An Unwelcome Acquaintance
Prince Michael urged his destrier into a quick trot and rode circles around his father, who waited patiently for the energetic boy to settle down. At age nine, he was already a keen horseman and good with his bow and arrow, but he was also impatient, impulsive and short-tempered: an explosive combination, to his father's thinking.
Finally, Michael reined the horse to a stop and waited, the horse tossing its head and stomping.
"If you expect to ever bring down a deer while making so much racket, you're bound for some very disappointing hunts."
The young prince looked embarrassed and took a tighter hold of his now-excited horse. "I'm sorry, Papa."
"Come on then," Constantine said, urging old Amiel into a slightly stiff-legged trot. The nearly-white warhorse was content to stay at a slow gait, and Michael had no trouble keeping up on his much-younger horse, but he was eager to gallop through the forest, whether they brought down a deer or not. Nonetheless, he knew not to try and ride ahead of his father, and they rode abreast through the royal forest, Michael occasionally asking his father a question and Constantine answering in his quiet, careful way.
To Michael, his father was larger than life—a stern, formidable figure of authority who nonetheless was patient with him and his siblings. Constantine never shouted at his children without good reason, and if he had to mete out punishments for bad behavior, he did so quickly, sharply and painfully, and afterward the matter was immediately dropped. Michael and his brothers had a healthy fear of their father, but they knew he was also fair with them, and their punishments always fit whatever crime they had committed. Elizabeth and Charlotte, however, were rarely punished, but then again they were also very rarely naughty. Michael and the other boys, he admitted, were much more rowdy and frequently got into scrapes. Constantine, however, had an understanding heart when it came to young boys—he was never harsh with them, but he was firm and always fair.
The young prince carefully observed his father, wishing he could be more like him: calm and steady and always patient. Constantine never flinched, even with chaos around him, and he never got truly angry with any of his children, no matter what they did. He was even known to embrace them when they were frightened or hurt, and was never too busy to talk to them about their troubles. From the stories he had heard of his grandfather, Michael and his siblings were lucky to have such a father.
The ride through the forest was quiet, with just the sounds of their horses' hoof beats and Amiel's very slight wheeze. Birdsong was all around them, and above the sky was as blue as could be, without a single cloud in sight. They had been out hunting since dawn, and so far had had no luck, but that hardly mattered to Michael—he enjoyed spending time alone with his father. Constantine made a point of spending time with all of his children, every day, and that in itself was remarkable. None of Michael's friends at Court could say the same about their fathers.
Constantine looked at the boy, seeing so much of himself in his eldest son. He even looked like him—he had the same dark hair, green eyes and fair skin.. "What is it?"
"You're to be king one day, right?"
"I will, yes, unfortunately."
"That means that I'll be… um… Crown Prince."
"Yes. I'm afraid so."
Michael thought this over. "So when you're king, you'll be able to do whatever you please?"
Constantine snorted with laughter. "Where did you get that idea?"
"Well, kings get to do as they please."
"Do you see your uncle Philip doing as he pleases? Just today he had to meet with the ambassador from Transylvania. He didn't want to, believe me. The man looks like he bathes in the blood of small children."
Michael frowned. "Well, when I'm king, I will do as I please."
"I rather doubt that. You will be bound by the law, too, and by your duties first and foremost. It's not an easy job and while it has its perks, it's also tiresome and stressful and there will always be folks around who hate you no matter what you do or say."
"People hate Uncle Philip?" Michael asked, surprised.
"Everybody has somebody who hates them."
Michael thought carefully. "Does anybody hate Mama?"
"I stand corrected. That could never happen, but most people are not like your mother. At most, someone might envy her sweetness."
Michael and Constantine stopped their horses, watching a small herd of does trot across the little road. They were all fat and healthy and quite ready for the coming winter.
"It must be awful, then, to have to answer to everybody," Michael said, as they continued riding.
"It can be. But having to answer to others can also keep you out of some pretty awful trouble, too."
"When will I ever get old enough that I don't have to answer to anybody?"
Constantine started to laugh, but he saw the serious expression on his son's face and remembered the promise he had made to himself, long ago: he would never laugh at his children or discount their concerns as foolish, much less refuse to answer their questions. His own parents had done that to him and it still stung, after more than thirty years. "I don't know, son. I've never known of anyone who ever got that old."
"You have to answer to people?"
"Of course I do. Constantly. Your uncle does, too. He lives at everyone else's sufferance, remember, as do all rulers. He has to live quietly and do his best to provide good leadership, while also doing his best to otherwise stay out of everybody's way. I, meanwhile, have to answer to your mother and to your uncle. Being a king won't change that too much. Even when I'm king I'll have to answer to your mother and the people of this country and most importantly to God."
"That hardly sounds like fun," Michael muttered.
"If you're expecting fun, you're out of luck, son. Particularly as a prince—but that doesn't mean you can't have a good time sometimes. Life is as good as you make it, and as you're only nine I wouldn't worry too much about what will happen twenty or thirty years from now. Worry about your Latin verbs."
"I don't worry about them. I just have nightmares about them."
"Yeah, so did I. Still don't speak a bloody word of Latin, either, and my French is simply hideous. Let your mother teach you Spanish instead. That'll be enough."
"Espanol es facil," Michael said with a grin.
"Spanish is easy, Papa."
"Not as easy as you'd think," Constantine muttered. "I just know what when your mother is muttering in Spanish, I had better get out of the room."
Isabella knew the doctor was worried. Every time he came to visit, he would mutter softly under his breath and ask her a series of questions. How long had she been coughing? Was she still only tasting blood, or had she coughed up any yet? Did she feel feverish or weak?
Three years now was the answer to the first question. Three years of coughing, off and on, and sometimes very painfully. Just when she thought she was getting a little better, the long sessions would start again and Constantine would send for the doctor. She was indeed still tasting blood, and sometimes there was blood on her kerchief. And yes, indeed, she frequently felt feverish and very weak. Some days were worse than others, though warm days were a little better than cold. She preferred to sit by the fire, wrapped up in warm blankets, and when she wasn't coughing she saw to her children's lessons and kept up her correspondence with Catalina, Queen Eleanor and friends at Court, and did as much reading as she could.
Constantine was worried, too. She saw that in his eyes when he looked at her, and when she was feeling particularly ill he would not leave her side. It was actually rather pleasant for her, to have him to herself during those times—sitting by the fire or lying in bed, she would doze until the next spasm came, and her husband would try his best, in his own gently awkward way, to comfort her.
She knew he still considered himself a clumsy oaf, but his gentle ministrations to her were the best source of comfort she had ever known. He would serve her the honey and chamomile tea the doctor recommended, which soothed her burning throat, and would sit and hold her hand until the coughing finally stopped.
Her husband was alarmed by the blood she was coughing up now, but she kept saying it was nothing. She knew it was, of course—she knew she was dying, and there was nothing to be done for it, but she could not say it aloud, and she hoped that Constantine did not recognize the signs of what was coming. For now, she could only continue with her daily routines—chapel, lessons with the children, a quiet noon meal alone with Constantine, a walk in the afternoon if she was feeling well, and in the evenings, before dark, she would sit on the bench in Constantine's behourd, watching him and her sons practice on the pell. Michael was becoming very proficient with his sword, and looked forward to the day he would become a page to one of the knights at Court and could travel to Havor to begin his intensive training as a soldier.
The very idea of her sons leaving home and being so far away left Isabella utterly miserable. She knew it was inevitable, and that her sons were meant to be soldiers, but the idea of them going into battle, being injured or possibly even killed, filled her with dread. Her daughters, meanwhile, were learning the feminine arts—sewing and cooking and how to run a household, plus they were joining their brothers in the schoolroom, learning history, geography, languages and drawing (at Constantine's insistence, surprisingly enough). Elizabeth excelled in all those subjects, and was also very good with a bow and arrow, often even doing better than Michael in target practice. Little Charlotte was progressing well, too, learning her letters and numbers and colors, and could already speak a smattering of French and Spanish.
She was in the sitting room, wrapped up in her blankets and listening to Charlotte recite the alphabet, smiling at the little girl's occasional trouble with her 'R's, when she heard the front door open and clattering boots on the flagstones. Constantine and the boys were back from their hunting excursion. Charlotte put her wooden letter board—a gift from Queen Eleanor—down and jumped to her feet, eager to greet her Papa and her brothers. The five men in Isabella's life bustled into the room, the boys greeting their mother and sister cheerfully. Constantine was more subdued, taking his seat opposite her and rolling a piece of paper in his hands.
"Philip received a message from Havor."
Not this again. Not another bloody war, she thought. "Oh?"
"They are asking that I go up there immediately—the Lacovians have started up their raids again. They need reinforcements to help drive them out."
Isabella drew in her breath, feeling and hearing that crackling wheeze in her lungs. "I see."
"I'm going to take Michael with me. Granted, he's only nine, but he can't learn this sort of thing any sooner and—"
"No!" Isabella said sharply, which startled everyone in the room. Even the servants stopped with helping the boys out of their coats and stared at her. Isabella never raised her voice—frankly, it was often hard to hear her, she spoke so softly.
"Isabella, you and I both know what sort of life Michael will—"
"I said no!" Isabella snapped. "I will not have my baby going off to war at age nine."
"Oh, Mama, don't be so silly," Michael said, rolling his eyes.
Constantine's reaction was immediate and startling: he got up and cuffed the boy on the back of the head, hard.
"You will not speak that way to your mother or to any other woman, ever again--do you understand me?" Constantine said, in that quiet, clipped tone he used when meting out justice to a wrongdoer.
Michael, rubbing his head, backed away from his father, eyes stinging with tears, and nodded. "I'm sorry, Papa, I—"
"Apologize to your mother, not me!" Constantine growled.
"I'm sorry, Mama. I was very disrespectful." Michael bowed to his mother.
Isabella paid that little mind. She looked up at her husband, who had taken his seat again. "You will not take my baby with you. I will not have it."
"Isabella, it's not like I'm going to let him join in any battle. I merely want him to see—"
"No!" Isabella stood, fought off a moment of dizziness, and faced her husband. "I said no, and I will not hear of it again!"
Constantine looked startled and stood as well, though mostly out of good manners. Isabella had never challenged him before, and for her to do so now, when she was so ill, was simply astounding. Michael and the princes watched their parents in silence, not sure of what to make of this. To them, to see their mother defy their father was like watching a tiny, enraged bantam hen take on a massive wolfhound, and their mother was holding her own admirably.
"Isabella," Constantine said gently. "Please sit down. You'll start coughing again."
"Not until you promise me that you will not take my baby to Havor. Promise me!"
Constantine exhaled sharply. He looked at his son, narrowing his eyes slightly. The boy stepped back, knowing to keep his mouth shut. Finally, he turned back to face his wife, who had her hands on her hips—she looked ready to fight, if required. There was a definite spark of pure stubbornness in her blue-green eyes, and he knew she would not yield. For a moment, he wondered how she would hold up if he challenged her to a wrestling match to determine the outcome of their disagreement.
"I will not take him, then," he said at last. "I would not see you upset, much less the boy's life endangered."
The children were stunned. Papa always made the decisions, when it came to the boys' training. They all knew they would eventually go to Havor to complete their training—it was a tradition going back centuries to exchange Morvenian princes for Havorian princes for their training. No one knew exactly how or why it had started, but it certainly kept the two nations on excellent terms. Usually the exchange didn't happen until the princes were twelve or thirteen, but Michael had been thrilled when Constantine told him earlier that day that he would get to go with him so early, to have his first taste of warfare.
"But I will have to continue our tradition and send him to Havor in another three years, Isabella. I hope by then you can reconcile yourself to it."
Struggling to regain her composure, Isabella sat down, wheezing slightly. "I will… I will try."
Michael swallowed, covering his disappointment none too well. He started to speak, but a cool, narrow look from his father stilled his tongue and he remained silent. The servants resumed their work, albeit quietly, and soon cleared the room. The children all sat down together on the floor and began reading through their lessons until suppertime. Constantine sat back in his chair, his tension finally easing. Isabella started to pick up one of his shirts to begin repairing a small hole, but he took it from her, then her sewing needles and began repairing it himself. When she looked at him, confused, he lifted one eyebrow and grinned at her, making her heart skip a beat.
"I'll need to draw up a proper commendation for you," he said. "You're the first warrior ever to get me to retreat."
"So they're back to their raids?" Eleanor asked. "Bloody… murderers," she muttered, glancing at Prince Alexander, who was sitting nearby and far more likely to repeat curses when he heard them from his mother. She handed the letter to Lord Hallam, who nodded.
"I'm afraid so. They're attacking Havor only at this point—the country is enduring a terrible drought now and its weakened somewhat."
Henry frowned and leaned forward. "We should send reinforcements to Havor," he said. "Not just soldiers but also food and materiel. I wish I could join in the fight, too, but the Queen won't have it." He grinned at Eleanor, who laughed softly. They had discussed it last night, and she had made it clear that she would not have him lead his men into battle—it was Havor's fight, and while Gravonia was only too pleased to send the supplies and support needed, they would not interfere otherwise. Their neighbor to the northeast was troubled by the drought, but its army was strong and quite capable.
"The King could still go to the northeastern border, though, to see that the supplies are delivered with all due haste," Lord Hallam said. "The King has asked if I might also go, and I am pleased to do so."
Eleanor nodded her assent, and Henry looked relieved. She knew he was eager to take part in a scrape, particularly with his loathed northern enemy. So long as Lord Hallam was going along, she knew he would stay out of trouble. If Hallam had opted to stay home, however, she would have refused to let Henry leave Luvov.
In the past three years, Lord Beauchamp hadn't set foot outside Lacovia—possibly because he believed King Henry's agents were ready to pounce on him the moment he moved. His daughter Margot remained in France, her marriage to Lionel von Arklow annulled, and she had finally married some minor French nobleman and by all accounts was doing fairly well. His daughter Irene, however, had still failed to produce an heir to Lacovia's throne. At last report, Lionel von Arklow was still locked up in a castle in Germany and was in fair physical shape, though there were indications his mental stability wasn't all together satisfactory.
During those three years, Gravonia's army had grown stronger and stronger, not just in size but also in skill and dedication. It was not surprising that Lacovia had not made a single attack into the northern regions. That they were raiding into Havor again, however, indicated that they were beginning to rebuild after the disaster they had suffered at the Field of Stones.
"Of course he must go," Eleanor nodded. "I pray you will be careful though, Henry."
"Of course I will." Henry was already on his feet, heading for the door. "We will leave at first light tomorrow."
Isabella lay her head on Constantine's chest, listening to his heartbeat slow to its usual steady pace, but she could tell he was still awake, and all night she had been able to tell that he had something on his mind.
He had made love to her with an intensity that was almost frightening, and while it was also intensely satisfying, it was also unsettling. She shyly traced her fingertips along a small scar that ran in a faded line from the center of his chest to just above his clavicle, and started to speak when his fingers slipped slowly down the center of her back, making her shiver a little. After ten years and six children, his touch still never failed to arouse and excite her.
"What is it?"
"I hope you will be careful," she said softly.
"I'm always careful. Have I ever failed to come home from a war?" There was just a hint of laughter in his voice.
"That's not really what I mean."
"What do you mean, then?"
"I mean… I would… I don't know what I mean. I just don't want you to get hurt. I will never become accustomed to seeing you ride off to another war."
He sighed. "It's my job, and I volunteered for it. But if I'm ever injured in battle, Isabella, I would pray that I die of my wounds. The last thing I want is to become a burden to anyone."
"How can you say that?" she asked, sitting up, pulling the sheet up to cover herself properly. The room was still dark, though the morning light was starting to seep slowly through the thick curtains on the windows. He would be leaving after breakfast, and Isabella wished she could stop the sun from rising.
"Quite easily. I would rather die of my wounds than spend the rest of my life having my arse wiped by you or some… doctor."
Isabella's eyes brimmed with tears. "Don't say that. I would take care of you."
"I know you would, baby, and you would do it extremely well, as you do everything else. But I wouldn't want you to. Particularly not now that you're so ill."
"I'm not that ill, and what sort of wife would I be if I didn't take care of my own husband?"
Constantine was silent for several moments, and she wondered if he was becoming angry with her. Finally, he reached up and touched her cheek. "You are an excellent wife already, Isabella. You don't need to prove that by sacrificing your health. And I will do all I can to avoid getting injured—you know that."
"It would… it would break my heart if you were to… to die," she whispered. "I don't know how I would go on."
"You would. You would have the children, for one thing. They need you more than they'll ever need me. You'll be raising a future King and…"
"I would never recover," she whispered. "Never."
"You would. You're far stronger than you think, Isabella." Gently, he pulled her back down into his arms, embracing her gently and kissing her temple. "You're as tough as a little hen, and twice as brave—I think you'd've thrown down the gauntlet and challenged me to a fistfight last evening, if it had come to it."
She snuggled into his chest, breathing in his scent and his strength. "I just wish… I only wish… "
"You wish what?" he asked, gently threading his fingers through her hair. "What do you wish?"
That you loved me, she thought. Swallowing, she closed her eyes. "I wish you weren't leaving. I hate it when you leave. I suppose I've gotten spoiled these past few years, with you being at home all the time."
"It's a wonder I haven't driven you mad, being underfoot and all."
"Never," she whispered. "You've never annoyed me at all."
"Not even last evening?" She could feel his smile, even though she couldn't see it.
"You only frightened me, and I suppose you upset me a bit. I just… I just can't bear having Michael so far away, when he's so young. It will break my heart when he has to go to Havor in three years' time, though I know it's tradition."
Her husband was quiet for several moments, then he exhaled slowly. "My mother didn't care at all when I left home, when I was thirteen. She was glad to be rid of me, really."
"Well, your mother is hardly… normal."
He laughed. "Very true."
"But it's shameful, how she treats you. And how she treats Philip, too, and our children." She shook her head—Marie was a subject they had agreed, without actually talking about it at all, to never really talk about. The Dowager Queen was a troublemaker, and she particularly enjoyed causing trouble for Constantine. Fortunately, he refused to let his mother visit their home, lately due to Isabella's illness. Before that, he had been far more blunt: she was simply a source of stress to his wife and children and he would not permit that kind of thing in his own home.
Isabella could not for the life of her understand how any woman could not love her children. Queen Marie was easily the coldest, most unfeeling person she had ever met. How she had produced two such outstanding sons was a mystery to her.
"You know I don't want to go to Havor, Isabella. I'd much rather stay here."
"Would you?" she asked softly.
"Why not? You certainly smell better than a bunch of sweaty knights. And sometimes I even get to… well, you know… "
"Schtupp me from dusk 'til dawn?" she asked, giggling a little.
"That's another definite perk of being married to you and of staying home. When I was young, I didn't mind leaving home, as there was nothing holding me here besides my duties as Heir Presumptive, but now the thought of it is… well, it's pretty damned hideous, actually."
"I suppose… I suppose it's nice to be needed, though. The Havorians had certainly better recognize how lucky they are to have you on their side."
He shrugged. "Believe me, Isabella, once you've seen one battle, you've seen them all. I have never regretted not taking part in a battle."
"I hope I never have to see even one," she said.
She was surprised when he hugged her gently, sliding his hands slowly down from her waist to her bottom and pulling her up until she was lying on top of him. His gentle kiss almost reduced her to tears, and she slipped her arms around his neck, kissing him back. "I'll never let anything harm you," he whispered against her mouth. "Never."
Isabella sighed as he rolled her over onto her back again, settling between her thighs. He looked into her eyes, and she could see his face, though it was still partially shadowed. Shyly, she touched his cheek and traced her fingers over the small scar that traced through his left eyebrow—the result of a jousting injury from his youth.
"Things are going to be different when I come home, Isabella," he said quietly. "Much different."
"How do you mean?"
"It's just… it's simply time for me to get past the past. You certainly deserve a hell of a lot better than me, Isabella. I'm a crashing failure as a husband, but I hope you can forgive me and… and when I get back home, we can maybe start over… "
"You are not a failure as a husband," she said softly, cupping his cheek and gasping in surprise when he turned his head and kissed her palm. "I have never thought so."
"How many times have I hurt you, Isabella?" he asked. "You know damn well I can't talk about things, but I want to. Maybe you can teach me."
"You are not a man of words. I understand that… "
"But I do… " He drew in his breath slowly. "I do love you, Isabella. I'm sorry I never said that to you… I have been cruel, these past ten years, refusing to love you. Living with me surely has been pure hell for you." He saw her tears then and winced. "I'm sorry, baby. I never meant…"
"Hush," she whispered, pulling him down for a kiss. "Hush. You have always shown your love and respect over the years. You have never failed me."
"I have. Don't spare my feelings. Not now. You have no idea how much I owe you, Isabella... you should get a prize for patience alone."
"I'm your wife, not your debtor, much less your confessor. We have done quite well together, over the years, and we have six wonderful children as proof of that. I will never demand you repay me anything, and again I say you have never failed me. Not once."
He shook his head. "It'd almost be a relief if you would shout at me sometimes."
"Shouting rarely accomplishes anything, unless the house is on fire," she said with a laugh. She looked up at him and saw his serious expression. "I cannot bring myself to shout at you. I can't even make myself become angry with you—that is not listed among my duties to you as your wife."
He rolled off her and onto his side, pulling her with him. Isabella snuggled close to him, loving his warmth and his maleness. The latter was part of the reason why he had such trouble saying what was in his heart, she supposed. The former was what had held their marriage together for the past decade. However much he might have trouble expressing himself in words, his actions spoke loud and clear.
"Her name was Eleanor Reeve."
Isabella drew in her breath, listening to the timbre of his voice, knowing the mere mention of that woman's name still hurt him intensely.
"I loved her. And she died." He was silent for several moments. "It does still hurt to talk about her. It will… never be easy."
"Did she love you?"
"Yes. She never lied about anything, so… if she said it, she meant it." He drew in a shaky breath. "Part of me… a lot of me… died with her."
"She was the great love of your life," she whispered.
"Yes. Isabella, that doesn't excuse my not loving you the way… the way I should. But I do love you. Very much."
"As I told you once before, sweetheart, there is nothing wrong with loving someone. And loving one person has no bearing on your loving another."
"How do you mean?" he asked.
"Well… she was the great passion of your life? The great love?"
"Yes," he said, and she heard the tremor in his voice.
"Loving her is no sin. There is no shame in loving her, even now, but she is dead. She's gone from this world. You are not of two minds or two hearts, for loving… loving anyone else. Even… " She swallowed, drawing her breath in slowly. "Perhaps even me. That would not make you disloyal to her at all. If she loved you, she would want you to be happy, wouldn't she?"
"I do love you," he said softly. "And she would want that, I'm sure. I wish I could say that time really does heal all wounds, but… you are my wife and she's dead and I can't bring her back, no matter how much I still love her… or will always love her. But it's you I married, and it's you that bore our children, and it's you I'm with now and for the rest of my life." He touched her chin, tipping her head up so that she could look into his eyes. "Things will be different when I come home, Isabella. Much different."
She smiled and touched his face, loving the feel of the rough stubble on his jaw against her fingertips. "I will pray for your safety, and that you come home quickly."
"Well, then, I think I will enjoy a safe trip, since God surely cannot help but give His assent to any petition of yours." He grinned and kissed her, and Isabella wrapped herself around him, thrilling at his touch and his gentle lovemaking. Never would she ever be able to get enough of him, and to her dying day she would love him.
Later, after he had finally drifted off to sleep, she stroked his hair, not minding his weight on her body, and sighed happily.
"Te quiero, mi amor," she whispered, closing her eyes. "Pase lo que pase."
"I'm certainly not going to emulate the wife of a Spartan soldier," Eleanor said, carefully hooking Henry's chain mail at the back of his neck. "If you come back on your shield, see you're only taking a nap on it."
"We anticipate no actual battles with the Lacovians, dearest," he said, turning around and kissing her nose. "Just a quick… skirmish, at most."
"Arrows still fly during skirmishes," Eleanor told him. She made him turn around so she could properly position his long black cloak and straighten his tunic. "Remember to keep your visor down when you're on the field, and to be polite to your hosts—don't let your gentleman play rings in the Great Hall, for one thing. The King of Havor is very proud of his collection of antlers."
Henry laughed. "It's been a while since I've seen the King of Havor. He's a jolly fellow. Dya know, I've heard that the King also sent a request for Prince Constantine of Morvenia to come up and help drive the Lacovians out. If that's the case, I know I won't be there long—that man will have the Lacovians running for their lives."
"I'm sure," Eleanor said softly, brushing Henry's shoulders and making little last-minute corrections to his mail—she knew the stuff was terribly itchy and uncomfortable. "He is formidable."
"Aye, he is. I hope to finally meet him. I was very disappointed he didn't come with King Philip on that state visit." He kissed Eleanor soundly, clanked over to his warhorse and swung up into the saddle, the weight of his armor not bothering him a bit. He was an arresting sight: a blond war god, decked out in silver armor, with black and gold tunic and cloak. No Lacovian could look at him and not know he should flee for his life. Not for the first time did Eleanor think that while Constantine had skill and brilliance to spare, it was Henry who had style, and that sort of thing was equally important during a battle. The Morvenian prince would lead, but Henry would inspire.
The King waved cheerfully to his wife and galloped out of the courtyard, followed by a hundred of his most reliable knights. Eleanor drew in her breath and said a quiet prayer for her husband's safety, and for Constantine's. She suspected that between herself and Isabella, their prayers could provide safety for their husbands in their dealings with Lacovia.
6 June 1388
Philip trotted through the gates of Fairwood and was delighted to see his niece and eldest nephew in the courtyard, practicing fighting with blunt wooden swords. That Elizabeth was even allowed to do such a thing was a testament to Constantine's notion of girls knowing how to defend themselves when required; that Michael had remained at home was proof of Isabella's courage in standing up to her husband. In all matters, his nieces and nephews were flourishing, and he was pleased with them all.
He dismounted and tousled Michael's hair before kissing his niece on the cheek. "And how are you two doing? Is all well?"
"Mama is very sad, now Papa's gone up to Havor," Michael said, looking a little gloomy himself. "I wanted to go, too."
"Aye, but you didn't, and that's for the best, too. You're too young for such things."
The King started toward the door and was stopped by the housekeeper, who was wringing her hands anxiously. "Your Majesty," she said, curtsying. "Might I speak with you?" she asked, glancing nervously at the children, who had resumed their sparring.
"What is it, Mrs. Bright?"
"It's the princess, ma'am… Princess Isabella, I mean. She's… poorly, sir."
"Very much so." She finally swallowed and whispered. "She's been spitting up blood since this morning, and she cannot speak. She managed to tell me to keep the children away, but I am not to say why… "
Philip was rushing past her before she had even finished speaking, and was running up the stairs, taking three steps at a time. Before he went into the bedroom, he leaned over the railing. "Mrs. Bright, send the boys away to the palace, but keep Elizabeth here-she is very capable. Call the palace doctor… no, wait… that man's a fool. Call Doctor Stamford from Garon. Tell him he must come here immediately. Do you understand me?"
9 June 1388
Constantine dismounted, growling about the bitterly cold weather. Havor, to him, was twice as cold as the North Sea in the winter and a preview of hell during the summer, but the country was often plagued with bitter cold snaps during the summer. To offset these conditions, however, Havor was populated with cheerful, outgoing people, and their warmth and friendliness, from peasants to the King and royal family, had made his training, during his teen years, relatively pleasant. How they managed to dig themselves out of vast snowdrifts or not die of heatstroke while being so congenial remained a mystery to him, but he appreciated their efforts just the same.
Still, he was cold, hungry and exhausted from a long ride from Garon, accompanied by a force of one hundred of Morvenia's best soldiers and knights. They were all a little grouchy, what with having had to ride almost nonstop to get to the Havor/Lacovia border in just three days, and the weather they had encountered since crossing into Havor had not improved anyone's mood. Only a strong sense of duty, firm discipline and sheer strength of will had kept any of the men from going mad and having at each other with their battle axes.
He was trying to fight his way out of his helmet when he saw the Gravonian force galumphing up the hill, their horses straining at their bits and the riders looking no less cold but considerably less worn down.
Constantine recognized Lord Hallam, and nodded to the man as he dismounted. "Your Royal Highness. It's a pleasure to see you again, sir, though I wish the circumstances were a bit more… "
"Yes," Hallam grinned. He turned and watched as King Henry came bounding up on his gigantic black Friesian. The king dismounted and stomped to them, looking ruddy and eager for action.
"Your Royal Highness… bloody hell, it's cold!"
"I tried to bring the warmer weather up from Garon, but it could not endure going through the Livonian passes, and it finally got stopped cold at Fordham Pass."
Henry laughed. "Aye, I tried too, but the warm weather didn't last once we passed into Livonia. Odd that a country so cold could produce my warm little wife, eh? Ah well. I come bringing supplies for the required forces. Where have the Lacovians set themselves?"
The Havorian and Livonian soldiers soon joined them, and a map showing the supposed Lacovian position was unrolled and spread over a tree stump. Constantine made note of advantageous ground just to the east of where they believed the Lacovian camp was situated, and recommended a nighttime attack. Scouts were sent out to observe the Lacovians making raids on a few farms along the western border of Havor, where they mainly only stole cattle and horses and burned a few buildings. As night fell, the enemy soldiers gathered in a small forest to wait for supplies to be brought in while the stolen livestock was driven toward Lacovia. A scouting party of Gravonian knights soon located the Lacovian encampment and the three kings and Prince Constantine mustered their men, prepared for battle, and moved into position.
Constantine's philosophy of 'cut off, isolate and destroy' was implemented as soon as night fell. One small force was sent to capture the stolen livestock, while another larger force attacked the Lacovian encampment and created a good deal of havoc in the offing. What followed was a quick rout, as the Lacovians were no match for the forces of three nations. They were soon fleeing in disarray, some on foot, others riding two to a horse. They had apparently been totally unprepared to even be discovered in their camp, much less driven out, and their reinforcements had also been ruthlessly cut off at the border by a combined force of Livonian and Havorian soldiers. The Lacovians suffered a number of losses, not just in men but also in horses and weapons, and the survivors did not stop running until they were well past the border into their own country.
That it had been a company of Gravonian scouts who discovered the Lacovian camp was a major coup to Henry, who rewarded the six men with a sack of gold coins apiece and hearty slaps on their backs that nearly sent them sprawling.
As soon as the party returned with the reclaimed livestock, Henry ordered quick decampment of his soldiers, wanting to return home as soon as possible. Just the same, he asked if Constantine and King Peter of Livonia would like to join him and the Havorian party for a celebration outside the village that had been attacked, and he also requested that the villagers be encouraged to take part in the revelries. King Peter and Constantine were both unenthusiastic about taking part in a party of any kind, as neither man was terribly social, but they politely accepted the invitation.
With a huge bonfire burning and soldiers drinking ale and joining in games with the villagers, Constantine couldn't complain too much about the cold any more. He stayed away from the ale, drinking wassail instead, and listened to Henry and the King of Havor swap exaggerated tales of battlefield exploits. King Peter was as quiet as ever, and Constantine tried to think of any one thing the man had ever said that was even vaguely interesting—it seemed odd, to him, that his daughter was reputed to possess such a brilliant mind. By all accounts, however, King Peter was a good ruler and a decent man, with genuine concern for his people. In fact, Constantine had heard people mention that he was much different from his father.
He narrowed his eyes, remembering that Peter's father had rejected Eleanor Reeves' own mother, and quite cruelly at that. He did not believe that the sins of the father—or the brother—were necessarily the sins of the son, but he wondered if Peter had ever heard anything about his half-sister… whoever she was. Constantine only vaguely recalled that her name had been Margaret, but her surname was long lost to him. All he knew was that Margaret had borne the woman he loved, so long ago, and now she was dead. They were both dead, actually—did Peter ever think about that? Had King Michael ever regretted his behavior toward his daughter and granddaughter?
King Peter was leaning back against a bale of hay, trying to stay awake for appearances sake, and he yawned discreetly into his hand. He was startled when Prince Constantine suddenly sat down next to him.
"A fine bit of sport we had, eh?" Constantine said, in a vaguely friendly tone.
"Yes. I'm glad it was over so quickly—I was not looking forward to a protracted war."
"Yes." Constantine watched two of his own men get into a friendly shoving match that was soon ended when one landed on his ass in the mud. The prince leaned back a little, wishing he could find some place for a good nights' rest before what was to be a long, weary ride home. It would take at least four days, he supposed, what with the men being in a general state of friendly inebriation. Trying to get them to move quickly, tomorrow, would be a pointless task. He decided then to just leave without them and hope they could make their way home on their own.
"Neither was I. It'll take longer, I think, to sober my men up than it did to send the Lacovians packing."
Peter snickered. "Aye, yes. But they deserve a bit of folly sometimes. You have excellent soldiers, and the finest knights in Christendom. Everyone commends your army, sir."
"I take it things are going well in Livonia? Your… uh… sons are growing up well, I understand."
"Yes. We've got four strapping boys now. Good lads, too, and full of vinegar. At first it was just the one boy for a long time, and then suddenly my wife became pregnant again—kind of an accident, I suppose, and not long after our daughter went to Gravonia. I suppose the poor woman wanted another baby to take care of, now her only girl was gone."
"I suppose you must miss Eleanor."
"I'm ashamed to say I never got to know her well. My father's policy was to insist our children grow up in separate households, to avoid illness and the like. As soon as Father died, however, I moved the children all back home and things are much better now. My daughter writes very nice letters to my wife, of course, but… I regret not getting to know her well. It pained me immensely to see her packed off, particularly during such a horrible winter… " Peter shook his head. "My father had some strange ideas about how to raise children. I'm happy to say that our children are prospering at home, and that Eleanor is doing so well in Gravonia."
"You know that my daughter Elizabeth is set to marry your grandson Alexander, right?"
"I had heard of it," Peter nodded. "It's a good match, I daresay." The King of Livonia sighed. "It'll be a little depressing, I suppose, to find myself a great-grandfather in a few years, but that is the way of the world, isn't it?"
Constantine studied Peter, a little surprised to find that the King of Livonia was actually a fairly good-hearted fellow. He could not make himself bring up the subject of his father's dalliance with a peasant woman from Teslo, much less her daughter's murder. Constantine did not enjoy causing pain or discomfort for anyone, after all, and for all knew, Peter didn't even know Eleanor Reeve had even existed. "It is. I can't say as I look forward to becoming a grandfather, either," he said quietly. "It's bad enough to have to say goodbye to my own daughter, in just a few years' time. She's thirteen now."
"Yes. But I know my daughter will take good care of your girl. King Henry talks about her as though she's an angel from heaven, and that she can do no wrong. He says she's positively brilliant. Apparently her minders saw to it she received an excellent education. Far better than the one I got, that's for sure, and she speaks a dozen languages and even knows how to hunt grouse, of all things. I don't remember anyone telling me she could do that, but… I'm ashamed to say that in my younger days I didn't pay as much attention to my two older children as I should. I only pray that my son and Eleanor can forgive my negligence." Peter smiled ruefully. "I'm horribly tired, sir. I believe I will turn in for the night and see if I can sleep through all this noise. Good night to you, Your Highness."
"Yes. Good night." Constantine stood and bowed politely to the King, who shook his head, laughing, and extended his hand.
"I'm very glad to hear you've got a little herd of children of your own, sir. Four boys and two girls… ?"
Peter grinned, nodding, and squeezed Constantine's shoulder. "That's what makes life truly wonderful—having children, and being wise enough to enjoy them. I'm just glad I finally learned that myself. God bless you, sir, and your family."
King Peter ambled away, toward his tent in the Livonian encampment, and Constantine jumped slightly when King Henry thumped him on the shoulder, grinning in his usual cheerful way.
"It's a great honor to finally meet you, sir," Henry said. "I've heard about you most of my life."
"Oh… well, yes. Though I believe we're not much separated in years."
"Yes, but in skill on the battlefield we are much apart, I say without much fear of contradiction." Henry grinned. "Though I don't think you could defeat my little wife. She thrashed those damned Lacovians at the Field of Stones, you know."
"I pray I never have to face her on the field then," Constantine said, bowing slightly.
"They still call you the Dragon, you know. Even though you haven't had part in a battle in quite a while. Staying home more these days, are you?"
"I prefer it."
"Aye, I do too!" Henry laughed. "As if it's hard to choose between a warm, sweet wife and a bunch of smelly soldiers. Fortunately my Eleanor still puts me through my paces, though I daresay I speak too much. I will not tell tales of my wife: that would be beyond rude. She would be appalled to know I even spoke as much as I did."
Constantine had to smile at that. He had heard of Henry's wilder bachelor days, when he had been keen to tumble any wench he came across. Nowadays, he was as homely and domesticated as a sheep, and quite happy to spend time at home and hearth. Frankly, so was he. He was eager to get home and challenge Isabella to another game of chess. She would beat him again, he was sure.
"I'm sure she would forgive you, sir. It was a pleasure to meet you, too, but I'm eager to get home… "
"Aye, me too. Go on to bed, if you can find one away from all the noise. I'll be heading home at first light, too, I think. I'll let my men trail home at their own pace. Good night to you, sir, and God bless you."
Constantine only nodded slightly and wandered through the Morvenian camp, seeking an empty cot. He finally found one, shooed a dog out of the tent and settled down, stretching out and yawning, wondering if the Lacovians were truly starting to regain their confidence or if the raid into Havor had just been a one-off, for the time being. He was too tired to keep thinking about it—within minutes, he was sound asleep, the light from the bonfire enough to keep his fear of the darkness at bay.
10 June 1388
Philip was becoming frantic.
Isabella wasn't breathing now so much as she was simply gasping for each breath, and barely seemed to be getting enough air. The doctor didn't look terribly hopeful, which only added to the King's stress. By nightfall, he called for a messenger to ride quickly up to Havor and find Constantine and get him home as soon as possible. Meanwhile, he could only sit at his much-loved sister-in-law's side, holding her hand and trying to keep her as calm and quiet as possible. The doctor was now forbidding her to even attempt to speak, and so she was trying to write on a piece of slate.
Where is Constantine?
"He's still in Havor, Isabella. I have sent for him. He will be here soon, I know it."
Wheezing—the sound of crackling in her chest making Philip wince—Isabella picked up her piece of chalk again. Do not tell the children. Not until Constantine comes home. Send the children to Garon.
"I have already sent them away," he said softly. She had asked him to send them away last night. Her fever was making her delirious—her eyes were watering, and her face was flushed.
He told me he loves me, she wrote, smiling a little. Do you think he really does?
"Of course he does, you daft woman. How could he not?" Philip said, smiling through his growing distress. "Please, don't write any more. Try to be still and quiet for now, all right?"
I love him so much. Will he forgive me for leaving him?
"You aren't going anywhere," Philip firmly. "I'll issue a proclamation, if need be. 'Princess Isabella is not permitted to di— to go anywhere, per the King's command'."
I am dying, she wrote, her grip on the chalk so weak he could barely read the words she had written. He took the slate and chalk away.
"Do not say that again. Constantine will be home soon, I know it." He touched her cheek and winced at how hot her skin felt. "You simply have to fight a little harder, Isabella. I know you're a fighter."
She only smiled, setting her head back on the pillow. Philip was just starting to get up to go speak with the doctor when Isabella suddenly began coughing again—hard, painful coughs that sent spots of blood showering onto the blanket. The King rushed out of the room and grabbed the doctor, dragging him into the room. "Do something, dammit!"
The doctor, a surprisingly young man, sat down on the bed beside Isabella and held a linen cloth to her mouth, holding her upright. "She must sit up. It will help stave off the coughing fits," he told Philip. "Do you know if her husband is on his way yet?"
"The messenger left last night, and I told him to ride hard to Havor, and change horses whenever needed," the King said, moving around to the other side of the bed.
"The princes have already been sent away?"
The doctor continued to hold Isabella, who was gasping for breath as she coughed. Blood was on the doctor's shoulder now, and Philip knew—was certain of it—that his sister-in-law was not going to last much longer. He drew in his breath, then turned and called for Mrs. Bright. He quickly scrawled out a message. "Have this sent to the palace immediately. The princes are to come back home… within the hour, but Charlotte is to remain there. Send Elizabeth up here. Go!"
The housekeeper rushed away, and Philip went back into the room. Isabella had finally stopped coughing, and the doctor was carefully propping her up with pillows. A maid cleared away the blood-splattered blanket while the doctor wiped the princess' mouth.
"Any other doctor would be bleeding her now, or spreading pigeon droppings all over her feet," Philip said, remembering his own father's painful, drawn-out death, which had been made far worse by the 'care' he had received from the Court physician.
"How in bloody hell would that help?" the doctor asked. "And she's already being bled, for God's sake. I will do neither such thing."
"I'm glad to hear that. I'd stop you if you tried it."
The King watched his sister-in-law lie there, gasping for breath, wheezing, her eyes red-rimmed with fever, and wished that he had some kind of power over this disease. Instead, he was helpless and it was driving him mad. He had spent his entire life in charge, with people around him obeying his every command, but he had no power over Death. Not at this or any other time.
The doctor gently wiped her face with a damp cloth. "All we can do is make her as comfortable as possible," he told the King. "There is nothing that I can do now. She grows weaker by the moment."
Philip turned away, unwilling to let Isabella see his tears. He sat down in the chair by the fireplace and begged God to give the poor woman peace. He watched as his niece entered the room, a surprisingly tall, slender, lovely girl, and was not surprised to see her take her place at her mother's side, taking her hand and joining in the watch.
14 June 1388
Constantine stopped his horse and looked up at the vast, brooding pile of Ravensburg Castle. The chips of mica and crystal in the thick walls of the citadel made it sparkle and shimmer in the mid-summer sun, so that its vastness was made less forbidding. He drew in his breath, fighting off the temptation to go up there and visit Eleanor's grave, but what good would it do? He had done a fair job, he thought, of forcing her out of his mind, for the sake of his marriage and his wife's well-being. If he could never fully excise her from his heart, he could at least love his wife. Laying flowers on Eleanor Reeves' grave would not help a bit in his endeavor to get over her as much as possible.
He had to forget her. He had to, for Isabella's sake and for the sake of his own sanity.
Finally, he kicked the horse into a gallop and continued on, passing the gates of Turon and stopping only to let his horse cool off and drink from the river. He was about to climb back aboard when he saw a familiar figure riding by on an elderly white horse. He led the horse over to where the man was sitting, looking across fields of barley, and cleared his throat politely. The man looked down at him, eyes widening in surprise.
"Your Royal Highness."
"Count von Hesse," Constantine said, bowing his head slightly.
"I am… it is very good to see you again, sir."
"Likewise," Constantine said, glancing at the river and watching a kingfisher dive into the water and come back up with a fish in its mouth.
"I understand you… you and your wife have six little ones now. You must feel very blessed."
The prince nodded, still watching the bird. It was smacking the fish's head against the tree branch on which it sat, knocking it out before swallowing it whole. The bird's blue, gold and white coloring was beautiful, and he could understand why it was referred to as a king among fishermen. The bird preened for a moment, repositioned itself on the branch so that the sun was behind it, and after a moment dove back into the water and returned to his perch with yet another fish.
Constantine turned his gaze back to the Count, catching the somber expression on the older man's face. "I've heard you married that woman… Christiane Chastain de Melleraie and you've got two little daughters of your own now."
The prince mulled this over for a moment. Polite small talk was not his forte, and he was eager to continue on his journey home. "And you're ambassador to Gravonia now, my brother told me."
"Yes." von Hesse's horse shied when a frog jumped into the water, making a small splash. "I'm only home now for a few days. Seeing to my interests around here…" He trailed off, looking up at the castle. "I'm sorry, Your Highness. I know it must pain you to see me at all."
"The pain is less… awful these days." He looked up at the sky for a moment. "And we have both been blessed with excellent wives."
Count von Hesse smiled. "God has eased our pains indeed, and blessed us greatly in His own good time."
Constantine nodded, watching the kingfisher. The bird finally fluffed its feathers and flew away. He looked up at von Hesse, who was watching the bird too. "I'm on my way home now. My wife is ailing."
"Oh, no… I do hope she is soon well again. I met her during her visit to Gravonia a few years ago. She is such a lovely, sweet woman, and she will be in my prayers." He swallowed. "Your wife and the Queen of Gravonia have become very good friends, as I understand."
"Yes." Constantine looked across the river, watching a group of women walking down to the banks with baskets of clothes to wash. "I'm sure she will recover. She's tougher than she looks." Constantine swung back astride his horse. "Good day to you, sir." He bowed his head slightly, turned his mount southward, and galloped away.
von Hesse watched as he rode away, sitting on his old gray horse until he could no longer see him as he went over the ridge and into the thick woods that would lead him through the pass over the border to Morvenia. Sighing wearily, he rode on into Turon, praying again for God's forgiveness.
15 June 1388
Elizabeth was sitting by her mother's bed, holding her hand and talking softly to her, telling her anything she could think of: the weather, Court gossip, the colors of a new shipment of silk cloth from Gravonia—any subject would do, to hopefully distract her mother from her pain.
The princes were seated on the other side of the bed, sometimes saying their names aloud to their mother, to let her know they were there. King Philip stood by the fire, saying nothing, grasping the mantle and trying to maintain his calm. There was still no sign of his brother, and Isabella was fading away, a little at a time, until the doctor recommended the priest be called for Last Rites. There was nothing anyone could do, save to see that Isabella was kept quiet and comfortable. The mention of calling the priest, however, was more than Philip could bear and tears blurred his vision as he stared at a charcoal drawing Isabella had done, last year, of Princess Charlotte.
Isabella was indeed very quiet, and Elizabeth gasped, putting her hand to her mother's chest, fearing her mother was dead already, but she saw her chest rising and falling, very slightly, and sometimes she would take a soft sound and would squeeze her hand. Her eyes did not open, though, and she made no response to the sounds of her sons speaking to her. Her heart was still beating—Elizabeth could feel its slow, weak pulse.
"Why is she dying?" Leopold asked, unable to hold his tears and his confusion back any longer. "Why does God take her away? What has she ever done to anyone?"
"Hush," Elizabeth said softly. "Do not lay this at God's feet—that is a sin." She pulled her shawl more tightly around herself, shivering despite the warmth of the room. "Uncle King, perhaps we ought to put out the fire and open the windows—the heat makes her uncomfortable."
The King nodded and began covering the fire, tamping it out slowly while Michael raised the windows and let in cooler air. The room became darker, too, as the embers in the fireplace slowly died away. The princes each took their mother's hand and kissed it, whispering their love to her. Isabella did not respond, and as the boys fell silent and Philip finally sat down in the chair beside the fire, the only sound in the room was Isabella's soft wheezing and Parr bursting into tears, unable to bear it any longer.
The priest finally arrived, looking distressed, and the children stood aside, watching as he prayed softly over the dying princess. Philip spoke quietly to the boys. "Go say goodbye to your mother," he said.
"She can't die," Michael whispered. "She can't."
The King said nothing. He only gestured to his nephews to go through the ritual of letting their mother go. Michael clasped his mother's hand in his. "Mama… please… please don't go… "
Isabella stirred slightly and her eyes opened for a moment, but her gaze was unfocused and she closed them again. She tried to draw her breath, but could not. The ten-year old boy, until then maintaining his calm, broke down into tears, and Philip gently took him by the shoulders and pulled him away. Nicholas was next, and he was beyond speech, finally leaning in and kissing his mother on the cheek before standing up and racing out of the room. Leopold and Parr took their turns next, kissing her hand and returning to their seats, staring in stunned silence at their dying mother. Nicholas returned, his face wet with tears, and sat down next to Michael, the two boys leaning against each other as they wept without shame.
Elizabeth was dry-eyed, calmly tending to her mother as her brothers broke down. She adjusted the pillows under Isabella's head, propping her up a little so her breathing could be a little easier. When Isabella's wheezing breath changed to a low, soft rattle, Elizabeth looked up at her uncle.
"That is the death rattle," she whispered. She gently patted her mother's face with a damp cloth. "It's all right now, Mama. You can go. We'll be all right."
"Constantine," Isabella whispered. It was the first thing she had said clearly in the past four days. Elizabeth closed her eyes and Philip sat down on the bed beside his sister-in-law, taking her hand in his.
"He's on his way home. Please hang on, sweetheart. Please try."
"She can't hold on any more, Uncle King," Elizabeth said softly. "She has fought the good fight and has finished her race." She touched her mother's neck, feeling for her fading pulse. The King stood up, suddenly needing to vomit, and he rushed to the empty pot beside the fire and wretched up what little he had managed to eat in the past few days. He stood, leaning against the mantle, unable to watch her die. He simply could not bear it.
Philip looked at his niece, who was still dry-eyed and holding Isabella's lifeless hand. He closed his eyes for a moment, turning back to look into the cold fireplace. The princes were silent, too, wiping their eyes and regaining their calm.
"Go downstairs and eat something, lads," Philip said gently. "Go on. Wash your faces and go say your prayers in the chapel, then go to bed."
The boys stood up slowly and filed quietly from the room, their faces wet with tears. Only Elizabeth remained now, still holding her mother's hand. It amazed Philip—he and his nephews were supposed to be the strong ones, yet it was a thirteen-year old girl who was showing grit to put a battle-hardened knight to shame.
"I remember the story in the Bible," Philip told Elizabeth. "How David prayed and pleaded with God to spare his baby son's life, but when the boy died, he washed his face and ate and went to the Temple to worship. Everybody thought he was mad, but he explained that while the babe lived, he might be able to persuade God… " He drew a shaky breath. "She will not return to us, but we will go to her."
Elizabeth stood, and Philip observed that his niece bore a striking resemblance to her mother, but was also truly her father's daughter: she had Isabella's natural sweetness, but the child had a core of steel to her that had held her up in the past six agonizing days. Right now, however, she looked exhausted, and seemed twice her age. The young girl gestured to one of the servants standing nearby, tears flowing down her cheeks. "See that all the clocks are stopped and that the mirrors are covered."
The servant left, after stopping the little clock over the mantelpiece and covering the mirror at Isabella's vanity. Elizabeth pulled the sheet up and covered her mother's face, but not before gently stroking her cheek and leaning down to kiss her forehead. "Goodbye, Mama. I will take care of Papa and the boys for you. I promise."
Philip gathered his niece into his arms, hugging her and feeling her tears on his shirt. "It's all right, Lili. She's at peace now."
"But we are not," Elizabeth said, stepping back and wiping her eyes. "Papa will not be for some time. When he comes home… how can we tell him?"
"Honestly," Philip said softly. "I have never been dishonest with my brother. Not even once."
Elizabeth nodded and went back to her seat beside her mother's bed. She pulled the blue shawl up around her shoulders and sat still, saying nothing as she acquainted herself with Death. Philip sat down at the other side of the bed, staring at his shrouded sister-in-law's body and knowing that his brother would not be at peace again for some time. Perhaps never again.
Rain started falling as Constantine galloped up the path to Fairwood, and he reined the horse to a stop at the gates, wondering why none of the torches were lit, now it was getting dark. As he rode through the gates, he observed a few guards standing sentinel at the gates of the house, and wondered why neither of them so much as hailed him or called out an inappropriately cheerful greeting. Puzzled, he dismounted and called for the stable boy to come collect his horse. The young man came over and took the horse without a word, leading it away, and Constantine stood in the courtyard, wondering what the hell was going on.
He was starting up the steps when Philip came out of the house and stood staring at him, frozen in one spot.
"What's going on, brother?" he asked.
Philip drew in his breath. "Constantine… I… " He swallowed. "Constantine, I… I do not know how to tell you… "
"Tell me what? Don't tell me the cook is drinking again. I'll sack him for sure this time… "
"It's not… Constantine… Isabella has… " He drew his breath in slowly, then exhaled. "She died this morning."
The sky seemed to split open then and rain began falling in heavy sheets, causing everyone in the courtyard but the King and his brother to run for cover. Lightning flashed from cloud to cloud, and thunder made the buildings rattle, making the horses in the stables jump and squeal. Constantine did not move, however—he didn't react to the rain or the raging storm. He just stared at his brother in silence, rain lashing him and being utterly ignored.
"What did you say?" he asked in a quiet, clipped voice.
"She's dead, Constantine. She died this morning."
Constantine shook his head. "You lie. You lie to me. She is not dead. She cannot be dead."
"I'm sorry, brother. I cannot say how sorry I am… "
Philip was prepared for his brother to hit him. He barely felt the blow, though it probably would have killed any other man. He took the strike for what it was—a desperate man lashing out in rage and grief—and did not hold it against him. He landed on the rain-soaked cobblestones and watched his brother stalk past him and into the house. Philip slowly got back to his feet, rubbing his jaw, and followed the younger man into the hallway. Constantine stood for several moments, staring at the clock in the hallway, which had been stopped at half-past two. She had been dead for almost four hours.
Constantine went upstairs, tracking mud on the steps, and passed the weeping servants standing in a small clutch outside the bedroom door. He went into the room and saw his elder daughter sitting on the other side of the bed. Elizabeth stood when she saw him, mouthing 'Papa' but making no sound. Constantine dropped into the chair beside the bed and pulled the sheet back away from Isabella's face. "Isabella?"
She was so pale she almost blended in with the sheets, and her lips were blue. Her hands were folded neatly over her stomach, and her red-gold hair had been painstakingly brushed and braided in preparation for her journey to Garon to lie in state at St. Giles' Cathedral. A little nosegay of flowers was pressed against her chest, and the pink and white petals fell across the bed when Constantine lifted the sheet away.
"My God… " he whispered. He sat back in the chair, staring at her, and no one else in the room moved. The storm kept raging outside, the rain pouring down in sheets and showing no sign of letting up any time soon. Elizabeth finally rose and closed the windows as the wind changed direction and blew rain into the room, wetting the curtains.
Constantine gripped the arms of the chair, not moving, and after a while Elizabeth slowly stood and left the room, followed by the servants. Philip looked at his niece as she stood in the hallway, and she drew in a trembling breath.
"Leave them alone," she said softly. "Let him say his goodbyes."
The rain stopped just before dawn, and as light returned and the servants began stirring, Elizabeth sat in the hall before the fire, wrapped up in the blue shawl her mother had made her as a child. She drew her feet up and wrapped her arms around her knees, thinking of all that needed to be done. First, her mother to be prepared for internment: she would want to be buried in her wedding dress, of course, with the silver and mother-of-pearl tiara Papa had given her as a wedding present. Then the service had to be arranged: Isabella had written out what she wanted to be done and said at her funeral, when she had realized she was dying, and she had given the papers to Elizabeth for safekeeping (where Papa would not find them). During the night, she had given the papers to Uncle King, who promised to see that every direction would be followed, to the letter.
The boys had to be sent out of the house, to get fresh air and perhaps play a little. Their youth gave them a helpful cushion against what they had lost, and only later, while they were on their way to the palace, would Uncle King give them a homily on how they ought to behave at the funeral.
Papa was still upstairs in the room with Mama, and Elizabeth had no notion of what would happen with him. Not a single sound had come from the room all night, and even now he had not emerged. Not even to ask for food or something to drink or dry clothes. Finally, she stood, putting on her slippers, and called for Teale to have some soup and bread prepared for her father. The butler, his eyes red-rimmed, nodded and crept silently away.
Everyone was being so quiet. Elizabeth was not accustomed to such silence—her brothers were naturally noisy and always running from one room to the other, getting into everything, squabbling, shouting, making messes and being gently corrected by Mama, who never raised her voice. Papa shouted sometimes when they became especially aggravating, but usually even his remonstrations were spoken in even tones. Elizabeth wasn't sure how she could endure, not hearing her mother's soft voice again.
When Teale returned with a tray laden with soup, bread and beer, Elizabeth led him upstairs and quietly entered the room her parents had shared for more than a decade. Teale set the tray down, and Elizabeth looked back to see Uncle King standing outside the door, still in his wet clothes, looking exhausted.
"Papa?" Elizabeth said softly, kneeling down beside him. He was leaning on his forearms on the bed, hands folded, head down, and he looked as though he had not slept one wink during the night. He looked haggard and drawn, and his eyes seemed to have sunken into his skull. "Papa, might you eat a little?"
Constantine shook his head, wiping his eyes. "She… she will never eat again," he said in a broken voice. Then he did something that astounded and shattered everyone watching: he stretched himself over Isabella's body and screamed, his wail reverberating through the house and out into the fields.
"He's asleep," Philip said, closing the door behind him.
Elizabeth looked up at her uncle, nodding slightly, and shoved her empty soup bowl away. A servant came and collected it before leaving them alone in the cozy little dining room, where so many quiet meals had been eaten.
"His heart is broken," she said softly.
"It will go on beating, Lili. For now, he needs… "
"What else?" she asked, looking up at him.
"To let go. That will be harder." He sat down opposite her and took her hands in his. "You're the lady of the house now, sweetheart. You need a bit of rest yourself. Have you slept at all, these past few days?"
"There was too much to do."
"Well, I won't have you kill yourself with care. Go on up to bed and rest. I will take the boys back to Garon with me this afternoon. They're all still asleep, bless them. They look exhausted, even at rest. They're all piled up in Michael's bed like a pack of hunting dogs."
Elizabeth could not helping smiling at that image. Whatever they were to the world, her brothers were devoted to each other. "What about Papa?"
"He will likely sleep a while. I put some… stuff in his beer."
"It was necessary, and it's only for today. He needs to sleep. The blow… it is too hard. Far too hard, for now. He does not have that merciful cushion of youth that you and your brothers have, little one. He has lost… so much in his life. Perhaps one day he will tell you all, but for now, he needs to sleep. I will have your mother's… body… collected this evening and prepared. The lying in state will be the day after tomorrow, I think, at St Giles, as she directed. You have her dress and her things ready?"
"Yes, of course."
"There's a good, sensible lass—you have done better for your mother than twenty sons." He kissed her knuckles. "Now. Go on up to bed and do as you're told." He smiled at her as she stood. As soon as she was gone from the room, the King of Morvenia put his head down and finally yielded to his tears. Constantine had lost a beloved wife, the children had lost an adored mother, and he had lost a dear, dear friend.
Philip could not envision how they would ever recover.