The engine ceasing all vibrations with scarcely a sound, the car rolls to a halt smoothly. Rain cascades from a charcoal grey sky, water droplets clinging to the marble portico in oblong beads like glass crystals. They dot friezes and line colarins. They wet corbels and shine mouldings. They fatten progressively, before falling down with light echoing pings.
The door opens and a big lack umbrella fans outwards, shielding him from the worst of the downpour.
His body unprotected by the shield of canvas, the valet stands rigid. His livery dampens at the shoulders and his sleeves drip, rivulets starting at the cuffs, but his face stays impassive as he says, “Your Highness.”
Arthur wants to tell him they can share or at least ask him to get under cover, but he knows that would only cause a scene, create embarrassment, get reported, so he doesn't. He merely nods and ducks under the umbrella. In three steps he's into the side lobby.
At a jog Owain clears the staircase and strides over to him. “Your highness,” he says, “His Majesty is still in a meeting but will be seeing you shortly.”
Arthur shakes hands with him. “I'll wait.” Not that he has any other choice. If there's one man on earth who can dictate Arthur's comings and goings that's his father. “Thank you, Owain.”
The red carpet runner is soft under Arthur's soles. The baluster shines under his palm. The steps are steep in the way of ancient buildings. With Owain leading the way, they come up at a clop, climb two floors, and stride along a long corridor flanked by rounded archways and hung with gold-framed paintings. They cut into narrower, staff-only passageways wainscoted in white and stalk past alcoves showcasing plinths on top of which marble statues pose.
As they direct their steps towards the east wing, Arthur tells Owain, “I trust everything's looking up for you.”
“Yes indeed, sir.”
“And how's the married life?”
Owain slows in his tracks and his voice, otherwise carefully modulated, shows a hint of surprise. “It's fine, sir.”
If Arthur had to go by tone alone, he'd have to surmise that Owain isn't so keen on his spouse, or that he finds the experience underwhelming. But Arthur's by now learnt that staffers won't tell him how they really feel; they won't share their triumphs and disappointments with him. They won't even trade small jokes or be anything other than formal. Though it pained him in his youth, Arthur's, of course, got used to it. His father would say it's just the way of things, part of a protocol that ought to be respected. He'd say there should to be some divide between them and others, otherwise the monarchy would have no cause to be. For his part Arthur always tastes ashes in his mouth when he fails to connect with his people. “I'm glad it is.”
They get to the ante room to the King's cabinet. The doors are wide, lacquered white, with golden handles. They're also closed. “If you could but wait a moment, Your Highness.”
Arthur inclines his head and Owain knocks and enters.
With Owain gone, the anteroom is silent. The windows are shut so no wind stirs inside it. The heaters pour forth hot blasts of air and the carpets warm the room to boiling pitch. Arthur chokes in the closed sultry air. Travelling upwards, his fingers find the knot of his tie, but they don't loosen it. He knows better than that. Keeping up appearances is his father's motto. He's just slipped the offending hand in his pocket, when Owain issues from the cabinet, easing the door into a locked position. “The King is finishing with the Lord Chamberlain and will see you in a few moments, sir.”
The cabinet is exactly as Arthur remembers it. It's not as large or decorative as the state rooms and doesn't face the Mall but the private gardens. Green-tinged light seeps in past the sashes, brush stroking the room emerald. The plaster, with its mint tones, reaches the ceiling up to the white stuccoed cornices, which whorl away into corners cut with geometrical precision. Gold tiles domino their way across the fireplace's header in a game of squares chasing each other out.
As Arthur enters, the secret door at the opposite end of the office, one made too look like a burnished mirror, swings shut, revealing the back of a man's frame. “I trust Lord Monmouth is fine.”
“He is,” Father says without rising from his desk. “I wager you're not here to talk about him though.”
Arthur moves to the chair, waits for his father's nod to sit, and only then sinks down. He adjusts his trousers with a sharp tug so they don't tighten at the thigh and crosses his legs. His back muscles strain though and he can't seem to mould himself to his seat. “I, well, no, sir.” Arthur licks his lips. He's sweating, his palms damp, the collar of his shirt digging into perspiration-soaked skin. “I was wondering if you had an answer to give me.”
“As a matter of fact I do,” Father says, pursing is mouth. “It's a no.”
“Father, I--” While Arthur's told himself to come prepared for any answer he might receive, his hopes shatter with a loud crack at father's words. He knows he should use diplomacy now, wait father out, make his point in the most rational way possible so as to persuade him, but the words come out all the same and he can't stop them. “You can't mean it!”
Father holds up a hand. “You have finished your short term commission, you won't take another secondment.”
“Father--” Arthur speaks though his ears ring and his face burns with a brittle indignation that chips away at his self-respect. “I obeyed when you said I wasn't to see active service abroad--”
“And rightly so.” Father's face stiffens into a frown. “Parliament wouldn't have it. You'd have been a liability to your men and the nation.”
“I did it by the book.” During his early years in the military Arthur watched countless of his men go on tour and take part in combat operations from which they failed to return. All the while he sat safely ensconced at base, on home turf. The memory still hurts. Its implications cut deep. He's to be thought willing to put himself before others when he wants nothing better than to share in his men's fate. But he's swallowed his pride; he's made himself pay no heed to the comments. All for the chance to stay in the corps. “I've always done what I was told. I've always obeyed.” Sometimes reluctantly, he must admit. “I know my safety is a question of national security. I know sending me to war zones would only complicate matters. I accept that we can't double the size of our units just to protect me. But I need to work.”
“You can still work.”
Arthur doesn't really see how. His family has always taken an active role in the military. It's always been accepted. Anything else has consistently been discouraged. “How?”
“There are ways.” Father smooths a hand in the air.
“We both know I cannot take part in any commercial enterprise.” If it was funded by foreign capital, Arthur would be seen as betraying his nation. If it was a domestic concern, Arthur would be rumoured to be taking sides. “And politics is out of the question.”
“You could double up on your representative duties.” Father's tone is level, but there's an eagerness to his body language that's detectable from a mile away. He leans forward, his eyes fire, and a smile sculpts his lips. “Because of your captaincy, they've been reduced, but we can always increase them.”
Arthur can't say he's keen. “I think I can do more with my life than shake hands and smile for the camera.”
“So you refuse a representative position?” Father squares up an eyebrow, his eyes flashing underneath.
Arthur says, “Yes. Yes, I do. Categorically.”
A tendon stiffens in father's neck, just above his collar. “You realise you will have to take up the mantle from me at some point or other.”
“Yes, I do.” Arthur gets that nowadays a Prince is nothing more that a walking and talking publicity board. He sees he will have to become that in time. “But I want to make myself useful first.”
“And you don't think working on behalf of your family is that?”
Arthur has many an answer to that and none of those are ones Father would like. “I never said that.”
“Still you refuse to invest time in your role as prince.” Father's lips whiten a notch. “When it's your primary function, when you know everything else is minor compared to the honour of your position.”
Knowing he can't tackle Father on that head, Arthur says, “Many in our family have dedicated their time to the military before me.”
“True,” Father says. “Though they always gave up their hobbies when called to fulfil their duties.”
“I can do that in time.” Arthur's hopes find new furrows to sink their roots in. “Just let me sign up for a second stint in the military.”
“No.” Father's shoulders drop. He rests his back against the chair. “But if you really want to work on something, I have another solution.”
Arthur doesn't think he's going to like any compromise Father's got ready for him. “What would that be?”
“You're a qualified military pilot,” Father says. “And you have a civil pilot's licence from your rather wilder days.”
Arthur doesn't need to be reminded of them. He's ashamed of them to the marrow. He wishes they could be erased from his record, but understands they can't. He's got to live with the memories of his wild child days and make up for them. “Yes, and that's why I'm useful in the .”
“With your qualifications,” his father says, “you can become an air ambulance pilot.”
Arthur's breath catches with the surprise of it. “A what, pray?”
“You heard me.” Father's brow goes heavy with lines. “It's still dangerous and not what I would personally want for you, too menial a position. But it's good publicity for the monarchy, and not quite as risky as being packed to Afghanistan.”
Arthur's never thought of such a prospect before and doesn't particularly want to. He's sure there's a catch somewhere. Father's never that straightforward. Besides, Arthur's committed to sticking to his guns, to staying by his men's side. He owes them a duty, which is more than an obligation created by paperwork. It's a pact of sorts between people. That he can't betray.
“You'd be saving lives.” A muscle twitches beneath Father's eye in a little nervy spasm. “You always go on about the importance of the RAF. This'd achieve much the same results while guaranteeing your safety.”
“Father, I wouldn't be the one saving lives.” He would love to, but he knows what he can and can't do. “The doctors would be doing that. I'd be carting people around.”
“Perhaps you haven't parsed the nuances,” Father says. “I'm not really giving you a choice here. It's either the air ambulance service or taking on full ceremonial duties.”
“Father, anyone can cut ribbons and give speeches.” Cousin Morgana might do it. Uncle Agravaine is good at philosophising in magazines. “I need to make a difference.”
“I gave you a choice--” Father compresses his lips. “Make it.”
Given the two options, Arthur knows there's no contest. “The ambulance service.”
“Good. We'll make sure PR spins this in the best light possible, the Saviour Prince, or some such piece of click-bait.” Father opens his desk diary. “You're dismissed.”
Though Arthur wants to argue further, he realises it won't help. Perhaps, if he serves a stint with the ambulances, Father will grow more lenient towards him and allow to sign up again. Being politic comes hard though. It's like a weight on his conscience, like giving up on his ethics, on his men. He's not a child anymore however. He's already made one mistake today. He's already betrayed his inability to stay cool headed once. He's got to learn to fight his parent on his own turf, and that takes patience. “Father.”
By the time Owain has escorted him into the courtyard the rain has cleared and a rainbow dissects the sky in two.