Lady Thief Page 63

He smiled back at me, fingers dragging along my hand as I let him go. Winchester kissed my hand, and I went to find Eleanor.

She weren’t where I had seen her. Instead Isabel were there, frowning at me. “Lady Leaford,” she said.

“Your Highness,” I said, nodding my head to her.

“Eleanor has called for you. She went to say good night to my husband but asked you to escort her back to her rooms.”

I looked to the royal table, where Eleanor stood beside Prince John.

“That was a disgusting display this afternoon,” she told me, folding her arms. “You may as well have spat in Guy’s face.”

My eyes drifted shut and I shook my head. “Excuse me, your Highness.”

I went to the side of the royal table and waited. Eleanor nodded to me and came closer, and I curtsied low to her. “Up, up, my dear,” she told me. I stood, and she twined our arms together, clasping my hand. “Come,” she said. “You shall walk me to my rooms and ask me your many questions.”

Dumb, I stared at her.

“You do have questions, don’t you?”

“Most that I’m frightened to ask,” I said.

She laughed. “Fear. Something I have yet to see from you, Lady Leaford.”

“That title’s not mine, is it?”

She drew in a breath, and it made her look older as we moved into the dark hallway, lit by torches and moon. “No. The lord and lady Leaford are not your natural parents.”

“Who are?”

“A very beautiful blacksmith’s daughter, and my son. King Richard the Lionhearted.”

I stared at her, her proud chin, her white neck, her clear, steady blue gaze. The moon made her pale skin look like she belonged to the other world. “I’m your granddaughter.”

Her fingers squeezed mine. “You are.”

“But Prince John—he hates me.”

Her eyebrow arched high. “Well. My children cleave very close or hate very powerfully. It’s only because Richard teased him so as a child. It isn’t your fault.”

“How does he know who I am, and I don’t?”

She sighed. “He was near when it happened. Terrible penchant for eavesdropping, that boy. He knew it all from the start.”

“Why did he send Gisbourne to marry me?”

“Because my John controlled Isabel, and since he was very young, Gisbourne loved Isabel. He never had the status to marry her, of course, and when she married, Gisbourne followed her. And John took full advantage of such a connection. You see, Richard was never meant to inherit the throne. He had two older brothers, but death befell them both. When Richard was crowned, John wasn’t happy—he and Richard hardly got along. John knew about you—he wanted some way to control his brother, even a small one. So he ordered Gisbourne to marry you. John is many terrible things, but he is a master manipulator.”

“That’s no good thing,” I told her.

Her head tilted. “It can be. A king must see not just the hills before him, but the length of the road at large. John can see many roads at once; he understands how long it can take to achieve a goal. When he has a good heart, he can be a masterful ruler. But without it, impatience and selfishness cause him to use his gifts poorly.”

A cold weight circled my heart. “He can never be king.”

Eleanor frowned. “He will be king, Marian. I wish I could keep Richard as king forever, and I will keep him there as long as I can, but he is like his brothers—too good, proud, and brave for a long life. John is careful; he will outlive Richard, and he will take the throne. I just need to make sure that when he does, he becomes the extremely capable ruler he should be. And that he doesn’t so alienate the common opinion in the meantime that they riot when he’s crowned.”

“You have such faith in him,” I marveled.

“He is my son,” she said, pushing her shoulders back. “He has my steel inside of him. And that steel must be tempered more carefully than any sword. Perhaps I spent too much time on his older siblings and not enough on him as a child, but his family will rule Europe. He will learn.” She shook her head. “But it is not him I wish to speak of. Tell me why you ran from the Leafords. Were they unkind to you? I had many spies there, watching their treatment of you, but I confess I couldn’t see you myself.”

“No. They were loving and true. They raised me very well. And my sister—my sister Joanna, she was everything I could have wanted for love.” My voice went rough, and she squeezed my hand.

“You lost her.”

I nodded. “We ran to London together. We both—we did things, to live. Different things. I stole.”

“She fell ill?” Eleanor guessed.


“Why did you not go to a noble family for shelter? To court?” she asked. “A noblewoman—any woman—should never be refused such.”

“They would have sent us back.”

“So if it was not your family you feared, what was it?”

“Gisbourne,” I whispered to her. “I were—I was so young, so unready to be married. And he terrified me. There was a darkness I saw in him, and I fled. And she came with me. He caught me, and cut me,” I told her, covering my scar. “But Joanna hit him and we got away. We never let anyone find us again. And I learned to be a thief,” I admitted to her.

“A very good one, from what I hear.”

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