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The Prize is Not as Great as You Think: Chapter 2

2) All The Little Pieces


The manor house, near the outskirts of the city was very fashionable. Reginald had seen it before more than once, though he had avoided going inside nearly all the other times he had been near. He smiled to himself for the expression, ‘avoided it like the plague’ came to mind.

Not that Princess Margaritte, was anything at all like a plague. Just that an alliance with her, a royal marriage, would signify the end of his life of freedom. It would signal that he would have to start serious work here in the principality. Work that Reginald’s father was more than qualified for, and still willing to do.

With that understood, why then should Reginald worry about taxes, and bread, Germans and railways? The Grand Prince wanted to make all those decisions. His father complained often that it was too much and he needed help, but Reginald had learned early on that was not the case. He had offered to help when younger, and the Grand Prince would smile and then thank him. Father would say it was noble of him to offer but that Reginald should enjoy his life before he was forced to wear the crown and make such choices.

After offering a half a dozen times, perhaps more over the years, to really work on serious matters, and always being refused, Reginald took to heart that he should indulge himself.

Perhaps he had overdone it. Certainly the press loved him for his intemperance. He was advised by the owners of not only the papers from Steilenberg, but those published in the provinces, that he contributed greatly to their profits. Everyone wanted to read about what he was doing, or planning to do. They liked pictures of the beautiful women he had affairs with, though fortunately the papers only called it dating. Should they report on how many women he actually slept with, and sometimes more than one at the same time, his reputation might not have been so great amongst the people.

He had one affair that had been placed in the papers so long ago now that no one remembered. It had caused him grief and he had come to an understanding then with the owners of the papers. They could write about all sorts of things that he did, but what happened in his bed, and who with, were never to be reported. Though too often they stepped over the lines and insinuated a little. Though not as many times as he was really guilty of the acts he could be accused of.

“Highness,” he saluted the Princess by sharply bringing his heels together. Then he leaned over and kissed the proffered hand. Margaritte didn’t rise when he entered, for she too was a royal member of the Fitzroy Perry blood. Though he did outrank her, she was clearly establishing her rights.

He had encountered such women before. And of course he had met Margaritte many times. She was one of the most beautiful ladies in Steilenberg. Reginald agreed with his father about that. Was she the woman he would marry? That still was to be determined.

“You do me great honor by visiting, and so early in the day. Why I think the sun has only been up a few short hours,” she said.

“Yes. I saw it rise, for I have not been to sleep yet. Too much to do and so I must burn that candle at both ends,” he replied. A memorized response that he often used. And a play upon another oft quoted saying. He was known for that as well.

Margaritte trilled, for that was what her laugh was. Like a little precious bird. She had blond hair, a descendent of one of the infusions from the North. Those invasions, the ones backed with strong viking battle troops had never been successful though sometimes they left memories that came nine months after their failed raids. Or later in history, she could be a descendant of the emigrations from the colder climes across the Baltic sea. Reginald had little idea which, but it was clear the ancestors were in her bloodlines, and his as well after so many generations.

She was one of the many cousins, and anyone who had the least amount of Fitzroy Perry blood seemed to want to proclaim that they were a cousin. Except perhaps his closest cousin Gerald. More fool him. Reginald would have to tell the man that the next time he came to town, he needed to use some scent or other to hide the smell of his cows.

Perhaps that alone was a good reason to marry, to place children between his ridiculous cousin and the throne. Every son of Reginald’s would cause the need for his cousin Gerald to come to the capital less frequently.

“What would you say to eight sons?” He asked Margaritte. Not only because the thought occurred to him just then, but also eight would be needed to bear the damn platform with St. Michael atop it. He was still sore from that stupid parade. Reginald was sure that he had torn a muscle in his shoulder. And this year he was sure he was pelted more than in any other year by tomatoes and only a few almonds. Yet at the end of the parade, Gerald and Athelstan were hardly marked. Gerald said he had been hit mostly by almonds.

“Eight? I think we need to first marry, and then we shall discuss it.” Margaritte smiled but he saw that it did not reach her eyes. She was calculating what his question had meant.

“You must meet my cousin Gerald. You know he is next in line to the throne after me? It so irks Athelstan. My younger brother has never accepted that he is not in the line of succession.”

“I do not think of Athelstan much,” Margaritte said.

Reginald nodded, “You know most women are like that, but I think that is a mistake. Not that women should like him for his charms or his looks, though you would think with his parents he would look better. No, I think women should like Athelstan for his ambition. And what he will do with that ambition should he find he is disliked.”

She laughed again but not the trill she had before. This was forced. “You make him sound dangerous.”

Reginald nodded, “He is probably the most dangerous man I know. I fear that in the years to come we may find out just how dangerous he is. Father refuses to see it. You should know this also should I court you to be my bride and then the Grand Princess. If we were to have any sons, Athelstan would not necessarily be their friend.”

She did not laugh now, “If you feel this way, then why not exile him? Surely you could arrange that.”

“He is the son of my father, and he is my brother. I know his ambition seethes inside of him but until he acts upon it, I will do nothing. It is an unspoken truce between us. He wants recognition for all his efforts for a country he will never lead. I pretend that when I am Grand Prince I will do something to aid in his desires.”

She shook her pretty blonde head. She was twenty-three, he had been told, and overripe for marriage. But she was holding herself out for the biggest fish that she could find. And that was him. Did that make cousin Gerald the second biggest fish? Smelling of fish and cow, the man was intolerable.

Well once Reginald was wed and producing some boys, then it would not matter. Cousin Gerald could stay out in the country forever except until he was too old to march in the St. Michael Parade.  Then there were other younger cousins coming of age who could carry the damn platform during the pageant. And if Reginald had hurt his shoulder, then Reginald would force his father to take a flux and stay in bed next pageant. That was a way to get out of carrying the dame platform. If he had to act as regent for his father for even an hour, it would supersede all other duties and requirements. Athelstan had told him that, but only after they got to the damn top of the hill and the Palace gates this year. Reginald was sure that Athelstan had known that point of law for many years and had been saving the knowledge for just the right time when he would become angry over it. Which he had. The papers catching his oaths and cursing to the very letter in the news the following day.

Margaritte said, “I am sure that we could spend the hour you have requested to visit talking of your brother. Or perhaps we could engage in a better use of the time. You could compliment me, and I could ask you intelligent questions about yourself and your plans when you become Grand Prince.”

He smiled. She had a mind, or at least she knew how to play to his vanity. It could very well be a trick of hers. He had known for years that she was bred to lure him to her nest. It was why he avoided coming to the manor. He did not want to be caught. Well he hadn’t wanted to be caught.

What an impressive bosom she displayed and not covered by a chemise or any other fabric. It was quite early in the morning to display such charms. And it was quite late at night for Reginald not to be sampling them. The Guardsmen outside who waited for him were quite used to his spending an additional half hour or much longer if he had an encounter with a beautiful lady. He had many such encounters. How far could he take his dalliance with the Princess? Would she give up her virtue before they had an engagement signed and sealed by the lawyers? Had she retained her virtue these years that she had been in society? Though he confessed no one had ever told him that Margaritte was at all involved in trading her favors. And Reginald had a good many sources who kept track of such details.

It was not a simple matter his marrying, nor he suspected as she shifted herself on her lounge and brought her breasts even closer into focus, was the matter something she was going to allow to lay dormant any longer. It was a mistake coming to the manor for that reason. He was not going to get to romp with her that day. She was going to hold her charms until they wed, and then…

“Yes let us talk about you, and your beauty, your intelligence and your ambitions. Of course you are the desire of my father for me to wed, and he has made a good choice. You have just enough Fitzroy Perry blood so that your loyalty will never be questioned by the rabble. You are so beautiful that every man of the realm will consider me lucky to have won you. You are rich, why I have heard that your fortune is even larger than mine, at least that which I admit to.” He smiled. Athelstan had told her that her fortune was larger than his. Not as large as the Grand Prince of course, but probably the fifth or sixth largest in the realm. It begged the question of how had his half-brother had any knowledge of his wealth?

“Speaking of my fortune is hardly the way to my heart. Here.” She placed a hand on her left breast, and then reached for one of his hands. Gently guiding it to the same spot. Warm, firm, lush. She was very enticing.

“If you would like, I can remain here, with my hand just so, for quite a long time. It is indeed the most comfortable place I think my hand has ever rested,” Reginald said. Pure flattery of course.

Let Athelstan suck on those eggs. Reginald knew he needed to have sayings that in time could become clichés but it was much easier to use ones that had already been thought up. He was not a genius and did not like pretending to be one. Though soon enough, when he sat the Throne, he would have to act as one.

It was good to be the Crown Prince. He got to play with a great many pairs of breasts. And he had used that line about them a great deal as well. He was fairly sure that all the ladies he had ever uttered it to, most with no clothing between his hand and the object he held, were not the in the habit of socializing with each other. Or that they related that they had been seduced by the heir to the throne.

Margaritte trilled again.

“I do like your laugh like that. Pleasant.” He remarked and that was a truth. He heard the clock chime a quarter hour. He thus planned another three quarters before he would ride out to his country estate. If he was fortunate, he would reach there after lunch. His day had been changed by his affairs of the night before.

Drinking and carousing, though no woman had taken the edge off the feeling of pressure that was building in his loins. Surely Margaritte was bound to begin to feel his arousal the way she had him seated.

At his estate he would sleep and then when dark came, summon some local lass, or servant girl and take care of his needs. That of course caused his loins to stir even further.

“Ah highness, or should I say hardness, do you think of me and the life we could be having together?” Margaritte said. She was game, but how far would she go? With the prize the Grand Prince’s bed in the Celebont Palace, she was not going to take care of his needs.

“Yes I do you vixen!” He drew quickly away. He was not in a position to take her by force, or to trade her favors that day without seeing to others who pursued him. “Margaritte, I have been a prize in the marriage sweepstakes and you are one of two finalists. The French Ambassador has produced a candidate as well for me to meet. It is unfortunate that I cannot proclaim to you that we may arrange a marriage this day. Whether I love you or you love me is apparently irrelevant. What is important is who will be the best Grand Princess in the coming years. Who will keep us safest in the event of war. Best we don’t play this game unless you realize that you may not be awarded the prize.” He was still surging with lust and should she lower her glance, she would know of it. Any other woman, one not a candidate for marriage and he would be taking her that instant.

She sobered up immediately. He knew then Margaritte understood him. He would appreciate making love to her and would do it often if he could. Just as their were others he bedded often. There was still a great chance that she would not become Grand Princess. If she only wished to have such sport when she knew she would wear a crown, then she and he were not going to have such exercise.

“That was rather blunt,” Margaritte said.

“You are a luscious woman and I would love to sink my teeth into you for a bite.” Using a metaphor continued the play between them.

“Yes, but you surmise that you cannot have a bite until I am presented my due. I am a Princess. Though I know you are no saint, you will be Grand Prince and I am very willing to overlook you and your wild ways till you decide to court me seriously. I thought your presence here today was just that. Certainly you seemed to behave yourself during the Festival.” She left unsaid how he had lost his temper when Athelstan baited him at the end of the parade.

She no longer heaved her bosom at him. A shame, for it had been fun to watch. And hold he reminded himself. That pleasure was but a few moments ago. He was definitely going to have to find a woman to sleep with that night. His passions were stirred and he needed to take care of them. But that was the reason he travelled to his country home. He would be able to do so without interruptions. There was no parade, or building opening for two weeks, and he was damned if he was going to spend them in Steilenberg. It would be winter soon enough and he would be stuck there.

“You thought I was blunt before, Margaritte. I shall be even more so now. You wish to be the Grand Princess. Others wish that also. But for now, I still have some say in the matter. It is my will that decides the matter. Even the Grand Prince has said so. I am lobbied from all sides and many wish you, our own Almondian Princess to become the Grand Princess. Others believe that we have honored the Germans too much of late and cry for a French cousin to wed. I am sure she will be as appealing to the eye as you are. I am positive that she will be everything that one could wish for in a Grand Princess. Just as you have been raised to be,” Reginald said. He noted she once more was making herself appealing. Her skirts were hiked a little that he could see an ankle as she toyed with her shoe, popping her foot in and out of it.

“There is one question, Margaritte that must be answered. What happens if I do choose the French chit? What do you do with the rest of your life if the prize to which you have been trained and aspire too is in the hands of the Mademoiselle? Do you find yourself a cousin to marry? Do you think at this stage one of the other foreign kingdoms will have you? Would you marry an industrialist like one of the Glaus or Renards?”

“You are rather callous also.”

“Blunt, callous. I have been groomed to lead this nation one day. That is all I am. I have to deal with the reality. You think that you have but one choice, and that I am it. You do not have just one choice. You have much more should you wish it. I tell you that if you are enamored of the crown you are being played for a fool. Do you want to be the Grand Princess of a nation that is destined to become the battleground of all Europe? Do you not see that my father has led us to that path? That we are not strong enough to become a force in the wars for Europe?” He was angered more than he was aroused now.

She said, “I think I see clearer than you. That you could alter the course of that history should you choose. But you have spent years acting the spoilt prince and letting all Europe think that you would rather play than direct such a theatrical.” Margaritte had color now. He wanted to take her then. If she could prove so feisty, then perhaps she was the one for him. Could marrying her bring enough strength from all of Almondy to the table and keep the Germans and French at bay?

To hell with his manners. He leaned down and stuck an arm behind her back so he could pull her up to him, “What do you say wench, do you want me, or the crown?” Then he leaned in and ravished her lips. A kiss that was long and deep and that she struggled to break free of. He though had a lot of experience with women who were trapped in his arms and tried to get away.

Once he had a woman trapped, he seldom let them go. Not until he had ravished them and they had thanked him for the experience. He did not have the time for that with Margaritte. Nor did he think he could succeed in taking her without her willingness, for she had allies. She had relatives that would raise a great fuss should he despoil her and then marry the French girl. A woman whom Athelstan had met and said that she was one of the most beautiful his brother had ever seen. Though Athelstan said he had bet that Margaritte would win his heart. Reginald knew that the gambling dens wagered on whom he would marry and that the odds changed daily. Sometimes more than once a day.

Athelstan and his father, and all the others did not know that his heart would never be won. He would do his duty and marry whomever they told him to. All he wanted was the chance to fornicate with as many women as he could. He had no care for any, and would not allow any to make him care for them. He would have to stop a war, and knew that he could not. Then lead thousands of soldiers into battle and hope that when all was finished, there was still some of Almondy left to rule.

“You are a brute,” Margaritte said when he broke apart and then she slapped him hard. So hard that he actually felt the pain from it. Something Reginald usually did not. Nor had he truly thought that he had freed her, but she had gotten free of his grasp in any event. Perhaps that had been a mistake. He would think of it later, maybe. Instead he roared a laugh, though she might realize it as forced.

“Well done. You have spirit. I shall go for I fear I shall not get what I want from you this day. Nor you get what you wish from me. Think though on what I’ve said and what I offer. It may be the best that you can achieve in Almondy.”

She slapped him again. “I would be your wife, not your mistress.” Then she reached and grabbed his member and squeezed until he felt some pain. “This I can get from any man, and probably a great many who are better than you are. You need to think on what I offer. No French hussy is ever going to be the princess of Almondy that I could be. And if you cannot see that, then go back to your whoring. For if you marry me, it will be the last of it. This,” and she squeezed harder so now he knew pain, “Is not going anywhere near me if it is infected by any of your pets.”

Reginald let her go and forced her away so she would release his manhood. “I assure you it is clean and always will be.” He took precautions. Almost always that was. He did not want a disease. “Very well. We both have something to think of. But know that the decision is for a part out of my hands and that there is not much I will do about it. I can choose but from a handful, and I will choose who is best for Almondy.” He didn’t elaborate on what he would decide was best for Almondy.

She seemed to understand that, “Go Reginald. Next time you come to me, be prepared to offer me more than the five minutes of your time you need for your pleasures.”

Margaritte could not be more direct than that. He nodded and left. The clock was now just at half past. He was surprised that he was that much ahead of where he had planned to be. He entered his carriage and settled. They left the long drive to the streets of Steilenberg, not expectig that they should be halted. The Guard captain leaned his head in through the window, “It is Athelstan, sire.”

The manor house as Reginald had observed was surrounded on three sides by the growth of the city around it. Here, close to the outskirts of the city, what had been country not fifty years before, there was a small coffee bar at the corner, and Athelstan was walking across to the carriage from it. He had raised his hands and was waving, definitely trying to get the carriage to stop.

“Why I just got here and thought I would have a coffee. You said you would not be done until ten. Come have a coffee with me,” Athelstan said as he poked his head in the carriage. He also looked at his watch.

“Are there any pretty wenches there. Move your head and let me look.” Reginald was a little rough as he poked his own head out of the carriage window and forced his brother away. “Very well, that one will do. I shall have her sit on my lap and that will help me quickly forget the Princess,” Reginald raised his voice. “We shall stop here for a while. Athelstan insists it has the best pastry this side of the High Street.”

Athelstan stuttered out a response. “I never said that.”

As Reginald opened the door and climbed down, “Best you hope that it does. These guards can be brutal should they think you have played them for fools. What, by the by, are you doing here? I did not expect to see you for some weeks. I am off to the country where I can rest my shoulder. It still hurts and that was three days ago we carried that fool palanquin.”

Athelstan laughed though it too sounded forced. Much sounded forced that day. “I told you to see a doctor, and not the one with the prettiest nurses to aid them. I told you to go to the one who would help your shoulder the most. I don’t suppose you did.”

“No, I shall do that when I get to Chateau Repos. The doctor there has always been helpful and you should be pleased, he does not have any pretty nurses,” Reginald said.

Athelstan laughed, this time not so forced, “But I have seen his daughters. Have you already sampled their charms? Is that why you hurry to Repos?”

Reginald had to laugh also, “You know me well enough. I look forward to sport with them and other ladies that are in the area. They are very discreet.”

“You have made the entire area your own bordello. How many of the women do you count as friendly and ‘sport’ with? Five, ten, more?”

Reginald had to allow that it was more. Though not twenty which Athelstan next tried to guess. “No more like a baker’s dozen. Yes, I think that is the number exactly, including the girls who are servants at my castle.”

Athelstan shook his head. “I won’t ask about any others. Tell me about the Princess. That will put an end to all this ‘exercise’ that you are indulging in. Do you not worry that you will use your member so much that it will fall off?”

Reginald laughed. “No, I don’t think that will happen. As for Princess Margaritte. I told her the truth. She or the French girl have the greatest chance at the crown. I just do not know if it will be her, or the other. I suppose something could happen in Cameroon tomorrow and then you would tell me that German Princesses are back in the race.”

Athelstan laughed, motioning for service as they sat down at a table. The guards had done what they always do, cleared a space for him. “I would if it were true. If you listened to the ministers of father’s council you too would think about this often as well. I know it bores you, but as you point out, it will determine whom you marry. As much as father wishes it to be Margaritte, the dictates of Almondy come first.”

Reginald shook his head and then saw one of the barmaids who served close enough to grab. She had been on her way to ask them what they wished in any case. “Be a good girl and keep your prince warm. I think the air is chill.”

Athelstan looked with disdain at the girl. Athelstan often did that, Reginald thought. It was not the girls fault that she was closest and that he wanted someone to sit on his lap. Someone to ensure that Margaritte had not damaged him forever. Which, as he ogled the girl in his lap, he found he was not. “It is October. Summer is gone and it will continue to get colder now.” Athelstan said.

“My brother speaks to me as if he were the older child, and he is not, but you probably know that. All Almondy knows that. So my dear, what should I have? Do you make a good coffee here?” Reginald asked the wench.

“The best in all Steilenberg, highness,” she smiled. He saw that she did not like to be mauled. She was smaller than the princess in the chest. Margaritte did have an impressive chest.

“Good. Call for two glasses. What do you wish Athelstan? Are you going to drink with me and the Mam’selle?”

Reginald tickled her side showing that his hands were capable of more than grabbing her breasts. Then he settled into light caresses that also travelled along her legs.

“Let the girl go, Reginald. I want to talk seriously with you.”

Athelstan so often said that. And just when he had become comfortable like this. “No, you may have the time it takes for them to bring us our coffees. Then I leave for Chateau Repos. My dear, would you like to go to your prince’s chateau in the country? I will feed you and you may drink excellent wines from all over Europe. Come, say you wish to go with me.”

She spoke, “Oh no highness. I can’t. My father and mother will expect me for dinner, and I need the money from this job.”

He laughed, “No doubt you save for your wedding. Samuel,” Reginald raised his voice and two ten crown pieces were placed in his palm. “That is more than enough for the coffee and I should think a good deal for you as well.”

Athelstan tried to snatch the money back from the girl but she was fast and smart. “Sire it is too much,” she said.

The price of a cup of coffee, good coffee would be five bits, ten or twenty where he usually stopped to dine. You could probably get a cup for a bit if you were a commoner in most places in Steilenberg. Though it would be poor quality. Ten Bits to a Mark and a hundred Marks to the Crown. She was given a fortune and that would go along way to paying for her dowry. 20 Crowns might be what a man in the city lived on for two or three months. It was good to do such a show of largess, especially in front of Athelstan, for it made him angry. His brother had little to be spiteful for since he received all his living expenses paid for, and an allowance of ten thousand crowns each year.

It was a fortune when a family could live on 500 crowns a year. Reginald, though, was given a million Crowns each year. A part of which he sent to his swiss bankers, and he never wanted for money. Castles were paid for by the treasury. His clothes, his food, even the snapping of fingers and twenty Crowns magically appearing would come from the countries taxes and soon enough go back to Samuel for when Reginald snapped his fingers again. Lord Ramm had told Reginald once that he did overspend his budget but they made allowance for it and he should not worry about it, at least not too much when he spent the monies in Almondy. Lord Ramm asked that he be more frugal when he travelled abroad. Reginald actually understood the reasoning behind it and allowed himself to be treated as a guest in those countries he visited, never spending much outside of Almondy at all.

The girl in his lap certainly felt how he had become enamored of her, and as most did, she snuggled back into him. “Do you wish me to stay here and keep you warm,” she squirmed causing him to feel heated, “or shall I fetch you that coffee?”

“You shall receive a kiss for your trouble from your Prince and then you may fetch me my coffee.” Reginald then held her head with one hand and slowly cupped her breast with the other as he leaned into her and gave her a kiss, opening her lips and probing with his tongue to capture the essence of her. At least as much as he could at such an early hour on the patio of a cafe. Then done, he bucked his legs so she was forced to stand. She giggled, while he spanked her on the bottom and proclaimed loudly that she needed to get his coffee.

Athelstan, who had seen this before, shook his head, once more showing his disgust, and said, “That is terrible. They will not always be so compliant. I fear one day you will be truly punished for that, and for other items as well. Why do you think the rebels try to kill you?”

The girl had run off to the kitchen and Reginald found that the question was funny. Laughing he said, “Is it rebels this week? Is Almondy so filled with discontentment that there are those who wish to overthrow father and I, and the Assembly?”

Athelstan actually tsked. “You know that the Assembly has almost no power whatsoever, and the same for our subjects. They know that it is a sop to show some progress. It has been nearly a century since we fought off Napoleon and kept our freedoms here, or the family its power if you would hear the dissenters speak. So much of Europe has given power to the peasants that our peasants know they are given not even table scraps.”

“Do we tax them more then we did before Napoleon came? Has there ever been a whiff of the Terror here?”

All royalty worried about that. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette losing their lives. All the nobility, and most of the upper class. Then anyone who just looked wrong. The Terror, more than a hundred years over, still was remembered vividly though no one living now had been alive then.

“I cannot speak to you. You will not hear what is being said,” Athelstan seemed to talk a great deal when he promised silence so often.

Reginald had nearly enough of his brother, “I do listen you know. Well perhaps you just do not realize. I and the spy masters take a great deal of interest in all this. I worry that our people are dissatisfied every time you speak of it. But then I ask pointedly how many seem to be so upset that they would rise against us. More than eight million adults we have in our country, and if there are a few hundred that would strike father or I down, that would surprise everyone else I talk to. You are the only one that thinks that there are hundreds of thousands of people who want the FitzRoy Perrys gone.”

“A few hundred? You talk to fools. It is tens of thousands, even hundreds like I say. You only talk to FitzRoy Perrys, and other collateral family members, so you do not know.” Athelstan nearly spat that last. He was partially right, for the majority of those who did speak to him were related in some way or other. There were many professionals in service to the crown who had no FitzRoy Perry blood at all, but few were those who had risen high enough to advise him.

The coffee came and the wench saw that they were arguing. She left quickly when he nodded her away. If things worked out that he was to pay other social calls on Margaritte, he would be back to the cafe. This girl had a firm bosom and a round backside. He would want to have her before she completed acquiring all the money she needed for her wedding. He would take care and give her more money then she ever thought to have as a dowry, but then, if he had her virginity, or she let him think that he took it, the money would be well spent.

Reginald said, “I think you misspeak brother, for our spy masters have never let us down yet. You all but praised them a few weeks ago. You cannot say it to me both ways, but I find you do this often. Too often. Drink your coffee and take a moment to compose yourself for I would rather talk of something pleasant then something that will anger me. I have had little sleep and it will be near four hours until I reach my chateau.”

Athelstan shook his head, “Then if I cannot make you see sense, I shall leave you. I thought to wish you well this next fortnight while you are at your leisure. And to congratulate you on your alliance with the Princess. I see that neither is to be, for we shall part in anger, and you failed with the Princess.”

“Athelstan! You will mind that not only am I your brother, but I am also the Crown Prince. I will not have you spread tales about these next two weeks of I and Princess Margaritte. We parted amicably and both must think of what an alliance between us means. She is made to understand that world events and our relations with our neighbors dictate my choice of a bride. You though, you are my brother and I would have us part as friends.”

Athelstan said, “Not this time, Reginald. And as much as you proclaim me brother, I am still only half your brother. That shall always lie between us and never be a wound that heals.”

Reginald shook his head slowly, “Then I am sorry for it, for I bear you nothing but love.” Not completely true, for when Athelstan exasperated him, Reginald did not love the man.

Athelstan stood and took the coffee cup, drinking in one swig all of it. Reginald had noticed the taste, strong and good. “I thank you for the coffee. Good day to you, highness.”

Too much to think of, and he was tired. Was all that really necessary with his brother?

A scene. And in public.

Well one of the other patrons was bound to run and tell this to a paper and it would be all over the city tomorrow. Though Athelstan would end up looking bad. He always did. The papers made the bastard the villain when there was such an altercation. Athelstan could have been in the right and won the argument, but in public, the bastard son of the Grand Prince never won in the papers.

“Come, we are off. Did not the clock strike the hour but moments ago? This is exactly when we had planned to take to the road. How fortuitous is that? My brother almost caused us to be later than we wished.” Reginald climbed back into the carriage then looking for the serving girl who came out of the cafe, he waved and she smiled and waved back. It would provide a nice dream as he settled into the cushioned seats. Though he was jostled almost at every turn, the roads needed improving again, and Lord Ramm said there was no money for it. But a few thousand crowns and the road here could be fixed.

One paper said a hundred thousand would take care of all the streets in Steilenberg. Made ready for automobiles. His own motorcar, one of the first in Almondy, was already ahead at Chateau Repos and he intended to drive it when they arrived. Reginald wanted to be an expert in its operation.

Reginald pondered that it would be good for his people to see their Crown Prince driving such a vehicle. That was another function of royalty. To be a symbol of the entire countries prosperity that all could take pride in. He did that very well. He may have had many women…

“Highness, ‘ware.” They had left the congested part of the city and were less than a mile from the country proper. They were now outside the new wall, the second wall that surrounded Steilenberg. It had been built at enormous expense and completed just twenty years before cannons had become staples of European armies. Here the buildings were less clustered and a wooded section was further ahead. Here at the outskirts of the city a tree lay across the road blocking them. There had not been any heavy winds, or a storm the last few days, so this was not the result of the weather.

“Damn, another attack!” Reginald was not having the best of mornings. A tickle and fondle with two women but nothing more. Another argument with Athelstan and now this.

“Look there, those men, they have guns.” His men had guns too. Reginald and a couple of his guards had seen men in amongst the trees. They were all in black. Coats and trousers. Hat brims low over their eyes. Several had rifles and now there were shots.

A horse whinnied as Reginald ducked back from the window and began to look for his own weapons. They were in the carriage. Two Purdeys were secreted in the carriage and he had to get them. His sword was ceremonial, with an edge that was not sharp, and it would do him little good in a ranged attack.

Purdeys though were great pistols. And he was a good shot. Not a great shot. But with the cover of the carriage to hide behind, he should be able to fend off an attack. He had seven guardsmen, and the footmen and driver who also were armed. Then he heard those men screaming and looking to the far side of the carriage, he saw the liveried servants rushing away.

A shot plunked near his head at that window, and now they were being attacked from both sides. His own guards were returning fire but he knew that this could not last forever. This stretch led to more of the city about fifty yards ahead of where the fallen tree was. Behind, not more than 100 yards away was a square and a church. The square had houses clustered about it. All this had been the outskirts of a city that would not stop growing.

Another bullet hit the carriage and as Reginald ducked back, he was thinking he should look once more to see if the men in black were close enough for his pistols. He heard one of his guards scream and then another shouted that Franc was dead.

A bell began to sound. Reginald contemplated that the gun battle had been going on long enough that those citizens on either end of this stretch would surely take notice. Then he heard what sounded like rocks hitting the carriage. One, two, three, and more.

“Bombs!” That was Samuel shouting. “Highness get out of the carr…”

There was an explosion and he was tossed about, pain shooting into him from the side and barely could he see that a part of the carriage had dissolved into splinters and destroyed pieces of wood. Then more explosions and more pain. There was a lot of red and white and he could not see out of his left eye, nor turn his face any longer. His right eye fought to stay open and he tried to lift his right arm for he had a Purdey in his hand. It didn’t move and he had no feeling on the left side of his body.

He also did not feel as if he was sitting in the carriage, though he vaguely remembered that he had been crouching. His head was at an angle and despite the pain, he could hear, though it was all mumbled noise. Others were shouting though it was hard to make out. Explosion. Bombs again.

Was help coming?

The pain was bad.

Should he speak. His eye now was closed.

He moaned. He knew that.

Just pain…

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