Continuing Tales

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 19 of 35

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In Pursuit of Ever After

Nicole had had a very busy morning. She had changed her clothes four or five times. She got dressed by two different maids. She had made several appearances as herself, alternating with brief appearances as Danielle. She had just changed back into Danielle's dress and went for a quick walk in the garden. She was getting worried. It was past midmorning and she didn't know when Danielle would return. Surely she had made enough appearances as Danielle and could change back into herself until they returned. Suddenly, she heard someone calling Danielle's name. She turned around and saw that Marguerite was almost upon her. 'Oh no,' she thought, 'surely Marguerite will see that I am not Danielle,' she smiled at Marguerite.

"Danielle, I just wanted to say goodbye and God speed on your journey," Marguerite said to Nicole, apparently not noticing anything amiss.

"Thank you, Marguerite. I must be going, I need to change before we leave," said Nicole, amazed that Danielle's step-sister couldn't tell them apart. She had carefully avoided her brothers and mother when dressed as Danielle, knowing she wouldn't be able to fool them.

A few moments after they parted Nicole heard the Queen say, "Marguerite, have you seen Danielle? I have been chasing after her all morning, but I cannot seem to find her." Nicole sped up.

"Yes, Your Majesty, she is right over there. I just spoke with her." Marguerite pointed to Nicole's retreating back.

The Queen called out to her, "Danielle!"

'Could I pretend I didn't hear her?' wondered Nicole as someone tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention.

It was the Marquis de Limoges; he looked at her oddly, perhaps wondering why she hadn't heard the Queen calling her. "The Queen is calling to you, my lady."

"Oh, thank you," said Nicole with a nervous smile as she turned around. "Good morning, Your Majesty," she curtseyed, keeping her eyes lowered.

The Queen came up to her, "Good morning, Danielle. I have been looking for you. Please come with me to my apartments." She took Nicole by the arm and sailed off, giving her no choice but to follow. She did not speak until they were in the Queen's bedchamber and her ladies had been dismissed. "What is going on?" she demanded.

"Your Majesty?" Nicole stalled.

The Queen raised her eyebrows, but said nothing.

Nicole squirmed, "I was just about to go change my clothes."

"Where is Danielle and why are you wearing her dress? Nicole? Do you really think you can fool me?" the Queen probed, wondering what the girls were up to.

"Danielle asked me to," she admitted.

"Danielle asked you to dress as her and try to fool people? Whyever would she do that? Where is she, Nicole?" she demanded, her suspicions growing.

Nicole swallowed hard, "Forgive me, Your Majesty. Marguerite didn't notice."

"Where is she, Nicole?" she was growing alarmed at Nicole's evasive answers.

Taking a deep breath she took the plunge, "Danielle is with Prince Henry, Your Majesty."

The Queen's eyes widened in alarm, "Why are you dressed as Danielle? Where are they?" the Queen thought back to the last time she remembered seeing Henry: yesterday at the wedding breakfast; Danielle: shortly after the breakfast. The Queen's suspicions grew into full fledged alarm, realizing she hadn't seen them since yesterday.

"I d-do not know where they are, Your Majesty. D-Danielle asked me to cover for her so she wouldn't be missed," she stammered.

The Queen collapsed into a nearby chair. "When did you last see them? They have run away?" she asked faintly.

"They promised they would be back before it was time for us to leave. They left yesterday afternoon, just as the sun was setting, Your Majesty."

"They have been gone nearly an entire day?" She stood up and went to the door, speaking to someone outside. "Please find the King and tell him I must see him immediately," she closed the door and turned back to Nicole. "Who else knows they are gone?"

"I do not know if they told anyone else. I have told no one."

"Well, I hope you are right, and they are planning to come back. If not, we have a serious problem."

The King entered, "What is this serious problem, Marie? Lady Nicole?"

The Queen was surprised the King had so quickly identified Nicole correctly.

"Francis, please sit down and do not have a stroke when I tell you this. Henry and Danielle are missing. They have been gone since yesterday afternoon! Nicole assures me they planned on coming back this morning, but they are not here. I am terribly afraid they may not return…Well, say something Francis. What are we to do, call out the guard?"

The King was very calm, much to the consternation of the two ladies watching him. "Marie, they will be back," he assured her.

"How can you be sure? They are so in love!" the Queen wailed. "They have run off to be together."

"Because, Henry gave me his word they would return before midday today," the King informed her.

The Queen turned towards him in shock, "Henry gave you his word?" She walked up to him, "You knew? You knew before they left?"

"Henry came to me yesterday. He told me that he and Danielle were going to spend some quiet time together to say goodbye. He promised that they would be back before midday and that Danielle would remain innocent and marriageable, as long as we didn't raise an alarm and start a search that might tarnish her reputation. I believe him. I trust him. I trust them, Marie."

The Queen was speechless.

Nicole was shocked that the King had known all along. That might make the Queen less angry with her, she thought hopefully.

The Queen said to Nicole, "What was Danielle wearing?"

"Her green riding dress, Your Majesty," Nicole offered.

"Well then, go change into yours, and pray they come back soon. You may go, Nicole."

"Thank you, Your Majesties," she curtseyed and fled the room.

"Oh Francis, I do hope you are right. I fear that their good intentions may not prevail when the reality of their separation hits them this morning."

"I better be, Marie, or we will have a crisis on our hands when the wedding party arrives tomorrow."

The King sent for the Duc de LeVey. When he arrived, the King explained the situation and asked him to take his sister out for a ride in the direction of Amboise. If they happened to meet Henry and Danielle they should all return together. The Duc and his sister were to wear cloaks and leave directly from the stables to avoid being seen leaving.

Antoine was alarmed for his cousin. What a foolish risk they had taken! Danielle risked everything: her reputation- her very future. The Prince couldn't marry her, so if it were discovered they had sneaked out of the castle- alone and overnight- she would be completely ruined. She would never be able to marry. Never be received anywhere. The more he thought about it, the more furious he became. The Prince had risked nothing, but he had put Danielle's future in great jeopardy. He tried to conceal his displeasure from the King and agreed that having he and Nicole meet them on the return ride was the best chance they had of saving Danielle's reputation. He was suddenly glad they were leaving today.

Half an hour into their ride the Duc spotted them. "Here they come, Nicole."

They joined together, greeting each other with relief. "The King sent us out to meet you, Your Highness. The four of us arriving together should not cause any comment. Especially since Danielle and Nicole have both been seen this morning at Hautefort," he looked pointedly at his sister, "somehow."

Henry, Danielle and Nicole all laughed at that bit of news. The Prince and the Duc fell in together, the girls following behind. They arrived at Hautefort without much speculation, although no one could recall having seen the party ride out.

After they dismounted, the Duc told the girls, "We will be leaving in about an hour. Danielle, the Queen wished to see you when we returned."

Danielle looked up at Henry, "I am sure to be in for a scolding."

Henry said, "I am coming with you, don't make yourself uneasy." With that, he took her arm and they headed slowly up to the Queen's apartments. It was common knowledge that the Comtesse and her family were leaving today, and generally accepted that the Prince and Comtesse were in love. On that account, not a single person interrupted them as they walked through Hautefort to see his mother.

It made all of the young ladies of the court sigh wistfully. The Prince was sacrificing his truelove for his obligations. It was a case of pure, courtly love, destined to be unfulfilled: the stuff of romantic tragedies and troubadour stories.

As they approached the Queen's apartments, Danielle became increasingly anxious. The Queen had been nothing but loving, accepting and generous to her and she had let the Queen down. They were expected and the guards opened the doors as they approached. Henry squeezed Danielle's hand in support and smiled into her eyes as they entered.

"Good morning, Mother," Henry then noticed his father in the room as well, "Father."

Danielle curtseyed, "Your Majesties," keeping her eyes lowered. She was afraid to see a look of disappointment or disgust on the Queen's face.

She was surprised when the Queen enveloped them both into a warm, welcoming embrace.

"Oh! Thank goodness you are back! I have been so worried! Henry! How could you have run off like that? It was a foolish, dangerous thing to do," she scolded. "What if something had happened? Are you all right?" this last comment was made directly to Danielle.

"Yes, Your Majesty, we are fine. I am sorry that you were concerned." She couldn't say she was sorry for running off, but she was sorry the Queen was upset.

"Danielle, I hope you know that I love you, as if you were my daughter, but something like this must never happen again. Do you understand? We women must be the strong and sensible ones. Sometimes we must stand firm against our men's foolish notions. Riding off into the night together, alone?"

Danielle felt as if she had failed to live up to the Queen's expectations and was miserable. A beating or a harsh scolding she was used to, but disappointment from someone she cared for was far worse. "I am sorry," she whispered tearfully.

"Mother, it is not fair to blame Danielle for this. It was my idea, and I was not taking 'no' for an answer. She didn't have a choice. It was she who insisted we tell someone so you knew we would be back. As for this not happening again; Danielle is leaving today, so obviously it won't. If you wish to scold someone, let it be me. It will have to wait, though; she is leaving in an hour and I am not leaving her side until then," Henry declared.

"Very well. Danielle, there are some people waiting in your room to bid you farewell. We will see you in the courtyard in an hour," the Queen relented.

Danielle and Henry left and went to her room where they found Gustave, Maurice, Louise and Paulette waiting. They had a tearful round of goodbyes and well wishes, after which Henry and Danielle went for a walk. It was a chilly early December day and few were outside. They walked around the gardens, talking quietly.

Too soon, they saw Danielle's cousins gathering in the courtyard and the horses being brought around. Danielle found it hard to breathe, a lump in her throat. Her eyes brimming with tears, she turned to him, wishing he would take her into his arms again.

"I will love you forever, Henry," she whispered, a few tears escaping.

"…and I you, Danielle," Henry said gently, leaning close to her. He kissed her on the forehead and wiped her tears away with his thumbs. Taking a long breath he said, "Come, now it is time."

He took her hand and they walked out of the gardens towards Danielle's waiting family. They were so focused upon each other that they were completely unaware of the scores of people who were watching their last minutes together from the castle windows. Floods of letters detailing the Prince's poignant farewell with his truelove were destined to be written that day.

When they reached the family, Danielle was surprised to see dozens of courtiers pouring into the courtyard to see her family off. Henry was accustomed to having his every movement watched, so he knew they were there to see them say goodbye to each other.

The King and Queen bid farewell to the Duc, the Duchess and Danielle's cousins.

The King said, "Danielle, if you ever need anything, anything at all, you only need to send word. Anything in this world I would give to you if it is within my power."

"Thank you," Danielle said tearfully, remembering Henry saying nearly the exact same thing earlier at Amboise. She was overwhelmed. The King of France offering her anything she ever needed. The only thing she needed was the one thing he couldn't give her. Henry.

The Queen embraced her, "Don't ever forget how much we love you, Danielle. Please write to me often, dear. I am going to miss you so."

"Thank you, I shall miss you, too. I will write," Danielle promised, so overwhelmed she could barely speak.

With a final, shuddering breath, Danielle turned to say goodbye to Henry. He took her hand in his and led her to her horse. "Goodbye Henry," she said, her voice trembling. Somehow she managed to keep the tears swimming in her eyes from spilling over. No one gasped in outrage this time they heard her use his name.

"Goodbye Danielle," he returned after a moment. They looked intently into each other's eyes, fully aware of their audience. Henry put his hands around her waist and lifted her carefully into her saddle. As he let go and stepped back, his heart stopped beating. He watched, tormented, as the party readied to depart, taking his heart with them, leaving an aching void.

Danielle nearly began sobbing when Henry's hands fell away and he stepped back. She had lost the love of her life; now she had to ride out of his castle, his life. As she was center stage, she must hold her composure together until they cleared the gates.

As the Duc started, everyone waved; everyone, except for Henry and Danielle, who just stared at each other. The moment hung in time- a portrait to love.

Danielle heard Nicole say softly, "Come Danielle, it is time to go." She started her horse walking, following her family from Hautefort.

When they had cleared the gate, Henry went quickly inside and headed for the highest lookout point in the castle. He wanted to keep her in sight as long as possible. When they had disappeared from view he sat down against the stone wall and hung his head. He couldn't…couldn't…well, just couldn't. Couldn't what? Lose hope? Believe? Live? Go on? Believe she was really gone? Just…couldn't.

The King came up to the lookout. Standing next to Henry, he said, "If ever I met a woman worth fighting a war over, it was Danielle. I'm sorry, Henry. I wished things had worked out differently."

By the time they had cleared the gates, Danielle's tears flowed freely. She was working hard to not have a complete breakdown. The grief and heartache were unbearable. The lack of sleep made it impossible for her to keep the tears at bay. She was thankful that Nicole didn't try to talk, but just respected her privacy as much as was possible riding along side by side.

After an hours ride, they reached the place on the river where they were to board a barge to take them to Bordeaux. From Bordeaux they would take a larger ship and sail up France's Atlantic coast to Dieppe. Danielle knew the entire trip would take two to three weeks.

When they dismounted and boarded the first barge, Danielle was relieved to be able to sit alone in a corner, staring out at the water and finally let herself cry. Everyone left her alone as the barge slowly sailed west towards the ocean. Away. Away.

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 19 of 35

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