Our Gracious Queen

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Boys to Men

Eleanor closed her eyes, telling herself to breathe.

When she dared to open them again, she saw Constantine's furious green gaze still on her. So far, he hadn't said a word, even as Henry greeted Elizabeth in his usual friendly, effusive way. It took Elizabeth tugging on his arm to make the Morvenian prince finally flinch and look at her.

The Queen finally remembered she could walk and forced herself down the steps. Wordlessly, she held out her hand to Constantine, who only stared at her. Finally, he took her hand, and she shivered inwardly, still susceptible to his very touch.

"It's good to see the Queen in such excellent health," he said, in a cold, clipped voice. "I had long heard she was very delicate."

"She is anything but. Six brawny sons is proof enough of that, eh?" Henry said, grinning. "You've a lovely daughter, sir. Quite lovely—a credit to her sweet mother, I'd say."

"She is very healthy," Constantine said, still grasping Eleanor's hand but not bending over it. "It is truly astounding, how healthy the Queen seems to be."

Elizabeth looked at her father, bewildered, and looked back at Alexander, who was at a loss.

"Yes, Eleanor does enjoy excellent health, sir," Henry finally said, trying to find some tactful way to tell Constantine to let go of his wife's hand. Finally, the prince stepped back, his gaze not leaving Eleanor's face, and he let go of her hand. Eleanor winced and moved closer to her husband, trembling with terror and doing her best not to think of what Constantine might do next. Would he reveal her secret to her husband? Would he go on a rampage and destroy her entire country?

Would he kill her?

Henry looked relieved and grinned again. "Well, we've a fine banquet prepared, and there will be dancing and the like—these young folks will enjoy that a great deal, I'm sure. Shall we?" he gestured toward the door, and Constantine moved out of his way. Eleanor hooked her arm over Henry's, glanced briefly at Constantine, and walked out of the room, her heart pounding and her head beginning to throb.

The royal family and the nobles of Gravonia moved in one large body to the King's new Banqueting Hall, which was large enough to easily contain over a thousand people. Henry had had it built the year before, opening it on Christmas Day and inviting all citizens of Luvov to celebrate the holiday with a vast, raucous feast. Since then, the hall had been used for similar feasts for not only the nobility but also visiting ambassadors and the various guilds of Gravonia (the most recent of those gatherings having been of the Vintner's Guild, a banquet Henry had hosted and could remember nothing about), and today it was decorated in the black and gold of Gravonia and the red and white of Morvenia, and all the tables were set with hand-carved stags and dragons representing the two nations. Eleanor and Henry took their seats at the table on the dais, and beside them Constantine and Elizabeth took their seats. The six princes took their place at another table and after a prayer was said by Archbishop Nichols everyone began murmuring quietly as the meal was served.

Everyone except Constantine and Eleanor was animated and quite lively. Alexander and Elizabeth chatted easily together, discussing her impressions of the countryside of southern Gravonia and of Luvov, and the prince introduced her to his brothers. All five of the younger princes were on their best behavior, though not necessarily due to any threats of bodily harm from their mother: they genuinely were curious about their future sister-in-law and were eager to befriend her. All in all, Elizabeth was pleased with her betrothed's family, but she was bewildered by how strangely Queen Eleanor was behaving, and even more by how angry her father seemed to be.

Eleanor's head was pounding, and not even eating a sumptuous meal and drinking wassail seemed to alleviate the pain. She made sure not to even glance in Constantine's direction, but instead asked that Elizabeth be brought to her and that Henry go and sit with Constantine. The princess moved into the king's chair as Henry ambled away, and Eleanor smiled at the girl.

"It's such a great pleasure to have you here at last, Elizabeth. I'm very eager to show you your rooms whenever you are ready, and if there is anything that you need, please do not hesitate to ask."

"I thank you, ma'am," Elizabeth said quietly. "Are you all right? You seem very… shaken."

"I suppose the reality of my son's future marriage has finally come to me," Eleanor finally managed, with a smile that she hoped didn't look sickly.

"My father seems very upset."

"No father looks forward to giving away his daughter with any degree of delight, I'm sure, even when he knows her future husband is a good man who will treat her well."

"He seems angry."

"I can assure you, I do not know the reason why. Perhaps he is… overtired."

Elizabeth studied the Queen for a moment, then nodded, but clearly was not convinced. "Yes, I suppose that must be it."

"I was told that you and your retinue was attacked at Logais Pass?" Eleanor asked, snatching up a cup of hard cider as it passed by on a servant's tray. "I pray you were not injured."

"Just a little bruising that is already fading. Papa has taught me how to defend myself, and it pains me to say that I used those lessons well. I did not relish having to… do so."

"One has to do what one has to do," Eleanor said softly. "But I understand how you feel. I, too, have had to go to extreme measures to protect those I love and even myself. It is, I'm afraid, the way of the world."

"You've… killed someone?" Elizabeth asked, wide-eyed.

"It is not a matter worthy of discussion, especially not on such a happy day." Eleanor took a quick draught of the hard cider, winced as it scorched down her throat, and took a deep breath, forcing her fear away and feeling the warmth of the beverage soothing her nerves a bit. "I was informed that you brought your sewing with you, too, like a good girl?"

"Yes. Your midwife… Betsy? She drew my bath at the border, and she was very kind. She said the same thing."

"Yes, she is very kind and has more common sense than a little draft pony. She was present at the births of all six of my children, and has remained a very dear friend, though she spends most of her time now at home back in Liv—in the east. If you find her agreeable, one day you might retain her services yourself. Just the same, I wanted someone there to help you through the rather silly crossing-over ritual, and Betsy more than qualifies to provide calm and comfort."

Elizabeth blushed. "I think I should like it she would help me with my... my babies."

"Only if you find the notion agreeable, Elizabeth. I will force no one on you—you will be given your head on such very personal matters." She studied the girl carefully. "Well, I believe I shall like you very much. I like your face—you look so much like your mother, and she was a very dear, trusted friend."

"Thank you, ma'am. I try to be like her."

"Well, that's all very good, and there is no better example to follow that your sweet mother, but remember to be yourself first and foremost." Eleanor smiled at the girl and caught Constantine's hard, furious stare. She swallowed. "That's really the only way to live."


The banquet ended just before dawn, and Eleanor was exhausted but unable to sleep. She saw to it that Elizabeth was shown her rooms, and the girl seemed pleased with how they were decorated. Alexander was allowed to speak with the princess alone for a few moments before she was sent to bed, and the prince expressed to his mother that he found her 'very satisfactory'. Had she not been so emotionally raw and tired, she would have found his earnest phrasing rather amusing, but instead she had wanted to hide in her rooms and cry.

She had remained in her seat during the entire banquet, refusing to dance even with Henry. Instead, she had chatted all evening with Elizabeth, finding the girl utterly charming, but after several hours of dancing and eating the girl began to show signs of being far too tired to continue. Elizabeth was sent to bed, but Constantine—also refusing to dance and eating very little—stayed up, his gaze rarely straying from Eleanor, who felt the weight of his stare all night. As hostess of the tiresome event, Eleanor had had to stay up as long as Henry, and when he finally collapsed into bed, she sat down by the fire and tried to keep from going into a full-blown panic.

God Almighty, he was here. In Gravonia, staying in one of the opulent suites usually reserved for the ambassador of some major state. He knew her secret, and his fury was obvious: how could he not be angry about having been deceived and betrayed so cruelly? However much good had come of the situation, he had still been lied to, and she knew he did not countenance lies, as he never told them. His rage was justifiable and he had every right to act on it… but the cost would be a price far too high for anyone to pay. Her husband and her children would suffer the most, along with everyone she loved, and if his conscience was as tender as it had been eighteen years ago, he would never forgive himself if he did what he had the right to do.

Having the right to do something, of course, did not always make it right.

She did not climb into bed beside Henry. Instead, shivering, she put on her blue cloak, pulled on slippers, and quietly went outside to the gardens, hoping the sound of the water fountains might soothe her headache a little. She paced quietly along the thick, dewy grass to the largest fountain (a bunch of drunken satyrs chasing water nymphs) and sat down on the edge, splashing her fingers in the water. Finally, she splashed some cold water on her face, and that made her gasp and shudder, but at least it made her feel a little less numb.

She felt him before she even saw him. She didn't even hear his footsteps—she just knew. She stood up and faced him across the fountain, swallowing, and could not move as he stalked around to her until they were just only spare feet apart. In the graying darkness, she could see his eyes glowing with barely contained rage. No wonder people called him the Dragon—it was a wonder he wasn't breathing fire.

"Tell me," he said at last, in that hard, clipped voice he used when he expected answers from subordinates. "Tell me how in the hell a dead peasant girl becomes Queen of Gravonia."

"I… "

"Tell me! It must be a fascinating story. I followed you out here—I assume you were all too eager to expound on the matter."

"I was sixteen."

"That's your explanation? Quick and to the point, then. Aye, you were. Sixteen. And dead. Let's not forget dead!" he said, making no effort to conceal his anger.

"Princess Eleanor arrived at Count von Hesse's castle and she died there… it was winter and there was a blizzard and… and… we looked so much alike and were the same age, and we were both King Michael's granddaughters, and the Livonian ambassador… they said I had to go. There was a war and… " She spoke in a rush, her voice shaking, and he made a slashing gesture with his hand, demanding she stop.

"So it's all right to tell a lie to end a war?"

"If I have had to lie, at least lives have been saved."

"Oh, that's rich! Let the diplomats and the generals work out ending a damned war. That's their job!" Constantine snarled at her, and she supposed she could be credited with some degree of courage, because she held her ground. "No lie is justifiable. You were supposed to marry me. That was your job, if you want to call it that."

"What choice did I have? I was sixteen! I did as I was told!"

"So you went from being a girl with your own mind and your own will to being some pliant little… my God..." He rubbed his temple. "Does Henry know he's married to a fraud? Does he know?"

"As I told you, I have never told anyone," she said softly, sitting down again at the edge of the fountain, feeling numb and raw, as if the old scar on her shoulder had opened up and was bleeding.

"Someone should. Someone should let him know. I should tell him and let him do with you as he pleases."

"And what would that accomplish?" she asked, terror and desperation gripping her. "Besides humiliating him?"

Constantine glared at her, eyes still blazing. "A clear conscience, perhaps, for you. Finally."

"Yes, a clear conscience indeed, and my head in a basket on the gibbet as my due reward. Then I suppose you'd have to kill Count von Hesse, too, right, to insure my conscience is entirely pure?"

He frowned, but said nothing.

"Then what? You'd invade? Kill my husband? My sons? Will that clear your conscience? I have had to live with this for eighteen years, and don't think for one moment that every day has not been lived in fear. I don't give a damn what you do to me, Constantine, but I will fight to my death for my family. You will have to kill me if you intend to harm them… and you know I know how to fight and I know how to fight dirty. I know I can never defeat you—no one ever has—but I can still draw blood and I will not hesitate to strike when required to defend my babies. I would have to be ruthless to protect them--I have been in the past, and I will again."

He stood still, watching her and listening as she raged at him, and his anger seemed to fade away little by little as the sky lightened. He drew in his breath and looked toward the horizon. He rubbed his face and exhaled, shaking his head. "Aye, I suppose you would be," he said quietly, looking at the water. The first rays of daylight were beginning to stretch toward the garden walls, with dew sparkling in the grass. "You killed that Lacovian… von Biron… and you wiped out the Lacovians at the Field of Stones, and you had that assassin, whoever he was, cut up and served in pieces to Beauchamp."

"Yes. I did what I had to do. I will not stop fighting for my sons until I am in the grave." She hugged herself, staring wearily across the green gardens, watching flowers starting to open to the rising sun, the darkness fading softly into dawn. "What are you going to do?" she asked at last, bracing herself. She would not cry, she told herself. She would accept his verdict, prepare for her last battle, and go down fighting, just like her blood father.

He began to pace like a caged tiger, and she watched him, amazed that he had not changed very much at all in eighteen years—he was still beautiful, with his slight limp and his scars and his relentless heart. He had the power to destroy her, and she could only pray that his decency would prevent him from declaring war. Otherwise…

"I will be angry for a long time, I suspect. I am enraged, actually, that I was lied to. I might even need to have a conversation with von Hesse." He ran a hand through his hair. "You must admit, it's a lot to swallow and pretend all is well."

She clutched at the small lifeline of hope he seemed to be throwing her. "Please… please, do not hurt him… he saw my tears, Constantine. He didn't want to send me here. You must understand… I begged him... "

Constantine stared at the satyrs and nymphs in the fountain. Finally, he exhaled, not moving his gaze to her. "Do you love him?"

That question was inevitable, she knew. She had steeled herself for it, but it was just as painful. "Yes. In many ways. It is my duty to love… "

"Do you love him?" he asked again, narrowing his eyes as he finally looked at her.

"Yes."

The pain that showed on his face was enough to make Eleanor feel as though her heart was being ripped to pieces. She put her head down. Never as much as I love you. Never in the way I love you, and will always love you.

"You don't know how I cried when they told me what I had to do, Constantine. I pleaded with them to not make me go. I wanted to marry you. I did, with all my heart. But I was sixteen and suddenly I was here and if I had not let myself love him or my life… our lives… would have been wretched and our children would have grown up utterly miserable—no child misses that their parents don't love each other, and it affects them and makes their own lives miserable, too. I didn't want this life, but this is the life I have and I have six lives to protect and a whole country to defend. I have no choice now."

Constantine continued staring at the sculpted figures—the morning sunlight was starting to touch them, making the jetting water shimmer as it spewed up into the sky and splashed back down in the next pool, where Daphne was turning into a laurel tree while an appalled Apollo looked on. She studied the statue of the Greek god, comparing him to Constantine, and realized that it was really no wonder she had never liked 'pretty' men. There was nothing pretty or even vaguely effeminate about the scarred man before her.

"You have no idea how much it grieved me when they told me… seeing your grave was pure agony," Constantine said, his voice quiet as he continued watching the water. There was no more anger in his eyes—only a kind of sad resignation. "At first, seeing you, I was enraged. I was ready to rally my army, invade and… carry you away. To do what, exactly, I don't know, but I was ready to do something truly rash."

"And cruel… which is not your nature. Even in all your brilliance, you have never been cruel."

A puissant silence fell between them. He took a deep breath before exhaling slowly, and she looked up at him, seeing him slowly come to a decision.

"You've made a name for yourself, Eleanor," he said. She bowed her head, devastated that she was hurting him so. "You've defeated armies, brought wealth and civility to this kingdom, gave birth to six strapping boys, all while pretending to be someone you're not." She looked up at him then, searching his face for mockery, but there was none. Instead, there was just a sadness that broke her heart anew. "Yours must be a glorious and exhausting life."

"Do not think I have not… thought of you, and frequently, and that I have always prayed for you. Every day. For your safety and your happiness. You have no idea how much I grieved when Isabella died, because I knew it hurt you. She was my friend, and I miss her, too."

"Yes. I miss her every day."

"Did you love her?"

He looked down, staring at the ground for several moments. "In my way. I was faithful to her. My conscience… "

"Remains very tender," she finished gently, wanting to embrace him in her gratefulness and her sorrow. "I wish there were more people like you in the world, Constantine. Imagine the peace we would enjoy. And I think she knew you loved her."

"I didn't love her the way I should have. The way she deserved."

She stood and stepped closer, but she didn't touch him. "She never held that against you. She never charged you with any sin. There was no sin. Ever."

He sighed and looked away again, toward the horizon, where the cloudless sky was turning a soft pearl-pink, which Eleanor knew meant a rainstorm was coming. "I feel so old," he muttered. "So damned old."

"Forty-four is not old."

"Forty-three," he corrected. "I'll be forty-four in August. Having a daughter old enough to marry doesn't make me feel any younger."

She smiled, but tears brimmed her eyes. "Eighteen years have gone by. So much has changed."

"You haven't. Not much, anyway. Nary a wrinkle… and you do look healthy," he said, with a wry little smile.

"I'm finding grey hairs," she said. "And I'm quite sturdy for a dead girl."

For the first time, he smiled, and her heart swelled, even if his smile did not touch his eyes. "I've been finding grey hairs since I was about twenty. More now, since I've got a daughter of sixteen and four hellions back home."

"I long to meet them some day. And your little daughter Charlotte."

He pursed his lips, and she knew he was near tears. "Perhaps. Perhaps. God only knows what the future holds."

"Yes. Like Betsy always said, 'yesterday is dead, tomorrow is blind'."

"Today is a gift," he nodded.

"That's why it's called the present," she said, with a sad smile.

"Yes. I take it she's still around?"

"Yes. In fact, she delivered all six of my sons. She was in the tent at the border, to help Elizabeth."

"I see. And Count von Hesse?"

"Yes. He's still the Livonian ambassador, and he's got two little daughters with Christiane—Helene and Madeleine."

"Girls, hm? Probably what he wanted—he wanted to see you inherit his lands and his title."

"I suppose so. He has arranged privately to see Frederick inherit the County some day. In the far distant future. I cannot imagine the world without him. I'm determined to see that his daughters have positions of prominence at the Livonian court, and that they marry well."

"He's at home now?"

"Yes. He was to come here for the summer, but he has gout, and so Lord Devereaux is serving in his place now."

"Devereaux?"

"He was with the princess. He… was the first to even raise the idea of me going in her place, after she died."

"I see."

"Constantine… " she said softly, and finally touched his arm. He stared down at her hand on his bicep for several moments, then looked into her eyes and she wanted so much to embrace him that her entire body ached. "I do pray that some day you can forgive me. I do not expect it now—I know this has been such a difficult thing, and your anger is justified."

"Honestly, Eleanor, right now I wish I had never met you." She looked up at him, hurt and bewildered, and he shook his head. "Not because I would never have wanted to know you, but because then everything would be so much different. None of this would be so… "

"Painful." She let her tears flow, unashamed to let him see them. She sat down again, and he stood still, silently watching her cry.

"I'm sorry."

"You're apologizing to me?" she asked, looking up at him, her vision blurred with tears.

"When I hurt someone without just cause, I apologize."

She wiped her eyes and almost laughed. "Do you never cease to have such high standards?"

"Yes. But I can only apply those standards to myself, and believe me, I know that I often sound like a bloody prig. But I have to concede that you did nothing wrong—you did as you were told, as would be expected for a girl of sixteen. I'll tell myself that, whenever I can't sleep and I get angry again. You committed no sin—I won't speak for God, but… your lie has saved countless lives, and has made life better for many, many people. I can't spit on that, Eleanor, even though I still hate all lies. So yes, I'm sorry for having hurt you. You didn't deserve it."

"I was a ghost between you and Isabella. I kept coming between you—I saw that in her eyes, when she talked about you. It was my fault… "

"That was my bloody fault, not yours, and I hurt her in ways that I can only pray she forgave me for. You were dead, remember? I should have been able to… move on. Or let you go. Something. Maybe some part of me knew… " Sighing, he sat down beside her and she wished that he would—and could—put his arms around her and hold her forever. But he could not, and they both knew it.

He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "And now our children are going to marry."

She could only nod.

"Talk about irony."

She burst into laughter, despite herself. "I was thinking the same thing, just a few days ago."

"And what do you think of my little daughter?"

"She's so lovely, Constantine. So utterly sweet and tough as nails, just like her parents—I already adore her. She's so much like Isabella, and she's got a core of steel in her that will serve her well here in Gravonia." She brushed her skirt for a moment, thinking. "There are enemies, here at Court, and in Lacovia, too. Beauchamp and King Paul and even von Arklow's son Lionel could pose a problem should he ever escape… "

"Isn't he locked up in a castle in northern Germany? I hear he's to be killed the second he attempts to escape or anyone tries to help him escape. I can't see how he might pose a problem."

"You heard about that?" she asked, astonished.

"My brother has been sending me information on state matters and reports from his spies for years. He just always assumed I couldn't read."

She laughed, delighted, and was pleased to see his smile touch his eyes.

"Your brother's spy—the Scotsman. A true Highlander, is he?"

"Aye, he is. He was raised as a cattle thief, no less, but honesty turned him into a stellar spy and assassin, and he plays a mean bagpipe, too—quite enjoyable, so long as you're about a mile away. Philip had him go to Spain and kill Isabella's uncle, after he learned the bastard liked to knock her and Catalina about when they were children. You'd think he was a hopeless drunk, but he never touches the stuff—hates it. Just acts boozy, because he wants everyone think he's that way. Makes him not stand out. He told me once that he's probably killed countless plants across the Continent, what with pouring tumblers of hard liquor into pots of flowers and drinking cider instead."

"A sober Scotsman?" she smiled. "That would make him stand out, if folks' prejudices are the same everywhere."

"Aye, lass. From the northern shores of Loch Lomond he is, and as sober as a judge." Constantine affected a passable Scottish brogue. He stood up, sighing wearily. "I was here to have it out with you, Eleanor. I was going to curse you to hell, and now I'm asking God's blessings on you."

"I am sorry," she finally said. "And I need His blessings. Desperately. I do not have the right to ask your forgiveness, though."

He nodded, looking away toward the fountains. "You were sixteen. You did as you were told. Who am I to judge you, and how can I expect God's forgiveness for my sins if I will not forgive you?"

"Would you have done the same?"

"I don't know." He shook his head. "But I was never a sixteen-year old girl. At that age, I had more leeway because of my sex alone."

She smiled through her sorrow. "If I had to do it all over again, Constantine, I would have… "

"Don't. Don't say it. That's almost like saying 'if I were God'. You can't change the past. You can't even wish to change it. It is what it is—to even contemplate it is whittling on God's end of the stick."

"Then we both have many regrets."

"What I said earlier… about wishing I had never met you… that was a lie. I am grateful to have known you." He looked down for several moments. "For having loved you. I suppose it made me a better person, in many ways."

"It made me a better person, too." She drew in her breath. "I learned so much from you."

"Some things you probably shouldn't have learned, so young. I had no right to teach you, then."

"It did no harm, I can assure you. It prepared me… " She couldn't finish the sentence. Had it not been for Constantine's instructions, she supposed her life with Henry wouldn't be as satisfying, physically, as it was.

"Ah, well… " He looked toward the rising sun. "I will not stay here long, Eleanor. I cannot bear it. Call me a coward if you will, but… I might be bloody terrifying on the battlefield, but here I'm at a loss."

"It will break you daughter's heart if you leave too early. She is not ready to say goodbye yet."

"She needs to learn about that sort of thing."

"Still, I beg you to stay a few days. I want you to get to know my son and Henry. I want you to know for certain that your daughter is joining a loving family that will do all we can to make her happy here. And I want… I want so very much for… "

"For?"

She swallowed. "For us to be friends again."

"That will never be possible, Eleanor. You and I both know that."

"But you will be welcome here, any time. We ought to be at ease around each other."

He ran his hand through his hair. "I suppose it wouldn't do if Henry suspected anything—for his sake as much as ours." He leaned back on his hands a little, stretching his legs out. "I thought it rather strange when I saw the carved dove above the city gates. Pax in virtute. That means…"

"Peace through strength," she said softly.

"Very true. I didn't remember where I had seen that phrase, but it was familiar." He closed his eyes. "I had a dove carved for you, too, with your arms quartered to mine. It held a dagger and an olive branch, though, not a sheaf of arrows."

"A dove and a dragon," she said, with a soft, sad smile.

"Yes. Only yours would have been the Reeve family's arms, not von Hesse's." He smiled slightly as an old, carefully hidden memory came back. "I had even told my mother I was bringing a bride home—she said the Reeve arms looked common."

"They are fairly… ordinary." Carefully, she dug into her cloak pocket and extracted the little red Morvenian flag she carried everywhere with her. Not even Henry knew of its existence, nor her children. "I kept this, over the years. I never go anywhere without it." She unfolded it and showed him the white dragon.

He managed a smile, and she put the flag back into her pocket.

"I still have your blue ribbon, on the hilt of my sword."

She smiled, tears still blurring her vision.

"I think I should return to my rooms now," he finally said. "Good day to you, Eleanor."

"Good day," she whispered back. Finally, shyly, she offered him her hand, and he took it, her fingers intertwining with his, and bowed, but he made no further contact with her before straightening, turning and walking away.

She remained seated even as he walked away, not looking back, and remained still and silent even as he disappeared into the still-dark woods that divided the west-facing gardens of the palace from the vineyards. She rubbed her arms, shivering in the chilly air, and brushed her hair back before standing up, straightening her skirts and reining her scattered emotions in. She had a long day ahead of her, and she had much to do.


Henry was curious about why Eleanor had not come to bed during the night, but he had little time to wonder, as the day's activities had been planned carefully, almost down to the last minute. He paced out to the tourney yard with Alexander and Frederick, inspecting the lists and finding them sturdy enough to suit. The two boys were eager to participate in the jousting matches planned for the afternoon, and Henry was trying to find some way he might persuade the Queen to let them join in the games. Alexander had been practicing in earnest for some time, and was quite good, but he had never participated in a full-blown match. Frederick, too, was training well and qualified to join the first-timers' tilts.

The King spoke with the tournament master, putting down the names of the two princes as potential participants ('tentative' was the best word he could allow for now) and walked with the boys back to the palace.

"So what do you think of Princess Elizabeth, son?" Henry asked. "She's a bonny girl, isn't she?"

"She is very pretty, sir," Alexander nodded. "And she is blessed with a good mind and… "

"And very nice figure," Frederick said, daring a glance at his father, who frowned.

"You'll speak respectfully of a young lady, Frederick, even when she is absent."

"I would have been speaking disrespectfully of her had I said she wasn't good to look at," Frederick answered, but he kept a careful tone, particularly when he caught Alexander's expression.

The Crown Prince frowned. "She looks like her mother, they tell me, but she killed her attacker at Logais Pass—she is Constantine's daughter for sure. Can you imagine such a thing? Her father seems to have taught her how to defend herself."

"And well he should," Henry nodded. "Had I a daughter I would insist she learn, too. The world is full of cruel, violent men who would abuse a woman, given half a chance. A girl should know how to fend for herself if necessary."

"When I am king, I will make it a law," Alexander said. "A law, that any man who strikes a woman shall receive a thousand lashes and that all girls should be trained in self-defense."

Henry laughed. "The former law is already on the books, son. The latter… well, we could always apply to the Council and see what they say. Most of the men in that august body have daughters they dote on—it might not be too hard to persuade them."

Frederick shook his head, thinking of Ellie, whose sweet, gentle nature would make it hard for her to take to martial arts. "I cannot understand a man who would strike a woman."

"Aye, neither can I." Henry grinned when he saw his four younger sons riding toward them. "Lads, I see you escaped your mother's clutches."

"We did?" Harry asked, looking confused. He and William were sure their mother hadn't yet heard of the prank they had pulled on their tutor that morning. Not that she wouldn't, sooner or later. Nothing ever escaped her knowledge.

"Aye. She surely has sent someone out to find you both. George, Andrew… I assume you've finished your lessons?"

The two youngest princes shifted nervously in their saddles. "Um… " George started. "We… finished early."

"If you think your mother will allow either of you to take part in the jousts today, you are much mistaken."

"Oh, come on, Papa!" Harry said, exasperated. "We're all old enough. Well, Andrew isn't yet, but he has the best aim with his lance of any of us and… "

"That may be very well and true, but it doesn't change that she will not allow it. She will have to even be persuaded to allow Alexander and Frederick to take part, and then only with the training jousts. None of you are to dispute with her on the matter, however—if she says 'no', then that will be the end of it."

A horse was brought for the king, and he swung astride with ease. "I'm intending to challenge Prince Constantine to a joust, actually," he said. "I'll see you later, lads. Behave yourselves."

The six princes looked at each other with varying degrees of dismay. Finally, Andrew asked the question they all wanted to ask but were afraid to bring up. "Who will be scraping Papa up afterward?"


Constantine never felt well after a sleepless night. He had gone into innumerable battles after bouts of insomnia and had never experienced a loss or even a draw, but the battles were usually accompanied by a bad headache, a roiling stomach and a sour temper. Today, however, he felt as though a herd of cattle were stomping across his brain and had stopped at his left ear to kick relentlessly until his entire head was throbbing. He supposed it was due to getting older, and also to seeing the woman he loved alive and well after eighteen years of being dead and buried.

He didn't bother to shave, as he hadn't even stretched out on the overly-soft bed that had been prepared for him. Instead, he washed his face, did his best to get his unruly hair under control and went downstairs in search of something to eat. A flustered housemaid stumbled upon him in the Great Hall, squeaked in terror and ran away toward the kitchens. Constantine sighed, wishing again that he didn't have such a fearsome reputation—it wasn't as though he had ever attacked and ravished any house servants after a battle. In fact, after destroying a garrison of Turks in some dreary corner of Romania, he had seen to it that their women and children were all sent home with a group of dependable guards, food and clothes.

Still hungry and tired, he followed his nose down the hall and finally located the door to the kitchens. He was surprised to see Eleanor and her ladies assembled in a little sitting room near what looked like a private family dining hall. Without bothering to announce himself, he walked on into the room, amused at the fluttering of the little flock of ladies-in-waiting as they reassembled themselves around the Queen, as if guarding her. He tilted to one side, just a little, and caught Eleanor's eye: she was seated now, her face flushed and her expression wary, but he caught just a tiny glint of amusement in her eyes.

As if she needs protecting from me. von Biron probably wished he had had protection from her.

"Ladies," he said, bowing slightly. "I was wondering if I might ask for something to eat. All the servants appear to have fled in terror."

"Oh, dear," an attractive, dark-haired woman said. "I am sorry. I am Lady Clothilde Hallam, sir--I am Her Majesty's principal lady-in-waiting. I will call for the cooks to prepare something for you."

"Simple beef and vegetables, I'm sure," Eleanor said.

Constantine's mouth twisted slightly. "Not for breakfast, ma'am. Bacon and eggs would suit me."

Lady Clothilde looked back and forth between them, then curtseyed and swept out of the room, followed by the other ladies. Eleanor remained seated, and Constantine remained in his place.

"I hope your rooms are comfortable, sir," she said softly.

"Very much. More than I'm accustomed to, but I will have to endure."

"I'm sure you will find a way of overcome such trials."

"Probably."

The sound of footsteps and laughter made him turn on his heels and his eyes narrowed when Alexander and Elizabeth came in, arm in arm, both smiling at some private joke. The young prince let go of Elizabeth and bowed, and Elizabeth bobbed to the Queen, her expression uneasy. "Papa, Alexander has asked if I might join him and his brothers for a ride this morning."

Eleanor started to speak, but pursed her lips. It was not her place, even though she outranked Constantine.

That in itself astonished her—she, whatever had put her in this place, had higher rank than him and yet it didn't seem right at all to try to supersede him.

"Only if the Queen will agree to go along," Constantine said, turning his gaze back to her. She drew in her breath.

Lady Clothilde, returning with two servants bearing covered dishes, smiled at Elizabeth, who smiled brightly in return. But the strange tension in the room was not missed by the older woman, and Eleanor wondered if she had overheard the conversation. "Your Majesty, you are scheduled to meet with the wife of the Havorian ambassador before luncheon."

"I am?" Eleanor asked, her gaze never straying from Constantine. "Oh. Yes. I am. I… "

"I'm sure Lady Norreys can reschedule," Constantine said. "I've seen the woman—she can stand to miss a meal or two."

"Papa!" Elizabeth said, aghast.

"I will not have my daughter riding alone with six boys while unattended by a proper chaperon," he said firmly, not giving a damn if he sounded overprotective or not. That was his job as her father, to his thinking.

Elizabeth looked bewildered. "Good heavens, Papa, what do you think they'll do to me?"

"God only knows what goes on in that boy's head," Constantine said, his voice taking on a cold edge as he gave Alexander a narrow look. The boy looked both affronted and slightly guilty.

"I can assure you, sir, that my son's behavior has always been…"

"Perfect?" Constantine said, looking at Eleanor again. "He's seventeen. I've yet to hear of any seventeen-year old boy who doesn't have a horn or two, and frankly I'd be a little worried if this one didn't, but Elizabeth is still my daughter and I insist everything be done properly. Perhaps he takes after his father, or maybe even after his mo—."

"I think Lady Norreys will agree to delay her meeting with the Queen," Clothilde said, cutting Constantine off with a soothing smile below a pair of sharp, apprising eyes.

"My son's behavior has always been circumspect, Your Royal Highness," Eleanor said, but if she was feeling angry she wasn't showing it. Instead, she stood up, holding his gaze with surprising confidence, but he saw the slight tremor and felt a stab of embarrassment at his behavior. "I will have my horse prepared. Alexander, see that Elizabeth is properly fitted with a suitable mount—perhaps Norah or one of the quieter geldings."

"I am an excellent rider, ma'am," Elizabeth said. "Papa even lets me ride his warhorse."

"Just the same, Elizabeth, it would not do for you to suffer any tumbles on just your second day here," Eleanor said with a kind smile. "See to it, Alexander." The Crown Prince left, after exchanging a brief, silent exchange with Elizabeth that left her pink-cheeked. Constantine's eyes narrowed at that and he had to restrain himself from grabbing the boy and throttling him. Eleanor did not even give Constantine another look, but instead swept from the room, the picture of regal dignity. Lady Hallam held back and turned to face Constantine once the Queen was out of the room and out of earshot.

"Your Royal Highness, it does not serve you well to importune the Queen. She has had a trying day already and it is not at all kind of you or anyone else to cause her further distress, and I have known Alexander all his life and he is a very well-behaved young man, with excellent manners."

"What are you, her watchdog?"

"I wait upon the Queen, sir, as is my duty as her servant and I am loyal to her. So yes, I will always do my best to protect her."

He nodded. "Yes, I can tell many people are loyal to her." He hadn't missed the two bodyguards that stayed close to her at all times, except for their meeting earlier that day. How she had managed to give those diligent guards the slip was beyond him, but he knew Eleanor—if she set her mind to do something, it would be done. She had told him once about her how she had outwitted Betsy, back at Ravensburg, to take a lark into Turon on her own, and he knew few people as sharp-eyed as that tough old woman.

"So is her husband, sir, and she is loyal to him."

Constantine did not miss her meaning, and his hackles rose, but his inbred good manners held his temper in check. "I can assure you, ma'am, that I have no… I apologize, ma'am, if I have distressed the Queen in any way."

"You ought to apologize to her, sir," Lady Hallam said. "I have heard many stories of not only your ferocity and your courage on the battlefield, but also of your humane treatment of others, and of your decency towards all classes of people. I would hate to see your excellent reputation ruined due to a… lapse in good judgment."

"Madame, if you intend to accuse me of a sin I have not even committed… " he started, but Lady Hallam seemed to be made of pretty stern stuff, and she cut him off as though she were a battlefield commander and he was just a raw yeoman archer.

"I will not see the Queen's reputation besmirched even a little, sir, nor will I see her distressed. You are of course welcome here in Gravonia, as the father of the Queen's future daughter-in-law, but my job as her chief lady-in-waiting is to see to her well-being, and that might even require me protecting her from herself, if necessary. I am not blind, and I see that you upset her, and I will not allow that either. Not for you or even for a profitable alliance with Morvenia."

Constantine tamped down a flash of temper, knowing Lady Hallam was simply being loyal. "Your devotion to the Queen commends you, ma'am," he finally said tightly.

"It commends us all, sir. She is an excellent woman and she has done much for this country. Most Queens would sit back and enjoy the luxuries afforded to her by her position, but Her Majesty works tirelessly for this country and for the King. She has earned our devotion."

"I'm sure she has, ma'am."

"Good. I am pleased to see you agree with me, and I am very happy to know you will do all you can to spare her any distress." Lady Hallam bobbed to him, gave him a polite but icy smile and walked away. He mumbled under his breath about women and their ability to band together and sat down to eat his breakfast—excellent ham and eggs, which killed off his headache and made him feel a good deal better. Just the same—he wasn't going to let his daughter go riding alone with Alexander and his brothers.

After eating, he stalked out to the stables, watching as the princes and Elizabeth prepared for an afternoon ride. He decided then to join them on the ride, having nothing better to do anyway. Eleanor, sitting astride a flashy chestnut with a comically crooked white blaze and four white socks, looked as pretty as a picture, and her sons were a striking sight—they all resembled her, to varying degrees, yet they looked almost nothing alike, and their personalities were also very different. Just the same, he could tell the boys were all very loyal to each other, and the younger princes looked to Alexander as a leader.

They were all also excellent horsemen, and Constantine had to admit that their gentle treatment of their horses indicated good training in other areas of a life: a man who was kind to his horse was likely also kind to people. Just the same—he was going to keep a sharp eye on Alexander. He had no intention of seeing his daughter chained to just anyone, even a future king. The boy was going to have to measure up or the deal was off.


Barking dogs seemed to be everywhere, and their constant racket was giving Eleanor a headache. Just the same, as hostess to Constantine and his daughter, she had to keep a smile on her face and behave as though nothing was on her nerves. She didn't miss the prince's hard glare at Alexander every time her son so much as spoke to Elizabeth, and while that in itself was typical behavior of any father, it was starting to annoy her. Did he really think her son would behave dishonorably toward the girl? What he had said earlier, of course, had made her hackles rise: that perhaps Alexander took after her as much as he did Henry. Thank God for Clothilde, then, for cutting him off before he had said something truly shocking.

Maintaining calm was of the utmost importance. She had to look as serene as a farm pond during the ride, even though her horse was fractious and her eldest son looked nervous. Her fraying nerves were transmitting to her horse, and the animal was frothing at the mouth and kept snatching the bit to try and gallop off. She had to concentrate hard to keep the chestnut under control, and when the dogs starting baying when they spotted a wild boar, it took everything she had to stay in the saddle. Finally, Constantine called for a break in the ride and suggested they stop in a forest clearing for lunch. The dogs went off to hunt wild pigs and Eleanor was relieved to dismount and sit down on a blanket in the grass. Her sons and Elizabeth went off mushroom hunting and left Constantine and the Queen alone together.

"You look exhausted," he said. He was casually cutting up an apple with a lethal-looking dagger, and sliced a piece for her. She ate it gratefully, and accepted another slice.

"I am rather tired. I did not sleep well last night."

"Neither did I."

She watched the shadows in the woods. "My husband intends to challenge you in the tiltyard today."

"I figured he would."

"Will you accept?"

"I don't know. Maybe I can claim illness—I'll say I ate too much cheese."

She laughed. "You hate cheese!"

"Well, then, it would make me ill." He cut a few more slices off the apple and gave them to her. "Still can't abide mutton?"

"Henry had it banned from the palace table."

He laughed. "Much of this country's economy is based on wool and mutton and he won't have it in the palace?"

"I sort of circumvented him—I won't allow it on my plate, but anyone else may partake. It would have been fatal if I had let him offend the sheep breeders of Gravonia. They're a ruthless lot."

"Aye, I've heard of the damage they can cause with wool alone."

"Wool blankets are itchy," she said with a grave nod. "One of my maids has a fascinating reaction to wool: she breaks out in a rash and swells up horribly and she starts wheezing. Poor thing—her father was a sheep breeder. Life was hell for her during her childhood."

"Sounds like Isabella's reaction to mushrooms. She couldn't look at one without getting sick to her stomach."

Eleanor smiled. "She mentioned that. Henry loves mushrooms. I can tolerate them, somewhat, but when he tried to feed me truffles one day… my God, what hideous things!"

"They have truffle-hunting dogs and pigs, you know."

"Sounds about right."

A strangely comfortable silence fell between them, with him watching her eat her apple slices. When she finished, she smoothed her hands on her skirt.

"Your brother is aware of… who I am. He apparently had the Scotsman do some investigating."

Constantine frowned and nodded. "That's hardly surprising. Philip has a knack for pursuing a matter until he is satisfied he has all the answers."

"Yes."

"I suppose he still intended to keep it from me. He did not seem too thrilled when I told him I was coming here with Elizabeth. He even told me to stay calm."

"Are you? Calm?"

"Vaguely."

"You know that I… I never meant… "

"I know, Eleanor."

She stared down at her clasped hands. "It broke my heart when I heard you had married. I knew it had to happen… but… did you know that your wedding was on the same day I gave birth to Alexander?"

"Yes. I heard that, later." Constantine shook his head. "I guess this all does really prove that God has a sense of humor, eh?"

"I suppose. Though I must admit, I don't know that I appreciate His brand."

He laughed. "Well, He put you where you needed to be, Eleanor. Maybe Gravonia needed you more than I did."

She fought back tears, overcome with sadness. "I didn't need Gravonia. I didn't want… this. I was going to have years to get ready to be a Queen… and instead, I was a Queen the day I got here and then I had six boys to raise and train and a husband to try and guide in the right way."

"You've been pretty successful," Constantine said. "I can think of no one would could have done better."

She sniffed and wiped her eyes. "Just the same… I would rather have been… "

"Don't say it, Eleanor. Don't torment yourself that way. It won't help. You are where you're needed, and I'm where I'm needed and… whether God was telling a joke or not, I don't know, but it's His will, I think. We can't worry any more about the past. I know I'll still get angry sometimes, at how I was robbed of… " He shook his head. "It's no matter. Let it go, Eleanor."

Tears blurred her vision, but she nodded just the same. "Yes. I will do my best." She looked at him. "Letting you go… was the hardest, most painful thing I've ever done, Constantine. I had to cut you out of myself, and it was like cutting off a piece of myself in the process."

He started to speak when Elizabeth and Alexander came out of the woods together, the prince carrying a basket of mushrooms. Constantine's eyes narrowed slightly when he saw his daughter's flushed cheeks, and she wouldn't meet his eye. "Papa, we found a lot of mushrooms," she finally managed.

"I see."

Alexander looked back and gestured for his brothers to catch up. "Come on. The tournament is less than two hours away."

"Surely you do not think I will allow any of you to take part," Eleanor said sharply, starting to get up. Constantine took her hand and assisted her to her feet, and she curtsied gracefully to him before moving to her horse. "Harry, William—I am fully aware of that prank you pulled on your tutor this morning, and no, he did not appreciate finding those live prawns in his bed. Neither of you will even be attending the jousts."

The boys both looked crestfallen, but knew not to argue with their mother. "And George, you snuck out on your Latin lesson the morning. What do you think will be your punishment?"

"I would prefer a thrashing than to miss the jousts," the young prince said gloomily.

"Which is why you won't be attending the jousts, and will instead be entertained by Latin verbs until bedtime."

Constantine was rather amused that a small, slender woman could have such mastery over six strapping boys, but it was easy to see they respected her, even though they were as typically rowdy and mischievous as could be expected of boys their age. He suspected that even Alexander would have submitted to her if she had grabbed his ear and scolded him. But Eleanor had no remonstrations for her two eldest sons or for Prince Andrew, and Constantine was rather curious to see that they didn't look at all smug about being allowed to attend the tournament, but instead looked sympathetic toward their chastised brothers. He had to admit that Alexander possessed a large degree of Eleanor's good sense and Henry's charm,

Elizabeth seemed to think the same thing. Constantine kept an eye on his daughter, gauging her behavior toward the Crown Prince. The two young people clearly had taken a liking to each other, and through the rest of the day he saw them speaking quietly to one another. Elizabeth's flushed cheeks were a clear indication that she was smitten with the young man, and his gentleness toward her was a sign that his feelings were mutual.

It was enough to drive Constantine nearly mad.


The tournament field was prepared, with thick sand packed down carefully to cushion falls. Gravonian and Morvenian flags flapped everywhere, and a large crowd of enthusiastic people packed the stands, eager for an afternoon's sport. Constantine, seated on his enthusiastic but still inexperienced black Friesian, felt as though he had been winched into his armor, and his mail seemed to weigh about a thousand pounds. His lance, too, felt out of balance and as he rode out into the tiltyard for his first match against a local champion, he was dismayed to realize that the sun was in his eyes.

"Bloody hell," he muttered when the Gravonian knight rode into the yard on a big white Spanish destrier. He lifted his visor to get a good look at the man, taking in his size and weight and what could be used against him. For one thing, the horse looked washed out, and the knight's shield looked too small for the task at hand. Constantine gripped his shield, snatched up the lance from his page and smacked his visor down, wincing at the instant headache and hearing the roar of the crowd. He spurred his horse, and the black stallion lurched forward, rather awkwardly, but Constantine kept his balance fairly well and took careful aim with his lance as the black sped forward, head down and grabbing the bit. Seconds later, almost accidentally, he made contact on the Gravonian's shield with the tip of his lance, sending the knight backwards and off the white horse. Constantine breathed a sigh of relief when, after reining his horse to a stop, he turned around and saw the knight was uninjured.

The crowd roared their approval and Constantine rode back to the knight, who was on his feet and brushing sand off his armor. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"Well enough, sir."

"Thank God. I could barely see you in this bloody sun."

"I hope… I hope you will be good to my horse. He's young and rather skittish and he tends to… " The young knight looked bereft at the prospect of losing an obviously well-loved mount.

"Keep him," Constantine shook his head. "A bit more training and he'll do fine." He wheeled his black horse around and trotted back to his mark, waiting for the next challenger.


Eleanor, seated beside Henry, with Alexander, Elizabeth and Frederick beside her, fumbled nervously with the ribbons she had to give out to the victorious knights participating in the tilts. She hated watching jousting matches, not just because of all the masculine posturing and grudge-settling, but also because of the very real potential for injury or even death. She had seen more than a few knights killed or permanently crippled in these ridiculous sports, aside from horses that had to be destroyed due to their pointless injuries and their owners' pride, and the whole spectacle usually left her nauseated. Today, however, she was gripped with very real fear.

Seeing Constantine down there, eighteen years older, a few pounds heavier and sporting more scars than before, was doubly terrifying to her. Henry's ambition to challenge him to a joust had been met with firm resistance by Eleanor. She had put her foot down and wouldn't allow him to take part, and she had finally used sex to make him back down, making it clear to the King that he would be greatly rewarded tonight if he stayed off the tiltyard. Sure enough, he had made no mention of joining in the competitions when the tournament began, and had made a few ribald jokes to her about his lance that had her snickering and rolling her eyes.

So far, Constantine had unhorsed three knights and scored the maximum number of points allowed for victory against two other veterans. He was showing signs that he was tiring, though. When he raised his visor, between matches, she saw he was sweating and his face was flushed, and he called for water several times during the event. He wasn't a young man any more, she thought sadly. Sooner or later, something was going to have to give. She turned to speak to Alexander, and was startled to see he wasn't beside her.

"Where has Alexander gone?" she asked Elizabeth

"I do not know, ma'am. He said he was going to get some cool cider but that was a while ago," Elizabeth answered. "It is rather hot."

The trumpets blared, announcing yet another match: Constantine, as leader by victories and points, was being challenged once again. Eleanor sighed and braced herself for another nerve-wracking tilt. The Morvenian prince, his black Friesian still in fighting trim, settled at the eastern end of the yard, facing into the sun (hardly an advantage, Eleanor knew) and his challenger bounded into the tiltyard. At first, Eleanor did not recognize the challenging knight's armor until she saw the light blue shield he was carrying, decorated with a dove carrying a dagger and six arrows. Her arms.

Alexander was challenging Constantine.

Eleanor shot to her feet, ready to demand that Alexander dismount immediately, but the crowd was cheering so loudly no one could have heard her. Henry noticed she was standing, however, and took her hand. "Come on now, sweetheart, one member of the royal family had to challenge him, and it's all for sport. He'll be fine."

She stared at her husband, aghast, and looked back at the tiltyard. Constantine smacked his visor back down, and Alexander—in shining silver armor that glinted and flashed in the sunlight—did the same. She crossed herself, not sure which man to pray for, and forced herself to sit down. A young lady of the Court dropped a silk cloth and both knights spurred their horses forward. Eleanor forced herself to watch, even as her stomach did a flip, as Alexander angled his lance at Constantine as he raced forward, and she wasn't the only one in the stands who gasped when the blunt tip of his lance struck Constantine's breastplate, knocking him back but not off his horse.

Her son had scored a point against the Dragon.

Constantine, now with the sun at his back, lined his Friesian up again, settling his lance in the crook of his arm and waiting for the signal. Alexander, gripping his horse with his knees and not even holding the reins, lifted his lance and waited. The cloth was dropped and the horses charged forward. This time, Alexander's lance tip struck Constantine's dragon shield, the force of the blow causing the older man to fall back almost onto his horse's haunches, but again he did not fall off. He rode forward instead, bending back far enough to avoid being hit by the lance as it passed over him, and returned to his spot facing the sun. He raised his visor and asked his page for a cup of water.

Two points. The Crown Prince of Gravonia had scored two points on Constantine, who had never met defeat on the tiltyard. Alexander also asked for water and Eleanor didn't miss several girls whispering about how good he looked in his silver armor. She glanced at Elizabeth, who was pale but clearly excited and worried all at once, and the girl was twisting a black and gold cloth around her trembling fingers. Eleanor grabbed the girl's hand and gripped it tightly as both men smacked their visors down again and steadied their horses.

"Third point is a win!" the Master of Ceremonies shouted, which got a loud roar from the crowd. Eleanor felt a wave of nausea and wished to God she had died during that Lacovian attack on Teslo.

The cloth dropped and both knights charged forward. Alexander tilted his lance carefully, aiming to score a hard blow to the top part of Constantine's shield and knock it against his chin, to hopefully knock him clean off his horse. But Constantine, despite not being as fast or agile as he had been in his youth, used experience to his advantage. He leaned to the side just enough that Alexander's lance tip only slid off the side of his shield, and in the meantime he thrust the tip of his own lance into Alexander's right flank. The Crown Prince was knocked off balance, spinning away and off his horse, landing with a thud in the sand, his lance hitting the list and falling down a few feet away from the fallen prince. Eleanor was on her feet in an instant, struggling to get down the stairs, tears flowing down her cheeks.

Constantine heard the gasp of astonishment from the crowd, and it took him a few moments to get his horse to stop and let him look back. Alexander was still lying in the dirt, and he swallowed, a cold ball of very real fear forming in his stomach. But then he saw the boy stir and sit up, pulling his helmet off. A page was already at the boy's side, and soon the Crown Prince was up, looking surprisingly pleased. Constantine rode up and dismounted, anxiously checking the lad over. Alexander grinned at him.

"You defeated me, sir, but I do count my two points!"

"Yes, I suppose you earned them."

The crowd had begun cheering again, but fell into surprised silence when Queen Eleanor came onto the tiltyard, holding up her skirts as she stepped over steaming piles and looking furious. "No sir!" she shouted at Alexander. "No sir! How on earth did you get the idea that you could get away with such a stupid-ass thing like this?"

"I had to… " Alexander started, but she cut him off in her fury.

"Had to? Had to what? Nearly get yourself killed? I have never known you to behave so insolently, and I am utterly enraged with you, you foolish, reckless boy!"

"Man."

She faced Constantine like an infuriated sparrow taking on an eagle. "What?!"

"Man, Eleanor. He's a man. Might as well get used to it." He bowed slightly to her, wincing at his bruises, and extended his hand to Alexander, who took it, grasping it firmly. "So it is, Alexander, I will speak to you man to man: if you hurt my daughter, or if you're ever unfaithful to her, I will come back here, cut off your arms and legs and throw you off a cliff." He grabbed his horse's bit, turned, and left the tiltyard to the cheers of the crowd and the Queen's devastated tears.

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