The Pauper Prince
This time Mara had managed to crawl under the covers before falling rapidly asleep. Having no other clothing but her old shirt and vest, fabric wrap, boots, and the borrowed dress and cloak, she had left the dress on and slept in that. Her sword security blanket was ever at her side, but in the morning, when there was again a knock at the door, she did not bolt awake and fling it about wildly.
It was not Heather this time at the door, but a different girl named Siobhan, who quietly brought breakfast on a silver tray, consisting of candied fruits, bread, butter, cheeses and a hot drink called “tea” that Mara had never heard of. There was cream, as well, which was apparently meant for the tea. This new girl had a more appropriate demeanor for a handmaiden, and left as soon as she had poured the “tea,” but just before leaving was persuaded to “give greetings” to Heather on Mara’s behalf. Siobhan also had no knowledge of Mara having any other meals that day with the King, Queen, or Prince. It was not that Mara minded being served a private, tasty meal, but knowing anything about what her day would bring might have eased her mind.
After Siobhan left, Mara picked up the tea cup, examined it, smelled it, gulped the tea, and nearly scalded her tongue with it, until she managed to gulp down all of the cream. The candied fruit also helped ease the pain.
An hour or so after finishing breakfast and wondering if anyone would come claim the tray, Mara was extremely bored. She was surrounded by luxurious furnishings and a decent view of the castle grounds, but nothing to do. And not being a fan of idleness, she longed for something to occupy her, or better yet, make use of her. The most excitement she had had so far was to struggle with making the dress and coating fit like the seamstresses had; this effort had mostly failed. What they had done to make it more presentable, she did not know. And when was she supposed to give it back to them?
No one had ordered Mara to stay in the guest room at all times, and in spite of her concern about getting lost inside the castle, she ventured outside of the room for careful exploring. So far the third floor seemed to consist of hallways and other rooms – perhaps guest rooms like her own. Eventually she found a spiral staircase in a corner, and followed it down. Unfortunately the next level down appeared like the one before: more hallways, more closed doors. At the end of one hallway were two very large doors of thick wood and metal, also closed. From their construction she surmised that they led to the King’s and Queen’s chamber, or perhaps their throne room, or best of all, a treasure room.
The last guess she dismissed as a silly notion. As though there were really a room with piles of gold heaped into small hills. She heard someone exiting a room and shutting its door, and considered hiding or even fleeing, but realized that would also be silly. She was a guest there – a personal guest of the Prince – and that had to count for something. Speaking of personal guests, around the corner came Duke Thomas and one of the Ladies from the banquet, whose name she had not learned, and who she hoped was his wife. A Duchess, then.
She froze in place as they approached. He had a glimmer of recognition in his face, and stopped. She remembered in time that he had gotten a squeeze when they were introduced, so she curtsied to them both and murmured a quick “MyLordMyLady.”
“Ah,” said the Duke. “Lady Maria, is it?” She bit her bottom lip to keep herself from blurting out a correction. Why were two syllables so difficult for people to remember?
“Yes, My Lord,” she said, forcing a smile.
“Lost?” said the Duchess.
“No…My Lady, just walking about,” she said. “Taking in the sights.”
“If you haven’t already, you must visit the garden,” said the Duchess. “Everything is almost in full bloom.”
Mara refrained from informing the Duchess that gardens did nothing for her. Instead she made a small head-bow. “I will consider it, My Lady,” she said. “Thank you.”
“We have business to attend to, or would linger,” said the Duke. “Enjoy your ‘walking about,’ Lady Maria.”
They exchanged head-bows, and the Duke and Duchess moved on. Mara was about to do the same, and just happened to overhear the Duchess before passing out of earshot: “I’d thought the Prince was not the sort to have a courtesan, but perhaps we were both mistaken.” It was to the Duchess’s advantage that Mara did not know what a courtesan was, nor to what use one was typically put.
Mara found another spiral staircase in a different corner, and followed it to the ground floor, which she knew had the bathing room and banquet hall. Both were still where she’d left them, and next to the banquet hall was a huge reception hall, with open doors, that she had not explored. Like in the banquet hall, there were colored-glass windows, tapestries and heavy furniture, but also wall murals, a wall-sized bas relief depicting a chronology of events, and large, metal chandeliers. She decided that she preferred this room to the banquet hall.
Behind her, four armed guards quick-marched their way into the room. She stood her ground as they quick-marched their way towards her; she subtly looked for exit routes other than the main doors. They stopped about ten feet from her. One of the guards pointed at her.
“Are you the Lady Marla?” he asked roughly. Two syllables…!
“Yes,” she said, not quite succeeding in hiding her frustration.
“You will come with us,” he said. “The King and Queen demand your presence.”
She followed them silently through hallways and up yet more stairs, imagining which punishments they doled out for the crime of Unescorted Wandering. No doubt losing both feet was just the start.
The guards brought her to another set of double doors – not as large as the double doors she’d seen earlier, but ominous enough – and knocked. After a moment a servant opened one door. Mara glimpsed the King inside. As always, he was unsmiling. Proper introductions were made, and suddenly she was inside a room about the size of her guest room, but with sparser furnishings and less light. The servants inside were dismissed. She was alone now with the King and Queen.
A few seconds after the last servant shut the door behind himself, she straightened up, and then dipped once more into a curtsey. “Your Majesties,” she said.
The King pointed to a solitary chair facing one of the windows. “Sit,” he said. She did so immediately.
“Tell me, child,” said the King, “Why is it that we needed to send a contingent of guards to find you and bring you here, after you’d gone missing from your room?”
“I… ” she whispered, unable to meet his gaze, and unable to say more.
“When a King asks you a question,” he said, “You answer it. Quickly.”
“Please forgive me,” she said, and forced herself to look up. The sun was behind them both, silhouetting them. “I-I had no intention of causing an alarm. I-I thought it was– permitted for me to explore the castle. It won’t happen again.”
“No, it won’t,” said the King. “Not without an escort.”
“Now to business,” he said. “When we asked the Prince, he gave a rather… unsatisfactory answer. So we will ask you: what is it about you that makes him think you have the makings of a Princess?”
Mara took time to consider her answer, and she kept looking down, which did not suit the King.
“Why do you think you’re fit to be a Princess?” he asked. She looked up immediately.
“I don’t,” she said quickly. The King raised an eyebrow. “That is– What I mean to say is that I don’t know – exactly -what a Princess does. But I will tell you this: whatever a Princess is supposed to do or be, I swear to you both that I will perform any task, commit to any duties or responsibilities, and do my best at them.”
“You ‘swear’ to do this?” said the King, incredulous.
“Please, Your Majesties,” she said. “I am not an idle person. I need work, tasks, activities, being of use. I could not bear a life of nothing but being bathed and dressed and being served by others. I want to– I want to earn my keep here. Tell me what a Princess does, and I will do it.”
She was surprised that the King and Queen had no answer for her at first. They exchanged looks, and the King stroked his chin in thought while regarding her in silence. Again it became difficult for her to meet either one’s gaze.
“A Princess’s duty, first and foremost,” said the King, “Is to provide suitable heirs to the throne.”
Her reply was one of quiet incomprehension.
“Children,” said the Queen.
“…Children?” she said, swallowing. “And… nothing more?”
“It would be inaccurate to say so,” said the Queen, “But providing heirs would be your first duty to the kingdom.”
“Which you swore to fulfill,” said the King. “Did you not?”
“…Yes, Your Majesties,” she said quietly. “I did so swear.”
“This seems to trouble you,” said the Queen.
“I… It was… unexpected,” said Mara. “That is all. I’m used to being busy with many tasks, and I’ve been told that only one-”
The Queen laughed. “Trust me, child,” she said. “There is no such thing as ‘idleness’ when it comes to the raising of children.”
“Oh,” said Mara, forcing her own laugh, “I’m– certain there is not.”
“That is not to say that we have made our decision about you,” said the King. “That must be clear to you. Do not presume that we are assuring you of your becoming a Princess.”
“Oh… I would not presume so, no, Your Majesty,” she said. “But there is another thing I will swear to you, and I care nothing for its consequences: I swear that, no matter what, I will stand by Kel– the Prince, as his wife and— and companion. I will stand by him.”
” ‘No matter what,’ you say?” said the King.
“He would do the same for me,” she said. “H-he already has. Is doing.”
“It surprises me to think,” said the King, “That I agree with you.”
Mara smiled, then suppressed it. “I’m glad,” she said. “Your Majesty.”
“In fact, he tells us suspect tales of your worthiness,” he said.
“The Prince is fond of describing you as some sort of… life-saver,” said the King. “He insists that you ‘saved his life’ out there. Is that true?”
“…Saved his life?” said Mara. “I’m not sure– Well, yes, he said the same to me, but I don’t think of it like that. I… helped him get work. A job, that is. But I hesitate to call it ‘saving his life.’ ”
“I thought so,” said the King. “The Prince can be given to exag-”
“There was the time he was very sick, though,” said Mara. “Perhaps he meant that?”
“What was that again?” said the Queen, her voice rising. “Did you say he was sick? When? How?”
“Well, about two-”
“Did he have dark markings upon him? Buboes? Lesions??” said the Queen, growing more agitated. The King’s expressions matched hers, but he did not speak.
“Oh, no, no, no,” said Mara. “Your Majesties. W-we think he had bad food. He fully recovered in but a few days. But for at least a day he was very weak, he was vomiting, he had chills–” She gasped. “Oh, no. You were thinking of the plague. It couldn’t have been that. And you’ve seen for yourself that he’s recovered?”
She looked from one to the other and waited for an answer. Her patience was needed here, for it took a long minute before either spoke again. It was the King first.
“What exactly did you do during this time?” he asked.
“I… looked after him, Your Majesty,” she said.
“You may stop calling us that,” he said. “For now, that is. How did you ‘look after him?’ ”
“Well…” she said, shifting in the chair, “He had been up all night, vomiting and with the chills. Neither of us slept. I found a bucket for him to, um, expel into, and brought him some water. He wasn’t keeping anything down during the night. In the morning, our boss wanted him to keep working, but I argued him out of it. Ke– The Prince was too weak and ill. Unfortunately that lost him his wages for the day. I also put cool cloths on his forehead and brought soft foods. And some herbs from an apothecary. Perhaps those helped? And he did get better during the day. I mean that he was able to keep down food and drink, but he was still weak from the ordeal. And then– eventually he got better altogether. I would have stayed with him all the time on the worst day, but I had to keep working, too.”
“What do you mean?” asked the Queen.
“We were both working at an inn,” she said with a shrug. “We had to take care of the guests and everything else for the business. Kenneth – I-I mean Kelvin, the Prince – he called himself Kenneth then – worked with me, but he happened to be sick that one day, and… I had to help him somehow. I’m… I’m very glad that he recovered. Please forgive me: he had told me about the plague, and who you’d lost, and I’d– very briefly– forgotten. Is it too late to offer my condolences?”
“It never is,” said the King. “And… it sounds like the Prince was not exaggerating this time, after all.”
“Saving his life.”
Mara scoffed. “I-I’m certain it’s because he was already healthy and strong,” she said. “And he would have done likewise for me. We both shared our food and drink, and chores. We had to. I was just trying to help.”
All were silent again for an uncomfortable minute.
“I should like to meet this ‘boss’ of his, and yours,” said the Queen.
“Erick?” said Mara. “Money is far too important to him, but I don’t think he had any malice. I think he thought K– the Prince had been drinking, but he hadn’t been. He understood soon enough it was no trick.”
“Nevertheless…” said the Queen, and trailed off. “You may stand now, child.”
“You are free to go,” said the King. Mara curtsied and turned to leave. “We may send for you again, so do not make a habit of wandering the halls unescorted.”
“I will not, Your Majesty,” she said, reddening.
“Child,” said the Queen. Mara turned her way and waited. “Thank you.”
Mara’s eyes widened a little, and she blinked a few times, then curtsied again.
“You’re welcome, Your Majesty.” She did not know the reason for the gratitude, but did not care. A Queen had thanked her.
An older, portly gentleman was standing in the hallway as Mara approached the guest room. She slowed her pace as she realized that he was standing by the door, and eyed him warily. As she neared, he straightened up.
“Lady Mara?” he said. What? Somebody had gotten it right?
Suddenly he bowed to her, which struck her as oddly… comforting. He clasped his hands together as he spoke. “I have been charged by His Royal Highness the Prince to grant you a grand tour of this castle, and its grounds,” he said, adding a flourish to the r’s and a sweeping gesture on “grand.”
“The Prince sent you?” she asked, her face brightening. “Where is he now?”
“No doubt attending to other business, My Lady,” said her would-be guide. He pronounced all of the words with precision, unlike anywhere else here that she’d heard. “Shall we begin now, or is there a more convenient time?”
“I… No,” she said. “That is, this is a good time. I’ve been hoping to see more of this place.”
“Then see it you shall,” he said. “Is there anything you wish to bring with you?”
She was not inside the guest room, but looked around as if trying to spot objects within. Then she pulled up her dress just enough to confirm that her boots were still there. “I don’t think I need anything,” she said.
“Very good, My Lady,” he said, and gestured in the direction they were to begin.
After assuring her that the tour indeed counted as “escorted,” Solomon, the guide, first led her around her own floor, describing the original uses of various rooms, including her own, compared to their current uses. Her room had originally been used for storage, which surprised Mara much less than he realized. Apparently she was always going to be sleeping in closets, no matter their size. Other rooms had been servants’ quarters, or libraries, and even armories at one point.
Solomon also described previous occupants after they had been converted to guest rooms: the more salacious their activities, the more he seemed to enjoy telling of them. Mara was just trying to keep up with all of the stories and hoped she wouldn’t be quizzed on them as part of her “worthiness” to be a Princess.
The second floor turned out to be more interesting. Without knowing it (but suspecting it), she had passed by the King’s and Queen’s royal chambers, and was surprised to learn that they had separate chambers. Mara asked about this, and got a matter-of-fact “Well, of course” as the reply. Her heart quickened when they reached the Prince’s chambers – sadly, with closed doors. She very, very much wanted to knock on the door, but Solomon somehow managed to dissuade her and to move on. At least now she knew which chambers were his.
It was clear that her tour was not going to include visiting any room considered private, such as the royal chambers, study, library, and so on. Therefore, the first floor, with its large halls, got more time and more stories. Many of them involved which esteemed guests had spent time there, how lavish some parties had been, and salacious tales of old that interested her less than Solomon might have guessed. To these, she smiled and nodded to often. He also brought her past the royal kitchen, but did not linger. As they passed she got as good a look inside as she could. Even from the peek she could tell it was far better-equipped than anything that Erick had. But then, this was a royal kitchen.
Finally the tour continued outside, on the castle grounds. It was good to see and feel full sunlight again, and a fresh breeze. The grounds seemed a bit smaller, albeit still of impressive size, than she recalled when first passing through, especially compared to the outside. As if sensing her question, Solomon explained that the grounds consisted of an outer and inner wall, for better security. She silently agreed. As they walked and he talked, she learned that the stone, corner towers in both sets of walls served many purposes, from jails to well-appointed guest residences to storage to points of defense, and so on. Of more interest to her were the various structures along the inside wall, giving the appearance of the main road of any town or village. In a sense, they were, for the structures were both businesses and homes. Whatever a town, village or city needed was here: blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, cobblers, tailors, seamstresses, bakers, butchers, physicians, apothecaries, and on. No inns, though. The tradespeople lived above their businesses, to no surprise. The guards had their own barracks along another part of the grounds. Servants that worked inside the castle also had dwellings along the inner walls.
Opposite where most of the businesses were situated were the various guest houses for visiting lords, ladies, and well-connected commoners. They were separate from the main castle that stood tall in the center of the grounds. It was the first time she’d gotten a good look at the castle. It was mostly a giant cube, being only slightly taller than it was long or wide, broken up by windows on every story and the occasional shallow balcony. Those struck her as somewhat insecure; enemies could put a ladder right next to one or grapple their way up. Then they could pore right in. But who was she to recommend improvements?
Overall the castle’s size was impressive even if its outer decor was not. This hardly bothered her, given its luxurious interior accommodations. For a moment Mara struggled again with a disbelief of her situation. But surely she would have woken by now, if it was all only a dream?
It was with great pride that Solomon brought her to the royal gardens, which were actually available to anyone living within the grounds, but more often visited by the royals and their guests. Given that Mara was herself a guest, he had no qualms about bringing her inside. The garden was fenced in, but not such a fence as to block anyone’s view – merely to contain its growth.
Fortunately Mara had not mentioned to the Duchess her indifference to gardens, for she would have been forced to eat her words. The colors, smells, and even sounds within threatened to take her breath away. It seemed that every flower she could recall seeing in her travels, growing in their own patches in the wild, had been collected and brought together and nurtured. She had seen gardens before, but not this garden. The brilliance of the colors almost hurt her eyes. As they walked and he talked, she noticed more than one archway that they passed through had been grown into that shape and meticulously maintained. Flora of every kind were arranged in attractive patterns and the most complimentary colors. Scattered about on the grounds were elegantly carved wooden benches, some of which blended in so well with the scenery, they seemed to have been grown into their shapes.
She was reluctant to leave, but there was more to the tour, and also, the midday meal was approaching quickly. It was not like her to lose track of time like that; this experience had actually been… quite enjoyable. The rest of the tour was something of a blur; Solomon may have been trying to wrap things up so he, too, could eat. And when it finally ended, and Solomon returned her to the castle and her room, she pondered those areas that had not been part of the tour, besides private chambers: the crown jewels, occupied jails, “the basement,” and other areas no doubt too sensitive to the kingdom’s security for her insecure eyes to see.