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"Sure you can," Jenny said, cutting Edmund off—probably for the first time in her life. "Sure. He'll wake up and then . . . and then he can—can write them." Then, shockingly, she burst into tears.

"Jenny!" Christina took her in her arms and hugged her. "Don't cry, Jenny, you'll get us all started."

"There, there," Edmund said ineffectually, patting her shoulder with long, skeletal fingers.

"I'm sorry," she sobbed. "I'm glad you're the queen regnant and I really like David… but I miss the king … he was really nice to me … and he's so sick… and he was so nice … and he's in so much trouble because he was nice—a good dad—and—and—"

"Jeez, will you stop? He'll be all right. He's too obnoxious to die."

"Why don't you take the morning, Jenny, and take some personal time?" Edmund suggested. "With Her Majesty's leave, of course. It's been a stressful time for all of us."

"No, I can't do that," she said, calming. "I have too much work. We all do." Then she stiffened, doubtless freshly realizing the queen was holding her. "I must beg Your Majesty's pardon. I—I forgot myself and I'm so—"

"Jenny. For the love of God. When are you going to lighten up?"

She sniffed and wiped her face with her palms. It hurt Christina's heart a bit to see that gesture, so childlike. "Well, again. I apologize."

"It's a stressful time," Edmund commented, possibly the understatement of the decade.

"Yeah, well, you can make it up to me by licking envelopes."

"Blurgh," Jenny said, and the three of them laughed.

From the Alaskan Royal Archives. Museum of Alaskan History, Juneau, Alaska. From the Baranov collection; donated by HRH Prince David HI, prince of Alaska, 2080.

This note, on HRM's personal stationery, is a typical example of Queen Christina's style of correspondence. It is a thank-you note for an original Picasso, given to the queen on the occasion of her wedding to David, the then-crown prince of Alaska, and donated to the museum by her grandson, Prince David III.

May 8, 2005

Dear Mr. Gates,

Thank you very much for the painting. It's really amazing. We hung it in Allen Hall, a wing of the castle very important to the king, and where he can see it every day. I try to get in there and look at it when I can. Those are some pretty amazing colors.

I'm sorry you couldn't come to the wedding, but I wish you the best of luck with your lawsuit.

Sincerely yours, Christina K. Baranov P.S. I have some of your software, and it works great. Good work.

From the private papers of HRM Christina Baranov

April 9, 2004

My dearest Christina,

I just finished watching CNN; you looked beautiful and poised. Well done.

I wanted to take a moment to drop you a line to tell you how sorry I am about what happened to King Alexander. Although I'm certain you were personally and professionally horrified by the recent turn of events, I'm equally certain you are up to the task of helping the new king regent run the country.

Many times when we talked in my office I could see your fondness for King Alexander and Prince David, and your anxiety that you would be unable to be an asset to his son when the time came.

Christina, if no one has mentioned this, then I will do so now: you 're more than capable of the task set before you. No one has a bigger heart or (beneath the swearing) a kinder disposition. I can think of no better woman to be queen, for Alaska and for myself.

Please don't hesitate to call on me at any time if you want to talk; I would dearly love to see you again, although I understand there are now many demands on your time. Now that you are married, you no longer need me, but I miss our talks. I am at your disposal and will come to the palace whenever you require.

Until we meet again, I remain,

Your friend,

Dr. Elinor Pohl

Chapter 33

"David?" She opened the door, grimacing at the smell. "You in here?" She walked inside, trying to ignore the penguins, half of which had stopped whatever they were doing to stare at her. Ick. And that weird-ass Picasso, the one that looked like a bar floor after the drunks overindulged. Double ick. What had Bill Gates been dunking? "Helloooooo? I'm going buggy writing thank-yous and wanted a kiss. And possibly a quickie. Dave?"

Nothing. Well, shit She backed out of the room, never taking her eyes off the weird birds. She shut the door, turned, and nearly fell over the penguin that had somehow snuck around and gotten outside the room.

"Ack!" She skipped clumsily to avoid stepping on it, lunging a few feet to the side and fetching up painfully against the wall.

It stared at her.

She opened the door.

It stared at her.

"Go back inside, now."

It clucked. Was it hungry? Thirsty? Preparing to attack?

"Okay, go inside now."

It totally ignored her.

"Fucking thing," she muttered.

It clucked louder.

"Sorry." She edged a few more feet to the left. It followed her. She edged faster. It followed faster. "Quit that, now. Quit. Quit! Stop it! Help!"

Chris came rocketing around the corner, nearly knocking David off his feet. She grabbed him like a life preserver and said, "It's after me, it's after me!"

"What? Who? Is Kurt—"

"No, fool! It's coming to eat me or kill me or whatever! It's like a Terminator with wings—it won't stop!"

David looked down in time to see a young penguin just past its first molting hurry around the corner. "For heaven's sake, Christina, you shouldn't let them out. They—"

"Am I not speaking English, King Dumb-ass? It stalked me! It tricked me and snuck out and now I can't get rid of it. It's after me!"

He tried very hard not to laugh. It was obvious from her wide eyes and flushed face that she was not remotely amused. "I'll take care of it, Chris. Don't—" He coughed into his fist and prayed she wouldn't notice his watering eyes. "Don't be frightened."

She peered at him suspiciously. "Are you laughing at me, buddy boy?"

"No."

"You better not be."

"I love you," he said spontaneously. It was getting a bit easier to tell her each time. She never laughed, at least. Not about that. In fact, she claimed to love him in return.

"Why?" Still suspicious.

"Oh, several indefinable reasons." He kissed her on the nose.

"Yech, get a room." They turned to see Kurt smirking at them. He was wearing khakis, loafers without socks, his shoulder holster, and a T-shirt with the logo I'M A GOOD THING. "Or at least a palace. What's up, royal dudes?"

"Christina is making friends," David said.

"Very funny. I'm glad to see you, Kurt. Can you take care of it?" she asked, gesturing down to the penguin, which had edged closer while they talked.

"What do you want me to do?" he asked doubtfully. "Shoot it?"

"For heaven's sake," David said, before Christina could incriminate herself. "I'll take care of it. Kurt, make sure she doesn't get into any more trouble."

"Got a hypo of Thorazine?" he called after David, who laughed in reply.

"Well, well," she said, still annoyed. "Aren't you two best pals these days." Actually, it was kind of nice … gone was the underlying resentment and me-Tarzan-she-Jane vibe the men would give off whenever they were in the same room.

"Aw, he's a good guy." Kurt lowered his voice. "I feel sorry for him, you know. What happened to his dad, and then that big-ass promotion. And, of course, being married to you. When it comes to talking to Parliament and visiting orphans, you're not what I'd call an asset."

"Well, we both appreciate you staying around, asshole. David even said so the other day."

Kurt shrugged. He was more relaxed than she could recall seeing him, and he and Princess Alex were getting quite chummy these days. He appeared to be in no rush to return to LA. She was glad. Alex had confided that he lingered because he still felt guilty about the king getting shot. It was a bad reason to stay, but a good man was staying, so it worked out. Sort of.

"What are you doing here, anyway?"

"Jenny sent me to get you."

"What a slave driver! I just wanted to take a break from interminable thank-you notes."

"Yeah. She said you left four hours ago."

"It's a big palace," she said defensively. "I was looking for David again."

"Excuses, excuses. Come on, I promised Jenny I'd drag you back."

"Who exactly is in charge around here? Because it isn't me."

"Ask Edmund," he suggested, and walked her to the elevator.

Chapter 34

"Really?" David asked for about the hundredth time. "It's not one of your, um, unusual jokes?"

"For the billionth time—it's not a joke."

"Really?" He grinned.

"Yes, David. Good work. I'm not joking about that, either. I mean, whoof! Good work. Yum."

He slung an arm around her hips as they walked down the hospital corridor. They had talked briefly to the press outside and, in a tit for tat, the press had stayed outside. Tension was still high, but the country hadn't imploded or melted since David assumed the crown, so the press and pundits had adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

As for today's goings-on, she and David had been summoned to the king's hospital room by an urgent call from Princess Kathryn.

"That's—I can't believe it. I really can't."

"Then you haven't been paying attention to the extent of our extracurricular activities, Penguin Boy. Or should I say Penis Boy?" Then, a nervously, she added, "Are you—do you mind? I mean, do you like it?"

"Are you kidding? It's wonderful news." He chorded. "Edmund's going to have kittens!"

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