The stack of documents awaiting my signature is the last thing that requires my attention before the court dinner. Gwen will be along momentarily, as will Rupert and Catherine. The practice hearkens back to my father’s reign, when he and his brother and their wives would meet in the private reception room and go down to the dining hall together. A gesture of respect, I think, from my father to the brother who, in all likelihood, will never wear the crown. Resuming it with my uncle has given me a sense that life in our kingdom is returning to normal.
The first document is yet another sign of hope – the most recent record of sentences imposed by the magistrates for major crimes. In the months after my coronation, such lists were long and the crimes were almost entirely those of desperate people trying to survive in a world turned upside down – poaching, major thefts, assault on a victim with the intent to rob them of money or food or belongings that could be sold or traded for money or food. Recently, the lists are short – today just one item – a man who got drunk, went on a rampage in the tavern, and then burned a nearby farmer’s crops and barn was sentenced to pay recompense to the innkeeper and the farmer plus a fine of a gold coin or a year in prison.
In the two years since Richard and I found the money – both my brother’s personal fortune and the money he’d stolen from the Treasury while he was king – in the rafters of the sentry tower, we’ve made enormous strides in restoring the life of the kingdom to something resembling what it was before the disastrous but mercifully brief reign of King John. Most people now have work, the roads are passable once again, the wool trade has returned to normal, and the port is as busy as ever. The merchants still complain about their taxes, but I’ve come to the conclusion this is a permanent state of affairs among men who measure their personal merit by no other criteria than their wealth – rather like spoiled children who always whine when asked to share.
As I work my way through the documents, first Gwen, then Rupert and Catherine wander in and sit talking quietly among themselves. I’ve almost finished reading the next to last one when Mother walks in. “Isabella wants to come home,” she says cheerily as she crosses the room to join the others.
“Why not?” I remark offhandedly, reaching for my quill and dipping it in the ink pot.
“Why?” The immediacy and vehemence of Rupert’s response draws everyone’s attention and causes me to drop a large blob of ink on the pristine page in front of me. This will cause my secretary no end of grief, for the poor man fervently believes that history will judge our reign on the quality of our records. Personally, I hope we’ll be judged on the quality of our achievements, though I’m sure future historians will relish as much as I do the ease of reading his immaculately prepared documents. No doubt, there’ll be a clean version of this one awaiting my signature tomorrow, and though he will say nothing to criticize his king, his dismay at my carelessness will be palpable. I like him enormously and am grateful for his diligence, so I’ll offer him some words of consolation, even if a full royal apology would be something of a breach of court etiquette.
Looking up, I notice that Rupert’s expression is one of deep concern, his brow furrowed. “Why shouldn’t she come home, Uncle? After all, she’s a member of this family. How could I object?”
“It isn’t a good idea, Alfred.”
“I’m going to need more than that, Uncle. Would you feel the same way if it were Beatrix?”
“Would that it were Beatrix.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Alfred, just leave well enough alone. Father sent her away with good reason. Let’s not resurrect the ghosts of the past.”