King Paul rubbed his hands together, not entirely eager to hand out such a large sum of money, but if the end results were as he hoped, it would be worth every farthing. He nodded at the three men and handed them each a small sack of gold coins.
"I want her dead, do you hear? Feel free to have some sport with her if you like, but either way she's to be dead."
The men bowed and filed out of the room. Paul sat down and glanced at the Queen, who said nothing. Not even her face told her feelings on the matter, though he guessed she wasn't exactly in line with his ambition to wreck the Gravonian/Morvenian alliance. Considering he spent no time with her at all, save a weekly visit to her bed, it was not surprising that he knew nothing of her thoughts. Not that he really believed she had any thoughts to begin with, and he really didn't care anyway.
"You would murder an innocent girl?" Irene asked him.
"I'll do whatever is necessary," Paul answered shortly.
"I see. Then I hope you are prepared for the consequences. Prince Constantine once wiped out an entire force of Turks for laming his horse. Harm his daughter and he will unleash hell on you."
"I am ready. We have been preparing for this for a long time." Paul glared at her. "And remember, whatever hell he unleashes will be on you as well, woman."
"And you think King Philip is as stupid as you?" she asked. "King Henry is an honorable man and he would never order the death of an innocent girl... and he would never cross King Philip or his brother. You murder Prince Constantine's daughter, you will have not only Morvenia's army but also King Henry's pouring into Lacovia… and I certainly won't stand to defend you."
Paul raised his fist, prepared to strike his wife, but remembered the terms of her dowry and stepped back. What rankled him even more was that she didn't even flinch. He would rather see hatred in her eyes, but all he saw he was indifference. She didn't give one damn about him, and he knew it. The King sneered at Irene, turned and stalked out of the Presence Chamber. Irene sighed and sat down, shaking her head in amazement. She glanced at the door to her left and cleared her throat. Stormont stepped into the room, and she waited.
"What do you think?" she finally asked.
"He's a bloody fool if he thinks he can kill the princess and get away with it. If she gets even a scratch on her finger, Constantine will destroy Lacovia." He looked at the Queen. "There will be none of us left alive."
Elizabeth found it strange that she wasn't upset any more about leaving home. All in all, she was increasingly excited about going to a new country and experiencing new things. She looked forward to meeting Alexander and his parents and his brothers and to exploring her new home—there was no denying that it was all more exciting to her it was sad to be leaving home. She stood in the courtyard at Fairwood, embracing her brothers one by one and then hugging Charlotte and letting the little girl cry on her shoulder—she was going to miss her the most, she knew, as she spent most of her time with her every day.
"When will you come home, Lili?" Charlotte asked, wiping her tears away.
"I won't come back here again, I don't think, or at least not any time soon," Elizabeth explained. "But you can come visit me. I will insist on it, when I marry Alexander—you will have to be a bridesmaid."
"Why does everybody have to leave?" Charlotte wailed, clinging to Elizabeth again and sobbing. "Mama went to live with Jesus and you're going to go live in Gravonia, and that's almost as far away. It's not fair!"
Constantine, watching the level of female emotion increase to dangerous levels, stepped in. "Charlotte, that's enough. You're just getting yourself all wound up again, like when you pet the cat too hard. Kiss your sister and go inside."
Charlotte meekly obeyed her father, and after saying her final goodbyes she trailed into the house with her brothers, who took their leave of their sister with last hugs and kisses. Elizabeth squared her shoulders, nodded, and climbed up into the carriage. She looked out at the thirty knights escorting her and her father to Gravonia and suspected that only a band of fools would attack them, as they were a fierce-looking bunch. Her father, astride a big black Friesian he had purchased a few months ago from a Dutch horse trader, signaled for them to begin their journey. Elizabeth glanced back at her home and saw the servants standing on the steps with her siblings, waving goodbye, and she smiled and waved back.
The past few days had been a whirlwind of activity, of not only packing up her belongings and her trousseau, but also of her continued training in self-defense. Her father had even given her a book to read on battle strategy and another on the history of Gravonia, with instructions to read the first book during her journey and the second at bedtime each night. She was doing well in her martial training, according to Papa—and who was a better judge of that than him?—and she rather enjoying throwing her uncle Philip over her shoulder. Aside from that, the history of Gravonia was rather interesting, too, in light of how things had changed for that country in the past eighteen years.
Elizabeth settled into her seat, shoving a pillow behind her back and bracing her feet against the seat opposite. She picked up the book on military strategy and began reading, puzzling over the first rule of warfare: Know your enemy.
Eleanor inspected Elizabeth's suite of rooms, and was pleased that they had been painted in the princess's favorite colors of blue and yellow, and that the furnishings were comfortable and pretty. She requested that the servants make sure fresh flowers were in the room on the day the girl arrived, and that the sheets and blankets be freshly laundered and smelling nice. She also instructed that the windows to the room be left open, to keep the air fresh and clear.
The Queen finally was able to settle down a bit, and she let herself relax. She sat in her room, reading over the twins' translation of Job into French and feeling somewhat amazed at how well they had done at their punishment/project. Harry, older than William by about ten minutes, was more proficient at languages, but both were diligent at their studies (most of the time) and Eleanor's instructions in French had paid off. She tucked the pages into her box of keepsakes and sat staring into the fire, thinking about the future.
Yesterday is dead, tomorrow is blind. Today is a gift. That's why it's called the present.
Betsy had told her that several times, and Eleanor believed it with all her heart, but that didn't change the fact that it was Constantine's daughter coming to marry her son, and every time Eleanor closed her eyes she could envision his fury if he ever discovered whose son his daughter would be marrying.
Elizabeth was sixteen years old, well-educated, apparently very pretty and according to a letter she had received just that morning from King Philip, she was increasingly proficient at martial arts. That in itself amused Eleanor a bit—of course Constantine would insist on teaching his daughter how to fight. Alexander would also appreciate having a wife who knew a bit about military matters—it would give them at least one extra thing in common.
Lord Hallam, who had met the girl twice over the winter, had also reported that she was very pretty, intelligent, well-spoken and had a kind, gentle spirit that would require careful handling. He had also commented that while she didn't look it, she was her father's daughter in steel and her mother's in sweetness.
The Queen sighed and put her head back, closing her eyes. In five days, a young red-headed girl would change the entire dynamic of her family. Alexander—her firstborn, her baby—would be taking his first real steps toward becoming a man in the process, and the future of the monarchy would rest on the shoulders of two young people who, for now, barely knew each other. Eleanor knew she had her own work cut out in trying to be a friend and mentor to the girl, while also taking over the role of mother, at least as far as would seem appropriate. She knew she could never take Isabella's place, but Elizabeth would need support and guidance in the next several years.
Eleanor started when someone knocked on her door. "Come!" she called. Clothilde stepped in, smiling warmly, and she sat down opposite the Queen.
"Well, my Anna is very excited and nervous about meeting Princess Elizabeth. She hopes she will be very helpful."
"I know she will be." Eleanor smiled. "That's why I selected her. She and Meg and Ellie will be very good support for Elizabeth, and she'll need it, just like I did when I came here."
"Yes, but you had Agnes and Harriet," Clothilde grinned.
"Well… at first they didn't make things easy for me, but we've all come along way, haven't we? Harriet is a reliable source of gossip and Agnes… well, Agnes won't ever win any contests in the brains department, but she's as sweet and kind a person as you'll ever meet from Ullan, and if I ever need to know anything about cheese, she's the one to apply to. Plus she is as steady and unflappable as a good hunter's hack."
Clothilde laughed. "I've a spot of news for you."
"Really? What sort of news?"
"My eldest son and his wife just had a baby boy—he arrived last night, red-faced and squalling but quite healthy and strong."
"Oh! Oh, Clothilde, that's so wonderful!" Eleanor smiled, clasping her friend's hands. "You must be so happy!"
"I am. James and I are just over the moon—we got the news this morning. I still can barely picture my Wolfgang as a husband, much less a father, but it is so wonderful. We visited them this morning and his Theodora is in fine fettle already and talking about having another!" Clothilde laughed merrily. "At least I've not got an empty nest yet. Waldemar and Wilhelmina are both a long way from leaving home—I know I'll be heartbroken when they leave."
"Well, now you're a grandmother you can keep Wolfgang's little son, too. Your nest won't be empty any time soon, and better yet, with this new grandchild, you can spoil him and teach him terrible habits and then gleefully hand him back over to his parents."
Clothilde laughed. "That does sound rather fun. A bit of revenge for the time Wolfgang poured melted butter all over the kitchen floor and insisted it was gnomes that did it."
"He never could explain why gnomes would be compelled to pour butter all over a kitchen floor," Eleanor mused.
"House gnomes are supposed to be useful, after all." Clothilde laughed. "And in a few years, you'll be Grandmama to a whole herd of wild children."
"I dare not even think of it now. I'm still in denial about my thirtieth birthday." Eleanor sighed and sat back in her seat. "But first things first—we have to see if Alexander and Elizabeth suit each other before weddings and grandchildren can be discussed. I won't have either of them unhappily joined. I want them to at least get along well and be at ease together."
"Yes. I've heard she's a pretty girl and quite the bluestocking. Alexander is so serious… perhaps she can help him lighten up a bit."
"I hope so. I'd hate for him to be called Alexander the Dour. Now--tell me all about your new little grandson!"
Elizabeth marveled at the beauty of the highlands that ran along the border between Morvenia and Gravonia. She loved the wild-sounding names of the mountains: Gadaiel and Logais and Morgar, and she studied the map, running her finger along the line indicating the craggy, snow-covered peaks of what was called the Whale's Back, which divided the two nations to the east and stretched all the way into Livonia. According to her father, the Whale's Back ended at the high cliffs that looked out over the beautiful, treacherous Turon Valley, where summer was bliss and winter was a frozen wasteland. To the west the mountains became rolling hills and finally flat, rich plains where farmers prospered and gold was found. Across the border were the richer Gravonian gold mines and the famous breeding studs where swift Gravonian horses were bred.
Elizabeth continued studying the map her uncle had given her and traced her fingers along the route she and her party would be taking—straight north through Corgat Trace and Logais Pass and up into the highlands to Eagle's Nest, which was just a few miles from the border, where she would undergo the rather strange 'changing over' ceremony. She would have to go inside a tent, remove her clothes and bathe in a bathtub set up exactly on the border, then step out in Gravonia and put on Gravonian clothes Queen Eleanor would send for her. She would also meet her newly-appointed ladies.
She had never had ladies in waiting. She wasn't entirely sure what they did, and before she had left home she had asked her grandmother what they were about. "They are to do whatever you tell them, and while they serve you they are never to marry." Elizabeth took issue with both notions: she wasn't good at ordering people about and she could see no good reason to forbid anyone to marry if they wanted to. Queen Marie was hardly a good resource then, and so instead she intended to ask Queen Eleanor about it.
They had reached the bottomlands, and would begin to climb into the rugged highlands soon, where the air was thin and cold all year-round, but she wasn't at all afraid, not even of the bandits that prowled through the region. She had been supplied well with warm blankets, the carriage was well-sprung, and there were thirty steady, unflappable knights guarding her. Even more, the great Dragon was riding alongside her coach, wearing his usual black armor and looking entirely intimidating. She poked her head out the carriage window. "Papa?"
He reined his horse and drew alongside the coach, eyes scanning the horizon. "Yes, Smidgen?"
"Will it be dark before we get to our first stopping-place?"
"Probably. We want to make good time."
"All right. It's so exciting, isn't it?"
"I suppose." He sounded as though he found the trip less-than-pleasant, but he managed a slight smile just the same. "See you keep warm and if there's trouble I want you to do exactly as I say, all right? We make camp tonight, but you're to stay in the coach until I say it's safe to come out."
"Yes, sir." She pulled her head back inside, wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, snuggled against her pillows and slept, undisturbed by the jostling of the wagon or the noise of chains and hoof beats.
Alexander chewed his lower lip, thinking carefully before broaching the subject. He knew his father would allow him to go to the border, but his mother might be a little harder to convince. But he wanted to go, if only to provide his future bride a proper greeting but also for a chance to simply do something other than sit around waiting. He didn't like waiting, and each day that passed made him more anxious to see her, and he could find no good reason to delay his first encounter with Elizabeth.
"Mama, Papa… I was wondering… "
"Yes, sweetheart?" Eleanor asked, putting her sewing down in her lap and wearily rubbing the back of her neck.
"I was wondering if I might be permitted to travel to Eagle's Nest to meet Princess Elizabeth."
Eleanor glanced at Henry, who yawned and stretched his legs. The King raised his eyebrows at the Queen, who put her sewing away and smoothed her skirts. "I can see no reason to say no. I will require you take a few knights with you, of course."
"Of course. Perhaps Frederick could come."
"Well, I'm sure he'd want to, what with Ellie going along as well," Eleanor said, barely covering a smile. Her sixteen year old second-born son and Lady Ellie were extremely close, and she suspected a marriage was in the offing, just as she had thought, so many years ago. "I think it would be a very fine thing, and could make her first moments in Gravonia far more… easy."
The Crown Prince nodded, relieved. Sometimes his mother was overprotective, but Alexander feared little in the world. He smiled, kissed his mother's cheek and squeezed his father's shoulder before leaving the Queen's sitting room. Out in the hall, he met Frederick, who looked at him expectantly. "Well?"
"She says we can go. We have to take a few knights along with us, but that's all right, I think. We'll travel with Lord Hallam." He grinned. "You can ride with Ellie, if you like."
Frederick's cheeks pinked a bit, but he certainly made no objections to the suggestion. The greeting party would be leaving Luvov in the morning, with the intent of arriving at Eagle's Nest on the same day as the Morvenian party. They would stay overnight at the fortress and, so long as the weather was fair and the bandits raiding through the highlands caused no trouble, they would leave the next morning, stop at Calway Woods for the changing-over, then stay at Lord Peters' pretty and elegant castle that night before making the final leg of the journey on to Luvov.
"So what do you think she'll be like?" Frederick asked as they went downstairs and out into the palace courtyard, where their two youngest brothers were practicing their swordsmanship, soundly thrashing the pell with their blunt wooden batons. Prince George was a surprisingly tall, rather lanky thirteen year old and it was clear he wasn't finished growing, either. He was rather clumsy, too, as he wasn't quite at ease with his increasing height and how his arms and legs were stretching out into unfamiliar territory. Andrew, at ten, was stocky and solidly built, and he was also less agile than George, and he dropped his baton after rattling it against the pell. When he saw his two eldest brothers, he gestured to George, who turned and saw them standing there.
"I've heard she has red hair and green eyes and is very accomplished. Her letters indicate a sharp mind."
Frederick pondered what 'accomplished' could be. He knew of little besides martial matters and Ellie Bartolomeo's interests, and she was hardly any sort of genius, though she had more common sense than most people he knew. Little else, aside from catechism and beekeeping, interested him.
"Little brothers," Alexander said, turning his attention to his two youngest siblings. "Where are Harry and William?"
"Hiding somewhere, I think. They tied Mama to her chair this morning with her apron strings and she threatened to have them drawn and quartered," George answered, smoothly spinning his baton in his hand, making it whistle.
"They'll never learn," Frederick said, shaking his head. "Shall we go find them and 'deliver them up to the magistrate'?"
Alexander grinned. "Yes, that does sound rather jolly. Andrew, George, come with us."
The boys dropped their batons and ran after their brothers, eager to join in the hunt.
"It's beautiful!" Elizabeth said, standing in the snow beside her father, gazing in wonder across the jagged spine of the Whale's Back as it stretched toward Livonia. "I had no idea any place could be so pretty."
Constantine nodded. He did not wish to linger too long, looking toward Livonia and the Turon Valley, where so many painful memories still dwelled. "This part of Morvenia is for hard people making a hard living."
"Like bandits?" Elizabeth smiled.
"Yes. But anyone else, too. Mostly it's shepherds and goatherds up here, and a few cattle breeders. There's only three little villages this high up, and I suspect they don't get out much during the winter. Summers are hard, too—these highlands always have snow, year-round, along the peaks and on the Whale's Back. Toward the west it's easier to get by, as the mountains turn to long plateaus before they turn into low plains that spread out into Gravonia and toward the sea, and the farmland out there is some of the richest in the world. There's gold and diamond mines along the northern border, too."
Elizabeth breathed in the sharp, thin air and sighed, shivering a little. She was as tall as her father's heart now, strong and healthy and taking in each new sight and experience with great eagerness and enthusiasm. She could see no reason to be afraid of the new life she would have in Gravonia, but she did not miss the sadness in her father's eyes as they journeyed toward Gravonia, and so she determined to make as little mention of the future as she could.
She knew she would miss her family and her friends back home, but to her, this was an adventure and she wouldn't have much time for homesickness. As soon she stepped out of that bathtub and stood on new ground, she would cease being a Morvenian and the more she strove to acclimate herself to her new country, the better. If she had the support of her future husband and his family, the easier that would be. Making a good first impression, therefore, was paramount to her success.
They began walking back toward the carriage, Elizabeth shyly grasping her father's hand and smiling up at him. Constantine looked down at his daughter, remembering the day she had been born. Isabella had been so worried he would be displeased with having been presented with a daughter, yet he had been delighted with the child from the moment he'd seen her. Other folks had expected him to be embarrassed or angry at having sired a daughter, but he quickly put down that notion, even to his mother.
"You're going to be a grand Queen one day, Smidgen."
She smiled, blushing. "I hope so. I hope I can be a good helper to Alexander."
Her father started to say something when he caught movement to his left and saw a man aiming a crossbow directly toward them, while another man was coming along behind, armed with a longbow.
"Get down!" he told Elizabeth, and shoved her down into the snow.
She squeaked in alarm but kept down, scrambling away toward the first thing she saw that might provide cover: a pile of stones. She got to it quickly and scrambled around it, ignoring the biting cold on her hands and feet. Peering over the top of the little cairn, she saw her father calmly pulling his sword out of its scabbard, lazily turning it and making it whistle as it sliced through the air. He was moving toward the two assassins almost casually, as if he was about to ask the men for directions to a pub, but when the first assailant let an arrow loose, Constantine easily deflected it with his sword, with a swing that reminded her of the housekeeper beating rugs hung on the clothesline.
Elizabeth screamed in terror when she felt two huge hands grabbing her around the waist and pulling her up off the ground. She began kicking at first, then remembered one of her father's rules-go limp, go for any sensitive areas, and be vicious. Elizabeth also remembered the little dagger her uncle had given her—she kept it hidden in her boot at all times, and she snatched it up, stabbing back blindly, but with all her might, and slamming the blade into her attacker's groin. He let out of blood-curdling scream of his own and dropped her back into the snow as he staggered backwards.
She tried to scramble away from him, but he wasn't finished, despite his injury. He grabbed her ankle and tried to haul her up off the ground again, his blood soaking the white snow as he struggled with her, but she twisted around and stabbed him in the wrist and twisted the knife with every ounce of her strength. The man—God, he was huge—screamed again, letting go, and she plunged the dagger into his throat, silencing him forever. She got to her feet and stood, staring down at him as he fell onto his back and his life flowed out onto the snow.
In shocked silence, she struggled to retrieve her knife from his throat, finally having to pull it out with both hands, and she stood over him, holding the dagger in her hands as her stomach lurched and she watched her father face down his attackers.
Constantine did not turn his head—the two men were now coming toward him, arrows set. He ducked as they loosed a first volley, and the arrows flew over his head as he dodged away and smoothly switched the sword from his right to his left hand. As they tried to prepare another shot, he moved forward quickly, slicing his sword at a slightly upward arc at the taller man. He winced as the assassin's blood sprayed and his head flew across the narrow clearing, thumping against a tree and tumbling down the hill. Constantine snatched his dagger out of his boot, held it at its deadly pointed tip and threw it at the other man. He turned away even before it hit the man in the chest, and he heard the dull thud of the dagger burying into the man's chest, followed by the man's gurgling cry as he fell. He didn't look back at the men—his only concern now was his daughter.
Elizabeth was still standing over the body of her attacker, her face as grey as the sky above.
"Sweetheart? Look at me… baby, come on, look at me."
She looked up at him, eyes wide and almost colorless with fear and horror. "I killed him."
Her dagger was covered with blood, all the way to its hilt, and blood dripped from her hands into the snow. Gently, Constantine took the dagger from her, wiping it on his forearm before tucking it away in his boot.
"It's all right, sweetheart. He tried to hurt you… "
"He… grabbed me and… and he tried… to… to… and so I… " She swallowed, gasped and jerked away from Constantine, stumbling to a snow-blighted bush and threw up. Constantine knelt down beside his daughter, holding her hair as she vomited, ignoring the knights running toward them. "Papa, I killed a man," she said, looking up at him with tears welling in her eyes. "I killed a man!"
"I know, baby. You were defending yourself."
"He tried to… he was going to… oh God… "
Constantine gathered his daughter into his arms and held her as she wept. He paid no mind to the knights as they gathered up the bodies of the three assassins, but he did not miss one of them commenting that all three men were carrying small bags of gold coins. One of the knights came over, standing respectfully apart but waiting patiently until Constantine had moved his daughter back to the carriage. For a man who had just killed two men with barely a thought, he was extremely gentle with Elizabeth, speaking softly to her as he wrapped her up in blankets and settled her on her seat. Her eyes were still wide, but at least she had stopped trembling, and he finally closed the door and turned back to face the knights, who had gathered around him.
"Do you think those men were from around here?" one of the knights asked.
"No. Those men were assassins."
"How can you tell?"
"By the butterfly tattoos on their necks," he said sarcastically. The young knight looked bewildered and Constantine rolled his eyes. "Because they only went after us, with intent to kill, and I suspect they have the same number of coins in their bags!" Constantine snapped, aggravated. "Let me see the gold." He caught a bag that was tossed to him and he opened it. He examined the coins, checking their marks. "Lacovian gold is very poor in quality," he said. "See?" He bit into the gold piece—it was too hard.
"So King Paul ordered… this?" another knight asked him.
"I'd say so."
Eagle's Nest was a large, rather ugly fortress, but it had not been built for aesthetics—it had been built for strength and shelter from all comers, with Gravonian and Morvenian workmen joining to build it six years ago, and though it stood on Morvenian soil, it was shared by soldiers of both countries. The walls of the citadel were five and even six feet thick and twenty feet tall, making it virtually impregnable. Its central tower was almost sixty feet tall and afforded anyone standing guard a panoramic view of the snow-capped ridges that formed the natural barrier between Gravonia and Morvenia. Instead of windows, the fortress walls were cut with arrow loops, and the crenelated parapets were utilitarian at best, but the top of the walls were wide enough that six men could march around it abreast.
There was nothing pretty about the place, and it was largely occupied by soldiers, so that indoors it was best described as rustic (and worst described as 'a bloody mess'). Only inside the huge fortress could any signs of comfort be found: the commander of the fortress, a surprisingly slight Gravonian knight named Sir Antony Wallis, lived there year-round with his wife and children, and Lady Olivia had done her best to make the stark, lonely place a home for her family.
Lady Olivia was anxious about welcoming Princess Elizabeth to the fortress, and had spent days trying to get it cleaned up to suit royal standards, and she was up at dawn to practice her curtsey after collecting eggs and feeding the ducks her little daughter kept as pets. She was halfway through with a deportment lesson with her elder daughter Beatrix when she heard the portcullis being raised, which was very much out of the ordinary. Getting up, followed by her daughter, she went out into the courtyard and hailed a knight. "Pray, what is going on? Do we have visitors at this hour?"
"The Prince Constantine and his daughter are here, ma'am."
"What?! Good God, they aren't due until tonight... and did you say Prince Constantine was coming too?"
"Aye, ma'am. They are early, but I understand they ran into some trouble along the way," the knight told her before rushing toward the gate and helping his comrades pull it open. Lady Olivia was taken aback by the large force of thirty big, hard-looking knights on equally hard-looking horses clopping up the cobble path into the courtyard, and she drew in her breath at the sight of the coach bearing the princess. She looked back to see her husband coming down the steps into the yard, trying to pull himself together. He hadn't even had time to shave or get properly dressed—he had slept in that morning, in fact, as he was suffering from a tiresome cold.
The carriage stopped and a knight pulled the door open. Princess Elizabeth, looking very pale, stepped down unassisted and looked at Olivia, who dropped a low curtsey to her.
Her father rode up on a large black horse, and Olivia thanked God he wasn't an enemy: he looked every inch a man of war, and quite formidable. He looked down at her, then at her husband. "Good day to you, ma'am, and to you, Sir Antony. We felt it necessary to travel all night, after our retinue was attacked at Logais Pass. Perhaps a comfortable bed could be prepared for my daughter?"
"Of course, sir… " Sir Antony saw the bloodstains on Constantine's arm and swallowed. "I take it this attack was… somewhat… violent?"
"Aye, I'm afraid so." He dismounted and took his daughter's hand. "I don't give a damn if you've beds for me or my men. We don't need them, and I can sleep on the floor. But my daughter has been through a trial and she needs to lie down. If you don't mind?"
"Of course… " Lady Olivia looked at the pale, clearly shaken girl and finally took her hands. "Come along, sweetheart—you must be very tired."
"I killed a man," Elizabeth said. Constantine dismounted and took charge.
"Elizabeth, you needn't keep saying that. You'll drive yourself mad."
"But I've never killed anything in my life! I couldn't even kill that chicken Mrs. Thigbottom brought in one day and demanded I practice on. Killing chickens, that is—she wanted me to grab it by the neck and crank it until the head fell off. I couldn't do it. I made it into a pet."
"Well, that chicken never tried to kill you, and I always did wonder why that thing followed you around all the time. Now come on. Lady… what was your name again?"
"Wallis… " Olivia answered, bewildered. "Uh… sir… she … "
"Just needs a good night's sleep and some quiet and calm and she'll be all right."
Elizabeth looked at Lady Olivia. "He tried to kill me… I have bruises on my wrists and my ankles, and my sides hurt where he picked me up. Will God forgive me for killing him?"
Olivia had no clear answer to that question—she never tried to answer for God. So she did the only thing that seemed appropriate: she embraced the girl and let her cry on her shoulder, giving her father a remonstrative look. Constantine sighed. He had no point of reference on how to comfort a girl who had successfully defended her life by taking another's. He dealt with soldiers who experienced that sort of thing every day, but women weren't exactly common participants in battles, unless they were Vikings, and Elizabeth was no Valkyrie. She was more her mother's daughter, with a dash of his own toughness.
That dash of toughness had saved her life and would serve her well, and her mother's gentleness gave her the kind of conscience that would never countenance killing for killing's sake. Both traits would make her an excellent consort, to Constantine's thinking.
Lady Olivia led Elizabeth into her family's private quarters, and sat her down at the fire. Her daughters came over, peering with great curiosity at a genuine princess sitting in their midst, and they were both a little startled to see her in tears. The youngest girl shyly sidled up to Elizabeth's side, forgetting to curtsey. "Would you like to play marbles?" she asked eagerly. "My sister won't play with me any more—she only cares about talking to the soldiers."
"Katrina!" Lady Olivia gasped, horrified. "Your Royal Highness, I'm so sorry. She knows better than to be so… "
"It's all right," Elizabeth said, wiping her eyes. "I would like to play marbles very much."
Alexander and Frederick rode ahead of their escorting party, much to the consternation of Captain Bramwell, who had been placed in charge of them, and particularly Lord Hallam, who was heard complaining about wrangling the princes being comparable to herding chickens. Both young men were eager to see the vast stronghold their father had built at Eagle's Nest, and were soon a good piece away, Hallam's headache notwithstanding. As they galloped up the carriageway they slowed as they drew near the gates, staring up at the citadel in amazement.
"Looks like a prison," Frederick muttered.
Alexander dismounted and walked up to the guardhouse and knocked on the door. A hard-looking man pulled the door open and looked at him for a moment before gasping. "Your Royal Highness."
"I'm sorry we're a bit early," Alexander said. "My brother and I rode ahead of our party. Might we be admitted, please?"
The soldiers began raising the portcullis, while more soldiers got to work pulling the huge, thick doors open. Alexander swung back astride his horse, catching Frederick's jaunty grin.
"You'll have to take her, whether she's pretty or not, you know," Frederick reminded him. "It's all for diplomacy."
"Do not speak so of a young lady," Alexander said, in that rather arch way of his. Just the same, he was nervous, and his uneasiness transferred to his horse, which reared and squealed before the prince urged him on through the gate. Frederick followed, holding back a little. Alexander stopped in the middle of the courtyard and dismounted, where he was greeted by the fortress commander, who bowed. "Your Royal Highness, it is a great pleasure to have you here, sir… we were not really expecting you to be in the welcoming party."
"It was a last minute decision, sir, and the pleasure is mine, and please do not be ill-at-ease if you are not fully prepared. When are we to expect Princess Elizabeth's party?" Alexander asked.
"She is already here, sir. She… um… is with her father, sir. A good thing, too, as they were attacked at Logais Pass. She was somewhat… shaken by the incident."
"Dear God, is she all right?" Alexander asked, horrified.
"Aye, sir. She seems to be settling down a bit."
"And you say her father is with her?" Alexander asked, his nervousness growing. It was one thing to meet his future bride but her father was not a man to cross. He was going to have to tread carefully now.
Lady Olivia opened the door and stepped out onto the little portico, and she looked surprised to see the prince and his brother in the courtyard. She sighed and nodded, bobbing a quick curtsey to the princes. She started to speak when her younger daughter came bustling past her, followed by Princess Elizabeth, who had changed into a simple muslin dress and was barefoot and looking like she was having a jolly time playing with the younger girl. When she saw the two young men standing in the cobbled yard, she stopped, bewildered.
"Um… " she said, looking at Lady Olivia, who managed to smile.
"Your Royal Highness… His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Alexander of Gravonia."
Alexander stared at the girl, his initial surprise fading and replaced with genuine pleasure. She was not just pretty but absolutely lovely, even in a flushed, excited state. She stood as high as his heart, and her eyes were the prettiest shade of emerald green he had ever seen. He ignored his brother's widening grin and stepped forward. "Your Royal Highness. I'm very pleased to meet you."
She made her way down the steps, cheeks turning pink, and shyly held out her hand. Alexander took it and kissed the back of her hand just as Constantine stepped out onto the portico. The young prince looked up at the man the world called the Dragon and swallowed, stepping back from Elizabeth.
The princess turned back to look at her father. "Papa! Prince Alexander is already here!" she said brightly.
"Aye, I see that," Constantine said in a hard, clipped voice. He came down the steps, giving the young man a cold look, and stepped in front of his daughter, blocking Alexander's view of her.
"Papa!" Elizabeth said, bewildered. "He was only saying hello."
Constantine glared at the young man, not giving a damn that he was heir to the throne of Gravonia. All he knew was that this big whelp had been touching his sweet baby girl. "Say hello, then, and go back inside."
Elizabeth gave her a father an exasperated look and smiled an apology to Alexander before obediently going back up the steps, with Katrina close at her heels. Constantine stood glowering at Alexander, who held his ground. Frederick cleared his throat.
"We're very pleased to meet you, sir. There is not a corner of the Continent where you are not mentioned in reverent tones," Frederick said, his expression wary.
"One only speaks reverently of God," Constantine growled, still glaring at Alexander. "So you're the boy betrothed to my daughter, are you?"
"You're seventeen, are you?"
"Well. If you want to see eighteen, you'll keep your hands and your lips off my daughter. Understood?"
Constantine frowned. He remembered seventeen, and far too well. Back then, he had practically been growing horns, and if this boy took after King Henry, then he was much the same way. In that case, he wasn't going to allow the boy too much access to his sweet girl. The fathers of the girls Constantine had courted, long ago, had been just as hard-eyed toward him and he intended to carry on the tradition.
Alexander did stand his ground rather admirably, he admitted. The young prince and his brother were a good-looking duo, really—Alexander was tall, lean and strong-looking, and Frederick was a ruddy boy who bore a strong resemblance to his great-grandfather King Andrew, without the bulk. Constantine settled his main interest on his future son-in-law: the boy was dark-haired, fair-skinned and had unnervingly familiar dark blue eyes. The Morvenian prince narrowed his eyes, pondering, and recalled that Livonians were often blue-eyed, particularly members of that country's royal family.
Finally, Constantine turned and stalked away, followed by painful memories. Suddenly, he just wanted to be alone.
Alexander and Frederick stayed in the courtyard for a moment, neither entirely sure what to do. Finally, Frederick nudged his brother. "You've got a Dragon for a future father-in-law, brother. I hope you're ready to fight for the girl."
The Crown Prince looked at his brother for a moment, his expression grave. "It looks as though I might have to."
The evening meal was eaten in relative peace, with the Wallis family servants setting a fine table laden with roasted beef and vegetables. Elizabeth was happy that the children were allowed to join in the meal, and afterward she sat in the Great Hall with little Katrina, listening to her childish chatter and joining her playing with her rag dolls and other little toys, as they reminded her a great deal of Charlotte. Her distress from yesterday's incident had faded somewhat and she felt steadier now she was among people. Even more, she felt excited about meeting her future husband.
She looked up, shyly watching him and his brother as they played chess. Alexander was very handsome, she thought, but not at all boyish or callow. His dark hair was tousled and rough-looking, and his skin was rather fair (though his arms were tan from a life spent in the sun) and his eyes were the bluest she had ever seen. He had excellent manners and spoke with great courtesy and respect to everyone, whether they were prince or servant, and his grave, quiet ways appealed to her.
She liked his brother, too. Frederick was cheerful and outgoing, with the same good manners and natural charm. They were both clearly well-educated, and she knew Alexander spoke fluent Latin, French and German. Glancing at her father, she stood, brushing her skirts and quietly moving over to sit at the table where the Gravonian princes were sitting. Constantine's expression darkened, but he said nothing and resumed staring bleakly into the fire.
Alexander smiled at Elizabeth, who smiled back, her heart fluttering excitedly.
"You'll be in Gravonia tomorrow," he said. "I hope you like it."
"I know I will. I look forward to seeing the countryside and I especially look forward to meeting the rest of your family. I have four brothers of my own, but five more will be very nice."
Frederick grinned. "You won't like them much when they pull pranks on you. Harry and William are devils."
She laughed. "My brothers are troublemakers, too. I'm quite used to them pulling pranks on me and my sister, and I learned how to torment them in turn."
"What the worst they've done?" Alexander asked.
"Michael dipped the ends of my hair in black ink once, while I was asleep. Papa gave him a whipping for that."
"And well he should!" Alexander said. "You have such pretty red-gold hair—it wouldn't look right black."
Elizabeth blushed and tucked a loose lock of her hair behind her ear. "My youngest brother Parr is very sweet—he never causes trouble, and my sister… I will miss her dreadfully."
"I think your whole family will miss you," Alexander said. "He's called Parr?"
"Yes. He was named for our uncle the King, but we gave him that nickname. Do you have a nickname?"
"My father calls me Sasha," Alexander said with a shrug. "Mama never calls me anything but Alexander."
"I'm often called Lili, but Papa calls me Smidgen."
"So he thinks you're little?" Alexander asked, amused.
"I'm fairly little compared to him and Uncle King."
"You stand as high as my heart," Alexander said, and ignored Frederick's snicker. Just the same, he made a mental note to mercilessly tease him about the last bouquet of flowers he had taken to Ellie Bartolomeo.
"Then perhaps Papa was right when he said I wasn't quite so much a Smidgen as I once was," Elizabeth said, blushing even pinker and reveling in the attentions of the young man who would one day be her husband. All in all, the idea of being married to him was becoming more and more appealing to her by the moment.
Morning dawned bright, crisp and chilly, with a thin layer of frost covering the grass. Lady Olivia, helping Elizabeth and her daughters dress, commented that she rarely knew a day at Eagle's Nest that didn't start with a frost. "But the views from the tower and from the walls are simply breathtaking—it makes up for the year-round chill. It's lovely here, so long as I'm not looking at the fortress itself."
Elizabeth went downstairs with the girls and insisted on helping set the table for breakfast. It wasn't long before the men came in, Sir Antony bleary-eyed from his cold and Constantine looking like he was plagued with a terrible headache. The two young princes, however, were bright and alert, and after the meal, Alexander and Frederick asked the Wallis girls to give them and Elizabeth a tour of the fortress. Both girls were very eager to go, and after being bundled in warm clothes the five young people went clattering outside, talking easily about life in a mountain citadel.
Constantine's fingers tightened around the armrests of his chair, and Sir Antony took a seat opposite him. "You know, sir, I have a daughter from my first marriage. She married at sixteen and it was the most horrible day of my life." He sniffed and blinked a few times, shaking his head. "It's hard to accept, but it is the way of the world."
"She'll be alone out there with that… that… young man." Try as he might, Constantine had a hard time calling Alexander a 'boy'. The seventeen-year old prince was clearly quite mature. Elizabeth was still in that stage between a girl and a woman, and what terrified him was that she was making that transformation right before his eyes, during this journey, and in the process she was growing away from him and right toward her destiny: as wife of the future King of Gravonia. In two more years' time, she would be married and would be alone in a bedroom with that same young man. All of Constantine's natural protective instincts were kicking in and it took all his strength to not jump up and rush outside to drag her away from Alexander and lock her in a convent.
But she would be miserable. There was nothing he could do to stop the tide, and if he tried he would only hurt her.
"Your first wife is… uh… ?"
"She died struggling to bring my little Jamie into the world," Sir Antony said with a sad smile. "I was lucky to marry Olivia a few years later, and she was a loving mother to her. I've been fortunate, but I don't get to see Jamie as often as I like. It will be just as heartbreaking to see my two girls with Olivia grow up and marry. I do not feel ashamed to say that I wept after Jamie's wedding."
"Jamie's a man's name," Constantine said, rubbing his face.
Antony laughed. "Aye, but Kate's family name was James and it seemed fitting to name her for them. She grew into a pretty lass, too, and her husband is a good man and now I've four big noisy grandsons that visit me every summer. I'm sure you'll get to see your grandchildren some day, sir, and that does ease some of your sorrow at losing your daughter."
"So count the gains against the losses?"
"Aye," Antony smiled. "Though I daresay, Crown Prince Alexander will be getting the better end of the deal."
His host's words echoed those of Count von Hesse, and Constantine put his head back. Last night, he had dreamed of the day he had been told he could have Eleanor. The pure joy he had felt that day had been tempered by the sadness he had seen in von Hesse's eyes. "I've got four sons, but I doubt I'll feel much sorrow when they leave home and marry."
"Probably not. Not as much, anyway. I'll miss my boys, but… there's nothing like having a daughter, and letting them get carried away by some man—well, I'll admit, I felt so bloody jealous toward that young man came and took my sweet girl away, but as you know: lover versus father, lover wins."
Constantine stared bleakly at Antony. "Yes. I know. All too well."
Alexander and Frederick were astride their horses in the fortress courtyard, waiting as Elizabeth was settled into her carriage and Prince Constantine mounted his huge, fierce-looking black horse. They were leaving, with the aim of arriving at the border, in the Calway Woods, at lunchtime. Afterward, they would continue on to Lord Peters' estate to stay the night, and tomorrow they would arrive in Luvov.
He and Elizabeth had had a chance to walk alone together around the fortress, with Frederick holding forth with the two Wallis girls and keeping their distance. Alexander was pleased with the girl—she was intelligent and witty without being at all prideful, and she was articulate in expressing her opinions. He had been startled when she told him about having had to kill a man to defend herself, and had been equally impressed by her obvious distress over the matter: she possessed not a drop of cruelty, but she was quite brave. That she was also exceptionally pretty was a definite bonus, and he felt more easy about the notion of marrying her in two years.
The two brothers decided to ride ahead of the party to Calway and wait for Lord Hallam's party, and when the carriage finally began moving out of the courtyard, Alexander kicked his horse into a gallop and rode away, Frederick at his side.
Elizabeth settled back in her seat and resumed reading her book about military strategy. She understood her enemy a good deal now—Lacovia's ruler was ruthless, cruel and impetuous, with a tendency to not think things through, and she was always going to have to be diligent to protect herself and her family.
One thing was quite certain: her life in Gravonia would never be boring.
Calway Woods was more like a little park, with a small brook running through it, and Alexander and his brother were surprised to find that Lord Hallam and his retinue had already arrived there and were in the process of building a large tent on the exact border between Gravonia and Morvenia. The princes greeted the ambassador and briefly contemplated the bathtub that had been set on the border, with Alexander feeling vaguely guilty about imagining Elizabeth naked and climbing into that tub. He supposed he would have far more to worry about if the idea didn't make him a little… excited.
Well, very excited. All right. So it was rather exciting. Not that he would be allowed to watch her or anything. In two years, he would be allowed to see her naked, he hoped. He had kept his distance from girls, after all, because he had always known he was to marry the Morvenian princess. His mother, however, had encouraged him to befriend girls his age, so that he felt comfortable talking with them, and in his mind, Alexander viewed the opposite sex as potential friends before he let himself think of them otherwise. Elizabeth, however, was the first girl he had really thought of as more than just a friend.
King Henry had told Alexander about sex, of course, with firm instruction on discretion, honor, biology, responsibility and morality. The King had never denied his own less-than-pure behavior before his marriage, but he had been careful to remind Alexander that he was going to marry the daughter of the most feared and respected commander in Europe. A good deal of care was required in how the boy behaved toward that girl, or the consequences could be truly dreadful. Henry had pointed out that Constantine would not hesitate to take vengeance if his daughter was harmed in any way.
So it was that Alexander was half aroused, half fearful. He supposed that might be a rather normal thing, if most fathers were like Constantine. It certainly would keep matters from getting out of hand before the wedding, and it would help him see to his bride's happiness after. The last thing he or Gravonia needed was to have the wrath of the Dragon unleashed. Elizabeth had told him about how Constantine had beheaded one of the assassins and had killed the other with one throw of a dagger at Logais Pass, and he had heard about the prince's exploits on the battlefields of Europe. He had even wiped out an entire garrison of Turks for laming his old war horse Amiel.
Lord Hallam, grey-haired and as level-headed as ever, inspected the tent carefully, seeing to it that there were no means of anyone outside being able to see in while the princess bathed. He had a large pot set on a fire to warm the water, and had his wife and Lady Agnes set about preparing a blanket for the girl and making sure her new dress—a pretty and modest blue and white number that had been carefully made to fit the girl's proportions—was ready. Once he was satisfied that all was well, Hallam sat down with his wife and daughter and drank cider while they waited. He had been surprised to hear that Constantine was coming with his daughter, and had been shocked to hear they had been attacked at Logais. He was thus even more determined to see that this ceremony went smoothly and was as painless as possible.
Finally, after three long hours of waiting, a soldier called that he could see the princess' retinue coming. Hallam commanded all the knights to line up properly, and that the flag be prepared to be raised as soon as Elizabeth stepped onto Gravonian soil. He turned and watched the carriage and the knights coming, impressed at the size of the soldiers and the red and white colors of Morvenia. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the carriage stopped and Constantine dismounted, opening the door and helping her out.
Hallam stepped forward and bowed to the princess. "Your Royal Highness, ma'am. We greet you in the name of His Majesty the King Henry."
"Thank you," she said softly. "I am very pleased to be here, sir."
The ambassador turned and gestured to Alexander, who stepped forward and took Elizabeth's hand, kissing it and smiling warmly at her. She turned a fetching shade of pink, and Constantine cleared his throat.
"I take it all is ready?" he said sharply.
"Yes, sir," Lord Hallam nodded. "We've made sure the bath water is warm and her dress is also prepared. Your Royal Highness, if you'll step this way?" He gestured toward the tent, where the flap was open. She drew in her breath and walked alone to the door and went inside. Elizabeth was pleased to see a woman carefully pouring water into a bathtub set exactly on a white line drawn into the floor of the tent, and the woman smiled at her.
"Hello, Your Highness. My name's Betsy. I'll do all I can to make this as stress-free an experience as possible." She went over to the tent door and carefully closed the flap, pinning it shut. "There now. Total privacy and Lord Hallam saw to it that the water here will be warm."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"Do you need help undressing?"
"No, ma'am." Elizabeth began to carefully remove her clothes, then gingerly stepped into the tub, relieved the water was indeed quite warm. Betsy stepped away, turning her back to her but otherwise remaining close by in case she was needed. Elizabeth sat in the tub for several moments, wondering how long she would need to stay there until everyone believed the 'grime' of Morvenia had been washed off her body. Finally, she cleared her throat and Betsy came back, holding up a large, thick blanket and keeping her head turned as Elizabeth stepped out of the tub.
Betsy smiled encouragingly and wrapped the blanket around the girl's shivering body.
"There now. Let's get some clothes on you. Come sit here and we'll get you dried off proper-like, then we'll put some clothes on you. The Queen made sure to get your measurements and had the dress made up for you by the finest seamstress in Luvov—what do you think?" Betsy held the blue and white dress up and Elizabeth smiled, delighted with its soft colors. "It's pure silk, see, and lined with some very nice Gravonian lace. The Queen was very keen to see that it was made of colors you like, and that it was modest."
"I will be sure to thank her for her kindness," Elizabeth, trying to cover a yawn. She felt sleepy now, after a warm bath. Betsy poured her a cup of hot wassail and handed it to her, and the girl took a long, grateful drink, sitting down on a cushioned chair. "I'm sure you're quite tired, poor thing, but you can sleep in the carriage on the way to Lord Peters' home. It's at least three hours away."
Elizabeth reluctantly got up and let Betsy help her into her new dress. The older woman—whose smooth skin made her seem almost ageless, though the teenager guessed she was somewhere between sixty and eternal—kept up a stream of conversation as she worked, so that Elizabeth had little time to become embarrassed or uncertain. Betsy handled everything smoothly and efficiently, and in just a few moments the girl was wearing her new clothes, her hair was carefully brushed and rearranged, and she felt far more at ease.
"There now, little lamb. Now aren't you a lovely thing! Such a pretty face, and I see you brought your sewing with you, like a good girl." Betsy winked at her, and Elizabeth couldn't help giggling. "I'm sure Alexander already likes you a good bit, hm?"
Elizabeth blushed. "I think so. I mean… I mean, I hope so."
"Well, he'd have to be stupid and blind not to like you, and he's neither, so you've nothing to worry about on that end. The Queen will like you too, and so will King Henry. They are the nicest people alive and everyone will adore you, I'm sure." Betsy neatly folded Elizabeth's old dress and carefully put it into a satchel.
"What are they like? The King and Queen, I mean."
"The King is very kind and naturally jolly, and he will be a very generous father-in-law to you, I can assure you, and be sure he'll do all he can to spoil you absolutely rotten if you let him. The Queen is very sweet--'on her lips is the law of kindness', I can assure you, and she will do all she can to make you comfortable and happy in Gravonia. She has decorated your rooms to your liking, or so she hopes, and has been mindful of your favorite colors and foods, too, but she will make any changes you desire. The princes are mischievous but they're also very friendly and well-mannered and they all look forward to finally having a sister."
"You know them all well?" Elizabeth asked.
"Aye, yes, I do. I delivered all six of those boys. I was Her Majesty's midwife, and she thought it a good idea that I come here to greet you."
"Oh. I see."
Betsy smiled at her and took her hands. "Now, little lamb. Are you ready to stand on Gravonian soil?"
"I think so."
"Good! Now, come along." Betsy opened the flap that led out into Gravonia, saw Prince Constantine standing with Lord Hallam, and closed the flap again. Fortunately, he had been standing to the side and hadn't seen her. "Go on out, sweetheart, while I see to the bathwater and such." Betsy stepped aside, and Elizabeth gave her a quizzical look before going out alone, as behind her the Morvenian flag was lowered and the Gravonian flag was raised. She paused at the sight of a long line of knights, all in black and gold, standing on the crest of a little hill above the place where the royal retinue was standing, but she continued forward and was greeted by two attractive older women and three young girls her own age.
"Your Royal Highness," the dark-blonde woman said. "I am Lady Clothilde Hallam. It's such a pleasure to meet you!" She smiled and curtsied, and the dark-haired woman at her side also smiled.
"I'm Lady Agnes Bartolomeo, ma'am. These are your ladies-in-waiting: my own daughter Eleanor, but everyone calls her Ellie; Lady Clothilde's daughter Anna, and Lady Megan Seebolt, daughter of the Duke of Trebane--she is called Meg."
The three young girls, all pretty and well-dressed, smiled warmly at Elizabeth as they curtseyed and murmured their welcomes.
"I'm very pleased to meet you all, and I'm pleased to be in Gravonia," Elizabeth said, smiling shyly. "I understand we've a long journey to Lord Peters' estate?"
"I'm afraid so, ma'am," Lady Agnes said. "But I hope it will be merry, and the Peters' are excellent hosts. Your ladies will ride with you, and I'm sure they can keep you entertained."
The ice was broken very quickly by Lady Meg, who commented on how pretty Elizabeth's dress was. A discussion on the latest fashions soon began, with all four girls expressing varying opinions on what looked best and what didn't. Elizabeth was duly impressed with them all, and knew she had found genuine friends in her new country. Anna was quiet and sensible, with a keen interest in education, while Meg was devoutly religious but not remotely dour; Ellie was bubbly and cheerful, and if she wasn't brilliantly intelligent, she made up for that with sweetness and eagerness to see that everyone around her was comfortable.
The Gravonian carriage, Elizabeth learned, was the Queen's own, and it was very well-sprung, so that even the roughest surfaces caused little discomfort. They were discussing the lovely scenery of the southern Gravonian countryside when the coach turned through wide gates and trundled along a wide, oak tree-lined path. "Oh!" Ellie said. "We're at the Peters' estate. Be prepared for a very big meal, ma'am, and some jolly entertainments. Lady Peters is from Italy and she serves the best food."
"Yes, the food there is excellent," Meg told her. "The Queen says that before she visits this place she fasts for a few days or she fears she might explode."
Elizabeth laughed. "I will do my best to eat as much as I can."
The carriage stopped at the front door of the big house—it was not really a castle, but instead a large, rambling country manor that reminded Elizabeth of her home at Fairwood. She looked out the window to see her father dismounting and when she caught his eye he smiled at her, and the door of the carriage was opened by a young knight. "Ladies, we welcome you to Vista Piacevole," he said, bowing.
Lord and Lady Peters did indeed set a fine table of abundant and delicious food. Constantine, never a big eater, refused thirds and settled down by the fire, watched by six huge and eager wolfhounds. Elizabeth sampled everything and, after having eaten as much as she could, wondered if she would be hungry again in the next week or so. The three girls assigned to her also ate enthusiastically and joined Elizabeth in seats in the Great Hall, where a pair of jugglers was entertaining the party. A troubadour recited some funny poems and stories until it was finally bedtime, and Elizabeth was yawning and eager to sleep in a warm bed again.
Elizabeth and her ladies went to their room, and they helped her prepare for bed. As she stretched out on her bed, she looked up at the ceiling and felt her first wave of homesickness. She thought of her brothers and Charlotte and wondered how they were getting on without her to herd them about and keep them at their studies—Mrs. Thigbottom had a very hard time getting the boys to sit still, much less do their lessons. Tears filled her eyes and she sniffed. Almost immediately, Lady Anna was at her side, looking concerned.
"Are you all right, ma'am?"
"I'm just homesick," Elizabeth admitted.
Anna nodded. "That's all right. No one will hold that against you, and I'm sure the Queen will do all she can to make you feel at ease."
"Do you know her well?"
"Yes. My mother is her principle lady-in-waiting, and so I spend much time at Court. The Queen is very kind and sensible, and she is looking forward to meeting you again."
Feeling a little better, Elizabeth sighed, wiped her tears away, and rolled to her side. Soon she was asleep, dreaming of home and of racing Michael up the hill from the wheat fields to the orchards. She always outran him.
King Paul frowned when he saw the group of knights coming down the hall, carrying something large between them while another knight carried something in a burlap sack. He looked back at Irene, who was examining her fingernails and looking bored. Paul went back into the Presence Chamber and sat down on his throne. "Seems we're receiving gifts," he said.
The knights came into the room and set the large sack on the floor and cut it open. Irene gasped in horror at the sight of the headless corpse, and she looked positively ill when the other bag was opened to reveal the dead man's head.
"Your assassin, sir," one of the knight said. "His two companions were also killed. Prince Constantine of Morvenia sends his compliments."
Paul swallowed. "Compliments?"
"On your inability to learn, he said. It has continued to prevent your country from being invaded and destroyed. He sent along this message, sir." The knight handed the King a sealed scroll, and Paul looked at the red wax dragon seal and forced himself to break it.
You will be pleased to hear that the three gentlemen hired to murder my daughter were unsuccessful. We are happy to send their remains home, where you can dispose of them as you see fit. I am sure you are appalled to learn of their treachery and will do all you can to prevent such a thing from ever occurring again.
Paul tore up the letter and threw it on the floor. Irene, recovered from her shock, exhaled but held her tongue. As this point, what reason would there be in rubbing salt in his wound.
She would save that for a more opportune time.
Constantine rode beside his daughter's coach, listening to the almost constant chatter of the girls inside and wondering at how women could talk for so long on so many subjects. They were just a mile or so now from the gates of Luvov, and as they continued along the cobbled road, crowds were gathered on each side to watch them ride by. He heard Elizabeth ask that the curtains on the carriage window be parted so she could be seen, and he saw her waving and smiling at the folks gawking at her.
The retinue stopped at the gates of the city, and crowds blocked their way in until a company of knights asked them get out of the way. Constantine started to ride through and looked up at carved coats of arms above the gate: a wolf holding a black and gold shield decorated with a stag, and beside it a Livonian lion holding a shield displaying a crowned white dove holding a dagger in one foot and six arrows in the other, and on its chest was a Livonian royal coat of arms quartered to the arms of Gravonia. Under the Queen's coat of arms was a Latin phrase: Pax in virtute.
He stopped the horse, staring up at the dove, bewildered. Where had he heard that phrase before?
The carriage had continued past him, and Constantine had to spur his horse to catch up again. The gates had been pulled open and the streets of Luvov were lined with enthusiastic crowds, all curious to have their first look at their future Queen. Elizabeth smiled and waved at the crowds, enjoying herself despite her own shy nature, and was clearly a hit with everyone. When they finally reached the palace gates, the coach stopped and the princess stepped out and looked at the prosperous-looking, well-fed crowd of people around her.
"I am so pleased to be finally be here, and I look forward to a long life in your devoted service. God bless you all and may God save the King!"
Constantine scanned the crowds, searching for anyone who looked angry or resentful, but all he saw were smiling faces of healthy-looking people. Elizabeth, decked out in the blue and white dress the Queen had sent, looked lovely. Her hair was down, with two locks tied back with a daisy chain her ladies had made her, and her pleasure at seeing her future subjects was genuine, and the feeling was clearly mutual. The palace gates were pulled open as an old woman approached her and presented Elizabeth with a small white dove.
"I gave a dove to the Queen, ma'am, the day she came here. I hope you'll take this dove, too—it is a symbol of peace."
"Thank you, ma'am," Elizabeth said, gently stroking the dove's breast. "She's lovely. I will take good care of her."
The old woman attempted an arthritic bob, but Elizabeth would have none of that and curtseyed to her instead. She carefully climbed back into the coach, the driver called to the horses, and the carriage trundled into the palace courtyard, where several of Gravonia's nobles waited to greet the royal party.
Relieved to finally be away from the crowds, Constantine dismounted and caught the bewildered expressions of several of the people there. "I must impose myself on His Majesty for a day or two. Bandits and robbers were crawling all over the passes and we were even attacked at Logais Pass." He recognized Thomas Seebolt then and stepped forward, extending his hand. "Good to see you, Tom. Still shaking at the sight of a cat?"
The Duke of Trebane grinned. "I keep them far from any battlefield, sir. It's grand to see you, too."
Elizabeth was helped down from the carriage, still holding her dove, and was surprised and pleased to see Alexander standing on the steps. He came down quickly and took her hand, kissing her knuckles and not even glancing at her father. "My parents are waiting in the Presence Chamber, Elizabeth. They are very eager to meet you."
"I am eager to meet them," Elizabeth smiled. She handed the dove to Lady Anna, who looked amused as she carefully stroked the bird's head.
"Then let's go!" Alexander grinned, and she hooked her arm through his and let him lead the way. Constantine's good mood faded and he followed his daughter into the palace, with the rest of Gravonia's nobles trailing behind. He was impressed with the warm and comfortable-looking entry hall of the palace, as well as the elegant but not overly opulent reception room, where a portrait of King Henry on his warhorse dominated the far wall. The Great Hall, too, was warm and decorated to look like a family's favorite gathering place, rather than a means of impressing anyone. Constantine followed his daughter and Alexander along the elegant, mirror-lined hallway to the double doors that led into the Presence Chamber. A large man with no neck bowed to them all, his eyes settling briefly on Constantine.
The man knocked three times on the door and pushed them open, stepping into the room. "Your Majesties. Her Royal Highness the Princess Elizabeth of Morvenia and her father, His Royal Highness the Prince Constantine of Morvenia."
Constantine stepped in and took his place beside his daughter, with Alexander stepping back and bowing respectfully. Constantine looked briefly around the room, finding it surprisingly simple in how it was decorated, with very little gilding. He scanned the room before settling his eyes on the King, who was coming down the steps and grinning while the Queen was still standing, immobile, on the dais.
He finally looked at the Queen and froze.
Eleanor's eyes were wide as she stared at him, and her face was as pale as a ghost. Constantine didn't move, but felt pure, white-hot rage boiling up inside and making him feel almost feverish. His jaw tightened until he felt his head beginning to pound, and the past eighteen years whirled and flashed and finally darkened and faded away into furious oblivion as he stared at her.
Eleanor Reeve was alive, and there was going to be hell to pay.