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The Pauper Prince
Mara just stared at first. Her lips moved slightly as if to reply, then she straightened up to compose herself. Kelvin stood beside her and lifted his chin a bit, but otherwise seemed to be following her lead.
“Mara, your heart is in the right place,” said the King. “Do not think that I am against the ‘benefiting of women,’ as you put it. But this is not the way. Selling your possessions will do more harm than good, and your school, if finished in your lifetime, would stand empty.”
“I see,” she said quietly. “Thank you, Sire, for giving it consideration. I will not attempt to sell my possessions for the purpose of building a school.” The King and Queen nodded in acknowledgement. “But what am I to do with them?”
The King furrowed his brow. “Keep them,” he said as though the answer were obvious.
“I realize that is the simplest option,” she said, “But I’d like some good to come of them. If I have no need of them, how may they be of use to others?”
“What is this talk?” said the Queen impatiently. “They were gifts, Mara. And this is how you show your gratitude? By placing them on sale?”
“Mother,” said Kelvin. “Father. If I may; it is not a reflection of ingratitude, I assure you. Her true intention is to share her good fortune with those with little, or no, fortunes. No offense is meant. But yes; we will find another way.”
“I’ve made no secret of supporting her,” he said. Mara turned his way and smiled as he spoke. “If she wishes to build a school, then I’ll help her.”
“She is not building a school,” said the King.
“We know that, Father. I only meant… that I support her. That is all.”
“Very well,” said the Queen. “As long as our Prince and Princess are not seen as paupers, in need of raising funds to live. In fact…” She paused and seemed to be wrestling with a decision. “Well, it may be of no use to say, but Mara, you may as well know that your lack of… interest in royal fashion has resulted in some gossip.” Mara suppressed a preemptive smirk. The sort of gossip that came from her ‘peers’ rarely failed to amuse her. “Your insistence upon, shall we say, plainer attire than is customary for royalty has caused some to refer to you as…” She sighed. “The ‘Peasant Princess.'”
Mara and Kelvin traded glances, then broke down at once into loud snickers and chortles.
The Queen clapped her hands twice, quickly and loudly. “Stop that, both of you!” she said. The King added his own glare to hers. “This is most indecorous! It is not amusing that your peers think of you as a peasant! Savvy??”
They had begun to calm themselves as soon as the Queen clapped at them, but Mara needed an extra moment or two to cover her mouth and flush out the last of her mirth. “I beg your pardon, Mother Queen,” she said. “I ‘savvy.’ Please forgive my… inappropriate response.”
“And mine,” said Kelvin.
The Queen folded her arms and hit them with a truly withering gaze. Mara could almost feel its power.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
“It might interest you to know,” said the Queen. “That I heard the term but once before ending it for good and all. One hopes.”
“Thank you,” said Mara. “What is it, then, that you wish me to do?”
“Just…” the Queen said, and then sighed again. “Think about these things that I’ve told you time and again. As unimportant as you think it to be, in the courts, appearances. matter. As does behavior. Someday Kelvin will be King. You, his Queen. I have seen you behave as one before. I know you can do it again. Which brings me to this: sometimes we must make the hard decisions.” Mara tried not to appear worried. “Your ‘assistant’ Heather. She is married and still serves you. We have allowed this. But now she is with child, as are you.” The Queen paused and appeared to be choosing her next words carefully. Mara felt a chill. “Do I need to say what’s to come?”
“No, Mother Queen,” said Mara, then forced a smile. “But then, we’re both months away from… from any sort of impediments in movement, or… What I mean to say is, she’s still more than able to perform her tasks and-!”
“Mara,” said the Queen. “It must be done sooner rather than later. Her place is with her husband and future child.”
“Mother,” said Kelvin, “You and Father gave her leave to rule her people as she sees fit. And they’ve known each other since Mara’s first day here. They are, dare I say it, friends. You’re asking her to dismiss her friend.”
“This is exactly what I meant by hard decisions,” said the Queen. Mara looked to the King, who only shook his head before nodding it towards his wife. “And our advice not to befriend the servants. She has other duties now. Too many for her to do a proper job for her mistress. Mara: she must be dismissed.” Mara could not help but look down. “No no. You stand tall and listen. You knew this was coming.”
Mara straightened up, but not as much as she might have. The Queen was not finished. “Frankly, I don’t understand why you’ve insisted on only one handmaiden all this time.” Mara glanced in the direction of the Queen’s own attendants, who hung back along the walls and pretended not to be listening.
“Mother Queen,” she said, “I mean no disrespect to them.” She addressed the attendants. “Truly. It’s not a reflection on you, but on me. Heather and I, we’ve grown together-”
“We know this,” said the Queen, directing Mara’s attention back her way. “But remember: there are attendants that are practically idle because you make no use of them. And as your belly swells, you’ll need more help; you know this. Heather will be of less use to you as time goes by and her own child grows. Speaking of which, why is she not here now?”
“It’s Tuesday,” Mara said flatly. Off the Queen’s puzzled look: “She doesn’t work on Tuesdays.”
The Queen sighed, then muttered, “Ah, yes, more idleness that you encourage. I hear that even the nanny has been so persuaded.”
“Yes,” said Mara. “She rests on Sunday. And her spirits have been lifted for it. As have Heather’s. They return to their tasks… energized. Miss Daphne has even become talkative. She’s even smiled. Mother Queen, please.”
“No,” she said. “I do not do this to be cruel or callous. I know how close you are to her, and this is why it pains you so. But a personal servant to royalty must be unfettered, and she is not, and will be less so each day. Do you understand?”
“Yes, My Lady.”
“Stand tall,” said the Queen. “Stand tall.”
Kelvin put a comforting arm around his wife. “Mother, don’t worry. It… shall be done. But let her have this moment. This is her first ‘hard decision.'”
“No, it isn’t,” she whispered.
“Your first royal one,” he whispered back.
The Queen continued, “It’s not as though the girl will be banished from the kingdom. She will still live on the grounds. For you to… visit, or whatever you see fit. Meanwhile, think of the two attendants that you would like to replace her. Two, mind you.”
Mara resumed her flat tone. “Yes, Mother Queen.”
“Well, let us burden the men no more with our concerns,” said the Queen, nodding to her husband and son. She offered her arm to Mara, who stared at it a few seconds. She went to the King and kissed his cheek, then took the Queen’s arm and allowed her to escort her from the room. The attendants dutifully followed them.
Halfway down the corridor, the Queen let go. “You have one month.”
Mara’s thoughts had been elsewhere. She snapped to attention after the Queen cleared her throat. “Ma’am?”
“I said that you have one more month with Heather,” said the Queen. “Before she begins ‘showing,’ and for her to assist and train those who will replace her. But if hers is a difficult pregnancy from the start, then she leaves sooner and tends to her own needs. Do you understand?”
“…Yes,” said Mara in mild surprise. “That is… Thank you, Mother Queen. You are most generous.”
The Queen nodded in acknowledgement. Mara kissed her hand, then moved ahead of the Queen and her group, but not so quickly as to appear rushed. She reached her own chambers and checked both rooms. She was alone. After confirming this, she dropped her regal composure and allowed tears to flow.
A few minutes later, an idea formed that comforted her and enabled her to quell the tears then and there. After checking the looking glass for reddened eyes, she was satisfied with her appearance and went to the nursery. Miss Daphne, as Mara had said, had a more relaxed demeanor around her mistress, and smiled at her arrival.
Heather took the news with quiet dignity and grace. She, too, “knew it was coming,” and had used her day off to prepare herself for it. That they had one more month together was a happy surprise. Mara had been fighting tears all the while in giving her the news. Both her assistant’s unexpectedly calm demeanor, and the Queen’s words about her inner Queenliness, gave her the strength to appear as regal as possible. She looked proudly at Heather, then smiled and pulled her into a full hug.
“Oh!” said Heather. “My Lady, don’t worry. I’ll be fine. And Leonard and I are… improving.”
“It isn’t that,” said Mara, and kissed the top of her head before parting. “Or yes, I am pleased to hear about you and Leonard. But I was just remembering how we first met. How we were then versus how we are now. Sometimes these things occur to me, is all.”
“Mm-hm,” said Heather, nodding in apparent lack of comprehension. Then she giggled. “Oh! Yes.” She raised her arms in mock terror. ” ‘Ahhh, an armed madwoman is chasing me, ahhh!‘ ”
They broke down into mutual giggling. Mara managed a sigh. “I’d like to think that I wake up a bit less wildly these days.”
“Really?” said Heather. “Doesn’t your husband prefer more?”
Mara furrowed her brow in puzzlement, then suddenly burst into guffaws and slapped her shoulder. “You naughty, naughty thing!” Their mutual laughter continued for minutes on end. Whenever they began to calm down, one of them would voice more ribald thoughts, and they would lose control again.
Eventually the two ran out of bawdy humor, and quieted enough to fall together on the parlor’s settee. Heather hummed to herself and patted her belly, though there was nothing to pat this early on. “Mara,” she said, “Do you know who’ll replace me?”
“First, nobody can replace you,” she said. “Next, I really haven’t decided. Lily has allowed me to work with each for a few days. Except Violetta and Agatha. They’re strictly ‘hers.'” Heather nodded. “I’m required to choose two.”
Heather smirked. “Well, of course. It takes at least two to make one of me.”
“Oh, you,” said Mara, and smirked back. “Really, these sorts of rules are nonsensical. The idea that women become incapacitated while with child, and beyond. Ophelia still works as a seamstress. Our farrier has three children, and she still shoes our horses and aids her husband’s smithing. And on and on. Why, I myself waddled by Lily’s side as she made her rounds, almost to the last. But if an assistant dares to be with child, off she goes! If I were Queen, I wouldn’t follow such blanket rules. I would allow each woman to make up her own mind. Even my assistants.”
“Mm,” said Heather, smiling. “When you’re Queen, I look forward to that.”
Mara nodded once firmly and folded her arms. But she had reacted to Heather’s tone and not the words. Then her words finally drifted into her thoughts. When you’re Queen…
“It bothers Lily that I only named you as my assistant,” she said. “Most of what I do bothers her. I don’t mean to be contradictory. Or ‘defiant.’ We have a natural difference of opinions, is all. It’s not meant to be defiance. I think I embarrass her without even trying.” Heather raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Heather, have you ever heard anyone refer to me as a ‘Peasant Princess?'”
“A ‘Peasant’s Princess?'” said Heather. “As in a Princess of Peasants? Of the People? You know that-”
“It’s not what I meant,” said Mara. “Lily claims that ‘others’ have called me that because I’m apparently like a peasant to… well, whoever the ‘others’ are.” She shook her head. “It’s not important. Kelvin and I tried to laugh it off, though Lily and Silas were not laughing.”
“I don’t know what to say, Ma’am,” said Heather. “I haven’t heard ‘others’ speak of you that way. Though this talk of peasant royalty and such does make me think of something. An old bit of gossip. An old rumor. I know you don’t indulge, but it’s possible that you would know?”
Mara said nothing, but only watched her as if silently permitting her to continue.
“It’s said that,” Heather continued, “When His Highness the Prince left the castle nearly two years ago, that he lived disguised as a commoner?” Mara stared. “As a ‘peasant’ himself?” No reply. “Some here said that he’d gone mad. Others, like me, thought that he just wanted to be left alone. It was during that time that you and His Highness met, yes?”
“Oh,” said Heather. “Then… is that true? Did he live as a commoner?”
“I will say… that I did not know he was the Prince when we met,” said Mara. “Not until after I’d accepted his proposal, and we were on our way here.”
“How wouldn’t you recognize him as the Prince?” asked Heather. “Was his disguise that good?”
“I was a stranger to these lands,” said Mara. “I didn’t know his face on sight. You saw my… strange attire when I arrived. Typical clothing where I’m from.” For mercenary work, she thought.
Heather nodded. “How did he present himself? As a wealthy commoner? A nobleman, just not a royal one?”
“Heather,” said Mara, fidgeting, “He asked for my hand in marriage because he loves me. I said yes because I love him, too. Is there more that you need?”
“Forgive me, Ma’am,” she said, bowing her head. “There’s nothing I ‘need’ to know. But you two… Your marriage… You love one another like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s like the sort you read about in stories, that no one believes, but wishes they were true. And yet, here is your story, and it is true. I just… I’ve always wanted to know how you met. How you came to love one another. It sounds like it would be wonderful to hear. But if you won’t, or can’t tell it, I’ll say no more.”
“Can’t…” Mara whispered, and wiped at a moistening eye. “Not even to my dearest friend.”
Mara looked her full in the face. “It’s not unheard of for a commoner to marry a high-born.” Her mouth twitched. “If you believe any of the stories.”
Heather met her gaze in full, then slowly smiled and took her Lady’s hand to kiss it. “I believe one of them,” she said. “Hear me.” Mara looked away, now batting at tears. “Hear me, Mara.” She did, but sniffled and shook her head. “Your Highness.” Now Mara looked her way. “I don’t care where you came from, or what you were before. You are my Princess. Someday you’ll be my Queen. I wouldn’t wish for anyone else.”
Mara smiled through her tears and caressed her cheek. “And this is why I weep at the thought of losing you,” she said. “You are an angel. But you know that others would not think as you do. Please, Heather. This cannot leave the room.”
Heather scoffed and straightened up. “My Lady, you wound me,” she said in mock indignation. “I am a terrible gossip. I thrive on rumor. It is the lifeblood and currency of us servants, and I am their Queen of Innuendo. But I swear to you, on all that I deem sacred, that I have never – never – betrayed your secrets. Not your betrothal to His Highness, not your fears, not your uncertainties, and not the scars that your own father gave you.”
Mara touched one of her arms, right where one of her many healed wounds lay hidden under her clothing.
“You didn’t even know me,” she said quietly. “I would’ve thought everyone on the grounds would know by nightfall.”
“That sort of thing is beyond gossip,” said Heather. “To make it an entertainment for others… I couldn’t do that. Not even for someone I didn’t know. ”
Mara did not reply at first, but looked away in thought. Finally she leaned over on the settee and pulled Heather into another hug. “Thank you,” she whispered before letting go.
“You’re welcome,” said Heather with a smile. The women sat quietly. Then: “But I did tell them about being chased.”
Mara leaned away and stared at her in wide-eyed surprise. Heather cringed and prepared to throw herself at her Lady’s mercy. But Mara snickered, then burst into merry laughter.
After a moment she was joined by her dearest friend.