Our Gracious Queen

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Petitions

After war was averted with Morvenia and Eleanor's third pregnancy was announced, life at the royal palace settled down again, and for a few days things were relatively quiet. Henry, however, was still seething over the raids committed by one of his nobles. He admitted to Eleanor that he strongly suspected that it was Beauchamp, but as he had no solid evidence of his cousin's treachery, he wasn't sure what he ought to do.

Eleanor knew it was Beauchamp. She had no doubt whatsoever on that end—his castle was only twenty miles from the Morvenian border and Hallam had informed her that most of his 'knights' weren't even Gravonians.

Finally, after five days of watching him fume and growl, she made a suggestion that the King found intriguing, and the next day, the King issued a proclamation that every nobleman in Gravonia was to come to Court on the following Saturday, and they were to bring their families with them.

Considering the Presence Chamber was too small for such a large assembly of people—Gravonia had exactly one-hundred four noble families, ranking from barons to the nation's eight dukes—they were gathered in the palace courtyard. A dais, covered in rich purple cloth, was set up at one end of the cobbled yard and Henry's and Eleanor's thrones were placed on the platform.

Nauseated and fatigued from her pregnancy, the Queen still managed to look regal as she took Henry's hand and let him lead her up the steps to her throne. She was wearing rich, luxurious violet blue silk, with a velvet bodice cinched up to hide her already thickening waist. On her head was a diamond and amethyst tiara that flashed and glinted in the bright sunlight, and she wore a short ermine cloak around her shoulders. She felt uncomfortable, however spectacular she looked—she was already putting on weight from the pregnancy, if only a little, despite her inability to hold much food down. The cinched-up bodice certainly wasn't helping her feel better, but vanity had taken over her common sense.

Once the crowd was settled down, Henry scanned over the assembly and saw Beauchamp standing there with his wife and three children—son Stephen and daughters Irene and Margot—and felt another surge of anger at his foolish cousin. Eleanor had agreed that Beauchamp very likely was the one who had led the raid into Morvenia, but there was simply not enough evidence to charge the bastard with treason. He glared at Beauchamp and hoped to God the man knew just how lucky he was to even be alive now.

"I am pleased that you have all assembled here so quickly," Henry said, standing. Lord Hallam handed him the paper scroll and he broke the seal, unrolling the parchment paper. "Considering the actions of a very foolish member of Gravonia's nobility, a few days ago, it has become necessary for us to see to it that justice be served in a proper and fitting fashion. However, as that nobleman has refused to come forward and confess to his egregious crimes, I am thus required to make all of my nobles pay for the foolish actions of the one."

He looked down at the parchment in his hand. "So it is my decision that every nobleman—all one hundred four of you—will present the Crown with fifty marks apiece, to be delivered to King Philip of Morvenia by our highest ranking nobleman the Duke of Beswick, as a means of repaying the citizens of Trask and Naas in Morvenia for damages done to land, property and livestock." There was a small ripple of murmuring from the crowd of noblemen, but they voiced no objections. Yet. "However, as His Grace the Duke is ailing, I am sure his grandson and heir, the Marquess of Rousseau—Lord Beauchamp, as he is better known—will be delighted to perform this honorable action."

Eleanor watched Beauchamp's face and couldn't help but enjoy seeing him turn a rather interesting shade of red. It greatly diminished her own discomfort, for certain.

"Also," Henry said, keeping his voice calm and steady, though Eleanor knew he was still enraged to have almost been dragged into a war he could neither win nor afford to lose. "Also, I have decided to re-institute a very old royal law, which my grandfather had done away with some years ago—that is, the Law of Hostage."

The nobles looked at each other, and then turned their collective gaze back to the King.

"To ensure everyone's best behavior, I have decided that I will require each of my noble families to present to the Court their eldest sons and heirs, to be brought up here in the palace as part of the royal household. All of your eldest male heirs will be brought here within the next fortnight, without exception."

Beauchamp's face got even redder.

"None of your need worry, of course, that your sons will be treated in any way unfairly or unkindly. They will be well-tended, educated and trained to be loyal servants of the Crown and of the people of Gravonia. Obviously their parents can visit them at any time they please, and the Queen will be delighted to see to their well-being. If any of you decide you would rather live here in the palace, or in Luvov, to be near your children, you are of course welcome to do so. There are even a few positions open at Court, in my own retinue or perhaps even in the Queen's own household."

Many of the nobles looked less than delighted with this turn of events, but as Henry was king, he could repeal or re-instate any law as he saw fit, even without the advice of his Council. The King gave his nobles a stern look, then took his seat again beside Eleanor. She touched his hand and gave him a brief, approving smile. He sat still, the sunlight glinting off his circlet crown, and accepted a chalice of wine from Boris, drinking it down slowly. Finally, he took Eleanor's hand and gently kissed her knuckles. None of the nobles said a word, even as King Henry stood and assisted his wife to her feet. They walked down the long red carpet and back into the palace, the doors closing behind them.

The wives of the nobles were naturally most resistant to the idea of handing their children over, and many of the women were angrily questioning their husbands, demanding to know if they had been involved in the raid into Morvenia. Lady Beauchamp glared at her husband before she finally looked at their twelve-year old son, who was staring at his father with an expression of barely concealed disgust.

"You caused this," she whispered. "You really thought Queen Eleanor wouldn't strike back? First a man's cut-up body is dropped onto our dining table during dinner with those damned Lacovians and now we have to turn our only son over to her? You should pray she is not vindictive, Charles, else our son might end up suffering for your sins!"

Beauchamp could not meet her eye, but he raised his voice to deny his involvement in the raid. The other nobles continued murmuring. Younger children looked frightened at the prospect of being separated from their parents, and it was their mothers who were already insisting on moving to Luvov and angling for positions at Court. Lady Beauchamp held her son at her side, gazing furiously at her husband, but he said nothing more.


"One year, during the Festival of the Dancing Virgins, the wheel of cheese somehow managed to get away and it ended up rolling right over Matilda Glasscock while she was trying to cross the street. Her face never did look quite right after that, and she ended up with this bizarre terror of cheese. Just say the word 'cheese' to her and she starts shrieking."

Everyone stared blankly at Agnes as she cheerfully continued repairing one of King Henry's shirts. Ever since her engagement to Lorenzo had been announced and her own confidence had started growing, Agnes had a tendency to launch into bizarre and occasionally blood-curdling stories about her childhood in Ullan, and this one was just the latest.

"What do you mean by 'her face never did—'" Eleanor started, but Clothilde touched her arm, shaking her head slightly. The Queen stood up, ignoring her nausea, and went into Frederick's room to check him. He was taking his afternoon nap, and or had been until she came in. The boy sat up and held his arms out to her. Sighing, she picked him up—there was no point in leaving him in his bed when he was awake. He would just shout "Mama!" until she came for him anyway. Alexander was out riding with Henry and his gentlemen, no doubt learning words he shouldn't know at all.

Back at her seat, Eleanor held Frederick in her lap, but the wriggling little boy soon had her worn out, and Clothilde took him, tickling him and making him laugh. Eleanor blew out her cheeks, exhausted. Alexander was becoming more manageable, but Frederick was like trying to hold onto mercury, and was almost as dangerous, as he tended to start kicking. Put the two boys together, and frankly it was like trying to herd cats. In her present state, Eleanor's temper was less than charming and she was thus grateful for the assistance she got from her ladies and from Henry.

Restless, Eleanor stood and paced to the window, looking out into the courtyard below. Henry was returning, and she saw Alexander sitting on the King's horse's withers, clearly tired but looking quite happy. She went back to her seat by the fire, but could not pay attention to her sewing at all and finally gave up, picking Frederick up and carrying him with her into the bedchamber.

She settled her son on the bed and climbed up to sit down with him in her lap as she went over the letters on the wooden board, tracing her fingers over each one while Frederick attempted to repeat after her. Henry came in then, carrying the Crown Prince on his shoulders, and kissed his wife before kissing Frederick. Alexander jumped down onto the bed when Henry bent over, and settled himself beside Eleanor. She opened up the little book she had made for him and he sat down, weaver style, and began carefully pouring over each page.

"Do you think Beauchamp will enjoy his trip to Morvenia?" Henry asked her.

"I'm sure he'll have a lovely time," Eleanor said with a wry smile.

Alexander loved the book Eleanor had made. Each page was decorated with sketches and colored drawings of animals and figures that started with each letter of the alphabet. He was looking at 'D' and was learning how to find the right word, at the bottom of the page, for each animal. "Dog. Dove. Deer. Donkey. Duck. Dolphin. Dragon." He pointed to each animal, then to the correct word on the page.

"Very good, sweetie," Eleanor said. "What words did you learn from your papa and his friends today?" she asked mildly, giving Henry a look.

"Um… well, he oughtn't to repeat them," Henry said. "And we didn't really say anything entirely… horrible, except when I missed that buck."

"Damn!" Alexander said gleefully.

Eleanor glared at Henry.

"He wasn't supposed to have heard that at all," he said with a sheepish smile.


The Morvenian Court was surprisingly informal, as King Philip was not by nature a flashy, ostentatious monarch. Instead, he preferred a quiet, relaxed atmosphere in the palace, and as he was interested in music and art, he had developed one of the most cultured and intellectual Courts on the Continent. He readily welcomed artists, musicians, poets and philosophers to Garon, and hired artisans from all over Europe to decorate his palace and erect beautiful buildings all over the city. He was proud of the updates he had done on the palace—running water, a heating system based on the Roman baths, and the new, much larger Presence Chamber, with its red carpet and tall windows that looked out over the Quay.

The King was waiting in his Presence Chamber for the arrival of the Marquess of Rousseau, and was displeased that the man was late. Generally Philip could tolerate such things, but as he had other things to do, he was growing impatient. He glanced over at his brother and sister-in-law, and couldn't keep from smiling at little Elizabeth, who was just attempting to take her first steps and was attached like a tiny, utterly adorable lamprey to her father.

Constantine had certainly softened in the past two years. His marriage was hardly what Philip could call 'blissful', but at least he was looking less miserable—and how could any man be miserable with a sweet, pretty young wife like Isabella and such a bonny little lass like Elizabeth bouncing around and getting into everything?

The King wished he didn't have to meet with Rousseau at all—he would much rather go out into the garden with his brother and sister-in-law and play with Elizabeth. His little niece hardly seemed to notice or care that he was a king—just yesterday she had thrown a pear tart at him and hit him square in the face. Any other citizen who had done such a thing could face at least a sound ticking off, depending on the circumstances, but her father had praised Elizabeth for her excellent aim instead.

"I put on these blasted robes and this heavy crown to sit here all day waiting for that bloody fool?" Philip asked no one in particular.

Isabella looked like she might start laughing at him, but she pursed her lips. Philip caught her pinking cheeks and made a mental note to tease her mercilessly later. Elizabeth squealed and waved her hands in the air, not giving a damn either way. She thought Philip was funny when he was angry, and laughed with delight when Constantine growled at her.

Finally, his major domo knocked three times on the door. Philip straightened on his throne, Constantine settled Elizabeth on his knee and Isabella sat back in her seat, relieved. "Come!" Philip shouted, knowing Hugo's hearing was getting rather bad.

Hugo pulled the doors open and the Marquess of Rousseau strutted in, carrying a small wooden chest and looking put out. He glanced at his brother—Constantine had told him that he had met the man once, in Vienna, and had found him to be a pompous buffoon bent on self-aggrandizement. The Heir Presumptive shrugged and bounced Elizabeth on his knee, the girl squealing happily and being gently shushed by her mother.

"The Most Honorable Marquess of Rousseau, sir," Hugo said, a bit too loudly, and bowed before stepping aside. Philip had only ever known of the man as Beauchamp and frankly wasn't sure if he could keep from calling him that during this merry little meeting.

"Your Majesty," Beauchamp said, bowing and setting the chest down on the bottom step of the dais. "On the behalf of His Majesty King Henry of Gravonia I present to you this… remuneration for the damages done to the villages of Trask and Naas by certain soldiers of the King's army."

"They weren't Henry's soldiers," Philip said. "I have that on very good authority." Beauchamp said nothing, but only bowed his head. Philip glared at him, annoyed. "It is perhaps unwise of you to accuse King Henry's soldiers of a crime they did not commit, sir, as I understand they are all decent men and loyal to their King."

Beauchamp's face was turning a rather amusing shade of red now.

Philip gestured to Constantine to come over. The Prince somehow managed to convince Elizabeth to go to her mother and he walked over, limping tiredly. Philip knew Constantine had not been sleeping well lately—he had seemed moody and short-tempered the past few days. That was all for the better, Philip thought. No one was more frightening than Constantine in a grouchy mood, and he wanted Beauchamp properly cowed.

"I have to wonder what kind of idiot would ever consider dressing up a bunch of mercenaries in the black and gold of Henry's royal army and having them perform a raid on any village in Morvenia," Constantine said, fixing Beauchamp with an icy glare. "Either that man was infinitesimally stupid or perhaps simply unaware of the consequences. Surely he had to know that he would be found out and made to pay in some way, sooner or later, right?"

"No, no, I would have to give that man the benefit of the doubt, with regard to his intellectual deficiencies. He had to have been unaware of what would happen. What do you think, Lord Beau-… er, Rousseau?" Philip smiled coldly at the Gravonian aristocrat.

Beauchamp's face was beet red and his lips had almost disappeared, he had them pursed so tight. "He had to have been unaware," he finally said, between clenched teeth.

"Of course," Philip said. "Ah well. It's all water under the bridge now, eh? All is forgiven, and I'm sure you would never let such a thing happen again—neither you nor any member of the Gravonian nobility, I mean. You may report to King Henry that these monies will go to the two villages for all required repairs. Whatever is left over will go to the less fortunate citizens of Morvenia. You are dismissed, sir, and good day to you." Philip nodded shortly and left the room.

Constantine's narrow gaze made Beauchamp flinch, and he finally bowed to the prince.

"I believe we've met, once. In Vienna, I recall."

"Yes, sir."

"You seemed a little less than delighted when the Turks were driven out."

Beauchamp paled. "I… uh… had only wished we could have… destroyed more of their ships, sir."

The prince didn't seem terribly interested in discussing shared memories of the battlefield and signaled to his wife to come along. They left, and Beauchamp could only walk out into the marble hallway, vastly relieved that no one in Morvenia knew him. Had he been recognized during the raid on Trask, he rather doubted he would be leaving Garon in anything other than a coffin.


Eleanor was glad to finally be able to receive Christiane in private, in the royal gardens. Christiane was also with child again, and was also due in late June. They spoke briefly of pregnancies and babies, and then went for a walk, followed by four devoted knights. Eleanor was never to be left alone except when she was in her own private sitting room, and even then a guard was to be posted outside her door. Since the day she had been attacked in the chapel, Henry had doubled up security for the Queen, despite her objections, and also for the two princes.

"Do you think yourself happy, here in Gravonia?" Christiane asked her.

"I would say I am contented, rather than happy," Eleanor answered softly. "I have a very sweet, considerate husband and two beautiful sons and another baby on the way. My efforts are proving successful at bringing this country into modern times."

"But…?"

"I saw him."

"Saw who?"

"Constantine. At the border. Lord Beauchamp's raid into the border almost led to a war, but I went to the border and spoke with him and King Philip… "

"You saw Prince Constantine? Mon Dieu, what did he say when he saw you? He must have been furious!"

"No… no, he did not see me. I stayed inside the coach and hid behind the lattices. He… " She looked down. How many times had she replayed their conversation in her memory? He had not even recognized her voice, though she had to admit she had spoken in a soft voice, nearly a whisper. "He did not know it was me. Why would he be furious?"

"No man likes being lied to, mon petit ouiseau. Particularly when he's told the woman he loves is dead."

"He can never know." She looked down, clasping her hands. "But I know this—I will always love him. To the day I die, Christiane. There is no way I can ever get him out of my heart. I can go days and even months without thinking of him, because I have to not think of him, but my heart is still chained to him and the link will not break. I can't break it. I'm not even sure I want to."

Christiane looked at her for several moments, but said nothing more on the matter as they continued their walk, strolling through the frosted gardens, taking in the lovely views of snow-dusted evergreens and delicate patterns of ice forming on the edges of the ponds and fountains.

Wintertime was usually sweet and mild in Gravonia, without much heavy snow coating Luvov, and there were only rare freezes. The King had been pleased to throw a winter festival in the center of Luvov, and the manmade lake in the middle of Royal Park, near the palace, froze over well enough for ice skating. Everyone had a wonderful time, and Christmas was less than a week away. The King had insisted on the entire city of Luvov being decorated for the holiday, and each family of Luvov was to receive a side of ham as a gift from the royal family.

"Your Mistress of the Robes, Lady Agnes, is getting married, I hear," Christiane said as they walked back to the palace. "She must be excited."

"She can barely talk on any other subject," Eleanor laughed. "It's Lorenzo this, Lorenzo that. It's sweet and I sometimes just want to tell her to shut up already."

Christiane laughed. "Now, don't be peevish, Eleanor. That isn't like you."

"I'll blame it on the baby," Eleanor said, touching her stomach. "What about you?"

"I do get a bit… er… mechant sometimes, I admit, but I cannot bear to hurt Frederick's feelings. He is so sweet and kind and gentle, and lets me cry all over him and ruin his shirts. When I lost the baby last year, I could not stop crying and he just held me and soon… voila, this one is coming along."

"Do you hope for a boy?"

"We both only hope for a healthy baby. Helene is so excited to have a little brother or sister. Frederick is thrilled, but you are his heir and so he says he prefers another girl."

"I still think it very rude of the Livonian court to not recognize you as Countess von Hesse," Eleanor said, shaking her head. "It's extremely rude, in fact. Perhaps I ought to send a petition to my honorable grandfather to intervene on your behalf."

"Do not do so," Christiane shook her head. "The Count wants you to inherit his title someday, Eleanor, and pass it to one of your sons. Perhaps little Frederick."

"But what about you? What if you have a son? Wouldn't you want him to be Count instead?"

"If God grants me a son or ten more daughters, I would want them only to be happy and safe. Titles are of no matter to me, Eleanor. I did not marry the Count for his money or his title. I married him because I love him. I would have married him if he had been a pauper." She smiled. "I have learned to be happy. And it is a learned art—it is not something that happens due to our circumstances. We learn to be happy because we choose it. Not that it's easy. Yes, I would have liked to be of equal status with Frederick, in Livonia, but I am his wife and he loves me and we have a beautiful daughter and another child on the way. Never discount God's blessings, whatever they might be."

"Have you been reading the Count's philosophy books?" Eleanor teased. Christiane laughed.

"No. I do as many women do. I live at home, I sew and cook and embroider things and tend to the house. I live a quiet life and so I live in my head and I do a great deal of praying. Isn't that funny? Even in my younger, stupider… good God, was I stupid… days, when I gave my body to two worthless men and watched my son die, I still prayed. I'm not sure if my prayers went past the ceiling, but I think now He hears me and answers in His good time. I am not brought low by anything anymore. God is in His heaven and all is right with the world." She looked at Eleanor, expression quizzical. "I think you pray, too, yes?"

"All the time," Eleanor said, looking back at the knights following. They were on strict orders to stay out of earshot, and because of their devotion to her, they obeyed. Yet they were always watchful, and ready to spring into action if any threats toward the Queen appeared.

"But you have more to pray for, don't you? Your husband is king of a country still plagued with problems, and you have a son who will be a king one day, and you have enemies." She shook her head and squeezed Eleanor's hand. "My mother always said to pray for my enemies, because it is impossible to hate someone you are praying for, but… I can understand why you cannot pray for yours. They aim to kill you and your family… though I suppose you can pray that they change their hearts, or that they are unsuccessful in their endeavors to harm you."

Eleanor swallowed and Christiane smiled reassuringly at her.

"The Count has told me all. He told me of Beauchamp's treachery and that it was he who led the raid into Morvenia. The Count told me he thinks that if Morvenia had invaded, Prince Constantine would have routed your army and killed the king. Then Beauchamp would have only to sweep in, dispose of your sons and take the throne."

"I know," Eleanor whispered. "It terrifies me to think of it, Christiane. If Constantine ever makes war on us, we will be destroyed."

"That's why you must do all you can to prevent that from happening, and to also encourage Henry to make his army as strong and effective as possible," Christiane smiled at her. "The Count and I have no doubt you will succeed. We pray for your success every day. Remember your motto, Eleanor: peace through strength. You are strong, and for that you will have peace."


"Good God, twins?" Eleanor said, staring at Doctor Stroud, who nodded.

"I believe so, Your Majesty." He bowed to her.

She was glad to already be sitting down. The examination had been thorough, with Betsy standing by to make sure he washed his hands meticulously before even touching the Queen. He had finally drawn his conclusion after several moments of mumbling to himself.

"But… twins do not run in my family."

Lady Clothilde's brow furrowed. "Your Majesty, your mother was a twin."

Eleanor looked blankly at her lady-in-waiting. "Oh. Right. I… uh… forgot. Yes. She was, wasn't she?"

Clothilde continued to stare at her, looking a little confused, but Betsy was quick to put everyone at ease.

"How can any of us keep things straight, when we're expecting a baby? And twins! Well, it'll be a wonder if the Queen can remember her own name now!"

Eleanor thanked God, yet again, for Betsy's presence of mind. She wrapped her silk shawl around her shoulders, nodded to Doctor Stroud and left, followed by Agnes and Harriet, with Clothilde pausing briefly to look at Betsy, who smiled brightly at her.

"I have never known the Queen to forget something," Clothilde said.

"Surely you've heard of a pregnant woman becoming a tad… um… well, forgetful."

"Yes, but not Queen Eleanor. She has the clearest mind of anyone I know."

"Ah, well, I wouldn't concern myself with it, Lady Hallam, I'm sure it's nothing to get terribly het up over. The Queen has asked me to come and assist Lady D'Acre in her confinement. She is due quite soon, is she not?"

"Yes, she is."

"Very well. Perhaps I should remain here at the palace until after that baby is born. Good day to you, Lady Hallam." Betsy curtsied and left the room quickly, moving fast down the hall toward the Queen's chambers. Agnes and Harriet were both coming out of the room, and Betsy bobbed to them both before going in. Eleanor was seated by the fire, having exchanged her silk wrap for a warm blanket.

"I'm cold, Betsy," she said softly.

"I know, dearest. Poor thing, you look tired." Betsy sat down opposite her. "Eleanor, I cannot believe you would have forgotten about your… well, your mother."

"She wasn't my mother!" Eleanor hissed, keeping her voice as low as possible. "I can't remember everything, and I am tired… "

"Lady Clothilde was asking questions. You must be careful. In fact, you ought to write home to Livonia, to tell your parents and family… "

"They are not my parents or my family! You recall they rejected my own mother!"

"Eleanor!" Betsy snapped. "Do not get churlish with me, young lady! I can still put you over my knee. You must make a show of being eager to communicate with your family, just to make sure no one has even the slightest reason to suspect… "

"Hush, Betsy!" Eleanor snatched her sewing. "I am very tired and I am no mood to discuss my mother's half-brother and his wife who was apparently a twin. I'll hear no more of this." She began patching a hole in Henry's shirt, feeling annoyed that he was always tearing his clothes. He liked to wrestle with his gentlemen or dash about chasing boars or stags, and damage to his clothes and frequent cuts and bruises were the order of every day. She worked on the hole for several moments, while Betsy watched her, practically oozing disapproval. "All right!" Eleanor snapped. "I will write a very charming letter to my father and mother and tell them I'm doing well."

"That is all I ask. Eleanor, you must protect yourself."

"I know that. Why do you think I keep a dagger in my belt and have four knights walking ten paces behind me at all times? I'm the most protected woman in all Gravonia! I can scarcely breathe, for all this bloody protection!"


"Perhaps we ought to find Catalina a husband," Isabella said to Constantine as they lay in bed together.

"There would be a brave soul indeed," he said sleepily.

It was the day after Christmas, and the holiday celebrations had been a boisterous affair at the palace, with a lively ball being thrown by Philip. Much dancing had taken place, along with a great deal of drinking, singing, and revelry. Constantine had had a few more glasses of wine than normal and Isabella had had to help him upstairs to bed. That had resulted in some vigorous lovemaking before he had fallen asleep on top of her. A bit of gentle maneuvering had saved her from being suffocated.

"She is lonely," Isabella said, snuggling closer to her husband. She loved his scent and his muscles and the springy hair on his chest and his warmth. To her, he was beautiful, however much he seemed to think he frightened her. She had never been afraid of him, even when he looked like thunder itself and lightning was flashing in his green, green eyes. Even in his infrequent growling bad moods, he was still gentle and considerate toward her and Elizabeth, and not even Catalina could send him into a full-blown fury.

"I don't think she should marry until she is eighteen. She seems very young."

"She is young," Isabella laughed softly. "Sixteen now. But we would have time to find her a husband, si?"

"Draw up a list and I'll vet it, and then I'll let Philip vet it and we'll line up a few young men of good breeding and see who comes out least traumatized by the ordeal. If she can tolerate him, we'll have the banns read."

"I don't want her to tolerate a husband, Constantine. I would like to see her marry for… for love. Wouldn't you?"

"Love… " Constantine wearily scratched his chest and laughed bitterly. "That doesn't happen for most people—at best, it just ends in death. The most we can hope for is… to be compatible and to get along well. Make a few babies, to see what we can create… like erotic arts and crafts… and…" He yawned. "It's not good to fill her head with fairytales. Reality is best, in the long run. We'll find her a good man, that's without a doubt. I will not see her mistreated."

Isabella looked at her husband as he yawned again and stretched before moving onto his side, his back to her. She was overwhelmed then with sorrow.

He did not love her. He had never said such a thing out loud—he was not cruel—but his comments had put the final nail into the coffin of any illusions she had that he would ever fall in love with her. He treated her with great kindness and deference, but it was still a distant, almost impersonal kindness. He spoke to her with every degree of respect, he never raised his voice or his hand to her, and he always sought to give her pleasure in bed, but his heart was closed off to her and would never open.

Wiping tears from her eyes, she rose when she was sure he was in a deep sleep and put on her warm robe. Silently, she slipped out of the room and into the room next door, where Elizabeth slept. She sat down beside her daughter's cradle and watched the sweet, redheaded girl for a long time. He had opened his heart to their daughter—he adored the girl, and played with her for hours, and willingly volunteered to take care of her on his own.

Resignation was extremely difficult for Isabella, but that morning—the day after Christmas—Isabella finally fully accepted her lot in life and determined in herself to carry on as though she had no notion that he didn't love her.

Tears poured down her cheeks just the same. To give up was the only thing she could do now, and it was a pain that she found almost unbearable. But what other choice did she have? Was she to make herself bitter and poison her marriage in the process? She could not bear that—it would mean a rift between herself and Constantine that Elizabeth and any other children they had would certainly notice, and that would make their entire family utterly miserable. She could not do that. Not to him, not to herself, and especially not to her children.

"Pray you never love in vain, Lili," she whispered to her daughter, using the nickname Constantine had given the baby.

"Isabella?"

She looked up at her husband, who was standing in the doorway, shivering in his robe.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"I was just… making sure Lili is all right," she said, standing up and wiping her eyes.

"Why are you crying?"

"I… was remembering the day she was born. How I feared you would be angry with me."

"I have never been angry with you about anything, and I can't imagine ever being so. But I'll be a little put out if you lose a toe to frostbite, walking about on these cold floors. Come back to bed." He turned and went back into their room, and she watched him undo his robe and climb back into bed. He was so beautiful to look at—so masculine and strong, and while he thought his scars were ugly and frightening, to her they were symbols of his honor.

She went back into the room, removing her robe, and climbed back into the bed. She sighed softly when he pulled her into his arms, and when he kissed her she thanked God for what she had. She at least had his body, if not his heart, and that was far more than any other woman would ever have, and she knew many women at Court who envied her.

Later, as she watched him sleep, she wondered what sort of woman could ever own the heart of a dragon.

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