The Pauper Prince
She had been awkward. He had been clumsy. More than once they had fallen into spasms of nervous laughter. She had barely stopped in time from wetting herself, and he had needed to roll away to take care of a coughing fit. But two hours later they were asleep in each others’ arms; her lips were turned up in a small, but contented, smile.
A noise from outside woke the Prince. He opened his eyes, blinked, and scanned the room a bit. His new wife rested her right arm across his chest. He was on his back; she was on her side, her face almost touching his shoulder. She warmed it a little with every breath. He listened for a bit. The sounds outside were nothing unusual for the castle, save for some added conversation and other bustling, thanks to the wedding reception. Their reception. They would have to make an appearance… eventually.
He placed his hand on hers gently so as not to wake her. She had bragged long ago about being a light sleeper, but that had changed once she had been introduced to comfortable beds. As he took the hand, stroked it, and kissed it, her face showed no sign of being roused. He stared at her emerald betrothal ring, remembering that it had quickly gone from something she was afraid to lose or break, to indispensable. That and her new wedding ring were the only items she was wearing. He could not claim to be wearing anything at all.
After one more, lingering look at her face, he moved out of bed in slow-motion and carefully let her arm come to rest on his now-empty spot on the bed. His valet had set aside his clothing for the reception. His wedding outfit was fine for show but too uncomfortable for much else.
“Hello,” he heard, after he’d managed to put on all but his shirt and surcoat. Naturally it was Mara, propped up in bed and giving him a languid smile. He smiled back and opened his mouth to reply, then took the time to… take in the sight of her first. Like himself, she needed time to blink, scan the room, and get out of bed in slow-motion. She sat on the edge of the bed and glanced his way from time to time.
“Hello to you, too,” he said, pulling on his shirt and starting to button it. “Your Highness.”
That got him a quizzical look. Then a few seconds later, comprehension, a light laugh, and “Ah. Hm.” Then she stared at him some more.
“You’re almost dressed,” she said. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
He shrugged. “I couldn’t bear to disturb you,” he said. “You looked more peaceful and contented than I’d ever seen. Which is flattering, considering…”
She waited for more, and when there was none: “Considering what?”
“Ah… Well…” he said, “Songs and poems won’t be written about my… performance. Unless they’re a comedy, I suppose.”
She wrinkled her brow, then stood up and went to her own wardrobe. “I’m going to match your colors,” she said, and peered over to study his clothing.
“Oh, that’s a good idea,” he said flatly, nodding, then was quiet.
She picked at a few items, then left the wardrobe and went to him, still clothed in naught but her jewels. She held his face in her hands, gently kissed his lips once, then paused to gauge his reaction. He seemed unwilling to meet her gaze. Undaunted, she kissed him twice more.
“Darling,” she called him for the first time, “I am satisfied. And I look forward to the next time and the next, for I know we want nothing more than each other’s satisfaction. We’ll only get better.”
He met her gaze now, then offered a bittersweet smile. “Next time I promise not to cough in your face.”
She laughed and smiled – so warm, so full of love – and they touched foreheads. She closed her eyes.
“I’m proud of you,” she whispered.
“Presenting His Royal Highness Prince Kelvin and his radiant bride, Her Royal Highness Princess Mara!” Solomon truly enjoyed applying his mighty voice to its best advantage. Though wishing he had merely whispered their arrival so they could sneak inside, Mara gave him a pleasant smile after his introduction before following her new husband into the fray.
Their colors did match. Mara’s elaborate braids had been brushed out by Kelvin himself, for neither had the ability to reweave them like Heather could. Mara had been taught a few tricks, though, and managed to arrange her hair at least presentably. Kelvin’s little joke about newlyweds applied to themselves, then: they had arrived at the reception less well-dressed and groomed than at their wedding.
The King and Queen had learned two things in between the engagement banquet and the wedding itself. One is that their future daughter-in-law had made up her own mind about whom she would associate with. The second is that their son, the Prince, was true to his word about standing behind her at all times. Given his erstwhile time as a commoner, he had gained a much greater appreciation for their work, and yet remained merely polite and receptive to the help rather than actively befriending them. Mara, though, firmly believed that it was possible to cultivate friendships with gentry and non-gentry alike, and would not tolerate being told otherwise. Their appeals to him to “speak sense” into her were met with an immovable resolve to support her.
This led to, after a prolonged discussion amongst all parties, a compromise for the wedding and reception. All classes were welcome at the wedding, though the ordinary folk had been relegated to the last rows in the cathedral. No one would be required to stand, either. Mara had been too overwhelmed by the ceremony to remember who had been sitting where, but for the reception, the compromise was that, for the sake of the delicate natures of the nobility, they could still celebrate in separate rooms as their servants and other staff, but the Royal Couple would absolutely make it a point of mingling with everyone at some point during the soiree. The servants and staff were still guests, as far as she, and so the Prince as well, were concerned. The reception was expected to go one for two to three days to allow for latecomers and those with extraordinary endurance.
The scene was similar to the engagement banquet, with a few notable exceptions: this time there was other royalty besides from Gildern. The engagement banquet had been more or less optional for other royal families, though a royal wedding and its reception were something else entirely. Mara was introduced to three other sets of Kings and Queens, plus a Prince and Princess or two. She prided herself on quietly working out the reason that no Princess had been presented to Kelvin; Princes outweighed the Princesses, and all but one that she met were already married. Her royal etiquette classes had taught her to curtsey to the Kings and Queens but to greet her “peers” eye-to-eye.
What she did find unsettling, though, was that her (former) peers, friends, and acquaintances were now greeting her with bows, dips, and “Your Highnesses.” As always, she was especially unnerved by women humbling themselves before her. But she kept silent about it in public and gave a grateful smile to each greeter. Even Lucinda dipped before her, and later, all three of Kelvin’s former suitors, albeit in their own time and as part of their families. Mara made it a point of greeting them all as pleasantly as possible and saying nothing of the “no-show” she had gotten at her tea party.
She was also mildly taken aback by the extraordinary enthusiasm most of the female guests had for examining her wedding ring. Both rings, for those who had never seen either. Many of the same women then started pointing out and explaining their own jewels to Mara, who nodded politely at their stories and forced her smiles. Then someone else – sometimes more than one person – would start talking to her at the same time. As long as they didn’t expect her to comprehend all of the conversations and answer with any intelligence, she could manage.
Finally she felt Kelvin hooking her arm, smiling and waving to the crowd, and leading her to a welcome sight: their banquet table. After the King once again led the toast to the happy couple, they piled their plates high and dug in, for neither had had the opportunity to eat or drink all day. Most of the guests had already eaten, as urged by the King and Queen. Everyone had known the Royal Couple was going to be occupied for a while; no need for everyone else to starve.
Princess… Anne, she believed, sat beside her while she ate and drank, and proceeded to talk about anything and everything as though they had been best friends their whole life. Mara “mm-hm”ed and nodded occasionally in between bites. Her husband, Prince… Rupert?, chatted amiably with Kelvin while he was eating and drinking, but with much fewer words. From what Mara overheard, she deduced that they had at least been good acquaintances their whole lives.
Dessert was brought to them both – a tantalizing sampling of small cakes, custards, honeyed fruits and other items. Mara was trying to decide which one to eat first, when Prince Rupert decided that now was the time to offer her more well-wishes and engage her in conversation.
“I highly recommend the tart,” he said, pointing to one on the platter. She nodded and added it to her plate.
“Mm, thank you for the suggestion, Your Highness,” she said, and took a bite. Rupert looked amusedly at her, then at Kelvin, and shrugged. She had forgotten that “Highnesses” did not need to refer to each other as such, but she was new to this game, after all.
“Enjoying yourself, my dear?” Rupert asked his wife. Anne locked arms with her, prompting a bit of a surprised look from Mara, but she had learned a lot by now about restraint.
“Oh, yes,” said Princess Anne, “Mara and I are firm friends now, aren’t we?”
Mara opened her mouth to reply, when the musicians began a stirring introduction to a waltz. Anne cooed and released Mara to come around the table and take Rupert’s hand. Both looked back at the new Royal Couple expectantly. Everyone in the room was looking, in fact. Mara was busy buttering a biscuit and did not notice. She was then interrupted by Kelvin clearing his throat. She looked to him; he nodded towards the center of the room, and she finally noticed all eyes upon them. She groaned quietly, made a pouty face, then let Kelvin take her hand and lead her once again to the dance floor. Solomon cleared his throat.
“My Lords and Ladies!” he bellowed. “Make way for Their Highnesses Prince Kelvin and Princess Mara, and allow them to lead us in dance!” She liked it much better when they had been quiet about it. They took their places on the dance floor and locked gazes again, and were still able to lose themselves in each other’s eyes, but she was actually aware of her surroundings this time. This was not due to a diminishing of their attraction to one another, but a strengthening of perception.
For the first song they were given the floor to themselves. In preparation for this event they had been practicing together for months, and as onlookers of centuries later might have described, they “owned” the floor. Their twirls, their swirls, their lifts and their dips were graceful and flawless. They overheard a few oohs and ahhs from the onlookers. He no longer allowed her to claim incompetence at dance, though she did still try to claim inexperience. It was not dancing with him or in general that bothered her, but performing before others. If the guests would only leave the room, she could go on all night and day.
The applause at the song’s end was prolonged and enthusiastic, though the musicians paused only briefly before beginning the next number. The floor filled immediately with other couples. Mara quietly indicated her desire to leave it to them, but Kelvin held his place and beckoned her closer. He murmured that they needed to stay and keep leading the couples in a group dance. Mara lost her smile; she did not care for dancing with men other than Kelvin and his father, but found the fortitude to continue. The various couples bowed to their initial partners, and began. She kept the same neutral smile on her face as partner after partner changed every few measures or so, and only brightened when Kelvin or his father took her hands, until something happened.
Mentally, it was as if she were suddenly back at the Eleanor Elaine, serving customers, cleaning rooms, chopping food, swabbing floors, putting up chairs… and now, dancing with royalty. Not even a year had passed since her time of sleeping on cots and worrying about blowing herself up from stray flour in a candle’s flame, and she was dancing with the ruling class, accepted as one of their own, at her own wedding to a Prince. It was as if everything had happened to her in the span of a day.
She began to laugh. As much to herself as possible at first, but keeping her mouth closed led to snickering, and her partners that noticed it wondered if they’d done something ridiculous. “It isn’t you!” she’d try to explain through giggles as they went to the next partner, but she could not tell if it did any good.
The next time she joined hands with Kelvin, tears were in her eyes. The music had been loud enough to cover most of her noise, but he had heard somebody laughing, and was mildly dismayed that it turned out to be her. She clamped her mouth shut and gave him her best puppy-dog eyes before losing it again. Kelvin quickly pulled her from the dance, apologizing to their next would-be partners along the way. The other dancers were mostly undaunted and quickly reformed their lines.
“I’m so sorry,” she said as he led her away from the floor and towards the main entrance. “What are you doing? Am I being thrown out?”
“Hardly,” he said, acknowledging Solomon’s substitute at the door as they passed. They ducked into an alcove. She took several slow, deep breaths, then sighed.
“Ahhh,” she said. “I am so sorry. Please tell me I haven’t embarrassed you.”
“A little,” he said. “Had a bit of wine, darling?”
She thought before answering. “No, not enough to give me such fits. I was just… Suddenly I thought of where I used to be, and where I am now, and… couldn’t stop.”
Kelvin only stared in response.
“I-I’m being silly,” she said, and clasped her hands together. “All right! I’m done with that. No more embarrassments. We return to the dance.”
“I’d rather return to the bedroom,” he said, and pulled her into a kiss. She happily accepted it, and let him push her against the wall of the alcove, not caring how loud or sloppy they sounded. Solomon, returning to his post after a brief respite, overheard enough to arouse his suspicions. He snuck over to investigate, realized quickly what was happening, and stood just outside of the alcove with his back to them, mostly blocking the view from the hallway. He nodded to a passerby, who was distracted by the noise. Solomon smacked his lips and sniffled loudly as a way of “explanation.”
Kelvin noticed all this and poked his head out. Solomon remained at his post, a look of great dignity on his face. Kelvin patted his shoulder. “You’re a good man,” he said.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” was the crisp reply.
The Prince and Princess emerged from the shadows arm in arm. There was some awkwardness as they began moving in opposite directions: she back to the Great Hall and he away from it, towards their bedroom.
“Dear…?” he said.
“Darling,” she said. “…I confess to feeling a bit guilty. We promised to visit everyone here, and we haven’t even done that yet. I mean our other guests, in the other room. May we stop there first and mingle?”
She sensed his frustration as he alternated between looking down the hall and back to the party. He rubbed the back of his neck. She gave him her best plaintive look.
“But now?” he said.
“I just want to be fair,” she said, laying her hand flat against his chest. “We shouldn’t be long.”
He sighed. “Very well. I’ll join you shortly, though. You can pave the way for my arrival.”
“Oh, indeed, sir,” she said with a bow. “I shall be your herald.”
“Make it a big announcement, then,” he said, playing along. “Give them my full lineage and all of my titles. Oh, and remind them how handsome I am.”
She pondered this. “I’ll remind them about the handsomeness, but if I give all your names and titles, no one will get any sleep tonight.”
“That will cost you.”
“I’ll pay it!”
Giggling, she parted from him to return to the Great Hall. He managed to give her bottom a quick swat before she was out of reach. She grunted, but otherwise did not react or stop. Once back inside, she looked for a path to the door in the far corner that led to the next room. A path that had the fewest guests, but it did not matter. As she moved, more well-wishers came to her and babbled congratulations and so forth. She acknowledged them all politely as she made her way across. It was Countess Lucinda who managed to intercept her and lock arms.
“Oh!” she said. “My goodness, dear, I thought it would be ages before we could talk!” She started pulling Mara from her path to the door, and brought her to one of the few corners of the room not crowded with guests. She let go, leaned in close, and spoke in low tones.
“At last you have your first story to tell!” she said, and winked. Mara was merely puzzled. “Between the ceremony and when you arrived here?” Still nothing. “You knowww: Your first act as husband and wife.” Mara shrugged. “Oh, please, you cannot pretend to not know what I mean.”
Mara finally knew what she meant, and gasped. “Now?” she said. “Lu– Oh, come now, you really can’t wait? At least let us be alone first! Fully alone! Besides, it was not– No, never mind. You know that I love you dearly, but this isn’t the time or place.”
The Countess bit her lip. “You’re right,” she said. “We’ll find a room away from here to talk.”
“But you see,” said Mara, “You did catch me leaving for another room. And you’re welcome to join me, but it’s to visit our other guests.”
Lucinda looked about the room. “Which other guests?”
“The ones in the next room,” said Mara. “You know, the… servants. Staff. Attendants. We promised to visit them.”
“Oh,” said Lucinda, nodding vaguely. “Well… That’s kind of you. But I shouldn’t interfere. It’s your affair and they’re your… guests. But please do me a favor, if you would, and make sure that Constance and Lorraine aren’t doing anything… unseemly?”
It took Mara a moment to remember that she was referring to her own attendants. She nodded. “Of course, dear,” she lied, and disappeared down the hall. Whatever the help cared to do in their own segregated party was their business, as long as no harm was done to themselves or the castle.
By the time Lucinda arrived at the room to collect her handmaidens for assistance in the “little noblewoman’s” room, both the Princess and Prince were there, “visiting” the lower classes and were somehow not the centers of attention they should have been. Servants were lounging about, picking at the food and drink of their buffet table like it was meant to be eaten with the fingers, talking loudly, laughing loudly, singing off-key loudly, and dancing wildly. She couldn’t help staring at this strange Royal Couple, who managed to be islands of grace and reserve in this sea of coarseness. Two giggling women who clearly had had too much to drink approached her, and she recognized them in time as Constance and Lorraine. They stifled their laughter enough to dip clumsily before their lady.
“Having fun, girls?” she said icily.
“Mm, yesh, thank you, y’r Ladyshhip,” slurred Constance.
Lorraine giggled some more. “Shhe can’ e’en talk!”
The Countess made a noise of disgust and began pulling them both from the room, allowing herself another look back at her friend, who was sharing a loud laugh with her redheaded servant. The Prince, for his part, showed more dignity and merely smiled quietly. It seemed odd to her that, not only had the Princess not outgrown her strange need to befriend simply everyone, but she had pulled her husband along, as well, and appeared to actually enjoy their company more than with her own kind.
She was more distracted than she’d thought. Lorraine’s touch on her arm startled her, but she quickly gathered her composure and led them from the room.