Vive la Reine
Eleanor stared at Ullan's giant wheel of cheese—it was a rather frightening yellow-orange color—for several moments, doing her best to appear at least somewhat interested in it. The only truly interesting thing about it, though, was that it was displayed in the town square, covered by a tarpaulin to keep the rain off it, though to her it still looked… damp. She wondered how long it had been sitting there, and what they intended to do with it. She didn't think a cheese of any size could be left sitting outside for long without some ill effects.
Good Lord, please don't let that thing be one of my wedding presents, she thought.
Her ladies were standing behind her, waiting, and she finally decided she had examined the cheese quite long enough. Her retinue was to arrive in the large town of Dakov tonight, where they would stay overnight at the estate of Baron Leopold Tree and continue on the next morning to Luvov.
She looked around the village of Ullan, appalled even more by how filthy the little town was. Piles of refuse were everywhere, the unpaved streets were unbelievably muddy, and as she turned to walk back to the carriage, she was horrified to see a man, dressed in rags, stagger into an alleyway and collapse into a puddle of… dear God, was that urine? Just then, an upper story window of a crumbling house was shoved open and a woman threw the contents of a chamber pot out into the alley, and most of it landed on the fallen man.
This is what I'm walking into, she thought, and turned back to her ladies. "I believe we should… I mean… could someone please go and help that poor man?"
"What for?" Lady Agatha asked, looking confused.
"Because… we're supposed to help the poor. Could he perhaps be provided with some… some warm clothes and… um… food?"
"He ought to be in the stocks for drunkenness," Lady Harriet said, lifting her nose.
Eleanor swallowed. "I'm not sure if the stocks would be any better than lying in a pool of urine and having the contents of a chamber pot thrown on him." She looked at the soldiers standing near the carriage. "Please see to that man. Get him some food and clothes."
Count von Arklow and Lord Devereaux looked at each other, and finally von Arklow nodded, gesturing to the soldiers to do as they were told. She climbed into the carriage, unaided by Lord Devereaux, and sat down, waiting patiently as Lady Agnes and Lady Harriet also climbed in and settled in the seat opposite. The other three ladies-in-waiting were piled into another carriage.
She looked out the carriage window and saw the man being hauled to his feet and carried to a local public house. She sighed—she could only hope they weren't going to just give him more ale.
It was several minutes before the soldiers began filing out of the public house, and they all seemed to be rather jolly. She sighed and pulled the curtains closed on the carriage door.
The carriage lurched forward and she let herself relax a little. Lady Agnes still seemed very nervous, while Lady Harriet was merely cool, studying Eleanor with those sharp, searching brown eyes. She drew in her breath, suspecting that Harriet wanted to ask her something, and she wasn't surprised when at last the woman leaned forward a little.
"You do bleed monthly, Your Royal Highness?"
"Yes, of course."
"And you have never known a man?"
"No, I have not," Eleanor answered, leveling a steady gaze at the older woman, hoping to make it clear that the question was absolutely improper.
"And you enjoy good health?"
"Reports have been that Your Royal Highness is very delicate."
"Princesses are supposed to be delicate, Lady Harriet. Misinterpretation of terms is a very unfortunate thing, but it does happen far too often, I'm sorry to say. However, I can assure you that I have always enjoyed excellent health." Eleanor smiled at the woman, but she could feel her hackles rising. The last thing she needed now was to be thought of as some fragile little flower. Then again, Princess Eleanor of Livonia had apparently been very delicate indeed. That delicacy had been what had killed her in the end.
"Quite," Lady Harriet nodded. "You do look healthy. Your hips are not wide, though. You must bear sons, you know."
"The width of my hips will have little bearing on whether I have sons or daughters, Lady Harriet," Eleanor said, keeping her voice soft and gentle.
"You had two sons, Harriet, and your hips are the narrowest I've ever seen. I have no idea how you managed to squeeze them out," Lady Agnes said, and immediately looked chagrined as the Mistress of the Bedchamber glared at her.
The carriage rolled through a deep mud puddle and Eleanor had to admit she rather enjoyed seeing the two women's heads smack against each other, making a dull thunk sound. Somehow, that made her feel a little better. She sat back, letting her posture slip a bit, and closed her eyes, pulling the quilt around herself. The jostling carriage was not enough to combat her exhaustion and she succumbed at last to sleep.
Baron Tree and his wife were both pleasantly plump, good-natured and slightly flustered by the presence of a princess at their table. They flapped around their future queen consort, asking her again and again if she needed anything, and when the meal was served, she only wanted to ask them to take away the slab of roasted lamb placed before her.
She hated mutton of any kind. She had no memory of why she hated it so much, but she suspected she must have eaten a bit of spoiled meat as a child and almost seemed to have a fear of the stuff as a result—even the sight of live sheep made her shudder with revulsion. She could eat any other meat, but not mutton: it was simply out of the question. She smiled politely and cut the pieces of lamb into tiny pieces, carefully hiding them under the vegetables on her plate. When no one was looking, she would slip pieces to the dogs milling around under the table. By the end of the meal, she had gotten rid of it all and the dogs were slavishly devoted to her.
"Would Your Royal Highness like some more lamb?" Lady Tree asked her.
"Oh, no thank you, Lady Tree. I am quite full, and it was all very delicious. Thank you so much for such a lovely meal, and for your hospitality." Well, the vegetables hadn't been bad, and the pear tart wasn't overly sour. The very thought of the lamb, however, made her certain she was going to vomit. She pushed away the urge to hide under the table with the dogs when a servant proffered the plate of lamb at her.
Lady Tree looked pleased. "We shall send some with you tomorrow, Your Highness, should you get peckish along the way to Luvov."
"Thank you, Lady Tree," she smiled. She wondered if the poor drunk man back in Ullan might like it. Surely it would be better, to him, than cheese.
Her ladies had stuffed her into another dress, this time one that was far more flattering—it was a softer blue, with a black velvet bodice that did not require her breasts be strapped down. She finished her pear tart and feigned exhaustion—she was really hoping for some sleep in a relatively comfortable bed, but apparently Lord and Lady Tree had arranged entertainments for the evening, and they included their own personal Fool and some hired jugglers.
Eleanor had no grasp of the need for a court Fool. Fools were everywhere—they hardly needed hiring, and many of them were already employed in high government offices, according to Count von Hesse. Still, she bit her tongue and listened to the man's feeble jokes and riddles, easily guessing the answers to his questions. After his performance, the jugglers arrived. Or, actually, one juggler arrived, looking embarrassed.
"I am sorry, Lords and Ladies, and Your Royal Highness," he said in a thick Polish accent. "I am Velko Blaszkiewicz and my brother Yanko is… still in Poland. Show is much better with my brother." He bowed and proceeded to start his juggling act, the climax of which was to have him throw his striped sticks to his brother and deftly catch them when they were thrown back. Instead, the sticks hit the wall until he had no more to throw, and the man bowed deeply to his bewildered audience.
Eleanor thought she was going to die.
"I am very sorry, Royal Highness. Is-…"
Lord Tree waved him away, looking irritated. "Yes, yes, I know! It's much better with your brother, and it damned well better be! Go!"
Eleanor was somehow able to maintain her composure, but the Blaszkiewicz Brothers were the highlight of her day, and she insisted on thanking Velko and Yanko personally, and Velko was brought before her. "Your performance was wonderful," she told the chagrined little juggler. "So was your brother's. Tell him Princess Eleanor was delighted. She has not been quite so well entertained in a very long time, I assure you."
Once the entertainments were over, Eleanor was finally allowed to go up to the room where she would stay for the night. Lady Agnes and Lady Harriet were already there, and she had to allow them to help her out of her clothes and into her nightgown. She wanted to make them leave her alone—she had been dressing and undressing herself since childhood, but she was in an entirely new world now, and this was how it was to be for the rest of her life.
Homesickness overwhelmed her as she climbed into the big, surprisingly soft bed. She sighed and stretched out on her back, looking up at the ceiling, listening as Agnes and Harriet settled on their pallets on either side of the bed. As the two women fell asleep and began snoring softly, she did not fight her tears, letting them slip from her eyes onto the pillow. She thought of Betsy, coming to her room when she had nightmares, to croon and caress her back to sleep. She thought of Count von Hesse, trying to look stern when reading Plato's Republic to her and laughing instead at some of the philosopher's more illogical ideas. She closed her eyes when she let herself think of Constantine—his green eyes and his gentle, calloused hands touching her skin, and of his kiss and the warmth of his embrace, and then Eleanor finally drifted into a fitful sleep.
Eleanor suspected she might not ever get used to being a princess.
To have people helping her in and out of her clothes, putting her shoes on for her, arranging her hair, and simply never leaving her alone for even a moment was nerve-wracking. The two girls the Count had brought in to shadow her, two years ago, were nothing compared to how the five ladies shadowed her every step. The three ladies-in-waiting—Matilda, Inga and Agatha—were fairly colorless to Eleanor, and seemed almost devoid of personality, but Agnes and Harriet were definitely the more interesting of the five, or perhaps the least boring to an agile-minded young woman of sixteen.
Lady Agnes, Eleanor had learned, was married to a rather elderly nobleman named Lord Louis Galwan, who had been badly injured in battle some years ago. From what Eleanor could tell Agnes's marriage had never actually been consummated, but she lived fairly comfortably and her husband was kind (at least while was he awake), and considering her upbringing in Ullan, that was a considerable step up.
Lady Harriet, on the other hand, was married to Lord Victor D'Acre, a fairly wealthy and apparently somewhat demanding nobleman who was obsessed with advancing himself and his family at Court. He had spent years currying favor with higher-ups and had finally managed to get himself appointed to the position of Court Almoner. Lady Harriet had also done her duty by providing D'Acre with two healthy sons, and by all accounts she ran her household with a meticulous precision that was likely utterly maddening.
Considering that Harriet looked and behaved as though she had been weaned on a pickle, however, Eleanor couldn't imagine letting her take charge of her life. She also shuddered at the thought of that woman being given any authority over any children she might bear to King Henry.
Riding in the coach from Dakov, Eleanor tried to think of some subject of conversation that might be of mutual interest for herself and the two women tasked with tending to her. She began making a list of topics, including subjects that had recently become somewhat interesting to her, or at least not terribly dull.
2. Cheese and how it ought to be properly stored
3. The economic status of the city of Amsterdam
5. The rather strange comment she had once heard a lady from Turon say to one of her daughters who was going to Court: 'Do not ever comment on a likeness', which she still didn't understand. Did Agnes or Harriet have any opinions on it?
6. The account of the destruction of Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius, as told by Pliny the Younger
7. The latest fashions (including cup sizes in bodices and corsets)
9. The Pythagorean Theorum
10. What a dream about a red dragon with a white scar on his chest might mean
11. Was it proper for a man to touch a girl's breasts before they were married, so long as they were betrothed?
She doubted Lady Harriet in particular would think the last topic very suitable, and Lady Agnes probably had never had any part of her person touched by her husband or any other man. Eleanor sighed wearily and parted the curtain to look out at the countryside and was surprised to see rolling fields covered with wildflowers, stretching for miles, and the sky was a brilliant, cerulean blue. She rested her forearms on the window and looked out, enjoying the scenery.
"Your Royal Highness, a princess does not… lean out a window to look at flowers," Lady Harriet said primly.
"How else I am to see them?" Eleanor asked, brushing a loose strand of hair out of her face and tucking it behind her ear. She sighed sadly when the beautiful scenery changed to rough-looking, hardscrabble farms divided by crumbling stone walls and broken fences. Miserable thatch-roofed houses—more like shacks—dotted the farmland they passed through, and sometimes worn, hungry-looking people came out to watch the coaches go by. She debated between letting the people see her—their future Queen—and propriety, but driving rain settled the matter for her. As the rain began to fall, increasing in force and violence as lightning flashed across the skies and thunder made the horses squeal with fright, she bolted the window and closed the curtains.
"I suppose we ought to tell you about King Henry," Lady Harriet finally said.
It took her this long, Eleanor thought in weary amusement
"King Henry is… a very decent sort of man," Lady Harriet said, becoming brisk. "He is a fine soldier and commander and is very athletic. He enjoys outdoor sports a great deal—hunting and hawking and jousting and the like, of course. He is a very handsome man, more than six feet tall, and very… strong. Muscular. I suppose that will be an adjustment for you, as I hear Livonian men are not nearly so impressive." She looked vaguely smug, and Eleanor had to keep from rolling her eyes. "Of course, he keeps a mistress, but I'm sure you will be able to… adjust to that as well."
Eleanor had little
trouble realizing that Lady Harriet was trying to scare her. It wasn't as
though she had never heard of kings keeping mistresses—many men did. In fact,
she was fairly certain that Christiane was sleeping with Count von Hesse,
however much they were being discreet about it. Considering he was not married
and had never been married, she did have to wonder at least a little as to why
marriage was not an option for them—perhaps it was a matter of social standing.
The only problem she saw for herself was if Henry was dissatisfied with her and
continued to sleep with his mistress. If he did, Christiane's warning was
completely accurate: life would be hell for her. She was going to have to win Henry's devotion and fidelity.
Eleanor neatly folded her hands in her lap and smiled sweetly at Lady Harriet. "I have confidence that I will please my husband in every way possible."
Lady Harriet raised her eyebrows. "I meant no disrespect, Your Royal Highness."
"Oh, I'm certain of that," Eleanor smiled back. "Only a very foolish person would disparage the granddaughter of a king, and I know you're not a fool."
Lady Harriet started to say something, but Lady Agnes nudged her slightly. She leaned forward, smiling ingratiatingly. "I'm sure King Henry will like you a great deal, Your Royal—ma'am."
Eleanor let the subject drop. Finally, to alleviate the boredom, she looked at the two women. "Have either of your ever heard of Pompeii?"
Lord Charles Beauchamp was irritated.
First, his latest conquest, a pretty, albeit constantly weeping sixteen-year old, had informed him that morning that she was with child. He had thrown her out, of course, and told her to go back to her father's dying little smallholding outside Luvov. Later that morning, he had heard the news that Princess Eleanor of Livonia would be arriving at the Royal Palace sometime after the nooning meal. He arrived at the palace to find everyone in a state of excitement that he hardly found necessary—all this brouhaha over some little Livonian chit?
That the girl had survived the journey over the mountains, during winter, had been fairly admirable, he had to admit. But it was also extremely inconvenient—he had hoped the King of Livonia would balk at sending his only granddaughter away at this time of year when she was reportedly of a weak constitution. But King Michael had been pretty eager to forge the alliance and stop the war between their two nations, and had even agreed upon a large dowry to boot.
Beauchamp had, nonetheless, profited immensely from the war. Not that Henry really needed to know about that, and really, the King wasn't interested in matters of state. He preferred hunting and hawking or carousing with his courtiers, or romping with his mistress. The girl had been carefully placed in Henry's view a year ago, by Beauchamp himself, and she was doing a fine job with keeping him informed of the comings and goings at Court. Of course, she had to, as she was Beauchamp's own former mistress, and though she no longer occupied his bed, she was in his pocket and her loyalty was guaranteed, particularly if she wanted her sickly old mother to keep a roof over her head.
His bad mood increased when he saw that palace servants were scrubbing the floors and walls of the Great Hall, trying to clear away as much of the stains and muck as they could before the princess arrived. Years of neglect in that regard had given the hall a distinctly pungent scent, of men and dogs and discarded food, and the curtains and tapestries were a travesty to look upon, but frankly the princess could have no say in such matters: her first and only duty was to breed heirs for Henry.
His frown deepened as he strode through the hall, servants diving out of his way in fear of being kicked aside. He was in search of the King, and knew Henry was likely in the Presence Chamber, joking with his gentlemen. He finally got to the heavy doors, which were shut, and he glared at Boris, the King's major domo, a heavy-set man with no neck and muscles that were the envy of a plow horse.
"Boris, inform the King that Lord Beauchamp is here and wishes to speak with him."
Boris settled his impassive gaze on the king's cousin and finally turned, pushing the doors open and stepping inside the room. "Your Majesty, the Lord Beauchamp is here."
"Charles!" Henry called, grinning. "Come in!"
King Henry was indeed a tall, muscular man, but not at all bulky or heavyset. He had an open, friendly face, with wide grey eyes that could appear serious when he was deep in thought. However, Henry was not a deep thinker, but his natural bonhomie and cheerful attitude toward life made him a popular monarch and quite likable among all manner of folk. With his tousled, sun-bleached hair and richly tanned skin, he personified an avid outdoorsman—the king loved nothing more than riding with his hounds from dawn until dusk and then attending court fetes and balls until the wee hours.
A lack of any real ability to concentrate on serious matters had made it so that Henry depended greatly on his Council to cope with matters of State. He signed the laws and proclamations, grudgingly attended the Royal Petitions Court on Saturdays, and rarely missed Sunday Mass, but he preferred to be outside in the sun and wind, chasing stags with his huge hounds or hunting rabbits with his carefully-trained hawks. He was also lately keen on a program of breeding the fastest horses to be found in Europe, and to that end he was sending emissaries to the Holy Land and beyond in search of fine stallions to buy and breed to tough little Gravonian mares. So far, his endeavor was proving successful and he could boast of having sold ten very fine, fast horses to the King of Morvenia, last year, for a very nice sum. That in itself was a coup for Henry, as Gravonia and Morvenia were only barely on speaking terms, diplomatically.
"You've heard the princess of Livonia is due to arrive very soon," Henry said, getting up and shoving one of his compatriots away, laughing. "I've got the palace staff cleaning up as best they can. I know I should have had them at it sooner, but you know I forget… " He shrugged. "Anyway, I'm sure she'll adapt."
"Yes, I'm sure of that," Beauchamp nodded.
"Boris, see to it that the servants are paid a bit extra today for all their very excellent work," Henry said, with a negligent wave of his hand. His casual kindness was a mark of the way he had been raised. His mother had been just as empty-headed and sweet-natured, and while she also tended to forget to do things, she was grateful and generous to people who did whatever she had neglected to do. Beauchamp knew, however, that Henry was not quite as empty-headed as Princess Anne—no, indeed, the King was a lot more shrewd than many thought, and when angered Henry's actions were swift and sure, and he did not suffer fools for long. He knew never to underestimate the King—Henry had a way of knowing about things that made him seem almost psychic.
"She ought to be arriving soon, sir," Beauchamp told him as they left the Presence Chamber and continued toward the Great Hall. "Erich von Arklow met them at the border and is escorting her retinue here."
"Good, good," Henry nodded, finally showing some sign of nervousness. "What do you suppose she's like?"
Dreadfully ugly and stupid, we can only hope, Beauchamp thought. "I'm sure she is loveliness itself, sir."
They walked out of the Great Hall and out onto the west portico of the palace, which jutted out onto the palace wall and afford them a view of almost the entire city of Luvov and far into the countryside and forests beyond. The two men stood, looking out over the ragged, neglected city of Luvov, neither speaking for several moments.
A change in wind direction brought a terrible stench to their noses, and Henry looked distressed. "So much needs to be done," he murmured. "My grandfather… look at the mess he left me."
Luvov was indeed a mess. Only in the northwestern section of the city was any sign of order and civilization, and the wealthier citizens of Gravonia had built huge walled estates there, and wide, cobbled streets were well-maintained and passed alongside private parks and beautiful gardens. Otherwise, every other section of the capital of Gravonia was a mass of crumbling houses, rickety tenements, muddy streets, and often a dozen or more people scraping out a living in one-room flats. Two brothels were stains along the eastern wall of the city, and beyond the city were outlying farms of varying degrees of neglect and failure. There was but one school in all of Luvov, and almost no one but the most determined students attended. There was nothing resembling a hospital of any kind, and Henry had recently received a report that infant mortality in Luvov was at an appalling sixty percent. The very thought of that alone had been giving him nightmares.
"You've only been king four years, Henry. Rome wasn't built in a day."
"It took my grandfather less time to do this," Henry said, looking irritated and gesturing toward the crumbling city. "The whole damned country is awash in debt. We're only hoping to end a stupid, costly war by way of this marriage. Almost no one can read or write, babies die in their cribs every day, there's rapes and murders all about… how can any man call himself a king of such a country?" He gripped the balcony railing and sighed, shoulders sagging. "I want to be a good king, but good kings are made by good people. How is this good?"
Beauchamp said nothing. He despised Henry's idealism. He was practical—people were of use until they were no longer so, then they were to be gotten rid of. He had found that making people dependent on him for their very sustenance insured their loyalty. Henry had the ridiculous notion of putting everyone to work that could work, and to reward thrift and enterprise and punish laziness. He actually wanted the people of Gravonia to start fending for themselves and to be rewarded and lauded for their success!
"I'm sure you will succeed, Henry," Beauchamp said, gritting his teeth.
"I want to. I want to succeed. I want my people to be successful and prosperous. I just… can't figure out how to do it."
Oh, God, not this again, Beauchamp thought. Fortunately, no one so far had gone so far as to try and plant ideas into Henry's head, and as far as his cousin was concerned, it would be best if no one started giving the king lofty thoughts. The less the King thought about things, Beauchamp had long ago decided, the better.
"Ah, here we are at last," Lady Harriet said, nodding. The rain had finally stopped pouring and peeking out the window, she could see the walls of Luvov looming ahead. She looked at the princess, who was sitting still and silent, and felt a tiny bit of satisfaction. The little Livonian chit had best come to Luvov feeling frightened and being completely submissive to King Henry. There was no other option, if she wanted to survive.
Eleanor leveled her gaze at Lady Harriet then, and her blue eyes took on a cool, steely determination then, and Harriet swallowed.
Do not underestimate her, she thought, with an inward frisson of unease.
The carriage was being pulled through mud until the city gates opened, and the cobbled main thoroughfare of Luvov was crowded with curious citizens, all hoping to get a look at their future queen consort.
Eleanor pushed the curtains apart and pushed the window open, looking out at the people lining the street, and was momentarily taken aback by how ragged many of them were, and by the general shabbiness of the buildings. But she recovered quickly and smiled out at them all, looking as though coming to Gravonia was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to her. As the crowds caught their first glimpse of her, they began to call out to her in approval. The sun disappeared behind the clouds again and rain began falling, but that didn't seem to bother anyone—in fact, from what Eleanor could tell, they seemed glad about the rain. She heard a group of men—drunken Frenchmen, apparently—shouting "Vive la Reine!" and she glanced at Lady Agnes.
"Yes, it is pelting, isn't it?"
For the first time since Eleanor had met her, Agnes actually laughed.
King Henry paced in the courtyard, increasingly anxious, while Lord Beauchamp stood still, ignoring the pouring rain. Henry muttered and cursed the rain, and as if the heavens decided he had had enough, the clouds parted and the rain stopped. The sun was soon shining brightly in the soggy courtyard, and Henry looked like he might start splashing in the puddles but instead stood still and waited.
"What if she's ugly, Charles? Or… well, stupid or smelly or fat or… I don't know… " The King actually looked embarrassed to have even asked such questions.
"Just blow out the candles and think of Gravonia," Beauchamp answered. "All cats are grey in the dark, after all."
Henry resumed pacing.
The carriage stopped at last, at the palace gates, and the crowds crushed around, everyone eager to see their future Queen. Eleanor opened the carriage door herself, and before Agnes or Harriet could even react, she held out her hand for one of the soldiers to help her down, and he assisted her before thinking of the possible consequences. She stood on the cobbles, a vision in silver, white and blue, wearing a glittering diamond and pearl tiara in her hair, and the crowd fell silent, all staring at her in awe. Several people whispered accolades to her beauty, but most were silent, and not a few noticed when the sun broke through the clouds and the diamonds in her tiara flashed and sparkled.
She looked magical.
A little girl said, loudly, "Look, Mama! She's a fairy princess!"
"I am very pleased to be here at last," Eleanor said, lifting her voice only a little and smiling warmly at them all and letting her gaze linger on the dirty, disheveled little girl who had spoken. "I look forward to a long and happy life here, in your devoted service. May God bless you all, may He bless Gravonia, and may God save the King!"
An old woman came through the crowd and held out a white dove, clasped gently between her gnarled, calloused hands. She studied the bird in silence, remembering Constantine saying that her emblem should be a dove. Her eyes filled with tears, the memories of him flooding her heart, and she swallowed and gently took the dove, holding it against her chest, and it barely even struggled against her. "Thank you, ma'am. He is lovely. I will make a cherished pet of him."
The crowds just continued to stare at her, at once amazed and enraptured, and they began to murmur softly as she turned and got back into the carriage, gently holding the tame dove in her lap. The driver released the brake and the carriage moved on. The gates swung in and Eleanor was carried into the palace courtyard and the destiny that awaited her.
King Henry drew in his breath and waited as the carriage drew up in front of him. The guards jumped down and opened the door. First Lady Harriet stepped out, then Lady Agnes. Count von Arklow paced up to him, grinning, and shook Henry's hand.
"Try to keep your eyes in your head, Henry," he said with a wink and held his hand out at the open carriage door. A smooth white hand reached out and took it, and the Count helped Eleanor out of the carriage. Her tiara flashed in the sunlight as she dropped a low, graceful curtsey to the King, and Henry lost all ability to speak.
"My God," Beauchamp muttered under his breath. This woman was beyond anything he could have expected, and to him, that was a complete disaster.
"Your Majesty," Eleanor said softly, still bowing. "I am very pleased to meet you at last, my lord."
The King was still dumbstruck. He finally managed to regain some of his bearings and stepped forward, taking her hand and kissing her knuckles reverently.
"It is my pleasure entirely, Your Royal Highness," he said. "Entirely."
She finally looked up at him, rising slowly to her full height-she was a good deal shorter than him, but her superb posture made up for their difference in height. Her eyes were bluer than the summer sky, her skin smooth and soft-looking, her mouth sweet, and her figure was simply stunning. Within just a moment of hearing her speak for the first time, King Henry III of Gravonia was instantly, helplessly and eternally in love.
"Call for Archbishop Nichols," he said, never taking his eyes off Eleanor. "Tell him to be at St. Michael's at six o'clock. We marry tonight."
"Um… Your Majesty," Beauchamp said, stepping forward a little and clearing his throat. "Don't you think… "
"The Archbishop will be at St. Michael's at six o'clock tonight or I will have his head on a pike at seven! Go!" Henry snapped, his gaze never leaving Eleanor's face. He was memorizing every feature, more and more dazzled and bewitched with each passing moment.
"Yes, sir," Beauchamp said, stepping back and muttering an order at a bewildered young soldier, who had also been staring at the princess. The man started, gasped and ran off, heading toward the Archbishop's lodgings near the palace chapel.
"Tonight you will become my wife," Henry told Eleanor. "Tomorrow, you will be crowned Queen of Gravonia, before God and all the people of this country."
"As Your Majesty wishes," Eleanor said softly, staring back at her fiancé. "I live only to please Your Majesty."
"No… no… " Henry shook his head. "I am Henry. Never call me 'Majesty' again. I am only Henry to you." He startled her then by kissing her cheek and taking her hands in his. "And you are Eleanor. And I will live only to please you."
Eleanor bowed her head again, glancing at Lady Agnes, who was holding her dove. "Then I suppose we shall both be very pleased, Henry," she said with a soft smile that set her fiancé's heart pounding.
"May it be so," Henry nodded, gazing in wonder at the beautiful young woman before him. "As God wills it, may it be so."