Arrivals and Departures
10 November 1375
"The Queen! The Queen!"
Two pages were running before Eleanor, announcing her arrival into each room as she walked quickly through the palace. She was in a bit of a hurry, and was annoyed by the two boys, but considering her present condition she supposed it was best she be easily tracked down. Behind her, barely keeping up, Lady Agnes was huffing along, carrying the Crown Prince.
She finally arrived at the doors of the Presence Chamber, which Boris opened quickly, announcing her arrival, and she took her seat just as the King swaggered in, looking handsome in his green and black hunting outfit and high leather boots. He smiled at Eleanor and sat down beside her, gently kissing her hand. Agnes, looking relieved, put the little prince down and Alexander toddled to his mother's side and tried to climb into her lap, but that was impossible--she was heavily pregnant and had no room for him.
It was the King's birthday, and Eleanor had been delayed in getting to the chamber by her increasingly irritating ladies, who were all determined to get her hair and her clothes—which to her looked like vast awnings—right. She had finally told them to get out and leave her be, then had realized she was running much farther behind than she thought. Having to practically gallop, while so heavily pregnant, was hardly ideal to anyone, least of all Eleanor, but she had made it to the chamber just in time—Henry hated tardiness of any kind.
According to the doctors, Eleanor was less than three weeks from her confinement. The King looked at her again, then at her swollen belly, and smiled warmly. He had actually said, a few days ago, that he hoped she was carrying a girl, but Eleanor was sure it was another boy—Clothilde's ring test had even confirmed her intuition. Besides, a second son was essential, if she intended to see hers and Henry's own descendants on the throne of Gravonia.
Various gifts were brought in to the king, all from wealthier citizens of the country and from foreign rulers. The most touching and heartfelt gifts, of course, were from the common citizens of the kingdom: baskets of vegetables, fresh baked breads and cakes, beautiful stained-glass window panes for the palace chapel, a fascinating water clock, and innumerable handmade birthday cards from village schoolchildren. Eleanor was pleased with her husband when he read each card, commenting on the cheerful, if somewhat garbled and illegible, good wishes of the children of his kingdom.
When the presentations were finally over and the various dignitaries took their leave, Henry and Eleanor retired to Henry's private office. The King played with Alexander, who was learning the art of walking, while Eleanor read over state papers and wrote down her inquiries and comments about each document in the King's notebook, which he would read from during his next meeting his Council.
She was finishing up with her comments on one of the council member's idea of buying up some land in the west and parceling it out for to local farmers, to use for raising livestock, when she felt a tight and familiar pain. Looking down, she saw that her waters had just ruined the fine carpet under her chair. "Dearest, I believe I'm in labor."
"What?!" Henry jumped to his feet, wide-eyed. "You're… oh dear God! Where are the doctors? Where are your ladies? Alexander, your Mummy is having another baby!"
"Mama!" Alexander said happily, banging a spoon on a tin pot. "Baba!"
"Yes, another baby!" Henry said, picking up his son. "What do I do?"
"Calm down first, and secondly, please ring for Boris to go and find Lady Hallam and Mrs Bolingbrooke—they're both here in the palace... ow... somewhere... "
The King continued to stand there, transfixed, as Eleanor gasped from another sharp labor pain.
"Henry, please ring for Boris!" Eleanor said, squeezing her eyes shut. "I don't really want to have the baby in your study… dear… but it looks like I miiiiiight!" she wailed.
"Isn't he a little early?" Henry asked.
"He does seem somewhat impatient," Eleanor cried, resisting the overwhelming temptation to throw his heavy marble paperweight at him. "Oh dear God, he's coming now! Please, Henry, hurry!"
The King acted quickly then—he put Alexander down, cleared everything off his desk and picked her up, settling her gently on the desktop. A searing pain ripped through her and she knew the baby was coming—this birthing was going to be extremely fast! The King looked relieved then as he looked over her head, and Eleanor looked back to see Betsy and Clothilde both rushing into the room, wide-eyed.
"Go on outside, Your Majesty," Clothilde said gently. "You really do not want to see this."
"Nothing's ready! The baby isn't due for another three weeks!" Eleanor shouted, struggling to not get angry at her husband. Henry couldn't seem to move—he had a full, unobstructed view now of events 'down below' and for a moment he looked like he might faint dead away. Lady Hallam gently shoved him toward the door, and when he was out in the hall, she shut the door in his face. A few moments later, other ladies of the court came rushing in, carrying sheets and blankets. Henry stood outside the door, unable to move his feet at all, and listened to his wife's screams of pain, and then he heard the cry of his second-born child.
"Another big, fine prince, ma'am!" Lady Hallam said, laughing.
Henry did faint then. He was unnoticed, slumped on the floor outside his study, until someone opened the door to rush out for water, and Eleanor spied him from her vantage point on his desk. "Oh… could someone please wake the King? Poor thing—I hope he didn't hit his head!"
"A fine, healthy boy," Henry grinned at his Councilors, who all looked pleased. "Nine pounds even, too, and very loud! Such a marvelous birthday present, I must say!"
"Takes after his father, does he?" Count von Arklow grinned.
"Aye, he does. He's beautiful, I daresay, though I admit I'm biased. I can hardly believe it, lads. Two sons in less than two years! God is truly blessing me… first with Eleanor and now two strong sons—an heir and a spare, as they say." He looked at von Arklow and Beauchamp both and smiled. "Now neither of you need to worry about the… what is that word Eleanor used the other day? Ona… onus, yes that's it! The 'onus of the crown', she called it. I've two sons and the succession is secured!"
"Our heartfelt congratulations, sir," von Arklow nodded, glancing across the table at Lord Beauchamp, who was having to bite the inside of his mouth to keep from scowling.
"Eleanor is already saying she wants to have more!" Henry laughed. "That woman… my God, what did I ever do to deserve someone like her? She has made our kingdom rich and peaceful, and has given us a future King." He sat down and opened his notebook, consulting Eleanor's meticulous comments. "Now… about this land proposal in the west, Lord Oliver, you believe this will benefit the crown in what way, and is there any consideration of how it might affect local farmers? The last thing we want is to compete against stockbreeders who are just getting out of dire financial straits…"
The Queen nursed her little week-old son, watching Alexander scuttle around the room on his knees, pushing a small wooden horse on wheels. The Crown Prince was a robust and cheerful little scoundrel, full of energy, and he adored both his parents. The benefits of being raised by his mother were shining through—he already had good manners at barely one, saying something that sounded a little like 'thank you' even when the dogs brought back sticks he had thrown.
"Alexander, you must try to be quiet so your brother will go to sleep," she said gently. The prince plopped down on his bottom and clapped his hands, then crab-crawled over to her chair and pulled himself up, wanting to look at his brother again. He wasn't completely clear on the concept of 'brother' yet, but the new baby fascinated him. She smiled and shifted a little, the baby letting go of her breast and squawking indignantly as she moved him to the other. She was glad she had weaned Alexander at eight months and he was eating some solid foods already—she was happy to nurse her babies, but certainly not forever, particularly when they started teething!
Henry strolled in and picked up Alexander, swinging him in his arms and making the boy scream with laughter. "Henry!" Eleanor chastised, but not angrily as the newborn squeaked before latching back onto her breast. The King sat down on the bed and tickled his son—there was no sound like the boy's giggles. He grinned at Eleanor, delighted to be with his family.
"Have you decided on a name yet, dearest?" he asked.
"I would like to name him Frederick."
There was a pause, as Henry set Alexander down on the floor and the boy scooted back to his toy horse. "That isn't a common name in the Gravonian royal family," the King said.
"I want Count von Hesse to stand as his godfather, actually--his Christian name is Frederick, I think. I believe it would be a nice gesture of goodwill between our countries."
The King pondered and she waited. They rarely disagreed about anything—her suggestions and ideas very quickly became his own, and they had not had a single argument in their entire marriage thus far. Even more, the King continued to sleep with Eleanor every night, which also shocked the Court, and he was well-known as perhaps the only monarch in Europe who kept no mistress and did not dally with other women. He and Eleanor made love regularly and passionately—the new prince had been conceived a little less than three months after Alexander's arrival, in fact.
Alexander now had his own room, next door to the King and Queen's chamber, and at Eleanor's insistence two guards were placed outside his door at all times, and two more were placed directly under his window in the courtyard below, and aside from herself and the King, only Agnes and Lady Hallam were allowed to even touch him.
Eleanor was already teaching the little prince to recognize colors and letters, and he was showing clear signs of possessing above-average intelligence. Alexander was a sweet, cuddly boy with a mop of dark, curly hair and his mother's startlingly dark blue eyes, and he was curious about everything—Henry said he was as meddlesome as a cat, and Eleanor had to agree.
There had been no discussion at all about Eleanor nursing her second-born son. Considering Alexander's glowing health and energy, it was obvious that her policy was a sound one. Neither Harriet nor Lady Beauchamp had even brought the subject up.
She lifted her gaze back to Henry, and she saw a hot flash of desire in his eyes. She smiled softly at him, finding it rather exciting to think that her husband lusted after her even now, when she felt a little cowlike and she still had to lose the baby pounds she had put on during her pregnancy. She had experienced very little nausea or fatigue during her second pregnancy, and she had worn him out quite thoroughly almost every night even as she neared her confinement—she was hardly out of shape and knew the pounds would come off soon enough. The King was feverish now, what with having to abstain until Eleanor was fully recovered, but the way he looked at her made her feel hot all over.
"I think Frederick will be a fine name," Henry finally said.
"Thank you, dearest. And what do you think of asking Count von Hesse to stand as his godfather?"
"That would be very nice," he said. He got up and kissed Eleanor warmly, with Alexander watching with wide, curious eyes, then kissed Frederick on his temple. "We have such a beautiful family, Eleanor. God bless you, sweetheart."
She smiled at him and laughed as her husband picked his elder son up and hugged him, covering his face with kisses before bouncing him around the room, the little prince screaming with laughter and babbling "Baba!" over and over. Henry was, to Eleanor's delight, a loving and attentive father and relished any time he could spend with wife and children, and he was not ashamed to romp around with them for hours, playing endless games with Alexander and reading stories to him every night at bedtime. He was even hunting less, preferring to take his meals with the Queen and to assist in caring for Alexander.
He was even adept at changing nappies.
"The christening is set for tomorrow afternoon at St Michael's," Eleanor said. The newly minted Prince Frederick of Gravonia had finished suckling and was making contented noises and yawning. "I would like to call on Count von Hesse this afternoon, if you don't mind. I want to see his wife and little daughter."
"Very well, sweetheart." He kissed her cheek. "I'm off to hunt stag this afternoon, with the Spanish ambassador. We're trying to keep him away from the wine—I can't say as I enjoyed being waltzed around the Great Hall last night."
"Better you than me," Eleanor said dryly as she stood up, and Henry snickered. He gently took little Frederick, who had finally belched after a good deal of patting on the back, and settled him into his cradle.
"Such a handsome little thing," he said, grinning. "Do you think he looks like me?"
"A good bit," Eleanor smiled, carefully tucking the baby in. "He has lighter hair, definitely, and your chin."
She was startled, but not overly surprised, when the king pulled her into his arms and kissed her hungrily. She slipped her arms around his neck and kissed him back, moaning softly when his hands moved lower and began to caress her breasts.
"Baba kiss Mama!"
Alexander stepped in between them and began whacking his father on the knee with his little fists. The King grinned and picked his elder son up. "Yes, I do. I kiss Mama a lot. Do you know why, Sasha?"
"Yes. Your Mama is pretty. The prettiest woman in the whole world."
"Don't fill his head with silly notions. He'll be impossible to please when he's older and has to marry," Eleanor warned, laughing. She took Alexander—only the King called him 'Sasha'— from her husband and firmly commanded him to go on to his room and prepare for his afternoon nap. She used the gently implacable tone that always got immediate obedience from her son and occasionally even from her husband, and the boy scuttled out of the room. She moved back into Henry's arms and let him fondle her. He pushed her gently against the wall and began kissing her lustily.
"God, you're so beautiful," he whispered against her neck as he lifted her skirts up to caress her thigh. "You make me so… "
"Horny?" she answered, nibbling on his earlobe. "Henry, I had a baby only a week ago and you're already wanting to shag me."
"I can't help it. You're so… sexy like this. Motherhood just makes you more… oh, God… delicious." He kissed her again, as though her mouth was the only thing keeping him alive. Eleanor sighed as he made love to her mouth, and suspected that at the rate they were going, the next baby wasn't going to be too far off. But she knew she wasn't ready for intercourse yet—the birth had been remarkably easy this time around, but Betsy and Clothilde had both tsked at her for getting pregnant again so soon after Alexander, and recommended she try to avoid pregnancy for at least a few months. How she was supposed to do that, she didn't know—she enjoyed sex as much as Henry. Perhaps even more.
"I can't wait to have you again," Henry whispered. "Though I suppose I'll have to walk around in a haze until then."
"I'm afraid so. Some healthy galloping about today will help you. Get good and tired and you'll be asleep when your head hits the pillow tonight." She gave him a sound kiss, just to remind him of what was waiting for him in the next few months, and he grinned at her.
"I adore you," he said. "You and your lovely breasts and your strong, strong thighs and your sweet, juicy little… "
"Henry! Alexander can hear you!" she scolded, slapping his arm.
He gave her a wicked grin and pinched her bottom before leaving the room. Eleanor sat down and picked up her sewing—she was making a new baby quilt, just for Frederick. Last year, she had made one for Alexander, and she intended to make new quilts for each of her children, however many she had. All she needed, thus, was more skill at the task. Her sewing was competent, at best, but was usually just indifferent, and she had to rely on Agnes' ability to get them finished and looking nice.
Speak of the Devil, she thought as Agnes came into the room, curtseying low to the Queen before taking her seat opposite her at the fire. Well, no. Not the Devil. The poor woman, she had realized, she was anything but stupid--instead, she was merely uneducated and woefully ignorant of the world around her. The Queen settled back in her seat, glancing over at little Frederick, who was sleeping peacefully, and watched Agnes begin working on some embroidery. The Mistress of the Wardrobe's hands were shaking, Eleanor noticed, and she leaned forward, concerned at the woman's flushed cheeks and red-rimmed eyes.
"Agnes, are you all right?"
She looked up at Eleanor, her eyes brimming with tears. "My Louis died this morning. I found him… "
"Oh dear… oh, no, Agnes… your poor husband. I'm so sorry. You don't need to stay… you are free to go home and… "
"His mother is there already, taking charge of everything. Horrible woman!" Agnes stabbed her needle into the linen cloth she was working on. "She is insisting on staying at our home until even after the funeral, and wants… she wants… " Agnes sniffed and wiped her nose. "I can't bear to go back home. Not today, anyway. I used the sewing as an excuse to come back to Court, ma'am. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry," Eleanor said gently. "Lady Galwan… your mother-in-law… sounds rather forceful. She is quite elderly?"
"Eighty-two next month and she'll probably outlive us all." Agnes sniffed again. "She's hateful. She says I was just a gold-digging hussy. Can you believe that?" she vented. "I took care of Louis these past five years, all on my own, and then he dies and she has the nerve… the nerve to come into my home and tell me I don't know my own business and today she called me a slut!" Agnes began to cry then, dropping her sewing on the floor and putting her head on her knees.
Eleanor watched the poor woman sob, bewildered—Agnes had never expressed an opinion, good or bad, about anything since the day they had met. Except possibly the quality of the Great Cheese Wheel of Ullan.
"Well, then, you will stay here until… proper arrangements are made, and the Crown will be only too happy to assist you financially if needed." Eleanor got up and went to check on Alexander, who had climbed up into his bed and was playing quietly with his toy rabbit. "Sweetheart, lie down for Mummy and go to sleep."
"Naseepy," he said, rubbing his eyes and yawning.
"Quite," she said, smiling, and went to the bed and directed him to lie down. Eleanor was determined to have her children set into a regular routine, with as few disruptions as possible, and daily naps, meals, walks, prayers, playtime and bedtime were firmly (but not rigidly) set. Despite the sobbing woman in the next room, she gently tucked her son in and kissed his forehead before settling his rabbit to his chest and blowing out the candle. Alexander was soon asleep, and Eleanor returned to Agnes.
"All right," the Queen said firmly, sitting down and taking Agnes' hands in hers. "Do you think your husband would want you to be miserable, sitting here sobbing while you've been more or less pushed out of your own home?"
Agnes sat up, wiping her eyes, and she shook her head.
"I didn't think so. I only met your husband once and he was a very nice man, and I know he was very fond of you. So… we shall think of how to tactfully deal with your mother-in-law. She did, after all, lose a child, so it's not as though she's not having some… pain now."
"Oh, no, she's got no pain. She's got her Spanish wine and her nasty temper to keep her company, the vicious cow!" Agnes said, and resumed her sobbing. Eleanor sighed, uncertain of what she ought to do, but it was actually rather nice to see her Mistress of the Robes expressing an opinion, and it was interesting to see that Agnes had a bit of backbone to boot.
"We'll settle it all soon enough, Agnes," Eleanor reassured her. "Don't worry about it." She cast about, looking for something that might distract the poor woman. "You're getting your embroidery all wet, Agnes."
Flustered, Agnes picked up her sewing and began stabbing fitfully at it.
"Did you and your husband get along well, Agnes?" Eleanor asked kindly.
"We were all right, I suppose. He was usually too ill to quarrel with, and really, he was not quarrelsome at all. He was very kind," Agnes answered, wiping her eyes. "He was much older."
"Yes, I recall." Eleanor frowned, wondering if she could ask the question at all, and finally she decided she would. Tact, however, was essential. "Did you… and Lord Galwan… ever… uh… " She glanced at Frederick, who was still sleeping peacefully, undisturbed by Agnes' sobbing. "Try to make a baby?"
"When we first married, he and I shared a bed a few times, and he kissed me… once or twice. Isn't that enough to make a baby?" She looked at the Queen, expression curious and vaguely confused, and Eleanor wondered if perhaps Agnes wasn't entirely… there. No, that wasn't it. Maybe she was just a little slow and only needed kindness and a more healthy husband at her side and she might just shine, even if her light might be a little dim.
"No, Agnes, that is not enough to make a baby."
"Well, what else does it involve?" Agnes asked her.
Eleanor chewed on her lip. "Um… well… there's just... more."
"Is it pleasant?"
"Very much so, with the right sort of man." Eleanor picked up her quilt and began stitching, waiting for the next, inevitable question.
"Do you enjoy… it… with the King?"
"Yes, I do," Eleanor nodded, keeping matter-of-fact about it. There was no point in elaborating now. She could only hope that one day, Agnes might be able to enjoy life a little—it seemed like she had little pleasure in her rather colorless, closed-off little world, and her show of temper today indicated that just some loosening of the stays would help her a lot. "It is as God intends, you know—the marriage bed is undefiled, and married couples should never deny one another, except by mutual agreement."
"How does it feel?"
"It's just… nice. Fun, even, and it feels very... good. Please check over my sewing," she said, handing her nearly-finished quilt to the young woman, deciding it was time to change the subject—Agnes had just been widowed, after all, and the topic of sex hardly seemed appropriate now. "You know I'm not very good at sewing, and you're very talented. Tell me, Agnes, do you need anything, so far as the funeral goes?"
"Louis is going to buried at his home outside Luvov," Agnes answered, examining Eleanor's stitches and nodding her approval before handing them back, and that actually made Eleanor feel rather good—Agnes was an expert seamstress, so getting her endorsement was quite a compliment. "His family isn't very wealthy, but they've a fine estate and some land. Lady Galwan is certain she'll live on there… and I have nowhere to go now."
"Of course you do. That was your home for how long? Five years?"
"Do you have servants there?"
"Just… just one household servant," Agnes looked down, and Eleanor wasn't sure if it was the fire or something else that made Agnes' cheeks pink a little. "My husband's groom—he manages the horses and traveled with him whenever he had to go anywhere, and he managed the accounts and collected rent and the like--he's very intelligent and sees all is run very smoothly at Applewood. We never had to worry about anything with... with him in charge. We didn't really need a maid—I did the cooking and sewing and Louis was happy enough with that, and I kept a very neat, orderly house."
"I see—I'm sure you do an excellent job, too. Well, feel free to stay here at the palace after the funeral, until your living arrangements can be settled. No widow should be forced out of her own home, even by her mother-in-law." She smiled kindly at Agnes. "I must be getting better at sewing, if you think my stitches look good."
Agnes smiled, looking a little less miserable. Eleanor supposed that the death of her husband had not sunk in entirely for the poor woman, but the Queen could find no reason for her to wallow in grief, either, particularly as her marriage had clearly been unconsummated and there were no children involved. Agnes was only twenty-two years old, and all she needed was better clothes and a bit of work on her hair, and she would possibly gain some self-confidence. She might even find a nice young husband someday, if she would start showing off her rather pretty chestnut-colored hair and aqua-green eyes; plus she had a plump, pretty figure that many men would find appealing. Agnes was not terribly bright, but she was good-natured, gentle, and seemed likely to make a good wife and a loving mother if given the right opportunity. All she needed, Eleanor decided, was encouragement and perhaps a little royal subterfuge.
Old Lady Galwain, Eleanor soon realized, was a tyrant, and it was going to take a bit of clever maneuvering to get her out of Applewood.
Applewood was a pretty estate, with a lovely garden that was green and well-tended even in late winter, and Eleanor was impressed by how neat and orderly the entire place looked. The house, too, was immaculate yet also very warm and pleasant, with wide windows looking out over a little pond, with green pastures beyond. Agnes always spoke of the house and the surrounding countryside in glowing terms, and considering how pretty and cheerful the house itself looked, she believed her Mistress of the Robes had every right to be houseproud.
Paying an impromptu visit to Agnes' home, Eleanor decided, was the best tack to take in determining how to handle the young woman's mother-in-law. It had been two months since Lord Galwain's death and Lady Agatha remained firmly entrenched at Applewood, clearly unwilling to leave. Eleanor understood the woman's position, of course—her son had been an only child and Agnes had given him no heirs. Lady Agatha's presence on the estate might not have been so difficult had there been more room in the house, but as there was not, Eleanor could not see any reason for the woman to remain.
The day before her visit, the Queen had consulted with a Crown attorney and was relieved to find that Lord Galwain had drawn up a will two years before, leaving his estate to his wife, while also providing a yearly allowance for his widowed mother. He had also provided the old woman with a small but comfortable home in Bowlin, a little village north of Luvov, where she wanted for nothing. It seemed strange then, to Eleanor, that Agatha wanted to stay at Applewood, considering she did not seem to like Agnes.
She arrived at the little estate on a chilly November morning, knowing Agnes would be in a panic over having the Queen visit her at home, but she actually found the outing to be something of an adventure. She left her sons at the palace, under Clothilde's expert supervision, and rode in a plain carriage to Applewood, and she was greeted in the little courtyard by a strikingly handsome young man.
"Signora… Your Majesty… " he said, eyes widening as she stepped down from the coach. "We are not expecting you, ma'am.""
"This is something of an unexpected foray for me, sir. What is your name?"
"Lorenzo Bartolemeo, Your Majesty," he said, bowing.
"Well, Lorenzo, could you direct me to Lady Agnes?"
"Si. Of course."
Lorenzo was gorgeous. He was well over six feet tall, with dark hair and eyes and olive-touched skin, and he carried himself with natural dignity that belied his peasant origins. He was also charming and genial, and spoke to everyone in the household with a cheerful kindness that made him immediately likeable. Eleanor let him lead her into the house and stood in the center of the small but warm Great Hall and let him go find Agnes. In the meantime, Eleanor observed the bright, cheerful rooms of the house, the abundance of flowers, and the obvious diligence Agnes paid to keeping her home as welcoming and comfortable as possible. Indeed, the woman wasn't weighed down with brains, but her house was warm, comfortable and restful, and her house was a testament to Agnes' own personality and character.
In a few moments, Agnes arrived, looking bewildered.
"Your Majesty," she said, curtseying with surprising elegance. "I was not expecting you, ma'am."
"Do not worry yourself at all, Agnes. I am very pleased to be here. You have such a lovely home. So very warm and cozy and cheerful," Eleanor said, smiling sincerely.
"Oh. Thank you, ma'am, I do try to keep it cheerful, though lately it is has been rather hard…
"Who is here?" a loud, sharp voice rang out. An elderly woman, leaning on a cane, stalked into the room. Eleanor smiled politely at Lady Agatha, who frowned at her before suddenly realizing she needed to show proper deference and curtseyed.
Eleanor thought the woman resembled a crow. An old, graying crow with beady eyes and a bad temper.
Lorenzo reappeared in the doorway, smiled at Agnes, and took his leave. Eleanor found that brief exchange somewhat intriguing, considering Agnes' pink cheeks, but set herself on the task at hand.
"Lady Agatha, it is a great pleasure to meet you. Might we move into one of the sitting rooms?"
"Of course," Agatha said, gesturing toward a doorway. Agnes paled and looked down, and Eleanor smiled sweetly, feeling her own hackles rising. This was Agnes' house!
"Agnes, perhaps you might direct us to the room?"
Sitting in the little room, which was decorated with pretty furniture and a bouquet of fresh flowers, Eleanor coolly observed Lady Agatha for a few moments. Finally, she leaned forward a bit.
"Lady Agatha, I was very sad to hear of the death of your dear son. I know that must have been a dreadful blow."
"It was," Agatha said, putting on a properly sad expression.
"Of course, I'm certain that you are sorely missed at your own home in Bowlin. I understand your son did provide you with a very nice little house with a lovely garden, and a yearly allowance that keeps you in comfort—you even have a maid and a cook?"
Agatha frowned slightly. "Yes. I do. My son did quite well for me. My son was a good boy."
"I'm sure you were always very proud of him, and I know he was pleased to provide for you in your widowhood, as was his duty."
"Yes. Yes, he was."
"Of course, your son was also very thoughtful to provide for his much-loved wife Agnes. He was very keen to see to it that she be able to live here at Applewood in the same standard of comfort to which she had become accustomed. It would be a dreadful shame, don't you think, if his wishes were not carried out to the letter. He wanted you to live in comfort, which I understand you do in Bowlin, and he was just as eager to see that Agnes is safe and happy in her own home. I'm sure you would never dream of going against your late son's wishes, ma'am."
Lady Agatha pursed her lips. "No, I would not."
"I do understand that the winter months can be rather hard on a woman of your years, but I have been given good information about your house in Bowlin—that it is well-warmed and maintained."
"Yes, ma'am," Agatha said. She glanced at Agnes, who was perched nervously on a chair near the fireplace. "Agnes here is not so good about keeping the place warm."
"Considering this is her home, ma'am, I believe she has the right to determine just how warm she wants it."
Agatha frowned at Eleanor, then scowled at Agnes. "Did you call the Queen to come here?"
"Of course not!" Agnes gasped, horrified.
"Lady Agatha, I am quite amazed that you would accuse Agnes of any sort of subterfuge. She did not call me here at all. I came here on my own initiative. And perhaps now it is time for you to take some initiative of your own and return to Bowlin. I am sure you are sorely missed there, ma'am, and being here, amongst so many memories of your dear son, must be rather painful.
Lady Agatha started to speak, but a sweet smile from the Queen made her reconsider. The old woman pursed her lips and took a sip of her tea. Eleanor picked up her own cup and took a sip.
"I'm sure you agree with me, ma'am. I will be happy to send some servants over tomorrow to help you prepare for your journey home, and I will be pleased to send a palace carriage for you as well." She finished her tea and put the cup down, standing. "Well, now, that's settled, so I believe I shall take my leave. Lady Agnes, it was truly a pleasure to visit your lovely home. Good day to you both." Eleanor walked out of the room without looking back and was met at the door by Lorenzo, whose eyebrows rose as she made her way back to her carriage. She looked back when she heard Agnes rushing up the path.
"I must thank you, Your Majesty," Agnes said breathlessly, glancing shyly at Lorenzo, who grinned at her.
"It was nothing, Agnes."
"It was… it was everything, ma'am!" Agnes said and embraced her, then stepped back, hands over her mouth, mortified. "I'm so sorry…"
"Again, Agnes, think nothing of it. I was pleased to help you." Eleanor laughed. "I shall expect you back at Court in another week or so. I fear I need more help with my sewing. Signor Bartolomeo, I'm sure I can count on you to take proper care of Lady Agnes and Applewood." She smiled and climbed into the carriage without assistance, and on her order the carriage trundled away.
Isabella was sobbing, even as she held her newly-born baby. The ladies attending her moved away, looking uneasy, and she finally looked up, tears flowing down her face, and saw her husband standing in the doorway. She couldn't tell what he was thinking—she never knew what he was thinking, actually, he was so inscrutable. After less than a year in Morvenia, she knew as much about him as she had the day she married him.
Finally, the Prince cleared his throat, and the ladies moved quickly to the other side of the room as one nervous body.
Constantine stepped into the room and sat down in the chair beside her bed. "Let me see the child," he said, keeping his voice low.
Trembling, tears still flowing, Isabella cautiously handed the baby to her husband and watched him inspect the newborn, expertly supporting her head. "A girl," he said at last. "A princess."
"I'm sorry," Isabella said, her voice trembling. "I'm so sorry… I will try to give you a son, next time, I swear it... "
"She's beautiful," Constantine said quietly. "She has red hair!" He smiled at Isabella and touched the baby's face, marveling at how soft her skin was. "Doesn't look much like me at all, thank God—she is a credit to you, Isabella, and I won't hear you say you're sorry about her again. No life is anything to be sorry about, and certainly not this little sprite." He gently handed the baby back to his wife. "She will be named Elizabeth, for your mother—do you like that?" At her bewildered nod and soft smile, he leaned in and gently kissed his wife's temple, then stood up, glancing at the other women in the room, and finally at Catalina, who looked ready to pounce on anyone who might try to harm her sister or her new niece. "Your Highness," he said, bowing gallantly to the girl. He looked down at Isabella, whose tears had stopped.
"Thank you, Constantine," she said softly. "It is very kind of you to name her for my mother."
He made a vague 'think nothing of it' gesture. "I have been called to Vienna," he said, looking weary. "I will be back soon, I'm sure." He looked at her ladies, knowing they were all terrified of him. "I'm also sure you will all take care diligent of my wife and daughter, as well as my wife's sister." Off his narrow look, they all curtseyed in one vaguely graceful motion. He had no need to glare at Catalina—she was like a ferocious little guard dog around her sister, and had even openly defied his mother a few times, right to her face! The girl had nerve, that was for sure. She often caused trouble, but she had spirit, and he actually rather enjoyed her presence in the palace. Philip in particular seemed to enjoy the girl's company, and the two had formed a friendship, with the King teasing the girl and the princess fearlessly bickering with him in turn.
He left the room, closing the door quietly behind him, and Isabella looked down at her red-headed baby. The women had all been afraid that the prince would be furious at having a daughter instead of a much-desired son, but he actually seemed very cheerful about it. She supposed she had been rather foolish to be pulled along into their collective fear—Constantine was not open with her about much at all, but he had never been unkind, and he had made it clear than everyone in the household—even the Queen Mother—was to be respectful to Isabella or they would face his wrath. Not even Marie dared bother Isabella too much, at least while he was at home.
Constantine was halfway to the palace doors when his mother called to him. Marie stalked toward him, followed by her little flock of black-draped biddies, all of who seemed to have the personalities of pieces of toast.
"I understand she bore a princess," Marie said, huffing a little, and she reminded him yet again of an angry hen.
"Yes. A pretty, healthy, red-headed girl," Constantine nodded. He would tell no one, least of all his mother, how he had had to go sit in the chapel for a moment, after hearing of the baby's birth, to shed grateful tears alone. Nor did he feel any need to tell his mother he was not disappointed—in fact, he felt elated, and had sent word to Philip of the birth of the child, expressing his joy and relief to his brother. In response, the King ordered celebrations in Garon, culminating in a banquet set for next week, when Isabella would be strong enough to attend, and Philip had even asked to stand as the princess's godfather.
Isabella was young and strong, and in due time she was likely to bear a son or two. He certainly was not going to make her stay pregnant all the time—she would have at least a year or two between each pregnancy, if he could help it.
"Red-headed! Dear God, how awful!" the Queen Mother squawked. "But I'm sure you're naming her Marie."
"No. She will named Elizabeth, after Isabella's mother."
"What? You would not name your daughter after your own mother, the Queen of Morvenia?"
"I can think of no reason to," Constantine said. He picked up his sword from the table by the door, slid it into his scabbard and bowed slightly to his mother, absently fingering the silk ribbon still tied around the sword's hilt. "No more than anyone else could, anyway—how many of your kin have named their daughters for you?" He made no attempt to kiss his mother goodbye—he hadn't kissed her since… well, ever, and she hadn't even kissed him when he'd been sick or injured. "Good day to you, Mother. Biddies," he nodded to the Queen and her ladies. He went on past her and out into the courtyard, where Amiel waited. He easily swung into the saddle and rode out through the gates, kicking the grey stallion into a gallop and riding away.