4

A short while later, they were once again beside one another in the bed, now under the sheets, and there was a fresh pair of logs in the grate. Danielle lay on her stomach, her folded arms tucked against her sides and her eyes closed. Henry had convinced her to remain unclothed and had done the same himself. The sheets lay draped low across their hips, and she occasionally sighed with sleepy pleasure, smiling.

Her smiles prompted his, but the sight of her back muted his happiness. As he caressed it, he purposely avoided tracing the pink welts that marred her skin, but he could hardly ignore them; his fingertips ran over each bump, each reminder of her ill treatment. The darkened scars were cast in shadowed relief by the flickering yellow-orange firelight. He had chosen to let her sleep on the side of the bed closest to the fireplace, because her skin still held the faint texture of gooseflesh where his fingers ran over it, and he did not want her to be chilled during the night. He ran his thumb over her shoulder blade before returning to soothing her with long strokes that drifted from her neck to the soft curve of her bottom.

"Mother will be summoning her to the palace tomorrow noon," he said.

Danielle's brows pulled into a sleepy frown, but her eyes remained closed. "Her?"

"The Baroness."

The wrinkles between Danielle's brows remained.

"—and Marguerite, of course," Henry finished, immensely grateful that the sharp-faced young blonde woman was far away from them at that moment. She had eyes that reminded him of a wolf's, and he suppressed a shiver.

Danielle's expression smoothed out. "...oh. Yes." Unexpectedly, she smiled, and Henry blinked in surprise.

"What amuses you?" he asked.

Danielle's eyes opened, and there was genuine happiness in her expression. "For a moment, I didn't know who you meant." She laughed softly. "I'd completely forgotten all about her." Danielle rolled onto her side and smirked at him. "You have a way of driving out every bad memory, my lord."

Henry chuckled. "Good." He rested his hand on her hip. "She'll never be able to hurt you again. Tomorrow will be the last time you'll ever have to lay eyes on her. She lied to Mother, and so did Marguerite. Father has agreed to send them to the Americas."

Danielle lifted her head in horror. "No! Don't do that." At his frown of surprise, she pressed on. "They are unprepared for such a journey! They would be completely defenceless. Please, Henry. You must beg His Majesty to be lenient."

"How can you say that?" Henry asked, narrowing his eyes. "She beat you and mistreated you for years!"

Danielle sighed and placed her palm on his chest. "She only beat me once. She otherwise never raised a hand to me."

Henry scowled. "Once is more than enough. These are vicious scars."

Danielle gave a slight shake of her head. "You don't understand," she said quietly. "She has had a very difficult life." At Henry's incredulous stare, Danielle explained, "The Baroness has lost two husbands, and the second left her without a living, trapped at a remote country estate with three daughters and a houseful of servants to maintain. She could not afford to keep most of the servants, and so had to let them go, but the work never lessened. She and Marguerite and Jacqueline were accustomed to a softer life; they knew nothing of how to milk a cow, or till the ground, or gather herbs and berries from the woods. They were helpless; they needed me, they needed us to care for them."

Henry frowned. "I think perhaps you give them too much credit."

"No..." Danielle sighed. "You should have seen them. They were so terribly lost. And I knew how everything worked. Between Louise and Paulette and Maurice and I, we could sort it all out. Jacqueline tried to help, but she kept breaking the eggs when she went to gather them and she was hopeless in the kitchen. She cried when Louise spoke sharply to her, once, for getting soot in the dough. It was just easier to keep them upstairs while we did the day's work." Danielle's eyes closed. "The Baroness was terribly lonely, and afraid, and no longer a young woman, even if she had been able to put herself in the path of rich men. What hope did she have but to find Marguerite a wealthy husband? It was their only escape. The farm produces barely enough for us to buy seed for the next season; the Baroness was reduced to selling all of our furniture and tapestries to Le Pieu just to get by." Danielle's mouth pulled down in a frown. "Of course, she never told me she was selling my father's books and my mother's clothing...things just went missing while I was out in the fields."

Henry frowned, grasping that hateful woman's true situation for the first time. She and her daughters had always appeared finely dressed, but he saw now that she must have had to sell necessities to buy the garish jewelry and clothing that they wore. He wondered how many other courtiers were hiding poverty behind their appearance of wealth. It was a concerning question, for if France were not as well off as its nobles pretended to be, there was a deep weakness lurking amongst them. The country could hardly afford to finance another expensive war, but there were always threats and enemies encroaching on their borders and threatening the honest, hard-working folk who depended upon the protection of the Crown. He would need to discuss this with his father.

And he saw that sending two women to that distant continent, without a husband's or a father's protection, would leave them terribly exposed; he winced at the thought of what would likely become of them.

"Very well," he answered, and Danielle opened her eyes. "I will ask Father not to send them to the Americas. But Mother was insistent: the Baroness must be stripped of her rank and title."

"They must not be left paupers, either," Danielle said, taking his hand with her own. "Please, Henry. Punish them if you must, but do not reduce them to a life without hope or dignity. She did take care of me these past ten years. I am an orphan. She could have pushed me out to fend for myself, but she gave me a roof, and food."

He frowned. "She used you ill," he insisted, "and it is your roof, too. It was your father's estate; thus it is half yours."

"I am not sure it works that way for daughters," Danielle said. "The Baroness was his wife; it all fell to her when he died."

"But you are his only child," Henry protested. "Blood trumps all else."

Danielle shrugged. "You would know the law better than I."

Henry frowned; he was not certain. If Danielle had been a son—but she was only a woman, and women generally were not permitted to own property. Except in such a case, where there were no sons. But was she right? Would her step-mother have become the legal owner of all her father's property?

He gave Danielle a pained smiled. "Is this another example of how I first make criminals and then punish them?"

"My lord?"

"The Crown suffers laws that disenfranchise women, so women should not be held to the same standards as men?"

Danielle's eyes burned. "We have no rights of our own to property, we can only be educated at home and by the permission of our fathers, and we cannot pursue a profession or a trade. How then can the standards ever be the same?"

"But there is the moral law that applies to all, male or female."

"True, but she did as best she could," Danielle repeated. "I do not wish to see her harmed."

Henry shifted his jaw in annoyance, but finally nodded. "She should still be punished for beating you and for selling you! Le Pieu must also be made to pay."

Danielle's brows drew down. "I have no love for the man, but he did enable us to keep going long after the Baroness had drained my father's credit. If Le Pieu hadn't bought most of the items in our house, we would have fallen into poverty much earlier."

"How can you be so lenient?" Henry asked, frustrated.

"Why are you so vengeful?" she retorted, fixing him with a look, and he finally sighed and shook his head in reproach. "Henry," she said, her voice quieter now, "I wish to be free of them. Holding the wrongs they've done me, turning them over and over in my mind—they are not worth the anguish. Because of your position, any punishment we can devise would be of a devastating and permanent nature, and I do not want the weight of their future sufferings on my conscience. I agree that they should not be allowed to walk away without consequence, but they will suffer in their own ways. Le Pieu will never be able to hide the scar on his cheek and will never wish to admit that he received it at a woman's hand. He knows that if he ever moves against you or me, his shame will be exposed. Likewise, the Baroness and Marguerite will be forever excluded from court life, never permitted to attain those heights again. They will become personae non gratae. For them, it is a harsh punishment indeed. You needn't make it worse."

Henry gave a slow nod and looked down at Danielle's hand. He turned his palm over to weave his fingers with hers.

"Very well," he said. "But when tomorrow's audience with them comes, you must speak for them. I can assure you that no one else will."

"I agree," she replied. "But what will become of Jacqueline? She deserves no punishment. She has never spoken an unkind word to me."

Henry chuckled. "Don't fear. I have it on good authority that Laurent has taken a fancy to her."

"Really?" Danielle's eyes twinkled. "Oh, how lovely!" She smiled and gave a soft giggle, drawing her hand away from his to press her fingers to her lips in delight. "Oh, yes..."

Henry grinned. Danielle's eyes drifted closed, and her smiled softened. Reaching for her, he drew her close and returned to caressing her back. The welts now made him think of her grace and kindness; her generosity of spirit, her wisdom, and her beauty of soul. He was a fortunate man indeed. With her beside him, he could lead France with deft insight, with a voice of reason that surpassed the initial rush of emotions, and saw the true causes and the just solutions. The high callings that the priests had always lectured him about took on a new quality. They were no longer mere ideals—"Love thy enemy" and other such fantastical statements—but a kind of wisdom that made healing and wholeness possible, in a way that vengeance never could. Even one's enemies were human and in need of a measure of grace.

Henry snorted softly to himself. He had been in desperate need of grace, and she had shown it to him. How was he any different? The wounds he had inflicted on her were less visible, but they were no less painful, and as he held her gently now, he let himself hope that he had atoned for them.

Whatever happened at the Baroness's audience on the morrow, Danielle had already made her peace. Henry closed his eyes and prayed for a similar grace. Although the scars on her back would remain visible for many years, he wanted to be able to hold her and touch her without the taint of anger boiling under his skin—either anger at himself, or anger at those who had more directly inflicted the wounds.

As he imagined the next day, he smiled at the thought of how the court would react to the presentation of Danielle as his bride. They would be curious, but she would undoubtedly win most of them over before the day was out. They would come to love her just as he did. He resolved to have Laurent arrange for all of the servants in the Baroness's household to come to the palace later in the day. Danielle should be free to celebrate with those she loved, those who knew her well, and he looked forward to meeting them properly. He would thank that young man, Gustave, for making sure she was freed from her imprisonment on the night of the masque.

Henry recalled Gustave's painting on the day he had met the young man out in the field near Danielle's home. It really had been quite nice, a well-balanced landscape portrait with the manor offset and hazy in the morning's light. Perhaps Gustave could apprentice with Leonardo.

Thoughts of apprenticeships led to thoughts of how to enable more peasants to qualify for a university entrance. It seemed an insurmountable problem. And what of the nobility? Danielle was right: they would probably oppose anything that enabled the upward mobility of the lower classes. But Henry was unwilling to compromise his vision. This university must be a place where it was possible for anyone to study. He frowned. Anyone? Earlier, the thought of sending women to university would have seemed an outlandish jest, but Danielle was a fascinating counterexample. He could see her thriving in such a place, her love of books inspiring even the driest of tutors to fits of rapture. He smiled.

Danielle sighed against his neck, her warm breath running over his skin, and as he looked down at her, he realised that she had fallen asleep. He shifted and pressed a soft kiss to her forehead. Then, smiling to himself, he drew the covers up over them both and drifted off.


Author's Notes

I'd like to thank my three betas, Jamie, Jean, and Eowyn77, who have provided me with invaluable corrections and suggestions for improvement. Reviewer peski0piksi also prompted a great addition to the story. Thanks also to Drew Barrymore, Dougray Scott, Susannah Grant, Andy Tennant, and Rick Parks, who breathed fresh life into these familiar characters. Finally, thank You, Lord, for stories and inspiration and sex and love and philosophical debates. There is so much fun to be had in this universe You've created!

I do not own any Ever After: A Cinderella Story properties, nor do I make any money from the writing of this story.

Characters and situations, created by Susannah Grant, Andy Tennant, and Rick Parks, are taken from Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998) © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

This story is released under the GPL/CC BY: verbatim copying and distribution of this entire work are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided attribution is preserved.