A Matter of State
Constantine said nothing as he waited for his mother to select the right sort of wreath to send to Luvov, for Henry's funeral. The Queen Mother had a way of dithering, just to test the patience of everyone around her while knowing no one had the nerve to shout 'Hurry the bloody hell up, you vicious old bat!'
"This one with the black-dyed roses seems most appropriate, I suppose," Marie finally said with a sniff. "He was, I admit, a rather decent man. That woman he married… " She shook her head. "Riding about, no doubt astride her horse, taking charge of armies and the like. That hardly suits a Queen."
The prince said nothing. He held his hands behind his back and set his face into a neutral expression. A lifetime of never letting anyone, particularly his mother, see what he was feeling had made him an artist at self-control.
Marie frowned at her son. "I was told that you went to Gravonia at her call. Is this true?"
"She requested my assistance, and I could see no reason to refuse her," Constantine answered, keeping his voice even and his gaze set at middle distance. "And my daughter is marrying her son. It only seemed proper."
"All at great inconvenience to everyone," Marie said waspishly. "While you were gone I had to take care of your children, and they were not at all well-behaved." She scowled briefly at her son, but he didn't take the bait. "Well, never mind." She gestured to her chamberlain, Lord Rutland. "See this wreath is delivered post haste to St. Michael's in Luvov. See it is displayed prominently at the funeral, of course, and deliver my letter of condolence to Queen Eleanor." Marie pursed her lips. "The She-Wolf of Livonia. Imagine such a thing! How vulgar!"
Constantine's control slipped. "I can assure you, Mother, that you have a similar but less polite nickname here in Morvenia." He turned on his heel and left, leaving Rutland to cope with Marie's sputtering outrage. He stalked outside into the courtyard, still unable to understand his mother's lack of… humanity. Did the woman never show the slightest degree of compassion toward anyone? Could he remember even one time she had showed him affection? Had it not been for Philip and for Charlotte, he was sure he would have grown up completely warped and cruel.
Outside in the sunlight, he pulled on his gloves and flexed his aching fingers, muttering under his breath about the coming winter and the aches and pains it always brought him. He paced along the cobblestones to the stables, where Lamman waited, but his attention was captured by the sight of his eldest son Michael whispering sweet nothings into the ear of Lady Rose Montgomery, who was blushing quite becomingly. Constantine had to bite back a snicker—the boy took after Philip during his glory days.
The young prince finally glanced up and saw his father, and his face reddened as he stepped in front of the bonny young girl, who whispered something in the boy's ear before scampering away. Michael blew out his cheeks, ready for a dressing down, but Constantine only shrugged.
"If I were you, I would have a talk with that girl's father," he said, nodding to a stableboy leading Lamman over. "I, meanwhile, am going home to likely be poisoned by your little sister. She's trying her hand at tarts again, God help us all."
Michael swallowed nervously. "Rose isn't royal, Papa. She's… I mean, I… "
"I don't give a damn about that, and neither should you. She comes from a very respectable family, and pedigree is hardly an issue when it comes to character, and Lady Rose is well-brought-up, intelligent and well-informed." Constantine said. He swung up into the saddle and gathered up the reins. "You marry the girl you want, young man, and if need be I'll tell your grandmother off if she makes any noise on the matter."
"So… so you wouldn't care?"
"If she can tolerate you, it's all well with me, and you can be damned sure I care," Constantine shrugged, giving his son a rare, rather sad smile. "But you're a bit young for marriage, and she's not ready, either. But there's no harm in laying the foundations early on and seeing all is squared away." He looked toward the setting sun, squinting. "Just don't delay when you know the time is right. If you wait too long, it can turn out to be too late."
The crowds gathered outside the cathedral were vast, and they lined King's Way from the palace to St. Michael's, silently watching as the royal family rolled by in open carriages. The cortege stopped at the steps of the magnificent cathedral and Alexander stepped out alone. He adjusted his sword at his side and glanced back at the three carriages stopped behind him, and watched as his brothers stepped out. The six young men stood on the steps, waiting, and finally the Queen stepped out of her black-draped coach, aided by Lord Hallam.
Alexander led his family into the cathedral, and the doors were slowly pushed shut by royal guardsmen. Alexander took his mother's hand and led her down the long aisle to the front pew, gently settling her into her seat. Archbishop Nichols stood at the altar, Henry's catafalque rising behind him, the exquisitely carved black marble glinting softly in the sunlight pouring in from the rose window above.
Eleanor looked at the enormous number of wreaths surrounding her husband's catafalque, and smiled slightly at the one that had been settled on the carved image itself. Most of the flowers were dark-colored, particularly a wreath of black roses from Morvenia (surely Philip hadn't picked that out!), but the little wreath she had arranged for Henry was made of white lilies, yellow roses and cheerful white daisies, his favorite flowers. She watched her sons walk up the steps to the catafalque and kneel on the velvet-covered step, each one making the sign of the Cross and praying, before turning back to return to their seats beside her. The members of the household were next—Hallam, Lorenzo, the Duke of Trabane, and Henry's gentlemen, dear old Boris, then Eleanor's own ladies. One by one they paid their last respects to the King before filing back up the aisle to their seats. The nobles of Gravonia were next, and Eleanor spotted Lord William Despencer, the unfortunate father of that idiot Gavin Despenser , as he made his way up to the catafalque, and she sighed sadly as he knelt and prayed.
Once homage had been paid by Gravonia's great and good, the cathedral fell silent once again. Eleanor listened to Nichols' brief eulogy of the King, and his sermon was to the point, just as Henry would have wanted. He spoke of Henry's devotion to God, to his family, and to his country, and expounded on the King's virtues: his decency, his kindness, and his sense of humor being foremost, so that everyone in the cathedral was either misty-eyed or crying. Eleanor had no tears to shed, though, and was dry-eyed and calm as her sons took their positions at each corner of the catafalque, Alexander and Frederick at the front right, Harry and William at the front left, George and Andrew taking position behind them at the other side. They would stand guard over her husband's remains until sundown, when the last commoner of Gravonia had paid his respects.
Elizabeth, quiet and looking rather tired, took Alexander's place beside Eleanor and she took the Queen's hand in hers. "I did not mean to upset you, ma'am," she whispered. "I was horrified when Lady Hallam told me you had fainted."
"That was due to stress and not eating," Eleanor answered, sotto voce. "Though I do pray you will not speak of the matter to me or anyone else, ever again."
Elizabeth looked down, pursing her lips, but she said nothing. The archbishop's sermon was over, and after final prayers, Eleanor stood and walked up to the catafalque, kneeling on the stool. She crossed herself and closed her eyes. "I will think of you every day, dearest," she said softly. "You were the best and most generous of husbands and I am grateful to God for every day I had with you. That you knew I was not who I said… and never gave a hint to me that you knew… I was forever underestimating you, and for that I am truly sorry. Please forgive my pride and my arrogance. Together we had six beautiful sons and twenty happy years together. I loved you, Henry. I will always love you."
29 October 1393
Eleanor shivered, breathing in the scents of autumn and smiled slightly, enjoying the brilliant blue of the cloudless sky. The day had dawned crisp and cool, and the entire city of Luvov had been swept spotlessly clean and decorated elaborately for Alexander's coronation. Everyone in the city, and indeed almost everyone in the country, was lining King's Way, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the State coach bearing their new monarch. The Queen Mother, as per tradition, would stay at the palace, as it was considered bad luck for the previous King's widow to attend the new monarch's crowning. Despite Alexander's pleas to break the tradition, she had put her foot down, and besides, the new King needed to make it clear to all that he was in charge and no longer needed his mother at his side. It was indeed best she remain at home, out of the way. He had finally conceded her point, but not after telling her that he would always need her help and advice.
Frankly, she wasn't sure of that.
She remembered her dream, long ago, of her son's coronation and the terror she had felt at the presence of Constantine, in the form of a wounded dragon. Now, however, she had no fear whatsoever for Alexander or his siblings. She was confident at last that so far as her sons' lives were concerned, there was little to concern herself with. In the spring, Alexander would marry Elizabeth. Frederick would eventually marry Ellie Bartolomeo and Harry would marry Xenia. William had started to show interest in a girl at court named Lady Caroline Staitham, while George had formed a friendship with Lady Juliet Harris' younger sister Claudia (which meant that Niall Lassiter would become, in effect, an in-law to the royal family, a notion she rather liked). Andrew's continued correspondence with Charlotte of Morvenia still signaled a future marriage, even if he refused to admit to such a thing.
All that was of little concern to Eleanor now. She sat alone in the garden, looking out over the meticulously maintained beds of flowers of every imaginable kind and watching the water flow down from what the children called the 'wading pool' to the 'swimming pool' to the 'drowning pool', several hundred meters away and down the hill, water cascading down the steps from one pool to the next. Statues of Greek gods decorated each pool, many spewing out water from various orifices or pots and vases (the most hilarious one being Pan, who peed with a gleefully unrepentant expression on his face into the swimming pool). The swimming pool was embellished with a dramatic statue of Neptune and his chariot of seahorses and water sprites dancing about. Apollo vainly chased Daphne toward the edge of the pool, his expression aghast as she was transformed into a laurel tree. The wading pool, Eleanor's least-favorite of the three, was dominated by Venus, standing naked in the center, water forever pouring from a cup she held up toward the sky. The goddess was indeed beautiful, but Henry had commissioned it himself and she looked far too much like Eleanor for her own comfort. She could not look at the statue without blushing a little.
She looked up at the sky and the trees. The air was getting thin, the leaves were turning to rust, and the days were shortening. She breathed out and could see her breath. Cold as a stone, she thought. Soon it would be winter and she would sleep alone in a cold bed for the first time in twenty years. She had no idea how she might endure it.
"Bloody selfish," she whispered to herself, wiping her eyes. However much she tried to not let it happen, her dreams of late had become increasingly erotic. She knew that it would get only worse in the next few years, as there was no way she could just turn off that side of herself now her husband was dead. But what truly made her miserable during the day was the reality of her dreams: she didn't have those wild, heady dreams about Henry. Her physical relationship with him had always been satisfying and fulfilling, but she never saw his face in her dreams. No, she still always and only saw Constantine.
Every. Bloody. Time.
She would wake up feverish and clawing, desperate to find in wakefulness the pleasure she experienced in her dreams, and in those dark hours of the night she wished she had a man. Bloody hell, any man would do, so long as he could cool her fires and let her sleep in peace.
But that was impossible. By no means could Eleanor, Queen Mother of Gravonia (as Alexander had proclaimed, refusing to call her 'Dowager Queen', which he told her sounded like she was some decrepit old crone) take a lover. She had a reputation for ferocity and strategic skill, as well as a knack for statecraft and diplomacy, but very definitely had never been whispered about so far as her morals went. Certainly other queens, widowed or even still married, slept with other men, but she kept telling herself that she could not. It had taken two decades to bring Gravonia's royal family out of its own moral failings and into a reputation for clean living, thrift and responsibility, and she would not have the family brought down again by her own behavior.
Betsy had been right, of course, in saying that Eleanor needed to pursue Eleanor Reeve's own desires now. But those desires still came up against Queen Eleanor's duties and responsibilities. Eleanor Reeve might be able to romp with some handsome young knight, but Queen Eleanor could never indulge in such behavior and expect her reputation to remain intact. Nay, it would create another reputation entirely, and not one she wanted to burden her sons with, much less Gravonia. Her conscience still stood between Eleanor Reeve and Queen Eleanor. She just wondered if her willpower could hold up if she were ever alone with Constantine, and that was inevitable, considering his daughter was to marry her son. He would not just come for the wedding, but also to celebrate the births of grandchildren and for holidays, too… and what if he showed up during her heat?
As if that would really matter, she admitted to herself. If just seeing him in her dreams made her hot, then seeing him in the flesh might well set her on fire.
In the distance, she heard the bells from St. Michael's ringing joyfully, and she knew that her son had been crowned with all due pomp and glory. They would return to the palace soon, for a vast banquet for the nobles of Gravonia, with equally vast amounts of food to be distributed to everyone in Gravonia, rich or poor, and gifts from the Crown to every village and town in the country. Alexander had spoken with each mayor throughout the kingdom, to determine what royal favors would best suit each community, and his thoughtfulness was greatly appreciated. Sometimes the gifts were not monetary, but instead met a need: food and clothing for the poor; new windows for local churches and schools, repairs to roofs, donations to orphanages, a new windmill or sawmill to replace one that was out of date, or a new poorhouse to provide shelter, food and clothes to the truly destitute, and so forth. He wasn't as interested in garnering popularity as he was hoping to establish himself as a conscientious, concerned ruler who cared about his people.
A servant came up, bowing nervously to the Queen. "Your Majesty, the King has arrived."
"Very good, Joan. Thank you." Eleanor stood, smoothing her skirts, and looked at the sky. "It's getting very chilly."
"Yes, ma'am," the servant girl nodded.
The Queen studied the girl for a moment, then nodded. "I will walk alone to the palace. Thank you."
Joan bobbed and rushed away. Eleanor stepped quietly along the pathway to the palace and stopped to watch a small flock of partridges whirl up into the sky, no doubt heading south for warmer climes. She knew that back in the Turon Valley, the river was starting to freeze over and the raptors were indulging in their last feasts of fish, ducks and moorhens before continuing their journeys to North Africa. The forests were becoming quieter, as the songbirds also migrated away from the bitter cold, and the farmers were closing up their barns, checking their snow banks and repairing any breaks in their walls. Women were airing warm clothes and blankets; the chimneys were being swept out, and food placed in storage was being brought out and settled into cellars. At Ravensburg, the livestock were all being brought into the castle keep and settled into the barns, and the Count was distributing food and clothes to the poor in the valley and seeing that they had shelter.
Life had to continue, in one way or another, regardless of how lonely she was. And she was lonely now. No amount of time she would spend with her sons and with her friends would ever make her loneliness subside. She had no true equals in Gravonia now. Her son was King—he outranked her. Her younger sons were still under her charge and they never dared try to usurp her authority. Her friends could also not simply walk into a room to talk with her at any time, uninvited. The line that separated herself from the palace servants could never be crossed, however kind and generous Eleanor always made sure to be to them all. Her only equal had been Henry, and he was dead.
At the palace doors, she was greeted by two cheerful young knights, who bowed to her.
"Lord Maxwell, I understand you attended the coronation," Eleanor said, pulling her cloak more tightly around herself.
"Aye, ma'am, and it was a grand thing. Very colorful and very… reverent."
Eleanor smiled. Just like Alexander, with a good dash of Henry.
"Thank you. I'm happy to hear all went well."
The two men bowed slightly and she passed between them. She paced along the pokey little gallery between the kitchens and the offices of the King's Councilors, wondering again how those poor men could endure such smells and all that smoke, then paused at the double doors, waiting, and soon they were pulled open.
The assembled crowd of Alexander's friends, family, and the nobles of Gravonia stopped talking and looked up at her. She would never get used to it.
"Her Majesty the Queen Mother!" shouted a guard, and she almost burst into laughter. The King's Guards were chosen because they were the loudest and most redundant men to be found in the army. They were depended on to announce the arrival and departure of members of the royal family from any public room in the palace, and to loudly proclaim any major development in their lives. It was the King's Guard who had charge of announcing births at the palace gates, as well as deaths and ascensions. Eleanor was accustomed to their shouted declarations, but as yet no one else had gotten used to the racket they made. Even Henry got rattled by them when he would walk into a room and get a shouted announcement of his arrival. "Damned hard to sneak up on somebody and shout 'Boo!'," he had groused at Eleanor one day.
Alexander, resplendent in his shining silver armor, regalia and the glittering crown of Gravonia, smiled at his mother and bowed. She smiled back.
The newly crowned King went up the steps and took his mother's hand. He kissed her fingers and she curtseyed smoothly, paying homage publicly, for the first time, to her son as her sovereign. He then surprised everyone by kissing her cheek and embracing her.
"We all are very happy," Alexander said.
"Yes," Eleanor said, smiling. "We are, sweetheart. I'm so proud of you, darling. And I know your father is, too."
The King grinned and looked out at his assembled guests. "Tonight we celebrate. May God bless you all, and may He bless us and all of Gravonia, and may He grant that I be a just, kind and generous ruler." He picked up a goblet of wine from an offered tray. He held it up, and everyone said "God save the King!"
Eleanor glanced across the room and saw Elizabeth standing with her ladies, and managed a stiff smile at the girl. Elizabeth's expression, however, was not smug or knowing, but instead merely quietly sympathetic. The girl smiled softly and bowed her head. Eleanor let Alexander lead her to her chair, and she sat for the remainder of the night, watching the assembled nobles of her adopted country eat, drink and make merry. Official state mourning would resume tomorrow, and Eleanor wondered how she would survive.
20 December 1393
Elizabeth was almost bubbling over with happiness.
Alexander had showered her with Christmas presents, starting on the first day of Advent and finally, today, he had presented her with a beautiful gray filly, all her own. The filly was wearing a new, brightly painted saddle and silver and gold bridle, and poinsettias and Christmas lilies were braided into the horse's mane and tail. Two bulging bags of even more little presents were hung over the filly's haunches, but she cared little for that—she was too busy hugging her future husband and giggling when he stole a kiss and a brief grope before dropping her back to her feet and waiting for the doors to open.
Konigshaus was decorated with beautiful wreaths of flowers and holly, and candles reflected in every mirror, so that every room was bright and cheerful. Court mourning was still officially on, but Alexander had insisted that mourning be put off for the holiday, as his father would have found it sacrilegious to be gloomy at Christmas.
The princess and the King paused outside the door, with her arm sliding easily into his, a serene expression settling on her face, and Alexander nodded to the guardsmen, who opened the doors and stepped inside, announcing them loudly, as usual. A small party, of just family and friends, were gathered in the huge but cozy hall, and Eleanor was seated at the fireside, a rather absent expression on her face even then. She had been looking distracted these past few weeks since his coronation, and Alexander hoped the trip to the coast would cheer her up.
"It's all so beautiful," Elizabeth said, smiling at Alexander and greeted his brothers one by one, then her ladies. Everyone had come to the castle for the winter holiday, and Elizabeth looked forward to sitting by the fireside with Alexander as much as she did dancing and playing games. She suspected that not many princesses or even noblewomen across the Continent enjoyed such simple pleasures, but she thanked God daily that her life was so much different. Monotony was rarely a part of her life in Gravonia, for certain—she was constantly busy, attending one function or another, visiting a village to see the progress of building a new courthouse, or attending the opening of a country fair or christening a new ship for the Navy. Every day brought something new and exciting for her, and she relished every moment. Even quiet evenings reading and helping George and Andrew with their lessons were fun for her, and she delighted in the boys' intelligence and attempts at escaping.
"Is this like Christmases you've had in Morvenia?" Alexander asked, once Elizabeth was settled at a table.
"Oh, a good deal. We never had to spend Christmas with my grandmother, so we always had a jolly time, and even though Papa is not exactly the sort of take part in revelry, he never seemed to mind all the noise we made, or even the mess. When Mama was alive, she kept us more in hand."
"I'm sure she did. Everything I've ever heard of her was that she was a gentle but strong woman."
"Yes. She was. I miss her. But strangely, I don't get sad when I think of her. I know she is at peace, so I've little need to sorrow any more."
"Well, it distresses me to see you sad, so I enjoy you looking so well and cheerful."
Elizabeth smiled and kissed her fiancé again, not caring that courtiers were about who might see them. It thrilled her to be betrothed to someone she loved—who else did she know who was so blessed? She looked across the way and watched Queen Eleanor sitting alone by the fire, going over Andrew's Latin exercises and making corrections. The princess's smile faded as she pondered her plans and wondered if things might not go as she wished. Eleanor was a grown woman with a will of her own, and her father was no man to push about. Elizabeth loved them both and however much she wanted them to be happy, the matter would be entirely up to them.
I must ask a favor of you.
This Christmas season, like any other, will of course be a very cheerful time for us all, but your daughter has mentioned a few times that she would like for you to join the royal family at Tygo, on the coast, for the holiday. It would bring particular joy to Elizabeth if perhaps you could see your way to bringing your sons and little Charlotte as well. Naturally we will be able to accommodate you and your children here at Konigshaus, and perhaps you might stay for a while afterwards as well to enjoy a quiet winter by the sea.
We are aware that this invitation arrives somewhat late and does not give you time to reply. Your presence or absence on Christmas Eve will be your answer.
May God bless you,
Eleanor the Queen
Constantine read the letter as he listened to Charlotte talk excitedly about her very first public appearance earlier that week—she had participated in the opening of a new orphanage in Garon, and it had been named in her honor. He folded the letter and forced himself to listen to his youngest child, and caught the tail-end of the story.
"… poor little children without mothers and fathers. We took a large number of clothes to give to them, and little toys and trinkets as well, and they were all so nervous and excited. I try not to think they were excited to see me, since I'm nobody in particular, but they gave me flowers and performed a pantomime for us." Her brow furrowed. "Papa, are you all right?"
"I'm fine. And I'm proud of you for doing so well at the orphanage. A princess ought to be concerned for the poor and the unfortunate. Did they all look well-fed and well-dressed?"
"Of course," Charlotte smiled. "Uncle King is very strict about that! His almoner was with me and he seemed very pleased. All the children had warm clothes for the winter and the people who run the orphanage reported they receive lots of food from all sorts of people. They said no child there ever goes hungry and they are all treated kindly and are being educated well, too."
"Good, good," Constantine nodded absently. "Er… what would you think of going to Tygo in Gravonia this year for Christmas? You would get to visit Elizabeth and probably even see your Aunt Catalina. I wonder if you could endure it."
The girl's eyes widened and she clasped her father's hands. "Really? Of course I would love to go! When will we leave?"
"Tomorrow, most likely, if we're to reach the Gravonian coast by tomorrow evening."
Charlotte was almost bursting with glee, and she rushed out of the room, calling to her brothers upstairs. Constantine stretched his legs out, wondering how Eleanor was doing. He had little doubt she was in deep mourning, and wondered if she was so wise in inviting him and his children to Tygo, but he could not resist going—it would be like asking a moth to resist a flame. He wanted to see Elizabeth, of course, but…
God save him, but he wanted to see Eleanor. Even if he wasn't allowed to so much as touch her, he would at least know she was well. He sat back in his chair and closed his eyes, martialing his emotions carefully as he considered how much self-control he would need if he intended to get through the holiday at Tygo, in her presence. He was doing this for his daughter, after all, and for his sons and little Charlotte.
And for himself. It would be sweet torture, but he had to go. He could never deny Eleanor anything.
"Lorenzo, I intend to take the little dinghy out to Insel der Rosen tonight," Eleanor said, wrapping her warm cloak around her shoulders. "I will go alone."
"There's no point in arguing with me. Catalina will remain here with the children and will be in charge of the household. I will return on Christmas Eve."
"But alone, ma'am?" Lorenzo asked, looking a little anxious. He was growing into his role as Alexander's major domo and right-hand man, and his presence at Tygo meant that Agnes was also part of the busy whirl of Christmas preparations. Ellie and their other children were everywhere, racing about with the other children of the Court, and Catalina's children were also wreaking havoc at Konigshaus, totally unconcerned that the household and the entire country were all still in official mourning.
"Yes, Lorenzo. Alone."
Elizabeth and Alexander came tumbling into the room, laughing over some private joke, but they both fell silent at the sight of the Queen Mother. She nodded to them both and left the room, heading outside for her daily walk. Since Henry's death, she had taken to doing quite a lot of walking alone, without even her guards following her. That troubled Alexander a little, but he could not bring himself to reprimand her.
Eleanor shivered in the cold and stuffed her hands into her muff, wrinkling her nose as snow began to fall gently down, flakes settling in her hair. She could almost hear Clothilde saying, gently, "Please, Majesty, put your hood up." Eleanor raised her hood over her head, smiling softly, and stepped quietly along the path toward the cliffs behind the massive pile of Konigshaus, breathing in the cold, salty air and watching seagulls skim across the clear, crisp blue sky, diving into the water and squabbling over their catches.
This was her first winter at Tygo without Henry, and the thought of it tore at her heart. The past few months had been a whirlwind of near-endless activity and work, but now she was beginning to recognize the significance of being truly alone. She had no Henry to rub her feet at night, when they were cold, and no Henry to sit with by the fire, talking about the children and laughing over the antics of their two youngest sons. Worse yet, there was no Henry to make love with, and the lack of sex was starting to wear on her nerves more than a little. She supposed she was being horribly selfish, wanting such things, but if her husband were not dead she was fairly certain he would currently be schtupping her senseless upstairs in their room at Konigshaus, instead of her taking a walk by the cliffs.
She had loved him. It was not the passionate, deep love that she felt and would always feel for Constantine, but nineteen years of companionship and contentment had made her a happy, satisfied woman. She knew women at Court who were actually relieved when their husbands died (and those women were never part of Eleanor's inner circle, for certain), but the Queen missed the give and take of a relationship with a man. She missed discussing things with Henry—seeing his very male point of view, and his natural need to fix things instead of sitting around talking about them. Eleanor knew most men were like that, of course, but Henry had been the one she slept with and dreamed with and planned with, and his views and opinions had suited very well with her own. He had been the head of the household, and Eleanor had easily taken on the role of the neck, and had calmly turned him in the direction to go with regard to not only their children but the country itself.
In her position as Queen Mother, though, she had few options open to her, and no position of leadership any more. However much Betsy advised she explore what Eleanor Reeve might want and need, the reality was that she had to follow the rules. With her husband dead, she could look forward to quiet evenings at home by the fire, sewing and thinking and taking long walks alone. Later she would watch her sons marry and dote on grandchildren and do more sewing and involving herself in Good Works and doing more thinking until she finally went completely mad from boredom and dissatisfaction. She still had her monthly heats, after all, and that wouldn't go away for probably another twenty or so years. By then she suspected she would go completely insane.
As soon as she was able to slip away, the Queen maneuvered the little dinghy out of the boathouse, watching for the right moment to sail out to Insel der Rosen with the tide. As darkness fell and the moon rose up over the sea, she climbed into the boat, picked up the oars and paddled slowly out to her island, finally coming alongside the little dock and nimbly climbing up onto the landing and tying the boat before walking slowly up to the brick pathway that led to the Queen's Gate. She searched briefly for her key and let herself in, shivering as she climbed the chilly set of stairs that led up to the castle's front rooms.
The castle had sat empty since last spring, and Eleanor wondered if any creatures had managed to burrow their way in, but as she paced slowly through the rooms, she found no sign of any disturbance. Not even the Lacovian pirates blockading the port four months ago had seemed to have bothered to break in, and she found nothing missing. She went up to the room she had shared with Henry and searched in the closets for blankets and sheets, and was satisfied to find them all clean, dry and smelling of lavender—Betsy's notion of putting sachets between each folded sheet and blanket had always been an excellent one. In her bedroom, she arranged the bed, found thick, plump pillows and finally settled herself on the bed, curling up under thick blankets and lying on her side, letting her tears flow until exhaustion finally claimed her and she slept.
22 December 1393
"Alexander, where is the Queen?" Elizabeth asked, watching as servants brought food into the dining hall, where the royal family and its retainers were sitting down for breakfast.
"Oh, I think she's gone out to Insel der Rosen. Lorenzo told me last night that she had sailed out alone."
"Alone?" Elizabeth was startled. "Surely not alone, Alexander! She's the Queen!"
"So? She's a grown woman, and she can handle the little dinghy quite well. Better than Papa, even. She'll come back Christmas Eve, I know—she wouldn't dare miss supper that night."
"But… " Elizabeth paled slightly, thinking, then managed to give her fiancé a bright smile. "Of course. You're quite right."
Alexander eyed his future bride for a moment, wondering. "Have you got something up your sleeve, Elizabeth? Mama doesn't really like surprises, I should say."
"No, no of course not. It's just… I mean, it's… " She glanced anxiously toward the door. Perhaps they had been delayed—it had been snowing along the coast all day yesterday, and still was snowing this morning. Charlotte hated the cold and Papa had written to her, a few weeks ago, to tell her that his shoulders and hands ached far more in winter as he aged, and those aches were getting worse lately. 'A sure sign that the old dragon is starting to wear down a bit', he had said.
"What is it?"
Lorenzo came scurrying up to them, looking a little stressed. "Your Majesty, His Royal Highness the Prince Constantine and his younger children are all here."
"Oh!" Alexander said, and burst out laughing. "So that's your scheme! Well, I'm sure Mama will be pleased to talk about old times with your father, as I understand they were somewhat friendly back in Livonia."
"Friendly?" Elizabeth asked, brow furrowing. "I wouldn't say they were friendly, Alexander."
He looked at her, clearly confused. "What do you mean?"
Before she could answer, Charlotte came bursting into the room, a shivering and giggling bundle of cream and blonde energy, and she raced right into her older sister's arms. "Lili! We rode all night through the snow to get here!" she said, hugging Elizabeth so tightly the older princess saw spots. "Isn't this a jolly surprise?"
"Surprise?" Alexander looked even more confused. "Elizabeth, what is going on?"
The young Morvenian princes came trailing into the room, shaking snow out of their hair and looking around appreciatively at the large, warm room, but the looked confused at the sight of the tall, decorated tree in the corner. "What on earth is that for?" Michael asked, nodding at the tree. "Who brings trees into their homes?"
"We do," Alexander grinned, shaking Michael's hand. "Mama brought the tradition with her from Livonia, and we continue it here. I doubt it will catch on, though. It is awfully inconvenient, and then when Christmas is over we have pine needles everywhere, but it is pretty when it's decorated, and on Christmas morning we light the candles on the boughs and it's quite spectacular. How are you, Michael… Nicholas, Leopold, Parr, Charlotte… ?"
"All grand," Nicholas grinned at his sister and hugged her. The other boys embraced their sister as well, and let the servants take their coats. "Lord it's cold out there! We hope there's wassail."
"Plenty of wassail, and loads of good hot food, too. Everyone sit down and eat breakfast. Where is your father?" Alexander asked, and turned to see Constantine stalking into the room, looking cold, tired and rather touchy. He stomped his feet, shivering, and pulled his gloves off, spreading his hands out and flexing his fingers.
"It's damned cold and the wind nearly knocked me over," he growled, but his expression softened when he saw his daughter, but his expression changed from genuine pleasure at seeing Elizabeth to mild bewilderment. "And why is there a tree in here?" He sniffed and blinked slightly—pine trees made his eyes water. He could barely ride through a pine forest without sneezing.
"Papa!" Elizabeth squealed and embraced her father, kissing his cheek. "It's so good to see you! Happy Christmas!"
"It's not Christmas yet," Constantine managed. "Though now I can say I need no gifts." He gently remonstrated Charlotte for bouncing around so excitedly, but she knew how much she could get away with, so far as her gruff father went. She finally calmed down enough to sit down at the table, beside Prince Andrew, and everyone finally settled down for the morning meal. Constantine, forever afflicted with an uncertain stomach, ate little and only talked quietly with Alexander and his brothers, but it wasn't lost on Elizabeth that he seemed to be a little confused and frequently looked down toward the end of the table, where the Queen Mother would ordinarily be seated.
"I am sure my mother will be delighted to know you and your children have come to visit," Alexander said, stretching his legs out, his stomach full and only his good manners keeping him from getting up and sitting down by the fire for a nap until lunchtime.
"Yes, I… " Constantine's brow furrowed. "Will be? She sent me a… "
"I have all sorts of nice presents for you Papa, and for everyone else," Elizabeth interrupted quickly. "The Queen has gone to Insel der Rosen for a while."
"I think she's still got a bit of mourning to do," Frederick said. Alexander frowned at his brother, but the younger prince shrugged. "It's not as though she's been dancing a jig since September. She has to go through all the… the… "
"Rituals of grieving," Elizabeth said softly. "First I think she was refusing to accept that Henry was dead, and then I think she was angry or even frightened about it, then she seemed to be in this… this… I don't know… it seems as though she is slogging her way through heavy mud or snow and…"
"She's depressed," Andrew said. He pushed his plate away. "I see her crying a lot, or just sitting alone, staring off into space. It's not like her, that's for sure. When she thinks no one sees, she looks terribly sad. She pretends she is all right, but I know different."
George nodded. "We spend more time with Mama," he said, which caused Alexander to shift guiltily in his seat. The past few months, he was usually too busy to even dine with his mother any more, and he felt horrible to have more or less abandoned her during her time of sorrow. But who on earth could stop her tears and fill that emptiness he knew was slowly consuming her, like quicksand? He could barely allow himself to think of it, but he knew his mother was not made to be alone. He would never tell anyone about the time he had caught his parents making love in the gardens, but they had sure had looked like they were having a good time, and he doubted his mother enjoyed going without. He father certainly never could for long--thus his five younger brothers.
Constantine took a long draught of his wassail, feeling his daughter's gaze but making no comment. Finally, Elizabeth drew in her breath. "I personally think the Queen ought to remarry. Someone close to her age, perhaps, and willing to have children."
Her father's green eyes narrowed, but she wasn't afraid of her father—she had hit him in the face with a mud pie as a child and he hadn't even growled at her.
Alexander frowned. "Generally, Court mourning would forbid her entering into any kind of courtship, Elizabeth, though I… I suppose I can see your point. It's terrible to see her so lonely, and I want her to be happy more than anything. I can hope I will never selfish toward my mother, as she was never selfish towards me."
"Lord Bayliss' wife died six years ago," Elizabeth offered. "He's very nice and quite handsome, and he only has a daughter. Lady… Ulrike?"
"Ursala," George said, looking a little bewildered to hear anyone discussing his mother remarrying.
"Right. He would want a son, and we know Eleanor is very… fertile and would have little trouble providing him with one or perhaps even two. Though I know she'd love to have a daughter of her own." Elizabeth smiled. "Perhaps he might come to Court in the spring. We wouldn't push him on her, of course, but we might leave them alone sometimes to talk and see how they get on."
"My mother was Queen of Gravonia," Andrew said. "I cannot see her marrying a mere Lord. A subject—it would be… it would be…"
"Ridiculous," Constantine growled.
Everyone at the table was silent, staring at Constantine, who took another swig of his hot wassail and clearly wishing it was something stronger.
Elizabeth cleared her throat. "Yes, that's it. Ridiculous. She would never assent to it, unless Alexander ordered it, and I can't see him forcing her to marry anyone."
Every eye at the table settled on Alexander, who squirmed in his seat. He liked Lord Bayliss, but he could not see the man as his stepfather.
Constantine slowly swirled his wassail in his cup. "She was forced to marry your father, lad," he told Andrew. "She was not given a choice."
The King of Gravonia and his five brothers stared in shocked silence at Constantine, and Elizabeth cleared her throat. "Though I'm sure she came to… to appreciate the… um… selection her minders made. I know she loved King Henry."
Constantine looked chagrined and lowered his gaze to his plate, which was still full of eggs, bacon and fried bread. He pushed the plate away, no longer hungry. "I'm tired. I hope there's at least a spare bed available for me? I'd like a nap."
All six of the prince's children stared at him, startled. Constantine never napped. He might doze off by the fire after supper or fall asleep while riding around his property on Lamman, but he never took a nap. But he slowly stood and the housekeeper, alerted to the situation, told him where a room was ready for him. He nodded, turned and left. Everyone at the table fell silent, not sure what to do. Elizabeth finally excused herself and stood. "I'll be back soon."
The men at the table stood, while Charlotte looked bewildered. "Papa doesn't take naps!" she said. "He barely sleeps at all!"
Constantine knew Elizabeth would follow him. He didn't even bother going upstairs, but instead paused at the landing, and when she appeared in the hallway, under King Andrew's vast and startling portrait, he glowered at his daughter.
"Let me guess. That letter was not from Queen Eleanor."
She bowed her head, clasping her hands together and looking properly contrite. "I wanted to see you for Christmas."
"So why forge a letter? I would have come if you had written me."
"I wanted to know if you still… cared for her, and your arrival so soon proved me right."
"Elizabeth, I have warned you. I will warn you again, this last time. Do not interfere in matters that are not your concern."
"It is my concern," she said, raising her eyes to look at him directly. "You will always be my concern, Papa."
He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose for a moment and closing his eyes. "And that is very touching, and I appreciate it, but you have no say in my life. I'm always happy to come see you, but if you… "
"But you love her, Papa," Elizabeth said plaintively. "And she loves you."
"Stop it," he growled. "Stop it now, Elizabeth. Let it go."
"You need to speak with her," she pleaded. "Why should you and she both be lonely and unhappy when you could be… "
"Elizabeth!" he snapped. "Enough! If you continue with this line of… of inquiry, I will go back home today and never come back. Do you want that?"
She bowed her head, and he felt as though he had just crushed a daisy under his boot. She sniffled and shook her head. "No, Papa."
"I'm sorry, Smidgen. You just don't understand… "
"I understand perfectly, Papa. You're afraid."
He felt as though she had slapped him. No one had ever told Constantine that he was afraid of anything. Ever. Only Philip, and later Isabella, knew he was even afraid of the dark. But to have his daughter say such a thing made something twist in his chest and his anger rise. "What did you say?" he growled, narrowing his eyes.
"I said you're afraid, Papa. You're afraid of what might happen, or what might not happen. But nothing will happen at all if you don't talk to her. Either way, you have to overcome your fear and take your chance, or you'll end up alone one day with nothing but regrets around you, and I would hate to see that. I love you and Eleanor both, Papa, and I want you to be happy. Mama would want that, too, because she loved you."
He clenched his fists, determined to keep himself under control. Elizabeth said nothing more, bowing her head respectfully before turning and walking away, leaving him standing alone in the front hallway. A servant appeared in the hall and opened the front door, heading outside to gather wood for the fire, and he saw the beautiful castle rising up out of the sea, shimmering softly in the crisp winter sunlight, and he closed his eyes, tamping down his sorrow and his anger and his desire until he could at least turn away and walk upstairs to his room and close the door.
He lay down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, but there was no sleep to be had. He got up and paced to the window and looked out at the bay. Insel der Rosen rose up out of the water, shimmering slightly in the light, the sea sparkling around the beautiful castle, and he gripped the windowsill for a long time before turning away and heading out the door. He knew where he had to go, and his own words to his eldest son echoed in his mind: If you wait too long, it can turn out to be too late.
Eleanor prepared eggs and some sausages for breakfast and was pleased to come away from her meal unpoisoned. She knew she would never be any cook, but she had learned, over the years, to be somewhat competent in the kitchen. In fact, she had even managed to prepare meals that Henry and her sons would eat without snickering at her behind her back. She was best at Livonian honey bread and frying eggs, but expanding beyond that could become somewhat dangerous, but Andrew had summed up her cooking skills one day, after she prepared a meal for them all at Insel der Rosen and Catalina paid a visit: "We're all still alive!"
Servants had seen to it that the larder in Insel der Rosen was full whenever she paid a visit, and of course there were chickens and a milk cow kept in the castle's lower bailey stables, and they were tended by servants from Konigshaus year-round.
Wrapping herself in her cloak and carrying a basket, Eleanor strolled down to the bailey, walking slowly over the cobblestones and breathing in the sharp, salty air. She greeted the cow, which lowed gently at her in reply, and amused herself by watching the chickens pecking. While alone in the castle, she would have the job of milking the cow and feeding the birds, and so she went in and sat down on the milking stool by the cow, calmly milking her while she ate her breakfast. Andrew had named the cow Lucy, and she had been a birthday present to the Queen three years ago. The chickens also had names, as did the three cats that kept mice out of the stables. Eleanor cared little for cats, but she gave them all milk just the same, and when they finished lapping up their treat and came over to greet her, she scratched their ears. Drusilla, Apollonia and Messalina the cats were congenial creatures and superb mousers, but Eleanor still couldn't trust either of them. Once the cats and the cow had been fed, she went into the henhouse and gathered eggs.
The chickens were next to be fed, and Eleanor tossed out scraps and meal for them. There was one rooster, Tom, and nine hens—Margaret, Matilda, Olga, Helen, Hildene, Josephina, Eulalie, Anastasia and Tatiana—and they all seemed to have rather distinctive personalities. Tom was the most interesting of the bunch, being a handsome, regal creature with glossy red and gold feathers and a peculiar way of walking. He strutted closer to the Queen and she shook the scrap bucket at him, warning him off, and the rooster stalked away, offended.
"It's rather cold, isn't it?" she asked the chickens after sitting down on a bench against the stable wall. "I remember Count von Hesse saying that as you age, you feel like birds in the winter—it's so hard to keep going, but you must anyway. But it's not the weather that has me so… down. I know I am depressed. Why wouldn't I be? My husband is dead, my children are growing away from me—which is normal, of course—and I'm so… " She sighed. "I hate to say the word. I feel ashamed to feel it. It's not just the loneliness. It's not just how tired I feel or how angry I feel… it's… God, I hate myself for it… I hate sleeping alone."
She sighed and leaned back against the wall, feeling the cold biting her nose. She shivered and sniffed, but had no tears to shed now. "I remember Father Ulrich telling me, once, that we all go through different stages of grieving. First we deny it happened at all, then we get angry and rail against God for it, then we try to make deals with God, to get Him to change His mind about it all, then we go into a period of real sorrow and mourning, and then… we finally accept it." She kicked a rock away, making the chickens scatter in alarm. "I think I'm still sorrowing. Even now, four months on. Henry didn't hold my heart that way, so that I long for him daily, but I miss him so. Quiet talks by the fire about the children and matters of State and what we'd do the next day… the simple things can be the best and purest of them all, hm?" The chickens resumed pecking, and she knew they agreed.
"Clothilde said I ought to go someplace where I can be alone and just talk out loud about my troubles," she said. A hen—Olga, the one with the white spots on her tail—moved closer and seemed curious about Eleanor's feet. The Queen tolerated the hen's investigation so long as she didn't peck at her. "She said I should talk aloud about all the things bothering me. Well… I'm talking to chickens. That bothers me."
The hen wandered away. Eleanor leaned her head back. "I'm tired of being tired. I'm tired of feeling so depressed. I'm tired of everyone stepping so carefully around me, as though they think I'm going to fall apart if someone mentions Henry. I'm tired of going without sex, damn it. I am. If I had no conscience, I would just seduce one of the young knights back at the palace and use him until I was finally… satisfied. But considering how easy it always was for me to get pregnant, that could lead to disaster...though I would love to have a baby. A little daughter, perhaps." She sighed. "I wish I could go back to Ravensburg and stay there, in a sort of self-imposed exile. I would feed the chickens there and milk cows and go riding every day… I could just be Eleanor Reeve again."
"I really don't think that's possible, Eleanor."
She jumped to her feet and whirled around to see Constantine standing under the archway. He didn't move, but watched her warily, waiting for her reaction once she managed to pull her heart back into her chest. She drew in her breath and pulled her cloak tighter around herself. "Constantine," she whispered.
"I didn't mean to startle you. But I heard you talking to… " He looked around the little yard. "The chickens."
"Whatever helps, I suppose."
"How much did you hear?"
"The interesting bits," he said, still not moving. "Something about you missing sex, for one thing."
She blushed and looked back at the chickens. "At least they wouldn't tell any tales."
"Who knows? A chicken might say anything to avoid being beheaded and devoured."
She smiled. He finally stepped into the tiny yard and looked around, taking in the cow and the cats and the chickens. The cow tossed her horns a little and resumed eating her hay. Eleanor looked back at Constantine, watching him move closer to her, and she started backing away from him. Finally, she was against the wall and couldn't move. She drew in her breath and closed her eyes when his hand rested on her hip, and she sighed helplessly when his mouth covered hers. She slowly slipped her arms around his neck and moaned when his hands moved up to caress her breasts.
They stood in the yard for a long time, kissing, re-learning each other, discovering, sharing and realizing that nothing had changed in their mutual desire, and no number of decades or even lifetimes had broken the bond between them. She embraced him tightly, and he lifted her up off her feet, turning around and letting her push him against the wall. She kissed him deeply, then pulled reluctantly away. She saw the desire in his eyes, and could see her own image reflected in them—she saw an aroused woman there, and it frightened and excited her at once.
"I suppose we ought to… talk about a few things," he said, running a hand through his hair.
"We probably should," she said softly.
"Like… er… the weather."
She smiled. "It is rather cold. Would you like to come inside? I'm no cook, but I managed to make a few Livonian honey buns, just like Betsy made, and I've got hot wassail."
"Yes. I didn't eat much breakfast."
Feeling as shy and awkward as a girl half her age, Eleanor led Constantine through the castle doors and up into the cozy little gathering room. She shoved a chair close to the fire, across from her own, and started to pull Henry's old chair away from the fire. Tears filled her eyes then, and she didn't resist as Constantine carefully moved it away and replaced it when the new one. She sat down and glanced down at her sewing basket. She had left behind an old shirt of Henry's, to repair, last winter, and it was still in the basket, unfinished. Constantine sat down, wincing slightly at the old injury to his leg, from his skirmish with two Lacovian knights in the Turon Valley, and looked at the fire as he stretched out his legs.
She went into the kitchen, put the eggs away and gathered up a few honey buns, two cups of hot wassail and sprigs of mint, then carried them on a tray back to the room. Constantine took his cup with a murmured thanks and took a few sips, breathing in the mint and letting the hot concoction warm his slightly chilled bones.
"The waters were a bit choppy?" she asked. "You must have come over on a high tide."
"I requisitioned a fisherman's little boat and paddled over. The sea was a bit rough but I managed."
"Even with your uncertain stomach?" she smiled, taking a sip of the sweet, hot wassail.
"It wanted to stay on the shore, but I insisted it come with me."
She laughed softly and smoothed her hands in her lap. "I had forgotten about your rather wry sense of humor."
He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "I got a letter… I'm assuming Elizabeth wrote it… from you, asking me to come here for Christmas."
"Your daughter is, I'm afraid, a hopeless romantic."
"Hopeless?" he asked softly.
"Perhaps that's not the best word. But she is a romantic. She seems to think we're a very… fascinating case."
"If anyone ever finds out we were betrothed, it could become even more so," he said, sitting back and exhaling slowly. "I know what it would do for your children, for one thing. Mine, too, even."
"You told Isabella, didn't you? About… us?"
"I can't see her declaring her children illegitimate," Eleanor said, and caught a slight smile from him in reply.
"No, she'd never do that. Not even Parr when he's at his worst."
Eleanor clasped her hands, smiling. "Fate has been cruel to us both, and yet… "
"Yet we have twelve outstanding children between us and had relatively happy marriages to excellent people."
"So I suppose 'cruel' is the wrong word."
"Ironic, then?" he asked, leaning forward again and grabbing an iron poker. He pushed the burning log in the fireplace around and it broke, sending up sparks and crackling loudly before the fire settled again. "We lost twenty years and gained… what God wanted us to have all along, I suppose."
"Very true." She sighed. "We made our plans and God laughed at them… yet He still blessed us in His own way. As always. He has never failed us, has He?"
He nodded, looking at the fire. "But now… everything has changed." He looked at her, eyes glowing in the firelight. "I haven't changed that much, I think. Temper's better, I suppose, and I know how to tie ribbons for Charlotte's hair, since her governess pulls them too tight, but still… "
Eleanor smiled, the image of him arranging his daughter's hair so incongruous with that of such a ferocious warrior. She knew of the real tenderness and care he showed toward his children, and toward the innocent and helpless. All of Christendom trembled at the sight of the Dragon coming at them, followed by his disciplined and relentless army, but she felt honored to know of his sweet, gentle and caring side, and she hoped his children realized how truly blessed they were to have such a father.
She studied him, her heart bursting at the sight of his face bathed in gold light from the fire, and she drew a shaking breath. Almost twenty years had passed and she still adored him. He had a few more wrinkles, a few more scars, a good bit more grey hair, and she had not failed to notice his limp and his weariness of the cares and sorrows that weighed him down. Yet he was the same Constantine she had fallen in love with as a girl of fifteen and would love until the day she died.
"You haven't changed," he said softly.
"Hm?" It took her a moment to shake herself out of her reveries. He still made her heart beat fast and her breath quicken, and her fingers twitched with desire to touch him.
"You barely look more than fifteen."
She laughed. "I certainly don't feel fifteen! And I have grey hairs of my own now."
He shook his head. "Just the same… widows' weeds don't suit you, Eleanor. I know you're in mourning for Henry, and that's… appropriate, but I don't think even he would say you looked right in black, with no jewels. Being a widow doesn't turn you into a nun, after all. You're what, thirty-five now? You're in your prime, I'd say."
She looked down, her hands still clasped together as she tried to keep her emotions in check. "I admit I don't like wearing black… and I don't feel… old. I don't feel like I always imagined a widow would feel. Betsy is a widow and she behaves like a widow ought… though she's much older... and I still want… " She blushed and looked down, knowing he knew what she meant.
"What do you want, Eleanor?" he asked quietly.
She closed her eyes. The way he said her name still made a shiny, thrilling rill of pleasure and excitement run up her spine and spread warmth through her entire body. She suspected he knew how he affected her, too.
"Constantine," she answered softly. She watched him carefully, feeling unsure of herself, her heart still pounding and her fingers clasping together, longing to press against his skin and draw in his warmth and his strength.
"I love you, Eleanor," he said in a rush, then swallowed before forging ahead, speaking firmly. "I did everything in my power to make myself not love you any more, after I married Isabella. The pain I caused her… I can only pray she forgave me… but I cannot stop loving you. Even when I came to Luvov and found you were alive and I was so angry at having been deceived, I loved you. So unless you have a solution to my problem, I'm afraid I'm at a loss of what I ought to do now that you are, for all intents and purposes, free. What I know I can't do is bear being separated from you anymore. I can't go back home without... " He clenched his fists. "I've had enough of this emptiness. Twenty years, Eleanor, and I can't take it anymore." He exhaled and closed his eyes briefly, as if bracing himself for a terrible, killing blow.
She drew her breath, slowly reining in her emotions, and felt tears stinging her eyes. To have him pour out his heart to her now, risking his own heart, made her want to weep and laugh and dance and…
Dear God, she wanted him.
"I love you," she whispered. "You know that cannot and will not ever change, Constantine."
"Then what the hell do I do?" he asked, aggravated, running a shaking hand through his hair. "Just go on like this? I'll go mad."
She spread her hands in her lap and looked across at him, into his eyes, and made her decision, once and for all, vowing to never look back. "You can take me to bed."
He was silent for a moment, and she wondered if he had heard her, and she exhaled slowly as he stood up. He held out his hand to her, and she took it, letting him pull her to her feet. For a moment, they faced each other, neither making a sound or even breathing, before he stepped closer. "I've seen you naked in the moonlight, Eleanor. Now I want to see you naked in the firelight."
"In… in the firelight?" she whispered, her heart pounding so hard she was sure he could hear it.
He moved even closer, and he tucked a stray lock of her hair behind her ear. She closed her eyes, drawing in her breath, and sighed as his mouth gently brushed hers, lingering, questioning, and she moved up into the kiss, her hands finally settling shyly on his chest and sliding up to his shoulders and finally into his hair. His arms slowly slipped around her waist, pulling her closer, and she did not resist as he began to undress her. She lowered her arms and stepped away, undoing the last ties and letting the dress slip down. She drew in her breath as he slipped the straps of her chemise off her shoulders and it fell down onto her discarded dress. She suddenly felt shy, wondering how he would react to the way her body had changed.
"So beautiful," he said. "So perfect."
"Hardly," she said, blushing. "I'm not a girl any more. And I've borne six children… "
"Indeed," he said, cupping her breasts and kissing her, harder and deeper than ever before, making her tremble and strain against him, overcome with need. She tugged impatiently at his shirt, and he stepped back and pulled it off, over his head, and tossed it onto her chair. She rubbed her fingers against his bare chest, and squeaked in surprise when he pulled her roughly to him and raised her leg to curve around his hip, and she rubbed her aching middle against him, feeling his desire, and he answered her urgent request by moving to his knees and pulling her to the floor with him, onto the thick rug before the fire. Eleanor stretched out on her back, whimpering at being separated from him, but she watched through half-closed eyes as he removed the rest of his garments.
He was as beautiful as ever, and when he finally joined her, stretching over her and kissing her, she stroked his back and traced her fingers along his scars, whispering his name again and again, spreading her thighs to welcome him and shouting his name as he entered her, her body already ready for him, arching her back and reveling in his power as he braced himself on his hands on either side of her head and began moving, slowly at first. She wrapped her legs around his waist and urged him on, sliding her hands down to pull him even deeper inside. When he sat up on his knees, Eleanor moved up with him, kissing him and moving her body against his as she rode him, surrendering entirely to desire as he grasped her hips, supporting her and helping her find a perfect, mind-melting rhythm. He felt her tightening around him, and held himself back, waiting for her.
"You don't have to wait for me," she whispered against his mouth.
"Yes I do. I've waited twenty years for this," he said firmly, moving her onto her back again, watching her face as her breath quickened and she cried out as he joined her, lowering his head to take the sweet crest of her breast into his mouth as they came together. She could only cling to him, chanting his name as she experienced a kind of pleasure she had never thought possible, even in her wildest fantasies. She ran her fingers through his hair and sighed as he slowly withdrew and began kissing her belly and her thighs, moving slowly between her legs.
"Oh… my God… " She moaned helplessly, knowing she couldn't stop him even if she had wanted to. She didn't want him to ever stop, even though she felt as though every nerve ending in her body had been set afire and could surely take no more. She raised her arms above her head, closing her eyes as his hands wandered up to caress her breasts as he pleasured her. She began to rub her heel into his back, finally burying her fingers in his hair, unable to string together any two coherent words as he brought her to another, shuddering climax, her sighs turning to cries of ecstasy. He rested his head on her belly, her fingers still tangled in his hair as she slowly drifted back down to earth.
"I love you," he whispered, closing his eyes.
"I know," she answered as her own eyes closed. "I love you. With all that I am or could ever be."
They both drifted into a deep, dreamless sleep, years of loneliness and regret fading away into nothingness.
"I have rug burn on my knees."
Eleanor giggled and stretched out on top of Constantine, nuzzling his neck and smiling as his hands stroked the outer curves of her breasts. "So do I," she said, raising her head and giving him a naughty smile. He caressed her cheek, and she turned her head to kiss his palm. She rose up and kissed him deeply, silkily rubbing her tongue against his, shamelessly giving herself to him, loving him, glorying in him.
He grinned at her and she sat up, not ashamed of some degree of smug vanity at the way he was looking at her. She climbed off him and stretched out beside him, snuggling against his warm, hard body and softly kissing his chest, nibbling lightly and smiling when she heard him hiss.
They had moved upstairs, into one of the smaller bedrooms, and had not left the room even as night was falling. Between lovemaking, they had talked, about everything and nothing, their souls and bodies intertwining almost seamlessly, as though the past twenty years had never happened. They both knew, of course, that the outside world would soon intrude and they would have to leave the island and face the consequences of the rekindling of their love, but for now they only wanted to live alone together in the quiet, sweet cocoon they had made.
"I've never made love to a Queen before," he said softly.
"Mmm… " she sighed. "Is it supposed to be this good?"
"No. Probably not."
She traced her fingers along a scar that ran from the center of his chest to his ribs--she had kissed every mark on his body, sorrowing of the pain each one had caused and reveling in how utterly masculine they made him. "You… will marry me, won't you?"
"If you'll have me."
"I do have you."
"True. Right between your thighs."
She giggled and sat up to kiss him, sighing with pleasure as he buried his fingers in her hair and kissed her back with blatant, sexual possessiveness that made her tremble and ache with renewed need. He moved her onto her back again and settled astride her, his eyes darkening as she spread her thighs and hugged his hips. "I will marry you, Eleanor. At your word." He kissed her, deeply, letting her nibble on his lip and moaning as their tongues mated. He raised his head and looked into her eyes. "Whether we marry or not, I am yours. If you only want me as your lover, I'll be that. If you want me as your husband, then I will be at the altar at the time you name. Whatever you desire. I don't care. So long as I get to make love to you, every night, for the rest of my life, I will be whatever you want me to be."
"I'll have to make an honest man of you," Eleanor said softly, sliding her foot slowly up the length of his calf. "After all, I have every intention of bearing a child or two for you, and I long to bear princes and princesses of Morvenia. Just as I did so long ago.
She sighed as he entered her and she embraced him tightly, moving with him, their breath quickening as they loved. They satisfied one another's cravings, always in contact, their cries mingling together as their climaxed and slowly drifted back down from heaven. He slowly moved onto his back, pulling her with him, and she began kissing his chest.
"Still not enough, hm?" he asked.
"Never enough. Never," she whispered as she began moving lower on his body. "I will marry you, Constantine. Of course I will. It would be… mmm… rather delightful, I admit, to keep you as my lover, but such things are generally frowned upon for someone in my position."
"You mean naked and riding me?" he asked, and she pinched him, making him laugh.
"My position as Queen Mother."
"I can barely even picture you in such a role… Queen Mothers aren't supposed to be temptre-..." he started, but her mouth was in a place now that made coherent speech impossible. He could only stroke her hair and try to remember to breathe. When she lowered herself onto him, he stroked her hips and watched her, amazed and lost in pleasure and adoration for her, never wanting to be separated from her, ever again. Her cries of pleasure made him almost drunk with arrogant pride, knowing he could give her sure joy, and he surrendered to her entirely, holding nothing back from her as he found release, crying out and moaning as she kissed him.
"You are mine, Constantine," she whispered against his mouth. "Mine only."
"Yes," he said, weak and helpless now in her arms. "Always."
"And I'm yours."
He kissed her breasts, whispering accolades to her beauty. "Then you are my wife, Eleanor. Now. Today."
She looked into his eyes, dazzled by how they glowed in the fading light. "And you are my husband." She kissed him again. "And I love you."
He embraced her tightly, moving onto his side, and she moved her body against his, marveling at his prowess yet again, and slipped her leg over his hip. He caressed her breasts and her belly and her thighs, sliding his hands up to stroke her back, their mouths making love, their heartbeats slowly returning to normal. She sighed and kissed the center of his chest, then tucked her head under his chin, yawned and drifted into a peaceful sleep, cradled in the arms of the man she loved.
"I suppose it is wise for me to go back to Konigshaus alone."
"Probably," Eleanor said softly. "We did squabble about it."
"Making up was rather delightful, though. God, I'll always hate seeing you with clothes on."
She smiled and wrapped her arms around his neck as he kissed her.
They were standing inside the doorway of Queen's Gate, having waited until dawn of Christmas Eve and the morning tide to be low enough for a safe and quick passage back to shore. Saying goodbye, however, was hard for them both, even if they were only to be separated for a few hours. Constantine had finally taken her there, against the door, both of them surrendering to lust. Now, he had managed to rearrange his clothes and tamp down his hunger, and she noted that she had to repair a tear in her dress.
"You'll sleep with me tonight, won't you?" he asked.
She blushed. "I suppose I'll have to sneak into your room after everyone goes to bed."
"I'll be waiting."
He kissed her deeply, then stepped outside into the cold. Snow was whirling around the island and falling heavily on Konigshaus. He walked down the steps, Eleanor watching anxiously, and she did not take her eyes off him as he climbed into the dinghy, cast off and paddled across to shore. Her anxiety did not fade until he was safely ashore and pulling the dinghy to the boathouse, tying it firmly to a pole. When he turned and waved at her, she waved back, smiling, relieved he was safe. She finally closed the door and leaned back against it, breathing in and out, her heart swelling with joy and some small amount of trepidation.
She was going to have to talk to Alexander, and later with the Council. She would not brook any refusals on their part to let her marry Constantine, officially, in church. She walked up the steps to the doorway, thinking of what her son would say on the matter. All her sons, in fact, would be stunned to learn that she was officially betrothed again, just four months after her husband's death. They would be even more shocked, of course, if her tryst with Constantine resulted in a baby. Considering she had not been taking any of her mother's pregnancy-preventing concoctions since Henry's death, there was little reason to think that a new life had been planted in her womb.
Eleanor supposed she could prepare a concoction now, as a precaution, and she went into the kitchen to look for the right herbs—she had always kept a store of them at the castle, just in case, during her marriage, and she finally found the right ingredients. It would give her something to do, until tonight, when she would take the little boat back to shore and celebrate Christmas Eve with her family. She began crumbling up the herbs into the mortar and picked up the pestle, adding a few drops of the special oils needed, but paused, thinking.
She would love to have a child with Constantine. But she could not bear hurting her sons.
Eleanor did not deny that her attitude today was much different than it had been just a few days ago. Until Constantine had arrived at Insel der Rosen, she had told herself again and again that it would be impossible for her to take a lover, much less remarry. Yet now, she was pondering whether she should damn the consequences and let her lover put a child in her, or do what was necessary to prevent such a thing… while also still sleeping with Constantine—there was no way she was going to bar him from her bed, even after returning to Konigshaus.
She sighed and looked around the kitchen, blushing a little as she remembered making love with him on the floor in front of the fire, then on the stairway, then against the door of the bedroom, and finally in the big, soft bed. They had spent two wonderful, glorious days together, insulated from the world and its questions and recriminations, but now…
She squeezed her eyes shut. She put the herbs back into their boxes and put the mortar and pestle away.
"Her Majesty the Queen!" shouted a court herald, and Eleanor rolled her eyes heavenward as she stepped into the Great Hall, glancing up at King Andrew's portrait.
Alexander stood as his mother stepped into the room, and her other sons bowed. She smiled at Constantine's children, taking in their healthy, robust looks and Charlotte's peaches and cream complexion and copper-touched blonde hair. She let Alexander take her hand and lead her down the steps into the room, and the twelve royal children bowed and bobbed to the Queen, who curtseyed elegantly to her son, who rolled his eyes. "How many times must I insist you not do that?" Alexander asked, kissing her cheek. "You are well, I hope?"
"Quite well, yes. I hope you have been behaving well, all of you," she said, looking around the room and seeing Constantine standing near the tree. He looked at her, raising an eyebrow. Eleanor felt her cheeks warming and smiled warmly at Charlotte, who approached her shyly.
"Your Majesty," the little girl said. "Happy Christmas, ma'am."
"Happy Christmas to you, too, sweetheart. I can imagine you will receive lots of presents, hm?"
"I'm here, ma'am, and that is present enough for me. Papa and my brothers and Elizabeth and Aunt Cat are all here and it's snowing, and Papa says that if you're game we can have a snowball fight!"
"Well, I am always eager for a proper snowball fight," Eleanor smiled, touching the girl's cheek. "Who am I to refuse? But it is already getting dark, so perhaps we ought to wait 'til tomorrow, when the snow is settled and better suited for making proper snowballs?"
That seemed to please Charlotte, and Eleanor smiled as Constantine approached her. He bowed over her hand, his mouth only barely touching her fingers, and she had to use every ounce of her self-control to keep from shivering and giggling like a girl in the first blush of love. She opened her eyes and saw her eldest son watching them, his expression hard, and she blushed and pulled her hand away from her lover. Constantine nodded, understanding, and left her.
The two families sat down at the dining table together and ate a sumptuous meal, everyone talking at once and laughing, sipping hot cider and wassail. Eleanor, seated at her end of the table, could barely refrain from staring at Constantine, vividly remembering every time he had made love to her. She could still feel his hands on her body, and his weight on her and each wonderful, mind-melting thrust. She could feel his skin under her fingertips as his tongue stroked hers until she…
"Mama, aren't you going to join us by the fire?" Andrew asked her. Eleanor started, gasping, and managed to compose herself a bit. The servants were clearing the dishes and platters away, she could not remember having eaten.
"Of course, sweetheart. And your first gift of this evening is no Latin verbs before bedtime!" she smiled, teasing her youngest son.
Andrew looked pleased and he kissed her cheek before he left the dining table and rejoined his brothers and Constantine's children in the Great Hall. She looked across the table and saw Constantine still sitting there, casually peeling an orange. Slowly, she rose to her feet and moved to his side, sitting down. His hand slipped under the table and caressed her thigh, which made her writhe a little, and even more so as his hand moved up to touch her even more intimately. She closed her eyes, struggling to maintain some degree of self-control.
"I'll be going to bed early, if I can," he said softly.
"I will have to linger a while," she answered, longing to kiss him, but she could not. Yet. "Which room are you in?"
"The one with that huge set of antlers over the fireplace. I'm guessing that they are not real antlers. That particular hart would have ravaged the entire country."
"Yes, I know that one," she smiled. "And it was not a real deer at all. They are carved antlers."
He nodded. "I can only hope it's not the bed you shared with Henry."
She shook her head slightly and managed somehow to stand. She spoke a little more loudly, knowing her voice would carry into the Great Hall. "I'm very pleased you and your children are here, Your Royal Highness. We do hope you will stay for a while—the royal family does not usually return to Luvov until sometime in the middle of January."
"I am pleased to be here, Your Majesty." He lowered his voice. "And I am always pleased to service the Queen." He gave her a wicked little smile. "I'll be waiting for you."
Eleanor blushed more deeply, but stepped back and turned to leave, but she glanced back at him before rejoining the crowd in the Great Hall. She greeted Catalina, who had brought her own brood of six children, including little baby Beatrice. Eleanor took her usual seat by the fire and was delighted to be handed the baby. Beatrice squealed and waved her arms, babbling at the Queen. She smiled down at the girl, stroking her soft cheek, and looked up at Catalina. "She's beautiful! You and Baltasar are always blessed with the prettiest babies."
Catalina smiled. "I have no choice but to agree, ma'am. And I daresay they remain utterly beautiful to me, even when they're behaving as I did as a child."
"Oh, I know all about that." Eleanor let the baby grab her finger, laughing and kissing her tiny fingers. "I hope… I mean, I would have loved to have had a daughter of my own."
Constantine, strolling casually through the room, looking at swords and antlers on the walls, moved a little closer. "Perhaps someday you might, Your Majesty," he said.
Catalina looked up at him, taken aback, and he strolled away. She looked, wide-eyed, at the Queen. "Ma'am, are you considering remarrying?"
"I have not given it much thought, but the future is blind," Eleanor answered, glancing at Constantine, who looked at her for a moment before settling down in a chair far away from the tree. She cuddled the baby, who gurgled and settled peacefully in the Queen's arms, yawning. Eleanor smiled at Catalina, signaling that she was pleased to hold the baby while she napped. Catalina rose, curtseyed, and rejoined her elder children at the table for a game of cards.
Alexander chatted with Elizabeth for a while, but he excused himself and wandered slowly around the large room, examining the portraits and the weapons on the walls, and finally stopped opposite Constantine's chair. "Might we talk, sir… in private?"
Constantine looked across the room at Eleanor, who cuddled little Beatrice, brushing her mouth against the baby's forehead, breathing in that lovely baby scent, and the Queen gave him a tremulous smile. He stood and nodded. Alexander gestured toward the door, which led to his own small private study. Elizabeth left her ladies and settled in the chair opposite the Queen. "What do you suppose they have to talk about?" the girl asked.
"A few things, I can imagine," Eleanor answered softly. "Likely a few… matters of State."
Alexander sat down behind his desk and watched his future father-in-law sit down opposite. For a moment, he could not speak as he struggled to martial his emotions. He drew in his breath and brought all his self-confidence and training to the fore, knowing this conversation was going to be difficult.
"Elizabeth was very pleased to see you."
"I was pleased to see her, too."
"But it was odd you did not stay long. You've been gone for two days."
"Might I ask where you have been, sir?"
"Visiting a friend," Constantine answered.
Alexander closed his eyes for a moment. What that visit had included was not something he wanted to think about. "I had no idea you had friends here in Tygo. I didn't even know you had ever been to Tygo."
"This friend does not live in Tygo, either."
"So you received a message from them to come… visiting then while they are here on holiday?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"And so you stayed two days, right before Christmas, when you could have been spending time with your daughter?"
"I'm certain you were keeping my daughter well occupied, sir," Constantine answered, with just the slightest sharpness to his voice.
"I can assure you, sir, that whatever occupation I gave to your daughter was entirely… proper and chaste, as we are not yet married."
"Hm." Constantine leveled his cool green gaze on the young King, and was rather impressed that the young man looked him right in the eye in response.
"So you are sleeping with my mother."
That did startle the Morvenian prince. He drew in his breath. Alexander tensed.
"Very much to the point, I must say, but yes. I stayed with your mother at Insel der Rosen, and we… " He could not say the words to the young man. He doubted Alexander wanted to hear them.
Alexander's hands gripped the arms of his chair and he pursed his lips, struggling to maintain some degree of calm. "So you have come here and seduced my mother, who is in mourning and extremely… vulnerable!"
"There was no seducing on either of our parts, and I have marks on me to indicate she is hardly in some sort of weakened state, lad. I will admit that such things are not generally considered proper, but… we have loved each other for many years and… "
"Many years?" Alexander spat. "What the hell are you talking about? You barely even know my mother!"
"I have known and loved her since she was fifteen, boy, and do not speak that way to me again!" Constantine growled.
Alexander shot to his feet. "I am the King of this country, sir, and I will speak as I see fit! You have bedded my mother while she is still mourning my father… who is barely even cold in his grave, for God's sake… and you say that you have loved her all these years? How could you have known her at fifteen?"
"Sit down!" Constantine snapped. "Listen to me. I found your mother after the village of Teslo was destroyed by the Lacovians. I know she told you about that."
"She did not… she didn't… " Alexander sank back into his chair, bewildered and too shocked to continue raging at the older man.
"Tell you all? All right then, I will. I found her when she was three years old, in the woods outside Teslo, and we took her on to Count von Hesse at Ravensburg, and he raised her. You knew about that part, right? She didn't tell you, I assume, that she and I were betrothed when she was fifteen. But then Princess Eleanor of Livonia died at Ravensburg while on her way to Gravonia, to marry King Henry, and Eleanor went in her place. That meant that the betrothal of Eleanor Reeve to me was, for all intents and purposes, severed by her 'death'. So if you're worried about some kind of legal entanglement and questions about your legitimacy so far as Rome is concerned, you should cast all that nonsense aside, as no one outside the Turon Valley even knew Eleanor Reeve existed." Constantine realized his hands were gripping the arms of his chair, too, and he had to make himself relax. "I did not bed her back then, either, in case you're wondering. She went to your father a maiden. Frankly, though, I wish I had bedded her before I left the Turon Valley, because then von Hesse would have had to let me marry her then and there and take her on to Morvenia, damn the consequences. And yes, I am sleeping with her, and we are betrothed now, and I will marry her with or without your permission. We are both unbound by matrimony, we are both of age, and she needs no one's consent to marry whomever she pleases."
Constantine had never said so much, at one time, in his life. He had to take a deep breath as he watched Alexander come to grips what he had just heard. The young king sat there for a long time, staring at him in utter shock before he finally seemed to regain some of his composure.
"You must obtain my permission, sir," Alexander finally said through clenched teeth. "And the Council's. And I am not sure, sir, that I can give it. If I don't give it, neither will my Council."
"Then you and your Council can go to hell, sir." Constantine stood. "Happy Christmas. I'm going upstairs now to wait for your mother." He bowed to the King, turned, and stalked out of the room.