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The Star to Every Wand'ring Bark

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The bedroom to which the Queen's ladies have taken her is grand beyond Danielle's wildest dreams. Her own manor is comfortable and beautiful; she loves it beyond words and her heart breaks at the thought that it is Rodmilla's now, that she might never live there again. But this….

It's a room for a princess, not a servant. Not an orphan. Left alone as she waits for… what?, Danielle studies the doors and wonders which leads to the outside.

But no. She ran away once -- never again. The daughter of Auguste de Barbarac and Nicole de Lancret is braver than that.

And Henry is here, and he loves her, and he's promised her a happy ending. This is simply the first step she must take, if she is to hold faith with Henry.

So she studies the walls around her, and she waits.

"So you are my son's Danielle."

Danielle turns so fast she almost trips over the small carpet at her feet, then hastily curtsies, because the Queen of France -- Henry's mother -- is standing before her, and Danielle isn't sure for which reason she is most terrified of her.

And Danielle is covered in mud and ashes, and wearing one shoe of leather, and one of glass.

She takes a deep breath and reminds herself yet one more time: you are the daughter of Nicole de Lancret and Auguste de Barbarac, then answers steadily, "Yes, your majesty. That is, I am Danielle de Barbarac."

Queen Marie's face is... neutral. Not welcoming, but not forbidding either. "Well, you are certainly as beautiful as my son believes -- or will be, when you're in proper clothes."

Danielle refuses to blush or apologize for her clothing -- she has survived ten years of deprivation, she escaped from le Pieu with a sword and her own strength, and she has no reason to be ashamed. She lifts her chin a notch instead, and waits.

After a moment, Queen Marie smiles slightly. "And you have courage and pride. Excellent. You'll need it, I'm afraid, if you are to wed my son."

Danielle draws another deep breath, hearing it tremble a bit. "Your majesty. I know I am not what you would have wished for your son--"

"No." The single word isn't a condemnation, but it's not helpful, either. Not that she expected it to be.

"--But I love him," she continues, trying to keep her voice steady. She will have the Queen's respect, if nothing else. "And I will support him, and be by his side, come what may. I will be the best wife to him that I can be."

"But will you be the best Queen to France?"

Danielle bites her lip. "I don't know," she answers honestly. "The idea scares me. I've cared for my father's manor as well as I can, all of these years, but this is…. Still, I will do all that I can to be a good queen."

Queen Marie studies her for a long moment, and Danielle finds the courage to study her back. She sees strength, and disapproval, and worry -- and, at last, she sees kindness.

"I have no doubt that you will do your best," Queen Marie says finally. "The rest will come, I think."

And then things begin to happen in a whirlwind. The queen leaves, but her ladies return, with gowns and shoes and jewels; there is a bath drawn and Danielle sinks into it gratefully, washing away the last of le Pieu. The marks on her back are still raw, but although one lady's hands falter over them, no one remarks. She is pulled out of the warm water too quickly, and gowns are pulled over her head, then whipped off as quickly, to be altered and fitted. Skilled hands pin her hair high around her head, and a gown of silver and blue returns, with brocade sleeves that are tied quickly into place.

Danielle accepts it all until the sapphire necklace -- she balks as a maid begins to place it around her neck. "No," she says, standing quickly and backing away. "I can't wear that. That's…"

"For a princess," Henry suggests gently from the doorway, and Danielle takes a moment to be annoyed at the penchant of the royal family for appearing suddenly behind her. Then she abandons the thought to walk as quickly to Henry as her skirts will allow, only barely restraining herself from simply running into his arms.

He takes her outstretched hands with a speed that suggests he had similar thoughts, and smiles at her with a simple joy that makes her heart glow with happiness.

"I've spoken to my father," he says simply. "He and my mother wish to meet you formally -- privately, of course," he adds before the thought of being before the full court again can take root. The memory of her last visit is still too raw; she flinches at the very thought of those condemning faces. "He is… eager to make your acquaintance."

"I was worried I did not make a very good impression on your mother," Danielle admits.

Henry shakes his head. "She liked you; I think she even admires you. And of course, you have a great advocate in Leonardo, who has my father's ear in all things, I assure you. You're simply… not what they had planned." he admitted with a quirked smile.

"Hardly a princess," Danielle admits ruefully, and is startled when Henry laughs.

"I think they have decided my wife will need better qualifications than simply being a princess," he says mysteriously, but draws her closer when she starts to ask what he means. "I'll tell the whole story later," he promises, nestling her hands against his chest. "For now, trust me. All will be well. Come with me to meet them."

She begins to follow -- because how could she not, when he looks at her with such love -- but the queen's ladies protest as one, their voices echoing off the walls.

Danielle blushes, and returns to her chair to put on shoes. It seems she will be forever losing them.

*****

King Francis is less intimidating than the queen -- a stern man who can't hide the kindness in his eyes. Danielle curtsies to him a bit awkwardly, given that she's worn skirts like these only a few times before, and they remind her of a night she'd rather forget. Just breathe, she reminds herself once again, and makes herself meet the king's eyes as he raises her to her feet again.

"Welcome to my court, Danielle de Barbarac," he says calmly, with only a tiny emphasis on her real name. Danielle tries not to react, and Henry objects for her with a quick, "Father."

King Francis waves him off. "I am pleased to meet the lady who has stolen my son's heart," he continues.

"Not a lady," Danielle says honestly, facing him the same way she faced his wife. Begin as you mean to go on. "And I did not steal his heart -- it was an even exchange. His for mine."

She hears a low chuckle from the other side of the room, and Leonardo comments, "Did I not tell you, your majesty?"

"You did," the king says with a small smile, and Leonardo crosses over to stand by her side. He takes the hand that's not on Henry's sleeve, and pats it comfortingly, and Danielle draws strength from them both.

"Leonardo has told Us quite the tale," the king continues, with unnerving formality, "but We would like to hear it from you, Mademoiselle de Barbarac. Tell Us what has brought you here today."

It's such a huge question, and she doesn't quite know how to answer. Does he mean what brings her to the court, or to Henry, or…

"Tell him about your father," Henry prompts quietly, and Danielle draws a deep breath, her hand tightening on his arm.

"I loved my father," she begins quietly, "and he loved me...."

It takes longer than she'd thought to tell the story; the king has chairs brought for her and Henry and Leonardo, and she finds herself sitting in front of the king and queen, and it's somehow the most unbelievable part of the day. She cries when she recalls her father's death, and fights to keep her voice level after that, even when speaking of Rodmilla and Marguerite. The king nods thoughtfully throughout, and even laughs at the part where she rescued Henry from the Romany camp; Queen Marie draws her breath in sharply at several points, her eyes narrowing.

Danielle's story falters towards the end, as she staggered out of le Pieu's house. "And then I saw Henry, your majesties…." she manages, but it seems too private to tell them of the joy and the relief, of the sheer bliss of being caught high in Henry's arms, of being loved and forgiven.

"And we know the rest," the queen thankfully fills in, and she and the king look at each for a long moment, one of the looks exchanged between married couples that carries an entire conversation on its silence. Danielle dimly remembers such looks between her parents, and can only hope she and Henry will be granted to time to develop such a relationship.

"It will be difficult," the king says finally, "but not impossible. You are set on this course?" he asks Henry, as if it's not the first time.

Henry nods, and brings Danielle's hand to his mouth, to press a soft kiss to the back. Danielle blushes, but smiles, too happy to pretend otherwise. "I am determined."

"So. We did have a deal, did we not?" The king sits back, and gestures to someone in the back of the room. "Mademoiselle de Barbarac, We will speak again very soon," he says, drawing a formal cloak around his words again. "Until then, be welcome here in Our court. Is there anything We may do to ensure your comfort?"

Danielle starts to shake her head, overwhelmed enough by the rich room with its clothes and ladies and jewels, but pauses on a sudden thought. "I… If it please your majesty, I would… I would like to have my sister come to me. Not Marguerite," she hastily assures their lifted eyebrows, with more force than she intended, "but my younger sister, Jacqueline. I... It would comfort me, to have her with me. If I may."

She starts to say something else, but stops, unsure of what power she has here, if any, and what would be asking too much.

"Yes?' King Francis prompts her, and she swallows, reminding herself again who she is, and of her responsibilities.

"My father's manor," she says bravely, "and our servants. I worry for their well-being with the Baroness de Ghent; they have aided me too many times against her schemes. Maurice is old, and she has sold him once already--"

"All will be well," the king interrupts her, not unkindly. "I am pleased to see your loyalty to those who have served you, and your sense of responsibility. Mademoiselle Jacqueline will be sent for; my son makes it clear he is in the lady's debt. As for the others, We assure you that no further harm will come to your servants and manor; Our hand is now held in protection over them."

Danielle rises so she can curtsey. "You have my deepest thanks, your majesty."

The king nods in acceptance, then waves her and Henry off. "Go now, children; you must have a great many things to speak about, if you have any energy left for speaking."

Danielle blushes and curtsies again, this time to the queen, then backs away until Henry's hand on her arm tells her it's safe to turn around. As soon as they leave the chamber, Danielle throws her arms around Henry's neck, ignoring the courtiers who openly stare. "Did they like me?" she asks, terrified.

"Of course," Henry replies, trying to sound as if he'd had no doubts. Danielle pulls back enough to give him a very dubious look. He smiles and admits, "I was almost sure. How could they not love you? How could anyone not?"

For that, Danielle almost kisses him. But she settles for smiling into his eyes and his arms tighten around her again. And even in the middle of a grand palace far from her manor, Danielle feels that she has come home at last.

*****
*****

Jacqueline mutters under her breath as she walks unsteadily through the mud of the farmyard, struggling against the weight of a bucket of water. It should have been no surprise when this first of Danielle's chores devolved onto Jacqueline's shoulders -- "More exertion will help your figure," her mother had said coldly -- but that doesn't make it less hurtful.

Jacqueline has always known her mother had no love for anyone but herself and Marguerite, but having proof is different than simply knowing.

She's struggling so hard she doesn't hear the squelching footsteps until they are very close, and gasps as she looks up to see Captain Laurent in his spotless blue livery, reaching one strong hand out to take the bucket from her suddenly nerveless fingers.

"Please allow me, Mademoiselle Jacqueline," he requests, as if Jacqueline could stop him.

"Th-thank you," she stammers, unable to take in his sudden appearance. But one reason for his presence suddenly occurs to her, her stomach twisting at the thought. "Danielle?" she demands, grabbing his sleeve and sloshing the water on his trousers. "Prince Henry -- did he find her? Is she safe?"

"All is well," the captain assures her immediately. "Thanks to your assistance, Mademoiselle de Barbarac is even now at the palace, being cared for by the Queen's ladies."

"Oh," Jacqueline sighs in relief, then catches her breath. "The palace?"

Laurent grins at her, an expression totally at odds with his title and his responsibilities. "Yes, the palace. But," he says more seriously, "this is not to be shared with your mother and sister. Only you."

"As if I would tell them!" Jacqueline says, surprisingly herself with the force of her declaration. Any loyalty she ever had to her family withered away over the years of their abuse of Danielle, and disappeared when they began to aim that abuse at her.

"Excellent," Laurent says, his eyes twinkling again. "And now, I've been sent by the king himself to bring you to your stepsister."

"Me?" Jacqueline's voice squeaks a bit. "But I'm... but she can't possibly want--"

"It was Mademoiselle de Barbarac's request," Laurent says firmly, and Jacqueline's eyes get even wider. "She asks for nothing other than your company in the palace."

Tears start unexpectedly and Jacqueline blinks them back as hard as she can, swiping at her cheeks with the sleeve of her gown. "I want to come," she says shakily, "but my mother--"

"--will know nothing. I will bring you back here in a matter of hours. She will not miss you?"

Jacqueline makes an undignified snorting noise, then looks sideways at Laurent in embarrassment. He makes a whinnying noise in return and her worry turns to a watery giggle. "They're busy planning their next move to ensnare his highness; they won't miss me until they need someone to do their bidding. Yes, I want to go to-- to my sister."

"Then we shall." He sets the water down by the back door, then offers her his arm as if she is a lady.

"Oh no, wait!" She ducks away and runs inside, careful to avoid her mother's attention. When Paulette understands what she needs and why, she helps willingly, sending Jacqueline on her way with suppressed excitement and tears of joy.

"Now I'm ready," she tells the captain, who bows slightly and escorts her to the road, where a small carriage with outriders waits.

*****

"Jacqueline!" Danielle's cry is audible even over the bustle of activity that surrounds her, and so is the relief in it. Jacqueline is still in the doorway, stunned by the orchestrated chaos that fills the elaborate bedchamber, but she stumbles forward as Danielle emerges from the crowd. They fall into each other's arms, and Jacqueline is stunned to feel her brave stepsister shaking.

"I'm so glad you came," Danielle whispers into her ear.

"Of course I came," Jacqueline says firmly. "I could hardly ignore a royal command, now could I?" She laughs a little, still unable to believe any of this. "A royal command, Danielle? To us?"

"I know." Danielle loosens her embrace a bit, and her face reflects every emotion Jacqueline is feeling. "It doesn't seem real yet. But Henry..."

She looks around her at the mob of ladies -- waiting impatiently, but with straining ears -- then looks back at Jacqueline. "I have to talk to someone, but not like this, not like--" She gestures sharply at the crowd, and Jacqueline sees real exhaustion under the impatience.

All of the times she could have defended Danielle, and didn't, rise up in her memory, and lend her the courage she should have had then. "My sister requires a quiet room and some privacy," she announces, with all of her mother's hauteur; miraculously, her voice doesn't crack. "And wine. Quickly, please."

No one moves for a moment, and Jacqueline glares at them with Marguerite's best expression of utter impatience. "Now."

And just like that, a small antechamber is cleared out, and two chaises emptied of their dressmaker burdens. The door stays open and two ladies remain outside, but also out of earshot, and Danielle collapses against Jacqueline.

"I never thought you could sound so much like the Baroness," Danielle says through laughter that seems on the edge of hysterical.

"I never thought so, either," Jacqueline admits, giggling as well. "At least I learned something useful from her."

That sobers them both, and Jacqueline reaches for Danielle's hand again. "You won't have to go back? You'll stay here? With the prince?"

Danielle nods, a radiant smile lighting her tired face. "Yes. He came… oh, just a few moments ago. The king has agreed, and we are to be married tonight. It's all been arranged."

"Married," Jacqueline breathes, then adds, more practically, "Well, they did already have a wedding planned. It would have been a shame to waste it."

"Jacqueline!" Danielle's voice is caught between horror and hilarity, and Jacqueline grins cheekily at her.

"Well, you should have seen it, Danielle! The princess cried and cried, and then Henry laughed, and then she positively dove into the arms of someone... some man, and then Henry threw off his cape--" she demonstrates with an extravagant arm movement "--and raced out of the church to find you!"

Danielle is laughing again by the time she finishes, then she meets Jacqueline's eyes with great affection. "And you told him where to look."

"Of course." Jacqueline smiles back at her. "And I brought you a wedding gift."

From the depths of her skirts, she produces a glass slipper -- the one Danielle hid at home, after the horrible masque, before the Baroness could steal it away again.

Danielle takes it in wondering hands. "Thank you, Jacqueline. So much. It means so much, to have this."

"You can still have your mother with you now," Jacqueline says encouragingly, then bites her lip, and looks down at their hands, still joined on the rich velvet cushion. "It was wrong...what they did. All of it. It always was."

Danielle nods in slow agreement, as if it's just as hard for her to accept that truth as it was for Jacqueline. But it is the truth, and there's no hiding from it anymore. Jacqueline takes a deep breath, and decides.

"And there's more, Danielle. I need to tell the prince that there's more. Mother lied, so many times. There was a court page she bribed, and a jewel he stole that she and Marguerite used…"

And with every word, the ties that held her to her old life snap, one by one.

Too soon, it's time for Prince Henry and the captain to escort her back to the carriage. "The wedding will be tonight," the prince tells her, "and we will send for the Baroness and Marguerite in the morning. You're willing to keep your silence?"

Jacqueline bobs a curtsey. "I am, your highness. I know I can't stand with my sister tonight, but I will always stand with her from now on."

And the prince actually kisses her cheek before handing her into the carriage and sending her on her way.

*****

When morning comes, so does Captain Laurent once again; Jacqueline tries to hold her face serene throughout the journey, and the walk to the throne room, as her mother and sister babble excitedly beside her. The sight of the assembled court doesn't do anything except raise their spirits higher -- until the queen speaks, and they come abruptly crashing back to earth. Jacqueline has to stop herself from cheering aloud when calm, regal Princess Danielle appears, more beautiful than Marguerite ever dared to be. And even wearing the jewel that the Baroness stole!

It is a relief, Jacqueline admits to herself as she listens to her mother and sister's fate being decided, that they will spend their lives in service, rather than in prison -- or worse, executed. She never wanted them dead… but she does want a life without them for Danielle.

And for herself.

She slips away soon after it's all over, wanting a moment to breathe. And standing in the sunlight, on a bit of grass in the palace of her sister's court, Jacqueline de Ghent allows herself to look forward to a far different future.

Perhaps she can even dream of one that includes a kind and noble captain of the guards; perhaps she can dream of happiness. She smiles giddily to herself, clutching the idea close, and spins around just once. Then she composes her face and her dress, and walks calmly back inside to begin her new life.

*****
*****

The Twelfth Night revels are at their height, the court glittering and festive from one end to another. The King of Bean's reign will end at midnight, and Gustav is making the most of his unexpected find, having chosen one of the sweetest and prettiest of the young ladies-in-waiting for his queen. Leonardo is comfortably seated by the blazing Yule log, the latest export from Milan, sketching away at his latest inspiration. Music plays and the tables overflow, and the entire court glows in the light of a thousand candles or more. But the stars above them shine brighter still.

Danielle and Henry have long since found a corner of the balcony to hide in, Danielle wrapped in Henry's arms as she stares out over the courtyard, and up into the midnight sky.

"Have all your dreams come true now, princess?" he asks in her ears, his cloak keeping her warm and his love keeping her warmer.

"Every one of them," she confirms. Her husband is with her, after all, and the manor is safe in the hands of Jacqueline and her captain -- Maurice, Paulette and Louise will be cared for the rest of their lives.

Even more, Danielle has a mother again at last, one who loves her; and though the king can never take the place of her own father, he is kind and gentle, and delights in provoking his daughter-in-law into debate. Changes have already been made -- small ones, but real -- and she has begun to believe she will one day be as good a queen as Henry will a king.

And in a few short months, their child will come into the world, and Henry will be just as good a father.

Danielle strokes a hand over the swell of her stomach. "And I will tell you all about it, exactly how it happened," she promises that child, "so that you believe in courage, and in love, and in dreams."

"We'll both tell the story," Henry agrees, his hand covering hers, and the baby kicks against them. "And he'll believe in happily ever after."

Danielle smiles softly, and corrects him silently: She. She will believe….

…And so she does.

*****

"Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken." -- Sonnet 116

*****

Fin