The Pauper Prince
Mara offered her room for Lucinda to stay in as often as needed during her friend’s trying time. The Countess was grateful and ready to take up the offer, but her acceptance was moot. The King and Queen did not grant permission for this, stressing that the castle was not a home for wayward women, and that the Countess’ place was with her husband, regardless of the state of their marriage. The latter admonition came from an unwritten law: society’s law. Kelvin, for his part, offered support for her intention but ultimately agreed with his parents.
“Richard suffers, too,” he said.
“Perhaps not enough,” she grumbled.
She flinched and withdrew from him slightly. Then she let out a deep breath and met his stern look. “Forgive me,” she said. “I misspoke. You know I just want to help her.”
“You’ve done enough for her,” he said. “You’ve remained her friend when others have forsaken her.”
“If you say so,” she said. “I’ll return to my studies, then. I’ve found some laws that may comfort her. Not just protections from divorce, but some protection if it goes through. I will share this knowledge with her. She needn’t be wholly without hope.”
“No, she needn’t be,” he said. “This might become famous last words for me, but I look forward to the day when your knowledge of the law matches mine.”
“I hope to surpass it,” she said with a wry smile. He met that with a tilt of his head. “How long have you studied it?”
“Taking into account all my other subjects,” he said, “Perhaps… six years? But this is knowledge used every day, so in truth, I’m always studying it.”
“Then I will read twice as quickly to catch up,” she said.
“I’ve worked it out!” Heather said gleefully upon greeting her Lady one morning. Mara raised a curious eyebrow. “I should have thought of this from the start. I’ll have my own servant!”
“Yes!” said Heather. “I think we have the money for it. What do you think, Ma’am? A girl to handle the chores that Leonard would have me do?”
“Oh!” said Mara. “That is clever. If that’s the solution you two arrived at, I’m very happy for you.”
Heather grinned, and then let out a small giggle. “Imagine,” she said, “My own servant. Who would have thought my life could reach such a state so soon?” She giggled again, then suddenly lost her smile and showed concern. “Oh, no. I’ve forgotten my place. My Lady, do I have your blessing for it?”
“You don’t need my blessing,” said Mara. “As you say, if you have the money and are both agreed to it, then by all means, have your own assistant.”
Heather cleared her throat quietly. “I think we have the money. And I only thought of this before seeing you now. Leonard and I have not yet spoken of it.”
“Oh,” said Mara, and thought a moment. “That is something you need to agree upon. If you think you need it, you have my ‘blessing,’ but it’s your husband’s that you need more.”
“I know,” said Heather distantly. “But it would such a boon for me. Us. Us. And… our own servant would be a sign of status. That is, aside from lightening my – our work at home. No, mine, if I’m to speak plainly. The home is where my work is. But a servant could take care of that drudgery. Oh, I hope he agrees to it. He must!”
Mara offered a gentle smile and pat on her arm. “I hope it works out for you. Er… I confess that I sought Her Majesty’s counsel on how to help you. You’d asked me to mediate for you both, and… Well, I assumed that she had much experience in it. But it turns out that she dismisses any handmaidens who marry.”
“I know,” said Heather. “Then… does this mean that you plan to heed her counsel?”
“No,” said Mara. “Bless her, she’s given me rein to make my own rules for my staff. I’m confident that we can work out a solution that benefits us all. However, I do agree with her that it would not be fair of me to mediate for you.”
“But my Lady-”
“Hear me,” said Mara. “I am not impartial. You understand this, yes? To be fair to Leonard, we’d need to ask his Lord, the Captain of the Guard, to co-mediate, and that goes too far. This is not to say that, if still needed, you shouldn’t find someone truly impartial.”
Heather groaned quietly, then nodded. “Yes, Ma’am. I understand. We… need to resolve these things together. As… As husband and wife. Without… loud arguments.”
There were no other words or sounds from the two women. Only the everyday bustle of the morning could be heard from Mara’s parlor window.
Heather forced a smile. “I like the quiet. I didn’t give it any thought until recently. Now I find it most relaxing. Don’t you, Ma’am?”
“Yes, dear,” she said. “I do.”
A messenger arrived from Halliard with ill news: King Phillip had fallen quickly into worse health. His doctors did not give him long to live now. He recognized and remembered few these days and often refused food and drink, insisting that his caretakers were trying to harm him.
The family made immediate plans to visit their ally. King Silas and Queen Lily prepared to meet an old friend for the last time, whether he was aware of their presence or not. Mara, knowing that Isabel was still too young to make long and difficult journeys such as to Halliard, announced that she would remain behind with Isabel, and asked them to give Princess Anne her love. It was a matter-of-fact thing for her to declare. She thought it odd that this was met with stunned silence rather than understanding nods and agreements.
Before she knew it, the King and Queen had set her own husband upon her, who explained in calming tones – which did not work – that this was an occasion where political duty trumped familial devotion. All of the adult members of the family needed to go. Mara was too stunned to reply. She let him continue speaking, listening carefully in order to pick out the words, phrasing, or tones that would tell her that he spoke in jest.
Ultimately she gave up trying and spoke plainly. “Kelvin,” she said as calmly as could muster, “You must tell me now: is all this a jest? Please, this is not something to make light of.”
“I wish it were, Darling,” he said. “Isabel must remain here and be cared for while we see to our allies and friends in Halliard.”
She set her jaw. “Do not tell me this is what the nanny is for.”
He looked away, rubbed his mouth, then back again. “It is what the nanny is for.”
“Mara!” said the King. “This is not a discussion. This is not to convince you or win your heart. We are all going. Halliard is one of our greatest allies. We’re practically kin. In fact…” He shook his head without finishing the thought. “It is settled. Do what you must do to see to Isabel’s care.”
Mara stared at nothing, said nothing, as if in a trance.
She shook herself from her thoughts and spoke shakily. “Yes, Sire.”
“Kelvin,” he said, “Make the arrangements for a regent. We leave at daybreak tomorrow.”
“Sire,” said Kelvin, bowing quickly. He offered a hand to his wife. She started to reach for it, then shook her head gently. After a brief hesitation, he left the room. The King offered an arm to his Queen, who took it, sneaking a glance to the Princess before returning her attention to her husband. They began making their own exit and to tend to the affairs of the kingdom.
“My Lord?” Mara called to her King. He stopped and turned his good ear towards her.
“How long will we be away?”
“None can say,” he said. “But we’ll be there as long as we’re needed. Understand?”
“Yes, Sire,” she said. “Thank you, Sire.”
That night Mara insisted that Isabel’s crib be moved into their bedroom. They did not stray from their bedtime tradition of Kelvin playing his lute and singing to her, followed by Mara reading to her from her favorite history book. The child was still not sleeping through the night, which was irrelevant. Mara sat beside her crib all night, in spite of Kelvin’s gentle urging of her to return to bed. Unlike the King, he left the choice up to her.
Earlier that day the Queen had spoken to Mara privately and explained that even her own children, before they could travel, needed to be left behind when the affairs of state required traveling. And did not Kelvin turn out well in the end? Though Mara agreed, she wanted very much to ask the Queen if, had she known what Robert’s and Flora’s fates would be, would she have fought to stay behind, if only to have more time with them?
She wanted to ask that, but did not.
Upon arrival in Halliard in the evening, Mara noticed other coaches parked nearby. The family was led inside the castle and to the main hall, where King Phillip’s family, the Funteyns, was gathered, absent King Phillip himself. Local Lords and Ladies were also here, surrounding the royals of the same gender. The majordomo announced the arrival of King Silas’ family, and the Funteyns broke away from their entourages to greet their new arrivals. Formal greetings were exchanged, followed by informal greetings. The latest news about King Phillip was given, which was not heartening. The Royal Physician was not allowing visitors at the time, and so the new arrivals joined the groups of their respective peers: Gildern’s King and Queen joined Halliard’s Queen, the two Princes paired off, and Anne took Mara’s hand to lead her to the waiting Ladies. Mara recognized half of the women, and introductions were made for those she did not. The women then resumed their various conversations.
Mara was tired now and not talkative. Most of her thoughts were of home, but she did half-listen. She picked up bits and bobs of gossip and descriptions of the latest fashions. Anne was smiling and nodding at most of it. The mental fluff probably helped to take her mind off her troubles. Mara started wondering where Anne’s children were. Had they been told about their grandfather? Were they old enough to understand?
Finally dinner was announced. Mara had no preference of where to sit, but according to rank, she was seated beside Anne. Next to Mara sat a Duchess, and so on down the line. Almost as soon as she was seated, Anne patted her friend’s hand and smiled. “I’m so glad you came,” she said. “This means a great deal to us. To me. Also, I hope you’ll forgive us for not yet seeing your little one. Father’s condition made it too difficult for us to leave. You did receive our congratulations and gifts?”
“Yes,” said Mara. “Thank you.” Without warning, she was overwhelmed with tears. She had been so good for the whole journey. Four days of riding with the family, showing a brave face, saying nothing that would smack of a poor attitude, and now had to shut her eyes and hold a shaking fist to her mouth to muffle the sobbing. The Duchess beside her heard and looked concerned, but said nothing.
“Oh, no,” whispered Anne. “What has happened? Has something happened to her?”
Mara could not yet speak, and shook her head. She needed to stop this before anyone else took notice. She leaned close to Anne to whisper.
“Don’t… Don’t mind me. We’re here for your comfort, not ours. Just… This will pass. This will pass. Oh, don’t let his Majesty see this.”
Anne glanced in the King’s direction, then back. She shook her head. “He does not see,” she whispered. “He’ll learn nothing from me.”
“It’s only…” Mara whispered, but her voice broke again.
“Ohhh, I understand now,” Anne whispered. “Isabel is well, yes?” Mara nodded. “But still at home?” Nod. “Oh, my dear friend, I did warn you of this. You want to do everything for your child. You think she won’t last a moment without you. I know; believe me. But her caretakers; they’re devoted and competent, yes?” Nod. “They’ll care for her as if their lives depended on it. After all, their lives do depend on it.”
Mara nodded again, then looked up abruptly. “Oh, no, you see-”
Queen Genevieve stood and tapped her goblet several times. The other diners immediately stood and held up their drinks as she delivered a moving speech of gratitude and hopefulness, in spite of the certainty of King Phillip’s fate. She praised her son and predicted that he would make an excellent King when the time came. As for herself, she claimed to be content to step back and live the rest of her days as the Queen Mother. At that the guests drank their fill and then were reseated.
The entertainment was light and merry to keep up the moods of the guests. Even the Fool performed that night – singing, juggling, cracking jokes, and on, to the delight of the diners. After dinner concluded, most guests retired to their respective rooms, though King Silas and Queen Lily followed their friend to visit King Phillip.
Rupert turned to Kelvin and slapped an arm. “Up for a hunt in the morning?” he said. “The foxes are particularly wily this year.”
“Oh, is that where they’ve all gone?” said Kelvin. “Escaped to here, have they?”
“No, it must be that your dogs are too old, or your aim has gone off,” said Rupert. The two Princes exchanged playful jabs before leaving the room together. It was around this time that Mara felt the effects of tonight’s wine and mead, and stumbled a bit as she followed her friend. Fortunately they did not partake of punches, verbal or otherwise.
“Anne,” she said, “Would you mind if I accompanied you to see your children?”
Anne paused, then smiled. “Like last time, hm? Please; join me. But they’re likely to be abed, so we must be quiet.”
Soon after, Anne stood in her children’s doorway. The room was already dark. She cocked an ear and listened for any sounds of sleeping while Mara stood to the side at a respectful distance. After a few minutes, Anne began shutting the door.
“Mother?” a boy said.
“Hush, Phillip,” she whispered. “Don’t wake your siblings.”
“We’re awake, Mother,” said another boy. Thomas, Mara thought.
“Oh, you rascals,” said Anne, and stepped inside. There was some fumbling to find a match to light one of the candles. When that was done, she sat on the edge of young Phillip’s bed and beckoned Mara inside. “Boys, you remember her Highness, Princess Mara of Gildern?”
“Hello/Good evening, Ma’am,” the boys overlapped in greeting.
“Hello, boys,” she replied in greeting, then peered into the darkness for Anne’s youngest, the infant – no, toddler by now – Elizabeth. Her bed was found quickly. The girl was still asleep. Mara caught herself staring at the girl as though she were watching her own child.
“She has just had a child of her own,” said Anne. “Little Princess Isabel. But she’s too young to be here tonight, or we’d all be meeting her now. Her Highness is very sad about this, so you all be especially kind to her and also be on your best behavior.”
“Yes, Mother,” said the boys. Mara was half-listening to the conversation, and tore herself away from watching Elizabeth. She smiled and patted the boys’ heads gently.
“Thank you, little Princes,” she said. “Anne, you and Rupert have such lovely children. Would that Kelvin and I are blessed to have as many, and as lovely.”
“Oh!” said Anne, standing. “I picture you with at least a dozen!” Her sons giggled.
“What?” said Mara with genuine concern. “Oh, my, I don’t think I could-”
“I jest, dear girl, I jest,” said Anne, slipping her arm around Mara’s. “Or do I?” She leaned close and giggled. Mara was a little puzzled, but showed a small smile. Anne pointed inside the room. “And you, boys, take a hint from your sister and go to sleep!”
The two friends were chuckling as Anne shut the children’s door and led Mara to her room. They stood outside the door. “Do you think Kelvin has retired already?”
“I don’t know,” said Mara. “But it’s been a long and tiring day for us all, so I know that I’ll be to bed soon. I should be ready for… Well, whatever we need to do for you tomorrow. We’re all here for you.”
“I know,” said Anne. “Then I shall take my leave of you.” She embraced Mara a long time – almost a full minute. When they parted, Anne kept staring into her eyes. Mara wondered if she should say her goodnights again. Then Anne smiled and leaned in. The alcohol was affecting her aim, so Mara helpfully turned her head to give Anne her cheek to kiss rather than her lips. The wine addled Mara’s senses, as well, for Anne appeared to be … disappointed? by this.
Finally she smiled again, patted Mara’s hand, and then disappeared down the dark hallway.
Kelvin returned later from his visit with Rupert. It was likely that they had kept up with their wine and other potent potables. He fell into bed and draped himself clumsily over his wife, and for once seemed content to sleep right away rather than recreate. Mara lay with her back to him, which made it easier for her sobs to not disturb his sleep, as well. Even round-trip messages to and from Gildern to inquire about Isabel would take six days at best, if the messenger did not stop to rest. During one of their stops to Halliard, Kelvin had confessed to greatly missing their daughter, and they had wept together all night. This was their secret: to be brave before others, and then be themselves in their own chambers.
The days in Halliard were long and filled with an odd mix of gloom, grief and gladness. The Funteyns had had months to prepare for this, and were more at ease with King Phillip’s fate than many of the guests. King Silas and Queen Lily in particular cursed themselves for not visiting more often. Not all of the guests remained, but new ones arrived as old ones left, leading to something of a status quo to the number of guests. The Gildern party was a constant.
Each Funteyn had their own entourage most of the time. Anne in particular always had at least one woman with her, excluding assistants. She struck Mara as the sort who always needed people around her. Anne had shown affection to her from their very first meeting, and was this way in general. After a time Mara noticed that Anne was more so towards her, and also to a Lady Felicia, whom Mara had met for the first time here in Halliard. After some meals, if not gathering all women around her, Anne and Felicia would wander off on their own. Mara was glad that she had such a close friend with which to share her grief.
The time came, close to a month after their arrival, that King Phillip passed. Cries of “The King is dead!” were followed immediately by “Long live the King!” for Rupert, whose crowning had also been prepared for. And so the Gilderners, and those who had returned to the castle, were present for the passing of the old King and the instatement of the new. A funeral procession followed by a coronation. It was the first time that Mara had witnessed such a passing of power. It was much quicker and smoother than she expected, but then, they had had plenty of time to prepare.
At the coronation reception, Kelvin and Mara approached their former peers arm and arm, and offered the appropriate greetings. Queen Anne stifled a giggle at her friend’s deep curtsey. There was no time for talk while in the receiving line, so the Gilderners moved away quickly to allow others to pay homage to the new King and Queen.
At last the time came to go home. Political wrinkles with the new rulers had been ironed out, homage had been paid, and Gildern awaited them. As usual the men and women gathered in their own groups. Two Kings and a Prince spoke at length while three Queens and a Princess said their goodbyes.
Mara dipped low in farewell to the Funteyn women. The Queen Mother accepted it regally; Queen Anne needed work at keeping her nose higher. She smiled and held Mara’s hand while speaking. “Your family’s presence has been a blessing to us,” she said. “Long may our alliance reign.”
“Of course, your Majesty,” said Mara.
Queen Anne scoffed and waved it off. “You must call me Anne,” she said. “You know that.” Mara smiled and gave a small shrug. Anne leaned in closer. “You know that I love you,” she said. “Yes?”
“Uh…” said Mara, “That does please me. Thank you. And you must know that I love you.”
Anne giggled and kept staring. Mara felt Kelvin’s hand on her shoulder. “Darling?” he said. “Ah, your Majesties, it pains me to say that we must take our leave of you.”
“We understand,” said the Queen Mother. “Bless you all for being here in our time of need.”
“You must visit us more often,” said Anne, pointing their way.
“And we shall,” said Kelvin, taking up her hand to kiss it. He led his wife away before she could do the same.
A topic of conversation on the way back was the plan to return to Halliard with Isabel, once she was old enough to travel, to “present” her to the Funteyns. Mara had heard these rumblings before. She had read the laws of Gildern about it. Men had the right by law to accept or reject a prospective bride; women did not have a like right for prospective husbands. She had voiced her displeasure to Kelvin before, but of all people, he was unconvinced of the necessity of changing it. He, who had deliberately sought a bride of humble birth, was uninterested in allowing his own daughter the same choice. Therefore, as far as her family was concerned, Princess Isabel would marry Prince Phillip Rupert of Halliard, assuming his own family accepted her. Isabel’s mother had to decide how far she would go to fight for her daughter to have a choice.
Once the carriage passed through the gates of the castle, any irritation with the laws of the land was washed away by the sight of Isabel in Miss Daphne’s arms. She ran to them in a most un-Princess-like manner, scooped Isabel into her own arms, and wept tears of joy as she kissed and kissed her little one. Miss Daphne assured her that she was “as good as gold, and better.” Kelvin joined his wife soon enough to greet his daughter, and let her keep holding the child. The family was surrounded soon enough by Lords, Ladies, and other attendants – Solomon the majordomo, valets, handmaidens, and the like – who assisted their respective Lords and Ladies inside.
Mara looked inside the Great Hall as she passed by with Isabel in her arms. The King, Queen, and Kelvin were there, along with other Lords and Ladies. They would tend to the political necessities of their arrival. She noticed Count Richard, as well, but not Lucinda. Mara’s presence was not immediately required, so she had a little time to speak with her assistants, who were strangely mum about any events of consequence.
She prepared to press further, when Kelvin was heard calling to her. He stood in the doorway of the Great Hall and beckoned her over. Miss Daphne reached out for Isabel, but Mara either did not see or ignored her. She was all smiles when she rejoined her husband.
“Darling, see how big she’s gotten!” she said, then cooed to her daughter. “Ohhh, in a twinkling you’ll be too big for us to carry! Yes, you will!”
“Mara,” he said quietly. She turned his way and laughed, then slowly, her smile faded as his never came. He was so somber. She felt a chill. “Darling,” he said, “Please hand her to the nanny and come with me.”
“But we just got here,” said Mara. “I don’t ever want to let her go.”
“Please?” He gestured to the room and waited. After some moments, she kissed Isabel on the forehead and handed her to Miss Daphne, then took Kelvin’s offered arm to be led into the room.
He brought her to the family and the gathered Lords and Ladies. Some Ladies were dabbing at their eyes and sniffling. It was then that she realized that Count Richard was dressed all in black, with a dark expression to match. She could not help staring at him while Kelvin spoke.
“I am so sorry to relay this news to you,” he said. “But… the Countess Lucinda. His dear wife and your good friend. Two days ago, she took her own life.”