The imperial house, rural England, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
“James, for the third time, get down from the trees!”
Halfway up the old apple tree and with his arms full of branches - again - , New South Wales turns his head with the grudging pace of one who knows they are in for a lecture to where England is sitting at a table on the garden patio with India and Wales. Even at a distance and under the steady spring budding of green leaves, the boy’s eyes are huge and wounded, vainly trying to communicate to his exasperated guardian all of the opportunities he feels he is clearly missing out on - all the opportunities she is so cruelly depriving him of.
“But if there’re eggs up here -”
England sets down her empty cup of tea firmly enough its saucer rattles; India begins pouring her more from the still-warm pot without bothering to ask her about it. “I told you at the start: none of the eggs are hidden above eye-level.”
New South Wales swings himself around a thick branch just so he can see the patio better, his tone turning indignant. “But your eye-level is twice the height of ours!”
England will not pinch the bridge of her nose to stem off her rising headache; she will not. It is Easter, and this is supposed to be a fun, happy, organised day for the family of her empire. Showing too much irritation puts too much power into the hands of the moodier territories currently gathered in her garden, and it sends the more anxious little ones into a tailspin of nerves and stuttering.
“Every egg,” England says firmly, pitching her voice so that even the furthest-away of her small egg-hunting colonies can hear her where they are poking about the path to the rose garden (nigh all of them doing a terrible job pretending they are not listening to New South Wales getting yet another dressing-down), “is hidden so even the very littlest of you can find it.” Beside her, India offers her the milk jug. Still focusing on the sulking colony in her apple tree, England waves it away and reaches absently for the sugar instead. “So, James, if I catch you so much as two steps up off the ground again, I’m disqualifying you from the egg hunt.”
New South Wales’ standard outraged but, England! is cut-off by the appearance of Ireland at the base of the apple tree, Natal clutching at the back of the older Nation’s skirts with one hand and her basket holding the three whole red eggs she has found so far in the other. The Australian colony peers down at both of them with deep suspicion at first, but sighs and gives in at Ireland’s soft Jamie, lad; don’t push it. He accepts Ireland’s help in clambering down from the tree since the soles of his shoes are slippery from the morning dew and overnight rain still clinging to the garden’s grass - but it’s obviously only a token acceptance. Even with his own half-full basket swinging on one wrist New South Wales has as much problem getting down from the apple tree as he had getting up it - that is to say, he has no trouble at all, shimmying down the branches with the speedy bounce of a hungry squirrel and almost flattening Natal before the smaller colony scrambles out of the way.
“He takes after you,” Wales says, mildly, for the ears of their table alone. He is not looking at England, arm on the back of his chair as he watches Ireland attempt to get an apology out of New South Wales on Natal’s behalf before New South Wales escapes her grasp, but such words are hardly going to be directed at India. “You were a terror to get down from the trees as well.”
In the spirit of the holy day, England does not mention any of those days in her past when being a ‘terror’ up a tree had saved her life from the arrows and swords of her siblings and their people. “I believe that one was born up a tree,” she mutters instead, reaching for her tea to let its sweetness ease her headache. “Possibly birthed by the mother of his demon pet koala.”
India makes an amused sound in the back of his throat, as ever, never quite committing himself before all the other cards have been played. England can see the smooth brown of his hands wrapped around his own teacup from the corner of her eye, the blue sleeves of his achkan and their yellow-gold stitching bright as a peacock against his skin. “You are harsh on him, perhaps?”
Quite aside from the child’s ability to pick locks and pockets with alarming ease, and his curiosity about all things fanged, clawed and highly dangerous, at Christmas just past, New South Wales had spearheaded the wonderful notion amongst his easily-enthused siblings to let thirteen angry wildfowl loose in the parlour amidst the assembled Nations of the world just because the birds are mentioned in The Twelve Days of Christmas. Granted any leeway, New South Wales causes chaos.
“He listens to naught else, half the time,” says England, and frowns into her tea.
When he is in the mood for responsibility, Scotland can put the fear of God into almost anyone, even New South Wales at his most errant. But Scotland is elsewhere in the empire at the moment, and a great many of the smaller colonies regard Wales as they do the shepherd’s old sheepdog that they so love to hare across and visit whenever England lets them loose anywhere close by enough to the fields in which he works: they have heard the dog had once ruled the flock with her quick limbs and snapping teeth, but are extremely doubtful about the truth of such claims because nowadays they only see the sweet old bitch gumming her meals and napping in the sunshine. Wales’ softer scoldings often fall on deaf ears, though the children like to grab at the tails of his coats and occasionally do as he asks them because it would feel mean to do otherwise, and, these days, Ireland is often too sullen and seditious to be of any use to the empire.
Others with some sway in the imperial household are also gone. After the New Year, England had sent a handful of her colonies and territories back home still in their mourning clothes - mostly those old enough in appearance to be considered on the cusp of adulthood, though a few still accompanied by the hawk eyes of their governesses and nurses. The move had been almost entirely strategic; England has their latest regular letters to her in the top drawer of her writing desk in her study, intelligence from across her dominion.
Canada writes worriedly of her idiot neighbour in the south, of a Nation who has split himself in half and allowed both sides to draft up men in huge numbers for a self-imploding war machine. She has good numbers, at least for the Union forces, the seriousness of her tallies hung gently about her comments about how she needs to get her pianoforte re-tuned due to the bad weather, how everyone’s thoughts are still very much with their grieving monarch, and of the daily affairs of her people.
Bermuda’s letter-writing has always been, and continues to be despite all of England’s fruitless lessons attempting to teach her otherwise, shockingly candid. It would be one thing if the girl’s frankness only applied to her manner (as vivaciously precocious on paper as she is in person), but Bermuda’s blithe transparency extends also to her presentation of the facts. Much preferring action to words, Bermuda has never been one to dance the battlefield that is verbal diplomacy - though she can, of course, slice a soul to ribbons with a sharp riposte from her tongue -, and is unsparing of both details and her personal opinion in her private correspondence. The Confederacy have changed their tune very much from the one they were playing last year: they had voluntarily placed an embargo on cotton export in 1861, hoping to force the British to join their side for their produce - that had not worked, and now they are desperate to sell as much cotton as they can to raise much-needed funds for their war efforts, hindered by a blockade around their waters. Bermuda cheerfully exults about being a port of call for the ships - British and otherwise - running the Union blockade and coming out of the Confederate New Orleans and Louisiana, their bellies full of American cotton and tobacco, though she is bitterly displeased with the Union Navy setting up roving patrols just outside of British territorial waters - her waters, in particular - in response, giving both the blockade runners and her regular marine traffic a headache.
England’s own intelligence from London echoes much of what her territories have to say, stated more plainly for few other eyes but her own. She has news of the British investors supplying the blockade runners, businessmen willing to take the risk of exchanging British armaments and military supplies to the American South in return for high-value cotton and tobacco. The London Armoury Company in particular is selling tens of thousands of rifles and the like to the Confederacy, and the operations of the ironclad ships of both the Confederacy and Union are being watched closely by the British Navy and government.
The stranglehold on the American cotton export is causing domestic issues as stores run out: Scotland’s textile mills are crippled, limping things already, his industry turning itself more firmly towards steel, and unemployment and public unrest are growing particularly strong in Lancashire amongst England’s people as the mills there suffer because of lack of supply. The British textile industry is ahead of itself; the cotton currently being imported from India and Egypt, at the moment, cannot meet demand.
The Prime Minister, Palmerston, has not been shy about his support for the Confederate cause (abhorrence of slavery and the trade of slaves or not, a less united America is very much in British interests), but even were that not the case England can understand the argument he has made for breaking the Union blockade of the Southern ports to obtain cotton. Of course, he would quite like the French to join with the British in that intervention, and England has already informed him that that will be an unlikely occurrence. France is quite occupied in Mexico at the moment, the opportunistic bastard, and any interest he has in the American Civil War is only to prolong it whilst keeping his hands as clean as possible. The Confederacy keeps the Union too busy to try and stop him.
Of course, there are many drawbacks to breaking the blockade. It will put them on a war footing with the ‘United’ States of America, putting Canada at risk from the hugely-inflated American forces, and the Union Navy has grown troublesomely large enough to pose a harrying annoyance to the British merchant fleet worldwide. Even more importantly, war with the United States will mean an end to the import of American grain to British shores - grain which is badly needed, since, with the weather being so constantly wet and cool, the crops have failed in Europe two years in a row already, with this summer already looking to be a third. Almost half of all British imports are American grain at the moment, food to feed the already resentful masses.
A Nation can deal with one struggling industry as long as it has bread. And, aside from cotton-based textiles, the ships and armament industries are certainly turning a profit.
England is aware her fingers are tapping against her teacup as her thoughts chase their own tail around and around, her nails ringing like small dull bells against the porcelain. The queen, the so recently late prince consort, and the British people as a majority abhor the practice of slavery (and the former two had been so against war at all), but being forced to favour a side - the other side in this debacle caused by a hurtful fool child’s dream of popular government - that harbours such wilfully blind and arrogant politicians grates on her every nerve.
The Union’s Lincoln is fine with slavery. No, their argument with the people of the South - the argument they have the audacity to go out and tell the world - is about how secession is against their laws. The laws of a rabble who had itself declared independence from a greater whole less than a century before. Their people had challenged her government on that insulting affair over the Trent - of course, they had sensibly backed down in the end, but now there is this ridiculous blockade.
The Union would have Britain ignore the blockade by simply ceasing trade with the American South; the Confederacy would have Britain ignore the blockade and trade past it just to prove that the Union is attempting to enforce an actual blockade - which is currently illegal by international law. Then again, proving a blockade illegal by international law is hardly something England wishes to do, since her own empire rather likes using naval blockades to gets its way. If she actually challenges the blockade someone will yell at her for being a hypocrite at the next international meeting politics forces her to attend, and she will have no moral ground to stand on in defence.
Around go England’s thoughts. Around and around and around, bitter and oversteeped from too much stirring.
The peal of a boy’s laughter brings back from her withdrawal, Tristan da Cunha gurgling rather merrily at Mauritius - who appears to have gotten both his straw hat and trousers caught whilst crawling under a hedge in his hunt for eggs. Naturally, none of Mauritius’ many, many siblings in the garden care to help him out of the hedge; in fact, Montserrat, who should be more mature than the other two, joins Tristan da Cunha in laughing, as Mauritius’ strugglings to free himself from branches and leaves just seem to be making his situation worse.
“It’s a good thing you insisted on them wearing their play-clothes,” says Wales, also looking at their horticulturally-challenged colony, and his tone is fond enough England knows her brother is of like mind with her in some things at least. These present days will be worth the later heart-ache. “Shall I go free him?”
England smiles, and feels it soften something hard she had not been aware had set on her face. “Do you not think we should let them fight some of their own battles? The hedge is a valiant foe.”
Let them learn from the consequences of the little mistakes they make. Perhaps then they might not make the big ones.
India sets down his teacup with the quietest of chinks, and sounds just as amused as Wales when he says: “I believe the hedge is attempting to eat his trousers.”
Montserrat and Tristan da Cunha have finally decided to try and help Mauritius out of the hedge - mostly at Malaya’s urging, by the looks of it, the small girl covering her blushing face with her Easter bonnet whilst roundly scolding the three boys in four different languages for being indecent, basket of eggs set primly down in the grass by her feet . Mauritius’ wriggling has somehow yanked his trousers down at the back enough that, going past, Malaya caught an eyeful of his behind, and Montserrat’s laughter at her startled expression earns him the straw bonnet - satin ribbons, spring flowers and all - getting swatted at his head.
Out of the girls, Malaya is not alone in still wearing her Easter bonnet, though all of the colonies have changed clothes after Easter service and walk home. Seychelles, too, is currently clutching at her bonnet like it is her new favourite thing as she industriously peers inside plant-pots to add eggs to her basket, and Saint Lucia has unpicked the smallest flowers from her hat’s brim to slot them into the elaborate braids down her back, lilac and violets and pansies in her hair, more of the same and lilies of the valley still nestled on her hat.
The girls had looked very fine that morning for the Easter services, all dressed in new silk-cotton gowns (for it is bad luck not to wear something new at Easter) in shades of purple and lavender, with different hues, cuts and lengths depending on their age and appearance, and twilled cream wool capes over their shoulders. They had each decorated their new bonnets themselves the day before with aid from their nurses, England, and India (after the Andaman Islands had lost her temper at a bunch of awkward Chinese azaleas and burst into frustrated tears on a surprised India’s lap), and, kept chilled overnight, the flowers had still been bright and fresh that morning, a crown atop each girl with satin ribbons fluttering behind them in the breeze.
The boys, likewise, had been dressed in new suits of a smoky bluish grey, accents and linings in navy and white, whilst their heads had been covered from the faint sun by straw sailor hats. Somehow, the collection of ribbon-ties and starched collars had survived the vicar’s sermon without wilting or being creased, and England had managed to smile graciously and accept what felt like sincere compliments outside of the church when her neighbours had called the children a delight for the eyes and so charming. (Mostly because at that point, Wales had already taken New Zealand and New Hebrides around the corner when the two boys had started kicking up their feet to see who could make their shoe fly off and travel the furthest. One of them had accidentally hit a dog. Both of them had immediately teared up and started sobbing into Wales’ thighs.)
Naturally, after the trek home - involving more than a few of the children sighing and kicking up the dirt instead of smiling and wishing the congregation coming out of church a happy Easter as is polite, one incident of a silk skirt torn on brambles when the Maldives had tried to pick daffodils, and four of the boys deciding to take a racing shortcut across an exceptionally muddy field -, the children’s outfits had looked a great deal less smart than they had when they had left for church first thing. England had sent them all upstairs to change into their play-clothes, scrambling ahead of their nurses, with the promise of games and Easter treats (and had done her best not to laugh when India, informed of their return to the house by the deafening thunder of almost forty pairs of feet on the stairs, appeared in all his usual unruffled grace and took long, slow stock of Wales on England’s heels. Wales who had arrived home with his hair frizzed by the wind and stress, trousers stained and damp, and clutching a bent daffodil and five squashed buttercups.
“...An interesting morning?” India had asked eventually, folding his fingers around the hand England had offered him upon his entrance and dipping his head just enough to press his lips to her knuckles.
Wales had quickly disappeared to change his trousers).
It had been a wonder so many of the children had behaved themselves so well at church; they had been worked up ever since seeing the Pace Egg play in the village on Good Friday, bubbling over with excited anticipation. England has come across seven ‘great duels’ in the hallways of her home in one-and-a-half days alone, the emulative roar of seven little people puffing themselves up and declaring themselves the noble Saint George and willing to take on all challengers, smite all villains, and right all wrongs with their sword (in six out of seven cases, a broomstick. The seventh George - New Hebrides - had had to be sternly relieved of an iron poker). The ‘villains’ of the duels had, of course, obligingly played dead in most cases (and when they had not, in the one case of Gibraltar that England had walked in on, the villains had been dogpiled by six other children who had squashed the too-obviously still-breathing smote one into the floor). The games had been more apt than usual; Easter this year is only a few days before the feast day of the saint who was the hero of both the duels and the plays, and the one great patron of England.
Most of the children had lit up when England had told them they, as a reward for their good behaviour, were going to have a special late Easter lunch after an egg hunt in the garden, with prizes for everyone, depending on how many eggs they each find individually. The maids, who had all been up earlier than usual that morning to hide the hundreds of chicken eggs that had been boiled different colours - brown and blue and red and black - by the cook the night before, had handed each of the children a little basket each, and away they had rushed in a riot of sizes, colours, languages and childish insults. England, Wales and India had headed to the table already prepared for them on the patio, a pot of darjeeling gently steaming in the late morning air and a plate of lemon biscuits awaiting them, and Ireland had joined them when she had returned home from her own mass.
(England been feeling charitable when Ireland had arrived, gentled by her first cup of tea and the children’s obvious fun in the garden. Ireland is forever sullen these days, mouth tight and shoulders heavy with a grudge, but when she had arrived, for a moment, in her Easter gown of white and green, all England had seen was how thin her sister still is, Ireland’s red hair wisping down from its cadogan - the strands so bright when Ireland’s skin seems so thin over her bones.
“Easter greetings,” England had said, lowering her cup from her mouth, and had politely pretended she had not noticed the way Ireland’s eyes widened at even being spoken to. Had the fourth seat left at the table not been obvious enough for her? “Sister.”
“...England,” Ireland had replied, with a careful nod. Not sister, but not her own rude tongue either. “A happy Easter to you too -” with a short glance at India and Wales “- and you both as well.”)
Peace does not last. Even as Mauritius is busy, free from the hedge, hauling up his trousers, there is another outburst, a girl’s voice rising, injured and accusing:
“England, Hong Kong ate my egg!”
Trouble storms in by the way of the Caicos Islands, the young girl’s scowl darker than the faded red of her dress. Clutching her basket to her chest with one arm, she points indignantly at Hong Kong with the other - who is, England notes with a sigh, somnolently sitting in the grass and eating a boiled egg regardless of the egg hunt around him, pieces of shell in his lap. England gets up.
Singapore has swept in to Hong Kong’s defence, his brow creased in a frown as he stares down the Caicos Islands. “He did not lah; I was watching. He ate own egg.”
Caicos stomps her foot. “It was my egg! It was red!”
“Lots of eggs was red lah!”
“Are red,” England corrects quietly, laying her hand atop Singapore’s head from behind and disrupting the building argument before Caicos can make another angry retort. Singapore flushes pink, embarrassed at the correction to his grammar, but tilts his face up to look at her. “The sentence you want is ‘lots of the eggs are red,’ present tense, but well done for remembering a linking verb.”
“Lots of the eggs are red,” Singapore dutifully repeats, emphasis and all. “Puan England, yes?”
“There are more red eggs than any other colour today,” England confirms, slowly raking back some of Singapore’s silky fringe with her fingers. The boy needs a haircut. England had been so busy making sure the Easter clothes would be ready other things had slipped her mind, and now quite a few of the boys will need to go to the barbers.
“England,” Caicos appeals, her voice just beginning to edge over into the more plaintive side of complaint.
England sighs internally and gives in, turning her gaze on Hong Kong, who is already looking back up at her with his face placid and his golden-coloured eyes completely unbothered by any fuss going on around him. He might have had a growth spurt since the acquisition of Kau Lung and its addition to his territories, but his nature is still as contrarily peculiar as it ever was.
The egg he was eating has been devoured entirely.
“Leon,” England asks, “did you eat Rosa’s egg?”
Hong Kong slowly blinks at her, not saying anything.
“You know we are counting up how many everyone has found at the end and exchanging them for prizes, don’t you? They won’t count if you have eaten them before then.”
Hong Kong still does not reply.
“...Caicos dropped hers,” says Hong Kong, devoid of inflection. “Behind her.”
“I did not!” Caicos bursts, indignant, but Hong Kong simply lifts his hand from his lap and points.
About three steps behind Caicos, buried in a larger clump of grass so it is not easily seen, sits a red egg.
Caicos flushes a dark red, the colour blooming high on her cheeks. “...I didn’t see that.”
“Right,” says England, as the girl hurries to scoop up the lost egg. Crisis averted. “Accidents do happen. But, Rosa,” Caicos looks up at her defensively, both arms now wrapped around her basket, “I believe you owe Leon an apology.”
Caicos’ mouth twists, clearly displeased at the implicit command, but England holds the girl’s gaze steadily until Caicos does as bid, Caicos turning her petulance on Hong Kong again. “I’m sorry I said you did something you didn’t. But you shouldn’t be eating the eggs now anyway.”
Hong Kong just shrugs at her. “Hungry.”
England does not manage to make it back to her seat before she is stopped again, this time by a very small hand clutching at the robin’s egg blue of her skirts and tugging.
Looking back over the bell of her dress, England can barely see the fair little face addressing her: Ascension Island, this time, HMS Ascension, the boy suspiciously bright-eyed and wobbly-mouthed in a way that suggests he has worked himself up for this encounter and might be about to cry.
“Engwand, will you please help me?”
England softens, turns and dips so she can see the child better. “With the egg hunt?” Ascension nods at her, still tremulous, so England smiles at him, reaching one hand into her pocket to retrieve the small bundle she had placed their earlier: a blue egg, carefully wrapped in one of her embroidered handkerchiefs.
His basket woefully sparse, Ascension’s eyes light up when England offers him the egg - but the Falklands Islands, passing by, is much less impressed.
“That’s not fair,” he says. “Just because he’s little -”
“It has nothing to do with him being little,” says England, gently patting Ascension’s cheek to let the smaller boy know it is alright for him to continue putting the blue egg in his basket. It is a great shame all her territories cannot stay this young, though it is a good sign when they grow older in appearance; they are darlings when they are small. “This is an egg hunt, and he hunted in the right place.”
“Your pocket?” Falklands asks her, clearly sceptical - before something clicks into his place in his mind, and his tone turns more hopeful. “Have you got any more?” England shakes her head. “Does Wales?”
England answers by way of raising her eyebrow at him. His disapproval entirely forgotten, Falklands disappears in a streak over to the patio to badger the adult Nations sitting there.
England waits until the colony has left the patio, one blue egg now added to the pile of other colours in his basket, before heading back to the table (though not before, in an action that is entirely to do with Ascension only being little, discreetly nudging Ascension towards some potted hyacinths she has not seen any of the other children liberate of the eggs hiding amongst their flowers yet).
When the children have searched for almost two hours, England calls them into the conservatory. (The downstairs rooms are some of the largest of the house, but it is still something of a squash to fit so many children in one room all at once.) The eyes of many of the younger ones widen - they are not allowed in the room very often, England afraid one of the little darlings will put a bat or ball through the conservatory’s large fine glass windows -, and then widen further when they see the table at the side of the room which England is leading them to, its surface and the floor beside it covered in all manner of wonderful things for little people.
There are skipping ropes piled on the floor, wooden handles smoothed and polished, nudging up against stitched cloth and leather balls in different sizes and a carved horse pull toy with a beautiful white mane. A huge red kite sits in the middle of the table, using the stack of books behind it as a prop - and the books themselves range from translations of the Grimm brother’s stories, to fairytales such as The King of the Golden River and The Rose and the Ring, to detailed picture books on floriography and the natural history of animals. There are six boxes of new watercolours and three of coloured chalk, and ten boxes of coloured pencils sitting atop a pile of sketchbooks. There are blank scrapbooks and leather-bound journals with crisp cream pages, an immaculately new mother-of-pearl writing set sitting beside them complete with two pots of ink. A single horse-drawn gig with a pull-handle is bracketed in by boxes of jigsaws depicting maps of the world, and there are five different sailing boys sitting just in front: two medium-sized replicas of the ironclad HMS Warrior and her sister-ship, HMS Black Prince, each with her own respective and respectable 40 small guns; one smaller replica of Nelson’s famous HMS Victory, fully-rigged, and two brightly-painted paddle steamers. Three small bottles of perfume of violets look almost ridiculous beside two giant cloth toys stitched in the shapes of a blue fish and a brown elephant, and a pile of pretty hair-combs is almost lost under two pairs of wooden toy swords.
Everything has a small slip of paper tied to it, a number neatly written out.
“Blue eggs are worth five points,” England tells a roomful of what amounts to almost two-thirds of her Empire, watching their - mostly - young eyes absorb the details. Outside, Wales and Ireland are with the maids, overseeing the layout of food, drink and picnic blankets, but India has come to the conservatory’s door, Malaya having somehow bargained her way up into his arms to see over the other children’s heads. “Black eggs are worth three points; brown eggs are worth two points, and red eggs are worth one. All the prizes have the number of points they are worth attached to them, so you may have a prize - or prizes - worth equal to or less than the worth of the eggs in your baskets.”
“...We have to do the mathematics?” asks New Zealand, the first of the children to register what is being required of them before they can get their hands on the prizes of the table. Hearing his words, there is a collective quiet groan.
“On a Sunday?” New South Wales asks from beside his brother, with evident disgust.
“The Good Lord gave you a mind, James,” England says dryly, arranging her hoops so she can take a seat beside the table of prizes. “I am sure he will not take offence if you, for a change, use it.”
The teasing laughter at New South Wales is followed by some intense minutes of addition. Not all of it entirely accurate either; after Saint Helena finishes her count first and is allowed to claim both the writing set and a journal with the eggs she found in the garden, there is a sudden rush through the other children, a mild panic setting into them when they realise if they do not count quickly enough, the prize they want might be gone. New Hebrides, therefore, turns up next with full confidence to announce he has thirty-six points - only to deflate after a few long silent moments where England does her own mental tally of the boy’s basket and comes up with a different number.
“I… don’t have thirty-six points?”
“Try again,” England offers New Hebrides gently.
Things go surprisingly peacefully. Malaya gets the kite, and is so delighted about this she gives away the rest of the egg-points she did not use to Singapore. Singapore picks up two books and a hair-comb, the latter of which he gives back to Malaya. Seychelles and her new skipping ropes dote in immediate idolatry on the cloth fish toy which is almost as large as she is, whilst Mauritius seems content with a book on marine animals and a set of juggling balls. Gibraltar considers the toy swords - before England quietly mentions he is almost old enough to start training with real swords, at which point the boy disappears, apparently promises five extortionate promises to some of his various siblings in exchange for so many of their eggs, and comes back to claim the replica HMS Victory. The Maldives, Andaman Islands, and Saint Lucia each take a bottle of perfume with assorted others writing or artistic implements and hair-combs, and Tristan da Cunha gets himself a ball and a paddle steamer. Montserrat takes balls and jigsaws, and Malta rather proudly claims hair-combs, coloured pencils and sketchbooks. New South Wales and New Zealand rather worryingly pool all their eggs and take the HMS Warrior, the HMS Black Prince and a set of toy swords that England is regretting buying already, whilst the Falklands Islands takes the final paddle steamer right behind them with a pout at the other boys’ backs.
Due to a great deal of assistance, even the smallest children, like Natal and Ascension Island, have enough eggs to at least get a book each and jigsaws or drawing materials (Ascension happily taking the carved horse pull toy as well, whilst the gig goes to the British Virgin Islands), and Bioko - on an expensive lease from Spain - manages to overcome his confusion enough to carry off a ball and jigsaw. Others - the Bonin Islands, the Pitcairn Islands - seem content with new books as their main prize, whilst the Caicos Islands promptly takes her new toy swords and skipping rope and uses them to tie the Cape Colony’s new cloth elephant to a chair. The Turks Islands takes a sketchbook and some chalks, and New Hebrides finally gets his tally correct enough to wind up with one book and a great many different-sized balls England can immediately foresee going through the delicate panes of her glasshouses. Honduras and the Cayman Islands’ new jigsaws ends up in a jumbled hodge-podge all over the floor, and only one person - Barbados - ends up being mildly stabbed with a coloured pencil. The Cocos Islands takes the last of the toy swords and accidentally whacks a scandalised Nevis on the kneecap, and Hong Kong uses the backdrop of their arguing to quietly prove that he had, actually, managed to leave some of the eggs he had found uneaten, trading them for watercolours, sketchbook and skipping rope.
“You like to paint?” England asks him as she hands him the watercolours, curious. She knows the boy likes noisy things - so too do many of the other colonies, which is precisely why England had not placed any kind of instrument on the table for fear of encouraging a cacophony of chaos in the house -, but not much else. Hong Kong rarely communicates anything to anyone but the most basic of his desires: needing food, needing the toilet, or needing sleep.
“Macau teaches me,” Hong Kong answers her, raising his chin slightly as though he expects England to scold him for talking with the colony of another empire.
Macau’s education comes from China - subjected enough to be agreeable to British needs at the moment - and Portugal - a good British ally. England will not scold for Macau. The staid older boy is, to the best of her knowledge, a very good influence.
“It makes me happy you have friends,” England says simply, and hands Hong Kong his paints. “Will you paint something for me one day?”
To no-one’s surprise, Hong Kong does not answer her. Verbally. He does, however, blush a slow, vibrant red, and disappears in a hurry whilst England is still staring in startled bewilderment.
Lunch is a noisy affair. On the lawn, the servants have laid out large, warm blankets over paraffin paper to protect the cloth from the dampness still lurking on the grass, spreading the middle of each with plates piled high with food and jugs of chilled water, lemonade and ginger beer. There are sandwiches - ham and cucumber, egg, lettuce and tomato, cheese, and tongue and truffles - alongside plain bread with butter and/or jams for spreading. Hot potato scones, still steaming in the air, sit beside sliced beef and pork, and cubes of cheese take up dishes nearby still-warm carved chicken served in its crackly skin. Cold game pie is served already cut into slices, and the sweet fancy breads are piled up in baskets all around. India’s influence means there are all kinds of chikki out on plates and coconut laddu - an interesting sight set next to thick wedges of victoria sponge, dark gingerbread, rich shortbread, garibaldi biscuits and macaroons. Fruit-wise, there are bowls of strawberries, melon balls, oranges and pears, and, for that day in particular, there are seasonal hot-cross buns sliced and covered in butter, alongside sweet Easter biscuits thick with orange and lemon peel.
And, of course, there are a great many hard-boiled eggs.
The children take their new toys and settle as they will on the edges of the blankets, filling glasses with drinks and piling up paper plates with food - some a little overenthusiastically. It is only after England has carefully settled herself and her dress down on one blanket that she notices Gibraltar on another blanket is attempting to eat three sandwiches at once, egged on by a small cluster of Caribbean colonies. Wales, beginning to look harried again, stops by with his own plate of food and discourages the idea before Gibraltar manages to asphyxiate on cucumber slices (and Gibraltar should count himself lucky it is Wales in the house with them rather than Scotland right now, because Scotland’s method of halting the same poor behaviour is, as England has witnessed in the past when the small ones attempt to rush their food, clipping the young offender on the back of the head). Ireland, England can see, has sat herself down on a blanket with a mixed group of colonies from Australasia, and India rather suspiciously bypasses the hopeful looks being sent his way by Malaya to bring England more tea, the drink hot from a fresh pot and still swirling with the milk poured into it.
England takes the cup with a nod of thanks, and carefully does not frown when India settles himself beside her on the blanket - as close as he can get with the spread of her hoops. His thigh creases the hemline of her skirts, and his dark, intent eyes, whilst alarmingly attractive, are a disconcerting thing when applied suddenly.
But then, England reflects somewhat tiredly, blowing over the surface of her tea to cool it, India has been watching her closely all day.
Still cradling her teacup, England looks at him through her eyelashes. “You have something you wish to ask of me.”
They look very fine sitting together, blue and blue with stitches and hair of gold, and apparently dangerous enough no-one else dares to sit on their blanket.
“Ask,” says England.
India has many pretty words, but he gets to the point of things when it concerns him enough. “My siblings have already returned to our homeland. I should like to join them.”
“Why?” England asks, politely crisp. India might spend somewhere between a quarter and a third of his nights in her bed, but she has not forgotten his rebellion is less than five years behind them. To them, the time that has passed since then is only one beat of her heart, and a blink of his eyelashes.
India reaches for a melon ball, an excuse to avoid explicit explanation, the juice sliding down his fingers. It suits him better than the fine cutlery and china they will use at dinner that night, the table laden with roast lamb and chicken, simnel cake and ices. “Are you ever truly content, when you are far from your home?”
England frowns, drinking her tea. As the heart of the Empire, it is different for her - and India likely knows that -, since so much of the land she walks on belongs to her people. But too long in Crimea and China in recent years had left her aching under her breastbone, restless in a way even the salt-spray toss of the ocean on her ships had been unable to soothe.
“...The others have not asked to leave,” says England, eventually. Two blankets over, she can hear the Andaman Islands demanding to know who had taken the chicken from her plate, watches Ireland brushing crumbs from Saint Lucia’s skirts.
India looks at her again, as blandly serene as the statues in his temples that sit atop piles of skulls, and does not say: the others do not dare to. Of all the British Empire, he demands the most leniency from England, even after his disastrous Mutiny in 1857: a spoilt prince with too much awareness of his own value for comfort.
The peacock in India is the symbol and defender of royalty. The bird is immune to poison, but consumes poison anyway to defend its charges and brighten the colours of its own plumage. India, with all his bright colours and proud throat, is very much a peacock: an ornament to the Empire (jealous - but not untruthful -, France had once called India England’s exotic pet), and resistant to adversity, even when India digs up and devours the poison himself.
For God’s sake, when taking him from company rule to the Raj, England had fucked him and all his fury on his Peacock Throne.
There is a lot to miss about India. England has pleasant memories there from both before and after the British became the dominant power in the subcontinent: long nights when it was too hot to sleep spent sprawled out on rush mats, listening to Portugal and India telling stories, strange insects singing outside the windows. Playing chess with India on boards of dark wood and boards of ivory and jewels, the one time India had played white and they had lost his king and he had replaced the piece with a diamond ring. The smell of the jasmine, blooming in the gardens at night; the flash of an orange tiger streaking away in the jungle; riding across hot dusty plains as fast as the wind on the magnificent Pathan horses brought down from Afghanistan. Her body drenched with water and mud from the monsoon, laughing with India about a ruined hat. Spices on her lips, cotton whispering on her skin, red painted vines snaking up over her fingers and toes and called a blessing.
...Things have changed.
“We can return there for the cool season,” England offers quietly, another leniency added to the list that India receives. With the nonsense taking place in the Americas, it would be better for her to stay in Britain. But why should she have her actions decided for her by a silly boy? “It is the most convenient time to arrive, and the easiest to explain.”
India does not look surprised that England is acquiescing to his implicit request, the tell-tale mark of his response to her we kept only to a slight thinning of his mouth. “Then we will be taking the ship soon?”
England does not consider it; the travel by ship takes months. “No, we will go by the overland route. It would be a shame to miss the London season,” even though all of society wearing mourning with the queen will make it the gloomiest season yet, “and, anyway, I believe a conversation with Egypt en-route about increasing his cotton production might be beneficial for the economy.”
“...Just Egypt?” Sometimes, India can be a pleasant companion to converse with. He is quick - quick in thoughts and words in a way England desires, enjoys and appreciates after being surrounded by the dull-witted for far too long - and reaches the conclusion of things with a few brief hints.
If Egypt is being asked to increase cotton production, then India’s cotton production will definitely be boosted as well.
India eats another melon ball, settling the bowl of fruit on his lap. “You wish to move away from dependency on American imports.”
“A house must stand on shaky foundations if there is nothing else to support it, but only a fool would not build better foundations around the weak ones so the house is not troubled a second time.” England is not fond of her actions being dictated to her - least of all by a child, and a recalcitrant one at that. She sets down her teacup. “The northern grain is too inconvenient to re-source, but we can do something about the cotton from the south. We cannot depend on another’s work - it asks for trouble.”
“There is trouble already,” says India, an annoying reminder of all the thoughts in England’s head. These are awful words for a garden full of happy children in the April sunshine. “Will there be war?”
England shrugs, unladylike and abruptly irritable. She reaches for some of the food, as an end to the conversation, and India - since he has his way - humours her by remaining quiet, though he does not move away.
They eat in silence until the Cocos Islands, apparently failing to read the atmosphere in the one quiet bubble in the whole garden, wanders over with his basket of eggs, cheerfully asking India to play koni-juj with him - egg-tapping. The boy is, apparently so full of eggs after eating his way through half his basket, and the Andaman Islands has hidden away the cake that was on their blanket after Cocos stole her chicken and tried to give her his eggs instead. Cocos, according to her, needs to get rid of his own eggs, and Cocos has decided to do that by playing with them.
“If you’re not going to eat them,” says England, halfway through a ridiculously large wedge of game pie that makes her think she is going to need to talk to the cook about acceptable portion sizes again, “at least put them to the side once you’re done smashing the shells so they can be used to feed the village pigs.”
Cocos nods dutifully fast. “Yes, puan England!”
Somehow, despite the earnest munching of food not abating in the slightest, the game spreads throughout the garden, and the conversation rapidly switches to discussing, in the most dramatic of tones, the competition . Wales and Ireland find their laps conciliatorily filled with eggs from the children’s baskets so they, too, can participate in tapping the points of eggs against others to find the strongest, but England waves away the ones offered to her.
Eventually, still chewing on a hot-cross bun, New Zealand and one of his black eggs wins the game - mostly, England believes, by virtue of most of his opponents having stuffed themselves with too much good food to care about winning anymore, a great many children flopping backwards on the blankets and grass with pleased smiles, full bellies and so many regrets. The champion egg is regarded with some wonder; New South Wales wants to build a heathen shrine to it, and several members of Australasia are beginning to look worryingly starry-eyed by the idea. England distracts New South Wales with a large chunk of leftover gingerbread, and the ‘champion’ vanishes into the baskets and food scraps being gathered up by the maids ( lost, New South Wales will melodramatically wail at bedtime later, not at all subtly trying to stay up for even five more minutes, to the annals of history. Wales is unhelpfully diverted by being impressed at New South Wales knowing - and correctly using - the word annals).
Grumbling now and grass-stained, the children get herded indoors by the adult Nations, hauling their prizes behind them. They brighten - albeit with initial suspicion - when they are each handed a thin brown paper bag with their names on them, and forget their grumbles entirely when they peer inside the bags and discover more treats for them inside: dark chocolate bars, one large rightly-swirled lollipops made of poured sugar, and three hollow cardboard and paste eggs of different sizes.
The cardboard eggs are edged in lace and lined inside with satin, and the smallest two out of three of the eggs for every child are filled with some of their favourite sweets. With so many colonies from all over the world, the sweets gathered are as many and as varied as the largest and most exotic of England’s sweet shops: there are eggs full of lemon drops, pear drops and peppermint drops; bull’s eyes and brandy balls; sour cherries, pineapple cubes, comfits of Vienna almonds and bonbons. There are sugar-sticks twisted with bright colours, and pale roots of candied elecampane. Some of the children like the bittersweetness of cinder toffee; others like sugary chunks of sticky golden toffee, and some do not like toffee at all, preferring to suck on French-style hard candies with creamy centres. The children from the Americas and the Caribbean like maple syrup and sesame seed candies, whilst those from around the Mediterranean and Middle East favour the scented rosewater cubes of Turkish delight dusted in powdered sugar.
The third - and largest - egg in each bag for the youngest children is filled with a toy. An expensive toy, depending on each child’s tastes: either a small, sturdy, carved wooden ship, the size to be used as an ornament or played with in the bath, or a doll with a bisque porcelain face, wrists, ankles, calves and arms, and stuffed bodies.
The boys have doll soldiers or sailors, resplendent in uniforms made to scale with spares in doll-sized travelling trunks: shirts of stitched white linen, cravat, waistcoats and coats with buttons gleaming, britches, oiled overcoat, stockings, gloves and handkerchiefs. Each soldier or sailor has boots of leather and belts for his pistols and bright little sword, a cap or hat adorned with ribbon and/or feather.
The girls have their dolls in replicas of their own new Easter clothes, pretty purple gowns and Easter bonnets laying on top of many other beautifully sewn additions to dollhouse trousseaux. Each has a new small silk opera gown with opera gloves and reticule to match, linen and lace nightgown, embroidered silk stockings, knitted mittens and tiny stitched leather gloves. A straw bonnet with trailing silk ribbons and infinitesimally delicate artificial flowers pinned to the brim somehow manages to avoid being squashed by a tiny pair of boots and dancing slippers, a parasol made with spokes thinner than a matchstick carefully wrapped in a black work apron, a soft cashmere shawl, and a tissue-thin kerchief of authentic Irish lace.
Instead of toys, the older colonies have been given or sent jewellery - brooches or cufflinks, fine things in gold with cabochon jewels or pearls - wrapped in stockings or gloves.
Strange, is it not, that it is so much easier for an empire to obtain luxuries than necessities, these days. Jewels and toys and fine food and clothes are nothing; basic produce, family harmony and peace, on the other hand...
England is expecting some of the squeals of delight, but not, perhaps, to be leapt on so suddenly by three different children at once - two she does not immediately see, as they grab onto the wide bell of her skirts, and the third, New South Wales, taking a running leap at her chest. (Where had he put his toys?) Halfway to a heart attack, England scrabbles to catch him and not topple over herself, the weight of the boy thumping hard into her ribs as his knees and elbows defeat the whalebone armour of her corset and find every bit of softness on her between her bones.
New South Wales just laughs, something wild and happy, and leans forward before England can get another word out and wraps his arms effusively around her neck. Up close, it is plain to see he has the Kirkland freckles, and his eyes are startlingly the same as Wales’ - right down to his thick eyelashes (which, upon Wales, Scotland had once dubbed sheep eyes in the twelfth century and so fully earned Wales dropping his shield on Scotland’s then unarmoured foot). New South Wales’ cheek, still soft with youth, presses to England’s cheek, and England’s face flushes hot, her heart twisting in her chest.
“Now - what’s this?” she asks, still flustered, still attempting to get her forearms comfortably under the weight of her colony’s thighs so New South Wales will not fall and smack his head off of the floor. She is very conscious of the fact that most of the rest of the Empire - including India and her siblings, the other children all agape - is staring at her with one mixed expression or another, and that New South Wales is hopelessly crushing the fabric of her sleeves. “Perhaps we have had a little too much excitement today; you are all a tad emotionally overwrought -”
“England,” New South Wales protests. “England, we’re trying t’say ta -”
“Thank you,” is hissed from the floor as a correction, its originator - New Zealand - flustering when England manages to peer past the colony in her arms to see the two she has gained attached to her skirt: New Zealand and Seychelles (with her fish). “I meant -”
“Mersi,” beams Seychelles, her hand holding a fistful of England’s dress and her island Creole innocently sailing straight over all of New Zealand’s attempts to get his siblings to use correct English in front of England. New Zealand sighs, and England reaches down awkwardly to pat the dark golden curls of his head. She does not have the heart to scold any of them: their sincerity is charming, and their happiness too evident to be so promptly and unfeelingly squashed.
“I am glad you all like your gifts,” she tells New South Wales, New Zealand and Seychelles - and the children beyond them -, “but, James, really.” New South Wales shifts in her arms more like an unruly pet than a child, his nose smudged with dirt he has probably left on England’s face and neck. Koalas are cleaner than this one. “I am not a tree.”