In the absence of entertainment such as bear-baiting, jousting and court jesters, bored kings quickly descend into madness, after which they’ll try just about anything to amuse themselves.
Across the room from me stands my fiancé, King Roman I of Austria and Royal Exhibit A.
“Even though We are your infallible Sovereign,” he intones, “and We always hold Our people’s needs first in Our mind—above all other desires, even Our own—Our conscience has been urging Our Royal Person to make a confession.”
Stretched out on an uncomfortable and abominably ugly chaise longue with gilt legs, I lift my eyes from my book. “Huh?”
Dressed in a perfectly tailored suit with a cobalt blue tie that matches his eyes, Roman looks more like a male model than the king of Austria. He stares intently at the screen of his cell phone with that sexy, lopsided smile of his, a visual that seems completely at odds with his bizarre conversation starter.
“Ha!” he says, stabbing the screen with his finger once I’ve torn my eyes away from the page. “That was one minute and fifty-two seconds! Almost two full minutes before you even looked up.”
Roman has become obsessed with the fact that I can get so wrapped up in a book that I block out everything else. Well, not “block out” exactly; more like “raise a very dense filter that requires a lot of time and the patience of Job to permeate in order to successfully facilitate the delivery of external information.”
In other words: if someone speaks to me, I’ll hear them…eventually.
I roll my eyes and consider lobbing my book at him, but change my mind when I recall the title: The Death of a Dynasty: Crown Prince Rudolph von Habsburg and the Murder-Suicide that Changed History. The difficulty isn’t really the subject matter, although it would be deliciously ironic to murder the current King of Austria with a book about an Austria Crown Prince murder-suicide. After all, I was one of the people who discovered the 125-year-old “Rudolph Tunnel” inside Schönbrunn Palace, a concealed passage which led from then-Crown Prince Rudolph’s private apartments to the servant’s quarters.
The real problem is that if Roman spies the title, it will invariably dredge up memories of the man who played the psychopathic Watson to my Sherlock; namely, tunnel co-discoverer Mikhail Romanov, a toxic topic that I’ll do just about anything to avoid.
I grip the intricately curved armrest of the chaise, struggling to pull myself to a sitting position. “Okay, I get it. You’d think a king would have something better to do than going around measuring people’s auditory response times. Besides, you should be happy I’m the educated courtesan-type instead of an illiterate concubine.”
Roman’s smile vanishes, replaced by a look of watchful wariness. Only then does it occur to me that by attempting to side-step a F5 tornado, I’ve fallen face-first into a black hole.
Did you really just use the word ‘concubine’? I want to kick myself for bringing up anything to do with mistresses, especially since I accused Roman and every one of his subjects in the entire Kingdom of Austria of treating me like one just over a month ago, right before I left him (and them).
I rush to steer the conversation back to the original topic, a challenging endeavor at best since I’m not really certain what the hell the original topic was. “Anyway, you’re not my king since I’m not an Austrian citizen by birth or naturalization—”
“Yet,” he interjects.
“So you can confess whatever you want. As the citizen of a country who threw off the shackles of monarchy in 1776, I still reserve the right not to like what I hear.” Settled on the edge of the chaise, I close the book and let it rest on my lap, front cover-side down, concealing the title.
His expression grows even grimmer. “Have you ever heard the saying ‘It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission’?”
Every one of my emotional alarms begins wailing at full-volume. So much for avoiding the topic. I lift my chin in defiance and launch a rebuttal. “Look, I have to continue researching if I want to finish writing my book. And I’m not going to apologize for that or ask for your permission. The publisher paid me a generous advance after I found the Rudolph Tunnel, and I can’t just fork it back over because of what happened when—well, you know.”
I refuse to let the words “Mikhail Romanov” pass my lips, but trailing off into silence would be even more awkward, so I blunder ahead. “And the whole point of the secret passages was so royals could sneak downstairs to boff the servants, or creep out of the palace without—without—”
This just keeps getting better and better. Not only am I parroting the despicable Mikhail Romanov with his “boffing the servants” comment, but I’ve also managed to dredge up the particular means that Mikhail and I used to evade Roman and my bodyguard, “creeping out of the palace” through a newly discovered hidden passage, after which Mikhail got drunk, told me he loved me, smashed his face into mine in an ill-advised attempt to kiss me, and then threw me to the ground at the top of the Blue Staircase. The result was a ruptured disc, Mikhail’s arrest and deportation, the implosion of my relationship with Roman, and my abrupt and wholly voluntary exit from the country for the next month.
Suddenly, the marble floor becomes the most fascinating thing in the world. How are we ever going to get past this?
A few beats of silence follow. Roman gives his head a bewildered shake. “Leigh, what in the world are you talking about?”
I look up. “What am I talking about? What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about every minute we weren’t physically together between Labor Day and New Year’s Eve.”
This totally stumps me. “‘Physically’? You mean, like…naked?”
His smile is wan. “No. Look, I knew way back in September that there was going to be a vote to reinstate the monarchy.” He grimaces as if he’s expecting an overwhelmingly negative reaction from me. Since I’m hoping for some sort of cohesive narrative to spring, phoenix-like, from the ashes of our conversation, I have nothing to offer him except a dumb look and puzzled silence.
He drops onto the end of the chaise, looking like a puppy that’s just piddled on the floor and is expecting a smack with a newspaper. “And when I told you that I was traveling to Seattle and L.A. for work all those times?” He takes a deep breath. “Well, that was a lie.”
I sit up straighter. “What do you mean ‘that was a lie’? Where did you go?”
He holds his hands up, palms out, in a defensive gesture. “No, I mean I did go there, but I hardly ever left the hotels once I arrived. And I wasn’t there to work.” He stops. “Well, I mean, it was work, just not the kind of work that makes you sweat.” His lips twist into a smirk. “Although there were plenty of times she had me sweating, that’s for sure. That woman has skills. In fact, I’m not sure she isn’t the devil incarnate.”
Suddenly, I visualize Roman and his ex-girlfriend, the glamourous and beautiful Princess Isabella of Denmark, ensconced in various lavish, Pacific Coast hotel rooms, writhing around on a bed, their naked bodies slick with sex sweat—for four straight months. “Skills?” I manage to say.
He grins, oblivious to my discomfort. “There’s no way I’d share this with anyone else but you, but there were a few times she had me on the verge of tears.”
My brain makes helpful adjustments to this mental picture, leaving Princess Isabella standing over Roman’s weeping form wielding a riding crop, wearing leather pants and one of those kinky underbust corsets that lifts and showcases her bare breasts.
Roman looks relieved, but since I don’t know what to make of his wacky confession, I paraphrase what I’ve heard and toss it back at him. “You’re saying that when you weren’t with me between September and December, you were in every hotel room from Southern California to Washington State, sweating and weeping at the hands of some skilled ‘professional’?”
Now he looks the precise opposite of relieved. “Wait—what? No, I said that I—”
“I believe you’re supposed to have a safeword on standby. You know, before someone starts crying,” I say with an air of authority.
“I’m assuming you know this because of your years spent in the detached academic study of human sexuality,” he says, “and not because you’re a card-carrying member of some underground sex club.”
I shrug. “Harvard University consulted us when they were considering officially sanctioning a student BDSM club. We polled the student body and professors and used the results to draft recommendations for the university administrators.”
Roman looks like he’s been hit upside the head with a summer sausage. “Harvard has a BDSM club?”
“The Harvard College Munch.” I try not to laugh as I watch him digest this delightful tidbit, his brow furrowed with skepticism. “For the record,” I add, “we didn’t pick the name. I recommended that they go with the Harvard Paddlers, but there was concern that they’d be confused for a rowing team.” I grin up at him. “Can’t you just see some clueless rich freshman wandering into that meeting?”
“Good for upper-body strength either way.” He says this lightly, but I can tell he’s growing impatient. “I’m trying to explain something to you. Hörst du?”
Impatient in two languages, no less. I automatically translate his German into the English equivalent “Are you listening?”
“I’d be happy to listen,” I say, “just as soon as you start making some sense.”
He closes his eyes and sighs. “I think we need to reboot this conversation.” He takes one of my hands in his, a simple gesture that still causes my brain to dump all kinds of chemicals into my bloodstream, chiefly the ones governing arousal. “Remember when we were at the Almost Royal Weekend?” he says. “On the back deck of the cottage after the ball?”
Since we’d left the ball after being humiliated by Princess Isabella and spent the next hour discussing the demise of their relationship, it’s unlikely that I’d ever forget. “Yeah, why?”
“I told you that my mother had always hoped I’d be king one day—one way or the other—and that one of those ways was if the Austrian Parliament voted to reinstate the monarchy.”
I remember the other route much better, the one that involved becoming the future King of Denmark by marrying Princess Isabella and begetting an heir. Still, I nod.
“What I didn’t tell you,” he says, “was that there was a rumor going around that weekend that the Austrian chancellor was very close to building enough support in the parliament to reinstate the monarchy. Only it turns out that it wasn’t a rumor. I woke up at three o’clock the next morning and called the chancellor to confirm it.”
I feign shock. “Wait—so you mean they really had this vote? Does that mean that you’re king of Austria now?”
“Ha-ha,” he says dryly. “Anyway, after I flew you back to Denver, I made a beeline to L.A. to discuss the situation with my mother.”
Before I rage all over him for lying by omission all those months, I figure it can’t hurt to ask for an explanation. “And you never told me any of this…why?”
“Well, since we’d only known each other for a few days, it was hard to pinpoint the right time to drop something of that magnitude on you. Besides, by November, parliamentary support seemed to be weakening. I was certain that there wouldn’t be a vote at all; it didn’t make sense to bother you with something that wasn’t going to happen, you know?”
I take a moment to absorb it all. “You were probably right not to say anything,” I admit. “I was a nervous wreck around you for the first few months we dated anyway.” I decline to add that just looking at him still tends to make me giddy. And horny, I think. Definitely horny. “Not to mention the fact that you wouldn’t have known if it was you I was after or a crown.”
He chuckles. “Every time you mentioned the word ‘crown’ after the Royal Weekend, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I was sure you knew everything and you were just playing dumb to torture me.”
I laugh with him. “Serves you right! Were you disappointed in November when you found out that there wouldn’t even be a vote?”
He gives an emphatic shake of his head. “Are you kidding me? ‘Relieved’ doesn’t quite cover it, although I was pretty pissed that I’d wasted three months learning royal protocol, Austrian history, and European politics.” He frowns. “Not to mention brushing up on my German, which really needed a lot of brushing since I could hardly speak it at all.”
I pull my hand from his and smack his thigh. “I wondered how you became so fluent overnight! And here I was thinking that all of this king stuff was encoded in your DNA. I just figured your royalty genes were switched on after they reinstated the monarchy.”
“Believe me, I wish it’d been that easy,” he says. “Which brings me to the reason for confessing all this to you in the first place: you’re going to have to go through the same thing—‘queen training,’ I mean—with protocol and etiquette instruction, and German lessons. I figured now was as good a time as any to prepare you for the, uh, rather eccentric person who’s going to be in charge of all that. Her name is—”
“But I already have a German teacher.”
Roman blinks in surprise. “You do?”
I nod. “I had my first lesson this morning. I’m scheduled for German lessons two hours every day, whether I need them or not. And I definitely need them.”
“Oh,” he says, frowning. “Well that’s bad, because now we have a problem.” Before I can respond, he stretches his legs out and leans back, as if expecting to recline against pillows that aren’t there. He nearly falls backwards off the chaise in the process. After righting himself and glaring at the so-called “armrest” of the chaise he mutters, “I hate these things. It’s not a couch and it’s not a chair; it’s just something in between that’s totally useless.” He glances at the book in my lap. “And I can tell you from personal experience that it definitely wasn’t made to read on; I had muscle spasms in my neck so bad that I couldn’t look behind me without rotating my entire body as a unit.”
“If it’s not made for reading, then what’s its purpose, O Mighty King?”
He studies the cushions as if the answer lies somewhere in the gaudy upholstery pattern. “I think you’re just supposed to lie here in royal decadence until servants come in to feed you grapes and fan you with palm fronds.”
I smile. “Who’s in charge of peeling the grapes again? I mean, I hope you don’t think I’m doing it now that I’m dating a king.”
“Engaged to a king,” he corrects me under his breath. In his regular voice he says, “And I don’t think we have a full-time grape-peeler on staff.” He glances at his watch, a sure sign that some official duty is calling even at this late hour.
Before he can move, I toss the book aside and swing my left leg over his lap, repositioning myself so that I’m straddling him face-to-face. “I have an idea, Your Majesty,” I murmur, fluttering my eyelashes at him as I tug at the knot of his tie. “We can pretend that I’m a grape. You can peel off my clothes, and I’ll let you know afterwards if we need to hire someone else to do it in the future.”
I watch, amused, as his eyes become lidded while his man-brain wars with itself—Is there enough time for crazy, hot sex and then an audience with the Master of the Horse?—when I hear chimes in the distance. We push away from each other, jumping to our feet like teenagers caught half-naked in the back seat of a car.
Roman fixes his tie while I quietly fume. Technically, the Royal Apartments are the one place we’re supposed to have a little privacy. In reality, butlers, valets and maids tend to appear with little to no warning. The chime, which I thought was a doorbell at first, turned out to be more of a musical harbinger of sorts, alerting us to the imminent invasion of servants into one of the thirty-plus sprawling, lavishly decorated rooms on the third and fourth floors that now make up Roman’s living quarters. I don’t know how Habsburg royals of the past felt about the hired help popping in whenever they felt the urge to polish the silver or empty a chamber pot, but it makes me want to garrote the perpetrator every time.
Yet another reason to find your own place to live, I remind myself.
“It’s probably Johanna,” says Roman. “She said that she might have something for me to look over before she left, but I don’t know if I can choke my way through one more boring state paper tonight.” He gestures in the direction of the hallway leading to the informal living room. “Why don’t you go read im Wohnzimmer? I can personally vouch for the comfort of every couch in there. Plus,” he says with a suggestive wink, “then I’ll know where to find you.”
I want to tease him for lapsing into German—something he does a lot more now than he did before I left—but I know he’ll just swear up and down that I misheard him. Besides, learning German goes a lot faster when one has to contend with only one or two foreign words in an otherwise all-English sentence, providing plenty of context to help you puzzle it all out.
“For your information,” I say, still irritated by the chime, “I was caught reading on the comfy couch this morning—im Wohnzimmer, I might add—and a rather heavy hint was dropped that there was an entire room set aside for reading.” I shrug. “What can I say? I stupidly thought that reading conditions on the ground would be better in here.”
Roman looks extremely displeased. “Which member of the staff was presumptuous enough to tell where you should and should not sit in your own Haus?”
Inwardly, I heave a defeated sigh. Roman’s “mein Haus ist dein Haus” routine is getting old. I know what he’s hinting at; namely, that I should consider Schönbrunn Palace home. Despite the fact that one of my conditions for returning to Austria was that I be allowed to find my own place in order to quash the press’s tendency to remind everyone that I am (in no particular order) a foreigner, a commoner, and a social-climbing mistress, I know he hopes I’ll change my mind.
“Forget about it, it was no big deal,” I say, checking the clock on the nearby mantle. “I suppose this is ‘auf Wiedersehen’ for me, too. I have an appointment at eight o’clock.” I kiss him on the cheek and whisper “I love you” in German—“Ich liebe dich”—which still sounds like I’m threatening to beat his face in with a sledgehammer, no matter how tenderly I utter it.
Earlier today, my new language tutor had perfectly summed up the romantic shortcomings of the German language when she quipped, “Tell someone you love them because life is short; but shout it at them in German, because life is also terrifying and confusing.”
Speaking of confused….
“An appointment for what?” Roman says. “Not more German lessons, I hope. Because someone’s already been chosen to help you with that. And didn’t you say that you already had a two-hour lesson today?”
My eight o’clock appointment has nothing to do with language lessons, but I decide to answer his final question and shroud the rest in ambiguity. “I did, but we had to quit after thirty minutes or so because I couldn’t stop laughing.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Laughing? At what?”
“Well, my instructor has me using this language software that shows you four different images on the screen. Then the program says something in German—a word or a phrase—and you have to figure out which of the four pictures matches whatever was said. So if the program says ‘Der Hund,’ you would click on the picture of the dog.”
“Interesting way to learn,” he says.
“Yeah, but I’m way beyond single words and phrases already, learning entire sentences. So everything was going great this morning…until people started waking up.”
“The program was trying to teach me the verb ‘to wake up’—”
“Right!” I say, giggling. Roman raises and eyebrow and eyes me curiously. “The computer would say something in German like ‘the man wakes up’ and I’d have to choose the picture of the guy in his PJs, stretching and yawning. Only ‘wacht auf’ sounds exactly like the English for ‘whacked off,’ and once I heard it, I couldn’t unhear it, you know? The man was ‘whacking off,’ the woman was ‘whacking off’—hell, people were whacking each other off!—until the whole lesson just sort of broke down into a masturbatory blur of German.” I’ve barely wheezed out the last few words before I’m snickering all over again.
Roman glances at the hallway to check for any encroaching palace personnel before turning back to me with a frown. “Leigh, you have to be careful about what you say and how you act,” he says, keeping his voice low, “even in the palace. If the wrong person overhears, even an innocent remark on your part could be twisted into something that the papers won’t hesitate to slander you with.”
“Not that it matters,” I say, irritated, “but it wasn’t me who pointed it out; my instructor did.”
He crosses his arms, looking smug. “Which is exactly why you need people helping you who will make your situation easier, not harder—something this self-appointed ‘instructor’ of yours doesn’t seem to grasp. What’s his name?”
“Her name,” I say brusquely. “And I like her a lot, so I’d appreciate it if you’d just stay out of it.”
“Leigh, you’re not hearing me. We’ve already appointed someone to assist you with the language and all the other stuff I mentioned, someone who can be relied on to act with decorum and discretion. If you’ll please just tell me who you met with this morning I’ll get this whole misunderstanding straightened out.”
From behind us comes a tap on the open door. The baritone voice of the butler, Jurgen, resonates through the cavernous room. “Good evening, Your Majesty, Ms. Fromm,” he says with a polite bow. I can tell by the way he pauses that we have a visitor, one who will hopefully provide the perfect window for me to sneak right out of here. In a solemn tone that most people reserve for heralding the death of a loved one, Jurgen announces the visitor with a rush of words that mean nothing to me: “Erlaucht Gräfin von Goëss.”
I break into a smile of delight as my elderly but feisty language teacher steps into the room. “Francesca!”
Chapter Two: ROMAN LORRAINE VON HABSBURG
Oh, perfect, I think, tensing as I wait for The Countess to blast Leigh for not addressing her properly.
Instead, Francesca prances into the room, executes a quick curtsy, mumbles “Your Majesty” in my general direction, and turns to Leigh, arms outstretched. “Leigh, liebchen!” she warbles in a pitch that mothers use to coo over babies. “It is so nice to see you again! His Majesty isn’t still boring you to death with all that protocol nonsense, is he?”
I stare at the two of them in disbelief, waiting for Francesca to do something that would confirm her identity, such as drop an F-bomb. I clear my throat to catch their attention. “Uh, I take it you two have already been formally introduced?”
Francesca makes a sort of breathy noise before dismissively waving me away with her hand. “Don’t you pay any attention to him, dear,” she says to Leigh in a grandmotherly voice that promises hot cocoa and cookies fresh from the oven. “I certainly don’t.”
I have never, ever, heard Francesca address anyone as “dear”—and I’m still having a hard time believing that she’s not referring to an ungulate of some kind. Who is this imposter? I think. I envision the real Countess tied up, gagged, and stashed in a small, dark closet somewhere. The image has a surprisingly therapeutic effect.
True to her word, Francesca ignores me completely, showering all her attention on Leigh. “Now then, there is a car waiting for you downstairs. I’d be happy to go with you if you’d like, but I think you’ll attract much less attention without an entourage. What do you think, dear?”
“I couldn’t agree more,” says Leigh, looking relieved. “Thank you so much for arranging everything, Francesca. I can’t wait to see it!” She brushes a kiss on my cheek that feels like an afterthought. “I’ll be back in about an hour,” she says without meeting my eyes. “I’ll stop in the courtyard on my way back and bring you some Punsch, okay? Love you.”
Before I can respond, she breezes into the hallway and disappears, the perpetually somber Jurgen bowing and following in her wake.
I turn to Francesca. “Since when did your official position as royal advisor get downgraded to ‘language coach,’ Countess? And where exactly is Leigh off to at this time of night?”
She purses her lips and straightens up, all traces of warmth having apparently been sucked out of the room with Leigh’s departure. “Your Majesty,” she says in German, “did you really enjoy clinical depression and bachelordom so much that you are anxious to return to them?” She holds up a hand, effectively cutting off my defense. “As king, you must learn how to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of every individual you interact with if you hope to become adept at…”
She trails off, the way she does when she’s tasted whatever word was on the tip of her tongue, has found the flavor wanting, and is searching for a more palatable replacement.
“…influencing people,” she concludes.
“‘Influencing’?” I say. “You mean ‘manipulating’?” I sidestep around her and stalk off, intending to head for my office, when I remember that my office was moved during the remodel and now lies upstairs and in the opposite direction. I execute a rather non-regal U-turn, which brings the two of us face-to-face again.
“Only when you truly understand your subjects—the deep secrets of their past, their private hopes for their future,” she says, “will you be able to truly rule over them.”
“You sound like you just got back from bar-hopping with Machiavelli,” I say. “Leigh isn’t my ‘subject,’ Countess, she’s my fiancée. I don’t appreciate you manipulating her, and neither would she if she knew. All this fussing over her like a mother hen—‘dear’ this and ‘dear’ that. I’ve never heard you talk like that, and I’ve known you my whole life.”
“Ah,” she says with a nod. “What you mean to say is that you have never heard me speak to you that way. And the reason for that is because I knew that coddling you would only have antagonized you, and it certainly would not have made you into a strong and capable king.” Before I can cram a word in edgewise, she continues to roll her verbal tank over me. “As for Leigh, I am simply counterbalancing your overbearing behavior towards her. If you continue treating your fiancée like a china doll, then I forbid you to display any surprise whatsoever when she breaks. And please note that I said ‘when,’ and not ‘if.’”
“And you think you’re going to make her less breakable…how? By setting her up somewhere outside the palace so that the media can ridicule her at their leisure? It was bad enough worrying about leaks from the palace staff!”
“Your Majesty,” she says, “I have seen war treaties that were less thorough and less punitive than the nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements that I require every individual employed by the Royal Household to sign. If one of them were to so much as look in a reporter’s direction, they would find themselves not only financially devastated and buried in legal complications of every kind, but out-of-work and universally unemployable.”
“That’s all well and good, but I believe your pledge to me last month was as follows: ‘You bring back your lily, Your Majesty, and you leave the gilding to me.’ Now, pardon me if I don’t understand how your Project Gilding Royal Grooming Curriculum works, but so far I don’t see the opinion polls regarding Leigh skyrocketing into the glowing and positive range. If anything the public’s opinion of her is worse than it was before she left!”
She studies me for a moment. “Perhaps that is because your opinion of her is worse than before she left.” Her audacity leaves me mute. “When I see you with Leigh,” she says, “I do not see a man who is at ease with himself, enjoying the happiness of a loving relationship. I see a puppeteer who has not yet reconciled himself with the fact that there are no strings to be pulled.”
If she whips out a jigsaw puzzle I’m going to abdicate. “As much as I enjoy these Zen-like teaching moments Countess, I really wish you would just jump right to the point.”
“Fine: you are acting like a royal dick, Your Majesty.”
I can feel the steam rising up from under my collar, spreading over my face as I struggle to keep my voice even. “Is that so? Well, that shouldn’t come as a surprise to you should it, Countess? After all, I learned from the best.”
My retort seems to have no effect on her at all. “The only way to change your subjects’ opinions of your prospective bride,” she says, “is to rehabilitate Leigh’s relationship with the media. To do that, she must come out from under your shadow and establish herself as an independent woman worth knowing—a lesson, by the way, that you should have already learned by observing the missteps of the British Royal Family.”
I cross my arms over my chest. “And which missteps were those, Countess?”
“Before Prince William proposed to her, do you remember what the press dubbed Ms. Catherine Middleton?” When I don’t respond, she supplies the answer: “‘Waity Katie.’ The poor woman had many talents—artistic, athletic, and academic—and I’d wager that her intellectual abilities surpass that of her now-husband. Yet she was left in royal limbo for years, unable to seek employment for fear that she would be accused of using her connections to further her own advancement, not to mention that any gaffes would provide non-stop material for the media.”
“Well, I’m not putting Leigh in that position, am I? I mean, we’re engaged for God’s sake! And if she stays in the palace, no one will see any of her mistakes. Or if they do—”
She shoots me a look of pure censure. “I see that your cranio-rectal inversion is still in full force. Your potential as a yogi notwithstanding, it is comforting to know that with your head that far up your ass, you will at least know where to find it should you ever decide to make use of it. As her fiancé and the person closest to her, you should know that Leigh needs gentle guidance and reassurance if she is to marry you and become an able and confident queen—not an iron fist hammering her over the head at every turn. And I would remind you that outside of a very small circle, no one knows that you are engaged—a fact that, if discovered, would do more harm than good at this stage.”
I press the tips of my thumb and index finger against my eyelids, trying to ward off the headache that’s been growing steadily worse since this lunch. By the time my two-hour meeting at the Vienna offices of an international think tank was over, my eyeballs felt like roasted marshmallows being squeezed between graham crackers. “I think we can agree that you are given a great deal of leeway when it comes to how you address me privately, Countess,” I say, “but I’m warning you that you are trying my patience. I’d appreciate it if you would dispense with the insults and just tell me, as my royal advisor, what it is that you would like me to do.”
Apparently, the list is long because she turns her hand over, hooking her right index finger over her left pinkie, poised to mark off line items one finger at a time. “First, you will be fully supportive of Leigh’s decision to move out of the palace.”
I scowl at her. “So that’s what Leigh’s ‘appointment’ is all about? You convinced her to go apartment hunting, didn’t you?”
“I convinced her of nothing that she was not already determined to do. I simply…managed the situation in order to improve the odds for obtaining a favorable outcome.”
Having experienced Francesca’s machinations first-hand, I feel a growing sense of horror. “Oh, my God, what did you do?”
She smiles. “I bought a house in Meidling.”
I search my brain for “Meidling” and come up blank. “I see. And I assume that this house of yours is located somewhere in the Kingdom of Austria?”
Francesca sighs. “I forgot how much remains to be done in the area of geography. I wonder if Your Majesty can even recall the nine states that make up his kingdom?”
I rattle them off without hesitation, in alphabetical order even: “Bergenland, Carinthia, Lower Austria, Salzburg, Styria, Tyrol, Upper Austria, Vienna and Vorarlberg. I’ve even been to them all—multiple times—if you can believe it.”
“Only with a great deal of effort.”
Two can play the sarcasm game. “It’s a lot easier when you only have nine states to learn. Mother made me memorize the fifty American states when I was in grade school—you want to hear those, too?” Without waiting for an answer, I launch into the list using a children’s television sing-along voice: “Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado—”
“Thank you, but no,” she says, holding up her hand. “There will be plenty of time for frivolity when Your Majesty is dethroned for incompetence.” She quickly changes tack. “You will recall that the city-state of Vienna is divided into twenty-three sections referred to as ‘districts.’ Meidling is District Twelve. Schönbrunn Palace is located in the adjacent district of Hietzing, more commonly known as District Thirteen.”
“Why is this starting to feel like a scene out of The Hunger Games?” I say. “You’re not planning on locking teenagers in an arena to fight to the death in order to distract my loyal subjects from my pending nuptials, are you?”
She presses her lips together in a tight line. “If Your Majesty does not stop behaving like an adolescent, he may be the first one to find out.”
This elicits a genuine laugh from me. “Fair enough, Countess. How far away is this house of yours?”
“A mere fifteen-minute walk from the palace, five minutes by car. Far enough away to give Leigh the feeling of independence that she craves but close enough for us to keep an eye on her. I believe that allowing her to have her own residence will not only expedite her acquisition of the German language, but will help her assimilate more easily into the Austrian cultural fabric. Trust me, Your Majesty, your engagement will be much easier to sell if the Austrian people think of Leigh as ‘one of us.’”
I mull this over for moment, recalling Isabella’s take on the topic back in February: ‘If I had to guess, I’d say that her being an American is the bigger issue; your subjects are very nationalistic, as I’m sure you’re aware.’ “I’m listening…” I say.
“It is a rather unusual structure,” says Francesca, “but charming in its own way. The original building dates from the mid-eighteenth century, but I have had it refurbished in order to maximize and modernize the living space.”
“What does the security situation look like?”
“The property is enclosed by a fifteen-foot wall and adjoins…a rather large park of trees as well as…extensive gardens.”
Even if I’d failed to pick up on the two deliberate pauses in her response, there’d be no overlooking the flicker of amusement in her eyes. It’s especially worrisome since I didn’t glean anything remotely funny from her explanation.
“But there are no other buildings in any direction besides the OBB station that might post a security risk,” she adds.
“‘OBB station’?” I say. “Must’ve missed that on the radio dial.”
“Österrichische Bundesbahnen—the Austrian Federal Railway, soon to be renamed the Royal Austrian State Railway. Perhaps you have heard of it?”
“Sounds vaguely familiar.” Francesca just glares at me so I decide that appeasement is in order. “I’m kidding! But I’m not sure it’s a good idea for Leigh to live that close to a busy train station?”
“Ah, but it is not busy, because most of the residents in the area use the Untergrundbahn, which happens to be even further away from the house than the OBB station.”
I can’t help but be entertained by her dragging out the entire word “Untergrundbahn” when no native speaker actually says it. “You mean ‘the U-Bahn,’ right?”
“Yes, it means—”
“Underground railroad,” I interrupt. “And assuming that we’re not also using it to help escaped slaves to freedom, a less literal, more useful English translation would be ‘the subway.’ Honestly, I don’t understand why you wanted me to be fluent in German if your plan was to translate every word that comes out of your mouth. Are you going to start cutting up my food, too?”
“All things are possible, Your Majesty. Never forget that.”
“I’m not sure if that’s meant to cheer me up or scare me.”
“Both if I am doing my job correctly. Now, the OBB station typically sees heavy traffic only before and after local football games.” She pauses. “Or do you prefer the less literal, more useful word ‘soccer’?”
“Countess,” I say with an impatient sigh, “no one, least of all me, believes that the NFL has launched a franchise in Austria. And I’m assuming that the wall around this house of yours has a gate somewhere—I mean, unless you’re just planning to imprison Leigh inside and chuck food over the wall every few days.”
“You are very funny, Your Majesty, but if imprisoning her was my goal, I would simply recommend that she remain here in the palace with you.” She correctly interprets my surly silence as unconditional surrender and carries on with her description. “There is a wrought iron gate that will be secured with some sort of biometric identification device. There is already a built-in alarm system, and there will, of course, be guards on duty at all times. All windows will be replaced with bulletproof glass, but Leigh won’t notice the difference.”
“And how was all of this paid for? If the press finds out that you—”
“The purchase of the property itself and all renovation payments were made through a trust that is not in my name but over which I have full control.” She shoots me a pointed look. “And before you ask, Your Majesty, the answer is ‘no’—what I have done is not illegal, and it will make it virtually impossible for anyone to link the building to me, or by extension to you.”
“What about the real estate bubble?”
For the first time since, well, ever, Francesca looks genuinely confused. “Your Majesty?”
“According to the meeting I attended this morning, Austrian economists are in almost unanimous agreement that property in Vienna is overvalued by at least twenty percent. It sounds to me like it’s a bubble that’s about to burst. Are you prepared to absorb the loss if necessary? Because you know that there’s no way that the palace would be able to reimburse you for any losses.” The odd look on her face combined with her speechlessness makes me wonder if she’s having a stroke. “Countess?”
“My apologies, Your Majesty. I always suffer a bit of a shock when you actually begin speaking like a ruling monarch who is abreast of current events.”
I know this is her backhanded way of complimenting me, so I ignore her needling. “Well, your place sounds pretty posh,” I admit, “but if it’s only a fifteen-minute walk from here, I have no idea how you think Leigh will be able to afford the rent. You know as well as I do that she’d never let me help her out financially. And if she finds out that you own the place and you’re cutting her a deal…”
I don’t have to finish. She knows Leigh would have a colossal meltdown, which would land us firmly back on square one.
“Really, Your Majesty, the degree to which you underestimate me is absolutely shocking.”
“I never underestimate you, Countess. I’m just keeping the conversation moving along until I hear what I want to hear.”
“Very well. In order for this plan to work Leigh will obviously have to have a roommate.”
“Are you out of your mind? Why don’t we forget the roommate and just rotate a team of tabloid reporters through her guest bedroom?”
“Since I have already hand-picked Leigh’s roommate, I don’t believe that will be necessary,” she says with a dismissive sniff. “The individual I have chosen speaks fluent English and has traveled extensively in the United States. They are the same age, and I believe that they will get on well together. We will charge a member of her security team with securing the area outside the wall, as well as coordinating security sweeps and regular patrols with the police.”
Huh, I think. Not surprisingly, I’m impressed. “And where did you find this roommate—assuming, of course, that I missed your ad in The Austrian Times?”
“I have known her and her family my entire life, Your Majesty. You can rely on their discretion in this matter.” I must look doubtful, because she adds, “The less you know of the details the better. I believe the phrase in English is ‘plausible deniability.’”
I feel like a triangular formation of bowling pins, with the Countess knocking over my objections one by one. I sit down on the chaise that Leigh recently vacated, take a deep breath and release it. “I hope this is the right thing to do. If anything were to happen to her—”
“I would remind you that keeping Leigh hidden inside the palace did not keep her safe before, and it will not keep her safe now. Going forward, you must think of yourself as a Greek warrior heading into battle. You must be like the mighty Ajax.”
I suspect that Francesca’s been wandering a little too long among the Greek statuary in the royal gardens of late. “‘The mighty Ajax, absolutely,’” I repeat with a nod of acquiescence. “I promise you that I will do my level best to be abrasive enough to scrub a bathtub with.”
She closes her eyes and shakes her head sadly. “Ajax, grandson of Zeus, and one of the mighty warriors in Homer’s Iliad. When the battlefield becomes shrouded in fog, Ajax prays to Zeus—not to spare him or his men you understand, but to clear the mist and allow them to fight no matter what the outcome. ‘Make the sky clear,’ Ajax beseeches, ‘let us see with our own eyes. Since it give you pleasure, kill us, but do so in the light of day.’”
She pauses to let her point sink in. “You must not only allow the extra scrutiny that Leigh’s independence from the palace will bring, but welcome it. Do you understand?”
I do understand, but I’m weary of this topic. “You know,” I say, “when you don’t read The Iliad until high school, the name ‘Ajax’ just seems like shameless product placement.”
She sighs and briefly closes her eyes. “Although your ignorance threatens to wholly overpower me, I am afraid that I must rally as we still have other pressing matters to discuss.” She stands there, silently watching me, like she’s waiting for something to happen.
That’s when I remember that no one is permitted to sit in the presence of the king unless invited to do so. Since I’ve spent the last three decades assuming that people who stand do so of their own volition, this is a bit of royal protocol that I could do without. I’ve unknowingly left more than one group of illustrious persons standing for hours on end, their feet swelling up like water balloons in their shoes, simply because I’ve forgotten to ask them to sit. I motion to a nearby settee. “Won’t you please sit down?”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” she says, settling herself gracefully on the edge. “This may be premature, but in the event that it should come to pass I would like you to be prepared.”
“If this is the part where you try to scare me, it’s working. What’s the problem?”
“Parliament is considering a resolution that will amend the constitution.”
This definitely grabs my attention. “It’s about the marriage provision, isn’t it?” I say, not bothering to scrub the enthusiasm from my voice. “The one that says I have to get the approval of the National Assembly before I can marry?”
“Oh.” My whole body slumps in disappointment. “Then what is it?”
“I believe that Parliament means to abolish the office of the presidency.”
My mouth drops open. “But—but—” I sputter. “That would be like abolishing the executive branch! Who’s going to appoint the chancellor and the Constitutional Court justices? The president’s the commander-in-chief of the military for crying out loud!” I begin pacing, ruminating aloud to myself. “Who’s going to take over his responsibilities? The chancellor? No, that would be like making him the head of two branches of government.”
Francesca holds up her hand, stopping me before I can pace a hole in the floor. “It is quite simple, Your Majesty. I believe the plan is to transfer all presidential powers to you.”
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