"Super. As long as he doesn't stick any pins in my ass. Then?"
"Then lunch with the prince and the king. Then a meeting with the caterer. Then the florist. Then—"
"Eds, how come I have to do all this stuff? (A) where's David, and (B) you'd be so much better at it."
"(A) David is in Allen Hall, doing the morning feeding, and he will be joining you, and (B) that's very true, but it's not my wedding, is it, my lady?"
"Don't call me that, I hate that. Call me Chris."
He looked down his nose at her. "I think not."
"Fine, Chris-teen-uh then. Anything but My Dork-o Lady."
"My lady jests, pretending she will not have a tide all her life."
"Also, it really creeps me out when you talk about me in the third person. Seriously. Don't do that."
For the first time all morning, Edmund cracked a smile. "Nobody likes it. Thus, I do it as often as I can."
"Well, how would Edmund like it if I talked about him in the third person? Doesn't Edmund think that's fucked up?"
"No. Edmund doesn't. Now, if my lady has tired of etiquette lessons, why don't we cover something you might find more relevant?"
"Yeah, why don't we? What's on your fiendish mind, Eds?"
"Only this." He paused delicately. Christina's eyebrows arched, disappearing under her bangs, a gratifying sign of her full attention. "You must always be wary of the name Domonov."
"That's Queen Dara's maiden name."
He could not mask his surprise. "You know?"
She yawned behind her palm. "Us magazine."
"Ah. Well, contrary to the lurid interpretations of the American press—"
"Whoa, whoa, easy on the America bashing, pal."
"—Her Majesty the Queen was not a bloodthirsty cannibal with a stone for a heart."
"I think 'bloodthirsty cannibal' is redundant."
"At any rate, the queen's family is slightly... unreasonable ... on the subject of His Highness Prince Nicholas."
Her eyebrows arched still higher. "Oh-ho."
"Furthermore, they have no love for their king and have tried many times to strike at him, any way they can."
She frowned. "Um, okay, that sucks, but how come Al doesn't toss them in the clink?"
Privately, Edmund thought that was an excellent question. "The king would, but as he is still very fond of his late consort, his heart is soft toward her family and the Domonov in question is soon released. Also, the king may have said something along the lines of, 'I can take care of my own damn self—I don't need the courts to help me.' "
"Yeah, that sounds about right. So, okay, anybody introduces themself to me as Mr. Domonov, I kick his ass. Got it."
"It's not entirely that sim—"
"Later, Eds. I have to go check something out Thanks for the Princess 101 stuff. I guess." She waved distractedly over her shoulder and practically ran out of the drawing room.
Christina screeched to a halt in front of Queen Dara's portrait and once again studied the proud, amazingly beautiful features. Then she sidled down a few feet and looked at the painting of the king's grandmother.
The queen's family is slightly unreasonable on the subject of His Highness Prince Nicholas.
Idiotic notion. They believed the rumors of all the lovers the queen took. Believed Nicholas belonged only to the queen, that there was none of the king in him. And wanted to steal him for themselves. It was sad, because grief did horrible things to people, but it was stupid, too.
"Morons," she said to the empty gallery. "Anybody can see the kid looks exactly like his great-grandma. On his father's side."
You must always be wary of the name Domonov.
"Okay, okay!" Amazing. The guy was twenty-three rooms and two floors away, and he was still droning in her head.
She heard footsteps and whipped around, already feeling the goofy grin on her face, a grin which instantly dropped off when she saw the visitor wasn't David.
"Oh. It's you."
"Nice! I could have you deported, kiddo." King Alexander snapped his fingers, which, she couldn't help but notice, were filthy. Gardening? More fishing? Digging in the dirt with his youngest son? Who the hell knew? With this guy, it could be anything. "Like that!"
"Sure. Like you're going to let me get away that easily."
"True enough," he said cheerfully, wiping his dirty palms on his blue-jeaned thighs. "You're stuck here. We all are!"
"I was just looking at your family's portraits."
"Yeah." The king stopped and squinted at Queen Dara's likeness. "Boy oh boy, what a woman. When they made her they broke the mold. Then they beat the living shit out of the mold-maker."
She burst out laughing.
"Well, it's true. And if it isn't, it oughtta be. She was—you have no idea." The king ran his fingers through his hair, leaving a smudge of dirt on his forehead. He looked distracted and sad. Her heart broke a little, seeing him like that. Plenty of women had tried to entice the royal widower. Everyone had failed. He so obviously still carried a torch for the dead queen. "Some days I wanted her to be at my side all day long, and others I had to actually resist the urge to strangle her."
"I've heard she was ... uh ..."
"Well, she was. But she was exciting, and beautiful, and things were never dull when she was around. You know what happened? How she died?"
"Uh..." Some of the more lurid headlines popped into her brain: Alaskan queen killed in car week en route to lover's hideaway. Queen Dara dead in crash outside lover's house. "Well..."
"She was on her way to her hairdresser and wasn't paying attention, and got in a crash."
"Oh. That's ... uh ... a little different from—"
"She was on her way," the king said with deadly quiet, "to the hairdresser."
"Sure. Everybody knows that."
His shoulders relaxed. "I s'pose I should have insisted she use a driver, but that shit didn't help Princess Diana, did it?"
"I guess not." She paused, then added, "I still remember exactly where I was when I heard Diana was dead. I was so upset... didn't cry, but... I just couldn't believe it, and I was so bummed. Which was weird, because I'd never met her. But I was really sad about it, for a long time."
"Well, I did meet her. And you never met a more charming lady. She was about the only one at Buckingham who didn't make me feel like I had straw in my hair and cowshit on my heels."
"Is that what's under your fingernails?"
They laughed together, like family.
"—and while our ancestors were happy to make new lives for themselves in the formidable Alaskan wilderness, Russian law forbade permanent settlement by Russian citizens."
"Bummer," Christina said, concealing a yawn behind her palm.
"It was, really, because a man would bring his family over, start trading in fur or logging or what-have-you, and then, when he started to make headway against the wilderness, when his family was settled, when they had made a life for themselves, they would have to pick up and leave."
"So David's great-great-grandpa decided that sucked the root?"
"Yes. In fact, it was as close to a bloodless coup as possible. Russia had offered Alaska for sale to America—"
"Oh, wait, I know this part—America was hip-deep in the Civil War, and the last thing they wanted was to cough up a bunch of dough for a new state. They were having enough trouble controlling the states they already had."
"Quite right. And Alaska hadn't worked out for Mother Russia as they had expected. The primary goal of taking Alaska was to feed Russia. But farming was difficult—crops didn't take, or were devoured by mice and squirrels, or the Russians weren't terribly enthusiastic farmers. Meanwhile, the natives, while befriending the Russians actually living and working the land, resented the mother country—"
"Understandably. They were here first."
"Well, yes. Something the royal family has kept in mind—"
"Is that why all the native Alaskans—the true natives—get all that money from the government?"
"Yes. And they are allowed to continue the lifestyle of their forebears for as long as they wish. Millions of acres have been set aside for their use. But we're getting off topic."
"Typical white-guy attitude," Christina commented.
"At any rate," Edmund continued, annoyed, "when Kaarl Baranov rallied the troops, so to speak, and prepared to break away from Russia, Russia let them go with surprising ease."
"Minimal bloodshed. But it was obvious Mother Russia's heart wasn't in it, and we—Alaska—quickly won. And rather than setting up a Tsar and Tsarina of Alaska, they decided to cut ties still further, and became King Kaarl and Queen Kathryn."
"My," Christina said. "What a long story."
"My lady, we've only been talking—"
"—for five minutes."
"Well, I've pretty much got the picture. And it sure explains a lot."
"Explains ... ?"
"About the royal family. I mean, you have to admit, they're an independent bunch."
Edmund cracked a smile. "Yes. I have to admit that."
Prince David, intent on his late-morning observations of the residents of Allen Hall, never saw the arm that snaked around the doorway, effectively clotheslining him. In a flash he was on his back, and being dragged into a small, dark sitting room. He got a whiff of wildflowers and decided not to resist.
"The thing is," his fiancé told him, straddling his chest, "I appreciate you buying the cow and all, but I think you ought to get some milk for free."