Our Gracious Queen

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In His Own Due Season

August 1383

"Your Majesty, the Morvenian Ambassador is here."

Eleanor drew in her breath and nodded to Boris to open the doors and admit the man into the Presence Chamber. Henry was out hunting, and for now did not know the ambassador was in Luvov. She wanted to speak with the man alone, to see where his King and country stood on coming to Gravonia's aid should a crisis occur, and also how King Philip viewed the marriage of Irene Beauchamp to King Paul of Lacovia.

The ambassador stepped into the room, carrying a small box, and Eleanor was impressed with the man's air of quiet dignity. She knew he was a landowner who had come up through the ranks on his own merits, and his regal bearing belied his peasant origins. King Philip was a great believer in advancing people who proved themselves capable of taking on great responsibilities, and this man, Lord Shaw, was wholly qualified for his position as ambassador.

The letter Henry had received describing him had made particular note of his diplomatic skills, and Eleanor had been amused at Philip's comment that 'Lord Shaw is adept at making the right statement at the right time, in contrast to my esteemed brother the Prince Constantine, who often makes the wrong statement at the right time or the right statement at the wrong time, though both men always do have the very best of intentions and are both quite eager to smooth out any and all diplomatic wrinkles between our country and her neighbors. Granted, my brother regards the notion of 'smoothing things out' to be more easily accomplished with a sword', but he is learning'.

"Lord Shaw, it is a great pleasure to finally meet you."

The man bowed. "The pleasure is all mine, ma'am." He gave the small wooden box to Boris, who bowed to him and came up to steps, bowing as he presented the box to the Queen. Eleanor opened it and smiled at the emerald and diamond circlet King Philip had sent as a gift.

"Please inform the King that I am very pleased with this lovely gift. He has excellent taste." She closed the box and handed it back to Boris, who set it on the table by the dais and quietly left the room, closing the doors behind him. "Won't you sit down, sir? The King will arrive within the half-hour and there are a few things I would wish to discuss with you."

"Of course, Your Majesty."

She took her seat opposite Shaw at the table near the window and studied him for a moment, gauging his expression and demeanor carefully. He had dark hair and eyes, with sun-tanned skin and a lean, hard physique that indicated a life spent outdoors. She knew he was about forty, had two grown sons and had recently lost his wife to what had been called a 'wasting disease'.

"Firstly, the King and I are very eager for the day the Princess Elizabeth will come to Gravonia. Reports of her progress have been very pleasing and we will be delighted to welcome her to our home and into our family."

"The King and Prince Constantine will be very pleased to hear that, ma'am."

"I was informed recently that Princess Constantine was safely delivered last month of a baby princess."

"Yes, ma'am. She has been named Charlotte."

"How nice. I pray mother and child are in good health?"

"Excellent health, ma'am. On the day I left Morvenia, I attended Court in Garon and was pleased to see the Princess with His Royal Highness and she looked much recovered from the… uh… ordeal and seemed very cheerful."

"Good." Eleanor folded her hands on the table. "Please report to Princess Constantine that her sister Catalina continues to thrive here in Gravonia and her third baby is due in late October."

"I will do so, ma'am, with great pleasure."

Eleanor nodded. The stilted, formal conversation between monarch and diplomat was always a precursor to meatier matters, and she had learned how to play the game quite well. Frankly, however, she wondered how diplomats managed to endure such things without losing their minds.

"Besides the upcoming marriage between Crown Prince Alexander and Princess Elizabeth, I would also like to talk to you, on a strictly confidential basis, about the importance of the union between Gravonia and Morvenia. Particularly how beneficial this union will be for both our countries."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Gravonia's army is growing stronger by the day, as I'm sure King Philip is aware, but it is still a young army and while it grows in size and certainly in enthusiasm and devotion, it is still inexperienced and will benefit immensely from the aid Morvenia might supply during a time of crisis."

"I'm… sure it would, ma'am."

"And Morvenia would benefit a great deal from Gravonia's ability to supply materiel and weapons, as we are developing an excellent reputation for iron and steel forging, as well as our program of breeding some of the best warhorses on the Continent. Our wool and linens also supply clothes for our army as well as yours, and the profits we have received are very handsome indeed."

"Yes it does, ma'am. The King is very grateful and our soldiers are pleased with the supplies they receive from Gravonia, and King Philip's favorite charger is a Gravonian destrier."

"Very good." Eleanor nodded. "The reason I must speak to you on the matter of Morvenia coming to our aid, if required, is because of developments to the north. No doubt your King has his own opinion on the unfortunate marriage between Lord Charles Beauchamp's daughter Margot and Count von Arklow's son Lionel."

"The King was surprised to hear of it."

"No doubt. It was a very impolitic union and it displeased King Henry immensely. He even considered having Count von Arklow executed for his insolence, based on the grounds of treason, as the union was conducted without the King's permission. There were even rumors, albeit unsubstantiated, that the Papal dispensation Beauchamp received from Rome—to allow the union despite consanguinity—was a forgery. All the same, because he was found out and von Arklow's mother confessed her complicity in the matter, Beauchamp has fled to Lacovia and Lord Lionel von Arklow is detained indefinitely in Germany. Count von Arklow was determined to have not been at all complicit in the union, and neither was his wife."

"King Philip was quite shocked to hear of the marriage, ma'am, but his belief was that the King was unaware of the machinations of Lord Beauchamp, as Beauchamp is persona non grata at Court, considering his elder daughter is married to the King of Lacovia."

"You have heard that Queen Irene of Lacovia has still not borne King Paul an heir, I'm sure."

"Yes, ma'am. That is dynastically disastrous for Paul but politically advantageous to Gravonia and Morvenia… and Havor and Livonia, too, of course, and Your Majesty can be assured of King Philip having no ill will towards Gravonia, and he is aware of Beauchamp's... mendacity and lust for power."

"Yes, the King and I are relieved to hear that. I also hear many good things about King Paul's cousin Richard of Stormont. That he is much different from the rest of the Lacovian royal family."

"We can only pray that he is, ma'am, and that he one day inherits the throne."

"Indeed. As God wills it." Eleanor drew in her breath slowly. "For all that, sir, the King and I are hopeful that King Philip will be willing to supply aid to us should Lord Beauchamp and his son-in-law attempt to cause… trouble. As we grow in prosperity, so does King Paul's desire to invade and overtake us. Beauchamp has long desired the throne, and even his removal from the line of succession has not appeared to have cooled his ambition."

Lord Shaw pursed his lips. "The subject will be discussed with King Philip at length, ma'am, and as he is always eager to be friends with his neighbors, I am certain that an agreement can be reached, and without delay. We are reviewing the contract regarding our alliance at this moment, and thus far the King views it favorably, with only minor adjustments being suggested."

"Thank you, Lord Shaw. I am very pleased to hear that, and I know Philip is a very reasonable man. You also know that as a Queen, I must think first of my country, but as a wife and mother, my real priority will always be with my husband and my children. I will do all I can to protect Gravonia from her enemies, but for myself, my family will come first in all things and it is for that reason that I must petition King Philip and… and his brother Prince Constantine to be ready to help us defend ourselves should the need arise. I trust I can count on them to come my… to our aid when called."

"Of course, ma'am. I am certain King Philip understands this quite well and he will be open to any ideas you might have toward that end."

She smiled slightly and stood, which prompted Lord Shaw to stand as well. He bowed deeply to her, and she calmly returned to her throne. Shaw moved back into his original position, standing before the dais, and almost as soon as the Queen had settled into her chair the doors opened and King Henry stomped in, his boots muddy and his face flushed from a morning chasing deer through the royal forest. "Lord Shaw, is it? Grand to meet you, sir." Henry plopped down into his throne and grinned at the Morvenian ambassador. "Did you enjoy your trip up here, sir?"

"Very much, Your Majesty. The weather was delightful and the countryside is lovely. You must be very proud of the improvements that have been made to the roads of late."

"Aye, I am. Nothing worse than riding in a carriage over bad roads, I say, and all those improvements we've made have been doubly beneficial, as they also gave many men good work. The more people are working, the more money is being poured into the economy, which means that more schools can be built, more educations can be pursued, and more businesses opened... all that sort of thing. The Queen can tell you all about economics, I think, and far better than I ever could."

"Indeed, sir," Lord Shaw said, nodding, studying the Queen carefully. He nodded. "Indeed."


The Queen had never had a real conversation with Count von Arklow or his wife before, and was uncertain on what tack to take with them. Both were still clearly in shock over the situation with their son, and Countess Blanche seemed certain that her only son was dead. The poor woman's face was streaked with tears every time Eleanor saw her, and von Arklow simply looked exhausted.

To make the setting at least a little less stressful for them both, Eleanor asked that they come to speak with her in the gardens. The weather was slightly chilly, so she wrapped herself up in her favorite sky-blue cloak and sat down near the fountain, watching the water shoot up into the sky until the couple finally arrived. They looked as though they had been quarreling, from her flushed face and his anxious expression.

"Count and Countess von Arklow… please sit." She gestured to the chairs she had had servants bring out, and the couple settled down, staring across at her with wary expressions on their faces. "Firstly, I want you both to know that your son is alive, and he will remain so as long as he… simply follows the rules."

"He's alive?" She wiped her eyes, looking hopefully at the Queen. "You are sure?"

"I am completely sure, ma'am. I assure you, he is alive and in good health. But that is immaterial to the main issue: he will remain alive and in good health so long as certain rules are followed to the letter."

"The… rules?" Countess Blanche asked, her voice shaking.

"Yes. Rules. I cannot reveal to you where he is, but you will be permitted to correspond with him per the approval of the King. He can receive letters from you with the King's own seal on them, and they will sent via royal post only. Any other seal on any letter he receives will, I'm afraid, result in his immediate execution."

"You would kill my poor baby?" Blanche asked her softly.

"It would be the very last thing we would ever want to do, ma'am," Eleanor said gently. "But he did commit a very egregious sin against the Crown, and he allied himself with Lord Beauchamp, whose guilt has been confirmed by his flight to Lacovia. Marrying Beauchamp's daughter makes him brother-in-law to King Paul of Lacovia. The friend of Gravonia's enemy must become the King's enemy. The King is obliged to protect his family, particularly his heir, and your son is a threat to the Crown Prince by way of the alliances he has foolishly made with Beauchamp and with Lacovia."

"Execute Beauchamp, then!" Blanche said angrily. "He's the who instigated this whole awful mess, with Countess Cecily!"

"If we had it in our power now to do so, we would, but he is out of our reach."

Blanche burst into tears and Eleanor sighed, feeling great sympathy for this heartbroken woman.

"Madame, I am very sorry for your loss, but it would be a far greater loss if we had followed our first instinct and simply had Lord Lionel hunted down and… disposed of for his crime against the Crown. But the King is showing great mercy. Your son is comfortable and well-cared for and will not be abused--the King was very adamant to that end. If you and he cooperate, you will be able to correspond, but you are to never see his face again."

"So my son must pay for Beauchamp's and Cecily's actions?" Blanche asked, tears streaming down her face. "That stupid, grasping fool and that… that hateful cow!"

"No, he pays for his own mistakes. He did not have to agree to their schemes at all. His marriage to Lady Margot was illegal in every possible respect."

There was a brief silence between them. Blanche dabbed at her eyes with the hem of her skirt, her grief making her forget her manners entirely. Eleanor couldn't hold that against her, and called for a servant to bring the woman a cup of water. When the servant had left, the couple remained very quiet for several more moments.

"You wield a great deal of authority, ma'am, for one so young," Count von Arklow finally said.

"I have as much authority as the King sees fit to bestow upon me, sir," Eleanor said carefully, glaring at him and reining in her temper--she would not allow anyone to think for a moment that she wielded any power at all. "He and I have consulted together and with the Council on this matter at some length and it is because of the King's regard for you both in general and his generosity in particular to a well-regarded cousin that your son has been spared. Your mother the Countess von Arklow has already been escorted out of the palace and is no longer permitted to attend Court, and most of her privileges and her best lands have been confiscated by the Crown. I personally wanted to see her stripped of her titles, but the King could not bring himself to do that, and perhaps exile will teach her all she needs to know."

"Thank God for that!" Blanche muttered.

"Your son's and your mother's intent was to assist Lord Beauchamp in his attempt to take the throne, Count von Arklow," Eleanor continued, giving Blanche a cool look. "It is our sincerest hope that Beauchamp has been rendered… moribund by Lord Lionel's imprisonment in Germany. He has only the King of Lacovia's support now, and the Lacovian army is hardly at its best these days, but he can still travel elsewhere to try to obtain support, and that remains a matter of great concern." She sat back in her seat. "The King and I wish to express our even greater hope that we can be able to count on your loyalty in the future."

"Of course, Your Majesty," Count von Arklow said, nodding. He looked at his wife, who swallowed and finally nodded.

"I do not relish the notion of having to coerce loyalty from anyone, ma'am," Eleanor said quietly, fixing the older woman with a steady gaze. "But I will if it seems required, and all loyalty is duly rewarded, at the King's discretion."

"So it's my loyalty or my son's life," Blanche finally said.

"I can assume this is not a difficult decision to make, ma'am, as it will benefit everyone involved," Eleanor answered. She stood, nodding to the couple, and they both rose, bowing to her. "Count von Arklow, might I speak with you alone for a moment? I'm sure you don't mind, Countess."

Blanche dipped low to the Queen, trembling with relief and fear all at once, and backed away. Eleanor took von Arklow's arm and walked with him toward the rose arbor that stretched in a wide circle around the elaborate garden maze. She guided him toward the huge, ancient oak tree that dominated the eastern portion of the garden, and turned to face him.

"I do not enjoy issuing ultimatums, sir, and it is not in my habit to threaten people. I take no pleasure in imprisoning your son, either, but what choice did I have?"

"None, ma'am. My son's behavior was shameful and were he here I would… "

"You would do nothing. The King would have the task of meting up punishment."

"You mean you would, ma'am."

"You interrupt me, sir?" Eleanor asked, annoyed.

"I beg your pardon, ma'am, but there is no one at Court who does not see that you are the true ruler of this country. I do not say that is a bad thing, of course. You have accomplished much and we are all… "

"Attempting to flatter me is of no value, sir. I do not care for flattery, and Henry is the ruler of this country and everything I say and do is in his name and with his complete trust and approval. What I do care for, however, is seeing to it that my son succeeds to the throne some day, many years in the future. I dread the day my dear husband must leave this life for the next, but it is of great importance to me that Alexander's reign begins peacefully. Should that happen, I would be pleased to see your son released from his imprisonment, on certain conditions."

"Ma'am?"

"When my son succeeds, some day, I will demand that Lord Lionel renounce his right to the throne. If he does so, he can be released from his imprisonment and he could even be allowed to return home. His marriage to the Lady Margot is already in the process of being annulled, though from what I understand it was consummated. But she is barely fifteen and I can see no reason why she should not find happiness elsewhere, once she grows up a bit. Granted, she will not be permitted to return to Gravonia while her father lives."

"If you will allow me, ma'am, I would write Lionel to demand he immediately renounce his rights now… "

"No. Not now. That will be done when Alexander's reign begins, and not before. You will say nothing to Lionel on that matter, much less to your wife—and remember that your letters to him will be read before they can be sent, and any letter that is sent to where he is that does not bear the King's seal will result in his immediate execution, so extreme care must be taken in what you say to him, sir. What I require of you now is your loyalty."

"You have it, ma'am," von Arklow said, shuddering in fear at the idea of his boy being cut down, however much he had earned it.

"I was told once that you actually possess a conscience. Are those rumors true, sir?"

"It is a burden that has kept me out of some trouble over the years," he muttered, looking away, shuddering slightly. "I would rather have a clean conscience than a dirty crown."

"That commends you, Count von Arklow. How much easier it would have been for your cousin Beauchamp if he had a conscience like yours as well. Good day to you, sir." She stepped back from him, not even nodding, and von Arklow bowed.

"Your mercy commends you, ma'am. The Countess and I thank you."

"It is the King's mercy you ought to be grateful for, sir. It is none of my doing. Your son was a threat to mine, as you know, and had it been up to me entirely, I would have had Lionel's head removed from his shoulders. Should you ever have contact with Lord Beauchamp, tell him that I will not hesitate to see him on the gibbet should he show his face in Gravonia again."

Eleanor turned and stalked away from him, not even turning her head when he called out another weary 'thank you'. Once inside the palace, she sat down in the Great Hall, shivering a little and wondering how she would react if one of her own boys were to commit treason and deserve death. She knew she would plead for his life as well, and would grieve at being separated from him, however foolish his actions.

But treason was treason, and not even her children were above the law.

All in all, she felt drained. On a day like today she wished she could get on Merlin and ride away, back to Ravensburg and the Turon Valley, where the worst trial she might face was a heavy snowfall and Betsy insisting she try again at making cakes.


February 1384

Winter blew into Gravonia with a surprising amount of snow and ice, and storms made life difficult for everyone in the eastern region of the nation. Henry quickly sent soldiers and materials when the storms broke, to help repair damaged buildings and supply food to those left unprepared. Eleanor recommended that Count von Arklow be given the task of overseeing the larger projects of repairing public buildings and collecting funds for the poor, and the Count actually proved far more adept at such things than his predecessor, Lord Beauchamp, and even seemed to enjoy mingling with the common folk of the country. She knew he was partly doing his best to prove his worthiness of the King's mercy, but she was able to give him credit where credit was due.

With six growing boys to clothe, feed and educate, Eleanor was kept busy through the entire season. Alexander, at nine years, was becoming more and more adept with a sword and with his bow and arrow, and though he had not yet experienced any serious growth spurts, Eleanor suspected that in the next few years he would be outgrowing his clothes and her regular influence. Soon he would be entering the world of knighthood and barracks and shouting and seeing if he could knock down the bigger man. He was still a well-mannered, courteous boy, but he was moving out of her orbit, and it broke her heart to think of it. Particularly as dangers still lurked outside the castle walls. God was in His heaven, she knew, but Lord Beauchamp still waited in Lacovia.

It was, she supposed, a blessing that Queen Irene still had not produced a child for King Paul. The ruler of Lacovia could not repudiate his wife, however, particularly as his father-in-law was now present at his court. She knew that he wanted to save face as much as possible, but it had to be humiliating to still be without an heir aside from Richard of Stormont.

Christmas arrived on the tail end of a startlingly fierce snowstorm, and Eleanor enjoyed teaching the boys how to ice skate—none of them, however, seemed keen on cold weather. She nonetheless encouraged them to go outdoors with her on the coldest days, teaching them to recognize birdsongs and tracks in the snow, and how to hunt grouse and rabbit. Alexander, for one, found it astonishing that a woman, particularly a princess, might know how to hunt at all. Henry had taught them to hawk and to hunt for deer and wild boar, but Eleanor considered grouse and rabbit hunting far more practical.

"Why should a woman not know how to hunt?" she asked, rubbing her hands together and blowing on them. The bracing cold was pleasant to her, as it reminded her of the Turon Valley. She put her mittens back on, shivering and wrinkling her nose as snowflakes whirled around her. "A woman ought to know how to fend for herself, if need be. One never knows when that might be necessary."

"But you're a Queen, Mama," Alexander pointed out. He was trudging along beside her through the snow-covered park, just a few days after her twenty-sixth birthday. "Queens are supposed to be… well, they ought to be indoors, doing… lady-like things."

"Like sewing and cooking and bearing baby after baby?" Eleanor asked, amused.

"Well, no, I don't think that's it. But… well, it hardly seems proper."

She laughed. "I did all sorts of improper things when I was growing up. I went riding alone and I helped bring in the harvest in the fall and I helped with planting each spring, and yes, I did a good deal of cleaning and sewing and terrifying attempts at cooking. I even went hunting alone, quite frequently."

"My grandfather King Peter allowed that?" Alexander looked at her, puzzled.

Eleanor paused, realizing what she had just revealed. She looked up at the metal-grey sky and closed her eyes, breathing in the air and smelling more snow on the way from Livonia. "You could say that, I suppose. Remember that I was raised in my own household and rarely saw my father. My caretakers let me have my own head, for the most part, and they believed a girl should be well-educated and well-rounded in her skills. So should a young man, by the way. Why do you think I make you repair your shirts?"

"Because you got tired of repairing them," Alexander grinned at her, and she wrinkled her nose at his cheekiness.

"Very true. But also because a young man should be able to fend for himself. Women are not your slaves, you know, and no woman wants a man who can't even sew a button onto his own shirt or bake his own honey buns."

"I would never expect that of any woman. And... I like baking. I enjoy cooking a great deal, actually. I hate sewing, though." The Crown Prince looked around at the sparse woods that spread across the hillside leading back up to the palace. "When I am king, I will make a law saying that no woman shall be required to sew a man's shirts if he knows how to do it himself."

"Then you should make another law requiring men learn how to sew!" she laughed. "What other laws would you make?"

"I would make it a law that horses ought not to work on Sunday."

She smiled. Alexander had a special affinity for horses. She had taught him to ride on steady old Merlin, who never put a foot wrong with her son on his back.

"And what else?"

"I would make it a capital offense for a man to strike a woman."

"But would you allow women to strike men?"

The boy paused, thinking, then looked at her. "In anger or merely self-defense?"

"Anger."

"It would be illegal, too. Anyone should be allowed to defend themselves against anyone else, man or woman."

She smiled. "So if a woman is attacking a man, could he strike her?"

"He would… try to pin her down and not harm her, until she is calm." He studied his mother carefully. "Have you and Papa ever fought that way? To where you would strike him?"

"Oh, no. Never. We don't quarrel. And he has never raised his hand to me, nor I to him."

"I will never raise my hand to a woman," Alexander declared firmly. "It would be despicable. Even if she was hitting me, I would not hit her back."

"Your resolve speaks well of you, sweetheart, though I can't imagine anyone attempting to hit a king," she said, touching his cold-reddened cheek. "I hope you hold true to your principles." She drew in her breath. "And you know that you are betrothed to Princess Elizabeth of Morvenia."

"Yes. I write to her regularly."

"And what do you think of her?" she asked as they continued walking along the deer path toward the palace gates.

"She is intelligent and kind. I don't remember meeting her, but I'm told she is pretty. In her last letter, she told me about her new baby sister and how she screams and stinks but that she loves her just the same. She says her father is very stern but that he is happy to buy her any trinket or material she wants, and that her mother is the sweetest person alive. Her brothers are rowdy and fun-loving and they hate learning Latin."

Eleanor smiled. Just like their father.

"They will all be great warriors, like Prince Constantine, I suspect," Alexander said gravely. "Do you think Elizabeth is learning warcraft, as you did?"

"I doubt that Prince Constantine would be keen on letting his daughter visit battlefields and draw up strategies, but… I suspect he's sensible enough to see that she would need to know of such things. Besides, these past few years he has not been called away very often, so he has much time to spend with his children. You and your siblings and Elizabeth's siblings are all growing up far differently from most royal children. You all spend a good deal of time with your fathers, and I say that's a very good thing."

"I think it is too." Alexander smiled. He and his father were very close, and the King was teaching his son carpentry, at which he also excelled. "I hope that Elizabeth and I will be able to talk to each other, and get along well," Alexander said, looking grave. "It would be awful to marry someone who doesn't like me, or that I don't like."

Her son's serious nature worried Eleanor sometimes, but his earnest desire to do what was right was just as encouraging. He had the markings of a conscientious, devoted monarch and a loving husband and father… some day. A long, long time from now, she thought, touching his face again. She did not want him growing up too fast, or being too serious at his age, and she didn't even want to think of the day he married and started his own family. He already moving out of her sphere, and far too quickly, and it made something in her heart hurt more than she could express. All her boys were becoming more and more independent of her, and sometimes she thought of going ahead and bearing more children, but that almost seemed... impractical, for some reason. It was best to focus on her sons for now.

"Well, I'm sure you and Elizabeth will get along very well, and you will like each other immensely." She glanced at her son, and smiled mischievously at him. "Race me to the palace gates! Whoever wins will have to sew the buttons back on that shirt you ruined last week!" She darted away, and the prince caught up with her quickly, racing ahead of her. Eleanor was made of sterner stuff than that, however, and she caught up with him and rubbed snow in his face as she skittered past, laughing. The Crown Prince blustered in mock outrage and chased his mother up the gently sloping hill and through the gates, just beating her to the cobbled courtyard where King Henry and some of his knights were standing around, their horses steaming from a long hunt.

"Aha! Mama has to do the sewing!" he laughed, and Eleanor giggled and hugged him, not minding that he squirmed a little, embarrassed to be cuddled by his mother in public.

"I take it your walk went well," Henry grinned, kissing his wife on the cheek.

"More like a gallop," Eleanor laughed, catching her breath. "And it went splendidly, though I regret that I seem to have some sewing to do tonight."

Alexander grinned at his parents, and Henry affectionately tousled his hair. "Well, Sasha, I've ordered Cook to get the wassail warming in the kettle for when we arrive home. Go on inside and warm yourself up. Lads, come on in, too, and warm up before you wander off into the wintry dark."

The knights grinned and followed the King and Queen inside, the Crown Prince leading the way and greeting his baby brother Andrew at the door, picking him up and swinging him up onto his shoulders. Eleanor paused in the doorway to the Great Hall, remembering how it had looked and smelled on the day she had first arrived. Now, it was decorated in warm, masculine tones of dark wood, antlers and armor, but it was also clean and smelled of cedar and orange.

A cheerful fire was burning in the huge fireplace, and the servants greeting everyone and helping them out of their coats all looked warm and well fed—a far cry from the half-starved, soggy creatures they had been when Eleanor had first come to Gravonia. Instead of coarse jokes and 'accidental' odors, the men were instead happy to sit at the table or in the big stuffed chairs talking and laughing, drinking hot wassail and boasting about their hunting prowess or giving graphic accounts of their actions in battle. Eleanor settled down in her chair at the end of the long table, keeping an eye on her sons as they raced around the hall with a disorganized herd of other children, their voices blending in with the laughter and tales of derring-do.

The Queen greeted Harriet and Agnes as they sat down at her end of the table, and smiled as Agnes began dealing out cards. Harriet looked far more robust, too, since the first day she had met her. She was no longer a stick-thin, unhappy-looking woman, but instead smiled more easily and looked rather chipper. Considering she was six months along with her first child with Lord Ellis, she had good reason to look contented.

"How is your pregnancy coming along, Harriet?" Eleanor asked.

"Very well, ma'am. John and I are very excited about the coming little one."

Agnes giggled. "That's how you ended up pregnant, isn't it?"

Harriet gave Agnes a sharp look, but it didn't last long. She actually laughed, shaking her head. "I would never have expected it at all. It was a total surprise to me that John… that he would… you know, want… that."

"He's a strong, virile man with an attractive wife that he likes. Why would he not want that?" Eleanor asked, examining her cards and finding them wanting. "Lord John also seems to have a great deal of regard for you."

Harriet blushed deeply. "He is very kind. He has never once raised his hand to me, or even his voice. He's so different from my late husband. Very different. All my first husband ever did was shout and… well… he did… other things."

"I should bloody well hope Lord John is a vast improvement," Eleanor muttered. "Do you know, one of the first laws my son intends to pass, when he is king, is that no man may strike a woman, under any circumstances."

Agnes put her cards down suddenly, smiling triumphantly—she had won the game. Eleanor passed her coins to Agnes, who gleefully collected them. "He has already told me he also wants to see to it that horses are allowed to rest on the Lord's Day." She began dealing out the cards and sat back in her seat.

"I can certainly support both laws. He also wants to make it a law that all men learn how to sew, so their wives can rest a bit," Eleanor said with a smile. "Harriet, have you and John discussed names yet?"

"If it's a girl, he wants to name her Catherine, for his mother. If it's a boy, I suggested Peter. My mother's father was named Peter and he was a very nice man. He hated my father."

For good reason, I suspect, Eleanor thought. She looked up and smiled when she saw Lord Ellis and Lorenzo Bartolomeo standing nearby, looking as though they were both eager to collect their wives and children and go home. "Well, speak of the Devil—Lord John! I see you're here to collect the wife you married so conveniently last summer."

Ellis' cheeks pinked and the Queen laughed out loud.

"It has turned out to be a very… mutually beneficial union," Ellis said, helping Harriet to her feet. He called for their children to come, and soon all four boys and little Xenia were trailing out after them to the courtyard, where their carriage waited. Lorenzo gently assisted his wife up and gallantly kissed her hand before leading her to the door, only needing to glance back to immediately draw the attention of their little daughter Ellie, who bounced happily to them, escorted as usual by Prince Frederick—they were best friends, and where one was, the other was sure to be found. Marcus and Enrico toddled along behind.

Henry swaggered up to Eleanor, grinning. "And you must be feeling very well this evening. Alexander told me he only barely managed to outrun you to the palace door."

"I am showing my age, I admit." She started to stand, but the King insisted on helping her up. "One day I shall be forced to use guile to outdo him. For now, he has youth on his side. Boys, I will expect you to clean up whatever messes you have made down here, and to assist the servants with the rest."

The four eldest princes obediently set to work as the hall was cleared of rambunctious children and their sleepy parents—they knew never to dispute with their mother over their chores, and their rank meant nothing when it came to doing them. Eleanor and Henry went upstairs, where the Queen sat down by the fire and began sewing new buttons onto Alexander's shirt. The King read over some of his state papers, mumbling over how he ought to answer some questions from the Council. Finally, he handed the papers to Eleanor when she put her sewing down. He sat down on the bed and began pulling off his boots.

"Wait… they want… surely they cannot be serious. Lord Hallam cannot seriously think that I ought to become a Councilor of State. It is out of the question." Eleanor shook her head.

"He says you have a clear head for business and know how government works even more than most of the men on my Council."

Eleanor looked at her husband, drawing in her breath. "I will not join the Council, Henry. I've already enough to do as it is."

The King studied his wife for a moment before suddenly grinning. "Are you as strapped for time when you're sitting behind that grille during my Council meetings?"

Her eyes widened with shock. "Henry, I cannot... I have never... "

"I didn't know it at first. It didn't even occur to me, but then one day during a meeting I smelled that lavender sachet you always have tied to your belt. Frankly, I'm relieved you've always been listening in—I was starting to think I was coming up with ideas on my own, when I knew damned well I wasn't."

"Henry, I—"

"Don't argue, dearest. You'll lose this one, I can assure you. I've also already begun the process of declaring you Regent, should anything happen to me before Alexander reaches his majority."

"Do not even speak of such a thing," Eleanor said, swallowing. "I cannot bear to think of it. You will have a very long, prosperous and peaceful reign."

"Terrible things happen, Eleanor. We both know that."

"I know it intellectually, but my heart would not be able to bear it." She swallowed, staring down at her clasped hands, trying not tremble with fear. "All of this trouble with Lord Beauchamp… I cannot deny that it terrifies me."

"You're stronger than him, sweetheart." Henry came around to her and knelt down before her, looking up into her eyes. "You're the strongest person I've ever known."

"Oh, please. I can barely lift a cat."

Henry burst out laughing. "You are too modest, and I know you're a natural-born fighter. So I know I can safely trust you to manage things quite well in my absence, should the need arise. The heart of her husband doth safely trust her."

"Queens are supposed to be modest," she said softly.

"Well, it wasn't the King who gave birth to six boys and came through each confinement with barely even a case of the sniffles, and it wasn't me who told our soldiers that they would thrash the Lacovians at the Field of Stones, and it wasn't me who had Rieti's corpse showered down onto Beauchamp's dining table." Henry grinned at her and winked mischievously. "Remember, sweetheart, I am the King and I do find these things out. I have my sources, and my best source is very definitely you. So I will insist you become a member of my Council, and you will be named Regent. There will be no more discussion on either matter, sweetheart. I am quite firm on this." He grinned at her. "Other parts of me are getting rather firm as well, I must say."

She stared down at her husband, amazed. Sometimes she forgot—and she blamed her own arrogance for this—that Henry was no fool. He lacked education, but he made up for that with a canniness that bordered on the psychic. He was an excellent judge of character, except for his blind eye to his extended family, and for all his apparent lack of seriousness or focus, he had a knack for making the right decision when required, and so long as he had proper encouragement, he rarely put a foot wrong.

Eleanor touched her husband's cheek, and he moved up to kiss her, and she wasn't at all surprised when he pulled her down into his arms and began tugging impatiently at her clothes. As soon as she was properly undressed, he picked her up and carried her to bed, and she spent the rest of the night demonstrating that she was quite capable of controlling something much larger than a cat.


24 March 1384

Isabella watched the jugglers tossing their poles back and forth, shouting "Hup!" each time they made another pass, and tried not to laugh when the two men got into an arm-waving argument, decorated with a great deal of ripe Ango-Saxon phraseology, over a badly thrown baton. Only Constantine's low, rumbling throat-clearing and raised eyebrow got both men to cease arguing and resume their entertainments.

It was her birthday, and she was having a lovely time. The only wrinkle in the celebrations was a persistent cough she had been trying to shake off for the past month, and today of all days it only seemed to be getting worse. So far, she had been able to conceal it from her husband, not being inclined to bother him with such unimportant matters. Whenever she felt a bad coughing fit coming on, she would cover her mouth with a kerchief and try to conceal it, and at least so far tonight the birthday party and celebrations had him distracted enough.

Constantine had showered her with gifts—pretty clothes and jewels and a box of Spanish almonds, and best of all, a beautiful little 'folly' he had constructed, overnight, in the orchard. How he had managed to arrange such a thing to be built and completed in the dead of night remained a mystery to her, but then again, he remained a mystery to her still, after ten years of marriage. Just the same, the thoughtfulness of the gift was touching, and she had hugged and kissed her husband, bursting into tears and making him mumble and blush in embarrassment.

Constantine had told the children that the little building was for Isabella only, and they were not to play in it, and that when she went there it was to be alone. She looked forward to being alone sometimes—it was a rare thing, even in her big rambling manor house, and as much as she loved her little ones and Constantine, a few minutes of quiet each day was something to relish.

Queen Eleanor's letter to her, received just that morning, was cheerful and full of gossip, with news about Catalina's new baby, a beautiful little girl named Isabella ("I believe Catalina said she was named for the charlady working at Chesworth Castle…"). The Queen of Gravonia also sent her a gift: a beautifully carved and hand-painted black eagle of Navarre. Henry had carved it, and Eleanor had carefully painted it a deep, rich black, with golden eyes, beak and talons and gold dusting the tips of its feathers, so that it looked almost like a living creature. It now enjoyed a place of honor in her sitting room, over the mantelpiece. The gifts from her children were equally touching: a well-made and nicely painted and kiln-fired vase made by Prince Michael; a velvet sachet pouch from Nicholas, colorful drawings from Leopold and Parr (it was still a matter of debate on what, exactly, the creatures in the drawings were), and Constantine had helped Charlotte press handprints and footprints into a slab of wet cement and had settled it at the front door of the house, where it was drying and being guarded by a diligent soldier charged with keeping anyone from touching it until it was hard.

Elizabeth was eager to present her mother with her gift last, and waited until her brothers had been dragged, protesting, off to bed before she got up and presented Isabella with her offering: a beautifully constructed paper rose. It was made from multiple layers of pink and white paper, carefully pressed together into a flawless, blooming flower and meticulously attached to a wire stem wrapped in green velvet and decorated with silk leaves.

"Oh, sweetheart, how lovely!" Isabella said, kissing her daughter and hugging her. "I will never let this out of my sight."

"Papa helped me with the cutting," Elizabeth said, smiling at her father, who ruefully rubbed the back of his neck. "We were up all night last night, while the men were building the folly."

"Yes, and it's a wonder I can still see," Constantine said with one of his rare, slow smiles. "Smidgen here insisted it be perfect. I've not been scolded so sharply since I was a child."

"Well, you kept cutting the petals wrong!" Elizabeth squawked.

Isabella laughed, but her laughter was disrupted by a furious coughing fit. Constantine watched her, bewildered, as his wife's body was wracked with torturous coughs, and Elizabeth looked frightened. Philip gestured to one of his courtiers to go find the court doctor.

"Please… please, don't. It's all right. It's just a bad cold. It'll be gone soon enough, I'm sure," Isabella said, smiling through her tears. Her sides hurt for the lengthy spasm of wracking coughs, and Philip ignored her protests, sending for the doctor just the same.

"I think we ought to get you up to bed," Constantine said quietly, helping Isabella to her feet. Elizabeth took her mother's hand, and looked up at her, brow furrowed. Isabella's hands were cold, and her face was flushed red.

"Mama, are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine, sweetheart. You know I'm quite healthy, and this cough will pass soon enough." She smiled at Constantine and Philip and told herself, again, that the taste of blood in her mouth was just her imagination and nothing to get concerned about—if anything, something she had eaten had probably just cut one of her gums. "Philip, this party was lovely and I thank you from my heart for your kindness. For all your kindness, today and since the day I came here."

Philip, still looking concerned, nodded. "You're very welcome, sister. And the doctor will come up to see you. Please cooperate with him." He kissed her cheeks, patted Constantine on the shoulder, and accepted a peck on the check from Elizabeth. The King smiled at them and watched his brother and sister-in-law head upstairs to their rooms, Elizabeth trailing behind them, the girl treading carefully, deep in thought. Sighing, Philip went back to his chair and sat down. He stared moodily into the fire, and sensed that he wasn't alone in the room. He looked around, wary, and caught the briefest glimpse of something in the window—a whiteness that was out of place in the dark outside.

All feasts much have a spectre, he recalled, from a gloomy poem he had read, long ago.

The King was not a superstitious man. He did not heed dark premonitions. But a cold, nerve-rattling fear gripped him and he looked out into the cold spring night, wondering what other darkness was waiting out there. He refused to name his fear, as doing so would make it real, but just the same he decided to go down to the palace chapel, light a few candles and pray. What, exactly, he ought to pray for he didn't know. God would figure it out, he was sure, and act in His own due season.

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