This Means War
Beauchamp had never thought that just walking into the palace on a crisp fall morning could lead to such disaster.
It all happened so quickly that his head was spinning. One minute he was being called into the Presence Chamber, sure he was about to receive words of thanks from the King for his generosity to the benighted people of northern Gravonia, and the next Henry was shouting at him for having impregnated some unnamed woman at Court.
Considering he frequently bedded women at Court, and a few had even borne him offspring, he couldn't be sure who it was that had finally confessed to the liaison, but his suspicions naturally fell on Lady Harriet. Still, he knew that if he said her name, he would be confessing to the affair and Henry's wrath would be twice as fierce. Lady Harriet, after all, was one of the Queen's ladies and Eleanor was fiercely protective of the young women serving her.
ass!" Henry shouted at him. "Not only have you impregnated this poor
woman, you have exposed her to censure and ridicule and her husband's wrath. I have turned a blind eye
to your infidelity to your wife—I could have tried to keep an eye on you and I
know I even warned you a few times about your rutting pig behavior, but I have
a day job, for God's sake—but surely you agree that this goes beyond indecency
and into the realms of sheer stupidity! It was awful enough of you to
bed the unmarried ladies at Court, but one of the Queen's own ladies? Sometimes
I wonder what goes through your head, Charles… if anything goes through it at
all, besides who you'll ravish next! Or maybe you don't think with your head at all?!"
Beauchamp hated cowering before Henry. The King's wrath was not easily provoked, but when it was, those who had earned his ire frequently suffered painful punishments. He could only stand still and try to keep his mouth shut while Henry paced the length of the room, growling in fury at him while his own fury rose. One quick stab with my dagger and this would all be moot.
"What is really so galling, Charles, is that you seem to have no conscience at all about your actions," Henry fumed. "I do not declare that I was any kind of angel before I married, but a man can and should be faithful to his wife. That sort of thing is the very bedrock of civilization!" He rounded on Beauchamp, who took a step back, his nerves getting more than a little rattled now.
"I… uh… " Beauchamp floundered.
The King cut him off with a sharp chopping motion. "I have discussed the matter with the Queen, at some length, and while I was going to have you stripped of your titles and locked away in the tower for good, she actually persuaded me to be merciful and just exile you from Court. You are not to show your face in Luvov again, until I decide that I can stand to even look at you again. Am I understood?"
Lord Beauchamp paled, half relieved to not be locked in a dungeon, and half furious at being thrown out of Court just for bedding some stupid little whore. He could only bow and start backing out of the room, and he was brought short when Henry barked at him again.
"Oh, and I'm getting quite close to finding out who owns that wretched section of Luvov where crime and poverty still run rampant. Perhaps you have some leads for me, Charles?"
"I have… no idea, sir."
"I figured you'd say that. I know you get many of your bedmates from those two hideous brothels there. Well… you'll be delighted to hear that by royal proclamation, those cathouses are being razed to the ground, and the eastern section of Luvov will be cleaned up and rebuilt… at your expense, of course, and I'm certain you're very pleased to volunteer your money toward the enterprise. Now be gone with you, before I have to throw up from just looking at you. Go! Captain Lassiter will escort you out!"
Beauchamp backed out of the room, and bowed to the King as Boris firmly closed the doors in his face. He turned and came face to face with Captain Lassiter, the forbidding Irishman Henry had recently promoted to Captain of the King's Guard.
"I hope you will make your exit quietly, sir," Lassiter said, intense blue eyes narrowing. "I cannot imagine you would wish to annoy him further."
The disgraced nobleman glared at the Irishman. "Remember your place, Captain. I am a nobleman, and I am of royal blood!"
"I remember my place extremely well, and I also remember where my sword is and how to use it, and I'm not the one being thrown out of the palace and exiled. The King requires I escort you to the gates, sir. "
"I can walk on my own, you bloody Irish tinker!" Beauchamp snapped, and stalked down the hallway and out into the courtyard. At the gates, he stood staring at the palace for several moments, his anger building as he almost felt the money he was going to lose being pulled out of his pockets—the eastern ward of Luvov had fattened his wallet handsomely for several years, and now it was just dust in the wind, just like the money he'd made from the northern villages. His fists clenched and he wished to God he had something, or someone, to beat.
As he went out into the stable yard and mounted his horse, an idea that had been fermenting in the darker corners of his mind came to the fore, and he stopped, looking back at the palace as a smile curled his lips.
One day soon, he would ride into the palace courtyard as King.
After her idyll by the sea, exploring the beaches and relishing the warm breezes at Insel der Rosen, Eleanor had been reluctant to return to Luvov but duty, as always, called and by mid-September she was bloody well shouting. The Queen had lingered at Tygo and her little island castle as long as she could, overseeing the construction of a little folly in the rose garden at the castle, where she could sit and read letters in peace.
Still, she was contented enough, sitting in the Queen's Garden, as it was now called, watching Alexander and Frederick tumble about in the thick green grass. The crisp fall weather was invigorating and Eleanor enjoyed her early afternoons playing with her sons.
Lady Harriet was sitting in the sun, having given up on concentrating on her sewing. The poor woman was despondent, not having any notion of what to do when her husband returned from Havor and did some simple math. Once he realized the child she was carrying was not his, there was sure to be more than a little trouble, and Lady D'Acre was usually either frantic or catatonic. Today, however, she just seemed resigned.
Being not inclined toward deceit, Eleanor could think of no way to get around Lord D'Acre learning of his wife's liaison—however coerced she might have been—or how to prevent an outright scandal. So far, she had kept Harriet pretty much confined to her room, and had even brought her two boys up from the D'Acre estate to stay with her, and they seemed to be doing a good job at cheering the poor woman up. Considering they had rarely had much time alone with Harriet before, they had at first seemed uncertain of how to behave around her, but their games and chatter seemed to make Lady D'Acre even smile sometimes, and once or twice she had even been caught laughing at their antics. For that alone, Eleanor's feelings toward Harriet had softened a good deal and she was beginning to see the woman's better qualities: diligence, attention to detail and a surprising knack for obtaining useful information.
Lord D'Acre was due to return to the palace tonight, to give his report on his diplomatic visit to Havor. Eleanor was waiting out his return with Harriet, trying to keep the woman calm until then. She would likely go into hysterics when her husband arrived, and Eleanor had to think of her and her baby's safety. As Queen, she could pull rank to make Lord D'Acre at least be… reasonable.
Well, as reasonable as a cuckold could be. No man, even a man reputed to be a wife-beater, wanted to hear such things about his wife.
Not that she didn't have a few choice words for Lord D'Acre on that issue. Harriet had tearfully recounted her husband's cruelty over the years, and was dishearteningly resigned to being beaten even more in the future, apparently considering it quite normal. Putting some of the puzzle together, Eleanor had determined that Harriet had been knocked about a good deal by her father and ill-humored brothers as well, and seemed to almost expect cruelty from men.
Harriet's confession of her infidelities, just a few nights ago, had been shocking. Not only were the two boys Harriet had already borne not her husband's, she had also admitted to being paid to report the Queen's actions to Lord Beauchamp, and to act as a spy of sorts for him. Harriet wasn't entirely sure how Beauchamp had learned of her affair with her husband's estate gardener, but he had used that knowledge as a means of coercing her into spying on the Queen, and he had later used it to blackmail her into his bed.
It horrified Eleanor to learn that the midwife Harriet had been required to hire, to deliver Alexander, was to be paid to harm the newborn Prince. Eleanor's hiring of Betsy to come to attend her confinement had thus saved her son's life, and her insistence on nursing her babies had ruined Beauchamp's plans to hire a disease-riddled prostitute from one of the brothels in Luvov to tend the princes. The very idea made the Queen nauseated—her babies, subjected to such cruelty, all for a man's cold-blooded ambition.
She was still uncertain about Harriet's trustworthiness, however penitent she was, but right now her main concern was seeing that her Mistress of the Bedchamber was able to weather the awful storm coming and safely deliver her child. Harriet had burst into tears when she told her what Beauchamp had suggested she do with the child she was carrying, and Eleanor had been aghast herself: she had never heard of such a thing, and couldn't imagine how any woman could even consider it, regardless of her circumstances--didn't children deserve compassion, regardless of how they had been conceived? Harriet had made a hideous mistake in allying herself with Beauchamp, but the child she was carrying was innocent and deserved loving protection and a long, happy life.
Eleanor watched her
little sons tumble in the grass and smiled as Alexander toddled over to her,
holding a bunch of wildflowers. She accepted his offering with a kiss.
"Thank you, sweetie. They're such pretty flowers." They were mainly
dandelions and weeds, but it was the thought that counted, and she asked Agnes
to put them into a vase. She realized then just how blessed she was--she had a
loving, considerate husband and two beautiful, healthy sons. Harriet seemed to
have nothing but grief and regret, and even if a lot of it was self-imposed,
Eleanor believed she deserved a second chance, somehow, and her children were not guilty of their parents' sins.
She waited patiently for Frederick to crawl over, and he pulled himself up, his grubby little hands getting her skirt sticky, but she didn't care. She picked him up and gestured for Alexander to join his brother in her lap. She nodded to Agnes, who brought her the little wooden board her mother had used to teach her the alphabet.
She pointed to the letter 'P' and Alexander happily crowed "P!"
"What is a word that starts with 'P', sweetheart?"
"Prince!" Alexander grinned, showing his teeth.
She pointed to another letter, and Alexander immediately said "H!"
"Yes, indeed. What word starts with 'H'?"
Frederick tried to grab the board, but she outwitted him and continued on with the lesson. "Very good. Can you think of some other words that start with 'H'?"
Alexander thought for a moment. "Hop."
"Yes. Any others?"
The Crown Prince pondered for several moments, and finally kicked his feet. "Happy!"
"That's right. Very good, sweetie! All right. Go on and play a bit, while I talk with Frederick."
Alexander scrambled down and bounced away, back to the grass, and sat down to look for bugs. She held Frederick and ran her fingers under each letter on the board, saying the letters one at a time. Frederick, though only nine months old, was tracing his chubby fingers under each letter with her, even attempting to repeat after her sometimes, but he was most adept at recognizing 'M', as it was the first letter of his favorite word, 'Mummy'. Either way, she knew he was learning at a very reasonable level, and she did not feel any need to push him. Lessons for her second son never lasted more than just a few minutes before he needed to be released back into the wild. She wasn't foolish enough to think any boy of any age ought to be required to sit still very long anyway, particularly any boy sired by King Henry of Gravonia.
Eleanor put Frederick back in the grass and let him crawl away to join his brother in what looked like a serious bug hunt. She relaxed, closing her eyes, and dozed off in the warm sunshine. She was jerked awake by Agnes, who was shaking her shoulder. "Your Majesty, Lord D'Acre has arrived."
"Oh dear," Eleanor mumbled under her breath, standing up and smoothing her skirts. She did not know Lord D'Acre very well, but she had never particularly liked him. His position at Court was Almoner for the King, which required him to distribute royal funds to the poor of Gravonia, and while he seemed to be fairly good at his job, Eleanor suspected that he sometimes took a few marks for his own pockets. Harriet had not voiced any strong opinions on her husband's character or activity—she seemed almost indifferent to the man, aside from a very real fear of his fists.
She gestured to Harriet to make herself scarce and finally made a decision. As Harriet fled, rushing up through the hedge path to the door to the Queen's little gallery, Eleanor ordered Agnes to take the boys inside. Lord D'Acre was just rounding the corner when Eleanor heard the door close behind Agnes, and she stood up. "Your Majesty," he said, bowing to her.
"Lord D'Acre, how good to see you," she lied, and gestured for him to sit.
Lord D'Acre was a rather swarthy man in his mid-forties, and he was not unattractive, but there was a cold, reptilian air about him that made Eleanor uneasy around him. "The King asked me to come speak with you," he told her. "Something about… my wife."
"Yes, sir. The King and I decided that you ought to speak with me first, before you saw Lady Harriet."
"What has she done?" he asked angrily, and Eleanor didn't like seeing his fists clenching.
"She has made a few mistakes, I'm afraid. In your absence, she carried on an affair with Lord Beauchamp and is carrying his child."
For a moment, Lord D'Acre was silent, his expression almost comically bewildered. Finally, he regained his ability to speak. "What did you say, ma'am?"
"Your wife is with child, by Lord Beauchamp."
D'Acre stood up, seething with fury. "That stupid, worthless whore!"
"Sit down, Lord D'Acre, lest you offend me and the King. Sit."
"Offend? Am I not the one offended?" he hissed, sitting down again.
"I do not make excuses for your wife, and she does not make excuses, either, and she is not the only guilty party in this whole ugly… affair, or did she commit adultery alone? She is sorry for the liaison, but she was, I'm afraid, coerced into going to his bed."
"Coerced? What the bloody hell… "
"Do not speak so in my presence!" Eleanor snapped. Lord D'Acre shut his mouth and stared at her, eyes blazing with anger nonetheless, and the tic that started in his left eye was more than a little disconcerting. But she went on, keeping herself calm even as Lord D'Acre looked like he might explode right in front of her. "The two sons she has already borne are the product of her liaison with another man as well, though not Lord Beauchamp."
At this, Lord D'Acre's face started turning redder and redder, until it was finally almost purple, and Eleanor feared he might actually suffer some sort of apoplexy. He gripped the arms of his chair until his knuckles turned white.
"She has dishonored me and my entire family. No wonder her father offered such a large dowry—he likely knew she was a little…"
Eleanor cut him off. "Enough! Lord D'Acre, I take no pleasure in providing you with this information. I am not given to causing anyone pain, but this situation seems to call for a degree of… discretion. I offer you two choices, sir, in how you might proceed."
"I know what to do about this, I can assure you… " He started to rise again, and Eleanor shook her head.
"I know what you intend to do, sir, but wife-beating is an grevious sin, no matter what the circumstances might be, and while I do not excuse her behavior at all, I can also hardly blame her for seeking comfort elsewhere in the past. We both know, of course, that reasons are not excuses. Still, I will give you two choices, as I said. Your first choice is to present Lady Harriet with a bill of divorcement on the grounds of her adultery, and you will relinquish all rights and custody to her two sons—while making no mention of the matter in public. Your second choice is to remain married to her, accept the boys and her new baby as your own and speak not a word of the matter publicly… and to also be aware of the very real threat of imprisonment and revocation of your titles by the Crown if you lay so much as a finger on Harriet again in violence."
D'Acre paused, staring at her. "She has accused me of… beating her?"
"Does she lie?"
"About everything!" D'Acre shouted at her. Eleanor retained her poise, knowing he was venting his fury.
"I have it on good authority, from her and from other reliable witnesses, that she has suffered physical abuse from you in the past."
The man sat back in his chair, some of his anger diffusing, as he seemed to realize that he had to accept one of the Queen's suggestions or suffer some very unpleasant consequences. "I will send her a petition for divorce."
"Good. I was hoping you would take that path. I can see no reason why the two of you should ever see each other again—she does not wish to see you, and her own sins lay heavily on her. She is not proud at all of her behavior, any more than you should be proud of your own, or do you think beating your wife makes you more manly? Anyway, you're surely glad to know she is terrified of you, and apparently for good reason." Lord D'Acre could not meet her eye then, and she went on. "The Archbishop will draw up the decree and send it to Rome and it will all be settled in a matter of a few months. It would be a good idea if you were to return to your estate and stay there until the divorce is final."
"And what of our… her… sons?"
"They are not your children. You apparently only saw them when necessary, and not out of any degree of real affection, if Lady Harriet is to be believed, though I do allow some degree of bias on her part to that end. I can only assume this will be of little trouble to you to release them both to your wife. She will not even require any sort of… payment. Not even a return of her dowry. It is best this way for all concerned, I think, and the King will very certainly agree. I'm even certain that you can easily find some other poor, desperate girl to marry… but remember that the King frowns on husbands mistreating their wives, Lord D'Acre."
"And what of Lord Beauchamp?" D'Acre asked her, seeming to have calmed down considerably.
"He has already been exiled from Court and removed from the King's Council. He has even been punished financially--the King has even set aside a fund, already paid by Beauchamp, to support the child she is carrying. Leave him be."
Lord D'Acre finally stood and bowed to Eleanor, apparently accepting her terms, but his hands were shaking, and when he turned and walked away, the Queen paused, wondering if he would follow her orders in that regard. She called for a servant to see that guards were placed outside Harriet's door, and that she was to be protected until the divorce was settled. She knew better than to leave anything to chance.
"I wish to see Lord Beauchamp. This instant."
"The Marquess of Rousseau is not at present available. Who may I say is calling?" The captain of Beauchamp's knights glared at the man standing at Pontrefact Castle's gates. The man was gripping the handle of his sword rather tightly, and he looked furious.
"Lord D'Acre. I wish to see him now!" D'Acre shouted.
"For what reason?"
"For putting a child in my wife's belly, that's what. Find him and bring him here now! If he does not come down immediately, I will label him a coward!"
Eleanor woke up lying on top of Henry, and smiled. She had put him through his paces the night before, and at dawn had awakened him for another delightful session of lovemaking. Now that Prince Frederick had been moved into the room next door and Alexander into another across the hall, the King and Queen had more privacy. She sighed and kissed her husband's chest, and he snuffled a little before opening his eyes. "Oh. Good morning, sweetheart," he said, smiling at her.
She kissed him, then climbed off and got out of bed, Henry watching her. Actually, he was leering at her, and she just laughed. "I have a very busy schedule today," she told him, sitting down, still naked, and began brushing her hair. "Remember I'm opening the Royal College in the center of town this morning, and I'm visiting that orphanage in the eastern ward in the afternoon." She finished brushing her hair and pulled on her chemise. "I'm afraid we won't see each other again until suppertime."
"I hate it when you put your clothes on," Henry said, pouting a little as he got out of bed. She smiled.
"I don't like it when you dress, either, dearest, but isn't it fun to help each other undress?" She waited until he had pulled on his trousers and shirt before she rang the bell, which signaled that her ladies could now enter and begin helping her dress for the day. Soon Agnes and Clothilde were coming in, bidding the King good morning as he pulled on his boots. The two women kept back, however, and said nothing as Henry and Eleanor discussed the rest of the day's plans. Henry had meetings with his Council and was receiving a group of diplomats from Saxony and Florence, and in the afternoon he would take the boys out to the gardens to let them romp about and get properly dirty before Eleanor returned to give them their daily lessons.
After kissing his wife goodbye, Henry left and Eleanor settled down at her vanity. Agnes was not good at arranging hair, so Clothilde had that job. As Clothilde arranged her hair, Agnes suggested weaving one of Eleanor's diamond necklaces through her hair, and the result was quite lovely—the large diamond pendant hung just above the center of Eleanor's forehead, flashing and sparkling in the light. She thanked Agnes and stood to be dressed in a dark red gown, with a crisp white bodice, and she put her own diamond earrings in before looking at herself in her full-length mirror.
"Very nice," Clothilde said. "You look magnificent."
"But not intimidating, I hope. I don't want to put those orphans off this afternoon." She put on black slippers and grinned at Clothilde. "Though if the orphans are like Frederick, they'll like things that sparkle."
"Indeed they will!" Clothilde laughed. "Though I must say that the King likes them, too."
There was a knock at the door and Eleanor let Agnes get it. She was given a message, which she brought to Eleanor. The Queen casually opened it, expecting nothing more than some sort of epistle from some diplomat or perhaps a letter from Count von Hesse. Instead, her eyes widened with shock as she read it.
"My God… Lord D'Acre is dead!"
"What?" Clothilde was equally surprised. "You don't suppose Harriet… "
"No… " Eleanor shook her head. "She hasn't left the palace, and she barely has the strength nowadays to harm a fly. His body was found in the woods outside Luvov. Stripped naked and covered with cuts." She read on quickly, horrified. "His heart was cut from his chest!"
Agnes and Clothilde both looked sick, and Eleanor had little trouble determining who his killer had been, but she had no real evidence. Instead, she had to tell Harriet that she was now a widow and that, for all intents and purposes, her public reputation remained spotless. She folded the letter and tucked it away in her drawer, smoothed her skirts and looked at her ladies. "Come along now. I have to go open the new college in town. I will break the news to poor Harriet tonight. For now, we should let her rest and play with her babies."
The crowd gathered outside the newly-built Royal College was cheerful and in a festive mood, having been provided with refreshments, while children attending were given stringed spinning tops. When Eleanor and her ladies arrived, at exactly ten o'clock, there was applause and cheering for the popular Queen, and she smiled and waved. The newly-appointed college chaplain and the provost both greeted Eleanor, bowing to her before going to the covered plaque on the front wall of the main building. She remained standing beside them, and smiled warmly as they pulled the cover away.
She was startled to read the plaque's inscription:
QUEEN'S COLLEGE OF LUVOV
Founded by Her Majesty the Queen Eleanor of Gravonia
This Year of Our Lord 28 September 1376
"Um… " Eleanor started, but the college provost, a slightly myopic little man named Severns, bowed to her (or in her general direction) and smiled.
"His Majesty the King insisted on us keeping it a secret, that the college is to be named in your honor, ma'am."
"The King is very kind, and far too generous with his praise," she told Professor Severns. He had a lazy eye that always seemed to be drawing a bead on her, but then it would wander off in another direction, and it was rather distracting, so that she had difficulty carrying on a conversation with him. Still, whatever Severns said was always interesting. She had been dealing with him for the past few months on the planning of the college, and of the curriculum to be offered—languages, history, mathematics, theology and philosophy, mainly—and she had found him to be a very intelligent man.
Henry had been the one paying for the institution's construction, however, and he had even worked with Severns on its design, showing that he possessed remarkable skills in architecture. Indeed, the King had often gone to the construction site, climbing up ladders himself and pacing about, taking measurements and insisting that the best building materials be used for Gravonia's first school of higher learning.
The crowds remained cheerful and attentive during Severns' speech and dispersed quietly when the ceremonies were all over. Eleanor was gratified to learn that several people had already enrolled in the college, but she wished girls could be permitted to attend, but in that she and Severns had disagreed—he was of the opinion that girls had no need for education, and had displeased her by saying that educating girls and foxes only resulted in both creatures becoming more cunning. She had pointed out to him that she had been extremely well-educated, and that had seemed to make him rethink his position, if only a little. She did not hold his archaic opinion against him and as she prepared to leave, he kissed her hand and wished her well.
Her visit to the orphanage went well, though the sight of the derelict slums of the eastern ward was distressing. One of the two brothels, however, had been torn down within just a day of Lord Beauchamp's exile from Court, and it was at his expense that the clearing up was being done, and he was also paying for the 'soiled doves' to receive food, clothing and shelter until they could find respectable work. The crumbling tenement houses were also being torn down, with piles of debris as yet to be hauled away.
The royal carriage stopped briefly outside the one remaining cathouse, and Eleanor was sickened to see the miserable conditions of the place: she could actually see rats running along the railings on the upstairs balcony, and the sickening stench of perfume and God only knew what else wafted out of the building every time the door opened. Scantily-clad women stood on the balcony, at great risk to their safety considering the instability of the building, calling out to people walking by on the street, and Eleanor was sad to see several men trailing inside.
The building was already condemned and scheduled to be pulled down in a few days. Until it came down, she suspected Lord Beauchamp would be collecting excellent profits. Her only consolation was that he would have to put that money right back into rebuilding this sad, poverty-stricken section of Luvov.
Inside the orphanage, Eleanor was startled at the number of not only orphaned but also abandoned children it contained. Dedicated but overworked priests and nuns ran the facility as best they could, but they were stretched very thin. The children, however, were very excited to see a real Queen and they stared up at her in awe as she walked through the dormitories. Time constraints restricted her from spending time with any of them, but she could see they were at least being fed, clothed, educated and cared for, and during her meeting with Father Ignatius, who ran the orphanage, she vowed that more royal patronage was forthcoming, and very soon. For now, she could only deliver piles of donated clothes and other supplies that had been gathered in the past few months.
Agnes and Clothilde walked behind her into the palace, and she decided to take a brief detour to the chapel, for some time alone to think and do a bit of praying. She needed some time alone—there was so much to think about, and unburdening herself to God would be extremely helpful now. Her ladies would take care of the bouquets of flowers she had been given, and they would be dispersed throughout the palace for decorations, and the little drawings and nearly unidentifiable hand-made crafts from the orphans would be taken to the King's study for him to inspect and ponder.
Agnes and Clothilde did not follow her, on her signal, and she made her way down the black-and-white marble hallway toward the western side of the palace, where the great reception rooms were and where the Chapel Royal stood in gilt and ivory glory. The royal family's pews were the only ones available on the ground floor, while on the second story above, other members of the royal household could worship in the presence of the King. On the third story, commoners and peasants took up every available seat each Sunday to watch the royal family and nobility of Gravonia pray.
After washing her hands in the font, she walked along the center of the nave, pacing between the choir stalls and the center of the chapel, where to her left was the crypt of King Andrew, his marble effigy far more impressive in the imagination of the sculptor than he had been in real life. She continued, after a brief pause outside St. Ulrika's Chapel. She preferred this little inner chapel to the larger room farther along, where the family usually gathered for worship, as the little santuary was plainly decorated with only a Cross and a pretty stained glass window above. Quietly, in the corner of the small room, she lit two candles, for her parents, and sat down, bowing her head.
For several moments, she prayed silently, but a sound made her raise her head and look around. She saw no one, and she supposed it was just some priest walking by. But another sound made her look again.
"Hello? Is someone there?" she called, annoyed. The household knew that when she went into St. Ulrika's, she wanted to be alone.
Motion to her immediate left made Eleanor start, and later she was grateful for her excellent hearing and for von Hesse training her in self-defense, because at that moment she caught sight of light glinting off shining steel and her left arm was suddenly bleeding. Gasping in horror, outrage and pain, she reeled back and slammed her right fist into the jaw of a black-clad man, putting all her weight into the punch. Her attacker was drawing back with his sharp dagger, ready to plunge it into her chest, and she kicked him with all her strength in the groin. The man was unprepared for her to fight back, and fell back against the pew, gasping in pain, but he did not lose grip of his dagger or his resolve. He was on his feet again, coming toward with a maniacal gleam in his cold blue eyes.
Eleanor fled from him, to the other side of the room where the candles were flickering in the dim light, and looked around for some kind of weapon. The only thing she saw were the candles she had lit, and she rushed to them, snatching them up and turning around in time to shove a burning votive into her attacker's face as he raised the dagger again. This time he screamed in pain, clawing at his face, and she shoved the other candle against his ear, making him scream again and drop the dagger.
Soldiers came pouring into the chapel then, swords drawn, and they were on her attacker in a matter of seconds. "Do not kill him!" she shouted at the men as they hauled him to his feet. "Do not harm him!"
"Oh, he'll be killed soon enough, I'm sure," Captain Lassiter snarled, furious. "Attacking the Queen! A woman! In church!"
The man in black, his forehead cut, his left eye scorched shut, was hauled to his feet and he stared at Eleanor, his remaining eye glittering with cold hatred. "My life is forfeit, I'm sure, you bloody whore. But so is yours still, and you will watch your children die in agony. I am not the only one who has been paid!" He grinned at her, and was kneed in the kidneys by Captain Lassiter. The assassin dropped, shouting in pain, and said no more.
"Take him away," Eleanor ordered. "To the tower, and keep him there. Go and find the king but do not tell him yet what has happened."
"Your Majesty, the King must… "
"Do as I say!" she snapped. "Now!" She looked down and saw her blood dripping on the floor. "Oh, God..."
King Henry was playing with his sons in the garden, enjoying himself more than he ever had in his wilder, younger days. He was gently wrestling with Alexander while Frederick tried to climb onto his back, both boys laughing and trying to tickle him. This was, he knew, the best part of every day of his life—being alone with his sons and with Eleanor. However, he was starting to get a little concerned: where was the Queen? She rarely failed to arrive on time, unless she had an extremely good excuse, and her tardiness was disconcerting, as she always sent word if she was truly being delayed.
He picked up Frederick, tickling him, and gestured for Alexander to come along. "Let's go find your dear Mama and see what is keeping her, shall we?" He carried the giggling younger prince and held the elder's hand as they walked up the path to the steps.
He was halfway up the steps when Captain Lassiter appeared in the doorway, looking positively horrified. Henry put Frederick down, looking back to find Lord Hallam coming up behind him, an equally shocked look on his face, and the man was running. "Get the boys!" the King said, turning back to the captain. "What has happened?"
"The Queen, sir… "
"The Queen?" Henry shouted. "What has happened to the Queen?"
"She was attacked in the chapel, sir. A man… "
Henry didn't hear the rest. He was already running into the palace and down the long hallway. He was sprinting through the Great Hall toward the western end of the palace when the doors to the King's Gallery opened and Eleanor walked out, her arm wrapped up in makeshift bandages, and he saw blood seeping through the cloth. Two soldiers were supporting her, but she was walking under her own power, though she did look pale and frightened. Henry skidded to a halt and approached his wife cautiously.
"Sweetheart? Darling, are you all right?"
"I have to say I've been better," she said with a tenuous smile, giving the young soldier who had gone to Henry a sharp look.
"You were attacked?!" Henry shouted. "Who the bloody hell attacks a woman in a chapel?" he demanded of his soldiers.
"An assassin, of course," Eleanor said matter-of-factly, but she was starting to waver, her eyes becoming glassy. "They are not known for being too reverent toward God, you know." She stumbled a bit then. "Henry, I must say I do not like all these flashing lights about… can you please make them… stop?" She cried out in pain then, collapsing against one of the soldiers, and finally fainted. The soldier caught her, but it was Henry who took her in his arms and carried her upstairs, quietly demanding the doctor be called and that his sons be placed under round-the-clock guard.
The Queen's would-be assassin was not speaking. He refused even to give his questioners his name, or where he was from or who had hired him. He merely sat in his cell, waiting for the punishments to come, and said nothing. At midnight, King Henry arrived and demanded to speak to the man.
"What is your name?" the King demanded. "Tell me at once."
The man glared up at him. "Rieti, sir."
"Rieti? You're an Italian?"
"I am from Lacovia, sir," he said with a cold little smile.
"And who hired you?"
"I will not say, sir."
"You will if I demand it. Tell me."
"I will not say. You may torment me as much as you please, and I'm sure you will, but I know my life is forfeit, so no amount of torture will matter in the end, will it? Go ahead and do your worst, sir. I die a Lacovian, and am not ashamed of my actions, save that I failed to kill the bitch."
Henry backhanded the man, hard, and Rieti fell to the cold stone floor, gasping and spitting a tooth out before he rose to his feet again.
"You speak that way of my wife? Of the Queen?"
"I do. I have already warned her of what is coming. I will warn you, too. That Livonian whore will die and so will your two brats. I am not the only one, sir, who wants her dead. By no means. There are others, and we are all well-funded. Be sure of it, sir. They. Will. Die."
Henry's fists clenched and he stood staring at the man for several moments before turning and stalking out of the cell. Rieti started laughing, the sound following Henry out into the hallway. The King turned back to the Captain of the Guard, who was standing at the door, arms crossed, with a look of mayhem in his eyes. "Draw and quarter him, then cut his head off, at dawn. In public."
"Yes, my lord," Captain Lassiter nodded. "With pleasure, sir. May God have mercy on him… because I damned sure won't."
Eleanor was awakened by Betsy gently shaking her uninjured arm, and looked up at the familiar face of the woman who had raised her and protected her throughout most of her life. "What… what happened to me?"
"You were attacked," Betsy said softly. She sat down on the bed beside Eleanor and touched her face. "My poor sweet lamb. I prayed to God that this kind of thing would never happen to you and now it has and… I'm afraid to even tell Count von Hesse what has happened. He will go mad, I'm sure, with grief and guilt."
"Shhh, Betsy… " Eleanor whispered, looking around the room, but fortunately, they were alone, for now. "I'm so glad you're here, but you must not… "
"Don't you 'shhh' me, young lady," Betsy said, looking stern. "You're still only eighteen, you know." Still, she stood up and went to the other side of the bed. She removed the pristine white cloth and showed her the wound. "A very bad, rather deep cut, Eleanor, but no serious damage seems to have been done. I made sure they followed your mother's instructions on wound care to the letter, of course. I even made the doctor wash his hands in hot water and I had him clean the wound until it was almost sparkling before he added that poultice and wrapped it up properly. He said it was mainly a flesh wound—he said the dagger only cut into fat."
"I have no fat on my arms!" Eleanor squawked, offended.
"Take that up with him, not me. I said the same thing. But either way, you are least alive. How did you fight that man off, child?"
"I punched him, I recall, and then I burned him with votive candles. The one for my father in his eye, the one for my mother in his ear."
"Very smart. The Count trained you well, bless him."
"What has happened to the man?"
"He is to be beheaded tomorrow, in public. Drawn, quartered, and beheaded for attempting to murder the Queen."
Eleanor sighed. You may even have to kill. "Then let it be done. Would you please call Lord Hallam? I need to speak with him. Where is the King?"
"He is moving the legal issue of executing the man through the Council, even now. He wants every 'i' dotted and every 't' crossed. The man was apparently from Lacovia, and Henry is even sending word to the boy king of Lacovia, to inform him that the assassination attempt was a failure."
"The King of Lacovia did not order this attack," Eleanor said wearily. "Though I'm sure he gave it his tacit endorsement."
"He said yes, but did not sign his name. No paper trail, no proof of involvement. Go get Lord Hallam, please. I need to speak with him. Immediately." She picked at the edge of her quilt. "But first, please go and find Lady Harriet. I must speak with her."
"Oh? About what?"
"Just please go find her, Betsy."
A few moments later, Harriet came quietly into the room, looking haggard, and at Eleanor's gesture she sat down beside the bed. "Harriet, I am very sorry to tell you that your husband has been killed, most likely by Lord Beauchamp."
Harriet stared at her, bewildered. "Killed?"
"Yes, Harriet. I am sorry."
The older woman nodded vaguely, touching her swollen belly. "Is it terrible of me to not… mourn him?"
"No, Harriet, it's not. I think perhaps you ought to remain here at Court for your confinement, so that everyone will believe you are in deep mourning, just the same. Mrs. Bolingbrooke would be pleased to attend you, too, and after that you and your children can return to your estate to rest and decide on your future. I had been meaning to tell you, too, that Lord Beauchamp was ordered by the King to set up a proper trust for the child, and it will be provided for."
"What future can I have now?" Harriet asked, her expression bleak. "I can see no future for myself, ma'am. My reputation is ruined, I'm sure, and this child… it has nowhere to go, money or not. A murdering traitor for a father and an adulteress for a mother… what life can it have?" Tears welled in Harriet's eyes and she looked utterly hopeless.
Eleanor sighed and took Harriet's hand in hers. "Do not fear, Harriet. You are protected here, and so is your child. I'm sure we can think of something, and please try to remember that no life is hopeless. You have made your mistakes, but your children are not mistakes, and can never be, no matter how they came to be" She pulled herself up a bit, into a sitting position, and nodded. "Go on to your rooms and play with your sons. I can't imagine anything more likely to soothe your spirits better than your sweet little boys. Meanwhile, I've some business to attend to." She looked around Harriet and saw Lord Hallam coming in, brow furrowed. "Thank you, Harriet. Lord Hallam… please sit down."
Lord Beauchamp was pleased to greet the Lacovian emissaries to his castle, but he was uneasy about having heard no word yet from Luvov. No news was good news, though, and right now he needed to settle matters with his guests. They had arrived that afternoon, at just past lunchtime, and he had a fine, sumptuous supper prepared for them in his magnificent, gilded dining hall. Above was a gallery, with the railings hung with beautiful Flemish tapestries, and the mirrored room blazed with candlelight. He intended to impress his guests, and make them recognize how a King ought to look and live.
Hopefully, before the meal was over, he would be receiving news from Luvov that would make his guests even more certain that they were backing the right man.
The men filed into the room and took their seats in the heavy gilded chairs he had ordered from Vienna. The table was spread with exquisite purple velvet, and servants began bringing in the dishes—a whole pig, platters of carefully cut venison, plus pheasant and swan and thick (horrible) Lacovian black bread. Beauchamp sat down at the head of the table, while the other men took their places according to rank, and his wife took her seat at the other end. Everything and everyone looked spectacular, and Beauchamp preened with pride—he would dine this way every night at the palace, he knew.
"Well, gentlemen, I hope you enjoy your meal," he said. "We do dine this way regularly, of course, though on perhaps a smaller scale when there are not so many folks about."
There was a mild ripple of obligatory laughter, and one of the Lacovian diplomats raised his glass. "To a very lucrative union between our two great nations. Lord Beauchamp," he said, being joined by the others in the toast. He was about to take a sip of his wine when a drop of red liquid fell into it. He looked around, bewildered, and looked up. Wine splattered on the velvet tablecloth as several more dark red drops fell into other glasses. Thick red liquid landed in the platters of food and others on the Lacovians, staining everything and spreading in ugly pools as it began to actually pour down on them. Beauchamp was just starting to look up when he saw something larger falling down, and screamed in horror when a man's earless head landed right in front of his plate.
He stared at the face, gulping, fighting nausea. The man's left eye was scorched shut, and his tongue had been cut out.
Other body parts fell down onto the table, the Lacovians screaming in terror as arms, legs, fingers, toes, genitals, teeth and finally the torso and entrails joined the sumptuous meal on the table, loudly banging or splashing as they landed, turning cups over and splattering blood on the mirrored walls, snuffing out and knocking over the candles. Rieti's tongue slapped, loudly, onto the bald head of one Lacovian before falling off him to the floor as he raced from the room.
Chaos ensued. Everyone was too horrified and sickened to look up again to see where the remains of the assassin were coming from—in fact everyone was fleeing the room in one terrified body, screaming and some even falling to their knees to vomit, including Lady Beauchamp. No one was interested in pursuing whoever had managed to get into the castle, least of all Beauchamp. He didn't care. Good for them, for performing such an audacious and ballsy act.
The bitch knew how to fight, and she could--and would--fight dirty.
Soon the only person remaining in the dining hall was Beauchamp himself, staring at the face of the man he had met less than a month ago in Willemet. He threw his napkin over the man's face and sat down, head in his hands.
The Queen was still alive, and she had declared war.