This will probably go down in history, if it goes down in history at all, as one of my most gloriously insensitive moments. I’ve never done well with death--well, maybe once, but that was my own death and kind of a special case--and this was probably the first time I had to deal with the death of someone I actually knew, and liked, and owed my current mostly underserved status in life to. But there the King was, laid out peacefully on his bed, with his wife and his daughter and his grandkids and his closest advisors and all of them, plus me, watching as he breathed a relaxed, somewhat expected, last.
But relaxed and somewhat expected don’t completely invalidate dead and not coming back, and his wife was crying, and my wife was crying, and I might have panicked a little.
I know, I know! It’s no excuse. And I should have just taken a breath and waited until we were alone but what can I say, the sword of Corona was hanging over my head.
“So,” I asked, “does that mean I’m King now?”
Rapunzel hit me.
“Okay, okay, look,” she said, much later, when we were alone and she’d dried her face and started panicking too, “Eugene Fitzherbert, you know I love you, but you’d be about as good a king as Pascal.”
Pascal, otherwise blended into a nearby tapestry, stuck his tongue out at her.
I guess that counts as forgiving me.
“Believe me, I know,” I told her. “Which is why I’d have to question whatever royal made that decision.”
“No one did,” she said, pacing in front of the aforementioned tapestry, which had the added effect of putting Pascal’s skin through a royal wringer. (I’ve never seen any other chameleon with that degree of sensitivity to embroidery.) “Corona upholds full cognatic primogeniture.”
“It means the oldest child inherits,” she sighed. “You’re not King. I am.”
Oh, I remember thinking. Well, that fixes everything.
“Well, Queen. It means I’m Queen and my mother’s Dowager and you’re, I don’t know, and I know I’m supposed to have been taking this seriously for months now but it’s different when it’s your father, and now he’s dead, and what if I don’t remember what I’m supposed to about maintaining good relationships with the rest of the city-states and what if there’s war and what if I don’t have enough stone to finish fixing the stockade--“
“Rapunzel,” I said, not that it helped, but it usually took two or three tries.
“--and what about Ancina and Dalmitia and the Navy, oh god I have to finish Father’s reforms on the Navy, I can’t just let Maximus run the Navy, he’s a horse--“
“--he’s a horse, Eugene.”
I put my arms around her and stopped her from pacing clean out the window, and then sat her on the bed, right next to me.
“I can’t do this, Eugene,” she said. And she looked me in the eyes, and while I’ve definitely said no to those eyes before, something about marrying her and having children with her has rendered me completely unable to do that ever again.
Except maybe now.
“No,” I said. “No, you’re gonna be great.”
“Papa, what’s a Prince Consort?” Violeta, my youngest daughter, asked me at breakfast, probably the same day her governess was going to tell her the same thing, but hey, I got there first.
“Well,” I tried to explain, “you know how your grandpa was King, right?”
“Well, he was King because his father was a king too, and his father was king because his father’s mother was queen, and you remember the order, right?” Probably better than I do. “So now your mama is going to be Queen like them.”
Violeta considered this, with one of the most studious faces I’ve ever seen on a six-year-old outside of the old orphanage. “Yes, but a Queen’s not a Prince Consort.”
“No, a Prince Consort is what they call the husband of a Queen.”
“But you said that grandpa was King. Grandma was Queen.”
“Well yeah, but grandma comes from Parnia and she was already a princess so they had to promote her. Your papa’s no prince, sweetie. So that’s about as high as they can promote me.”
“Oh,” she said, contemplating her grapefruit. Sage little thing, really. “So because you’re not a prince, they won’t let you be King?”
“More or less,” I said, “but the truth is, your mother’s gonna be a much better King--well, Queen--than I’d be. A King, I mean. She’d be a better Queen than I’d be a King. That. Papa hasn’t finished his coffee.”
“Okay.” She smiled, poked at her food a little more, and said, “I don’t see why you can’t be King and Queen together.”
“I do,” I said. “You know how your big sister Giglia hates going to her princess lessons more than you and Rosa do?
“Well, I never had princess lessons at all. Well, prince lessons. But I never had those either. It’s not that I didn’t go to school, but I definitely didn’t learn how to run a country or choose people to run it for me, or how to talk to important people. I only started learning when I married your mama, and you know, Papa’s an old man,” I said, even though that’s not precisely true, but I do have about six or seven years on Rapunzel. “Your mama’s the one who knows how to be a good Queen. I’m just glad to help her. And you’re gonna help her too, right? By being the smartest, neatest, thankfulest princess you can be?”
My little girls all have their mother’s smile, but Violeta’s got her mother’s freckles too, and they always jump across her nose when she grins. You should have seen her right then, you’d have melted about as much as I did.
“I mean,” I went on, somewhere else, much later, “she’s stressed, and I’m stressed, and I think it’s giving me grey hairs but you know what? I just keep telling myself it’s worth it. She’ll be fine. She knows how to run a kingdom. Or at least how to pick people to run a kingdom. Which is half not picking bad people, and you know her, she knows the bad ones when she sees ‘em. And the good ones. The good apples. I know you know the good apples. But you know her, she’s tearing her hair about it. That should be funnier than it is. I mean, since I tore her hair and all. That wasn’t funny. I should say something funny. Or do, do something funny. Doing something funny would make me less stressed. Hey, Max. Do something funny.”
Max whinnied at me so harshly that it took the foam off my beer and splattered me across the face.
He was right, though.
Didn’t stop me from buying him enough hard apple cider to give him a horsey hangover, though.
They coronated her--is that a word? If it is, it’s funny in context, because if it is they coronated her Queen of Corona--on a brilliantly sunny day about a year after her father died. A certain hook-handed friend of ours, now court composer, conducted her entrance from the piano on a dais in the town square, and the music was as bright and colorful as the millions of glittering streamers the townspeople threw as she passed.
As for me? I was waiting for her at the castle gate, at the highest point in the kingdom. I saw everything. Her smile outshone it all.
I held her hand for an hour even after they put the crown on her head, and no matter how sweaty our palms got, I knew I couldn’t let go.
I probably shouldn’t have told her that her palms were sweaty, though.
But it kept her smiling.