By Michael McAndrews Bailey
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write vignettes on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The eleventh theme was "Romance"
London September 2001
John Charles, Duke of Kent, lowered himself into the bean bag chair and let out a sigh, making sure not to spill the water out of the bong. Another long week was behind him, and now he had the weekend ahead of him. A weekend to do nothing. “Bugger it all,” he muttered as he balanced the bong between his legs and put the headphones over his ears. The gramophone was already playing the opening bars of Burton Wood’s seminal late-60s psychedelic rock album, Interstellar Escape Hatch. A few hits on the bong later, and he was forgetting about his week.
He knew he had no reason to feel as stressed as he did. His only job was to teach young, underprivileged youths how to read through the Royal Volunteers Corps. It was nothing really stressful or awful, but this past week had felt weird. He didn’t know what it was, but something had just put him in a funk. Nothing but bad juju.
John was startled when somebody lifted the headphones off his ears. He looked up and saw a familiar face staring down at him. “Good evening, Johnny,” Lionel, Duke of York said.
“H-h-hello, uncle,” John said slowly, his mind trudging along like it was stuck in mud. One of his black Nile cat, Nefertiti, was rubbing her head against Lionel’s trousers, her jewelled collar clinking softly. “Can I help you with something?”
Lionel stood up straight and looked around the flat. He was a stern faced man who looked so rigid and strict he could snap like a dry stick. His eyes fell on the bag of cannabis and pile of drug paraphernalia on the table next to John. “Having a blast on your gap years, eh?”
“I have a card for it all if you want to see it.”
“You don’t need to bollocks me, lad,” Lionel said. “Compared to your brother, you’re a saint.”
John winced at that. Henry had always been a little wild, but he wasn’t an awful sort of lad.
“Get up and get dressed,” Lionel said. “You’re coming with me to the Hanging Gardens.”
“Has something happened?” John asked.
“No one’s died, but your father wants to have a word.”
“Just get dressed.”
John nodded his head and went to his bedroom to try and find something nice to wear. He didn’t have a suit, let alone a tie. The school only required business casual, so he had some button-up shirts and slacks, but nothing that would past muster with the Hanging Gardens’ dress code. Oh well. If his father had a problem with what he chose to wear, then the King-Emperor could come here and meet him in his flat.
John moved slowly and deliberately. His mind was hazy as he was still buzzed. He hoped this wasn’t going to be anything of great importance because he was having trouble staying focused. Finding a set of clothes that were clean and didn’t have holes was harder than he’d imagined, but he eventually found a flannel shirt and a pair of black jeans. He grabbed a denim jacket on his way out.
Lionel was sitting on a sofa in the living room when John came out. Nefertiti was sitting on his lap, while Maat was suspiciously watching him from on top of the table. The cats were jet black with golden eyes that matched the jewellery that wore. They were quite large, being the size of medium-sized dogs and with similar dispositions.
“Why two of them?” Lionel asked.
“So one doesn’t get lonely when I’m not here,” John lied.
“Why cats, though? You never struck me as a cat person when you were growing up.”
John had to pause for a few moments to gather his thoughts before answering. “Nile cats are basically like dogs.”
Nefertiti winked at John.
“So it’s like owning a dog.”
“Right,” Lionel said. He stood up and Nefertiti jumped off his lap. “Let’s head off then.”
“What do they want from me?” John asked.
“You’ll find out,” Lionel said. “Come on.”
There were two Yeoman Warder bodyguards waiting outside the hallway. John had known that the palace kept an eye on his flat, and he was sure that at least half of his neighbours were actually RCMP agents. On the street were two black Wolseley Tundra four-wheelers with tinted windows and government plates. Lionel and John got into the back of one of them and the vehicles pulled away. Lionel didn’t say anything to John as they were taken from John’s flat in Harrow down to Westminster.
It was a long drive and John felt his high beginning to fade, which was causing him to grow more and more agitated. Traffic in London was notoriously bad, and Friday evening was worse. Shifting lights drenched the city in bright, pastel colours, that brought life to the cement slabs that masqueraded as skyscrapers. After half an hour, Lionel leaned forward and whispered something to the driver. A few minutes later, a Met police car appeared with its sirens on to lead them the rest of the way.
Privilege had its perks, after all.
The Hanging Gardens of London was one of the ugliest buildings that John had ever seen. It was a sloping concrete arch in the middle of a large park, and covered in overgrown with trees and vines that obscured the buildings gold-tinted windows. Soldiers from the Coldstream Guards were on duty, standing guard at the entrances. The Household’s Gentleman Usher to the Sword of State, Sir Whatley Viggers, greeted John at the front entrance.
“Good evening and welcome home, Your Imperial Highness,” Sir Whatley said, bowing his head.
“Are you coming with, uncle?” John asked.
“No, I’m just an errand boy sent to fetch you, lad,” Lionel said from inside the Tundra.
John nodded his head and followed Sir Whatley into the Palace and up to the Royal Apartments. Sir Whatley didn’t provide John with any answers, and instead left him outside the Royal Family Dining Room. “Where are you--”
Sir Whatley left just as quickly, only to return a few minutes later with an Indian woman wearing the drab green and khaki uniform of the Royal Marines. Her dark hair was scraped back into a bun underneath the sky blue beret and she had a pilot brevet above her stack of award ribbons.
“Good evening, Your Highness,” John said.
Princess Marudhar Kumari was the half-sister of the Maharajah of Jaipur, but had been granted the title and style of a British princess as a courtesy due to her engagement to Henry, Prince of Wales. She regarded John with cold eyes and a set jaw--she’d never seemed to much care for her fiancé’s younger twin. “Good evening, Your Imperial Highness,” Marudhar said stiffly. She was uncomfortably tall, because she only stood a few inches shorter than John’s six-four. He wasn’t used to women being this tall.
“What brings you to the palace at this time and hour?” John asked.
“You smell like ganja,” Marudhar said.
“Blimey, really?” John sniffed his shirt. “Fuck. I should have sprayed down some Doc Fresh before leaving.”
Marudhar rolled her eyes and leaned against the wall. She pulled a mobile out of her pocket and flipped it open, typing something on the number pad in quick strokes.
“Hey, speaking of, I have a question,” John asked, running a hand through his hair. Fuck, he should have combed that before coming here. “Do ganja and Ganges have the same etymology?”
“What?” Marudhar asked.
“Yeah, like, the uh, the slang for cannabis and--”
“I heard what you said. I don’t know. Maybe?” Marudhar shrugged. “I’m not a professor.”
“I just think it’s interesting, is all,” John said. “It’d be weird if they weren’t related because they sound the same and…man, language is something else, isn’t it?”
Marudhar shrugged again.
Fuck. John had forgotten to feed Nefertiti and Maat before leaving. Shit. “Do you think dogs think in barks?”
Marudhar looked up from her mobile. “What?”
“Never mind,” John said.
The door the Dinning Room opened and John’s mother, Friederike of Hesse-Darmstadt, Princess Consort, stuck her head out. “Oh good,” she said in a flat voice. “You’re both here. Come on in.” Marudhar was the first through the door, and John followed her, but was stopped by Friederike. “Are you high?”
“I’m definitely on the downslope right now,” John answered. “Look, mum, if you wanted to talk to me sober, you shouldn’t have brought me here on a Friday night.”
“The timing wasn’t of my planning,” Friederike said. “Come in and sit down.”
King-Emperor Edward XIII sat at the head of the table, his arms folded across his chest. His thick eyebrows were furrowed, and his normally jovial smile was replaced by an uncharacteristic scowl. Sitting on one side of the table was John’s older twin brother, Henry, Prince of Wales, and an olive-skinned woman that John had never seen before. Across from the two of them was Marudhar, who was staring daggers at the woman. John didn’t know where to sit until his mother pushed him into a seat next to Marudhar.
“We’re all here,” Edward said in an unusually cold voice. “Good.”
“John, Marudhar, I’d like to introduce you to Maria Luisa of Provence,” Friederike said.
“Hello, a pleasure to meet you,” Maria Luisa said. She held out a hand to Marudhar, but Marudhar just stared at her until Maria Luisa turned her attention to John. Her handshake was soft and cold.
“Marudhar, I want to say, it’s been a joy having you be part of our family,” Edward said. “But, unfortunately--”
“When’s the baby due?” Marudhar asked, crossing her arms in front of her.
“How did you know?” Henry asked.
“I can put two and two together,” Marudhar said. “I’m not an idiot.”
“April,” Maria Luisa asked.
Marudhar didn’t even turn to look at the other woman. “I want to wait until marriage,” she said in a mocking voice to Henry. She rolled her eyes. “I should have expected this.”
“I’m sorry, Marudhar, but--” Henry began but he was cut off.
“I don’t want to hear anything from you,” Marudhar said quietly.
“Unfortunately, this has put all of us in quite a conundrum,” Edward said. “This isn’t the Middle Ages anymore when foreign relations are dependent entirely upon the marriages of monarchs and their children, but…but our Empire can’t afford to alienate the King of Provence by having my son foist a bastard on his daughter.”
“So get an abortion and send her back to the Continent,” Marudhar said.
Edward looked aghast at Marudhar, but Friederike could only chuckle softly. “A woman after my own heart,” Friederike said. “But no, we can’t do that. The press already knows. Both The Bee and The Daily Wire are going to be running paparazzi photos of Henry and Maria Luisa getting quite cuddly on a beach…with Maria looking quite pregnant.”
“You can stop them, can’t you?” Marudhar asked. The mask was slipping as her voice cracked.
“They’re going out in the Sunday editions,” Friederike said. “It’s too late to bury them. And even if we could, Maria Luisa isn’t a British princess. We have no authority to protect her from the press. Sure, we could have them censor Henry but then the question would be asked what is she doing on a yacht owned by the Crown Estate looking that pregnant?”
John was still too high to truly understand everything that was going on, so he just nodded his head and let the others talk.
Marudhar hunched over and rubbed her face. She muttered something in a foreign language before looking up. “Fine,” she said. “Fine, but…but where does this leave me?”
All eyes turned towards the King-Emperor who cleared his throat. “We can’t just throw you out. That would be unfair to you, and unfair to my Indian subjects who were expecting one of their own to join the Royal family,” he said. “Which is why tomorrow, we’re planning to announce that you’re now engaged to John.”
John looked up at the mention of his name. “What?”
Marudhar got up in frustration and stormed out of the room.
Henry sat down next to John, taking up the seat Marudhar had just vacated. “This would mean a lot, man,” he said. “Maria Luisa and I…God, I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.”
“We’re in love,” Maria Luisa said.
“Yes, we’re in love. Madly in love,” Henry said. Edward was frowning, and Friederike’s lips were a thin line. “Ever since I saw her standing there on the sands with those neon-coloured wings I knew--”
“Where did you say you met?” John asked.
“Xanadu,” Henry answered.
“The festival where they burn a druidic wicker man in the Tunisian desert?”
Henry nodded his head. “The very same,” he said. “I’ve been in love with her ever since, Johnny. In love!” Henry laughed. It was hard to look at his twin brother in the eyes without seeing him twisted and broken in a burnt out Rolls Royce. “Have you ever been in love?”
Yes, he had been, but he couldn’t exactly tell his family about the Sphinx. It would sound ridiculous to say that he’d fallen in love with an ancient mythological beast while student teaching in Egypt--his family would probably have to commit him to a psych ward. Had he ever been in love with a human though? That was a tough one. He wasn’t sure. What even was love? Clearly Henry had fallen in love and knew what love was--or at least he’d fooled himself into thinking it was love. They were twins, so maybe whatever Henry was feeling, John could also feel it.
Were they still twins? Henry had a scraggly beard and long hair tied into a ponytail, while John had adopted a buzzed, cleanshaven style in Egypt because it was easier to maintain out there. Hell, Henry was out there seducing foreign princesses at fucking Xanadu. Xanadu of all places! Was it possible for twins to--
“Johnny, sweetie,” Friederike said. “Are you going to say something?”
John realized he must have been staring at Henry for too long. “I, uh, well, uh, do I really have a choice in all this?”
“You always have a choice,” Edward said. “If you say no, we’ll cut you a severance check and write you out of the line of succession.”
“You could have just said no, love,” Friederike said.
The door opened, and Marudhar stood there, staring at John.
John II was stumped. The purple folder from the Office of the Sovereign’s Correspondence had arrived on time, containing a dozen letters that had been sent to the Hanging Gardens from his subjects and then handpicked by the OSC. He read through them, scribbled notes and drafted some language to be included in his official response. He trusted Mary Beth enough to fill the gaps for him. She was very good at her job. It could be an easy thing to stick a dozen glowing, positive letters in the folder every day, but instead, it was a variety of almost every sort of opinion in the Empire.
John put down the pencil and rubbed his eyes. Some letters he could read and annotate in a night before sending them back to the OSC in the morning. Some he kept for days as he thought them over. This one, though. It had been written by Sarah from Buffalo, Canada, who was worried with the relationship with her husband. Their relationship was buckling under the pressure of rising health care premiums, childrearing and slashed hours at work.
“Oh Christ, of course she did.”
John looked across the room at Marudhar, who was reclining on a sofa holding a Newton TapPad while Bajirao, her pomsky mix, sat on her lap. She was probably reading some salacious true crime book about some serial murderer from Michigan or some such nonsense. He’d never understood her obsession with that genre of entertainment. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I just received a notification about Maria Luisa,” Marudhar said, smirking. “Apparently she’s going to have a regular tapcast for Freespace. Fantastic.”
“It’s been more than 25 years,” John said, looking back down.
“You think I’m still upset about that? I should be glad that she jumped in line ahead of me, otherwise I’d have been blown up with the rest,” Marudhar said. “What I can’t forgive her for is her insane conspiracy theories.”
“She’s still grieving,” John said.
“It’s been 24 years,” Marudhar shot back.
John shifted in his chair.
“Have you forgiven her for the bollocks she spews on Conrad Smith’s show?” Marudhar asked. “She accused you of plotting to kill your own family. She accused me of switching Charlotte and Henrietta at birth. Can you forgive her for that?”
“No,” John said quietly. “But she’s family.”
“Like hell she is,” Marudhar said. “I’d get up and come over there, but I have a dog on me.”
John whistled, and Bajirao jumped off Marudhar’s lap and ran over to him, all wiggly and licking his hand. One of John’s Nile cats, Cleopatra, opened her eyes and watched Bajirao from her perch on top of the table. Her eyes were gold coins floating in a dark void.
“That’s cheating,” Marudhar said. She set aside the TapPad and sat down next to John. “Listen, Johnny,” she leaned in close, “Maria Luisa is a fucking cancer on this family. You need to cut this cunt out of this family.”
“Cut her out? I haven’t talked to her in years. She’s not even on the Civil List because she told me she didn’t want any of our blood money.”
“You asked her if she wanted to be on the Civil List?” Marudhar asked.
“Yes. Twenty bloody years ago when I first acceded to the Lion Throne,” John said. “Back before she went raving mad.” Marudhar was still staring at him. “So I really don’t know what you want me to do about it, Rudy. I can’t exactly declare her persona non grata. Her father may be just as tired of her as we are, but it would still spark some sort of international incident.”
“It’s just Provence,” Marudhar said.
“If only my father had that same view,” John said quietly.
Marudhar looked like she was about to say something, but stopped herself. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath--John could see her counting to ten in her head. “Johnny,” she said, opening her eyes again, “you’ve been stuck on this letter for an hour. Would you like to talk it out with me?”
She was essentially repeating Dr. Fahrenthold’s advice verbatim, but at least she was trying.
John wasn’t sure how best to approach this. Sarah from Buffalo still clearly loved her husband, but the pressures and stresses of their lives was becoming too much for their marriage to survive. The primary problem here being that John had trouble empathising with someone who still loved their spouse.
Marudhar began to reach for the letter, but stopped herself. “I would like to read the letter,” she said, pulling her hand back. “May I, John?”
John nodded his head.
Marudhar picked up the letter and read it, her eyes brows going up at the beginning of the letter and then lowered them as she neared the end. “I see what your problem is,” she said. “You don’t know what it’s like to love your spouse.”
“You make me sound like the bad guy when you say it like that,” John said.
“It’s not your fault,” Marudhar said. “You never asked for this.”
“Neither did you.”
A loud stomp startled John.
Marudhar laughed. “I feel like it would have been the same with your brother,” she said. “You remember how quickly he stepped out on me.”
John nodded his head. There was another stomp.
Marudhar put down the letter and sat back in her chair. Bajirao put his head on her lap and she rubbed his ears. “Why don’t you recommend some counselling, maybe a self-help book or two, wrap it up with some platitudes and have Mary Beth fill in the blanks?”
“I don’t know,” John said. “That just feels disingenuous.”
“Will she know the difference? Will anyone? If you believe the tabloids and the gossip rags, we’re what the kids these days call relationship goals.”
There it was, the stomp.
“Do you hear that?” John asked.
Marudhar frowned. “Hear what?”
John turned around and immediately regretted that decision. Standing behind him was the Sphinx, towering over him, her eyes full of hellfire.
John was awake immediately. He stared up at the ceiling of his Harrow flat--specifically, the off-white water stain and the growing crack in the spackle. Something felt off about this. He looked over and saw a woman laying next to him. It took him a few moments to recognize it as Marudhar Kumari. She had a hard, lean body and had the stamina of a racehorse. Her bum and legs were covered twisted, faded burn scars. John tried not to stare at them, and Marudhar had offered no explanation.
John got out of bed slowly so that he wouldn’t wake up Marudhar. His head was still fuzzy even though the bed-side alarm clock said that it was a little over three in the morning. This had happened all so fast that John was pretty sure it was just dreams all the way down. As soon as Edward and Friederike had dismissed them, Marudhar had grabbed him, followed him home and then shagged him for hours until she fell asleep.
It took John a few minutes to find his journal and a pen. He sat down at this kitchen table, clearing aside tonic cans and half-full bags of crisps so he could have a place to work. He needed to write out that memory as soon as possible before it--
John looked up to see Marudhar standing in the doorway, naked and silhouetted by the bedroom light. “I’m sorry, did I wake up you?” he asked.
“Yes, you did,” Marudhar said. “I shouldn’t have fallen asleep, anyway.” She walked across the kitchen and sat down next to John. “What are you writing?”
“A journal,” John answered. “A dream journal. I have a lot of dreams and I try to write them down before I forget them.”
“What did you dream about?” Marudhar asked.
“I dreamt that I was a marriage counsellor.”
Marudhar snorted. “That is fantastically specific.”
“I never said my dreams were logical,” John said.
Marudhar leaned forward and began to read the journal. “You have the date wrong,” she said. “It’s 14 September 2001, but you wrote down 17 September 2004.”
John looked down, blinking in comprehension. She was right. How’d that happen? He scratched out the date and rewrote it.
“You did it again,” Marudhar said. “Just how much ganja did you smoke?”
“Just a few puffs on the bong,” John said. He scratched out the date again and started to write the date a third time, but Marudhar grabbed his pencil and wrote out the date herself.
“There.” Marudhar put down the pencil and sat back in her chair. John was not doing a good job of not openly ogling her beasts. “Have you never seen a pair of breasts before?”
John struggled to find an answer.
“Please tell me you weren’t a virgin,” Marudhar said. “But if you were, that might actually explain a few things…”
“No, I’m not, for your information. You just have very nice breasts. Nice and uh, nice and very perky.”
“You have such a way with words, John,” Marudhar said. She sighed. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “It’s just been a very long, very stressful evening. I suppose we’re engaged now. Husband and wife.”
“That was pretty sudden, alright,” John said.
Marudhar looked around the kitchen and clicked her tongue. “I’m going to be blunt about this, John,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t like you, I just never had an opinion about you.”
“So you’re a stone cold bitch to most people then, eh?” John asked.
Marudhar’s expression didn’t change. “I’m not going to apologise for who I am, but if we’re going to be the Duke of and Duchess of Kent, we’re going to have to learn how to live with each other.”
“That would probably be for the best,” John said. “So, uh, what sort of movies do you like to watch?”
“Murder mysteries and movies about gangsters,” Marudhar answered quickly.
They were already fucked.
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