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"So noted, Sire. May we proceed with the agenda?"

"Proceed."

Later, Christina would sum up Parliament in a single phrase: blah, blah, blah. There was some interest when they were talking about the Domonov plot, but it turned out that since Devon was dead, the others were singing in order to reduce their sentences.

There had been a total of four people arrested. The vet for the Juneau Zoo had supplied the tranqs; the vet's supervisor had signed off on the tranqs, one of them had driven Devon to the airport and had been waiting to spirit him and Nicky away, and of course Devon himself had initiated the attack.

There was no mention of charges being brought against Princess Alexandria.

When the question of beheading the conspirators came up, David shelved it for next time.

When the question of a DNA test for Nicholas rose, Christina said, before David could open his mouth, "Prince Nicholas is the son of the king and fifth in line to the throne. Period."

"Fourth," David coughed into his fist.

"Right. Fourth."

There was a long pause, followed by that unseen fellow saying, "So noted."

Christina was too nervous to doze, which was torture, because it was really pretty boring. She didn't even watch CNN, for crying out loud; what was she doing here? But her boredom disappeared when David said, "I have an item for this afternoon, if you please."

Divorce, she thought. He's had enough. I've driven him over the edge. It was bound to happen, but I thought we might last a week, at least.

"Proceed, Sire."

"My father never meant for me to rule Alaska alone… or even with a queen. Regent," he corrected himself.

Eh?

"In fact, he wanted to have my sisters and brothers rule as kings and queens, with my queen and myself as high king and queen over them. In that way, we could all share the burden of the crown, and if anything happened to my queen or me before an heir was produced, the succession would continue with a minimum of strife."

Interesting, Christina thought, but futile. The succession order seems pretty clear. But if it's what Al wanted. . .

"Is Your Majesty suggesting we implement this?"

"I'm suggesting we shelve it, and think about it for next time. I will consider your arguments, ladies and gentlemen, but I must also consider my father's wishes."

And that, as they say, was that.

Chapter 30

"Dad really meant all that High King crap?" Alexander said, waiting for them outside the hall. "Or are you drunk again?" Christina was amazed. No haiku! That made the nightmare seem, weirdly, more real.

"You'll see. Are the others ready?"

"Ready, Sire."

"What's going on?" Christina asked, picking up her skirt and hurrying to keep pace with David and Alexander's long strides.

"My father left a tape. He had instructions for the heir to the throne to watch it first and then have everybody else take a look. We're going now. There wasn't time," he added apologetically, "for the rest of you to see it before Parliament started."

"Oh. Is it, um, private? Maybe between your brothers and sisters? Because I don't want to inter—"

He grasped her elbow. His hand was warm and comforting. "You're part of the family now, Chris. He wanted—wants—you to see it, too."

Again, they assembled in the king's office: all the royal siblings, Jennifer, Edmund. Kurt was missing, prowling the grounds looking for a bad guy—any bad guy—to shoot. He'd checked himself out of the hospital AMA, and no one argued with him.

"Nice work in Parliament today," Princess Alex said by way of greeting, and Kathryn nodded and smiled at her. Christina knew how rare that was; Kathryn was morbidly self-conscious of her braces.

"Thanks," David replied.

"I was talking to your wife. Seriously, Chris, I was expecting a swoon or a dirty joke or something. Many congrats on not humiliating yourself in front of our national government."

"I was so petrified, I forgot the joke I was going to tell," she admitted. "Ooch over, Nicky, make room. Gah, my feet are killing me."

Nicky obligingly scooted to the end of the couch and she sat down with a sigh and kicked off her flats.

Jenny's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Those aren't your wedding slippers."

"Oh, who was going to notice?" she snapped. "We're sort of having a country crisis, if you haven't noticed. No one is interested in my feet."

"I'm interested in your feet," Nicholas teased.

"Your Majesty, it is unseemly—"

"Hush," David ordered absently. "Edmund's got the tape going."

The seventy-two-inch screen brightened, revealing King Al sitting right where David was. He was wearing a green flannel shirt frayed at the cuffs, and hadn't shaved in about three days. He yawned, then grinned at the camera and Christina saw Alexandria put her hand briefly over her eyes, as if she couldn't bear to see him looking hale and healthy.

"Hey, boy. Hey, kids. If you're watching this, I'm up shit creek. I'm either worm food, and I hope you didn't bury me—cremation, remember?—or so out of it David's running the country.

"Well, that's all right. I don't mind being done with the king gig, but I sure would have liked to have had more time with you guys. And Christina," he added thoughtfully. He pulled a small penknife out of his pocket, unfolded it, and started cleaning his nails. "Chris, I would have liked to have watched you get used to being a princess. Now you'll be queen— or queen regnant—and you're probably pretty pissed at me. Well, no one is ever really ready for the crown … not even people who wage wars for one. But, in this country at least, it never goes to someone who doesn't deserve it.

"Which brings me to my point. You kids might remember me reading you the Chronicles of Narnia when you were little. Man, I loved those books. Anyway, the thing I liked best about them—after the talking animals and the kick-ass lion—was the fact that Peter, the Narnian King, was High King over his brother and sisters. And they all helped each other rule Narnia. If Peter had to go up north and kick some ass—the giants lived in the north, you'll remember—his brothers and sisters stayed behind at Cair Paravel so the subjects didn't get nervous. In fact, King Peter was gone once when Narnia was attacked by the Calormenes, but King Edmund and Queen Lucy handled it.

"You'll recall your European history …"

"We will," Princess Alex said. "I didn't think you would."

Kathryn giggled, and elbowed her.

". . . when King Richard went off to fight the Crusades he damn near didn't have a throne to come back to. I don't want that to happen, and I don't want the burden of running the country to fall on David and Christina. It's nothing against Chris or David .. . I'd just like you guys to be able to share the work. It's not all christenings and ribbon cuttings, as I'm sure you've found out by now.

"I'm not signing anything, I'm not making it an order—although legally you wouldn't have to follow it, now that I'm kaput and David's king—but I do want you to consider it.

"You're all Baranovs, which means you're quick, intelligent, ruthless, and loyal. You could do worse than help each other make Alaska the greatest country in the world.

"That's all, except. . . David, you can do it. You were, in fact, born to it. And you picked yourself a helluva wife. Alexandria, use that big brain of yours to help your brother instead of give him shit 24/7. Alexander, ditto . . . and your days of sleep ing late might be over for a while. Also, boy, seriously—enough with the poetry already. Kathryn, I know deep down—way, way deep down—you like your new sister-in-law. Consider showing it once in a while.

"And Nicky, I know you're going to hate this, but you're still my baby boy. I update this tape every six months or so, which means you're still a kid. Stay a kid a little longer, for your old dad." He winked at the camera. "Edmund, Jenn, I know you two are hovering like damn ghouls … I don't have to ask you to help the kids out, but I will ask you to take it easy on them." He paused, and put the knife away. "Okay, I'm done. Done, and I love you gobs, and all that mushy stuff. Now get back to work."

The screen went dark.

Chapter 31

"What. . . a . . . day …" Christina sighed, staggering into their apartments and tossing her cape over a chair in the corner. Someone had turned the lights on low, had remade their bed, had the stereo playing softly, had vacuumed. It was like living in a really nice hotel. Every day. "Seriously! The hospital, then Parliament, then that gruesome tape of your dad …" She trailed off. The day had been so long, and depressing, and as far as honeymoons went, this one sucked the root.

And it was her honeymoon! She should be naked, just about all the time, possibly experimenting with flavored oils and whipped cream, but noooooo, she had to open Parliament, for the love of God, and it'd be too weird to put the moves on David, not to mention the fact that he was probably so not in the mood, and—

She turned and he was there, right there, and then his mouth was on hers, his hands were in her hair, pulling the pins out, massaging her neck, and as the tension left her muscles she groaned into his mouth.

They staggered toward the bed, hands all over each other, pulling, tearing, ripping, and she heard him growl, "Fuck the buttonhook," and fell onto the bed with her, and then his hand was up her skirt, groping, pulling, and then her panties were flying through the air with the greatest of ease—

"Bare legs? Bare legs and ten-dollar shoes?"

"Like anybody cares," she grumbled, nibbling on his throat where she could reach it past his shirt collar. Then she was reaching down and fumbling for his trousers, groping for his zipper, then cupping his hot, hard shaft.

"Ummmm," she said, or something equally inane. Then her skirt was pushed up to around chin-level and he surged forward, burying himself within her. It was tight and mildly painful but sweet at the same time, and she sighed.

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