Our Gracious Queen

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Let It Be

Constantine paused in the doorway of Fairwood, watching as the coach containing his sister-in-law and her husband and children trundled up the path and stopped. Baltasar jumped out first and took a cloth-wrapped bundle, and only barely managed to avoid being bowled over by an exited little boy of eight and an equally exuberant little girl of five. Both skidded to a halt when they saw Constantine, who had a tendency to make anyone, child or seasoned soldier, stop in their tracks and reconsider.

"James, Isabella," Constantine said, with a grave nod. "It's good to see you." The two children stared up at Constantine, wide-eyed and clearly more than a little intimidated. He finally crouched down and looked at them at their level. "Did you have a good trip down here?"

"Yes, sir," James finally managed.

Little Isabella stared at Constantine for a long time, and finally she bobbed a curtsey to him, apparently having been coached by her mother. "Uncle Cosant—Costan—Consat—"

"Don't hurt yourself there, sweetheart," he said, unable to contain a smile. "I have trouble with my name too."

Catalina was helped out of the carriage by Baltasar, and she studied her brother-in-law for several moments before drawing her breath. "Constantine. It's… good to see you."

"Likewise," he said, nodding politely. He surprised Catalina then by taking her hand. "I know you miss your sister. I miss her too," he said softly.

She wavered, eyes filling with tears, and she embraced Constantine, sobbing until Baltasar came up beside her and gently tugged her away. "She gets terribly weepy lately, though we both agree that a lot of it is because of the baby." He gingerly handed the baby to Constantine, who looked down at his namesake. The baby stared up at him with wide blue-green eyes and an expression that indicated a coming screaming fit. Constantine couldn't think of a polite way to hand the baby back to his father without giving offense, so he cradled the boy in the crook of his arm and waited. Sure enough, the six-month-old drew in a big breath, screwed his face up into an appropriately outraged expression and set to screaming bloody murder. Meanwhile, Baltasar held his wife as she continued crying.

"Has his mother's temper, I'm afraid," Baltasar grinned, finally relieving Constantine of the shrieking baby. "He's wanting his supper. Cat, come along, sweetheart and let's get settled down a bit and put some water in you to replace the water you're putting out. That little one hates having his routine upset, and so do you. You both need a nap, actually, and I need earplugs."

"Yeah. I think a nap would do us all a lot of good." Constantine muttered, rubbing his still-ringing ear. "And if you've got spare earplugs, I'll ask for them as well."


Eleanor almost burst into laughter when Alexander knocked his father's baton out of his hand. The look on her husband's face was priceless: he had never been bested at arms before, and to be outmaneuvered by his fourteen-year old son was a blow to his ego. The Crown Prince looked pleased and contrite at once, and his father regained his composure and clapped him on the shoulder. "Well done, son. I suppose it was bound to happen eventually."

"You won't lock me up in the Tower, then?"

Henry laughed. "Nay. Not this time 'round, anyway. Go on with your practicing on the pell." He looked at his wife and saw her flushed cheeks and that she was shaking. He feigned offense. "Are you laughing at me, woman?"

"Of course not!" she squawked and collapsed into giggles.

"Oh, I'll get you for that later!" he said when she finally regained her self-control.

"I'm sure you will," she said, batting her eyes. Henry kissed her quickly, pinching her bottom. "I've got to meet with my council, sweetheart. Are we going riding this afternoon… alone?"

"I think I can work that into my schedule," she said, smiling at him. Henry grinned—a ride with his wife through the royal forest usually ended with him being ridden by his wife, and there were few things he looked forward to more. With a jaunty grin he trotted away toward the palace. Alexander continued his exercises at the pell, and Eleanor settled down to watch him.

He was growing up so fast, and developing into a handsome, sturdy young man with an air of firm resolve about him that was encouraging but also slightly… sad, to Eleanor. Her eldest son was determined to be a good king, and as such he spent hours each day studying anything he could find on law, politics, economics and history, and whatever remained of each day was spent in martial training.

Alexander, however good-natured and generous he was, also tended to be slightly dour. He was not humorless, but neither was he light-hearted and jolly like his father. He tended to be introspective, and thus enjoyed reading history and poetry, but his two main interests were learning how to be a king and how to fight, so that he showed little interest in prose. That he had just disarmed his father was a sign that his martial training, at the guidance of Lord Hallam, was bearing fruit.

He also liked to sit up late, talking about politics with his mother and with members of the Council, who often commented that the boy had the marks of a great king. Lord Hallam, however, had often noted to Eleanor that he thought the boy too serious. "It should be interesting to see how he reacts to Princess Elizabeth and to marriage," Hallam had told Eleanor just a few days ago. "The softening influence of a young woman might help him learn to balance things out a bit. Seriousness in a man is a good thing, but a lack of laughter can bring him down very fast."

She could only hope her son could learn to be more balanced. Alexander was entirely too serious and she worried about him. When he finally finished his sword fighting exercises, she gestured for him to come sit beside her.

It was so difficult, she realized, to try and shape a young boy into a man. Henry was a good influence on all his sons, but Eleanor was the one who spent the most time with them, each day, carefully observing their strengths and weaknesses and trying constantly to find ways to bring out the best in each of them. She wanted each of them to achieve their ambitions and to become devout, compassionate and strong men who loved God, family and country, but so many forces outside her sphere were constantly pulling at them, determined to drag them away.

"Sweetheart, I want you to try and relax a bit sometimes. You push yourself far too hard, and you're only fourteen. There's time enough for training and study. At your age, there should also be time for… fun and perhaps even a touch of frivolity."

Alexander removed his mail gloves and rubbed a callus on the heel of his palm. "I know, Mama. I just want to be ready. Not that I think Papa is going to… go anywhere, and God forbid he leaves us soon, but I feel like I should be prepared. I want to be a good leader even before I become King."

"And you will be, but if you push yourself so hard now you'll be burned out before you even ascend to the throne thirty or forty years from now." She brushed a speck of dirt off his cheek. "I must insist you try and relax a bit every day, too, along with your diligent training."

"I don't know, Mama. I have trouble sitting around doing nothing. It doesn't suit me."

She laughed. "It suits your brother George, does it not?"

He grinned. "Aye, I guess it does. But he told me once that he's thinking while he's not doing anything, and writing down his thoughts… " Alexander looked chagrined. "I shouldn't have said that. George would die of embarrassment if I told you he keeps a diary of his thoughts, and of his songs and poetry." The Crown Prince looked mischievous. "Which I also shouldn't have mentioned."

"I will say nothing on the matter, I assure you," she said. She knew about George's diary—he trusted her enough to show her his writings, and she had been impressed with how clear his thinking was for one so young. Her next-youngest son had a real talent for music and drawing, and for a boy of nine he had some rather interesting ideas. He also seemed to enjoy writing stories and poems, and was not ashamed to show them to her, though he would definitely rather die than let his brothers look at them.

Alexander was very definitely not musical, but he had a natural ear for languages, being already fluent in French, Spanish, German and Latin, and was currently translating the entire Book of Hebrews from Greek into English. His brother Frederick, meanwhile was entirely devoted to martial matters and intended to be a warrior, and it was no surprise that after his father his greatest hero was Prince Constantine of Morvenia. Eleanor, however, privately wished he would become interested in gardening. Nonetheless, all he talked about was sword fighting, horses and his increasing prowess with the longbow, sword and dagger.

Harry and William were both rough'n'tumble scoundrels with hearts of gold, and despite being twins they had very little in common aside from blood kinship and devotion to each other and their brothers. Harry was loud, exuberant and rather clumsy, while William was quieter but tended to follow his twin's lead into varying degrees of trouble. The boys tended to do much better in their studies when separated, Eleanor had determined, and her method of educating them separately was working out fairly well. George was Eleanor's dreamer, and Andrew… well, he was temperamental, bold and often forgot to speak and behave properly, but he was also her most affectionate son, and when he got into trouble he often escaped punishment by turning on his not-inconsiderable charm. Even more, he was naturally cheerful and enjoyed helping others, just like his father.

She sat with Alexander for a while longer, watching his brothers practice, at varying levels of skills, at their swordsmanship. She refused to let them practice on each other, no matter how much they pleaded with her, and as the sun started to set she sent them back inside and went to the stables to ask that Merlin be prepared for her evening ride with the King. She sat down on a bale of hay and relaxed, watching as a pair of young men worked at the task of gentling a horse. The young filly balked at first when they tried to persuade her to cooperate, but soft talk and lumps of sugar for good behavior soon won her over, and before Henry arrived one of the men was settling a saddle on the filly's back while the other reassured her.

Eleanor stood when her husband approached. "So how did your meeting with Lord Hallam and Lord Ellis go?"

"Well, they have heard rumors from Lacovia… that Queen Irene is still barren, though they both suspect that it's more King Paul's fault that there's been no heir to the throne." He thanked a groom for bringing his horse to him, but insisted on helping Eleanor up onto Merlin's back. "They are wondering if perhaps we ought to contact Richard of Stormont."

"I would advise caution there," Eleanor said. She clucked at her horse, and the black stallion cheerfully bounced into the stable yard, but he stood still at just the slightest tug on his reins. "I have yet to hear anything definitive on his character, and by no means can we be seen making any sort of overtures to Lacovia. Let him make the first move."

"That's what Lord Hallam said," Henry told her, riding up alongside her. "Lord Ellis was slightly more inclined toward the possibility of putting out… what was the word… feelers. Yes. But he was also very adamant that caution be taken, and both are uneasy about making contact with any Lacovian."

"You have two very wise advisers, dearest, and I'm glad you listen to them."

"They want to meet with you later, of course," Henry grinned. "Nay, don't roll your eyes, lassie. I won't have that. They talk to me and they listen to you."

She laughed. "I shall continue to remind them that I am only a woman and I am not the ruler of this country."

Henry laughed back at her. "One day someone will have to convince you otherwise, sweetheart. Come on—see if your Dutch steed can outrun my tough Gravonian destrier!"


Philip was delighted to see Catalina, to her surprise, and he cheerfully greeted little James and Isabella. He sat down in the gathering room at Fairwood and was almost immediately overwhelmed by wiggling, squealing children, and not for the first time did he feel a twinge of sadness that he would never have any of his own.

"Well, these two little anklebiters are certainly robust," he said, over the noise of a shrieking baby, chattering children and barking dogs. Constantine finally shooed the dogs out, at least, but the children continued making quite a racket until finally Constantine snapped "Quiet!" Even the baby stopped crying and Baltasar took a step back, apparently prepared to run.

"Sorry. I have a headache," Constantine said, looking a little apologetic. Baltasar sat down across from Philip, in front of the fireplace, and grinned.

"Ah. Well, now it's quiet, tell me how you are doing in Gravonia, Catalina," Philip asked kindly. She sat down next to her husband.

"I'm very well, thank you, Your Majesty," Catalina said softly. "I am very happy, actually."

"What's with this 'Your Majesty' foolishness? I thought we were friends, Cat," he said, feigning offense.

She smiled. "Philip. It is good to see you again."

He grinned. "At least somebody here can say that!"

Elizabeth giggled. "We're happy to see you when you bring us sweets and gifts, Uncle King. Otherwise, we're all right with or without you, sir."

Philip pretended to be wounded. "Well, you're a cheeky little thing, aren't you?"

She grinned and kissed him on the cheek. "You know I'm only teasing, silly! We love having you here. We're so used to Papa's gloominess that we don't know how handle the cheerfulness your bring… " She stopped, aghast, and looked at her father. Constantine exhaled slowly, and everyone in the room waited, with varying degrees of uneasiness, for his response. He finally managed a smile.

"Don't worry, Smidgen. I know I'm hardly the more cheerful person around."

Parr climbed into his father's lap and embraced him. Of his sons, his youngest was the most affectionate and demonstrative, and the boy utterly adored his father. He and Charlotte, in fact, were secretly his favorites of the whole unruly herd.

"I like Papa best," Parr said, frowning at Elizabeth.

Charlotte soon joined her brother and clambered up onto Constantine's knee, hugging him and kissing his cheek.

"Darling Papa," she said. "I like Papa best, too. Even when he scolds me."

Philip smiled. "And well you should. Particularly when he scolds you. If he didn't love you, he wouldn't scold you at all."


The evening meal had been consumed with gusto by the household, the table was finally cleared away and Philip sat down by the fire, stretching his legs out. Constantine was upstairs somewhere, probably drinking something stronger than hot cider, and the King worried. He worried more and more every day about his brother, and about Queen Eleanor and the growing storm brewing in Lacovia. His spies had informed him that King Paul was working night and day to rebuild his army, and their attempt at a raid into Havor, last year, had ended in disaster, but reports were that they were itching for another fight, and this time their target was Gravonia. Lord Beauchamp was gathering a force of mercenaries and by all accounts he was preparing some sort of action. The man, however mindbogglingly stupid he was, had every intention of making another try for the throne. The only problem was that despite his alliance with King Paul, Beauchamp's daughter had still failed to even get with child, much less provide an heir. Beauchamp needed an heir to be born to finally cement his alliance with the little weasel, and so far, that ambition had come to nothing.

He sighed and put his head back, closing his eyes. Getting away from Garon was always a great benefit to him, but even this far away from home, troubles and worries still followed. Back home, he had to contend with his mother and her constant complaints, besides his Council, economic concerns, trade agreements, ambassadors and sponsoring all kinds of charities. Here at Fairwood, he could only guess at the troubles his brother was having, as he would never dream of complaining about any of them.

"Uncle King?"

He jumped, startled, and looked at his niece, who was seated in Isabella's chair. The beautiful young girl had a pensive look on her face, and she clasped her hands together tightly.

"I'm sorry, sir. I broke your sleep?"

"Of course not. What do you need, sweetheart?"

"I'm worried about Papa. He… well, he's sleeping and eating, and he's still not drinking, but he seems so lonely now, and when I leave, who will take care of him?"

Philip smiled. "If you were not a princess, I think you'd make a fine nurse. Your Papa will be all right."

"I don't know," she said, pulling her knees up and wrapping her arms around her legs, and he thought that she couldn't have looked sweeter or more innocent if she had been trying. "He smiles sometimes now, but I know he doesn't like being alone. He isn't made for being alone."

"Perhaps one day he'll marry again."

Her expression clouded and she stared into the fire for several moments, thinking. Finally, she sighed and looked at him again. "I would want Papa to be happy. Whoever he marries will have to be very nice to him, just like Mama, or I won't tolerate her at all."

"I can assure you, Smidgen, that I will not allow your father to marry anyone who will not be nice to him and to you." He cracked his knuckles, which he knew was a sure sign of his growing anxiety. "Has he expressed any interest in any woman, that you know of?"

"No. He doesn't even look at women."

Philip nodded. He knew that Giselle, the pretty new girl working in the kitchens at the palace, had been sent from Fairwood, on Constantine's order. He could have dismissed her entirely and sent the poor creature back into her previous life of genteel poverty, but Philip gave his brother credit for sheer decency. "Well, for now, that's probably for the best. It's something you have a few years to go on, before you'll fully understand it all, but it takes longer for a man's heart to… heal before it's ready to give that kind of thing another try."

"So you think Papa's heart is broken?" she asked.

He looked at the fire and thought of Eleanor Reeve and the cruelty of fate. "Very much so, I'm afraid."

"But he might marry again some day?"

"I shouldn't worry about that for now, sweetheart. What he's mostly concerned about nowadays is your own betrothal to Alexander of Gravonia. What do you think of him?"

"He's nice. He's very serious and he has told me a great deal about life in Gravonia and the people at Court, so that I feel quite a bit more at ease about going there. He even sent me a layout of the palace." She dug in her pocket and extracted a much-folded piece of paper, handing it to him. Philip studied it with interest and wasn't surprised to see that the boy had an eye for detail, besides a very real talent for drawing.

"I see. Well, at least you'll not get lost in the palace," he said with a smile. "You ought to go on to bed, little one. I'm sure your Papa wouldn't like to know you're up so late."

She got up and kissed her uncle's cheek and left. Philip sat, staring into the fire, for a long time. He had wanted to ask Eleanor so many questions, but had realized that it was not his place to dig too deep into the affaire de coeur between his brother and her. That kind of love was a deeply personal matter, shared only by the people involved. Something like that seemed almost sacred, and not for him to poke his nose into.

Still… he could see why Constantine still loved her. That woman's devotion to her husband, her children and her adopted country held her in good stead—she had accepted her role, however much she had not wanted it, and had proven a more than capable wife, mother and consort. He hoped Henry had a notion of how lucky he was. He also hoped Constantine never knew she was alive.

"What are you doing up?" Constantine asked, handing Philip a cup of hot cider. Philip couldn't keep from grinning—his brother still had a knack for stalking about in complete silence. Their childhood games of 'Boo!' had sometimes even ended with Philip clinging to a chandelier when his little brother had snuck up behind him and jolted him with a shout. Once he had even dressed up like a court jester and wielded a butcher knife, and Philip had ruined a perfectly good pair of leggings as a result.

"Eh… just doing a spot of thinking."

"Working without tools makes for a hard slog." Constantine sat down in Isabella's chair and looked at the fire. "What business did you have in St. Lo?"

"Just a bit of business. Nothing important."

"But your ambassador couldn't do it?"

"No. He couldn't." Philip eyed his brother, taking in how lean and spare the man was. He looked older, too, though he was still in superb physical shape. Constantine would never be lazy, nor would he ever become fat and sluggish. He reminded Philip a great deal of one of those beautiful desert horses that were occasionally brought from the Orient: even in repose, he seemed to surge with energy, always watchful, always ready to move. That carefully controlled power made him a formidable opponent—that was partly why so many armies quaked with fear when they heard he was coming. His skill as a leader of men was almost secondary to his sheer presence.

"Hm." Constantine downed his cider in one gulp. "So how is Mother?"

"She's well. Well enough to drive everyone crazy, anyway. She insists her health is failing, but not enough to cease to make her servants shake with terror when she's in one of her moods."

"I didn't appreciate you sending that girl up here," Constantine said, a cold flatness in his voice. "Giselle whatever-her-name-was… she was pretty enough, but I have no interest whatsoever in taking a mistress, or a wife. So cut it out. All right?"

"It's been a year… "

"Yes. Only a year, dammit. I'm not in any sha—… condition to… to even try… that. So stop it. Stop butting into my life like that, brother."

"I don't like seeing you so unhappy," Philip finally said, sighing. "Would Isabella want you to be this way? To be so lonely?"

"I will not dishonor her by taking part in some sleazy affair. I can't and I won't."

"Then remarry. Take another wife. I seem to have done fairly well in the woman I selected for you. Let me select… "

"No. Not again. Just leave it, Philip."

Philip could see that Constantine's temper was starting to flare just a bit, but that vein at his temple was not starting to show. He waited, measuring carefully, and finally leaned forward. "I want you to be happy. Listen, you know that I love you. You're my brother, for God's sake, and I hate seeing you this way. Elizabeth has said you are lonely, and that's not good."

"I am not five years old and you are not required to be my keeper, all right?" Constantine said wearily. "Ever since that time Father beat me with that baton, you've acted as though you needed to be my watchdog. But it's not necessary any more and you've got a hell of a lot more important things to do than try to run my life."

"I'm not trying to run your life!" Philip growled. "I just want you to have one."

Constantine glared at Philip, who withstood that withering green gaze quite well.

"I will not take a mistress and I will not marry again. And what I do with my life is my own affair. Whatever decisions I make in the future… well, I will keep you informed. Right now my priority is seeing that Elizabeth is prepared for her marriage to Alexander."

"Dear God, don't tell me you're going to tell her about sex. You'll scar her for life."

"Who will tell her, then?"

"Catalina's here. Let her talk to her."

"And that's better how?"

"Well, she's had three children, so I can only assume she's participated in the process."

"Somehow I doubt she was asleep," Constantine muttered, and Philip burst into laughter. "And considering that she's still apt to argue with anybody about anything, I doubt Baltsar was asleep, either."


Elizabeth was excited to spend time with her aunt, as were her brothers and little Charlotte. Catalina spent a good deal of time walking in the woods around Fairwood, talking about Isabella, reminiscing about happier days, and fussing over the new baby, who was nicknamed Tino. The young girl was overflowing with curiosity about her future husband, and as soon as she and her aunt were alone she began peppering her aunt with questions.

"What is he like? Is handsome?"

"Yes. He has dark hair and his mother's blue eyes, and he is strong and muscular, without being bulky. He's a rather quiet boy, and quite serious, and he's becoming very adept with his sword and the longbow, and he's an excellent horseman."

"Is he kind to horses?"

"Hm? Oh. Well, yes." Catalina looked puzzled.

"Papa says that a man who is nice to people of his rank but whips his horse is not a good person."

"Ah. He is kind to his horses, as far as I know. I've never seen whip marks on them. He is unfailingly polite and courteous to all, regardless of rank, and he even speaks respectfully to the servants. His mother is doing a superb job, raising him and his brothers."

"Is he very devout?"

"I suppose so. His mother is."

Elizabeth drew in her breath. "I admit, I'm more nervous about meeting Queen Eleanor than I am of meeting Alexander or even King Henry. What if she doesn't like me?"

"Not like you? How could anyone not like you, sweetheart? You're your mother's daughter, through and through, and not just for that, the Queen will adore you." Catalina took her niece's hands in hers. "You look so much like your mother. But you've got a good deal of your father in you. Tough and strong and fearless. That will do you a lot of good."

"I hope so. I don't want to disappoint Papa or Uncle King, much less Alexander. I want them to like me."

"They will." Catalina smiled.

"What is the Queen like? I don't remember her very well."

"She is very kind, and she was very generous and sympathetic to me after your mother died. She even talked me out of coming here immediately after I heard the news. She was right, of course—I would have only made everyone more upset by shoving myself into the whole… scene." She smiled and touched Elizabeth's face. Philip had spoken to her that morning, warning her that eventually Elizabeth would start asking questions about her upcoming marriage and her natural duties as a wife, and Catalina felt flattered that the King thought she was a good source of advice to her niece. A few years ago, no one would have come to her for advice on how to buckle a shoe.

"Do you think Alexander will like me? I mean, words on paper are nothing compared to… face-to-face." Elizabeth blushed and looked down. "It is my destiny, I think. To be his wife. To be Queen of Gravonia, some day. I want to be a good queen and a good wife."

"You will be excellent, at both."

"I hope so." Elizabeth stared down at her hands for several moments. "What is it like, Aunt Cat? To lie down with a man?"

"Well… I don't suppose your mother really went over the differences between a man and a woman, did she?"

"No. Not really."

Catalina drew a deep breath and launched into the pertinent information. She wasn't surprised to see the look of mild dismay on her niece's face as she told her all about male and female anatomy and the mechanics of sexual intercourse. She told her niece pretty much the same things Isabella had told her, just before she had left her in Gravonia to marry Baltasar, and could only hope that Elizabeth would find as much happiness and pleasure in her marriage as Catalina had found in hers.

"Does it hurt?"

"The first time, yes. After that… not at all. You might even come to enjoy it a great deal. There is nothing wrong with taking pleasure in the bodies God gave us, so long as it's within the bounds of marriage, and that sort of thing can make the bond much stronger."

"Oh."

"You needn't worry, sweetheart. Alexander is a well-trained young man whose mother has taught him to respect women. He will treat you kindly and gently, I can assure you."

"I suppose that if he doesn't… "

"Then your Papa will separate his head from his shoulders, heir to Gravonia's throne or not."


Summer faded quietly into autumn, and Catalina and her family returned from their trip to Morvenia in the middle of August. Baltasar reported to Eleanor that everything had gone very smoothly, and that his wife had come away feeling much better about her sister's children and their present condition following their mother's death. Catalina had even done a great deal to reassure Elizabeth that her future in Gravonia would be a happy one. Eleanor could only pray it would be so, and she encouraged Alexander to write to his betrothed more often, and to be informal in his letters.

Her unease still grew, however. Every day she received new, disturbing information from the north—Lacovia's army was growing, and King Paul was apparently very enthusiastic about Lord Beauchamp's idea of bringing in mercenaries from all over the Continent to join in his plans, and she knew what those plans were. She knew the difference between a man fighting for his country and a man fighting for money and plunder. One did so out of loyalty, while the other had no particular dog in the hunt except for his own greed, and greed could make a man particularly cruel. If Beauchamp could entice men from other countries to attack Gravonia with him, with promises of women, gold and land, then not even loyal Lacovian soldiers trained to hate Gravonians would be as vicious.

She was having trouble sleeping lately, and she was restless and nervous. She knew, instinctively, that war was looming. King Paul still had no heir aside from Richard of Stormont, and by all accounts the King hated that man. If the rumors of Stormont's better character were true, she might have some reason to think that peace was possible, but Paul might live a long time, and sooner or later he might just get Irene with child. If so, he would have even more incentive to attack Gravonia and her neighbors. His father had failed to conquer Gravonia, and the boy could very well be itching for not only more territory but also revenge.

Eleanor sat in the palace chapel, staring at the flickering votive candles and the vivid wood carving of Christ on the Cross. This was, indeed, where she knew she could be alone with her thoughts and fears and try to give them all to God.

Just the same, there were two guards at every door to the chapel, and there were other guards upstairs at the entryways along the gallery, because Henry would not allow her to go into any room before the guards had scoured the room thoroughly for any possible danger. It was tiresome to her, but she did appreciate her husband's concern for her safety, even if it did border on outright paranoia. Since the day Rieti had attacked her, the King would brook no refusal from her on that end—she had to be protected.

He could be paranoid about her safety, she conceded. She would be paranoid about her sons'.

Philip's promise to help her if and when she called him was encouraging, but it would take at least a day for his army to get to Luvov from even the Morvenian border. Nonetheless, having Morvenia on her country's side was a great blessing… but it could also be disastrous, if Constantine joined in the fight. And why wouldn't he? Philip was a fine general in his own right, but she knew Henry would want the prince to be leading the country's defense alongside Seebolt. Everyone would clamor for Constantine's brilliance, not Philip's cool steadiness. They would certainly appreciate a combination of the two, and she wasn't sure that she wouldn't become hysterical her former lover appeared at Luvov to discuss strategy with her and her husband.

She covered her face with her hands and could think of nothing beyond begging for God's mercy on her soul and the lives of her loved ones. It was all she had to hold on to now, for the sake of her children. She would fight to the death to defend them.

If necessary, she would even fight Constantine.

She would lose, of course. She had no doubt of that, but at least he would know she was willing to give the full measure of her devotion for her sons, and if it meant her death to see them live, then it would be worth it.

A sword will pierce your very soul, and the secrets of many hearts will be revealed.

Her grandmother's words haunted her, more and more every day, and she knew that the woman was right: one day, all would be out in the open. How she would handle that, she didn't know, but one thing she knew for sure: she would not yield to anyone, friend or foe, in protecting her children.

She looked up, not at the carving of Christ, but toward the heavens themselves—she had no use for statues or images while worshipping God. "I believe in You. You know I do. I struggle, sometimes to believe You, but Your mercy gets me through those times. Please… give me strength to do what I have to do, and if it means my life to protect my sons, let it be so." She made the sign of the Cross, stood, and left the chapel. Her diligent bodyguards bowed to her, and she smiled softly before continuing down the hall to the Great Hall, where Henry waited with their sons for supper to be served.

"I'm sorry I'm late, sweetheart," she said, kissing her husband's cheek before sitting down at his right hand. The boys were sitting quietly in their chairs, waiting and watching, wondering how their father would react to her tardiness.

"It's quite all right, dear. We must have sat down early again."

The princes grinned at each other. Papa never got angry at their mother. Not even when she was late.

She smiled and took Henry's hand. "Then let us pray."
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