The throng outside the hospital had been there for days. Metal barricades for holding back crowds lined the streets, as though there were to be a parade. Folding chairs, cameras and weary news interns had filled the space beginning more than a week before Raven’s suspected due date. All of them hoped to be first with the news; no doubt promises had been made to every single doctor and nurse, guarantees of bribes beyond the dreams of avarice, if they were to provide that critical tip.
“All for news they’re going to get anyway,” said Erik, as they rode toward the hospital that afternoon, just behind the sedan carrying Raven and Zale. “I mean, they’ll spend the next eighty years or so aware of this child’s gender and name. I don’t see the point of the rush.”
“Yes, it’s ridiculous,” sighed Charles the Third, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His Other Realms and Territories King, Head of the Commonwealth, and Defender of the Faith. Then he leaned against his husband’s shoulder and smiled. “But the world could use some happy news, don’t you think?”
They were doing more than welcoming Raven’s baby, more than providing a bit of pleasant diversion on the news. By now, Erik understood the business of the Firm well enough to realize that. During the past two and a half years, Charles – and by extension the monarchy – had weaved through a tricky obstacle course between tradition and revolution. Preparing a nation and a planet to accept a gay King of England went beyond clearing the obstacles to Charles’ coronation; it was hard work that would endure for years, if not decades. Erik was running the course by Charles’ side, learning the pitfalls as they went.
The announcement of their impending wedding had caused more controversy than either of them had anticipated – nothing insurmountable, but the Palace had to repeatedly and emphatically confirm that Erik would not serve as Charles’ official Prince Consort. (Although Erik had never aspired to this position and was mostly heartily glad to avoid it, he found the constant “reassurances” grating.) However, the royal family had shown its support by armoring Erik in titles: On the eve of the wedding, King George IX had created Erik Duke of Exeter and further granted him the honorific “His Royal Highness.” This apparently stuck in the craw of the outer branches of the royal family, those who had to make do with “Highness,” sans the “Royal.” Erik had learned that the “Royal” was a very big deal to those who set a store by such things.
It had even been made clear that Erik would take precedence over any man in the kingdom besides King George and Charles … which meant he took precedence over Prince Richard. He’d braced himself for an explosion there, before learning that Richard himself had insisted upon it. Apparently the only thing that mattered more to Richard than his ego was maintaining the dignity of the monarchy, and a royal consort without sufficient rank simply could not be borne.
For himself, he hadn’t much cared. All Erik had feared was something, anything, coming between them and the altar. Yet while the opinion polls fluctuated for a while, they never hit the numbers that would have made Betsy Braddock frown. King George, however frail, clung to life throughout the engagement. Raven remained steady and strong, providing silent reassurance to the British public of – as Erik called it, to Charles’ annoyance – a “deep bench.” And Erik learned what extra duties he would have to take on, and learned them well.
The reward had been his wedding day. Early autumn, a warm and sunny morning, only close family and friends in attendance: It was exactly what Erik would’ve wished, had he ever spent any time earlier in life dreaming about a wedding. Of course they’d been married at Windsor Guildhall, serenaded by a soprano from the Royal Opera, and had their reception at Windsor Castle afterward – but he figured the ceremony was as low-key as it could get given that he was marrying the heir to the British throne.
“You made it,” Raven said at the reception, beaming at them both from beneath a scarlet-and-gray Goth version of the bizarre hats aristocratic Englishwomen always seemed to wear to weddings. She clasped their hands as the party swirled around them. “You really made it.”
“We’ll see,” Charles said, meaning, the crown’s not on my head yet. But his smile never dimmed; he was too happy that day, too thrilled by the newness of their vows.
“Some guys get all the luck,” Armando chimed in, a glass of champagne in his hand. “I mean, Erik, you just married the Prince of Wales. For a guy who used to say he didn’t believe in fairy tales, that’s kind of ironic, right?”
“True.” Erik had put his arm around Charles, pulling him close. “But I’m not lucky because I married a prince. I’m lucky because I married Charles.”
This had won Erik a chorus of awwwws from those around him and a kiss from Charles. It was exactly the sort of thing he usually thought of as being too sentimental to bear – but not that day. That day it had been just right.
They’d intended to honeymoon in Kenya, back at the resort they thought of as “theirs,” but in the week after the wedding, King George’s health had taken a turn. Instead they’d borrowed Muir Island from Moira, and had kept one ear out for the phone the whole time.
King George IX, however, had hung on until January – six weeks after the official announcement of Raven’s pregnancy. It helped. Still, Erik had been uncertain that it would all come off until the day of the coronation itself. (Normally, a longer period of mourning would have followed, but everyone involved agreed that Charles needed to be crowned before Raven gave birth.) So on that day Erik sat in Westminster Abbey, watching Charles hold his head high as he was anointed with oil, as the crown was lowered, as the orb and scepters were put into his hands. Erik had stifled his amusement … until they draped Charles in robes of purple silk velvet and ermine, and Charles rose to his feet looking taller and older and grander than he ever had before, and Erik had felt an unexpected, ridiculous and yet undeniable thrill of awe.
Charles is the King of England, he’d thought. I’m married to the KING OF ENGLAND. More stunning yet was the way Charles wore that crown, the way he bore those medieval, absurd tokens of kingship and dignified them through his bearing. It was the role he’d been groomed to play his entire lifetime, and Erik had to admit that it fit Charles like a second, gilded skin.
(Better, Erik had to admit, than his ducal robes suited him; at that moment he was wearing crimson velvet and a bit of ermine himself, plus a coronet with strawberry leaves, and feeling rather ridiculous about it.)
That was the moment Erik had finally believed they’d made it. Charles, though, had harbored a few lingering doubts – left over from the years he’d lived in the closet, fearing the worst. Erik had realized that Charles wouldn’t truly feel assured of a successful reign until he had an heir.
Now, finally, that day had arrived.
As the car neared the hospital, Charles’ mobile chimed. He first thought, Who the hell is fool enough to call me on that line today?, before remembering the new scrambling software; they were, for the time being, giving it a try. So he answered, “Hello?”
“Charles?” The resonant voice of Louisa, Dowager Queen, rang out from the phone. He pulled it away from his ear, both so Erik could hear and out of a desire to avoid pain. “Whatever are you doing?”
“We’re going to the hospital with Raven and Zale, Grandmother. What could be more natural than that?”
“There is nothing natural about royal births,” the Dowager Queen insisted. “One waits at the Palace for the official announcement. That is how such things are done.”
“That tradition makes no sense in the modern era,” Charles protested. Good Lord, the information would have been tweeted half a million times before the official messenger could arrive. He had no intention of learning about the birth of his first nephew or niece via Twitter. “Besides, you know this is difficult for Raven. I want to be here for her if she needs me.”
The paparazzi had by and large given Raven more distance, out of respect for her anxiety disorder (and the fact that readers now judged such photos harshly). But they’d never gone away, and the larger events in her life had stirred up the usual media frenzy. Raven had handled the wedding like a champion, borne aloft on the sheer delight of marrying Zale. Yet her pregnancy had proved more problematic.
First she’d had to change the drugs she took to help ward off depression, and while the new medications might have been safer for the baby, they hadn’t proved equally effective for Raven. The usual hormonal swings of pregnancy had been rougher for her, too – whether because of the drugs or her own individual body chemistry, no telling which. Charles knew only that over the past several months he’d watched his sister struggling again, sometimes as desperately as she had in the days before St. Maur Hall. Although she had resisted self-harm, out of fear that trauma to her body might be bad for the baby, it was obvious that Raven was staggering under the weight of her anxiety.
She’d even spent a few days in her closet.
If only she could give birth in there, Charles thought in all seriousness. We could have brought in a midwife. Clear out the clothes and Zale could be with her too.
“What is it you think you’ll be able to do, Charles?” the Dowager Queen demanded. “Dash into the delivery room to check on her from time to time?”
“Raven will be reassured just knowing that Charles is near,” Erik cut in. “Besides, Lou, you can see this has to be handled differently from other royal births. Charles’ heir is not his son or daughter, but his nephew or niece. Therefore we have to make it clear to the public from the very beginning that Charles’ relationship with this child is extremely close. He must be seen to have a very real role in every stage of the child’s life. No better time to begin than birth.”
The Dowager Queen made the hrummmphing sound that meant she was acknowledging someone else’s point. Charles had only ever heard her make this sound when she was listening to Erik. “I suppose there is some truth to that. But won’t it be too demonstrative, the scenes in the waiting room?”
Charles felt that he could pick up the thread again. “I shall handle it like any other hospital visit. We’ll ask after those waiting on their own family members and friends to give birth, keep them company, that sort of thing.” It would be good PR, but more to the point, it would keep Charles from going half-mad with nerves.
“Very well,” the Dowager Queen said. “But do go through the proper procedures when the child is born, will you?”
“I promise,” Charles said. Not much chance of Grandmother finding anything out via Twitter – so the official messenger would come in handy. For the day he’d taken over the official monarchy Twitter account, though, so he could ensure the news got out to the public promptly and accurately; he could at least do the same for his grandmother. “All right, we’re almost there. Talk to you later.”
As he hung up, Erik said, “I keep telling you not to let her get to you. That’s what sets her off – being emotional.”
“I can’t help being emotional sometimes, especially not about this.” Charles gave Erik a dirty look, knowing Erik would realize he was being teased. “I still can’t believe she lets you call her ‘Lou.’”
“She doesn’t let me call her that; she insists.”
Charles actually stuck his tongue out at Erik, which made him laugh. But then the cars pulled in to the special entrance at the back of the hospital, and he could no longer worry or think about anything except making sure Raven got inside before any of the helicopters came in overhead.
At moments like this, when media frenzy was at its most intense, Erik found himself missing the warmth and comfort of the private suite at Clarence House. To him, that still felt more like home than anywhere else in the world.
But the King of England did not live in Clarence House. The King of England lived in Buckingham Palace.
“This is dire,” Erik had said the first time he and Charles inspected the private rooms of the House, about three months after the death of King George IX. “The smallest bedroom is the size of a handball court.”
“I realize it lacks a certain … intimacy.”
Erik gave Charles a look. “In the same way Heathrow lacks intimacy.”
Charles groaned as he leaned against the wall of a bedroom that might eventually be theirs, though at the moment it was wallpapered with floral silk wallpaper in mauve, and smelled slightly of Lou’s favorite talcum powder. “I know. It’s ghastly, isn’t it? Well, we can spend lots of time in other palaces, if you’d rather. Most of our time, even. But this must be our home.”
“So Clarence House is just going to sit there empty?”
“By rights it should belong to the next heir. Now that the baby’s on the way, I think Raven’s finally willing to move out of Kensington.” Charles smiled a little. “She and Zale can take Clarence House, which means the next heir will live there from infancy, which is ideal, really.”
Erik still couldn’t acknowledge any departure from their home as ideal. “What about Lou? She doesn’t want to leave.”
That had made Charles’ eyes crinkle in a way that Erik now knew meant a headache was on the way. “I realize that. If it were up to my preferences alone, I’d let her live out the rest of her days here. But it’s not up to me.”
For so long, Erik had believed that Charles’ existence as Prince of Wales was harshly defined and controlled by the demands of royal life. Now he realized how free Charles had been. Official events now filled Charles’ long hours; the occasional shared lunch was a thing of the past, just like lingering over coffee in the morning. Even in their free time, their choices of outings were even more limited than they’d been before. Forget gay nightclubs: The King of England could rarely dine out, even in private rooms.
Obviously they would never take a stroll through Islington again.
And the servants: Erik had told himself he’d gotten used to the idea of Paulson choosing his suits, or Glover noiselessly slipping in to take out Happy, Glo and Vicky. (They’d done their part for animal shelters by taking in a rescue dog, a mutt who had just enough corgi in her to fit in.) The part-time kitchen staff left wonderful food for them to eat on the days when Charles didn’t put together a lasagna, or Erik didn’t scramble their eggs in the morning. Cleaning teams came through in the afternoon, while they were out, and restored their rooms to neatness. So, they lost a little privacy. A small price to pay for all the conveniences, really –
Now Charles’ staff had more than doubled. There was no such thing as a part-time valet for a king, no such thing as a home-cooked meal. When they moved into Buckingham Palace, Erik knew, they would have housemaids and footmen. Already Erik had received a memo with suggestions for his own staff, which would number about ten people … at first.
He’d thought he was used to all this. But royal duty was like an iceberg – only the smallest part showed at the surface. Erik knew the weight of it now.
“Erik?” Charles said very quietly. They stood far apart, divided by the width of the fussy, old-ladyish room they’d have to occupy within the month. “Is it too much? All of this?”
So Erik crossed the room in wide strides to take Charles in his arms. “It’s not too much,” he murmured, lowering his forehead to Charles’. “Not to be with you.”
“I know this is difficult –”
“We can fix up the rooms.” They weren’t talking about the rooms and they both knew it. But Erik’s long reluctance to take on royal life still shadowed Charles from time to time, making him nervous and fretful; even their wedding had not wholly reassured him. So they would need moments like these – moments when Erik provided comfort and affirmation – for a long time to come. “In time we can create our own suite here, can’t we?”
Charles’ blue eyes searched his. “It won’t be the same.”
“But it will still be ours.” Erik pressed his lips to Charles’ temple. “We’ll bring over the chess table I gave you for Christmas. The one that’s for staying put. All right?”
“All right,” Charles had said, and when he smiled, the room had felt bright and new again, even the mauve silk wallpaper.
As good as it had been to see Charles regain his confidence on that day, Erik thought, it was even better to see him handling something as unprecedented as this – their trip to the public hospital – so smoothly, and even happily.
“The public waiting room?” the hospital administrator said, in utter disbelief. “Are you quite sure, Your Majesty?”
“Entirely sure.” Charles smiled at her, then over at Erik. “We’re already sharing this event with everyone else in the Commonwealth. Might as well share it with the other people anticipating a birth today. Right, Erik?”
“Absolutely.” Erik had always felt oddly as though joys were lessened through being shared – until Charles. Now, at last, he’d learned better.
Let William Hill offer people the chance to bet on the baby’s name. (Smart money was on Georgiana for a girl, another Charles for a boy, according to the bookmakers.) Let the shops sell onesies that said “Future King” or “Our Princess” or “Born to Rule.” Let the magazines report breathlessly on Raven’s maternity clothes, or even snidely speculate that Erik was jealous of the attention. Let Twitter do what it was now doing, exploding with speculation and anticipation to the point where one of the worldwide trending topics was, dear God, #royalcervix. The jokes and lies and noise didn’t matter. This was Erik’s family now, and he and the nation had learned to share them all.
Charles was allowed about fifteen minutes with Raven before she went into the delivery room.
“I wish I’d put my foot down about the midwife.” Raven’s expression was cloudy as lay in her bed, monitors beeping and blinking around her, sensors stuck to her enormous belly. “We could have done this at the palace, like everyone else in our family before Mum.”
He pretended he hadn’t been thinking the exact same thing on the way over. “Don’t be silly. Remember Queen Charlotte? She had hers at the palace and nearly died in childbirth. Would’ve been the end of the House of Hanover, and where would we be then?”
“At a modern alternative birthing center,” Raven said, uncomforted.
From his place at the end of the bed, Erik closed his hand over her foot. “It won’t be long now.”
She nodded, but she still seemed so frightened. Charles could only imagine how utterly exposed a woman must feel giving birth – and on top of that, every nurse and doctor in the delivery room would see Raven’s scars. Add the pain and the natural worry for her child, and no wonder this was difficult for her; in some ways, today was her ultimate test.
He leaned closer to her and cupped her face in one hand. “You can do this.”
Raven laughed a little. “Not much choice, now.”
“No. I mean, you can be yourself. You can be strong through this. By now I think you could be strong through anything.”
When she looked up at Charles, she managed to smile. “I just keep telling myself – in three days we’ll be home. Baby and I will be in the nursery, and Zale will be there with us, and we’ll be a family. Just a family.”
“Exactly right.” Charles allowed himself to glance at the hallway, where Zale was arguing some point of privacy with Raven’s doctors. By now Zale had proven himself Raven’s fiercest defender; sometimes, however, he fought for her so aggressively that he forgot to nurture her in turn. It was a small failing in a devoted husband, but one Charles was acutely aware of. “Do you need to talk to Hank?”
Raven was silent a moment, considering, but then shook her head. “No time—” Then she grimaced as every monitor went slightly nuts, and Charles recognized the green sine wave of a contraction. He gripped his sister’s hand, hanging onto her through it.
“Are you all right?” he said as soon as he thought Raven could answer. “Have you changed your mind about the painkiller?”
She shook her head. “I can take it. So far, anyway. In an hour or two, we’ll see. I hope I’ll take after Moira.”
“That would be ideal,” Charles agreed. Moira had given birth to her son after only four hours of labor, and three days later had been tromping around Muir Island in her wellies, with little Kevin in a sling around her shoulders.
As Erik fetched Raven a pair of fuzzy socks to keep her feet warm, she looked up at Charles and said, “We’ll all be a family. All of us together.”
Charles kissed her forehead. “You’d better believe it.”
After that, he and Erik went to the public waiting room – which would by now have been checked out by the security forces. They walked in to find four other waiting families (three families of Dogs, one of Cats), all of whom were astonished to find themselves in the presence of the king but still primarily concerned with their own arriving babies. It made for a smooth enough transition: greetings, chit-chat and well-wishes before he and Erik were able to settle into their chairs for the wait.
“What do we do now?” Charles murmured.
“Traditionally, I think we flip through magazines or pace. Switching between the two, mostly.” Erik began leafing through the periodicals on offer, then frowned. “They’re all tabloids.”
“So they are.” Charles checked out the one closest to him. “Oh, look, you’re Heat’s Torso of the Week again.”
“O frabjous day.”
He laughed softly. They were, of course, being avidly watched; no doubt at least one family member in the waiting room, if not all, was tweeting everything they could see and overhear. Yet this was surely a moment when he and Erik had nothing to hide.
Except, of course, what had to stay hidden, what they were so good at hiding even from each other.
By hour four, Erik felt mildly anxious. Which was ridiculous, of course – even counting the few hours Raven had experienced contractions before heading to the hospital, they were still not even at the point of a truly long labor. No doubt everything was progressing normally. And yet worrying was normal too.
Charles, however, was starting to work himself into a state. “They haven’t given us an update in a while.”
“That’s because they’re busy delivering a baby.” Erik rubbed Charles’ shoulder.
When Charles looked at him beseechingly – silently pleading for an excuse to go and ask the nurses for more information – Erik did his job and simply shook his head. Charles sighed and sank back into his chair. As Erik continued stroking Charles’ shoulder, he caught the eye of the grandma-to-be sitting about six feet away; he silently mouthed, he worries, which made her smile.
She’d tell that story time and time again; like as not it would wind up in one of the big-media reports about the delivery. Erik had become accustomed to the performative elements of his role, the moments when he had to be more actor than husband. This had been just such an occasion.
Now, though, he thought it might be time to just be a husband for a while.
“Come on,” he said, pulling out a book of Sudoku from his satchel. “Take your mind off it.”
“You know I’m wretched at these,” Charles said, which wasn’t at all true; he simply wasn’t in much of a mood to be pleased by anything except the birth announcement.
Erik folded the pages over to one they’d started on a helicopter trip a few days before. But instead of filling in another number on the grid, he wrote, beneath it, You seem blue.
Not blue. Worried.
Blue and worried. How should he put this? You’ve been thinking about the nursery, haven’t you?
Erik’s old room had been redecorated by Raven and Zale, turned into the nursery for their unborn child. He’d let go of his resentments about moving out of Clarence House and into Buckingham Palace when he saw the nursery – all pale yellow walls and meadow-green carpet, and inhabited by a flock of stuffed sheep. Yet from the day he and Charles had seen it, there had been a silence between them, a silence and a stillness that they both understood. Erik had thought it would be best to let that go unspoken, but maybe he had been wrong.
Charles jotted, I just can’t help thinking – when I saw that nursery, I realized it could have been ours.
During the period when they’d thought Raven or Richard might be named heir instead, Charles had broached the idea of their having children. Erik had never before considered such a thing, and hadn’t even begun seriously weighing it when Charles’ place in the succession was finally secured. Then they’d had to give up that plan altogether. Any child they had together – whether created through reproductive technology or adopted – would be in too precarious a legal position to ever be Charles’ heir. And how cruel to raise a child knowing you would have to teach them that, in the eyes of the monarchy that defined every aspect of your existences, that they “didn’t count.”
Erik held open his hand for the pen, but Charles kept writing. I know you hadn’t thought about it much. I shouldn’t have let myself think about it at all. I realize that. But these past few months – looking at baby clothes, wondering about names – I’ve been haunted by what might have been.
Finally Erik reclaimed the pen, and wrote, You’re wrong. I’ve thought about it too. Not long ago I realized I would have loved for us to have a nursery like that. And, yes, the baby to go in it.
Charles looked up at him, genuinely surprised, before writing, Really?
Erik nodded, then remembered he had to keep writing this all down. The last thing they needed was for someone in this waiting room to figure out even a fraction of what they were really thinking. You’re not the only one who wonders about the road not traveled.
You’re not regretting it, are you? If we were going to have that fight – it would have to have been long before now. They could hardly spend months loudly proclaiming Raven’s baby to be the next heir, then go back on their word. One of Charles’ first acts as king had even been to push through the legislation that would ensure the child would be heir apparent regardless of gender. Charles continued, Besides, I already love this baby. I would never want to take anything away.
I wouldn’t either. And I love the baby too. Meeting the baby, Erik knew, would only be the beginning. Raven and Zale understood the need for Charles and Erik to play a key role in the baby’s life; they would take the child for holidays, attend school functions, and in a hundred other ways show the love that might have gone to a son or daughter of their own. For Erik, who had once scoffed at the very idea of having his own family, the very fact that he was excited about school plays and Christmas pantos was simultaneously absurd and delightful. But the delight was stronger by far. So he added, This isn’t a loss. It’s a gift.
Instead of writing a reply, Charles just looked up at him, love shining from his eyes so brilliantly that Erik found himself wondering just how long a kiss they could get away with while all these people were watching –
At that moment the nurse appeared in the door of the waiting room. Just the fact that she stood there at the threshold instead of approaching – as she would have with any of the other families – told them what they needed to know.
Erik hesitated just long enough to let Charles be the first to stand. But he was at his side when Charles said, “Yes?”
“Your Majesty –” The nurse hesitated, clearly unsure whether to give the news publicly.
Charles made the answer clear by laughing as he wrapped his hand around Erik’s. “Don’t keep us in suspense.”
The nurse beamed. “Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret has given birth to a baby girl.”
“It’s a queen!” Charles said, throwing his arms around Erik. Applause and cheers filled the room, and Erik decided that, at a moment like this, they could definitely get away with a kiss.
Seven pounds, four ounces. Healthy as could be. Bald as an egg. And with a name that would surprise every bookmaker in town and make a few long-shot gamblers happy.
“Sophia Caroline Margaret Rose,” Charles murmured, looking down at his baby niece in his arms. “Welcome to the world.”
Zale had gone back to Kensington Palace to celebrate with his family. Nearby, in her hospital bed, Raven slept soundly in the happy aftermath – and, no doubt, in the comfort of knowing she’d gotten through the worst. That meant Charles had a few quiet moments to spend with his heir and his husband, as though they were alone.
“Queen Sophia,” Erik murmured as he refilled Raven’s water glass beside her bed, just in case. “Has a nice ring to it.”
Yet Charles felt a twinge of sadness as he looked down at the tiny girl he held. Any other proud uncle would look down and wonder if she would grow up to be a doctor, or a dancer, or a pilot, or anything else she dreamed of. Sophia’s course in the world was already set, the same way his had been. She possessed immense wealth, privilege and fame already; she also was limited and bound in ways that would shape her destiny for the rest of her life.
We are in a fairy tale, you and I, he thought to Sophia. You are of course the princess, but I am all the other characters at once. I am the good king who loves you dearly and the bad one who locks you up in a tower. I am the fairy godmother who gives you riches and the wicked witch who speaks the curse. What I am not is the author. Our story is written for us.
Then Charles looked up and saw Erik smoothing back Raven’s hair as she slept. Once again it struck him how unlikely it was that he and Erik would have made it this far – how hard he had tried to deny his own nature and his need for love. Had he not found his courage, had he not stood up and declared the truth, he would ultimately have lost Erik and his best chance of happiness.
But he had spoken. He and Erik had hung on tightly, through all the storms. Their journey had brought them here, together. And now, as fireworks sparkled in the night sky around London, and Union Jacks fluttered on every street to celebrate the heir to the throne – now, Charles realized, they had won.
“I take it back,” Charles whispered to the little girl. She blinked at him in the weary confusion of the newborn, and he smiled down gently at her. He wanted the first thing she saw of him to be his smile. “Your story is up to you.”