The Queen of the May

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Christiane Chastain de Melleraie studied Eleanor carefully, walking around her as the girl stood still in the middle of the room. She had a small open book in her hands, and was jotting things down in French, murmuring under her breath.

"At least five feet five inches already, I see, and still growing. I suspect you will be perhaps five feet and seven inches or a bit more when you are finished. A very good height."

Eleanor didn't know what to say. She had been told to stand still, and was doing her best to obey. The urge to ask questions, however, was overwhelming. What was all this about?

The Frenchwoman extracted a roll of tape from her pocket and proceeded to measure around Eleanor's head, neck, bust, waist and hips, murmuring softly as she wrote down each measurement. She had Eleanor sit down then and measured her feet, muttering in French and making more notes in her book before having her stand again. She examined Eleanor's eyes, teeth, fingernails and ears and nodded, looking pleased. "All very well put together, and very balanced. Beautiful, thick, nearly black hair. Very good teeth, clean nails, fine ears, clear gorgeous eyes… "

"Excuse me, but I am not a horse!" Eleanor said at last, becoming annoyed.

"Oh, Eleanor, I am sorry. I am merely required to keep records of all your measurements and features." She finished writing in her notebook, tied it shut and put it in her pocket. "Do not be offended." She smiled. "Please, sit down."

Eleanor sat down, and Christiane shook her head. "Non, non, dearest child, not like that. Smoothly… gracefully. You approach the chair comme ça," she demonstrated, smoothly gathering her skirt train to one side, and didn't so much as drop into the chair as she seemed to glide into it.She crossed her ankles even before she was fully seated, which made Eleanor think of the way a swan would glide across a still pond. "Now, try again," she said, getting up with the same smooth elegance.

Feeling very foolish, Eleanor followed Christiane's example several times until the Frenchwoman was satisfied. "Now, we practice our walking. Please show me how you walk."

Eleanor felt tempted to waddle like a duck, but opted against it. She walked as she always did, and Christiane seemed fairly pleased, but got up and turned her around. "Now, when you walk, you must hold your hands out front, as if in prayer, but down near your waist, and you step out… doucement… smoothly, yes? Do not mince by any means—Englishwomen do that—and always keep you chin up, parallel to the floor. You must always show your lovely neck, too, so we must lower the necklines of your dresses… more décolletage, I think, and we must find you some proper jewelry. Lace needs to be added to the edging of all your undergarments, so that it is seen along the top of your bodices, and really, I think it is time the Count opened up his vaults to find you some proper headdresses, jeweled caps and tiaras. Diamonds and emeralds will suit you quite well, and pearls and obviously amethysts and rubies…"

"Tiaras?" Eleanor asked, astonished. "I'm not of noble blood. I can't…"

"Of course you can. You are the Count's ward, oui?" Christiane handed Eleanor a fan and opened her own. "Let me show you how to use a fan—this is rather fun."

Eleanor opened hers and began fanning herself, figuring that was about the only thing a fan was good for.

"Non, non, mademoiselle. A fan is what you use during a fete or a ball—you use it to give signals." She fluttered her fan flirtatiously, just beneath her eyes, batting her eyelashes at the same time. "That means… 'Please come ask me to dance'. She turned the fan around and held it up, covering her face entirely. This means… 'I am shy' or sometimes 'I have a huge zit on my nose', which is worse." Christiane held the fan in her outstretched arm, other hand on her chest, with her body turned away. "This means 'I find you revolting! Stay away!'"

Eleanor rolled her eyes. "And what does a woman do if she's just hot?"

"She goes outside and hopes her lover follows her," Christiane said with a laugh. "Now, we've another brief lesson for you before we go down for lunch. Come with me." She led Eleanor out of the room and into the gallery above the Great Hall, and Eleanor was bewildered to see a group of chairs arranged in a circle, each one labelled with a piece of paper with writing on it. Christiane stepped up to the first chair and executed a graceful curtsey. "Madame de Valle, it is a great pleasure to meet you."

That was just too much. "Are you all right, Mademoiselle de Melleraie?"

"I am quite well. Let me introduce you to Madame de Valle," she said, gesturing for Eleanor to come over to be introduced. The young girl finally walked over and made an awkward bob to the chair. "Non, non, Eleanor! You must curtsey gracefully! Do it again."

"To the chair?" Eleanor asked, bewildered.

"Yes. Go ahead."

Eleanor executed a graceful curtsey to the invisible Madame de Valle. Christiane then introduced her to other invisible people occupying each chair, one at a time, and was pleased when the introductions were all made and Eleanor had shown her curtseying and small talk skills. "Quite good. Now, Eleanor, you shall step back into the room for a moment please?"

"Do you have something to talk to your… friends… about?" Eleanor asked her cautiously.

"No. Just go wait for a moment and when I call you, come back in. Go… se dépêcher!"

Eleanor backed away from her governess, wondering if perhaps the woman was still overtired from the long journey from France. Or perhaps she was just crazy. But she went into the room just the same, looking around in bewilderment. Her morning so far had been bizarre, and it was only getting stranger.

"Come back now, Eleanor," Christiane called.

All right, Eleanor thought. If she crows like a chicken and demands I lay an egg for her, I'm going straight to the Count for a discussion. She stepped back out into the gallery and looked at Christiane, who was smiling broadly. The chairs were all still arranged there, but now they had no labels.

"Do you remember the people you spoke to, Eleanor?" the governess asked her.

Eleanor stared at the woman for a moment, pondering having a talk with the Count just the same, and finally went around the room, from chair to chair, greeting each 'person' by name, recalling each one flawlessly. Christiane clapped her hands when she was finished, looking enraptured. "Oh, vous êtes un trésor!" she said. "I have never had a student like you!"

"I have… a very good memory," Eleanor said weakly. "Do you know, there was a man in Turon who talked to chamber pots and his family finally had to send him away… and frankly, no one ever dared stand near their windows… "

Christiane burst into laughter. "That was merely an exercise, mon petit oiseau. My mother did the same to me, and I thought she was maboul, too, but it helped me with my memory and that is essential for a position you will have one day. Come on now, time for lunch. Is the cook here very good?"

"He's never killed anyone," Eleanor said. "The Count hires a French chef sometimes, when we have important visitors. Last time was when the Spanish ambassador stopped here on his way up to Havor."

"Oh? What did he make?" Christiane asked her as they went downstairs.

"A bloody fool of himself," Eleanor muttered, remembering.

"No, what did the cook make," the governess asked, smiling.

"Oh. Roasted duck and some kind of ham dish. The ambassador drank too much and insisted on waltzing the Count around the Great Hall, and so he's not really welcome here again."

Christiane laughed all the way to the Great Hall.

Eleanor's mornings were no longer free. Every day, without exception, she had to rise early and be dressed carefully by a pair of women Christiane had the Count hire solely for the purpose of attending her. Once properly attired and with her hair arranged, she had to begin her lessons after Mass, working diligently on her deportment until the nooning meal. After that, she had her regular lessons, followed by further studies with Christiane on sewing, embroidery, the care and maintenance of her clothes, and other things, like serving tea and arranging flowers.

Yet Christiane, more than anyone in the castle besides Betsy, seemed to recognize the growing restlessness in the girl. She sympathized with Eleanor over her lack of privacy—she was not permitted to sleep alone in her room any more, as the women hired to attend her were required to be with her at all times, without exception, and slept on pallets at the foot of her bed. She was also not permitted to go riding any more unless the Count was with her. Fortunately, he did allow her to visit her friends in Turon, but again, the two ladies attending her had to be with her during her visits and to never leave her side.

"But why?" Eleanor asked Christiane one day, frustrated yet again when she couldn't even go for a walk around the castle without the two women walking four paces behind her. "Why can I not be alone anymore? I can't even sit down to read alone!"

"I know, dearest, and I wish I could change these rules, but the Count has made it so." Christiane put down her sewing and glanced at the two women—Maggie and Ulrica—who were standing in the corner of the room, fingers clasped and waiting to move the moment Eleanor did. "It is merely a way to get you accustomed to such things. This is how your life is going to be, Eleanor, and you must make the best of it."

"How can there be a best of it?" Eleanor snapped, irritated. "There is no best to it at all!"

Christiane spread her hands on her lap, thinking, and finally stood up. "Today we must discuss what life will be like for you one day, Eleanor."

"What life?" Eleanor asked her, voice rising with her temper. "What sort of life is this? I'd rather stay a peasant!"

"Except that you can't, as you are no ordinary peasant and never have been," Christiane said calmly. "Your life is going to be very exciting, and once you're in that life, you can make your own decisions and, if you do not want anyone following you everywhere you go, you can make changes… though I suspect the man you marry will consider it best to continue the custom. As it is, the position you will have will make having a pair, or even a group of ladies, about all the time rather… necessary."

"Position? What position? Why can't you tell me?" Eleanor demanded, stamping her foot angrily. "I demand to know! It will be my own life, won't it? Don't I have a say?"

"You will have a very important position in the world, Eleanor. Right now, you do not need to know, but you will know when the Count decides it is time. Now please, moderate your tone and take a deep breath. Come on. A proper lady does not throw temper tantrums."

Angry and frustrated, Eleanor drew in her breath, her face flushed and her heart pounding.

"Now, let out your breath slowly, counting backwards from ten until all the air is out. Do it again if need be."

Eleanor had to perform the calming exercise three times before she was breathing normally. "I want to decide on my own life," she said quietly. "I want to choose my own path."

Christiane examined the girl, genuine sympathy in her eyes, and finally placed a cool, soothing hand on her cheek. "Sometimes, mon petit ouiseau, the path chooses you."

Count von Hesse asked for Christiane to come to his private study after supper. Eleanor, followed by her ladies, retired to the schoolroom, where she was to be examined on her grasp of Greek. von Hesse watched his ward walk away, noticing how the girl seemed to be dragging, weariness and dissatisfaction obvious in her every step. Sighing heavily, he admitted the governess to his room and closed the door. Christiane sat down gracefully in a chair at his desk and folded her hands neatly in her lap.

"She is doing well in her lessons?" von Hesse asked, sitting down.

"Extremely well, Comte de Hesse. Very well indeed. She is brilliantly intelligent, and she learns very quickly. She is a prodigy… but monsieur, she is also very unhappy. She is beginning to strain at her stays."

"I know," von Hesse muttered.

"I think it would be a good idea to… let her have some time alone sometimes. Get her ladies away from her—she gets along with them well, and they are nice enough in their own right, but she doesn't understand why she must have a pair of ladies follow her about and stay in every room where she is. Everyone needs to be alone sometimes."

"That cannot be done," von Hesse shook his head. "I want her to be accustomed to that sort of thing."

"She is accustomed to it, sir, but she hates it. Do you really want her embittered when she goes to France?"

"She will not be bitter. That is not in her nature."

"It can become so," Christiane disagreed. "She is becoming… oh, what is the word I seek… Betsy said it to me a few days ago… yes… brittle. No man wants a brittle, angry wife."

von Hesse frowned at the governess. "You must teach her not to be brittle or angry. You must instruct her on how to be quite the opposite, and completely at ease in every type of situation that will arise to her in France."

"She will have several years before she rises to the position you see for her," Christiane said. "Should not she be allowed to have some freedom now, before the duties of marriage and childbearing?"

He drummed his fingers on the table, becoming impatient. Christiane Chastain de Melleraie had come very highly recommended, having successfully turned out several highly-placed young women in the past three years. Most recently, she had trained a girl from the minor Italian nobility for the role of wife to a very, very powerful prince, and that young woman was already a power to be reckoned with in Rome.

"You will do as I say and train Eleanor. She must know how to act, how to speak, and how to do all feminine things gracefully, properly and instinctively. No one in France is to even have cause to think she is not of… noble blood."

"But she is, isn't she?" Christiane asked. "Her mother was the daughter of a king."

"Illegitimate," von Hesse snapped. "Where I intend to send her, that sort of thing is hardly considered a plus. My negotiations in France are based on them believing that Eleanor was orphaned as a child and has no family besides me left, and that she is my ward." He looked at his hands, unclenching them. "I am going to Styria soon, to speak with my lawyers and the herald about formally adopting Eleanor and making her my heir. Then she will have a great fortune, vast acres and the County as her own. She is already considered a great… "

"Commodity, yes, I understand," Christiane said, looking less than happy with the term.

"That is not the word I was seeking!" von Hesse growled.

"What then?" she asked, cocking her head to one side.

"Catch… or… or prize. A treasure. Eleanor is a treasure."

"She is indeed," Christiane nodded. She rose smoothly from her chair, curtseyed, and left the room. von Hesse, his chain displaying his emblem of the Order of St Barnabas clanking against his desk, dropped his head into his hands and wondered again if he had made the right decision.

The next part of Eleanor's 'polishing' was the most bewildering of all, in her opinion.

One morning when she came downstairs for breakfast, she was puzzled to see a tall, whip-thin man standing in the Great Hall, talking with the Count. When the man saw her, he swept his feathered hat off and bowed deeply to her. She curtseyed back, and the man took her hands, staring deeply into her eyes.

"My God, she is perfection!" the man finally said in a heavy German accent, after several alarming moments of staring. "Flawless! Such glorious hair and eyes… dear God, they are bluer than any I have ever seen! Exquisite!"

"I'm hardly that… " Eleanor shook her head.

"No, no, fraulein, you are a perfect specimen of womanhood! Graf von Hesse, you will have no trouble at all finding her a husband! And he will move any mountain for her as well!"

von Hesse cleared his throat, becoming brisk. "Eleanor, this is your dancing and music instructor, Herr Franz… uh… Dudelsackpfeifer."

Eleanor stared at the Count and had to purse her lips to cover her laughter. "You're... joking?"

"No, Goosey, Herr Dudelsackpfeifer is going to teach you how to sing and dance in the proper... way."

How he expected her to sing and dance properly while giggling Eleanor had no idea. The incredibly thin man gestured for Eleanor to stand in the middle of the beautiful handwoven carpet before the fire. "First I wish to see if you have natural grace. Stand on your toes and raise your arms above your head!"

"Count von Hesse, I... " Eleanor said, looking desperately at the Count, but he was retreating to the table, and she could have sworn she saw his shoulders shaking. The German gestured again, more emphatically now, and she clenched her fists and went to the carpet. Eyes set at middle distance, she raised herself up onto her toes and raised her arms.

Herr Dudelsackpfeifer clapped. "Lupenrein! She is symmetry itself! A goddess!"

"Now that's just...blasphem-... " Eleanor sputtered, dropping her arms back to her sides.

"You are to learn all the Court dances, fraulein!" Herr Dudelsackpfeifer told her. "I am only here for two weeks, alas, but at least it looks like I have an easy job of it! She is so graceful, Graf von Hesse! Like a... a... rabbit!" He circled Eleanor, his very actions seeming to have exclamation points. "Before we start, we must eat! Do you have any streudel, Graf von Hesse?"

From the table, she heard von Hesse say "Rabbit?"

Eleanor managed to make it to the table and sat down gracefully. Herr Dudelsackpfeifer sat down opposite her and after the blessing he burbled on excitedly about Eleanor's physical perfections. She found him easy to tune out, however, ate her bread and cheese in silence, and refused any streudel when the servants brought some out.

She learned that Herr Dudelsackpfeifer's ancestors had gone to Germany from Scotland almost a hundred years before, and as one was a renowned bagpiper, the family name was changed somewhere along the way. It apparently didn't occur to the man that it was hard for anyone to take him seriously with a name like that. Besides which, he talked loudly and excitedly, regardless of whether he was talking about dancing or a piece of bread, and his voice was rather high-pitched and reedy. No matter what he said, he gave his comments an importance they didn't deserve.

In spite of his name, words and actions making Eleanor want to collapse into fits of giggles, he still taught her how to dance, and he was a skilled and patient instructor. After two weeks of rigorous lessons, she was able to move smoothly around the room, whether alone or with a partner, and was able to turn her mind off as she danced, so that she didn't feel as ridiculous as she felt. The singing lessons, too, were not terribly bad, as she possessed a fairly passable alto, and she knew how to read music already. Dudelsackpfeifer seemed satisfied with her progress, and after his two weeks were finished, he returned to Munich triumphant, still talking excitedly even as he was bundled into his carriage and carried away.

With the strange German finally gone, Eleanor was able to put dancing and singing out of her mind. Apparently her lessons in mathematics were also over, but her French lessons were intensified—she had to speak perfect 'Court' French, according to Count von Hesse, and had to learn how to play card games and to even gamble. Eleanor had no enthusiasm for either, but she approached learning them with her usual seriousness until she was able to win regularly.

Christiane was diligent in keeping up her daily lessons in the feminine arts—Eleanor was required to walk around for hours with a stack of books on her head, until her balance and the smoothness of her gait were both flawless. She also had to continue with the memory exercises, except that after initial 'introductions', she would return to the gallery to find the chairs rearranged and was required to remember who was who in any order.

The Frenchwoman marveled at Eleanor's intelligence, but worried more and more frequently that she was being pushed too hard. Eleanor rarely smiled any more, and never laughed. To Christiane, a thirteen-year old girl should be laughing all the time, and enjoying her life. Instead, Eleanor was tense and silent, and clearly growing more and more frustrated.

"The light is gone from her eyes, Comte de Hesse," Christiane told the Count one evening after Eleanor had left the table to continue her French lessons. "She does what she is told, but she is... how you say... very dull. There is no joy in her any more. You must tell her what this is all for, sir. She must know. At least then she will know what the goal is and perhaps even strive for it."

"And would that bring the light back to her eyes?" he asked her, somewhat sarcastically.

"At least it would make her understand the purpose of it all."

von Hesse pondered over it, until finally one day after the nooning meal he dismissed Christiane and called Eleanor into his study. She walked in slowly, her steps measured and smooth, her shoulders back and her head high to display a long, slender neck. He realized suddenly that she had not been outside the castle doors in almost two months—it was good for her skin to be pale and smooth, but prison pallor was not the objective.

He was killing the poor child.

"Sit down, Eleanor."

Coolly obedient, Eleanor settled lightly into the chair and placed her hands in her lap.

"I have... decided on your... uh... marital future."

Her expression did not change. She only stared at him, waiting. There was indeed no light in her eyes.

"When you are sixteen, you will travel with me to France and there, after all has been settled and you gave given your free consent, you will... you will marry the Prince Louis de Montpensier, who is fourth in line to the throne of France."

The girl was very still, and von Hesse cleared his throat, having not been under the weight of that gaze in a very long time.

"His father is Prince Charles de Bourbon, the son of Charles, Duc de Bourbon, second brother of King Louis. Charles de Bourbon is very sickly and not likely to live very much longer. The Duc de Bourbon has no other sons, and neither King Louis nor the Duc d'Orleans have sons of their own. It is well accepted that Louis de Montpensier will be King of France someday, probably in the next fifteen to twenty years. He wishes to marry well, to a woman of excellent virtue and great fortune."

"I have no fortune," Eleanor said softly. "I have nothing."

"You will. Because very soon I intend to set in motion the process of your adoption as my daughter and heiress. You will inherit my title, my lands and my fortune, which is quite large."

"But... but you have a cousin... "

"Who is a buffoon and undeserving of my County. You will be Countess von Hesse in your own right, upon my death, and you will be the wealthiest person, man or woman, in this entire region."

"But... " Eleanor looked bewildered, and she pressed her fingers to her forehead. "I cannot... I would be Queen of France. It's impossible."

"You will be a queen, Eleanor."

"But I'm only a peasant!" she objected again.

"The Prince de Montpensier only knows you as my heiress, orphaned as a child, which is true, and a relative of mine, which gives you the required amount of noble blood."

"But I have no noble blood!" Eleanor cried, hugging herself and looking extremely frightened. "I'm only a peasant!"

von Hesse carefully restrained himself from telling her the truth. Instead, he shook his head and went around his desk to her, taking her hands in his and gently pulling her to her feet. "Listen to me, Eleanor. Listen."

"No, no... I cannot do it! I can't!" She shook her head, frantic.

"Yes, you can. Listen to me," he told her, touching her chin and lifting her face up to him. "There is no woman in all Europe better qualified for the office of queen—not even the daughters of the kings of the Continent themselves. You are strong and healthy, which are gifts not found among the French nobility, I can assure you. You are intelligent and superbly educated. Lastly, you are growing into a stunning beauty. The French will adore you, and your future husband... he will love you the moment he sees you."

"This cannot be," she told him, tears welling in her eyes. "This cannot be my destiny. She cannot be right. She cannot!"

"Who cannot be right?" von Hesse asked, puzzled.

Eleanor dropped into her chair and clasped her hands together. "The gypsy woman."

A chill entered von Hesse's chest and he breathed out slowly. "What gypsy woman?"

"She was at the gypsy camp outside the north gate of Turon... the day I went into town alone. She told me I was going to be... to be a queen."

"You spoke with a gypsy?"

"She read my fortune."

Had von Hesse been a violent man, he would have struck Eleanor. But he had never struck her before—when she had been a child, it had been Betsy who issued corporal punishment to her when she had been willfully disobedient or disrespectful, and those incidents had been very few and far between. Instead, he clenched his fists and went back to his seat. He sat down, hands on the desk, and finally he leaned forward.

"You will never go near any gypsy, ever again, do you understand me?" he told her, his voice harsh.

She sat down again, tears flowing down her cheeks, and he watched miserably his darling sweet girl collapsed into heart-rendering sobs. She put her head down on her knees and cried for a long time, until she was dried out and sat up, wiping her eyes with the heels of her palms, as she had done as a child. Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes were red, and von Hesse felt more awful than he had ever felt in his life—worse even than the day Margaret Trueblood told him she was marrying John Reeve.

"Do not fear, Eleanor," he finally said. "And... I assure you now that if you do not like the Prince and do not want to marry him, I will not force you."

She forgot her posture and sat back in the seat, clutching the arms of the chair, and he saw she was trembling. "Is... is he old?"

"No, Goosey, he's twenty-two and handsome, and very strong. He is tall and well-built, with dark hair and blue eyes, and he is well-educated, very intelligent and is even known to be brave in battle. He is very devout, too, and charitable to the poor and the needy."

"You've met him?" she asked softly, looking at the floor.

"Yes. I told him about you, too. He seems very eager to meet you. We will leave here when the passes clear, after you turn sixteen, and we will stay in Paris for the summer. You will spend time with the prince, and if you find him acceptable, you and he will marry in the fall."

"But... if I don't like him?"

"You will come home with me."

Eleanor was still slumped in the chair, her fear dissipating a little but her nervousness and unease remained. "This is why I must learn French manners and ways?"

"Yes. In a few years after you marry Montpensier, you will be Queen of France—La Reine de France. You will have great influence, Eleanor. And great power."

"I don't want power," Eleanor whispered.

"Child, it is your destiny. It is where you belong. You were born to be a Queen and your road leads directly to a throne. It is as God wills—I know it. I have known it for some time now, and perhaps… perhaps the gypsy woman sensed it, too." He frowned, determining to track that conniving harpy down and making sure she paid for upsetting Eleanor so much. "There can be no other reason for you being here, or for you surviving the massacre of Teslo. It has to be, and there can be no diversion from this path."

"It is my fate then?" Eleanor whispered.

"It is, child. It was written in your stars from your birth. There can be no other reason for God to have placed you here." von Hesse went back around to her and pulled her into his arms, holding her close and gently stroking her hair. "Whatever your destiny is, child, the pain of seeing you leave here will be the worst I have ever known, and I will not give you up to anyone even slightly unworthy."

After her conversation with the Count, Eleanor's routine suddenly changed. Her rigorous lessons suddenly stopped and she was never called to the schoolroom again, and her tutors were sent home. Christiane was also told to only require Eleanor to endure weekly lessons on deportment. Gradually, the young girl's tension and restlessness faded, and by September she was much more energetic. Even more, the Count began to allow her to go riding again, only requiring that if she went beyond the castle perimeters, she was to be accompanied by her two ladies or by Christiane. Eleanor accepted these rules without much protest, and settled into her more relaxed routine.

Summer faded into fall, with the abundant harvest keeping everyone in the valley busy every day, from dawn until dusk. Eleanor was permitted to attend the Harvest Festival at the beginning of October, with only Christiane accompanying her to Turon, and she enjoyed visiting with her friends and joining in the festivities. She was not, however, permitted to assist in the harvest on his lands. Instead, she was allowed to accompany the Count when he went hunting, which thrilled her. Having never before ridden with the hounds, she was excited to kill her first boar one evening, and became more and more proficient with her crossbow, frequently bringing down her prey.

Even more, the Count would tell her about the splendor of the French court, and about the people she would meet, and he told about the French royal family itself and who she would be dealing with on a daily basis. "It is important," he told her one afternoon as they rested during a stag hunt, "that you know who is who in Paris, and who your friends will be and who will be your enemies. It pains me to say it, Eleanor, but you will have enemies, and you must keep them closer than even your friends."

von Hesse decided to make a quick trip to Styria to not only formally adopt Eleanor, but also to create a coat of arms for her, quartering her own family arms to his, with a chain in the middle of the crest symbolizing her becoming a member of the von Hesse tribe. The court herald in Styria had only to present the petition to the King, who approved it, and the Count returned looking pleased. He handed Eleanor a sealed vellum scroll, and she opened it eagerly.

"So… now I am your daughter?" she asked softly, after reading the official proclamation, which showed her new coat of arms. She was now truly Lady Eleanor Reeve, Heiress to the County of Hesse in Livonia. Her own arms (three arrows surmounted by a coronet) were now joined to his, and she had a new Latin motto: Pax in virtute.

"You have been since the day you arrived here," he told her. "Now it's merely official, Goosey. I am quite tired and long for a nap before supper." He kissed her cheek and gave her chin a little pinch. "Go on and take a ride down to the fields below the bailey… take Mademoiselle de Melleraie with you and be careful."

When the Count was inside, Eleanor called for her horse and sent for Christiane, and soon they were riding down the deer path toward the wheat fields. Christiane was an uncertain rider, and lagged behind as Eleanor rode confidently through the woods, and so she was not with her when she heard the sound of metal clanking against metal, and male voices. Cautiously, she urged Merlin toward a small path and stepped out into the sunlight.

There were several men—perhaps twenty or so—camped in the well-concealed clearing, and they had apparently just pitched their tents and started removing their horses' tack—the animals were all sweaty and the knights looked weary. Nonetheless, they were practicing sword fighting, using their shining steel battle swords, and she watched as two of them went at each other. The taller of the two finally knocked his opponent down by sweeping his leg and shoving his shield into the man's chest, sending him flying back several feet. The fallen knight lay still for a moment until his conqueror held out his hand and pulled him up, clapping him on the back.

"You were just lucky, sir," the defeated knight laughed, looking only a little winded.

"Better me than you." The victorious knight removed his helmet and Eleanor gasped.

The sound alerted the taller knight and he turned around, sword drawn, and he saw her. She bowed her head. "Your Royal Highness," she said softly.

Prince Constantine stared at her, momentarily speechless, before finally regaining his poise. "Eleanor. Er… Lady Eleanor. It's… good to see you again."

"Thank you, my lord."

Christiane came bursting out the woods then, looking a little disgruntled. "Good God, Eleanor, I thought I had lost you!" She brought her horse to a skidding halt and stared at the knights in astonishment. "Sacre bleu!"

"Do not fear, Christiane. These are Morvenian knights," Eleanor said quickly. "Prince Constantine and his men are… making camp here, it seems."

"Only for the night," Constantine said. "We are on our way to Havor. We have been called to help them defend against the Lacovians."

"I see," Eleanor said softly. "Do they never leave anyone in peace?" She gazed at Constantine, noting that he had let his hair grow out a bit, but he was still beardless. He was still lean, if his armor indicated anything, with the same wide chest and broad shoulders, and he still played with his mail gloves when uneasy. She stared at him as he stared back, until Christiane cleared her throat, awaiting introductions.

"Oh… this is… this is my governess, Mademoiselle Christiane Chastain de Melleraie. Christiane, this is Prince Constantine of Morvenia."

He bowed slightly to Christiane, but his gaze never left Eleanor. "You've grown a bit, Lady Eleanor."

"Yes… I'm afraid so," she nodded, her cheeks pinking.

"Growing is a good thing," he finally managed, his gaze dropping from her face to her chest and then away. He cleared his throat. "We've taken a few apples from the Count's trees—I hope he will not be offended."

"I am very sure he will not be at all offended, sir," Eleanor answered. "I am pleased to see you and your men are all… well. Is your brother the King in good health?"

"Yes. Very busy with being a king, too. He has no time at all to just be a man."

"I can imagine." She smiled softly. "The Count von Hesse and his household wish him all peace and prosperity." She glanced at his sword and was curious to see her blue silk ribbon tied around the hilt. "And you, too, of course."

The prince sheathed the sword, and Christiane smiled at him, intrigued by his rough looks and arresting green eyes.

"So you are the great Prince Constantine," she said. "They call you the Dragon, you know. You've quite the reputation."

"For what?" Eleanor asked, looking at her governess.

"For never losing a battle, dearest," Christiane told her. "No wonder France is eager to make friends with Morvenia. I doubt we would want to face you in battle, my lord," she said, smiling at him.

He only shrugged slightly. "That kind of thing can never last forever," he said. "All winning streaks must end."

"I would beg to differ, Your Royal Highness. I have heard you are called the next Alexander. Then again, I'm sure you wouldn't want to face our little Eleanor in battle," Christiane said with a smile. "She is quite the warrior in her own right."

"Christiane… " Eleanor gasped, appalled, and gave her governess a hard look, but she was ignored.

"Warrior?" Constantine's brow furrowed. "You've been in a battle?"

Eleanor shook her head, still glaring at Christiane. "Not a battle, really. Lacovians attempted to lay siege to the castle and… and I…"

"She shot the commander of the Lacovian army in the forehead with her arrow and killed him. It was very remarkable, or so I hear, but then again, it was Eleanor who did it, so it actually seems quite natural, oui? She is an extraordinary young lady. Very accomplished, and not just in the feminine arts. She will be a great ornament in the French Court, I am sure."

Constantine looked stunned. "I had heard von Biron was killed during an unsuccessful siege, but… " He absently fingered the blue ribbon. "The French Court?" he asked, looking directly at Christiane for the first time.

"Yes, Highness. She will go to France in three years' time."

"I see." Constantine continued to twist the blue ribbon around his fingers. "No doubt you will be promoted to General in the French army, Lady Eleanor."

"Something along those lines, I'm sure," Christiane smiled proudly. "She will be a force to be reckoned with." She pretended not to notice Eleanor's appalled expression. "A very great force."

"Then I must say, Eleanor, I hope I never have to face you in battle," Constantine said quietly. "I would hate to have to defeat you and it would be a great blow to my reputation if you defeated me."

Eleanor bowed again to Constantine and turned Merlin around, refusing to look at Christiane again. The French governess caught up with her on the deer path, looking amused.

"I cannot imagine why you would say such things!" Eleanor hissed.

"Why not? A man ought to know who his match is, non?"

"His match?!"

"Oui, his match. You know him well?"

"I… I have met him a few times. I hit him in the face with a snowball earlier this year, during the Frost Fair."

"Good heavens! Why?"

"I was trying to hit someone else and… it doesn't matter anymore." Eleanor kicked Merlin into a gallop and rode away, leaving Christiane behind. The Frenchwoman looked back through the trees at the knights' camp and wasn't surprised to see Prince Constantine still standing there, rubbing the blue silk ribbon between his fingers.

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