The wedding is but weeks away and, Iesu!, how they fight. I could think that we would be standing before the Archbishop at the altar in the Abbey while our mothers were still engaged in their venomous battle.
I imagine that Henry and I would share a look of resignation before our eyes dart away elsewhere. What comfort could we find in each other when we are all but strangers?
Impatiently I stuff a loose strand of hair back under my cap as I make my way through this chilly palace hallway seeking refuge anywhere but where I can be rediscovered by my mother, the old queen, and his mother, the Lady Margaret, who is all but queen. Outside frost glistens on the lawns and the last rays of sunlight bring smiles to the faces of courtiers and servants as they hurry about on their business. If I hurry, I can make my way out the door and escape to freedom. My pace quickens at the thought and I spare a glance back to the heavy wooden door behind which I have abandoned my mother in her ceaseless quarrel over precedent and privilege. Pray that neither she nor Henry's mother look up to discover me gone.
With my prayers thus engaged, I am easy prey for other disasters. My body collides against another, taller than mine and quite immovable. As I flail for balance, one ropey arm catches and secures me against a body robed in fur and velvet.
Given the opulence of the fabric and the height of the figure who holds me close, I don't need to look up to know who has discovered me in my unbecoming and mindless flight. It is my betrothed: the king.
"Your Grace," I carefully pronounce as I disentangle myself from his light hold. "How unexpected."
"I would think," he dryly responds as I regain my footing. "For you were looking in quite the other direction."
I shoot a wary look toward that door. I do not count it unlikely that the Lady Margaret will catch the scent of her son and come hurling out the door, my combative mother in close pursuit. Then they will drag me back into the solar for yet another hour to listen to them politely attack each other via proxies served up in the form of myself and the imminent wedding.
"Our lady mothers?"
The king is canny, this I must say. He's caught the essence of my fears in a moment. To be honest, he appears rather apprehensive himself but, then, seeing how his mother exerts herself at the court, I can understand. She is a fearsome power, not unlike a fierce winter storm: icy and relentless.
My betrothed might be much the same, a powerful force who is not easily moved by fancies and fashions, although I note he is less quick to open his mouth and cut down his opponents. Maybe that is because he has no more opponents since last summer when his army routed my uncle's. But I wonder if maybe, just maybe, he is cut from a different cloth than Lady Margaret.
If so, I give our marriage better odds than I had last week when I'd endured a long and tedious Christmas court with His Grace. My seat, outside the canopy of state, had been drafty and cold while I noticed that no stray breezes disturbed Henry or his mother, both seated under the royal standard. That he did not appear notice my distress for the many hours it lasted was yet one more slight that my mother seized upon in her endless battle with Lady Margaret.
"Mark my words, daughter," she'd said just this morning as she surveyed the still-meagre contents of my wardrobe, despairing of how I could carry out my duties at the court once the wedding was celebrated, "Lady Margaret and her son will not crown you queen until you're in the grave."
I dared not try and explain how that prediction made no sense at all. I knew she felt keenly the injustice that I, more royal than the new king, at least in her eyes, was not to be crowned at the wedding. How could I tell her that this didn't matter? After losing my father and my brothers as well as all trust in my uncle over the past two years, I want little to do with crowns and claims. They seem to only bring heartbreak.
But what else is a princess to do, even one who's been bastardized and then restored to legitimacy? Marry I must and this man has claimed my hand these two years past, since Christmas Day in the year of my father's death. Surely such constancy must be rewarded?
"Are you unwell, Elizabeth?"
His query catches me by surprise and I reply with unguarded honesty. "Not at all unless I am discovered by your mother and mine. Their battle seems fit to last 'til Twelfth Night which I would not mind except it appears they need me to witness every scuffle."
A smile brightened my betrothed's customarily dour and angular face. "Say no more. I honour my mother highly yet I know that I, too, would hide were she to attempt to drag me into such a conflict. Come: let us seek refuge elsewhere."
I smile brightly at his words and soon we escape the residential parts of the palace. It's cold outside as the sky darkens. I shiver in the chill despite my heavy wool overdress and strive to speed up my steps to match my betrothed's long strides. Surely the stables will be warm?
Suddenly, I'm enveloped in soft warmth. I look down in surprise to see that Henry has transferred his fine and royal surcoat to me. I lift my arms carefully beneath the weight, seeking to keep the hem away from the damp and dirty footings.
"Thank you," I say, unable to suppress a tone of confusion at this unexpected kindness.
The light in his eyes dims at my cautious response. "I noticed, the other night at court, that the cold seemed to affect you keenly. My pardon if I overstepped-."
"No," I interrupt, wrapping my arms close around me so that the fur lining and collar warms me deliciously, "no pardon is needed. I am cold or, at least, I was, until you shared your coat with me. And I am touched to know that you notice my discomfort at the Christmas court. But if you did, why did you not show me similar kindness then?"
Henry tilts his head to regard me thoughtfully. "Mother says that royalty should show no weakness. I assumed you would not have welcomed any intervention in public as it would have lessened your standing in the court."
I can't help but laugh at this impossibly politic explanation even as he slows his pace to walk beside my smaller form enveloped in his heavy surcoat. "Your mother may feel that way but I do not. My standing means not so much to me."
"Really?" Henry asks with a clear note of shock.
It occurs to me that status and standing is all that he has known of the world, particularly the slippery kind which rests upon royal claims that are uncertain. I have felt that uncertainty and worry only these past few years but in my youth I was the treasured darling of my bluff and laughing father. Henry never knew his father, living his life always on the fringes of another's claim. He may be king now, but the crown is a new and parlous burden.
"Really," I affirm. "I care naught for all the ways in which the court consumes our mothers. I have been betrothed four times since I was three and each one has ended for reasons of politics. I am sick of the word and the worries. Would that I were a simple gentleman's daughter. My life would be much the better!"
Henry frowns and I feel my stomach churn. Our Lady and all the angels, I have given my betrothed a disgust of me and my impolitic ways. I start to stammer out an excuse: I have the choler, no, a simple distemper, but he halts my words with a look.
"I would not wish you to be a simple gentleman's daughter," he says quietly, reaching out to pull one of my hands out from under the heavy velvet, "for then I would be betrothed to someone else. That would be a pity."
"Would it?" I ask with a smile.
"Truly, my mother and yours are all the plotters we need at the court. I would have a wife rather than another such who puts position above people. She could teach me something other than the ways of war and discord," Henry continues, rubbing his thumb across the back of my hand before twining his fingers with mine.
"Then I will give thanks that my family was rather more exalted if I can give my king some comfort and guidance," I answer. In all honesty, I am still unsure that I will do well with this tall, distant man who is quite unlike the others at court whom I have known all of my life. But life has a way of turning in unexpected directions and I would rather step into the unknown with a strong hand holding mine than relying only upon my mother's plots and plans.
"Come, we are almost at the stables and I would show you your New Year's present," my betrothed says.
"My present? Is that not the gilt cup that my mother and yours have agreed upon?" I am teetering uncertainly as we enter the stableyard, all confusion.
"As yours to me is the matching ewer which they commissioned last month from the goldsmith," he answers with dry amusement. "But I mean to offer you something more to your taste."
Inside the stable, two carefully shielded lanterns rest upon a wooden table before a loose stall. Grooms bustle about their work at the farther end, bedding horses down for the evening. I pay them no attention as I hear familiar whimpers and yips. "Coursers?"
Henry smiles indulgently. "I heard that you had a fondness for hounds."
I've dashed past him to kneel upon the straw, just far enough away from the watchful mother not to provoke her ire. Belatedly, I realize that I've done so in his fine surcoat and start to scramble up so I can salvage the rich cloth from soil or stain. "Pardon, Your Grace," I begin.
"Please, call me Henry," he says swiftly, "and do not apologize. Cloth can be cleaned and we will have servants aplenty to do that."
"Of course," I laugh lightly as he drops to his knees beside me, holding one hand out for the fawn bitch to sniff at and accept. I do the same and then feel a soft, mewling pup stumble into my outstretched hand.
"See? This one knows his mistress already." Henry comments. I snuggle the brindle pup close against my cheek before carefully setting it back down in the straw with its littermates. One by one I touch them all and marvel. Since I was a child, I have loved to course hounds and, before my father's death, had kept a small kennel at the court. All of my treasured dogs had disappeared in the months that followed and I'd buried those memories as we struggled with the loss of not only father but of my two dear brothers. Still, the sense of loss endured.
"This pleases me beyond passing," I whisper and slowly rise from my knees, accepting Henry's offered hand.
"Then I am pleased as well," Henry replies. "You may teach me more of the English art of coursing once summer comes. I understand it differs at least in part from how the sport is practiced in France where I had a few occasions to observe. Of course, this will have to wait until my lady mother will allow us time for such pursuits."
I want to remind him that he is king, not Lady Margaret, but our rapport is too new and untested to venture such a comment. Instead, I rise on my toes to press a quick kiss against his cheek. "I will look forward to those lessons, Henry," I say.
As we slowly make our way back toward the public rooms of Westminster where the evening meal will soon be served, I accept his proffered arm and conversation. We talk of nothing much: the weather and where we will move the court after Easter. Somehow, our wedding, three weeks hence, seems less like a daunting task and more akin to the first step in a dance that we can both enjoy. And, oh, have I missed dancing!