"Good people!" Lorenzo called loudly, bringing talking and music to a stop in the Banqueting Hall. "His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen Mother!"
The crowd parted as Alexander and his mother appeared in the doorway, and the King gently led Eleanor down the steps into the huge room. She smiled serenely at the soldiers and their wives and children as she walked down the long red carpet to the other end of the room, where a dais had been set up, with a table for herself and the royal family. Alexander saw to his mother's comfort first before finally picking up an ornate gold goblet and waiting for Boris to fill it with wine.
"We are honored by your presence and touched by your loyalty to the Crown," he said. "You do often say 'God save the King', but every day I say 'God save the good people of Gravonia'. We wish to express our gratefulness to you tonight with much food, a little wine, dancing and entertainments. Before we eat, let us pray."
Eleanor exhaled slowly and closed her eyes, refusing to let herself search the room for a familiar face. She bowed her head and Alexander took her hand.
"Dear Father in heaven, we do thank You for your help in our struggle, and we praise You as the giver of all good things. Without You we are nothing and have no hope of salvation and eternal life. Thank you, God, for these good people and for their devotion to You foremost. We ask Your continued blessings, as You see fit, and may You bless these people and all citizens of this nation with peace, prosperity, health and happiness according to Your good will. Let us grow in our love for You and for each other. Let us always give praises unto You, and to always humble ourselves before you. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost I do pray… amen."
Everyone in the Banqueting Hall murmured softly and Alexander finally sat down beside Eleanor. He grinned when his brothers came clattering up the steps to join them, and all six young men stood when Elizabeth came up the steps and curtseyed low to him and to Eleanor. The Queen Mother and the future Queen Consort smiled at each other and the young woman sat down beside Alexander.
"You look so lovely, Elizabeth," Eleanor said, leaning forward to look at her future daughter-in-law. "That shade of violet is perfect for you."
Elizabeth blushed and smiled shyly. "Thank you, ma'am." She looked carefully at Eleanor, taking in the Queen's black widow's weeds. Eleanor knew she looked particularly pale and thin in such an outfit, but she could not imagine wearing anything else for the foreseeable future. Her ladies had tried to convince her to at least wear her famous diamonds, but she had refused. She was, officially, now in mourning and would remain so for quite a while, according to tradition and protocol. It hardly mattered that she looked like she was about to be stuffed into a coffin and covered with dirt, and right now, despite the bright and cheerful atmosphere of the Banqueting Hall and the laughter and dancing around her, she wished she could be buried and left alone forever.
Pushing away her increasing sorrow, Eleanor finally allowed herself to seek someone in the crowds of dancing and laughing knights and soldiers, but she could not find him. She sighed—he was not a social man, and parties like this, with all the required talking and dancing, would be agony for him and he had likely returned to the Morvenian encampment outside the city gates. He probably even had a few wounds to tend to, though when she had seen him last he had not seemed to be any the worse for wear, though he had been quite cross.
She looked at her eldest son and he took her hand again, squeezing it gently.
Eleanor had told Alexander the whole story, leaving out only Constantine's role in her past, and her son had listened in silence, looking bewildered at first. When she finished, he had only nodded and told her to prepare to join in the celebration in the Banqueting Hall, insisting that she go upstairs to dress and rest a bit before coming back downstairs. She had left the Presence Chamber and sat alone in her room for some time, until Agnes and Clothilde came in and helped her with her clothes. That she refused to wear jewelry had surprised them all, but for once Clothilde had not asked her any questions, though as usual (and per her usual duties) she had looked worried.
Eleanor was startled from her thoughts by Lady Harriet, who was holding her newest baby and smiling shyly.
"Harriet!" Eleanor gasped. "You're already up and about!"
"Aye, ma'am. My John is in fits that I insisted on coming back to the palace, but… I had to come. I simply could not stay at home at such a time. So he wrapped me up in cotton padding, carried me out to the coach and wouldn't let the horses take more than two steps a minute to get here." She cast an affectionately exasperated look at her husband, who still looked agitated to see his wife on her own two feet so soon.
Eleanor laughed, delighted indeed to see Lord John Ellis and the rest of Harriet's family. She smiled at Xenia, who clasped her hands together and was looking eagerly around the room, bouncing excitedly on her heels. The Queen cast aside all propriety and went around to the girl and pointed out Prince Harry, who was chatting with a nobleman. When he saw her, however, he immediately excused himself and came over, smiling as he bowed.
"We're so happy you were able to come, Harriet, but I must insist you sit down and rest," Eleanor said, turning back to the older woman. "You will not believe me, considering our past, but I am so delighted to see you and your little one."
Harriet just laughed, but she obeyed. Lord Ellis took Eleanor's hand. "Your Majesty, it's good to see you at home again."
"I'm quite relieved to be here, too, and I am delighted to see you again," she said softly. "I had little doubt we would all return."
"We have named our new little one Henry," Harriet said. "We hope you do not mind."
"I'm very pleased," Eleanor said, smiling and peering at the sleeping baby. "And Henry would have been extremely honored."
Lord Ellis smiled and sat down after assisting his wife into a chair and fussing over her a bit. Xenia and Harry went away together, to sit down at a table near the fire and talk in their own way. Eleanor watched Xenia's expressive face and though she did not know what the girl was telling her son, it was clear that Harry understood every word. She turned and watched Alexander and Elizabeth talking quietly together, neither terribly interested in joining in the dancing when there was so much catching up to do. Elizabeth didn't even seem intimidated by the fact that Alexander was now a king—she was even teasing him, which he was obviously enjoying, but it made Eleanor's heart ache to watch them. He was no longer just her son. He belonged to Elizabeth now, and her role in her son's life was now secondary, and perhaps not even that high. Plus he was now her sovereign—obeying his commands, after having meted out punishments to him during his childhood, was going to be hard.
As the night went on, with no sign of anyone getting tired of eating, drinking and dancing, Eleanor presided quietly over the celebrations, only joining in the dancing a few times, first with Alexander and then with her dear old friend Lord Hallam and lastly with Lorenzo and Boris. She sat down with Elizabeth and watched the jugglers perform and was amused by the jokes of a jester. But her cheerful mood faded as the first lights of dawn began showing in the east, and she rose from her seat, her grief finally being too heavy to bear in such a place. Immediately, everyone stopped dancing and fell silent.
"Please, continue with your celebration," Eleanor said. "I am merely tired and wish to retire." She smiled at Alexander, who rose as well.
"Yes, continue. Do not stop on our account. I will return shortly." He took her hand and led her out of the Banqueting Hall, and when the doors closed behind them, the King took his mother's hands in his. "Stop fretting, Mama."
"I suppose you have not had time to decide on what to do with me," she said.
"I'm to do something with you?" he asked, looking confused.
"Alexander, I am a peasant. No King wants his reign to start with lies, particularly from his own mother, and I know of no king whose mother was not only not royal but also a fraud. It would be best if I left."
Her son rolled his eyes, shaking his head. "Good God, woman. Were you born in Livonia?"
"And were you not the granddaughter of King Michael?"
"Well… yes… "
"And your name is Eleanor, right?"
"Yes, but… "
"Then you are Eleanor of Livonia, granddaughter of King Michael. You actually thought I would exile you or declare you a fraud? For the love of God! I would never exile you—you're my mother! You have spent the past twenty years protecting this kingdom and our family and you have never failed. I don't give a damn if you were 'only' a peasant, and by the way, no one is just a peasant. Haven't you told me that all my life? To show respect and deference to everyone, regardless of their station? You are Queen Mother now and you will be honored as such." He shrugged. "And we will never speak of it again."
"But Alexander… " she tried again. "Surely you… "
"Mama, the matter is over. Now. Go on to bed and rest. I know you must be exhausted… did your arrow really wound Beauchamp?"
"Yes," she nodded, looking down. "Count von Hesse trained me well."
"I suppose it would not be prudent to call him Grandfather in public, would it?" Alexander asked, raising one eyebrow. "But for all intents and purposes, he is my grandfather. It's truly amazing. I have known and respected him all my life, and he raised you as his own daughter. No one would believe such a tale, Mama."
"There are times I do not believe it myself." Eleanor drew in her breath. "Only King Philip knows who I am, besides you and Count von Hesse and his wife… and Betsy, of course."
He laughed. "That sharp-tongued woman… no wonder she never feared twisting my ear and spanking my arse when I was naughty! Midwife, indeed!"
"So you forgive me? Alexander, you are being far too easy on me… "
"You're my mother. You have loved and protected me and my brothers with a ferocity a lion would admire, and you have put down all threats to us." He paused, frowning. "Prince Constantine knows who you are, too?"
She swallowed. "He… is aware, yes."
"So is that why he was so cross when he came here with Elizabeth? Did he know you before, when you were Eleanor Reeve?"
"He… we met a… a few times, in Livonia. He would pass through the Turon Valley sometimes, coming and going from Havor, and he was always very kind. I was just a peasant girl whose mother was born on the wrong side of the blanket, and I suppose we were… friends. I hit him with a snowball when I was thirteen and he never held it against me."
Alexander grinned. "You hit the Dragon with a snowball? How remarkable!" He kissed her cheek. "Go on to bed, Mama. It has been a very long day and an even longer night, and you look pretty well done in."
She nodded and started down the hall, but he caught her hand. "Mama, I will insist that you tell no one else. What you have told me will remain between us, and I will make sure to remind King Philip to maintain his silence on the matter as well." He smiled and shook his head. "It's all so amazing. You've brought some strong red blood into the family, Mama. That can't be anything other than a good thing. Go on. I must be present when the party ends and see everyone gets home in good order and that no one starts urinating in the flower pots." He bowed, shaking his head in amusement, and left her standing in the hallway, bewildered.
Constantine did not sleep. He sat in his tent until dawn, listening to the soft music coming from the palace and thinking of Eleanor joining in the battle and wishing—however guilty it made him feel—she would join him in his bed.
God help him, but she had been beautiful.
He was still angry at her. Still furious, in fact, that she had risked her life. He could understand her need for vengeance, but a woman had no business on the battlefield, particularly a Queen, and he still wanted to shout at her and shake her and hold her and never let her go. He supposed it was a good thing he had stayed away from the banquet, as he would have let his emotions show far too much and questions would have been asked. The last thing he wanted was to expose Eleanor's secret to the world, much less his own. If Elizabeth and Alexander ever learned of his past with Eleanor, the results could be disastrous.
As the sky began to lighten and turned to a soft pearl grey with spreading edges of pink, he stepped outside and breathed in the clean chilly air. Philip was already up, he noted, and went over to say good morning. Philip looked up at him from his place at his table and frowned. "You look like you've been dragged through hell and hung up on a rack."
"I didn't sleep."
"Aye, I suppose not. Your woman is in that palace, and you're out here."
Constantine scowled at his brother. "Don't say such things."
"First of all, she's not my woman. Secondly, she's been a widow for, what, four days?"
Philip shrugged and nodded when a servant came over, carrying a tray of eggs, bacon and bread. When the servant left, Philip leaned forward. "Granted, it's a bit too early to make your claim, but in a year or so, after mourning is over… "
"Stop it," Constantine snapped. "Don't even mention such a thing. It's… obscene."
The King gave a negligent wave of his hand. "Like I said, in a few years… "
"Leave it, brother." Constantine snatched up a piece of bacon and some toasted bread. "I will go and visit Elizabeth before I leave."
"Wait, you're going to leave early? I was hoping you'd want to stay around here for a bit."
"And watch you eat all the bacon in Gravonia? You'll have a fit and your heart will stop, but if you want to stay here, go right ahead. I doubt anyone will complain, unless you actually do eat all the bacon in this country." Constantine stood. "I'll come by on the way out. I will leave for home tonight."
"Fine. Be careful."
Constantine rode Lamman through the already bustling main thoroughfare of Luvov, and politely acknowledged occasional greetings from townspeople, who seemed surprised and pleased to see him. He stopped at the gates and was greeted by two enormous, muscular guardsmen. "Your Royal Highness, sir," one of them said. "The King will be pleased to see you."
"I'm really here to see my daughter," Constantine told them. "She is well?"
"I believe she is still awake, though the banquet ended an hour or so ago. She and the King are in the gardens, sir." The guard opened the gates and admitted Constantine, who moved quickly around the east side of the palace, removing his gloves and rubbing the silk ribbon tied on the hilt of his sword. He paused at the stairs leading up to the terrace, but followed his nose along the cobbled path to the gardens instead and hoped he wouldn't come across any banquet guests fornicating in the hedges… much less his daughter being mauled by her future husband. He continued along the path until he came upon a huge oak tree, its branches spreading out to form a natural tent. He frowned and stepped through the opening and was startled to see Eleanor sitting there alone, draped in black, her head down.
She jumped up, gasping in fright. "Dear God, you scared me half to death!"
"I recall you being able to sneak up on people—you walk as silently as a cat." She laughed softly. "You did not come to the banquet. Elizabeth was disappointed." She could not let herself say that she was disappointed too.
"I do not enjoy dancing and I've no stomach for mounds of food or wine," he said. "And you know I am not much for conversation."
"No, you never were." She sat down again and scooted aside, silently inviting him to sit beside her. He finally stepped into the well-shaded little 'room' and sat down on the bench. Eleanor clasped her hands together. "Though I don't recall you ever being at a loss for what to say when called upon." At his shrug, she went on. "I wanted to thank you for coming. For coming to help us, I mean. You have no idea how much we appreciate your assistance."
"Your army handled the matter quite well on its own, actually. Just a bit of guidance was required, and Alexander came up with the majority of the plans. He has your knack for strategy, I must say, and Frederick is a hell of a fighter and a fine leader, too. My own knights had little to do."
"But your support was needed." She looked down.
"And yet you still went to the battlefield and took part in the fray," he said, giving a hard sideways glare. "What if you had been hurt, Eleanor?"
"Like I told you, I had to avenge my husband. I promised him and his mother, and I am pleased to have kept my vow, and believe they are pleased with my actions."
Constantine sighed and looked out through the opening of the natural arbor at the gardens, which was of varying shades and green and gold, with leaves turning yellow, red and rich purple. The arbor's leaves were turning a muted red-gold, and he exhaled slowly. "I suppose they must be. Henry was probably ecstatic when you stepped out of that carriage."
She looked down. "He was a good husband and a good father, Constantine. But he was not… you."
He could find nothing to say. He stared down at the bare earth beneath his feet, not daring to touch her though she was just inches from him. He doubted he could ever touch her again, and that made something in his chest hurt.
"How are your children?" she asked at last.
"They're all well. Michael and Nicholas both did well in Havor, but Nicholas wants to breed and train horses, rather than study war, and as hard as this will be for you to believe, I'm actually pretty relieved about that. At least he can stay at home and perhaps not have people shooting arrows at him and coming at him with swords and daggers."
"Right. Instead, it'll be recalcitrant horses kicking him."
He grinned. "Six of one, half a dozen of the other, eh?"
Eleanor laughed softly. "And the others?"
"Leopold is eager for life as a soldier, but I insist he get a bit better at just dressing himself, and Parr just wants to run from one room to the other at top speed. Nicholas had him convinced, over this past winter, that we were all just a figment of his imagination and that we all disappeared as soon as we were out of his sight. He scared me half to death, and I was ready to kill Nicholas."
She laughed heartily, and Constantine smiled, shaking his head ruefully. "And Charlotte… good God, I can't believe I fathered someone who can talk so much, but she can chatter with the best of them. She talks of her maps of the world and of traveling and she wants to learn languages and has even said she has no intention of ever marrying. She speaks French and Spanish and Latin and reads all the time—obviously she takes after Isabella."
"Truly? My Andrew and she have exchanged some letters, you know, and he loves languages, too—he is fluent in French and Spanish, too, and is slogging his way through German, which he says is a language only fit for crazy people. Considering how well he and Charlotte seem to communicate, it might be prudent to steel yourself to losing another daughter to Gravonia."
"I suppose that wouldn't be too bad," he shrugged. "I would know where my daughters were, and that they would be safe and well-provided for. Does Andrew like to talk?"
"Mmm… sometimes. He is better at listening, and I know he likes Charlotte. But we'll leave off matchmaking for now. They're both too young for such things. Let them write to each other, and be friends."
He nodded. "I look forward to retirement, actually—it would be rather nice to sit back and rest a bit. I'm less wary of handing military matters over to Michael—he has a head for strategy and leadership. Do you know he's even developed a friendship of sorts with a girl back in Morvenia?"
"Oh? Really? What is she like?"
"Tough, with no sign of being the grasping type—she isn't after a crown. She just likes Michael. She even scolds him when he misbehaves and doesn't take any guff from him at all. Plus she's a bonny little thing."
"Well, that's a grand thing, isn't it? I certainly wasn't after a crown when I met you."
"So you were just after me?" Constantine smiled slightly.
"I'm sure many other girls were, and are," she nodded, spreading her hands on her lap. "I suppose one day you will remarry, for Charlotte's sake a little and yours a great deal. A girl her age needs a mother… and a warrior needs a soft, quiet woman to come home to."
He snickered. "My own dear mother is filling Isabella's shoes admirably, I can assure you, and I'm not keen to marry again, whatever the advantages might be to me." He looked up at the tangle of branches that formed the thick, cool arbor where they sat. "And you will likely remarry some day, too."
"I would? No. I cannot imagine doing so. Queen Mothers aren't really… supposed to marry again."
"I've heard of a few that at least took lovers," Constantine said, and immediately regretted the statement. Eleanor's soft smile faded and she looked down at her hands. "I'm sorry. That was… unkind and uncalled for. You are not most women, and certainly not like any Queen I've ever known."
"A peasant girl from Livonia doesn't generally become a Queen. I told Alexander last night… about where I came from, I mean. Who I am."
He swallowed. "You told him about us?"
"No. That is… too private. Too… "
She looked at him, examining his profile and seeing him purse his lips, his eyes narrowing slightly as he maintained control over his emotions. He rubbed the silk ribbon the hilt of his sword, and she finally reached out and took his hand, feeling him tremble. "I will always cherish my memories of you, Constantine. I will take them out when I am lonely and the world gets cruel or frightening."
"You, frightened?" he said, not looking at her.
"I have been frightened many times."
"I never saw it. You're the one that went to a battlefield and wounded the man who murdered your husband."
"I was afraid," she said softly. "I was afraid for my sons and my friends and for Count von Hesse—had Beauchamp won the day, we would have all been butchered."
"Well, that didn't happen, so put it out of your mind. When a battle is over, I never think of what could have happened. I think about what did happen. Granted, I'll go over whatever mistakes occurred and see about not doing those things again. Remember your old motto: yesterday is dead, tomorrow is blind."
Eleanor smiled. "I keep having to tell myself that. Almost every day." She laughed. "My official motto is 'peace through strength'. The court herald would have a fit if I changed it. Pax in virtute is much easier to spell than mortuus est etcrasheri caecus."
"Then I suppose you'll be fine. It keeps things in perspective, though, eh?"
"Certainly." She clasped her hands. "You are not angry at me any more?"
"I should be. But I'm not. I suppose I understand your reasoning. A bit more logic might have been useful—you're a small woman who I can only assume has not fired a crossbow in some time, yet you hie off to a battlefield to try and kill your enemy."
"I had to do it. Logical or not. For Henry and for my sons. I would do anything for Henry, and I would die for my sons."
He was silent for several moments, staring down at the blue ribbon. Finally, he straightened. "One thing I learned, in a lifetime of war, is to not bring anger or vengeance to a battlefield. People think I wiped out a Turkish garrison for laming poor old Amiel, but I attacked the garrison because they slaughtered the inhabitants of a little village nearby—they butchered men, women and babies at the breast. Their wounding Amiel was just the final straw, I suppose. I made sure to spare all their women and children, too. I sent them all home with protection and supplies. I can't imagine those men would have done the same for us."
"I will be very relieved to hear of your retirement from the battlefield. But what will you do with yourself?"
"Raise chickens," he muttered. "I'm already learning how to herd them because of my children."
Eleanor laughed, delighted. "I can say, Constantine, that I found your boys and little Charlotte delightful, and Elizabeth is a treasure. I love her as though she's my own child—she is the sweetest creature alive, just like her mother, and already is patroness of two very worthy charities in Luvov. Everyone adores her."
"Fortunately, she's much stronger," he said quietly. "Isabella was feisty but she didn't have the steel that Elizabeth got from somewhere."
"From you, silly. She's sweet and strong. She'll be a superb Queen."
"In another year or so. I can only assume Alexander will marry her as soon as she turns eighteen."
"I know you hardly wish to think of such a thing. What father does?"
"I remember what Count von Hesse said to me, after I asked for your hand. He said he would kill me and even the finest scent hounds in the world would never find my body." He grinned, teeth white against his tanned face. "Granted, his speech was a bit slurred. He had been drinking Spanish wine."
"Oh dear God… Spanish wine! That always makes me think of that ridiculous ambassador! I'll never forget that. He waltzed Count von Hesse around the Great Hall one night."
"Yes, the Conde de Mendoza waltzed my brother around our Great Hall, too. I was fortunate to escape such things, even when I visited his estate in Spain. His wife asked me to… " He paused, embarrassed.
"She asked me to sleep with her. Can you imagine such a thing? She was married, for God's sake."
"I suppose with a drunken, dancing husband she was a tad lonely."
"He had a mistress, too. I refused her, of course. I mean… had I been younger and unmarried at the time and had she been unmarried… well, it hardly matters. She wasn't my type."
Eleanor smiled and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, feeling suddenly very shy. She looked out at the gardens, marveling at the sparkling dew on the grass and the sky turning a soft, sweet shade of blue. It was hardly possible that a bloody battle had taken place just a few miles north of these beautiful, peaceful gardens. "I did not sleep last night. Nary a wink. I had to leave the banquet, but sleep was impossible. So much has happened. So much has changed. It hasn't even completely sunk in yet that my Henry is gone and that Alexander is King. My baby… a King!"
"He's hardly a baby any more if he needs a chaperon whenever he's out courting my daughter," he said dryly.
Eleanor laughed. "We didn't have one, as I recall."
"Only my conscience and a bit of clothing between us kept things from getting out of hand."
"And what of my conscience?" she asked with a teasing smile.
"Yours, too. Count von Hesse raised a very circumspect lass, I must say," he said archly, and she giggled. "Though there were moments… like you letting me get an eyeful at the river, and I don't recall you slapping me whenever I touched your… "
"All right, all right… so we weren't angels back then. Neither is your son and I suppose I have to admit that my daughter is not perfect. Who is? But I'm her father and so I get to be unreasonable and maybe even ridiculous and hideously overprotective and I declare I have every right to embarrass the hell out of her at every possible opportunity, even after she marries."
"Yes, I suppose so. I have no daughter, so I never got to see Henry act like a madman whenever a young man might have made eyes at a girl of ours. But I can say your behavior has been normal. Just don't be too hard on my poor son. He has no experience with other women, save friends he has made over the years, but he has great respect for Elizabeth and he treats her with consideration and deference."
"I guess that will keep me from wanting to strangle him after the wedding."
Constantine slowly rose to his feet, feeling his knees objecting, and briefly stretched his tired muscles.
"You stink, you know," Eleanor said.
"Come again?" He turned to look at her, not prepared for such a statement.
"You smell like sweat and pitch and horses and the battlefield. You really ought to take a bath."
"I'm leaving after I see Elizabeth. I don't think taking a bath will make much difference."
"It makes a difference to me. Go on into the palace and take a bath. Just find Boris and he will see that all is prepared." She stood, bobbed slightly to him, her head bowed, and left the arbor. She gasped when she almost collided with Elizabeth, whose eyes were wide and whose cheeks were flushed.
"Ma'am! I'm sorry, I… " Elizabeth's cheeks turned even pinker and she began wringing her hands anxiously. "I was walking alone and… " She peered around the Queen and saw her father coming out of the arbor. "Papa! I did not know you were here. I had no idea." The girl bobbed to her father, then looked at them both, eyes going back and forth between them. "I'm so glad you are here, of course."
"So am I, Smidgen. Walk with me back to the palace, eh? I've been ordered to bathe. Apparently I smell like something that passed through the system of a sick old woman."
The girl sniffed and looked as though she had caught the scent of something rather unpleasant. "Well, perhaps you ought to. Please stay for luncheon, Papa. We're just eating cold meats and bread… Alexander and the princes and I, that is, and ma'am, we would love to have you eat with us, too. The King is eager to host us all in his private chambers for the meal, away from the crowds and courtiers."
Eleanor smiled, glancing at Constantine, whose brow furrowed. "Of course I will, sweetheart, and I'm sure you can persuade your Papa to join us, too."
Constantine nodded to his daughter and walked away, toward the palace, and Eleanor smiled warmly at Elizabeth.
"I did not know you spent time in the Ogre's Nest, ma'am," Elizabeth said, still wringing her hands.
"Not a great deal, these days, but I have fond memories of it. And I think you do, too." She touched Elizabeth's cheeks. "Sweetheart, you're flushed. Are you ill?"
"Nay… I am quite well, ma'am."
"Well, come along then and we'll get ready for a quiet luncheon, hm? Go and catch up with your Papa and guide him to an available bathtub."
As usual, the task of removing clothes, padding and mail was exhausting and, as Philip often said, wholly uninspired. Constantine couldn't get the clasp undone on his mail shirt to save his life, and considering his arms no longer could stretch back so well, he was starting to wonder if he could just bathe with the damned thing on. Grumbling, he went to the door and hauled it open, ready to call for help, when he almost collided with Eleanor. She stared at him, noting that his mail and padding was still on, along with his black leather leggings, which she knew were already uncomfortable on such a warm day.
"Are you having a problem?"
"I can't remove this damned mail. I was going to try and pull it off over my head, but I figured I'd just suffocate."
"I see. Well. Come on then and I'll help you." She gestured for him to go back into the room and she closed the door. "Turn around and I'll unhook the clasp." He wearily turned his back to her and she expertly undid the hooks behind his neck. "How on earth did you get this on, anyway?"
"Usually my brother helps me and then I help him. In a pinch I call upon the powers of Satan."
She burst into laughter. "Don't tell me you draw a pentagram on the floor and chant 'I summon thee'."
"That only gets my mother."
She undid the clasp and he stepped away, yanking the mail shirt off first and then the under-padding, exhaling gratefully when it was all finally off. Eleanor stepped back, swallowing, at the sight of his wide shoulders and bulging arms. He turned around and faced her, and she blushed with embarrassment. "I should go now. I'm sure you can handle your leggings on your own."
She looked up and was captured by his green gaze. For a moment, they stood staring at each other, him half-dressed, her in widow's weeds, but for several moments, neither spoke, both lost in their own memories. Finally, she turned and fled, closing the door quietly, as though she feared being caught doing something naughty. Constantine set to work removing his leggings, and after a bit of cursing he was finally able to climb into the tub of hot water to enjoy a bit of soaking, scrubbing and tormented fantasies.
The meal went well, with everyone eating enthusiastically. Constantine, as usual, only ate a little but did manage to talk with his daughter despite the rambunctiousness of the princes, who were very happy to finally be at home. Elizabeth was strangely muted, however, and while she managed to answer her father's questions, she seemed distracted. When the meal ended, she asked if she could go walking with him in the gardens, for a more private conversation, but Constantine demurred.
"I have to go home, Smidgen. I've got business at Fairwood and I'm a little uneasy at leaving your brothers home alone too long. God knows what sort of mischief they've gotten into."
Elizabeth sighed, looking troubled, and glanced at Eleanor, who was sitting with her two youngest sons, listening to them recite their German phrases and gently correcting their pronunciation when needed.
"The gardens here at the palace are so pretty in the morning, Papa," Elizabeth finally said. "I enjoy walking out there, in the mornings."
His brow furrowed, but he nodded. "I'm glad you like it here."
"I often go to sit alone in the Ogre's Nest."
"In the what's nest?"
"The arbor, Papa. Where… where you and the Queen were this morning." She looked down, cheeks pinking and expression troubled.
"Oh. Right." He shrugged. "Anyway, I have to start home."
"Oh, Papa, why can't you stay another day? I'm sure the boys haven't burned Fairwood to the ground."
"Sweetheart, I cannot overstay my welcome. I'll write you a note when I get home, and I'll have the boys and Charlotte write you, too." He sighed when her eyes filled with tears. "Now, now… don't do that."
"But Papa, I need to talk to you. It's very important!"
He closed his eyes. "Elizabeth… "
"I overheard something, Papa. Probably something I shouldn't have heard, but I… I need to ask you what to do."
"What sort of thing did you overhear?" he asked, eyes narrowing.
"I overheard two people talking about their past. They were lovers, long ago, and… "
Constantine had to fight to maintain his self-control. The last thing he would ever do was shout at his daughter and make her cry. He had scolded her as a child and had even spanked her for disrespectful behavior or disobedience, but he had never been harsh with her. Not once, and he would not start now. Just the same, panic immediately made him angry.
"Elizabeth, I will say this once—it is none of your concern, and you have no business eavesdropping."
"But I didn't mean to overhear!" she whispered. "Papa, you and Queen Eleanor… "
"Elizabeth, you will not speak of this again, to anyone, particularly Alexander and certainly not to the Queen. Do you understand me?"
She began wringing her hands. "But if you love her and she loves you… "
"Elizabeth!" he finally said, putting a sharp edge to his voice that he only used with subordinates on the battlefield. "You will not speak of this to anyone, least of all me or the Queen, much less with Alexander. Whatever is or isn't between the Queen and me is our matter, do you understand me?"
The girl wavered, biting her lip, and she finally bowed her head, meekly accepting her father's reprimand, but her mind was already working on her own notions of how to deal with this problem. Constantine took her hands in his and kissed her cheek.
"Goodbye, sweetheart. I'll be back for the wedding. I suspect it'll be relatively soon, all things considered."
She couldn't help but brighten, excited at the prospect of her upcoming wedding. "Alexander suggested January or February. I was thinking perhaps on the Queen's own birthday. That would be nice, wouldn't it?"
"A year older and watching her son get married? I'm sure she would appreciate that," he said with a wry smile. "You might consult with her on that matter."
"Yes, Papa," she said, bowing her head again.
"Then again, it's your wedding, and from what little I understand of women, they like to have things their way on their wedding day." He took her hands in his again and kissed her cheek. "Come on now, Smidgen, don't be gloomy and don't let yourself become all wound up, particularly over this matter about… well, it doesn't matter. Like I said, it's nothing to concern yourself with. Drop it, all right?"
She nodded, but tears were already flowing down her cheeks. She embraced her father tightly, not wanting to let go of him but finally forcing herself to step back, wiping her eyes. "Is Uncle King staying in Gravonia or is he leaving later?"
"He's probably going to stay a few days, more out of a desire for bacon than anything else. Be sure and visit him before he leaves."
"Yes, Papa," she said. Constantine briefly fingered the silk ribbon on his sword hilt, then nodded and walked away. Elizabeth took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and went back into the Great Hall, where Eleanor and Alexander were still sitting, talking quietly together. She smiled at her fiancé and the Queen, and Alexander stood, taking her hands.
"From the way you look, I'm guessing your Papa has decided to leave."
"Yes. He just said goodbye."
"I see. Well, the Queen and I must meet with the Council and then we'll go for a ride. With Xenia along to see we behave ourselves," he said with a mischievous wink. Elizabeth couldn't help smiling, despite her sorrow and her confusion. He paused, looking at her closely, noting the troubled look in her eyes, despite her bright smile. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I know you're very sad to say goodbye to your Papa, but he'll be here for the wedding and we'll persuade him to stay longer. Your uncle King Philip will come to the palace tonight, to dine with us, before he goes on home. I'm sure we will be very jolly then."
"Yes, of course," she said, smiling. "I'll go find Xenia and Harry. They always make me feel more cheerful."
"Excellent." Alexander kissed her cheek. "I'll be back very soon."
was silent during the meeting with the Council. All sorts of papers had to be
drawn up, signed and sealed, including the official proclamation, due to be
made later that day, that Alexander was officially King of Gravonia. During the meeting, the new King broke Henry's old seal and replaced it with his own--an eagle--and that brought tears to Eleanor's eyes, seeing the last link to her husband's reign officially cut. After that,
another round of amiable bickering had to be done with regard to setting the
date for the official coronation.
A messenger arrived from Tygo with the happy news that neither Konigshaus nor Insel der Rosen had been damaged by the Lacovian pirates, and that the enemy ships had been driven from the port and were long gone. Life was returning to its own usual steady pace, but Eleanor was restless during the meeting.
She felt she had no right to attend the Council meeting, even though Alexander had insisted she sit at his side at the head of the table, and she flinched whenever anyone asked her opinion on any matter. She managed to speak when asked and her suggestions were met with respect and, for the most part, were agreed upon by the new, inexperienced King. Lord Hallam and Lord Ellis made the most comments, with Archbishop Nichols quietly reminding them all that the entire country, even after last night's merry party for the soldiers, was in mourning.
"Official mourning following the death of a King is, of course, at least one year," Nichols said. "As you know, Your Majesty, the length of our mourning is entirely up to you. The period generally starts on the day of the King's death, and after that tradition here in Gravonia is to see the coronation occurs on a Sunday, so that common folks might be able to line the streets to see the procession on a day off from regular work. Planning must start now, of course. We would also make sure other governments are given time to receive invitations to attend the ceremony and make proper preparations. There is also the massive task of arranging the coronation itself."
"Firstly we must have a proper state funeral for Papa," Alexander said. "He wanted to be interred at St. Michael's. We can move his catafalque up to the church itself, right?"
"Of course, sir," Nichols said. "Another tradition, of course, is that the Queen Mother not attend the funeral or the coronation." He looked at Eleanor. "But considering the circumstances… "
"I will do nothing without the King's permission," Eleanor said. "He will make that decision and I will say not one word in objection if it follows tradition or not. To that end, gentlemen, I must take my leave soon. I am no longer Queen Consort, the King is of age and does not require any form of a regency, and I have no business on this Council any longer."
"You will attend the funeral, Mama, if you feel you are up to it, and you will by no means sit out the coronation. And as for this nonsense of you no longer being a Counsellor of State, I will call that twaddle."
"Sweetheart, I am not consort nor am I regent. You are King in name and in fact and I will not be seen interfering," Eleanor objected gently. Lord Hallam shook his head, but she gestured for him to hold his tongue. "Nor will I break traditions without good cause, and there is no cause."
"Madame, you are needed here," Hallam told her. "You have twenty years of experience and your son recognizes that."
"Indeed," Alexander said, nodding firmly. "And besides which, where on earth would you go?"
"I am thinking of retiring permanently to Insel der Rosen."
"Out of the question," Alexander said. "You will remain here, and you will be treated with utmost respect and honor, as Queen Mother."
Eleanor answered her son by bursting into tears. Her son was at her side immediately, helping her to her feet. The Queen Mother sobbed against his chest, the King crooning to her and the Councilors all were silent, none knowing what to say. Lord Hallam and the Duke of Trebane, who seen the Queen's tears when she had found Henry's body, wiped their own tears away, grieving for her and wondering how she was going to adjust to life without her husband. Even more, they had to wonder how Gravonia would adjust without her in charge.
They studied Alexander and later, after the meeting, they all agreed that Alexander was going to be a fine king. He had the example of his father's leadership and his mother's shrewd intelligence on his side, and he would flourish in his new role. Just the same, they were relieved that Alexander insisted his mother remain on the Council. Whatever Alexander's qualities, Eleanor was still vital to the country's future stability. They could not imagine her leaving Luvov any time soon, and they all agreed that they would not permit it. Not now, and perhaps not ever.
Eleanor knew the prison guards were unprepared to see her, if the looks on their faces was anything to go by. The two men stared at her, bewildered, before suddenly remembering to bow. "Your Majesty… it's… kind of late, ma'am."
"Yes. I hope I am not disturbing you."
"That would be impossible, ma'am," one of the guards said quickly. "We're… very pleased to see you."
"Thank you. What are your names?"
"Carruthers, ma'am," the taller one said.
"Witherspoon," the other told her.
"Very good. You have worked as guards here very long?"
"Two years so far," Carruthers said.
She nodded, looking at the cold slate floor. "I hope you will not mind permitting me to visit a prisoner here."
"Um… " Witherspoon looked at his colleague, who made a 'are you going to argue with the Queen?' face. "Of course, ma'am."
"I wish to see Lord Beauchamp."
"Oh. Dear." Carruthers swallowed.
"I'm sure you will not prevent me," Eleanor said.
She looked almost translucent in her black dress and plain black French cap. She wore no jewelry, and her hair was pulled back into a severe-looking twist. She was pale and looked tired, but she still exuded dignity and resolve. The two men gaped at her until she finally cleared her throat. They both twitched slightly and bowed. "Of course, ma'am," Witherspoon said. "We will take you directly to him."
The two men slowly pulled the tall, heavy doors open and stepped aside, admitting the Queen, and they followed her down the long, gloomy hallway. Carruthers paced up alongside her and pointed to the door at the end of the hall. "Do you wish to speak with him through the bars in the door or… "
"I want to speak with him alone. In his cell."
"But… " Carruthers looked horrified. "Ma'am, he's a traitor and a murderer… a criminal of the lowest order… "
"You and your colleague may stay outside the door. I will surely call you if I need assistance, but I am not afraid of Lord Beauchamp."
Witherspoon nodded. "Aye, ma'am, I suppose he's bloody terrified of you." He began searching through his set of keys for the right one, jiggled the key into the lock and finally pulled the door open. Eleanor stood for a moment, allowing her eyes to adjust to the gloomy darkness of the cell, and finally saw Beauchamp sitting on a bale of hay, staring at the floor. He finally raised his head and looked at her.
Had he not been such an utterly evil, cruel and greedy man, she would have felt some sympathy for him then, because he looked so utterly despondent. But this man had murdered her husband and had threatened the lives of her children. He was beneath contempt and even he knew what his sentence was—he was going to die for his crimes of murder and treason.
"Charles," she finally said.
"There is no point in me going over past slights. You know what you have done and your soul's fate is between you and God. But your physical fate here on this earth is a matter of State, is it not? I'm sure you know of these things, having been de facto King of Gravonia for a few days." She clasped her hands at her waist, the picture of regal serenity, but just looking at him made her blood run cold and her throat burn with rage. How she wanted to attack him now and stab him again and again with her father's dagger. She had little doubt the guards wouldn't stop her until she was finished.
"I can only plead for your mercy, ma'am," he finally said in a flat, tired voice.
"Pray, sir, did you mete out mercy on my husband as you were stabbing him to death?"
He looked down, having no answer.
"And if you have managed to capture myself and my sons, would you have shown mercy?"
Still he could not give her an answer. They both knew.
"You murdered my husband and held my children over the grave. Where do you suppose I ought to put you?"
Beauchamp looked up at her, and she met his gaze without flinching.
"I'm sure you are aware of your sentence. Your titles are forfeit to the Crown, your estates are all confiscated, and your beloved Pontrefact Castle will be completely destroyed, and all its contents sold, with all funds to be given to the orphanage in Luvov." She shook her head. "Had you only been a fool, like Lord Despencer, you might have managed to get away with your life. But instead you have committed the most grievous of sins and it is the duty of the King to see you are duly punished."
"When will I be executed?" he asked after a long, heavy silence.
"In three days' time."
"In the town square. You will be gutted, drawn, hung and finally beheaded. Like any murderer and traitor."
Beauchamp was silent for several moments. "I see."
"You had many years to see, sir, and you decided not to." She fixed him with a calm gaze. "I warned you. I told you, many years ago, what I would do to you if you harmed my family. I am a woman of my word. My sons are all alive and well, and Alexander is King of Gravonia, in spite of your schemes. Had it not been for you, my Henry would still be alive and enjoying another beautiful autumn, and my son would have many years to prepare for his role. Just the same, I have no doubt Alexander will be an excellent ruler, and in a few years' time we can only hope we have forgotten all about you." She looked at the window above his head and watched a bird land between the bars and preen for a moment before flying away. "I suppose you ought to be pleased to know that your sins are not being commuted to your children. Your daughter Margot is in poverty in France, but the King has already ordered that she receive a yearly pension to support her and her children, so that she might live in comfort and peace. Your elder daughter's condition is not yet known, but we have no hard feelings toward her and her strength commends her to a degree of happiness of her own. As for your son, so long as he does not show himself to be an evil and wicked man like you, he will not be harmed. Your wife, too, will receive a pension from the King's own purse, out of sympathy for the miserable life she had with you." She shook her head. "Of course, you might find it rather ironic, Charles, that your little daughter from Lady Harriet will likely one day marry my own son Harry, who loves her."
Beauchamp looked at her, brow furrowing, but he said nothing.
She stepped closer to him, looking him right in the eye. "I will not attend your execution, sir. But I'm sure that right up until the moment your head is removed from your body, you will think a great deal about me. I, however, am determined to never think of you again." She nodded, turned on her heel and went back to the door.
Witherspoon quickly opened it and she stepped out. Beauchamp stood and watched the door close, but he said nothing even as he heard the key turning the lock and the bar sliding back into place. He returned to his bale of hay and sat down, not wanting to even look up at the window a few feet above his head, or at the shaft of light now brightening the dank, gloomy room. He closed his eyes and did not let himself think of climbing up onto the bale of hay to peer out at the world that, in a few short days, he would never see again.