Our Gracious Queen

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Something to Everyone

"Uncle King!" Elizabeth called, moving quickly through the Morvenian encampment outside the city. Soldiers moved out of the way, bowing respectfully to the princess, and she managed quick smiles at them in return as she rushed along. The King of Morvenia, trying to repair a broken buckle, looked up at his niece and smiled.

"Smidgen, what are you doing here, sweetheart?" he asked. He dropped a quick kiss on her forehead before she sat down opposite him.

"I know about Papa and Queen Eleanor."

Philip's eyes widened. "I'm sorry, what?"

"Papa and Queen Eleanor. They were betrothed, weren't they?"

"Keep your voice down," he hissed, glancing around, but the soldiers and his servants were busy packing up and getting into arm-waving arguments over what to do about a side of bacon someone had dropped into the dirt.

Chastised, she nodded and leaned forward, speaking in a whisper. "They were betrothed. I know it for a fact. Papa admitted it."

"Dear God." Philip whispered. "Sweetheart, if anyone ever discovers this, it will render her marriage to Henry null and it would make her children illegitimate. A betrothal, with signed contracts, essentially means a marriage took place, albeit unchurched."

"Were contracts signed?" she asked.

"Yes."

She swallowed, horrified at the consequences of opening such a Pandora's Box.

"Have you spoken to anyone of this?" Philip asked quickly.

"No."

"Thank God. And you shall not, either, little one. Not to the Queen and bloody sure not to the King. That your father would even confess it… "

"I overheard them talking. They must have met at Court in Livonia, but I only recall him mentioning that he often traveled through the Turon Valley, but I suppose he must have met her somehow and they fell in love. Now I understand why he was so angry when he met her again… but why was their engagement broken off? Surely marriage to my father would have been more prestigious than a marriage to King Henry, though he was a good man… "

"Elizabeth… " Philip started, but remembered the promise he had made to Eleanor. "Leave it."

"But I cannot, uncle," she said. "If Papa and Eleanor love each other, oughtn't they be allowed to be together?"

"Darling sweet girl," he said affectionately, in spite of his pounding heart. "It's very kind and romantic of you to want to see people as happy as yourself, but sometimes circumstances beyond your control or ken can prevent such things. It's best not to interfere."

"But don't you think they love each other? Alexander told me he shouted at Queen Eleanor after the battle."

"That doesn't sound terribly loving," Philip groused.

"Papa only shouts at people he loves, though I admit he never shouted at Mama, but he wasn't… " She looked down. "He wasn't in love with her. He loved her, but he… "

"Elizabeth, you are sixteen and as such you have not yet had time to learn of such matters. The human heart is far more complicated than that, and matters of the heart can become quite... messy. I beg of you… leave it. What did or did not happen between your father and Queen Eleanor is immaterial. He has gone home, she remains here, and there's an end to it."

The girl frowned at her uncle, who eyed her cautiously, waiting. Finally, she fluffed her skirts. "I don't think so, uncle. With all due respect, I must disagree very firmly. I hate seeing my father so unhappy, and I hate seeing the Queen unhappy. Neither of them deserve to be miserable, and they are both very unhappy.

Philip took his niece's hands in hers, loving her for her natural desire to see others happy and fearing for his brother's heart and Eleanor's sanity if this all came to light. "Listen to me, child. This is not your… "

"War?"

"Hardly a war, Elizabeth. But it is not your problem, all right? Let it go. Let it all go and leave your Papa alone, too. He has been through enough grief and sorrow for a hundred men, and Eleanor's… situation quite broke his heart. Do not rub salt in his wounds."

"So you have always known?" Elizabeth asked.

"Not always. I had suspicions after my visit here, with you and your mother and your aunt Catalina, and Eleanor confirmed them to me. But even then it was not something I had any right to attempt to alter, or to interfere with."

"But then Papa and she met again when he brought me here. He was so angry, Uncle King. So very angry, and she was frightened. But why was she so frightened? This sort of thing happens regularly, doesn't it? One betrothal is broken off for a more advantageous match and no suffers much for it. I'm sure Eleanor's marriage to King Henry only required a dispensation from the Pope, and Papa would have just had to accept it." She paused, confused. "I only heard a little of their conversation, in the Ogre's Nest in the garden, and Papa mentioned Count von Hesse… he is the Livonian ambassador, but he was not at the time she came to Gravonia… how was he involved?"

"Smidgen, I must warn you again to drop this matter and mind your own business. You've a wedding to plan and a life to make with Alexander. Disclosure of all of Eleanor's and your father's secrets could prove disastrous. I must order you to drop it."

Elizabeth bowed her head, nodding meekly to her uncle. The idea of seeing her father hurting was unbearable… but seeing him so lonely and the Queen so obviously heartbroken was even more so. She quietly promised her uncle to let the matter go, but she knew she would not be able to resist doing something. She wanted answers, but mostly she wanted to see her father and Eleanor happy. Her wedding to Alexander was set for March, after all, and in that time she could devise a plan of some sorts and then turn the matter over to the two principal players.

The princess kissed her uncle's cheek and left his encampment, obtaining a promise from him to come to the palace for one last meal before leaving for home. The King of Morvenia watched his niece leave, his nerves rattled and his worry only increasing. She was a determined child, and he sensed that she would not so easily let such a matter lie. His diligence, therefore, was going to be paramount if his brother was to be protected.


"Idleness breeds fatigue, which gives birth to those dreadful twins: restlessness and dissatisfaction," Betsy often said, usually before making Eleanor work on her sewing.

The Queen sat alone in her room, by the fire, her sewing forgotten, contemplating her current state of idleness, and indeed she felt restless and dissatisfied. She simply could not concentrate on something as mundane as stitching a tear in one of Andrew's shirts at such a time as this. In just a few hours, Lord Beauchamp was to be led through the streets of Luvov, frog-marched up onto the scaffold and prepared to meet his end. As his titles had been stripped and his fortune confiscated by the Crown, he was to be treated like any other common murderer.

She had vowed not to watch the execution, but she knew that most of the citizens of Luvov would be there. She also knew that Lords Hallam and Ellis were charged with seeing that everything was done properly and in order. They would report all to her when it was over, and Eleanor wasn't even sure she could stomach the description. Just the same, she had to know the man was dead.

Tiredly, she put her sewing back in her basket and stood, stretching her muscles and looking around the room, seeing her husband everywhere. On the table by the bed was his silver tankard, from which he drank his bit of wassail or ale every evening before bed. She smiled at his shaving kit and his comb and brush; on the floor was a pair of boots he had asked her send to the cobbler to repair. His washbowl, still full of water from the morning before he had left to go for his last hunting trip, was in its usual place by the mirror. She had not asked any of the servants to empty and clean the bowl, and wasn't sure she wanted to. One of his shirts was still draped across the foot of the bed, and some of his underclothes were still on the floor.

Eleanor looked across at Henry's chair and breathed in slowly. "I am sorry, sweetheart," she said softly. "I failed you—I was not diligent enough. But Beauchamp dies today for what he has done, and your son is king. He will be such a wonderful king—he will make you so proud, dearest."

Slowly, tears blurring her vision, she dipped an elegant, respectful curtsey to her husband's chair, then went to their bed, picking up his shirt and breathing in the fading scent—Henry always smelled of the outdoors and sunshine. Smiling fondly, she remembered Clothilde's advice about not minding whiskers in the washbasin and dirty clothes on the floor if he was a loving husband and caring father. Eleanor had heeded her friend's advice in that regard and the result had been a long and happy marriage unspoiled by pointless quarreling. In almost twenty years, she and Henry had only argued once, on the day he had informed her of Alexander's betrothal to Elizabeth.

The Queen touched the wall behind the headboard, smiling as she remembered how many times the plastering had needed replacing. "At least four times a year it needs to be repaired," Henry had said to her, not long before his murder. "Who'd think an old rooster like me could still do such damage?" The wall behind the headboard was scuffed and even a little cracked, but Eleanor decided to never have it repaired again.

There was a soft knock on the door and Eleanor called "Come in." Agnes stepped into the room, bobbing a curtsey to the Queen.

"Is there anything I might do for you, ma'am?" she asked kindly.

"Thank you, Agnes." She looked around the room, still holding the shirt. "Please put these clothes in the basket and take them away for washing, and then please see they are stored properly. And please pour some of the water in the washbasin into a bottle and seal it."

Agnes nodded, watching Eleanor carefully. "My husband and I will be going home tomorrow," she said as Eleanor sat down again in her chair by the fire. "We decided we needed a bit of time alone with our children. Ellie wants to stay, though—may she?"

"Of course she can," Eleanor said softly. "I'm sure Frederick will be very happy to be able to see her, and Elizabeth likes her a great deal."

Agnes smiled. "I should say that Frederick has spoken to Lorenzo," she said, clasping her hands. "He asked for Ellie's hand in marriage, though we have agreed not to make the betrothal public until next summer, after the King and Elizabeth are married."

"Then I'm sure the King will be pleased to give his consent," Eleanor nodded, smiling softly, though she was surprised her second-born son had not consulted with her first on the matter. "In fact, he will be almost as delighted as I. He wants his brothers to be happy, and I will be so pleased to call Ellie my daughter."

"And what about you, ma'am?"

"Me? I am pleased to give my consent, Agnes. Ellie is the sweetest girl alive and I know she and Frederick love each other.

"No, I mean, what about your happiness?"

Eleanor pursed her lips, clutching the arms of her chair again. "Right now, Agnes, I must concentrate on seeing to… to… my children. My two youngest sons still need to continue their educations, and Harry and William also require more polishing."

"Those are things that must be done, ma'am. As part of being a mother. But what of yourself? What do you intend to do now that you are a widow? Surely you cannot intend to sit here in this room and slowly fade away in to the background. That is not you, and no one would ever accept it."

Such bluntness was unusual for Agnes, but Eleanor could not argue against the other woman's logic. Her days now stretched out ahead of her, with a bleakness that made her think of the flat, featureless fields of southern Gravonia, where even the weather was dull. It was only just starting to settle into her mind, lately, that her days from henceforth were going to be excruciating in their slow, energy-sapping boredom. Queen Mothers, respected or not, did tend to fade away into nothingness, particularly when the new Queen Consort began bearing babies and established her own Court. That was all well and fine in and of itself, but for Eleanor, who had spent twenty years in constant motion and in charge, the notion of sitting still for the rest of her life was too much to even think about.

"I suppose I will devote myself to worthy causes and tending to my children and… later, of course, my grandchildren."

"I cannot imagine that would be enough for you, ma'am." Agnes frowned, thinking. "Perhaps you could marry again, ma'am. In a year or two, I mean. A nice, respectful nobleman of good family, with a few children of his own. You're still young enough, even, to have a baby or two along the way. Wouldn't it be nice if you had a little daughter some day?"

"I give no thought to remarrying, Agnes," Eleanor said wearily, remembering Constantine's words and the sting she still felt at his comment that she might just take a lover. The very idea was horrible… and yet she knew that eventually her own normal needs would come to fore again. She had always had a healthy appetite for that, and just turning those needs off and ignoring them would be impossible. Yet there was no way to satisfy them and maintain a clear conscience and a sterling reputation. In another twenty or thirty years, she supposed it would all be moot, but good heavens…

She looked at Agnes, who was carefully examining one of the shirts in the basket.

"I suppose not, ma'am," Agnes finally said meekly. "Your circumstances are not like just anyone's, are they?"

"No, they are not."

A log in the fire broke in two and sprayed sparks onto the hearth, but Eleanor did not even flinch, remembering that night, back at Ravensburg, when an ember from the fire had burned her skin and Constantine had soothed the pain away. She closed her eyes, cursing her excellent memory and her broken heart.

"Lord Beauchamp dies today," Agnes said softly.

"Yes."

"You are not attending the execution."

"No, Agnes, I am not. It would not seem… proper. I said my piece to him and there's an end to it."

"Will the King attend?"

"I do not know. He is in charge of himself now."

"Lorenzo is to deliver the man to the town square," Agnes said. "That is his last duty today before we go home."

"I hope he will not linger there, Agnes. Lorenzo is not given to brutality."

Agnes spread her hands on her lap. "Ma'am, I know you are very sad, and you must follow traditions here at Court with regard to mourning and such, but… I know you are a very energetic woman and sitting idly by the fire and even working for good causes will not be enough for you. You will find such monotony… soul killing."

Eleanor stared at Agnes, surprised that this unintellectual, simple woman could have such insight, but then with Agnes, ignorance of high matters perhaps made her more cognizant of what was truly important—yet again, Eleanor had to admit that while she had books, Agnes had learning.

Agnes bowed her head, stood and curtseyed to the Queen. She went about the business of collecting a bottle and carefully pouring some of the water from the basin into it, then sealed it tight with a cork. She picked up the basket of clothes and left the room, closing the door quietly. Eleanor looked into the crackling fire, wondering how she was going to maintain her sanity in the long, lonely years that now stretched out before her.


Lord Hallam rolled out the scroll and glanced out at the crowd gathered to witness Lord Beauchamp's execution. King Alexander had forbidden children from attending, and Hallam, the Duke of Trebane, Lord Ellis, Lord Lassiter and Sir Lorenzo Bartolomeo had all been diligent about enforcing the King's edict. The men were also somewhat uneasy about letting women attend, but Alexander had said that women could understand the consequences of treason as much as any man.

"By order of the King and his Council, this man, Charles Beauchamp, is condemned to death for his crimes of murder and treason," he read loudly. The crowd fell silent, and Hallam cleared his throat. He knew Beauchamp's sentence was just, but he was never pleased to see any man executed, no matter how low he might be. He continued. "This man did murder our beloved King Henry and did threaten the lives of Her Majesty the Queen and our new King Alexander and his siblings. His usurpation and his acts of treason are well known and notorious, and he has confessed his sins and has accepted his fate. May God have mercy upon his soul."

The crowd was quiet until Lorenzo walked out before two guards, who escorted Lord Beauchamp. Beauchamp wore only breeches and a loose white shirt, his gray hair hanging loose around his shoulders, and he looked decades older than his years. He paled slightly at the sight of the platform, where the executioner already stood, but when the guards nudged him he continued walking under his own power. The crowds were silent as the condemned man mounted the steps and stood staring out at them. Lorenzo nodded to Hallam, who stepped closer to Beauchamp.

"Do you have anything to say?" Hallam asked. The chief warden of the prison stepped aside, nodding to Beauchamp and gesturing toward the gathered crowds.

Beauchamp swallowed several times and licked his lips, then took a step forward, glancing down at the chopping block. "I have committed egregious crimes against God, the King and against you all," he said, just loudly enough for everyone to hear him. "I beg you all to pray for me now as I pay the wages of my transgressions."

No one in the crowd said a word. Beauchamp gazed down at them and drew in his breath when he saw a familiar face—his wife Alice, standing almost in the shadows, her expression unreadable. He knew he had caused her more pain and loss than any woman could ever deserve, and at first, in the early years of their marriage, she had been ambitious too. But then the children had come along and her love for them had trumped even her desire to see them and even herself well-placed—Irene's marriage had totally severed any real relationship he would ever have with Alice again. He had refused to listen to her pleas, years ago, to give up his notion of being King and to just live his life and love his family.

He had loved power and money more.

And now, he was standing before a man wearing a black hood. It had all been for nothing. Men plan; God laughs.

He did not let his gaze linger on his wife too long, not wanting attention to be drawn to her. He wondered how Irene was doing, and if Margot was well. Queen Eleanor had told him that his younger daughter would be given a pension and allowed to live in peace and comfort. He wondered where Stephen was—would his son change his surname, as he had threatened years ago? He had not seen that boy in so long he wasn't sure he would even recognize him.

"I have been a fool," Beauchamp said. "Do not do as I have done." He cleared his throat, breathing in the air he would soon never breathe again. "Love God and keep His commandments, for this is man's all. Had I remembered that, I would not be dying today." He closed his eyes tightly for a moment, then bowed his head. The executioner stepped forward and Beauchamp's shirt was taken off before he was pushed over to the table and directed to lie down on it. With a resigned sigh, he lay down on the table and his hands and feet were bound in chains and his arms were stretched up above his head. He turned his head and watched as someone started a fire in an iron grate. The executioner looked at Lorenzo and Lord Hallam, and the older man nodded. The executioner picked up his knife and tongs from a table near the block and the gathered witnesses to the execution fell silent as he began to mete out Beauchamp's due punishment.


"Count von Arklow," Eleanor said, nodding at the nobleman.

"Ma'am," he said, bowing.

"I would be lying if I said I was pleased to see you, sir, but know that you are welcome here at Court. Perhaps one day the sight of you will not bring up such bitter memories for me. We shall see."

von Arklow nodded, swallowing nervously.

Eleanor drummed her fingers briefly on the arm of her throne. "You will be well pleased to learn that your son has been released from his confinement in Germany and will be escorted back home. I suspect he will arrive here within a week. He will not be welcome at Court, but he will be permitted to marry again if he so chooses, so long as he does not wed anyone in line to the throne."

The relief she saw on von Arklow's face was genuine and deeply felt. He was, she decided then, for once and for all, a good man for all his lack of willpower.

"We are forever in your debt, ma'am, and Lionel will never be seen here. He will remain at my estate for the remainder of his life, I can assure you."

"If he makes one false move, though, sir, he will be executed immediately, without an ounce of mercy."

von Arklow took a deep breath, not surprised to see the flash of anger in her eyes—good God, she was a formidable woman, and only fools crossed her. Beauchamp had learned that lesson all too well, just a few hours ago. "Of course."

"So I am certain he will be pleased to accept the terms of his return from exile and you will be pleased to watch over him with all due diligence."

"Indeed, ma'am."

"Then you are dismissed."

von Arklow bowed and backed out of the room. Boris, his once-straight back bent with age and cares, closed it and she gestured for him to come in. The old Major Domo stood in silence before the Queen, and she settled herself back in the throne.

"Boris, I believe you have more than earned your retirement and due honors," she said gently. "Though I must say I will miss you dreadfully."

The old man nodded. "I shall miss you as well, ma'am. I already miss him. He was very kind to me, you know. He even started up a pension for me."

"I'm sure he did, Boris—Henry was always thoughtful towards his friends and grateful for their friendship in turn, and don't think for one moment that we regarded you as a servant. You are more than deserving of such regard, I assure you. You will remain here in Luvov, I think?"

"I will. My family is here in town, and I've grandchildren and great-grandchildren… "

"Yes, I know," Eleanor smiled. "Lovely little bounders, they all are. Full of the devil, too."

"Aye, ma'am," Boris smiled. She studied him a moment, taking in his stooped posture and the silent power of his physique, even now when he was close to seventy years old. She had depended on his quiet, steady watchfulness, here in the palace, for twenty years and he had earned his retirement and a life of comfort now.

She stood and walked down the steps, not caring a whit about protocol. She bowed her head to the old man and took his hands in hers, seeing the look of surprise on his face. "You were probably the first friend I made here in Luvov, Boris. You accepted me without so much as a word of protest, and you have no idea of how much you are appreciated." She startled him then by kissing his cheek and bobbing a curtsey to him, then she quietly left the room, closing the doors behind her and walking slowly down the long mirrored gallery, memories flooding around her with every step.

She wanted to be alone.


Rain was coming down so hard it was difficult to hear, and Irene shivered as she looked out the windows of the Tower Gatehouse, which looked out over the ragged city of Rumon. Not even the rain was putting off the work of some men rebuilding a dilapidated old house they had torn down earlier that day. The whole city, in fact, was being rebuilt. All day she heard hammers banging and wood being sawed. Sawdust was all over the still-muddy streets, but Richard had issued an edict, effective immediately, that every able-bodied man in the city was urged to take part in paving the roads and improving the walkways, come next summer, and the sawdust was helpful in making the streets less muddy. Trash was being hauled away almost all the time, to be burned outside town, and Irene had heard that Paul's effigy had been burned in many villages throughout Lacovia.

It surprised her, even now, to hear that she was well-spoken of in Lacovia. Her efforts at trying to help the people of her adopted country improve their lives had been appreciated more than she had ever grasped. Daily she received deputations from villages all over the country, listening to petitions and words of thanks from poor, thin people in threadbare clothes. Their gratefulness was touching and pathetic at once, and Irene was busy every day with selling off all the useless junk her husband had acquired over the years to raise money to aid the destitute, starving people of Lacovia.

She had no idea where Paul's mother was, and frankly didn't care. Richard had mentioned she had gone back to that grim corner of Germany from whence she had spawned, and Irene hoped to never hear from her.

"Irene?"

She turned to see Richard in the doorway, looking weary but pleased. She shifted her little son in her arms and Richard beamed at little John.

"How is my noisy young lad?" he said, gathering the Crown Prince in his arms and kissing the boy's cheeks. Indeed, no one in Lacovia seemed to give a damn that Richard had taken the throne instead of John. Right now, they just wanted peace and a chance to improve their own lives—they had little care over who was king. Richard, too, was determined to let everyone live as peaceably as possible. He had dismissed Paul's council of grasping, greedy men and had brought in decent, intelligent men who longed to see Lacovia become a modern, prosperous and peaceful country. Irene liked the men in Richard's council and they liked her in turn, and she found their conversation invigorating. Because of them, taxes had been lowered to practically nil, and they were discussing schemes to start schools in every village.

Irene had made no mention of leaving Lacovia, but she sometimes saw a small tinge of nervousness in Richard. Perhaps he thought she was going to leave? She smiled, making a note to tell him tonight, in bed, that his people were now her people, and his God was now her God, and where he died she would die and there would she buried. Nothing but death would ever part her from him.

The King and his future bride sat down at the table near the fire and watched John practicing sitting up on his own. The little prince was healthy and vigorous, and Irene was sure he was a genius. The baby cooed happily and played with his feet, barely looking up when a footman came into the room with a message. "Your Majesty," he said, bowing to Irene and handing her the letter. "From Her Majesty the Queen Eleanor of Gravonia."

Fingers trembling, Irene broke the seal and read quickly.

Your Majesty,

I have little doubt you are pleased to know of the cessation of war between our two countries. We are both aware, of course, that peace is not simply the absence of war, but at this point we can both be happy to know that war will be absent from our lives for the foreseeable future. You, of course, have your sweet little son to raise and train to be a good, conscientious King, and I can tell you that raising a boy to be a good man, much less a good King, can often seem like a constant war. I have little doubt that you will succeed, however, in teaching him all that is good and right.

I offer my condolences on the loss of your husband and of your father, but I know you will be pleased to hear your sister Margot, the Comtesse Lestrade, and your brother Stephen are both in good health and I have sent letters to them both to inform them that the sins of your father are not visited upon you or them in any way. Your mother, too, is in good health and hopes to be permitted to visit you soon. Your father will have been executed by the time you receive this letter, as you know, and I would be lying if I expressed anything other than sympathy to you for bearing his name.

With his passing we will hopefully all be able to come back out into the light. These past few years having been quite painful for us all, though I know they have been particularly sorrowful for you. Now you are a mother and are free, I know you are much happier, and I pray for your continued contentment. I hope that, one day, you and I might meet and talk a bit and get to know one another, but that is for another time.

I understand you are a woman of great courage and strength, despite your protestations to King Richard that you are much otherwise. Be sure that I admire you very much, and you have my utmost respect. It is my fond hope that we might continue to enjoy peace between our countries and families.

I ask God's blessings on you, your son and King Richard and may you all experience all imaginable happiness and prosperity as God wills.

Sincerely,

Eleanor the Queen

Irene put the letter down, hand over her mouth, eyes welling with tears. Richard took the letter and read it, then looked at her. "Didn't I tell you?" he said gently. "What more proof do you need? The She Wolf of Livonia expressing respect for a girl who calls herself a useless little mouse?" He kissed Irene warmly, which caused John to screech and clap his hands. "Never again will I hear such nonsense, Irene. There is no limit to your strength or your courage, sweetheart."


Elizabeth paced along the hallway that lead to the secret rooms where the treasury and crown jewels had all been hidden. She watched with amusement as the princes helped the household guards carry box after box upstairs to the Treasury rooms. Harry and William were squabbling, what with Harry dropping his end of a long box and hurting William's foot. George and Andrew were more cheerful and were helping the soldiers break down the hastily assembled brick wall Lord Lassiter had put up to conceal the thrones and coronation regalia, and the two boys were quite merry as they pretended to fight over their brother's crown. "Better him than us, I say," Andrew said. "I'd never want to be a king. I like just being me, unto myself, more or less. A King is never his own man. He has to be everything to everybody. I'd rather be everything to just one somebody."

"Don't you still have to translate the entire book of Ruth into Greek tonight, after the ink incident?" George asked, smiling wickedly.

"Mama only imposed Ruth on me. She imposed Esther on you for the chicken broth prank."

"I still insist I had nothing to do with that. I think it was Alexander."

"It was Alexander throwing up all over the place, remember. It's a wonder he didn't kill you."

Elizabeth giggled, and the two princes looked chagrined. She smiled at her future brothers-in-law, and they all grinned back. "Out slumming with the common folk, ma'am?" Frederick called, hauling up a long arrow box, carrying out into the courtyard and giving it to some soldiers, who loaded it onto a cart.

"I have long enjoyed the company of common laborers. Such decent folk," she answered. The soldiers greeted Elizabeth warmly and continued with their work. Frederick and Harry sat down, stretching their legs, and she sat down with them. George and Andrew continued with their work, joking with the soldiers and servants.

"I suppose you're missing Alexander's company," Frederick said sympathetically. "He's so busy now, he barely has time for us, even."

"I get to see him in the evenings," she countered. "We talk by the fire and… um… make plans. The wedding will be in March and there is much to discuss."

Harry grinned. "I hope our mother doesn't know about your 'discussions'."

"Does Xenia's mother know you go off sparking with her every morning?" Frederick asked his younger brother, who blushed.

"We don't go 'sparking'," Harry objected. "We just talk."

"Huh," Frederick shook his head. "I still don't know exactly how you talk." He frowned. "Though I daresay Xenia always has much to say."

Harry couldn't provide a sufficient answer. "We just do."

"Hush, now, Frederick," Elizabeth admonished gently. "That's between Harry and Xenia. I'm sure you and Ellie have plenty to say to each other, even when neither of you is saying a word."

Frederick scratched his ear, cheeks pinking a little.

"Can you tell me, Frederick, if your mother has spoken much of her childhood in Livonia?" Elizabeth asked.

"Hm? Oh. No. Not really. She was raised in her own household and rarely saw her family. She doesn't even know her brothers and sisters—she mentioned once that she doubted she'd know them from Adam."

"Right," Elizabeth said softly.

"Why do you ask?" Harry asked, glad the subject had been changed.

"Just curious, I suppose. Your mother is very remarkable and knows so much… her education must have been quite rigorous."

"I suppose so," Frederick shrugged. "She imposed the same curriculum on us. There was no hope of getting out of Latin, that's for sure."

Elizabeth smiled. "I had to learn Latin, too, and French and Spanish and German, on my mother's insistence."

"What did your father teach you?" Frederick asked, curious.

"He taught me how to aim low and bring my man down," Elizabeth smiled, and the prince grinned at her.

"Sounds just like the Dragon."


Eleanor was pleased to see Philip and his two highest-ranking generals, Stone and Foster, who bowed to her while Philip bowed over her hand. "You're looking very well, Your Majesty," Philip said, smiling expansively. "Considering the circumstances."

"Yes, I am feeling… well," she lied. "I'm afraid you shall have to endure a banquet tonight, sir. Granted, a rather subdued one, considering the execution this afternoon, but we've copious food and wine for our guests, and your soldiers are invited to eat and drink as much as they please."

"Within reason," Philip winked.

"I should hope so. We would like your men to be able to see their way home tomorrow, though by no means are we rushing you away."

"Aye, ma'am, and we leave very reluctantly, but the King and his army being absent does cause some consternation among my Council and they can't live without me, and when I am away they come up with all kinds of silly ideas. If I'm gone too long they start talking about raising taxes and butting into everyone's affairs, and I won't have that. My government guards the coasts and maintains the roads, and so they tend to get rather bored."

Philip waited until the generals had moved away and the banquet had begun before he moved to Eleanor's side, glancing sideways at King Alexander, who was talking with Elizabeth. The girl was almost giving off her own light in her clear pleasure at being with her fiancé, who was clearly just as delighted with her. In fact, when they were together, they seemed to forget everyone else around them. "She knows."

"Hm?" Eleanor raised her eyebrows, watching everyone moving around the room, talking and laughing.

"Elizabeth knows. That you and Constantine were betrothed."

The look of horror and terror that crossed Eleanor's face was one Philip would never forget, and he scrambled to calm her. "She does not know where you come from, mind. She has not discovered that, though I daresay the girl has a way of ferreting out secrets that puts my Scotsman to shame. But she knows about you and Constantine—that you were lovers and you were betrothed. So far as she knows, you were also Eleanor of Livonia. I think she overheard you and my brother talking and… well, she's a bright lass and I think she will attempt to bring you two back together again. A sweet and romantic heart, she has, but she's never suffered true heartbreak yet, and at her age…"

"That would be impossible and impolitic, all at once, and for everyone involved," Eleanor said, barely letting her lips move, but her voice was trembling. "I would suggest you persuade your brother to marry again. Someone young and healthy, who can become Queen one day, in the distant future, and give him… give him more children and happiness."

"Children, yes, I suppose. A few more would be nice, however much he thinks he's not good at being a father. Happiness… eh… " Philip shrugged "I've tried to talk him into marrying again many times, ma'am, but he will not do it. I've even passed a few willing, open-minded women under his nose and he doesn't look at them. I suppose guilt is one reason why, but also…" the King held his tongue as a servant went by, carrying a large tray. "Also because I suppose he thinks that part of his life is over. I mean, perhaps one day he'll give some willing wench a tumble, to let off a bit of steam, but… "

"I don't think I wish to hear of this, sir," Eleanor said softly.

"Oh. Right. I do apologize. Even now I speak out of turn, despite regular beratings from our mother. But you must realize that Constantine is no angel and he is human and he has… needs."

Alexander was coming over, and the King smiled at his fellow monarch, bowing slightly. "Well, Your Majesty, your first few days as King-in-Fact have been very successful and your future does indeed look bright. What are your next plans?"

"A funeral, a coronation, a quiet but cheerful Christmas at Tygo and then our wedding," Alexander said, looking back at Elizabeth, who was charming a group of Gravonian knights. "We're debating whether to have the wedding here, at St. Michael's, or at Tygo. I lean toward Tygo, but Elizabeth prefers the cathedral, so more of the common folk can be permitted to witness the occasion."

"It's very kind of her to think of them," Philip nodded. "But a wedding, from what little I know of such things, is a very personal sort of thing…"

"Never to be entered into lightly or irreverently," Eleanor said softly.

"Indeed. I shudder to think of what people might come up with, in years to come, with regard to marriage."

"People will, I suspect, decide one day to define deviancy down and declare all manner of evil to be good and even all manner of good to be evil," Eleanor said, eyeing Philip, who suspected she wasn't speaking just of weddings. "One day we might even hear that living and behaving according to one's conscience is hateful." She gave Philip a hard look, and he nodded, his gaze lingering on Eleanor, expression curious, but he recovered himself quickly and he grinned at Alexander.

"Just the same, you and Elizabeth must reach a compromise… of course, what will tip the balance will be what she wants. It's the bride's day, lad, and there's an end to it."

Alexander nodded gravely, his eyes on his mother. Eleanor looked pale and unsettled, and her eldest son wasn't sure what to make of her behavior. "Are you all right, Mama?"

"I'm quite all right, sweetheart."

"I suppose you received the report on Beauchamp's… "

"Yes, Lord Hallam and Lord Ellis gave me a full report." Blow for blow, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.

"I hope it was not too graphic," he said softly.

"It was terrible enough."

"Yes. It was. I'm glad you were not there."

"You were?"

Alexander nodded. "I rode over on Norah and watched in cognito. It was not a pleasant thing to see, but… he murdered my father."

Eleanor sighed. The blow of his father's loss was probably only now just being felt by her sons. The younger princes were likely a little less impacted by it, but for Alexander it had to be doubly painful. Not only had he lost a beloved father, to whom he had been very close, but also he had to recognize that he was now taking that man's place as not just leader of the family but of the entire country. He had so much now to worry about, and so many things to cope with, and everything that happened now in Gravonia would be his responsibility, good or bad. It had to be overwhelming and probably quite terrifying. He had big shoes to fill, and she had no doubt that people would be comparing him, favorably or not, to Henry for some time.

"It was quite bloody, they told me," Eleanor said. Hallam had been succinct in that regard, but Ellis—always the practical one—had given her a more graphic account. "I hope it does not give you nightmares."

Alexander smiled. "I'm not six, Mama, and just back from my first boar hunt."

"Yes, but I recall you cried over those results, and that was just a wild boar."

The King glanced at Philip, who smiled. "Don't worry about that, son. I cried after my first boar hunt, too. Granted, it was because I missed my shot. I was a bit miffed when Constantine got his boar on his first try, but he didn't cry." Philip didn't feel any need to elaborate—Constantine had been upset by the sight of so much blood, but he had held himself together to avoid being snarled at by their father and berated by their mother for showing such human emotions.

Alexander smiled at his mother and left, returning to his circle of young friends and Elizabeth. As the Court was still in official mourning, there was to be no dancing, but that didn't stop anyone from enjoying themselves just the same. Eleanor sat down by the fire, and was soon joined by her ladies. Agnes was gone back home to Applewood, but Harriet was cheerful, holding her little baby son while Lord Ellis hovered nearby, always diligent to take over when his wife showed signs of tiring. Clothilde looked very happy, too, now that her James was more available to her, and they sat together, quietly holding hands and whispering as though they were teenagers still in the first bloom of romance instead of a couple together for more than twenty-five years.

Tears filled Eleanor's eyes and she could not stop them from spilling. No one failed to notice them, and the entire crowd in the room became silent. Eleanor, horrified to have ruined the occasion, stood. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry. I… I will retire. I'm very tired. Please… continue with this party. Do not mind me… " She bobbed, gathered her skirts, and fled.


Her tears finally dried, Eleanor skirted the great ballroom and slipped silently down the long corridor to the Presence Chamber. She sighed and slipped quietly into the room, then went into Henry's—now Alexander's—office and sat down at her husband's desk. She used her own key to open the drawer and began going through Henry's letters, having never done so before. She wished to sort through them and go over them with the Court archivist, who would see they were all properly placed in the palace library. Future scholars would pour over his thoughts and ideas and likely marvel that such a simple man could be such a truly excellent king.

She smiled at his terse notes—he was no writer, but he always got his point across, and his brief edicts, proclamations, messages and missives were concise, with no beating about the bush. He 'yes' was always yes, and his 'no' was always no, and he minced no words over foolishness and accepted no bloviating from anyone. She fingered her way through each paper, laughing sometimes at his comments in the margins of official documents.

In the margins of his notes on a meeting with the Minister of the Treasury: What the bloody hell does this mean? Debenture? Is that even a word? Is it something to do with teeth? That set Eleanor into a fit of giggles and she laughed heartily, wiping tears from her eyes.

From his own notes during one of his meetings with his Council, clearly jotted down among various doodles (including, Eleanor noted with a blush, a vivid drawing of her own breasts—he was remarkably good sketch artist, but really, she was going to have to hide this away from the archivist), a scribbled question: Who the hell are these people?

His prayer book, in which the words 'Our Great and Faultless King' were crossed out and replaced with 'A wretched, sinful man who is only saved by Christ's mercy and selfless sacrifice', and he had written that as a young man of only twenty. The births of his sons were also noted with obvious joy and pride, and his notes on their progress were interesting, to say the least.

Alexander is very bright, like his Mum, and learns quickly, but he is so serious, I worry about him. He needs more humor.

Frederick is jolly and likes the outdoors, and I daresay he is like me, but that in itself is worrying. Just the same, his pursuit of Ellie Bartolomeo is encouraging, as she is like Eleanor in her level-headedness, if not intelligence. Jolly good, the boy finding a mate like that.

Harry and William are devils with hearts of gold and though they are often naughty they are also kind and generous to all, from scullerymaid to Peer.

Harry's kindness to Lady Xenia D'Acre is always good to see and I hope he and she marry one day. She is a sweet girl, and says so much without speaking. I've little care that she is Beauchamp's daughter, and neither does anyone else.

Yet again, Eleanor was astounded at what Henry had always known. She had never spoken a word of Xenia's parentage to him, for Harriet's sake, yet he had known. Perhaps Hallam, his most reliable spy, had told him. After it all, it wasn't just Eleanor that Hallam worked for. His loyalty to Henry was just as unyielding.

William would rather race about outdoors than read, and poor Eleanor has much trouble getting him to sit still and tend to his lessons. She separates them now for their lessons and I think the results please her.

George is very feisty and wants things just so, and a demon would never dare cross him, but our George had better never catch anyone being unkind to another or there will be hell to pay!

Andrew is into everything and wants to know 'why' all the time and I must be patient with him, as Eleanor instructs me, because no father ought to scowl at his child while he is asking questions, and I must take care to answer him plainly and kindly.

His advice to his sons, written in the back of his prayer book, brought tears to her eyes:

Before speaking, think carefully: is what you are about to say kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?

You will never know everything, so stop and listen more than you talk.

You will always have to answer to Someone, and He is always watching!

Never strike a woman, however much she vexes you.

A man who is kind to you and rude to a servant is not a person with whom you ought to associate.

Love God and keep His commandments, for this is your all. Everything you say and do will be brought to His judgement, whether it be good or evil.

Show honor and deference to the gray-haired, and show decency, kindness and gentleness to every woman.

Never use profanity in the presence of a woman. If you do so, give her a gold coin.

Eleanor laughed aloud—she had many gold coins in her purse, from Henry's slips of the tongue.

Good manners go a long way, and they don't cost a guilder.

She had never read over Henry's comments on his meetings or his impressions of foreign ambassadors (Where in hell is Liechtenstein?), and she stifled more than a few giggles over his succinct descriptions of many of them.

The Polish ambassador is a nice man but he speaks too quickly for Eleanor to keep up with and I see she gets a headache when he talks.

The French ambassador is a strange wee man and for his country's importance, you would think they could become more adept at winning wars. They lose even their own civil wars! Cheese-eating surrender monkeys, my old tutor called them, but he was English.

The English ambassador is very thin. I've heard the food in England is hideous, and I think I know why his people like to try and conquer other lands: they're looking for a decent meal. Eleanor says they hardly need any sort of weapons in England, as they already have kidney pie.

The Saxon ambassador was frightening—shouted "Port!" during dinner last night and made Eleanor go into a fit of giggles.

The Danish ambassador is huge and impossible to keep fed. I expect to find him juggling horses, but his wife is very jolly and tiny, which gives credence to my theory that the bigger the man, the smaller the wife. I just fear he might get peckish in his sleep and eat her.

His comments on her own advice were a little startling sometimes. Brilliant, that woman, and so perceptive. Amazing what she knows, and how well she has been educated. I wish I were half as smart as she.

Shaking her head, she laughed softly. "Henry… " She shuffled some more papers around and was starting to put them back into the drawer when she came across a small box, wrapped up in blue silk and tied with a bow, with a tiny card with her name on it. Curious, she picked it up and turned it over, cautiously examining it. Figuring it was just a little Christmas present, she undid the bow and pulled the lid off the box, expending nothing more than a silver bookmark or an amulet… but instead, it was a piece of paper, neatly folded. She pulled it out and began to read.

30th March 1374

My dearest Eleanor,

We have been married just these few weeks now, and I have never known such happiness in my life. I am only just beginning to get to know you and see all the facets of your personality. You are indeed remarkable, and I know that I will treasure every day we have together.

Do not fear, dearest, that I will ever reveal your secret to anyone in the world.

I know you are not truly Princess Eleanor of Livonia. You are nothing like what was described to me by my agents. I told no one that I sent a reliable man to your home to look at you and tell me what you were like. He informed me that she was weak and sickly, and more so, he told me she was poorly educated, though hardly stupid. He said she was pretty enough, and if she survived her first few months here she might improve healthwise and might even bear a child or two, but he was also of the opinion that she did not seem as though she would withstand much hardship. But the contracts had all been signed, the banns had all been read, and all had been arranged. I was prepared to be kind and gentle with a shy, rather lonely girl who might not survive her first year here.

But then you stepped out of that coach and I knew that Eleanor of Livonia had been replaced. I think the word is doppleganger. I asked Hallam about it, see, and he only repeated his wife's term to me—I even asked him to spell it for me. I assume it means something like a twin who is not a twin at all? It does not matter, sweetheart. I fell in love with you the moment I saw you and replacement or not, you were mine and I wasn't going to let you go. I don't know who you really are, or where you came from, but clearly someone took the time and trouble to educate you and train you for this role, and God bless whoever that person was. Whatever the case is, you are my wife and there's an end to that.

You have made me the happiest of men and I thank God for you, and bless you in His name every day. I will never speak a word aloud to you on this matter, and with this letter the issue is utterly and permanently ended. If you are seeing this letter now, it means that I am no longer of this world but am in the next, and await seeing you with great eagerness, though I hope you live much longer after me and will see our children's children's children and will tell me all about them when we meet again.

You have my love, always, without end, and faithfully,

Henry

Hands trembling, Eleanor folded the letter and tucked it back into the little box. She tied the bow and sat, staring at it, for the longest time. She could hear music from the ballroom, and even laughter, but her mind whirled as she tried to remember anything that might have told her that Henry had always known. But there was nothing.

He had always known!

He had always been canny. Perceptive, observant, even possessing of what she might call second sight, though to a very muted degree. In her arrogance over her own brilliant education and intellect, she had forgotten that while he did not have books, he—like Agnes—had learning. He had always known what was going on, whether through sheer perception or through a network of his own spies, and his grasp of the important matters had always been remarkable. Henry had never missed much, yet Eleanor had not given much thought to just how much he had always known.

"My God, Henry," she whispered, blinking back grateful tears yet again. "You could have had me beheaded… "

"Ma'am?"

Eleanor gasped and almost dropped Henry's prayer book. She scrambled to put it back into the drawer and pushed it shut, locking it quickly. She managed somehow to smile at Elizabeth, who was standing in the doorway. The girl's expression was wary and curious.

"Elizabeth. Sweetheart, why did you leave the party?"

"I wanted some air. It was getting a bit stifling in there."

"I see."

Eleanor stood and carefully tucked Henry's letter to her into her pocket. She would keep it in her box under the bed, and before she died, she would settle that box into the archives, to be found by some astounded historian.

"I thought you had gone on to bed. You seemed so upset."

"I recovered myself, but I was in no mood for celebrations. I was reading through some of Henry's papers. They will need to be removed soon and placed in the royal archives." She managed a smile. "I'm sure future historians will be fascinated with the way my husband's mind worked. He was a delightfully funny, kind-hearted and generous man. And far wiser than I ever gave him credit for."

"I liked him a great deal, ma'am," Elizabeth said softly. "He was always so kind to me, and I never saw him in a sour mood."

Eleanor closed the doors to the king's study and paused in the Presence Chamber, looking at the consort's throne, on which she had sat hundreds of times over the past twenty years. Soon Elizabeth would occupy that majestic and uncomfortable chair. Eleanor made a mental note to try and find a cushion for it.

"He rarely was."

"He loved you very much," Elizabeth said, walking beside Eleanor as they went down the gallery toward the stairs.

"Yes. And I loved him."

"And you loved my father."

"Ye-… what?" Eleanor gasped, turning to face the girl. "What did you say?"

"I said that you loved my father. You still love him, don't you?"

Fear and anger whirled up into Eleanor's heart and she lashed out in her fury. "How dare you speak of such things to me, Elizabeth! How dare you say that I love another when my husband is barely cold in his grave! Shame on you!"

Elizabeth was not even slightly cowed. She quietly allowed Eleanor to fume at her, and didn't even flinch. She stepped forward instead. "I overheard you and Papa in the Ogre's Nest. You were betrothed, long ago, and you still love each other. I know now why he was so angry when we first came here, though I am not sure what might have happened to have caused your betrothal to be ended, but he still loves you and always will, else he would have not been angry at all."

"Never speak of this again!" Eleanor hissed.

"Who else will if I do not?" Elizabeth asked, cocking her head to one side. "And you say I oughtn't to speak of it, but you do not deny my words. I would never have thought you or my Papa to be cowards, and yet you both refuse to see what is true and right. You are both running away from what could make you both very happy."

Eleanor's fists clenched and she had to remind herself that by no means would she ever strike Constantine's daughter—she had vowed to be kind to her daughter-in-law and would never break that promise. She tamped down her anger and drew herself up, reining her temper in and regaining her self-control. "You will never speak of this again, Elizabeth. Ever. Do you understand me?"

"I understand a sight more than you think, ma'am," Elizabeth said gently. She curtseyed elegantly to the Queen and calmly turned and walked away to rejoin the banquet. Eleanor stood in the mirror-lined hallway, her heart pounding and her world spinning around her. She had never truly panicked before, but she felt light-headed. Terror, grief, lack of sleep, and too many uneaten meals were taking their toll, and Eleanor saw lights flashing around her as her knees buckled and she fell in a heap to the floor.


"Fainting spells! Good heavens, child!" Betsy said, pressing a cool, wet cloth to Eleanor's forehead. "Thank goodness someone found you."

Eleanor squeezed her eyes shut and tried to bat Betsy's hands away, but the older woman was made of sterner stuff than that.

"Now listen here, lassie. I can still put you over my knee if required, so no more of this nonsense! You'll behave now. Come on, sit up and take some food. Your son informed me that you have barely eaten a thing since Henry died. Is not life for the living? You'll be among the dead if you go on like this and that won't do at all." Betsy nodded to a servant, who came forward with a tray laden with a bowl of hearty beef stew and a small loaf of bread.

"Betsy," Eleanor whispered. "Henry knew. He knew."

Count von Hesse's housekeeper-cum-royal midwife glanced at the servant girl and dismissed her with only a curt nod. When they were alone, Betsy sat down by the side of the bed and only after Eleanor began to eat did she speak.

"How did you discover that?"

"I found a letter," Eleanor whispered between mouthfuls of stew, which she ate ravenously, suddenly overcome with hunger. "He wrote me a letter, shortly after we were married, and hid it away in a box. I found it in his papers, in his desk. I had no idea… I had never gone through his papers. He said he knew—he knew that I was nothing like how Eleanor of Livonia was described to him, but he didn't care."

"Did anyone else see it? The letter, I mean?"

"I never gave Alexander the key, and so far he has not shown much interest in getting into those drawers yet. He doesn't particularly like that desk and has his own anyway… and I think his father's letters might be painful for him now."

"And there were no copies of the key?"

"None that I know of."

"Then I would not worry about that now. Alexander knows you were not Eleanor of Livonia, correct? Henry knew, your son knows, and from what I can tell it never made a bloody bit of a difference to either of them. You do your mourning and get on with your life, like the rest of us."

"Did you? You never married again or took any… or did you?"

Betsy glared at Eleanor. "Of course I didn't. Granted, I never found anyone I was keen to lie down with anyway, but if I had he would have had to marry me first." Betsy wrung out the cloth into a basin and settled it on the floor by the bed. "Now listen here. You must take care of yourself. Your sons need you… all of Gravonia still needs you. Perhaps not quite as intensely as it once did, but you are important to everyone."

"I have spent twenty years being something to everyone," Eleanor said softly. "It was exciting, to be sure, but it was also…exhausting."

Betsy sat back in her chair, thinking. "You've had your time in the sun. You've done well, and be sure your works praise you. Your friends love and respect you, and your enemies fear you, and rightly so. But you are not Queen Consort any more. Perhaps it's time for Eleanor Reeve to decide what she wants to be, and to who, and what sort of life she wants to live."
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