The Queen of the May

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Tears and Crowns

20 March 1374

King Henry ordered that Eleanor be given anything she wanted to eat, and demanded that she be allowed to rest until time for the wedding.

It was a lot to take in, and Eleanor supposed she was grateful to not have to do a lot of thinking or planning for now. Instead, she was just going along with everything and doing her best to not succumb to her nerves. She supposed she could panic later, though she didn't know when she might be able to work that in, what with getting married, having sex for the first time, and being crowned a Queen Consort.

She walked into the palace on her future husband's arm, and stared in horror at the filthy curtains and tapestries. She was even more dismayed by the sight of soggy, breathless palace servants standing around, steaming buckets of soapy water beside them while they bowed and scraped before her. Nonetheless, she smiled at them all and said nothing as Henry showed her a large, heavy-looking suit of armor that had been worn by his grandfather. He smiled expansively at her, and gestured to the servants.

"This is your future Queen," Henry said. "You will do everything and anything she says, and with haste." He turned to her, taking her hands in his again. "You should rest, Eleanor. You must be exhausted."

"I rode in the carriage, Henry, I didn't pull it. I'm not at all tired. Might I be given a tour of the palace instead, please?"

He looked delighted. "Absolutely! Whatever you heart desires!" He clapped his hands and shouted "Boris!" Eleanor squeaked in alarm when the huge, neckless man appeared at the door, his bulldog-like face inscrutable. "Ah, there you are, my good man. Boris, please give Princess Eleanor a tour of the palace. Any changes she wishes to make must be noted and performed immediately!"

"Yes, Your Majesty," Boris said, bowing to Henry. "Your Royal Highness."

"Boris," she said, recovering from her initial alarm. "It is a great pleasure to meet you, sir."

The man's black eyes flickered and he bowed low. "If you will, Your Royal Highness, I shall take you on to the Great Hall and the reception rooms of the palace first."

"That sounds lovely," she nodded. Harriet and Agnes paced behind her as she was led out of the main reception hall into the Great Hall, and she was appalled by the wet floor and the all-around unkempt look of the place. The curtains looked wet, so she couldn't tell if they had stains on them or not, but the tapestries on the walls looked… hideous. They were all old and possibly had once been priceless, but now they were just beyond hope of ever looking remotely attractive. She smelled sweaty men and spoiled food all around, and there were more soggy servants standing about, looking worn and nervous. She smiled at the servants, realizing that they had obviously only just been put to the task of trying to clean the palace.

She walked through room after room, all of them in varying stages of disarray. She was shown the Presence Chamber, which was more or less Henry's study, and she was bewildered at the total lack of organization. Papers were everywhere, scattered on the large desk and on the floor, and she noticed that many of the papers had wineglass circles on them, and more were rendered illegible by spills. The window behind his desk looked dirty, with little light coming through clearly, and she felt a draft coming from… somewhere, and it was accompanied by a terrible smell. It was from the kitchens, perhaps?

The notion of something that smelled that horrible coming from the kitchens was not exactly encouraging. That caused her to request to be shown the palace kitchens next, which seemed to alarm Boris, but he obediently led her downstairs. Cooks and kitchen maids were busily cooking and baking, steam rising constantly, and she was appalled to see a little boy standing near a vast fireplace, turning what appeared to be a calf on a spit. Bones and skins were piled in one corner of the kitchen, and huge dirty pots and pans were sitting in another, near a brimming tubful of what looked like either washing water or grease—it was impossible to tell. Eleanor had to fight to keep the bile from coming up, and she turned away, only to come face to face with a large gutted pig hanging from a hook. She suppressed a scream and closed her eyes, remembering having killed von Biron three years ago—that had been twice as horrifying.

"I believe I've seen enough of the kitchens, Boris," she said at last, and was the first one up the stairs, outpacing the king's major domo and leaving Agnes and Harriet in her wake.

Eleanor said little else during her tour. She made no criticisms, but made lists in her mind of what needed to be done. Upstairs at last, she was led by Boris through huge, empty bedrooms, and was shocked to see that many had bats hanging from the ceilings, previously exquisite hardwood floors ruined by their waste. Paintings of obscure Gravonian royal relations hung on the walls in other rooms, and there were other furnished rooms that were apparently kept in good condition, frozen in time, because a previous ruler of Gravonia had died there. Finally, the tour was over and she returned to the Great Hall, where Henry and his gentlemen awaited her.

She was formally introduced to Lord Beauchamp, who fixed her with a steady gaze, and she sensed that he did not welcome her. Henry's other gentlemen and friends were pleasant, if somewhat noisy. Count von Arklow was as friendly and congenial as ever, and the head housekeeper and palace chef were polite and seemed eager to please, and she found Boris' impassive strength rather comforting, and while he said very little, she recognized an ally in him from the very start. Finally, Eleanor decided she was hungry and requested bread and some ham.

"Would Your Royal Highness like to dine in the king's chambers, or in your own room?" the housekeeper asked.

"I think I would like to see my own bedroom… again, please." Eleanor had looked briefly inside the suite of rooms upstairs, impressed by their vast size. Immediately, she was escorted back upstairs to the suite, which were apparently next door to the king's rooms. She hadn't liked the dark, masculine furnishings of his bedroom and chambers, much less how messy they were—he apparently was not one for picking up his dirty clothes or for straightening things on his own. She walked into her sitting room, Harriet and Agnes standing in the doorway, and sat down, sighing, in an overstuffed chair. Gazing around the sitting room, she could only gaze in disgust at a huge tapestry showing the hunting and slaughter of a unicorn by a pack of dogs. That would have to go, she thought. Preferably into a good-sized bonfire.

Food was brought for her, and she was surprised that the bread and ham were of the very highest quality, and tasted very good. She sent word to thank the cook and the bakers and ate in silence, being watched by her ladies. The other three ladies-in-waiting arrived shortly after she finished her meal and they walked around her sitting room and bedchamber, assisting in arranging her belongings in the room as servants brought them upstairs.

The women were very curious about the long items, wrapped in linens, that were brought up, but she saw no reason to show them her father's Viking swords and daggers. Instead, she had them hidden away in a closet, along with her bow and arrows and the light suit of armor the Count had had made for her two years ago (fortunately it was in its own box, to which she only had the key). Dozens of boxes of jewelry were also brought up and the girls opened them all, peering in awe at jeweled headdresses and tiaras, bracelets, earrings and necklaces.

Her dresses and underthings were deposited on the bed and finally around the sleeping chamber, the piles growing higher and higher—Eleanor hadn't even really had time to even look through all the princess' outfits, and she suspected many would be too small to wear. Hundreds of pairs of shoes were removed from boxes and stored away in a vast closet that still had more than enough room to accommodate vast amounts of clothes, and finally servants came in with Eleanor's favorite books and the copies she had made of her mother's books. She had them wrapped in linen, placed in a wooden box, and stored under her bed. She didn't miss Lady Harriet's curious expression, but held her tongue.

"We shall get you into your wedding dress," Lady Harriet finally said, gesturing to Lady Agnes. Eleanor drew her breath, suddenly feeling a rush of panic. She had felt relatively calm until now, as she still felt a sense of unreality about this entire situation. Perhaps, she thought as Lady Agnes left to retrieve the dress, she had let herself believe this was all some awful, strangely marvelous, dreadful dream.

You were born to be a Queen.

She heard Count von Hesse's words again, and closed her eyes. A Queen. Had she not come here, she would be marrying Constantine and would have had many years to prepare to be Queen of Morvenia. Instead, she had less than a few hours to wrap her mind around marrying a stranger and becoming Queen of Gravonia.

Agnes returned, with the dress draped over her arm, and showed it to Eleanor, smiling. Eleanor had to admit that it was beautiful—it was woven from exquisite blue and white satin, embroidered with multi-colored flowers and lined with truly exquisite lace that had to have been woven by spiders, it was so delicate. Another of the maids then presented her with a veil that matched the lace, and she stared at it in awe, amazed at its workmanship. "Who made this?" she asked.

"His Majesty's late mother, Princess Anne the Countess von Falkenburg," Agnes told her.

"She was an artist!"

"Yes, she was very talented," Agnes agreed. "It was her own wedding dress. I'm pleased to see it will fit you perfectly and not require much alteration at all… save… in the bust… " Eleanor glanced at Agnes and sighed—yet again, her breasts seemed to cause her little but trouble, except for those thrilling, heady evenings when they had seemed to make it hard for Constantine to walk normally.

The dress was fitted on her, and indeed the front was too tight. The stays were loosened on the bodice and the seamstresses came in, consulted with each other, and proceeded to expertly alter the dress and bodice so that it fit her perfectly, molding perfectly to her form. The bodice was lowered a little and another line of filmy lace was spread across her chest and sewn in, and she realized that she would have to be assisted out of the dress tonight—would her ladies help her, or would it be Henry…?

She swallowed and pushed that thought away. She was doing her best to not think about what she was going to have to do tonight, and what Henry would do to her. Betsy and Christiane had both told her that it was nothing shameful, and that she could find pleasure in the act, but… she had only ever pictured her lover as Constantine, not the stranger she had met only two hours ago. Now, her mind was whirling with all the images that had come to her in her dreams, and she couldn't keep from thinking of the women around her—did their husbands do those mysterious, dark-of-night things to them? Did they enjoy those things, or were they painful or embarrassing?

She had always meant to ask if there was any talking involved during intercourse. If so, what was said? To her mind, it seemed as though talking might seem kind of rude, considering that some level of concentration might be required, but then again…

Eleanor squeezed her eyes shut, determinedly pushing the thoughts away. Still, she wished she had someone to ask, and someone she could confide in. She wished Christiane were with her now, to provide practical advice, and Betsy, to provide comfort and calm.

After being dressed in the bridal gown, Eleanor carefully sat down, doing her best to not wrinkle the dress, and allowed the women to rearrange her hair and affix a new tiara onto her head. Eleanor admired it in the mirror—it was made of softly shining mother-of-pearl panels, with diamond lovers' knots around the top, into which the veil was carefully wound.

Soon, she was finally allowed to stand, and gazed at herself in the mirror as she was helped into soft silk slippers. She looked fairly serene, except her eyes were huge with fear and nervousness. Lady Harriet fluffed out the skirt of the gown and carefully straightened the veil, letting the front fall over her face and down almost to her knees. The ladies carefully wove a few orange blossoms into her tiara, and she remembered the day she was crowned Queen of the May. That seemed like a lifetime ago now.

"Such a pity her mother was not allowed to come, at least," she heard one of the maids whisper. "A girl needs her Mama at a time like this."

Indeed, Eleanor thought, feeling her heart starting to pound. I wish she were here now. Of course, if she were alive, I wouldn't be here at all. I would be a peasant blacksmith's daughter, living in Teslo, and no one would know I was King Michael's granddaughter. I would eventually marry some hopefully pleasant farmer and live out my days in obscurity.

Destiny had a way of butting in, she thought, and she felt a strange kind of calm coming over her then. Even as her heart kept beating fast, she no longer felt afraid. She remembered Mordechai's words to Esther: "Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" Perhaps this really was her destiny.

A young maid burst into the room, carrying a bouquet of beautiful pink and white roses. "His Majesty sent these, asking if you might wish to carry them. He says it is your choice," the girl said, smiling at Eleanor.

"Thank you. That's very thoughtful of him," Eleanor said softly. She took the bouquet and briefly smelled the sweet flowers. "Of course I will carry them, and please send my thanks to the King for his kindness." She thought of how she would have dressed for her wedding to Constantine—a white dress, of course, and she would carry a bouquet of orange blossoms, and no tiara would have been necessary in the chapel at Ravensburg. She had planned to wear her hair down, too, but that would be impossible while wearing a tiara. Instead, her hair had been braided and tied up into a twist that was already giving her a headache. The tiara, too, was a little heavy. She was going to have to practice wearing tiaras like this, she realized, or she would wear an expression of misgiving for the rest of her life.

Straightening her shoulders, mentally applying steel to her spine and lifting her chin, she looked at herself in the mirror one last time. Then she picked up the train of her dress, throwing it effortlessly over her arm. "All right. I'm ready."

The ride to the cathedral, which was just below the east gate of the palace, was relatively short and uninterrupted by crowds. Apparently, the wedding had not been announced just yet, and so she arrived just as the sun was starting to set. The assembly in the vast, hauntingly beautiful building were the best and noblest families of Gravonia, all having been ordered to attend the wedding of the king at quite the last minute. Any semblance of dismay at the haste of the wedding vanished when the huge doors opened and Eleanor stepped inside, quite alone, and stood staring down the long aisle toward the altar.

Henry, in his finest light plating and tunic of black and gold, was standing there looking quite handsome. Behind him were Count von Arklow and Lord Beauchamp, and Eleanor drew her breath in slowly, remembering Count von Hesse's recount of the life of Moses—she had to remember that God could do amazing things with a nobody.

She heard the choir singing, and the cathedral bells were ringing loudly as she began walking down the aisle, and the diamond lovers' knots in her tiara flashed in the candlelight. She finally reached the altar, and dipped gracefully before the king, who took her hands and drew her back to her full height, smiling at her, showing clean, white teeth. In fact, he was the picture of vigorous health, and he looked delighted. He looked at the Archbishop of Luvov, a serious-faced man who looked a little harried, and nodded.

Eleanor listened to Henry recite his vows, and he did so with great sincerity.

"I, Henry, take thee Eleanor to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, for fairer or fouler, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till by death we are parted, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereunto I grant thee my troth."

The bishop looked at her, and she recited the vows without prompting—she had no trouble memorizing them. She had no trouble memorizing anything.

"I Eleanor, take thee Henry, to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to be bonny and buxom at bed and at board, to love and to cherish, till by death we are parted, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereunto I plight thee my troth."

The Archbishop held up a simple gold ring and raised his voice, so that the assembly could hear him clearly. " Bless this Ring, O merciful Lord, that he who gives it and she who wears it may be ever faithful, remain in Your peace, and live and grow old together in Your love, under their own vine and fig tree, and seeing their children's children. Amen."

Eleanor watched as Henry took the gold ring and held it up so that it glittered and flashed in the candlelight, and he slipped it on her thumb. "With this Ring I thee wed." He removed it and smiled at her. "And with my body I thee honor," and placed the ring on her index finger. "And with all my worldly goods I thee endow," and placed it on her fourth finger. "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

The Archbishop bowed his head and prayed, "O Eternal God, Creator and Preserver of all mankind, Giver of all spiritual grace, the Author of everlasting life; send Thy blessing upon these Thy servants, this man and this woman, whom we bless in Thy Name; that as Isaac and Rebecca lived faithfully together, so these persons may surely perform and keep the vows and covenants betwixt them made, whereof this Ring given and received is a token and pledge, and may ever hereafter remain in perfect love and peace together, and live according to Thy laws; through our Lord God, Amen."

The assembly said "Amen" and Henry and Eleanor joined hands, the bishop binding their hands together with a cord of gold and silver. "Those whom God has joined together let no man put asunder." He raised his voice and fairly shouted, "For as much as Henry and Eleanor have consented together in holy wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God and this company, and thereto have given and pledged their troth each to the other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving of a Ring, and by joining and binding of hands; I pronounce therefore that they be Man and Wife together, in the Name of God, who is the Protector and Judge of our people. Amen!"

Henry finally lifted her veil, and the bishop spoke again. "May God bless, preserve, and keep you; the Lord mercifully show His favor whilst looking upon you; and so fill you with all spiritual benediction and grace, that ye may so live together in this life, that in the world to come ye may have life everlasting. Amen." He smiled at them. "You may kiss the bride, Your Majesty."

The King kissed Eleanor, startling her by lingering for a moment, and her hands instinctively rose to his shoulders. He dipped his head slightly, deepening the kiss before gently pulling away and looking down at her, grey eyes looking deep into hers. She swallowed and smiled slightly, not a little shaken, and let her new husband guide her down the steps from the altar and down the aisle. They were followed by her ladies and his gentlemen while the assembly in the cathedral applauded. As the cathedral doors were opened, she heard the roar of the crowds and smiled graciously at them as several white doves were released and flew overhead in a graceful arc. However cool and calm she looked, however, her heart was pounding even harder.

Tonight was going to be the most important test of all, and she knew she was going to have to pass that one with flying colors if she wanted her life in Gravonia to be at all rewarding.

The hastily-arranged banquet was ready when Henry and Eleanor arrived back at the palace. Eleanor was impressed by the arches of pink and white flowers that covered the path from the carriage to the main doors of the palace, and thought the thick trail of rose petals on the floor was a particularly nice touch. She smiled at all the nobles in the Great Hall, and let Henry lead her to the table, which was set at the end of the Great Hall, on a raised platform. "You look beautiful, Eleanor," he told her as she sat down.

"Thank you, Henry."

"I do hope we can become very good friends," he said, sitting down beside her. "Is there anything you might like now?" His gaze dropped to her mouth. "Anything you wish will be granted."

"Can you grant me a flying horse?" she asked, with a teasing little smile.

He looked a little chagrined. "Were it possible, I would give you a whole herd of flying horses."

"I shall be more practical then," she laughed. "I would like some strawberries, perhaps, or some peaches."

He turned and whispered orders to a servant, who rushed away. The man returned a few moments later with a bowl of the requested fruit, as well as a bowl of light, fluffy cream. "Gravonia is famous for its fruit, particularly peaches," Henry told her.

"Yes, I have heard that," she nodded, spearing a peach slice and dipping it in the cream. "I've even heard of Gravonian peach wine." She tasted the peach and was surprised to find it tasted utterly delicious. Henry watched her eat it, and she saw his eyes darken, and Eleanor sensed she and her new husband would not be staying at the banquet for long.

"Would you like some wine?" he asked her eagerly. "I ought to warn you that it can be a little potent."

She smiled softly. "I think I will abstain, then, my lord. I prefer to be… um… alert."

"Yes. So do I." He was looking at her mouth again, and that made Eleanor feel strangely nervous. Not fearful, but nervous, and when she finally licked her lips, his eyes darkened again. She had to admit that he was attractive—she would be lying if she said he was not so. It was obvious to her that he was no intellectual, but… he had a quality about him, and a very real sweetness and kindness that appealed to her. Plus he was strongly built and had such a hard, muscular body, with wide shoulders and tanned skin. He was nice to look at. There was no point in saying otherwise, or denying she found him attractive.

"May I kiss you, Eleanor?" he asked her softly.

"Of course you may," she whispered. He leaned in and kissed her, and she parted her lips as his mouth slanted over hers, his tongue stroking gently before beginning to gently explore. Shyly, she touched his hair, moving into his kiss and doing some exploring of her own. He lifted his head, looking into her eyes, and drew a shaky breath.

"I… I do not think our presence is required for… for this to be a merry… um… cele-... celebration for all. What do you think?"

"I think you are very correct, sir," she answered, and hurriedly snatched up her water goblet and took a deep drink. What had come over her? It was one thing to be aware of what she was made for, and that in the past year she had come to understand that the marriage bed could be very delightful indeed, but… she had reserved her body for Constantine! Yet here she was, kissing a man she had known for less than three hours, and now she was eager to…

She didn't want to think of what that might mean about her own urges, or even her loyalty to Constantine. She was sixteen, and her life had taken a different turn. This was no time for worrying. For better or for worse, she was married to this man, and thinking of another could be fatal.

The King stood up and raised his water goblet. "The Queen and I… " He glanced down at Eleanor, whose cheeks pinked. "The Queen and I wish to thank you all for coming here tonight, to celebrate our union!" The crowded Great Hall became silent as the great and good of Gravonia raised their glasses. "We thank you and ask that you stay here as long as you like, to enjoy such excellent food and wine and much dancing and revelry!"

"God save the King!" someone shouted, and soon they all were shouting the phrase, over and over again. Eleanor smiled at the crowds, and whispered the same weighty words herself. Henry held his hand out for her and she slowly rose, knowing that everyone in the Great Hall knew what was going to happen to her tonight in the king's bedchamber. She executed a low, swanlike curtsey to them all, and let Henry lead her down from the platform and down through the crowd to the stairs.

Eleanor's ladies did indeed help her out of her wedding dress. She was startled, once undressed, when they told her to take off all her clothes and take a quick bath in perfumed water. She obeyed, quickly dipping into the warm, scented water and was surprised to feel herself relaxing a little. A sheet was raised beside the washtub and she stood up, letting them wrap the sheet around her body. The women helped her to a chair and again she was startled when they began to carefully comb her hair out, leaving it loose and flowing down her back. She had forgotten that her thick black hair was so long—it was almost down to her rear. The ladies then sprayed soft, sweet-smelling perfume in the air around her, and into her hair. Finally, feeling dazed, she was brought to her feet and the sheet was removed, so that she was left naked for a moment before an incredibly soft, plain white cotton nightgown was pulled down over her head. Her hair was pulled out and gently brushed, so that it shone softly in the candlelit room. She noted that the gown had a wide neck, so that it fell off one shoulder and could obviously be easily removed.

"There now," one of the women said. "Perfect. She is exquisite, is she not? The King will be very pleased."

Eleanor took a deep breath and wondered if she could remember how to walk. Fortunately, she wasn't required to put much effort into anything, because her ladies led her into the king's bedchamber. Across from her, on the other side of the bed, stood Henry, also wearing a long white nightshirt that looked strangely incongruous on him. She jumped a little when a priest, wearing white robes, began praying in Latin.

"Faxit Deus uterum fecunda Regina fortissimi filii. In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, Amen."

His Latin is terrible, Eleanor thought, her heart thumping in nervousness. The priest sprinkled holy water onto the bed from a cup, and then swung a censer from side to side, spreading sweet-smiling incense around the room. The priest bowed to Henry and to Eleanor, then turned and left the room. Eleanor's ladies followed, closing the door, and she and Henry were left alone together for the first time.

"Do not fear, Eleanor, I will not harm you," Henry said to her, after several moments of silence.

"I know," she finally said.

"Perhaps you could… maybe you would like to take… take your gown off and lie down?"

Eleanor took a deep breath and slowly pulled the gown down, letting it fall in a soft poof around her feet. Henry stared at her, eyes wide, and she pulled the blanket back and looked down at the bed. On the top sheet was a large white linen cloth, and she realized that sheet would show the proof of her virginity. Swallowing, she carefully climbed into the bed, settling herself over the cloth, and started to pull the blanket up over herself. Henry, however, stopped her and pulled the blanket and sheets away entirely, throwing them over the foot of the huge, ornate bed.

She watched her husband impatiently pull his own nightshirt off and she swallowed when she saw his aroused manhood. But she felt no fear, though—instead, only intense curiosity and growing excitement. She instinctively parted her legs when he climbed into the bed and moved on top of her, kneeling between her thighs. For a moment, he was still, looking down at her, an expression of intense hunger on his face.

"You are… beautiful."

"So are you," she whispered. He was beautiful—there could no denying that. Not at all frightening, as she had worried he would be. When he finally moved over her and kissed her, she slipped her arms around his neck and kissed him back. His body was on hers, but he wasn't overly heavy, and she felt the contrast of their skin—his rough and covered with springy hair, hers smooth and soft. His hands were on her breasts and her belly and between her legs and then his mouth was… everywhere, and then his tongue was moving against her skin and in places where she had never even touched herself, and he was exploring and tasting and she was only feeling pleasure instead of pain or panic, and she welcomed his gentle fingers touching, seeking and testing, preparing her until she was ready and quite willing.

When he joined his body to hers, there was only the very briefest moment of pain, but that faded as he moved expertly over her, kissing her, whispering disjointed praises in her ear as he moved inside her, making her whimper and slide her hands down to touch him, urging him on, arching her back when he finally began to stroke her, gently at first. His words made her blush and gasp and cry out, gripping him between her thighs, moaning helplessly as the intensity and pace of their mating increased and she felt as though her soul was being coiled, tighter and tighter, until she couldn't bear it any longer and she surrendered, hearing him cry out too, the tension leaving his body. He kissed her deeply, his mouth slanting hungrily over hers as she ran her hands through his hair and over his back, caressing him, and she moaned as he began to move again, his thrusts deeper, and her own answering movements matched his.

He looked into her eyes and she saw the challenge there, and she slowly slipped her legs around his hips, crying out and arching her back as he lifted her hips and began to pump into her, groaning when they finally climaxed together, Henry crying out her name as though it were a prayer. They slowly drifted down, and he made love to her mouth, adoring the sounds of her sighs of pleasure as he made gentle motions inside her, watching with not a little arrogant pleasure as she moaned and began to caress his thighs. Her mouth was wonderful—so soft and sweet, and her tongue was silkily rubbing against his, and he was becoming aroused again.

"I love you," he whispered hotly against her lips. "I love you, Eleanor. Oh, God… you are… the most magni— oh, God… Eleanor…" He was moving again, and so was she, and it was beyond anything Henry had ever experienced. The pleasure was so intense that he was sure that at one point he even lost consciousness, but she was surrounding him, silk and heat and sweetness and utter perfection, milking his body even as he was sure he was utterly spent, and he vowed then and there that he would never, ever touch another woman as long as he lived.

Eleanor was only vaguely awake, in that hazy halfway world between consciousness and sleep, when Henry withdrew from her and sat on the edge of the bed, looking down at her. She sighed softly and lay on her back, stretching and yawning, and she was startled when he whispered to her to lift her hips. She remembered the linen cloth and obeyed, and he pulled it out. She saw that the candles around the room were still lit, and she sat up, shamelessly watching him as he walked across the room to the door. He was, she admitted, an impressive sight.

The King opened the door and stepped out into the hallway, which looked directly down on the Great Hall below.

"I did find the Queen a maiden, and here is the proof of her innocence!" he shouted, holding up the white linen, which was stained with a few drops of blood. "And tonight, if God wills it, the future King of Gravonia has been planted in her womb!"

The crowd below cheered lustily, and he threw the cloth down to them. He turned back, ignoring the two startled guards stationed there, and banged the door shut behind him. Henry blew the candles out and climbed back into bed with Eleanor, catching her mouth in a hot, lusty kiss. She couldn't keep from giggling at first, but her laughter soon turned to moans as his kisses intensified and he caught her wrists in his hand, raising them above her head as he began to move lower on her body, only releasing her hands as he reached his goal and he felt her hand in his hair. He lifted his head briefly, to instruct her, then resumed loving her.

The guards outside the door glanced at each other when they heard the Queen crying the King's name and the sound of the headboard thumping against the wall, and they agreed that a future ruler of Gravonia was very definitely on his way.

22 March 1374

Betsy was hanging the wash out to dry when she caught motion along the western gate of the castle. Straining her eyes, she gasped when she realized who was coming and turned, dropping the basket of wet clothes, and began running toward the courtyard. She scrambled up the stairs into the castle, rushing down the passage until she found Christiane sitting at the fire, reading, and the young Frenchwoman's eyes widened with horror when she saw Betsy's expression.

"Were we so stupid to think…" Betsy whispered. "My God! Go, hurry, and find the Count!"

Count von Hesse appeared in the doorway to the Great Hall and caught Christiane's eye. The Frenchwoman said nothing, but he knew that all their rehearsed speeches were ashes now—there was no way to easily break this news. In doing so, they were going to not just break but utterly shatter the heart of a good man who loved Eleanor with everything he was.

He was the courtyard now, dismounting from Amiel and coming up the steps, smiling. When Betsy appeared in the doorway, he grinned at her. "Betsy. Or… was it Mrs Bolingbrooke? Where is Eleanor?"

At first, he didn't notice her stricken expression. He was looking around the courtyard, then down into the dark hallway, expecting to see Eleanor running toward him, laughing and delighted to see him. He finally stopped when he looked at Betsy again, confused.

"Where is Eleanor, Betsy?"

Count von Hesse was in the doorway now, behind Betsy, and he drew in his breath. "Your Royal Highness, I… perhaps we might speak privately?"

"Where the hell is Eleanor?" Constantine demanded, voice hard, drawing on a bit of royal arrogance to get his point across.

"I… I'm terribly sorry, sir, but she… "

"Eleanor… my poor little lamb…. " Betsy said, shedding tears of real sorrow.

"She became very ill… over the winter… and she… " Count von Hesse looked down, unable to go on.

Christiane finally stepped out from behind the Count. "There was no way to get word to you in time, Your Highness," she said gently. "She died the day after her sixteenth birthday, sir. A wasting fever. We have never mourned a loss more deeply or painfully, and we may never recover."

Constantine stared at them all as if they had gone mad. For several moments, he said nothing. Just stared, bewildered. Finally, he drew in a shaky breath. "You are lying."

"I am sorry, sir. We wanted to get word to you, but the passes…" von Hesse managed.

"Where is Eleanor?!" Constantine shouted at them. "Take me to her this instant! I demand to see her!"

"She is buried in the chapel graveyard," von Hesse finally managed. Seeing his beloved daughter ride away in that carriage, just a few days ago, had been the most painful experience of his life. To say that she was dead was ten times more agonizing. The very thought of her being away from him, though alive and by all accounts still in good health, was horrible enough for him, and he had wept in Christiane's arms every night since. He still had not heard word of how things had gone in Luvov. He could only pray that she was well, and that God would forgive him for his deceit.

Constantine was already striding away, toward the chapel, and the Count and his servants ran to catch up with him. The Morvenian prince pushed the graveyard gate open and strode past the stone slabs until he came to the new, fresh grave, which was still covered with blue flowers. He stared down at the name and dates on the marker, and von Hesse couldn't bear to watch as the prince pulled a small gold ring from his pocket and placed it on the stone, pausing there, head bowed, before suddenly turning and stalking out. His expression was truly something terrible—he was enraged, confused, grieved, and even frightened. He pushed past them all and got back on Amiel, turning the grey stallion around and galloping out of the courtyard and away from the castle at full speed. Betsy collapsed against Christiane, shedding tears for the devastated prince, and von Hesse went in search of Father Ulrich for another tearful confession.

Eleanor listened as the choir sang, voices lifting up to the rafters of the cathedral, and she glanced up at the canopy being held over her head by four husky altar boys. The Archbishop, who had married her to Henry yesterday, was chanting in Latin and swinging a censer from side to side, and another bishop handed her a heavy gold orb and a scepter. She held them both confidently, barely feeling their weight, and she looked across the way at Henry, who was now standing and coming toward her. He dropped down on one knee before her, which startled everyone in the congregation.

"I do declare to all that you are by all rights hereby declared Queen Consort of Gravonia, Rex Regina and mother of kings! God save the Queen!"

He stood again, and removed his own crown and placed it on Eleanor's head, which further astonished everyone and made her blink under its weight. After several moments, he took the crown and placed it on his head again, and turned to the astonished bishop holding the Consort's Crown on a red velvet pillow. He held it up over Eleanor's head for one brief, dramatic moment before settling it on her head, adjusting it just a little, and stood back, smiling at her, and she knew what he was thinking—he had mentioned that morning that he would love to make love to her while she was wearing her crown. And nothing else, of course.

"God save the Queen!" Henry said, looking around them. Soon, everyone in the cathedral was shouting the powerful phrase again and again, and Eleanor was finally allowed to sit down on the consort's gold and ivory throne, which was intensely uncomfortable. She felt the weight of the crown, but soon adapted well to it and stood again, handing the orb and scepter to one of the bishops, then warmly embraced Henry, kissing him on each cheek before bowing low before him.

"I do before God declare myself to be your faithful and devoted helpmeet and Queen, ever loyal to Gravonia and to my beloved King. God save the King!"

Henry took her hands and lifted her back to her full height. The crown seemed to weigh less and less with each moment, and she smiled and stood on her toes to kiss her husband on each cheek again before embracing him, liking the feel of his arms around her waist as he lifted her off her feet. The congregation was cheering and clapping, and when Henry led Eleanor outside onto the steps of the cathedral, she heard the bells ringing and smiled and waved to the cheering crowds, and she could hear Count von Hesse's voice shouting with them.

You were born to be a Queen!

Constantine dropped the reins and let Amiel go wherever he wanted. He could only sit, stunned, in the saddle, unable to move at all or think or feel. The warhorse ambled through the woods, heading northwards for a good while before turning east and making his way down to the Turon River. The horse stopped at the edge and began drinking, and Constantine slid down from the saddle, collapsing in the grass. He got up and tore his tunic off, leaving it in the grass, then staggered to the waters' edge. He knelt there for a long time, suddenly unable to breathe, and finally retched violently into the grass, gasping, trying to hold back his tears, but he was finally overcome. His cries of grief could be heard for many miles away, but he simply didn't care. He lay down in the grass and wept without shame for hours, until he had no more tears.

He had lost everything that would ever mean anything to him, and now there was nothing. Nothing at all. Just a gaping hole in his heart that could never be filled.

Feeling empty and chilled to the bone, Constantine swung back astride Amiel and began the long, lonely ride home. He barely even stopped to rest on the way, ignoring cold and wind and rain, and arrived at the royal palace in Garon after just two days of riding blindly, letting the horse find his way.

He was dismounting in the courtyard, pulling off Amiel's saddle and bridle, when Philip came down the steps, looking around expectantly and smiling, but becoming increasingly confused when he saw no lovely young woman riding in with Constantine. "Hey, now, brother, where is my new sister-in-law? I'm looking forward to shamelessly baiting her temper!"

"Dead," Constantine said, without expression or even inflection.

"I was loo—… " Philip ground to a halt, totally stunned. "What?"

"She is dead. She died last month, of a fever." He threw Amiel's saddle over his shoulder. "I do not wish to speak of it… or her… ever again. Since I am the only hope of the royal line continuing, however, I must of course still marry and breed heirs. So get me a wife. I don't give a damn who she is, so long as she is not dark-haired or blue-eyed. See she's not stupid and that she's reasonably attractive, but I don't care to… to become attached. It would be best, really, if she's even a mute, though I guess that would be unreasonable. I don't wish to be involved in the process, either. Tell me what day and what time to be in the chapel, and that will be fine. I'll get sons for Morvenia. That is what I'm really here for, after all, besides winning our damned wars, right?"

He turned from his brother, leading Amiel toward the stables, and King Philip could find nothing to say.

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