Richard watches the tall boy approach, gesturing jovially to the men next to him, and wonders why he has been so worried about this moment. He has taken pains to make the occasion seem as casual as possible, but Hal has outdone him. Isabella's little white dog rolls over and he lowers a bit of meat toward its mouth with studied nonchalance, holding the entourage in his peripheral vision. Mellow autumn sunlight bounces off a small pond, deepening the green hedges and shimmering on his gold-embroidered robes, and he feels a chill in the air that has nothing to do with the season. Isabella has asked to visit him from her usual home with Madame de Courcy at Eltham because she is curious about the young relative that will be joining him.
She tugs his sleeve, hissing, "Dickon! He's here!"
As he feigns delight over his new guest, it feels more like a picnic than what it really is. The boy stops before them and bows deeply, with an exuberant flourish that draws a sharp, reproachful sound from one of the men behind him. His arms fall instantly still while he waits for permission to straighten his back and face the king.
"Our heart rejoices to see our kinsman Hal and we will fold him in our arms," Richard intones.
Hal interprets this as permission to rise while Richard takes two steps forward and briefly presses Hal's broad shoulders against his chest. His head barely comes up to Richard's collarbone and he catches a whiff of rosemary rising from the unruly thatch of thick, dark hair that skims his ears.
"We are pleased to host you as our honored guest while your father is-" Richard suddenly wonders if the word he has chosen is appropriate, but cannot think of another off the top of his head, "-- away."
Hal's blue eyes harden and bore into the king's for a split second before he drops them to the little girl at his side, struggling to maintain a regal demeanor against her excitement. His face softens and he bows again to her, rising when she extends her hand.
"Welcome, cousin, I hope your journey has not been too hard."
"The destination was worth the effort."
Hal's blinding smile dazzles Isabella, capturing even Richard, for a moment, in its charm. It's slightly crooked, rakish, welcoming, too mature for an eleven year old boy, and then it hits him: It's the same as his father's. Richard feels like he's ten again, drowning in a sea of adults, the crown a hot, unfamiliar weight on his blond head, driving a thread of sweat through the hair on his temples, when Henry, only a few months younger than he, is brought to him for the first time, and his smile hits Richard like a fresh breeze. Richard impulsively clasps Henry's hands and hugs him.
"I'm glad you've come to live with me. We are cousins first, and now we are going to be best friends, too."
Richard cringes a little because Henry has been anything but a friend, but he still feels a pang of guilt over banishing him. The boy in front of him both accuses and threatens from within a charismatic bundle of energy. He shakes the feeling off, and returns his attention to Hal, who is asking him a question.
"With your majesty's permission, I've brought a gift for the queen."
Isabella's brown eyes light up and turn pleadingly toward Richard, who nods. One of Hal's attendants hands him a small wooden box inlaid with ivory curls and rosettes, which he passes to Isabella. She opens the lid and her delight dims to a frown. Hal pauses nervously while Richard leans over to see the contents, a folded board and carved wooden markers, and asks, "What's the matter? Don't you like it?"
"I don't know how to play chess."
"Well, you can learn," Richard laughs.
Hal's rehearsed speech slips and he gushes, "I can teach her! I've been playing since I was six and I'm really good. I bet I can even beat y--" his mouth hangs, petrified, when he realizes what he was just about to say to the king.
Richard's majesty won't let him laugh and ruffle the boy's hair like he wants, at least, not in front of Hal's men and anyone else who might be watching. The most he allows himself is a pleasant, less formal grin that just barely crinkles the corners of his eyes.
"You will dine with us in private tonight and afterward you can teach chess to the queen."
Richard lounges against the velvet cushions on a brightly painted wooden chair, idly popping sugared almonds into his mouth and watching Hal and Isabella playing chess in front of the fire. He's a few feet away and they talk quietly, so he can't always hear what they say. Not that he's trying very hard. He feels full and mellow from the glass of wine he had with dinner, and, though the evening has grown cold, his chambers are warm and cheery. Isabella is so deeply engrossed in absorbing Hal's instructions that she's forgotten her status and sprawls on her stomach over a thick pillow on the floor, chin in her hands, feet waving in the air on pink stockings bent at the knees. Hal sits cross-legged on his cushion, gesturing and moving pieces around and getting irritated when he thinks Isabella isn't paying attention.
"You're never going to learn if you don't watch me, Isabella!" he scolds. She quickly stops chewing on an end of her chestnut hair and fixes on the board.
"I shouldn't let him get away with that," Richard thinks, but it seems like too much effort and besides, the eager buzz of children's voices is lulling him into contentment. Right now, they are not his queen and his hostage, but children of eight and eleven, arguing over a board game. It's cozy, familial, like an evening with the son and daughter he should have right now. It stings to picture Henry watching Hal play like this with his five siblings.
"At least now Henry knows what it's like to live each day without children." Richard's spiteful thought only pricks a recollection he'd rather not have.
One night, Anne doesn't come to his room. She doesn't join him in bed every night; she prefers to sleep alone when she is bleeding. Richard doesn't mind if there is some mess. He needs to feel her soft body next to his to fall asleep, but Anne is shy about the matter, and keeps to her own room. She's been with him every night for many weeks now. As he tosses in the linens, he counts the days backward and it begins to dawn on him that more than a month has passed since her last cycle. Worry seizes his gut.
He lights a taper in the embers of the fire and creeps down the long corridor to Anne's chambers wearing nothing but his nightshirt and a pair of felt slippers. A servant, scurrying on some errand for his master, recognizes him and, a look of terror on his face, runs away as fast as he can. At the door, he hears something like a dove, cooing deep inside the room. He unlocks the door and immediately recognizes Anne's muffled sobs. She lies with her face buried in a pillow, shoulders heaving under wild hair. He sets the candleholder on the floor and sits next to her.
"Sweetheart! What is wrong? Why are you crying?"
Anne doesn't sit up, doesn't even look around. In fact, she turns on her side away from his touch and buries her face deeper in the pillow, sobs coming harder and louder than before.
"Anne," he whispers, smoothing hair from her face. "It didn't happen again, did it? Do you need a doctor?"
"No. It was just very late. I hoped I was pregnant, and didn't want to tell you till I was sure."
Richard lies down and curls himself around her back, cradling her against his body, stroking her hair and kissing the tears from her cheek.
"But you are safe. That's what matters. And we can keep trying."
He holds her until her tears stop and they both drift off to sleep.
Richard gradually becomes aware that the room has fallen silent, and that Hal and Isabella are looking at him with concern. His eyes glisten, but no tears have passed his lids yet. Still, he must look distraught, so he takes a deep breath, plants a genial expression on his face, and rises.
"It is time for bed." He summons an attendant to escort Hal to his room. When Isabella and Hal stand up, smoothing their clothing and brushing off any dust, Isabella's dog, that has been sleeping on a separate pillow at her side, rears up and puts her front paws on her knee, yapping for attention.
"Oh, Fleur!" she giggles, scooping up the ball of fluff. "Richard gave her to me so I wouldn't be lonely on the ship when I came to England. She was just a puppy then."
"Did it work?" Hal asks with genuine curiosity.
"A little." Isabella sounds doubtful about the truthfulness of her statement.
Fleur licks her face and Hal pats her furry head. Isabella turns so that Fleur's face meets Hal's and she licks him, too.
"Ew!" Hal wipes his cheek and looks wistfully at the dog. "Grandfather said I had to leave my greyhound, Lightfoot, behind with him."
"You can borrow Fleur if you miss him," she says, extending the dog.
"Thank you, but that won't be necessary. I'm fine without him. Good night, my lady. Thank you, and good night, your majesty." He bows to each in turn and leaves, accompanied by his man, carrying a candle.
Richard himself lights Isabella to her chambers. At the door, she turns and lifts her round face to him.
"Sank you," her pliable young mind has wrapped itself quickly around the rough contours of the English language, but her mouth doesn't always comply, especially when she's tired. Richard can see her carefully plant the tip of her tongue behind her teeth before she speaks again. "Thank you for letting me meet Hal. I hope I can see him again."
Richard has not seen her as lively as she has been this evening, nor as happy as she is now, for almost as long as she's been in England and thinks it will be good for her to have a friend. He can never say no to her anyway. He answers in French.
"Of course, my darling. You can see him as often as you want. Why don't you play a game of chess with him tomorrow?"
There is, of course, a practical side to this plan. The more time Isabella spends with Hal, the more excuses he will have to keep tabs on him without appearing to do so.
"Oh, thank you, Dickon!" she squeals, throwing her arms around him.
"Goodnight, Princess," Richard chuckles indulgently, bending to kiss the top of her head. He opens the door and one of her ladies receives her to get her ready for bed.
When he returns to his rooms, Richard sends for his fastest messenger, takes out ink, a quill, a piece of vellum, and writes while the candle's flame chases the last bits of wax onto the table.
Immediately upon receipt of this letter would you be so kind as to send Hal's greyhound to us, the one called Lightfoot, in the care of your most reliable kennelman, so that he arrives in good time and in good health?
He includes a few more pleasantries and signs it simply, "Richard", as if Hal were merely visiting for a holiday. He affixes his private seal on it, and tells his messenger to leave at first light to deliver it to John of Gaunt, as the flame sputters out.
Richard sees neither Isabella nor Hal for quite a while after this, because government business has kept him away. He returns with Edward, Duke of Aumerle, in a foul mood and full of plans for a hunting party to lighten it. He sends for Isabella to cheer himself up. She and her ladies float in on a cloud of silk and linen, chattering and whispering giddily in French. Isabella looks radiant. When they hug, Isabella seems to almost vibrate in his arms.
"I'm glad to see you looking so filled with joy. Is that for my return?"
"Oh, Dickon, I am happy to see you, but I have just been playing chess with Hal."
"And I take it you have beaten him at last?"
"No! He won. He always wins," she beams. "I try my hardest but he is so good, so smart, so clever."
"And so handsome, too?" Richard teases.
Isabella turns as red as the garnets in her necklace and looks down at her feet.
"Have you forgotten that you already have a husband?"
She looks fearfully at him, but Richard is not mad. In fact, he looks amused and, maybe, a little sad.
"And one day you shall be the mother of his sons."
He regrets the words even as they leave his mouth. The sentence rolls over both of them like a cold wave. Isabella can't hide her horror, and Richard wishes he could scrub the image from his mind. He will always think of her like she is now, even when she is grown, and knows she feels the same way.
Isabella scoots away. As they watch the skirts of her retinue swish out the door, Richard mumbles half to himself and half to Edward, "Even if God grants me a long enough life, I will never be able to... do the husbandly act... with her. I fear I might never have a son." Edward squeezes his hand.
Hal sits on his horse at the top of a small hill overlooking the field where Richard's force is meeting that of one of the Irish lords loyal to Art Macmurrough. He's been given armor and has trained with a sword for months, but is too young to join the fray. It's the first time he's been allowed to watch. Two valorous but elderly knights whose joints are just possibly too stiff for this battle ride next to him to keep him from harm. The sun hangs in the middle of the sky. His garments under his armor cling damply to his skin, but he pays them no mind. He clutches the pommel of his sword and keeps his eyes on the swirl of horses, men, and swords. Clanging and shouting rise like a choir on the breeze. His nerve endings are on fire, his muscles, taut, and he picks out particular men, imagining how he would attack them.
There have been several skirmishes like this, but King Richard has commanded them from afar, which disappoints Hal. They are both descended from the great Edward III, should have the heat of war in their blood. He feels it in his. Why doesn't Richard? Richard's own father, the Black Prince, had legendary accomplishments on the battlefield, but Hal has only known him to be more interested in the sound of music than the clash of swords, more fond silk gliding over his skin than the weight of iron upon it. He relishes the company of handsome, soft-spoken courtiers instead of coarse, scarred soldiers.
The Irish have fallen back, as they have in each encounter so far. Perhaps their successes have stirred something in Richard, called him at the last moment, because almost as the Irish begin to retreat, he spies the king's armor and banner, surrounded by his private archers and knights, lunge at the edge of the fray. His men corner an opponent, hold him at bay like hounds on a hart. Hal's heart leaps when Richard's sword finds its way to the vulnerable hollow beneath the man's arm and dives in to the hilt. Blood squirts on Richard as the man falls and the blade slides out. Richard recoils, holding his gory sword aloft and well away from himself as several knights rush to him. The battle ends soon after; they have won, and his men now tend to their king.
Hal whoops with glee and spurs his horse forward, toward the victorious English camp, thinking, "This is a true and proper English king!" It doesn't occur to him until years later, when he has won glory of his own on the battlefield, that this, like so many things Richard did, was staged to assert his power, and reinforce his right to obedience by his subjects.
Hal receives an invitation to join the celebration in the king's pavilion that evening. He walks into a raucous party, with tables practically collapsing under the weight of so much meat. The wine flows like water. Carpets cover the grass and the king sits at a table with Edward and his favorite knights on a high-backed bench draped with heavy blue silk embroidered with gold. Richard holds himself rigidly, serene and distant from the noisy men that fill his tent, bathed in the ethereal glow of candlelight bouncing off his crown and golden robes. He might be the only person in the world to feel this way, but at this moment, Hal is certain that God, indeed, rules through Richard, and vows to always serve his king well.
He approaches and, after a short bow, says reverently, "Your majesty fought most valiantly today."
He tries to use his nascent manly voice to sound older, wiser, worthy of service to the king, but it cracks in the middle and he finishes the sentence with a boyish squeak. Edward laughs openly, though not with malice, and Hal can tell Richard is suppressing the same reaction. He swears at himself and wishes he could melt into the ground.
"Come, sit next to us, Hal," Richard offers, gesturing toward an empty space between himself and Edward. Hal has spent much time in Richard's company in the past months, but now, he feels unworthy of the attention. He seats himself humbly near Richard, and looks at him with shining eyes, aware of the honor his king shows him.
Richard pats his hand reassuringly and inclines toward him. He speaks with a voice full of affection.
"Your presence at our table is most welcome, young cousin. Help yourself to meat from our plate."
Hal notices Edward looking at him strangely and realizes that the only reason he can sit at Richard's right hand and share his food is because he has no son to do it. His closeness to the king reminds everyone what Richard might always lack, and though they celebrate today, England's future remains in peril. Regret mars his jubilation, and he wishes there were something he could do to help the king.
Richard is lying awake in bed, head on his hands crossed beneath it, when Edward steals into his tent long after everyone has gone to bed. He crawls in next to Richard, who barely acknowledges him and muses, "Should I choose an heir?"
"Why? You're still young. There is time to have a son."
"There are also many ways a man can die; even more if you're a king. I should have an heir by now. A clever, amiable, strong son, like Hal."
"Hal would be a wise choice, if you're determined on this course of action."
"Perhaps. But I have stripped his father of his land, property, and titles and given them to other men. Even though I stipulated that they should eventually revert to Hal, if I were to die while others still possess them, how could he be king without them?"
"If you make him your heir, it might reconcile Henry to you. You could restore his inheritance and be assured of his support."
"Henry!" Richard spits. "There's the problem. Henry serves only his own interests. He was an Appellant and I do not trust him. Making Hal my heir brings Henry closer to the throne, once more, than he has ever deserved to be, and I will never let that happen again. No, as long as Henry lives, Hal cannot be my heir."
They lie silently for a while, listening to the songs of frogs and owls. When Richard speaks again, sorrow taints his voice.
"If I die, what will happen to Isabella? She is still just a child, and very fond of Hal, you know. I had a happy marriage, once. She deserves one, too. It would make me happy if she married him."
They both know how unlikely it is that the king of France would allow his daughter to marry the landless son of a disgraced, banished duke, no matter how royal his bloodline, so they fall silent again, Edward rubbing Richard's arm.
"Tomorrow, I will give Hal his knighthood," Richard proclaims. It's probably the most he can do to elevate the boy under the circumstances, and he almost immediately falls asleep.
Isabella runs out of tears in Donning, while Henry holds Richard prisoner at Pontefract Castle. Henry has treated her with dignity- she's been allowed to keep most of her retinue, along with Fleur and her favorite gowns and jewelry- but it is clear, even to her, that she is a prisoner and her ladies put scary rumors into each others' ears when they think she can't hear.
She doesn't know what has happened, doesn't understand why her husband's cousin has shuffled her from place to place, until deciding on this one. In one of them, enraged men stormed her apartments and tore copper white hart badges from her ladies' bosoms. Afterward, she hid one of the brooches in the bottom of a large trunk, beneath books, dolls, and undergarments that she hoped no one would touch.
She misses Richard's love, for she finds none here, and would rather be with him in his cell than at risk and lonely, playing games to pass the time with her ladies in the garden. So, when she is brought to King's Langley to view his body before it is buried, her eyes remain dry.
"Is this your husband, King Richard II of England?" someone, a duke or something who looks familiar but whose name she cannot remember, demands. "Answer clearly, so all can hear."
"Everyone in England has already seen him," she thinks angrily. "Why am I the last? Does it even matter what I say?"
She balks and is given a gentle shove toward the open casket. The powerful scent of frankincense, myrrh, cloves, cinnamon, and balsam rises above a fainter, sickly sweet odor that must surely be the smell of death. She takes a deep breath and holds it as she peeks over the edge of the coffin. Once full and round, his cheekbones now jut over a hollow space, and his lips strain over his teeth. Every sinew in his neck bulges against paper-thin skin, and she wonders if he was even able to hold up his head at the end. They say he refused all food, but Richard loved to eat, and she has her doubts. She looks around the room, lips pursed with rage.
"Is this your husband, King Richard II of England?" the man repeats.
If she were a lion, she would eat him here and now. If she were a grown woman, she would find words to shame him. If she were a man, she would challenge them all on the field of honor and God would be on her side. But she is just a prisoner, and a sad, frightened little girl who yearns to return to a ruined home.
"Answer, Isabella," Edward says gently as he emerges into view around the coffin. "So all can hear."
"Yes. This is my husband, King Richard II of England."
Her shrillness echoes in the vast hall, which has fallen eerily silent waiting for her reply. She feels that even she has finally betrayed him, but there is nothing else to do, because she knows, at last, that he is, truly, dead.
From Richard's burial, she is taken to King Henry.
"Isabella, I bear you no ill will and hope that you have been treated well."
"Yes, my lord, I have been."
"Good. I will waste no time, then, getting to my reason for bringing you here. I desire to maintain the friendship with France established by your first marriage."
"How neatly he speaks without mentioning Richard's name," Isabella thinks.
"I want you to marry my son, Hal, whom I believe you know. He will rule England when I am gone, and you will once again be the queen your birthright entitles you to be. If you do not marry Hal, I'm afraid I can find no place for you in England."
He does not mention that her father has been demanding her return, but that England cannot afford to repay her dowry.
Isabella steps back in shock. She had expected worse, and finds the thought of marriage to Hal distinctly pleasing. But the veiled threat in Henry's final comment does not escape her. What does he mean to do if she refuses? The shriveled face she saw in Richard's coffin swims in her vision.
"And that was his cousin, a man with power and friends. I am but a girl and a foreigner, and though my father be a king, he might not forgive my affection for Richard. He might think that any Englishman who marries me, no, any Englishman who merely befriends me, could be a traitor, with France on his side. Either way, I might soon lie next to Dickon in the ground."
Henry waits impatiently for an answer, so she stalls.
"I do know Hal, and think well of him, but your offer takes me by surprise. Please give me time to consider it."
Isabella startles when a dog's wet nose nuzzles her ear from behind. She's been sitting in front of the fireplace, some distance from the ladies, who accompany her everywhere, playing a mournful tune on a little pipe. She spins around only to have her face thoroughly licked by Lightfoot, with Hal laughing, and scrambling to direct him away.
"Hal!" she cries, leaping to her feet and wiping her face. She rapidly settles her skirts and pushes a stray strand of hair back into place.
"I'm sorry. He was just so happy to see you again, I couldn't stop him in time. I wanted to surprise you, but not this way."
"I don't mind," she smiles, stroking the greyhound's head. "I had to leave Fleur behind when I came here so it's nice to have a dog to pet."
They stand awkwardly with the large tan dog between them, patting him and fondling his ears, building up courage to speak.
"I will never forget that Richard brought Lightfoot to me when I was homesick," Hal says at last. Isabella nods. "I was furious at him when he banished my father and made me come to live with him, but he was so generous, and his wife so endearing, I could not stay angry for long."
Tears that Isabella has not shed since Richard died burst from their hiding place. Hal wraps his arms around her and she unburdens herself against his chest.
"Oh Hal! Ever since he was sent to Pontefract, I have heard about horrible things that Dickon did. I have a hard time believing most of them, but everyone says they are true. Has he no friends left at all? Does no one remember how much he could love and how kind he could be? When I came to England, I was so afraid and lonely. I was only six, and I had to act like a queen. Dickon understood. I could be natural around him, the times we were able to spend together. He was my friend."
Hal releases her slightly and dries her cheeks with his sleeve.
"Not everyone has forgotten. I remember. I vowed to serve him faithfully, and when I am king, Isabella, trust me, I will honor him."
His words catch at her heart, triggering fresh tears.
"My father scared me. He was unpredictable. My mother and my nurses kept me away from him most of the time, and the times when I did see him, he could be nice, or funny, or bizarre, or cruel. I never knew what to expect. Richard was always kind, and made me feel safe. I loved him more than my own father, and I miss him terribly."
"He loved you, Isabella."
"Thank you," she sniffs, wiping her nose on her sleeve and drawing apart from him. "I haven't been able to talk with anyone about this."
"He loved you enough to let you become friends with the son of his enemy, because it made you happy. I'm glad he did, because it made me happy, too."
"Your father wants us to marry."
"I know. I came here to talk to you about it."
Isabella looks down at Lightfoot and scratches a spot on his neck that makes him twitch with pleasure.
"Before most girls even start dreaming of what their husbands will look like, I already wore a wedding ring. I was told what my wifely duties would eventually be long before most girls. On my wedding night, I was so afraid. No one made me think my husband would expect that of me yet, but I had seen Dickon only once before, when my father betrothed me to him in France. I knew nothing about him, and my mother was not there to protect me.
There was a feast. I wore a pretty blue dress, I remember that. I was given a bit too much wine and felt very dizzy, but I avoided looking at him, or talking to him, as much as I could until the end of dinner, when he just kissed the top of my head and said, Goodnight, Princess . Then the Duchesses and ladies took me to my apartments and put me to bed, where I slept soundly all night long. The next morning, the ladies brought me to him for breakfast. He gave me a perfectly carved and painted doll, with real hair, and several beautiful little gowns. Alone in his chamber, we took turns dressing her and braiding her hair. He looked content, and I was relieved. I realize now he was putting me at ease and showing me how things would work in our marriage for a long time."
She pauses, in case Hal wishes to speak, but he just nods.
"What I mean to say is, I have had to grow up quickly, and now I am a widow, but I am still just nine years old."
"It was my father's idea, but I want you to marry me," Hal croaks. He also looks down at Lightfoot while speaking. His voice lowers to barely a whisper. He can't meet her eyes, but manages to take her hand. "I like you. We don't have to live as husband and wife until we are grown. I am only twelve, after all. You can go back to Madame de Courcy at Eltham. Marry me now, and we can wait as long as you want to share our marriage bed."
Hal's black hair is still short, and his ears stick out. He has grown taller and wears finer clothes than she has ever seen on him. His rosy cheeks heighten the blue of his eyes, which she can see sparkle with intelligence even though they are downcast. She has never beaten him at chess, never had him at her mercy before, and feels the urge to protect him, not defeat him. His voice still soothes her, and his lips curve in supplication. She imagines what they might feel like pressed against her own, some day. She could find out. All she has to do is say yes. She struggles for words, fidgeting with the slender pipe, made of gold and set with rubies, still in her hand.
"That's beautiful," Hal offers.
"Richard gave it to me."
Hal says nothing; neither does she. He lets go of her hand and they stare solemnly at the pipe. Those simple words part the tension like the sun through the clouds and both of them know what her answer must be. Richard will forever be the ghost between them and the spirit that unites them. Richard, in causing Hal's misfortune, brought misfortune upon himself and it landed on Isabella. Love conceived within a nest of misfortunes will always be coupled with grief.
"Hal," she murmurs, touching his cheek. "I cannot say yes."
She tells Henry that her grief for her husband is too great to marry again and begs to return to France. On St. Valentine's Day, the first anniversary of Richard's death, Hal lights two candles: one for Richard's soul, and one as a secret token for Isabella.