The Pauper Prince
The Changing of the Handmaidens resulted in the loss of Heather and the gaining of Millicent and Fiona. Heather was sad but hopeful. There was no telling in which direction her life would turn until the baby arrived, but until then, she looked forward to seeing if plying her skills at hair arrangement and handmade fragrances would earn her some coin. Mara assured her that, now that she was untethered to the work of a handmaiden, her former mistress would send any and all Ladies her way who’d begged for her services. Having the Princess as a regular client might generate some good word, as well.
Prior to this, Heather had agreed to try a favor for the Princess: her own parlor would not do, but Heather’s humble home might be suitable to provide a small space for any women, willing or able, to gather, eat, drink, discuss… and learn. Mara could not build a school, but she was not forbidden from gathering with others for similar purpose. Still, there was danger to it without a blessing from their Majesties. When Mara had asked, she gave Heather full choice to withdraw. She was eager to try, anyway.
Millicent was two years older than Mara and could read and write to her satisfaction. She also seemed willing and able to have conversations with Mara not centered around what tasks to perform. Assistants that did more than simply assist were important to the Princess. As for Fiona, her reading skills were poor at best. Mara had been told by both the Queen and Heather that she was “slow” and not well-suited for any but simple tasks. The Queen had even attempted to talk her out of accepting Fiona. She confessed privately that Fiona had been taken on as an apprentice handmaiden as a favor to a friend, more than her own merits. Which friend, and the origin of the favor, Mara did not ask. Fiona was sweet and eager to please, and reminded Mara of Heather for this. Also, she had taken well to Heather’s instructions for braidery and proper dressing more than Millicent had, whose strengths were organizational over aesthetic. Mara would work through any “slowness” that appeared.
An important, but not critical, factor was that her new assistants got on well with Miss Daphne. Fiona already enjoyed Isabel’s presence and offered to assist her Lady and the nanny with her care. To absolutely no surprise to Mara, Miss Daphne turned down the offer, albeit politely. She though that a private talk with the nanny later might remedy that, but would not force the issue. Other than that, her new staff’s first breakfast meeting began and ended without shouting. The girls knew about the Princess’ odd lack of royal protocol and the promise of a day off. Millicent was undecided about the latter. She was still concerned about the Queen’s wishes, which did not quite match her new mistress’. Fiona also wished to make both women happy, but took Tuesday for herself.
As for Mara’s trio of guidelines, for the first time she had consciously removed the third before relaying them to her assistants. They were still to sit (or stand) up straight and look her in the eye when speaking to her, but to call her Mara… She needed to think about it. She did not agree often with the Queen, but had to concede a point. Heather’s dismissal had hit her hard – almost as if losing her in death. There was wisdom in not getting overly close to one’s staff. It remained to be seen how wise she could be.
Isabel was deemed capable of travel. The Family was to bring her to Halliard as soon as possible for presentation to its new King and Queen. If Isabel pleased them, she and young Prince Philip would almost certainly be promised to each other. Mara had learned that, at one time, Flora had been a prospective bride for Prince Rupert himself, but a series of political dealings had resulted in Anne’s marriage to him. King Silas and Queen Lily were astute enough to continue good relations with Halliard in spite of the personal slight. And they continued actively seeking marriage for her until she was taken from them. The same happened for Robert.
The day before leaving, Mara chanced upon King Silas alone in his chambers. This was extremely rare for him and the Queen, to be unaccompanied by even one attendant. She knocked quietly against the door frame and waited. He glanced her way and beckoned her inside. She made a half-dip to him before standing with hands clasped lightly in front.
“Sire,” she said. He nodded once in greeting. “Do you have a moment?”
“Always,” he said, hinting at a smile.
This was the first time she had heard this. Nevertheless she suppressed her own smile. “If I may, Sire: tomorrow we will travel to Halliard to visit our friends and allies. But mostly to… offer Isabel to them. I hesitate to say ‘inspection,’ but if our purpose is to present her as a potential bride to their young Prince, I…” Her words faded, and she looked away to fidget.
He tsked. “This is not a future Queen I see before me,” he said.
“Stand tall. Speak boldly.” She looked his way, but continued to fidget. “Relax your arms. Stop fidgeting.”
“I am sorry, Sire,” she said, making a game effort to comply. “Mother Queen is fond of reminding me of these things, too. I shall do better.”
“You haven’t called me ‘Father’ in a long time,” he said. Her eyes widened a little. “I like when you do that.”
“I…” she said, “I didn’t know that. Father.” She smiled. “I will say so more often. But only privately, yes? Around family?”
“No,” he said, rubbing his chin. “You may be freer with it. Let’s say, under the same circumstances that Kelvin would. But I’ve interrupted. Continue: what do you need from this old man?”
“Oh, S– Father, you’re not old,” she said. “What I’ve been pondering of late… Uh… When Isabel is brought to them, they will– for lack of a better term — inspect her, and I can’t help wondering what they’ll be looking for, exactly? She is still but an infant. Other than… I suppose defects, I wonder what it is that would lead them to think she should be betrothed here and now to their son? Who is himself still playing hopscotch and hide and seek?”
The King folded his arms. “Diplomacy,” he said with a smirk and a twinkle. “In truth, this is a formality. They’ve all but put their names to it. I wouldn’t worry, Mara.”
“You misunderstand, Father,” she said. “Yes, I realize this a political step for our kingdoms, but… Well, you said ‘speak boldly,’ so here it is: I feel as though we’re bringing her to market. To be weighed and wrapped and set with a price on her side. To be bought and sold. There. I have said it.”
“Too boldly,” he said, now glaring. “You will not use those words around them.”
“I don’t intend to,” she said. “They are for your ears only. Father: hear me. Our law gives you and Kelvin the right to final approval of your own brides. I stand before you – gratefully, to be sure – because of this very law. And yet I’ve found no such law for our Queen. Or Princess.”
She paused for a retort, and when none came, she continued. “Because we are women. You don’t have to say it; I know this is why. But this lack of recourse for her, should young Prince Phillip turn out to be… not to her liking, is what troubles me. What, then, could be done for her?”
The King sighed. “It would be unwise to raise that concern with them, either. They wouldn’t take well to an implication that their son, a Prince, is unworthy of our Princess.”
“I don’t mean to imply that, Father.”
“Then what do you mean?”
She began to reply, but the words failed her. She bit her lip in thought and silently cursed that her eyes were starting to moisten. “I think it’s something as simple as… that I want her to be happy. She’s not even done teething, and is all but betrothed to a boy. A Prince he may be, but… I desire that she had the right to choose for herself. As Kelvin did. Isn’t there some way that she can?”
The King needed time to respond, as well. After rubbing his chin in thought, he spoke. There was a gentleness to his voice that she had not heard in a while. “A lot can happen from now until Isabel comes of age,” he said. “But we won’t assume the worst, correct? They’re not just going to ‘inspect’ her, but also meet her for the first time. The King’s illness prevented their traveling, after all. And they’ll be excited for your next child.”
He patted her belly gently. Mara blushed and placed her hand on his. “As for her ‘recourse,'” he continued, “We don’t intend to marry her off and then walk away. Mara, you’re failing to see the joy in this occasion. We’ve lost so much, this kingdom. You and Kelvin are rebuilding our family, and by that, the kingdom itself. The Funteyns would be our friends and allies even without a marriage, but why end it there? Why not make them family, too? We have everything to gain by this.”
“Yes, Father,” she said. “I understand better now.”
“And don’t forget,” he said, “Prince Phillip is beholden to treat her with respect, at the very least, and she to him. If the Funteyns betray that compact, well… It’s my granddaughter they’d be harming. They would do well to remember that.”
Mara smiled and took his hand to kiss it. “Thank you, Father. I will do my best to be joyful. And yet, is there any hope for that law to be amended? Or a new one added?”
“…Not at the moment, no.”
“One concern at a time, Mara,” he said, his sternness returning. “It is not as simple as ‘you are women.’ It’s about the intricacies of political and social power. Like it or not, this is still a man’s world.”
“I’m not blind to this,” she said. “My hope is that Gildern will become a beacon someday, to guide others toward new ways. New paths. Change is good.”
“It depends on the change,” he said. When she looked his way, he winked. “Kelvin choosing you was not as simple as you might have thought, you know.”
“Believe me,” she said, “I did not perceive it as simple.”
“If circumstances had been even slightly different,” he said, “It would have been impossible.” She nodded. “Did he ever tell you how he was after we lost Robert and Flora?”
“He told me about how they died,” she said. “How he was at their side at all times. Tried to cheer them up. And that he plays the lute in Flora’s honor.”
“Mm… I don’t believe so,” she said.
“Hm,’ he said. “It’s just as well. He was… not right after their deaths. Besides blaming himself, he blamed us, too. As though we had the power to stop it. We thought it was the right thing to do, to remove him from the room when Flora breathed her last. To spare him… that sight. He barely spoke to us for months. I think that, in some way, he still hasn’t quite forgiven us. Their losses broke him. Us, too, but…” He sighed. “It was as if our son had been replaced. There was naught to him then but anger, sullenness, and silent recriminations. He destroyed possessions; he even took out his anger on servants. It took us three years to tamp down the fires of his rage, but even with that, there was no joy in him. None. His heart was an empty vessel.”
“Even so, it became time for him to fulfill his duty to the kingdom and choose a bride. You know that we selected three girls for him, but you might not know that there was a dearth of Princesses, or really any eligible, high-born women. Still is, to be honest. The girls we selected were of no special political importance, other than to their respective families. That, you see, is the only reason he even had an option to turn any of them down, let alone choose you, a commoner. One prospect was his cousin, in fact: Duchess Cecily. But even as children the two loathed one another. I can only imagine what their wedding day would have been like, never mind their wedding night.” Mara could not help a snicker at that.
“Why did we ultimately bless your marriage, then?” he asked. “Because upon his return, there was… There was joy. A light in his eyes that we hadn’t seen since before the dark times. We couldn’t get him to talk about anything else except you. Extolling your virtues, etc. Eventually we realized: our son had not just returned, but had returned. The son we’d lost those years ago. Returned by you.” He locked eyes with hers. “That is why we blessed your marriage. That is why we call you Daughter.”
Mara felt the tears welling up, but did not wipe them away. She smiled broadly and leaned in for an embrace. Silas hesitated, then gave in and wrapped his arms tightly around her. After some time she kissed his cheek before letting go. He sneaked in a kiss to her forehead before they had fully parted.
“I didn’t choose Lily,” he said. “Or that is, our parents arranged our marriage, but I approved her as my bride, per the law. I just didn’t go against their choice.”
“And Kelvin did,” she said. He shrugged. “Father, may I ask something… personal? I think I know the answer, but I would still like to ask.”
“Do you love her?” she said. “Lily? I mean, Mother Queen?”
“Not at first,” he said. “At the time she was simply acceptable as my wife. But now..” He smiled gently, as gently as she’d ever seen. He leaned closer as if to reveal some great conspiracy. “I would gladly die for her,” he whispered.
Chapter the 40th—->>