Yourstone followed a contingent from the House of Lords into the queen’s audience chamber. Eight of the leadership had been summoned for a hastily arranged meeting, the subject of which was not revealed, only that Victoria needed to speak with a few of the lords.

Throughout history it had been the lords who rose to the Crown’s defense, especially when the Commons tried to cut the monarch’s power. From the 16th to the latter part of the 20th century the English monarchy had enjoyed an almost unprecedented popularity. The downfall started with Victoria’s father, who’d made no secret that he never wanted to be king. Three decades had passed since he died, and the nation had been blessed with his daughter, a woman possessed of a spirited attitude that had won back the public.

But the explosive recklessness of her eldest son had resurrected all that had once been bad, and a decade of concentrated effort on his part had merely aggravated the wound. If all went according to plan, by the end of next week Eleanor would be queen of England, Yourstone’s son her prince, their child to become the first Yourstone monarch. He could only hope it was a boy — which would be a sure sign that what he’d labored so hard to achieve possessed a divine stamp.

That male would rule as Arthur II.

But even if a girl were produced, no matter. She would bear the regal label of Guinevere. There would be no more Elizabeths, Annes, Marys, or Victorias. No Saxe-Coburg names. And the German connection with the British throne would forever be severed. Yourstone children would take Celtic and Brit names. They would also emphasize their Norman heritage.

Arthur or Guinevere.

Either one a Yourstone.

The lords completed their entrance and sat where directed by uniformed footmen. Victoria was already perched at the head of an elongated table that shone under the brilliance of a Bohemian chandelier. The queen was dressed in a light blue suit, a triple string of pearls encircling her neck. Her face cast a tired expression, but she sat straight in the chair, which appeared to take effort. Apparently, the medical reports on the extent of the Parkinson’s were to be believed.

“Please, my lords, be comfortable and let us talk for a few moments,” the queen said.

Prince James stood behind his wife, a stump of a man whose Scottish ancestry showed in his every word and action. Some likened him to John Brown, the Scotsman who consoled the first Victoria in the latter part of the 19th century after her husband, the first Albert, died. Both were stubborn, determined men, but unlike Brown, James was extremely popular and the press treated him with deference. As far as anyone knew — and Yourstone had delved deeply — he’d always been monogamous. His only fault was a passion for horse racing, something he and Victoria shared.

“I appreciate your appearance on short notice,” the queen said. “Ordinarily, I would not concern myself with what someone may say about myself or my family. I have lived a long life and learned that one cannot be queen and have a sensitive nature. But I require counsel and hope you might oblige me by offering some.”

Yourstone watched Victoria closely. Though ill, she was still the woman of three decades ago who’d charmed the nation with her civility and poise.

“My lord Yourstone.”

The sound of his name caught him by surprise.

His gaze found the queen.

“I listened earlier in gratitude at your defense of the Crown. But I also caught your warnings. I am sorry my son places us all in such difficult positions.”

“I, too, am a father and understand the anguish children can sometimes cause.”

“Yet neither of our sons is a child. They are grown men who should know how to conduct themselves.”

“And, by the grace of God, my son has matured into a fine man. He makes your daughter quite happy.”

“For which my husband and I are grateful.”

Yourstone caught James’ stare as the Scotsman stood behind his wife. Though the queen had ignored his coy slight, the prince had not. No appreciation cast from his stern expression.

“Tell me, Lord Yourstone,” Victoria said, “does Lord Bryce’s attempt to abolish the monarchy stand any chance of passage?”

“There are many in the Commons who feel abolition would be a sign of progress. Similar to when the House of Lords was modified a few years ago. Many felt that change would be viewed favorably.”

His reminder, he knew, would fuel resentment in the men who sat around the table. A change to a Labour government had brought a call for reform to the House of Lords. Its 1,000-plus membership, heavily dependent on family for position, had evolved into an anachronism. So most of the hereditary seats were abolished and the Lords’ membership reduced to a workable number. Victoria had wholeheartedly supported the change, one of those rare occasions when she interjected herself into the political process, and many of the gentry harbored ill will for her interference.

“That does not answer my question,” Victoria said, her voice suddenly sharp. Apparently, she had sensed both jabs. “Does Lord Bryce’s move possess political strength?”

“I believe it does.”

“Explain yourself,” James said.

The prince’s deep baritone seemed to shake the walls.

Yourstone cautioned himself to remain calm. Appearances were everything. Especially now. “Richard has inflicted enormous damage. You certainly realize that. The ministers are tired of him. The people are tired of him. I’m sorry, but his becoming king would be viewed as a national disgrace. The people speak of him and your father as one.”

He realized that he was openly insulting Victoria’s father, but James had asked for an explanation.

“My father had no desire to be king,” Victoria said. “But he did his duty to the day he died.”

“That is not enough anymore. Your father ruled at a time when the press was restrained and respect was shown the monarchy. He was allowed many liberties. We live in an age of instant communication. Newspapers, television shows, mobile phones, countless websites. They all require constant content. Millions of people are more than willing to supply that content. Most of which is offered free. To survive such an informational glut, a monarch must be extraordinary. Beyond reproach. Like yourself. No one would dare attack Your Majesty, but you have given no one cause or reason.”

“Except you, Lord Yourstone. You attacked me. This morning.”

“I said nothing derogatory about Your Majesty.”

“You insulted my family, which is the same thing.”

“I merely spoke the truth. As, I assume, you want us all to do. We did not create this problem.”

Another poke at Richard’s parentage.

Victoria shifted slightly in the chair, which seemed to calm the tremors in her hands. He realized she would never publicly disparage a member of her family, no matter what he or she may have done. Royals always defended royals. But he also knew, from Eleanor, that privately the queen and prince were furious with Richard. So he said, “The Prince of Wales simply has yet to realize that he will one day be king. That, to me, is his greatest fault.”

“And will he be king?” Victoria asked.

“That is wholly dependent on your son.”

“What if he were to abdicate in favor of Albert? Would that satisfy the ministers who want the monarchy abolished?”

“Your grandson is a gentleman. The people love him. He would make an excellent king.” He was perplexed why Victoria was directing her comments only to him. Perhaps it was because he was family and she believed he would be honest. “Of course, though, Albert will not be king for many years. We all wish Your Majesty a long life, and Richard is relatively young. Albert will surely be older if, and when, he ever inherits the throne. He will have a lifetime to prepare. It is our nation’s blessing that the Saxe-Coburgs enjoy long lives.”

“And our curse,” Victoria quickly added.

“Might I inquire, Your Majesty, as to the purpose of this gathering? Rarely does the palace involve itself directly with the affairs of Parliament, particularly on matters such as this. Many have attempted to change the Crown, and few have ever succeeded. Why does this seem different?”

“It is always prudent to be cautious of another Cromwell,” James said.

“Quite correct,” Yourstone said. “But Charles I was a tyrant who plunged the nation into civil war. Cromwell had an easy matter to seize that opportunity. I would hope many lessons were learned from what happened all those centuries ago.”

“But another Guy Fawkes could be lurking,” Victoria said.

The reference to a potential royal assassin bothered him. Fawkes was hanged in 1605 for plotting to blow up James I. The nation continued to remember that betrayal every November 5 when bonfires, topped by Fawkes’ effigy, were ceremonially lit all over the country.

“Are you suggesting a possible regicide?” he asked.

“World leaders are often murdered. There is nothing that makes this monarchy immune.”

“But the royal family enjoys the finest protection. This is not the 17th century, when conspirators can could stockpile gunpowder beneath Parliament.”

“And even then,” James said, “it was only thanks to one of Fawkes’ men turning coat and revealing the plan that the effort failed.”

Yourstone caught a gleam in the prince’s eye. Was he being tested? Surveyed? Analyzed? Perhaps he’d underestimated these aging icons. And there was still the matter of Cotton Malone, whom he knew had spoken with them. He’d yet to learn the substance of that conversation. How much did these people know? Not enough. Obviously. Otherwise they’d be arresting instead of baiting him.

So he seized the moment and said to James, “What you say is true, as to what happened all those centuries ago. But as I have learned, from both life and politics, today there are so few secrets in this world.”

He paused for effect.

“So precious few.”


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