Our Gracious Queen

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Old Wives' Tales

"What do you think of my waddle, Henry?" Eleanor asked the king, who grinned at her as she practiced waddling across the length of his study, imitating the walk of a heavily pregnant lady at Court. She was starting to put on a little weight, now that her nausea and fatigue were gone and not at all lamented. At ten weeks along in her pregnancy, she was energetic and glowed with excellent health. She was able to eat more and had developed strange cravings, lately for parsnips and rhubarb, which she had never wanted at all before. She had also started having other, more urgent cravings that Henry was delighted to satisfy.

"I think your waddle is lovely, sweetheart," he said. "Now come help me with this tax proposal."

Eleanor sat down beside him at his desk and picked up the papers, reading over them and making marks and corrections with her own quill. Henry had shocked the palace staff by putting a chair at his desk, for Eleanor's use, and had surprised them even more when he started showing her his papers and asking her opinion on virtually every matter of state that came up.

"It's a very well-written proposal," she said at last, sitting back and thoughtfully rubbing her belly. Henry liked to rub aloe on her stomach at night—Lady Hallam had told Eleanor that keeping her skin well moisturized as the baby grew would reduce stretch marks. Of course, Henry liked to use any excuse to touch her anyway, and his ministrations always led to sweet lovemaking.

To the King, she simply looked more beautiful every day, and as Eleanor resumed reading the King's proposal to his Council, he watched her face, enjoying her quick intelligence almost as much as he relished her skills in bed. She shook the papers a little and gave him a lofty look. "Henry, if you're thinking that we're going to have sex here in your study again, you are much mistaken. That poor maid fainted dead away—it took three pails of water to wake her up and she still can't look at me without twitching."

"Well, she had no business barging in on us like that," Henry pouted.

"Your study is for politics, and the bedroom is for sex."

"Surely you know that politics and sex often go hand in hand," he said, grinning wickedly. She playfully slapped his hand away from where it was heading, and he sighed. "And you know what your hands do to me. And you know I would do anything for you. Besides, we've even made love out in the garden."

She blushed—she had been the one who had initiated that rather delightful session, in broad daylight, no less! "Yes, I do know. But really, Henry, there is no way you could bring down the moon and give it to me as a birthday present. Besides, it would be sorely missed."

"I could try!"

She just laughed. "Stop being silly. As a king, you must be practical." She caught him gazing anxiously at her stomach again, and sighed. "You should also stop being such a worry-wort."

"I just don't know how I will bear watching you struggle through the birth, Eleanor. It will kill me to see you in such pain."

"Then for heaven's sake, don't watch! Go hunting when my waters break. Stay away and maintain your sanity." Eleanor smiled at him and tapped the paper. "Eliminating these taxes will do a great deal of good, Henry. The effects of eliminating the other taxes are already being felt—remember that if people can keep more of their own money, they will still put it back into the economy." He looked up at her again, smiling, and she smiled back. "And those initiatives of yours, to put folks to work cleaning up the streets and houses in Luvov, are proving very lucrative for everyone involved." Eleanor did not mention that the ideas had been hers—she had proposed them to Lord Hallam, who had quietly steered Henry toward them, and 'his' ideas had moved quickly through his Council and were approved with few objections.

Crumbling, unsafe tenements and houses in the city were being torn down and rebuilt, which gave many men good work, and the filthy streets were being cobbled, which provided even more employment and Lord Hallam had suggested starting up a crew of rubbish men, to collect trash every week and take it away to be burned outside the city. That initiative had been met with great enthusiasm, and the group of men hired for the job was devoted to their task and took great pride in seeing the city clean and orderly. Drainage works were also started, to eliminate waste and rainwater from the streets. By the first of May, the former stench and squalor of the city was eradicated almost entirely, except for the eastern edge of the city, where the brothels and crumbling public houses stood. Eleanor was still trying to find out who owned them, and why they didn't seem interested in improving that section of the city.

Henry (Eleanor) had also issued an edict, effective immediately, that the streets of Luvov were to be kept clean, with no one permitted to dump chamber pots out their windows. Even more, rewards were being offered to citizens of the city who kept their homes and neighborhoods the cleanest and prettiest. Gardens were being planted, and Luvov's first-ever public park was opened on the first of May. Everyone had greatly enjoyed the lively May Day festival that took place to celebrate the event. Crepe myrtle trees were being planted along the main thoroughfare of Luvov, too, and water fountains were being constructed at many street corners, for not only the pleasing visual effect but also to provide safe drinking water and to put out fires. Little by little, the city was becoming cleaner and safer, and more and more men were working for good wages. Little by little, poverty and despair were becoming things of the past. All that remained to accomplish was education and prosperity, and Eleanor could see both coming at a gallop toward Gravonia.

Those accomplishments were the most important things, Eleanor thought. The palace finances themselves had been a shambles, and Eleanor had been appalled at what she had discovered while going over the books. Dozens of people no longer employed and even some who were dead were still being paid by the Crown, yet she could not find where the money was actually going—only that it was gone. The waste and obvious graft were appalling to her, and she was determined to stir the bottom of the pot until she found out whose pockets were being lined with the Crown's money.

Regardless, she had ruthlessly cut those funds, striking the names off the lists. During the entire month of May, she had sat down and gone through each ledger and found that thousands of marks were being spent on nothing. When she had informed the Chancellor of her decision to begin paring down staff, cut costs and reduce spending, he had become extremely agitated, but he had not objected. Instead, he went to the King and expressed doubts about letting a 'mere woman' take over the royal coffers. Henry had become enraged with the man and threatened him with arrest and execution if he ever spoke ill of the Queen again. From then on, the Chancellor—Lord Welles—was cooperative with Eleanor, but she sensed she had not made an ally of him and never would.

As such, the royal financial situation began to improve, little by little. Eleanor made no show of her efforts but instead encouraged Henry to find ways of streamlining the palace and the government on his own while subtly guiding him towards solid ways of economizing. She knew he was capable of doing great things—he only needed self-discipline and support and she knew he would succeed.

She was pleased to have made a friend in Lady Clothilde, but was particularly relieved to have an ally in the forward-thinking, intelligent, and scrupulously honest Lord James Hallam, whose family had been only prosperous landowners just a generation before--James had worked hard to rise up into the ranks. He was not only her match in intellect, but he was also very eager to see Gravonia move forward from decades of ignorance and poverty. She found, in him, a trustworthy lieutenant and he was loyal to her as he was to Henry. Even more, he was discreet, disinterested in gossip, and never failed to speak as bluntly to her as he did Henry. The King also safely trusted the man, and for that, she felt very much at ease with him as one of the king's counselors, as not all other members of the government were entirely on board with Henry's (Eleanor's) goals.

Eleanor was excited about taking the Progress to the northern region of Gravonia in June—the trip was just days away and preparations were in full swing. She knew Henry wanted to show her off to his people, and she was eager to see the mountains along the borderlands, which were reportedly quite beautiful. Plus, she would have a chance to meet with a few local leaders and hopefully hear their concerns and ideas on how to improve their situations. Despite the end of the drought, the northern area of the country, along the border to Lacovia, was the poorest in all Gravonia, and the heavy taxes of the past few years, plus bad crops, had brought the people in that region very low. Eleanor looked forward to finding out what could be done to help.

"Your Majesty, Lady Hallam is here," Boris told Eleanor, who put down her sewing and stood up, smiling warmly as Clothilde came in, carrying Anna and herding her two boys—Wolfgang and Louis—into the Queen's chamber.

"Clothilde, it is so good to see you," Eleanor said, and she smiled at the two boys. "And how are you, little gentlemen?" she asked, curtseying to them both. "How are you feeling?" she asked Clothilde.

Wolfgang, almost five, and Louis, barely three, stared up at the Queen in awe, and a nudge from their mother made them remember to bow to her. Eleanor laughed, and directed them to play with some of the toys she had found in the palace attics—Henry's old rocking horse, spinning tops, and blunt wooden swords were the perfect playthings for little boys. She sat down again, and Clothilde sat down next to her. "I am excellent. How are you feeling? You are getting bigger and bigger, if I may say so."

"You might as well. Even Henry commented that I'm not as light as I used to be. I'm much more energetic, I'm happy to say. No more fatigue and I can hold food down again!"

"Wunderbar!" Clothilde said with a laugh, clapping her hands excitedly. "Of course, I would hope that the King remembers that ancient rule, about how no one ought to ask a woman how old she is, how much she weighs or when she is due. Not even James ever dares to ask me such things!" She placed her hand on Eleanor's bulging stomach. "We must do the ring test, of course."

"The what?"

"The ring test. You have never heard of it?"

"No, I'm afraid not."

"Well, come over here to this fainting couch and I will show you." Eleanor followed Clothilde to the couch and sat down, and on her lady-in-waiting's instructions, she leaned back a little. "I need to borrow your wedding ring." Bewildered, Eleanor removed the ring and handed it to Clothilde, who tied it to the end of a string of about a foot long, then dangled it over Eleanor's slightly swollen belly. For a moment, the ring didn't move at all, then it began to move in slow circles. "Ah! You are having a boy, Eleanor!"

"What on earth… "

"It is very accurate, see. Each of my pregnancies, I did the ring test and it was right each time. If it were a girl, the ring would swing back and forth. This test has not been wrong in my family's history for several generations."

"A boy… " Eleanor whispered. "It is a bit of an old wives' tale, surely."

"Yes, and many old wives have been quite correct about it, and keep telling tales about it, too," Clothilde grinned. "If I were you, I would start picking out a name for a boy. You will be the mother of the first male heir born to a king of Gravonia in three hundred years, Eleanor."

"It would be nice. Henry says he doesn't care, so long as the baby and I are healthy, but… oh, I know he wants a son. I do too, for my sake as much as his."

"Most men do want sons. Well," Clothilde smiled at her and removed the string from Eleanor's ring and gave it back. "You are taking that Progress with the King, yes?"

"Yes. I look forward to it."

"Well, some advice about traveling is needed. You must make sure to never pass up an opportunity to get off your feet or to relieve yourself and be sure to keep your feet elevated, so they do not become swollen. Avoid salty foods, too, because they will make you retain water… which is dreadful when you're pregnant, I can assure you." She smiled. "And be sure to have sex with the King every night during your journey. That is very important."

"Um… how so?" Eleanor asked, cheeks pinking a little. She already did have sex with Henry every night. Vigorously, frequently, and enthusiastically.

"So the people you're staying with will know the King loves you. It's all a matter of… how you say… projection? Yes? If they know the King loves the Queen, they too will love the Queen."

"You think about things like that far too much, Clothilde," Eleanor said, laughing.

"I am your lady-in-waiting. I must do some of your thinking for you, yes? To keep you out of trouble, for one thing, and to make you less stressed. That is my first duty, the King told me distinctly. I am to see to it that you are not stressed or upset."

Clothilde sat up straight when Lady Agnes and Lady Harriet came into the room and took their seats near the fire. Lady Harriet cast a disapproving glance at the two boys mock-fighting with Henry's wooden swords, but she could do nothing about that so long as the Queen approved. Lady Hallam, however, had to nurse Anna and so she called her boys over, saying it was time to leave. They both obediently came when called and politely thanked the Queen—Louis' words a bit garbled but just as sincere—for letting them play with the toys, and Eleanor kissed their cheeks. Dropping a low curtsey to the Queen, Clothilde and her children left, and Eleanor went to her usual place by the fire, taking up another of Henry's torn shirts, and began stitching it.

"You are prepared for your journey north, ma'am?" Lady Harriet finally asked her.

"Yes, I am. I'm very excited to go."

Harriet's mouth formed a firm line, and Eleanor wondered if the woman had ever just laughed for the sake of laughing in her life. Lady Agnes just looked nervous, as always.

Finally, Lady Harriet leaned forward a little. "I have found a very fine midwife for you, ma'am."

Eleanor frowned. "The Queen will find a midwife when she requires one, Lady Harriet. I think I can handle that on my own."

"The Mistress of the Bedchamber always hires the Queen's midwife, ma'am," she finally said. "It is a tradition."

Eleanor had to bite her tongue to keep from snapping back. "Some traditions, I have found, are really quite ridiculous. Don't you agree, Lady Agnes?"

"I… " Lady Agnes swallowed and couldn't think of an answer, as usual.

"Traditions are what keeps us… regular, ma'am. I mean… steady. Routines and traditions help us maintain… our… "

"Regular bowel movements?" Eleanor smiled sweetly and finished stitching Henry's shirt. Lady Agnes coughed, but Eleanor saw she was trying to cover a laugh. "Lady Harriet, I will select my midwife. Is that clear?"

Lady Harriet swallowed, unprepared for the sixteen-year-old Queen to assert herself this way. "Perfectly, ma'am."

"Quite good." Eleanor smiled. "Lady Agnes, perhaps we might play cards until the King comes up? Lady Harriet, you are dismissed."

Agnes looked a bit wild-eyed, but stood up, curtseying to Eleanor before moving over to the card table and sitting down. Lady Harriet, face flushed with anger and embarrassment, stalked out of the room and closed the door, having forgotten to curtsey before taking her leave. Eleanor sat down opposite Agnes and smiled. "Would you like to deal, Lady Agnes?"

"Yes… I mean… no… I mean… "

"Lady Agnes."

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Deal the cards."

"And she has refused to let you select the midwife?"

"I am sorry, sir, but the Queen is very stubborn."

Lord Beauchamp glared at Lady Harriet. "She must be broken of this stubbornness of hers," he said.

"Sir, she is sixteen years old, far away from home and living among strangers, and she expecting her first child. Surely you cannot… "

"I can, and I will, Lady D'Acre. You will find a midwife and she will accept her, whether she likes it or not. If she bears a girl, it won't matter, but if it is a prince… "

Lady Harriet shook her head, unable to bear to hear what Beauchamp might suggest. "I cannot… "

"Do you wish to keep your position at Court, Lady D'Acre?" he hissed. "Do you want anyone to know how you even got your position? Do you want your husband to know where your boys came from? Hm?"

"No, sir," she whispered, eyes downcast, blushing in shame.

"Aye, I'm sure your husband would be shocked at the things you've done, wouldn't he? I'm sure he wouldn't be pleased to learn about his wife's dalliance with the gardener on his estate. Or that she still sleeps with him, for that matter." His smile was positively oily, and she winced.

"Please, sir… " Harriet pleaded. "You surely cannot wish to… "

"Don't say the words, Lady Harriet, and the sin is not credited to you. I'm not so foolish as to say them, either. The term is necessary inference and the words never need to be spoken outright—only inferred, my lady. But the action must be done per the inference. No paper trail, not even a handshake or a verbal agreement." He smiled, and she felt sick to her stomach. "All it requires is an exchange of funds and the matter is settled."

"I will put… the right sort of midwife in the Queen's path, sir," she said at last, her desperation overcoming her conscience.

"Very good, Lady Harriet. You're not nearly as stupid as I first thought."

"You are just as cruel as I ever thought, sir, and even more so," she said, bobbing to him before leaving him alone in the shadows of the hallway. Lord Beauchamp left, making his way out into the Great Hall and seeing the King seated at the table with some of his young gentlemen, playing cards.

"Your Majesty," he said, bowing.

"Charles! Where have you been?"

"Vienna, sir. A long journey." He frowned and touched the hilt of his dagger. The trip had not been lucrative at all—making an alliance with those damned Turks had proven disastrous, as Prince Constantine of Morvenia had come in, mercilessly thrashed them, ruthlessly destroyed their ships and captured a very large amount of treasure to boot—treasure Beauchamp had been expecting to receive when the battle was over. Only a handful of the Sultan's men had even survived, and Constantine hadn't lost a single man in the brief but bloody battle. Beauchamp rarely felt fear around anyone, but his meeting with the prince had left him quaking in his boots, and he was glad the intimidating Morvenian hadn't found out why he had come to Vienna at all. Only fools, he had learned, ever dared cross that man.

"Oh, well, it's good to have you back. I'm leaving on my Progress to the north tomorrow, you know. I suppose you're too tired to go."

"Yes, I'm afraid so, sir. I understand you are to be congratulated, sir. The Queen is expecting?"

"Yes, she is!" Henry grinned and stood up, his men all grinning too as they began cleaning up some of the mess they had made, though not terribly well. Some housemaids came in and began clearing up the rest, and Henry thanked the women warmly before turning back to Beauchamp. "The Queen is progressing beautifully—ten weeks along now, and she is just starting to show a bit, but not much, and her nausea has faded away already, thank the dear Lord."

"Tell her I am delighted to hear the news, sir," Beauchamp said, bowing again. "If you'll excuse me?"

"Of course. My best wishes to your wife and children, cousin." Henry smiled, joked with his gentlemen for a moment, and headed upstairs. Beauchamp went out into the courtyard, calling for his horse, and rode home.

The retinue of the King was moving slowly, at Henry's orders, for the sake of the Queen. Eleanor felt fine, however, and had objected to having to ride in the coach instead of on horseback, but he had put his foot down. So she had to sit on thick cushions in the carriage and stare across at Lady Harriet and Lady Agnes. Lady Matilda was along for the trip as well—neither of the three women was exactly what she wanted to look at, and she already missed Clothilde, who had declined to go, as she was still nursing little Anna and didn't like taking her so far from home. Eleanor could think of nothing to talk about with the three women, and so kept silent, looking out the window at the countryside.

As the royal progress passed through little towns and villages, many people came out of their homes to watch them go by. Eleanor smiled and waved to them and was pleased to see them—particularly children—waving back. She didn't mind the heat outside at all—it was the stifling atmosphere inside the coach that was starting to irritate Eleanor a great deal, and she was vastly relieved when the retinue made its first stop, at the picturesque little village of Willemet. She liked the thatched cottages with their ornate porches and window boxes full of pansies and geraniums. The streets were cobbled and clean-looking, and she smelled fresh paint and realized suddenly that in her position, she likely would smell fresh paint any time she went anywhere on an official visit.

She was helped out of the coach by the King, and she was pleased to see a large crowd gathered in the village square. Eleanor smiled and Henry took her hand. "Good people of Willemet, we are very pleased to be here, and I know you are anxious to see our new bride, so… here is your Queen!" He held up her hand, and kissed Eleanor's fingertips as the crowd cheered its approval.

Some local worthies were waiting to greet her, and a woman pushed a small child, a pretty little blonde girl of perhaps four years, toward Eleanor. The child was holding a bouquet of flowers to present to Eleanor, but she apparently wasn't clear on the concept, because she just stood there, waving the flowers about like a wand. She started to make circles with the flowers, with a few petals falling off and blowing away in the breeze, and Eleanor heard the girl's mother hiss, "Give the posies to the Queen, Gisela!"

Eleanor bent down and kissed Gisela's cheek, allowing the child to finally figure it out and hand the flowers to her. "Gisela, these are such pretty flowers, though they are not nearly as pretty as you. Thank you so much, sweetheart!" She caressed the girl's cheek and smiled at her before straightening.

Gisela smiled at the Queen, delighted, and skipped back to her mother. Smiling and kissing babies seemed to be universally favored because the crowds again cheered and applauded, and Eleanor smiled again, wanting to please them, but mainly she wanted to make Henry proud.

Henry chatted amiably with the town burghers, and Eleanor and her ladies were led to the home of the town mayor, a Sir John Braithwaite. Eleanor could only hope their house was large enough to house the royal retinue and could endure the outbursts of rowdiness common among Henry's gentlemen. She had brought along a notebook, where she was going to keep records of what she saw and heard and to tally up costs of any repairs that might be required.

Henry was not good at speech-making, Eleanor had long ago realized. He had a tendency to ramble on a bit, and they had finally worked out a way to signal that he needed to wrap up his remarks and sit down.

The Queen and her ladies were seated directly behind the King, so that Eleanor could not be clearly seen by the assembled audience. She glanced at Lady Agnes, who was seated beside her, drew in her breath, and quickly kicked the Mistress of the Robes in the ankle. Her lady-in-waiting yelped in pain and let out a rather vile curse, to her utter mortification. Everyone in the assembly hall in the pompously named Mayor's Palace looked surprised but said nothing.

For the first time, Eleanor wished Harriet had been sitting next to her. She would try to make sure Agnes got an extra apple tart tonight at supper, to make up for her bruised ankle.

Henry wrapped up his speech--extolling the virtues of thrift, hard work, and honesty in enterprise—and sat down beside Eleanor, glancing at her and catching her little smile and nod. He was learning, she thought with a fond smile back. His speeches were getting shorter, and he was making his points much better of late. Short speeches make for longer reigns, she had told him last night, when he had shown her his speech and she had begun editing it, cutting out superfluous comments and correcting grammatical errors. His main problem was that sometimes he would go off the pages and start making his own off-the-cuff comments.

The opulent banquet being held in the Mayor's Palace was tiresome, for Eleanor, who wanted to take a nap instead, but she knew this was important to Henry, so she held on to her smile and turned on the charm to the mayor and the local burghers. Henry was very keen on speaking with Willemet's leaders, but the men all seemed fearful of voicing their complaints and grievances to the King—his grandfather had tolerated no such thing from his subjects. Finally, as dessert was being served, Henry asked Eleanor to try and have casual discussions with local leaders as they traveled north—perhaps they would feel more at ease talking to a pretty young woman, he mused.

The Lord Mayor of Willemet finally approached the Queen, bowing to her, and she asked him to sit beside her as everyone else was dancing. "Tell me, Sir John, have the recent rains had much effect on the outlook of this year's harvests?" she asked kindly.

"Yes, ma'am, I believe so," Braithwaite nodded, looking uncomfortable. "But… um… the main problem we seem to have are raids from Lacovia. They burn or destroy whatever we can raise, and then the taxmen come and demand our coins anyway, but we've no money… "

"These taxmen… they represent the Crown?"

Sir John frowned at her, puzzled. "They say they do, ma'am."

The Queen nodded and wrote in her notebook. Sir John took a deep breath. "The taxes have always been high, but we never have quite understood why the taxmen come twice yearly when they only collect once a year in the rest of the country."

Eleanor stared at him for a moment, bewildered, then wrote again in her notebook. Sir John watched her, becoming increasingly nervous. "Ma'am, you will… be bringing this up with the King?"

"I will," she said. "And with the Council. His Majesty will find this to be utterly egregious, as will his gentlemen. I know for a fact that taxes are collected once yearly in each region, at the same time. There are no records of any other taxes being collected in this region of Gravonia, sir. Tell me, do these tax collectors say they are actually working for the Crown?"

He thought for a moment, glancing around the room. "They do not, ma'am. I have never heard them say so, anyway. A group of men simply come each October and… read out the orders. If we don't pay, they… cause a bit of trouble. People have lost their homes, ma'am. Livestock is killed or just taken, houses and barns are burned… the northern regions of Gravonia are a bit isolated, ma'am, and far from Luvov, so… perhaps it's harder for the King's soldiers to come here to protect us from… from Lacovia... " His brow furrowed. "And the taxmen."

She pursed her lips, thinking. That was hardly an excuse—the King's soldiers were required to go where they were sent, particularly if there was ever any trouble from Lacovia, and all citizens of Gravonia deserved to be safe—so why were none of the King's soldiers guarding the northern villages? "How many royal soldiers are stationed here in this town?" she asked.

"At the moment, ma'am, there are none."

Eleanor was appalled. "What of a sheriff? You do have a sheriff, right?"

"No one has been appointed by the Crown since the last one died last year."

"I see." Eleanor was not sure what to make of this. "Do these tax men wear the black and gold of Gravonia, or some other colors?"

"None of either, ma'am," Braithwaite answered. "They wear black doublets and hose and carry swords and go to each village along the border. This started back during the reign of King Andrew. Please, ma'am, we do not wish to anger the King. Most of the villages along the border are just trying to scrape by each year. If these men are from the Crown… we will try to pay… "

"I can assure you, they are not representatives of the Crown. I know for a fact that taxes are only collected in mid-May, every year." She wrote down some questions to ask Henry and his councilors later. "Tell me, Sir John, would you recognize any of the men if they were presented to you?"

"I know I would," he told her. "As would many others. They are rather hard to forget."

"And the Lacovians—when do they usually do their raids?"

Braithwaite sighed. "In October, each year, ma'am. Just as we're trying to finish up the harvest and have already paid the… taxes." He looked confused. "Perhaps those taxmen are actually Lacovians, ma'am."

Somehow, she doubted that, but she smiled at Braithwaite and made more notes in her book before slapping it shut. "Rest assured, Sir John, the King will be informed of these outrages and they will be rectified shortly."

The trip through the northern regions of Gravonia was very successful. Henry was good at the public relations aspects of monarchy—he knew how to put on a good show of pageantry, majesty, and simple royal magic. He was comfortable wearing the finest clothes, and when he wore his shiny silver armor he was any young lady's dream come true. With his good looks, height, gold coloring, and natural dignity, he exuded royal power and grandeur. One of his great-grandmothers had been a Plantagenet, no less, and so he had that family's looks and dash, but without the cruelty and viciousness common among the rulers of England.

He did look magnificent, Eleanor thought, as he mounted his favorite warhorse and prepared for a jousting match against a local champion, a rather large man named Sir Geoffrey Rowlands. It was their last day in the north, and the royal party would be traveling back to Luvov tomorrow morning, and though Eleanor had had a good time in the north, she was eager to return home.

The King was fitted with his helmet, on which a gold circlet was displayed, and he looked at Eleanor, who gestured to him to remember to put his visor down. The king grinned, smacked it down with a clang, and took his lance from his page. The King and his horse were covered in the striking black and gold colors of Gravonia, and his shield bore the royal emblem—a black stag against a gold background. All in all, he was an arresting sight.

A giggly teenage girl dropped the handkerchief and Henry and Rowlands charged at each other, and Eleanor held her breath until the lances made contact. Sir Geoffrey was knocked clean off his horse, and Henry galloped on to the edge of the tiltyard, turning his horse and lifting his visor, looking concerned as he trotted back to see to his opponent's condition. Sir Geoffrey was getting back to his feet on his own power, however, and Henry dismounted, giving the man a friendly thump on the shoulder. "Keep your horse and your armor, sir, and may God bless you." The King bowed to Rowlands, who looked surprised and pleased.

Eleanor smiled—a good royal show, indeed. While her husband went hunting with the nobles of the borderlands or watched dancing exhibitions or jugglers or attending a banquet, Eleanor quietly sat down for meetings with village leaders and listened to their stories of Lacovian brutality and the scare tactics and blatant thieving of 'taxmen' that came each fall, claiming to represent the Crown. She was keeping meticulous records of what they were telling her and was drawing up a report to give to the Council when they returned to Luvov. There was so much work to do, and she began to wonder if the taxmen and the Lacovian raiders were, in some way, connected. She doubted they were all the same men, but the timing of their excursions into the region could not simply be coincidental.

Just the same, in between those meetings, Eleanor was able to take excursions, with her ladies and some of Henry's gentlemen, to take in the scenery. She relished the stark beauty of the mountains and was not in the least bit intimidated by the rather gloomy, dark forests around the northern villages, as they reminded her so much of the Turon valley. The people of the region seemed suited to the land, being equally rough-hewn but also honest and straightforward in their dealings.

With the jousting over, all that was left was yet another banquet, though Eleanor was in no mood for trying to stare down a vast roasted pig or a stuffed swan. Nevertheless, she rose, smiling, and presented the winner of the joust with a deep, sweet kiss. "What if Sir Geoffrey had won the match?" Henry asked her.

Eleanor laughed. "He would have had just a peck on the cheek, dearest, and a sharp ticking off for knocking my husband off his horse."

The King sighed and rolled off Eleanor, carrying her with him and closing his eyes, relishing the feel of her lovely body moving sweetly against his own. God, he loved this woman. She was utterly perfect: he had yet to find a flaw in her. "I adore you," he whispered to her.

She kissed his chest, and he could feel her still trembling a little. "I rather like you, dearest," she said softly, snuggling into his chest. "I love you. That was wonderful. Just… " she sighed. "Wonderful."

Henry squeezed her and began to caress her back and her bottom, stroking her thighs, loving the silk of her skin. He wasn't sure he could maintain his sanity while in Havor, away from her. She lifted her head and kissed him warmly, her mouth so soft and sweet it almost made him come all undone—dear God, he almost started to weep. "I fall more in love with you every day, my darling," he said, running his fingers through her hair. He cupped her cheek and she gently kissed his palm, then sweetly kissed his fingertips, and he became aroused again.

She sighed and began kissing his chest again, moving down slowly, letting her tongue glide down the center of his belly, and Henry closed his eyes, unable to quite believe that he had married someone like this. His councilors had told him three years ago that he was to marry Eleanor of Livonia and that she was rather delicate and retiring, yet this exquisite, brilliant young woman was anything but. She was strong, lusty and obviously fertile, so intelligent it was almost frightening, and her devotion to him and to Gravonia was touching. She did nothing but encourage him to be a good king, and her concern and compassion for his people was making the monarchy stronger and stronger every day.

He was the luckiest man in the world. By far. No man alive had a woman like this in his bed. Certainly, no man he knew of had a woman willing to do such things to him—she seemed to have no shame whatsoever in bed. Or anywhere else, actually. He grinned, thinking of the other places they had made love. Against walls, in the bathtub, on the floor, in the garden… but now Eleanor's mouth was there and Henry couldn't think at all.

Later, as she lay on her stomach, relaxing and sighing as Henry massaged her. She stretched and sighed, satisfied. For now, he thought with a grin. Pregnancy seemed to make his wife deliciously insatiable, and even before her pregnancy, he had been delighted by her strong sexual appetite.

"Lady Hallam believes I am carrying a prince, Henry," she said softly.

"If it is Almighty God's will, then let it be so," he said, caressing her shoulders and sliding his hands down and forward, to stroke the outer curves of her breasts. What had he done to deserve her? Whatever it was, he was determined to make sure he would continue to deserve her--the moment he had seen her, all doubts had been cast aside and he had become completely devoted to her and would remain so. He began kissing her shoulders, then her back, and took a catnap in the small of her back, breathing in her bewitching scent.

"I believe He wills it," Eleanor said, waking him. "What do you think we should name our son?"

Henry was moving lower. "You pick the name. I know you will pick a good one. You do everything so… well… "

"I like Alexander," she said, as he began doing something to her that he hadn't done before. He hesitated, unsure if she would be willing to try it, but her languid sigh indicated she was offering no objections. "He would be Alexander the fourth, right, many, many years from now?"

"Yes, darling," Henry said softly. "It is a good name." She clutched the sheets, moaning as he began preparing her. "Am I hurting you?" he asked, determined to stop if she found the position painful or unpleasant.

"Not at all," she sighed. "Oh… oh my… " She sat up and raised her arms up as he began kissing her neck, listening to her breath quicken. "Please… don't… stop… oh… oh God… that feels… oh… yes…"

Hours later, holding her close, gently caressing her, Henry kissed Eleanor deeply, lovingly, and looked into her eyes. "I love you. You… you have no idea how much I love you. I fell in love with you the moment I saw your blue, blue eyes. I went from being a King to your slave, forever."

"I will not make you my slave, dearest," she said softly, tracing her fingers over his cheek, smiling as his stubble tickled her fingers.

"I want to be your slave," he said. "At your word I fly or fall. I am yours, Eleanor. Yours alone. I adore you. I would move mountains for you, and swim oceans and not fear drowning."

"You've become quite eloquent lately," she said softly, running her fingers through the swirls of his ears and gently caressing his shoulders. "I think I might have turned you into a warrior poet."

He smiled, kissing her fingers, one at a time. "If I could, I would write songs and sonnets about you, but you know I have no talent for such things." He kissed her sweet mouth, sighing into her, becoming blissfully lost in her warm embrace. "About your eyes and your mouth and your hair and your breasts and your thighs and your sweet little… hmm… arse… " He accepted her sweet kiss and pulled her closer, never wanting to let her go. "I love you," he said ardently. "So much, Eleanor. If I could stand another man looking at you naked, I would have an artist commissioned to come and do a nude portrait of you and have it hung in my study, so I can look at it all the time."

She giggled. "You'd never get any work done, sweetheart."

He laughed. "Probably not."

Lord and Lady de L'Isle had been the final hosts of the royal party as they made their way back home, and the couple had a lavish breakfast prepared. Eleanor ate cold ham and scrambled eggs as she chatted amiably with Lady de L'Isle, a tough-looking woman in her late forties.

"You have six children, is that right?" Eleanor asked.

"Yes, ma'am. Four boys and two girls. We are greatly blessed."

"Indeed you are. Perhaps you might offer some advice on what I'm in for?"

Lady de L'Isle smiled and thought carefully, and finally spoke with the bluntness of the northern Gravonians that Eleanor had begun to appreciate. "Well, first of all, it hurts like bloody hell to give birth. There's no point pussyfooting around that, and take whatever pain-killing remedy you can find. You'll likely want to be alone, too, when your waters break and you'll get angry at everyone, including your husband. I wanted them all to go away—the midwife, even, and I threw a candlestick at poor Patrick and demanded that he be killed for what he had done to me."

"That doesn't sound good," Eleanor said, though she could tell Lady de L'Isle was more philosophical about it now.

"It is dreadful, and the pain is agonizing, and with the first one, right up until after he was finally born, I swore I would never let Patrick touch me again and if he tried I'd brain him with a morning star. But as soon as I held that sweet little boy in my arms, I knew I wanted to have another."

Eleanor smiled, and Lady de L'Isle continued. "Of course, up to the birth, you'll get awful cravings and you'll be tired and cranky and either overly hot or cold and you'll burst into tears over the post being late or even the sight of a bunch of carrots. Anything will set you off." She watched Eleanor take another bite of ham. "The ham will help."

"I haven't had many crying spells yet," Eleanor said. "Mainly I'm…" She stopped herself from saying she was horny. That would be rather mortifying, really, and Queens don't say things like that. But she was. It seemed like all she wanted to do was shag Henry morning, noon, and night. What he had done to her last night, for the first time, had been absolutely, scandalously mind-blowing. "Um… rather hungry and a little emotional."

"Being sixteen, you're likely to have rather overwhelming sobbing spells, believe me. I was only fifteen when I married and was barely sixteen when John was born." Lady de L'Isle shook her head. "I wouldn't let my daughters marry until they were eighteen. A girl should see something of life and it's realities--good and bad--before she marries."

Eleanor thanked Lady de L'Isle and finished her breakfast, then requested that she be told of any expenses that would be required to pay to restock the house's larder and to repair or replace damaged furniture. Henry's gentlemen had decided to start trying to throw rings up onto the antlers of stags decorating the Great Hall last night, and had broken a few of Lord de L'Isle's larger trophies, and she knew those men ate like horses.

In the coach again with Agnes, Harriet and Matilda, Eleanor dozed or looked out at the countryside as they traveled south to Luvov. Henry frequently rode alongside the carriage, to check on his wife. When the retinue stopped in the royal forest, just a few miles outside the capital city, Henry sat on a blanket with Eleanor and her ladies, eating roasted chicken. When she finished eating, he stood up and helped her to her feet. "The Queen and I are going to for a walk," he announced. "Alone."

The King's gentlemen nudged each other, but made no comments, and Eleanor's ladies remained seated, Agnes and Matilda wide-eyed and Harriet vaguely dismayed. Once they were out of earshot and Henry was certain they were completely alone, he pulled Eleanor into the grass and they made love, fully clothed, until they were both satisfied.

"I hate that you're leaving for Havor," she said softly, lying beside him with her head on his chest, listening to his heartbeat finally slowing to its normal rate.

"I don't even want to go," he said. "But I'm obliged. Our trade agreement with Havor is very important and it was arranged long ago."

"I know." She sat up and kissed him, and he finally got up, rearranging his clothes and helping Eleanor get back to her previously cool, demure appearance. "I shall miss you dreadfully."

"I'll probably go mad," he said, smiling as she hooked her arm around his and let him lead her back to where their retinue waited for them. "I do hope you'll take good care of yourself while I'm gone, Eleanor."

"I'll be busy, I'm sure. By the way… Lady Harriet has said she has found a midwife for me."

"Oh, well I suppose that's good. One will be required."

"I should like to hire a midwife on my own, Henry. Someone I will feel comfortable with."

"Then do so, with my blessing," he said, kissing her knuckles as they walked back into the clearing. The members of the royal party stood up. He called to Lady Harriet. "The Queen will select a proper midwife on her own, Lady D'Acre," he said. "I think she can do that well on her own, just as she does everything else." Eleanor caught a strangely panicked expression across Harriet's face but thought little of it, and the King helped her into the carriage. Harriet, Agnes, and Matilda climbed in with her and stared across at Eleanor.

"So you have truly gone over my own head, Your Majesty?" Harriet said at last, when the carriage started moving again. Eleanor leaned back against the soft cushions and nodded.

"Yes. And I know exactly who will be my midwife, too. I shall have her brought to Luvov when Henry returns home."

"Who would that be, ma'am?" Agnes finally asked, looking nervously at Harriet, wondering why she looked so uneasy. "A proper Gravonian woman, of course?"

"She is… a Mrs Elizabeth Bolingbrooke, from the eastern… border to Livonia. She is quite well known for her skill in delivering children, and has safely borne eight of her own." Eleanor smiled softly. "Thank you, Lady Harriet, for giving me the impetus to make the decision so soon. I should have hated to have waited until the last minute, when it would have been out of my own hands. Thank you indeed." She smiled lazily, closed her eyes, and was soon asleep.
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