The King's Move
He stood in the doorway of the castle compound in Reims. Inside the great hall his guests gathered and before him, he witnessed the sunshine pouring over the courtyard. King Henry thought of his new betrothed, the beautiful Kievan Princess Anna Yaroslanva who arrived just a few days ago. She was more than he expected…much more. She exhilarated and terrified him at the same time. As King, he never anticipated a woman being his equal, even a queen, but Anna proved to be better than him in so many aspects, even twenty years his junior.
Taking a deep breath, King Henry watched his young adviser Count Raoul de Valois escort his wife to a waiting carriage. Throughout the last couple days, he noticed Princess Anna’s interest in Raoul, but couldn’t put his finger on it. She didn’t regard him with a lady’s swooning desire, and yet her eyes always followed him.
Despite his attempts at being a noble knight, Raoul always wore the traits of a rascal – large mischievous eyes, which always seemed to be surveying the area for attack, a wily smirk indicating he was in possession of a private joke and a sobering silence, knowing exactly when to speak to make the ultimate impression. For a King, having such a man’s loyalty was a prize, but what kind of woman found all this appealing? He wondered.
Unlike anyone in his court, Princess Anna spoke several languages, as well as read and write. She recounted tales from the ancients and proved herself fit and fierce on a hunt. A nerve struck his spine, causing him to shudder. Raoul and his Princess both carried a ferocity he forgot as King. He lost his fight long ago, now all he could hang onto was the wisdom of age and he wondered anxiously if his acumen could manage the romantic meanderings of his future young queen.
He stood in the doorway a foolish king, and then decided best to get to the heart of the princess’ passions, but addressing Raoul. “Count de Valois!” he yelled out.
Raoul turned toward King Henry, quietly awaiting further instruction.
“I want to ask you about Princess Anna!” King Henry shouted for all nearby to hear.
Raoul waved goodbye to his wife seated inside carriage, shut the door and gestured for the driver to carry onward so he could address the King in private. “What about the Princess?” he asked.
King Henry walked to meet him, standing before him he noticed Raoul standing a few inches taller and his posture straighter. He took a moment to take in the nobleman’s appearance – nothing notable, longish dark hair, clean shaven and his light-colored eyes gleaming over a sun-tanned face. He could only imagine how he appeared in contrast – older, grayer…rounder. “You escorted the Princess through the Empire. I was wondering your thoughts about her.”
Stiffening his posture, Raoul looked earnestly into the somber eyes of his King. “With all due respect, it is your opinion of her that matters, not mine.”
King Henry laughed. “Wise answer. Political answer.” An excitable grin crossed his face. “I think she is exquisite.”
“May I speak frankly, Your Majesty?”
“You tried to usurp me and yet you are now one of my trusted knights. I have come to expect your honesty.”
Raoul dared to take a step toward his King. “Your Majesty…Henry,” he started in a softer tone to appease to the man, not to the king, “a vase is exquisite, a piece of jewelry is exquisite. You saw her take down the full-grown buck during the hunt. You saw her archery prowess during the tourney. Henry, your princess is exceptional.”
King Henry stepped back. A lump formed in his throat and as he swallowed and he felt it all the way down to his stomach. She was exceptional and he was a mediocre king. All he could do was nod in response.
“As your adviser,” Raoul continued, “I suggest you not only look for her to provide you an heir, but as a partner to cement your legacy here in France. Women such as Anna do not sit well on shelves. You will be wise to empower her, as you did me. Think of her not as a figurine, but a noble warrior to be knighted.”
Raoul’s response sparked inspiration in King Henry. Yes, Princess Anna was more than just a wife in which to breed, she had the heart of a warrior, so why not treat her as such. He looked up into the eyes of his noble and placed his hands on his shoulders. “And as my adviser, I must ask you one special request.”
“What is that?” Raoul asked.
“She seems to have developed a rapport with you,” King Henry said.
Raoul shrugged, yet rapport would be an understatement and he wasn’t sure how much the king suspected. He and the Princess did nothing to be considered disloyal, nothing that would illicit condemnation, but they often shared moments of light flirtation and even deep discussions relating to the heart. “She is quite personable. I see her developing rapport with many in your court.”
“But you, you…I see she looks to you as…well, as a brother, as if you are kin,” King Henry said.
“Yes. Exactly. She sees me as a brother,” Raoul said asserting it to his King while trying to believe it himself.
“I’d like you to attend to her at court,” King Henry said. “The Princess and future Queen will need French advisors, ones she can trust. She can trust you, can she not?”
Raoul looked at his King, seeing the shrewdness in his eye and understood fully. This new mission granted was one to put himself front and center before the King and his court. “The Princess can depend on my loyalty,” he said, and then mounted his horse and gazed down at King Henry. “As can you, Your Majesty. God smiled his fortune upon you.” He kicked the flanks of his horse and rode away.
King Henry watched Raoul and his horse disappear around a curve in the road. A smile crossed his face. Many thought of him to be weak and foolish, and yet he knew a master chess player carefully scrutinized all the pieces on the board, knowing each’s roles and limitations. As King, he just moved to secure his Queen, keeping the fancied knight constantly in his sight.