A Wonderful Adventure
He swallowed. He doubted he could ever tell Eleanor that he had been Margaret's first lover. "She had a few choice words on the matter, let's just say that. I suppose that, considering her own experiences with nobility, she had a rather low opinion of people like me." He looked at the Queen. "Why do you ask such questions now, Goosey? You've not asked about your parents since you were a wee little thing."
"I don't know. I suppose I want something to distract me from everything else." She clenched her fists. "Lady Irene Beauchamp is now Queen of Lacovia, through her father's machinations, and I fear that Countess Cecily's grandson Lionel von Arklow is angling to marry Lady Margot Beauchamp."
"That is remarkable, if only for the gall of Beauchamp and the stupidity of the Countess."
"I have had few dealings with Lionel, and so I have no personal opinions of him, but according to Boris, that young man is… well, he's… oily. He's very like his grandmother, and follows her lead in all things."
"Oh? How do you know he's in collusion with his grandmother?"
"Well… " Eleanor spread her hands on her lap. "I have had a few of Cecily's letters intercepted, from France. Except she signed them as Count von Arklow. Why she would do that to her son is a mystery to me. She can't think she wouldn't get caught, or that he wouldn't stand accused in the end... but my spies at Court keep me well-informed."
Count von Hesse raised his eyebrows in pretend shock. "Eleanor!"
She smiled. "I must think like a Queen—as innocent as a dove, as cunning as a viper, and besides, it's almost as though she's walking around wearing a sign around her neck that says 'Will Sell Soul for a Crown'. The letter she received recently from her daughter-in-law seems to indicate that Lord Lionel is sniffing around Margot, who is so empty-headed that she might just jump at a marriage proposal without thinking of the consequences. Lionel may be slippery, but he's good-looking and he has his charm--that I do know."
"I would hope he is not that stupid, though, or he'll have to wear his own sign on his way to the executioner's block," von Hesse said. "Such foolishness can be fatal."
"He was a frequent visitor to Pontrefact throughout his childhood, and he is very close to his grandmother. I don't know if we can say that those two facts add up to future treason, of course, but Countess Cecily wants her family to rule Gravonia, and as her son won't move in that direction, she's more than happy to try and see her grandson there instead."
"But Beauchamp wants the throne more, and he has a son to inherit."
Eleanor exhaled wearily. "Beauchamp's son seems to want nothing to do with his father's schemes. There's honor even in that family, surprisingly enough, though I take all things with a rather large block of salt. Lionel von Arklow is now in France with Lady Beauchamp and Lady Margot. If he marries the girl there, he will be out of King Henry's reach for any sort of punishment… perhaps he thinks Count von Arklow will be the one to pay for his son's deeds."
"A papal dispensation would be required for them to marry, though, and Count von Arklow would have to sign the petition."
"What, forgeries don't happen?" Eleanor asked, with a tinge of sarcasm. She sighed. "Even more, if Lord Lionel von Arklow gets a blessing from Rome to try to take the throne, nothing could stop him. Such wickedness and grasping for power that slips away in a heartbeat… I cannot understand it."
"You still view the world through the eyes of Eleanor Reeve, dearest child," von Hesse said gently. "That is not a failing for her, but it can be for Queen Eleanor. But the Pope is fully aware that Henry has six sons. Why on earth would he endorse anyone else?"
"For one thing, if anyone finds out I'm Eleanor Reeve, he would have to endorse von Arklow's descendants and he'd even consider Beauchamp..."
"No one will find out, Eleanor. Don't be foolish. Instead, be.. wary, and protect yourself and Henry."
"I admit, in the past few years, I have certainly become far more cynical, and I do not like it, however much it might increase my sons' chances of survival. What's terrible, though, is that Henry is far more naïve, when it comes to his family. He thinks well of everyone, and particularly of them. He even thinks Beauchamp is merely misguided, not evil, and speaks well of his aunt Cecily. That is very commendable in a commoner, but in a King… "
"It can be absolutely fatal."
"You must protect Henry from his family, I'm afraid. Cecily von Arklow is a vicious old harpy and she cannot seem to accept the fact that her son is no longer the Heir Presumptive. The births of your six sons has moved him and his family further and further down the line of succession, and Beauchamp is nowhere in the line now."
"Beauchamp's exclusion would also exclude any child Lionel and Margot might have together."
"What, Goosey, you don't think there's a way to work around that?" His expression was grim. "It's called 'usurpation' and I can't imagine he won't stoop to that when he has the chance. He's tried before. He won't stop trying until he succeeds."
She squeezed her eyes shut, pushing away the horrifying vision she often had of Beauchamp killing her children, and shook her head. "He can use Lionel von Arklow to that end. He can get the stupid whelp to gather up support in France and with mercenaries, then stage an invasion at Tygo and meet up with a Lacovian force at Luvov." She winced. "Am I being horribly paranoid, sir?"
"You're thinking like any Queen. And paranoia must be part of your life, I'm afraid, if you want to see your son on the throne. It is a bleak way of living, I admit, but it is necessary in your position, with the enemies you have about you. Count von Arklow might very well oppose any such union of his family to Beauchamp's, but if Lionel and Margot remain in France, he can have no say on the matter and will bear the brunt of Henry's wrath, whether he's guilty of complicity with Beauchamp or not. Beauchamp might have promised him a crown if he does as he's asked... all that would remain would be for Beauchamp to eliminate him when his usefulness runs out. Then he'd just have to eliminate Henry... and you and your sons."
Not for the first time did Eleanor think about reminding the Count that he had put her in her position. Had he not, she would be living in Morvenia now, with few fears for her children besides toothaches and whether they would be as terrible at languages as their father. "Sir, the Gravonian army is still weak. It is getting stronger, and they have youth and enthusiasm on their side, but… if an invasion happened any time soon, we would be decimated… "
"Then you must reach out for help from Morvenia."
She shuddered. "I cannot do that. I cannot take that risk… "
"You needn't meet with Prince Constantine. Only King Philip. Constantine doesn't determine with whom Morvenia allies itself. He only agreed to see his daughter marry your son, and you need never see him face to face on that score. No, you must contact Philip and draw up a firm treaty. Henry will surely agree to that, and Morvenia will be ready and willing to assist when needed."
"Philip would surely send Constantine, though, if there was war. Philip is the ruler, but Constantine is the warrior and he is the one his brother always sends anywhere else."
"That doesn't mean you need to meet Constantine. Queens don't go to battlefields or draw up battle plans with generals."
She laughed bitterly. "I have!"
"Well, not any more. You can plead female weakness, if needed, and lose no face in that. The Field of Stones was a one-off, child, and cannot be repeated. Nay, you will stay in Luvov if an invasion happens, and Henry will send word to Morvenia for assistance. I would expect the Morvenians to cross to Gravonia at the southern coast, intercept an invasion attempt and throw Lionel von Arklow's forces back into the sea—Constantine has a true knack for tossing huge forces back into the sea. He did that at Vienna a few years ago and left the Turks watching their ships sink." He frowned. "This is all purely speculative, of course. We do not know for sure if Lionel von Arklow will do any of this, starting with even getting the required support. He may not even marry the girl."
Eleanor sighed. "But the worst-case scenario is all I have now and I must chew on that piece of fat. An ever more awful scenario is there, mind you: Lacovia invading at the same time as von Arklow. No country I know of has ever won a two-fronted war."
"It's not impossible, though, and Lacovia's army is a wreck these days, and you'll have Constantine on your side." He frowned, thinking. "Besides which, Queen Irene still has not produced a child for Paul, and his Heir Presumptive is Richard of Stormont, a man many say has some unusually good qualities for a Lacovian. He was not raised at Court, anyway, and is known for being very charitable."
"Is he?" Eleanor pondered this. "Well, I still do not count on having any allies from there, much less charity from a Lacovian. What good can come out of Nazareth?"
Count von Hesse smiled sadly at his protégé. "One thing you can never count on entirely, Eleanor, is for even the worst-case scenario to play out the way you think. You must gird yourself for battle and then dig in for the war. It is coming, sweetheart, and you must be ready to fight."
She stared bleakly across the luxurious flowered gardens. "I will fight, sir. To the death."
Meetings at night, in the shadows, were not necessarily Eleanor's forte. She had left Henry sleeping in their bed, dressed and slipped out into the gardens, wearing the black cloak she had once worn when escaping from Ravensburg to 'rebel' by going for a walk through Turon. As arranged, Lord Hallam was waiting by the archway to the little yard where the palace beehives were kept. He bowed and she gestured for him to sit, and she wasted no time.
"It's necessary that we tell King Henry of Countess Cecily's conspiracy to see her grandson married to Lady Margot." She drew in her breath. "I received the letter after supper—Lady Blanche confirmed the marriage took place less than a week ago, in Nantes. Her choice of words to Cecily were somewhat… less than charitable. Frankly, she cursed that woman to hell, so I am certain she had nothing to do with it."
Hallam sat down on the bench beside her—protocol was hardly a requirement at such an hour. "But what ought to be done about Lionel von Arklow?"
"I know my options, but none of them can prevent Lionel von Arklow from staging an attempt at a coup with Beauchamp, one day. He'll need backing, of course, and an army… "
"There's one option, ma'am, that you probably have not considered. It's the most practical solution to the entire problem with Lord Lionel von Arklow."
"And what would that be, pray?" Eleanor asked.
"You can have him killed."
Eleanor shot to her feet and paced across the little yard, horrified at his suggestion and even more appalled at her second reaction: that it was a very good idea. She finally turned to face him. "I cannot kill a child!"
"He's not a child. He's almost eighteen, and he just married the daughter of your enemy, with the scheme of uniting their forces against you and your family."
"But Count von Arklow… he is a decent man, for all his vacillating… to murder his only son… "
"I know you are not a heartless woman, Your Majesty, and I know you wish to show mercy, but you cannot take the risk. Lionel von Arklow must be eliminated."
She shuddered and hugged herself, staring bleakly up at the stars. "I have never… ordered someone's death before," she whispered.
"We can only pray this is the first and last time, ma'am."
"I don't know any assassins, save the one who tried to kill me, and last I knew of him, his head was on Lord Beauchamp's plate at Pontrefact."
"I know one who is still very much alive. A Scotsman, actually. He works for King Philip of Morvenia, usually, but he's sort of… er… freelance, so to speak, and I can contact him. He can travel easily to France and… "
"Scotsman?" She turned to face Hallam. "He's a Scotsman?"
Eleanor remembered Betsy's mention of an unnamed Scotsman visiting Ravensburg, and swallowed nervously. "Do you know his name?"
"I do not, ma'am. He follows the practice of many assassins in that he doesn't carry around any credentials—paper trails are always dangerous things in his line, I should think. He is merely who he is and does his work quietly and efficiently. He also a does a bit of spying for Philip—apparently he is very trustworthy and loyal so… I have only heard of him."
"Would I have to meet with him?" she asked, turning away from him again, shuddering in revulsion.
"No, ma'am. Never. I would not have it. There can be no… idea of your being involved." Lord Hallam stood. "Ma'am, I understand your squeamishness, but oft times, a ruler must do things others would find very repulsive, all in order to protect her family and her country. Even from other, close family members."
"I find it horrifying, actually. Quite so." She faced him again.
"Beauchamp cannot have any footholds in France, ma'am, and as he is being watched, he cannot send messages out or have them received without our knowledge… "
Eleanor let herself think of the ease at which Lord Lionel could be disposed of, but no matter how much she tried to convince herself of its merits, murder was simply not something she could condone--yet. "I will not have that stupid little whelp killed," she said at last. "My conscience could never be at peace. Tell the assassin to instead kidnap him and see he is locked away somewhere, where he cannot be found, much less be rescued."
"As you wish, ma'am."
"See he is fed and cared for, but he must never be allowed to see the light of day again, outside prison walls... but should he attempt to escape, or if anyone attempts to help him escape, he is to be killed. Immediately… but painlessly." She winced. "And see his wife is… see she remains in France, and never be allowed to return to Gravonia. Her father would still see her as a means to an end." She turned to look at Hallam, who bowed to her. "See to this all, and quickly."
"It will all be done quickly and quietly, ma'am, and your name will not be mentioned."
Eleanor sat down in the grass with her youngest son and pulled the old wooden board out from her bag, smiling a little as she cleaned off the smudges of countless past reading lessons she had given her older sons. She had had to do a bit of touching up on it, actually, last year to return it to the brightness of its younger days. Her mother had made it for her, probably not long before her birth, and though she did not remember it clearly, it had been Margaret who had taught her to recognize letters and colors from this board. It was her most prized possession, as a result.
"Andrew, what is this letter?" she asked, pointing at the 'P' (with its corresponding picture of a pig).
"Very good, sweetie. And this?" She pointed at 'H' and Andrew answered correctly. He was a bright, sturdy boy who loved nothing more than cuddling with his mother and chasing bugs. So long as he could pursue both activities each day, he was perfectly happy.
Eleanor squeaked in alarm when Clothilde suddenly sat down beside her, drawing her knees up. "Good morning, Your Majesty."
The Queen laughed. "Good morning to you. Have you heard from your husband?"
Clothilde extracted an envelope from her pocket and handed it to Eleanor. "He sent this letter to you, from Garon. He included it in his post to me."
Eleanor studied her lady-in-waiting for a moment before opening the letter. She read it over quickly before folding it and tucking it away in her own pocket. Clothilde looked pensive, and Eleanor sighed, wishing she could tell her all, but she could not risk her friend being drawn into such intrigues. "Do not fear, Clothilde. All is well. He merely sent me a report on something I have asked him to do in Morvenia."
"He seems to do a great deal for you, and does not speak of any of it." Clothilde looked away, and Eleanor caught a tear in the woman's eye. She was immediately mortified.
"Oh, Clothilde, please don't think it's anything… like that. It's not, I assure you."
"And he keeps going out in the middle of the night, and comes back looking stressed and I hate seeing him that way, and now he's gone off to Morvenia and… "
"Please, Clothilde, he's doing state business. On the order of the King."
"Eleanor, everyone knows you're in charge!"
"I am not!" Eleanor snapped, and was felt miserable for speaking so sharply to such a dear, loyal friend. "I'm sorry, Clothilde. Please forgive me. I work on the King's behalf, and so does your husband. We're merely… trying to… diffuse a very delicate matter."
Clothilde sighed and absently tickled Andrew's chin, and the boy squealed with laughter.
"Go find a big grasshopper, Andrew," she told her son. "But don't eat it!"
Clothilde finally looked at her after Andrew toddled away on his quest. "Why would he need to go to Morvenia?"
"To speak with King Philip. Henry wanted him… "
"You sent him, Your Majesty."
"Clothilde, your husband is in my husband's employ. He goes where he is told to go and does what he is told to do. He is trustworthy, loyal and easily the most honest man I've ever known. Is it really any wonder he would be regarded as useful?"
The older woman sighed and wrapped her arms around her knees. "I'm just… so worried. We had a quarrel before he left—we've never fought before, Eleanor."
"I'm sorry, Clothilde. The last thing I want is to see is you or your husband unhappy. He is a good man and he is blessed to have you as his wife, and Henry and I are blessed to have him working for us. We rely heavily on him, and we are all the better for his efforts."
Clothilde smiled and wiped her eyes. "I am little emotional lately, I admit," she said softly. "I think I might be pregnant."
Eleanor laughed, relieved that the tension between herself and her friend was gone, if only a little. "Well, that would explain a lot! Even if it doesn't explain it, it certainly excuses much. I used pregnancy as an excuse for all sorts of outbursts."
"Well, we did get into the wine one night about two months ago." Clothilde giggled. "I'm sorry, Eleanor. I did not mean to accuse you… I know my James wouldn't do anything like that, particularly with you… I just miss him so much, and I don't get to see him much any more, now he's… well, clearly he's a spy."
"What makes you think he's a spy?" Eleanor asked, trying to sound light-hearted.
"I know. A woman knows. Besides, a man either goes out at two in the morning for a snipe hunt or for some… what is the word?"
"Um… I don't think I really know," Eleanor said honestly. The German she had learned, from the rather prudish man von Hesse had hired, had not included much on the matter of adultery. "But I can assure you, whatever your husband is doing in the dark of the night is part of his sworn duty to protect the King, and nothing sinful, and Henry and I are both very grateful to him. He is a loyal and devoted servant and I don't know how we could have gotten through some rather difficult moments without his help. I know I could never have gotten through these past several years without you, Clothilde. You are my best and dearest friend and I know I can trust you with my life."
"Are you are mine," Clothilde said, smiling softly. "Can... can you tell me what is he doing in Morvenia?"
"Protecting the King and this kingdom, Clothilde."
"Partly." Eleanor sighed. "All right… also from Lord Beauchamp and his new son-in-law, Lord Lionel von Arklow."
Clothilde's eyes widened. "Lionel and Margot are married? Do you know, ma'am, I attended the Countess Cecily a few times, over the winter, and I often overheard things… "
"What have you heard?" Eleanor asked cautiously.
"Countess Cecily was often speaking alone with Lord Lionel and Lord Beauchamp. I did not always know what they were saying, and the Countess did not like me at all because I'm your chief lady-in-waiting, but when you were at Tygo or tending to Andrew, I was called to serve her. The woman can't seem to pick up anything that weighs more than a feather and… " Off Eleanor's slightly impatient look, Clothilde cleared her throat. "Oh, right. Well, anyway, she was very keen to have Lionel and Lady Irene left alone together, but Irene couldn't stand Lionel and one time she told him off quite sharply, so after that Cecily had Lionel hanging about Lady Margot, who was more… "
"Receptive." Eleanor sighed. "Very much so, it seems. They are married now. What is your opinion of Lord Lionel?"
"He is... glitschig."
"Slimy, you mean?"
Eleanor would have laughed if the situation weren't so utterly hideous. "And did you ever overhear any conversations between Countess Cecily and Lord Beauchamp?"
"Not really. He was just always her 'dear cousin' and she was always glad to see him. He ignored me, thank God—odious man. He was always pinching the maids' bottoms and I know for a fact that he's the father of Matthilde Stoermbroeker's new baby."
"Matthilde Stoermbroeker will sleep with anybody and really, Clothilde, I wish you had told me a bit about this before."
"You didn't ask."
"Granted," Eleanor nodded, sighing. "Lord Beauchamp is truly evil, Clothilde. I beg you to stay away from him at all costs."
"I agree he's a wicked man, ma'am, but it's not like he worships the Devil."
"He doesn't have to! The Devil worships him!"
"So it's done."
Lord Hallam nodded, leaning wearily against the door of their little meeting place. Eleanor was wrapped up warmly in her cloak, shivering against the autumn frost, and she eyed the beehives. She hated coming near the hives—she had a not-inconsiderable fear of bees, so that no one would think to come looking for her here.
"The Scotsman sent this message, ma'am." He handed the paper to her, and she opened it quickly, reading.
Lord Lionel von Arklow is alive and well, though not terribly happy. Locked up in a castle in northern Germany. No access. Guards trustworthy. Will kill at first attempt at escape or rescue.
She wondered who 'P' was, then realized it was probably King Philip. "Are you sure Lord Lionel is locked away where no one can find him or rescue him?"
"If the Scotsman says so, I can assure you that he is out of the picture now."
"But he is otherwise in good condition, and not mistreated?"
"Yes, ma'am. I was very explicit on those orders to the Scotsman."
"And has Lord Beauchamp been informed yet?"
"Nay, ma'am. Not a word."
"And Count von Arklow?"
"Not yet, ma'am."
"Do not tell him. Let Countess Cecily know and she can tell him. After that… I think it's time the Dowager Countess von Arklow be required to answer for her sins."
Countess Cecily rubbed her cheek, astounded that her daughter-in-law would actually slap her. Blanche, however, looked like she was aiming to strike her again and so she moved around behind a chair, using it for protection.
"You stupid, selfish, amoral harridan!" Blanche raged at her, while her husband attempted to restrain her. "I'll never see my son again because of you!" She wrenched her arm out of her husband's grasp and made another attempt to get at Cecily, but von Arklow managed to grab her around the waist and haul her back across the room, where he quickly but gently shoved her into a chair.
"You will pay for this, you hateful cow!" Blanche screamed at her mother-in-law, trying to see around her husband, who was blocking her. "As God is my witness, you will pay!"
Cecily could think of nothing to say, and her eyes widened with shock when the doors to her chamber were opened and four palace guards stomped into the room. Count von Arklow started to speak, but one of the guards began slapping handcuffs on his wrists. "Count Erich von Arklow, you are under arrest on charges of treason against the Crown."
"Arrest? Good God, what are you talking about?" von Arklow shouted, struggling against the chains, but the guards already had him moving toward the doors. Blanche got up, her mother-in-law forgotten.
"My husband has committed no crime! It's that harpy there who committed treason!" she told the guards. "She instigated the marriage between my son and that twit Lady Margot Beauchamp! I only got home this morning and was told my poor boy was dragged away to God only knows where and I'll never see him again!"
Cecily swallowed. "Honestly, gentlemen, I have no idea what she's talking about. She's… hysterical."
"Hysterical? Want to see 'hysterical', you heartless bitch?" Blanche shouted, starting toward her mother-in-law again, but one of the guards grabbed her. Chaos ensued as another guard had to be called over to help restrain the Countess von Arklow from cutting her mother-in-law to shreds. Finally, Blanche was picked up and plopped roughly into the chair again.
"Please do not mishandle my wife," the Count said wearily. "She does not deserve that."
"What of these charges against Countess Cecily?" one of the guards asked, looking warily at Blanche. She was a small, rather delicate-looking woman, but she looked like she could fight like a devil when required, and she had left bruises on the two guards who had attempted to restrain her.
"I have committed no crime!" Cecily snapped. "Her stupid son committed treason and now she blames me for it!"
"You told him to marry Lady Margot Beauchamp!" Blanche shrieked. "And now he's locked away or possibly even dead, and all of this is because of you! How many times did I tell you keep the children away from her, Erich?"
Count von Arklow could only hang his head and let his wife harangue him. His mother was also shouting, loudly declaring her innocence in the whole scandal, and frankly he looked forward to a quiet prison cell at the Tower.
Henry tossed the packet of letters across the floor, where they slid across to stop at Count von Arklow's feet. "These letters are all from your home, are they not?"
"I did not write them, sir," the Count told the King quietly. Last night had been the first good night's sleep he had had in months, since the day his son had left for Nantes and von Arklow had sensed that the trip was not just to attend a funeral. Now his son—wherever the boy was—was brother-in-law to the wife of Gravonia's sworn enemy, King Paul of Lacovia. "I did not sign them."
"But your name is on them all!"
"No, sir, I did not sign them. I tell you no lie."
"Then who, pray, would do such a thing?" Henry asked angrily.
von Arklow could not bring himself to say that his mother had written the letters. A whole sheaf of them had been presented to the King, and each of them had been signed 'Count Erich von Arklow', but he knew he hadn't written one of them. When he had finally been allowed to see one of the letters, he recognized his mother's handwriting. Still, he held his tongue. He wasn't sure he could hold it much longer, particularly if the torturers came for a visit later today. So far, he had been left alone and was even being fed well in his cell at the Tower, and von Arklow knew his good treatment so far was at the Queen's orders, not Henry's. But the King would not be so merciful.
"These letters were intercepted, of course, before being sent on to France. Six letters, all signed by you, telling your son Lord Lionel von Arklow to pursue Lady Margot and convince her of 'your undying love and devotion' and to convince her to marry him, in direct violation of not only the law of consang—… cosan—oh, bloody hell, Eleanor, what is that word again?"
The Queen, looking as serene as ever in cloth of gold, ivory-white silk and flashing diamonds, nodded. "Consanguinity, dearest."
"Yes. That's it. Too close in kinship is what it boils down to, and not only that, Lionel and Margot married without permission from me, the King! She's already removed from the line of succession because of her father's foolishness in sending Irene off to Lacovia. Now what do I do? Remove you, too? I've never known you to be so foolish, Erich, but what choice do I have? Everyone has suggested I execute you and send the executioner to… wherever the boy is, too, to finish Lionel off as well."
"No! Please, Your Majesty!" Blanche sobbed. "Please, not my baby! He is influenced by evil and wicked persons… had he not been brought into… her sphere, he would have never done such a foolish thing!"
Countess Cecily paled. "You cannot execute my son, Your Majesty! Your own cousin! Your heir!"
"He is not my heir, you grasping harpy. Crown Prince Alexander is my heir, and his five brothers after him!" Henry snapped. "Erich, it is my decision to send you to the Tower, and in one week's time your head will be removed from your body, on the grounds of treason—I must make an example of you, after all, considering I was so lenient with your cousin Beauchamp. I'll hire an expert swordsman from France to do the deed, so it will be quick and painless… "
"No! No, please, nephew… Your Majesty… please. Not my son. Please, sir…" Cecily begged. "Not my poor son. I swear to you, sir, he had nothing to do with any one of this. Nothing at all! I sent the letters to France, in his name, and I encouraged Lionel to pursue the Lady Margot. It was me. All me, sir. Erich knew nothing of it!" Tears began to flow from Cecily's eyes and she dropped to her knees before the King, groveling. "Please, sir, have mercy on my poor son. Please!"
Henry glanced at Eleanor, whose expression remained unreadable. She drummed her fingers on the armrest of her throne, watching Cecily as she prostrated herself before the King, sobbing and begging pitifully. "Did you conspire with Lord Beauchamp on this matter, Madam?" Eleanor asked gently.
Cecily wiped her eyes. "I… I did speak with him on a few occasions, and he… we… discussed it… "
"So you have conspired to commit treason and go against the law of the King and against Rome itself?" Henry asked, eyes glittering with rage. "How dare you do such a thing! For God's sake, Aunt Cec, we are a family! We ought not to go about stabbing each other in the back this way!"
"Where is Lord Beauchamp?" Eleanor asked.
"He is being sent for now, sir," Lord Hallam answered. He covered his mouth with his hand, hiding a yawn, and Eleanor made a mental note to see that he was given a lengthy holiday away from Court. The poor man looked exhausted.
Turning her attention back to Cecily, who was still sobbing on the floor, Eleanor pursed her lips, sensing that it might not be very easy to find Lord Beauchamp now that the proverbial cat was out of the bag. She leaned forward and gestured for Henry to come back to her. The King bent low and she whispered in his ear. "Let von Arklow go. He has done nothing wrong, aside from letting his son be influenced by his grandmother. That is only stupid, not criminal."
"What about Cecily?"
"I would suggest execution, but she's a woman and she's in her sixties. Send her away to her estate and see she stays there, forever. Unless of course you're into dining with her twice weekly as before. Ambition is not necessarily a crime, either, but her actions have been. No one so far has suffered physical harm, so she can be charged with no actual crime. Yes, send her away, dearest. Exile from Court will be suitable punishment for her, I think."
"Forfeiture of her titles, too?"
"Oh… whatever. She is a King's daughter--that cannot be taken from her, but her privileges can be reneged--cancel her annual allowance from the Crown and forfeit her most profitable lands... and give them to Lord Hallam." Eleanor waved her hand. She honestly didn't care, but she wanted the woman punished just the same. Cecily was really nothing compared to Beauchamp, and she had a strong feeling that the future Duke of Beswick was on the run now and wouldn't show his face again in Gravonia for some time.
Irene read the letter and wanted to scream.
Angrily, she slapped the paper on the table and stalked across the room. She flung open the doors to her balcony and stepped outside to breathe, doing her best to ignore the stink rising up from Garon. "Stupid, stupid girl!" she whispered. "You bloody idiot!"
The letter from her brother had been filled with terrible news, and he had included Margot's letter to her in his post. Stephen had been equally appalled by the marriage of their sister to von Arklow's smug son (Irene had always hated him), and the close kinship alone was enough to make them both nauseated. But according to Stephen, their father's ambitions trumped even unhealthy inbreeding. Lionel's mother, meanwhile, was absolutely frantic and had done all she could to stop the wedding from taking place, but Lord Beauchamp's friends in France had smoothed the path with Rome with remarkable ease and poor, empty-headed Margot was now the wife of a traitor. Even worse, Margot had been all too willing to marry her handsome and rich cousin.
Having calmed down a little, Irene went back inside and carefully hid the letter in the box under her bed. Paul had no notion that she was regularly receiving correspondence from home, and she intended to keep it that way. He now visited her bed twice weekly, and she still drank her concoction to avoid conception. Otherwise, she never saw or spoke to her husband, and the less she saw of him, the better she felt.
She did see Richard of Stormont frequently, however. Usually, she would slip out of her room at night and make her way down to the gardens at the western end of the palace grounds and they would sit and talk in the darkness. She felt frustrated and relieved at once that he never attempted to touch her, but she relished every moment she could spend with him—at least, even in Lacovia, she could say she had a friend. Even if that was all he could ever be, it was better than the hostile nothing she had with her gaseous husband.
She sighed and sat down, going over Margot's giddy letter. It was easily the stupidest thing Irene had ever read. Her recounting of Lionel's ardent attentions and declaration of love had been a surprise to her, she had admitted, but she had eagerly leapt at the chance to marry and not have to return home to Pontrefact. Margot had been assured that her father and Count von Arklow had both signed the petition to the Pope, too, and felt no shame at all for marrying Lionel without the King's consent.
How you shall laugh to hear it, Reeny! I'm now Lady Lionel von Arklow and will have a big house and many servants when we return to Gravonia, and I shan't ever have to return to Pontrefact again! Papa and Aunt Cecily said it was all very well and properly done, and even the Holy Father in Rome approved it. I saw the dispensation myself. Isn't it wonderful? This trip to France has been a wonderful adventure!"
Frustrated, Irene jumped up and retrieved the letter from the box and tore it to pieces before throwing it into the fire—she had finally just gone ahead and learned how to build and bank her own fires, since none of the palace servants would do it—before starting to pace up and down the length of her little balcony, fists clenched.
Finally, with her head starting to pound and her eyes burning with tears, Irene stalked back inside and was startled to see Richard of Stormont standing just inside her open door. "Your Majesty," he said, bowing slightly.
Immediately, she sensed that something wasn't right. "What is it?"
"Your father is here, ma'am."
"My father? How did he get away from Luvov?"
"I don't know, ma'am, but he is asking to see you."
"I will not see him!" she snapped, enraged. "He sent my sister off to marry that prating fool Lionel von Arklow in France, knowing full well… "
Richard put his fingers to his lips and closed the door behind him. "Quiet, Irene. Your father is under the impression that you will approve of the match… but I don't think he's here to talk about that. He seemed very agitated when I saw him. Something has happened, I think, that he didn't plan on."
"Oh?" Irene studied Stormont for a moment, thinking. "You don't suppose King Henry found out about Lionel and Margot marrying, do you? I can't see how that wouldn't infuriate him. It was bad enough, I hear, when I married Paul. But my sister married to Lionel, when Countess Cecily is standing around jerking the puppet strings… "
"I don't know what Lord Beauchamp wants. He just wants to see you. Now."
Irene sighed, wrapped her warm shawl around her shoulders and followed Stormont out into the hall and into the courtyard. Her father was standing beside a weary-looking horse, and when he saw her he paled slightly. "Irene, child. It's good to see you, sweetheart."
She almost rolled her eyes. "Papa. What are you doing here?"
"Refuge? From what? Some poor milkmaid's father coming for you? Do I have a new brother or sister again?"
Beauchamp swallowed, ignoring her barb. "No. King Henry is after me."
"I need a place to stay. I… dare not return to Luvov again. At least… not for now."
"You force me to marry easily the most revolting man alive and I'm to be pleased to take you in? Then you marry my poor sister to that… worm Lionel von Arklow and I'm to jump for joy at seeing you?"
He drew himself up, looking angry. "I am your father, young lady and… "
"I am Queen of Lacovia!" she snapped back. "I ceased being your daughter the day I married Paul. Isn't that what you wanted, and didn't you want poor Margot married off to Lord Lionel? Do you think she's any happier now, married to such a dolt?"
"Your Majesty," Stormont said, stepping forward from the shadows and bowing graciously to the Gravonian nobleman. "Lord Beauchamp, sir. I'm sure the Queen is only upset now. This is a very… difficult time for her, I'm sure. But King Paul will be pleased to have you come and live here and we will do all we can to accommodate you."
Irene stared at Stormont, aghast, but he only gestured for her father to take his horse to the royal stables. Beauchamp took his animal's reins and led it away. Stormont waited until he was out of earshot before shushing the Queen and directing her to a darkened corner of the courtyard. "Listen… this is really for the best, don't you see? Beauchamp will be here, where you and I can keep an eye on him and hopefully prevent him from doing anything too harmful."
"Nothing can prevent my father from doing anything, and everything he does is harmful, always. He does what he pleases."
"If that were the case, he'd already be King of Gravonia, Irene. But he's not. He has tried a few times already and has been thwarted. We both want this country to pull itself out of darkness and backwardness, and God knows we've had enough of war. With your father here, both of those things might actually be possible—peace and progress."
Irene stared at Stormont, bewildered. "How?"
"I'll tell you all later. For now, just pretend all is well." He lightly touched her cheek, smiling, and left her standing alone, shivering in the closing darkness, her fingers lightly brushing her cheek where he had touched her. Wearily, she tugged her shawl more tightly around her shoulders and slowly made her way back to her rooms.
9 July 1383
"Look now, Elizabeth, you've got a new baby sister," Constantine told his daughter. The seven-year old stood on her toes to look down into the cradle that contained the newborn princess, who had arrived just after dawn after a blessedly brief labor. Isabella lay sleeping in the bed nearby, so the prince and his elder daughter were being very quiet.
"She's so little!"
"Yes, but I think she might get bigger as time goes by," Constantine smiled slightly. "That tends to happen, you know."
"What is her name?"
"We're naming her Charlotte," Constantine said, moving over to Isabella's rocking chair and sitting down. Elizabeth scrabbled up into his lap and studied the baby, who possessed a shock of dark hair and her mother's fine, pale skin.
"That's a pretty name. But it's not a name in our family."
"I'm naming her after… after someone I knew, long ago. She took care of me when I was little."
"Oh." Elizabeth pondered for a moment. "I know Mama wanted to name the baby Eleanor."
Constantine's mouth set in a firm line. "I know, but we did not agree and I put my foot down, so to speak."
"All right. Shall we call her Lottie?"
"No, that's a name you give a horse, not a baby girl. We will call her Charlotte."
The bedroom door opened slightly and four tousled heads peered around. Constantine nodded to his sons and they tiptoed into the room, eager to have their first look at the newest member of the family. Prince Michael, always bold and inquisitive, touched the baby's cheek. "She's… wrinkly." The boys all snickered in amusement but each gently touched the baby's skin, making their own soft comments.
Constantine shushed the boys. "Quiet. Your mother is sleeping, and Charlotte's had a rather eventful night herself. Have a look at her, all of you, and then go on back to bed. Elizabeth, you too. There'll be no lessons today, either, to commemorate the occasion. Go on… "
The boys took turns inspecting their new sister, then shuffled out of the room. Elizabeth kissed her father's cheek, went to her mother's side and gently touched her hand before silently slipping out of the room. Constantine heard whispers and several 'Shhh!'s from the hallway, but soon all was silent again. He moved the chair closer to his new daughter's cradle and looked down at her.
"Well… I suppose introductions are in order. I'm your father, and I'm not nearly as scary as I look. That exhausted woman over there is your mother. Don't think for a moment that either of us is perfect, because God knows we're not, but we'll do the best we can. We've had some practice, see, as we've had five before you. So we know not to put nappies on your head or to make you try to eat steak before you have teeth. I know I'll make the most mistakes, because I'm pretty lousy at… this, but your mother is the sweetest person alive and she'll do a marvelous job, just as she's done with your sister and brothers."
The baby's eyes were wide open and she was staring up at Constantine. He knew—Isabella had told him—that babies couldn't really see very well, but as God was his witness, the girl was looking right at him, blue eyes bright and alert. He couldn't keep from smiling at her.
"You've come into a world of trouble, sweetheart. But I'll protect you. I may not be able to say much, and God knows that when I do talk I'll say the wrong thing, but you'll never be in a safer place than right here, and you'll never want for love and attention. Just… uh… stay away from your grandmother and let your uncle Philip spoil you rotten and you'll be fine."
Isabella stirred, gasped and tried to sit up. He went to her side and sat down, facing her, and took her hand. "Good morning. You look a tad tired."
Isabella smiled softly. "I am. But less so." She settled back on her pillows. "She's beautiful, isn't she?"
"Fortunately she looks like you."
"She's your daughter, through and through," Isabella said, and blushed when he kissed her fingertips. "Have you sent a message to Philip yet?"
"Yes. He's coming tonight, to have a look at her. He's ordered celebrations all over Morvenia, and thinks Charlotte is a perfect name."
Isabella nodded. Her suggestion of 'Eleanor' had not gone over well, but that brief, tense discussion had been months ago and was never discussed again. Things had continued on, at the same quiet, even keel as before. He and Isabella never quarreled, and he still could not tell her all that lay in his heart. For some reason, however, she simply accepted him. He had been surprised and pleased when she had informed him of her sixth pregnancy, and had sat beside her all night as she struggled to bring the little sprite into the world, holding her hand the whole time.
"We are so blessed, Constantine," she said.
"Yes. We are. I know I am."
"Six babies. All healthy and strong and growing. So many people don't have as much."
"Yes. I know."
"I wonder what's going to happen to them all. What kind of people they will be."
"Well, we have a long time to find out." Constantine pulled the rocking chair around and sat down, stretching his legs and yawning, stretching his tired muscles. "I look forward to finding out."
Isabella smiled and briefly touched his hand, then settled back, pulling the blankets up and closing her eyes. "So do I. It will be a wonderful adventure."
"Aye. It certainly has been so far."