The Lost Princess

Chapter Thirteen

John peered around the heavy wooden door, the dark mahogany wood shining with polish. His eyes adjusted to the darkness as he entered the Queen's chamber. The curtains were all drawn, and the only light came from the fireplace. The golden mirror that stood over the fireplace showed him his reflection; his blonde hair gleaming in the weak light, his face flushed, his dark eyes bright. His eyes scanned the room, taking in the plush velvet chair gathered around the Queen's writing desk. Papers and books were thrown haphazardly, his mother's signature neat handwriting scribbled across them.

His eyes found the canopy bed, draped in golden and crimson silk that hid the Queen from prying eyes. A fire simmered quietly in the corner, the plush carpeting quieting the footsteps of a bustling maid, who silently fussed around the Queen's bed.

John's eyebrows raised. It was quite early for his mother to be abed – the steward who had let him into the Queen's chamber hadn't mentioned his mother was already asleep. There was something about this situation that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up; it had the universal hush of a room that holds someone who is ill.

Slowly, John began to back out, pulling the door closed with him. Suddenly, the Queen's white hand was visible amongst the plush velvets and sheets.

"My son?"

Her voice was surprisingly thin.. frail, almost. John's brow creased with worry mingled with confusion. He had seen his mother not an hour ago. She hadn't seemed ill then.

He stepped into the chamber, and nodded to the maid to leave them. She dropped a short curtsey, her eyes on the floor underneath her white cap, and then hurried out of the room. Something about her hurried flee from the room caused him pause; he turned and watched her over his shoulder. Was it his imagination, or was that maid acting…guilty?

John took another step into the room, dismissing the thought as the door shut behind her. The windows were shut tight against the storm raging outside, thick crimson curtains pulled shut against the cold.

"Mother?" John said tentatively into the quiet, bewildered. "Are you ill, my lady?"

The Queen struggled to sit up, her small white face emerging from the gloomy shadows cast over her bed. She was piled with golden blankets up to her chin. Her eyes were bright, and her face flushed. John made a move as if to help her, but she held up a hand and John now remembered – he was King now. He could not touch someone who was sick.

"Are you ill, Mother?" John asked again after a moment when she didn't respond, his voice soft. He stood awkwardly several feet away from her bed, his features flickering in the firelight, his brown eyes creased with worry.

"Yes," the Queen said, in the same thin, frail voice. She leaned forward slightly, and in the weak light, the bags under her eyes and the lines in her face seemed more pronounced. "I suddenly have a fever."

"I will send for the physicians," John said immediately, but the Queen waved a hand.

"No, is merely a passing cold, darling. Now, tell me, what it is you came to speak with me about?"

John's eyes narrowed as he studied his mother. Something he couldn't place seemed…wrong. He noticed she held one bony hand over her stomach, and her breathing seemed labored. A fever?

He watched her reactions carefully. "I just wanted to let you know that I am planning on accompanying Emma Blackfriar to Kent. She has received urgent family news and wishes to go at once; and I would like to get out of London and see the country without a great retinue at my side."

The Queen inhaled slowly, and he thought he saw a dark shadow slide across her face. Her grip on the covers over her stomach seemed to tighten, but when she looked up she had a weak smile for him. "Are you going to be her knight in shining armor, my boy? Are you looking for a damsel in distress?"

John shot his mother a disarming grin. "I thought we would travel as peasants, so I would not need guards. She wants to go see her family, and of course I will accompany her.. but mother, you know as well as I that I am no city boy. I was raised in the country; I learned my lessons of statecraft in a saddle. I yearn for the country again. It will be an adventure, a reprieve."

The Queen leaned back against her pillows once more, her face peaking out from underneath the mountains of blankets, her eyes fluttering closed as his words. "Yes, my son," she whispered, over rapidly paling lips, "I know, perhaps more so then anyone, that you are a country boy."

John took an unconscious step closer. "Mother, are you sure it's just a fever – perhaps I best stay close --- you seem very –"

Again, she raised a hand and mustered a weak smile for him. "Go on, my boy. Go to Kent. Have your adventure, though I doubt Emma will be a very merry companion. And you'd best take a maid as a companion for her. She's a young woman, you two cannot go running around the countryside alone."

John shrugged, distracted, but his eyes lingered on his mother's pale face and the painful rise and fall of her chest.

"Mother, if you are ill, I should want to be by your side—"

She shook her head, weakly, closing her eyes once more. "No, my dear. Go to Kent and meet the Blackfriars." She inhaled slowly. "Perhaps they will teach you something."

John nodded and bowed slightly. "God keep you well, mother," He said as he took his leave and Elizabeth inhaled slowly. "God help me," she agreed as the door shut softly behind him.

Dawn broke early the next morning. John woke early and headed down to the stables to find Emma already waiting for him.

"You are awake early this morning, my lady."

His warm gaze flickering over her, he noticed the bags under her eyes and the paleness of her face. "I couldn't sleep," she said simply, and he pressed it no further.

She was dressed in the clothes she had come in; a simple navy peasant dress with a white linen shirt underneath. He noticed she had on worn leather boots instead of fancy riding boots she had worn the last time they had went riding; a joking comment about them was on the tip of his tongue, but he saw the tightness of her jaw and thought the better of it.

For his part, he was dressed in his plainest black breeches and loose gray shirt, rather then fancy doublet and house. He borrowed a boy's cap from his steward, and as he swung onto his horse, he pulled it low over his eyes.

Emma had recruited a maid to accompany them to preserve her reputation, and as the pair headed out of the stables they met up with a small squeaky girl who blushed furiously every time John addressed her and could only look at the floor.

It was early still, the sky a clear clean blue after yesterday's storms. The court was still asleep, the only movement by that of stewards and gardeners, going about their work. The normally bustling palace was relatively still.

They set out on the long road out of the palace, John's black horse prancing with pleasure at being out on such a beautiful day. John chuckled, listening to the relative silence of the morning, broken only every few minutes by the snort of a horse or the chirp of a bird.

After a little bit. The silence was more then the King could take. He reigned his horse in a bit to pull back besides Emma, whose mouth was twisted in pain and her eyes were dull. John smiled encouragingly at her.

"Beautiful day, eh, Miss Blackfriar?"

Emma didn't turn her head to look at him, but dropped her eyes to the dusty road ahead. She was on a horse of a deep solid gray, and she rode unconsciously well, her hips swaying with the horse's steady pace. Her black hair, gleaming in the morning light, was pulled back, scraped off of her face in a tight bun. But she managed to twist her pink lips into a little smile for him, and her reply was pleasant enough, if strained.

"It is indeed, my lord."

John was encouraged. Much as he spoke about needing the fresh air and country side – which he firmly believed that he did need – he also wanted some company. What a boring trip this would be if Emma was not going to speak at all!

John let his eyes lazily slide back behind them, where the maid was riding. She caught his gaze and immediately her face turned a crimson red, and she ducked her head behind her horses's ears. John sighed.

The feel of the breeze of his face and the heat of the horse between his legs was enough to keep up his good spirits, however. He had grown up surrounded by tutors and stewards and peers, yet he had always been someone who could amuse himself. The ride to Kent was not far, about a day's ride.

The first hour went by smoothly; the King knew the way well enough, and the road was clear. John was amazed at the freedom he had; normally, when he rode through his country, he was surrounded by guards, catching only a glimpse of the people and their villages. But as they stayed on the main road, peasant farmers smiled pleasantly at them and John could hear the ring of church bells, summoning the village to mass. He eyed their farming equipment, and smiled back at them. A little girl waved at him from the side of the road and he laughed and waved back. And when they called out, in passing, "God bless!", John called back with a smile in his voice.

Emma, though lost in her own world, noticed the gleam in the King's smile and the prance in his horse's step. She eyed him from the corner of her eye, smiling despite herself.

"You seem as though you've never been through the country, milord," she said, half teasing, half serious.

The sound of her voice seemed to startle him and he laughed at his own behavior. "I have been through the country," he allowed, "but I have been through the country with dozens of soldiers at my side and the King's standard flying before me. I have never been through as a simple man." He looked around, his young face brightened by the day and his good mood. His blonde hair was growing longer, the sun highlighting strands.

His brown eyes flickered around him, taking in everything, and Emma giggled at his childish excitement.

He smiled back at her, and shrugged, as if he knew she was laughing at him but was too pleased with the day to bother with it. "It is a beautiful country," he said simply and she smiled at him. "It is yours," she reminded him and his smile widened. "Indeed," he replied quietly.

But that exchange sunk Emma back into her thoughts. England had come to this man riding at her side by rights, by birthright. But if what the Queen said was true – if she really was the Queen's daughter…

The enormity of that statement hit Emma full in the stomach for perhaps the first time. Before, the only thing that had occurred to her was she was not who she thought she was. She was not the daughter of a wealthy farmer in Kent, new come to court to find a husband. And if she was not that girl, if she was not that daughter, she did not know who she should be.

But suddenly, a new aspect came into startling relief. She had been so busy focusing on who she was not, she hadn't stopped to think about who she should have been.

She should have been a Princess.

The thought caused nausea to rise in her throat once more and her hands to shake slightly on the reins. At her side, John rode obliviously to the thoughts swirling around in her head.

A Princess! Her, Emma! She was the one, who by right, should have been raised in a royal palace, taught the art of statecraft! Instead of having the half of a farm in Kent as her dowry, she should have had the whole of England!

She closed her eyes in weariness. This was too much to take.

Exhaling slowly, her eyes wandered to the man, the king, at her side. He shouldn't even be King, Emma thought viciously. He should be a farmer, in Kent, learning how to plant hops and when to slaughter the Sheep. It should be me on the throne of England, a little voice inside her head yelled, screamed, until it echoed and echoed and she could think of nothing else.

All the rest of the day, through the long, beautiful ride, she listened with half an ear and half a heart to John's comments about the state of the road and how good this trip was for his sanity. All she could think about, as she eyed the rich fields and tiny villages, long acres of forest and the heady scent of ripe fruit, was one thought over and over again.

This should have been mine.

The little party arrived at the farm just was the sun was setting, and Emma inhaled deeply as she first step foot on the farm, as if to rejuvenate herself. The sun bathed the fields in a golden light – the merry cry of her father's workers, the noises of the animals as they were herded inside for the night was like a balm to Emma's bruised heart.

They handed off their horses to the maid, and a stable boy rushed out to help her, taking the animals in and showing the maid a place to stay.

John looked around at everything curiously, but let Emma take the lead. As they walked up the little path that led to the house, cheerful lights flickering in the windows, he suddenly grabbed her hand. Her fingers were cold to the touch, and in a typical act of random chivalry, he raised her hand to his lips and kissed it gently, a smile curling on his face. "Emma," he said, and his voice was warm, intended to melt the strain from her shoulders and the pain in her eyes, "It will be alright."

Emma smiled back at him, because why he may not yet be much of a King, and a changeling King at that, he was still a good man. "Thank you, Your Highness," she said quietly as they paused outside the doorway. Her voice was quiet as she continued, his warm fingers still intertwined with her cold ones. "Thank you," she repeated, "but I don't think so."

The yells of surprise and joy that were released as soon as Emma entered the Blackfriar house would have made anyone smile. And even Emma, whose emotions were indeed all over the place, couldn't help but smile. Her little sister launched herself at her, yelling and laughing, and she heard the traditional clang of a wooden spoon as Mary Blackfriar dropped it in surprise, her mouth in a perfect 'O' as she walked out of her kitchen to find the girl that nobody wanted and the boy who had been taken from her standing in her doorway.

"God's blood," Mary gasped, and Emma's careful gaze noticed the way her eyes flickered feverishly between Emma and John. She went to Emma first, her arms open, her face creasing into an uncertain smile. "Emma, darling, what are you doing here?"

Emma allowed herself to become wrapped in Mary's arms, inhaling the warm smells of her mother's shampoo and cooking. She merely shook her head in reply to her mother's questions, John hovering awkwardly in the background. When she finally pulled away, she exhaled slowly. Mary was staring, almost fascinated at John, her experession of one who has seen as ghost.

"Mother, this is…"

"The King," Mary Blackfriar breathed, her sweet face heavy with age, but wreathed in smiles and shock. She dropped into a curtsey and John smiled back, nodding his head.

The children were all gathered around the tiny dining room, their eyebrows raised and their expression bewildered.

"The King?" Margaret, Emma's younger sister, asked, her little face screwed up. She had light blonde hair and blue eyes and Emma was struck by the difference between them. How could she have thought she belonged here…?

John seemed uncomfortable, and Mary began to fuss, offering food and drink and room to sleep and everything, but Emma cut her off.

"Mother..I need to speak with you, and I need to speak with father. Is he here?"

As the words left her mouth, Emma heard the door behind her open. She turned around to become face to face with her father, and her younger brother Andrew, accusations hot on her tongue.

But her father wasn't looking at her. His eyes were transfixed on the man's that stood in his hallway. Johnny Blackfriar and John, King of England stood side by side and Emma heard Mary stifle a gasp.

Their likeness was striking, especially with John dressed in peasant's clothes and dirty from a day on the road.

"Your Majesty," Johnny managed, dropping into a bow. Behind him, Andrew, in shock, mimicked him.

"Mr. Blackfriar," John replied politely, beginning to sincerely regret his place there. As King, he was used to everyone staring at him, but as he scanned the room, taking in the eyes of the entire Blackfriar family latched onto him, he reflected that this was ridiculous.

Finally, John turned his eyes to Emma. "Emma," he remarked, his voice delighted though his eyes were confused. He swept her up in a hug and she allowed herself a brief moment of respite, burrowing her face in his chest and inhaling the familiar smells of horse, sweat and farmland. "It's so good to see you, princess," he said into her hair, holding her close but at the term of endearment, she stiffened and pulled away.

My princess. Her father had always called her that, it had always been his special name for her. And now she knew why.

I should have been a Princess.

The thought came, unbidden, into her mind and she took a step back.

"Sir," she said, formally, her voice shaking slightly, and John's eyebrows raised. "We need to talk."