Continuing Tales

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 13 of 35

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In Pursuit of Ever After

Danielle awoke momentarily confused. She wasn't in the cold dungeon and she felt safe and warm. She opened her eyes and looked around the most resplendent bedchamber she had ever seen. The huge bed she was in had a headboard upholstered in pink silk, with matching curtains around the bed and at the windows. The fireplace was elaborately carved and had an elegant painting above it. The coverlet was ivory with pink and green flowers embroidered all over. The pillows were huge and fluffy. 'This must be one of the palace bedchambers, but I don't remember much after dinner. I remember crying,' she cringed in embarrassment, 'and Henry holding me. What happened last night?' she wondered.

Just then the door opened and the Queen peeked in. She saw that Danielle was awake, and she came in. "Oh, good. You are awake, my dear."

Danielle tried to get up when she came in, "Good morning, Your Majesty."

"Stay in bed, Danielle. I don't want to have to call Henry in again to pick you up," she said with an indulgent, motherly smile.

"Pick me up, Your Majesty?"

"Yes, my dear, you fainted last night."

"I fainted? I have never fainted before," Danielle said in embarrassment.

"Well, Danielle, you have been through a lot. The doctor came and examined you. He said you were dehydrated and exhausted. He prescribes a few days of bedrest for you. Other than that he said you appear perfectly healthy."

"A doctor examined me while I was asleep?" Danielle felt vulnerable and exposed at the idea.

"Yes, I was here with you, dear."

"Oh, I see," still feeling very strange about it.

"Are you hungry? I will order you a little breakfast if you are."

Danielle felt a little queasy, "Maybe something small, Your Majesty."

"Danielle, my dear, you do not have to call me 'Your Majesty' more than once in a conversation. When we are in my private apartments you may drop it altogether."

"Thank you," Danielle smiled, slightly embarrassed at having the Queen point out her lack of social graces.

The Queen left and came back a few minutes later with several of her ladies-in-waiting. One of them brought a breakfast tray with pastries, eggs, fruit and tea. Danielle thought this was a feast, not a little breakfast. "Thank you," she said to the lady who brought it.

After Danielle had eaten, the Queen ordered her a bath. "Well, we will finally get you that bath you wanted, my dear. Last night you fainted before it came, you were so exhausted from your trip."

Danielle watched as a parade of servants carried in a large copper tub and bucket after bucket of steaming water. When it was full, two ladies maids helped Danielle bathe. Being waited upon was an unfamiliar experience for Danielle, but one she enjoyed. The hot bath was heavenly. She couldn't remember the last time she had had one. Soon they had Danielle back in bed in another fresh nightgown, her hair freshly washed and brushed.

After the servants had cleared away the remains of the bath the Queen returned. "How are you feeling? Do you need to take a nap?"

Danielle laughed, "No, Your Majesty, I couldn't possibly sleep anymore. Do I really need to stay in bed for two whole days? I feel fine."

"Well, my son will be glad you don't want to nap. He has been waiting to see you," turning around she nearly collided with Henry. "Do not tire her out, Henry. You may visit for a bit. Lady Anne will be your chaperone," she said in an undertone as he passed her.

He gave her a sheepish smile as he passed her, but made no objection. Lady Anne followed him into the room at a nod from the Queen. She sat unobtrusively in a corner working on her needlepoint.

Henry pulled a chair next to the bed. "Good morning, Danielle. Did you sleep well?" he said with an irresistible smile.

Danielle did not resist it; her face lit up. "Good morning, Your Highness," Henry raised an eyebrow at her use of his title. "I slept wonderfully," she said shyly.

"My name is Henry, if you don't mind," he said, cocking his head teasingly, as he took her hand in his. He leaned closer to the bed and whispered, "Lady Anne is a bit hard of hearing, you know. We can speak freely. You look wonderful this morning. You gave us a bit of a scare last night, when you fainted."

"I'm sorry! I have never fainted before. I don't know what came over me."

"You need not apologize. You had quite a busy day. What would you like to do today?"

"I cannot do anything! The Queen told me that a doctor has decided I must stay abed for two days."

"If you like, I could bring some books to read."

"Yes, that would be nice," she said without much enthusiasm.

"What is wrong, Danielle?"

"I don't know what is the matter. Maybe 'tis just worrying over the uncertainties." She looked away from him, willing her tears under control.

"I am going to speak with my father today, Danielle. My parents both adore you, you know. We just need to find a way to break off the betrothal without causing a war. Even if I have to go through with the marriage, I don't want you to worry about what will happen to you. I will make sure you are well taken care of, always. I love you."

"I love you, too, Henry," she said, her eyes swimming with tears. Taking a deep breath she said, "I know you love me, but I also understand that you are as much a servant to your crown as I have been to my step-mother. If breaking the betrothal will mean a war, then there really isn't a choice, is there? Surely the happiness of only two people, when weighed against the welfare of all of your people, cannot be considered. Do you really think there is any chance? Even if you broke the betrothal, would they ever let you marry me?"

"I have to believe there is still a chance. I gave you my heart. 'Tis yours, and I don't know how I could live without it."

"As you gave me your heart, I also gave you mine. We will always be part of one another." They sat quietly, holding hands, both aware of the chaperone across the room.

A few minutes later the Queen entered the bedchamber to find them sitting quietly, still holding hands. "Henry, the doctor is here to see Danielle. My dressmaker will be coming after he leaves. Go; find something to do for a few hours."

Henry went in search of the King, finding him in the throne room. "Father, what are the options for breaking off this Spanish betrothal? Is there any way to do it without there being disastrous consequences?" Henry asked hopefully.

The King reflected on the profound change he had seen in his son over the last month. A month ago he had been a boy; one running from his responsibilities. Now he was a man; coming to discuss the same problem as a responsible adult; as Crown Prince of France. "Henry, I am proud of the way you are handling this. I understand you are in an impossible situation. How is Danielle?" He knew he was dodging the question, but he wasn't looking forward to this conversation. It would define the future of his relationship with his son -forever.

"Thank you, Father. Danielle is better this morning, except she is understandably distressed over the indeterminate status of my betrothal. What can be done?" He looked at his father desperately, hoping he would offer a solution.

The King walked around the table, strewn with the papers he had been reading, and put his hand on Henry's shoulder. "I'm afraid it would take a miracle at this point to break the betrothal and not have an international crisis on our hands; possibly a war. The King of Spain has been pushing for this marriage for years, as you know. I just received confirmation that the wedding party has embarked on the journey here. They should start arriving in a fortnight. The wedding is to be in three weeks. I'm sorry Henry," he said grimly.

Henry had closed his eyes during his father's explanation-his mouth set likewise in a grim line. Taking a deep breath Henry said, "Very well Father, then I shall marry her," he choked out. He walked over to the window, staring blindly out at the countryside.

The King went back to his work, giving Henry time to process the finality of his betrothal.

Henry wrestled with the gnawing grief eating at his soul. He prayed silently 'Lord, I am Thy servant. Please give me the strength to trust in Your Divine plan. Give me the faith to trust that events are unfolding according to Your will. I thank You for sparing Danielle from harm and letting me bring her home. Please unveil to me Your plan for Danielle's future, that I may endeavor to let her go.'

Henry turned towards the King. "Father, what can we do for Danielle's future? She cannot go back to the Baroness. I need to know she will be protected and provided for, but I do not want people to think she has been my mistress. She is too virtuous and innocent to be labeled so."

"Henry, I want you to know that after getting to know Danielle, and especially seeing her affect upon you, that I am most sorry she will not be your wife."

Henry walked over to his father, surprised to hear that he would have accepted Danielle, if not for the betrothal.

"After the scene at the masque and the conflicting stories we were hearing about her, I initiated an investigation into her background. I wish she had stood up to the Baroness and not run away that night, but I understand she has had a most difficult life these last ten years."

"Yes, Father. I know that her father's name was Auguste de Barbarac. He owned the Manor de Barbarac, where she grew up. He married the Baroness when Danielle was eight. He died two weeks later, leaving her at the mercy of her step-mother. Danielle's mother was Nicole de Lancret. She died giving birth to Danielle, I believe. She doesn't seem to have any other family."

The King nodded, "We will need to introduce her to court before the Spanish arrive."

Henry was shocked at his father's proposal. What could he be thinking? "Father, is that really necessary? I hate to put her through what is sure to be a huge scandal. She may not wish to remain at court after I am married, in any case."

"I wouldn't be suggesting it without a compelling reason, Henry. My investigators turned up a great deal of interesting information about her family. Her father was an untitled noble-"

Henry interrupted the King, "Danielle is a noblewoman? I'm shocked and not, simultaneously, if that makes any sense. Shocked that the Baroness would have the gall to make her noble step-daughter work as a servant; not shocked that Danielle is noble. Instinctively, I knew. I simply knew! It makes perfect sense, actually. The Baroness would have lost her courtesy title if she had married a commoner. Danielle probably doesn't realize I…I'm sorry, I interrupted you, Father. Please continue," Henry said, shaking his head.

"Yes, well, we found that he left Danielle as his heiress. He did not leave his estate to the Baroness. It will take further investigation to determine what the value of the estate was at the time of his death. Suffice to say, it was a very prosperous holding and we found no living relatives on her father's side."

Henry was thinking he didn't like the idea of Danielle living alone with her servants at her father's house. She would be too vulnerable.

The King continued, "Her mother, Nicole, as you said, died in childbed. They had been married only a year. Her parents disapproved of the marriage, but her grandmother allowed the wedding to take place at her estate, without their blessing. They did not challenge the marriage. Afraid of the scandal, I daresay. Nicole was estranged from her parents from that day forward."

"Well, are any of them still living? Would they be open to reconciliation with the daughter of the misalliance? Where are they from?" Henry was hopeful that she might have some family with whom to reconnect. It might make the future more hopeful for her.

"Henry, Nicole was the eldest daughter, and heiress, to the Comte de Lancret," the King said gently, allowing the meaning to sink in.

"What?" Henry nearly shouted, drawing the attention of the King's ministers who were at the far end of the throne room. He hissed, "Her grandfather was a comte? How could Danielle have believed her step-mother that she was a commoner if her mother was the daughter of a Comte? It makes no sense."

"I don't know, Henry. She was just a young child, remember. Nicole's father passed away ten months after Nicole's marriage, making her the Comtesse."

"Are you telling me that her mother really was Comtesse Nicole de Lancret?" Henry laughed ironically. If only they had known. If only…

"Yes, and when she died giving birth to Danielle two months later…"

"The title passed to Danielle?" Henry was nearly struck dumb with the shock.

"Yes, she is rightfully Danielle de Barbarac, Comtesse de Lancret."

Henry started laughing bitterly. "Danielle de Barbarac, Comtesse de Lancret. Is it really possible she doesn't know? More importantly, does the Baroness know? Auguste de Barbarac surely must have mentioned such a 'detail' as his daughter being a comtesse. What about the family?"

"Her closest male relative is the Duc de LeVey. He arrived yesterday afternoon in response to my inquiries. He assumed the title only six months ago, but brought along correspondence between his father and the Baroness regarding the Comtesse's education and upbringing. He even has a few letters from Danielle. I read the ones that are signed 'Danielle' and they cannot have been written by your sweet girl. They are short and terse, blaming her mother's family for her death and declining any interest in meeting them or going to live with them. The old Duc was sending money for her upkeep, as well."

"Is there no low to which this woman will not stoop? We need to tear her life apart and find out what else she has been up to, lo, these last ten years, before we confront her."

"Henry, I am surprised you aren't riding over there now with a whip in your hand," the King chuckled.

"No, Father. The costliest lesson I have ever learned was to get all of the facts before drawing any conclusions. Being rash and emotional is what cost me Danielle. The Baroness will pay -eventually."

"Before we may properly introduce Danielle to court, we need to deal with M. Le Pieu. He wasn't breaking any laws as far as he knew. I'm sure the Baroness didn't take him into her confidence regarding Danielle's history. He also didn't force himself upon her. We do need to make sure he remains silent about where Danielle was when she was missing. It would ruin her reputation if it were found out that she spent three weeks as his captive," the King said.

"Since he didn't hurt her and we need him to remain silent I am inclined to be somewhat lenient. He claimed to have no knowledge of her being the Baroness' step-daughter. Since he also has powerful supporters, it would be well if we don't have to publicly punish him. He is, however, solely responsible for us thinking she was dead. He planted those pieces of her dress for us to find." Henry added.

"I agree. He interfered with our search and we cannot ignore an implicit lie to the Crown. I will deal with him, Henry. I understand he didn't resist when you arrived, he wouldn't raise a sword against you. You told him to come today?"

"Yes, I would like to be here when you meet with him, if you please."

"I will have my Chamberlain inform you when he arrives."

"Excellent. I would like to meet Danielle's cousin before I tell her. Did you like him? Is he married? We cannot send her off to live with a bachelor."

"I like him very well, Henry. I knew his father. He came with his mother, Danielle's aunt, and three other cousins. They seem most eager to make her acquaintance. He is unmarried, and his mother and sister live with him. I gave them apartments in the West Tower, if you want to go meet them. Take your mother," he suggested.

Danielle had a brief visit from the doctor, who was pleased with her swift recovery and gave tentative approval for her to be out of bed tomorrow. The Queen then brought in her dressmakers to take Danielle's measurements. They looked at dozens of fabric samples and dress styles. Danielle made two selections with the Queen's help. The Queen ordered a dozen more while Danielle was resting, giving the dressmaker instructions to provide all of the necessary undergarments, nightwear and accessories to comprise a full wardrobe -one fit for a comtesse.

After Danielle took a rest, Marguerite and Jacqueline came for a short visit. Marguerite had a difficult time adjusting to the sight of Danielle in the opulent bedchamber. It was a most awkward visit.

"Oh Danielle, it is so good to see you!" gushed Jacqueline.

"It is nice to see you, too, Jacqueline. Hello Marguerite," Danielle said.

"Hello, Danielle. I am sorry for what my mother did to you," absolving herself, hopefully. "It wasn't right. Can you ever forgive me for the way I have treated you?" Marguerite asked with heartfelt earnestness.

"Thank you, and yes, Marguerite, I forgive you. I want to also thank you for telling Prince Henry where to find me." Danielle held out her hand to Marguerite as a peace offering. Marguerite took it and smiled in relief.

"Danielle, will you be marrying the Prince?" Jacqueline inquired.

Taking a deep breath, Danielle explained. "While I was missing and thought dead, Henry agreed to marry Princess Gabriella. He isn't sure if he will be able to break the betrothal."

"I'm so sorry Danielle," said Marguerite, feeling guilty for the first time in her life, and disappointed that neither of them would be marrying the Prince.

The Queen returned. "I'm sorry to cut your visit short Danielle, but the dressmaker has returned for your first fitting."

"Thank you, Your Majesty."

Marguerite and Jacqueline bid farewell and left. Capt. Laurent was waiting for them in the corridor. "Would you ladies care to go for a walk in the gardens before lunch?" Jacqueline was thrilled to see him and accepted his invitation on their behalf.

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 13 of 35

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