Our Gracious Queen

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Late August 1376

Lord Beauchamp sat on his horse, scowling as he watched a group of peasant farmers reaping a field of rich, golden wheat. The northern region of Gravonia was experiencing a vast harvest this year, and for the first time in probably a decade it looked like the farmers were going to make handsome profits from their labors.

And Beauchamp wasn’t going to make so much as a guilder from any of it.

He did not miss the three knights, dressed in black and gold tunics, guarding the fields. Those damned knights were everywhere now, particularly during harvest time, and they had strict orders to check the credentials of any man arriving who claimed to represent the Crown. If stamped papers could not be provided, the man was to be immediately arrested and hauled to Luvov for questioning, according to the proclamations that had been posted in every town square throughout the country. Beauchamp suspected that the Queen herself had written it, the language being so clear and concise.

His hackles rose as he remembered the words on the proclamation, that were surely intended to dig at him: "To promote peace and safety to all, and to guard honest folk from evil and wicked men, the King does hereby declare that the regular presence of at least five Royal knights be required in each village, year-round, to ensure public safety and tranquility. These knights are not to interfere in the day-to-day business of the citizens, but are to be called up at any time to defend and protect the people of Gravonia from enemies from without and within, and to mediate public disputes with mercy and impartiality. From henceforth, misrepresentation of the Crown’s servants or of the King's good name will be met with swift and firm justice, with no regard whatsover to rank or position."

For almost five years, he had used the northern borderlands’ isolation as a means of making considerable profits, not just in sending his knights in to collect money from each village, but also in a bit of ‘gentle persuasion’ to get the freeholders to pay up in order to keep farming their land at all. The threat of burning crops and buildings had always kept them paying , and he considered it no great loss if their fields and animals were destroyed if they couldn’t or wouldn’t hand over their marks.

Now, he could do nothing but watch all that money go into the pockets of filthy peasants.

Growling in disgust, he rode past the fields into the village of Willemet, and stopped at a little tavern on the square. He was accustomed to being bowed and scraped to, but no one in the little pub even looked up at him, and he felt another wave of fury wash over him. First Queen Eleanor had found out what he had been doing—whoever had ratted him out was going to pay, that was for damned sure—and now these worthless grubs had forgotten their place. Was he not the grandson of the Duke of Beswick, and a proximate heir to the throne itself?

The tavern keeper poured him a cup of ale and Beauchamp sat at a trestle table near the fire, nursing his drink and fuming. That insolent little bitch, he thought—he had sorely underestimated her. She had actually frightened him, the day of Prince Frederick’s christening. The cool, steely resolve in her blue eyes had been unmistakable, and even his wife had warned him to not cross her. “A mother lion has claws and teeth, Charles,” Alice had said. “She won’t think twice about striking if required, when it comes to the King and especially for her children.”

Beauchamp had only gone into the tavern to meet with a man he had contacted a month before. Just being in this town, where someone might recognize him, was unsettling, but the man had insisted on the meeting place. Willemet was just ten miles from the border, and apparently his contact was just as uneasy at being so far from home. Any Lacovian caught in Gravonia faced a good deal of hounding until he left, after all.

“Your Lordship,” someone said, and Beauchamp looked up to see a swarthy little man dressed in fine clothes and a jaunty feathered cap. “Might I speak with you, sir?”

Beauchamp glared at the little man, and he finally shrugged. Caution was paramount. If anyone saw him here, talking to a stranger, it could very well get back to Henry… or worse, Queen Eleanor.

“Outside, sir. Too many people are in here now.”

He stood and followed the man out into the fading day, and they walked out to the stable yard, which was occupied only by a few horses. “What do you want?” Beauchamp asked him, eyeing him narrowly.

“Are you quite willing to even speak with a Lacovian, my lord?”

Beauchamp hesitated. It was one thing to extort money from his own countrymen, but to even have dealings with his country’s bitterest enemy was another entirely. He looked around for a moment, uncertain, and finally gave the man a lofty glare. Taking that as a yes, the man nodded.

“I understand you are King Henry’s cousin and heir?”

“I am fifth in line to the throne,” Beauchamp snapped. Even admitting such a thing annoyed him. Less than three years ago, he had been closer—after von Arklow, only his father and grandfather stood nearer the throne, and now his father was dead, felled at last by his leprosy. von Arklow showed little of the required initiative to really make a grab for the throne, and he doubted Erich ever would, even with Cecily’s constant harping on the matter.

“Ah yes… the King has two sons now, then it’s Count von Arklow.” He paused. “Doesn’t he have a brother…?”

“His brother joined the Church. He gave up his right to the throne, and my own excellent father died last month.”

“Ah, yes. My deepest sympathies to you, sir.” The man smiled, his expression cool. “Well… that’s one way to remove a rival for the throne. There are others, of course. Accidents, illness… ” His expression remained the same as he let Beauchamp complete the thought himself.

Beauchamp hesitated. It had been audacious enough for him to even send one of his trusted lieutenants north, to put out word that he wanted to look into the matter of an alliance with Lacovia. He had been purposefully vague about what he wanted to talk about, just in case his agent was captured or questioned. This conversation could be equally lethal, and both men knew it. For a Lacovian to even venture into Gravonia was suspicious enough, but to see a Gravonian even speaking to one could quickly become a matter of national interest

“What? You don’t want the throne?” The little man pulled out a paper scroll, which was sealed with the King of Lacovia’s own symbol—a boar. “This letter is from the King of Lacovia and his Council. He is offering some very lucrative incentives for a union between Lacovia and Gravonia—peace and prosperity for us all…” He glanced around, watching a group of laughing peasants roll by on a wagon that was overflowing with newly-harvested wheat. “And everyone else in their proper place.” The little man gave him a cold, oily smile.

Beauchamp frowned at the man, though he actually rather liked his style. “What is your name?”

“I can provide no name, sir, but the King of Lacovia and his Council are quite eager to assist you in any way they can, and are particularly eager to avenge our country’s losses at the Field of Stones. They are very eager, in fact, to rid the world of your nation’s lovely little Queen. It was she who drew up the plans to lure our army into a trap, you know.”

Beauchamp was startled at that piece of news but he refused to show his surprise. He only shrugged negligently. “She’s a bitch, the Queen,” he nodded in agreement. “But bitches know how to fight—I will give her that, and she even knows how to fight dirty when required. Perhaps your late king should have known better than to get drawn into a trap. It wasn’t as though we sent your king an invitation to come into our country.” He glared at the man. “And what you propose is not just murder and infanticide, but also treason.”

“How is it treason to get rid of someone who has done nothing but cause trouble for your country?” The well-dressed little assassin jabbed his thumb at the peasants coming in from the fields. “What, you want the rabble prospering? That’s now how things work, and you know it. I’m a member of Lacovia’s ruling class, but I have to make a living too, and my line of work has made me very wealthy indeed—the fewer rich people about, the more profits I can make, and it's easier to control people who are frightful. My own father--a rather foolish man, I think--always said that freedom only exists when the government fears the people. I won't have that--the people should fear the government and their betters and look to the state for all their welfare.” He rolled his eyes. "Freedom--for the rabble! Madness, I say!" He handed the scroll to Beauchamp. “I will meet with you again, sir, at your earliest convenience. Good day to you.”

Beauchamp broke the seal and began reading the King’s offer, and looked up to ask the man a question, but he was gone. He stuffed the scroll into his pocket and strolled back to the tavern to collect his horse and ride home. For now, he would leave the northern borders alone—if the King of Lacovia’s offer was suitable, he would be able to lay claim to far more than just this little portion of Gravonia. One day, the whole country would be his.

Eleanor was starting to worry about Lady Harriet.

She didn’t like the woman any more than before, but it was rather concerning sometimes—the woman seemed to be gaining weight, and was often red-eyed and sniffling. Eleanor didn’t suspect Harriet was suffering a cold, else she wouldn’t allow her into the same room with her sons, but Lady D’Acre’s behavior was very odd indeed.

The Queen was enduring the monotony of the day by sitting on the pretty portico overlooking Luvov, having determined that the view was really quite lovely if one faced the west. She still worried about the eastern section of the city, which was still plagued with violence and poverty, and so far neither she nor the King’s agents had determined who actually owned those crumbling buildings and the two hideous brothels.

She recalled one of the men she had hired to investigate the matter saying that prostitution was not at all harmful—he had even called it a ‘victimless’ crime. She had had to restrain herself from dumping black ink all over his head: if he ever could look into the eyes of some poor, lost girl who had been forced into such a life, he would never call the practice ‘victimless’. She had instead asked him if he would want his wife, sisters or daughters forced into such a horrible, violent and short life and he had at least looked embarrassed and never questioned her again.

Glancing up from her sewing, she saw a bleakness in Harriet’s eyes that bore a disturbing kinship to the haunted, miserable look of the poor girls who worked in the brothels. Eleanor had interviewed a few of the girls and had been struck by how hopeless they had all seemed at first, and how they seemed to think they had no future. To rectify that, Eleanor had seen to it that they were given employment in the palace and on Crown properties, where they were safe, well-fed and treated with kindness and even given access to education. Those girls had all been abused horribly and it struck the Queen that Harriet had that same look of despair about her.

“Lady D’Acre, are you well?” she asked mildly.

“I am… I am with child, ma’am.”

“Oh, I see. Yes. How nice. How far along are you?”

“Almost five months now, ma’am.”

Eleanor eyed Harriet for a moment, and fought off a natural instinct to do some quick calculating. Hadn’t Lord D’Acre been in Havor for the past six months? She sat up straight in her chair, determined to not draw such nasty conclusions. Particularly about Harriet, of all people. The woman’s reputation was spotless... wasn’t it?

“I’m sure you’re very excited,” Eleanor finally said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Harriet answered dully and went back to her sewing. Eleanor caught Agnes’ eye then—the widowed Lady Galwain pursed her lips and resumed keeping an eye on Alexander, who was stomping around the flagstones. He had recently been presented with boots that were exact replicas, in miniature, of his father’s and he loved the noise they made on any surface. Prince Frederick, who was starting to crawl a bit, was sitting up on a thick blanket, looking around with interest. Eleanor had set his favorite toys around him, and he was contemplating which one he wanted to grab first.

“This pregnancy is making you ill, perhaps?” Eleanor asked.

“It… it was just unexpected, ma’am.”

“Oh. I’m sure Lord D’Acre will be very pleased, though. Though perhaps this time you might have a little daughter.”

“Perhaps,” Harriet mumbled. “If you’ll excuse me, ma’am, I am not feeling well.”

“Of course. Good day to you, Lady Harriet.”

Harriet left in a hurry, but Eleanor didn’t think she was off to toss up her lunch. Harriet was sick for some other reason, and it had little to do with her current state. She looked at Agnes, who hesitated, absently giving Alexander another small piece of shortbread. The boy happily gobbled up the sweet biscuit and tried to get her to give him another, but she got up and moved to a seat closer to the Queen.

“Ma’am, Lady Harriet is… well, she is pregnant, indeed, but… I have often seen her with… another man.”

Eleanor did not like gossip, however much it might help in certain circumstances. She took a deep breath, ready to deliver a pious homily about spreading rumors, but Agnes shook her head.

“I have seen Lord Beauchamp leaving her chamber, here in the palace, at least twice. Early in the morning.”

The Queen frowned, thinking this over. “Perhaps he was visiting her and… and Lord D’Acre in their rooms… ” She batted Alexander’s hand away when he made a grab for her embroidery. The Crown Prince went back to stomping around on the flagstones, while Frederick grabbed his favorite toy horse and began whapping it on the floor.

“Lord D’Acre has been in Havor for almost seven months, ma’am. You know that.”

“That doesn’t mean… surely she would not be so foolish… ” Eleanor frowned. Lady Harriet, sleeping with Lord Beauchamp! What a hideous pairing, and not just for their sin of adultery. What an unfortunate start in life their child would have.

Agnes looked down, then leaned forward. “Lord D’Acre is not always as… kind as he ought to be,” she said quietly. “Not that I really excuse Harriet for… for her actions, but… ” She gestured helplessly and smiled at Alexander, who was at her side again, hoping for another shortbread biscuit. “Now listen here, Alexander, you cannot live on shortbread alone!”

“What do you mean, Lord D’Acre isn’t kind? He doesn’t… abuse her, does he?” Eleanor asked.

“I have seen her with a black eye once, but she said it was just an accident. But I know better than that—my mother had a sister whose husband liked to knock her about, until one day my father gave him a thrashing and he never swatted at a fly after that.” Agnes nodded firmly. “Then again, he really… couldn’t, after that, what with his arms being broken into pieces and all. Can you even imagine, a man striking a woman?”

Eleanor could not imagine it at all. She had known great warriors and fearless knights, but none of them had been violent towards women. Granted, the very notion of knighthood required a chivalrous attitude toward women in general, but Eleanor could not picture Constantine or Count von Hesse, much less Henry, raising his hand to a woman or to a little child—it was unthinkable.

“No, I don’t suppose I can even picture such a thing,” Eleanor said quietly. She looked down at her finished embroidery project, a set of handkerchiefs, decorated with the Gravonian stag, for Henry. Agnes was playing peek-a-boo with Frederick, who was giggling happily: he seemed to regard Agnes as something like a toy that provided shortbread on demand, but she clearly adored both of the little princes. “What about you, Agnes? What’s happening with you lately?”

The Dowager Lady Galwan blushed pink and folded up her own sewing (new shirts for the princes) and folded her hands in her lap. “I think Lorenzo might actually… be… ready to… um… propose, ma’am.”

Lorenzo. Eleanor almost laughed. Agnes’ late husband’s groom was a sweet-natured, kind-hearted and breathtakingly gorgeous young man, and he managed the Galwan estates. His courtship of Agnes had been slow and cautious, but it was still moving along at a satisfactory clip. Being devoutly religious as he was, Eleanor knew Agnes was in no danger of scandal, but this little development was extremely exciting. “Really? What makes you think that?”

“He has asked me to begin attending Mass with him, at the church where he goes!”

“Oh, that’s lovely Agnes!” Eleanor said, trying to find a way to look serious and happy at the same time. One had to be careful with Agnes, whose confidence was growing daily, but she still remained almost childlike in how easily she bruised. In the past year, Eleanor had come to appreciate her Mistress of the Robes a great deal, and had cultivated a warm friendship with her. Agnes’ cheerful nature and innocence was refreshing to Eleanor now, instead of annoying, and she found her company soothing. Even more, Eleanor found it gratifying to see Agnes becoming more and more self-assured in the past year. She had blossomed into a quietly pretty and much more self-assured woman, but Eleanor did not credit herself with that. She knew Lorenzo was the one who was bringing Agnes out of her shell--and really, the young woman was showing that she was quite capable of taking care of herself, with only minimal encouragement from anyone.

“Isn’t it? He’s so sweet. The sweetest, gentlest man I know. He even says I’m pretty, and… ” Agnes turned even pinker, and leaned forward, whispering, as though she thought Alexander and Frederick would overhear and spread the news all over the palace. “He kissed me!”

“Where?” Eleanor asked.

“In the stables!”

“Oh, that must have been very nice.” Eleanor was really having to pinch herself to keep from laughing.

Agnes covered her mouth with her hand. “Is it… normal for a man to put his tongue in a woman’s mouth?”

“Um… ” Eleanor certainly wasn’t prepared for that. “Lorenzo did that?”

“Yes. It felt… funny. I mean, it was nice, but it was… well, my Louis never did that. Is it normal?”

“It’s normal. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, really, as long as you’re comfortable with it.” Eleanor became brisk, remembering how Betsy had explained such matters to her. “But if it makes you uncomfortable, you should tell him and I’m sure he won’t do it again.”

“I didn’t say it made me uncomfortable. I… liked it. He kissed me for a long time.”

Eleanor was immediately on alert. “Did you remain… uh… vertical?”

“What?” Agnes’ brow furrowed.

“I mean, did you lie down with him… in the… uh… stable?”

“Oh. No.” She blushed deeply. "But I would like to lie down with him some day. When... if... we marry."

Eleanor breathed a sigh of relief. She had laid down in the straw with Constantine, back at the stables at Ravensburg, but only his respectful attitude toward her innocence had kept her from losing her virginity that very day. She sat back for a moment, smiling softly at the memory of his kiss, and his touch. Henry was an excellent lover, and she enjoyed her physical relationship with him, but no one kissed like Constantine of Morvenia, or ever would.

“All right. Well, then, it does sound like things are going well.”

Agnes was never going to be any sort of intellectual, but she never lost her temper with anyone, she was as gentle as a lamb, and since the death of her husband and the removal of her mother-in-law from Applewood, she was coming into her own.

Gone was her awkwardness, blotchy complexion and unkempt hair. Instead, she was glowing with good health and happiness, and her hair was swept up in an attractive bun. Besides that, she was well-dressed, and if her conversation was limited to domestic matters like cooking, sewing and running a household, she at least seemed to take great satisfaction in being very good at all three and was proud to be in charge of her own life.

Eleanor had been to Applewood a few times (to Agnes’ nervous delight) since Lady Agatha had gone back home, and the house was indeed a warm, welcoming place, and Lorenzo Bartolemeo was just the right sort of man for Agnes, to Eleanor’s view: he was intelligent, resourceful and was extremely protective of Agnes. Eleanor hoped he would do more than just ask Agnes to attend Mass with him at the little Church of St. Nicholas, but would also soon ask her to walk down the aisle as his bride.

“I hope he will ask me,” Agnes confessed softly. “I would love to have a baby someday. My own little baby, to play with and love.”

“I’m sure you’ll be an excellent mother, Agnes,” Eleanor said encouragingly, confident that Agnes would definitely be a loving and attentive parent. She likely wouldn’t pass on book learning to her children, but if they inherited their mother’s sweet nature and lack of guile and Lorenzo’s canny intelligence, they would go far in the world. She smiled warmly at the young woman, called Alexander over and had Agnes collect Frederick. “All right, you little rascals, it’s time for your naps. Come on.”

Alexander protested, but rather weakly, as he was starting to wind down a good deal. Their nap times were set for four o’clock each afternoon, and the hour they were in bed asleep gave her time to go over state papers with Henry and meet with the household staff to discuss any issues that had arisen. and by late afternoon, the boys were usually back up and ready for brief lessons with Eleanor on letters or numbers, followed by supper, chapel and bathtime, and they were in their beds at nightfall, where she would listen to Alexander’s prayers. Henry never failed to be there to read them their stories and kiss them goodnight. When the boys were asleep, Eleanor and Henry would dine alone together, talking by the fire, and frequently made love until the wee hours of the morning.

Eleanor found that the routine under which she had been raised worked just as well for her sons. They were both thriving—she made sure they ate healthy meals, ran about a great deal after morning devotions, and that they were taught excellent manners. Neither backtalk nor willful disobedience was tolerated even for a moment, and she was happy to see that Alexander rarely seemed to require a great deal of correcting—he was a good-natured though rather serious little boy, and Frederick seemed to possess his father’s merry personality, and was more outgoing and fun-loving than Alexander. Not that they didn't squabble and make messes--it had been Agnes who rightly called a group of little boys a 'debris'.

Her chief concerns, when it came to her sons, was developing their characters and ensuring their safety. von Hesse’s warnings were, she knew, well-founded, and the vivid dream she had had about the dragon attending Alexander’s coronation still made her shudder with fear while also giving her even firmer resolve. She would see Alexander on the throne one day, far in the future, and her other children would be safe, happy and successful.

She didn’t like being paranoid, but most women didn’t have a son who would one day be a king, nor did most women have lurking enemies willing to harm her children. Thus she insisted that Alexander and Frederick both always be accompanied by two loyal knights when they went anywhere without her, and she was equally diligent about vetting the knights assigned to guard the palace. She was pleased, then, with recently appointed Captain of the Guard, a rather shy, taciturn man named Niall Lassiter, who was just as determined to insure the safety of the princes. He rarely spoke, seemed to have no close friends, and lived alone, but he was also scrupulously honest and had covered himself in glory on the battlefield. She rather liked him, actually, though he seemed to have the opinion that no one liked him at all. Granted, he was a bit growly, but under that bluster beat the heart of a kind, generous man.

With the boys asleep, Eleanor went into Henry’s study and sat at her desk, going over state papers and reading about the crops being harvested throughout Gravonia. She was particularly interested in how things were going in the north, and was pleased to read that the oat, wheat and barley harvests had been overwhelming. She read over a few more documents, marking matters that required further debate and writing important points in Henry’s book.

She had never once attended a Council meeting, but Boris had showed her a little room, just next door to the King’s Council Room, where she could sit behind an iron grillwork screen and listen in. Not even Henry was aware of her presence there, during each weekly meeting, but she kept careful notes of everything everyone said. Because of those meetings, she had learned which of Henry’s men was actually interested in furthering Gravonia’s progress, and which were only interested in lining their own pockets. Lord Hallam was definitely the most forward-thinking of the group, but he was young and his opinions were often overruled by the older men, who were set in the old ways of doing things.

Count von Arklow was lukewarm on just about all issues, and only went wherever the wind blew (making him a dangerous man, in Eleanor’s opinion) and Lord Beauchamp—now Marquess of Rousseau—was quietly but firmly opposed to any and all reforms that would encourage success for the lower ranks of the citizenry. He had even opposed, in a muted way, the notion of encouraging good hygiene among the peasants, arguing that they were made hardier by hardship and living in squalor.

Henry came in just then, looking frustrated. “I was just in that hideous eastern portion of the city, Eleanor,” he said, throwing his cloak to a chair in the corner of the room. “I made at least a dozen inquiries as to who the bloody hell owns those houses and no one would tell me a damned thing!”

Her husband only cursed when really angry, and Eleanor waited out his storm. He stomped to his desk and sat down beside her, picking up his quill and scribbling restlessly on some parchment paper. Finally, he threw the quill down and stomped to the window, staring out into the fading light of the day. “I hate seeing that part of the city just… festering there, like an open wound. Whoever owns it won’t make the improvements or even let the people there get out… what kind of person would allow such a thing to happen? Poverty and crime and… and… ragged little children running about with no shoes, with no one caring a whit about them, not even their mothers, and only God knows where their fathers are… that whole region of town is full of dead-eyed whores standing on the corners… and it stinks of piss and hard ale and despair... my God, Eleanor, the place is horrible.”

“Aren’t you the King, Henry?” she asked gently.

“Well, yes, but… ”

“And aren’t your knights loyal to you, and the army, and most of the nobility?”

He turned to look at her, brow furrowed. “What do you mean by ‘most’ of the nobility?”

“Oh, you know every king has a few nobles at Court, and a few wealthy landowners, that oppose him in one way or another. Your Council is frequently rather reluctant to institute your reforms and some even oppose them outright. Lord Hallam, you know, is always eager to try new ideas and try to make the lives of your people better—he wants to see them prosper and move out of poverty and ignorance, and so do men like Lord John Ellis, Lord Spencer,Lord Delaford and Lord Crewe. Others… like, oh, Lord Stamford and Lord Durford and Lord Beauchamp, seem very unwilling to even consider such things, and your knights are all very loyal, and Captain Lassiter is an excellent man—all those men are your devoted servants and are in favor of seeing Gravonia become a modern, prosperous country. For those that are not in favor of reform, I suppose it’s a matter of just being used to things being done one way and not seeing fit to change.” Eleanor drew a picture of a tree on a piece of paper and waited for Henry’s reaction. He turned back and stared out the window.

“Those men you named do oppose my reforms,” he said flatly. “Aren’t they good reforms?” Henry looked at his wife again. “Look at most of the city!” He gestured toward western Luvov and Eleanor smiled. The city, once a crumbling, muddy, filthy quagmire, was orderly, clean and bustling even in the late afternoon. Eleanor’s theory that people working to advance themselves would be too busy to indulge in violence was proving correct, for the most part. Luvov was now graced with several schools, as well as sturdy new houses with tile roofs. Parks and gardens were springing up everywhere, and flowering trees were being planted all over the city. All sorts of businesses were starting up, all over the city and all over the country, and more and more men were becoming prosperous and comfortable, if not rich, and crime and violence were down considerably. Only the eastern portion of Luvov remained an ugly eyesore.

“Your ideas are excellent, Henry,” Eleanor said gently. She got up and went to him, slipping her arms around his waist and hugging him. “You are an excellent king—you know they call you Henry the Good these days. And Henry the Good can, if he so wills, make things happen.”

“A few years ago, I would have wanted to be called Henry the Fierce, but… to be regarded as a good king by my people is far more rewarding. Do… you think I’m a good king, Eleanor? Truly?”

His need for reassurance was touching, and she smiled up at him. “I would tell you if you weren’t, I can assure you, dearest,” she said. “All you’ve ever needed was encouragement and you soar.”

The King squeezed his wife, adoring her even more. “I will take none of the credit,” he said. “I know you’ve given me almost all the best ideas.” At her shaking head, he held up his hands. “No, I will not hear you try to deflect honors to me. I know it’s you. You speak with my Councilors—I know this to be true. They listen to you. Lord Hallam does, and so do the others, and General Seebolt is your most ardent admirer—I think he would promote you to commander of the royal army if I could bear the notion of you on a battlefield.”

She laughed. “I am no soldier. I’m just the Queen, and I’m only eighteen. I cannot imagine being promoted over experienced, seasoned soldiers.”

"Just a Queen?” Henry grinned at her. “I assure you, no one in Gravonia says you are ‘just’ the Queen.” His eyes darkened a little as he moved closer to her. “I certainly don’t think of you as ‘Queen’ when we’re in bed together.”

“Oh, I know all about that. I’m a lady in the Presence Chamber… ”

“And a bonny, naughty little strumpet in the bedroom,” he grinned, and she giggled when he made a grab for her. She swatted his hand away and dashed off, the King chasing her up the stairs and into their bedroom, ignoring startled servants they passed, and she let him catch her once the bedroom door was closed. She kissed him as he removed her clothes, and squealed with laughter when he tossed her naked onto the bed.

She lay there, watching him undress and smiled at him as he climbed aboard. “You are a goddess,” he whispered as he began kissing her. “If I could, I would start a whole religion… oh God, sweetheart, that’s perfect… to just worship your lovely… ” He lost any ability to speak complete sentences then, because she was pushing him onto his back and doing the most delightful things to him. When she did that to him, all he could do was moan and hope he didn’t pass out from sheer pleasure before she was through.

Beauchamp’s return to Luvov was met with every kind of annoyance. First, he was informed that the King had paid a visit to the derelict eastern portion of the city, asking more and more questions and becoming infuriated when no one would answer him. Then, as he walked into the palace, looking around at the spotlessly clean floors and elegant furnishings, he was startled to see Lady Harriet D’Acre standing with a few other ladies in the Great Hall. He frowned at her, briefly taking note of her bulging belly.

Harriet’s companions left and she approached him, her eyes downcast. “Lord Beauchamp.”

“It’s Lord Rousseau now, you stupid cow. What do you want?” he asked coldly. “And how many times do I have to tell you that—… ”

“I am with child,” she hissed, looking around. ”Your child.”

“Stupid bitch,” he snarled, wishing they were in private so he could give her a sound thrashing. “I knew I should never have bedded you at all. Oh, well, you were fun I suppose, in your way. I’m sure your husband will be delighted to know you’re having another little brat.”

“He is not a fool,” Harriet told him. “He will know the child is not his. I am at least five months along and he’s been gone seven months! When he returns home, he’ll beat me...”

“Good for him. Take care of it yourself. There’s a woman in the eastern ward of Luvov who can help you get rid of it easily enough.”

“Get rid of it?” she gasped, horrified.

“I’ve sent girls to her a few times,” he sneered. “Get away from me, you worthless whore. And if I were you, I wouldn’t go around talking about our little arrangement, Lady Harriet. It wouldn’t be at all prudent. I’ll send you the woman’s name and address. Her services are not cheap, mind, so scrape together a bit of cash… ”

“I am not murdering my poor child!” Harriet hissed at him, touching her belly. “The babe has committed no sin worthy of death!”

“Murder? Good God, woman, stop being so bloody stupid!” He shook his head, laughing. “Grow up and face the real world. If you think your husband will forgive you for your sins, by all means, bear the child and give it his name. If not, the matter can be dealt with quietly.” He dug in his pockets and extracted a few marks. “Here. I’m in a generous mood. Now go your way—you’ve served your purpose, though you failed in everything I told you to do. Go on… I don’t wish to see you again.”

Harriet watched her ‘lover’ walk away, and stared down at the coins in her hand. She clenched them in her fist for a moment, then flung them into the fireplace, wanting nothing to do with blood money. For a moment, she hesitated, knowing her only source of refuge now already had a low opinion of her, but where else could she turn? Her husband was due to arrive home in two days, and her desperation was growing with every passing moment. It was not only her own life in danger now, but also her unborn child's. She knew her own life wasn't worth anything any more, but the baby growing in her womb... did it not deserve at least some chance?

Harriet continued up the stairs and softly knocked on the door to the Queen’s sitting room. The Queen called for her to come in, and Lady D’Acre swallowed her pride and went inside. Eleanor was seated by the fire, as usual, holding Prince Frederick in her lap. The eight-month old was playing with one of his mother’s glittering diamond tiaras, holding it up to the light to watch it flash and sparkle.

“Your Majesty,” Harriet said, curtsying. “May I speak with you… in private?”

Eleanor glanced down at Frederick. “I rather doubt he will repeat anything he overhears, Harriet. Please sit.”

Lady Harriet dropped awkwardly into the chair opposite the Queen. “Your Majesty, I… first, I feel I ought to apologize to you for… certain things done and said in the past, and… I can hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me.”

Eleanor eyed Harriet for a moment, pondering. “So is this merely a petition for clemency on my part, or are you about to provide information to me that might be… useful?”

“Both, ma’am. I must beg for your mercy, and the information I can provide to you can be useful. Extremely useful.”

The Queen was silent for a moment as Frederick squealed and waved the tiara around, diamonds flashing in the light. Finally, she set him down on the floor and adjusted the fire screen before smoothing her skirt and fixing Harriet with a cool, unreadable gaze.

“Go on.”

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