Our Gracious Queen

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Constantine shivered in the cold and rubbed his numb hands before picking up his limewood training sword, whirling it smoothly in his hand and listening to it whistle as it sliced through the air. The baton was two and a half feet long, blunted at the end, and it was twice as heavy as his battle swords, with a very heavy iron hilt.With his usual cool efficiency, Constantine began to perform the pell exercises, moving around the tall wooden post (carved to resemble a man and painted in Lacovian colors) as he smoothly thrust and sliced, the training sword withstanding even the hardest strikes.

He practiced with his right hand first, switched to his left for a while and finally went at the pell with the sword in both hands, adding extra power to his strikes and leaving marks in the wood. His arms barely even ached, but the training was necessary, and the result was that he could pick up his battle swords and not even feel their weight.

He had constructed the behourd in the courtyard at Fairwood last year, and spent at least an hour there every day, keeping his skills honed and his muscles strong. He had not been called away from home in quite a while, but he knew he could receive a message at any hour to leave for God only knew where, so it was essential that he always be ready to leave at any time, and be prepared for battle.

Sighing wearily, he sat down and wiped sweat from his forehead, looking up at the windows. He knew Isabella was watching him, but he couldn't see her. He always knew when she was looking at him—he would feel some kind of twinge in his stomach and he would know her eyes were on him.

Last night's blunder had been mortifying, for him and for her. Even worse, Philip had witnessed it and was sure to make some kind of comment, sooner or later. When she had finally come up to bed, she had said nothing. She had just put little Philip—called Parr now—in his cradle and quietly climbed into bed, lying still and saying nothing until her breathing evened and he knew she was sleeping. He had not kissed her good night, as was his usual habit, but had feigned sleep instead, not wanting to only add to her confusion or his own stress.

She deserved so much better, he told himself again, yet she was stuck with a man who couldn't talk. He genuinely enjoyed her company, and God knew they had a healthy and satisfying physical relationship, but his inability to say the things he ought to say tended to make it impossible for him to say much of anything at all. His awkward attempts at affection towards her, he knew, were lacking, and he knew he was a bitter disappointment.

Miserable, cold and tired, Constantine trudged back into the house. His two elder sons greeted him enthusiastically, and begged him to let them practice at the pell with their own shorter swords. He permitted it, but demanded they come in after half an hour and no more. "And don't attack each other, please!" he shouted as they raced outside. Muttering to himself, Constantine sat down and removed his boots, shivering the whole time, and trailed past the kitchens to the sitting room. Sure enough, Isabella was already there, sitting by the fire. She was making him another shirt.

She looked up at him and smiled warmly. "It's almost finished."

"Good. That's good." He sat down opposite her and stretched, yawning.

"Have you had breakfast?"

"Some toasted bread… " he said vaguely. He hadn't been hungry. The knot in his stomach made eating impossible anyway.

Isabella resumed sewing, absorbed in her work. He watched her, amazed at the deftness of her fingers as she stitched.

"Who is Eleanor?" she asked softly.

Constantine swallowed. "I don't know why I said… it was an accident… I… "

She did not even lift her eyes to look at him. Just kept sewing. "Catalina said that you loved someone, long ago. She did not know her name, but Philip had said something to her about it. Was her name Eleanor?"

He floundered, gripping the armrests of his chair. "It's not something I care to talk about, Isabella. It's no matter anymore, anyway. She… she's dead." He would kill Philip later for even mentioning such a thing to Catalina. Had he lost his bloody mind?

She finally looked up at him. "I'm sorry."

"That I loved her or that she's dead?"

"Which would you prefer?" she asked gently.

He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Neither. She's dead. There's nothing to prefer."

"So you are sorry for having loved her?"

Constantine gripped the armrests even more tightly. "I didn't say that. I said I do not wish to talk about her."

"I do. I want to talk about her."

It took all of his self-control not to raise his voice in anger. He had never shouted at his wife, and would not start today. He closed his eyes, struggling to rein in his temper and his… good God, what was it? Fear? When had he ever been afraid of anything, except the dark?

"Isabella, I will be very short on this subject and it will never come up again. I loved her. Yes. Are you happy to hear that?"

"Yes. I am." She continued her sewing, her hands not even shaking.

"Good. I loved her and she died. That's all. The subject is now dead. As… as dead as Eleanor. Do you… do you understand?"

"Of course I do." She used a tiny pair of scissors to snip away a piece of string. "There now. All finished." She held up the shirt. "We received some very fine cotton last autumn, from Egypt. What do you think?"

"It's very nice," he choked.

"There is never any reason to be ashamed of having loved someone, you know," Isabella said, folding the shirt carefully.

"I am not ashamed of having loved her!" he snapped.

"Then what is it?" she asked, finally looking directly at him. "And why are you angry with me?"

Constantine felt the wood in the armrest of his chair crack, and he forced himself to let go. "Because I do not want to talk about it," he finally said. "And you have never made me angry, and I do not like hurting you."

Isabella stared at him for several moments, the fire crackling between them, and finally she lowered her eyes. "I know that. I know you have never tried or meant to hurt me, and you beat yourself up whenever you think you do." She put away her thread and needle. "There seems to be so much you do not care to talk about, and that does hurt me. There are many things I would like to talk about. So I suppose things will continue as they always have—you not talking to me, and me hoping that one day you will see me worthy of your trust—in fact, Constantine, it would not even trouble me very much if you became angry with me. Until then, this Eleanor will always be between us. But please, do not think I am bitter about her, dearest. I decided long ago to refuse to be bitter, as that would have destroyed us both." She stood up slowly. "I have some letters to write, and Parr is surely awake now and wanting his breakfast." She handed him the new shirt, made a graceful curtsey and left.

Constantine leaned forward, head in his hands, and cursed his very existence yet again.

June 1382

Eleanor settled down on a blanket on the sandy beach at Insel der Rosen and watched as her children and their playmates dashed along the edge of the water, getting in a good deal of running, splashing and screaming.

They had been delayed in coming to the island, due to the four elder princes having come down with colds, but as soon as they were all well, they had been clamoring to leave Luvov for the quiet, sunny coast. Neither of the boys seemed to like Konigshaus a great deal, preferring diving off the dock at the castle, practicing their sailing skills, building sandcastles and destroying them with marbles, and getting marvelous golden tans. All six of her sons, even little Andrew, were browned by the sun and glowed with excellent health and vigor.

Lady Harriet and her new husband had come with the Queen's retinue, the King having been required to stay in Luvov to oversee the refurbishing of the western portion of the palace walls. He had long been dissatisfied with their strength and with the weather cool, he saw it as a good time for the men to get the work done ("I would like the walls sturdier, but I don't think I'd like to see men passing out in this damned heat!" he had said during the summer, when one of the men on his Council had suggested work start in July). Lord Ellis was a quiet, steady man with few showy virtues, but his calm personality was good for not only Harriet but Eleanor as well—he was sensible, patient and unflappable. Even more, he was nice to look at and friendly without being at all servile.

"Your Majesty, is there anything I might get for you?" Harriet asked. She was clearly not a beach person—she was covered from head to toe in black, and was wearing a huge hat. Eleanor suspected she tended to sear in direct sunlight.

"I'm quite all right, Harriet. You may go back to the castle, if you like. I know you don't enjoy the beach."

Harriet started to get up, but her husband was immediately at her side, taking her hand and gently assisting her to her feet. Eleanor's mouth twitched in amusement, but she said nothing, even as Harriet blushed. Lord Ellis bowed to the Queen, who smiled brightly at them both.

"I do hope you're both enjoying this little holiday. You are not required to stay here on the beach with me, you know. You can stay inside the castle. Your room is comfortable, I hope?"

"Yes, ma'am, it is very comfortable, thank you," Lord Ellis nodded. "We do not mind the beach very much, though poor Harriet does tend to get sunburned."

"Well then take her back inside!" Eleanor laughed. "I'm sure you would both like a nice nap."

Both Harriet and Lord Ellis looked a little embarrassed, and Eleanor had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. If the newlyweds were not already sleeping together, they would be soon. Ellis' wife's death had been a devastating blow to him, but he had two little boys to tend to and in the Queen's opinion, a woman was required for such things. From what she had seen, Lord Ellis was pleased with Harriet's two quiet little boys and was very indulgent with little Xenia. All signs pointed to Lord and Lady Ellis being quite happy together if they could only get over the past. His loss and her mistakes were not insurmountable, after all, and the past needed to put where it belonged.

She sighed—if only it were that easy.

"Thank you, ma'am. Harriet is very tired," Lord Ellis said, and Eleanor smiled up at him. He was tall, dark and handsome, and quite virile, and he clearly suited Harriet, who looked pious and refined, but she was clearly not nearly as cool as she would like everyone to think, considering where her all three of her children had come from. Indeed, Eleanor thought as they walked away. They were perfectly matched.

Eleanor's other ladies—Clothilde, Agnes and Matilda—were more comfortable on the beach and were pleased to sit on their blankets, keeping an eye on their offspring and gossiping. Their children had joined in the princes' games and were enjoying themselves immensely. Eleanor was pleased to see that her sons never behaved as though their rank made them superior to their playmates—Alexander was especially mindful of the principles of good manners, fairness and kindness, just as she had taught him. The other boys were as congenial and gallant, particularly toward the girls that joined in their rough'n'tumble games.

Eleanor stretched out on her blanket, enjoying the warm sunshine, even though she could almost hear Betsy squawking at her about how ladies do not get suntans.

She closed her eyes, sighing, and shivered a little as she dreamed of the day she had seen Constantine at the river. In her dream, he gestured for her to join him in the water, and she eagerly dove in, swimming to him and slipping into his arms, feeling his desire as he kissed her and pushed her against the rocks. She gave herself to him, wrapping her legs around him and moaning in pleasure as he…

"Your Majesty?"

Eleanor sat up, the erotic dream fading away in the increasing heat of the day. Agnes was standing over her, looking puzzled. "Yes, what is it, Agnes?"

"The King has sent a message, saying he will be here tonight, ma'am."

"Oh. Yes. Thank you, Agnes."

"Are you all right, ma'am? You look very… um… "

"I was dreaming," Eleanor answered, just barely keeping an edge of irritation out of her voice.

"It must have been a good dream, ma'am. You were smiling."

"Was I? Oh. Well. I was probably dreaming about… about the King." Eleanor got up, unassisted, and began gathering up her things. Her actions signaled an end to the beach excursion, and the other ladies began preparing to return to the castle. The children were called in, though they all objected to the end of their games, but they trailed along behind them to the steps leading up to the palace, and Eleanor led them all back inside.

The princes were rounded up and ordered upstairs for their evening lessons. The other children skittered away with their parents, and Eleanor took a bath, washing away sand and letting her mind drift to her dream. She had done a good job, in her years in Gravonia, of not thinking of him, but she did dream of him, and far more frequently than her conscience could endure. No amount of telling herself not to could make her spirit and her body still long for him and worry about him and pray for him. Not even Henry's skilled and unselfish lovemaking could keep Constantine from invading her dreams and easily conquering her, and she often woke up frustrated, clawing and moaning. Not even Henry at his most passionate could fully sate her need at those times, much less alleviate her guilt.

She was drying off and putting on her cotton nightgown when she heard the King and his men clattering into the palace. She shook her head, smiling fondly. He was still a noisy, boisterous man, but he was also the sweetest and most considerate of husbands, and she genuinely enjoyed the life they had made together. He was never going to be any kind of intellectual, but what he lacked in brains he made up for in kindness, warmth and generosity, and in many ways she genuinely loved him.

She still belonged to Constantine, and no matter how hard she tried, she would never be able to excise him from her heart.

"Eleanor!" Henry shouted, bursting into the room. He grinned at her. "Damn, I was hoping you'd just be stepping out of the bath!"

"You're a sex fiend, Henry," she said dryly.

"Three days without a woman like you to diddle can turn any man into a sex fiend. I had to get here as soon as possible or I fear I might have exploded." He shoved the door shut, locked it and pulled her into his arms, kissing her soundly, and when he started to impatiently pull at her gown, she laughed softly and let him have his way with her. Soon, she was against the wall, her legs hugging his hips as he took her, but even after satisfying his initial lust she knew he wasn't anywhere near finished. She pulled him into their bedroom, helping him undress, and they spent the rest of the afternoon making love.

"Where are the boys?" he asked her later, as they lay tangled up together. He was lying on top of her, his head on her belly, absently drawing his finger around the full swell of her breast. The light outside was fading, and through the window she could see the sky darkening. The moon would soon be rising over the sparkling water, and from the window she could see the top of the old lighthouse, its light cutting a shaft through the darkness to the sea.

"They are probably downstairs eating their suppers. Agnes has charge of them—at worst, they'll stuff themselves with shortbread and get stomachaches."

Henry grinned. "Good. I like that Agnes spoils them, actually—she is teaching them how to be sweet just the same, and you're good at making the necessary corrections. Andrew is well, I hope?"

"He is excellent, as usual. He's getting into everything, including my sewing basket, the coal bin and yesterday he knocked over a potted palm and flattened a housemaid. Poor thing—she never knew what hit her."

"Marvelous!" He kissed her deeply, moving back up into her arms. "God… how did I ever end up with a woman like you?"

"Negotiations, I believe, started when I was about thirteen."

Henry laughed. "Aye. True. But everyone said you were delicate and shy and very retiring and… you're hardly any of those things. You're a tigress in the bedroom and you're as strong as a… "

"Watch it!" she warned, laughing.

The King grinned at her, reminding her of a naughty little boy. "You're almost as strong as me, I'd say. Hell, sometimes, you ravish me—and God Almighty, I do love it when you ravish me. You throw me on my back and pin me down and… " He moaned happily. "No man on this whole earth is as blessed as me, Eleanor. I have you and our sons and a prospering kingdom… darling, you are married to the happiest man in the world."

She smiled and kissed him warmly. "Then I am happy, too." She squealed with laughter when he started tickling her, and was still giggling when he looked into her eyes.

"I love you, sweetheart."

"I love you, too, Henry," she said and sighed, arching her back as he joined his body to hers. At least for now, she would have no reason to think of Constantine, and if Henry's energy lasted, she would be too tired to dream about him, either.

Returning to Luvov, in early July, was not entirely rewarding to Eleanor. She did not enjoy hot weather, and the city was fairly baking. Fortunately, improved sewers and sanitation at least prevented terrible smells, but the exhausting heat and humidity made everyone a bit short tempered and fatigued. The late summer rains would be coming soon, and the weather would finally cool down in September, with the fall colors making all of Gravonia a patchwork of gold and red until the first frost and sweet, gentle snow showers. Eleanor appreciated the country's weather—it was mild year-round, with even the hot days of summer easily forgotten at the change of the seasons.

She was doing her best to avoid sewing—the activity left her with far too much thinking to do and in the heat, the more she thought, the more she thought about things she shouldn't think about at all. Like Constantine, for one thing, and the letters she received from Isabella that only added to her guilt. She had nonetheless sent Isabella drawings of her sons and of the castle on Insel der Rosen, as well as a beautiful white silk christening gown, to which she had contributed a few stitches under Agnes' expert supervision.

Summer meant that Countess Cecily was in town, finding her estate in the west far too hot in the summer. The older woman arrived at the palace just a few days after the King and Queen returned from Tygo and in a flurry of contradictory orders, squabbles with the staff and insulting courtiers, the Countess set up court in her large suite of rooms. Eleanor was obligated to visit her shortly after her arrival and yet again she felt as though she was on review instead of visiting a relative.

"Countess Cecily, it is so lovely to see you," Eleanor lied sweetly, standing very straight and waiting for Cecily to finally curtsey to her. She only bowed her head very slightly when the Countess finally showed proper respect. "I do hope you are being made comfortable here."

"Thank you, ma'am, I am finally settling in well. How are your dear boys?"

"They are all excellent, Countess." Eleanor glanced at Lorenzo, who was accompanying her to the Countess' quarters in place of the ailing Boris. "And your son and his family are well?"

"Yes, ma'am, quite well indeed."

Eleanor felt like she was in a play, reciting memorized lines and half expecting the audience to laugh at the absurdity of this conversation. "We are so glad to hear that. Count von Arklow is a very kind man and we are fond of him." She smoothed her hands on her skirt. "You have heard from your grandson and your daughter-in-law Lady Blanche?"

Cecily nodded. "The Lady Blanche's mother's death was very sudden and she wanted her Lionel to go with her to condole with her family. She greatly appreciated the King allowing the boy to travel with her to Nantes."

"I was very sad to hear of the Lady Genevieve's death," Eleanor nodded. "We know the King is always pleased to be generous with his family." She only vaguely knew Lady Blanche, having met her only once or twice. The Countess von Arklow was more concerned with her children than with Court life and apparently did not get on well with Cecily. There were rumors, in fact, that Blanche had called Cecily a 'grasping, evil-minded, hateful cow' to her face, in public. For that alone, Eleanor rather liked her.

"Blanche was very grateful, ma'am."

Probably almost as grateful to go to France as she was relieved to get away from you, Eleanor thought, not caring overmuch that she was being a little snide. Countess Cecily had a way of paying visits to her son's home in Luvov and forgetting to leave, while also taking over the running of the household. She had been at the von Arklow estate for almost a month before finally coming to the palace, and Eleanor couldn't help but think that Lady Blanche's mother's death was probably viewed as a respite for the poor woman, however much the loss might have grieved her.

The two women sat in silence for several moments, and Eleanor wondered what might finally break the silence, but instead there was only the sound of some birds twittering outside. There were no good conversation openers with Lady Cecily, unless Eleanor wanted pointers on how to terrorize her servants or bully her children.

Finally, Countess Cecily clapped her hands and ordered refreshments to be brought in. Eleanor did not allow herself to even settle back in her chair—she preferred to be alert in Cecily's presence, in case poison came into play. Malmsey was brought in, and poured into delicate cups by a jittery servant. Eleanor hated the stuff, but she took a few polite sips.

"Did your daughter-in-law travel alone to Nantes, or was she accompanied?"

"She took with her our cousin the Lady Margot Beauchamp."

Eleanor raised an eyebrow. "Did she? Well, I'm sure it is quite the adventure for Margot, the circumstances notwithstanding." She took another sip of the malmsey, winced and put the cup down. It tasted like the scent of urine.

"Yes. Margot is a sweet, helpful girl, and her own mother's family is distantly related to Blanche's family. Lord Beauchamp was very generous to supply her with the means to travel."

Eleanor had no strong opinion of Lady Margot. She was about fourteen and had seemed rather immature even at that age, being only interested in clothes and hair ribbons the few times Eleanor had ever encountered her. She did know the girl missed her older sister terribly, however, and seemed afraid of her father. All of Beauchamp's children seemed to find him rather loathsome, in fact, which Eleanor found not only intriguing but also extremely sad. Children shouldn't be afraid of their parents.

Finally, Eleanor stood, which prompted Cecily to rise as well.

"It was lovely to visit with you, Countess Cecily," Eleanor said, not bowing her head. The older woman dropped a curtsy, looking only vaguely disgruntled, and the Queen swept out of the room, feeling exhausted. She took Lorenzo's arm outside the Countess's door. "Lorenzo, I would appreciate it a great deal if you would see to it that any letters the Countess receives from France are brought to us first."

"Si, Your Majesty," he nodded. "I do not like that woman, if I might say so. There is something so very… hard about her."

"Yes, that would be one way of putting it," Eleanor nodded. "My terminology might not have been quite so polite, though."

Irene shivered, pulling the blanket around herself and thinking that only in Lacovia, at the height of a blazing hot summer, could a room be cold. But the walls of the palace were thick, no fires were ever built in the grates because Queen Joanna hated being warm, and Paul cared nothing whatsoever for the comfort of anyone save himself and his mother.

She and the King never spoke to each other, at least. She saw him perhaps twice weekly, when he came to her bedchamber to perform his 'husbandly duty', as he called it. After more than a year of marriage, however, she was still not with child, and Joanna's acid comments on the matter were frequent and vivid, but Irene didn't care. The concoction her mother had given her, just before she left home, was very effective at preventing pregnancy so far and Irene had no intention of ever bearing that hideous man a child.

Besides, he seemed to have a great deal of difficulty performing the duty at all, and his 'wedding tackle', as she had heard a man at Court call it, was tiny and shriveled-looking. The only time he seemed capable of even joining himself to her was after he had insulted her and made her cry—he knew better than to ever physically abuse her, because then he would have to pay King Henry of Gravonia every farthing of her dowry. But even then, he always seemed to spill his seed on the bed instead of in her womb, and then he would call her a fat, ugly cow and leave her. Never would he admit that he had failed, of course, much less that there was anything wrong with him.

She was happy to be a fat, ugly cow if Paul would not touch her. He hadn't come to visit her at all in the past two weeks and she was sleeping quite well as a result.

The Queen of Lacovia did have some privileges, however. She could have the occasional visitor to her private sitting room, and sometimes she could sit and play chess or cards with Richard of Stormont. In fact, he was due to arrive in a few moments and she wished she were allowed to start a fire and get the room warm. At best, she could only see to it that a lap blanket was available for him.

At the knock on her door, she sat up straight, making sure she at least looked fairly decent. Her ladies—two pug-faced, ill-mannered slatterns that she couldn't bear to be around—were not permitted to enter her chamber at any time unless she allowed it, and so she could only call for her visitor to come in.

Stormont entered on her call and smiled slightly at her as he closed the door. "Your Majesty. I can assume your game of chess has improved?" He sat down across her from her, moving the table into position between them.

"As I recall, sir, I beat you last time."

"Aye, you did. So that means I go first, eh?" He began arranging the pieces on the table. "How was your day?"

"Long and dull," she muttered. "I saw not a single soul all day until the evening meal, and the chicken I ate clearly had led as miserable a life as I before it was killed." She studied the chess pieces, considering her move once he opened.

"Your life is not all together miserable, is it?" he asked, finally making his first move. "You are a Queen."

"Queen of Lacovia," she said. "I should rather be a pauper's wife than Queen of this wretched country." She looked at him and realized she had just insulted his country. Again. "I beg your pardon," she said. "I merely… "

"I understand," he nodded, smiling slightly. "This is a wretched country. It needn't be."

"Oh, I know it needn't be. But it be."

Stormont sat back and laughed. His laughter was so unlike the rest of the courtiers she had met. He actually possessed a sense of humor—a condition of which neither Paul nor Joanna suffered. He was also handsome and kind, and while he was a Lacovian, he did not behave like his fellow countrymen. She knew that his mother was the daughter of German count, and Stormont had told her that she had been a happy, cheerful woman who had done the best she could to make a good home with her husband, the late King's younger brother. Richard had thus been raised in a warm, loving family that never came to Court unless forced, and since his father and the King had never gotten along, visits had been few and far between. Queen Joanna loathed him and considered him utterly unsuited to be the Heir Presumptive, but until Irene bore Paul a son, he was all Lacovia had for the future.

"What would you change?" Stormont asked.

"First, I would insist that everything be cleaned," Irene said. "D'you know, Queen Eleanor did that? The first thing she did, when she arrived in Luvov, was to insist that the whole palace been cleaned from top to bottom. Then she insisted Henry start cleaning up Luvov and then the rest of the country. She made everyone get to work—laziness and sloth was no longer accepted… " She looked up at Richard, who was watching her rather closely, and that made her shiver a little, but not from the cold. "I'm sorry. Perhaps I ought not to mention her. She is universally hated here in Lacovia, I'm sure."

"Not everyone hates her," Stormont said. "There are some here who respect her, and admire what she has accomplished. Gravonia was once a backward, poor country and now she prospers, and most say it's because of her—she tells Henry what to do and he does it. Good leaders could make this country move forward, too. I have had enough of our backwardness, but it will take much longer to improve things here, I'm afraid."

"But she did defeat Lacovia's army at the Field of Stones. Surely most people here resent her… "

"Yes. Obviously. King Paul and Queen Joanna being the most venomous, I'm ashamed to say. But I do not hate her." He moved one of his chess pieces, knocking hers over. Irene clapped her hands, laughing in spite of having been beaten, and he grinned. "I can never speak ill of a woman who fights for her country and for her children. I've never met her, but if I did I would tell her that I admire her a great deal. And hatred accomplishes nothing, I can assure you—only God's hatred of sin is allowed, as my mother always said."

"I've only met Queen Eleanor once—I was presented at Court just after I turned fifteen. She was wearing blue silk and a diamond tiara, and her hair was black and her skin was white and creamy. My sister said she was a fairy queen. Queen Eleanor is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."

"You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."

Irene looked up at him, their gazes locked, and she blushed. He looked a little embarrassed, but he did not seem terribly ashamed of having spoken such a thing. Shyly, she began reassembling the chess pieces on the board, her hands trembling. No one had ever said she was beautiful before.

Stormont was silent, sitting back in his chair and watching her. She couldn't concentrate on the chess pieces and frankly couldn't remember how the game was even played.

"I suppose I shouldn't have said that," he finally said. "But I will not take it back. You are beautiful."

"You probably shouldn't say that. I mean… you shouldn't say that… that I'm beautiful," she whispered.

"Does the King ever compliment you?"

"Paul? If he did, I would die of shock."

There was a sharp knock at the door, and Irene jumped, knocking the chess pieces on the floor. Stormont began picking them up, and she nervously called for the visitor to enter. King Paul stalked into the room, and his eyes narrowed at the sight of his cousin. "Richard."

"Your Majesty," Stormont said, standing up, setting the pieces on the board. He looked at Irene, his expression sympathetic, and quietly left the room.

The King glared at his wife. "You will not have him visit you again, do you hear me, woman?"

Irene closed her eyes briefly. "I hear you perfectly, husband."

"Do you mock me?" he snarled.

"I would be very foolish to do so, my lord," she answered meekly.

"Indeed you would be. Of course, we all know you are a fool, like any damned Gravonian, aren't you?" He grinned, showing those small animal teeth of his. He looked just like a weasel. An ugly, shriveled weasel, with snaggly, rotting little teeth and greasy fur, and he smelled like some feral, hateful beast.

"As you say, my lord," she replied.

That seemed to satisfy his vanity. "Now… I have been remiss in visiting your bed. I won't have my throne pass to that do-gooding dolt, you know. So undress and get in the bed. Go on… now!"

Feeling bone-weary, Irene obeyed her husband and lay down on the bed, watching him as he quickly undressed. He was thin and weedy, with no hair at all on his narrow chest. He had a pot-belly that he tried to conceal in over-tight clothes, and his thing was barely even worth being called a 'thing', as it was so small. More like a little finger, actually. How his mistress kept from giggling every time he showed up at her bedside, Irene didn't know. At least there was no chance he could ever harm her, that stupid, giggling nitwit or any other woman, and from the whispers she had heard, Paul hadn't been able to plant any babies in any woman's womb, much less her own.

Wouldn't it be hilarious, she thought, if Paul never sired a single child and the throne went to Stormont after all? Irene thought of this and had to bite her lip to keep from giggling as the King sloppily nuzzled her neck, drooling on her a bit. The feeling of his saliva dripping on her skin almost made her vomit, but she regained her composure and prepared herself for the inevitable.

As the King tried to diddle her—yet again failing to put his seed in her—she did as she always did when he visited her: she thought about home and her mother and the bright sunshine of her own country and her childhood, when she could run in the fields with her brother and sister, not having to listen to her father talk about being King one day. But tonight, as her let her mind simply drift, to avoid thinking about her nauseating husband and what he was trying to do to her, she heard Richard of Stormont say she was beautiful, and she saw his warm brown eyes and kind smile.

When Paul finally climbed off her and got out of bed, muttering about how boring she was, she rolled over to her side, tucked her arm under her head and thought about Stormont. Paul pulled his clothes on, said something nasty to her about her breasts, but she didn't even react. Irene smiled instead, and ignored him entirely. She was still smiling even as he left, closing the door behind him with an angry bang. She let her breath out, pulled the blankets up and promptly fell asleep.

She would never think about King Paul again.

"Henry, do you think it rather odd that Lord Beauchamp would allow his daughter to travel to France with the Countess von Arklow?"

The King was sitting in the bathtub, up to his chest in warm water, and Eleanor was sitting at the window, looking out at the courtyard. Alexander and Frederick were in the behourd, practicing with their little wooden swords. Lord Hallam was supervising them, and Eleanor was pleased with the results so far: James was very good at correcting and encouraging them while he let them learn from their mistakes. Frederick in particular showed great talent at sword fighting, which pleased and frightened Eleanor at once, but she had to wonder if he had inherited some of his natural skill from her father as much as he had from Henry.

"I thought he was being rather generous. The little mouse doesn't get away from home often and the Beauchamp family is hardly ever happy around each other."

"Very true," Eleanor muttered.

"Countess Blanche took Lord Lionel with her, as you know," Eleanor said, looking back at her husband as he climbed out of the tub, wrapping a towel around his waist.

"Yes, I allowed it. Erich von Arklow is no troublemaker, even if his mother can be, and Lionel is a good, obedient boy."

"Again, very true," Eleanor nodded. She settled into the wide window seat, pulling her knees up and wrapping her arms around them. She gazed down at her two eldest sons as they moved around each other, thrusting and parrying with their heavy wooden batons, marveling at how wonderful they both were. All her babies were wonderful to her, even when they were at their very worst, but Alexander was the one she pinned her hopes on, and she prayed she was not spoiling him or pushing him too hard.

She was following Count von Hesse's example of firm discipline, patience and determination to see her sons, particularly Alexander, not only well-grounded in their education but also their morals. From what she could tell her efforts were proving successful—Alexander's only flaw was that he tended to be overly serious and seemed to lack a real sense of fun. They all were heeding her edict of 'You will', rather than the more commonly heard 'You can', and were all coming along very well. If Alexander was stressed, she could not tell it, and she was pleased to see they had steel in their spines and God in their hearts.

"You think some kind of trouble is brewing?" Henry asked.

"I don't know. I just have a feeling that something isn't quite right. Lionel and Margot have no interest in each other, I know that. Margot has as much interest in Lionel as her sister has in King Paul of Lacovia."

"Aye, that's rather amusing, eh? Irene has not produced an heir to the throne yet. Do you suppose she will?"

"I don't know. She's pretty well damned if she does and damned if she doesn't."

"How do you mean?" Henry asked, rubbing his wet hair with his towel, not minding that he was completely naked in his wife's presence. He never had minded before, she thought with an amused smile.

"If she gives Paul an heir, that means another generation of Lacovian kings making war on everyone. If she doesn't bear him a son, the King of Lacovia makes war on her, and so does his mother, whom I hear is a hideous woman in her own right. I never knew Irene, but I can hardly imagine she is happy in Rumon, either way, but we can hardly view her as an ally now. Even if she were still loyal to Gravonia, she could never afford to show it."

"I doubt she is happy," Henry nodded. "She was a pretty little thing, I admit. It's hard for me to imagine why Charles would think of sending her to Lacovia. I remember her mother saying that Irene would have rather've been a squire's wife, living out in the country with lots of horses and dogs." He shook his head, and Eleanor realized then that Henry would remain ever-naïve when it came to his family. His natural tendency to think the best of everyone was admirable in a peasant but potentially catastrophic in a King.

Her years in Gravonia had taught her a few lessons, and the first thing she had learned was to never trust too easily, and the second was to never let her enemies get too far out of reach: von Hesse was absolutely right about keeping her friends close and her enemies closer.

Eleanor was going to have to protect her husband from his family. Countess Cecily was stirring up something, she was sure, while Beauchamp was still lurking, hoping for another chance to strike, and his second daughter might well be his next weapon of choice. Eleanor knew he was afraid of her—she had seen it in his eyes they day she had spoken with him in the gardens, but he knew Henry continued to view him as a family member first and a rival for the throne last. Even Count von Arklow, if pushed hard enough by his harpy of a mother, might join forces with Beauchamp one day and try the unthinkable.

Henry dressed and after discussing an upcoming visit of the Hungarian ambassador (Eleanor was looking forward to that—the man's wife was a slightly zaftig but utterly charming and funny woman), Eleanor and Henry parted ways, with him heading downstairs to his study, and she to her sitting room to go over the day's post. Lorenzo and Boris were both there already, waiting, and when she closed the door Lorenzo handed her a letter. "Intercepted, Your Majesty," he said. Boris looked pensive and stepped forward, handing her the letter opener.

Eleanor carefully cut under the seal and opened the letter, reading quickly. Blanche's opening lines were fairly banal—just a recounting of their trip and their safe arrival in Nantes. Lionel was in excellent health, and he was quite popular with his relatives… particularly Lady Margot.

The Queen sat down at the fire, and Boris and Lorenzo took seats opposite her, waiting expectantly as she used the firelight to continue reading aloud. When she finished, she looked up. "I do not believe, from Lady Blanche's wording, that she thinks much of Lionel paying attention to Margot," she told the two men, who nodded in agreement. "She views their interactions as 'cousinly'. She is by all accounts an honest woman and she would not look favorably on such a match. The degree of consanguinity alone would be one obstacle, and she would insist on the King being informed first even if she did agree to allow it."

"Consanguinity?" Boris asked, looking puzzled.

"Consanguineità. Too closely related," Eleanor explained. "Margot and Lionel are cousins. They would not be permitted to marry without a papal dispensation."

"But would Lionel be in collusion with Beauchamp and his grandmother?" Lorenzo asked.

"I cannot say. I have never had even a conversation with the boy—he is what, seventeen?" Eleanor asked, looking up at the men. "What do you think of him, Boris?"

"There was always a slyness to him that I found unsettling. He is unlike either of his parents, I would say, but he is instead the image of his grandmother in outlook and attitude," Boris told her. "He is properly servile in the presence of the King but... I do not trust him."

She sighed. "Then perhaps he is following Cecily's orders. She maneuvers Margot into Blanche's retinue to Nantes, and Lionel charms the poor girl into thinking he likes her… and they marry in France, where Beauchamp has many friends… " Eleanor felt a headache coming on.

"Including a number of mercenaries," Boris said, nodding gravely.

"And where Henry has no say in what they do, so long as they stay there. He can remove them from the succession, too, but it won't matter a whit. All Beauchamp has to do is wait for his son to get enough support and gather an army… then they land at Tygo, he gathers his own forces from Pontrefact and more soldiers from Lacovia, and they invade. All three forces would gather at the gates of Luvov..." The image forming in her mind was truly horrifying, and she had to squeeze her eyes shut to make it go away. Yet she could still see Beauchamp and his army bursting through the city gates and into the palace, tracking down her children and butchering them without mercy…

"They would be very foolish to try such a thing," Lorenzo pointed out. "The Crown Prince is marrying Constantine's daughter, remember—Morvenia is our ally now… aren't they?"

"Yes, Morvenia is our ally, but to what degree? That marriage will not happen for another six years, Lorenzo," Eleanor pointed out. "Still—a marriage between Lionel and Margot would still be considered invalid without a dispensation, and it would still be illegal in Gravonia."

"A king can change any law he pleases," Boris reminded her. "If Lionel invades and supports Beauchamp, all Beauchamp has to do is… "

"Kill my husband and my children and he'll have the throne—so long as von Arklow will step aside, which I suspect he would do. Beauchamp can then secure the succession doubly—if his son does not support him, he'll still have Margot and Lionel on his side. Two heirs for the price of one."

"Do you think Beauchamp's son is really against him?"

"Lord Stephen does not support his father's actions," Eleanor said, nodding. "You know I spoke with him, Boris, and he made it clear to me that he will not take part in his quest for the throne. For now, I must believe him to be sincere, or at least until he gives me reason to think otherwise."

"The one thing we cannot predict with confidence is Count von Arklow," Boris told Eleanor. "He blows wherever the wind takes him, but he has never shown disloyalty to King Henry and I have no doubt he will be opposed to his son marrying Beauchamp's daughter, particularly if he realizes to what ends the marriage will be. Just the same, von Arklow's son would be the one to contend with Beauchamp for the crown, and they might just tear each other apart in the end."

"Ambition can make even a spineless man do truly horrible things," Eleanor said softly. She folded the letter and carefully resealed it, handing it to Boris to set the wax again. "Like starting a civil war, for instance. See that this letter is delivered to Countess Cecily. We will know which way the wind is blowing by her next move. Thank you both, gentlemen. Your assistance is greatly appreciated."

"We are both honored to help you, ma'am," Boris said, standing. Lorenzo stood and bowed.

"Do not tell the King any of this," she said. "But when you leave, could you please send Lord Hallam to me? I need to speak with him."

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