The Pauper Prince
“You’re going to be all right! You’re going to be all right! You’re going to be all right!”
Heather stood at the far end of the birthing table, where she had been told to stand and comfort her Lady to the best of her abilities. This, like her Lady, was the handmaiden’s first experience with childbirth. It was daylight when they had arrived at the midwife’s; it was now well into the night and counting. Heather’s Lady had cried out during a particularly strong contraction, and that had been the handmaiden’s chant while rubbing her temples.
“You are not helping,” said Adrienne. “That’s just irritating, not calming.”
“Sorry, I have never done this before,” protested Heather. “What else should I do?”
“It’s all right, dear,” said Mara gently. She was covered in sweat, breathing heavily, in a pain she had never dreamed could be endured, yet was still smiling at her. “This is my first time, too.”
“What do you need from me?” asked Heather, trying to hide any panic in her voice. Mara reached behind herself awkwardly.
“Just take my hand,” she said. Heather clasped the hand and gently stroked its top. Another contraction hit, and Mara squeezed – hard – unintentionally digging in her fingernails. Heather stifled a grunt and shifted side to side in pain, but made no other sound. If her Lady could endure a lot of pain with a smile, she was determined to endure a little even more cheerfully.
The royal family was waiting next door, in the second midwife’s receiving area. Mara and Kelvin had waffled on whether or not he would be in attendance, until Adrienne had decided for them: no men in the birthing room. She did not dislike men so much as their behavior in her birthing room, where they were inclined to refuse to assist, argue with her on techniques, demand that their wives’ pain be removed, or most ridiculous of all, demand that the ordeal be sped up to suit their patience, or lack thereof. At least one had dared to vomit all over her floor at the sight of the child coming through. He had otherwise been a strong and manly man. Whether or not the Prince would do any of that was left moot. Finally, a man even wanting to be in the room was a rare occurrence, indeed.
Annabelle carried a small tub of cool water and set it on Adrienne’s work table. She pulled out a wet towel and wringed it to dampness, then used it to wipe Mara’s face and neck.
“Thank you, dear,” she said breathlessly.
“My Lady,” said Adrienne, “Remember the breathing I showed you.” She demonstrated it until Mara fell into sync with her.”That’s it,” she said. “Now don’t give it your all, but try a gentle push, on my count. Ready? 1… 2… 3…”
Mara shut her eyes and strained. She grunted and groaned, then felt Adrienne patting her belly. “Gently, my Lady. A gentle push.”
“Just relax now,” said Adrienne, and began feeling the belly. She pushed in with the side of her hand to lessen the discomfort. “One more time.” She held up a finger. “Gently.”
Mara strained again, with less force this time. Adrienne nodded and patted her stomach as the signal to stop. She took a nearby lantern and knelt down to peer between her legs. Glancing at the Princess, then back, she slowly and discreetly placed her hand inside, which was finally wide enough to accommodate, and felt around as carefully as possible.
“Should I push again?” asked Mara, groaning, but working hard to breathe as she’d been taught.
“No,” said Adrienne distractedly. “Er, not yet, m’Lady.” She set aside the lantern and stood, then began pushing on the lower part of her stomach.
“Oh,” said Mara, “It feels like you’re– pushing the baby back in!” She forced a laugh and hoped the other two young women would share it. But Adrienne’s expression was completely somber. She glanced at the Princess, then turned away and rubbed her chin.
“Does anybody know how long we’ve been here?” said Mara. “How is my family? Does anyone know if they’re still waiting?”
“Hm?” said Adrienne. “I-I don’t know. I’m certain that they’re still waiting. And you’ve been here hours, to be sure.” She grabbed the lantern again and began to kneel.
“Adrienne,” said Mara. The midwife stopped and finally met her gaze. “What are you doing? Is something troubling you?”
The midwife could only stare at her. She tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. Mara could swear that she saw the blood draining straight from her face.
“Tell me,” she said.
“I…” she said, then held up a finger and nodded. She grabbed Annabelle by the arm and pulled her close. “Bring Francine,” she said. “The other midwife. Go.”
“But, Mother,” said Annabelle, glancing at the darkness outside the window, “It’s so late now. Surely she’s asl-”
“Fetch her!” Adrienne snapped. “Now!”
“Yes, Mother!” said Annabelle, and was off like a shot.
Adrienne returned her attention to Mara and took her hand.
“No…” said Mara. “Say it isn’t so.”
“Do not despair, m’Lady,” said Adrienne. “Francine, the other midwife, will be here soon. I… I have an idea, but I will need her.”
“Noooo,” she groaned.
“Curse me for an incompetent!” said Adrienne. “Knowing your fears, I took extra care to feel the baby’s position. And-and I would have sworn on my life that I felt the child facing the right way. I know I felt the head here! How did I miss it? How?”
“Don’t you despair!” said Mara. “I need you!”
“Heather, don’t gape at her like a knob,” said Adrienne. “Help me comfort her!”
“Uh…uh…” Heather gripped Mara’s head tightly and leaned close. “You’re going to be all right! You’re going to be all right!”
“Oh, stop that, you useless girl!” Adrienne snapped. She let go of Mara’s hand and began to pace.
“I’m just trying to help!” said an anguished Heather.
“Don’t be cross with her, Adrienne,” said Mara. “Her presence alone is a comfort. Please; save the child.”
“I-I think I can save both of you,” said Adrienne. “And my apologies, Heather.” Heather nodded in forgiveness. Adrienne resumed pushing on Mara’s stomach, prodding and sliding her hands around. She mumbled to herself. Mara gripped her arm and held it tight.
“Save the child,” she said.
“Upon my life, your Highness,” said Adrienne. “But let me try this. Have faith. Please.”
“I don’t want to die,” said Mara, her eyes welling up. “I don’t. I want to live, I want to hold it in my arms, I-I want to– to–”
“Shhhhh,” said Adrienne, sliding her arm so that they held hands now. She shook it gently. “I failed you. I did not give you my best, as I’d promised. But by God, you will get it today!”
“You failed no one, dear Adrienne,” said Mara, sniffling. “But if it comes to the worst – if it requires my death for the child to live, then my life is forfeit. Remember that. I want to live, but I am– prepared for that. Heather? Come around, please.”
Heather, eyes moist, came to her Lady’s side. Mara held each woman’s hand. “I understand that you may not think… beyond my being your ‘Princess’ or your ‘Mistress’ or your ‘Lady.’ That’s all right. I know that so-called etiquette demands that we not be equals. That we not be peers. That we not be… friends. But I can’t help but think of you – you two – as my best friends. I mean that. I wanted you to know that, in case the worst happens. I love you both.”
The women murmured replies in kind. Mara smiled at them through her tears. Suddenly the curtain was thrown aside, and Annabelle led a sleepy, robe-clad Francine into the room. She was ten years junior to Adrienne but still had a good amount of experience to her own name. Adrienne patted her shoulder.
“Thank you for coming,” she said, “And there’s little time.” She leaned close to her colleague. “She is… breeching.”
Francine gasped. “No…” she said quietly, covering her mouth.
“None of that. There is still hope!” said Adrienne. “You: stand there and feel for the feet and legs. I’ll stand on the other side and feel for the head. Once you’ve found the legs, push in close to them with your palm and hold, and wait for my count.”
“To… to do what?”
“We…” said Adrienne, and took a deep breath, “We are going to try for a miracle. We are going to try to push-” She mimed the motion as she spoke “-the child around, using our hands, until it faces the right way. Do you understand what I mean? Do you need me to demonstrate this?”
“I think I understand what you need,” said Francine. “But how could that possibly work?”
“Hey!” said Mara. “A little faith?”
“Oh, I am so…” said Francine, and dipped slightly. “Forgive me, your Highness.”
“Annabelle,” said Mara, “Did you see them? My family? Did you see my husband?”
“His Highness is asleep,” she said. “In Francine’s waiting room.” Francine nodded. “We were careful not to wake him. Their Majesties are sleeping, too.”
“They were all asleep next door?”
“It is late,” said Adrienne, glancing at the dark windows.
“I wonder if we should wake him,” Mara said distantly. “Just him, though.”
Adrienne shook her head. “Let him rest, m’Lady. Unless…” She paused a moment, then shook her head. “No. No, not yet. Heather,” she said, pointing, “You stand there. Annabelle, there. Your jobs will be to brace her body as we try to turn the child around. We might need to dig in deep and push hard. My Lady? Will you allow this? Will you let us try?”
“I’m irrelevant,” she said. “Save the child.”
“I can’t tell if that’s a yes or no?” said Adrienne.
“Yes,” said Mara. “Yes, try it.”
Adrienne nodded. “M’Lady, I beg your forgiveness ahead of time for what may be a very uncomfortable experience. But God willing, you will both live.” She looked up. “Please, Lord,” she whispered. “Be willing.”
“Save the child.”
“My Lady,” said Adrienne, “Relax now.”
The women took their positions. Adrienne was in her element, and she was Queen here. All eyes were on her; all ears listened. Francine crossed herself, then placed her hands, palms down, as instructed.
“Where did all these scars come from?” she whispered to Adrienne, who shushed her quickly.
“Not our concern,” she scolded. “Mara? We’re ready if you are.”
Mara nodded, then closed her eyes and let her head roll back. She kept up her special breathing in between Adrienne’s instructions and the “discomfort” caused by the midwives digging in and pushing. Annabelle had wrung out the towel again and wiped down her face, neck, and chest. Mara tried to think of a prayer, but she was unpracticed. Her first thought was pleading for her life. She thought that prayer several times in a row, first directing it at God, and then at her mother. She begged forgiveness for “killing” her and to be given another chance. She went on about the alleged curse, hoping it wasn’t true, but just in case…
She stopped thinking of that prayer, stopped thinking of anything, for that matter. Then new thoughts formed on her own. No begging this time. No pleading for her life. Now she made a promise to raise the child in her mother’s name, in her honor, if only she were allowed to. She thought it, and as she thought it, her lips followed. She whispered as quietly as her breath would allow, then repeated it.
“.. for you, Mother. In your name. I swear upon-”
“Mara,” said Adrienne. “Breathe in deeply, then let it out slowly. Relax as you go. Relax as much as you can.”
“Hm?” said Mara, yanking herself out of prayer. “Um, yes. Yes, all right.” She did as the midwife asked, and during the time she relaxed, Adrienne counted again, then urged her assistant to “Go!”
The two midwives had been working together all this time, and if Mara was comprehending what she saw and heard, the baby was now sitting sideways in her stomach. It was Francine’s new job to push the head and Adrienne, the legs. More counting, more pushing. They were pushing in hard with their hands and palms, and Mara felt it each time, but the discomfort was going away. This or she had become so used to the terrible pain of the whole ordeal that she had finally become numb to anything new.
“Again, m’Lady,” said Adrienne. And so the cycle went: push, prod, breathe in, let it out, relax, breathe in and hold, obey the midwife.
At one point Adrienne held up her hand, then instructed the others to hold their positions. This made it difficult for Mara to breathe, but she made due with shallow breaths. Adrienne took the lantern and knelt, once again carefully reaching inside and feeling around.
She withdrew her hand and gasped. She stood, set the lantern aside, and covered her mouth.
“Mother?” said Annabelle.
“Oh, my God in Heaven,” said Adrienne. “Oh, my Lord.”
That was it. There was only the knife for her now. But the child would live. The child had to live. She began another whispered prayer to her mother.
“If my fate is to be as yours, I accept it. I face it without fear. I pray that the child – your grandchild – forgives me for not being here-”
“It worked,” said Adrienne. Annabelle yelped with glee and hugged her mother. Francine sighed in relief; Heather immediately began to weep. She looked to her Lady and smiled, but her Lady had her eyes closed and was still whispering to herself.
“-A good man. He will be a good father. He will-”
“My Lady?” said Heather, shaking her gently. “Mara?”
She opened her eyes and smiled. “Don’t be afraid, Heather,” she said. “Remember that-”
“The child has been turned,” said Adrienne. “Your Highness, the head is down! Francine: do not allow it to turn again!”
“What?” said Mara, trying to sit up, but Heather coaxed her back down. “What’s happened? Did you say it’s turned? It’s not coming out the wrong way? You… you did it?”
“We have,” said Adrienne, her eyes welling up. Then she crouched down to peer inside. “But no one celebrates yet! Not until the child is here and has taken its first breath!”
Mara gripped Heather’s arm. “It’s facing the right way??”
“That’s what she says, ma’am!” said Heather, grinning through her tears and nodding. Mara was too stunned to react. She could not even form a proper thought for the occasion. Then one snapped into place so hard, it made her jolt.
“Fetch my husband!” said Mara.
“You know I don’t want any men in here,” said Adrienne. “They don’t have the stomach for this; trust me.”
“He will!” she said. “Heather! Bring him!”
Heather began running from the room, but Adrienne summoned her back.
“I need him here,” said Mara. “I want him to see this.”
“He will be in the way!”
“You are Queen here,” said Mara. “But even if you order him to stand and watch from the corner, I want him here.”
Adrienne stared at her patient, fighting the urge to continue the argument, then threw up her hands.
“I don’t have time to debate,” she said. “Heather, do as she says.” Heather was out of the room before she finished the sentence.
“As for you…” She patted Mara’s belly. “Focus, m’Lady!” she said. “Breathing! Remember your breathing!”
Mara got her breathing back into the correct rhythm. Francine and Annabelle took positions to keep the baby steady. More wiping down with the towel. Just then the curtain was pushed aside, and Heather entered, followed by the Prince, who showed no signs of sleepiness.
“Darling!” he cried. “The child is here??”
Without turning around, Adrienne pointed to a corner. “Stand there, don’t move, say nothing, and watch!”
“What?” he said. “Now see here-!”
“Do as she says!!” Mara shrieked. Then sweetly: “And thank you for coming, Darling.”
The Prince was momentarily stunned, then sheepishly went where he was told.
Adrienne placed a firm hand on Mara’s belly. “On my count, push! Not gently this time! Push hard! Francine, Annabelle: keep the child steady! Heather: keep her Highness steady! Ready, all: 1… 2… 3…
Two more times. Breathe, steel herself, puush. The third time, as she pushed, all sound seemed to cease for her, and she felt a wet cannonball shoot through a fist-sized hole, followed by a waterfall of water, blood, and God-knew-what-else. Sound returned. She gasped, held her breath, then let it go loudly: “Ahhhhh….” After she stopped, she heard something even louder: the crying of an infant. “AHHHHHHH-”
“A girl!!” she heard someone shout, but could not tell who. The Prince disobeyed his orders and rushed to the midwife, who stifled a glare as she and Francine carefully wrapped the newborn Princess in a clean, white blanket. He peered over Adrienne’s shoulder, and only after they were finished did she turn to show him. That act appeared to calm the child and cease its crying.
Kelvin’s smile was enough to light the room without need of candle or lantern. His little sounds of delight and awe eventually formed into a full laugh of pure happiness. He rushed to his wife’s side and clasped her hand firmly, still laughing through moist eyes. The midwife went to Mara’s other side to present the child to them.
They both stared at the new, little Princess in wordless awe. Mara reached out, then withdrew her hand. She looked to Adrienne, who just smiled and nodded and brought the child closer. Mara reached out again, this time barely touching the cheek. It was so soft. The girl’s eyes were closed, but like Ophelia’s boy, the face was so… active. Mara smiled at Adrienne, then giggled, and felt her husband kissing her hand fervently.
Still smiling, she turned towards him and was startled to see the King and Queen on either side of him, peering intently at their new grandchild. “Ah!! What??”
“Darling, what’s wrong?” said Kelvin.
“Uh– Ah– Nothing,” she said, breathing normally. “I-I just didn’t realize you were here. Father. Mother Queen.” She made a little nod to each in greeting.
“We arrived just after the Prince did,” said the Queen, patting her arm affectionately. “You must have been too… occupied to notice.”
“A girl, you say?” said the King, peering again as if trying to see through the blankets.
Adrienne nodded. “Yes, your Majesty.”
“A beautiful girl,” said Kelvin before the King could say more. “A beautiful Princess. I dare say I can’t tell which is more so: the child or the mother. So I must declare it a draw.”
Mara felt her face warming from a blush. She turned back towards her daughter, and caressed the cheek again.
“Have you named her?” asked the Queen.
Kelvin smiled and nodded, then looked to his wife. “We have,” he said. “Mara?”
“Please tell them her name.”
“Oh,” she said, struggling to sit up. The best she could manage was propping up on her elbows. “She is Isabel… Cassandra… Lily,” she said, looking at the Queen for the last name. The Queen allowed a small smile.
The King was puzzled. “‘Lily’ is the only name I recognize,” he said.
“Ah, well,” said Mara, “I just… like the name ‘Isabel.’ I heard the name aloud many years ago, and decided that I really liked it. I didn’t even know the person with the name. I’ve just always liked the sound of it. And ‘Cassandra’ is, um… my mother’s name.”
“Ahh,” said the King, nodding. “Perhaps you could make ‘Lily’ the first name, and-”
“Silas,” said the Queen. “It is their child. I am honored that my name is any part of it.”
“…Yes, dear,” he said.
“Mara,” said the Queen. She perked up. “You have not yet held… Isabel.”
“Ohhh…” she said, looking to Adrienne, who smiled and held up the Princess Isabel a little. Mara struggled again with sitting up, until Kelvin pushed her up gently with one arm, then propped himself behind her so she could lean back on him. She thanked him quietly and reached out. Adrienne began providing instructions, but Mara assured her that she had some experience with holding infants. She took her daughter from the midwife and held her for the first time. Adrienne was compelled to make one tiny adjustment before stepping back and looking on with a mix of pride, relief, and sheer exhaustion. Kelvin peered over Mara’s shoulder, then kissed her neck before resting his chin on the shoulder and grinning.
“You two,” groaned the King. “In front of servants? Really?”
“We’re ignoring you, Father,” said Kelvin without looking. He and his wife shared giggles, murmurs, smiles, and general oohing and ahhing. “Mara,” he whispered to her. “Have you noticed something?”
“I’m not sure,” she whispered back. “Please tell me she’s not missing anything??”
“Not that I can see,” he said, and paused. Then: “You live. Both you and the child live.”
She closed her eyes and smiled. “We do,” she whispered. “Thanks to her. Thanks to her.”
“What was that, now?” asked the Queen. “Were there problems with the birth?”
Adrienne clasped her hands together. “Ah, well, your Majesty-”
“You’ll all have any details you wish later,” said Mara, glancing to the midwife. “But right now, I’m spent. I need rest. She needs rest. But we are both here. Both alive.”
“Well said, Darling,” murmured Kelvin.
Adrienne took the child so she could bring her to a cradle, but was delayed by the King and Queen immediately making a fuss about summoning carriages, ringing church bells, making proclamations, proper accommodations for both Princesses, feasts, banquets, dances-
“Excuse me!!” Kelvin bellowed, simultaneously ending all discussion and stunning all present. Before the King and Queen could recover: “Pardon my shouting you down, but Her Royal Highness is too fatigued to do the same. So she has given me these instructions.”
The King and Queen glanced to Mara, who was lying down again, watching her husband with quiet satisfaction.
“She is going to rest here,” he said, “In that bed-” He pointed to a small bed in one corner, set aside for Adrienne’s patients. “-With Princess Isabel beside her in that cradle. We may ring any bells and make any proclamations we wish, but she is not riding in any carriages or going anywhere until she’s had some sleep, some food, and some drink. Nor will there be any visitors until she says there are.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “Now: are there any disputes to these instructions?”
The King and Queen traded looks, then overlapped each other’s replies.
“No, None, As she wishes, Quite right…” before fading into unintelligible murmurs.
Kelvin nodded. “Thank you,” he said, then turned to his wife and nodded again. She smiled and giggled. He took her hand and kissed it again, then leaned in to kiss her gently on the lips. “Sleep well, Darling,” he whispered. “I’m so proud of you.” That never failed to give her a chill.
The King and Queen were at her side again. She watched them in silence. Their expressions were oddly neutral, so she had no way to guess what they were thinking. Then the King – the King – smiled gently, leaned over and kissed her forehead. The Queen followed suit before both joined their son near Adrienne, who held the newborn Princess while they fawned over her.
Mara watched the scene until her eyelids suddenly became quite heavy. The sounds in the room became a drone, and all movement a blur.