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Our Gracious Queen

By Queen of the May All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Romance


Eleanor spent the first few days of her marriage in almost constant motion.

Considering her days were consumed with going through each room of the palace, sizing up the amount of work required to clean and modernize, and how her nights were taken up by vigorous sex with the king, she was surprised by how energetic she felt when she got up each morning. She had goals, and great resolve to achieve them all, and her natural drive to succeed kept her from ever becoming overtired. As it were, she had no time for homesickness. There was no time for crying or regret—there was so much work to do.

The only annoyance in her life were her ladies—particularly Lady Harriet—who reminded her regularly that her first goal was produce an heir to the throne, regardless of how clean the palace was. But that took nine months, and in the meantime she wanted to see to it that any child she bore would be living in a clean, comfortable and cheerful home.

Yet again, the notion of Lady Harriet D’Acre having any control over her children made Eleanor shudder.

There was time enough for that, though. With her orderly mind and excellent memory, she began drawing up plans for improving the palace, from top to bottom. Starting in the kitchens, she set her plans in motion: each room of the palace was to be cleaned, from top to bottom, with hot water and soap, with the floors meticulously scrubbed, while the damaged floors upstairs were to be replaced as needed. The kitchens, being the most shocking rooms of all, were tackled first.

The food storage rooms were cleaned out entirely and scrubbed until the walls and floors gleamed, and any foodstuff over three days old was thrown out and burned (this becoming a new policy for all future stored food as well). After consulting her mother’s books and her memories of Betsy’s edicts about cleanliness, she ordered every washing basin emptied and cleaned with boiling water and then scrubbed until they were utterly spotless and shining. All cutlery and other cooking utensils had to be boiled and cleaned after each use, then stored away.

Holes in the walls were plugged as well, and Eleanor ordered that some cats be brought into the kitchens to get to work clearing out mice and rats. She didn’t care much for cats herself, but within days the kitchen help reported that there seemed to be fewer instances of run-ins with rodents, and the cats were already getting rather rotund.

That made her wonder how much the term ‘fewer’ was truly significant.

Eleanor demanded that discarded bones, flesh and skins be taken out of the kitchen and disposed of within no less than ten minutes of being tossed into boxes—they were not permitted to touch the floor at all. Every woodstove and oven in the kitchen was also to be cleaned out and scrubbed thoroughly at the end of each day, without exception, as well as all serving dishes and cooking pans. What truly shocked Eleanor about the whole operation was that the first wave of cleaning took three days to complete, even with all available kitchen staff working almost non-stop. Even more, when she went down to inspect the rooms, she glanced out the door and saw a stack of bones, cartilage and skins, in the outer court, that had to have been at least five feet high, and more was being added to it.

So progress was being made. Frighteningly so.

By the Queen’s edict, meats were to be hung in the cold storage rooms, which were lined with blocks of ice, and all fruit and vegetables brought into the palace had to be cleaned and put in elevated bins in dry rooms, and kept separate to dry properly. At the first sign of spoilage, or the most remotely suspicious smell, food was quickly disposed of in the incinerators. Any uneaten dishes, from the royal and household tables, were to be distributed to the poor before nightfall, according to Eleanor’s new rules (much to the consernation, she noticed, of some members of Henry’s council). Eleanor’s mother, and even Betsy, had declared that no type of food could be considered fresh after one day, and meats of any kind could never be kept more than three days, without exception. Breads and cheeses were never left out, but stored in covered containers and had to be thrown out after five days.

The Queen insisted that new spits be installed in the vast fireplaces, complete with long turning handles and fire screens to protect the poor soul tasked with turning the meat. She also insisted that no children were to turn the spits again—children employed in the kitchens could instead help with cleaning and maintaining the food storage rooms and helping in the palace gardens, and they were not permitted to work more than four hours daily and were required to learn to read, write and cipher numbers.

An interview with the housekeeper revealed more problems to tackle within the palace. Eleanor sat down with the harassed-looking woman and asked her a series of questions, bringing to mind Betsy’s quiet, economical and skillful management of Ravensburg Castle as she went through her lists of ideas and solutions to each problem.

“So you’re telling me that none of the tapestries or curtains have been cleaned in more than ten years?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the housekeeper said. She was a cherub-faced and rather chubby blonde named Matilda Grimstock, and Eleanor found her to be intelligent and eager to make a good impression. “Ma’am, I only started here two months ago. I’ve been trying to speak with the king ever since, but he’s usually too busy…”

“I see. Well, you and your staff have done a very good job on the kitchens thus far, and I am very pleased,” Eleanor told her. “The upstairs staff will be minding the tapestries and the like, and for now you will concern yourself with the kitchens and the staff downstairs, until we can get more people in for the entire palace. You must learn to delegate authority, Mrs Grimstock. No more of this dashing about trying to keep up with a dozen leaky holes in the wall yourself.” She hoped she sounded as sure of herself as Betsy, but then the Count’s housekeeper had been running Ravensburg for almost twenty years, with nary a hiccup. Eleanor had been Queen of Gravonia for just three weeks so far.

She remembered Betsy’s motto for running such a large household: Lick by lick, the cow ate the stone. It had sounded bizarre to Eleanor, but Betsy had explained that everything got done in its own good time, and rushing things rarely came to good ends. A little at a time, without kicking up too much dust, and the bigger tasks were accomplished properly and efficiently, then the little details could be dealt with. Plus, Betsy had pointed out, when one was in charge of people, one had to remember that being a leader did not mean one had to be a tyrant, and pestering people only led to resentment and shoddy work. Eleanor knew she was going to have to learn how to delegate authority as well, set a good example, and run the palace with the same quiet and economy.

The housekeeper was already starting to look a little less flustered—in fact, she looked relieved. “I will, ma’am. You are… much different from Countess Cecily, if I may say so.”

Eleanor could only shrug slightly. She had not yet had the privilege of meeting her husband’s allegedly formidable aunt. “You may say so, and perhaps.”

The housekeeper rose, bowed, and left. Eleanor sat back in her chair, letting herself rest for a moment, and closed her eyes. She must have dozed off, despite the chair being quite uncomfortable, for she was startled awake by the sound of clattering boots and barking dogs. She smiled ruefully—Henry and his gentlemen had returned from their morning hunting excursion.

“Eleanor!” Henry called, stomping into the Great Hall and rubbing his boots on the backs of his legs, looking a little chagrined at the mud he was tracking in. She stood up, and he took her hands, inspecting her carefully, then he kissed her cheek and looked back at his men. “I hope you don’t mind my gentlemen joining us for the nooning meal.”

“Of course not,” she said, smiling graciously at the men. They were all jolly, fun-loving young men, and they tended to leave piles of debris wherever they went, but their good natures and lack of guile made them all quite likeable, and she enjoyed playing cards and other games with them in the evening. Eleanor had found them all to be pleasant company for meals, but she was hard-pressed to find subjects of conversation with any of them. They were all much like Henry—good-natured, unselfish, friendly, not terribly well-educated or extremely intelligent, but they were all together amiable, and very loyal to the king. To a one, she liked them, and they seemed to like her in turn.

She did like Henry the most, and a great deal. He was kind and generous, and was actually very attentive and affectionate. Besides that, he was also an excellent lover, and each night she discovered new ways to excite him. All in all, he was unselfish and eager to please her, and there was a wildness to him that was quite thrilling. She no longer required that he be gentle in bed, either. In fact, last night, she had thoroughly worn him out, and she still felt rather smug about what she had done to him, right before dawn, as he was getting ready to go hunting.

She had delayed him almost two hours, and to hear a king pleading for mercy was, she had to admit, very satisfying.

Henry kissed her hand and insisted she sit down in a more comfortable chair as the table was set for the meal. It amused her, how he doted on her and hung on her every word. She indulged his over-protectiveness, and knew that part of that was due to her value as the woman who might one day bear his sons, but also because he seemed to sincerely care for her. He had said he loved her on their wedding night, but lately she was starting to suspect that he really did love her. That in itself was rather overwhelming sometimes.

Henry had been fairly quick to sympathize with Eleanor’s aversion to lamb and mutton and thus never served it or even allowed it onto the menu, though she had tried to see to it that if others wanted it, it could be prepared. Since Gravonian sheep were highly regarded around the Continent, the last thing she wanted to do was offend people who made a living raising the wretched creatures.

Mainly, however, they dined on venison, wild boar, gamebirds, and occasionally beef or fish. Eleanor was trying to also include more fruit and vegetables for the household diet, and to try and steer Henry away from foods that might make him gain weight or become sluggish. He had a sweet tooth that she felt necessary to carefully manage. Yet again, Betsy’s tutelage was coming to the fore—the housekeeper at Ravensburg was a great believer in a regular diet of meat, vegetables and grains, with as little sugar as possible, to encourage good health.

Being someone’s wife was rather interesting, she thought as the bell was rung and everyone settled down around the table in the Great Hall, and Henry led her to her chair and fussed around her until she assured him she was comfortable.

She found it rather nice to sit by the fire in the evenings, mending Henry’s shirts and talking with him about minor matters of state and the events of the day. He seemed somewhat blasé about government and political matters, but Eleanor’s fascination with the subject made him pay more attention and last evening, he had asked her opinion on the worrisome issue of a drought in northern Gravonia. Her suggestion of finding work elsewhere for the farmers was met with several curious inquiries from Henry, and he took her advice, ordering that all willing men be sent south to find other means of earning a living until the drought passed, and on his own he had insisted that taxes be lowered in the north as well. Eleanor wanted to suggest lowering taxes or even eliminating a few of the more ridiculous confiscations throughout Gravonia, but for now, she knew to take only little bites.

She was still adjusting to her role, but her fear of being exposed as a blacksmith’s daughter had faded almost entirely, and she felt steadier every day. If only she didn’t have her ladies following her everywhere she went, she knew she would feel completely at ease. Alas, however, Lady Harriet and Lady Agnes were her shadows except when she went to Henry’s bedroom at night—only then did they leave her, and she was able to spend time alone with her husband.

They didn’t discuss politics or theology or philosophy, but their quiet, peaceful discussions about the events of the day, and the sweet, passionate lovemaking that followed, was all very soothing to her, and she thought less and less of home and of Constantine. She told herself frequently that the less she thought of her previous life and of the man who still held her heart, the better she would be.

To not think of Constantine during the day did not stop her disturbing dreams of him at night. She still saw him sometimes, wearing his black armor and his red tunic, sitting astride a pale, snarling Amiel, sword drawn and pointing at her, and his green eyes were cold and glittering. Sometimes she woke before he turned into a dragon, but usually he would transform, red scales flashing in the cold sunlight, the white scar on his chest often open and bleeding, and he would rear up, flames pouring from his nostrils as he roared, though she wasn’t entirely sure if his roars were from pain or fury. Either way, he terrified her and she would wake, gasping, and she would need Henry’s touch to chase away the fear and slake her desire.

That was what truly left her unsettled—that her dreams of Constantine left her burning with desire, and even though Henry satisfied that need extremely well, she still felt a hollowness inside, as if part of her was missing. There was still only one man who could ever make her feel complete, and that was Constantine. As much as she truly enjoyed Henry’s skilled lovemaking, she knew that her heart belonged to the heir to the throne of Morvenia, and always would. There was nothing that would ever drive Constantine away entirely.

That love is always there. It will be with you always… but also very far away.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Henry and his friends discussing the number of grouse they had killed that morning. Eleanor cut into her thick piece of breast of duck and casually commented, “I have killed my share of grouse over the years.”

The men all stared at her, and finally Henry smiled. “I was not aware that women in the Livonian royal family went hunting.”

“I did. Occasionally.” Eleanor smiled and took a bite of the duck. For all the kitchen’s faults, she had to say the cooks were extremely talented. She had never had such excellent meals, not even at Ravensburg.

“Well, then, sweetheart, you should join us tomorrow morning.”

“That would be delightful,” Eleanor said with a smile. “Perhaps then I won’t delay you quite so long as I did this morning.”

She was gratified to see Henry’s cheeks pinking, and finished her meal before rising and excusing herself to her own bedchamber. Harriet and Agnes were already in her sitting room, embroidering a silk dress that was to be fitted on Eleanor later that day. She didn’t miss the Mistress of the Bedchamber’s searching looking—did the woman actually think she was pregnant this soon, and really, how could anyone even tell if she was?

The constant presence of her ladies seemed only to add to the monotony of her afternoons. Lady Agnes occasionally would at least attempt conversation, even if it was stilted and frequently focused on the weather, giant wheels of cheese or bloodcurdling tales of life in Ullan. Harriet, on the other hand, only seemed to watch her. She knew that both women were aware that she and Henry were having sex every night, and sometimes Eleanor sensed that Harriet didn’t approve of how well she and the king got along.

Harriet resumed her embroidering, and Agnes went back to looking as nervous as usual. Eleanor sat down by the fire and picked up one of her husband’s torn shirts and began mending it. She was trying to concentrate when she heard a light knock on the door and glanced up to see Henry standing there. She glanced at her ladies, then raised her eyebrows at her husband. “Yes?”

“Uh… ladies,” he finally bowed politely to the Queen’s attendants. “Perhaps you could excuse the Queen and I… for a bit? We need to discuss a matter of… some importance, and besides she and I… are very tired and we need a nap.”

Eleanor almost laughed at Harriet’s appalled expression. Clearly the woman took no pleasure if lovemaking. In fact, it seemed as though Harriet viewed such things as more along the lines of ‘duty’ rather than ‘fun’. Eleanor neatly folded Henry’s repaired shirt and put it in her sewing basket, then stood, smoothing her skirts. She started toward the door, but Henry gestured to the two other women. “Ladies… you are excused.”

“You… ” Harriet started to speak, but Henry raised his hand, indicating he expected obedience. The two ladies left the room, with Agnes looking back at Eleanor in astonishment. Once the door was closed, Henry moved closer to Eleanor, and she saw the desire in his eyes—she was pretty familiar with that look now.

“Shouldn’t we be going to your room?” Eleanor asked him, but he was already pulling her close and undoing the stays in her bodice, finally turning her around and impatiently pulling it off, finally slipping his hands under her skirts to pull her chemise out and slide his hands forward and up, cupping her breasts. He began to kiss her neck, making her tremble, and she squeaked in surprise when he pulled her roughly back into his arms and stroked her, sliding his hand down between her thighs.

“You’re hot,” he whispered, nibbling on her earlobe, which made her knees go weak.

“I can’t help it,” she gasped, moving her hips back against him as he began to caress her, fingers expertly finding just the place to touch her, and she melted against him.

“I don’t want you to help it. I like it when you’re hot.” He turned her around at last and pulled her up for a hard, lusty kiss. “I want you. I missed every bloody deer I tried to get this morning, thinking of you. I can’t get you out of my mind. I crave you, Eleanor.” He fairly tore the rest of her clothes off and carried her to her bed, not even bothering to pull the blankets back as he laid her down and moved between her thighs. She helped him undress and rubbed her toes impatiently against his shins as he kissed her, and she sighed when he entered her, and she wrapped her legs around him, surrendering to the pleasure he gave her while realizing how powerful she was becoming in turn.

He still wouldn’t get under the blankets, but Eleanor was used to lying naked in bed with Henry, letting him look at her. Sometimes he didn’t even touch her. He would just lie there, watching her, seemingly mesmerized. He was watching her now, grey eyes scanning her face and her body. His intense gaze made her tremble a little, with a strange, heady combination of nervousness and desire.

“You have such beautiful breasts,” he said, with a cheeky grin, finally dipping his head to kiss her deeply, and she sighed, then she gave him a playful little slap on the arm.

“Scoundrel. Why are men so obsessed with breasts?”

“How can we not be?” Henry laughed. “It is how God made us—to desire our wives. If a man could lie in bed with a woman with a body like yours, he’d be pretty obsessed, too.”

She was learning about his likes and dislikes, and not just in bed. He was a very simple man, she was discovering, and that was something of a relief to her. At age thirty-one, he was obviously well set in his ways, but fortunately, he had very few shocking habits, save being more than a little messy and sometimes rather noisy. He was good-natured and very easy-going, and had a naturally warm and kind character, and she had seen many examples of his generosity. He was simplicity itself, and quite basic—really, all he needed, on any given day, was food, admiration and sex. So long as he was provided with those three things, to varying degrees, he was happy, and she liked to see him happy.

Eleanor had gotten him to tell her a little about his childhood, and how he had adored his mother and was a little fearful of his ferocious, battle-hardened father. Princess Anne had died when Henry was only fourteen, and the Count von Falkenburg had died of injuries received in battle shortly before King Andrew’s death, and Henry had been left with a nation heavily in debt and fighting an almost constant battle to keep Lacovia from invading.

King Andrew had been very extravagant, and had no qualms about spending vast amounts of money on decorating and refurbishing the huge palace and lush gardens and fountains (aside from buying and improving other large royal properties and parks), and he had spent a great deal of his reign trying to show the world that Gravonia was not just some backwater squeezed between the increasingly acquisitive Lacovia and the immensely powerful Morvenia. Eleanor could tell, however, that the late King had not been terribly successful at impressing the world, and the money he had spent on his building projects could have been better used elsewhere, particularly in funding the army and protecting the country’s borders.

Three hundred years of the kings of Gravonia failing to sire male heirs was also a major problem for the country. The kings of the past had had to provide dowries for their daughters, just to lure well-connected men in to marry them. By the time of Henry’s birth, the royal coffers were almost emptied to those ends, and everyone had been vastly relieved when Princess Cecily, though the younger of Andrew’s two surviving daughters, had borne two sons, Erich and Lionel, to Count von Arklow, a rich Gravonian nobleman. Anne’s marriage to the immensely wealthy Danish Count von Falkenburg had produced the heir to the throne when Erich von Arklow was almost ten years old and had been Heir Presumptive his entire life. Henry’s birth—after almost twelve years of marriage for Anne and von Falkenburg—had been a blow to the von Arklows, particularly Countess Cecily, who apparently still believed her son was rightful heir to the throne.

Eleanor had found Count von Arklow to be very congenial and charming, but she remembered Lord Devereaux’s warning: Countess Cecily might some day push her son hard enough to make him make a grab for the crown. Her biggest worry, though, was Lord Beauchamp. He was a skilled soldier and an excellent commander, though Henry had mentioned that his cousin was not particularly well-liked by the common soldiers or even the generals, and neither was he known as any kind of philanthropist. He was ambitious, and unlike von Arklow, Beauchamp truly wanted to be King. Henry seemed unconcerned with either of his cousins, and trusted both men without question; Eleanor, however, knew that men that high in the line of succession, with any degree of ambition, could be dangerous.

She was thinking of how important it was that she produce a son when she felt Henry nuzzling her neck, and she looked at him—he was really so sweet, and so passionate…

“Eleanor, I have something I need to tell you… something I am not very proud of… ”

“What would that be?” she asked him.

“I… before I married you, I had… a few… dalliances with women. I even had a mistress.”

“I see.” That did not surprise her. Lady Harriet had warned her about that, and she knew few men could control their urges for long. She suspected her husband had bedded more than just a few women, and considering his abilities and stamina, she suspected that those women had enjoyed themselves immensely.

“But… but the morning after our wedding, I sent her away. With a proper annuity of course, but… I promise you, Eleanor, I will keep no mistresses. I will have no other woman. Only you. Only you, my love. Please forgive me.” He looked at her, a stricken expression on his face.

Gently, she touched his mouth with her fingertips. “The past is the past, Henry. I will not hold anything from the past over your head. Yesterday is dead.”

He smiled and kissed her passionately, and she startled him then by flipping him onto his back and straddling his hips, pinning him to the mattress and watching his eyes darken as she took him. She began caressing his chest, then leaned forward to kiss him, hearing him moan helplessly as her mouth made love to his. “You’re very strong for such a slender woman, Eleanor,” he said admiringly when she sat up and began moving, and he gripped her hips, pushing up into her and loving the sweet little cries she was making in the back of her throat. She tipped her head back, closing her eyes, and guided his hands to where she needed his touch the most.

“I need to be fairly strong, to be your wife, don’t I?” she asked him, kissing his palm when he reached up to caress her cheek.

“That’s very… oh God… sexy. Oh… ah… Eleanor, there is no woman—… no woman… alive… like you… ”

“I should hope not,” she told him, before leaning forward to kiss him again. “I was taught to be strong. I was even taught how to fight, when required. To wrestle, even.” Henry gasped and sat up, pulling her into his arms and kissing her hard, overcome with need. She wrapped her arms and legs around him, crying out in ecstasy as her husband carried her into paradise.

“Where is the king?” Lord Beauchamp growled as he walked into the Great Hall. He saw Lady Harriet and Lady Agnes sitting with some other ladies and strode up to them, glowering down at them until at last Harriet stood up.

“He is upstairs, my lord. Taking a nap.”

“A nap?” Beauchamp rolled his eyes. “Are you mad, woman? He never takes naps.”

“I think,” Lady Agnes said, looking as nervous as a hen, just like always. “She means the King is… taking a nap with the Queen.”

“Taking a na—… dear God, are you actually saying… ” He glared at Harriet.

“Charles, what the devil are you doing here?” called King Henry, who was coming down the stairs, looking quite refreshed and happy. “I thought you were inspecting your estates in the west.” The King shook Beauchamp’s hand. “Ah well, it’s good to see you. How are things for you?” He clapped his cousin on the back, and Beauchamp coughed a little.

“Quite well, sir. You look very… hearty.”

“Aye, I am,” Henry grinned. “I will not speak of such things, when it comes to my lovely young bride, but she is… absolutely wonderful.”

Beauchamp nodded, staring at the king in amazement. Did the King of Gravonia actually have… a hickey? “I’m glad to hear… ”

“She’s amazing, Charles. Utterly breathtaking, and so beautiful and sweet and… charming and so much more intelligent than me, which I personally think is a blessing. A worthless old clod like me really needs a clever wife, eh? She’s asleep now, bless her.”

“Oh, now, I’m sure you do very well, sir… ”

“Not as well as I’ve been doing since Eleanor came here. D’you know, she suggested finding the poor farmers in the north work in the south, to have money to send home until the drought passes? It has been very hard on those folks, you know, and God knows those people want to work and earn their own way. Eleanor says that indolence and living on the dole is a dreadful way of killing the soul, and I quite agree. Don’t you?”

Beauchamp paled. “She suggested…?”

“Aye, she did, and she was very pleased when I decided to lower taxes in the north, too. I mean, really, when they’ve no money, how on earth can they pay taxes and still feed their families? Granted, it’s only been a few days since the proclamations were made, but I’ve heard very good reports already and many men are heading to the south and are being hired on farms and in the vineyards and orchards and the like. Good work for good men, and everyone benefits--when a good man is working hard and seeing profits, he is more inclined to help others, eh? All very good indeed, I say, and d’you know, I think I ought to talk to my Council about lowering taxes across the whole country. Eleanor says letting people keep their money makes them want to work harder to better themselves and then they… oh, what was it she said? Oh, well, anyway, her ideas are very sound, I have to say.” Henry grinned. “Anyway, I’m going to speak with my Council about the notion today.”

“Of course,” Beauchamp managed. “By the way, I was more than a little surprised to hear you had dismissed Cassia…?”

“Oh, yes.” Henry looked a little chagrined. “I felt it best to have her leave the palace, Charles. I have made sure she will receive a monthly annuity, so she will not starve, poor thing, and she will live comfortably, but I’ve no need for such things now. I hope she wasn’t too upset, but… well… ” He shrugged. “What’s done is done. I will keep no mistresses, and I will bar that sort of woman coming into the palace from now on.” He looked at Beauchamp. “No offense Cassia, of course. She was… is… a nice woman, but you and I know she knew what she was getting into.”

Lord Beauchamp didn’t know what to say then.

Henry finally grinned, clapping his cousin on the back again. “Honestly, Charles, I know I will never need another woman again as long as I live. Eleanor meets… all my requirements. Every one.” He grinned, squeezed his cousin’s shoulder, and ambled away, heading toward his study. Beauchamp looked at Lady Harriet, clearly furious, and the Mistress of the Bedchamber swallowed as he dragged her away to a quiet corner.

“I’m sure he will eventually tire of the Queen, sir,” she finally said.

Beauchamp knew that wasn’t likely. The King was besotted with Eleanor, and everyone knew it. Hell, even his father had heard about it, and he hadn’t been to Court in years! He scowled at Lady Harriet, and she took a deep breath

“It is too soon to know if she is with child. It’s been less than week… but they do… indulge in… the marital act every night.”

“I must know the moment she announces she is with child,” Beauchamp told her, increasingly enraged. “The moment!”

“Yes, my lord,” she curtseyed and he stalked away, fuming. Harriet went back to her seat opposite Agnes, who stared at her for a long time, but said nothing.

Eleanor’s first two months in Gravonia were a raging success.

She determinedly set herself to the task of bringing the palace to a state of cleanliness and order it had never known before, with each room cleaned and aired out one at a time. Staff caught lazing about were dismissed immediately and replaced. The unused ‘death rooms’ were emptied out, the knickknacks sold or discarded, and the rooms closed. Old, broken furniture was carted away and Eleanor spent hours digging through royal treasures in the attics and basements of the palace, and she had the junk replaced with beautiful, priceless items that were significant to the royal family’s history. Windows were washed until they gleamed, floors were scrubbed; the drapes and curtains were washed or repaired as needed, and finally the tapestries were taken down and cleaned until they were as presentable as possible. Eleanor knew she couldn’t throw them out—many dated back almost two hundred years and had been sewn by women of the Gravonian royal family—they were priceless, regardless of how hideous many of them were.

Plus the bats were chased out and their means of entry blocked. Count von Hesse had told her that bats kept insects under control and even pollinated flowers and fruit trees, and she couldn’t disdain them for that, but when they ruined priceless hardwood floors, that stretched hospitality too far

After that first month, Eleanor finally felt confident enough to take her first trip into Luvov itself. She had only caught a glimpse of the squalor, violence and poverty of the tenements and bedraggled alleys of the capital on the day she had arrived, and she decided to ride into the city in a plain coach, hoping to attract as little attention as possible. Riding alone through the city, hidden in the carriage and with only two bodyguards, she was horrified at what she saw—it was all ten times worse than it had even seemed. Back in the palace, she began writing out her ideas and plans. Meanwhile, she talked quietly with Henry, sounding him out on what he thought could be improved.

“The last thing I want to do,” she told him one night, as they lay in bed after making love. “Is pry into peoples’ lives. I don’t wish to be a busybody, telling people what’s best for them, but instead we should be… encouragers. We ought to set a good example, I think. The royal family should be quiet, clean-living, economical, and useful. After all, we exist at their sufferance, don’t we? If we can set a good example, then we can at least suggest… never demand… that people lift themselves up out of the muck and improve their lives on their own. We just have to make them want to and there is no limit to what they might achieve.”

Henry snuggled his wife, loving the sound of her voice as much as he loved what she was saying. “So you envision great things for Gravonia, do you, dearest?”

"Any country can be great, Henry. It just needs good leadership, but mostly it depends on good citizens. A great king is only so when he rules a great people.”

“What about a great queen?” he asked her, smiling.

“I am only your consort, Henry.” She sat up, moving onto her knees, and kissed his cheek. He sighed at the sight of her lovely body, amazed at how utterly gorgeous she was.

“No. No, on the day you were crowned, I crowned you as my equal. With my own crown, no less. Everyone was shocked, but I wanted it to be so. I knew the moment I saw you that you were going to be a great influence on me and this country, Eleanor, and you are. Those men in the north—so many of them have found work on the farms in the south, and their families are doing better, my Council tells me. The drought seems to be ending, too, thank God, so they can come home, and I have decided to lower taxes, and even eliminate some of the more idiotic taxes… like that stupid honey tax, and the window tax my grandfather imposed.”

Eleanor straddled his lap and hugged him. “See now? You don’t need me making suggestions to you at all, Henry. Well, not those sorts of suggestions, anyway.”

“Oh? What sort of suggestions would you make?” he asked, grinning at her.

She giggled, and he fell even more helplessly in love with her than ever before. When she whispered her idea in his ear, his eyes widened before he scrambled out of the bed and carried her over to the hearth, lying her gently down on the bearskin rug before kissing her soundly and eagerly doing exactly what she had suggested.

“I don’t even sleep in my bed any more,” Eleanor said later, yawning and resting her cheek on his chest.

“No. Perhaps… well, maybe you should simply move in here, Eleanor.”

“Kings and Queens don’t sleep in the same bed, Henry,” she said, sighing softly and planting a gentle kiss in the center of his chest.

“We already do. We just… ”

“Mate, rather than sleep.” She yawned.

“Am I boring you, dearest?”

“I can’t imagine how you could do that.” Still, she yawned and stretched again. “I’m just sleepy.”

Henry got up carefully, and picked her up, carrying her back to the bed and tucking her in under the blankets. “Let’s give it a try, then, my love. This whole notion of sleeping together.” He climbed in with her, and she smiled and curled up in his arms, purring softly as she drifted into deep sleep. Henry held her close, breathing in her exquisite scent, before finally drifting into peaceful sleep himself.

“Oh my God… ”

The King sat up and was shocked to see Eleanor scrambling out of the bed and racing across the room to drop in front of an empty chamberpot, vomiting. He climbed out and padded across the floor to kneel down beside her, holding her hair back as she retched again. It took two more miserable episodes before she was finally finished, then he got her a cup of water and a washcloth. She cleansed her mouth and wiped her face before letting him pick her up and carry her back to the bed.

A little more than a month before, she had moved into his bedroom, and already had made a few subtle changes. Lighter-colored furniture, for one thing, and rather pretty soft blue curtains now decorated the windows. Her feminine touches pleased him, actually, and he found their rooms to be a haven of rest and quiet now. To accommodate her, however, he had the wall between his chambers and what had been hers pierced and a door installed, so that she needn’t have to use the hallway to go to her rooms to dress or sit with her ladies in the evenings until bedtime.

“I feel so miserable,” she said, curling up in his arms again. “So… nauseated and… so very heavy… It takes all my strength just to move my arms.

“Something is wrong,” he said, sounding frightened. “You were fine yesterday.”

“I’m not now,” she said. She closed her eyes and was soon asleep again, which surprised Henry. Usually, she was eager for sex in the mornings, but not today. Instead, she slept heavily, and when she woke again she rushed back to the chamberpot and retched again. Henry dressed, found her nightgown and helped her into it, then called for Lady Harriet. The Mistress of the Bedchamber arrived a few moments later, looked at the pale, miserable creature in the bed and frowned.

“Your Majesty, might you leave us alone for a moment?” she asked him. The King cast a worried look at Eleanor before leaving them. Lady Harriet sat down by the bed and looked at Eleanor, who gazed warily at her.

“When did you last bleed, Your Majesty?” Lady Harriet asked her.

Eleanor pursed her lips, thinking. She had not bled last month, and she knew she ought to be bleeding now. She pushed her hair back from her face and looked up at the ceiling. “I have not bled since the month I first came here,” Eleanor said. “Two and a half months ago.”

“You are with child, ma’am,” Lady Harriet said, with a blunt frankness that made Eleanor want to burst into tears.

“Yes. I suppose I am,” Eleanor finally said, pushing her tears away. “That is what I am here for, first and foremost.”

“Indeed. We must pray for a prince, ma’am,” Lady Harriet said quietly, but she was wringing her hands, her expression troubled.

“Yes.” She turned her head, looking out the brightly clean window at the green spring outside. “I will pray for a prince. With all my heart.” She looked at Lady Harriet, whose expression was very strange, and not all joyful. “I will bear the next king of Gravonia.” She smiled then, her nausea and initial fear fading away as fog is chased away by strong sunlight. “It is my destiny.”

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