Our Gracious Queen

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Paraphrase from Luke 2:35

The Morvenian state visit was ending on Sunday, with the party leaving early Monday morning. Thursday passed smoothly, although Henry woke that morning with a hideous hangover, vowing never to drink anything harder than sweet apple cider again. He received little sympathy from Eleanor, however, and spent the morning in the bathtub, a servant pouring cold water on his head until he was able to see clearly again.

The Queen met privately with members of the royal Council, reading over the first drafts of their negotiations on the marriage of Alexander and Elizabeth. She scratched out a few things—the offering of livestock, for instance, which was all together vulgar in her opinion, and their impertinent demand for two hundred pounds of Morvenian silver, which would only be a burden on the people of Philip's kingdom. She also recognized the delicate matter of Elizabeth's current status in the Morvenian succession and insisted on parts of the contract being left blank, and consulted privately with Philip over the possibility of terminating the contract all together if Elizabeth ended up Queen Regnant of Morvenia--she knew that by no means would the people of that country accept her son as co-ruler. Philip seemed relieved at her willingness to leave the matter open-ended for now, but quietly assured her that he believed Isabella would, in the next few months, provide an easy solution to the problem.

The Council agreed to her changes in the initial draft and got to work on grinding out a new one. The rest of Thursday consisted of a festival on the palace grounds, which many common citizens of Gravonia were urged to attend. Vast amounts of food was served, followed by dancing and the performance of part of a Passion play, followed by jugglers and acrobats performing for the children. Booths were set up by farmers, and the two royal families strolled around, greeting everyone, chatting with the farmers and purchasing pies and little trinkets. Children were everywhere, constantly underfoot and creating a bit of havoc, but all in all everyone had a marvelous time.

Eleanor and Isabella were both pleased to see Catalina walking with Lord Baltasar, who was eager to show her all the sights at the palace. Nonetheless, a chaperon was required for them to take a private tour of the palace, and so the ever-reliable Boris walked with them, and he reported they were both on their best behavior. Catalina never once lost her temper, and if her blush meant anything, she was clearly smitten with the dashing young knight.

That, Eleanor knew, could prove to be a problem. Parting with a first love was, she knew from personal experience, immensely painful. She had no idea how it could be worked out—Bridget Seebolt was not at Court and her husband was up north, inspecting the border garrisons. She would not by any means go over their heads and make even one comment about a possible match to the King—she could only encourage it and see how it all unfolded. Besides, she wasn't entirely sure Isabella would be too keen on leaving her sister behind, and Baltasar, as an official 'hostage' of the King, could not leave Court without Henry's permission.

Finally, Eleanor took Isabella aside during the ball at the palace that night. "If Lord Baltasar were to offer for your sister's hand, would she accept and would you and Philip give your consent?"

Isabella was startled by the question, but gave it serious thought before answering. "I think she would accept. But she's so young… not in age, really, but… "

"She lacks maturity."

"Yes. I think so. In some things. In many ways, she is older than her years, but Baltasar is the very first young man who has ever been able to break through her defenses. I think her feelings for him are genuine, but they must also be very confusing and even a little frightening... but I can assure you, her feelings are intense." Isabella smiled. "She could not stop talking about him last night."

Eleanor nodded. "I see. I went through the same thing myself once." She smoothed her skirts, and caught Isabella's puzzled look. "I mean… it… uh… took me a little while to… to get used to being in love with Henry. To accept it, I mean."

Isabella studied her curiously, then sighed. "I took me no time at all to fall in love with Constantine. Everyone said he would be this hulking monster who would treat me unkindly, but instead he was… " She shook her head, sighing. "He was this beautiful, dangerous, scarred soul. Still is, really. He cannot express his feelings, and while he has never once been unkind to me, it's a kind of remote, impersonal kindness. Though I must admit, during the winter before we came here, he was much more demonstrative." She smiled. "Thus this little one growing in my belly."

Stricken, Eleanor could not speak. She grieved for Isabella even more now—to love a man who had closed up his heart behind an impenetrable wall had to be excruciatingly painful. Even worse, it was Eleanor's fault that he was that way. She gazed sadly at the beautiful and sweet woman who had married the man she loved and cursed destiny. It had brought her to a position of great power and influence, and had wreaked havoc on the lives of so many people in the process.

"I am sure he loves you," Eleanor managed to say quietly. "From everything I have ever heard of him, he is a good man."

"Oh, yes, he is a good man. The very best man I've ever known, and I've known men of all varieties, in my life, from good to bad to indifferent. He and Philip do all they can to make my life in Morvenia happy and comfortable, and they are kind to poor Catalina, who can be very trying sometimes." She smiled softly. "Constantine will be pleased to see I am with child again. He will insist I be watched and fussed over all the time, just as it was with Elizabeth, and that I never lift anything that weighs more than a feather. When I first told him I was pregnant with our daughter, he insisted I sit down all the time and be carried everywhere. It got a little ridiculous, but he was so… sweet I could not bear to get cross with him. At first I thought he was more concerned for the health of the baby, but I realized he really did care about me."

"Of course he does. Some men are made that way," Eleanor said. "Henry is that way, too. They can't help it—we are fortunate to be married to men who believe in being good to women. Not many were taught that, and if they were, even fewer managed to learn it. It's the code of chivalry, in many ways, and part of their character otherwise." They watched as Catalina and Baltasar went by, dancing the La Dame, and did not miss the way the young man was looking at the blushing princess. "I would say Lord Baltasar has those traits in spades."

"I would say so too," Isabella laughed. "I will say this, Eleanor: if Baltasar offers for her hand, I will speak to Philip and I'm sure the King will agree. Constantine will be pleased, so long as his brother can vouch for the young man's character."

"I will have to send for his parents," Eleanor said. "The Duke of Trebane is up north, inspecting the garrisons along the border, but the Duchess is in town. Would you be willing to speak with them tomorrow?"

"I would be very happy to meet them."

"Good." Eleanor smiled, and rolled her eyes when Henry came bouncing up to her, his hangover long gone and his spirits high.

"Come along, darling, let's dance!"

"Yes, dearest. I'll run and you chase me."

Friday dawned bright and cool, and Eleanor was determined to see to it that the Morvenians be allowed to rest a bit—a week of almost constant activity had clearly worn Isabella down, and in her condition she hardly needed further excitement. Catalina was allowed to go riding with Baltasar, Henry and Philip, and came back flushed and excited. She came into Eleanor's sitting room, where she and Isabella were seated by the fire, and bobbed a curtsey to the Queen before somehow making herself sit down.

"Is there something you wish to tell us, Cat?" Isabella asked mildly.

Catalina could barely contain herself. "Baltasar asked me… he asked… "

Eleanor raised her eyebrows, waiting.

"He asked if I would be willing to stay here in Gravonia and marry him! And I say I would!" She gave her sister a look that was half hopeful, half defiant, and Eleanor couldn't help but smile. The girl had grit, that was for sure.

"I see," Isabella said, glancing at Eleanor, who laughed softly. "So you have forgiven him his egregious sin of complimenting you, the first time you met?"

"I can never hold anything against him. Isabella… " Catalina swallowed. "You will give your consent, won't you? We've no other family besides Philip and Constantine, and I'm sure they will not deny us… "

"I will have to talk with his parents, Cat, and if they are agreeable then I will speak with Philip. Constantine will certainly not object."

"Oh, I'm sure he'll be glad to get rid of me!" Catalina said breathlessly.

"That is not how I would put it," Isabella corrected her gently. "Constantine thinks highly of you, else he would have married you off to the first vaguely well-bred man who looked your way, and I can assure you, sister, he received a few offers." She picked up her sewing. "Now… calm yourself down and be at your sewing."

"Sewing? I can barely keep my hands still."

"That's what will keep your hands still. Go on. We can make no announcements until all is settled. Remember, you have no dowry—that will be the first obstacle. Your title will help a good bit, but you'll bring no cash into the marriage, and Baltasar's family might… "

"You think they will object?" Catalina stared at her sister, appalled. "But they can't! We will run away and marry, if need be!"

"Catalina, do not speak so," Isabella said gently. Eleanor had to admire the woman—she had a way of commanding respect without even raising her voice. Catalina settled back in her chair, fuming, and Eleanor knew the girl had many miles to go before she learned such self-control. "I am merely saying that the Duke of Trebane and his wife will be here tonight and we will discuss such matters then. There is no point in you getting yourself so wound up. You want to make a good impression on them, si? Then be calm and sew."

Catalina snatched up a sewing project from her basket and began repairing a hole in a blouse. She said nothing when Agnes came in with her little daughter, and Eleanor briefly pondered over the little girl, who was just starting to attempt to crawl. If Alexander married Elizabeth of Morvenia, then her second son Frederick would be better served by marrying a local girl—why not little Ellie? She knew Agnes would be thrilled to see her daughter marry into the royal family, and Lorenzo would appreciate the cache that would give him, however unpretentious he was.

"I hate sewing!" Catalina finally said, finishing her patching and tossing the blouse back into her basket. "If I were a man, I would be allowed to do as I please."

"That's hardly true," Isabella said. "No one can ever do whatever they please, and if you were a man, I rather doubt Baltasar Seebolt would be terribly interested in you."

"Very true," Eleanor said with a smile. "You're a lovely girl, Catalina, but you'd be a… well, a rather frightening man. Be glad you're a woman--you are far more powerful than you think, after all. And your sister is quite right: no one—not even a king—can do whatever they please without some pretty awful consequences to follow."

Eleanor was pleased to see General Seebolt and his wife that evening, and warmly greeted the couple in her sitting room. The Duchess was forty years old but looked much younger, and had a way about her that indicated a firm character behind a soft smile and lovely sky-blue eyes. She curtseyed to the Queen. "Your Majesty… Your Royal Highnesses… I am very pleased to be called to Court."

"I hope your little daughter is in better health now." Eleanor asked. The Duchess's youngest child and only daughter Meg had been ill for the past several days, and her mother had stayed home with her instead of attending the Queen during the state visit.

"Yes, she is doing much better, thank you, ma'am. Not quite to the point of dashing about as usual, but she is feeling better."

"That's wonderful to hear." Eleanor smiled. She looked at the Duke, who was still unaccustomed to being called a Duke and frankly only seemed to immediately answer to 'General Seebolt'. She smiled at him, admiring yet again his rugged good looks and grave charm. He had come up through the ranks based entirely on his own merits, and was a worthy commander of the Gravonian army. Besides that, he was a loyal and reliable friend to Henry, and his elevation to a dukedom had been well-earned, even if he had been astounded to receive it and a large parcel of rich farmland to boot.

"I am curious as to why I was called to Luvov," Seebolt said. "I wasn't quite finished with inspecting the northern garrisons."

"Well, it is something of a pressing matter. You see, it appears that your eldest son Baltasar has developed an attachment to the Princess Catalina of Navarre and has asked for her hand in marriage."

To say that the Duke and Duchess were stunned was an understatement. The Duke looked at his wife, whose eyes widened as Eleanor's statement sank in, and they both finally looked at her.

"I beg your pardon, Your Majesty… our son wishes to marry… a princess?"

"Yes, and she seems to wish to marry him in turn."

Seebolt cleared his throat. "Catalina of Navarre… married to our son?"

"Yes. I felt it best to have you both come to Court to meet the girl and to be persuaded to give your consent to the union. Catalina is a lovely, sweet girl with a… charmingly feisty personality, and that seems to suit Baltasar very well indeed. Granted, they have only known each other for a few days, but we all know how quickly things can happen."

"I would insist on meeting the girl, of course," Seebolt said.

"Very well. Boris, could you go and fetch the Princess Catalina?"

The King's Major Domo left and Eleanor invited the Seebolts to sit down at a corner table. She took a seat with them, smiling, and conducted a bit of small talk with the couple. She knew Thomas Seebolt was of peasant origins, being the son of a tanner, and Bridget's drop or two of noble blood had made his marriage to her a bit of a step up in class, so to speak. Nonetheless, they were both clearly compatible, considering they had eight children and clearly enjoyed each other's company.

Finally, Boris returned with Catalina, who swallowed nervously when she saw the Seebolts. Eleanor gestured for her to sit down with them and dismissed Boris. He closed the doors, and Eleanor let everyone catch their breath.

"Well," she finally said, deciding that it had been quiet long enough. The Seebolts were staring at Catalina, who was so jittery that Eleanor suspected she would faint if anyone shouted "Boo!" at her. "Catalina, these are Baltasar's parents, Thomas and Bridget Seebolt, Duke and Duchess of Trebane."

"I am very pleased to meet you," Catalina managed.

"But I'm guessing you were more pleased to meet our son," the General said with a glint of humor in his eyes.

"Not at first," Catalina said, and Eleanor winced.

"Oh? What happened?" Bridget asked.

"He… well, see, I have a tendency to overreact to things and to not know how to take a compliment. He said I resembled a little fairy and I got angry at him, but he was really being very nice and I was being kind of… "

"Silly," Eleanor supplied. "But that's in the past and Catalina has learned to accept compliments, and I am pleased to see you have raised a son so capable of issuing sincere flattery. Your Grace, you should also be proud to be the mother of such a charming, amiable and good-hearted young man, and I know for a fact that he will take very good care of Catalina."

"He's only twenty," Bridget said, glancing at her husband.

"Bloody hell, Bridget, you were barely nineteen when we married."

The Duchess blushed crimson. "Um… "

"Aye, and Baltasar was the biggest, healthiest five-months' premature baby anybody ever saw." He yelped when Bridget kicked him in the ankle. "Well, her family objected to me, see, as I haven't a drop of blue blood in my veins, so we sort of took the proverbial bull by the horns and so they had to let us marry. So you're a Princess, eh? Niece of the King of Navarre?" He gave his wife a sharp look, which she returned, but there was no hostility in the exchange—only a kind of affectionate exasperation.

Catalina managed a nod, being too startled to learn that Baltasar had been conceived prior to his parents' wedding to offer any comment.

"Catalina comes from the finest families in Navarre and in Spain, and her grandfather was a son of the King of France," Eleanor pointed out, beating back a laugh at the sight of the Duchess's red cheeks. "She is educated and intelligent, and her sister will one day be Queen of Morvenia, and her little niece Elizabeth will one day marry my own son Alexander. I will admit she has no dowry to offer, but that can be of no matter as far as they are concerned, since she is so well-connected."

"But no money," General Seebolt, but Eleanor knew he was only stalling. Catalina stiffened a little, but Eleanor knew where that was going and shushed her before she could even speak.

"Money ought not be a factor when your son is a marrying a bona fide princess," she said. "And if you truly require a dowry, I'm sure the King and I can dip into our own coffers and provide something suitable."

"No, no, of course not!" Bridget said, giving her husband another look, and he grinned. "Catalina, if you were to become my daughter-in-law, you will be very welcome to our family, even if you were a pauper with no title at all."

"Thank you, ma'am," Catalina whispered.

"None of this 'ma'am' business. I am Bridget and this is Thomas. You'll need to meet all the rest of my children, and I know they will love you very much." She gave her husband a quick glance, and the Duke of Trebane snickered.

"Whatever my wife approves of, I must also commend—there's not a wiser woman on this earth and possibly the next." He stood, which prompted Catalina to stand as well. He kissed her cheek and grinned at her. "Welcome to perhaps the most red-blooded noble family in Gravonia, Catalina, and we hope you will be very happy contending with us. Don't mind the shouting—it's a sign of love, believe me."

"Thank you… Thomas… sir," Catalina stammered. Eleanor smiled.

"Now, Your Grace, I hope you will be able to stay a bit longer and meet with King Philip and Princess Isabella, to hammer out final details," Eleanor interjected, standing. Everyone rose to their feet, and the Queen smiled. "I will send for them both and leave you all to talk. Good day and God bless you."

King Philip readily agreed to the match, and Isabella looked pleased and relieved that all had worked out so smoothly. She teased her sister about it that night. "So you and Baltasar will not need to elope after all, I see."

Catalina only had stars in her eyes and couldn't stop smiling. "I would go anywhere with him, I think. He said he would have eloped with me, if it had come to it, but I am glad I did not have to dishonor our families. Bridget is so nice, Isabella, and so is the Duke and I met Baltasar's younger brothers and little sister Meg and they were so jolly and… I'm so happy. I've never been so happy!"

Isabella smiled softly, thinking of how much she would miss her baby sister. Catalina saw her sister's expression and sat down, taking her hands in hers.

"I will miss you so much, Isabella. I've never been away from you, even for a day… it will be dreadful, to say goodbye… "

"You will have plenty to occupy yourself with, once you're married. You will be taking care of your husband and raising little ones and… "

"I will write to you often. You know that. You protected me from Alfonso and from Pedro and you were always on my side, no matter how much I annoyed Constantine, and you never once failed to set me right when I was behaving like a horrible little goblin." She grinned. "Sometimes I forgot you were my sister and regarded you more as a mother."

"Separated by less than three years!" Isabella laughed, tears stinging her eyes. "Oh, God, Catalina, what will I do without you? When Constantine is away, I will have no one about to talk to!"

"Elizabeth is learning to talk... though I admit, her favorite word is 'Papa' and she babbles to her doll."

"It won't be long before she's babbling to me and to her Papa—we'll only need to start worrying if she's still babbling to her doll when she's ten. I will not like leaving you at all, Cat, but I want to see you happy and well-cared for. You will have a degree of rank here in Gravonia, and a comfortable home and children to take care of. In a few years, Elizabeth will come here and you will be a great ally to her, I'm sure."

Catalina clasped her sister's hands, the enormity of her situation slowly dawning on her. "I'm going to be married… what if I'm no good at it?"

Isabella laughed. "You'll be fine. All you need to do is learn to take things in stride and learn patience."

"Oh, God, I'm done for then! I'll never learn to be patient!"

"We all learn, Cat. It's either learn or shrivel up and blow away in the wind. Have faith in yourself and trust your husband and you'll both learn what you need to know."

Saturday morning, Philip insisted on speaking with Baltasar alone, and emerged from their meeting satisfied that the young man was worthy of Catalina's hand. After that, the Duke and Duchess of Trebane officially gave the union their blessing, and with that, all was settled. Eleanor was pleased to see that the course of true love was allowed, for once, to run smoothly, though she knew the young people involved would encounter a few bumps along the way.

The day was going to be a busy one. Henry wasn't keen on attending Petitions Court, but felt he had to, in order to make Philip know he was a conscientious monarch. So it was that, just after luncheon, the Gravonian and Morvenian monarchs piled into carriages and rolled out through the teeming crowds, smiling and accepting their cheers. Black and gold and red and white flags were being waved enthusiastically, and when they pulled up at the steps, an even larger crowd of enthusiastic citizens lined the red carpet. Philip helped Isabella out of their carriage, and received the warm applause with a smile, but it was Eleanor who received the loudest applause when Henry assisted her down from the carriage.

"You'd think the Queen was the one running the show," Philip said to Isabella, who laughed.

"What makes you think she doesn't?"

"Well… " Philip thought about it. She had come to the border last year, without the King's knowledge, and stopped a war. She had drawn up a brilliant plan at the Field of Stones and sent the surviving Lacovians home with their tails between their legs and their King wrapped up in burlap. Besides which, she had found a good husband for Catalina. All three factors added up to a woman who was in charge and knew it, yet did not make a show of it.

He glanced at the Queen, who was wearing light blue silk—she seemed to favor blue—and a tiara of flashing diamonds and amethysts, her shoulders wrapped in ermines. She smiled graciously at the cheering crowds, walking three paces behind the King. Philip and Isabella followed them up to the door, and went inside. The vast Hall of Justice was packed with petitioners, as usual, from every walk of life among Gravonia's citizens save the nobility. The crowd parted and Henry strode up to the throne on the dais, and Eleanor took her place at his side. Philip and Isabella took chairs on the other side of the dais, and the Court Bailiff thumped his staff on the floor, which caused everyone in the room to stop talking and stand still.

"We call this Court to order and do call… " He peered down at his list of names on the docket. "Catherine Trueblood."

Philip was intrigued by Eleanor's reaction to the petitioner's name. The Queen's hands gripped the arms of her chair until her knuckles turned white, and her face became very, very pale.

From the back of the room, a woman in black came forward. She wore a long, thick black cloak, and a hood over her head, and she used a long, straight staff to aid her steps, but Philip noted that she did not seem lame. However, her head was bowed in such a way that he suspected she was quite elderly. However, when she finally reached the little docket gate and pushed back her hood, he was surprised to see she was quite young—no more than perhaps fifty, at the very most, and in vigorous health. Her hair was thick and black, streaked with silver; her eyes were startlingly blue, her skin was smooth and clear, and she was trim and elegant, with a lovely figure. His gaze went from her to the Queen, and he was startled by their resemblance.

"What is your petition, Madame?" Henry asked sharply.

"I beg Your Majesty to allow me to bless your sons… including others not yet born." Catherine curtsied gracefully to Henry and Eleanor and to Philip.

"Yet born?" Henry looked amused. "We have four already, Madame. I'm sure the Queen feels that is quite enough now."

"Nay, there will be more. I believe you and the Queen will be the parents of a pride of lions, Your Majesty, and they are all destined for great things."

Henry studied the woman carefully, then looked at Eleanor, amused. "What do you think, dearest? Shall we send for the princes?"

Eleanor was staring at the woman, her mouth a firm, thin line. She drew her breath in very slowly, then exhaled. "Are you from this country, ma'am?" she asked.

"I am from Livonia, Your Majesty," Catherine said. "The princes are half-Livonian. I feel it only right to see they are blessed by someone from their dear mother's native country."

"How are you qualified to issue blessings?" Eleanor asked, her voice strangely sharp, which startled not just Henry but everyone in the room. No one had ever heard her sound so harsh.

"It is only a petition, Your Majesty. From a Livonian of good stock and respectable family. I do not declare myself qualified. I merely wish to… "

"Good stock, you say? Of what family are you? I have never heard of anyone named Trueblood."

Catherine's expression darkened. "I believe your grandfather the King knew my family. I could say we were… friendly."

The Queen closed her eyes briefly before she looked at her husband. "Yes, send for the princes, dearest."

Catherine continued, barely glancing at Henry. "I have heard of your great success here in Gravonia, Your Majesty," The Queen flinched slightly in response. "That aside from bearing your husband four strong sons, you have also done much to help the people of this country, and Gravonia's growing wealth and power is due largely to your efforts. I have heard you even won a great victory against the filthy Lacovians at the Field of Stones." She settled her steady blue gaze on Eleanor. "Those monsters murdered my own poor daughter, many years ago, with her husband and her little daughter."

Eleanor swallowed and looked down at her hands. "Gravonia's prosperity is entirely due to my husband's skills as a leader, Madame, and none of mine. And I am sorry for your loss."

"Your taking no credit for your accomplishments speaks well of your upbringing, ma'am. Your father and mother would be very proud."

Eleanor's fists clenched. "Yes. They would be extremely proud, I daresay."

Henry was bewildered by the exchange between the two women. "We would be pleased to fetch the princes, Madame. Eleanor… uh… are you well, dearest?"

"I am in excellent health, sir, just as always," Eleanor snapped, not looking at her husband.

"Your mother would be gratified to know she has borne a great Queen," Catherine said, bowing her head again.

"All things considered, it would not be wise of you to speak in my mother's place, ma'am," Eleanor said, almost hissing.

"Eleanor… " Henry said, touching her hand. She flinched and struggled to regain her composure before looking at him. "This kind woman only wishes to lay her hands on our sons and ask God's blessings on them… we are always pleased when anyone asks to bless our boys." He squeezed her hand, and she looked at him. "I am also sure she is speaking well of your dear mother, who is by all accounts a good, sweet woman. Just like yourself."

Philip watched this exchange in growing bewilderment. The cool, collected Queen he had gotten to know was almost a stranger to him now: she was agitated, angry and clearly frightened, but of what? He looked at the woman in black, wondering, and noted again how closely she resembled the Queen. He knew that Livonians were usually dark-haired and often blue-eyed, but the similarity between Queen Eleanor and Catherine Trueblood was remarkable.

"My apologies, Madame," Eleanor finally managed to say, but her teeth were clenched. "I would be… delighted to have my sons blessed by a fellow Livonian."

"Thank you, Your Majesty." Catherine executed a low, elegant curtsey to the Queen, and Philip wondered if she had had many dealings with the Livonian court. Obviously she knew a bit about how to talk to royalty.

Henry gestured for one of his knights to go to the palace and collect the boys. "In the meantime, we will go on with petitions until the princes are brought here. Madame, if you would like, we can provide you with a seat and perhaps some refreshment…" The King nodded to Boris, who bowed and left, returning a few moments with a chair.

"I thank you, Your Majesty," Catherine said softly, and sat down. Eleanor eyed the woman coldly and nodded to the Sergeant at Arms to call forth the next petitioner.

Several cases were heard in the following two hours, while Henry grappled with issues of accidentally burned pigs (the man who threw the scalding water out of the window was fined two marks), a collapsed roof (negligence, with a hefty fine—the landlord did not perform necessary repairs), the delicate matter of a newborn child bearing a disturbing resemblance to the randy son of the next-door neighbor (the son could not be charged, as there was no provable evidence against him, but he was told to keep his hands to himself and the baby's mother was told to mind her own business), and the sad case of an elderly woman being forced out of her long-time home by an unsympathetic landlord (the landlord was reminded of his Christian duty to help the poor and elderly above the needs of his own purse; the woman's children were berated for not having helped her properly, and a small pension was drawn up for her needs until they were able to, as Henry put it, 'get off their arses and take care of their poor Mum'). Henry demonstrated some skill at diplomacy in those cases, but he consulted with Eleanor several times and her whispered advice was heeded each time.

Eleanor's talent for mediating difficult disputes and finding reasonable solutions to difficult problems astounded Philip. Though she rarely even spoke to the petitioners, she seemed to understand their troubles—she had a firm grasp of their cares, concerns and foibles, and would not allow Henry to be harsh toward any of them, no matter how foolishly they had behaved. Henry showed no small amount of wisdom, too, in always consulting his wife before announcing his verdicts, and his care and concern for even the poorest peasants was notable. Even more, he spoke respectfully to even the poorest peasants, and showed no partiality in his judgments.

Finally, the princes arrived with Boris and Lady Agnes, and the two elder princes happily galloped up the center aisle to their parents, while Boris carried Harry and William. Eleanor checked the boys over quickly while the crowds of petitioners settled down again, and she set her cool gaze on Catherine Trueblood.

"Mistress Trueblood," she said, gesturing to the woman in black, who stood and made her way to the dais steps. She smiled down at the four boys, who all looked up at her with interest. "My sons."

"Aye, yes, they are indeed!" Catherine said, touching the tousled dark hair of Crown Prince Alexander. "You are a handsome little devil, aren't you?"

Alexander did not shrink from the woman, and she did not embarrass him by caressing him too much. Instead she only touched his cheek and turned her attention to Frederick, who took more after his father with his blond hair and grey eyes. The twins were dark and blond, with Eleanor's dark blue eyes, and Catherine gazed wonderingly at them all.

"I do bless these boys and their future siblings," she said softly. "I ask God the Father to grant them courage, peace and strength, and to the Crown Prince I petition our Lord to grant him fortitude to endure the storms that will come upon him, and to face them without flinching." She studied Alexander for several moments. "And those storms will come, Alexander, and they will be frightful. But you will endure and you will wear your father's crown." She looked at Eleanor. "But the steps to the throne will be awash with blood, and a sword will pierce through your soul, Eleanor, and the secrets of many hearts will be revealed."

Henry didn't like the sound of that at all. "Madame, I see no good reason to frighten my sons in this way, or to make my wife so unhappy."

"I apologize, my lord," Catherine said. "I meant no disrespect."

"I'm sure you didn't," Henry said tightly. "We thank you for your blessing. Alexander, Frederick… say thank you to the nice lady so she can go."

The two princes bowed properly and thanked Catherine. She smiled at them both, touched Harry and Frederick and whispered in their ears, then turned and walked slowly back up the long center aisle, not even turning back when she reached the door. She stepped out into the light and the doors were shut behind her.

"Well, that was certainly something to see," Henry said, casting an uneasy glance at Philip, who nodded, still studying Eleanor.

"Aye, indeed. Something to write home about, for sure."

A sword will pierce through your soul.

Eleanor wiped her tears away, glad that everyone in the chapel had their heads down and their eyes were closed. Last night, she had searched through the Scriptures until she found the prophecy in the Gospel of Luke, and had gone to bed shaking with fear. When Archbishop Nichols read the same scripture, during his sermon (how had he known to make his sermon about the prophecy of Simeon, she wondered), she had started trembling again and she felt King Philip's eyes on her.

"Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."

Sunday mass ended quietly, and Eleanor asked if she might watch Elizabeth while Isabella napped. She sat on the terrace, observing the red-headed toddler as she played with Alexander and Frederick. She was a jolly, sweet little thing, as curious as a cat and full of energy. She was happy to go walking with the Queen through the garden and excitedly pointed out bugs and flowers, and became very excited when she saw a dragonfly. "Papa bug!" she said with a laugh, clapping her hands. "Papa bug!"

"Oh… yes, a dragonfly, hm? Is your Papa a scary dragon?"

"No, Papa nice." Elizabeth smiled at her. She held up her ever-present doll, waggling it proudly. "Papa give me."

"I see. I stand corrected. Your Papa must be very nice, to give you such a pretty doll." The doll had suffered its share of scrapes and tears, and Isabella's skills as a nurse and seamstress had come to the fore, with each tear lovingly stitched.

Elizabeth nodded, giggling, and Eleanor had to sit down on the bench and try not to cry while her sons and Elizabeth chased each other around in the green grass. She managed, somehow, to calm herself down enough to lead them back to the palace and sit them at the table to go over their reading lessons. Alexander practiced his writing, with Frederick slowly read aloud from his hand-made primer. Elizabeth traced her fingers over each word while Eleanor read to her, and when the lessons were over she turned the children loose upstairs to play under Agnes' watchful eye.

The next morning, as she said goodbye to the Morvenian royal party, she pretended to be cheerful and kissed Philip and Isabella both, and knelt down to kiss and hug Elizabeth. "You are going to be a wonderful Queen one day, Elizabeth. I look forward to seeing you again." She stood and embraced Isabella again, who was barely keeping herself together, what with leaving her sister behind. Both women began to cry, for different reasons, while Philip and Henry shook hands and clapped each other on the back.

"We will write to one another often, and I will keep you abreast of all that happens with Catalina, I assure you, and if Baltasar is ever in the least bit unkind, you will hear it from me first," Eleanor said, struggling to smile through her tears.

"He wouldn't dare be unkind. I don't think he would want to face me, Philip, my husband and the entire Morvenian army if he isn't!" Isabella joked, wiping her eyes.

"That's very true," Philip said. "Though I think Baltasar would be most terrified to see you coming at him, spewing Spanish invective and pointing a hot knitting needle at him."

"Then I'm sure he will always be on his best behavior."

Catalina, through floods of tears, hugged her sister again. "It's me who will have to be on her best behavior… oh, God, Izzy, what will I do without you?" she sobbed.

"You will be fine… "

"Eventually. Once I run out of tears."

Isabella managed to extricate herself from her sister's arms and hugged Baltasar fiercely, who was a little overwhelmed to see royalty in tears, much less to be in the midst of such heightened female emotion. "You be good to her, you hear, because if you aren't I'll kill you!"

"All right, all right, enough of all this blubbering," Philip said. "Pretty soon we'll all be dehydrated. Come along, Isabella… " He gently herded her into the carriage. "There's a good lass, get in the coach, and be careful… you're comfortable? Very good. And Elizabeth, you're running around in circles again. You'll get dizzy and throw up all over the coach floor and I'll have to act cross again, which you'll see right through, you little witch." He picked up the little girl, hugging her and giving her an affectionate kiss. He handed her to Isabella, who settled her daughter in her lap, hugging her, and turned back to grin at Henry and Eleanor. "Well, we had a fine visit. Henry, I've never had a grander time on a state visit. Eleanor, your hospitality was unmatched and it was a great pleasure to finally meet you." He gave her a quick, conspiratorial wink, and she swallowed.

The King of Morvenia climbed into the coach with his sister-in-law and niece, the door was closed, and when Philip knocked on the roof the coachman released the brake, slapped the reins and they rolled away.

May 1378

"I feel rather fat."

Philip grinned at his sister-in-law, who hardly looked fat. Pregnancy seemed to agree with her, this time-round, and she had reported that her morning sickness had passed even before they left Gravonia. She was able to eat normally at last, and as far as he was concerned, that was better than seeing her looking green around the gills.

The King had taken to visiting Isabella at hers and Constantine's home at least once a week, to see that she didn't get lonely. Now that her sister was safely married in Gravonia and settled into her new home (and reporting to be very happy), Isabella was more or less alone at what was being called Fairwood Palace by the locals. It was better called a rambling manor house, with a steep roof, wide windows and lovely views of the countryside and Constantine's fertile acres of farmland. It was a lovely, warm and sturdy home, suited for a family of children and dogs, and Isabella had made it a comfortable, relaxing haven.

"Not that again," Philip said. Elizabeth, seated in a highchair that Isabella had brought with her from Cadiz, kicked and squealed happily, slapping her hands on the table.

They were dining on the terrace, which gave them a view of the beautiful orchards, which were in new, ecstatic bloom. Bees hummed drunkenly over apple and peach blossoms, and past the orchards farm tenants were planting. Philip could understand why Constantine and Isabella loved the place—it was simply home, and nothing at Court, in all its splendor, could match this.

"Well, I do." Isabella smiled. "I eat a lot… though I am eating for two, you know."

"Yes, for two, I agree. But remember it's two, not fifteen." He chuckled at her as she took another piece of ham off the serving platter.

"Oh, you're just a font of nattering wit today, aren't you, Your Majesty?"

"I aim to please." Movement behind Isabella caught his eye and Philip's eyes widened when he saw his brother clomping up the steps, looking as though he had been ridden hard and put up wet. "Good God! The wanderer has returned!"

Isabella didn't have time to turn around before Constantine dropped a kiss on her forehead and sat down at her right hand, after kissing his daughter, who squealed in delight and began shouting "Papa home!" over and over. In the same instant, a servant went running to prepare a place setting for the prince. Isabella smiled brightly and blushed, barely even hearing her daughter's gleeful shouts in her own pleasure at seeing her husband.

"You're home! Oh, I'm so glad to see you are in one piece," Isabella said, clasping her hands happily.

"I rode almost non-stop in almost non-stop rain these past three days to get home early," Constantine said, smiling wearily at his wife and daughter. "I think my horse melted."

"Well, so long as you didn't, brother," Philip grinned, but he didn't get up. His brother looked like he needed to sit for a while. "I'm pleased you're home."

Constantine looked around the table. "Where's Catalina?"

"In Gravonia. She's married."

For a moment, the prince looked bewildered. "Really? Well, that was quick."

"I gave my consent, as did Isabella," Philip explained hurriedly. "Seems the lass fell madly in love with Lord Baltasar Seebolt."

"Thomas Seebolt's boy?" Constantine thanked the servant for his plate and stabbed a slice of ham off the platter. "The eldest, right?"

"Yep. Dya know Seebolt was made a Duke last year?"

"Really? I wouldn't have thought he'd go for a Duchy. A plain-speaking man, that one." He turned his attention to Isabella. "I'm sure you miss your sister, Isabella."

"I have come to accept it, I think," Isabella said. Constantine ate his ham in silence, the King and Isabella watching him indulgently. "I do miss her dreadfully, of course."

"Of course you do, and I'm sure Queen Marie is bereft at losing her."

Philip laughed. "Oh, she's inconsolable."

"Cries constantly," Isabella said, dabbing her mouth with her napkin.

"Oh, that's a given." Constantine cleaned his plate in a matter of minutes and sat back, looking a little less worn. He looked at his wife, and his expression changed from vaguely sleepy to curious. "Isabella, are you all right?"

"I am enceinte."

"What's that mean? You're sick?"

Philip burst into laughter. "Constantine, she's with child again."

"Oh." Constantine looked at his plate for a moment, the statement not initially sinking in, then he looked up at his wife again. "Oh! Dear God, sit down!"

"I am sitting!" Isabella laughed. "I pray it will be a son," she said softly.

"I don't give a damn either way, so long as you come through it all right. I won't lie though—I don't want to go through it for you, as I understand childbirth hurts a bit."

"Oh, it's a bee sting," Isabella sniffed.

"Isabella, an arrow to the shoulder is a bee sting. Pushing nine pounds of elbows and knees out through a hole that small has to be… "

"Horrifying," Philip said, shuddering. "Oh, and… uh… there's other news."

"If you tell me I have to go help some other lutefisk-infested country fend off another lutefisk-infested country, I'm afraid I'll have to stab you to death in your sleep," Constantine said, not taking his eyes off Isabella.

"It's not that! Though… well, you may not like it. Or maybe you will." Philip glanced at Isabella, who had an exasperated expression on her face, but he plowed on. "It seems… well, it's… King Henry and I are sort of… engaged… "

"Listen, Philip, if you've gone and gotten poor Henry in trouble, you're the one who will have to break it to Mother."

"Not that kind of engagement, you nit!" Philip growled. "We're in negotiations to see Elizabeth married to… to his son, Crown Prince Alexander."

"Philip, I was going to tell him that," Isabella said, giving him a pointed look.

"Well, I just thought… "

"It was my place to tell him and keep him from getting upset."

Philip shoulders slumped. "Well, I… "

"Yes, it was up to Isabella to tell me this bit of news," Constantine said, glaring at his brother.

"I was just… " He looked contrite, then suddenly realized that he had just been berated by his younger brother and his sister-in-law. "Wait a minute! I'm the King!"

"Oh, Philip, you've gotten so good at that! Who's that over there?" Constantine said, pointing at the household butler, Teale, who looked startled and took a step backwards. "Isabella… how do you feel about this?"

"About Philip being able to remember who he is, or our daughter being betrothed when she's scarcely out of nappies?"

"The latter."

"Well, at first I was not thrilled, but princes must marry, and it's best they marry princesses, and I think our little Lili will fit in very well in Gravonia. King Henry is a very kind and unselfish man and Eleanor is the sweetest woman alive, and they will make sure she is made very welcome there."

"Hm," Constantine grunted. "And when will our daughter be shipped off like a prize broodmare?"

"Some years from now," Isabella told him. "We agreed that she will not be permitted to go to Gravonia until she is about sixteen, to become acclimated to the Gravonian court, but they will not marry until she is eighteen. However, if we do not have a son, then the contract will be rendered null... we... we have agreed to that, but I know I will bear a son and hopefully more than one son before then."


"Henry even agreed that the marriage will not take place unless she gives her consent, of her own free will."

"That's something, I suppose," Constantine said, looking at his daughter. She was trying to get out of her seat so she could clamber into his lap, and the prince finally helped her out and scooted back to settle her on his knee. "That shows he has some degree of… human compassion."

"Yes, it does," Isabella said, smiling at her daughter, who turned around so she could hug her father around the neck, not caring that he smelled like a wet horse. "Henry and Eleanor are raising a very nice little boy, Constantine. Alexander has excellent manners and he is already learning to read and write… and he and Elizabeth did get along well, though I'll concede that they're three and two years old. How they'll suit when they're eighteen and nineteen is as yet unknown."

"And he speaks French and German already," Philip grinned.

"Well, there's a point in his favor," Constantine muttered. "I guess we should step up on Elizabeth's education. Granted, at this point, she only speaks to us or her doll."

Isabella smiled. "Let me go ring for the servants to prepare a bath for you, Constantine." She stood, and Constantine eyed her bulging belly.

"Subtle," he said with a grin.

"Well, I have to admit—however pleasant it is to see you again, you do smell horrible." She shyly kissed his cheek just the same, wrinkled her nose, and left. Constantine turned his attention to his daughter, who was fingering the dragon clasp that held his cloak together.

"Dragon," Elizabeth said.

"Yes, it's a dragon."


"We've established that, I think."

"You know, Catalina told me something rather interesting, just before we left for Gravonia."

Elizabeth hugged her father tightly, so that he started having trouble breathing. "Let go of Papa, sweetheart, before he passes out." The tiny girl reluctantly let go and Constantine put her down on the stones. She began racing around the table, squealing and giving her doll a thrill ride it had never experienced before. "And what was that?"

"Well… she said that her uncle Alfonso had a penchant for… well… abusing her and Isabella."

Constantine's expression hardened, which made Elizabeth stop and stare at her father, wide-eyed. "Dragon!" she shouted.

"Hush, baby," Constantine said gently, trying to unlock his jaw.

"Well, I took care of the situation," Philip said, glancing back to make sure Isabella was not at the door. "I sent the Scotsman."

"Don't tell me you had Alfonso assassinated!"

Feigning shock, Philip glared at his brother, glancing back at the door and raising his eyebrows, but he nodded as he spoke. "Of course not."

"Philip, you can't right every wrong that comes along," Constantine hissed, also glancing toward the door. The last thing he wanted was to have his wife hear that her former guardian had been killed. Justly so, of course, but he would not have Isabella distressed.

"No, but I can bloody well right the ones I can right, and the man deserved to be killed. The Scotsman said he came upon the bastard beating up a barmaid in Cadiz. A quick twist of a silk thread and the man was fertilizer. I won't have someone who beats children allowed to live."

"I keep forgetting that you're a pretty damned ruthless man," Constantine mused. "I pray I never cross you."

"I can be, when necessary, and I can't imagine you crossing me. You've had ample opportunity and even a few reasons, but never have. Just the same, I prefer to be at peace with all." He sat back in his chair and played with his fork and spoon. "Besides, I like Catalina and I like Isabella. I won't hear of them being hurt, and Alfonso hurt them and many others, and a payment was required." He leaned forward. "You would have done the same, I think."

"Yes, I suppose I would have." Constantine frowned, standing up slowly, his muscles aching. "But I wouldn't have sent the Scotsman—I'd've done it myself. No man will abuse my wife or her sister and live long. Good day, brother. See yourself out." He picked up Elizabeth, who waved her arms and hit her father in the head with her doll, but he was unfazed and carried her into the house.

Philip drank down the last of his ale, thanked the servants for a fine meal, and called for his horse. As he rode home with his attendants, he thought again of Queen Eleanor's reaction to Catherine Trueblood, and wondered again why the usually calm, collected woman should become so upset to see her sons blessed by a peasant woman from Livonia. That and their striking resemblance to one another had been very intriguing, and as he kicked his horse into a gallop, he decided to look into the matter on his own.

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