Our Gracious Queen

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State

29 March 1378

"Well, it can't be avoided, I'm afraid. The King of Denmark's message is kind of frantic."

Philip handed the letter to Constantine, who read it over and sighed, sitting back in his chair. "So I have to go to Denmark?"

"Oh come on, brother. Denmark is a lovely country. Very nice people, and they're being harassed a good deal these days."

"Nice pale people," Constantine muttered. "Smelly cheese… "

"Maybe you can use the cheese to drive the Swedes away."

"It'd drive me away." Constantine stood. "Oh well, there's an end to it. Off to Denmark I go, with just a few hours to prepare and gather up a few knights—just like always. God, it's been years since I've been there. You'd think that a country that far north could use the cold to preserve their cheese a bit better."

"True. For all that, though, I'm afraid they still speak Danish… and you think far too much about cheese."

"I still don't like cheese, and I still don't speak Danish."

"Try your French on them."

"Very funny. I could end up starting another war entirely, based on misused verbs."

The brothers went out into the Great Hall and Constantine saw his wife and her sister sitting with Isabella's ladies. Catalina was having an animated discussion—or more likely, an argument—with Lady Statham, and as he approached them, he could tell Catalina had managed to offend the older woman.

Catalina was a trouble-maker, though it wasn't always so much that she intended to say the wrong thing to people. It was simply that she frequently forgot to bridle her tongue, and as a result, she often infuriated people. More often than not, she simply had no notion of tact. Isabella, God bless her, was trying to teach her feisty sister to keep her yap shut, but her temper was her biggest obstacle, and she often flew into a rage over things that barely even required attention, much less anger.

"Isabella, we need to talk for a moment. Catalina, shut up and go outside."

Catalina huffed and stalked out the door, followed by her only assigned lady-in-waiting, a long-suffering creature named Helga, who probably would have rather have been employed by Queen Marie.

"We need to get her married off soon and let someone else handle her," Constantine said wearily, sitting down beside his wife.

Isabella didn't look terribly offended. She and Constantine had discussed what to do with Catalina several times. Her view was that marriage could be either very good for the girl or an unmitigated disaster, depending on who she married. His view was that, disaster or not, at least Catalina would be out of the house, where someone else could to try and cope with her. Nonetheless, they both agreed that any husband they selected for the girl had to be a good man who would treat her kindly, no matter how troublesome she might be. For all that, Constantine knew Catalina had good qualities--intelligence, generosity and a genuine desire to be useful, and if the right man could help her cultivate those traits, all the better.

Constantine had not left home since last November and the past few months had been the happiest of Isabella's life—she had her husband and her daughter almost entirely to herself while Catalina generally stayed at the royal palace in Garon. He had been more attentive, and slept beside her every night, and they made love frequently, too. In fact, she had a strong inkling that perhaps all that lovemaking had finally had the dynastically desired result.

She looked at her husband, taking in his rugged features and his scars, and smiled at him—there was no way she could ever not love him. Over the winter, with him more affectionate and attentive, she had become bolder in bed, so that now she knew every mark on his body by not only sight but by touch and taste as well. The thought of his touch sent a shiver of pleasure down her spine.

The poor man had been in so many battles, and suffered dreadful nightmares from the things he had seen and done, but it she who got to comfort him, and it was her touch that soothed him and eased him back to sleep. The world considered him to be a fierce, fearless warrior, but she knew that he was afraid of the dark and that he was plagued with sleeplessness that left him drained and exhausted. He was fierce, indeed, but with that ferocity came a great deal of damage. His soul was as battered and scarred as his body.

Of course, Isabella had learned that there were a few things that put her husband to sleep. Sex, for one thing. He always seemed to relax after lovemaking, the tension finally leaving his body. She would snuggle into his arms and he would sigh and soon he would be fast asleep. He was a gentle but passionate lover and seemed very determined to give her pleasure before he sought his own, and she knew he did not seek his pleasures elsewhere. In that regard alone, he was different from any man she had ever heard of. Most princes had mistresses, but he did not look at other women.

The only trouble was that he had such trouble talking to her. He was very careful with her feelings, and that over-consideration was often counterproductive, in her mind. She knew that men often had trouble talking about much of anything, but she often felt disappointed that he did not often confide in her.

In essence, Constantine was still closed off from her, with a wall around himself that she simply could not penetrate. She had more in-depth conversations, in fact, with Catalina and with his brother. Catalina never had any trouble expressing her thoughts and feelings, and Philip was very open and friendly, with a wicked sense of humor.

"What's going on?" she asked her husband. "You were meeting with Philip?"

"Yes. I'm sorry, Isabella, but I cannot go with you to Gravonia."

"Oh." Her smile faded. "This would have been something of a holiday for us."

"Yes, it would have, and I know we would have had a good time in Gravonia," he nodded. "But I have to go to Denmark."

"Denmark?!"

"That's what I said when Philip told me," Constantine said with a wry smile. "I don't look forward to going, but they're in a dispute with Sweden over something about herring and a war is about to start, after a few fish-related skirmishes. So they're calling me in to stop the fighting and possibly help them work out some kind of peace and maybe even persuade them to stop making lutefisk."

"Fish-related skirmishes?"

"Well, after they shot the first herring out of the cannon and it hit a tree, none of the other herrings would do it, so… now they're using actual cannonballs and they're doing more damage."

Isabella gave him a look that actually made him start laughing. She smacked his arm. "That is just… beyond even your usual weird sense of humor."

"I couldn't help it. Besides, when an opportunity arises, I'd be a fool to pass it up. I still think you and Elizabeth and Catalina should go with Philip. I'm sure you'll have a good time, and you must admit, I'm more of a wet blanket than anything else."

She shook her head. "I don't agree with that at all. The King of Gravonia has already planned balls and fetes and jousting tournaments… he was looking forward to knocking you off your horse," she teased, hooking her arm through his as they walked outside into the courtyard.

"Maybe Catalina will take up arms, then," Constantine grinned, spying Catalina sitting alone on a bench near the palace wall. Her lady-in-waiting had apparently fled, and the girl looked a little forlorn. "Well, sister-in-law, are you coming back home with us or are you staying here?" he called.

"I will stay here," Catalina answered grumpily. "I suppose you'll be requiring my sister's wifely duty tonight before you leave."

"No, I'll just be tying her to the bed and beating her with whips until dawn, as usual."

Isabella burst into laughter and gave him a light shove. Catalina looked even more miffed, but said nothing more. Constantine went on out the gates toward the carriage, having ridden in with his wife instead of riding horseback. He had to speak with several of the gentlemen attending at Court and soon fell into conversation with a group of them. Isabella approached her sister and sat down beside her. "What have you done this time?"

"I only pointed out to that odious Lady Statham that she could help her bad breath by chewing on mint leaves. She got all upset."

"No one likes being told they have bad breath, even if it is true, and it's really not your place to say such things to respectable older woman."

"She could use one breath to bring down an ox!" Catalina squawked.

"Catalina, please. For heaven's sake, you get to live in this beautiful palace and the King lets you dine with him and his household every night, yet you seem to be so eager to offend everyone around you. As you refuse to say why you do that, I can only try to rectify the situation, which is to beg you to hold your tongue."

"You can't hold my tongue. I'd bite you."

"Catalina… "

"All right, all right… you know I'm trying. I'm just… " Catalina shrugged. She had not been prepared for the King's kindness, much less Constantine's patient indulgence of her worst behavior. Catalina didn't know how to cope with being treated well, after a lifetime of being either pushed around or ignored. Why she seemed to chafe against such generosity was baffling to Isabella, but it was even more bewildering to Catalina.

"Does Constantine treat you well?"

"Yes, very well, and what a nice way of changing the subject," Isabella said softly, spreading her hands on her lap. "You know full well that he's very kind."

"Most men aren't that way," Catalina said, with a hint of bitterness in her voice. "You must admit that."

"I do admit it, but Constantine is not like other men. I consider myself extremely fortunate, and so are you, baby sister."

Catalina dug the toe of her shoe into the cobblestones. "He likes you, at least. None of the men around here like me."

"I'm sure they do, Catalina," Isabella said, blushing a little. Constantine had never said he loved her, and she knew he never would, but his kindness and consideration indicated perhaps his feelings ran a little deeper than just polite affection. She could at least hold on to that.

"No. I only ever seem to make them angry."

"Men don't usually like argumentative women, Cat," her sister pointed out gently. "It's one thing to stand your ground on something important, and you certainly should do that on serious matters, but to squabble for the sake of squabbling is something else entirely. Men find that tiresome and any attraction they feel to a constantly prickly woman soon fades and they give up."

Catalina frowned. "But it had to be pointed out, regarding Lady Statham's… "

"Your main problem is that you are convinced that you are right about everything, including how to approach everything, and anyone disagreeing with you is worthy only of your disdain. You're only respectful toward Philip and Constantine because neither of them will take any of your foolishness and they know how to knock you off your high horse, though Philip, bless him, is gentler about it. Constantine tolerates you because you're young, but when you get older and should begin to show some degree of maturity, he'll be less sympathetic and he won't be so careful with your feelings. He seems to have an understanding heart, when it comes to girls your age, but you know he does not suffer fools for long."

Catalina started to argue with her sister, then realized that would only prove her point. She huffed out like a little hen and crossed her arms. "I hate it when you're logical."

"Well, one of us has to be. We've got our trip to Gravonia tomorrow, and I know you look forward to that, but Constantine can't come. He has to leave for Denmark. While we're in Gravonia, you can practice your tact and self-control."

"He's going to Denmark?!"

"My sentiments exactly."

"But why?"

"They're calling him for his help in some kind of herring-related war with Sweden."

"Who on earth would have a war over herring?"

Constantine came around the corner and overheard Catalina's question. "The same people who, up until about a hundred years ago, ran around wearing horns. That's bound to cause a few things to go wrong along the way." He took Isabella's hand and she stood. "Go on back inside, Catalina. Lady Statham has gone home in a huff and don't do that again."

Catalina bowed her head slightly and walked back to the palace doors. She stopped to look back at her sister, who was walking to the carriage with her husband's arm around her waist. Yet again she felt another stab of envy—Isabella had a kind and at least caring husband. She, meanwhile, had not exactly made her way into the hearts of many people at the Morvenian Court and she suspected she was more tolerated than liked. Even Philip got testy with her sometimes, and he was the most understanding person she had ever met.

The King was sitting alone near the fire in the Great Hall, staring moodily at the flames, but he brightened when he saw Catalina. "Now, then, young lady, what sort of trouble have you gotten into today?"

She sighed and sat down opposite him—Philip cared nothing for ceremony, much less simpering, and spoke to everyone—even to her—with the same cheerful courtesy. "I offended Lady Statham, got scolded by my sister and warned by your brother."

"So another red-letter day!" the King grinned at her. "Tomorrow, see if you can offend ten people!"

She couldn't keep from smiling, but hardly felt cheerful. "I seem to have so many red-letter days, so why not?" Catalina muttered miserably. "I don't mean to offend people! Really!"

Philip sat back in his chair, amused. "Well, as my grandmother—a very sweet, tough-minded old bat in her day—used to say, 'If you can't think of something nice to say, don't say anything at all'. Of course, when she had nothing nice to say, she'd just twist your ear until you screamed. That's why Constantine's left ear looks like its been through a meat grinder, y'know."

Catalina frowned at him. Isabella said that to her all the time. She fidgeted nervously with the silver bracelet around her wrist. "What do you think will come of this visit to Morvenia?"

"You can change subjects faster than anyone I've ever known," Philip said, shaking his head. "You even catch Constantine flat-footed sometimes, but then he has a one-track mind. Mainly, the visit is about trade and smoothing over ruffled feathers after last year's unfortunate incident at the border. Gravonia is getting richer and richer every year, what with them finally learning how to work the gold mines they have in the west, and even more, Henry is starting to develop a cracking good army, even if it's still fairly small. An alliance with them will benefit both our nations. We have mutual interest in defeating the Lacovians, too."

"Didn't Lacovians attack your brother in the Turon Forest?" she asked.

"Yes. Damn near killed him, too. But you know—he's made of pretty stern stuff."

"Do you think he loves my sister?"

Philip shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "You know, I've never met anyone who can leap from one subject to the other with such breathtaking agility. It must give you headaches. And that's a question you ought to ask him, not me."

"He is kind to her," Catalina allowed. "And you know I could never ask him such a question. Still, he never shouts at her or knocks her about. I had an uncle that did that to us both. He was a nasty man."

Philip stared at her, his hands gripped the arms of his chair until his knuckles turned white. "Your uncle... hit you?" he asked her, his voice strangely tight-sounding.

"Oh, all the time," Catalina shrugged. "He thought that was how you were to train women. I kept talking back and so he would hit me, and then Isabella would try to stop him and… "

"What is your uncle's name?"

She looked at him in surprise. "Alfonso of Navarre."

"I see. Well. I've got to meet with a diplomat... I think he's from... someplace... Hanover... or was it Holland? Beats me. German, Dutch... same difference." Philip stood up and bowed to her. "Please excuse me, Catalina. I have some business to attend to. Go on down to dinner and tell them all to eat without me." He smiled at her and surprised her by kissing her cheek. "Sweet, silly little thing—you'll never experience cruelty here--you have my word of honor to that end. Go on. Away you go, and stay sweet but perhaps not so silly, eh?" She curtseyed and left, hurrying along the passage to the Great Hall.

Philip watched her leave, fists clenching as he pictured that poor girl and her sister being knocked about by some damned, hateful brute. He pursed his lips, made a decision, and headed toward his office, mentally drawing up a request as he paced along the passageway.


"Your Majesty, the Morvenian royal party is here."

Eleanor's hands began trembling, and she was glad Agnes and Clothilde were in charge of her hair or she would have dropped the brush. She looked at herself in the mirror and saw a pale, trembling, frightened creature staring back at her. Swallowing, she nodded at Boris, who withdrew from the room with his usual grave calm, closing the door quietly.

Agnes, just recovered from bearing her daughter—named Eleanor, in the Queen's honor—was very cheerful, chattering away about something that had happened once in Ullan, while Clothilde wore a puzzled expression. The Queen had received innumerable royal parties in the four years she had been in Gravonia, and had never shown the slightest sign of nervousness before. Today, however, she was a wreck.

"Are you all right, ma'am?" Clothilde asked, ignoring Agnes. "You seem very out of sorts."

"Just… a little nervous." Eleanor tried to smile, but it looked like a grimace, and she finally waved Agnes away. The Queen's two ladies stepped back and she stood up slowly, wishing to God above for a few more hours. At least then she would have time to pack up and run away like a coward. A coward she would be, too, to flee and not face him. He would take one look at her and…

What would he do? Would he fly into a rage? Would he be glad she was alive? Would he seek vengeance against her and Count von Hesse?

She had gone over each scenario, with morbid intensity, until they were all jumbled together in her exhausted, fevered mind. In the past few days, she had lost any degree of good humor—she had become brittle and short-tempered, snapping at Henry and even at her poor sons, none of whom deserved her peevishness. Worse yet, she was unable to sleep, and knew she looked dreadful, with smudges under her eyes and a haggard air about her. Not even her beautiful cloth-of-gold and green silk dress could make her look any less stressed.

In the Great Hall, she met Henry, who looked entirely cheerful, and as soon as she was at his side, he signaled for the doors to be opened. She drew in her breath, counted to ten, and closed her eyes. The doors were pulled open and she forced herself to look out as King Philip and his retinue stood on the steps. For a moment, she scanned the faces of the people with him—a lovely young woman with red-gold hair, another younger girl with blonde hair, a little girl of two with a mop of silky dark red-gold curls… and no Prince Constantine.

Swallowing, Eleanor started to look around Philip for his brother, but saw no sign of him. Instead, the King of Morvenia stepped forward, smiling warmly. Henry made Eleanor jump when he boomed out, "Welcome to our home, Your Majesty!"

Philip shook Henry's hand then clapped him on the shoulder, grinning. "It's a great pleasure to be here. I must apologize, however, for the absence of my brother Prince Constantine. He was called away at quite the last minute, to go to Denmark."

"Denmark?!" Henry blurted out, bewildered.

"Exactly," Philip said with a grave nod.


Eleanor was in a state of shock, relief, bewilderment, and disappointment all at once. She had heard that Constantine frequently was called away to some other country to help it defend itself from invaders, or to help refine its military prowess, but she had to wonder if he ever had any peace at all. Did he get to spend time with his wife, or his little daughter?

That he was not present was both an almost breathtaking relief and a bitter disappointment at once. Considering her emotional state now, she actually wished she had a bottle of wine to dive into. A pickled mind was better than a fevered one, for sure.

As discombobulated as she felt, however, Eleanor managed to keep her senses about her as the two royal families went into the vast banqueting hall, where a huge and terrifying feast was prepared. Eleanor suspected that King Philip was accustomed to being stuffed like an goose whenever he visited some foreign country, but when he sat down and came face to face with a stuffed and elaborately dressed swan—wearing a gold leaf crown, a string of roses around its neck and a grumpy expression—she caught a look of mild dismay on his face.

Boris banged his staff on the floor, and everyone in the hall fell silent. Henry rose from his seat and lifted his goblet. "A toast to His Majesty King Philip and to his lovely sister-in-law the Princess Constantine, and a very warm welcome to you and to Princess Catalina and to Princess Elizabeth. God bless you all!"

Philip nodded, still eyeing the swan. He stood and raised his own goblet. "We are very pleased to be here, sir, and look forward to a very fruitful visit here in Gravonia. Our journey here was very merry and we were pleased to be met at the border by a group of your most excellent knights, all of whom were diligent in seeing to our comfort. And may we compliment you on the tremendous prosperity your country is enjoying these past few years." He smiled at everyone and took his drink. Everyone else followed suit, including Eleanor, who downed her goblet of wine and asked the sommelier for another.

She had insisted that Isabella and Catalina be seated on either side of her, regardless of precedence, and was eager to talk with them both. Having never been beyond the borders of Livonia or Gravonia before, she was eager to learn about their lives back in Navarre

"I do hope your journey was comfortable and not very tiresome," she said, smiling warmly at Isabella, who was holding her little daughter. The two-year old girl was beginning to fuss a bit, clearly tired from the long journey. She obviously needed to be put down for the evening, but like any healthy two-year old she was resistant to sleep and extremely curious about her surroundings.

"It was quite fine," Isabella answered shyly. "We enjoyed ourselves a great deal—we were very impressed with the apple and peach orchards we passed through—such beautiful blossoms! The journey over the mountains was also lovely, and the King's knights were very kind and merry."

"Springtime in Gravonia is really quite lovely," Eleanor agreed. "I understand you stayed overnight with Lord and Lady Peters, just over the border?"

"Yes," Isabella smiled. "They were very nice. They fed us all to the point of our stuffing coming out."

"Lady Peters is Italian. She cannot seem to resist. Before we travel to her home, we always make sure to avoid eating for a day or two," Eleanor laughed. "But she is the nicest lady, for all that, and was so delighted to learn she would be hosting you at her home. One of her daughters is at Court, you know, and is very friendly… she is Catalina's age, I think." She looked at Isabella's younger sister, who was keeping her own counsel. Eleanor had heard through the grapevine that Catalina had an acid tongue, but right now she only seemed tired and even shyer than her sister.

"We enjoyed ourselves a great deal," Catalina finally managed.

"I'm glad to hear that." Eleanor looked at Elizabeth, who was staring up at her flashing diamond and emerald tiara. "Now then, little Elizabeth, do you like my diamonds? They flash and shine, don't they? I have to admit… I like them too, and so do my little boys!"

The girl smiled at Eleanor, her tiredness forgotten, and Eleanor's heart wrenched. God help her, but she looked so much like Constantine, except for her red hair. Her eyes were the same devastating shade of green, and she had her father's natural dignity even at just two. She was going to be a breathtaking beauty when she grew up, Eleanor was sure.

"She likes shiny things, that's for certain," Isabella said. "She's so intelligent, even if I shouldn't say so myself. She is learning her letters already, and knows her colors."

"You sound like an excellent teacher," Eleanor smiled. "In fact, to that end, I have a gift for your little one… " She gestured to Boris, who bowed and left. "I hope you don't mind, but I have a great interest in education for children, particularly girls, and am a great believer that no mind ought to be allowed to go to waste." Boris returned with the package, and Eleanor handed it to Isabella. The princess slowly removed the paper wrapping and gasped at the intricate hand-made book, with its wooden cover and hand-drawn illuminated vellum pages, each page decorated with countless pictures of animals and flowers that corresponded with a letter of the alphabet.

"It's beautiful!" Isabella exclaimed, turning the pages reverently, letting Elizabeth study each one. The girl babbled excitedly when she recognized familiar birds and flowers. "This must have taken months to make!"

"Oh, it was nothing," Eleanor laughed. "I enjoy making these books for friends. I have gifts for you and for your sister as well, of course." She smiled at Catalina, who was looking with keen interest at her niece's book. "In the past year or so we have cultivated a bit of trade with merchants from as far away as China, and thus we have beautiful silks that I know you and Catalina will love."

"Silks… " Catalina whispered. "Isabella, I've never even seen silk!"

"Neither have I," Isabella said. "At best we had muslin and stiff linens, back in Navarre, or rough old wool, which we hated. My husband is not much for luxury, though he does see we are all dressed warmly in winter and are always comfortable. He will not tolerate seeing any of us shivering, and in summertime we all travel up to a hunting lodge in the mountains in the west, to escape the heat. Luxurious… not terribly. Calm and comfortable… always, with plenty of food, too. That is much different from how we lived in Navarre." She smiled at Eleanor.

Eleanor stared at Isabella for a moment, mulling this over and feeling self-conscious, suddenly, in her cloth-of-gold, silk and velvet. "He does not give you silks and satins?"

"No. But he gave me this little sprite," Isabella smiled, tickling her daughter, who squealed with laughter. "He is not accustomed to feminine things, after all, and really, I am not accustomed to luxury. We have a very comfortable home outside Garon and I never want for anything. Neither does Catalina or Elizabeth, and he had already said he intends to hire fine tutors to come and educate our daughter. He thinks a girl who cannot think is a terrible waste of space."

"Indeed," Eleanor said, sitting back, hands folded in her lap. She compared her own outfit to the simple black and white velvets Isabella wore. The contrasts between herself and Isabella were startling, and Eleanor felt a pang of jealousy that she knew she would have to struggle to beat away. "So your husband is kind to you?"

"He is… good to me, yes," Isabella said, looking a little discomfited to have hesitated in her reply. "He is a very kind, decent man. War and border disputes and the like take him away from home a great deal. I know he was very unhappy about not being able to come here with us, but the King of Denmark was very frantic and was begging for his help." There was not a small amount of pride in Isabella's voice as she spoke of her husband, "He is famous 'round the world, you know, for his military skills and his courage."

"Yes, I've heard," Eleanor said quietly, looking down at her hands. "They call him the Dragon, I understand."

"Yes, but at home he is just 'Husband' to me and 'Darling Papa' to Elizabeth, and Catalina calls him by his name, as she is not afraid of him either." Isabella smiled. "And your Henry is a good man, too," Isabella said. "Very cheerful and jolly. A good deal like King Philip, I would say."

"Yes, I can see they already get along well." The two kings were showing every sign of forming a good friendship—they were seated together, talking in depth, and from a bowstring-drawing gesture Henry was making, they were talking about hunting. "And that is what we want, of course. A good friendship between our two nations, and a strong alliance."

Isabella smiled, nodding. Elizabeth was carefully examining each page of her book, having climbed into her aunt Catalina's lap. Eleanor smiled at the little girl, feeling that stab of pain in her heart again. Constantine's daughter!

"Are you all right, ma'am? You seem a little… what is the word? Sad?" Isabella asked, brow furrowing. Eleanor looked at Constantine's wife, taking in her red-gold hair and her sweet, gentle expression, and smiled. This creature sleeps beside him, and holds him in her arms. God, how I wish I could hate her.

"How can I be sad when I have such friends about me?" Eleanor smiled, pushing away her sorrow and her foolish, selfish thoughts. "You cannot know how delighted I am to have you here, Isabella, and your charming sister and you delightful little girl." She smiled at Elizabeth, who giggled and grabbed Eleanor's hand, examining her emerald ring with wide, curious eyes. "I intend to see you enjoy yourselves here immensely, and that you can look back on this visit with nothing but happiness. Now… do either of you know how to play dice?"

Catalina perked up. "I do! I beat King Philip all the time! He gets very cross!"

"Well, then, we'll have to have our two Kings join in the game and we'll clean their pockets right out!"

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