The Pauper Prince – Part 25

The Pauper Prince
Chapter 25

Before Princess Anne returned home, she offered an open invitation to her peer to visit her home in the kingdom of Halliard “anytime.” The Queen accepted immediately on Mara’s behalf, and even set the time for her of a month’s hence. The trip would be four days by carriage, and as always, with an armed escort. Mara hoped to impress upon the King and Queen that a less obvious way of traveling would reduce her chances of being attacked, but they were unmoved. No incognito travel and certainly without protection. No longer a commoner, indeed.

And before the Queen had begun retraining her as a “gift” to the Prince, Mara received news that Ophelia’s child had been born, so she decided to make good on her offer to visit. Heather knew Ophelia and was perhaps even more excited to see the newborn. Ophelia and her family lived above the coopers’ workshop, where her husband plied his trade.

They brought a soft, warm blanket and a basket of assorted foods: mostly bread, cheese and fruit. Ophelia’s mother answered the door and was quite taken aback that the Princess had come calling, but recovered quickly and ushered them both in with some fanfare for the sake of the other occupants. Like many of the castle workers’ abodes it was one room, but cleverly partitioned either by tall furniture, curtains or makeshift walls. There was enough furniture to accommodate multiple people and yet somehow did not seem crowded.

Ophelia, her younger sister and a friend were sitting by the light to work on their latest sewing project. After a brief moment of shock, Ophelia and the other women hastily put aside their work and stood and dipped and fawned. Mara tried to calm everyone down, then gave up and let the excitement die out on its own. Her even younger brother, who appeared between 6 and 8 years of age, just stared at the “really tall lady” bringing gifts and saying hello to everyone.

Then Ophelia proudly retrieved her newborn son from his cradle. Heather’s face lit up at the sight of the child, and her smile was almost as big as her friend’s. Mara was too busy being surprised by how very small a newborn is. She had seen babies before, of course, but from a distance and had never really lingered on them. Until now.

“My little boy,” said Ophelia quietly, smiling and nodding. “My little Nathaniel. After his father.” She brought the infant closer and stood between them, but held him closer to Mara. “Do you see, Nathaniel? Our Princess has come here, just to see you!”

“Oh…” said Mara, blushing. “Well… We came to see all of you, really, Heather and I. We just wanted to see how all of you are. See how you and- Nathaniel – are doing.”

Ophelia’s mother sent her younger daughter downstairs to fetch Ophelia’s husband. The girl protested mildly, preferring to hobnob with royalty, but was scolded into obedience. Mara inwardly cringed, but the scolding was not harsh enough for her to consider intervening.

Meanwhile, Heather could stand it no longer and begged to hold the child, which the beaming new mother was glad to oblige. Clearly Heather had experience in handling babies, for she held him correctly straight away and as if she were born to it. She turned so that her Lady could see his face full-on.

His eyes were closed, so Mara thought he might be asleep, but his face was still so active. His brow twitched, his nostrils flared, his cheeks scrunched, his lips tightened and quivered, and all sorts of movement occurred. In spite of not knowing what was proper behavior when viewing babies, she became lost in thought just watching him. Was he having vivid dreams? Would he remember any of them years later? Could infants form full thoughts, but just could not speak them yet? Did-?

“He brings hope to our family,” she heard the mother say. The others murmured in agreement.

“Hope?” said Mara, tearing away from her thoughts.

The mother nodded. “Little Nathaniel is the first born in our family since the dark days.” The plague, Mara thought. Ophelia went to her mother and put an arm around her.

“You lost loved ones,” said Mara.

The mother nodded again and took a deep breath. “My husband,” she said. Ophelia leaned closer to her. “My eldest son.”

“Auntie,” added Ophelia. Her mother tightened her mouth.

“I’ve… I was told that everyone lost someone back then,” said Mara. “I hope you’ll accept my condolences.”

“Yes, of course,” said the mother. “Thank you. And you bring hope to your family.”

“Mine?” she asked uncertainly.

“With your child,” said the mother. “Our Prince and Princess were also lost in the dark days. And now here you are, with His Highness, restoring hope to your family. And by extension, the whole kingdom.”

Mara felt her face warming into another blush. She fidgeted and cleared her throat. More people making her child more important than others. “Ahhhh,” she said. “Every child brings hope to the kingdom. Nathaniel, as well.”

Ophelia smiled sadly. “That’s very kind of you to say so, your Highness.”

“But it’s true,” said Mara.

“My Lady,” said Heather, “Do you wish to hold him? Oh, I am sorry, Ophelia. Would it bother you if Her Highness held him?”

“Oh!” said Ophelia, clasping her hands together in delight. “That would be-! Here, allow me…” She went to Heather and took back her child, then held him out to Mara, who took a step back and almost held up her hands in protest, but resorted to more fidgeting instead.

“Now, now, wait,” said Mara. “I’ve never– I don’t want to hurt him.”

“Of course you won’t, your Highness,” said Ophelia, smiling and continuing to push him towards her.

“It’ll be good practice for you,” said Heather with an impish grin.

Mara “hmph”ed at her, then apprehensively took the child from Ophelia, and was more than willing to be shown how to hold him without dropping, crushing, twisting or suffocating him. Satisfied that her child was, more or less, safe in the Princess’ arms, Ophelia took a step back and tried to stifle a delighted giggle.

“Well done, my Lady,” said Heather.

“Surely this is not the first time you’ve held a babe?” said the mother.

“Uh…” said Mara, glancing at him to make sure he was still alive. He was so light. “Yes?”

As if Ophelia needed a reason to be even more proud. Just then the younger daughter returned with her brother-in-law, whose eyes went wide at the sight of a royal Princess cradling his newborn son. Ophelia rushed to him and dragged him over to make introductions. He was too flustered to remember about greeting etiquette, or coherent conversation, for that matter. Mara, wishing to cause no more fuss, congratulated them both and then all others present before handing the boy back to his mother and thanking them for allowing the visit.

In the flurry of final farewells and offers of gratitude, Ophelia’s young sister rushed forward to hug Mara. Before the Princess could reciprocate, the girl was pulled away by her mother, and another scolding ensued. The mother offered the explanation to their visitors that the girl hugs “everyone,” and promised to break her of the habit, in spite of Mara’s insistence that it was very endearing and that no correction was needed – especially not the violent kind.

The young boy then announced loudly that he would never hug a girl, and folded his arms defiantly. Another unruly child to embarrass the family! Mara, amused, knelt down and beckoned him forward. After some hesitation and an urging from his irritated mother, he complied.

“Far be it from me to predict if you’ll ever hug a girl,” she said, “But your mother is correct about your little nephew. You know that you’re his uncle, yes?” The boy nodded. “He brings hope to your family, and to the kingdom. That means that you have a duty to help your family look after him. To help keep him safe, and strong, and healthy. Can you do that? Can you perform that duty?”

The boy seemed to give it serious thought. Finally he nodded. “Yes, I can,” he said.

His mother corrected, “‘Yes I can’… your Highness.

Mara stood up and waved it off. “His duty is more important,” she said, winking. Then a solemnity overcame her. “Duty is the most important thing for us all, isn’t it?” She offered a smile, but the room was oddly quiet. She and Heather took advantage of this and left without further ado.

****************************

Mara thought it best to leave Heather behind while she traveled to the kingdom of Halliard. She assumed her friend would welcome the break from her duties, and more importantly, could find more time to spend with Leonard and to further their wedding plans. Unfortunately the King and Queen, especially the Queen, disagreed, and took the opportunity to remind the Princess that the servants should not be left to their own idle ways. That and the girl’s parents were handling the wedding preparations. Mara was quite apologetic to her friend while explaining the situation. Heather insisted that all was well; Mara tried to determine if she was bothered by this, but could not.

Because the ride would take four days and three nights, she assumed that they would make stops as needed at taverns along the way or, in lieu of any nearby towns or villages, set up camp. That’s what she had had to do when traveling, after all. It never occurred to her that they would be staying at the large manor homes and castles of local lords and ladies. So that’s how rich people traveled! She had seen such homes from a distance in the old days but never had dared to bang on the doors and ask for shelter. That sort didn’t offer shelter to the rabble, or if any of them did, she never found out. But for royal travelers, the doors were open, and she was treated… well, like royalty. Still, Mara opted to stay in whatever accommodations were offered to her companions, as opposed to slumbering on feather mattresses while they made beds in, at worst, the stables with their horses or, at best, common sleeping rooms for servants. Since no self-respecting host of royalty would dare house such a guest in less than their best, this led to everyone sharing spacious guest rooms each night.

Mara brought plenty of reading materials, and thought she might be able to practice writing, too, but the carriage was too rough to allow for it. Heather passed the time with embroidery and knitting. As long as Mara was buried in her reading, the two women did not talk, but when they did, Heather couldn’t help imagining aloud how her wedding, and subsequent married life, would be. After a couple of hours of that, Mara offered her friend some books. None of them contained romantic poetry or adventure tales, though, so Heather politely declined and returned to speculating about the nature of her nuptials. Some days of their journey seemed much longer than others.

***

At Castle Halliard, Mara was welcomed by Prince Rupert and Princess Anne like an old friend. She introduced Mara and her fellow travelers to King Phillip and Queen Genevieve, also known as Prince Rupert’s parents. Halliard was also an ally of Gimsley, and had sent troops in aid, but the Prince was not leading them. He had suffered some sort of leg injury from years before that kept him out of battle. Halliard’s troops would be led by the highest-ranking man on the battlefield, who could very well have been Kelvin.

After securing accommodations for all, the travelers were treated to a fine meal and offered baths or whatever else they needed. It was just before the royals’ meal that Anne’s three young children appeared. This was something of a surprise to Mara, for the Princess had never mentioned children before, not even when discussing her own child-to-be. Two attendants brought them out for the royal family to greet and fawn over for a while, especially the infant, who appeared to be just shy of a year. Mara was brought over to be introduced.

“My oldest,” said Anne, bringing him forward, “Phillip Rupert. Heir to the throne after Rupert. And then Thomas Rupert, after my father Thomas. And we mustn’t forget Baby Elizabeth Genevieve Anne. After my mother Elizabeth and of course our own Queen Genevieve.”

“They’re all such lovely children,” said Mara, smiling. “They’ll be joining us, then?”

“Oh, no,” said Anne. “They’ve already eaten and now have either playtime or studying. Which is it, Nanny?”

“My Lady,” said the nanny with a nod, “Study for Phillip, play for Thomas.”

“Very good,” said Anne. “Has Elizabeth been fed?” She let a finger rest on the baby’s mouth. Little Elizabeth attempted to suckle it. “Where is the wet nurse?”

“Nearby, your Highness,” said the other attendant, who was holding the baby.

“Do make sure she’s fed soon,” said Anne. As if understanding the words, Elizabeth began crying. “Oh, see? I was right! Go, go tend to her immediately!” She dismissed the women with waves of her hand as they dipped to all and herded the children from the room.

After there was quiet again, Anne sighed and then returned to hostess duties, leading Mara to the seat beside her. Heather had already been ushered away to dine with the other servants. Normally Mara would have requested that she join them, but decided that others might enjoy hearing about her upcoming wedding day.

Typical banquet seating, where nobody faced anyone and all were seated according to status. She never did understand its purpose. Once all were seated, Mara suddenly became interesting to the others.

“Tell me,” said the King as a servant tucked in a bib for him, “How is old Silas? And his lovely wife Lily, of course.”

“Oh, both are well, your Majesty,” said Mara, and found herself fending off a servant trying to tuck in her own bib. She thanked him while taking it away and placing it where she wanted, which was not with his hands down her dress. “Ahh, they’re hale and hearty.”

Prince Rupert leaned in to look past his parents and address their guest. “And please accept our congratulations on your coming child,” he said. Mara blushed and instinctively laid a hand on her belly. “Your first, is it?”

“Yes,” she said. “The first for me, and for the family since… a while, I’m told.”

“Yes,” said Anne. “Since they were lost.”

“Well, may you and your family be blessed with many more,” he said.

Mara looked down and rubbed the bump. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “I hope so, too. We hope so.”

“And Kelvin?” he said. “Is he still at Gimsley? Have you heard from him?”

“Ahhh,” she said, looking down. “No. No, I have not.” Anne smiled sadly and patted her hand. “I would love to send word to him,” Mara continued. “In a letter, perhaps. But-”

“We could send a messenger under a flag of truce,” said the King.

“Oh,” she said, “I-I wouldn’t want someone going all that way just for something of mine.”

“We’re going to be sending supplies tomorrow,” said Rupert. “You could-”

“Tomorrow?” said the King. “I didn’t order that.”

“We discussed it this morning, Father,” said Rupert. “We agreed to it then.”

“Did we?”

“Yes, Father,” said Rupert, then was quiet a moment. “As I was saying, Mara, if you have any messages for your husband, give them to me and I’ll send them along.”

“Oh, that’s very kind of you,” she said. “I have… much to tell him. I’ll be sure to write something tonight, then.”

“How are the others?” asked the King. “The two Princes and Princess? Was it Robert that you married?”

Mara stared, uncertain how to respond. She then traded looks with Rupert and Anne and cleared her throat. “Er… No, your Majesty,” she said. “It’s his brother Kelvin that I married. Kelvin. And… Robert and Flora are… very well these days. Thank you for asking.”

************************

“He’s just… forgetful sometimes, is all,” said Anne later in her parlor. She had pulled out her knitting and inquired after Mara’s project, but her friend was yet to take up such a creative pursuit, to Anne’s surprise. Mara kept a book beside her but did not read from it as long as they were speaking.

“Well, I wouldn’t expect him to know everything that happens in all kingdoms,” said Mara.

“You’re correct,” said Anne. “But then, he attended the funeral. He and the Queen. And your wedding to Kelvin, for that matter. But… he does seem… more forgetful of late. This was the first time we realized he’d forgotten their deaths. By the way, you handled his question well.”

“About Robert, you mean?”

“Yes.”

“Oh,” said Mara, “Well, I didn’t know if it was my place to tell him. If you don’t mind my asking, does anyone know why he’s so forgetful?”

Anne shrugged. “One would think his age is the cause, but then he is not that old. No more than King Silas, I should think.”

“King Silas is anything but forgetful,” said Mara. “I wouldn’t dare engage him in a battle of wits, either.”

“You think you would not be well-armed?” said Anne.

“I think I would be unarmed,” said Mara. “But I truly do hope the best for your King. That a salve for his forgetfulness is found. Perhaps it’s the weight of the crown that burdens him so?”

“Perhaps,” said Anne, and continued her knitting.

Another silence followed. Mara thought of reading a paragraph or two of her book, but found herself watching Anne as she knitted. “Did you know them?” she said. “Robert and Flora?”

“I knew Flora,” said Anne. “Before I married Rupert, Father and Mother would bring me when they visited Gildern on business. Flora and I would spend time together then.”

“What was she like?”

“Oh,” said Anne with a sigh, “She did enjoy music. Singing, especially. I’m no good at it myself, but she didn’t seem to mind. We spent much time in the garden, picking flowers, then bringing them to her room to arrange them. She liked to play jokes on the servants, too.”

“Oh?” said Mara. “What sort?”

Anne shrugged. “Just silly things like… oh, she would summon her handmaidens, then send them away if they weren’t quick enough. And sometimes if they came too quickly, just to keep them from guessing. Or would order the wrong food on purpose and pretend that it was their fault. You know, silly things like that.”

“…I see,” said Mara.

Anne sighed again. “I do miss her. She really was quite sweet. She did love her tea parties. I miss Prince Robert, too, of course, though we’d traded a few words at best. He and Kelvin were always off somewhere, doing brotherly things. I miss him for his family’s sake.”

“That’s true for me, as well,” said Mara. “It’s Kelvin’s pain that I feel, and his parents’, too. They bear their pain well, but the wounds are deep. For all of Gildern. Everyone lost somebody.”

“So I heard,” said Anne. “But enough sadness. Was your journey comfortable? Is there anything you’d like brought here? Something to drink? Surely you’d like a bath to be drawn.”

“Oh,” said Mara. “A bath would be lovely, in time. Perhaps not this moment. Um…” She looked about the room. “Do you know where your children are?”

“They’re around,” said Anne. “Probably in bed by now. I’ll check on them before I turn in tonight. By the way, this may seem early for you, but have you chosen a nanny and nurse yet? It’s important to find good ones, so you may need to cast a wide net.”

“I have not chosen anyone yet,” said Mara. “But I have an excellent midwife. She-”

“I meant for taking care of the children after they’re born,” said Anne. “And don’t worry about wet nurses. Practically any lactating woman will do, though she needs to be healthy, of course.”

“…I have not chosen a wet nurse yet, either,” said Mara. “But I should hope not to need one. I would hope that I could nurse him– or her– myself.”

“But that’s the beauty of them,” said Anne. “You don’t even have to try when there’s already someone right there, simply bursting with milk. I know, with your first child, you’ll think you have to do everything on your own, but when I learned that I didn’t have to, it made my life so much easier. The better the help is, the easier your life will be. Avail yourself of them. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself for it.”

“I…” said Mara, straightening up, “I am grateful for your advice. But I think I would still… uh, first see what I can do on my own, and then… see how much help I need.”

“Suit yourself,” said Anne. “But you know, it’s the drudgery that they deal with. My children are the light of my life, but when somebody else cleans their messes, it makes them a little brighter, wouldn’t you say?” She giggled.

Mara shrugged. “I-I wouldn’t know,” she said. “That is, of course they’re the joys of your life. I meant that I wouldn’t know for myself. My hope is that I’m… there for my child, as much as I’m able to. I don’t want it to grow up feeling as though no one is there for it.”

Anne peered at her. “Are you suggesting that my children have no one there for them?”

“Oh, no, no, no!” said Mara, waving her hands. “I speak only for myself. Only for myself. You see, I did not… Well, it’s not important, really. It’s the past. I try to think only of the future now.”

Anne smiled. “You’re worried about being a good mother?” she said.

“Yes.”

You’ll do fine, dear,” she said, patting Mara’s knee. “And remember that you’ll have a whole castle full of people that you can call upon at any time. That must be a comfort to you.”

“Oh, yes,” said Mara. “I think I’d be grateful for any help. You say that– the nurse and nanny– they take care of ‘drudgery?'”

“Ah, you know,” said Anne. “The messes that children make. Someone to wipe their bottoms and change their swaddling and clean the spit-up.” She laughed and winked. “You’ll find out soon enough, dear.”

“I’m certain that I will,” said Mara. “It… it does sound tempting. I mean, someone else cleaning messes, certainly. I can’t say that I enjoyed that sort of work, when I–” She caught herself, then shifted in her seat. “Uh… So… how often do you see your children?”

“As often as I wish, of course,” she said. “Some days more than others. For instance, I’m hosting your visit, so their caretakers know to keep them occupied unless they’re called for.”

“Oh, please,” said Mara, “Don’t do that on my account. I would hate to be the one keeping you from them. I don’t want-”

“Tut, tut, dear, it’s my pleasure to host you,” said Anne. “Besides, they’re learning when it’s appropriate to visit and when it isn’t.”

“So… there are times when children should be away?”

“More like, near but unseen,” said Anne. She set aside her knitting and stretched her arms. “Speaking of which, now would be a good time for me to do just that – see them. Mara, dear, would you think me rude if I turned in now?”

“Of course not,” she said. “I didn’t realize how late it must be. By the way, how late is it?”

“Fret not,” said Anne. “I’m always early to bed. The sun goes down and I can barely keep my eyes open.” She stood up and held out a hand. “Come; I’ll walk with you to your room.”

“D-do you think I could…?” said Mara. “Would you mind if I joined you first in checking your children? B-but if it’s a private moment between you all, I’ll understand. I was just… I’m just curious.”

Anne pondered her question, then shrugged and nodded. “I wouldn’t mind,” she said. “Can’t wait to start practicing, eh?”

“I’m just trying to learn as much as I can,” said Mara. “Thank you.”

***

The children were young enough that all three slept in the same room, or had been since the baby was able to sleep through the night. Before then Baby Elizabeth slept with the nurse and nanny. Anne whispered these things to Mara as they stood in the doorway, watching them sleep. They stood there for so long that she wondered if this wasn’t the whole of it, or if Anne normally did more with the children, but did not wish to do so in Mara’s presence. She was about to whisper to Anne that she would see herself to her room, when Anne finally went inside the room, moving carefully in the dark so as not to bump anything. Mara almost followed, then decided to linger in the doorway and even look elsewhere to offer some more privacy.

She heard Anne whisper something, but could not make out the words, and may have heard a kiss, as well. This happened three times, and then Anne left the room and very slowly and carefully shut the door so as to make no sound. Then she sighed and smiled at her friend and offered an arm.

“So quiet and peaceful in sleep,” she said, guiding Mara through the dark corridors. “Of course you don’t need to turn in. Stay up as late as you like.”

“No, I admit that I’m tired from all the traveling,” said Mara. “But I do need to write something to send to Kelvin tomorrow, so sleep must wait until then. Would it be any trouble to ask for some candles? I’m afraid that I’ve used up mine.”

Anne chuckled. “So polite and apologetic,” she said. “Of course it wouldn’t be any trouble. Treat this castle as your own, and our servants as your own. Will you need paper, ink and a quill, as well?”

“Now that, I have not used up,” said Mara.

***

The two women were quiet for the rest of the walk to Mara’s guest room. Before she went inside, Anne managed to flag down a nearby servant and order him to fetch candles for her guest. Mara called a thank you after him as he went about his errand, which amused Anne. She unwrapped her arm from Mara’s and asked if there was any other need, and when the answer was no, she bade a goodnight and kissed her friend quickly on the cheek, then disappeared down the dark corridor.

Mara thanked the servant again for bringing candles, then got busy lighting them and preparing her writing materials. She spent an hour just thinking of what to write, and then after starting, paused often to read through her words before continuing. She needed this letter to say exactly what she felt, and because it was difficult for her to articulate that as well as she liked, there was a lot of mulling between sentences.

In all it took three hours for her to fill a single page, which for once was free of ugly ink blots obscuring her words. This was the cleanest letter she had ever written. If it had been any less, she would have destroyed the paper and started fresh, but did not have to. After finishing the letter, she read through it half a dozen times in half a dozen ways to make sure it said exactly what she needed it to say. Even then she found herself second-guessing her own words, until sheer tiredness forced her hand. She carefully folded the letter and used some of the candle wax to seal it, and then wrote his name on the outside as clearly as she could.

The deed done, she was free to climb into bed, but even the softness of the mattress was not enough to bring about sleep right away. Her mind kept “writing” the letter over and over, threatening to “rewrite” it, even, which she fought against. No! It was perfect! Time for sleep!

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About herdthinner

Writer and artist who pays the bills with another job
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