The Queen was screaming again. Well, perhaps more accurate to say that the Queen was screaming still. The agents on her door detail changed every four hours so none of them could say for certain that she’d been screaming non-stop since the King had died five days before, but they’d all swear they could hear her keening in there from the moment they relieved their predecessors until they were relieved themselves in turn. It was so bad that Agent Fairbanks found himself wishing he could screw another ear piece into his head. After his second shift standing outside the door to her quarters, he’d started sticking a finger in his left ear whenever he thought he could get away with it. The finger and his ear piece muffled all the the highest pitches of her grief, and the radio chatter on the Secret Service channel would drown her out entirely for intermittent bursts. Good God, how long was this going to go on? It was shocking, really. Granted he’d only been on the Queen’s detail for seven months, but in that time he’d seen nothing that contradicted her public image as a woman of profound strength and infinite reserve. Not cold, mind you, she was never haughty with her agents; she’d often take a moment to ask after your family, always remembering their names, but she was very much her own thing. Present when she spoke to you, but of her own. Like maybe she was made of some other element than the rest of us. Fairbanks figured that was true royalty, to be so certain of one’s place in the world that you become better resolved and more solid in some way. There was the word he meant. Solid. The Queen had always seemed so solid. Reassuringly so. Fairbanks had spent more than half his life living with that reassuring solidity. The Malvern claim had been affirmed in the last Election and King Benjamin had assumed the throne when Fairbanks was eight. Truth was, Fairbanks couldn’t even really remember the Queen’s uncle, King Bruce II and her aunt Queen Jess. It was hard for him to know how much of the memories he had of the scandals and wars of their reign were from his childhood and how many were from his American history classes. He couldn’t even remember pledging allegiance to the Lanes in elementary school. Just one clear, bright recollection of coronation day when Benjamin Malvern had assumed the throne.
Principle Hester had gone classroom to classroom and repeated a little ceremony of her own. The custodian placed a step ladder for her and, with the whole class on their feet, Principle Hester climbed, bringing her feet together on each step before ascending to the next, as if it was she who was to be enthroned. You could almost see her imagining herself going up the red carpeted steps of the Capital to receive the scepter with the ashes of the Constitution in its shaft, and the orb with the bones of George Washington, first and only President of America, rattling inside. Her shoulders were set, ready to receive the Robe of Office, the thirteen Articles of the Monarchy stitched into its seams, sewn there originally by Queen Sally, King Thomas’ second wife.
On the top of the ladder, she’d paused, waiting for the kids to bow their heads as she’d had them rehearsing for the last three days since the Supreme Justice had resolved the question of succession. Mr. Jein, their homeroom teacher, had had to slap the backs of a couple heads to get them bowed, but Principle Hester had waited, beads of sweat breaking out on the backs of her knees as she tried to remain at attention on the top of the ladder without tipping over. Head bowed, Fairbanks had peered from under his brows as she’d taken a small twenty-nine star American flag from where it hung above the blackboard, draped it over the picture of King Bruce II, lifted the covered picture from the wall and handed it to the custodian. He had placed it on the bottom shelf of his cart with a stack of similarly draped pictures that had been taken down from other classrooms. From the top shelf of his cart he’d taken a new picture, also draped with a flag, and handed it to Principle Hester who cleared her throat to indicate that the kids should now raise their heads. They’d done so, and all watched as she hung the picture where King Bruce II had previously hung. From this one she took a thirty star flag, revealing the face of the newly coronated King Benjamin (King Ben as they would all soon be calling him), thirtieth King of America, and they had all pledged for the first time their allegiance to the House of Malvern. Fairbanks had been repeating that pledge in one form or another ever since then. Whether in classrooms or when he joined the King’s Marines (as a volunteer, not waiting to be called for mandatory service) or when he joined the Secret Service. The Service oath had included a specific pledge to his detail. He served the House of Malvern, but he had pledged loyalty and sacrifice to the safety of the Queen. On the drunken night after that pledge was taken, the last drunken night he’d have until he was released from service at the Queen’s pleasure, he’d gone with several of his fellows and had his shoulder tattooed with the Queen’s lilac icon. No regrets about that.
As great a King as Ben had been, Fairbanks was firmly in the camp who felt strongly that it was Queen Jillian who truly saved America. The Election following King Bruce II’s death had looked to be a bloodbath. His reign had seen no end of skirmishing between rival Estates. He’d never consolidated his power beyond his own family and holdings, his authority waning with every year of his rule as he swung his support back and forth on whim depending on which Estates or which of the Houses of Congress appeared to most firmly support him. He’d had, at least as far as the history books published during the reign of Malvern were concerned, no sense at all of how to lead. No end of claims to the Throne had been prepared as King Bruce II declined on his death bed.
There was no clear successor because the King had never named a favorite to be groomed and imbued with authority. He’d feared empowering a potential usurper in his own House, despite the fact that the Kingdom had not had a usurper since King Andrew, and his reign had lasted only five blood soaked years before the Congressional Houses united again and overthrew him in favor of Young King Abraham.
It had been King Abraham who started the tradition of grooming a successor, using his power and influence before his death to win support and favor for the claim of King Henry. After his own long enthronement, King Abraham had known that many of the Houses would be itching to post a claim. An electoral war would have washed away many of the gains of the long peace. Backing the relatively young son of the House of Vanderbilt effectively cowed most potential claimants. After forty years on the throne and hundreds of commissions granted, the House of Lincoln controlled the bulk of the Royal Army and Navy. In legal theory, the Royal forces had no role in Electoral wars. After the death of their King, they were without a supreme commander and thus expected to stand down in barracks until the Election was resolved. In practice, both Army and Navy had marched out more than once to quell unrest and preserve the integrity of the Kingdom when it had appeared to be in danger of succumbing to chaos. The claim of the House of Vanderbilt was as strong as any, built on property and profit and the long lines of credit they had extended to so many of the other Houses of Congress. That claim, and the possibility of financial ruin brought on any who might oppose it, combined with the knowledge that the Royal forces would surly stand behind King Abraham’s chosen successor, quelled the restless claimants and averted what had promised to be an especially brutal cycle of Election. It was unfortunate that King Henry had no opportunity to follow his predecessor’s example; his assassination three years later had inaugurated an Electoral war that lasted as many years as his rule. But, by and large, Kings had learned from Abraham. Their favorites might not always win the throne, but the assurance of a single, strong candidate forced the opposition to martial their support behind an equally viable claimant. There might be fracases between these rival blocs of Houses, but the threat of chaos between dozens of lesser candidates had been avoided for over a century. Until the end of King Bruce II’s reign, that is.
Queen Jillian averted the war that might otherwise have engulfed Fairbanks’ childhood. In joining the House of Lane with the House of Malvern, she had stepped on the necks of the pretenders and ensured a quick and relatively peaceful transfer of power. The Lanes, of course, had viewed the maneuver as a betrayal. Their power was built on a tradition of military service and their control of several key defense committees in the Congress of Houses. Their enoblement stretched back to service in the Constitutional War, bestowed by King Thomas himself, but they had never held the throne. Jillian’s mother, the Lady Etta Lane, had worked long and hard to promote the claim for her husband, General Jack Lane. Her enthusiasm for Jillian’s romance with Ben Malvern, so the gossip said, had been based on the assumption that he, Ben, would, when the time came, recognize the Lane claim. Once the General had been made King, Etta would no doubt have turned her attention to prying Jillian and Ben apart so she could forge a marriage between her daughter and a scion of one of the other old Houses.
It gave Fairbanks a kick to think about how Lady Etta must have reacted when she heard that the Princess Jillian had engaged herself to Ben Malvern. Spitting mad, no doubt. That woman was unpleasantness personified. Seriously, she just plain scared the shit out of him. He’d read that book that came out when he was at the Marine Academy, Fire in the House of Lane. According the that lady who wrote it, it was General Lane who saw that they’d been “outflanked” by their own daughter. He was the one who persuaded his wife that they had no choice but to retire his claim and back Malvern. The only other option would have set them at bloody odds with half their own family. The half that owned stock in Malvern’s Corline company. Many of their fortunes were founded on that stock, and they wouldn’t see its value put at risk by warring against its founder and CEO. In the book, the writer plays out an imagined scene of what happened behind closed doors when Lady Etta and General Lane met with their daughter and new son in law to “congratulate” them on their marriage. The lady writer has them all talking very amiably, House manners and congeniality, until the General says something about knowing when to retire from the field. Then Lady Etta slaps him. The writer says she got a report of this slap from some “source” among the Lane retainers, but Fairbanks can’t imagine any of the Lady’s rabidly loyal staff sharing that story with a writer. True or not, it was easy to imagine it happening. There were occasions enough at Realm dinners and that kind of thing when Fairbanks had seen the Lady Etta look at someone as if she’d certainly like to be slapping them, and it was well known that she was free with the backhand when it came to her chamber staff. Seemed like it only bound them closer to her. Maybe they were just too afraid to leave her service.
But Queen Jillian wasn’t afraid of her mother. As far as Fairbanks could tell, she’d never been afraid of anything. And from the moment she backed Malvern against her own House, she’d never stopped standing up for peace in the Kingdom. King Ben led, no doubt of that, but with Queen Jilly acting as his chief counselor within the realm, settling House and Estate disputes before they could become violent, he’d been able to focus his energies on international matters. Limiting the Kingdom’s foreign adventures to engagements that showed a clear benefit to America.
He’d been blessed, no doubt of it, Fairbanks had; born in a golden age, and so much of that treasure could rightfully be placed at the feet of his Queen. If only she’d stop screaming and carrying on. He had a finger in his left ear, another finger pressing his earpiece deeper in his right ear. Had something changed? He took the fingers away. It was quiet behind the doors. He looked over at Agent Nambu. They both waited. But the screaming started again. Just a lull in the Queen’s grief. If she kept it up she would never hear that they were saying the word. She’d worked so hard for America, and now all that labor was going to be washed away on her own tears. All this carrying on so loudly, it was drowning out the world. And maybe that was what she wanted. Fairbanks couldn’t blame her for that, but she needed to start paying attention. She needed to quiet down so she could hear every whisper. She needed to know that they had begun to mutter that bloody word again: succession. Even as he thought the word, Fairbanks saw an agent step into view at the far end of the hallway that led to the Queen’s quarters. But not one of the Queen’s detail. No lilac braid worn through her shoulder epaulet. A white braid with red twined into it. An agent from Lady Etta’s detail. She stood there, head cocked, as if listening to the Queen’s muffled grief. He’d seen her before, one of Lady Etta’s traveling detail, rarely far from her Lady’s person. If she were here in the palace, that meant Lady Etta must have come out from Lane House. And if the Lady were in the palace, then the General must be as well. The agent at the end of the hall shifted her pose. She looked down the hall for the first time, lifted an eyebrow as if she’d not known they were there watching her, and placed a hand on the pommel of her saber. Agent Nambu made a hissing noise through gritted teeth, and Fairbanks took a half step forward, and gripped his own sword’s hilt. No guns in the palace, their holsters were filled with nothing but small blocks of wood that kept them looking tidy; their sidearms were locked away in the Service armory. If an Election broke bloody, there would be steel drawn all across the Capital. Lady Etta’s agent lifted her hand from her sword and ran it over the crest of her crewcut, light from an overhead fixture riffling through her white blond hair. She lowered the hand, settled it on top of her holster; leather creaked. Then she turned on the heels of her patent leather boots, trousers whisking as she passed out of sight down the intersecting hall.
Fairbanks looked at Agent Nambu. Her teeth were still slightly bared, but she’d resumed her thousand yard stare. Fairbanks stepped back into position. Took his hand from his sword. How had one of Lady Etta’s agents gotten into the residential wing? They should have gotten a call on the radio if she’d been passed through one of the entrances. Had she snuck in? Had someone on detail slacked and just not seen her? Or had someone on detail let her though and not called on purpose? No matter which, it was a clear probe from Lady Etta; testing the loyalty and resolve of her daughter’s detail. How alert? How prepared? How willing to fight? It was starting. And the Queen, she had to stop screaming. She had to be told that the time for screaming had passed. Someone had to tell her that the Election was beginning.