–why, yes, it IS a book-length story. Why do you ask?
The Pauper Prince
She found Heather in the separate room where the various guests’ servants were being fed. And entertained, it turns out, since some of them were musically inclined, and had formed a small band that played at a moderate volume. Loud enough to listen and dance to, but quiet enough for others to have conversations. Heather’s back was to her. She seemed to be deep in conversation, but was alerted to Mara’s approach by the reactions of others near her. Namely, they were standing straighter and bowing and curtseying and offering “m’Ladies” to the approaching noblewoman.
Mara held up her hands as she approached. “Oh, please, please, there’s no need,” she said to all. Heather finally turned around, and curtsied to her because there were witnesses. Mara apologized for the intrusion and whispered her need for assistance in being extricated from the dress in order to visit the little noblewoman’s room. Heather snapped into action and led her Lady away.
Kelvin was laughing at a friend’s spot-on impersonation of a notoriously drunk nobleman, when his mother the Queen approached. He was all smiles as he greeted her and praised his friend’s comedic talents, but she was having none of it.
“Have you seen your bride-to-be of late?” she said crisply. Kelvin quieted his chuckling and looked about the room.
“Uhhhh,” he said. “Hm. Well, she did need to leave to — take care of urgent business. Perhaps it’s more involved than usual?”
“I have not seen her for half of an hour,” said the Queen. “There are guests inquiring after her.”
“Should I… go to the garderobe… and-?”
“Wait,” said the Queen. “For that she would need… Uff! I realize now where she must be. Thank you, son.”
Kelvin and all others nearby gave slight bows as the Queen took her leave. She ignored the gauntlet of other guests bowing as she passed, and made straight for the servants’ room.
While the band played on, seated casually on top of a table in spite of the complicated dress, her back to the Queen, was Mara. She was surrounded by commoners who were smiling and listening intently to some story.
“…And then they made me their chief,” she heard Mara say as she approached. Many of the listeners nodded and chuckled, some clapped and laughed, and those who saw the Queen approaching silenced themselves immediately and bowed. Soon enough everyone except the Countess had their head down.
“Oh, you sillies!” said Mara to them. “It wasn’t that good.”
“I wouldn’t know,” said the Queen. “I only heard its punchline.”
Mara yelped and hopped from the table, stumbling forward as she just missed clearing it and hit the edge. She was caught and helped up by two men. She thanked them quietly before facing the Queen and dipping low.
“Oh, get up, you,” snapped the Queen. Mara straightened up quickly and fought to keep her expression neutral. “And the rest of you: You have our gratitude for keeping Her Ladyship entertained, but she must return to her soiree.” She turned and marched from the room. Mara gathered up her dress and hurried to catch up.
She spoke after they had left the room. “Mother Queen, I didn’t realize how long I’d lingered,” she said. “I needed Heather’s help in the – facilities – and after we returned, I was saying hello to them, and started talking, and then-”
“I think I worked out on my own what happened,” said the Queen.
“Are you… angry with me?” said Mara. The Queen stopped walking. They were halfway between the two rooms now.
“Yes,” she said. “And No. Yes that you left your guests for so long.” She sighed. “And no that… you strive to be a Princess of the people.”
“I’m not– striving, Mother Queen,” said Mara, struggling for a proper response. “Not that I’m aware of? It just… happened. And I should be meeting all guests, yes?”
“Those are not the guests,” she said. “They are the servants of the guests. Come.”
“Mother Queen,” said Mara. “A moment, please. I need… I need guidance from you. At times you encourage me to never forget what and who I am, and at other times… the opposite. Please be plain with me. Must I really choose whom to associate with: rich or poor? Can I not do both?”
“Well, of course you can do both,” said the Queen. “That’s a silly question. We all speak to gentry and servants.”
“It’s only that I don’t wish to speak to servants, as servants,” said Mara. “That is the difference.”
The Queen sighed. “A talk for another time,” she said. “In the meantime, you’ve not even begun to meet the guests. And there is more dancing, there will be entertainment. Come, come…”
Mara resumed her place as the lady on the Prince’s arm. A royalty-approved story of their courtship had been sent here and there, to discourage suspicious guests from interrogating her on the spot. Mara objected to the notion of any of it being patently untrue, however. Surprisingly, the family did work within that stipulation and created an honest, if incomplete, history for her. They had met during his travels, she had never been to the kingdom before and so did not recognize him as the Prince during their meetings, though the part about his life as a pauper had been omitted. She was still an orphan, and because it was entirely possible for one to be landed gentry, but dirt-poor, she was never described as personally wealthy. A story just detailed enough to tide over most, and just vague enough to cover some truths.
Most of the guests were content to greet her, congratulate her, then begin speaking to Kelvin. At least she got to practice her smile and “queenspeech.” Eventually the queue dwindled to nothing, and she made her way to Countess Lucinda, a familiar face in the crowd. Someone, at least, she could hold a conversation with. It wasn’t a very deep one, but there was more than small talk.
A small, blonde woman appearing to be their age approached. She smiled politely and nodded. Mara wondered if her smile was really as bittersweet as it seemed, or if she was reading into things too much.
“Ladies,” the woman said. “I am Countess Yvette of Spatten. I… wish to congratulate you on your betrothal to His Highness.”
“Oh, thank you,” said Mara, smiling warmly. “And thank you for coming, as well. I hope your journey was not long or uncomfortable? Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Oh… yes,” said Yvette. “Considering.”
“Is everything all right?”
“Ah, Yvette,” said Lucinda familiarly. Mara wondered if they knew each other. “My condolences on your loss.”
Yvette seemed puzzled.
“Oh, no,” said Mara. “You’ve borne a loss? Was it recent? I also offer condolences.”
“I’m not certain what you mean,” said Yvette, eyeing them both.
“Did I misunderstand?” said Mara to Lucinda.
“Not at all,” said Lucinda. “The Countess here has lost a Prince.”
Mara gasped. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. “Your kingdom’s Prince? I hadn’t heard any such news. Were you close?”
Yvette’s mouth tightened. She looked from one to the other, then grunted, turned abruptly, and stormed away. Lucinda giggled while Mara watched her meet up with another woman on the other side of the room.
“What happened?” said Mara. “Did we say something to offend? Should we not have offered condolences?”
Lucinda smiled and patted her shoulder. “Oh, you did that so well.”
“Did what?” said Mara. “And why are you laughing? You said she lost a Prince. That doesn’t seem like something to snigger about.”
“Oh, stop it, dear,” said Lucinda. “You know very well which Prince she ‘lost.'”
Mara stared at her uncomprehendingly. Lucinda sighed and glanced towards Kelvin. Mara looked his way, then back at her, and the comprehension came. She gasped loudly and glared at her friend.
“No,” she said. “She was one of the women who-? Oh, Lucinda, how could you?? I’m not interested in making enemies!”
“She’s not worth making friends with,” she said. “And stop pretending you didn’t know.”
Mara leaned close and kept her voice low, but through gritted teeth. “I did! not! know!” she said. “Their names were never spoken to me!”
“Oh, this is-! Uuugh! I-I must make amends now!” sputtered Mara, and turned to leave.
Lucinda caught her by the arm. ” ‘Make amends?’ You intend to apologize? He chose you, not her!”
“That has nothing to do with this! I knew the day would come when I would meet at least one of those women, but it’s never been my intention to mock them to their faces! You do what you like, but I must–!”
Mara grunted in frustration, pulled away from Lucinda’s grasp and moved with great determination across the room. She acknowledged straggling well-wishers with a smile and a head bob, but did not stop to make conversation. Yvette was still with her companion, another woman seemingly of the same age, who was listening sympathetically to her impassioned speech, the topic of which Mara likely knew.
The companion saw her first, and glared silently as Mara approached them both.
“Countess,” said Mara, relaxing her arms, but clasping her hands in front. “Countess, I beg your pardon for the intrusion, but there’s been a terrible mistake.”
“Yes,” said the companion, “More than one, at least.”
Mara glanced at the woman, then back to Yvette. “I sincerely apologize for any pain caused you. I truly had no idea that you were… that you had been presented to His Highness and… er… I-I believed my friend that you had lost someone dear to you. My offer of condolences was sincere.”
Yvette begrudgingly made eye contact with her. “No idea? Really? I am no fool, Countess of Riverbend.”
“But I didn’t,” she said. “Your name was never spoken to me. Truly! Perhaps they wished to-”
“Nor mine?” said her companion.
“I’m sorry, I–” said Mara, peering at her. “No, actually. You are…?”
“Duchess,” she said. “Duchess Cecily of Warbon. I, too, had been ‘presented to His Highness.'”
“Oh,” said Mara, and was quiet a moment to take it all in. “My Ladies,” she said, “I have no reason to make enemies of you, or anyone else here, I assure you! Would you be willing to start fresh, here and now? It is true that your names were never spoken to me, until now. I believe that the royal family was being discreet on your behalf, nothing more. Will you… If you’re not leaving straightaway tomorrow, would you be willing to have tea with me? Give me the chance to make amends?”
The two women were quiet, but relaxed their glares. They traded looks and sighed.
“We… may be able to,” said Yvette with a shrug.
“Will she be there?” said the Duchess, gesturing behind Mara. Lucinda was there, watching the scene with a slightly contrite expression. She forced a smile and shrugged.
“Ladies,” she said, “I was only making sport. Surely worse things have been said of us all.”
“Lucinda…” groaned Mara, palming her face.
“My apologies,” she said, holding up her hands. “I meant no disrespect or disdain.”
An awkward silence followed as the two women decided whether to accept it or not. Mara did not wait.
“Tomorrow,” she said, “At 10 o’clock, I will have tea and cakes in my parlor. I would be honored if you joined me. If you do not… I will understand.”
The women traded looks again, then nodded slowly. Mara smiled and made pleasant goodbyes. Lucinda mirrored her friend’s actions, then led her away by the hand.
“Well played,” she said.
“Stop that. You’re the one who made trouble,” said Mara.
Lucinda was about to protest, when Kelvin appeared at Mara’s side. The musicians had returned from their break and started another musical introduction.
“Beautiful ladies,” he said, taking her arm. “I hope I’m not interrupting, but we’re being summoned again to the dance floor.”
Mara stifled a groan and forced a smile. “Ohhhh, my favorite part of the evening… again,” she said.
Heather and Mara had started working together to lay out the tea and snacks. Mara had fussed and fretted over what would be the perfect food and drink to offer, working herself up more and more until Heather all but ordered her to her bedroom and to let the professional take over. That way Heather could be finished in only a few minutes versus a half hour. Mara was allowed back inside only after she was done. She wanted Heather to stay, but Heather bowed out gracefully, knowing better than her Lady that she was unusual for a high-born woman. Others did not wish to fraternize with serv– assistants.
Mara tried to sit quietly, but could not help but fidget, whether it was to adjust her clothes for the dozenth time, rearrange the items on the table, or get up and keep tidying the room. She made herself sit down again and be still, but the bowl of nuts in the center of the table called her name. She grabbed the bowl and began noshing impulsively. In the past she had forgone buying nuts because of the expense, but now that they were plentiful to her, she could hardly keep her hands away from them.
Her mouth was full of walnuts and pecans, when there was a knock at the door. She got up quickly and was halfway to the door, then realized that she still held the bowl, and almost tossed it too hard back onto the table. It slid a bit and stopped just short of crushing any of the cakes. She suppressed the urge to fix the arrangement, and hurried to open the door. Lucinda was there, with an offering of a loaf of bread. Mara let her in and quickly returned to the table. It took her some time to figure out where to place the bread for maximum aesthetic effect.
Lucinda seated herself. “No guests yet?” she said.
“Well, there’s you,” said Mara, finally placing the bread just so before sitting. Lucinda feigned a pained expression.
“Really?” she said. “I’m only a ‘guest?’ ”
“Yes,” said Mara. “I mean– No. That is-”
Lucinda smiled and clasped her hand. “I tease, dear. You know that.”
“I don’t,” she said. “That is– not really. Not as easily as you think. You see–” Mara stopped, trying to work out how to speak of herself within her royalty-approved lifestory. “I was– When I was young, I–” She threw up her hands in frustration and submitted to at least one truth. “My father was unkind to me,” she said. “I was never ‘teased.’ Never gently ribbed in jest or affection. Always… the cruelest of taunts and jeering. So it’s very difficult for me to tell… Oh, listen to me. I’m being overwrought and foolish.”
Mara’s hand hovered over the nut bowl again, but she forced herself to keep her hands in her lap. Then she took the teapot and began pouring for her friend.
“If it’s too cool,” she said, “Let me know, and I’ll ask Heather to bring more.”
“Thank you,” said Lucinda, helping herself to condiments. “Mara… What you’ve just said is news to me. Your father was cruel to you?”
“Ahhh,” she said. “You know, I-I should have said nothing. We must be cheerful for our guests.”
“Yes, the ones who haven’t arrived yet,” said Lucinda. Mara got up and went to the door. She opened it and looked up and down the hallway, then lingered a few seconds. Then she shut it and returned to her seat.
“I told you they weren’t worth it,” said Lucinda.
“Lucinda, please,” said Mara. “I… I’ll make no judgments. I did say that I’d understand if they didn’t come. And… I made an honest effort to make amends. I hope that’s enough. But why were you cruel to her in the first place?”
She made a noise of exasperation. “I was not trying to be cruel,” she said. “I was only making sport. I didn’t realize she’d be so hurt by it. Really, dear, it’s been over a year since His Highness turned them down. Their parents should have found someone else by now. I hear that one of them – er, Countess Viola, I think – she ended up marrying. No doubt she’s moved on.”
“Even so,” said Mara, pouring her own tea, but then leaning back in her seat rather than drinking. “I’ve been interested in meeting them for some time now, if only to make up my own mind about them. The only thing I knew was that Kelvin had turned them down, and little else. I hadn’t been thinking of them as poor girls to be mocked for it. And since I don’t know how to tease or ‘make sport,’ as you say, I don’t do it to others. Not on purpose, anyway.”
“Ugh,” said Lucinda. “I am sorry. Will that do?”
“I’m not angry with you,” said Mara. “There’s no need for that. What I meant to say is– Look, growing up, I had no friends. And I don’t exaggerate. I had no friends. But if you’d asked me then if I were lonely, I might have laughed, or scoffed, or… actually, more than likely growled something incoherent and stormed away, if I didn’t try to strike you, or something. But now…” Her words drifted off, as did her gaze. She took her first sip of the tea, then added a bit of sugar to it and tried again.
“I know now what I’d been missing,” she said. “I’m not– foolish enough to think I can be friends with everyone in the world. But it won’t be because I’m trying to make enemies.” She laughed once. “It just struck me as funny. I didn’t have friends, and thought little to nothing of it, but now I have them, and– I never want to be the other way again. But back then, I never thought to have any! I suspect that ‘old me’ would see me now as naive or foolish for placing such importance on befriending anyone. Isn’t that funny to you?”
Lucinda bobbed her head a bit in thought. “I see what you mean,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s ‘funny,’ though. But if you truly grew up with such cruelty and loneliness until now, I’m… well, I’m happy for you that your fortunes have changed. Really changed. And oh! Once you and His Highness are married, we can trade stories about our husbands!” She giggled.
“Er, why not now?”
“Oh, no, no, dear,” said Lucinda, clasping her hand again. “You’re betrothed, but that is not enough. You haven’t had the true husband and wife experiences yet.”
“Ah,” said Mara, nodding. “I’ll try to think of some good stories, then.”
When Heather returned to the room to freshen up the tea and snacks, Yvette and Cecily had still not arrived. Mara finally convinced Heather to join them for the rest of the teatime. Lucinda would not herself have befriended her own handmaidens, but knew of and accepted Mara’s sometimes odd choice of companion. At least now she understood better why the Countess seemed to seek out friends anywhere and everywhere.