Our Gracious Queen

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All's Well

5 October 1381

Betsy smiled down at Eleanor's newborn son, delighted to see yet another strong boy brought into the world. "What have you decided to name him?" she asked.

"Henry insists on Andrew," Eleanor said, settling her head back on her pillow and sighing.

"Well, I'm sure he'll learn frugality from his Mama," Betsy said with a laugh. She gingerly settled the baby in Eleanor's arms and watched the Queen begin preparing the little prince for his first feeding. Eleanor was an expert by now, and soon Andrew was suckling vigorously—the sign of a truly healthy baby. He was only a few hours old, having been born at just after dawn, after a mercifully brief labor. This time, King Henry had had the stamina to actually stay outside the door, listening and occasionally shouting words of encouragement, never once losing consciousness.

The citizens of Gravonia were celebrating the birth of a sixth son to the King and Queen with sincere joy. Every church bell in Luvov had rung for over an hour after the cannons had stopped firing, and Henry was already planning jousts and fetes in the boy's honor. The Queen had come through the ordeal in good order, but Betsy saw the fatigue in the young woman's face: she was twenty-three years old and had borne six children. No wonder she looked more than a little tired.

"How is everyone at Ravensburg?" Eleanor asked.

"The Count sends his love, but he will not be returning here until next April," Betsy said. "The snows were already coming when I left, so it looks like a hard winter. Helene is a little busybody and Madeleine is so sweet and soft—she's always smiling." Betsy sat down beside Eleanor's bed and smiled when little Prince George came toddling over, hoping to get a look at his new brother. She helped the boy up onto the bed and he peered down at the newborn. "There's your little brother, Georgie pet," Betsy said. "Isn't he lovely?"

"Uggy baby!"

"Georgie!" Betsy scolded.

"Well, he's hardly at his very best right now," Eleanor said. "He's had a rough morning, though, what with being pushed face-first through such a tiny hole." She kissed George. "Go on now and find your brothers. I think they're all still playing Siege."

Betsy watched the boy toddle out the door to the next room, where his brothers were bickering over castle structure. "At that age, they're all like little drunk people, aren't they? So serious about trying to walk and we're all standing around giggling… "

"I never giggled," Eleanor pointed out. Betsy smiled. That was true. Eleanor never laughed at her children, or anyone else, really.

"You do look very worn out, dearest. You must get some rest, and you ought to think about telling Henry that your quiver is quite full."

Eleanor put her head back again, Prince Andrew still suckling strongly, and she sighed. "But Betsy, that would mean no more fun in bed!"

"Eleanor… gracious, you do not often speak as a Queen should!"

"When it comes to the activity that makes a baby, I do not behave as a Queen should, either, and if Queens did behave properly in bed, there'd be no Kings at all." Andrew began snuffling, and Eleanor expertly switched him to her other breast. "I will not tell him to stay out of my bed, Betsy. I will just take the necessary precautions. My mother's concoctions always work very well. Besides, I don't mind having babies and I would love to have a daughter someday."

There was a knock at the door, and Betsy stood, stepping away from the Queen's side and began to busy herself with gathering up blankets and setting things in order. The ever-diligent Agnes had already set up the newborn's cradle, and after a moment the Mistress of the Robes came shyly into the room, curtsying to Eleanor and smiling broadly. She cooed over the new baby, and Eleanor glanced at the woman's swollen belly—Agnes was due to bear her third child sometime in late December and was praying fervently for another boy—apparently she hadn't been behaving very 'properly' lately either. With Lorenzo having been elevated to the position of Master of the King's Horse, she was living at Court during the summer and relished helping the Queen tend to her sons. All the princes adored Agnes in turn, and loved playing with little Ellie, who was perhaps the sweetest child Eleanor had ever encountered, while Marcus was a jolly little terror.

"Lady Harriet is here to see you, ma'am, if it is no bother," Agnes said, once she was satisfied that the cradle was properly prepared.

"Of course it's no bother. Please send her in."

Harriet came in quietly and curtsied low to the Queen, as usual. Since her widowhood, she had been a quiet, subdued presence at Court, rarely even speaking unless forced. She looked nervously at the Queen and finally drew in her breath.

"Your Majesty, I have received a proposal of marriage."

That surprised Eleanor. "Really? From whom?"

"Lord Ellis, ma'am. His wife died three years ago, you know, and he needs a wife to help tend to his sons. They are… a bit wild, he says, and he believes a mother's guidance will help."

Eleanor pondered this. Lord John Ellis was a decent man with an excellent head for economics and business, and his wife's death had left him bereft. His two sweet but rowdy boys—Simon and David—were well-known at Court for getting into trouble, usually just as the result of youthful over-exuberance. Eleanor genuinely liked Lord Ellis and found his sons charming and only needing a firmer hand to keep them in line. She doubted there was a firmer hand than Harriet's, though in the past few years she had learned a bit about how to relax and take things more in stride. Being overly rigid with children, after all, never had happy results.

"I can see no reason to disapprove of the match, Harriet. So long as the King gives his consent, I will give it my blessing."

"Thank you, Your Majesty."

Eleanor settled her head back against the pillow for a moment, then sat up a bit, having settled on a decision. "Harriet, I was thinking already of asking Lord Ellis to stand as godfather to Prince Andrew. We can make the official announcement of your engagement after the christening. And Agnes, it would please me very much if you would stand as Andrew's godmother."

Harriet looked surprised and Agnes looked rapturously delighted.

"Thank you, Your Majesty. I would be very honored," Agnes said brightly. "If it pleases the King, we hope to name our boy Enrico, in his honor."

"I'm sure Henry will be very honored," Eleanor said with a soft laugh. Lorenzo, aside from being an excellent horseman, had become a trusted member of the royal household. He offered the King no advice, of course, but seemed to have a knack for knowing exactly what to do in any given situation, and never once did he let a crisis of any kind upset him. Recently, Boris had begun to look upon the Italian as a possible replacement for himself upon his own retirement. Eleanor knew she would miss Boris dreadfully if and when he left, but she liked Lorenzo and knew he would be just as unflappable an ally.

"What if it's a girl?" Betsy asked.

"Um… " Agnes glanced at Harriet and swallowed nervously. Eleanor knew she didn't want to offend Harriet, but Agnes would never give her daughter such a name.

"Do not think I would be insulted, Agnes," Harriet said kindly. "I hate my name."

"Well, there's Henrietta," Betsy pointed out helpfully. "And Harriet is a perfectly respectable name."

"Harriet's even worse," Harriet said, with a rare smile. "Your Majesty, we have set the wedding for twentieth October."

"Very good, Harriet. His Majesty and I wish you all possible happiness."

"It is only a marriage of convenience, ma'am. Lord Ellis and I will not see each other often. He only offered to marry me to see my own boys are protected and so his sons will have a mother. It will even give Xenia a chance at a decent marriage, some day." Her eyes were downcast, and she looked a little anxious. Eleanor sighed—yet again, it bewildered her when two grown people who were free from any bonds and liked each other should deny their feelings. She looked at Betsy, who raised her eyebrows, shrugging slightly.

Lord Ellis and Harriet were the same age, were both attractive and Harriet's scandalous behavior in the past was not known at Court, due to Eleanor's careful manipulation of the grist in the rumor mill. If he was as kind and good-natured as Eleanor believed him to be, and Harriet's apparently strong sex drive also came into play, she had little doubt the couple would be seeing each other quite a lot.

Once Agnes and Harriet had left the room, Betsy took the now sleeping Prince and settled him into his cradle.

"People are so strange," Eleanor said, shaking her head.

"I always remember my mother's comment on strange people." Betsy said, helping Eleanor into her dressing gown and checking to make sure she was comfortable. "She used to say that God is great, honey bread is good and people are crazy."

"Well, I know God is great, and your honey bread has always been exceptionally good… and yes, I think she was right about people being crazy, too."

Betsy sat down beside her again, and took her hand. "My sweet little lamb," she said, smiling. "Six children! It is rather hard to believe. I remember the day I told you about sex. Do you remember?"

"Yes. It was the Queen of the May festival, after Constantine won the joust and gave me Merlin."

Betsy nodded. "I am glad to see you are happy, Eleanor."

"I am contented, Betsy. Happiness is not clearly defined, in my mind. We learn to be content with where we are, and what we have become, and we adapt to our circumstances as needed. I believe that as long as I am doing some degree of good, I can be satisfied with that. If I were not able to adapt, I probably would have run mad long ago."

"And Lord Beauchamp still lurks in this palace."

"Yes. And he has allies—I never forget that. Even if he is eliminated one day, others will be there to replace him. Enemies even worse than him, perhaps, are around me. So even in my current state of general contentment, I have to be diligent."

"When your sons are of age and can defend themselves… "

"I will still be their mother."

Betsy smiled. "Yes, dearest, but they will be men. No man can call himself a man if his Mummy is always stepping in between him and his troubles and solving them for him. You will have to let go of them someday. I had to, you know, and I wept like a child when they left home and married and started their own families. But it must be done. Count von Hesse does not doubt you will succeed in raising them to be excellent men, sweetheart, and Alexander will be a great King one day, but once they are of age and can fend for themselves, Eleanor, you will have to succeed then, too, at stepping back and letting them fly and possibly even fall on their own power."

"A fine time, to tell me such things," Eleanor said, wiping tears from her eyes and looking at little Andrew, who was sleeping peacefully. "I already cry enough as it is!"

"Aye, well, you know me—I speak my mind." She sat back in the chair. "Though lately I've had little opportunity to tell someone to bugger off, save that bloody Scotsman who came to Ravensburg a few months ago."

"Scotsman?"

"Yes. He blew in with a rainstorm and went wandering around in the graveyard by the chapel. I didn't like his line of inquiry, that was for sure, and as the Count was away at the time, I told him to get hence to the Devil."

"So you had no inkling you may have been entertaining an angel, Betsy?" Eleanor smiled.

"An angel with a Scottish burr? I doubt it. He saw your grave and asked me about you… "

"You mean Eleanor Reeve's grave, Betsy."

"Yes. Her. I told him she took sick and died at sixteen and after that he left." She shuddered. "There was something about him I didn't like. I'm surprised he didn't steal the silver."

"Betsy!"

"Well… anyway, he left and there's an end to it."

Eleanor nodded. She drew in her breath. "Constantine is married, you know."

"Yes, I know."

"He has four children. A fifth is due soon, as I understand."

"Four? Well, that's hardly unexpected."

"His wife was here… the Morvenian state visit…?" At Betsy's nod, Eleanor continued. "I met her."

Betsy remained brisk and matter-of-fact, as always. She set to folding up blankets and straightening things, working quietly so as to not disturb the little prince. "And what did you think of her?"

Eleanor picked restlessly at the edge of her blanket. "She is lovely, Betsy. So sweet and gentle and kind. Not a selfish or cruel bone in her body, and she loves him. So much." Tears filled her eyes. "But he does not love her. I'm ashamed to say, at first I was glad, for just a moment, that he didn't love her, and I wanted to hate her. I know that's hideous of me, but… "

"You must not blame yourself for that, lamb, nor should you beat yourself up for being human. Men say we are queer and unreasoning creatures, but they have their days, too, and the human heart is not so easily healed as we think."

"It's my fault, though!" Eleanor said, unable to stop her tears. "I want him to be happy, Betsy. I want her to be happy, and yet I am between them… I'm a ghost between them, and he doesn't even know I'm alive!"

"Hush yourself," Betsy said, shaking her head, touching Eleanor's cheek. "Poor little lamb, beating yourself over the head like this. You are not responsible for Constantine's actions. If he does not love his wife, that is his own bloody fault, not yours."

Eleanor wiped her eyes and looked up at the ceiling. "Henry and King Philip have also hammered out a union, Betsy. Constantine's daughter Elizabeth will marry Alexander."

Betsy sat down then, eyes wide with surprise. "Well, that definitely beats the Frost Fair at Turon."

"Elizabeth is a sweet little girl. Isabella writes to me regularly of her progress, and Elizabeth and Alexander even write to each other sometimes. She is a very bright girl, and is suited to Alexander, I think." She rubbed her temples wearily. "At least I can be sure Constantine will not come with his daughter. She is to come here in another ten years, Betsy."

"She'll be how old then?"

"Sixteen. According to Philip, his brother insists she not marry until she is eighteen."

Betsy nodded. "Well, that says a good deal about Constantine—most fathers don't give a damn how soon their poor daughters marry."

"Betsy… Lord Beauchamp married his daughter Irene to King Paul of Lacovia."

"Bloody hell!" Betsy gasped. "The poor thing!"

"He was under the impression that he could bring about some kind of alliance between Gravonia and Lacovia, and thus offend Morvenia. Stupid, stupid man… "

"Did he get Henry's consent for the match?"

"Certainly not. Henry removed Beauchamp from the line of succession and made sure he would have to cough up quite a large sum of money if Irene was injured in any way."

"Good for him!"

"Betsy, Beauchamp is determined to have the crown. He will do anything for it. He tried to kill Alexander when he was born, he tried to have me assassinated… he even tried to start a war with Morvenia… this latest move was at least partly in hopes to offending Morvenia."

"Well." Betsy crossed her arms. "He'll have to go through you to get a crown, won't he? And I can't see him getting past our ferocious little warrior."


4 January 1382

Philip couldn't keep from grinning like a fool.

He had not expected his brother to name the new baby for him, but he was immensely flattered just the same, and he had even been asked to stand as godfather to the robust little scrapper. Standing there at the baptismal font at St. Giles, he looked down at his nephew and shook his head in amazement. Constantine had certainly come far, he thought as the Archbishop poured a little bit of water on the baby's forehead.

As soon as the water touched his skin, Prince Philip let out an indignant howl, which soon became a shriek that sounded a great deal like "Whhhhhyyyyyyy?" The noise echoed through the cathedral, and Philip didn't miss several couples with small children looking rather amused. Constantine looked skyward, obviously praying for patience. Isabella took the baby from the Archbishop and began to soothe him, rocking him gently until he finally calmed down.

Isabella had, as usual, recovered quickly from the birthing and had been up and about the following day. She had no trouble carrying her son back down the aisle, Constantine hovering at her side, while Elizabeth trailed behind them, holding her mother's dress train and looking as pretty as a picture. Philip grinned at his little niece, who wrinkled her nose back at him and grinned—a cheeky little sprite with gold-tinted red hair and green eyes. If one didn't know better, it could be believed that Elizabeth was Irish, and her temper was twice as fiery as any Gaelic lass, though she had inherited too much of her mother's sweetness to throw many tantrums.

The doors opened and a roar of approval came up from the crowds gathered outside, their backs to the ocean. The cold had had no effect on the size of the crowd, either. The births of four boys to Constantine and Isabella made the couple particularly well-loved in Morvenia, and there wasn't a soul in the country that didn't think Isabella the loveliest creature alive. She smiled and waved at the crowds, and when a woman shoved her little daughter forward to present her with flowers, Isabella crouched down to accept them and let the girl peer in at the baby prince. She smiled and kissed the girl, accepting the flowers, and the crowd applauded their popular future Queen Consort.

As they neared the state carriage, Isabella said, "He wants to eat!"

"How do you know that?"

"He keeps licking his lips and staring at my breasts."

"Better feed him, then, before he throws a tantrum," Philip advised. "The lad is loud!"

"Ear-splitting," Constantine said, rubbing his ear.

"Pear sitting?" the King asked.

"Shut up."

"Hey, I could have misheard you far worse and offended poor Isabella."

Queen Marie, looking put out, came stalking up, flanked by the biddies. "Ah, Mother, it's so nice to see you," Philip lied. "I'm sure you're absolutely delighted with your new grandson and I'm sure you're eager to make the public believe you're simply in raptures over him and oh, look, the crowds are watching so let's all pretend we like each other, hm?"

"You ought to have named him Louis," Marie snapped at Constantine, ignoring the King. "Why you continue to provoke me is beyond my comprehension." She fluffed her skirts, agitated, then turned her attention elsewhere. "Isabella, you are looking very pale."

"Well, I was up late the other night, having a baby and all," Isabella countered pleasantly. "It did sting a bit, so sleep was hard to come by."

Constantine coughed to cover his laughter, but Philip was unprepared for Isabella's sweet little barb and he snickered.

Marie glared at her daughter-in-law, but Isabella just smiled at her and cuddled her little son. The tiny prince was wrapped up in warm cotton and didn't seem bothered by the cold, but he didn't seem to appreciate it when his grandmother pulled the cover back from his face and peered down at him. He immediately began screaming, and Marie recoiled, stepping back in alarm. "Good heavens! What's wrong with him?"

"He… uh… doesn't like bright lights," Constantine said.

"You spend far too much time at home, boy," Marie said, glowering at her son. "Your father was never about, getting underfoot, when you and Philip were babies."

"Yes, and we all were such a happy, close-knit family for that, weren't we? Why, we still are, as evidenced by the fact that you never have been able to remember our birthdays and we can barely stand to be in the same room with you for more than five minutes, so let's go!" Philip said cheerfully. He took his mother's hand and led her down the steps, ignoring her indignant squawk. Marie managed to plaster a smile on her face that looked more like a grimace, but Philip gave her points for trying.

At the carriage, Constantine took the baby from Isabella while Philip helped her in, and once she and Elizabeth were settled in he handed Isabella the baby and went around to climb aboard Amiel. The old gray horse, long retired from the battlefield and the tiltyard, was happy to be a parade horse now, with bright red and white ribbons braided into his mane and tail, and he and Constantine made an impressive sight as he rode beside the carriage as it trundled back to the palace. Despite the cold, the crowds were large and merry, with red and white flags waving and everyone celebrating stability and continuity in Philip's kingdom—the King's heir had fathered four healthy boys and a bonny little princess that everyone adored, and the royal family was immensely well-liked and respected.

At the palace, Isabella settled down by the fire and began nursing the baby prince. Marie, offended at being ignored once they were all inside, huffed and stalked away. Constantine sat down at the fire, warming his feet, and Philip watched them, suddenly feeling very melancholy.

He was not jealous of his brother, and he would never resent Constantine's obvious domestic tranquility, but the same explosiveness remained in the man, and not even a loving wife and five beautiful children would make him any less fierce, nor could it seem to ease the sting of losing Eleanor Reeve. He knew his brother still mourned that woman… and good God, what if she was still alive, married to King Henry of Gravonia?

Just thinking of the possibility made Philip tremble with an indescribable fear. How would Constantine react, if it were true and if he ever found out?

Constantine caught Philip staring at him. "What?"

Philip pushed his uneasiness away and latched on to pleasanter memories. "I was just thinking… remember when we slipped out of the palace and spent a whole week making bricks?"

The younger man laughed. "Yes, I remember it well. I think I was… twelve, and you were fifteen? I guess that was my last hurrah at home, before being shipped off to Havor."

"We had a jolly good time, didn't we?" Philip grinned. "Constantine here can make bricks with the best of 'em, and we both learned how to sharpen our knives and swords from that bricklayer, too. God, that man was huge."

"I think he was part mountain," Constantine grinned.

"Of course, all that time everybody in the kingdom was looking for us… "

"Well, they were looking for you. I think the search for me was more or less perfunctory."

Philip hated, more than anything, that Constantine seemed to accept the neglect he had endured as a child as just a matter of course. He never complained, not even back then. Back then, someone could have lit him on fire and he would have just commented that he was feeling a little warm.

"I'm sure your parents were very concerned," Isabella said softly. Little Philip was finally finished nursing and was asleep, snoring a little.

"Very," Constantine nodded, smiling at his wife. "Well, Charlotte was."

"Who is Charlotte?" Isabella asked.

"Constantine's old nanny-cum-governess-cum-staunchest defender… she's the one who taught him how to read and how to sew his own buttons and cook his own food. That woman… good God, she was as good at outdoor living as any woodsman, wasn't she?" Philip smiled at the memory. Charlotte Teasdale had been kind to him, but her focus was always on Constantine, recognizing immediately that he was the one who needed all the kindness and warmth she could offer, as he was certainly not receiving that from his parents. "Rough hands, soft heart. Through and through."

The younger man stared into the fire, and Philip regretted dredging up painful memories, yet again, for his brother. "She was the daughter of a fishmonger," Constantine told Isabella. "She was originally a nursery maid, but I guess she just took a shine to me. It took a verbal battle and Mother's ire to get her to leave the palace, when I was sixteen, but then, according to Mother, the damage was done. I had manners, I had no habit of abusing the help, and could repair tears in my clothes."

"What happened to Charlotte? Is she still here in Garon?" Isabella asked.

"No. She died a few years ago," Constantine said.

Just then, the older children of Constantine and Isabella came clattering down into the room, Elizabeth herding her younger brothers as diligently as any sheep dog. Michael and Nicholas were both walking well now (though they usually ran), while Leopold was just starting to get the hang of it. Nonetheless, he clasped his sister's hand as she helped him down the steps, but when she released him the boy toddled to his father and climbed into his lap. "Papa play Siege?"

"All right," Constantine said, getting up slowly, tucking the little boy under his arm and carrying him over to where the blocks had been set up, the two older boys eagerly following them and joining in the game. He spent the rest of the evening playing with the three older boys, patiently teaching them how to build a solid castle and how to defend it.

"We need to give Philip a nickname," Elizabeth said, sitting down at her mother's feet and wiggling her toes at the fire. "So we don't confuse him with Uncle King."

"I don't think it's all that hard to tell them apart," Isabella smiled. "But perhaps you are right, sweetheart. What nickname should we give him?"

"Pip!"

"Oh dear God," Isabella heard Constantine mutter. He was lying on his side, casually stacking the blocks into a castle and fortifying it carefully against his sons' marbles.

"I don't think your father likes that," Isabella said, exchanging a conspiratorial smile with her daughter.

Philip leaned forward. "Lippy?"

"Don't ever say that again," Isabella laughed. "He is not related to the Hapsburgs, you know!"

Philip laughed. "Thank God. I can't imagine marrying any of my cousins, either. Lady Ulrica has all those… spots on her face, and Lady Ursula has a habit of picking her teeth with her fork." He looked a little chagrined. "They're nice enough, I guess. Aside from the spots and the teeth-picking by fork… "

Elizabeth smiled. "Philip means 'lover of horses' right? So perhaps Horse?"

"Not many people would be delighted at being called 'Horse', sweetheart," Isabella pointed out.

"Oh! The Dutch word for horse is 'paard'. How about Pardo?" Elizabeth said brightly.

"You can remember Dutch but you can't remember to pick up your clothes?" Isabella teased her daughter gently, and Elizabeth giggled. "But Pardo does sound rather… interesting, at least, but somehow it still doesn't ring right. How about just 'Parr'?"

"Parr doesn't sound bad," Constantine said. He stretched his leg out, wincing in pain, and the King sighed. Constantine never complained about his injuries, and would rather die than admit that any of them actually hurt. Frankly, Philip suspected that if his brother was ever badly injured in battle, with his right arm severed by a sword's stroke, he would still write 'I'm fine' in the dirt with his remaining hand before he was finished off.

The idea of losing his brother was nauseating to Philip. Whatever their personality differences and even their occasional disagreements, they were as close as two brothers could be, whatever they were to the rest of the world. Philip knew he tended to be overprotective toward Constantine, but he couldn't help it. He might be the most feared general in Christendom, and even the Turks trembled at the mere mention of his name, but to Philip, he was still that stoic little boy who never admitted that anything was wrong.

"Parr it is then," Isabella said, cuddling the newborn, who had been awakened by the conversation and was snuffling fitfully. "He's such a beautiful little thing, isn't he?"

"So long as he looks like you, Eleanor, he'll be fine."

Isabella looked at Constantine, bewildered, and Philip winced. Constantine's hand froze over the blocks, and he swallowed.

Bloody hell.

"I… I mean, Isabella." Constantine got to his feet, the game forgotten. "If he looks like you, Isabella, he—he'll be fine." He kissed his wife's cheek and left, clearly embarrassed and more than a little shaken. Isabella folded her hands in her lap and stared into the fire while Philip sat back in his chair, mortified for them both and wishing to God in Heaven that life didn't have to be so complicated.

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