Our Gracious Queen

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Diplomacy

With winter over and spring making all things new, Eleanor finally felt that she could breathe again.

Lady Harriet gave birth to a rather weak and puny baby girl on the second day of January and named her Xenia. The name meant 'stranger', if Eleanor was remembering her Greek correctly, and she knew Harriet wasn't just being ironic in the choice. She held her tongue on the matter of course, as Harriet also seemed faded and disheartened after the ordeal of bearing the child of a murderer. Nonetheless, Eleanor made a point of asking to stand as godmother to the child.

Eleanor pondered finding a wet nurse for the baby—while acknowledging the paradox of thinking of it at all—and finally suggested it to Harriet. It was not a cheerful discussion, and it was even more unsettling when Harriet readily agreed to give the baby to a nurse. Since then, however, Xenia seemed to be getting stronger and Harriet appeared to be recovering well enough. She had returned to her late husband's estate and was staying there for the remainder of the winter, and it did not sit well with Eleanor that she had not seemed eager to take her daughter and the wet nurse with her. Still, as they left, Eleanor was heartened to see Harriet cuddling the baby.

Eleanor celebrated her nineteenth birthday at Henry's rustic country estate outside Luvov. She was truly surprised when Henry and her sons woke her up for breakfast bed on the second of February—she had forgotten that Princess Eleanor of Livonia was six days her senior. As usual, Henry showered her with jewelry, as well as exquisite Chinese silks, and the boys presented her with cards they had made for her. Alexander's card featured what was possibly a fire-breathing dragon or a vomiting cow, and Frederick's was a drawing of what she believed was a bat, but their hearts were in the right place and she burst into tears when she received their gifts, cherishing them above even the diamonds and emeralds she received from Henry.

Agnes' wedding was on Valentine's Day, and she was in a state of frantic excitement right up to the moment she walked down the aisle—only then was she the picture of calm. Eleanor had done her best to be patient with her, but with her pregnancy leaving her fatigued and irritable, she had had to take a lot of deep breaths and remind herself that the wedding was Agnes's big event and she deserved as much patience as could be mustered.

She was touched when Agnes asked her to attend her wedding, even when protocol forbade Eleanor from standing as a bridesmaid. So Eleanor, wrapped in hunter green and red velvet, rode in a small coach to St. Nicholas's Church and watched Agnes, not inappropriately dressed in white, march down the aisle. The wedding was as simple, sweet and uncomplicated as the bride, and Eleanor found herself in tears afterwards. Of course, everything tended to set her off during pregnancy—the sight of a brace of freshly-killed ducks had reduced her to floods of tears the day before the wedding.

The winter wedding, with snow falling as the bridal couple exited the church, was really quite pretty. Agnes, with holly leaves intertwined into the diamond and pearl tiara loaned to her from the Queen, was as lovely a bride as ever was, and Lorenzo seemed incapable of doing anything but smile. Eleanor suspected he would find something even more interesting to do later in the evening.

The Queen rode back the palace pursued by a pesky pack of children and dogs, and at the gates her knights ordered the children to go home and finally threw pots of water at the dogs to get them to go away. The Queen laughed her way across the courtyard, listening to the knights grouching about getting their boots wet, and was happy to sit beside Henry at the fire, her feet in his lap while he rubbed them warm again.

"How was the wedding?" he asked her. The babies in her womb kicked and squabbled, and she waved away a servant's offer of bread and cheese.

"It was really quite lovely. Agnes is blissfully happy, and Lorenzo was grinning from ear to ear."

"Aye, Agnes is a sweet girl, and pretty in her way, but she's a wart-covered old crone compared to you, darling."

Eleanor smiled. "Don't say that to Lorenzo!"

Henry laughed. "No man would want to hear that kind of thing about his wife, would he? I will bite my tongue when I hear him praising her, then."

"It was very kind of you to knight him, Henry. This way, Agnes will not lose her rank. Not that I think she cares about that, but she will benefit from things remaining the same. She lives in a rather small world, but it's a pleasant one and the less upheaval for her, the better."

"Then I am very pleased to have knighted her husband, for her sake a great deal and his a little." Henry tickled Eleanor's foot and she squealed with laughter. "Are you feeling better today?"

"Just tired," she said. "I think the nausea has passed at last. The carriage ride seemed to put the babies to sleep."

He stared at Eleanor's swollen belly—she was much larger, at this stage, than with her previous pregnancies and he marveled at the idea of twins. He had, somewhat tactlessly, informed her that twins occurred in his family sometimes, but they usually did not survive. That had alarmed Eleanor, until Betsy reminded her that she was much healthier and stronger than any of the past Gravonian queens and that she and her twins would come through the trial in fine fettle.

Absently rubbing her belly, Eleanor settled in her chair and relaxed.

Henry stretched his legs, warming his feet by the fire. "Oh, and I've proposed a State Visit from the King of Morvenia to my Council. They think it's a grand idea and have sent letters to Garon."

For a moment, Eleanor wasn't sure she had heard her husband correctly. Carefully, determined to remain calm despite the panic screaming in her head, she leaned forward. "What did you say, dearest?"

He looked at her quizzically. "King Philip of Morvenia… a State Visit. I think it would be a fine way to ease any remaining tensions between our nations, after that nasty business of last year, and we know Morvenia is the most powerful nation around. We're hoping to hammer out some excellent trade agreements, too—we have gold and silver in the west that we're finally starting to mine, and Morvenia has connections all over the Continent that could be beneficial to us… what's wrong, Eleanor? You look very pale."

"I… assume the royal family would come with him?"

"Well, Philip has no consort, but he does have his brother Prince Constantine and I would be very interested in meeting him, too. Plus Constantine has a very pretty wife who does an excellent job as sort of a… a… what is the word? Well, she stands in when required, so she would be invited, along with Constantine. I suspect they'd bring their daughter, too."

Eleanor stood, wanting to lash out at Henry for having not consulted her on this matter. She clenched her fists, struggling to regain her self-control, and fought against her temper to keep her voice calm and modulated, as Christiane had taught her. "I really would have rather you asked me what I thought of that matter, dearest," she finally said. "State Visits are tricky things and proper preparations must be made."

"We're aiming for mid-April, Eleanor." She saw a mild expression of annoyance cross his face—he was the King after all. King's didn't ask permission from their wives on what to eat for breakfast, much less with whom they should form lucrative alliances. She had seen Henry make that point very firmly several times since their marriage—he was ultimately in charge, and as sweet as his temper tended to be, and as considerate as he was of her feelings, he never let anyone forget he was the King.

"Mid-April!" she gasped. "I'll still be waddling about like some great milchcow!"

"Next year," Henry said, smiling as he leaned forward to remove his wool socks. "They're coming in April next year, sweetheart. And how could you say that about yourself? You never waddle, and you're as lovely and graceful as a doe, even now. Why are you so upset?"

"I merely prefer to be prepared," she finally answered, struggling to sound pleasantly nonchalant. "I need to lie down, Henry, my head is hurting." Dear God, it was pounding. She had almost a year to contemplate what fate had in store for her, and she sensed that fate was about to unleash a storm into her world that she wasn't sure she could withstand.


Constantine hated Spain.

It wasn't the Spanish that he hated, however—it was the food that disagreed with him. Immensely. As he had aged, he had found that spicy food made him nauseated and irritable, and it made it hard for him to sleep. Considering he had trouble sleeping to begin with, a trip to Spain could be bloody hell for his nerves and for his stomach.

Philip had begged him to go to Spain, to hammer out a trade agreement ("But Spanish wine puts me under the table and last time you imbibed in too much of the stuff, you ended up naked in a tree… meowing!" Constantine had yelled at his brother during the 'discussion' before he had finally been frog-marched into the carriage and hauled away) that would benefit both countries, and he had only grudgingly agreed. Necessity breeds good trade relations, Philip had said, in that annoying way of his. The man could come up with an idiom like nobody's business.

So it was that he had spent two months so far in Spain, bored to tears, meeting with the King of Spain and attending lavish banquets and taking part in jousts and generally feeling like he would go stark raving mad. He won every joust, ate a good deal of food that had his stomach screaming in protest, and wished to God he had been born the son of a tanner. People thought being royalty meant a life of ease and luxury, and perhaps that was true for some. For himself and Philip, however, it meant a lifetime of endless duty, including diplomacy, wars, listening to excruciating speeches, forming alliances with people he wouldn't cross to street to spit on, and taking part in wars about which he often had trouble keeping the principal players straight or why they had even started.

He and Philip talked about it often—the onus of being leaders, particularly of a powerful and influential country with a fearsome army and navy and vast wealth. Frankly, he wondered why kingdoms couldn't just settle disputes with a game of chess or maybe an arm-wrestling match between the nations' two biggest warriors. Of course, he knew that sometimes wars were really necessary—he had seen many a nation attack and viciously abuse others, and they had needed a sound thrashing, but when it came to wars over some perceived insult, the matter became much murkier.

He and Philip agreed, however, that so long as Morvenia was considered a major player in Continental politics, and its army and navy were considered forces to be reckoned with, they could enjoy peace through strength and come to the aid of its allies while also seeing the people of the country living their own lives with as little interference as possible. Forming an alliance with Spain was thus a good idea, to Philip and to the Council. Forming alliances with the Italian states and with France and England were also good ideas, but considering those states didn't always get along with each other or with Spain, it got tricky. Thus, the Council had concluded, Constantine's military skills had to take a back seat to his diplomatic skills.

How anyone had gotten the idea that he was a skilled diplomat, however, he still didn't know.

He supposed diplomacy was preferable to a battlefield, but the war that went on in his stomach after his meals with the Ambassador and his wife was nothing akin to any blood-soaked battlefield he had ever encountered. After his fourth night at the man's castle, he was sneaking food to the dogs, hiding what they wouldn't eat in the salt cellars and then feigning shock when the servants asked him how most of his dinner ended up stuffed into an empty wine bottle. By night five, he had given up eating anything at all—he wasn't suicidal, after all.

The Spanish Ambassador's home was elegant, he admitted through a haze of hunger and weariness. Set upon a hill, it afforded its residents spectacular, panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, plus it was easily defended—one could see any attacking force coming from miles away. It reminded him a great deal of his trip to England, some years ago (where the food was without spices but tasted ten times worse—British food was, in his opinion, based entirely on a dare). The green lawns there had gone on for miles, until any force attacking a fortress was too exhausted to continue with the assault once they reached the castle walls.

Nonetheless, the place was very nice. He enjoyed the clean air and the cool breeze, but it wasn't home. His bed was cold and lonely, and he missed Isabella's soft humming while she sewed, and Elizabeth's giggles and incomprehensible chatter.

On night six, copious amounts of wine was served after dinner, but when the Ambassador got into a waltzing mood, Constantine managed to get away to his quarters without having to take part. However, by midnight, he was famished and finally just gave up and headed downstairs in search of the kitchen. He decided he would sneak some sliced beef, some bread and a glass of wine for a peaceful meal alone.

Like bloody hell would he dance with the Spanish Ambassador, no matter how much Philip had told him it might help negotiations.

The Conde de Mendoza's wife, Magdalena, was seated by the fire in the Great Hall, and she rose when he reached the landing. He bowed slightly, not in the mood for small talk—and considering his own less-than-stellar communication skills, it would have to be tiny talk—and started toward where he suspected the kitchens might be. "Your Royal Highness," she said, in a soft, gentle voice. "Might I speak with you a moment?"

Good manners always got him in trouble. He found it impossible to be rude, particularly to someone who was letting him stay under their roof. Sighing, wishing to God he were as silent a walker as he had been as a boy, Constantine went back to the fire and sat down in the chair opposite the Condessa. "Senora," he said, nodding and fighting off a yawn.

She smiled. Magdalena was indeed a beautiful woman—slender, elegant, well-dressed, obviously well-educated and apparently a tolerant soul, if her calm manners around her regularly pickled husband were anything to go by. The Conde de Mendoza was a heavy drinker and seemed to be more or less uninterested in his wife.

"Sleep with me," she said, without warning. Not even a come-hither look. Just a flat-out proposition.

At first, Constantine was too bewildered by the unexpected statement to react. He blinked a couple of times, wondering if he had had too much wine. But she was still gazing at him, her pale green eyes watching him carefully. It had not registered with him, entirely, that she was always watching him. Now he thought about it, even in his sleep-deprived state, she was always finding some excuse to touch him when her husband wasn't looking. Hell, sometimes she had touched him when her husband had been standing five feet away. The woman was either daft or deprived of something other than sleep.

"I… uh… what?"

"Sleep with me."

Once he had recovered his composure, he shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I cannot do that, Condessa."

"Why not? Do not tell me you have a conscience. Men are generally not so equipped. But I can tell that you are quite well… equipped otherwise."

"Some men might not have a conscience, ma'am, but I do. I have a wife and a daughter at home and I can't betray them this way, equipped or not." He could think of no way of saying that without sounding self-righteous, but for God's sake…

"How is it betrayal?" Magdalena laughed. "They would not know. You are far away from home."

"It would be betrayal if they were in the next room or a thousand miles away, and even if my wife never knew, I would, and so would God. It's the same thing. It is… " He paused, knowing he sounded a little priggish, but he didn't really care at this hour, when he was tired and hungry. "It is a sin. I'm anything but an angel, but… " He stood. "When I was young, I was afraid of God's wrath. Now I'm older, I just look forward to peace. I can't have that here or in the next world if I do something like what you're asking."

She rolled her eyes, amused and frustrated at once. "You must be joking. Royalty do these kinds of things all the time."

"Some do. I have no problem admitting that. But I live by my own rules, however old-fashioned they are. Maybe when I was younger, and unmarried, I'd take you up on your offer… but you'd have to be unmarried, too, I'm afraid. But if I did this now, I would never be able to live with myself. I can barely look at myself in the mirror these days as it is. Good night, ma'am."

Magdalena stood and grasped his forearm. Had she been a man, he would have ended the discussion with a swift punch in the eye. Instead, he leveled his gaze at her, tamping down a flaring temper. She wanted to conduct some slimy affair, with her husband upstairs sleeping off his nightly bender? With him? He was hardly known as a ladies' man, even in his younger days, much less any great romantic prize to begin with, and his days of being willing to risk all for love were far, far past, and buried with Eleanor Reeve.

"Aren't you lonely? You prefer to sleep alone?"

He sighed, feeling utterly exhausted. "If my wife is not with me, yes. I do. I'm going to take a guess here, ma'am… the Conde de Mendoza keeps a mistress."

She looked amused. "Most men do. He does. Aside from drinking too much wine and waltzing around with whoever is available, male or female, he spends his mornings with his mistress, his afternoons hunting and his evenings drinking."

Constantine now knew why he had never liked the Conde de Mendoza, but her reasons could never be his own excuses. "I don't, and I will not."

"So it is your conscience? A great warrior like yourself—the great, ferocious Dragon! You have been in countless battles and killed probably hundreds of men by sword and even with your own hands, and yet your conscience keeps you faithful to your wife?"

"The main purpose of an army, and a soldier, is to kill people and break things. That's what I do, and I have reconciled myself to doing my duty—yet I'm not nearly as ferocious as many think. I have been trained for war from the cradle, and lately I'm training in diplomacy. But when it comes to my marriage, that's another thing entirely. I would have to be faithful to my wife if I were a soldier or a cleric. My wife isn't a soldier. She's only a woman, and I hurt her enough every day as it is—I'm not so dense that I fail to recognize that much. I will not hurt her this way, too. She's a good woman and she doesn't deserve that."

"You needn't ever tell her," Magdalena said, touching his arm again, sliding her fingers up to briefly squeeze his bicep. "So strong… Dios Mio, I suspect you are amazing in bed, si?" she purred. "It would just be us, Your Highness. A pleasant memory… no one need ever know… "

He pulled away from her. "Like I said, I would know. If your husband is unfaithful, maybe you should tell him that he could return to your bed when he's finally figured out how to make love correctly. Now… can you tell me if you've got any roasted beef in the kitchen?"

Constantine left early the next morning, only leaving a brief note of polite thanks to his host for his accommodations.

Diplomacy only went so far.


With spring melting into summer and Eleanor's pregnancy leaving her short-tempered, she thought it best to keep out of public view until after the birthing. The last thing the people of Gravonia needed to see was their sweet, gracious little Queen having a tantrum and bonking one of her ladies over the head with a bouquet of flowers. She found almost everything exhausting or annoying, but for herself and the babies she was determined to keep at least physically healthy and strong. So she took daily walks with Clothilde around the palace grounds, trying not to think of next April.

At least her normal appetites had returned. It took a good deal of maneuvering and even some rather comical moments, but she and Henry had even resumed lovemaking, to his immense relief. It amazed her that he still lusted after her as much as he did, as she thought she was absolutely vast. Just the same, having sex certainly alleviated her headaches and tension—unlike so many women she knew at Court, she always felt happy and relaxed after sex, and slept well as a result.

The upcoming state visit by King Philip of Morvenia weighed heavily on her mind. If Constantine did come with his brother, Eleanor wasn't sure how she would handle it. What would she do—wear a veil or dress in appallingly ugly clothes and wear one of those silly cone hats, like ladies in France? Maybe she would dab little red spots on her face and claim she had the pox and should stay in her rooms until the Morvenian party left.

God help me, I'm such a coward, she thought bitterly, and set her letter opener on the stack of papers on the table beside her chair, to prevent the pages from blowing away in the breeze.

Early summer did provide one benefit—a trip to Tygo. Despite her pregnancy and peevish temper, Eleanor had been eager to travel down to the coast and while away her hours at the fairytale island castle. Over the winter, her little garden folly had been finished, and she was able to sit and look at the flowers and the sea, quite alone, for long periods of time. Lilacs and roses were already starting to climb up the columns of the folly, so that in a few years, it would be covered with vines, carefully tended by the castle gardener to keep them from getting out of hand.

She was enjoying the cool breezes, sitting in a comfortable chair with her feet up on cushions, looking out at the water. The dove the old woman had given her, on her arrival in Luvov, was cooing in his aviary near the folly, and Eleanor wondered if maybe he needed a mate. He bowed and cooed at her every time he saw her, but she really doubted she was a suitable substitute for another dove. She had named him Pax, and she had no other pets besides him—not even a dog.

She got up and went to the cage, peering in at the white bird, which hopped to its perch by the cage door and looked at her, blood-red eyes bright and curious. Yet again, she was glad he wasn't a parrot—he didn't screech or bite, but instead, when she brought him indoors, he liked to sit on the table beside her while she wrote letters and he would peck at breadcrumbs she offered. For a creature that would otherwise be nervous around people, he was remarkably tame and quiet in her presence, and liked it when she scratched the back of his head.

Henry had gone fishing with his gentlemen, her ladies were indoors napping, and she was finished with her letter writing. Dolce far niente indeed. She hadn't really done anything in particular since arriving at Tygo last week, aside from writing a few letters. She didn't even feel restless or agitated, and frankly she wished she could stay at Tygo forever—she would call her castle Île de L'Oubli—Island of Forgetting. She could sit in her folly and not think about anything. There were no worries, no pressing matters to contend with, and her ladies were rendered so sleepy by the sound of the waves that they didn't bother her much, either

"Your Majesty."

Eleanor jumped, the babies actually jerking in surprise too, and she looked up at Boris, who was holding a letter in his hand and looking apologetic. "From Lord Beauchamp, ma'am—to the King, but I know you would want to read it first."

Boris was Henry's Major Domo, but he had come to be extremely reliable to Eleanor, in his quiet, unobtrusive way. He made sure the Queen read Henry's letters from foreign Courts first, as she was more able to form thoughtful responses to their queries or challenges and quietly feed them to the King after he read the same letters. As a result, Gravonia's stature was growing in the Courts of Europe—Luvov now had opened diplomatic relations with nations as far away as England, Scotland and even Moscow, and disputes had been settled peacefully due to Eleanor's calming influence on the king.

Not that Eleanor ever took credit. She merely read the letters first and so was prepared to discuss their contents with Henry after he read them. He considered her opinions and ideas to be Holy Writ, so if that kept the country out of war and increased its prosperity, she was pleased and so was Henry. In the meantime, he was trying to find ways to strengthen the Army to defend the borders and to build a Navy that could defend Gravonia's coast. Eleanor's only contribution to his endeavors was to remind him that a nation could enjoy peace when its enemies feared the consequences of attacking it. Pax in virtute.

It was Boris who took Eleanor to her seat behind the grille at the Council meetings, and Boris had selected the knights tasked with protecting her, having vetted them all carefully. The man was resourceful, intelligent and calm as a farm pond, and she knew she could trust him with her life and the lives of her sons. He looked formidable, but she knew he was as faithful as daffodils in his devotion to her and Henry.

Well, so much for relaxation, she thought as she took the letter. She broke the seal and read it over, becoming increasingly amused. The slimy little eel was actually trying to be conciliatory now? His wheedling phrases of apology for any past troubles and even a mention of his 'deplorable' treatment of Lady Harriet were all meant, she knew, to get back into the King's graces. He wanted to get back to Court, obviously, and not just to be near his son. Perhaps he wanted to see his poor little daughter Xenia, she thought with a flash of grim humor. The child was remarkably pretty and sweet--unlike her deplorable father.

"Thank you, Boris. Do you know where Lord Beauchamp is at the moment?" she asked. "I know he returned from Morvenia somewhat lighter in his pockets."

"From what I have heard, ma'am, he is at Pontrefact again."

"Very good." She tossed the letter onto the table beside her chair. "Can you reseal the letter?"

"Of course, ma'am." He took the letter and stuffed it inside his coat.

"See he receives it tonight after supper. I can see no reason to have him agitated when he's eating. He'd get hiccups."

"Quite right, ma'am. The King is on his way back now, ma'am—I hear him in the courtyard."

She stood, with Boris gently assisting her, and waited. Henry was soon bounding up the steps, carrying a string of silvery fish in his hand. He smelled… horrible. In fact, the stench of fish and seawater preceded him, making Eleanor's stomach lurch.

"Good heavens, Henry, did you fall into a vat of spoiled cod?" she asked him when he finally was standing before her in all his outdoorsy glory.

"I fell in the water, actually. We got into a bit of… tomfoolery," he admitted, and she flicked away a bit of seaweed from behind his ear.

"Go take a bath," she said with a fond smile.

"Don't I get my kiss first? I caught all these fish!"

"After you bathe. Then you can be Henry the Great—Conqueror of Fish, and I will kiss you."

The King brightened and went into the castle, where Alexander and Frederick greeted him in their usual boisterous manner. She heard the laughter of the three most important men of her life as the two boys were heard saying "Papa stinks!"

Henry and some of his gentlemen were building a treehouse for the princes, and after a brief bath and a longer private session in private with Eleanor, the King and his men were scrambling around in a large, sturdy oak on the northeastern corner of the island, hauling up boards, squabbling about lengths and widths and doing a great deal of hammering, yelling and injuring themselves. Henry was a master carpenter and an extremely talented woodcarver, Eleanor was delighted to know, and the King had decided that the boys' treehouse ought to be a battleship, complete with wooden cannons, a crow's nest (a terrifying prospect, to Eleanor) and an elaborate stag's head, with magnificent antlers, as a figurehead.

The royal family dined alone, and after the meal went back outside. The boys played in the grass while Henry resumed work on the treehouse. As usual, more letters to the King were brought to her, and she kept an eye on the boys while reading. She was startled to come across one addressed specifically to her, from Morvenia—from Princess Isabella herself.

Your Majesty,

I was very pleased a few days ago to learn that His Majesty the King Philip and his brother, my husband the Prince Constantine, are planning a visit to your country in late April of next year, as God wills. I am hoping that if Your Majesty is not troubled or offended, my husband and I might bring along our little daughter Elizabeth as well as my sister the Princess Catalina of Navarre.

I must confess that it will be very hard to leave my daughter behind in Morvenia, much less my sister, but if their inclusion in our party will be inconvenient to Your Majesty, I will of course obey your command as would be proper and will not include them in our party.

In all other ways I am very eager to finally meet you and your husband and to show off our beautiful daughter, as my husband and I delight in her daily.

Yours very sincerely,

Isabella, Princess Constantine of Morvenia

Tears welled in Eleanor's eyes.

Isabella.

Constantine's wife.

Did he love her? Obviously she loved him—how could she not? Was she happy with him?

Eleanor didn't want to think of him making love to another woman. But obviously he had, or where would Elizabeth have come from? The Queen set the letter aside and wondered what Isabella looked like, and what kind of personality she had. She had to be strong-willed and tough, to be a soldier's wife, and she had to be brave, to stand up to him at all. Eleanor hoped she did stand up to him—he would be very bored with a spineless, simpering little creature as a wife.

Wiping her eyes, Eleanor sighed and wished again that the Lacovians had never attacked Teslo. She would probably be the wife of some farmer now, with more than just two children, living in total obscurity. She would not be married to a man she only liked and cared for while longing for a man she could never, ever have.

Setting the letter aside, Eleanor waited for Henry to come down from the tree and help her up. The King was pleased with his progress and was working out a plan for canvas sails to be raised from the 'tree ship'. "We're almost finished with the main part of the treehouse," he told Eleanor as he carefully helped her to her feet. "How are you feeling, dear?"

"Fine," she lied. "It does look nice." The treehouse did promise to be a grand-looking affair. Henry only had a few more days' worth of work left on it and it would be finished, and the two princes were eager to climb aboard. For now, however, they were not permitted to climb up until Eleanor and Henry agreed that it was completely safe. She wasn't sure she would be able to handle seeing her babies so high off the ground, and did not like the notion of so many ropes being strung about—as if Alexander could resist going swinging from one end of the treehouse to the other.

"Let's go on inside then," Henry said, herding the princes away from the tree and saying good night to his men. The princes bounced ahead of the King and Queen, and Boris appeared in the pathway, holding out the letter from Beauchamp. The King took it and broke the seal, reading the letter quickly. "Bloody bastard," he muttered. "He wants to come back to Court!"

"Watch your language," she remonstrated gently, glancing at the boys, but they were tumbling up the steps and looking for lizards under the rocks. "What does he say?"

"He says he deeply regrets his behavior of last year." Henry gave her the letter, which she pretended to read, but she knew every word already. "He even apologizes for how he treated Lady D'Acre."

"I suppose we ought to take his penitence at face value," Eleanor said. She watched Henry's face for his reaction, and when he only looked skeptical, she continued. "Maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt."

"You're the one who wanted him out of Luvov," Henry pointed out.

"Yes, but that was part of his punishment for his treatment of Lady Harriet."

"And for his raid into Morvenia." Henry looked at his wife, brow furrowing. "You would let him return to Court?"

"If he did perform that raid into Morvenia, it would be best if he were away from Pontrefact, where he can plan his actions in private. At Court, he is being watched."

"But should I put him back on my Council?"

"By no means," Eleanor said quickly, watching the princes race down the hallway toward the stairs. "I would give him some position at court—with Lord D'Acre dead, perhaps he could be Lord Almoner?"

"Collecting funds for the poor?" Henry laughed, holding Eleanor's hand as they went up the stairs. "There would be a job for Charles Beauchamp."

Yes, Eleanor thought as she kissed her two sons and swatted them before sending them up to get ready for bed. A job he would hate, but one that would keep him under constant scrutiny. If Beauchamp took one step wrong, he would be subject to the King's wrath and Eleanor's own brand of discipline. A dead body falling in pieces onto the dining table at Pontrefact was one thing, and she had given the man a fair warning, but if her husband's cousin tried to harm her children, she knew she would be ruthless in defending them.

She watched her sons play with their wooden horses, and smiled at them as Henry helped them get ready for their baths. The King never behaved like a monarch around his children—he was just 'Papa' to them, and he reveled in being just that. The two boys splashed in the washtub, squirting water on Henry and laughing happily. Following their baths was their daily reading lesson, a brief Bible lesson (they were fascinated by the description of the warhorse in the book of Job), prayers and finally, the boys were tucked into bed.

"I think holidays agree with you, Eleanor," Henry said as she climbed into bed. She absently rubbed her bulging belly, the twins kicking to indicate they had no intention of sleeping tonight.

"I think they do, too."

"You'll be nice and relaxed next April, then, when the Morvenian party arrives." The King grinned. "I look forward to meeting Philip, but it's Constantine I really am eager to meet. He's never lost a battle, Eleanor—not one! Can you imagine that? Even Caesar was beaten a time or two, but not that man. Not Constantine. Not even marriage and the birth of a daughter has made him any less of a commander. Imagine the stories he has to tell!"

She sighed and looked up at the ceiling. "I suppose that will be very exciting… and I suspect his stories are quite… thrilling." She rolled onto her side, facing away from Henry. He slipped his arm around her waist, gently cupping her breast, but she wasn't in any mood for sex. Not tonight. "I received a very kind letter from Constantine's wife today. She asked if she might bring along her daughter and her sister."

"That would be very nice," Henry said, gently nuzzling her neck. "The Dragon's wife and daughter… they must both be very impressive."

"Yes," Eleanor said softly. "They must both be quite remarkable. I suspect they all are." She closed her eyes tightly, seeing Constantine's face clearly in her mind's eye: his high cheekbones and his sharp green eyes, his scars and his slow smile. She could feel his mouth against her own, and it was his hand she felt against her breast, not her husband's. Every pore of her skin could feel him, and she could hear his voice telling her that he would always love her, and that he would come to her when she called him.

Yes. Constantine had quite a few stories he might tell Henry.

She closed her eyes, but knew that sleep would not come tonight. She wondered if she might ever sleep again.

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