Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 79

  AFTER THE EVENING MEAL WAS DONE, the trestle tables were removed from the hall and dancing began. Henry had given Eleanor the place of honor beside him on the dais, trumpeting their reconciliation with this public display of marital amity. It was also, Eleanor thought, an effective way to make sure she and Richard had no time alone. She did not doubt that her husband would have both of them under discreet surveillance, but his spies would be disappointed. Richard was not going to fall into that trap, would make sure to keep his distance until his departure on the morrow. She’d never been as proud of him as in the solar, watching him match wits with Henry, showing he could dissemble as convincingly as his sire.

  As she thought back over the past few hours, she could feel her rage beginning to flare again, and she swiftly dampened it down, thankful that she’d had years of practice in learning patience, in learning to congeal dangerous furies in ice. There would be time later to indulge her wrath. Glancing at Henry through downcast lashes, she seethed in silence, still astounded that he would dare to meddle in her duchy so blatantly, dare to disinherit the son who’d been consecrated before men and God in solemn ceremonies at Poitiers and Limoges.

  Becoming aware of Henry’s scrutiny, she raised an eyebrow in query, and he shifted in his seat so that they could converse quietly, without fear of eavesdroppers. “I continue to marvel,” he said, “at our accord this evening. It seems you can still surprise me after all these years, for I never knew you had such an accommodating nature.”

  Even if she’d not caught his sarcasm, she’d have known better than to overplay her compliance; he’d never believe it if she was too docile or biddable. “I suppose it was too much to hope,” she said tartly, “that you’d have consulted me beforehand. What possible interest could I have, after all, in the succession to Aquitaine?”

  “I should have talked with you first,” he conceded, but she was not mollified by that almost-apology, for words were cheap, especially his words. Leaning closer, he said earnestly, “I do not want you to think I did this to disparage or diminish Richard in any way. That was never my intent. His kingship is far more likely to flourish if he is not burdened with Aquitaine, for he will never be able to pacify your barons.”

  Eleanor studied him with narrowed eyes. “What are you saying, Harry? That Richard has been a failure as Duke of Aquitaine?”

  “Yes, I am saying that,” he admitted. “But hear me out. He has made mistakes that cannot be undone, has been too heavy-handed in his dealings with them. Look what happened when he arbitrarily tried to change the inheritance customs in Angoulême. He stirred up a rebellion that continues to smolder even today. I am not saying it was all his fault; he is young and still learning and they are vexing enough to try a saint’s patience. But he got off to such a bad start with them that there is no going back. There is too much bad blood there, and they are not ones for forgiving and forgetting.”

  Eleanor looked at him in disbelief. How could he be so logical, so practical, and so utterly wrong? How could he banish all emotion from the equation? There was truth in what he said, but did he never realize that Richard was deeply attached to Aquitaine? That he’d been raised from the cradle with the expectation that he would rule the duchy one day? That he’d spent the past eight years fighting and bleeding and struggling to put down rebellions and restore peace? These questions went unasked, of course, for she already knew the answers. He’d taken none of that into consideration, for he viewed their sons as pieces on a chessboard, to be moved hither and yon at his whims.

  “Far be it from me to be a naysayer,” she said, “but if a brilliant battle commander like Richard cannot end their rebellions, how do you expect John to do so? You do not think he is rather young to be tossed into the lion’s den?”

  “He’ll be seventeen in December,” he parried, “and I was ruling Normandy at that age. I understand that he’ll make mistakes, that he’ll need more experienced guidance, and I am willing to step in when needed.”

  Yes, she thought grimly, I daresay you are. You’d turn John into a puppet prince, as you could not do with Richard. “I do have one concern,” she said. “What happens after Richard abdicates in John’s favor? What are you prepared to do for him, Harry? For the past eight years, he has governed Aquitaine. If you take that away, what do you give him in return? He’s not one to amuse himself on the tournament circuit like Hal. I would suggest that you turn Normandy or Anjou over to him. That would enable you to make use of his abilities and give him the purpose that he needs, for he’ll never be one to embrace an idle life of pleasure—no more than you would.”

  “You make a valid point, Eleanor. I will give it some careful thought, for certes.”

  I am sure you will, she jeered silently, knowing he’d never give up Normandy or Anjou to Richard. He could no more relinquish any of his power than he could fly. No, if he had his way, he’d keep Richard dancing attendance at his court, with no revenues or authority of his own. But this time you will not win, Harry. I will not let you unman Richard as you did Hal.

  RICHARD DEPARTED THE NEXT DAY, ostensibly to consult with his barons. In the week that followed, Eleanor spent as much time as possible with Tilda and her grandchildren, for she did not know how Henry would react to their son’s defiance. While Richard was beyond his reprisal, she was not, and he might well send her back to England straightaway. She also sought out Geoffrey and John, determined to make the most of her relative freedom, but did her best to avoid her husband whenever possible, for the tentative rapprochement they’d reached in the past few years had gone up in smoke in the solar of Rouen’s ducal castle.

  AMARIA LED A SERVING MAID up the stairwell to the queen’s chamber. As she opened the door, she smiled at the sight before her. Eleanor and Tilda were playing a game of dice with John and Tilda’s young son Heinrich. They welcomed her boisterously when they saw that the serving maid carried a platter of cheese wafers and cups of cider. As Amaria passed them around, Heinrich boasted that “Uncle Johnny” had taught them a game called hazard.

  “Hazard?” Amaria pretended to be shocked, to Heinrich’s delight. “But that is a game played in taverns and alehouses!”

  “I know,” the boy grinned, “and we’ve been winning!”

  “Indeed they have,” Eleanor agreed, with mock severity, pointing toward a pile of coins in the center of the table. “If I had a suspicious mind, I might wonder if some sleight of hand could be involved.”

  Heinrich laughed and John smiled. “I seem to be on a winning streak these days,” he said cheerfully. “Are the Dukes of Aquitaine always lucky, my lady mother?”

  Eleanor felt a pang of resentful regret that her husband had entangled John in his scheme. Her youngest was still very much a stranger to her; after these few days in his company, she could say only that he was clever and guarded and had inherited his share of the family’s sardonic humor. But she did know he’d been bedazzled by the prospect of gaining Aquitaine and he was in for a great disappointment.

  They played another game of hazard, and John and Heinrich won again. They were still whooping and slapping hands when the door slammed open with enough force to startle them all. Henry came to an abrupt halt, for he’d been expecting to find Eleanor alone. Tilda and Heinrich welcomed him happily, but John flushed and jumped to his feet as if he’d been caught in a misdeed. Eleanor returned his gaze calmly and her sangfroid confirmed Henry’s suspicions.

  After greeting them with strained affability, he explained that “I am sorry to interrupt your game, but I need to speak privately now with your mother and grandmother.” Eleanor made a playful grimace at “Grandmother,” to Heinrich’s amusement, and her nonchalance added more fuel to the flames of Henry’s rage. So she saw this as a joke, did she?

  Heinrich was reluctant to end their fun, but Tilda had picked up on the tension in the chamber and she ushered her son out, with a troubled backward glance at her parents. John was already gone; he’d faded away as inconspicuously as that woodland fox. Amaria hesit
ated, not departing until Eleanor gave her a smile and a nod.

  Eleanor helped herself, then, to more cider. “I take it you’ve heard from Richard?”

  “Yes, I heard. He sent word that he will never relinquish Aquitaine, not as long as he draws breath. But you already knew that, did you not?”

  “Of course.”

  “I should have known this was your doing!”

  “And how did I manage that? I am sure your spies told you that I was not alone with Richard from the time you sprang your ‘surprise’ until his departure the next morning. Did we communicate in code by thumping on the walls of our chambers? Smuggled secret messages to each other? Mayhap used Heinrich as our go-between?”

  He was disconcerted by her defiance; it had been years since her claws had flashed like that. “If you did not plan this with Richard, how did you know he’d refuse?”

  “How could you not know? By the Rood, Harry, how can you be so blind about your own sons?”

  “I told you my reasons for wanting this. You seemed to think they made sense last week!”

  “Yes, they made perfect political sense. But Richard’s love for Aquitaine is not political. It is visceral, in his blood and his bones. You might as well ask him to tear out his heart and give it over to you!”

  “That is arrant nonsense! He’d still be liege lord of Aquitaine, would be losing nothing and gaining much. God’s Bones, woman, you are the blind one! Can you honestly say that you are pleased with his rule of the duchy? That you do not think he has antagonized his barons needlessly and spread the seeds of rebellion with his own hand?”

  “I do not deny that he has made mistakes. But he is the Duke of Aquitaine, not an errant child. You cannot step in and slap his hand when you think he has blundered. For God’s sake, Harry, let him go! Your love for our sons is strangling them. Why can you not see that?”

  “Why can you not see that I have to act for the good of our empire? I cannot just stand aside whilst our sons put my life’s work at risk. Aquitaine would be a constant thorn in Richard’s side, and turning it over to Johnny would benefit them both. A duchy is a small price to pay for a kingdom, and it troubles me greatly that Richard seems unable to understand that. If his judgment is so faulty—”

  “Oh, enough!” Eleanor was on her feet, glaring at him across the table as if it were a battlefield. “You are such a hypocrite!”

  His eyes darkened to a storm-sea grey. “And how is that?” he asked, his voice dangerously soft.

  “You refuse to understand why Richard is unwilling to give up Aquitaine, but you are no less unwilling to surrender control of Normandy or Anjou. If you’d turned either one over to Hal, he’d never have rebelled. But you could not do that, could you?”

  “Because I could not trust him to govern himself, much less a duchy!”

  “I see. So you have it in mind to rule from the grave? Please, enlighten me—how exactly do you plan to do that?”

  But Henry had heard nothing after her gibe about Hal. “So what are you saying?” he demanded hotly. “Are you blaming me for Hal’s death? You think I drove him to rebellion?”

  She heard the anguish underlying his rage, and her own fury ebbed away, leaving her sickened and shaken by the wreckage they’d made of their marriage and their world. “No,” she said wearily, “of course I do not blame you for Hal’s death, Harry. I did my part, too, as did Geoffrey and Richard and Hal himself. Hal most of all, for he was a man grown, a man who made his own choices and, to his credit, recognized that at the end…”

  Henry’s throat had constricted, for thoughts of Hal’s last hours were still more than he could bear. “He died alone,” he said huskily, “and it need not have been like that…”

  “He was not alone, Harry. Will Marshal and his friends were with him—”

  “But I was not!” He swung away, keeping his back to her as he fought to regain control of his emotions. “Hal wrote me a letter on his deathbed,” he said, after a heavy silence. “Would you like to read it?”

  Eleanor blinked in surprise. “Yes, I would, very much.”

  He nodded and then surprised her further by turning toward the door. “Harry, wait!”

  When he faced her again, she was shocked by how ravaged he looked. “What do you intend to do about Richard?”

  After coming together as grieving parents, she’d hoped they could come together, too, to repair the tattered father-son bond before it was beyond salvaging. But he looked at her expressionlessly, his eyes as veiled and opaque as John’s. “I have not changed my mind,” he said. “I still think Richard needs to relinquish control of Aquitaine, and I will do all in my power to bring that about.”

  The sound of the closing door seemed to echo in the empty chamber, reminding Eleanor of a wretched memory—standing in that chamber at Loches Castle and listening as the key turned in the lock. She sank down upon a coffer, was staring blankly into space when Amaria entered. With a soft cry of alarm, she crossed the floor and knelt at Eleanor’s feet. “My lady? Are you ill?”

  “That is not the man I married, Amaria. The man I knew was stubborn, yes, but he was flexible, too, capable of altering his course when need be. And he never let his suspicions get the better of him. Now…now he can neither trust nor compromise, God help us all.”

  Amaria was not sure what to say, so she stayed quiet. And as she watched the older woman, she saw Eleanor’s despair drain away, to be replaced by an indomitable resolve. “For a long time, Amaria, I’ve blamed myself for those changes in Harry’s nature. I’d not realized what a deep wound I was inflicting when I chose to rebel, never imagined that it would take so long to heal. Today I saw that it is never going to heal. I am done with feeling guilty, though. No more. If he wants to cherish his grievances instead of his sons, so be it.” She raised her chin, her eyes taking on a hard, green glitter. “But as God is my witness, I will not let him take Aquitaine from Richard.”

  IN THE DAYS THAT FOLLOWED, Henry’s court was not a happy place. Constance yearned to be back in Brittany, but she would not leave without Geoffrey and his father seemed set upon keeping his younger sons close for the foreseeable future. When the oppressive atmosphere at Rouen became too much for her, she made a brief pilgrimage to Chartres, proud possessor of the Sancta Camisa, the chemise said to be worn by the Blessed Mary as she gave birth to the Holy Christ Child. There she was welcomed by the bishop, prayed in the great cathedral, made offerings to the Mother of God, and was soon ready to return to Rouen, her spirit nourished and her faith renewed, for the Queen of Heaven had heard her prayers.

  Upon her arrival at the ducal castle, she sent a servant to let Geoffrey know of her return and retreated to their bedchamber with her ladies. Juvette and Blanche had assisted her in washing away the grime of the road, and she was wrapped in a new silk robe as they brushed out her hair when Geoffrey burst into the chamber. Swooping her up into his arms, he kissed her exuberantly, then sent Juvette and Blanche away, giggling, when he declared slyly that he could see to all of his wife’s needs. Watching as he barred the door, shutting out the rest of the world, Constance felt a throb of pure and perfect happiness, thinking that she would not want to be anywhere but here, to be anyone but the duchess of this laughing man with tawny hair and shining eyes.

  “I have something to tell you,” she said at the same time that he said those very same words, and they looked at each other in surprised amusement.

  “My news first,” he insisted, “for I’ve been waiting days to tell you. If I’d not expected you back so soon, I’d have ridden to Chartres myself to fetch you home.”

  She smiled at his boyish glee, for she was one of the few who ever saw that side of him. “You first then,” she agreed. “I take it your news is good since you look so pleased with yourself.”

  “Yes, it is good news,” he confirmed, before tumbling her backward onto their bed. Reaching for a handful of her hair, he inhaled its fresh, fragrant scent. “I ought to make you guess what it is, but you’d take too
long, and I cannot keep it to myself for a moment longer.” Kissing her throat, he propped himself up on an elbow, so close that she could feel the warmth of his breath upon her skin. “My lord father, that steadfast soul of consistency, has given us the Honour of Richmond.”

  “Geoffrey!” Flinging her arms around his neck, she showered his face with haphazard kisses. “That is truly amazing, downright miraculous!” But then she sat up, her brows slanting into a suspicious frown. “Why?”

  Laughing, he pulled her back down beside him again. “That’s my girl. Why, indeed? Naturally he would not tell me why he’d decided to do it now, and he utterly ignored the oddity and the irony of it, that he’d be rewarding a rebel with the very lands he rebelled over! Somehow I doubt that this was a belated birthday present. Here’s another irony for you, darling. We most likely owe a debt of gratitude to Brother Richard.”

  “Yes, that makes sense. He is furious with Richard now, so it is to be expected that he’s looking for allies, mayhap even seeing you in a new and appealing light. It is about time,” she said indignantly, and then, “What of Nantes?”

  He gave another peal of laughter and kissed her until they both were breathless. “He is continuing to dangle Nantes as bait, whilst still promising that it will be ours at a later date. And you know what, Constance? I think I almost believe him. As long as Richard continues to be his endearing, obstinate self, I’m going to look better and better to Papa.”

  Constance had a sudden, dazzling thought. Could Henry become so angry with Richard that he’d consider making Geoffrey his heir? She said nothing, though, not wanting to jinx them by saying it aloud. That was a dream to be held close, not to be shared with anyone yet, not even Geoffrey. He had slipped her robe off her shoulders and she squirmed out of his embrace, knowing that once she was naked, it would be quite a while before she could tell him her secret.