Our Gracious Queen

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Count von Hesse paced the floor of his wife's room, looking anxiously out the window toward the palace. He knew that Eleanor was due to bear her twins any day now, and the waiting was driving him mad. Even worse for his nerves was Christiane's own impending confinement. She had been sitting around the past few days, thoughtfully rubbing her belly, a far-away look in her eyes, and some strange instinct told him her time was very near. He could only pray to God that Eleanor and Christiane did not go into labor on the same day, else Betsy should have to leave Christiane's side to aid the Queen in her ordeal.

"Frederick, stop pacing!" Betsy said, exasperated. "You'll wear a path into the boards."

Christiane was lying in bed, Betsy sitting in a chair at her side, knitting two pairs of blue booties for Eleanor's babies—she was certain that Eleanor was carrying boys. Christiane had undergone Lady Hallam's much-storied 'ring test' and not at all disappointed to be told she was carrying another. von Hesse didn't give a damn if it was a girl or a boy, so long as Christiane survived. Even the baby was secondary to his concern for his wife.

Little Helene was sitting in the bed with her mother, undergoing her daily reading lesson by way of a book the Queen had made for her—unlike the Princes' books, Helene's consisted of countless drawings of birds, flowers, fairies and sprites, with corresponding words on the bottom of each page. The little girl delighted in her book and carried it with her everywhere, and it was helping her learn her letters at a fast pace.

"Papa silly!" Helene squeaked happily, and the Count tried to glare at her, but couldn't keep from smiling instead. He couldn't even bear to discipline her when she was naughty.

"See? Even Helene thinks you're acting like a lunatic. Sit down, sweetheart." Christiane smiled at her husband and let Helene settle against her belly again, the book propped up on the girl's knees as she searched for the right words to go with the pictures on each page.

"I can't help it," von Hesse said, dropping into a chair by the window. "I fear for her every day, more and more. Ever since she was attacked, I have been a complete wreck for her sake."

"You know she's as strong as a little French mare and she will come through this quite well—and she taught Beauchamp one bloody hell of a lesson, too," Betsy said confidently. "Christiane will come through this just fine, too, in fact. Frankly, it's you I'm worried about."

He rubbed his face. "I cannot help it. My wife and Eleanor, both expecting babies, at the same time. It's enough to send a man over the edge!" He rubbed his forehead, wishing his headache would go away, but until all three babies arrived safely, with their mothers in excellent health, he knew his head would pound and he wouldn't sleep.

The Count hated feeling so helpless. There was nothing he could do to aide Eleanor or Christiane during their struggles to bring new lives into the world. Holding Christiane's hand was out of the question: she had brought him to his knees when she had gone into labor and he had—very foolishly—offered to hold her hand. Visiting Eleanor during her struggle was also impossible, as he was merely the Livonian ambassador.

He was rubbing his temples when he heard someone knocking at the front door. A servant answered, and he looked down at the street below. A carriage from the palace was at the door, which was cause for several people on the street to stop and whisper—the carriage came to the house Betsy had rented for only one purpose, after all—and he heard voices downstairs: they were asking for Mrs Bolingbrooke to come with them. von Hesse gestured to Betsy. "Looks like you're being called to the palace," he said, half relieved, half terrified. "Please, Betsy, see she comes through this in good shape."

"Hush your silly mouth," she said, standing up and squeezing Christiane's hand. "She will come through it with flying colors, I'm sure." She gathered her things and left.

The Count looked down at the street and watched Betsy get into the coach and ride away. He dropped back into his chair, and Christiane smiled at him.

"Take a breath, Frederick, or you will faint again."

"I didn't faint!" he squawked, indignant. He maintained stubbornly that he had only been resting his eyes when he had keeled over moments after his daughter's birth.


20 June 1377

From the moment Betsy left her house in town and went into the palace, more and more citizens of Gravonia gathered at the gates for news. Even as the day faded into darkness, people were waiting eagerly, anticipating the announcement of the birth of a new prince. Many prayed for the Queen's safety, while others were already in a celebratory mood. Wine and ale flowed generously, and much dancing and revelry was taking place even before nightfall.

Just as the sun was starting to peek over the rooftops, the heavy thud of a cannon salvo from the palace shook Betsy's house, where Christiane was staying for her confinement. von Hesse was on his feet in an instant, rushing downstairs as the cannon boomed three more times. He was not surprised to see that the crowds were even most vast than yesterday, and wine bottles were being popped open and huge barrels of ale were being tapped. All sorts of food was being sold from carts, and the Count bought some bread and sausage before edging his way through the crowd toward the gates.

The city of Luvov was ready for a celebration on an epic scale, and von Hesse wondered who was going to clean up the mess afterwards. He laughed at himself then—the King had set up what was being called 'rubbish control' forces, to clean the streets every other night, and it gave many men good work. They had developed a reputation for dedication to their jobs that he admired, as they took pride in seeing Luvov a clean, orderly city after years of filth, neglect and decay. He had no doubt today's mess would be cleared up quickly and efficiently.

The cannons kept booming, spewing grass down onto the merry crowds, and when the eightieth blast sounded, the crowds paused briefly, waiting, then began shouting joyfully when the eighty-first blast rattled the windows and made the cart horses squeal in alarm. After one hundred twenty blasts, the crowd was celebrating in earnest, laughing and dancing, waving Gravonian flags about and having a very jolly time. When the cannons began booming again, however, they all fell silent, bewildered.

"Another baby?" von Hesse heard a man ask. "Twins! Dear God, protect our little Queen!"

Celebrations stopped as everyone, even little children, stood silently, waiting for the cannon shots to finish. At eighty-one shots, a loud roar rose up from the crowds, and dancing began again. von Hesse was surprised to see that there were few signs of violence or even drunkenness among the celebrants—no homes or businesses were wrecked, no glass windows were shattered, and no thefts seemed to be occurring. After one hundred twenty loud thuds from the cannons, all of Gravonia knew that the Queen had safely delivered a pair of twin boys, and the celebrations were only just beginning

"She has borne two sons!" someone in the crowd shouted. "Two princes! My God, that little woman is a brick!"

At noon, the palace gates opened and a royal herald stepped out, decked in his official finery, and behind him two men blew silver trumpets.

"This morning at half-past five Her Majesty the Queen Eleanor was safely delivered of two healthy baby sons, who are to be named Henry and William. Mother and sons are in excellent condition and Their Majesties do thank you all for your heartfelt prayers during her pains and your joy for her and the King at this happy time!"

Even before the herald could shout it, the crowds began shouting "God save the King!" over and over, throwing hats in the air, cheering heartily. Count von Hesse could only say thanks to God for seeing Eleanor through what had to have been an ordeal.


"It wasn't all that bad, really," Eleanor said, looking a little amused as her two older sons peered curiously at the two babies in her arms. "It only took a few hours."

Just the same, she looked tired. The birthing had not been a drawn-out affair, and both boys had seemed eager to be out in the world. Betsy had been as efficient and level-headed as ever, and Agnes had assisted without looking terribly shocked by anything she saw. Clothilde helped Eleanor change afterwards, and when Henry arrived to inspect his new sons, the Queen looked none the worse for wear, with her hair down, having been allowed to take a quick bath before he was allowed in. The King was delighted with the newborns—fortunately, they were not identical, the elder boy being dark while the younger was blond.

Still, Henry fretted over her. While Betsy adjusted her pillows and murmured with Clothilde, the King held one of the babies. He was as adept at holding newborns as Eleanor, and was expert nappy changer as well, but he was just as amazed by these newborns as he had been with Alexander. She put her head back on the pillows, sighing gratefully that she would have regular help with the twins, and thanked God they didn't look alike. What she would have done if they had been identical was beyond her—perhaps she would have painted one of their feet blue.

"He's perfect, Eleanor," Henry told her. "They both are. Which one is Henry and which is William?"

"Henry is the dark one, William is the blond."

"Excellent." Henry grinned down at little William. "My God… they're both big and strong—how in God's name did you manage to carry them about for nine months?!"

"An elaborate series of ropes and pulleys," Eleanor muttered wryly. "At least for getting out of bed."

Henry grinned. He cuddled his newborn son, then studied his face carefully. "He looks a bit like my father," he said. "I just hope he has a better temper."

"We can only hope," Eleanor said with soft laugh. She had heard a few stories about Henry's father's explosive temper. Henry seemed to have inherited his mother's sweet-natured personality and a dash of his father's impetuousness without his violence

The King settled back in his chair, still holding his son, and she caught a pensive look on his face. "What is it?" she asked.

"I received news today from Livonia, Eleanor. I don't know how to break the news to you… particularly now… but… " He swallowed. "Eleanor, I'm very sorry to tell you that your grandfather has died. He took ill last month and only got weaker. He died three days ago."

She stared blankly at her husband, bewildered. Her grandfather Reeve had been dead for years, long before she had even been born…

Oh. Right. King Michael had died.

"Oh. I see."

Eleanor wasn't good enough an actress to feign shock, much less grief. All she had ever known about King Michael of Livonia was that he had bedded her grandmother and cast her aside when she had informed him that she was carrying his child. Lord Devereaux had told her that he had changed his ways in many respects in the past few years, and had turned out to be a good king, but his lack of interest in assisting Catherine Trueblood in raising their daughter was still despicable in Eleanor's eyes.

"I'm so sorry, dearest. I know you loved him very dearly."

Eleanor stared blankly at her husband before remembering how she was supposed to react. "Oh. Yes, he was a… um… lovely man. Thank you, sweetheart, for telling me and for waiting until after my confinement."

"I know you'd like to go home for the funeral, but it simply can't be done. You've just had twins and… "

"It's all right, Henry. Truly." She tried and failed to bring up tears. That just wasn't going to happen—try as she might, she could not forgive King Michael for what he had done to her grandmother and what he had failed to do for his own daughter.

The King looked relieved, and nodded. He handed little William back to Eleanor, who cooed softly at her newborn. "So my father is King now."

"Yes, indeed. King Peter the third."

She nodded absently. She knew nothing of the man who had fathered Eleanor of Livonia. She doubted she would know him from Adam, actually, but she bore him no ill will, except for his allowing his poor, weak daughter to travel through the Turon Valley in February. Only fools tried such things.

Eleanor winced then—Betsy had scolded her for having never even written one word to her 'family' in Livonia, and she still hadn't made herself write the letter. Here she was, well settled as Queen, with four babies, and not even a letter to her… well, Eleanor of Livonia's mother. She then determined to ask Lord Devereaux if he knew whether the princess had been able to read or write, and if she had been close to her family at all. If she was raised the way many royals were raised, she had likely been separated from her family and raised in her own household: a barbaric, unloving practice, in the Queen's mind. In that case, she doubted the princess had had much opportunity to form close relationships with her siblings and only got to see her parents on holidays.

Still, she had refused to let herself think too much of how the Livonian royal family might feel if they learned that Princess Eleanor was not only dead but buried at Ravensburg under someone else's name, and that she had been replaced by someone who resembled her. The brutal cruelty of the scheme had been devastating at the time Count von Hesse and Lord Devereaux had suggested it, but on arriving in Gravonia and adjusting to her life, she had simply not let herself think of it at all. She had far too many things on her mind, then, to let herself dwell on the very thing that had brought her to Gravonia in the first place.


It was not until after the christenings of the twin princes that Eleanor finally set herself to the task of writing back 'home' to Livonia. She had asked numerous questions about the unfortunate Livonian princess, and Lord Devereaux had described her as sweet, gentle, uncomplicated and largely uneducated, though anything but unintelligent. Her grandfather had insisted she be sent to Gravonia during the winter, and the girl had tearfully begged to not have to go, but she had been resigned to her fate. Perhaps poor Eleanor of Livonia had known that she was not long for the world, considering her own physical weakness, but she had been well-liked by everyone around her and her minders in Styria had adored her.

That revelation alone brought tears to Eleanor's eyes. She would have liked to have gotten to know her 'twin'. Instead, she had only been able to hold her hand and watch her die.

While she nursed little Harry, she tried to think of the words she ought to use in that letter. 'I'm doing fine' hardly seemed sufficient in a letter from a child to her parents. The trouble was that she didn't know the woman who had borne Princess Eleanor at all—she didn't even remember her name—and knew nothing about her. Now that she was a mother herself, she recognized that the woman probably was worrying about her poor daughter all the time and was wondering why no letters had ever come.

"Agnes, would you bring me some writing paper, please?" Eleanor asked, as soon as she had the twins settled down in their cribs by the bed—Henry had carved them both himself—and she took her seat again by the fire, warming her toes on the flagstones. Agnes returned with the papers, and Eleanor requested her little writing table and her quills.

"Writing a letter, Your Majesty?" Agnes asked, sitting down opposite her.

"No, I'm going to see if I can perform alchemy and turn this ink into gold."

Agnes, always a step behind and not at all clear on the notion of sarcasm, looked extremely curious. "Really? That should be very… "

"I'm sorry, no, Agnes. I'm writing a letter. To my… um… mother."

"Queen Juliana of Livonia? Oh, how lovely. With gold ink?"

Eleanor exhaled, remembering to be patient with Agnes. It wasn't her fault she was rather… naive. "Do you know much about Queen Juliana… I mean, my mother?"

"Oh, she's very pretty, they've always said, and very fashionable." Agnes picked up her sewing and began patching a small hole in one of Alexander's shirts. "She loves pretty things, like jewelry and clothes and such. You're like her that way, I think, except you know about politics. I've only heard that she knows nothing of such things."

"Oh. I see." Eleanor frowned. She liked pretty things, too, but if that was all Juliana was known for… well, there went hope for any kind of deep, intellectual conversation. Of course, if Juliana ever saw her, she would know that Eleanor was not her daughter and they would have a different kind of conversation all together, starting with "Who the bloody hell are you and where is my daughter?" and ending with Eleanor's head on the executioner's block—after watching the people she loved suffer the effects of her downfall, starting with Count von Hesse and ending with her sons.

The thought made her shudder with terror.

"Are you all right, Your Majesty? Do you need to lie down?" Agnes asked kindly.

"I'm just cold," Eleanor muttered. "Very, very cold." She smiled at Agnes. "Thank you, though. You've been a great help, Agnes, and I appreciate it immensely." With the necessity of finally writing to her royal relatives in Livonia, she also had to force herself to face the upcoming visit of King Philip of Morvenia and facing Prince Constantine. God help her, but she didn't know what to do except wish she could snap her fingers and be transported back to Ravensburg. She would have told Count von Hesse to bolt the doors to the castle during that fateful winter night and wait until Constantine arrived.

Wearily, Eleanor rubbed her forehead. She could not change the past. Yesterday is dead and tomorrow is blind, she remembered, from some troubadour's mournful song. All she could worry about, without having any idea of what might happen, was the future. Worrying, however, would serve no purpose, though she could not put it aside no matter how hard she tried. It was all folly—she could only brace herself for whatever came.

They could do whatever they liked to her, she thought grimly. But God help anyone who tried to harm those dearest to her. She would fight for them to her dying breath, and it would take an army's swords and lances to make her stop trying to protect them.


Summer passed pleasantly. Henry and Eleanor went on a Progress through southern Gravonia, with vast crowds coming out to see their King and Queen and particularly the four robust little princes. The royal party traveled slowly through the countryside along the coast, and made a five-day stop at Tygo. At Insel der Rosen, Eleanor was able to put her worries aside, along with her touchy temper and constant headaches by lolling about in her lovely island castle while Henry hunted and fished and taught the boys how to curse.

With Eleanor having recovered from the birth of the twins, she and Henry were finally able to make love again, and yet again she found that sex helped rid her of tension and headaches. The King admitted to her, one night, that he rather hoped for another baby—this time, perhaps, a little daughter to be her companion and for him to spoil shamelessly.

The Queen was not sure she wanted another child just yet, though she knew another baby or two was probably inevitable. Consulting the copies of her mother's books, she mixed a concoction to take that prevented pregnancy, and was pleased to reach September without another baby on the way. In fact, she admitted to a small dash of vanity in that regard—she wanted to be slim in April, when the Morvenian royal party arrived.

When Constantine arrived.

Would he reveal her secret to Henry? Would he hate her?

Both possibilities were heartbreaking—she knew her former lover would be furious to find he had been deceived, but would he hold that deception entirely against her? She had been a girl of only sixteen at the time, but she had finally agreed to the scheme of her own free will. Either way, the sin still lay at her door, and it was ready to devour her someday.

On returning home from Tygo, other matters needed her attention. Henry agreed to allow Lord Beauchamp to return to Court and appointed him Lord Almoner, a position he clearly loathed. His wife and two daughters joined him, but Eleanor found it very interesting that his son Stephen showed little enthusiasm for being around his father at all. She did not feel it necessary to question the boy's attitude toward the man, but she took note of it just the same, as it could be useful one day.

As Lord Almoner, Beauchamp had to be on his best behavior at all times, and every penny he received from the King to distribute to the poor of Gravonia had to be accounted for, without exception. He had to report to Henry every week, with a meticulous list of every single recipient of royal charity, but it was Eleanor who read over the lists and saw to it that everything was done properly.

The King and Queen were in the Presence Chamber, Henry giving Beauchamp's list a cursory glance before handing it to Eleanor, who began adding up the numbers in her head—there was a certain sum to be spent per week, with a person or family to receive a particular amount each. She still hated mathematics, but it came naturally to her, and it didn't take her long to see that everything was correct. She handed the paper back to Henry, which was a signal that she was satisfied.

"We are very pleased," Henry nodded to Beauchamp. "These poor people have all received the assistance they need. Remember, Charles, that it's the duty of the rulers of any land to help those who can't help themselves and to encourage those who can." He looked at Eleanor. "How did you term it, sweetheart? 'The tide rises to lift all the boats'."

"Yes, sir," Beauchamp said, bowing slightly. He glanced at Eleanor, and she caught the usual flash of hatred in his eyes.

"You may go then." The King waved his hand slightly and waited until Beauchamp had backed out of the room and Boris had closed the doors before he turned to Eleanor. "What say we go upstairs for a… uh… nap, dearest?"

"Not now, sweetheart," Eleanor said. "Today is Petitions Saturday, remember?"

"Oh… damn. I forgot. Can't you let someone else do that? Please?"

"Later, Henry." She smiled at him and dropped a quick kiss on his forehead, dodged his attempt at a grope and went out of the Chamber and out into the Great Hall. Agnes and Clothilde were waiting for her, and she waited for the doors to be opened before stepping outside. The carriage was waiting for her, and after the four knights deemed it safe for her to proceed, she climbed in and waited for her ladies to join her.

Agnes was moving rather slowly, Eleanor noted. The newly-married woman looked a little green around the gills, and when Eleanor glanced at Clothilde, she looked upward, clearly amused.

"Agnes, are you all right?" Eleanor asked kindly.

"I feel sick," Agnes said.

"Do you think you can stand riding in the coach?" Clothilde asked.

"I don't know. I've never felt so sick before."

"Are you feeling sick in the mornings?"

"For the past several days," Agnes mumbled, resting her head against the padded wall of the carriage. "Lorenzo is worried there is something wrong with me."

"Well, I doubt you're actually sick."

Agnes looked at her. "Really? So you don't think I'm sick?"

Eleanor smiled as the carriage began moving, and for Agnes's sake, Eleanor was glad it was well-sprung. "You and Lorenzo do… uh… make love, don't you?"

"Every night!" Agnes said, smiling happily through her slightly greenish tint. "It's so fun. We even chase each other around the house, and we play… "

"We get the idea," Eleanor said with a laugh. She and Clothilde looked at each other, maintaining their serious expressions for the still-naïve Mistress of the Robes. Agnes was far too artless to describe sex any other way, when asked. "Agnes, I think you're going to have a baby!"

Agnes pondered for a moment. "Well, I suppose it's possible." She brightened. "Your Majesty, if I have a girl, might I call her Eleanor?"

"That's very sweet of you, and I would be very flattered, but it's hardly necessary." Eleanor grinned. "But what if it's a boy?"

"I would name him Lorenzo, after his Papa, of course. Oh, he will be so happy!" Agnes burbled. "He will be happy if it's a boy or a girl, I know. We have talked about having a baby or two… or three. We both want a big family."

"Then you will both be very pleased, I'm sure. So generous you'll never have any money and so good that your servants will rob you blind," Eleanor shook her head, laughing fondly. Whatever Agnes' shortcomings, she was so uncomplicated and sweet that conversations with her were adventurous but never stressful. Even Agnes's constant chatter about her wonderful husband and the great cheeses of Ullan were really very soothing.

"Oh, Lorenzo is good with money, thank the Lord. But he does like to help people. Just the other day one of my late husband's tenants' horses developed thrush and Lorenzo was over there immediately, helping to cure it. He's so good with horses. He's good at everything. Except washing dishes. He really hates washing dishes, and so I do that, and since I hate scrubbing floors, he does that for me."

"Then you have found out how to delegate tasks," Clothilde said, laughing. "Pray, which of you will change nappies?"

"Oh, Lorenzo can't. He came across some rotted meat the other day and had to throw up. I can't imagine that he'll want anything to do with a full nappy."

Eleanor smiled. "That's all right. Just so long as one of you is changing the nappies, it will all come out just fine. I'm so happy for you Agnes!" she said sincerely. "I know you will be a wonderful mother."

Agnes wiggled and preened, delighted to receive praise from the Queen. "I will definitely name a baby girl Eleanor, ma'am, if you approve. There can be no other name."


18 November 1377

Constantine pulled Amiel to a stop and looked up at the gates of his home. He could see two guards in the tower house, both leaning on the parapet and looking down at him. One of them waved cheerfully. "Welcome back, Your Royal Highness!"

Before Constantine could reply, the other guard smacked him upside the head. "You don't call out to a member of the royal family!"

"I was just saying hello!"

"Shut up!"

"Since when is it rude to say 'hello' to somebody?!"

"It's rude when the somebody is a prince!"

"Um, thanks to both of you. Is my family at home?"

"Yes, sir! The Princess Isabella and her sister are home, and of course little Elizabeth. They're all very nice, particularly the Princess Isabella!" called the cheerful knight. His partner smacked him on the arm.

"Shut up! You're just making it worse!"

"How is it bad to say the prince's wife and daughter are nice?"

The gates were finally pulled open and Constantine rode on through, listening to the two guards as they continued to squabble about good manners versus protocol. He stopped his horse and looked up at them. "Enough already!"

"Sorry, Your Highness, sir!" the cheerful one shouted. This time his companion held his tongue, and Constantine kicked his horse into a trot, in no mood to hear a continuation of that bizarre argument. At the door of his house, he dismounted, gestured to a stable boy to take the horse away and cool him out, and went inside. He was immediately tackled by his little daughter, who tried to climb up his leg.

"Lili," he said, picking her up and looking her in the eye. "If you're going to try and knock a knight over, you have to go for his kneecaps, remember?"

The pretty little girl squealed and squirmed in his arms, then hugged him tightly around the neck, patting his back. "Darling Papa!"

Were there sweeter words ever to be heard?

"Where is your Mama and Auntie Cat?" he asked, fighting off the lump in his throat.

Elizabeth pointed toward the back door, which led out into the garden.

"And what are they doing?"

"Thwowing wocks!"

"What?" He carried his daughter down the hallway toward the back door and was startled to see that Isabella and Catalina were indeed throwing rocks at targets set against the peach trees. "Uh… ladies?"

Isabella turned and dropped her rock, but Catalina let hers fly and made a perfect bulls' eye. The older woman turned pink and clasped her hands together, head down, as if expecting him to scold her. Catalina bore no such contrite expression. Instead, she lifted her chin defiantly.

"What is this?" he asked. Both women had rocks piled around their bare feet, and they looked as though they had been having a rather jolly time.

"We're practicing defense strategies," Catalina said. "We've been practicing with bows and arrows lately, and now with rocks. Accuracy is very important."

"Well, that's true, but I can hardly see why either of you would need to be involved in defending any place, particularly this house." He put Elizabeth down, and the toddler made a beeline for her mother.

"As we live here, we must know how to defend our home," Catalina said, looking even more ready to go toe-to-toe with him. He shrugged, knowing not to get into another pitched battle with his sister-in-law. The almost-seventeen year old had a mind of her own and refused to bend to anyone's will, even his. She had demonstrated that a few months ago, when Philip had introduced her to a hanger-on member of the Hapsburg family and she had declared his lower lip to be 'horrifyingly stupid-looking and a good indicator of a dormant mind' and refused to even consider marrying him. "Oh, and have you heard that we're all to go to Gravonia next spring?"

Constantine was surprised to hear that. But he nodded to Catalina, dismissing her with a mere jerk of the head and a murmured "Beat it." She glared at him, picked up her niece and stalked back into the house, Elizabeth waving her arms and objecting to being taken away from her Papa.

"You're looking very well, Isabella," he said, smiling at his wife. He had been gone for so long, he wondered if the poor woman even recognized him. He knew he had lost some weight in Spain, what with nearly starving to death and putting off the advances of unhappily married women.

"It's good to see you, Constantine," she said softly.

"That's all? I'm very pleased to see you," he said, moving closer to her. "And you are looking lovely."

She blushed and looked down. "Thank you. I will have Cook prepare something for you… " She started toward the door, but he stopped her, gently catching her arm.

"Wait, I'm not hungry," he objected. "Sit down." He gestured to a chair on the promenade, and she walked gracefully to it, sitting down smoothly. "Tell me what's been going on. Elizabeth is talking a lot better now, I see."

"Yes, but she has trouble with her 'r's."

He grinned. "So did I, at her age. Still do. It's good to be home, I must say… I can finally get some west."

Isabella smiled, her cheeks still pink. "I'm glad you're home too. Was the trip to Spain very tiresome?"

"Bloody exhausting. Make sure Cook never prepares anything Spanish or I might shout the roof down. I brought gifts for you all, though. Even Catalina, if she doesn't throw her present at me."

"Oh, she won't," Isabella laughed. "She only defies people she likes. If she hated you, she'd have poisoned you long ago."

"Then I'll try to avoid displeasing her too much. Spanish cooking was bad enough on my stomach as it was."

They sat together in silence then, silently staring at each other, for several moments. Finally, he shifted in his seat. "So we're going to Gravonia next spring?"

"Yes." She dug in her pocket and extracted a letter. "I received this just today, in the post. Queen Eleanor sounds very charming and kind." She handed the letter to him, and he opened it.

Isabella,

Please do not consider it in any way an inconvenience for you to bring your sister or your sweet daughter with you on your visit to our country. The King and I both eagerly look forward to meeting not only your husband and your brother-in-law, but especially you, your daughter and your sister. If there is any way we can make your journey here easier, please do not hesitate to send us your requests and requirements, and be assured we will do all we can to make your accommodations as comfortable as possible and your visit as fruitful to us all as it can be, and as enjoyable.

I would also request a favor of you—that you call me by my Christian name, and dispense with this 'Majesty' nonsense. Henry will, I suspect, require it, as he is accustomed to such things, but you and I are wives and mothers first and our children certainly do not call us by temporal titles, and we know there is no greater title in the world than 'Mother'. If I might call you Isabella, you may call me Eleanor and I do hope with all my heart that we might become very good friends.

It will truly be wonderful to see our little ones playing together!

Yours very sincerely,

Eleanor

"Very nice," he said, handing the letter back to his wife. "I'm sure you and she will become fast friends."

"I do hope so," Isabella said softly. "I have heard so much about her—how she won the Battle of the Field of Stones and dissuaded you from invading Gravonia. You said it was because of her that many lives were spared. I admire her very much. Many people do."

He nodded absently, not terribly interested in any upcoming state visits, much less in Queen Eleanor. Philip was the focus of the visit, not himself, but if Isabella would find the trip enjoyable, he would find a way to find it so as well. He rubbed his knees for a moment, trying to form his thoughts carefully. "I'm afraid I'm not good at all the pomp and circumstance of state visits," he said. "In reality, when it comes to that kind of thing, I'm pretty hopeless."

"Hopeless?" Isabella looked surprised. "I cannot imagine you ever being hopeless, Constantine."

"You should have seen me trying to learn French." He stood and stood her hand, helping her to her feet. "I still don't even like cheese that much." He surprised her then by kissing her knuckles. "I hope you can tolerate my presence tonight in bed."

"Of course I can. I will be very happy to have you… I mean… I mean, that you're… there with me… " She looked down, mortified.

"Right. I'll be sure and take a bath before I come upstairs, though. And I think I'll enjoy being had."

Isabella looked up at him, eyes wide, and her cheeks turned pinker. He grinned at her and went inside, scooping up their daughter in the hallway and relishing the sound of her laughter as he tickled her.

He was glad to be home.

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