Our Gracious Queen

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A King's Conscience

Eleanor cuddled little Beatrice, smiling at the sleeping baby and marveling at her soft skin and sweet smell. She did not pretend she didn't feel that familiar maternal stirring in her heart—she had felt just the same when she was ready to have another child, and regardless of the circumstances, she knew she was ready again. She kissed the baby's forehead and looked up at Catalina, who was smiling. "She already sleeps through the night, and is as strong and healthy as her siblings."
"I'm very glad to hear that," Eleanor smiled back. "She's beautiful."
"You… look very good, holding a baby, ma'am."
"Thank you, Catalina. I have always loved babies." She reluctantly handed the child back to its mother and stood, smoothing her skirts. She turned to start toward the table when Constantine came back into the Great Hall, his expression dark. She hesitated, taken aback, but said nothing as he went through the archway to the stairs and stomped up to his room. Clearly his conversation with Alexander had not gone well. The Queen swallowed, but had to put her own unease aside when Charlotte bounced up to her, positively brimming with excitement. "We have gifts for you, ma'am. Come see!"
"Oh, yes. Thank you, Charlotte," Eleanor managed, and settled near the tree to unwrap her gifts from the Morvenian royal family. She exclaimed over them all, particularly the lace kerchiefs Charlotte presented to her, and greatly appreciated the carved deer and dragons of Gravonia and Morvenia and the stately wooden lion Michael had carved. Lions were the symbol of Livonia, she recalled, and she thanked him warmly for the gift.
"Michael, I understand you have become very friendly with a girl back home—a Lady Rose Montgomery?"
His cheeks turned a little pink as his brothers smirked at him.
"Yes, ma'am. We are good friends."
"That's the best place to start, I think," Eleanor smiled.
"Friendships between men and women are always a good thing. They do often grow into even better connections." She accepted Elizabeth's gift next, and had to smile at the paper rose the girl had made for her.
"Thank you, sweetheart. It's lovely."
"Papa must not be feeling well," Elizabeth said cautiously, her expression worried.
Eleanor knew that physically he was just fine. His current state of mind might be somewhat less so. She smiled at the young woman. "I'm sure he will be much better tomorrow morning." She had a servant collect her gifts while another distributed her own gifts to everyone. The Christmas Eve gifts were always smaller and traditionally handmade, while Christmas morning presents were the grander, more elaborate kinds—jewelry and headdresses, clothes… horses or cattle, or, God help her, dogs. Eleanor liked dogs well enough, but she had no use for a whole pack of them following her about, and she was worried that Elizabeth intended to give her a dog tomorrow. She was going to have to accept the creature and just be glad it wasn't a cat.
Christmas Eve slowly melted into afternoon and finally, evening. Constantine came back down for Mass, and the two royal families trailed into the chapel in silence, holding lit candles and using them to light votives at the altar. The priest read the service, recounting the birth of Christ. She smiled, remembering her dispute with Father Ulrich over when Jesus was actually born—Eleanor did not believe He could have been born during winter, as shepherds never kept their flocks out in the fields during cold, wet weather, and she had further unsettled him by pointing out that there was not a single Scripture anywhere commanding anyone celebrate the birth of Christ, but instead to commemorate, weekly, His death, burial and resurrection. She wondered, briefly, if Father Ulrich still tossed and turned at night over the questions Eleanor had asked. Whatever her disputes with him, however, she had always respected him for his honesty, his simple, unyielding faith and his unlimited reserves of kindness, good humor and patience.
Of all the yearly holy days, she enjoyed Christmas most. She loved the time with her family and her loved ones, the merry feasts and dancing that followed, and Christmas morning watching her sons tear into their gifts (Henry being the first to sit down by the tree, eager to open his gifts and hand presents out). That she did not regard it as a particularly religious holiday did not take away her pleasure during the season, and she never voiced any of her own opinions on the matter to anyone in Gravonia. Frankly, if the holiday got folks thinking seriously about the Lord, then all the better, and Eleanor had always insisted that Christmas Eve Mass be quiet, reverent and free of pointless chants and 'vain repetitions', and she had found a staunch ally in Archbishop Nichols, whose own views on doctrinal matters matched her own almost entirely.
With the service ending, everyone trailed back into the Great Hall, with none of them in any mood to head up to bed, save Constantine. He briefly bent over the Queen's hand and lightly kissed her fingers. "Happy Christmas, ma'am. I hope you've enjoyed your holiday so far."
"Yes, thank you, Your Highness. Happy Christmas to you, too. I… do hope you have enjoyed the gifts you have received."
"Very much so, Majesty," he nodded, and she knew he wasn't talking about the small gift of a fine dagger she had given him (scrounged up, last minute, from the armory downstairs). She blushed and glanced across at her eldest son and saw the expression on his face. She bobbed slightly to Constantine and went to her place by the fire. Agnes sat down opposite her, picking a piece of work from the sewing basket.
"You look very different, ma'am," Agnes said. "You seem… lit up inside."

"I do?"

"Yes. Your time at Insel der Rosen must have been very… um… what is the word?"


"Hm? What does that mean?"

"Healing," Eleanor smiled. "It was very much so. I did some thinking and made a few decisions about my future."

"Oh? That's nice, ma'am. What sorts of decisions?"

Eleanor only smiled and picked up a piece of her own sewing. Andrew had a shirt that needed repairing… and her own dress, from this morning, needed mending, too, and she had brought it with her to add to the work in the basket by the fire. She looked across the way at the cause of the damage to her dress and caught his eye. He sat back in his chair and drank wassail in silence, and Eleanor nearly forgot her sewing in staring at him, longing for his touch yet again.

God help her, but she felt as though she truly was glowing from the inside. She almost expected shafts of light to shoot out from the ends of her fingers and from her toes. She was no longer in mourning, and she would not go back to mourning again, regardless of tradition or protocol or even propriety.

Alexander stood up suddenly, his fists clenched. "Mama… might I speak with you alone?"

She put her sewing down. "Alone? Whatever do you need to say to me that cannot be said in front of everyone?"

"I… simply must speak with you alone. It is a private matter."

Eleanor glanced at Constantine and saw his expression harden, but he said nothing. She stood up and followed her son out of the room to his study, pausing briefly to look back at her lover before closing the door.

Alexander sat down heavily, and Eleanor remained standing, her eyes narrowing as she waited for him to remember his manners. The King blanched and stood up, embarrassed, and waited until she had taken her seat before finally sitting down again. She smoothed her skirts and folded her hands neatly in her lap. "Yes, sweetheart, what is it?"

"I… I spoke with Constantine."

"Yes, I gathered that."

"He informs me… he told me that… that you and he are… "

She sighed. "Go on, Alexander."

"That you and he… " he exhaled. "Are lovers."


The King closed his eyes. "Mama, Papa has been dead for four months and yet you lie down with another man now?"

"Do you think I would lie down with Constantine if your father were alive?"

"Certainly not!" he gasped, shocked.

"Well, there's that, I suppose. I am not some common harlot, nor do Constantine or I intend any disrespect to your father, to Isabella, to you, or to anyone else. But our spouses are dead and we are still alive and we have loved each other for many years."

"Many… good God, Mama, why did you never tell me of this?"

"Because until now it was truly none of your concern. I also did not wish to distress you, considering how difficult things have been since your father died. You have suddenly become a King, at just eighteen, and to learn that your mother was betrothed to another would have only added to your burdens." She met his gaze without flinching. "Constantine has asked me to marry him, and I said yes."

"I cannot allow such a thing!" Alexander said angrily. "Papa is barely cold in his grave and you're asking me to permit you to remarry? It's madness!"

"You will not speak to me that way, young man—I don't give a damn if you are the King!" she snapped. "To say that me seeking my own happiness is madness is insulting and not the way I raised you!"

Alexander banged his fist on his desk and stood up, pacing to the window and staring out into the darkness. "Insulting, Mama? What of the insult to Papa? To his memory?"

"Your Papa was the most unselfish person I've ever known, and he would never deny me the right to be happy, and I am happy with Constantine."

He turned to look at her. "The Council will not permit you to marry without my consent, Mama."

"Then I will leave Gravonia. Forever."

"That will not permitted either, Mama."

"Do you think I will allow you or the Council to dictate my life to me?" she asked him. "I am certainly beyond the age of consent and well within my rights to do as I please."

"And to do who you please?" he growled.

Eleanor clenched her fists. "To you hear speak to me this way is utterly horrifying and I am ashamed of you."

"Ashamed of me? Last night you were being schtupped senseless by… by another man, and you talk to me of shame?!"

Eleanor stood, refusing to give voice to her anger to her son. "Good night, Alexander." She turned and with a sweep of her skirts she stalked from the room, enraged and yet also proud of her son for standing up to her. She knew he was only going through the initial shocked response of any man after having learned his mother had been having sex with a man other than his own father, but once his rage and confusion had cooled, he would see things more clearly, she hoped. If he did not, however, she would leave Gravonia, regardless of how he or his Council felt on the matter.

Eleanor Reeve's heart had finally overcome Queen Eleanor, and there was no turning back now. She was not going to endure another heartbreak—she wasn't sure she could.

She paused briefly in the hallway before the doors to the Great Hall, pulling herself back together before stepping back out into the large room. All eleven of the children were sitting at the large table, talking and laughing together, utterly unaware of the heated exchange next door, and she smiled at them all. "I am quite tired. I believe I shall go on to bed."

"But Mama, surely you want to play Siege with us," Andrew pleaded.

Tamping down her urge to join Constantine again, she knew she could not refuse without raising more questions. She smiled and finally sat down on the floor with Elizabeth and Charlotte, near the huge tree, and began helping the two girls build a strong castle to defend against the princes. "Honestly, ma'am, do you think just three women could withstand a siege from nine men?" Charlotte asked, looking amused.

"My sweet girl, I have defeated entire armies of men. This is nothing."

Charlotte giggled. "Papa says you are great warrior. That you are not afraid of anything, and that you even hit him with a snowball once."

"Yes, I did hit him with a snowball. His forgiving me was a sign of a truly kind and generous man. After that, I have had little fear of men or their armies. Now, we must fortify the castle walls very carefully, and I can show you just how." She smiled at Charlotte. "Just remember, Charlotte, to never let your heart be too heavily guarded. Caution is a good thing, but never build a wall around your heart. If you must, however, please remember to place at least one door where it can be opened by the right sort of man, and no other."

The Queen of Gravonia and the two princesses had little trouble defending the castle from the nine princes. Eleanor was proud of the princes, too, when their own carefully placed blocks also were not breached from a feminine barrage. When the game was over, she kissed her sons and the princesses, accepted slightly more guarded but no less sincere good wishes from Constantine's sons, and went upstairs.

It was well past midnight, now, but she didn't feel remotely tired. She went to her own room and took a few moments to change clothes, selecting her garments carefully. After waiting a few moments, listening for any sounds outside, she peeked out into the hallway, hearing nothing but chatter and laughter from downstairs, and silently slipped down the hallway to Constantine's room.

She didn't bother to knock. She slipped into the room, closing the door behind her, and smiled at him.

He was seated on the box at the foot of the bed, and his shirt was already undone. She went to him immediately, and sighed as his arms wrapped around her waist. She moved into his embrace, kissing him deeply and relished his exploring hands as her tongue silkily stroked his. He undid the silk belt that held her robe together and she dropped her arms, letting the robe slip slowly down. He gave her white cotton gown a gentle tug and it slipped off as well before she eagerly moved into his arms, running her fingers through his hair as he made love to her breasts. She straddled his lap and moved eagerly against him, whispering and moaning as his skilled hands caressed her body. He stood, her arms still wreathed around his neck, and carried her to the bed, stretching her out on top of the blankets. She sat up on her hands, watching him remove the rest of his clothes.

"My God," she whispered, still in awe of him, as he climbed in, gently parting her legs and settling astride her.

"My goddess," he said reverently before kissing her. "My beautiful Eleanor."

They made love gently, sweetly, neither of them needing to speak any more. When they finally allowed themselves to rest, she settled her head on his chest, listening to his heartbeat slowing.

"Alexander is not pleased," she finally said. "Actually, he's quite furious."

He continued to caress her back and her hips. "So what do you think we should do?"

"If he refuses to let us marry, then I will leave Gravonia."

"And go where, Eleanor? If the King refuses to let you marry, my own brother will be forced to forbid us as well. I won't ask him to defy your own son on our behalf. I can't leave Morvenia forever, either. I will be King one day."

She lifted her head and looked at him. She finally sat up, not bothering to cover herself with the sheet. "So if Alexander refuses, and Philip cannot risk tension with Gravonia… " She swallowed. "We would be exiled."

"I've been thinking about it ever since my talk with Alexander. Our options are rather limited."

"We could go to Livonia and marry there."

"Your father… I mean, King Peter… would have to respect Alexander's edict as well, Eleanor, or risk even more discord between both countries, and Livonia and Gravonia aren't all together friendly. Besides which, if you go to Livonia… "

"I would have to meet Peter and risk him realizing I am not his daughter." She drew her knees up, wrapping her arms around them, and he sat up, gathering her into his arms. She cuddled against him, breathing in his scent, her nervousness fading.

"We will find a way, Eleanor. Nothing will prevent me from marrying you. If we have to wed in secret, then we will."

"In secret?" she asked, rubbing her cheek against his chest. "And then be parted?"

"I won't be separated from you again, Eleanor. We will find a way."

Christmas morning dawned bright, cold and crisp, with snow beginning to fall again as the younger children clattered downstairs and began pawing through the gifts that had been placed around the huge tree during the night. Eleanor appeared in the doorway, alone and lovely in blue and white, and she directed the servants to light the candles arranged on the boughs. The Morvenian children watched, fascinated, as the glass orbs and sparkling silver and gold stars on the tree flashed and glittered, and finally, per tradition, Alexander, using a long match, lit the final candle on top of the tree, in a specially made glass holder that made the light shimmer brightly.

"It's so beautiful!" Charlotte said, clasping her hands. "We should have a tree at home, every Christmas. What do you think, Papa?"

She looked at Constantine, who appeared in the doorway just as Alexander finished his task and climbed down. He was dressed in his usual black clothes, but he didn't look very grim at all. In fact, he looked rather cheerful. "Perhaps, Charlotte, but we'll have to have a long discussion about fire safety with your brothers, and we'll need escape drills in case those discussions don't sink in. After all, I'm sure you remember the partridge incident. That poor kitchen maid still doesn't have any eyebrows."

The princess giggled, and her brothers looked chagrined.

The young Morvenians gobbled their breakfasts, eager to begin opening gifts. Eleanor sat down and waited while the rest of the members of the household came down, blinking at the tree and watching their own children skitter about, excitedly chattering. Agnes and Catalina managed to corral their own youngest offspring and get them settled down, and after everyone had consumed their morning meal they all began exchanging gifts, laughing and talking, with any notion of rank put aside for the day. Eleanor smiled as she watched Frederick present Ellie Bartolomeo with a pretty silver necklace he had had commissioned just for her, back in Luvov, and the girl blushed and let him put it on her himself. Alexander gave Elizabeth a delicate, exquisitely made tiara of silver and pearls, and she kissed him in thanks.

The nooning meal was a huge roasted goose and vegetables, followed by fruit tarts for dessert. Eleanor played games with Andrew and Charlotte, listening to their chatter and enjoying their energy and enthusiasm. Finally, someone suggested a walk out to the beach and Eleanor pulled on her cloak and made sure her children were bundled up properly against the cold before stepping outside. Alexander, as usual, moved to stand at her side but was supplanted suddenly by Constantine, who gave her son a cool, narrow look. The King of Gravonia bristled and Elizabeth stood nearby, watching and wondering. She moved up to stand beside her fiancé. "You may walk with me," she said quickly, and Alexander regained control of his temper and let her take his arm.

The Queen took Constantine's arm and they walked down the snow-covered dunes to the beach. The younger children raced about, finally settling down into a snowball fight. Constantine wouldn't let Eleanor take part, but instead had her sit down in a spot he cleared for her, and they watched the battle in growing amusement. The Morvenian and Gravonian royal offspring finally called it a draw and walked further up the beach, toward the Morvenian border, and Eleanor leaned against Constantine, sighing as he wrapped his arms around her. "You've had a happy Christmas, I hope," she said softly as he kissed her cold fingers.

"I was pretty happy this morning, just before you went downstairs for breakfast."

"Scoundrel. You're turning into a sex fiend."

"And you wouldn't want it any other way," he said with a grin. She giggled and moved up to kiss him, sighing softly into his mouth and loving him even more than before.

"Papa, you're kissing the Queen!"

Constantine jerked away from Eleanor, startled by his younger daughter's piping voice. Charlotte was staring at them, startled and a little confused.

"Yes, Charlotte, I am."

"But… " The girl seemed to be at a loss. "Does that mean you are betrothed?"

Constantine glanced at Eleanor, who was smoothing her skirts carefully and trying to regain her composure.

"What would you think of it if we were?" Constantine cautiously asked Charlotte.

The girl's mouth twisted as she thought about it. "I don't know. If you love each other, then you ought to marry."

"Ah, for the simplicity of a child," the prince muttered. He stood and helped Eleanor to her feet. The Queen, blushing and unsure of what to say, could only stuff her hands into her fur muff and watch hers and Constantine's other children coming back up the slopes. Charlotte turned back to face them all and waved.

"Papa and Queen Eleanor were kissing! They are betrothed!"

"Oh dear God," Eleanor whispered, looking at Constantine, who looked considerably less rattled. He watched his sons for their reactions and wasn't surprised to see Michael and Nicholas both looking more than a little bewildered. Parr and Leopold were speechless for a moment but soon seemed to accept the situation rather philosophically. Elizabeth, of course, was in raptures and embraced her father when she got to him. Alexander still looked positively thunderous, and his brothers all looked as confused as Constantine's two elder sons.

"It's wonderful! I'm so happy for you both," Elizabeth gushed. "When will you have the wedding? I hope soon. I would say you should marry before Alexander and I even wed, but I have no right to dictate such things. I just hope we can all stuff ourselves into the chapel at the palace in Luvov, or better yet, here at Tygo… or… or perhaps you'd rather marry in Morvenia? St. Giles' Cathedral is enormous, Eleanor, and it will accommodate all of us very easily, I'm sure… " She trailed off, looking at Alexander's furious expression.

"I have not given this betrothal my endorsement," Alexander said sharply. "And I may not yet."

Everyone looked at Alexander, with varying degrees of confusion, anger and surprise. Elizabeth looked appalled. "Of course you will, Alexander. How could you not?"

"Children," Eleanor said, gesturing quickly to the younger ones. "Andrew, Charlotte, Parr… Leopold, why don't you all go into the house and have the cook prepare some wassail? See also that the fires are blazing hot and the blankets are spread out and ready to warm us when we come back inside. Go on… " She nodded toward Konisghaus, and the younger children, sensing that this was a discussion to which they were not going to participate under any circumstances, ran up the slope. She would have to talk to Andrew alone, once this matter was settled. Once they were all out of earshot, she turned back to face her son, who was standing with his arms crossed, Elizabeth staring at him.

"How could I not? Did you know your father and my mother are already sleeping together? Just four months after my father's murder?"

Elizabeth's eyes widened and she swallowed, but she closed her eyes briefly as she reined in her own immediate reaction. "I did not know that, but really, it's not my business."

"Not your business?" Alexander snapped. "Does not your father dishonor your own mother's memory."

"No, I do not," Constantine growled. "But you dishonor hers by even hinting that she would be even remotely selfish, and I will warn you to never speak that way to my daughter again."

"This whole matter is beyond ridiculous!" Alexander raged. He looked at Frederick, who said nothing for several moments before he stepped forward and held out his hand to Constantine. "I know Isabella would be appalled by such… base behavior!"

"I cannot say that I find this all very… proper, sir, and I would lie if I said I was delighted, but if you and my mother are happy, then I am happy for you." Frederick turned and gestured to Harry, William and George. "Congratulate them and come on inside. I'm almost frozen." The three younger princes, still looking confused, nonetheless shook Constantine's hand in turn, and after all four kissed Eleanor's cheek, they all trailed up the slope to the vast mansion. Michael and Nicholas also cautiously approached their father and murmured their quiet approval, then kissed Eleanor's cheek.

"I will not ask you to call me Mama or any such thing, as no one can ever replace your sweet mother," she told the boys softly. "But I do hope you can regard me as a friend… but first I'll let you get used to the idea."

Michael and his brother both nodded and took the same path up the slope. Eleanor turned back to face Alexander, who was still standing there with his arms crossed, jaw clenched. Elizabeth looked positively appalled by her fiancé's behavior, and finally went to stand in front of her father. The King frowned. "So you approve?" Alexander asked her.

"I do. How could I not? I want my father and your mother to be happy."

"And you have known about this how long, exactly?"

"A… while," Elizabeth admitted, looking a little chagrined and glancing at her father and Eleanor. "I overheard them talking in the garden at the palace, and… well, even then I was not upset and never thought they were being disrespectful of your father or my mother."

Alexander ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "I cannot believe this! Why did you not tell me?"

"Because it upset your mother at the time, when she discovered that I knew, and it also upset Papa. But now… well, he has proposed marriage and your mother has accepted, and we must step aside and let them live their lives."

Alexander exhaled, jaw setting stubbornly. He glared at all three of them, then turned and stalked away, wanting to be alone. Eleanor stopped Elizabeth from chasing after him. "Leave him be, Elizabeth."

"He's being horribly self-righteous!" Elizabeth said. "I don't like this side of him."

"He's being human, sweetheart," Eleanor said gently. "I'm not sure I wouldn't react the same way, in the same circumstances. Let him stew for a bit and then… try and talk to him again. I know you hold his heart and you can turn him in the right direction."

Constantine took Eleanor's hand and looked at his daughter, who rubbed her nose, which was turning pink in the cold. "Go on inside, Smidgen, and get warm."

Elizabeth bobbed to them and trudged up the hill. Eleanor moved into Constantine's arms, sighing as he embraced her. He pulled his cloak around her, feeling her shivering, and rested his chin on her head. "We'll be all right, baby. I know we will."

"Do you think Henry and Isabella would approve?"

"Well, if they were alive, they wouldn't. But neither was known for selfishness or sanctimoniousness, so I can't see them being offended now."

"I'm so upset about Alexander," she whispered, resting her cheek on his chest and closing her eyes.

"As you said, he's just being human."

"I can only hope his humanity can overcome his pride."

"Either way, Eleanor, something will have to give. Whatever the case, I won't lose you again."

Alexander paced in his father's office—now his own—and paused sometimes to stare moodily out the window at the sea, watching the cold light shining on Insel der Rosen. His father had given that castle to his mother as a gift, and two nights ago she had given her body to another man, possibly even in the bed she had shared with the king. The whole idea of such a thing left the young king confused and angry, and he was not sure how to handle the situation. He could not repudiate his mother, nor could he expose this scandal to the public. Queen Eleanor was, for all the world knew, beyond reproach, and Prince Constantine had a reputation for unyielding honesty. To have the King of Gravonia accuse the Heir Presumptive to the throne of Morvenia of seducing the Queen Mother could lead to irreparable damage to the alliance between their two countries. Not even his own eventual marriage to Elizabeth could fully repair the breach.

Still, he could not see how he could ever accept this turn of events. His mother was sleeping with another man, and considering her fertility she would likely conceive and bear Constantine a child, married or not. What then? If she married Constantine, he might very well decide that the throne of Gravonia was his by marriage, or worse yet, perhaps their children would decide the throne was theirs. What then? Would he have to make war on his own half-siblings to keep his crown? Would Elizabeth side with her father then? He hated the very idea of asking her to choose sides, but if it came to it…

He sat down, head in his hand, and started when he heard someone knocking on the door. He sat back, wishing he had something stronger to drink than just wassail. "Come."

Elizabeth stepped into the room, closing the door behind her. He drew in his breath.

"If you think that I have declared myself against you, Alexander, you are very wrong. But I will not let you speak so unkindly to my father."

He frowned at her. "He is sleeping with my mother!"

"That's their decision, not ours."

"For God's sake, Elizabeth!" he said sharply, standing up. "Do you not see what this can cause? If they marry and have children, those children could threaten me and my throne… and our children, too."

"How so? Papa doesn't even want the throne of Morvenia. He dreads being king—why on earth would he want yours?"

"His children with my mother might."

"Stop being so silly. They would be in line for the Morvenian throne, and pretty far down the line of succession, too, after my brothers and even myself and Charlotte and our children."

"And you're not angry about this? That he is replacing your mother, who is honored throughout Morvenia as only slightly lower than the angels, with my mother?"

"What is this business of replacing anyone, Alexander? He isn't replacing her. Widows and widowers remarry all the time and I hardly think they're calling it 'replacing'. My father and your mother are marrying for love and nothing else."

Alexander scoffed and turned away, scowling as he stared out the window. He spied his mother and Constantine coming up the pathway toward Konigshaus, his arm around her shoulders. He turned away and faced his fiancée again. "I must measure this entire situation in my role as King, Elizabeth."

She paused and slowly drew in her breath. "Then you will need to measure it alone, Alexander. If you will not let my father marry your mother, then I will not marry you."

To say he was stunned was an understatement, and he reeled from her firm statement and shook his head, trying to clear it from the startling blow. "What?"

"I mean it. How could I join myself to someone who shows such unkindness to his own mother?"

"But… but… I love you," he said, swallowing. "I don't… this isn't about you, Elizabeth! It's about your father and my mother. It's… "

"Yes. And I love you. And my father loves your mother, and she loves him, yet you think your love for me is somehow superior to theirs?"

"That is not… wait, I don't… " He cast about, struggling to find the right words, but the notion of Elizabeth refusing to be his wife made every word turn to dust in his mouth.

"How on earth do you think you even got here? That you sprang up in a cabbage patch one morning? We both exist because our parents behaved like humans, flaws and all. Your mother was brought here because someone else died, and she bore you and your brothers, and I exist because your mother 'died' and Papa had to marry and produce heirs to the throne. There were no easy solutions to either problem and yet we are here because they did what they had to do, and what's more, they found a bit of happiness in their marriages. They did their duty, and they were fortunate, yes, in their mates, but now they have another chance, Alexander. A chance to finally be together, and I for one refuse to deny them. I adored my mother, and I miss her daily, but she would also be loath to deny Papa his right to happiness, and your father would also never deny your mother her happiness, either."

He ran his hand through his hair. "But Elizabeth… I have to think of what might happen. Of the consequences… "

"And you know he would never usurp your throne and any child or children he and Eleanor have would not be interested in such a thing, either. Alexander, they aren't marrying for politics or thrones or money. They're marrying for love. I can't say that I approve of them… sleeping together now, without the benefit of vows before God, but I am not their Judge and neither are you."

He was silent for several moments, and she finally took his hands in hers. He bowed his head. "I must be a King, Elizabeth. I have to behave as a King."

She touched his cheek, then stepped back from him. "Then you will have to be a King alone."

She curtseyed to him, turned and left the room, closing the door gently behind her.

26 December 1393

Eleanor was not terribly surprised to read the letter from Lacovia. Irene's marriage, on Christmas Day, to King Richard II of Lacovia, had been celebrated quietly in Rumon, and there were no signs of anyone in that country disapproving of the match. She nodded to Lorenzo, who looked across the stableyard to watch Constantine dismount from his horse. The Italian bowed slightly to the Morvenian prince, who said nothing and led the horse away. The Queen noted Lorenzo's guarded expression.

"What is it?" she asked brightly. "You do seem a little troubled Lorenzo."

"The King has called for his Council to come here straightaways, for an emergency meeting."

Her smile faded. "I see."

"He… he has informed me, ma'am, of your betrothal to Prince Constantine."


Lorenzo pursed his lips, uncertain. "Will you be leaving here, ma'am? To live in Morvenia?"

"I do not know yet, Lorenzo."

"One day the prince will be King of Morvenia. I can only assume you will have to live in Morvenia then, if you marry Constantine, and be Queen Consort… " His brow furrowed. "Again. Queen twice over."

"I must accept those consequences." She folded the Lacovian letter carefully and handed it back to Lorenzo. She would have to write a letter to Irene, congratulating her on her marriage to a good man. The idea, unbidden, came to her of seeing perhaps a daughter of Alexander and Elizabeth marrying Crown Prince John of Lacovia one day. A few years ago, the very idea would be utterly repulsive, but now Eleanor had reason to hope that Richard and Irene would have a good influence on their son and peace could truly be sealed between their countries by an advantageous union. In every way, Gravonia would come to the alliance from a position of strength, and if diplomacy continued in its currently cordial manner, both countries would benefit in the long run. Granted, a great deal of convincing would have to be done, and she knew her son could be hard-headed, and his antipathy toward Lacovia remained strong despite King Richard's excellent reputation.

"I do not know how anyone here in Gravonia will endure without you."

Eleanor put aside considerations of future alliances and sighed, standing up. "Gravonia will survive with or without me, Lorenzo." She touched his arm and smiled, then turned and went into the stables, where Constantine sat on a bale of hay, repairing a broken strap on a bridle. She sat down beside him.

"Have you spoken with Alexander today?"

"No. I have not seen him," she answered. "He has called his Council to Tygo. For an emergency meeting."

"Huh." Constantine gave up on the broken strap and tossed it away. "I suppose our fate lies with them."

"It doesn't matter what they say, Constantine. I will be your wife in more than just name."

He touched her cheek, turning her face to him, and kissed her deeply. She wreathed her arms around his neck and cuddled against him, loving his warmth and his strength. They watched snow begin falling again, at first swirling down in flurries and then coming down in large, heavy flakes. "What should we name our first child?" she asked, and he snickered.

"Let's have the wedding first, then talk about names for babies."

"Oh, but I love naming babies. Alexander was named for Gravonia's most famous King, of course, and Frederick for Count von Hesse. Harry was for Henry, of course, and William was for Henry's old tutor, who tried so hard to make Henry become a man of letters and got a knighthood for his efforts. George has long been a favorite name of mine, as it's so sturdy, and Andrew was for Henry's grandfather. If we have a son, I should like to name him John, for my father."

"Sounds fine to me. It's a good, strong name. And for a girl?"

Eleanor closed her eyes and settled her head against his shoulder. "Margaret. For my mother."

It was almost dark when the members of the King's Council arrived at Konigshaus, and none of them seemed terribly happy about having been dragged away from Luvov to Tygo on the day after Christmas. Lord Hallam in particular was touchy as he stepped down from his carriage and was greeted at the door by Lorenzo. "What in hell is going on?" he asked sharply. "This had better be one damned big mess to drag me away from my wife and children on such a day—Clothilde has a hideous cold and I had to leave her by the fire, wrapped up a like a bloody corpse and begging to be put out of her misery!"

Lorenzo bowed slightly. "Sir, the Queen has accepted a proposal of marriage from Prince Constantine of Morvenia, and the King is… somewhat resistant."

"What?" was all Hallam could say in response, he was so shocked. He frowned and turned to see the other carriages coming up the wide pathway to the palatial mansion's door. Lord Ellis and his eldest son from his marriage to Harriet stepped out of the carriage and paced up the path, shivering in the cold, and soon the other Council members were trudging up the path, none of them willing to wait in their carriages. The men greeted each other, murmuring as they paced into the Great Hall. They paused in the front hallway, letting servants take their coats, and Lord Hallam regained his wits enough by then to question Lorenzo.

"The Queen intends to marry Constantine of Morvenia? Good God, Henry has been dead four months and that man just steps right in his place?"

"I do not think I would term it quite like that, sir. You know His Royal Highness has no designs on the throne."

"But perhaps on the Queen and her sizable fortune. Henry left her quite a bit of tin, you know," Lord Thetford pointed out. He was among one of the younger Counsellors of the King, and despite his youth he was a level-headed and thoughtful man.

"I cannot say such a thing is true, either, sir," Lorenzo said. "I have had few dealings with the Prince but he is known for his honesty and his lack of interest in being a King, even of Morvenia. He also has his own fortune."

Thetford shrugged, nodding agreement. "Fair enough. Where is the Queen? We should speak with her first."

"The King insists you meet with him first," Lorenzo said. "In his private office."

The Counsellors fell silent. They were all accustomed to speaking with Eleanor first, before any meetings with the King. Of course, that had always been the case during Henry's reign. Alexander, they were all learning, was different from his father in many ways. While he had his father's level head and generous nature, he was not a man to be led about by the nose and he was already forming his own ways of doing things. His Counsellors were already impressed by his cool temper and ability to listen to reason, but they all had to wonder, now, if he would be quite so level-headed when it came to his mother remarrying.

"Lead on then, Lorenzo," Hallam finally said. Lord Ellis spoke briefly to his son, who nodded and trotted away in search of the Queen. The men followed the King's major domo down the long hallway, past the Long Library and finally to the King's office door. Alexander flung the door open himself, and the men were startled at how distressed and worried he looked.

"Your Majesty," Hallam said, bowing slightly.

"I apologize for calling you here on such short notice, and at such a time as this, but I felt it… necessary. Please, come in and be seated."

The King had had servants bring in a long table and settled it by the window. The men took their seats and waited. Alexander began pacing, which was so unlike him that it made the men all increasingly nervous.

"My mother has… has begun an affair with Prince Constantine of Morvenia. They are… they have… "

"Ah," Lord Hallam nodded, looking around at his compatriots and seeing they all had reached the same conclusion. Most of them looked surprised, but none of them looked horrified. Instead, they only looked curious. Lorenzo quietly closed the door and stood, waiting and listening.

"Considering how easily she conceives, I have little doubt that she will bear him a child."

"Quite," Lord Ellis nodded. "Only my dear Harriet is more fertile."

"I suppose I could say he is being honorable in his desire to marry my mother, but I… I cannot give my consent."

"Good God, why not?" Lord Thetford asked, startled. "Why invite scandal? Let them wed and be done with it."

"Let them… are you mad? What of the possibility of usurpation? Constantine is the greatest soldier in Christendom and his army is unbeatable. If he decided he wanted my throne, what could stop him?"

"Why would he want your throne?" Lord Ellis asked, perplexed. "He doesn't even want Philip's throne."

"I will concede that point, if only a little. But if he and the Queen Mother have children together, they might want it and the Morvenian throne. Gravonia would be eaten up and absorbed into Morvenia with little trouble to them."

Lord Ellis shook his head. "Your Majesty, any child he and Eleanor produce together would be very far down the line of succession to the Morvenian throne, and would have no claim whatsoever on yours."

"Sir, if you refuse to let them wed and your mother bears a child, the scandal could do irreparable damage to the Crown. Are you sure you want that?" Lord Hallam asked carefully.

Alexander resumed pacing. The men were all quiet for a moment, then Lord Ellis started to speak when Lorenzo stepped forward. "Sir? Might I speak?"

The men all stared at the King's major domo. He was an intelligent, enterprising man with a sterling reputation as a horseman and as a source of calm in the royal household, but he had never given advice to anyone before. But Alexander nodded, gripping the back of his chair.

"What does your conscience say?"

Alexander stared at Lorenzo, bewildered. "What?"

"Your conscience, sir. Could you, in good conscience, refuse to see your mother happy, after all the trials she has been through? She has served this country loyally and protected you with single-minded devotion for the past twenty years, and she has never yielded an inch to any of your enemies. She put them down with an efficiency and ferocity that would send any army running, and she never flinched even when that man tried to kill her—is it any wonder she is called the She-Wolf of Livonia? She grieved when your father was murdered, and she avenged him, too. But now she wishes only to be… a woman. She was willing to sacrifice her very life for you and for this country. Can you not sacrifice your pride for her sake in thanks?"

"I must behave as a King," Alexander said firmly.

"Are you not a man first and then a King?" Lorenzo asked gently.

The Council members stared at Lorenzo, amazed that the usually self-effacing and soft-spoken Italian could speak with such firmness to a King.

"I have to protect this country and my crown."

"At the expense of your mother, who would gladly die for you?" Lorenzo asked.

Alexander turned away and stalked to the window to stand, arms crossed, as he glared out at the snow-covered field that stretched out toward the sand dunes and the beach beyond. The Council members said not a word, even as Lorenzo returned to his place by the door. Finally, Lord Ellis cleared his throat.

"Sir, my own wife has told me of her less-than-pure past and I felt it no right of mine to hold anything over her head. What is past is past. I believe one of your mother's favorite sayings is 'yesterday is dead and tomorrow is blind'."

"And today is a gift," Lord Hallam said, smiling slightly. "Thus it is called 'the present'."

Ellis nodded. "Your father is dead, sir. He will not return to us. But he left a great legacy—of patience, mercy, generosity and unselfishness. He would not for one moment wish to see your mother buried under grief and loneliness—she is far too active and energetic to sit around wearing black and a wimple for the rest of her life. It would be unbearable for her and for us to see, for that matter. If your conscience can allow such a thing, then by all means refuse to give your consent to her betrothal to Prince Constantine and let it end there and be followed by some very sad consequences for the woman who bore you, loved you and fought for you. We give our endorsement to your decision, whatever it might be." He stood, and soon the other men stood as well. "We must leave this to your conscience, sir."

Quietly, the men filed out of the room, but Lord Hallam paused to give the young king's shoulder a sympathetic squeeze, and he and Lorenzo were last to leave. Alexander bowed his head and, once the door closed and he was alone, the King sank down into his chair and ran his hands through his hair. This was indeed the first real crisis of his reign, and he had to make a decision that, whatever it might be, would have far-reaching consequences to either his kingdom or his conscience.

Eleanor touched her belly, smiling softly. There was no way of knowing for sure just yet, but she knew Constantine had planted a child in her womb. Before she walked through the archway into the Great Hall of Konigshaus, she prayed that the child might be a girl—she longed for a daughter now. "Let Thy will be done," she whispered. The doors were pulled open and Sir Redundant, as she called Sir Gavin Longbow, announced her presence. She stepped into the room and accepted the smiles, bobs and bows of her little winter Court. She was pleased to see Lord Ellis and Lord Hallam, and immediately greeted them, asking them about their wives and children.

She finished with greetings and exchanges of good wishes for the holiday, then moved quietly to her chair by the fire. Everyone else settled back into card playing and conversation, but Eleanor noticed Elizabeth sitting by herself, an anxious look on her face. Constantine was also sitting alone, and she sighed, longing to be with him. Had she possessed a bolder nature, she would have gone right to him and sat in his lap. But for now, she was Queen Mother of Gravonia and had to behave properly.

Andrew approached his mother, expression cautious, but she took his hands in hers and kissed his cheeks. "Sweetheart, please sit down with me and talk a bit, hm?"

The young prince pulled up a stool and sat down, peering up at her. "Are you really going to marry Prince Constantine?"

She paused, forming her words carefully, when Sir Gavin boomed out "His Majesty the King!"

Alexander paused in the doorway. He was holding a scroll in his hands, and seemed nervous. Eleanor touched her youngest son's cheek and looked up at her eldest son. The King cleared his throat.

"It has come to my attention, yesterday, that Her Majesty the Queen Mother has accepted a proposal of marriage from His Royal Highness the Prince Constantine, Heir Presumptive to the throne of Morvenia."

Many people in the room were shocked and turned their wide-eyed gazes to Eleanor and then to Constantine. The Prince shifted slightly in his seat but said nothing. Alexander unrolled the scroll and began reading aloud.

"As King of Gravonia, it is my duty and privilege to protect and defend the honor and dignity of the Crown at all costs. I will always do so, as diligently as my own beloved father King Henry. I must always, as often as I can, be not only the head and leader of this our great nation but also the head of my family. Being a King sets upon my shoulders a great task of service, and whether my life be long or short, I shall always do my duty to my kingdom and to my family."

There was a long, tense silence in the room. Eleanor looked across at Constantine, whose fists were clenched. She swallowed and returned her gaze to her son.

"As much as I am a King, I must behave as a King. I must be a leader, and set as good an example as I possibly can to my family and to the good people of my country. Just the same, I must always also follow my conscience, which has been trained from my birth by my beloved father and my dear mother, and it is now free to work on its own. That conscience must be my guide, and I can only pray daily to Almighty God, who is Judge of all men and women of this earth, to always give me an inner compass that is easily turned in the right direction and will refuse to be unkind, unmerciful, or undutiful. So it is that, as a man always yielding to Almighty God, I must decide on whether or not I can allow my mother, Eleanor the Queen Mother, to marry the man she loves. If I were only a King, I could never give my consent to such a union, considering the possible consequences that might follow. As a man, however, who loves his mother and seeks her happiness, I could never in good conscience refuse such a petition. And so I do hereby give my consent, as King of Gravonia and also as a man subject to God, to the marriage of His Royal Highness Prince Constantine of Morvenia and Her Majesty Eleanor the Queen Mother, and her title as Queen Mother of Gravonia will remain hers until her life ends, even upon the ascension of Prince Constantine to the throne of Morvenia."

Alexander rolled up the scroll, nodded to the gathered courtiers, bowed to his mother, then turned and went back through the doors. Sir Gavin, barely recovering from his shock, pulled the doors shut again. Elizabeth shot to her feet and rushed to the doors, her expression relieved and joyful, and Gavin opened the doors for her, forgetting to announce her departure. He closed the doors again and turned back, looking a little confused. Courtiers were slowly regaining their wits and making their way over to Eleanor first, but she gave a slight shake to her head—she still needed to speak with Andrew. Her household moved away, going instead of Constantine to murmur their congratulations to him.

"I know you miss your Papa very much, sweetheart," she said softly, her heart swelling. "And I will not ask you to regard Constantine as your father. But I do hope you will regard him as a friend, and to be friendly to his sons and to Charlotte. Can you do that for me?"

Andrew nodded. "He is nice. A bit… growly, but nice, and I like the princes and… I like Charlotte, too, though she's a girl. Will you and Constantine have babies, too?"

"It would seem rather inevitable, I think." She kissed her son's cheek. "Perhaps you'll have a little brother… or perhaps you'll be forced to tolerate a sister?"

Andrew grinned, and Eleanor was vastly relieved to see that he had accepted the situation. She knew there would be a time of adjustment, and she still didn't know exactly where she and Constantine would live, but for now she could regard today as yet another gift. She hugged and kissed her baby, who squirmed a little in embarrassment before stepping back, bowing and dashing off to find his future stepsister Charlotte. Eleanor smoothed her skirts and looked up to see Constantine coming toward her. She slowly stood, and let him bow over her hand. "Your Royal Highness," she said, knowing everyone in the room was now watching them.

"Your Majesty," he said gravely. "It seems we are officially betrothed."

"Yes, it does seem so."

"Then I suppose I'm allowed to kiss you in public?"

"Oh, I suppose… if you have to," she said, feigning nonchalance. She giggled, though, when he pulled her to him and kissed her soundly, and the Queen didn't even care that everyone was astonished when he lifted her off her feet and spun her around, both of them laughing for joy.

Elizabeth found him sitting alone on a bench, staring out at the cold, gray sea, clearly unconcerned about the falling darkness and the increasing cold. She cautiously crept up to him, wondering if he might lash out at her. She shyly touched his shoulder, and he immediately took her hand and looked up at her.

"Thank you," he said quietly as she sat down.

"For what?"

"For giving my arse a proper kick."

Elizabeth smiled. "Was my ultimatum what really changed your mind?"

"It was one of many, really. My mother would have left Gravonia forever, and you would have left as well. I love my mother, but… I do not think I could live without you, Elizabeth."

She laughed softly and kissed his cheek. "I daresay you would survive."

"I would be dead inside, though." He embraced her, almost desperately. "Do you forgive me?"

"For what?"

"For being so… prideful. So arrogant."

"You were being a human being, with all the expected flaws," she said gently.

"You have no flaws."

"Oh, silly, I have plenty! I butt into everyone's lives and insist on having my way… "

"So that others can be happy," he pointed out with a grin. "Good God, what do I call your father?"

"Constantine, I suppose. He hates being called the Dragon. It makes him quite grumpy."

"Will my mother forgive me? I was quite… unpleasant about this whole matter. And I have to admit, I cannot bear to think of her… lying down with another man. Frankly, knowing she and my father had… "


"… rather frequently is something I don't want to think about." He remembered seeing his parents coupling in the Ogre's Nest and closed his eyes tightly. He hadn't seen a great deal, but he had known what was going on. "But I remember when I was about six and looking around to see that I wasn't the only child of my parents and wondering how that all came about. I asked my mother about it and she just said that she and Papa loved each other very much and my brothers and I were proof enough of that."

Elizabeth rested her head on her fiancé's shoulder and sighed. "I remember wondering the same thing, when I was little, and my mother said pretty much the same thing. It was Catalina who told me all about how babies are made. She also told me where they come out and as much as I look forward to having babies, I don't look forward to that."

"You'll have Betsy to help you, and Lady Clothilde," Alexander said with a smile, kissing her temple. "And my mother, too. I can't imagine her being far away while her grandchildren are being born."

She gasped when Alexander suddenly jerked away from her, and it took her a moment to recover herself and see her father and Eleanor standing there, the Prince glaring at the younger man, mouth set in a frown. Eleanor looked more amused than anything else, however, and when Elizabeth stood up, the Queen Mother smiled warmly at her. "You two should come back inside. It's awfully cold."

Elizabeth realized then that Constantine wanted to talk to Alexander alone. She looked anxiously at her father, wringing her hands. "Papa, please be kind… and Alexander, in this case, you aren't a king. You're a future son-in-law."

Alexander looked startled, but regained his composure and nodded. Eleanor took Elizabeth's hand and led her away, leaving the two men facing each other. Alexander cleared his throat, and noted Constantine's stance—he looked prepared for a fistfight, and he knew that he would only hope to hold his own against the larger, hard-looking man.

"Well," Constantine finally said. "I must thank you for giving your consent to my marriage to your mother."

The King was unprepared for that. He swallowed. "Oh. Yes. You're… welcome."

"I know this was not easy for you."

"No, it was not. I suppose you would have been shocked if you had learned your mother had taken a… lover and was intent on marrying him."

"Son, if my mother had taken a lover and intended to marry him, I would be more than just shocked. I would insist on seeing to the mental stability of her paramour. Let's walk—I think we have a few things to hammer out."

Elizabeth peered out the window, watching her father and her fiancé walking along the edge of the cliffs, followed by a pair of knights carrying torches, and she worried briefly that they would get into a shoving match and topple over the edge. But they walked on, clearly having a serious conversation, and she was surprised when the two men seemed to share a joke and laughed together. She turned away and faced the Queen, who had taken a seat in the chair opposite Alexander's desk.

"Do you think they'll quarrel?"

"Eh… " Eleanor shook her head. "I don't think so. That's all passed. I think now they're just discussing… particulars. I have told Constantine that as Tygo is so close to the Morvenian border, we could perhaps live here at Konigshaus and Insel der Rosen. I would miss you father dreadfully while he's gone, but I know he would be obligated to travel to Garon regularly as part of his usual duties to the Crown, and when he eventually ascends to the throne, I would have to move permanently to Morvenia. That, I'm afraid, cannot be avoided."

"And the Council? What did they say?"

"I have not spoken with them yet, but Alexander tells me they are following his lead, not the other way 'round." She searched around in the desk drawers for some paper and finally found what she was looking for. "Have you heard yet that Queen Irene has married King Richard of Lacovia?"

"Truly? Well, that is rather romantic, for Lacovians."

Eleanor smiled. "Yes. Of course, Richard is actually John's father. Apparently King Paul couldn't put a child in Irene's womb. Which is a very good thing, I think, all things considered. Richard is a hearty, good-looking man and Irene is really quite lovely and a brave little soldier in her own right." She picked up a quill and opened the inkwell. "I must write to King Richard, congratulating him on his advantageous marriage." She began writing, then sat back. "You might consider, Elizabeth, the results of bearing a daughter one day."

The princess sat down, brow furrowed. "I'm sorry?"

"Royals marry royals. If you bear a daughter, she might be a candidate to be the next Queen of Lacovia."

Elizabeth frowned. "I don't know about that."

"If peace is maintained and leads to reconciliation, then it might be considered politically advantageous to us all." Eleanor resumed writing. "I'm certainly not saying it's inevitable, but if our kingdoms are allied and friendly toward each other, that's actually a good thing. Your father might bristle at the idea, of course, but it won't be his decision." She sighed. "Which sounds just awful, but politics can sometimes trump familial bonds, and we must live and move in that sphere." She continued writing, finishing out a rough draft of her letter to Irene and began to carefully edit it. "Oh, and I should warn you about something, Elizabeth."

"Warn me?" Elizabeth asked, her unease growing.

"Yes, sweetheart. The consort's throne is easily the most God-awfully uncomfortable seat you'll ever plant your arse in—it will make your back hurt horribly. We will have to search for a proper cushion for it. I never had enough nerve to do that during my own time as Queen Consort, as it might have offended Henry, who made it special for me, but Alexander will be pleased to see you comfortable."

"Why did you not just tell Henry it was uncomfortable?" Elizabeth's tension faded and she sat down, glad that the Queen had moved on to a less nerve-wracking topic.

"Because you never make negative comments on a gift. And never comment on a likeness, either."

"What does that mean?" Elizabeth asked, confused.

Eleanor finished editing her letter and set it aside for review and a re-write later. She leaned forward and began telling her future daughter-in-law the intricacies of Court life.

27 December 1393

"When will the wedding be?" Agnes said, expression anxious as she began wringing her hands. "Ma'am, I don't know what I will do when you move to Morvenia. Will I be a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth?"

"I suspect it will be many years before King Philip dies, Agnes, so I will remain at Tygo for most of each year. If King Philip requires my presence in Garon, however, I will have to go. Just the same, you will remain in the Queen Mother's service as long as you like. But perhaps you might like to retire?"

"Nay, ma'am, I don't want to. I like to be busy."

Eleanor laughed softly. "Indeed you, do. I don't know anyone who thrives so well on having plenty to do, and you do everything so very well, Agnes. I wish I were half as organized as you!" Agnes blushed and preened at the Queen's compliment. "Well, then, we will work something out. If you don't like the idea of living at Tygo you can remain at Luvov and serve at Alexander's court with Elizabeth."

Agnes nodded, but she didn't look any happier. "I am very surprised, ma'am, to hear you are remarrying… so… soon."

"Well, Agnes, that sort of thing does happen." Eleanor gestured for her Mistress of the Robes to sit. "Please, be at ease. Very little in your life will change, and even if you decide to return home you will be busy each day, won't you? You have your children and Lorenzo to take care of, and that rambling house of yours requires constant attention, and when your Ellie marries my son Frederick, you will soon have a whole herd of wild grandchildren to chase about."

Agnes grinned, clearly delighted with the notion, but her smile faded and she sat down, smoothing her skirts. "I had no idea you and Prince Constantine were… close."

"It all happened very suddenly," Eleanor said. "I'm very pleased to be his wife. I will have to endure the consequences of being Queen of Morvenia one day, though I hope that will be many, many years from now. Constantine has little trouble with living at Tygo, as it's just a few short miles from the Morvenian border and he can be in Garon in less than a day when called, and the Council has consented to my travelling there sometimes as well, to ensure familiar harmony and the like." She smiled ruefully. "Though I have some difficulty imagining King Philip permitting discord."

"Constantine is such a hard man," Agnes said softly. "He is nice to you, isn't he?"

"Of course he is, Agnes, else I will never marry him."

"Oh. Good."

Eleanor couldn't help smiling. "Agnes, I love him. I want to marry him, regardless of his title or the crown he will wear one day. Now. I think we ought to go over a few preliminary details about your Ellie's wedding to Frederick next spring. I'm sure she has some ideas… colors and flowers and the like, right?"

Agnes brightened. "Yes. She likes green and gold, and she wants white roses to carry down the aisle."

"Then all will be as she wishes," Eleanor smiled. "Now, considering this will be a royal wedding, we must consider who to invite. Does she have any particular ideas?"

Constantine's talk with Alexander had gone well, and his discussion with the King's Council had been pretty much a matter of settling living arrangements. He refused any allowance from the Privy Purse, and also refused any official title in Gravonia. He was adamant about not being seen as an interloper in the royal family, and insisted that even upon marrying him, Eleanor would maintain her titles, property and income. Alexander was particularly pleased about that, though he had offered him a royal duchy of his own in Gravonia.

The prince finally made himself sit down and write a letter to his brother, informing of this turn of events, and was walking outside into the courtyard, where Frederick, Henry and William were practicing swordfighting, when he heard hooves clattering on the cobblestones and watched as a group of knights trotted into the yard. They were in the red and white of Morvenia, and for a moment he wondered if he was being summoned home to deal with another crisis or being sent off to some God-forsaken corner of the globe to drive out some invading army. Instead, one of the knights removed his helmet and revealed himself to be his older brother.

"Well, little brother, you certainly left home in a hurry. I delivered a giant mountain of presents to your home, yet you were very inconveniently not at home… oh, and without the Council's consent."

"Have I ever really concerned myself with the Council?" Constantine asked mildly, watching his brother and his knights dismount from their steaming horses. The three young princes approached and bowed to Philip, who waved their homage away with a casual wave of the hand.

"Never mind that, lads, as I'm apparently to be your far-too-indulgent step-uncle. It's grand to see you all just the same. How are your brothers and your dear Mama?"


The King of Morvenia grinned when he saw Eleanor coming out the door. The Queen Mother rushed to him and embraced him warmly.

"I'm so glad you were able to come, at such short notice," she said, kissing his cheek. "You look very well!"

"I am well, now I know my brother has finally come to his senses. I do hope you've got some of that lovely hot cider ready to be poured down my chilly throat. My knights are tired and worn, too, and eager for some victuals, and I hope our horses can be settled in somewhere once they're cooled out." He clapped Constantine on the shoulder. "Well, she's making an honest man of you now, is she? Very good. You'll be as grand a Queen of Morvenia as you were here, Eleanor, I say."

"Many, many years from now, and by then I'll be too old and dottery to remember where the crown jewels are," Eleanor said, grinning and kissing his cheek again. "Though I must ask if you still have that lovely pearl necklace in the crown jewels?"

"Indeed we do! Plus lots of pretty baubles and trinkets a lady likes."

Constantine raised his eyebrows. "I can only assume you've told Mother of my wedding plans?"

"No, I'll leave that to you."

"Dear God, I think I'd rather face a horde of screaming, blue-faced Scotsmen."

The evening meal was eaten in the vast Great Hall, and Philip told his brother of the letter he had received from Eleanor the day after Christmas. He was delighted to see his baby brother so clearly happy, though in his usual quiet, restrained way. He had no doubt, however, that his brother wasn't quite so restrained when alone in a bedroom with Eleanor. The King of Morvenia observed his brother and the Queen, noting how easy they were around each other, and how neither of them could seem to keep from being in constant physical contact, if only by brushing their fingers against each other as they walked together.

Philip glanced at Alexander and saw the young man was still reeling from this recent development. After dessert had been eaten and the plates had been cleared away, the King of Morvenia leaned back in his chair and smiled at his fellow monarch. "Well, young man, I suppose all this is a bit hard to take, but really, consider the advantages, eh?"

"Advantages?" Alexander asked, looking bewildered. He caught Eleanor's narrow look and straightened in his chair.

"Aye, yes. With your Mum off married to someone else, and likely bearing a few babies along the way, you'll have a bit more freedom, eh? Not that I really picture the Queen Mother really butting into your affairs. She's a sensible, level-headed woman. Perhaps you'll be more relieved to have Elizabeth's father out of your hair, so to speak. He'll be too busy entertaining your Mum to growl at you when you get poor Elizabeth pregnant."

The young King paled when he caught Constantine's eye and looked down, then glanced at Elizabeth, whose blush indicated she was quite eager to get started on her end of the deal. Eleanor smiled at Philip, knowing full well he was being his usual mischievous self. "I rather doubt Constantine is going to be thrilled about being a grandfather either way, but he will simply have to adjust. Grandchildren are, I think, inevitable."

"I will be delighted to be a grandfather," Constantine said quietly. "But it will pain me immensely to see my daughter suffer so to give me such a title."

Eleanor took his hand and kissed his knuckles, and for once Alexander did not look as disgruntled. Elizabeth smiled at her father. "I will not make you watch, Papa," she said. "Be sure I will send you and Alexander out hunting for gnomes when the time comes."

28 December 1393

"Where do you intend to marry, anyway?" Philip asked. He and his brother and Eleanor were standing in the courtyard at Konigshaus, the first lights of dawn beginning to creep into the enclosure. The King of Morvenia was preparing to travel back home, his visit to Gravonia having been more or less unplanned and unsanctioned by his Council. He suspected he had some explaining to do when he got back to Garon.

"We're still debating," Eleanor said with a smile.

"Arguing, more like," Constantine shrugged. "I'm partial to marrying here at Tygo, but Eleanor has her own ideas."

"What ideas?" Philip asked, watching his knights clamber aboard their horses, none of them looking too eager to be traveling so early in the morning when they all had hangovers.

"I'm considering having the wedding where we originally intended: at Ravensburg."

"Ah." Philip frowned, mouth twisting a little. "That would require some delicacy, considering… but it's doable."

"How so?" Constantine asked, giving Eleanor a look that indicated he was still not sold on the idea.

"Well… just go incognito, as part of a Gravonian diplomatic retinue, and stay behind as your companions continue on to Styria, then have the wedding there with the Count and… what was her name again? Christine?"

"Christiane," Eleanor corrected.

"Right. Anyway, have the wedding there with the Count and Countess as witnesses, and perhaps in the interim you could visit Teslo."

The Queen's expression became pensive and she glanced at Constantine. "What do you think?"

"I'll be the fellow in the black armor, standing near the altar. Just tell me when and I'll be there."

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