She is neither kind nor gentle when they first meet.
Henry Tudor stands before her, the bejewelled golden crown of her father, of her uncle, resting heavily on top of his head. It hasn't been long since his arrival, and there are still remnants of battle weariness around his eyes, and in the lines on his forehead. But he stands strong and proud, so painfully regal, waiting for her introduction – but all she can think of is Richard's body, crushed and cold somewhere in the field, where Elizabeth's mind can no longer reach.
“Lady Elizabeth,” he says at last. No matter what she tells herself, the blatant disregarding of her title feels like a slap to the face. She's illegitimate, the whole court seems to whisper again, a bastard. From the corner of her eye she can see Margaret Beaufort's smirk - it tells Elizabeth that the king's mother has already let him in on the current affairs, most likely in great detail.
Elizabeth bites back the hatred that coils inside her like a venomous serpent. “Your Grace,” she responds dryly.
She offers no more than that, bowing curtly and taking her leave, her skirt swishing against the marble floor.
How come now that she's back at court, granted her freedom, does she feel like her happiness is lost forever?
He is the devil and her enemy, but he's also the anointed king and her betrothed, which Elizabeth finds hard in her heart to balance. Days turn into weeks, while she aimlessly wanders the court. She shies away from the merry new circle of nobles that has formed around the young king; almost fretfully she keeps to herself.
She's a Plantagenet, all but sworn to fight any pretender to the crown who isn't of York.
But she's also a Woodville – and because of that she can adapt.
She is a survivor.
When tears dry out and the longing becomes nothing more than a dull ache in the back of her heart, Elizabeth takes a step forward.
It's freezing outside, even though it's barely middle of November. The air has that specific taste that carries the promise of snow.
The king sits on a bench, deep into the garden, and as Elizabeth walks closer, she can see a small, leather bound book resting in his hands. He doesn't seem to mind the cold, fully absorbed in his lecture. She has never before felt as much of a Woodville as she does now, clutching her cloak tighter around her body and walking up to the king in the late autumn silence.
He doesn't seem angered by her interrupting his reading, which surprises her immensely. Instead, he invites her to sit with him. There are traces of a smile around the corners of his lips.
“I almost stopped hoping for your company, Lady Elizabeth,” he says.
There is no blush of shame on her cheeks, nor does she childishly toss her hair over her shoulder – she is not that girl anymore. “Wouldn't dream of interrupting Your Grace,” she responds with a measured smile.
Somehow, he finds her austere politeness amusing. “That would have been quite welcome, actually.”
He looks up into the cold blue sky, and breathes in the frosty air. Elizabeth can see now, from her spot so close to him, the tiredness that marrs his face. The brows unused to bearing the crown. She knows there are rebellions blossoming all over the country – Yorkists who fight for the throne for their dynasty, for the lost princes, for vengeance. Henry rides on and defeats them, one after another, spilling blood on the autumn leaves. But no matter how great of a fighter he is, it's still too much for one man to handle, in a country that doesn't bear him much love.
“Is it not too cold to be sitting outside at this time of the year?” Her tone is light, devoid of the contempt she should be feeling.
“The air clears my head. Helps me think.”
He turns the book in his hands, then offers it to her. “I am leaving tonight – once more for Kent – so I won't have time to finish this one. Maybe you will find some enjoyment in its lecture while I'm gone. It is a great piece.”
The book is Ovid's Heroides. (And somehow, the weight on Elizabeth's chest doesn't feel as crushing anymore.)
Elizabeth hates the Lady Margaret with a passion, and is almost certain that the feeling is mutual.
By the beginning of December the court is buzzing with gossip, the main topic being the king's marriage. The whole country expects him to marry the York princess – only then will the uprisings cease to appear. Alas – nothing happens.
The ladies talk about Margaret Regina's dislike of Elizabeth, naming it the main reason the wedding isn't even being planned yet. They say she doesn't trust her, or that she doubts Elizabeth's ability to bear children, and wants to test her before tying her son for life to a – may be – barren woman. There's also talk about Henry simply wishing to put her aside, put the Yorks aside – that he is going to drown his opposition in blood and rule unjustly, like a foreign usurper he is.
One day, when she's slipping one of her books into Henry's hands, he catches her wrist, interrupting her usual course of pleasantries.
“What's wrong?” he asks, and Elizabeth is surprised to see earnestness in his blue eyes. She's made sure to hide her anger at the courtly gossip, only allowing herself to fume while in her private rooms – but it seems she hasn't been careful enough, after all.
“It's nothing, Your Grace.”
“Clearly it is not. Tell me.”
She shrugs – just barely – but the motion makes her only more aware of the warmth that seeps from his fingers into the skin of her wrist. She finds the feeling not nearly as unpleasant as she would expect it to be.
“Just – the talk of the court – it's a bit aggravating, that's all.”
His brows furrow, and he releases her hand. It feels unbearably cold without his touch.
“It will stop soon,” he says simply. She doesn't dare press the matter, not yet – not when her mother is doing enough of that on her own – but any other words between them are lost when his uncle Jasper approaches and steals him away from her.
She is Elizabeth of York again – the heiress, the princess – and during the Christmas celebration the king asks her to dance.
Wrapped in velvet and regality he is a sight to behold. Aware of her own looks, Elizabeth can't help but marvel at a pair they make – dark and light, the perfect balance.
His hand around hers is warm, just like she remembers. They spin with ease, graceful and fluent, and she likes the way her navy blue gown matches the colour of his eyes.
“The papal dispensation has finally arrived,” he tells her, in no more than a whisper, when the dance requires him to draw her closer. She can feel his hot breath on her cheek.
“Does that make you happy?” she asks, her eyes firmly locked to his, a small smile finding its way to her lips.
“Oh, immensely. But it is still nothing in comparison to what the parliament must be feeling.”
They move in silence, keeping their distance. Elizabeth muses on the amount of wine she has drunk, but surely not nearly enough to make her knees grow weak, and cheeks burn as if in fever?
“I shall be leaving soon,” Henry says suddenly.
His smile turns bitter, the worry lines on his forehead deepening just barely. “Your supporters are restless, even in the Christmas season. It seems nothing can stop the rebellions.”
“Oh, but there is something,” she says, a somewhat mischievous glint in her eyes. She steps closer into his embrace, so the warmth of his body seeps into hers. “You know what it is.”
He smiles so earnestly, her heart almost stops. “Indeed, I do.”
Her wedding dress is a magnificent work of art; it reminds her fleetingly of her mother's coronation gown she saw in one of the wardrobes what seems like years ago. It's golden, and well fitted, and positively queenly.
She turns before the looking glass, her skirts swirling around her like waves of a golden sea. The ladies helping with the fitting let out a great sigh of awe at the sight of her.
The scene is interrupted by a knock on the door, and the king's voice that calls “Lady Elizabeth”, and the ladies' sigh turns into a series of horrified gasps. Elizabeth rushes to the door and leans her weight on it, as if that would be enough if her betrothed decided to walk in uninvited.
“Your Grace, my wedding gown is being fitted. I'm afraid it would be improper for you to see it before the ceremony.”
“It will take only a moment, I merely wish to give you something.”
She says nothing, biting her lip to keep from laughing.
“I shall cover my eyes when you walk out, would that do?”
Despite the horrified and offended looks that some of the older ladies in waiting are giving her, she swiftly unlocks the door and steps outside. Henry stands there – true to his word – with one hand thrown over his eyes, the other clutching a pile of books. He senses her presence and takes a few careful steps in her direction, stopping mere inches away from her. Her breath catches in her throat when he slips the books into her hands, his hot touch burning into her skin. In that moment she feels daring – a Woodville of flesh and blood – so she raises her head and presses her lips to his.
She thinks she closes her eyes too, when his lips start moving against her own and his free hand curls around her waist, pushing her closer. She finds that there's hunger in her, burning hunger that seems to consume her bones and turn her insides to ash. She wants him, all of him, forever.
As realisation hits her, Elizabeth takes a step back, holding his books close to her chest. She can see Henry's eyes glinting playfully between the fingers of his hand that was supposed to stop him from seeing her. His lips are red and swollen – a sight that makes Elizabeth's heart swell with yearning once more.
He bows, never averting his eyes from hers. “Until tomorrow then.”
When she calls him her husband for the first time, she discovers that his lips are kind, and his hands are gentle, and somehow happiness finds her again.