The Pauper Prince
A typical journey to Halliard was four days, and this was no exception, but seemed twice as long with the inclusion of Princess Isabel the Inconsolable, and her mother, Princess Mara the Fretting. On the first day Isabel was in another carriage, with Miss Daphne, Millicent, and Fiona. Every moment of Isabel crying convinced Mara more and more that she was a horrible mother and was breaking the promise she’d made to her own (rest her soul). The King and Queen finally stopped the caravan when Mara broke down into her own tears to match her daughter’s. They sat mostly with hand-on-face while Mara bolted outside to attempt to console her child. Shortly thereafter Kelvin left the carriage to console his wife. His patience with her held, but it was made clear in no uncertain terms that the journey would resume straight away and with original carriage arrangements. As awful as it was to endure their daughter’s misery, these trips would become a way of life quickly.
On the second day Mara proposed a slight rearrangement in carriage seating; she would ride with Isabel and Miss Daphne and Millicent and Fiona. It would be a tight fit, but, she hoped, a quieter experience for all. Stony silence was her in-laws’ reply. It did not consistently mean “yes” or “no,” so she assumed the former and made ready to settle in. Kelvin caught up to her and stopped her with a gentle hand to the arm.
“Ride with us,” he said, gesturing to the royal carriage.
Mara peered over. The in-laws had already been seated inside. “I doubt that Father and Mother Queen would want her so close, if she begins wailing,” she said. “I’m sorry, but where I sit, I want her with me.”
“Then ride with me,” he said. After a moment, she understood, and explained the change in plans to Miss Daphne and the handmaidens. Miss Daphne was mildly dismayed by this, as she was by almost any straying from the path, but was assured by her mistress that Isabel would be only one carriage away.
Silas and Lily watched the three pile inside the carriage with a mix of confusion and trepidation. Kelvin settled in first. A few moments later, Mara announced her readiness with smiles at all of them.
“Now we all ride together,” he announced, and before either monarch could object, knocked on the roof to signal the time to depart. The carriage lurched forward. Mara knew to have a good grip on the girl, and kept her close and safe.
Being in her mother’s arms seemed to work; Isabel moaned and groaned some, but was otherwise devoid of tears. She especially liked the Horsey game, where she sat on Mara’s thigh and was bounced gently while pretending that her mother’s hands were reins. Having had much practice by now at riding, Mara was giving her daughter a subtle lesson in the real movements for guiding a horse.
She kept an ear to the rest of the family’s discussions. The usual lofty topics such as taxes, border disputes, the state of roads and bridges, the political movements of other families, and ah, yes, her daughter’s potential marriage, were repeated from yesterday. At one point she glanced up at Lily, who sat across from her, and spied a whisper of a smile at the sight of her granddaughter enjoying herself so. Isabel let out a high-pitched, enthusiastic whoop when Mara “reared up.” This interrupted Silas’ and Kelvin’s ever-important discussion; Silas cocked an eyebrow while Kelvin allowed a small smile and caressed Isabel’s cheek gently. Mara almost apologized for the outburst, and then reconsidered. They needed to spend more time with their granddaughter, anyway.
They were greeted by Halliard’s royal family in the courtyard, including the children. Young Prince Phillip stood between his parents, trying not to look uncomfortable in his tight shirt and trousers. Both families now stood in lines, facing one another. After the initial “Welcome to Halliard!” greeting from its majordomo, Miss Daphne brought Isabel to Kelvin, who took her into his own arms and held her to face her potential in-laws. Isabel countered this by turning and wrapping her arms around his neck, then trying to bury her face into his shoulder. Mara stood still but sneaked glances his way while fighting to keep smiling at their hosts.
Until: “Dear?” Her assistance was needed! She mouthed an “excuse me” while helping Kelvin unwrap their daughter from her attempted chokehold, all the while keeping watch on Rupert’s and Anne’s reactions. They gave a good show of neutral expressions, but she detected a slight upturning of the lips – briefly – on Queen Anne.
Lily showed her impatience by stepping over to offer quiet advice. Mara kept up her smile while insisting to the Queen that the little Princess would be calm soon. To the relief of all, she was, and Mara stepped back into place while Kelvin once again held her to face the Funteyns. He chuckled while apologizing for the delay.
Anne flashed a smile that disappeared as quickly. “Yes, infants will do as they please.”
“Friends,” said Kelvin, “Dear friends. It is our honor and privilege to introduce you to our first-born, Princess Isabel Cassandra Lily Allard of Gildern.”
Rupert and Anne stepped forward to exami– no, not examine, Mara thought. To meet her. Not take her measure. Isabel clearly did not appreciate the attention of strangers, but at least she stayed put this time and did not try to hide her face. But she was certainly not smiling.
“Please forgive her lack of enthusiasm, Your Majesties,” Mara said quietly. “It is her first long journey, and she’s so very tired.”
Anne looked her way and scoffed. “Anne,” she said with a tilt of her head. “And it is our honor and privilege to finally meet your little one. Though she’s hardly so ‘little’ now, I see!”
All within earshot chuckled at Anne’s joke – some only politely.
“She’s beautiful,” said Rupert with unabashed sincerity. He beckoned over their eldest, Prince Phillip, who had been looking bored as well as uncomfortable. “Come meet her, son.”
Kelvin leaned forward to give the boy a better view. Phillip stood tiptoe long enough to have a look, then dropped back to his heels. “What do you think?” asked his father.
Phillip shrugged. “She’s a baby, Father.”
Rupert leaned over and spoke in lower tones. “One that may become your wife someday.” Phillip stood tiptoe again for a longer look, then relaxed and nodded to his father.
Anne stepped in and bade the children’s caretakers to prepare them for the formal presentation. Half of the Allards’ handmaidens and valets went inside first to prepare their respective quarters. The rest stood by to render any other assistance to their Lords and Ladies. Mara was ready to sleep for the rest of the day, even though it was early afternoon at the latest, but rest was a long time away. They could do what they wished in their quarters, as long as all were ready for Isabel’s formal presentation in an hour. No rest, in other words.
Lily deluged Mara with all sorts of advice on their way. It was Mara and Kelvin who needed to make a good impression, not the in-laws. Mara wondered aloud if their mutual friendship did not trump presentation, and was given a Look. She wondered to herself if Kelvin would require the same amount of primping, but already knew the answer.
Fiona was the one who had been sent ahead to begin preparing their room. Millicent stepped ahead of her mistress to open the chamber door for her. The unpacking was unfinished, but Mara’s and Isabel’s formal clothing had been removed and laid out carefully. Also unpacked was Mara’s tiara, which at this time was on Fiona’s head as she admired herself unawares in a looking glass.
Millicent gasped and clapped her hands sharply, startling Fiona almost enough for her to drop the heirloom. She stormed inside, followed by a puzzled Mara and Lily, who had not seen this sorry breach of manners and protocol.
“Fiona!” snapped Millicent. “You are never to touch Her Highness’ things without cause, nor without leave! We have less than an hour to prepare, and you’re playing with priceless jewels! Know your place!”
“I’m, I’m, I’m-!” Fiona stammered, cowering as she carefully handed the tiara back to the senior handmaiden, who took it just as carefully, but with barely restrained anger.
Lily leaned close to murmur into Mara’s ear. “I did warn you,” but Mara was not listening.
“Millicent!” she snapped curtly, to the handmaiden’s surprise. “This is too harsh. Yes, Fiona did not ask, and we have much to do, but this is no time to lose our tempers.”
“I beg your pardon, Your Highness,” said Millicent, “But it is the perfect time to. She knows better than this.”
“I only wore it for a little bit!” said Fiona. “You came in right after I-”
“Oh, stop it,” said Millicent. “And finish preparing our Lady’s room!”
“Everyone!” said Mara, holding out her hands. “We will be calm now.” She paused to make sure her words were heard. Millicent dutifully stood with her hands clasped in front. Fiona began stammering an explanation and apology.
“Fiona,” said Mara firmly but without anger. “Fiona.” The girl finally quieted down. “It’s all right. You hear my tone. You see my appearance. There is no anger. It’s true that you need to ask before handling our more delicate items. That lesson has been learned. Yes?” After a pause, Fiona nodded. “Millicent, organization is your strength, so I’d like you to prepare only what we need for the presentation. The rest can wait. Fiona, please assist Miss Daphne with dressing Isabel. Follow her directions exactly. After I’ve changed into my other gown, will you arrange my hair?”
“Oh, yes, Your Highness!” Fiona’s smile had also returned. “I like fixing your hair.”
“And I like how you fix my hair,” said Mara with a wink. After watching her assistants continue their work in apparent peace, she stepped into the corridor and shut the door after Lily joined her. She sighed and rubbed her face.
“That wasn’t bad,” said Lily. Mara stopped rubbing her face and peered at her curiously. “They’re not fighting. But I did warn you about the girl.”
“Yes, Mother Queen, you did,” she said tiredly. “But my mind is set. Say it as often as you wish, but I’m pleased with her work.”
“As am I,” said Lily. “But my advice would be for her to remain in the room and finish its preparation while we present Isabel.”
Little Isabel, in a long, flowing white dress that might have reminded some of a baptismal gown, sat awkwardly in a chair just her size but raised high enough for adults to not have to stoop too much. Kelvin and Mara, each one gussied up in their own way, stood proudly on either side of her. Miss Daphne, Millicent, and Fiona stood behind their mistress, just as Kelvin’s valets stood behind their master. Silas and Lily stood at each end of the royal lineup, accompanied by their attendants.
Mara resisted the urge to reach up and check her tiara. Heather had taught Fiona and Millicent the trick of weaving a few slivers of hair through the tiara to hold it in place. She could tilt her head any which way, and it would not fall off. For being a formal presentation, the proceedings were surprisingly informal. It reminded Mara of when Isabel was first born, when aristocrats queued to view her, chatted with the new parents, and then moved on to eat and chat amongst themselves. The proceedings here were similar. Anne’s youngest, Elizabeth, quietly asked her mother if she could play with Isabel later. Mara smiled and nodded in the affirmative. Anne said, “We shall see.”
Anne was puzzled by Mara’s insistence on feeding Isabel herself rather than take advantage of the castle’s wet nurses. Afterwards Miss Daphne took the little Princess away for a much-needed nap, and possibly one of her own. Those in attendance this evening had naturally segregated into groups of men and women, further segregated by age.
“Ahh!” Anne sighed happily after a servant handed her much-needed wine. The (young) Ladies of the court had claimed a corner in the main hall and had their chairs arranged in a semi-circle. Anne took Mara’s hand and shook it playfully.
“Now to important matters,” she said, and reached over to pat Mara’s belly. “Is it true?” Mara turned red, smiled, and laid her own hand on her belly. Anne all but squealed in delight. “Ohhh, it is! Happy news, my friend! May you be blessed with a son next!” Other Ladies nodded and murmured congratulations. Mara thanked them, but before she could add anything profound, such as being delighted with any healthy child, Anne leaned in close to whisper. “But then, Thomas could use a bride, too, hm?” She giggled and winked before straightening up. Mara only smiled.
Anne suddenly became somber. “We’ve heard other news, as well,” she said. “Is it true that you’ve lost a friend recently?”
“Ah,” said Mara, “Yes. Two… almost three months ago. Countess Lucinda. In fact, I learned of it right after returning home from our last visit here.”
“Ohh. We are sorry for your loss.”
“I heard,” said another Lady, a Duchess, “That she died by her own hand. Your Highness?” The others looked at her expectantly.
“Uh,” said Mara quietly. She rubbed her hands. “I’m afraid that it is true, your Grace. She was troubled. Happiness always seemed just out of her grasp. I did what I could to help, but… Well. She was a dear friend, and I mourn her loss. I pray that she’s at peace now.”
“Lucinda…” said another. “Oh, yes, I recall her.” She spoke while sipping at wine. “Your Highness, if you will allow another question?” Mara leaned in as a way of permission. “Do you know the truth of the rumor that her marriage was from money and not … birthright?”
Anne scoffed. “Oh, Gertrude, must your words always be so clouded?” She looked to Mara. “She wonders if your friend had been a commoner who married into her title.”
“A wealthy one, at least,” Lady Gertrude corrected.
“Er, yes,” said Mara. “I suppose it’s all right to say. She’d called it a ‘poorly-kept secret.’ Yes, her family was not high-born, but wealthy. Or is? I would imagine it still is. Count Richard had his title but lacked funds. So… there was that arrangement.”
“Hmph,” said another Lady, nibbling at biscuits, which dropped crumbs freely onto her gown. “Some kingdoms allow that sort of thing. Mingling of classes. Peasants trying to feel important, I suppose.”
“Gildern ‘allows that sort of thing,'” said Mara stiffly. Her calm demeanor hid choppy waters behind it.
“Of course it does,” said the Lady to herself, realizing the hole whose edge she walked. “I meant no offense, Your Highness.”
“I will take none,” said Mara. “It’s a, pardon the pun, common view among the high-born. Speaking of which, please: we are all friends here, aren’t we? ‘Mara’ is fine.”
“And ‘Your Majesty’ is fine with me,” said Anne, smiling slyly at the others, some of whom chuckled. She patted Mara’s hand. “Please continue, dear. I’m sure that Silas must have his reasons for allowing it, but what do you think?”
“Well, yes,” said Anne. “You do seem rather… permissive with your servants. But would, say, a footman be allowed to woo your daughter?” Some Ladies snickered at the thought.
“Well… Well, no,” said Mara. “After all, she’s already betrothed to your son. Who is, of course, no footman.”
“Indeed not,” said Anne. “I meant, given no arrangement, would…? You know, it matters not. Of course you wouldn’t allow it. Now, in your friend’s case, mmmm, well, I can see there being an exception. A Count in dire straits doesn’t have the ‘pull,’ shall we say, of those above him. Those who could still marry a peer or near it, in spite of poor finances.”
“Hm, yes, well,” said Mara. “But bear in mind that King Silas does not make decisions lightly nor without great thought. So, if he approves of a, um, ‘mingled marriage,’ then be assured that he brought all his wisdom to bear. My own marriage to Kelvin was subject to prolonged, ah, analysis.”
Anne had been sipping wine and almost spit it out. She chuckled and patted Mara’s shoulder. “‘Analysis,'” she echoed. “I do love your choice of words sometimes.” Mara flashed an embarrassed smile. “Now I recall that you were-” A tingle shot down Mara’s spine “-A Countess before then, yes?” Mara nodded. “Some might argue that that’s practically starting as a peasant to begin with!”
“Oh, Your Majesty,” protested another Countess present.
“Ladies, I tease,” she said, smiling broadly. “But really; how often does one take that kind of leap? The lowest rank to royalty? Now, not that I disparage you, Mara. Please don’t think that. You are Gildern’s Princess, and that is that. And someday our families will be joined by blood as well as friendship.”
For the first time, Mara placed a hand on Anne’s. She smiled, then thought to raise her drink in a toast. The other Ladies joined in the clinking of glasses. Anne drank first, per her rank. “Little Isabel is a beautiful child,” she said.
“Thank you so much,” said Mara. “And little Phillip, he is quite a handsome boy.”
“Mm-hm,” said Anne, who almost took another sip, then nursed her drink. She began swirling it in the glass and stared at it while speaking. “There is something that–” she said, then looked Mara’s way. “I can’t help wondering about something.”
“Well…” said Anne, “It may come to nothing. You and Kelvin… You’re both quite, ah, tall. I daresay there’s not a woman here – and some men – whom you don’t tower over.”
“Not I,” offered a Lady.
“All right, not you, Jacquelyn,” said Anne with a wink. “She’s merely– half a head higher. But Mara, what I mean to say is, that children do tend to inherit notable characteristics of their parents. Rupert and I are… not of any great height, so it may be fair to say that neither will Phillip. But if ‘little’ Isabel grows up to be ‘not-very-little-at-all’ Isabel, I can’t help but wonder what would be done over it.”
“You’re….” Mara began, then paused to straighten out her dress before clasping her hands together in her lap. She spoke a question, but its tone was more declarative. “You’re concerned that Isabel will end up taller than Phillip.”
“In a word: yes.”
Though it was unneeded, Mara straightened her dress again.