Thomas of Clarence nodded and half-winked thanks at him, aware of the youth’s embarrassment. He was a kind man in his way. Then he stepped up to the casket to take out the huge ruby on its gold necklet and offer it to the Princess. Obligingly, she moved closer, looking down at Owain, her cheeks pinker than ever, her eyes opening very wide and the beginning of a smile on her lips. She wasn’t really seeing him, Owain thought; he was just something to fix her eyes on so she could look composed. She was embarrassed too. But he could see she had green eyes; beautiful eyes, he thought gratefully, gazing back at her, feeling his leg muscles strain in their precarious one-knee position, hoping he wouldn’t wobble. This part of the procedure, at least, was going well.
No one expected an interruption. So everyone was startled when a thin, reedy male voice suddenly said, with a note of challenge in it: ‘My family has a history of English marriages, after all.’
The Duke turned.
A young man, a few years older than Owain and the Princess, had appeared in the doorway. He was lounging there insolently, with a nasty little sneer on his handsome face. Owain’s leg suddenly started shaking so badly he thought he might fall. He shifted, put a hand quietly on the floor, and lowered himself to a more stable two-knee position. He didn’t need to worry about looking a fool before the entire room, at least; all the eyes had shifted to the young French nobleman in blue silk. As Owain looked furtively round to make sure no one had noticed his lapse of dignity, he saw just one pair of eyes still on him. To his horror, he realised it was the Princess staring down at him. But even that was all right. When she saw the panic in his eyes, it was as if she’d suddenly focused and realised there was a real person down there on his knees. She was looking straight at Owain, and reassuringly; she briefly screwed up her face and nodded at him.
Then she turned, like everyone else, to stare at the young man in the doorway. Still hot and cold with his own embarrassment, left stranded, kneeling in the middle of the room, Owain stared too.
‘You will recall that our sister Isabelle, now called to God,’ the young man was saying, eyeing the Duke of Clarence, ‘was also married to a king of England. The late lamented Richard II.’
Watching the French faces cringe, Owain realised that this unpleasant young man must be one of the Princess’s older brothers, a prince of France, and that he’d come to this room deliberately to pick a fight with the English delegation. The shame and embarrassment that swept over Owain now, on behalf of his master and of England, was of an altogether different magnitude to what he’d felt on his own account a moment before. He could hardly breathe.
Thomas of Clarence crossed himself briskly. ‘Late lamented,’ he agreed in a peaceable mutter, without letting his eyes meet those of his challenger. Owain could see he wasn’t going to get himself embroiled in that discussion. The Duke was a man who picked his fights carefully and this wasn’t a good fight for any English ambassador. Richard II had been deposed by a cousin after his French marriage nearly twenty years before; and Richard’s wife Isabelle, this Princess’s eldest sister, sent weeping and humiliated back to France. The new King, Henry of Lancaster, had tried to keep her in England: he’d wanted to remarry Isabelle to his own eldest son, the man who now reigned as King Henry V of England. But Isabelle had been proud enough to refuse. So Henry IV had let her go, but kept her dowry and jewels. They’d probably been spent on funding the English armies now skirmishing around Normandy. The French still thought of the new Lancastrian kings of England as usurpers. And they’d never forgiven the insult to their Princess.
Excerpted from The Queen's Lover by Vanora Bennett. Copyright © 2010 by Vanora Bennett. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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