The page made himself as inconspicuous as possible at the
back of the English delegation, looking at the vast tapestries
on the walls of this dusty, splendid Parisian hall, clutching his
box to his chest, waiting for his cue.
His latest master, the Duke of Clarence, had turned away from the repulsively fat French Queen, his hostess, whose eyes were glittering as wickedly as the jewels half-buried in the flesh of her slug fingers. Clarence fixed his eyes on the fourteen-year-old Princess at her side. The Princess was Owain’s age, and quite a pretty girl, Owain judged, with light brown hair and freckles and gentle eyes over a long nose; it would be sad if time turned her into a swollen monster like her mother. Owain also noticed that the Princess’s cheeks were very pink, which perhaps wasn’t surprising since her top garment was an enormous green velvet houppelande, magnificently trimmed with miniver fur – very stately, but far too hot for this bright May afternoon. Perhaps they felt the cold more in Paris, he thought. Or perhaps she was just blushing because she knew what was coming.
Thomas of Clarence opened his pop eyes wide, broadened his mouth into something like a smile and bowed slightly to the girl – the closest an English soldier duke would ever come to the elaborate manners of the French court. The Duke had been a little thrown, when he and his men had reached Paris at noon, by the news that the King of France was indisposed today and couldn’t meet him, and that the French side in these negotiations would be led by Queen Isabeau instead. After a whispered conference before the French delegation walked in, he’d decided to proceed regardless. But he wasn’t a ladies’ man. He didn’t know how to talk to women. He was far too abrupt.
‘Your Highness,’ he said to the Princess. ‘I am bidden by my master to seek you out and raise with you the question that is uppermost in his mind.’
He paused. She paused. There was an expectant silence from the two dozen other people in the hall. ‘If it please God, and your father and mother, he hopes you will marry him, and become our mistress and Queen of England,’ Thomas of Clarence barked, without the slightest attempt at diplomatic finesse.
There was a collective indrawn breath from the French side of the room. Owain knew the French were supposed to be grateful for this offer, because the French, though grand, were weak. Their King was ill. They said he went mad every time the moon was full. And while he was mad the French quarrelled among themselves. So they hadn’t managed to put up much resistance to the English army’s rampagings through Normandy. Now they were meant to think that this promise of a marriage between this Princess and the King of England must mean the King of England planned to stop his brother attacking Normandy and pursue an alliance with France and England instead. And, if the French nobility didn’t have to fight the English, they could go on plotting against each other to their hearts’ content. Still, Owain’s impression was that the French side of the room was not exactly grateful. Looking from one polite, squeamish, uncomfortable expression to another, he guessed: they want the marriage; they’d just rather have heard this another way. They can’t believe he’s made the proposal without days of entertainments and compliments, hints and manoeuvrings beforehand. They’re shocked.
One of the English dug Owain in the back. It jolted him back to what he was supposed to be doing. This was his moment. He took a dozen steps forward, with his heart thumping, his palms damp, terrifyingly aware of every eye in the room being on him. When he reached the middle of the hall, beside the Duke, he sank down on one knee, with the flamboyant arm and head movement he’d been practising (perhaps he could be courtly enough to make up for the Duke’s gruffness). Making sure he was perfectly steady on his knees, he opened the clasp on the little casket and threw it open so the jewel inside glittered.
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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