Eleanor stood in the doorway, watching as Betsy and Harris wrapped the body of the dead princess in heavy canvas and began sewing the ends of the wrap together. She wiped her eyes, feeling sorrow for the poor dead girl and a terrible sense of failure at having been unable to help her. At least she hadn't died alone, or out in the storm, she told herself. The men traveling with her all seemed to genuinely care for her, if their expressions were anything to go by, and their prayers for her had been very sincere.
Sometimes, as Father Ulrich had said in one of his homilies, God simply says 'No'. "'He has three possible answers to every prayer – yes, no, and wait'."
Lord Devereaux had asked to speak with the Count after the princess' death, and they were in his study now. Father Ulrich, having finished with his prayers over the dead girl, took Eleanor's hands in his. "Poor child—go get some rest, little one. You look so tired."
"I'm not very tired, Father. I'm just… sad. How awful for her to die so young."
"Yes. It is terrible. Only sixteen—one of those men said her birthday was on the second of February—she was just six days older than you."
That hardly helped. Still, she kissed the chaplain's cheek and he left, counting his rosary beads, and she went back into the Great Hall, sitting down in her favorite chair and drawing her knees up, wrapping her arms around them and staring into the fire.
Snow was still falling silently outside, but the morning sky was lighter, the clouds finally their normal pearl grey. The temperature was still bitterly cold, but Eleanor liked to tell herself that the blizzards had finally ended and soon the snows would melt and the passes would clear. March would come soon and with it, Constantine. The chapel was even being cleaned and prepared, with new candles being arranged and the pews being straightened.
She finally went up to her room and found the little banner Constantine had given her, and she touched the white dragon, smiling at the very thought of him—what was he doing? Was he happy and safe? She prayed every night for his safety and good health, and for God to bless their marriage with happiness and with many healthy children—she would be the mother of the future King of Morvenia, and she wanted him and all her children to be as strong and healthy as their father.
Eleanor smiled softly, shivering a little at the memory of her lover's touch. In another month—maybe more—she would finally be his, and would know all of him. All of him. Of course, she had already seen all of him, and had been extremely impressed, but she would finally be able to touch and taste him, and to feel his body moving against her own. She knew it would be wonderful.
Betsy came to her door, knocking gently. "Eleanor, dearest, the Count would like to speak with you."
She tucked the banner under her pillow and went downstairs. She paused in the Great Hall—the dead princess' body had been laid out in a narrow wooden coffin, and she wondered where they intended to bury her. Would they take her back to Styria? She supposed that was the best thing to do, but if so, they would need to store her… somewhere… until the blizzards were gone and passes were clear.
She knocked on the Count's door, and he called for her to come in. The Count gestured for her to sit, and she did so, looking curiously at Lord Devereaux, who looked pensive.
"Eleanor, we need to talk to you about… something very important. We need you listen carefully and… and understand that we did not come to this… easily." The Count swallowed. "So please listen, all right?"
Brow furrowed, she nodded.
"Eleanor, the princess is dead and she was a vital part of the negotiations to end this ongoing war between Livonia and Gravonia. Her death means that war might very well continue, particularly if… if either country feels slighted by this very unfortunate turn of events."
"Slighted?" She shook her head, bewildered.
"The marriage must take place," Lord Devereaux said. "King Henry the third of Gravonia must marry the granddaughter of King Michael the third of Livonia. The contracts have been written, all parties have signed, and part of the dowry was even delivered last summer—a vast sum of money that King Michael was loathe to part with. The wedding has to take place if there is to be even the slightest chance of this bloody, stupid war to end."
She stared at the Count, then at Devereaux, not comprehending. Princess Eleanor was dead. There could be no wedding…
"Eleanor, I have been remiss in never… telling you about your past. Of where you come from."
"I come from Teslo," she said softly. "I was born in Teslo. My father was John Reeve, my mother was Margaret Trueblood."
"Eleanor, your mother was the daughter of King Michael the third of Livonia."
She stared at the two men, even more confused. "That is… that is impossible! You lie to me!"
"Do not speak that way to me, and I do not lie," von Hesse snapped.
She sank down into the chair, trembling. "I am not his granddaughter. My mother's father… her father was… he was…" She tried to remember. No one had ever said who Margaret's father was. The subject had simply never even come up. Tears stung her eyes and she shook her head. "No."
"Yes. Eleanor, your grandmother was Catherine Trueblood and she was… the mistress of King Michael for… some time, when he was Crown Prince, and she bore him a daughter—your mother."
"The marriage contract says that the granddaughter of King Michael is to marry King Henry," Lord Devereaux said, earning himself a sharp look from von Hesse. "You are now the only available granddaughter of the King."
"I am betrothed to Prince Constantine of Morvenia. I will marry him!" Eleanor said firmly, standing up. "How dare you say such things to me! Who do you think you are?"
"Eleanor, sit down!" von Hesse snapped, but she remained on her feet.
"I will not marry him! I am going to marry Constantine!" she rounded at the Count, furious. "This is blasphemy! I am betrothed to Constantine—it is even contracted!"
"You will… you will do as you are told," von Hesse told her, though he looked pained to even say the words. "Eleanor, you must. You must do this."
"No! I will not! I'm to marry Constantine." She burst into tears then, overwhelmed, but stood her ground just the same. "I will not marry anyone but Constantine! I will not! Please… please don't make me… "
"And allow this destructive and wasteful war to continue?" Lord Devereaux raged at her. "I have lost two sons already, and I will not lose another. Dammit, woman, you must do this. It is the only choice we have now!"
"Stop shouting at her!" von Hesse growled. "And she is not yet a woman—she is a sixteen-year old girl and you are asking her to give up… everything."
"End the war yourselves," Eleanor pleased, tears starting to flow down her cheeks. "I will not be… a… a pawn in any man's game! Please… sir… please… " she begged the Count. "Please… I cannot…"
"Go to your room, Eleanor," von Hesse said. "Go."
She fled, racing down the hall and past Betsy, who called to her, but she did not respond. She ran up the stairs to her room, slamming the door shut and scrambling into her bed, curling up under the sheets and sobbing, clinging to her pillow. It couldn't be possible—there was no way she was the king's granddaughter. They had to be lying to her. It had to be a lie, or a horrible, horrible mistake.
She pulled the banner out from her under her pillow and clutched it to her breasts, crying helplessly. She was not any king's granddaughter, and she would not marry anyone but Constantine.
She was going to marry Constantine in March. That was all there was to it. She curled up into a ball under her blankets and wept.
"You told her? You told her… all?" Betsy asked the Count, astounded.
"I had to. I had no choice. Betsy, do you really think I did it for any kind of pleasure for myself? But you and I know this is the only answer."
"I cannot believe that!" Betsy said. "Stupid men, keeping a war going over something no one can even remember any more!"
"It hardly matters now!" Lord Devereaux snapped. "Whatever the reasons for the war, it's been going on, to varying degrees, for two hundred years. It must end and Eleanor is the only way that can happen! Hostilities can finally be halted and people can go on with their lives."
"And see Eleanor so unhappy? See her miserable, married to a man she doesn't know and doesn't love?"
"It happens all the time," Lord Devereaux said, though he didn't look very convinced of the benefits of such unions for the individuals involved.
"Yes, it does, but to our poor girl? That sweet, innocent little creature, dragged off to Gravonia? Forbid it Almighty God! I've heard that King Henry is a brute—a giant, hulking… ignoramus!"
"He's not that bad," Lord Devereaux muttered. He sat down, glaring at Betsy. He had been appalled when the Count called the housekeeper into the office. He was even more appalled to hear a peasant woman arguing with a pair of noblemen. But argue she did, and forcefully. "He has his good points. He is not a brute, anyway."
"And what would those good points be, pray? He doesn't lick his plates after dinner?"
"Betsy!" von Hesse snapped.
"I will not have it!"
"Betsy, I called you in here to help us figure out how to convince Eleanor to go to Gravonia."
"Well, in that case, you've called in the wrong person!" she huffed.
"Betsy, you know this is for the best."
"Don't you give me that twaddle about some 'greater good'," she raged at the Count, ignoring Devereaux entirely now. "How is it good to deceive one man and break the heart of another? How? Tell me how!"
"King Henry will not be deceived. Eleanor is King Michael's granddaughter and… and… " von Hesse sighed, dropping his head into his hands.
"Prince Constantine will be told that Eleanor is dead… which she is." Devereaux nodded.
She stared at the two men, utterly horrified. "Despicable."
"Sensible. Rational." Devereaux glared at her. "Listen, woman. This war has to end. My two eldest sons have died already, defending Livonia, and I will not watch my wife grieve the loss of our third. I will not. This girl looks exactly like the princess—they could have been twins, for God's sake. There are no existing portraits of Princess Eleanor, but Henry knows she has dark hair and blue eyes. The only difference between them was that this Eleanor Reeve is the picture of health, and frankly, that's a gift from God now—she'll be able to tolerate the conditions and bizarre traditions of Gravonia, and she might even be able to bear Henry a son or two and put an end to the asinine civil wars that spring up in that country when there's a dispute over the succession."
Betsy glowered at the two men. "I will not be part of it. I will not. You can send me away—out into the snow itself if that's what you think is best, but I will not encourage the girl to do this! Frederick, I have loved and protected Eleanor all her life. Since she was three years old, and I know you love her, too. To hear you say you will force her…"
"I will not force her. I will convince her," von Hesse said, getting up. He held his hand up to Devereaux. "You shut up. She's my daughter and I know she'll listen to reason, once she calms down. Meanwhile… meanwhile, I'll have a gravestone carved and set up in the castle graveyard." He looked at Betsy, whose eyes filled with tears. "Eleanor Reeve is no more. She is Eleanor of Livonia now, and she will go to Gravonia and marry King Henry."
"I can't! I can't!" Eleanor shook her head, refusing to look at the Count. "You can't make me. I won't go! I'll run away!"
"Eleanor… this is your destiny."
"No! My destiny is with Constantine. It is!"
The Count sat on the edge of her bed, sighing miserably as she wept, bent over with her head on her knees. He gently touched her hair. "Dearest child… you know that I'm right. You know that our destiny chooses us, and often there is nothing we can do about it. Princess Eleanor came here for a reason—there can be no other reason for her to have… died here. Eleanor, this is God's will."
"We cannot speak for God," Eleanor whispered. "You've said it all my life—that we cannot whittle at God's end of the stick."
"Then explain why she came here, Eleanor. Explain why you and she are practically twins."
She shook her head again, drawing her knees and up bursting into tears again. "I would be deceiving everyone!" she wailed, desperate. "Everyone… Constantine… I love him. I want to marry him." She finally looked at him, her lovely blue eyes brimming with tears. "I will die yearning for him. I will die… my heart is his."
"I know, darling. I know. But your path is turning now and you must accept your destiny."
He had never seen her cry so much. She curled herself into a ball on her bed and sobbed until there were no more tears to shed, and continued to keen until he thought he would go mad. He knew this was killing her—he knew she loved Constantine. But he knew she understood, and he knew she would obey.
It was the only way.
It had taken hours. Hours of talking to her, all through the night, telling her of the rightness of the plan, and more hours of listening to her cry and refuse. She clutched Constantine's banner and wept, pleading with him to release her from this awful scheme, but he could see she was starting to accept where her path was leading her.
It was killing him, too. To watch her grieve was more than he could bear, and he finally collected her into his arms and sat down in the chair by her bed, holding her to his chest and crooning softly until her racking sobs ended and she slept, exhausted, whimpering and softly saying Constantine's name. Gently, he kissed her forehead and laid her out on her bed. "Never doubt for a moment how much I love you, Eleanor," Count von Hesse whispered. "Never doubt how much this pains me. But you will make a great Queen, child. The greatest Queen anyone has ever known." He touched her cheek. "My sweet little Goosey."
Eleanor sat in her room, dry-eyed and hollow, and refused to look out the window at the scene below. All morning, the soldiers had been digging a path through the courtyard to the western gate of the castle and to the castle's graveyard, outside the chapel. It had taken all afternoon, while the Count spoke to her, for them to dig the grave. Even now, she could hear the sound of the shovels digging into the partially frozen earth.
The princess was being buried in the little graveyard outside the chapel, and she knew that the gravestone was a lie. She could not bear to watch—as soon as the snows cleared enough, a message would be sent down to the Turon with the news that Eleanor Reeve had suddenly died of a fever. Everyone had to believe it, Devereaux said, and so she couldn't even attend her 'own' funeral.
She began to carefully fold the red Morvenian banner, working it carefully until it was the length she wanted. Satisfied, she tied around her right thigh, and vowed to never remove it until…
Until she married King Henry III of Gravonia.
Then she would hide it, but keep it on her person at all times, against her own skin. Wherever she went, for the rest of her life, Constantine would be near her, and she would be faithful to him until she drew her last breath. He would always be her love, and he would always hold her heart, even in this false death, and even as she lay with King Henry and bore his children, she would still belong to Constantine.
"I am your wife, Constantine," she whispered. "Before God, I am your wife, and as He is my witness, I will never stop loving you." She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them and stared into the fire. She had no more tears to shed. She was already beginning to feel numb inside, and prayed she could always feel this way: empty, devoid of feeling, and thus able to endure the life that now lay before her.
She had tried her best to block out the memory of her encounter with that gypsy woman by the river, but now her mind replayed that frightening scene again and again, and she remembered the woman's words: You have another path! Take it!
Eleanor hugged herself, shivering in the cold, and finally escaped from her grief into deep, exhausted sleep again.
She was composed as Lord Devereaux told Eleanor about King Henry. "He is a very large man—well over six feet tall and very… wide. Muscular, but not at all fat. He is thirty-two, and stronger than most Gravonian royals, and he's a good soldier, but his army is weak. He's not stupid, but he is not educated well and as a result he… does not learn easily, and is somewhat easily distracted. His father, Count George Falkenburg, was a fine soldier in his own right, and came from a long line of rather… wild Vikings, and Henry takes after his father. His mother was Princess Anne of Gravonia, eldest daughter of King Andrew. Anne's younger sister Cecily is currently the first lady of Gravonia, and she was married to Count Gerhard von Arklow. Their eldest son is the current, proximate heir to the throne—Count Erich von Arklow. Countess Cecily will not give up her position easily, and you must gain Henry's loyalty or she'll make your life hell."
She said nothing, listening, storing the information away carefully, for future reference.
"Gravonia is a weak nation, Eleanor. Over-taxation has led to farmers seeing no reason to plant good crops, as all their earnings are immediately confiscated by… less than scrupulous landowners and nobles and agents of the crown. Soldiers are poorly paid, a drought in the north has led many to starvation or to emigrate, and Lacovians make raids almost daily along the border country. If something is not done soon, everyone fears that at least the northern region of the country will be annexed by Lacovia."
Eleanor frowned, looking down at the map of Gravonia that Count von Hesse had produced from his collection. "And they would not be satisfied with just that," she said softly. "They would not stop there until all of Gravonia is theirs."
"You are right, ma'am, they would not be satisfied—Gravonia is currently their easiest pickings." He studied the girl, slowly coming to realize that she was far more intelligent than he had originally thought. He cleared his throat and continued. "The leading nobleman in Gravonia is the Duke of Beswick, whose mother was the sister of King Andrew. His son is George the Marquess of Rousseau, who is a leper confined to his estates in western Gravonia, and his son is Charles, Lord Beauchamp, who wants to be king."
"But von Arklow is the current heir," Eleanor lifted her head slightly, and Devereaux nodded.
"Beauchamp is known to be a rather ruthless man. He is ambitious, and he is King Henry's closest friend. von Arklow is heir, yes, but he is burdened with the most inconvenient trait a man in his position can have: he has a conscience. Thus far, he has not shown any sign of being eager to try and wrest the crown off of Henry's head, but Beauchamp… when he gets a chance, I believe he might try. von Arklow would only try if his vicious termagant of a mother pushed him hard enough. Thus far, she has been unsuccessful in that endeavor and she merely terrorizes everyone in the palace in Luvov."
"So I go to Gravonia with a dual purpose—to stop a war and keep Henry on his throne."
"Yes. You have a heavy task ahead of you, young lady. Princess Eleanor was resigned to it, but I did not believe she was up to it. She was… always very delicate, I'm sad to say. A sweet, gentle girl, for all that, but there was no way…" He shook his head. "It is unkind to speak of her thus. Do not think for a moment that we… do not believe we are relieved at this change of fortune, and I know you are not a willing… replacement. I have a little daughter, ma'am. I would not ask her to do this for all the riches in the world."
Eleanor said nothing.
She looked down at the map, running her fingers over the marks indicating the
locations of cities—the capital and largest city in Gravonia being Luvov, with
the smaller port city of Davor on the west coast, and others like Davila,
Dakov, Tirov, Merdon, Dalish, Gador, Ramrun and Arkangelis, and the fishing
village of Tygo on the coast, just miles from the Morvenian borderlands. She took note of the place marked 'Field of Stones', a canyon
near the Lacovian border, and the line showing the Tamur River, which formed
the southern border between Gravonia and Livonia before crossing into Morvenia,
turning west and joining the Anselm River, which poured into the sea.
"You will find Gravonia poor, dirty, violent and ignorant," Devereaux said. She looked up at him, startled, and he continued. "Most of the citizens are uneducated, there are no schools to be found except in Luvov and in Davor in the west, and forget any notion of universities. Only nobles can read and write. But… it does have a few interesting possibilities." He pointed to the markings on the map indicating hills in the west. "Gold has been found here, but as no one really has any notion of how to mine it, it lies almost untouched. Lord Beauchamp has tried to buy the land from King Henry, but the King… is reluctant to sell as yet. If mining could be done there… "
"Gravonia's financial situation might change," Eleanor said.
"Yes. If Gravonia expects to survive, it needs money and Henry needs heirs. The dowry you bring will help a good deal, but… " He sighed. "You may think you are just a pawn, Eleanor, but this is not the case. You are the lynchpin."
She leveled a cool stare at him, until he flinched. "I will do my best," she finally said, and stood. Devereaux rose and bowed to her.
"You need to adjust to being called 'Your Royal Highness'," he told her. "And you must adjust to having almost no privacy and following court protocols and traditions. No one is ever to know…"
"That I am a fraud," she said, gaze still cool. "First I must harden my conscience, isn't that correct?"
He frowned, surprised by the steeliness of the sixteen-year old girl, and finally nodded. She turned and left the room, back straight and chin up, and Devereaux couldn't help but think that he had never met anyone, male or female, who personified the title of 'monarch' more perfectly.
The snow began melting at the end of February, the temperatures rising quickly. Eleanor heard the ice on the river cracking, and one afternoon she saw a herd of deer moving through the Count's park near the north tower. Winter was over, spring was on the way, and she looked out to the west, toward Gravonia and accepted at last that her destiny lay there—she could not resist going where her path now led.
She felt none of the usual excitement over the arrival of spring. She only felt hollow and scrubbed raw, like a wash pot, and she forced herself to go through the motions of everyday life.
She did not cry any more, and she said little to anyone. In fact, she expressed no emotions at all. She rose each morning, ate breakfast, attended chapel, read and studied Gravonia's history until luncheon, sat alone in her room until suppertime, ate her meal with the household and the princess' retinue, bathed, and went to bed, with no deviation whatsoever from that routine. Betsy despaired at the change in her, and mourned the passing of Eleanor Reeve. She had been replaced by a cool, resolved young woman who expressed no more feeling than a statue.
With the storms past and the passes clearing, everyone had to make haste in preparing Eleanor to leave for Gravonia. The coaches the princess' retinue had been forced to leave behind in the woods were dragged out of the drifts and brought to the castle for repairs, and Eleanor spent hours being fitted into the princess' clothing. There were only a few adjustments to be made—the princess had been much thinner than Eleanor, who was already very svelte, but their heights were the same, and Eleanor had no trouble slipping into her shoes.
Indeed, she thought as she stood in front of her full-length mirror and examined herself. She was stepping into someone else's shoes in more ways than one. Just the same, she had to admit that Princess Eleanor had a marvelous collection of clothes, shoes, and jewelry. The frail princess apparently had very good taste—all her dresses were made of the finest silks, satins, brocades and velvets, and were a wide variety of different colors and styles. Her jewelry, too, was beautiful and almost as plentiful as the jewels and headpieces Count von Hesse was sending with her.
A very brief meeting had taken place in von Hesse's office, with Devereaux and the other five men in Princess Eleanor's retinue, and they all solemnly vowed to keep the secret of the princess' death and carry it with them to their graves. They would continue on to Luvov and return home to Styria, never to even tell the dead princess' family of what had happened.
The cold, calculating brutality of it all made Eleanor feel as though she might shatter into a thousand pieces. She was going to live a lie, and she had no idea how she would cope with it, much less explain herself to God on the Day of Judgment. Would He understand? Would anyone understand, and would she be forgiven? What if someone found out? What would they do to her? To her children?
Her morbid thoughts on the matter were driving her mad.
Betsy came into her room, carrying a covered tray. She set the tray on the bed and looked at Eleanor, who was wearing the princess's blue and silver dress. It had been tailored perfectly to fit Eleanor, and it was indeed exquisite—she seemed to shine in the light coming through her windows, and the diamond tiara fixed into her hair flashed.
"You must eat, dearest," Betsy said softly.
"It's 'Your Royal Highness' now, Betsy," Eleanor said softly, smoothing the front of the dress. She admired the bodice, which was made of beautiful mottled blue brocade and woven with real silver thread. "I have to get used to being called that now. Even before I… I marry… King Henry. And I am not hungry."
"You've barely eaten at all today."
"I said I am not hungry, Betsy. Please take the tray away and leave me."
"Your Royal Highness," Eleanor said firmly. She looked at the woman. "I must get used to my new title. No one can know who I am, Betsy. No one."
Betsy curtseyed and picked up the tray. She looked at the girl she had raised and loved for the past thirteen years, seeming to barely even recognize her, and left the room, closing the door behind her. Eleanor heard her weeping outside the door.
She stared at herself in the mirror and whispered, "I am no longer Eleanor Reeve. I am Princess Eleanor of Livonia. Eleanor Reeve is dead, and my destiny… " Her voice cracked and she choked. "Is in Gravonia. It is God's will." She straightened her back and regarded the cold, glittering image of someone she barely recognized either. "But Eleanor Reeve will always love Prince Constantine of Morvenia. She will always love him."