"Your Majesty, Her Royal Highness the Princess Cecily, Dowager Countess von Arklow."
Eleanor yawned into her hand and sighed before straightening in her seat—Henry's throne—and nodded to Boris, who opened the doors of the Presence Chamber. A tall, handsome woman in her early sixties swept into the room, followed by four fairly young, beautiful women. The Countess's ladies all curtseyed to Eleanor, who nodded to them and touched her belly when Alexander kicked again. He was an extremely active baby, she had noted over the past few days, and not only bounced around during the day but all night as well. Sleep was becoming rather elusive to her.
Countess Cecily did not curtsey. She stood ramrod straight and studied Eleanor with cool, appraising eyes. "Your Majesty," she finally said, bowing her head slightly. Eleanor sensed that the woman had a hard time saying those words.
"Countess Cecily. It's a pleasure to meet you."
The hard glare Eleanor got from the woman could have felled a giant oak, but Eleanor smiled at her, unfazed.
"I was most delighted to hear that you are expecting a child, madam," Cecily said after a pause.
"Thank you, Countess. I'm very eager to meet this little fellow."
"Or little princess," Cecily said. "We all know the Kings of Gravonia do not get male heirs."
"Then we must all pray for Gravonia's fortunes to change," Eleanor answered pleasantly, refusing to let this woman annoy her. "I'm certain you are praying that your son will not be burdened with the crown."
Cecily's eyes narrowed. "My Erich is Heir Presumptive. He is quite accustomed to that role, and I believe he would make an excellent king… in the far distant future, of course."
One of the Countess's ladies cleared her throat, trying to get the Countess's attention, but Cecily apparently was not the kind of woman who took signals from anyone. She continued to study Eleanor, her sharp grey eyes narrowing as she contemplated the Queen's bulging waistline.
Eleanor smiled. "Perhaps. But all the cards have not yet been dealt, as you might say. It's another three months before we will find out for sure."
Countess Cecily made no further comment. She turned and stalked out the room, her ladies casting apologetic looks at Eleanor, who added her husband's aunt as the second enemy she had made at Court simply by having arrived.
The Queen curled up in bed under her familiar old quilt, having ordered that none of her ladies were to enter her rooms unless specifically called. The heat of summer was finally fading away, but Eleanor was usually shivering, wrapping herself up in warm cloaks and blankets and sitting by the fire most of the day. Clothilde had taken to putting warming pans under Eleanor's mattress at night, but Eleanor still forbade her ladies from sleeping in her chambers—Harriet and Agnes both snored, and the other three girls were just irritating.
She was having vivid dreams about her baby lately. She could smell his sweet baby smell and feel the soft cornsilk of his hair, and feel his soft skin-the baby of her dreams was always a boy. Until her pregnancy, Eleanor had rarely even thought about babies except as just the result of intercourse—she had always known she was going to be required to bear children, regardless of who she married, but until now babies had been a fairly abstract concept: more of an image in her head, rather than any kind of real experience.
She did like children, for the most part, but before leaving Ravensburg, she had not had much exposure to them. Clothilde's boys and little Anna were giving her some idea of how to hold and care for them, but the German woman had assured her that she would be an excellent mother. "Listen to advice from experienced women, then follow your own instincts and you'll be fine," Clothilde had told her.
Eleanor wasn't so sure. She was as nervous about the birthing as she was of taking care of a little life that would depend on her entirely for its very survival. She was still worried over the prospect of having to go toe-to-toe with Lady Harriet and maybe even Henry over the idea of tending to the baby herself—she was determined to nurse her own children, but… what if she didn't have enough milk? What if the baby failed to thrive?
Sighing, she closed her eyes and finally slept, shivering slightly as a vivid dream gripped her, quickening her breath.
"God save the King!"
The boy took the scepter and orb from her and sat on the throne, deep blue eyes focused on his mother as she settled the crown on his head and lovingly touched his face. He flinched, however, when the red and gold dragon swept into the cathedral and perched on the back of one of the choir stalls, studying him with cool, dark green eyes. Eleanor could hear the terrified screams of the assembled crowds, but she stood still, watching in horror as the dragon continued to stare at her son.
"What do I do, Mama?" the boy-King asked Eleanor. "Why is he here? What does he want?"
The dragon was speaking to her son, but she couldn't understand him—the congregation of courtiers were still screaming in terror. Eleanor picked up the huge Sword of State and started toward the dragon, determined to defend her son even if it meant losing her own life. The dragon turned his head and looked at her, his red and gold scales glinting in the brightly-lit cathedral, and she dropped the sword, steel clattering loudly on the marble floor, and just stared at him, mesmerized. The dragon came down from his perch and faced her.
He spoke to her in a familiar, rough-sounding voice that made a tiny, shiny rill of excitement go down her spine. "You must be diligent. Your enemies are gathering all around you, and they will kill him if you are not willing to fight. You may even have to kill, Eleanor. Are you prepared for a bloody war to put your son on this throne?
"Yes," she said. "I will fight to the death for my son. I will die protecting him if I must."
"It won't be just one son," the dragon told her, his voice fading, and slightly sad. "You will have a whole pride of lions to protect… and you will have to fight hard for them, Eleanor. Their lives will depend on you… " He said something else, but suddenly the entire cathedral was filled with a chorus of deafening cries of "God save the King!" from the assembly, and she could not make out his words, and she began to beg him to tell her what was going to happen to her children, but he would not answer her and spread his wings, rising up to fly away as the assembly continued shouting
She woke, gasping, her heart pounding, and she fell back on her pillows, tears flowing, and she curled up again, praying to God for strength, the image of the dragon still vivid in her mind—she could see his scales, his horns, claws and massive wings, as well as the still-bleeding scar on his chest. Yet she was not afraid of him any more. Instead, she had she felt a strange kind of calm when she looked into his eyes.
It wasn't her milk that she truly needed to worry about, she realized. The life of her baby was in danger, and as God was her witness, she would protect him. She touched her belly, her love for her child changing from abstract to utterly ferocious. "I swear to you, little one. No one is ever going to harm you. Not while I draw breath," she vowed. "I will never stop fighting for you, and one day you will be King."
The King's retinue—six coaches, several wagons of various sizes, over three hundred soldiers and twenty magnificent-looking knights astride rather mean-looking horses—rolled through the palace gates, iron horseshoes bringing up sparks on the stones. Henry was out of his coach before it even stopped and was striding up the stairs to the doors, briefly greeting the housekeeper and Boris before demanding to know where the Queen was.
"She is in her chamber, sir, bathing."
"Bathing?" Henry stopped and looked back at Boris. "Really?"
"Yes, my lord. Perhaps she was not aware you would arrive so soon. You are a little early, sir."
"Yes. As soon as we crossed into Gravonia I had the horses set to a flat run. My gentlemen were all as pissed as newts after last night's party at some Havorian noble's estate, but I wasn't—I had to see Eleanor. D'you know, I haven't had even a cup of strong ale since I married her?" He clapped Boris on the back. "It's bloody grand to see you, old friend, but I must see the Queen!" He grinned at his major domo and galloped up the stairs.
Henry slipped silently into the Queen's chamber, smiling when he saw her sitting in the big bathtub he had ordered for her from Venice. Steam was rising from the water, and he could smell the violet scent she always used. She had her dark hair up off her smooth bare shoulders, but silky tendrils were curling around the flawless nape of her neck, and for a moment he could only stare at her, dazzled yet again.
She squeaked and turned, looking back at him, and Henry quickly moved around to sit on the edge of the tub, bending down and kissing her. She eagerly wrapped her arms around his neck and let him pull her out of the water, dripping water all over the floor. He carried her into their bedroom and sighed as she began helping him out of his clothes, kissing her as he was finally naked and lying beside her, pulling her into his arms. He marveled at her bulging belly, caressing her skin and feeling the baby kicking vigorously against his palm. "My God! It's like a little miracle!"
"Yes. Though he does like to bounce on my bladder, and then I don't think it quite so miraculous."
He laughed and held her tight to his chest. "How are you feeling, dearest?"
"Fat and weepy," she said, sighing as his hands began exploring.
"Hardly. Beautiful. Sensual. Sexy. Mmm…hot... oh God, you're so hot, Eleanor." He kissed her, sighing with pleasure when she began to caress his back and his thighs. "Eleanor… my sweet Eleanor… " He moved her onto her back, knowing she was ready for him, and he looked into her dark violet eyes as he buried himself deep within her, and the King fell helplessly in love with his wife all over again.
"You do look different," he said softly. "Your breasts are… larger."
"And I know you like that," she said with a smile.
"Aye, I do. But I loved them at their… regular size, too." He kissed the sweet crest and sighed, stretching over her, making sure to not put his weight on her belly. "You're so beautiful, Eleanor. You are my miracle."
She smiled and kissed him as he began making love to her again. He was such a sweet man—for all his well-known ferocity on the battlefield, and his love of hunting and playing rough games with his rather rowdy friends, Henry was at heart a romantic, and though he might be ashamed to admit it, he was a poet. He was also a passionate and skilled lover—he took her to heaven every time they made love. He knew where to touch her, when to push, when to withdraw… and just exactly what could make her go wild.
Outside the bedroom door, Lady Hallam started to knock, but heard the Queen's cries of pleasure and the sound of the headboard thumping against the wall. Familiar sounds, she thought, laughing a little—the cool, modest and demure little Queen of Gravonia clearly enjoyed lovemaking, and she suspected even King Henry had a hard time keeping up with her. She rather doubted the King and Queen would even come down for supper tonight. They had much catching up to do.
Eleanor sighed and nuzzled Henry's neck, snuggling against him, hooking her leg over his belly and gently sliding her hand down to gently stroke him. The King moaned, closing his eyes, and whispered his love to her again. "I missed you, my darling. So much. I nearly went mad, having to sleep alone."
"You were not tempted?" she asked sleepily.
"I am blind to all women but you Eleanor," he told her. "I'm ashamed to say that two ladies at the royal court in Havor tried to… " He shook his head. "It was disgusting. I almost became ill looking at them. They were just… revolting." He sighed. "Before you, I am ashamed to say I… tumbled women and thought nothing of them afterward. I thought that was what Kings were supposed to do. But now… I cannot bear the idea of another woman beside me in this bed or any other—it will only be you."
"I would tear her eyes out anyway," Eleanor said softly. "You belong to me."
"Aye, I do."
"And I belong to you," she said, kissing him gently.
"So I can safely assume you also slept alone while I was gone?" he asked.
"Mostly. At first, Agnes and Harriet thought they had to sleep on pallets on the floor, but their snoring almost drove me mad so I told them to leave me alone at night."
"But there are guards outside the doors at night, aren't there?" He looked at her, worried. "They have orders to protect you at all times, Eleanor."
"Yes, the guards were always out there."
"Did they ever try to look at you?" he asked, looking severe.
She laughed, then yawned and sighed when his arms enveloped her, cradling her against his chest. "I'm sure they did, but I won't let anyone but you look at me naked, Henry. No other man will touch me." She surprised him then by straddling his hips and sliding her hands over his chest before leaning forward to kiss him. "You may touch me whenever you please, husband."
"Do you love me, Eleanor?" he asked her, exhaustion not enough to slake his desire for her. Nothing on earth would ever make him stop wanting her, and he began to stroke her lovely, creamy skin, caressing her breasts and her swollen belly and her surprisingly strong thighs. She sighed and moved onto her back, and Henry continued to caress her, lying on his side and lazily kissing her.
"Of course I do," she said. "I love you."
"In three months," he said, kissing her again, "these beautiful breasts will nurse our firstborn child."
"If that is permitted," she said. He raised his head to look at her, confused. She shook her head, and he saw tears in her eyes. "Lady Harriet says that I am to hand my baby over to a wet nurse, Henry. I cannot bear that. I want to care for my baby."
"Then you shall."
"Even if it goes against tradition?" she asked.
She smiled at him. "I have already written to the midwife I had heard about, and she sent me a reply—she will be here at the first of December, and I have rented a house for her and her family, close to the palace."
"Very good," he nodded, kissing her. "You shall have anything you desire, Eleanor. Anything at all."
"I want Lady Hallam appointed as my chief lady-in-waiting."
"Isn't that Lady Agatha?" he said, reaching for her, but she shook her head.
"She's mindless, Henry. I prefer ladies with at least some brains to talk to. I spend much time with them—surely you agree that it can get dreadfully dull for me, during the day, especially now I'm pregnant and can't go hunting with you and your gentlemen."
He frowned. "The ladies were appointed by my aunt, Eleanor. It would cause a good deal of tension if she were offended." He paused. "Then again, she is often offended, whether the offense was intended or not."
Eleanor made no comment on that issue. "I should like to appoint my own ladies, Henry. Perhaps I could do that gradually?"
He sighed. "All right, dearest." He kissed her, and she moved back into his arms, smiling as he settled on top of her again. "You may have anything you want."
"Well… I think you know what I want now, Henry," she said softly. He grinned.
"Odd how we both seem to want the same things, isn't it?"
The Dowager Countess von Arklow glared at Lady Hallam, appalled that some bloody sausage-eating German could stand there and tell her she was not allowed to go and visit her own nephew in his chambers. "He was gone two months—I am his aunt and the mother of his heir! I have every right to see him whenever I see fit!"
Lady Hallam was unfazed. "I do apologize ma'am, but the King and Queen are taking a nap, after his long journey, and Her Majesty is also quite tired. No one is permitted to enter their room tonight. Not even myself. I'm sure the King will be delighted to see you tomorrow morning at breakfast. You will be a most welcome guest."
"Guest? This palace is my own home! I am the daughter of a King of Gravonia!"
"Yes, you are. And you have to actually live in a house, ma'am, to call it home. You live on your estate in the west and have not visited the palace in almost eight months. I recall hearing the King was most distressed that you did not even send congratulations on his marriage."
"I wish to see my nephew now," the Countess hissed. "I am first lady of Gravonia, you will remember."
Finally, Lady Hallam lost her patience, but not her composure. " Gräfin, der König ist derzeit schtupping die Königin sinnlos geworden ist. Wäre es nicht für Sie tun zu unterbrechen. Der König wird sich freuen mit euch zu sprechen zu sein so bald wie möglich. Für jetzt, ich würde Ihnen raten, Weg gehen und sich auf Ihre Geschäfte konzentrieren.." She smiled sweetly at the Countess, curtsied elegantly and left the woman standing there open-mouthed. Lady Hallam knew the Dowager Countess spoke flawless German.
At supper the following evening, Eleanor and Henry sat together at the head of the table, breaking all rules of precedence as far as the Countess was concerned. As Gravonia's highest-ranking woman for several years, Countess Cecily was extremely huffy during the meal, what with being supplanted by a sixteen-year Livonian strumpet. Her own son, seated opposite her, was making it worse—he kept making friendly conservation not only with Henry but the Queen as well.
"Eleanor, I am sure you have been introduced to some of the finer families of Gravonia," Cecily said as the plates were being cleared away.
"Oh, yes, at Petitions Court I met the Mowbrays, the Howlands, the Digginses… such delightful families."
"The who…?" Cecily asked, bewildered.
"Eleanor presided over Petitions Court," Henry said, smiling proudly. "She handled it brilliantly, too, or so I've been told." He took his wife's hand and kissed her knuckles, and she only smiled softly.
"Oh, feel, Henry! The baby is kicking again!"
The King pressed his hand against Eleanor's bulging belly and grinned, enraptured. "Oh, he's a strong kicker!"
"Or she is," Cecily said peevishly, but she was ignored.
"Oh, and I've found a perfect midwife. She will be coming from the eastern borderlands," Eleanor told everyone at the table. "She has a sterling reputation, and safely bore and raised all eight of her own children to adulthood, and her children all have married and had children of their own."
Henry sipped his cider. "That is quite remarkable. Only the best for you—an experienced midwife will surely make your pains easier. She will be paid handsomely?"
"Of course she will."
Henry waved his hand. "Whatever pleases you pleases me," Henry grinned. "I look forward to meeting her. Boris, have some glazed peaches brought in, will you? The Queen informed me that she has a craving for them."
After dessert was eaten, there was the customary pause at the table, when the highest ranking lady at the table would rise, signaling to the other ladies that it was time to leave the gentlemen to their after-dinner wine. Countess Cecily rose grandly to her feet, and at first three other ladies followed suit, until they caught Henry's appalled expression, and an elderly gentlemen at the other end of the table was heard growling, "Never have I seen anything so rude! Sit down!"
Eleanor remained seated, folding her hands in her lap, and smiled gently at Countess Cecily. She looked utterly serene, but internally she was thinking, I am not in the mood for this nonsense! "Pray, Countess Cecily, are you ill?"
"Ill?" Cecily said, still standing, in spite of the fact that the three other ladies had returned to their seats, faces red with embarrassment. "I can assure you, child, that I enjoy excellent health!"
"I see. I only asked because only illness might cause you to leave the table before the Queen gives the signal."
Cecily stared at the Queen before finally sinking back into her seat, knowing she had been defeated. Eleanor smiled at her husband's aunt and knew this was just the first skirmish in what was sure to be a long struggle with that woman. For a few moments, everyone avoided acknowledging the incident by chatting cheerfully about Henry's trip to Havor. Finally, satisfied that her point had been made, Eleanor slowly rose to her feet, smiled at Henry as he kissed her knuckles, and left, leading the ladies out. Countess Cecily followed, but went into the Great Hall instead of upstairs to the Queen's rooms. She sat down, huffing angrily, and soon her son came stomping in.
"I cannot believe you would sit there and chat with that little… hussy!" she spat at the Count.
"Come on, Mother, what am I to do? Refuse to speak with the Queen of Gravonia?"
"She insulted me!"
"She put you in your place, and God knows it's about time somebody did," von Arklow told his mother, whose eyes widened with shock. "I do not mean to be disrespectful, Mother, but you cannot dictate how things go here any more. Eleanor is the Queen, and she is expecting her first child—if it's a boy, her position will only rise higher, and the King already adores her."
"It will be a girl," the Countess said sharply. "The Kings of Gravonia only sire daughters." She stood, glaring at her son. "I told you, Erich, to be a thorn in that little slut's side. Yet here you are, acting as servile as a beaten dog at her table, begging for crumbs! You will be a King—behave like one!"
von Arklow sighed, watching his mother stalk out of the palace, calling for her carriage. He shook his head, unable to comprehend his mother's behavior. He often thought of being King, but he was also a realist—if Eleanor bore a son, or better yet, several sons, he would move farther and farther down the line of succession. After him was Beauchamp's father—a leper who wasn't expected to live much longer, and then it was Charles Beauchamp—who did want to be King. But if Eleanor provided heirs to the throne, he and Beauchamp would both have to step over several coffins to sit on the throne, and Count von Arklow could not truly imagine his cousin killing that many people.
Not really. Surely not.
King Henry came into the Great Hall, grinning happily, and smacked von Arklow on the back. "Well, cousin, you must be going home to your Mum's estate?"
"Not tonight. She's in a mood. I think I'll go home to my own family."
"Aye, a far better notion, I must say. You know I love my aunt… as much as she'll allow… but I know I could never live under the same room with her."
"The last time Mum stayed with us, my Blanche told me she'd smother me in my sleep if I had her to stay with us again," von Arklow admitted, looking a little embarrassed. "Please tell the Queen I am very sorry for my mother's behavior."
"She ought to do that herself," the King said. "But we know she won't do that. Ah well—Eleanor endured the slight fairly well, but I won't tolerate it again. If she behaves that way again, Erich, your mother cannot be welcome at Court again. Good night, cousin."
The King bounded upstairs, eager for another session of learning how to play chess with his wife. von Arklow shook his head, amazed—less than a year ago, Henry would been keen to attend a ball at some nobleman's house, or visit his mistress. But Cassia was forgotten, and the King preferred to spend his evenings with the Queen. How things had changed in just a few months, and von Arklow could not deny that many of the changes had been due to the arrival at Court of a beautiful, intelligent, strong-willed sixteen-year old girl. Privately, he wished her well. In his mother's presence, he was going to have to toe another line.
Family, he thought as he went out to call for his carriage. What would we do without it?