If anyone ever found out Queen Eleanor had clandestine meetings with a whore, much of the kingdom would be scandalized. There were those, however, who would understand, especially fellow females. And while she could have sent her maid to obtain the necessary information, Eleanor felt it imperative to go herself so no detail would be missed.
On the day she married Edward and became queen, her own vow flowed beneath the marriage words: Eleanor would never become pregnant, would never carry a child in her womb destined to be forced by the whims of men and their kingdom games.
Now she breathed a sigh of relief during her visit to the chamber pot and was again thankful in her heart for Nicola, an unlikely ally--the most well-known, respected woman in the brothel. Nicola, who gave her the concoction and who instructed her how to fill her body with it nightly to repel Edward’s efforts to create an heir.
Eleanor paused for a moment in front of the window, relishing the fact that, for the next few days, she would not be required to respond to Edward’s touch when the lights were extinguished. She had once again escaped motherhood and with just a bit more time, Nicola promised to provide a more permanent solution.
She turned when her faithful maid, Linota, rushed into the room, the maid’s expression pained. “Milady, your brother is here and wishes to speak with you.”
Eleanor’s heart clenched. “Send him in.” Her brother, Morcant, liked to catch her off guard. Time spent with him was never pleasant.
Morcant strode into the room, his usual smug smile in place. A young woman trailed behind him, her eyes downcast. Morcant’s sharp eyes swept the room and narrowed as they came to rest on his sister. “Leave us, Linota,” he commanded. The maid hurried from the room, casting an apologetic glance at Eleanor.
“I’ve come to check on you, sister. I’ve not yet heard word of you being in the way to provide Edward an heir.”
Eleanor straightened her shoulders. “Things have not progressed as quickly as we had hoped, Morcant. But it has not been very long. I myself am not worried, and Edward has not spoken of it.” Eleanor's face was calm, but she trembled inside, questioning once again how long her temporary solution would hold.
Morcant crossed the room, his face tempestuous, and grabbed Eleanor by her upper arm. She didn’t allow herself to flinch.
“I hear otherwise, Eleanor. That if you have your way, there will never be a baby.” He tightened his grip, and now Eleanor could not help her face from contorting. “That will not work, Eleanor. I will not allow you to create dissension in the alliance between Edward and me because of your petty woman ways.”
“I cannot imagine where you heard such things, Morcant.”
“Your daftness is very unbecoming, Eleanor. You forget I meet with whores also.” His smile grew. “They are always happy to see me coming.”
Morcant released her arm. “And, as you can imagine, they reveal more to royalty than just their bodies, hoping for some special favors from the throne. There is a particularly young, tasty one residing there now, and she was foolish enough to disclose what she had overheard about the Queen. ”
Heat flared in Eleanor’s chest. “And what does Agnes think of your dalliances?”
“Don’t be silly. Agnes, as most women, does not think at all, or very little. She is only preoccupied with keeping her seat beside me. You would do well to emulate Agnes.” He gestured to the young woman standing behind him, who still had not raised her eyes. “I’ll check back soon, Eleanor. In the meantime, I’m leaving Ursula here with you.” Morcant took a lock of the girl’s hair in his hand; he tugged it lightly, but Ursula remained motionless. “I can only spare her for a short time, though. She’ll be keeping a close eye on you, ensuring you are no longer defiling yourself with a whore’s amalgam to deprive Edward of his heir. If things haven’t changed by the time I return, I’ll inform Edward and he might choose to take more. . .aggressive measures.”
“I have Linota as my maid.”
“Not anymore. I’ve dismissed Linota. I spoke with Edward and relayed my concerns about her. She strikes me as one too opinionated to wait on the queen. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must get some rest. I’ll dine with the king in the morning, and then I owe my new friend in town another visit tomorrow before I journey home. Should I pass along your regards to Nicola while I’m there?”
Morcant winked as he left the room, and Eleanor shuddered. She thought briefly of giving up, having a baby. It was exhausting: stuffing herself with the mixture (imagining herself to be much like the fat birds that lay on the feast table), enduring the long nights when Edward was amorous, and waiting, hoping Nicola’s gift had worked once again.
But then she thought of Edward, his sweaty odor, his meaty breath, and her required submission to it all. Her resolve strengthened again. The compulsion to protect a child who would never be born hummed through her.
When the door closed behind Eleanor's brother, Ursula stared at it for several moments. She surprised Eleanor then by stepping forward and holding out her hand. “A note from Nicola.”
Eleanor remained still. “And why should I trust you, my brother’s little spy?”
Ursula continued to hold out her hand. “I want nothing more than to distance myself from your brother. Permanently, if at all possible.” She reached up to pull the fabric of her dress away from her neck, revealing a series of dark bruises. Her gaze remained fixed on Eleanor.
Eleanor’s face softened. She took the note and skimmed it. She would meet Nicola under the cover of nightfall.
Eleanor was struck once again by Nicola’s stateliness as the woman moved in softly rustling skirts toward her. Authority wrapped itself around each of her words. “I apologize for the loose mouth of my girl. They are often silly and attention-seeking when they are young. She will change as she ages. The doctor is attending to her injuries now.”
“He is a sniveling, power-hungry, cowardly man. But also a dangerous one. I have a proposition that will help us both.” Nicola held out a small parcel. “Have the girl, Ursula, visit the kitchen tomorrow morning before the food and drink are carried out to your brother. Four drops will be sufficient.”
Eleanor looked at the offering. “It seems a drastic step.” She lowered her head. “ I’m sorry. I know you must think me pampered, spoiled, and cowardly as well.”
Nicola shook her head. “We are all under someone in this kingdom. At least your husband is only a customary king, using the pawns that have always existed to maintain control. Morcant, however, is something very different. The diabolical lurks in him. I have seen it. My girls have felt it. Again and again.”
There was a flash in Eleanor’s mind as thoughts collided like fireflies. “You always planned to ask me this.”
“I knew it was always a possibility. We cannot carry out the plan in the brothel. The pain your brother has caused there is too well known, and suspicions would be aroused.” Nicola’s smile emerged. “When your maid goes to the kitchen, have her bring back peeled onions to your room. Use them to prolong your tears. Your mourning period for your brother will be up to you. Edward will not call you in, out of respect for the dead. I promise to help you again, Queen Eleanor, when the feasibility of that period passes. And do not forget my oath of a more permanent solution.”
She handed Eleanor the parcel. The Queen reached out to grasp Nicola’s hand for a moment before she could turn away.
Then she hurried through the blackest night to hide the parcel until morning when she could repay Nicola for the gifts she had provided. For although circumstances saddled her with the title of whore, to Eleanor, Nicola is nature’s sister, and a Lady.
In the morning, soon after the sun yawns and stretches its beams into the sky, soon after the cries ring out through the castle and the apothecary is called too late, Eleanor inhales the sharp scent of onion and smiles.