THE NEXT DAY. CASTLE LARSEN (NEAR THE FORMER JENNER, CALIFORNIA). 3:30 PM PACIFIC TIME. SUNDAY, JANUARY 18, 2026.

Five days before their coronation as Duke and Duchess of California—a consolidation of fiefs and titles for their hypothetical future children to inherit—the Countess of the South Coast and the Earl of the Russian River were walking together on the rammed-earth fortress wall of Castle Larsen, laying some awe and majesty on the locals, as Quattro called it. “What I don’t get is the way they act like they like it,” he said. “Before Daybreak I’d ride my bicycle down to Sandy’s place for a hamburger and ice cream, and she’d be, like, ‘What’ll it be, Quattro?’ all friendly but nothing special. Now she yells at her help to set up the private room for the Earl, and you can tell she’s getting off on how grand that is, and once they Duke me, she’ll probably roll out a literal red carpet with a bunch of guys in tights blowing horns.” He stopped to watch a Newberry Dieselplane taxi down the runway, turn around, and taxi back; his technicians were testing ND-3, the third one built. “Nowadays I can’t even test-fly my own new airplanes.”

“Quattro, they’d rather bet their families’ lives on the Earl of the Russian River, or better yet the Duke of California, than on that rich surfer dude up the road, you know?”

“Yeah, I do know. I just hate having to be the most responsible man in California when there are airplanes to fly and adventures to have.”

“Me too. But Heather needs a loyal Duck and a trustworthy Doochess to get the country glued back together, and like it or not, that’s us. Now keep laying on the awe.”

She guided him away from the side of the parapet that faced the airfield; no sense rubbing his nose in his frustrations. From the sea side, they watched the Russian River pour down between the snow-covered, deep green banks. The chilly wet long winter had been good for grass, but the extra rain had brought down huge loads of mud.

Quattro looked out over the new land forming in the sea. “With the grass and brush to secure all this silt, Goat Rock Beach will end up as a lea, but there’ll be another beach beyond it, and people will love that too. This is going to be a good place.”

“As far as I’m concerned it already is.”

“Yeah.” He pulled his cloak closer around him. “Bambi, it’s so beautiful here, and I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to do.” His arm extended toward the fields of snow-spattered deep green, then swung out to encompass the docks along the river, the many smoking chimneys in Jenner, and back to the awe-inspiring ocean and coast. “If anything happens to me—”

Against the spitting wind, Bambi shielded her face on his chest. “Morbid morbid morbid.”

A big slow wave curled in, breaking over the new sandbars. Sea lions hurried out of the way.

He sighed, and folded his arm back over Bambi. “You’re right, I’m being morbid. And I’ve got no reason to. Just, right this second, I’m not feeling lucky.”

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