Our Gracious Queen

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Contracts

15 May 1380

Pontrefact Castle had been built to impress and intimidate, and Eleanor supposed that if she had not been raised at Ravensburg, she would have been uneasy to even approach such a dark, imposing citadel. As it were, she was not at all unsettled by the vast, black mass of the castle. Not even its tall gate towers, thick walls and surrounding moat made her nerves fray. It would take far more than a bloody castle to scare her.

Lord Hallam was riding in the coach with her, and he was already familiar with Pontrefact, and he didn't look terribly impressed either. Considering what Eleanor had told him about Beauchamp's scheme to marry his daughter off to the King of Lacovia, he looked not only unimpressed but was instead pretty well irritated. Hallam had reminded her—as if she didn't already know—that any person in direct line to the throne had to obtain the King's permission to marry anyone at all, and since Irene was in the line of succession (albeit rather far removed), her marriage had to be approved by the King. Henry would never endorse such a union, and so Beauchamp's plan was not only against the law but full-out treason.

It was dusk when they rode into the castle courtyard, having been admitted by a nervous-looking guard, and Eleanor noticed several rough, weedy-looking horses standing at the posts, still saddled and looking as though they had been ridden a far distance. She glanced at Hallam, who looked intrigued. "Seems our good Lord Beauchamp already has company."

"It does seem so," Eleanor said. "All the better—they can keep Lord Beauchamp occupied while I speak with his wife."

Lord Hallam exited the coach first, and assisted her out. The castle's warden was already at the door, looking rather agitated, but he bowed and scraped before the Queen just the same. "Your Majesty. What a great pleasure to have you here as our guest."

"Thank you. I should like to speak with Lady Beauchamp."

"Of course, Your Majesty. She is entertaining some… er… guests, but I'm sure she can be at your service very soon."

"I require her presence immediately," Eleanor sharply. "I will not wait more than five minutes, and I will speak only to her, do you understand me? I'm sure Lord Beauchamp is busy with his honored guests. I would not recommend you tell him I'm here, of course." She narrowed her eyes, adding just the right emphasis to her warning.

"Yes, ma'am." The warden bowed and rushed away. The Queen remained standing in the center of the reception hall, eyeing the doorway through which the warden had passed. She looked at Lord Hallam, who raised his eyebrows.

"Is that the way to the dining room?" she asked.

"Aye, Majesty, it is."

"And it has balcony above, and that convenient beam high up in the darkness… from where you rained Rieti's body parts on the table below, with such devastating accuracy?"

Hallam nodded. "We had a fine bit of sport that night, I must say, and the beam is easy to get to and quite wide."

"Would you recognize any of those men?"

"Probably, ma'am. I daresay I've a good memory."

Eleanor nodded, and when the door opposite the dining hall opened and Lady Beauchamp stepped out, she drew herself up to her full height, folding her hands carefully—the picture of regal dignity. Hallam yet again thought that for all Henry's bravado and skills at earning public approval by way of his natural bonhomie and easy charm, Eleanor was truly the one in charge. He reigned, but she ruled, and Gravonia was better off for it.

"Lady Beauchamp. You wished to speak with me."

The woman had an expression of pure terror on her face, and for a moment she stood frozen, gaping at the Queen until Hallam cleared his throat.

"Ma'am… Your Majesty," Lady Beauchamp whispered. "I do not know what to say. Or what I ought to do."

"Perhaps we ought to remove to another room, where we are afforded more privacy. Lord Hallam, perhaps you might take care of the other things while Lady Beauchamp and I talk."

"Of course, Your Majesty," Hallam nodded. As soon as Lady Beauchamp opened the door and let Eleanor pass through, he headed for the stairs.

Eleanor was admitted to a surprisingly pretty little sitting room with a small fireplace, comfortable-looking chairs and an abundance of fresh bouquets of flowers. There were no windows, however, so the only light was from the fire and from oil lamps set on every flat surface. She stood in the middle of the room, looking around with a cool eye. The room was not meant to impress: in fact, it seemed to be something of a sanctuary.

"This is my own private room," Lady Beauchamp said. "Please, Your Majesty, sit down." She gestured to a comfortable looking chair, and Eleanor sat down smoothly, just as Christiane had taught her so many years ago, and she folded her hands in her lap, waiting.

"I am very grateful that you did come, ma'am. My husband does not, I think, even know you are here."

"I can only hope that he is not aware or made aware, for your sake, Lady Beauchamp."

Lady Beauchamp's fists were clenched in her lap, and she was trembling with obvious fear. "Madame, I feel I ought to apologize again to you… my actions, a few years ago, were reprehensible. I did not… that is, I was not… my husband insisted I try to take the Crown Prince away… "

"And hand him over to some disease-riddled whore from the eastern ward," Eleanor nodded. "I assume you are aware of your husband's… dalliances."

"I know far too well, ma'am."

"He got one of my own ladies with child," Eleanor said, watching Lady Beauchamp's face for her reaction, but the woman looked neither surprised nor upset. "He blackmailed her into conspiring to harm my children, and she told me all—it is fortunate that she possesses a conscience. And while you might not have been willing, you were still complicit in his schemes."

"I admit I was… willing, then, to assist him then, and I am ashamed of my actions, and very glad you protected your child. Surely you understand, then, how I am feeling now. When it comes to my children, I too will do all I can to protect them. It is because of Charles that my son has been taken from me. He led that raid into Morvenia, you know… "

"I know he did—that is fairly obvious, isn't it?" Eleanor nodded. "Let us make sure were are clear, though, unless I've missed something, Lady Beauchamp: it was fine with you to harm my children, but your daughter is more important than the future King of Gravonia?"

Lady Beauchamp paled. "Ma'am… I never wanted… "

"Obviously I understand a mother's instinct to protect her child, Lady Beauchamp, and that commends you despite your being married to such a man," Eleanor cut in. "But I can do nothing to stop your husband from marrying your daughter to anyone he pleases, but he would be wise to remember that the marriage of his daughter is a matter of State, as he and your children are in line to the throne. The king must give his approval of the union, as does the Council. Without that approval, your husband is committing treason and the consequences could be disastrous for him and for you."

Lady Beauchamp swallowed. "Your Majesty, the Lacovian emissary and his men are here. They are… "

"I suspected as much when I saw their horses in the Courtyard," Eleanor snapped. "Your husband's actions can get him into very serious trouble, you know. But as for his plans to marry your daughter off to King Paul, I'm afraid there is nothing I can do about that, Lady Beauchamp. If your husband wishes to make an alliance with the Devil and use his daughter for bait, that is his business."

"Ma'am, I must beg you… "

"It's also his business to recognize where this could lead. And as one mother to another, Lady Beauchamp, I will say this: if your husband, or anyone, ever attempts to harm my children, I will not hesitate to strike, and I will make no considerations on yours or anyone else's behalf. Good day to you."

Eleanor stood, gave her hostess an icily regal nod, and left.

Lord Hallam was waiting for her in the reception hall, his expression grave. He nodded curtly to the castle warden, who opened the doors and let them out, and Eleanor waited until the doors were shut again before she looked at him.

"What did you hear?"

"Beauchamp has put his name to the contracts and they have even decided to move the marriage date up—Irene and Paul will be married next month."

"Stupid, stupid man."

"I would say too clever by half, actually. He believes Lacovia will be ready and willing to aid him whenever he calls, as his daughter will be Queen." He helped her back into the coach and climbed in, sitting opposite her. "The original plan, from what those men were saying, was to have the marriage take place next spring, but Beauchamp and the Lacovian emissary—a man named Jenner—agreed that it ought to take place soon, before anyone will have time to react."

"Anyone in Gravonia, you mean, and you can be assured this will break her poor mother's heart--the woman is despondent even now," Eleanor muttered. She looked at Hallam. "What do you think I should do?"

Hallam shook his head. "Beauchamp's foolishness could be a means of keeping him under control—he seems to really believe that no one suspects him of anything, or at least that's what he told the Lacovian emissary, and he is determined to sell his daughter to Paul to prove it."

Eleanor pondered this as they rolled through Pontrefact's gates. "But how long can he be controlled? Once his daughter produces an heir to Lacovia's throne, he'll have a great deal of cache there and King Paul would be even more willing to throw his support behind him—you know how much Beauchamp wants the throne."

"And how much King Paul wants Gravonia."

"Lacovia is a shambles these days, James," Eleanor reminded him, her mind still going over workable scenarios, eliminating the more outlandish ones and setting aside notions that were most beneficial to the crown and would keep her sons safe. "The nation's economy is a disaster, the people are heavily taxed to pay for the King's own luxuries and constant wars, and I have to wonder if they might resent such conditions—anyone would, particularly if they have children—and the army is depleted. I don't think even Irene Beauchamp's considerable dowry will make much of a dent in the financial mess he and his ancestors have made." She sat back in her seat, thinking. "What if I were to convince Henry to approve the match?"

"Approve! Dear Lord, Your Majesty… "

"Beauchamp thinks that he can go behind Henry's back and work out an alliance with Lacovia. Henry will, of course, be enraged about it, but we can't have him executing his cousin—that is not the result we want, particularly if by then poor Irene is trapped in Lacovia. We will have to allow the marriage—Beauchamp would rather he make Henry look like a fool, and that cannot be allowed. We must have him think the King always knew about the scheme and will give it his approval to insure peace. We can only hope that Irene is not ill-treated in Lacovia… in fact, I think I know how we can keep her unharmed by that slimy little toad."

"How is that?" Hallam asked.

Eleanor smiled. "That will be revealed in its own good time. I also think I know exactly how to keep Lord Beauchamp under control and to protect his daughter. I need only to apply to his pride and he will, I think, be well in hand for the foreseeable future."

Hallam couldn't keep from grinning—Henry surely had no idea what sort of treasure he had married. "And might I know some piece of the details, ma'am?"

"First, of course, we must send a friendly letter of congratulations to the King of Lacovia on his marriage to Lady Irene Beauchamp… and to that end, I have a job for you, James. It will require a rather fast horse-I hope you are prepared for a long ride."


"You think this scheme will really work, Eleanor?" Henry asked Eleanor as they waited in the Presence Chamber.

"I can see no other way to insure Beauchamp's good behavior and Irene's safety," Eleanor answered.

They were alone in the room, sitting on their thrones, waiting. Eleanor was glad her throne was so uncomfortable—there was no way she could fall asleep during even the most boring meetings with foreign ambassadors. Today's meeting, however, promised to be quite interesting.

Henry had been furious, last night, when Eleanor had informed him of Irene Beauchamp's betrothal to King Paul of Lacovia, and he had been intent on arresting his cousin on charges of treason, but Eleanor was able to calm him down and talk reason to him. Beauchamp had to be punished for his crime, of course, but Eleanor saw his treachery as a perfect opportunity.

Boris knocked three times on the doors, and Henry called "Come!"

The doors opened and Lord Hallam stepped into the room, along with the Lacovian emissary, who looked more than a little put out.

Eleanor had never really encountered a Lacovian before, at least not face-to-face. She had killed one, some years ago, but this weedy-looking little man hardly seemed fit for a battlefield. In fact, he hardly seemed fit for a slice of pie. She studied the underfed fellow with a cool eye nonetheless—if he was like any other Lacovian, he was not to be trusted.

"Lord… Jenner, was it?" Henry boomed out, making the little man take a startled step back.

"Yes, my lord."

"I understand you have been visiting Lord Beauchamp's home at Pontrefact."

Jenner paled a little. "I… "

"You were seen there, by a very reliable source. I have also been informed that you were visiting Lord Beauchamp on behalf of His Majesty King Paul of Lacovia. Is that correct?"

"I… uh… " Jenner looked at Hallam, who continued to stare straight ahead. "Yes, my lord."

"What sort of business would you have with my cousin Lord Beauchamp… the Marquess of Rousseau, that is?"

"I… we… were working on… a… treaty, sir."

"My source informs me that you were there to inspect Lord Beauchamp's daughter, Lady Irene, as a possible bride for His Majesty the King of Lacovia. Is this correct?"

Jenner's Adam's apple slid up and down his throat, and he finally nodded. "Yes, my lord."

"So this would be a private treaty between the King of Lacovia and my cousin, to be… consummated, so to speak, in the marriage of his daughter Lady Irene Beauchamp to your sovereign, King Paul?"

"It… would, sir."

"So Lord Beauchamp approached you with a fervent hope of ending hostilities between our two nations?" Henry asked.

Jenner thought over his response before finally nodding. "Yes, sir."

"I think we can all agree that the war between Lacovia and Gravonia has gone on long enough. The Battle of the Field of Stones was, I suppose, a very hard blow for you and your army. Perhaps it's time for an… an… what did you call it, Eleanor?"

"Entente cordial," Eleanor offered with a soft smile.

"Yes, that's it. Thank you, sweetheart. I'm sure Lord Beauchamp would be delighted to know that his efforts have proven successful. I will send Lord Hallam north with you to work out all the particulars. It shouldn't be too difficult for King Paul to recognize that we are coming from a position of strength, of course, so obviously we should be able to set some of the… say… rules, eh?"

"Rules?" Lord Jenner asked weakly.

"Of course!" Henry grinned. "Oh, just a few minor things. Nothing to fret about. Lord Hallam will present them all to the King of Lacovia and he will of course be eager to agree to them, as he'll be marrying a member of the Gravonian royal family and gaining a very large dowry in turn."

Eleanor turned on her loveliest smile for Lord Jenner. "I'm sure your King will see you are properly praised for your efforts, sir. The wedding is set for next month, is it?"

Jenner looked like he might become ill. "Yes, ma'am. It is."

"Lovely. You must send the Dowager Queen Joanna my warmest regards, and King Paul, too, of course." She gave him a bright smile, to tell him his audience with the King and Queen of Gravonia was over. The man backed out of the room and stood silently as Boris closed the doors in his face. Henry looked at Hallam, who grinned.

"Well, that was a nice bit of sport, wasn't it, Lord Hallam?" Henry said, but he didn't smile. "The… the gall of my cousin, to arrange his daughter's marriage without my consent. I'm still tempted to have him arrested."

"It would serve no purpose, dearest," Eleanor said gently. "But his presence will be required here at the palace from henceforth. It was, I think, a mistake on our part to have him banished after his scandalous behavior with Lady D'Acre, and I think now it is best to have him under this roof for good—Lady Beauchamp will appreciate that, too, as she will be near her son." She sat back in her chair, wishing the man who had built it had thought to at least put a cushion on it, and crossed her knees. "It is better to keep him close by, where his comings and goings can be observed, than let him remain at Pontrefact."

"Aye, that's probably a good idea," Henry said. "But you can be sure I will give him one hell of ticking off next time I see him." The King stood up, absently removing his crown and carrying it with him out the side door to his study. He hung it on the back of his chair and sat down to read over the rough draft of the peace treaty Hallam and Eleanor had drawn up. When the door finally swung closed, Hallam's shoulders sagged.

"Dear God, I'm exhausted, ma'am."

"I suppose you must be. I'm sorry for making you do all that dashing about this past week, James. I'm sure you want to get back to Clothilde."

"Indeed, I do. I'm glad I had that fast horse, ma'am—I barely managed to cut Jenner off at the Lacovian border. He was not terribly pleased to be 'asked' to come down here to speak with you and Henry."

"Did he reveal any other information to you?"

"He has a silent tongue, ma'am, when he's not stammering, but he looked relieved to not be delivered to the Tower."

"I'm sure Lord Beauchamp will feel much the same way," Eleanor said with a wry smile. "There is only one last thing for you to do, James, and then I promise you will be allowed to take a few… days off."

Lord Hallam grinned at her. "I am at your service, Your Majesty, as always."


Jenner arrived at the royal palace in Rumon, his nerves a wreck as he rode through the palace gates. Behind him, riding a far better-looking horse, was Lord Hallam. He found the man to be almost as intimidating as King Henry and as unnerving in the air of authority he possessed as Queen Eleanor. In the courtyard, he dismounted and waited nervously for the Gravonian nobleman to walk with him into the palace. Hallam was a big, strong, hearty man, and he made the Lacovian nobles lounging in the palace look puny and ill-conditioned.

At the Presence Chamber doors, the King's major domo knocked three times and the doors were opened. King Paul was sitting on his throne, looking annoyed, and when Lord Hallam was introduced, he only managed a barely polite nod.

"And to what do I owe this pleasure, Lord Hallam?" Paul asked, his voice just a shade above snide.

"The King of Gravonia merely wishes to issue to you his heartfelt congratulations on your upcoming marriage to Lady Irene Beauchamp. He was delighted to learn of the agreement between yourself and Lord Beauchamp and how it might lead to lasting peace between our two nations."

Paul looked surprised, his gaze settling on Lord Jenner, who could not meet his eye, but quickly recovered. "I see. Well. That's a good thing. Family unity is always preferable."

"Aye, sir, it is. However, as the marriage was contracted without the King's initial consent, His Majesty does feel that he must require some conditions be placed on the union, for the sake of the royal family's security."

The King's expression grew wary. "Conditions, Lord Hallam? I do not generally like conditions."

"They are very reasonable conditions, Your Majesty, I assure you, and you know that we are coming from a position of strength… sir." Hallam narrowed his eyes slightly, silently daring the King to ask what that position was. He doubted, very much, that Paul wanted to hear mention of the Field of Stones, much less his country's crumbling economy and military weakness.

"And what are those conditions?" Paul finally asked, forcing himself to sound mild.

"Relatively minor, sir. Firstly, the King feels that he must first ensure the safety and happiness of his dear cousin the Lady Irene. He would be bereft if she were to be… treated unkindly here. Not by yourself, of course. We know you would never harm an innocent young woman, particularly a close and beloved member of the royal family—King Henry is very particular about members of the royal family being treated properly, even rather distant cousins. But as she is a Gravonian and our countries have long been at war, it would simply be a requirement that she be protected from anyone or anything that might harm her."

Paul frowned. "What would that requirement be, Lord Hallam?"

"A simple matter of forfeiture of her dowry back to the Gravonian crown if she should suffer any… misfortunes, sir. Her happiness means a great deal to our King and he merely wishes to see she is well cared-for."

The King scowled, unaccustomed to being asked to cede any position to anyone, but he seemed to recognize the gravity of King Henry's request, and he wasn't about to let such a large fortune slip through his fingers. Finally, he nodded. "All right. That is not unreasonable."

"Very good, sir. King Henry will be very relieved and pleased. After all, it's you marrying a member of the Gravonian royal family, and since Gravonia's royal family will be allied with the royal family of Morvenia in the next few years, it would be wise to avoid offending King Philip or his formidable brother, eh, even now that the Dragon has two sons." He smiled, watching Paul's mouth twist--the Lacovians had been very hopeful that Isabella of Navarre would not produce the required male heirs, but the woman had come through when it counted, to put it in less-than-charming terms. "The next condition… "

"There are more conditions?" Paul snapped.

"It is only a minor requirement, sir."

"Yes?"

"The King requests that Lacovian soldiers be withdrawn from the borderlands between our two countries and not be permitted—by royal edict—to make any further… visits into Gravonia save for simple matters of business, and then only by permission from the Crown."

"And Gravonia's soldiers?"

"Our soldiers do not make visits to Lacovia at all, sir. I am sure you are aware of that."

Paul drummed his fingers on the armrest of his throne. "Fine. They will be withdrawn immediately. Anything else?"

"Nay, my lord. I have the treaty here, sir. If you would be so kind as to sign before Lord Jenner and another witness, I would be pleased to return to my home. I have had a very busy few days, Your Majesty."

Hallam handed the papers to the King, who rose and went to a table, sitting down and calling for one of his courtiers to come, and spread the papers out, reading over them in silence while Hallam, Jenner and the bewildered courtier looked on. Finally, Paul picked up his quill and scrawled his name on all three pages, and shoved the papers back into Hallam's hands. "There now. You may tell King Henry that our nations are at peace, after almost three hundred years of strife. Good day to you, sir. Lord Jenner, might I speak with you in private, sir?"

The Gravonian nobleman bowed to the King, neatly folded the papers back into his satchel, and left, the doors banging shut behind him.

Only when he was outside did Hallam smile, and he was laughing as he mounted his horse and rode away, eager to be home with his wife and children again.

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