The Pauper Prince
“But Sire,” said Mara, “I realize this seems to be on a whim, but it’s not. Will you at least bless the idea of it and let us present the details over time?”
King Silas and Queen Lily looked to one another, and held their gaze. If Mara did not know better, she would swear they were communicating by thoughts alone. Finally they both nodded as one.
“No,” said the King.
“You’ve spoken of this before,” said the Queen. “I thought you were done with it.”
“I beg your pardon, Mother Queen,” said Mara, “But one moment of speaking of it did not mean I was done. I merely let the subject rest for the time.”
“Mother – Father,” said Kelvin, “If I may-”
“First of all,” said the King, “Do you have any idea how selling your possessions will appear to others? We do not need people thinking the kingdom is bankrupt!”
“But we could assure people that it’s not,” said Mara. “That it’s entirely for a project of my own. Which it is!”
The Queen scoffed. “Rumor is much fleeter of foot and travels far wider than the truth. And both of you are planning to turn our castle into a marketplace?”
“I’m only trying to help her,” said Kelvin, putting an arm around Mara. “Trust me, it would be a discreet venture. Not setting up a stand and calling to passersby!” Mara giggled at his jest and leaned closer to him. She glanced toward the King and Queen; they were most assuredly not amused. The couple quashed their mirth as quickly as they could.
Kelvin persevered. “We know that it’s a strange idea – perhaps even mad-”
“That brings me to the second point,” said the King. “A ‘school for women?’ What women? Will parents send their daughters away? Will a husband allow his wife to leave their home and attend this ‘school?’ And what do you expect them to do after they’ve become such learned scholars?”
“Father, there’s no call for mockery-”
“Oh, believe me,” he said. “I am restrained.”
“My Lord,” said Mara, smiling as demurely as she could. She stepped forward and reached for his hand. He sighed and kept it at his side. After an awkward pause, he relented and allowed her to kiss it.
“I beseech you to reconsider,” she said softly. “If I may be so bold, this is unlike you. You are renowned for your careful consideration of facts and opinions. Of taking the time you need to make your decisions. I stand before you, your loving daughter-in-law for this very reason: because you gave much thought to my worthiness to join your family. For this alone I am forever grateful.”
“Resorting to flattery, are we?” he said.
“It’s no flattery, my Lord,” she said. “It is the truth. You are a wise and thoughtful King. You do not make rash decisions.”
“But I can and do make wise decisions quickly, when it’s called for,” he said.
She asked, “And… do you believe that this decision should be as quick?” She paused for an answer. When he gave none, she was emboldened. “I seek only to benefit women. The ones without the benefits of the high-born and wealthy. Ones like me.” The King sighed and looked away. “Father, if you regret giving me the opportunities to learn, please say it now. Because now that I’ve tasted knowledge, there is a hunger that will never be quenched. And I want others to taste it as I have. To hunger as I do, and to feast as I do. Those who would– never have a chance, otherwise. If this offends you, please tell me. And… I would wish to know your reason, though I have no right to ask.”
The King and Queen exchanged looks again. He looked to his son, who stood tall beside his wife and rested his hand lightly on her shoulder. After a long silence, the King cleared his throat quietly, then folded his arms.
“Very well,” he said. “You have earned… careful consideration.” The couple broke into broad smiles, which did not please the King. “I would not be so hasty to rejoice. Your marriage had a better chance than this.”
“But it is a chance, my Lord,” said Mara. “For even considering it, you have my– our gratitude.” He allowed her to kiss his hand again, but was caught by surprise at the sudden kiss on his cheek. Even a King could not prevent the reddening of his own face. She kissed the Queen’s hand, as well, then stood aside for Kelvin. The Prince skipped their hands entirely and embraced them as their son before leaving them to their careful consideration.
Halfway down the corridor, Mara stopped him, then glanced back the way they’d come to make sure the King and Queen had not been following.
“Kelvin,” she said apprehensively, “I probably should remove Flora’s oak chest from my list, shouldn’t I?”
He thought for a moment, then nodded. “Yes, I think that would be best.”
She and Kelvin had slept in her bed that night – a rare event – because she had been determined to care for Isabel until morning, and the spare crib was in Mara’s bedroom. He had anticipated a night utterly devoid of sleep, and was uncharacteristically pessimistic before lying down for the night. The next morning Mara claimed good fortune that Isabel had allowed them two three-hour stretches of sleep. He was less than convinced, but she had borne the brunt of all-night feedings, not he. That night Isabel had needed only one sitting. Kelvin woke early, kissed his favorite girls good morning, and then left to begin his own day. Heather had not arrived yet.
Mara scarcely heard the timid knock on the parlor door. She was not even properly clothed, but she braved opening the door a crack. Then she opened it fully to allow Miss Daphne inside. The nanny’s demeanor was as demure as always, but the sagging under her eyes was slightly diminished.
“Good morning, Miss Daphne!” said Mara cheerfully. “How are you feeling this morning?” She smiled broadly. Isabel sat in the crook of her left arm and regarded the nanny with wide eyes, but otherwise no expression.
The nanny did not answer right away, but looked first to her charge, then the Princess, who waited with practiced patience. She took the Princess’ hand and kissed it.
Mara chuckled and pulled away gently. “Oh, you know you don’t need to do that,” she said.
“I do,” said Miss Daphne. “I must. I…” She took a sudden intake of breath and shuddered. “Oh, dear,” she whispered, and covered her mouth, but in vain. Her moistening eyes were enough to concern the Princess.
“What is this?” said Mara. “What’s happened? Was your day unpleasant?”
“Forgive me, your Highness,” she said, her voice cracking. “I only need a moment. You should never see this sort of display. It’s unseemly!”
“Oh, it is not,” said Mara. She held out a hand. “Please; sit with me. We’ll talk.” The nanny tried to voice a protest, but ultimately followed her Lady and sat beside her. The Princess kept Isabel on her own lap this time. Miss Daphne shivered, then took in a deep breath. This helped to ease her tears. She breathed deeply several more times.
“Take your time,” said Mara. “Just relax. Tell me when you’re ready.” She bounced Isabel gently to pass the time.
“Thank you, your Highness,” the nanny said softly. “First, my day was… very pleasant. I did sleep, as you bade me. And rested. I knitted, which is relaxing to me. I sat in the garden and prayed. I– I thanked the Lord for sending me– for blessing me with such a mistress as you.”
Mara scoffed. “Miss Daphne, you… you flatter me. There’s no need for that. But thank you.”
“You don’t understand, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne. Her tears were under control now, as was her voice, though it was a little hoarse. “Yesterday you told me to look after myself. Myself. And I had a wonderful day for it. You are the only mistress who has done this.”
Mara furrowed her brow. “What do you mean, the ‘only’ one? Surely your other mistresses have been fair? They gave you good marks. And Miss Daphne, I’ve said from the start, I want you to feel welcome here, and comfortable, and certainly not to work yourself to death! Do you… not feel welcome? Or comfortable? Do you feel overworked?”
“No, your Highness,” she said. “It’s not that at all. As for my other mistresses… Before you, I have served two families. Everyone believes themselves to be fair. To be just. To be clear in their wants and needs. To be… good mistresses.”
“Miss Daphne,” said Mara, “If I’ve been none of those things, would you tell me?”
“You have been all of those things,” she said. “A hundredfold. And… forgive me that it’s taken me so long to realize it. To believe it. But until now, all my life, it has had no worth but what care I gave to their children, and to them. In… In my youth, when I served my first mistress, there was a time that I became quite ill. I was weak; I could barely stand for even brief moments. I had trouble keeping down food and drink. I actually feared for my life, let alone their children’s, should my strength fail me. And… I asked my mistress if I could rest and be healed. She said no.” Mara said nothing, but placed a free hand on Miss Daphne’s knee. “I learned to hide any and all illness and afflictions from her, for she would hear none of it. And my next mistress – before coming to serve you – she… did not tolerate mistakes. Ever.”
Miss Daphne paused to look away and take in another breath. “If I make a mistake, I need only be told once, and it will not happen again. But anything I did wrong the first time, there was no telling. I was simply beaten or flogged. It– Which one depended on her mood, I think.”
“What could–” said Mara, “What could possibly merit being beaten? Being flogged? Were their children harmed? Was that it?”
“Oh, no, never, your Highness,” said Miss Daphne. “I have never harmed a child. They were… mistakes. Things that displeased her. Dressing the children with the wrong clothing. Not preparing their food just as they liked. Mistakes. That’s all I could fathom from it.” Mara had her hand on her mouth and did not reply yet. “No mistress has ever cared… for me. And though I have been trained my whole life to ignore myself, it is another thing to live with that. That’s why I wept, your Highness. You gave me a gift, and I cherish it.”
“The pleasure was mine,” said Mara, and became somber. “You know, I won’t say much more about it, but I know what it’s like to live in fear of the very person that you’re trying to please. I never want to be the object of someone’s fear. Not like that. But would you like to know something else? A confession?” Miss Daphne nodded. “It wasn’t only concern for you. You were impaired, after all. I was concerned for Isabel. The first woman you described – the one who made you work while ill? She was a fool. An idiot! Both of those women were, for treating you as they did. If you ever came to me that ill, I wouldn’t want you anywhere near my children! You’d be spending your days with our physician until well again. And you might have heard that Gildern suffered a plague not all that long ago. They treat illness very seriously here. As do I, without needing memories of that. Miss Daphne, you must always tell me if you’re impaired, for any reason. There is no shame in that. And no punishment. Do you understand?”
“Yes, your Highness,” she said. “I do. Thank you.”
“I have a question,” said Mara. “It may sound odd, but… do you trust me? I ask because, given what you’ve told me, it wouldn’t surprise me if it doesn’t come easily for you.”
The nanny spoke softly. “You’re correct, your Highness. It does not come easily. But I do trust you.”
“And Kelvin?” asked Mara. “Er… His Highness? The King and Queen?”
“…As much as I need to, to perform my work,” she said.
Mara regarded this curiously. “Hm,” she said finally. “I think I understand that.”
Miss Daphne took another breath, straightened up, and looked the Princess in the eye. “Your Highness,” she said, and waited. Mara nodded. “You offered me a day of rest each week. Until yesterday I refused it. I… I did much thinking yesterday. If your offer is still firm, would I have your leave to use Sunday – the Lord’s day – for my day of rest? Just to try it?”
“Of course,” said Mara. “First thing Sunday morning, I’ll take Isabel, and until first thing Monday morning, you’ll have the day to yourself.”
“It– Truly? Just like that?”
Mara smiled. “Just like that.”
Miss Daphne was speechless at first, as if unable to absorb the reality of her new world. She held up a finger. “B-But if, for any reason, you truly need me that day, rest assured I will be ready to serve. In an instant!”
Mara smiled again. “I’m sure you will be, Miss Daphne,” she said. “But only if I truly –there is no other way out, no respite in sight, cannot make it another moment–! truly need you.”
For once, the nanny responded as hoped for one of her jests, and cracked a smile. Awkwardly, and with some attempts to restrain it, but she did show the promise of a sense of humor. Then in all seriousness, she took Mara’s hand again and kissed it.
“Thank you so much, Mara,” she said, then gasped and sat bolt upright. “I-I-I-I mean to say-! I mean-! I mean…”
Her Lady said nothing, but handed Isabel to her for the day’s changing of the guardian. Heather heralded her arrival via the particular knock on the bedroom door that she used. Mara excused herself to fetch it. Miss Daphne stayed behind with Isabel, and tried not to listen to the handmaiden explain her tardiness.
Bells rang, people shouted “Huzzah!,” well-wishers came or sent emissaries to do so, gifts were sent, feasts were held, and there was joy in Gildern. The Princess Mara was with child.
So was her assistant.