Authors: Evie Banks
The Last in Line
THE QUEEN DIDN’T KNOW which PR person had thought up this stunt, but it was enough to make anyone foul tempered. She surveyed the thousands of attendees at this “family reunion” with distaste. Everyone here claimed a share of her genetics and therefore membership in what had heretofore been an exclusive club. Outwardly, she was all smiles, particularly to the fellow royal heads of state who had travelled to Windsor to celebrate nearly two-thousand years of British monarchy, but she had little patience for the aristocrats of her own country who took this opportunity to puff themselves up and wear their most ridiculous hats. They strutted about the field that had been roped off with velvet cords and told each other stories of ossified ancestors who should have been king, and recalled past battles and intrigues.
History had worked itself out exactly as it should have. What was insufferable were all the lesser gentry—
, she thought unkindly—many of whom hadn’t been aware of their royal descent until the gilded invitations had arrived in their mail slots, each with a brief explanation of the royal connection, and who seemed awed at being in the presence of so much genuine blue blood. These were ordinary people, some professional and others looking as if they had just gotten off the public dole. Their presence was a cold reminder of the capriciousness of fate. Had a battle turned out differently or a faithless wife produced the appropriate heir, the monarch herself might also have been wearing her best £60 Debenhams suit and clutching the invitation like a ticket to a fantasy world. They were all right, really. Too timid to misbehave and instinctively grouping with others of their own kind, shaking their heads and confessing in whispers that they just knew they had to be special, could feel it in their bones.
The ones she had to keep her eye on were the true heirs themselves, the members of her own immediate family. Her husband was frail and confined to a wheel chair, but his eyes still roved over the crowds of young beauties. He, at least, had known how to be discreet, unlike her three sons who caroused and caused embarrassment to the royal family at the most inconvenient times.
“Roberts,” said the Queen to her private equerry, “do keep an eye on Barney. He seems to have brought his own liquid entertainment.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Roberts went to speak quietly to two security guards who nodded and moved closer to the subject of their whispered conversation.
The event was stocked with the finest champagne and wines, but the Queen’s eldest son Bernard, known as Barney to both his family and the public at large, preferred his own flask of throat burning amber. She had sniffed it once when she had discovered him insensible in the chapel vestibule after the christening of the nephew of one of her ladies in waiting. It smelled like petrol. Today he had been barely able to fasten the buttons of his tunic and needed assistance to attach the gold braids and medals he hadn’t earned. Twice he had missed sheathing his sword properly and had shredded the first pair of dress trousers. Fortunately, Barney’s chamberlain was used to this and always kept a spare pair of trousers at the ready and managed to get him attired and presentable, if not wholly steady.
Barney brandished the sword now to the delight of some of the nouveau royal females gathered around him. The Queen to worry that he might injure someone. He needed to be steady when they moved into the pavilion for the official portraits, but with this many people to herd and arrange it might take an hour or more, and there was still the tea and some speeches to get through first. If they could get through that part without major incident then perhaps the guards could quietly bustle him into a car and whisk him back to the castle.
Her other two sons weren’t much more creditable. There had been the scandal involving Terry being photographed at a strip club with several bosoms on prominent display. Only that wasn’t the scandal, bosoms being common enough. Present with him in the photograph were several Iranians connected to the intelligence and security apparatus of that roguish country. When Terry had faced her after the pictures were published in all the papers, it was the only time she had seen him truly sober and humble since the age of seventeen. It didn’t last long. Terry leaned now against a long table talking loudly of his latest ski trip in Switzerland, sloshing wine onto the tablecloth. It was bad enough that the anti-monarchists were howling daily in the press about the wastefulness of the monarchy and counting to the penny how much Britain would save if the monarchy were abolished—as if a paltry billion pounds per year was all that stood between Britain and world capital domination—without Terry going and making their point for them!
Some of those simple-minded people were here now, kept outside the Reunion grounds and within the designated lines marked out by the police. Protest was legal no matter how uninformed, and she could barely hear the excellent string quartet above their bullhorns. Talk about waste! Still, it wasn’t good for the royal family’s image for one of its members to be heard laughing about £2000 dropped in a single drinking spree.
And then there was Ollie, standing guard over the tea sandwiches, for whom little could be said except that he never let anything on his plate go to waste.
They were all a disgrace and it burdened her to know that barring some miracle, the monarchy would be diminished after her passing. She had done her best to hold her head high even when suffering from flu, a headache, or post-partum depression. Her husband, despite his philandering, had also filled his role admirably. She had not played favorites in politics and she was genuinely concerned about the welfare of her citizenry.
Thank goodness for her daughter Althena, thought the Queen, casting a warm glance to the young woman by her side. Not for the first time she wished Althena had been born first. The new agreement, which all the royal houses were party to, allowed the crown to pass to the eldest child even if that child was a daughter. Althena understood duty. She attended events with her mother though it was not in her constitution to do so, being thin, quiet and prone to daydreaming. She never complained, but her dislike of her brothers’ wanton lifestyles and the opulent functions she had to attend was evident. Althena’s absence due to her attendance at university was much felt by her mother who worried that she studied too much. Her face seemed pinched and she was even quieter than usual, though her eyes blazed. This massive to do was just the sort of thing that tired her quickly.
“Althena, dear, would you like to sit down for a while? The speeches will be long you know. An Oxford professor, an expert in royal genealogy, is engaged to speak and the professors always do run on longer than they should.”
“No Ma’am, I’m fine.”
“Imagine devoting one’s career to studying our family,” said the Queen.
Althena smiled. It was the response the Queen had hoped for.
“What a dreadful bore,” said Althena. “How ridiculous to think that someday someone will study Barney and Terry and Ollie. Only what could be said, that the three most loutish royals in British history managed to drink the Thai crown prince under the table on a bet? A major diplomatic turning point, I’m sure.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Henry VIII was quite the imbiber and he managed to found the Church of England.”
“Yes, Henry’s religious convictions sprang from a very noble source, indeed.”
The Queen smothered a smile at Althena’s contrariness. It was one of the traits she enjoyed in her daughter, but not one to be overly encouraged. Not in the age of microphones, anyway.
“Don’t forget that you will be in the history books also, Althena. You will be the pride of a generation if you keep up your duties.”
At this Althena turned pale.
“Yes, I suppose I will be studied. I hope I will not be misunderstood,” she said quietly.
“It’s bound to happen from time to time,” said the Queen with a wave of her hand. “People—and by people I am referring to those braying beasts called journalists—will willfully misunderstand just about anything. If I say, ‘I expect the day to be carried off without a hitch and we are prepared in case of rain,’ they will report, ‘Queen preparing for major disaster.’ You just have to go with the flow, as the Americans say.”
“Go with the flow,” Althena repeated to herself. “Go with the flow.”
“Yes. There are ups and downs always. It can’t be helped.”
“There’s another saying, Mummy: What can’t go on, won’t.”
“Hmmm, what was that, dear?”
“Oh cats and rats!” said the Queen, searching through her small handbag. “Roberts, come over here please.”
Roberts, who always stayed just out of conversation range, but close enough to be called upon, hurried over to be of service to Her Majesty.
“I’ve run out of hand sanitizer and there are about four thousand more people I need to shake hands with. Be a dear and fetch me another bottle.”
“Your Highness, I believe you will need me here. An event of this magnitude is absolute chaos. I’m in close contact with the organizers via the headset”—he tapped a contraption that had a listening device in his ear and the microphone dangling down by his chin. He waved an electronic tablet and his voice took on a note of panic. “I’ve got every name on the guest list here beside a face shot, mini-biography and description of royal descent. What if the great-great grandson of the Earl of Scarborough’s sister, who, by the way, is also married to a woman twice descended from the Earl of Devonshire, were to come up to you? Who would make the introduction and how would you know what to talk about? It would be quite impolitic to not thank him for his great-great-grand uncle’s assistance in the matter of the Monmouth rebellion. Or perhaps a slip of the tongue regarding the Earl’s treachery against James II would leave them with a bad taste in their mouths? They might, they might…vote Labour!” he said in a horrified whisper.
Roberts’s eyes boggled. The Queen lay her hand on the frazzled man’s forearm.
“The organizers have everything well in hand. I’m sure I could find something to discuss with even the great grandnephew of Pol Pot if I had to and without causing an upheaval in our Parliament. I’ve been doing this for above thirty years now. But what we didn’t have thirty years ago was hand sanitizer, and many colds I suffered for it too.”
Roberts’s shoulders sagged.
Reluctantly he turned to go complete the errand.
“Why did you send Roberts for something so trivial?” asked Althena when he was out of earshot. “Anybody could have fetched it. Aren’t there numerous volunteers here?”
The Queen shook her head. “Roberts needed a break. He was becoming entirely too attached to that electronic doodad. Gentlemen of a certain age shouldn’t be walking around with contraptions hanging out of their ears. It looks ridiculous. If he’s wise, he’ll steal himself a nip of the whiskey, which I know the housekeeper keeps in the supply closet.”
“Dear Roberts. He hasn’t changed at all since I was a child. Perhaps it was right to send him off.”
Something in the regretful sound of Althena’s musing caught the Queen’s attention, but before she could say anything, the organizers signaled that the speeches would were about to begin. The multitudes gathered with their flutes of champagne and settled themselves into white folding chairs. The Queen, the Royal family, and the major foreign royals sat on a small stage in comfortable chairs arrayed behind the microphone. The Queen had lost sight of Althena in the transition, but supposed she must have joined her numerous cousins in the audience. Barney, Terry, and Ollie managed to sit still enough to look regal in their uniforms while the cameras rolled, though Barney did slouch and Ollie’s buttons were visibly strained.
The two speeches were mercifully short, lasting only about ten minutes each. The first discussed the impetus in gathering all the royal descendants together. The first reason being an exercise in genealogy itself, to show just how broad and diffuse a family can become, and a brief description of methods used to hunt down descendants. The second reason being to show just how embedded the royal family is in the fabric of British life and indeed the whole of Europe. The queen of Spain’s smile tightened here.
The next speech spoke of some of the mysteries in royal genealogical history, the two missing young princes being the most famous example, but also how monarchs sometimes put aside doubts about the paternity of their heirs for reasons of stability or politics, but that genetic testing had made possible the tracing of true lines of descent and pinpointing where the lines diverged.
It was very interesting, but the Queen thought this to be a very dangerous idea. If the bloodline had diverged 500 years earlier, did that invalidate the whole of the regency and history since then? Even if there had been a divergence, the actors themselves had believed themselves to be royal and had acted accordingly. There was more to nobility than blood, she thought, and if anyone were to tell her that she was, in fact, descended from the castle cook, she would say it was excellent reward for his savory meals. The speaker also briefly mentioned branches of the family that simply ended with no clear reason. Had they died without issue? Were they barren? Murdered? Run away? Been disinherited and written out of the family in disgrace? This interested the Queen and she thought she might extend an invitation to this researcher to discuss more of this topic at a future time. The speaker concluded with an invitation for everyone to have their fingers pricked at the end of the event to contribute to a genealogy bank. The Queen absolutely would do no such thing and she would be sure to forbid her children from participating.