He Giveth and He Taketh Away
King Philip ordered that all citizens of Garon be silent as the funeral cortege passed through the streets to St. Giles, and the only sound was of the cathedral bell tolling and the horses' hooves clopping on the cobblestones. It seemed as though every citizen of Morvenia lined the street, watching as the princess passed by for the last time. Many dropped to their knees, praying, as the coach slowly rolled past, and Philip saw many folks were weeping.
The princes rode together in the state coach, while Elizabeth rode alone. Philip rode with Constantine, keeping an eye on his brother, fearing he might fall to pieces. But the younger man was silent, his face devoid of expression, and that was unnerving enough as it was. When they reached the cathedral, Philip climbed out and waited for Constantine. His brother stepped down and walked up the steps alone, oblivious to the crowds gathered on the steps, many people whispering prayers and sympathy to him. Philip went to Elizabeth's coach and helped her down, and heard several people in the crowds whisper about her beauty and how she resembled her mother. The princes stepped out of their coach unassisted and followed their sister and uncle into the cathedral. Little Charlotte was at the palace, having been deemed too young to endure a funeral service.
The service was relatively short—Isabella had been very clear that she did not want her family to endure an excruciating litany of chants and prayers, and as he thought of it, Philip could not imagine why anyone would need to pray for Isabella's soul. Frankly, he didn't believe in praying for someone who was already dead, as the destination of his or her soul was sealed and determined by God, not some mortal priest.
Of course, Philip never expressed that opinion out loud, though he knew Constantine shared it.
Sitting down next to his brother, Philip watched as the casket was settled on the catafalque and the four knights assigned to carry her in and guard that casket took up their places at each corner. All four were dressed in the red and white of Morvenia, and wore black armbands. Philip did not miss that all four men were in tears.
Everyone that had ever met Isabella had loved her.
Constantine had bathed and shaved that morning, and had stayed locked away in his bedroom until time to leave for the funeral. He was one of the few knights Philip had ever known that did not have shoulder-length hair or a beard, and frankly he suspected that the reason he had remained so clean-cut was because Isabella didn't like long hair on a man, much less a scraggly beard.
The princes and Elizabeth were all silent, sitting together at the end of the pew, with Parr practically clinging to his sister for comfort. At seven, he was a quiet, serious little boy and in the past two days he had ceased being at all playful, sitting in silence with his brothers while their world crashed down around them. Philip decided he would tell Constantine to send the boys to the hunting lodge in the north, where they could rest and hopefully resume some semblance of normalcy while mourning their loss. The last thing those spirited little hellions needed was to be covered in constant gloom. Not even death and sorrow should curtail their natural tendency for play and roughhousing, in his opinion. A return to normal routines was best for children so young, he believed.
Elizabeth, looking almost translucent in black, was the picture of regal dignity. In the past few days, her strength had shown itself in spades, and while Philip saw so much of Constantine in the girl, he was far more appreciative of how she had so calmly taken on her mother's role of mistress of the household at Fairwood. At just thirteen, she had quietly taken charge of the day-to-day running of the house, from giving orders to the servants to even seeing that the accounts were balanced and that the staff was paid on time. She had even taken her mother's keys to the house and now wore them on her belt, like a badge of honor.
She was going to make an excellent Queen of Gravonia, he thought. But he also worried that she was being pushed too hard, too soon.
The service had ended, and the royal family filed slowly from the cathedral and back into the coaches. Looking back, Philip could see the citizens of Morvenia lining up on the steps to pay their respects to the dead princess. He sighed and looked across at his brother, who was staring out the window.
Constantine had lost weight in the past few days—dear God, he looked positively gaunt, and he had clearly not been sleeping. In the past, Constantine had only been showing his age by way of more gray hair and a very small amount of thickening, but now he was as spare as a greyhound, and there was a hollowness to him that made even looking at him painful. Even more, he was pale and worn-looking. Perhaps a stay at the hunting lodge was in order for Constantine, too, but the more Philip thought about it, the more he realized that his brother might not be able to handle tending to six children while in such deep mourning.
And he was in very deep mourning. He had not seen his brother actually weep yet, but his stoic stance could only last so long—he was bound to crack sooner or letter. His nerves were fraying around the edges, and the tipping point was coming. That heart-breaking scream of three days ago was only the beginning on his brother's grief, and Philip knew the numbness Constantine was experiencing now would soon fade and the pain would be as raw and excruciating as any battle wound.
Constantine looked across at him, eyes bleak. "You have written to Catalina?"
"Yes. She has likely received the letter yesterday or today. I also wrote to Queen Eleanor… "
"I think the children ought to be sent to Milford. They would be quiet there and given time to mourn… "
"Yes. Good idea."
"I don't know what to do about Charlotte. She's so little… I don't know that she even realizes her mother is dead. I don't know how to tell her, poor thing. She…"
"I'll tell her."
Philip hesitated. Constantine had a knack for being far too blunt sometimes, and that could be disastrous for a tiny girl of only four years. "I'm not sure… "
"I'll tell her."
Eleanor was checking over Prince Andrew's work on his French verbs and trying not to laugh at his clear frustration with possessive terms, particularly when she came across his aggravated note in his practice book, written in halting but concise French, that read "Je ne me soucie pas de la chemise de mon oncle Julien!" Of her six sons, Andrew was the most impatient and short-tempered, which was something of a worrisome matter to his father. Perhaps they really should have named him James after all, instead of honoring his great-grandfather.
"You need to be more patient, sweetheart," she told her youngest son, and he huffed. "I don't expect you to speak perfect French. I just want you to get by well enough so that you can avoid insulting anyone and can tell your host that you can't eat shellfish or you'll vomit all over the table and ruin everybody's appetite, like you did during that state dinner with the French ambassador."
"But French people are always sneering. How do you know they're not already insulted?"
She coughed to cover her laughter. "Just the same, sweetie, I want you to try. All right?"
Andrew nodded, looking less than enthusiastic, but she knew he would try, because he was that determined. Every task she had ever set before him had been accomplished, and even if his work could sometimes be a tad slapdash, he never failed to do his best, or at least something approaching that. Considering he was only seven, she had enough sense to not push him beyond his abilities. When given a chance to show his seven-year old talents and to exercise his seven-year old imagination, he simply soared.
"Now, let's finish up this lesson with some pronunciation exercises and then you will be released back into the wild."
Andrew kicked his feet restlessly and went through the list of words, and Eleanor clapped her hands when he was finished and had pronounced the words satisfactorily. "There now. All done for today! Scat!" she said, laughing and kissing him on the cheek. The boy bowed gallantly to his mother and dashed from the room, clattering down the steps and out the door to the gardens outside Konigshaus, shouting for his brothers to reveal where they had hidden themselves.
Eleanor cleared the lesson papers off the table and was collecting her drawing pencils when she heard a horseman coming, but she paid that little mind. Messengers came and went every day, wherever she and family were, and so she did not even step out into the hall to see what it was about. She heard her husband speaking with the messenger, and stepped out into the hall, only mildly curious.
Henry looked stricken as he read the message, and he looked up at Eleanor, who raised her eyebrows. "What is it?"
"Sweetheart… I'm so sorry to tell you… perhaps you should sit down." He gestured toward a chair. "Princess Isabella has died."
Eleanor's eyed widened with shock and soon brimmed with tears, and she did sit down, hand over her mouth. Henry sat down beside her, his arm around her shoulders as she wept.
"Oh God, her poor children… and her poor husband… "
"We will send letters of condolence immediately," Henry said, gesturing for a servant to go find Lady Hallam. "I know you loved her a great deal," he said gently.
"She was a dear friend, but… but it is her family that is surely suffering now. Her babies… poor Elizabeth and those sweet boys and poor little Charlotte… what will they do without her?"
"I suppose they'll survive," Henry said quietly. "We all have to." He sighed. "Not that that makes it any easier. She died on the fifteenth, and was interned on the eighteenth at St. Giles in Garon… "
"Does her sister know yet?"
"I do not know. Catalina is at home with her husband. I'm sure Constantine sent a message to her even before informing us."
Eleanor thought carefully of what ought to be done and what would be considered intruding on the family's grief. Naturally her first thoughts were of Constantine—she could not even imagine the grief he was experiencing now. His children, though, were the ones needing the most help recovering from the blow. She stood and went out onto the terrace and called for her sons to come in, and they did so, albeit reluctantly.
Crown Prince Alexander's growth spurt had occurred over the winter, and he had gone from a sturdy lad just barely as tall as his mother to a tall, strong, strapping lad who fairly towered over her. At fourteen, he bore a striking resemblance to his father, but he had her dark hair and incredibly blue eyes. "What is it, Mama?"
"Princess Isabella—Elizabeth's mother—has died."
The boy's eyes widened slightly. "Oh, no! How terrible!"
"Yes. It is terrible. I want all of you to write letters of sympathy to Elizabeth and her siblings, to be sent before tomorrow evening."
"She must be heartbroken," Alexander said quietly, watching his brothers trail into the house. Eleanor could hear Henry speaking to them, telling them to get upstairs and begin writing. She smiled a little at his homily on the matter. "You needn't be showy or wordy. Just say you are sorry for their loss and are praying for them… that sort of thing. Nobody wants to hear how you understand, because God knows you don't."
"I suspect that right now she and her brothers mainly require quiet," Eleanor said. "I know that if I were their age, I would hate being fussed over and pestered all the time with too much sympathy. As they're so young, the princes are shielded a good deal from the loss, and we all know young people recover more quickly—life is for the living."
"So it would be their father suffering the most?"
"Yes." Eleanor looked out across the green fields that rolled down to the craggy cliffs and the sea and Insel der Rosen, which looked as though it was floating on the water. She sighed. "I suspect his suffering is beyond description."
"I will write especially to Elizabeth," Alexander said, looking thoughtful. He and his betrothed wrote to each other regularly, and shared many interests, which was a great relief to Eleanor. Elizabeth had a sharp mind that had been carefully honed by excellent tutors and her mother's flawless guidance, and she and Alexander often corresponded in Latin or French, and discussed all sorts of things, from history to politics to keen shared interests in such matters as religion, gardening and even hunting. Eleanor hoped that, even if they never fell in love with each other, they would at least share many interests and ideas and could genuinely enjoy each others' company.
The alternative, Eleanor knew, was unthinkable.
Alexander went upstairs and Eleanor joined Henry in the Great Hall, where he was speaking with the messenger who had delivered the news of Isabella's death. She moved closer to listen in.
"Her Royal Highness had been increasingly ill over the past three years and she got much worse while the Prince was away in Havor. I was told she was coughing up blood." The messenger looked stricken. "She was such a sweet, gentle woman. As I understand it, her husband arrived home just hours after her death."
Eleanor did her best to not try to picture the scene, but she could see Constantine's face in her mind—his grief would be profound, and only made more excruciating by having not been able to say goodbye to his wife.
Suddenly feeling horribly weary, the Queen sat down beside her husband and he took her hand and kissed her fingers. "Promise me, darling, that if you ever become ill you will tell me straightaway and not die."
She smiled, touching his cheek. "I promise."
Henry grinned. "Really? You promise not to die?"
"Well, if I don't keep the promise, what could you do about it?"
Charlotte was sitting on the floor, playing with her doll—a present from her father—and when she looked up and saw Constantine, she smiled happily. "Papa!" Getting up, she let him scoop her up and wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing him on the cheek.
"Come over here with me and sit for a while," he told her, moving to a chair and sitting down. Unlike her sister, Charlotte was golden-blonde and blue eyed, with pink and white coloring and a constantly smiling mouth. Her brothers and sister adored her—she never seemed to be in a bad mood, and was always giggling and eager to play. She sat on her father's knee, looking up at him.
"Charlotte, do you remember when your… your mother told you about difference between something that is dead and something that is alive?"
The little girl nodded, looking up at him with bright, curious eyes. "She showed me crickets. One was dead and one was alive."
"Right." Constantine closed his eyes briefly.
"Why are you so sad, Papa?"
"Because… because your mother is dead, Charlotte. She is gone… she is gone up to Heaven, to live with Jesus and the angels."
"Is Mama happy there?" Charlotte asked, brow wrinkling.
"I suspect she is. I suspect she is very happy there."
"When is she coming back home?"
"She isn't going to come back home, Charlotte. She is going to live there forever."
"Because she died. She is dead." Constantine struggled to maintain his composure, but tears were stinging his eyes. This feeling of helplessness was making it hard for him to sleep or eat, and he wondered if he would ever be able to sleep well again.
"Why did she die?"
"She became very sick and… she could not stay here any more."
Charlotte pondered this for several moments, and Constantine wondered how she would handle this. At four, her world revolved around her mother, her dolls and playing dress up and having tea parties (one having involved her father, two knights and a very confused wolfhound). The concept of death was not likely to fully sink in for her for some time.
"Can I go see her?"
"No, sweetheart, you can't. Not for a very, very long time."
"I would have to die, wouldn't I, to see Mama again."
Constantine swallowed. "Yes, Charlotte, but you aren't allowed to die. You'll have to wait ninety or so years before you can… can go to Mama. I won't let you go for a very long time, sweetheart."
That seemed to satisfy the little girl, which would never cease to amaze Constantine. Charlotte hugged him, wreathing her arms around his neck and burying her face into his neck. He struggled for several moments to fight off his tears, but when Charlotte patted his back and whispered "Darling Papa," he broke down at last and stained her dress with his tears.
The letters from Isabella's children were touching, to say the least. Eleanor had no clear picture, in her mind, of Isabella's sons, but they had all benefited from their mother's diligent tutelage. Their replies were sincere and heartfelt, while also very Constantine-like in their brevity and conciseness. Eleanor traced her fingers over the words his sons had written, smiling at Michael's blocky script and at Nicholas' misspellings. Elizabeth's reply to Eleanor wrenched her heart as she read it.
20 June 1388
I was very touched by your kind letters of condolence, and it brought myself and my brothers great solace.
We are all at Milford House, far away from Garon, but Papa and our sister are still at Fairwood Palace, though he says he will be coming up here in the fall to stay over the winter. Uncle King Philip dotes on us, constantly sending letters and playthings for us, to distract us, and he has already visited us once this past week-end and plans to come up again in another two weeks.
I have taken over Mama's duties at teaching my brothers their lessons, as our tutor has been sent home for now and will not return until next summer. For all that I am kept very busy and I find that to be rather comforting, in a way, as being occupied seems to keep us all settled.
My brothers are all doing well and I am pleased to say that they frequently play games and clatter about as boys should do, and they do all they can to cheer themselves and me up when we feel sad, and we talk about Mama constantly, as Uncle King has said that is a very healthy thing to do. It is very hard to not have Mama here, but we know she is happy and at peace now and that is a great comfort to us. Just the same, we miss her terribly and Papa never smiles any more.
I received Alexander's kind letter, and the letters from his brothers, and we thank them and yourself and His Majesty the King all very sincerely and appreciate your prayers and condolences.
Elizabeth of Morvenia
Eleanor neatly folded the letter, and the others from the princes, and neatly tucked them into the box under her bed, which still held her copies of her mother's books. She wiped her eyes and sat down by the fire, wishing she could do something besides just write letters to Constantine's children—it wasn't as though she could write directly to him, as there was far too much risk of him recognizing her handwriting or some phrase she might use.
Sighing wearily, she sat back in her chair and whispered a prayer for him. "Dear God, please grant him peace and comfort… "
Eleanor received Catalina and Baltasar in her rooms and threw all protocol aside and embraced the sobbing girl—she was still so young, and now she seemed utterly lost. She wept on Eleanor's shoulder for a long time, and Baltasar murmured to the Queen that he simply could not allow his wife to travel to Morvenia in her current condition: she was eight months pregnant with her third child and extremely emotional even before hearing of the death of her sister. Catalina, however, insisted that she needed to see her nieces and nephews.
"Perhaps a compromise might be necessary," Eleanor said gently, when Catalina was finally seated and somewhat calmer. "You can wait until after your baby is born and then travel back to Garon next summer. Your niece has written saying that they will likely return home by the beginning of June and by then you will be fully recovered from your confinement and can take the baby along as well. What do you think of this, Baltasar?"
"I think it's a good idea, Your Majesty," the young man said, gently gathering his wife back into his arms and letting her continue to cry on his shirt. "Poor little thing—she has barely stopped crying since she heard the news."
"I know. Catalina, I am so terribly sorry—I know you and your sister were very close. You must, however, obey your husband, as he is only concerned for your health. Besides, I think your current emotional state might be… upsetting to your nieces and nephews, and really, do you think they need that now?"
Catalina wiped her eyes. "I would only upset them, wouldn't I?"
"Not so much upset them, but perhaps your current state would be… stressful, and they need as much normalcy and quiet as possible. Though I know they will be very happy to see you next summer." Eleanor smiled and took Catalina's hands in hers. "I know they will be very excited to see your new baby, too, and by then I suspect they will all be in a far better state of mind, and so will you." She glanced at Baltasar, who looked relieved when Catalina nodded in agreement.
"All right. But I refuse to wear anything but black until then!"
Baltasar could only give the Queen an 'oh well' look, and she smiled, brushing Catalina's hair back from her face and giving her another comforting hug. "Now, your sister would be adamant that you take care of yourself, first and foremost, no matter how deep your mourning. You've a little one on the way and your son and daughter must both be very eager to meet him."
"We did the ring test. We believe it will be another boy," Catalina said, wiping her eyes and pulling herself together somewhat.
"Well, then, we will all be very happy, whether it's a boy or a girl," Eleanor said. "The ring test is usually very accurate. Not always, of course, but..." The ring test had been right about Count von Hesse's second child, which had turned out to be a girl, and the doctors had firmly told Christiane that no more children were in the offing—Madeleine's birth had been extremely hard on her. What was odd, to Eleanor, was that the Count seemed utterly delighted to have two daughters.
"If it's a boy, we hope to name him Constantine, for his uncle," Baltasar said, and took his wife's hand, kissing her fingertips. "If it's a girl, it will be Catalina. Little James, of course, is demanding we having another boy, as he finds Isabella very unsatisfactory as a playmate."
Eleanor smiled, squeezing Catalina's other hand. "Either way, he or she will be a perfect, beautiful baby and a credit to you and Baltasar."
At that, Catalina burst into tears, and her husband gently gathered her back into his arms, letting her pour out her grief on his shoulder.
Elizabeth noted her father's haggard face, and how thin he had become since her mother's death. He wasn't eating, that was certain, and she often heard him roaming the halls at night—the dark smudges under his eyes were true testimony of his inability to rest. He had arrived at Milford two nights ago with Charlotte, and frankly he looked like death served cold on a platter.
Charlotte's sunny personality and exuberance lifted everyone's spirits, except for their father. Constantine sat by the fire for hours at a time, staring off into space and saying nothing unless prompted. Elizabeth, taking on her mother's role of running the household, had to apply to the housekeeper for advice on her new duties: how to keep the larder stocked, for one thing, and how to see that all the servants knew their duties and performed them properly. Elizabeth had gone through every portion of the house with the housekeeper and the butler, testing each lock with her mother's keys, inspecting the pantries and buttery, checking the bedsheets and blankets for any unwelcome creatures, and drawing up lessons for her brothers and Charlotte.
Every day, she sat with her brothers in the downstairs schoolroom and went over their lessons—history, geography, genealogy, mathematics, art, music, languages, and some degree of military strategy. The last subject fascinated her, and she gathered up any information she could find on her father's exploits around the Continent, and in so doing she was learning a great deal about how to not only win a battle but a war—the two were apparently very, very different things.
One day, Elizabeth knew she was going to be the wife of a soldier. She had no doubt that Alexander would have some degree of military skill necessary, considering Lacovia's continued acquisitiveness and Gravonia's growing military prowess, and she wanted to be able to talk with him intelligently on those matters and many others. The last thing she wanted was to be married to a man she had nothing in common with and could not talk to.
The thought of getting married filled her with both excitement and dread. She had wanted to ask her mother about what it was like to be married and to lie down in a bed with a man, but the subject had not been broached and then her mother had become so ill…
There was no way Elizabeth could ever ask her father about such matters. The housekeeper at Milford was a very prim woman, so queries to her were out of the question, too. Michael, so far, seemed to find girls bewildering and the younger boys seemed to find girls vaguely repulsive. She wondered, briefly, if Uncle King might answer her questions, and again puzzled over why he had never married. If he had a wife, she could ask her about it.
At least Milford House was comfortable and large, with plenty of room for an entire army of children to clatter about without disturbing Papa too much. Not that he seemed disturbed by much of anything—one had to shout into his ear to get him to respond at all, most of the time.
She looked up from the accounting books and saw him sitting there by the fire, staring into the flames. He had spoken, at best, ten words in total since arriving at Milford and most of them had been 'please' and 'thank you' when served meals he didn't eat.
She studied him for several moments, taking in his gloomy appearance and how much weight he had lost since Mama's death. There was no more light in his eyes—before, even when he was being his usual quiet self, there was a spark of good humor there, but since Isabella's death, he seemed almost frozen over.
Shyly, Elizabeth rose and went to the chair where her mother had sat on so many evenings, sewing and humming softly while she worked. Carefully, she sat down and folded her hands in her lap. "Papa?"
He jerked, startled, and looked at her, and she winced at how hollow his cheeks were, his ragged, unkempt hair and the rough beard he was growing. He seemed to have simply given up on everything. He looked hunted and lost.
"What is it?" he asked her, his voice rough and as ragged-sounding as he looked.
"Papa, I need money to pay the servants and buy supplies for the larder, and we also need to start chopping wood for the fires as the weather gets cold… plus, we need paper and books and pencils for the boys. The tutor has gone back home for the winter and won't be back until late May and… "
"You speak of these things now?" he asked her, his voice clipped.
"Mama is dead, Papa. We are all still alive and we must continue with our educations, and the servants still have to be paid and we have to eat."
He stood up and wavered for a moment, and Elizabeth suspected he was so unsteady because he was starving himself. She stood too, bowing her head respectfully. "Papa, Mama would never want you to look so… "
"Awful. Yes, I know," he snapped, running his hands through his hair, and looked at her for a moment before sighing. "I'm sorry, Lili. I do not mean to snap at you. Your mother would scold me for talking that way to you. Your mother… she was the most unselfish person I've ever known."
"Truly," Elizabeth nodded. "And I know she would insist you eat and sleep and take care of yourself, and of us. Papa, I'm… I'm only thirteen. I can't run a household yet. I'd much rather continue with my education and training. Remember I must go to Gravonia in another three years, to prepare to marry Crown Prince Alexander… "
"You still want to go?" he asked her, looking suddenly a hundred times more miserable.
"Yes, Papa. I want to go. I want to help. I like helping people." She looked down at her hands. "It will be hard to go, but I look forward to it, too, however odd that seems. I hope to see some of the world one day—to travel and see different places and people and learn new things… and I know Queen Eleanor will take good care of me, too, and I am very eager to meet her again. I'm… eager to meet Alexander, too. He's very intelligent."
"You have no idea how much it will pain me, to see you go." He touched her face, and she rubbed her cheek against his rough palm. "It will be hard to say goodbye to you all, when you leave to start your own families. You and little Charlotte… it's easier when sons leave home, I'm told, but daughters… "
"Grandmama Marie says daughters are of no consequence and we will not be missed when we leave," Elizabeth said, smiling ruefully.
"Grandmama Marie… " He shook his head. "Let's not discuss her now. We're both already miserable enough."
Elizabeth couldn't help but smile, even at his somber expression, and took his hands in hers. "Then we will not talk about her. And we won't talk about my leaving, either, until it's time. Instead, we should talk about the petty things in life, as Aunt Cat calls them—domestic matters that must be tended to."
For the first time in two months, Constantine actually smiled, and Elizabeth's heart swelled. "Women talk about petty things. Men… we ponder the eternal verities."
"What does that mean?"
"That means we talk about sports."
Philip arrived at Milford House two days before Christmas, followed by a wagon overflowing with gifts for his nieces and nephews, and as he climbed out of his coach he was nearly knocked off his feet when he was hit in the forehead by a snowball.
"Uncle King!" Michael shouted. "You need to take cover!"
"Cove—" Another snowball pelted him, except it was his ear that took the blow. "Damn it… who the hell thr—"
He took his nephew's advice when the third snowball hit him, this time in the neck. He scrabbled under the coach and heard the coachman and his valet shouting to get inside the coach. More snowballs were flying in, at an alarming rate, and the King of Morvenia wondered if the children had been joined by an army of snow demons, because he and his minders were trapped.
"Do you surrender?" Michael shouted from somewhere in the trees.
"Like bloody hell I do!" Philip shouted back. "Where is your father?"
"Making more snowballs!" Nicholas yelled from somewhere higher, possibly in a tree. "We've been waiting all day for you! Isn't this jolly fun?"
"He's making more snow—wait… he's making snowballs? Seriously?"
"Yes, sir! We've got a good supply, too. You'll have to make your own!"
Philip braved further attack by peering out from under the coach and finally catching sight of his eldest nephew. The boy was partially hidden behind a wall of snow at the edge of the woods on the western side of the house, but had made a rather artful hole in the bank, so that he could see the entire courtyard, including the entryway and the gates to the stables. Philip really was trapped—the boy could nail him from any angle. Looking up, the King finally caught sight of Nicholas sitting in the crook of a tree, wearing light-colored clothes that helped him blend right in with his surroundings.
Damn that Dragon, Philip thought. He was teaching the boys guerrilla warfare!
It took Philip several moments to locate Leopold, who was crouching at the western corner of the front of the large house, his position well defended by a stack of firewood and a large pile of snowballs. If Philip's memory was right, Constantine knew to pack snowballs with pebbles and bits of dirt, to add an extra bit of sting, and he also remembered that Leopold had an arm like a bloody cannon, and he was deadly accurate—at just eight years old!
"What are your conditions?" Philip finally called.
"If you surrender, Parr won't dump that bucket of coal dust on you," Michael shouted gleefully. The King looked up and was startled to see his youngest nephew kneeling on the roof of his coach, holding a wooden bucket and grinning from ear to ear.
"You little hellion!" Philip growled affectionately at the boy. "How did you get up there?"
"Papa taught me how to move about silently!" Parr crowed. "I'm really good at it!"
"Aye, he is."
Philip looked toward the front door of the house and was pleased to see his brother leaning against the column on the portico, packing a snowball together with casual expertise.
"Do you surrender, brother?" Constantine called.
"I suppose I'd better. This is a new shirt."
Parr put the bucket down and Philip got up, rubbing his cold ear and doing his best to look stern as his nephews approached him. Nicholas climbed down the tree, as nimble as a cat, and Philip caught his namesake when he jumped down from the coach. The King's minders climbed out from their hiding places, looking none the worse for wear. Philip embraced his nephews, one by one, and teased them about their growth over the past few months. He paused when he got to Constantine, who still looked a little haggard, but some of the light was back in his eyes. He grinned.
"You're looking better, brother."
Constantine only shrugged. "They keep me too busy to be miserable. I can't very well let them run wild—if I did, they'd attack the local village and burn it the ground."
"Aye, we're a band of rabblerousers," Michael grinned, sharing a brief smile with his father over their private joke.
"Well, I've brought a ton of gifts that might placate a bunch of ruffians, if only for a season. Where are your sisters?"
"Inside. They got tired of snowball fighting," Nicholas said.
"You got tired of Elizabeth's excellent aim," Constantine corrected him. "Go on inside, all of you, and tell Mrs. Humboldt the King is here."
"Yes, sir," Michael said, dashing inside, followed by his brothers. Philip waited until they were all inside before he turned back to his brother.
"How are you? Really?"
"I'm… all right. I can't say I'm doing wonderfully, but I'm better. Like I said, the children keep me occupied all day and because of that I'm too tired at night to sit up with my… misery, so I sleep. Well, I sleep a little better."
"And the children… they do seem to be in better spirits."
"I can't let them sit around weeping, can I? That won't help. They talk about Isabella all the time, and that's good for them." He went into the house, Philip following him.
"But is it good for you?" Philip asked him carefully.
"Sometimes." He looked away, toward the snowy woods, and Philip didn't miss that his brother still looked gaunt and tired, even if there was some life in his eyes again. "We've got hot wassail ready and easily the biggest damned goose I've ever seen roasting in the oven. Elizabeth did most of the cooking, as a personal challenge, so avoid the raspberry tart, and Charlotte's cakes can be used as weapons, but don't say anything about them and maybe she won't try to make us eat them."
"My lips are sealed."
"They will be if you eat the raspberry tart."
Philip wasn't surprised that Constantine drank more than just two cups of ale that night, after the children had all been dragged up to their bedrooms and locked in their rooms for the night. He didn't know if his brother had taken to drinking of late, but for now he would allow it, if it helped him sleep.
Constantine did look a little better. He was still thin and pale, but he looked less miserable. Even more, the ale was loosening his tongue a bit, just like always. Constantine was no talker, but when he was drunk on hard ale he had plenty of interesting or downright bewildering things to say. While drunk on wine he just got sleepy. Either way, he was not an enthusiastic drinker.
"I didn't love her, you know. I mean… I mean, I loved her. Just not… that kind… " Constantine rubbed his face. "And I'm ashamed of myself for it. For not… why can't I get her out of my head? Why?"
"You mean Eleanor, Constantine?"
The younger man nodded.
"Maybe it's because Eleanor was the love of your life. Isabella was the love of… this life. This now. You were blessed with her when Eleanor Reeve died and your wife made you happy and contented in many ways. And you made her happy, too, you know."
Philip saw tears in his brother's eyes, but said nothing. His inquiry into the matter of Eleanor Reeve and her connection to the Truebloods had been officially dropped almost four years ago, but Philip still often lay awake at night wondering if that woman in Gravonia was actually her. If she was, exposing her would be disastrous for everyone around her and so painful to his brother it might very well kill him. Constantine was in no condition, now, to cope with anything beyond getting through each day and seeing to his children's needs. He could only pray that Constantine never discovered the truth… if it was true, that is.
"Isabella wasn't as strong as Eleanor," Constantine said quietly, looking into the fire. "Well, she was strong. She bore six children, after all." He took another swig of his ale. "But she wasn't as sturdy. She had sweetness, instead of steel." He rubbed his eyes. "I remember the day we found Eleanor, in the woods outside Teslo. I saw her parents bodies, you know, in their house… John Reeve, surrounded by cut-up Lacovians and Margaret Trueblood…" He swallowed. "Those bastards raped and murdered her. Eleanor survived all that, only to… die at sixteen." He rubbed his face again. "Why? Why was she spared then, only to still die young?"
"I don't know, Constantine. I wish I had the answer, but I do not."
"Her whole family gets wiped out, and she lives just sixteen years and… I don't understand it. I don't. I never will. I try to say 'God's will be done, and the Lord giveth and He taketh away', but why would He let her die? Why did He let Isabella die? What had either of them ever done to anybody?" He shook his head, as if trying to clear it. Philip knew his brother was fairly simple in how he thought through things and how he arrived at his conclusions. His faith in God was unyielding, his belief in right and wrong would never waver, and his strength was unmatched, but he knew Constantine was frightened and confused by the events of the past few months.
Philip sat in silence for a long time, watching his brother stare into the fire, his grief written all over his face. He was in double mourning, for Isabella and for Eleanor. Both had to be utterly excruciating, Philip thought sadly. "Eleanor's mother's name was Margaret Trueblood?" he asked cautiously.
"I heard Count von Hesse say something about it. Sometimes, I can't remember anything anybody has ever said to me, and then I remember everything I have ever heard in my life, though mostly in my dreams. Causes some bloody awful headaches." He shrugged and slowly got to his feet. Philip jumped up to catch him before he fell into the fire. "I still dream about Eleanor, Philip. I dreamed about her even when Isabella was alive… that's what makes it all so… so horrible. How I… betrayed her."
"You never betrayed Isabella. She loved you." Philip drew in his breath. "Constantine, the last thing she said was your name. She held nothing against you at all. Even when she learned about Eleanor, she still loved you and never charged you with any degree of disloyalty."
At that, Constantine dropped his head, and Philip embraced him as he wept.
"There is nothing shameful about loving Isabella and Eleanor," Philip said. "You have never betrayed either of them, in any way, and never could." He set his brother back and looked into his eyes, seeing the bleakness there. "You need to stop beating yourself up so, brother. You can't live this way. It will eat you alive. You won't like me for saying this, but life is for the living. You've got your children and they need you, and they need you to be sober and in your right mind."
Constantine said nothing. Just bowed his head, wavering a little in his slightly inebriated, utterly devastated state.
"Go on up to bed, brother. I'll clean up. Go on… it's all right. I'll make sure the cook makes you some eggs tomorrow, too." He smiled and tousled his brother's hair. "You never could hold your liquor. And I don't want you to start trying to, either. Off with you!"
Constantine managed to get to the stairs without incident, and only stumbled slightly as he climbed up to his room. Philip listened carefully until he heard the door close, then he stood and went to Constantine's study—a spare, sparsely decorated room, as his brother was no man of letters and took little pleasure in reading or writing—and found some paper. Sitting down, he began writing.
If it would be convenient to you during this coming early summer, we would like to meet privately with you at an agreed-upon place along the Gravonia/Morvenia border, perhaps in the village of St. Lo, which as you know is to the west of the road to Tygo, very near the Morvenian border. The matter of our niece's upcoming marriage to your son requires some discussion, though you needn't worry that there is any change in the status of the pre-contract or their betrothal—we look forward very eagerly to our beloved niece becoming the wife of your excellent son. We merely wish to smooth out some small wrinkles before going forward.
We would greatly prefer that we meet unattended. Please respond at your earliest convenience.
Philip dug in his pocket until he found his signet ring, folded the letter carefully, sealed it with wax and stamped it carefully. He would send it along as soon as he returned to Garon.
This time, Philip would not drop the matter until he was satisfied with all the answers. What was most troubling though, to him, was that even if he did get the answer—welcome or not—he would still not be able to reveal it to his brother. He could not imagine how Constantine would react, and frankly he had no intention of ever seeing his brother suffer such agony again.