She was never supposed to be queen. That was the damnedest part of it all. There were four others between her and the throne, and though it might have been a real consideration a few centuries earlier, that four people could all be taken out of the running one way or another, nobody dropped dead of scurvy these days. It should have been safety itself, assuming that one of other four would ascend to power and that she would be left on her own to pursue whatever life she most desired.
Whatever life that might have been.
She’d never had a chance to figure out what that life might have been, because there came, in rapid succession, a boating accident, a hunting accident and some bad shellfish on a remote island that conquered the victim before she could be got to a hospital.
“So many accidents,” her father frowned. A finger of ice traced a thoughtful path down Helen’s spine. “But no matter, my dear, there is still Lucy, and she’s the picture of health!”
Helen ran away to the woods that night, her heart hammering in her ears, fear for her own future and Lucy’s besides clogging her throat. She had no reason to imagine he’d still be there, not their summer place, not in autumn-nearly-winter, but he’d seen the obituary of course and he’d had a feeling.
When she flung herself against the trunk of the tree, gasping, choking on her fear, he’d had only to drop from the branch to reach her.
“Hey. Hey, no,” he pushed her hair back from her face, frowning at the tear tracks and splotches. “You’re—come on, Helen, I didn’t think you even knew her very well.”
“Who . . . oh, Barbara,” she shook her head. “I didn’t. I mean, I’m sorry, of course. But it’s mostly everything that comes next. It’s like a nightmare! I mentioned it to Papa, that it might be Cousin Grigori, and he told me not to say such things. And I see his point; so much easier to believe in accidents than assassination. People don’t kill to get political power nowadays, do they? He must be mad. It’s 1952, for crying out loud! And all for a title, because it’s really just a title. What would he want with a title?”
She asked, of course, because it was a title she didn’t want for herself. A title that ancient laws still bound her to, and though mid-twentieth-century law limped to catch up in some respects, legal abdication was at least three years’ parliamentary debate away.
“Why isn’t anybody even worried?” she whispered. “All these people dying. Shouldn’t it matter to them?”
He could tell her of course. Break the oath of his office and assure her that underneath the staid modern surface of her ancient city, there were a large number of very nervous people indeed. They whose job it was to keep an ear to the ground had started to talk and bustle shortly before the first one died (not a direct heir, of course; that would have been too obvious) and now, with only Lucy and Helen between Grigori and the throne his stunted little heart had lusted after since his childhood, the bustle had built to a frenzy.
He didn’t mind the oath, but he would never promise her anything he couldn’t deliver. So he only held her and let her shake against him. Didn’t even remind her that they had declared themselves, as a couple, over nearly a year ago, when her father had started to hint she might want to pick somebody suitable for her next serious attachment (and the assumption that there would be a next, that he would not be the last, had been as clear a warning as anything could be. Her father was Army, after all. He knew exactly what sort of man his daughter had found, and he would not tolerate such a person for his son in law).
For now, she held him like they had never agreed to part, and for now, it would have to be enough.
For Lucy, it was drowning.
“He isn’t even trying anymore,” Helen whispered down the line. “Lucy could swim. She had medals for it, for pity’s sake! But everybody acts as though it were the most natural thing in the world, her drowning in a wading pool . . .”
He could have told her not everybody was acting that way. Could have told her that this was something she should more properly be sharing with the boyfriend her father had recently welcomed for an extended stay at the seaside palace. But they both knew whatever she shared with him would be public only, and so he said the only thing that he safely, truthfully could.
“This line isn’t secure. I’ll find you at dinner. Watch for me.”
Two minutes behind a bust of an ancestor whose name she couldn’t remember was all they risked that night. But he promised her she would be safe, and he meant it. It was in Grigori’s best interest that no public outcry attach to the string of accidents, but so too was it in theirs. When the King passed (and that was entirely natural, at least) everything, on the surface, proceeded as normal.
If Helen wished for her mother to be there with her on the day of her coronation, she never said it plainly. She did give some sign, though, on the afternoon two days before, when he let himself in through the balcony window and found her, alone and almost crowned, sitting at her vanity and staring at something much farther away than the glass.
“Do you suppose it really even was childbirth?” she murmured. One finger poked at a comb as though it were a specimen in a petri dish, a relic of their high school days when she had thought maybe she enjoyed Biology; might like to pursue it after graduation, if fate were to be so kind.
Now here she sat, nursing school a dream she had to awake from, along with any illusions about her own safety or that of the children she might one day bring into the world.
“Your mother?” he said, pretending he couldn’t track the path of her thoughts as clearly as though she had drawn him a map. “You mean, you think it might have been something else?”
Helen started to nod, then shrugged.
“Oh, does it even matter now? He’s going to kill me too, in the end.”
But there she was wrong, and he needed to make her see it.
“No,” he crossed to kneel beside her, “no, you can’t think that. It’s true we haven’t been able to stop him yet, but they’ve finally got a lead on how he’s getting the orders out. And you have to know,” his fingers played over the seam between her wrist and her palm, “I’d never let him touch you.”
She nodded, almost tearful, but not quite. Already she was proving adept at tamping down on whatever emotions threatened to swamp her, and he saw, as though in a vision, the whole of her future spiralling out before them (because of course she had a future; he would see to that).
He’d never get to be hers, publicly. It would be unthinkable. But he could do what he had always done best: stand in the shadows and make sure that, whatever her assignment was, she was able to complete it.
“Can you believe me?” It was the proposal he’d never get to make; here he was on one knee, his hand cradling hers, asking her to give her life to him. “Can you believe me that we are going to stop him before he gets to you?”
It might have been a lie, but he didn’t mind. She meant him to believe it, so he would.
The coronation itself was executed with the precision of clockwork. He was not present for it, but he tracked the procession and trusted the colleagues who were present to perform their task to the best of their ability.
For him there was a different job, and it demanded a complete absence of audience. He crossed town against the crowds and let himself into an office whose neatly-lettered placard proclaimed it to be closed for the state holiday. The file he sought was easily found. He had been instructed in the exact wording he was looking for, and when he found it, altered it according to his needs.
When he let himself out, the office settled back into silence as though he had never been. From there he took a bus across town and made himself part of the crowd, blending, belonging, moving without appearing to search for anybody in particular.
The person he wasn’t particularly searching for was found in the area where her phone conversations had revealed she planned to meet a friend. She was easily persuaded to join him in a toast, and did not taste what he added to her cup. He gave her a dance and then turned her over to the patient friend, disappearing once more into the crowd.
“Long live the Queen!” the rallying cry rose around them; the same cry that would push him through all the years to come, through watching her raise children that were not his and share her every public affection with a man who was not him.
Long live the Queen.
The next day, a nurse called in sick to work. Some kind of stomach ailment. The replacement sent to take her duties for the morning followed, with scrupulous attention to detail, all instructions printed in the patient charts. As a result of one such instruction, a dosage was altered, a patient took on rather more than he could handle, and less than twenty-four hours later, quietly expired.
The clinic was never connected to the unfortunate passing of the new Queen’s distant cousin. Everything was quite correct and in order, his medical records indicated a slow decline of his physical and (though this was carefully kept out of even the most official reports) mental health. Overall, nobody seemed too bothered by the loss. The Queen issued a statement, which was the usual sort of thing to do when a distant cousin passed, and the grief at the death of the King neatly swallowed up that of a much lesser person, whose ambitions only a few were fully aware had been as Medieval as his execution of them.
The very notion of a man grabbing for that sort of power in such a modern age was like something out of a movie, not everyday life. Everybody knew the state had no real power anymore; not of that sort anyway.
These were more enlightened times.