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A Royal Arrangement

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Eggsy Unwin, Lady Rowley, takes a deep breath, studies his pattern, and stabs his needle into his sampler with precisely the correct amount of force needed.

He’d like to pin it to the wall like a butterfly. And then stab it a few more times for good measure. But that would not be befitting a lady, his mother would say. Certainly not a lady whose name still resides on the coveted Register.

Eggsy might be tempted to disregard his mother’s dictum, but worse luck, she’s sitting right across from him in the morning-room of their house in Town. Michelle Unwin, Countess Rowley, is immaculate in a sky-blue gown in the latest height of fashion, short sleeved and beribboned and brushing the tops of her side-buttoned boots. Eggsy sets off his mother in the knee-length tunic and leggings appropriate for a male Omega, dyed a complimentary sea-green. His mother says the color brings out his eyes.

“A slow morning, my dear, wouldn’t you say?” Michelle offers this observation into the silence. A widow, she doesn’t have to occupy her hands with needlework to show her fine breeding. She may sit composedly at her leisure on the most comfortable sofa in the morning-room, a warm cup of tea on the table at her elbow.

Eggsy sneaks a glance at the clock. Eleven-thirty. By tradition, a morning At Home ends at noon. He can only hope their morning-room remains as empty for the next thirty minutes as it has for the last ninety.

But: “Indeed, mother,” Eggsy murmurs.

“Really, I begin to reconsider coming to Town so early in the Season. I had thought more families would have joined us, but they seem to all be staying in the country.”

Eggsy merely nods agreement, knowing better than to protest. Michelle may feign surprise, but Eggsy knows perfectly well that they’d come early to London a-purpose. Because Eggsy’s name isn’t just on the Register – his name heads the Register. And that means –

The door to the morning-room opens, and the butler steps in. With a small bow Reynolds announces, “Lady Cuxhaven has come to call.”

Eggsy’s stomach sinks to the bottom of his stays. Michelle, by contrast, perks up. “Show her in at once,” she informs Reynolds, who bows and withdraws. To Eggsy Michelle says: “Now we shall have news! Matilda will know what there is to know about – about that Omega.”

Eggsy stabs his sampler again and holds his tongue. By that Omega, Michelle means James, formerly Lady Spencer, third child of the Duke of Marlborough. Carrier-consort of His Majesty, Henry IX.

Eggsy knows James. Had been friends with James, before V-Day and the advent of the Register. Eggsy would have loved to still be friends with James. But two Omegas side-by-side on the Register can’t be anything but enemies. Whatever their own preferences, Society will see to that for them.

The fertility crisis of V-Day had rocked British Society to its core. Overnight, a ton of several hundred had found their viable members cut down to a tenth of that. Alphas – sires – had been less badly hit; perhaps two in ten Alphas had retained their fertility. But the fertility of the Omegan population had been all but wiped out. Only one in twenty Omegas throughout England remain able to bear children.

Eggsy is among them.

The door opens again. “Lady Cuxhaven,” Reynolds announces.

“Michelle, darling!” Lady Cuxhaven sweeps in. Eggsy notices, because he’s been well brought up, that her dress is not quite as modish as Eggsy’s and Michelle’s – the color is well enough, a pastel pink, but the sleeves are long in the style of last winter, and there isn’t quite enough lace around her neck and wrists. The reticle is perfect, however: it must be new.

Michelle rises smoothly to receive Lady Cuxhaven, exchanging air kisses and urging her into a comfortable chair by the fire. “Matilda, so good to see you, my dear! Come, warm your feet. So frightfully cold, isn’t it?”

“Well, this early in the Season, after all!”

The ladies nod at each other, completely in charity. Eggsy, looking at them, has an uncharitable thought: they look like a pair of hens, heads and necks bobbling over a juicy piece of corn.

A few more pleasantries are exchanged, including a compliment from Lady Cuxhaven on the quality of Eggsy’s embroidery. Fortunately, as a theoretically-modest maiden, Eggsy need do nothing more than cast his eyes down demurely while Michelle accepts the praise on Eggsy’s behalf. Eggsy isn’t sure what he’d say if he had to actually speak. He knows what Lady Cuxhaven is here to say – only one topic would bring her here, today – and his nerves are wound tight in terror or anticipation. Or both.

At last Lady Cuxhaven gets to the point. “Well, my dear, have you heard the news from Buckingham Palace?”

Michelle feigns surprise. “I thought the announcement was to be made tomorrow, before Parliament?”

“Oh, yes, the official announcement. But the word is already leaking out.”

Michelle leans forward. In spite of himself, Eggsy’s hand stills on the needle.

“The carrier-consort,” Lady Cuxhaven says slowly, “has not conceived.”

Eggsy drops his sampler.

Michelle claps her hands together. “Did you hear that, Eggsy?” she cries. “You’re going to be Queen!”

That night, in his room, Eggsy sits before his mirror and stares at his reflection blankly.

His room is well-lit with good wax candles – the Rowley estate may be without an Alpha Lord, but it’s well able to provide for its widow and offspring. There’s a fire in the grate. Even for March it’s unseasonably cold. Eggsy has wrapped a shawl over his night-gown. He’d be cozier in bed, where the warming-pan has done its work, but he’s not ready for sleep yet. He’s afraid of his dreams.

Or perhaps he’s looking forward to them.

Despite Michelle’s excited proclamations, Eggsy is not going to become Queen on the morrow, nor any time in the near future. But James’ failure to produce an heir means that Eggsy is one step closer to that lofty goal.

He’s never wanted to be Queen. But he has wanted – secretly, quietly, for longer than he can remember – Harry Hart.

Five years ago, when Valentine’s Day had been a holiday about the exchange of flowers and cards, when there had been no fertility crisis and no Register of Fertile Omegas, when the succession crisis had not yet catapulted Harry Hart from eighteenth in line to the throne to the throne itself, Eggsy had met him. Lord Hart, he’d been at the time. Being eighteenth in the succession to the throne had been just distinction enough to enhance the otherwise relatively minor title of Marquess of Cardoc. Certainly it had not made Lord Hart so grand that an Earl’s child could not raise their eyes to him.

And raise his eyes Eggsy had done. The ball had been a small one, late in the Season. That Season had been Eggsy’s first, and though he’d had several admirers, none of them had quite been in the rank of life to satisfy Michelle. Thus he’d already known he would likely have a second Season; another chance for a new admirer to enter the lists and sweep away the prize. And when he’d met Lord Hart, when they’d danced three dances and been seated next to each other at dinner, when Lord Hart had smiled and bowed over his hand at the end of the night and asked if he might call on Eggsy, Eggsy had dared to hope…

The V-Day virus had changed everything. There had been no Season the following year. There had been no time for gaiety when the world had been falling apart. And then had come the passage of the Inheritance Act, restricting the inheritance of noble titles – from the lowest hereditary knight to the Crown itself – to fertile scions only.

The tumult among the noble classes had cost another Season, as heirship had shifted, the disinherited had rebelled, and younger children who had been comfortably launched upon supportive careers had been recalled to embark upon a second lifetime’s worth of learning. And then had come the discovery that Omegan fertility had been even more affected by the V-Day plague than Alphaic fertility – that, inheritance aside, there might in another generation be no more nobility, unless measures were taken to ensure it.

Thus the passage of the Registration and Royalty Act. Thus the Register of Unmated Fertile Omegas, ordered by rank, on which Eggsy Unwin, the child of a mere Earl, had found himself second only to Lady James Spencer. And thus the law that had seen Lady Spencer’s engagement to Lord Percival Morton broken off, so that James could be mated to the newly-crowned Henry IX as carrier-consort, and given a year to produce an heir.

The Act’s text, as it relates to the Crown, is simple. Produce an heir within a year, be crowned Queen, and receive the grateful thanks and adulation of an entire nation. Failure means that the ceremonial mating is annulled, the Omega is returned to their family in disgrace – and the next Omega on the Register gets their chance.

Lord Morton will probably re-offer his suit to Lady Spencer after the annulment, Eggsy thinks. Their engagement hadn’t been a mere matter of Lady Spencer’s dowry and Lord Morton’s title. They’d been in love. Eggsy remembers, during his one and only Season, how James had blushed and giggled over Lord Morton’s every attention. How Lord Morton had snubbed several other young Omegas to lavish attention on Lady Spencer alone. How James had floated on air for a month after their engagement had been announced.

Eggsy hadn’t seen James after V-Day – not until he’d attended the royal wedding ceremony a year ago, during which Lady Spencer had been given to Henry IX, to do his best duty and provide an heir for a reeling nation that had seen the seventeen in line for the throne before Henry die or have their claims to the throne declared invalid by virtue of infertility. James had been pale but otherwise composed, seemingly calm as he’d pledged his troth. Henry IX had been impassive. Eggsy had fancied he’d seen Henry’s eyes burning with anger, and spent the next several nights tossing and turning as a fever of his own invaded his dreams.

That had been the last time Eggsy had seen his friend. The next time, he supposes, will be at the ceremony of annulment; and then, probably, at Eggsy’s own wedding.

Is it wrong, Eggsy wonders, to gain his heart’s desire at the expense of so much?

Assuming I even succeed in producing an heir. Assuming Harry doesn’t hate me now. Assuming I can win his confidence…

Henry IX’s opposition to the Registration and Royalty Act is widely known. He had argued strongly that a year is nowhere near enough time to produce an heir – that even perfectly fertile couples could take several years to conceive – that Omegas who went through this process and failed would have their mating prospects unnecessarily damaged, in a country that couldn’t afford to lose even a single fertile Omega to old maidenhood – that the stability of the country itself could be threatened by a revolving parade of carrier-consorts instead of a single Queen. But Parliament had passed the act anyway. Eggsy is forced to wonder, sitting before his mirror, if Henry IX will resent Eggsy as the representative of that Act.

Eggsy stands up abruptly. It’s no good thinking about it. It will be what it will be.

He blows out the candle. The thoughts, unfortunately, follow him to his bed.

The next day dawns blustery and grey. Michelle spends breakfast alternately listing all the shops they’ll visit to buy Eggsy’s trousseau and bemoaning how gauche it would be to start shopping before the official announcement and notification. After breakfast, Eggsy moves towards the morning-room automatically, only to be brought up short by his mother’s sharp words.

“Eggsy, dear, where are you going? Naturally we are not At Home this morning!”

“We aren’t?”

Michelle waves her fan majestically. “The news will be all over Town, official announcement or no. Everyone will be trying to visit us.”

“And that’s undesirable?” Eggsy thinks he can be forgiven for the questioning tone in his voice. As far as he understands Society, which he thinks is fairly well, it should be desirable to be visited by as many important personages as will no doubt be interested in evaluating, befriending, and possibly currying favor with the new potential Queen-to-be.

Michelle sniffs. “After the announcement has been made, naturally we shall wish to achieve a certain level of visibility. But before then, you are as a bride on the eve of their wedding, Eggsy. You are not to be seen until you are ready to burst out upon them in glory.” She nods in satisfaction. “Now come. We shall retire to the small parlor to await the royal messenger.”

Eggsy follows her in a daze. A morning trapped in the small parlor should be just as boring, if not more so, than a morning At Home, but he’s suddenly acquired a series of mental images that occupy him wholly. While Michelle draws up lists of necessary purchases and dreams of Eggsy’s wedding-dress, Eggsy finds himself dreaming of the wedding night, in sudden clear and glorious detail.

He has to fan himself several times.

Luncheon comes and goes without Reynolds interrupting their solitude, though his footsteps can frequently be heard going down the hall in response to a knock on the door. A royal messenger would be swiftly admitted, but no one comes. Eggsy imagines the varying disappointments of nobles come to call on the new carrier-consort, only to be repeatedly told that Madame and Miss were not At Home.

Just after four o’clock, though, when even Michelle has given in to the monotony and picked up a book, there’s a sudden flurry of footsteps. Reynold’s are measured and familiar as always, but there are others, almost as if every footman and housemaid in the place have crowded onto every stairway and into every door to witness something unusual. Something gossip-worthy. Something like –

Reynolds throws open the door. “An official messenger from His Majesty, Henry IX,” he announces.

Michelle and Eggsy both rise. Technically there’s no need – they’re both Omegas, while the messenger, by convention, will be an Alpha; and they’re in their own home besides – but something compels them. A desire for ceremony, perhaps. The old British sense of tradition that motivates so many of their finest moments – and so many of their least. Like the Registration and Royalty Act.

The messenger enters. An Alpha indeed, she’s dressed in the Palace livery, and bows as soon as she’s fairly cleared the threshold. First to Michelle, as senior, while Eggsy stares at her dark hair and tries not to sweat. Then to Eggsy, and as she straightens Eggsy is the recipient of a careful scrutiny.

“You are Eggsy Unwin, Lady Rowley, eldest child of the Earl of Rowley?” the messenger inquires.

Eggsy inclines his head. “I am indeed.”

She nods and recites: “Let it be known that His Majesty, Henry IX, and the carrier-consort, the former Lady James Spencer, having failed to conceive an heir to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, will have their ceremonial mating annulled, by official decree, effective the first of April; and, consequently, and pursuant to the Registration and Royalty Act, the Fertile Omega Lady Rowley is commanded to present himself to Westminster Abbey on the fifteenth of that same month, to be joined in ceremonial mating to the King and begin his own term as carrier-consort. His status as such to extend no further than one year, and be terminated either by annulment or by crowning and elevation to the rank of Queen.”

The messenger pauses here to draw breath, and proffers a scroll: the official document, summoning Eggsy to be wed. Eggsy reaches his hand out for it. Michelle gets there first, and takes it from the messenger before Eggsy touches it.

“Thank you for your message,” Michelle says, every inch the elegant Countess Rowley. She inclines her head, clearly expecting the messenger to leave.

The messenger doesn’t. She nods acknowledgement of Michelle’s words, but then speaks again, in a different tone. “His Majesty further bids me inquire, whether tomorrow evening or the next would be most convenient?”

Michelle actually betrays surprise, and Eggsy stares blankly. “Most convenient for what?” he asks.

The messenger coughs discreetly. “His Majesty considers it good form, regardless of the existence of the Act, to offer his suit to his – er – betrothed – in the traditional manner.”

Eggsy processes this. “He wants to visit to propose?”

“Eggsy!” Michelle snaps, having recovered her wits in the interim. She favors the messenger with a gentle smile. “Naturally we will be ready to receive his Majesty at any time that is convenient to him.”

“Of course, my Lady. However, his Majesty did insist I bear back to him your expressed preference,” the messenger murmurs.

Michelle’s smile turns a trifle sharp. She opens her mouth again, clearly ready to dismiss the messenger’s upstart pretentions. Eggsy doesn’t give her the chance.

“Tomorrow,” Eggsy blurts out.

Two sets of eyes swivel to him. Michelle’s, accusing. The messenger’s, approving. She bows again.

“My thanks, Lady Rowley,” she says smoothly. “I will carry your message to his Majesty – and any other, perhaps?”

“My child’s natural modesty – ” Michelle begins.

“Thank you,” Eggsy says, interrupting this time. That’s well over the line into rudeness, and he’ll catch a scolding for it, but Michelle would never lower herself to return the snub, and he rushes onwards into her icy silence. “I do, indeed, have another message. Please convey to his Majesty that I look forward to renewing my – my acquaintance with him – and assure him that I still think fondly of both dogs and garden fountains.”

Michelle stares, but the messenger smiles. “I shall do so, my Lady,” she promises. “Then, by your leave?”

Eggsy imitates his mother’s incline of the head. “Certainly,” he answers for them both.

Reynolds appears on this cue, far too well-trained to miss it. “This way, good sir,” he murmurs.

The messenger bows again and retreats. Scarcely is the door closed when Michelle rounds on Eggsy. “What were you thinking, setting up your preference over his Majesty’s convenience?” she cries. “You must be dutiful and submissive if you wish to secure your place as his Queen!”

“My fertility, or lack thereof, will determine whether I wear the crown,” Eggsy retorts. “I was thinking less of my rank and more of my mating. Which I hope to be one of mutual consideration, even if we achieve nothing else!”

There’s silence. Eggsy becomes aware that his voice had risen more than he’d intended, and he’d said more than he likes. He shakes his head, trying to look dutiful, to blunt his mother’s dismay. “What I mean is…” Eggsy doesn’t finish. He doesn’t know what he means, if not the truth.

“Oh, my child,” Michelle sighs. She holds out her arms, and Eggsy falls into them gratefully. “I forget how young you are. How much the world must still seem like a grand adventure to you.”

“Didn’t it seem so to you, when you mated with Father?”

Michelle smiles wistfully, and touches Eggsy’s cheek. “All that and more,” she sighs. “I wish I had never learned otherwise. Eggsy, my love, I want only your best happiness.”

“We have plenty of money, Mother.”

“But no true social security.” Michelle shakes her head. “If the money had been your sire’s, things would be different. But though I bear the title, the best hostesses do not forget that our wealth comes from my dowry, and was made in trade – nor that you bear my descent in equal measure to the Rowley blood. I wish to see you placed above that. Bear an heir for the King, and no one will ever snub you again.”

“And happiness?” Eggsy can’t help but ask. “You, who had such joy of your bond with Father – can you really ask me to mate without love?”

“Do I ask that, Eggsy?” Now Michelle’s eyes sparkle. “My eyes may be beginning to fail, but my heart still sees. You were fond of the King when you met before V-Day. You’re fond of him still. Am I not right?”

Eggsy deflates. “You’re right,” he admits. “But… the Act…”

“Yes, the Act,” she admits. “It opens a door and throws obstacles into the path, all at once. But you shall overcome.” Michelle smirks. “With the aid of a good wardrobe and a set of social graces, you shall overcome.” She gives Eggsy a gentle kiss on the cheek. “I believe in you, my little egg.”

Eggsy leans his head on his mother’s shoulder. He thinks of the message he’d sent to the King – to Harry. Daring, to recall the way they’d gone strolling in the gardens at their first and only ball. All unchaperoned, they’d come to a fountain, and sitting there, talked for a full three-quarters of an hour. Their mutual love of dogs had been only one of their many topics; the only one Eggsy had felt comfortable speaking of to the messenger, but still, he hopes, enough to recall himself to Harry.

The King.

So many years since they’d been Eggsy and Harry in a garden at midnight.

“I’ll try to believe in myself,” he murmurs.

Eggsy had indicated a preference for the earlier night, on the theory of not giving himself time to be nervous. He discovers his mistake when he awakens on the fateful morning feeling his stomach roiling at the mere thought of movement. He can’t quite tell if the nausea stems from the thought of the King visiting, or Harry.

Matters are not helped when he discovers that his mother has scheduled a visit from their usual modiste directly after the morning’s At Home. “Madame Fleury was most pleased to put a rush on your new silk,” she tells Eggsy. “The head seamstress will be here at one to ensure that everything is in order and add any final flourishes. You shall look your best when the King arrives.”

The morning drags. Half the ton parades through their morning-room, or so it seems, all mouthing the same pleasantries over again and smiling the same insincere smiles. The absolute worst is when Countess Huntington and Lady Charles Hesketh, her eldest child, pay their call. The nuances of rank among Earldoms are complex but clear: Charlie is just that much less senior than Eggsy. And though Mary Hesketh may be able to conceal how much she resents that Charlie is third on the Register instead of second, Charlie certainly cannot. His greeting is barely civil and he spends fourteen of the fifteen minutes of their visit in silence. Eggsy finds that vastly preferable to the comments he does make in the remaining sixty seconds.

“And to think, he’s next on the list of you don’t produce an heir.” Michelle shakes her head after they’re gone. “I think we may wish to relocate to the colonies, if that comes to pass, my dear.”

Eggsy laughs, though he’s not sure if he’s meant to. But his stomach roils again. If Charlie becomes carrier-consort, it’s because Eggsy has failed. And suddenly Eggsy’s musings of last night seem overweeningly confident. Here Eggsy is, thinking of romance and fountains by moonlight and hoping Harry will overlook the circumstances of their mating to give Eggsy a fair chance to win his heart, when in actuality none of that matters a bit. What matters is whether or not Eggsy can produce an heir. If he can, Harry will have to stay mated to him, yes, and it’s horrible to think of a life without a mate whom Eggsy can love and be loved by in return. But how much worse would it be to fall all the way in love with Harry Hart – to make the King fall in love with Eggsy – and then have to have their mating annulled, if Eggsy can’t?

“I think I’m going to be sick,” he tells his mother.

Michelle frowns. “Are you going into heat early? Because you get a year by the calendar either way, but if you can time your heats – ”

“Mama!” Eggsy’s cheeks catch flame. Embarrassment, at least, serves to quell some of the nausea.

The modiste’s head seamstress has the grace to arrive then, saving Eggsy from having to bear further discussion on the topic. But his own mind is not so easily evaded. Eggsy spends the entire fitting poised obediently still on the outside and writhing on the inside. Unbidden, his thoughts turn to the calendar and start plotting. Omegas’ heats come quarterly, everyone knows that, but of course no Omega is quite perfectly regular, and Eggsy is rather less regular than the average Omega, or so he gathers – no lady would discuss such a thing outright, of course, but there is the usual range of widely understood euphemisms, and the other young ladies Eggsy had befriended during his Seasons have visited the country for their health or gone to wait on their maiden aunt on something of a regular basis. Meanwhile Eggsy finds himself wandering about the seasons, almost a month out of place at his worst. A year by the calendar: that’s what the law provides, and that’s how long he’ll have, to lie with the King (even in his thoughts he blushes, and hastily fans himself – “So warm today, isn’t it, Lady Debenham? Quite unseasonable!”) and get with child. No provision is made for irregular heats. So really Michelle is quite right. It would be best if Eggsy could contrive to have his first heat as soon as possible after his mating, to maximize his chances of getting the full annual complement of four into the twelve months he’s allotted.

Now if only there were some reliable way of going into heat.

“Eggsy?” Michelle query recalls Eggsy to himself, and he blinks back into focus, attempting to look as if he hasn’t been wool-gathering. The attempt is probably futile, judging by the look Michelle is giving him, but thankfully Michelle doesn’t inquire. “You’re looking peaky,” is all she says. “You’d best take tea in your room and lie down for a spell. I’ll send your maid up to wake you when it’s time to dress. Mind you make a good tea, now, for you won’t want to overeat at dinner. His Majesty will be here right after.”

As if Eggsy could have forgotten. Michelle’s warning is quite unnecessary: Eggsy doesn’t expect to be able to eat a bite at dinner, and he barely nibbles at the edges of a cucumber sandwich when his maid brings the tea-tray. She draws the curtains, though, and the cool dimness makes Eggsy sigh with relief as he lies back against his pillows. Like this it almost seems as if he’s dreaming. As if all this crazy world he lives in, the V-Day virus and the Register of Fertile Omegas and the Registration and Royalty Act, are all some figment of a fevered imagination. Perhaps if Eggsy closes his eyes and breathes very, very steadily, he will go back to the world he remembers. The world where beautiful clothes were for beautiful dances, and the children of Earls might walk with Marquesses in the moonlight, without a care for anything but whether or not they might like each others’ smiles and share a fondness for dogs…

It's a beautiful dream. It lasts until Eggsy’s maid knocks on his door, and comes to help Eggsy dress for dinner.