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Die Königin (The Queen)

Chapter Text

Thursday, 10 July 2014

New York City, New York, United States of America

Erica took a sip of her second coffee of the morning. Which was impressive since she’d only been awake for forty minutes. She looked around the meeting room and was pleased to find she wasn’t the only one battling to stay awake.

She and several other people in the room weren’t even supposed to be in the office until 9. It was currently 6:42. There better be overtime for this, she thought, knowing that there wouldn’t be.

The morning show people (who start at 4 am!) were beginning to trickle into the meeting room. They looked more fresh, awake and focused than Erica could manage, even though this was arguable one of the most exciting days of her life. She was just too tired to care right now. But she’d been called in, woken up with the big news and hauled into the office for A Very Important Meeting. The said meeting was due to start at 6:45.

Erica took another sip of coffee.

Owen from Research (not to be confused with Owen from Accounting) sat across from her. “Hey,” he said getting her attention. “Did your people catch onto this before?”

“My people?” Erica grinned over her coffee, “do you mean ‘the internet’?”

“Not the whole thing, just your bit.”

“No,” Erica shook her head and took another sip. “Nothing serious. More a ‘wouldn’t that be great’ kind of thing. Like if Leo and Kate got together.”

“Who?”

Erica was saved from having to explain the shipping behaviours of the internet when Keith glided into the meeting room holding a stack of folders and papers. Erica avoided looking directly at their esteemed producer. She had a suspicion about why she’d been called into the office hours before she was supposed to and she could lay the blame squarely at King James II’s extremely dead feet.

“So,” began Keith. Erica winced. Keith never began a sentence with ‘so’ unless he was annoyed, angry, disappointed, confused or worried. All things Keith hated being. “Why didn’t we know about this?”

“You mean, why wasn’t the announcement leaked to the press ahead of time?” asked Joey, a fellow associate producer. “From what I’ve been learning about the Queen of Mecklenburg-”

“She’s a maverick with the press and social media,” finished Keith. “She does what she wants and the press just does what it can to keep up. Must be one of the perks of being a head of state and the richest woman in the world.” Keith opened the top manila folder, pulled out a piece of paper and held it up for the room to see. “Why didn’t we know about this?”

He was holding up a picture of the Queen of Mecklenburg building a snow fort with Prince Harry and her brother, Prince Klaus Wilhelm. Erica wasn’t sure why this was particularly egregious.

“This was taken earlier this year in Sweden.” Keith said. Ah. That would be why. “The Queen just finished posting twenty private photos on her Instagram account.” Keith pulled out a small stack of paper and began holding them up one by one. “Here’s Harry with some of the Danish royal kids. Here’s Harry with the Dutch Royal Family playing soccer. Here’s one of Harry and the Queen enjoying a tea party with the Swedish royals. Here’s the only known photo of Harry holding his nephew.” Keith then held up two photos side by side. “These are the piles of letter Harry and the Queen sent to each other when he was in Afghanistan. British media was allowed to visit Harry at Camp Bastion, filmed him, filmed where he slept, filmed him hanging out with his fellow soldiers. They interviewed the man and. Got. Nothing.”

Keith took a breath to calm himself down. He held out another photo. This one was of Harry and the Queen. They were sitting in parkland. Erica guessed it had probably been taken in the Ludwigslust Palace Park. The Queen was seated between Harry’s legs, her back pressed against his chest. The couple looked as though they were engaged in conversation. The Queen was gesticulated while one of Harry’s hands played with the end of her dark brown braid. Harry and Karolina Augusta looked very comfortable together, and when you added up the other photos, very much in love and very much involved in each other’s lives.

She really had to get the image of Elizabeth II out of her head any time she thought ‘The Queen’. Maybe she could-

“Why didn’t anyone know about this?” Keith turned his attention towards her. “Erica?”

Startled out of her train of thought, she fidgeted for a moment and placed her mug on the table. “Because this is crazy.”

“None of your people knew about this?” Keith’s eyes narrowed.

“No! Because this is crazy.” Erica had to get them to understand no one had seriously seen this coming. The few people who did were frequently ignored because there was never any proof for their wild conspiracy theories. A lot of people were eating crow today. “Karolina Augusta has been Queen for nearly her entire life. She loves being Queen. Loves the court dresses, the tiaras, the long meetings, the politicking...Harry kinda puts up with being a royal. He uses his position to do good, but would be completely happy to wake up tomorrow a normal person.”

“That’s obviously not the case,” said Catrina, who was also from Research. “He’s going to be Prince Consort, yeah? He just got a bunch of new titles and he’ll get even more when they’re married. He just went from royal light to royal hardcore.”

“Exactly why no one saw this coming,” Erica said. “Everyone had decided that one of the core aspects of Harry’s personality was his reluctance towards this life. We based all our assumptions for his behaviour, his plans in life, his plans for his Army career on that one notion. We discovered this morning that we were 100% incorrect about what Harry wants from life. Except the kids thing, he definitely wants lots of kids.”

“Why didn’t we get any photos of them together before today?” asked Joey.

“We have loads of photos of them together, from childhood up until recently,” said Erica. “The British Royal Family and Mecklenburgian Royal Family are very close. Karolina Augusta’s grandparents were in London for most of the War. Some of her aunts were even born there. Each summer, most of the Meck Royal Family spends severals weeks at Balmoral with Queen Elizabeth. Charles and his siblings, and William and Harry and their cousins, all speak German because of how much time these families spend together. I remember when Diana died, Queen Eleonora released several photos taken of Diana with Eleanora and her children going back years.”

“I’m amazed the media or public never thought this could happen,” said Catrina in awe of how well the media and public had been kept in the dark, or maybe how gullible everyone had been. “It’s not like Harry is ten years older, there’s only four years between them.”

“Exactly four years,” said Erica. “They share a birthday. But there’s another reason why people didn’t think it would happen: there hasn’t been marriage between reigning kingdoms in fifty years. We thought those days were behind us.”

“But why didn’t we pick up on anything, even if we didn’t manage to get photos of anything suggesting a relationship?” asked Keith.

“Karolina Augusta is in London. A lot. Several times a year. For a bunch of reasons. One of her aunts, one of the ones born in London, has retired there. London is one of the economic centres of the world, and being the richest woman in the world, sometimes she needs to go there in person.” Erica picked out a photo of Karolina Augusta holding a little baby from the now scattered pile and held it up. “She’s also Prince George’s godmother and she takes her role as godmother very seriously. She learnt Dutch to be able to speak with a couple of her godchildren. It wasn’t considered a big deal to see her in Hyde Park or at Amner with Catherine and George. Everyone thought it was cute, not suspicious.”

“What about Harry, then?” asked Keith. “Has he been going to places he normally doesn’t go to?”

“Not really,” Erica shook her head. “A couple of times a year you’ll see him in Mecklenburg. But he’s usually with his father, or brother or cousins. Huh,” she said as a thought occurred to her. “They might have been using the extended family as a smoke screen.”

Keith stared at her, “you think?”

Erica ploughed on, “but we never knew he went to Sweden, Denmark or the Netherlands, if that’s what you’re asking. I would have bet money that he’d never been to Sweden or Denmark. What reason would he have to go there?”

“I don’t think he went to Denmark. Or at least that photo isn’t from Denmark,” said Owen. “It was taken during the Olympics in London.” Which was two years ago. The room fell silent as that sunk in.

Catrina groaned as her head fell forward, hitting the table, “we are all really stupid.”

“This has been going on for years,” said Keith. “They’ve known each other for their whole lives, well for all of her life, and I want every photo, every scrap of video footage of these two together, even if they’re only within vicinity of each other, by 8:45. We’re doing a full report with Graeme at nine.” Graeme Haraldson was their European correspondent, a native Londoner and fluent in German (and Norwegian, and of course, English). The small collection of interns who were seated together at the back all nodded and got up from their seats and left the room. They had decades of photos and video to comb through, edit together into a coherent narrative and not much time to do it. Erica felt sorry for them. Keith then turned his attention back to Erica.

“In the announcement they said there would be a press conference tomorrow at Schwerin Palace. We got credential approval ten minutes ago.” Keith began rearranging the print outs from Karolina Augusta’s Instagram into a neat pile. “Graeme is going to be there and so are you, as our resident royal expert.”

He handed her the pile of photos. Erica smiled and took them, hoping to look as grateful as possible. “Thanks.”

“We’ll have you booked on a morning flight to Schwerin. Graeme and his crew will meet you there. Make sure you pack some nice clothes, you’ll be on camera.”

Fan-fucking-tastic.

She hooked her finger around the handle of her mug, and carried it and the pile of photos out of the meeting room and back to her desk. The desk which was buried under celebrity gossip and paparazzi photos. Keith hadn’t really been asking the whole room ‘why didn’t we know about this?’ He’d been asking her, the person in charge of celebrity fashions, news and gossip and the ‘resident royal expert’, why she hadn’t known about this. In Keith’s eyes she had failed to do her job and now she was being punished for it, with a trans-Atlantic flight to a small country in central Europe most people wouldn’t even know had a Queen, and shoved in front of a camera to show off her so-called expertise.

This sucked. So much.

James II and his illegitimate children can go fuck themselves.

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The rest of her morning at work turned out to be pretty fun actually. She was put in charge of monitoring the social media response to the news. Aside from ‘ugh rich inbred people suck. why are monarchies even a thing anymore? it’s 2014 hello????’, the majority of people were either excited beyond belief ‘OMG HARRY IS GETTING MARRIED HE’S GOING TO HAVE KIDS AND BE THE BEST DAD IN THE HISTORY OF DADS. I’M SO HAPPY FOR KAROLINA AUGUSTA. GET IT GIRL. THEY MAKE THE CUTEST COUPLE IN THE WORLD. THEY LOVE EACH OTHER SO MUCH’, cautiously optimistic ‘I’m happy for them both, they’ve both had a rough time losing a parent and growing up the public spotlight. They look like they’re in love and I hope everything works out for the best’ to baseless accusations ‘This is a hoax. Why would Harry marry a Queen? He hates being royal. I can’t believe Harry would abandon his family like this. This is an arranged marriage, just like Charles and Diana. I bet they’ll be divorced by 2020.’

Never change, internet, never change.

She made some notes, jotted down the most common questions and concerns she found people voicing, and sent the interns links to images and video footage that crossed her screen. They were very grateful for the help. Erica could feel their fear and anxiety through their gushing replies of thanks.

At 8:55, Erica was pulled from her desk and all but manhandled to the lobby. After a quick walk and a short subway ride, she was packing for Europe. Out of the three dressy dresses Erica owned, she went with the dark blue one as first pick and the dark grey one as second pick (the bright yellow one stayed behind). Every bit of makeup and every bottle of nail polish was swept into the larger of her two bags. Erica’s jewellery collection was lacking, but in the end she decided on a simple pair of diamond earrings and a diamond pendant necklace (both presents from her grandparents). Diamonds went with everything.

Okay, so maybe it won’t be so bad, Erica tried to convince herself as she settled into her seat in business class. It turns out New York doesn’t have direct flights to Mecklenburg’s international airports (Schwerin, Rostock and Neubrandenburg), so she’d been booked on the next available flight to London and they only had business class seats available. How awful.

Graeme Haraldson had been kind enough to offer to pick her up from Heathrow and drive her to the hotel, where they would all be staying the night before flying to Schwerin in the morning. The flight between London and Schwerin was much shorter and they were being allowed into the Palace to set up their cameras and sound equipment at 11:30 am. Graeme wanted to get set up in Schwerin, take a look at the landmarks (the Cathedral Harry and Karolina Augusta would get married in, take a short walk along Karolina Augusta’s morning run route), and maybe get reactions from locals and tourists.

The press conference was scheduled to start at 5:00 pm CEST, Friday 11 July 2014. It would be held in the Golden Hall of Schwerin Palace, the second largest room and from what pictures Erica has seen, the most opulent also. Well, aside from the throne room. Because it had a throne in it. The Banquet Hall was surprisingly sedate, even with its deep red carpet, the internal balcony accessed by spiral staircases and its vast size. The Banquet Hall really shone when it was laid out for state dinners, the Golden Hall was always shining.

Before Erica had boarded her plane, Clarence House and Kensington Palace confirmed The Prince of Wales, Duchess of Cornwall, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George would be in Schwerin, and that all of them (minus the baby Prince) would take part in the press conference with Harry, Karolina Augusta, Queen Eleonora (KA’s mother) and The Duke of Havel (KA’s brother Klaus Wilhelm).

The time difference between New York and London wasn’t unbearable, but Erica had to make sure she stayed awake for the flight to adjust as soon as possible. Which was way harder than it sounded thanks to how early she‘d been woken up that morning. To that end, she cued up a movie and settled in.

And yes, lunch was fucking incredible. She never wanted to fly coach again.

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Thursday, 10 July 2014

London, England

As soon as Erica landed, she took her phone off flight mode and checked her messages and emails first. Graeme had given her the details of when and where he’d pick her up. Keith had wished her luck. Her mother and sister were over the moon and promised to record the whole thing for posterity.

While waiting for the plane to dock with the airport, she checked the news feeds, frowning deeper and deeper the more she read. Huge sections of the media had taken the stance of being skeptical and critical of Harry and Karolina Augusta’s intention to marry. Erica had expected some backlash. there always would be, but not like this. They questioned Harry’s suitability, rehashing every stupid thing (including the infamous Nazi costume) he did in his youth. They commented on how Harry and Karolina Augusta were both descended from Queen Victoria and that that was gross (none of these articles mentioned how Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were also both descended from Queen Victoria). They commented on the powers and influence of Karolina Augusta and whether that was appropriate for a monarch in modern-day Europe.

One of the biggest issues people seemed to have was royals marrying each other at all. One article opined that ‘surely we’ve moved past dynastic marriages’ and another asked dramatically ‘will this marriage bring back the age of royal intermarriage, discarding the benefits of marrying normal, everyday people?’. Erica rolled her eyes. Surely it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that two people with similar experiences and goals could fall in love.

Erica had heard horror stories about Heathrow Airport, but it turned out to be a pleasant enough experience and Erica was wheeling her suitcase towards the pickup spot about an hour after getting off the plane.

Graeme Haraldson was a kind faced man in his early 40s. He’d been the foreign, namely European, correspondent for the network for nearly ten years and was very popular, both with the people he worked with and the viewers. Erica had never spoken to him in person before, but any nerves were quickly put to rest as soon as Graeme discovered she’d never been to London. Graeme tapped into his extensive knowledge of the Greater London Area, which to Erica seemed like he knew at least one thing about every single city block they drove through, and became an entertaining tour guide. The hour drive from the airport to the hotel flew by.

Erica complimented him on his initial report (even though Erica hadn’t seen it yet). Graeme thanked her after a short laugh, meaning he probably knew she lied to him. Great. If it bothered him, Graeme didn’t let it show.

The sky grew dimmer and the lights of the city brighter as the drove. Erica was entranced. London was beautiful. It amazed her, even as someone who had spent the past four years living in New York, how much they’d managed to pack into such a smaller area. She loved the old and new buildings side by side and the twisty streets. She loved the surreal feeling of being driven around on the left side of the road.

Graeme’s team met them in the hotel lobby. Erica was touched by the welcome, and was internally delighted to get a hug from a couple of them (she was a hugger), with kisses on the cheek. They waited while Erica checked in and joined her in the elevator to their floor (they were all on the same floor, which is good, makes things easier).Graeme turned out to be quite the gentleman and rolled her suitcase up to her room. At the door to Erica’s room, they left her to get settled in, but invited her for drinks and a game plan talk in Graeme’s room in thirty minutes.

The hotel was a standard, though up-market, hotel chain. The double bed looked comfy and stacked with pillows and cushions. Erica passed a wistful gaze over the TV and hoped she’d be able to get in some BBC before they flew out in the morning. Erica quickly showered, got changed into clean clothes and pulled her damp hair up into a messy bun. She grabbed her duty free wine and knocked on Graeme’s door with a few minutes to spare.

Lauren, Graeme’s hair and makeup artist, and team assistant, opened the door.

“Erica’s here!” She called out, her French accent thicker than it had been in the lobby, “and she’s brought wine that is not terrible.” Lauren stepped aside to let Erica in. “Benjamin brought terrible wine,” she explained. Said Benjamin, the cameraman, shouted out in protest. Aside from Graeme, who was on the phone, the rest of the European team wasn’t there.

Just as Lauren began pouring the wine into six glasses, both the terrible and not terrible kind, Heather, their producer, and Corey, their sound and light guy, knocked on the door.

A few minutes later, Erica was perched on one of the double beds next to Lauren. Benjamin and Corey had occupied the other double bed. Graeme leaned against the desk talking with Heather about the main beats they wanted to cover tomorrow before the press conference. Erica herself was focused on the press conference. She had begun making a list of questions on the plane. There were a couple she desperately wanted answered, and some she would consider herself incredibly lucky to get the chance to even ask.

While Erica had been flying across the Atlantic Ocean, Heather had managed to get the number of outlets who had secured credentials for the press conference and permission to film on the royal estate: 211. The vast majority had only been allowed two people in the Golden Hall. Fifty-one outlets had been approved for cameras in the room (those outlets were allowed three people all up), everyone else would have to piggyback on competitors’ footage. Erica understood. The Golden Hall was a large room, but it wasn’t enormous and could not fit in over 200 television cameras, plus a few hundred people without causing wide spread heat stroke.

Heather was less understanding as they hadn’t been approved for a camera. Only two American outlets had.

“Canada has more cameras than us! Canada!”

Corey shrugged, “Canada’s got Elizabeth as Queen and it’s a member of the Commonwealth. Schwerin Palace said Mecklenburgian, British, Commonwealth Realm, German, Polish and Danish media would get priority. Just because there’s a lot of Yanks, doesn’t mean they get more cameras.”

Corey was, like Graeme, an Englishman. Lauren was French-born, but she’d lived in England since her mid-teens (which was about twenty years ago). Heather was from Chicago, and Benjamin, from Oregon, joined Erica as the Americans on their European team. Heather and Benjamin had been living in London for almost six years, working with Graeme the entire time. Corey was actually the newest member of the team, having been there for only three years.

Erica was very much a newbie and sixth wheel. Yes, a six wheeled vehicle wouldn’t be that strange, especially if it was some type of truck. But the European team had spent a long time learning to perfectly balance their five wheeled vehicle and Erica’s presence, however brief, was going to be a disruption.

“I want exclusives. You know the royal scene even better than Graeme,” said Heather. It took Erica a moment to realise Heather had been talking to her. “I’m counting on you to pick up on things other English-speaking non-British outlets might miss.”

“No pressure,” winked Benjamin.

“I’ll keep my eyes and ears open,” promised Erica. She had been really annoyed at Keith’s presumption to ship her off to London at a moment’s notice, but this whole thing was really very exciting. And she had enjoyed the moments when she’d been able to fly her royal-loving flag high.

“Now, onto the talking points in tomorrow’s morning report,” Graeme said, “our morning,” he added to clarify. “Karolina Augusta and Harry weren’t seen in public at all today. Neither were Queen Eleonora or Klaus Wilhelm, so we got no further statements from her immediate family. However, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and their children and daughter-in-law were out and about. The Countess of Wessex was the most talkative, but we got quotes from five of them, including the Queen. Though it’s mostly fluff. ‘Thank you, it’s very exciting. We’re all so happy for them.’ Etcetera etcetera. We have several minutes from the crowds of people that were out to meet them. Some great stuff too.”

“Will we see Charles, Camilla or the Cambridges before the press conference?” asked Heather.

“Unlikely,” Erica said. “We might see Karolina Augusta for her morning run, Harry might join her, but it’s also possible they might not go out at all. Avoid the press that would surely line up along the route. She runs the same route every day.”

“Wouldn’t that be a security risk?” asked Lauren.

“Nope,” said Erica, finishing off her glass of wine. “The snipers have the route well covered.”

“You’re kidding!” said Benjamin, laughing.

“Head of state and the richest woman in the world, remember?” said Graeme, not bothering to repress his smirk. “They take her safety very seriously.”

“I couldn’t imagine the President running through the same streets of DC every day. The Secret Service would never let him, right?” said Benjamin. Corey and Lauren shrugged. Corey’s shrug had been very English, while Lauren’s had been almost comically French. Erica nearly laughed out loud.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Graeme, “Karolina Augusta has been doing things her way for a long time, and I don’t think she’s going to let her engagement to Harry change every little thing she does. I’d bet good money on them both going for a run in the morning.”

“Why won’t we be there in the morning?” Heather asked, suddenly realising several other outlets were going to get a bunch of exclusive footage tomorrow morning and they won’t be.

“Because Mecklenburg’s international airports don’t open until 6 am. Karolina Augusta begins her morning run at 6:15 everyday,” explained Graeme. “Now we could fly to Hamburg or Berlin and drive through the night to Schwerin, but I don’t want to and Keith never asked me to. We were told to wait for Erica and we did.”

“Well, that was stupid,” said Heather.

“Do we tell Keith he was stupid?” asked Corey.

Everyone in the room immediately said no, then laughed. Erica settled into her spot on the bed. She could see herself working well with this group. They’d been very welcoming, seemed smart and asked the right questions.

“We’ll do b-roll of the Palace, the Garden entrance, the square around the Cathedral and the Meadow,” said Heather as she pulled out Google Map printouts and passed them around the room. “We’ll film Graeme and Erica outside the Cathedral and in the Meadow, you get a great view of the Palace from there.”

“Everyone else is going to have the same idea,” Lauren pointed out.

“True,” said Heather, “but we’re going to do it anyway because where we’ll be standing won’t make us special. What we say and what information we’ll give our viewers will make us special.”

“Aww,” said Benjamin sarcastically. Erica had been a couple seconds away from going ‘aw’ herself, but in a totally sincere way.

“Lauren will help you with your wardrobe and makeup,” Heather said to Erica. Lauren bumped her shoulder against Erica’s and beamed.

Graeme opened his mouth to say something, when Erica gasped, suddenly realised they’d all missed something pretty huge.

“Guys, tomorrow is the beginning of the Scandiburg Weekend.” Erica wasn’t surprised to hear Graeme groan (the facepalm, however, was a surprise), or the blank faces of the other people in the room. Erica took a breath and reminded herself that they weren’t as royally obsessed as she was. “Since the late 80s, the monarch of Mecklenburg has hosted members of the royal families of Denmark, Norway and Sweden for the last weekend of Warnemünder Week.” After the blank faces didn’t go away, Erica continued. “It’s one of the major sailing events of the year for northern Europe and it takes place just north of Rostock. It’s happening this weekend, starting tomorrow.”

“I can’t believe I forgot about it,” said Graeme.

“Well,” said Heather, “a pretty big thing happened today.”

“The other royals usually fly into Rostock and they all stay nearby at Euphemiasberg, watch a few races, hand out some trophies and be generally cute and adorable together.” Erica looked at Graeme, “have you seen anything about the other royals? Are they going to fly into Schwerin instead?”

Graeme shook his head, “I haven’t seen anything.”

“Maybe they didn’t know about the announcement,” suggested Lauren. “They would have bought their plane tickets to Rostock ages ago, yes?”

Erica couldn’t be sure. Karolina Augusta was very close with the Scandinavian royals and highly doubted the day of the announcement would be kept from them. Unfortunately, without any official word from the other palaces, they could only guess at what tomorrow would be like for the other royals.

The team stayed up for another hour going over the plan for the next day, checking it against the schedule provided by Schwerin Palace. It was almost midnight when Heather called it a night. Their flight departed at 6:05 am. As the team tidied up Graeme’s room, discarding the empty wine bottles and chocolate wrappers they’d taken from the minibar (add always stay at a hotel on the network’s dime to the list of things she wanted to do for the rest of her life), Heather stilled in her movements, straightened up and asked the room:

“Hey? Hands up who completely believes that Harry and Karolina Augusta are in love and only kept their relationship a secret because they needed something to be private in their lives and not because this is some elaborate arranged marriage.”

Everyone in the room raised their hand. Heather smiled.

“Good. Unfortunately, I think that’s also going to make us special.”

Erica prayed Heather would be proved wrong.

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Friday, 11 July 2014

Schwerin, Mecklenburg

Sadly, Erica only managed to get a few minutes of the BBC before the team departed for Heathrow. Even worse had been the four and a half hours sleep she and the rest of her group had gotten. Every one of them slept for the hour and fifty minute flight to Mecklenburg’s capital. Thanks to the time difference they lost an hour and landed in Schwerin at 8:55 am. The press was being allowed access to the Palace’s Golden Hall from 11:30 am, but it was assigned seating so there was no rush and the team planned to spend as much time as possible out in the city.

Schwerin was a beautiful city, made even more beautiful by the weather and the buzz of happiness and excitement felt throughout the city. It wasn’t a large city, despite Schwerin being the capital, it had a smaller population than the coastal city of Rostock. It was like Washington DC in that respect. Schwerin shared another similarity with DC: no tall buildings. You could see the Cathedral Spire and the top of Schwerin Palace from miles around, unobstructed.

She’d been reading up on Mecklenburg and while Schwerin was the heart of the country and the home of the monarch, the economic and business centres were in Rostock and Neubrandenburg (a city in the east). Together, the three largest cities in Mecklenburg formed a triangle covering most of the small country. Erica had been surprised to discover that not only were Rostock, Schwerin and Neubrandenburg the largest cities, they were the only cities. All other places in Mecklenburg were towns, villages or hamlets.

Roughly 2.5 million people in an area a little bit smaller than South Carolina (and half the population of South Carolina to boot). She had to confess that this is the Europe she wanted to see. London was amazing, what little she saw of it had blown her expectations out of the water, but it was still a big, sprawling city and she’s been to plenty of those. Mecklenburg wasn’t like that at all. She passed more fields and forests than buildings and people. According to Wikipedia, only 126,000 people called Schwerin home. Mecklenburg was an adorable place. It was also an old place with most of present day cities and towns being settled between 800 and 1000 years ago. There were older settlements in Europe, obviously, but aside from London, Schwerin was the oldest place she’d ever visited.

She really needed to get out of the States more. Or at all.

And because Schwerin wasn’t a large city or even a major tourist destination, there were only a limited number of hotel rooms. The press had spread themselves out around the towns and villages on the shores of Schwerin Lake, some even booked rooms in Wismar to the north and Ludwigslust to the south. Ludwigslust was a good choice if you couldn’t get a room in Schwerin because it allowed the press to get b-roll of Schloss Ludwigslust, the Queen’s country and weekend home (and the favourite of her residences). Harry and Karolina Augusta would have spent a lot of time there, it’s surrounded by hundreds of acres of private parkland. While Schwerin Palace was, in Erica’s opinion, the prettiest building in the country, it was on a small island and to get to the private park and gardens Harry and Karolina Augusta would have had to cross a bridge in full view of the public. That obviously never happened, there isn’t a single photo of Harry with Karolina Augusta in Schwerin.

Thanks to the media outlets being given permission to not only cover the press conference, but permission to film on Karolina Augusta’s private property...

There was now. A lot of it. Graeme had been right. At 6:15 am CEST, Karolina Augusta I of Mecklenburg and Henry of Wales appeared together in public for the first time since the engagement announcement.

Donned in sunglasses, workout clothes and running shoes, the pair followed Karolina Augusta’s typical morning route through Schwerin, surrounded by a security team of four who ran alongside them. The snipers had been in their usual positions and it was common knowledge that further security agents, dressed in civilian clothes, were scattered along the route.

For the whole of the 43 minute run, Karolina Augusta and Harry never stopped to talk to the press who filmed them and shouted out questions, or the public who shouted out their congratulations. Instead they waved, smiled and shouted the occasional ‘thank you’ to well wishers.

In a stroke of genius, members of the Royal Court’s media and communications team walked behind the pair, answering some of the press’s questions and accepting a large number of gifts from the public (mostly flowers and cards). The Queen’s staff effectively addressed several questions while still maintaining an air of mystery about that evening’s press conference. The staff did mention, and it was later confirmed, that Karolina Augusta and Harry would do a walkabout prior to the press conference in the garden and square near the north-west entrance to the Palace island.

That had caused Erica and her team a number of problems. Do they try and cover the walkabout or take the time to properly set up in the Golden Hall? Would their network want to pay for another network’s footage? They had two cameras, one fixed and one portable, but only one camera operator. Keith made the decision for them: Benjamin would film the walkabout, with Graeme giving commentary while Corey took care of the sound, while Heather, Lauren and Erica did as much as they could in the Golden Hall. The walkabout was scheduled to start at 4:00 pm and end at 4:25 pm. That should give Graeme enough time to return to the Golden Hall for the press conference to begin at 5:00.

Erica was happy to note that several outlets had changed their tune since the initial announcement and were now supportive of Harry and Karolina Augusta and no longer thought it was an arranged marriage. Erica couldn’t be sure what changed their minds. While Harry and Karolina Augusta had been pretty cute during their run, exchanging lots of smiles and a few laughs, they hadn’t held hands or kissed for the cameras. Karolina hadn’t posted more photos online. What had become obvious in the past sixteen hours was the public’s reaction. Large sections of the media had taken the cynical route, but their viewers never followed their lead. Out of the people who cared, the vast majority were excited. Excited for a wedding of the likes they’d never seen, excited for the gowns and tiaras, excited to see the Cambridges and the Mecks hang out in the future, happy that Harry and Karolina had found someone to spend their life with and have a family with, and just generally supportive of two young people who seemed like genuinely nice, kind and compassionate people.

The public had said ‘no, we’re not going to buy your nonsense this time media’ and it warmed Erica’s heart to see it.

Their hotel’s shower was also very warm and very small. Under Lauren’s orders, Erica and Graeme hopped in the shower as soon as they’d checked in. Heather, Benjamin and Corey left to get set up along the banks of Schwerin Lake, hoping to get a great view of the Palace in the background.

Lauren got started on Erica first. Her hair was pulled back and light makeup applied by Lauren’s experienced hands. Lauren was thrilled to be working with long hair again after years of dealing with Graeme and his lack of hair. The simple dark blue dress Erica brought with her got the thumbs up from Heather. Graeme was made up while Erica got dressed. Lauren took a photo of them, Erica in her blue dress and Graeme in his blue suit, before the team left to scout out locations.

They filmed a few minutes of b-roll at the Cathedral, they filmed Graeme walking along a stretch of road giving a report on the morning’s events and the upcoming walkabout.

It was during this time that the British royals arrived at Schwerin Palace. A couple of media outlets managed to get footage of the cars and their occupants, all visible royals (all of them except George basically) were smiling widely, looking happy and refreshed. Erica envied them their later flight to Schwerin.

They then filmed Erica and Graeme on the banks of Schwerin Lake with the magnificent Palace behind them. She was sure the blood drained from her face when Graeme introduced her as ‘our royal expert’. Despite her nerves, Erica thought she handled her first time in front of a video camera well. She rarely stumbled over her words and being an ‘expert’ in the topic helped her sound more authoritative than she felt. The congratulatory text messages she received from her family and friends kept the smile on her face for hours.

They managed to get three people to speak on camera that morning, two happy and excited locals, and a tourist who couldn’t believe their luck at being in Schwerin when all this was happening.

While filming from the crowded meadow next to the Palace’s gardens, another bit of bad timing caused the team missed Queen Silvia, Crown Princess Victoria, Prince Daniel, Princess Estelle and Prince Carl Philip of Team Sweden arriving at Schwerin Palace (probably just in time for lunch). The media outlets which had staked out spots in the garden and square in preparation for the walkabout had managed to get some good footage between them. The Swedes smiled for the cameras. Carl Philip and Estelle both waved. The cameras lingered on the cars of royals as they passed the bridge, underneath the balcony and through the gates into the inner courtyard of the Palace, where Erica was sure they’d be getting a very warm welcome from the Mecklenburgian and British royals.

At 3:25 Erica, Heather and Lauren made their way up to the second floor of the Palace. They were carefully guided through the central courtyard, before an attendant asked if they wanted to take the elevator or the stairs. Lauren spoke first, “stairs.” She grinned at her companions and Erica had the impression Lauren knew something she didn’t.

“I’ve been here before,” Lauren explained as they followed the route to the stairs. “A couple of summers ago. The stairs are amazing.”

And they were. Made of marble, the stairs spiraled their way through four levels of the Palace (though when Erica leaned over the railing to look up, realised she could see the ceiling of a fifth level). Once they reached their destination on the second floor, Heather noted with disdain how misleading that was as the second floor was actually the fourth level of the building.

“I am not a stairs person,” said Heather, glaring at Lauren with only a little bit of real menace. Before the two women could get into it, they stepped into the Golden Hall.

Erica held back a gasp. Lauren bounced excitedly. Heather narrowed her eyes and surveyed the room. It was mostly empty. The majority of the outlets were still outside waiting to cover the walkabout. Though, as with their team, many had split into two to get the most out of the day.

“Okay, let’s go,” said Heather, pulling out a piece of paper from her bag. “Let’s find our seats.”

.

.

.

Even knowing what would happen later, Erica would stand by the walkabout as her favourite event of the day (though she wouldn’t be able to see the footage until later).

At 3:59 pm, Her Majesty The Queen of Mecklenburg and His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales walked across the north-west bridge, the City Bridge, hand in hand to the delight of the public and media assembled to see them. Karolina Augusta was wearing a pale blue dress. Harry wore a suit. A dark blue one. At least the tie was interesting.

This would be the first time the world would have the chance to see Harry and Karolina Augusta together in their element: meeting people. Harry’s natural charm and Karolina’s decades of experience won the crowd over. The royals shook hands, made faces at babies, collected dozens of flower bouquets, cards, gifts and hugs. The royals spoke to the locals in German and the tourists in English. The media clamoured to get a recording of Harry speaking German (most succeeded). Every touch and word exchanged between the royals were dissected, scrutinised and archived for future anniversaries.

Harry and Karolina Augusta ended the twenty-five minute walkabout by posing for pictures before returning to the Palace to get ready for the press conference. As they walked across the City Bridge, Harry’s hand moved to Karolina’s lower back in a move often employed by his brother. The Royal Hand it was often called by ‘her people’. A hundred photos would be taken of that moment of love and support. The first of many.

.

.

.

After recording a short on-screen segment while Harry and Karolina did the walkabout, Graeme did a few minutes of voice over and then joined Erica in the Golden Hall. Heather and Lauren fussed over her and Graeme’s appearance one final time before departing the Palace.

The Golden Hall was even more opulent in person, which was impressive since the room had been completely transformed to house the press conference. The room was rectangular with one of the narrow ends of the room leading outside. In front of the wall opposite to the doors leading outside a dias had been set up for a long table and eight chairs. Hilariously the table had name plates. From left to right, the names read:

HRH Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge

HRH Prince William, Duke of Cambridge

HRH Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall

HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales

HM Karolina Augusta I, The Queen

HRH Prince Henry of Wales

HM Queen Eleonora

HRH Prince Klaus Wilhelm, Duke of Havel

In front of the dias was rows and rows of chairs. Each chair was clearly labelled with the person’s name above their outlet and country of origin. Erica and Graeme’s seats were pretty good. They were a little to the left about ten rows from the front. Around the edges of the room, fifty-one cameras had been set up, plus a raised platform at the very back for the Royal Court’s official photographers to document the press conference and post their own pictures and video footage on the official royal website.

At exactly 5:00 pm the double doors behind the dias opened. Everyone in the room stood at attention. Erica was enthralled to see members of the Meck media bow or curtsey as their Queen, future Prince Consort, their former Queen Regent and the rest of the royals entered the room. There was polite applause (again mostly from the Meck media) as they took their seats. The media sat down as quietly as possible (it wasn’t very quiet). Karolina Augusta and Charles both waved to the room at the same time causing them to giggle at each other.

Charles was one of Karolina Augusta’s godfathers. The Queen’s late father, Wilhelm Franz, and Charles had been the same age and very close growing up. Funnily, Eleonora was one of Harry’s godmothers and Diana herself was godmother to Klaus Wilhelm. Queen Eleonora and Diana had also been the the same age and became fast friends prior to Eleonora’s engagement to King Wilhelm Franz in 1983. Both marriages had ended horribly, under very different circumstances.

These people knew each other. Even newest member, Catherine, would have met the Mecklenburgian royals over a decade ago. They knew each other really, really well.

Erica wished Lauren were beside her to explain what everyone was wearing and if there was any significance. Karolina Augusta and Catherine were both wearing prints. Eleonora wore her signature block colour. Camilla wore polka dots. William, Harry and Klaus wore blue suits (what a surprise), and Charles wore a grey suit (not a surprise but at least it wasn’t blue). Everyone looked lovely and happy. She’d have to wait to speak with Lauren back at the hotel. One of the most notable aspects, okay, it wasn’t notable that Karolina Augusta’s hair was a braided updo, it almost always was. What was notable was that Catherine’s hair was also a braided updo. That was rare and only done for fancy events. This press conference, despite the room it was taking place in, was not fancy.

Karolina Augusta leaned forward slightly and asked her fellow royals if they were ready to begin. They nodded in response.

Karolina Augusta sat straight and pointed to an American reporter.

True to Keith’s word, the first question had been about how Harry and Karolina Augusta had managed to keep their great love a secret for years.

“Loyal staff and a private plane,” Karolina Augusta had answered with a laugh. The Mecklenburgian press laughed along, used to their Queen’s direct and informal nature during interviews. The foreign press was startled, especially the British and American sections of the room. No one knew exactly how much money the Mecklenburgian Queen was worth, but she was frequently reported as the richest woman in the world (if that was true, she was worth over $42 billion USD). The Royal Court released an annual report on how much the Queen spent funding the numerous royal households and maintaining the dozens of properties used as private and official royal residences. In the 2013-2014 financial year, the Queen spent almost half a billion US dollars financing herself and her enormous family, including nearly 5,000 staff.

Everyone in the Golden Hall knew the young Queen was rich, but they hadn’t expected her to be upfront about it. Most non-Meck media were used to royals and heads of states (notwithstanding some Middle Eastern royal families), downplaying their wealth and sometimes going to great lengths to pretend they weren’t wealthy.

It got a little worse when the reporter asked a follow up question: “Is Your Majesty implying that you bought your staff’s silence?”

Erica groaned out loud.

“I pay them because they work for me and they work for me because they are excellent at their jobs,” said Karolina Augusta, deftly. “There are members of my staff that started working for my great-grandfather in the 1950s. A large number started working for my grandfather or father. About half have started working for me since my father died. I see these people everyday. I know their families, we spend New Year’s Eve together, long plane rides and sea voyages. They stand with my family at weddings and funerals. I have their loyalty, but they have mine. And they have Harry’s.”

The reporter seemed happy with that answer and sat down.

If you had asked Erica on the morning of 11 July 2014 ‘who going to be the highlight of the press conference?’ Erica would have said ‘Harry or Karolina Augusta’ or maybe ‘Charles’ if he was in particularly fine form. She would not have said ‘William’. The Duke of Cambridge turned out to be a fucking godsend. Funny, emotive and thoughtful. He was able to make the assembled press laugh several times and gave them dozens of soundbites to go back to for years to come.

The second question had been: “when did this all start?”

Karolina Augusta turned to Harry with a sly grin, as if to say ‘your turn’. Before Harry was able to answer, William interrupted.

“Please don’t answer that one,” he said. The mood in the room shifted back to awkwardness faster than Erica could spit. “I’ve worked the whole story into my best man speech and it will lose it’s effectiveness if everyone finds out now.”

“I’m sorry,” said Charles, looking baffled. “Your best man speech?”

Catherine then jumped in “he started writing it about a year ago.”

“With Catherine’s help,” added William. “It’s a great story and will be worth the wait.”

Harry leaned forward to look at his brother, “a year ago? I haven’t started writing mine!”

“Which is why my speech will be much better than yours,” said William. The crowd laughed.

Karolina Augusta apologised to the reporter that unfortunately they were not permitted to answer his question and would he like to ask another.

So the third question was: “when and how did you get engaged?”

Karolina Augusta nodded thoughtfully for a moment, “we’d like to keep some details private, but we got engaged over a month ago. It was after William, Catherine and George returned from their tour of New Zealand and Australia. Harry had commissioned opal jewellery for me, including the engagement ring, and William and Catherine brought it back with them. So we got engaged some time after that but we wanted to wait until our schedules settled down.”

“Lina had a state visit,” said Harry. “I was going to tour Brazil and Chile, there was Trooping and Kingdom Day, and other things that we wanted to focus on without this hanging over everything, so we held off until yesterday.”

“And I’m sure Harry meant hanging over everything in a good way,” said Eleonora, grinning at her godson and future son-in-law. Harry laughed and said that he had meant it in a good way. Eleonora continued, “such big and happy news can overshadow everything around it. Now was the right time to announce because soon we will all be on summer holiday and disappear for awhile, letting other things have their space and leave people alone before it starts all up again in September.”

The press conference turned out to be an amazing success story for the British and Mecklenburgian Royal Families. It was very unusual to have the British royals answering personal questions and it allowed the world to get to know the Meck royals who had been enjoying less public and media attention for decades now.

Some of the other questions asked:

“Are you looking forward to starting a family?”

“Yes, absolutely. Can’t wait,” was Harry’s very enthusiastic reply. Karolina Augusta added that they hoped to have a large family and at least four children, but neither would comment on how soon after the wedding the kids would start arriving.

“The photos Your Majesty posted online yesterday, indicates an already warm relationship between Harry and other royal families on the continent. How important has it been to you, Ma’am, that Harry get along with them?”

“Well, Harry is a loving, kind, friendly and easygoing person. He makes friends wherever he goes, so I wasn’t worried everyone would hate him,” said Karolina Augusta, “but I never expected both sides to adjust so quickly. Keeping my and Harry’s relationship private was a challenge, but we also had to keep all our visits to see our friends and family private which created an even bigger challenge. Especially considering how close I am to The Crown Prince of Denmark, The Crown Princess of Sweden and The Queen of the Netherlands, and how often I visit them or they visit me. It’s been an enormous relief to see them welcome Harry into the fold right from the beginning.”

“How much time will you be spending in the UK after the wedding?”

“Not much,” admitted Harry, “but several times a year and we’ll be there for the big things. England is hosting the Rugby World Cup next year and we’ll be there for as much as possible. I’m not going to stop supporting the charities and causes I’m patron of or involved in just because I’m moving to another country. My main focus will now be on helping and representing the people of Mecklenburg, something I’ve been excited to begin for years now.”

“Can we expect members of the British Royal Family to carry out official engagements in Mecklenburg in greater numbers in the future?”

“Oh yes,” said Camilla. “My previous visits, especially having the honour to attend Karolina Augusta’s coronation, have been a highlight for me. We’ve been brainstorming the past few months about the work being done and what we’d like to show one another. Her Majesty and I have a love of reading and animals in common, which I’m sure will create many opportunities for us to work together.”

“William and I are both looking forward to making regular visits to Mecklenburg, for official and unofficial reasons,” said Catherine. “We want George to spend a lot of time here. The distance between London and Schwerin isn’t very big, but we will be making an effort to see other as much as possible.”

“Prince Harry, how’s your German?”

“I’ve been told it’s pretty good,” Harry laughed, “but Lina is most definitely biased. I’ve been speaking it for as long as I can remember, but I was never formally taught. We have plans to fix that once I move here. Most of my family has a good grasp on the language. Catherine started taking lessons a few years ago, so she’s got one up on me there.”

“Well,” said Catherine, “when it became obvious to us where you and Karolina were headed, I thought I should learn because my children, and yours, would eventually learn to speak it. It’s been hard but Karolina and her family have been a great help to me.”

“My German is terrible,” admitted Camilla. “I’ve been picking up words here and there and a good handful of phrases, but I fear it may be too late for me to master the language.”

Until finally, Erica was picked out to ask a question. Having Karolina Augusta I of Mecklenburg point her finger at you and ask for your question was incredibly intimidating. Erica hoped Keith wouldn’t kill her for asking this question, but it was something Erica had always wanted to know.

“Your Majesty, how does the British Royal Family and the Mecklenburgian Royal Family tell you and Queen Elizabeth apart?”

“Well, Elizabeth is a bit shorter than I am,” said Karolina Augusta. “But I think you mean, keep apart when speaking about one or the other. Yes?”

Erica nodded.

“Well, the words, the English words ‘The Queen’ are only ever used to refer to Queen Elizabeth II. We’re not the only ones who do that, our German neighbours are the same. When talking about me the German words ‘Die Königin’ is always used.”

Well, that put the very Erica specific mystery to bed. Keith would be thrilled. Erica sat down.

“We sort of use it as a code, too.” said Catherine. “We shorten it to DK, but mostly Her Majesty allows those closest to her to be more informal.”

“Yes, my nickname within the family is ‘Lina’ but,” Die Königin smiled at her future sister-in-law. “The Duchess of Cambridge frequently calls me Caroline.”

“I only started doing that when you started calling me Katharina,” said Catherine.

“And Wilhelm,” added William.

Sensing an opportunity for a follow up question, Erica stood back up.

“Does Your Majesty ever call Prince Harry ‘Heinrich’?”

Harry laughed, “no way. She refuses to call me Henry, there’s no chance of a Germanic nickname.”

Karolina Augusta and Harry shared a smile. Then in a moment that Keith would later hug Erica for playing her part in making happen, Karolina Augusta leaned over and kissed her fiance on the cheek.

“For me, he’ll only ever be Harry.”

The press conference ended when Karolina Augusta pushed her chair back and got to her feet. “We thank you for your questions and your time. Many of you have flown great distances to be here today and Harry and I greatly appreciate the kindness and warm wishes you’ve extended us. But it is getting late and there’s a large number of people waiting on us to have dinner.”

The Mecklenburgian outlets were permitted to stay on the Schlossinsel (Palace Island) for the photocall in the Orangery, where the eight royals at the table would be joined by Prince George for official photos and video footage of the families wandering the Orangery garden. All other media had to leave by 6:00 pm (with the Meck media being booted off the island at 6:30 pm).

Erica and Graeme arrived back at the hotel just after 6. After a quick round of congratulations Erica joined the team in the men’s bedroom to watch the live broadcast of the photocall. Which turned out to be a goldmine of royal moments. Which Erica, in her Harry, George and Royal BFF obsessed brain, ranked them as follows:

  • Harry holding George.
  • Karolina Augusta holding George.
  • Harry showing George the flowers.
  • Karolina Augusta speaking to George in German.
  • Harry handing George over to Klaus Wilhelm in a panic after being told he needs to get in a photo with Karolina Augusta, Charles and Eleonora.
  • Klaus Wilhelm putting George on his shoulders.
  • George’s delighted and ear piercing squeals that followed.
  • Karolina Augusta and Catherine speaking to each other in German.
  • Eleonora and Camilla spending most of the photocall standing next to each other looking fondly at their families spending time together.
  • William and Karolina Augusta sharing a joke and laughing uproariously.

The group posed for a number of photos, which varied by which royals were in the photo. Erica couldn’t be sure but she had a feeling that her favourite photo would be of Charles and his sons. She couldn’t imagine the pride The Prince of Wales must have for his sons, seeing them so happy and content with their lives.

At exactly 6:20, Karolina Augusta once again thanked the Mecklenburgian outlets for their time and support and promised to keep them updated of any developments.

The royals returned to the private apartments within the Palace while the Meck media packed up and left the island.

Heather turned down the TV. It began replaying highlights of the day, from the morning run, to the arrival of the British and Swedish royals, to the walkabout and the press conference. Erica was happy to see footage of the Danish and Norwegian royals arriving at the Palace.

“When did they arrive?” asked Graeme.

“During the press conference,” said Corey. “It’s just the Crown Princes and their families. I guess they had to wait until school finished before they could fly out.”

“It does look like that means they all knew about the engagement being announced today,” said Heather. “It was a good day.”

“I have loved everything about today,” said Lauren from her spot on the bed. Her tablet was propped against her knees, her fingers touching and swiping away at the screen. “Everyone looked amazing. Did you see Catherine’s hair? I bet Karolina or Eleonora did it for her. It’s almost identical to some of the styles they’ve had. This family is so adorable.”

Erica sat down next to Lauren. Now would be the best chance to talk fashion with their dresser and makeup artist.

“Has Keith been in contact?” asked Graeme as he poured over the room service menu. The team had already decided they couldn’t be bothered going out to eat. The city would be packed.

“Yep,” said Benjamin. “He watched live of course and just went on about how great it was that Erica got a question in. And a kiss! He was fucking thrilled about that.”

“Good,” Graeme glanced at Heather, “what about our credentials? Did we get them extended to cover the rest of the weekend?”

“Yes, but getting a hotel was a nightmare,” said Heather. “I’ve got us booked into a hotel near Rostock Airport. It’s not close to Warnemünde, but it could have been worse. We’ll check out at eight.”

Graeme nodded, “sounds good.” The oldest member of their team looked at each of them in turn. “You all did good today.”

Heather nodded, smiling so widely Erica was worried for her face. “Everyone here did what was expected of them, and more. You did the network proud today.” She turned to Erica. “In fact, due to the work you’ve done and how well you’ve jelled with the team, Keith’s given me permission to officially extend an invitation for you to join the network’s European Correspondence Team.”

Erica blinked.

Oh god. No.

Now would probably be a good time to explain why Prince Harry and King James II of England and VII of Scotland ruined her life.

With Prince Harry it’s fairly obvious. He fell in love with someone he wanted to marry and even worse, someone who wanted to marry him! And then they’d had to have a live press conference in front of hundreds of reporters!

King James had had an illegitimate daughter who became the ancestress of one Diana, Princess of Wales. Erica’s knowledge of this piece of trivia had outed her as a royal fan/royalist/royal watcher to her office a few years ago. This caused Keith to call her into the office three hours early to attend a meeting by the end of which she’d be sent to Europe to help cover the biggest royal news in years.

And now here she was, Erica Lorraine Ramsey, thirty years old, happy with her life and her job, happy with her friends and seeing her family on the weekends, riding the subway, not owning a car and many other things she loved about her life (the food mostly).

All of those things would change if she accepted this job.

And if she didn’t...what kind of regret would she have to deal with for the rest of her life?

“Oh,” Erica said, letting out a long held breath. “Oh.”

Erica looked to the other people in the room. They were all smiling at her, even Graeme, who didn’t look at all surprised by this offer. Either Keith had already told him, or it had been suggested by Graeme or Heather themselves.

Erica felt herself fall off the edge of a cliff as she opened her mouth and said “yes”.

And that’s how Prince Harry ruined her life, with some help from James II & VII.

Chapter Text

St Andrews, Fife, Scotland

Ingeborg remembers meeting her cousin for the first time on 16 September, 1988. Inge had been six at the time and was thrilled to hold the little baby in her lap while Inge’s mother took a photo. Inge’s sister, four year old Sigrid, was allowed to hold the baby next even though Inge insisted Sig was too young.

One year later, her uncle announced that he would be changing the rules for the line of succession on 1 January 1990, meaning that the little baby Inge remembered meeting (which couldn’t be said for all her cousins, especially the ones close to her age) was going to be Queen one day. Seven year old Ingeborg thought that was pretty cool. Probably not cool enough to bring in the photo of her holding the day old baby to school and shove it in people’s faces saying ‘this is me and our future Queen!’ She’d only just learnt the phrase ‘future Queen’ and was fond of saying it several times a day.

Inge’s cousin became the Crown Princess at one year, three and a half months of age. On 15 September 1990, one month before Mecklenburg was made whole and expanded to include Vorpommern, Ingeborg spent the day with her family at Schloss Ludwigslust celebrating the first Karolina Augusta Day. Ingeborg remembers running through the fountain with her bigger cousins. She remembers the people of Ludwigslust singing their Crown Princess Happy Birthday. She remembers her uncle Wilhelm carrying his daughter high on his shoulders through the crowds of people, bouncing on his feet to make his little girl squeal with delight.

Inge’s cousin became the Queen at three years and four months of age when Uncle Wilhelm died. Ingeborg, aged nine and a half, and her family had been on holiday with Uncle Wilhelm in Switzerland when Uncle Wilhelm died in a skiing accident. Ingeborg remembered her mother screaming for her big brother, clinging to his lifeless body in the hospital room. She remembered her mother refusing to leave the hospital room. She remembered going with her father to greet Wilhelm’s very pregnant wife, Eleonora, and their daughter at the nearest airport.

Ingeborg remembers meeting her Queen for the first time. Dressed in a black satin dress, Karolina Augusta the First fussed and struggled in her mother’s arms, begging to be put down. The cries and sobs of those around them were distressing, even to those who didn’t understand what death meant, what Wilhelm Franz the First being dead meant.

She remembered the long, quiet car ride from the airport to the hospital.

Karolina Augusta would never remember her father, would never remember becoming the Queen, but Ingeborg would. She would remember Uncle Wilhelm for his children, tell stories and show photos to the daughter he adored and the son he never got the chance to meet.

It was because of this, because Ingeborg had been there in the hospital room when Wilhelm died and Karolina Augusta became Queen, because of the memories and stories shared, there had been times when Ingeborg felt more like a sister than a cousin to Karolina Augusta. They had always been very close and as Karolina grew older, they’d been able to create a relationship where the six year age difference didn’t seem so big.

So it had come of no surprise to Ingeborg when her cousin insisted on visiting Inge at the University of St Andrews in late 2002.

“Will’s there as well. I can see you both,” Lina had explained over the phone a few weeks earlier. “I’ll speak to Ritter Bernhard.”

Ritter Bernhard Lange, Principal Private Secretary to Her Majesty The Queen of Mecklenburg since 1998, was incapable of saying no to Lina and a visit was quickly arranged.

Unfortunately, Ingeborg lived on campus and both the University and the Royal Court was concerned about the disruption an extended visit from a reigning monarch would cause. Lina turned to their distant cousin and dear friend, Will, with a request: that after a quick tour of the campus, Ingeborg and Lina would have lunch at Will’s flat. William had freaked out a little “I have no food” but was quickly talked down by Kate who promised to help him make a lunch ‘fit for a Queen’.

Ingeborg, William and Kate had all started their art history degree the year before. William had changed his major to geography, but Inge and Kate still had several classes together each week and thanks to their mutual friend were beginning to spend time together outside the lecture halls and classrooms. Kate had adjusted quickly to being friends with a Prince and Princess, but the prospect of meeting a Queen, even one who was only fourteen years old, got a bit much the week before Lina’s visit.

Her cousin’s advance team (of six people) had arrived at the flat to work out security and cooking arrangements. The security team scoured the property for two hours, working out evacuation routes, vantage points and possible panic rooms (they ultimately decided on the ground floor bathroom).

Following the lengthy tour of the flat (which involved several photos of the decor for Lina’s dressers to coordinate with), Countess Belinda von Schönberg, a serious woman in her mid-forties, and her two attendants asked for them all to meet in the sitting room. William and Ingeborg, used to the protocol involved in monarchical visits, sat slumped in armchairs nodding. Kate, not used to this shit at all, sat up straight on the edge of the sofa, pen and notepad in hand diligently taking notes.

As Kate would be the one cooking, she was asked the majority of the questions. The team liked Kate’s idea of gnocchi followed by a tray of semifreddo as dessert (no meat and a limited risk of food poisoning). William and Ingeborg gave her a thumbs up over the team’s shoulders. Frankly, she and William had enjoyed being mostly ignored during the whole inspection. Kate had noticed.

“You two were no help at all,” Kate said when their guests departed.

“You’re right,” William said placated. “I’ve done this a million times.”

“I haven’t,” said Kate as she flipped through her pages and pages of notes. “This is a big deal, William. And I’ve offered to help you. Our other flat mates will be staying well clear of this.”

“You’re right,” said Will sounding and looking genuinely repentant. “It’s not normal for you. I should remember that.” He glanced down at the notepad in Kate’s hands. “Do you need help with anything? Any questions?”

For the rest of the week, Ingeborg allowed the upcoming visit to drift to the back of her mind. Two days before the visit, Ingeborg had asked Kate what she would like her to do to help prepare. Kate said that she had everything covered. Inge believed her. Kate was one well put together person. Generally.

The day before the visit, while doing nothing in her room, Ingeborg received a phone call from a thoroughly not well put together person.

“Hi. Should I hand make the gnocchi for the Queen?” Kate asked frantically through the phone.

“The Queen?” asked Inge. “Why are you asking about her?”

There was a moment of silence.

“Because she’s coming to the flat tomorrow,” Kate took a deep breath, “and I’m cooking her lunch.”

Oh. “Oh. You mean Die Königin. The Queen’s Elizabeth. Lina’s Die Königin.”

There was another moment of silence.

“That’s very interesting and on any other day I’d talk to you about it some more, but I’m going to need you to tell me if,” Kate paused, “Die Königin will notice if the gnocchi is not hand made.”

“Where are you?”

“Tesco.”

“Tesco?”

“There isn’t a Waitrose in St Andrews. I’m not going to get yelled at for making a monarch eat food from Tesco, am I?”

“Honestly, she won’t know the difference.”

“Are you just saying that or-”

“She might be a Queen, but she’s still fourteen. She’ll eat anything you put in front of her.”

“Oh. Okay, that’s good to hear,” said Kate, sounding a bit more relaxed.

“Catherine?”

“Yes.”

“Are you standing in the middle of Tesco having a melt down?”

“Yes,” whined Kate. “Why did I offer to do this again?” Not so relaxed, then. Ingeborg decided to go for a joke.

“Because you didn’t want William to commit regicide,” Inge heard Kate snort in derision. Tying up her thick dark brown hair, Inge glanced at her watch. “Give me twenty minutes. I’ll come help you finish the shop.”

“I’m too stressed to try and get you to stay where you are. Thanks, Inge.”

“Where’s Will? Shouldn’t he be helping?” Ingeborg asked as she began collecting her things, making sure her wallet was in her bag.

“I’ve got him cleaning up the flat. He’d just get in the way otherwise.”

“Good job, Kate. You’ll get the hang of this nonsense soon enough.”

“How many times is your cousin planning to visit in the next few years?”

“If tomorrow goes well, more often I imagine,” said Ingeborg as she exited her room, locking the door behind her. There was another moment of silence on the other end of the line.

“Okay,” Kate sighed. “Text me when you’re in the store.”

An hour and a half later, Kate and Ingeborg left Tesco with the ingredients for homemade gnocchi and honey semifreddo.

The next morning, Ingeborg and William did everything Kate asked them to. Kate and William’s other flatmates took this as their cue to stay away for the day and scarpered. One of Countess Belinda’s attendants, a young lady called Floriana, and two members of Lina’s security team arrived at the flat at 9 am to act as the ‘forward team’ for the lunch. They also did everything Kate asked them to.

While they waited for the pasta to cook, Ingeborg gave a Kate a quick, and very gratefully received, lesson on protocol.

“You’ll take her hand, curtsey while bowing your head, keeping your back straight, no bending at the waist, and you can choose how deep to curtsey.” Ingeborg demonstrated the curtsey she always performed with her higher ranked family members using William as a stand in for her cousin.

“Choose?” asked Kate, looking like she didn’t want to have the option to choose anything. “Can’t you just…”

“It’s whatever you feel comfortable doing,” Ingeborg tried to assure her and from the look on Kate’s face, Inge failed to do. “Well, for now,” Inge tried again, “she’s only fourteen and hasn’t been Queen for that long. A slight to medium dip should do.”

Kate nodded, “okay, I think I can do that.”

“Say ‘Your Majesty’, and then ‘Ma’am’ after that,” William said.

“But you can throw in the occasional ‘Your Majesty’ later on in the day if you like,” added Ingeborg.

“You two don’t call her that,” Kate pointed out.

“Karolina Augusta will let you know when you can call her by her name,” said Ingeborg. “It might happen today, it might not.” Kate’s brow furrowed in concern. “But it’s totally okay if you’re not on a first name basis by the end of lunch. It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. It’s just…”

“Reserved for certain people,” finished William. “Also don’t start eating until she does and eat quickly because once she’s finished eating its forks and knives down.”

Kate didn’t like the sound of that at all but nodded solemnly as if accepting her fate for the next few hours.

“Ask questions if you like,” said Ingeborg. “Normal questions.”

“Normal questions?” Kate asked with eyebrows raised in disbelief. “What kind of normal questions could I ask a monarch?”

“Normal...stuff,” Ingeborg said unhelpfully, she grimaced at the frown on Kate’s face. “She’s fourteen, loves dressing up, loves books, horses, dancing, running, swimming and wishes her mother would let her have a dog.”

“Okay, okay, I can work with that.” Kate scrunched up her face in confusion. “Why won’t her mother let her have a dog?”

“No one really knows,” admitted William.

Ingeborg and Floriana left the flat at 11:20. The two security officers remained at the flat. Ingeborg needed to get ready to meet her cousin for their tour at 11:50. Kate, with William’s help, had only the final stages of the meals to complete. Everything looked to be going as scheduled. It usually did when Lina was involved. “Everyone needs structure, Ingeborg” she remembered Lina telling her years before.

.

.

.

“Your Majesty,” said William, hugging the young monarch briefly before stepping back to bow. “It’s good to see you.”

“It’s wonderful to see you,” Karolina Augusta the First said, smiling widely. She looked briefly between William and Kate before holding out her hand to the newcomer. “And you must be the Miss Catherine Middleton my cousins have been telling me about.”

“Your Majesty,” said Kate as she took Lina’s proffered hand while curtseying, back straight, head slightly bowed. “It’s a pleasure to welcome you to our home,” Kate said as she straightened up. Kate had wisely chosen to wear a dress that stopped at the knees. Ingeborg had advised against anything too long as it made curtseying a bit more of an ordeal. Ingeborg herself was wearing a dress of similar length. Karolina Augusta’s own dress was a bit shorter, the length, style and colour carefully chosen to make her look regal without aging her. William had gone for the old Wales stand by: blue suit and a patterned tie.

“I am very much looking forward to lunch,” Karolina Augusta said, “William stayed far away from the kitchen, I hope.”

“Hey!” William said in mock defense, “I was in the kitchen plenty.”

“Oh, dear,” said Karolina, sighing deeply.

“He was a big help, Ma’am,” said Kate. “He only handed me the wrong thing a couple of times.” Karolina laughed, then laughed harder at William’s face.

“Can’t believe you’re ganging up on me already,” said William. He held his arm out for Lina to take. “I think now’s the perfect time for a tour.”

“Of course, Your Royal Highness,” said Lina, obligingly linking her arm with his. To Countess Belinda; Karolina said her goodbyes and asked the Countess to leave her belongings with Ingeborg. To William; Lina said “lead on” and off they went leaving Ingeborg, Kate and Countess Belinda in the entry way.

Countess Belinda handed Ingeborg Lina’s hand bag and coat before thanking both her and Kate for allowing Karolina to visit them today. “Her Majesty has been beside herself with excitement for days. Everything Die Königin should need is in there. Please try and get Her Majesty to wear the coat when you depart.”

“I’ll do my best,” Ingeborg said.

“Thank you, Your Highness,” the Countess said bowing her head. After shaking both her and Kate’s hands, the Countess left the flat.

Kate took Lina’s bag and coat from Inge’s hand and hooked them on a peg by the door. Ingeborg noticed Kate’s hand shake slightly as she did.

Ingeborg and Kate retreated to the kitchen to finish setting up. Lunch was just Karolina Augusta, William, Ingeborg and Kate, while four security officers placed themselves throughout the small flat. Kate had insisted on cooking enough food for the officers despite Ingeborg’s assertions that they wouldn’t eat until Die Königin had returned to the hotel. “I’ll put the food in some Tupperware containers,” said Kate. William thought it was a great idea. Which, of course he did.

“I think that went okay,” said Kate as she grabbed the plates that had been removed from the cupboard and cleaned earlier. “Right? That went okay, yeah?”

“It went great,” Ingeborg said as Kate handed her the plates. Kate turned back to the bench to pick up the flat’s only crystal glasses. The women walked from the kitchen to the dining area where the small circular table had been pushed into the middle of the space. “You’re overthinking it.”

“I am,” said Kate as they arranged the plates, glasses and cutlery for four people. “This feels like something I should overthink, though.”

“You could try thinking of Lina as the daughter of one of Will’s really posh friends?” Ingeborg suggested with a shrug. Kate shook her head. “If it helps, she reached her rebellion phase a few months ago.”

“Rebellion phase?”

“Given the right opportunity, and the right company, Karolina Augusta will swear like a fucking sailor.”

Kate laughed incredulously.

“I’m not kidding,” Ingeborg insisted. “In every language she knows. The most filthy shit you’ve ever heard.”

Kate clasped a hand across her mouth to stifle her laughter. “You’re lying,” Kate said through her hand.

Ingeborg shrugged, “I’m sure she does know how to swear in many languages. But because I haven’t heard her-” Inge dodged the napkin Kate threw across the table at her. “She’s fourteen.”

“She’s fourteen.” Kate nodded in agreement. “So, relax?”

“Got it in one,” said Ingeborg, winking outrageously for her friend’s benefit.

Kate rolled her eyes half-heartedly as she strolled back into the kitchen. There was food to get, pitchers to fill with water, things to put on tables, and once that was done, princes and queens to wait on.

“What is keeping them?” asked Kate, peering through the living room doorway, trying to get a good angle on the hallway to William’s room. “Should we go check on them?”

“I don’t think so,” Ingeborg looked at the gnocchi that was now cooling on the table. “I’m just going to-”

“Ah! They’re coming,” said Kate, dashing away from the doorway and back to the table.

A few moments later, William and Karolina walked through the doorway. Ingeborg was unsettled by the distraught expression on her cousin’s face and William’s arm across her shoulders. Ingeborg shot William a look which William answered with a slight shake of his head. Later, he was saying, I’ll explain later.

Lina’s mood was quickly lifted as she saw the table. Kate’s experience with her parents business had paid off. The table was laid out wonderfully,

“This is beautiful, Ms Middleton,” said Lina as she reached out to touch the vase of Scottish wild flowers in the centre of the table. The colours of some of the flowers acted as a touchstone for the rest of the table setting. The tablecloth was a light shade of purple, while the napkins were a few shades darker.  “You’ve gone to tremendous effort today.”

William stepped up besides Lina and pulled out her chair, “it hurts that you don’t think Inge and I had a hand in this.”

“Oh,” Lina said, eyebrows arched in surprise. “Did you have a hand in this?” Lina asked as she sat down.

“Not a finger,” said William pushing the chair in. Lina giggled. “But still it hurts that you knew it.”

“Of course I knew it,” Lina admonished him as the rest of them took their seats. “This is far beyond you, Wilhelm.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Kate said, pushing her hair back behind her ear. “And I’d be happy to give them some pointers for the future. But right now, perhaps we should eat before it gets cold.”

The four began eating the gnocchi. Lina made noises of appreciation and complimented the cook on an excellent meal. Kate beamed. William asked Lina questions about how her family had been in the months since he saw them last, while Ingeborg ran interference explaining to Kate who they were talking about.

The topic soon drifted to school. While her cousin would never be able to attend a public or private school, she did attend a school especially created for her and populated with the children of staff. The Schweriner Schloss-Schule covered a variety of topics applicable to those with a future in diplomacy and public duty. Lina, her younger brother and their fellow students learnt several languages, constitutional law, international law, foreign relations, geography, military history, European history, art history, the history of the monarchy, the culture of Mecklenburg and Vorpommern, how to write speeches, how to give speeches, how to ride horses, make small talk, wear heavy mantles and the complicated world of royal and noble precedence.

Kate was fascinated by the whole thing and was full of questions Lina was happy to answer. Ingeborg thought nothing of the conversation turning towards Lina’s classmates. They were, after all, the people she spent a lot of time with and Ingeborg hoped she would become close with them, that her cousin would be able to create some true friends out of them.

“I prefer to walk the grounds in between lessons,” Lina paused, her cheeks reddened. “Michael usually joins me. We talk and talk.” She paused again, pushing a piece of gnocchi across her half empty plate. “He likes me. I think he does. I like him.”

“A boy?” asked William, frowning.

“A Count,” Lina elaborated as though that would assuade any objections William, or anyone else, might have. “Count Michael von Schönberg.”

“Countess Belinda’s son?” Inge asked, surprised that no one had mentioned the young Count’s infatuation with her cousin earlier. But then, maybe… “Does anyone else know?”

“No, no,” Lina said, “I don’t think so. There is not much to talk about yet.”

William’s frown became almost comically severe.

“It would be nice, though, wouldn’t it?” Lina asked innocently, after she ate a further mouthful of gnocchi. “To have someone like you for you.”

In a flash, William’s concern gave way to guilt, and a deep understanding that, out of the other people in the room, only he could relate to Lina’s desire to be seen separate from her royal duties. Ingeborg, though royal to the core, could not pretend she was on the same level as a current or future monarch when it came to exposure and public expectations.

“Yes, it would be nice,” said William. “Countess Belinda is lovely. I’m sure he’s a good kid.”

“He is,” said Lina, proudly, as though she’s had something to do with it. Or she was simply proud of her first choice of future boyfriend. “He’s not a stranger to all this. He might be able to understand.”

“He might,” said William as he continued to eat. Kate looked at William and Lina with great compassion but remained silent on the subject of future spouses, instead jumping to the happier and safer subject of books she’d been reading lately.

.

.

.

“I’ll go get dessert,” Will offered, getting to his feet. Ingeborg, sensing an opening, said she’d help clear the table. After gathering the plates and cutlery, Ingeborg joined William in the kitchen, leaving Kate and Lina to move their discussion about the Harry Potter books and the merits of the movie adaptations to the sofas.

“What happened in your room?” she asked William as she rinsed off the plates and put them in the dishwasher.

“She was looking at my textbooks and I asked her how the tour went,” William said as turned on the kettle and removed the nice cups and saucers from the cupboard above the microwave. “Big mistake that. Lina started crying almost immediately.”

“What?” Ingeborg ceased moving the plate under the rush of water, instead causing the water to travel half way up her arm. “Crying?”

“Yes,” William nodded, “not a lot. No sobbing or anything like that.”

“No, no, that would have been…” Ingeborg was shocked. She searched her memories of the tour and couldn’t think of anything that had happened that would have caused such a strong reaction from her little cousin. It had been a lovely afternoon. Lina had been full of questions, very attentive during the answers, and generally calm and happy throughout the hour long walk. “I don’t-”

“She’s thinks it’s unfair,” William said moving to the freezer to remove the tray of semifreddo. “She’ll never go to university. She’ll never go to a normal school. Lina is different, she knows it, she understands why, but-”

“She wishes she wasn’t.”

“We all wish she wasn’t,” said William firmly as he cut the semifreddo into several thick slices. “Lina not going to school like other kids her age isn’t unfair. Nora is doing what she thinks is right. Normal school would never prepare Lina for what she has to know now, what she has to learn how to do now. You can’t flick a switch at eighteen and be expected to do everything perfectly right away. What’s unfair-” William’s voice got louder and angrier, he cut himself off before starting again quieter but no less angry, “what’s unfair is that her Dad has been dead for almost eleven years. That’s unfair. He should still be here. Watching his daughter grow up, go to school, fall in love with Counts, but he’s not and...” William trailed off, returning his full attention to placing the slices of semifreddo onto small plates.

Ingeborg stared at William, open-mouthed, tears welling in her eyes. It was easy to forget that her uncle’s death affected more people than his immediate family. Wilhelm Franz had taken his god fatherly duties seriously, far beyond spiritual guidance, he wanted to be as close to his godchildren as an uncle would be. His godchildren wouldn’t only receive an annual phone call on birthdays, he would visit them several times a year, attending school plays, graduation ceremonies and sporting competitions. And with William, the elder son of his dearest friend, it meant weeks together in Balmoral every year, fishing, hiking, playing cricket and rolling down hills.

Ingeborg placed her hand a top William’s and squeezed, “that’s why days like today are so important. Wilhelm would be so grateful for what we’re doing for his daughter today.”

“I hope so,” said William, placing his other hand on top of hers, squeezing it in reassurance. Ingeborg withdrew her hand and they continued to prepare tea and dessert in silence. And when they returned to the sofas and placed the cups, saucers, and plates of semifreddo on the coffee table, Ingeborg and William allowed Lina’s delight to wash away their grief.

.

.

.

“Inge, where did you put my bag?” Lina asked as she finished the last of her tea.

“It’s on a peg by the door, Your Majesty,” Kate answered instead, pointing in the general direction of the front door. Lina nodded and excused herself while insisting they all remain seated. Kate watched with interest as one of the security officers followed the young monarch. A few moments later, Lina returned holding a rectangular package. The security officer went back to his post by the window.

Ingeborg and William traded glances. They knew what was about to happen and they’d both realised Kate hadn’t been warned about it.

Lina stopped next to Kate’s chair and Kate made to get to her feet. Lina held up one hand to stop the older woman while holding out the package with the other.

“Thank you for hosting me for lunch today, Ms Middleton. I know it was a lot of work and a lot of bother,” Karolina Augusta said, her words stilted as though she was reciting from memory. “I have had a lovely time. This is for you, to say thank you.”

“It was a pleasure, Ma’am,” Kate said taking the package with both hands. Lina returned to her spot on the sofa next to Ingeborg. “Can I open it now?”

“Yes, of course,” answered Lina, adjusting her shoulders. Ingeborg resisted the urge to place a comforting arm around her cousin’s shoulder. Some things were still uncomfortable for the young monarch. Giving framed portraits to people was definitely one of them.

Ingeborg, William and Lina watched Kate unwrap the photoframe. Kate peeled back the tape carefully to not rip the paper and soon she was looking down at a full length photo of her guest wearing a deep blue dress, matching shoes, her father’s Royal Family Order as a brooch with her long hair pulled back and arranged into a braided headband. Ingeborg felt a rush of affection towards her cousin as she took in the photo, Lina smile was sweet and adorable and yet, when taken as a whole, she looked dignified and regal.

Kate looked up at Lina with a smile so wide and genuine, Lina’s discomfort disappeared in an instant.

“Thank you very much, Your Majesty.”

“You’re very welcome.”

Kate opened up the stand and placed the photo frame on the coffee table in front of her, facing her and William.

“This is new, yes?” William asked, leaning forward to get a better look.

“Yes,” said Lina, “Konstantin took it just before my birthday. Konstantin is our older cousin,” Lina explained for Kate’s benefit. “He’s a professional photographer.”

“Really?” Kate’s were wide and hopeful. Here, suddenly, was an untapped vein of conversation, one very close to Kate’s heart but one Ingeborg didn’t think to bring up because Lina’s interest in photography didn’t extend much beyond being a subject in so many of them. “Does he regularly take portraits of you?”

“Yes, he’s being taking official portraits of the family for years now.”

“That must be nice,” said Kate, “better than having someone you don’t know very well taking them.”

“It is,” Lina said, before diving into a story from a couple of years ago about a troublesome horse and unfortunate lighting.

.

.

.

As the door closed shut behind their honoured guest (who had agreed to wear her coat back to the hotel), William turned away from the door, announcing he wanted out of the suit, and walked down the hallway and around the corner to his room. The women looked at each other.

“Wine?”

“Wine.”

“Yes, please!” William called out.

Kate went for the glasses while Ingeborg went for the wine.

“I’ll pour,” Ingeborg said to Kate, “you’ve done enough today.”

“It went well,” Kate said, softly and mostly to herself. “I’m glad.”

“Yes, it did.” Ingeborg poured the red into three glasses, making sure each glass got equal amounts of wine. Kate picked up two of the glasses and gestured towards the sofas. Inge nodded. Wine glass in hand, she followed Kate back into the living room. Ingeborg let out a long sigh of relief as she sat down.

“I’m glad that’s done.”

Kate raised her eyebrows at Inge, “you’re glad?” Inge just shrugged and took a sip, grinning at her friend who’s relief would definitely surpass her own.

“Congrats, Kate,” said William returning from his bedroom. He’d changed out of the suit and into a shirt and jeans. “You handled it really, really well.” Ingeborg picked up a glass from the coffee table for William to grab as he walked past her spot on the sofa. He thanked Ingeborg and sat next to Kate on the sofa. “Seriously though, Kate, you were amazing. I can tell she liked you.”

“Thanks, Will,” said Kate, taking a sip of the wine. The photo frame sat on top of the coffee table where Kate had left it. Kate was staring at it as she sipped her wine. Ingeborg wondered what she must be thinking. It had definitely, as her aunt Nora would say, ‘been a day’. It had been a few days actually. And in most cases where there’s a lot of stress and worry leading up to a big occasion, the aftermath can feel both relaxing and anticlimactic. Ingeborg couldn’t guess for certain what Kate was feeling now that it was all over, but Ingeborg felt exhausted and she’s been cousin to a monarch for over a decade. It was all old hat to her.

Without a word, Kate placed the glass on the table and stood up. Kate picked up the photo frame from the coffee table and walked over to the fireplace opposite.

“No first name basis,” said Kate placing the photo frame between a vase and a ceramic statue of a dog. “But I got a good meal-”

“A great meal,” said William from the sofa.

“With good company-”

“Yeah, the company was alright,” William interrupted again.

“And a lovely photo.” Kate stepped back to admire the frame on top of the fireplace. She turned, holding up a finger to silence the chorus. William and Ingeborg closed their mouths. “And don’t tell me ‘she gives them to everyone’ because I’ve already figured that out. I love it anyway.”

Kate returned to her spot next to William on the sofa, smiling happily to herself, confident in a job well done. Ingeborg and William had known Kate had it in her, now Kate did too. Karolina Augusta wasn’t the only one who left the lunch with a new acquaintance. From Kate’s smile as she looked at the photo of a fourteen year old monarch, Ingeborg could tell Kate liked Lina very much as well.

Chapter Text

Kensington Palace, London, England

Captain Heinrich Jonasen stood at attention as he heard the gravel driveway crunch beneath approaching car tires. The Captain relaxed once he recognised the Prince and his own protection officer existing the black vehicle. Nodding to Harry as he passed, Captain Jonasen briefly spoke into his cuff microphone. Harry’s PPO stayed behind as Harry turned the corner of his former home.

Standing alone, hands holding a clutch behind her back, was Karolina Augusta, looking over the facade of Apartments 8 & 9. Her thick wavy dark brown hair was down for a change, allowing him to notice how long it had gotten. She wore a short sleeved dark green and white patterned dress and courageously high heels for the uneven ground she trekked over to get here. She looked lovely in the sunshine.

Harry nodded in greeting to another officer some twenty metres further along the building, a female Captain he didn’t recognise.

Karolina turned to face him as he got nearer. Her dark brown eyes briefly widened with surprise before her face broke into a wide smile.

“Harry!” She moved towards him, hands out in front of her to grasp his.

Several years ago, Harry, William and their cousins decided that no matter how much younger Karolina was, or how informal their relationship with her, they would treat her as they did their grandmother. Monarch first, friend/family second. Karolina understood, and formal greetings were now routine and automatic.

“Eure Majestät,” said Harry as he took her hands in his, kissed her on both cheeks and bowed. Lina squeezed his hands briefly before letting go. In one quick movement, she tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow, pulling him to face the Palace with her.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, squeezing his arm bare arm. Next to her, he felt very underdressed in jeans and a green shirt. “I thought I’d be seeing you at dinner.”

“Dad mentioned you were here. Thought I’d come see you.” Harry smiled, “it’s been awhile.”

“Well,” said Lina, “that’s what happens when you don’t visit us at Balmoral.”

“I’m sorry,” said Harry, feeling a tinge of guilt even though Lina’s tone contained no malice. The last time they’d been together had been the morning after the Concert for Diana, almost two months prior, and before that had been during Lina’s visit to London around Easter time. “I’ve been busy.”

“How did the rehearsal go?”

“It went well,” he hesitated, stumbling over how much he wanted to share, the shaking nerves, sweaty palms. “I think I’ve worked through my nerves. Most of them at least.”

“You’re a better public speaker each time I hear you.”

“And how often is that?” Harry asked, chuckling.

“Nearly every time you give a speech, I assume. I see it on the news.”

“I make the news in Mecklenburg?”

It’s Lina’s turn to chuckle, “you’re Prince Harry. You make the news everywhere.”

He sighed. Of course he does. He understood the media attention from the countries his grandmother was Queen of, he didn’t completely understand the attention from the United States but expected it nonetheless. Attention from other kingdoms though, even European ones, was a little bit of a surprise. They have their own royals to follow, be proud of, gossip about. Why pay him any attention? Because Queen Eleonora was one of his godmothers?

“How is your mother and brother?” he asked, realising his complete lack of manners. It was a common occurrence when speaking with Lina, she was diverting when she wanted to be, and she usually wanted to be. “Did you all have a good time at Balmoral?”

“As good as ever. The journey back to London was quieter than usual.” Lina gave his arm another gentle squeeze. “They’ll be happy to see you tonight.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. He had been about to speak again, when he realised Lina was casting her eyes over his body.

“You didn’t wear that inside the chapel, did you?” She asked, gesturing towards his clothes, genuinely concerned he would be so disrespectful. He knew one too many heads of churches, that’s for bloody sure. He assured her both he and William had been appropriately dressed for their final rehearsal. “If you want to practice again after dinner, I’d be happy to listen.” With her free hand, she pushed her hair back behind her ear. “And if you don’t, I’d still like to hear it. Or maybe read it,” she added. “I would like to prepare myself a little for tomorrow.”

“Yeah, it’s been a tough week.” Harry looked over the side of her face visible to him. Her jaw was tightly clenched, and he could see the muscles in her neck move as she kept her emotions in check. “I could use the practice. Thank you, Lina.”

“You’re welcome,” said the young Queen though Harry knew she was also saying ‘thank you.’

“I am sorry I didn’t go up to Balmoral to see you all,” he said, the tinge of guilt grew and spread. Lina was the busiest person he knew but she still made the time to visit London several times a year. He hadn’t been to Mecklenburg in years despite the promise he had made to himself some years ago to make more of an effort to see his Mecklenburger cousins. He could feel them drifting, not further apart, but not closer either. He has been busy. Harry had graduated from officer training only a year and a half ago. He was throwing himself into preparing for his deployment to Afghanistan-. A sick feeling settled in his stomach at the realisation that Lina didn’t know about the deployment. Harry had only know about it for a few weeks himself, but still he hadn’t thought to tell her. Maybe they had drifted further apart than he realised.

Looking at her now, Harry couldn’t bring himself to tell her. She was Commander-in-Chief of Mecklenburg’s Armed Forces and her soldiers were currently serving in Afghanistan, alongside their German and Danish neighbours. Mecklenburgian soldiers had been injured and killed during her reign. She’s spoken to the families, visited them, held their hands and listened to their stories. She’s visited the wounded in hospital, always surprising them with how long she’d sit next to their beds, talking and laughing. She knew the price of service. It was a lot for an eighteen year old to bear and yet she did, without complaint or weariness.

Still, she deserved to know and he knew it would hurt her to discover he had kept it from her for weeks and weeks. He just...couldn’t bring himself to do it, not before the memorial service. It was already a depressing time of year, he didn’t want to add to it.

“It’s understandable, Harry,” said Lina. “I would be surprised if you hadn’t been working hard for the Blues and Royals.”

“I am, at least I’m trying to,” Harry admitted. “I think I’m going to be a good officer.”

“Going to be?” asked Lina, looking askance, she mind now fully shifted away from more sombre thoughts. “You are already a good officer.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Because I know you,” she said simply in a tone that told him not to argue. So he didn’t but instead smiled and pulled her a little closer to his side. Her skin felt hot against his.

“I was surprised when Dad said you were here.”

Lina nodded. “I rarely visit Kensington and when I do, it’s to see the Gloucesters. I never come around to this side anymore.” She raised her head higher, eyes narrowing as she looked from the brick and windows of the apartments to the roof and the garden on the roof they couldn’t see from the ground. “It looks the same and yet-”

“Different.” Harry looked at the building and saw it for what it was: empty. The rooms were still used, not as a home, but as offices and they were lifeless because of it. “I don’t come around here very often either.”

“I miss it,” said Lina softly, voice barely above a whisper. “Not just your mother. Being here with your mother. She used to chase us around the garden. Klaus was the slowest, of course. He always got caught.”

“Which was never a bad thing,” Harry laughed.

“She’d swoop you up and cover you with kisses. He was so little-”

“Mum would throw him up into the air,” Harry smiled. “I remember.” He understood what Lina meant about missing his mum at Kensington, at home. Kensington Palace held some heartbreaking moments, a lot of anger and bitterness, but also years of happiness, before and after 1992. When his mother died, he and William had lost not only their mother, but the places their mother belonged to. For years Kensington was a place to avoid, filled with so much loss and unfulfilled promises. He could imagine introducing his mum to Chelsy for the first time here. Harry’s sure a similar thought had occurred to William. Instead of being their mother’s home, a place to come together as they experienced milestones and grew as a family, Apartments 8 & 9 were just rooms, and the private garden belonged to other people. “I miss being here with her, too.”

Lina tugged on his arm and they began walking along the driveway.

“Has Michael or Marie Christine let you into the garden since?” Lina asked. They’d wandered past his old home and were now in front of the Kent’s apartment. Harry looked over at the garden wall to their left.

“A couple of times in ‘97. We used St James’s garden after that.”

Lina hummed in thought, her eyes moving from the garden wall to Prince and Princess Michael of Kent’s front door. Harry realised what she was thinking with an overwhelming feeling of dread.

“Do you think they’re home?”

“I have no idea and you’re not asking because you want the key.”

“No, I’m not,” she said through a wicked grin, her fingers pressed encouragingly against his skin. “Care to give me a boost?”

“A boost?! Over the wall?!”

“Yes, it’ll be fun,” she said, tugging him closer and closer to the garden wall. And beyond that, a place that they had not been in together for a decade. It was tempting and yet utterly daft. He would not boost a monarch over a garden wall no matter how much she pleaded with him. But that was the thing about Lina, she didn’t plead, she didn’t beg or whine. She simply asked and waited to see what happened next.

If Harry refused to help her climb a six foot high brick wall, Lina would desist and be happy to continue their stroll. He wasn’t sure he wanted to refuse her. It did sound like fun.

“I believe I’ve been told,” Lina continued, “once or twice, to be more spontaneous.”

Harry rolled his eyes, “sure, but not at the expense of your safety.”

It was Lina’s turn to roll her eyes, “I think you’re being a bit dramatic. What do you think we’re going to find in there?”

“Knowing my luck,” said Harry. “Marie Christine and a loaded rifle.” Lina laughed loudly, drawing the attention of the female Captain nearby. Harry saw an opportunity and went for it. “So, who’s the new girl?”

“Countess Lisa von Dewitz,” said Lina before explaining to Harry about the von Dewitz family’s connection with her family, which of course went back years. “Her cousin was on Mama’s detail until he got married and moved to Spain. Her grandfather knew my grandfather. They’re a nice family.”

“Was she with you in Scotland?”

“Yes, first time joining us abroad,” said Lina. “She joined the security team after a promotion in April. She’s got a younger sister, around my age. I’ll probably end up hiring her for something in the future.”

“Families working for families.”

“Yes, exactly,” said Lina, sounding amusingly resigned. “We are a traditional lot and you,” Lina patted his arm in mock sympathy,” have failed in distracting me from my goal.”

Harry groaned, “are we really going to do this?”

“I’d like to,” Lina looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “Would you?”

“Only if you get your guard to promise not to tackle me and clap me in irons.”

“Fantastic,” Lina grinned, correctly assuming he’d completely relented. Using his arm to provide support, Lina pulled off her heels one by one with her clutch still in her hand. Once both shoes were off, Lina suddenly dropped in height, and Harry smiled at the difference. At almost nineteen years old, Lina had stopped growing and their height difference of just over six inches would not get any smaller. Lina looked up, saw his smile, and returned it with one of her own.

They were interrupted when Captain von Dewitz approached from the side.

“Eure Majestät? Ist alles in Ordnung?” The Captain asked, looking down at her monarch’s bare feet.

“Everything is in order,” Lina assured her protector. She lifted her hand, the one holding her shoes and clutch, and pointed at the garden wall. “His Royal Highness is going to help me over that wall momentarily.” Off the horrified look on the Captain’s face, Lina turned to Harry. “And then, I assume, you’re going to scale it without any help from me whatsoever.”

“You assume correctly,” Harry grinned. He was going to do a simple run and jump, but he was still deciding the best way to get Lina on top of the wall. There were a couple obvious options: a handhold lift, or one from the hips. A handhold might be best, it relied on his strength more than hers. Lina was fit and healthy, but her exercise regime didn’t involve much strength training. She was a trained dancer and had the physique of one.

“Your Majesty!” said the Captain, switching to English. “I’m afraid I can’t allow you to do that.”

“It’s perfectly safe, Captain,” Lina began taking steps towards the wall. Her devoted Captain kept stride while Harry trailed behind. He heard Captain Jonasen and his PPO, Kenneth, approach. Lina heard as well and stopped making towards the wall. The Captain-Countess looked outwardly relieved. The other Mecklenburger Captain had a concerned expression on his face, which contrasted fantastically with the amused expression on Kenneth’s face.

“Sir,” Kenneth said, grinning. “What’s going on?”

“Die Königin and I would like to visit the garden in there,” Harry nodded towards the seven foot brick wall, “but we haven’t got the key so we’re going to climb the wall instead.”

Everyone stood quiet for a moment.

“Do you need any help, Sir?” Kenneth asked.

“No, I think I can handle it.”

“Your Royal Highness,” said Captain Jonasen, as he took a step towards Harry, half positioning himself between Harry and Lina, “I have to strongly advise against this. It puts Her Majesty at an unnecessary risk.”

“Hauptmann Jonasen,” said Lina firmly. The Captain spun to face her. Harry watched as Lina insisted she be allowed to do this, rebuffing any of the officer’s objections. This amazed Harry. He had always found the presence of protection officers stifling but he could count on one hand the number of times they actively tried to stop him from doing something. Lina was no figurehead. She had real power, both politically and militarily, that she was required to use on a daily basis, and yet here she stood trying to convince her protection officers she be allowed to climb a seven foot garden wall in the middle of Kensington Palace.

And convinced they were.

Lina handed her shoes and clutch to the Captain-Countess to be returned to their owner once Lina was safely settled on top the wall. Harry explained to the officers how it was going to go, and go it went.

After some mutual giggling, Harry easily lifted Lina high enough for her to pull herself onto the top of the wall. Harry then retreated several metres from the wall to allow a running jump and scramble up the wall. Once he was in position, Die Königin swung her legs over the wall simultaneously, twisting in her seat. Harry heard Jonasen and von Dewitz inhale sharply. But Lina was all grace and balance and within seconds was asking for her shoes and clutch. Captain Jonasen took them from his fellow officer and passed them up to his sovereign. Jonasen stepped back and nodded at Harry. He took off at a measured run, hit the wall with his left foot and pushed himself up and forward. His hands grabbed hold of the top and he pulled with his arms while pushing with his feet until he was able to swing one leg over the top of the wall and pull himself up into a seated position, facing away from Lina. He felt Lina place a reassuring hand on his back.

He asked if she was ready, she said yes.

Harry pushed himself up with one hand, spun, reached with the other hand while dropping his legs out beneath him. He slowly lowered himself towards the ground, letting go of the wall once the top reached eye level. Harry dropped the last foot to the dirt below. Lina passed him her shoes and clutch, and Harry placed them on the ground behind him. When he turned back around and looked up he was surprised to see Lina was already attempting to drop down next to him.

“Wait, I’ve got you” he said, stepping forward to help her. Harry gripped her hips and Lina let go of the wall. He slowly lowered her to the ground, careful not to ride up her dress. He pulled his hands away and stepped back once her feet hit soil.

Lina spun around, beaming. “Let’s go see this garden.”

Lina followed Harry through the garden bed, ducking underneath a branch and weaving around a couple of shrubs and bushes, and then lastly onto the green lawn. Instantly, he was struck by a feeling so strong it seized his heart in his chest. It felt like panic. He was not supposed to be there. This wasn’t his anymore.

As they approached the centre of the garden, Harry’s eyes drifted from the rectangular ornamental pool to the summer house at the eastern end of the garden. The summer house had been painted a different colour, the lawn furniture was different.

Lina kept close to his side, her shoes knocked against his legs. She muttered an apology and dropped the shoes and clutch by the edge of the pool.

“That lawn furniture is horrible.”

And just like that, the terrible panicked feeling was gone. Harry laughed. The furniture was horrible. Marie Christine’s taste had always been a bit much for him.

“The garden still looks lovely,” she conceded, looking around at the plants bordering the garden walls.

“Yeah, it does.”

The Kents had had the good sense to plant flowers that bloomed in the summer, as well as those that bloomed in the spring. Every second or third bush and shrub was bursting with colour. The trees, many of them planted before Harry had been born, were growing strong and tall. Even the water in the shallow pool was clear and clean. No fish, though.

Slowly, feeling sneaky and like they were going to get caught at any moment, Harry and Lina explored the garden.

They pushed their faces up against the glass doors of the summer house trying to see inside. Harry tried to open the summer house’s doors only to find them locked. Lina quizzed Harry on his knowledge of flowers and came to the conclusion that Charles must think him a terrible disappointment. Harry asked about her most recent trip to Poland and teased Lina about it being her favourite country.

“I think you love it more than Mecklenburg.”

Lina gasped, “I do not.”

She did sometimes, he was sure. Especially when she was visiting Poland, or if Mecklenburg’s politics was being a pain in the arse. Lina’s frown grew as he ranked her top five favourite countries.

“Mecklenburg, Poland, Scotland, Sweden, Denmark.”

“What about England and Canada? Or France? Norway? The Netherlands?”

“Eh, aside from England, you don’t talk about the others much. You normally talk about your family and friends that live in those places. And you don’t love England. You love London.”

“I do love England,” she insisted but Harry didn’t buy it.

“You love Scotland.”

“I do love Scotland,” Lina smiled fondly. “I miss it already.”

He felt a pang of regret for not visiting Balmoral during their visit.

“Aside from England,” said Lina, “what’s your favourite country?”

Harry grinned, “Mecklenburg.”

Lina laughed and called him a liar. “It’s Lesotho.” She was right about that too.

Harry had never visited Poland, and Lina had never visited Lesotho. Best to his knowledge, she hadn’t visited any of the African nations yet. Not surprising considering the regency ended a little under a year ago and Mecklenburg’s biggest trading partners were her neighbours. There was a lot of countries Lina hadn’t had the chance to visit yet. Speaking of visiting countries for the first time...

“Wills tells me you’ve invited him and Kate to Schwerin.”

“Yes, I cannot wait to show Kate around the Schlösser. There are a number of paintings I think she’ll enjoy.”

Harry burst out laughing.

“What?”

“Poor William. He’s going to spend the whole weekend feeling like a third wheel.”

“William is also interested in art.”

“Art he’s seen dozens of times. And that’s not why.”

“Are you going to tell me, or are you going to continue looking smug for no reason.”

“No reason?”

“No reason that I can see.”

Harry grinned, shrugged off Lina’s half-hearted glare and resumed looking around the garden as they walked. He spotted more differences, but was comforted by how much had stayed the same. He no longer felt like an intruder. They spoke as they walked, pointing out to the other particular plants and flowers that caught their attention. Lina tried to get Harry to quiz her on her knowledge of botany but Harry didn’t bite. She’d just repeat everything he had said earlier.

Once they’d completed their lap of the garden, Lina reached down, pulled her iPhone out of her clutch and began taking photos. He asked her if they were for her Facebook page and received a withering glare in return before assuring him that these photos were for her and her alone.

“I’m not about to post evidence of my crimes on the internet. They’re just for me.” Lina lifted her phone and pointed the camera right at him. “Now smile!”

He did and then took his own phone out of his back pocket and asked her for a photo. Lina took up position on the edge of the pool, balancing on one foot. It was a ballet pose, one he’d seen his mother perform dozens of times. He couldn’t remember the name of it.

He was about to ask when Lina jumped, bringing her legs together, arms high in the air. Stunned into silence, he was then entertained by a brief ballet routine as Lina gracefully spun and hopped down the side of the pool, her dress swishing and swaying as she moved. Once Lina reached the end of the bricked edge, she bowed as Harry clapped and whooped.

“Thank you, thank you. You’re too kind,” Lina said, in an exaggerated posh British accent, which was saying something.

“You still dance?”

“As often as I can. Depends on the day.”

“I know what that’s like,” Harry smiled and received a sympathetic nod from Lina. Which on the face of it, is ridiculous. His busiest day was nothing like Lina’s normal day.

“I’m going to lie down,” Lina announced and promptly did so; leaned back and closed her eyes, parallel to the rectangular pond. Harry walked over to her, hands on hips, looking down at her face with what an onlooker could only describe as fond amusement. Suddenly Lina opened her eyes and after a moment, found his. “Come on,” she patted the ground next to her. “The grass is mostly dry.”

“Well, if it’s mostly dry…” Harry sat down next to her, resting his arms on his knees. Lina sighed dramatically. Harry raised his eyebrows. “Yes?”

“Lie down and close your eyes,” she then promptly shut her eyes, her smile becoming a little smug, as though she was demonstrating how easy it was to just lay there.

Harry laid down and closed his eyes. Removing his sight allowed his other senses to rush in. He could feel the grass digging into his skin and hair, and the sun warming his skin and clothes. He could smell the flowers, the grass and Lina’s lavender perfume. He could hear the birds, the light breeze moving through the leaves and Lina’s calm, steady breathing. In and out. In and out. His breathing soon matched hers. In and out. In and out.

Lina’s fingers touched his arm, Harry gasped at the sudden contact. She didn’t pause, and instead traced her fingers along his skin until her hand was in his, their fingers threaded together.

“Can I tell you something?” she asked from the darkness at his side.

“You can tell me anything.”

“Do you promise not to open your eyes? To stay lying down no matter what?”

Harry chuckled, “sure. I promise.”

Lina took a deep breath, and said nothing. He waited for what seemed an age for her to breath out, and when she did, it came with a rush of words that almost bolted him upright, eyes wide open.

“Michael broke up with me last month.”

And if Lina hadn’t tightened her grip, and if Harry hadn’t done the same, he may have even jumped to his feet, demanding to know why he was only finding out about this now.

“Lina,” he wanted to look into her eyes so badly, he wanted her to see how sorry he was this had happened to her. But a promise was a promise even if it was stupid. Presumably, she had her reasons to ask for it, he had his reasons for promising. “I am so sorry.”

“Thank you,” she said, and the way she said it tugged at his memory. “I had hoped he would understand. He didn’t.”

“Fuck him,” said Harry. “He can get bent if he thinks he can do better than you.”

Lina laughed with derision, “I don’t think that was the problem.”

It was. He knew it was. Michael loved Lina. He just didn’t love her enough to accept her life for what it was, for what his life would become if they stayed together. Michael loved Lina, but he wouldn’t be happy spending the rest of his life with her, to give up his life for her. He thought of Chelsy and struggled to breath in.

“Did he say why?” he asked to distract himself from his own possible future heartbreak.

“Yes,” she said. Harry didn’t need to know more than that. She deserved to know why, especially after a relationship that had lasted for over four years. He was glad Michael had the bollocks to do it. Whether it was the truth, and whether Lina decided to believe him or not was up to her. “It was horrible.”

“Lina…”

“He listed all these things, all these things that made him unhappy, and I couldn’t...change any of it. He knew that I couldn’t but he left me anyway.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“It feels like it is.”

Harry grimaced, wiping his free hand down his face. What could he say to that? Harry had three parts to his life: the public, the private and the military. Lina didn’t operate like that, she didn’t want to. She was Karolina Augusta Regina at all times. To Harry, that sounded awful and not someone he would want to spend the rest of his life with. Lina was fond of structure. Harry was fond of balance. She didn’t need life advice today, she needed support, and he was more than happy to give it. Because, it wasn’t her fault.

“I know, but it’s not.” Harry sighed, “one day you’ll find someone who won’t leave you, no matter what happens. They’ll...just fit.”

“Like Kate fits with William,” said Lina, but it was also half a question. Harry smiled. She couldn’t look to her own parents’ relationship for strength and hope, so she looked elsewhere. She found it in his grandparents, in her aunts and uncles, and in his brother and his future sister-in-law. Having front row seats to William and Kate’s relationship from near its beginning, Lina’s young teenage mind had placed much of her own hopes and dream on them, an ideal life, which had almost been derailed, but that faith looked like it would ultimately pay off.

“Yes. Just like that.”

“Or like Elizabeth and Philip.”

“Or your parents,” Harry said, squeezing her hand.

“I never saw that,” she said so sad and soft his heart broke for her.

“I did and I swear to you, they were very happy.”

He remembered his mother. Many memories had dimmed and blurred in the decade since her death but he had dozens more that were so clear and sharp they could have happened yesterday. He remembered his parents’ marriage, the happiness giving way to anger, bitterness, resentment and betrayal. He remembered the confusion and uncertainty, of feeling trapped between two people who loved him but couldn’t stand each other. He remembered acceptance, courtesy and finally friendship towards the end.

She didn’t remember her father. Lina never talked about it but everyone knew she didn’t have a single memory of her father. She relied on other people to learn about the kind of man he was, the kind of father he was. And Wilhelm Franz had been a good man, a thoughtful king, a loving and proud father, and devoted husband. Harry remembered holidays in Scotland together, Lina’s parents visiting London, Windsor and Highgrove, and his family visiting Schwerin, Ludwigslust and Bad Doberan. He remembered laughter and so much dancing, too much dancing really. He remembered his parents sitting him and his brother down. He remembered the words ‘Uncle Franz has been in an accident.’ He remembered that shock and disbelief. He remembered feeling so bad for William. He remembered his mother’s hugs and his father’s sobbing.

Lina moved suddenly, rolling onto her side, facing towards him. This new position pushed their hands up into the air, arms bent at the elbow. A feeling crept up his spine, one that told him he was being watched. She didn’t say anything for a long time.

At length, she thanked him again, said he was a good friend. Harry had opened his mouth to protest, he knew he didn’t make an effort to see her. A true friend would make an effort. Lina cut him off. “You’re a good friend,” she repeated.

“We hardly see each other.”

“You’re there when it counts,” she said, squeezing his hand briefly, tighter than she had before. “It means everything.”

“Well then, you’re welcome.” He imagined her smiling so he smiled too. “I’m glad we jumped the wall.”

“Me too.” She breathed out, a small sigh, relaxed. It was an emotion he rarely saw in Lina. She was always moving, talking, thinking. She was trying to slow down, maybe not for long, but for this moment. Harry’s heart clenched in his chest as he tried to guess at what horrible things Michael said to her to end it between them. Did he say she wasn’t fun?

“Why did you make me promise to close my eyes?”

“Because, “she began and if they had been standing, Lina would have squared her shoulders as she thought carefully about what to say next. “I thought it would be easier to tell you about Michael if we couldn’t see each other.”

“Was it?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“I’m glad,” he said sincerely, “otherwise we’d look like a pair of spanners lying on the grass with our eyes closed for nothing.”

Lina giggled, “not to mention ruining my dress.”

“I think the wall did that.”

Lina agreed. “Do you know what time it is?”

“No,” he said, chuckling. They were both wearing watches. They both had their phones. They both had to change for dinner. The shadows within the garden were growing longer. Neither of them made to get up and leave. A place so familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It felt good to visit the garden again, and it felt even better with someone who had known his mother, had loved - still loved - his mother. He tried to imagine he and Chelsy exploring the walled garden and failed.

He squeezed Lina’s hand. “Did you want to leave?”

He heard - and felt - Lina roll onto her back, their joined hands settled back on the grass between them. “Not yet,” she said.

Chapter Text

Schwerin, Mecklenburg

Kate’s mind wandered for a moment, lost in the absurdity at what her life had become. When Karolina Augusta invited her and William to visit Mecklenburg in July, the last thing Kate expected to happen was to spend a good chunk of an afternoon lying on the wooden floor of the Golden Hall, while Lina and her mother told her the history of the room and the stories behind the paintings on its ceiling.

William and Klaus were sitting close by, occupying themselves with the dogs. William had a lifelong interest in art and history but he’d seen and heard all this before. “I have no idea how many times I’ve visited Schwerin,” William said when she’d asked some weeks before. “Must be nearly a hundred.” He’d gotten quiet for a moment before adding, “we’d visit five or six times a year when Mum was still around.”

They’d started their tour after a scrumptious lunch in the Orangerie, with the dormant garden on the other side of the wooden green framed windows.

First stop had been the Schlosskirche, which was apparently the only room worth visiting on the ground floor of the Palace. “The rest is offices and staff areas,” Lina explained. The family’s private chapel, used mostly by the staff nowadays, was much larger than Kate expected it to be. It beautifully combined Renaissance and Gothic Revival elements. Kate was quite taken with the vaulted ceiling of white stars on a blue background.

Second stop had been the Principle Guest Suite where Kate and Will would be spending the night. The six rooms of the suite (reception room, drawing room, bedroom, ensuite, and his and hers dressing rooms) were warmly decorated in woods of various colours, and wallpaper of deep blues, reds and pale yellows. The dressing rooms were the pinnacle of storage, function and elegance. The ensuite was modern while never looking out of place.

Everything about Schweriner Schloss was warm. The feeling had enveloped her as soon as she’d stepped out of the car and cast her eyes around the striking, vaguely circular courtyard. She had taken a deep breath and when she breathed out, something settled inside her that she couldn’t describe as anything but warm. Maybe comfort. Or welcomed. But that could have been the enormous, crushing hug she received from Lina after Kate curtseyed. Or the adorable patience of Lina’s dogs as they waited for William to kneel down to greet them. Or the way Klaus had asked after her each member of her family by name. Or the way Eleonora’s hand on Kate’s back guided her to her seat in the Orangerie.

She could have been compounding her feelings about the people with the building they lived it, but she didn’t think it was that simple.

As the group had left the Guest Suite, Kate became more and more taken with the building. Wood filled every room. Where there wasn’t carved wooden panels on the walls there was tightly woven silken wallpaper of deep blue, red or pale yellow (or half-panelled and half wallpapered). One stunning room had neither and instead painted murals of legends of old lined the room. There was little marble, more on the walls than on the floors. All but a handful of rooms had intricately patterned multi-coloured wooden floors and not a single room was permanently carpeted. “We bring out runners when the tourists are allowed in,” said Eleonora in hushed tones. When Kate asked about the dogs’ effect on the wooden floors, the former Queen Regent shrugged, “we only have the three and their nails are kept short.”

Before the Golden Hall, used primarily for dancing, had been the Banquet Hall, a room almost twice the length of the Golden Hall, and used for state dinners or other such events where hundreds of people were attending. The Banquet Hall was similarly decorated in white and gold with religious murals on the ceiling and coats of arms and portraits along its walls. The grandest piece, Kate thought at least, was the internal balcony along the window and the spiral staircases they’d all climbed (except for the dogs). The view of the room was magnificent, almost outmatched by the view out the window. Kate could almost picture how it would look at night, with the lights of the city reflecting off the lake.

Kate’s head felt fuzzy and full as Lina and Eleonora finished their lessons about the Golden Hall.

Kate listened carefully as Lina talked her through every painting, vase, statue and relief they passed during the tour, trying to commit it all to memory. She’d quickly lost count of the number of family portraits, of the landscapes, townscapes and paintings of the other palaces the House of Mecklenburg once called their own, or still did. The route Lina took through the Palace had been carefully planned out. A fact that didn’t become apparent until almost the end.

After walking the border of the Gallery of Palaces, Lina lead them back to the beginning of the corridor and through a set of double doors into a large rectangular room of two parts. The walls of this room, the Ancestral Portrait Gallery, was lined with dozens of paintings spanning hundreds of years, all of them of members of Lina’s family, Dukes and Duchesses of centuries long past. There were empty panels next to the portrait of Albrecht III of Mecklenburg and King of Sweden, for no one had ever been able to agree who should go next to him. The family had stopped adding new portraits to the gallery long ago. They had other galleries in other palaces for more recent history.

The beautiful ornate ceilings, the patterned floors, the invaluable furniture and statues scattered throughout. It was almost overwhelming, almost. It wasn’t until they’d reached the end of the gallery and a closed set of double doors for something to catch in Kate’s mind. Something is going on. William, Eleonora and Klaus, who had up until that point been talking amongst themselves, fell silent as Lina reached out to grasp the door knobs, twisted, and pulled the doors open.

Lina inclined her head for Kate to walk ahead of them. Her hands shook by her sides. The first thing Kate saw was the throne. The second was the red, white and gold canopy above the red and gold chair. Thirdly was the coat of arms tapestry hanging behind the throne. Fourthly were the gold double doors set on either side of the throne, and fifthly the two large portraits beside them. Kate held back a giggle as she stepped further into the room, she turned on the spot and looked up.

Incredibly, it was the most ornate ceiling she’d seen in the Palace yet. After the Banquet and Golden Halls, she wouldn’t have thought it possible. The Throne Room was much smaller and somehow more ornate, more detailed, more overwhelming to the eye. That was the point of rooms like this, she supposed. If you couldn’t be imposing and intimidating in your throne room, then when could you be.

The Throne Room continued the theme of white and gold, but with red panelling on the walls and red velvet on the throne and several other smaller chairs along the window. She counted sixteen columns as ‘supports’ for coats of arms, and above those coats of arms was even more coats of arms running across all four sides of the room. Above those coats of arms was the ceiling proper, bordered by white flowers on a blue background, the white, gold and even more coats of arms lead to sections of murals depicting angels and saints. In the centre of the ceiling hung a single large chandelier and the only source of unnatural light for the entire room. She suddenly wished to see the room at night. The Throne Room was one hell of a grand finale.

“Wow.”

Lina laughed. Kate spun around, feeling a little embarrassed. Lina was smiling, “I had hoped this would be your reaction.”

“The doors!” Kate exclaimed as the rest of the group chuckled. Kate rushing forward to a pair of closed double doors to the left of where they’d entered. Each of the gold doors had been elaborately carved and then painted gold. She couldn’t make out the very top, but just below it was a woman, or man depending on the door, then below that were cherubs above an angel holding a banner with a Latin inscription, and finally below that was a floral arrangement. Virtus, Kate touched the word and was amazed when her finger brushed metal and not wood. The doors in the throne room weren’t carved at all. “Bloody hell.”

Lina explained that each of the twelve doors in the throne room had a different Latin inscription, Veritas, Serenitas, Sanctitas, Splendor, Decor, Rex...

“This room is amazing.”

She turned back to face the throne and for the first time, looked down. She rushed forward again, this time to look at the beautiful mural inlaid in the floor containing angels, bull heads wearing crowns and incredible scroll work. In the centre was a monogram, “that’s Friedrich Franz the Second’s,” Lina said, stepping up beside Kate. Her friend then pointed over to one of the huge portraits.

The portrait on the left, the one of a balding and bearded man in uniform, was of Friedrich Franz II, Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Lina and Klaus’s ancestor four times over. It had been Friedrich Franz II who had had the current Schweriner Schloss built. Little had changed since his lifetime. Even the fire which destroyed a huge portion of the Schloss before the First World War had had no lasting effect on the interior which had been restored completely to what it had been before.

The portrait on the right, of a dark haired woman in court dress, an ermine and red velvet train and a tiara still worn by her descendants today, was Augusta, Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, born a Princess Reuss of Köstritz, and Lina and Klaus’s ancestor three times over (Friedrich Franz II married three times and Lina descended from two of those marriages).

“I was named for her,” Karolina Augusta said,” well my aunt was named for her and I was named for my aunt.”

“And Karolina? Where’s that from?” Kate asked Eleonora. The former queen regent explained how it was for everyone and no one. It was for her husband’s dearest friend, it was for her husband’s beloved grandmother, it was for her own grandfather, it was for long dead ancestors, it was a good name for a future queen.

“Franz always wanted her to be Queen one day.” Eleonora said softer and sadder than Kate had ever seen her. Kate couldn’t imagine the depth of the sorrow and grief Eleonora carried with her.

“You have a beautiful home, Ma’am,” Kate said with all the sincerity and earnestness she possessed. “Thank you very much for showing me around.”

“You’re very welcome, Catherine. It has been a lovely place to live. This is a Grand Duke’s palace,” Eleonora said, taking in breath, letting out a sigh, caught up in a memory or feeling Kate doesn’t know. “Euphemiasburg is a King’s palace.”

Kate agreed with the apt comparison of the two palaces. She had seen photos of Euphemiasburg and it outshone Schwerin Palace in size and grandeur. The red brick exterior made famous by the country’s coastal towns wouldn’t have looked out of place in Denmark or Sweden. The size of the palace and its interior, however, wouldn’t look out of place in Moscow or Tsarskoye Selo.

“It’s easier living in a Grand Duke’s palace,” Eleonora said and Kate took her word for it. Schwerin Palace was huge and full of history and so much of it unchanged since it had been built, and while Euphemiasburg was still rather new (not even a hundred years old), the size of it must be strange to live in.

The group stayed in the Throne Room for several more minutes until Kate said she was ready to move on. Klaus was most relieved. “I’m starving,” said the young prince and twice duke. Kate looked at her watch, it was afternoon tea time. It was almost after afternoon tea time and Kate felt a little guilty about her enthusiasm to see every single little detail of the Palace.

The difference between the Throne Room and the rooms beyond it was startling. They were by far the most simple rooms they’d been in yet. While richly and warmly decorated, it was now back to the wooden panelling and wallpaper decor similar to the Guest Suite. “This is my public suite,” Lina explained as they entered the room they’d be having lunch in. The Library, as it was still called, was not simply a place to store books, it now served several functions as the piano, sofas, tv and small dining table suggested. The cabinetry was gorgeous, especially along the long windowless wall. “My private suite is through there,” Lina said, pointing to the door with a curved archway above it. Kate got a kick out of the optical illusion floorboards.

As they sat down to lunch, and after the dogs had been sent to their beds behind the grand piano, Kate took in the room, the little personal touches Lina allowed herself in this ‘public’ space. It was cluttered. It was more mismatched than she thought Lina was possible of being. Kate agreed with Eleonora, it does seem like Schwerin Palace would be an easier place to live in.

After lunch, Lina and Eleonora had a number of official things to do and Klaus took that as the end of his required attendance. He hugged Will and Kate then ran off to parts unknown. “Will knows the grounds as well as I do,” Lina said as she walked them back to the Guest Suite. “But whatever you two want to do now is entirely up to you. I’ll see you later tonight.”

“Did you want to go for a walk?” Will asked once Lina had left them alone.

“Not really,” said Kate pushing her boyfriend towards the bedroom. She’d never had sex in a palace before and since their plans for the night meant they’d be out late, Kate didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. William was happy to oblige.

.

.

.

Lina’s cousins wanted to take advantage of their only night as a group in Schwerin. The capital city was no Rostock or Neubrandenburg when it came to an active nightlife, but it was far ahead of Ludwigslust which had no nightclubs at all.

It had all been organised: drinks, dinner, then drinks and dancing (in establishments often frequented by members of the Royal House and Family of Mecklenburg and thus thoroughly vetted and safe for future monarchs and their girlfriends). Kate was simply asked to dress up and be ready at six.

Lina had a big family. Everyone knew this. Kate knew this and she’d been most recently reminded thanks to Lina’s Aunt Heinrike Franziska’s flippant comments on the plane ride over. Knowing is completely different from seeing.

Eleven of Lina’s first and second cousins and their partners were assembled in the parlour next to her and William’s private drawing room. William excitedly introduced her to all of them in turn.

Konstantin von Hohenlohe-Langenburg, Lina’s first cousin but also one of William and Harry’s favourite second cousins. Konstantin was one of the official photographers to the Mecklenburgian Royal House and Family. He took the official annual portraits of the members of the family who carried out full time public duties, plus portraits before banquets, during state visits, for birthdays and special anniversaries.

Karl Viktor von Hesse-Kassel and his five month pregnant wife, Kristina (their two year old son Otto was staying with his Oma tonight). Kristina taught at a local secondary school with Karl Viktor being a stay at home dad.

Karl Viktor’s younger brother, Nikolaus Emmanuel von Hesse-Kassel and his fiance, Ulla (they were getting married next April). Nikolaus Emmanuel managed one of the family’s hotels and they’d met after Ulla had been hired as a junior chef some years before.

Anne Therese zu Schwarzburg and her American girlfriend, Mercedes Millard. Mercedes had only recently made the permanent move to Mecklenburg and worked as a graphic artist for the travel magazine Anne Therese wrote for.

Lina’s second cousins, Louisa, Oskar and Axel af Danmark and their first cousin Bernadette Sophia von und zu Liechtenstein. They were all based in Mecklenburg. Axel was studying to be a teacher while the others worked as advisors to Lina. Louisa was six days older than Kate. Bernadette Sophia was two days younger than Harry and frequently floated as a potential royal bride by the press.

Kate felt bombarded by names and faces. She smiled, nodded and tried to remember the name of the person whose hand she just shook. Annoyingly, the tradition of using two first names was widespread in Lina’s family.

As the introductions wound down, Lina entered the Guest Suite to a chorus of “Eure Majestät!”, and almost a dozen people bowing or curtseying in unison. Kate had never seen anything like it. Lina hugged and kissed her cousins and their partners, getting assurances from them all that William and Kate were in good hands. Kate tilted her head.

“I’ll see you all bright and early for breakfast,” said Lina and Kate realised what was happening.

“You’re not coming with us?” she asked and received stunned silence in return. Lina recovered first, explaining that it was better - but Kate had stopped listening, she watched the faces of William and Lina’s cousins grow more and more uncomfortable. “I’ll stay then,” Kate said interrupting Lina. “I’ll stay. I came to see you anyway. It was very nice meeting you all, though. Thank you.”

William asked if she was sure. She was. She knew Lina didn’t go out with them when she was in London. Kate thought that was because it was London. She didn’t realise Lina never went out with her family or friends. It made Kate angry and sad. Kate insisted Will still go out. Lina’s cousins were his cousins too (though more distantly of course) and he rarely got to see them in large groups. It would be good for him, and them.

Lina asked if she was sure. She was. Lina smiled and said “be ready for dinner at five to seven.”

.

.

.

Kate hastily removed her makeup, changed from the top and short skirt into a knee length dress, and after umming and ahhing in front of the mirror, reapplied her mascara and lipstick. After checking her reflection from various angles, Kate nodded her approval on an adequate job for a dinner with a former queen regent, monarch and heir presumptive.

“You’ve got this, Kate,” she said to her reflection before turning on her heel exiting the ensuite. Going to the wardrobe, Kate pulled out the lower heeled pair of shoes she’d brought and slid them on. Following the advice of her grandmother to never go anywhere without her essentials, Kate gathered her things into her clutch before retiring to the Drawing Room, leaving the door to the Reception Room open.

At exactly 6:55, one of Lina’s footmen knocked on the door to the guest suite.

“Come in!” she called out, immediately cringing. That’s probably not what Lina would have done. Kate got to her feet as the footman pushed open to the door to the Reception Room. The young man, tall and roughly Kate’s age, peered around the small entry before breaking into a smile when he caught sight of her in the next room.

“Good evening, ma’am,” he bowed his head much to Kate’s discomfort. “Her Majesty has asked me to escort you to the Library.” His accent had an American twang to it, as though he had learnt to speak English by watching hundreds of hours of American television. “Dinner will be served shortly.”

One of the many interesting things Kate observed during her visit to Mecklenburg was how the members of the Household staff would knock before opening the door to any room they suspected was currently occupied by their Queen or a member of her family. Her escort did not knock on any doors as he lead her out of the Guest Suite and to a staircase in the next room. They ascended one level arriving in Lina’s public suite of rooms. The door to the Library was shut and it was then that her escort knocked on the door and waited for permission to enter.

Karolina, Klaus and Eleonora were all inside, standing beside the small dining table, now set for four people. The royals were wearing different outfits and thankfully Kate had chosen well with her knee length dress. Kate curtseyed and approached the table.

“Dinner will be up in a moment. Do you like Vietnamese?” asked Lina. Kate loved Vietnamese and was interested to learn the entire palace would be having one sort of Vietnamese or another tonight. “It’s easier to prepare a small variety of dishes when trying to feed a hundred people every meal.”

Kate didn’t want to think about the logistics about running a palace before realising this was very much something she would have to think about in the future. Her company didn’t let her stew in her thoughts for long. Eleonora was excited to host her ‘favourite’ godson in the new year. “It’s been such a long time since Henry stayed with us. I do hate that it took him being deployed for him to finally arrange a visit.”

Lina didn’t think Harry’s upcoming deployment to Afghanistan had anything to do with him visiting once he returned next year. Eleonora disagreed. Klaus didn’t have much of an opinion on why Harry was visiting, the teenager was just happy he was. Kate understood that well. Harry was fantastic company. They toasted to Harry’s safe deployment.

The food was fantastic, made from ingredients wholly sourced from farms Lina owned nearby. Lina offered to point some of them out to Kate when they drove past them tomorrow on their way to Ludwigslust. Kate was excited to visit Ludwigslust and the Schloss. She wanted to see what had made it the favourite residence of Lina and her father before her. It was much smaller, though still very pretty of course.

After the main course was a dessert of pumpkin cakes. Not what Kate would have had in mind when she thought about Vietnamese food but they were delicious and shaped like little pumpkins which was really cute.

Eleonora and Klaus excused themselves as the meal reached its close. Kate received a hug and a kiss from each of them and wished them a good night. As Eleonora and Klaus filed out of the Library, Lina pushed back the chair and got to her feet. Kate quickly did the same. If Lina sat, you could stand, but if Lina stood, so did you. There was so much to remember. Kate was grateful she had Lina to mess it up with. Knowing that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was soon to become a very big and permanent part of her life was terrifying and Kate hated the thought of messing it up with the Queen.

“We should leave the staff to clean up,” said Lina. Kate followed her through a double set of doors and into a warmly decorated rectangular sitting room. Right of the door sat the room’s only windows, currently covered by thick ceiling to floor curtains. The material looked as thick and heavy as carpet. On the wall opposite the window was an open door where Kate could see a similarly decorated room, though she could see the edge of a fireplace.

On the wall next to a closed door, above a three seater lounge, hung a large landscape of a building vaguely familiar to her.

“Is that…?”

“Balmoral,” Lina said, taking a step closer to the painting. Kate followed. “It’s Balmoral at Christmas time. I’ve never seen it myself. We only visit in the summer.”

The painting, at about four feet wide and three feet high, was a water colour. Blues, greys, and purples. A water colour. That was relevant, somehow. But before Kate could ask, Lina provided the answer.

“Charles painted it the Christmas before my coronation and then presented it as a coronation gift.”

“It’s beautiful.” It was, and cold and crisp and foreboding. She hadn’t visited Balmoral yet and in that moment, desperately wanted to.

“I’ll show you my room,” Lina said, opening the closed door. And it was a lovely room of deep blue wallpaper and dark red carpet, a stark contrast from the light coloured sitting room. The enormous bed, wider than a king and over two and a half metres long, faced the windows. Aside from the bed, a dresser, a tall mirror and two bedside tables, the room was bare of any other furniture. Lina explained that everything else she needed could be found in her Library, the sitting room and study, or her dressing room which was past the ensuite next to her bedroom.

Lina climbed onto the bed and gestured for Kate to do the same. And it was comfy. Really, really comfy. So squishy. Even the huge pillows they leaned against. Kate asked who made the mattress. Lina said she didn’t know but it had been custom built.

“How do you get out of bed in the morning?” Kate asked settling deeper into the bed. Lina laughed and said it was pretty easy. It turns out Lina has about five blankets, quilts and duvets on her bed and that the mattress is much firmer. When Kate asked why she had so many blankets, Lina shrugged and said “for layers.”

Kate didn’t think that was very adequate and moved the conversation to something much more awkward.

“How have you been lately?”

“Er…”

“About Michael, I mean.”

“Oh,” Lina sank further into the pillows and kept her eyes on the curtains opposite them. “I’ve been fine. I miss him being in the Schloss but...there isn’t anything I can do about it.”

“So you just keep moving forward,” Kate said from past experience. It saddened, and gladdened, her that Karolina Augusta had never known this kind of heartbreak until a few months ago. To a young queen, the prospect of finding someone who was willing to give up their whole lives to be with her probably terrified her. But it happened all the time. It had happened for Lina’s own father. Franz had met Eleonora for the first time while he was still the Crown Prince. Him becoming King a year later had changed nothing. Lina just hadn’t met the right person yet. She would. Kate was sure of it.

“I’ll be okay.”

“I know you will,” Kate reached over and held Lina’s hand. “Call me anytime you need to talk. About anything. I mean it.”

Lina thanked her and said she would if she needed to. Kate knew she was unlikely to get a call for some deep girl talk at any point in the near future but it was important that Lina knew to get in contact. Lina was close to much of her family and counted several of them as her dearest friends as well, but sometimes it helped to have an outside perspective.

“What would you like to do now?”

Kate’s eyes widened slightly in shock, not at Lina’s question itself. She was being a polite host, asking her guest if there was something specific they would like to do. It was the tone, it was the look on her young friend’s face - Kate often forgot how young Lina was - that shocked her. Lina was unsure, hesitant.

“I enjoyed looking at the paintings after lunch,” Kate said pulling her hand away from Lina’s, downplaying how much she had loved it. “Are there more we didn’t look at?”

“Not really,” Lina said, shaking her head. “We’ve had to spread the important paintings across many palaces. I can show you the ones at Ludwigslust tomorrow, if you like.”

“I would love that, thank you,” said Kate, sincerely looking forward to it. She was curious which paintings Lina had squared away in her favourite residence, out of public view.

Lina nodded and in the silence that followed, an awkwardness creeped into the room. They were alone and would be left alone for as long as they stayed in Lina’s suite. Kate could count on one hand the number of times they had been the only two people in the room. Kate knew they would be able to carry a conversation for several hours and that part of the awkwardness was that Lina had not planned on having Kate around this evening. Lina liked to be prepared and Kate had completely fucked that up.

“I’m sorry I messed up your night.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I am.”

“Being ridiculous?”

“Ha ha.”

Lina patted her on the arm, “it was very sweet of you to stay, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I have an idea,” said Lina, sliding off the bed. “Follow me.”

She followed her across the room, through the ensuite (nice and modern while still being classy and classic) and through to the dressing room on the other side. Every bit of the walls that wasn’t a door or window was covered in built in storage. Shelves, drawers, wardrobe doors, a vanity and mirror, with another free standing mirror by the window and next to a wire mannequin. Lina went to one of the wardrobes and pulled out two coats. “Put this on,” Lina held out the dark red coat. “We’re going to go see Old Nick.”

Kate did as she was told, confused about why they would be seeing Santa Claus so early in November. Also confused as to how. Kate followed Lina back through the monarch’s public suite, through the Throne Room, where Kate had to briefly stop and wander the room a bit. It looked just as stunning when lit only by the chandelier. Then it was back through the Gallery of Palaces and to the lift at the end of the passage. Lina explained how the lift had previously been a spiral staircase but that the stairs had been carefully removed to create the glass walled lift they were now in. They went up one floor and exited to the right.

The walk to their eventual destination took longer than Lina was probably expecting as Kate stopped to look over the Golden Hall, and then the Banquet Hall, one story up from where she entered them. The grand rooms were also lit by chandelier and chandelier alone. “We keep the lights on in the Throne Room and the Halls until midnight.”

At the end of the corridor running alongside the Banquet Hall, two men in livery were standing in front of double glass doors. They bowed and stepped aside as she and Lina approached, but they didn’t step far as they opened the doors in unison for their monarch and her guest to pass. Kate smiled at the display and shuddered against the cold wind that hit them as they stepped through the doors. They were in a well lit covered rectangular courtyard with vaulted ceilings and the side to the left of them was open to the city below.

The view to the city was partially blocked by the back of a man and the back of the horse he was riding. Lina approached the balustrade on one side of the pale statue and Kate approached from the other.

“Oh, wow,” she breathed out fog as the city came into view. Schwerin looked small and dense. The buildings and streets of the city didn’t extend far into the black distance Kate assumed was the countryside and farms that took up a vast part of the country’s landscape. Schwerin wasn’t built up like Rostock and Neubrandenburg and no buildings blocked their line of sight. Mecklenburg’s capital shone and sparkled brilliantly, helped by the many lakes and smaller bodies of water Kate could see reflecting the light back at them. Kate forgot the cold air and leaned against the railing, arms crossed and thankful for thoughtful friends.

“And this,” said Lina after several minutes of silence. “This is Niklot,” Lina proudly looked up at the man on the horse, one arm outstretched holding a spear and the other keeping a shield close to his left side. Ah, Old Nik. Not Old Nick. “He’s the furthest back my family goes in the male line, who we know the name of at least. His son is considered the founder of the House though, as the first Prince of Mecklenburg.”

“Wow. That is very cool.” At times, she did envy royals ability to investigate their ancestry with incredible ease. She noted the numbers below the man’s name. “What does 1160 mean?”

“That’s when he died. He was born in 1090. He was Slavic and really pagan.”

Kate laughed.

They stayed next to the statue for some time, talking quietly about Schwerin as Lina pointed out buildings that may interest her guest, until Lina looked at her watch and said there was something else she’d like to show Kate before it got too late. Kate couldn’t believe there was more to see.

As the pair walked back into the Palace proper and its toasty warmth, Lina stopped to talk with the guards in German. Kate didn’t get a word of it but before long they were quickly going back the way they’d come. “We’ll have to go back to my rooms to get there.” Kate made a face, well, that was just confusing.

Once they were back in Lina’s dressing room, coats deposited back into the wardrobe, Lina walked over to a door to the right of the windows. She pulled it open and behind the door was a lift seemingly identical to the one they’d ridden up and down in earlier. Kate was baffled by the sudden appearance of a secret lift.

“The crypt beneath the Schlosskirche was never used for bodies. There are a few people buried on the Insel but they’re in the gardens. The crypt was used as storage until after the war when my great-grandparents ordered some changes, including this lift.” Lina explained as she shepherded Kate into the circular lift. It really was identical to the other lift, even the walls were made of glass allowing the passengers to see what was left of the spiral staircase the lift had replaced. The panel inside the lift read in descending order: König, Boden, and Krypta. Lina pushed the button next to Krypta and the lift began its descent.

“You’re showing me an empty crypt?”

“Oh, it’s not empty,” Lina said enigmatically, clearing enjoying herself. The rest of the short ride was in total silence, to build suspense, Kate assumed. When the doors opened, the pair stepped out into a well lit room of stone. In the room sat an elderly man behind a desk. He was reading a book. He jumped to his feet and bowed. He and Lina conversed in German - Kate tuned it out - and she looked around the room. No windows. The ceiling was vaulted. Aside from the lift, there was only one other door that she could see and it was a vault door, the kind that belonged in a bank, with its enormous turning wheel.

“Herr Martin, I’d like to open the door tonight.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” said the older man and then Kate was witness to one of the most dramatic and yet, yes, this is really happening moments of her life. Lina went to an electronic display set into the wall beside the giant vault door and pressed her thumb against it. There was a loud beep followed by a softer hiss, then Lina went to the wheel and spun it until the door unlocked. Then Lina pulled the vault door open with a hard tug.

“Welcome to my vault,” said the Queen of Mecklenburg as she stepped aside to give Kate a good look inside. Kate’s mouth dropped open.

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

Inside was not just any vault, but a jewel vault. An enormous walk-in jewel vault. Kate tentatively followed Lina into the rectangular room. There was rows and rows, columns and columns of trays, drawers and cabinets. Through the glass of the cabinets the jewels shimmered and sparkled under the down lights. There were several work stations, some with some serious looking tools and other equipment.

“I’ve asked the staff to bring down a picnic basket-”

“We can’t eat in here!” Kate said in a hushed startled whisper. Lina assured her that she frequently wore items in this room and ate food while doing so. Kate glared but relented. Lina knew best, Lina knew best. This might be the craziest thing Kate had ever done. She nodded numbly as Lina showed her the brooches, earrings and necklaces she most frequently wore.

Soon the picnic basket arrived and Herr Martin helped them lay it out on the vault’s floor. Herr Martin left the vault door half closed to create some sense of privacy. Kate took a step back, took in the fruit, cheeses, wine and fruit juice smartly spread out across a tartan picnic blanket, then looked at the diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, pearls and whatever else she could see in the cabinets and drawers. This was the craziest thing Kate had ever done.

Lina asked Kate if she could pour her an orange juice and set about retrieving jewellery boxes, setting them down on the blanket, then returning to a drawer or cabinet for more jewellery boxes. When Lina finally sat down Kate had eaten two pieces of rock melon and drunk half a glass of apple juice. Kate wasn’t sure how many jewellery boxes were stacked up around them, but it was a lot. Kate had to force herself not to gulp down the rest of her glass.

“So,” she began, trying to sound casual and cool about everything. “What’s in the boxes?”

“Tiaras.”

Kate gulped down the rest of her glass. Oh, how she wished she hadn’t decided to be polite and stick to non-alcoholic drinks. Lina happily opened the box nearest her. “Ah, the Hannover. I’ve never actually worn this one in public.” Lina carefully pulled the tiara from its case and unceremoniously placed it on her head. Kate almost choked.

“Are you okay?”

Kate nodded, unable to keep her eyes off the intricate scroll work of the diamond tiara on her dear friend’s head. It looked so beautiful and dazzling.

“This is a lot.”

“Oh. Too much?”

“Maybe.”

“I thought it would be fun.”

Kate looked at Lina now and was quick to assure the crestfallen young lady that this was super, super fun but that she maybe needed a minute.

“So, too fast?”

“Yeah.”

Lina said okay and changed gears. She put the Hannover Tiara back in its case then turned it around so the lid faced open to Kate. And she began to explain the story and history of the tiara, of how it had been made for her great-grandmother, the last Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, a woman named Alexandra who was originally a Princess of Hannover. Alexandra had passed the tiara to her eldest daughter, Lina’s grandmother Thyra, who died long before Lina was born. It was reserved for Queens only. Almost all the tiaras Lina had placed on the floor were reserved for Queens only. The Hannover Tiara was a little more special as Lina had decided she would never wear the tiara while her mother lived.

When Lina reached the end of the story, she once again removed the tiara from its case, placed it on her head and asked for a rating and any comments. Kate laughed and gave the Hannover Tiara an eight out of ten and said it was beautiful and delicate.

One by one, Lina opened the jewellery boxes, relayed the history of the tiara before modelling it for Kate’s serious review, taking breaks to eat and sip their glasses of juice.

The Russian Fringe was a stunning wall of diamonds, the Stolberg-Rossla was sweet but too gappy, the Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach Tiara was ridiculous, the Russian Palmette Tiara was Lina’s favourite but not Kate’s, the Reuss-Köstritz Tiara was stunning and elaborate, and the Alexandra Tiara was sort of jaunty and Kate’s favourite.

“Those where the historical tiaras. Been in the family for generations.” Lina reached for the final three boxes. “These are three I bought this year.”

The first one she showed Kate was a seed pearl tiara set in a gold frame. “The Baden Pearl & Diamond Tiara” Lina explained was the oldest tiara she currently owned. Kate thought it was lovely, though maybe difficult to match a dress with.

The second of the newly purchased tiaras was a small but gorgeously designed diamond tiara. It looked like something was off about it though, then Lina pointed out the small pouches inside the box which contained nine diamonds that would usually suspend from the arches. “Anything that suspends freely is taken off after it’s been worn. I haven’t worn this tiara yet. I bought it a few months ago anonymously and I’ll be allowing it to be shown in France next year.”

“France?”

“The diamonds once belonged to Empress Josephine, hence it’s name The Empress Josephine Tiara. One of her Russian descendants had Fabergé make this tiara in 1890.”

“”Fabergé.”

“Yeah,” Lina nodded in full agreement of how fucking cool that was, but declined to wear the tiara in its incomplete form. “It’ll look weird.”

Kate had a hard time imagining a universe where wearing even an incomplete Fabergé tiara made one look weird. Kate gave it ten out of ten.

And like that, they were on the last tiara Lina counted as hers. It had quite the story. Previously owned by a British Viscount, the tiara brought tragedy in its wake and was supposedly cursed. Lina had bought it a few months earlier and renamed it ‘The Schwerin Kokoshnik Tiara’ because it was also a wall of diamonds in a vaguely kokoshnik shape. Once on Lina’s head, Kate decided that maybe this one was her favourite and gave it ten out of ten.

Lina pulled the tiara off her head to look at it, then she looked up at Kate, then back down at the tiara. Lina turned the tiara around and lifted it towards Kate’s head. Kate jerked away so violently she nearly fell backwards. Lina said her name sternly and tried again. This time Kate dodged to the right.

“What are you doing?” asked Kate at the same time Lina told her to “Stop that. Stay still. It’s not really cursed.”

“I didn’t think it was.”

“Don’t you want to try one on?”

“They’re not mine to try on,” Kate insisted.

“I get to decide that.”

“It should be for family only,” Kate insisted.

“You are my family,” Lina said. Then said it again. Kate’s heart all but leapt into her throat. Lina said it again and Kate nodded.

“You’re my family too.”

“Then wear this,” Lina thrusted the tiara into Kate’s hand. Trembling she carefully placed the tiara on her head. Her hair was down as usual and the tiara wouldn’t stay straight and she loved it. She wiggled her head and the tiara wobbled from side to side. They began to giggle. They giggled when Kate insisted she not be the only one wearing a tiara. Lina giggled as she placed her very favourite tiara, the Russian Palmette, on her head. Her hair was up as usual and it didn’t stay on very well either. They giggled about that too. They giggled as they chatted and finished the cheese and nearly all the fruit. They giggled because it was wonderful and it was late and they were most definitely tired but they didn’t want to go to bed just yet.

They didn’t hear anyone enter the vault they were giggling so much.

“Oh my god,” said William, one of his hands was pressed against his forehead. “I can honestly say I did not expect to come back to this.”

They didn’t giggle then, they laughed, at William’s stunned expression, at how loudly Kate asked how did Will know where to find them, at how much quieter Lina said she told her staff to send him down to the vault if he got home before they went to bed. They laughed at Herr Martin poking his head in asking if everything was okay. They laughed until their stomachs ached. They laughed until William finally joined in. Eventually they stopped. It was late and they were all tired.

Lina lifted her head as she finished laughing. A hand moved to unconsciously push her hair behind her ear as her eyes sought out William’s.

There had been these moments before in Kate’s life and she knew it would happen again. There was something about these people, these blood royals she loved, that she would never be able to touch, something that she would never completely understand. The duty, the weight of the lives that they lived in, that they’d die in. There was also another part, that what was between two families who were so close they were really one family.

That was what Lina and William were. A current monarch and a future one. Two cousins with shared experiences, expectations, fears and grief. William was older but Karolina Augusta had lived through more than her years would generally allow. There was a level playing field between them. William would never dismiss Lina because of her age, and Lina would never say “you wouldn’t understand.”

Whatever they were silently saying to each other now was lost on Kate. She looked between them but could not decipher the little smiles, the crinkles around the eyes or the titling of heads. It ended quickly, William broke eye contact first, looking downright bashful as his cheeks reddened.

One by one, Kate first, then Lina, he held out his hand and pulled them to their feet, tiaras wobbling on their heads.

“Let’s get this squared away and get you two to bed.”

.

.

.

As William tucked the blanket around her shoulders, Kate asked him what he and Lina were silently saying to each other. Will smiled.

“She was just thanking me,” he said.

.

.

.

According to the schedule Lina had provided, breakfast would begin in the Dining Room on the First Floor at eight o’clock. Will and Kate slept until seven, took turns showering, got dressed and walked across to the small dining room. There were already several people milling around the sixteen seater table. All of Lina’s cousins had spent the night at the Palace, and with herself, Will, Lina, Nora and Klaus, it was a full table for breakfast.

After wishing their host a ‘Guten Morgen’, Will asked if Lina had gone for her usual morning run. “Of course I did,” said the young queen, not at all looking like she’d only had a few hours’ sleep. And they say youth is wasted on the young.

Soon the room was full, all sixteen seated and breakfast was served. Kate didn’t talk much during breakfast, preferring to watch Lina and a small portion of her enormous family interact. Lina’s cousins departed after breakfast, going back to their homes and their jobs. They were sweetly affectionate, promising to get Lina to invite her back soon so they could take her out next time. She and Konstantin exchanged phone numbers. “Will said you were a photographer too.” Kate denied she was anywhere near his level but Konstantin countered that by saying a lot of professional photographers were rather ordinary anyway.

Kate and Will joined Lina, Klaus and Eleonora in the courtyard as they waved goodbye to the long line of cars.

Like the day of their arrival, Lina had a number of engagements outside of the Palace that morning, which meant they wouldn’t see her again until they departed for Ludwigslust at two o’clock. So they had some time to fill. And fill it they did. William took Kate on a tour of the grounds, beginning with the Inselgarten’s gardens and grotto. Kate took a number of photos she thought would turn out really good. The dormant gardens covered in a thin layer of frost. The fog lifting from the lake. The bare trees on the banks of the water. The palace’s silhouette against the cloudy sky. The gravestone of Karolina Augusta’s namesake. The manhole covering the emergency exit from the jewel vault beneath the Schlosskirche.

After the Inselgarten, they crossed the bridge to the Schlossgarten. The space was mostly laid to lawn but it had some interesting features like the shallow pond, the rows and rows of fruit trees, the summer house and the large number of statues. As they walked, William explained that this part of the garden was opened to the public when Lina wasn’t in residence (every weekend and school holidays), but that the meadow to their right across a small stretch of water was open to the public year round and never used by the royal family. Kate took more photos, including several of William imitating the poses of statues.

It wasn’t until Kate and William reached the far end of the Schlossgarten and began walking back to the Schlossinsel that she could put a name to the feeling Schwerin Palace had invoked in her in the moments of their arrival: homecoming. It wasn’t just warmth or welcome, it was coming home, even if it was to a place she had never been to before.

Lina lives there, Kate thought as she paused to take another photo of the Palace. Family, her heart swelled at the thought. My family lives there.

Chapter Text

Balmoral, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

On the first day of his visit, Harry met Simon.

Simon Leifsson was Swedish. Really Swedish. In looks mostly. Personality wise, Harry hadn’t met many Swedish people to compare Simon to. Imagine a tall, handsome, blond viking and you get Simon Leifsson. Like that guy from True Blood but with a beard. A smallish beard that took a lot of effort to look that effortless.

Harry had been looking forward to meeting Simon. After Graf Michael, Lina needed someone in her life again and she’d always sounded happy when she spoke of her new boyfriend. She’d known the Swedish viking for years. He lived in Wirsbo and was the nephew of Lina’s stable master in Sweden.

So, Simon Leifsson. Younger than Harry, but taller than William. Very handsome and outdoorsy, but lacking in military training so Harry was pretty sure he could take him in a fight.

Harry arrived at Balmoral just before lunch. After dropping off his things in his room, Harry went to the river in search of his family and friends. Today’s lunch was going to be a barbecue of steak, chicken, sausages, salad, fruit and any fish they’d managed to catch. Harry had been looking forward to it for weeks. The fish on the estate were fantastic and watching his grandfather take command of the cooking was always a treat. Grandpa and Lina’s secret sauce was the real highlight of any barbecue. The highly coveted sauce wasn’t used everyday, in order to prevent its mouthwatering taste from becoming ‘common and bland’. Lina had already warned him not to expect to taste it more than twice during his week long visit.

As he approached the picnic site by the river’s edge, he heard them before he saw them, chatting and laughing. And then, suddenly he saw them: Queen Karolina Augusta I of Mecklenburg, Duchess of Rostock and Elde, and her younger brother, and heir presumptive, Prince Klaus Wilhelm, Duke of Havel and Mecklenburg-Schwerin, tearing through the undergrowth at full speed towards him. Lina’s yellow and white dress stood out against the brown, green and grey of their surroundings.

He hugged Lina first. Harry struggled to stay upright as the force Lina’s body hit his, causing him to lift her off her feet. Once she was properly settled on the ground, Harry kissed her cheek and bowed his head. “Eure Majestät,” he said as Lina beamed.

He hugged Klaus next. The tall teenager held on tightly and whispered “thank god you’re here, mate” into Harry’s ear. Lina said she’d heard that as Harry laughed.

They got him caught up as they walked towards the rest of the group. Klaus was excited to start his final year of formal education at Schloss-Schule in September but he hadn’t decided what areas he wanted to focus on after. Lina was vague about current problems within the government but was confident it would be sorted out after Parliament opened next month. The seas had been calm on their voyage from Wismar to London to Aberdeen and their aunt Heinrike Franziska and his grandfather had been in fine bickering form the fortnight before. Harry was grateful Heinrike wouldn’t be joining them at Balmoral that year. In turn, Harry talked about his continued military training and his recent visit to the United States. Lina and Klaus, neither of whom had visited the country, bombarded him with questions as they made their way to the banks of the River Dee.

By the time they arrived at the picnic site, Harry had completely forgotten he’d be meeting Simon Leifsson for the first time that day. After greeting his grandparents and godmother, Lina escorted Harry to where Simon was perched on the riverbank, fishing pole in hand, dressed like a true outdoorsman. Lina proudly introduced them to each other. Harry smiled, looked up and shook the man’s hand. He received a smile and a firm handshake in return. By all accounts, the initial introductions went fine. They made small talk about fish and fishing. Harry’s knowledge of both was mostly limited to eating said fish but Simon definitely sounded appreciative of the quality of the estate’s fish allowing Harry to feel proud on his grandmother’s behalf.

Lina stood between them, smiling her polite smile, nodding, and saying “exactly” or “yes” a few times. She wasn’t sticking around to talk about fishing. Lina’s interest in fishing was in negative digits. She was watching Simon’s reaction to Harry and Harry’s reaction to Simon. Harry wasn’t sure what Lina expected to happen. Simon had already met his grandparents, some of the most famous people in the world. Meeting Harry was surely easy compared to meeting Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second.

Whatever Lina was waiting for happened, or it didn’t, because she soon persuaded Simon to stop fishing and return with her and Harry to cook the fish he had caught earlier. Lina and Simon walked hand in hand up the banks of the River Dee and Harry followed behind.

Grandpa and Simon cooked the meat while Granny, Nora and Harry cut up the vegetables and fruit. Lina and Klaus were in charge of dishing up the plates and filling cups with whatever was requested. Seven people sat around the six seater wooden picnic table and began to eat. Granny, Nora and Harry sat opposite Grandpa, Lina, Simon and Klaus.

“How was Poland?” Harry asked. Lina burst out laughing and replied in indecipherable Polish. Klaus almost choked on his sandwich, laughing between more indecipherable Polish words.

“I will never understand why you let them learn a language you couldn’t speak,” his grandfather said pointedly across the table to Eleonora. His godmother effortlessly shrugged it off. This was an old and well trod conversation between the families.

“It was important for them to learn,” said Eleonora, she of infinite patience. “Aside from Polish, the only language they know that I do not, is French.”

“Et mon français est impeccable,” said his grandmother, eyebrow raised at her godson and his elder sister. A chuckle rippled across the table.

Language was a strange thing in his family. They obviously all knew English. German was also widespread, and a source of criticism from various sections of the press, despite other sections of the press pointing out that several countries speak German, including their long-time ally Mecklenburg. All Harry knew was that being raised bilingual made visits from Lina’s family much easier.

There were also pockets of other languages. Take French. Only a handful were fluent but thanks to some schooling and France’s close proximity, several others had an intermediate knowledge of the language. Surprisingly Danish was also more widely spoken than people would expect. All his Meck cousins spoke it, due to family history and their own close proximity to Denmark. His Grandpa took great pride in his Danish heritage and began learning it in earnest during the 1950s. He’d been delighted when Birgitta joined the family in the 70s. No one else in the family was fluent, but most knew a few dozen phrases and a couple hundred words through osmosis.

With a start, Harry realised they’d been speaking English since he arrived at Balmoral. That was unusual. When mingling with his Meck cousins, they would speak German, or a mix, changing languages mid sentence or for a certain word. It’d been exclusively English for several minutes and he hadn’t noticed. Kate wasn’t at Balmoral yet and his future sister-in-law was usually the main reason - Harry’s eyes snapped to Simon. Simon doesn’t speak German.

Harry took a bite out of his perfectly cooked and deliciously marinated steak. That was interesting. Maybe even notable, but did it deserve comment? Probably not. Lina and Simon had been together since October the year before. Ten months. More than enough time to throw yourself into learning a new language. Simon knew at least two already. What was one more if you loved Karolina Augusta?

After lunch, the younger members of the party helped clear away the leftover food, utensils, plates and cups in the picnic baskets. Harry and Simon took a basket each, and the group started the short walk back to the Castle, his Granny and Nora at the head.

“Fætter Philip,” said Lina, stepping up beside his grandfather, handing him the bottle of secret sauce she had held onto. Grandpa shared a conspiratorial grin with Lina and pocketed the bottle. Lina said something to his grandfather, a farewell of some kind, as she then slowed down, allowing Philip, Klaus Simon to pull ahead of her, and for Harry to catch up.

“Poland was excellent, by the way,” Lina said with a grin. He asked where she had visited that time. “A few towns in Silesia.” She didn’t elaborate on the names, which wouldn’t have meant much to Harry, instead spoke of the people she’d met, the flowers she’d received and the hands she’d shaken. Karolina Augusta I of Mecklenburg was well beloved by the people of her neighbouring countries and she happily reminded the governments of her neighbouring countries of that fact a few times a year.

“So, what are your days like this summer?” Harry asked. Klaus and Nora would have less constraints on their time in Scotland. Lina wouldn’t. There was only one week in the year Lina allowed herself time off and it was not in August.

“Morning run, breakfast, Die Papiere, domestic debriefing, foreign debriefing, military debriefing, morning tea, Dutch lessons, lunch, free time, afternoon tea, free time, dinner, replying to emails, reading letters, and then bed.”

“Okay,” said Harry as he mulled over his choices. ‘Free time’ was a trap and he wasn’t going to fall for it. “Would you like some company in the morning? Unless Simon’s going to be there. I don’t want to intrude.”

“You wouldn’t be intruding. Simon doesn’t like running.”

Harry then learnt Simon was a “gym goer” preferring to do all of his exercise indoors and late at night, not early in the morning. Simon didn’t like horses. Simon didn’t like hiking for recreation. Simon did like hunting though, having spent most of his life in country Sweden. Simon did know a third language: Norwegian. Simon got sea sick. Simon was allergic to pollen.

Harry wanted to ask what Lina and Simon spent their time doing if none of their interests seemed to align but he thought better of it. Because that would lead to images he’d rather not have. Harry held his tongue and arrived at the Castle in a thoroughly bad mood.

On the second day of his visit, Harry’s alarm went off at six in the morning.

Lina was waiting for him in the entrance hall. Her workout kit, dark grey with bright green stripes along the seams, looked glamorous next to his t-shirt and sweatpants.

“Nice shoes, Your Majesty,” Harry said with a grin, stepping up to kiss her on the cheek before bowing his head. Like the rest of Lina’s outfit, they were dark grey and bright green. Lina thanked him without a hint of irony or sarcasm.

“Here you go,” she held out a bottle of water, which Harry gratefully took. He knew from past experience: Lina liked taking long and arduous runs when in Scotland. It wouldn’t be a good run unless they ascended three hills and forded two streams. Harry expected they wouldn’t return to the castle until nearly eight, starved and exhausted.

He felt sympathy for Major Jonasen and Captain Schimanski. Harry had volunteered, Lina’s security officers hadn’t. Though none of them could say they didn’t know what to expect. Lina’s schedule, completely self-imposed, was charming in its rigid structure and predictability. “Everyone needs structure, Harry,” he remembered Karolina Augusta tell him almost a decade ago.

“All set?” Lina asked Harry and her security team. They all nodded. Lina turned on her heel, her braided ponytail swinging as she did, “let’s go.”

As soon as Lina’s feet hit gravel, she began to run to the other end of the castle. Harry quickly caught up. They slowed to a stop near the end of the castle. There was a low garden wall nearby that they used for stretches as they warmed up. Also known as ‘Lina Is A Terrible Distraction Part 86’.

It’d been years since Harry noticed his friend’s attractiveness. Karolina Augusta was an impressive person. Harry knew, knew in his bones, there was no one else like her in the whole world. She had a beautiful smile and a laugh she used generously. Twenty years old and already a veteran in politics and international relations. She knew what to say and how to say it to assure her people and to sooth her politicians. Karolina Augusta was a dancer, poised and graceful. And limber like you would not believe.

Once sufficiently stretched and warmed up, Lina turned on the spot, taking in the distant landscape.

“Let’s go south. How long has it been since you visited the cairns?”

Harry admitted that it had been years since he last saw them and Lina decided it would be a good idea for them to see all the cairns during his visit. He had no objections to the plan, it would give them a goal to reach before his departure and from memory, the views from the cairns were breathtaking (weather permitting). So they headed south, maintaining a steady pace across the lawns south-east of the castle.

The officers hang back, about ten metres behind them. They would stay in this formation for the duration of the run. Die Königinnenschutz und Sicherheitsabteilung (The Queen’s Protection and Security Division) trusted that his grandmother’s people kept Balmoral secure enough for them to only send out a small team during the morning runs. There wasn’t any snipers hidden among the heather. It also helped that Lina didn’t have a set route through the moors and would just run wherever she felt like running.

They visited three cairns that morning, Leopold’s, Arthur’s and the Purchase. The stacked piles of stone made for the Princes were wider at the base, while the Purchase was narrower, making it appear taller. The views from the cairns were as good as he remembered. Lina talked Harry into appearing in a few of her photos. He took a few snaps of his own. One of them would make a great water colour if he ever got around to it.

As the three cairns they’d visited were arranged in a triangle relatively close together, Lina decided against a direct route back to the Castle, instead suggesting they follow the path that would take them south-west and then further west towards the River Dee, and then back north-east to the Castle.

“Give me a break, Lina,” said Harry, thinking of eggs, toast and orange juice. “I’m on holiday.”

“So am I.”

“You’re never on holiday.”

Immediately, Harry knew that was the wrong thing to say. Lina’s smile tightened, she adjusted her shoulders and nodded once. She stayed silent and instead focused on the dirt path ahead of her. Harry suppressed a sigh. They hadn’t forded any streams, and had ascended only one hill so far. He supposed he could compromise distance for ease.

“Let’s go, I’m almost out of water,” said Harry, picking up speed. He knew not correctly rationing the water would get a rise out of Lina, distracting her, and his friend did not disappoint.

“I’m not giving you any of my water.”

“What will I drink then?”

“We’ll go down to the river and refill your bottle.”

“Are you trying to kill me?”

Lina didn’t answer and instead sped up which didn’t fill Harry with much confidence. Major Jonasen said they would never think of trying to kill him with water from the River Dee. Which also didn’t fill Harry with much confidence. Harry ignored Lina’s chatty protection officer and shouted out to Lina that the last one to Balmoral had to hand over the secret sauce.

Lina cheered and whooped as she run into the Entrance Hall of Balmoral Castle ahead of him. Granny admonished them from the next room and sent a giggling Harry and Lina upstairs to shower before they’d be allowed a bite of breakfast.

On the third day of his visit, Harry didn’t punch Simon.

In hindsight, Harry shouldn’t have agreed to go deer stalking with Simon and Klaus.

Pros: He got to spend time with Klaus. The weather had held until after their return to the Castle.

Cons: He got to spend time with Simon. Lunch had been on the side of a dirt road with a pack of blokes instead of indoors with Lina.

Their hunting party hadn’t been successful. Harry wasn’t sure if that was a pro or a con. It had been a boring day. Harry was grateful when they finally returned to Balmoral. His grandparents, Lina and Nora had been sympathetic to their unproductive day. Harry hoped that maybe their sympathies would garner a surprise appearance of the secret sauce at dinner time. It hadn’t.

The highlight of his day was either when he’d gotten Schimanski to laugh at his joke about rocks (you had to be there) or the blank look Lina gave him as he’d failed to climb The Princess Royal’s Cairn. He hadn’t been able to find a good foothold so it wasn’t really his fault.

The clouds had gathered above the estate during dinner. The light rain remained constant, buffeted by a fast wind, which made for nice background noise when the family gathered together in the drawing room after yet another wardrobe change.

Apparently sensing his mood, the others busied themselves with books or conversations between each other, leaving Harry to stew in his thoughts. Maybe he should have distracted himself with a book, or suggested a few hands of poker, but he never found the motivation to speak or get up and dig around in a drawer for a deck of cards.

Exhausted, Harry fell asleep in his armchair to the soft voices of his grandparents, godmother, cousins and that fucking idiot named Simon Leifsson.

On the fourth day of his visit, Harry spent most of his time indoors.

The light drizzle from the night before didn’t let up. Neither did Lina’s schedule.

“You owe me.” Harry said as Lina passed him a water bottle. “Big.”

“Ah huh.”

“Huge.”

“Sure, I do.”

“You owe me so big, you’ll never be able to pay me back.”

“I’m sure I’ll manage it.”

“You won’t.”

They were half soaked before they finished warming up as their waterproof jackets would only protect so much. The fast wind from the night before had thankfully died down, or Harry may have put his foot down and insisted they not go out that morning. The water muddied up the path so instead of running, the group walked their way up to the nearest cairns they hadn’t visited yet, Louise and Helena’s Cairns.

Incredibly, Lina seemed to come alive in the rain. The image of Lina facing the sky, mouth open to catch rain water would stay with him for a long time.

By early afternoon, the light drizzle had instead turned to proper rain and Eleonora took it upon herself to keep the group entertained. Which could only mean one thing…dancing.

After lunch, Eleonora hosted a ball “in gratitude for hosting my family at Balmoral” for the millionth time. “You’re very welcome,” his Grandpa had bowed at the waist, “and welcome back any time.” It said a lot of his grandfather that he could say that with a straight face while wearing the kilt he’d received as a Christmas present from Karolina a few years previous. Harry was wearing a kilt too. And a dinner jacket. All the men were. The women wore pretty tops and long tartan skirts. “Perfect for swishing,” Granny had said and then demonstrated, prompting Eleonora and Karolina to do the same. Harry wished he could have taken a photo of that moment.

He would forever be impressed by his godmother’s ability to arrange a ball in a matter of hours. But kilts. He did not like wearing a kilt. Or the type of dancing that usually accompanied balls. He could adequately waltz but that was about it. Granny and Eleonora were wonderfully patient with him, though they found better partners in Grandpa and Klaus.

It turned out you were very lucky to find a partner in Lina or Simon that afternoon.

The previous three days of watching Lina and Simon interact, or more correctly, barely interact, of Harry wracking his brain trying to figure out what Lina sees in the guy who would rather sleep or hunt during what little free time she has, had almost reached breaking point the day before.

From the moment the music started and Simon bowed and asked Lina to dance, the pair hadn’t stopped dancing. Simon wasn’t as well taught as his partner, but he made up for it with enthusiasm. She was happiest dancing and if Simon loved dancing then that must have been enough for her. Harry didn’t believe that though. Lina deserved more than just a dance partner.

“Maybe I should have put this on tomorrow,” Eleonora said as he tried to lead her around the room. “But you were all so bored today.” Harry knew why Eleonora was disappointed the weather had been bad today instead of tomorrow or later in the week. Unless someone really pushed for it, it was likely that this summer would pass without his Dad and Karolina Augusta sharing the dance floor. “It is a shame,” Eleonora said. “When Charles and Karolina dance, it is magic.”

On the fifth day of his visit, Harry discovered something about himself.

“Say cheese,” said Harry as Lina posed from her spot halfway up Beatrice’s Cairn. Lina held onto the stones with one hand, leaned back and with her free hand high in the air shouted out ‘Käse!’ Harry took the photo. Lina gracefully jumped to the ground and jogged over.

“Thanks, Harry,” said Lina as she took back her phone. He watched her fingers dance across the screen as she uploaded the photo to her Facebook and Twitter accounts. “You indulge my social media addiction like a true friend who detests it.”

“Ha ha,” said Harry. “I don’t detest it. I just don’t understand why you do it.”

Lina returned her phone to its pouch. “It’s about control, I think. At least that’s what I’m trying to achieve. Also regularly releasing high quality photos of my everyday life brings down the value of blurry paparazzi photos.”

“So, it’s a win-win?”

Lina stood straighter, adjusted her shoulders and nodded. “It works for me. I don’t know if it would work for you. Most paparazzo couldn’t pick me out of a line up.” Lina smiled, “most people couldn’t point to Mecklenburg on a map. The media treats me differently to you and your family. Maybe I’m not interesting enough.” Harry rolled his eyes at Lina’s terrible joke.

“You know it’s because you speak German, right?”

“Oh yeah,” Lina nodded. “If Mecklenburg were part of the Anglo-sphere, the media would eat my family alive. I think it’s going to change, though. We’re not going to be able to stay anonymous for ever.”

“I have to travel halfway around the world to find people who don’t know who I am.”

It was amusing, he supposed, that this was one area of their lives that had little overlap. Outside of a handful of countries in Europe, Lina enjoyed incredible anonymity. Her visits to Canada to visit relatives were rarely reported on. Her visits to London were so frequent several articles a year were barely a paragraph long. She was still so young, she still had so much to do. There was no United Nations address in her near future. There was no visit to America in the cards for some years. That big moment, big event, that would inevitably push her centre stage hadn’t happened yet.

Lina stepped closer to him, “can we go sit? I want to ask you something before your brother gets here.” Lina’s serious expression unbalanced him but he followed her to a large rock for them to sit on side by side without further comment.

The rock wasn’t large enough for them to sit without touching. Lina’s leg and hip were pressed against his. She was leaning forward, speaking to the dirt more than him. She was unsure of what to say, unsure of what he would say.

“It’s my birthday next month. Yours as well,” she added as though he had suddenly forgotten they shared a birthday. “It’s going to be a big thing and I wanted to thank you for accepting the invitation.”

“You don’t need to thank me.”

“I do,” she insisted. “It’s not something you’re used to. I know I hold many white tie events-”

“White tie? It’s white tie?”

Lina laughed and turned her head to the side to look at him knowingly, “you didn’t read the invitation, did you?”

“Dad told me about it. I said yes, of course.” Harry’s eye narrowed, “he didn’t tell me about the dress code.” Harry groaned. He hated tails. Uniform it was then.

“I’ve never seen you in uniform, Lieutenant,” said Lina, surprising Harry. He hadn’t realised. “Just as you’ve never seen me wear a tiara.” He hadn’t realised that either.

“Huh. Interesting.” He leaned forward, mirroring her pose. “It’ll be a night of firsts then. First white tie event together. First time spending our birthdays together.”

“I’m looking forward to that the most, I think.” Lina smiled at the ground. Alarm bells went off in Harry’s head.

“What have you got planned?”

“Something lovely and thoughtful.” Harry believed her. Lina was lovely and thoughtful. He needed to get her the best birthday present in the history of the whole fucking planet. “I wanted to give you something extra. You and William. I haven’t been Queen for long and my parents handed out most of the Orders my guests will be wearing.” Lina stole a glance in his direction. “I wanted to award you and William with an Order of Johann Albrecht.”

“Oh!” Harry said, surprised. The image of him standing tall in dress uniform, wearing a multi-striped sash across his chest, a star badge pinned below his heart, formed in his mind. His first Order, his first sash, his first star. Being given something because he happened to be someone’s grandson or someone else’s friend never completely sat well with him. But it was important to his grandmother and he knew it was important to Lina.

“I haven’t run the idea past anyone else,” Lina continued. “Technically, I do not have to.”

The Order of Johann Albrecht was given for personal service to the monarch of Mecklenburg. He’d seen his father, mother, grandparents and several other family members wear it (in person or in photographs) over the years. It was awarded on the discretion of the monarch without ‘government interference’. It was a private and personal decision made without regard to rank. Lina took it very seriously. Lina had awarded several foreign royals and heads of states the highest honour she could bestow, but held back the Order of Johann Albrecht because she could never, in her heart, describe them as friend or family.

He remembered the row between Lina and his grandmother when Lina tried to get Granny to accept a Royal Family Order. Granny had refused, saying it wasn’t appropriate as they weren’t in the same House or Family. Lina was frustrated, and more than a little upset, saying that all she wanted to do was show everyone how much Elizabeth meant to her. “I can’t give you the other Orders. You’ve got them all already.” It was the same for his grandfather, father, aunt and uncles. Camilla had been the first member of the British Family Royal to receive an Order from Lina (the Order of Johann Albrecht and Camilla’s first Order of any kind). Camilla had worn it proudly at Lina’s coronation almost three years ago. An official portrait of his father and step-mother taken at Schweriner Schloss on the morning of the coronation had pride of place in Camilla’s study.

He would accept, of course he would, and so would William, happily and gladly because it meant the world to their friend to be able to do this. He said as much to Lina, and any niggling feeling he had about being honoured because of who he was and not because of what he did melted away at the relief and happiness that lit up Lina’s face.

“I thought I’d have to do more convincing,” Lina admitted, “I knew if I got you to agree, William would be a cinch.”

Hours later, after Dad, Camilla, William and Kate arrived at Balmoral, it was time for the second picnic lunch during Harry’s visit. Granny, with Lina in the front passenger seat, lead the dozen Range Rovers south to Loch Muick. Harry drove himself, Klaus and two RPOs to the Loch. Thankfully, Simon went in a different car.

On the shore of the Loch, Harry sat next to Kate and Klaus on tartan blankets and ate chicken and venison sandwiches that Grandpa and Lina had cooked earlier that day. On blankets nearby sat the rest of the group, their protection officers were spread around the shore and the surrounding slopes. Only Karolina and William stood apart, their Wellington boots inches from the water’s edge.

“What do you think they’re talking about?” asked Kate, her half-eaten sandwich held two handed in front of her.

“She’s asking William to accept an Order of Johann Albrecht,” Klaus said, then he pointed at Harry. “She’s already asked Harry.”

“How did you know about that?” Harry asked.

“She tells me what she can. I’m her heir presumptive. One day, I may have to live with the choices she makes.” Klaus was so matter of fact that Kate paused in her eating, her face stricken. Harry let out a breath filled with sorrow. It was a lot to place on a seventeen year old, the possibility that if your sister remains unmarried or without children, then the Crown goes to you. It had been a lot to place on a three and a half year old too. A lot to place on a grieving widow seven months pregnant. Harry took another bite of his chicken sandwich and exchanged a reassuring smile with Kate.

Lina and William then hugged in their calm, special way, so different from the way Lina hugged him or Kate. As Lina and William approached the picnic blankets, the others began turning their attention to them. “I’ve got some wonderful news,” Lina said, her smile wide and bright.

That night, after dinner, William and Harry sat on the garden wall and drank beers. William asked “did I ever tell you about the time I found Kate and Lina minutes away from a sugar coma with tiaras on their heads?”

On the sixth day of his visit, Harry discovered something about Lina.

They visited no cairns that morning. His father hosted breakfast for Camilla, Will, Kate, Lina, Eleonora, Klaus, Simon and himself at Birkhall. As the schedule needed to be maintained at all costs, Lina insisted she take a scenic route from Balmoral to Birkhall. Harry insisted he join her.

Harry didn’t regret the decision, not when their shoes got wet from a small stream, not when they worked up a sweat climbing yet another hill, and definitely not when Lina sent a tree branch in his direction and got whacked in the face. He could still picture her concerned face close to his, feel her fingers brush over his scraped skin.

Spending time with Lina was more important than sleeping in, it was more important than being able to have a shower before breakfast at Birkhall, it was more important than hunting deer or fishing. He understood that, Graf Michael had understood that but Simon didn’t. Harry wanted to shake the tall, blond viking, shake some sense into him, or some of the nonsense out of him. “Don’t you understand what you’ve got?” Harry wanted to shout,” don’t you understand?!” until his throat was raw.

After his injury, Lina took a direct route to Birkhall, insisting that Harry needed medical attention. Once they arrived at Birkhall, his father had taken one look at Harry’s face and sent him and Lina to help Simon and Klaus set the table. Which did wonders for Harry’s mood.

During breakfast, Harry ate as much of the smorgasbord as he could manage and slipped away outside at the first opportunity. He needed a smoke. Failing that, he walked along the garden edge, recounting fighter jet model numbers under his breath. He was so focused on his task that he didn’t notice Eleonora until he almost bumped right into her. Smiling wryly with a lit cigarette between her lips, his godmother offered him a cigarette from her compact. Harry happily accepted.

Birkhall’s elevated position above its gardens and River Muick below afforded excellent views. Harry and Eleonora stood side by side admiring the views in silence for some time before his godmother enquired about his week so far in Scotland, noting how happy she was Harry was spending so much time with her children.

“I don’t know my daughter very well,” said Eleonora. Harry stared at his godmother, with growing disbelief. “I don’t think she even knows who she is.”

“Nora…” Whatever he meant to say next never passed his lips. That couldn’t be...it wasn’t true. Lina knew who she was.

“How much of what she does is because she wants to? Because she thinks she should do it? Or because it’s expected?” Eleonora let out a laugh, almost shrill. “Sometimes she does and says the most extraordinary things and I wonder ‘where she did get the idea to do that?’”

It was rhetorical. Harry didn’t think Eleonora expected him to have answers but Harry wanted to be able to give them to her.

“I often think - too often think - about what my children would be like today if their father were still alive. I hope we would have had more of them for a start, though probably not,” Eleonora tapped the cigarette. Ash fell onto the ground below. “Would Karolina Augusta be as brave? As smart? Would she be less serious? Less impressive to us all if she’d grown up a Crown Princess instead of a Queen?”

Harry stood still, conscious of the rising and falling of his chest as he breathed in and out. His heart ached for his godmother and the life she never got to live. He had no answers to her questions. It was impossible to know for sure. He couldn’t imagine Karolina Augusta as anything but what she was. She was a force, she was the immoveable object, she was so young and so old, she was dresses and skirts and Wellington boots. She was Die Königin and his friend.

Eleonora continued with her unanswerable questions “would I be as protective? “Would I worry as much? Would they have gone to a normal school? Would she have real friends?” Until “would I love her differently?”

“No,” Harry said, finally finding his voice, finally knowing an answer to one of Nora’s questions. “No,” he said again, stronger this time. “You wouldn’t love her differently.”

Nora’s small smile was overshadowed by the sadness in her eyes. “You are a true friend to my children, Henry. I am grateful they have you.” The cigarette was almost done. Nora took a final puff before stamping it out in her compact then holding it out for Harry to do the same to his barely used one. The former Queen Regent let out a long breath, the cigarette smoke formed a cloud in front of them. Sighing, she clicked her compact shut. “Let us go inside. We don’t want them to get any ideas,” the sadness from her eyes gone, for the moment at least, as she allowed herself a little joke.

“Oh, they know exactly what we’re doing,” said Harry, holding out his arm for his godmother to take.

On the seventh day of his visit, Harry left Scotland.

Armed with torches, Lina, Harry, Major Jonasen and Captain Schimanski departed Balmoral in pitch darkness. It had been Harry’s idea to watch the sunrise from the Purchase Cairn. Lina insisted on taking the blame so he was safe from the officers’ complaining. Harry had been skeptical that her officers would actually complain until Jonasen made a comment about not sticking to schedules.

Instead of the usual formation of Harry and Lina running slightly ahead of the Major and Captain, Jonasen took point, with Harry and Lina behind him, and Schimanski behind them. Halfway across the Castle’s lawns, Lina slipped her hand into his. They walked like that past the walled garden and up the path towards their destination. They’d come prepared for this visit: Harry had his SLR camera and Lina had borrowed Kate’s. He and Lina leaned against the Cairn to watch the sunrise and they, and Jonasen and Schimanski, were rewarded with a singular start to the day. Harry was more diligent in his photography. Lina took a few photos but spent most of the dawn pointing out her favourite colours and cloud formations.

Even in the middle of summer, Scotland wasn’t what Harry would call warm so as the dawn became early morning, Harry and Lina shifted closer to each other on the slope of the Cairn. Soon they stopped taking photos and crossed their arms, huddling in their windproof jackets, and watched the sun climb into the sky.

“And what kind of stone is that?” Harry asked, pulling one hand free to flick the bracelet dangling from her wrist.

“Citrine,” answered Lina.

“Citrine?”

“It’s a type of quartz,” Lina explained. She brought her hand closer to their faces. Harry reached out to touch the yellow stones. “Amethysts are also a type of quartz.”

“I didn’t know that.” Harry pulled his hand away and crossed his arms.

“I know a lot about jewels,” Lina said semi-seriously, though Harry didn’t doubt her knowledge. “I’ve worn them all, all the major ones at least. All but one.”

“Which one?” Harry asked, genuinely curious why she would have purposely avoided wearing a specific type of jewel. She was currently wearing citrine, so she wasn’t avoiding this other jewel because there were prettier options.

“Opal,” said Lina. “I’ve never worn opal.”

“Because of your deep-seated hatred of Australia?”

Lina laughed, “no, no. It’s because of something my grandmother told me a long time ago.” She was speaking of her mother’s mother, Eilika, a woman Harry had only met a few times. “She told me that one day I would get engaged and from that day to the end of my life I would have to wear that engagement ring. It should be special she said. Not because of what it meant, or because of who gave it to me, but because it was singular. The only one of its kind. Opals are my favourite stone. Black opals are astonishingly beautiful to look at.”

“So…” Harry said, leaning forward. “The only opal you’ll ever wear is your engagement ring?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Lina said adjusting her shoulders as she shifted through her thoughts. “I think I would like to own several pieces of opal jewellery one day, but only one opal ring.”

“That sounds…” Harry began, unsure of how to end the sentence.

“A bit naff?” Lina said in an attempt to finish his thought. An incorrect one, it turned out.

“No,” Harry shook his head and looked out at the horizon. They’d been there a good while, just talking, just leaning, just being next to each other. He liked being next to Lina, it felt easy. “I think it sounds really nice. Your Oma’s right. It should be special.”

“It would be, inherently, but I understand why she would say it. It’s a sweet idea, I think.”

“Did she follow her own advice?”

“No,” Lina grinned. “Her engagement ring is diamond. She still wears her engagement ring and wedding band. They’re to be Klaus’s after.” The smile faded from Lina’s face and Harry’s heart ached for her. Out of her four grandparents, her father’s parents both died before she was born, and her mother’s father died before she became queen. Growing up, so much of Lina’s time was consumed by lessons, meetings and travel. She was not very close to her last remaining grandparent. Klaus was. During the regency, Eleonora often had her mother visit Mecklenburg to look after Klaus while she and Karolina attended to official matters.

Harry said again that he thought it was a nice idea and that she should definitely talk her future husband into getting her an opal ring. He didn’t mention Simon’s name. He wasn’t sure if Lina noticed or not.

“We visited them all,” Harry said, “all ten cairns.” It was then he learnt there was actually eleven cairns but the eleventh one was for a later purchase and the cairn was out of the way so Lina had decided the effort wasn’t worth it. Harry gave Lina a blank look then took a photo of a lichen covered rock.

They took a few final photos, then made their way back to the Castle. Taking their time, taking more photos of the light through the trees, of birds they were lucky stayed still long enough. The last photo Harry took during his visit to Balmoral was of Lina removing her running shoes in the Castle’s portico.

Harry was leaving after breakfast. His flight from Aberdeen left just before noon. Will and Kate would return to London the next day. During breakfast his grandfather joked about the secret sauce making an appearance at lunch but Lina hastened to assure him it wouldn’t, while glaring at his grandfather. Grandpa just laughed.

After breakfast, Lina’s protection officers cornered him on the stairs. Major Jonasen and Captain Schimanski said it had been nice to see him again and shook his hand. Captain von Dewitz shook his hand and thanked him for his assistance during the morning runs.

“I’m sorry? Assistance?”

The Captain nodded, “I hate early mornings. I know, I know,” she waved her hand dismissively at his surprise. “It’s not the best thing to hate when protecting Her Majesty but it can’t be helped. In case of injury, there’s always three of us with Die Königin on the morning runs.” The Captain grinned. “These hills can be treacherous.”

“I didn’t...I didn’t know.” To von Dewitz’s puzzled look, Harry continued. “About having three people on duty, I mean. I know about...the hills.”

“With you there, I wasn’t needed.” The Captain raised her arm and saluted him. “We knew you would keep Her Majesty safe, Lieutenant.”

Harry returned the salute, and as quickly as the Mecklenburger officers had appeared, they vanished, leaving Harry feeling dazed by this new information. Not the part about keeping Lina safe. Of course he would keep Lina safe. The part where everyone knew he would keep Lina safe and had discussed the fact between themselves. That startled him, unnerved him, unsettled him, in a way he couldn’t adequately describe, except to say that it made him feel uncomfortable and exposed.

He coughed once, as if to jump start his brain, then went upstairs to his room to pack. He was halfway done when his protection officer stuck his head into the room and said they’d need to be leaving soon. Unceremoniously, Harry threw the rest of his things into his canvas bag and descended the stairs, finding everyone assembled in the Entrance Hall. William and Klaus were making a point of talking about the grand plans they had now that Harry was leaving. Harry dropped his bag by the bottom stair and told his brother and cousin to shut it.

Operating on a strange sort of muscle memory, Harry hugged his Granny, his Grandpa and then Karolina Augusta.

Harry held her tightly. He held on too long, too long for friends, too long when one of them was in a relationship, too long for people standing in a room with their family and friends, too long when he would be seeing her again in a month. He only wanted to hold on longer.

“I’ll see you on the fourteenth.”

“Can’t wait.”

On the fifteenth of September 2009, Harry realised he was in love with her.

Chapter Text

London, England

Sunday, 10 January 2010

5:57 am

Karolina Augusta woke up minutes before her alarm. It had happened every morning for over a decade. It gave her a few minutes of quiet, to run through that day’s itinerary, to dread or look forward to parts of the day until her alarm went off. She had much to dread and much to look forward to today.

When she was younger it had been a clanging alarm clock that once belonged to her grandfather, now it was her phone and the default tone. She reached out, dismissed the alarm (she’d never hit snooze in her whole life), threw back the covers and swung her feet to the carpeted floor.

When Elizabeth had heard Karolina Augusta would be visiting London while she and Philip were at Sandringham, The Queen tried to get Karolina Augusta to stay at Buckingham Palace. Karolina Augusta politely declined not wanting to inconvenience Buck House’s staff. Then The Queen tried to get Karolina Augusta to stay at Windsor Castle. Karolina Augusta politely declined citing a financial meetings in the City and not wanting to travel from Windsor to the City, then back to Windsor.

“We’ll stay at The Lanesborough as we usually do.”

When Elizabeth and Karolina Augusta said their goodbyes, she could feel her cousin hadn’t entirely let it go, and before long a call from The Prince of Wales was put through to Karolina Augusta’s office.

Ten minutes later she found herself agreeing to occupy Clarence House as its sole royal resident for the weekend. Her eleven staff were squeezed into Clarence House and the adjoining St James’s Palace. Karolina Augusta would stay in the Yellow Suite. It consisted of three rooms, a bedroom, ensuite and large drawing room that tripled as a dining room and study. By square feet it was the largest guest suite in the House. As the name suggested, the bedroom and drawing room were primarily pale yellow in colour.

She had fifteen minutes before her pre-run breakfast arrived. She would have a full breakfast later in the morning but as she never felt good running on an empty stomach, a light meal was served before her run, usually consisting of a piece of fruit and jam spread across a piece of wholegrain bread.

With breakfast came staff. The lack of a separate dressing room caused logistic problems for her staff as they attempted to carry out their usual duties. Karolina Augusta had been amused to hear that her Aide-de-camp and Personal Assistant had spent their luncheon the day before ‘drawing up their battle maneuvers’. Karolina Augusta had read through their proposal, found it to be their best option and gave orders to action the plan.

Thus, Karolina Augusta crossed to the armoire by the window and removed the winter running gear her Personal Assistant had placed there the night before. Karolina Augusta got changed, pulled on a pair of socks and her running shoes, then went to the ensuite to use the facilities, wash her face and pull her hair into a high ponytail.

Through the open double doors between the bedroom and the drawing room, Karolina Augusta heard someone knock. She bade them entrance as she collected her phone from its charging station on the bedside table.

“Guten Morgen, Eure Majestät,” Major Sonja Lehmann bowed her head. A woman in uniform never curtseyed. Her Aide-de-camp had began her rotation a week ago and had another two weeks before she was rotated out. The Major was a twelve year veteran of the Air Force, a Rostock native, married to a Captain in the Navy, and proud owner of a menagerie of birds.

“Guten Morgen,” Karolina Augusta said, smiling at the Major and the silver tray she had brought up from the kitchen.

Aside from her breakfast, there was a glass of water and her well used bottle of water to take on her run. Tucked under her arm, the Major had several newspapers from around the world. Karolina Augusta ate breakfast, drank her glass of water and caught up on the wider world under the watchful gaze of her Aide-de-camp.

6:31 am

Karolina Augusta met her security team downstairs. They were all similarly dressed, though only some wore a beanie as Karolina Augusta did. In addition to her team of five, SO1 had assigned her additional protection following a wave of threats from EVD on New Year’s Day. She had been introduced the SO1 team the day before, prior to her meetings in the City.

During her run through Green Park and St James’s Park, four of her team and one SO1 officer will run with her. The fifth member of her team, and a further SO1 officer, would stay close in a getaway car. The SO1 had already placed a few officers throughout the parks. It almost made her feel at home. Snipers had been proposed but Karolina Augusta was able to keep that from happening. The EVD’s threats were vague. She wasn’t concerned but understood the British Government’s reluctance in allowing a foreign head of state to be gunned down in the middle of London.

She handed the leader of her run team her phone. Captain Schimanski checked her earphone volume was soft enough to be alert to threats and commands from the security team. Once satisfied, the Captain returned the phone to Karolina Augusta.

They stepped out into a dark and cold London morning. Following a warm up in the front garden, the team exited Clarence House through the black gates and stepped out onto Stable Yard and then turned right at The Mall. Karolina Augusta queued up her audiobook and began to run.

It had snowed lightly during the night but the proceeding rain had washed away any evidence. Not that one could have seen the snow had it still been on the ground. They were still nearly ten minutes away from nautical twilight, and almost an hour and a half from ‘actual’ sunrise. Due to the poor light, her run team was staying much closer than they would in the summer months. The head of SO1 had tried to negotiate a later run time but Karolina Augusta wouldn’t budge.

If Die Königinnenschutz und Sicherheitsabteilung could handle months of winter morning runs through Schwerin, then the Specialist Protection Command could handle one winter morning run through London.

The Mall was quiet, but not completely deserted. Car headlight beams fractured in the morning mist. The empty trees in shadow. It looked like a noir film. And in the distance, at the end of The Mall, was the enormous memorial to her great-great-great-great-grandmother, Victoria. Buckingham Palace loomed behind it.

The team went left, past the Canada Gate and into Green Park. The park was almost completely deserted, aside from a couple other exercise enthusiasts and the SO1’s officers placed throughout the park. A fellow runner raised their hand to Karolina Augusta and her team, acknowledging their shared madness at running this early in the middle of winter. Karolina Augusta raised a gloveless hand in return. She shared a grin with Captain Schimanski, enjoying the anonymity. That Londoner would probably never realise who he’d waved to in Green Park on 10 January 2010.

She loved London. It was easily the biggest city she’d ever visited (beating Berlin by over five million people), but due to its vast size, to her London felt like Schwerin, Rostock and Neubrandenburg rolled into one. A mix of old and new, green spaces big and small, and roads laid out irregularly. The architecture didn’t match. Mecklenburg looked like Mecklenburg, and England looked like England. But unless you were in the City, London never felt like it was looming over you. It was so open to the sky. So much like Schwerin. When she was in the City, it felt like parts of Rostock and Neubrandenburg. She loved London for its similarities and its differences.

Karolina Augusta kept her pace steady, her breathing measured, listened to the calming voice of Stephen Fry, and ran.

7:13 am

Upon their return to Clarence House, Karolina Augusta went straight upstairs, leaving her team and the SO1 officers to debrief and move onto arranging her escort to Highgrove. There was a brief window when she would be completely alone in the Yellow Suite. She used this time to divest herself of her running gear, leaving them on the bed, before going to the ensuite to have a quick and very hot shower.

7:32 am

Karolina Augusta had two full time Personal Assistants. They each worked three and a half days a week. Baroness Julia von Plessen, niece of her Obersthofmeisterin, was her Personal Assistant until tonight. The Baroness worked with her Aide-de-camp to attend to their monarch’s every need. The Personal Assistants worked under Karolina Augusta’s Dresser & Jeweller and their main job was clothes and jewels.

When Karolina Augusta exited the ensuite wearing her bathrobe and underwear, her running gear was gone, whisked away to be washed and in their place was a pair of semi-opaque black tights, a knee length white coat and a silver clutch. Hanging from a one of the armoire’s door knobs was a bespoke royal blue Elie Saab dress.

Baroness Julia was with one hand, holding a pair of matching royal blue high heels, and with the other hand, laying out the jewellery Karolina Augusta was to wear on a velvet cloth on top of the vanity in front of the window.

“Guten Morgen, Baroness,” Karolina Augusta said as she approached the bed. The Baroness turned and curtseyed, wished her monarch a “Guten Morgen, Eure Majestät,” then turned back to complete her task with the jewellery. Karolina Augusta sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on the black tights. The Baroness stood stepped back from the vanity and placed the shoes to the side, then pulled the chair back for Karolina Augusta to sit.

Kate had insisted on no hats being worn at the birthday lunch. “My mum and sister are losing their minds about what to wear already, I don’t want to add hats to the mix.” Because none of the birthday attendants would be wearings hats, Karolina Augusta chose a simple chignon updo. The Baroness blow dryed Karolina Augusta’s hair and as that didn’t leave Karolina Augusta with much to do, she replied to a few text messages from family and friends.

Once her hair was sufficiently dry and wavy, Baroness Julia handed Karolina Augusta whatever was required for her to create the chignon herself.

Far back as she can remember, her Mama has been doing her hair almost every morning. Her mother would dismiss the staff from the room and the two of them would have privacy to talk openly, for Karolina Augusta to ask about what they would be doing that day, about government secrets she’d recently become privy to, or for Karolina Augusta to simply talk about a book she was reading, or something funny her horse had done the day before. The mornings when her Mama would help her get ready for her day were always favoured over the mornings when they weren’t together.

Years ago, Eleonora began teaching her daughter how to do elaborate and simple updos without anyone else’s assistance. Except for what Baroness Julia was doing now in handing Karolina Augusta elastics and bobby pins.

Once her hair done; the Baroness applied her make up. Karolina Augusta could do this herself but it would take too long. Karolina Augusta preferred a natural look with her make up, but the bright blue dress she was going to wear needed a kick of colour. The red lipstick was a few shades away from being described as bright but it was a nice deep colour and would contrast well with the dress and shoes.

The Baroness helped Karolina Augusta step into the dress and zip it up from the back. The Elie Saab dress was bespoke, the bust area had been altered to show less cleavage and the dress had been shorted a couple of inches to end above the knee. The cut of the dress had been tailored to perfection, snug without clinging. She loved the collar and short sleeves.

Karolina Augusta returned to the chair in front of the vanity to put on her jewellery with the help of Baroness Julia. Diamond and pearl drop earrings to match the diamond, sapphire and pearl drop brooch. A diamond and sapphire hair pin at the top of the chignon. Karolina Augusta went without a necklace. She wore a diamond watch on her left wrist and a diamond bracelet on her right. She wore no rings.

The shoes went on last.

“William said that you should dress nicely,” Kate had said several days earlier when Karolina Augusta had enquired about the dress code. “Like a queen. But no hat.”

When meeting a queen, people had expectations about what that queen should look like. Maybe she should be wearing a gown and a tiara or crown, be dripping in precious gems. As Karolina Augusta turned from side to side in front of the standing mirror opposite the vanity, she saw the light catch the diamonds and sapphires, they sparkled and she sparkled with them. Her hair was elegant. The dress was appropriate for the event but the colour kept her looking young and bold.

“You look beautiful, Ma’am,” said Baroness Julia. Karolina Augusta thanked her, ignoring the fluttering in her chest.

She looked like a queen. She looked like Die Königin.

8:10 am

While Karolina Augusta had eaten her pre-run breakfast in the Yellow Suite, that morning’s hot breakfast would be in Clarence House’s dining room. Karolina Augusta would have preferred eating in her rooms but that would have meant constant interruptions as her staff tried to do their jobs. In Clarence House’s large dining room, she was out of the way.

When the House was opened to the public each summer, the dining table was shortened to allow the tourists more room to move. It was not summer and Karolina Augusta, as the sole royal resident, enjoyed her omelette and fruit juice at the head of the long table, with only Major Lehmann standing off to the side.

Halfway through her omelette, she took a photo of the room with her phone. The table spanned out in front of her, with several chairs, identical to the one she sat in, pushed into place along the sides of the table. Exactly opposite her, so far away from this angle, was the chair at the other end of the table. Behind that chair was a side table pushed against the wall and underneath a portrait of some of Queen Victoria’s dogs.

She then asked the Major to take a photo of her from the other side of the room. The Major only looked mildly exasperated at the request. She was a good sport, that Aide-de-camp of hers.

The Major had brought down the newspapers she hadn’t gotten to earlier. After finishing her omelette, Major Lehmann removed the empty plate and Karolina Augusta sipped on the juice as she skimmed the papers, lingering on articles that interested her.

She checked her watch. It was almost time to start her official work day. She gulped down the last dregs of the fruit juice, placed the newspapers back into a organised pile and made her way back upstairs to the guest suite.

8:40 am

As Karolina Augusta was not able to read Die Papiere whilst in a moving car, she had woken up half an hour earlier than she usually did on a Sunday to make time for her to read Her Government’s papers, correspondence, minutes and memorandum. Elizabeth’s ministerial box was red, Karolina Augusta’s was blue.

The dark and lively coloured leather bound box had been delivered to Clarence House from the Mecklenburgian Embassy in Lower Grosvenor Gardens while Karolina Augusta ate breakfast.

When Karolina Augusta returned to the Yellow Suite, her ministerial box was waiting for her on the desk in the suite’s drawing room. Major Lehmann, who had followed her up from the ground floor, pulled the desk chair out and placed a glass of water on the desk. The Major bowed and said she would return in forty minutes for their departure to Highgrove.

She went to the ensuite to brush her teeth and check her hair was still secured properly. After, alone in the Yellow Suite, Karolina Augusta sat on the chair, perched on the edge and unlatched the lid. Sunday was usually the lightest day of the week and this Sunday had been no different. Her Government usually reserved the weekend for non-urgent matters, unless there had been some kind of emergency, of course.

Karolina Augusta removed the top documents from the pile - a number of proposed military promotions - and began to read.

9:21 am

The Baroness, Major Lehmann and the courier from the Embassy returned as Karolina Augusta reached the bottom of the pile. The blue box was swiftly taken back to Lower Grosvenor Gardens under escort. She wouldn’t see that particular blue box again for some time. Once it became apparent how often Karolina Augusta would visit London, the Government had a second blue box commissioned to be kept in the Embassy in London.

Baroness Julia helped Karolina Augusta gather her things into her clutch (lip balm, a couple of tissues, a pen, a few spare bobby pins, her phone, earphones, and her panic button) and Major Lehmann held out the coat for Karolina Augusta to slip into.

She descended the stairs to the Hall, followed by Major Lehmann, to see Clarence House’s staff lined up to be thanked and farewelled. She shook their hands in turn, thanking them for hosting her, joking about their employer’s tenacity and stubbornness in getting her to stay at Clarence House in the first place. She apologised for the inconvenience and said they were wonderful for putting up with her, even for such a short time.

As thanks, she had arranged for the Embassy’s catering staff to come to Clarence House and host a morning tea for Charles’ staff. Major Lehmann eventually had to usher Karolina Augusta outside or else she’d have spent an hour in the Hall with Charles’ staff. She was wasting time.

London had barely warmed up when they stepped outside into the front garden. She and her staff exited Clarence House through the black gates and dispersed into the three waiting black Range Rovers lined up on Stable Yard. Karolina Augusta, Major Lehmann, Major Jonasen and her driver, Herr Rothe, would be riding in the middle car. Her Deputy Private Secretary and new Junior Private Secretary would be riding in the third car, with the rest of her protection team. Two SO1 officers, Major Schimanski and their driver would take the lead car.

Karolina Augusta took in the sight of her escort: four motorcycles that would guide the motorcade quickly and safely through London’s traffic and all the way to Highgrove. Getting out of London must be a nightmare at times. She nodded at the officer astride the nearest motorcycle and climbed into the Range Rover.

Once settled in, Karolina Augusta took her phone out of her clutch and picked up where she’d left off and spent their journey out of London sending text messages and a few short emails. Later, when they’d put the turnoff to Heathrow behind them, Karolina Augusta leaned back, careful to keep her hair clear of the seat, listened to her audiobook, and watched one of the few parts of England she was familiar with pass by.

11:10 am

Karolina Augusta arrived at Highgrove ten minutes ahead of schedule. As her small motorcade approached the front of the house, she saw a man dressed in grey sweatpants and a black jumper with its hood up jogging across the snow covered parkland in their general direction. Knowing who it was, upon exiting the car, Karolina Augusta delayed in entering the house, meaning none of her staff could enter either. She almost felt bad about it. The three cars and four motorcycles pulled away from the front of the house and headed towards the mews to the north. She saw the moment Harry realised it was her, he picked up speed and made a beeline for the house.

“This is a much more agreeable time to go for a run, don’t you think, Your Majesty,” said Major Jonasen from his place to her left. Karolina Augusta commented that the Major had had it easy that morning from his spot in the getaway car but otherwise kept her eyes on Harry as he got closer and closer.

Harry looked great no matter what he was doing. And to make it even worse, no matter what he was wearing. Which was why she only almost felt bad about forcing her four Protection Officers, Aide-de-camp, Deputy Personal Secretary and new Junior Personal Secretary to stand outside in the frigid January air.

She imagined for just a moment, running towards him so they could collide, both at full speed, like they do in the movies. She knew he could easily lift her off her feet. She knew what it felt like to have his arms wrapped tightly around her. But would he understand why she ran to him? Did she completely understand it? Were her feelings simple and strong, or complicated and brittle?

As Harry reached the driveway, he began grinning. Karolina Augusta was glad the cold weather already made her look flush. Harry slowed down once his feet hit the gravel and somehow his smile got wider, acting as a magnet for her own smile.

Harry stopped in front of her, half out of breath, bowed his head and said “Eure Majestät.”

“Eure Königliche Hoheit.”

Harry turned his attention to her staff, shaking the hands of those nearest (Major Heinrich Jonasen and her Aide-de-camp, Major Sonja Lehmann). Karolina Augusta was stuck, she’d snagged on a moment she didn’t want to name ‘rejection’ but couldn’t find a better name for it.

“What, no kiss?” Karolina Augusta asked, eyebrow arched, before her courage left her and went inside where it was warm and full of places to hide. Harry turned back to her, his eyes wide with surprise.

“Er,” His eyes were still wide, surprised yes, with something else mixed in. Karolina Augusta kept her face expectant and moved her hands to clasp them behind her back. Harry licked his lower lip. “I’m all sweaty.”

“Oh, please.” Karolina Augusta said, keeping her eyes on Harry and pointedly not looking at her staff. Harry relented and moved in to kiss her cheek. He was right, of course. He was sweaty. She could smell the run, the air and winter on his skin and in his clothes. She tightened her grip on her hands and pressed them against her back. Don’t touch him, she thought. Not in front of everyone. Harry stepped back and the danger of touching him and never letting go passed. Karolina Augusta thanked him and was about to introduce him to her new Junior Personal Secretary when the front door opened.

“What on Earth are you all doing out here?” asked the Duchess of Cornwall in a deep purple dress.

“I was about to meet the new girl,” said Harry deploying a grin at said new girl, who seemed to be rightly taken with that gesture.

“I’m sure you can do that inside,” said Camilla. “Everyone in.”

And in they went. Karolina Augusta entered first, with Harry right behind her. Camilla’s greeting went as expected with a curtsey and a kiss on the cheek. Camilla shook the hands of Karolina Augusta’s staff and Karolina Augusta introduced the new girl, Gräfin Marianne von Dewitz, to the Duchess and Harry. Camilla welcomed them all to Highgrove then set off to find Charles.

“You’ve got quite the team with you today,” Harry said as he helped Karolina Augusta out of her coat. A disgruntled Major Lehmann stepped forward to take the coat from Harry. Karolina Augusta wasn’t sure who she should have a word with later. Harry to tell him to let her staff do their job, or Lehmann to tell her to let Harry be Harry.

“We’ve a meeting with the Duchess about her visit to Mecklenburg.”

“Ah, that explains why you got here early,” said Harry. “I was wondering about that.”

“Yes, not strictly required,” Karolina Augusta said as they moved into the drawing room. “But since we would be at Highgrove today, we arranged the meeting. It should help ease Gräfin Marianne in a little. Her first day was Thursday.”

Karolina Augusta took a seat on the edge of the sofa facing the window, crossed her ankles and placed her hands on her lap. Harry didn’t sit. He instead turned his attention to Gräfin Marianne and asked her how she was getting on, if Karolina Augusta had been treating her right. He asked how her sister was and Karolina Augusta was proud of him for remembering. Captain von Dewitz was currently on holiday in the Seychelles. Karolina Augusta had it on good authority that the Captain would return engaged to her architect boyfriend.

As she watched Harry and Gräfin Marianne talk with a silent Deputy Private Secretary next to her; she noticed Harry was acting very strangely. He was distracted. She knew him well enough to know he was forcing himself to focus on the Gräfin. For a moment, he looked at her. Then looked away. He was restless. His hands didn’t know what to do with themselves. She had no idea what was happening.

Charles then walked in dressed in a light grey suit and she was prevented, or saved, from asking what was bothering him, for something surely was bothering Harry. Karolina Augusta shook it off and stood up, her Deputy Private Secretary also getting to her feet to curtsey.

“Eure Majestät,” said Charles, kissing her hand and bowing his head. Charles was old school. Not many men still kissed her hand. “My apologies for not meeting you at the door, my dear.”

“The traffic was better than expected. We made excellent time.”

“The armed escort helped, I’m sure,” Charles said with a twinkle in his eye. Karolina Augusta admitted that it did. She thanked her godfather again. He waved it off but mockingly pouted when she told him his staff at Clarence House were having a very unproductive morning.

Camilla then arrived followed by her Private Secretary and staff holding morning tea trays. “Morning tea is being served in the kitchen for the rest of the households,” Camilla said. Karolina Augusta’s Deputy Private Secretary, Mrs Floriana Becker, and Gräfin Marianne remained in the drawing room, while the rest of Karolina Augusta’s staff followed Charles’ staff back to the kitchen.

Charles excused himself, “I’ll be in my study if anyone needs me.”

“Don’t worry, we won’t,” Harry said as he bounded upstairs, taking her attention with him. Her stomach clenched but it felt like her heart. She had been foolish to think today was going to be easy. She had been foolish to think she could act as though nothing had changed.

She was wasting time. She indicated that everyone in the room sit down, and then resumed her spot on the sofa next to Mrs Becker. Camilla sat in the armchair next to the sofa.

“Thank you again, Lina, for inviting me to visit Mecklenburg,” said Camilla as she slipped on her glasses and picked up the folder from the coffee table in front of them.

“You’re very welcome, Camilla,” Lina smiled and reached across to place her hand on the Duchess’s. “It was long overdue.” She withdrew her hand and opened up the folder Mrs Becker had handed to her. “Let’s get to it then. The Middletons will be here in an hour.”

Soon Harry returned from upstairs showered and dressed and beautiful and sat quietly while she and Camilla finished drafting out an itinerary for her two day visit to Schwerin and Rostock. He had been quiet, yes, but also so loud. She heard every breath, every rustle of his deep blue suit, but thankfully, he had been largely out of sight. This did put her at a disadvantage as Harry was able to watch her. She could feel his eyes on her and it made it hard to focus on the meeting.

She wanted to ask him to leave and spent a few minutes thinking of ways to do it politely when Harry suddenly got up and left the room. Lina breathed out, relieved and disappointed in herself.

12:29 pm

The Middletons, and William, arrived on schedule. It was the first meeting between Lina and Kate’s family, and it had been William’s idea to meet away from London, but also not at the Middleton’s home so as to not overwhelm Michael and Carole with all that entails in a visit from a reigning queen.

“You’ll be their first,” William said when he floated the idea of a birthday lunch for Kate at Highgrove last December.

“Will I?”

“Not like that,” Will rolled his eyes.

“Don’t worry, I’ll go easy on them,” Lina assured him, grinning as he huffed in frustration.

And Lina very much wanted to. She knew, at the very least, that meeting her was less intimidating than meeting Elizabeth, or even Philip. Michael and Carole, nor any of their children until Kate, had visited Mecklenburg before. They didn’t grow up with Lina and Lina’s family dominating the news. Karolina Augusta’s face wasn’t in hundreds of buildings throughout their country. She was a monarch, but she wasn’t theirs.

Such a distinction may or may not have helped. Lina suspected it went as well as it did because William and Kate had thoroughly prepared the Middletons for several days leading up to the luncheon. When Michael, Carole, Pippa and James entered Highgrove House they did everything right and in the right order. “We did practice,” Kate confessed later. “You’ve gone soft, though.” Lina disagreed with that. She had become more and more comfortable over the years allowing people to call her by her name, and not only ‘Your Majesty’ or ‘Ma’am’, but the number of people who called her ‘Karolina Augusta’ was small and the number who called her ‘Lina’ was smaller still. The number of people who called her ‘Caroline’ was one.

The British Royal Family gave each other silly, joke presents for Christmas. They gave each other proper gifts for birthdays. After the introductions and general questions Lina already knew the answers to, the group congregated in the drawing room for the gift giving. William and the Middletons had given Kate her presents the day before, her actual birthday. Harry gave Kate a merino wool scarf. Charles and Camilla gave Kate a necklace. Lina gave Kate two art history books from the continent, long out of print, that she had had rebound and translated into English.

Kate’s squeal of delight and tight hug brought a blush of embarrassment to Lina’s face. Charles informed the impressed Middletons that his family had stopped trying to say no to Lina’s extravagant gifts a long time ago. “It’s bloody pointless,” Charles said.

“It’s amazing, Caroline,” said Kate, hugging the books to her chest. “Thank you so much.”

“You’re very welcome, Katharina,” Lina said.

Kate then insisted on a group photo. Major Lehmann took the photo on Kate’s SLR. Her Aide-de-camp was a good sport, after all.

1:00 pm

During lunch, she insisted everyone be on a first name - first full name - basis. They were Kate’s family and Kate was her family. Her initial discomfort was worth seeing the Middletons discomfort subside. They were lovely people and clearly fond of William. Though she knew William was even more fond of them. He loved them and protected them as someone who had lost so much only could. Lina knew that feeling, knew how fiercely she tried to protect those she loved.

Getting to know the Middletons, Michael’s strength, Carole’s spark, Pippa’s laugh and James’ vision provided a welcome distraction from Harry. Despite being several places down and across the table, every word spoken, every movement out of the corner of her eye was amplified and magnified.

Instead she focused on Carole as she explained the history of Party Pieces and where she hoped it would go in the future. This was an area Lina had experience in. She operated several businesses, although she wasn’t as hands on as the Middletons were. It was always useful to hear about the experiences of small business owners. Small businesses made up a significant portion of Mecklenburg’s economy, and while she considered herself a business owner, she was the furthest away from being as small business as it was possible to be.

Harry has jokingly referred to these conversations as her ‘learning experiences’ to be filed away and recalled when needed. She would always roll her eyes and tell him that was what life was in general.

She was doing a terrible job in distracting herself. Even while not looking at him and trying to ignore his presence, her mind could never truly let him go. Did she think about him this often last year? Did he worm his way into every thought and conversation?

She was failing in keeping her mind off Harry, but she would succeed in not looking at him, even if only for the rest of lunch.

And then he laughed. He’d been talking to James about something, she didn’t know what and it probably didn’t matter. But Harry laughed and Lina looked at him.

I love you, I love you, I love you, sang her heart. I’m bad for you, I’m bad for you, I’m bad for you, hissed her mind.

She looked away. Her hands shook as she brought a forkful of food towards her mouth. Kate leaned over and asked what was wrong. Lina said nothing and Kate dropped it, though Lina didn’t miss Kate looking at Harry then at Lina, her expression puzzled. For the rest of the meal, Lina forced a smile to her face and thought of cabinet meetings and political mediations whenever her mind thought to betray her by seeking out what was only going to cause her pain.

2:06 pm

Once the group finished lunch and moved into the drawing room, Lina began counting down til her departure at three. Then Charles suggested a tour of the gardens. Highgrove was magical during winter and as the Middletons had never visited at this time of year before, a tour was almost a necessity in her godfather’s eyes.

Surprisingly, they were met with protest from Harry. “There are three inches of snow out there. No one’s got the proper shoes on for that.” Then Carole remembered the spare Wellingtons she kept in the car for her family. Harry scrounged up a pair that would fit Lina while Camilla leant her a scarf and Major Lehmann fetched her coat.

In the boot room, Harry stood in front of her looking down as Lina sat on a bench to pull off her high heels and put on the Wellingtons. She raised her eyebrow at him and received a bark of laughter and “you look ridiculous.”

“Harry,” she said standing up, now several inches lower than before. Looking up at him, standing there in his familiar black coat with his red hair and freckles, she felt something thaw between them. Something was wrong, and not just on her side, but if they could do this, if they could joke and tease, maybe they would be okay. “I have never, and will never, look ridiculous.”

He took a half step towards her, his eyes bright and a smile lurking beneath the surface. Lina fought the instinct to take a step back, then suddenly Charles opened the door from the outside, with Camilla, William and the Middletons standing in the garden behind him.

“Let’s get a move on,” Charles said, leaning on his unnecessary walking stick. “Die Königin will need to leave soon.”

Harry stepped back and out of Lina’s way so that she could exit the House before him. Lina glanced over her shoulder to see Harry and Major Lehmann in a disagreement about which of them should exit the House first. Lina grinned but left them to sort it out themselves. Kate bounded over, holding her SLR camera. The pale pink colour of her new scarf looked lovely with her red coat. She was also wearing a red dress underneath it, which Lina thought was a bit much. Kate disagreed, “I look great in red.”

“She has a point,” said Harry.

“And Lina looks great in blue,” said Kate.

“Yes, she does,” said Harry with a choke in his voice. Lina said thank you and walked towards the rest of the group, leaving Kate looking bewildered and Harry, well she didn’t look at him. She couldn’t right now. She clutched her hands behind her back and focused on the sound of snow crunching beneath her feet.

It had warmed up a little but not enough to melt the snow entirely. Highgrove was covered in a blanket of snow. They followed The Prince of Wales for a walk through his garden, the pride and joy of Highgrove. Lina knew every square metre of the property but she wasn’t the guide today, this wasn’t her home, she wasn’t the host, so she left those duties to Charles, Camilla and William, as she walked beside the group, preferring to watch and listen. Kate took photos and gravitated towards her family, sharing her own stories about the gardens. This left Harry to drift towards her.

Lina stuffed her cold hands in her coat pockets when he stepped up next to her, matching her slow, deliberate steps across snow covered ground. He looked as uneasy as she felt. She knew he wouldn’t be able to tell what she was feeling. Lina had mastered the art of looking pleasantly happy a long time ago.

He asked how her New Year’s had been. The first week of each year was among the busiest of Lina’s calendar and as with most years, the New Year’s, Military and Diplomatic Banquets had gone smoothly. She had spent Christmas with her family and Simon, but her boyfriend had celebrated the New Year in Hawaii with friends.

The group had reached the end of the Thyme Walk, walked past the Lily Pool Garden, circled the Borghese Gladiator statue and were now walking across the dormant Wildflower Meadow towards the Stumpery.

She told him of her mother’s plans to move her and Klaus Wilhelm out of Schweriner Schloss over the summer. Harry was surprised to hear it.

“You’re not even married. They’re not taking up valuable space.”

Lina agreed but that wasn’t why her mother was moving out. She thought Lina was relying on her Mama too much. She thought Klaus Wilhelm needed to step up and help his sister carry out public duties as soon as he finished Schloss-Schule. They had to start setting up how the royal family will operate for the next few decades. Karolina Augusta at Schwerin, Klaus Wilhelm near Neubrandenburg and her oldest child near Rostock.

“Ah, Mecklenburg’s magical triangle,” Harry said grinning.

“It’s not magical. It is important. The people love him. We need him close to Vorpommern.”

“Maybe you should stop calling it Vorpommern.”

He was right about that. There was no place called Vorpommern, not anymore. It was part of her name but it was a gesture, to the 64% who voted to become part of the Kingdom of Mecklenburg, and to the 36% who voted to become part of the Federal Republic of Germany.

“Yes, you are right. It is all Mecklenburg now.” Even if there was a small group of people who disagreed with that sentiment. She needed it to be true. Her great-grandfather lost a third of his country to the Allies. Her grandfather died at the height of the Cold War. Her father died less than two years after he lived to see Mecklenburg made whole again. He also became King to new lands and new people, people who had chosen to become his subjects. She needed to keep Mecklenburg together.

Harry had something he wanted to tell her, he was hesitant and that made her wary. As soon as he began the meandering story, she knew she might not have the strength to hear the end of it. He spoke of New Year’s Eve with the York sisters, old friends and friends of friends. Chelsy had been there. They still weren’t together and Harry was sure they never would be again. But he had met someone, or re-met them. A former classmate of Chelsy’s, one of the trusted, a young woman named Claudia. They were going out again on Saturday.

“I don’t remember anyone in your group called Claudia,” Lina said, a feeling of pettiness grew inside her.

“She wasn’t in my group. She was in Chelsy’s. We only hung out a few times.”

“And now those groups are overlapping,” Lina observed cooly. The politeness ingrained in her since birth almost wished him a happy and successful date. The pettiness grew into cruelty. “Speaking of old faces coming back, Graf Michael started working for me part time on Thursday.”

“Michael von Schönberg?” Harry asked, abruptly coming to a stop. Lina stopped mid-step and turned to face him. “Your Michael?”

“He’s not mine anymore,” Lina said, “well, he’s my employee but that doesn’t make him mine again.”

“And Simon’s okay with him coming to work for you?”

“It’s not Simon’s decision,” Lina folded her arms across her chest. “Michael is getting his Masters in International Relations and it would be foolish of me to let him be snapped up by some government department.”

“But-”

“But what? I know him. We grew up together. I trust him.”

Harry took a step towards her, his expression serious. “Are you still in love with him?”

“No!” she hissed at him. “I got over Michael a long time ago. That’s not why I want him working with me. He knows-”

“It doesn’t matter what he knows, or how much you trust him,” Harry said adamantly. “This isn’t a good idea. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Lina held her tongue, bit back the words “well, it’s too late for that.” But she didn’t know what else to say to his concern. She knew what to say to his anger or his envy. She wanted that, she needed those emotions from him. It made dealing with her own anger and envy easier.

“Catch up, you two!” shouted Charles from the entrance to the Stumpery. Kate was standing a bit away from the group, camera in her hand. Worried that maybe her friend had incidentally taken a photo of her and Harry arguing, Lina began walking towards the group.

“I’ll be fine, Harry,” she said over her shoulder, stuffing her hands back into her coat pockets.

2:55 pm

They were in the Walled Garden when Major Lehmann said it was time to go. She insisted they continue the tour without her. Kate mused what was the point of having a private plane if you couldn’t leave whenever you wanted. Lina hugged her dear friend and wished her a happy birthday again.

She hugged Charles and Camilla, shook Michael, Carole and Pippa’s hands. They said it had been wonderful to finally meet her after years of listening to William and Kate go on and on. Lina said she hoped to see them again soon. Harry and James had wandered to another section of the Walled Garden. Lina shouted her goodbyes to them and left the Walled Garden with Major Lehmann close behind.

They approached the House from the front where her protection team and the SO1 were organising the motorcade for an escort to Heathrow. As Karolina Augusta made for the front door, it opened to reveal Gräfin Marianne holding her royal blue high heels. Die Gräfin passed Karolina Augusta the shoes as she walked inside. In the entrance hall, Karolina Augusta easily stepped out of the Wellingtons. They’d been a size too big. Major Lehmann retrieved the boots and took them back outside.

Karolina Augusta went into the drawing room and returned to the spot on the sofa she had occupied earlier. “Goodbye, Sir,” came Gräfin Marianne’s voice from the entrance hall. “It was wonderful to finally meet you.”

She placed one shoe on the floor and -

“It was good to meet you too,” Harry’s voice stopped her in her tracks. Her left shoe hang limp in her hand. “Please say hello to your sister from me.”

“I will, Sir, thank you,” die Gräfin said and Karolina Augusta imagined her new Junior Private Secretary bopping into a curtsey before leaving the House. She saw her walk to one of the cars through the drawing room window.

The sound of Harry’s footsteps spurred Karolina Augusta into action. She slid on one shoe and was about to slide on the other when Harry sat down on the coffee table directly opposite her, his open coat flaring out around him. He looked down, away from her. She looked down too. Their knees were only inches from touching. If she wanted to, she could slide forward a little, get closer.

Harry placed his hands on his knees. She could see his fingers digging into his suit material. Karolina Augusta finished putting her shoe on and placed her hands on her lap. They sat in silence, she felt as though she were drowning in it, but it was a necessary silence. Harry needed to say something, or maybe he needed something from her. They’d both come through alive.

“Lina, are we okay?”

Lina’s head shot up, shocked and startled. She hadn’t expected him to ask a direct question. She admired him for that. Harry was still looking down at their knees. From this angle, she could only see about half of his face and most of his wild, red hair. She could see his furrowed brow, his eyes closed and his mouth turned down into a frown. She wanted to card her fingers through his hair, sooth that brow, open those eyes and kiss that mouth.

But she didn’t, and she wouldn’t, and it was better that way.

“Yes,” Lina said, tentatively placing her hands on top of his. “We are okay.”

Harry turned his hands over to catch her fingers between his. They were still a little cold. Their fingers laced together with little input from her. It looked good, it looked right. It made her heart sing and her mind hiss.

“When will we see you next?” asked Harry, finally lifting his head to look her in the eye. She tried her best to look pleasantly happy. If he saw the sadness and heartbreak she was feeling she registered no reaction from him. He didn’t look pleasantly happy. He was never very good at hiding his emotions.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “Probably just before Easter.”

She leant forward and kissed him on the cheek. His hold on her hands tightened, pulled at her insides.

When she left the House and walked to the second car in the motorcade, she didn’t look back before sliding into the backseat. She didn’t see if Harry had followed her to the front door, she didn’t see if he had walked out onto the gravel front drive and watch the motorcade pull away. She didn’t see it, but she felt it happen, or maybe she just hoped it had.

4:56 pm

The motorcade arrived on the tarmac a few minutes before their scheduled take off. Karolina Augusta took the lead up the stairs and into her private Bombardier Challenger 600 business jet. She was greeted by the Captain and cabin crew then escorted to her seat for immediate take off.

About half an hour before the plane was due to begin its descent, Karolina Augusta and Baroness Julia retreated to a small compartment at the back of the plane. Baroness Julia had already set everything up for another wardrobe change. Karolina Augusta swapped her royal blue Elie Saab dress for a Erdem dress of primarily black with two rows of grey floral print near the base of the dress and two further rows of floral print below the neck cut in the shape of a triangle, with a black bar between the two rows. It would have been a wasted day indeed if she hadn’t worn a print at least once.

The diamond, sapphire and pearl earrings, brooch and hairpin were taken off. Her hair was redone. Her makeup reapplied. She went without a necklace again. The dress had a high collar. The Baroness helped her put on diamond earrings and a diamond brooch shaped like a butterfly. She didn’t change her watch or bracelet.

She slipped on a pair of black high heels and returned to her seat.

6:23 pm

The plane landed at Schwerin Airport on schedule. Karolina Augusta and her staff disembarked the plane on the tarmac, some distance from the nearest terminal. It was freezing. The sky was already dark.

“Thank you, Major,” Karolina Augusta said as she ducked into the car waiting to take her back home.

6:45 pm

She arrived at a Schloss empty of family. Her mother would stay near the coast until the end of the month. Her dogs were with her mother until the next weekend. Her brother was in Amorbach visiting their mother’s family until Tuesday. Her stomach sank as she realised this type of homecoming would be normal in the future. A Schloss full of staff, surrounded by people and completely without allies. She would have her dogs but it wasn’t going to be enough. Her life was lonely, she role was singular in her country, her peers were decades older and decades more experienced, but to come home to no one filled her with a dread she had never felt before.

And the night would only get worse. Tonight’s dinner guests were only minutes from arriving at the Schloss. Karolina Augusta handed her coat to the Baroness and went to directly to the dining room on the first floor with Major Lehmann to inspect the table arrangements and speak with the chef before her guests arrived.

7:00 pm

Albrecht Gustav and Veronica, Herzog und Herzogin von Bad Doberan, her father’s only brother and his American-born wife, walked into the dining room, heads held high. Die Herzogin looked lovely in a long sleeved peach lace dress. Der Herzog was wearing a dark blue suit. She greeted them in turn, her uncle first, then her aunt. They kissed her cheek and bowed or curtseyed. They barely made eye contact with her and she was glad for it.

The dining table had been shortened with a seating capacity of eight. Karolina Augusta took her seat at the head of the table, Albrecht Gustav sat directly opposite with Veronica between them on Karolina Augusta’s left. The rest of the chairs had been pushed back to line up against the walls.

During the two course meal, her uncle was mostly silent and Veronica was mostly not. It was the nervous type of talking when you couldn’t stop yourself or slow down.

Karolina Augusta doubted she would ever understand what Veronica saw in Albrecht Gustav. She had obviously loved him enough to leave her life in America, and he had obviously loved her enough to not discard her after his father refused to allow the marriage. Did Albrecht Gustav sense his father’s ill health? Did he know he wouldn’t have to wait long until he had a new Konig, one who would approve of the heir presumptive marrying a commoner?

Why did my father allow you to marry only seven months into his reign? Was it to bring happiness back into the Kingdom after the deaths of two Königinen and one Konig? Was it guilt? Was Papa worried about the succession? About the House of Mecklenburg-Schwerin dying out?

Her father was dead. She would never be able to ask him those questions, ask him more important questions.

“...colder in Canada, but the weather isn’t really that different,” Veronica said as they ate dessert. “It would be easy to adjust, even after all this time.”

“Eure Majestät didn’t ask us to dinner to hear us plead our case,” Der Herzog said, speaking plainly for the first time that evening. “Die Königin made up her mind days ago. Most likely minutes after the question was asked.”

“Yes,” Karolina Augusta canted her head to the right, “and then one changed one’s mind. And then again.” She canted her head to the left, studying the growing disdain on her uncle’s face. “And then a few more times.” Veronica looked at her husband, frowning with a remarkable sense of urgency and worry. Her Uncle didn’t spare his wife a glance and kept his eyes on his niece. There was strength in not looking away. And pride.

“After almost seventeen years of self-imposed exile, you ask to return home, to be a full time working member of the Royal House with a complete household, an official and country residence, and you were never asked why.” Karolina Augusta allowed a terrible, tense silence to fill the room, let him think she was going to ask, that she was going to make him plead his case, until he took a breath - “Your reasons for wanting to leave Canada and return to Mecklenburg are your own.”

Karolina Augusta lifted her hand, signalling to Major Lehmann now was the time to take the packet from the side table drawer and place it on the table between Der Herzog and Die Herzogin. The packet landed on the table with a considerable thud. The Major followed directions marvelously.

“Ihre Königlichen Hoheiten,” Karolina Augusta placed her fork on the table and stood up. Her uncle and aunt hastened to do the same. As her uncle stood up, his gaze lingered on the folder. “Our offer and your obligations are outlined in the papers therein. Please read them carefully and let us know your response by Wednesday evening.”

“We will,” Veronica said, with an overly generous smile and a deep curtsey, her shoulder length blonde hair bouncing as she did. “Thank you, Eure Majestät.”

Karolina Augusta received only icy, still silence from her uncle. His pride. His indignant pride. She wanted to shout at him, call him selfish, childish, petulant, ungrateful, spiteful, a black mark on the House of Mecklenburg, a deserter and traitor.

Albrecht Gustav did not like bowing to his niece. Albrecht Gustav thought maybe tonight he would not have to bow twice, that she would leave in a huff, allowing him to think her so petulant and childish in her youth and inexperience. She returned her uncle’s defiant expression. You will show deference, Sir, I will not be cowed. After several moments, Veronica coughed softly.

“Thank you, Eure Majestät,” Albrecht Gustav bowed his head and when he lifted his head he was greeted with a beatific smile as Karolina Augusta wished them a good night and exited the Dining Room through the door to the Red Audience Chamber with Major Lehmann close behind.

7:45 pm

They made their way through the semi-state rooms and took the Old Stairs up one level to her public suite. Major Lehmann congratulated her on how she handled the situation as they climbed the stairs. Karolina Augusta was grateful when the Major said nothing further about the evening and their return journey to her suite was in complete silence. Except for the thoughts pounding in Karolina Augusta’s head.

The Major took her leave in the Library, wishing her a good night. Karolina Augusta numbly said the same and went into her private suite alone. During dinner, her staff had gotten her rooms ready for the evening. A few lamps lit up her drawing room and study beyond the double doors. Her bedroom door was open and inside would be a freshly turned down bed and a glass of water on the bedside table. To the right of the study her dressing room would be ready for her to remove her make up, jewellery and change into her pajamas once her work day was done.

It wasn’t done yet.

Karolina Augusta walked through her drawing room, past the water colour of Balmoral Castle and the framed photos of her family and friends a top of side tables, and into her study. A large antique wooden desk took up the centre of the bookshelf lined room. The room was still warm from the fire that would have roared in the fireplace until the end of dinner. Karolina Augusta held her hands close to the hot bricks, allowing their warmth to seep in but was horrified to see her hands shaking. She quickly pulled her hands back, clenching them tightly shut, flexing them open, and closing them again. They shook. They wouldn’t stop. Real or imagined, she felt as though her whole body was shaking.

She was wasting time.

Simon would call between eight and nine. She wanted to get some emails done before he did. She didn’t think they would talk for long tonight. She wanted her bed and to sleep.

Turning around, she pulled the equally old desk chair out and perched on the edge of the seat. She opened up her laptop and entered her password. Her inbox was as ordered as the rest of her life.

She started with the oldest unactioned emails, giving quick replies or forwarding them to members of her staff better equipped to help, allowing the routine to calm her mind. Eventually she reached an email from Kate sent while Karolina Augusta had been in the air. The email was brief, full of thanks from herself and her family. Attached were a few photos Kate had taken during the day, as well as the group photo Major Lehmann had taken.

She started with the group photo in the drawing room. A sea of smiling, happy faces. Everyone looked so relaxed, even the Middletons who were having a bit of a day. None of them had seemed overwhelmed before, during, or after lunch. That was a hidden, but often cultivated trait among royals. If you can’t put someone at ease in the middle of all the glitz, glamour and high nerves that often came with meeting royalty, you were probably not going to get asked to represent your monarch at public events.

The second photo was of several of the group in the Thyme Walk, some looking intently at The Prince of Wales, while others looked at the topiary Charles was talking about. The moment had captured a puff of visible breath coming from William and James.

The third photo was of herself and Harry. She gasped, not because she was surprised or shocked by what she saw in the photo, but because it hurt. It cut her heart and clawed at her soul. She hadn’t even noticed Kate taking this photo. They were walking alone across the field of snow towards the Stumpery. Harry was smiling in his black coat. She was talking, gesticulating enthusiastically, in her white coat. And maybe she did look a little ridiculous. This moment looked so lovely. Like a dream. Today hadn’t felt like a dream.

Her throat tightened, she couldn’t swallow, she couldn’t breath. Her chest ached. The clawing at her soul and the cutting of her heart hurt so much. The first sob was quiet, the second was muffled by her hands so that a passing member of staff wouldn’t rush in. She stopped counting after that as the sobs and tears came spilling out.

She had ruined that dream when her anger and envy towards a woman she had never met caused her to throw her ex-boyfriend in his face.

Her words. With loyalty, courage and dignity.

Hunched over her desk, body heaving with sobs, she felt no dignity. Hands pressed against her mouth to keep her as quiet as possible as her heart broke, she felt no dignity. Her tears lining her face and hands, falling on her keyboard, onto her great-grandfather’s desk, she felt no dignity.

There had been no courage today either.

She hadn’t confessed how desperately she wanted her mother and brother to keep living at Schweriner Schloss. She hadn’t told him about her dinner with her uncle and aunt, or how she worried about what might happen once they return to Mecklenburg. She hadn’t told him about EVD threatening to drag her out of Schweriner Schloss and execute her in the Alter Garten.

She was afraid. She didn’t want to be alone. She didn’t want to resent her family. She didn’t want to die. She wanted to be happy. She wanted -

Her phone rang, causing Karolina Augusta to jump “fuck!” and scramble to see who was calling. It was 8:04 pm and Simon was calling like he said he would. “Fuck,” she said again, wiping at her face. Her breaths were quick and shallow but there was no time. She accepted the call.

“Hej, min kära,” Simon’s voice, his happy and loving voice came through and hit her in the gut.

“Hej,” Karolina Augusta said pressing her hand against the side of her head. Focus, focus.

“Is everything okay?” Simon asked. Karolina Augusta was both impressed and annoyed he could tell something was wrong from a single word.

“Ja, ja,” she pressed her hand harder against her skin. “Dinner went as expected. So, poorly. I’m still a little angry, it seems.”

“You should be angry with them, Lina,” Simon said and she smiled gratefully. “Did they accept the offer?”

“I left before they had a chance to read it. I told them they have until Wednesday evening to respond.”

“They’ll say yes,” said Simon.

“They’ll say yes,” Lina repeated. “I don’t think my uncle wants to come back, though.”

“Really?”

She explained to Simon her aunt’s overeagerness and her uncle’s impatience and resentment during dinner. They talked about their days. Simon had spent the weekend with family in northern Sweden skiing but he moved on from that topic pretty quickly. Lina told him how lovely the Middletons had been. It was an easy conversation, the easiest one she’d had all day. There was something good and comforting in that.

“Ich liebe dich,” Simon said as a goodbye.

“Ich liebe dich,” Lina said, feeling so far away from him. What would he do if she said she needed him tonight? Would he talk to her until she fell asleep? Or would he get on the next plane from Stockholm to Schwerin and rush to her side? She steeled herself and said goodnight.

She wasting time.

Karolina Augusta wiped her eyes again and took a deep breath, then slowly exhaled. She repeated this a few times before she felt in control enough to reply to Kate’s email and thank her for forwarding her the photos. Karolina Augusta wrote how she had had a lovely day and that it had been a real pleasure to finally meet her family. If Kate picked up on the formality of her email, she hoped her friend wouldn’t say anything.

After pressing send, she moved onto the next email (from the Prince of Asturias), and then onto the next one (from Silvia of Sweden), and then the next one (Oskar af Danmark), until she had replied to almost a dozen emails and felt thoroughly cleansed and calm.

At about eight-forty, she closed her laptop, picked up her phone, turned off the lamps in the study and went to her dressing room for the day’s final wardrobe change.

There were times when she felt unreasonable about restricting her staff’s access to the private suite, but then on days like today, and nights like tonight, she wanted to be able to wind down and get ready for bed in silence and without assistance. If Mama were here it would be different.

Karolina Augusta slowly and methodically removed her jewellery, the bobby pins and elastics from her hair, brushed it out and pulled it up into a low ponytail. She then removed her makeup, always fascinated by how different she looked after. Younger. Sadder. She removed her dress and changed into a pair of flannel pajamas.

She went to her bathroom, brushed her teeth and used the facilities. The dressing room and bathroom were left dark with doors closed. The lamp by her bed was already on. A glass of water had been placed on the bedside table next to the history book she was reading. Karolina Augusta turned right into her sitting room and turned off the lamps then returned to her bedroom. She closed the bedroom door, put her phone back in its charging station and climbed into her soft, warm bed.

9:30 pm

The day’s final alarm went off. Karolina Augusta picked up her phone and the bookmark next to it. After dismissing the alarm, she slid the bookmark into place and closed the book. In one of the few disorderly aspects of her life, Karolina Augusta slid down to lie on her side and placed the book on the floor by her bed.

Still lying on her side, she returned the phone to its charging station but did not let go, did not pull her hand away. Her fingers tightened around the edges of her phone, digging into her skin. It wasn’t late in Mecklenburg and it was definitely not late in England. She could call him. She could.

She could ask him - what? What would you ask him? What did you want to ask him? Tears came unbidden and unwanted. Did you think I looked beautiful today? Her throat tightened and her cursed heart ached for his smile, his voice, for his arms to hold her so gently and so completely. She had hugged William, she had hugged Kate. She should have hugged him. It would have hurt to let him go, but this, this moment hurts more. I should call him. I should tell him not to see Claudia again. I should tell him I’m going to leave Simon. I should ask him if he could -

Nein,” the word came out as harshly and abruptly as Karolina Augusta could manage. This is not you.

She was Karolina Augusta the First. She did not call people late at night in hysterics. She did not do it with Simon and she would not do it with Harry. Today had not been a day for courage or dignity but she would loyal. Loyal to the boyfriend she saw no future with. Loyal to a friend whose happiness she valued above her own. Loyal to family whom she despised.

She was Mecklenburg always, always, always. She would do right by her country. She would do right by her people. She would do right by her friends. She would do right by her family. She was Karolina Augusta Regina always, always, always.

“Immer, immer, immer…” she whispered. She let go of the phone, reached for the thick cord hanging between her bed and the bedside table and pulled. The room plunged into total darkness. She pulled her hand back and brought the blanket up around her neck.

Die Königin wiped the tears from her eyes and waited for sleep to come.

Chapter Text

 

“Life is really, when you get down to it, a series of stories. The stories we experienced and tell others, and the stories experienced by others and told to us. Stories can be a great number of things: a complete fiction, an embellished tall tale, a carefully and factually recount...today, I’ll be telling a story which isn’t really any of those things. I don’t know the full story of what I’m about to tell you, and what I’m about to tell you doesn’t even cover a long period of time - just over a year - and even ends at a beginning, but when I first sat down to write this speech nearly two years ago, I knew this is where I had to start.

For me, this is when the story of Harry and Lina began. Not when Harry realised he was in love with Lina. Not when Lina realised she was in love with Harry. And not when they realised the other was in love with them. It was when I realised Harry was in love with Lina…”

The Duke of Cambridge, 18 July 2015

Schweriner Schloss, Schwerin, Mecklenburg

 

March, 2010

Schloss Ludwigslust, Ludwigslust, Mecklenburg

William and Harry were due to depart from the pretty, symmetrical and reasonably sized Schloss Ludwigslust just before ten in the morning. The second (or was it the third?) assistant chef pushed thermoses of tea into their hands as they approached the rear exit of the Schloss. The man bowed his head and wished the brothers a pleasant day. William said something, but he honestly couldn’t recall what it was. He was sure it was polite, and probably more than a bit rote, but honestly , the assistant chef - the entire Schloss - were lucky William and Harry were even awake.

He was going to kill Klaus Wilhelm. And maybe Harry. And then maybe himself.

As they exited the Schloss, their boots hitting stone, William weighed the negatives of taking more than the recommended dosage of painkillers (decided risking Kate or Lina finding out about it wasn’t worth it), and squinted under the thick layer of clouds covering what looked like most of south-west Mecklenburg. He wore sunglasses (as did Harry), but they didn’t seem to be doing any good. Their boots quickly hit the gravel path that would take them north to the stables and paddocks where the others were waiting for them.

It was March and winter hadn’t released her grip on the central-northern-ish European country just yet. The grass was half damp from the morning frost, the trees were bare, and there was not a flower to be seen in the Schloss’s British inspired landscape (not that there were many flowers to be seen during spring or summer). Naturally, it was the perfect day for a horse ride and picnic. Because of plans . Right, that was a bit unfair. The ride would help clear his head and wake him up properly, the company would be top notch (family, friends and cute kids), and the picnic was actually going to be on the floor of the Schweizerhaus’s upper level so no one was going to freeze.

But. Klaus, Harry, himself. In that order.

The walk was blissfully quiet, only interrupted by the sounds of nature, the crunching of gravel, and the sipping of tea (it must have been prepared some time earlier for it was already the perfect temperature to drink). His stomach was mostly settled thanks to the greasy and carb loaded breakfast Harry and himself had been served in the small dining room about half an hour earlier. They’d been alone, of course, having slept through the scheduled eight o’clock breakfast. He’d woken just after nine, blurry-eyed and head pounding, to a glass of water, painkillers, three texts from Kate, and finally a note from Lina’s staff letting him know breakfast would be available in the small dining room twenty minutes from when he or Harry alerted the kitchen.

After dragging himself to his brother’s room, shaking him awake and ignoring his protestations, William went back to his room, asking one of Lina’s footmen in the corridor to alert the kitchen he and Harry were ready for breakfast. Well, they weren’t, but they would be. A quick shower and change of clothes later, and he and Harry made their way to the small dining room. Happily, any sniggering about their current condition was kept behind closed doors. They looked wretched, felt worse, and ate in almost total silence.

And now they were walking in almost total silence but they were headed to a group of people who would be anything but. Kate’s first text that morning had been to let him know she’d gone to have breakfast with Lina and Klaus. Her second text had been to let him know she’d gone with Klaus to greet his and Lina’s cousin, his wife and their two daughters while Lina did official stuff. Her third text had been to let him know she was heading to the stables with the others and would see him and Harry there. William had felt a twinge of pride, a swelling of his heart. Kate was going to be so good at this. His Mecklenburger cousins had embraced her wholeheartedly. Not that he ever thought they wouldn’t. Kate was pretty great and so were they. He knew she’d get along with the Mecklenburger cousins he was closest to growing up, and she did.

Karolina Augusta had been a surprise. Before Wilhelm Franz died, Karolina Augusta had simply been a little kid, toddling around while babbling a bizarre mix of German, English and Danish. She’d always been a sweet, cute, semi-incoherent kid, but as he got older she became...well, annoying . He wanted to go run off, ride horses, play sports and other activities not conducive for little kids (no matter how much they might want to join in) but his mother would always insist he and Harry involve her as much as they could. They complied, after much moaning and complaining, and they’d planted the seeds to a life-long friendship and help create a horse loving fanatic to rival Granny. After Wilhelm Franz died…

1992 had been a hellish year. It began with the death of his godfather and the accession of his three year old daughter. Instantly, the relationship between the two royal families changed. No longer was there the dual link between his parents and Lina’s. When previously, Wilhelm Franz and his family would visit the UK every other month, Eleonora, now a single parent and queen regent, stayed in Mecklenburg, her adopted home, and proved to the people she was the right person to represent their country and raise their young queen. Between bouts of public and private squabbling, his parents took turns taking William and his brother to Mecklenburg to visit his distant cousins. They would see Eleonora, Karolina Augusta, and Klaus Wilhelm briefly, in the mornings or evenings, instead spending their days playing with Lina and Klaus’s cousins in welcomed moments of reprieve. The year ended with the announcement that his parents were now formally separated.

1993 wasn’t much better. Nor the year after that, or the year after that. Not 1996. And not 1997.

It was shock. It was the bewildering, disbelieving, overwhelming shock that half made you want to laugh, like the other person was crazy for saying what they did, or you’d gone crazy from what they’d said. He’d understood the words, but not the meaning. “ Mummy’s been in a car accident.” He hadn’t known what to do with the words. “ I’m so sorry, boys. She’s gone.

He doesn’t have a clear memory of the rest of that morning.

Aboard Her Mecklenburgish Majesty’s Yacht Karola , Eleonora was woken hours before dawn to the news of her dear friend’s death. The Karola had been due to arrive in Copenhagen just after breakfast, ahead of Nora, Lina, and Klaus’s annual summer visit with their royal Danish relatives. Nora ordered the ship’s speed be increased and she arranged for the family’s private plane to meet them at Copenhagen Airport to take them back to Scotland.

William often wondered how other people learnt of his mother’s death. Nora had been told by the Karola’s captain. What words did he use? Did either of them cry in the telling? Lina and Klaus were told by their mother. Was anyone else in the room when Nora woke her children and told them the news? Did Lina and Klaus start crying? Was Nora able to stay strong for her children or did they weep arm in arm together?

When the Mecklenburgers returned to Balmoral just after lunch on the last day of August, the castle was awash with grief, confusion, and great activity. Dad, Granny and Grandpa tried to keep him and Harry away from it all, in the nursery, in Granny’s study, in the stables if they wished, but they hadn’t wanted to be alone, to be quiet with their thoughts. When Nora, Lina, and Klaus, dressed head to toe in black, walked through the castle’s front door, William and Harry rushed towards Nora. She hugged them tightly, whispered words of love and condolence, before releasing them to allow her young children to do the same.

William hadn’t been in the room when Nora woke her children, sat them down, and told them Aunt Diana had died, but he knew some of the words Nora used with her children. “Mummy says your Mummy is with my Daddy now,” Klaus said looking up, his arms around William’s torso, eyes wide and wet, trying to help in his own small way. “And my Daddy is taking care of your Mummy now.”

For the next week, Klaus took it upon himself to be the life of the castle, making it his mission to make him, Harry and Dad smile as much as possible. It wasn’t often successful but it was always appreciated.

Lina had been more reserved in that week, as was her nature, old enough to fully grasp what had happened in a way five year old Klaus couldn’t, but still too young to have lost so much. She’d been less than two weeks from turning nine when she sat down next to William on the morning he, Harry, Dad, Granny and Grandpa would talk to the crowds gathered at the gate. She pursed her lips, ever serious, more so now with the fog of grief and shock blanketing their world, and said:

“I don’t remember my dad. But people tell me their memories of him all the time. How they watched him marry my mum. How happy he was when I was born. They tell me how sorry they are he’s gone. How much I must miss him. They tell me how proud he’d be of me. Sometimes they cry! Can you believe that? He’s my dad and they cry! It’s different with you. You’ll remember your mum. But you’ll have to do what I do.”

“And what’s that?”

“You smile, you say thank you, and you take whatever they want to give you.”

The advice wasn’t particularly original, his father had told him something similar the night before. Hearing the words come out of an almost nine year old girl’s mouth, though, added an indescribable weight to them. She was so young , but so settled in her role, so sure of who she was and what she was meant to be. She reminded him of his grandmother. On one of the worst days of his life - why should he have to go talk to these people who didn’t know his mum, who probably thought or said bad things about her, who gossiped and poured over paparazzi photos, who said bad things about his father, who looked at him and Harry with pity - he reconnected with Karolina Augusta of Mecklenburg. It was as unexpected, and as needed, as a clear patch of sky on a rainy day. In her, he now saw an ally, a confidant, a teeny, tiny and at times, dramatic, confidant, but where before there had been only shared memories of Scottish summers and the flowers and falling leaves of Mecklenburg, there was now understanding.

For the next several years, it was William Lina would spend the most of her free time with during her visits to the UK. The understanding became friendship, a vital and strong connection which would last a lifetime. And through this connection, Lina and Kate were given the opportunity to forge their own, despite the apparent obstacles. The age difference, the life experience difference, the long distance, and the small amount of time they were able to spend together were not able to deter, derail or dampen the friendship and love between Kate and Lina. William knew that would last a lifetime as well. Kate and Lina had been able to develop a relationship separate of their relationship with William and he would be forever grateful to Lina for the role she’s played, and would play, in Kate’s life.

“I’m not going to stop being her friend,” Lina had said firmly, with no room for negotiation, after William had broken the news to Lina that he and Kate weren’t together anymore. “Oh, thank god,” was what Lina said a few months later.

An invitation to Mecklenburg soon followed. Then another, and another, and another. And before he knew it, Kate was visiting Mecklenburg without him and Lina was spending most of her free time with Kate during her visits to the UK. The first thing made him incredibly happy, the second not as much. He’d come to highly value the time he and Lina spent together and the close friendship that had grown out of it.

“Did you go running with Lina this morning?” William asked his brother in between sips of tea.

Harry looked at him with confusion and flatly replied that no, he did not go running with Lina that morning. “I was in a right state. You should know. You’re the one who woke me up.”

William made a non-committal sound in vague agreeance. Stranger things had happened. Harry could have gone back to bed after the forty minute run (followed by twenty minutes doing laps in the Schloss’s basement pool), which could have been an explanation for him being ‘in a right state’ earlier. It was the alcohol, William conceded, so much alcohol. He could count on one hand the number of times he’d gotten completely hammered on beer. The receding headache meant he wouldn’t try it again. For about six months.

Still. Klaus, Harry, himself. In that order.

“But,” Harry continued, “if this horse ride and picnic lunch hadn’t been organised, I wouldn’t have drunk so much last night so I would have been able to go for a run this morning with Lina. Last night was about Klaus - showing him a good time, yeah - but this weekend is for seeing everyone, right?”

“Right.” William canted his head, “well, not everyone .”

Harry gave a bark of laughter. “Right. When was the last time all of Lina’s family was in the one place?”

“And we were there to see it, you mean?” William thought back. It would have to have been an event in Mecklenburg. No event in the UK would make all of them come over at once. “Ah! It was Lina’s twenty-first. So, not that long ago.”

“Oh, yeah,” Harry said, letting out a sigh. He took another sip of his tea. He looked a bit upset. Strange. “They were a good couple of days.”

“Yeah, they were.”

While William had reconnected with Lina in the months and years following Mum’s death, it would be many years before Lina returned to Harry’s life with any sense of permanence. As Lina learned the ropes of monarchy and transformed from a monarch-in-training to a monarch-in-waiting, Harry was busy finishing high school, going on his GAP Year to Australia and Lesotho, partying his way across London, and enrolling at Sandhurst. William didn’t fault Harry for not finding a way to slot Lina into his life during those years. William did hope Harry realised his error in allowing it to happen, though. People they could trust completely, to have their back, and not go blabbing to the press, were hard to come by.

From William’s perspective, Harry had realised the error of his ways. Or had at the very least, eventually realised Lina was worth making room for. For the past couple of years, Harry has been making up for lost time in a big way. Several visits to Mecklenburg (some of them solo) and keeping in pretty constant contact with Lina and Klaus via text message. He’d even caught Harry scrolling through Lina’s Twitter a few months back.

“Is this Twinings?” William asked, looking sternly at the thermos as though it were going to give him the answer personally.

“Pretty sure, yeah.” Harry took another sip. “Mecklenburg doesn’t have their own tea brands the Royal Family can patronise?”

“Could not tell you.” William had been to Mecklenburg close to a hundred times but had never been inside one of its shops. “Great-Grandpa and Gan Gan probably got Lina’s grandparents hooked on the stuff during the War.”

The War. The foundation of the present day relationship between the Houses of Windsor and Mecklenburg. Huddled together at Windsor Castle, Lina’s grandparents getting married at Windsor Castle, the older three of Lina’s aunts getting born at Windsor Castle. The bonds forged were made stronger as Lina’s grandparents had a British Royal be godparent to every single one of their eight children. And made stronger still when they began the tradition of spending three to four weeks each summer at Balmoral Castle. Scotland during summer was an experience to be sure (the midges alone), but he’d never heard Lina or Klaus complain and demand they spend time under the sun in the south of France instead of the underneath the clouds of the Scottish Highlands.

He and Harry were nearing the stables now. Thermoses almost empty, a crisp chill lingering in the air of late morning. The sounds of people and horses easily reaching them through the bare trees.

All of Lina’s cousins were his distant cousins, too, but today’s guests were a little more closely related to him and Harry than everyone else in the line of succession to the Mecklenburgish throne. Prince Ludwig of Hohenlohe-Langenburg (and his younger brother and new friend to Kate, Konstantin) was Lina’s first cousin and William’s second. Ludwig and Konstantin’s father had been a nephew of his grandfather. Sadly, Rupprecht died of a heart attack in 1978, the day after his forty-fourth birthday, leaving behind a grieving widow and two young sons. Happily, the Royal Houses and Families of Mecklenburg and Windsor had rallied around Elisabeth Mathilde, Ludwig and Konstantin and by the time William was born the Hohenlohe-Langenburg branch of Lina’s family were regular visitors to Windsor Castle (Mecklenburgish royals spending so much time at Windsor Castle might be genetic at this point) and Aunt Anne’s Gatcombe Park as Ludwig and Konstantin were a similar age to Peter. And through Peter, close to Zara, and through Peter and Zara, close to William and Harry.

That didn’t mean that William and Harry saw a lot of Ludwig and his family. Ludwig and his wife, Daniela, and their two daughters, Juliana and Lucinda, lived thirty minutes north-east of Ludwigslust in the town of Parchim. Ludwig and Daniela operated a small law firm together, lived in a flat in the middle of town, had their daughters enrolled in a local state school, and generally kept to themselves. It was rare to see them at even the most important royal events. William wondered if more than a small percentage of Mecklenburg even knew what they looked like. Konstantin, on the other hand, was heavily involved with the public and private goings on of Mecklenburg’s Royal House and Family, and more recognisable to the average Mecklenburger. As the court appointed photographer, Konstantin was responsible for covering or overseeing all events, public and private, big and small, which happened at Lina’s five official residences. Konstantin also took birthday portraits, Christmas card photos, whatever Lina wanted him to do and whatever he could find the time for. In hindsight, it was amazing William and Harry saw Konstantin as often as they did.

Shying away from the public side of royalty did not mean Ludwig divested himself of all the perks of being the Queen of Mecklenburg’s first cousin, a member of the Royal Family and being quite high up in the line of succession. He kept his daughters ponies at Schloss Ludwigslust’s stables. Little Juliana, aged four, and Lucinda, aged three, were the proud owners of the imaginatively named Shetland ponies, Diamant and Kristall. William wouldn’t be surprised to learn Lina had not so subtly pushed her cousin’s daughters to pick those names.

“Names are very important, Wilhelm,” Lina had told him when she’d introduced him to her tenth birthday present - her very own pony (her first couple of ponies had previously been owned by older cousins): a chestnut Welsh Pony mare she’d diligently named Verona, not after the Italian city, but the reddish coloured marble. When William had asked why she’d named her horse after marble, Lina said “we’ve been learning about different kinds of rocks at Schloss-Schule.”

It could have been worse, William reasoned. She could have decided to name the pony Granite.

Never one to give up on a promising theme, a few years later Lina picked out the name for what would become her favoured Fell Pony while visiting Scotland, Marquina, after the black marble, and her fourteenth birthday present, a grey Andalusian mare, named Carrara, after the white and grey marble. Her coronation gift from the Kronengestüt Redefin and other horse associations in Mecklenburg had been a bay Mecklenburger mare, and was named Basalt for the black-ish brown variation of the rock. Following in his sister’s footsteps, Klaus had been obsessed with Norse Mythology when he’d become a proud pony owner at the age of ten, and named his black Welsh Pony mare, Odin.

Verona and Basalt (and Marquina) were lovely animals, kind, patient and intelligent. Carrara was a right pain in the arse and never let you get away with anything. William had decided not to take it personally when Lina had assigned him the willful Andalusian for their ride, preferring to believe she knew he would keep Carrara in line and Harry couldn’t; over giving Harry the easier of the two horses because of new found favouritism (which William really didn’t feel like getting into as hungover as he was). Lina herself would be riding Verona as she was light enough for the pony to bear. Klaus would be riding Odin, opting not to ride the grey Mecklenburger mare he’d received from Redefin the week before, whom he’d named Huginn, after one of Odin’s messenger ravens. Ludwig and Daniela would be leading their daughters’ ponies while Kate walked beside them. A slew of royal protection officers would be scattered along the route (on foot) with a direct line to the Schloss should Lina be required for urgent business.

William and Harry were finally in line of sight of the red brick stables and the paddock’s white wooden fences. He heard a lull in the indistinct conversation before a commanding female voice said “Mach weiter!” A few seconds later three dogs broke through the tree line and came tearing down the path towards them.

The biggest two, dark brown Nikoleta and grey Astrida, were in the lead, with smaller red and white Wilhelmina close behind them.

William and Harry crouched down, set their thermoses on the ground as the dogs reached them, a flurry of paws, fur, half-jumps, and dodged tongues as William and Harry pet them, rubbed their sides and nuzzled their faces. As though they hadn’t seen each other in months when it had actually only been about thirteen hours since he, Harry and Klaus left for a drink in the only pub in Ludwigslust.

Nora had refused to allow her children - her eldest child in particular - a dog while growing up. When finally pushed for an answer of few years ago, Nora had revealed her reason behind it. Dogs are a lot of responsibility, a lot of work, and an enormous distraction for a young monarch and her heir presumptive. Unbeknownst to but a very few, Nora had been spent years planning two very special coronation gifts for Lina. Amongst Lina’s vast and varied coronation slash eighteenth birthday gifts - ranging from jewels, to paintings, to furniture, to books, to clothes, to a horse, a kingdom - were two puppies and everything those puppies would need.

Though the dogs were her mother’s idea, they were actually from her godparents - fourteen still living at the time (and fourteen still living now) - with Princess Cecilie Auguste, Duchess of Ludwigslust in charge of selecting a German Spaniel and Princess Astrid of Belgium in charge of selecting a Tervuren. Names being the very important things that they were were carefully chosen by Lina. The dark brown German Spaniel was named Nikoleta after Niklot, ancestor of the House of Mecklenburg. The grey Tervuren was named Astrida, not after her godmother Princess Astrid of Belgium, but after Astrid’s grandmother, Princess Astrid of Sweden.

Two years later, for Lina’s twentieth birthday, Queen Beatrix (along with The Prince of Orange and Princess Maxima) of the Netherlands “went rogue” (the godparents were only meant to buy their goddaughter jewellery that year) and bought Lina a third dog. The red and white Kooikerhondje was named Wilhelmina after Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, Queen Beatrix’s grandmother and Lina’s cousin and aunt-by-marriage by some distant degree.

From no dogs to three in a couple of years. Sometimes, William thought Lina took on too much too quickly.

Getting pets through UK customs was an ordeal and a half and thus Nikki, Asta and Willa had never joined Lina on her frequent visits to England and Scotland. They stayed behind in Mecklenburg under the care of members of Lina’s family or very trusted staff. William knew all too well the keen feeling of longing when separated from a loved pet and never minded when Lina shared photos and stories of her dogs during her visits to the UK.

They were also really cute and only monsters didn’t like to look at cute dog photos.

After the dogs had been sufficiently petted, William and Harry picked up their thermoses and stood up.

“Kommen Sie!” Harry said, slapping his free hand against his leg as they set off again towards the stables and the people waiting for them.

The dogs kept pace with them as they approached the stables, their tails continuing to wag wildly, joyful from the morning’s activity and the impending horse ride. He’d have to be careful and make sure he kept Nikki, Asta and Willa from being underfoot of Carrara’s powerful hooves. Lina would probably brush off his concerns, the dogs and horses had been around each other for years, but he’d never be able to forgive himself if something were to happen to Lina’s dogs.

William drained the last of his tea as they passed the tree line, coming into view of the paddock and the people and animals assembled within. The dogs sprinted ahead, ducking beneath the bottom rung of the wooden fence, returning to their owner’s side, and alerting everyone of William and Harry’s late arrival.

William sought out Kate. She wore the same blue jeans, black boots and brown jacket she’d arrived at Ludwigslust in the day before. Her brown hair, thick and wavy, was pulled up into a low ponytail. Kate had brought her SLR camera to Mecklenburg and was currently pointing it towards Klaus and Odin as they trotted across the far side of the paddock.

Kate noticed William and Harry had finally showed up and waved before walking over to join Lina, Ludwig, Daniela and the girls by the fence, as William and Harry approached from the other side.

“Guten Morgen!” bounced between the groups, Harry and William bowed to Lina and were reintroduced to Juliana and Lucinda. The girls were of mix of their parents, but, for the moment, had blonde hair like their mother. Brown hair was otherwise rampant in Lina’s family.

“Finally!” Klaus said pulling his brown pony to a stop on the other side of the fence. “We were worried you’d miss it.”

“Not a chance,” Harry said, his eyes moving to briefly linger on Kate, Lina, and the Hohenlohe-Langenburgs as they watched the girls’ Shetland Ponies be lead outside by a pair of Lina’s stablehands. “How are you holding up?”

“Oh, I’m fine. You?” The cocky bastard grinned, having accurately assessed William and Harry’s hungover state. And they say youth is wasted on the young.

“Never better,” Harry said, with an admirable amount of conviction.

“Excellent. We’ll have to do it again soon,” Klaus patted Odin’s neck, and after William and Harry declined Klaus’s invitation to join him for longer and faster ride through the Schlosspark, steered the pony towards the open gate, shouting over his shoulder, “Wir sehen uns im Haus!”

William and Harry made their way into the paddock. The girls’ Shetland ponies had been the last ones to leave the stables. Verona, Carrara and Basalt were saddled and were “playing” with Lina’s dogs. Granny’s dogs rarely warmed to Granny’s horses. Lina’s animals seemed much closer despite the difference in size and species.

“How was breakfast?” Lina asked, ever the gracious host. It had been excellent and they told her so. “And the tea?” she asked as Harry finished off the final dregs of his Twinings.

“That too,” William said. “It’s helped. I feel almost human again.”

“It’s always strange to see you in something other than a dress or skirt,” Harry said, screwing the lid back onto the thermos.

Lina raised her eyebrows at him, “you’ve seen in my exercise outfits. And in my riding outfits.”

“Not that often,” Harry countered. William supposed that was true overall, especially with regards to horse riding while in Scotland. Lina was far more willing to forego that activity in the face of inclement weather.

“Trousers aren’t really my thing,” Lina said, a hint defensive, guarding against an argument she’s probably had with her dressmaker hundreds of times.

“Do you even own a pair of jeans?” Kate asked, more than a fraction horrified at the thought of not owning any pairs of jeans herself. Kate loved jeans. The long pause, the slight crunch of confusion on Lina’s brow was meant to convey deep thought, a sifting of memories, but William knew the truth.

So did Harry, who scoffed and said “not on your life.” Lina’s indignation and Kate’s shock brought a chuckle from both brothers. The closest Lina got to casual was her workout and riding clothes. If trousers were a no go, jeans didn’t stand a chance.

The sincerity with which Kate then asked Lina if she’d like Kate to buy her a pair of jeans caused the brothers to burst out laughing. The polite, but firm, “no, thank you” from Lina did not help their recovery time.

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.

.

“Do you love horses like the others?” Daniela asked Kate as she wrangled Juliana into her helmet. Kate shook her head.

“Despite William’s best efforts, I don’t think they’ll ever be my thing,” Kate said.

“I do not understand it, either,” Daniela confided in Kate as she secured her eldest daughter atop her pony. “Horses are just fragile, giant dogs that get easily startled.”

William thought about interrupting to defend the honour of the magnificent creatures, but he couldn’t really fault Daniela’s logic either. Horses and ponies were large and fragile and flighty, but any faults were outweighed by the many positives. He just loved them.

“I’ll have to get used to them, though,” Kate went on. “Horses are important to William’s family.”

“The Four Royal Things,” Daniela said. She and Ludwig laughed at the inside joke. Off William and Kate’s confused looks, she explained, “Horses, dogs, boats and skis. Things all good royals should have.”

“Ah, we don’t have a boat anymore. Hitching a ride on Lina’s probably doesn’t count,” William said.

“Half my family doesn’t have skis,” said Ludwig, shrugging. “Nobody’s perfect.”

William stared ahead but he could feel Kate’s eyes on him. Compelled to do something, anything to stop himself thinking about why half of Lina’s family has foregone the activity of skiing, he looked around the paddock for where Carrara had wandered off to.

The elegant and powerfully built Andalusian grey was sticking close to her owner’s side for now. Lina was kneeling in front of little Lucinda, fiddling with the helmet straps. Diamant stood patiently close by. William could only imagine how disappointed Carrara would be once she realised she’d have to put up with him today.

“I’d better get Carrara ready,” William said, sharing a small smile with Kate, before heading over to Carrara, his helmet bumping against his thigh. There wasn’t anything to get ready. All the horses and ponies had been saddled and prepped for riding before he and Harry had arrived at the stables. William patted Carrara’s face. “Hey, girl. You remember me?”

“Unlikely,” Lina said, looking up at him briefly. “I did ask her to be good for you.”

“Well, then,” William side-eyed the horse. “I’m sure she’ll be on her best behaviour.”

“You love horses.”

“I do love horses,” William agreed. “ This horse is a menace.”

“She’s spirited. Unlike your pony, Lucy,” Lina grinned at her cousin’s kid. “Diamant ist ein gutes Mädchen. Ist sie nicht?”

“Wie ich!”

Lina and William laughed. Lina agreed that Lucinda was also a good girl like Diamant then tapped Lucinda’s helmet as though checking its structural integrity. Lucinda giggled.

“Alles gut. Komm schon!” Lina picked the little girl up, balanced her on her hip and approached Diamant.

Carrara nose nudged the side of William’s head. Taking this as a good omen, William quickly put on his helmet and vaulted onto Carrara’s saddle. She waited until he was settled before making for the open gate. He pulled her in a circle before coming to a stop not far from where they’d began.

Lina and Lucinda were now standing in front of Diamant. Lina had leaned forward slightly for Lucinda to reach out and pet her pony’s mane.

Lina collected godchildren like they were stamps. And all good stamp collectors started young. Lina first became a godmother at the ripe old age of fourteen to her own godmother’s daughter, Princess Laetitia Maria of Belgium. Others, including Uncle Edward and Aunt Sophie, waited until after Lina’s eighteenth birthday to ask her to become their child’s godmother, but Ludwig and Daniela were not among them. Lina became godmother to their eldest daughter, Juliana, when Lina was only sixteen.

From the beginning, Lina, knowingly or innately, modelled herself after her father. Wilhelm Franz had been an excellent godfather to William, as close and attentive as a beloved uncle with regular phone calls, birthday and Christmas presents, and even attendance at significant school events. Granny was the greatest source of wisdom and inspiration for what kind of monarch William wanted to be. Had Wilhelm Franz - the only other reigning monarch William regularly spent time with - lived longer, his godfather would have also been someone he could model his royal life after. Instead, remarkably, Lina had begun to fill that role for him. An old school monarch for the modern age.

The fast and firm friendship between his and Lina’s parents helped ensure the warm relationship between the Houses of Mecklenburg and Windsor could continue for another generation at least. Standing here, now, at the stables of Schloss Ludwigslust for no other reason than these people were his family and his friends and he wanted to spend time with them, William knew the bonds between the two families would last long into the future. He also knew he would receive no objection from Kate if he suggested Lina be godmother to one of their children. Fuck, he wouldn’t be surprised if Kate suggested it first.

Lina was Juliana’s godmother, but she wasn’t Lucinda’s. She loved them equally, doted on them equally. She’d never allow Lucinda to feel less adored than her elder sister. And Lina did adore them. She loved children in the same way he and Harry did: they were (usually) thoroughly unimpressed, unperturbed, or uninterested about titles and status. Genuine. A genuinity that could not be faked. Not that kids couldn’t be manipulative (they one billion percent could be), but they were (usually) painfully obvious when doing so.

With so much of their mother’s time taken up with reigning in her daughter’s stead, Lina and Klaus spent a lot of time together during the Regency. The age gap between the two siblings was large enough for Lina to have been put in charge of Klaus’s wellbeing while their mother carried out official duties in the final years of the Regency. Lina was wonderful with children of all ages and a frequent babysitter while her cousins and their spouses enjoyed dinner and a movie in the city or a child-free night at home.

Lucinda wasn’t Lina’s goddaughter, but the frequent visits between the Lina and Ludwig’s family, the closeness in Lina’s extended family in general, meant Lucinda had no problems trusting her dad’s cousin to deposit her safely on Diamant’s saddle. William waited for the telltale signs of an impending tantrum as Lina began the hardest part of getting the small child, a toddler, to stay seated, to take the reigns and not be a suicidal moron and just listen to what is being said to you when she instructed Lucinda not to move as Lina positioned Lucinda’s tiny boot in one of the stirrups, speaking assuringly in German as she walked to the other side of the pony to do the same to the other foot.

It was very cute and had drawn the attention of everyone inside the paddock. From his spot on Carrara’s back several metres away from Lina, Lucinda and Diamant, William didn’t have a clear view of everyone’s face as they watched but he assumed they matched Harry’s expression of ‘awww’ as he stood next to Basalt on the opposite side of the enclosure, absentmindedly patting the horse’s neck.

Once Lina had Lucinda settled, Ludwig stepped up to take hold of the pony’s bridle and steered the animal towards the gate and today’s grand adventure through the Schlosspark. Lucinda sweetly and uselessly shook the reigns up and down. The show now over, attention diverted elsewhere, to horses, dogs, or small children. In Kate’s case, to further conversation with Daniela, and in Harry’s case…

To Lina.

Rather than mounting Basalt, Harry tracked Lina as she crossed the sandy paddock to Verona. The brown pony had wandered off from the pack and was now eating some grass which had grown long enough for her to reach through the fence with little effort. Approaching the animal from the side, Lina trod loud enough not to startle Verona, and after a few pats, Lina put one foot in the stirrup and gracefully hopped and swung herself into the saddle.

And William watched Harry watch every millisecond of it.

William watched Harry laugh, chuckle or snort at Lina’s jokes, take fleeting glances at Lina as she raised her hand to touch passing branches, or the flash of concern in his eyes when Lina would lean sideways in her saddle to talk to Juliana or Lucinda.

When Harry had suggested the three of them race ahead to Louise’s Pond, he watched Harry give in to Lina’s insistence that she be allowed a head start because Verona was “a little pony and so much slower than a horse” and after she’d still come last, only outrunning the dogs, the look of pure adoration on Harry’s face when Lina tried to do the math on how much of a head start she should have been given for the race to have been fair.

They waited for the others to catch up, William flitting in and out of a conversation about something unimportant (horses, maths, Scotland, the Olympics, Usain Bolt, Usain Bolt racing against a horse), as he kept Carrara under control and her hoofs clear of the dogs. She wasn’t a fan of standing still while saddled. She probably didn’t see the point of it, of William sitting on her back, of the weight of him and the saddle, of the bit in her mouth, if they weren’t going to trot, canter or gallop.

Once Kristal and Diamant arrived, with Juliana and Lucinda on their backs, Ludwig and Daniela hands on the reins with Kate trailing behind as she stopped to take photos of the scenery, William regaled them about his sound thrashing of Harry and Lina.

The adults half-heartedly congratulated him, Kate snapped a few photos, and the party set off, together again.

Louise’s Pond wasn’t far from their destination. Named for looked vaguely like a two story home you might find nestled in the Swiss Alps, the Schweizerhaus was a white painted wooden building with a thatched roof, and had served many functions over the years. Guest accommodation, staff offices, and even a restaurant for tourists during the summer months. Nowadays, Lina kept it aside for family who couldn’t fit, or didn’t want to stay, in the Schloss. William could see the merits in converting it back into a restaurant, but there were probably a few places in town who appreciated catering to the Schloss’ tourists in Lina’s stead.

As the group broke through the tree line, William saw several things in quick succession: the Schweizerhaus sitting in the middle of a large clearing. A handful of Lina’s stablehands were waiting for them on the lawn in front of the Haus. Odin’s saddle and bridle had been removed. The brown pony was enjoying a brush from one of the stablehands. Klaus was nowhere in sight.

After dismounting, William used Carrara to block Harry from view. Watching them interact on the ride had been unavoidable. Watching them interact during lunch would also be unavoidable. He needed this moment, one of reprieve to sort through his feelings about Harry’s feelings before his brain-

“Hi,” Kate said, stepping in front of him, her smile wide and welcoming. He leaned down to kiss her, her lips pressed softly against his. He felt her camera-free hand curl around and tug on his jacket, pulling him closer. William put his hands on her hips. Best keep things 12A in mixed company. They quickly parted, but William couldn’t be sure who pulled away first.

“Hi,” he said, a smile on his face and a confession on the tip of his tongue. Best keep that for later, too. If he mentioned it at all. Kate probably wouldn’t believe him. William moved his hands from Kate’s hips and began undoing the strap beneath his chin.

Kate grinned at his helmet hair but William found he didn’t mind so much when she reached up with her free hand and threaded her fingers gently through his hair.

“Presentable?” He asked when she pulled her hand back. Kate frowned and ummed and ahhed then laughed at William’s feigned indignation. He patted Carrara and thanked her for the pleasant ride, “let’s keep it going after lunch, shall we?”

“I’m starving.” Kate’s camera-free hand bumped against his, their fingers entwined, instinctually after so many years together.

Not wanting to let go of Kate’s hand, William balanced the helmet atop the saddle, took hold of Carrara’s reins and looked around for a free stablehand. None were available but after walking Carrara closer to the other equine animals, one of the stablehand’s insisted they head on inside regardless.

William and Kate left Carrara in deep “conversation” with Asta, the horse nuzzling the dog’s head.

Nikki, Asta and Willa wouldn’t be joining the humans for lunch. Lina’s dogs were well behaved but they weren’t “but the food’s right there! On the floor!” well behaved.

The staff would keep on eye on the dogs, horses and ponies and corral them should the spirit of adventure cause one of them to wander too far from the Haus. The Schlosspark was enclosed, but at a couple hundred acres large enough to lose track of even large animals.

William placed his hand on Kate’s lower back and ushered her through the front door, surprised to find the others were waiting for them in the entry hall. He was also surprised to learn Lina had taken Kate on a tour of the Haus during one of Kate’s solo visits. It was a dilution of the grandeur found in Lina’s palaces. Wood panelling, but painted walls instead of wallpaper. Antique furniture, but the less ornate kind. Many paintings, but in simple wooden frames. There was one major difference.

“Did you know the bedrooms are carpeted?” Kate asked as they approached the stairs leading to the upper floor. William had not. Or he had but had forgotten about it. He hadn’t been inside the Schweizerhaus in over a decade.

“Do you think Lina knows?” William asked, feigning deep concern for their carpet averse friend. Kate laughed. They climbed the stairs, wooden steps creaked under the weight of half a dozen people. The narrow stairs opened up into a large room, revealing Klaus standing next to a picnic. A banquet of a picnic.

The blankets, plates, cutlery and food had been laid out on the ballroom floor. Which sounds more impressive than it really was. The entire top floor of the house consisted of only one room: the ballroom. It was little more than a fancy, open-beamed attic.

Klaus held out his arms, “ta-da!”

“Oh, did you help?” Lina asked.

“A bit,” Klaus insisted. Lina looked unconvinced. Everyone else just looked hungry.

Juliana and Lucinda, uninhibited by a desire not to pounce on the food like ravenous beasts, made a beeline for the tartan (what else would it be?) picnic blanket.

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.

.

William felt it long before he thought it, the reason for Harry’s behaviour, and it shocked him and unsettled him. It left him feeling uneasy and unsure. He was falling from a great height and the ground was rushing up to meet him.

He watched Harry fill a glass of orange juice and hand it to Lina. Such a simple thing, such a stupidly simple thing, but Harry did it without being asked and without asking. There were other juices to choose from: apple, pineapple, a tropical mix. It’s possible Lina would have preferred one of them instead of the orange juice Harry passed to her. William couldn’t remember if orange juice was her favourite.

Lina’s attention momentarily diverted from Daniela, a small smile and distracted “danke” in contrast to Harry’s look of longing, his small smile and quiet “bitte” made William’s stomach clench and his throat tighten, made it so he could no longer deny the feeling which had been creeping up on him since they’d left the horse paddock becoming thought, tangible and real.

Harry was in love with Lina.

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.

.

During the remainder of their indoor picnic lunch, the building didn’t explode around them. During the ride back to the stables, the sky didn’t fall on them. During the walk to the Schloss, the ground didn’t give way beneath them. Everything was incredibly, unremarkably ordinary to everyone but William. He was now living in The Twilight Zone, in a world where Harry was in love with Lina.

And he didn’t know what to do next except pretend it hadn’t happened at all. There was little else he could do right now, not with where he was or who he was with. And if he were in a quiet, private place with Harry the only other person around? William wasn’t sure what he’d do in that situation either.

He had no prior experience for dealing with brothers falling in love with foreign monarchs.

Lina had a full afternoon of official and unofficial duties. A Dutch lesson, final fitting of her wardrobe for next week’s Incoming Latvian State Visit, a meeting with the Court Historian and the Court Archivist, afternoon tea with the new Swedish Ambassador and their spouse, a meeting with the Minister of Education, and lastly, Die Papiere and responding to selected correspondence. 

Nora kept a strict Monday to Friday schedule for meetings and appointments, preferring to allow her staff a work free weekend when she wasn’t carrying out public engagements. William suspected Klaus would likely follow his mother’s example, and not his sister’s. Lina’s (completely self-imposed) packed public schedule allowed little to no time for low priority meetings and appointments to occur between Mondays and Fridays, which meant a typical Ludwigslust Saturday or Sunday was barely any different from a typical Schwerin Monday to Friday. 

William thought it was remarkable that everyone continued to put up with Lina’s intense schedule. It set a bad precedent should her number of public engagements start to decline, but he suspected she did it to prove she could be the kind of monarch her country needed her to be despite her young age. Lina hadn’t allowed herself a grace period, time to ease herself into her role after her coronation. Both Lina and Mecklenburg shared in their impatience for the long Regency to end. She took on too much too fast and it looked to William as though no one was telling her to slow down.

Harry had said earlier how this weekend had been about seeing everyone. He’d been more accurate than he thought. Lina had truly thought of everything. Or at least thought little of her brother’s ability to keep him, Kate and Harry company that afternoon as she’d asked Ludwig and Daniela to prolong their visit to Schloss Ludwigslust a few hours.

The little princesses and Lina’s dogs provided much of the afternoon’s entertainment once Lina took her leave (Harry’s eyes had followed her closely as she climbed the stairs to her apartment on the first floor) and a much needed distraction from the thoughts piling up in William’s mind.

“Would you mind sending me copies of any photographs the girls are in?” Daniela asked after Kate snapped a shot of Lucinda, giggling, as she buried her face into Asta’s grey fur.

“Of course,” Kate said before downplaying their quality. Klaus offered to find a piece of paper and a pen for Daniela to write down her email address.

Another photo taken, this time of Juliana patiently trying to teach Harry to say “shake hands” in German before Harry “gave up” and stuck to English, leaving monolingual Willa confused and Juliana in fits of laughter at Harry’s apparent incompetence.

Another photo taken, after the firm command “Hände schütteln”, of Juliana kneeling in front of a sitting Willa, her hand holding one of Willa’s front paws and an expression of “see, Cousin Harry?” on her face.

Yes, see, Cousin Harry indeed. But no one else had seen what William saw today. Maybe he had imagined it. Why William would imagine such a thing made no sense. He didn’t want his brother to be in love with Lina. He didn’t really care about his brother’s love life at all outside of a general desire for his brother to be happy.

The mere thought of Kate made William fill to the brim with happiness and hope. He knew their future, their wished for and hoped for future, would come true. William could see he and Kate making it real and tangible together. Husband and wife, royal partners-in-crime, parents, but always as they have been: the best of friends.

When he thought of Harry’s future, the only roles William could see Harry and Lina fulfilling for each other was what they have always been: very good friends.

 

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The Hohenlohe-Langenburgs left Schloss Ludwigslust following afternoon tea in the Jagdsalon. They would not be staying for dinner. Neither would Lina or Klaus.

Instead, the siblings would be attending a dinner and benefit concert at Ludwigslust’s concert hall. The concert was being held to raise funds for the town hospital’s construction of a brand new oncology wing. Lina was pulling double duty as she was patron of both the concert hall and the hospital. A dozen of Lina’s cousins and their spouses, including Ludwig and Daniela, would also be joining their Königin and her heir presumptive. Lina may have been the sole patron of the organisations involved, but they were all supporting a worthy cause very close to their hearts.

Five weeks earlier, their aunt, Princess Ingrid Sophie, Duchess of Teterow, had been diagnosed with the early stages of breast cancer. The fifty-four year old Duchess had chosen radiotherapy for her initial treatment. The nearest hospital with the facilities to provide this treatment was in Schwerin. Which is why Ingrid Sophie and her sister-in-law, Nora, had remained in the nation’s capital when Lina and Klaus travelled to Ludwigslust. Nora and Ingrid Sophie were due to arrive at Schloss Ludwigslust in time to see Lina and Klaus off. Just .

The dress code for the concert was black tie. Which meant, in Klaus’s case -

“Nice bow tie,” Harry said by way of greeting as Klaus joined Harry, Kate, and William at the bottom of the main (and strangely plain) eastern staircase. Klaus grinned and complemented Harry on his beanie. “I wasn’t allowed to start a fire in my room.”

“We have radiators, you know.”

“Too British,” Harry shrugged. Kate snorted. William sighed. And Klaus rolled his eyes.

“Why weren’t you allowed to start a fire in your room?” Lina asked as she descended the stairs, the sound of her high heels muffled by the stairs’ red carpet. Flowers had come early to Mecklenburg. Not too many, and muted in colour, the roses on Lina’s white strapless gown seemed to be begging spring to just hurry up and get there already. The plain black shawl hanging from her arms said spring was taking its sweet time. “I could ask someone to bring up some firewood to your room.”

“It’s okay,” Harry said, his eyes lingering just a little too long on Lina for an old family friend. “I’m mostly just trying to cause trouble.”

“Trouble? You?” Lina asked, a spark behind the eyes and a crooked, mischievous smile, as she adjusted the shawl, getting the creases and folds just right.

“I know right? Very out of character,” Harry said.

Whatever Lina said next was muffled by the explosion in his brain.

Were they flirting ? Right there in front of him? In front of Kate and Klaus ? Have they flirted before ? Or was this the first time? And what counted as flirting? Was it only considered flirting if you were attracted to the person? Or doing it to get something from them? Like in spy movies when the female lead had to flirt with a guard while her partner broke into the room where the evidence they needed to incriminate the bad guys was hidden in a safe behind a painting? Had Lina ever flirted with him ? She could be cheeky and playful when she wanted to be. Did cheeky and playful count as flirting?

What were the symptoms for having a stroke? Or a heart attack? He didn’t think he was going to faint. He didn’t feel dizzy. He should probably breathe. He did and did again, trying to keep his internal reaction from becoming external.

He wasn’t entirely successful.

Sensing his distress, Kate sidled up to him and placed her hand on his lower back. She shot him a look ‘are you okay?’ He nodded, and with a look replied ‘I’m fine. But I think my brother is in love with Lina and are they flirting?’

From Kate’s serene smile she only understood the first part. Which, fair enough, really. It would have been a remarkable feat had she shown some kind of telepathic ability all of a sudden. Harry being in love with Lina and them possibly, maybe flir-

Nope.

Focus on Kate and not...whatever it was happening over there .

Thank heavens one of Lina’s footman appeared to tell them “Ma’am, Queen Eleonora and The Duchess of Teterow have just arrived.”

William paid little attention to the conversation around him as their small group left the stair hall for the Schloss’s small entrance hall.

Eleonora and Ingrid Sophie had just walked into the Schloss, wearing coats to keep them warm in the chill of late autumn. With them were some young female staff William didn’t recognise. Most likely junior personal assistants or ladies-in-waiting. The ladies-in-waiting had a higher turnover rate due to the random, but long, work hours. Plus, the whole not-being-paid thing. Like her daughter, Nora sourced her ‘Hofdamen’ from the daughters of courtiers and the nobility. It was meant to be an honour to simply be given the opportunity to serve, and maybe the women thought it was, but it made William uncomfortable despite his own family carrying out the same practices.

Lina and Klaus greeted their mother and aunt in a manner befitting the fact they had last seen them yesterday. William couldn’t imagine bowing to his father like Klaus was now bowing to his mother. Klaus was, naturally, used to it. As were his father, aunt and uncles. Talking about it with them would be embarrassing, but maybe he could ask Klaus how he felt about bowing to his mother, not only in public, but in private as well.

The Royal House and Family of Mecklenburg strict adherence to royal protocol and procedures did not align with the kingdom’s egalitarian and progressive goals. In spite of that, they were Mecklenburg. Whereas the House of Windsor was willed into being in 1917, the House of Mecklenburg has ruled over this small part of Central Europe for almost 850 years. Their rules and traditions would have to be pried from Lina’s cold, dead hands.

Watching Nora reunite with her children after only a day’s absence pulled at his heart for more reasons than the usual ones.

William knew Nora’s plan to move herself and Klaus to Schloss Wiligrad hurt Lina more than she was willing to admit. Lina relied on them both an enormous amount, and for enormously different reasons. That reliance, over-reliance according to Nora, being one of the motivating factors in her decision to leave Lina alone in Schwerin.

This coming September would mark four years since Lina’s coronation and the end of the only minority to have occurred within Europe in living memory. If he were braver, or if Nora was his godmother instead of Harry’s, William would take it upon himself to have words with the former Queen Regent. William could understand if all three of them moved to Schloss Wiligrad leaving Schweriner Schloss as a place of business only, but he could not understand abandoning Lina in Schwerin considering how young and unmarried she was. The media and public were currently unaware of Nora’s relocation plan and William couldn’t imagine it being warmly received by the media or the public.

Nora, Lina and Klaus were, in the eyes of many Mecklenburgers, a package deal. Them three, together, always. William couldn’t understand Nora’s rush in breaking the family apart. Time, marriages and children, would do it eventually. Why force it?

He pushed his disconcerting feelings down when Nora turned her bright smile to him, Kate and Harry. They’d last seen Nora at the annual pre-Christmas gift exchange, and Ingrid Sophie a couple of months before that. William was very happy to see them, and did his best to convey that through some stellar hugging.

It made no sense and was surely his mind playing tricks, but Ingrid Sophie felt small and fragile in his arms.

Halfway through pleasantries and small talk, they were interrupted by another of Lina’s footman. The cars were ready to take Lina and Klaus to the concert hall. As though summoned by magic, the four staff members accompanying Lina and Klaus to the engagement arrived in the entrance hall. One of Klaus’s many eighteenth birthday presents was a Household of his own; a couple of dozen employees strong.

No rest for the wicked. Or the very young, he supposed, not in Lina’s family. Everyone was expected to pull their weight as soon as they were able. William hoped the option of university had at least been discussed. Wilhelm Franz’s early death had not robbed only Lina of her childhood and the chance of a somewhat normal upbringing.

“We’ll see you at breakfast,” Lina said, adjusting her shawl once more. She cast a glance at her brother, “are you all set?”

“Yep.” Klaus kissed his mother on the cheek, which was sweet, but the smirk on his face when he stepped back was anything but. “Don’t keep Will and Harry up too late, Mama. They’re still recovering from last night.”

“Du kleine Göre,” Harry said what William was thinking. “Way to sell us out.”

The footman then interrupted them and rushed Lina and Klaus outside, everyone else trailed behind them, finding free spots on the steps underneath the Schloss’s portio. It was pitch black outside, with only the lights above and the headlights from the row of cars attacking as a bulwark against the night.

A knowing grin grew across Lina’s face. She wished them all a “lovely dinner and an early night for those who need it.” Nora, Ingrid Sophie, Kate and Klaus all found that hilarious , but Harry shared in his affront. William felt quite recovered, thank you very much.

On his other side, William could see out of the corner of his eye Harry open his mouth with a comeback, probably something witty and charming. Thankfully, William was spared having to bear witness to Harry and Lina’s flirting so soon after the last (first?) time when Nora dipped into a curtsey, signalling to everyone that this cute back and forth had gone on long enough. It was time for Lina and Klaus to leave for the concert hall.

Out of sync, but roughly at the same time, the small group gathered at the bottom of the steps bowed or curtseyed to Lina. It struck William so greatly in that moment that he had never asked Lina how she felt about her mother curtseying to her. He didn’t even know when Lina’s family had started curtseying and bowing to their young monarch. The “Eure Majestät” thing had started right away, for everyone without any prompting required, but William knows there had never been a moment when he was asked to start bowing to Lina. It’s something that began on its own, he couldn’t remember when.

Lina and Klaus waved goodbye over their shoulders before climbing into their separate cars. Ingrid Sophie stepped onto the gravel driveway and waved them off until the cars moved past the staff buildings, through the gates and out of sight.

Turning to the others still assembled on the bottom of the steps, Ingrid Sophie moved to Nora’s side and looped arms with her. “We’ll see you kids later,” she said generally, and “I’ve asked that we sit next to each other, dear, it’s been so long since we’ve had a proper catch up,” to Kate specifically.

William, Kate, and Harry followed Nora and Ingrid Sophie back into the warmth of the Schloss.

From the moment Lina and Klaus left the Schloss, they had thirty minutes until dinner would be served in the Consort’s Dining Room. The small dining room could seat fourteen people, but tonight, only five would be seated around the rectangular table. Like the previous night, dinner (all sit down meals, really) required a wardrobe change. The dress code for dinner was smart casual. Blue suits for William and Harry, and a knee length dress for Kate. And Nora and Ingrid Sophie, presumably.

The five future dinner companions split into two groups once back inside the Schloss’s entrance hall. Nora and Ingrid Sophie went left, to the East Wing and their apartments, while William, Kate, and Harry went right, to the West Wing and theirs.

Last night’s dinner had been in the Monarch’s Picture Gallery & Dining Room, the largest room of the Monarch’s Apartment, and a room Kate had been in a few times before. With Lina being absent from the Schloss, hosting duties fell on Nora. The reduction in numbers meant having dinner in the less formal Jagdsalon was overkill, so they’d be eating in the Consort’s Dining Room. It was one of the four public rooms of the Consort’s Apartment, used for hosting or receiving official guests. Four rooms Kate had never seen before.

Kate had gotten changed into a simple, but elegant dark blue, knee length dress with lace sleeves, and redid her hair and makeup in under twenty minutes.

“We’ve still got about ten minutes before dinner starts,” William said as Kate handed him his shoes in an attempt to speed up their departure from the Prince’s Apartment. “We probably won’t be allowed into the dining room until exactly seven o’clock-”

“I know!” Kate said, delighted and excited, “we’ll have to sit in the Receiving Room. I’m sure Eleonora has curated a very interesting collection of paintings and furniture for her rooms.”

“Why didn’t you ask for a tour yesterday?” William asked, putting his shoes on.

“Eleonora wasn’t here yesterday,” Kate said, her tone suggesting he was a blithering idiot for suggesting she would even think to ask she be allowed into the Consort’s Apartment without said (former) Consort being around.

“Okay,” William reached down and began tying his shoelaces, now facing the floor, he spoke a little louder, “and now you want to get their early to snoop?”

“Yes! Now, come on.”

William thought about letting Kate go on ahead without him. He’d seen the Consort’s Apartment many times before (and thoroughly hoped Kate wouldn’t be disappointed, because honestly? It wasn’t all that different to the rest of the Schloss). Maybe he could fuck around on his phone for a bit. Or go over to the Imperial Apartment and make sure Harry was ready on time. His brother’s army training had made him a morning person but hasn’t improved his punctuality in any meaningful way.

Of course that would mean he’d be alone with Harry.

Which, no . He could not deal with that right now.

Shoes tied, William slapped his palms against his trouser clad thighs, “let’s go snoop then.”

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.

.

While Kate didn’t find anything as amazing as her favourite piece, the cassowary portrait in the Imperial Suite (or William’s favourite, the snake party in Lina’s Picture Gallery) in the Consort’s Antechamber, she whispered “worth it” to him as they were escorted into the dining room.

The paintings in the Consort’s pale green dining room were mostly of pastoral scenes, with a couple of family portraits thrown in. There were barely any rooms in the Schloss that didn’t have at least one family portrait in it. The furniture was typical of the time period the Schloss had been built. Lina loved picking up period pieces at auction, but how many eighteenth century dining tables with matching chairs existed in a good enough condition to get past Lina’s high standards? Some pieces must be recreations.

The crystal chandelier hanging low over the table was original to the building, too. Not to the time of building, obviously, as electricity had not been a thing in the eighteenth century. The chandelier, in conjunction with the wall sconces, kept the room in a low, cosy light. If it had just been he and Kate at dinner, William would describe the lighting as romantic. They weren’t alone, instead, the small number of diners gave the room a conspiratorial atmosphere.

The odd number of dinner guests meant two people on one side of the table, and three on the other. Nora’s butler and footmen ushered everyone to their seats, pulling them out for the ladies while he was left to fend for himself. Ingrid Sophie had gotten her way: she and Kate were seated next to each other. Nora was directly opposite Ingrid Sophie, with Harry opposite Kate, and William directly opposite an empty chair. Of course, Harry’s chair was currently empty too.

William leaned back in his chair. Distracted, his eyes followed the light pink flower pattern of the opposite chair’s upholstery, praying his brother wouldn’t be too late.

Harry walked briskly into the dining room as the staff began placing the soup dishes on the table. William felt his stomach bottom out, a reaction he kept behind a small smile and a brief nod.

“My apologies for being late,” Harry said, going the extra step to kiss his godmother on the cheek. William gave him a subtle thumbs up as Harry took his seat on the other side of Nora. Harry flashed a grin and picked up his spoon, ready to dive into the curried pumpkin and coconut soup.

Nora took her godson’s tardiness in stride, assuring Harry he was “only a tiny bit late” and that he “had the furthest to walk”. William held his tongue, biting back the retort that Harry should have left his room earlier if that were the case. It’s not like Harry didn’t already know the Imperial Apartment was one of the furthest from the Consort’s Dining Room.

Nora picked up her spoon, prompting everyone else to do the same. The Royal House and Family of Mecklenburg and the Royal House of Windsor shared many rules and traditions. When you could start eating and when you were expected to stop eating were one such set of rules. William couldn’t wait until he had the chance to abolish them. Not being able to start eating until the highest ranked person started and not being able to continue eating once they had stopped was fucking stupid, outdated nonsense.

The soup, however, was delicious. Curry was truly the most amazing thing in the world to make pumpkins taste this good.

The dinner conversation was kept deliberately light, discussing recent - happy - events, upcoming - also happy - events, and a smattering of book, television, and movie recommendations. The weather and the meal itself was also discussed.

William, feeling a mounting anxiety about the day’s revelation, was quieter than usual with the thrust of the conversation being carried by Ingrid Sophia, Kate and Harry. Nora, her dark brown hair pulled back into a hairstyle adopted by her daughter, had an air of sadness about her which always bubbled under the surface but was now plain to see. Not even fifty and touched by so much death and heartache.

He prayed Ingrid Sophie would kick the cancer’s arse and made a note to talk to his father about making a donation to help build the new oncology ward.

Nora took her time eating her soup, keeping a careful eye on the level of the other bowls on the table. She took her time eating her vegan shepherd's pie, until all the other plates were scraped clean. There wouldn’t be any dessert this evening, instead tea, coffee and alcohol would be served in the Consort’s Receiving Room.

William grinned as, on the other side of the table, Kate visibly perked up at the chance to snoop around another room.

Harry, on the other hand, excused himself from after dinner drinks, citing exhaustion. He kissed the cheeks of the women in the room, bowed to Nora and clapped his hand on William’s shoulder, leaving the dining room through the door to the Antechamber, and from there, leaving the Consort’s Apartment. The frown, the slump in the shoulders, the dragging of the feet, the hands shoved in trouser pockets could all be dismissed as exhaustion or residual hangover. To William, with his head swimming with new knowledge, everything Harry did or said now had a Lina shade to it. He saw things, made (absurd, illogical, obsessive) connections he wouldn’t have made only yesterday.

The world around him had changed, and Harry (and William) with it. William now had to decide what he was going to do next. Well, tomorrow at the earliest. It was time for some, now, much needed alcohol.

With Nora and Ingrid Sophie in the lead, they exited the dining room through the door to the adjoining Consort’s Receiving Room, a good sized but cosy room successfully designed to be welcoming while never letting you forget you were in a palace. The fire in the fireplace had been allowed to burn low and the temperature of the room was neither too warm nor too chilly.

William wondered if Lina had surreptitiously instructed her staff to bring up some firewood for Harry’s room.

Alcohol. Now .

A simple, antique drinks trolley had been wheeled next to the fireplace.  There weren’t any staff present, so William took it to mean none were on their way. He took everyone’s order, insisted Nora take a seat over her protestations, poured the drinks, and handed Nora her brandy, Ingrid Sophie her liqueur, and Kate her sherry.

After some thought, William poured himself a whiskey and sat next to Kate on the two seater sofa. The absurd amount of scatter cushions threatened to swallow him whole, but they were so comfortable he didn’t want to move them despite how impractical it made sitting.

Kate had taken the left side of the sofa, not out of any malice, she and Nora had still been carrying on their discussion from dinner and Kate had naturally taken the spot closest to Nora’s armchair. It meant the left hand (and the arm attached to it) holding his whiskey couldn’t use the sofa’s arm to rest upon. He did however have a pile of cushions handy which could be rearranged into a sturdy tower-like structure. Kate shot him a quick, questioning glance at about the midway point of the building process, but otherwise ignored the spectacle next to her.

Ingrid Sophie had chosen to do quite the opposite. When the tower had been completed, raised to a height on which his arm could comfortably rest, William looked around and noticed Lina’s aunt staring at him.

“Alles okay?” Ingrid Sophie asked, grinning at him over her half drunk glass.

“Ja, ich bin okay,” William said, testing the structural integrity of tower with his elbow. He felt bad for lying. He was far from okay but this wasn’t the place, and Ingrid Sophie wasn’t the person to speak of what he’d learnt earlier that day. If he knew Ingrid Sophie as well as he knew her elder sisters, Heinrike Franziska, Elisabeth Mathilde, and Alexandrina Luise, maybe he would’ve broached the topic of her cancer and today’s treatment, but he didn’t so he asked her about her plans for Easter.

The four of them chatted until so much time had passed that the digestifs could be more accurately described as nightcaps. Nora put a halt to any further refills and once the glasses had been emptied, she ushered him, Kate and Ingrid Sophie out of the Consort’s Receiving Room and onto the landing of the main western staircase.

After a quick succession of hugs, kisses to cheeks, a bow and a couple of curtseys, Nora retreated back into her Receiving Room in the direction of her bedroom on the farthest corner of the Schloss. Ingrid Sophie took the western staircase up to the collection of bedroom suites reserved for family, bidding them goodnight with a final wave before she disappeared out of sight, leaving William and Kate alone on the landing. The quiet of their surroundings fell on them suddenly, so stark and out of place for a building usually bustling with life.

“At breakfast,” Kate began, “I’m going to ask Nora if I can see her library and garden room before we leave.”

“You should ask to see the family suites, and the other guest suites, while you’re at it,” William jokingly suggested. Kate wondered if they had the time for it. “Oh, I’m not joining you. I’ll be sleeping in again.”

Kate rolled her eyes, but chuckled under her breath as she made for the doors to the Guard Hall. He followed, relieved and proud she would once again have no problem leaving him in bed to spend the morning with his Mecklenburgish cousins.

Instead of walking straight through the Guard Hall to the main eastern staircase, Kate took his hand and steered them left into the Golden Hall. They came to stop underneath the largest of the room’s five chandeliers, the sole sources of illumination casting dramatic shadows across the room. While lacking ceiling murals and dwarfing in size compared to the Golden Hall in Schweriner Schloss, the two rooms were very similar with their white and gold trim colour schemes.

“I fucking hate cancer,” Kate said as they stood hand in hand in the empty, expansive room, save for the black grand piano in front of the glass balcony doors. He agreed, pulling her into his arms, her head coming to rest on his shoulder as she wrapped her arms around him.

Alone, under electric candlelight, standing on a floor made for dancing. Kate, in his arms, the flowery smell of her perfume, the feel of her hands pressed against his back, the sound of her breathing.

It was almost romantic. Almost enough to keep the worries and realities of the world at bay. Almost.

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.

.

It was approaching eleven when they returned to their guest apartment, and almost time for bed, but they both needed to unwind a bit before turning off the lights and climbing under the covers.

William sat in bed, propped up against the headboard reading a book. He wore glasses for two reasons: it made reading easier, and Kate said it makes him look sexy. The book was from the Consort’s library and a recommendation from Nora the night before. It was in English, thank god, since his reading comprehension of German was terrible. Despite several attempts to reach the end of the chapter, William couldn’t focus. It wasn’t the book’s fault (Nora had a 100% hit rate when it came to book recommendations), it was Harry’s fault. And Lina’s too.

Harry was in love with Lina. His brother was in love with a queen .

William had no fucking idea what to do with that information. Should he sit Harry down, drop subtle and not-so-subtle hints until Harry confessed? Then what? Console him? Try to help him get over it? Take him out for another night in Ludwigslust’s surprisingly rowdy pub? For every drop of certainty William possessed with knowing that Harry was in love with Lina, he possessed an equal amount knowing that Lina was not in love with Harry. It broke William’s heart.

Kate was seated at the dressing table pushed against the wall between the bedroom’s two large windows, brushing out her long, dark brown hair in the reflection of the framed wall mirror. The dressing table, like most of the furniture in the four room Prince’s Apartment, was an antique and probably once belonged to a distinguished ancestor of Lina and her family. Princesses, Duchesses, Grand Duchesses have sat before it, used the mirror, and now Kate has, his girlfriend, soon to be fiance, and then wife. Her serene reflection a stark contrast to his inner turmoil hidden behind a well crafted and often employed facade.

He felt cut off, distant and separate from her. A place he detested. A place he had promised to never let himself get to again. William closed the book and laid it on his lap. Here goes…

“I think Harry might be in love with Lina.”

Kate went still as a statue. In the wall mirror’s reflection he saw her eyes widen, and as she twisted around in the backless seat, William braced himself for shocked amusement.

“Oh!” Kate’s face was lit up. “Finally!”

Wait.

“I’ve been dying to talk about it but I didn’t know how to bring it up!”

What?!

Kate, he could not describe it any other way, jumped off the seat and zoomed over to him, hairbrush still clutched in her right hand, landing on her knees on the end of the bed. She sat perched there like an excited schoolgirl, babbling about awkward glances, heavy silences, longing looks, future family gatherings and group public events until his brain finally caught up.

Wait . You think Lina’s in love with Harry?”

Kate’s excited babbling continued for a second or two until her brain caught up with what William had said.

Wait. You don’t think Lina is in love with Harry?”

“No.”

“But she is!” Kate exclaimed, “they’re in love with each other!”

“That...that doesn’t make any sense.”

Kate’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “Why not? That doesn’t make any sense.” She shifted her position again, now sitting cross-legged, her fingers plucking at the bristles of her hairbrush. “Do you think they shouldn’t love each other?”

William didn’t reply straight away, which troubled Kate, and troubled him too.

Not shouldn’t . But couldn’t. It was unbelievable. Literally, William did not believe it. He could believe Harry was in love with Lina. He’d seen it. The longing, the pining , lingering looks. Harry’s hyper awareness of Lina’s whereabouts. William couldn’t think of an instance where it looked like Lina returned Harry’s feelings. She was with Simon, for fuck’s sake. She shouldn’t return Harry’s feelings.

Except. They had possibly been flirting earlier. William couldn’t be sure. Kate might know. He asked her.

“Yeah, that’s been going on for awhile.”

What? ” William leaned forward, “how long?”

“The serious flirting or the non-serious flirting?”

“The serious flirting.”

“Since just before Christmas.” Kate shrugged, “but probably way before that. I only noticed in December. Who knows how long it’s been going on.”

Right

He felt a sense of defeat settle upon his shoulders. William slumped back against the bed’s headboard and let out a long, resigned breath.

“Why didn’t I notice earlier?” He should have known. It says something about him that he didn’t notice earlier. It does, doesn’t it? William didn’t know what exactly it said about him, but it definitely said something. He was either oblivious, unobservant, possibly uninterested or willfully ignorant, maybe in denial. He should have known. His brother and one of his oldest friends were in love with each other and he didn’t notice but he should have .

Kate shrugged. She obviously wasn’t concerned it had taken William so long to get on the same page as her, she was just happy he’d turned up at all.

“I see your family differently than you do. You’re too close, I think. Lina’s family has been part of your family for decades. Any closeness - or weirdness - between Harry and Lina could easily be overlooked. Don’t be too hard on yourself, Will. You had to know where to look. Lina can be pretty hard to read.”

“How did you know where to look?”

“I don’t think I did,” Kate uncrossed her legs and moved a bit closer to the top of the bed. She moved to sit beside his legs, her own legs tucked underneath her. She placed her hand on the woollen throw blanket over his leg, lightly squeezing, a comforting smile, her mere presence calming him. He worried he wouldn’t be able to sleep well tonight. “Not at first. It was a lot of little things. Looks. Frowns. Harry going out of his way to spend time with Lina. Lina trying not to look at Harry. Her hands-”

“Her hands?”

“Watch her hands,” Kate said. “She wants to reach out to him so badly but she always stops herself, keeps her hands close, keeps them busy. It hurts her not to touch him. You know how tactile she can be.” He did. “Watch her hands,” Kate repeated, “watch her hands. They give her away.”

He said he’d keep an eye out for any signs Lina returned Harry’s feelings.

Kate nodded. His eyes and mind drifted away from her, eyes staring off in the middle distance, mind rewinding the weekend’s events for any behaviour he may have misread.

“-bothering you all day?” Kate asked, squeezing his leg again.

“Sorry?” He asked, having only caught the end of Kate’s question.

“I said,” her eyes and smile were kind and gentle, “is this what’s been bothering you all day?”

“Ah, yes. I suppose so.” Aside from the mild freakout in the staircase, he thought he had handled the revelation of Harry’s secret pretty well. When he said as much Kate assured him that it was probable no one else noticed.

“I just know you very well,” she grinned and leaned forward to kiss him briefly. She pulled away sooner than he liked. “I’ve got an early start tomorrow. Time for bed.”

 

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.

.

The following morning, William watched Lina’s hands as he, Kate and Harry departed Schloss Ludwigslust. They did normal hand things for the most part. If she kept them close, kept them clasped in front of her or behind her back, if she only briefly and lightly touched Harry’s back while they hugged goodbye, William had nothing to compare her current behaviour to. He never paid much attention to what her hands had done previously. Her weird shoulder tick was familiar. Hand stuff? Not so much.

William had a feeling he was about to become an expert on Lina and her hands. Should make for an interesting addition to his CV.

Chapter Text

 

 

“Now you know the beginning, my beginning. Stories are more than their beginnings. You do need to start strong, get the audience interested, but that’s only half the battle. You need to keep them interested. You need a good middle, or at least half a good middle. Far warning, the middle of this story goes on for a really long time. I promised Catherine I wouldn’t bore you all with the details, so I’m only going to cover the highlights. In other words: the bits I was there for.

I feel like I need to apologise for talking about myself so much and how this whole thing has affected me. I wish I could say the rest of the speech doesn’t focus on me as much. It does.”

The Duke of Cambridge, 18 July 2015

Schweriner Schloss, Schwerin, Mecklenburg

June, 2010

Euphemiasburg, Bad Doberan, Mecklenburg

Seated at a table underneath the marquee at the bottom of the West Sloping Lawn of the Royal Domain of Euphemiasburg, William breathed in the cool night air. It had been a lovely summer day, which had turned into an even lovelier summer night. Perfect day for a wedding.

The British press had collectively lost its mind the day before when they’d realised a not insignificant number of The Queen’s descendants and their spouses or partners were in Mecklenburg for the weekend to attend the same-sex wedding between a (sort of) Mecklenburgish Princess and her American fiance. Half lauded them for being progressive, while the other half condemned them for taking a political stance. Aunt Anne and Uncle Tim were attending because his aunt was one of Anne Therese’s godmothers (and namesake), while the rest of them were attending as Anne Therese and Mercedes’s friends. Buckingham Palace and Clarence House had confirmed the attendance of The Princess Royal and Princes William and Harry of Wales, respectively, but they were also keen to point out they were attending in a private capacity.

Some said it had been a decision bourne from good intentions, but a decision rashly taken. William wanted to shout and yell that there had been several meetings about whether or not any member of his family should attend, and if any did, who they would be. At times it was exhausting not being able to have an opinion on certain things, especially opinions that will, in hindsight, be viewed positively. They’d all known how people would react, how some would say they were overstepping their bounds, but in the end Aunt Anne, Uncle Tim, Peter, Autumn, Zara, Mike, Harry, Kate, and himself had decided it was worth a few days of grumbling from certain sectors of the press until something else inevitably caught their attention.

While it would eventually be a forgotten piece of trivia for his Aunt’s branch of the family tree, as the first (future) British monarch to attend a same-sex wedding, this weekend will feature in every biography written about him (and probably every biography written about Kate and Harry) from now on. For the next few months, reporters will go out of their way to include a line about it, however unrelated to the rest of the article it was to either enrage or endear him to their audience.

It was during times like this William envied his Mecklenburger cousins their ability to be ‘political’ without retribution from the Mecklenburgish press. Almost a hundred years ago, Lina’s great-grandfather made the decision to interpret Mecklenburg’s brand new constitution and its clause about the political impartiality of the King to mean he could do and say what he wanted so long as he didn’t show any party favour and ignored all politicians equally. The people of Mecklenburg, who were very new to this constitution and democracy thing, went along with it and were still happily going along with it under their current monarch.

Mecklenburg was an outlier in other areas.

Mecklenburg had some of the strictest privacy laws in the world. Pictures with recognisable faces (read: public figures) could not be sold without the person or persons’ written permission, unless they could be argued to be in the public’s best interests. These laws had been introduced in the 1960s to protect the privacy of the Royal Family while not carrying out official duties, but in practice were extended to all Mecklenburgers and visitors to the kingdom. The laws were vague and open to interpretation (who was a public figure exactly?), but in modern times, these laws were still enforced and only infrequently broken. The rise of social media and the mobile phone camera meant the odd photo would make its way online. At times, photos taken by the general public were picked up by media outlets, but were largely unnoticed by the Mecklenburgish public.

It was the slightly blurry photos of wedding guests arriving at Rostock Zoo the night before for a pre-wedding party; taken by a handful of dedicated royal watchers which alerted the British media of the House of Windsor’s presence at the wedding of Her Serene Highness Princess Anne Therese of Schwarzburg to Miss Mercedes Millard.

It was frustrating, but unavoidable.

Thankfully, the Royal Domain of Euphemiasburg provided all the privacy and amenities a person could ever want with its enclosed grounds of over 500 acres. The grounds were not the only part of the Domain which afforded privacy. You could walk the corridors for hours and only run into a handful of people.

Where Schloss Ludwigslust and Schlossgut Groß Schwansee, and even Schweriner Schloss, were palaces of a manageable size, Euphemiasburg was not. William could not emphasise how not it truly was not. It was not in an almost incomprehensible way. He had tried to prepare Kate. He had failed.

“Yes, yes, I knew ,” said Autumn from her spot across the round table. “But I didn’t know, you know?”

Kate nodded, “Same,” she took a sip of her champagne and swallowed before continuing. “I don’t think it really hit me until I realised there are staff here whose sole purpose is to point us in the right direction if we get lost.”

“For me, it was the maps,” Autumn said. “They are everywhere and not just for the tourists.”

“They’re probably for the staff, too,” Kate said and they laughed. William thought of butting in, affirming that yes, the maps were for the staff as much as they were for the guests and tourists (even for members of Lina’s family as the vast majority of them spent little to no time at Euphemiasburg), but it was better, nicer, to watch Autumn and Kate interact one on one. “I researched the palace last night and made a list of what I want to see. I’m going to ask Lina if she has any staff available, someone knowledgeable about the palace and its items, who could show me around. If there is someone, would you like to come with me?”

William’s mind drifted away as Kate and Autumn arranged a time and place to meet should such a staff member be available. William silently bet himself a tenner that there would be. Lina wouldn’t want her guests to want for anything, including private tours of the largest royal building in the world. She had an uncanny knack for predicting people’s needs. She was an incredibly thoughtful person. Lina would argue that it was something she worked hard at, a constant series of questions in her head in the lead up to events to prepare for every eventuality. William thought it was innate, something she shared with his mother and Kate. And Harry, for the most part. His brother could be a bit of an idiot.

Watch her hands ,” Kate had said months earlier. “Watch her hands. They give her away .”

Instances from the past thirty-six hours of Lina’s hands played themselves out in William’s mind. Hands clasped in front of her, behind her back, fingers curled around clutches or wine glasses, busying herself with straightening table arrangements, pulling on fabric, petting dog fur, gently brushing her fingers over flower petals, anything to distract her from Harry’s presence, his nearness, his reachability. William saw her half reach out, always stop herself and pull back, pull her hands back to safety and comfort.

William Wales: Karolina Augusta Hand Expert. He and Kate could co-write the book.

Since March, everything Harry did had a Lina shade to it. And now everything Lina did had a Harry shade to it. It got worse when the pair actually interacted with the other. Which is what was about to happen any minute now.

Nearby, on the edge of the dance floor, stood several members of the Houses of Windsor and Mecklenburg, their relatives and significant others. They were watching the dancing couples spin, slide and step to the slow tempo of the music. One of the couples was attracting the most attention from the spectators.

Karolina Augusta the First of Mecklenburg and Mike Tindall made an unlikely, and captivating, pair. Who were not dancing to the music playing. Lina had clearly let Mike take the lead and Mike had clearly decided now was not the time to slow dance. Lina was very proper, some things were just not done, but Mike was the kind of person who made you abandon your plans, your desire to do what was expected.

William couldn’t hear much over the music and general din of the marquee, but he could see the delight on both their faces as they spun and twirled around, as Mike dipped Lina back and into a fit of laughter as he pulled her upright. Lina said something to Mike then, causing him to burst out laughing.

Mike removed his hands from Lina’s waist and stepped back. The rugby player exaggeratingly bowed and kissed Lina’s hand, then together they walked arm in arm off the dance floor towards a group of people standing a few metres away.

Still red faced with laughter from her dance with Mike, Lina glowed in her strapless gown. Prior to her coronation, Lina had often told him about the delicate balancing act when dressing for events that were not about you. It was doubly difficult to do when you were a reigning queen, she’d later say, who always wanted to look her best. William thought the metallic crosshatches which covered Lina’s dress, bunched up close together at the top and becoming further spaced apart at the bottom of the top tulle layer ( see? He really did listen), was perfectly suited to her while not overshadowing the brides.

Dressed in his usual black tuxedo, Harry was standing a few feet away next to Zara (in yellow), Konstantin (in black) and his girlfriend, Baroness Amalia von Kettenburg (in pink). There was a bet going around Lina’s cousins that Konstantin would propose to Amalia by the end of the year. The look on Harry’s face as he listened to Lina talk would give him away to anyone paying attention. The look on Lina’s face, her gaze moving from person to person, gave nothing away at all. It rarely did. Harry was an open book. Lina was a sealed vault. If William didn’t know to look elsewhere, he wouldn’t have been able to catch that Lina was just as in love with Harry as he was with her.

William still didn’t know what he was supposed to do about it. He let out a deep sigh, much louder than he had intended for a second later he heard Kate softly call his name. He turned to her. She was alone on her side of the table. Autumn had vanished into the crowd, possibly searching for her husband.

“Hey,” Kate leaned across the table, hand outstretched. She looked beautiful. Her sky blue dress with thin straps and and a skirt just as swishy as Lina’s was also the perfect dress to wear to a wedding when you wanted to look your best without overshadowing the bride (or brides). In a strange twist, Kate had a hair up tonight while Lina had hers down. He wondered if the tendrils of hair which skimmed across the tops of her shoulders tickled. “Would you like to dance?” She noted his hesitation. The current song was a bit on the slow side. “I’m sure a faster song is coming up.”

“Okay,” William said, taking Kate’s proffered hand. They navigated through the tables and chairs to the temporary dance floor, edging around the perimetre, away from Harry, Lina and the others until William and Kate reached the far side of the dance floor overlooking the Palace Lake. The sound of the cascades were drowned out by the music.

Three sides of the marquee were closed off, solid plastic with semi-opaque windows. The side along the edge of the Palace Lake was open, with only a temporary waist high, wrought iron fence to keep drunken guests from falling into the water. In case the fence wasn’t up to the job, the Lake had been lit up like a Christmas Tree, with some of Lina’s staff acting as lookouts.

The light reflecting off the water looked like an impressionist painting.

Thanks to the bright lights, William could see not everything had been cleared away from that morning’s ceremony on the grass on the opposite side of the lake. Situated at the bottom of the East Sloping Lawn, the large archway, once adorned with flowers and greenery, was now bare, and the seat covers had been removed from the hundred or so chairs lined up between the archway and the bottom of the gentle sloping lawn. The chairs had been for the couple’s nearest and dearest (and least mobile guests), while the rest of their guests had stood on the hill, taking advantage of the natural stadium seating - or more correctly, standing.

The ceremony had been short and simple while retaining all of the usual non-religious royal trappings of a church wedding. William didn’t know whose idea it was for both brides’ veils to be secured by a tiara, but it was a lovely touch. Anne Therese wore the family’s traditional wedding diamond fringe tiara, while Mercedes had borrowed a floral tiara from her future mother-in-law.

Despite the multiple tiaras and the huge contingent of royals, the wedding had felt relaxed and comfortable, like a large family gathering. William hoped he and Kate would be able to achieve even half that with their wedding.

Looking back at the crowded dance floor, William couldn’t see his brother or Lina. Out of sight, out of mind. If that had been Kate’s intention when she’d lead them to the far side of the dance floor, William felt incredibly grateful. He’d never take it for granted. He was a very lucky man.

The song was still slow, but he didn’t want to delay having her in his arms. The next song might be even slower. Taking a cue from Mike and Lina (as astonishing as that was), William decided the music was merely a suggestion for what kind of dancing should be going on, and pulled Kate to him, her eyes widening in surprise.

It was going to be a long, but happy, night, one of dancing, talking and drinking, and very much worth what was surely going to be wretched, exhausted morning.

.

.

.

Despite his earlier pessimistic predictions, William was awake enough - and coherent enough - to join Kate for breakfast in the Throne Hall at eight. They’d slowed down on the alcohol consumption just before midnight.

William stuck his head into Harry’s room and was surprised to find his brother’s haphazardly made bed empty. Kate shrugged, “he’s probably already there.”

The Throne Hall, with the gold throne of Heinrich Ludwig I of Mecklenburg still in pride of place, was a room suited for banqueting. Somehow both long and wide, hundreds of people could be seated, wined and dined, with room to spare. As breakfast was buffet there was no strict time the guests were required to arrive at the Hall. There were only a few dozen people milling about, getting food and finding tables, Zara and Mike among them. But no Harry. Or Lina.

Okay.

Kate was in charge of the tea, juice and fruit, delegating William to the hot food. While in the line for eggs (after getting two plates of baked beans and kippers), Klaus appeared behind William with a plate already heaped with food.

“Morgen. Guten Morgen?” William asked, eyebrow raised at Klaus’s wide smile. William couldn’t be sure if the smile was from genuine happiness or exhausted delirium. He knew for a fact Klaus had stayed out longer than William had.

“Guten Morgen!” Klaus ate a kipper off his plate with his fingers. “Weddings are the best.”

“Do I even want to know?” William asked, praying that Klaus wasn’t in an overly sharing mood. There were some things he never needed to know. His mind drifted towards Harry and Lina and why neither of them were at breakfast but Klaus, blessedly, interrupted that train of thought.

“Probably not, mate,” Klaus admitted, finishing off the kipper. He nodded off to William’s side. The line had moved forward. William took a step. Klaus followed. “Before you ask: Lina isn’t coming. With everything going on today she’s working through breakfast.”

William played it cool. Playing it cool meant not asking Klaus if he knew where Harry was. He was a guest in his friend’s very large house. They were surrounded by fellow guests. It was breakfast time. He was going to play. It. Cool.

William nodded, thanked Klaus for telling him and returned his attention to the ever moving and shortening line. Only one person in front of him now. Lina didn’t do things by half. He wasn’t approaching bain-maries of scrambled eggs, boiled eggs, fried eggs and poached eggs. He was approaching a chef making eggs to order. Two scrambled, two poached, please.

“That might be why Harry’s having breakfast with her instead.”

William stilled. He had been feeling incredibly on edge all morning. It was amazing really that he had the presence of mind not to drop the two plates on the floor. Instead, William found his voice, his strong, unwavering voice and thanked Klaus Wilhelm for letting him know.

“Kate and I were wondering where he was.”

“Ah huh.” Klaus took another bite of a kipper. If he’d been wearing glasses, Klaus would have been peering at him over the top of them, a loaded look waiting for an equally weighty response. Did Klaus know something? Suspect something? It stood to reason that he and Kate weren’t the only ones to notice something was going on between Harry and Lina. If Harry’s brother had noticed, why wouldn’t Lina’s? Shit, why wouldn’t half of Lina’s cousins? Did everyone know?

Thankfully, William didn’t have to engage with that potential nightmare as he was now the front of the egg line. William ordered his two poached and two scrambled eggs. Cooking eggs had never been more intensely watched as they were when he was watching them that morning. As a watched kettle never boils, it took for- fucking -ever. He suppressed a sigh of relief when the chef indicated they were ready to be plated.

“Vielen Dank!” William said as the eggs were placed on the outstretched plates. He nodded to Klaus solemnly and returned to Kate’s side at a brisk pace.

While William had been in the egg line, Peter and Autumn had arrived for breakfast, Kate explained, indicating towards Autumn’s bag resting on the top of the round table. Zara and Mike had chosen to stay where they were with a handful of Lina’s cousins a few tables over. Kate had arranged their spots, a glass of water, a glass of juice, a cup of tea, a banana and an apple - and a piece of toast! - were waiting for him. He wanted a sip of that tea now but it would be a few dozen degrees too hot to drink. Better not risk it. A burnt tongue was very unpleasant and he needed to feel the complete opposite right now.

After he placed one plate in front of Kate, he took his seat and began shovelling baked beans on the toast then shovelling that into his mouth. Kate sensed his distress and asked what was wrong. William, in between mouthfuls, told her they would have to speak about it later.

They ate in silence for a couple of minutes until Kate perked up in the chair and waved someone over to join them at their table. There were plenty of spare chairs as each table could seat eight and maybe the company of some happy wedding guests would raise his -

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Klaus took the seat directly opposite him.

William breathed out deeply through his nose as he shovelled more food into his mouth. Kate, while sensing his distress earlier, did not pick up on the source and engaged in an in depth conversation about what Klaus had got up to after they’d gone to bed. It was the big sister to a little brother side of her William normally found endearing.

He moved onto his scrambled eggs with vigour. After his tea had sufficiently cooled, he paused and sipped the hot liquid, willing it to calm him. He was going to get indigestion, he just knew it.

.

.

.

As the plates were scraped of food and all glasses and mugs drained of liquid, William left the others at the table with no explanation of where he was going. He told Peter and Klaus he would see them later, wished Kate and Autumn a fun tour and walked out of the Throne Hall as fast as he could manage without looking like a pillock.

He took the State Rooms, Ambassador Staircase and Semi-State Rooms route back to his room (as opposed to the State Rooms, Museum Wing, Semi-State Rooms route). Such a route was normally a lovely walk through themed rooms with high ceilings, wide corridors lined with paintings, the vast openness of the Ambassador Staircase over a large archway for cars to drive through, and then into more themed rooms with high ceilings a bit more warmly decorated this time, then onto the final corridor off which his room could be found. It was normally a lovely walk. William wanted to take in his surroundings. Lina’s rarely hosted people at the gigantic palace and going as a tourist was, sadly, out of the question. The rooms deserved to be appreciated. He’d ended his education at St. Andrew’s with a degree in geography, but that hadn’t been the original intention. William appreciated art as much as Kate and Lina. He just wasn’t as knowledgeable as they were.

William, Kate and Harry shared one of the palace’s two bedroom guest suites. Their suite, named Die Marie Antoinette Suite, for the portrait of Lina’s distant, long deceased, cousin Duchess Marie Antoinette of Mecklenburg-Schwerin that hung over the fireplace, was on the ground floor with direct access to the Chapel Garden. Still rattled from his encounter with Klaus, sitting alone in a pleasantly overgrown English cottage garden was suddenly very appealing.

Taking a deep breath, he did not look at the door to Harry’s bedroom, did not wonder if Harry was in there, did not wonder if he was still with Lina, as he walked through the drawing room and down the corridor separating the two bedrooms to the double French doors that led to the garden. Unlocking and pushing open the doors, William was struck first by how bright the sun was today, and, as he stepped out from underneath the balcony above, by how lovely the garden looked, an explosion of colour against the red brick of the palace walls.

Like all “internal” gardens of the palace (meaning the six gardens which were completely surrounded by palace walls), the Kapellengarten was rectangular in shape, and like all of the “internal” corner gardens (meaning the four gardens closest to the corners of the palace), was larger than an Olympic sized swimming pool. All of the four corner gardens (Kapellengarten, Theatergarten, Ballsaal Garten, and Thron Garten) had their own charm, their own layout. The Theater and Ballsaal Gartens had more lawn than the other two. The Kapellengarten had more fountains than the other three. The Thron Garten had more statues. What they had in common were the types of plants and the internal pale stone balcony that wrapped around the the edges of the garden, allowing the guest bedrooms and the semi-state or state rooms on the floor above access to the garden via curved stone stairs which swept away from the balcony and into the garden below.

It was dramatic and over the top, but it was Euphemiasburg to the core. Be as grand as possible and spare no expense.

The Kapellengarten, on the face of it, was a very fine English inspired garden and not particularly grand. Dig a little, look a little closer, and you realised the garden’s five fountains were made of solid white marble, as were the wide paths connecting them to each other to create triangular flower beds and lawn. The grassy areas were seemingly random and William wouldn’t be surprised to learn the current flower beds were once patches of lawn, converted by Lina’s predecessors. Maybe, one day, there wouldn’t be any lawn at all in the garden.

In an example of religious irony, the circular fountains all had a statue as their focal point, and all statues were of Ancient Greek Gods and Goddesses. Zeus presided over the largest fountain in the middle of the garden, with his children Apollo, Artemis, Athena, and Hermes a top smaller fountains of their own towards the corners of the garden. Greek key design was carved into the balcony, stairs and along the edges of the garden paths and fountains. The garden might be more suitably named the Griechischer Garten.

William chose one of the benches near the central fountain to sit on. The sound of the fountains, the smell of the flowers and freshly cut grass, the warmth of the sun on the stone, and the sight of butterflies and bees buzzing around the flowers calmed him greatly.

William enjoyed the garden in peaceful quiet solitude for roughly fifteen minutes. Like a raincloud dampening a picnic, the sole door on the south wall opened and Lina stepped through, her brisk pace coming to an abrupt halt the moment she caught sight of William on one of the benches in the centre of the garden. She recovered from her shock quickly, greeting him enthusiastically.

“Guten Morgen, Wilhelm!”

“Guten Morgen, Lina,” William got to his feet and remained standing as she made her way along the main path to the centre of the garden. She wore a white skirt suit and bright purple high heeled shoes. Her dark brown hair was pulled up into a bun and she wore more jewellery than Kate currently felt comfortable wearing at one time. He felt underdressed in his button up and jeans. He always did when Lina was around, even while wearing a tux. Lina took the “you’re not overdressed, everyone else is underdressed” line of thinking to the max.

Due to the garden’s considerable size, the amount of time it took for Lina to walk to him allowed William to brace himself for this encounter. He hadn’t been alone with Lina all weekend, not unusual during hectic and large gatherings, but it had made mixed company conversations drifting towards stressful topics almost impossible. Before Klaus’s antics this morning, William wouldn’t have immediately expected the worst to happen, but now…

Lina smiled, wide and sincere, as she got within arm’s reach of William. It acted as a magnet to his own smile. Despite his worries and scattered nerves, he wouldn’t deny it was nice to see her.

After a quick hug, a bow, and softer greetings, William and Lina settled down on the marble bench, their backs facing the fountain.

“Were you just in the chapel?”

“Yes, I wanted to check on the preparations and go over the service with the clergymen. We didn’t have a rehearsal for the service,” she added, which made sense as it would be a normal Sunday service with a bit extra bits thrown in. “I’m fairly certain I’ve scared them all into being on their best behaviour.”

Same-sex marriage became legal in Mecklenburg in early 2007. To date, all same-sex marriages were civil only, with none of the religions operating in Mecklenburg allowing those marriages to be conducted by them or in their places of worship. Despite Lina’s very public position on the matter, and with the support of many Mecklenburgers, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Mecklenburg had remained steadfast in their views, not willing to break them even for the head of the church’s cousin. A compromise was reached: a civil marriage one day, and a religious blessing the next.

“Will it be in German?”

Lina shook her head, “English. Not every guest has your mastery of the language.”

“Ha ha.”

“Oh!” Lina exclaimed suddenly. “One of the hymns will be in German. I think that will be okay. Most people read out of the programme anyway.”

“It’s what it’s there for.”

“Exactly. It will be fine,” her tone full of false cheer and confidence. William sincerely hoped she wasn’t on the brink of rushing back into the chapel to demand the English language version be sung instead. “And if it wasn’t, we don’t have time to reprint the programmes.”

“Everything’s gone perfectly so far, Lina,” William assured her, “I’m sure the service will be no different.”

“I hope so."

“The weather’s been lovely, too,” William said, British to his bones. Together they look up, as though to confirm the good weather had indeed carried through to the end of the weekend.

“Yes, it has. We were lucky.” She pauses, long enough for William to glance at her. Face still tilted towards the spotless blue sky until Lina felt she was being watched, their eyes met and she grinned, bumping her shoulder against his. William smiled widely. Lina was in her element in large gatherings and being surrounded by so much family suited her. “I am sorry we haven’t been able to spend much time together this weekend,” Lina said, smoothing out her skirt. “Although there are plenty of my cousins around to keep you busy.”

“That there is, that there is,” William wasn’t even sure he’d managed to talk to them all yet. “I know this weekend has been busy for you. Cecilie Auguste and Michael would have appreciated the help.”

“Ah huh,” Lina said, with the tone of someone who had been told to stop helping, to take it easy, that is wasn’t her responsibility on multiple occasions and was waiting for William to say something similar. He didn’t. “Speaking of,” Lina began once she realised William wasn’t going to even jokingly reprimand her. “Thank you for not putting up a fight about sharing a suite with Harry.”

“Why would we put up a fight about that?”

“You’d be surprised,” her tone resigned and irritated. Despite her aunt and uncle being the official hosts of the wedding weekend, Lina, as head of the family, would have been aware of (or involved herself in because she just couldn’t help herself) nearly every stage of the wedding planning. By the sounds of it, organising the accommodation at Euphemiasburg had not been without some drama. “So much complaining for an event the guests only had to spend money on airfares and clothes on.”

“Heh,” William smiled, “I’ve found people are much ruder when they know things are going to be free.”

Lina smiled at him, a little something behind the eyes he couldn’t read. “I’ll keep that in mind for the next wedding.”

“Konstantin and Amalia’s?”

“Most likely.”

“Did you put any money down?” William asked, knowing it would get a rise out of her.

“I don’t take part in my cousins’ gambling,” she replied, disapprovingly, an air of superiority about her. She was above betting on the outcomes of her relatives personal lives. To be fair, everyone should be above that. People didn’t always do what they should.

“Klaus told me he put five Euros on them being engaged before your birthday.”

“Klaus told me he’s never-” Lina said adamantly. “I can’t believe he lied to me!”

“I can if that’s the reaction he was going to get.” William looked at her, eyes narrowed in curiosity. “You’ve really never bet on anything in Oskar’s little black book? Never?”

“Not formally, and never with money.” Lina looked up at him then, with scrutiny and suspicion. “Have you?”

“No. It’s mostly bets about your family. There’s never been a reason for me to place a bet.”

“Oskar’s never asked?”

“Oh, he’s definitely asked.”

They chuckled to themselves and Lina thanked him for not indulging Oskar. She was going to have words with Klaus, however.

“So, where’s Simon?” William meant to ask the day before but had never gotten around to it. Lina was hard to pin down at large gatherings. Simon’s absence wasn’t of particular note. Not really. Simon rarely attended public family gatherings. William had only met him a handful of times in the twenty months he and Lina had been dating. The last time had been Lina’s twenty-first birthday celebrations in September. Usually, Lina would provide an excuse for Simon’s absence. He was working. He was on holiday with friends. He had made other plans. As far as William was aware, Lina hadn’t mentioned her boyfriend all weekend. Simon had missed out on dancing with Lina the night before, one of the few activities William saw them engage in together. Luckily for Lina, there had been a long line of men, and women, who had been more than happy to twirl her across the dance floor.

For whatever reason, Harry hadn’t been one of them. William didn’t know why. He didn’t want to ask. They were with other people (Harry and Claudia’s exclusivity was ambiguous). If William was being honest with himself, this was one of the reasons for his discomfort about Harry and Lina’s potential relationship. Despite what Kate thought, It wasn’t because the idea of Harry and Lina in a relationship weirded or grossed him out.

Simon seemed like a safe topic. Let them talk about Lina’s current boyfriend.

Lina stared ahead, eyes fixated on the brick wall opposite. After a moment, she adjusted her shoulders (someone really needed to talk to her about that behavioural tick) and told him the truth.

“Simon and I broke up last month.”

Oh. Fuck.

William stared at Lina, his mind going haywire while he tried to keep a straight face. He fashioned his external response to convey concern and sympathy while his internal response was to repeat the word ‘fuck’ over and over.

“Wha-” He coughed, “what happened?”

“I…” She paused, breathed out, and confided in him as she once did when she was little, with the expectation of understanding and no judgement. “I asked him to move in with me.”

What.

William’s mind floundered as he tried to take in the very unexpected piece of information Lina had laid at his feet.  What had he expected her to say? ‘We broke up because I’m in love with your brother and Simon’s rightfully taken issue with that .’

“And you broke up instead?”

“I thought I could...save a dying relationship by shocking some life, some change, into it.” Lina sighed, “Simon thought it would be a better idea to euthanise it instead.”

“So he killed it? Against your wishes?” William asked, seeking further clarification and engaging in Lina’s absurd death metaphor.

“No,” Lina admitted. “He was right. I hate it, but he was right. It was better to end it than continue on pretending the relationship had a long term future.”

“Jesus Christ, Lina,” William said in a huff. “You’re twenty-one years old. You’re too young to be thinking about long term relationships.”

Lina snorted, not out of humour, but contempt.

“What?”

“I can’t spend the rest of my twenties going through guy after guy until I find one who’s willing to stick around.”

“Of course you can,” William said, resisting the urge to put his arm around her. He often forgot how young she truly was. “That’s what dating is.”

“But I don’t do that. I can’t . The media is going to have a field day when they learn Simon and I are no longer together. ‘More heartbreak for young queen’, ‘Duty trumps love’”, she said, with a hint of the old-timey Transatlantic accent. “All that melodramatic bullshit feeding their narrative of my life.”

William then, no longer resisting the urge, put his arm around her. She leaned in. It was brief, an assuring side hug. He didn’t think she’d appreciate him fussing over her, or succumbing to maudlin behaviour during Anne Therese’s wedding weekend. Even if it was on her behalf.

“I know what that’s like,” William said, before removing his arm from around Lina’s shoulder. “You’ll get used to it.”

Lina nodded, not seeming very assured or cheered up. William didn’t know how to subtly move the conversation to a happier topic, so he didn’t try to.

“You missed an entertaining breakfast, by the way. Klaus and Peter were in fine form.”

She smiled, a light, cheerful topic much appreciated despite its awkward introduction.

“What makes you think I would have sat at your table?"

“And give up the opportunity to be hounded by questions from Kate and Autumn ahead of their grand private tour of the palace? Not a chance.”

Instead of pressing her lips firmly together in a slight frown, readying herself to set William straight, as he expected when he’d made the comment, Lena grinned, her eyes sparkling mischievously.

“Kate and I have been texting for hours.”

“Of course you have.”

“She wanted to know which rooms were my favourite-”

“Of course she did.”

“Which pieces were my favourite-”

“Yep. Sounds like you two.”

“And my favourite parts of the gardens if they have time to visit them before the service starts. They won’t,” Lina said as an aside, “but it’s nice to be optimistic.” William wondered if it would be worth the hassle to suggest to Kate they visit Euphemiasburg as tourists before they got married. Who knows when Lina would next have reason to host an event at Euphemiasburg with them on the guest list? “That being said, I am sorry I missed breakfast.”

“It’s okay. We know you’re busy.”

It had been meant to comfort. He did understand, having been intimately familiar with busy and absent family members all his life. Eventually, the apologies would stop because saying sorry wouldn’t stop it from happening again. His mother always apologised. William wondered if Lina always would too.

“Harry wasn’t at breakfast either.” Part of William’s mind screamed at him for bringing Harry into the conversation. He wanted to move the conversation away from anything that could allow Lina to think she was being a bad host, and pointing out his brother’s failings as a guest was one way to do it, but he was just asking for trouble. Another part, just as shouty, needed to know if maybe, just maybe , Lina was lying to him by omission. William didn’t know if Harry had even slept in his bed the night before. Euphemiasburg had limited housekeeping in order to combat feeling like a hotel (unsuccessfully, William thought). They were all in charge of making - or not making - their own beds during their stay. Harry’s had been only half made that morning, and the morning before.

“After our run,” she cut herself off to explain further, “he joined me on my run this morning. After, he invited himself to breakfast with me.”

Lina didn’t look at him out of the corner of her eye. She didn’t look at him pointedly as she waited for him to respond. She didn’t look at him at all. Why would she? If she was going to act of though there was nothing strange or noteworthy about going for a six am run with Harry, with only stoic security officers to keep them company, and then have him invite himself to spend breakfast alone with her instead of joining the wedding guests in the Throne Hall, then William was going to follow her lead.

“Has Harry’s gone back to bed?”

“Probably.” She smiled, recalling a memory. “It was touch and go there for a while. There was a particularly dicey moment when he closed his eyes for ‘just a sec’” she affected a good approximation of Harry’s accent “requiring me to save him from running into a tree.” Her smile widened and he felt it tug on the corners of his own mouth (and his heart). “Go easy on him today, will you?”

William felt it would normally be his brotherly duty to take the piss out of his exhausted and slightly hung over brother. He could imagine himself striding into Harry’s room and throwing open the curtains to his yells, dodging a pillow or two on his way out of the room while condescendingly telling Harry it was not the type of day to sleep away.

He could also imagine Lina, so reluctant to touch his brother for fear of revealing her feelings to everyone, grabbing him on instinct, pulling him clear of one of Euphemiasburg’s many trees. He could imagine the panicked laughter, Harry shaking himself awake, Lina asking if he wanted to head back to the palace, and Harry...Harry insisting they keep going, attempting to be casual, maybe making a joke about Lina’s strict adherence to her routine.

William hadn’t known Lina wouldn’t be joining them for breakfast in the Throne Hall that morning. There wasn’t a doubt in William’s mind that Harry had known. He would have found out Lina’s schedule for the wedding weekend and adjusted his plans accordingly to ensure he didn’t allow an opportunity to spend time with Lina pass him by. William loved Lina very much, but Harry loved Lina very much. Harry was not going to let anything, not even exhaustion and a hangover, prevent him from enjoying the sparse, precious, heartbreaking moments he got to spend with Lina.

It was so terribly, so horribly sad.

He promised not to give Harry a hard time. Lina thanked him, an air of lightness around her.  The brightness of the sun and the blooming flowers, the sound of falling water hitting water and stone. It was a beautiful, colourful garden and she looked beautiful in it, a stark contrast in her white clothes. Despite her fears, she’d always been good at hiding her true feelings.

“Well, I’m sure you’ve got lots to do before the service,” William said, placing his hands on his knees and pushing himself up onto his feet. He didn’t wait for Lina to protest out of politeness. She didn’t have much spare time on the best of days.

William was also a horrible, selfish wanker and didn’t want Lina to figure out, or suspect, he knew what was going on, or wasn’t, between her and Harry. That conversation was coming towards them like a train in a tunnel. He could feel it. The inevitability of his friend and his brother. Something was going to happen to tip his hand, maybe hers, maybe Harry’s, eventually. Still, he wanted to delay it a little longer.

Lina stood up and brushed the back of her skirt. He kissed her cheek and bowed his head in farewell. The smile he received did little to alleviate his spirits.

Being together could make them happy. Lina and Harry being happy should make William happy, but instead he felt sadness and grief. His discomfort with them being in love with each other while being in a relationship with other people was just as temporary of those relationships themselves. Harry and Claudia had no future together. Lina and Simon didn’t even have a present. There was more to it, more layers to his feelings which needed to be peeled back one by one. A layer had been peeled back unexpectedly.

He was going to lose his brother, he realised, as Lina wished him a good morning. He was going to lose his brother to a queen, a country. Her lovely, kind face, her ever thoughtful nature, her hard, isolating life, and all he could think about was himself. He really was a horrible, selfish wanker because he didn’t want his brother to move to another country and leave him alone. He’d always imagined Harry by his side, the two of them and their spouses leading the monarchy into the depths of twenty-first century. It’s what he’d planned for, what they’d all planned for.

“I’ll see you in a couple of hours,” William said. Another smile. Another tug on his heart, on his soul, on his wretched conscience. Lina nodded, said a similar farewell and walked back towards the door she’d used to enter the Kapellengarten. William watched her for a moment, wondering what had made her come into the garden in the first place, then retraced his own steps back to the two bedroom suite he was sharing with Kate and Harry.

Kate and Autumn would still be on their private tour of the palace for another hour or so. Harry’s current whereabouts were unknown to Lina since they parted ways at the base of the Ambassador Staircase. Did they hug? Shyly wave goodbye? Kiss each other on the cheek? Did one watch the other walk out of sight, longing and heartbreak on their face, in their hands?

William opened the French doors forcefully, closing them behind him with a solid, hard click. He noticed sounds coming from the living area first, then the open door to Harry’s bedroom second. Harry was awake and watching television.

Standing in the pale yellow hallway between the two bedrooms of the suite, and a partial view of the living area ahead of him, William weighed his options. It was very tempting to go into his and Kate’s bedroom, close the door behind him and not leave until they needed to leave to attend the service. Very tempting. He couldn’t bring himself to do it. He should, at the very least, check how Harry was doing on too much alcohol and too little sleep.

The living area of the suite, its walls matching the hallway, was a small open planned drawing room, dining room, and study. Off the room were three doors, one leading to the wide hallway outside, one to the ensuite, and one to the walk-in wardrobe. The painting of Marie Antoinette of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (he very much wanted to know what her parents had been thinking when they picked that name for their daughter) hung above the fireplace.

Harry was awake and watching television. An apt description, bare bones and succinct. He was awake and watching television. He took in Harry’s tired eyes, his tired smile. William remembered the promise he made to Lina to go easy on his brother this morning. William glanced at the television screen.

“Anything good on?” He asked, taking a seat next to Harry on the comfortable three seater couch.

“It’s Sunday morning. What do you think?”

“Nothing good then?”

“Nothing interesting. But…”

What else were they going to do with their time? Be social, William supposed. Go for a walk, maybe. Euphemiasburg was still very much unknown to him, to Harry, and who knows how long it would be before they visited the vast palace and its grounds again.

William opened his mouth, turning to his brother to suggest some sun and fresh air might make him feel better, the words died in his throat at Harry’s blank stare, his rigid posture, wound tight, as he stared ahead at the television. Harry didn’t need sun and fresh air, he didn’t need to be forced to interact with a large, happy crowd of people. Harry needed to be left alone, space and time to sort through the emotions this weekend had dug up, forced to the surface. Emotions he could easily shove down when Lina wasn’t around, when people weren’t getting married and starting new lives together. A slap in the face to everything he wanted for himself but didn’t believe he could get, or deserved.

Harry wasn’t alone, not this morning, not any morning. William wasn’t ready to talk to his brother about him and Lina. The coward, the selfish wanker, won today. So they wouldn’t talk about it, but William could sit there in silence, be there until he or Harry summoned up the courage to bring a wrecking ball to their once imagined future.

“Yeah, okay,” William said, turning his attention to the television. William wasn’t going anywhere.

.

.

.

August, 2010

Balmoral, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

On the nicest day of his and Kate’s four day visit to Balmoral, Granny organised for a family picnic on the shore of Loch Muick. Just before lunchtime, the families emerged from the Castle and got into their cars following some quick math, Granny asking Kate to ride with her, and accounting for the fact that Lina and Klaus couldn’t be in the same car, William found himself with Harry and Lina as his car mates (is that a thing people say?). Except that Lina was holding the car keys. William must have missed a meeting.

William narrowed his eyes and folded his arms. “I have concerns.”

Karolina Augusta rolled her eyes, turned her back on him and walked towards the waiting black Range Rover. William looked to his brother to back him up, but instantly realised no support would be forthcoming. Harry, instead of looking concerned, apprehensive, or worried about their immediate safety, simply grinned and followed Lina. Well, he should have realised that Harry wouldn’t put up much of a fight. Not that William felt like fighting. He was only being half serious. Lina would never knowingly put any of them in danger, but -

“When was the last time you drove a car?” William asked, making his way to the Rover. Lina pulled open the driver’s side door, waving off her Aide-de-Camp’s attempt to open the door for her, as Harry went round to the passenger side - because, of course he did. William was now left to share the backseat with Lina’s said Aide-de-Camp, Major Elwira Nowak, a stern, humourless woman in her early thirties who took her duties way too seriously.

“Wilhelm, get in the car,” Lina said before she gracefully slid behind the steering wheel. The Major waited for Lina to situate herself before closing the door with a firm click, as though she were proving a point to her boss.

William hesitated for a moment, half because it was genuine hesitation and half because he didn’t want Lina to think he’d give in too easily. She could get bossy and it was something he’d been discouraging since she was a small child. Some habits were harder to break than others.

But. They had a picnic to attend and he had a grandmother who could be even bossier than Lina.

Major Nowak opened the car door and got into the seat behind Lina, leaving William the seat behind Harry. Lina thanked cheerfully him as he walked around the car and climbed inside, shutting the door behind him.

“Do you even have a driver’s licence?” William asked, making sure to exaggerate his movements as he buckled up. Harry snickered from the front passenger seat. William decided not to resist the urge to push against the back of Harry’s seat and gave a sharp shove with his knee. Harry made a noise of protest but otherwise didn’t respond, keeping his eyes on Lina. William also decided not to resist the urge to roll his eyes.

“I do have a driver’s licence,” Lina said as she adjusted the seat, then the mirrors. He made eye contact with her through the rearview mirror. She smiled, “but it has been awhile since I needed to use it.”

William had a vague recollection that Lina and Klaus had to undertake defensive and evasive driving lessons but he couldn’t remember how often they did them and he didn’t know when the most recent lesson was. Maybe driving was like riding a bike. Please let driving be like riding a bike.

And it was. Or at least it was for Lina.

“You were taking the piss, weren’t you.” William said as Lina pulled the car to a stop outside of the stone house known as Glas-allt-Shiel following after a very pleasant half hour drive.

“A little bit,” Lina confessed, as she turned off the engine and removed the keys from the ignition. She turned around to face him as much as she could. “Would you like to drive back?”

“Is that a genuine question, or you trying to pull rank but want to seem cool and chill about it?”

“Pull rank? When have I ever pulled rank? Maybe you’re just a pushover.”

“I am not a pushover. And you’ve pulled rank before.”

“What! I have not.”

“Yes, you have.”

“When?”

“Now, now, children,” said Harry, turning his head to look at them, “if you’re not going to play nice, I’ll be the one to drive us back home.”

The tense standoff between himself and Lina lasted all of a few seconds longer. Karolina Augusta cracked first, pressing her cheek against the car seat as she dissolved into a fit of giggles. William’s own laughter (he did not giggle ) trailed off when he noticed his brother looking at Lina with unrestrained adoration. Harry had been in a good mood for weeks and an even better mood since arriving in Scotland. It was obvious to William why that was.

Years ago, the Royal Court of Schweriner Schloss had announced the end of Karolina Augusta and Count Michael von Schönberg’s relationship. And just last month, the Royal Court had announced the end of Karolina Augusta and Simon Leifsson’s relationship. Both announcements had been made in the hope the press would leave the men alone and stop speculating about living arrangements and potential future nuptials. It had largely worked in Count Michael’s favour (until Lina employed him to be an advisor in January and opened a floodgate of speculation about their romance rekindling and Simon’s rumoured furious reaction about his girlfriend’s hiring practices), and William supposed it would eventually work in Simon’s favour also. Except he didn’t see Lina offering Simon a job as one of her international relations advisors in a few years.

Lina was single. Harry was practically single. There were less obstacles preventing Harry and Lina from attempting a relationship. There were no physical obstacles from William’s limited perspective.He only knew a tiny portion of the canvas which was Harry and Lina’s relationship. His reluctance to talk to Harry or Lina about what had - or hadn’t - been going between them meant he spent his time making assumptions about why they weren’t together. Fuck, he was making assumptions they were in love with each other. So was Kate. Neither of them had talked to Harry or Lina. The topic seemed...taboo, off limits, just out of reach. For now. William still felt that sense of inevitability and his inability to slow it down or prevent it from happening. He didn’t want to prevent it forever. He just wanted it to go away, even for a little while.

He was Prince William of Wales. Big brother to Prince Harry of Wales. That meant something greater than if he were simply big brother to an average boy with an average life. Upon his shoulders was the weight of the future of the monarchy, and as Harry’s big brother, he couldn’t help but want to shoulder some of the weight Harry carried around, as ‘the spare’, as the perceived party prince and wrongdoer, as the one who struggled at school, who continued to struggle with his role in the family, and whatever role he carved out for himself in the future.

William had been making, was still making, Harry and Lina’s relationship his responsibility without being fully aware he was doing it.

Which was really fucking stupid.

William got out of the car without a word. He needed to be somewhere they were not. He needed sky above him and open air around him. He helped retrieve picnic supplies from the cars, helped lay out blankets and set up chairs. When it came to putting the final touches on the food, divvying up the portions, William was in the way. Too many cooks.

Shooed away by Eleonora and Harry, William walked to the water’s edge of Loch Muick. The weather was holding for now and, according to the forecast, would hold until the early hours of the next day. But, Scotland . In summer . Anything could happen. He wouldn’t be surprised to learn if it has snowed in Scotland during the height of summer. Okay, maybe a little surprised.

The valley was quiet, save for the indistinct conversation carrying on behind him, the twittering of birds and water lapping against the Loch’s rocky shore. The approaching footsteps were loud and plodding. Probably not Granny. Or Lina.

“Hey,” it was Klaus Wilhelm. If there were ever a more appropriate time to say ‘ugh’; William doubted it had happened. “I’ve been sent over to keep you company.”

“By who?”

“Kate.”

Okay. He then said it out loud, keeping his tone as flat and expressionless as possible.

Klaus then said something that made it impossible for William to respond to with a flat and expressionless tone. William’s heart seized in his chest. Klaus would have shocked him less if he’d pushed William into the Loch.

“I’m sorry... what?

“I said,” Klaus, wearing an insufferable shit-eating grin, repeated himself. “Kate told me that Harry and Lina drama was getting to you.”

“Kate... what?

“You thought you were the first one to notice?” Klaus asked, grinning. “Or the second?”

“No. Maybe.” William sighed, “honestly, I thought I was imagining it. Hoped Kate would be able to convince me I had been. But...that is not what happened.”

“Yeah, sorry.” He didn’t know what Klaus was sorry for and he didn’t know why he felt consoled when Klaus sympathetically patted him on the shoulder. “If it’s any consolation,” Klaus went on, “Kate noticed months before I did.”

It was. Maybe Kate had been right. Only an outsider could have seen the earliest, faintest signs of the change to Harry and Lina’s relationship. It had taken until Harry was making heart eyes right in front of him for William to notice Harry was in love with Lina, and then for Kate to spell it all out for William to recognise Lina was in love with Harry.

“Do you think they’d be happy together?” William asked, attempting to keep his tone casual. Klaus weighed the question and said he did, but noticed that maybe William didn’t think the same. “I don’t know. This is still...too strange to think about.”

“Yeah, it took until talking to Kate about it for it to really sink in.”

William was struck by how much of Kate and Klaus’s relationship he’d been unaware of.

“So, it’s just us three that knows then?”

“As far as I can tell, yeah.”

“None of your cousins have said anything?”

“Nope.”

“Huh.”

“Makes sense when you think about it.”

“Yeah, it does,” William said. It must have been unconvincing, because he was unconvinced. It didn’t make sense at all that none of Lina’s cousins had realised she and Harry were in love with each other. She was around them all the time. Klaus took pity on him and explained why:

“They hardly ever see them together. That’s really the only time you notice them acting weird,” Klaus then laughed. “Although, if any of them knew Harry happily woke up at six in the morning to go running with Lina through the fucking Scottish Highlands…”

“Yeah, that was very obvious in hindsight.” William’s mind started going down a long road of memories, to parse through them for clues, but he shook himself free of that guilt and instead attempted to rope Klaus into his current - and ongoing - dilemma. “So, what do we do about it?”

“Er, nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Yeah, mate, it’s not our problem.” Klaus pursed his lips, a flash of guilt crossed his face. “Look, I want my sister to be happy more than I want to be happy. Her life sucks arse, but I don’t think trying to set them up or whatever is a good idea. They’re not together for a reason. For a bunch of reasons, probably. And it’s not because they don’t know how the other feels. They know.”

“You think so?”

“Definitely,” Klaus said, shoving his hands in his pockets, signalling the conversation was coming to an end. “They’re young. They’ll figure it out, or they won’t. And it’ll be because they’re ready and not because it was forced upon them.”

“Wow, okay. Firstly, you’re younger than both of them. By a lot. And secondly, when did you become a relationship expert?

“Kate and I have talked about this. A lot.” Klaus chuckled at William’s bewildered expression. “She’s pretty cool. You should probably marry her,” Klaus chuckled again off William’s glare. “Don’t worry about Harry and Lina. It’ll work itself out in the end.”

Or it won’t.

William nodded and Klaus nodded back and walked off, heading back towards the others, the picnic blankets and the food.

William turned his attention to the enormous expanse of water in front of him and took in a deep breath of the crisp Scottish air. Then slowly breathed out.

On the shore of Loch Muick, where one year earlier Lina had asked him to accept the honour of the Order of Johann Albrecht, William took Klaus Wilhelm’s advice. He took the weight of Harry and Lina’s possible future off his shoulders and threw it into the Loch. Figuratively. Literally, he just stood there. The visual of throwing a huge weight into the Loch, though, was comforting and liberating. This was not his problem. They were adults. They were either going to work it out, or they wouldn’t. It was either worth it to try, or it wasn’t.

He had a diamond and sapphire ring shoved into the depths of his bag to focus on. He and Kate had already worked it out it was worth trying, they tried, failed, tried again, and now they were going to get married. As soon as he got around to asking. It was all planned out. October. Kenya. Wedding in the spring or summer of next year. Children. Happily ever after. This is what he had to focus on. As much as he wanted Harry and Lina to be happy, the coming months had to be about him and Kate. Right?

He turned away from the Loch. Lunch was ready. His eyes met Kate’s from her spot on the picnic blanket. She looked so beautiful and happy. She beckoned for him to join her, windswept hair and a beaming smile. Right . He shoved his hands in her jacket pockets and walked towards her.

And maybe later that night he’d ask her when had she and Klaus become so close. His heart swelled with pride. Another lifelong friendship forged with the Mecklenburgers. Kate was going to be so good at this.

Chapter Text

Schloss Ludwigslust, Ludwigslust, Mecklenburg

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

His great-grandfather, King Heinrich Ludwig I of Mecklenburg, had shamelessly copied his Dutch cousin (and aunt by her marriage to his half-uncle) and created a national holiday celebrating the birthday of the monarch. The first Königstag, King’s Day, took place on 18 November 1919, only months after the Treaty of Versailles turned the Grand Duchies of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz into the Kingdom of Mecklenburg. Heinrich Ludwig would appear on the balcony of Schweriner Schloss, wave to the gathered crowds of wellwishers and gawkers, and go back inside where it was nice and warm, leaving his subjects to show their love for their King by throwing street parties and getting drunk in the middle of the day.

King Heinrich Ludwig I died in 1954 and his son carried on the tradition. His great-uncle, Paul Friedrich II of Mecklenburg’s birthday was 10 September and, now, so was Königstag. Thanks to the fairer weather, Paul Friedrich took a more hands on role and began visiting Mecklenburg’s three exclaves in West Germany. Horst, Mannhagen, and Walksfelde were visited each in turn by Paul Friedrich, Queen Thyra, and their children during Paul Friedrich’s long reign.

King Paul Friedrich II died in 1982 and his son carried on the tradition. His father’s first cousin, Wilhelm Franz I of Mecklenburg’s birthday was 17 July, and, now, so was Königstag. Some argued for the date to stay in September as the front half of the calendar year was now overloaded with national holidays, but Wilhelm Franz refused, saying “my birthday’s in July” and that was the end of that. By now, the tradition of visiting the exclaves was well entrenched and much looked forward to by the tiny villages. After Wilhelm Franz married, Eleonora of Leiningen (his mother’s first cousin) joined him, and then their daughter a few years later. When the Soviet Union fell and Mecklenburg regained access to the two exclaves in what was formerly East Germany in 1990, Rossow and Schönberg were added to the rotation. Tragically, Wilhelm Franz would never spend Königstag at Rossow or Schönberg.

King Wilhelm Franz I died in 1992, leaving a three year old queen to carry on the tradition. His second cousin twice over, Karolina Augusta I of Mecklenburg’s birthday was 15 September, and, now, so was Königinnentag. Queen’s Day . Without a husband or any children of her own, Karolina Augusta was joined by her mother and brother during her visits to Mecklenburg’s five exclaves. Karolina Augusta celebrated her first Königinnentag in Mannhagen, and today, celebrated it in Schönberg. Over the decades, the festivities put on by the villages had evolved from small, locally sourced street parties to large, internationally sourced agricultural shows. It was not Lina’s thing. Like, at all . But as with everything else, she threw herself into it each year by letting her hair down (figuratively) and going for a more casual, approachable wardrobe (flat shoes) in order to join in the festivities while still looking wildly out of place standing near livestock and giant vegetables.

Officially, Königinnentag ended when the traditional work day did. Karolina Augusta didn’t hold to traditional work hours, and neither did Oskar.

Oskar Harald Christian Heinrich Philipp af Danmark was born on 19 September 1983 at Euphemiasburg in Bad Doberan, Mecklenburg (because hospitals are for the common folk), the second child but first son of Harald and Helene af Danmark. Although born in Mecklenburg with the intention of being raised in Mecklenburg, Oskar was baptised into the Church of Denmark six months later to appease his grandfather.

As male-line descendants of King Christian IX of Denmark through a succession of approved marriages, Oskar, his older sister Louisa, younger brother Axel, their parents and their aunt were considered members of the Danish Royal Family, and entitled to the rank of Prince or Princess of Denmark and the style of Highness. As male-line descendants of Frederik VIII through his third son, but not his first son, they were, however, excluded from the line of succession. Known to the rest of his paternal family as the Bernstorff branch (named for the palace his grandparents lived in until his grandfather’s death in 1991), they were the appendix of the Danish Royal Family, nice to have around but not essential.

This, rather dry and not entirely interesting, information was relied upon more than Oskar cared to admit. When travelling the country, the continent, or the world, there was nearly always someone who’d crunch up their face and ask why a Danish prince was a representative of the Mecklenburgish queen. He’d like to answer “nepotism?” but instead answered with a variation of “I’m a Mecklenburgish citizen, not a Danish citizen” and avoided getting into explaining Mecklenburg’s standard practice of recognising any foreign rank and style of its citizens so long as the style is not Royal Highness or higher as that’s reserved for very specific people within the Kingdom. If their historical style is Royal Highness or higher they are downgraded, which must ruffle some feathers, but hasn’t stopped Mecklenburg from becoming a kind of refuge for the royally and nobily overthrown.

His business card identified him as Prinz Oskar af Danmark, External European Policy Advisor to The Queen of Mecklenburg. Basically, it was his job to advise his cousin on all things Europe, but not Mecklenburg. Less basically, he got paid to read international news, travel the world, argue with his team about what they should and shouldn’t report back to their boss, and attend so many meetings with people he wanted to strangle half the time. He’d had the job since 2006 after Lina created the role especially for him. Oskar’s detractors argued he was too young, but Lina argued back that there still were plenty of old white men in the Königliches Ministerium für Auswärtige Angelegenheiten und Handel (Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and abbreviated - as all the ministries were - as KMAAH), and how a fresh perspective was desperately needed.

Despite accepting the job, from the beginning Oskar felt his position was largely unnecessary. A fresh perspective? That was just a nice way of saying “inexperienced”. There were plenty of policy advisors in the KMAAH office. It’s the whole point of the ministry. For months, Oskar dug deep, settled into his fancy office in Schweriner Schloss, poached some employees from the KMAAH office, worked hard to prove his cousin’s faith in him wasn’t misplaced, absorbed as much as he could, soaked up the knowledge of his coworkers, asked question after question after question - except for the question that really mattered, the one keeping him up at night.

"Does my job even matter?”

It took months for Oskar to realise the answer was yes, a resounding, heartfelt yes.

Advising Karolina Augusta on political matters, on Mecklenburg’s role in Europe, the internal politics of her neighbours and how they might affect their homeland was difficult and challenging, but ultimately rewarding. Lina always made sure to show her gratitude. He felt valued, his opinion respected. But working so closely with family, in a world where public and private blurred, required a clear line to be drawn in the sand. Oskar was not her Private Secretary or Deputy Private Secretary. There were areas of her life Lina would not appreciate him putting his two cents in. It was sometimes difficult determining what those areas were. Oskar detested the line in the sand while also understanding the reason behind it. They were cousins, born a handful of years apart with similar outlooks and goals. To jeopardise that relationship because he couldn’t keep his opinions to himself would have been a terrible waste. As strange as it might sound as her family and employee, Oskar was proud to call Lina his friend.

And friends help each other out, even on a national holiday.

Die Papiere were delivered to the monarch of Mecklenburg every day of the year, twice if necessary. The blue leather bound box, secured by a not especially secure lock, would be filled with the previous day’s, or that morning’s, ministerial papers and other matters for the monarch to attend to. On the evening the fifteenth of September, the day’s second batch of die Papiere delivered to Schloss Ludwigslust had a strong foreign flavour to them thanks to the Annual Informal Meeting of German-Speaking Heads of State held the week before in Austria.

During dinner in the Schloss’s Jagdsalon, Hunting Hall, with over twenty of his relatives seated around the vast table between the large room’s deer head and antler decorated pillars, Lina had asked if Oskar could join her in going over the documents should she have any questions. Karolina Augusta I of Mecklenburg always had questions so Oskar said he’d be happy to.

And he was. Let no one doubt his commitment to his job, and queen and country.

After climbing several flights of stairs to the Russische Appartement (the smallest guest apartment consisting of only a bedroom and ensuite) on the second floor to freshen up, Oskar descended the Große Osttreppe to the first floor just after eight.

Two of Lina’s protection officers were on duty on the first floor landing, guarding the doors to Lina’s Appartement, and keeping track of those who used the Große Osttreppe, Wache Halle, and the Goldener Saal (where another pair of Lina’s protection officers guarded another entrance to Lina’s Appartement). The officers nodded their heads at him - he was expected - with one opening the double doors to Lina’s Vorzimmer to alert the Aide-de-Camp on duty that evening.

Oskar waited with the guards while the Aide-de-Camp went to tell Lina of his arrival. His dismal attempt at smalltalk was cut short when Major Lehmann returned with Lina’s permission to wait for her in the Empfangszimmer.

The Major stepped aside to allow Oskar to enter the Vorzimmer ahead of her. Lehmann was Oskar’s favourite of Lina’s three Aides-de-camp. Nowak was very serious, but Stenberg had no sense of humour at all. The Vorzimmer des Monarchen, the Antechamber of the Monarch, was rectangular and primarily yellow in colour due to the wallpaper and upholstery. Originally sparsely decorated to allow the room to hold small groups of people waiting for their turn to see the Dukes and Grand Dukes of yesteryear, the Vorzimmer was now decorated as a drawing room. Sofas and armchairs were arranged in a horseshoe around the fireplace, a couple of end tables, a few buffet tables and cabinets were carefully placed around the room to allow space for paintings (including an enormous painting of a cat-dog faced lion) and an unobstructed view out of the room’s two windows overlooking the grounds behind the Schloss. Atop nearly every flat surface was a vase, overflowing with flowers freshly cut from not only Schloss Ludwigslust’s garden, but from all of Lina’s residences across the country. Amongst the vases were dozens of family photos spanning decades, some stretching back before he or Lina were even born. He was sure he’d find himself in a few photos if he was interested in looking. He wasn’t. He’d seen them all before and didn’t linger as he headed to the open set of double doors to Lina’s Empfangszimmer.

Major Lehmann closed the doors behind him. The Empfangszimmer, Receiving Room, was once the Audienzzimmer, Audience Chamber, as the stately red colour of the wallpaper reminded any visitors aware of the Schloss’s history. Once upon a time, when the court was permanently based in Schloss Ludwigslust, this room was used to receive official guests and hear petitions. The Ducal and Grand Ducal Thrones used by his ancestors were now in Euphemiasburg’s Museum Wing. The Empfangszimmer was now decorated in a similar fashion to the Vorzimmer, though more formally, with fewer flowers and any photographs being of current and former heads of state instead of family members. None of the Vorzimmer’s four sets of double doors were ‘false’, they all leaded somewhere. The same could not be said for the Empfangszimmer’s four sets of double doors. Two were ‘false’ and leaded nowhere revealing only sections of the Schloss’s central heating system. All sets of doors were identically designed to keep the room symmetrical.

The Empfangszimmer had one final door, a ‘hidden’ one. Much smaller in height and disguised to blend into the red wallpaper and white and gold trimmed wooden panelling of the room, this door lead to Lina’s Schlafzimmer, her bedroom. Schloss Ludwigslust had several of these hidden doors, some for staff use, others for the Schloss’s residents and guests, and none of them truly ‘hidden’ if you knew what to look for, or happened to notice the doorknob.

Oskar took a spot in front of the large mirror on the wall between the room’s two windows (most rooms in the Schloss had only one or two windows). The doors connecting the Empfangszimmer and Lina’s Studie was open and Oskar could hear Lina talking to someone. With the only other sound in the room being the soft ticking clock on the mantelpiece, it became impossible not to overhear his cousin in the next room. He tried to distract himself by focusing on the gold framed mirror. Mirror technology was not the best when the Schloss had been built so the two metre tall mirror was actually made up of several pieces. Why hasn’t Lina replaced the small panes with one single piece? Yeah, yeah, they were original to the room -

Yeah , it wasn’t working. He could still hear everything in the next room.

She was on the phone.

“-until November.” Pause. “Maybe. I hope so.” Pause. “Next year. Spring, after Easter, I’d imagine.” Pause. “Well, your summers are terrible so-” Pause. “They are not! We get a lot of sun here.” Pause. “We do not escape to Scotland. No one goes to Scotland for the weather.” Another pause, some laughter. “ Okay , maybe some people would go to Scotland for the weather.” Pause. “Would you be able to talk again later? Oskar and I need to go over some things.” Pause. “About an hour?” A long pause. “Okay, ich werde bald mit dir reden. Tschüss!” Pause, some laughter. “Okay. Tschüss, tschüss.”

A few seconds later, Lina walked into the Empfangszimmer holding her early birthday present to herself snuggled against her chest. The female black and white Stabyhoun puppy, named Pavlovna, squirmed a little in Lina’s arms, eager to greet the newcomer.

“Hallo, Oskar,” Lina said, a sing-song edge to her voice, as she snuggled her cheek against Pavna’s fluffy fur. No one was immune to the charms of tiny, cute animals. No one included Oskar.

“Hallo, Lina,” Oskar said, closing the distance between them. “And hallo, Pavlovna.” He reached behind the puppy’s right ear and scratched, the little puppy leaned into his ministrations until Oskar moved his hand to rub the top of Pavna’s head, and then a final pat before taking a step back.

He didn’t bow and Lina didn’t expect him to. He’d already bowed to her that morning, and again when she returned from Schönberg (no one seemed to have a concrete answer for how many times one should bow to their monarch, but Oskar didn’t want to give any uptight courtiers any ammo on him). He would bow to her at least once more before the day was done.

“How’s Pavna doing tonight?” He asked.

Oskar had read the Dutch Ambassador’s birthday message to Karolina Augusta so he now knew Stabyhouns were amongst the rarest breeds of dog in the world. The Ambassador was happy Lina had purchased a Dutch national treasure and hoped it would help boost the breed’s profile outside of the Netherlands. If the Ambassador was hoping that Lina would breed Pavlovna and create some kind of Mecklenburgish-Dutch Stabyhoun Alliance, he was sorely mistaken. Lina didn’t breed her animals, not even the horses. She said it was because she didn’t have the time to breed animals. Which wasn’t false. She was busy. But The Queen was busy and she manages to breed Corgis like they’re going out of fashion. Klaus reckoned, and Oskar agreed, that the reason Lina didn’t breed her animals is because she knew she’d never have the heart to sell the puppies or foals, and soon Schweriner Schloss and Schloss Ludwigslust would be overrun.

“She’s doing well.” Lina pressed a kiss against the puppy’s head. “She had a big day today. Hopefully, she’ll sleep through the night.”

Oskar chuckled, “sounds like having a newborn baby.”

“Well,” Lina said, grinning and canting her head a little, “she is a puppy.”

“And you want to go through all of it again?”

“Eventually,” Lina kissed Pavna’s head again. “Come on. We’ve got a fair bit to get through.”

“Wonderful. Can’t wait. After you,” Oskar said, gesturing towards the doors behind them. Lina spun around on the spot, her dress flaring out around her, and Oskar followed her into the next room.

Lina’s Studie, Study, was the third of four public rooms used by Lina on the frequent occasions she would conduct meetings or audiences, or host lunches or dinners while residing at Schloss Ludwigslust. The fourth public room, through the other set of double doors, was the Bildergalerie and Esszimmer, Picture Gallery and Dining Room, with its painting covered walls, small selections of family heirlooms encased in glass cabinets, and a long table and twenty-two chairs. When his great-great-whatever-grandfather built the Schloss, the Bildergalerie had been about thirty percent larger than it was today. As part of the Schloss-wide modernisation carried out by his grand-uncle in the seventies, Paul Friedrich turned the Galerie into two rooms, a smaller Bildergalerie and Esszimmer, and a private Bibliothek. It was during this modernisation ensuite bathrooms were provided for each Appartement. Thank fuck he’d been born after that had happened.

The lack of carpeted floors in Lina’s residences have been an unexpected blessing in the years since her coronation. From two, to three, and now four dogs in the space of just four years was remarkable for someone who’d never owned so much as a goldfish growing up. Axel had asked her how many dogs she planned on getting and got back “I shouldn’t suspect too many more” in reply. Axel’s expression meant he clearly found that a troubling response. Oskar agreed. Lina liked collecting and cluttering up her space more than people would assume from her polished, public persona. Four dogs were enough for one person living alone, surely?

(He then remembered the seemingly endless number of corgis, cocker spaniels and dorgis The Queen had and prayed Lina didn’t follow in her mentor’s footsteps in relation to dog ownership.)

While (often highly patterned and colourful) wooden floors were standard in royal residences throughout Mecklenburg, rugs and hall runners were also common. At least they were easily transportable and not too difficult to wash, Oskar thought as Lina crouched down and placed Pavna on the carpet next to the other dogs, her dress billowing out around her. Whether or not Pavna took the hint to join Nikki, Asta and Willa in their nap on the rug while Lina and Oskar worked remained to be seen. Lina had told them all about how stubborn Stabyhouns could be even after training.

Lina rubbed Pavna behind the ear, gave the older dogs a quick pat, stood up and gestured for Oskar to take a seat on the room’s only sofa. The sofa was hundreds of years old, and only comfortable enough sit on for short periods of time in hopes of keeping people from overstaying their welcome. Oskar took his spot on the side of the sofa closest to Lina’s preferred armchair, around the corner of the coffee table. Continuing the theme from the Vorzimmer, a vase of flowers and a couple of framed family photos sat atop the coffee table, in addition to two neatly arranged piles of paper and folders, a handful of pens and two glasses of water.

“Let me know if you would like something to eat, or something else to drink,” Lina said as she sat in the armchair on his right, a blur of red in the periphery of his vision.

Lina was still wearing her Königinnentag outfit. There hadn’t been time to change between arriving back at Schloss Ludwigslust from Schönberg (or Schönberg-Dosse to be precise and differentiate it from Schönberg-Nordwest) and dinner. It was a rare occasion indeed for Lina to attend an evening meal without a wardrobe change. And her cousins had teased her mercilessly about it. Now, Oskar supposed, there was little point in changing into anything but her pajamas and so Lina remained in her red dress and red flat shoes. The red jacket she had worn to Schönberg was draped haphazardly over the back of the two seater sofa. Oskar hadn’t felt underdressed during dinner, but he did now, having left his dinner jacket in his room. Ah well, it wasn’t worth the long walk back to his room to retrieve it. His black trousers, white button up shirt, grey tie, black cap toe Oxfords, and a three day growth would have to do.

“Will do,” Oskar said, leaning forward to pluck a folder from the top of the pile meant for him, labelled ‘Mecklenburg-Deutsches Sicherheitsbündnis’ and stamped ‘STRENG GEHEIM’. “Let me know if you’d like any of my staff to get you something.”

“Not necessary, thank you” Lina said kindly and with a hint of smirk, “besides, I’m sure Axel is busy.”

Oskar laughed, “I’m going to tell him you said that.”

“And I’m going to tell him you called him your staff.”

“I never mentioned him by name,” Oskar said, leaning against the backrest of the sofa (which was even less comfortable than the sofa cushion), removing his favourite pen from his shirt pocket and flipping open the folder.

“You were thinking it,” Lina said pointedly. Oskar shrugged nonchalantly. She was right, of course, he sure as fuck wasn’t referring to Louisa.

“My brother could use the employment,” Oskar said, peering over the top of the folder. Lina pursed her lips but kept quiet. She kept a firm hand on the wheel of the bus of working royals, driving them where she thought they should go or be the most useful. She was supportive of all her cousins’ careers, but she really didn’t care what the non-working royal part of the family did so long as they were happy and not embarrassing her or the country.

“Possibly,” she said, picking up a pen and a folder of her own to read through. This one was labelled ‘Vorgeschlagene Streitkräfte-Beförderungen’ and stamped ‘GEHEIM’. “If only he would stop being so stubborn and apply for a position out east...”

“It’s a good thing we don’t have a teacher shortage in this country then, huh?” Oskar said. Lina scoffed, offended at the mere suggestion she would allow something as horrific as a shortage of teachers happen in Mecklenburg. “He wants to work in Wismar.”

“But why? Wismar is nothing special.”

“Ouch.”

“Wismar is beautiful. But it is as equally beautiful to half a dozen towns in V-R, V-G and M-S,” she frowned, deep in thought as she fiddled with the pen in her left hand. “He’s not hoping to live on the Karola is he?”

“There would be a long line of cousins trying to murder him in his sleep if he tried that.”

“Is there a girl I don’t know about?”

“No girl,” Oskar said. He didn’t think there was a girl currently anywhere, let alone Wismar. Axel was enjoying doing nothing for now, having no ties keeping him in one place for too long. Oskar didn’t really blame his little brother for wanting to take it easy after five years of study. Oskar’s own degree took only three years to achieve and he was incredibly burned out by the end. “It’s only been a year since he finished at Rostock. If he’s not working this time next year, you can issue a royal decree suspending his rank, style and title until he gets a job.”

“Because that wouldn’t be an overreaction. Or an abuse of my powers.”

“Not at all.”

“Or even worth doing at all since by law we recognise international ranks, styles and titles and you’re Princes and Princesses of Denmark in Denmark as well, so...”

“That’s a good point,” Oskar said. “We’ll just have to think of something else to get Axel off his arse and become a contributing member of society.”

Lina sighed, shaking her head, but Oskar knew she wasn’t too irritated by his shenanigans. He could be very charming if he wanted to be, and Lina was, you know, smiling and not frowning. But they were wasting time and that was something Lina could - and would - frown about.

Sensing his cousin was about thirty seconds from telling him to get to work, Oskar dove into the words in front of him. While he read and made notes in the margins (he should have brought a highlighter) about the latest reports regarding Mecklenburg and Germany’s mutual security alliance, Lina read through the proposed promotions in the five branches of the Mecklenburgish Armed Forces: Army, Navy, Air Force, Medical Service, and Reserves, approving, disapproving or delaying a decision upon further review, one after the other.

Oskar didn’t weigh in on domestic or internal military matters, it was literally not in his job description, but his top secret security clearance meant he could see, hear or read everything not classified ‘EXEKUTIVE NUR’. Promotions would never be stamped as such and Oskar knew nothing on the coffee table would be either. Lina would have gone through Die Papiere and set aside anything he wasn’t supposed to see. Anything with an ‘EXEKUTIVE NUR’ stamp was probably still in the blue ministerial box sitting on Lina’s desk. From his experience with being privy to Top Secret information, Oskar had no idea what kind of stuff would need to be classified for Lina’s eyes only. A plan for Mecklenburgish worldwide domination? The recipe for Lina and Fætter Philip’s secret sauce?

They worked in silence for several minutes. Notes were made, water was sipped, legs were crossed and uncrossed, and on the carpet in front of Lina’s desk, Willa started snoring softly.

Once Oskar reached the end of his folder, he closed it and placed it on the coffee table next to the other pile of documents. Another sip of water. He waited a couple of minutes, eyes wandering around the small room, until Lina was done going over the proposed promotions. She closed her folder shut and held out for Oskar to take and place on top of the ‘done’ pile.

“Okay, let’s get into this,” Oskar said, reaching for the rest of his pile. He glanced over at the pile closest to Lina, and saw that the Armed Forces promotions had been an anomaly, something for Lina to do while he read through the folder on Mecklenburg and Germany’s security alliance. Both piles of paper and folders were in Oskar’s wheelhouse. Lina had not been exaggerating when she’d said they had a fair bit to get through.

These were the days Oskar wished he got paid overtime.

Beneath the Mecklenburg-Deutsches Sicherheitsbündnis folder was the primary reason Lina had asked Oskar for his assistance. The handful of folders contained several inches of papers and were labelled ‘Informelles Jahrestreffen der deutschsprachigen Staatsoberhäupter’, numbered ‘Eins’ through ‘Vier’, and stamped ‘STRENG GEHEIM’.

Almost a decade previously, Germany, Mecklenburg, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein decided they wanted to get together once a year and talk about how German-Speaking they were (or ‘German-Speaking’ as Oskar saw it. He didn’t understand a bloody word of Alemannic German). One week from her sixteenth birthday, Lina (with Eleonora and a few dozen diplomats and their staff) attended the first Informal Annual Meeting of German-Speaking Heads of State in 2004, hosted by Switzerland. Each year, every September, the meeting is hosted by one of the five countries on a rotation.

As Mecklenburg would be hosting the next Informal Annual Meeting of German-Speaking Heads of State in late September 2011, a number of potential talking points had been proposed by KMAAH based on this year’s meeting in Austria. Oskar had taken some notes of his own during the meetings but as he didn’t have them on him, he recounted to Lina what he could remember and promised to bring her his notes the next day.

Lina detested the word, finding it cold and cynical, but she lived for networking. She understood, cultivated and wielded soft power like no one he had ever seen, preferring it over the considerable hard power she did wield as an executive monarch. Events like the Informal Annual Meeting of German-Speaking Heads of State were vastly important in Lina’s eyes and very much looked forward to each year.

Next year would be Mecklenburg’s second time hosting the meeting between representatives from Mecklenburg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Liechtenstein. Lina had first hosted the meeting in 2006, less than a week after her coronation. The other leaders probably thought it was a nice, welcoming gesture to the young queen. Oskar thought asking an eighteen year old to host an international event had been a big ask. Lina had handled it beautifully, of course, having attending the two previous meetings in Switzerland and Austria and knowing exactly what to expect, and what was expected from her.

So, it was sometimes nice to do the unexpected. Lina, along with himself and several of his friends in KMAAH, were going to use 2011’s meeting as an opportunity to angle for the eventual inclusion of Belgium and Luxembourg. If trilingual Switzerland was allowed in, then equally trilingual Belgium and Luxembourg should be allowed in too.

It amused Oskar greatly that if Belgium and Luxembourg were invited - and accepted - then the monarchies would outnumber the republics during the annual get togethers. More networking for Lina. Not that Europe’s monarchies needed much more networking with Mecklenburg. Lina had made it her life’s mission to cultivate strong - and in some cases, familial-like - links between her and her fellow monarchs and their families.

Aside from the proposal to include Belgium and Luxembourg, Oskar and Lina worked on a rough outline of key points from this year’s meeting they would like to carry over to next year’s: vocational training, cultural and social integration, etc. Major events - within and outside Europe - in between meetings would also be discussed in detail, with each nation sharing how they dealt with or plan to deal with that event. Some topics, such as how to preserve and promote German’s many dialects have featured at every meeting and always would, while Germany and Mecklenburg not-so-secretly wished everyone would just learn Standard German.

Included in the minutes from this year’s meeting in Austria were a number of proposals from KMAAH on where to host the 2011 meeting. Schwerin and Rostock made sense from an accomodation and travel point of view, but Lina was a fan of having the meeting in Neubrandenburg. Mecklenburg’s third largest city - and smallest city as Mecklenburg only had three - had fared poorly during the Nazi Occupation and even worse during the Soviet Occupation. Since Mecklenburgish Reunification in 1990, money and resources had been poured into the city to bring it on a level with Rostock. They were still a couple of decades off from achieving that goal, but despite the lack of suitable accommodation for the five countries and their delegations, Oskar understood Lina’s desire to show how far Neubrandenburg has come in the decades since the Soviet Union crumbled. However, the issue of where to put everyone may possibly supersede Lina’s hope for hosting the event in Neubrandenburg. Rostock - and Euphemiasburg - was more suited to this type of large scale event.

“We should have rebuilt Palais Neubrandenburg when we had the chance,” Lina said, despondent.

“We’ve still got a year.”

Lina chuckled, “my builders are good, but they’re not that good. Neustrelitz is only half an hour from Neubrandenburg.”

“True. But-”

“Yes, it’s still too far.” Lina didn’t suggest hosting the meeting entirely at Neustrelitz as it would be pretty difficult to show everyone how well Neubrandenburg was doing if they were in Neustrelitz. Lina reached for the square Post-It Notes and scribbled Palais Neubrandenburg and Neuer Standort?? then stuck the piece of paper to the coffee table. Oskar didn’t bother trying to suppress his grin. Baroness Amalia von Kettenburg, Historical Architect to The Queen of Mecklenburg, was soon going to find herself in charge of rebuilding the Palais.

Did Lina even have a Modern Architect?

“Well, we’ve been working for just over an hour,” Oskar said, glancing at the carriage clock atop the mantlepiece. If it weren’t for the electric lighting and the laptop on Lina’s desk, you wouldn’t know you were in the twenty-first century. Schloss Ludwigslust was a building stuck between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Lina looked at him, puzzled. There were still some papers in the pile to work through and therefore they were not finished for the night. “I heard you say you’d call someone back in about an hour.”

“Oh,” she smiled softly, “it was just Harry. He’ll understand if I call back a little late. And I am not leaving Die Papiere unfinished.”

“Why not?” Oskar asked and Lina did not like that question. She frowned and furrowed her brow, a tinge of revulsion on her face. “It’s your birthday. We can finish this up in the morning.” Or on Friday, or Saturday, or Sunday, or even Monday morning before the Royal Court returned to Schwerin and with it Lina to the Schloss and Oskar to his apartment in the city. “And it’s not even urgent. We’ve got about a year until the next Informal Annual Meeting of German-Speaking Heads of State.”

“We should also suggest a better name at the next meeting.”

“Okay, I’ll work on a shortlist and don’t change the subject.”

Lina sighed, “I have always worked through Die Papiere in one go. I don’t care what day it is,” she said cutting off his attempt to butt in. “If you want to stop, I’ll finish them on my own.”

“I said I’d help.”

She raised her eyebrows, saying ‘and?’ with a pointed look. So, he said ‘and’. Or, more accurately, ‘but’.

“But it’s your birthday. It’s his birthday, too, right?” Oskar remembered singing Happy Birthday to Harry last September during Lina’s twenty-first birthday celebrations. She’d finished all Die Papiere that day too. She did it every day . Birthday, Christmas, Easter, New Year’s. It didn’t matter. The country never took a day off so neither did she. Lina called the week between Christmas and New Year her ‘week off’. Which was a load of shit because during that week she still accepted Die Papiere each morning, took daily briefings, organised upcoming events, gave her annual New Year’s Speech, and hosted New Year’s Eve celebrations for her staff and their families at Schweriner Schloss. Oskar knew - everybody knew - he’d never be able to get her to take a real, actual, no-work-done day off, but maybe, if he played his cards right, he could get her to take half an evening off and leave some work for the next day. “Parliament’s not back for a couple of weeks. Die Papiere will be pretty small tomorrow. I promised I’ll help you with the stuff from the Informal Annual Meeting of-”

“You don’t need to say the whole thing again.”

Oskar closed his mouth and leaned back, pen in his right hand. He was close to getting her to agree but pushing too hard and too fast would force her to push back . Out of principle, out of her bone deep sense of duty - which was normally endearing and something to encourage - but fuck it , she was twenty-two and deserved the night off. He twirled the pen between his fingers, once, twice, three times.

“Do you have any public engagements tomorrow?”

“A few in Waren after lunch.”

Oskar doubted it was only ‘a few’. It was probably closer to six or seven engagements and a few walkabouts. But it gave him an idea. One that would appeal to Lina’s suppressed sense of spontaneity. Like, real suppressed.

“How about a wager, then?”

“You might have a gambling problem.”

“I bet,” he continued, ignoring her comment because the little red book in his room filled with past and open bets on the personal and professional lives of him and his extended family meant he more than might have a gambling problem. He didn’t have a losing money problem, though, since all bets were capped at a hundred Kronen. “I bet,” he repeated having lost his train of thought. “If we don’t finish today’s and tomorrow’s Die Papiere after breakfast tomorrow, I join you in Waren.”

“As punishment?”

“I don’t think Waren would like to be called that. You’re being pretty mean today,” Oskar said, Lina chuckled. It was also absurd. Waren was too pretty and charming to be considered a punishment. “But yeah, sort of. I was planning on doing absolutely nothing tomorrow. Having to put on a suit and play Prince Charming for a few hours would be a massive inconvenience.”

Lina frowned, not because she was pondering the wager but because she didn’t like him using the phrase ‘play Prince Charming’. Unlike Lina, Oskar didn’t see himself as being royal twenty-four-seven. It was role he slipped in and out of with ease. His job as External European Policy Advisor to The Queen of Mecklenburg meant he had a public role to some degree, but he didn’t see himself as a public figure, and he wasn’t a working royal like his parents.

“It’s a good bet.” It wasn’t. Lina’s slight eye roll meant she agreed it was a bad bet. There was no way in hell Lina was going to leave Die Papiere unfinished tomorrow morning. But if a shitty bet got Lina to take some time off, Oskar was going to take it. And hope Lina was going to take it too.

She did.

“Fine. I accept the conditions of the wager.” She stuck out her hand and they shook on it. Oskar made a mental note to add the bet to the red book. For posterity.

“Okay, I’ll leave you to it.” Oskar got to his feet, leaned down to kiss his mildly bemused cousin on the cheek, bowed his head and told Lina to say hi and Happy Birthday to Harry from him. “And everyone else, too.”

“Okay,” she said, her tone moving from bemused to amused, “I will.”

Oskar went to the dogs and patted them good night. Little Pavna had snuggled up so close to Asta she was half-covered by Asta’s long grey fur. The four dogs barely acknowledged him. As Lina had said, they’d had a big, busy, exhausting day. The Schloss was currently hosting dozens of people happy to play, throw, swim or run with them while Lina was carrying out her official duties.

As he neared the door leading to Lina’s drawing room, Oskar paused and turned back to see Lina had gotten up from the sofa, going to her desk to retrieve her phone. She was grinning at the screen, typing rapidly with both hands.

“Gute Nacht, Lina,” Oskar said, smiling, the soft feeling of love and affection for his cousin coming to the surface. Startled he was still in the room, Lina looked up from her phone, and distractedly pushed back her perfectly secured hair. The grin she’d been wearing before grew into a wide smile.

“Gute Nacht, Oskar.”

.

.

.

The next day, after another raucous breakfast with his extended family, Oskar brought his notes to Lina’s suite.

They finished Die Papiere. Oskar still went to Waren. And it was six engagements. Two walkabouts. And a very confused media presence.