The Queen of the May

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Sights Along the Way

She looked incredibly serene.

To the point of death, actually, Christiane thought grimly as she watched Eleanor come down the stairs for the last time. The girl was the picture of regal dignity, and in the past week had gone from a cheerful, happy young woman in love and eagerly awaiting marriage to this cool, self-contained paragon. She looked every inch a queen, to Christiane, but she could see the bleakness in the girl's eyes—that was something Eleanor simply could not hide. She was far too honest a person, and far too open with her feelings, to completely cover her misery.

Stopping on the steps into the courtyard, Eleanor looked around at the castle servants, her gaze settling on Betsy and Christiane and finally on the Count. Christiane winced then, when she saw the ice finally crack and Eleanor's eyes began to brim with tears.

"I will never see any of you again," Eleanor whispered, the enormity of the situation suddenly seeming to hit her. "How am I to endure?"

"You'll see us again," Count von Hesse said. "Somehow, I will try to come and see you… and you will endure, Eleanor. You did not survive Teslo and come to live with me… with us… without a purpose."

Was that purpose to have her so miserable, Christiane wondered. Was that her raison d'être: to fall in love with one man and marry another?

Eleanor, until then so composed, embraced the Count and cried on his shoulder, then straightened, looking up at him, pure terror on her face. "I cannot do this, sir. I… I can't. I'm a nobody. A nobody can't become a Queen… not like this. At least in Morvenia they knew… or Constantine knew… "

"You are not nobody, Eleanor. Stop saying such things."

"Just because I'm a king's granddaughter… that isn't much," she said, wiping her eyes and bowing her head. "The king doesn't even know I exist! I'm nobody."

von Hesse took her hands in his. "Look at me, Goosey," he said sternly.

She finally lifted her face to him, tears streaming down her face. She even cries beautifully, Christiane thought sadly. King Henry is going to adore her, whether he's a hulking brute or not. Once he had this beautiful, ethereal creature in his bed, Christiane doubted the King of Gravonia would even look at another woman.

"Do you remember the story of Moses, sweetheart?"

"Of course I do," she said softly.

"Tell me… you remember what he was for the first forty years of his life?"

"He… he was raised as the son of Pharaoh's daughter."

"Exactly. He was raised as the grandson of the Pharaoh of Egypt. He was possibly even in line to the throne—he could have been the ruler of the most powerful nation in the world at that time. He was somebody, Eleanor. He was important and powerful. But one day he killed a man for abusing one of his own people and he had to flee from Egypt. So he spent the next forty years of his life wandering in the desert, herding sheep and learning he was nobody. Then one day God called him from the burning bush and told him to go back to Egypt and free his people. Moses said he couldn't do it, because he believed he was nobody. But God strengthened him and… and Moses spent the next forty years of his life finding out what God can do with a nobody. Eleanor, he is regarded as perhaps the greatest leader mankind has ever known, and he was nobody to the world. Do not tell me again that you are nobody—never will I tolerate hearing those words from you again. You can do this. You will."

She burst into tears then, her reserve gone, and she clung to him, sobbing like a child against his chest. He held her there a long time, crooning to her and stroking her hair until she regained some semblance of her composure again. She wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands, just as she had always done as a child, and struggled to rein her nerves back together. "I will do my best. I will do what I can."

"Yes, I know you will, Goosey. You have never failed at anything in your whole life." He kissed her cheeks. "You are my greatest accomplishment, and no father could be prouder of his child."

"I know I was so much trouble…"

"Trouble? Eleanor, you have been the greatest blessing in my life and you will always be my sweet, darling girl and I am going to miss you… horribly."

Her composure slipped again and she cried helplessly again as he hugged her and finally handed her over to Betsy, who clutched her in her arms and patted her back, trying to soothe her.

"Do not be afraid. Never be afraid, Eleanor. God is with you—you will never be alone." She lifted the girl's head and looked into her eyes. "A life lived in fear is no life at all. Do not be afraid—this will be difficult, but I know you will succeed, Eleanor. I know you will."

She kissed the girl's cheeks and forehead and hugged her again, until Eleanor began to gasp for breath. Betsy released her again and covered her face with kisses. "My poor baby! My poor innocent baby! My little lamb!" and clutched Eleanor to her breast, wailing pitifully. Count von Hesse finally had to pull Eleanor away from Betsy, as she couldn't breathe and was starting to struggle a bit. The girl had stopped crying and was fighting laughter, becoming a little hysterical herself. Betsy covered her own flushed face with her apron and wept, inconsolable, with Harris patting her on the shoulder. Eleanor kissed the butler's cheek, and he blushed like the confirmed old bachelor he was.

Christiane embraced Eleanor warmly, glancing over her shoulder at Count von Hesse, whose cheeks reddened slightly as he looked down. They had discussed what Eleanor needed to know last night, while she had gently massaged his back, trying to soothe away his tension and his sorrow. No one—so far—knew that Christiane was sharing the Count's bed, but she was not at all ashamed to be his lover. For now, he wanted to keep their relationship a secret, and she understood his reasons. He seemed to be a little embarrassed to be sleeping with a twenty-five year old woman at his age, but it had been Christiane who had gone to his room five nights ago and had given herself to him—willingly and eagerly. Considering how much she enjoyed his considerable lovemaking skills, she wished she had someone to talk to about him.

The Frenchwoman pulled Eleanor away from the group, glancing at the men milling around on horseback by the carriage. She held the girl's hands and looked her in the eye. "Eleanor, I know that you will pine for your Constantine for some time, and I will not say you are foolish to do that. It means you are human and that you are in love. There is never anything wrong with loving someone, in whatever way God's law will permit. But in a few days, Eleanor, you will be married to another man. You will share his bed, and you will have to have sex with him."

Eleanor swallowed and she squeezed her eyes shut. Christiane felt great sympathy for the girl, but there was no escaping the reality of what was to happen. If Gravonia's king was to beget heirs, he would have to beget them through this slender, heartbreakingly beautiful woman-child.

"I know Betsy told you that sex is nothing to be ashamed of, and can be enjoyed, oui?"

Eleanor glanced over Christiane's shoulder at the still-weeping Betsy, who was now being comforted by the cook. All the servants were in tears. Even the cook, who hadn't even cried when he had accidentally lopped off his right pinkie, was sobbing now.

"You must find a way to enjoy your physical relationship with Henry. If you do not, Eleanor, or if you are cold toward him, he will seek his pleasure elsewhere, and that means you will find yourself isolated in a country where you are already a stranger. You must gain his loyalty, his love, and his passion. If not… your life will be hell in Gravonia."

"I know," Eleanor whispered, but she was trembling.

"With a body like yours, I doubt he will have much trouble lusting after you at first, but then there must be substance, Eleanor, after the babies start coming. You must be an ideal wife to him, and that will mean… that will require regular sex. Frequent sex, that is. If he's the kind of man they say he is, he is very passionate and very… uh… "

"Large?" Eleanor whispered, eyes widening.

"Well, a man's body size is not always proportional to the size of his… um… machine. But he's a large man, and very muscular, they say, and very active and energetic, so I suspect he's that way in bed, too. Do not be ashamed if you find pleasure in the act with him, is what I mean. I would encourage you to enjoy that side of your marriage. Do not close your heart to your husband, Eleanor, any more than you should close your legs to him, and you must try to be his friend outside the bedroom, too. This is not some sort of marriage of convenience, where you can ignore each other except during public appearances. This marriage must produce children and must bring peace between two countries. Both require a certain degree of… devotion. If you can win his love and fidelity, you will have far greater success in Gravonia, and perhaps even some degree of happiness and contentment. If you give him sons, you will earn the adoration of the people, too."

"But what if I don't like him? What if… what if I find him repulsive, or he's stupid or… what if he's violent or cruel?" Such morbid, sickening thoughts had come to her every night while she tried to sleep. What if King Henry was fat or overly skinny or had bad breath or was gassy or was pasty-skinned and narrow-chested and had greasy hair? She knew one thing: he would be nowhere near as beautiful as Constantine.

"Then the Count will come and kill him," Christiane said dryly. "But only if he's violent or cruel. Repulsiveness and stupidity are not offenses that require a man to be killed by overprotective fathers. If he's ugly or stupid, you must do what many women are forced to do: blow out the candles, close your eyes and think of…" she paused. "If necessary, I suppose you could think of Constantine, but that would be adultery, so perhaps you should think of Livonia."

Eleanor didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She did know that she wanted to run up to her room, crawl under the blankets and cry and then scream and then laugh and God knew what else. But her blankets were no longer on the bed—they had all been packed in with the princess' other belongings. All her personal belongings, including six of her father's swords and several of his daggers, her copies of her mother's books and her own jewelry and clothes, had been packed in the wagons that would follow her to Luvov. Also, ready for use during the two-day journey, was the thick, warm blue quilt her mother had wrapped around her thirteen years ago.

So this is what panic feels like, she thought. "I'm so scared," Eleanor finally whispered. Christiane kissed her cheeks and hugged her, hating to part with her, but she had great confidence in the girl.

"You'll be fine." She smiled at Eleanor. "You will survive. That is what you are, Eleanor: a survivor, and God has brought you here, for this purpose. You will bring Gravonia forward into modern times, out of poverty and ignorance and your husband will praise you for it every day. Believe it, mon petite oiseau, and it will be."

Final hugs and kisses were given, and Eleanor saw tears in the Count's eyes, and Betsy wouldn't stop crying, even when Cook offered to make blintzes, which he hated. She finally allowed Lord Devereaux to help her into the coach, and she sat down on the thickly cushioned seat, swallowing, shivering with fear. She looked out the window at the family and the castle she had known all her life and shuddered when she heard the driver release the brake and urge the horses to walk. She sat back, unable to bear looking at them all again, and rode in silence through the gates, taking the path from the gate to the narrow trail that would lead down to the only road from Ravensburg that would take her west to Gravonia.

Behind her, she heard the gates being closed, and she closed her eyes, letting her tears flow unchecked, and wrapped the quilt around herself, sobbing helplessly, not caring if the men riding alongside the coach heard her. Right now, she cared about nothing at all but finding some way to make the pain stop.

At some point during the journey away from Ravensburg and down the winding road, she fell asleep, having run out of tears for now. She dreamed of Constantine—he was on a pale warhorse, riding toward her at great speed, but he wasn't slowing down as he approached her, and he was raising his sword, pointing it at her. She saw the furious glint in his green eyes as he turned into a red dragon with a white scar across his chest. Fire began to shoot from his mouth as he sped toward her, and she heard a loud, furious roaring as he came closer. She woke with a small shriek of terror, sitting up and looking around, smelling the smoke. The coach had stopped, and she started to part the curtain of the coach door when Lord Devereaux suddenly yanked the door open.

"Your Royal Highness, we are at the Gravonian border."

Who on earth is he talk—oh. Right. Eleanor straightened her clothes a little, trying to regain her composure after such a disturbing dream. "Are we?"

"Yes. You must come out and be… er… received by some of the ladies of your court, and… uh… bathe."

"Bathe?" She stared at him, bewildered. "What are you talking about? I bathed last night."

He held his hand out to her, and she allowed him to assist her out of the carriage. She stood for a moment, looking at a group of women standing near a large black and gold striped tent. Devereaux gestured for her to go ahead, and she walked carefully down the little slope and stood before the women.

There were five of them, all in their mid-twenties. Eleanor was slightly alarmed by their atrocious clothes and generally unhealthy appearance. She wondered, briefly, if this was some sort of joke. But the women all curtseyed to her while also studying her with a mixture of curiosity and unease

"I am Lady Agnes, your Mistress of the Wardrobe," one of them said, straightening. "This is Lady Harriet, Mistress of the Queen's Bedchamber." She pointed to a stick-thin woman with a narrow face and searching eyes. "Also here is Lady Matilda, your first lady-in-waiting; Lady Inga, your second lady-in-waiting and finally Lady Agatha, your third lady-in-waiting." Agnes smiled, showing she at least had all her teeth. "I will be in charge of your clothes, of course, and Lady Harriet will be in charge of your… private matters, and then she will be in charge of the royal children… when you start to have them."

Bloody right she will be, Eleanor thought, looking at the cold-looking Lady Harriet, but smiled graciously at them all. "I am very pleased to meet you all," she said. "I hope your journey from Luvov was comfortable."

"It was not," Lady Inga said, and squeaked when Lady Agatha kicked her ankle. "Well it wasn't!"

"Hush!" Lady Agnes said, glaring at the two other women. "I do apologize, Your Royal Highness. The roads are very bad in Gravonia."

"I see. Well… I'm sure I will greatly enjoy seeing Gravonia for the first time, and you must point out any… sights of note along the way."

"We will, Your Royal Highness," Lady Agnes said with an ingratiating smile, and then brightened. "We'll be passing the cheese!"

"Oh how love—I mea—… I'm sorry, what?" Eleanor said, momentarily taken aback.

"The giant wheel of cheese. They make one every year in Ullan. It's very interesting," Lady Agnes explained, looking rather pleased with herself. "I was born in Ullan."

"I'm sure it's a charming… town," Eleanor said, trying to figure out how a giant wheel of cheese could prove to be any kind of attraction.

"The whole town smells like feet and sour milk," Lady Agatha said, looking disgusted.

Eleanor wondered if there was a way to politely decline a visit to Ullan.

Lady Agnes seemed to sense that things were getting out of hand and drew herself up to her full height and became brisk. "Anyway, Your Royal Highness, we are here at the border and we must follow the old tradition of the border bath."

Eleanor closed her eyes briefly, and finally opened them, wondering if perhaps she was dreaming this whole bizarre scene. The five women curtseyed low to her and after a moment of bewilderment, she finally walked on up to the door of the tent. A pair of weedy-looking soldiers stood guard at the tent flap, and one finally pulled it back for her. Lady Agnes came rushing up, and went into the tent ahead of Eleanor.

Once her eyes adjusted to the murky room, she saw that a white line had been painted across the tent floor (which was merely bare dirt covered with rather worn-looking hookrugs), and on the line was a large washtub. Two men were filling it with steaming water, and she caught a leering look from one of them. The other, however, seemed to be more of a gentleman, because once their task was completed he grabbed his compatriot and dragged him out the door and into Gravonia. Eleanor looked back out the tent flap at Livonia and the mountains rising up from the foothills. She felt a pang of homesickness that made her want to weep.

"It is a very ancient ritual, Your Royal Highness," Lady Agnes was saying, as if she were parroting a speech she had been practicing. "When a royal bride comes to Gravonia, she must bathe in a tub on the border and wash away all of her home country's dust… and… and grime." She tried to smile, but caught Eleanor's appalled expression and nervously fluffed her skirts. "Afterwards, she steps out of the tub into Gravonia—her new home. Of course you will be left alone to do this, Your Royal Highness."

Good Lord, I wish she would stop calling me that, Eleanor thought, staring at the water.

"I see." So a Gravonian royal bride's first experience is to be required to strip, bathe and be told that her native country is dirty. Very nice, Eleanor thought bitterly. Will I be required to write 'Livonia' in the dirt and then spit on it?

"I can help you, Your Royal Highness," Lady Agnes told her, but didn't move, looking very uneasy. "To undo buttons and the like."

"Thank you, no. I think I can manage, Lady Agnes."

"Yes, Your Royal—…"

"You are not required to call me that all the time, Lady Agnes. Just… 'Ma'am' will suffice, I think." She tried to put a smile into her tone, no matter how annoyed she was becoming.

Lady Agnes look confused.

"It will be good enough," Eleanor clarified. Lady Agnes nodded, curtseyed again and left. Eleanor stared at the tub of steaming water, wondering how on earth this could possibly beat a giant wheel of cheese.

It took a good deal of determination and muffled oaths, but Eleanor finally managed to get her clothes off and climbed into the tub. She sat down little by little, yelping, in the hot water and finally sat still, knees drawn her to her chest, arms wrapped around them, and sighed. She made a bit of effort at removing the 'dust and grime' of Livonia off her body, but refused to get her hair wet. A towel had been left for her to dry herself with, and after a couple of tries she got out of the tub on the Gravonian side, wrapped the towel around her shivering body and called, teeth chattering, for Lady Agnes. The older woman burst into the tent from the Gravonian side. "Your Royal—… ma'am, we must get you dressed quickly. Count von Arklow is here, and he and several knights will escort us on to Luvov."

"Thank you, Lady Agnes." She was shivering in the cold, and looked at the dress draped over a chair near the tub. Sighing, she held it up and looked at it—it was aquamarine blue, never a flattering color on her, but it was obviously Gravonian. Feeling resigned, she put the dress on, then pulled on the bodice and expertly tied it in the back, straightening her spine and realizing that the bodice was set too high and had… cups. Into which her breasts would have to be pushed, so that they were almost up to her ears. "Good God! They want me to display to the whole bloody world!" she whispered, horrified, and not for the first time cursed the blasted things for all the trouble they caused her.

Muttering, she nonetheless finger-combed her hair, wishing she had a mirror, and bravely stepped out of the tent into Gravonia. She took a deep breath (bodice stretching—it was too small, she realized then, for normal breathing) and observed a line of soldiers dressed in the gold and black colors of Gravonia. At the end of the line stood a tall, robust-looking man with thick shoulder-length hair, a trim beard and a deep tan. When he saw her, he stepped forward and bowed.

"Your Royal Highness. I am Count Erich von Arklow."

She curtseyed and knew his eyes were on her breasts. As were the eyes of all the soldiers, and probably the birds in the trees. Wanting desperately to get her quilt and wrap it around herself, she started to speak when von Arklow began to bark at her flustered Mistress of the Wardrobe, who looked even more appalled by how scantily clad Eleanor was.

"Good God, Lady Agnes, what is with this dress she's having to wear?"

"It was sent along with us, Your Grace," Lady Agnes. "For the princess… it is a bit small…"

"It's indecent! Besides that, it's cold here—parts of her will start to chip off at this rate! Take her back inside and put something suitable on her. Now!"

Lady Agnes scrambled back into the tent, and Count von Arklow stepped in between Eleanor and the line of vision of the soldiers. "I'm terribly sorry, Your Royal Highness. My mother selected the dress for you."

"Oh, I see," Eleanor nodded. "I'm sure she wanted to help me look my very best."

von Arklow's eyebrows lifted. "Yes. I suppose we could say that," he said. He gestured as Lady Agnes came back out of the tent, holding the same dress Eleanor had been wearing when she had arrived. "There now. Much better. Doesn't she have a warm shawl or blanket or some such to wear?" he growled at Lady Agnes. "What's the point of dragging this poor little smidgen here if she's to freeze to death before she even meets the king?" He bowed to Eleanor. "Go back into the tent, if you please, Your Royal Highness, and change back into your own kit and we'll get going when you are ready. We hope to arrive in Dakov before dinnertime, where we will stay the night at the home of one of our noblemen. Pray, ma'am, do you like lamb?"

Eleanor took a deep breath, bobbed a quick curtsey, and went back into the tent without answering, back straight and head high. She would think of a way around tonight's menu later. There was no need to give offense now, when she'd only been in the country for less than an hour. She was going to have to learn how to pick her battles, and right now, her first was to get this awful dress off and wrap up in her old quilt.

Putting her foot down about deading the lambs could wait.

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