“What the hell is the man doing out there? Etta, come see this. Do you see what I’m looking at? Etta?”
General Lane turned from the third story window where he’d been standing in a state that he imagined must be similar to what people meant when they talked about meditation. He was a thoughtful man, but not meditative. His thoughts had crispness, a declarative quality that he thought suited him.
I am hungry, was a thought in the General’s mode.
I do not understand a word this person is saying, was another characteristic thought.
Others might in include: My feet hurt: I will call in a strike on that position. I loath this idiot. My hair needs to be cut. My wife looks damn sexy this evening. I have a goddamn hemorrhoid. I miss Ben. I hate hearing my daughter cry so miserably. And so on.
This last thought had been very much on mind in the five days since the King’s demise. It was, in some sense, this thought that had put him in his ruminative state. Ruminative was a better word than meditative. It made him feel less adrift, as though he might not be going full steam, but had not given over entirely to the tide. He’d had a specific thought in mind, which was to ask himself what he might do to help his daughter break free from this dolor. That was the word he’d decided best described her state.
She was dolorous. No debating that, he thought, My daughter is dolorous. He could hear the truth of this thought by simply going to the very back of the west closet in the master bedroom and hunkering down near an old heat register that was left from the days when the palace was warmed by a coal furnace in the basements.
The guest quarters where the General and Lady Etta were housed when they come up from Lane House was in the same wing as the Royal residences, but at quite some distance with any number of servants’ quarters, third kitchens, old wet rooms, and similar infrastructure in between. But the place was a warren of old, older, and nearly ancient construction as well as frequent and often ill advised renovations of more recent generations.
Getting from one end of the guest quarters to the other was like negotiating ones way through a labyrinth. When the General had been a boy, when his much older brother King Bruce II had ruled (Now there was a bastard!), he had often become lost in these very rooms, and contrived more than once to leave himself a trail of bread crumbs, for which his nanny had swatted him soundly. But it was then, in his childhood, that he had discovered the trick with the heat register.
He’d been playing hide and seek with some of the other palace children and found himself a good spot in the west closet when he heard a whisper that seemed almost to come from inside his own head. Had he been found already? Surely not.
I have not been found!
And he had not been found. But he did hear the whisper again. It said, "You devil, you asshole, show me that big prick of yours."
Well that wasn’t coming from inside his own head. Not one of his thoughts, that one. And besides, it sounded very much like his much older sister in law, Queen Jess. He’d put his ear closer to the heat register, and been shocked not just by what he heard but by the fact that the voice replying to her with equally filthy demands was not King Bruce II. He become so still and silent in his listening that none of the others could find him and they had to end the game by walking about the rooms and halls calling his name to come out so they could start the next round.
I was a naughty boy, he thought to himself, remembering. He’d never shared the secret. Kept that one to himself. I have secrets, he thought. Despite what his Etta might think.
Etta thought she saw straight through him to the back of his skull. Etta thought she’d sifted him before they were ever even married. Etta though she had him sized before she’d given him a first kiss let alone that delirious hand-job she’d treated him to so unexpectedly at the King’s self-proclaimed opal jubilee. Of course that hand-job had come with a price. She’d eked from him, in fact, one of his secrets.
“I’ll do something for you,” she’d said, “if you tell me...”
“What will you do?” His mind had swum at the possibilities. I want a blow job, he’d thought.
He didn’t get one. But he never begrudged her that. Truly, to this day the woman’s skin was so slick and soft, and her fingers so deft, you’d swear you were being held in the mouth of some cool blooded creature or other. What had he told her on that occasion, as they'd hidden in the back of one of the limos in the palace motor pool, her breath quite so hot on his neck as she urged him? “Tell me and I’ll do something for you.”
Just the word, something, the way she said it had him in a fret. Remembering it, if he let himself linger, could make him half-hard.
I mustn’t think about that right now, he thought. But he had told her a secret, hadn’t he? Not that it had come to any trouble. Just some gossip from the intelligence briefings he’s been starting to sit in at the time. Nothing classified, he’d never have betrayed America to his lust. Just gossip between counselors. It had regarded, come to think of it, the name of the Queen Jess’ lover. A joke more than proper gossip. The joke of the time had been that the best way to become King Bruce II’s latest protege was to first become Queen Jess’ latest amore. After all, the man had to die someday, and if you happened to be the current stud in the Queen’s bed when he kicked-it, you’d have laid your claim to the throne as well as her Royal Highness. That was all he’d told Etta that long ago night. A bit of vulgar humor and the name of the man who’d lately been serving at the Queen’s pleasure.
Oh there had been several such jokes back then. Gallows humor, really. It had been a dismal time. Bruce, big brother Bruce, he’d been a simply pathetic King. Despair had been the national mood. Yes the man would die some day, but when? And how much damage would be done before he was in the grave? How much more discord might be sowed, and how bloody the outcome of the ensuing Election? He’d thought, truly thought, that the Kingdom might fall.
I think the Kingdom might fall, he’d thought.
Well, Etta had disabused him of that notion. Abused him until he was disabused, if you will. She wouldn’t hear of despair. Despair was the first step toward defeat. He didn’t even know what she meant by defeat at the time. Certainly he understood what she meant as it applied to the battlefield. He even repeated it to his staff. Addressing the importance of keeping up morale.
I know what I’ll tell them, he’d thought.
And then he’d told them what Etta had told him about despair being the first step toward defeat. Of course Etta had been talking about the election. Years before Bruce had even begun to take ill, she’d been thinking in those terms. Victory or defeat. Win the Throne of America or lose it. It was a troubling perspective, one he’d struggled to free her of. One, an individual, did not win the throne. The victory, if there was one to be had, was America’s. The battle, if an election could ever be thought of as that, was fought for the good of America.
Certainly, certainly he believed it would have been a victory for America if he had come to the throne after Bruce’s death. Disappointments, yes, he had those. But no regrets. Ben had been an able King, and America had flourished under his rule. And look at the opportunity his Jillian had had. Naturally the General would have liked to see his own wife wear the diadem, but it was no small consolation to have seen it upon the brow of his only daughter. And hadn’t it suited her? And she it? Would America have been greater for the reign of King Jack?
Well, he knew the answer to that.
I would have been a greater King even than Ben, he thought. And then. I will be a greater King than Ben.
And he would be King.
It was quite clear this time.
Ben had balanced the powers of the Houses so well, done it without setting them one against the other. He’d made it clear on the day of his election, made it perfectly clear to Etta and the General himself what he intended. If they would support Malvern with Lane, he would keep the General close in all things. The General would be his clear favorite. If Ben should die young, the General would be the obvious choice to succeed. And, if it should become clear that the General was waning. He was some years older than Ben, why then he, the General, would choose a new favorite from the Lanes. It was all a bit backdoor, but one could hardly call it dark doings. These were the deals that were struck at every election. And just getting a nod from Ben would hardly put the General on the throne. The election would still take place.
They were not plotters. They were not mutineers. This was not Russia or some other fractious backwater where coups du tete were a regular occurrence. Why, America had seen only one coup in all its years. No, they had simply had an understanding. One which the General had truly believed would never come to fruition. Not for him, anyway.
I will die before Ben, he’d thought.
And yet he’d never quite been able to settle himself on a favorite of his own. Never been able to place a finger on the brow of one of his own House, a true Lane, and said to Ben, “That’s the one. Bring him under your wing. I’d have him be King after you."
His own son, Dudley, had barely warranted a glance in that regard. Dudley on the throne?
I would rather die than Dudley be King, he had thought.
No lack of love for the boy, but he was a drunk. Unsuitable. Dudley’s son, Piers, he had some promise. The General had been thinking about him for some time now. But whomever he regarded, some doubt always crept in. Etta, with her sharp eye for character and keen ear for what was being said, seemed always to know some little thing about any possible candidate the General might favor. And so he had stayed close himself to King Ben. Another day, alway another day to make a change. Ben was a young man. Younger than the General, anyway.
I never thought it would happen like this, he thought.
But it had. The King was dead, quite unexpectedly dead, and he, the General, still in his late prime of life, a robust man, was the obvious choice for the succession. Imagine.
>I will make a smashing King, he thought.
He might be able to enjoy the bitter sweetness of it all if Jillian hadn’t been taking it so badly.
He missed Ben, his son in law, his King, his friend, but death was quite natural. The General had seen plenty of it. He might have been able to reflect with pleasant melancholy on Ben, and sweet anticipation of his own election, except that Jillian was so horribly taken with grief. He could hear it quite clearly every time he went into the west closet and hunkered on the floor next to the heat register. It tore at him.
I can’t bear to hear her cry, he thought.
So he’d come out of the closet again and drifted about the guest rooms, wandering, remembering a bit of this and that, ruminative, and come to the window that overlooked the Rose Garden to watch the roses bob pleasantly in the breeze. And then that madman Tote Sharpe had come barging out of the palace, seized up some shears, and begun rushing up and down the paths hacking the poor things to bits.
I am certain he’s gone mad at last, he thought.
“Etta,” he called again. “Can you see this? Are you at your window? What is he doing? Jillian loves those roses. What is the son of a bitch doing?”