Our Gracious Queen

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Men Plan, God Laughs

It was well after midnight when the soldiers from Willemet arrived at the cathedral with the King's body. Alexander did not want to wake his mother for yet another emotional ordeal, and so he requested that the men bring the King's body to the old priory, where a group of priests and nuns waited to collect it. Alexander requested that the King's body be brought inside in secret, so as to avoid alerting anyone who might report back to Beauchamp. So, in the darkness, they took the King's corpse up from the tiny north chapel garden to the roof and carried him to a spot where part of the ceiling could be opened. With ropes, they lowered the King into the Archbishop's own quarters, and the six princes stood watching as their father was settled on a long table and unwrapped. Alexander closed his eyes against his tears and finally touched his father's face. A nun brought him a washcloth and the newly crowned King cleaned his father's face and neck, wiping away caked blood.

"We will have a proper State funeral for him as soon as… things are settled," Alexander said quietly. "His effigy is at the palace, with Mama's."

The princes were silent, none of them wanting to imagine having to bury their mother, too. They had seen their parents' effigies: Henry, carved in black marble, wearing a gilt crown, carrying his orb and scepter, and Eleanor, also crowned, exquisitely carved in white alabaster, her hands folded in prayer and her expression serene for a woman who knew how to destroy an army on a battlefield and mete out fiendish punishments for misbehaving boys.

Andrew, overcome, had to turn away and stare at the stained glass windows, which depicted the creation of the world. Alexander went to his youngest brother and gently embraced him, letting the boy cry against his chest.

"It's all so… unreal," Andrew said, wiping away his tears. "Just a few days ago he was teaching me how to tie proper knots, and now he's… dead. What are we going to do?"

"Survive, that's what," Alexander said firmly. "He would have it no other way, and I know Mama will ensure that we get through this crisis." He touched his father's face, his vision blurring with tears. Henry's face was scarred, and his left eye had been ravaged by a knife. Beauchamp's knife, Alexander thought, his anger rising. The dead King's chest was punctured with innumerable stab wounds, and as the six brothers set to the task of cleaning their father before interring him in the marble tomb that had been prepared to temporarily house him, they spoke quietly to each other, recalling moments they had had with Henry over the years.

"He taught me how to swim—remember, he threw me into the Wash at Insel der Rosen?" Andrew grinned, and the brothers all snickered.

"I seem to recall you screaming and saying you were drowning, and then he told you to stand up," Alexander said.

"He would listen to my stories and poetry, even though I know he didn't care for either," George said, wiping tears from his eyes.

"He cared," William said softly. "He always cared—he cared about all our troubles and interests, and he was never too busy to speak with us. Harry, do you remember when I did that painting of a bird and he didn't know what it was?"

Harry, imitating his father, put his hands on his hips and affected a slightly aggrieved expression. "It's a… it's… well it must be a… oh, damn it, William, what the hell is it?"

"I still am not convinced that it was actually a bird," George said. "Papa never could figure out if those things were wings or legs. Even Mama was stumped."

"Painting won't ever be my forte," William admitted. "And honestly, I don't know what it was, either. It started out as a bird, but then it just… wasn't."

"I agree that you'll never be good at drawing," Alexander smiled, mussing his younger brother's hair. "Or music. But you're damned good with a sword. Remember the lyre, flute and cymbals lessons we all took? Good God… "

"Yes. Papa called Mama down to the hall, said, 'Lady! Here are your sons on lyre, flute and cymbals, and they wish to perform for you. God have mercy on us all!' and sat down and put his hands over his ears. Good Lord, we were awful." Harry was laughing at the memory. "Mama couldn't quit laughing, and four guards came running in, thinking we were under attack!"

"You were really into those cymbals," Andrew mused.

"Still am," Harry grinned. "William and I got into a fight over them. I still have ringing in my ears."

"I remember Mama coming in and telling us to cut it out lest her head exploded, and then she threw the cymbals out the window. They hit that poor stable boy," Harry grinned, but his smile soon faded. "It's funny, isn't it, that it was Papa who played with us and Mama who protected us and meted out punishments."

"I've written the entire book of Job out in French and German so far," William said with a sardonic little smile.

"She's a mother lion," Andrew said softly. "I pity anyone who dares cross her or tries to get between her and her cubs."

"Then Beauchamp is much to be pitied. You heard what she did to Rieti," Alexander said, looking down at his father. "Papa only knocked his tooth out. Mama… she burned his eye and his ear, then had him cut up and served to Beauchamp at Pontrefact."

"She does get her point across," Frederick said. "Where do you suppose she learned how to fight?"

"I don't know. I'm just glad she did," Alexander said softly. "Elizabeth has said that our first daughter will be named Eleanor Leonae, in her honor. Eleanor the Lioness."

The boys looked at their father's ravaged body, and Andrew began to cry again, bewildered and frightened by this catastrophic upheaval in his life. "He died with honor," he said softly, his voice choked. "Mama said he fought them like a devil."

"I didn't want him to die with honor," Alexander said, his voice shaking with anger. "He shouldn't have had to die fighting like any devil. He should have died in his bed, forty or fifty years from now, surrounded by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, barely remembering our names and being doted on by Mama." He looked at his brothers. "Be sure he will be avenged. So long as Mama breathes, Beauchamp's life is forfeit."

"She'll destroy the bastard," Frederick said. "I've never seen her so angry. I've never even heard her shout before—no matter how annoying we got, she never yelled at us."

Frederick smoothed his father's hair back, then gripped the edges of the marble catafalque, head bowed. "What do you think of her sending for Prince Constantine?" he finally asked, after pulling himself back together.

Alexander frowned. "I know he is a great commander, but isn't the Duke of Trebane the commander of our army?"

"Yes, but he would concede that Constantine is the man anyone would want on their side in such a case as this—Beauchamp has the Lacovian army plus a large number of mercenaries, I've heard, and now he's got a grandson to inherit the Lacovian throne, he has more incentive than ever." Frederick's eyes narrowed. "But we have Mama and Constantine."

The young King nodded to his brothers, indicating it was time to cover their father's body, and the six brothers lifted the heavy slab and carefully slipped it into place. There was a sharp bang as the slab sealed the catafalque, and the six young men stepped back, staring at the smooth white marble tomb.

"I loved him so much," Andrew saw softly.

"He was the best, kindest and most generous of fathers. He could have been in the middle of a battle and if we called for him, he would not have failed to come to our aid," Alexander said. He made the sign of the cross, as did his brothers. Archbishop Nichols stepped forward from the shadows, where he had been keeping out of the way to let the boys mourn and say their goodbyes, and he said a prayer. "And now we must continue with his work," Alexander said, when Nichols finished. "We will not let you down, Papa. We swear it, before Almighty God."

The King and his brothers filed slowly out of the room and sat down together in the open room, looking around at the sleeping courtiers. Elizabeth was curled up on a thin reed mattress, her hair down in a thick red-gold skein, but Alexander could tell she wasn't asleep. He crept across the room, carefully avoiding treading on anyone, and settled down beside her. She sat up and moved into his arms, resting her head on his chest. "Am I a coward for being afraid?" she asked softly.

"By no means," he answered, kissing her temple. "I admit I am afraid, too. But my mother is in the next room, your father is on his way here, and God is with us always."

Elizabeth sighed and snuggled closer to her future husband, finally falling asleep in his arms. Alexander did not sleep, however. Instead, he leaned against the wall, holding her and feeling the weight of the world settling on his shoulders.

The first few Lacovian soldiers to enter the city were bewildered by the lack of people on the streets. They rode through the city toward the palace, pausing to look up at the handsome, sturdy citadel before turning back to the gates of Luvov to wait for Beauchamp and the rest of the army. When Beauchamp finally came trotting up on a flashy white horse, he was grinning from ear to ear, but his smile faded when he saw no one lining the streets. He hadn't exactly been expecting a hero's welcome, but he wouldn't have minded seeing the tears of the citizens of Gravonia at the sight of their new king and conqueror, but no one… ?

"Have you heard from the soldiers we sent to Tygo?" Beauchamp asked the Lacovian commander, a tough-looking, badly-scarred man named Scriven.

"Not yet."

"They know their orders. They're to kill the Queen's whelps and bring the bitch to me."

Scriven frowned at Beauchamp, but made no comment. He followed Beauchamp through the open gates of the city and noted the wide, well-maintained streets of Luvov. The houses of even the poorest citizens were neat and sturdy, with tidy little gardens in the back and window boxes overflowing with flowers. Water fountains decorated most street corners, and all the streets were cobbled and scrupulously clean. Scriven heard his men muttering about how Rumon was a far cry from this beautiful city, and he had to agree. Luvov didn't even smell bad. In fact, he smelled the pleasant scents of wood burning in fireplaces and of bread baking.

"Where the hell is everyone? The city is empty?" Beauchamp growled as they passed St. Michael's Cathedral.

Some Lacovian soldiers came trotting up and nodded to Scriven, who nodded back. "It's not empty, sir. Everyone is in their homes, with the doors locked."

"Locked?" Beauchamp asked. "Why would they be locked in?"

"Who knows?" Scriven shrugged. "We'll take care of all that later. If you want the crown, you've got to secure the royal treasury, so you had better get in there now before von Arklow gets wind of this. Then you know what we want in payment," he said, glancing at his soldiers. None of them made any comment. They knew their orders, and would follow them to the letter—they were all tired of filth and poverty and looked forward to future prosperity when this war was over.

Beauchamp kicked his horse into a gallop and rode ahead of his companions. The palace gates were open, and his brow furrowed in confusion when he saw that no guards were posted at the gatehouse. He dismounted in the courtyard before the huge north-facing doors and stalked up the steps, expecting to be greeted by at least a few palace guards prepared to fight to the death to protect the royal treasury. Instead, he pushed the doors open and stepped into the Front Gallery, where portraits of the royal family were hung.

Or would be hung, except the portraits were all gone.

Beauchamp looked around the large room, completely bewildered. The statues were gone, too, and the decorations. The fine furnishings were also missing, and as he paced along the hallway to the Great Hall and the gathering rooms, he was more and more confused: even the tapestries, decorative swords and shields were gone. He turned and stalked quickly back down to the Front Gallery, where the Lacovian soldiers and some of the mercenaries still stood, brows furrowed. Beauchamp stomped to the Presence Chamber and threw the doors open.

The thrones were gone.

"What the hell is going on?" he shouted.

"Sir, there's no one in the palace. Not even a single servant," one of the mercenaries told him.

"Search every damned room," Beauchamp roared. "Find someone. There's got to be someone here!" He drew his sword. "Where in hell is everyone?"

"I'm sure they've all just gone to Tygo," Scriven said, pursing his lips. He was starting to get a little anxious himself—none of this was going quite to plan, but then again...

"And taken everything with them, and all the bloody servants and the entire household?"

"I suppose that would be somewhat excessive," Scriven muttered.

"Someone must have warned her," Beauchamp growled. "That bitch! Whoever told her… well, it doesn't matter. Despencer told her to go to Tygo, so she's there and my men are getting rid of her brats. She'll be here soon enough, I'm sure." He rubbed his hands together. "Meanwhile, we need to secure the treasury and the crown jewels." He gestured toward the doors that led to the stairs going down to the palace storage chambers, where the gold and silver of Gravonia was kept and where the crown jewels were stored with a large horde of jewels—diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and all sorts of other precious stones.

Beauchamp knew that in the past twenty years, the country's fortunes had grown by leaps and bounds, so that a vast fortune awaited him. He trailed behind his soldiers to the basement storerooms and grinned as he heard the keys turning and the locks opening. The soldiers threw the doors open and he walked into the largest storage chamber. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness, and then his mouth went dry and he felt as though his heart had dropped to the floor.

The room was empty.

He spun around, searching for some sign of the vast horde of gold and silver that he knew awaited him.

There was nothing.

He rushed out of the room to the next, and saw the soldiers standing there, looking around in utter confusion. He continued on down the hallway, pausing at each door, only see that each storage room was empty. The final room—where the crown jewels and Queen's own personal items were kept—was also empty. Beauchamp winced and turned around, unable to bear looking at the velvet-draped tables where his coronation regalia should have been waiting for him to try on.

"The armory is empty," one of the Lacovian soldiers said. Another soldier came rushing down the steps, looking a little frantic.

"The stables are empty, save one horse," he said, looking at Scriven, who rolled his eyes upward.

"One horse?" Beauchamp said. "Which horse?"

"A chestnut, sir, with a blaze and four socks."

"Despencer's horse," Beauchamp hissed. "Find that moron and bring him to me!"

Beauchamp's fury only increased as he paced back and forth in the Great Hall. He looked up at the wall over the fireplace, where the mounted head of a stag stared down at him, and resumed pacing, fists clenched and jaw tight. This was not going as he had planned, and a growing fear was beginning to nudge at the edge of his mind.

He had the palace, but it was empty. He had the throne, but the throne itself, the treasury and the crown jewels were gone. Every item of value in the palace was God only knew where. The royal family and the household had vanished, though he remained confident the Queen and her brats where at Tygo and hopefully being killed. The residents of Luvov were all locked in their homes, clearly in accordance with some command from someone of high rank—had Eleanor ordered this? Henry certainly hadn't, as he had not even returned to Luvov before riding up to Willemet. Beauchamp's two most trusted knights had given the King the tale of Lacovia invading, and they had ridden straight for Tygo to await the Queen and the royal family's arrival. Beauchamp's mercenary navy and a good number of Lacovian ships had blockaded the ports. The Queen and her sons would have no means of escape once they arrived at Konigshaus, and killing Alexander and his brothers would be quick and simple, the Lacovians had assured him.

He paced, growling and cursing under his breath. At the sound of the door opening, he turned and faced Lord Gavin Despencer and two Lacovian knights. "Lord Gavin," he said, eyes narrowing.

"I've been locked in that room since yesterday morning!" Despencer squawked, glaring at the two knights. He looked around the room, brow furrowing. "Where is everyone… and where are the tapestries?"

"Gone!" Beauchamp shouted at him.

"They're gone? Where?"

"For a jolly gallop through the woods. Tell me where they are, you jackass!"

"I told… I told the Queen to go to Tygo. She's there now, I'm sure."

"She ought to have been brought to me by now!" Beauchamp shouted at him. "What did she tell you?"

"She said she was going to Tygo," Despencer said, his expression changing from confusion to outright fear. "She assured me… "

"Who else spoke to you?"

"Sir Niall Lassiter is the only man I spoke to," Despencer told him. "I've seen no one since."

"Lassiter?" Beauchamp looked at his men, refusing to acknowledge that his stomach had dropped--Lassiter was no fool, and he was loyal to Henry and the royal family. "Has anyone seen him?"

"There is no one in the palace, sir, aside from us and this nitwit," one of the knights told him, looking annoyed with Despencer. "Did you ever think to leave that room? To ask any damned questions?"

"They told me stay, and then when I tried to leave the door was locked," Despencer said weakly. He didn't mention that he had figured it was for his own safety and had returned to his sumptuous meal of roast goose, pies and cakes.

Beauchamp continued to glower at the young nobleman. Finally, he stepped forward. "Pray, Lord Gavin, do you recall the instructions you were given with regard to how you were to present yourself to the Queen on arriving here at the palace?"

"I was to tell the Queen that I had come from the battle at Willemet…. "

"And did you remember the very important detail about how you were to look like you had just come from a battlefield?"

The other knights studied Despencer, noting that his clothes were not stained or torn, and that he looked like his most strenuous activity of the past few days had been devouring food and sleeping.

"So exactly how far and fast did you ride, Lord Gavin, before arriving here and telling the Queen—a bitch, aye, but a smart bitch—that the King had been captured in battle and taken to Rumon?"

Despencer swallowed, seeing his fortune and any chances of ever marrying Lady Juliet circling down the shithole. His knees buckled, and Beauchamp growled for his men to take Despencer out to the Tower Gate to keep him there. "I'll deal with you later, you empty-headed buffoon. I should have known better—I thought your father's good sense was hereditary."

The young nobleman's face was rather grey, and he looked not only fearful but utterly terrified. "Has… has anyone seen my friend Lord Barton?"

"Shut up," Beauchamp snapped. "Tell me when King Paul arrives," he ordered the soldiers. "Most importantly, tell me the moment the Queen is brought here."

"Bloody hell, there's Lacovians everywhere," Constantine muttered. He frowned, slightly confused to see that the soldiers were only gathering along the outer walls of Luvov, while a few more were milling around in the market squares but not actually looting or burning anything. Yet. He was sure they were just awaiting orders—once they knew that the royal family had been eliminated and Beauchamp had secured the throne and the treasury, they would be given their heads. He didn't want to think of the bloodbath that would follow. Just the same, their restraint was remarkable, particularly considering how underfed they all looked. Luvov teemed with money, food and lovely girls--what was keeping them outside the gates?

Of course, now that he thought about it, there was another reason for their behavior. He didn't like putting too much hope in such a possibility, but it was there and it gave him reason to tread carefully for now. Hadn't Philip told him, during the ride up to Luvov, to 'trust but verify'?

"We need to get past those soldiers to the cathedral," Philip told him. He looked at Lord Hallam, pitying the man—he looked exhausted, but he knew that trying to talk him into getting some rest would be useless.

"So how do we get past them?" Constantine asked Philip. "I'm somewhat recognizable, I think."

"Aye, that's true." Philip sighed. "And I still think we ought to get the royal family and the household out of the cathedral and to someplace safer. And that'll be quite a to-do... er... too."

Constantine nodded. "Go get me a Lacovian knight, will you?"

"Dead or alive?" Philip asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Don't care."

Hallam leaned tiredly against a broken-down wagon and rubbed his aching shoulders. "What the hell… what are you two planning?"

Philip grinned. "Tactics, James. Tactics."

Philip sent four young knights to the northern edge of the city, to a portion of the wall that was sparsely populated by Lacovian knights. They smoothly separated a Lacovian from his friends, drawing his attention by making some noise along the other side of a low wall. Once they drew him in, they ambushed him, dragged him over the wall, knocked him unconscious and quickly removed his colors and mail before tying him up and carrying him back to camp. They gave the clothes and mail to the King, settled the still unconscious knight under a tree to recover, and trotted away to continue their patrol of the camp's perimeter.

The King of Morvenia ordered a group of knights to go and find the Gravonian army in the royal forest and report back with their location, then sat down on a tree stump and politely asked a servant to bring him some food while he waited. "Oh, and do bring something for Lord Hallam here. Good God, James, you look like you've been ridden hard and put up wet."

"All in devoted service to the Queen, sir... and King Alexander," Hallam said wearily. "I hope to God she's getting a bit of rest." He looked at Philip. "I have never seen her cry before. She was utterly devastated."

"These leggings don't fit. It'd be easier to wear a damned skirt," Constantine said, stalking out of Philip's tent in Lacovian colors.

"Yes, but that green does bring out your eyes, but if I ever see you in a skirt I must admit it'll break my heart," Philip said, standing and cheerfully ignoring his brother's glower. Hallam remained seated, eagerly devouring the bread and meat the servant brought to him. Constantine smacked his sword into his scabbard, threw the green cape over his shoulder and attached the corners to the epaulettes, growling softly as he twisted the pins in place. Constantine frowned, shaking his head.

"I never thought I'd see the day when I'd wear Lacovian colors."

"All for a good cause. Go on. You've got to get in there and see the lay of the land, so to speak," Philip said.

Constantine clanked away, still growling, and the King and Hallam watched him casually join a group of Lacovian knights strolling into the city. The prince was soon lost in the crowd of invading soldiers and Philip sat down again, saying a silent prayer for his brother and for Eleanor. He smiled expansively at Lord Hallam. "Now, my good man, let's drink a toast to subterfuge, eh? We've much to discuss, in the meantime, and when you've had a bit of rest, I've a mission for you, if you don't mind working with some of my soldiers."

Eleanor woke to Clothilde bringing her a tray of bread, fruit and eggs. She sat up, staring gloomily at the food, feeling no degree of hunger whatsoever, but she knew arguing with her lady-in-waiting would be useless. She picked listlessly at the food while Clothilde gathered up her blood-stained clothes and took them away for washing. She forced herself to finish everything before Clothilde returned, and the Queen said nothing as the woman showed her a black dress.

"I don't feel like a widow yet."

"I know."

"I keep expecting him to come stomping in with his staghounds, covered with mud and boasting about the boar he brought down."

Clothilde nodded as Eleanor stood and allowed her to help her into the dress. Clothilde muttered softly about the Queen needing a nice hot bath and a bit of rest, but she was ignored. Eleanor had no interest in hot baths or rest—she had no interest in anything now, save seeing Beauchamp's head on a spike at Tower Gate.

"Has anyone heard yet from the Duke of Trebane?" Eleanor asked. She tried to smooth her hair a little and wished she had a mirror.

"Not as yet, ma'am. I am certain he has the army gathered, as you instructed."

"Yes, I'm certain he does."

Eleanor allowed Clothilde to open the door and she stepped out into the room. Her family and courtiers were finishing up their breakfasts, and Alexander rose, approaching his mother cautiously. "Mama, Papa's body arrived here during the night, and we have interred him into a crypt for now."

"I see. Very good."

Eleanor spied Sir Niall Lassiter standing with some of the king's guards, and she went to him. He bowed his head.

"Sir Niall, I pray that your fiancée was evacuated safely to her home?"

"Yes, ma'am. I sent her home with her brothers—she is safe."

"I'm quite pleased to hear that. And Lord Gavin—he remains at the palace?"

"To my knowledge, ma'am, he is still there. Last I saw, he was eating a very large meal I had sent up for him."

She nodded after giving Lassiter a vague smile. She finally sat down at a trestle table with Agnes and Clothilde, staring blankly into the fireplace across the way and wondering how she could keep herself from going mad.

Constantine paused at the doors to the vast cathedral, knowing that the front doors were likely locked. He paused, thinking of how he might get in, and casually strolled around to the back of the building, ambling along the outer gates until he came to the priory garden and stableyard. He noted that the gate was locked, and growled before continuing on until he finally found a door where a young nun was coming out with a bucket. He barely avoided having the contents of a chamberpot being thrown on him and nodded to the woman, whose eyes widened in terror when she saw him.

"Don't fear, ma'am. I am not a Lacovian," he told her, before she could shriek and run away.

"You're dressed like one!" she gasped, clutching at her thin chest.

"Shhh! I have been told that the Queen and the royal family are here."

She looked fairly unwilling to confirm that, and Constantine sighed. "I am here to see Queen Eleanor. I am a friend, from Morvenia."

The nun swallowed, but she finally stepped aside and let him through the door. He paced along the pathway to the gardens and let the nun catch up and guide him to the door to the priory. She shoved it open and led him down the hall and into the cathedral itself. She looked up at him, still fearful. "You are not going to harm the Queen, are you?"


"Can I tell her your name, sir?"

"I wish to see her," he said, affecting the hauteur borne of generations of command. "Take me to her, and do not delay me further."

The nun looked at him, confused, but nodded and opened the door to the catacombs and rushed down the stairs. Constantine followed at a slower pace, needing time to rein in his emotions before coming face to face with Eleanor again. These were certainly not the circumstances he had in mind for meeting her. To be in the same room with her, even if Henry were alive, would have been difficult and even painful, but he would have done it for Elizabeth's sake, and for the sake of future shared grandchildren, but this… this was a twist of fate he could never have imagined.

The nun skittered ahead of him, rushing into the room where the household and the princes sat. When Constantine appeared in the doorway, Elizabeth gasped "Papa!" and rushed into his arms. He embraced her, exhaling with relief to see her safe. The nun leaned against the wall, gasping in relief.

"Smidgen," he said, kissing his daughter's forehead. "Are you all right?"

"Of course I am. I'm here with Alexander and the Queen." She looked up at him. "Did… did you bring the army with you?"

"They are hiding outside the city. Where is the Queen?"

Elizabeth swallowed. "She is in there," she said softly, pointing to a door. "She has not come out since after breakfast."

Constantine regarded Alexander for a moment, studying the tall, handsome young man. He looked like a king, and Constantine wondered if the boy would be a good king, too. This calamity would prove his mettle, that was for sure. He bowed slightly to his future son-in-law, and Alexander nodded back, but said nothing. Constantine went to the door, pushed it open without even knocking, and stepped into the room. Clothilde stood, looking concerned, but Agnes snatched her hand and shook her head.

Eleanor was sitting by the fire, staring blankly into the flames, her sewing forgotten in her lap. Constantine had expected her to be wearing typical widow's weeds, but instead she was wearing a simple black dress but not one of those ridiculous wimples like his mother wore. Her hair was down, she wore no jewelry, and her feet were bare—had he not known her, he would have thought her a peasant woman: a breathtakingly beautiful, pale paragon. Silently, he moved across the room and sat down in the chair opposite her, but for several moments she did not move.

Finally, he cleared his throat and Eleanor looked at him, but it was as if she were not even seeing him, she was wrapped up in her grief.

"Hello, Eleanor."

"Constantine," she said softly.

"I received your message."

Eleanor drew in her breath and set her sewing into a basket. "I knew you would come."

"I promised, years ago, that nothing would keep me from coming to you, if you called me. What do want me to do?" he asked.

"I want you to capture Lord Beauchamp and bring him to me."

"Of course."

"And then I'm going to kill him."

For a moment, he stared at her, not terribly surprised at her words, but the blazing anger in her eyes made him pause. Finally, he rubbed his hands on his knees and sat back. "I hope I am never so unfortunate as to offend you."

"I cannot imagine you ever offending me," she said softly. "I need your advice, of course, and your brother's, and we need your army. Gravonia's army is competent and confident, but Lacovia has mercenaries and I'm sure they have blockaded Tygo and the cities on the coast, and I'm sure Beauchamp is in the palace by now, and is planning… "

"Eleanor, perhaps you are not aware… " Constantine started, but she cut him off.

"He has murdered my husband and threatens my sons!" she snapped. "I want him dead."

"Bloody hell, so do I, but you must approach this situation calmly and rationally, Eleanor. What I was about to say is that Richard of Stormont has sent us information in the past few months about how he does have a few reliable allies in the Lacovian army. Those men are highly placed and might be considered… friendly to you and your family. Well, maybe not friendly, necessarily, but they are tired of constant war and deprivation. I don't care much for Lacovians, either, but they don't care much for poverty and hopelessness and are willing…"

"No Lacovian is regarded as friendly by me until he is dead," Eleanor snarled. She stood up, sweeping her skirts to the side and beginning to pace. "I would even kill Stormont if he walked into this room. I don't care about his plans, Constantine. I don't care if he is a just man. He's a Lacovian. Lacovians murdered my own parents and they murdered my husband and they would murder my children. I will wipe them off the damned planet for what they have done!"

"I'm fairly certain that it wasn't Lacovians who murdered Henry, Eleanor," Constantine said, keeping his voice gentle. "It was Beauchamp, a Gravonian, and sometimes the enemy of your enemy can be a friend. Not always, mind you, but it does happen sometimes, and Stormont has given us reason to believe he is an honest man, and he has made it clear that he is willing to work with us and perhaps even with you, if are you reasonable. Rumors are--and right now we are going on faith here--that the Lacovian army is being restrained by order of Stormont and the Lacovian generals. And honestly, Eleanor, I cannot picture you wiping out an entire country out of vengeance. You are not cruel, and you are not vindictive. Right now, you're angry and I understand that, but you will dishonor yourself and Henry if you let your rage consume you and turn you into someone like Beauchamp. I won't allow you to do that. You must try and practice some restraint and be rational."

She answered him by bursting into tears. Constantine went to her and gently embraced the weeping Queen, cradling her head against his chest and crooning softly. Eleanor clung to him, sobbing, then began beating his chest, pouring her rage out on him. "My husband is dead and my children could be murdered and you tell me to be rational? To be reasonable? You dare suggest I negotiate with my husband's enemies? How dare you tell me that! I will not be rational! I will have that bastard's blood!"

He let her pound on him, surprised at the force of her blows but knowing she would soon weaken—the ordeal she had been through in the past two days surely had her completely exhausted. Her strength faded after a while, and she collapsed against him, sobbing, overcome with grief. He embraced her again, letting her cry as much as she needed, and glanced at the door when it was pushed open and Lady Clothilde stepped in. The woman curtseyed elegantly, her gaze settling on the prince, and she did not look at all pleased. "Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness," she said. The prince released the Queen, who stood with her fists clenched, head down, still sobbing, and Clothilde went to her, gently embracing her and leading her back to her chair. Eleanor sat and covered her face with her hands.

Constantine met Clothilde's glare but said nothing. The German woman sat down opposite Eleanor and gave Constantine a look that told him he was dismissed. He shook his head, amazed that a woman could order him about so easily, but he knew better than to try and get past her now—she was as fiercely protective of Eleanor as the Queen was of her children. He bowed his head and left the room, and Alexander met him at the door. "I wish to speak with you, sir. Alone."

Constantine followed Alexander out of the common room and into the room where Henry was temporarily housed in one of the crypts. The Morvenian sat down, wincing a little at his usual aches after a lengthy ride. He watched the newly-minted King of Gravonia take a chair and sit down opposite him, his demeanor indicating nervousness and determination at once. Constantine sat back, casually crossing his knees, and waited.

"I want to thank you for coming so quickly to our aid. What have you heard so far?"

"Right now, we do not know a great deal. Lacovians are in the city, but they have not been let loose yet. Our suspicions... no, our hopes are that Richard of Stormont and some of the Lacovian generals are less than enthused about this invasion and are under their command, rather than Beauchamp."

Alexander paused, taking this in, and nodded. "I am certain that Beauchamp has the palace, but I am pleased to report that Sir Niall Lassiter—the Captain of the Guard—had all items of value, as well as the treasury, the crown jewels, the armory and even the thrones in the Presence Chamber—removed from the palace and hidden in secret chambers beneath the palace."

"Remind me to commend Sir Niall," Constantine nodded.

"He is a rather taciturn man, but his honesty and loyalty make him very trustworthy and my mother depends on him almost as much she does Lord Hallam. I… I assume Lord Hallam is with your men now?"

"He is at our encampment, south of the city. My brother is likely preparing him for his next mission. I suspect that after all this, he will be relieved to finally retire from service."

Alexander exhaled. "Sir, my mother is very distressed and she… she seems only to be holding on by the thinnest of threads and I fear for her."

"She is a very strong woman. She will hold."

The young King frowned at the older man, not sure what to make of that. "How… how do you know her so well? Elizabeth has said… "

"That's irrelevant," Constantine said shortly. "I have heard of her… abilities. A woman doesn't give birth to six children and thrash an army and yet possess no steel in her spine."

Alexander pursed his lips and looked at the catafalque containing his father. "Were you close to your father, sir?"

"No, I wasn't. Fatherhood did not suit him."

"It was our father who spent time with us—playing and hunting, and of course he taught me about how to be a leader, but it was our mother who protected us and punished us for bad behavior and saw to our educations… Mama even taught us how to hunt grouse and rabbits."

Constantine's mouth twisted a little. He remembered that Eleanor was quite good at bringing down small prey, but she had never had much interest in killing stags or boars. "She is a remarkable woman, sir," Constantine said. "And your father was a good man. They complemented each other quite well."

"Papa loved her so much," Alexander said softly. "She loved him, too."

Constantine wasn't sure he wanted to hear that. Even now, just thinking of Eleanor in Henry's arms made his throat constrict and his heart hurt.

"Sir, I insist that I be allowed to show myself to my people. How can they have any hope if they only see Beauchamp? They will be told we're all dead, I'm sure… "

"Remember that Beauchamp has no treasury and no armory—all the horses are apparently somewhere near the Livonian border, too. Without those essential items, he will have no financial backing and no means of arming his men, unless he brought one hell of a lot of supplies with him. Even if he did, he will need reinforcements and he is far from the border. Plus he has no loyalty from the Lacovian soldiers, and he 'll have none from Gravonia's, either."

"So Beauchamp is essentially isolated?"

Constantine nodded. "And what do you to do to an enemy that is isolated? I'm sure your father told you."

"My mother told me that you isolate him, cut him off from supply lines and reinforcements, and then utterly destroy him."

"And what is the first rule of war?" Constantine asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Know your enemy."

"And what do you know of your enemy?"

"He's an ass. A stupid ass even, and arrogant, and sure he will have an easy victory, but he is also ruthless and determined to be King." Alexander looked at Constantine. "Sir, I have never commanded men on a battlefield, but I have been trained by my parents and by Lord Hallam and the Duke of Trebane. I am King now and I should make sure the people of this country know that I am here and that we have not abandoned them."

"You'll need to put that to your mother and your generals, not me," Constantine shook his head. "What you need to do now is see to it that you listen to the advise of older, experienced soldiers. It's all very well and good that you want to beat Beauchamp to a bloody pulp and avenge your father, but right now your family needs you."

"The people of this kingdom must trump even my family, sir," Alexander said. "I will not have them terrorized by Beauchamp's mercenaries and the Lacovians."

Constantine nodded. "Like I said, son, you need to apply to your mother and your generals for their advice, not me. I'm only here to help, and it was your mother who called for me." He briefly fingered the blue silk ribbon still tied to his sword hilt. "Alexander, I have been a warrior since the age of thirteen. I earned my spurs at a horrible place called Stense—you've heard of it?"

Alexander swallowed. He had heard of it—the Battle of Stense Field had been a massive, bloody battle on some God-forsaken plain near Prague. He had also heard that Constantine had killed many men during that battle, and held his line against a huge force of Germans invading from the north. He studied the older man silently, picturing the ferocity of the battle. He could almost hear the clash of metal on metal, the screams of injured and dying men and horses, and could smell flesh, pitch and hair burning. He swallowed—Stense had been a bloodbath, but Constantine's side—an alliance of Czechs and Hungarians—had been triumphant and the prince had returned home sporting scars and just the beginnings of a reputation for strategic brilliance.

"Your own mother earned her spurs at thirteen, too. You'll earn yours soon enough, but be glad you have lived so long without seeing a battle. There is nothing romantic or glorious about a battle, Alexander. It's only glorious if you live to make up stories about your courage—no one will admit to having pissed their pants when the arrows starting flying, but he's earned the right to lie about it if he came out of it with his life," Constantine said, giving the young king a reassuring thump on the shoulder. "I have to go back to our encampment and find out what Philip has learned."

"Your brother is here?"

"The whole Morvenian army is here, and our navy is awaiting orders in Colcis Cove, out of sight of the Lacovians blockading your country's ports. Go and be a comfort to your mother and listen to the people around you—they will steer you right." He bowed slightly, turned and left the room. Alexander stood staring at the door for a long time, bewildered at Constantine's words.

He followed the Morvenian prince out into the common room and saw his mother standing with her ladies, her face pale and her mouth pursed into a grim, thin line. She looked at her son, and Alexander wondered at Constantine's words: she had earned her spurs at the age of thirteen, he had said. But where? How? He could not imagine his mother in a battle, but somehow, it all seemed quite fitting. If there was anyone able and willing to fight, it was Queen Eleanor.

Constantine paced along by himself toward the city gates, but paused when he saw a small group of Lacovian soldiers standing outside a cozy-looking little inn, reading from a paper that had just been nailed to the door. He shouldered his way to the front and read the proclamation.

To the People of Gravonia

As His Majesty King Henry has been taken prisoner and removed to Rumon in Lacovia, and because the Queen and the Royal Family have abandoned the Country, it is with a sad heart but a great sense of duty that I, Charles Beauchamp, do hereby declare a Protectorate and do proclaim Ourselves Regent of Gravonia. We will rule Gravonia with a firm and loving hand and will do all in Our power to rescue His Majesty from his captors with all due haste.

God Save the King!

Charles, Lord Protector of Gravonia

Indeed, Constantine thought. So that's his strategy now. Dither for now, wait until he's got the Queen and her children, find some means of quietly disposing of them all, and then have himself declared King in fact rather than just name.

He glanced at the Lacovian soldiers reading the notice, and didn't miss that there were still no Gravonian citizens wandering the streets of the city. The unkempt-looking, hungry soldiers were actually behaving rather well, and so far he saw no signs of them invading any houses or burning anything to the ground. Perhaps, he thought, he could add a dash of faith to the hope he had now in the rumors he was hearing about Stormont.

Constantine turned away and continued to the gates. Beauchamp had some grand plans for his future, but Constantine knew that when men planned, God just laughed.

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