Eleanor was allowed to sit up late the day Constantine arrived at the castle, and though it frustrated her that she wasn't left alone with him, she was able to at least talk to him. The Count, Betsy and Christiane were playing some kind of card game at the table, but they were all remarkably quiet. She didn't glance at them, however much she knew they were listening to every word she said.
Seated near the fire,
she neatly folded her hands in her lap and looked at him as he sat across from
her, staring into the flames, clearly deep in thought. He was so handsome—not
at all boyish, but rugged and strong from a lifetime of warfare and constant
training. Yet he was also very kind, and not at all prideful, like many men. In
fact, she knew he was rather shy. In all, everything about him appealed to her.
"Your journey from Morvenia was uneventful?" she asked softly.
He looked at her. "Yes. Very quiet."
"No one attacked you in the woods?" she smiled, and saw his green eyes darken, and she felt as though butterflies were fluttering around in her belly.
"No, not at all."
"Though I admit I had to stop at the pool down below the castle and… uh… rest a bit. It was a long ride."
Eleanor felt her cheeks warming. "I'm sure the water was cool enough. Not too cold, though, I hope."
"It was cool enough."
She swallowed. "Would… do you remember that game we played, when you and Captain DeForet first brought me here?"
He finally smiled, his grave expression fading. "Yes, I do. I let you win, as I recall."
"Let me win?" she squeaked, feigning offense. "I daresay I soundly thrashed you!"
"Then perhaps we ought to have a rematch. I will withhold none of my considerable skills at laying siege to your castle."
"And I will withhold none of my skills at taking yours!"
Eleanor called for the blocks to be brought in, and they sat on the floor by the fire, Eleanor on her knees, Constantine stretched out on his side. She watched him build his castle, smiling as he failed again to reinforce his western walls properly. Carefully, unaware she was sticking her tongue out of the corner of her mouth, she aimed her marble at the weak side and shot it across with her thumb. The walls crumbled almost immediately and she clapped her hands, laughing in delight. "See, I have conquered you!"
"Yes. You have," he nodded, and she caught his steady gaze and blushed.
"Do not count it as any reflection on your… skills, sir," she said, lowering her voice to a whisper.
"I have other skills to compensate, you'll be happy to know," he said, his gaze dropping briefly to her mouth, and the butterflies trembled, fluttered and danced excitedly. "And in a real siege, I think I would be more successful."
"I understand you have never lost a battle or had a castle fall to an attacker."
"Not once. Even after a long siege that involved eating… uh… never mind. Except to you, of course. I yield, Eleanor, and all the prizes inside my… uh… castle are yours."
She glanced at her three guardians and saw them all watching her. The prince got up and helped her to her feet, and Christiane rose. "Eleanor, it's quite late now."
Eleanor had to bite her tongue to keep from objecting—she wanted to see if he could break the walls of her castle. She started to curtsey to the prince, but he instead took her hand and again brushed his lips against her knuckles. She forgot how to speak then, and could only nod before Christiane touched her elbow and directed her upstairs, the butterflies dancing ecstatically.
Constantine sat in the chair by the fire again, staring into the flames. Betsy cleared away the remaining dishes and left, and von Hesse took the seat opposite the prince.
"She's a lovely girl," he said quietly.
Constantine shifted uneasily in his seat. "She is," he agreed.
"I have great plans for her future, you know. She is so intelligent and growing in wisdom and stature almost daily, though she is still quite young. I see her in a very lofty position some day."
"I'm sure you do," Constantine nodded, watching the Count for some hint—some sort of clue of what the man was getting at.
"But I want her exposed to… different things. Different sorts of people. She is with the peasants enough, see, and is always perfectly well-behaved around them, being very respectful of hardworking, decent folk, and of course she has dealt with lazy good-for-nothing nobles like myself all her life, and quite well. Still, she's likely to cross paths with royal personages, like yourself, when she is married. So it's good for her to mingle a bit with your kind, don't you think?"
The prince stared at him, blinking once, twice, and three times as he tried to hide his growing confusion. "Yes, of course," he finally managed.
"So if you could spend a bit of time with her, and give her an idea of how she ought to behave, she'll be comfortable around the types of people she'll meet frequently at whatever Court she finally graces."
"What role is that, sir?" Constantine asked.
"Oh… well, something grand, I think. I could send her to Venice, perhaps… there are plenty of princes there… "
"As rare as dust, and most are about as intelligent."
The Count laughed aloud. "Quite true, but you know there are a few very worthy young men there, and even a few royal princes are skulking about Italy and Spain and even France, though I've cut off the pre-contract with the Frenchman I was considering. And then there's Denmark and Sweden and… oh, even Russia or Poland."
Constantine's fingers gripped the armrests of his chair, his nerves soaring to know she was not going to France, and then almost shattering to hear she could be sent to the icy Steppes. "Russia?"
"Can you imagine my little Eleanor in Russia?" the Count smiled.
"She'd freeze to death!" Constantine said, unable to hide his dismay.
"After a childhood in the Turon Valley? She's quite accustomed to the cold. But I agree, Russia is not really where I'd want her. A backward country, I must say, and much too far away. I would insist on being able to visit her, you know. Plus there's the language barrier—I do not speak Russian, and neither does Eleanor, though I'm sure she could pick up the necessary terms. Indeed, I must be selfish—I do want to be able to see her sometimes. On holidays and the like."
Constantine's fingers relaxed their grip, if only a little.
"I do like the notion of Denmark or Sweden. She would do well there, don't you think?"
The prince had no answer. He was feeling nauseated now. This was not going as he had thought it would. At all.
"Ah well. That's also very far away. I've the summer to decide. I've received some excellent offers, y'know, from several excellent men. One from Poland, two from Saxony, three from Italy, another entirely from France, and two from Spain. Put the word out that there's a pretty, well-educated girl with a large fortune ready for marriage and childbearing and the princes come out of the woodwork, particularly when they hear of what she's to inherit on my passing, aside from her dowry. Once they get a good look at her, too, they'll be pounding on the castle gates to try and earn her hand. And you know they will have to earn it—I won't have her carried off by anyone, pauper, prince or King. So far, of course, there's just letters expressing interest from the finest, noblest and richest houses in Europe." He leaned forward a little. "The King of Poland himself is sending an emissary in June to look at her."
Constantine wanted to throw up. "Poland."
"Yes indeed. His son is eighteen now and ready to take a wife. Granted, he's a second son, but the King of Poland wants to insure the succession as much as he can, and his eldest son and heir is somewhat... insufficient. Have you met any of the Polish royal family?"
"Neither have I, I'm afraid. I hear they're brave warriors and the Polish court is very lively, and Prince Pawel is, I hear, a very nice young man. Not a military man, but that isn't necessary, for Eleanor, I should think—he's apparently a scholar. She might prefer a peaceful man as a husband. What do you think?"
"I… don't know. You really ought to ask her… about her… her preferences. Excuse me, sir, but I really am very tired from my journey. If you don't mind, I think I'd like to go to bed."
"Oh, yes, of course, Your Highness. I apologize for keeping you up so late." The Prince got up, looking weary, and the Count stood as well and bowed, smiling cheerfully. "Sleep well, Your Royal Highness."
From halfway up the stairwell, the Count heard Constantine mutter "Bloody right I will," and then the door of the opulent guest suite banged shut. The Count sat down again and laughed for some time before scraping himself back together and going to bed.
Eleanor was startled the next morning to see Constantine and the Count standing in the Great Hall, surrounded by the staghounds. The dogs frolicked around her, delighted to receive scratches behind their ears, but they were also very vocal in their approval of her, woofing cheerfully until the Count snapped "Silence!" and they all sat down, staring not at him but at Eleanor. She was their favorite in the household, always being ready to play games of fetch and tag, besides spoiling them with treats.
"You're going hunting, sir?" she asked, feeling disappointed.
"Yes, we are, and so are you. Go get dressed and we'll be waiting in the Courtyard."
She raced upstairs, and called Christiane in to help her change into a white blouse, dark green wrap-around skirt and sturdy leather corset. The enterprising Frenchwoman suddenly snatched up tiny rosebuds from a vase of flowers and pulled them off their stems. She made Eleanor sit down at her mirror and gathered up her hair, twisting it tightly and up under a velvet, pearl-studded headpiece, then lined up the rosebuds in front of the headpiece. All in all, the result was very pretty. "Now, you look… proper."
Eleanor didn't know that she wanted to look proper, but she didn't have time to debate the matter. She hurried downstairs and out into the courtyard, where Constantine and the Count were already on their horses, the dogs milling around. She was boosted aboard Merlin by a stable boy and gathered the reins. "I take it we're hunting stag today?" she asked.
"Indeed. We're bringing along your crossbow and your longbow, of course. Which do you prefer?" the Count asked.
"The crossbow, of course, if it's to be stag," she said. Glancing at Constantine, she saw his eyebrows lift. "Do the women in the Morvenian royal household hunt, Your Highness?"
"No. Never." He studied her, intrigued. He recalled that she had gone hunting for birds and rabbits a few times when he had been a guest at the castle, but for a woman to join in a stag hunt—that was unheard of. "But I'm sure rules can be changed."
The hunting party
galloped through the Count's favorite parkland, in the northern portion of his
property near Ravensburg, and picked its way through bottomland, getting a bit
muddy but enjoying themselves just the same. They killed not a single stag,
however, and broke the hunt at noon, making a brief camp in a sunny little clearing
within earshot of the Turon River's headwaters.
Eleanor was about to dismount when Constantine came around and helped her down, and she gasped at the feeling of his hands on her waist and her own body gliding down against his, and his hands slowly slid down her waist to her thighs, whether by accident or not she didn't know. For a moment, she stared up at him, the butterflies starting to dance in her belly again, and she felt an unfamiliar, aching need.
"We've got some very nice ham, and good cheese and bread," the Count called. She was still staring up at the prince, her heart beating faster and faster and immensely glad that Merlin was blocking the Count from seeing them. "Come along, we must eat. I'm bloody well famished."
Constantine gently released her, dropping her to her feet. Had he been holding her up? She blushed and wished he would put his arms around her again, but he turned away from her, not looking at her at all. They went to where the Count had spread out a blanket and sat down, Constantine leaning back against a tree, long legs stretched out. Eleanor wished the Count would go away for a while so she could… she wasn't sure what she would do, but she wanted to do something with Constantine and it would be best the Count wasn't around to see.
They ate in silence, Eleanor too wound up to make conversation. She sat down beside the Count and felt Constantine's eyes on her throughout the meal, and the butterflies in her belly fluttered about.
The Count suddenly got up, dusting away crumbs and looking at them both with a rather strange, anxious expression on his face. "I'm going to see if I can get a rabbit or two, for tonight's meal, in case we don't get a stag. You two… stay here and rest and finish up your meals," he said, and without another word strode away, slipping into the woods and out of sight.
Constantine cleared his throat and she took a deep breath. They were alone. She had never been alone with a man in her life, save the Count, and she didn't know what to do at all. Shyly, she glanced up at him and saw he was staring at her, green eyes dark. That ache was still there, troubling and exciting her at once.
"Your Highness," she whispered. "I… um… do you like… your ham?"
He swallowed. "Yes. It's very good."
"Good. Right." She took a bite of cheese and tried to get the butterflies to stop fluttering and that aching, bewildering need to go away.
She liked the way he said her name. It sent a shimmery, shiny rill of pleasure down her spine and into her middle. Betsy hadn't said anything to her about that. "Yes?"
"Uh… have you ever left the Turon Valley?"
"No," she shook her head.
"Would you be happy to leave here? I mean… to live somewhere else?"
She blushed and looked down. "I would be obliged to live wherever my husband lives."
"I would miss home, and the Count and… and Betsy, and all, but… women must live with their husbands. Men rarely travel to live in their wives'… country."
"Would you?" she asked, looking at him.
He was not prepared for that question. He thought for a moment, knowing that whoever he married was going to have to live in Morvenia, as eventually he would be king. "I would do all I could to make my wife happy," he finally said. "I see far too many men marry and make their wives miserable by taking them away from everything they know and acting as though… as though he should be the end all and beat all of her life. Granted, a husband and wife are one flesh, but… when one is miserable and homesick, that makes an unhappy union."
"But shouldn't a woman's husband be the end all and beat all of her life?" she asked.
"I don't know, really," he said. "My parents' marriage was not happy, and part of that was because she was far from her home. Also because they were not suited to one another. That being the main reason, really."
"Where was she from?"
"She was from Vienna. She was the daughter of an Austrian prince, though not a Hapsburg."
"Oh, good. I don't know if the Hapsburg lip would look good on you."
He grinned, amused. "She found Morvenia provincial and backward, compared to Vienna, and missed her home terribly, but my father never let her visit home and she could receive no visits from her family. Not that her family was any great shakes themselves, but at least she would have been happier… I suppose." He thought about the idea of his mother being 'happy' and really couldn't imagine it. "She bore three children and we were certainly not the focus of her life, and neither was my father."
She looked puzzled. "Three? I thought it was just you and King Philip."
"We had a little sister named Joanna. She died long ago."
"Oh." She nibbled on her bread, thinking. "You and she must have been very close."
"Barely, I'm afraid. I was twelve when she was born, and I only saw her on the rare occasions I was home—she was something of a… mistake, on my parents' part. In royal households, children are often brought up in separate houses, far away from each other. Daughters not being considered essential until they're of marriageable age, so they're not generally… around as much, either, when the family gathers."
"How hideous. Even if I had only daughters, I would want them with me."
"Yes, me too," he nodded. "But in royal households babies are taken away almost at birth and fed by wet nurses and then they're tended by nurses and governesses, until they're about… six or so, and then tutors take over from there."
"Wet nurses?" Eleanor looked appalled. "That will not happen with me!" she said. "I will nurse my own babies, thank you!"
He smiled slightly. He and his siblings had been tended by wet nurses—Marie considered the very idea of a mother nursing her own children to be utterly improper. He remembered overhearing her say that babies were particularly ugly creatures, with their jerking, froglike motions, and the idea of one sucking on her perfect paps was repulsive.
"I'm sure you will be able to persuade your husband of the benefits of tending to your own children," he said diplomatically. "Do you know much about babies?"
"Betsy has told me… " She looked down and saw she had consumed her bread, and grabbed another piece. "Why would anyone want their children to grow up separated from their family and from each other? That seems very unnatural. In fact, I think it's barbaric."
He laughed, covering a small frisson of bitterness. "But very natural among royalty, I can assure you, barbaric or not." He sat back against the tree, crossing his ankles. "I remember Joanna smelled terrible and shrieked a good bit when she was little, but… she was nice as she got older, and very pretty and sweet. I always made a point of visiting her household whenever I came home, and took her presents."
"That's very kind of you," Eleanor said softly, her estimation of his character going up another degree.
"I was away when she died," Constantine said quietly, and looked in the direction the Count had gone and flexed his hands. "This is a rather gloomy subject."
"Death is part of life. That's what the Count says to me sometimes. We go from the flowering fields to dust in the wind, but our souls travel between the eternities and return to God the Father, from whence we came. Not that I… I suspect that you were any less grieved when Joanna died."
He smiled. "That's a bit deep for me… flowering fields and dust."
"You don't think you're deep?"
"I'm a soldier. Philosophy and deep thinking aren't really very practical on a battlefield. I have to think fast—it's more about natural instincts and training. I'm about the physical rather than the spiritual, though I have long been… very devoted to God—had I had younger brothers I might have even joined the Church. Just the same, I never miss Sunday Mass."
Eleanor couldn't imagine Constantine as a priest. It would not have been a fitting life for him at all. "So I'm guessing you aren't reading Seneca when the arrows are flying?"
"Only if I can use the book to stop one piercing through my skull."
She giggled. "I had to read all the philosophers, and about mathematics and history and geography, and now it's politics and economics and… he's even teaching me about how to draw up battle plans and the like… " She shook her head. "Considering I am unlikely to be in a battle, I must be armed with other weapons, I suppose." She tapped her temple. "Count von Hesse insists my mind be my weapon. He says my mind is the most superior he's ever encountered, to which I say twaddle, but one doesn't argue with him."
"I'm sure he's right, though."
"Just so… most men don't like women who are smarter than they are, do they?" She shrugged. "Men like pretty women. I like to wear pretty clothes and jewels… imagine that! A few years ago, I didn't care a whit about such things, but now I must always look my best and I love the jewels the Count gives me. But I suppose that's vanity, isn't it?"
"It's not really… vain to like pretty clothes and jewels," he told her. "It's more or less a female thing and that is no sin. And I don't mind that you're smarter than me, Eleanor. Considering one day you'll hold the strings of the chancery of some great lord's estate, a good brain will be an asset."
"So you don't care about… what a girl looks like?" she asked, looking puzzled.
"I didn't say that," he shook his head.
"Do you… do you think I'm pretty?" she asked him.
"I think you're beautiful, Eleanor."
She blushed, and his heart started pounding. When she licked her lips and sat back, corset stretching across those flawless…
He shot to his feet, suddenly feeling overheated.
"Are you all right?" she asked softly, looking up at him and suddenly all he wanted—all he would ever want, for the rest of his life—was to lie down there in the soft grass with her and make love to her. Only her. For the rest of his life, crown or not.
Dear God, he was in love. What in hell was he supposed to do now? What if the Count married her to someone else?
"I need to… uh… go for a walk. I'll be right… er… right back." He fled.
Eleanor was worried about him—he was walking rather strangely, as if he were in pain.
Count von Hesse kept a careful eye on Constantine and Eleanor as they resumed the hunt, but he had decided from the day the prince arrived at Ravensburg that he would allow them time alone together. Usually not for long, as Betsy had told him that Eleanor had asked some very pointed questions last year, but he knew he could trust her to behave properly. As for Constantine, however, he was determined to keep the young man under a tight rein—he wanted to be absolutely certain of his worthiness before approving the match.
Driving Constantine mad, however, was somewhat amusing. von Hesse was not a cruel man, but he wanted to see just how devoted he would be to Eleanor. If he truly wanted her as his bride, he was going to have to meet certain standards, and von Hesse would give no quarter on that—Eleanor wasn't going to be yoked to just any king—she deserved the cream of the crop. He was pleased to see that Constantine met most, if not all, of his criteria as a mate for his sweet girl.
The stag hunt went well, in the Count's opinion, even though they failed to get one deer. von Hesse was pleased to see that the prince was very clearly infatuated with Eleanor, but he was fully aware, from past painful experiences, that infatuation did not a good marriage make, and not even the kind of passionate, romantic love most young people hope for wouldn't bring about lasting contentment, either. As much as he wanted to see her on a consort's throne, and knew she was destined for one, he was determined to see that she was happy.
Riding home after the hunt, with a misting rain getting everyone a little damp, the Count couldn't help but feel extremely melancholy as he watched Eleanor and Constantine's interactions. The prince was going from merely infatuated to being in love, and Eleanor… God bless her beautiful, pure little soul, she was as in love as a fifteen-year old girl could be, and she was not going to be a maiden for another full year. Come next spring, when she was sixteen, she was going to be Constantine of Morvenia's wife, and one day would be Queen of Morvenia, and the mother of kings.
She was moving out of his orbit and into Constantine's. It was breaking his heart, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
In the courtyard, Eleanor waited to dismount from Merlin, and looked very pleased when Constantine came around to help her down. The Count's hands gripped his reins and he had to look away, eyes burning, as she slid slowly down, her body brushing the prince's, and blushed becomingly. Constantine, to his credit, did not touch her any more than absolutely necessary, but anyone could see his reaction to her. He was a healthy, strong twenty-five year old in need of a helpmate, and Eleanor was a breathtaking young woman, mature beyond her years. The Count could no more stop this from happening than he could stop the rise of the tides. Wearily, he dismounted from his horse.
"You two should sit by the fire and warm up," he said shortly. "Eleanor, go change, lest you catch a cold."
"Yes, sir," she said softly, bobbing respectfully. She looked at Constantine. "You ought to do the same, Constantine," she said, her voice soft and sweet, and the prince's gaze dropped to her mouth.
He nodded and followed them inside. In the receiving room, next to the Great Hall, the Count caught Constantine's fingers catching hold of the silk ribbon tied at the bottom of the back of Eleanor's corset, briefly pulling but stopping just in time as she went upstairs, completely unaware of the prince's gesture. The prince watched her, and the Count knew he was watching her backside as she smoothly ascended the staircase, an angel in green, black and white. Irritated, needing to assert his protective authority, von Hesse cleared his throat, moved to block the prince's line of vision, and restrained himself from siccing one of the goofily cheerful staghounds on the young dragon.
"The Polish envoy will be arriving before the week is over," he told Constantine. "The King of Poland has a very fine Court and if he is pleased with Eleanor, the King will make an offer, I think."
"Sir, I… "
"I'm very strongly considering the suit of Prince Pawel," he said, his voice sharp. "Very strongly." He turned and strode away to his office, slamming the door behind him.
In his office, von Hesse shed a few tears, remembering that when it was lover versus father, the lover always wins.
It was heaven.
It was hell.
He was sitting by the fire, watching her eat a peach, relishing each bite, not caring if she was getting a bit messy in the process. She took another bite, getting juice all over her chin, and she giggled a little, wiping it away with a washcloth. She was seated on the floor, knees up, and began licking her fingers before cleaning them with the cloth, too. She finally finished, throwing the pit into the fire, and sat back on her hands, closing her eyes, enjoying the warmth.
God Almighty, he had spent the past ten minutes wishing he were a peach. He wished he were every cup she drank from, too.
He looked up and was startled to see that there was no one in the room with them. Somehow, at some point, everyone had slipped out. Even the Count was gone.
She looked up at him, smiled, and gestured to the basket of peaches Betsy had brought in for dessert. "Would you like a peach?" she asked.
What is she trying to do, kill me, he thought. "Uh… no. Thank you."
"The Count's orchards are doing really well this year," she said, drawing her knees up and wrapping her arms around them, and she wiggled her toes near the fire. Her maturity was sometimes belied by her utter youthfulness—how she relished simple, feminine pleasures, and was still playful and kittenish. "Betsy is trying to make me learn how to make peach tarts, but I'm still kind of a disaster at it. Maybe one day I'll figure it out." She folded her arms across her knees and rested her chin on her forearms, then turned her head to look at him, eyes half closed. Did she know what she was doing? No… there was no way…
"I'm sure you will, if you set your mind to it," he finally said weakly.
She stared silently into the fire, lost in her thoughts. He wanted so much to sit down beside her and draw her into his arms, to let her lean back against his chest and breathe in the scent of her skin. Suddenly one of the logs in the fire cracked open, sending a shower of sparks out, and one red-orange ember hit Eleanor on the wrist. She squealed in pain, and he was immediately on his knees beside her, checking the small red mark. She looked up at him, lips parting softly as his fingers gently caressed the small, now-forgotten wound.
"Eleanor…" he whispered. "You should be more careful." Painfully, he stood up. "Playing with fire is never a good idea."
He helped her to her feet, and they stood staring at each other—she was as tall as his chin now, and in the firelight she seemed to glow, creamy white and black and gold, so beautiful it almost hurt to look at her.
"You should go to bed," he said softly.
She said nothing, and finally bowed her head, the pearls on her velvet headdress shining in the firelight. A rosebud fell out of her hair, landing on the floor, and she turned away, leaving him standing there feeling empty. When he heard her on the landing at the top of the stairs, he picked up the rosebud and twirled its short stem between his fingers.
As generally relaxing as staying at Ravensburg was, Constantine found that staying away from Eleanor was the best for his mental health, but it was still killing him.
He ate his meals with the her and the Count, and joined in the conversation, but as each day passed, he was distressed to see her becoming more and more withdrawn. She said less and less to him, but sometimes he caught her looking at him, and he knew she was confused and hurt. But it was for the best.
He had to keep telling himself that. Over and over again, like the rosary, until he wanted to pound his head on the rock walls of the castle until he could at least lose consciousness.
The Polish king's emissary arrived two days early, on a hot June day, with no one prepared. Eleanor was polite but uninterested, and made no conversation with him. The man was tall, gaunt, serious-looking and deadly boring, and when she was called into the Count's study for an interview, she was displeased to say the least. Constantine had gone hunting alone, and she was restless and frustrated. More than ever before, and she wanted to throw a tantrum, or demand that Constantine tell her what she had done that had offended him so and why he wouldn't talk to her or touch her.
The emissary, Count Stanislaus Budziszewski, was dressed in extremely fine velvets and silks, and looked as though he had never experienced anything aside from the highest form of luxury. She caught a whiff of some kind of… perfume on the man, and at first was barely able to contain her urge to start laughing. What sort of man wears perfume? Constantine didn't wear any scents—he smelled… male, like the outdoors and the wind and fires and pine trees.
"Lady Eleanor, the King of Poland is very pleased to be considering you as a possible wife for his second son the Prince Pawel."
She clenched her fists and parroted the lines Count von Hesse had drilled her to say. "I am very greatly flattered, Your Eminence."
"You are… fifteen, yes?" the Polish count asked her.
"And you have never known a man?"
"In what sense?" she asked, smiling prettily.
The Polish count looked flustered. "In the… the… " He cleared his throat. "You have never… uh… " He glanced at von Hesse, who was staring at Eleanor, trying to decide if he was pleased with her or appalled. Perhaps a mixture of the two. She was going to need a sound ticking off after this, either way, von Hesse thought, but he held his tongue.
"Oh, you mean in the Biblical sense? As in 'Adam knew his wife and she bore Cain'?"
The Pole nodded, wiping his forehead, so that Eleanor caught another whiff of his perfume. She looked at Count von Hesse, who was waiting patiently, one eyebrow raised.
"I have not known any man, sir," she said. "No man has even touched me."
"Very good… "
"But I have seen a man."
Budziszewski frowned, and both of the Count's eyebrows went up.
"Seen a man?" both men asked her at once.
"Yes. He was naked, and it was all very… impressive."
"Eleanor, when on earth did you… " the Count started.
"At the river. He was swimming, naked." She shrugged, as if it was nothing out of the ordinary.
"Who was it? Someone from the village?" von Hesse asked sharply.
"It hardly matters. I can only assume that Prince Pawel is as… um… well-developed? I think I would be very disappointed if he were not." She feigned innocent curiosity, and the Pole looked like he might actually faint.
Count Stanisaus Budziszewski climbed up into his carriage, heavy perfume hanging in the still June air, and trundled away, an expression of shock still on his face. Count von Hesse turned to look at his clever little ward and crossed his arms over his chest.
"That, young lady, was absolutely… wicked of you. You would have had great position and importance at the Polish court, and as Pawel's brother is… addled, you could have been Queen of Poland."
"I don't want to go to Poland," she said, digging her toe into the cobblestones and refusing to look at him. She had also very stubbornly refused to give him the name of the man she had seen at the river. Apparently, she had been impressed, if her blush meant anything.
"Where do you want to go?" he asked her.
Constantine rode into the courtyard on his big grey, leading a packhorse laden with two large stags behind, and looked surprised to see them. Eleanor turned and flounced inside, and Constantine dismounted. "Was that Budziszewski?"
"Yes. He left. There will be no… marriage to Pawel of Poland."
"Oh. I see."
The Count had wanted to wait, to give Constantine and Eleanor time to get to know each other, while at the same time thwarting the young man from getting too close to her, just to see if his feelings for her were genuine. But he knew he was being unfair to them both—he was going to have to let nature take its course. He snorted and turned away. Not entirely. He was still Eleanor's guardian and he would not permit her to find out all about naked men just yet. Just the same, he was going to have to give the prince the go-ahead much sooner than he had originally planned.
By this time next year, von Hesse thought as he returned to his office, his sweet girl would be married to the great Dragon of Morvenia, and would be one of the most powerful women on the Continent. He could imagine her in no other position… but saying goodbye to her would be the most excruciating experience of his life.
Summer was hot and humid, and Eleanor sometimes was tempted to go down to the swimming pool at night, but she had never gone there alone. The castle was cool inside, of course, but the humidity was harder and harder to avoid. She couldn't sleep at all at night, and felt itchy and anxious, until she wanted to just claw at her skin until all the tension in her body was finally gone and she could rest.
Constantine was making her angry, too. He wouldn't speak to her except at meals, and whenever they found themselves alone—surely something was going on there—he would excuse himself and leave the room. She couldn't stop thinking about him, though—she remembered his hand caressing her burn mark, and she had become bereft when the mark faded, and she remembered him helping her down from her horse, her body brushing against his and his hands on her thighs. Her dreams about him were clearer, too, and that made sleep a thing to be feared a little now, because in those dreams she seemed to have no self-control at all, and she would wake up in tears, half ashamed and half hoping she would fall asleep again, so she could dream about him again.
Why wouldn't he touch her?
She felt like she was drinking the air, rather than breathing it, and lay on her bed, staring up at the ceiling, listening to water dripping from one of the gutters above her window. Sighing in frustration, she got up and unlatched the window, pushing it open and breathing in the cool, moist night air. For a long time, she stood there, looking down at the courtyard, and finally couldn't bear it any more.
Grabbing her silk robe, and she put it on, wrapping it around herself, wearing nothing else but her long chemise, and opened her door, peeking anxiously into the hallway. It was empty and silent, with the only light coming from a single torch in the wall. She went to her little vanity and grabbed a ribbon, tying her hair back and up off her neck, and slipped into the hallway, closing her door without making a sound. Barefoot, she tiptoed down the stairs, past the only sentry stationed at the door—she could hear him snoring even as he stood on his feet, leaning against the doorjamb. Soundlessly, she opened the door and stepped outside.
The moon hung huge and low over the valley, and she moved quickly and quietly along the well-lit path to the edge of the woods below the lower bailey. She knew every blade of grass and stone along the deer path, so she had no trouble navigating her way down the hill to the river. She walked along the edge of the water to the craggy little outcrop that everyone used as a diving spot, where the water was almost sixty feet deep. She stood for a moment, debating, before slipping the robe off and stepping out of her chemise. She executed a graceful dive into the cool water, coming up with a grateful shudder and pushing her hair back out of her eyes.
She dove back under, enjoying the darkness under the water, and held her breath as long as she could, until her lungs were almost burning, and resurfaced, laughing at herself. She was shivering in the cool water and air, but she felt much, much better—at least some of that heady, longing burn was gone for now, and perhaps she could be able to sleep tonight. She relaxed, treading water and playfully dipping under again and again, doing flips, kicking her feet up in the air and swimming around, trying to imitate a mermaid. Finally, when she felt her skin getting pruny, she pulled herself up out of the water and sat down on the edge of the outcrop, wringing her hair out and humming softly to herself.
The sound of a twig snapping made her gasp and sit up straight, crossing her arms over her breasts, and she stared at him.
He was standing on the other side of the pool, staring at her, eyes wide and almost glowing in the silvered darkness. How long had he been there? Had he seen her? She felt her cheeks burning, but she couldn't move. If she got up, she would have to expose herself to him fully… again.
Of course he had seen her. How could he not, in such bright moonlight?
Annoyed with him, and not caring a whit if she offended him or not, she got up and shamelessly stood silent and still for several moments, letting him have a good look. Then she slowly bent and picked up her chemise and pulled it on, then wrapped herself in her robe. With one last haughty nod at him, she turned and walked back to the castle, head high and posture flawless, leaving His Royal Highness the Prince Constantine of Morvenia utterly and completely dazed.