Our Gracious Queen

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Into the Fire

Eleanor decided that, considering Elizabeth had settled in so well in Luvov, the royal family should travel to Tygo at the beginning of December and celebrate the holidays there, where the weather was warmer. The girl was showing signs of a little restlessness, and confinement inside the huge palace at such a time hardly seemed fair. So it was, at the beginning of November, she sent reliable members of the Court to the seaside town to begin preparations of Konigshaus and Insel der Rosen. She wanted both estates decorated and properly aired out for the royal family's arrival in the first week of December.
During their stay at Tygo, of course, Elizabeth would be turning seventeen and Alexander would turn eighteen. Eleanor could scarcely believe that her eldest son would be so close to total independence, and she and Henry discussed the process of setting up a household for him—his own suite of apartments in the palace, his own set of servants and courtiers, and his own chancellor and comptroller. She was not delighted at the prospect of her son moving out of the family quarters of the palace, but it was vital that he be seen by the people of Gravonia as his own man.
To that end, Alexander was trusted more and more to attend various functions in Luvov and around the country, representing the Crown, and he was doing an exemplary job. He was often joined by Frederick, who could be relied on to keep his brother in good spirits during the performing of more dreary Crown duties, such as listening to speeches from local worthies, opening bridges and public buildings and christening ships What was most gratifying, to Eleanor, was that her son enjoyed great popularity among the people of Gravonia, and he was quite good at not only the showy aspects of royalty, but also was growing into his role as a compassionate and dedicated leader. He also was quite good at making speeches, though he tended to fret about them right up until the moment he stood to speak.
She inspected the suite of rooms she thought best suited to Alexander, and set workers to the task of preparing them to Alexander's tastes: simple, sturdy furnishings, wide windows providing plenty of light, a private office and a drawing room for him to receive friends. She then had him go through the rooms himself and was not surprised when he asked Elizabeth to offer her own suggestions on the suite's décor, and the girl showed she had her mother's excellent taste.
Lady Xenia D'Acre had also settled in well as chaperon for Alexander and Elizabeth, and she seemed to enjoy spending time with the young pair. Even more, Eleanor did not fail to note that Harry was spending more time with Xenia when she wasn't performing her primary task at Court. Frederick, too, was frequently spending time with Lady Ellie, always bringing her flowers and little trinkets. All in all, Eleanor was pleased with everyone's progress. Her other sons were also moving steadily along in their educations, with their tutors reporting that even Prince Andrew was applying himself to his studies despite a decided lack of interest thereof. "Frankly," Doctor Stewart, his Latin tutor told her, "I think he is applying himself mainly so that he can get finished with it all as soon as possible!
With the palace squared away and everyone prepared for the trip south. Elizabeth was particularly eager to go, as she loved the sea. Even more, Tygo was just a few miles from the southern Morvenian border, and she sent a letter to her father, asking if he might come to see her at Christmas and bring her siblings along as well. His reply, a few weeks later, was a gentle refusal on his own part, as he had business elsewhere that would have him out of the country until the end of March, but he would send her siblings to spend the holiday with her. The girl was disappointed to not be able to see her father, but she was excited at the prospect of seeing her brothers and Charlotte.
On the first of December, the royal family and its retinue bundled into carriages and began the long journey down to Tygo. Henry and Alexander rode horseback, not minding the cold at all, and the younger princes stuffed themselves into one carriage and Eleanor could hear them already squabbling.
"Michael writes that he and my siblings will arrive at Tygo on the tenth," Elizabeth said, shivering a little despite the warm blankets wrapped around her. "I can't wait to see them—it seems like it's been ages since I left home."
"I look forward to meeting them," Eleanor said, smiling. "I hear your brother Michael is quite a character, and your other siblings are very fun-loving and rambunctious."
"Michael is showings signs of maturity," Elizabeth nodded. "He is learning more and more about government and military matters and diplomacy, he tells me. He is being prepared to be king some day—though I hope it's a long time from now. I dare not let myself think of my uncle or my Papa leaving us any time soon."
"Your uncle and your Papa are both very robust. I suspect they will be around a very long time."
Elizabeth sighed and looked out the window, taking in the snow-covered fields and still, silent woods. "Gravonia is much different from Morvenia," she said softly.
"Oh? How so?"
"Gravonia is more… I don't know… rugged. Definitely more agrarian."
"Agrarian? Well, Gravonia is moving forward so far as industry goes, but we do continue to be a farming and stock-breeding nation. We remain famous 'round the Continent for the quality of our sheep," she said with a wry smile.
"I meant no offense, ma'am," Elizabeth said, blushing.

"And there was none taken, I assure you. What do you think of your life so far, here in Gravonia? I know you and Alexander enjoy your rides together, but I hope you're not wearing poor Xenia out. She is a little less sturdy than you and my son."

"Oh, I like it here a great deal. You and the king and the rest of the Court have all been so kind and welcoming, and Xenia is very mature for her age, and though she cannot speak she has much to say." She smiled. "And she likes Harry a great deal."

"I know. She is a sweet girl, and Harry likes her in turn. But they are very young and I will not have my sons marry before they are truly ready, and I know Lady Harriet will not allow her daughter to be married before she is eighteen."

"Do you really think they'll marry some day?"

"If they're of a mind to," Eleanor laughed. "I won't force the issue, of course, but I will also not object if they decide to marry. Harry is my soldier-prince and he is already keen for a life outdoors and in the barracks. But… I think he likes Xenia's femininity and softness as much as he likes her intelligence and strong will. Frederick is much the same way about Ellie Bartolomeo. I think it a very good thing that big, robust men marry soft, sweet women. It keeps a man steadier, I think, and makes him remember to be gentle and kind."

Elizabeth thought about that for a moment. "The King adores you, but I would not say you are soft, ma'am. You have led men into battle and have fought off assassins."

Eleanor raised an eyebrow. "Who has told you about that?"

"Alexander, of course."

"He ought not to be telling you about such things. I merely do my duty for the King and for this kingdom. I will take no credit, either, for the victories of our soldiers. I merely give them encouragement, and so far as fighting off an assassin… well, there's certainly nothing wrong with a woman knowing how to defend herself. You've done the same."

Elizabeth looked at her hands, then squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting to remember that awful day at Logais Pass, when she had had to kill a man. "It was awful. I never thought I could do such a thing, but Papa taught me how to fight. He insisted—he is even teaching Charlotte how to defend herself, and the last letter she sent, she said that she had thrown Uncle King to the ground so many times he has started to refuse to get up."

"Does she? Well, I like her already, then. Kings need to be knocked down a peg or two, sometimes. It keeps them humble."

The girl giggled. "Michael won't even attempt to take Charlotte on, and he's already been to Havor and back and finished all his training. He already has a big sword and his own shield and armor and Papa gave him a big black warhorse last summer. Nicholas is more bookish and isn't keen to go to Havor, but he'll have to go this coming spring. He wants to train horses."

"Then perhaps he shouldn't be made to go, if soldiering isn't his thing."

"It's tradition."

Eleanor smiled. "Elizabeth, traditions must be questioned sometimes, you know. The best traditions are the ones that make sense to all following them, and can be very tiresome to those who find them unhelpful. Aside from that, any soldier who is dragged to the battlefield isn't keen to fight."

"I don't know how Papa would react, though, if Nicholas refused to go to Havor. Papa went, when he was only thirteen. The only reason Michael didn't go the last time Papa went up there was because Mama stood up to Papa and wouldn't have it."

"Your mother wouldn't allow it, you say?"

"No, ma'am. We had never seen them even quarrel before, but she wouldn't let Michael go, and then Michael talked back to her and Papa gave him a hard cuff to the head for it. Papa never let us be even vaguely disrespectful of Mama. We could throw mud at Uncle King, but Mama was to be obeyed and treated with the greatest deference. My brothers had to stand when she entered a room, and had to call her 'Ma'am' and were to speak gently to her."

"I see. Your father is raising gentlemen, I think, and that is very commendable."

Elizabeth looked out the window as Henry and Alexander trotted by, joking with each other. "The King and Alexander are very close, aren't they?"

"Yes. They are. Henry is a wonderful father, and his sons adore him in turn."

"That is so rare. Many Kings, from what I hear, hate their heirs, though I should say Uncle King and Papa get along very well, and Papa loves my brothers."

"I have heard that. The German monarchs in particular are that way, but that doesn't happen here. Henry is a devoted father. When the babies first started coming, he was very uncertain on how to handle and care for them, but he has grown into the role quite well and by the time the twins came along he could change nappies with his eyes closed. Of course, he often did close his eyes and hold his nose."

"A king changing nappies?" Elizabeth was astounded. "Truly? I have never heard of such a thing!"

Eleanor laughed. "Believe it. He quite enjoyed being involved. The boys had no nurses or governesses, and no tutors until they were around eight years old. When they were little, they came to me and to Henry when they were hurt or sick or frightened, and that is how God intends all children to be raised. For us, we decided on firmness, patience and routine for all six of the boys. They were trained from the cradle to have good manners, and learned that they only got whippings when they were willfully disobedient or talked back. And they all learned very quickly that they couldn't play the King and I against each other, and that punishments were swift and painful but just and without rancor. Once punishment had been meted out, the sin was forgotten and not brought up again." She laughed softly. "Not that I've never gotten angry at them, and I've made a few mistakes along the way. Even Alexander tested me sometimes, but they have all grown out of childishness and none have ever been hateful or cruel. My boys are not perfect, but they are good young men and they have excellent characters."

"I will do the same sorts of things, then," Elizabeth said softly. "I will take care of my own babies. I will even nurse them myself—Mama nursed me and my siblings."

"Then no wonder you all enjoy such excellent health."

"Grandmama Marie said it was barbaric, that she nursed us, but Papa told Grandmama to mind her own business. He would not have anyone speak unkindly to our mother, much less about her. After a while, we were not even required to go to Court, except when Papa was called abroad, as he did not like how she treated us—every time Parr saw her, he would burst into tears. Grandmama is… difficult."

"People often cling to the way they were raised, Elizabeth. Some people can't imagine doing things any differently."

"How were you raised? I understand the Livonian court is very old-fashioned and traditional. Papa even said it was hidebound and humorless."

"I was… raised in my own household, I'm afraid, and my minders were very open-minded, and hardly humorless."

"Oh. How awful, though, to be raised away from your family."

Eleanor sighed. "Yes. But there were compensations, I must admit. I was encouraged to read and to learn as much as I could, and I spent much time exploring the world around me—how to predict the weather by the clouds, how to track animals, how to hunt… plus, I was taught languages and the sciences and history and literature and geography, and a great deal about healing potions and the like, and how to treat wounds. Count von He-… my father was not able to see me often, but he piled books around me and insisted I read them from cover to cover. Besides that, it was Bible readings every day, and he had some very radical views on doctrine that might well have gotten him arrested were it not for his position."

"Radical?" Elizabeth asked. "Really?"

"Aye. He had more than a few disagreements with the Church on many of its doctrines, and he greatly believes in making the Scriptures available to all, so they could read and understand them on their own. He reads the Scriptures daily, and so do I. I asked quite a few questions, too, of our chaplain and I suspect I gave him quite a few sleepless nights on account of my own disputes with Rome's positions on various things."

"That is shocking," Elizabeth nodded, smiling. "Charlotte wrote that Papa told her the earth was round, not flat, and he quoted from Isaiah. That could get him into trouble, too, with the Church."

"I've heard your Papa has always been interested in religious matters, and that he is very devout," Eleanor said softly, looking out at the changing scenery—the forests had given way to gently rolling hills that would soon flatten to sand dunes and windswept grasslands and the quaint little fishing villages that dotted the fifty-mile Gravonian coastline. She thought of Constantine's serious and even rather intellectual approach to his faith, while also putting that faith into good practice. She had heard of his dedication to helping the poor and the needy, and that he was compassionate even to his enemies. Considering his life of soldiering, and the battles he had fought, such a thing was quite remarkable. Only his devotion to God, with his own kind nature, could have kept him from becoming a hardened, violent man.

Tygo, situated furthest to the west and just miles from the Morvenian border, was the most prosperous of the coastal villages and its port was becoming extremely important as Gravonian engaged in more and more trade with other nations. A recent trade agreement with the Dutch Lowlands was proving extremely lucrative to the Crown, while Gravonian wool and textiles were being sold in markets as far north as London. Aside from an increasingly profitable fishing industry along the coast, Gravonia was also doing brisk trade in gold and silver mined in the northwest and in lumber—Gravonian pine was considered some of the finest and hardest in Europe.

Elizabeth settled her head back and closed her eyes, thinking of matters other than religion. Her afternoon jaunts with Alexander, riding through the royal forest with Xenia trailing behind on a pony, were also quite exciting, because Xenia had enough sense to give them time alone to talk and, very frequently, kiss and 'paw' at each other, as he put it. It never went beyond propriety, of course, as Xenia was never far away and was diligent in her duties, but it was thrilling to held and caressed by a handsome, dashing young knight who would one day be her husband.

He looked particularly dashing now, wearing light armor and a long red cloak. He was riding a handsome Spanish warhorse, which was spirited and eager to gallop away from the royal party, but Alexander had complete mastery over the animal without being at all unkind. She thought of his mastery over her, and his gentleness, and blushed at the memory of their first kiss, and of the exciting days of their courtship that had followed. They rarely disagreed over anything, though when they did, they did so gently and without rancor, and he was considerate of her opinions.

"Ah, we are here at last!" Eleanor said, waking Elizabeth from a sweet, almost luscious dream, and she sat up, looking out the window at Konigshaus.

"Oh, it's… lovely," she said, gazing at the imposing, palatial estate. It loomed, like a stern giant, at the crest of a little hill overlooking the bay, and the only word she could think of to describe it was 'cold'.

"Then get inside—it improves considerably indoors!" Eleanor laughed. She shepherded Elizabeth up the pathway and into the mansion, and caught Elizabeth's dismayed expression at the sight of the large portrait of King Andrew still hanging in the front hallway.

"Good heavens!"

"Yes. I'm not fond of it, either, but it's Henry's grandfather, so be careful of your spoken opinions of it in his presence." She turned and smiled warmly at her husband and Alexander as they came bustling in, faces red from the biting wind. The King kissed Eleanor warmly and pecked Elizabeth on the cheek.

"Well, lass, I do hope you like it here. Thank God, the servants have got the Great Hall warmed up properly. Mrs. Bingham, it's very grand to see you, my dear lady, and Happy Christmas! How are you and your family doing? I hope we've not inconvenienced you too much, coming here at the holidays!"

Mrs. Bingham, Konigshaus's formidable housekeeper, dipped a curtsey to Henry and Eleanor. "It is not an inconvenience at all, sir. We are delighted you are here."

"Don't lie so, ma'am, it's not becoming to a tough old battle-axe like you," Henry grinned, kissing Mrs. Bingham's hand, and the housekeeper blushed and struggled against laughter.

"Mrs. Bingham, please let me introduce you to Princess Elizabeth of Morvenia, the Crown Prince's betrothed," Eleanor said. Mrs. Bingham gave Elizabeth a careful, searching look and nodded, smiling. "Elizabeth, perhaps you would like to sit by the fire and warm up a bit before we take you on a tour of the house. Tomorrow, when the sun is up, we'll sail out to Insel der Rosen and perhaps we'll do a bit of beachcombing, hm?"

"That would be marvelous, ma'am," Elizabeth said, looking at Alexander, who grinned at her.

"Take care you don't freeze your nose off in the cold," he said. "It gets rather blustery on the beach, even during summer."

Frederick and his brothers came stomping into the Great Hall, shuddering from the cold and greeting their mother and the servants warmly. "Good Lord, it's blowing out there," Frederick said. "I'm glad to get inside. Mrs. Bingham, I pray some wassail has been prepared!"

"Aye, there's a whole pot of it bubbling on the fire in the kitchen, young man."

Alexander kissed Mrs. Bingham's cheek and gestured for Elizabeth to follow him and his brothers to the kitchen. With all the young people gone, Eleanor sat down with Henry at the fire and chatted amiably with Mrs. Bingham, who told her all the remained to be done in preparation of the house and of the island castle for Christmas. Eleanor was pleased with her report, and when she had took her leave she sat back in her chair, closing her eyes.

"It is so nice to be here," she said. "Though I must say I cannot wait to sail out of Insel der Rosen. And what shall you do, to keep yourself occupied?"

"Shag you senseless at night and carouse with my boys during the day," Henry grinned.

"You do keep a busy schedule, dearest," Eleanor laughed softly. "Mind you make sure the boys stay warm and that Elizabeth and Xenia are not allowed to get overtired—that sort of thing can lead to illness, you know, and Xenia is not very strong, however feisty she is."

"Aye, I'll remember. Oh! I have a gift for you!"

"Henry, it's not Christmas yet!"

"Oh, hush, silly woman. I can give gifts as I please, Christmas or not." He stood and went into a small room off the Great Hall and returned carrying a small wicker cage. Eleanor peered inside and clapped her hands in delight to see a pure-white dove inside.

"Oh, Henry, he's lovely!" She had been heartbroken when the dove the old woman had given her at the gates of Luvov had died over the past winter. It had lived a long, prosperous life, of course, and had fathered numerous beautiful white doves himself. "Thank you, darling. Is he very tame?"

"Very much so, and I'm fairly sure he's one of your Pax's own offspring," the King said, opening the cage and carefully extracting the dove. The bird calmly settled on the table by Eleanor's chair and began preening. She stroked the bird's feathers, and he barely resisted her. She crumbled up some breadcrumbs and fed the dove from her palm.

"What should I name him?"

"Perhaps he should be named Bellum," he grinned at her.

Eleanor smiled back. "Then Bellum it is. Thank you, sweetheart. What a sweet, thoughtful gift." She kissed him warmly and sat down again, gently stroking the dove's breast as he ate breadcrumbs.

The King preened, looking pleased with himself, and the young people came trailing back into the Great Hall, sipping from cups of hot wassail and joking. As usual, Harry was staying close to Xenia, translating for her every expression, while Frederick sat down in an alcove with Ellie and played chess. Alexander and Elizabeth sat at the table together and played dice and cards, bickering over points, and the younger princes joined in games with other children of the household. At bedtime, Eleanor gently ordered her sons to their beds and gave Elizabeth and Xenia a tour of the mansion. She settled Xenia in a room near the one she shared with Henry, wanting the girl to not feel isolated, and put Elizabeth in a room opposite the royal bedchamber, where she could hear any sounds of coming and going, particularly of Alexander—she trusted her son, but his natural stirrings were another thing all together. When the boys and Elizabeth were all settled down for the night, she went into Xenia's room and sat with the girl while she prepared for bed.

"If you need anything, sweetheart, do not hesitate to come and… well, actually, it would be best if you would go and find Mrs. Bingham. I'm sure she will do all to help you. All right?"

Xenia nodded, smiling shyly, and climbed into her bed, shivering a little in the slightly chilly air. Eleanor tucked the girl in and kissed her forehead. "Are you missing your Mama very much?"

Xenia nodded and yawned.

"She and your Papa will be here tomorrow. Your youngest brother had a touch of a cold and she wanted to see he was well before bringing him down here."

The young girl's expressive face indicated she was happy to hear that news. Eleanor blew out the candle and slipped out of the room, closing the door, and wasn't surprised to see Henry standing in the doorway to their room, looking impatient. She shook her head, smiling affectionately at him—she knew what he wanted: he was practically growing horns.

"So you were telling the truth about your plans for our holiday here at Tygo, hm?" she asked as he pulled her to him.

"Aye. I won't let you sleep a wink, sweetheart."

"Hm. And when do you expect to sleep?"

"I dunno. We'll worry about that later. Come on and get undressed. I'm damned horny and I've been thinking about one particular thing I've been wanting to do to you, but we'll have to take all the bowls and plates off that sideboard first…"

"Well, be quiet while we're doing it. Xenia is deaf, but Elizabeth has ears like an eagle."

Lord and Lady Ellis arrived after breakfast with their children. Harriet's two older sons and Lord Ellis' elder sons were all married with children of their own, so the 'second set', as Eleanor liked to call them, was a rambunctious bunch of boys and girls that she had trouble keeping track of, they all ran so fast. Just the same, she welcomed them all warmly and received their parents in the Great Hall.

Harriet looked and behaved so much differently from when Eleanor had first met her, it was as if she were a different person. The once humorless, unsmiling woman practically glowed with happiness and contentment, and when Xenia came rushing into the room, Harriet greeted her with hugs and kisses. "My little lamb! How are you, sweetheart?" Harriet asked, making sure to enunciate carefully as she spoke.

Xenia smiled and bounced up and down on her heels. Lord Ellis hugged his stepdaughter in turn and took his seat. Eleanor questioned them briefly on their journey, after which Harriet left with her daughter and other children to find the rest of the Queen's ladies to catch up on gossip and to turn the children loose outside for some racing about.

"What news have you, Lord Ellis?" Eleanor asked.

"Aside from the fact that Harriet is expecting again? Not a great deal, I'm afraid. There has been no word, lately, from Richard of Stormont. He seems to be as leery of approaching us as we are of him, but I am sure that sooner or later he will make some kind of overture."

"I have heard a few good things about him. For one thing, he has long opposed King Paul's desire to attack Lacovia's neighbors. As he is Paul's only legitimate heir, the King can't very well dispose of him. But if Irene bears him a child… "

"Ma'am, I have heard rumors… "

"Rumors?" She raised an eyebrow. Lord Hallam was her right-hand man, but Lord Ellis had become, in the past few years, her eyes and ears at Court and abroad. He seemed to know everything that was going on, at any time, and was as trustworthy as could be. Lord Hallam did a great deal of the dirtier work required, but it was Ellis who gathered information on what was being done and what needed to be done about it. Fortunately, too, the two men were close friends.

"That Irene and Stormont are rather… friendly."

"Hm." Eleanor leaned forward a little thinking this over. "So if she were to bear a child at all, it would not necessarily be King Paul's?"

"I cannot imagine her doing such a thing. The last thing she would want to do would be to provide Lacovia with an heir, if everyone believed it was Paul's... but she is also quite human, and he is considerably more attractive than her husband, and she must be horribly lonely. We must take those factors into account."

"Where did you come across these rumors?"

"Our usual resources, ma'am. None that can be mentioned."

She nodded, knowing that Hallam and Ellis both had reliable spies moving around northern Gravonia and even in Lacovia. Considering King Paul's lack of popularity with the citizens of his blighted country, it was not surprising that some folks were starting to organize against him and possibly attempt to form alliances with Gravonia. "I see. Well… I think it's time for Gravonia to make it clear to Stormont that we are at least willing to speak with him. We want peace, but we must not concede even one inch to the Lacovians. We will yield on nothing, but if he is willing to negotiate with us… "

"King Paul might still live a very long time, ma'am, and Beauchamp has a growing number of mercenaries. The Lacovian army is growing stronger, I'm afraid, but there are also rumors of great discontent among the common folks of that country. The Queen has done much to try to improve their lives, I am told, but Paul's tax men come and take away whatever they manage to scrape together."

"No one likes working for no profit. It would make a person give up and stop working all together" Eleanor said quietly. "Could a rebellion be in the works?"

"I do not know, ma'am. It's possible. Lord Hallam and I intend to travel north in the spring to put out more feelers, so to speak, and see where they go."

"Take all necessary precautions, sir. I would hate to see you or Lord Hallam harmed, and your wives would never forgive me."

"We will be as cunning as vipers, as innocent as doves," Ellis grinned, glancing at the white dove still pecking at crumbs on the table by Eleanor.

She smiled and touched the dove's back, marveling at the softness of his feathers. "As I must be as well. Even if I must eventually call upon the services of a Scotsman."

Ellis nodded.

Eleanor turned back to look at him. "And you say Harriet is pregnant again?"

"Aye." He smiled a little, looking a little chagrined. "We weren't really planning on another one, but… "

"A bit of wine said otherwise?" Eleanor smiled, and he laughed.

"I'm afraid so. She's very cheerful about it, though, and if her constant smile is any indication, she is rather happy All these children about… it does keep one young. We're too busy to get old, I daresay."

Eleanor laughed. "Yes. I'm very glad you took her on, Lord Ellis. She needed a good bit of… bolstering up, after such a hard life."

"Yes. She has told me of some of the things she has been through, and what's worse, she was convinced she deserved all her sorrow--apparently, she had become accustomed to being knocked about and mistreated. I think I've convinced her that that is not how a woman is to be treated. Anyway, I'm glad she took me on, actually. She's very organized, and my house was a shambles when she came to it. Now it's all very neat and orderly. She is never severe with the children. Straightforward and very firm, but also kind and loving. She's more likely to kiss them than scold them, and really, they are sweet little devils."

"I can only assume she's the same way with you?" Eleanor asked with a teasing smile.

"Aye, ma'am. Else we wouldn't have any of those little scoundrels running about."

"I remember they always left you in charge, whenever Mother and Father went away on a trip."

"That's only because you liked to play with matches."

Philip glared at his brother and shifted uneasily in his saddle. They had been waiting for some time now, and the man who had called for the meeting had still not arrived. Constantine looked back at the sun and sighed.

"I'd say he's not coming. All just a ruse, I suppose."

"Give it a few more moments, eh?" Philip said. "I'm hoping this can have some results."

"Like saddle sores on your ass and a cold supper waiting at home?"

"Speak for yourself. I have enough sense to put some extra padding on my saddle, and my servants like me, so they keep my victuals warm until I show up."

"Yes, and tomorrow I'm sure I'll see you powdering your face at a mirror, like a girl, while eating blintzes and worrying about your weight."

Philip scowled at his brother and started to ream him out when they saw a man riding out of the woods on a sleek bay horse. Philip tightened his grip on his reins and saw his brother's shoulders tense. The man stopped his horse and studied them for several moments, clearly uncertain, before he finally moved forward and finally stopped in front of them.

"Richard of Stormont, I presume?" Philip asked.


"Cousin of King Paul—proximate heir to the throne of Lacovia," Constantine said, studying the man curiously. He had never been so close to a Lacovian that he wasn't trying to kill.

"I am, yes."

"Yet you're here, wanting to do business with Morvenia?"

"Not so much business as… negotiation."

"For what? We've no land or money to spare," Philip said with a wry smile. "And Lacovia is hardly a friend to any of her neighbors, including us. What do you have to negotiate with?"

"King Paul and Queen Irene have no heirs, and likely will never produce a child between them. The people of Lacovia are weary of poverty and constant war… many, and by that I mean most, long for change. For light to come to our country. We have grown tired of darkness."

"If you're expecting us to sanction you instigating a rebellion against your King, you've a long wait coming," Philip said sharply. "Paul is a nasty little weasel, but Morvenia has no dog in your hunt, and he was anointed as your king."

"Very true, my lord, , but if Lacovia is no longer making war on Gravonia, will not your daughter's safety there be assured?" Richard asked, looking at Constantine. "If I were her father, I would do all I could to see to her security."

Constantine's mouth set into a firm line and he narrowed his eyes. "And if anything happened to King Paul, you would be King. I assume you would be willing to sue for peace with Gravonia and try to concentrate in seeing your wretched country pull itself out of the mire," Constantine said coolly. "They'd be better served doing that, instead of trying to harm my daughter, whom I sincerely hope you did not just threaten... since as you know, I have no qualms about destroying anyone who tries to hurt my children."

Richard paled slightly at Constantine's not-so-friendly warning, but nodded. "By no means would I threaten your daughter, sir, and few people are so foolish as to try. And I think any ruler of any nation would like to see it prosper."

"Every ruler except Paul," Philip said.

Richard made no response to that.

"So what do you propose we do?" Constantine asked. "Sent mercenaries into Lacovia to stir up a revolt? Assassins are easy to come by. I'm sure you've heard of an unfortunate gentleman named Rieti who tried his hand at that, a few years ago."

"Nay, of course not. Paul is vicious and hateful, but he is not entirely stupid, and he has learned not to try and strike at the She-Wo--... Queen Eleanor, much less Morvenia. But he has spies everywhere in Lacovia, and pays them well—they report everything to him."

"Do they know you're here?" Philip asked mildly.

"I can only pray they do not, but as I am heir to the throne, Paul has to tread carefully in how he behaves toward me, for appearance's sake at last. There are members of the Court who are opposed to Paul's behavior, too, and to his ambitions of conquering our neighbors. Not all Lacovians are interested in conquest. Most want peace and progress. No one likes seeing their children starve, much less all their work turn to dust, and that's what happens in my country. There are some… "

"Including the Queen, I assume?" Constantine leaned forward, wincing a little. "She's been in Lacovia ten years now and has not produced a child. I would assume she's not exactly his most devoted champion."

"She despises him."

"Hm." Constantine frowned and looked up at the gray sky, noting the giant anvil-shaped clouds. Rain was coming, and he did not relish a long ride home in a downpour.

"I suppose she would be delighted if Lacovia had a forward-thinking and more attractive King," Philip said, raising an eyebrow.

Richard shifted in his saddle and looked away, toward the north. "She is a good woman. She tries to help the people of Lacovia, though she has to be careful in what she does. What's more, she has never been complicit in the actions of her husband or her father, and she is always willing to help the citizens of Lacovia rise above their current station. Paul doesn't like providing the people with any means of bettering themselves. He has even lately forbidden the building of schools, and she is disgusted by his actions."

"I see." Philip's mouth twisted ruefully. "Rather a sad state of affairs."

"We will only sink further into the mire if this continues," Richard said. "I am loyal to my country, but I cannot give my allegiance to Paul when he is showing himself to only be interested in his own enrichment. Something must be done."

"As I pointed out, Stormont, I won't give my name or my funds to any kind of rebellion in your country. We will certainly be happy to negotiate if Paul is removed from the throne and replaced by someone reasonable or at least rational, but until then, I'm afraid you're on your own."

Richard of Stormont blew out his cheeks. "I understand."

"But between the three of us, I wish you all possible success. Good day to you, sir."

Philip turned his horse and rode away, but Constantine stayed still and studied Richard for several moments. "Tread carefully, Stormont," he said at last. "You may be the last hope your country has—don't screw it up, even for the love of the Devil's own daughter. But I certainly understand how you feel--even a a Lacovian can be willing to risk all for the love of a good woman.

Stormont paled slightly, but said nothing as Constantine turned and cantered away. He finally sighed, shoulders sagging, but he felt as though he had made a least a little progress toward his goal, but he still had a long way to go.

Irene hated taking her evening meals in the palace's vast, semi-Arctic Great Hall, where the public could pay a mark to come and watch the King and Queen dine in splendor before shuffling home to their soggy hovels to eat spoiled bread. But Queen Johanna insisted on it, and she would only harangue Irene if she did not attend. So she put on her finest clothes, eschewing a thick shawl because she would only be scolded, and made her way to the Great Hall's huge, heavy doors. The King's slimy-looking Major Domo banged his staff on the floor, and the doors were pulled open by four hefty servants. The dirty, underfed peasants lined up behind the velvet rope stood at attention as she joined Paul at the top step of the stairs leading down into the hall. She placed her hand on his and he kissed her fingertips, for show, and she smiled at him while thinking of all the ways she would love to kill him.

She had been dwelling on Paul's death quite a lot. All sorts of scenarios played out in her mind, every day, all day. She could lure him out to the balcony looking out over the stinking city, and when he wasn't looking… a quick little push, a polite "Oops!" and it would be over. Or perhaps poison would be a little more satisfactory, particularly if the filthy bastard suffered. Or perhaps a bunch of assassins would go after him in the Great Hall, during dinner, and he would bleed to death on the polished marble floor while the peasants applauded and had their first good meal ever...

God, I'm becoming as cold as my father, she thought miserably, but she kept her bright smile plastered on her face and acknowledged the crowd of starving people gathered to watch her eat. She allowed a servant to pull her chair back—it was made of heavy oak, gilded over with gold, and had to weigh a ton—and sat down, wincing as she was pushed into place. Roasted beef and vegetables were placed before her on a solid gold plate, and she picked up a diamond and ruby-encrusted fork. On that signal, the palace chaplain said a dreary prayer thanking God for Lacovia's gracious and loving King, and Irene crossed herself, saying her own prayer of apology for such lies being told to Almighty God. She ate a small portion of her meal, drank down her wine, glumly accepted her apple tart for dessert and tried to eat it without spitting it up, and finally finished, dabbing the sides of her mouth with her handkerchief. She had to wait for Paul to finish eating before she could leave, and as usual, he was tucking enthusiastically into his meal.

He was getting bloody pudgy of late. She had joked with Stormont that perhaps it was Paul who was pregnant. He certainly had the waddle perfected.

The King called for seconds, and she glanced at the peasants. Their hungry gazes made her heart sink, and she wished to God she could give her leftovers to them, and anything else that remained in the kitchen. Paul, however, flatly refused to give the common people any palace surplus, whether it be food or clothing, and she was forbidden to provide her husband's subjects with any form of charity. Anything they received from her hand was done in secret, with only Stormont's help in the endeavor.

Finally, the King finished eating, tossing a half-gnawed piece of roast to the dogs, and stood. She watched the dogs squabble over the meat and let Paul help her up. She curtseyed to the peasants, who all bowed and scraped in return. She gave them all a warm, kind smile and caught her husband's cold glare, but really, she didn't care. Settling her hand on his, she allowed him to lead her back up the steps, through the doors and out into the hallway. The doors were shoved closed and the King scowled at the Queen.

"You save all your smiles for the peasants of Lacovia and none for me or anyone at Court."

She said nothing.

"Stupid bitch. Go back to your room."

Irene curtseyed and left, back straight, and walked slowly to her private chambers. Paul would not be visiting her tonight, she was happy to know. He would be cavorting with his poor sex-starved mistress, who on last report was still suffering from some sort of skin condition that made her look rather reptilian. She hoped Paul would catch it, whatever it was, and stop visiting her all together.

Queen Johanna was sitting by the fire in Irene's room, and the young Queen paused in the doorway, momentarily taken aback. "Motherdear," she said sweetly. Johanna insisted Irene call her that.

"Your father is on his way here. He has returned from Saxony."

Irene had to stop herself from rolling her eyes. Her father had been making all sorts of secret visits to other countries of late, hoping to form alliances with as many of them as possible. So far, he had only managed to purchase mercenaries—no King, so far, was terribly interested in officially sanctioning or aiding in his ambitions of usurping the crown of Gravonia. Even the King of England had told him to bugger off.

"They're coming to my room, Motherdear?" Irene asked mildly, sitting down and picking up her sewing.

"Of course not, your silly creature. I am only waiting here until he arrives. Paul is very eager to see what sort of allies your father has lined up. The Kingdom of Lacovia is about to… " Johanna frowned. "Never you mind. Just remember your place when the time comes. You are the wife of a great, ambitious and courageous King and soon you will have a vast treasure of jewels and clothes to wear. Perhaps then, if you could ever learn to be happy, you might produce a child." The old Queen glared at her daughter-in-law. "Even now you live in a beautiful palace and are married to a handsome and charming knight, yet you bear no children."

"My poor dashing knight has trouble spreading his seed, I'm afraid," Irene said. "His dear friend Matilda even expresses some disappointment of her lack of… a proper harvest." Irene looked narrowly at Johanna. "Jewels and clothes, you say? From where?"

"Just you wait. It will all come to pass soon enough. You might even be able to return home to see your dear Mama."

Irene's brow furrowed, and she started to ask Johanna what on earth the vicious old cow was talking about, when Paul and her father came into the room. "Come, Mother," Paul said, gesturing. The old queen rose, gave her daughter-in-law a cold smile, and swept from the room. Beauchamp didn't even look at his daughter as he left. Irene sat in her chair, staring at the door, for a long time before she rose. She pressed her ear to the door, but heard nothing, and slowly pulled it open. She heard footsteps down the hallway and spied several hard-looking knights being ushered into the King's presence chamber.

Irene removed her slippers, ignoring the cold, and stepped silently into the hall. She made her way to the presence chamber door and crouched near the keyhole, peering inside. She saw the knights gathering around a specially-set table, with Paul and his mother seated side by side, with Beauchamp sitting beside Johanna.

"I think March or April would be a good time to attack," one of the foreign knights said, in a thick German accent. "We need only to lure King Henry to the border and then we can proceed from there."

"Once we dispose of him, all else should be very easy. We need only get to Luvov, hunt down that bitch and her whelps and… well… Luvov will be your prize, Count von Schiefflin. The city is rich now—large houses full of treasure—rich merchants with chests of gold and pretty girls to boot. The palace and the treasury and the crown are all mine, of course. Paul and his army will claim the rest of the countryside and after all is settled we'll settle up, divide the country to our needs... "

"What do you intend to do with Queen Eleanor and her sons?" one of the other knights asked.

Beauchamp's smile was cold, and terror gripped Irene's heart. That this man had spawned her was positively horrifying.

"Her sons will be disposed of, but I intend to have a great deal of sport with her. You and your men may make sport of her ladies and of Alexander's little future bride. But you'll save Queen Eleanor for me."

Irene stepped away from the door, shuddering in the cold, and rushed back to her room. She closed the door silently and leaned against it, gulping for breath. They were going to invade Gravonia and kill the King… and poor Queen Eleanor and the princes, too! It did not bear contemplating.

Something had to be done. Irene rushed to her bed and scrabbled underneath it for her writing papers and quills. She settled at the fire and began writing, frantically, her hands shaking.

Your Majesty,

I must warn you of my husband's plans to invade Gravonia, as early as March of next year. I pray you will prepare the army and keep a sizable host ready at the border, and to see to the safety of His Majesty King Henry and your honored sons.


Irene R

She would hide the letter until Richard returned, and would give it to him to take to Gravonia. Resolved, she folded the letter and went in search of her sealing wax and the candle. She sat at her little desk and was just stamping the letter when Paul and his mother stepped into the room. Irene's hands began shaking so badly that she dropped her stick of sealing wax on the floor. Queen Johanna looked at Paul, who said nothing as the older woman stalked to Irene.

"Give it to me," she said, gesturing to the sealed letter still crushed in Irene's hand.

Irene shook her head, unable to speak.

"Traitor!" Paul hissed. "She has committed treason, Mother!"

"Give the letter to me now, you unfaithful little chit."

When Irene still would not move, Johanna snatched the paper from her hand and pulled it open, the wax not even completely hardened yet and breaking easily. Johanna read it, her mouth twitching, before throwing it into the fire as she laughed. "Well, isn't this amusing? Our sweet little Queen has shown her colors, has she not?"

"I have indeed," Irene managed at last. "I will never see my country invaded by your loathsome son and his army of criminals."

Irene wasn't prepared for Johanna to lash out as violently as she did. She screamed in pain and terror as the Queen Mother viciously ripped her small silver and diamond tiara from her hair, pulling several strands of hair away as well. Irene fell to her knees, tears stinging her eyes as she touched the now-bleeding spots on her head. Johanna grabbed her hair and pulled her up before ripping her necklace off. It was the tiny silver cross her mother had given her, so long ago at her confirmation, and she could only watch helplessly as her mother-in-law threw the necklace into the fire.

"Indeed, you won't see that happen," Johanna said, leaning down and staring into Irene's eyes. "You'll be in this room. For the rest of your life. Your dowry is of no matter now—with your father King of Gravonia, he needn't repay it to himself, hm?" She stood up straight and looked at her son, who shrugged and left the room. Johanna called a guard to the door. "See the Queen does not leave here. She is to receive no letters, no visitors, and only bread and water for her meals." She smiled icily at Irene, who was struggling to keep her meal down. "When your father takes the throne of Gravonia, perhaps he'll release you. Or perhaps not—I know he is not known for his compassion. Good day, Irene. Get used to solitude, dearest child, as you've many years of it to look forward to."

With that, the Queen Mother turned on her heel and closed the door behind her. Irene heard the key turning in the lock, followed by the sound of boots clattering on the floor and Paul's snake-skinned mistress giggling. She could only sit on the cold floor, sobbing helplessly and wishing yet again that she had had the courage to throw herself off that balcony ten years before.

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