The night was beautiful after all. The sky was a sharp black color, no feeling of dullness about it—it was something unfathomable, embracing and swallowing him at the same time. Stars winked in the distance, caught up in the blanket of night like glowing insects in a spider's web. And the air was savory, tangy with wood-smoke and fresh dirt on his tongue, sharp with welcome coolness on his skin.
He needed this air, after the warmth of those stables. For a moment, as his eyes had remained locked with hers, he had felt as if he was suffocating; he had become immediately aware that he was within inches of her, alone, in a warm, sweet-smelling shadowy place, twilight upon them. It had become so warm in the moments that followed that he had almost longed to shed his skin—shed everything he was, and just show her the depth of his soul, and touch hers, bare of all else—and so at last equal. He had wanted so desperately to settle his hands on her hips and taste her, and never come up for air again.
Standing on one of the parapets, looking out at the night, Henry shook his head, dispelling thoughts of her. Instead, he considered what she had said, and tried to put his thoughts and feelings into some semblance of order. The first thing he realized, almost instantly, was that he could never marry Marguerite, or invite her ilk into the royal family. After all, he had seen how they treated family. How any courtier could treat a member of her family with not only such unkindness, but such downright disrespect, appalled him.
He could not think of a more hideous moment in all his life than that in which Danielle had been forced to serve him his food and drink, and then been forced to tend the fire. He had not been able to help watching her as she arranged the wood, becoming more and more streaked with soot and dust. He had been about to put a stop to it, unable to stand it any longer—and then she had struck the match and lit the fire.
Seeing her limned in fire-light, all his powers of speech had slipped from him. He had been suddenly glad of her soot and dust; they were the only thing about her shining, beautiful form that had reminded him that she was real, not some dream from his deepest fantasy. And he had been glad because the fact that she had lit the fire that was illuminating her full, curved figure in such a warm and sensual light had reminded him that she was a servant. She was a commoner.
In that moment, he had seen in that moment what he really, truly wanted, and what he could never have. As such, he had better turn his energies and his interests to something he was allowed to love, something that would one day be his. He swore, in that moment, to marry himself to his country, to France. His best option—his only option, as far as he could see, was to ally with Spain. There could be no other love but that of his duty.
And his duty, he realized, was far greater than he had ever supposed. If he was really to devote himself to his country, to the good of his land, there would have to be drastic change. Yes, he was obligated to marry a woman he didn't like, to engage in activities that bored him, to take up a role he did not want—but as had been pointed out to him by a certain citizen earlier that night: the things he might do with that role!
Prince Henry slammed a hand down on the cool stone of the balustrade, ideas suddenly worming their way to the forefront of his brain and not only taking root, but flourishing rapidly. He didn't even bother going to bed that night. There was too much to think about, too much to plan for. Too much to dream about . . .
Bright and early the next morning, Prince Henry and his ever-present train of attendants were once again making their way to the manor of the de Ghents. When they neared the forecourts, he saw a figure working in the fields run into the manor, ostensibly to inform the inhabitants of the prince's approach. Recalling the scene that had greeted him after returning the horse he had stolen from the de Ghents, Henry rolled his eyes.
Thus it was that he was pleasantly surprised when the only one to greet him in the courtyard was Danielle, instead of the de Ghent daughters spilling out to fall over him with their brooches and feathers. He tried not to notice the how very different his feelings upon seeing her were than his feelings upon seeing them. As Henry dismounted Danielle once again knelt before him, her head bowed, saying merely, "Your Highness."
"Mademoiselle," he replied, nodding, and she rose in surprise. "Do you not attend church?" he continued.
She looked away. "My faith is better served away from the royal court," she said simply.
"But your step-mother and sisters—they are at church now, aren't they?" He paused for a moment. "Though not so much to serve their faith, if I may presume, as for the very reasons they attended the hunt yesterday. Don't you think?"
He said this without looking at Danielle, annoyed that the de Ghents had gone hoping to 'gawk' at him. At the same time he was relieved that they were removed from his presence, and strangely satisfied that both yesterday and today they had missed him. Danielle had said nothing in reply, but he could tell that she was hiding smiles. Smiling as well, Henry continued, "I'm bound for the monastery. The Franciscans have an astonishing library. Since you are so fond of reading, I thought that perhaps you might join me."
Danielle blinked, and afterwards regretted that her voice just then sounded very much like a squeak. "Me?"
Prince Henry positively grinned. "Yes, you. There are matters of business I wish to discuss with you."
Danielle shook her head, not understanding. "You wish," she started, "to discuss," she continued, "with me," she incredulously finished. She looked at him without comprehension. "Business?"
The prince was enjoying this. "Yes, business." Then he grinned at her slyly. "Contrary to popular belief, the plight of the everyday rustic doesn't bore me after all."
Danielle scowled. And then, almost petulantly: "What will I have to do?"
"To start with," Prince Henry chuckled, "you'll need to wash your face and get into that carriage over there. Simple enough?" He play-acted a little bow, and then suddenly flicked an arch glance at her. "Or am I interrupting something?" he asked, feigning innocence.
Danielle gave him a sardonic look and tossed her head, and five minutes later she was ensconced in their carriage as the prince followed on horse-back, in the direction of the monastery.
Prince Henry was in high spirits. Despite the fact that he had not slept at all the night before, he felt rejuvenated. His night of analysis had made several things clear to him, and with this new clarity, he had felt for the first time in his life as if he knew what to do, how to act. He might not get what he really wanted from life, but he was ready to accept that, move on, and make the best of things.
As they rode, he considered this, and a slight smile of satisfaction spread over his features. Everything seemed to be going his way, right down to the absence of the de Ghents. Scowling slightly at this though, Henry chewed his lower lip. He really should have said something about the de Ghents' treatment of Danielle the day before, but his mind had been preoccupied . . . And it would be nice for Danielle, he supposed, if he had done something about it today, but Henry was secretly relieved he didn't have to deal with it just yet. Once he married Spain and had gained some influence with his father, he would deal with the de Ghents and Danielle's position.
But just now he was preoccupied with his project, and he was able to look at the situation between Danielle and the de Ghents with objectivity. The de Ghents were merely extremely solid proof that blood, money, and power did not go hand in hand with justice, truth, and compassion, and it was becoming more and more obvious to him why so many of his people broke the laws. The laws were unjust in the first place—as More had so eloquently put it, the Crown made thieves, and punished them. . . or had it been Danielle who said that?
Henry suppressed half a smile. Danielle's ability to take an idea and run away with it, making it completely and emphatically her own, was the reason he needed her to achieve this project of his. The night before, overwhelmed by the sudden liberation he had felt as he considered all the good things he might do with his power as future king, he had suddenly remembered a phrase of hers: 'the world's possibilities', she had called them.
With instantaneous certainty he had realized that just as Danielle had helped him to turn over this new leaf of his, she might also help him nurture it. He had reviewed her ideas regarding the authorities and the concerns of the Crown and concluded she might be useful. Her love of books, words, and learning would be perfect in the implementation of the idea that had been brewing in the back of his mind . . . The idea towards which today, already, he was taking his first step. The prince was nearly giddy with expectation. He didn't realize that though he had been able to keep his thoughts away from her enchanting lips, thoughts of Danielle had still managed to put a most ridiculous grin onto his mouth.
Danielle's reaction to the monastery's library did not disappoint him. He heard her swift intake of breath, saw her chest rise, felt the sudden rush go through her. It took him aback, the intensity of it. He wished, for a brief moment, that he, just once in his life, might inspire such a reaction in such a woman. And such a woman she was . . .
Closing his eyes, he shook his head, and Danielle's voice broke into the disconcerting thoughts. "It makes me want to cry," she breathed, tracing the spine of a volume with a light finger.
Pride suddenly swelled within him, that he could give her this. It was sort of close, he supposed, to inspiring her the way she inspired him. "Pick one," he invited her.
"I could no sooner choose a favorite star in the heavens." Her voice was full of fervor.
He regarded her for a moment, marveling. She had described to him what it was about mere pages and ink that could interest her so, and yet her excitement now was just as engaging as it had been then. It was easily contagious, and his voice betrayed his eagerness. "What sort of books did your father read you?"
"Philosophy, science . . . anything he could get his hands on, really," she replied absently. She stepped down to the landing of the stair case, her attention still riveted to the tomes at hand.
"Perfect," he announced, and caught up both her hands in his to turn her to him.
She looked as if she was awaking from a dream. "What is?"
"You are. For my scheme," he expanded. His eyes fairly danced as puzzlement crossed her face. Finally, as if he could contain it no longer, he announced, "I want to build a university. And I want you to help me do it."
Danielle was stunned. "A university? What do you mean?"
"I want it to have the largest library on the continent, where anyone can study, no matter their station. Don't you see? It's the perfect answer to your More and your humanists. And your aspiring da Vincis and Donatellos. Anyone could attend, and over time the place will amass enough great thinkers to teach anyone and everyone anything they want to know. It will be a center of forward thinking, a haven for your artists, a forum for your philosophers . . ."
She felt overwhelmed, but not because of what he offered. It was the sight of him; she had never seen him so exuberant; he was almost . . . boyish. She didn't know whether it delighted her or distressed her, and if both, which feeling did it excite more? Not knowing what else to say, she finally stuttered, "But what do you want me for? I'm only a—"
"That's the best part," Henry went on, excited. "So, you're a commoner. Who cares?" He threw his hands up in the air. "The greatest painter, inventor, and scientist in the world is the bastard son of a peasant; he told me so himself. In Italy, the greatest artists were once street rabble. Did it make Michelangelo's 'School of Athens' any less great? Why should it be any different in France?"
"'The School of Athens' was Raphael, not Michelangelo," Danielle interjected.
"Speaking of which," Henry said contemplatively, "remind me to have that painting hung in the main hall of our university. It embodies the exact idea of it, and what more could you ask for than Socrates and Plato over-seeing the work there? I will model the whole thing after those Greek greats."
"You can't," Danielle replied, a treacherous smile creeping up the corner of her mouth.
"I can and will," Henry said decisively. "There's no one to stop me. I will one day be king, and I will have the power to change things. You said so yourself! I thought you of all people would—Why are you laughing like that?"
Hastily swallowing her giggles, Danielle told him playfully, "I was saying you can't have 'The School of Athens'. It's on a wall in the Vatican. The Pope wouldn't be pleased at having all his new rooms destroyed and hauled over to France. And anyway," Danielle continued, smile widening at the taken-aback look on his face, "I wasn't saying I wouldn't be useful to your 'scheme' because I am a commoner. I'm the one who thinks the Crown shouldn'tsuffer its people to be ill-educated." She paused a moment, and tilted her head, smirking. "Remember?"
He didn't rise to her challenge. Instead he merely gazed at her, and slowly raised a brow. "Yes, I remember," he replied, his voice low. "It was you who inspired the idea of the university in the first place."
Suddenly, Danielle felt self-conscious. She was pleased that all this time he really had been listening, that the lectures to which her run-away mouth had subjected him had not annoyed him, or even only been mere entertainment for him, but had been something he had listened to and thought about. And she was flattered that he was asking for her help; really, she was. But the way he was looking at her now—the tone in his voice . . .
For he was no longer the Crown Prince of France at all but a man; but it was more than that: he was no longer the idle and thoughtless aristocrat but an idealist willing to turn the country on its head in order to provide its people the knowledge and compassion they deserved . . . a man willing to risk everything to follow a beautiful, inspiring dream that tingled her right down to her toes. The passion and inspiration she had always thought she saw in him was pouring out of him and into her; she could feel his excitement radiating off of him as if in waves of heat, and it made her knees go weak. She wanted to melt in it, to go in the flow of it, to dance in it—being around Henry was like catching a fever. She knew her eyes were bright with the heat of it.
He was peering at her curiously. "Well then? Why don't you think you can help me?"
She met his eyes with embarrassment and chagrin. "I'm only a very good student, your Highness," she told him. "I'd be most fit for attending your university, not helping to build it."
"Why," he exclaimed, impulsively reaching for her hand again, "I'm not asking you to be the next Aristotle! I'm only asking for your advice. When I am king, I shall make you an advisor, and then you may quote More at me and call me arrogant as much as you like." He waited, chafing her hand in his and staring at her impatiently. "Well? You have to say yes. I am your prince, you know. If you're hesitating because you're a woman, I assure you, my other ministers will treat you with the highest respec—"
She snatched her hand out of his, his last comment making her forget the flutter in her heart at the words 'I am your prince'. "I don't hesitate because I am a woman," she said imperiously. "Boudicca never hesitated because she was a woman. Cleopatra never did. And if you are so keen on following Italy's example, I'll have you know the Medicis listen to their wives before they listen to their monarch's. You just keep that in mind." She lifted her head and regarded him with fiery eyes.
To hell with the Medicis. The woman before him could be a queen, if she so chose. He caught his breath at that. When he spoke, his voice was low. "Are you sure you didn't want to take up Aristotle's occupation after all?" he asked, tilting his head to one side. "You make an excellent teacher."
She hooked a grin at him. "And teach a whiney young ruler his history and metaphysics? No thank you."
He laughed at that, and they set to, making plans for his university.
A/N: -'School of Athens' is a painting by Raphael of the great Greek philosophers discussing and teaching. Ever After is a bit of a trick to place on a timeline, but my guess is the time frame is after 'School of Athens' was painted. If not, sorry ;o)
Thank you Ophelia-Rose; your review kicked my butt into posting this chapter.