Courtship in the Age of Steam (Chapter 3 – END)

“What do you make of her, sir?” Charles St. John asked.

Andrew didn’t look up from his breakfast plate. The kitchen staff at Treberfydd House had done an amazing job of replicating an Ohioan full breakfast. The bacon was overcooked, though, too crispy for his liking. He would need to talk to someone about it. “She seems nice, but I have to wonder,” Andrew said. “Does my father think me a poofter?”

“Poofter?” St. John said. “Whatever do you mean?”

“A homophile.”

“Yes, I know what a poofter is,” St. John said, whipping crumbs from his lips. “But what makes you ask such a question? Of course, that’s not what your father thinks, that’s what nobody thinks.”

Andrew nodded his head, not entirely believing St. John. Sport hadn’t come as easily to him as they had for his older brothers, and he’d never chased girls the same way because he’d been too interested in his studies. University had been much the same, but it wasn’t as if he’d spent those years as a celibate monk cloistered from the opposite sex.

“I will admit that Charlotte is not a usual woman, even by royalty’s standards,” Andrew said.

“Of course, she won’t be usual. She’s the Princess of Wales, the heir to the most powerful man in the world, and in due time, she’ll be the most powerful woman.”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” Andrew said. He tried to pick up a slice of bacon with his fork but failed, so he gave up after a few attempts. “She’s…she’s…” he tried to find the proper word, but failed.

“You’re worried that she will dominate you and perhaps even cuckold you?”

“Those thoughts had crossed my mind from time to time,” Andrew said.

“You don’t have to make a decision now, but I don’t think I would be remiss in reminding you that even Elizabeth II’s Prince Consort, the Duke of Clarence, had mistresses,” St. John said. “Though some of the more salacious biographies suggest it was a team effort between the two.”

“I don’t want mistresses, I want a wife,” Andrew said.

“Being the Prince Consort to the Queen-Empress would be the simplest, most stress-free job in the world. You’ll live in luxury that seems decadent from even your current position, and aside from the occasional public appearance, all you have to do is produce a few heirs.”

“Is that all marriage is supposed to be?”

“Is that all you’re concerned about? Hehe, if that’s all you have to complain about, then I say you have one of the easiest lives on God’s Earth.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow. “You’re beginning to sound like a Radical Liberal, St. John. And here I thought you were an ultra-Tory!”

“Would your father let a Radical Liberal chaperone you on one of the most important trips in the Palatinate’s history?” St. John chuckled. “I’m merely making an observation, nothing more, nothing less. Everyone has their place in the world. Inequality is the natural order of things, after all. If this is to be your life, then you have been blessed by the Most High Himself.”

“That is one way to think about, I suppose,” Andrew said.

“Is that not how you see it?”

Andrew shrugged and reached for his tea. “I’m not sure how to see it.” He took a sip of the tea, but it had gone cold and tasteless. “I suppose I could force myself to enjoy this type of life, but…but, I honestly can’t put my feelings into words.”

“You’re not getting any younger, sir.”

“I only thought women had to worry about that,” Andrew said. “St. Henry the Lion King’s youngest son was born posthumously and he lived to the ripe old age of 74.”

“I never claimed to be a biologist.” St. John looked at his pocket watch and sighed. “We should probably be on our way.” Andrew was scheduled to visit the construction sites of a linear arcology that would one day link Cardiff with London and Birmingham. The Virginians had begun building their own, and the Palatinate was investigating their own proposals. “Should you perhaps say some parting words to the Archduchess?”

“We’re to meet her again in Cardiff next week.”

“It would be considered rude to not thank your host, who has so graciously welcomed us into her home this week,” St. John said.

“Fine, I’ll say good bye,” Andrew said.

St. John summoned a servant to take away the breakfast, and he arrived with one of Charlotte’s companions, Lieutenant Lady Mildred Ashley-Cooper. She was the daughter of some English earl, and had served with Charlotte in The Blues in Afghanistan, and as such, had become something of a de facto lady-in-waiting for the Princess of Wales alongside the other women.

“Lottie would like to speak with you before you depart,” Ashley-Cooper said as the servant went about clearing the table.

Andrew wondered if Ashley-Cooper had brought any clothing other than her uniform; he had to admit that she didn’t wear it nearly as well as Charlotte did. “Myself and Sir Charles were preparing to leave,” he said.

“I’ll have the servants prepare your things, then,” Ashley-Cooper said.

“I’ll be here to supervise,” St. John said. “Give my regards to Her Royal Highness, sir.”

“Very well. Lieutenant, lead the way.”

Ashley-Cooper nodded her head and took Andrew down a hallway into a part of Treberfydd House he’d never been to before. He realised they were going to the top of the house’s clocktower when they reached a spiral staircase. “Up there,” Ashley-Cooper said. “Knock before you go in.”

Andrew walked up the stairs and stopped in front of the wooden door. He paused for a moment to consider what he was going to say. With his mind made up, he knocked.

“Come in,” Charlotte said from the other side.

Andrew opened the door. The walls of the room were covered in sketches and watercolours, an almost even mix of landscapes, portraits and wildlife studies. He saw snowy, mountainous vistas that could only be the Hindu Kush or the Himalayas. Animals ranging from exotic, colourful frogs to regular housecats. The portraits were more familiar, as he recognised them as other members of the Plantagenet dynasty.

“Papa’s private secretary, Sir Damon Knowles, recommended that I take up a peaceful hobby,” Charlotte said. She sat by the window in front of an easel. There was a watercolour mounted on the wooden frame: two dark figures standing in front of pink sky, holding what looked like guns. “I’m not very good with hands or feet, I’m afraid. It’s taken me this long just to master how to draw eyes.”

“They’re very nice,” Andrew said. Only one of the portraits had a frame. It was a young boy, perhaps no more than ten or eleven years old with a long face and downcast grey eyes. “Who’s this?”

Charlotte looked over her shoulder at where he was looking. “Oh,” she said. “That’s my brother, John Henry.”

“Oh.” The realization sunk in for Andrew. “Oh.”

“Or at least what I remember of him. I painted that last year from memory. Mama said I managed to capture his likeness towards the end.”

“It looks splendid,” Andrew said.

“I do believe there’s a certain similarity between the two of you–or how I imagine Jackie would have looked if he were still alive.” Charlotte turned back to her current watercolour, and Andrew spent a few more minutes looking at the different paintings and sketches that she had displayed. There were even more piled on the floor and leaning against the walls.

Meowr.

There was a cat sitting in a plush bed on the stool next to Charlotte. It had cream coloured fur, with black patches on its snout and legs. Charlotte reached out and stroked the cat’s head. Its blue eyes were large and sad looking. “Andrew, meet Ashes,” she said. “I don’t know if you’ll get another chance.”

“Why’s that?” Andrew asked.

“Ashes is twenty-four years old,” Charlotte said. She put aside the paints and turned to face Andrew again. “He was originally meant as a gift to my cousins, but…well, Papa never had any time for a cat, and I couldn’t say no to this face.” Charlotte shrugged. “I don’t think Ashes understands what happened to Eddie and Richie, but I don’t blame him.”

“My mother’s allergic to cats,” Andrew said. “She trains falcons though.”

“Really?” Charlotte asked. “I’ve always wanted to try that, but I’ve never found the time.”

Andrew nodded his head. “You still have plenty of time left to learn.”

“I’m sure that’s what my grandfather and uncle thought before Irish anarchists blew them to kingdom come,” Charlotte said. “I would love for Papa to have many more years on the throne–he’s almost the same age as my grandfather was when he was killed.”

Why did everything about her have to be so morose? Andrew asked himself.

“I have a lot I want to accomplish in this life. I simply can’t wait for life to happen. I’m sure you’re the same way.”

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that,” Andrew said. “I’m the fourth son, and now I’m seventh in line for succession. I can do as I chose with my life with no fear about it being interrupted because I’m suddenly called to the throne.”

“I envy you for that, Andrew.”

“And I, you. You have a purpose in life that I lack. Everything you’ve done in life leads to one singular point,” Andrew said.

Charlotte shook her head. “I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree,” she said. “Are you going to be off, then?”

“Birmingham, to see the linear arcologies,” Andrew said.

“And I’m to see you again next week? In Cardiff?”

“Yes, as long as the schedule holds.” Andrew extended his hand. “I want to thank you for your hospitality, Charlotte. This has been an eye-opening experience for me.”

“And for me too,” Charlotte said. She took booth of Andrew’s hands, and leaned in towards him. He instinctively turned his head, so she ended up kissing him on the cheek. Her lips were cold. “Oh,” she said, taking a step back from Andrew. She let go of his hands, and while her shoulders slumped, her face remained an unchanged mask. “I suppose that was a bit forward of me. I apologize if…if I was untoward.”

“No apologies necessary,” Andrew said. “I look forward to our next meeting, Your Royal Highness.”

“I look forward to it too,” Charlotte said. “Birmingham is a nice city, if you like factories.”

“I suppose it’ll feel like home,” Andrew said. “With your leave.”

Charlotte only nodded her head. “Of course. Go. You have a schedule to keep.”

Andrew thought about saying something, but he was sure that whatever he would say would only make matters worse. Charlotte sat down on her stool, picked up Ashes and put the cat in her lap. He watched for a few moment as Charlotte stroked the cat’s head before turning to leave.

Courtship in the Age of Steam (Chapter 2)

Andrew was wakened by his bedroom door opening. Sudden fear gripped him as dim light spread across the room from the door.

“Andrew?”

Andrew sat up and saw a shadow standing in the doorway, silhouetted by hallway lights. “Charlotte?” he asked. “Is that you?”

“Good, you’re awake,” Charlotte said.

“What time is it?” Andrew asked. “What are–”

Charlotte threw a bag at Andrew, and it landed on his lap with a thud. “Those should fit you. We got your measurements from Cleveland, but if they don’t, please tell me. Get dressed and meet me in the Drawing Room. Immediately.”

“What is–”

Charlotte turned on the bedroom’s electric lights before turning to leave, closing the door behind her. Andrew starred at the door for a few moments. What was going on? He looked at the towering floor clock that ticked in a far corner of the room. Just half past five in the morning. He’d been in bed for less than five hours, what could Charlotte want?

I suppose the bag holds all the answers, Andrew told himself. He got out of the bed and unzipped the bag to take out its components: coverall waders, turtleneck sweater, waistcoat and country jacket, all made from tweed or other waterproof fabrics. There was a small note attached to the turtleneck saying that it went under the waders. He dressed as quickly as he could in the unfamiliar clothing–they weren’t uncomfortable since they had been tailored for him. With that done, he left the bedchambers went to the Drawing Room.

The Princess of Wales was waiting for him, dressed similarly to him–though her clothes tended towards darker shades of brown than his own tans and greens. There was another man in the room, an older one with a shapeless flat cap over thinning hair, and knee-high rubber boots over mustard trousers. The vest he wore was oversized and puffy, and worn with a knit sweater.

“Good morning, Andrew,” Charlotte said, without smiling.

“Your Highness,” the man said, bowing his head. His chubby cheeks were bright and ruddy, and his voice was deep and booming. “A pleasure to finally meet you.”

“Andrew, meet Sir Galbraith Lowry, my father’s Master of the Kennels,” Charlotte said.

“Former Master of the Kennels,” Sir Galbraith Lowry said. “Now I just raise dogs in my spare time.”

“And some of the best dogs I’ve ever worked with.”

It had taken Andrew almost a full minute to realise there were three dogs sitting by the fireplace. They were Hudson Bay Retrievers, dogs taller than Andrew’s knees, with thick black coats and brown points and markings. All three got to their feet and wandered over to Andrew, and he pet them in turn. “Pepin, Maggie and Kipper,” Lowry said, naming the dogs in turn. “The best fowl hunting dogs I’ve ever trained.”

“Hunting,” Andrew said. There were two bags leaning against one of the armchairs.

“They’ll be in your care, then, ma’am,” Lowry said. He tipped his cap to Andrew. “Happy hunting, you two. With your leave.”

“I appreciate all that you’ve done for me, Sir Galbraith,” Charlotte said. “We’ll take good care of them.” When Lowry was gone, Charlotte went over to the bags, unzipped them and took out two shotgun and matching boxes of shells. She handed one of each to Andrew, who just starred at them. “From your reaction, you’ve never been hunting, have you?”

“I’ve never so much as fired a gun before,” Andrew said.

Charlotte froze for a moment. “Really? That’s surprising.”

“How so?” Andrew asked.

“How do you expect to defend your family if you’ve never fired a gun?”

“Why would I need to?”

Charlotte shook her head. “Never mind. Here, let me show you.” She showed Andrew how to load the shells into the shotgun. She’d washed her face of makeup, but she still smelled faintly of cloves and cinnamon–at first, he’d thought it’d been her favourite perfume, but not he was certain it was her only perfume.

“Have you slept?” Andrew asked.

“I still haven’t reset my circadian rhythm for England time,” Charlotte said. “I’m sure it’ll come back eventually.”

“Hopefully,” Andrew said.

“Keep your finger off the trigger, and always keep it pointed at the ground away from me, your feet and the dogs, until you mean to kill something. Any questions?”

Andrew shook his head. “Not at this immediate moment, no.”

“Just follow me and try not to frighten the birds,” Charlotte said.

“I’ll try,” Andrew said.

It was far colder outside than he’d been expecting. Charlotte handed him a flat cap that had earflaps and he put it on, feeling a little warmer, even as his breath turned to fog. The dogs had followed them outside at Charlotte’s command; the twin braids she frequently wore with her military uniform had been turned into one, flowing across her shoulder from underneath her trilby.

“Is that a real ostrich feather?” Andrew asked, noting the feather stuck in the hatband.

“It is, South African ostrich,” Charlotte said. “The ostrich feather is an ancient symbol of the Prince of Wales.”

“It’s looks nice,” Andrew said.

Charlotte nodded her head.

“So, if you don’t mind me asking, Charlotte, what are we doing?” Andrew asked, suppressing the urge to shudder as a chill ran through him. The wind gusted through him, but he barely felt it through his clothing.

“Hunting pheasant,” Charlotte answered. “Most of the time we use small armies of beaters and dogs to rouse the birds from their cover. That’s never seemed sporting to me, to be honest. Upland hunting, using dogs to flush the birds…that’s true sport.”

“Do you hunt often?”

“My mother loves hunting…well, she loves shooting.” Charlotte stopped at the top of a small hill and looked down. “She had training from the Royal Virginian Sniper School, but she couldn’t serve because women weren’t allowed to. Things are a bit different now, but my mother always wanted her children to be able to fight for themselves if it came to it.” She turned back to Andrew. “Do you remember the Indian mutiny in the 80s?”

“A bit before my time, but I do know if it, yes,” Andrew said.

“Jaipur was at the heart of it,” Charlotte said. “Before things become too bad, my grandfather was able to evacuate the women and children of his household south to Trivandrum in Kerala. But then…but then my grandfather’s own guards turned against him and murdered those who remained.” Charlotte sighed. “I pray that Papa has a long reign on the throne so that one day I may become a general officer on my own merits.”

“You’re going overseas again?”

“Yes. Not for another few weeks, and not back to Afghanistan. Papa mentioned something about a deployment to southern China, or perhaps even Indochina.” The dogs were growing restless, and one of them whined. “They wanted to make me a staff officer, but they won’t take my platoon from me. Not yet, not until they pin another pip on my shoulder.” The dogs continued to whine. “I suppose we should get to it, then.”

They walked downhill towards a row of tall grasses and wetlands, zig-zagging as they want. The dogs perked up their heads, and Charlotte nodded her head. “Tracks,” she said. With a few sharp words to the dogs, two of them went tearing off towards the grass while the third remained, patient. Charlotte set herself and kept her eyes raised above the treeline. There was a great squawking and the birds rose above the branches, dark shapes against the streaks of grey and pink that coloured the early morning sky. Charlotte raised her shotgun and fired both barrels. Andrew was sure that he saw a few birds fall.

“Pippin, go fetch,” Charlotte said. “Andrew, you’re next.”

“What?” Andrew asked flatly.

“Don’t worry, I’ll show you,” Charlotte said. They walked over to the line of trees and picked up the birds the archduchess had shot. The dogs were waiting with four birds. With the dogs in tow and birds in hand, Charlotte and Andrew walked up another hill and then down. “This is a good spot.” She ordered the dogs forward and put down her own shotgun and birds. “Turn this way, Andrew.” Charlotte stood behind Andrew and put her hands on his hips, orienting him in the direction the dogs had gone. She then took his arms and helped him raise his shotgun.

Charlotte was pressing herself so close to him that she could feel her heartbeat. It sounded fast, as if she was nervous or excited about something. But what?

“There they are,” Charlotte whispered, her words warm against his ears. She guided his arms, tracking the flight of the birds. “Pull the trigger.”

Andrew did as he was told, and the shotgun bucked in his hands.

“Again,” Charlotte said.

Andrew fired the shotgun’s second barrel.

“You did it. I think you got some,” Charlotte said, sounding excited and happy for the first time. She kissed him on the cheek. “Let’s see what you bagged.”

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.

Of All the Gin Joints in the World

The rain had begun shortly before five, and hadn’t let up since then. I splashed through the puddles as I crossed the street, and I was almost clipped by a Chevy Bel Air. I’d been too wrapped up in my own thoughts that I hadn’t seen the car barreling down the street. It honked its horn and I threw the bird after it as it turned the corner. The rain beat steadily against my umbrella, and the neon lights of the gin joints and gambling halls reflected in the puddles of rainwater that had gathered in the potholes and gutters of the street.

I walked into a cocktail bar called The Wicked Social. Its neon sign was flickering in and out of existence, and soon it would just be called The Social. It wasn’t close to last call, but by the inside of the joint, you’d have thought it was already closed. My yellow dress stood out in a joint like this. The black obsidian bar and the bottles of black liquor absorbed the lights. Old, blue-grey smoke hung from the ceiling like a factory’s smokestacks. Two walls were red brick that may have well been black.

I found her in the back, alone and curled up in an egg chair. Her black leggings and white crop sweatshirt stood out sharply against the red fabric of the chair. “Lorelai,” I said.

Lorelai opened her pale eyes and looked up at me through a few lose strands of straw-colored hair. “Tell me, Tabitha, do you like Suzuki?” she asked, pushing the headphones off her ears.

“Suzuki?”

“Sleepy Suzuki,” Lorelai answered. “I used to be a lounge singer, you know.”

“I know. That’s how we met.”

“That’s right. Sammy Casati’s old place on Vine Street. What was it called again?”

“The Vine Street Lounge,” I said. “Come on, it’s time.”

“Sleepy Suzuki makes such soulful music. You can hear his heart in his piano work.”

“Lorelai.”

“What does it matter anyway?” Lorelai put the headphones around her neck and stood up. “At least I got to listen to him one last time.”

“Don’t be like this, Lorelai.”

“Don’t be like what, Tabitha? I’m not the one who–”

I grabbed Lorelai by the arm and pulled her close. “Listen here, Lorelai. I don’t have the time or the energy to put up with your games.”

“Why don’t you just do it right now then?” Lorelai asked.

“Come on.” I pulled Lorelai away from the table and out of the bar. “Do you have an umbrella?”

“No, why would I?”

“Here.” I opened the umbrella above us, slipping an arm around Lorelai’s waist to keep her close and to stop her from running away.

“Why are you doing this?” Lorelai asked.

“It costs nothing to be polite,” I said. “But I don’t like doing this. I don’t relish this job.”

“Then why do you do this?”

I shrugged. “You of all people, Lorelai, should know what happens when someone tries to leave the Outfit.”

“I wasn’t trying to leave,” Lorelai said.

The rain had slackened off to a drizzle by now, but the occasional clap of thunder warned that more would be on its way. Steam was rising from underneath the city, coming up from the subway system through grates and manhole covers. Lorelai stepped in a puddle and groaned as the water soaked in through the thin canvas sneakers she was wearing. Long shadows were cast across her face, and I found it hard to get a read on her emotions.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll make it quick and easy, and leave you pretty enough for an open casket funeral when they dredge you out of the harbor.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Lorelai asked.

A car drove by, and it slowed down as it passed us. Someone shouted something at us, but they were too drunk to be heard clearly.

“No, it’s supposed to make me feel better.”

We were walking along the waterfront now. The Lockheed Marine Works yards were across the harbor, light up like a birthday cake even in this weather. There was no boat traffic, and even the tourists had retired to bed. The air smelled of salt and fish, but I could still smell a cloying hint of peppermint from Lorelai.

“Why do you do this?” Lorelai asked.

“It puts bread on the table.”

“There’s a million other jobs you could do.”

“I’ve only ever been good at one thing, and ever since the Mutiny, there’s been less and less legal killing that needs doing.”

Lorelai stopped. “Here?”

“This is fine.”

I unhooked my arm from her waist and took a step back.

“This is where I had my first,” Lorelai said, crossing her arms in front of her chest.

“This exact spot?” I reached into my purse for my gun, a silenced .22.

“Maybe, I don’t know. Somewhere along the waterfront.”

“I’m sorry, Lorelai.”

“You know my cat, Mr. Whiskers?”

I nodded my head. “Yeah, I know him.”

“Make sure someone looks after him.”

“I will.”

“I’m glad it was you, Tabitha.”

Three quick shots into her back, clustered near her heart. She stumbled forward and fell into the water. A bolt of lightning arced across the sky and the rain began to pick up. I still needed to get Mr. Whiskers from Lorelai’s apartment.

Don’t Know What You Got ‘Til It’s Gone

Fletcher began to suspect his husband was cheating on him when Brady started to come home late at night, smelling of smoke and tasting of another man.  Fletcher would embrace Brady at night, and he could smell the scent on him.  Brady worked as a banker downtown, while Fletcher worked in a small bookstore in a brand new shopping center, where he worked more normal eight hour days with only the occasional evening.

The shopping center itself was made from glass and steel, a cathedral to the Big Box stores and brands.  The bookstore was different–it was small and tucked away behind the escalators, with piles of books stacked on top of each other on the floor and on the shelves.  There were no windows and the owner kept the lights dim, contrasting it sharply with the brightly-lit mall outside.

The shopping center had its own temple with shrines dedicated to each of the thirteen gods.  Fletcher went one day after work in order to ask Toskagee for guidance, but the line to pray before the shrine was long because it was the week before Valentine’s Day.  The temple was a glass atrium; the cold winter sun shone through the roof and walls, and small birds fluttered between the trees.  The shrines were surrounded by bright plants and offerings.

All of theme except for Tekamthi.  Her shrine was sparse and empty, set off to the side.  A small fire burned in a copper pot, flanked on both sides by small piles of bones.  Few people ever sought Tekamthi’s blessings because no one wanted war or death.  Fletcher frowned, and despite himself, he stepped out of line and walked over to her shrine.  He looked up at the statue carved from glassy black obsidian; her wings were spread behind her and she held her Kentucky rifle above her head.  He felt something strange in his gut, as if someone was tying it into a knot.

Fletcher turned away from the statue and left the temple.

#

Fletcher was organizing boxes of old books in the back when he found a strange title, The Love of Blood by someone named Orlando Hull.  The cover was some black, pink and white abstract design, and he didn’t recognize the title or the author.  It wasn’t a large book (perhaps a hundred pages at most), and Fletcher felt the urge to read it.  He took it home that night.  Brady hadn’t called, but Fletcher wasn’t surprised anymore when Brady didn’t come home on time.

The Love of Blood was a spell book, covering spells for both Tekamthi and Toskagee, the goddess of war and the goddess of love–it was an interesting combination, but it made sense to Fletcher.  Scorned lovers often became violent, looking for retribution.  Fletcher wasn’t sure that’s what he wanted.  He just wanted his husband back.  He had trouble remembering the last time the two of them had had a proper conversation.

Brady came back late at night, but had fallen asleep on the couch, which surprised Fletcher.  “I didn’t hear you come in,” he said.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” Brady said.

“I would have been fine with that,” Fletcher said.  “We haven’t had a lot time to talk lately.”

“I’m sorry.  Work’s been crazy.”

“I love you.”

“I’ll see you tonight,” Brady said before leaving for the day.

Fletcher put away Brady’s clothes before going to work.  He didn’t like the way the clothes smelled, but there was nothing he could do about it now.  At lunch, he visited the temple again; instead of getting in line to see Toskagee, he sat in front of Tekamthi’s shrine with a copy of The Love of Blood in his lap.  He felt the same twisting feeling in his gut; it was a cold, icy grip that was holding onto him, but this time, he didn’t run.

He was actually beginning to like looking at the shrine.

#

Fletcher tried to schedule a date night for the two of them on Friday, but Brady had to cancel.  Work, he said.  On a Friday night?  That was the final straw.  Fletcher ordered Chinese delivery, and stared at The Love of Blood all night.  Fletcher licked his lips and wiped his palms on his pants.  He just wanted his husband back.

Fletcher wasn’t scheduled to work on Saturday, but he went to the shopping center.  It was warm for a February, and the air conditioner inside the mall was working overtime.  The lines to see Toskagee had grown during the weekend, but Fletcher ignored them.  He sat in front of the statue, pressed his hands together and prayed.  He just wanted his husband back, so he dropped the fetish into the fire.  He’d made it from blood, hair and scraps of clothes.  It caught fire and disappeared into the flame.

#

There was a woman waiting for Fletcher when he returned home.  She was lying on a living room sofa, reading Orlando Hull’s The Love of Blood.  She had pale skin and long, pale red hair, and when she looked at him, he froze.  Her eyes were red irises on black sclera with diamond-shaped pupils.  She was a goddess in red robes and black armor.  It took Fletcher a moment to identify her as Onthaneequay, the daughter of Tekamthi and Toskagee and the goddess of scorned lovers.

“Don’t look so surprised,” Onthaneequay said, standing up.  “You were the one who called me here.”

“What did you do?” Fletcher asked.  He was surprised at how abrupt he was with a goddess.

“The question, is,” Onthaneequay folded her hands in front of her, “what did you do?”

Fletcher was shaking and he felt his knees go week.  Onthaneequay remained where she was standing, a small smile on her face.  There was a tapping on the window and Onthaneequay walked over to open it.  A small creature came in, a grotesque mane of feathers the size of a cat.

The phone began to ring.  “I just wanted my husband back.”

“You should answer that,” Onthaneequay said.  The creature climbed onto her shoulder and pecked at her ear.

“I never wanted this.”

The phone continued to ring.

“Answer the phone,” Onthaneequay said.

Fletcher picked up the phone.  “Hello…yes, this is me…oh, where…are you sure…I, I don’t know…I can…thank you.”

“Well?” Onthaneequay asked as Fletcher hung up the phone.

“Brady…Brady died.  Car accident.”  He looked up at Onthaneequay, his fists clenched in rage.  “I never asked for this.  I didn’t want this.”

“My mothers may have created humans, but I don’t think we’ll ever truly understand our creations.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Onthaneequay shrugged and turned to leave.  She stopped and looked over his shoulder at him.  “He wasn’t being unfaithful.”

Fletcher stared at her.  “Wh-wh-what?”

“He was working late for overtime pay.”

“But…why?  What for?”

“I only know what I know.”

Onthaneequay left through the back door.  Fletcher collapsed and began to sob.

From the Dusty Mesa – Pt. VII

I ride north for the Lumpong Agency, and it takes me most of two days to reach it from Carbonate.  It would take several more days for me to ride to Nanung, the seat of the Agency, but I don’t need to go that far.  Just far enough to see my uncle.

The land becomes flat and arid once I leave Tochopa National Forest.  The forests become flat scrubland that stretch for miles in every direction.  I can’t see a tree no matter which direction I look.  The only vegetation are low lying shrubs and bushes.  It’s also hot.  Almost unbearably hot.  I wear nothing but a simple desert robe that covers me but doesn’t smother me.

There are faded signs warning me about that I’m about to enter the Lumpong Agency.  I’m stopped by an agency ranger less than five minutes across the border.  I show him my papers and explain to him who I want to see.

“Who is he to you?” the ranger asks.

“He’s my uncle,” I say.  “My mother’s brother.”

“Your father?”

“Miqad al-Chokik.”

The ranger looks surprised.

“He doesn’t talk about me often, does he?”

The ranger shakes his head.  An oddly human gesture.  “But then again, he has plenty of children as it is.”  The ranger returns my papers to me.  “I’ll take you to see Thabit.”

I nod my head.  There’s no point in arguing so I follow him.  The ranger attempts to make conversation with me, but I offer few answers.  I’m not much interested in conversation as my mind is occupied with thoughts of my uncle and my father.

Sanapong is built on top of a steep hill.  A few old mud huts are built at the base behind a sagging barbed wire fence.  Newer looking trailer homes sat higher up on the hill towards the peak.  Adults are passed out on front stoops, either from drugs or alcohol.  I avert my eyes, unwilling to see it for what it is.  Children run out to run around the horses.  They’re dressed in dirty rags.

“Why aren’t they in school?” I ask.

“School had to shut down.  No money.”

Thabit ibn Sasah lives in a trailer near the summit.  We’re met by a broad shouldered orc who’s scowling at me.  I recognize him as my brother, Dilal.

“Odima,” he says, still scowling.

“I’m here to see our uncle.”

“Our uncle?  After what you did to our father?”

“If you’ll notice, brother,” I say, “I’m here to see our uncle, not our father.”

“What is this about?”

“We’re family.  Do I need a reason?”

Dilal glares at me before finally relenting.  “Follow me,” he says.

I follow him inside the trailer, carrying my sack with me.  Dust dances in sunlight shining in through the windows.  The top half of the walls are covered in faded wallpaper and then lower half are covered by wood paneling.  The furniture is old and torn.  A group of children sit in the living room, watching static-filled I Love Lucy reruns on the television while drinking Coke from glass bottles and eating falafel.

Uncle Thabit is in the back bedroom.  His skin is sallow and sagging.  The room smells like rosewater.  Thabit opens his eyes and looks at me.  “I thought I wouldn’t see ghosts until I was actually dead,” he says.  “Hamah, is that you?”

“No, uncle, it’s me, Odima.”

Thabit closes his eyes.  “I must be in hell.”

“I’m not dead, not matter how much you wish I was.”

“What do you want, child?” Thabit asks.

“I’ve come to discuss the future of our people.”

Thabit begins to laugh, but it quickly turns into a racking cough.  He wipes spittle and phlegm from his lips.  “Our people?  You mean the people you abandoned.”

“I never abandoned my people.”

“You live and work with the Autumn-Men.  They’re dead leaves.  Why do you care?”

“Because they’re our future, whether you want to admit it or not.”

“Have you become a rot-eater?” Dilal asks.

I try not to rise to the bait.  I drop the bag I’m carrying on the floor, and it makes a loud bang.

“What’s that?” Dilal asks.

“Two hundred pounds of copper bars.  They’re mining metal from the ground from our land.  This is our future.”

“What’s your point?” Thabit asks.

“The future is here,” I say.  “We can’t fight it, but we can forge our space in it.”

“A space?  Have you found your space, child?  Do they accept you as one of their own?”

I open my mouth to say something, but stop because I realize that I can’t argue with my uncle.

“Where did you get all this copper?” Dilal asks.

“I stole it,” I answer.

“Stole it?”

“You accuse me of being a rot-eater, but I’m the only one trying to make my place in their world.”

“By killing them?” Thabit asks.

“By keeping the balance,” I answer.

“You are not keeping any balance,” Thabit said.  “Leave my presence, child.  I never want to see you.  You have your dead leaves to play with.”

“I am repaying the money that I–”

“I said be gone!  Leave!  As far as I’m concerned, we no longer share any blood!”

I clench my fists and bite my tongue.  Without saying a word, I turn and march out of the trailer, slamming the door behind me.

“Odima!” Dilal calls after me as I mount my horse.

I don’t acknowledge him.

“Father will know you’ve returned,” Dilal says.

“I don’t care,” I say, pointing my horses back south towards Carbonate.

From the Dusty Mesa – Pt. VI

The Carbonate Manor Lodge was built on the woody hills overlooking the town below.  It’s a blocky building made mostly from local stone and timber, and is hidden away behind rows of pine trees.  The main dining room’s a large, high-ceilinged room with floor to ceiling windows and native designs and tapestries hanging from the stone walls.

Senator Vance Cabrera sat at a corner table, his face covered in flickering shadows from the candles that lit the dining room as the serving staff took the plates away.  Hershel Friedgen watched the Senator nervously.  The dinner had gone well enough, but the conversation had remained stilted and had only danced around the intended topic at best.

“This is a lovely town you have here, Mr. Friedgen,” Senator Cabrera said, nodding towards the window.  Carbonate was lit up for the evening, just visible between the pine branches.

“Thank you, Senator,” Friedgen said.  “Carbonate is always welcoming to guests such as yourself.”

Cabrera reached into his pocket for a silver box.  He pulled out a cigar and clipped the cap.  A waiter suddenly appeared with a lighter, and Cabrera puffed on the cigar.  “I assume the biggest industry here is tourism.”

“It is,” Friedgen said, nodding his head.  “But we’re looking to change that.”

“Copper and timber,” Cabrera said.

“Copper, yes.”

“But not timber?”

“All our trees are locked up in national forests.”

Cabrera puffed on the cigar and blew the smoke out of his nose.  “Are you not even aware of what national forests are for?”

Friedgen shook his head.  “I’m sorry, Senator, but I’m not sure.”

A waiter placed a tray of biscotti on the table, and a glass of Vin Santo dessert wine.  “All those hundreds of years back on Old Earth, President Roosevelt wanted to preserve America’s forestland for future use.”  Cabrera dipped a biscotti into the Vin Santo and took a bite of it.  “He didn’t want to protect the trees for protections sake.  He wanted to create a reserve of trees for use to be logged later.  It takes a long time to grow a tree.”  Cabrera rested his cigar in an ashtray.  “But what of the copper?”

“What of it?”

“I believe there were promises made of a shipment of copper.”

Friedgen cleared his throat and looked down.  Vance Cabrera was the chair of the powerful Committee on Public Lands in the Redstone Circuit Senate.  His hair was grey and slicked back and his skin orange from a fake tan.  “There were issues.”

“Issues?”

“I sent a shipment of 6,000 pounds of copper to Samawa last month, but it was taken by raiders.”

“You expect me to believe that?” Cabrera asked.

“I have death certificates and witnesses to that effect,” Friedgen said.  “I’ve been unable to collect enough capital to dig for more.”

“You expect me to finance my own bribe?  I always thought it was a metaphor when they said you clod eaters had dirt in your head.”  Cabrera laughed.  “It won’t be needed anyway.”

Friedgen frowned.  “What do you mean, Senator?”

“I have sources back in D.C. telling me that Hawatama and the other territories are this close to being admitted as states.”  Cabrera picked up the cigar and puffed on it.  “When they do it, they’re going to cut the dirt states from the orbital circuit.”

“And makes us your own circuit?”

“What else would they do?”

“Then maybe I should try talking to a U.S. Senator, then.”

Cabrera laughed again.  “You might as well pray to Meshigumee for rain.  You’ll have as much success with her as you would with attempting to bribe a U.S. Senator.”

“I don’t have much other recourse, do I?”

“If the geologists are correct, this is the single largest source of copper on this entire world.”  Cabrera reached into his pocket and produced a business card.  “Here is the name of an investment banking firm on Bisbee.  It’s not exactly WalkerWeld or Lehman Brothers, but it has the funds and discretion for a project like this.”

Friedgen took the card and nodded his head.  “That still doesn’t solve the problem of not having the necessary permits or licenses.”

“That part will come later,” Cabrera said.  “You’ll just need to be patient and wait for the circuit split.”

“That could take years.”

“The copper isn’t going anywhere, now is it?”

“I suppose not,” Friedgen said, shaking his head.

Cabrera picked up another biscotti and dunked it in the Vin Santo.  “As they say, Friedgen,” he said, “it takes money to make money.”