Goodbyes and Promises
She could not make herself feel jealous, of course—that would be ridiculous. Elizabeth was going to be her son's wife some day, and the mother of his children. Her soothing feminine influence on him would be for the good, without a doubt, and he would need the girl's help as he prepared for his role as King and especially when he ascended the throne. Like most men, he would be made or ruined by his wife, and Eleanor had the unenviable job of trying to encourage the girl to help him while also doing her best to stay out of the way. By no means did Eleanor want to be a meddling mother-in-law. In fact, she had long ago decided that when Henry died and Alexander ascended to the throne, she would move away from Luvov and set up her own household far away, perhaps at Tygo. He was going to be King and he was going to have to set his own course without her interference.
Just the same, to see her son as a man made her not only immensely proud but it also broke her heart. Her sweet boy, who used to bring her messy bouquets of flowers and drew unidentifiable pictures for her, had scored two points in the tiltyard against the greatest warrior on the Continent, and was moving toward total independence from her. In another two years, he would be married with his own household and his own concerns and would not need his mother any more.
It had all happened so fast. One day she was holding him in her arms, refusing to let Lady Alice Beauchamp so much as touch him, and today he was seventeen and taking his blows on the tourney field. That he had bravely taken on Constantine was proof that he did not need his mother's guidance or protection any more: he was his own man, and quite able to think and act for himself.
Sighing wearily, she took the flag from her pocket and rubbed her fingers over the white Morvenian dragon. She had kept this small emblem of her own past hidden away from everyone, including Henry—dear God, especially Henry—for eighteen years now, and she still could not make herself put it away. It was her talisman, and would forever be a part of her. She would ensure that she would be buried with it over her heart, even, and would never tell a soul what it meant.
Perhaps she would write it all down in a memoir and hide it in some little nook of her sitting room. She could hide it behind the loose bricks beside the fireplace. In five hundred years, someone might find them and be astonished at her story…
"Sweetheart, why are you up at such an ungodly hour?" Henry asked. He was standing in the doorway, leaning casually against the jamb and as naked as the day he was born.
She deftly tucked the flag away in her pocket and stood. "I have some appointments this morning. Lady Norreys, for instance, and I've got to go over the boys' Latin exercises."
"Besides that, I really couldn't sleep."
"You're still upset about Alexander's joust yesterday, hm?"
"I admit, I am still less than delighted that he would take part."
"It was… how do you put it… a rite of passage for him? He needed to do it. He needed to show Constantine he was worthy of Elizabeth's hand."
"Yes, I suppose." She shook her head. "But I still have nightmares of him going into battle."
"With this treaty with Morvenia, I daresay he might not ever have to. We can only pray for continued peace and prepare ourselves otherwise." Henry grinned at her. "See? I have learned how to be pragmatic, at your tutelage."
Eleanor nodded vaguely and Henry went back into their bedroom to dress. She sat down again and stared into the fire. "If anyone tries to hurt my babies, I won't be praying," she whispered.
Feeling far older than her years, the Queen forced herself to rise and begin preparing for the day. She made a mental note to eat a large breakfast, as Lady Norreys would likely consume everything set on the table besides the utensils and there would be nothing left for her to nibble on. That woman really could stand to miss a meal or two.
Henry joined her and Elizabeth for breakfast, and Henry joked with the girl, gently teasing her and making her giggle. "Today I'll peel your oranges for you and you may call me 'Your Majesty'. Tomorrow, though, you can peel my oranges and I'll send you on errands, and you may call me by my Christian name."
"I can peel your oranges now, Your Majesty, and I would not mind going on errands for you today," Elizabeth said with a smile.
"Even to hunt for snipe? I'm bloody tired of looking for snipe, you know. When Alexander was being pushed into the world, I was sent out to look for gnomes, as I recall."
"I'm not sure I should I enjoy looking for snipe, sir, but I would do my best to find one, though I would not like to look for gnomes, either, as my Uncle King says they are nasty creatures."
Henry laughed. "So tell me how you like this place, Elizabeth. Are your rooms pretty enough? The Queen took great lengths to see to your comfort."
"I love my rooms, sir. They are very pretty and warm, and I'm very comfortable," Elizabeth smiled. "You have excellent taste, ma'am."
"I'm pleased to hear that you approve, sweetheart, but they are your rooms, to decorate as you please," Eleanor said.
"I must admit, little one, that I'm not used to having young girls about," Henry said, tearing into his orange with gusto. "The Queen and I were never blessed with a daughter, though I do try sometimes to convince her to try for another child. I daresay I shall enjoy having a little lass running about, though. I've no doubt you'll be a great helper to the Queen—she needs a good bit of assistance, what with six noisy boys to cope with."
"I enjoy the princes' company a great deal," Elizabeth said. "They're all so nice and cheerful and very kind, however noisy they might be."
"That's good to hear—credit their Mama for their good manners, though, not me, though I can blamed for the noise and the debris they leave about. I know you have four brothers at home, and a baby sister… your Mama must have had her hands full."
"We were all so grieved to hear of her death," Henry said, getting his knife and starting to peel an apple. "She had such good color, and then she just popped off, as they say… "
"Henry… " Eleanor said, putting her hand on his arm and giving him a warning look. The King blanched slightly.
"Oh, I mean no offense, sweetheart. My own dear Mama died when I was about your age and it was a terrible thing. Being an only child, too, was difficult. You were blessed to have brothers and a sister to ease the blow."
Elizabeth nodded, memories of her mother's final moments flooding around her, and tears stung her eyes. She glanced at the Queen, who smiled gently and reached across the table, taking her hand in hers.
"Do not feel as though you cannot discuss your Mama or any other thing you want to talk about with us. You are a member of our family now, and we pray you will think the same of us all."
"Some days I miss her terribly," Elizabeth said softly. "We all do."
"I know, sweetheart," Eleanor said. "Talking about her is a very healthy thing to do, and it honors her memory."
"I'll never forget that day. I'll never forget Papa's… scream. He sat with her all night, when he came home and found she had died, and the next morning we tried to make him eat and he stretched out over her… body and… and screamed. It was terrible and… beautiful all at once. One of the servants said it was what sorrow looked like."
Eleanor paled and swallowed, but could say nothing.
After breakfast, Elizabeth found Alexander practicing at the pell and she sat for a while, watching him. He was remarkably strong, she noted, and very handsome—there was no denying that, and his courage at taking on her father yesterday had been very impressive. She couldn't deny, either, that she felt giddy around him. Before him, she had never really spent much time around young men, aside from her brothers, and his attentiveness to her was exciting. Her aunt Catalina had described those feelings to her, albeit a little vaguely, and now Elizabeth had an idea of what they meant.
Her heart skipped a beat when Alexander easily turned his sword in his hand, making the blade whistle in the air, and she admired his muscles and wide shoulders. He was not as wide or muscle-bound as her father, but he certainly had the promise of filling out into a very impressive, imposing man. He had Henry's presence and his mother's steely determination that could have been off-putting were it not for his good nature and warmth.
"Good morning," he said, grinning at her. "Have you had breakfast yet?"
"Yes. I ate with the King and the Queen—they were very jolly." Well, the King had been. Queen Eleanor had been quiet and withdrawn through the meal. Elizabeth had not seen her father since the tournament yesterday, and she wondered where he was, but his absence meant she could speak more freely with her betrothed.
Betrothed. She was going to marry Alexander in two more years. The thought of that made butterflies flutter in her belly and stirred up heat and excitement in parts of her body she had never even thought about before.
"My mother was jolly?" Alexander sat down next to her, his thigh brushing against hers, and casually spun his sword on its tip, holding the silver hilt between his palms. She blushed pink.
"She was… kind. Just as always."
"Aye. I don't know anyone who calls my mother 'jolly', really, though she does laugh a good bit. She is usually very serious, though. I did not like seeing her crying yesterday after the joust. She was very upset."
"Well, you did frighten her by going against my father."
"I felt I had to prove myself," he said. "I'm to marry the Dragon's daughter, and it seemed that I had to show him I was worthy of you."
"I think you have to prove that to me," she said, smiling shyly, but with a trace of mischief.
"Oh. Yes. So… did I?" His hopeful expression made her cheeks became even pinker.
"I… think so. You were… are very impressive," she said, smoothing her hands on her lap.
Alexander grinned, looking pleased. "I am very happy to hear that, Elizabeth. I hope that we can… always get on well, and enjoy each other—"
Constantine was standing in the doorway, his expression stern, and she stood, wringing her hands nervously. Alexander drew in his breath but stood as well, facing the prince, still holding his sword. "Your Royal Highness."
"Don't tell me you've been practicing sword fighting, Smidgen," Constantine said, only giving Alexander a brief, warning look. He was unarmed and looked as though he had not slept the night before.
"Of course not, Papa. We were just talking."
"Hm. Well." Constantine shrugged. "I suppose that's good. You'll have plenty to talk about in the years to come." He frowned, nodded, and walked away. The two young people sat down again, Elizabeth smoothing her skirts carefully and Alexander clasped his sword between his knees, thinking. He finally set the weapon aside.
"Would you like to go for a walk?" he asked.
"Oh, that would be very nice," Elizabeth said, smiling. He stood and held out his hand. She took it, and he gently helped her to her feet.
"It's a very fine day. Perhaps we'll walk in the gardens?"
They walked together for a long time, Elizabeth admiring the carefully cultivated flower beds and expertly trimmed boxwoods lining the pathways, and they paused to splash water on each other at the fountains. When they came to the huge, ancient oak tree that spread its thick branches out to create a natural canopy, they stopped while Alexander told her about it—the oak was over three hundred years old, and in their youth he and his brothers had liked to pretend it was the home of an ogre. Gardeners had carefully manipulated the narrower branches to spread apart to create a doorway, and inside a pair of stone benches had been set. Alexander took Elizabeth's hand and led her into the little enclosure and they sat down together.
"Have you ever had… a… I mean, have you ever… " she asked him shyly.
"Had a what?" he asked.
"Well, I know that men often have a… a mistress."
"I do not have a mistress, Elizabeth."
"I will not keep one, either, as adultery is a grievous sin."
"What about you?" he asked.
"I don't think I would keep a mistress," she said, almost giggling. "I mean… "
He laughed. "Yes. Then I suppose we will both remain… as we are, until we marry."
"I suppose I ought to ask you, directly, if you wish to marry me, Elizabeth."
She looked surprised. "All the papers have been signed and my dowry… "
"I don't care about that. I wish to ask you myself. It won't be papers and dowries that will be marrying in two years' time."
"That is true," she said, her heart beginning to pound.
"So… will you marry me, Elizabeth?"
"Yes." She nodded. "Yes, I will."
"I will be sure to ask you again, in two years' time. You will still have the right to change your mind, even then."
She blushed. "I do not see myself changing my mind."
He smiled, and her heart skipped another beat. Shyly, he touched her cheek and leaned in a little, his mouth softly brushing against hers. Elizabeth gasped but did not move away, moving instead a little closer and parting her lips. His arm slipped around her waist, pulling her gently into his embrace, and her arms slowly wreathed around his neck. They shyly experimented with the art of kissing, and she moved eagerly against him, alarming and exciting heat spreading in her belly and all over her body, making her need to feel his touch. When his hand moved upward from her hip to her breast, she sighed.
"God Almighty," he whispered before kissing her again, almost frantically, pulling her closer. "You taste so sweet."
The Crown Prince jerked away from Elizabeth, who squeaked in alarm and stood. Queen Eleanor was standing in the opening, a shocked look on her face that slowly changed to amusement. Alexander would have stood, except that his male reaction to Elizabeth made such a thing far too embarrassing. He swallowed and looked up at his mother.
"Well," Eleanor said. "It looks as though the betrothal has been approved by both parties."
"I… um… " Alexander started. "We were… "
"Yes, I see what you were," Eleanor nodded. "Elizabeth, perhaps you ought to go back to the palace… though I think you ought to straighten your clothes a bit first. Alexander, once you have calmed down, I would like to speak with you alone."
The princess gasped in shock when she realized that some of the strings of her bodice had been undone, and her French cap was a bit askew. Eleanor helped her straighten the cap, then expertly tied the strings back into place on the bodice. "That happens to me all the time," Eleanor said in a level, casual tone. "Though the King usually just tears them apart entirely. That's how I ended up with Prince Andrew—in fact, I'm fairly sure he was conceived here in the Ogre's Nest. Go along now, sweetheart, and splash some cool water on your face before you go inside. It would not do to have Clothilde asking you questions. She gets far too curious."
Elizabeth dashed away, feeling far less mortified than she expected, due to the Queen's matter-of-fact reaction to the situation. Once she gone, however, Eleanor turned to face her son, who was still seated and unwilling to stand just yet.
"So I'm assuming you rather like Elizabeth?"
"I… do, yes."
"Well, that's all well and fine in and of itself, but be grateful her father did not find you groping his daughter."
"I was not… " he objected, then realized that he had been groping the girl. He had even undone some of the strings on her bodice, though he had no clear memory of having done so, and he could still feel the soft, full weight of her breast against his palm. He wanted to do more than that. If his parents and Constantine would allow it, he would marry her tonight.
"You surely realize how important it is that you restrain yourself with Elizabeth. She has no experience at all with men and she is probably quite innocent in how she is reacting to you. She's sixteen years old and you're seventeen and your natural urges could cause you both a great deal of trouble if you give in to them."
"You think she… is.. reacting to me?"
"That was fairly obvious from what I saw," Eleanor said with a smile. "But remember, sweetheart, she must be innocent on her wedding night, for the sake of the Crown and your own life—Constantine will not tolerate anything less than her being treated with the utmost respect. Remember your responsibility toward her, and your own reputation as well."
"Still can't walk, hm?" she asked, barely hiding a smile.
Alexander's cheeks reddened. "I like her a great deal, Mama. She is… just right, I think, for me. And she said she would marry me, too, of her own free will, but I promised to ask her again in two years."
"Good. and I'm quite relieved to say your father's matchmaking efforts were… successful. You have two years, and it's best to take your time getting to know each other." She sighed. "I'm not sure I want to saddle you two with a chaperon, but perhaps it would be best."
"A chaperon?" Alexander objected. "But Mama… "
"Can you honestly say that nothing more than a bit of groping would have happened if I had not interrupted you?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
Alexander looked down, unsure of how to answer. He could not deny that if there had been a place to lie down with Elizabeth, he might well have gone much farther with her. How far, he wasn't sure. He had never so much as touched a girl in such a way before, and even though his father had told him about the act itself, he wasn't entirely clear on the practice. He did know, however, that he enjoyed touching Elizabeth and wanted to touch her again.
"Well." Eleanor shook her head. "I cannot deny, dearest, that last night I did a good deal of crying when I realized that her father was right: you are a man now. But you are still under the charge of your father and I and we must set rules for you, for yours and Elizabeth's protection. So a chaperon will, I'm afraid, be required from now on."
"I pray to God it's not her father who'll be escorting us about," Alexander muttered.
"Nay, he'll be going back home to Morvenia in the next couple of days, I think."
Alexander squeezed his eyes shut. When her father left, he would have a small bit more leeway with Elizabeth, albeit a carefully controlled amount if a chaperon was constantly present when they were together. Her father's stern presence would be far less intimidating than some old lady his mother assigned to keep an eye on them. Just the same—he wasn't going to like having his courtship of Elizabeth curtailed this way.
"She still has a good deal of adjusting to do here, and when her father leaves I believe the first pangs of homesickness will set in for her. It will not do to add… sex to the issue. Give her time, behave like a gentleman and show her that you respect her." Eleanor said. She stepped into the natural canopy and sat down beside him. "I know you will behave yourself properly. It will be an adjustment for me, too, I'm afraid. I still picture you in your nappies, declaring that you will not eat your asparagus, even if I have to put you on the rack."
Alexander rolled his eyes. "Mama, please. I'm pretty well past that. Though I do still hate asparagus."
"Yes. I know." She took his hands in hers. "I trust you, sweetheart. You know that. But certain rules of propriety are required. We can't have a royal bride waddling down the aisle, now can we?" she smiled.
"Who will be our chaperon?" he asked anxiously. "Not Betsy, I hope."
She laughed. "What, you think Betsy would be too sharp-eyed?"
"Indeed. She never misses anything we do. How she manages to have time to deliver so many babies is beyond me. She's almost as bad as you."
"As good as me, you mean. She's one of my best spies. Between her, Clothilde and Agnes, I know everything that you and your brothers do."
Alexander frowned. "Then it's a wonder she wasn't already with us."
"Don't worry. I will select someone closer to your age and very reasonable. You can't very well court a girl with someone constantly watching—that kills romance rather quickly, but there's a difference between romance and scandal. A good bit of the former is very acceptable, but we can't have any of the latter."
Finally calmer, Alexander stood and helped his mother to her feet. "I am sorry for… what happened earlier."
"I rather doubt you're that sorry, darling," Eleanor laughed. "You've done nothing wrong, really, but I must insist that you be on your best behavior. Two years will pass by very quickly, I can assure you, and then you won't have to behave properly at all."
Alexander's cheeks reddened and he offered his arm to his mother. "I will still behave properly toward Elizabeth, Mama. Always"
She laughed. "Not if you intend to make babies with her, sweetheart, but that must wait until the wedding night."
Elizabeth was a bit calmer when she made it back to the palace, and she was greeted by her three newly-assigned ladies-in-waiting. She liked all three of the girls, as they were friendly and energetic, and they seemed to like her in turn. Lady Anna Hallam in particular had a serene, rather cool nature, like her unflappable mother, and when she saw Elizabeth's flushed cheeks and bright eyes, she raised her eyebrows. "Your Royal Highness… are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Elizabeth said, and had to admit that she did feel rather good. Her first kiss had gone very well, actually, and she liked Alexander more and more every moment: her secret fear that she would not like him had been easily dispelled. Even better, he seemed to like her. She felt a giggle of excitement run up her spine when she remembered his hand on her breast—Catalina had told her that such things were rather thrilling, and now she knew it to be very, very true.
"Did you and the Crown Prince have a nice walk?" Lady Ellie asked. Elizabeth considered the girl for a moment: Ellie's eyes were always wide and wondering, as if everything was something of a surprise to her, but her sweet, kind nature made her entirely likable, and Elizabeth understood why Prince Frederick—being groomed for a soldier's life and the battlefield—would adore her so. Any man would love to come home to her warmth and gentleness.
"Yes. We did."
Anna and Lady Meg shared a glance. Meg cleared her throat. "I assume you discussed all manner of important things."
"We did talk a bit. We have much in common, I think."
"Alexander is a very well-bred and properly trained young man," Lady Anna said, sounding a little arch, like her mother. "Though I admit, he is also very… attractive, like his father."
"I would say he is more like his mother," Elizabeth countered. "Though he does have his father's charm, albeit on a more… restrained scale."
"Charm?" Anna asked. "Well, perhaps. Alexander is very serious. Sometimes even a bit too serious."
Elizabeth remembered Alexander's heated kisses and couldn't think of his behavior as serious, necessarily, though it certainly could have become so had they not been interrupted.
"Your father would like to speak with you," Anna said, and she raised her eyebrows when she saw the Queen and Crown Prince Alexander coming up the steps. "Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness," she said, bobbing elegantly. "Ma'am, Prince Constantine wishes to speak with you after he talks with Princess Elizabeth."
"Thank you, Anna. Is your mother about?"
"Yes, ma'am. She is in the Long Library."
"Very good. Elizabeth, perhaps I should deliver you to your father." She smiled warmly at the girl and led her away. Alexander eyed the three girls for a moment and they eyed him. They had discussed his future marriage to Elizabeth at length, and all agreed that they suited each other well—Alexander was filling out into a burly, vigorous young man while Elizabeth was small and slim with a core of strength to her that would suit the future King. Just the same, Lady Clothilde and Lady Agnes had charged them all with the task of guarding Elizabeth's chastity.
"Your Royal Highness. It's good to see you and Elizabeth getting along so well. Few such arranged matches are as happily suited," Anna said.
"Has she… said anything to you about.. .me?" he asked, scratching the back of his neck, which was a true sign of his nervousness.
"Not really, but she has only been here two days and we are still getting to know her, and she us," Lady Meg said with a grin. "I don't even know what sort of clothes she likes yet, though she does not seem to be fond of ostentatious outfits or even flashy jewelry, save that pretty butterfly hair clasp she wears. She's very sensible."
"Oh. Right." Alexander nodded. "Good day, ladies." He bowed to them and continued on up the steps. Meg grinned at Anna and Ellie.
"They're definitely in very deep smit, at least," she said.
"I think they were on the verge of a romp, don't you?" Anna asked, glancing anxiously at the door. "She was very flushed and so was the Prince."
"Well, that's to be expected, I suppose, but I can't imagine her or the Prince going too far. Particularly with her father about. The Dragon would cut his head off without a thought if Alexander deflowered his poor daughter before the wedding," Meg said with a laugh. "Though that does happen from time to time. My oldest brother was conceived before my parents were married. Come along. We've got our sewing to do."
"Oh, could we?" Anna muttered. "Let's not and say we did. I'd rather try to listen in on what the Dragon has to say to the Queen. My mother said there was something going on there but she couldn't put her finger on what, exactly… "
"It's not our concern," Ellie said. "We've no right to stick our nose into their business, and I cannot imagine the Queen doing anything that is not entirely above-board."
"Your problem, Ellie, is that you think well of everyone. Even Prince Frederick," Meg said, with a gently teasing smile. She and Anna knew never to push Ellie too far on most anything, as she was so utterly innocent of the cruel world outside her quiet, sweet life. She had grown up in a warm, loving home where almost no discord ever entered (Sir Lorenzo and Lady Agnes never quarreled about anything, ever, but instead acted as though they were in the first flush of romance), and she was always bewildered by any kind of darkness or turmoil. Besides which, Ellie was easily the nicest person any of them had ever met—it was impossible to dislike her.
Ellie blushed. "I always think well of Frederick. He brought me flowers this morning, and a spool of silk ribbons. He said they matched my eyes."
Anna laughed. "Oh, Ellie, we cannot help but tease you about that, but we know Frederick likes you more than anyone else… and one day, you'll be his wife. Princess Frederick of Gravonia, you'll be, and you'll wear dove-grey silks and a tiara on your head and…"
"Stop, stop… I don't know why I even speak of it to you all!" Ellie squeaked, her cheeks flaming red. "He's not some stable boy and I'm not a milkmaid. He's the King's second-born son and I'm just… Ellie Bartolomeo—a virtual nobody. I'm sure his parents have a far grander match in mind for him."
Anna and Meg looked at each other. If such plans existed, it would be news to everyone in Gravonia, and they knew Frederick would have no one else.
Elizabeth greeted her father in his suite of rooms, and was amused at how out of place he seemed in the luxurious surroundings. At home he slept in a Spartan room and had never worn silk in his life. Even more, the confines of the room were not suited to someone like him, who preferred the outdoors. He was too big for most any room.
"You wanted to see me, Papa?"
"Yes." He frowned as he observed her flushed cheeks and bright eyes. "Where have you been this morning?"
"I was… out walking."
"With your ladies, then."
"With the Queen?" he pressed.
"I was walking with Alexander. We went for a walk."
"Alone?" he growled.
Had she been anyone else, she would have fled at the first sign of his temper flaring. But Elizabeth knew her father well and stood her ground. "Yes, Papa. Alone."
He looked less than pleased, but he was relatively calm. "See that doesn't happen again."
"Oh, Papa. In two years' time we'll be alone together quite a lot."
"Don't even talk about such things to me. I cannot bear the idea of you being… mauled."
"Alexander would not maul me, Papa." She blushed. Perhaps he might, she admitted, but it would be rather exciting if he did.
"Anyway," he muttered, turning away to look out the window. "I am leaving tomorrow."
Elizabeth paled and she began wringing her hands. "Oh, Papa, can't you stay a little longer?"
"I'm afraid not, Smidgen. I just got a message from your uncle saying I'm needed at home. There's been flooding in the farmlands to the west and many folks' homes have been washed away. The army is being sent to clean up and rebuild."
"There's no use you getting all stirred up now, baby," he said, still staring out the window. He felt pretty well stirred up himself. The idea of riding away from his little daughter was killing him, but he was going to have to do it. Somehow. "Save your tears for tomorrow."
"But who will take care of you?" she asked. "Oh, Papa, I have not let myself think of saying goodbye… "
"Like I said, think about it tomorrow. And you can write to me."
"That won't be the same, Papa," she said, tears welling in her eyes and finally spilling down her cheeks. He finally turned to face her and opened his arms. She broke down and embraced him, resting her forehead on his chest as she sobbed. He stroked her hair, murmuring whatever comforting words he could think of.
"Come on now, Smidgen. You'll get dried up if you cry so much," he said, squeezing her gently. "Dragon's daughters don't cry, remember?"
"I'll cry plenty. I can't help it, Dragon's daughter or not," she said, wiping her eyes. "I'm going to miss you so much, Papa."
"I'll miss you too, sweetheart, but you'll be far too busy with your new life here to miss a grumpy old warhorse like me."
She burst into tears again and was still sobbing when he glanced up and saw Eleanor standing in the doorway, a stricken look on her face. He turned his still weeping daughter around and gently passed her to the Queen, who embraced her.
"Poor sweet girl," Eleanor murmured. "This is a bit overwhelming, isn't it?" She lifted the girl's face and smiled at her. "Now, now, enough of all this crying—tears don't suit redheads well, I'm afraid, do they? Believe me you, I did my own fair share of crying when I first came here, but it will all fade in time and you can be sure that you will be kept occupied, so the pain of parting won't be so awful—at your age, you've got so much happening that sorrow never dwells long, and you know the King will be sending you on errands every day, the lazy old sod." When Elizabeth laughed, Eleanor gently brushed her tears away. "It's all right, sweetheart. You'll see I'm right in the long run. Come along and we'll get you something to drink and a spot of food—I think you've had so much excitement today that you've tired yourself out."
Eleanor glanced back at Constantine, who didn't want her to see the tears in his eyes. He turned away and stared bleakly out the window.
"I've a lovely surprise for you, sweetheart," Eleanor said. She led Elizabeth down the hall and opened another door, and the girl squealed in delight when she saw her aunt Catalina and her children waiting for her. "Auntie Cat!"
"Oh, God, it's so good to see you!" Catalina said, embracing her niece and hugging her tightly. "Oh, dear, you've been crying."
"Papa is leaving tomorrow. I know I will fall apart entirely then."
"Well, then, we will have to see you are comforted properly. Thank you, Your Majesty, for keeping my arrival a surprise. I was not sure I would be able to get away from home so soon."
"It was no trouble at all, and I will leave you all alone," Eleanor smiled, and stepped out of the room, closing the door and leaving them to their reunion. She made her way back down the hall to Constantine's room and quietly went inside. He was sitting on the blanket box at the end of the bed, staring wearily at his hands.
She closed the door and stood silently, waiting for him to look up. Finally, he raised his head and she saw tears in his eyes.
"It will be very hard to say goodbye," she said softly, closing the door. "I know how that feels, I'm afraid, and far more than I'd like."
"But you can visit. She will want that."
"And you?" he asked, looking up at her.
"I can have no opinion."
He sighed and looked away. "I can. For me to visit… it would cause far too much stress. Lady Hallam already thinks that I have some sort of… design on you."
Eleanor clasped her hands and looked down. "We do need to discuss a few things, before you leave."
"Oh?" he looked up at her again.
"I came across my son and your daughter kissing a while ago."
He frowned and pursed his lips. "I see."
"Considering our own past, I don't know that we have any right to be too hard on them."
"I pray to God she was not… unclothed."
Eleanor blushed and clasped her hands even more tightly. "He was touching her, yes. It's obvious they like each other a good deal. Granted, it's only been two days and I think she is simply reaching out to… sample her future. They're acting fairly normal, I think."
"I don't want her sampling too much of her future."
"No, I don't either," Eleanor said softly. "You know that I will protect her, Constantine. She will go to her nuptial bed a maiden, and she will be treated gently."
He nodded, and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. "Don't make me think about that. I still keep seeing her waddling about in her nappy."
She smiled. "Yes. I have the same image of Alexander, and that was hard to reconcile to seeing him… "
"Groping my daughter."
"And tilting at you in the tourney yard." Eleanor sighed and finally pulled a chair over and sat down opposite him, crossing her knees. "Listen to me," she said, which startled him a bit, but he did not interrupt. "Our children are going to marry, and it's clear that they like each other and could end up loving each other. The irony of that is excruciating enough, but we have to put aside our own past for their sake."
"I have never been able to put you aside," he said after several moments.
She clasped her hands, fighting off her urge to touch him and comfort him somehow. "Elizabeth told me how you reacted when Isabella died. How you… "
He looked away. "I did the same thing when they told me you had died."
Tears stung her eyes and she clasped her hands so tightly her knuckles whitened. "I'm so sorry, Constantine. I… "
"Don't apologize. I try to tell myself it's all God's will, but it is very hard."
"Yes. It is. Perhaps our children are going to live the lives we should have had. I don't know. But I won't deny them their happiness."
"Just the same, I don't know that I want Alexander seeing my daughter naked before they're married."
Eleanor smiled, her excellent memory easily bringing up the image of Constantine at the river. When she caught his gaze, she knew he was remembering seeing her in the same state. "It would not be appropriate, considering the circumstances. I was just a peasant girl. Elizabeth is a princess of the blood and has to be… protected."
"Just exactly how much was he touching her?"
"Let's just say it went toward the same territory we explored, so many years ago, but did not actually reach it."
"Bloody hell," Constantine muttered.
"But she was fully dressed. Alexander seems to have inherited some of Henry's… red-bloodedness, I suppose."
"And yours, too. But how does he feel about her?"
"He likes her a great deal, Constantine. He told me she suits him quite well. Considering he has not been given access to girls before, in that way at least, he is reacting very healthily to her, and frankly I am relieved at that. She likes him, too, or I suppose she would not have allowed him to take the liberties he did take. We must trust them, you know. We can't very well refuse to let them get to know each other, or spend time together, but I will see that a chaperon accompanies them when they go out. They will not be left entirely alone again until they are married."
Constantine's fists clenched and unclenched as she spoke, and she knew he was reacting fairly healthily, too, to the situation. No man likes to hear of any man taking liberties with his daughter, even if the liberties had been fairly innocent. She smiled a little. Perhaps not entirely innocent, but just the same, young men and women were much same around the world and it was up to their parents to see they did not go too far in their explorations, lest their reputations be ruined.
"So a chaperon, huh?" Constantine asked. "Who?"
"I will see to that. You needn't worry. I will see to Elizabeth's safety, both physically and spiritually. She will go to the altar a maiden."
Constantine made a noise in his throat and stood, stalking to the window and staring out at the gardens below. "I wish I had bedded you."
Eleanor swallowed, bowing her head, wishing the same thing, and not for the first time. "Considering the circumstances… and where I ended up… "
"Had I bedded you then, the Count would have had to let us marry immediately. I would have insisted on it, and I would have seen to it that you were already carrying my child when you walked down the aisle." He did not look at her as he spoke. His fists were clenched. "God help me, but I wish I had taken you the day you said you'd marry me… but you were fifteen and… "
"Your conscience… "
"Yeah. My conscience is a real bitch sometimes." He finally turned and looked at her. "Henry is one damned lucky man, Eleanor."
She clasped her hands and remembered her wedding night. She had always found pleasure and fulfillment in Henry's arms, but had it been Constantine, she was certain the experience would have been beyond description. "He is a good man."
"Aye. He'd bloody well better be. He does treat you well, doesn't he?"
"Yes. He is the kindest and most generous of men, and he has never raised his hand to me, or even his voice."
"If he ever does… "
"He wouldn't. I don't think he even knows how to be cruel or violent. He was not educated, and his father was rather… brusque with him, usually, and his mother was empty-headed but very sweet. All he has ever needed has been encouragement and a good deal of admiration and he shines."
"Food, sex and admiration—that's all most men require," Constantine muttered with a shrug.
"And sleep. Let's not forget sleep," she said, smiling. He looked back and her and for the first time he actually smiled, though his eyes were still bleak.
"I've been needing a nap since the day Elizabeth was born."
Irene lit a candle and sat down at her little desk, shuffling quickly through papers until she found the one she needed. She read the letter again and again, wondering if she ought to make any changes to it. To even make such an overture would be regarded as treason, after all, but…
Be it treason or not, she was not sure she could bear another moment of the life she was being forced to lead, much less of being deprived of the life she wanted. She looked up and surveyed her bedroom, frowning at the ugly décor and the heavy curtails on the windows. Paul had seen to it that she was not allowed to make a single change, and the Dowager Queen ruled the household with an iron fist. If Irene displeased her in any way, she would report it to the King, who would harangue her for hours in his high, thin voice until she wanted to scream. Paul and his mother ran Lacovia with the same hateful, unyielding lack of compassion, and all suffered for it. Disobedience of any kind was not tolerated. Differing opinions were strictly forbidden, and anyone caught showing any kind of initiative toward improving their lives was punished severely. Irene had seen not only common citizens of the country but even nobles penalized through taxes, imprisonment and even death for trying to rise out of the mire.
She looked down at the letter again. Richard had helped her compose it, and he had insisted that it was necessary to make this gesture. If King Henry and Queen Eleanor could at least be persuaded that Lacovia's future ruler might be interested in peace, they might be willing to withhold the growing power of Gravonia's army from taking advantage of Lacovia's weakness. Once Paul was gone, the country would still need years—possibly decades—to recover from centuries of poverty, violence, ignorance and extremely poor rule. Richard would not be prepared for another war and was willing to negotiate for a mutually beneficial peace. He was even willing to make concessions, if required.
She picked up her quill and dipped the tip in her inkwell. Carefully, she wrote her name at the bottom of the letter, frowning at how strange 'Irene R' looked, even after so many years. She pressed the blotting paper down on her signature, said a brief but heartfelt prayer, and folded the letter. She slipped it into an envelope and sealed it with her own stamp and slipped quietly out of her room and peeked out into the long, marble-floored hall. No one was about, so she quietly slipped along the passage to the stairs and crept down and across to the door leading to the courtyard.
Richard was waiting in the shadows, and he greeted her with a slight smile. Shyly, she handed the letter to him, making sure to make no physical contact with him. Stormont took the letter and drew in his breath.
"I know this is very hard for you, Your Majesty," he said.
"Yes. But it must be done. I am Queen of this country, and I… I think it is my duty to try and protect us all. We must try to sue for peace."
"You are doing a very brave thing."
"I do not feel brave. I'm terrified," she admitted.
"And in doing this, despite your fear, you are showing great courage." He bowed to her. "My father once told me he had far more respect for someone who did the right thing, despite being terribly afraid, than a man who charged into battle without a single qualm. I will deliver this letter to my contact in Gravonia. I will be gone for a few days, I'm afraid, as the rains have made travel very difficult. Show your strength, ma'am, and continue with your own work… the people of this country appreciate the help you have given them."
"Tried to give them," she muttered. "Every time Paul hears of someone obtaining a little money or even some degree of prosperity, he sends his tax men in to take it. Everyone in this damned country is dependent on the Crown for everything, and what do they have for it? Nothing at all. Hovels to live in, leaky roofs, bad food, meager crops that are taken from them… successful people are penalized, except of course for himself and his mother."
"But they know the source of kindness and the source of cruelty, and understand the difference. You are making progress, even if it's very slow."
She spread her hands and swallowed. "Once I am free, I will leave this wretched place. That will be happiest day of my life, I think, to finally leave." She glanced up at Richard's face and saw his sad expression. "Not that it will be easy to say goodbye to a… a very good friend. To the friends I have made here. However few they are."
He nodded. "You can always count on my friendship, ma'am, and my loyalty." He bowed to her and mounted his horse, looking down at her for several moments. "And you know you have the love of the people of this country, even if they are not allowed to show it."
Tears filled her eyes. She did not want the love of the people of Lacovia. She only wanted Richard's.
He bowed his head and rode away, and the Queen of Lacovia could only return to her rooms to prepare for another long, lonely day.
A heavy rainstorm blew in with the morning, with a chill settling in the air as dark clouds rolled across the sky over Luvov. The city planners Henry had hired, some years ago, to improve the layout of Luvov had come up with innovative water runoffs on each street, so that flooding did not occur even in low-lying areas. The rainwater was drained off into cisterns and stored for use during summer's dry months and for the fountains throughout the city. Just the same, the rain was hard, with violent flashes of lightning and loud, fearsome thunder making even Constantine jump as he paced across the palace courtyard, intent on seeing to his horse and his supplies before setting off.
The horse—a steady and reliable young black Friesian that still had a long way to go before he measured up to Amiel's excellent example—greeted his master with a cheerful nicker and nosed into Constantine's pockets. "You're just wanting sugar," Constantine muttered, but he scratched his ears just the same.
"What is his name?"
He turned and saw Eleanor sitting on a bale of hay, looking out at the rain.
"Lamman? What does that mean?"
"Charlotte named him. It was supposed to be 'Lawman' but pronunciation isn't her forte."
"What happened to Amiel?"
"He stepped on a nail over the winter and got lockjaw. I had to put him down. He was in his twenties by then, but… it was a rough day. I bought Lamman just four months ago."
"Oh… I'm sorry," she said softly. "Amiel was such a beautiful old gentleman, though Lamman is quite lovely himself."
"It is hard to say goodbye, isn't it?" He still could not face her, but his hands were gripping the stall door until his knuckles turned white.
"At least now I can say goodbye to you. Odd, isn't it? I did not get to say goodbye to Isabella, but today I have to say goodbye to my daughter and to… " He paused as lightning split the sky again. Eleanor stood, taking a deep breath.
"We ought to say our goodbyes here, instead of in the palace. There can be no… "
"Suspicion. Yes, I know." He was still facing away, staring blindly at the horse, which snuffled curiously at his hands.
"I will always love you, Constantine," she said softly.
He turned then to face her, and she stood, brushing straw from her dress. In the grey, gloomy morning she seemed to give off light, and he stood staring at her, transfixed, and he didn't know what to do. He was totally unprepared when she stepped closer and softly kissed him, slowly slipping her arms around his neck, but he moved into this kiss just the same, craving her warmth and softness more than anything he had ever known.
They stood outside Lamman's stall for a long time, kissing, reacquainting themselves with each other. Finally, she pulled back a little and embraced him, her head on his shoulder and his forehead dropping down onto hers. He felt her tears dampening his shirt, and he did not fight off his own tears. He held her close, squeezing her tightly but not moving his hands upwards, to touch her the way he longed to. Instead, he finally released her and she stepped back, her cheeks pink and her eyes bright and full of tears.
"Goodbye, Eleanor." He looked down into her startling blue eyes. "I will always love you. Always."
"I know." She smiled slightly. "I know." With a nod and a graceful curtsey, she turned and walked away.
"Come now, Smidgen, you must hold yourself together."
Elizabeth wiped her eyes and swallowed, forcing herself to look serene despite her emotional state—her mother had taught her how to look calm and collected no matter what. In fact, her mother had taught her how to look enraptured during long, boring ceremonies and dreary speeches, and how to converse with the person on her right during one course of a meal and the person on her left during the second, and how to wave properly and smile cheerfully and wear a heavy tiara or headpiece without tipping over or looking like she had a pounding headache.
Her mother had not, however, taught her how to say goodbye to the last connection she had to her home. She forced herself to smile, glancing briefly at the large assembly of Gravonia's great and good (depending on one's point of view) and dipped a low, elegant curtsey to the man who was, by all intents and purposes, her first love. She remembered all he had taught her, besides how to defend herself: he had taught her to love God, family, and country, and how to speak her own mind and stand up for herself.
The nobles of Gravonia, curious to see their future Queen, were equally intrigued by the forbidding Prince Constantine, who looked every inch a warrior in his black mail and armor. To Elizabeth, though, he was just 'Darling Papa' and she had no idea how she would endure life without him. When her chin started to wobble, Constantine lowered his head just a bit, and she lifted her chin, fighting her tears away.
"No one will ever be able to call me Smidgen again," she said softly.
"I suppose not," he said. "Perhaps they will call you Lili here, as we did when you were little."
"I'm sure some of them will only call me the Dragon's daughter, and later 'Queen Elizabeth'."
"Aye, and rightly so, at least on the latter name." He took her hands in his and finally kissed her cheeks. "Remember all that I have taught you, and all that your mother taught you, though I'd wager that her lessons were far more useful. I know Queen Eleanor and King Henry will take good care of you, and that Alexander will be… " He glanced at the Crown Prince, who was decked out in ceremonial regalia and a jewel-encrusted circlet, and Constantine was rather relieved that the young man looked uncomfortable in such a get-up. "I'm sure he will be very good to you. But remember… if you are ever unhappy here and decide you don't want to stay, you only need to send for me and I will come get you and take you back home, damn the consequences."
Elizabeth managed to nod, but could not speak. King Henry stepped forward, shaking Constantine's hand. "You needn't worry for her safety or welfare, Your Highness. She's already like a daughter to us and she will never know a day of unhappiness here."
Constantine nodded, bowing slightly to Henry. He looked at Eleanor, who stepped forward, extending her hand to him. He bent over it, his mouth only barely making contact with her knuckles. "I know you will take care of my daughter, ma'am."
"I will," she said softly. "She will never hear an unkind word from me or anyone else, I assure you."
"Good." He straightened and stepped back. Elizabeth looked like she might shatter into a thousand pieces, but she was making a good show of royal dignity just the same. He cleared his throat. "If you ever need me… if you ever need my help… do not hesitate to send for me. Hell itself will not stop me from getting to you." He settled his gaze briefly on Eleanor, who lowered her eyes, and he looked at Elizabeth again. "Goodbye, Smidgen."
That was all it took. The princess burst into tears and clung to her father, crying without shame as he embraced her. "Darling Papa," she said. "I love you so."
"I know, baby. I love you. You know that, don't you? You're probably the best thing I've ever done, and I will miss you more than I can say."
She sobbed against his chest, not caring that all of Gravonia's nobles were watching. After several moments, however, Queen Eleanor stepped forward and gently extracted the girl from her father's arms. Constantine nodded at the Queen, touched his weeping daughter's cheek and finally turned to mount Lamman. The black horse bounced around for a moment, excited by the crowd and the heightened emotion around him, but soon settled. Constantine touched the horse with his spurs and slowly turned away, not looking back as he rode through the Court Gate and out into the city, where the streets were lined with thousands of curious citizens. He let the horse set his own pace, and Lamman cantered easily along the cobbled street, tossing his head in his eagerness to run.
"Let's go home," he murmured to the young stallion. He spurred the horse into a gallop and rode away without looking back.