Constantine arrived home three days after leaving Ravensburg, and was greeted cheerfully by his brother in the palace courtyard. "Tell me now, brother, did you win the hand of the fair maiden?"
"Count von Hesse has… uh… approved the match," Constantine said, trying to contain his own excitement. "I am to return to Ravensburg in March to marry Eleanor, and we'll spend about a month there on our honeymoon."
"Oh? You'll be diddling Count von Hesse's innocent little ward under his own roof?"
Constantine gave Philip a cool glare, and the King snickered. "Come on, little brother, you must let me have my fun, even at your expense. Tell me about her—all you've ever said is that she's very beautiful and extremely intelligent."
"She is beautiful, and very intelligent, and exceptionally well-educated…"
"The two don't go hand-in-hand, you know. Some of the stupidest people I know are well-educated," Philip pointed out. "Not that I dispute your assessment of her intellectual prowess. But look at most of the men on my Council—I suspect half of them can't even spell 'education'. But please, go on."
"And sweet, and gentle and kind, and she's… well, I can't stop thinking about her. She's everything I've ever wanted." He wasn't about to mention the fact that Eleanor was sexy and that her skin felt like warm silk. "I love her. Fiercely." He gave Philip a warning look, but the King of Morvenia just laughed.
"Well, there's nothing that can beat a soldier in love for folly." He invited Constantine to sit down beside him on the stone bench outside the stable doors. "But seriously, Constantine, so long as you're happy, I'll be happy for you, and I look forward to meeting my new sister-in-law. Just be warned that I intend to tease her mercilessly. I mean, she has consented to marry my little brother, so she must have a few flaws."
"I'll have to teach her how to execute a good right hook, just in case you get too cheeky," Constantine said dryly. "I'm sure she won't be the first woman to knock your block off."
Winter did not tiptoe into the Turon Valley that year. Instead, it roared in on the first of November, dumping vast amounts of snow on the valley within only a few hours. Villagers scrambled to board up their windows, livestock was taken in to shelter, and the gates of Turon were shut against the wind. Count von Hesse moved quickly to deliver food and supplies to the homes of his tenants, even as the blizzard pounded the valley, and made it back to the castle as the temperature dropped below freezing and the river began to ice over much more quickly than usual. Migrating birds bypassed the valley almost entirely, and the only sound to be heard was of the wind howling.
Eleanor was restless and nervous, worried that she had not heard of whether Constantine had made it safely home. She could only pray that he was well and that the winter would be short—the sooner he could come back to her, the better.
With nothing else to do, Eleanor gathered her trousseau and worked for hours on transcribing her mother's books into a new set of volumes to take with her to Morvenia—she wanted the Count to keep the originals at Ravensburg for safekeeping. The work was tiresome and time-consuming, but it kept her occupied, and she needed every distraction possible. Betsy and Christiane fitted her for her wedding dress, cooing around her, delighted with what they had created, and the Count opened the vaults of the castle, bringing up innumerable boxes of jewelry for Eleanor to select to take with her to her new home.
Christmas was quiet and cheerful, despite the keening sound of the wind outside, and the Count presented Eleanor with his own mother's pearl and diamond necklace and tiara, having had both items reset in silver during the summer. January blew in on a ferocious blizzard, and Eleanor despaired of winter ever leaving the valley, and the hours of boredom seemed to stretch out before her, even as she modeled new dresses Christiane and Betsy made her, and helped prepare her 'bridal suite' in the north tower of the castle.
She sat at her window, looking out at the courtyard—covered in six feet of snow and likely to reach ten feet at the rate things were going—and sighed miserably, longing for Constantine's touch. Her dreams of him were more and more vivid, and even more erotic now that she had a better understanding of where his touch could lead, and lately sleep was becoming difficult to come by. The noise of the storm, her own growing desire, and her nervousness about leaving home all combined to make her restless and even short-tempered. 'Cabin fever' was an excellent term, according to Betsy, for her emotional state. She wasn't about to tell the housekeeper what else was giving her fever.
Her sixteenth birthday was just ten days away, and she was worried that she was going to remain unmarried in March. The blizzards were dumping more and more snow into the valley, and she knew the passes in the north and the south were utterly blocked—not a single soul could get started digging through them without a break in the storms.
Christiane came into her room, carrying another box of jewels, and sat down on Eleanor's fainting couch. "So many jewels!" she said, opening the box. "Just when I think there can be no more, Harris and the Count come staggering up the steps from the vaults, carrying more! Incroyable!" She dug out small boxes of loose pearls, and dug through several small jewel-encrusted brooches, holding them up to the candlelight to watch them sparkle. "Diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires… it is a good thing you are marrying a dragon, Eleanor. He will like all your jewels, but I'm sure you will be his greatest treasure."
Eleanor blushed and laughed. "I am very grateful to the Count for his generosity… but I fear taking so much with me. There are bandits through the Turon forest, you know."
"Oui, but you will have your prince to protect you," Christiane said with a teasing smile.
"Christiane… what if he cannot come until April or… May? I'll run mad!"
"You will just have to be patient, Eleanor." She put the jewels back in the box and closed the lid. "The best things are often the best because we waited for them."
"Did you wait?"
Her curiosity about Christiane's past had been recently been peaked by how strangely the Frenchwoman and the Count were both behaving. More and more frequently, she would look up and see the Count watching Christiane, or Christiane watching the Count. Not that she had ever seen them so much as touching—not even a handshake or a brief hug and kiss on the cheek at Christmas after exchanging gifts. With her own sexual awareness growing almost daily, Eleanor was more and more attuned to how others acted, and their behavior was most curious.
"Have you ever… uh… had a man?" Eleanor asked her.
"I've had two, actually." Christiane steadily met Eleanor's surprised gaze, and nodded. "When I was sixteen I went to live with the Duc de Noailles, who was married to a very distant cousin of mine. I was to be governess to their children, and train their daughter in deportment. The Duc and I… " She looked down. "I am not proud of my affaire de cœur with him—it was adultery and a terrible betrayal. I was his mistress for almost a year, until Dulcine found out. Only her not wanting to hurt my mother kept her from saying why I was being sent back to Charost."
"Oh…" Eleanor didn't know what to think. "He… seduced you?"
"Yes. He did. Dulcine was a difficult woman and their marriage was unhappy—that is not an excuse, mind you, for my behavior or his for that matter—though I suppose she did show great compassion toward me in the end, in not revealing what I had done. I would have been packed off to a convent if it had been made known."
"You were a girl of sixteen," Eleanor pointed out.
"I admit, however, that I knew what I was doing. You will too, mon petit ouiseau, but you will be married and your husband will hardly need to seduce you."
Eleanor blushed and looked down. "It's not like I didn't want him to."
Christiane smiled. "I suppose not, but… sometimes our feelings get the better of us, and after we convince ourselves that our hearts are broken, we might do things even more irrational and utterly stupid."
"Really?" Eleanor looked at Christiane, eyebrows lifted. "You said you've had two men…"
"Yes. Shortly after I returned to Charost, Maman sent me to Siena, in Italy, to become governess to Prince Lorenzo di Manzotti, a widower. I… seduced him." She spread her hands across her lap. "I thought I loved him, I suppose, and he said he loved me, after a while, but… "
"When I discovered I was with child, he cast me out and threw me into a convent."
Eleanor was horrified. "That's hideous!"
"Yes. I gave birth to a baby son there. I named him Giacomo. He was beautiful, Eleanor. My own baby son." She smiled softly.
"Where is he?"
"He died shortly after turning two. I returned home then and my mother recommended me to come here to train you for the Count." She drew in her breath. "The birth was very difficult—I nearly died. They were surprised Giacomo lived as long as he did, but he was always very weak. The doctors in Siena told me I likely could never bear another child. So it is… it would be foolish for me to marry. So I haven't."
"But you could still be married!" Eleanor said. "You could still be happy."
"Sometimes, happiness is very elusive and sometimes it is a chimera. I learned that from Lorenzo. Sometimes you have to be content with what you have and to thank God you are even alive. See, Eleanor, the heart is not so easily broken as you think. It goes on beating, and we keep on going for all the appointed days, as it says in the Bible. I cannot say my heart is broken. A bit battered, perhaps, but I am alive and I am content with where I am."
"But… " Eleanor formed her words carefully. "I see the way the Count looks at you… and the way you look at the Count."
Christiane's cheeks turned pink. "That is nothing… "
"It is something. And you never touch each other. You never have, come to think of it."
"Do not say such things, Eleanor." Christiane stood up. "It is almost lunchtime."
"What does lunch have to do with this?" Eleanor asked, aggravated. "Christiane… answer me honestly, just the same."
The Frenchwoman braced herself.
"Was the sex… good?"
"Extremely." Christiane bowed her head and left the room. Eleanor sat on her bed and thought about Constantine for a long time, her own agile mind bringing up images of how her wedding night would be, and how it would feel. He very definitely would not need to seduce her—she would be willing and eager to lie down with him. In fact, she knew she would be dragging him into bed and tearing his clothes off. Her only small, niggling fear was that she might not please him as much as she wanted.
How she could wait until March, much less as long as May, she had no idea. But she was going to have to. There was no other man in the world for her, and never would be.
February was hell.
Her birthday dawned as the blackest winter day she had ever seen. There was no sun, the skies were dark and forbidding, and there was even lightning in the east, which alarmed everyone. Eleanor felt the cold permeate the castle despite the thick walls, and she couldn't bear to sleep in her room any more, preferring to stay in the Great Hall and sleep curled up in the big overstuffed chair by the fire.
On the morning of her birthday, she was awakened by the sound of one of the scullery maids cleaning the fireplace, and went into the warm kitchen, watching as Betsy and the cook squabbled over how to cut up a rabbit.
Betsy made Eleanor a batch of her famous sticky buns for her birthday, and the household ate a meal of rabbit stew and vegetables in the Great Hall. She felt more and more morose as she sat in the kitchen near the fire, watching the servants work and, realizing this was the last birthday she would spend at Ravensburg, perhaps forever. She would be a Morvenian come summer, and she knew Constantine would never allow her to travel to the valley during winter, when the storms could be so sudden and violent.
"You are sixteen now," Betsy said, having finished her dispute with the cook and hugging her tightly. "My poor precious baby. A woman now."
Eleanor didn't feel very much like a woman. She wanted Betsy to cuddle her and tell her a bedtime story, as she had done so often during her childhood.
Lighting flashed in the sky again, making everyone jump. The Count was even quieter than usual, and said little throughout the meal, and Christiane, too, was oddly silent. Eleanor helped clear up the dishes, over Betsy's objections, and spent a pleasant afternoon washing dishes with the servants, joking and laughing with them until evening. Not that she could really tell the time, what with the sky so dark, but she knew it was getting late and she felt weary and much older than her years as she went out into the Great Hall, searching for the Count. Finally, she made her way to the door of his study and noticed it was ajar.
"… will not send you away, if you do not wish to go," she heard the Count saying. Eleanor saw that Christiane was seated across from him.
"I do not wish to leave, Comte de Hesse," she said softly. "I… have come to love… to love living here. This feels more like a home to me than my own home in Charost."
"Then you may stay as long as you please, Mademoiselle de Melleraie. You are… very welcome here."
Eleanor watched them, noting the tension between them. The Count was in his early fifties, but still strong and handsome, with only a little silver in his hair, while Christiane was twenty-five, blonde and graceful as a doe. She sighed, shaking her head. Why would people resist being attracted to one another? There was the matter of propriety, of course, and obviously one's conscience would have to be their guide, but she didn't understand why two free people who liked each other shouldn't pursue their mutual interest to wherever it went.
People, she decided as she walked back out to the Great Hall and wrapped herself in her long blanket, are just strange. She carefully banked the fire, settled into her chair and was soon asleep, dreaming of Constantine and the wonders of being, at last, in his bed.
She could only hope that others could be as happy as she soon would be.
Eleanor's sleep was broken by the sound of loud, desperate pounding. She sat up, startled, and looked around the dark Great Hall, listening. She sat back in the chair, breathing out, her vivid and erotic dream fading away into the darkness of the room, and jerked when the pounding started again.
She heard a voice in the whirlwind—faint and frightened over the howling wind. "Please! Please! Someone please open the door!"
The wind was howling outside, and she wondered how on earth anyone could have made it to the castle gates, much less the small outer gate that gave access to castle servants. She scrambled for her long coat and her shoes, and was pulling them on when Harris came around the corner, holding a candle and looking a little aggrieved.
"Please! Please open the door or we shall die in this cold!"
Harris flung the doors open and rushed out into the small courtyard, and she followed him, not minding the cold or the snow. He dragged the thick oak gate open and was startled to see a group of people shivering in the snow. Eleanor counted six men, but saw that one was carrying someone wrapped in thick blankets. The butler stepped aside and gestured for them to come in, and the men tumbled across the courtyard and into the front hallway.
The Count appeared at the top of the stairs, wearing only his robe, and came down quickly. "Get blankets and build the fire up, Harris," he ordered his butler. "Betsy! Where is Betsy!"
"Asleep, I should imagine," Eleanor said. She looked at the castle's unexpected guests. "Where have you come from?" she asked.
"Styria," one of the men said. "We are the retinue of Princess Eleanor of Livonia. We had to leave the horses and wagons behind in the woods and walk the rest of the way—I'm sure they're being buried under that damned snow as we speak!"
Count von Hesse stared at them, bewildered. "Why are you traveling anywhere at this time of year?"
"We have been trapped in Turon for two days now. But we decided to try to get over the mountains during a break in the storm, but… we were caught in this damned blizzard—it blew into us just as we started up through the forest, and could not turn back. We were foolish, I know, to even attempt it, but… but we had decided… " He removed his hat and thick scarf, allowing himself and his companions to be moved into the Great Hall to stand close to the fire. "We had hoped to travel across the valley, as the Lacovians would not be raiding… " He looked at the man carrying what appeared to be a small person. "The Princess has taken ill."
"Where are you taking her?" von Hesse asked, watching as the man settled the princess close to the fire.
"Gravonia. She is to marry King Henry of Gravonia."
"My God, they could be twins!" one of the other men said, staring at Eleanor.
Count von Hesse looked at his ward, then at the men. "What has happened to the princess? She is ill, you say?"
"Very much so," the man carrying the princess said, settling her down in front of the fire and unwrapping her a little, uncovering her face. Count von Hesse stared down at the girl, stunned—she did indeed look almost exactly like his Eleanor. Same finely drawn face, same dark hair, same pale, smooth skin. Even the same size, though she seemed thinner and not at all as robust. In fact, she looked as though she was anything but healthy on her best day. "She has a fever. We had stayed at the inn in Turon, but we have orders to get her to Gravonia as soon as possible. I tried so hard… sir, I tried all I could to convince the King to delay… but… he wanted the wedding to happen by March. God, the stupidity of that man!"
The princess was gasping for breath, and her eyes opened briefly, but were unfocused.
"Your Highness, we are safe now. We are… good God, where are we?"
"Ravensburg Castle," von Hesse informed him. "I am Count von Hesse, and this is my daughter, Eleanor."
"Oh. Yes, I've heard of you. Thank God we managed to get here. Sir, she is… quite ill and very, very weak."
"And you are, sir?" von Hesse asked sharply.
"Count Francis Devereaux, sir. Diplomatic envoy to Gravonia."
Devereaux ran his hands through his thinning grey hair. "This marriage—this union—is to finally end the constant hostility between Livonia and Gravonia. If this marriage does not take place… " He looked down at the princess, still wrapped tightly in blankets and not moving. "This war must end, sir. It is costly… I have lost… " He shook his head. "She must survive, Count von Hesse. She must."
Eleanor dropped down on her knees beside the princess and touched her forehead, jerking her hand back in alarm. "She is burning up!" she said. "Sir, please go find my books."
"Eleanor…" the Count objected.
"We have to do something, don't we? We can't let her die, whether she's a princess or a peasant. We must try! Please, sir."
The Count left, and Eleanor ordered that the princess be unwrapped from the blankets and settled on a pallet in front of the fire. She examined her quickly, alarmed at feeling as though she was looking in a mirror. She felt the girl's hands—they were ice cold, as were her feet, and her breathing was hollow. The Count returned with her books, and Eleanor flipped through the pages until she found some of her mother's remedies for fever. She ordered Harris to begin mixing caraway, chamomile and coriander into a tea, with honey and water to make the mixture go down more easily.
The rest of the princess' retinue was helped into warm, dry clothes and settled into rooms upstairs. Only Count Devereaux remained in the Great Hall, watching as Eleanor tended to the princess. The girl finally awakened at dawn, but she was delirious and kept calling for her governess, which Eleanor found very odd—the never once called for either of her parents. Count Devereaux was grim, watching the girl, drumming his fingers on the armrest of his chair.
"She cannot die," he whispered again and again. "She cannot. This bloody war must end. It must end."
Eleanor managed to get her to drink the concoction Harris had mixed, and after a while she seemed slightly more comfortable, but only barely, and continued to call weakly for her governess.. At noon, she suddenly began vomiting before finally slipping into unconsciousness. Eleanor ordered her to be taken to the room where Constantine had recovered from his wounds. She made sure the princess was propped up in the bed, to ease her breathing, and otherwise just sat beside her, holding her hand, not wanting her to be alone.
The resemblance between herself and the princess was uncanny and even a little frightening, but she was more concerned with just seeing she was as comfortable as possible. Still, she wondered how on earth she could look so much like the King of Livonia's granddaughter.
She learned the names of the princess' retinue-Lord Grayson, Lord Wallace, Sir Philip Grainger, Sir George Steen and Sir William Greene. They were all Livonian noblemen, and apparently unfamiliar with the storms that plagued the Turon Valley. None had ever been over the mountains from Styria before, and they were all dazed by the cold and the misfortunes they had suffered. Father Ulrich was called to come and say prayers for the girl, and the men joined in, kneeling around her bed, whispering their petitions on her behalf.
"How they didn't realize how bad the storms would be, I cannot imagine," von Hesse muttered to Eleanor in the Great Hall, when she finally took a brief break to eat a little bread and cheese. "Fools, the lot of them. And King Michael… that stupid, self-centered ass, sending his poor, frail granddaughter through this valley, at this time of year, on a fool's errand—as if that sickly creature could have ended two hundred years of war and hostility between our countries!"
Eleanor said nothing—she could only go back to the room where the princess was laid out, to try to cool her fever by rubbing ice on her forehead and rubbing her hands and feet, but that became useless as well—the fever was spreading from her head to the rest of her body. Harris suggested bleeding the girl, but Margaret Trueblood's books denounced the practice as barbaric, and Eleanor would not allow it. By nightfall, Eleanor had to begin peeling blistered skin off the girl's hands and feet.
She was dying.
Lord Devereaux began to pace up and down the Great Hall, von Hesse holding his tongue about the king's foolishness at risking the poor princess' life. The other men sat at the table, miserably drinking hot tea and murmuring amongst themselves about how they would ever explain this to her grandfather the King and to her father the Crown Prince.
Eleanor came into the hall. "Gentlemen… "
Lord Devereaux stood up, a desperately hopeful expression on his face.
"I am sad to say that she is fading. There is nothing we can do now. The end is very near."
Devereaux turned away, cursing under his breath, head in his hands, before gripping the mantelpiece above the fire, shaking his head. The other men filed slowly into the room and stared at the dying princess, all bewildered and even frightened. Eleanor sat down on the bedside her, gently holding her hand as she began to wheeze, gasping for breath, the rattling sound in her throat making all the men shudder.
"That is the death rattle," Eleanor whispered. She had never heard it before, but she instinctively knew what it was. She made the sign of the Cross and asked for Father Ulrich to be called in to say Last Rites. The priest arrived a few moments later, and he stood by the bed, quietly praying. As Princess Eleanor of Livonia's short life slowly faded away, the wind ceased its howling and heavy snow began to fall.