10 Jun

General Jack was yelling for her. What did the boy want now? He’d had some troubling thought no doubt. That was the usual reason he’d be needing her. Tracking her down in her study when she was working on her memoir or finding her with her staff when she was briefing them on the Lane’s position on some recent development or calling her personal number on Sunday mornings when he knew she would be in the Lane House studio making the rounds of the morning news shows. And what would all the urgency be about?

“Etta, what does this man mean here? This so called expert on the Middle East, what is he getting at with all this renegotiate the treaty nonsense?”

Not that an actual explanation of the Iran-Iraq-Israel Tripartite Disarmament Agreement was what was required. General Jack Understood all that well enough; he had commanded the expeditionary forces that had established the American Free Zone and the US Army bases that made the TDA possible. No, General Jack just needed to be reassured that the world hadn’t suddenly turned itself upside-down, and that the man airing his opinions in the Jefferson Post wasn’t a harbinger of a new and radical mindset that was sweeping the Kingdom.

“He’s quite a nice man, Jack, you met him at the press dinner. Remember the one who told the funny stories about working in London? You liked him. He’s just stirring the pot,” she’d told him on that occasion.

“Yes,” General Jack had said one he remembered the man and his funny stories about English provincialism, “I see. Still, that’s rather more a hornets’ nest than a pot he’s stirring. I’m reluctant to give the man the attention he’s looking for, but perhaps I should offer the Post some kind of response.”

Which had been the point, after all. Etta was the one who’d had it “leaked” to the Middle East Expert that there was a possibility that King Ben was willing to renegotiate some parts of the TDA. The Expert had jumped on the opportunity to appear to be a leader of policy. The kind of man the King read and was influenced by. What he got for his trouble was an eloquent, informed, and impassioned retort from a General who had “seen troops in the field leach their blood into foreign sands for America." 

General Jack was so good at that kind of thing. People mistook his simplicity for ignorance or a lack of acumen, but his mind was deeply incisive in matters of his own experience. Having him publicly demonstrate his expertise and measured indignation every month or so was part of the job of keeping General Jack relevant to the times even as the vital experiences of his life were becoming pages in history books. Was that him yelling her name again? 

Yes. Something about looking out the window. Well, not now. Whatever had his mind in a whirl would have to wait. She bent lower, putting her ear closer to the heat register in the west closet. 

General Jack and his “secrets." Where, in nearly forty years of marriage, did he think he could hide anything from her? The fact that she was less of an open book to him than he to her was more to do with the uncurious workings of his mind than any prying nature of her own. One didn’t need to creep and spy and scheme in a marriage of that span, by just surviving the thing you’d come to know far more than you ever wanted to. How long ago had it been when she’d first found him down on all fours in the west closet, so rapt by whatever he was hearing from within the Queen’s quarters that he’d never heard her, Etta, a few feet away discovering his secret? 

They’d still been young, that was certain. Married, yes. And his randiness that evening had given her a good hint at what he’d been listening to. But where his interest in the west closet mostly ended when Queen Jess had been satisfied, that’s when Etta’s own preoccupation began. Not that she was a prude. She’d listened to dirty Jess’ fucking more than once or twice. But of far greater concern was the pillow talk that followed, and the private conferences between Jess and Bruce II. That man. That man fumbled at the wielding of power more clumsily than Jess’ youngest lovers fumbled with the buttons of her dresses. And she, impatient Jess, taunted him with the same cruel impatience.

It had been there, in the west closet, that Etta had first realized that General Jack must be King. Without a doubt she’d never had settled for marriage with a man who couldn’t muster a decent claim on the throne at some point in his life, but those are the long throws of youth. She’d done well by her own House, the Hartmann’s, by marrying into Lane, and secured her future fortune and that of any children she might have. It had been a good match, and even, in Etta’s own carefully measured way, a love match. 

General Jack had been quite the stud. She’d had to scatter the young women of their generation to keep them off him. They’d been lining up to throw themselves bodily onto his dick. And not just in hopes of marriage. Plenty of fine girls and women from old Houses were happy enough to have a one-nighter with dashing Cadet Jack, as he was back then. 

She’d suffered some, teasing it all out, countering the ease with which all that willing flesh was put before him with a cooler passion of her own. God but she’d wanted the man. Thinking about it, in the west closet, she could feel a little flush run up her neck and cover her face. But it quickly fled, cooled by the sound of her daughter’s weeping coming from the heat register.

Oh woe. To hear your own daughter so battered by it, so riven with grief, as they say. Etta knew, she thought, what Jilly was feeling. She’d feel it one day, she was certain, when General Jack died. He’d be King and she Queen, and she’d feel the double pain of losing her mate and the throne at the same time. And yet, as understandable as her tears might be, there was such a thing as overdoing it. Jilly’s loss was profound, but it was the natural end of any life and any reign. The girl had jumped the line to have her time wearing the diadem, and now it was time for her to gracefully step aside for someone else.

It was awkward enough for a mother to be put in a position where she’d be forced to follow her daughter’s precedent, but Etta carried the additional burden of knowing she would have to outshine Jilly and dim her accomplishments. She didn’t overburden herself with that knowledge; Jillian had known what she was doing when she married Malvern. If she’d waited, the crown might have come to her in due time, and then she might have done the natural thing and challenged her mother’s memory. This reversal was as unnatural as a child dying before the parent, but through no fault of Etta’s. 

There was a footstep outside the closet, a soft clearing of a throat. Etta grunted as she rose, and walked the length of the closet to the door she’d left ajar. Agent Utwich was waiting, leaning against the wall, the blond crest of her hair as proud as any coxcomb. Lady Etta clucked her tongue and shook her head. They were alone, but there was no need for these constant insouciant displays. 

Agent Utwich gave a little shrug, using it to push herself off the wall and into a semblance of attention. She dropped a slight bow from the waist. Really, even these slight movements were a delight to witness; everything done will the appearance of supreme indifference, but utter physical control. Lady Etta loved having the vicious little thing at her side, it was like being escorted by a willfully moody teenage prima ballerina who would take a bullet for her.

“What do you see, Utwich?”

Agent Utwich closed her eyes. 

“I see there’s agents on her Royal Highness’ detail looking to see what’s gonna happen next. I was given a nod to pass into the Royal quarters easy enough, but the ones on her door, those and her bodyguard, they love her to dying.”

No more or less than Lady Etta already knew.

 “What else?”

“I see the rotunda is abuzz day and night. Lords, Ladies, Senators, Governors of Estate, lobbyists, lawyers, lackeys of every stripe. Gathering, sizing, looking to see who will make a first move to put themselves forward or back a claim of someone else. Lot of chickenshit really.”

Also as much as Lady Etta already knew.

“What else?”

“Senator his Lordship Tote Sharpe is going at the Rose Garden as if it spit in his face.”

Ah. Well. That would be what General Jack had been trying to get her to peek at. Tote the Toad venting spleen on something defenseless. That was hardly news, though it was good to know he was already beginning to crack. The man would almost surely undermine himself and spare her the effort of nudging him into some scandal or other that would keep him from getting underfoot during General Jack’s election.

“What else?”

“They found the Prince.”


Agent Utwich opened her eyes, smiled. Enjoying that she could surprise her Ladyship upon occasion.

“Dug him from under a pile of whores and empty bottles it sounds like.”


“One of the Panhandle Estates.”

“Who found him?”

Agent Utwich smiled a little more.

“Lord Dudley.”

Lade Etta felt the corners of her mouth turn down at the sound of her eldest son’s name. She had to consciously pull them back into their usual straightness.

“And who found Dudley to send him on this errand?”

Agent Utwich shrugged again.

“My guy in the travel office didn’t know. Sounds like Lord Dudley may have dug himself up and went looking for the Prince. What I hear is that he sent a travel request with the Prince’s confirmation code, and they sent a jet to pick them both up.”

“When will they get here?”

“Anytime soon.”

Lady Etta started for the door that led from the master bedroom to the suite of lounges where General Jack was no doubt still puzzling over the spectacle of Tote Sharpe running rampant in the garden. Agent Utwich fell into step just off her right shoulder.

“Find out exactly when my grandson and son will land. I want to meet them. Either at the airport or here at the palace, but outside. Between the terminal and their vehicles or before they come inside the residence. Somewhere with press access.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“I want my hair and makeup team in my rooms now. And the General’s. Tell them we need to be camera ready in twenty minutes. Wardrobe should get me three appropriately mournful options.”

“Yes, my Lady.”

Lady Etta stopped outside the Jackson lounge, General Jack’s favorite.

“Don’t fritter and play the next time, Agent Utwich.”

“As you say, my Lady.”

Lady Etta laid a smooth, cool palm on the cheek of her favorite sharp object.

“I plucked you from obscurity, didn’t I?”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“It wouldn’t take much for me to drop you back there, would it?”

“No, my Lady.”

Etta thought sometimes that she should do just that. Get rid of this tool before it cut her. But she hated getting rid of a thing while there was still use in it, and Agent Utwich had been made for an election cycle. Properly used, she might shed some of her willfulness. She lowered her hand. “Scamper. Do as you’re told. Exactly as told. For a change.”

Utwich bowed, properly this time.

“As you say, my Lady.”

Her boot heels clacked, each one a sharp report with the slightest of echos in the un-carpeted hall. 

For a moment Lady Etta though she heard something else inside that echo. A faint wailing. But no, she was too far from the west closet to be hearing her daughter’s cries. There was nothing there. She turned to the door into the Jackson lounge. Time to gather General Jack. He’d be nonplussed at the idea of greeting his son and grandson, but he’d come. Someone from the family needed to be there, and the Queen was indisposed. In such a time, it was only right that her parents stand in for her so that the people could see that the Kingdom was in good hands, secure until the Election could resolve.