Lord Coventry's ball, held at his large castle a few miles outside Luvov, was a noisy, merry affair. Lady Daphne Coventry, the wife of the younger of the two Coventry brothers, was a beautiful and rather eccentric Englishwoman, and she was doing her best to maintain order during the festivities, though to Eleanor it was fairly obvious that she was a bit overwhelmed. Lady Daphne's mother, a rather loutish woman, had been placed in charge of coats and only appeared once during the ball to nick a bottle of wine before scuttling back upstairs, and Eleanor suspected that Daphne was eager to lie down with an ice pack on her head when all this was over. Considering the party was to last all week-end, the Queen had to wonder if the poor woman would survive.
Lord Francis Coventry and his younger brother Neil were charming men, and if they both were somewhat proud, Eleanor found them easy to get along with. Lord Francis and his wife Lily had a son, named Frank, while Neil and Daphne were expecting their first baby early next year. Eleanor was pleased to greet Lord Coventry at his door, and made small talk with him while her ladies went upstairs to settle her things into her suite of rooms, and when they returned she took Francis' arm and let him lead her outside into the elegant gardens.
"Her Majesty the Queen!" Lord Coventry said, smiling expansively at his gathered guests. Eleanor, decked out in red velvet, white silk, rubies and pearls, smiled and murmured greetings to everyone. As was customary, she took the first dance with Lord Francis, then with Lord Neil. She was subjected to several more bounces around the marquee with other noblemen before she was allowed to rest a moment and drink a glass of wine with Lord Francis.
"I do hope you are having a good time here, Ma'am. My sister-in-law is very anxious about this being a success. It's her first try at hosting a party, you see. My Lily is quite ill and could not attend."
Eleanor knew Lady Lily was a pale, thin woman with a sharp, acerbic wit and her parties were, frankly, less than jolly occasions. Just the same, Eleanor rather liked the woman, as she was enthusiastic about raising money for the orphanage in the once-derelict section of Luvov that had once been plagued with cathouses and abject poverty. Lady Daphne, meanwhile, was known for her work training women in caring for the sick citizens of Gravonia and the wounded in the army. Considering her own father had been a battle-hardened English knight, the young woman knew a good bit about potions and salves and how to patch up cuts and setting broken bones. Eleanor had therefore given Daphne access to her mother's books on healing, and the two women had formed a friendship over the past few years, even before Daphne's marriage to Neil, and they shared common views on matters of hygiene. The Queen was glad to finally have a moment to speak with her hostess when the dancing started again.
"Well, you're definitely showing now," Eleanor said kindly, gesturing for Daphne to sit down with her on one of the stone benches. "You and Neil must be so happy."
"He's behaving like a raving loon, actually," Daphne said with some asperity. "Up until lately he was acting as though he was pregnant. Then we had a midwife come by who had this asinine idea of me enduring labor without the benefit of any kind of painkilling remedy. I threw her out and told him to stop acting like a fool. So he's calmed down a bit, but he flaps about me just the same."
"That's to be expected. Henry did the same to me, and you just have to get used to it. It's best to give them something to do when you go into labor—send him on a snipe hunt."
"Snipe hunt? Neil can't hit the broad side of a barn with a Scotsman's caber. I ought to make him stay and watch the whole thing. It'll serve him right, the loopy sod. Of course, he's also the sweetest man that ever lived." Lord Neil came over and smiled at his wife, who smiled warmly in turn. Eleanor knew that as much as Daphne complained about her husband's goofier moments, she adored him.
"Is anything on fire yet?" Daphne asked him.
"Not so far, and nobody's been slapped, either!"
"Well, then, I suggest we send up a few prayers, just the same," Daphne muttered. "Oh, look, there's Lady Juliet and Captain Lassiter--I guess he was given a reprieve from his duties at guarding the King during his hunting trip."
"Aye, yes, and he's not just Captain. Henry knighted him just the morning, and I was very pleased to hear of it," Eleanor smiled.
The Queen watched Niall lead Lady Juliet down the steps onto the marquee. When he saw the Queen, he led his fiancée over, bowing while Juliet—slender, petite and as cheerful as daisies—curtseyed gracefully. Eleanor smiled at them. "It's a pleasure to see you both out and about together. I take it you have a proper chaperon with you?"
"Yes, Lady Juliet's brother Liam is with us," Sir Niall answered with a wry smile. "Lady Daphne, it was very kind of you to invite us." He sounded as though he was reciting memorized phrases, and Eleanor knew the man was not very social—to attend such an event was probably torture for him. Just the same, he was clearly pleased with his soon-to-be wife and from the way Juliet looked up at him and blushed pink, she was equally satisfied with her marital future.
"It was our pleasure," Daphne said, barely hiding a mischievous smile. "It's particularly nice to see you heading to the altar on the arm of a decent sort of fellow. I would have been very sad to see you chained to someone unworthy."
"Thank you, ma'am. I'm very happy for it, too, and so is my family."
"And I suspect Sir Niall is rather pleased as well," Eleanor smiled. "And I'm pleased to see you taking a break from your duties, too--for all your excellent work for the Crown, you truly do deserve a few rewards in turn. I'm going to hazard a guess that you'll be taking a break for your honeymoon as well?"
"Um… for a week or so, I think," Sir Niall finally said, cheeks reddening. Lady Juliet laughed.
"For the 'getting-to-know-you' period," Eleanor save gravely. "The King and I took more than just a week, mind you, but I recall Alexander arrived about ten months later."
After exchanging pleasantries, Sir Niall and Lady Juliet moved away, concentrating entirely on each other. Eleanor sat back, pleased with her matchmaking enterprise. In general, she didn't like meddling, but she could not stand by and watch a sweet young girl's life become ruined by a worthless young man. She had no doubt that Juliet and Niall would have a few rough spots to go over, but they would do just fine.
"Sir Niall is rather attractive, isn't he? I mean, he's rather rough around the edges, but we all know what long fingers and big feet mean… " Daphne said, smiling conspiratorially at the Queen, who snickered.
"Those do indicate size, but it's his big ears would indicate his stamina," Eleanor finally nodded, and joined Daphne in some naughty giggling.
Lord Despencer paced, growing more and more anxious with every moment, but he was sure his plan was going to work beautifully. He glanced toward the door again, which caused his friend Lord Barton to exhale in exasperation. "I can't believe you're willing to do something like this."
"Listen, it's a perfect plan. Within a week, Juliet will be married to me and I'll have a fortune. Everybody wins."
"Sure," Burton muttered, taking another draught of his ale. "Except for the people who lose. But hey, they don't matter, do they? It'll all be grand. Unless you get caught."
"No one is going to catch me, okay? You're the only person who even knows about it, and I know you won't tell."
Burton flinched and shook his head again, sensing doom in the air, but he made no further comment. He paled when he saw the man come into the public house, and stood up. Despencer turned around and grinned at his contact, a stocky man with short blond hair and bloodshot eyes. The man approached Spencer and handed him a sealed vellum scroll and a bag of coins. "Just follow these instructions and you'll get your reward once everything is settled."
Spencer opened the scroll immediately, to Barton's disgust, and paid little heed to his contact. He was reading the instructions, albeit only perfunctorily, and he stuffed the scroll into his boot. "Come on. I've got my girl and a fortune waiting for me."
Lord Barton followed his friend out into the night, wishing again that he had enough willpower to dissuade Despencer from doing this. But loyalty trumped caution, just like always, and he could only do all he could to prevent complete disaster.
Henry's hunting trip, with only his
three bodyguards and three of his gentlemen, went well and he was pleased to
stay the night at his hunting lodge near the village of Kalen, where they all
drank a bit of ale and ate copious amounts of venison. In the morning he made
sure to pay a visit to the little town's mayor. Henry liked the little man a
good deal—he was friendly and cheerful without being remotely servile, and
though he knew he made the man's poor wife terribly flustered to find a king at
her table, he was pleased to see the village in such good shape and the
townspeople looking prosperous and well-fed. He rewarded Mrs Tanner with a
courtly bow and a kiss on the cheek, thanking her gallantly for her hospitality
and praising her for her tolerance and lovely home.
The King rode away from Kalen after the nooning meal, accompanied by his men, and was surprised to see three knights racing toward him. The knights hailed the king and dismounted, bowing, and spoke even before Henry had a chance to ask them what was going on.
"Your Majesty, Lacovia is raiding into the north—they have attacked Willemet and brought about much slaughter and destruction," one of the knights told him.
For a moment, the King was silent, stunned, before he regained his composure. "Bloody bastards," he muttered. "Where is Lord Hallam and the Duke of Trebane?"
"They are already on their way north, sir, with the army."
Henry nodded. "Good. We will make haste to reach Willemet. See that supplies are brought up as well—all available weapons, as well as the best archers and plenty of food and water for the men, and plenty of materials to provide for the poor villagers who have lost their homes. Go!" The King wheeled his horse off the path and galloped away, heading north, followed by his men. The two knights remained on their feet, waiting until the King was out of sight before they mounted their horses. Quickly, they began riding east, but not toward Luvov. They had another destination in mind.
Eleanor was tired of socializing.
It wasn't as though she disliked talking with people. In fact, over the years she had come to enjoy interacting with the more colorful members of Gravonia's aristocracy as well as the considerably more interesting peasants of her adopted country. But so much conversation was wearying, and dancing was exhausting, regardless of Herr Dudelsackpfeifer's best efforts. She had never been one for idle chatter, and dancing was never going to be a favorite pastime. By midnight of the first night of her stay at the Coventry brothers' estate, she was ready for a good book and a hot bath, but instead she had to preside over a vast nighttime banquet, staring down a stuffed swan and watching Lady Daphne's mother—Gertrude—pick her teeth with a chicken bone.
She lost her staring contest with the
swan and greeted Gertrude politely when the woman was presented to her at last
(an oversight that the older woman seemed to have found quite insulting). When
dessert was finally served, Eleanor was relieved to be able to sit quietly
while Lord Coventry's fool performed some surprisingly skillful tricks and told
some rather amusing jokes. A group of minstrels were next, playing mournful
love songs for a while, until various people were moist-eyed (particularly,
Eleanor noted, the heretofore unsentimental Sir Niall). It was only when
Eleanor jerked awake, alarmed to find people staring at her, that Lord Coventry
clapped his hands. "I believe it's time we drew these festivities to an
end, as we can tell everyone is getting rather sleepy. A good night to all.
He gestured expansively for everyone to rise, nodding to Eleanor, who took the lead while fighting off a yawn. She smiled warmly at her host and hostess, thanking them for their hospitality, and left, trailed by her two junior ladies-in-waiting, Lady Maxima and Lady Christine. Her four bodyguards trailed after them, ever-watchful, and the Queen was relieved to finally undress and climb into bed, where she fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.
21 September 1393
Henry arrived at the gates of Willemet as the sun was setting, and he was bewildered at what he saw.
The gates were open, villagers were milling about, heading home from the fields and from their shops, and the only smoke he saw was coming up from chimneys. He halted his horse and looked at his gentlemen and his guards, all of whom also looked entirely confused. "What the bloody hell is going on?" he asked.
"I don't know, sir. Perhaps someone in town has heard?" Lord Walton answered.
Henry gestured to one of his guards. "Yes, go on to the mayor's home and ask him if he has heard anything." The King turned his horse and trotted away, followed by his remaining men, and he decided to make an encampment along the river. He selected a quiet spot near the woods and asked his men to set up a tent for him, and told them to bring Lord Hallam and the Duke to him as soon as they arrived. He was eager to get some sleep, meanwhile, and was even more eager to see Eleanor again—he missed her especially now he had to sleep alone again. The past nineteen years of his life, he had rarely been without her at his side, and as he stretched out on a pallet, he said his prayers, asking God to protect his beloved wife and sons until he saw them again. Within minutes, he was asleep.
It was almost dawn when a sound woke the King, and he sat up, looking around in the fading darkness, listening carefully, before he finally got up and pulled the flap aside to look outside. He was stunned at what he saw.
His two young gentlemen—Lord Walton and Lord Deerfield—were lying dead near the river, their throats cut so deeply they were nearly beheaded. Horrified, the King stepped out, scarcely able to comprehend what he was seeing. "My God…" He turned to look around and was horrified to see two of his bodyguards lying to the left of his tent door, their throats also cut. Henry whirled around at a sound behind him and came face to face with a man he never expected to see again: Lord Charles Beauchamp.
"You bloody bastard!" Henry snapped.
Beauchamp only smiled and stabbed the King in the chest with a dagger, moving fast as he twisted the dagger upward. Henry screamed in pain and shock and slammed his fist into Beauchamp's throat, knocking the man to the ground. Henry staggered back, pulling the dagger out of his chest and staring in shock at the bloody blade. He dropped the blade, already feeling lightheaded as blood poured from his wound, and he stumbled over the body of one of his men. He was caught by a large man dressed in black, and looked up, bewildered, as Beauchamp came back toward him.
"Hold him," Beauchamp said, gritting his teeth and rubbing his sore throat.
The man in black grabbed Henry's arms and pulled them back as Beauchamp casually picked up the dagger. He stepped over the dead man's body and smiled at the King.
"Know this, Your Majesty," Beauchamp said, wiping the blood off the blade. "Your sons will die in agony, and so will your bitch of a wife, and her last sight will be me… as I ravish her, again and again." He grinned as he moved to stab the King again, but Henry was ready, and despite his growing dizziness and being barely able to breathe, he kicked Beauchamp hard in the groin, causing his usurper to shout in pain and drop to the ground. Beauchamp was wheezing and cursing furiously, and as Henry struggled against the man restraining him, he still managed to get a few more kicks in. Beauchamp, flinching from a sharp blow to the shoulder, backed away and snapped at his fellow assassins to finish the King off. "Hurry up, dammit!"
Henry spat in Beauchamp's face and tried to lunge at him, but he was being restrained now by four large men. "You don't know what you're up against, you cowardly bastard," he snarled at his cousin. "She will destroy you!"
The men restraining the King received numerous blows from the dying monarch. Henry even managed to get hold of one of their blades and stabbed one of the men in the eye, sending him screaming to the ground, scrabbling helplessly at his eye. Beauchamp got back to his feet and lunged at the King, stabbing again and again, frantically, until Henry's chest and face were covered with wounds. Finally, the King fell to the ground, immobile, gasping for breath and spitting blood, and Beauchamp kept stabbing, finally burying his dagger so deeply into the King's chest that he could not pull it out again.
"Stop, dammit," one of Beauchamp's men said. "He can't be any more dead, you damned fool."
Beauchamp checked, flicking his fingers against Henry's sole uninjured eye and getting no reaction, and staggered to his feet. He spat on the king. "The King is dead," he said, smiling through streaks of the King's blood on his face. "Long live the King."
Eleanor woke with a start, gasping, and sat up in the bed, frantic. She looked around the dimly lit room, panting, and scrambled out of the bed, stumbling in the near darkness of the room, looking for a weapon, though she did not know why she suddenly needed one. Her ladies, sitting up and yawning, looked at the Queen in confusion. "Majesty? Is something wrong?"
"I do not know," Eleanor said, trying to clear her mind and shivering with cold despite the warmth of the room. She began dressing quickly, not caring that she was a bit slapdash even as she left the bedchamber, her ladies only just keeping up with her. The Queen rushed downstairs and startled a scullery maid cleaning out the fire grille. "What is your name?" she asked the girl.
"Please send for Lord Coventry and his wife, Mariah. I must take my leave as soon as possible and return to Luvov."
"Yes, Your Majesty," The girl scurried away.
Eleanor began pacing, ignoring her ladies and wringing her hands, not sure what had her feeling so panicked, but she knew she had to get home as soon as possible. She was becoming frantic when Lady Daphne appeared, looking sleepy and still in her nightclothes. "Your Majesty? What is wrong, ma'am?"
"I have to go home. I thank you for your hospitality, but it is imperative that I return home within the hour. Please see my carriage is brought up, and my escort. My ladies can remain here until they are ready to leave. I cannot wait another moment!"
Lady Daphne ordered the butler to send for the Queen's escort and within minutes, Eleanor's carriage was ready. She only murmured a goodbye to her ladies and jumped into the carriage unassisted. "Go! Now! Set the horses at a run and do not stop until we are at the palace!"
The ride back to Luvov was bumpy, but Eleanor didn't care. She frankly wished she had borrowed a horse from Lord Coventry, but at least now they were finally at the gates of Luvov. She told the carriage driver to let the horses gallop but to take care to not run over anyone, and clutched the door handle all the way up the main thoroughfare through the city, not caring that the jostling and rollicking of the carriage was making her nauseated and was giving her a headache. She was only glad to finally arrive at the palace gates, and she was already opening the door when the carriage rolled to a stop. She was greeted by Boris and Lorenzo, who both looked confused and surprised to see her. "Where are my sons?" she asked.
"Upstairs, ma'am, but you were not expected until… " Lorenzo started.
"Where is the King?" she asked.
"The King? He has not yet returned from his hunting trip… he was at his lodge at Kalen, and was expected to return home this morning," Boris told her, having to trot to keep up with her as she rushed up the steps into the palace, and she slowed out of deference to him.
"Alexander!" Eleanor shouted. "Come down here now, and bring your brothers."
The Crown Prince appeared at the top of the stairs. "What is it, Mama?" he asked.
"Come down here now!" she demanded, her hands beginning to shake. She only managed to steady herself when her eldest son was standing before her, and she took his hands in hers. She exhaled slowly and embraced him and his brothers as they came to her. "Are you all right?" she asked them.
"Of course we are," Alexander said. "I was helping Andrew with his Latin lesson."
"Good. I'm happy to hear that," she said, nodding, and embraced her youngest son, holding his head to her chest and not knowing why she wanted to cry. Her sons gathered around her in a circle, all bewildered by her behavior, and murmured their reassurances to her. Finally, she released Andrew, who was starting to squirm, and stood back from them, wringing her hands.
"Mama, what on earth is the matter?" Alexander asked.
"I don't know, sweetheart. When you father returns, we will… we will all go for a ride in the royal park. Won't that be nice?"
"Yes, of course," Alexander nodded, but his expression was grave. He turned and smiled when he saw Elizabeth coming into the Great Hall, and took her hands. "Good morning."
The princess smiled warmly at her fiancé and bobbed to Eleanor, whose eyes began to sting with tears.
"Your Majesty, you're home early," Elizabeth said, kissing her future mother-in-law's cheek. "You're so pale!"
"I… haven't eaten yet," Eleanor said weakly.
Alexander called for the servants to bring the Queen some breakfast, and she went with them into the dining hall. She sat down and looked across the way at the portrait of her husband on his favorite warhorse. She smiled slightly, forcing herself to look cheerful as her children and Elizabeth joined her, but her heart was pounding with a terror she could not name or understand. She knew she would only be calm again when she saw her husband was safe.
Yet she knew that something was horribly, horribly wrong.
Eleanor had managed to calm herself a little by lunchtime and was finally able to make herself sit by the fire, sewing, in her chamber. She kept looking at the door, expecting Henry to come bounding into the room with tales of his hunting trip and the huge hart or boar he had brought down, but lunch came and went with no sign of the king, and her worry only increased with each passing moment. She sent for Boris and asked him if he had heard anything as yet, but he had no news for her. She struggled to concentrate on her sewing, but her vision kept blurring with tears. She finally could not bear it any more and stood, going to the window to look down into the courtyard.
She watched her two eldest sons practicing at sword fighting, the two young men joking and jostling as they mock-fought. Alexander was a skilled swordsman, but Frederick was more than his match, and she smiled as she found herself comparing her second son to Constantine.
Clothilde, Agnes and Harriet came into the room and settled by the fire, with Harriet waddling and looking very uncomfortable in the final stages of her pregnancy. Eleanor managed to smile at her ladies, and insisted Harriet take the more comfortable chair. She was amazed at that woman's fecundity, as she and Lord Ellis seemed to produce another baby every other year and the woman seemed to enjoy raising and caring for her children more than anything. Eleanor sat down again, remembering how she had disliked Harriet and Agnes so much, nineteen years ago when she had first arrived in Luvov. Now, she counted them both as dear friends and trusted confidantes.
She was repairing another shirt when Boris came into the room. "Your Majesty? Lord Despencer is here… he would like to speak with you, ma'am. In the next room."
"The next room?" Eleanor asked, brow furrowing. "What does he want?"
"He will not say, ma'am. He insists on speaking with you alone, ma'am."
Eleanor resisted the urge to tell the odious little weasel to bugger off, but she decided that talking with him would at least distract her from her worry. He was probably going to plead with her to reconsider her endorsement of the marriage of Lady Juliet to Sir Niall, and for that she would tell him to bugger off. She rose and followed the dependable old Major Domo into the next room. Lord Despencer turned to look at the Queen as Boris stepped back and closed the door.
"Your Majesty, I have… I have very bad news, ma'am."
The Queen narrowed her eyes. "Do you?"
"I have just come here from… from Willemet, ma'am. I rode all night to get here, ma'am, and was very relieved to learn that you had come home early from the Coventry ball. I'm afraid the King has been captured by the Lacovians after a brief skirmish and has been taken to Rumon. The King of Lacovia is demanding a very large ransom for his safe return."
Eleanor felt her heart stop for a moment, and stark terror gripped her until she thought she might faint. She closed her eyes, drawing in her breath and trying to think of what she ought to do. She opened her eyes and started to speak when she noticed something rather odd about Lord Despencer. She walked smoothly to the window and looked down into the courtyard, where Alexander and Frederick were still practicing with their swords, and she noticed Lord Despencer's fine chestnut horse standing in the yard. She pursed her lips, thinking, and finally nodded. "I thank you, Lord Despencer, for your loyal service. Might you stay here in this room for a moment? I must speak with… "
"The King's guardsmen have instructed me, ma'am, to take you and the princes immediately to Tygo, for your safety," Despencer interrupted.
"Wait here, Lord Despencer," she said gently.
"But ma'am… "
"Wait here," Eleanor said, keeping her voice soft and steady even as her heart was pounding. She stepped out of the room, closing the door quietly. She gestured for Boris to come to her.
"Go and find Sir Niall Lassiter. I must speak with him immediately."
The Queen tried to remind herself to breathe as she waited. She was leaning against the wall, trying to think of what to do, when Sir Niall rushed up the hall to her and bowed. "Your Majesty… "
"Would you please go into that room and speak with Lord Despencer for me, then come and tell me what you… think. Also please look down into the courtyard at his horse."
"Of course, ma'am." Sir Niall opened the door and stepped inside. He studied Lord Despencer, who frowned at him.
"Sir Niall," Lord Despencer nodded.
"Right." Sir Niall nodded. "I take it you are in good health, sir."
"I am. Always." Lord Despencer nodded. "Getting better and better, in fact."
"I'm sure," Niall nodded. He went to the window and looked down at Lord Despencer's flashy destrier. He bowed slightly, opened the door, and stepped back into the hall. He regarded the Queen, eyebrows raised, and she looked at the door, nodding.
"Did Lord Despencer look to you as though he had been riding all night?"
"And does he look like he took part in any sort of battle or skirmish?"
"The only battle I can see him taking part in is a struggle with slicing a hard cheese, ma'am. And his horse looked as though it came here from his home at something barely approaching a slow amble."
"Quite," Eleanor said sharply. "Sir Niall, I want you to have the palace evacuated immediately, save Lord Despencer. Confine him to a room without windows, but see he is provided with food and water. I want my sons, Elizabeth and our unmarried ladies to be taken straightaways to St. Michael's Cathedral and given refuge there until further notice. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, ma'am, but… "
"Before you do all that, however, I wish for you to find Lord Hallam and the Duke of Trebane. Do not speak a word of these orders to my ladies until it is time to remove them. Lady Harriet is heavy with child and I will not see her distressed—see Lord Ellis comes to take her home, too, and please see to it that Lady Xenia is with them when they leave. That is of great importance to me."
"Evacuate the palace, ma'am?" Niall asked.
"Without exception. Everyone is to return home, from courtiers to servants. They are all to go home."
"Ma'am, what do you think has happened?"
"I do not know yet. Lord Despencer has told me that the King has been captured in a skirmish near Willemet and has been taken to Rumon."
"Forbid it Almighty God!" Sir Niall growled, blue eyes darkening in fury. "Bloody bastards… "
"If only. But I must find out what has happened, and in the meantime I want everyone to be safe. To that end I want everyone to be at home until… until I am sure all is well and the King has returned home. Go and find Hallam and the Duke, and when I leave I want you to start a full-scale evacuation. Do you understand me?"
"Completely, ma'am. I will do all, to the letter." Sir Niall bowed to the Queen and strode away. Eleanor drew in her breath and stepped back into the room. Lord Despencer stood, bowing elegantly to the Queen.
"Thank you so much, Lord Despencer, for your devoted service to the Crown. I am certain you will be richly rewarded."
"Thank you, ma'am. Helping Your Majesty is reward enough."
"I'm sure it is. Indeed. I ask you to please remain here in this room until further notice. We cannot cause a panic of any kind now, of course. We must make proper preparations, you see, and the less… distress caused by all this the better, don't you agree?"
"Of course, ma'am, but we must take you to Tygo, ma'am… "
"Naturally. The Queen and the princes and my ladies will go directly to Tygo. You must remain here and tell Lord Hallam and the Duke of Trebane all that you know." She nodded and left the room quickly, glad she was able to endure conversing with the man without shuddering in revulsion. After pausing in the hallway to regain her composure, she calmly went back into her chamber and sat down by the fire again, glancing at Harriet, who was thoughtfully rubbing her swollen belly. Lord Ellis suddenly burst into the room, his expression anxious, followed by Xenia.
Eleanor smiled at her Lady of the Bedchamber. "I believe your husband would like to take you and Xenia home, Harriet."
Harriet nodded and got to her feet, assisted by her husband, who looked at the Queen with a worried expression on his face. Eleanor shook her head slightly, and he took her hand between his, bowing quickly, before taking his wife's hand and gently—but quickly—leading her out of the room. Clothilde and Agnes watched Harriet leave, brows furrowed, and Agnes started to speak when Lorenzo came in, looking more than a little worried. "Majesty, Lord Hallam and the Duke of Trebane are in the courtyard. Do you want them to come up here?"
"Yes, please. Thank you, Lorenzo. Um… Sir Niall Lassiter has business to attend to here in the palace and I will require everyone to obey his orders to the letter when he gives them, and quickly," she said. "I will see you all again very soon." She smiled at her ladies, tears blurring her eyes again, and left with Lorenzo. "Lorenzo, please send Sir Niall to the courtyard and ask Lord Hallam and the Duke to come up to my chambers. I need to speak with them."
The Duke of Trebane and Lord Hallam were sitting in the palace courtyard, watching the two oldest princes wrestle and squabble, having put aside their swords to test their physical strength against each other. Again, Frederick had a slight advantage over his older brother, but by no means was there even a small hint of rancor or smugness from the younger prince toward the elder. When Frederick finally brought Alexander down, he quickly helped his brother back to his feet and clapped him on the shoulder, grinning.
"Excellent boys the King has there," Hallam said, grinning. The Duke nodded, yawning wearily.
"Aye, and loyal to each other, too, thank God."
"I take it you did not attend the Coventry house party?" Hallam asked.
"Good God, who wants to spend the evening trying to put out a fire?" the Duke answered, rubbing his eyes. "Though I dare say I hear Lady Daphne is rather entertaining, or at least her mother is."
"Gertrude… " Hallam shuddered.
"Horrible old bat," Trebane muttered. "But she does keep one on one's toes. Last time I encountered her, she went into a tirade about how her ungrateful daughter made her do all the sewing. Lady Daphne also pointed out that her mother could easily do her own sewing back home in England. She's been staying with them since Daphne married Lord Neil and seems unwilling to leave. I'm surprised Daphne hasn't killed her yet."
Hallam laughed. They stretched their legs, watching the two princes resume grappling with each other, with Alexander finally winning the round and receiving his brother's congratulations with a modest bow.
Both men were startled to see Sir Niall Lassiter striding quickly toward them, and they stood. Neither man was entirely sure what to make of the tall Irishman, but they respected him for his loyalty to the King and for his directness. He seemed to lack many social graces, but he made up for them with diligence, honesty and loyalty.
"The Queen requires your presence in her chamber immediately," Lassiter said.
"On what matter?" the Duke asked.
"We have received word that the King has been captured and has been taken to Lacovia."
Hallam cursed, horror gripping his heart, and the Duke was already heading toward the door. Hallam grasped Lassiter's arm. "Where are the other princes?"
"Upstairs, sir, with their tutors."
Alexander and Frederick noticed the agitated expression of Lord Hallam and looked quizzically at Lassiter. "What is wrong?" Alexander asked. Hallam looked at the Crown Prince, not sure what to tell him, and decided to err on the side of caution for now.
"I am certain it is nothing, sir," he said kindly, squeezing the prince's shoulder. "But perhaps you and your brother might go on inside and stay with your brothers for now?"
Alexander nodded and gestured to Frederick to follow him, and they two princes followed Hallam in. As soon as he rounded the corner to the stairway, Hallam headed upstairs and joined the Duke outside the Queen's chamber door. The two men looked at each other, neither wanting to say what they knew was very possible. Finally, the two men entered without even knocking, and Clothilde looked at her husband, bewildered.
"James, what on earth… "
"Your Majesty," Hallam said, bowing to the Queen and only giving his wife a nod and a look that told her to keep quiet for now. "You required our assistance, ma'am?"
"Yes. I… I require my horse, please, and… and… you have told the princes to come inside?"
"Indeed, ma'am, they are joining their brothers now."
"Very good." She rose, putting her sewing down. "Please apply to Sir Niall for instructions, Clothilde. Agnes, I want you and Lorenzo to return to your home immediately, and take your children with you, too."
"Home… ?" Agnes asked, confused. "But… "
"I must insist upon it," Eleanor said. "You look tired, sweetheart, and I will not have you so. Please go. Lorenzo?" She gestured to Boris's lieutenant, and the Italian nodded, expression grim. He gently helped his wife to her feet, but Agnes still looked bewildered.
"Ma'am, I am not tired and I do not want to go home."
"I must insist on it, Agnes."
"My duty is to stay with you, ma'am. Lorenzo, do not make me go home."
"Agnes… " Eleanor started, but Hallam intervened.
"It would be good for the Queen to have some of her ladies with her for now, I think. Agnes, Clothilde, you will go where Sir Niall says, when he says. For now, please stay here in this chamber. The Queen has business… elsewhere for now." He looked at the Queen, who swallowed before finally nodding.
"Yes, perhaps it would be best if you and Clothilde stayed here for now. But when Sir Niall comes here with instructions, they are to be followed to the letter, do you all understand?" she asked, looking at Agnes and Clothilde. Both women nodded, but still looked utterly confused.
"Eleanor, what is going on?" Clothilde asked.
"Just… please be prepared for further… further… "
"Instructions," Hallam said, and took the Queen's arm, leading her gently but quickly from the room. Out in the hall, he gestured to the Duke of Trebane, who frowned at the Queen, still uncertain.
"Where are you wanting to go, ma'am?" Hallam asked cautiously.
Hallam and the Duke looked at each other. "Ma'am… "
"If you do not escort me I will go alone!" she snapped.
Hallam closed his eyes briefly, knowing that it was useless to argue with her the Queen now. "Yes, ma'am. And the princes?"
"Sir Niall has been instructed already to take them and the household to St. Michael's for refuge until this is all cleared up."
Neither man wanted to state what was becoming very clear to them both: that King Henry was very likely dead. Hallam took Eleanor's hands between his and looked into her eyes, seeing very real fear there and knew she was thinking the same thing. "We will see you safely to Willemet and back, ma'am, and be assured that your sons will be safe. Sir Niall will see to that--I know of no one more loyal or capable."
Eleanor led the men down the stairs to the courtyard, where her horse was waiting. She mounted quickly, not giving one single damn that she wasn't behaving like a proper Queen, and kicked her horse into a gallop. Hallam and the Duke had to rush to even catch up with her, and they held their tongues as they did their best to keep pace with her, knowing she was in no mood for discussion.
Queen Irene lay in her bed, suckling her little son, marveling at his beauty and sweetness and keeping an eye on the door. She knew that at any moment her mother-in-law would arrive with that idiot wet nurse, who would take little John away. Irene had thus worked out her own schedule on when to feed the baby, and so far he was thriving, to everyone's surprise as he refused to suck from his nurse. She smiled at him, cuddling him softly and whispering her love to him. The baby fussed a little and finally finished his breakfast, settling down to sleep.
She had borne him almost a month before, struggling through a long, agonizing night to bring him into the world. At first, she had been disappointed that he was not a princess, but she had fallen in love with her boy the moment she had held him in her arms. That he was Richard's son made it all even better—there was no way on earth Paul could have sired this beautiful, vigorous baby.
She had not heard a word from her father in the past two days, and worry was plaguing her. She knew something horrible was happening to the south, but no one would tell her a thing. Not even Queen Joanna had spoken to her lately, except to come in daily to take John away to that cow-like creature who tried to feed him. Irene knew that the baby would be returned to her in a few minutes, usually screaming in righteous indignation at being torn away from his mother's loving arms and handed over to a smelly, stupid troll.
John was snoring a bit as she stroked his cheek, and she looked up when the door opened. Instead of Queen Joanna, however, she was surprised to see her father. Beauchamp stepped into the room, closing the door behind him.
"Father," she said coldly.
Her father had been exultant the day John had been born. He had been forced to wait for the delivery, after all, to truly put his plans into motion in Gravonia, and Irene knew he had been gathering up his mercenaries and preparing the Lacovian army for whatever hideous thing he had planned for his native country. She looked down at her son, thinking of how good it would feel to one day inform her father that John was not Paul's son at all. Just the same, for now, Lord Beauchamp believed his alliance with Lacovia had been sealed in a blood union.
"Your husband and I will be traveling to Gravonia soon. I was thinking that perhaps you might like to return home in a few weeks. Visit your mother and your brother at Pontrefact."
"Why on earth would I be even able to visit Gravonia, Father?" she asked wearily, feeling as though a heavy weight was settling onto her shoulders, and she wished to God that Richard's arms were around her. He had come to her last night and held her after inspecting his son, and he was the only link she now had to sanity in this awful country.
"In another weeks' time, you can visit as the daughter of Gravonia's crowned and anointed King," Beauchamp said, idly cleaning the sharp blade of a dagger with a piece of cloth.
"I am not King Henry's daughter, Father," she said, narrowing her eyes.
"You will be King Charles' daughter, you silly creature," Beauchamp snapped. "It's just a matter of mopping up, so to speak, and I will be crowned."
"So you have murdered King Henry, Father?" she asked.
Beauchamp said nothing. He turned and looked out the window, toward the stinking city of Rumon. Finally, he turned back and faced her, but could not look her in the eye.
"I will have my vengeance, girl. That bitch insulted me more than a few times and in a few days she and her whelps will be eliminated and I will be crowned."
"And you sincerely believe the people of Gravonia will accept a murdering usurper as their ruler, after almost twenty years of just rule by a kind and generous King?"
"Queen, you mean. None of Henry's ideas were his own, and you will not argue with me, you little strumpet. I brought you to a position of great influence and wealth and now you castigate me for taking what is mine?"
"And what of Count von Arklow, Father? Do you think he'll just step aside after you murder King Alexander and his brothers and their mother? He is closer to the throne than you, and remember that you were removed from the line of succession anyway, by writ of law, and for all that Erich is an honest man."
"He will step aside. No one in Gravonia is even aware of what is happening. The Queen is on her way to Tygo now, where my men await her and her six little curs, and when I arrive in Luvov the people will welcome me with open arms as their king. Be sure of it—before this week is over, I will be a king and your husband will be a wealthy and powerful man." He nodded, glancing at his tiny grandson. "In a few years, that boy will rule an empire, be sure of it."
"So you'll give up your throne for John, Father?" she asked in mock astonishment.
"Never you mind. Work on producing a spare and do not involve yourself in anything else." Beauchamp glowered at his daughter. "I should have known you would not support me."
"I can never support a murderer and a traitor," Irene answered. "Even if he is my own father. Even if he crowns himself King. You are not a legitimate King, however much you may call yourself so."
Beauchamp glared down at his daughter, fists clenching and unclenching, and she saw a small, dark flash of fear in his eyes before he finally turned and stalked out of the room, calling for Queen Joanna and Paul. Irene waited until she was sure they were all gone before cautiously rising from her bed and settling John into his cradle, tucking him in carefully and caressing his cheek as he slept. "You will be a king some day, sweetheart. But not for a while yet, and you will be a good ruler, if I have any say in the matter."
The Queen of Lacovia opened her balcony door and stepped out, wincing at the terrible stench from the city. She went to the wall separating her from her lovers' and tapped lightly, glancing around cautiously, and she drew in her breath when Richard leaned over the railings to look at her. "What is it?"
"Papa has murdered King Henry," she whispered.
"Dear God… "
"What should I do?" she asked.
"Stay here and tend to John and keep yourself safe. I will get out of the palace tonight and… frankly, I don't know what to do now. The stupid bastard," he muttered, looking down at the ravaged city below. "I think that I need to make it clear that at least two members of the royal family are not bloodthirsty heathens. Alexander and Queen Eleanor need to know that they do have allies here in Lacovia, Irene, and that we do not support Paul or your father in any way."
"If you are caught… " she whispered, tears stinging her eyes. "I would die if anything happened to you, Richard."
He smiled at her. "Now that I could never tolerate, Irene. You've got to raise our son. He will be a King one day, whether I am here or not, and you must be strong now. I will get word to you, somehow, as soon as I know anything. Promise me you will keep yourself steady and take care of John."
She nodded and started to speak when he reached across the space between their balconies and took her hand in his. "I love you, Irene. You know that, don't you?"
Irene wiped tears from her eyes. "You have said it before."
He grinned at her. "Aye, but we were both naked at the time."
"We even said vows to each other."
"Yes. But I meant it, with all my heart. I love you. I think I have since the moment we met."
"When I vomited on your shoes!" she said, half laughing, half crying.
"I never liked those shoes, and even if I did, I would count them as no loss. Do not fear, Irene. I will return to you, and I will help you escape this place one day. I swear it, before Almighty God." He squeezed her hand, and she peered around the wall at him.
"I love you, Richard. With my whole heart."
"Then I know all will be well," he said, smiling at her. "Somehow."
Eleanor waited anxiously while Lord Hallam spoke with the mayor of Willemet, with the Duke of Trebane remaining at her side outside the gates of the town. Both men had paled when the saw the state of the town: there was no sign of any kind of invasion or attack on the city, and no one in the town looked as though they were concerned with anything but the usual day-to-day matters of farming and commerce. Eleanor kept silent, sitting astride of her tired horse, feeling a chill settling on her heart.
She was beginning to wonder if Lord Hallam was having some sort of trouble when he came galloping out of the city, pale-faced. "Ma'am, one of the King's guards was found this morning in the livery stable, stabbed to death."
The Queen felt her stomach lurch and she clutched the reins, believing for a moment that she might faint dead away. But now was not the time for fainting. She had to find her husband.
"We must find Henry. He must be around here somewhere."
"Yes, ma'am," Hallam said. "The king's guard was last seen alive in the town's public house, buying a bit of food for the king and his gentlemen. He was asking if any Lacovians had been seen here, and according to the owner of the pub, no one had seen even one of the bloody bastards."
"So if they King and his men came up here from Kalen, they must be to the immediate south of the town," Eleanor said, regaining some of her wits and forcing herself to think. "Along the river, perhaps."
"I was thinking the same, ma'am," Hallam nodded.
"Then let's go find him," Eleanor said. "I am sure he is furious about this. He will not appreciate being dragged away from home on a wild goose chase."
Sir Niall ordered the household guard to find every occupant of the palace and order them to evacuate immediately. He was heading toward the doors when he stopped in his tracks and turned around, thinking carefully.
If the King had been captured or, God forbid, murdered, there was only one reason for such a thing: usurpation. If so, the usurper's first course of action would be to secure the royal treasury and the crown jewels. The Captain of the Guard frowned as he stood in the Great Hall, watching as everyone was scrambling about, gathering their families and belongings as they rushed out of the vast building, and he finally made a decision. He called for several of the King's personal guards and a group of strong knights.
"I want you all to go to the King's Treasury rooms and remove everything—every last guilder and mark, and also I want every jewel and valuable in this palace to be removed as well and taken to the storage rooms under the castle. Be sure the storage rooms are locked and the inner doors barred as well, and that when you are finished you deliver the keys to me. Do you understand?"
The knights nodded, momentarily taken aback, but Lassiter was pleased to see the men quickly comprehending his reasoning. They all rushed away, and he called for another group of knights for another mission. "Empty the palace armory—all the arrows and longbows, swords, shields, armor… everything is to be removed and hidden in the storage rooms under the palace. Also remove every horse from the royal stables, but put Lord Despencer's horse in a loose box. I also want twenty knights to go to St. Michael's with the princes and the royal household to guard the royal family."
"And once that is done, I want a detail of soldiers to go to every door of every house and place of business in this city to tell everyone to lock themselves in their homes and arm themselves for a fight."
The group of knights stared at Lassiter, bewildered. "Sir, do you really think… "
"I don't want to think it at all, but my job is to be a bloody paranoid prick if necessary to protect the royal family. Oh, and has Lord Despencer been moved yet?"
"Not yet, sir."
"I'll move him," he growled, and stalked upstairs, clutching the hilt of his sword and wishing he could go ahead and dispatch the weasel-faced little jackass now. But he suspected the King would want that privilege, and so he tamped down his fury and stalked into the room. Lord Despencer was seated by the fire, looking a little nervous, and the younger man stood.
"What the hell is going on?" Despencer asked. "I just saw someone take my horse away… "
"The animal was merely removed to the stables, sir," Lassiter said, determinedly keeping his expression neutral and his tone calm. "I have received orders that you be taken to more comfortable lodgings, here in the palace."
"Oh. I see. Has the Queen and the household left yet for Tygo?"
"Indeed they have," Lassiter nodded. He gestured toward the door. "If you'll come this way, my lord?"
Despencer smiled jauntily. "I understand you are to be congratulated on your upcoming marriage to Lady Juliet Harris."
"Yes. Thank you."
"She's a very dear friend of mine, you know. I've known her all her life."
"I'm sure she is delighted to have you as a loyal… acquaintance."
"Not just acquaintance, Sir Niall. Very, very dear friend. We had something of an understanding, until her father changed his mind." He eyed Sir Niall coldly. "I can't stay as I agree with his second choice."
"Well, fathers do have that right, my lord, particularly when presented with more amenable options. Come this way, sir. I'm sure you will find your new lodgings much more congenial and suited to your high standards." Lassiter led Lord Despencer down the hallway to a windowless room in the center of the palace, and Despencer was pleased with the huge four-poster bed, fine furnishings and elegant decorations. He was about to ask about the lack of a fireplace when Lassiter stepped out of the room and closed the door, locking it carefully and settling a large chair under the knob. The Captain of the Guard sighed, shaking his head at the craven stupidity of the younger man, and left.
"There! The King's tent! His standard is flying, even, so he must still be here." Lord Hallam said, pointing out a black and gold striped tent set up in a clearing near the river. Eleanor was already off her horse and walking toward it by the time the two men managed to stop their horses and start to dismount.
"Good God, he's going to be pissed about this," Hallam muttered. "Do you suppose Beauchamp is conducting some sort of invasion somewhere else?"
"I wouldn't put it past him," Trebane answered. "I'll give him credit for pulling off a pretty damned good distraction." He started toward the tent, and was about to tell Hallam he thought things looked rather odd—the ground outside the tent had been disturbed, with a great number of boot prints all around, and the grass near the river had strange dark stains in it. He was about to speak when the two men heard a piercing scream from inside the tent. Swords drawn, they rushed inside and stopped short, horrified.
Eleanor was on the floor, kneeling beside her husband's body, holding his head to her chest and sobbing, Henry's blood was on her hands and all over the front of her scarlet dress and chest. She was rocking back and forth, clutching him to her and keening even as the two men rushed to her side, dropping down to try to extricate the King from her arms, but she would not let go.
"Henry… oh God, Henry… Henry, I have failed you…" she sobbed. "I have failed you… my darling... I have failed...!"
"Blessed Lord Jesus," Hallam said over the Queen's racking sobs. "Sweet Jesus!" He made the sign of the Cross and stared at the ravaged body of the dead king in disbelief.
Trebane finally got back to his feet and forcibly pulled the Queen away from the dead King. She collapsed against him, sobbing helplessly on his chest and staining his clothes with her husband's blood and her tears.
"I have failed him, Thomas. I have failed him!" she cried. "I have failed!"
The two men looked at each other, neither saying the name aloud but knowing who had committed this horrible crime: Beauchamp.
They took quick action. Hallam took the Queen from Trebane and carried her out of the tent to his horse while the Duke set about finding something to wrap the King's corpse with. He emerged a few moments later carrying Henry's body in the tent carpet, blood dripping, and settled the body under a tree. Hallam said nothing to the Queen, who continued weeping, but merely settled her on his horse and swung up behind her, letting her cling to him and sob against him, the King's blood staining his clothes. Hallam nodded to Trebane, who galloped away on the Queen's horse, heading back to Willemet for help.
"We must take you back to Luvov, ma'am," Hallam said.
"My children… he will kill my children, James… " she said, and broke down into heavier, heart-rendering sobs. "My babies… my poor babies… oh, God… Henry… Beauchamp has murdered my husband and he will kill my poor babies!"
"The hell he will, ma'am." He turned the horse and went back up to the road to wait for the Duke, still holding the sobbing Queen. "The damned bloody hell he will!"
Hallam held the Queen against him, letting her weep and shedding a few tears of his own for the loss of a great King and a dear friend.
The King is dead, Hallam thought, looking up at the clear, cloudless sky, the queen's sobs making his own heart wrench. Long live the Queen.