King Philip III of Morvenia did not enjoy state visits.
His mother tended to get a head full of steam about wanting to impress everyone, until the coffers were empty and a neighboring country was declaring war over improperly prepared scallops. The visitors he was about to receive were from Portugal, and so not only was he trying to help the palace cook determine what was eaten in the Portuguese court, but also how in God's name he was going to learn to speak their language well enough to greet them properly and not end up calling the King of Portugal a donkey with halitosis who liked to dress like a girl.
Though frankly, that was always a possibility. Heaven knew what sort of things went on in Portugal these days.
Languages were not Philip's forte, either, though he could get by when required. Marie the Queen Mother, as she was now officially called (despising the more common title of Dowager Queen), was only fluent in French and snipe, and Constantine's French was abominable and his Latin laughable—his tutors had declared him hopeless. They had advised sending him on to Havor with only the ability to know when to genuflect at the right times during Mass and how to say 'Pourriez-vous s'il vous plaît répéter en anglais?' with a passably good accent.
The King was eagerly awaiting his brother's return, having not heard one word from him since early February, when a messenger had come with news that Constantine had given the Lacovians a sound thrashing at some place called Presenes and was on his way home. It was starting to worry him, thus, that he had not arrived. He was weary of contending with Marie, who was upset that he had taken down some of the more appalling tapestries from the walls in the Great Hall, and his Council was starting to give him headaches. All because he wanted to open two royal parks, so that poorer citizens of Morvenia could hunt for their own food to feed their families. How was that a bad thing, to let people survive what had been a rather rough winter?
This morning, he had finally received word that Constantine was outside Garon and would be at the palace within the hour. Breathing a sigh of relief, he made sure to forget to provide Marie with the news and had Cook prepare a good roast beef and vegetables. He was sitting down at his table in his own chambers when Constantine stalked in, looking weary but not much the worse for wear. He plopped down into a chair opposite his brother.
"Well, it's good to see you, Constantine. Took your time getting home."
"Thank you, Mother," Constantine said, cutting a chunk of roast for himself and spooning up a nice supply of carrots and other vegetables onto his plate. He waited for Philip to say the blessing. Once that was done, he tucked into his meal with enthusiasm, glad to finally be served plain old Morvenian fare.
"Should I call Cook to fry up a pony for you?" Philip asked mildly, when Constantine went for seconds.
"Remember that siege in… in… oh, God, where was it? Doesn't matter. We had to eat the horses. I cried through every meal."
"I meant to tell you, Constantine… that wasn't horsemeat. It was… "
"Don't tell me!"
"Cats. We ate cats!"
"How was your journey home?" Philip asked, once Constantine had filled himself and the plates had been cleared.
"Ah… a little eventful. Got into a brawl in the Turon forest and… took an arrow to my shoulder and a sword blade to my thigh."
"So… the usual jolly canter through the woods?"
"It was an adventure. Not a fun one for them in the end, though."
"And how did you survive, pray?"
"I managed to get to Ravensburg Castle and recovered there. I suppose it's fortunate I wasn't traveling during the winter or I really doubt I'd be here."
Philip didn't even want to think about that possibility. "I see. But you're well recovered?"
"Quite well. Amazing, what tree bark can do for a wound." He called for an apple tart, and Philip sat back in his chair, knowing Constantine would fill in the details only if pressed, prompted and finally forced. Sometimes it required dragging him down to the rack, but that hadn't been necessary since his brother had been about twelve.
The two men couldn't have been more different in appearance and outlook. Philip was typical of the Gallen dynasty of Morvenia, being tall, fair and blond, with blue eyes and a friendly, outgoing nature. Constantine was slightly taller, strongly muscled, dark, shy and dour-looking, like their paternal grandmother's family, the Counts of Dullenburg in Morvenia. He did possess the Dullenburg sense of humor, albeit on a more subtle and muted scale. Only a few people knew of Constantine's dry wit—most just knew him as the Dragon, and many started shaking when they heard he was coming. Morvenia's friends and allies were relieved to learn he was on the way, though, and Philip knew of no one who dealt with Constantine that reported him being cruel, unreasonable or humorless.
Philip was being called the Just, which he supposed wasn't a bad epithet in the long run. It wasn't as though he was being called Philip the Mutilated.
Of course, no one in Morvenia knew why he was unmarried. No one was ever to know. They could only speculate.
Constantine noticed his brother's frown, and jabbed him with his fork. "So what's been happening around here?"
"State visit coming up soon, I'm afraid. The Portuguese ambassador is due in a week, bringing a train of over a hundred august personages with him, including a pack of hunting dogs he is to make a gift of to me, along with a vast supply of silver, some lovely hand-painted kiln-fired dishes and several Berber horses. On the first night we're making something called bacalhau, which sounds like something you do to a piece of cowhide, in my opinion, but I understand it's cod prepared in one of over three hundred different ways! I'll have to make sure where to send the letters of condolence, should the need arise."
"Dear God, I hope we're not going for all three hundred. But at least it's not the Spanish ambassador. You didn't look very pleased, being waltzed around the Great Hall that evening, but I'll admit—I haven't laughed so hard since."
Philip glared at him and went on. "Cook is already complaining of splitting headaches and the visit isn't even until next week. So how was your visit to Ravensburg?"
Constantine finished his apple tart, and until the waited servants were gone before answering. "Uh… it was all right."
Philip eyed his brother. Constantine only got evasive when it came to women. He never boasted about his conquests, though Philip knew he had few of those to talk about, and the Heir Presumptive had no troublesome royal bastards running about, thank God. He was in all ways honorable and discreet when it came to women, and despite what Constantine thought of what he had to offer, he had a fair number of admirers among the fairer sex, along with many other women who just wanted to sleep with him.
"So there's a young lady at Ravensburg, I gather?" Yep, Philip thought when Constantine paled slightly. Something has happened! "Tell me about her—she must be something different, for you to stop at the castle twice since that snowball incident two years ago and about which you were equally evasive." He paused, thinking. "Don't tell me the young lady in question is the same person who hit you with that snowball!"
"I shouldn't have said a word about that blasted snowball," Constantine said, looking irritated. He had only told Philip about it because it had been so amusing. "I don't wish to discuss it. Besides, she's in pre-contract with some damned French frog." He gulped down his wine and began hiccupping, which he always did when he drank anything with alcohol.
"I see." Philip drummed his fingers on the table. "I hope you remember, Constantine, that you've got to marry and sire a few little candidates for the crown. I really doubt you want to see the throne passed to cousin Stephen. He was here the other day… him and the Baroness."
"Whom we both hope remains a Barren-ess," Constantine nodded.
The prince frowned. "I know. But then it's Gervase, who still has that ugly mole. That wouldn't look good on the coinage, you know—that thing would take up the whole bloody coin! So you'll need a strong, healthy woman. I imagine you're looking for someone just like Mother."
"I would rather eat nails."
Philip grinned. "But still, you must marry and procreate. Is the young lady at Ravensburg of suitable age?"
Constantine shook his head. "She is pre-contracted."
"But you like her, right? Pre-contracts can be terminated, particularly if her father determines she has a shot at a consort's throne. Who is her father?"
Sighing, Constantine gave up. "She is the ward of Count von Hesse. He has apparently legally adopted her, though, so she is his heir."
Philip looked surprised then. "Frederick von Hesse is the wealthiest man in Livonia and one of the richest men on the Continent! She'll be getting a vast fortune—her dowry alone would be cartloads of gold!" He sat back in his chair, thinking. "I am surprised he would make a girl his heir, though, as he does have that cousin…"
"Can we not discuss this? von Hesse is sending her to France, and I'm sure he sees her as a more worthy recipient of his money than that twit Heilenberg."
"Oh? What sort of girl is she? Is she pretty?" Constantine looked away, and Philip grinned. "Breathtaking, I take it. How old is she?"
"She… will be fifteen next February."
"A bit young, but of suitable age then for marriage."
"Apparently the Count won't let her marry until she is sixteen. And again, she's marrying a French frog."
"When she could marry a Morvenian dragon? I don't think so." Philip smiled. "What sort of girl is she, brother? Come on, tell me about her. I must live vicariously through you, remember."
Constantine looked at his brother, remembering the horror he had gone through at the hands of the Lacovians. Philip had been captured during a battle near the Havor border, but instead of killing him, as they would have done otherwise, they had mutilated Philip, ravaging his manhood before dragging him out of their camp and leaving him a bloody, traumatized mess to be found by his younger brother. Constantine had relentlessly hunted down his brother's torturers and killed them one by one, making sure their final moments had been as agonizing as Philip's suffering had been.
Yet Philip had managed to recover well, and though he had decided that he wouldn't have a woman again, he did not seem terribly bitter about the end of his love life. He remained ever cheerful, and was still a warm, loving and supportive brother to Constantine. The two men had never quarreled in their entire lives, and never would.
"She is… she has black hair and blue eyes," Constantine finally conceded.
"Fair or dark skin?"
"Fair. Very… fair."
"Well developed, too, I assume. I know you've always liked breasts and legs."
"She's not a bloody chicken!" Constantine snapped. Philip only grinned, not offended.
"But the breasts are nice?"
"Very," Constantine mumbled, squeezing his eyes shut, apparently experiencing a sharp pain.
"But you've not even touched her, have you? Ever the parfit knight." Philip sat back in his chair. "I commend you on that count, brother. I cannot see you bedding a fourteen-year old."
"And you won't see or hear of it!" Constantine glared at him.
"But a fifteen-year old?"
"Are you mad? Stop this now." The prince began to rub his temples.
"All right, can you see yourself marrying and then bedding a sixteen-year old?"
Constantine swallowed. Philip immediately felt sorry for pushing the issue. His brother was shy around women, and being infatuated with a young girl must be doubly difficult for him, as he was a man of honor. He had never once mistreated a woman, being always kind and considerate toward them before, during and after taking them to his bed, and even when he ended each affair, he did so gently. It had been Philip, however, who had on three separate occasions been left to try and comfort tearful, heartbroken women. There had not been many at all—he could count Constantine's bedmates, that he knew of, on one hand—but those women had been beautiful, tender-hearted, warm and even nurturing, which Philip supposed Constantine appreciated. His brother needed that in a mate, he knew. The last thing he needed was someone like their mother.
"I did find it strange," Constantine finally said. "As I was leaving Ravensburg, Count von Hesse invited me to come and stay at the castle again next spring."
"Really? Well, then, I would go. Perhaps—and I know you will again say she's pre-contracted to the Comte de Ribbitt—he's trying to sound you out as a candidate for his little ward's hand. What is her name?"
"Well, now she's legally his daughter, so she's Lady Eleanor Reeve, Heiress of the County von Hesse in Livonia."
"Ah. Reeve… where have I heard that name?"
"Her father was John Reeve the sword maker." Constantine leaned forward, yawning.
"John Reeve was in Teslo. That village was wiped off the map by… she survived that massacre?"
Philip thought for a moment, remembering the few times he had met John Reeve—the man had come from sturdy stock, that was for sure, and had been the finest swordsman he had ever seen. "Well, then, this Eleanor Reeve may not have royal blood, but she comes from good family and she's heir to a huge fortune. By all accounts she has the right credentials to be your wife, eh?"
"You would approve me… bringing home a peasant girl?"
"A peasant girl who is heiress to the largest fortune around… bloody right I would approve. But not for all that—I would approve if she makes you happy. That's what I really care about, brother. It's about damned time you started being happy. Perhaps it's time for the dragon to be gentled by a fair maiden, eh?"
Constantine rarely blushed, and Philip was not the sort of man who enjoyed embarrassing his brother, but to see the most feared and respected warrior in Europe sitting there turning an interesting shade of red was just about the most amusing thing Philip had ever seen. He clapped Constantine on the shoulder.
"Go to Ravensburg next spring and woo your maiden. I can think of no other reason for the Count to invite you to pay another visit, and it sounds to me like you'll be under scrutiny this time. Go claim your treasure and hoard it like any dragon. I meanwhile have to go see if we can catch over three hundred cod before the Portuguese ambassador arrives. I do live such a riveting life! Oh… should I tell Mother you're here?"
"Tell her I died in Livonia, and then work your way back from that until she knows I'm alive and here. Let her get used to it."
Count von Hesse received a letter from the Prince de Montpensier, expressing no small amount of disappointment over the end of negotiations for Eleanor's hand. He wondered if the prince was more upset over losing Eleanor or the fortune she would bring to him, and knew the man would be far more upset over losing her had he met her. Nonetheless, von Hesse was relieved that there was no ill will from the French prince. The pre-contract had been terminated and there were no hard feelings. No promises had been exchanged, and no churchmen had been involved, so she was officially free and available again for marriage.
At first, he opted to not tell Eleanor that her marriage plans had been cancelled, but one hot July afternoon he called her into his study and sat her down. She had never lied to him, and he could not withhold such a thing from her.
"I have decided not to take you to France after all, Eleanor," he said, without preamble.
"Oh… I… really?" She looked neither relieved nor disappointed.
"The more I think of it, the more I realize you would not suit France, and France would not suit you. You are still to be trained for a glittering future," he said firmly. "Your lessons will continue, except they will intensify in matters of diplomacy, politics, economics and war-craft."
Her eyes widened. "War-craft?"
"Yes." He sat down, the insignia of the Order of St Barnabas on his chain of office clanking against his desk. "That sort of thing is going to be essential, I think, where you will likely be."
"Where… will I be?" she asked cautiously.
"That will be determined next summer." He stood up. "But you will very likely travel extensively with your husband, and you will need to understand battle strategy and how to even draw up battle plans when required. That would include commanding soldiers and defending a castle or a city under siege. You need to know how to gather supplies, distribute rations, feed and pay soldiers, and so on during a war, if your husband isn't available to handle such matters."
"I'm to marry… a soldier?" she asked softly.
He gestured toward the door. "A soldier-king, most definitely. Now, go on with you, Goosey, I've business to attend to." She stood, bobbed slightly and left the room without another word. The Count looked out the window at the courtyard below, thinking briefly of what sort of contracts needed to be drawn up. He had no doubt Constantine was not interested in Eleanor's fortune, but she would be inheriting it anyway. He wondered if the prince would consider establishing a second son as future Count von Hesse, so that his name and property could remain within the family—he certain didn't want that empty-headed clod Heilenberg to inherit his title or his land.
He had no doubt Eleanor would give Constantine sons. He could only pray that the prince would not wear her down with childbearing. Something in the way the prince had looked at her the day he left indicated he wouldn't wait around to get her with child, but the very thought of his darling girl struggling through childbirth made his heart hurt.
The Count retrieved papers from his desk and began writing out a rough draft of a marriage contract, dowry and settlement of property. Eleanor's dowry would indeed be quite grand, of course, and as wedding presents he wanted to present her with some very fine farmlands in southern Livonia, as well as a small but pretty castle he owned near the coast. It was only a few miles from the Morvenian border, which meant she and Constantine could meet him there for Christmas and Easter, perhaps, and he could watch her children growing up…
His grandchildren. The Count smiled at the thought. She would have such beautiful, intelligent, strong children. Morvenia would be blessed to have her as its Queen, too.
He put his quill down and propped his head on his hands, eyes filling with tears at the very thought of her leaving. However much he relished the idea of her on a consort's throne, she would still take her light away from the castle, and he knew nothing would ever replace her.
Eleanor relished the summer, spending hours riding around the Count's innumerable acres, usually with Christiane at her side. Her days were peaceful and surprisingly lazy, with her evenings occupied by her new studies. She found she rather enjoyed learning how to draw up a battle plan, and the Count was pleased with her progress—she had natural instincts, he told her, and they would prove very useful in the future.
Christiane worried that she would be sent away—she was not looking forward to going back home now that she was no longer training Eleanor for life at the French court, but von Hesse informed her one afternoon that he wanted her to stay on for now, as a companion rather than a governess to Eleanor. Christiane, he realized, had become a good friend to Eleanor, and God knew she needed friends closer to her own age. The girls in Turon were uneducated and silly, to his thinking, and while Christiane occasionally encouraged Eleanor to get into mischief, she was without guile and never urged the girl to do anything terribly wrong.
Plus, the Count did not want to send Christiane away. He liked her quiet, gentle ways, her humor and her soft voice. Not that he gave voice to his thoughts about her—he only admitted to them at all when he was alone. Christiane's influence on Eleanor was met with his approval just the same: as much as she needed intellectual sharpening, she was also benefitting from having a slightly older woman to advise her on the ways of men and of the world.
To that end, Eleanor was not unaware of the Count watching Christiane sometimes. He never touched the woman, of course, and only spoke to her in the usual quiet, officious tone he used when speaking to people of his own rank. Considering she was actually beneath him in rank and class, that was quite extraordinary. He used the same respectful tone toward Christiane as he used toward the noblemen of Livonia.
However much she enjoyed the pleasures of just being a young girl and of learning about the world that was opening up to her beyond the Turon Valley, Eleanor often would still slip away to the stables and climb up into the loft to lie down in the straw and look out across the lower bailey at the warm green southern end of the valley. Count von Hesse's ornate map showed where the river would continue through the border between southern Livonia and eastern Morvenia, and the Turon River would gently turn into Morvenia and continue until it spread out into a vast delta, where islands blessed with some of the richest farmland to be found were cultivated. She thought a great deal about Morvenia, and about Constantine. She thought about him most, and dreamed about him. His quiet, watchful ways and shy, grave manners appealed to her more than she could really describe or even fully understand.
Betsy was blunt about it. "You're becoming a woman," she said simply one windy August day, while Eleanor helped her hang the washing out to dry. "You're ready for a man… almost, that is."
"Ready… for a man?" Eleanor turned pink and went to work folding linen washcloths.
"Yes. Within a year or so, you will be married and bedded by your husband." Betsy matter-of-factly folded a blanket and tossed it into the basket. "It's all very natural. You think about boys a great deal now, right?"
Sometimes, Eleanor hated it when Betsy was this frank. She sat down in the grass and began folding more washcloths. She wasn't about to tell Betsy that the only man she thought about was Constantine. He was no boy, and the thoughts she had of him lately were becoming somewhat… intense.
Betsy went on, talking around a clothespin in her mouth. "I often think the Count should have allowed you more contact with young men your age, but then I'm not sure if young men should have too much contact with you. With your fine figure and lovely bosoms, they would be on you like a chicken on a bug and then we'd have to find a husband for you, but far sooner than the Count would like. No doing, as far as the Count thinks and I must agree. You must be a maiden on your wedding night."
Aghast, Eleanor stared down at the washcloths. Every month, she had to wear one of the cloths between her legs, like light swaddling, and Betsy discreetly threw the bloodstained strips away, making no comment and sparing her the embarrassment. Eleanor understood the reason for the monthly bleeding, but that was all… mechanics—the way God had made her, and what she was ultimately for. She knew about the how, but not the why, and she wanted to know about the why. She looked up at the housekeeper.
"Why can't I marry for love?" she asked softly, the memory of Constantine's green eyes making her shiver with excitement and something else—something she couldn't describe but that she wanted more of. Much, much more of, and she knew it involved him touching her… and her touching him. She dreamed of it at night and woke up feeling restless, with a strange hunger that had nothing to do with wanting food. The dreams had a haziness to them, so that she wasn't sure what had happened, except that whatever it had been had felt very, very, very good.
"Who says you can't?" Betsy looked at her.
"The Count has selected my husband, or is selecting him…"
Betsy frowned. "He will select a good man for you, dearest. Your husband will treat you gently and with respect, I can assure you."
Eleanor swallowed. "What does it feel like?" she asked, before she could stop herself.
"What does what feel like?" Betsy was struggling to pin a fluttering bed sheet to the clothesline.
Betsy was glad she didn't have a clothespin in her mouth or she would have choked on it. "Oh." She quickly regained her composure. "It feels… rather nice. As I told you before, it can hurt a bit the first time, but it's very nice and can be very… very good after that."
"Just… good?" Eleanor thought again of the animals she had seen mating and thought of how the females never looked like they were having any fun at all.
"It's… well, he'll… kiss you and remove your… uh… clothes and…"
"I'll be naked?" Eleanor gasped, startled.
"Men seem to prefer it that way," Betsy said, suddenly amused. "Mine did, anyway. Your husband will very likely want you naked and… he will want to touch you a great deal and I suspect you'll like that, too."
"And then he'll put a baby in me?"
"Eventually." Betsy said briskly.
"Will… will he be naked too?"
Eleanor's eyes widened. "Oh."
Betsy eyed Eleanor, watching the girl think this over. The naiveté was still there, and Betsy was relieved to see that—the girl was to remain as innocent as possible until her wedding—the Count was adamant about that, and Betsy and Christiane both agreed this was the best tack to take. She hoped that Constantine understood what a treasure he was getting in this beautiful, sweet creature. But she didn't want her to go to the nuptial bed a complete naïf, with no understanding of what was going to happen or what was expected of her, and neither did she want her to be frightened or awkward.
Betsy had been jubilant when the Count told her Eleanor was not going to France. To see her married to a Frenchman, so far away from home, had been a dreadful idea to the housekeeper. She had nonetheless done her best to discourage Constantine's obvious interest in the girl, out of loyalty to the Count, but now… she smiled to herself. What a grand match! If Eleanor only went as far as Morvenia, she would be able to visit her darling girl every year, at the very least, and cuddle and shamelessly spoil her babies.
"Do you have any more questions?"
"Do you think I'll like my husband?" Eleanor asked her anxiously. "I would so hate to be with a man I could only… tolerate."
"You will like him," Betsy said, picking up her basket and nodding for Eleanor to grab the other. "I can assure you, dearest. You will like your husband. You might even come to love him very much indeed… and rest assured he will absolutely worship you."
Summer passed, and the fall that followed was one of the most beautiful in recent memory. The valley was breathtaking, with rich purples, flaming reds and brilliant yellows coloring the landscape as the leaves changed and temperatures dropped. The air became crisp and seemed to shimmer in the final cool days before the first frost.
Count von Hesse received a party of German noblemen who were eager to do some hunting, and he spent a number of exhausting days chasing wild boar and deer through the valley. His hunting dogs enjoying the chase far more than he, as his German was somewhat lacking. Mostly he could only gesture wildly at the noblemen to stop excitedly pointing their bloody crossbows at him instead of the stags galumphing by, and twice he had to dive for cover to avoid being shot. That led to him practicing his old Anglo-Saxon terminology on them, and fortunately they didn't understand half of what he was shouting, though they did grasp that he wasn't exactly delighted with them
He kept Eleanor away from the Germans after seeing the way the two men were staring at her when they arrived. She was confined to her rooms, reading Caesar's Gallic Wars and being bored to tears, but he wasn't going to risk anything, particularly as the two men were such terrible hunters. The Germans left, after gazing longingly at the beautiful fourteen-year old, and he was able to close up the castle gates and prepare for winter. The first snows started in the middle of November, and Christmas blew in on a violent storm that pounded the castle walls and shook the floors in the storerooms in the lower bailey.
Eleanor celebrated her fifteenth birthday during a heavy snowfall adding six inches to the piles already covering the valley, with the wind still and the world strangely silent. Looking down at the valley, she saw the silver line of the frozen river winding southwards, and puffs of smoke rising from the chimneys of the houses in the villages and the farmhouses. God was in His heaven and all was well with the world, as Betsy often said, and the sun would go on rising and setting even if she never did master baking cakes.
The surprisingly mild winter—save two ferocious storms—blew away in early March, with strong winds and heavy rains, so that many farms in the valley were flooded, making spring planting a less-than-delightful prospect. The Count went down to the valley every day, to assist with draining water away from the fields and to meet with the town councils in Turon and the tiny villages along the river to discuss how to properly provide for families that had suffered the worst damage to their farms.
She was proud of him for being such a compassionate man who took care of the people who worked his land, as well as for common peasants scraping out an existence as best they could. She knew he worked constantly to help them keep their houses and barns in good repair, and when troubles came he was there with food and other necessities, never unwilling to lend a hand when needed.
Every evening after supper, the Count would talk to Eleanor about what her main duties would be, once married, after pleasing her husband and bearing sons. "You must set an example of compassion without condescension, gentleness without weakness, and kindness without servility. You must encourage the people under your husband's ru—… command to peacefully pursue their ambitions, to work hard and to achieve their goals. No man should be discouraged from pursuing prosperity, and no prosperous man ought to be punished for his achievements. Neither man can exist without the other, you see."
She listened carefully to him, and asked him questions about matters of war, government and economics, and at night still had her increasingly heated dreams, waking up feeling feverish and very, very frustrated.
She worried that Constantine would not come when the southern passes cleared. He might change his mind, after all—he was Heir Presumptive to Morvenia's throne, and he was a much-sought-after commander for other nations' armies. Even more, he was an eligible bachelor and she was sure there were princesses all over Europe who were foaming at their mouths in their eagerness to become his wife and future Queen.
The very thought of him married to someone else nearly drove her mad. The idea that he would also do those mysterious, wonderful things to another woman added fuel to her frustration, but she didn't know how to speak to Betsy or Christiane about it. All she knew was that she was craving something, and it certainly wasn't peach tarts. At the same time, however, she relished sleeping at night, because those dreams were so… deliciously naughty.
It was late March and she was sitting between the battlements on the southwestern wall of the lower bailey, looking down over the valley, when she saw a herd of deer bounce across the green fields to the forest, and she was happy to see fawns keeping up with the does. Spring was officially here, with no more snowstorms blowing in from the north, and the sun was warm. She climbed down, startling a guardsman, who saluted her cheerfully, and went to the stables to saddle Merlin.
Constantine stopped his ever-reliable Amiel downriver from The Drop and filled his helmet with water, letting the animal have a well-deserved drink. The horse slobbered water all over his tunic, and he sighed. He was already hot and sweaty from the long ride, and now he was covered with water and horse spit. "Thanks a lot, dummy," he told the horse, rubbing his neck affectionately.
The deep water a bit further downstream was looking very inviting, he had to admit. He could take a swim and let his clothes air out and be somewhat presentable when he rode through the gates of Ravensburg. Considering he was possibly under the Count's scrutiny, he suspected he needed to look and behave his best.
The reason for that scrutiny was something Constantine kept himself from thinking too much about, though, but Philip's advice kept ringing in his ears: Go to Ravensburg and woo your maiden! Easy enough, he thought, without a little vanity, but this wooing was going to be a more delicate matter—she was a young girl, a virgin and an heiress. His bedmates in the past had all been experienced young widows and rather open-minded about such matters. Eleanor was not just a prize to be won, either. She was something else entirely, and worth waiting for.
It would be the Count who would make the final decision, not Eleanor—if, in fact, that was the reason for his visit in the first place. Still, he wanted to make a good impression on her just the same. Even more so than the Count.
Stripping off his clothes, he hung them up on low tree limbs and finally dove into the water, not minding the cold at all, and swam around for a while, enjoying the peace of the woods and the soothing sound of the waterfall upstream. Ravensburg was probably the most peaceful place he had ever known, and spending a few weeks here was, whatever the outcome, going to at least get him to relax a little.
Eleanor rode Merlin down to The Drop and stopped the horse at the bridge, knowing he didn't like crossing it—the sound of the stones under his hooves made him nervous. Instead, she tied him to a tree branch, gave him sugar cubes to make sure he was still properly spoiled, and walked down toward the pool. She didn't think any villagers would be down there, even on this warm day, but she wanted to sit at the edge, dip her feet into the water and listen to the familiar sounds of the forest for a while.
She settled down in the grass and removed her slippers, then sighed and dipped her toes into the cold water. She shivered and giggled in spite of herself, and sat back on her elbows, looking up at the forest canopy. Birds flew overhead, calling for their mates, and she stretched out, raising her arms above her head and closing her eyes, thinking of the shamefully delicious dream she had had just the night before…
A sound of something splashing made her sit up, and she gasped when she saw a naked man climbing out of the water, on the other side of the pool. Quickly, she scrambled out of his line of vision and hid behind a large rock, then peeked around, her curiosity overcoming all propriety. She caught the sight of a lean, tanned back and pale buttocks and long, lean, strong legs and muscled thighs. He turned around and she saw… good heavens, was it supposed to be that big?
She reluctantly dragged her eyes upwards, admiring a hard, rippling stomach, wide chest lightly dusted with dark hair and wide, wide shoulders and…
Her eyes widened and she whirled around, dropping down, hand over her mouth. It was Prince Constantine—as naked as the day he was born! She didn't know what to do, except blush and want to giggle and touch him and let him touch her as much as he liked. Had he seen her then and asked her to join him in the pool, she would have disrobed without a thought and jumped right in.
Maybe that would finally cool her off.
Feeling hotter than she ever had after one of her dreams, she got to her feet as quickly as she could and silently crept upstream to Merlin, who was cropping grass and wasn't too pleased to have to leave. She mounted the black stallion and rode him home at a gallop, her cheeks flaming and her entire body trembling.
Eleanor sat in her room, having changed into her favorite blue and white overdress and chemise, with a cross-string bodice to keep things properly together. She had cleaned her feet carefully, to make sure no one had any notion that she had been outdoors, and put on a pair of high leather boots, lacing them up and imagining Constantine's hand running up the inside of her leg and touching…
"Eleanor, love, come downstairs please," Betsy called.
"Coming!" she called, and stood up. She looked at herself in her full-length mirror and tried to will her blush away. She tied two locks of her hair back, pinning them with a tiny diamond clasp the Count had given her for her birthday, and went downstairs. Halfway down, she paused when she saw Constantine standing just inside the door to the Great Hall, holding his helmet under his arm. He wore… clothes. Some kind of clothes that she barely could see because she was thinking of him not wearing clothes and how wonderful he looked without them.
A shirt, she finally managed to make her mind register. A padded shirt, velvet pants and doublet, all black, with his sword at his side. She saw the blue ribbon around the hilt of his sword and smiled—he had kept it, after all this time, and that made her heart swell with indescribable happiness.
When she reached the landing, Constantine bowed deeply to her, and she curtsied. "Lady Eleanor."
"Your Royal Highness," she said softly. She gave him her hand, and she almost shivered when he lightly kissed her knuckles and smiled at her. The Count cleared his throat, but Eleanor barely even heard him. She was looking up into Constantine's green, green eyes and knew her life would never be the same.