The young Frenchman in blue stared at the English Duke, as if willing him to rise to the bait. Then, when he got no response, he went on, very deliberately and insultingly, ‘The late lamented King Richard II of England, who died by God knows whose orders.’
The silence deepened. No one did know how the deposed English King had died. The Duke of Clarence let his eyes rise to those of the French Prince. The Frenchman let a taunting half-smile flicker on his thin face. Everyone in the room seemed to stop breathing. The Duke’s face went red. He’d clearly forgotten all about being diplomatic with the French. He just wanted to hit the sneering Frenchman. With muscles tightening everywhere, he took a threatening step forward.
Owain flinched and looked down.
But, even while staring fixedly at his knees and the forgotten casket he was hugging, he was aware of the Princess just next to him. Now, unexpectedly, he felt her move into the middle of the fray.
Hardly seeming to know what she was doing, the Princess grabbed the Duke’s swinging arm, then swiftly turned that movement into a trusting gesture, putting his muscly limb with its clenched fist through her thin green-covered arm, and turning him gently but firmly away from the doorway and back towards the French Queen.
The Duke looked at her in dull surprise, but he let himself be turned. The Princess said, very quickly, in a voice so tense with suppressed panic that it somehow came out gay and flirtatious, ‘Sir, if it please God and my lord father and my lady mother, I will very willingly be your mistress and the Queen of England.’
Owain looked up, impressed by the Princess’s bravery. She’d brought the Duke right back to the French Queen’s feet. Looking to her mother for approval, and getting a brief nod, she went on, in a less formal way, with the beginning of laughter that might have been caused by relief in her throat, ‘After all, I’ve always been told I’d be a great lady one day.’
The Duke seemed to be adjusting only slowly to the change in tempo. He looked from the Princess to her mother. He glanced over to the doorway, where the Princess’s older brother, if that was who the insulting Frenchman was, was also staring open-mouthed at the girl. Then, very slowly, his head began to nod. Up, down, up, down. He was still thinking. It seemed hours before his mouth opened and a great choking guffaw of a laugh came out.
He didn’t laugh alone for more than a second. The whole hall filled with a wolf-pack’s howling; mirth and the release of fear mixed. The French Queen was cackling so hard her whole body was wobbling with it. She was so pleased with the way things were turning out that she didn’t even notice her pet squirrel grab the sweetmeat on her golden saucer and start chewing at it, sitting on its hind legs, watching the spectacle with bright round eyes. And all the French officials were giving their Princess soft, thankful looks as they snuffled into their hands.
It was the first time she had really understood what it meant to be Princess Catherine de Valois: that people would listen. It was the first time she had ever exercised any sort of power. It was the most exciting thing she’d ever done. Her heart was racing. There was blood drumming a tattoo in her ears.
Ignoring the baleful look her eldest brother Louis was giving her from the doorway, and the baleful look her mother was giving Louis from her carved chair – there’d be trouble between the two of them soon enough – Catherine breathed in deeply and let herself enjoy the laughter that meant her words had saved the day.
Then she looked down. The poor English page was still kneeling there, holding that casket. The English Duke had forgotten all about him. The handsome boy with blue eyes and floppy dark hair was gazing at her with the same soft, adoring look everyone was giving her now, but he was obviously also longing to get up off his knees and rush back off to the shadows. But she could do anything today. She could cut his agony short; she could save him too.
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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