Quote from Matthew 6:27
Eleanor, several of her ladies, Princesses Isabella and Catalina, the little princes and Elizabeth all made the short trek down to the palace gardens and, within just a few moments, were settled comfortably on blankets under canopies. Morvenian and Gravonian flags flapped cheerfully in the cool breeze while servants spread out dishes of roasted chicken and fruit, preparing a sumptuous meal on fine china plates with silver serving dishes. The vast royal palace rose up like a benign giant over the gardens, and its nineteen-year old chatelaine was pleased to see that all was going smoothly.
The royal gardens were in spectacular bloom, and the countryside, stretching away from the palace, was a pattern quilt of various shades of green and gold. The weather was cooperating beautifully, with nary a cloud in the sky, so that the royal party could lounge under the canopies, eating strawberries and peaches while watching the children run about, screaming and playing.
Three-year old Alexander and two-year old Elizabeth sniffed each other for a moment, their mothers both watching for any signs of dislike between them, but the prince settled matters easily enough by bowing gallantly to the princess, as he had seen his father do to his mother. Elizabeth giggled and followed the Crown Prince around for the rest of the day, clearly pleased with him, and he quite enjoyed showing off for her. They were soon sporting grass and dirt stains, with smears of strawberry and peach on their faces, so that anything that touched them stuck to them—trouble for the laundrywomen aside, they both were having a very good time. The younger princes were joining in the running and screaming, though the twins were restricted more to scooting around in the grass and being prevented from eating dirt, grass and bugs.
"Your sons are beautiful," Isabella said softly, lightly touching her belly. "So lively and good-natured. You must be so proud of them."
Eleanor raised an eyebrow and couldn't keep from smiling. "I suppose you'll have news for the prince when you return home?"
"I… think I do. I have been rather ill in the mornings lately."
"I'm sure Cons-… the prince will be delighted," Eleanor managed, watching Isabella blush.
It was like a knife cutting into her heart. She wondered if it would have been easier on her if Isabella had turned out to be some stupid, simpering little fool, or even vicious or hateful. Instead, this woman was the sweetest, gentlest creature she had ever met, without a single drop of selfishness in her blood, and it was clear she was hopelessly in love with Constantine. Besides that, she was quite intelligent and despite having received a very limited education, she was curious about the world and had a dry wit that Eleanor appreciated.
"I know he adores little Elizabeth, but he wants a son. Though he's never said such a thing—he was even pleased when she was born." Isabella watched her daughter bounce around in the rich grass, chasing after Alexander, who was in pursuit of a lizard. The two children finally caught up with the tiny creature, but when Alexander caught it, it escaped and left behind its wiggling tail. Elizabeth clapped her hands in delight, jumping up and down when the prince showed the still wiggling tail to her.
"Your husband will be a king one day," Eleanor said softly. "It is the way of the world, we must admit—kings need sons."
"Yes. It will delight me to give my husband a son."
"Do you enjoy your life in Morvenia?"
"Oh, yes, very much," Isabella smiled, glancing at her sister, who was moodily watching the children skitter about. "I live in a lovely home and have very attentive servants and plenty to eat… though frankly I think Constantine could live under a bridge and be fairly happy, but I suppose he recognizes that women don't generally like that kind of life. He puts up with my chatter and Catalina's less-than-charming moments and he is not afraid to change nappies or even play with Lili—we call her Lili at home—and he makes sure Queen Marie is polite to us."
"Queen Marie is a vicious cow," Catalina said, and immediately looked embarrassed when Isabella gave her a sharp look.
Eleanor used her napkin to cover her smile and quickly recovered her composure. "Perhaps she is related to my husband's Aunt Cecily." She glanced across the green lawn and saw Countess Cecily sitting with her ladies, scowling as she watched the four princes playing.
Catalina made no further comment, returning her attention to her niece.
The Morvenian royal party had been in Gravonia one day, and from everything Eleanor had seen so far, they were having a good time. Last night's banquet had lasted until the wee hours, with everyone finally staggering up to bed just as the sun's first rays were lighting the eastern horizon. Henry and Philip were nonetheless up early and off stag hunting with their respective gentlemen and a noisy pack of enthusiastic hounds. A garden picnic for the ladies and children had been planned well in advance, and the palace cooks had outdone themselves.
Most of the Court ladies were present, including Agnes and her adorable baby daughter Ellie, who was starting to demonstrate that she had indeed inherited her parents' sweet nature. She was sitting in her mother's lap, watching the children dash about with wide, curious eyes, babbling happily to anyone who looked at her. Lady Harriet was also present, having returned to Court only two days before. That she had left her children behind on the D'Acre estate was mildly disconcerting to Eleanor, but then again Lord Beauchamp was skulking about at Court as well, so for the time being Eleanor believed she merely wished to keep little Xenia away from the man who had sired her. Eleanor's other ladies were all in attendance, dressed in their finest outfits, and many of Gravonia's noblewomen were also gathered in the gardens, all quite eager to eat and gossip in the warm spring sunshine.
A group of singers performed several ballads after luncheon, followed by some girls performing (rather badly) on the virginals. As the day passed, many of the women sat chatting or dozing in the green grass, and as the sun began setting long tables were set up under white canopies, and lanterns were hung out on lines to provide light as everyone sat down to an elegant meal of roasted venison and vegetables, the Queen presiding over the banquet at her own table. Her boys were given their daily lessons after they ate and were ushered inside, as was little Elizabeth.
While everyone relaxed in the fading light and watched a pair of jugglers tossing flaming sticks about (with men standing nearby armed with buckets of water, as a precaution), the Queen consulted briefly with the chef over a few things that had not gone quite right—why had the pear tarts tasted so sour, and why had someone set a plate of glazed carrots in front of Princess Catalina, who hated carrots with an almost psychotic passion?
Nonetheless, there was little to complain about. Eleanor and Isabella sat down together on the edge of the fountain, watching as the stone sprites shot jets of water up into the air, the water arcing several feet before splashing down into the lower pool. As the light faded, they could hear the water more than see it, and the effect was soothing.
"It's so beautiful here," Isabella said, sounding slightly sleepy. "At our home, we have peach and apple orchards behind the house, and we often dine out on the terrace—just myself and Constantine and Lili." She smiled fondly. "Constantine seems too big for the indoors, si? He seems to be made of wild things—the wind and the air and the sun." She laughed. "People say he's so fierce and terrifying… and I suppose he must be, on the battlefield, but when it comes to day-to-day home life, he's really very quiet and even rather… gentle, and likes his evenings at home by the fire. We often sit up late playing chess or cards and the like."
"I had heard that Consta—the prince is a rather rough and ready sort of fellow," Eleanor said, taking a sip of her wine. She sincerely wished she lacked a conscience and could guzzle down bottle after bottle of wine, so that at least she could sleep and hopefully not dream about him. She had had vivid, highly erotic dreams about Constantine last night, and the last thing she wanted to be was an adulteress, even if only in her heart. But conscience made cowards of many people, and often kept them from becoming hopeless alcoholics. "It's good to know he seems to prefer home life."
Isabella shrugged. "Yes. For all that the world thinks of him, he's never rough with me. He thinks he is. But he's not. He seems to have a rather… low opinion of himself, off the battlefield. He's very confident when it comes to war, but when it comes to dealing with me and even with Lili, he thinks he's a crashing failure."
Eleanor took a deep breath. "Why would that be?"
"Oh… " Isabella sighed and looked down. Catalina leaned forward.
"He loves somebody else."
Eleanor almost sprayed her mouthful of wine across the table, and only barely managed to swallow it instead. Isabella glared at her sister, but the younger girl didn't look at all daunted. Catalina seemed to square herself, as if prepared for a scuffle with her older sister, and continued.
"The King—King Philip—told me that Constantine suffered a terrible loss a few years ago, but he would not elaborate. I figured it had to have been a girl. I merely put two and two together."
"A… loss?" Eleanor asked slowly, feeling weak, as if all her internal organs were collapsing.
"I assume the girl must have ditched him," Catalina said, shrugging. "She must have been really stupid, since he's rich and he'll be king one day, but maybe she fancied someone else… " She caught Isabella's angry glare and frowned. "Well, it's just a theory! Maybe she died! Is that a better theory?"
"It is not your place to voice any such theories!" Isabella hissed.
Offended, Catalina crossed her arms and huffed. "It's never my place, it seems! When will it ever be my place?"
"When you marry and move to your own place!"
Eleanor cleared her throat, not wanting a fistfight to break out between the two princesses, though it would have been a sight to see—Isabella looked very retiring, but Eleanor sensed a core of steel in the girl, and Catalina looked like a biter. The two young women looked at her, both slightly taken aback, and Catalina at least had enough good sense to look chagrined. "I beg your pardon, Your Majesty," she finally said.
"It is getting rather dark," Eleanor said. "I believe it's time to go back inside before the bugs get after us." She clapped her hands for the servants to begin clearing up, and the ladies all got to their feet and began walking back up the wide path to the palace doors. Eleanor slowed her pace for the sake of Isabella and Catalina, the former looking rather weary and the latter looking ticked off.
Having not done a great deal of outright rebellion, much less quarreling, as a teenager, Eleanor wasn't sure what to make of Catalina. She could sort of understand the girl's restlessness and need to assert her own independence, but she also needed to learn when to hold her tongue. Keeping one's opinions to oneself when they were neither required nor appreciated was an art one had to learn, often through trial and error, and it was clear that Catalina was naturally outspoken and strong-willed, and she was apparently not yet of an age to truly learn from her mistakes. If she continued to be so sharp with people, Eleanor suspected the girl was in for a rough life.
Once everyone was back inside the palace and the lanterns had been put out, Eleanor saw to it that everyone was safely settled in the Great Hall for card games and dice. She sat down at a table with Isabella, while Catalina went to a little alcove and sat by herself, looking both sullen and embarrassed.
"I don't know what to do about my sister," Isabella said. "I love her with my whole heart, but she just… I think she's gone nearly mad, with not knowing how to handle kindness."
Eleanor was puzzled. "She was not always treated well?"
"We stayed with relatives, in Cadiz. Our uncle Alfonso took us in—Mama and Papa died of some sort of plague when I was seven and Catalina was not quite five. Our older uncle the King had no time or temperament to raise two little girls, and he and Papa had quarreled over something long ago, so… " Isabella shrugged. "Uncle Alfonso was not very kind."
"How do you mean 'not kind'?" Eleanor asked cautiously.
"Oh, he liked to… well, he thought the best way to correct a girl was to beat her, I suppose. It's all over and done with, and we are glad to be away from him." Isabella looked horrified at having revealed such a thing. "Please think nothing of it, ma'am. We are treated very well in Morvenia, with all proper respect."
Eleanor's fingers were gripping the arms of her chair so tightly her knuckles were turning white. "You know, I have some knights here, in Gravonia… I need only send for them and they will go wherever I say. At your word, I can have your uncle Alfonso assassinated. A whole team of ruthless assassins I've got, at my disposal. Charming fellows they all are, otherwise, and quite discreet."
She had to concentrate to keep her jaw from getting so tight her teeth would crack, and it was even harder to force herself to smile as she spoke, to make Isabella think she was only funning her. But her heart was pounding—the very notion of someone abusing this sweet, gentle woman and her sharp-tongued sister was infuriating. To beat children! The only times she ever spanked either of her two older sons was when they talked back or were willfully disobedient, and neither occurred often. She certainly never sought to actually harm them—even a sound spanking never resulted in bruises. There was a huge difference between firm discipline and cruelty: one was required to train good, strong men while the other was never to be allowed.
Isabella appeared to believe Eleanor was joking, and laughed. "Oh, dear, you needn't do that, ma'am. Alfonso is miserable enough on his own, I think. His son Pedro is a dolt, his daughters are simpering, mindless novillas, and his wife is a shrieking harridan. He wanted me to marry Pedro, even though we were first cousins and he was revolting. He was going to get a dispensation from the Pope for it and everything, but then the Morvenian ambassador showed up and said I could go with him to marry Constantine instead. I'm just relieved that he and Philip had no objections to my bringing Catalina along."
The Queen's fingers still gripped the arms of her chair, but she managed somehow to tamp down her fury. "I'm relieved you chose Constantine over Pedro."
"Oh, please… a dog would choose vomit over Pedro. But no woman would be stupid enough to pass over Constantine!"
The two Kings had had a jolly day of hunting. They had both brought down magnificent stags, and the noisy party was finally making its way up to Henry's rustic hunting lodge at the edge of the forest. Philip was surprised, on the way, to see a group of peasants coming up the road, their carts laden with deer, boar and various game birds, and for a moment he wondered if Henry would become enraged to find commoners hunting on royal lands.
The King was instead delighted to see the peasants and hailed them cheerfully. "I see you've had a fine day of hunting too, gentlemen!" he called.
"Aye, sir, we bagged much fine game!" One of the peasants approached, grinning, and paled when he realized who he was talking to. "Begging your pardon, Your Majesty… " He bowed and scraped before the King, his companions looking equally startled, but Henry gave them a dismissive wave of the hand.
"What are you apologizing for? It's Tuesday, is it not? So long as you didn't kill every hart and bird in the woods, I've no quarrel with you. Your families will dine well tonight and many nights hence, and that pleases me even more than bringing down these huge stags. Good day to you all, and may God bless you and your kin."
The peasants moved on, and Henry grinned at Philip. "My wife suggested opening the royal forests two days a week, every week, so that locals could do a bit of game hunting to feed their own. I've a fine warden here, too, and he maintains the herds of deer very well—we are never short."
"Really? Well, that's an excellent notion." Philip grinned. Constantine had suggested doing the same thing, years ago, and the results had been very good for everyone. "It's good to see the people of this country prospering—as they say, the tide rises and it lifts all the boats."
"Isn't that the truth? I must give credit to my wife on that end," Henry said. He dismounted and began unsaddling his horse, refusing assistance from a servant. "She makes most of the suggestions around here, and things always go well. She's got a very orderly mind, that woman. She sees something that must be done and it gets done bloody well fast, I'll say, and with quiet and economy. For all her accomplishments, she's got none of the showy virtues. Keeps quiet and plows on."
"I had heard she is a very intelligent woman," Philip nodded. "And four sons so far. That must be a great relief to you."
"Aye, it is. Three hundred years of the kings of this country only getting girls was hard on us in many ways." Henry looked curiously at Philip. "To have the succession secured is a very grand thing."
Philip nodded as they went into Henry's rambling hunting lodge. The men clattered into the antler-infested Great Hall and were soon seated at the long table, eagerly accepting tankards of cold ale and plates of buttered bread. Henry and Philip sat down together in chairs by the fire, and they accepted their ale and bread before relaxing, taking their boots off and warming their feet. "Your sons are being educated well, I understand. The older boy can already read a good bit."
"Aye! Yes, bless her, the Queen gives him a reading lesson every day, and he's learning how to write his name and such—she says he is genius for sure, and that didn't come from me, I can assure you! I certainly wasn't that advanced when I was his age. She has the boys on a regular routine, you see, and they seem to flourish under her care. She won't have them under the care of any bloody governess, and when they were babies she nursed them herself. Can you imagine such a thing?"
Philip almost laughed. "Well, I know Isabella was very determined to tend to little Elizabeth when she was a baby, and Constantine took her side in the debate."
"Aye, well, a man ought to take his wife's side on such matters. I would never want to cross my Eleanor. She's smarter than me, and far cleverer." He took a swig of his ale. "You know… you know, Philip, the point of your visit is to form lasting alliances… "
"Yes." Philip took a cautious drink of his ale and was surprised to find it tasted of honey and apples, and was not a hard liquor at all. He looked in surprise at the King, wondering. "We pray there will never be any further unpleasantness between our two nations."
"Indeed. But I see a very nice way of… solidifying that alliance. You have a little niece… "
Philip paused, taking another sip of his apple cider. He tasted a trace of some sort of mint. God help him, it was delicious.
"My son is a year her senior."
Philip frowned. "You ought to speak with Constantine on that end, sir. He won't have his little girl carried off just yet."
"You're the king. I think we can negotiate through preliminaries at least," Henry said with a grin. "The wedding needn't take place tomorrow."
"Well, that's true. So you're proposing… "
"A marriage. Between my eldest son Alexander and your little niece Elizabeth. A joining of our royal families toward not only putting Lacovia firmly in its place, but also uniting our families in lasting peace. What say you on that, sir?" Henry grinned, pleased with his idea. Everyone would be thrilled if it really did result in a marriage.
Philip thought about it. "My little niece, Queen of Gravonia one day?" He could just imagine the red-headed little sprite wearing the consort's crown. "The idea does have a good bit of merit, but right now she is second in line to the throne of Morvenia, so... until Isabella presents Constantine with a son, we must be cautious."
"Aye, you're right about that!" Henry nodded. "Just the same... if Elizabeth remains heiress and becomes Queen Regnant one day, then... our two nations would be even more strongly allied, wouldn't they? Two countries joined equally, no less, and Eleanor will be mightily pleased, I'm sure. Granted, the Crown Prince and Elizabeth are still babies, more or less, but in a few years she would come to live here in Gravonia and as soon as they are of suitable age, they would be wed. My son would be married to the daughter of the Dragon. Morvenia would be rich in Gravonian gold and Gravonia would have the Dragon's military might to count on during a crisis. Everybody wins. Besides, I know the Morvenian royal family has always run high to boys--I'm certain Isabella will bear a son or perhaps more than one."
Philip smiled into his cup of sweet cider, rather liking the idea all around, save the important matter of the succession to his own throne being still in question. "Quite a victory for us all." Nonetheless, he knew Isabella would be heartbroken to part with her daughter and Constantine would balk at the notion all together. This would take more than just negotiations.
The morning was crisp and chilly, and so Eleanor had the children dressed warmly before releasing them into the wilds of the palace gardens. Elizabeth chased Alexander from one of the garden to the other, the robust little girl easily keeping pace with the energetic prince, and they returned sweaty and giggling. Prince Frederick stumped along behind them, not quite as agile yet but having a grand time anyway, while the twins rolled around and squabbled.
"Sometimes I think it would have been better if they had been identical," Eleanor told Isabella. "If they had been, they would think they were both looking into a mirror and would get along a little better."
"I'm sure they'll grow out of the bickering stage," Isabella laughed. "Catalina and I did."
Eleanor almost commented that she had no experience whatsoever with siblings, but she would only be speaking for herself, as that did not apply to Eleanor of Livonia. She was about to speak when she heard the blast of hunting horns, barking and the clattering of hooves on the cobbles in the courtyard. She remained in her chair, however, as did Isabella. Catalina came down the steps then, looking thoroughly ticked off. "The Kings are here."
"Yes, we heard," Isabella said, giving her sister a warning look. She had to be on her best behavior now or face not only Isabella's wrath but also Henry's and Philip's. Catalina sat down, huffing indignantly, and crossed her arms. Isabella looked at her, brows furrowing. "Are you all right?"
"That man!" Catalina sniffed. "So insulting!"
"What man?" Eleanor asked.
"A knight. Baltasar something."
Eleanor searched her memory. "Lord Baltasar Seebolt? He's General Seebolt's son."
"That's him." Catalina scowled. "He said I looked like a… a little… fairy."
"Well, you do," Isabella pointed out. Catalina was small, blonde and slender, with fine, delicate features that belied her tough, pugnacious personality. She looked like she could barely pick up a dagger, but in reality she could fight like a demon and left marks on opponents foolish enough to attack her. Pedro had a few scars as evidence of her sister's fighting skills. She went for eyes, ears… genitals, too—Catalina wasn't above fighting dirty, and Pedro still couldn't see well out of his left eye, after a tussle with her younger sister.
"Did Lord Baltasar do anything to you?" Eleanor asked cautiously. She had a hard time imagining such a thing—Baltasar was a boisterous, fun-loving young man of about twenty. He was a resident of the palace as part of Henry's hostage policy, but like most of the boys now living as part of the King's household, he was not overly concerned with his situation and was well-liked by everyone. He had even been part of the hunting party yesterday—that was testimony enough of his status with the King, who couldn't abide mean-spirited young men in his retinue.
"No. He just said I looked like a little fairy and asked if I had escaped from a fairy ring." Catalina huffed again, furious, her arms crossed and her eyes snapping with misplaced outrage.
"So he wasn't actually insulting you, but merely commenting that you resemble an escapee from an anillo de hadas?" Isabella said, covering a smile.
Catalina looked exasperated. "I… he was… what he said was rude."
"Lord Baltasar has not ever, to my knowledge, been rude to anyone, but I will speak with him about being on his best behavior around young ladies of royal blood, Catalina," Eleanor said gently, but she was amused. Baltasar had every young girl within a ten-mile radius of the palace going into fits of swooning, yet he had honed in on Catalina.
The two Kings came clattering down the steps into the garden and Eleanor greeted Henry with a kiss and a hug, and Philip bowed gallantly to her. "It's good to see a pretty face today, I can assure you, ma'am. You ladies are all looking quite lovely—quite a change from a bunch of shouting, smelly men."
"Oh, we do our bit of shouting sometimes," Eleanor laughed. "But we try to keep the smells to a minimum. Breakfast is ready on the terrace." She smiled at Henry. "Did you have a good hunt yesterday, dearest?"
"Aye, excellent! We brought down a huge stag each and had a jolly meal. Plus we did a bit of talking about the future. The jousts are set up for this afternoon. Bloody hell, I do wish Constantine had come. I would have enjoyed at least trying to knock him off his horse, though I admit I probably couldn't have done it." He grinned at Eleanor, catching her puzzled expression. "Before that, perhaps you and I might have a little… er… nap?"
"Of course, but… the future?"
"Yes. We'll talk about it later." He kissed her soundly and continued on up the steps to the terrace. Eleanor glanced back at Isabella and Catalina, who were smoothing their skirts and preparing to come up to breakfast. The children were being herded by Eleanor's ladies and were happily bounding up the steps, eager for their meal. But a frisson of uneasiness shivered down the Queen's back, and she was not sure she was going to like whatever Henry had in mind about the future.
After breakfast, Henry had a few matters of state to contend with, and had a brief meeting with his Council. Eleanor was too busy with entertaining Philip and the Morvenian retinue to sit behind the grille to listen in, so she did not hear his proposal to his government about marrying his son to Prince Constantine's daughter. The Council members were all interested in the notion and gave their assent to begin preliminary negotiations, which pleased Henry. At noon, the King joined everyone for a sumptuous dinner in the Great Hall, with Eleanor seated beside him.
Henry absently stroked Eleanor's thigh during the meal, and was very merry, joking with King Philip about the jousting tournament he had prepared. "I've ordered my knights to take care not to hit you too hard of course," Henry said, grinning. "It would be a great shame to have the King of Morvenia unseated by some young knight."
"Oh, I think I can handle myself well enough," Philip smiled. "I've won a few jousts myself over the years. Not as many as Constantine, but then I've a kingdom to run and everybody gets awfully jittery when I ride out onto the tourney field, particularly if my brother is away."
"Aye, that could get a bit tricky," Henry nodded. He took a final swig of his apple cider. "Well, the Queen and I need to have a discussion about a few things, and we like to have our talks alone. Everyone, please continue with your feast and enjoy yourselves. Our servants have done a smashing job, have they not?" he said, nodding toward the chefs and cooks standing along the wall, and King Philip nodded.
"We will return… uh… shortly."
Philip almost snickered. If he had the equipment any more, he would take his bloody time 'talking' to his Queen, if she looked anything like Eleanor.
The Queen was blushing a little as she rose, nodding her head and taking Henry's hand. He led her down from the dais where they table was set and let her husband lead her up to the stairs. Eleanor doubted anyone thought they would be talking—last night had been the first time they had not slept together in a long time, and she knew how Henry looked when he was horny. The doors of the banqueting hall were closed and Henry was pulling her to him for a passionate kiss even before they started upstairs. On the way up, he told her all the things he intended to do to her, which made her forget to be uneasy for the time being.
Lying in bed, Henry still astride her, she sighed as he kissed her deeply, murmuring sweetly as he praised her beauty and considerable skills. "I seem to fall more in love with you every day," Henry said softly, finally rolling off her. "I dreamed about you all night, darling. Woke up barely even able to walk."
She laughed softly and snuggled against him, resting her head on his shoulder. "I dreamed about you, too. It was hard, sleeping alone."
"Aye. Bloody well impossible." He idly twisted a lock of her hair around his fingers. "But I do wish to tell you something rather exciting, sweetheart."
"Oh? Don't tell me you're pregnant."
He laughed. "Hardly! But it's still very exciting. Not as exciting as that'd be, I admit, but it's a great coup for us, Eleanor. For us, for Gravonia… for all of us."
"What would that be?"
"I spoke with King Philip yesterday. You know he has that sweet little red-headed niece, Elizabeth… "
"Yes." She yawned and set her head back on his shoulder, idly running her fingers through the curling hair on his chest. After such vigorous lovemaking, she was sleepy and actually relished the notion of a nap now.
"Well… we have agreed that Alexander and Elizabeth ought to marry. I suggested it to Philip and he seemed very pleased to consider it and has agreed to start the process of…"
Her hand stilled on his chest. Panic first set her heart pounding, and then… black, blazing fury. She sat up so suddenly that he accidentally pulled her hair, and she yelped in pain. The Queen pulled away from her husband and scrambled out of bed, naked, her eyes snapping with anger. "What?!"
Henry sat up, looking at her in bewilderment. "A marriage, Eleanor. In a few years, obviously. Between Alexander and Elizabeth of Morvenia. We have begun negotiations even now, though they're very much in early stages and won't… what is wrong? Why do you look so angry?"
"You… you have arranged Alexander's marriage?" she asked in a hushed, furious whisper. "Without consulting me?"
The King sat up, his cheerful mood and arousal both vanishing, replaced by increasing anger. "I need not consult you on this matter, Eleanor. I am the King and I will decide who Alexander marries. An alliance with Morvenia will profit everyone."
"Profit? All this is just profit to you? Our son, sold off to the highest bidder?"
"I hardly see it that way. He will be a King one day, and marriage to the daughter of Morvenia's future King will be… "
"You must end these negotiations immediately!" Eleanor snapped.
He paused, thinking carefully before speaking. "And as I told you, Eleanor, I am the King."
"And I am his mother! That fact trumps even your crown!" she shouted at him. Henry was taken aback by her fury, and watched in bewilderment as she began pulling her clothes on. "I did not carry that boy around in my belly for nine months, and spend so much time and energy teaching him and training him, only to… "
"To what?" Henry snapped back, refusing to raise his voice to his wife, however much she was angering him. "He will be a King, Eleanor, and he will have to marry. Why not Elizabeth of Morvenia?"
"Because… because… " She shook her head, tears welling in her eyes and finally they began to flow down her cheeks. If Alexander married Elizabeth, she would be brought to Gravonia by her father. Her secret would be exposed, and her world would come crashing down around her. She would lose everything—not just her husband and her children, but her own good name. All of her efforts would come to nothing, and everyone she loved would suffer. Everyone.
"Because why?" Henry asked her, making his voice gentle again. "Sweetheart, I do not understand why you are so upset. This would be a brilliant match and a superb alliance. Morvenia is a powerful nation and we are becoming more and more wealthy by the day, and if our countries are thus allied, we can more effectively defend against Lacovia… and if Elizabeth ends up inheriting her uncle's throne one day, then by their marrying, our two kingdoms could be united forever, though Philip is certain Isabella will bear a male heir before too long."
"He's three years old!" Eleanor finally snapped. "He's just a baby! And she's only two!"
"I'm not saying they will marry tomorrow, dearest. In the future. Fifteen years from now, most likely, or more. Philip tells me Constantine will likely refuse to see his daughter married before age eighteen, which is a very long wait… "
"You should have consulted with me," Eleanor said, tears flowing full force now. "We have always discussed everything with regard to our children. Why would you leave me out of this, Henry?" She sank into a chair and wept, covering her face with her hands.
The King got out of bed, pulling on his robe, and went around to her, kneeling down before her, peering up at her tear-stained face. "Eleanor, sweetheart… do not make yourself so upset. Elizabeth is a sweet little girl and if she's anything like her mother she will make an excellent wife to Alexander one day… and they already seem to like each other. Isabella told me that… "
"I just cannot understand why you did not discuss it with me, Henry. I am your wife, even before I am your Queen, and I am Alexander's mother. You need to include me… " She put her head down and cried helplessly, terror and panic making it impossible for her to calm down at all. Even when Henry gently pulled her into his arms and held her, she could not stop weeping. She wanted to scream and climb the walls, and only her resolve kept her from hitting her husband with a candlestick and railing against his stupidity.
But that would lead to so many questions. Henry wasn't very intelligent, but he was able to put two and two together, and that second two would require more and more inquiries about something she could never, ever tell him.
God help her, but how on earth was she to handle this?
No more mention was made of the marriage contract that was being haggled over. Henry left Eleanor alone, after she insisted he return to the banquet downstairs, and she sat in her rooms for a long time, staring out the window and trying to make her terror at least go away. But it lingered, and every time she closed her eyes she saw Constantine's face—his eyes blazing with fury. He would declare her a fraud, a liar and a traitor to her own country. He would tell Henry all: that his Queen was merely the bastard granddaughter of King Michael of Morvenia and that she had actually been betrothed to him, with pre-contracts already signed and a dowry even set. Those facts would be cause for utter disaster. Her sons would be declared illegitimate, her husband would be humiliated, and everything she had accomplished would be declared null.
And she would very likely die.
Finally, panic seizing her again, she sent a servant to find Count von Hesse and bring him to her sitting room. She dressed, splashed cold water on her face to sooth away the redness in her eyes, and somehow managed to settle herself down into her seat by the fire. Boris arrived a few moments later, and admitted von Hesse, closing the door firmly behind him—she knew her husband's Major Domo would not linger at the doorway to listen.
"What is it, Goosey?" von Hesse asked, sitting down opposite her. "You know that I cannot be seen… "
"Sir…" she whispered. "Sir, Henry wishes to arrange a marriage between Alexander and Princess Elizabeth of Morvenia."
von Hesse sat back in his seat, staring at Eleanor in astonishment. For several moments, he sat still, saying nothing. "This is a very intriguing notion."
"Intriguing?! It's a bloody disaster!" she snapped. "Good God, do you know what will happen when Constantine comes here with his daughter, in a few years, and finds me… "
"Why would Constantine come?" von Hesse asked, looking at her. "Did Eleanor of Livonia's father travel with her when she left Styria? No, he did not. That doesn't happen, child. It's a sad fact of life among royals, sweetheart, but the fathers of princesses are rarely so involved with their daughters as to travel to some foreign country with her to vet her future husband."
"Constantine surely isn't like most fathers," Eleanor whispered. "Isabella says he loves his daughter very dearly."
"Aye, I suppose he does, but if his daughter is to marry your son, that love must be put aside for the greater good of your two kingdoms. He will have to send her away and accept the way of the world. Isabella's uncle Alfonso did not come with her to marry him… "
"No, but the nasty bastard enjoyed beating her!" Eleanor snapped.
"Eleanor, I am not impressed with your choice of words. But yes, I have heard that Alfonso of Navarre was always a rather unpleasant man, and I'm sure the Devil has a place set aside just for him in Hell if he went about beating children—it won't be the coolest acreage of Hades, either. But that is not the matter. You're panicking over nothing."
Eleanor clutched the fabric of her skirt, twisting the material until it was wrinkled out of shape and rendered unsuitable for wearing downstairs. "Nothing!" she hissed. "Do you know Henry did not even discuss it with me? He just suggested the idea to King Philip and just like that!" She snapped her fingers. "My poor baby son, already betrothed!"
"Eleanor, stop being ridiculous. Henry is the King and he need not tell you all, just as you do not always tell him all. Your son must marry, and Elizabeth of Morvenia has the connections that Gravonia can take advantage of." He sat back, rubbing his palms on his knees. "Betrothals are broken all the time, as you well know, but if I know Constantine, he would not allow his daughter to marry before she is truly ready. I would suppose she would be sent here when she's about fifteen or sixteen, to settle in and become familiar with Gravonian ways. Her father would not come with her—that is not how it's done and you know it."
"So poor Elizabeth would be sent away from all she knows… from her father and her poor mother, who I'm sure will be devastated to have to part with her. It's cruel!"
"Yes, it is cruel, but it is a reality she knows about and is probably prepared for, in some way at least—the princess lacks education, but she is anything but stupid, from what I've seen so far. Like it or not, Eleanor, Elizabeth is not the most important child Constantine and Isabella will have. Her main purpose in even going to Morvenia was to bear sons. I know you won't love me for saying this, child, but Elizabeth is, like most princesses, a political pawn, and then a royal broodmare. Just like you, might I remind you."
Eleanor rose and
paced across the room to the window, staring out at the glorious spring
morning. "A pawn and a broodmare," she whispered. She turned back to
look at the Count, who was standing with his back to the fire, fiddling with
his medal of the Order of St. Barnabas. "I will… I will only consent to
let the negotiations continue if Isabella gives her approval, and if I receive
word that Constantine does not object. And if she comes here in a few years and
she and Alexander do not like each other…"
"That will be of no importance, Eleanor. Do not kick against the goads now, sweetheart. Whether or not they like each other won't matter. Her first duty will be to breed heirs, not love her husband." At her anguished look, he sighed and went to her, gently pulling her into his arms, cradling her as a loving father. "You must only pray for the best, accept what might be the worst, child, and continue to fight for your children to the bitter or glorious end. The future is blind—we both know that, and we cannot predict what will happen. You must deal with whatever comes when it comes, and not fret about what might never happen. Remember the words of our Lord: 'Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?'
She pulled away from
him, wiping her eyes. "It's not my height I'm worried about, sir.
It's what could happen that could
make me considerably shorter-on the