"Take it easy, uh—"
"Christina. I'm Al. Look, I live in a really big place and there's plenty of room for you. And there's always a zillion people around, and all my kids still live at home, so it's not like you'd be— uh—compromised. And I hate the idea of you sleeping on a park bench. I mean, I really fuckin' hate it."
She had to smile at his anxiety. And earnestness. "Thanks, Captain, but I've been looking out for myself for a long time."
He sighed. "Suit yourself, but if you change your mind, just call this number and this guy'll set you up." He fished around and finally extracted a business card. He left a large grease smear on it, but otherwise it was perfectly legible. "It was really nice talking to you, but I guess I'd better get back to it."
He strolled to the back of the boat while she read the card.
Chief Secretary to HRM King Alexander II
At first she thought it was a joke—his name was Al, not Edmund. And what was with the Latin? She knew that slogan, she'd seen it on TV or something … what was it? Boldness, something. Boldness, ever boldness, that's right. But that was the family—the royal family's—
She watched the rest of the group. En masse, they shuffled uneasily when the captain approached.
"Your Majesty," a few of them muttered, staring at the deck.
"Majesty," another one said, slightly louder, and he bowed from the waist.
"Hey, on the boat, it's just Al, okay, you guys?" He scratched his beard. "How'd you recognize me, anyway?"
"Hey!" she yelled, crumpling the card in her fist. "Hey!"
"What?" he demanded, turning.
"The king? You're the goddamned king of Alaska and you've got fish guts under your fingernails?"
"Hey, everybody likes to get away once in a while."
"Get away? "
"You call my guy if you change your mind, Christina. We got lots of room—"
"At the SitkaPalace, for God's sake!"
"Well. . . yeah." He grinned at her. She shook her head and scowled at him, but inside, she was smiling. It had been a pretty good joke on her, and that was for sure. Shame on her for not recognizing him sooner, beard or no beard. The guy was on television or in the papers almost every month, after all.
Assaulted my boss, insulted a king. All in the space of three hours. Can't wait to see what's in store this afternoon.
His Royal Highness David Alexander Marko Dmitri Baranov, crown prince of Alaska, leaned forward and said, "Open up, little lady. You know you want it."
The sleek king penguin, thigh-high to him, opened her beak and wolfed down the proffered smelt. David resisted the urge to pet her. The deceptively cute bird was more than capable of a painful jab if she felt threatened. He had the scars on the tops of his hands to prove it.
He watched the baker's dozen of kings swim and move about the twelve-hundred-square-foot habitat. His home-within-his home. Here David felt truly at peace, here he was able to—
"His Highness, heir to the throne, once again among the waddlers."
"Kings don't waddle, Edmund," he said without turning around. "They're about the only kind of penguin that walks instead of hopping."
"Fascinating, sir. It's only because I'm so riveted that I'm falling asleep standing. Of course, I dare not sleep talk and suggest you leave your sanctum sanctorum and take a meal with the king and your royal siblings."
"Why would I do that?"
The special assistant to the king sighed. "Never mind, sir."
"So Dad's back from his fishing tour?"
"Two hours ago, sir."
"He got busted again, didn't he?"
"The king remains unaware of his easily recognizable features."
David snickered. It was just too damned funny, the king sneaking off for some private time—how well he understood the urge! And his dad was always crushed when locals recognized him.
"Want to feed the birds?"
"I am overwhelmed at the invitation, but as a simple man, I do not share your family's infatuation with dead fish."
"Smart-ass," David muttered. Edmund Dante had been looking after the royal family since his grandfather's time. As such, while Edmund deeply respected the institution, he had no fear of it.
David's earliest memory was of Edmund bowing deeply and calling him sir, then spanking him for booting Princess Alexandria off the dock and into the harbor.
"Sir, I—ah—hesitate to bring this up—"
"You? Hesitate? Whatever you've been sniffing, can I have some?"
Edmund favored him with a sour smile. He was tall—as tall as the king—but whip-thin. He also had two master's degrees, one in Alaskan history, the other in Alaskan literature. His sisters had given Edmund the nickname "Ichabod Brain."
"Your wit is as devastating as ever, sir. I wondered if you were aware the king is . .. ah .. . seeking a bride."
"Dad wants to get married again?" he asked, actually looking away from the penguins. "Holy mother of God, wasn't once enough?"
"Not a bride for him, sir. For you."
"Oh. That whole 'the crown prince needs an heir' thing, huh?"
"I would imagine so, yes, sir."
David shrugged and picked up another bucket of smelt. "Well, he can choose away. I mean, it doesn't really matter, right? As long as she's young and healthy and wants to have kids."
"As you say, sir. Really, the only qualities one would wish for in a wife." Edmund said this with a perfectly straight face and, despite the fact that David narrowed his eyes at him, didn't change expression. Sometimes it was impossible to tell if the man was teasing or not.
Edmund opened his mouth but—thank God— was interrupted when his cellphone/walkie-talkie beeped at him. He pulled it out of its holster and pressed the black button on the side.
"Ah, yeah, Mr. Dante, this is Sergeant Kenner at the east gate?"
"Go ahead, Sergeant."
"Well, there's a girl here—a lady, I mean—and she says—"
"Is that him? Give me that thing." The woman's voice, a faint contralto, suddenly became much clearer. And louder. David straightened from the penguins and cocked his head, listening to the tinny, strident voice. "Is this Edmund Dante?"
"Good, listen, my name's Christina Krabbe and I met the king on a fishing boat today. And don't even say anything—I know how it sounds. But it's true! He was pretending to be the captain and he was wearing what appeared to be a dead muskrat on his face."
"Well, anyway, he said I could stay at the palace if I wanted. And he gave me your card. And at first I said no, thanks, but then I said, why the hell not? I know how it sounds."
"Indeed. Ma'am, would you put Sergeant Kenner back on the line, please?"
"Huh? Oh, sure." There was a thud, followed by a crackle.
"Sergeant, does the lady in question have shoulder-length blond hair, green eyes, and freckles? And does she come up to your shoulder?"
"Her eyes are kinda more blue than green, but everything else is spot-on."
"And is she as obnoxious in person as she appears over this phone?"
"Very well, escort her to the west gate and I will meet her there."
"Right away, sir."
Edmund clicked off and reholstered his phone.
"Who was that?" David asked. He forgot to let go of the smelt and one of the kings pecked him. He barely felt it.
"Oh, just someone your father met today," Edmund said airily. "It's of no concern to you, Highness."
"Fine, be that way. You'd better get moving. It'll take you at least twenty minutes to walk to the west gate from here."
"Sir, I have told you a billion times not to exaggerate. It will take no more than twelve." Edmund bowed slightly. "If I have your leave, Your Highness . . . ?"
"Like you need it," David grumbled, and waved him off.
Christina Krabbe, he thought after Edmund left. Weird name.
Nice voice, though.
From The Queen of the Edge of the World, by Edmund Dante III, © 2089, Harper Zebra and Schuster Publications.
To my grandfather, Edmund Dante I, fell the task of teaching the future queen manners, deportment, and all areas of appropriate behavior for a royal. Subsequently, Dante would have known of the king's enthusiasm and would have known, in fact, before Queen Christina herself, the role she was destined to play. So it's likely the entire tone of their relationship was set by their first meeting.
Unfortunately, there are no historical records of such a meeting, so we are forced to speculate what these two strong-willed individuals made of each other. . . .
The sergeant—who'd become perfectly nice once she'd gotten the okay from what's-his-face, screeched to a halt in front of a truly gargantuan door. She climbed out of the golf cart and turned to thank Kenner for the ride, only to see him check his watch, nod, and zoom off.
Well. Sink or swim around here. That was just fine by her.
She raised her fist—she figured if she stood on tiptoe she could almost reach the middle of the door—when it suddenly swung open and she was eyeball-to-collarbone with one of the tallest, thinnest men she'd ever seen.
He had jet-black hair, a widow's peak, and eyes so dark she couldn't tell where his pupils began. He was dressed in a black suit, white dress shirt, black tie, and was deeply tanned. He could have been anywhere from thirty-five to sixty-five.
"Green," the incredibly scary-looking man said, looking her over. "Not blue."