Actions

Work Header

Princess

Work Text:

“I am not comfortable here,” Edgar muttered under his breath, glancing suspiciously around at the crowd in the cathedral.

“Oh, really, Uncle,” Maggie chided in a voice that was far too grown-up. “If the lightning didn’t strike you down the moment you crossed the threshold, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

Edgar rolled his eyes and was about to chastise the teenager for her cheek when he noticed her batting her eyelashes flirtatiously and peering over the edge of her fan. From the main floor a young man gazed up at them in the balcony, a simpering expression on his face.

“Two steps back, my dear,” Edgar ordered in a steely voice, keeping his eye on the young man.

“Uncle—“ Maggie started to protest indignantly.

“Now!” he snapped, drawing glances from those around them. Maggie heaved a put-upon sigh and stepped back. Her uncle stepped into her place and thus the young man’s eyeline—and his expression changed from that of a mooning sheep to one more closely resembling a rabbit upon sight of the hounds.

Edgar raised his arm and pointed at the young man, a sinister gesture that its victim did not fail to understand. Everyone recognized the Duke of Weston, the coat of arms if not the face, and everyone knew not to get on his bad side. Say, for example, by flirting with his young niece. When Maggie was finally allowed to resume her place at the front of the gallery, the young man had vanished from sight.

“Uncle Edgar!” she complained with disappointment. “How am I supposed to find a husband if you keep frightening all of my potential suitors that way!”

I’ll find you a husband,” Edgar reminded her matter-of-factly. “And one a good deal more intelligent than that fool.”

“Did you see the feather in his hat?” giggled Maggie’s younger sister, Molly. “It almost touched the floor!”

“Definitely overcompensating for something,” her uncle agreed. Fortunately she had no idea what he meant.

“What do I want with an intelligent man?” Maggie was scoffing. “Find me one that’s young, handsome, and rich!” She and Molly tittered naughtily behind their fans.

“All that money I spent on years of education for you, wiped out in just a few months by raging hormones,” Edgar muttered, regarding them disdainfully.

“By what?” Maggie asked in confusion.

Edgar shook his head dismissively. “Never mind. You’ll thank me when you can actually have a conversation with your husband, especially once he’s no longer young or handsome.”

This time Maggie rolled her eyes and changed the subject by pointing out a new style of beading to her sister. They were both far too awash in the excitement of journeying to London for the holiday season to pay any attention to their uncle’s long-term advice. Well, they’d be strange girls if they did otherwise, he supposed. Besides, he knew them to be obedient and well-behaved—more or less.

“So when is this princess showing up?” he asked them boredly, peering through the crowd below for any shimmer of royalty. “If this show doesn’t pick up the pace soon, I’m going to duck out for a pint at that tavern we passed.” There were some slightly shocked murmurs from the middle-aged matrons surrounding them—how did he always seem to end up next to them in a crowd?

“You’ll be alright by yourselves, won’t you?” he asked his nieces, mock-serious. “In a church? I’m sure one of these fine, respectable ladies would chaperone you.” He grinned at the nearest one, a look that was more like baring his teeth.

“Uncle!” Maggie hissed, flushing with embarrassment. She hurried to compose herself as her mother had taught her—especially important when dealing with Uncle Edgar—and tried to answer his initial question. “Princess Elizabeth is said to be quite devout, and quite reclusive—“

“In which case she’s probably quite ugly,” Edgar surmised dryly.

“—and this is the one day a year when she walks amongst the people, distributing alms to the poor,” Maggie went on, hiccupping only a bit over his comment.

“How old is she, then?” Edgar asked, not terribly interested in the answer. He saw a gambling buddy of his on the floor below and (barely) restrained himself from calling out a greeting.

“Eighteen.”

Edgar whistled and received more disapproving gazes. “Bit young to take up the solitary life, isn’t it?” he asked. “She ought to be about the right age to get married to some foreign prince and pop out a few royal heirs.”

Before Maggie could respond to his less-than-respectful remark, a murmur went through the crowd below them and the organ began to play a processional. “She’s coming!” Maggie whispered excitedly, craning her neck for a better look.

“Can you see?” Edgar asked his younger niece, drawing her closer to the front. “Come on.”

“There, there’s Princess Elizabeth!” Maggie pointed out excitedly. “All in white, with the beautiful blue shawl.”

Edgar peered down through the crowd, looking for a blue shawl among the mass of expensive, snow-white gowns. Not that he was especially interested in seeing the princess, but it seemed a waste to spend all this time waiting—in a church, no less—and not even get a glimpse. He was mildly curious, too, he supposed—in all the time he’d spent at court he’d never encountered Princess Elizabeth. Well, being young, devout, and reclusive, it seemed they ran in very different circles.

“There, do you see?” Maggie asked her sister. “Coming from the side. She’s beautiful! But not in a showy way. Don’t you think she’s beautiful, Uncle?” There was no response. “Uncle Edgar?” The girl turned and saw her uncle staring into the crowd, presumably at the princess, with astonishment, his green eyes blazing. “Uncle Edgar?”

“Yes, very beautiful,” he finally muttered distractedly. He focused his gaze on the young princess, whose face was half-hidden by her shawl and who was quite far away from him. Could it really be—Well, of course it was, if he thought so. He wasn’t going to make a mistake about it. He strained to see her anyway, not for confirmation but rather from his sudden desperate longing to see what he’d been missing for much of this lifetime. The contours of the face would be the same, but with what light in the eyes? Had she known happiness and love in this life, or sorrow and pain? Had she seen anything of life at all, being hidden away so? Not that he would be able to tell from this distance, he supposed, but he would take whatever view he could get.

His mind worked rapidly once the initial surprise was past. What was his plan? There was the straight-forward approach—he was well-positioned for that. But, hmmm, perhaps he could make things a little more… interesting?

Suddenly, as if sensing his gaze on her, the princess began to look around, and he made a quick decision. “Can you see?” he asked again of Molly, who undoubtedly could. “Here, step up, put your feet there,” he ordered, lifting her to stand on the lower rung of the railing. “I’ve got you.”

“Oh, she’s looking right at me,” Maggie squealed with delight. Edgar ducked slightly and was concealed by his younger niece.

The organ changed tunes and the holiday service continued. It was especially long, of course, because of its importance, and by the end both of Edgar’s nieces were shifting from foot to foot in fatigue and trying to decide if plopping down on the gallery floor was considered proper etiquette or not. Standing didn’t bother Edgar, of course, and the lack of social interaction gave him considerable time to think. By the time they filed out of the church, he had his mind made up.

“Did you see the old woman in yellow on the right side, near the back?” Maggie giggled to her sister as they waited for their coach. “She kept bobbing her head as she tried to stay awake!”

“Good day, miss,” said a voice suddenly, and Maggie looked up in surprise as the handsome young man she’d seen earlier flashed her a brief smile and hurried on.

Maggie quickly glanced at her uncle, but he seemed lost in thought again. She had been worried he would distract them terribly with his inappropriate remarks throughout the whole service… which would nonetheless have made it more entertaining… but ever since it had begun he’d apparently had something serious on his mind. She hoped it wasn’t anything that would disturb their plans in London. There were several other social occasions on the agenda—which meant several opportunities to meet handsome young men.

“Uncle, the carriage is here!” Molly prompted, tugging on his hand.

He seemed to wake up suddenly. “Well, get in, get in,” he encouraged the drooping girls. “We’ll go back to the house and have a snack. Maggie, how would you like to be a lady-in-waiting to Princess Elizabeth?”

The girl goggled at him, having been more focused on the relief sitting gave her feet. “What? A lady-in-waiting? To the princess?”

“You’re a respectable girl, well-educated, family… well, the King owes me money, I’m sure I could get you in,” Edgar assessed. “I’ll go to court tomorrow and talk to the chamberlain. Maybe yet today. You’ll need a new wardrobe, of course. Oh, I should probably write to your mother. Think she’ll object?” he asked with a smirk.

Maggie had barely remembered to breathe during his remarks—of course she wanted to be a lady-in-waiting to the princess, didn’t every girl? To be at court amid the height of fashion, the most accomplished artists, the powerful men who shaped the future of the nation—and all the young, handsome, rich courtiers and a new wardrobe besides! She could only hope her uncle wasn’t playing a cruel joke on her.

Suddenly Molly burst loudly into tears, startling the others. “What the h—l?” Edgar exclaimed, vulgarly.

“I want to be a lady-in-waiting!” she sobbed. Maggie put her arms around her sister—she was sensible enough to realize that this new post, should she obtain it, would keep her away from the family she was so close to.

“Well, you can’t, you’re too young,” her uncle pointed out bluntly, having no time for such detours. He had a lot of details to attend to in only a short time.

“Well, then, I want a new wardrobe, too!” the girl demanded, sniffling.

Edgar rolled his eyes. “Fine,” he promised abruptly. This was going to be an expensive proposition all around, so what did a few more dresses matter? Besides, he knew how to make more money easily enough. “I’ll get a seamstress ‘round today.” The one thing he didn’t have a lot of was time. “Now look, Maggie—“

“I shall have to change my name,” the girl interrupted thoughtfully. “What’s the fashion now? French, perhaps. You must both start calling me Margot!”

Edgar was not particularly interested. “Look, whoever you are—you’ve got to behave yourself in the princess’s service,” he advised sternly. “You act how she acts. If she wants to hear Mass nine times a day, you learn to love those little wafers. If she wants to play lawn croquet in the depths of the country, you learn to love the sound of crickets.”

“Of course, Uncle!” Maggie, er, Margot protested indignantly. “Though, I do hope she wants to stay in London and attend fancy dress balls,” she added after a moment.

“She’s devout and reclusive, what do you think?” Edgar pointed out smartly, and the girl sighed. Well, even if life as a lady-in-waiting wasn’t a whirlwind of social engagements, she could surely find something to enjoy.

**

It wasn’t quite Mass nine times a day. Only three. And the Princess preferred to stay in London—or rather, her father the King preferred her to stay in London, slightly more visible to the suitors he hoped to attract now that she was of age. But so far, there were no signs of fancy dress balls, or any other kind. Quiet musical performances, yes. The occasional bit of informal dancing, yes. And fortunately the Princess was not averse to allowing young, handsome courtiers into the royal chambers, as long as they were well-mannered—she had unmarried ladies to find matches for, after all. But the Princess herself seemed to have no particular interest in any of them.

But I think she must want to marry someday, Margot wrote to her uncle, because she is quite fond of children and always insists upon them visiting her when brought to court by their parents. Her uncle had told her to be quite assiduous in her letter-writing and to give him every detail, without breaking the Princess’s confidence, of course. Not that there was all that much to tell. Once at noon Mass a mouse ran up Lady Kate Harding’s skirts, causing quite a hilarious commotion, but such amusements didn’t happen every day. Mostly they sewed clothes for the poor, especially children’s clothes, and listened to someone read the Bible.

Your routine is nauseatingly dull, her uncle wrote back. Worse than I expected. Are you sure you aren’t making it up?

It wasn’t so dull, really, just quiet. And respectable. Margot was a bit younger than the other ladies, after all, and found some of their conversations away from the Princess quite uncomfortable. She might dream of a young, handsome, rich husband, but she had no idea what getting one entailed, or what to do with one once she had him. And speaking of getting a husband—the Princess hadn’t generated too much interest as yet; her older sisters were already situated in France and Spain, so any foreign royal marriage beyond that would be considered a mere pleasant bonus. The German ambassador had come sniffing around, as had the Italian and Swedish; but there seemed to be no urgency that Margot could detect. Her uncle was particularly keen to know this information.

She finally figured out why when a messenger knocked on the door to the Princess’s chambers one day, bearing a large, velvet-covered box. “Ooh, what is it, milady, what is it?” the ladies cooed eagerly as she accepted it.

The Princess carefully opened the box and looked inside, her widening eyes heightening the anticipation even more. “It’s a necklace,” she finally answered, with woeful understatement. Indeed, it was a necklace of golden flowers, from which dangled a sapphire the size of a robin’s egg. It was obviously quite expensive and, amid the simple décor the Princess preferred, slightly tacky. “Who sent this?” she asked of the kneeling messenger.

“The Duke of Weston, with his compliments to your beauty, milady,” answered the messenger smoothly. Margot’s head snapped up in shock, but fortunately ripples of surprise were running through the entire room at this announcement, so her expression went unnoticed.

“You are sure this was meant for me?” the Princess questioned. “Very well. Please take it immediately to the King, and give him the same message,” she instructed. “For your troubles,” she added, giving him a generous coin.

As soon as he had gone the room erupted in whispers and giggles. “Does the Duke of Weston pay court to you, milady?” ventured one bold young woman.

The Princess resumed her sewing. “I know no more than you,” she pointed out evenly.

“Lord Charles, you must know!” the ladies insisted of one young man, who was known to be a bit cheeky when not attending the Princess. “What do you know of the Duke’s intentions?”

“It’s true, I’ve met His Grace on a number of occasions,” the young man agreed knowledgeably, “and he is quite the rascal!” Margot slumped slightly in her seat as the others laughed. “He drinks, he gambles, he… carouses,” he added with a knowing wink that pleased the crowd. “Hardly suitable for Milady’s temperament, if I may be so bold.”

“When will you see him next, Lord Charles?” asked a lady. “You must find out what his game is for us!”

Lord Charles shook his head. “I haven’t heard of him for several months. They say he’s gone back to his decrepit old manor in the West Country and is trying to repair it.”

“Perhaps he’s making it fit for a princess!” someone suggested, to much laughter. Margot joined half-heartedly in the chuckles, not wanting to be called out as a relation of the object of their merriment. She hadn’t ever tried to keep their connection a secret, but her uncle had admonished her not to brag of it and those few she might have mentioned it to in passing appeared to have forgotten. It didn’t seem like much to brag of at the moment, certainly.

The Princess didn’t really care for gossip, especially the salacious kind that this was leaning towards. “I’ve heard of the Duke of Weston,” she interjected, “but I know little of his history.” She glanced around expectantly.

Several of the better-informed lords and ladies were eager to fill in the details for her. “They say he was a nobody before the war, some minor noble with just enough cash to get an officer’s commission—“

“Oh, was he a soldier?” the Princess said with interest. “War is an ugly thing, but I quite admire those brave enough to fight for our protection.”

There was a slight moment of awkwardness after this sincere statement, before the light mood took hold again. “He did do quite well in the war and was much decorated,” someone offered.

“Though even then he was building a reputation as a scoundrel!” added another cheerfully. “I heard he once bet General Eddington that he could shoot a tin cup off a moving horse at two hundred paces! Two hundred! And he won! Supposedly the General was out a month’s pay.”

“My uncle knew him slightly in the war,” a lady revealed, “and once said that the Duke—though he wasn’t the Duke then, of course—and a few other officers would meet the enemy officers at the border at night to play cards!”

“How shocking! Is that allowed?”

“Supposedly, the King himself granted them permission—because the enemy officers were losing so much money to us!” This conclusion was met with a roar of laughter.

“What did he do after the war?” the Princess prompted, continuing with her sewing. She and Margot were the only ones still working.

“Oh, then he got married,” someone answered. “To the Duke of Weston’s only child and heir! No doubt why he picked her.”

“And then she died—“

“Oh dear,” said the Princess sympathetically. “Of what cause?”

Everyone had to think. Then when they remembered they didn’t necessarily want to say, because they knew it would make the Princess feel sorry for the rogue they were trying to mock. “Well, er, I think it was in childbirth,” someone finally admitted.

Sure enough, the Princess’s expression softened. “How awful! Did the child survive?”

“I think so,” someone replied swiftly, although Margot was certain they didn’t actually know. In fact, her uncle did have two young boys, who lived with her own parents—he preferred they be raised by relatives during his long absences, rather than by governesses.

“How fortunate,” the Princess murmured. “How long ago was that? How old would the child be?”

“Um, er, five or seven years,” came various mutters, wanting to get off this rather dull (to them) topic. “And ever since then he’s been back to his old scandalous ways!” they continued swiftly.

“I heard he once drank the German ambassador under the table!”

“I heard he was a ‘close friend’ of the infamous stage actress Maude Hawkins!”

“I heard he once fought a duel with Lord Brishaw!”

“Over what?”

“Either a gambling debt—or Lord Brishaw’s pretty wife!”

“He does have a keen eye for the ladies—but he’s not exactly Adonis, is he?”

“No, indeed! He’s short, and he walks funny, and he’s got quite a nose!”

“And such a queer stare! I found him staring at me once during the Christmas Ball and it sent such shivers down my spine. And not the good kind!”

“Though I’ve heard no complaints from any of his lady friends…”

“Yes, it’s amazing how much all that money makes up for!”

The laughter rose to a raucous pitch and even bawdier comments were being not-so-quietly tossed back and forth. Margot tried to pretend she was extremely interested in the most polite conversation she could find, but she was certain her face was beet red.

“Ladies, gentlemen,” the Princess chided gently, and the chatter ceased immediately. She looked around her chamber with a firm gaze, making eye contact with each attendant. “We will follow His Majesty’s advice in this matter,” she stated. “Lord Charles, would you be so kind as to play us a tune? Something soothing, I think.” Soothing music was not on the top of the list for most of those in the room, but that was just too bad; this wasn’t a democracy, after all.

As soon as she could safely slip away Margot began a letter to her uncle. What are you thinking, sending that vulgar jewel to the Princess? she demanded hotly, completely devoid of the respect and courtesy she usually showed her benefactor. The Princess won’t want to marry you! You shouldn’t play games with her, she’s too nice. Margot did not, of course, mention her own humiliation at being associated with the person everyone had so cheerfully maligned—she doubted her uncle would be much moved by that consideration.

Don’t be an irritating little chit, he wrote back in turn. I’m not going to share my plans with you. I’ve told the chamberlain to give you money for a new dress, he added. That was a bribe, Margot recognized astutely. A very effective one. Now tell me about these infants. Are you sure they aren’t hers?

Every year, around Christmastime, the Princess adopted, of a sort, a baby who had been abandoned at one of the churches or orphanages. Of course, being unmarried, she couldn’t really adopt the child; but her father the King generously indulged her benevolent impulse and permitted her to set aside part of her allowance to care for these children. They weren’t treated as royal children, of course, but they had shelter, plenty of food, and the loving attentions of the Princess herself on her twice-weekly visits to the distant part of the palace where they were kept.

The fixation seemed a bit bizarre to Margot, but the Princess appeared to have only the best intentions, and in fact had to be ordered not to spend all her time with the three little girls. Some of the ladies felt this wasn’t proper behavior for a Princess, and that the money spent on these pauper children somehow detracted from their own privileges. Margot could recognize petty jealousy when she saw it, however, and thus placed no stock in the vicious rumors that had the little-seen Princess secretly giving birth to all of these children and then pretending to adopt them to keep them close. Rubbish, really, and she told her uncle so.

Whatever the Princess did about the gift sent by the Duke was unknown to her curious attendants; when they worked up the nerve to ask, she merely replied that His Majesty the King was handling the matter, and changed the subject. In the Princess’s presence gossip about the Duke and his past exploits was kept to a minimum; but once she had retired for the night, or was occupied with a smaller group of ladies, the ones left behind would start up again with glee.

Margot was swiftly learning that the privileges of being at court amid the wealthy and fashionable were not endless—confined into such a small space with people just like themselves, gossip ran rampant, the wittier (i.e., more cruel) the better. The art and music surrounding them, so breathtaking to a less experienced person, were taken for granted by many—it was hardly the bastion of creativity and intellectualism that Margot had been expecting. She felt silly even being called ‘Margot’ now, but she had made sure she was introduced that way and it would be awkward to change it now.

The Princess’s chamber was a better place to be than most, Margot realized, because the Princess tried to surround herself with more circumspect characters who appreciated art and music, at least of a respectable sort; but Elizabeth was the only princess left at home in the royal family, and securing a position as a lady-in-waiting was considered not only an honor for a family but quite strategic as well. Thus the Princess was sometimes forced by the King to admit ladies whose personalities were not exactly compatible with her own, but whose families had convinced her father of the advantages of such an action. Perhaps, as with Margot’s uncle, the King owed them money—although Margot certainly tried to act in a ladylike manner at all times.

Just when things had started to settle down—no one had ever mentioned to Margot her connection to the Duke, fortunately—another velvet box borne by an expensively-dressed messenger appeared. “Oh my,” the Princess remarked upon opening the box, the words slipping out almost involuntarily and not with a good connotation.

If the previous gift had been flashy but lovely in its way, this one was just plain ugly: a cross, of all things, on a golden chain, encrusted with gems of every color with no regard for aesthetic appeal, only the desire to scream, “I cost a lot of money!” It was so heavy as a result of all the adornments that it couldn’t even be easily carried about. Worn as a necklace or even around a lady’s waist it would surely weigh her down like a millstone.

“From His Grace, the Duke of Weston, to Your Majesty, Princess Elizabeth, with compliments to your renowned piety,” the messenger announced grandly, without waiting to be asked.

For a moment even the Princess was speechless. Anyone who imagined a gem-encrusted cross counted as an appropriate devotional object for the Princess clearly didn’t know her well at all, and had never spoken to anyone who did. And anyone who thought she would be impressed by the ostentatious display of wealth was sadly mistaken on that count as well. What was the point, Margot thought angrily, of all the detailed letters she’d written to her uncle, if he was going to send ill-received gifts like this anyway? Why ask for her impressions only to ignore them?

The Princess slowly closed the lid on the box and gave it back to the messenger. “Please take this directly to the King,” she told him. This time, there was no generous coin for his trouble.

**

The air was warm and heavy with the scent of the flowers blooming in the surrounding gardens, and the Princess had finally managed to escape her ever-present attendants with a small lie about meeting a second group of them just beyond the grove of poplar trees, so the current gaggle could disperse in good conscience. They had looked about ready to faint in their heavy dresses and Elizabeth chided herself for not remembering their limitations. The heat and the cold didn’t bother her, of course, and all the ridiculous bindings and layers in the world didn’t pain her, so in some ways she was the ideal lady for this era that pretended it was so far above barbarism. How sad that the ‘ideal lady’ was not even really human at all! It made one wonder about the directions in which society pushed its citizens, really.

Elizabeth ducked behind one of the poplars, alone at last. The atmosphere at court was stifling to her—she would much rather be back at the country home where she had grown up, surrounded by friends, not sycophants and spies—but the King had decreed that she must stay in London now as the hunt for a husband began. And since the King was not only the King but also her father, well, it was better to obey him.

Perhaps, to be accurate, she should say that the King was considered to be her father—but with no aspersions cast on her late mother, or rather, the woman who was considered to be her mother. Elizabeth couldn’t fully explain it herself yet; the knowledge, the memories, the understanding trickled in slowly each day, often in the quiet moments when she was allegedly attending to spiritual matters.

Well, they were spiritual matters, she felt, because they involved something larger and more profound than the petty inconveniences of her daily life here and now—something that was unexplainable by any conventional means and quite possibly eternal. If that didn’t qualify as spiritual then she didn’t know what did. And the revelations she experienced—if you wanted to be dramatic and call them that—encouraged her to be a good person, to use her abilities and position to help others. Surely that was consistent with a spiritual experience as well.

Sometimes she just needed quiet to think about these things. But a princess was not really supposed to be left alone—most untrustworthy things, princesses—and her ladies were not always good about being quiet. Besides these abstract matters swirling through her mind Elizabeth also needed to deal with more mundane concerns—little Leah’s temper tantrums that were driving her nannies to distraction, which Elizabeth was adamant they not correct with physical punishments; this lady or that who was becoming serious about a particular young man, and how much dowry could Elizabeth chip in, and did she even approve of the match; how to discipline her ladies who became too high-spirited, especially those whom the King indicated would not be sent away without evidence of gross misconduct; this troubling business with the Duke of Weston.

The question of marriage was not one that excited Elizabeth. Oh, she recognized some men as handsome or kind, people whose company she enjoyed for reasons both elevated and a bit more earthly. But she couldn’t be in love with any of them. She just couldn’t. Maybe, if someday she were married to a certain kind of man, someone kind and thoughtful, she could learn to care for him a great deal. But he would never truly understand her, could never comprehend the things she was discovering about herself. She could pretend to be a happy wife, running a no-doubt wealthy household, and perhaps she would even enjoy it—but it would be no more her true self than a character put on for a fancy dress ball.

But, being a princess, she would no doubt have to marry, and not to anyone of her own choosing but rather to whomever made the best case to her father. Elizabeth accepted that. She hated the pretense that was sold to young women that these matches were solely about love, though. One of her older sisters used to receive regular love letters from her long-time intended, the Dauphin of France, which were clearly being dictated by his tutor or some other adult; how could the lad possibly manage to be in love with the Princess Ann when they hadn’t met since they were infants—and all of Ann’s replies to him were carefully crafted by ministers to reveal no trace of her actual personality? It was a ridiculous farce.

Far better, Elizabeth felt, for the two young people to come to an understanding about their positions in the world—as pawns of the previous generation, basically—and to form a bond with each other over that realization, and to agree to try everything in their power to make the arrangements foisted upon them work. But that rarely happened. Instead everyone pretended that it was all about love, and if your husband snuck off to be with his mistress, clearly you had done something to lose that love. Such a vile system, really, which deluded women from birth with the ideal of a handsome, wealthy love, then punished them for daring to believe it.

But Elizabeth didn’t want to be cynical. If her ladies said they were in love, who was she to question the secrets of their hearts? At least they had all met the men they wanted to marry.

On the other hand, she had never met this Duke of Weston. And, judging from both his own gifts and the comments made about him by others, she wasn’t sure she wanted to. Not that she placed much stock in court gossip—the specifics, anyway. But a man who had acquired such a reputation but did nothing to change it—to her mind this meant either the general tenor of it was true, or he didn’t mind being thought wickeder than he really was. Elizabeth found both suggestions troubling. But her royal father had simply patted her hand, reminded her how wealthy the Duke was, and advised her to have patience.

Well, if she had to marry this Duke, she could handle him. She was not helpless, should he prove aggressive, and she felt her spiritual experiences had given her an emotional resiliency others might not possess. And she could always run away, or perhaps devote herself to the Church. Sister Elizabeth, working with the orphaned children of this brutal age… Somehow she knew, though she had never been told, that she could never have her own children, and she tried to channel her sometimes overwhelming desire for them into positive outlets. The King had promised her another infant for Christmas—should she look for a boy this time, or another little girl…?

A noise off to the side interrupted Elizabeth’s daydream. At first she thought it was a squirrel in the bushes, or one of the little dogs some of the ladies were so fond of. But she listened more closely and soon the unmistakably human sound of crying met her ears.

Elizabeth peered discreetly over the top of a clump of bushes and spotted her youngest lady-in-waiting, Margot. She had been worried, when her father imposed the girl on her, that she would be another difficult attendant, but really she had been quite suitable, a most well-behaved young lady. Still, Elizabeth knew she had not found it easy to make friends with the other ladies, who were older and affected being much more worldly. Margot, Elizabeth understood, had come from primarily a sheltered rural existence—as Elizabeth herself had. Immediately she felt sorry for the crying girl, imagining that one of the others had made some catty remark to her or something along those lines. Elizabeth cleared her throat delicately.

Margot turned quickly in surprise, her eyes widening in horror as she realized who had been privy to her emotional distress. She swiped at her wet face hurriedly and tried to make herself look more presentable, jerking into a curtsey at the last minute that threatened to unbalance her.

Elizabeth took the girl’s arm and steadied her, handing her a silken handkerchief. A cotton or linen one would have been more useful, especially one without the gigantic royal motif embroidered in one corner, but one had to make do sometimes.

“I’m so sorry, Your Highness—“ Margot began to sniffle, but Elizabeth cut her off.

“No, no, you mustn’t apologize,” the Princess insisted gently. “You’ve done nothing wrong, Lady Margot. At least, nothing I know of!” she added, trying for a bit of humor. The girl smiled weakly. “But please, tell me why you’re so unhappy. Is there something I can do to help?”

Margot’s eyes welled up again. “You’re so kind, milady—“ Elizabeth made a dismissive noise and began to walk with the girl towards the shade of the nearby trees.

“Come, Lady Margot,” she encouraged. “If you would really rather not tell me, I won’t press you. But sometimes telling your troubles to someone else makes you feel better. Are you homesick, perhaps?” she guessed.

“Well, a little, I suppose, milady,” Margot answered tentatively. “Of course it’s quite lovely here in Your Majesty’s service—“ she hastened to add.

Sometimes Elizabeth wished they could just cut through all the formality and honorifics and get to the point already. She found it ironic that the longer people lived, as a whole, the shorter their communications became—and this was an age of relatively low life expectancy, so of course it took ten minutes just to say ‘good morning.’

“It’s just, well, when I was sitting in the rose garden with Lady Beatrice and some of the other ladies”—Aha, thought Elizabeth. So it was the other ladies behaving badly towards her. She contained her immediate reaction, however, to let the girl finish—“and they were talking again of the Duke of Weston.” Elizabeth narrowly avoided rolling her eyes—her ladies were far too fond of gossiping about her unusual suitor, and some of their remarks became quite tasteless when they thought she couldn’t hear. “They-they said such awful things, Your Majesty—they always do—and I-I-I am his niece!” she finally confessed, before bursting into tears again.

“Oh dear,” Elizabeth understated, trying to remember how far she’d let the gossip go in the past. She pressed the girl into sitting on a marble bench, her senses alert for any eavesdroppers in the area.

“I am here in Your Majesty’s service by his kind efforts!” Margot went on. “He has always been very kind to my sister and I, and our parents. Perhaps he is sometimes a bit impertinent,” she allowed, “but it is rare enough to find a man of his stature who takes such an interest in his poor nieces, and not just for his own gain! He insisted that my sister and I be given a fine education, and-and he told me he would find me an intelligent husband that I would appreciate more than a young or handsome one!” The girl was becoming quite passionate in her defense of her uncle. “Does that sound like someone who has ill intentions, Your Majesty? I cannot see how! And-and—he has very fine eyes!” she sputtered at the end. “Not queer at all!”

Elizabeth put her arm around the girl’s shoulders and patted her knee. “There, there,” she said soothingly, like she would with one of her little orphan charges. “It must be so terribly frustrating, to hear all those unpleasant things said about someone you care about,” she sympathized. “I’m sorry I allowed the ladies and gentleman to go so far. Really, I am. I must be more vigilant in the future. Gossip lowers the moral character of everyone who hears it, after all.” Perhaps the priest could ruminate on this subject during the next few Masses.

Margot nodded in agreement. “I-I didn’t mean to hide my association with him, milady,” she went on, guiltily. “I thought some people knew already, but…”

“No, it’s quite understandable,” Elizabeth assured her. “People would only pepper you with questions you couldn’t answer.” Such as…

“I don’t know why he’s been sending you those—ugly presents, milady,” Margot told her quickly. “I’ve admonished him quite severely. Oh!” she gasped in horror, “I don’t mean to suggest he shouldn’t want to marry Your Majesty! It’s just that—“

“If even a small portion of the stories about him are true,” Elizabeth supplied lightly, “I would think our personalities were not well-matched.”

Margot nodded immediately, with relief at her mistress’s understanding. “He does not—pursue the quiet life,” she agreed, with admirable understatement.

“Well, who can say why men do things?” Elizabeth sighed after a moment. “Or women either, for that matter. Why do Lady Beatrice and her friends delight in putting people down? There are other ways to raise oneself up.” The two of them were quiet a bit longer. “Well, I’m glad you’ve told me this, Lady Margot,” she finally said. “I think your uncle must be a very complex man.”

“Yes, milady,” Margot agreed, with resignation. “He is indeed.”

**

Elizabeth didn’t have to wait long before the Duke of Weston—Margot’s uncle, she always added in her mind now—intruded into her life once again. This time the messenger brought not another gaudy jewel that could have fed the poor for a month, but rather a letter. A very short letter, on very expensive paper, sealed with a ridiculous sign more elaborate than the Pope’s, it seemed. In a slight display of pettiness, Elizabeth made sure she snapped the wax in two when she opened the letter.

My dearest Princess Elizabeth, the letter began, in a rather familiar tone. I hope you appreciated the tokens I sent you. They were not mere extravagances, but rather representations of my personal wealth. How impertinent, Elizabeth thought. She was aware that everyone was watching her face closely, including young Margot, and she tried to contain her expressions. I can assure you that should we be married, I will be able to keep you in the style to which you are accustomed, though I’m told that’s far from grand. She couldn’t help it—her face flushed and her eyes widened.

“What does it say, milady?” clamored the ladies.

Elizabeth stood and put her back to the wall so no one could read over her shoulder and gestured for them to be quiet. I’ve been renovating my manor in the West Country to suit your needs, the letter went on. I’m afraid it’s terribly dull there, but I understand you like that sort of thing. Elizabeth had never been sick since she was a child, but she was beginning to feel rather ill now. She took back everything she had thought mocking the formality of language here—in this context its absence clearly showed an appalling lack of respect. I realize it’s a bit unorthodox for a princess to marry one of her own subjects. But, your sisters are currently pleasuring the thrones of Spain and France, so you might as well do the same for the wealthiest man in England. Don’t bother with coy protests; my mind is set. Besides, your father owes me some money. Yours with the utmost sincerity, the Duke of Weston.

“Milady?” The blood drained from Elizabeth’s face. “Your Majesty!” And for the first time ever, Elizabeth fainted dead away.

**

The incident—and the contents of the letter—had circulated through the entire court within just a few hours. No doubt one of the Princess’s attendants, instead of rushing to her mistress’s aid, had snatched up the note and used it to elevate her status as chief gossipmonger. Elizabeth was humiliated, by both the Duke’s crude, cynical message and by the laughter of the courtiers at her expense. Young Margot was sobbing in her room and could not be coaxed out. The ladies were sullen because Elizabeth’s ill humor meant they couldn’t go out either, and she had certainly banned all men from her rooms.

When Elizabeth finally ventured from her chambers, head held high above the whispers that followed her, and gained a private audience with her father, the King was most unwilling to empathize with her. “Just a little joke on the Duke’s part!” he insisted. “Well, of course he really does want to marry you, but he’s a jolly chap, really, just having a bit of fun.” Elizabeth gave him her coldest stare. “And, well, I do owe him a fair bit of money…” the King confessed.

“Sir, will you now reconsider my request to return to my country manor?” Elizabeth asked. “Since I am apparently affianced, there is no further need for me to stay in London.” That was the least her father could do for her, she felt—allow her to remove herself from the stares and giggles.

“Eh, no, no, that won’t be possible,” the King replied dismissively. “Weston is on his way here to be formally introduced to you. At the fancy dress ball.”

“I don’t care for fancy dress balls,” Elizabeth reminded her disappointing father icily.

“Well, come as a nun or something,” the King shrugged, and Elizabeth felt like asking for penance for him then and there. No wonder he liked this Duke; they had the same sacrilegious sense of humor.

So back Elizabeth went to her chambers, to begin the most joyless preparations for a fancy dress ball ever attempted.

Elizabeth was an accomplished seamstress; when neither your fingers nor your eyes got tired from the labor, it wasn’t too difficult. Usually she could also count on the warm feeling that the clothes she was making would benefit someone who couldn’t afford their own—but that wasn’t exactly the case with a fancy dress costume. She tried not to think about the waste of fabric, time, and energy the costumes were—it was unbecoming to a princess, and petty for one of her abilities, to be bitter and cynical.

Hadn’t she always said marriage would be much easier for her than for other women? Even if her husband should prove less than a good man. She just hadn’t expected things to be so sudden, that was all—so sudden and public. Obviously this Duke had no manners at all—or he felt her not sufficiently important to display them to—and she would just have to accept that. Now that her standards had been adjusted, perhaps he would be easier to deal with.

Chatter was at a minimum in the Princess’s chambers these days. Her fate decided, she had not felt the need to accommodate the requests of all the supplicants to the throne and had unofficially dismissed the ladies who irritated her the most. At the moment they were still fed and lodged at the palace, but now free to roam at will, instead of being confined to Elizabeth’s presence. So really, they were probably quite happy with the arrangement. Elizabeth had told her chamberlain not to pay any of their other expenses, however, including for their costumes; but as yet she had had no complaints from any quarter. Things were really much more pleasant all around, she tried to tell herself.

They were on their way back to the Princess’s chambers after noon Mass one day when one of the ladies slipped up to Elizabeth’s side. “May I—may I speak with you, milady?” said a tremulous voice. It was Margot.

Elizabeth gave her a genuine smile. “Of course, Lady Margot,” she assured the girl, who had been understandably withdrawn lately. The two of them went directly to the Princess’s bedchamber when they reached the suite of rooms, leaving the other ladies to take up their quiet afternoon pursuits.

The girl did not seem to know how to begin and paced restlessly in front of Elizabeth. “Your Majesty, I—“ She took a deep breath, then started over. “Your Majesty, I am so terribly sorry about the letter my uncle wrote you!” she finally blurted. She knelt before the Princess in a rush. “I am utterly humiliated—mortified—that he should address Your Majesty so!” she pledged, tears springing to her eyes. “I have no understanding of his intent, milady. I have refused to write to him since that horrible letter arrived. Though he does entreat me to do so,” she added a bit guiltily.

“Here, come sit here,” Elizabeth decided, patting the bench next to her. She put her arm around the girl. “Margot, I wouldn’t blame you for your uncle’s behavior,” she assured her. “I know you have no control over it. Any more than I can control the King.” As a random example. She sighed. “I can’t deny that it’s all been most trouble, however.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised to hear my uncle speak so among his close friends, in a light-hearted manner,” Margot admitted. “But to write such a thing, to one he has never met, to a princess—I cannot fathom what took hold of him.”

“My father thinks he meant it to be funny,” Elizabeth said dryly.

“I should have advised him to go a more serious route,” Margot replied.

“Yes, well, it’s all said and done now, isn’t it?” Elizabeth noted, standing briskly. “Come, let’s work on your costume for the fancy dress ball. A shepherdess can’t go out half-finished, can she?”

**

“Delightful, simply delightful!” the King said, gazing over the assembled ladies with a broad smile.

Elizabeth expected he would have been even more pleased if she had allowed the ladies’ more risqué costume ideas, such as Jezebel and scantily-clad wood nymphs. She had done a great deal of thinking about the man considered to be her father lately and felt she was just now beginning to recognize all his faults. But with recognition came resignation—as it no doubt would with her future husband as well.

“Ladies, I am enchanted by the gathering before me!” the King went on, perhaps with a bit too much enthusiasm. Then again, he enjoyed fancy dress balls far more than Elizabeth did. “I envy all the young men who will clamor to dance with you tonight!” This set the ladies to giggling and blushing. “Well, now, don’t keep them waiting!” the King insisted, shooing the ladies from the room. “The gentlemen are making quite a fuss in the great hall!” Clearly Elizabeth was meant to stay behind.

The King chuckled as he turned back to her, still thinking of the giddy young ladies. “I’m afraid I don’t recognize your costume, my dear,” he admitted, looking over the modest toga and crown of flowers Elizabeth wore. “Are those, er, morning glories?”

“Hollyhocks,” Elizabeth corrected. “St. Chrysoprase was martyred for defending her virginity against a Roman legionnaire. Hollyhocks sprang up from the earth where her blood was spilled.”

“How festive,” the King remarked. “Well, if you can wait a moment before rushing off to the ball, my dear, you have some visitors.”

The Duke of Weston? Elizabeth thought with sudden dread. She had been growing more anxious about their eventual introduction all afternoon. As yet, no one could tell her when it would be occurring, and she didn’t want to inspire more gossip by demanding the time be set.

The King, as usual, didn’t notice her expression of unease but merely turned to his footman to signal something. The door to Elizabeth’s chamber opened again and in trotted two young boys, freshly scrubbed and dressed in their best stiff new suits. They were absolutely darling, and Elizabeth melted.

“Come on then, lads,” the King insisted. “This is the Princess Elizabeth. And how do you greet the Princess?”

The older boy bowed quite low, with a certain mechanical air—he’d obviously been practicing. When he noticed that his younger brother was standing as still as a doll, however, he quickly yanked on the boy’s collar and nearly sent him tumbling to the floor.

The King cleared his throat and tried to look solemn. “The Earl of Connaught and the Viscount of Maberly, milady.”

Elizabeth knelt to put herself at eye level with the boys. “I’m so pleased to make your acquaintance,” she told them cheerfully. “What brings you fine gentlemen to court?”

“It was quite a large carriage, with six horses!” blurted the younger boy.

His older brother was obviously disgusted with his answer, though Elizabeth had to bite her lip hard to keep from grinning. “Our father’s brought us to court, Your Majesty,” he replied plainly. “He says you’re to be our new mother.”

“Must we call you Princess Mummy, then?” asked the younger boy in confusion. “That’s what Papa said.”

“He was just joking,” his brother hissed.

Elizabeth missed the interchange, so shocked was she by the realization of who the boys were. “Is—your father is the Duke of Weston,” she stated flatly.

“Is he?” asked the younger boy.

“Yes,” his older brother responded impatiently. “I’ve told you!” Then he made another little bow to the Princess and replied, “Yes, milady, that is so. He is the Duke of Weston.”

There was a pause as they waited for Elizabeth to say something else. “Oh, I’ve just remembered,” the younger boy said suddenly. “I’m John! I’m to tell you that.”

Elizabeth tried to recover her manners; it wasn’t the boys’ fault who their father was. “Oh! John is a fine name,” she replied stiltedly.

“Well, I’m Henry,” said the older boy, a bit defensively. “And I’m learning Latin, and mathematics, and Scripture, and geography.”

“I know a joke in Latin!” John boasted.

Henry shushed him immediately. “It’s not proper,” he whispered fiercely to his brother.

John’s face fell. “Oh, that’s right. Papa said not to repeat it.”

“You’re both very fine boys,” Elizabeth told them stiffly, forcing a smile to her face. Somehow she felt like crying instead. “I hope I shall see you later.”

The King took this as the cue to usher the boys out of the room, after they had made their parting bows, of course. “Well, they seem like—“

“That man is despicable!” Elizabeth declared immediately, as soon as the door was shut. “Sending his children to—“ She couldn’t even put it into words.

“But you love children, my dear!” the King reminded her, clearly not seeing the problem. “Now, be a good girl and come out to the ball.”

Elizabeth straightened up, feeling as though she required a corset of iron to keep her contained. “As you wish, Father,” she replied dutifully. But perhaps her anger would have melted the iron corset. Sending his children to intercede on his behalf! The scoundrel knew no limits. If he had wanted to make a good impression on her, he should have started with the boys, not used them to clean up his mess. The Duke of Weston had a lot to answer for in Elizabeth’s mind, and if he was determined to marry her, he might be answering for a long time.

**

Sometimes, even with all the knowledge and experience at his disposal, Edgar found himself thinking, ‘Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.’ Sad but true. She would laugh at him once they really met, and chide him for making things complicated or upsetting her. But one had to have a bit of fun in this world, which didn’t necessarily offer a lot of opportunities for it, and he also had a reputation to uphold. Still, he supposed he could have phrased the letters a bit better, Edgar mused. Given that even Maggie wasn’t speaking to him any longer. Well, live and learn, he shrugged, pulling on his mask. Or maybe not—he was about to go off and do something else unwise.

“And may I present… the Duke of Weston,” the King introduced, a bit eagerly. It was quite a lot of money he owed, when he really looked into it, which would be absolved should the marriage indeed take place.

The Princess looked at Edgar with beautiful, cold eyes. “Your Grace. You are exactly as I imagined you.”

Behind his large, elaborately carved gargoyle mask, Edgar smirked. Outwardly he merely bowed again, in a deferential way.

“The Duke has asked to refrain from speaking or showing his face until the midnight unmasking,” the King hastily explained. He had thought that sounded like a bit of fun himself, but Elizabeth didn’t seem to find it too amusing. For the first time the King vaguely wondered if perhaps she really wasn’t suited, temperamentally, to be the wife of the rather more free-spirited Duke—but he pushed that thought aside with a royal shrug. Princesses—indeed, women—learned to adapt to whatever husband they found themselves with, and Elizabeth should be grateful she was marrying a wealthy man who spoke her language.

“I’m sure we shall take this opportunity to become better acquainted,” Elizabeth pronounced formally, with just a touch of irony. Edgar wondered if he was the only one who caught it—though they were being closely watched by all the courtiers around them. As he couldn’t answer verbally without giving the game away, he merely held out his hand to ask for the first dance.

He enjoyed seeing her up close, feeling her hand in his, thrilling just slightly when her hip accidentally brushed against his. He felt as though it had been an eternity since he was with her last; but then again he always felt that way. And he could easily tell that her own reaction was more of revulsion, though he felt it a bit forced—as if she had set her mind against him but had to keep reminding herself of that. Even with the disguise she ought to be able to sense his presence, even if she didn’t understand what it meant.

“I met your two sons earlier,” Elizabeth reported, no doubt feeling unnatural not speaking during the dance. “They’re very fine boys. I’m surprised you brought them all this way just for that meeting.” In other words—you’re a knave for trying to manipulate me with your children. Of course, Edgar was at a disadvantage here—he couldn’t speak to defend himself—and Elizabeth wasn’t letting that stop her. Although really that limitation was his own choice.

The dance ended and the two partners bowed formally to each other. “If you’ll excuse me, milord,” she said coolly, “I have promised this next dance to Lord Braxton.” Edgar didn’t release her hand right away and she was forced to look back at him in irritation. He wanted to make sure she understood that he was laying claim to several more dances later on. “There will be other dances, Your Grace,” she pointed out frostily. He released her hand then and let her go, wondering how long it would be before she realized she had guessed his intent a little too easily for a true stranger.

Edgar watched her retreating form appreciatively and found himself startled when another person popped into view. “Maggie,” he recovered, bowing as custom demanded. “You look very…” He took in the virginal shepherdess costume. “…vigilant. I’m sure no sheep would slip from your tender care.”

Of course her expression was anything but tender at the moment. “How dare you show your face here after that awful letter!” she hissed.

“Well, I haven’t actually—“ he pointed out, tapping the mask.

“You know what I mean,” she sputtered.

“Lower your voice,” he suggested. “How kind of you to agree to dance with me, milady,” he went on, sweeping her into formation with the other couples.

“I did not,” she shot back, nonetheless going through the dance steps.

“Well, why else are you talking to me, then?” he asked under his breath as he swept passed her. “Are you trying to seduce me?” She made a face of disgust. “Perhaps I’m trying to seduce you,” he suggested mischievously. “It seems only fitting that I be after the Princess’s youngest lady-in-waiting, now that I’m pledged to marry her.”

“Must you try so hard to be horrible?” his niece asked him plaintively.

“Oh, it’s no effort at all,” he assured her lightly.

“Your last letter upset the Princess terribly,” Maggie pointed out as they paired up again. “She’s very sensitive to public ridicule. She’s a very fine lady.”

“Well lucky you, you’ll get to spend a lot of time with her,” Edgar noted. “If you’re willing to leave court, that is.”

“You don’t deserve her,” Maggie sniffed.

“I think I’ve found you a husband,” Edgar replied instead.

Her eyes widened—in anticipation, he judged. “What?”

At that moment the music ended and he bowed deeply. “Thank you kindly for the dance, milady,” he replied, leaving her questions unanswered. She glared at him as he sauntered away, looking for another dance partner. With the recent increase in his notoriety at court, there was no shortage.

Eventually he was able to claim the Princess again for a dance, much to her resignation. “Margot is a very fine young lady,” she began this time. “I have become quite fond of her.” If he thought her attitude towards him was warming, however, he was wrong. “You should have considered the effect of your behavior on her,” she admonished.