Catherine almost burst into tears when Eleanor finally stepped into the clearing. She rushed to her, ready to embrace her granddaughter, but stopped short at the expression on the young woman's face.
"What do you want?" Eleanor demanded, arms folded across her chest.
"I only wished to see you, child. To speak to you in private."
"About what? Are you intending to blackmail me? You're wanting money, or some position… "
"Money? Dear God, no! I only wanted to see you… "
"Oh, that's rich! Who told you I was even here?" Eleanor snapped, keeping her distance from Catherine, who stood still, bereft at not being allowed to even touch the girl. Her only living relative… her granddaughter.
"Lord Tree's housemaid. I know her somewhat, and she commented about Princess Eleanor being so strong and healthy, and I knew then that something had happened… you and she bore such a strong resemblance… "
"How much did you pay that servant girl for information about me?" Eleanor snapped. "And how did she know who I was, anyway?"
"She didn't. She only mentioned that Princess Eleanor had stayed at the Trees' home on her way to Luvov, and how healthy and strong you were. I knew Princess Eleanor was never either. Sweetheart… I did not come to distress you, but I had to come to see if you were really… you, or if you were really buried at Ravensburg—it broke my heart when I heard you had died, sweetheart. I only wanted to see if you were truly alive and then I had to see my great-grandsons… I cannot believe I'm a great-grandmother!" Catherine smiled. "They're such beautiful boys, Eleanor."
"Do you know what could happen if anyone ever found out who I really am?" Eleanor hissed at her. "Did it never occur to you? I would lose my head! My sons would be declared bastards and my husband would be humiliated… "
"I would never tell a soul, Eleanor… "
"I am not Eleanor! I am Your Majesty!" Eleanor snapped, furious. "You call me here at this hour, when I am already distressed, and a few days ago you come to put on such a shameful show… it was disgusting!"
"I only wanted to see you… and my great-grandsons… " Catherine said lamely, and bowed her head.
"Oh, you're so devoted to me and to them… but how devoted were you when you abandoned my mother? Count von Hesse told me all about that."
"He did not tell you all," Catherine said. "I was very young and very, very foolish when I met King Michael… well, he was Crown Prince then. He was charming and sweet and gave me presents… a starry-eyed sixteen-year old girl with a head full of silly notions would fall for Attila the Hun for all that, and I let him bed me. Several times, I'm ashamed to say, but when I told him I was with child he threw me out and never spoke to me again." She clasped her hands together. "At least… not until he was dying."
"I don't wish to hear about his tearful deathbed confessions," Eleanor told her angrily.
"You will listen just the same. I was sixteen years old when I had your mother. Sixteen. My parents were relatively prosperous and perfectly respectable, and so when I told them I was pregnant, they were appalled but they still took your mother in while I just… behaved like a bloody idiot. I eventually wandered off with gypsies, wanting to get away from Teslo and any memories I had of Michael… "
"I don't want to hear!" Eleanor raged at her, but she somehow managed to keep her voice low.
"You need to hear, Eleanor. You need to understand."
"If you wish to unburden your conscience, speak with a priest."
"Heresy," Catherine said, shaking her head. "I learned much from those gypsies, I must say. No priest needs to stand between a man or a woman and God, and only God can forgive sins. But I did not come here to confess my sins or ask for your forgiveness. I have gone through all that already, long ago. I merely wanted you to know that I told your grandfather that our daughter had married John Reeve and had a daughter of her own—a sweet little black-haired sprite named Eleanor."
Eleanor dropped down onto a fallen log. "Forbid it Almighty God, that he knew… "
"He told no one. He was dying, Eleanor. He was beyond speech by then." Catherine sat down beside her. "I did not reveal where you were. I did not wish to break his heart further by telling him his other granddaughter was dead, either. He seemed… pleased to know you were alive. He looked very peaceful… at the end. Not even his wife and children were there when he died—Eleanor, he had much to regret, and had made more than a few mistakes along the way."
"Every Court has spies, and everything is overheard," Eleanor reminded her angrily. "It would be a wonder if no one were listening to us now, or if someone was listening to you then!"
"No one is about, and you can be sure there was not a lonelier man than your grandfather." She regarded the dark forest surrounding the little clearing. "Do you see eyeflash? None, girl. Come now, you grew up at Ravensburg, and I know the Count taught you how to watch for such things. If only he had told you the truth about himself and your poor mother… "
"Do not speak of my mother, and do not dare call the Count a liar!" Eleanor hissed, standing up and pacing to the other side of the clearing, hugging herself and shivering.
"She was my daughter first, Eleanor. So I can tell you about her, whether you wish to know or not."
Eleanor glared at her, and Catherine took that as a signal to continue.
"She was but fifteen when she went to work at Ravensburg, but she didn't last long there. The Countess—Frederick's mother—was a nasty old termagant and poor Margaret was rather clumsy then. She broke a vase and the Countess flung her out of the castle, but Frederick liked her and… well, he and my daughter became very good friends." She looked pointedly at Eleanor, who continued to glare at her. "I didn't think it then, but I know now that he did genuinely love my daughter, and he wanted to marry her… "
"Stop this… "
"But his family would have none of it. They threatened to disown him, and she refused him anyway… she didn't believe she could endure life as the wife of a nobleman, knowing how the upper classes treat peasants sometimes… "
"Count von Hesse never mistreated anyone!" Eleanor said hotly. "How dare you say such a thing!"
"It's what she thought, Eleanor, not me. I tried to keep my mouth shut on the matter, but I admit I did not, and then she met John Reeve, who loved her, too, and she decided to marry him—he came from a long line of yeoman archers and knights, albeit not noblemen, but they were good people, and hardy stock." Catherine sighed. "I used to hold a great deal against von Hesse, Eleanor, but I remember the look on his face when my Margaret said she could not marry him and that she was marrying John instead. He was… heartbroken. I'm glad to learn he has since married and has two little daughters now… "
Eleanor swallowed. "He adopted me."
"How in bloody hell do you know anything about me?" Eleanor raged. "I've never spoken to you save that one time when you read my fortune… in tea leaves, no less!"
"I was only hoping to see you—to speak to my granddaughter, and von Hesse forbade it, but there you were on the road into Turon. I had to see you, sweetheart.. I admit, I caused him much trouble, out of my own foolish pride, and he still blames me for Margaret leaving him. I look back on it now and think that if I had not encouraged her to marry John Reeve, she might be alive today at Ravensburg, and you… "
"I wouldn't exist."
"Perhaps it is destiny, then, Eleanor. Perhaps it is all God's will."
"And thus He smote my parents, to get me on the consort's throne of Gravonia?" Eleanor asked, her voice bitter. "Do you think I wanted this? I was prepared to marry another when the princess and her retinue showed up at Ravensburg…"
"What? Who were you going to marry?"
"Does it matter now?" Eleanor shook her head. "It seems like a million years ago. I wouldn't even recognize Eleanor Reeve. She is as dead as her parents." Eleanor extracted a heavy gold coin from her pocket. "Take this and be gone—return to Livonia or the gypsy camps or wherever you go when you can't deal with the world. Do not return here, though, Catherine. Do you understand me?"
Catherine Trueblood nodded and took the coin. She curtseyed low to the Queen, and when she stood up straight again, Eleanor was gone.
Philip sat down at the table in the dining hall at Fairwood, looking around at the warm, inviting room. Instead of dark paneling, as anyone else would have used, Isabella had elected to have it paneled in light ash, and the walls were painted a soft, creamy shade of yellow. The room was not only warm and peaceful, but also well-lit from a bank of wide windows to the west. The room had feminine touches all about, and Philip was always surprised by that—Constantine had given Isabella free rein to decorate the large house in her own style, and her taste was exquisite. Even the antlered head of a huge elk, above the fireplace, looked as though he approved of the setting.
He had stayed away from Constantine's home for the past few months, having become extremely busy with matters of State and playing interference between Marie and one of her ladies, who had committed the egregious sin of falling in love and deciding to marry. By the time the wedding finally happened—with the Dowager Queen scowling in the front pew and the bride looking like she might faint dead away under such a withering glare—Philip was not inclined toward making the trip. He was glad to know, however, that Isabella was progressing beautifully through her pregnancy—she was sure she was due to give birth toward the end of December, and that was just a few months away.
He was even gladder to see that Constantine was happy, or at least content. He knew his brother still mourned the loss of Eleanor Reeve, but in his own philosophy, life is for the living, and the man had a lovely, sweet wife and growing family to keep him occupied. The formerly rather grim and dour Dragon was even caught smiling sometimes, and he seemed to like staying at home and being a simple country squire, instead of a ferocious dragon. He even took Elizabeth and Isabella hunting with him, and when he rode around on his estate, inspecting his land and visiting with his tenants, he took the child along, to the delight of the farmers' wives.
"So Isabella is upstairs asleep, eh? Good for her—she'll need to store up sleep."
Constantine nodded and kept an eye on his daughter. She was sitting on the floor, looking in her picture book and reciting French verbs. She was an adorable little thing, with a thick mop of silky red-gold hair and her father's striking green eyes, and she had a high, piping voice.
"Yes, it is good for her to sleep and why are you here?"
Philip snickered. "Just thought I'd pay a visit. Mother has gone to her estate in the country, so she can plan on ways to torment poor Ulrike Bennington when she returns from her honeymoon. I was thus quite bored." He smiled at Elizabeth, who came around to him and shoved her picture book in his lap. "What a pretty book, Lili."
"Queen 'leanor made it," she said.
"Did she? The Queen must be very talented."
"Mummy says she is."
Philip rubbed his chin, thinking, and finally turned back to Constantine. "Brother, do you recall, long ago, when you and DeForet and his men went through Teslo in Livonia?"
"There was no Teslo to go through. It was razed to the ground by those damned Lacovians," Constantine said, his expression darkening.
"Aye, I know. Hideous bastards. But… uh… the girl… Eleanor Ree--… "
"I have told you that I do not wish to discuss the matter."
Philip stared at his brother, taking in his growing anger, but he was one of the few people alive who did not even fear his brother's most violent explosions. They were few and far between, particularly since he had come under the influence of gentle Isabella's ways, but throughout Europe, anyone who saw that look on his face was wise to turn tail and run for his life.
"I would, actually. The girl was raised by Count von Hesse, eh?"
"Yes," Constantine said tightly.
"You mentioned to me that her mother was the bastard daughter of King Michael. Do you recollect her mother's name?"
"No I do not!" Constantine snapped, banging his fist on the table. Elizabeth had stopped reciting her French verbs and was watching her father, eyes huge, and when he banged his fist on the table, she began to cry, frightened, and put her picture book down. Constantine swallowed and closed his eyes, struggling to regain control of his temper. "It is of no matter now. Eleanor Reeve is dead, and there's an end to it. A complete end, and I will not discuss it further, do you understand, brother?"
Philip drew in his breath slowly, watching a vein rise at Constantine's right temple, which signaled not only growing anger but also severe stress. He nodded. "I understand completely."
"Good." Constantine stood and went around to his daughter, crouching down in front of her. "Don't cry, sweetheart. I'm not angry with you. I can never be angry with you—remember when you threw that mud pie at me? Did I get angry at you then?"
"No. Just really dirty, and you said a naughty word."
Constantine smiled, the throbbing vein at his temple subsiding.
"Papa mad at uncle Philip?"
"Not any more. Philip at least knows when to leave a matter alone." He picked his daughter up, gave his brother an only vaguely polite nod, and left. Philip said back in his chair, sighing. He wondered if he should perhaps drop his investigation entirely. Was it really his business, particularly when it might cause his brother so much pain? Constantine was married to Isabella and was paying her proper attention, and the matter seemed to be very firmly closed and locked away in his brother's mind.
The mind, Philip knew, was one thing, however. The heart is entirely another.
Something about Queen Eleanor's reaction to Catherine Trueblood still seemed out of place. It simply did not jibe, and try as he might, he could not simply dismiss it. The resemblance between the two women had been dazzling, and when Philip's curiosity was peaked, he had great difficulty letting a matter go.
The only basis he had, he admitted, for any kind of investigation into the matter was Queen Eleanor's reaction to Catherine Trueblood and their startling resemblance to each other. Did Eleanor know the woman? If so, how and why? Catherine had mentioned an association with the Livonian royal family, but what kind of association had it been? And why on earth would Catherine come to visit Gravonia, much less to ask to bless Eleanor's sons?
It made no sense, and Philip preferred to live in a world where things added up.
He would, he decided as he left Fairwood, go on with the investigation for his own sake and leave Constantine out of it.
"Nothing? Not one bit of information?"
"Just the record of her birth, sir. Her parents were William Trueblood and Helen Scarsdale, both deceased."
Philip took the papers from the Scotsman and nodded absently as he read them over. The Scotsman was not usually utilized for finding information on people—his usual occupation was to quietly dispose of people who, in Philip's estimation, simply needed killing. But he was efficient and trustworthy in either endeavor, and thus his trip to Livonia had been disappointing. He had spent the past six months there, traveling around and asking questions, but had received no answers save a few birth records.
"Scarsdale… hm… a fine old family from northern Livonia, along the Havor border—a drop or two of blue blood, too, as I recall. And there are no records of her marriage to anyone?"
"Nay, sir. Ah don't know aboot any families from Livonia, either, sir," the Scotsman answered in his broad Highland accent. "I wouldn't know one Livonian clan from t'other."
"Yes, yes, I ken… thank you just the same. Stay in Garon for the time being, as I think I'll need your services again. And this woman has not been in Livonia in several months?"
"I went to the area where she was born an' raised, sir, and the village—Teslo—is gone. Just a ruined church and lots of gravestones with the same date of death. Pitiable sight, it was, too, I must say. Wee little bairns and women… all wiped out by those bloody Lacovians, from what I understand, without a drop o' mercy for any of 'em. A few farmers around there remembered the town bein' destroyed twenty-odd years ago, and that no one survived."
"No one, hm?" Philip perused the paper again. "Makes you wonder why Catherine Trueblood would go to Gravonia to bless the children of King Henry and Queen Eleanor, eh? Livonia and Gravonia were hardly on friendly terms twenty years ago, and people hold grudges."
The Scotsman shrugged and started to leave, but Philip stopped him. "Did you see the grave of John Reeve there?"
"Aye. He was buried next to a woman named Margaret. I assumed she was his wife."
"But her birth name was not shown?"
"Nay, sir. Just Margaret Reeve, as was."
"Very good. Thank you." He dismissed the Scotsman, who ambled away, whistling under his breath. To look at the man, no one would think he was a skilled assassin or a remarkably clever spy, considering his boozy swagger and lackadaisical attitude, but the man could move fast and was entirely loyal to King Philip.
Hadn't Constantine been among the knights who had come upon Teslo just hours after its destruction? He frowned, pondering, and tried to recall his brother mentioning anything further about the incident save a few choice curses at the cruelty of their northern enemy, but could bring up nothing. He had been with Leopold DeForet when they had found the little girl in the woods at Teslo, and she had been the daughter of John Reeve, but the girl's mother's own family name was as yet unknown—Constantine had never mentioned her. Perhaps he didn't know. But that same girl had grown up at Ravensburg, as von Hesse's ward and heiress, and Constantine had fallen in love with her, and had wanted to marry her.
He could not help wondering if perhaps there was some connection, through Eleanor Reeve's own family, to Catherine Trueblood. Why that would bother Queen Eleanor, however, was a mystery he was eager to solve. He would send the Scotsman to Ravensburg, to question von Hesse. He would surely know more about the poor girl's family.
In the meantime, though, he was determined to drink some sweet apple cider and do a spot of reading.
Lord Beauchamp was nervous.
He had never actually been to Lacovia before, and from what he was seeing, he could understand why it was on no one's list of places to visit. The whole country seemed to be little more than scrubland, scorched earth, crumbling buildings and half-starved people. Every time he rode through or around a village, he was dogged by beggars pleading for food. Dirty, half-dressed children were everywhere, and hideous-looking whores stood on almost every street corner. Whoever was managing them wasn't making much profit, unless their customers were into getting the pox and lice.
Nonetheless, he had business in Lacovia's capital, so he had to keep his head down and keep moving. The last thing he needed was to be recognized. He ignored the beggars trying to keep up with him and kicked his horse into a gallop, determined to reach Rumon before nightfall.
The capital of Lacovia was not much better than the ravaged countryside. The streets were narrow, littered with every kind of filth, and the buildings were crumbling. The only attractive building in the entire city was the royal palace, and when he presented his credentials to a guard, he was led through an opulent garden and into a vast marble-floored Great Hall. Exquisite furnishings, expensive-looking tapestries and lavish decorations were everywhere, and he was duly impressed—the Lacovian royal family lived extremely well, and clearly had plenty of money.
The King of Lacovia's rather reptilian-looking Major Domo presented himself, looked at Beauchamp with a narrow eye and nodded, turning to lead him down a long, columned hallway to the King of Lacovia's throne room.
The King of Lacovia—Paul III—was a boy of nineteen, standing perhaps six feet tall, with a swarthy complexion and an air of coldness about him that made even Beauchamp feel vaguely uncomfortable. He had inherited the throne on the day his father had been killed in battle at the Field of Stones, and the past few years had been hard on Lacovia, though Paul was said to not be eager to lower taxes to alleviate the burdens of his people—he wanted total war on Gravonia and eventually total conquest. Nonetheless, his army had been decimated at the Field of Stones, and the young king was eager to strike a hard blow on Henry one day.
When Beauchamp stepped into the room, Paul nodded from his throne and gestured for the Gravonian to come forward.
"Your Majesty… it is a great pleasure to meet you."
"I'm sure it is," Paul said, his cold, pale blue eyes narrowing. "You are here to strike a bargain, I understand."
"Yes, my lord. I have a daughter… Irene."
"That doesn't sound like a bargain, unless of course she has one hell of a huge dowry to offer."
"She does, sir. And she comes from fertile stock. I am sure she would be proud to be your Queen, sir, and she would bear you sturdy sons."
"Any woman I take as my bride would have to," Paul said with an icy little smile. "I won't tolerate a bunch of useless girls about to feed and dower."
His voice was high-pitched and grating to Beauchamp, and he had to swallow to force the bile down. The boy looked like a lizard. A mean-spirited, vicious little lizard. Not a dragon, though, but some kind of ugly, scaly thing that lived under rocks and ate bugs.
Nonetheless, by marrying Paul, Beauchamp's daughter would be a Queen, and the alliance would move Lacovia's army to come to his aid when the time was right. Scaly or not, King Paul was the ideal son-in-law whose usefulness could be exploited.
"She is almost sixteen, and a very pretty… "
"I don't give a damn what she looks like, Beauchamp. I demand a Queen who will give me sons. My father waited far to long to sire a son and he died before he could get a spare. I won't wait around, you know. Your daughter's looks won't give me sons. I've got mistresses who can provide pleasure. It's your girl's womb and paps that will matter, not her face." Paul grinned, showing sharp little teeth, and Beauchamp tasted something awful. But he tamped down his growing disgust and nodded.
"Of course, sir."
"You must not care much for the girl," Paul told him. "She must be ugly and stupid all at once, but really, fathers don't care much what happens to their daughters, do they? No matter. I will of course do all the perfunctory rites—I'll send my emissary to your home at Pontrefact to look her over, and if he finds her acceptable, she will come here and we will be married next spring—once the dowry has been paid, of course." His scaly smile made Beauchamp expect his tongue to flick out and catch a fly. "Think of it, Beauchamp—you could be King of Gravonia one day, and your grandson would be King of Lacovia. In another few years, our two nations would make one united kingdom… and then it's Morvenia and Livonia and Havor… " Paul grinned, sharp little teeth almost glinting. "Yes, I believe we'll all get along very well, once everybody realizes who is in charge, hm?" His expression hardened. "But I certainly hope my emissary doesn't leave your castle covered with some assassin's blood and entrails, like last time. The last group of my men to visit you still have nightmares about that jolly little visit."
Beauchamp bowed and backed out of the room. He retrieved his cloak and moved quickly along the long hallway and back out into the courtyard. Even in the palace grounds, he could smell the stench of the decaying city, and that only added to the bitter taste in his mouth. He mounted his horse and galloped out through the gates, eager to be away and back across the border, where at least things were clean.
His conscience was calloused enough, by then, to not let himself think too much about his daughter being sacrificed to the nasty-looking boy king. She was a means to an end, and he would do whatever it took to gain Gravonia's crown.
It was all planned. Beauchamp would leave nothing to chance again, and in a short time he would be King. Everything else had to be put aside, and he had to continue on to his goal, whatever the cost.
Isabella was sitting on the floor at Fairwood, watching her son Michael totter toward her. The boy looked extremely pleased with himself as he practiced walking, and she clapped her hands to encourage him to keep going. When he finally got to her, she snatched him into her arms and hugged him while he squealed and laughed. "That's my little man! You're getting so big, Michael!"
"He's like a little drunk person when he walks," Constantine said from his seat by the fire.
"Oh, hush," Isabella laughed, and gestured for him to come help her up. Once she was settled in her chair, Michael cuddled into his mother's arms, not minding a considerable lack of free space in her lap these days. "He's so beautiful… he looks so much like you."
"I don't know how he'll endure that," her husband said with a weary shake of the head.
Michael's birth, on the last day of December last year, had been a bit chaotic. The only level-headed person during the entire ordeal, in fact, had been Isabella. Constantine had never witnessed a birth, save horses and cows and one traumatic experience with a pig, and he had had to go outside and shake for a few minutes after the boy finally came screaming into the world. Philip had ordered celebrations across Morvenia to commemorate the birth of a future King, but Constantine and Isabella had just gone to church the following Sunday to thank God for a healthy son.
She was heavily pregnant again, to Constantine's mild dismay, and she was glowing with happiness and excellent health. Michael was a big, strong boy, named in honor of Isabella's father (with Queen Marie grousing that the baby was not named for Constantine's own father). He had Constantine's dark hair and startling green eyes, but he had not inherited his mother's sweet nature—even at so young, he was clearly going to be a handful. Just the same, his older sister doted on him.
"We're so blessed, "Isabella said, kissing Michael on the forehead. "I want to have at least a dozen more babies, Constantine. A least a dozen."
"I seem to recall that as you were trying to push Michael out, you threw a paperweight at me and told me to go to hell."
"That was the pain talking," Isabella said, smiling.
He smiled back. As if he had really been able to resist her when she had signaled, just four months after Michael's birth, that she wanted him again. He had had enough trouble abstaining during the final weeks of her pregnancy. He was abstaining again now, knowing she was too tired at night for sex anyway. But when she wasn't tired, she wore him out, and that intimacy seemed to smooth out whatever troubles still lay between them. If he could not talk to his wife about his own inner demons, he could at least show her that he cared, and she seemed to accept his clumsy attempts at affection.
Michael scrambled out of his mother's lap and climbed up onto Constantine's knee. "'orsie!"
"Oh, that again? I'll end up with a ruined knee before you're finished," Constantine told the boy, and began bouncing him, holding his hands while the boy crowed happily. The boy was already a confident rider on his little Scottish pony, and relished going on long rides through the country with his father and older sister.
"I received a very sweet letter today from Eleanor," Isabella said, and Constantine looked at her, momentarily confused at the mention of that name, then he nodded.
"She and King Henry send their best wishes on the coming season and she drew the most adorable picture of their little son—Prince George is almost a year old now." She dug into the seat cushions of her chair and extracted the letter. Constantine studied the picture of the baby—drawn with pencil and with no small degree of skill—and nodded absently. Prince George of Gravonia was shown standing in the folly at Insel der Rosen at Tygo, a mischievous expression on his face. "Henry must be very proud, to have five boys now."
"I suspect he is. And I'm pleased with my daughter and my son, just in case you're wondering," Constantine said, smiling at his wife, who smiled back.
"I have many plans for them, you know. Elizabeth will be a great Queen in Gravonia, and Michael will be a great King, many, many years from now."
"I'm sure they will both excel at anything they try, but I doubt they could ever outshine their mother." Constantine stood, catching Michael and snatching him up, then leaned in and kissed Isabella's cheek. "I'm going to bed. You're coming up soon?"
"I think so. I want to finish wrapping up a few gifts—I finally found some nice leather gloves for Philip."
"Good. His hands have been looking raw from signing all those state papers and playing his silly lute."
She laughed. Michael sleepily objected to being taken to bed, but he was asleep by the time Constantine reached the top of the stairs, and Isabella listened to the sound of her husband's footsteps above her. She retrieved Queen Eleanor's letter and reread it, smiling softly.
You'll be pleased, of course, to know that Catalina is doing very well here. Her first year of marriage was, I will admit, rather turbulent, and I know your letters to her were helpful. Two people, particularly a man and a woman, living under the same roof, is always an adjustment. It is amazing, isn't it, how people forget that marriage is hardly going to change anyone very much, nor will it change basic human nature. Men will always be men and women will always be women, and the difference between the sexes is what makes marriage both wonderful and frequently terrible.
A dear friend of mine pointed out once that there are no ideal marriages, because no one yet has managed to become an ideal person, and since marriage requires two very unideal people… well, we can hardly expect perfection, can we? Yet for all that, I will say that Catalina and Baltasar have worked out their differences quite well and of course you received the happy news of the birth of their little son James last month! He is a beautiful, healthy and very loud little thing and Catalina is over the moon to be a mother. She talks of little else besides 'Jamie this' and 'Jamie that', which is normal, and Baltasar is always smiling. I daresay they will be working on the next baby soon. She of course sends her love, and the Duke and Duchess both also send greetings and prayers on your behalf, daily.
Our own little George is noisy, too, and he can be a monster sometimes, but he is showing he has strength of character at least: he is quite stubborn and willful and at bedtime he shouts "I no s'eep!" several times until he konks out on the floor. The other boys are doing wonderfully well, and Alexander was very pleased to receive little Elizabeth's card—I could tell she needed little coaching from her Mama on how to form her letters, much less her thoughts. She is clearly a very clever and happy child, and I know you delight in her.
We've had snow and sleet since the end of October, which is becoming tiresome despite my growing up in such conditions, and now that November is almost over I think constantly of you and pray for your safe confinement. I wish you the very happiest of Christmases and I send my love and affection to you and your family, and warm greetings to King Philip.
God bless you,
Isabella tucked the letter away and leaned her head back, closing her eyes. She squeaked in alarm when her husband gently tapped her forehead.
"I was thinking," he said.
"A dangerous occupation," Isabella teased.
He grinned, and her heart jumped around excitedly. "I was thinking that, what with this unseasonably warm weather, we could go down to that little house I've got on the shore. It's not large, but it's big enough for four and we've no need for servants."
She yawned as he helped her to her feet. "You can endure my cooking?"
"So long as it doesn't involve lye, herring, cheese or mutton, I think I'll survive. It'll be a nice little bit of rest for you, before the confinement and why do they call it that?"
"I suppose because I have to be confined."
"As if you'll be too eager to go traipsing off into the woods to look for mushrooms when you're in labor." Constantine startled Isabella by picking her up and carrying her, bridal-style, up the stairs to their bedroom.
"Oh, dear God… not mushrooms. Nasty things."
"I thought everybody loved mushrooms. I like them… a little."
"I hate them. Hideous things." She shuddered. "I've known of entire families in France that were wiped out due to one batch of bad mushrooms."
"Well, one could make the argument that wiping out entire French families isn't a bad thing, but that would be impolitic, and I've known two or three decent Frenchmen. Yet, as you hate mushrooms, they are hereby banned from our household."
"Along with lutefisk?"
"That too. I tried to convince the Danes to ban lutefisk from Denmark, but while they are in all other ways pleasant and even very good-humored people, they would not listen to reason."
Eleanor watched Prince George stomp around the folly, enjoying the sound of his little boots on the stone floor. He was a jolly, mischievous little thing, full of energy and stubborn as a mule. He resisted sleep with a fortitude that she could only hope would carry over to resisting evil, and he liked to have things just so or he became very upset. Just the same, he was affectionate and cheerful and like all her boys, he was utterly beautiful.
Henry had finished the vast 'treeship', as Alexander called the treehouse, and from above she could hear the two older princes talking about what they could see through the spyglass. They would spend hours up in that tree, watching ships go by, observing sea birds nesting on one of the tiny islands further out to sea, and performing mock sea battles against pirates. Alexander and Frederick were as close as two brothers could be, and were both robust, hearty boys who loved the outdoors. The Crown Prince was clearly of far above-average intelligence and excelled at all his lessons, while Frederick was perhaps a step behind but doing very well just the same. Harry and William were also coming along in their lessons, while George was already recognizing the letters in the book Eleanor had made for him.
The Queen's ladies were lolling about on blankets in the grass, eating strawberries and peaches and watching clouds go by. Agnes and her little daughter Ellie were examining a bug of some kind, while Agnes' son Marcus babbled and practiced his crawling skills. Clothilde was teaching little Anna how to sew, and the little girl's hands were slick with lanolin as she relentlessly worked on a long, rather filthy crochet… thing. Or 'sache', as Clothilde called it, as no one knew exactly what it was. Harriet was sleeping on her blanket, her daughter Xenia curled up next to her.
Boris appeared at the top of the stairs that led down into the garden, and Eleanor raised her eyebrows at him. He came down the steps at his usual ponderous pace, and handed her a letter. "From Lady Beauchamp, ma'am."
Eleanor looked up at him, puzzled, and broke the seal. She read in growing bewilderment, amazed at what the woman was telling her.
My husband has endeavored to see our poor daughter married to King Paul of Lacovia. He has already begun negotiations for the betrothal and tells me he will send our Irene north next spring. I cannot bear to imagine how she will be treated there, and I beg you to find a way to stop this.
Charles does not know that I have written to you. You surely can understand the fears of a mother, and though I have sinned against you in the past, ma'am, I can only beg you to help me now to protect my poor daughter, who has never sinned against anyone.
Your devoted servant,
"My God," Eleanor whispered. "Such treachery. Beauchamp intends to send Irene to Lacovia-to marry King Paul!"
Boris said nothing. He merely waited for her command.
"Shall I show it to the king?" he finally asked, when she seemed incapable of speech.
The Queen paused, thinking quickly. "No. When we return to Luvov, I would like to be given a chance to go to Pontrefact myself to speak with Lady Alice. You must see the King is properly distracted when I go."
"Of course, ma'am, but... you would visit his home, with Lord Beauchamp around?" Boris asked, looking concerned.
"Lord Beauchamp cannot prevent the Queen of Gravonia from paying him a visit, now can he? I will take Lord Hallam with me, if that will ease your mind." Eleanor said, handing the letter back. "Destroy it immediately, and speak not a word to the King." She stood, smoothing her skirts, and called up into the tree. "Alexander, Frederick, come down now, please. It's time for your Latin lessons."
The boys reluctantly came sliding down the rope and presented themselves to their mother. "Tantum autem odimus Latinam!" Alexander said.
"Oh, I know you do," Eleanor said. "But you both know that in this life you have to do things you don't want to do. Like speaking kindly to enemies, opening festivals involving dancing virgins and sheep, watching jugglers set themselves on fire, learning Latin, and wearing crowns. Now go on and see you mind Professor Dodge—I heard about the tadpole incident, by the way."
The boys looked at each other, expressions wary. Eleanor frowned at them.
"He did not want to eat tadpoles, particularly tadpoles slipped into his soup by two naughty little boys. Be glad he is a forgiving man. I suspect he'll only make you conjugate twenty Latin nouns tonight, rather than the usual forty."
Looking contrite, the boys went into the castle. Eleanor waited for her ladies to wake up and gather up their blankets and children before leading them all inside. Henry greeted her at the door with a kiss and a vague wave at her ladies. "Hello, sweetheart… ladies. Good day to you all." He looked pointedly at Eleanor. "The boys are… uh… at their lessons now?"
"Yes. I believe they are," Eleanor nodded. The schoolroom was downstairs, and while she knew her sons would rather be pretending to be defending the little island from pirates, they were obedient and were currently being given their assignments by Professor Dodge, a wheezy little man from England who had come to Gravonia to educate the princes and hopefully clear his sinuses.
"Oh. Good. I was hoping… we could, uh… go upstairs for a bit." He pretended to yawn, and Eleanor had to resist the urge to roll her eyes. She knew what he wanted—when he yawned in the middle of the day and suggested a foray upstairs to 'talk', there would be little talking involved and they would both be naked and breathless. Henry actually seemed to prefer lovemaking during the day, and considering he was hoping she might become pregnant again, he was suggesting upstairs 'talks' quite a lot lately. He wanted to have a baby girl, this time around, but Eleanor was beginning to suspect that she was to be blessed only with sons.
It wasn't bad, of course, to have sons. She had little trouble coping with the emotional upheavals of little boys, and she wondered how she could ever cope with daughters. Not that she wouldn't relish having a little girl for a companion—they could talk about clothes and jewelry and play dress-up and do all those marvelous mother-daughter things that she saw Agnes, Clothilde, Christiane and even Harriet enjoying with their daughters. But just the same, it was nice doing mother-son things with her boys: teaching them to read and write, showing them maps of the known world and reading stories to them, and helping them build sandcastles and playing Siege on the floor at night. Henry was teaching them about warfare and how to use a sword and a bow and arrow, but Eleanor had quietly taught Alexander and Frederick how to repair their own clothes and sew on buttons, and she gave them instructions on politics, law, government and economics, recalling the lessons she had learned at Count von Hesse's feet. In private, she taught Alexander the value of mercy and justice and the Golden Rule, and the importance of setting a good example for his brothers and eventually the people of Gravonia. He was going to be a leader one day, and his lessons were extremely important, and she took them very, very seriously.
Meanwhile, to Eleanor's pain and pleasure, Isabella had calmly borne two more sons in the past two years—Nicholas and Leopold, and in her last letter she had said she suspected she was carrying another, due probably in October if her calculations were right. Her letters to Eleanor were full of amusing anecdotes of her beautiful home outside Garon, with glowing references to her husband, her growing family and the interesting people she dealt with at Court. Elizabeth was progressing beautifully, being eager to learn as much as anyone would teach her, and thus she excelled at languages and mathematics, and she was even learning how to use a bow and arrow from Constantine, and he was even teaching the girl how to win a fistfight.
The world keeps on turning, she thought as she finally dismissed the butler and housekeeper and went upstairs, and we can only turn along with it and thank God for all He gives us. Even if what He gives is not what we were hoping for at the start. God is in His heaven and all is right with the world, as Betsy would say, and He had His own plans to reveal in His own good time.
Henry was already in bed, waiting for her, and she closed the door, locking it, before going to the bed. He watched her remove her clothes, and the way he was leering at her, she suspected another pregnancy was pretty much inevitable.
"You seem to become more beautiful every day," Henry said to her later, as they lay together, relaxed. "It amazes me… I cannot believe you've had five children. You're as slim and graceful as the day you arrived in Gravonia."
"I didn't have these white lines on my belly," she said with soft laugh.
"There's only a few, and they only add to your beauty, darling." He kissed her warmly, but his desire was becoming obvious, and Eleanor knew there was plenty more where that came from. Her husband could be insatiable at times, and it was those times that usually resulted in another baby.
"I love you so much, Eleanor," Henry whispered against her breast. "So much. I do not know how I would endure without you."
"You would go on well enough, I think," she said softly, stroking his hair. "But I assure you, I have no plans to go anywhere any time soon."
"Nay, I would shrivel up and die if you did… leave." He raised his head and looked at her, his grey eyes serious. "Perhaps women don't fully grasp what we men can go through… " He sighed. "You remember Lord Balfour? The old gentlemen who was in charge of buying food for the larder at the palace? A good man, and very wise in his years. His wife died, remember, and after the funeral he told me he wasn't sure he could go on. That part of him had died—his mate was gone and there was no one around for him to talk to any more. His marriage was arranged too, you know. His and her parents worked it all out and they were married at sixteen, and they spent their lives together-almost fifty years! He said at first they weren't sure how they could ever get along and then one day they just… clicked, though I suppose it must have been coming along all that time and they weren't really aware of it. When Isolde died, though, Balfour just… faded away. He died less than a month after her. I think his heart died with her."
Eleanor's eyes filled with tears, remembering the sadness on Lord Balfour's face. He had come to Court a few times following his wife's death, but the light had been gone from his eyes, and she had known the man was not much longer for this world.
"Perhaps we women should remind ourselves that men have hearts, too," Eleanor said softly. "And that you do need us, don't you?"
"Aye, sweetheart. Where would men be without our women?"