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"...married for money, bred for heirs,
She wept in shadow, burdened by cares."
Ivy Rutherford read her new poem aloud, hoping the freshly penned words would touch the hearts of the jaded court ladies who filled Queen Eleanor's garden bower. She took a calming breath before continuing her recitation.
"Til a Knight arrived, his honor well-proved, Who spied her tears and his soul was moved. Love's keen lance soon pierced her heart — "
Lady Gertrude snorted as she patted the head of her obnoxious little lapdog. "I'll bet that's not all love's lance pierced."
Feminine twitters rippled among Eleanor's courtly crowd, which was gathered in the shade of the vine-covered wooden arbor for their afternoon entertainment.
Ivy stared down at the costly parchment, the words she had labored over crumpling slightly with her tightened grip as laughter erupted from the queen's cronies. Eager to put the awkward moments of reading her new creation behind her, she continued as soon as the noise abated.
"And Venus revealed her comely art — "
More laughter. "Enough!" Marie, Comtesse de Champagne, rose from her bench amid the flowering foxgloves, silencing the assembly with one censuring frown. Tall and elegant, Marie wrote poetry herself and perhaps understood the difficulty of creative endeavors more than did her peers. "Ivy has been gracious enough to amuse us this afternoon. We can at least extend her the courtesy of silence."
Although she appreciated the comtesse's efforts, Ivy sensed from her brief time at court that the queen's ladies would swarm like vultures around any creature weak enough to require another's defense. Their unspoken scorn reverberated in her ears as clearly as the chirp of the lone meadowlark fluttering about the bower's eaves. How dare she, a mere merchant's daughter, give herself noble airs?
From the front row, stout and stalwart Lady Gertrude appealed to the queen. Latticework shadows flickered across Gertrude's sullen features as her dog growled. "Since when have any of us in Your Majesty's illustrious court had to feign enjoyment of inferior art?"
Ivy flinched at the cruelty — and accuracy — of the jab, regretting her vulnerability to the criticism. Her poems meant the world to her. Life at Queen Eleanor's court gave Ivy the chance to indulge in the most important thing in her life — her art.
Lifting a censorious brow in Gertrude's direction, the queen peered down her nose. "Do not attempt to flatter me. There is no excuse for coarse manners at my court."
Ivy ducked to hide her smile. Not that she cared so much about Gertrude being put in her place, but because Ivy loved to see the queen in action. Few could match wits with Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The woman was everything Ivy longed to be — independent, confident, talented. Besides, at fifty-two years old, having served half that time as queen of one realm or another, Eleanor had never shed a tear in public, even when her husband was rumored to have been conducting a flagrant affair under her nose. Ivy braved a glance at her sovereign, who was seated in the bower's only chair in the midst of her ladies. All of Europe stood in awe of her audacity in starting her own royal court in her family seat of Poitou on the wrong side of the English Channel. She had astonished the western world by defying her adulterous husband, an English king no less.
"I apologize, Your Majesty." Gertrude bowed her head in deference to the queen.
Other women who had laughed at Ivy's poem now dipped their heads, too, though Ivy suspected their motives had more to do with securing the queen's good graces than actual remorse. Knowing that didn't squelch a brief sense of victory.
"And, Gertrude, you are wrong to say Ivy's art is inferior." Queen Eleanor turned indulgent eyes toward her newest troubadour.
Thank heaven the queen appreciated her efforts. As long as Ivy pleased the monarch, her position at court remained secure. Ivy could not help the fanciful dream she had of rising in station one day thanks to her art. A foolish notion, no doubt.
"She has written poetry to make my spirit soar," Eleanor continued, "and she will do so again."
Ivy almost burst with pride. The queen did not praise idly.
"Her failing today resulted not from inferior art," the queen continued, "but from lack of life experience in regard to the nature of love."
No one dared laugh, yet Ivy imagined they wanted to. Her utter lack of knowledge about men had been brought to her attention on several occasions since she had joined the court a fortnight ago.
The queen swept the room with a shrewd and level glare. "I chose to bring Ivy to Poitiers because she is a brilliant thinker. While most of you belong to this court by chance of birth, Ivy is here because she has made something fine and noble of herself in spite of her heritage, tainted by her noble mother's marriage to a commoner."
The other women looked down at their colorful, silk-covered laps while the soft hum of honeybees drifted on the breeze.
Mon Dieu. The ladies-in-waiting would definitely resent the merchant's daughter now. But the queen's brief words had given Ivy more confidence in her art than her father had bothered to engender in her in a lifetime, and for that, Ivy would be forever grateful.
Perched on a stool only slightly lower than the queen's chair, Comtesse Marie nodded, clearly approving of her mother's speech.
"How might we assist Ivy in her love poetry, Mother?" Marie interjected after an appropriate silence. "You yourself have noted it is not as strong as some of her other pieces. Must we marry off young Ivy to give her some notion of love?"
The queen laughed. "I think most of us can attest to the fact that marriage does not teach a woman about love."
From Ivy's observation of her parents' disastrous marriage, she knew the Church-sanctioned union of man and woman did little to foster tender feelings between them. Yet she nurtured a secret hope that one day she would experience the rare gift of true love — the kind troubadours described in their ballads. The kind that made Ivy's wishful heart sing like the bird fluttering overhead.
Marie winked in Ivy's direction, then turned back to the queen. "Yes, but once she is married, other men can woo her openly without the constraint of her maidenly status."
Several women nodded.
They could not truly mean that.
Unrealistic as her dreams might be, Ivy wanted no part of a loveless marriage. Not even for her art's sake would she suffer a husband who cared naught for her. She'd sooner endure a spinster's fate.
"Perhaps..." Eleanor tilted her silver-threaded head to one side. "Perhaps Ivy might join our Court of Love proceedings for the next moon or two."
A low murmur of surprise — or was it disapproval? — rumbled through the group. Eleanor's courts of love were entertaining gatherings for the diverse travelers and guests who populated Poitiers at any time of year, but especially during the spring. Lovers brought their romantic problems before the judgment of the ladies at court, a practice that provided amusement as well as enlightenment, since the assemblies were forums for discussing the ideals of romantic love that regional troubadours struggled to express to the world in their beloved art form.
Marie smiled. "What a wonderful idea, Mother.
She could find no better place to learn about passion...outside an ardent man's arms, that is."
Lady Gertrude spluttered her indignation, her chubby fingers tightening around her scrawny dog's head while the animal yelped. "But you said yourself the girl knows nothing of love. How would she contribute to our discussions?"
"She does not have to contribute. She will merely observe." Eleanor cast a knowing glance toward Ivy.
"Our Ivy likes playing the quiet role of spectator, do you not, my dear?"
Was this crowd of worldly women determined to make Ivy feel inferior? Without question. She cringed whenever her new troubadour position forced her to read her labors of love aloud. Today, she was stuck in front of everyone, a defenseless target of their scrutiny.
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"Then it is settled," the queen announced, smiling. Her beauty, only slightly faded with age, sparkled with her pleasure. "We meet tomorrow morning to review our next case. Who is it to be, Marie?"
Ivy fought the urge to clap her hands together in delight. The Court of Love enjoyed notoriety across the land, and now she would witness it firsthand. What wonderful fodder for her poetry.
"Lord Roger Stancliff, my lady, newly arrived from England."
A collective squeal arose from the younger women of the party. "Come to seduce the ladies of the court and drink the gentlemen under the trestle tables, I suppose?" The queen hissed the question, ignoring the rising tide of whispers and giggles among her ladies.
Marie laughed, her joyous spirit a colorful contrast to her mother's sparse wit.
"His vices render him a challenging test of our powers,Your Majesty. If the Court of Love can turn Roger Stancliff into a courteous chevalier, then our skills will become as legendary as Lord Roger's reputation."
Ivy gasped, shocked the countess would be willing to support such a risky endeavor when the troubadours all worked diligently to infuse the notion of courtly love with the idea of unselfish devotion and admiration in its purest form. Roger Stancliff was obviously a craven scoundrel — the antithesis of the romantic ideals Ivy held dear.
The queen narrowed her gaze on her daughter. "Have you fallen prey to Stancliff's charm?"
To Ivy's amazement, sophisticated, worldly Marie de Champagne blushed.
"Of course not." With an airy gesture, the queen's firstborn waved away the matter. "My heart lies elsewhere."