Our Gracious Queen

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Achievement

1 December 1374

Eleanor was pacing, which was odd to Henry, who was not accustomed to seeing his wife so nervous and excited. Up until the past two months, she had been relatively calm—as serene as a country pond, in fact—but now she seemed very agitated, wringing her hands as she walked the length of the Presence Chamber.

She was also as big as a house. Not overweight, of course—her legs were still slender, and she was as fit and healthy as ever, but the child she was carrying was apparently a good-sized one. The Queen's temper was certainly more volatile, and she was extremely emotional, frequently bursting into tears without cause, or snapping at her ladies. These days, Harriet and Agnes both carefully kept away from Eleanor, and the Queen continued her daily walks with Clothilde, after which she would retire to her rooms to read or sew or, usually, sleep. Henry still slept with the Queen, to the dismay of her other ladies, but for the past few days, she had been too exhausted for sex. As a result, the King was a little agitated himself.

The Queen had requested that only she and he meet the midwife she had hired, and after that she wanted to speak with the woman alone. Henry really didn't want to hear all the details of childbirth—it apparently was a rather bloody and painful process, and just the thought of seeing her in agony made Henry feel sick to his stomach. He watched the woman he loved continue to pace the length the chamber, her hands clasped together. God, she was so beautiful and so small—what if something went wrong? What if the baby was too large and she couldn't push him out?

Dear God, what if she died? All to give him a son—it was barbaric, and he felt like a selfish monster.

"Eleanor, please sit down," he said gently. "You'll wear yourself out."

Flustered, she took her seat beside him, wringing her hands. "She's late. She's never been late!"

"Who is late?" he asked, confused.

"Oh… um… never mind, dearest. I was… thinking of something else. But she is late."

"Eleanor, you're getting lathered up over five minutes."

She gave him a brief, sharp look before taking a deep breath. The doors opened and Boris stepped in. "Your Majesties, Mrs Elizabeth Bolingbrooke." He stepped aside and bowed as Betsy stepped in, carrying a basket and looking a little flushed.

Her dark hair—with more gray than Eleanor remembered—was pulled up into a tight knot and her eyes were bright and snapping, and to the young Queen she was the most wonderful thing she had seen in months. She curtsied low and Eleanor could only feel bewildered—the woman who had raised her, taught her manners and morals, and had even spanked her when she was naughty as a child, was curtseying to her!

"Mrs Bolingbrooke," Eleanor said. "It is a pleasure to finally meet you. Your excellent reputation does precede you."

"Begging your pardon, ma'am, for my lateness. I got a bit… delayed." She stared at Eleanor's swollen belly. "You are very far along, ma'am, and look quite healthy, if I may say so."

Eleanor rubbed her belly. "Yes. The doctors say I am less than a month away from the birthing." She smiled warmly. "The King and I are both delighted to have you here, ma'am, and we know you will be a great help when my confinement begins." Eleanor looked at Henry, who stood up and eagerly shook Mrs Bolingbrooke's hand, bowing respectfully.

"It is a great pleasure to meet you, ma'am. I know you'll take good care of my wife, but as I'm a bit… er… squeamish about this whole process, I will take my leave." He bowed deeply to both women and left, Boris pulling the doors closed. For a moment, Betsy stared at Eleanor, then burst into tears. Eleanor managed to get to her feet, though it took a bit of effort, and went down the steps and into her closest, dearest friend's embrace.

"My sweet little lamb, having a baby!" Eleanor let the older woman hold her as long as she liked—Betsy even smelled like home: fresh-baked bread and cinnamon and warmth and comfort. Finally, Betsy did release her and held her away, looking into Eleanor's eyes. "Does he treat you kindly, Eleanor?"

"Of course he does. He's a very kind, sweet man."

"Really? Truly? Because if he's not, I'll kill him myself!" Betsy broke down again and embraced Eleanor, then gently placed her hands on Eleanor's belly. "My God! This baby is big!"

Eleanor swallowed nervously. "That's what scares me. How big he is, Betsy. I'm… afraid I won't be able… "

"Of course you will. You'll do fine, little lamb—we all know you're as strong as a little French mare. Sit down, for heaven's sake. Being pregnant means you can sit down whenever and wherever you please, with no apologies. At least that's what I did!"

Eleanor laughed. "Yes, but then I end up stuck wherever I sit. I have to get Henry to come haul me up, otherwise I'm left stranded." Nonetheless, she obeyed Betsy's command and sat down again.

"How are you feeling, Eleanor?"

"Fat," Eleanor muttered. "I've gained so much weight!"

"It's just the baby, but the weight gain won't hurt, and you'll lose it all easily enough, I suspect, once he's born. I see your feet are not swollen, which is good, but mind you drink plenty of good clean spring water and rest well. Are you putting aloe on your belly?"

"Yes, my lady-in-waiting told me to do that. Henry rubs it on my belly every night."

"Quite good. It's… wait, the King… sleeps with you?"

"Yes, of course," Eleanor said, blushing a little.

"Do you still engage in… um… " Betsy still looked a little shocked.

"Frequently. It's very… nice, even now. Except that lately I've been very tired and… so we haven't, these past few nights, but I think I might feel better tonight, now I know you're finally here. Worry has made me rather anxious and irritable, I'm ashamed to say."

Betsy took her hands in hers and looked down at them, then peered into Eleanor's eyes. "You glow with health, lamb. So beautiful!"

"Even as I waddle about and need to pee every five minutes or so?"

"Even then. Oh, Lord, you have no idea how much I've missed you, Eleanor. We all have, so very much. The Count actually wept when we got your letter. Oh, blast it all, everyone in the castle did." She wiped her eyes. "Our little lamb, a Queen, and about to be a mother… perhaps even to a king as well."

"How is the Count?" Eleanor asked softly.

"He's doing well, though he's always trying to cover his gloom, and Christiane is… " she paused, glancing at Eleanor. "The Count and Christiane are… "

"Lovers, yes, I know."

"How did you know that?"

"I just knew… I suspected they were together before I left."

Betsy drew in her breath. "She is with child, Eleanor."

Eleanor was shocked, at least at first. "You're joking! She said she couldn't have any more children!"

"She seems to believe she can handle it," Betsy said softly, looking doubtful. "The Count intends to marry her, but it's an unequal marriage—she can't even be called Countess von Hesse! Even more, any child she bears him will be barred from inheriting his titles or his lands." Betsy shook her head sadly. "Christiane comes from a perfectly respectable family, but the Chastains' lack of title makes her unequal in Livonia. It has to be a morganatic marriage."

"A marriage between a man and a woman is legal in the sight of God, Betsy, and I will call her Countess," Eleanor said firmly, still reeling a bit from the news. Christiane, having the Count's child! Amazing! "And we will pray for her to come through the ordeal safely, too."

"She is due at the beginning of February." Betsy sighed. "He loves her, though he had a hard time admitting it—she was a great comfort to him, after you left, and then I think it became much more than that, and now they are inseparable. At first, I disapproved of it, but I see she does make him very happy. He can barely believe he has managed to put a child in a woman at his age, but… " She shrugged. "Christiane is not as hardy as you, Eleanor. Her birthing will be an ordeal indeed."

"You'll help her, won't you?"

"I will," Betsy smiled. "She has become a very good friend. I know she can barely wait to see you, of course. She cannot come to Court, though—her condition and unmarried state make it improper, apparently… so she is confined to the house in town. She sends her greetings and her love."

Eleanor nodded. "When will the wedding take place?"

"The Count is looking for a place to have it, and an accommodating priest."

"If anyone knew who I was… or where I came from, my marriage to Henry would not be—"

"Eleanor!" Betsy whispered. "Do not speak those words."

"I have not spoken them, and will not," she said quietly. Betsy clasped Eleanor's hands between hers.

"Are you happy here, Eleanor? I know leaving home… under such circumstances… was very painful."

"I thought at first I would not be happy, but Henry and I are compatible and he is very kind, as I said," Eleanor said quietly, sitting back in her seat. "He is not the brightest candle in the cathedral, indeed, but he is unselfish and generous and he wants to do good things—he is really a credit to this country, and his efforts this year have had excellent results. All he needs is encouragement and he really can achieve great things." The Queen of Gravonia turned pink. "Plus he's really very good in bed, Betsy."

"Eleanor!" Betsy said, feigning shock.

"Well, I can't deny that this baby was conceived in a rather delightful manner, and he loves me, and he's the most considerate of husbands. I cannot complain."

"Do you love him, Eleanor?"

Eleanor looked down, clasping her hands together. "Not in the way he probably would like me to. But I do love him. I would be a miserable wretch if I didn't love him—he deserves that, I think, and really, he needs to be loved. He had a very lonely childhood, Betsy. His father was intimidating and his mother was… empty-headed, and no one bothered to educate him beyond martial arts and catechism." She looked up at Betsy. "Did… he come, in March?"

Betsy sighed. "Yes, Eleanor. He came."

"What did he say?"

"He put a ring on your gravestone and left." She touched Eleanor's cheek. "That man loved you, Eleanor. With his whole heart. I have never seen a man more devastated—it was as if part of him died." At Eleanor's grieved expression, Betsy shook her head. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I do not mean to cause you pain. But I think you should know he loved you. He had every intention of marrying you—his heart was never false."

"I know." Tears stung Eleanor's eyes. "I love him. Still. Always. For all my life."

"I know, dearest."

The Queen wiped her eyes and extracted a red cloth from her pocket. "I keep his banner with me always." She unfolded it and touched the dragon. "I dream of him sometimes."

"Oh?"

"He's a dragon in my dreams, Betsy. He appears as a red and gold dragon with a bloody wound on his chest, and he's so fierce and relentless—no force on this earth or even in heaven can stop him. But a while ago, I dreamed he came to my son's coronation and told me… he told me I have enemies here, and that I must be diligent to protect my son. Or sons." She looked up. "He said I would have a 'pride of lions'."

"Then you probably will," Betsy said. "You have never failed at anything in your life, Eleanor. I cannot see you failing to bear sons, and I know that you will fight for them." She touched Eleanor's cheek, smiling tenderly at the girl who was a daughter to her. "I have no doubt you will succeed. No doubt at all."

Eleanor wiped tears from her eyes. "What's in the basket?" she asked.

"Oh! I brought some good Livonian honey bread and my sticky buns!" She removed the cover and Eleanor clapped her hands in delight, snatching one of the sugar-coated buns and biting into it.

"I hope you brought a lot!"


Eleanor was disappointed that, as it was winter and her confinement was drawing nearer, she had to endure going into what was more or less seclusion in her rooms at the palace. She rebelled against the restraints placed upon her, however, and insisted on continuing to take morning walks with Lady Hallam. Despite the cold, which she felt dreadfully as the first snows began to fall, she went out to walk through the royal park every day, Lady Hallam at her side, trailed by four watchful knights who were ordered to never be less than ten paces behind the Queen at all times.

She returned to the palace as breakfast was being laid out, and she allowed her ladies to remove her heavy cloak and replace it with a blanket that had been warmed before the fire. Sitting down beside Henry, she smiled at his heartfelt blessing.

"Dear God, we pray for our continued peace, and petition You to grant us greater love for you and for one another. If it is Your will, we ask You to provide safety and comfort to the Queen as she brings a new life into this world, and continue to bless her as You, Almighty Father, see fit. In the name of Christ our Lord, Amen."

"That was lovely, Henry," Eleanor smiled at her husband, squeezing his hand.

They had made love last night, the King having shooed her ladies out of the room and undressing her, telling her she was beautiful. He had been so gentle and sweet, whispering accolades to her, and marveled at how ardent she was in her response to his caresses. The King smiled warmly at her, and she counted herself truly blessed, to have such a considerate husband.

The King's gentlemen were lounging around the table, casually tossing bones to the dogs and squabbling cheerfully with each other. Some even seemed as though they were still in their cups, but their good-natured personalities made them utterly harmless. Eleanor knew that even when they were barely able to find their way home, they still wouldn't harm a soul—in fact, they became remarkably sweet and (incompetently) helpful when drunk.

One of them—Lord Clive—leaned forward and, after hiccupping, grinned at the Queen. "That was a very good speech you gave at the Field of Stones, Your Majesty."

Eleanor froze. Henry was not supposed to know that she had even been to the northern border. "I'm sure you are very much mistaken, Lord Clive," she finally managed.

"I am? But I saw you there. You gave a magnificent speech, ma'am."

"Lord Clive, I—"

"What were you doing at the border, Eleanor?" Henry asked. "You're pregnant—you shouldn't be traveling!"

"I… had to go there," she managed, giving Lord Clive a hard look, but he was too pickled to really notice.

"Had to? Eleanor… the Field of Stones is just ten miles from the Lacovian border," Henry said, his voice gentle but his eyes were blazing with barely-contained anger as he glared at his friends. "Why was the Queen even allowed to go there?"

"Henry, it was all right," Eleanor said, trying to placate him. "In your absence, it was simply… the right thing to do."

"What did the Queen say to the men?" Henry demanded. He was beginning to calm down, if only a little. "Who went with her?"

Lord Hallam, far down at the end of the table, looked apologetically at Eleanor and cleared his throat. "She gave a very fine speech to the men, sir. She was very encouraging, and Lady Hallam and I were with her, and several knights." He omitted the fact that she had traveled without an escort to the border, save himself and his wife, and that the knights had only escorted her back home.

"Oh? How?" Henry looked at Eleanor, who was blushing.

"She said that she was not interested in any thought of defeat by the Lacovians, as that possibility did not exist," Hallam said. "The soldiers must have shouted 'God save the Queen' for ten minutes, sir. I can assure you that a good part of why they gave the Lacovians such a sound thrashing was because of her—to a man, every soldier and knight in Gravonia would die for their Queen, and they adore her."

"For good reason—what man would not fight for such a beautiful Queen?" He laughed. "'God save the Queen', hm?" Henry grinned at Eleanor, looking pleased. "Well, there's a fine sign of loyalty, I must say. Very good, Eleanor. But I must be very severe, dearest. No more of you going to battlefields. I won't have your life risked again." He gently kissed her hand, and smiled lovingly at her. "This woman," he told the men at the table, "is the greatest treasure in all Gravonia. By far." He stood up suddenly and raised his glass. "To the Queen—she has won her spurs and the hearts of our people!"


28 December 1374

The young princess flinched away from the pair of knights, who were quarreling about something called a 'jib' and 'starboard' and the dangers of attempting to sail through admittedly rather thin ice.

"Begging your pardon, Your Highness," one of the knights said, bowing to her and smiling kindly.

She breathed in the sharp, cold salty air and nodded to the man, refusing to show that he had even unnerved, much less frightened her. Lord, they were all frightening to look at, though all the Morvenian soldiers were kind and friendly, but they were also very large and rather noisy The long journey from Navarre had been fraught with dangers: first a series of storms that had the Morvenian knights hanging over the sides of the ship, and most were still off their feed, and the captain of the ship had told her that when it came to seasickness, in the first hour a man believed he would die of the condition, and after that sincerely wished that he would.

Halfway to Morvenia, the ship was briefly but unsuccessfully attacked by a pirate ship under Lacovian colors, which was thrilling in itself except for one of the Hespera's sails being set afire, which was hardly thrilling to the knights. They had repelled the attack and the fire had been put out with hasty efficiency, and the journey had continued on through heavy rains and rough seas. Most of the knights traveling with her did not have 'sea legs', but the steady rocking of the vessel, much less fires or the cold, did not bother the princess. In fact, she found that sailing suited her.

Isabella of Navarre had learned to control her emotions, after all. For her, it had been do or die.

She walked the length of the ship, looking out at the cold, endless gray sea, and rather enjoyed the feeling of sea spray on her skin and the wind in her hair. She had been surprised to find the whole experience exciting, actually—it was certainly better than being at home, surrounded by people who didn't want her.

Her little sister Catalina was another matter altogether. She saw the girl sitting on a bench, feet braced on the boards, hugging herself and shuddering, and sighed. Catalina was naturally pale, but that greenish tint wasn't a good sign—it made her look like a ghost.

A sick ghost.

The ship was rocking from side to side, but it was being turned now, finally starting in toward land, as they were apparently finally in safe Morvenian waters. No Lacovian pirate dared cross into those waters, from what Isabella had heard. The man she was due to marry was called the Dragon, and though he was not a seaman, even the navies of Morvenia's enemies feared his wrath.

"Catalina, you should go back down below."

"And vomit all over the floor again?" Catalina asked her morosely. "At least out here I can throw up over the side of the ship. God, I hate sailing!"

Isabella sympathized with Catalina, but she found sailing very pleasant—then, anything outside of Cadiz was pleasant to her. She sat down beside her sister and cradled her against her shoulder, comforting her as best she could. She had been taking care of Catalina all her life, ever since their parents had died ten years before, and she was more mother to Catalina now than sister.

"What do you suppose he'll be like?" Catalina asked her softly.

They had talked about the subject endlessly, every day, since the marriage contract had been signed. Catalina was the one most frightened—she had not been part of the 'package', so to speak, and no one knew she was coming with Isabella to Morvenia. If the King of Morvenia or his ferocious brother didn't like being stuck with Isabella's little sister, what would become of her? Or worse, if Constantine didn't like Isabella, he would be unkind to them both, for sure.

There were no portraits of Prince Constantine, of course, but the Morvenian legate had informed her that he was a good-looking man of twenty-six, with battle scars on his face and arms and more on his body, and that he was strongly built and fit, with dark hair and green eyes. No one had described him as handsome, though, but the legate had assured Isabella that he was good-natured and not at all inclined toward unkindness, particularly towards women.

"I've heard people say he is a great catch," Isabella finally said.

"So far as a battle-scarred brute can be a 'great catch'," Catalina said.

"No one has ever said he was a brute, Cat," Isabella reminded her sister. She had talked the subject to death with her sister, and her sister's pessimistic attitude wasn't helping her nerves at all. She was seventeen years old—an old maid by most standards—and she would be marrying a total stranger who by all accounts was not keen to marry at all.

"But he probably is," Catalina said, sniffing. "Most men are. The men I've known have been."

Isabella closed her eyes, forcibly pushing away her own frightful memories. Catalina had suffered the most, so far as their physical mistreatment by their Cadiz cousins had gone, but Isabella's own torment had left its scars. Isabella had been eager to leave Cadiz, even if it meant marriage to a man called The Dragon, but she had insisted that Catalina come with her, regardless of what might happen. Their relatives in Cadiz had declared they were glad to be rid of them both, and mocked Isabella as being a 'sacrificial lamb' to the brutal Dragon of Morvenia, but somehow she wasn't afraid. He couldn't be nearly as a hideous or violent as the people who had 'raised' her and her sister!

"I don't think so," Isabella finally said, though she didn't feel as confident as she tried to sound. "I think he will be kind. Perhaps not always nice, but I have always heard that he is a good man. Doesn't everyone say our cousin Pedro is nice? We both know he was nice to people above him, but by no means is he a good man."

Catalina said nothing more, but closed her eyes and tried to sleep, and Isabella stared out at the sea as the ship turned toward port, and she pushed away her fear when she heard one of the knights shout, "Land ho! We are almost home, thank God!" He grinned over at the two girls. "I know you'll both be glad to be on solid ground again, young ladies, and we are pleased to welcome you to Morvenia!"


28 December 1374

Eleanor couldn't sleep.

She felt restless and anxious, and her anxiety was not helped at all by Henry constantly flapping about, looking worried and constantly asking her how she felt. Several times she had had to bite her tongue to keep from shouting at him that she felt as big as a whale and to please for God's sake leave her the bloody hell alone. That would hardly be helpful, and as frustrated as she felt, she knew he didn't deserve unkindness—he had been attentive, understanding and sweet, no matter how peevish she got.

Betsy was sleeping on the floor, on a pallet, and Eleanor felt awful about that, too. Henry had finally accepted the doctor's request that he not sleep beside the Queen as her confinement drew near, and fortunately her 'midwife' did not snore, but it bothered Eleanor immensely to make the woman who had raised her sleep on the floor. Fortunately, none of Eleanor's other ladies were in the room, but they were next door, sleeping in Eleanor's sitting room, ready to move the moment Eleanor went into labor.

The Queen sighed and tried to sit up, but she was bewildered to find the bed wet. Gasping in shock, she looked down and saw the bed was wet with water and blood. "Oh my God!" she cried out. At that same moment, a pain unlike any she had ever experienced or even thought was possible hit her, and she fell back, screaming in agony. Betsy was at her side immediately, speaking gently but firmly.

"Eleanor, your waters have broken."

"Oh, God," Eleanor cried out in pain and panic. "Oh God, it hurts!"

"I know, dearest, but you will come through this in fine fettle. Listen to me now."

Eleanor began to cry then, sobbing helplessly as the pain gripped her. She felt as though a vice was around her waist, being tightened mercilessly by some heartless torturer, and she tried desperately to focus on Betsy.

"Betsy… it hurts so… oh Lord Jesus… Betsy… "

"I know, sweetheart. But you need to do what I tell you, when I tell you, and to not lose heart, all right? You will be very tired and you will think you can't continue, but you must. Do you understand me?"

Eleanor nodded, tears flowing down her cheeks as another searing pain gripped her. She heard hurried footsteps as more people came into the room, and she glimpsed Lady Harriet and Lady Agnes, both looking anxious, and saw her other ladies rushing in, and finally Lady Hallam. "Get Harriet away from me!" she snapped at Betsy. "I want that woman out of here now!"

Lady Harriet bobbed, her face scarlet, and left the room. Agnes looked frightened, and Eleanor realized the poor woman had never experienced childbirth, much less seen it, and she quietly asked Clothilde to put Agnes to work preparing blankets for the baby, and to not make her look at anything she didn't wish to see. Another pain gripped the Queen then, and she screamed, writhing in agony and didn't even care that her underclothes were being removed and that pillows were being shoved underneath her knees. She heard her husband's voice from the doorway, and Clothilde quietly told him to go outside and try to hunt something.

"What on earth would I hunt at just after midnight?" he asked, exasperated, as the women continued preparing Eleanor for her ordeal. He tried to peer around his wife's lady-in-waiting, but she was rather canny and blocked his gaze.

Clothilde actually laughed. Laughed! "Snipe, perhaps, or gnomes, Your Majesty."

The King exhaled and started to speak, but Clothilde only smiled and curtseyed before gently closing the door in his face.


Count von Hesse was awakened by pounding on the door downstairs, and he extricated himself from Christiane's arms, gently kissing her, before putting on his nightshirt and robe and heading downstairs, barefoot and shivering. The pounding continued, and he threw the door open himself, not even bothering to wait for the housekeeper he had hired. "What?"

A young man stood in the doorway. "Reports are that the Queen is in hard labor, Sire," the boy said, bowing.

The Count drew in his breath. His poor Goosey—he almost began to weep, imagining her in such pain. "You will bring me reports every hour, without fail, do you understand me, lad?"

"I do, sir. Every hour." The boy dashed away, and von Hesse closed the door. He looked up and saw Christiane standing at the top of the stairs. Her hand was on her swollen belly, and she smiled softly.

"She is in labor, Christiane," he told her. "God, I would move heaven and earth to ease her pains."

"She will endure," Christiane said, taking him in her arms when he reached the landing. "She is as strong as a little French mare, remember?"

The Count chuckled in spite of the gravity of the situation, and kissed his lover warmly. "I'm not sure she would appreciate that analogy at this hour, sweetheart."


Betsy wiped the sweat from Eleanor's forehead and settled herself beside the young woman. The Queen was indeed exhausted now—her labor was going on six hours now, and the night was fading gently into a cold, crisp dawn. A light snow was even starting to fall.

"I can't do it, Betsy. I can't. Please… I can't… " Eleanor sobbed.

"Now Eleanor, you know that you must. You can't keep that little man inside you forever, you know. It's a bad look, for one thing. It's not much longer now. You're in the final phase—the baby is about to crown."

Only Lady Hallam, Agnes and Betsy were with Eleanor now—the other ladies had been sent away to gather clean sheets and blankets, to be put on the bed after the baby was born. Agnes was keeping the fire banked and had set up the cradle by the bed, carefully lining it in the softest cotton blankets to be found.

Another pain tore through Eleanor and she cried out, too exhausted to give force to a full scream. Betsy nodded to Lady Hallam, who checked Eleanor and nodded back. "Push, Eleanor."

"I can't! I can't!"

"Yes you can, and you will!" Betsy said sternly. "Now come on!"

"He's crowning," Clothilde said. "A little more, Eleanor."

Betsy propped Eleanor forward, and the Queen screamed as the pain became even worse than at the beginning. Lady Hallam looked up at Betsy. "The head is out. A little more, Eleanor. Just another good, hard push and he'll be here!"

The Queen screamed, tears flowing down her cheeks, and pushed with all her might, and then the pain finally stopped and she heard the first loud, indignant cry of her child.

"A fine prince, Eleanor," Lady Hallam said, standing and holding the baby up. The Queen fell back onto her sweat-drenched pillows, sobbing helplessly, and wept even harder when Betsy laid her son across her chest. Betsy expertly wiped the baby's mouth and nose clear, and smiled down at him.

The baby--with a head of dark hair--howled his outrage, and Eleanor stared down at him, at first bewildered and even a little frightened at his red, mottled appearance, but soon her tears stopped and she was staring down at her beautiful, perfect baby son.

Her son. The Crown Prince of Gravonia.

Gently, she touched his cheek and his nose, marveling at him, dazzled and exhausted and triumphant. She winced as Lady Hallam resumed ministrations down between her legs, but that discomfort was inconsequential—she was holding her firstborn son, and nothing else in the world mattered.


Henry and his men were riding back up the hill, having failed to find a single snipe, much less any bloody gnomes, and he was in rather sharp mood, agitated and worried for his wife's health. Her piercing scream of pain, last night, had made him curse his own selfishness yet again, and he had been silent and short-tempered with his men all night. They rode into the palace courtyard, and he was dismounting when Lord Hallam came out onto the steps and bowed. "Your Majesty."

The King was immediately gripped with fear. "What? What is it?"

"The Queen would like to introduce you to someone, sir."

Henry was already racing up the stairs, taking three steps at a time, and nearly bowled poor Lady Agnes over at the door. He mumbled an apology, skidded into the room, and stared in awe at his wife.

She was sitting up the bed, dark hair loose and flowing, and she was holding a little bundle in her arms. When she saw him, she smiled. "Sweetheart, I thought perhaps you might like to meet your son."

His knees buckled, but he caught himself against the doorjamb. "S-son?"

"Yes. A prince. A fine, strong prince. He's almost nine pounds in weight and strong as a little bull, with a voice like a roaring lion."

Somehow, Henry made it to the bedside and sat down beside his wife, peering down at his son's face, amazed. "I have a son," he whispered. "A son!" His louder voice got the baby snuffling and whining a little, but Eleanor was already learning how to soothe her child, and she cooed gently, snuggling him as she kissed his forehead.

"And you, Eleanor? Are you… all right, my love?"

"I've had more fun experiences in my life, for sure," she said softly. "But he's… he's wonderful. A gift from God." She looked at her husband. "Our son. Alexander."

"Yes. Alexander, Crown Prince of Gravonia. It has a ring to it."

Henry was pleased when Eleanor reached up to touch his face and stretched up to kiss him—it sent a shiny, glorious rill of joy down his spine and the King knew he was the happiest, luckiest man in the world.


The Count was pacing across the boards in the front hall of the house he had rented, his anxiety building. The messenger boy had not come back in over an hour, and it was dawn. At last report, the Queen was reported to be in the final stages of labor, sure to give birth at any time, and yet… nothing since the sun had started to peek over the rooftops. He was wringing his hands, wondering how he could endure this, and how he could ever endure the sight of Christiane struggling to bear his child in two months' time—the last time she had tried such a thing it had very nearly killed her.

He was about to go back outside to look for the boy when he heard the booming of cannons from the palace. He rushed outside, and saw that people out on the street had stopped, looking toward the palace walls, wondering.

"The Queen must have given birth overnight. Eighty salvos for a princess, one hundred twenty for a prince," a portly man told the Count. "I suspect it's just a girl. The Kings of Gravonia don't sire sons."

"I've heard ten so far," someone else said.

von Hesse squeezed his eyes shut, counting each loud, rumbling boom from the cannons on the battlements on the eastern side of the palace. He prayed fervently for Eleanor—had she survived the ordeal? Was she in good health? Was she being tended to properly? The cannons would only fire if the child survived, but the Queen's condition might not be announced for days...

"Seventy-eight," the portly man said. Another boom. "Seventy-nine… eighty… " His eyes widened at the next salvo, as he looked at the Count. "Eighty-one!"

After that, the Count barely heard anything else, except the booming cannons and the loud chorus of cheers from the crowds pouring out into the streets. When the one-hundred-twentieth salvo was fired, the crowds gathered in the main square of the city, more and more people pouring out of their homes and shops to celebrate the birth of a direct male heir to the throne—the very symbol of continuity and stability for Gravonia, and one that had not occurred in three centuries. A massive, nation-wide party was about to begin, and everyone was eager to take part.

The Count did not join them. He instead returned to his rented home, went upstairs and wept without shame in Christiane's arms, exultant at his beloved daughter's success, grieving for the ordeal she had gone through, and fearful of the trials that awaited her.


"Do you, Constantine, take this woman to be thy lawfully wedded wife?"

Constantine tried his best not to frown at Isabella. A neutral expression was about the best he could muster. He finally nodded. "I do."

The priest blathered on, and Isabella said her vows in a soft, Spanish-accented voice, and a stranger suddenly became his wife. He put the ring on her finger, parroting the words the priest said, and when he was told he could kiss his bride, he did so quickly. She was blushing pink, and he decided she wasn't bad looking. Really, she was rather pretty, but he had no idea how he would be able to bed her tonight.

He glanced behind Isabella and noted the nervous expression on her sister Catalina's face. The pale and nervous-looking girl had not been part of the package, so to speak, but Philip had accepted her with his usual casual kindness and Constantine knew he was going to have to take his new sister-in-law in and let her live with her sister. It wasn't as though they could shove her back on the vomit-encrusted ship and sent her back to Cadiz. Apparently her family wasn't very kind, and Philip didn't think she would survive another journey by sea. Constantine supposed he could tolerate her fairly well.

Most of Morvenia seemed to be lined up along Prospect Quay, outside St Giles' Cathedral, enthusiastically cheering the marriage of the Heir Presumptive to the pretty red-blonde princess. No one had any doubt that Constantine—a great and much-feared warrior—would sire sons from the apparently strong and healthy-looking girl. Besides that, he was genuinely popular with the common people, being known for supporting education for the poor and various worthy charities.

Piled alone into the coach opposite her, he swallowed, not sure what to say. Isabella nervously fluffed her skirts and tried to look calm, and he felt obliged to reassure her.

"Do not fear me," he said, and realized he sounded rather fearsome. "I mean… um… I am nothing to fear. I will not harm you, and I will be faithful to you."

"Yes, my lord," she said softly.

"I am not your lord. I'm just your husband."

Her brow wrinkled and she studied him, head tilted to one side. "Does that not make you my lord?"

"No, it doesn't," he said, trying not to sound so grouchy. "I'm just Constantine."

"The Dragon," she nodded.

"I hate that nickname. Do not call me that again." He winced and mentally kicked himself. So much for trying to be gentle with her, he berated himself. "I mean, please call me Constantine. Never 'lord' or even 'sir'."

"All right then," she nodded. "You may call me Isabella."

"What did you think I'd call you, Irving?" he asked, looking out at the window at the crowds of people cheering and waving as they rolled by.

She surprised him then by laughing.

Laughing!


Constantine lay on his back, holding Isabella against his chest, listening to her soft breathing as she slept.

Their wedding night had not been as bad as he thought it would be. In fact, it had been strangely… satisfying. Even rather fulfilling. She was definitely unschooled and had been rather shy and even a little frightened, but in the end, it had gone very well. His own natural appetites had taken over when he had undressed her and seen her lovely breasts, slim, graceful body and long, rather coltish legs, and in return she had displayed a surprisingly passionate nature that pleased him. To find that they were sexually compatible took away a good deal of the stinging pain he still felt in his chest, and he had not had any trouble making love to her at all. Not just once, either.

Carefully, doing his best not to wake her, he got out of bed and put his clothes on. He looked back at his young wife—naked, soft and sweet, with her lovely roses and cream complexion and silky auburn hair—and sat down in the chair by the bed, running a hand through his hair, guilt, regret and desire coursing through him even as he pulled his boots on. He could not stay in her bed—he would not.

He would bed his wife. Frequently, and he had no doubt that he would soon have her with child, and she would give him the sons Morvenia needed. He would try his best to be kind to her, in his own strangled, awkward fashion, and he would never be unfaithful—he had made that vow to her in the cathedral and in private, and he would keep that promise to his dying day.

But he would not sleep with her.

He paused in the doorway, looking back at her, watching as she rolled to her side and reached across, searching for him in her sleep, and he could not bear it. The searing pain stabbed through him again, and it was too much to endure.

He fled.


"So the little bitch wouldn't let you pick out a midwife?" Beauchamp snapped at Lady Harriet, who was trembling in fear. He liked that—seeing her so afraid. Even now, after he had given her such pleasure. As if she could deny her physical reaction to him—the woman looked boring, and certainly acted dull, but he knew better, and he knew how to use that, and more, against her.

She hadn't been willing to sleep with him, but he had not forced her—at least not physically. He had decided to take her to his bed as a means of keeping her under control.. Now, as he moved off her and sat on the edge of the bed, studying her, refusing to let her pull the sheet up to cover her nakedness, she stared back at him with seething hatred in her eyes, and that in itself was very satisfying. She had no power over herself now—this was not the first time he had bedded her, and it would not be the last, and he intended to continue to use her until she accomplished his ends.

"She hired someone else," Harriet finally said. "Some woman she heard of from eastern Gravonia. The King approved of it—there was nothing I could do about it!"

"What is this woman's name?"

"Elizabeth Bolingbrooke."

"I've never heard of her." He stood and began dressing.

"I didn't know you spent that much time with midwives," Harriet muttered. She flinched away from him when he raised his fist to strike her, and gasped when he suddenly grabbed her and pulled her roughly to him, kissing her hard, insultingly, before throwing her back onto the bed.

He took such pleasure in hurting her. He took pleasure in hurting everyone who couldn't strike back.

"What I do or don't do is none of your concern, Lady D'Acre. Now, I've got to go attend a damned celebratory fete at the palace. The King is throwing balls, banquets, festivals… even bloody jousting tournaments, to celebrate the birth of the bitch's little whelp. He's giving food and gifts to the damned peasants, too." He snickered. "Though that sort of thing is easily collected, I suppose." He gave her one of his oily smiles—the kind that made her flesh crawl. "Don't you worry, Lady D'Acre—I'll find someone more competent to deal with her—in fact, I know exactly who to recruit. You, meanwhile, must find a way to get back in the Queen's good graces and continue to report everything you see and hear to me. Understood?"

She didn't answer.

He grinned, and Harriet thought she might vomit. "But remember, Lady D'Acre, if you do anything foolish, your entire life will come crumbling down around you, and you'll pull everyone you love down with you, won't you?"

Feeling truly sick, Lady Harriet nodded and quickly pulled the sheets up to cover herself, and when he left the room, she curled up into a ball and wept.

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