Our Gracious Queen

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A Fine Bit of Sport

Eleanor had calmed down somewhat by the time came to get ready for the jousting tournaments. She changed into a blue and white silk dress with a black bodice, and had Agnes carefully settle a heavy Russian-style headband tiara of diamonds and pearls in her hair. The pins stabbed her, which she thought only fitting, but she still cried out in pain and Agnes retreated, mortified.

The Queen sat staring at herself in her mirror, noting her cheeks were still flushed and her eyes were still red-rimmed. Agnes cautiously approached again and resumed her ministrations.

"Calm," she whispered. "Stay calm."

"I am calm," Agnes said, looking at her, puzzled.

"I mean… I mean, I must stay calm. I do hate watching Henry joust, and he'll be jousting with King Philip."

"It's all in fun, I think. They don't intend to hurt each other." Agnes peered back at her little daughter, who was sitting on a thick blanket, playing with a little doll. Ellie looked up at her mother and smiled.

"I know, but jousting frequently leads to injury, intended or not." What if Henry were killed? She would truly be alone then—the mother of a three-year old king, without protection of any kind from Beauchamp or the Lacovians, and everyone knew child monarchs had all the odds stacked heavily against them. When hers and Henry's enemies saw that a woman was left alone to rule as regent, they would have no qualms about attacking her and finishing off her entire family. Whether she was discovered to be a fraud or not would be irrelevant then—who could she call to help her then? Count von Hesse had no army of knights suited to take on her enemies, and while she knew the Gravonian army was loyal to the crown, could they be counted on to defend her, a mere woman? If she called on the Livonians, she would be found out for certain.

She would have nowhere to turn.

Her morbid thoughts were driving her mad. She took a deep, trembling breath, trying to tamp down her fear and growing nausea. Every time she closed her eyes, she could see her babies being butchered by Beauchamp or the Lacovians… or both. Her poor, sweet babies…

Tears filled her eyes again, and she felt bile rising to her throat. She wanted to scream and tear her hair out, not go to a bloody joust.

"Your Majesty, are you all right?"

"I think I might be sick," Eleanor muttered, and sank back into her seat. She straightened, though, remembering the steel von Hesse had put in her spine. Queens do not shrink from anything, even stark terror, and neither did the daughter of Count Frederick von Hesse. She was not his blood kin, but he had taught her well, and she had to keep his lessons in mind from this day forward, to the very end. She stood again. "I'm fine. Let's go."

Agnes fussed over Eleanor's dress, making sure it was fitted properly, and finally stepped back, looking pleased. "Yes. Let's go!" She picked up Ellie, who squealed and reached for Eleanor, who smiled at her little namesake.

"Indeed. I think at least one of us is eager to see some sport."

The King was on his favorite destrier, a huge, regal-looking animal named Falcon, and he and the horse were decked out in shining silver armor and black and gold trappings. His page handed him his lance and shield, and the King rode forward, smacking his visor down, and waited. King Philip, in the red and white of Morvenia, his shield decorated with a ferocious-looking dragon, was seated on a rather fractious black steed that looked more interested in the young mare a nearby knight was riding. He took up his lance and his shield, sighed, and settled his horse as best he could.

Princess Catalina had been selected to drop the handkerchief, and she held up the silk cloth for a brief, dramatic moment before letting it drop from her fingers. Henry charged forward, and Philip chirped at his horse. The stallion remembered what he was there for and took off toward the tilt, the King of Morvenia lowering his lance and expertly angling its blunt point toward the King of Gravonia, who was coming at him at a fast clip. Philip tipped his lance up just a bit, at the right moment, as Constantine had taught him, and made impact on Henry's breastplate, just missing his shield and sending the Gravonian monarch backwards, falling heavily from his horse and landing on his back with a sickening thud into the thick layer of dirt.

Philip winced, cursing under his breath, but obviously could not stop his horse and leap off. He let the animal continue onward until he came to the end of the tiltyard and quickly turned around, seeing several knights racing toward the fallen king. He looked up in the stands and saw Queen Eleanor standing up, her hands over her mouth, pale as a ghost, and wished yet again that he were just a fisherman's son.

Philip dismounted and clanked over to the prone body of the King, whose helmet was being removed with great care by Lord Hallam while two other knights were struggling to remove his breastplate. Hallam tossed aside all propriety and shook the King. "Henry! Wake up!" he shouted. Philip was greatly relieved then to see that Henry's eyes were open and he was laughing.

"Well, there's some fine sport!" Henry said, gasping a little from obvious pain. "I don't think your brother could have done better, Philip!"

Philip swallowed. Oh, Constantine would have done a lot better, he was sure. He dropped to his knees beside Henry, who grinned at him as he sat up, his breastplate finally off. "Are you all right?"

"Oh, I'll be fine. Probably just bruised ribs and some wounded pride, and little else." With Lord Hallam's assistance, the King was back on his feet, and the crowd roared, applauding their king even more heartily than they did his conqueror. Henry clapped Philip on the back, and the Morvenian king was glad he was wearing armor. Henry continued on toward his tent at the edge of the tiltyard, and Philip swung back astride his horse. He had to go through the usual ceremony of being presented to the Queen and accepting his prize.

He clucked to the jittery stallion and rode over to where Eleanor was still standing. Her face was white as a sheet, and she was trembling, but he gave her points for sheer grit—she smiled graciously at him, but her jaw was tight, and Philip was rather glad it wasn't she he was facing on the tiltyard. Henry had strength, for sure, but Eleanor had steel.

Carefully, Eleanor tied a black and gold ribbon to the tip of Philip's lance and nodded. "To the victor go the spoils, my lord," she said softly. Her startling blue eyes settled on him for a moment, and he caught no anger, but instead… a kind of sorrow.

People think being a monarch is just sweetness and ease, he thought bitterly. Sometimes, though, it's a bloody bitch.

"These were not the spoils I sought, ma'am, and I take no pleasure in this victory. I am only relieved your husband is not injured."

"So am I," she whispered. "You've no idea how truly relieved I am."

Henry was indeed in excellent spirits, from what Eleanor could tell. He sat out the remaining jousts, taking his wife's advise to rest after having the wind knocked out of him, and so he sat beside her, watching the young knights charge at each other. Their argument of earlier in the day, however, kept them from being able to discuss much of anything besides the quality of the horses and the skill of the knights. Neither of them brought up Henry's plans of marrying his son to Princess Elizabeth, and she knew to avoid the subject for now.

Lord Baltasar Seebolt had won three jousts so far, defeating larger, seasoned knights with a degree of flair that had everyone, particularly the young girls, enthusiastically cheering him. His skill with his lance and shield was impressive, and Henry commented that the young man exhibited his father's natural skill and bravado, along with his mother's cheerfulness. Eleanor knew the young man's mother well—Lady Bridget Seebolt (now Duchess of Trebane, after her husband's elevation to the nobility last year) was a soft-spoken Irishwoman with a calm, soothing way about her, and she usually served at Court during the winter. She lived in Luvov and visited her eldest son regularly at Court, and Eleanor genuinely liked her. The Duchess was also first cousin to Captain Lassiter, and she had a steely quality in her that clearly ran in the family.

Baltasar even had enough good sense to call it quits after his third joust, and left the tiltyard covered in glory, having collected a trio of fine chargers and sets of black and gold ribbons from the Queen. She caught him looking at Catalina several times and almost snickered—the young man was interested, but Catalina was clearly still bewildered by his compliment to her, earlier that day, and covered her confusion by ignoring him, or at least pretending to.

When the competition was finally over, Eleanor was relieved to go back to the palace and relax. Her nerves were rattled, and not even the behavior of Lord Baltasar and Catalina was enough to alleviate her headache. Nonetheless, she still had to play hostess to her guests. She sat at the table with Isabella and Catalina, playing cards and keeping an eye on her two older sons—Harry and William were down for their naps—as they raced around, leaving behind piles of debris and chaos in their wake. Agnes was happily tending to the twins and little Ellie, but Lady Harriet had begged exhaustion and gone home.

Several other boys their age were joining in the fun—they were the 'hostage' children of Gravonia's nobles, but they apparently were not under the impression that they were being held captive, particularly since their parents were usually around anyway. To them, Alexander and Frederick were jolly playmates and the palace was little more than a luxurious playground and obstacle course. The older children, of course, were better behaved but they too did not seem angry or upset at being raised at Court. Eleanor had found them all—even Lord Stephen Beauchamp—to be friendly and polite.

With her head pounding and her emotions raw, Eleanor somehow found the strength to carry on conversation with Isabella and, to a lesser extent, Catalina.

"Are you all right, Eleanor?" Isabella asked softly. "You look so pale."

"I'm… fine," Eleanor lied. Bloody right she was fine. She felt like a horde of raging Vikings was trampling across her brain. "Is your morning sickness much better?"

"Oh, yes, thank God. It passes after I finally manage to eat some breakfast. Your suggestion of eating ham really helped."

"Good." Eleanor smiled weakly, and saw Lord Baltasar walk by. She gestured for him to come to her, and Catalina immediately shot to her feet and stalked away. The Queen eyed the girl, who took a seat at the other end of the room, scowling. Baltasar bowed to Eleanor, and she studied him with interest—he had his father's dark good looks and his mother's soft blue eyes. "Lord Baltasar, I understand you were quite rude to a young lady visiting Court."

"What? I… um… was?" He stared at her, confused.

"Yes. See that scowling blonde girl over there?" She gestured toward Catalina, and was not a little amused to see the look of shock on his face. "Yes, that one. You were very insulting and I insist you apologize."

"But I… "

"Are you disputing with the Queen, young man?" Eleanor asked, putting a slightly teasing tone to her voice, just to make him realize she was not angry with him. "You must make things right, and immediately."

"I would never dispute with Your Majesty," he said, bowing again. "I… uh… what should I say, ma'am?"

"You must apologize for what you said to her this morning before breakfast."

"But I… I had no idea I had insulted her, ma'am." He glanced over at Catalina, whose expression went from angry to mortified. She was looking around the room, seeking an escape route, but she was cornered. Lord Baltasar nodded to the Queen, took four steps back and turned on his heel, marching straight to the offended princess. He bowed to her.

"Your Royal Highness, I have come to apologize."

Catalina managed a quick, vaguely haughty nod, panic and embarrassment making her face pink.

"My behavior this morning was… reprehensible, but I feel I must beg for your Royal Highness to forgive me for being so rude and insulting by saying you are pretty and that you resemble a little fairy. From henceforth I shall never say you look at all pretty or even vaguely fairylike. I shall instead say the opposite, but only if it pleases you, my lady."

Her face was even pinker. "Oh. I… " Her brow furrowed for a moment, then his words sank in. "You mean you… don't think I'm… oh!"

"But if you can tolerate me saying you are at least somewhat pretty, might I sit with you?"

The girl was utterly bewildered, and blurted out "Yes!" before she could really think of the consequences. Grinning, Baltasar sat down beside her at the little corner table.

"Are you having a good time here in Gravonia? It must be a far cry from Navarre and from Morvenia."

"It is different, but we are having a very good time," she managed, overcome with shyness, but eager to talk to him just the same. "I like it here. It's very lively, and Queen Eleanor is the most gracious woman I've ever met."

"Is that a royal 'we' or are you speaking for yourself?"

"I speak for myself," Catalina said, lifting her chin. "And I often speak out of turn, or when it is not my place, and very frequently I speak when no one requires my opinion."

"You are permitted to speak any way you wish in my presence," he grinned at her, and Catalina blushed pink again. "And I will always be interested in your opinion."

Eleanor, watching them carefully, smiled at Isabella, who was observing her sister and the young knight as well. "Well, that's a nice piece of work for the evening, hm?"

"It would be nice to see Catalina make a friend at last," Isabella said softly. "I know she is lonely. It's just me and Elizabeth, for her, and Elizabeth isn't much for conversation at her age, and I've got Constantine to take care of first. Granted, much of her loneliness is self-inflicted, but I think that if she could let herself relax and take things more in stride, she would be much happier all around."

Eleanor nodded, finally feeling her headache fading a bit. "I don't think either your sister nor Lord Baltasar are terribly interested, right now, in being friends in the future… but this is a good place to start."

Isabella looked at the Queen, wide-eyed. "So you're interested in a bit of matchmaking?"

"Lord Baltasar stands to inherit his father's dukedom some day, and he's got a fine fortune coming to him as well. He is not of noble birth, save a few titled Irish relatives on his mother's side, plus his mother's cousin is the Captain of the Guard, but you saw his excellent behavior at the tiltyard today, and his star is rising at Court. His father is an excellent man, and a very good friend of the King's and Lord Baltasar is well-regarded by the King, and he is known for his generous and cheerful personality. Catalina is a pretty, intelligent girl who only needs a bit of polishing and she'll shine. She could do worse, too, with Lord Baltasar, and I think they could bring out the best in each other."

Isabella pondered this, still watching her sister's behavior toward the young knight. She was surprised and pleased to see Catalina smiling shyly at the young man, amused by something he had told her. "She's got no dowry," Isabella said at last. "My own dowry was very small."

"You needn't worry about that," Eleanor said. She smoothed her skirts and stood, which made everyone in the Great Hall stop talking and wait. She smiled at everyone. "Please, continue with your meals and games. I must only check on my children." Gracefully, she swept out of the room and up the stairs, leaving Henry to close out the night's revelries.

The two older princes had been herded upstairs, given their lessons, bathed and put to bed. Eleanor was relieved to see all four boys were sound asleep, worn out by a full day of racing about. She kissed each of them, made sure their guards were stationed at the doors, and left them.

Once alone in her private sitting room, she locked the doors and sat down at the fire. She pulled off the heavy tiara—no wonder her head was pounding—and stared into the fire.

She had to believe Count von Hesse was right—that Constantine would not come with his daughter when she returned to Gravonia in a few years. He would have to behave like any other father of any other princess: with a callousness that bordered on the criminal, even though she knew that would go against his nature. That alone would save Eleanor's own life and see her son take his father's throne one day. She could not continue to rail against the union without arousing suspicion from not only Henry but also his Council. Sooner or later, they would start asking questions and all she would be able to do would be to panic even more.

Unclenching her fists took a good deal of effort, and she put her head back, closing her eyes. Exhaustion soon claimed her, and she slept.

Philip was feeling a lot better, now that the meal was over. He saw Isabella and Catalina sitting together, talking with Lord Whatsisname… Baltasar? Whatever his name, he had clearly managed to charm the younger girl, because she had totally forgotten to overreact or lose her temper for the past three hours. He grinned into his cup of sweet cider and looked up to see a messenger standing beside him. "Yes?"

"A message for you, sir, from Morvenia."

The King took the note and read it over.

All went very smoothly. The situation in Cadiz is resolved.

Philip stuffed it into his pocket and nodded at the messenger. "Thank you, young man. Settle in and have a cup of ale. Mind, it's not really ale, but it's bloody good." The young man nodded and left. King Henry swaggered over, none the worse for wear after the day's events, and sat down beside him.

"I hope you enjoyed your meal, sir."

"I did. You have excellent cooks here. Even my brother would have enjoyed it."

Henry looked pleased. "I'm sure you will discuss the possible match with Constantine… "

"Of course," Philip nodded. He took another swig of the cider. "Be aware, though, that men have a little more trouble parting with their daughters. It's the way of the world, of course, but even princes and kings dote on their baby girls and Constantine adores his little daughter. He won't relish the idea of her leaving, I'm sure. I'm afraid many people in the world think men have no real feelings and that we do not grieve when we must part with our children, particularly daughters. I never had a daughter, but if I had, I would shed real tears of sorrow when she left, even I knew she was going to be happy in her marriage. I'll even feel rather sad when Catalina leaves, for all the trouble she does cause sometimes, the fire-breathing little angel."

Henry nodded. "You know, my wife was not as pleased with the idea as I thought she would be. She became quite agitated about it."

Philip looked at him, curious. "Truly? Well… we both know that women are queer, unreasoning creatures."

Henry laughed. "Oh, well, that's true with most women. But Eleanor is not most women. She is very intelligent and very sensible. Perhaps it was just her natural instinct to protect her son that kicked in." Henry frowned. "I suppose Isabella will balk, too, at saying goodbye to her little red-headed sprite."

"Aye, she will, but… " Philip sighed. There was another conversation he did not relish wading into. Constantine would be upset enough, he was sure, but Isabella…

He looked across the room at his sister-in-law, seeing her smiling and laughing with her sister and Lord Whoever and felt a stab of sorrow in his chest. Unions and alliances were the way of the world, indeed, but the way of the world was often very cruel and took no account of the fragile hearts of parents and their children.

The third day of the Morvenian state visit was decidedly quieter. Henry had a Council meeting in the morning, which Eleanor attended at her place behind the grille, and the two royal families ate the nooning meal together in the private dining room. The Queen was dressed much more plainly, in a white cotton blouse and skirt, with no bodice, and wore no jewelry, which Isabella found intriguing.

Catalina was quiet during the meal, and seemed distracted. Isabella knew what had the girl so off, of course, but she made no comment, seeing no need to embarrass her sister with questions. Philip, looking relaxed and as cheerful as ever, was reading through his messages from home and grinned.

"Constantine sends word that he arrived safely in Denmark and is currently pretending to be a diplomat while getting hideously nauseated by the scent of herring." He handed the letter to Isabella, who read it over eagerly, smiling. Eleanor's fingers twitched, wishing to God above that she could read the letter herself.

"He says that Denmark really is a very nice country, and if it weren't for lutefisk and hard winters, he could easily live there. Just the same, he says he is eager to come home. His description of lutefisk is quite graphic." She consulted the letter and smiled. "He says it could be used as a weapon during a siege. 'The keeper of any castle in the world would surrender the second a pot of lutefisk landed inside the court of his citadel. Frankly, he would greet his conquerors with open arms if they'd promise to take the horrid stuff away'."

"Aye, yes, Constantine isn't too good at eating strange foods and he's lost all ability at coping with hard winters. In his younger days, winter didn't bother him that much, but he told me that now, parts of his body are starting to click," Philip grinned. "I remember our younger days, climbing trees and such. Now, climbing out of bed can be just as adventurous."

"But your brother enjoys good health otherwise?" Eleanor asked, hoping she only sounded casually interested.

"Oh, of course. Strong as a bull, my brother is. His little daughter has inherited his robust health and her Mama's sweetness."

"I pray the sons I might bear him are just as strong," Isabella said, with a wistful smile. "And just as sweet."

"I'm sure they will be," Eleanor said softly. "In fact, I'm certain of it."

With luncheon over, everyone went outside and prepared for an afternoon ride. Isabella opted against taking part, and Philip looked at his sister-in-law, brow furrowed.

"I believe I am with child again, sir," Isabella finally said, blushing pink.

"Truly? How wonderful!" Philip grinned, hugging Isabella and kissing her forehead. "Absolutely delightful! Of course you must stay off horses and be carried about--I know Constantine will insist on that!"

Eleanor was amazed that a King could be so pleased to see his brother blessed with a wife and children and yet showed no inclination toward starting his own family. She wondered, again, what had kept him from ever marrying, but Constantine had never told her about it—he had only said that Philip would never marry.

Or had he said that Philip could never marry?

"I know Constantine will be very pleased," Isabella said, smiling softly. Her sister, eager to go riding, looked concerned nonetheless.

"I remember how sick you were when you were carrying Elizabeth."

"It's not so bad now. Perhaps it won't be so bad this time 'round."

Lord Baltasar came cantering up on his big, showy chestnut and grinned at the ladies. "It's a beautiful day, isn't it? A fine day for a ride through the Royal Park, I think. You are all well?" At everyone's nod, he smiled. "I'm happy to see that you all look very chipper this morning! Your Majesty, the gentlemen are ready whenever you are," he told King Henry, who nodded.

Eleanor, astride the ever-dependable Merlin, wasn't surprised to see Catalina and Baltasar riding together most of the time during the party's gallop through the royal park. She heard them talking frequently, and his easy charm and courteous manners made whatever remaining distrust the girl felt toward the world in general melt away. By the time they were returned to the palace, Catalina was laughing and enjoying Baltasar's gentle teasing. He was drawing her out, and Eleanor wasn't surprised to see that when properly motivated she was as sweet and charming as her sister and exhibited a great deal of intelligence and poise as well.

Supper was eaten on the palace terrace, with lanterns strung up to provide light. The children had all been put to bed, and Henry relaxed beside Eleanor, drinking a little too much hard cider for the first time in a very long time, and was already showing signs that he was not a man who could hold his liquor any more. Philip eschewed the hard stuff and brought up the subject of babies. "Pray, Your Majesty," he asked Eleanor. "Have you ever wished to have a daughter?"

"I do sometimes," Eleanor said. "But they are all blessings, regardless of their sex."

"A very well-thought-out answer," Philip said with a wink. "But I suppose, Henry, you were vastly relieved to get a son at first pitch."

"Aye, I was," Henry nodded, tossing back the last of his ale. "But I too would like a daughter." He hiccupped. "Perhaps one day, if Eleanor and I are fortunate enough to have a daughter, she might marry the babe you carry now, Isabella. A fair swap, I'd say!"

Isabella looked at Henry in confusion, and Philip sighed, rubbing his temples. "I'm sorry, Isabella, I was going to talk to you about it in private… Henry and I have begun negotiations to see your little Elizabeth marry Crown Prince Alexander one day."

Eleanor watched Isabella's face, and saw a shadow of dismay and sorrow darken the woman's expression, but she held herself together very admirably. "I see."

"Many years from now, of course," Eleanor interjected. "Please do not let yourself become distressed, and be sure that Elizabeth will be treated with the utmost kindness here."

"Abshol—… absoshu—right!" Henry crowed, and asked for a refill of his cup.

"It would be a great honor to me and to Constantine to see our daughter marry your son, Eleanor," Isabella said softly, taking a sip of her sweet cider. "I'm sure you are equally delighted."

"Then everybody's happy, eh?" Henry said, burping into his hand. "Shee now, Eleanor, you ha' no reashon to ge' sho upshet yeshterday aftahnoo'… "

Eleanor gave her husband a tight smile. "I was not upset, dearest."

"You shouted at me and then you shtarted crying." He looked at Philip, who was mortified to be overhearing such a clearly private conversation. The Queen's expression indicated she was equally appalled. The King, meanwhile, was too drunk to grasp that he was making everyone uncomfortable. "She hash never b'fore shou'ed a' me, Philip. No' onsh."

"Women do have a right to get upset about such things, as I understand," Philip said diplomatically, casting a nervous glance at Isabella, whose eyes were downcast. Catalina looked bewildered, but said nothing, God bless her. "I assume your main reason for disquiet, ma'am, was that you were not initially informed of your husband's plans."

"No, I was not, but it was a momentary lapse, as Henry and I always discuss everything concerning out children. Still, I can assure you and Isabella that I will be very delighted to have Elizabeth as a daughter-in-law some day. She will be much-loved and cherished member of the family and will never hear an unkind word from any of us."

"Well, then… " Philip swallowed and nodded. "All's well, right? We shall all be a very happy… uh… family some day." So long as Queen Marie isn't involved in the wedding plans and Constantine doesn't dig his heels in and balk like the mule he could be sometimes, he thought with a frisson of unease, and there was still the prickly issue of Elizabeth being currently second in line to the Morvenian throne. He raised his glass. "To a happy and successful union of our families and our countries!" He smiled around, and everyone lifted their glasses in turn.

Henry managed somehow to lift his glass, sloshing hard cider on the table. "God shave the King!"

Isabella leaned to the side a little and whispered to Eleanor, "I don't suspect God would be terribly interested in shaving the King, but the King will be begging God to save him from his headache tomorrow."

Eleanor couldn't keep from giggling. Catalina, overhearing, burst into laughter, too. Philip joined in the laughter, as did Henry, though he truly had no idea what he was laughing about. Soon everyone at the table was laughing, and an uncomfortable evening closed in peace and good cheer.

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