Dragons and Doves
Sleep was impossible. There was no way any man could sleep peacefully after seeing Eleanor in the moonlight, a nude, exquisite goddess. He wished that she was Artemis, so at least her dogs would tear him apart for having spied on her. But she had just walked away from him, clearly displeased, and he had had to dive into the water, fully clothed, to cool down so he could at least walk back to the castle.
He kept telling himself that he should have left the moment he had seen her come to the edge of the pool, but he had stood there in the shadows, watching as she took off her chemise and robe and dove into the water. The snow sprite he had known from long ago was gone, replaced by an innocent little temptress who refused to leave him alone in his dreams, and the things he was doing to her in his dreams—and his fantasies—could get him thrown into von Hesse's castle dungeon.
He sat at the table in the Great Hall, head in his hands, cursing himself for his desire. God, what was wrong with him? Never before in all his life had he wanted a woman so much, and now that he had had a good look at absolute perfection, he would never want another woman again.
The problem, of course, was still the possibility that she might marry someone else. Some other man would get to touch her—to lie down with her and sleep beside her and make love to her. Vigorously. Frequently. Because God knew any man who had her would…
"Your Royal Highness, are you all right?"
He lifted his head and stared at Betsy for a moment, annoyed at having had his thoughts of Eleanor interrupted. Was it morning already? He didn't know how long he had been sitting there, but he had been determined to keep his eyes open as long a possible, because every time he closed them, the image of her standing there in the moonlight, drops of water beading on her…
"Good Lord, you're leaving waterstains on the chair!" Betsy squawked, fists on her ample hips.
He struggled to his feet. "I'm very sorry, madam." He gripped the back of the chair, trying to stay upright. When had he last managed to sleep? Three days ago? Four? Wearily running a hand through his hair, he started toward the stairs.
"Your Highness, the Count wishes to speak with you in his office."
"Oh." He shoulders sagged, and he knew he wasn't going to hold up well in any sort of interview with the Count. His nerves were a mess, he was lost in a sexual haze, and he was barely even coherent. But his host was the kind of man one never disobeyed, and good manners alone made Constantine change course and continue down the hall. Outside the door, he braced himself for dismissal from the castle, knowing he would have to go home alone and more miserable than he believed would be survivable.
He stopped at the door and realized his clothes were still soaked through. Well, that would certainly impress the Count—any man would relish having a horny idiot for a son-in-law.
Constantine screwed up his courage and rapped on the door. The Count barked for him to come in, and he stepped into the room. The Count was sitting at his huge oak desk, reading over a document, making marks on it with his quill.
"Now, Highness, please… sit… " von Hesse looked at him then, brow furrowing. "Why are you all wet?"
"I… uh… fell in the river."
"You fell into the river?"
He straightened his back, finally remembering that he was a Prince of the Blood. "No, sir. You know I do not imbibe to drunkenness."
"Good, good. Well, then, remain standing—these chairs aren't cheap." He sat back in his chair. "I believe that, as you and Eleanor appear to be good friends, I ought to inform you that I have finally selected a husband for her."
Constantine's knees buckled slightly, but he stayed on his feet. He felt as though his heart had dropped into his stomach. "I see."
"I am convinced this man is the right one for her," the Count nodded. "He is of royal blood, he is quite wealthy and will inherit vast estates, plus he is a proven soldier and a fearless man of war. Even more, he is a man of honor who would treat Eleanor gently and with great consideration for a tender-hearted, highly intelligent, spirited and very sweet girl."
"I am sure your chief concern is her happiness, sir," Constantine finally managed.
"Aye, aye, it is," the Count nodded thoughtfully. "Plus, he's not too much older than her. Your desire to see her happy commends you, sir."
"All I would ever want would be to see her happy," Constantine said, keeping his gaze at middle distance.
"What do you think would make her happy?"
"A kind husband and children and… and a home. Her own home, and plenty of books to read, and not much cooking, I think." He closed his eyes, and again saw the image of her full, firm breasts. The vision of her lovely, silky nakedness was forever burned into the backs of his eyelids, and he would never be able to get rid of that image. As if he wanted to. "I think she would be happy anywhere, so long as she had people to take care of—a family… children… "
"Would she happy if she were far away from here, do you think?"
"I think she would adjust, but she would be happier if she were within less than a two- or three-day ride from there to here."
"Very true. I'm pleased to say that I know her husband would let her visit home, and would allow her to receive visits from her family as well, and even let her family spoil their children most shamefully." The Count shuffled the papers on his desk and sat back, looking very pleased. "Now I only need to know one thing."
Constantine kept staring straight ahead, over the Count's head and finally settled his gaze on a colorful scribbled drawing of what might have been a unicorn or some kind of bird—he wasn't sure. Eleanor's name was written in the bottom corner of the drawing, in childish, blocky print, and was decorated with a pink heart and 'With love to the Count, from Eleanor on this my 6th birthday. Semper deditissimus'.
"Yes, sir," he finally said, still standing at attention, his stomach tightening as he thought of her marrying someone else. He already hated that man. He would find some excuse to make war on the man's country, he thought, and then he would invade, kill the bastard and steal her away…
"I need to know if you want her, Your Highness."
Constantine's composure slipped, his jealous rampage through some unknown country coming to a bewildered halt. He stared at the Count, unsure of what he had just heard. "What? You-… what did you say, sir?"
"Do you want her, Your Highness?" The Count drummed his fingers on the desk. "It's a simple question. Yes or no."
The prince swallowed, and he tried to speak, but momentarily couldn't remember how to form words. The Count was willing to let him have her? To take her home as his wife?
"I… I… yes. I do. I want her." He nodded. "I… need her," he said, forgetting to behave like a prince should, and frankly, he didn't care now.
The Count nodded, looking pleased. "Good. You and Eleanor will be married next March… and it would be… best, I think, if you and she would spend your… honeymoon here. I'm aware that the king's council in Morvenia refused to give you more than twenty-five days here." At Constantine's nod, he swallowed. "That's probably for the best, really. Eleanor will need to prepare for the wedding, and to gather her trousseau and all her belongings." He studied Constantine, who was trying his best to maintain regal dignity. "However, I must demand that you ask her for her own consent, of her own free will." He picked up his quill. "I know you care nothing for the gold or lands she will bring to you on your marriage, but later—if she agrees to marry you—we will discuss terms. Now… be off with you. Last I knew, she has not yet emerged from her bedroom, which is odd, but then she's fifteen now, so odd behavior is not unusual in her any more."
The Prince stood, frozen in one spot, too stunned to speak. The Count raised his eyebrows at him, and finally sighed. "You actually believe I would have given her to anyone else?"
"I… I don't… know, sir. I… you were going to send her to France first, then Poland…"
"Aye, I considered France for a bit. The Prince de Montpensier actually seemed like a good match, but I decided against it when I saw the way you were looking at her, and this summer I've seen the way she looks at you. I believe that's where we get the term 'when you were but a sparkle in your parents' eyes', eh? And I never really was considering Poland. I was merely… testing you a bit." He sat back in his chair. "And forgive me for being a little… jealous. No one likes to see their little daughter get carried away by anyone, however much he approves of the man in question."
"Oh." Constantine could hardly imagine having been a sparkle in his parents' eye. More like mutual glares.
"Call me a sentimental old fool, but Eleanor is, for all intents and purposes, my daughter… and I love her more dearly than you can even imagine. At first for… for her mother's sa-… her parents' sake, I mean, and then… she was my own child, and I will not see her bound to anyone but the very best of men, and it will grieve me far more than I can say to give her away at the wedding. You have shown yourself to be the right sort of man for her." The Count's expression became severe. "But I will say this, young man. If you ever harm her, or so much as raise your hand to her, I will hunt you down and kill you without regard to your brother's throne or even the size of your army. Be certain of that."
"She… she will be treasured. Every day, for all her life." Constantine told him firmly. "I would lay down my life for her." He drew in his breath. "Sir, I love her. With all my heart. With all that I am, or ever will be."
The Count didn't look terribly surprised. "Well, then, it sounds like we have struck a fine bargain, Your Highness." He cleared his throat. "Though I should say you're the one getting the best end of the deal."
Constantine couldn't keep from smiling. He wasn't sure he could ever stop smiling. The Count extended his hand, and he clasped it, not even wincing when the Count tried to test his strength, and they finally called it a draw—he had passed his final test, it seemed.
He felt like he could pick up his horse Amiel and carry him back to Morvenia. First, however, he had to find Eleanor.
The humidity wasn't quite so stifling any more, but Eleanor spent much of the morning hiding in her bedroom, curled up in a ball on her bed, trying to distract herself from how embarrassed she was.
In the light of day, she had to admit that her behavior last night had been appalling. She had exposed herself to him as though she was some strumpet, and worse yet, she had liked having him look at her. Had she not had some remaining vestiges of propriety, she would might well have invited him to swim across the pool to her and touch her—play with her breasts and kiss her and…
Frustrated, irritated with herself and longing to see Constantine again, she put on a simple light cotton dress, wishing she didn't always have to wear such confining bodices, and went out, slipping her shoes on at the bottom of the stairs and went outside, wincing in the bright sunlight, and wandered down to the stables. Merlin, munching oats in his stall, snuffled at her and searched her pockets for sugar cubes, and she gave him a few, murmuring to him and scratching his ears—he never let anyone but Eleanor touch his ears. Not even the Count could put a bridle on him.
She sighed, trying to form some sort of properly contrite speech to say to Constantine. The last thing she wanted to do was offend him, but oh how she wished he would talk to her again. Sighing, feeling so lonely and confused she didn't know which end was up, she turned away from Merlin and smacked into Constantine, gasping and stepping back, bumping poor Merlin's nose. The horse withdrew into his stall, offended, and retreated to a corner to sulk.
"Oh! I'm sorry, Your Highness," she said, bobbing quickly.
"Highness? I thought I was just Constantine."
"You are a prince. I ought to be more respectful." She bowed her head. "I wanted to… to apologize, too, for last night."
"You're apologizing?" he asked.
"Yes. I was… I behaved very badly. I… should behave more properly, and as you are a guest in this home and above my station, I should… "
"I am not above your station," he told her firmly. "And I'm the one who ought to apologize. I had no right to spy on you while you were swimming."
"You don't need to… wait, you were spying on me?"
"I am ashamed to say that I was. I couldn't sleep and went down to the river with a mind to take a swim and then… you were there and I should have made you aware that I was there, but I didn't and I watched you…"
She bowed her head, terribly embarrassed. "I spied on you, too."
"The day you arrived—you took a swim in the river and I saw you." She hazarded a glance up at his face, and instead of looking angry or embarrassed, his eyebrow merely lifted. She raised her head, staring up at him. "Aren't you angry at me?"
"Why would I be angry?" he asked.
"Oh." She thought about it, trying to figure out why he would be angry. "So I guess neither of us is angry."
"No. I'm certainly not. Did you have any… opinions?"
She felt her cheeks getting hot. In fact, other parts of her body were getting hot. He was standing closer to her than ever before, and she could even feel the heat from him. "I… I was just… I… had never seen… a man before."
"You've been with lots of women, though, haven't you?"
"Very few, Eleanor."
"I'm extremely picky."
"Eleanor… " He paused, and she swallowed, looking up into his green eyes and feeling the butterflies, now so frenzied they were bumping into each other, dancing in her belly. She looked at his mouth and drew in her breath. "I spoke with the Count a little while ago."
Why won't he kiss me? Please… please kiss me, she silently begged him.
"Me?" she finally managed to whisper, and his mouth was on hers, at first softly kissing her, no other part of his body touching hers, but she instinctively opened her mouth, and his tongue brushed her lower lip. She whimpered helplessly, sighing and touching his cheek, feeling the rough stubble of his jaw against her fingertips. Then his tongue was in her mouth and she was moaning, gasping against him as he slipped his arms around her waist and gently pushed her against Merlin's stall door, gently feasting on her as her arms slipped around his neck. Then he pulled away, and she almost burst into tears.
"Eleanor, we need to talk about a few things."
"What did I do?" she asked, and she couldn't stop her tears then. "What did I do that offended you so? You are angry with me, aren't you? You're angry at me for… for behaving like a… a… "
"Don't say it. You didn't. I'm not angry at you, either, Eleanor."
"What is it, then? I always thought you liked me. You even said I was pretty once…"
"I said you were beautiful, Eleanor." She drew in her breath as his thumb brushed a tear away. "And you are. Listen to me. I am not angry at you. I wanted to tell you that I talked to the Count today and… he wants me to talk to you about what we discussed."
"What did you discuss?"
"Your future. Where you'll be going next year."
Her eyes brimmed with tears. Had the Count decided to send her to Poland after all? Or France, or Saxony? She didn't want to go to either, and fear and rebellion welled up in her. She would run away, if need be, to escape such a horrible fate. The food alone in those countries would be unbearable—Poland had tripe and Saxony had sausages and saurkraut and France had people eating snails and mushrooms, apparently as some sort of national practical joke. She would starve to death. But the worst by far would be being away from Constantine, however much he didn't seem to like her any more. "Where am I going? I won't go! It's my life, isn't it? I refuse-…"
He took her hands in his, even as she wept. "Please don't cry Eleanor. It's all right, sweetheart. Eleanor, you're going to go with me. To Morvenia. That is, if you want to."
"… to let anyone—even the Count—make me marry someone I don't know. I won't… " She lifted her head, tears flowing down her cheeks. "Wh-what did you say?"
"He told me that if you gave your consent, we can marry next spring."
She stared up at him, still crying, but the reason for her tears changed as she tried to catch her breath, her mind whirling. "He said… we can… we… can marry?"
"In March, Eleanor. If you will give your consent, of your own free will. Will you marry me, Eleanor?"
"Yes." She nodded eagerly. "Yes. I will. Yes. Yes I will. Yes, Constantine. I will marry you."
He kissed her again, and she squealed when he picked up her off her feet, spinning her around. She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him, feeling his breath on her neck, and she made no objection at all when he carried her into an empty stall and settled her down on the hay, stretching out beside her. Shyness overcame her then, and she pulled away and sat back on her knees, facing him.
"The Count insists on you being a maiden when we marry," he told her quietly, gently picking a piece of straw out of her hair.
"Yes. Betsy says that, too. That I… do you think the Count had decided that already, last year? That you and I should marry?"
"I don't know," he told her. "But I'm very glad he did today."
She smiled, and shivered when he touched her cheek. "Constantine… do you love me?"
"Yes, baby. I do. With my whole heart." He looked down, a little embarrassed, but his words were heartfelt. "My heart is yours. Always."
"I love you," she told him, and pressed her forehead to his, breathing in his maleness. He was so masculine—so hard and muscular compared to her own soft femininity. "With my whole heart, too. I'm yours… always." She giggled. "No one has called me 'baby' since I was a baby!"
"What would you rather I call you? Has anyone ever called you Ellie?"
"Only once," she said, and he laughed. "I don't mind 'Baby', though," she whispered, desperately wanting him to kiss her again.
He grinned and pulled her to him, a little more ardently, and she met him halfway, eager for his kiss, sighing into his mouth and doing a little shy exploring of her own. She squealed and giggled when his hand explored, too, and sighed, feeling she was melting when he cupped her breast through her bodice, his thumb moving slowly over the top curve. "That makes me feel… funny," she whispered between breathless kisses, wanting so much to rub her body against his until the ache was finally soothed.
"You want to laugh?"
"No. No. I just… I just wish it was March."
Eleanor danced Christiane around her bedroom, unable to contain her joy. "I'm to go to Morvenia next spring!" she said, laughing. "I'm going to marry Constantine here at the castle and go with him to Garon. I'm going to be a princess!"
Christiane joined in her laughter, delighting in seeing the girl so radiantly happy. All the girl's sadness, restlessness and confusion of the past several days was gone—now there was just life and unfettered delight, her blue eyes sparkling with merriment. "Not just a princess, Eleanor. One day you will be a Queen. Our little Eleanor, Queen of Morvenia! Sur votre tête sera une couronne, mais votre gloire sera l'amour de votre mari."
The young girl smiled, hugging herself as she thought about what that would be like. Then she shook off whatever trepidations that her glimpse into the future brought. "If the winter isn't too bad and the passes clear, Constantine would be able to be here by the middle of March, Christiane." She sat down on her fainting couch and looked around the room. "I want to wear a white wedding dress, with orange blossoms in my hair, and a bouquet of violets and roses… do you think we can go to Turon and see if we can find some proper material? Would you be willing to make the dress? Please?"
"Of course I can," Christiane said with a laugh. "I would be honored to make you the prettiest dress ever seen."
Eleanor smiled gratefully and squeezed Christiane's hands. "And I'd like lots of flowers in the chapel, too, and of course Father Ulrich must perform the service, even if Constantine ends up having to bring a Morvenian priest with him. Though I don't think he would—he said that as we'll be marrying at my home, we should have only family and good friends here, and my own priest, and if need be we can do a ceremony in Garon, too." She paused. "Will you be my maid of honor, Christiane?"
"Oh, so I must make the dress and be the bridesmaid, too? That is a bit much," she teased.
Eleanor giggled. "It's going to be a beautiful service, so of course you must be part of it, Christiane. I'll have candles, too, and rose petals on the floor going up to the altar, and only a little choir and hymns, and readings from the Scriptures—that's important, I think, as it's a solemn occasion, too. Constantine said he is going to try and buy some land outside Garon, where he'll build us our own home. I told him I want lots of bedrooms, because I want to have lots of children, and d'you know, he said he didn't want to have a baby too soon, and we'd stop at four or five, because he doesn't want me 'worn down with childbearing'. Most men want lots of babies."
"So long as you give him at least two sons, he will be pleased enough," Christiane said with a smile. "And even if you only have daughters, he'll still be pleased with you. I can see he adores you, and you are very clearly in love."
"I do love him," Eleanor sighed, and fell back onto the cushions. "I love him so much. He's so strong and brave and kind and… and… " She leaned forward and whispered confidentially. "I saw him naked once."
"I did. I saw him. He was at the river, and I saw him. Betsy told me about what men… look like, and apparently she's never seen a man like Constantine, because there aren't words to describe what he looks like, Christiane. He's… oh, he's… mmm… " She sighed dreamily.
"You mean… " Christiane's eyebrows lifted.
"Let's just say the Count's new stallion from Arabia would be so jealous!"
The Frenchwoman and the young girl both fell silent, Eleanor remembering and Christiane smiling softly, her own sweet, heartbreaking experiences coming back to her. She looked at Eleanor, and they both burst into laughter.
"So she said yes?" the Count asked.
Constantine was sitting with him at the table in the Great Hall, and they were sharing glasses of rich, potent Spanish wine.
"She did. She and Christiane are apparently upstairs, planning quite the to-do for the wedding."
"Aye, women do that. I will pay for whatever type of service Eleanor wants, and the flowers and materials and so, and a great feast afterward…" he paused, looking at his future son-in-law. He doubted the bride and groom would stay around for the celebrations after the wedding. They would go upstairs, most likely, and Constantine would be deflowering her. His poor, sweet little angel… who would be there to comfort her after? His eyes filled with tears, and he hiccupped.
"She might get carried away," Constantine said dryly. She had gotten a little carried away in the barn, and only his respect for her innocence had kept him from getting a bit over-excited, too.
"Let her," the Count shrugged, feeling utterly bereft. "I will spare her nothing." He looked around the Great Hall, his expression increasingly gloomy. "Nothing at all. I would give her half my… my kingdom! Let us go sit by the fire. It's getting cold here." He got up and staggered a bit, and Constantine caught his arm and carefully led him to his chair by the fire. He sat down and looked at the young prince, knowing he was being foolish for feeling so sad. "She was always so remarkable, Constantine."
"Yes, that's very true," Constantine said, swirling the wine in his cup. Just this morning he had been wishing he were the cup Eleanor drank from. In March, he would be. The very though of it made him ache with desire, but now that was tempered by the fact that she would soon be his. His. And he would be hers. He only needed to be patient. Having to leave for Morvenia in just a few days was going to be hard to do, but he knew he had to go—the Council had not been thrilled with Constantine—the Heir Presumptive, after all—traveling to another country just to visit someone's castle, and he was going to have to get their approval to marry a Livonian. Of course, once Philip gave his consent they would have to follow suit, whether they liked it or not.
Mother was going to be another issue all together. If she ever learned that Eleanor was only a peasant and the daughter of the bastard of King Michael of Livonia, she would probably go into a sanctimonious rage. Well, that would be her problem, and if she didn't want to know her grandchildren, that would be her own fault.
The Count began to regale Constantine with all the amazing things Eleanor had done as a child. How easily she picked up languages and mathematics and history and literature and could now easily read Greek and Hebrew. All the sweet, charming things she had said and done, and how she loved violets and horses and the color of sky blue and was temperamental and could be so stubborn and knew her own mind and was so compassionate and could do cartwheels along the whole length of the Great Hall and so on. He listened, knowing the poor man was suffering immensely, and that he would have to do some comforting of Eleanor, too, when the time came for him to take her away to his home.
"Pray you never have daughters, Constantine," von Hesse said, his speech slurring a little. "It's easy to part with sons—that's the way things go. But daughters… the pain of their leaving your home is the worst you will… hup… ever know." He tossed back the rest of his wine. "I sh' go to bed."
"Very probably, sir. I don't think you're much for Spanish wine."
"You'll take go' care of my baby girl, won' you?" He blinked owlishly at Constantine.
"You can give her hand to me with no fears for her health and happiness, sir."
"Go'. Caush if you don', I will… will ki' you. The best sh...shent hounds won' fi' your body."
"Quite right, sir. So I will avoid being killed by you by being good to her."
The Count refused Constantine's help in going up the stairs to his room. The Prince waited at the landing, and was concerned when he heard a crash in the dark hallway, but finally he heard the door open and close, and finally the Great Hall was silent again, save the crackling fire. He sat down again, and he was not surprised when Eleanor slipped into the chair opposite and smiled at him. She was wearing her chemise and robe—the same clothes she had worn at the river last night.
"Hello," she said softly.
She seemed to shiver a little, and he raised an eyebrow. "Are you cold?"
"I'm freezing!" she said breathlessly.
"Come here then."
She sat down across his lap, knees over the armrest of the chair, and he gently kissed her. Her audacity surprised and aroused him as she took his hand and guided it under her chemise, craving his touch, looking boldly into his eyes as he gently fondled her. Her skin was warm and soft, except for the hard crest of her breast, and he palmed the sweet, soft mound, finding it fit perfectly into his hand. He slowly caressed her as she sighed, her head falling back as she arched, whispering his name. He pushed the robe open and pulled her chemise down, gazing at her beautiful breasts. Her arms wreathed around his neck and she kissed him, her tongue mating with his, and he held her close, making love to her mouth, letting her feel his desire, but no more. He would go no further—she would be a maiden on her wedding night, even if it killed him.
It very likely would, but oh what a wonderful way to die.
"I love you," he whispered. "Until I draw my last breath, Eleanor, I love you."
He was leaving.
The summer had gone by too fast after they were officially betrothed. It seemed like every day only lasted a few moments, and however much they tried to snatch time alone together, it wasn't enough for either of them. Still, they spent hours together, talking. They discussed favorite and hated foods, debated theological matters, went riding alone through the woods, and at night they played Siege, with her usually breaking down the walls of his castles and him feigning petulance. It was only at night, when the household slept, that she would slip downstairs to the Great Hall to sit with him by the fire for long sessions of kisses and caresses. He maintained a great deal of restraint, never touching her below her breasts, which frustrated and pleased her at once—he was respectful even when his eyes were glowing with passion.
She was beginning to understand her own power.
Still, the last thing she needed, before her wedding, was any hint of scandal. To waddle down the aisle on their wedding day was out of the question, and would be a terrible embarrassment to the Count and to Betsy and Christiane. Not to mention a sin against God, Eleanor thought, watching her beloved prepare to leave her. The marriage bed is undefiled. On their wedding night, she wasn't going to allow Constantine to be restrained, and she intended to leave her home with his child already in her womb.
Eleanor was very quiet, standing in the courtyard, watching her fiancé prepare a packhorse. The rest of the household was with her, the Count talking quietly with Constantine as he checked Amiel's saddle. Finally, all seemed to be ready and he shook hands with the Count and said a few words to Betsy before he finally approached Eleanor.
She felt as though part of her soul was being torn away, and there was nothing she could do about it—he had to go home. The Count had wanted him to stay all summer, but the Morvenian Royal Council had considered themselves very generous in the days they had given him to spend in Livonia. The heir to throne of any country was supposed to be home as much as possible, she knew, but however much she understood his duty, her heart was throwing a tantrum at being separated from him.
Finally, he took her hands in his and looked into her eyes. She didn't even look at the gathering of her family and servants on the cobblestones, not caring what they saw or heard.
"Promise me." she whispered softly. "Promise me that if I'm ever in trouble and I call you to come to me, you will come."
"Hell itself won't stop me from getting to you, Eleanor, when you call me. I will not stop until I am at your side again."
She drew a shuddering breath. "You are formidable, aren't you?"
"They don't call me the Dragon for nothing," he said, smiling at her, but he looked more like a wolf than a dragon then, and that sent a shiver of excitement down her spine.
"And what will they call me? When I come to Morvenia, I mean?"
"Princess Constantine, at first, and then you'll be called Your Majesty… some day, far in the future. We'll have many years before you need to worry about wearing a heavy gilded hat." He brushed a lock of her hair away from her cheek. "I was thinking about that. Queens often have their own heraldic symbols and badges. Mother's is a falcon wearing a crown, and I never thought it suited her. Maybe yours should be a dove."
"A dove." She smiled, liking the idea.
"A dove, holding an olive branch in one foot, and a dagger in the other. To honor your father." He glanced at the Count, who did not look offended. "That would be very fitting, as you're the daughter of a great swordsman."
She thought carefully, then looked up at him. "Count von Hesse selected my motto: Pax in virtute—Peace through strength—when he adopted me."
"That does suit you." He stepped back from her, and she immediately felt cold and lonely. "I'll have the Court herald make the emblem for you and I'll bring it as a wedding present for you. What will be your colors?"
"Sky blue and white," she said.
"A white dove, then, against a blue shield." He took her hand and kissed her knuckles, making her tremble again.
"What is your emblem?" she asked, not wanting to let go of him yet. She never wanted to let go of him.
"A dragon, of course," he said, grinning at her. "It's also the symbol of Morvenia."
"A white dragon against red," she whispered.
He turned away suddenly and dug in his saddlebag until he found a small red Morvenian banner. He handed it to her, and she looked down at it, touching the white dragon with her fingers. "I suppose a butterfly really wouldn't suit you."
"I don't think it would. It's hard to intimidate your enemies with a butterfly on your shield."
"I'm going to miss you so much," she said, tears blurring her vision. "I don't know what I'm to do until March."
"I'm sure you'll have plenty to do. There's your trousseau and the wedding to arrange… "
"The storms will keep me confined indoors," she said miserably.
"You'll be all right, Eleanor. We'll be together again soon." He kissed her quickly, and glanced at the Count and Betsy, both of whom looked away, pretending they hadn't seen it. He squeezed her hands in his. "Goodbye, Eleanor. I will come back to you."
"I know." She smiled, trying not to burst into tears. "I love you."
"I love you."
He swung astride Amiel, snatched up the lead on his packhorse, and rode out through the gates and down the carriageway. Eleanor watched him until he finally was out of sight, and only then did she break down and cry, cradled in Betsy's arms, the woman crooning gently. "Poor little thing," she said gently, stroking her hair. "He'll be back, dearest. You can depend upon it—that is a man who keeps his promises, and neither heaven nor hell will keep him away from you."