THE AMERICAN CROWN
A man in a black peacoat leaned against a brick wall. A nondescript, black, brimmed hat sat high on his head, short-cropped gray hair showing over his ears. He was scanning absently through the apps on his phone. He glanced down the alley, like an eagle hunting prey, toward a door. Still closed.
He huffed out a visible cloud of air, slipped his hand into the pocket of his peacoat, and pulled out a digital camera. It was on. He slipped it back in.
The phone in his other hand rang. The caller ID: “PA SRC 2.” The man punched the accept icon and lifted the phone to his ear.
“Manx. Gimme the passphrase.”
He listened, watching cabs drive by. People were thronging on a nearby crosswalk, but nobody was walking down the street he was on.
“Word about the Berks heiress?”
He glanced down the alley again, toward the door. Still closed.
“Is her family—” He started nodfing at the report he was receiving. “Well, if they’re looking just keep an ear to that. But, check out the rest of the places Duke Annapolis keeps his girls. Yeah, I got a few more to add to your list. I’ll email you.”
He listened for a moment, puffing out mist like he was killing a cigarette. He glanced at the door again.
“Look, if she hasn’t turned up yet, she’s not having an abortion. Wrap your head around that. I know. You were in the war, you can deal with it. You gotta.”
A couple walked past, dressed warm and leaning into each other. He nodded at the guy, kept his eyes off the woman. He blended into the wall again, leaned over his shoulder to look down the alley.
“Yeah, I don’t know, buy a fucking flashlight and a shovel. You’ll figure it out. Call me in week. Alright.”
“The King’s silence since the election last year is beginning to stir up rumors about his health.”
A woman at the end of the bar sighed. She shook her dark brown hair. A beige-polished nail pushed at her Moscow Mule. Without moving her head, she looked up at the talking faces on the television.
“It is generally considered bad form for the Crown to comment on elections, particularly presidential elections.” The face nodded thoughtfully behind a shield of make-up. “Nevertheless, his long-time affection for the Clintons is well-known.”
The woman turned and raised a finger to get the bartender’s attention. He handed a thick-set man a beer and walked over.
“King Alexander was quite outspoken during Bush’s presidency—”
She mustered a warm smile for the barkeep. “Can we put the television on the game?”
He grimaced. “We can. Which game?”
She waved. “Any game. Just, sports.”
Another face appeared on the screen and turned dramatically toward the first face, now off-screen. “Of course, nobody wants to speculate—”
The face vanished, replaced by a menu and a premium cable advertisement for new fantasy drama. Soon, the preview screen featured two hockey teams skating violently into each other.
The bartender punched the remote and set it on the bar. Hockey took over the television. The woman tried to thank the bartender, but he had receded to the other end of the bar, where an Asian man in a black, DC-professional pea coat was raising his hand with a professional smile.
She retrieved the remains of her Moscow Mule and watched the swirling skaters with feigned interest.
“You’ve got a bit of red showing.”
There was a man in a nice tan suit standing to her left. She swept her hand past her left ear.
“On the other side. I noticed when you turned to call the bartender. I don’t think anyone else could see.”
She found the stray curl and tucked it back under the dark wig. “Thank you.”
He was well-dressed, his suit of a clearly tailored cut. His back was straight, his pectorals pressing against his white shirt and dark lapels. A blue-dyed bolo tie danced under his collar, held by a simple iron circle. A sly grin teased the left corner of his mouth.
“Don’t worry, princess. Your secret is safe with me.” He gestured at the stool beside her. She nodded.
“Daniel,” he said, with a slight bow as he sat. Angular features. Tanned naturally, no artificial work. Dark eyes, dark hair. A calm and confident posture.
“You look familiar.” She squinted at him and searched her memory. “Duke Austin?”
“Not yet.” His left elbow rested casually on the bar. He grinned. “My papa is still stubbornly alive.”
“Sorry about that,” she grinned back. She felt a nudge of guilt at her relief that he wasn’t a commoner, but the Mule swiped left on that. “And, sorry about not recognizing you. Dozens of duchies to keep track of, and I’m terrible with people.”
“I don’t know.” He raised a finger to the bartender and swirled it to indicate another round. “The People seem to like you well enough.”
She felt the grip of the brunette wig on her head. Her insistent disguise against the People, which he had seen through. She was surprised to welcome him inside that ruse.
“They don’t really know me.”
He chuckled. “You’re the most famous person in the world.”
She grimaced and forced herself to smile.
“I’m surprised you’ve found a moment of peace away from the paparazzi.”
She bared her teeth and nodded. “Yeah, they love me.”
“Come on. The People at least like you.”
“They like the myth. The tease of a fairy tale marriage.”
He frowned in amusement as the bartender delivered a new Moscow Mule and a new bourbon on the rocks. “Fairy tales have a power that shouldn’t be denied.”
They clinked glasses.
“And,” he leveled his eyes on hers in a charming but imposing way. “You’ve been teasing them for a while now.”
She touched the tips of her molars with the tip of her tongue. “My, you Texans are as forward as your reputation.”
He sipped at his whiskey. He drew his Texas twang down thick: “I jest like to know the territory I’m ridin’ through, yer Roy’l Highness.” He whispered that last part, conspiratorially. She fought a giggle.
“Well, the rumors are true,” she said. “Not the Sapphic rumors, but I like to watch them play out in the media anyway. But, I do have reservations about continuing the royal line recklessly.”
She felt her chest grow hot. Why had she told him that? Hockey players were punching each other’s teeth out on the television. She glanced over her shoulder at the RSS agents sitting in a booth near the door. There were people gathered just outside the door, arguing with the hostess.
“Look,” Daniel Austin said. He glanced back at the agitated crowd gathering outside the bar, held in check by the hostess. Men in a booth near the Royal Secret Service agents looked back at him. His security detail, obviously. He turned back to her with a warm smile. “I didn’t mean to dig. Just thought you might appreciate a sympathetic ear.”
She sighed and took a sip from the Mule. “I would.” The crowd outside was shouting. She glanced at them, suddenly nervous. “Maybe we should take your ear and my mouth somewhere else.” Her chest flushed again. That was a poorly chosen phrase.
He laughed and took a last sip of his bourbon.
The crowd pushed into the room. Cameras flashed. Voices shouted, “Princess Sarah! Princess Sarah!”
Austin nodded at his men. They rose and the RSS stood alongside them, stepping in front of the paparazzi. The patrons in the bar were all staring and muttering. Austin gestured to the bartender with a bill.
“A back way out?” His voice was deep and calm. Sarah smiled and slipped her arm through his. She recognized the face of King Matthew II on the bill. A fifty. The bartender snatched it up and waved toward the kitchen door.
They strode past surprised cooks, half-fried tavern fare, and dirty dishes. Behind them, the bartender shouted, “At the end, turn left. The door opens on the alley.” Security pushed past the bartender. Austin held his hand out and Sarah nodded. They stopped.
The two of them turned and made their way into the alley. The door closed behind them. He turned to look up and down the alley. There was nothing but the shoulder of a black peacoat peeking around the corner of a nearby street.
In the cold December air, Sarah burst into laughter. She leaned into him and he slapped a strong hand against her shoulder.
“Fuckin’ pappis,” he chuckled. She loved the accent. It reminded her of a baroness from West Virginia with whom she had studied Crown History as a girl. It sang of wildness, frontiers, life without a care. Life far from the nastiness of urban Washington.
He pulled a phone from his suit jacket. “You want to Uber or should I call my car.”
She looked up into his eyes. Was he serious?
“Take that off,” he said, shaking his head and looking at her fake, brown hair.
She just stared at him a moment. Hadn’t she surrendered enough to this man? Before she knew she had decided, her hand was on the dark wig, dragging it from her head. Her red curls fell over her shoulders. She shook them loose.
“Uber,” she challenged him.
He grinned and tapped his phone. “I’m good,” he said into it. “Getting an Uber. Yes. Thanks.” He tapped it again, then kept tapping to call an Uber. “You should probably let your car know, too.”
She reluctantly separated herself from the warmth of his body and dug her phone from her purse.
When she was young, it was Dame Elizabeth Cole of Philadelphia who taught the young princess Crown History. Bess, who had been her mother’s closest friend. All of her other classes were taught by her father’s chief advisor, the polymath Sir Carl Smith of Fairfax, but her mother had insisted that Dame Bess teach her only child the history of the monarchy.
“I fear Sir Carl will focus on military history,” the Queen told King Alexander. Sarah remembered the conversation well, because she spent her earliest school years learning her letters, numbers, and etiquette. So she stood quietly, listening to them, singing the alphabet under her breath. A, B, C, D…
Her father’s face had tightened, his hand running through his ginger hair, but he finally nodded. Then he shook his head, resolved to defy his Queen. “He already has a class for military history, starting year five.”
“He’ll double down, Alex. He’s very enthusiastic.” She brushed her dark red curls off the black cloth of her blazer. “Which is an admirable quality. He’s a decorated sailor, like you.”
The king was as still as his daughter, listening. Queen Anna had gained control of the debate. She held a hand out, without touching the king. Sarah had never seen them touch, except at official ceremonies. J, K, L, M, N, O, P…
“I am only suggesting we balance his enthusiasm for military matters with Bess’s diplomatic approach. She knows the noble families, ours and overseas, better than anyone.”
“Balance,” the king said. “You mean temper.”
Sarah did not understand that word at the time, but she could tell it implied something bad. T, U, V…
“Alex. I mean the denotation of both, and only the positive connotation of both.”
Sarah did not know either of those words. But, her father’s face told him her mother had won. W, X, Y, Z.
Other noble children were taught alongside Princess Sarah, to give her perspective. In addition to occasional drop-ins from Europe and Canada and Australia, there were the heirs to the Duchies of Tombigbee and Boston and Angeles and the heirs to the counties of Albemarle in Virginia, Lincoln in North Carolina, and Norfolk in Massachusetts—but that was the only county named that in America, Sarah learned, after Norfolk County in Virginia was broken up after the Civil War. Finally, the heirs to the Baronies of Springfield (Oregon) and Madison (Wisconsin) and Fayetteville (West Virginia).
Sarah’s best friend, the doe-eyed and blonde-haired Amy Vandal, became the baroness of Fayetteville at the vulnerable age of eleven when her mother died of heart failure. The girl had lost her father only four years before. She was lost and clung to the princess like a buoy in a sea storm. Sarah had stood beside Amy at that funeral and dried the young Baroness’s seemingly endless tears on the shoulders of her dress afterward.
An honor that Baroness Fayetteville would return in due course, befitting the courtesies of the American nobility, when Queen Anna died.
Dame Bess was a strict woman, with a touch of the Inquisitor. She quizzed her students relentlessly, drawing out their sympathies and biases, from wherever in the country (or the world) they had come to Arlington Palace for her class. She always wore her red-white-and-blue knightly scarf during lectures, draped over her shoulders as a badge of honor. The King had made her a Dame, and Carl Smith a Sir, when they had come out against President Clinton’s hesitance to oppose the military’s homosexual ban. They had stood at his sides, so soon after the funeral of Queen Anna, as King Alexander had signed his royal consent to Clinton’s hard-won Don’t Ask Don’t Tell reform.
Dame Bess was a brave woman, an honest woman, a woman against whom Sarah’s mother never spoke an ill word. And that was a curious exception.
Queen Anna had been a vocal critic, particularly in politics, feeding the media with controversy that had troubled her father’s vigilant royal neutrality. Sarah remembered their arguments, her mother always pressing for more engagement, her father insisting on the dignity of the crown. But, after Sarah’s mother was buried with solemn pomp in the Royal Cemetery on the grounds of Arlington Palace, after Sarah’s tears had bled into Amy’s clothes, Sarah’s father had found his voice.
Or perhaps he picked up his wife’s voice after death forced her to drop it. He came out for partisan causes. He stood up for health care reform. He knighted the sitting president for his opposition to the military ban, breaking all precedent.
Then, the president’s dalliance with his intern, Monica Lewinsky, spun up the media’s scandal-hungry cycle. The monarchy had suffered a deep embarrassment. The newspapers, particularly the Union Press, filled their front pages with indictments of the king’s support for the president. King Alexander grew quiet, for a time.
On the other hand, Dame Bess became more stern, more skeptical, more intense in her class.
Crown History took on a confrontational tone, under this angrier Bess. During the Revolution, she taught, there was reluctance in France and Spain to assist a country that had no clear leadership. The European crowns refused to honor the words of the Continental Congress. How could promises made at the whim of the People be trusted?
“Would you trust such promises, Lady Amy? Would you trust them, Princess Sarah?” They both quietly shook their heads, as expected.
Pierre Beaumarchais, a name the students had heard many times before, a chief French proponent of American independence, offended King Louis with his suspicions about the institution of monarchy. The French King resentfully rejected Beaumarchais’s counsel and withheld his royal support during a critical moment in the Revolution, and the Spanish crown echoed King Louis XVI, just as the British were staging a crushing invasion from Canada.
“It was after the defeats in the Saratoga Campaign and the Scouring of New England,” Dame Bess said, spinning angrily toward the whiteboard where she had written those two events in red, block letters. She pointed a sharp fingernail. “You all remember these from last month? It was after these brutal military operations that republicans gathered in Philadelphia, the anti-monarchists, many of the strongest of whom were from New England, began to see the dangers of pure democracy.”
She was speaking to her students, but also to critical journalists. To the editors of the Union Press. She knew her student read the papers. They were encouraged to do so, as part of their education. She was countering the Lewinsky scandal, anti-monarchist polemics.
“At this point,” Dame Bess turned back to the children, “when it became clear that the delegates to the Continental Congress were all for the noose if they lost the war, that they elected to elevate a king in a final effort to enlist French and Spanish aid. There was only one man who would be acceptable to all. Who was that?”
The young lord from Tombigbee raised his dark hand. Dame Bess nodded at him and adjusted her knightly scarf.
“George the First.”
“Yes, Lord Tombigbee. General George Washington, at that time. The founder of the Royal House of Washington.”
Dame Bess singled out young Sarah from among the students with a fingernail. “Your Royal Highness. You know it is probably from his family that you inherited your red hair.”
Sarah felt a flush of embarrassment in her chest. “But, father says the House of Washington is gone.”
“Well,” Dame Bess said, turning to stare at the whiteboard inked with political factions from the Revolution. “They have been. Since the Civil War and the rise of the House of Hancock. But several members of his family did marry into your mother’s House, the Rosses, and your father’s, the House of Carroll.”
Amy de LaFayette raised her hand. Bess nodded at her, encouraged now at her students’ engagement.
“Did King George have red hair?”
Dame Bess looked back to her student and grinned a very joyous and solicitous grin. “He powdered it, Amy, to look white. In those days, the gray hair of age was a sign of high status. But, yes, his natural hair was as red as Princess Sarah’s.”
“Let me handle the papers,” Sir Carl said. He looked weary, a boyish face tragically eroded by wrinkles. He wore his tricolor sash over one shoulder of his buff uniform, a bold idiosyncrasy that technically put him out of uniform. Nobody in a quarter century had dared to challenge him on it, outside of the bloggers of the American Society of Knights. But, the ASK were a fraternal order, mostly populated by the Order of William Lee and the Knights of the Union, with no official authority. None of the other orders respected their traditionalist opinions.
Alexander exhaled through his tightened lips and looked up at his chief advisor. His long-time companion, through his military service, his marriage, and his widowhood.
“Some of these, Carly, the Crown has to sign.”
“Your Majesty.” He only ever used that honorific in jest.
The King waved in annoyance. His head drooped, graying red curls falling over his shoulders. “I know you can sign for me. But, no more forgeries.”
“I’m sorry, Alex. I’m just concerned.”
The King set his elbows on the sturdy wooden desk, a gift from Sultan Mohammad III after he ordered American ships have access to Moroccan ports in December of 1777. Under the King’s forearms and paperwork—in Arabic, Hebrew, and English—was carved the statement: “All friends in the world welcome each other.”
“My rule has seen too many deceptions. They age me.”
Sir Carl stepped around the desk. He clasped his hands behind him, studied the bookcases behind the Royal Desk in the Crown Office of Arlington Palace. The weight of Western civilization, held up by centuries-old planks of Virginia hornwood.
“Your heart ages you.”
The King pushed back into his chair. “Don’t start with that. You sound like the media.”
“And your doctor,” Sir Carl said.
Alexander gathered the papers and picked up his pen. His eyes balked at looking at them. He glared across the room, at the far wall of the office. Through the window, framed by 19th century French drapes, he could see the lights of Palace Bridge over the black waters of the Potomac. The Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument glowed white against the night.
“You’ll meet with the Princess tomorrow?”
The King looked over his shoulder. Sir Carl still had his hands behind his back, but he was leaning over the King.
“She won’t want to hear anything I have to say.”
Sir Carl took a deep breath. “She won’t want to hear anything you want to say.” That annoying habit he had of rephrasing for effect. “But, I believe she will be open to what you have to say.”
“Have to say,” the King groaned. “The crown is not compelled—”
“Alex,” Sir Carl said. “For the good of the Crown.”
The King sniffed and stared at his hands. “A crown you fear might fall from my head at any moment.”
“Stop using my name, Sir Carl.”
A gentle hand rested on the King’s shoulder. His body sank, not in repulsion but in surrender. He could no longer resist.
“Your Majesty knows my feelings about your health.”
“I’m sorry, Carly.”
“It’s okay, Alex.” The knight’s fingers squeezed. “I understand the weight you’re under. But, the Princess is not like her mother. No more deception.”
Graying red curls danced back and forth. “You keeping saying that. She won’t talk to me. How can you know?”
Sir Carl took a knee beside the chair, keeping his hand firmly on the King’s shoulder.
“I watch her eyes, Alex.”
The King turned to look into Carl’s face. In this posture, they were peers again. He saw the boy there, a handsome young ensign assigned to an untested Prince’s unearned division during the Cold War, when the whole world feared a nuclear apocalypse in the name of economic politics. Alexander had found strength in Carl Smith’s optimism. The ghosts of Karl Marx and Adam Smith murdering hordes from their ideological graves. That face was aged by conflict and politics and disillusionment. But, that hopeful boy was still there in Sir Carl’s smile.
“You’re her father. A King looking upon a Princess. You look for strength and promise and discipline. The legacy of your throne. But, I am just her adopted uncle. When I look upon Sarah, I look for interest and joy and passion. I see it in her eyes. She wants a husband.”
Alexander felt his lips struggling against each other. His eyes tightened and blurred. “But where?”
“I saw it in the Duke of Arkansas.”
“Pfft,” the King scoffed. “A dullard.”
Carl chuckled. “Yes, but a muscled dullard. He’s got a dumb face, but that jawline.”
The King allowed himself a smile at that.
“And I saw it in the Baron of Tucson and in Sir James of the Order of Lee.”
Alexander laughed out loud at that. “A black knight. That would make the media happy.” He stared at his paperwork and settled back into his melancholy. “And the Baroness Fayetteville? Dearest Amy, Sarah calls her.”
“Oh, Alex. They’re just friends. You know how women are.”
The King nodded. “It’s hard to understand them.” He looked into Carl’s sympathetic blue eyes. “The Queen was so hard to read. I sometimes felt Anna was mocking me. Corralling me like a pet. I wish she were still here, to turn that on Sarah.”
“She was not hard to read, if you understood Mrs. Roosevelt.”
Alexander chuckled at that. He loved historical analogies. It was a weakness that Sir Carl knew well.
“Eleanor was my grandfather’s strongest supporter against King Aaron. I wouldn’t be king without her.”
Sir Carl nodded. “Some Nazi Hancock prick instead. Good riddance to them and their House.”
“That’s all in the past.” He was weary of the past. Weary of the politics that had come out of World War II. The economic conflict, the identity politics, the constant positioning of group against group, class against class. “I’ll try to look on Sarah with your eyes. I’ll need rest for that. Some sleep.”
Sir Carl stood and gave the King’s shoulder a final squeeze. “I’ll retire to my room, by your leave.”
King Alexander looked up into his chief advisor’s face. He admired the discipline there. “You always have my leave, Carly.”
Sarah and Daniel sat in the back seat of a charcoal Nissan Murano, quietly taking in their Uber transit to his hotel. The driver was a white, bearded, thick-spectacled guy wearing a “Feel the Bern” t-shirt. A bit obsolete, since the primaries.
Sarah and Daniel pressed close against the protests of their seat belts. They spoke under their breath, lips leaning into each other’s ears to keep the driver on the outside of the conversation.
“My father wants to talk.”
He nudged her. Curiosity. “You don’t talk?”
She sniffed and played with the brown wig in her lap. “Sir Carl seems to have been running interference since Obama’s reelection.”
“Five years.” His nod turned into a shake.
“We talk when Sir Carl lets us talk.”
Daniel Austin frowned and nodded again, taking it in.
“So, your father must be worried to get past that blockade.”
“I guess. Maybe that’s what’s getting to me.”
Sarah flushed. Was she letting him in too much? Why was she letting him in? He was a peer, but a stranger. Heir to a carpetbagger seat. So much antique politics. She hated politics.
“Some advice,” he offered. “From a nobody to a Princess.”
She nodded tensely.
“You have to wonder why a father worries so much.” He put a strong hand on her knee. The touch sent a wave of heat through her body. “If you figure out why, you’ll have won the advantage.”
She chuckled and let her shoulder lean into his. “This is a bit of frontier strategy?”
He withdrew his hand and slapped his own knees. “I come from a different strain of Austins.”
Civil War politics. She drew on Dame Bess’s lectures. “The Loyalist Austins.”
He chuckled. “We call ourselves the Unionist Austins.”
She felt a flush of embarrassment. The Uber driver took a sharp right onto Dupont Circle. Where was this hotel? She felt a weird chagrin at traveling to some far North West location. Far outside the Federal Triangle. A Royalist bias that embarrassed her.
“Sorry. I should have paid more attention in Crown History. You still have family in South America?”
“Not really,” he said. “They’ve mostly bred out since the war. The Secessionist Austins. We Unionists are pretty much the whole House now. Not so much the Houstons and Mavericks. They’ve still got conservative agitators in Brazil and Argentina, hanging out with Hancocks.”
“They never know when to quit.”
“Yeah,” he said. “But even if my racist cousins were still strong, Austin ain’t got time for that.”
“Austin has always been weird,” she offered up. He chuckled warmly and turned a smile toward her.
“We’ve gotta keep Austin weird,” he quoted the unofficial motto.
“Thanks for saving me from the paparazzi.”
He raised his arm, waited for her to lean into it before letting it rest heavily over her shoulders. “Thank you for saving me from a boring night in the District, doing my boring papa’s boring business. The pappis are nothing compared to the court.”
She fought a chuckle and failed. His embrace was frustratingly relaxing. “They’re always looking for a story. Both sets of predators.”
“Maybe you want to give them a story?”
She looked up into his dark eyes. His smile made her lungs burn. “A better story than the Princess confronting her supposedly sickly father?”
He grinned and shook his head. “I was thinking about a Princess sneaking off with a rogue heir to a Western Duchy. But, I don’t know if I could match what you have in mind for scandal.”
She giggled. “I’m the Queen of Scandal, Lord Austin. At least that crown I’ll wear happily.”
Sir Carl’s voice startled her. She had been checking the thermostat in Princess Sarah’s bedroom. She had drawn the buff curtains, letting in the morning sun. The bed was still made.
“Sir Carl.” She turned and curtsied, even though she outranked the knight, as heir to a county. He had real rank against her though, as the king’s chief advisor.
“The Princess is not here,” he observed without emotion. “She didn’t return?”
She hated his interrogations. He wanted answers from her that he must know she did not have. He seemed to enjoy making her uncomfortable.
“She did not,” Victoria answered sweetly. “The RSS sent me a message telling me she was okay. Did you not—”
“I got their message,” he said, walking into the room and scanning the furniture. For mistakes. “So, she didn’t contact you herself?”
“She did not. And, I didn’t pry.”
He nodded at that.
“I see. Well, she is expected back at the palace today, to speak with her father, as you know. She may come out of that meeting…” He turned to face her. His cold, blue eyes forced hers to look back at him. “Less than joyfully.”
He was giving her direction. She was to comfort the princess. He was master of the house. She curtsied as he walked toward the door.
“And,” he stopped without turning. “So long as she’s gone, do keep the heat down. The palace costs money.”
King Alexander sat behind the Moroccan Desk like a gargoyle. Intimidating, demonic, inscrutable. Sarah hadn’t seen him for two months, and then only during a ceremony to honor soldiers fallen in Afghanistan at the National Cemetery in Kenilworth. He had kissed her cheek for the cameras, but hadn’t spoken a word to her.
Sir Carl quietly ushered her to her seat, the windows overlooking the Capital behind her. Carl stepped out of the room and closed the doors. The morning sun cast her shadow across the antique desk and her father, a silhouette cancelling out the figure of the king.
He looked up from his hands and struggled to meet her eyes.
“You’re very much like your mother.”
She took that in. He often invoked her mother in their talks. He seemed to consider all women of a class beyond his understanding. She had worn a plain, black pants suit for the meeting, in Queen Anna’s style.
“Beyond my hair?”
He smiled warmly. She missed that smile. “Yes, beyond your hair. Dark. Not ginger like mine. Was.”
“Is that why you’ve finally decided to talk to me? More than chit-chat at state functions?”
“I’ve been remiss in my duties as your father.” His face was tight. It was a difficult confession. “Politics has disillusioned me.”
She abandoned all desire to bring controversy into the meeting. Her father seemed vulnerable. Worried, and unusually contrite. He was usually so stubborn. Was he about to reveal that the media’s obsession about his health had merit?
His hands tightened into fists. Sarah had seen that before. “I want you to take the crown seriously.”
“Seriously?” He had brought her there to scold her. She felt suddenly angry. Defensive. “As seriously as you have?”
“Yes.” He settled steady eyes on hers. Demanding her agreement. Her submission.
“I’ve never known you to take an active role in politics, father. Except to subordinate yourself to the Liberal Party.”
His fists turned against the Royal Desk. “That’s unfair. After Reagan, after Nixon, it was the only rational–”
“You knighted a sitting president for the first time in American history, and a year later it came out that he was having sex with an intern.”
The king’s face went sour. His fists tightened, knuckles going white against the dark wood.
“We’re bringing up ancient history, I see.”
“You brought up Reagan and Nixon, before I was even born. I had to live through what came after.”
“That scandal was unforeseeable.”
“I learned what oral sex was from that scandal, father. I was eight years old.”
He pounded the desk. She had seen that before as well. It didn’t faze her. She knew the King as only a daughter could. All talk of sex unhinged him.
“During the impeachment,” she pressed, “they were comparing you to King Aaron.”
“Right-wing insanity!” He ground his teeth. “Aaron was one of theirs. A Nazi sympathizer. His House was driven out because they were fascists.”
“My point was that I was afraid you would be dethroned as Aaron was. I was just a little girl during the Clinton scandal. But then again during the war after 9/11, when you couldn’t stop echoing every Liberal talking point against Bush. And I was old enough to understand by then.”
He waved her off. “You were just a teenager.”
“I became inured to the possibility that I would never be Queen.”
His shoulders fell. He knew the history. He knew how the media had portrayed his activism, to the delight of anti-monarchists.
“Then,” she said, “I became comfortable with the idea.”
He relaxed his hands and let their fingers thread through each other. He took a deep breath.
“We are not about to be dethroned. There are no alternative candidates with any support. And the anti-monarchists are radicals. Children acting out on academic nonsense they absorbed at university.”
“The Founders were academic radicals.”
He pounded the desk. “We face what we face, Sarah!”
That time it was different. He wasn’t just angry. He was afraid. It got to her. She swallowed and struggled to maintain her calm.
“What do we face, father?”
He shook his head. She saw a teary blinking in his eyes that reminded her of her mother. The dead Queen. An expression he had learned from her, or her from him? Who could ferret out the exchange between husbands and wives?
“We face a political division that puts the crown in play. To all alternatives. Dame Bess taught you Crown History. You know how the Crown imbues stability to the reputation of the United States.”
She stared at her knees. Her hands squeezed them through the black cloth.
“The world looks upon us. We have to find a path between untenable sacrifice and historical duty. People need a secure future. Americans and the world.”
Sarah breathed. She had promised herself to be fair. To hear her father out. But, she could not dismiss her feelings.
“The people need to understand that we are people, too. We have feelings.”
The King swallowed with difficulty.
“You have feelings. On this issue.”
She nodded. “I have no desire to be Queen. I was reared to that destiny, but it’s not something I want.”
The King brushed graying locks from his face. “The son of an auto mechanic does not want to be the son of an auto mechanic. I wanted to be the skipper of an aircraft carrier. You don’t think I’d rather be somewhere else? Yet, we are who we are born to be.”
Blood rose in her chest. Sweat wicked into her shirt. She felt her lips pressing against each other. She had no idea what she wanted to be, only what she didn’t want to be.
“Mother died a Queen. She would have been happier writing books with Dame Bess.”
That made the King sad beyond her expectations. His pale eyes closed against tears.
“Perhaps.” He nodded before a backdrop of antique books, the collected history of the Western world. The weight of those books pressed against old planks, and against the King’s shoulders. “Perhaps. But, she died a Queen of the United States nonetheless.”
“I want a happy country, father.” She stared at him until he reluctantly looked back at her. “And, I want a happy king. But I want a happy Sarah, too.”
“If you abdicate,” he said, “your cousin Thomas takes the crown, as Duke of Annapolis. He is unfit. The media circus, Sarah. Worse than Clinton. Worse than Trump.”
She sighed. Thomas was a scandalous playboy. “I know.”
The King breathed like a man fighting a hangover, each lungful of air a struggle against pain and surrender. “I beg you, not as your father but as the king, to find a path that pleases both you and your country.”
She considered it. “And if there is no mutual resolution?”
He was as still as death. He looked immeasurably old, tired, resolved to his station. Part of her wished that Sir Carl would burst into the room and revive the spirit of the King as only he could.
But the office remained steadfastly confined to Alexander, King of the United States of America; Defender of the Freedoms of Conscience and Faith; Protector of the Principates of the Canadas and of the Caribbean; Supreme Sovereign of the Inner Kingdoms; and Guarantor of Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and the Western Hemisphere. And his daughter, Her Royal Highness the Princess Sarah of the House of Carroll.
“If there is no mutual resolution,” he said, “I want my only child, and the only child of Anna Ross, to be happy.”
“How did it go with your father?”
That second night, she had settled her reservations about the hotel in Chevy Chase. It didn’t measure up to her private bedroom in Arlington Palace, but Daniel Austin had good taste in accommodations. Or his staff did. The bed was comfortable and the decor was impressively classic. There was an original Hopper painting over the bed, which a bronze plate bragged about just below the hardwood frame.
She let her beige-polished fingernails play against Daniel’s sweaty, furry pectorals as she leaned into him. His thigh felt thick and strong against her stomach.
“I screwed it up,” she said. “I brought up the Aaronxander thing.”
He laughed, his body bucking against hers.
“Wow. That was a rough time.”
“Yeah,” she said, settling her head against his shoulder. “The GOP wanted to throw father out with Clinton.”
“Lucky for you there weren’t any viable contenders.”
She chuckled. “No kidding. The only conservatives were Sir Colin and maybe the outcast Houstons.”
“Nah,” he said. “They’d married into their slaves in Argentina. I can see people backing Powell, but not a bunch of hypocrite racist Houstons.”
She wrapped her arms around his chest. “True. The GOP don’t really have a decent House to push. Maybe the Prescotts.”
“Senator McCain’s family and fans would block that. Duke Prescott was nasty toward him after Viet Nam.”
His eyes were far from politics. They looked at her as if she were the only woman in the world. Not the solicitous, adoring look of a man gazing upon his princess, but of a man peering into a mysterious, Renaissance sculpture of the Madonna. Regarding the divine. She felt her lungs burn for air as if she were drowning.
“So, I guess I’m stuck. Father’s worried that Thomas might take the throne in my place.”
His eyes went serious at that, and he raised himself on an elbow.
“You threatened to abdicate?”
She felt cold suddenly. Part of her wanted to press against him for warmth. Another part wanted to roll out of bed and gather her clothes from the floor.
“Why not? Who wants all this pressure?”
“Look,” he said, shaking his head. “Sarah, I don’t want to impose on you, but Tom is a—”
His hesitance strengthened her resolve. “He’s what?”
“An asshole.” He lifted himself on both elbows. “He married Countess Kent who’s twenty years older than him for her money, and he sleeps with anyone who’ll let him. He’s got half a dozen kids all over.”
“What’s that got to do with what I want?”
“Sarah, it’s not always about what you want. With position comes responsibility.”
She groaned. “Now you sound like father.”
Something settled in his body. An argument. A remembrance. “As a boy, I watched my father hold a House together until the Secessionists finally shat themselves over civil rights. I watched him force them to come around, fight off claims against him, rally the people of Austin to his cause. Texas, and the Union, are better for it.”
She rolled angrily out of bed.
“Sarah.” His voice was warm, and annoying.
She snatched up her clothes. She thrust her face at him. “I don’t want to force anyone to come around. I don’t want to fight off claims, from Duke Annapolis or anyone else. I don’t want to rally the people to my cause, people who have seen fit to slander me with frigidity and lesbianism and anything else they could put in print or online.”
He sighed, moving to get out of bed toward her.
He stopped. His eyes were soft, comforting, and she suddenly hated him for it. She shoved her body, now cold in the air conditioning of the room, into her clothes.
“I want free of the obligation to do those things for other people’s benefit. I want free of the tension I saw between my mother and father. They never showed affection in private, did you know that?”
His lips were tight. “I did not.”
“It was like an arranged marriage. Dame Bess and Sir Carl were closer than my parents. It was like,” she shook her head, pushing her feet into her shoes. “It was like two people with their backs together, constantly fighting off the world.”
“Sarah.” He patted the bed. “Stay.”
“I don’t want to waste my life fighting off the world.”
She stormed toward the door, knowing she was probably ending something. Something that had brought her joy for two days. The only joy she had known for months. Her hand shook as she grabbed the doorknob.
“I will speak to you later, Lord Austin. If you will.”
“Of course, I will.” His voice was free of Texas twang. A noble voice. A comforting voice.
She turned the knob and stepped into the hallway. Closed the door behind her and set her ass against it for support. She felt tears rising and fought them. There were cameras. Austin’s hotel was discreet, registered so by the Royal Secret Service, but she still did not trust them. She trusted nothing, nobody. She stifled her emotions. There would be time enough in her chambers.
She pulled her phone from her purse and tapped the secure RSS app.
“Yes, Your Highness. We’re in the neighborhood. ETA one minute.”
She knew all of that. The RSS would never be far behind her wanderings. Not as discreet as the establishments they registered. For which she was momentarily thankful.
She straightened her clothes and walked calmly, regally, toward the elevator. She punched the down button and waited.
In the lobby, she nodded with weakly mustered etiquette to the desk clerk, noted the RSS seal embedded in the desk. Official discretion. She stepped out the double doors on the left, and braced herself against the cold of a Washington December. The car was already waiting, pumping exhaust onto the street, an RSS valet holding open the rear door. She stepped inside and the valet took the front passenger seat beside Sir David, who was driving.
Sir David pulled away from the curb. “Is everything alright, Your Highness?”
“Take me to Bess’s.”
“Your Highness, Dame Elizabeth is in Tokyo, discussing the Korean situation. She won’t be back until after the holidays.”
Sarah sighed. It would be her first Christmas without Bess since she was a girl.
“Then, just take me home.”
Sir David tapped the dash screen of the car and said: “Unicorn to the Gravestones. Currently, Foul Play en route via the War Path.”
A little gray check appeared next to a text translation of Sir David’s voice. There was a shimmering ellipsis beneath it for a moment. Then a voice: “Roger, Uniform to Golf Sierra. Foxtrot Papa via Whiskey Papa. Preparing for en route security and arrival.”
The club thumped with a retro-techno beat. The decor was pastel, lit from within, against a background of old, red brick. The colonial architecture clashed with the smooth contours of the modern furniture. The bar itself was strikingly sharp, right angles of wood and leather forming a bulwark against the waves of plastic and chrome crashing against it. Well-dressed patrons leaned against each other and cuddled in chairs and booths, from wall to archaic wall, under a shifting rainbow of blinking lights.
A man with a pale face and close-cropped, brown hair sat in a black-padded booth, holding a pink glass of red wine and grinning at the girls to either side. A tan Latina in a tight, pink, leather dress and a Dominican wearing something fluffy and blue. The man’s free arm slipped behind the Latina girl’s waist. He lifted the wine glass to the black girl, and she sipped from it like a hamster at a water bottle.
A black man in a cream linen suit slid into the booth beside the Latina. His hair was close on the sides, shaved stripes digging into his forehead where tight curls remained.
“My lord.” He nodded at the pale-faced man. The man sighed and shot a grin at his female companions.
“Sir Henry,” the man smiled. “I would like you to meet Miss Roberta and Miss Caryn. Did I say that right?”
The Dominican nodded, grinned, and put a hand on his chest.
“Word from our source,” Sir Henry said. “Across the river.”
The man’s smile faded into a knowing grin. He withdrew his arm from the Latina. He sighed and nodded.
“You ladies will excuse us.” They seemed reluctant. He waved his hands. “Come on.”
Sir Henry stood to allow Roberta exit. She frowned and scooted out of the booth.
“Come on,” the man said to Caryn. “Get the fuck out of here. Go powder your face or something.”
The Dominican rolled her eyes and played with her teeth with her tongue. She started sliding out of the booth. Sir Henry retook his seat and watched the two girls walk toward the restrooms.
“What is it?”
Sir Henry put his hands on the table. “Thomas, the princess met with the king.”
“Yes, yes. I know that. What happened?”
“Our tail saw her go into a hotel. With Lord Austin.”
Thomas played with his cheek with his tongue. He took a sip from his wine. “The young duke in waiting. Perhaps she wants to wed after all.”
Sir Henry shook his head. “Our other source.” He stared until the duke nodded. “He tells me there was some sort of incident. She left his room in the middle of the night.”
Thomas grinned and nodded. “Before or after she met with her father?”
“After.” Sir Henry waved at a passing waiter, who paused on his rounds. “Moscow mule, please.” The man nodded and disappeared into the crowd.
“This could be good,” Thomas said. “She’s clearly still uncertain.”
Sir Henry nodded and put his hands in his lap. “Our source in the palace would seem to confirm that. Next move?”
Thomas lifted his glass in a mock toast, then took a long swig of it.
“We let the story play out. A princess who wants nothing to do with the crown. Conflicted sexuality. A country with no taste for a queer on the throne, no matter what the Liberals might want to think.”
“Duke Annapolis,” Henry said, scoldingly. Thomas groaned. He hated when his man used that tone with him.
“Yes, yes, Henry. You know I don’t give a shit one way or another who Sarah wants licking her clit. But, the narrative.”
Sir Henry nodded. “Yes, it does feed into the abdication narrative.”
The Moscow Mule arrived and Henry thanked the waiter. He ran a hand over his dark, curly hair and lifted the copper mug to his lips.
“Everyone’s aching for a change, Henry.” Duke Annapolis waved the pink glass around as if to evoke the country’s zeitgeist from the wanton revelers in the colonial Annapolis tavern. “That’s why they elected that sideshow clown into the White House. Change at any cost.”
“He still has a better approval ratings than Hillary.”
Thomas slammed his glass recklessly into Henry’s mug. “Exactly! They love the noise, don’t they?”
“So, we drive this story, and then what?”
Thomas stared up into the flashing pastel lights, his ear cocked to the thumping dance music, which had no dance floor to indulge its temptations, as if to seek inspiration.
“Then, I just do what Trump did. He was cozy with the Liberals for years. But then, he acted out, spat some right-wing words into cameras and Twitter. The GOP base will overlook just about anything to get a loud enough voice in the palace.”
Henry shook his head. His black face tightened in doubt. “There’s still a lot of family values folks in there. And religious conservatives. You’ve said some shitty things about God.”
Thomas blew air out through his lips, then sucked wine back in through them. “They just want the king out. An end to the Clinton era. A new royal start, like so many times before.”
Sir Henry settled his eyes on Thomas’s face. The duke met his gaze, an opportunity to provide context.
Henry tapped the table. “Alexander is no King Aaron. And he’s certainly no King Luke. He’s in the Liberals’ pocket. He makes his grandfather look like a segregationist homophobe. He still has the mainstream media wrapped around his finger despite his silence during the election.”
Thomas shrugged and frowned. “His grandfather was FDR’s puppet. And he was Clinton’s. Time for a real monarch again. Someone who understands the power of the crown.”
Sir Henry spun his Moscow Mule between dark fingers. “Yes. But those were Liberal Party presidents. We now have a Freedom Party president, at least in name. And the mainstream media is aligned against him. I don’t see how you can turn them against a king who is known to favor the Clintons. A Liberal king.”
Duke Annapolis set his wine glass on the table and put a hand on Sir Henry’s forearm.
“Every eighty years or so, this country finds itself a new royal house. With some help from my friends at the Union Press. They ran King Luke out during the Civil War, then they ran King Aaron out during World War 2. The time has come again. I’m sure they’re itching to live up to that nickname that they’re so proud of.”
A man in a dark peacoat walked along a Washington sidewalk. The morning sky was gray. Pedestrians maneuvered past him, some staring into their phones. A red cab sidled up to the curb to pick up a passenger. The man in the dark peacoat straightened his gray hair and turned to climb three stone steps to a set of double-doors. A bronze plaque was embedded into the granite wall beside those doors.
Washington Union Press, in archaic Black Letter font. Below that, The Kingmaker, in bold, sans-serif letters.
The man in the dark peacoat walked past the information desk, beyond cubicles, toward a set of four elevators. He hugged a digital camera against his hip and punched the up button. Doors opened and a crowd of professionally dressed twenty-somethings poured into the hallway.
The man in the dark peacoat stepped out of the elevator, marched down a busy hallway, and walked without hesitation into an office. He closed the door behind him. Ignoring the man behind the desk, he started punching buttons on the camera. The other man, standing impatiently with close-cropped black curls against a mottled black scalp, frowned at him.
“This had better be good, Manx.” The black man took his seat behind the desk. “I’m missing breakfast at the Diner and I never do that. You’ve got something on this Berks County heiress that Annapolis has got stashed away?”
“No. If she’s off having a secret abortion, or hiding out from the duke to keep from having one, she’s in a damn good hiding place. And nowhere near her family’s house in Reading.” He held out the camera, and spun it so Baker was looking into the screen.
“Take a look.”
The man grabbed the camera and lowered his eyes on it. He swiped at the screen.
“So this is where the Princess has been sneaking around. Pappis don’t know?”
“Mitchell, if the pappis knew, you’d know. It’d be all over the Post and the Times, and every other rag.”
The newspaper man, Mitchell, nodded and swiped photos. “This looks familiar. Where is it?”
“That’s the hotel where Duke Austin’s son is staying.”
“Huh, since when?”
Manx put his hands on the desk. “Him, about a week. Them, just since two nights ago.”
“The night she ran out the back of the Bluecoat? Running from the pappis. They didn’t get a good shot of the guy she was with.”
“Yup. That was the night before she met with the king.”
Mitchell stood with the camera still held out before his eyes. “Huh. How long you think this has been going on? She been seen with Austin before?”
Manx shrugged, stepping back from the desk. “Don’t know yet. I figured you’d be able to dig that up fairly easily.”
Mitchell nodded. “True. You wanting to run with this now? Every paparazzi in town will be camped out there if we do.”
Manx pointed at the camera. “She left there just after midnight last night, so there’s a chance this little interlude is over for whatever reason. If she goes back, we can it keep it quiet while I dig for more dirt, maybe work on the staff. But, if it is over, I thought you might want to a get a jump on building a story around it.”
Mitchell handed the camera back to Manx.
“Well, if our source in the palace is right, she’s more likely to run off with him to Texas than bring him to Arlington. Yeah, I think we can start building something on this.”
Sarah felt her eyes burning. She blinked them twice, then opened them against the morning light. Her elbows slid under her and she sat up.
Victoria was standing at the corner of her bed. She tilted her head slightly to acknowledge the princess.
“I didn’t want to wake you when I came in last night,” Sarah said. “Giselle got me into bed.”
“Giselle could have left a note for me.” Victoria petted the corner of the bed covers and turned to move toward the fireplace. “How did the meeting with your father go yesterday? I’m guessing all he wanted was to press you about state matters?”
Sarah shrugged the covers from her arms and pulled her legs toward her. “Taking the crown, yes.”
Victoria turned. “And, you’re still hesitant?”
Sarah groaned. “Your annoying habit of understatement.”
“My apologies, Your Highness.” Victoria half-curtsied, then turned and lifted a hand toward the thermostat. “Shall I raise the heat? Sir Carl insists we keep it down in your absence. The cost.”
Sarah just stared at her.
“Keeping the palace costs down. But, now that you’re here, should I turn it up?”
“No, no.” She scooted toward the edge of the bed and rubbed warmth into her arms. “It’s fine.”
Victoria turned away from the thermostat, her hands at her sides. “Some breakfast?”
Sarah set her feet on the hardwood floored and sighed. “Yes, thank you, Victoria. Eggs and sausage. Milk and coffee.”
“Toast, Your Highness?”
“Not this morning. Just eggs and sausage.” She lifted a hand. “And sliced tomatoes. A salt shaker.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
Victoria walked toward the door, but paused as she reached for the knob.
“Anything else, Your Highness? Any plans for the next few days?”
Sarah stared at her knees for a moment. She turned toward the windows, across the Potomac, toward the spare skyline of the Capital with the Washington Monument piercing the mist. Somewhere in that city was Austin, perhaps preparing to return to Texas. The sky was white with cloud, threatening a December snow.
“Yes. Dame Bess is out of town for the holidays. I would like to visit Amy in Fayetteville. Spend Christmas there. Please book me a train to West Virginia.”
“As you wish, Your Highness.”
Victoria grinned, out of the sight of the princess, and let herself out of the bedroom.