. “Heather, I’m afraid that I’m still a bit tired, and plan to rest as much as I can today. But I have a list of errands for you. Please let me know if there’s anything you can’t do today.”
“Of course, ma’am,” she said, taking the list and reviewing it. “I don’t think I’ll have trouble with these. And I must say that your handwriting is much improved.”
Mara smiled and blushed. “Oh, thank you,” she said. “It’s not nearly as elegant as Kelvin’s, but-”
“There are hardly any inkblots this time,” said Heather, and grinned. Mara paused, then forced a smile. Heather put a hand on her knee. “I jest, m’Lady,” she said. “I jest. You write very well.”
“Ah,” said Mara. “Yes. Well. Anyway: Miss Daphne?”
“Even if I’m resting, please bring Isabel to me if I’m needed.”
“Very good, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne. “But if I may: for true rest, would not using nurses be warranted?”
“I appreciate your concern,” she said, “But my hope is that they’ll be available… er, tonight? And if they can’t, I’ll need to know right away. I wish to be available for my husband. Uninterrupted.”
“…Very good, Ma’am,” said Miss Daphne, blushing. Heather tried to hide her grin.
Mara dabbed a piece of bread with some butter, then turned in her chair to watch Isabel sleeping. This was the first time she’d seen her face so still and calm. She started wondering about the sorts of dreams that infants might have, if they dreamed at all. And if they did, did they remember any of them? But then, she could count on one hand the total number of dreams in her life that she ever remembered beyond a few minutes. She could only remember that most of them were – or had been – extremely unpleasant, added to by a parent who stoked her fears, not helped her overcome them. Well, by God, she was going to help her daughter overcome her fears. She would help her chase the nightmares away. She would-
“Your Highness?” said Miss Daphne.
Mara snapped from her reverie. “Yes?”
“Will there be anything else for us?” the nanny asked.
“Mm, nothing comes to mind,” said Mara. “Please; we’re here to eat as well as talk. Do clean your plates.” She smiled and winked. “I thought we’d just meet, have our meal, talk a bit? A bit of relaxation to start our day. And you know, you don’t need to wait for me to say anything. You’re always welcome to talk amongst yourselves.”
“Oh,” said Heather, shrugging, “We’ve… spoken enough to each other.”
Mara tilted her head in curiosity, when Miss Daphne cleared her throat. “Your Highness,” she said, “If I may: I would like to provide a list of items that I will always need in abundance. For Princess Isabel, of course.” Heather made a quiet noise that sounded vaguely like a grunt, but it was hard to tell. “Er…” continued Miss Daphne, “I regret to inform you that I will need someone to make the list for me.”
“Oh, are you unable to write, dear?” said Mara.
Miss Daphne looked away. “No, your Highness,” she said.
“I can read and write,” said Heather.
“Will you take her dictation?” asked Mara. “Please?” She pointed to a table in the corner laden with a disorganized pile of papers, quills and inkwells. This was their spot when she needed to make room for guests. Usually those items were spread all over her table. Heather frowned discreetly, but stood and made her way to pick through the items.
“Miss Daphne, would you like to learn to read and write? We could find you a teacher.”
“…Is it your command that I do, your Highness?” she asked.
“Not at all,” said Mara. “I just thought you might like to learn.”
“You are most generous to offer, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne, “But I am afraid that I’m too old to learn such things.”
“Oh, you’re not old,” said Mara, waving it off. “I myself learned barely a year ago. I’ve found that I enjoy it. In fact… I wish it were something that everyone could learn. Especially women. To my regret, we’re not afforded the same opportunities as men.”
“Such is the way of the world, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne.
“Perhaps,” said Mara. “But I don’t agree with it. I just wish I knew how it could be changed.”
“…With small steps, your Highness?”
“Yes,” said Mara. “What small steps to take, I don’t know. There are so many different laws… and traditions… that are against us, I don’t know where to start. It’s frustrating.”
“You are young, your Highness,” said the nanny. “That means you have time. But impatience and impetuousness is a hallmark of youth.” Mara raised an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon, your Highness. I-I did not mean to imply that you are impatient or impetuous.”
“I’m not offended,” she said. “I know my faults. Meanwhile: Heather, do you need help finding anything?”
“No, Ma’am! I’m coming!” she called, gathering up writing materials in her arms and trotting over. She plopped in her chair, pushed aside a small space for her to write and set up the materials. She checked the quill and uncapped the ink. “Most of your inkwells are dry,” she said.
“Oh, no,” said Mara. “I’ve tried to be careful with them.”
“Should not your handmaiden be taking care of such things?” said Miss Daphne. Heather tightened her mouth and narrowed her eyes slightly.
Mara did not seem to notice. She scoffed lightly and waved it off. “Oh, that’s all my fault,” she said. “I won’t let anyone tidy my papers. Else I wouldn’t find anything!”
“I’ll take care of the inkwells, Ma’am,” said Heather, her eyes still on the nanny. “And what do you need, Daphne?”
“Miss Daphne, if you please.”
“…What do you need, Miss Daphne?” said Heather, tapping the quill.
“Uh… thank you, Miss Heather,” said Miss Daphne quietly. “Your Highness, my list is actually rather small, which I hope pleases you. I’m afraid that I’ll need a more ample supply of cloths for Princess Isabel than I’d thought. Also, more candles and matches, but the size and quantity are entirely up to you, your Highness.”
Mara smiled before she realized why she was doing so. Her memories of the lengths that Erick would go to reuse old candles, while hardly fond at the time, had taken on nostalgic airs by now. She patted Miss Daphne’s shoulder affectionately, an act met with puzzlement, but not withdrawal.
“Ask for anything you wish,” said Mara. “We’ll grant it if in our power.”
“Hm,” said Heather quietly. “Anything else?”
“Ah…. yes,” said Miss Daphne. “There was a wind the other night, and a window rattled a bit. It appeared to prevent Princess Isabel from sleeping restfully.”
“Oh, we should definitely have someone look at it,” said Mara while Heather wrote.
“Anything else?” said Heather. “Miss Daphne.”
The nanny looked at her Lady as she spoke. “Ah… I believe that should be all, your Highness. For now, I think.”
“Very good,” said Mara. “Heather, will you be a dear and take care of those things?”
“…Of course,” she said flatly, and began tidying up her writing area. Miss Daphne let her gaze wander to the sleeping Isabel. She seemed fixated on watching, but betrayed no emotion in it.
“Miss Daphne?” said Mara.
“I was just wondering if you’ve managed to make any friends here?” she said. “Besides Heather, of course.” She could swear that she heard Heather scoff, but it was too quiet to tell. After a pause: “I know you haven’t been here long, but I hope Isabel hasn’t been such a tyrant that you haven’t met anyone else?”
Miss Daphne had a slight tone of alarm in her voice. “Your Highness, I would not dare to refer to the Princess as a tyrant.”
“I jest,” said Mara, winking. “We both know – you more than I – how much time is needed for her care. But I am still serious in offering a day of rest, or for instance, ever providing more help. Please don’t hesitate to ask.”
“You are most generous, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne, “But it is my sacred duty to care for my charges. I offer my life to, and for them, should it ever be necessary. It is the oath that I took when I arrived.”
“The…?” said Mara. “What oath now?”
“The caretaker’s oath, your Highness,” she said. “When I…? Oh, yes. I arrived at the time you were birthing. You might still have been resting, but I swore it before their Majesties the King and Queen and his Highness the Prince. I have been remiss; I should swear it to you, as well.”
“That…” said Mara, holding up a hand, “That won’t be necessary.”
“Your Highness,” said Miss Daphne, confused, “How could it not be?”
“I believe your dedication to my child,” said Mara. “Children, God willing. But did I hear you right? You offer your life… for her? As in… you would die for her? That can’t be what you meant?”
“I would!” said Heather. “I would die for her.”
“Um… thank you, Heather,” said Mara, bemused. “But Miss Daphne: is that what you meant?”
“Yes, your Highness.”
“And… do you think this is something that I’ve demanded?”
“You have not said so,” said Miss Daphne, “But it is part of my sacred duty. Your Highness, I don’t understand; don’t you want a caretaker who’s willing to lay down her life for your child? Your family does.”
“Well, it’s not that–” said Mara, “I-It’s just– I-I’m honored— flattered— that you, a stranger to us, would make such a vow, and yet– I-I don’t know. I suppose it’s not something that… occurred to me?”
“I would die for her,” said Heather. “For Isabel.”
“Yes, Heather. You’ve said that.”
“Don’t you believe me?” she said.
“Yes, of course,” said Mara, patting her hand. “But you’re making this seem like some sort of contest.”
“I’d die for you, too, my Lady,” she said.
“Heather, please,” said Mara. “I just need to… sort this out a moment. To take this in.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t really know what to say, actually.”
“Your Highness, it is merely the farthest end of my devotion to my duty,” said Miss Daphne. “Not the beginning. It is hardly my wish to die. It is simply how far I must go to fulfill my duty.”
“I understand,” said Mara quietly. She met Miss Daphne’s gaze and showed a small smile. The nanny was still unused to eye contact and tried to look away, but Mara wagged her finger, then pointed to her face. She spoke gently. “Remember: straighten up, look me in the eye, a-”
“And call her Mara!” finished Heather, grinning. Mara stiffened a little, but managed a smile over the interruption.
“I would not feel right using our Lady’s name,” said Miss Daphne to Heather. To her Lady: “This does not offend, I hope?”
“No, it doesn’t,” said Mara distractedly. She had begun watching Isabel again.
“Hm,” said Heather, “I’ve sworn no oaths, but you know that I’m devoted to you, right, Mara?”
“Hm?” said Mara. “Yes, of course I know that, dear. No one doubts this.”
“I would die for you and Isabel.”
“Look, enough talk about everyone dying for everyone,” said Mara, waving her hands. “Please! This is not how I imagined our morning meetings to be. We’re all willing to die for each other; let’s leave it at that!”
“Not everyone, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne. “For Isabel and you.”
Heather’s mouth dropped. “My Lady, did you hear that?”
“Insolent whelp,” Miss Daphne muttered.
“What?” said Heather.
“What?” said Mara.
“I have tolerated your mocking and belittling of my ways,” said Miss Daphne, “But I will not tolerate belittling of my oath! It is a sacred, noble calling to be a caretaker!”
Heather gasped. “Mocking and belit-?? My Lady, I have done none of that!” She pointed at the nanny. “I tried from the start to be kind and friendly to you, but was met with– with stiffness and disdain! And lectures about ‘propriety!'”
“I know my manners and I know my place, you impertinent child! I treat Her Highness with respect, unlike you!”
Heather was momentarily flabbergasted. “Wh-? Wh-? I have the greatest respect for her! Mara, does she speak the truth? Am I disrespectful to you?”
“You are impertinent to her!”
“Oh, ‘impertinent’ again,” said Heather. “Is that your favorite word? I’ve heard it a score of times since you arrived!”
“I use words that fit, and it fits for you!” said Miss Daphne.
Heather scoffed. “Shall I think of words that fit for you? Because I can think of plenty!”
“Go ahead!” said Miss Daphne. “Are they any that I’ve heard muttered under your breath? ‘Stick in the mud?’ ‘Fogy?’ ‘Old maid?'”
Mara gasped. “Heather, you didn’t!”
“My Lady,” said Heather, “She has never been married or had children of her own! How would she be able to take care of other’s children, if never her own?”
“Heather, you go too far!”
“Thank you, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne.
“You’re not innocent here, either!”
“Daphne, I explained to you that she’s not stiff and formal, and instead got a lecture about ‘manners’ and ‘knowing my place!’ And then she explained it herself, and still you’re like this!”
“It is Miss Daphne-!”
“Oh, please unstuff yourself!”
Mara gasped. “Heather!”
“Impudent, churlish hellion!”
“Saggy, naggy, baggy sack of stuffing!”
The women’s insults immediately devolved into an overlapping cacophony that grew in intensity and volume as they tried to out-shout and out-slander each other. For some time Mara could only watch in stunned horror as her experiment in camaraderie became all-out battle before her eyes. She tried to think of one mighty, commanding word that would put a stop to it instantly, but could not think beyond “Hey!”, which would not do.
“Contemptuous brat!” “Oak bends more than you do!” “A stain upon your profession!” “Bitter old harridan!”
The shouting match became a loud drone to her ears, until finally the stunned horror gave way to anger. Fierce, righteous anger. The same anger that the Queen had directed at her not long ago. She set her mouth and made a fist of both her hands. She raised one fist to strike the table with all her might. She would punctuate it with a mighty “ENOUGH!” just like the Queen had… and then she was beaten to it.
A louder, shriller sound pierced the air, and all women stopped and turned at once to Isabel’s cradle. Now that the war of words had been silenced, her cry seemed enough to shatter windows and wake the dead. Both mother and nanny reached for Isabel simultaneously, but mother was closer. Both women began wrapping their arms around her. Mara turned on the nanny and made a sound like a hiss and a growl. Miss Daphne let go immediately and fell back in her chair so hard that it almost tottered backwards.
Heather took a turn to placate her. “M-my Lady, I never meant to-”
Heather was also jolted up in fright, and fell quiet. Mara had Isabel fully in her arms now. She laid her shrieking daughter over her shoulder and began rubbing her back.
“Your Highness,” said Miss Daphne, “Please. I beg your-”
“B-but I have failed in my-”
“Are there other meanings for ‘Shh’ and ‘Silence??‘” said Mara. “Stop! Speaking! Both of you!”
She glared at them, one to the other, daring them to speak. Heather made a “lock with a key” motion on her lips, which did not amuse her Lady.
“Nobody leave, either,” Mara growled, and stood up to take Isabel into the bedroom. Her cries were heard from the other room. Neither woman in the parlor dared to leave, speak, or even look at each other, for that matter.
Mara used the time calming Isabel to calm herself, as well. It was probably just as well that the arguing had upset the little Princess so; it had interrupted her mother from acting on her anger. She had had a fist ready for both of them, but now, while rubbing her daughter’s back and speaking softly, soothingly, to her, it gave her time to think about what words to use when she returned to the parlor.
Four very long and uncomfortable minutes later, Isabel had been successfully pacified, and was sleeping once more. Mara held her a little longer and paced a little longer before returning to the parlor. To their credit, both women were just as she’d left them. As she slowly and carefully placed Isabel back in her cradle, Miss Daphne hesitantly reached out, then withdrew when Mara looked her way.
Satisfied that her daughter was still asleep, she seated herself and felt the tea pot, which was no longer hot. She frowned, but took some more bread and dipped it into a marmalade and chewed on it while thinking.
“I still don’t want either of you speaking,” she said quite calmly, “Yet. I’ll speak my mind first, and then let you offer your… rebuttals. Does that sound fair?” She looked at each woman, who both nodded quietly.
“So…” she said, dabbing at her mouth, “My suspicions were correct, after all. There is some tension between you two.” She felt her throat tightening, and looked away while fighting it off. “This makes me sad. From my standpoint, I see no reason why you two can’t work together. Never mind friends at this point, though I’d had the foolish notion that it might happen. But… to at least be cordial to one another, well…” She shrugged. “I suppose I have the authority or something to order you to get along, but I won’t do that, because that’s stupid and silly. But I’ll see what I can do. Miss Daphne?”
The nanny snapped to attention.
“Your profession is noble,” she said. “And honorable, and admirable. You don’t know how grateful I am to have you here with us. Truly. And… your manner is very formal, it’s true, but I respect that. I’d still rather that you didn’t call me ‘your Highness’ in every sentence, but it’s your way, so I’ll respect that, too. But please understand this: I will judge, for myself, who is ‘impertinent’ to me. Not you. Do you understand me?”
Miss Daphne opened her mouth to speak, then thought better of it and simply nodded. Vigorously.
“If you believe that Heather has done or said anything offensive to you,” Mara continued, “Then we’ll work that out. It may take time, but we will do that. You have my word.”
Miss Daphne considered this a moment, then nodded again.
“Heather?” said Mara, now turning towards her. Heather had trouble making eye contact, but managed. “There is nothing to sneer at about Miss Daphne being unmarried or without children of her own. Do you understand me?” Heather cocked her head in confusion. “Do you understand me?” Heather was startled almost into speaking, but clamped her mouth shut and nodded.
“I won’t order you to get along.” said Mara, “But I will do this.” She looked at Heather. “Her way is formal.” Then to Miss Daphne: “Her way is informal.” Then one to the other. “Tolerate it!”
She became visibly agitated in spite of her efforts to be calm. To be queenly. “Honestly, the two of you…” she muttered, then seemed to “shake out” her irritation. “Ugh! I will not have the only members of my new staff at each other’s throats! I will not! I– I am ashamed of both of you! There! It’s been said!”
“My Lady-!” said Heather, then clamped both hands over her mouth.
Mara glared, then waved her on. “Oh, go on,” she said. “You may speak.”
Heather slowly uncovered her mouth. She straightened out her skirt and fixed her hair while gathering her courage. “Thank you,” she said. “Your Highness. You’re right. And… Miss Daphne is right, too. I’ve behaved very poorly.” She turned towards Miss Daphne. “I hope you can forgive me.”
“Of course, dear,” said Mara.
“I meant Miss Daphne,” said Heather. The nanny cocked an eyebrow. “Your work is very important, and… you are completely dedicated to it and… No, it doesn’t matter that you’ve had no children of your own. I-In fact, it’s probably made you a better caretaker. You know, freed up your time to spend on other people’s-”
“That’s fine, Heather,” said Mara. “That’s fine.”
“Miss Daphne?” said Mara. “Can you forgive her?”
The nanny looked from one woman to the other, then sighed. “If it pleases your Highness,” she said, “Then yes, I can.”
“I have nothing to do with this,” said Mara. “Don’t make this about what would please me. The forgiveness must come from you.”
“…Then I must think about it,” said Miss Daphne. Heather and Mara traded looks. “But I must beg your forgiveness, your Highness,” she continued. “I brought shame upon myself. I allowed myself to become enraged, and caused harm to the Princess Isabel. I have failed in my duties.”
“She cried,” said Mara. “There will be no executions today.”
“It would still be prudent to punish me for it,” said Miss Daphne. “I am prepared for whatever you deem appropriate.”
“Um…” said Mara, looking first to Isabel, then Isabel’s caretaker. “Don’t do it again. There: you’ve been punished.”
“What do you expect me to do?” said Mara. She rolled up her sleeves enough for the women to see some of her scars. “Don’t pretend you haven’t seen any of these while I feed Isabel. Most of them came courtesy of my father. He believed very strongly in ‘punishment.’ For any transgression. I’m not interested in following in his footsteps.” She leaned forward. “Look, your oath is very solemn and noble, but you make too much of it. If I, her mother, am not flying into a raaage that she’s been made to cry, then neither should you. For goodness’ sake, you’ve not failed me. The shame was in you two hurling insults at each other with abandon. That is something… I do not tolerate. I try very hard to be fair, but also not to be a frightening figure, like many high-born seem to enjoy. It’s not my way. Do you understand?”
“I think so, your Highness.”
“I expect the same of my assistants. Fairness. Cooperation. Kindness.”
“Yes, your Highness.”
“We call her the Princess of the People,” said Heather, grinning and nodding.
Mara groaned. “Ohh, not this again,”
“But it’s true!” said Heather. “Miss Daphne, I think you couldn’t find a single servant here who doesn’t love her. You were there when she rewarded Adrienne the midwife. She’s kind to everyone, and cares about them, and goes out of her way to-”
“Ahhhhh, Heather, enough,” said Mara, waving her hands.
“…And is very humble about it,” she finished, and winked. Mara, cheeks red, folded her arms and pretended to be cross with her assistant, but could not maintain the illusion. Heather then became somber. She put a hand on Mara’s. “My Lady,” she said, “And I say that with affection. I beg your forgiveness, too. I lost my temper and was wrong for it. And I teased you earlier; that was wrong. I forgot that you’re very sensitive about your struggles with writing. And I probably should be more formal than I have been of late.”
Mara shook her head and sighed. “You’re fine, dear,” she said. “But thank you.” She gestured to Miss Daphne. “Your way is fine.” To Heather: “Your way is fine. As long as you both fulfill your duties as best as you can. Anything else is… details.”
She waited for a reply, and when there was none: “Right?”
“Oh, right!” said Heather. “I didn’t know you were waiting for an answer.”
“Right,” said Miss Daphne. “Your Highness.”
The women left to resume their respective duties, leaving Mara to prepare for more rest. She brought her sleeping clothes to the bed. Rather than put them on and sleep, she sat on the edge of the bed and thought. After an unknown amount of time, she stood and made her way to Kelvin’s chambers next door. To her relief he was there, looking over some no-doubt-important papers. He set them down at her approach and smiled. Without a word she hurried to him and first kissed him quickly, then fell into his arms, resting her chin on his shoulder and closing her eyes.
“Oh, no,” he said. “A bad day already?”
“Mmmm,” she said. “I’ll tell you in time. But for now, will you just hold me?”
He did not reply, but wrapped his arms around her and squeezed.