"Charles!" Henry called, stomping down the stairs into the reception hall. "So good to see you, cousin. Please… I need to discuss something with you."
Beauchamp glanced at his wife, who turned and stalked away, heading toward the western wing of the palace and the gardens—she hadn't uttered a word to him in weeks. Henry gestured to his cousin to follow him, and led him down the hall to the Council chamber. "Please, sit, Charles. You must be weary from your long journey."
"It… wasn't bad, sir. Thank you." He looked around the room at the Council members—he had not been admitted to this room in quite some time and he was surprised to see so few familiar faces. Lords Hallam, Mandeville and Ellis seemed to have been retained on the Council, while all of Beauchamp's old friends had apparently been dismissed.
Probably on the Queen's order, he thought bitterly.
"Please, sit down, Charles," Henry said, gesturing to a chair at the table. "We've a bit of business to go over."
"Uh… regarding royal alms, sir? I believe I submitted all the information last week… " Beauchamp smiled as he sat down.
"Yes, and the Queen wanted me to mention that everything was done quite well, and many poor families in Gravonia will benefit from our assistance—our policy of helping the needy rise up out of the mire and stand on their own feet and then encouraging them to work to support themselves is proving very successful. Thank you, Charles. Very nice work there."
Beauchamp beamed. "You're quite welcome, sir."
"And your decision to begin peace negotiations with Lacovia also commends you, Charles. I know we are all quite weary of this war and pray it can now be ended."
Beauchamp started to speak, but his words died in his mouth, and Henry went on, smiling expansively.
"It is very fortunate that King Paul was so amenable to the notion of peace between our countries."
"He was?" Beauchamp asked, startled, but recovered quickly. "Of course. Yes. Of course he was."
"My emissary even got him to agree to withdraw his soldiers from along the northern borderlands."
Beauchamp paled. "Your… emissary?"
"Yes." Henry smiled, pleGased. "We were also delighted to learn of King Paul's impending marriage, Charles. I'm sure you've heard all about it."
"I… yes. I have, of course."
"Yes, I heard about it just a few days ago. Of course, you would be first to have heard, as Paul is marrying your own daughter Irene. I suppose she was part of your negotiations to bring about peace between our two countries?"
Eleanor, seated behind the grille, had to pinch herself to keep from laughing at the dumbstruck look on Beauchamp's face. The man never seemed capable of learning from his mistakes. For all that, he had a remarkable ability to land on his feet—even now, he was recovering his composure and looking quite cool. "Yes, my lord. It is my fondest desire to end the war between—"
"Of course, it is a little upsetting that you did not seek the King's or the Council's permission to marry your daughter off. You do realize that she is tenth in line to the throne and thus has to seek our consent to wed? Particularly to wed the ruler of our nation's greatest enemy."
Beauchamp licked his lips nervously. "Oh… yes, of course… did not my wife speak with you, sir?"
"She did not."
"Ah. I could have sworn I told her to… "
"You lay the blame at your wife's feet, Charles? You're the girl's father—you hold all legal rights over her, save her right to marry without the King's consent. As honorable as your intentions might have been, that is a blunder that cannot be overlooked."
Beauchamp smiled ingratiatingly. "Nonetheless, Irene becoming Lacovia's Queen does give us quite a bit of… of… "
"It does little for me, Charles. It gives you a great deal of cache in Lacovia, particularly if she bears a son. But I'm afraid it won't do much for you in Gravonia, and I'm sure you're very relieved to hear that Morvenia--our ally--is not offended by this union, particularly since Prince Constantine now has sons and Elizabeth can freely wed my oldest boy without too many political difficulties that would have arisen." He nodded at his Councillors. "I have spoken at length with the Council and we have come to a decision."
"A… decision, my lord?"
"Yes. The members of the Council have all agreed that to avoid even the vaguest possibility of a foreigner ascending to the throne—and yes, I know that isn't likely, what with my having five sons—we must see to it that our country is protected. So we have decided that you and your descendants are to be removed, irrevocably, from the line of succession. This will also smooth over whatever ruffled feathers might have come up from Morvenia--obviously King Philip and Prince Constantine would be greatly offended at the notion of the Dragon's daughter being in any way associated with Lacovia."
To say that Beauchamp looked stunned was an understatement. The man looked for a moment like he might have some sort of fit. He stared, wide-eyed at the King, then leaned forward. "I beg your pardon, Henry?"
"Did you just call me Henry?" the King asked, expression darkening.
"I mean… I mean, Your Majesty," Beauchamp finally choked out. "I… I beg your pardon… "
"Yes, you really should beg my pardon," Henry said, sitting back in his seat. "It is only my desire to maintain family harmony that I am not also stripping you of your titles and confiscating all your property. But you can thank the Queen for her level head on the matter—she held back my hand from the sword, Charles, and next time you see her you should express your gratitude. Just the same—you and any descendants from your body, present and future, are barred from the line of succession." He nodded to Lord Ellis, who extracted a document from a small valise and slid it across the table. "This document spells out the conditions, and I must require you sign it before all these witnesses."
Beauchamp stared blindly at the paper. He finally accepted the quill from Lord Hallam and scrawled his name, too rattled to read it. The consequences of refusing would be far worse than just being removed from the succession.
"There now," Henry said, taking the paper and handing it to back to Ellis. "There's a good man, Charles. It's not as though it's a great loss for you, really—the birth of every one of my sons only moved you further away from the throne, you know. Who knows how many more children Eleanor and I might have. Of course, there is a point in the document that you just signed that you perhaps won't appreciate much, but it had to be done."
"Done… ?" Beauchamp asked, his voice shaking.
"Aye, yes. As a means of seeing to it that your daughter Irene is protected even in Lacovia, we have already obtained King Paul's promise—before witnesses—that he will forfeit her dowry to the Crown if she is in any way mistreated or if, God forbid, Lacovia tries to make war on us again: we made it very clear, of course, that by no means is Gravonia making any kind of alliance with Lacovia—Lady Irene is not a princess of our house, and negotiations for her hand were not conducted by myself, so there is no political bond between us. Really, Charles, I must admit your negotiations to that end were quite clever--Morvenia can assured of no conflicts of interest, I think, and it's caused me not even a hint of trouble." He smiled at Beauchamp. "Of course, we know you are very keen to see that your daughter is happy in her new home, Charles. I have also decided that to ensure that you never attempt to go behind my back again, I should simply give you incentive to… behave."
Beauchamp's face was becoming paler and paler as King Henry spoke.
"And that would be…?"
"Should anything happen to poor Irene, not only would King Paul forfeit her dowry, you would repay the same dowry, double, to the crown. I know you have a very large fortune, Charles, so it would not make much of a dent in your savings, but I want Irene safe and as happy as a woman could be in Lacovia. Oh, and for your daring to go behind my back in negotiating with our enemy, I will require that you and your family come to live permanently in the royal palace—where your comings and goings can be observed henceforth." He stood, which prompted everyone in the room to stand as well. Henry poured some wine into a goblet and passed the bottle, every man except Beauchamp pouring some into his cup. "A toast—to the marriage of Lady Irene to King Paul the third of Lacovia, and may God bless their union. But let it be known to all witnesses here that I did not sanction this union." He tossed back the wine, clanked the cup back onto the table and left, shutting the door behind him.
Lord Beauchamp stared across the table at Lord Hallam, who bowed slightly to him. The Council members slowly filed out of the room, leaving Beauchamp staring across the table at the coats of arms of King Henry and of Queen Eleanor prominently displayed on the wall. Above them were the monarchs' personal emblems: Henry's wolf and Eleanor's dove. He studied the dove for a long time, noting the five arrows it held in one foot and the dagger it held in the other.
Holding back his fury, he turned and stalked out of the room.
Eleanor was anxious to see Count von Hesse—he had not been present at Court for some time, having been required to return home to see about his estates and to give his reports to the King of Livonia on his interests in Gravonia. To finally have a chance to speak with him was a great relief to the Queen, and she asked him to meet with her in the garden while her children were out running around. After exchanging news about children and folks back home—Betsy had also returned to Ravensburg, having been away from her own children far too long—they finally were able to go outside to enjoy the warm evening.
von Hesse was delighted to see Eleanor and her children—the boys were healthy and well-mannered, with just the right amount of mischief in them to make von Hesse know they were being raised with the kind of loving firmness that would make them grow into excellent men. After spending a few moments chatting with the Count, the boys were released back into the garden, and Eleanor and the Count went for a walk.
"I'm fairly certain that Beauchamp believed that by marrying his daughter to King Paul, he would have forced Henry to make an ally of Lacovia," Eleanor told Count von Hesse as they walked through the rose garden. "An alliance with Lacovia would have put Gravonia at odds with not only Havor and Livonia, but also…"
"Morvenia. The last country anyone wants to be at odds with."
Eleanor nodded. "Exactly. But Henry holds the whip hand now, over King Paul and Beauchamp, and King Paul is left more or less high and dry with no room for blunders, and he'd be a fool to put a foot wrong now. Beauchamp will be watched closely and if King Paul makes a misstep in how he treats Irene, he will have to send a large fortune to the crown: that is hardly the sort of thing Paul would want his people to see him do. He can't afford that—as I understand it, he has already spent the dowry before the wedding has even taken place!"
"On what, pray?" von Hesse asked, sitting down on a stone bench. Eleanor sat down beside him.
"Clothes, furniture, jewelry… everything he doesn't need but that his people could certainly use out of his abundance." She shook her head. "I do not understand avarice, sir. King Paul seems to be rather jackdawish—he sees something shiny and thinks it's something grand."
"His father was just the same. And don't you like shiny jewelry?" von Hesse teased.
"So long as only Henry is paying for it, and no one else—he showers diamonds on me, but they are from his own mines in the west, and the workers are paid well." She lifted her head to watch a herd of wild children dashing around in the green grass. Her five sons were chasing or being chased by the children of many of her ladies and other Court attendants. She smiled when she saw Prince Frederick gallantly help little Ellie Bartolomeo up when she fell, and Harry was trying to persuade Xenia D'Acre to go wading in the little lily pond, but she was having none of it. Alexander, as the eldest boy present, was keeping an eye on everyone even as he joined in the games.
"Just the same, I don't know that Morvenia will appreciate it when they learn of Beauchamp's daughter's marriage to King Paul."
"No, I doubt they will like it at all, but there was nothing I could to do stop it. I have written personally to Philip on the matter and he should be reading the letter now. I could only make sure Beauchamp paid the price for his foolishness. The man never seems to learn—I have no illusions that he has even learned now, but at least Irene is safe. I hope."
von Hesse nodded. "He will certainly not be satisfied to see his grandson on Lacovia's throne. He would prefer to see his own son reign some day in Gravonia."
"Stephen seems very unhappy in his father's presence," Eleanor pointed out.
"I fear that family loyalty might have to win out over personal scruples," von Hesse reminded her. "Even at being removed from the line of succession, Beauchamp can still make a grab for the throne. I do not wish to frighten you, Goosey, but he is still dangerous."
"He has been declawed," Eleanor said, looking at von Hesse and frowning at his grave expression.
"He still has his teeth, sweetheart. He is a clever man, and he will find a way to strike again, some day. You need to be prepared for the worst to happen."
"I am always prepared," she said softly. "I am ready for a fight, whether it be tomorrow or fifty years from now, and I am ready to fight dirty if need be. I warned Lady Beauchamp of what I will do if anyone tries to harm my babies."
"But are you ready for the cost?" von Hesse asked her gently. "Even if you win—and I believe you will win, Goosey—there will still a price to pay in the end. Most victories come at a cost of some kind."
She settled her calm blue gaze on him and nodded. "I seem to have no other choice, sir—I have five young lions to raise and protect, and my oldest son will be King. I am not afraid of whatever is coming, and I will not let Henry or my sons down. And I will win, sir. For them."
15 May 1381
Irene was sure she was going to vomit.
Lacovia was a revolting country—everything stank, the people were ragged and starving, and the coach carrying her over the border had no springs. The constant bouncing and rattling was not helping her already upset stomach, and from what she could tell, the roads weren't going to get any better.
She was due to arrive at the royal palace in Rumon before nightfall, but considering the heavy rain and the terrible condition of the road, she couldn't imagine being there on time. Even worse, she was entirely alone, save the driver of the coach, a drunken Lacovian who cared not a whit about her comfort and kept calling her Iris. Irene's father had decided it would be best for her to travel thus, to avoid suspicion as she crossed the border.
Wiping her eyes and breathing deeply, she prayed she would at least make it to the palace and into some private place, where she might be able to lose her last meal unobserved. She settled her head back and tried to think of anything other than the idea of marrying a filthy Lacovian, but considering that was all she had heard anyone talk about for the month, that proved almost impossible. Her father had said King Paul was handsome and would be very nice to her, but she knew he was lying—her father lied about everything. Her mother had pleaded with Queen Eleanor to stop the union from even taking place, but the Queen had been powerless to prevent it. The only good that had come of it, in Irene's opinion, was that her father was removed from the line of succession; her mother had been extremely happy to hear of that. Her parents weren't speaking to each other any more, and had had to move to the royal palace in Luvov, where her father could be watched.
Irene remembered the scene at Pontrefact, before she left home for the last time: her father's goodbye had been perfunctory at best, and he had walked back into the castle without saying another word. Her mother had wept over her, holding her close for a long time until the uncouth Lacovian charged with taking her away finally just wrenched her away and shoved her into the carriage. She hadn't even had a chance to say goodbye to her sister Margot, who had been weeping so uncontrollably that she hadn't been able to speak. Stephen, whom Irene hadn't seen in almost a year, was in Luvov and she wondered if she would ever see him again.
The coach stopped, so suddenly that Irene was thrown off her seat to her knees. Gasping in pain and wracked with nausea, she struggled to get up, but was unable. Dizzy, sick and beyond caring about her dignity, she didn't even care when the carriage door was pulled open and a young man stood staring at her in astonishment.
"Lady… Irene?" he asked, bewildered.
"Oh dear God… " she whispered, and vomited on his boots.
The young man was quick to assess the situation. He shouted for someone to come help and gingerly began assisting her out of the carriage. Irene burst into tears, humiliated, and didn't resist when the young man grabbed her forearms and helped her back up into her seat. With surprising gentleness, he pulled her into his arms and carried her out of the coach, apparently not caring that her lunch was on his boots.
"What the bloody hell is this?" she heard him growling at someone—the coach driver perhaps? "She's got no blankets, she's obviously sick, and not a single person is traveling with her?"
"Lord Beauchamp said she'd be fine," the coachman answered.
"Does she look fine?"
The coachman peered at Irene as if he had never really seen her before. "No, Your Highness, I guess not… "
Irene managed to look up at her rescuer and saw he was dark-haired and rather good-looking, but he was still a Lacovian, and had she the strength she would have scratched his eyes out.
She was carried into what appeared to be a crumbling inn and settled in a chair by the fire. The young man knelt before her, wrapping a warm blanket around her feet, while a woman wrapped another around her shoulders and wiped her face with a cool, damp cloth. "There now. That should make you feel a little better," he said to her, standing.
"You're King Paul?" she asked, shaking with fear and disgust.
"Nay, my lady, I'm Richard of Stormont. The King's cousin. He sent me to meet you at the border, but this bloody fool took the wrong road," he said, glaring at the coachman, who shrugged and staggered away in search of another cup of ale.
"I'm sure you would have preferred a warmer welcome to Lacovia, but our country isn't known for being welcoming anyway." He sat down in chair opposite her, and she observed his surprisingly handsome looks—he was dark and rugged, well-built and had kind brown eyes.
"It's so cold," she finally said. "Is it always cold in this God-forsaken country?"
"Not by the hearth," he said, shrugging slightly.
"But the heart?"
"Bloody well frozen."
"Lady Beauchamp, might I speak with you a moment?" Eleanor asked, when she saw the woman sitting alone in the Great Hall.
Alice stood up, curtseying to the Queen. "Your Majesty. What might I do for you, ma'am?" Her voice was dull, and Eleanor did not miss her red-rimmed eyes.
The Queen gestured toward the door leading to the chapel, and Lady Beauchamp followed her through and down the long corridor to the inner chapel of St. Ulrike. A soldier opened the door and stepped aside, bowing to the Queen, and closed it behind them. Once alone, Eleanor gestured to Lady Beauchamp to sit down in the pew closest to the door.
"First of all, Lady Beauchamp, I think I ought to make you aware that I did not by any means enjoy the prospect of seeing your daughter married to the King of Lacovia, and I did not relish my refusal to help you. I honestly could not—your husband's behavior and his callous treatment of the poor girl is reprehensible."
The older woman swallowed, nodding, and stared at the floor, her hands clasped together. "She left yesterday morning for Lacovia. I have never wept so much in all my life, ma'am."
"I know. I cannot say I understand your misery, but I can see how this hurts you. But there is some degree of good news that I'm sure your husband has not told you about."
"Good news? What good can come of my poor daughter married to the King of Lacovia?"
"The King agreed to rescind her dowry if she is in any way mistreated."
Lady Beauchamp frowned. "I suppose that's something. He loves money above all things."
"Except power," Eleanor said. "I believe your husband intended to enrage Morvenia in particular with this marriage, but perhaps he forgot that my son is already betrothed to Princess Elizabeth. We have made no alliance with Lacovia and never will."
"How could he be so cruel?" Lady Beauchamp asked. "How could he sacrifice my poor daughter for this?"
"Because, Lady Beauchamp, he wants to be king. And he will do anything to get the crown. He has yet to learn, however, that I will not yield one inch to him, and I'm not at all afraid to bring out the knives if required."
Irene thought that if she had enough nerve to throw herself from the balcony and be done with it, she would. But as she stared down into the empty blackness, nothing could make her take that hopeless leap. Besides, the stench coming from Rumon made the idea twice as revolting. Disgusted and nauseated, she turned away and went back into the room, shivering.
At least she was finally alone, but she doubted that would last long. Her future husband—to whom she had yet to be introduced—was somewhere in the vast, opulent and cold palace, and the king's mother was also somewhere around. She sounded almost as horrible as King Paul, from what Richard of Stormont had told her.
After being allowed to warm up at the derelict inn, another carriage had been found and Irene had traveled to Rumon in some semblance of comfort. Nonetheless, she was very late and no one had seemed prepared to receive her. Richard of Stormont had insisted that she be placed in a warm room, and he had seemed reluctant to leave her upon delivery to the palace, but finally the King's Major Domo arrived and said he could go. Irene had caught his worried expression, but there had been nothing he could have done. She was on her own now.
The terrified girl was taken down a long series of marble-floored halls to a room, a servant banked a fire in the fireplace, and she was told to wait. So far, she had been waiting almost an hour, but she was beyond caring if anyone ever came. She wanted to curl up in the corner and weep, but just as she finally decided to sit down on the cold marble floor and let her tears flow, the door opened and a magnificent woman in black and purple velvet strode into the room.
"You are Irene Beauchamp?" she asked.
The woman stalked to her, her eyes narrowing as she examined the girl. "I am Queen Joanna, the King's mother. I will be in charge of you from this day forward." She grabbed Irene's chin and turned her head from side to side, examining her as though she were a horse—she even inspected her teeth. "Hm. You look healthy enough, I suppose. Blonde and blue-eyed, I see, and fair-skinned. You take after your stupid mother."
Stupid or not, at least she tried to keep me from having to come here, Irene thought. She lifted her chin a little, meeting the woman's stare.
"You are to marry my son within the hour. Your father has arranged it all, and the contracts have all been signed. Come with me."
"But… " Irene started, and that caused Joanna to glare at her with hard, dark eyes. "The wedding wasn't to happen for another… another two weeks, ma'am… and it's only just past midnight!"
"The wedding happens today," Joanna said. "The sooner you get to work producing an heir to the throne, the better. My son has one male cousin who I regard as unsuitable and by no means will I see him take the throne over my sweet boy. Come with me now."
Trembling with fear, but determined to show herself a true Gravonian, Irene followed Queen Joanna out of the room and into the opulent hallway. The royal palace was beyond anything she had ever seen—no expense had been spared in decorating the palace, but Irene had not missed the wretched condition of the rest of the people in Lacovia, much less the hideous stench of Rumon itself. How anyone could live in such a place while people around them starved was beyond her comprehension.
Queen Joanna and Irene were admitted to another large, decadently decorated room, and Irene got her first look at her future husband. The King stood at the window, looking out at the miserable kingdom over which he ruled, and finally turned to look at her.
Paul was anything but handsome. He was thin, pot-bellied, and he had no chin to speak of. Irene had to resist the urge to look on the floor to see if he had dropped it.
"Darling, this is your future wife, the Lady Irene Beauchamp."
King Paul walked over to face Irene and examined her for a moment. He finally shrugged. "I suppose she'll do," he said sullenly.
"The chapel is prepared," Joanna said. "You will bed the girl as soon as the wedding is over."
"Of course, Mother." The King's eyes narrowed as he continued to stare at Irene. "I'm sure my little wife will do all she is told, and will not dare disappoint me to that end."
Irene managed to curtsey to the King, but wished to God she could get away with spitting in his face. Then she would throw herself off the balcony and his bloody cousin could have Lacovia's bloody throne.
The King left the room to prepare for the wedding. Queen Joanna snatched up Irene's wrist and dragged her out of the room and into another chamber. Two women were waiting there, and Joanna ordered them to begin preparing the girl for her wedding. She was horrified when she was told to lie down and spread her legs. "What? I will not!"
"Do as you're told, you little chit!" Joanna barked. "We must be sure of your purity! I endured the same thing. It is required of all royal brides—surely you know that! Now lie down—I will expect obedience, and so will my son. Immediate obedience, do you hear me?"
The degrading examination that followed was just the beginning of Irene's humiliation at the hands of her new family.
During the night, after the farce of a wedding and her husband finally left her alone, she curled up into a ball in the nuptial bed and sobbed helplessly until her exhaustion finally proved merciful. Just before dawn, Queen Irene of Lacovia finally slept.
"Lord Stephen Beauchamp, ma'am," Boris said, stepping forward and gesturing for the young man to enter the Presence Chamber. Eleanor spread her hands across her lap and warily watched the sixteen-year old bow to her. He was a good-looking, ruddy lad, with curly brown hair and his mother's blue eyes. He bore little resemblance, actually, to his father.
"Lord Stephen," she said, nodding. "I know we have had few opportunities to talk in the past, but considering the circumstances I felt it necessary to speak with you in private."
"To sound me out, ma'am, I'm sure."
She narrowed her eyes, wondering. The young man swallowed.
"I am certain you have heard of your sister's recent marriage to King Paul of Lacovia."
"I have. It was not happy news."
"I know you are close to your sisters."
"But I am not close to my father, ma'am. I know on which side my bread is buttered, and I am aware of my father's ambitions. I do not take part in his schemes."
"How could you, as your family is watched closely at all times here in Luvov."
"Yes, ma'am. Just the same, I did not agree with his actions before and I find his actions now to be repulsive. My poor sister is ruined by her marriage to Paul and I fear he will use poor Margot as well, one day."
"But will he use you?" Eleanor asked.
"I am under Your Majesty's charge while I live here in the palace, and while I owe my father proper respect, I do not owe him my conscience or my allegiance when he breaks the law."
"So you live by the Scripture--'the sins of the father are not visited upon the son'?"
"I must. For the sake of my own immortal soul and the sake of my dear mother and sisters."
"So... I can suppose that the wind was blowing rather hard the day that apple fell from the tree," Eleanor said with a rueful smile, weighing the boy's sincerity carefully and finding little falsehood in him. "I can only pray you do not disappoint me, Stephen. It would very painful for all concerned."
"I know it would be, ma'am, but not even the Crown will trump my conscience. I do not have a right to the throne and neither does my father--I know we have all been removed from the line of succession and I am rather relieved by that. I do not want a Crown. I would rather live a short life, untitled but with my honor, than a long life with treason and thievery."
Eleanor frowned at the boy, impressed with his apparent honesty, but he was still Beauchamp's son.
"So, Stephen, can your cousin the King and my sons count on your loyalty?"
"I swear it before Almighty God that I will never take part in my father's treachery. I am ashamed of him and even of my own name."
"The Beauchamp name is not committing the sin of treason," Eleanor reminded him. "You father chooses to dishonor it, and you can choose to honor it. And I know it is painful for you to go against your own father."
"He has sinned against God and against the King."
Eleanor sighed, feeling sorry for the poor boy. She knew that Beauchamp only saw his children as pawns before he saw them as individuals with souls accountable to God. "Then I must give you the benefit of the doubt, Stephen. I pray you will never let the King down, for if you do, I will be forced to act."
The boy nodded, and seemed to sense that the conversation had ended. He bowed to her and stepped back. Boris opened the doors and the young nobleman backed out. The King's major domo closed the doors. "Ma'am?"
"See he is watched, but otherwise do not interfere with him unless it necessary."
"As you will, ma'am."
"You're supposed to let him learn French, Constantine, not foul language."
"Same damned difference."
Philip laughed and took the boy while his brother cleaned up. "I would suspect trouble is brewing, but for now… well, for now, all seems rather quiet. I heard that Eleanor is with child again—due in October." He did not miss his brother's brief, pained expression at the mention of the name 'Eleanor', but he knew better than to comment on it. "No doubt it'll be another boy."
"Good for them both," Constantine finally said. "Isabella is sure she's having another boy—she and her ladies did some kind of thing with her wedding ring that said so. That'll be four—at least no one can say the succession isn't assured here in Morvenia, too."
"Aye, you're right. Quick, tell me their names!" he challenged.
"Um… Elizabeth, Michael, Nicholas and Leopold."
"You're getting better at it!"
"The three older ones run so fast I often lose track, and Michael and Nicholas could be twins. At least I can keep up with Leopold—he isn't mobile yet. Elizabeth is helpful—she's a tyrant over those boys, and she's better at keeping them in line than I ever will be."
At that moment, Princess Elizabeth came into the room, her red hair tied up ribbons. As usual, she was barefoot and wearing a blue dress, and when she saw her uncle, she smiled brightly. At six years old, she was a cheerful little thing, full of energy and utterly devoted to her Papa. She saw the mess Leopold had made and immediately went to the kitchen to gather more towels and returned armed for cleaning. "Leapy is a naughty little boy!" she told her youngest brother.
"Leapy?" Philip asked, intrigued.
"Yeah. She calls him Leapy. We've decided to find it charming."
"It is rather charming. Elizabeth, I brought you a present." Philip extracted a tiny hinged box from his pocket and opened it, revealing an exquisite jeweled butterfly hair clasp. "I had this made especially for you, Smidgen."
Elizabeth squealed with delight. "It's so pretty!"
"Yes, just like you, only not quite so. Let your Mama help you put it in your hair."
The little girl needed no prompting to thank her uncle and hug him, kissing his cheek. She showed the tiny gift to her father, who nodded his approval. "Go on and show it to your Mama."
Isabella was at the door, and she smiled at her daughter. "Has your Uncle King been bribing you again?"
"I bribe her with sweets. I curry favor with jewelry," Philip said archly, standing up. He kissed his sister-in-law's cheek. "And how are you… my goodness, woman, you're as big as a house!"
"Tact never was your forte, was it?" Constantine muttered.
"I am eating for fifteen, you know," Isabella laughed. Philip pulled a chair out for her and she sat. "What is that smell?"
"Leopold tossed up his breakfast."
"Oh, I see." She wrinkled her nose. "You know, when he begins training for the army, we could teach him to vomit on whoever he's fighting."
"It'd work better than a mace," Constantine nodded. Leopold howled indignantly when he was picked up by his sister and carried out of the room. It was time for his nap, however he felt about it, and Elizabeth was a stickler for keeping to schedules. "Remember that page we tried to train, some years ago, who kept throwing up on whoever he was fighting? He even ruined a pell, but his tactics were quite effective."
"Never could get that stuff to wash off the pell. I always wondered what it was he ate that got his stomach so upset."
"Thankfully, he's a cleric now. But I suspect no one ever attempts to mug him, and if they do, they don't try it again."
Isabella watched as her daughter and two older sons came bustling into the room, having been released from any further attempts at naptime, and they made a beeline for their mother. Since there was no room in her lap, they snuggled up against her, one on each side, with Elizabeth hugging her mother around the neck, and happily submitted to her kisses. "Did you two behave yourselves for Mrs. Thigbottom?"
"With a name like Thigbottom, who would?" Philip asked. "What is a Thig? And why is it on the bottom?"
"Uncle Phiwip said 'bottom'!" Michael lisped.
"Now you've done it," Constantine said wearily. The two boys were giggling and Philip was grinning from ear to ear. "It'll be hours before they'll settle down."
Isabella had trouble maintaining her own calm. Nonetheless, she had to be the stern one in the household, as Constantine was a pushover when it came to his children. "Stop that, Philip. Boys, it is not polite to laugh at anyone, especially for the name they were given... by someone else."
"I wasn't laughing at her!" Philip squawked. "I just don't—"
"Know when to quit," Elizabeth said, giving her brother-in-law a warning look. The King smiled slightly and stood up, bowing.
"Well, I think that is the signal for my departure, now that I have wreaked havoc on your household," he said. "Isabella, it was delightful to see you. Constantine, only somewhat less so… children, it was also a delight to see you, despite Leapy's prodigious vomiting skills. I will take my leave." Bowing again, he strode out of the house and into the courtyard. His horse was brought to him, and as he mounted he was startled to see the Scotsman riding up on a big, rawboned gelding.
"Yer Majesty, sir, I've got a bit of information at last."
"Did you? Very good, sir. What is it?"
"That woman's daughter—Catherine Trueblood, I mean. Her daughter's name was Margaret, and she was married to John Reeve."
"Margaret Reeve." Philip took the documents from his assassin-cum-spy and read over.
"Aye. I wasn't able get a drop o' information from anyone at Ravensburg, y'know. Tight-lipped bunch they all was, but Margaret Reeve's daughter is buried up there at the castle. Count von Hesse, however, is now Livonian ambassador to Gravonia."
"That's interesting. von Hesse was never interested in being a diplomat before. Hell, he's as likely to pour hot cider down a king's collar as any man I know."
"Aye. I spoke with his housekeeper—a tough bird named Elizabeth Bolingbrooke—and she wouldn't spill a single bean for me. Nary a word, save how it broke her heart that her poor little Eleanor had died at just sixteen, and then she called me a dirty cattle thief and threw me out of the house. But I did a bit more questioning in Turon and a woman there mentioned that she found it very odd that Mrs. Bolingbrooke would go off to Gravonia to deliver all five of the Queen's bairns, and that she's due to return to Luvov in October to deliver her sixth. She only heard that from some housemaid that worked at Ravensburg and was a bit of a gossip."
"Who gave you this information?" Philip asked.
"Some bat-faced chit named Madge. Nasty bitch, I thought, and she didn't seem at all bothered that Eleanor Reeve was dead. Said somethin' 'bout a snowball… "
"Why would Queen Eleanor hire a Livonian housekeeper to serve as her midwife?" Philip asked, confused.
"Yer askin' t' wrong man that question, sir."
Philip nodded. "So Eleanor Reeve was Catherine Trueblood's granddaughter," Philip said softly. "And Margaret Reeve was murdered, in Teslo, by the Lacovians. Catherine had mentioned her daughter's death the day she blessed Queen Eleanor's sons." Philip folded the papers, pondering the tremendous weight of the very possibility… but it couldn't be. There was simply no way! The King looked at the Scotsman, his expression stern. "You will say nothing of this to a single soul. Do you understand?"
"Aye, sir. Nary a soul."
"Good. Thank you. I believe your services are no longer needed, for now. You will receive your payment in due time."
"Verra good, sir. Good day to ye." The Scotsman turned his horse and galloped out of the courtyard. Philip looked back at the house, fearful of even allowing himself to think of what this all meant. If it was true, then God forbid Constantine should ever know—the pain would be too much for him to endure.
Suddenly feeling utterly miserable, the King kicked his horse into a gallop and rode home, determining to keep silent on the issue. Sometimes the truth could be a thousand times more devastating that the lie, and for all of his need to know, Philip could see no reason to see his brother—whom he loved—suffer any more.
He would drop the matter. Entirely.
Eleanor paused under the rose arbor, watching Lord Beauchamp and his son Stephen as they talked. The boy was clearly uncomfortable around his father, and when the nobleman attempted to touch the boy's shoulder, he shrank away. As much as she disliked the notion of parents and children not having warm and loving relationships, she was encouraged to see that Stephen's vow to her was sincere.
As soon as their interview ended, Stephen turned and stalked away. The Queen waited until Beauchamp was truly alone before she stepped out into the light.
"Lord Beauchamp. How lovely to see you."
Beauchamp bowed to her, his expression inscrutable.
"Perhaps we might walk together a bit?" she said pleasantly.
"Of course, Your Majesty. It would be my pleasure."
As they strolled through the gardens, Eleanor started on mundane matters before going for the most important subject at hand. "I understand your daughter is safely settled in Lacovia?"
"It must delight you and your wife to see your eldest daughter a Queen."
"It does, ma'am. She is also quite happy."
"I'm certain she is. The royal palace in Rumon is said to be the most opulent on the Continent."
"I am also sure you are very pleased to be living here in the royal palace, and to be near your dear son again."
"I am, ma'am."
"Very good." Eleanor smiled at Beauchamp. "The King and I are quite pleased to have you and your charming family here. I know that you will do all you can to remain in the king's good graces—perhaps you hope one day to attain some higher position at Court. Something a little more grand than Lord Almoner, I'm sure."
"I would hope so, ma'am."
"Like, oh… King, perhaps?"
"Ye--… no, ma'am! Henry is the King, and your son is Heir to the Throne."
"But I'm fully aware of your ambition to be King, Lord Beauchamp. Do you deny this?"
"I do have a position in line to the throne," he said, a little more sharply than he probably intended.
"Do you? I believe you have been removed from the line of succession, as have all your descendants in both the male and female lines, and besides, my sons, Count von Arklow and his son are all ahead of you. That's quite a few coffins to walk over to get to the throne, isn't it?"
Beauchamp licked his lips. "I can assure you, ma'am, I have no such aims to walk over any coffins. And I'm sure that in time Henry will forgive me for my… "
"Very foolish actions," Eleanor smiled.
"I merely wished to bring about peace between Lacovia and Gravonia, ma'am."
"Without asking the King's permission to seek this peace? A no consideration of how the union might have offended Morvenia?"
"I did not know his permission was required. Peace is a state we all desire, is it not, and Morvenia is not in charge of Gravonia, is it?"
"Peace, Lord Beauchamp, is not simply the absence of war. Peace is achieved through strength—a nation's enemies must fear the consequences of aggression toward her, and her citizens must recognize the value of law and order, or there is no peace internally or externally. Your kind of peace would seem to be the chimera hoped for when cowardice is all you have on your side. That is no peace, however. That is weakness, and it leads to destruction."
"You have very pointed ideals, ma'am."
"Ideals? No, sir. I'm a realist."
"Gravonia is then blessed to have you as her Queen."
"And I'm sure Lacovia is blessed to have you as its friend." She stopped and faced him, looking him right in the eye as she spoke.
"I am not a friend of Lacovia, ma'am!" he objected.
"But you married your daughter to her King without asking Henry's permission. Pray, Lord Beauchamp, did you not recognize the very real possibility that Morvenia and even perhaps Livonia and Havor would view the union as being very… impolitic? Of course, we have had the pleasure of speaking with those nations' ambassadors and have made it very clear to them that your daughter's marriage was not sanctioned by King Henry and that you have been required to bear the appropriate repercussions of your actions. As it is, neither Morvenia, Livonia nor Havor view the marriage as any kind of alliance. In fact, all three nations seem to agree that your matchmaking skills are very… lacking."
Beauchamp was silent. She smiled at him, noting his growing distress.
"Of course, one has to wonder… "
"Yes, ma'am?" he asked tightly.
"Perhaps the marriage was not intended to bring about peace? Perhaps this was not intended as an alliance between us and Lacovia, but an alliance between you and Lacovia."
"Me? Your Majesty… " he started.
"Lord Beauchamp, I think it only right that I give you a proper warning. I am aware of your ambitions to gain the crown, and I am certain that you hope one day to achieve your dreams. But I suppose I ought to remind you that on the day I was crowned Queen consort, I vowed to be a faithful and devoted servant to the King, and I remain so."
Beauchamp stared at the Queen, totally taken by surprise.
She smiled sweetly at him. "I may not be able to take part in a battle, Lord Beauchamp, but I have the heart and stomach of any man, and when it comes to my children, I am prepared to do whatever it takes to protect them—that was part of my vow, you see, to Henry and to Gravonia. So if you feel it necessary to join yourself with Lacovia in your quest to gain a crown that is not yours to take, I can only hope you are prepared to face the consequences, because while you think yourself ruthless in your ambition, you forget that I have five… " She touched her swollen belly, and he swallowed. "Actually six reasons to be doubly ruthless. To that end, please allow me to be very clear, sir: if you so much as touch my husband or my children, I will take everything from you that you hold dear, I will ruin your very life, and then I will kill you."The Queen did not allow him to reply. She turned and walked away, as cool and collected as though she had just talked to him about the roses in the garden. Beauchamp made his way to a bench and sat down, rubbing his knees. Finally, after several moments of catching his breath and making himself believe that she had not frightened him in the least, he stood and walked back to the palace.