Our Gracious Queen

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Visitations and Gossip

Elizabeth's brothers and sister blew into Tygo on a fierce wind from the west, and as their carriage rolled through the gates it was almost blown onto its side. The four Morvenian princes wasted no time jumping out of the coach, needing no assistance, and raced inside. Princess Charlotte was a little more cautious, but as soon as she stepped out of the carriage her dress became more of a sail and she was almost blown off her feet. Eleanor, holding on to a column, grabbed the girl's hand and pulled her onto the portico. "Hurry on inside, poor thing, before you get carried away into the sea!"

Elizabeth was already hugging her brothers when Charlotte came in and when she turned around, she threw herself into her younger sister's arms.

"You've grown taller!" Charlotte said, wiping tears from her eyes. Eleanor shoved the door closed and exhaled.

The older girl hugged her sister tightly. "They feed me well, in between the beatings and the scoldings." She released her sister and turned her around. "Mind your manners and say hello to the Queen."

Eleanor was laughing and received the young girl's awkward curtsey. "No need for that, little one, after being rescued from that dreadful wind. Come along, everyone, and sit by the fire before you catch colds and ruin your holiday." The Queen directed the five Morvenians to the chairs already arranged by the fire and the boys sat down gratefully, warming their hands and feet.

Prince Michael, taking the lead, stood and bowed to the Queen. "We hope we have not inconvenienced Your Majesty," he said, glancing at his still-shivering brothers.

"I can't imagine how you could," Eleanor said kindly. She studied the thirteen-year old with interest, taking in his astonishing resemblance to his father—he had the same strong build, wide shoulders, fair skin, dark hair and green eyes. His mouth and nose were Isabella's chief contributions to his appearance, but all in all he looked and carried himself with his father's dignity and his mother's quiet steadiness. Elizabeth had told her that Michael still enjoyed music and poetry and was an avid reader, so Eleanor had seen to it that his room was supplied with interesting books and a lute. Just to be safe.

Nicholas, she noted, was solid-looking and had an air of quiet readiness about him, but she immediately sensed a wariness there, too, as if he was unsure of how to behave. Leopold was much different: he looked all together jolly and ready for mischief, while Prince Philip--Parr—looked very shy. Eleanor sensed it would be hard to get through his defenses. Charlotte was pink and blonde and looked utterly charming and not a little nervous.

"Now, everyone, I can imagine you're all very hungry and would rather have a nice hot meal here by the fire," Eleanor said, stepping aside and gesturing toward the fireplace and the blazing fire warming the room. "My husband the king and our sons will be down shortly to greet you all. So in the meantime, please sit down and rest yourselves." She nodded to the servants, who began helping the Morvenians out of their coats. Once everyone was settled in comfortable chairs, more servants began coming in, bearing trays of food. The princes and their sisters tucked eagerly into their suppers, talking quietly among themselves while Eleanor spoke with the servants about the state of the guest rooms. When she was satisfied that everything was ready, she joined everyone and sat down.

When the children had finished eating Eleanor smiled at her guests. "Now, I don't want anyone to think they're being grilled. I know it always made me nervous when I would visit someone's home and they would interrogate me to no end--what do I think of the condition of the roads and the weather and how am I feeling and have I brought my bloody sewing, which I hope none of you brought!" Little Charlotte giggled. "So instead, perhaps you would all just tell me what sorts of things you like to do while you're here and we shall try our best to see you are entertained and kept properly busy."

That drew smiles from all six of the Morvenians.

"I'm afraid it's too cold to go swimming, but there is never a dull day at Tygo—we've plenty of things to do around here," Eleanor told them. "We've got puzzles and games of all kinds, and we've got a new indoor behourd, and it's fully stocked with pells and swords and wooden weaponry, so you boys can practice, and I will not prevent the girls from taking a bit of training, too," she said, which got giggles from Charlotte and Elizabeth both. "So do not be afraid to tell me what you like to do."

"I like riding horses," Nicholas blurted out.

"Do you? Well, then, we will have a nice horse ready for you tomorrow, Your Highness," Eleanor said with a smile. "And if you like him, you may take him home with you."

"Is it a Gravonian destrier? I've heard they're the fastest horses on the Continent," Nicholas asked eagerly.

"He is half Gravonian and half Friesian," Eleanor laughed. "His sire was my own favorite horse Merlin and his mother was a very fast little mare with a vile temper."

Nicholas grinned, pleased, and she was surprised he didn't start jumping and down in his eagerness.

Michael was only slightly more reticent, but he finally felt comfortable enough to volunteer a little information. "I like to read and I like playing my lute… and I like horses, too."

"But mainly he likes girls," Nicholas said with a mischievous grin. "That's why he likes to play his lute and write music and poems, because he knows girls like them."

The eldest prince looked extremely embarrassed and Eleanor smiled warmly at him. "There is nothing wrong with writing music and poems, Michael, and girls do indeed appreciate that sort of thing—and girls like horses a great deal, too, don't they? I've seen to it that you've got books and a lute in your room. Alas, we've very few girls your age around here. You're… how old now?"

"Thirteen, ma'am."

"You look a great deal like your Papa," Eleanor said with a smile. "Nicholas, you look more like your dear Mama."

"I'm like her, too, and I don't want to be a soldier, either."

Michael glanced nervously at his brother, who began tearing a piece of bread apart.

"Truly? Have you spoken of this with your father?" Eleanor asked.

"I have not said anything. I'm to go to Havor in the summer and I don't want to go. I want to breed and train horses, and I want to do my own smithing, too. I like working with metal."

Eleanor sighed. Constantine would not understand a son of his wanting to be anything other than a soldier. "Just the same, you are under your father's charge until you are of age, and you might benefit a great deal from your year in Havor."

"I suppose so," Nicholas said, looking glum.

"But I would still recommend you speak frankly with your father. He is a just man and I cannot see him forcing you to into a life you do not want."

The Gravonian princes came clattering into the room then, and greeted their Morvenian counterparts politely. Soon after the dishes were cleared away and once everyone was relatively comfortable, they settled down and began playing games—Alexander and Michael began playing chess, while the younger princes began working together on building a model of a ship. Charlotte sat down with her sister and they began work on a new saddlecloth Elizabeth was making for her father.

Eleanor watched Constantine's boys with avid interest. Michael was very serious-minded and seemed almost grim for a thirteen-year old, and he focused intently on his chess match with Alexander, frowning and contemplating carefully before making or confirming a move. His resemblance to his father was not just physical—he had Constantine's look of dedication and single-minded determination. Whoever married him would have a faithful husband and a devoted father, but he might also forget to be cheerful and lighthearted with his family: he had a good bit of Constantine's dourness, too. She smiled softly when the younger prince beat Alexander at the game, and was very proud of her son for congratulating the boy on his victory.

Leopold, sitting on the floor and playing Siege with Parr, George and Andrew, kept up a stream of merry chatter that her sons seemed to appreciate. They debated fortress defenses, optimal positioning of a tower and how much water, food and supplies the fortress defenders would have considering various conditions. Finally, the marbles began flying and the fortress built by Leopold and Parr withstood the barrage quite well.

"Your father was never good at building castles for Siege," Eleanor said softly. "I regularly defeated him."

Thirteen pairs of confused eyes stared at Eleanor, and she paled, realizing what she had just said.

"I mean… I mean… I must be thinking of someone else," she finally managed. "I did often play Siege as a child."

Henry smiled. "I don't recall playing Siege with you, sweetheart."

"Oh, we must have, at some point along the way, I'm sure."

"What did I get if I ever beat you?"

She turned pink, glancing at the two princesses, who were staring at her, still clearly confused.

"Um… a kiss, I suppose."

Henry grinned. "Perhaps we ought to play Siege more often, dearest. I do enjoy receiving rewards."

"Where is the Queen?"

King Paul glared at his cousin and heir before shrugging. "She has taken ill and remains in her room."

Stormont paled. "Ill?"

"Yes. She's not feeling well—she's been down for a few days now."

Queen Joanna, seated in the Consort's throne and looking as icy as ever, smiled coolly at Richard. "We will be making the proclamation tomorrow. The Queen is with child."

Stormont swallowed. "Is she?"

"Yes. And we are certain it will be a male child. So now the people of Lacovia needn't worry about the succession." Joanna gave him another cold smile. "Isn't that lovely news?"

"Lovely," Stormont answered tightly.

King Paul was staring at his mother, momentarily at a loss for words, but quickly recovered himself and grinned at his cousin, tiny animal teeth glinting. "It is delightful news. After so many years of… barrenness, it's about time she delivered, so to speak."

"I see." Stormont looked as though he might vomit.

"She has no interest in receiving visitors, of course," Joanna said, that icy smile still curving her lips. "The pregnancy is making her quite ill, I'm afraid."

"Of course."

"Where were you, these past few days?" Paul asked his cousin, leaning forward a little.

"I was inspecting my estates in the east," Stormont answered. "If you'll excuse me, Your Majesty, I've business elsewhere."

The King nodded, smiling smugly as his cousin backed out of the room and left. He looked at his mother. "Irene is not with child."

"That's immaterial. Once we execute our plans, she will be of no importance and you can get yourself a new, fertile wife." She frowned then. "If the Morvenians want peace with us, we could negotiate your marriage to Princess Charlotte, perhaps, or if Crown Prince Alexander of Gravonia is disposed of, you might even get her older sister."

"I cannot imagine the Dragon being willing to give either of his daughters in marriage to the King of Lacovia, Mummy."

"Why on earth would you worry about the Dragon? He will be disposed of, too. Mark my word, dearest boy. You will have an heir, and the riches of not only Gravonia but also Morvenia at your disposal. Your father-in-law is drawing up some very excellent plans and once he has Gravonia's throne… well, he won't care whether Irene is your wife or not." She smiled and affectionately touched her son's cheek. "Just leave it all to us, sweetheart, and you'll be ruler of an empire."

Irene felt as though her very life was slipping away.

She lay in her bed, curled up in a ball, unable to even cry any more. For the past week, she had seen no one save a servant who brought her food three times a day. Guards were posted outside her door, and she suspected there were also guards below her balcony. Even more, the doors leading outside were locked and barred, and anything in the room that had even a slight point to it had been removed, as had anything made of glass—apparently her loving family thought she might be suicidal.

Hardly. She was too exhausted for that.

She closed her eyes, thinking of Richard, not regretting at all that she had kissed him. Surely God, in His mercy, would understand her need to be able to say she had actually kissed a decent man at least once in her life. Paul, in fact, had never kissed her at all, though the very idea of kissing such a disgusting creature made her want to vomit.

She was definitely not suicidal. No, indeed, she intended to survive. However long it took, she would find a way out of her prison. What awaited her beyond the walls, she didn't know, but it would surely be better than being the consort of her odious husband. She would rather be married to a pig farmer or a well digger.

No. Neither of those. She would rather be married to Richard, whether he was a prince or a pauper. At least then she would have a real family and maybe a few children and warmth.

Awash in misery and finding no other means of escape, she tried to settle herself enough to finally go to sleep. As usual, she employed the old methods she had used before to let her mind go so her body could finally rest—she thought about Richard and the green fields of home and her mother and her siblings. She was just starting to drift away when she heard a slight rattling noise and sat up, momentarily terrified. Was Paul finally sending someone to finish her off, in the dark of night? Who would notice, or even care? All that would be required after would be a public announcement that the Queen had died. Considering so many people in Lacovia died before their time, it would hardly be remarkable.

The rattling continued, louder this time, and she cautiously climbed out of the bed and sought the source of the noise. Finally, she saw that someone was outside her balcony door, rattling the door handle. Irene inched toward the door and cautiously touched the handle, gasping in surprise when it began turning. "Oh dear God!" she whispered. Paul had indeed sent someone to kill her!


Trembling in terror, she bravely forced herself to turn the handle herself, peering out carefully and praying for courage. She almost fainted with shock and relief when she saw Richard instead of a hired killer.

"Let me in! Hurry!" he whispered, and she stepped aside, opening the door a little wider.

"How did you get past… "

"My chamber is next door. I climbed across. Those dolts are both crouched near a fire anyway and drinking heavily. Or they are since I gave them a keg of ale. It doesn't surprise me that Paul would hire such idiots to stand guard."

She would have laughed if the situation weren't so utterly hideous. "What are you doing here?"

"Paul and Joanna told me you are with child," he said, looking down. "I… I needed to know for sure."

"With child? Forbid it Almighty God!" she snapped. "I will never bear his child. Ever!"

He exhaled, looking relieved. "I'm very happy to hear that, Irene."

She hugged herself and sat down in her chair by the fire, knowing to keep her voice and movements as quiet as possible. "I've been locked in here all week," she whispered. "I won't see a soul until a miserable old hag brings me a spot of food late next morning."

"I see." He sat down opposite her. "At least… at least you have not had to endure Paul's… attentions of late."

"No, thank God. He has not visited me in almost a month. I hate the sight of him. He's revolting. Just thinking of him makes me ill." She wiped her eyes and lifted her chin. "If he ever attempts to touch me again, I will… I will… I don't know." She clasped her hands. "Richard, they intend to invade Gravonia, this summer! My father has the support of several mercenaries… I found this out last week, but Joanna and Paul caught me with a letter I was going to send to King Henry by you and she… "

"Had you locked in here."

"Yes. I have not been out of this room in the past week."

"Perhaps it would be best, Irene, if you were with child."

She looked at him, eyes filling with tears. "I cannot bear the idea of lying with him."

"Perhaps… perhaps it would not be necessary to lie with him. I think everyone at Court knows Paul cannot put a child in a woman. Your barrenness is not your fault."

"But if I'm locked in here," she said, feeling her cheeks warming, and not because of the fire. "Paul does not visit me, so how… " She looked shyly at Richard, who was watching her intently. "I would love to have a baby. Just not his baby. It would be obscene."

He slowly stood, and Irene's heart started pounding as he held out his hand. She glanced nervously toward the door, but her fears faded as Richard gently pulled her into his arms. "I will do all I can to help you, Irene," he said softly, his thumb stroking her mouth and making her shiver with excitement and arousal. "You will have your freedom some day, I swear it." She sighed and rested her cheek on his chest, listening to his heartbeat and trembling as he began to undress her, undoing the strings in the back of her nightgown and slowly slipping it off her shoulders. She slipped her arms around his neck and gratefully received his kiss, feeling truly happy for the first time since the day she had left Pontrefact Castle.

She would not regret this night. Whatever the consequences, she would relish every moment.

25 December 1392

Christmas day dawned bright and crisp, and Eleanor woke to the sound of someone playing a lute. She listened, even as Henry slept on, too tired from last night's vigorous lovemaking to care, and had to smile at Prince Michael's obvious skill. She did not recognize the tune, but it sounded Spanish—perhaps he had learned it from Isabella. She lay beside Henry for a long time, listening to the soft, melancholy tune. She wondered if Constantine knew of his son's musical talents, much less of his love of learning.

In just the span of three weeks, the Prince had read every book Eleanor had supplied to him and she had had to deliver another armload to him last night. He had also informed her, in that serious way of his, that he was working on a translation of the works of Dante into French. "It was a punishment, actually, for having thrown a bucket of cold water on Uncle King a few weeks before we left home. Papa didn't care, but I've never seen Uncle King so angry. Granted, he was hunting deer at the time and lost his shot at a large hart, what with all the yelling, but still… he probably would have come up with something much more fiendish if he knew I like translating."

Getting up, she dressed and sat down to begin preparing for the day. She could hear the sound of children racing about downstairs, but she had instructed the housekeeper to let them run around and make as much noise as they pleased, so long as no one ended up bleeding, on fire or unconscious. She smiled at the sound of laughter followed by a loud thump, then someone shouted "Andrew!" and more thumps were heard. Henry sat up with a gasp and looked around, bewildered.

"What the hell was that?" he asked.

"Children," Eleanor said with a smile. She pulled on her winter boots. "I think I'll take everyone for a walk on the beach before the castle falls down. You'd think a citadel like this could withstand a siege from indoors."

Dressed for the cold, Eleanor stepped out into the hall and was greeted by Agnes and Clothilde, who looked amused. "Ten boys racing about and two girls trying to play peacemaker between them is proving somewhat noisy, Your Majesty," Clothilde said with a grin.

"Has anyone been injured so far?" Eleanor asked, pulling on her warm blue cloak.

"No, ma'am," Agnes reported. "Though I should say they're trying."

The Queen, followed by her ladies, headed downstairs and after checking the twelve children in her care for injuries, suggested a walk on the beach. Henry came clattering down the stairs just then but decided against an outing, preferring to eat his breakfast first. He headed for the kitchens to ask for some victuals and Eleanor ventured outdoors, glad the wind had died down. The twelve children—ranging in ages from seventeen to ten—were all getting along very well, and Eleanor was particularly pleased with Alexander for his patience and good humor with the two youngest Morvenian princes, who were as pesky and noisy as any boy their age. He listened to their questions with his usual focused gravity and answered with the same seriousness, and it was clear that the young man was becoming a hero to the boys.

In the little cove just below the castle gates, the younger boys skipped rocks, joined by Charlotte, who was forming a tentative friendship with Andrew, who had no clear notion of how to treat girls except as playmates. Just the same, his manners and natural charm won over his shyness and he and the younger princess sat in the sand and built castles and chattered, unaffected by the cold. Eleanor kept a closer eye on Alexander and Elizabeth, who were sitting side by side on a small dune, talking quietly. Since Xenia was at home with her parents for the holiday, it was up to Eleanor or perhaps Frederick to stand as chaperon to the young couple, but she tried to keep enough distance from them to let them talk without too much inhibition. She moved away a little more, and was surprised when Charlotte plopped down beside her, looking mournful.

"I'm so cold!" she said, sounding a little forlorn. "And I miss my Papa. I've never been away from home so far."

"Oh, dear, I'm sorry, sweetheart. It's quite all right to feel homesick, you know, but we will try to keep you occupied." She signaled for Agnes, who came forward with more blankets and returned to her place beside Clothilde. Eleanor cuddled the homesick princess, wrapping another warm blanket around her, and asked her to talk about her home at Fairwood. Charlotte launched into descriptions of the farm animals on her father's estate and told her about her pig, named Prunella. "She had six piglets in the summer and they're all friendly and they follow me around. Papa says that when we sell the piglets, I can keep the profits."

"That's very nice of him. I'm sure they will bring you more than a few coins," Eleanor smiled. She had no experience with pigs, and frankly was a little afraid of them. That Charlotte seemed to like them, however, only endeared her to the Queen.

Eleanor glanced past Agnes and Clothilde and saw the line of soldiers standing guard over the whole party, as usual. Henry's demand of a constant guard over Eleanor, her children and the Morvenians had resulted, of course, in more work for Lord Hallam, who had to vet each man assigned to the duty. His assessment of each man had been good, with a comment to Eleanor that each soldier was married with children, came from families loyal to the Crown and were highly regarded for their honesty and their bravery.

Just the same, she suspected they were all cold and tired and wished to God they were home for the holidays. She had insisted to Hallam that each man be paid double his usual wages for this assignment, and that their families all receive a Christmas ham and a goose for the holiday and be invited to Konigshaus to take part in the feast Henry was throwing for the estate workers.

Alexander smiled as Elizabeth shivered and leaned against him, sighing softly and closing her eyes. "This place is so beautiful," she said. "The castle is like something from a fairy tale, and even Konigshaus is lovely… and your parents are so kind. The Queen has been wonderful with my brothers and sister."

"Yes. She likes them all. As for Insel der Rosen, the island belongs to the Crown, and there used to be an old villa up here, but Papa had it torn down and had the castle built, just for Mama. It will belong to the Queens of Gravonia, per Papa's edict." He grinned at Elizabeth. "One day it will belong to you."

"I won't evict your poor mother!" Elizabeth laughed. "So long as she lives, it will be hers."

"As it pleases you, so long as she agrees," Alexander nodded gravely. "If she doesn't agree, however, you will have to concede defeat. No one has beaten her yet, at anything."

Elizabeth was silent for several moments, and Alexander sensed she had something on her mind. She leaned forward, wrapping her arms around her knees. "Did you not think it very strange that my father was angry when he met your mother?"

Alexander thought for a moment. "It was a little odd."

"Papa has never been rude to anyone, that I can recall, but he spoke very sharply to the Queen. Livonia and Morvenia have always been friendly, so it couldn't have been any kind of grudge… "

"Perhaps he was just… not too happy to be giving up his daughter," Alexander said. Shyly, he touched her hand. "I know I would not want to give you up."

The young princess blushed and smiled, squeezing his hand and glancing back the Queen, but Eleanor was still conversing with Charlotte. Elizabeth didn't seem keen to voice any further concerns, and so Alexander let the matter drop. But he did not miss her furrowed brow or the thoughtful look on her face. He thought about what his mother had said yesterday about regularly defeating Elizabeth's father at Siege. Despite her claim that she had beaten King Henry, Alexander had no memories at all of seeing his parents playing that game together.

When, then, could his mother have ever played Siege with Prince Constantine? Or had she really just remembered playing with someone else? Alexander could not imagine his mother telling a lie, but he did not feel it to be his place to question her on whatever had gone on in her past before coming to Gravonia. Just the same, he could not help but wonder and to realize that there was plenty more to his mother than he had ever thought.

The royal family enjoyed a huge Christmas feast of goose, venison and various pies washed down with hot wassail. Eleanor then lead everyone into the comfortable sitting room to sit by the fire and open their gifts. She was pleased to present Prince Nicholas with Merlin's handsome black colt, named Raven, and the delighted look on the boy's face was particularly gratifying. To Michael she presented an illuminated book of Bible stories, while the younger princes received ship models, plain but strong swords and fine leather bridles. Elizabeth received a pearl necklace and Charlotte received a beautiful silver tiara decorated with mother of pearl panels. Her own children received shields, mail shirts and new boots, and Henry surprised Prince George with a brand new sword, which delighted the boy. All the children exchanged their own gifts, and finally Eleanor found herself surrounded by piles of gifts: new dresses, jewelry, a new decorated saddle, two beautiful tiaras, and several pairs of new shoes, gloves, silk shawls and thick wool blankets. Alexander gave her a beautiful hand-carved dove, complete with a crown, arrows and a dagger, and to Elizabeth he gave a stern-looking black hand-carved eagle. "He looks like Papa!" Elizabeth laughed.

The day ended with a quiet service in the little chapel, the twelve children and the King and Queen being the only people that could even squeeze into the little room. Eleanor had no use for statues and elaborate decorations, so the chapel was surprisingly plain, lit with candles and sunlight shining through the pretty stained glass windows. For the Mass the priest read from the Bible, selecting the Sermon on the Mount instead of the expected recounting of the birth of Christ.

After prayers and singing of a few carols, the sleepy younger children were gently herded up to bed, with Andrew and Charlotte objecting with each step up the stairs before collapsing into their beds, sound asleep. Once they were all tucked in, Eleanor returned to the family room and sat by the fire, sewing one of Henry's torn shirts and listening while Henry and Alexander discussed the merits of wintertime fishing. Michael, yawning, was playing chess with Frederick while Nicholas and the twins played Siege. Leopold drank wassail and sat down at Eleanor's feet, watching the fire.

Eleanor closed her eyes and sighed, feeling contented. She always felt as though her troubles and worries were far away when she was at Tygo and she could just be, instead of having to constantly be on watch for danger. Just the same, she rather looked forward to returning to Luvov after her birthday. She would be able to see Count von Hesse again, for one thing, and Betsy would be returning to Luvov for the confinement of Lady Torrington in April. The royal palace remained a formal and stiff place, but at least there she was surrounded by familiar and beloved friends, besides her family. She would have Petitions Courts on Saturdays and May meant weekly interviews with the emotionally traumatized daughters of Gravonia's nobles, but she had to admit—life at Court never got boring.

Leopold was the most boisterous of Constantine's sons, Eleanor had noticed, but he was watchful and ready, like his father, but he had a charm about him—he had no reservations about speaking his mind when necessary and he seemed to be unafraid of anyone, even Henry, and she suspected he was not even afraid of his father.

"Leopold, are you having a good time here?" she asked him.

"Yes, ma'am. It's very nice."

"You enjoyed your Christmas, I hope."

"Oh, yes, of course." He looked up at the Queen, green eyes smiling just a little. "I miss my father, but it's very nice here. We like this island a great deal."

"I hope you and your family will visit us often," Eleanor said softly, thinking of how she would handle seeing Constantine on a regular basis. She had not planned on kissing him on the day he had left, last summer, but the need to do so had been utterly overwhelming. How she would contain that need again was something she did not wish to contemplate, and she wondered if she could take the coward's way out and just avoid him if and when he came to visit his daughter. If Elizabeth or her children—or, God forbid, Henry—took note of her attraction to Constantine, things could become terribly complicated.

Actually, it would be bloody disastrous.

26 January 1393

Constantine was happy to finally get home, and he was particularly pleased to see that his children had all returned safely to Fairwood. He rode through the gates and was dismounting from Lamman when he was tackled by Charlotte and Parr, who wrapped their arms around his middle and almost knocked him to his knees. He could not get even vaguely annoyed with them, however—he was too delighted to see them for that. His youngest daughter held up her arms at last and he picked her up, kissing her cheek. "Darling Papa!" she squealed happily. "I'm so glad you're home!"

"So am I." He kissed Parr's forehead, tousling his hair as the boy grinned up at him. "I hope you've not driven the poor housekeeper mad."

"No, but she's starting to complain about being tied to that chair--it's been three days now!" Leopold called from the front door.

Constantine leveled a narrow look at the boy, who looked utterly innocent and grinned up at him. Michael and Nicholas joined Leopold on the porch and Constantine surprised them by greeting them all with hugs and fond caresses. "You're all looking well."

"How did that trouble in Italy go?" Michael asked.

"All settled, with no loss of life, but I gained ten pounds." He smiled at his sons, but his smile faded as he saw he serious expression on Nicholas' face. "What is it?"

"Nicholas wants to talk to you," Michael said, and beat a hasty retreat, followed by Charlotte and his other brothers. Nicholas swallowed, drew in his breath, and faced his father.

"I don't want to be a knight, Papa."

Constantine couldn't have been more surprised if his son had informed him that he was going to paint his toenails pink and convert to Islam. "What did you say?"

"I don't want to be a knight or a soldier. I'll go to Havor, as is required, but I do not wish to become a knight. I… I want to breed and train horses and learn to forge iron."

A long silence fell between father and son, but Nicholas held his ground and looked his father in the eye. Constantine rubbed the silk ribbon tied around his sword hilt.

"I see."

Nicholas wavered slightly under his father's level gaze, but the boy didn't flinch. That alone gave him good marks in Constantine's mind—he was as brave as his fragile mother, but at least he was physically strong.

"I know I have disappointed you horribly, sir, but… but I just… I like horses and while I don't mind training in weapons and fighting and such, I just… "

"You will go to Havor as planned."

The boy swallowed. "Yes, sir."

"When you return, you will be placed in the charge of Sir William Horvath, a very skilled horse trainer. He'll teach you more than I could in that regard, and also you'll be trained in blacksmithing and weapons making." Constantine paused. "You know you'll have to endure very hard work, Nicholas, and it will take some years before you are skilled enough to venture out on your own, but I know you are very focused and intelligent and can learn the trade well." He squeezed the boy's shoulder, seeing the relief and delight in his second son's eyes. "Now go inside and untie the housekeeper."

Nicholas grinned and spontaneously embraced his father, then stepped back, mortified, eyes downcast. "I'm sorry, sir."

"For what?" Constantine smiled.

"Um… for… for disappointing you."

"You have never disappointed me, son, but you would have if you had let me force you into a life you did not want. Go inside now and see that supper is prepared. I'm finally hungry again, after such a long time in Italy." He embraced his son and tousled his hair. "Go on, you little scoundrel, and save some food for me."

Queen Joanna frowned at her daughter-in-law, watching as Irene wearily sat down by the fire, touching her belly.

"You are feeling unwell?"

"I am with child, ma'am," Irene said, her voice muted and her expression wary. "I seem to have conceived just before… before I was locked in this chamber." She feigned nausea, though in fact she felt wonderful, at least so far as her pregnancy was concerned. The tension in the palace, and particularly between herself and Joanna, was not at all pleasant. Somehow, Richard had assured her, she would escape someday. The thought—the very chance—of freedom made her hold on. Her chief goal was seeing her child on Lacovia's throne one day: her son would be a wise, just and compassionate ruler, not a cruel, hateful tyrant like Paul, and if God willed it, he would reign after Richard's long time on the throne.

She had to hold on to that lifeline of hope, however small and far away it seemed. Her child, Richard and hope were all she had now.

The old queen raised her eyebrows. "I see. Well, that is very good news. Perhaps now we can allow you to be seen in public again, for a while. You are carrying Lacovia's future king, after all, and we must make sure the people of Lacovia know you are in good health."

"I do not feel healthy," Irene lied. She felt elated, even if the early stages of pregnancy left her nauseated and exhausted. Even now, just a few weeks after telling Richard that she was carrying his child, her joy seemed to have no bounds. Even though she was still not permitted to leave her rooms, her lover continued to visit her every night. From her calculations, she suspected she had conceived on the first night she had been with him, but now she had to make sure everyone believed the babe in her womb had been conceived on the last night she had been forced to endure the sloppy, unskilled attentions of her husband.

"That is quite normal," Joanna said absently. "You will dine in public tomorrow night, with the King, so that the peasants will see you. We will announce your pregnancy then." The old queen looked pleased. "Of course, we must employ a doctor and a midwife, and begin searching for a wet nurse."

"I wish to nurse my own child," Irene said.

"By no means will that happen. The less time my grandson spends with his mother, the better. We cannot have the future King of Lacovia influenced in any way by a Gravonian, even if by then your father will be King of Gravonia."

"He cannot be King of Gravonia. My cousin Henry is King, and his son will succeed him." Irene picked up her sewing, determined to distract herself from what she knew Joanna would say next.

"Stupid child," Joanna said, in her usual cold, condescending tone. "In a few weeks' time, the succession to Gravonia's throne will change entirely. You, meanwhile, will do as you're told. Do you understand me?"

"Perfectly," Irene answered, and stabbed her needle through the cloth, pretending she was piercing Joanna's eye and smiling a little at the memory of last night's delicious lovemaking with Richard. "I understand you perfectly, Motherdear."

2 February 1393

"Thank you all, sweethearts, for these lovely birthday gifts," Eleanor said, smiling at her two youngest sons.

She was sitting up in bed, having been served the morning meal by the boys as her first gift of the day. Henry was looking rather pleased with himself, having assisted the two boys in making her meal, and the boys were flush with triumph over having successfully prepared eggs, toasted bread, oranges and sausages for their mother's birthday, unassisted by the servants. The fact that her sheets now had butter on them and there was a stain on her favorite quilt were both inconsequential, and she kissed both boys and her husband in thanks for their efforts.

Once they left her alone, Eleanor got up, pulled the sheets off the bed and began preparing for the day. The family had returned to Luvov the day after the Morvenian party had left Tygo, and the city's warmer weather was a welcome relief from the bitter cold and fierce winds at the coast. Alexander was busy almost all day, what with sitting in on Council meetings with Henry, martial training and taking long walks with Elizabeth, Xenia in tow. She missed him painfully during the day, and however much she understood that he was virtually independent of her now, it still made her heart ache. He had even moved into his own suite of rooms in the palace, as planned, but he was a dutiful and loving son to her and to Henry, and never failed to join them for supper each night.

Her younger sons were still going through what Henry called their 'polishing'. All were still under the charge of tutors Eleanor had hired to teach them various skills—languages, history, mathematics and not only martial matters but also the importance of diplomacy, good manners and knightly chivalry. Eleanor did her best to avoid watching the boys going through their physical training, as she could not bear to see them injured just a little, and they did often come home with cuts and bruises earned in sword fighting, hand-to-hand fighting and jousting. As their mother, she wanted to coddle them and shield them from pain and trouble, but both notions were unrealistic in such times. She could only pray they came through their training in one piece.

Having dressed and prepared herself for the day, Eleanor went downstairs and was greeted by George and Andrew, who were eager to go for a walk. She wrapped her cloak over her shoulders and smiled at her two youngest boys, taking in their ruddy, robust looks and unlimited stores of energy. "So where do you two want to go?" she asked.

"We want to see what sort of animals have been passing through the woods," Andrew said eagerly.

George took her hand. "Oh, and Count von Hesse has sent you a message—Boris told me to give it to you." He handed her the sealed scroll and Eleanor opened it eagerly, expecting to read about Helene and Madeleine's progress and gossip from Ravensburg.

The letter, however, did not give Eleanor good news. She read it and sighed.

"What is it, Mama?" Andrew asked.

"Your cousin Queen Irene of Lacovia is with child," Eleanor said.

"That's not happy news, is it?" George asked her.

"Not particularly. King Paul will finally have an heir, and so will Beauchamp."

The two boys were silent, expressions wary. Eleanor tucked the letter away and continued walking, her sons following behind. She pondered all the repercussions of Irene's pregnancy—if she bore a son, King Paul would feel emboldened toward making another strike at Gravonia, and even more, Beauchamp would feel more secure in his alliance with his son-in-law. Right now, the best anyone outside the Lacovian Court could hope for was that Irene might bear a princess.

George, always the more forward-thinking of her two youngest sons, wrinkled his brow and pondered a moment. "I've heard that King Paul has kept mistresses since his fourteenth summer and has never sired a single child."

"George!" Eleanor stared at her son, shocked.

"It's just what I've heard," George said, shrugging.

"I don't know that I want you taking part in gossip.'

"It's not gossip, is it, when it's true. It's more like… politics. Or a message from a diplomat."

She frowned. Her sons all were in tune with court gossip. Alexander in particular was kept aware of goings-on throughout the Continent, and was extremely well-informed. She also knew that Alexander kept his brothers abreast of developments not only in Gravonia but in Havor, Livonia and Morvenia, and his brother Frederick was becoming more and more of a 'right hand man' to the Crown Prince. She believed that was a good and natural thing for the future of the kingdom. Alexander was showing great talent as a diplomat and politician, while Frederick was showing considerable—and terrifying, to Eleanor—military skill. The two brothers would complement each other perfectly, just like Philip and Constantine in Morvenia. The younger princes, too, were showing great talent in martial arts and strategy.

"Well, you should remember to speak respectfully of a King. Even King Paul."

"I cannot speak respectfully of a tyrant and a traitor who tried to have you killed, Mama," Andrew said sharply. "He and Beauchamp both are wicked men doing bad things for evil reasons. Alexander has even said he would kill King Paul and Beauchamp the second he saw either of them."

Eleanor sighed and touched her youngest son's cheek. "Your loyalty and devotion to your father and to your brother commends you both, but remember that care must be taken in your dealings and in the things you say." She gestured for them to continue on with her, and they spent the morning searching the woods for animal tracks and signs of the coming spring—the first green leaves of snowdrops and tiny buds on the fruit trees, and she spotted a heavily pregnant doe ambling through the woods. After a lesson in recognizing animal tracks, she and her sons returned to the palace in time for lunch, and were greeted by Alexander and Elizabeth, who both looked a little flushed and bright-eyed. Considering Xenia was not with them, Eleanor suspected they had stolen a few moments alone together for more than just conversation.

Agnes and Lorenzo and their rambunctious children joined the royal family for the nooning meal, and Eleanor enjoyed Ellie's vivid description of the new summer cottage her father had built, and did not miss Frederick paying particular attention to the girl's effusive chatter. The meal ended with laughter, with Elizabeth telling a story of a man named Odd. "His mother named him 'Odd', for some reason, and he naturally hated the name throughout his life. But he grew up and married and had children and so forth, and finally one day, he is on his deathbed and has his family around him as he prepares to pass. He tells his wife and children that when he dies, they are to bury him with just a tombstone that only gives his dates of birth and death, but no name. So he dies, and they follow his wishes to the letter. The only problem is that whenever anyone sees his tombstone, they say 'That's odd!'"

With the meal over and everything cleared away, Eleanor sat with Elizabeth and her ladies, listening to Andrew recite his French verbs. She was dozing off a little when some of the young men came clattering in with the dogs. She listened absently as the men chattered amiably, but she kept a narrow eye on Lord Despencer and his friend Lord Barton. Neither young men, in her opinion, were the sort she wanted Henry or her sons spending time with. Even worse, Lord Despencer was particularly disrespectful toward the Captain of the Guard, whom she liked a great deal.

Eleanor settled her gaze on Captain Lassiter, smiling a little—he was easily the most silent, guarded person she had ever met, yet his loyalty, fierce protectiveness toward Henry, and meticulous attention to detail held him in good stead with everyone, save Despencer and Barton, who couldn't be trusted with someone's lunch. Those two seemed to think Lassiter was a perfect target for ridicule, too, from what Alexander had told her. The Crown Prince and his siblings all found Lord Despencer tiresome at best and ridiculous at all other times. Niall Lassiter was rather stiff and formal, and often was overly diligent in his attention to his duties and in providing proper security for the royal family, but Eleanor appreciated his devotion, and she particularly appreciated his startling blue eyes and silver-touched dark hair. He was not a classically handsome man, but he was striking. Even more, he was intelligent and articulate.

Eleanor pondered Despencer and his continued pursuit of Lady Juliet Harris, the daughter of Lord Jerome Harris, a rather buffoonish gentleman who had a penchant for gambling and was thus constantly in debt. His sons were, despite their father's influence, excellent soldiers but poor Juliet had no dowry to bring into a marriage. Her chief appeal, after her intelligence, was her looks and her sunny, bubbly personality, and she had been selected, two years ago, to serve the Queen at Court. The Queen liked the girl, who was now seventeen, and had moved her into service as one of Elizabeth's ladies. Juliet got on well with Meg, Ellie and Anna, and was popular at Court, too. Nor did Eleanor miss the fact that Lady Juliet had formed a friendship, of sorts, with Niall Lassiter.

Lady Juliet settled with Elizabeth and her ladies at the fire and began repairing a tear in one of Elizabeth's blouses. Eleanor rose and made her way to the girl's side and sat down, smiling. "Lady Juliet, it's so nice to see you here tonight. How are you?"

"I'm very well, Your Majesty."

"Am I mistaken, or is an announcement coming soon of your betrothal to Lord Despencer?"

The girl looked down, her usually bright expression fading. "He has not spoken to me or to my father yet, ma'am."

"Oh? Well, then, perhaps the King should speak to your father, to see that Lord Harris is very clear with Lord Despencer on how he ought to behave toward you."

The Captain of the Guard stepped closer to the fire, bowing to the Queen and nodding to Lady Juliet, whose cheeks pinked becomingly. "Your Majesty, the King wishes to speak with you."

"Of course. Thank you, sir. Please, Captain Lassiter, sit here and see Lady Juliet is properly diverted." She glanced over at Lord Despencer, who was talking to Lord Barton, and stood. She smiled at Lassiter, who looked a little bewildered, but was pleased when he sat down opposite the girl, whose shy smile was a good sign that she found the Captain of the Guard quite attractive. Lord Despencer noticed, too, though and ambled over.

"Ah, me excessively tall Irish Lass! It's good to see you, but I'm here now, so you can go back to guarding whatever you guard…"

Lassiter stood, drawing up to his full height of well over six feet, and glowered at Lord Despencer, who only looked smug. Eleanor decided then and there that she had had enough of Lord Despencer and any notion of him pursuing Lady Juliet.

"I'm sure Lady Juliet's family is delighted to hear of her betrothal to Captain Lassiter."

The Captain of the Guard looked at the Queen, bewildered, and started to speak, but Eleanor cut him off deftly.

"It's an excellent match, too, everyone says. Captain Lassiter has risen very swiftly through the ranks among the King's personal guard and no doubt will rise higher. In fact, Henry was telling me just recently that a knighthood is in the offing, and that will involve his being given a bit of land, too—there's a lovely estate at Stellan that I think will suit very well—it has a lovely house and such pretty gardens, and its owners recently offered it for sale at a very fair price that the Captain can surely afford, as he is an excellent steward of his money. Lady Juliet is such a sweet, charming girl, while he is as good a soldier as any I've ever known and so very loyal to the crown… I am certain that she and he will complement each other wonderfully. Don't you think so, too, Lord Despencer?"

The look on Lord Despencer's face was priceless. He was staring, aghast, at Lady Juliet, who looked as startled as Lassiter, but she didn't seem to be making any objections to this sudden turn of events. She was looking at Lassiter with wide, wondering eyes, and his usually stern expression had softened. Eleanor smiled sweetly at the trio, but didn't move away until Lord Despencer bowed and took his leave. Eleanor nodded to the newly minted couple, turned, and went in search of the King.

Eleanor did not always enjoy exercising her authority, but in cases like this, it was very good to be Queen.

20 September 1393

Spring faded into summer, and Eleanor enjoyed a peaceful, albeit all too brief, holiday at Tygo before returning to Luvov at the beginning of August. She was happy to see all sorts of nice progress at Court: her sons were doing well at their lessons, both intellectual and martial, while Henry's scheme of draining some swampy land to the east of the city was providing good work for many men. The Queen relished Petitions Saturdays, as usual, and was kept busy with various worthy causes in Luvov and throughout the country, particularly in attending the opening of the newly-established Royal Mint in what had been the derelict eastern ward of the city. Mainly, however, what she enjoyed most was witnessing the courtship of Captain Niall Lassiter and Lady Juliet Harris, and she personally spoke with the girl's father on the matter of her own decision to bar Lord Gavin Despencer from any contact with the girl any more.

Eleanor was delighted to run into Juliet one morning, as she was reading over her post and finding an invitation to a house party at the Coventry brothers' estate outside Luvov. Juliet informed Elizabeth that Niall had made a formal proposal of marriage to her and that she had accepted, and the Queen went upstairs to talk to Henry before leaving.

"Niall Lassiter and Lady Juliet Harris?" Henry asked, looking vaguely confused, after Eleanor informed him of the pairing. "Well, if you think it's a good match…"

"It is. Far better than her marrying that nitwit Despencer, anyway, and her father approves. Though I suspect he approves more because Lassiter has a bit of tin and Lord Despencer has none, for all his titles." Eleanor said, folding her shawl. "Considering the captain's devoted service, I think he ought to receive a knighthood, too, don't you think, and that estate at Stellan has just become available, has it not? That would make a lovely home for them."

"I suppose I could do that, and Gorham Park is very nice," Henry nodded. "He's a bit older than her, dearest… "

"So? He's in his prime—just forty, as I recall—and she's young and sweet. They'll have lovely children, and for all his rigidness and rather touchy temper, he softens around her—she will have a good influence on him, I think, and I daresay she likes him a great deal, too." Eleanor adjusted her headpiece, frowning at the rubies and pearls as they shone in the firelight, and pondered changing into her favorite blue dress, which would require her sapphires and diamonds. She opted to remain in her red dress, though, and began primping her hair a bit, muttering over the silver threads she was finding near her temples. "Besides which, I did not approve of Lord Despencer circling around her all the time. He's a dolt, and she deserves to be joined to a man, not a stunted man-child."

"Aye, he is a dolt. He and his friend Lord Barton are useless in almost any endeavor besides eating and insulting people."

Eleanor nodded, trying on a new ruby-studded necklace and finding it satisfactory. "He calls Niall 'Lass'. I find that revolting. If a man does not invite a nickname, one does not apply a nickname."

"Yes, I've heard him insulting Captain Lassiter quite a few times, and he continues to do it even after I had James tell him stop, mind—to me, Despencer is something of a bully, aside from being a jackass," Henry muttered. "His only saving grace is his father, an honorable man by all accounts. The only reason Niall hasn't beaten the whelp to a pulp is because he actually possesses some degree of self-control. Aye, he's got an Irish temper, but he knows how to rein it in."

"Lord Despencer is in his mid thirties, as I recall, and ought to be standing on his own two feet, and should be behaving like an adult. Instead he bleeds his friend Lord Barton dry and continues playing cruel pranks on his vastly superior elders. Enough is enough, and by no means should he marry and procreate."

"Aye, I agree, dearest." Henry kissed Eleanor's cheek. "I take it you're going to that ball at Lord Coventry's?"

"I am. It's his wife's first attempt at hosting a party. Poor thing. She married into that family with her eyes wide open—surely she knows the Coventry boys' parties usually end with something on fire or someone being slapped."

"Then you're in for a show!" Henry laughed, kissing his wife soundly before releasing her. "I'll see you late tomorrow morning, then?"

"Yes. Behave yourself, dear, and stay away from cucumbers."

Henry grinned. Cucumbers made him hiccup, to the point that conversation with him was impossible and only sent Eleanor into fits of laughter. "I shall endeavor to remain steadfast in my resolve to avoid them."

She smiled, curtseyed gracefully, and left. Henry called for his gentlemen as he clattered down the stairs, and was greeted by the very men he and Eleanor had been discussing: Lord Despencer and Lord Barton.

"Your Majesty," Lord Despencer said, bowing deeply. "I was wondering if I might speak with you on a personal matter."

Henry sighed. "What is it?"

"Well, sir, it seems the lady who owns my heart has become betrothed to… someone else. I wish to petition the King to perhaps persuade her honorable father to reconsider my suit, as I have long… "

"Lady Juliet Harris is betrothed, and quite advantageously, to Sir Niall Lassiter, who is Captain of the King's Guard," Henry said, keeping his tone firm but polite.

"Yes, sir, but… sir… he's a Sir, now…sir?"

"Yes, and are you arguing with the King?" Henry snapped, annoyed. "I'm knighting the captain this afternoon, and the wedding is set for next week."

"But… sir, I have been courting Lady Juliet… "

"Courting? I'd say you were just flitting around her like the empty-headed little wally that you are, and constantly insulting and belittling her and her friends, including my Captain of the Guard, who by the way is also charged with protecting your life, too. I know for a fact that you did attempt to manhandle Lady Eleanor Bartolomeo a few months ago, and if you do that again I'll turn my son Frederick loose on you, and we'll just see how well you come out of that."

"Sir, that was just an innocent flirtation… she was quite flatt—… "

"Flattered? Do not dare to speak such blatant lies, you buffoon—she was not flattered. No woman is flattered when she is grabbed and pinched by some addle-brained nitwit, and I can assure you my son Prince Frederick was furious to hear of your actions, and you ought to thank God the Queen stopped his hand. Were it not for your father's honorable reputation, and my regard for him, I would have had you locked up in the Tower for that insult to Lady Eleanor alone, as you continued your idiotic behavior even after I had Lord Hallam give you a sound ticking-off on the matter. As for your own marital future, I would suggest you try and find someone more easily duped, because Lady Juliet has attained some wisdom with age, under the Queen's influence, and has expressed no small degree of delight at the notion being married to a decent, honest fellow like Sir Niall. Now get away from me, sir, before you provoke my temper further."

Cowed, Lord Despencer bowed and stepped aside, and paled when Niall Lassiter appeared in the doorway with a group of the King's bodyguards. The King continued out into the palace courtyard, then paused and turned back. "Captain Niall Lassiter," he called. The Captain walked out into the courtyard. "Good afternoon, Captain. Would you please kneel?" The Irishman, looking a little bewildered, obeyed and Henry tapped his shoulders with his sword. "There now. I do knight you Sir Niall Lassiter, with all due respect and gratefulness for your years of devoted service. May God bless you in all He sees fit." The King nodded, sheathed his sword, mounted his horse and rode away with his gentlemen.

Despencer stood silent for several moments, his friend keeping quiet as well until the King was gone. For a moment, Despencer attempted to glower at the Captain of the Guard, but Lassiter only nodded coolly and left, mounting his horse and riding off with the king's guards, following Henry to the forest for his hunting excursion.

"I won't see my Juliet married to that damned Irish tinker," Despencer said at last, turning to Barton. "At least not for long. Come on. I've got an idea."

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