Courtship in the Age of Steam (Chapter 1)

“What time is it?”

“It’s a quarter after seven, sir.”

Prince Andrew of the Ohio nodded his head at the answer. “It feels like I should just be waking up for lunch,” he said.

“Travel fatigue, sir,” answered his equerry and chaperone, Sir Charles St. John, Bt. The veteran parliamentarian and diplomat had been sent along to watch over Andrew during the courting process and also to meet with the Imperial Council on behalf of Andrew’s father, the King of the Ohio Palatinate. “It’s easier for a young man like to adjust to the time zones. If I fall asleep in the middle of the dinner, leave me be. I haven’t got a decent night’s sleep since we stepped on that airship.”

Andrew smiled. The airship flight had taken several days to cross the Atlantic, giving him plenty of time to grow more and more anxious about his arrival. It was absurd. All he was doing was meeting a girl–no, a woman. A woman who could one day be his wife and who one day would be the Queen-Empress of the British Empire. Do try to grow up, he reminded himself. He’d just spent three months in Milwaukee helping to negotiate a border dispute between Michigan Confederacy and Louisiana. This was nothing compared to that.

They’d arrived in Cardiff yesterday evening and had been greeted by the Welsh First Minister and the Imperial Lord High Representative for Foreign Affairs, who had left almost immediately after welcoming Prince Andrew. From there, they’d been taken on many tours of the city and the surrounding countryside, before being settled in Treberfydd House. The neo-Latinate country house was built at the edge of Brecon Beacons Royal Park near a kidney-shaped lake and its wetlands. It was a beautiful building, with its ivy-coloured stone walls and spiked battlements that made it look like an ancient castle that had been built centuries too late.

“This is an old country,” St. John said, putting his hands against the carved wood walls. “It was ancient when our Palatinate was born.”

“Is it time?” Andrew asked.

“They’ll get us when it’s time,” St. John said.

“I don’t like waiting.”

“Need I remind you, sir, that you are a small fish in a very large pond here?” St. John asked. “Back in America, your family may be the proverbial big fish, but not here.”

“My family.” Andrew snorted. “We’re all the same family. Last time I checked, I was a Plantagenet as much as them.”

“My point still stands,” St. John said.

Andrew played with the gold leaf embroidered on the front of his coat. He’d had to have all his suits tailored before leaving Cleveland-upon-the-Lake for England because he’d managed to gain some weight while in Milwaukee. It seemed to him that the national dish of Michigan was fatty sausages, fried cheese and beer. He was amazed that they hadn’t had to wheel him back home, but he was paying for it now.

“But remember, small and young we may be, we have a lot to offer the Empire,” St. John said. “Our industry is the beating heart of the machinery that drives the Empire.”

Andrew had heard that speech countless times from his father, King Charles Francis II. “I don’t need another rah-rah speech,” he said. “I can tell you how much coal we mine, petrol we drill and steel we mill. But that’s irrelevant when measured against the power that the Queen-Empress will wield one day. I’m on the threshold of immortality. How could I possibly be calm?”

“Then hide the storm inside,” St. John said.

There was a knock on the door and it opened to admit a servant in scarlet tails. “Your Highness,” he said, “you are expected in the Drawing Room.”

Andrew was the first out of the room with St. John a few paces behind him. The Prince made sure to walk slowly so that St. John could keep up. It was a short walk down the hallway to the Drawing Room, but it gave Andrew enough to consider what type of woman the Princess of Wales was. He knew the basics, that she was in the British Army and had recently returned from a tour of duty in the North-West Frontier…oh, and she’d been on the Welsh national team for the Women’s Handball World Cup a few years ago. As the daughter of the reigning King-Emperor and his heir, Archduchess Charlotte had kept a low profile, appearing in the tabloids only occasionally and never on one of the countless docu operas that followed the different branches of the Royal House around. There were the occasional rumors, though, but nothing scandalous. More melancholy than anything else.

“There are no cameras here,” Andrew commented.

“The Royal Family doesn’t exist in the same media bubble the rest of the House does,” St. John said. “They want people to see how the royals live, but not how the imperials live.”

Andrew nodded his head.

The servant took them to the Drawing Room. It was a more modern room than the rest of Treberfydd House, with pale gold wallpaper partially covered by sketches and drawings that had been collected over the years by generations of Princes of Wales. A glass chandelier hung from the ceiling, and a fire crackled in the fireplace as the curtains were drawn back to grant a view of the estate’s gardens and Llangorse Lake beyond it.

Conversation seemed to stop when Andrew walked in. He counted perhaps thirty people gathered in the room, most of them gathered in small clusters throughout. More servants in the same scarlet tailcoats went about silently, carrying trays of food and drinks. The reception was a simple, informal affair where Andrew would meet the Princess of Wales for the first time.

“By the fire,” St. John whispered.

Standing by the fireplace were a quartet of women in the uniform of the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues): dark blue tunic with scarlet facings, white crossbelts and riding breeches and black knee-high boots. Only one of them, though, wore the scarlet armband emblazoned with the golden lionhead of the Royal Knights of the Garter, marking her as a Princess of the Blood. The difference between her armband and Andrew’s was that she, as the Princess of Wales, had thicker gold braid on the edges.

“Her?” Andrew asked.

Archduchess Charlotte Plantagenet, Princess of Wales, looked to be about Andrew’s height, with light brown skin that was a few shades darker than his own. Her mother, Marudhar of Jaipur, Princess Consort, had been a Rajput princess from Rajputana–the first non-European to serve as a consort for an Imperial monarch. Charlotte had a long face, narrow nose and full lips, with black hair tied into two tight braids underneath a black beret. Her eyes, deep set under thick eyebrows, were the same steel grey as the rest of the Plantagenet family.

“Go on, boy,” St. John said. “Don’t keep her waiting.”

Charlotte whispered something to her two companions and they left her alone. Andrew took a deep breath and approached her, feeling everyone’s eyes on him the whole way. Out of the corner of his vision, he saw St. John join a group of Welsh parliamentarians, including the Lord High Representative. “Archduchess Charlotte,” Andrew said, bowing his head.

“Prince Andrew,” Charlotte said. She extended a hand and Andrew shook it. “I’m sorry I couldn’t have been the first, but welcome to Wales and the British Isles.”

“I want to thank you for your hospitality, Your Royal Highness,” Andrew said.

Charlotte’s hand shake was firm, and her smile was weak, as if it was forced, and her grey eyes didn’t smile along with her lips. Her life had been full of sadness. She’d been born on Bloody Friday, when Irish anarchists had killed or mortally wounded her grandfather, uncle and two cousins–and had indirectly been responsible for the death of a third cousin when her late uncle’s wife miscarried upon hearing the news. Then there’d been rumors of extended childhood illnesses, deaths in the extended family and even the death of a younger brother.

“I think first names should suffice,” Charlotte said. “We are on the same social rung, are we not.”

“I’m just a young whelp from the New World and you’re the Princess of Wales,” Andrew said.

“Titles are just words, and nothing more.” Charlotte raised a glass to her lips, but she was clearly attempting to stifle a yawn. “I’m terribly sorry if I don’t appear to be a gracious host. I’ve only been back home for a week, and I’m still travel fatigued.”

“I understand that all too well.”

“You’re fortunate in that regard, at least,” Charlotte said. “Cleveland is six hours behind London, but London is four hours behind Kabul. Six months overseas and I can’t even adjust to life back home.”

“So you were overseas in Afghanistan?” Andrew asked.

Charlotte shook her head. “I’ve spent the past week talking about nothing but the war. Nothing I can say will be new or even interesting. My grandfather’s grandfather’s grandmother started the war, and my grandchildren’s grandchildren will be fighting it in a hundred years. My great-uncle, Thomas, he’s been the King of Kashmir for almost thirty years and he barely controls the countryside out of Srinagar and Jammu.” She laughed but it was empty of any mirth, and it was quickly cut off by a sharp sigh. “You must be thirsty. Is mulled wine fine?”

Charlotte raised a hand and summoned one of the servers. Andrew took the opportunity to turn around, letting him survey the rest of the reception. No one was talking, and they were all trying to make it look like they weren’t starring. The server arrived with a tray of mulled wine in glass mugs. Andrew took one and gave it tentative sip.

“There’s nothing quite like curling up next to a fire during an English winter with a good book and mulled wine,” Charlotte said. She’d said it quietly, almost as if to herself. Andrew was uncertain of how to respond to it, and he was becoming increasingly aware that he needed to say something to her. Everyone in the room was paying close attention to–

A waiter walking past St. John stumbled, dropping his tray of food, some of it splashing on an elderly woman standing next to St. John. Everyone’s attention turned away from Andrew and Charlotte to the scene that had been made.

“Thank God,” Charlotte said. “I thought I was going to have to shoot someone.”

“Excuse me?” Andrew asked.

“Never mind.” Charlotte let out her breath and turned back to Andrew. He could smell her perfume now, a sweet hint of cinnamon and cloves. “You’ve been busy yourself, haven’t you?”

The tension was gone, and Andrew tried to not to smile at the poor waiter’s misfortune. “Oh, yes, negotiation freedom of movement on the Mississippi between the Michigan Confederacy and Louisiana,” he said. “A delicate topic since the Great Council and the Directorate are obstinate institutions, but that’s what I wrote my thesis about at university.”

Charlotte raised an eyebrow. “You graduated university?”

“A bachelor’s from King & Queen College in Virginia,” Andrew said. “With honours, too. I read international relations during my years there.”

“I’ve always wanted to attend university, but duty calls.” Charlotte took another drink from her glass, her own eyes surveying the crowd. Her smile had disappeared, and her lips were pressed together. “I’m curious. have you met Bobbet?”

“Bobbet…?”

“The Lord High Representative. He’s an old family friend.”

Of course he is, Andrew thought, taking a quick, sidelong glance at the Viscount Wimbledon.

“Well, have you?” Charlotte asked.

“We met in passing yesterday, but I don’t believe we’ve had much time to get to know each other.”

“Let’s fix that, shall we?” Charlotte said, putting a hand on Andrew’s back and lead him over to the Lord High Representative.

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