Our Gracious Queen

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Executive Meeting

May 1389

May was Eleanor's least favorite month.

Certainly not because of the beautiful spring weather or the apple and peach blossoms in the orchards, or even the sight of baby animals on the farms. No, she hated May because it was the annual torture of Court Presentations, which occurred each year and subjected her to the wrangling, wheedling, simpering and outright pleading of ambitious mothers who wanted to see their daughters in some position of importance at Court.

Every Friday of May was devoted entirely to being presented with young girls between the ages of twelve and sixteen, all of whom were decked out in their best clothes. Their hair was always arranged into designs that Eleanor could only imagine must cause the poor creatures hideous headaches, and worse yet they were often wearing heavy, atrociously ugly headdresses and family tiaras. None of those factors did most of the girls any favors. Had Eleanor any say in the matter, they would be permitted to look like themselves, instead of garishly-decorated dolls, so they could have done much better. All told, of these presentations each year, Eleanor had selected only about six girls in all to come and serve her at Court. Of those girls, they had been selected because their mothers had been sensible enough to dress them in simpler clothes and had taught them to be poised and self-confident without being prideful.

This year, Eleanor was in a particularly uneasy mood, what with the bewildering letter she had received from King Philip of Morvenia, asking to meet with her privately at St. Lo. What he had to say to her that couldn't have been said by his ambassador was beyond her, but she had to figure out a way to get away from Luvov without Henry noticing. That would require Lord Hallam's assistance, but he was currently down with a bad cold and Clothilde wasn't keen on seeing him traipsing about outdoors when he felt so miserable. She supposed she could ask Lorenzo to take her, and she knew he would never speak of the journey to anyone, but Agnes might say something…

Wincing, she pushed away her headache, straightened in her ivory and gold throne, and pasted on her brightest smile as the doors of the Presence Chamber were opened and Boris announced the first girl of the day.

Contestant One, Eleanor thought grimly as the girl was all but shoved into the room by her mother, who hissed something at the girl in French.

"Lady Iris Tremaine, ma'am," Boris said. "Daughter of Lord Justin and Lady Augusta Tremaine."

Iris managed an awkward curtsey and stood, hands clenched tight and eyes downward. Eleanor gestured to the girl to look up, which she finally did. "Lady Iris. I hope your journey here was comfortable. Please don't be nervous. I do not bite." She studied the girl, noting her brown eyes, and looked at her mother, who was blue-eyed. Iris' older brothers and sister were also blue-eyed. Puzzled, the Queen continued to stare at the girl and suddenly the meaning of the comment of that old woman in Turon came to her: Never comment on a likeness. She looked at Lady Augusta Tremaine, wondering. Lady Iris was a good ten years younger than her youngest brother… surely Lady Augusta had not…

People never ceased to astound Eleanor.

"Pray, can you tell me something about yourself? Do you have any interests or particular talents that might be of use here?"

Iris said nothing. Just stared, wide-eyed, at the Queen.

Eleanor waited a beat, thinking the girl might finally come up with something. But the girl still just stood there, clearly at a loss. Eleanor had tried several times to talk Henry into ending these torturous interviews, but he could not do so without offending almost every noble family of Gravonia. Eleanor was certain they were far more painful for the girls than they were for her, though, and for the most part she could only do her best to make the interviews as painless and brief as possible.

"Well, Lady Iris, it was a great pleasure to meet you. Perhaps one day you will learn the art of speaking and you can tell me all about your wide array of interests. Good day to you."

Lady Iris backed out of the room and into the disappointed grip of her mother. Eleanor sighed and signaled for Boris to call in the next victim.

Constantine exhaled and waited for Michael to take a correct stance. The boy had real potential, but he was taking a lot after Philip—he seemed to like poetry and music more than martial arts. He supposed that was fine in and of itself, if he turned out to be as good a King as his brother, but the boy had to learn how to fight.

"Remember to move around and to never fully face your opponent—never give him a opening," Constantine told his eldest boy, raising his own blunt wooden baton. "It won't do for you to stand still during a swordfight."

"Yes, sir," Michael nodded. He prepared for his first attack and lunged forward, but Constantine deflected him easily. Years of careful training had made it natural instinct, and he knew the boy would develop the same predisposition if he kept up his training—but training was positively essential to get there. Constantine moved easily out of the boy's reach, thrust forward, pivoting smoothly, and smacked him firmly on the hip. Michael winced but withstood it well and resumed attempting to make contact with his father with his baton. Constantine could not afford to let the boy make unearned hits, however—his life might well depend on learning how to not only defend himself but also to attack. He gave the boy no quarter, therefore, and was pleased when Michael finally did score a hard blow to Constantine's stomach. Had it been a real sword, in fact, the wound would have been fatal.

"I'm sorry, Papa," Michael said, looking contrite as Constantine rubbed his belly, wincing.

"Why should you be sorry? Well done, lad. I think you're catching on."

"Thank you, sir," the boy nodded.

"I think that's enough for today. It's getting bloody hot out here."

They were in the behourd at Fairwood, and tomorrow the tutor, a Doctor Selfridge, would be returning to resume educating all six of the children. They were to remain at home from now on, except for occasional trips to Garon, and would go to Milford for Christmas, as that place had happy memories for all six children. That their mother had died at Fairwood did not seem to cause them to feel gloomy all: they viewed the large, rambling mansion as home.

Constantine clapped his eldest son on the back and sent him back inside to get ready for supper. He sat down on the bench and wiped sweat off his forehead, muttering about the increasingly hot weather. He looked up to see one of the housemaids, a pretty young girl of about seventeen, staring at him. He looked away, embarrassed, and stood, pretending he hadn't noticed her. She had just been hired, and he didn't know her name, but he had caught her looking at him. Frequently.

Natural urges, however, could not trump guilt. There was no way he could ever pursue any kind of… anything with any woman now or perhaps even ever. The maid smiled shyly at him and scuttled back into the house, and Constantine went inside through another door. Mrs. Bright, the housekeeper, bobbed when she saw him come into the kitchen. "Your Royal Highness, sir," she said.

"I believe you hired a girl recently, to work in the kitchens."

"Yes. Gisella… "

"Send her to the palace at Garon, please, to work."

"Yes, sir. Has she… uh… displeased you, sir?"

"No. Just send her away."

"Yes, sir."

"Mind, I am not displeased with you, ma'am. You run this household very well, but the girl is… she is… not suitable for work here."

"I understand completely, sir. She will be gone before nightfall."

Constantine continued on into the house and joined his children in the gathering room, where they were already settled around the table, going over their lessons. Charlotte had no trouble putting aside her French lesson to jump into her father's arms and hug him as though she hadn't seen him in a month, rather than just two hours. "Comment est-vu, Papa?"


"She's asking 'How are you'," Elizabeth said, smiling.

"Oh. Uh… commee see commee sa."

"Papa parle français est très mal!" Charlotte giggled.

"Oh well, I only recently mastered English."

"Uncle King came by this morning. He is traveling east for some business along the border and only stopped to say hello," Nicholas informed him.

"Philip was here?" Constantine frowned. "This place is a bit out of the way if he's heading back east again. What sort of business?"

"He did not say, sir."

Constantine frowned and finally shrugged. Philip had a kingdom to run and was thus constantly having to travel from one portion of Morvenia to the other. Until he ascended to the throne—which he did not want—he would likely have to do the same thing. He sat down at the table, drumming his fingers, and waited for the servants to bring in supper. He still hadn't put on any of the weight he had lost since Isabella's death, but at least he had some degree of his appetite back.

He watched his children eagerly dig into their meals, and couldn't help but smile. At least they were moving forward with their lives, to varying degrees, and that was good. They talked about their mother all the time, frequently played games together and spent hours outdoors, riding their horses and enjoying life, just as Isabella would have wanted. The last thing she would ever want, he knew, for him or for her children would be for them to wallow about in grief.

The loneliness, however, was hard for him to cope with. Sleeping alone, sitting by the fire alone… everything was done alone now. So far, he wasn't talking alone—he had yet to sink into total madness. There was just no more 'we' or 'us'. It was just 'me' and 'I', and that made each day seem to stretch out before him like an eternity. He had never been much for talking a great deal, but at least when he had something to say, there had been someone to listen to him.

This business of loneliness, however, was not one he would recommend to anyone.

"Lorenzo, I know I can trust you to keep silent on this little trip I'm taking," Eleanor said, watching as Henry and several of his gentlemen, plus Crown Prince Alexander and Prince Frederick, rode away toward the King's Forest for a long day of hunting. "But I must make sure you understand that he is not to know that I was ever in Morvenia."

"Yes, ma'am," Lorenzo answered, but he looked uneasy.

St Lo was a small, rather isolated village in a valley just a mile from the Morvenian border, and their meeting place was to be the Boar's Head Inn. Eleanor, wearing a brown cloak and ordinary clothes, was determined to be unnoticed as she rode south from Luvov with Lorenzo, and so far no one had even glanced up at her and her companion/bodyguard. At the gates of the village, she asked Lorenzo to wait for her, and despite his worried expression she rode on alone. She had even selected a very ordinary-looking horse for the trip, and as such she did not stand out as she searched for the inn.

Finally, she saw the sign decorated with a boar's head and stopped, dismounting and tying the horse to the post. A stable boy ran up to her. "Do you require a stall for your horse in the livery, ma'am?"

"No thank you," she said, shaking her head. "Pray, do you know of a man staying here at this inn named Dullenberg?"

"Aye, ma'am. He arrived this mornin', ridin' a beat-down lookin' beast."

"Is he alone?"

The boy's brow furrowed. "Aye, ma'am."

"Thank you." She dismissed the boy with a gold coin and went into the inn.

It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, and she was surprised to find the inn was snug and cheerful-looking, with white-washed walls and even pots of flowers here and there. Benches at trestle tables were occupied by a few farmers murmuring quietly together, and a huge stove that looked like it would provide warmth in even the hardest blizzard, sat in one corner. The publican tending the bar looked up at her and seemed vaguely surprised, and for a moment Eleanor wondered if he had recognized her.

"Beggin' your pardon, ma'am. I hope you're not lookin' for your husband, because I'm required to say he's not here… even if he's sittin' at one o' the tables."

Eleanor smiled. "No, sir, I am not looking for my husband. I can assure you he's at home doing the baking. I seek a Mr Dullenberg."

"Aye, ma'am, he's in the back—last door on your right. Is there anything I can get for you?"

"No, thank you. I will imbibe in my requirement of ale tonight."

The publican grinned and gestured toward a hallway leading to the back of the building, and Eleanor walked quietly along until she came to the door. Suddenly, she was overcome with fear—what could Philip want of her? Surely he wasn't interested in some kind of liaison—she had not sensed that he was in any way interested in her during the state visit, but what other possible reason would he have for meeting her here? Had he changed his mind about the marriage between Alexander and Elizabeth? If so, that could have been relayed to her and Henry through his ambassador.

She was both curious and frightened, but she had agreed to meet him and she was not the sort to run away from danger.

Tamping down her fear, she knocked on the door and she was startled when King Philip himself opened it. "Ah, there you are, ma'am. Come on in and please sit down." He opened the door wide, peeking up and down the hallway, and she stepped inside. It was well-lit, with a lantern hanging from a beam above the table in the center of the room. Philip closed the door and came around, smiling expansively, and gallantly pulled a chair out for her. Eleanor sat down, her nerves rattling, and waited.

"First of all," Philip said, sitting down across from her. "I do not want you to fear that the upcoming marriage of my niece and your son is in any way altered, so far as plans go. Constantine will require that his daughter give her full consent and not marry until she is eighteen, of course, but by all accounts she and Alexander correspond frequently and share many interests. We believe she is his match in many ways and they will either be content together or deliriously happy, and once he sees her, he'll be quite eager to see to her happiness."

"Thank you, sir, and if that's the case, why am I here?"

"I merely wished to discuss another matter of some… delicacy."

"Delicacy?" She drew in her breath. "I am certain that I do not understand… "

"My niece will marry your son. That matter alone is rather delicate, as her happiness and well-being here in Gravonia will be a matter of great importance, will it not?"

"Of course it will be, and I can assure you Henry and I will do all we can to see to her health and contentment… "

"I'm certain of that."

"And if she is in any way unhappy or unwilling to marry Alexander, we will terminate the contract with no hard feelings at all, and we will bear the brunt of any repercussions from Rome…"

"Yes, I'm sure of that, too, but again, you needn't worry yourself in that regard."

Eleanor wasn't accustomed to being interrupted when she spoke and almost snapped at Philip, but held her tongue. They were equals, after all, so far as rank went. They could interrupt each other with impunity. Nonetheless, she was bewildered by his behavior so far.

"Then what is it?" she finally asked.

"I merely have a concern, ma'am. It's nothing that I think will cause any problem so far as the marriage goes, but it's something that could cause a great deal of pain for people that I love who are already in considerable pain as it is."

Eleanor swallowed. "What do you mean, sir?"

"You might not be aware of it, but some years ago my brother fell very deeply in love with a young girl in the Turon Valley in Livonia and she accepted his proposal of marriage. She was a good bit younger than him—she was just fifteen at the time, I believe—but well-educated and quite mature for her years. Sadly, when he returned to Turon the following March to marry her, she had died a month before. He was utterly bereft and I daresay he remains so in many ways. Of course, he was still required to marry, as I have no wife or children. He did so, of course, but you know Isabella died last summer."

Eleanor closed her eyes, forcing herself to remain calm.

"I cannot imagine why you are telling me this, sir. I have… "

"It would be a very good thing if my niece Elizabeth were allowed to visit home on occasion, as she is close to her father. It would also be a gesture of good will if Constantine were allowed to visit his daughter. However, a visit to Gravonia for him might be somewhat painful, and I do not like seeing my brother in pain."

Eleanor was starting to panic, but could not move. She was simply terrified—what was Philip going to do to her?

"Please," she whispered. "Please… I beg you, do not… my children… "

"I have no intention of telling anyone anything, ma'am, but I am curious as to how Eleanor Reeve could have ever have become Queen of Gravonia. It must be one hell of a story."

She was shaking now, blinding terror making it impossible for her to move or breath. Philip rose, grabbed a pitcher and poured water into a cup, presenting it to her. She couldn't hold the glass, however, and Philip gently helped her take a sip. "It's all right, ma'am. I did not intend to frighten you so, and for that I am terribly sorry," he said, moving his chair around and sitting down beside her. "Like I said, I have no intention or even any interest in telling anyone. I merely wish to know how it all happened, because frankly, it is not only remarkable but bewildering."

It took several moments for Eleanor to compose herself. Her hands were still shaking horribly and she heard an awful roaring in her ears, so that Philip's gentle words were almost entirely unheard. All she could hear were the jeers of the crowds as she was dragged up to the platform to face the executioner's block. Would anyone have any mercy on her poor children? Would Henry even consider the past ten years and how much he loved her? What would happen to Count von Hesse? To Betsy and to Christiane and the Count's two innocent daughters, and to Eleanor's ladies. So many people would suffer because of her…

"Eleanor, please," Philip said, giving her a sharp little shake. "Listen to me. I will tell no one."

"Why do you need to know, then?" she finally whispered. "What advantage is it to you?"

"I'm merely a man who prefers to have all the facts. I need answers or I have trouble sleeping. Believe me, it drives everyone around me mad. I'm an infernal busybody." He smiled reassuringly at her. "What doesn't need explaining is how you've managed to pull Gravonia out of ignorance, poverty and violence and into knowledge, wealth and peace. That was done because of you, and no, I will not accept your protests or insistence that it was Henry's doing. He's a good man and a hale fellow well met, but we both know he is not the brightest candle in the cathedral, nor is he educated enough to do what you've done, though I will say his instincts have always been good, and if his instincts told him to listen to you, well then all the better. Plus that man has an ability to know things that is almost psychic. Scares my own agents, I can assure you. Now… please, calm down a bit and drink some more of this good Morvenian spring water. It's delicious, I must say."

"So you've got your answer," she said bitterly, taking a quick draught of the ice-cold, slightly sweet water. "What do you intend to do now? Will it be blackmail?"

He looked startled as he sat down again, then shrugged casually as he stretched out his legs. "Well, sure… got any diamonds on you?"

"No… " she said, wishing to God she had brought something with her. Anything might have helped, at least as a sign that she would pay any price to protect her children.

"How 'bout money?"

"I don't… "

"Well, I can't ask for sex. I mean, in another time in my life that would have been rather grand, as you're a bloody fantastic-looking woman, but I've never done anything like that, even in another time. I mean, I've had sex, but I've never blackmailed a woman into my bed, and besides you're married to a rather large fellow who would reduce me to a wet, bleeding pulp if I so much as gave you a come-hither look. In my salad days, it just involved ale and some special mint, rather than blackmail." He caught her increasingly appalled expression and grinned. "I'm only teasing. I have no intention of blackmailing you. Why would I want to?"

"I just thought… " she said weakly.

"Trust me, Eleanor, from one ruler to another, blackmail does not suit us. I'm not that sort of fellow. If I want to ruin someone, I just send my Scotsman or my army or a poisoned egg, or if they've really annoyed me, I'd send my mother to stay with them for a few months. That'll get anybody to fall into line—they'd be begging me to send my army instead. But I assure you, good lady, I will not plague you with my mother, much less my army or bad eggs or a Scotsman who pretends to be drunk, even if you ever do annoy me. Though I daresay the idea of you annoying anyone is very far-fetched." He smiled at her. "Set your mind at rest, Eleanor. I am not nor will I ever be the enemy of you or your country."

Eleanor swallowed, struggling to regain her composure. Philip reached across the table and took her hands in his. "These past ten years must have been very hard for you."

She bowed her head, exhaling. "Exhausting, more like." She sat back in the chair, feeling strangely relieved to finally tell someone the story. "Princess Eleanor and her retinue arrived at Ravensburg Castle during a blizzard. She was dreadfully ill, and she died shortly after. We could have been twins, and even more, we were the same age, save a few days. Her minders wanted to stop the war that had been going on between our countries, and so… I was also King Michael's granddaughter. My mother was his and Catherine Trueblood's daughter." She blinked back stinging tears. "So they buried her at the castle under Eleanor Reeves' marker and sent me on to Gravonia. Count von Hesse had already started training me for a position at Court, so I knew how to stand and walk and speak as a great lady… it's so bizarre, how easily I was transformed from peasant orphan to Queen… but I did. I got to work as soon as I got to Luvov. I cleaned out the palace and had Henry start initiatives to clean up Luvov and the rest of the country. One day I was just Eleanor and the next I was… Queen Eleanor. Sometimes it terrifies me to think of what could happen if anyone… "

"But no one has? Count von Hesse is ambassador to Gravonia now, so obviously he's there to protect you and give you good advice, right?"


"And you've learned how to be as ruthless as any Queen when it comes to protecting your children."

She spread her hands on her lap. "I even retained the services of your Scotsman to deal with a troublesome member of the royal family, and I've threatened to kill Lord Beauchamp if he so much as looked at my children wrong." She fixed Philip with a cool, steady gaze. "I will kill anyone who tries to harm my babies."

"Well, I'd certainly hate to be foolish enough to cross you, Eleanor. You've taken on a difficult role and you've not put a foot wrong, from everything I've heard."

"There was so much work to do. Not just the palace, but how the government was run and the poverty and ignorance of the people… it seems like it never stops. Every day is a new crisis, a new problem, another plea for help… "

"Well, you've had your work cut out, haven't you? But you've accomplished much for a peasant girl," he said, winking. Eleanor gave him a cool look, in spite of her rattled nerves, and he laughed out loud. "There's the tough little Queen that thrashed them at the Field of Stones! God, that must have been a heady day, eh? Even Constantine said that was a brilliant strategy, and he doesn't toss out praise often, particularly to a sixteen-year old girl who by all laws of propriety shouldn't have been anywhere near that battlefield."

"I had to go, and I only tried to be encouraging. It was the army that did… "

"Nay, I won't have you practicing modesty. You gave them the directions after studying that map like any good general. Seebolt told me all." He grinned. "Thomas Seebolt is an old friend. Now he's father-in-law to Catalina, the sweet little troublemaker. How is she?"

"She's doing well." Eleanor wiped her eyes. "Her new baby son is named Constantine."

"Yes, I heard. Jolly good news it was, too. My brother was pleased, though I daresay he might not be so pleased to have her as his guest next week. But he'll put up with her, and the children adore their Auntie Cat."

Eleanor studied Philip for a moment, noting that he did not possess his younger brother's size or physical presence, but he had an easy, natural dignity about him, even when he was joking. Her curiosity overcame her, and she leaned forward a bit. "Why have you never married?"

Philip's smile faded. "I'd rather my brother have the throne, I suppose."

"That is not an answer one hears from a king. I have had my secret revealed. What is yours? It's only fair now, don't you think?"

"Do you promise no blackmail?"

"Well, I know you have a lovely pearl necklace in the Morvenian crown jewels that you can't possibly use… "

He smiled, though there was a small hint of sadness behind it. "I'm not much into retelling tales of tragedy, but if you must know, I was mutilated by the Lacovians when I was a young lion of twenty-three. I cannot have a woman. I mean, I can… technically… but… it doesn't… well, the cannon does not... er... well, there's no ammunition, so to speak."

The Queen's eyes widened in horror and she covered her mouth with her hands. "Oh, God… Philip, I'm so… "

"Do not apologize. I hate it when people say they're sorry about something they cannot change. The only person who didn't say it was Constantine—after he found me and got me to the surgeons, he went off to track down the men who… did that and killed them. Rather roughly, too, I should say. He was full of more piss and vinegar, back then, than he is today. To this day I don't know why the Lacovians did not kill me. I suppose they just wanted to teach me a lesson. Perhaps they didn't know I had a younger brother who could give them hell… and he gave them hell twice over, and to this day the Lacovians shiver with terror when they hear his name."

She sighed, tears welling in her eyes. "Still, Philip, that is a hideous thing to have happen to a young man. To any man."

"Aye, but I had two options. I could have become an angry, bitter man with no balls or a decent fellow with no balls, and the decision to be the latter has served me well over the years. Not that I didn't go through a spell at the time of wishing I was dead, but we needn't quibble on that point." He smiled. "And at least I have a few good memories of life before that… and I am happy, in many ways. I get to rule a good kingdom of good people and I get to meddle in my little brother's affairs and spoil his children shamelessly… that sort of thing. I have a full life."

"Lacovians… such vicious, hateful brutes," she whispered. "Still, you could have married… "

"What would be the point? I wasn't going to saddle a woman with me and deprive her of the children she would want to bear. It would have been unfair to her and we'd have been miserable. I couldn't do that. And really, I've no qualms about Constantine inheriting the throne one day. He'll be an excellent King, though he'll never admit it."

"He will be a fine King," she said softly, looking down. "It was terrible that Isabella died—she would have been an excellent queen. It must have devastated him."

"It did. It still does, in many ways, but he is ashamed, I think, that he is getting over it. Well… not over it, really, but… I don't know the term to use. He has accepted it, let's say, or made some sort of peace with it. We must do that."

"But he loved her so… "

"Not in the way he loved you, Eleanor. Still loves you, in fact. You don't really get over your first love, and you… you were his great love. The love of his life." He smiled and looked down at a small silver ring on his left third finger. "I still love the first woman who slapped me, when I was twenty years old—she was a little spitfire, that girl. I've made sure never to see her since… that day, so long ago. Fortunately, she married someone else. She's a grandmother now." He smiled at her, but the smile did not reach his eyes. The merry, casually compassionate man she had come to know in the past few years clearly had a few scars on his own heart that he was never keen to show anyone, and her own heart hurt for him.

"Then I am truly sorry for you," she said gently, reaching across the table and gently squeezing his hand. "And for Constantine to even think of me… to even… "

"It cannot be a sin if he believes the person he's thinking of and dreaming of is dead. For all he knows, you're dead."

"And I must remain so," she said softly. "Eleanor Reeve is dead."

"And long live Queen Eleanor."

"I hardly know that peasant girl any more. She's almost a stranger to me now. I cannot see how she might ever be resurrected."

"Constantine said she was as strong as a little French mare," Philip said softly. "He was stunned by her death—it was certainly not something anyone expected."

Eleanor sighed. "How is he? I mean, since Isabella's death? Is he all right?"

"He's doing well, I suppose. He eats and sleeps and trains at the pell and is teaching his sons sword fighting and horsemanship… that kind of thing. He keeps himself occupied, but he sleeps alone."

Eleanor felt her cheeks warming. "Oh."

"I would encourage any other man to take a mistress, but Constantine would be appalled at such a notion."

She was appalled, too. She could not imagine him doing any such thing, whether married or not. "He is no doubt faithful to the memory of his wife," she said at last.

"Perhaps. But he's still a man, and a man needs… well, companionship and someone to keep him warm at night."

Eleanor could think of nothing to say to that. Philip shrugged, and she drew a deep breath as he got up.

"Anyway, by all other accounts he is doing well. He lost a good bit of weight after Isabella died but he's finally starting to fill out again. More grey at his temples, a few more laugh lines, but otherwise he is in good health. But he's lonely. I may try to persuade him to marry again, actually. It would be good for him, to have some healthy young lady in his life."

Eleanor frowned. She had no right to issue any opinions on Constantine's romantic or marital future, as Eleanor Reeve was long dead and Queen Eleanor had no say on anything in Morvenia, much less how the Heir Presumptive to the throne of Morvenia lived his life. But still, it rankled her to think of him marrying again.

"Besides, his children would benefit from having a woman in charge of the house. I mean, his housekeeper Mrs. Bright is a nice enough woman but she's not as steady as Isabella when it came to handle four little hellions like Constantine's boys, and the softer touch of a mother is also good for two girls."

"Most children would, I suspect, resent it if their father remarried very soon after the death of their mother."

"Very true, but I've often observed that the happier the marriage, the sooner the surviving spouse remarries after the death of their mate. I'm not sure how that is, or why, but it does happen quite frequently." He nodded as he stood up. "Yes, I believe I will try and put a few available ladies in Constantine's path. I'm sure you would want him to be happy and settled, with someone to take care of him."

"I would never want anything other than his happiness," Eleanor said softly. She rose, and Philip bowed to her.

"That commends you well, Eleanor. Henry and Gravonia are greatly blessed to have you as their Queen and advocate. It was a great pleasure to see you again, and you can be assured that nothing you have told me will be spoken outside this room. You are Queen Eleanor of Gravonia, and that's the end of it." He put on his cloak, pulling the hood over his head. "My own curiosity is satisfied, and I am pleased to know that my sweet little niece will have you as her mentor and friend when she arrives in Luvov." He bowed gallantly to the Queen. "God bless you, ma'am, and your family. Should you ever need my assistance in any way, do not hesitate to send for me."

"But not your brother," she said softly.

"Aye, that would probably be best." His expression sobered. "It would be best, Eleanor, if he never finds our you're alive. The pain he would feel then… it would likely kill him. He is strong, but his heart… " He shook his head. "I love my brother and perhaps I'm a little overprotective, but that's my job. I signed up for it when he was born, you see, and I am determined to never fail him."

Eleanor nodded, tears stinging her eyes. She held her hand out to him, and he bowed over it, kissing her knuckles. His smile was warm and kind, and she felt a great deal of her tension and fear fade away as he left the room, closing the door quietly behind him. Eleanor waited a few moments before she slipped out of the room and was not surprised to see no sign of King Philip. She pulled the hood of her cloak over her head and moved back down the hallway and into the pub, where she was greeted politely by the keeper. "Would you like a cup of ale for your journey, ma'am?" he asked her kindly.

"No, thank you. I commend you on this fine establishment, sir. Good day." She smiled politely at the other men at the bar and at the tables, walked out into the fading sunlight and mounted her horse. Riding through the picturesque little village, she noted a sturdy, well-maintained village school, clean streets, well-tended homes and a village square teeming with vendors selling all manner of things, from fruits and vegetables to books. Stopping her horse at one of the carts, where a man was selling various vegetables, she smiled and asked him his prices.

"Two pence for a squash, milady, and three pence for a cucumber. Are you interested in buying?"

"Oh, I shouldn't, sir. I've a long journey home and do not wish to see these fine vegetables spoiled. Do you do good business?"

"Aye, very well. I make a nice livin', ma'am. Even the poorest of us has got a roofs over our heads and food in our bellies. The Lord has blessed us all well, ma'am, and we thank Him and the King for our good health and prosperity."

"Well, then, that is very good news to hear. I am very happy to see your success. God bless you, sir."

She clucked to her horse and rode away to find Lorenzo. She had a long ride home and her sons had their French examinations tonight.

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