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by Pat McDermott


* * * * *

Ireland’s royal family conducted their day-to-day business from Tara Hall, a centuries-old neoclassical landmark built on the south bank of Dublin’s River Liffey. The first decree signed in the King’s Chambers after the Hall’s completion had been the Act of Heritance, the law that made Ireland one of the few monarchies in the world where the throne passed to the firstborn child, male or female.

Only three regnant queens had ruled the Emerald Isle in all the years since, all efficient, effective monarchs. Taillte Rosaleen Boru would be the fourth. Since early childhood, Talty had endured private lessons that enabled her to graduate from secondary school far ahead of her peers. Admission to Ireland’s Naval School in Cork followed, and she’d flourished there.

The Irish Constitution mandated that the king’s heir must be ready to accede the throne on his or her eighteenth birthday. Talty was already twenty and doubted she’d ever be ready. She had so much to learn! Still, an Air Corps Dauphin flew her from the LÉ Alastrina to Tara Hall’s helipad each Saturday morning to meet with her father for a review of the week’s events. His request for a midweek meeting worried her.

Praying that the dark blue of her navy uniform hid the wrinkles in her skirt, she smoothed her pinned-up hair and stepped from the private elevator to Tara Hall’s fourth floor. The rapid click of her regulation military heels echoed down the corridor leading to the King’s Chambers.

Though she’d told no one, Talty hated being Crown Princess. The prospect of spending her life preparing for her beloved father’s death depressed her. She wouldn’t have to worry about that for years, however. Silver might speckle King Brian’s russet hair, but he was only fifty, and still strong and healthy.

She hurried past the reception area, where her father’s no-nonsense assistant rose from her desk and opened the carved oak door bearing the royal lion of the Boru clan. With a nod of thanks, Talty stepped into her father’s chambers.

Like old friends, the dark wood panels and their oil paintings welcomed her. The plush oriental rug cushioned her feet. Her father stood before the blazing hearth, a gold pen in one hand, a communiqué in the other.

He set them down and lifted his hand toward her. “Talty! How’s my favorite junior executive naval officer?”

“I’ll do, Dad.” She caught his fingers in hers and kissed them, a gesture of affection offered by members of the royal family to those who outranked them. Once she’d properly greeted her king, she stood on her toes and greeted her father, pecking the cheek above his well-groomed beard and snagging him in a firm hug. His subtle cologne, an exclusive concoction of citrus and sandalwood, never failed to comfort her. Neither did the sturdy arm that dropped over her shoulders.

“Lunch will be here soon,” he said. “Uncle Jack is joining us.”

“Uncle Jack? I thought he was in Brussels, at the World Court.”

“He was. I called him home.” Brian nodded to the black leather chairs before the fireplace. “Shall we talk a little before he arrives?”

Their talks were usually a cozy routine. Today, Talty detected tension in her father’s eyes, the same chestnut brown as her own. Since Uncle Jack was coming, she suspected her curious summons to Tara Hall involved Fargan. Brian had been on edge in the month since England had staked its ludicrous claim. Whatever had possessed Geoffrey Wessex to seize part of Ireland’s crown territory and upset the neighborly relations England and Ireland had enjoyed for centuries?

Talty filled two china cups from a silver teapot. The task complete, she sat back, locked her ankles together, and waited to hear what was on her father’s mind.

“How’s the Fian training coming along?” he asked, stirring milk into his tea.

“I spar with Neil on weekends, and I work with two fellas on the ship when there’s time.”

“You’ll have your pin before you know it.”

Talty couldn’t wait. Since she’d been a child, she’d longed to wear the Fianna pin on her collar, to be part of the elite group of two hundred warriors whose dedication to protecting Ireland hadn’t changed since the days of Finn MacCool and his valiant men. For the last ten years she’d trained under the tutelage of Brian’s younger brother, Prince Peadar, the leader of the present-day Fianna.

Yet even if she passed the grueling initiation trial, her status as a Fian warrior would be nominal, a mere enhancement to her status as Crown Princess. Brian had made that clear when he’d first allowed her to train with her male cousins: her royal duties must come first. She wished it weren’t so.

Tea in hand, Brian settled in his chair. “You’ll be going off to California soon. Looking forward to it? Mendocino is a long way from home.”

“Not so far these days. Mendocino has some of the finest military research programs in the world. I won’t be treated as a princess there, just as another officer. I can do my job better that way.”

“From what I hear, you do your job well now. Alastrina’s captain told your Uncle Peadar that you more than contribute to the efficient running of our flagship.”

Talty raised her tea to her lips and sipped. “Ah, but would he say that if I weren’t your daughter?”

“Peadar thinks so. So tell your old father. Is there any special fella you’ll be leaving behind when you go off to California?”

“Just you, Daddy,” she said in a little-girl voice.

Brian’s eyes narrowed, though he grinned. The click of the door handle cut short his response. A spry, spindly white-haired man stepped into the room.

Talty set down her cup and stood. “Howya, Uncle Jack!”

“Talty! It’s fine to see you, Lady Princess. I was delighted when your father said you’d be joining us.”

Jack Dacey caught her hand and kissed it. His pale blue eyes twinkled with affection. The ready smile that people said was the result of his marriage to Brian’s aunt, the feisty Princess Nuala, blossomed on his face. As Ard Brehon, Prince Jack embodied the highest legal authority in the kingdom. He’d been a kind and steady mentor to both Brian and Talty, a nurturer of ideas whose counsel they treasured.

Once Jack was seated with tea before him, he pulled an old briar pipe from his pocket and rubbed it between his hands. For years Talty had watched her granduncle perform the ritual. The pipe had belonged to his father and grandfather. Jack himself had never smoked it. He claimed he only had to hold it to hear the sage advice of his wise old forebears.

As Jack fiddled with the pipe, Brian fidgeted in his seat.

Talty folded her arms. “All right, fellas. What did you bring me home in the middle of the week to discuss?”

“Some developments with the Fargan matter,” Brian said.

Jack selected a strawberry scone and set it on a plate. “We’ve learned that before the court imposed its ban, Geoffrey Wessex leased a ship to conduct seismic testing in the area.”

“So he means to drill for oil around Fargan?”

Her father shook his head. “No one can drill for oil around Fargan. I commissioned three different geological surveys. Each stated the Fargan Trough is more than six miles deep. No oil platform can get down that far. If Geoffrey tries to drill for oil, he’ll not only fail, he’ll foul the ocean and kill the fish.”

“The fish are safe enough for now,” said Jack. “No one can fish in that area until the World Court completes its review and schedules public hearings. It could go on for years.”

“But if we can resolve the Fargan matter now,” Brian said, “the World Court will throw out the case. Our fishing fleet can work those waters again.” His fidgeting increased. He attempted to smile, but his lips and eyebrows twiddled in ambiguous contortions that finally settled into his “this is a hard one” frown.

Talty braced herself. Here it comes.

Her father leaned forward and looked her in the eye. “In exchange for a few oil wells in the Irish Sea, Geoffrey will waive his claim to Fargan. He’s also offering several shipping lanes and access to England’s oil refining facilities.” Brian lowered his head for a moment, apparently to study his knuckles. “The catch is, he wants to seal the agreement with a marriage treaty.” Again, he peered straight at her. “Between you and King Thomas.”

“What? Thomas Wessex? You’re joking!” Talty’s heart thumped. She clawed at the arms of her chair and turned her head in disbelief from Brian to Jack and back again. Would he do this to her, her own father? Had he been asking about her plans and dreams only to dash them?

Brian seemed oblivious to her distress. “You know poor Thomas isn’t well.” He glanced at Jack as if seeking support, but Jack seemed content to study his scone and let Brian handle the matter.

Talty swallowed hard. She’d never met Thomas Wessex, but she’d heard the pitiful stories. “Yes. Some sort of degenerative disease.”

“His family claims it’s a neural disorder,” Jack said, his eyes on the jam pot, “though they won’t say what, exactly. Their legal advisers insist he’s competent enough to function as head of state with Geoffrey acting as Regent. But Geoffrey tells us Thomas won’t live much longer.”

Brian’s mouth tightened into a thin line. His white-knuckled fingers gripped his knees. “This might sound callous, Tal, but if you knew it would only be for a short time, could you marry Thomas?”

Still gaping at both men, Talty clasped her hands to still her trembling fingers. “You’re really serious! You want me to marry Thomas Wessex? As in husband and wife?”

“He’d never touch you, darlin’,” said Jack. “That would be part of the deal. The marriage would be a token thing, though the benefits would be great for both our countries.”

Brian shifted in his chair and spoke with a clearly feigned buoyancy. “I’ve been studying some new technology, Tal. Plans are in the works to build drill ships that can reach deeper into the ocean than ever before. I’m thinking of investing in one. They’re building them to be careful of the environment these days. If that’s so, our fishermen and oilmen can work in the same areas. I think we can afford to give away a few oil wells if we know we can produce others.”

Did he really expect her to share his enthusiasm? Though she came close to telling him and Jack to take their oil wells and go to the devil sideways, she mustered all the dignity she possessed and walked to the window. Arms folded tight, she glared down at the river, fighting to keep her tears at bay and her temper at a simmer.

The door opened again. Talty turned. A harried looking woman dressed in the black and white uniform of the royal catering staff wheeled a cart into the room. Setting the cart before the fireplace, she started uncovering soup tureens and assorted platters.

“Why, Daisy!” Jack said. “I haven’t seen you for months.”

Daisy Cleary removed the tea tray from the table and set out fresh linen napkins, china, and silver. “You’re very kind, sir. My old mum’s been ill. It’s been hard looking after her, but I got someone now who’ll come in and see to it she don’t hurt herself while I’m working.”

“That’s too bad,” Brian said. “Let us know if you need anything.”

Daisy set a bowl of soup before Brian. Jack didn’t want one, and so the woman nodded and departed. Talty stared after her until she’d left the room. The break had given her a chance to process her father’s proposition.

If the marriage didn’t interfere with her career plans, it might be all right. If she agreed to marry Thomas knowing he’d be dead soon, what harm would there be? Shuddering at the ghoulish thought, she ambled to the cart and helped herself to some parsnip soup. Though she was far from hungry, ladling out the fragrant concoction helped calm her.

She set her steaming bowl on the table to cool and reclaimed her seat. “What do you think of this marriage thing, Uncle Jack?”

“I’ve looked over the proposed treaties. I think we can work it out.”

“Treaties? Do you need more than one?”

Having finished his scone, Jack selected a croissant and buttered it. “We need three. The first has England relinquishing its claim to Fargan. The second details the terms of the marriage itself. Which oil wells will be part of your dowry, things like that.”

Talty broke open a cinnamon scone. “I’m expensive, I think.”

“You’re more precious than any oil well, girl.” Brian spooned a chunk of parsnip into his mouth. He took his time chewing.

Talty waited. Neither man spoke, though they traded uneasy glances.

“All right, fellas. Let’s have the third.”

Jack bit into his croissant, a calculated move that rendered him unable to speak. Despite her growing dread, Talty admired the old fox.

Brian set his spoon down and sighed. “I don’t like it, but Geoffrey insisted on it. The third treaty stipulates the removal of your title as Crown Princess. Since you’d be Queen of England, he won’t risk giving Ireland any advantage over England if by some misfortune you should become Queen of Ireland at the same time.” He looked away, into the fire. “If we agree to all of this, I’d have to declare Liam my heir.”

No! She wanted to throw the scone at him. All her life she’d trained to take his place. Had it been for nothing? And what would Liam think? Her sweet bookworm brother wouldn’t want to be Crown Prince, she was sure of that. Yet something tugged at her, something she couldn’t let escape. Crumbs bounced over her navy blue skirt as she tore the scone to pieces trying to capture the elusive thought.

Brian’s hands covered hers. “We don’t have to do it, Tal. We can refuse.”

If her father and Uncle Jack hadn’t caught her off guard, she’d have seen it right away. If she were no longer Crown Princess, she’d be free of the tedious responsibilities being heir to the throne demanded.

And what about Liam? If her father had already thought this through, he must think Liam wouldn’t mind. Her brother wouldn’t be the first scholar who’d sat on Ireland’s throne. Yes, it just might be all right.

She brushed away a blur of tears and sucked in a deep breath. “Only until Thomas dies? Or forever?”

“Even after Thomas dies,” said Jack, “you’d still be a member of the Wessex family in name. Geoffrey wants no loopholes to challenge his power. I suspect he means to continue to act as Regent even after his nephew John takes the throne.”

Talty would have obeyed her father in the end, yet self-interest more than filial duty prompted her compliance now. Unused to dishonesty, she waged an inner struggle.

I’m licking honey from a thornbush.

“When would this marriage take place?”

“In June.” Brian almost smiled. “When the roses are blooming.”

“So in five months, I’m to be the Queen of England. In name, anyway. Will I have royal duties there?”

Brian nodded. “Nominal perhaps, and only until Thomas…leaves us.”

Again, Talty shuddered. “I’ll agree to your treaties, Dad. If it’s all right with Liam.”

“Liam will agree, and you’ll help him.”

“Of course I will, and you’ll have a son for an heir.” She’d meant it in a lighthearted way, and so Brian’s anger surprised her.

He slapped the arm of his chair. “Is that what you think I’m doing this for? Listen, young lady. Liam is a good boy, but he’d rather learn about kings of old than be a king himself. He’ll be a mediocre king, though he’d be a brilliant adviser, which is what I thought he’d be to you one day.” Brian jumped from his chair, punched the top of it, and began pacing. “No, you’re the stuff thrones are made of, girl. I don’t like this third treaty one bit, but unless Jack can find a way around it, we’ll have to agree to it.”

Talty sat stunned. Though she’d seen the volatile Boru temper often—and had displayed it herself on occasion—her father’s sudden fury shocked her. “I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t mean it that way. I was only trying to lighten things up.”

The sparks vanished as quickly as they’d appeared. Brian slowly shook his head. “I’m sorry too, Tal. I’m a mediocre king myself, I’m afraid. Just promise me you’ll look after your brother.”

“I always have. I always will.”

Jack smacked his pipe against the palm of his hand. “Then you’re all right with this marriage treaty, Talty?”

She decided she was. “Yes, Uncle. What do we do next?”

Her father sat and found his spoon. “Finish lunch. Then we’ll call the English ambassador.”

Trusting as she had all her life in her father’s gentle, reassuring tone, Talty believed it would all work out.



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