“Why it would take you so long to deliver your daughter to those bloody Gravonians is beyond me.”
“The weather was rather bad,” he answered in the neutral tone he always adopted when being interviewed by his mother. “Plus we were attacked at Logais Pass.”
“Hm. Bloody Gravonians,” she sniffed.
“It was Lacovians, actually,” Constantine corrected her, keeping his gaze as middle distance.
She hrmphed emphatically. “Same thing. I do not understand why or how Morvenia would benefit from a union with Gravonia. Heathens, the lot of them, and all filthy and stupid. Are you not going to kiss your dear Mama?” she asked sharply.
Groaning inwardly, Constantine leaned in and brushed his cheek briefly against hers. She smelled of grease paint and some kind of powder, and that combination always made him sick to his stomach. As a child, he had once vomited on her after such an obligatory kiss, which had not exactly improved their relationship.
“I suppose Elizabeth was in good health when you left her.”
“She seemed to be well, and she is in good hands.”
“Now you’ve only got to get rid of that other one… Charlotte. Poor, stupid girl. Last night she kept weeping over her sister. Of course, I tried to explain that such things happen among the nobility and she herself will likely be shipped off somewhere for an advantageous marriage some day and that only made her cry more. Stupid, stupid child… ”
“Charlotte is anything but stupid, Mother,” Constantine said, still keeping his eyes at middle distance. If he looked directly at her, she would see the anger in his eyes, and that would not do. She would use his emotions against him, as always. “She is a sweet girl and she misses her sister.”
“You dare contradict me?” she snapped.
“I do when it comes to my children. From henceforth, I think it would be best if they remained at Fairwood and not importune you here at the palace any more. I know they all get underfoot, and you often say all the noise they make gives you headaches.”
Marie frowned. “I never get to see my grandchildren. Certainly not my grandsons—they’re around here somewhere, I know, but they seem to hide in the trees. Your eldest son put a pine cone on my chair at dinner one night, but he will be king one day, so he must learn how to behave properly, and it won’t be you or your brother teaching him, so I think… ”
“I think he still ought to go back Fairwood with me. He deserves a happy childhood, so he and his siblings will remain at home except when required to be at Court for state occasions. Considering their age, not even those events truly require them.”
“I require their presence. I am their grandmother and it’s my duty to teach them good manners and… ”
“It wasn’t you who taught me good manners, Mother, it was Charlotte Teasdale, and you threw her out. I’m rather tired, ma’am, and I think I should go.” He nodded to her ladies, who all curtsied deeply to him, and he left before Marie could really react.
Philip hailed him in the hallway and glanced around before moving closer. “I hope you came out of that unscathed.”
“A few scorch marks, but I’ll live.”
“And… uh… how did it go with Eleanor? I know you had to have been upset… ”
“Is that the word for it? Let’s not talk about that now. I’ve got to get ready to head to the western regions, to help the flooding victims out there. Is Charlotte still here?”
“Yes. She is. She was not keen on having to stay with Mother, but she was even less keen on leaving for home before seeing you—I was intending to send her to Fairwood today.”
Constantine nodded, and Philip asked a servant to go find the princess. Moments later, Charlotte came bounding down the stairs and rushed to her father, who scooped her up into a tight embrace. The blonde eight-year old kissed her father’s cheek and hugged him fiercely. “Oh, Papa, I’m so glad you’re home!” He put her down, realizing that his back was perhaps not well-suited to hauling a healthy girl about.
“I’m glad to be home, too. What have you been up to, aside from another inch in height?”
“Five hours a day of lessons,” Charlotte muttered, glancing toward her grandmother’s chambers. “Latin, geography, mathematics, theology, music, deportment… then I have to sit with Grandmother for the rest of the day, sewing. She’s not very nice, though her ladies are very kind.”
“So I assume you will balk at being taken home?” Constantine grinned.
“Oh, Papa… can I go home? The boys are all staying at Packenham with Lord Ricciardi and they long to go home too. Michael says he’s bored to tears there, but can’t bear coming here… Grandmama usually just shouts at him.”
“I know. I will escort you all home, then, but I have to go on to the west. Many folks’ homes have been washed away or damaged by the flooding.”
The girl nodded and looked serious as she pondered. “Grandmama says I will be shipped away one day, to marry someone. Will I have to go?”
“Not if you don’t want to,” Constantine said, glancing at Philip, who looked mildly affronted.
“Did Elizabeth stay in Morvenia of her own free will?” she asked as she and her father and uncle went back out into the courtyard.
“Yes. She did. She likes Alexander and the King and Queen are very kind and will take very good care of her.”
Charlotte’s lower lip began to tremble. “I miss her so. Elizabeth always stood up to Grandmama for me, but now she’s not here and the boys can go away if they please... though Michael did put that pine cone on her chair when she said I was stupid.”
“You need to learn to stand up for yourself,” Constantine said, making a mental note to scold and reward Michael at the same time for his actions in defense of his baby sister. “When I come back home, we’ll start your lessons immediately.”
“Easier said than done,” Philip said. “I still quake when I hear her call ‘Phil… IP!’ across the courtyard.” He grinned at his niece. “So I often hide, too. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, really. When I was younger, I would hide under a table until she left.”
“Younger? You did that two weeks ago,” Constantine reminded him.
“I was younger then, wasn’t I?” Philip grumbled.
Constantine nodded to a stable boy, who brought him a tough-looking gelding and a pretty cream-colored pony for Charlotte. “We’ll go by Packenham and pick up your brothers. I’m sure they’ll be glad to see you.”
“Parr and I are building a fort at Fairwood, Papa. It’s almost finished,” Charlotte said excitedly.
“A fort?” Constantine said, puzzled. “You know how to build a fort?”
“Well, Parr does. He wants to be a soldier, and so does Leopold. Michael likes horses and music and girls and Nicholas wants to be a scholar and train horses. He likes to read—he’s read everything in Uncle King’s library and is always going to the village to look for books.”
“So long as he’s not burning the village to the ground, I think he can get as many books as he pleases,” Constantine said. “And what do you want to be when you grow up, Charlotte?”
She seemed bewildered by the question, and was briefly at a loss for words. Then she brightened. “An explorer!” Charlotte said excitedly. “I want to travel to Africa and the Holy Land and on to the Orient. Then I would love to sail across the sea and see if the world is really flat.”
“The world is not flat. The Prophet Isaiah said ′It is He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers’.”
“That’s not what the Church says,” Charlotte countered.
“The Church fathers could stand reading the Scriptures a bit more, then, and worry less about politics and geography,” he said with a mischievous grin. “And I’m not sure if you would do well, sailing across any ocean. You can barely sit in a moving carriage and not turn green.”
She frowned. “That’s true. But I should like traveling just the same, and seeing the world. I like to look at the maps in Uncle King’s library, and wonder what is out there on the other side of the sea. I would like to see lions and leopards in the wild, rather than just in Uncle King’s menagerie, and I would like to live in the country and raise horses and have lots of dogs.” She scratched her pony’s ears, and the animal looked even sleepier as it plodded along beside Constantine’s taller mount. “And I should like to stay with you until I am eighteen, and not be separated from you, even after I marry.”
“So, I’m to be bound to you, with a chain around my ankle, like a donkey?”
She giggled. “Would that be so bad?”
“I don’t know. Still, I would find it easier to play tea party than to plan another battle. It might require a bit more contemplation, little one, but I would have to object to the chain.”
Charlotte smiled, and Constantine’s weariness and remaining anger faded away with the afternoon light. He kicked his mount into a canter and Charlotte raced him on to the gates of Packenham manor, where her brothers waited to be taken home.
“This truly is an interesting letter,” Eleanor admitted to Lord Ellis, who nodded and waited as she read it again.
I write to you with all humble respect and gratitude to you for your concern for me in seeing to the conditions of my dowry and protection here in Lacovia. I am aware that my cousin King Henry was very eager to see to my safety here, but everyone in Gravonia knows that you, ma’am, are truly in charge and it was indeed you who drew up those conditions. They have afforded me a degree of peace and safety that would not have otherwise been allowed had my father and King Paul been given their heads.
I must also write to you to plead for your continued indulgence and mercy towards me and my countrymen. The citizens of Lacovia long for peace and whatever prosperity Almighty God sees fit to provide. We of course are required to seek honest means of achieving these goals. For too long our people have been mired in poverty, ignorance and violence, and though Lacovia remains officially a bitter enemy of not only Gravonia but also of your own beloved homeland, there are many here--and our numbers grow daily--who are weary of such circumstances. Myself and those persons wish to extend an olive branch to yourself and to King Henry, with fervent prayers that if the time comes we might be able to think of you and our good cousin the King as allies and not enemies.
May God bless you in all possible ways,
“What do you think, ma’am?” Lord Ellis asked.
“Irene is hardly a fool,” Eleanor said. “Her father forced her to marry Paul, and whether her barrenness is her fault or Paul’s, she has at least avoided providing him with an heir.” She handed the letter to him. “How exactly are you associated with Richard of Stormont?”
“His mother and my mother were cousins,” he said, shrugging. “He’s an honest man, ma’am. He was raised away from Court, his parents were good people, and he loves his country and hates seeing it sink deeper and deeper into the mire.”
“But do you really think he can be trusted?”
“I am always cautious, ma’am, and we’ve never spent a great deal of time together, considering our positions, but I have never sensed mendacity in him. Irene’s letter indicates a growing number of people in Lacovia who are dissatisfied with the status quo and are seeking a new direction. Richard is Heir Presumptive, whether Paul likes it or not, and there are rumors...”
“What rumors?” Eleanor asked, glancing around. They were in the stables, watching a group of men loading manure into wagons.
“I have heard that Paul is not able to sire an heir. He has a mistress and she has never borne him a child. Irene’s sister is not barren--she and the Comte Lestrade had a son this past spring--and by all accounts Irene is healthy and strong, so barrenness does not run in that family at all. By now she ought to have become with child, yet she never has.”
“Barrenness is not always a permanent condition,” Eleanor reminded Ellis. She pulled her cloak a little more tightly around her shoulders. “And it tends to stop families at the root, not be passed down.” Ellis smirked and she smiled back. “She might still yet produce a child. She is still young.”
“True. But... what do you think?”
She pondered briefly. “Please respond to Irene’s letter in vague but... encouraging terms. Tell her we are always willing to maintain familial bonds, but make sure the letter is not traceable back to me and also be sure it is so vague that if it is discovered she will not be implicated. I won’t have that poor girl harmed.”
“Very good, ma’am. I remember Irene--she is a very nice girl. Marriage to that weasel Paul must surely be hell for her.”
“Her mother is out of the country, right?”
“She returned to her home in Saxony after Beauchamp fled,” Ellis said.
“And Lord Stephen?”
“He remains loyal to the Crown, ma’am. I know him well--he is an honest young man.”
Eleanor pursed her lips. “And what sort of number of people in Lacovia are truly against King Paul?”
“Anybody that has missed a meal and has a leaky roof, ma’am,” Ellis shrugged.
“Then I would guess virtually everyone. Please keep an eye on the matter. You and Lord Hallam must, I’m afraid, remain diligent. How you and he ever sleep at all... ”
“Work keeps us busy, ma’am, but our consciences never keep us up at night,” he said with a modest bow.
Eleanor was concerned that she felt nauseated shortly after Constantine left, and worried that she might be pregnant again. However, when she bled again at the beginning of the following month, she was relieved that it was only a mild stomach ailment. It passed quickly enough and she was able to resume her usual activities, having said nothing to Henry on the matter. Elizabeth, largely confined to the palace to adjust to her new surroundings and continuing with her usual educational regimen, was her companion on most every day. She seemed content with sitting by the fire reading or sewing and joining in games of cards and chess with Eleanor and her ladies. The Queen found the girl intelligent, curious and eager to please, and enjoyed her company immensely.
Just the same, she knew the girl was eager to spend time with Alexander, and to that end Eleanor pondered over her candidates to serve as chaperon to the young couple. Her first idea had been Lady Rose Bellamy, the youngest daughter of the Duke of Delacroix, but the girl was perhaps a little too religious, being bent on becoming a nun one day. To Eleanor, someone like that would be a good influence in a few years, but would be a real stick in the mud for a pair of young people in the first stages of courtship. Eleanor’s second notion was perhaps problematic in other ways, but as she thought about it more, the idea had an increasing number of merits.
Elizabeth was seated at the fire, having forgotten her sewing, and stared into the crackling flames. Eleanor sat down opposite her and smiled. “Elizabeth? Might you like to go for a walk later?”
“Oh. Yes, ma’am. After luncheon?”
“Yes, that would be very good. The King and I are to meet with the ambassador from Denmark before lunch and then you can join the royal family for our meal. Alexander will come along on our walk, if you don’t mind—he had already been by and has eaten his meal with his brothers and made quite a mess.”
The girl brightened. “Yes, I would like that.”
“Good.” Eleanor couldn’t keep from grinning. “I know you have not seen him in a while—his Progress up to the northern regions is finally over and he arrived home last night in fine spirits. He and his brother Frederick were received very cheerfully by folks along the border, but they both said they were very happy to be in their own beds again.”
“I’m glad his trip was successful.”
Elizabeth had been upset when Alexander and Frederick had left, but she had been kept busy to counter her disquiet. The princess had been given a tour of Luvov, then had been carefully introduced to some of Gravonia’s leading families. Besides that, she had gone along on hunts with Henry and the younger princes, and always came home looking cheerful and invigorated. Eleanor was doing her best to see the girl was happy, but could tell she was still a little homesick. To that end, Eleanor made sure the girl was allowed to make any changes she desired to her rooms, and Elizabeth had put up a sketch she had done of Constantine sitting in a chair, looking gruff and holding his sword, and Eleanor did not miss the blue ribbon still tied around the sword’s hilt.
The sixteen-year old had considerable skill at drawing, Eleanor noted. Elizabeth frequently did sketches of people at Court who had ‘interesting faces’, as she put it. She had even done a pencil sketch of Eleanor in her favorite blue dress and pearl-lined French cap, and Eleanor had complimented her on it, joking that she appreciated the girl’s choice to pretend the Queen had no grey hair.
Eleanor prepared to dress and let Elizabeth help her decide on what outfit to select: red velvet, a silk bodice decorated with maroon-colored stags, and her ruby and diamond tiara. “Do you think I look formidable enough to speak with the Danish ambassador? He is a huge Viking, you know—very intimidating.”
“I suspect he finds you very formidable, ma’am,” Elizabeth said, smiling broadly. Her mother had let her help her select her outfits, too, and the Queen’s heeding of her advice on fashion made her feel more at home and very grown-up. “Everyone on the Continent talks about you.”
“They needn’t,” Eleanor shook her head. “Now, let’s see you’re properly decked out—would you like to try one of my tiaras, or perhaps my pearl cap?”
Elizabeth relished times like this—the Queen never failed to let her paw through her jewelry cases and closets to pick out exquisite clothes and sparkling baubles to wear at daily Court Assembly. They picked out a blue brocade gown with long, flowing sleeves and a bodice that emphasized Elizabeth’s slender waist and soft, feminine curves. Before the girl could object, Eleanor settled her favorite amethyst and pearl tiara on her head. “Blue and white suits you very well, Elizabeth, and you look lovely. It’s times like this that I regret not having a daughter, but I daresay you make up for what I missed.”
“What, your boys don’t like playing dress-up?”
Eleanor laughed. “Only with armor and mail. They wouldn’t even try on my tiaras or French caps, the scoundrels.”
Elizabeth giggled. “If I have a daughter, I will play dress-up with her, and we’ll have tea parties and make paper flowers, like the one I made for my mother for her last… birthday.” Her smile wavered a bit at the painful memory.
“I suspect it was the prettiest paper flower ever seen, and your mother cherished it.”
“Papa helped me make it. He made an even bigger mess than me.”
“Yes, I can imagine. He hardly seems like the type of man who is at ease with a pair of scissors.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Oh, Papa knows how to sew and repair his own clothes. Charlotte wrote me last week, saying he had taught her how to stitch up a wound. He used a pig’s carcass to show her.”
“Dear God… ” Eleanor shook her head. “That sounds just like him. Shockingly practical.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am?” Elizabeth asked, looking confused.
“I mean… considering he’s a man of war, he would teach her things he knows about. That would include… sewing up a wound. Very practical.”
“I must go now. You may stay up here and try on more of my dresses and headpieces if you like. Please see that Prince Andrew is in the schoolroom after luncheon. He has a French examination today and he is under threat of death if he does not at least attempt to do well on it.” Eleanor fixed her cap in place with a pin, checked herself in the mirror, and swept from the room. Elizabeth sat down at the fire again, uninterested in sewing, and resumed reading a letter from her Uncle King. Her father was not so good with words, but he regularly sent her gifts from home—baskets of fruit from the orchards, the pine cone Michael had put in Queen Marie’s chair, and a startlingly lifelike dragon that Constantine had carved for her. His terse but loving note to her about it had brought tears to her eyes.
I had hoped to have it ready for you before your last birthday at home, but I ran out of time. I do not know what emblem you will select for your own badge, one day, but perhaps this might bring you some good memories of your grumpy old Papa. Remember, though, that your mother’s emblem was the black eagle of Navarre, and so perhaps it would better to honor her rather than me.
She smiled, touching the dragon’s tiny, sharp teeth and wondered if perhaps Alexander might carve an eagle for her, if she asked.
The meal with the Danish ambassador and his wife went well enough, Eleanor supposed, though the man was absolutely enormous—not in fat, but in pure muscle and alarming height. Henry muttered to her, as they prepared to sit down for the meal, that he perhaps ought to fry up an ox and serve it. Count Rosenberg, however, was as good-natured as he was huge and Eleanor enjoyed trying out her scant Danish on him. His wife, a slim and delicate-looking woman named Svanhilde, gave credence Eleanor’s own theory that big men frequently married tiny women. She also found that the smaller and more fragile-looking the man, the more likely he was to have a dog the size of a donkey and never fainted at the sight of blood, while big men keeled over at the mere mention of bloodletting.
Countess Rosenberg spoke in her halting English to Eleanor for a bit, asking about what sort of weather she should expect in Gravonia.
“Oh, it’s not bad at all. Do you like your new home… er… kan du... lide dinnye... um... oh, blast... hjem?”
"Åh, ja! Det er meget rart!”
“I can only hope you said you like your house.”
The woman grinned and nodded. “Your Dansk is not bad, ma’am.”
Eleanor burst into laughter. “I barely know enough to help me avoid lutefisk!”
The Danish translator, a whip-thin little man with a huge mass of blond curls, came huffing up, having eaten too much and fallen asleep after the meal. “I beg Your Majesty’s pardon,” he said, looking embarrassed.
“It’s quite all right. Countess Rosenberg, I do hope you can excuse me, but I have some business to attend to with my son.” She smiled at the Count and Countess and left Henry to try to find some way to avoid a horse-throwing contest with the Count. She stepped out onto the wide promenade overlooking the gardens and was pleased to see Elizabeth already sitting on one of the stone benches, looking out at the opulent flower beds. When she saw the Queen, she stood and curtsied, and Eleanor laughed.
“That’s not necessary, you know. Come along, we need to hunt Alexander down and then we’ll go find your chaperon.”
“Chapero-... oh, right.” Elizabeth looked less than delighted at the notion, but obediently followed Eleanor down the steps and out onto the grass. The Queen was a fast walker—Elizabeth was astounded at how quickly that woman could move, and she was puffing a bit to keep up with her. She was relieved when Eleanor arrived at the behourd, where Alexander and Frederick were practicing sword fighting in earnest, with real swords.
Their opponents, Lord Despencer and Lord Barton, were hardly up to the princes’ level of skill and as the two women approached, Alexander used the flat of his sword to smack Lord Despencer hard against the back of his legs, causing him to fall forward and yelp in pain when he landed on his knees. Lord Barton, who was only slightly less adept with his sword, wisely stepped back from Frederick, who was holding his sword in such a way that death appeared imminent.
“Nitwit,” Alexander muttered under his breath, but still helped Despencer back to his feet. Lord Barton moved away from Frederick and joined his friend at the edge of the yard. Lord Despencer saw Eleanor and bowed gallantly to her and smiled at Elizabeth.
“Your Majesty. You’re looking very… majesty…ish. I mean… er… beautiful, ma’am, and might I say Your Royal Highness is looking particularly sex—... er, pretty.”
Eleanor had to force herself to keep from slapping him, as he was looking directly at her chest as he spoke, and it annoyed her even more that he looked at Elizabeth’s chest as he spoke to her, too. “Thank you, Lord Despencer, even if your compliments were entirely self-serving and insincere. You and Lord Barton may leave now.”
Lord Despencer had never been able to use his charm on Eleanor to any effect. Even Henry found him tiresome, though he generally enjoyed the company of fun-loving young men. He had commented to Eleanor that Despencer ‘has the ability to make many friends, but he cannot seem to keep any them, aside from Lord Barton, and Barton has no spine’. Eleanor knew the fathers of both men, and was amazed that such level-headed and intelligent knights could sire such useless young men, though she did find Lord Barton more tolerable. Lord Despencer tended to insult people quite a lot, and one of her own younger attendants had commented that he had the morals of a maggot while also thinking he was God’s gift to humanity in general and women in particular.
The two young knights walked away, joking with each other and making plans on their next meal. Eleanor shook her head—Lord Barton in particular seemed to eat far more than seemed necessary.
“Jackass,” Alexander muttered to Frederick, who snickered.
Eleanor overheard her son’s comment and gave him a look as soon as Lord Despencer was out of earshot. “That is not polite and it is hardly useful to point out the obvious.”
“He’s an idiot. Always boasting about his success with women. I suppose he counts getting spat on and slapped as ‘success’,” Frederick grumbled.
“Plus he looks like a weasel,” Elizabeth said, and Eleanor, Frederick and Alexander stared at her in astonishment. She reddened. “I mean… I mean, he’s… looks… he's sneaky, I guess. His eyes are too close together, and he’s rude.”
Frederick burst into laughter. “Very good, Elizabeth! That’s the first uncharitable thing I’ve ever heard you say about anyone!”
“And we do call him Weasel Lips,” Alexander nodded.
“You call him Unctuous Jackass,” Frederick said, nodding gravely. “I call him… ”
“Enough,” Eleanor snapped, annoyed. “Whatever Lord Unct—… Lord Despencer’s deficiencies might be, you have no reason to comment on them. Elizabeth!” She gave the girl a look that was as fierce as any scolding. “Your mother would be appalled.”
“I can’t help it. Ellie says he’s very… slimy.”
Frederick’s eyes narrowed. “Has he been trying anything with her?”
“He pinched her,” Elizabeth reported, glancing nervously at Eleanor, whose eyes widened. “She told him to stop or she’d sic Frederick on him.”
Frederick started to stalk off in Lord Despencer’s direction, but Eleanor stopped him. “Son, please be calm. Killing Lord Despencer won’t accomplish much.”
“Except to prevent him from breeding more unctuous jackasses,” Frederick growled, but he obeyed his mother and stood still. “You know he’s already set his sights on poor Lady Juliet Harris, but he keeps flirting with other men’s… I mean… he had the nerve to pinch poor Ellie! That is a grievous insult!”
“Go on inside, sweetheart, and cool your temper. You can console your brother Andrew—he’s just endured his French examination and I suspect he’s praying fervently that he passed his test. Alexander, come with me please.”
The Crown Prince followed his mother off the behourd yard and along the pathway, falling in step beside Elizabeth, who wanted so much to slip her arm over his, but she was overcome with shyness, particularly in his mother’s presence. “I do hope you enjoyed your trip to the northern counties,” she said.
“And here I was hoping you would say you missed me,” he teased.
“Oh! I did, of course. But the Queen kept me very busy—I had no time to sit about feeling sad.”
“Oh? What did you do?”
“I met some of the foreign ambassadors, and I went on a short progress to some of the villages south of Luvov, and I studied maps of Gravonia, to know where everything is, plus I have my lessons daily in languages and the history of Gravonia. I spent a good deal of time with my ladies, and I practiced my drawing and sewing. I’m better at the former, however. I do not like sewing much.”
Alexander grinned. “Neither do I.”
“Your mother told me that you intend to make a law one day, where all men are required to learn to sew and cook for themselves and not burden their wives.”
He laughed. “I do. It only seems fair—I can see no reason why a man can’t do those things for himself, when required.”
“What of women? Will they be required to learn how to do the things men do?”
“Like spit, scratch, burp, curse… ”
“Not those things!” Elizabeth laughed. “Useful things.”
“I don’t think men can ever learn to give birth, if that’s what you’re thinking. I know I would object very strenuously if I was told I had to try.”
They turned a corner along the meticulously trimmed hedges and came upon a dark-haired young girl sitting weaver-style on a bench, head bent over a book, and the Queen gently touched the girl’s shoulder. She jumped, startled, and faced them all, clearly uncertain. Eleanor smiled, speaking clearly and slowly while facing the girl. “Xenia, it’s so nice to see you!”
The girl curtseyed quickly but said nothing.
“How are you feeling, sweetheart?”
Xenia made a gesture with her hands that seemed to indicate she was in good health, but Elizabeth was bewildered as to why the girl did not speak.
“Your Majesty, I… ” Elizabeth started, but Alexander touched her hand and gave her a look that asked her to keep quiet.
“Alexander already knows Lady Xenia D’Acre. Elizabeth, this is Xenia—she is Lady Harriet’s daughter.”
Elizabeth studied Xenia with interest—she was very pretty, with creamy skin, nearly black hair and bright blue eyes, and she had a look of great intelligence about her. Still, it was very strange that she had yet to speak a word.
“Elizabeth, please make sure to look directly at Xenia as you speak, and enunciate carefully. She is almost entirely deaf and rarely makes even a sound, but she is an excellent lip reader, aren’t you, sweetheart, and as clever as they come, too—no one can outwit this one, I can assure you.” Eleanor took Xenia’s hands in hers. “You’re looking so well! It’s been a while since I’ve seen you—your mother said you had been ill over the winter.”
Xenia nodded, smiling brightly at the Queen.
“So I assume you are fully recovered?”
Xenia nodded again.
“Oh… I… I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said, embarrassed. She smiled at Xenia, who smiled shyly in return.
“And don’t speak loudly to her--that won’t help. She’s deaf, not stupid, and she’s definitely not blind.” Eleanor said quickly. “Now, I’ll leave you all to get acquainted.”
“She’s to be our chaperon?” Alexander asked, looking a little confused.
“Yes. What better chaperon than someone who can’t hear what you’re saying but can stop you from doing things you shouldn’t just by being present? Xenia, as you know, is a sweet, sharp-minded little thing and as Lord Ellis is a verified bluestocking she is undergoing a sterling education, though I think her stay here at the palace will be a good thing for her. A young girl ought to be allowed outdoors for a bit of fresh air and fun, I think, however smart she is. Oh, and tell Harry she’s here. I’m sure he’ll be glad to see her.”
Alexander grinned. “Aye, I’ll tell Harry.”
Eleanor took her leave and Alexander gestured for both girls to sit down. They spent the remainder of the afternoon talking, or actually learning how to speak to someone who could not hear them. Xenia was indeed an excellent lip reader and while she could not speak she had the most expressive face Elizabeth had ever come across, and she had little trouble understanding her. After a while, they decided to go for a walk through the rose gardens, with Xenia staying a few paces behind so Alexander and Elizabeth could talk.
She found him as easy to talk to as before, and as they walked they discussed the people she had met during her tour of the countryside outside Luvov, and he told her about the rugged mountains in the north. They sat down on a wooden bench under a trellis choked with climbing roses and Xenia sat near them on her own bench and resumed reading her book.
“I suppose she is a good deterrent to misbehavior,” Elizabeth said, glancing at the girl and smiling. She felt no resentment toward Xenia—instead, she felt a mixture of pity and genuine affection for the girl. Pity, however, was not going to do, she sensed. Alexander had explained that she had lost her hearing due to a fever when she was but five years old, and her parents had done all they could to see she had as normal a life as possible.
“Aye, she is. She’s also a very sweet girl—my brother Harry likes her a good deal. I have no idea how they communicate, but somehow they seem to make it work.”
“Do you think they’ll marry?” Elizabeth asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think either of them is really thinking about marriage now, and her father is very formidable. He won’t have her carried off too soon, or by just anyone, even a prince.”
Elizabeth’s brow wrinkled. “If her father is Lord Ellis, why is her surname D’Acre?”
“Her father died before she was born, but Lord Ellis dotes on her just the same—as far as he’s concerned, Xenia is his own flesh and blood and she will inherit a good bit of land some day. Her eldest brother is Lord D’Acre—he has a very nice estate outside Luvov.”
They continued talking, exchanging opinions and even disagreeing over a few things. That in itself pleased them both, as that gave them future topics for discussion. Xenia read her book, only glancing up at them occasionally but generally showing little interest in interfering with them at all. They were still seated under the trellis, discussing the quality of Gravonian horses over Morvenia’s finest bloodstock when Harry came around the corner and saw Xenia. Instead of speaking, he only tapped her on the shoulder and she made a slight squeaking sound before standing up and embracing him warmly. Alexander raised his eyebrows at Elizabeth, who found the whole scene charming—Xenia was only thirteen and Harry not quite fourteen, but it was clear that despite the barrier of the girl’s deafness, they had little trouble communicating.
“Harry,” Alexander called. “Maybe you’d like to take Xenia off somewhere to be alone?”
“That isn’t permitted and you know that,” Harry answered, giving his oldest brother a sharp glare. He turned back to face Xenia. “But my mother wants us all to come back to the palace. Supper is ready.”
Xenia nodded, smiling, and she pantomimed eating and rubbed her stomach.
Harry grinned. “Aye, she said you might be hungry. Only just getting your appetite back, right? I’ll bet you’re tired of being cooped up inside—how boring, eh?”
She nodded. Alexander helped Elizabeth to her feet and the four young people walked back to the palace together, Harry keeping up a steady stream of conversation with Xenia, which fascinated Elizabeth—it seemed the girl’s every gesture, shrug and expression was easily read and correctly interpreted by the prince. When Xenia went into the palace with Alexander, Elizabeth asked him how he did it.
“I don’t know. I just… know what she’s saying, I guess.”
“She is very expressive, I must say, though I’ve only known her a few hours. She’s very intelligent, the Queen told me, and she was quite right.”
“She’s very deep,” Harry nodded gravely. “Me, I’m not deep at all. I don’t care for reading and such, but she tells me all about the books she reads. She reads philosophy and the like—not my cuppa, that’s for sure, but… ” he shrugged. “Anyway, we are just able to talk, I suppose. I don’t know how, really.”
Elizabeth smiled and almost teased Harry about it, but was not inclined to embarrass her future brother-in-law. “I’m happy to see you two are such good friends.”
Harry looked pleased, bowed, and went into the palace. Elizabeth followed him in and was pleased to join the royal family for a quiet supper. Prince Andrew had passed his French examination and looked extremely relieved. Prince George boasted of his growing skill with a bow and arrow, while Harry expressed worry about his own upcoming Latin examinations. “I hate Latin. It’s a dreadful language. I’m not going to be a scholar, after all, so what use is it to me?”
“Learning Latin helps you learn the rest of the languages of the Continent—the romance languages, that is. French, Spanish and Italian, at least, and you must admit that you excel at the other three because you already know basic Latin,” Eleanor pointed out. “It’d be harder to learn Portuguese, though, as it is based on the Arabic language in many ways, as I understand, and I’m not even going to try to force that one on you.”
“Praise God for merciful mothers,” Andrew grinned.
“I never learned Latin,” King Henry pointed out, handing his orange to Elizabeth, who began peeling it for him. “I’ve regretted it all my life.”
“Oh, sir, you needn’t regret that,” Elizabeth said. “You speak English quite well, and I’ve heard you curse very colorfully in Italian.”
The King looked chagrined when Eleanor raised her eyebrow at him.
“Lorenzo Bartolomeo is coaching me,” he said. “Who’d think such a religious man knew such words?”
“I shall have to speak to him on that matter,” Eleanor said dryly. “You’ve already corrupted your sons—there’s no call for you to corrupt your poor daughter-in-law too.”
“I learned plenty of curses from my own Papa,” Elizabeth said with a naughty grin. “He only thought I wasn’t listening.”
Irene blew out her cheeks, shivering a little even in the sticky heat of a Lacovian summer that seemed like it would never end. She sat down on a bench near the wall and waited, listening for every sound. If she was discovered to be missing from her rooms, then the alarm would be raised and the guards would come looking for her. Once they found her and delivered her back to the palace, she would have to endure an eternal haranguing from Paul, followed by another rant from Queen Joanna about propriety and how she was supposed to behave like all Lacovian queens: mindless, obedient and fecund.
She almost laughed at the last part—fecund she definitely was not, and if she was following prior examples, then she wasn’t doing much better than Joanna herself, who had borne just one child after almost twenty years of miserable marriage. After ten long, hideous years of marriage to a man she privately described as possessing all the appeal of the maggot-riddled carcass of a badger, she had not come close to conceiving. Worse for Paul’s ego was that not even his mistress had borne him a child. Irene had learned how to listen to rumors as well as spread them, and she was pleased to hear her ladies whisper that the King was impuissant.
It took all her strength and willpower to keep from giggling during her husband’s attempts to mate with her, and when he finally left her bedchamber she would roll onto her side and giggle for several moments until sleep finally claimed her.
Gasping, Irene stood and searched around until she finally spied Richard coming toward her through the darkness. She took a deep breath, needing to appear composed in his presence, though he always left her feeling elated and wobbly. “I’m glad you made it back,” she said softly.
“It wasn’t a bad trip at all, actually. I met with a friend of Lord Ellis’s, whose name I will not give you, of course, who said that he would speak with Ellis on the notion of opening negotiations, and not just with Gravonia but also with Morvenia. The Havorian ambassador, however, still sounds very unwilling to even entertain the notion of speaking with us. I cannot say I can blame him—Lacovia has been very cruel to Havor these past few years. Just the same, this letter from Lord Ellis was very encouraging.”
He handed the sealed letter to her, and Irene read it quickly, exhaling when she finished it. She handed it back to him, and Stormont stuffed it back into his boot. “It is encouraging. Vague, but encouraging.”
He grinned. “The Queen was apparently very firm on that matter--she said that in these circumstances, vagueness is necessary.”
“Quite true. I’m just sorry Havor is not so willing to be as encouraging, but King Philip’s response was. Paul himself led a force into Havor two months ago and caused much destruction.”
Richard nodded. “Just the same, if Morvenia and Gravonia see fit to at least speak to us… well, then, perhaps Lacovia’s future will cease looking quite so bleak.”
“It will improve the day you are crowned King, Richard,” she said softly. “I know that.”
“We cannot speculate on that now, Irene. But know that I and a few trustworthy friends are working hard towards ending this war with our neighbors.”
“I know you will succeed… but I am worried about something.”
“Oh? What is that?” he asked, and she gestured for him to sit down on the bench. Shyly, she sat down beside him and spread her hands on her lap.
“Paul is planning something. I don’t know what, but I frequently come upon him and my father talking. I do not know what they are planning, but recently the King required his entire army to be prepared to move at a moments’ notice, and all soldiers and knights of Lacovia have been called up and required to move within less than an hour’s ride from the border with Gravonia but to remain hidden.”
Richard frowned. “I see.”
“This has only happened in these past few days. Something dreadful is going to happen, I think, but I dare not think of what Paul might be planning. I fear he might be… ”
“Planning another attack into Gravonia.”
“My father still wants the throne, and he practically foams at the mouth when he even thinks of Queen Eleanor.”
“Yes, I know.”
“He also rages at me for having not borne Paul an heir. But I will not give that man a child. Ever.”
“You might be required to one day, Irene. Queens are required to bear offspring—it comes with the job, I’m afraid.” He offered her a rather sad smile, and she returned one much like it.
“I will not bear his child, anyway. It would a twisted, awful creature if sired by such a man.”
“The sins of the father are not the sins of the son, Irene. If you bore him a child, you could still have influence over him… ”
“I said I would not and I will not!” she said sharply, and he shushed her by placing his hand over her mouth. They both froze, gazes locking, and he pulled away from her, looking shaken.
“Sometimes, Irene, duty forces us to do things we find… unpalatable.”
Still feeling his fingertips against her mouth, Irene clasped her hands in her lap and drew in her breath. “Had I not learned right from wrong from my mother, I would have… taken a lover and let him sire the heir. But I don’t know if I could do that, however much I loathe Paul.”
“Your conscience is too strong.”
“Is it? Sometimes, I wonder. I wonder what it would be like to finally be… ” she trailed off, glancing past Richard and seeing a lantern being lit in the window of her room. “Bloody hell, the guards know I’m out of my room. I must go. Please… if you should be able to get a message directly to my cousin King Henry, tell him I will do all I can to secure peace between our countries, and that I am not at all complicit in my father’s actions. You will tell him?”
“Of course,” Richard said, standing quickly as she rose.
Irene took his hands suddenly, stood on her toes and kissed him quickly on the mouth before rushing away. Richard watched the Queen disappear into the darkness and closed his eyes, his own resolve strengthened. He would fight for his country, indeed, but even more, he would fight for her.