Our Gracious Queen

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Gauntlets and Stars

19 November 1375

Eleanor was seated on the Consort's throne in the Presence Chamber, receiving the diplomatic retinue of the King of Poland, and she could barely hide her amusement when the three men realized they had forgotten to bring along some sort of gift they were supposed to give her. She waved her hand at them, signaling to them that it was all right. They stopped bickering and casting aspersions and bowed to her, all looking horribly embarrassed, and presented her with what looked like a very large string of… good heavens, kielbasa?

She tried out her Polish on them—she only knew a few polite phrases of greeting and thanks and how to say she wanted nothing whatsoever to do with tripe, but the men looked pleased when she welcomed them to Gravonia and asked them if they were comfortable in their accommodations. They tried out their halting English on her, and after a few rounds of 'I am fine, thank you, and how are you?' and discussions about the weather and condition of the roads, she insisted they sit down and relax. For several moments, she was able to chat with them through their translator (whose English was a bit garbled at best) and she found them all affable and charming, if somewhat forgetful. She thanked them for the kielbasa: she knew Henry would eat it all in one sitting and insisted they stay for the banquet after Prince Frederick's christening.

Henry was hunting, due to come back in time for the ceremony at St. Michael's, and Eleanor knew he would not be late—the king was almost obsessed with punctuality, and almost went mad when anyone delayed him. She supposed his notion about being on time came from his rather disorganized childhood and a resulting need for some degree of control of his world. Fortunately, these days, even when someone (or actually Eleanor) was late, he was able to forgive and forget. The first time she had been late for supper one evening, everyone had expecting him to blow up at the Queen. Instead, he had apologized to her for having sat down five minutes early.

The Polish diplomats were ushered from the room by Boris, who returned a few moments later and approached her, bowing. "Your Majesty, Sir William Braithwaite is requesting an audience."

She paused, remembering her conversation with the mayor of Willemet, and nodded. "Send him in, please."

Braithwaite entered the Presence Chamber, looking a little nervous, and Eleanor immediately smiled at him. "Please, sir, be at ease. I am very pleased to see you. Come sit." She gestured to a table set up in a corner alcove and sat down, gesturing to him to take his place opposite her.

"Thank you, Your Majesty."

"What sort of information do you have for me, sir?"

He extracted a sheaf of papers from a leather satchel and handed them to Eleanor, all while looking very ill-at-ease. After a quizzical look at him, she began reading and was shocked at what the papers revealed. "My God! Are you certain of this?"

"Yes, ma'am. We were all more than a little… shocked."

"This man… was seen in… Willemet and Ildiko? With a group of men dressed in black?"

"Aye, ma'am. Three other witnesses knew it was he, without a doubt—two had even served in the army, under his command, a few years ago. All the town and village mayors in the region gathered together and agreed that it was his private force of knights doing all the collecting, not the King's own tax men and soldiers."

"Did they do much damage to your crops this year, Sir William?"

"They burned several fields, ma'am, that were almost ready for harvest."

"Forbid it Almighty God!" Eleanor whispered. "And they still extorted money from the villages?"

"Yes, ma'am. We've almost nothing left."

Eleanor sat back in her chair, thinking. If Henry learned of this, he would launch an immediate assault and many lives would be lost, unnecessarily, and then he would fret and fume for months after. What this situation needed was a great deal more subtlety, and it needed to be dealt with quietly and decisively. Preserving family harmony and royal dignity was almost as important as restoring peace to the northern borders, in her opinion, and causing a public scandal was out of the question. "This will not happen to any village in the north, or anywhere else in Gravonia again, Sir William, and I thank you for bringing this information to me." She shuffled the papers. "It will be dealt with today, in fact, and I will see to it that the people of northern Gravonia all receive proper remuneration." She dismissed him, gathered up the papers, and left the room, needing to read them all thoroughly before deciding on what action to take.

The christening of Prince Frederick was set for three in the afternoon, and Eleanor was pleased to see Count von Hesse and Christiane together, with little Helene toddling along on unsteady legs as they came into the chapel. The past year had been a mixture of joy and sorrow for Christiane—she had miscarried a baby two months before, but her sweet little daughter kept her from sinking too far into grief. Today, Christiane looked much happier, and Eleanor wished she could just sit and talk with her in private and offer some comfort, but protocol forbade such things. All she had been able to do was send a letter of condolence to Christiane and a few soft toys for Helene.

The Archbishop stood behind the font and took Frederick from the Queen. "Who will stand as sponsor for this child?"

"The Count Frederick von Hesse, sir," Henry said. Count von Hesse looked extremely pleased.

"And who is the second sponsor, sir?" Archbishop Nichols asked, in his deep baritone. He was, Eleanor knew, a kind and deeply devout man who told wickedly funny stories. Thus he was a frequent guest at the king's table, helping to balance out the more ribald behavior of Henry's gentlemen and making Eleanor laugh so much her sides hurt.

"Lady Clothilde Hallam," Eleanor said. Clothilde, standing next to Lord Hallam, smiled. She had been touched when Eleanor asked her to stand as godmother to her son, and there tears in her eyes now.

"May it be so, and may Almighty God bless this child and lay upon him His loving hand of protection." He dipped a small silver cup into the water and poured a few drops onto Frederick's head. The baby slept on peacefully, and made no objections as he was handed to Lady Hallam, who cuddled him briefly.

"It is my joy and privilege to call this boy my godchild," Clothilde said. She curtseyed to Eleanor and handed the baby to Count von Hesse, who stared down at the baby. Christiane peeked down at him, holding up Helene so she could see him.

"May God bless and keep him, and watch over him," von Hesse, his voice shaking a little. "May he be a comforter and helper to those around him, and a joy and credit to his mother and father."

Eleanor glanced back at the pews, which were occupied by numerous nobles of Gravonia, and she caught sight of Lord and Lady Arklow and his mother, and of Lord Beauchamp and his wife. Eleanor knew that the Dowager Countess von Arklow was furious that her son had not been named as Frederick's godfather, but frankly she wasn't worried about her or her son. She glanced at Lord Beauchamp and saw the pure seething hatred in his eyes and knew his loathing of her was nothing compared to his detestation of her two sons.

She turned back and faced Archbishop Nichols, who smiled warmly at the King and Queen. "So I present to this congregation His Royal Highness the Prince Frederick of Gravonia!" he boomed.

Frederick apparently didn't appreciate loud voices, because he began to cry. Nichols looked a little chagrined, but Eleanor just smiled and took her baby back from von Hesse, bobbing a respectful curtsey to him, and cuddled the little prince. Beside her, ever curious, Alexander tugged at her skirts, wanting to have another look at the baby.

"See? This is your little brother. His name is Frederick."

The not-quite-year-old prince peered at the baby for several moments, thinking it over, before finally stepping back a little. He was still not entirely sold on having a baby brother, but he seemed to accept Frederick well enough. Henry picked up his elder son, making the boy giggle, and Eleanor smiled proudly at her husband—he had an innate understanding of the importance of making Alexander associate his brother with pleasant things and not a disruption to his secure little world.

The royal family made its way back to the palace, waving to the cheering crowds lining the street, and filed into the vast banqueting hall. Huge amounts of food had been prepared to celebrate the christening of the new prince, and equal amounts had been distributed to the poor of Luvov, with any leftovers also to be delivered to the poor after the meal. Eleanor took her seat beside Henry, who opened the banquet with a prayer and a short speech thanking everyone for coming and sat down to tuck heartily into his meal of kielbasa, cheese and bread.

Eleanor decided to walk around the room, greeting guests and making small talk. She stopped at Lord and Lady Beauchamp's place and accepted their tight smiles with a gracious nod. "Lady Beauchamp, could you perhaps excuse me for a moment—I should like to speak with Lord Beauchamp in private, if you don't mind."

Lady Beauchamp rose to her feet, looking a little startled, and went away. Eleanor took her seat and smiled warmly at her husband's cousin.

"Lord Beauchamp, I've decided that I know exactly what I want you to present to Prince Frederick as a gift."

Beauchamp looked bewildered. "A gift, ma'am? Oh... of course, madame. I would be delighted."

"Yes, indeed. In the prince's name, I am going to ask you, specifically, to volunteer to present the northern border villages and towns with funds to repair and rebuild their damaged and destroyed homes and buildings, as well as to help the people there get the necessary supplies they will require to withstand the coming winter." She took a sip of wine. "Then, in Prince Frederick's name, you will present ten thousand marks to each village and twenty thousand marks to each good-sized town along the border, toward assisting the beleaguered folks in those villages in reconstructing their lives after such heavy taxation in the past few years, and of course for planting next spring. Those gentlemen in black who have been showing up each October have been ever so discouraging and I'm sure that they will pay no more visits when they discover that the mighty Lord Beauchamp is funding the rebuilding and repairs and would be extremely upset if such outrages occurred again. What excellent public relations, really, to credit it all to the little prince, who is second in line to the throne." She smiled sweetly at Beauchamp, who stared at her in shock. For several moments, the man couldn't seem to speak, and he swallowed and finally managed a nod, his Adam's apple sliding up and down his throat. It was, Eleanor admitted, rather gratifying to see real fear in that man's eyes.

Eleanor kept her smile in place, but her eyes hardened as she leaned forward. "I am also quite certain that neither you nor your charming wife will make any further overtures about hiring any kind of proper wet nurse to tend to my children. Am I right?"

"Certainly, ma'am," he said tightly.

"Because, Lord Beauchamp, I can assure you that if you ever try something so foolish as to extort money from the people of this country again, I will inform the King and he will mete out appropriate punishment. Surely you've seen what he does to those who would dare harm the people of his kingdom—and you don't even want to think of what I might do if someone tries to take my babies from me." She smiled at him, letting her warning sink in, and stood.

Her elegant curtsey and the graceful sweep of her skirts left him sitting at his table, stunned and wide-eyed, but Eleanor knew this brief encounter was only the beginning—he had his fair warning, and she knew the gauntlet had been thrown down. Beauchamp hadn't become rich and powerful in Gravonia by being lazy or stupid. She made her way back to her place beside Henry, who was chatting amiably with Count von Hesse and Christiane, and she sat down beside her husband. She caught von Hesse's quizzical look and only smiled at him, taking little Frederick from Agnes.

That night, Eleanor snuggled into Henry's arms, listening to his breathing—he did not, thank God, snore—and said her prayers, thanking Him for her present peace and asking His help in the storms she sensed were coming. "Whatever You have in store for me, Father, please give me the strength to protect my family and my loved ones. Help me to be ever vigilant… " She looked at Henry, who was unaware of his cousin's deviousness, and sighed. "And please God, keep my husband safe and happy, if it is Your will."

May 1376

"Why don't you ever stay with me?"

Constantine was dressing, trying his best to be quiet as he pulled his boots on, and he nearly jumped out of his skin at Isabella's soft question. He turned to look at her, and drew in his breath at the sight of her. She was holding the blanket up to cover herself, her red-blonde hair falling down in a silky skein around her smooth shoulders. She was lovely—she felt and smelled sweet and soft, and over the past year of their marriage, he had come to look forward to seeing her, and to visiting her bed at least three times a week when he was at home—he always asked her if she would like him to visit her, and she never refused.

Why doesn't she ever refuse? If she would refuse, I would be spared this torment… and also cast into another level of Hell.

"I have business to attend to," he finally managed.

"At this hour?" she asked.

He stood, pulling his shirt on, and went searching for his dagger, finally finding it under the bed. He shoved it into its little sheath and finally faced his wife.

"I've been called to… uh… Havor."

"Right." Isabella looked away, toward the cradle on the other side of the bed, where little Elizabeth peacefully slept. "Again, at this hour?" She looked up at him. "You just got home."

"It was a hard campaign, but I suspect this one will be shorter. Easier, anyway. The Lacovian army suffered heavy losses at the Field of Stones, and I suspect they're just blowing smoke this time 'round."

"I worry for you, when you're off fighting in some other country's damned war."

"It's kind of you to worry, Isabella, but you don't need to."

"Oh, I know that. I don't need to. But I do just the same. And you did not answer my question. Why don't you ever stay with me? You come in at night and… and do things to me for a little while, but you never sleep beside me. Am I really that revolting to you?"

He was taken aback. "You are not revolting, Isabella… you are very beau—… "

"I must be revolting. You only… touch me… in the darkness."

"That isn't true… " he started, but realized she was right. "I'm sorry. I… I didn't want to wake Elizabeth."

"Before she was born, it was the same. Will it be this way later, when she's in her own room? You'll still only come to me when it's dark, won't you? You ask to come see me and don't even come until its dark and the candles are all out and… oh, never mind. Go on to your bloody war." She pulled the blankets over her head and curled up. Constantine stood, watching her, overwhelmed with guilt and desire. Damn it, he wasn't supposed to feel anything for her, but she was bewitching in her soft, gentle ways, and try as he might, he could not deny liking her. She was shy and soft-spoken, but there was a feistiness to her that was really quite arousing, and while she had every reason to fear him, she wasn't afraid of him at all. Except, perhaps, a very real fear of what he could do to her heart.

He knew he hurt her every day, and it was killing him.

"Isabella, I am sorry. I never meant to hurt you, and you are anything but revolting. You're a very beautiful woman."

"Do not apologize to me," she said, her voice muffled under the blankets. "And do not tell lies. They do not become a prince."

He started laughing then, his ridiculous behavior suddenly even more amusing to him than it was embarrassing. He went to the bedside table and lit the lantern, then pulled the blankets off his wife, revealing her nakedness. She squeaked, alarmed, and gasped, trying to cover herself with her hands as he pulled his shirt off. "What are you doing?" she asked, eyes widening in surprise and obvious excitement. "Constantine… you're… oh!" She sat up, and he took a long, appreciative look at her—the birth of their daughter had done nothing to her figure, except to make it even lovelier, and it was damned time, he decided, that he show her how much he did appreciate her. Philip's pleas to him, to be kind to his wife, had to be heeded. She did not deserve to be rejected, much less lonely, just because he was an arrogant, bitter ass.

"Havor can wait, I suppose," he told her, climbing back into bed with her once he had removed his clothes, moving between her legs and kissing her. Isabella wrapped her arms around him, eager for his touch, and for a while, he pushed away his memories and focused on the good, gentle woman he had married. He could be angry and miserable on the way to Havor—she did not deserve one drop of his anger, ever again.

At dawn, after making love to her unhurriedly and lying in her arms afterward, he tried to untangle himself from her embrace and sighed when she moved closer, wrapping her arms around him, refusing to let him go. The feel of her soft, pliant body against his own was intoxicating—everything about her was so soft and sweet and comforting. Was it any wonder he didn't look at other women? His conscience wouldn't allow it, for one thing, and he preferred her above all others. Except one woman, but she was long dead.

"Please don't leave," she whispered against his chest. "Please."

"I do have to go to Havor, Isabella."

She was silent for several moments, and he gently stroked her soft, silky skin, listening to her breathing. She looked up at him at last. "I do miss you when you're gone," she said softly.

"You have Elizabeth to keep you occupied," he finally said. "She's a beautiful girl. She looks just like you, thank God."

"She has a great deal of you in her, Constantine."

He could think of nothing else to say. What was it in him that she could ever miss? His body was a map of scars, he had trouble talking about anything at all, and he knew he wasn't as gentle as he should be with her. Frankly, she ought to be glad when he was away.

"When do you think you'll come home?" she asked, softly kissing a scar above his heart. He closed his eyes.

"No one thinks the squabble will take long. The Lacovians aren't as strong as they were before, and the new King is only a little boy. They're not making many good alliances any more. The army is weak, and the cream of their cavalry was wiped out at the Field of Stones." He was easier with talking about martial matters than the simple domestic matters of home and hearth. His wife had made his home comfortable and quiet, though—she ran the large house, outside Garon, extremely well, and every time he came home he felt the stresses of military life fading when he sat down to eat with her… and sex with her did even more to soothe away his tension and strain.

She sighed softly and looked at their daughter, who was waking up and starting to whimper for her breakfast. Constantine handed his wife her dressing gown and watched her pull it on before she got out of bed and went to the cradle, picking up the baby and settled down into her rocking chair. Isabella had insisted on nursing their daughter (with Queen Marie's acid comments being ignored entirely), and the baby was thriving on her mother's milk. She gave the baby her breast and Elizabeth was soon suckling eagerly. Constantine got up and began dressing.

"She's very vigorous, isn't she?" he asked, finally turning to watch her nurse their daughter.

"Strong and healthy, from the moment she was born," Isabella said proudly. "She's good at grabbing things now, and she follows me about with her eyes, and she loves that little soft doll you brought her—she won't sleep without it."

He snickered. Indeed, the doll was always settled at Elizabeth's feet in the cradle, and it was always present wherever she was taken--he had seen her throw a tantrum, once, because it had been left behind. He realized he knew very little about his daughter. He knew perhaps less about his wife, and that filled him with a melancholy he couldn't even describe.

Damn it all, but he was an utter failure as a husband and father, he realized. It terrified him, then, to realize he would likely be just as much a disaster as a King.

"Is she… uh… sleeping through the night now?"

"Yes, almost. She wakes at dawn every day and demands her breakfast. Oh, and she's rolling over on her own! I put her little toys around her and she tries to roll to them."

Constantine nodded, watching the baby finish nursing. Elizabeth began blowing milky bubbles and gurgling in contentment.

"Does she… scream a great deal?"

"Oh, not really," Isabella smiled. "Mainly she just laughs and plays with her toes, and she likes to look at shiny things."

"Good, good," Constantine nodded. "Sounds like Philip, just a year or so ago." Finally, he went to Isabella and bent down to kiss his wife on the forehead, and was startled when she handed the baby to him. Carefully, he held Elizabeth upright in one hand, supporting her with the other while looking into her eyes. The baby squealed happily and began slapping his cheeks. Then she grabbed hold of a bunch of his hair and he yelped in pain. "Ow! Hey, let go of my hair, you little sprite!"

Isabella stood, smiling in amusement, and gently extricated his hair from his daughter's tiny fist and he bounced the girl for a moment. She giggled and squealed, resuming the game of slapping his cheeks. He couldn't help smiling at his daughter, amazed that a battle-scarred and hardened old warhorse like himself could end up with such a beautiful little girl, much less a lovely, sweet wife who deserved a hell of a lot better.

"She's not the first woman to ever slap me," he told Isabella, finally returning the baby to his wife. "Probably not the last, either."

For a moment, he stood still, watching Isabella sit down again and begin to rock the baby. Elizabeth seemed more inclined to wiggle and gurgle, waving her hands and kicking her feet, babbling happily.

"She's the most wonderful thing in my life," Isabella said softly. "She keeps me busy all the time."

"Yes. I can imagine. And you're doing an excellent job with her," he told her. "I just hope she isn't tiring you out."

"Oh, she's not. I have Catalina to help out, you know, and she adores Elizabeth."

"Right." Catalina remained a watchful little sentinel around her sister, ready to defend Isabella from all comers. He suspected that tiny spitfire would take on an army if they pestered Isabella or Elizabeth.

He kissed Isabella again, which seemed to surprise her, and quietly left the room, closing the door as softly as he could. He stood outside for a moment, listening as Isabella crooned a soft Spanish lullaby to their daughter, and he felt a lump in his throat and tears stung his eyes. Quickly, before he lost any semblance of his self-control, he left.

Isabella smiled softly at her daughter. "Your papa loves you very much, little one, though I know he will have trouble in ever saying it. I just… God, how I wish he loved me." She wiped her eyes, and put her head back, sighing miserably. "I wish I didn't love him, Elizabeth, but I do. So much."

She looked down at her daughter again—she had Constantine's striking green eyes, though Elizabeth's sparkled with merriment while her father's were usually bleak. "I could have it far worse, I know—they were going to make me marry that disgusting cousin of mine, who kept groping me. I really couldn't imagine sleeping with Pedro." She shuddered. "God, he made he ill just looking at him. He looked like something you'd scrape off the bottom of your shoe after walking through a pigsty. At least Constantine is kind… and he's good in bed. Very good, though I shouldn't say so, and he has done so much to make sure I am safe and comfortable here, and King Philip is so nice, and they both make their awful mother be nice to me and to poor Catalina. He never has raised his voice to me or even to her, though I know she annoys him sometimes, and for all his reputation for ferocity, he has never even raised a hand to me. Not once." She began rocking gently, hoping Elizabeth would go back to sleep soon, so she could go back to bed and cry under the sheets until breakfast.

"Your father will not give me his heart, sweetheart, but at least I have his body and his fidelity, and I will be the mother of his children. At least I can be grateful for that, and he is kind… in his way." Elizabeth was finally nodding off, her stomach full, and Isabella gently cuddled her baby, brushing away her tears and trying to convince herself that if her husband would not or could not love her, at least she would have the love of her children.

"This business of loneliness, Elizabeth… I do not recommend it for anyone."

The train of royal carriages finally arrived at Henry's grandfather's vast seaside estate, having traveled at a slow speed for the sake of the two princes and Eleanor, who hardly relished long trips in a carriage anyway. Still, she enjoyed looking out her window at the countryside and seeing how the landscape changed as they neared the coast.

This was to be her first summer at Tygo—Henry had foregone the holiday trip last year, to avoid too much disruption to Eleanor's adjustment to her new home—and she was amazed at how utterly different everything was. Lush forests gave way to low flatlands with large reed-lined ponds and frog-infested marshes, the windswept sand dunes, salty air and seagulls screaming overhead, and the sunset was utterly spectacular—the sun was melting into the far-off line of the sea, and the salt air was delicious to just breathe in. Having never seen the ocean before, she was anxious to take her first walk on the beach and help Alexander find seashells.

It was dark and a bit windy when the king's large retinue arrived, and Eleanor was a little uneasy about how this house would look—the palace had been a shambles, after all—but she was pleasantly surprised to find it clean, with the scent of orange pervading the entire huge mansion. King Andrew had built it on a grand scale, sparing no expense, and while it was called, rather modestly, Königshaus, it was really more of a palace itself. Sturdily built of solid stone and brick, its flying buttresses, turrets and lush gardens demonstrated that it was not a fortress but a place of rest and pleasure.

Every torch in Königshaus was lit, and every household servant was present when the King and Queen entered the Great Hall, and Eleanor almost burst into laughter when she saw a huge portrait of King Andrew hanging above the mantelpiece. He was dressed in his heavy armor and sitting astride a rather concerned-looking bay warhorse that was doing its best to rear in a properly majestic manner. King Andrew's size and considerable heft, however, seemed to have given the horse, even at its own considerable size, second thoughts, because it was doing more of a 'please somebody get him off me!' type of hump-backed jump instead. The artist who had painted the portrait had apparently been given a great deal of leeway, too, because most portraits of kings showed them looking only their very best. King Andrew looked like a three pound sausage stuffed into a one-pound casing, and the portrait was hardly flattering.

She knew not to laugh, though—the subject of his overbearing grandfather was one best left alone, and she only smiled at Henry as Agnes brought little Frederick to her. "He slept very well through the whole journey, ma'am," her Mistress of the Robes told her. "Nary a peep. Alexander, however... " The little Crown Prince, excited and eager to be reunited with his parents, babbled happily when Clothilde brought him in, and Henry took him, grinning at his eldest son. "Look, Alexander, that's your great-grandfather," he said, pointing at the portrait. Alexander stared up at the picture for several moments.


"Alexander!" Eleanor scolded, struggling to keep from succumbing to giggles. The look of dismay on Henry's face was enough to keep her expression serene—she never laughed at her husband. "That's not polite."

"Horsey look... scared."

"Yes, he does," Henry said, looking a little put out for a moment, but he could never stay in a sour mood with his family around him. "Grandfather did get a bit... er... heavy in his final years. He really couldn't move about much by then, you know—he had a ghastly sore on his leg that stank to high heaven and a nasty temper to boot. And horses hated him. Or, rather, they hated having to carry him. Come along, Eleanor, let me show you upstairs. Our bedroom is vast and has a wonderful view of the sea."

After a cursory tour of the rooms upstairs and settling Alexander and her ladies into their bedrooms, she was pleased to find doors that opened out onto a wide balcony. She opened them and shivered at the cool sea breeze, and looked out at the huge moon hanging just over the glinting waves. An island could be seen, probably less than a mile away from the craggy cliff on which Königshaus sat, but she was more curious about the water. She knew she was a strong swimmer, but she wondered if Henry would even allow her anywhere near the waves.

"It's beautiful out here, isn't it?" Henry asked. She smiled at him.

"It is. It's lovely, Henry."

"Not nearly as lovely as you, sweetheart." He kissed her and gently pulled her back into the room, leaving the doors open. They climbed into bed together, having settled little Frederick's crib on her side, and made love quietly, sweetly and passionately, then fell asleep, tangled together and soothed by the sound of the sea and the cool night breeze.

Eleanor was dreaming about sheep. Their dull, vacuous expressions were disturbing to her--they had to be the stupidest animals around, after guineas, and even the scent of lanolin or roasting lamb made her stomach lurch. She woke with a gasp when one of the sheep looked at her and said, "You ought to smell us when we're wet. We can't even stand each other then!" The Queen sat up, looking around the warm room, the unsettling dream fading away. The King was already gone, likely to take care of usual state business and to inspect the grounds.

The room was painted a soft, golden color, so that even the smallest light made the room nearly glow, and each section of the wall was bordered in hand-painted ivy and tiny roses. The doors leading to the balcony were clattering in the wind, and papers on a desk across the room were fluttering, held down by a small silver paperweight. She got out of bed, stretching, unashamed of being naked, and started toward the privy doors when Henry rushed in. "Wait!" he said, startling her, and grabbed her dressing gown, helping her into it.

"Henry, please don't do that before I've managed to pee."

He grinned. "I just wanted to show you… it's your surprise, outside."

"All right, but let me pee first."

He sighed, waiting patiently as she excused herself, and she heard him talking to Frederick, who screeched happily in response to his father's deep, rumbling voice. Back in the bedroom, she pulled on her silk robe and slippers, then took the baby from her husband and rolled her eyes as he led her out onto the balcony. "Close your eyes."

"Henry, I will not close my eyes while holding a baby."

"I'll guide you, I promise. Come along. Please? Indulge me."

She closed her eyes and felt him take her arm and gently lead her onto the warming flagstones of the balcony, and she felt the warm air on her skin and smelled the fresh, salty air. He moved her a little, positioning her carefully, and finally said, "All right! Open your eyes, dearest!"

She opened her eyes and was startled to see the island she had made out in the darkness last night. On it was easily the most beautiful castle she had ever laid eyes on—even more beautiful than Ravensburg or the grand castles of the Gravonian nobles. It was built of solid whitewashed stone, brick and mortar, with numerous graceful turrets and buttresses, and glass windows glittering in the sunlight. Tall gates faced Königshaus, as did a pretty little dock and boathouse, and from the peak of each turret flew a sky-blue flag, decorated with a white dove. Climbing roses were winding their way up the walls and all over the turrets, along with innumerable other flowers. It looked like a dream castle—like something out of a fairy tale.

"It's yours, Eleanor. Yours alone, and in trust to be passed to the future Queen Consorts of Gravonia," Henry told her. "The island is called Insel der Rosen, and climbing roses will soon cover the walls of the entire castle... " He grinned at her, seeing her stunned expression. "I had them plant pink and white roses, and lots of blue clematis and other blue flowers, plus grapevines, and tons of geraniums and hydrangea, and lilacs, too, and... well, you can add whatever you like or remove what you don't like. It's yours, darling. For your use."

"But... I thought it was just a little... villa... " she said weakly, still dazzled by the castle's exquisite beauty.

"A very derelict villa," he told her, taking Frederick, who was showing early signs of a temper tantrum if he didn't get his breakfast soon. "I had it rebuilt over the past winter—I hired the finest architects and artisans in Europe to come and rebuild and refurbish the whole thing. The castle is decorated with rosewood furniture, even, and very pretty tapestries that I hope you'll like, and the finest Persian rugs and all kinds of pretty little trinkets that are more your style, I hope. Oh... what's wrong? Eleanor... "

She was wiping tears from her eyes. "Henry, this is the sweetest thing you've ever done for me... aside from giving me Alexander and Frederick."

"Oh, hell, baby, you did almost all the work there, and... you've done so much for me and for my kingdom and... and... " he shrugged modestly. "Well, I wanted to thank you. To give you something I knew, or hoped I knew, you would like. I would do anything for you, Eleanor, but I really wanted to surprise you. Do you like it?" He peered anxiously into her eyes.

"I love it, sweetheart! I've never gotten a gift like this before! Can we sail to it? Now?" She kissed him soundly, then clasped her hands together, excited to explore the island.

"After Frederick eats. He's more interested in your breasts right now than I usually am!"

Having never been aboard any kind of boat before, Eleanor was uncertain about climbing into the little sailboat, but two of Henry's gentlemen were in charge, and after being assured they were experienced sailors, she was able to sit down, holding Frederick and keeping an eye on Alexander, who was fascinated with the water.

The men bickered for a bit, arguing over the safest way to get to the little island, but soon one of them shouted "Cast off!" and they began cutting through the little waves, the men all rowing vigorously, and the little sailboat was soon pulling up to the little dock. "Um… isn't this the wrong side?" Henry asked as they neared the dock. Eleanor had no idea—she was unsure of which side was port or starboard, and 'cast off' was a term she had only ever used when removing her clothes.

It was hard to keep from laughing as the 'sailors' scrambled to get the boat into the right position. Finally, it was moored, and Eleanor was helped up onto the boards. She waited anxiously as Henry handed Alexander to a soldier, who gingerly settled the boy at her feet. Frederick soon followed, gently placed in her arms, and she smiled at her boys. "Did you like sailing, sweetie?" she asked Alexander. Frederick, at just six months, seemed to have no opinion except to indicate he was hungry again.

"Again! Again!" the Crown Prince shouted, stomping his feet and enjoying the noise he could make on the planks. "Splash, splash!"

"I'll take that as a yes."

The royal party made their way up the winding steps to the castle gates, and were greeted by a group of household servants, all of whom bowed and curtseyed to the King and Queen. Henry showed her through the castle, and she was dazzled by how utterly beautiful everything was. The winding staircase in the center of the castle was an architectural wonder, and stained glass windows created spots of color on the shining, polished marble floor in the dining room, which was surprisingly small and clearly for the family's use. The castle did not have a Great Hall, but instead the front hallway was divided into two large, elegant rooms decorated with beautiful French rosewood furniture. Upstairs, Eleanor marveled at a well-stocked library and a study with a set of desks, set side by side, for her and Henry to use. The bedrooms were large and airy, warmed by morning sunshine, and each room had a balcony that offered views of the sea. Not far away from the castle was the old Tygo lighthouse, which had withstood wild storms for over three hundred years and had also been recently repaired and refurbished, with a pretty new keeper's house settled against it. All in all, every view from every balcony was breathtaking.

The eastern side of the island featured a wide strip of sandy beach, and after lunch Eleanor and Henry walked down together, with only their sons as company. The King carried Frederick while Eleanor and Alexander explored the beach, collecting shells and examining a sea star. Finally, as the sun began to set, they spread a blanket on the beach and dined on ham, cheese and bread, chatting amiably and watching Alexander chase lizards.

"This is wonderful, Henry. The whole island is beautiful… I can't even describe it. I'll have to draw pictures of it, so I can keep it fresh in my mind when we have to leave." She smiled at him, brushing her windblown hair back. "As if I'll ever want to leave."

The King smiled, welling up with happiness. "I am the most fortunate man alive, Eleanor. Every day is a gift."

"I suppose that's why they call it the present."

Henry laughed. "Quite right!"

She picked up Frederick, who was fussing for his dinner, and began nursing him, crooning softly to him, and looked up when Henry pointed out to sea. "Look! A Morvenian ship!"

Eleanor drew in her breath. From a good distance, she could see the red flags of Morvenia, decorated with white dragons, flapping proudly from the mast of the great merchant ship, and she could almost make out men moving about on board. She closed her eyes, pushing away the frisson of pain that pierced through her conscience. She had not heard any more news about Constantine since learning of his marriage to Isabella of Navarre, and she wasn't going to ask. Not even Count von Hesse had told her anything, and she wondered if he was well. Had they had a child yet?

As if somehow he could read her mind—forbid it Almighty God, she thought later—Henry spoke again. "Prince Constantine and his wife had a daughter last November, I hear. Just a few days after Frederick was born, in fact. I can't remember the day, exactly, but… can you imagine? The Dragon, with a daughter. She'll have quite a dowry, won't she? Constantine is the greatest warrior alive today and he's as rich of Croesus." He settled back on his hands, watching the ship sail majestically by. "I've no doubt he'll have a son or two along the way. I can't imagine him tolerating anything less."

Alexander toddled to his father, clapping his hands, and the King got up, swinging the boy into the air before carrying him like a giggling sack of wheat to the tide, setting him down and letting him do some healthy splashing and screaming before time to go back to the castle. Eleanor held Frederick in her lap, his back on her thighs, and played with him, tickling him and loving the sound of his laughter and pretend-scolding him when he kicked her in the belly. At six months, he was exhibiting his own personality, proving to be as cheerful as his father, with Henry's coloring and Eleanor's own startling blue eyes.

She watched Henry playing with Alexander and knew she was contented. Things had not worked out in the way she had planned, but far too often, life had a way of happening while one made other plans, and she had adjusted to the life fate had thrown her into. She was secure in her world now—she had no reason to fear of anyone unearthing her secret. She had given her husband two strong, healthy sons and if God willed, she would give him more. She was influential in the nation's politics and Gravonia was recovering from years of poverty, waste and neglect. The royal family was immensely popular, and the nation was at peace with its neighbors, though Lacovia remained a lingering threat despite its recent wounds.

The Queen watched the Morvenian ship sail by, finally passing the craggy little peninsula that formed a natural barrier between the southern portions of both kingdoms, and let herself relax. She was on holiday, after all. Right now, for the first time since her arrival in Gravonia, she felt that perhaps she could finally rest.

When Henry returned to his wife and younger son, they were both snuggled up into the blanket, sleeping, and the King lay down beside her, persuading the Crown Prince to lie down with them. "Think of it, Sasha. How many kings do you know who sleep beside their wives, under the stars?"

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