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Excerpt from Part I: May 26, 1306 to November 24, 1326
Prince Edward and Piers Gaveston had slept together and too late, neither of which was at all unusual. Edward was the first to awake.
"No." His beautiful friend yawned and rolled to his side.
"You must. We have a wedding to attend. And what if my father finds you here?"
Piers considered. "Apoplexy?"
"At the least." But his friend made no move to leave the bed, and Edward did not press the matter.
"So it is your niece who is getting married. It occurs to me that I have hardly seen the girl."
"Eleanor is but thirteen. She has spent some time lately in my stepmother's household, and then she stayed at Amesbury priory with my sister Mary for a time too. She has just lately returned for her marriage."
"I cannot for the life of me understand why girls go to convents before they are married. One thinks that the company of elderly virgins would be dampening to marital ardor. Now if they went to brothels at least it would be educational and practical."
Edward swatted his friend with a pillow. He said a bit wistfully, "When Eleanor was younger, I used to row her and her brother in my boat. Her sisters felt it was too unladylike, so they would never go along. But she loved it. She and Gilbert used to stick their noses in the air and pretend I was their boatman and shout orders at me." He stroked his friend's hair. "I am sorry my father gave her to Hugh le Despenser. I would have liked her to be your wife."
"I want no wife."
"Nor do I. But I must have one, and you really must yourself, you know. When I am king, you shall have titles and lands and that means you must get heirs. And Eleanor would have been a fine wife for you. Sweet and shy, but with a sly wit once you get to know her."
"And now I won't have the opportunity. I shall throw myself in the Thames forthwith."
"There's her sister Margaret. A good-natured girl, not as much so as Eleanor, but a definite possibility. Elizabeth is by far the prettiest but has too much of the grande dame about her even at her young age. Yes, I would pick Margaret."
"Before I have recovered from the loss of Eleanor? For shame! Is my rival Hugh pleased with the match?"
"He ought to be, getting a Clare for a wife; I would have thought my father would have insisted on an earl for Eleanor. But who knows what young Hugh thinks of anything? He keeps his own counsel. It is disconcerting in a youth of his age." He bestowed a tender kiss on Piers. "I prefer the more open temperament."
"And so do I." Piers returned the kiss, with compound interest, and for some time afterward no talking was done.
Eleanor de Clare, some chambers away from her uncle and his friend in Westminster Palace, had been passing the morning less pleasantly, though more decorously. Though in her naiveté she was quite content with the drape of her wedding dress, the styling of her hair, and the placement of her jewels, her mother, aunts, sisters, and attendant ladies were not, and each was discontent in a different way. As her hair was debated over and rearranged for the seventh time, she snapped, "Enough, Mama! I know Hugh is not being plagued in this manner. He must take me as I am."
Gladys, a widow who had long served Eleanor's mother as a damsel and who had agreed to go into Eleanor's household, grinned. "Aye, my lady, and he won't much care what you are wearing. It will be what is underneath that will count." She patted Eleanor's rump with approval. "And he will be pleased." Elizabeth gasped. Margaret tittered. Eleanor, however, giggled. "Do you truly think so, Gladys?"
"Of course. You're well developed for your age, and men love that. And you will be a good breeder of children, too, mark me. You will have a fine brood."
"You can tell me, Gladys. What will it be like? Tonight?"
Eleanor's mother, Joan, the Countess of Gloucester, had been sniffling sentimentally at the prospect of her first daughter's marriage. Now she raised an eyebrow. "Your little sisters, Eleanor"
"They shall be married soon, too, won't they? They might as well know."
"We might as well," Margaret agreed.
"Each man will go about his business in his own way, my lady. But I'll wager that he will be gentle about the matter."
"Will I be expected tohelp at all?" At thirteen Eleanor was not quite as naive as she pretended, having heard enough courtiers and servant girls whispering to piece together what happened on a wedding night, but it had occurred to her that no one was fussing over her hair now.
Gladys had been left entirely on her own by the gaggle of women, who were plainly finding this entertaining. When Gladys paused before answering, Mary, Eleanor's aunt the nun, piped up, "Well, answer, my dear, because I certainly can't."
"I've no doubt that once you get interested in him, my lady, you shall want to help."
Eleanor nodded and considered this in silence.
Margaret, sitting on a window seat, sighed. "I wish I was getting married," she explained.
"I'm sure you will be soon."
"And better." Elizabeth sniffed.
"Elizabeth! What mean you?" Her mother glared.
"I only repeat what I overheard you say the other day." Elizabeth was only ten, but she had the dignity of a woman twice that age. "Nelly is an earl's daughter, and Hugh is only a mere knight. He has no land to speak of. And he's not even truly handsome, like my uncle's friend Piers Gaveston."
"As though we need more of that!" Joan went over and patted her oldest daughter on the shoulder. "I did think you could have done better," she said gently, "but it was your grandfather's match, and he has always thought highly of Hugh's father, who has served him well for years. There is no reason why his fortunes should not grow in years to come." She frowned at a tangle in Eleanor's waist-length red hairit was difficult at times to determine what was tangle and what was curland began to brush it out.
Eleanor glared at her youngest sister.
"Tell me," she said, submitting ungraciously to having some color put on her naturally pale cheeks, "who is this Piers to my uncle? I have never seen my uncle out of his company since we came to Westminster. And why does his being around him vex my grandfather the king so?"
Gladys became deeply interested in a discarded bracelet lying on a table. The other women stared absorbedly at Eleanor's robes. Only her little sisters looked at Eleanor, and their faces were as curious as hers.
"We must get to the chapel," Joan said. "Come, ladies."