Title: Col. & Mrs Brandon [Series: Sense & Sensibility

Author: Drusilla Dax Colonel Christopher Brandon/Marianne Dashwood, Edward Ferrars/Elinor Dashwood

Summary: What happened when Colonel Brandon came back to the Dashwoods' home...

Disclaimer: I'm just playing with other people's toys. May I be forgiven in my next incarnation! Flamers will be adopted by my blood relatives (if you don't believe it's a threat... too bad for you!).

A/N: See chapter 1 for additional information.

Readers: Mikee and Starkindler. The remaining mistakes are all mine, and I apologize for those.

Col. & Mrs Brandon

All That They Desire

'Captain Forrester!'

The young officer turned around and faced the Senior Major. 'Yes, Sir?' he answered obediently.

The Senior Major was a tall, thin, pale, red-haired man, who absolutely hated his regiment's assignment in a small Asian kingdom that was allied to the Empire. He was extremely bitter about the fact that they were not in a colony or even a protectorate, and he delighted in delivering unpleasant messages.

'General Inker and Lady Mary want to have a word with you. I understand it is about your wife,' the Senior Major said, an unpleasant smirk on his lips.

Lady Margaret had arrived from abroad two days prior, and Forrester failed to see why his superior officer and his wife wanted to talk with him about her. What mainly intrigued him was that Major Bonfoy looked entirely too pleased about the message he'd delivered.

However, Forrester was not a man to react to taunts like Bonfoy's - and besides, General Inker was a very good man, and if there was any issue about Lady Margaret, then the actual issue was probably with Lady Mary.

'I will go and see them immediately,' Forrester declared as neutrally as possible. 'Thank you, Major.'

'Yes, do that," Bonfoy said softly.

The Major knew what was going on, thanks to his own wife, and he was convinced that the young Lady Margaret would be the downfall of the youngest child of Lord Forrester of Singhurst, whom Bonfoy despised for obscure reasons known only to himself.

Since the British Empire and the Asian kingdom were allied, thanks to the friends the King had made through his wife, Queen Li, the number of British soldiers in the capital was limited. One building was given by the King to the General sent to modernize the organization of the native troops; the British soldiers were living in the barracks, but the officers, who had come with their wives and families, often rented mansions nearby. Only a few of the superior officers had quarters inside the headquarters building.

General Inker and Lady Mary lived there, and Lady Mary, who was a woman who would have made Fanny Dashwood look like a caring and compassionate woman, resented her husband's posting to such a godforsaken place.

As he walked towards his superior's office, which was linked to the General's private quarters, Forrester was wondering why exactly he was summoned. Lady Margaret had just joined him here after a short stay in Lahore, where she had delivered a secret message from London for Prime Minister Jenkinson. Jenkinson was a distant cousin of the Singhursts, and when he met Lady Margaret, that was Margaret Dashwood at the time, he was quite impressed with her abilities and instinct in strategy - however, the young girl protested that her mentors, Colonel Brandon and her future father-in-law, Lord Singhurst, had helped her tremendously.

Forrester knew that Lady Margaret was strong enough to do whatever the Empire needed her to do, but he knew women like Lady Mary, and he could predict a quarrel as easily as any other officer who had found himself victim of one of the lady's tantrums. It was interesting to note that while Margaret Dashwood had been taught military strategy, Forrester had found himself under the tutelage of Queen Li - through his duties at the Palace - and of Colonel Brandon - with the help of thorough and long letters. Maybe Lady Margaret could now give lessons to soldiers, but Forrester had been taught a few things as well, and he'd been instructed on ways to better understand people around him - and especially women. The young officer did not trust - or even like - Lady Mary.

Lady Margaret had briefly, and unofficially yet, been introduced to the General's wife the day she arrived from Lahore. Lady Mary had seen the young woman for a couple of minutes, and Forrester wondered what alleged sin his wife had committed in Lady Mary's mind.

Forrester's heart started beating faster when he saw his wife down the corridor ahead of him. He wanted to have a word with her before she reached the Inkers' quarters, but he didn't want the soldiers and his fellow officers to pay too much attention to him. He opted for a bold move.

'Commodore!' he said loudly.

Lady Margaret slowed down instantly, certain that no one could imagine that her husband was calling her by a superior rank in the Royal Navy.

Of the five men in the corridor at the same moment, not one suspected anything.

'What's going on, James? I was summoned to tea,' Lady Margaret whispered as Forrester caught up with her.

'Major Bonfoy ordered me to report to the General and his wife. I fear Lady Mary doesn't approve of you,' Forrester answered.

'I had better things to do with Natira. We cannot stay in the small quarters you were given here,' Lady Margaret said.

Forrester smiled at his wife. Officially, Natira was Lady Margaret's maid; however, even Forrester didn't know the entire truth about Natira's past. Lady Margaret had arrived in the capital with a young woman, who acted as her maid, but whom she had never introduced as such. Forrester estimated that Natira was possibly a year or two younger than his wife, and that she was possibly in need of refuge. In fact, Forrester would not put it past his wife to have agreed to a secret mission for Maharaja Ranjit Singh after delivering him whatever the British Prime Minister had Lady Margaret deliver in Lahore in his name. Natira simply seemed to be much more than a simple maid; yet, Forrester knew better than ask his wife to tell him everything about this unexpected maid - Lady Margaret would explain everything when she was at liberty to do so.

'You are quite fond of the girl, aren't you?' Forrester asked, almost rhetorically.

'Why? Yes! She's like the younger sister I never had,' Lady Margaret answered honestly.

Forrester beamed at his wife, for she was enough of a good soul to come to love a young Indian girl as if she were a respectable girl from a good British family.

Suddenly, Forrester realized that their maid may well be the issue with Lady Mary. 'Don't you think that your friendship with Natira might be the reason for our being called?' he inquired.

'You might be right,' Lady Margaret conceded.

She stopped in the middle of the corridor and quickly assessed the whole situation.

'Would you trust me, James?' she asked.

Forrester glared at his wife for answer.

She smiled at him fondly and briefly squeezed his hand. 'I need to see the General first. I'll go with you. Follow my lead,' she said.

He nodded.

When they arrived at the General's office, the door was open - probably in the hope to create a most needed draught.

'Good afternoon, General!' said Lady Margaret brightly.

General Inker was a man about a decade older than Colonel Brandon, and he had the same charisma. How he'd found himself linked to a shrew like Lady Mary was a mystery to the world.

'My dear, Lady Margaret!' General Inker exclaimed with sincere joy.

'I met my husband on my way to your quarters,' Lady Margaret said to explain her presence in his office. 'I was told that your wife wishes to have a word with me. Am I to understand that my husband was called to stand on Lady Mary's side?'

'I fear you have lost me, Lady Margaret. I vaguely heard my wife requesting my presence to tea, but I didn't know she had invited you and Captain Forrester,' the General answered honestly.

'I am sorry to inform you that Major Bonfoy ordered me to report to you. He hinted, none too discreetly I must say, that Lady Mary and you had some concern about my wife,' Forrester declared.

General Inker was a very good and honest man, who hated his wife's attempts at including him in a few of her petty plans. In an instant, he looked absolutely furious.

Lady Margaret smiled brightly and said, 'Now, General, nothing can resist to a good battle plan.'

General Inker certainly had not sported such an air of surprise since he was a captain himself. Laughing softly, Lady Margaret smiled at him, and then she shared her plan with both soldiers.

Lady Margaret left the General's office to go and meet Lady Mary, but the pleasure of the older lady at the prospect of a private chat with her guest was rapidly shattered when Inker and Forrester joined them just a moment later, as instructed by Lady Margaret.

Inker angered his wife when he acted very civilly towards their guests, especially when he asked Lady Margaret if she had enjoyed her travel from England.

With each passing minute, Lady Mary looked angrier and angrier with her husband.

General Inker decided that it was time to broach the unpleasant topic and confront his wife. 'My dear Mary,' he said as neutrally as possible, 'am I to understand that you requested one of my senior officers to deliver an order in my name?'

'Why, yes! We thought it would be only fair to warn Forrester about the conduct of his young wife!' Lady Mary spat venomously.

'May I inquire who those "we" you refer to are?' the General asked.

'The wives of your senior officers, my friends,' Lady Mary answered.

'I wish you to remember that you have no right whatsoever to ask my officers to give orders allegedly in my name,' the General declared coldly.

Lady Mary looked positively offended.

'What did you and your friends wish to tell me in such an unusual way?' Lady Margaret inquired.

Lady Mary wrinkled her nose as if the young woman were a leper. 'Do you need to ask?' she said haughtily.

General Inker sighed deeply and said, 'Maybe our guest is cleverer than I am, but I do fail to see why you and your friends took a dislike to such a gentle lady. I demand you explain yourself right this moment.'

'I do not expect you to understand, but it was obvious to us, ladies, who embody the glory of the Empire in these remote and godforsaken regions of the world, that Lady Margaret dresses in a very inappropriate way,' Lady Mary explained, making it sound as if Lady Margaret had committed murder.

General Inker observed Lady Margaret's attire, and he could find no significant offence in her dress.

'For God's sake, Mary! What do you mean?' Inker exclaimed as he began losing patience with his wife.

Lady Mary made a strange noise that remotely sounded like a trapped rodent. She looked positively shocked when her husband's glare forced her to lean towards him and whisper, 'She isn't wearing a corset.'

General Inker and Forrester looked completely taken aback.

Lady Margaret was very tempted to taunt Lady Mary and ridicule her prejudices, but she was bound to stay here for months, and making an enemy of her would be a deplorable strategy.

'I would never do such a dreadful thing, Lady Mary,' Lady Margaret said, willing fake tears to her eyes.

Lady Margaret pretended to be extremely distressed, thus slightly puzzling the other lady.

'I can see that your dress is different from mine!' Lady Mary retorted.

Lady Margaret pretended to sob, and she hiccoughed, 'I had new dresses made in town! They're the latest fashion for climes like the one we have here.'

Lady Mary had not been to London in a decade, and she was forced to admit that a young woman such as Lady Margaret certainly knew the best seamstresses in town through her mother-in-law's connections. Besides, Lady Margaret looked so genuinely distraught by the accusation of impropriety that Lady Mary began to believe that she had been hasty and unfair.

'The latest fashion?' repeated Lady Mary.

Lady Margaret nodded fervently, spilling more fake tears.

'Look what you've done!' the General hissed at his wife. 'I apologize for my wife's conduct, Lady Margaret!' He turned towards his wife and said, 'I want you to go and see your petty friends and tell them you've been completely wrong about our delightful Lady Margaret.'

'I will,' Lady Mary promised, shaken for having made Lady Margaret cry.

'Now, Mary!' the General insisted.

'But I cannot leave you and our guests!' she protested.

'Forrester and I will take care of Lady Margaret while you clear her name amongst your court. Now, Madam,' the General said.

Lady Mary nodded. She stood up and looked at Lady Margaret as she said, 'I will come back as soon as possible. I look forward to getting to know you, Lady Margaret.'

Lady Mary trotted out, hurrying towards the other members of her clique, who were waiting for the results of the talk with the new lady in town.

General Inker walked to his liquor cabinet and brought three glasses of brandy.

'I do not need it,' Lady Margaret protested as she finished drying off her fake tears.

'I know, Lady Margaret. You told us to expect from you any reaction that would pacify my wife, but I would like to share a toast with a brilliant strategist,' the General answered honestly.

Lady Margaret blushed. The colours in her cheeks deepened when the General added, 'I wish half my men were as good as you, Madam.'

'Maybe we could share our secret with the General, my dear,' Forrester suggested.

'Which one?' she wondered.

'Your grade, my dear,' Forrester answered.

The young couple shared that part of their lives with the good-hearted General, who was not surprised that the girl who had been nicknamed "Captain" by game had now earned her rank of Commodore.

'I fear my wife will want to know the address of your seamstress,' the General pointed out.

'I imagine I will have to give her the address of the one in London,' Lady Margaret declared quietly.

General Inker realized that Lady Margaret was an astounding woman. 'Where is the seamstress who made the dress you're wearing?' he asked in awe.

'Why! In Lahore, of course,' Lady Margaret answered as if it were the most common answer.

The General opened his mouth, blushed, and then looked away.

'General, I can assure you that nothing you may ask could possibly shock me,' Lady Margaret declared.

'You lied about being corseted,' he said softly.

'Of course. I would do nothing to bring shame to the Empire, but to wear clothes that are fit for a winter in London under the local climes is sheer stupidity. I pity the ladies who have been conditioned to obey that unspoken rule - or spoken, like today - and I defy any man reproaching me my attire to stand being corseted but for a few hours in such a weather!' Lady Margaret explained.

'I would never admit saying so, but you are logical,' the General granted her.

She bowed.

'Do you play chess?' the General asked her.

'Sir John Middleton and my brother, Colonel Brandon, taught me,' she answered.

The General was torn because there was not one decent player among his officers, but it would be inappropriate to play against a woman.

'When we have found a house, we could invite you,' Forrester said. 'I could move the pieces under my wife's orders.'

The General was so delighted by such a prospect that he entirely forgot to ask what other secret, or secrets, they had.

The Forresters left the General long before Lady Mary was back.

'He is a good man,' Lady Margaret told her husband. 'I am convinced that he will become much more than just your superior officer.'

Forrester bowed - usually his dear Margaret was right.

They were married for almost a year now, and Forrester still vividly remembered how he'd felt when he received letters from his parents and from Margaret during his prior assignment. He remembered his feelings when he went back home and asked Captain Chester to witness his official proposal. Forrester had not foreseen his brother's wife, Oriana, plotting with Mrs Brandon so that the Forrester of Singhursts were at Delaford where Mrs Dashwood was staying with her youngest daughter.

Forrester knew that a few of his parents' friends did not understand why they all agreed to a wedding in the country, but Forrester would not have traded their quiet ceremony for all the tea in China. Margaret was more radiant than the sun when Colonel Brandon led her to the altar, and her other brother, Ferrars, performed the ceremony that linked them for all eternity.

Forrester's parents and siblings were all impressed with Lady Margaret's maturity, and Lord Singhurst was proud that their cousin Jenkinson deemed the young lady trustworthy enough to act as much more than just the wife of an officer of the Empire and to fulfil some secret task for the government.

Now that Forrester had validated Lady Margaret's movements, he'd been impressed to see her plan her travel to join him in his new post all alone. She had such confidence that his heart swelled with pride at being the blessed husband of such a lady.

Forrester trusted his wife - and he loved her unconditionally.

They went back to Forrester's small quarters where Natira was making tea. When his wife started helping their maid, Forrester realized that the young girl was definitely no servant.

The next day, Lady Mary and Mrs Bonfoy came to see Lady Margaret to make amends. The young woman had them wrapped around her finger with platitudes and intelligent exaggerations. She even managed to excuse herself rapidly when she explained that she wanted to find a house, and she had to go out to meet a lady who could help her.

Both visitors felt sorry for Lady Margaret, who had to face the sun and dust in that awful foreign town.

Lady Margaret excused herself, donned a sari with Natira's help, and both went out to meet a native lady, which was a detail Lady Margaret had carefully left out of her story to her British visitors.

The weather was so hot that the members of the British Empire were all hiding inside behind thick walls, and no one saw Lady Margaret leave with her friend.

The natives they met on the street looked impressed by Lady Margaret's audacity.

'They speak about you. People are know,' Natira pointed out.

The young girl was learning English very fast, but she still made mistakes - nearly as many mistakes as when Lady Margaret spoke Natira's native dialect.

'People will know,' Lady Margaret corrected her. She smiled and added, 'Do you think they'd believe it?'

Natira tilted her head, obviously lost.

'Would someone like Lady Mary believe that a nice girl like me would dare don a foreign dress and go out among strangers thus dressed?' Lady Margaret said with simple words in her friend's dialect.

'You're learning fast me,' Natira complained in English.

'Faster than I,' Lady Margaret corrected her. 'My eldest sister taught me French, then her husband taught me Latin and Greek, and Colonel Brandon taught me Spanish and German. The first language was very difficult, but then it became easier. You're making progress. Besides, you must keep in mind that my language is not as logical as yours; there are many exceptions.'

Natira nodded, but her moue was adorable and made her look like the young girl she really was.

Lady Margaret and her alleged maid met the native lady who had a mansion to rent near the royal palace, and she led them there.

They were about to reach the garden when they heard a woman cry on the other side of the wall that enclosed the royal garden. They could clearly hear a man's voice, too.

Much to the native lady and Natira's surprise, Lady Margaret spotted a palm tree that was leaning towards the wall, and she was up its trunk and on the wall in an instant.

'Go fetch some help!' Lady Margaret yelled before walking on the thick wall to another tree that allowed her to reach the side of the royal garden.

The native lady was stunned, but the young Natira ran towards the main gate to raise the alarm.

Lady Margaret followed the voices and discovered a man, who was about Sir John's age, attacking a girl, who was about Natira's age.

'Stop that immediately!' shouted Lady Margaret in the local dialect.

The man turned around to face whichever servant was daring to interrupt him, but he was deeply surprised to see it was no servant from the Palace, but a blond British lady in Indian attire - and a lady who spoke his tongue.

'Leave her alone!' insisted Lady Margaret.

'This is none of your business. Leave me!' the man retorted.

'I will not allow you to have your way with her when it is obvious that she doesn't want to submit to you,' Lady Margaret declared calmly.

'You do not know who I am, obviously,' he spat.

Slowly, Lady Margaret took out of its sheath the sharp knife she'd bought in Venice and said, 'This blade will make you bleed whoever you are. Let her go!'

'I am the Prime Minister!' he barked.

Lady Margaret bravely took one step towards the man, who still kept the hands of his victim in one of his. Before she could say or think anything, they were rescued.

'Well, I am the Queen, and for attacking my maid, I will make you pay,' Queen Li spat.

'No, you will not!' the foolish man yelled.

He pushed his victim away and meant to attack his Queen. Lady Margaret was faster than the Queen, who had taken a blade from the folds of her dress, and Lady Margaret planted her weapon into the attacker's generous hindquarters.

Guards came to the rescue and took the wounded culprit back to the Palace, where the King was informed of the situation.

'Lady Margaret?' the King asked when he finally noticed that the woman in a sari was British.

'Yes, Your Highness,' she answered softly.

'You saved my beloved wife,' the King whispered, in awe.

'And she rescued my dear maid,' Queen Li added.

The Queen's maid was in the arms of her mistress, and now that she was saved, she added, 'And she has a sure aim!'

The King looked at his now former Prime Minister, who was bleeding profusely and moaning on the floor of the royal council chamber, and the sovereign laughed heartily.

When he calmed down, he looked at Lady Margaret and said, 'I am forever in your debt, Lady Margaret, is there anything I can do to thank you?'

Lady Margaret looked at Queen Li, and the King saw that the young girl Colonel Brandon had spoken of in all his letters would become one of his wife's dear friends.

'I would be grateful if you gave me my weapon back when your surgeon is done with that man,' Lady Margaret said with a wide smile. She briefly looked at the woman she'd helped and asked the King, 'There is nothing he can do to pester her, is there?'

'No, I promise you,' the King said as he walked to the maid to kiss her brow.

'What do you think should be his punishment?' Queen Li asked Lady Margaret.

The young woman looked at the man, who could have ruined the maid's life, and declared, 'He should add to her dowry.'

'So be it!' the King declared as he signalled his men to carry the offender away.

'It was fortunate for me that you were walking by when I cried,' the maid told Margaret in the local dialect she'd heard her use.

The King and his wife were amazed and delighted when Lady Margaret answered in the same fashion and explained that she was looking for a house to escape the conventions of the military headquarters where she was residing currently.

'Brandon taught you a lot,' Queen Li stated.

'He was not the only one, Madam,' Margaret answered warmly.

Queen Li started smiling at Lady Margaret, but then she saw the young woman turn extremely pale, and Queen Li rushed to her, as did Natira.

'Margaret!' Natira exclaimed with worry.

Lady Margaret leant on both women and murmured, 'I'm well.'

'Call my physician immediately!' the King ordered to a servant.

'I am well, Your Highness. I am adapting to the weather and to other factors, as well,' Lady Margaret explained.

'Let my physician be judge of that,' the King ordered. 'You've just had strong emotions, and you're a woman.'

Lady Margaret could not help herself and laughed softly.

The King looked puzzled and offended at the same time.

In perfect harmony, the Queen, Natira and the maid said, 'She's expecting.'

The King's cheeks took the colour of a ripe cherry, and he mumbled something about checking the condition of his former minister and sending refreshments for the ladies.

Lady Margaret and Natira were invited to the Queen's apartment where they met the heir apparent and his brother and sister.

In the cooler room, Lady Margaret instantly felt better.

'You should stay inside and let me look for a house for you,' Natira told her friend.

'You're too young, and you're my responsibility,' Lady Margaret protested.

'How can your maid be your responsibility? She's just a servant,' the heir apparent declared.

'You are blind, my dear son,' Queen Li said with a deep sigh.

'Mother?' he asked.

'How many servants wear royal marks?' Queen Li asked as she pointed at the faint traces of henna on Natira's hands. 'You must learn not to judge a book by its cover.'

'You should listen to your mother. Her Highness is an astounding strategist,' Lady Margaret declared.

Queen Li turned to her guest and said, 'He's my son. He doesn't listen to me, or to his father, for that matter.'

'Mother!' the heir apparent protested.

Queen Li looked at Lady Margaret strangely. 'Would you come to the Palace and teach my children what Brandon taught you?' the Queen asked.

General Inker and Captain Forrester were invited to tea at the Palace, and it was agreed that Lady Margaret would share with the royal children what she had been taught. In exchange for her help, the Forresters would move into a pavilion that was on the Palace's grounds.

The General and his Captain were both astounded and proud with Lady Margaret's quick reaction and bold actions. General Inker was stunned when he discovered that Lady Margaret was with child, but the lady objected that her condition was not a sickness, to which the men answered nothing.

Natira promised the General and Forrester that she would do most of the work, but the King declared that his servants would take care of everything.

When the ladies residing at the Headquarters were told that Lady Margaret was to teach the royal children, they all sympathized with her future ordeal, as they called it. Lady Margaret wisely remained silent.

Within a month, Lady Margaret had convinced the heir apparent and his siblings that their mother was an even more brilliant strategist than she was, and the two women, who were becoming friends, taught the children everything they would need in the future. The heir apparent would have to become a sovereign as competent and caring as his father; his younger brother would be given a province that he would have to govern, and the young Princess was expected to become a queen as gifted as her mother.

Natira spent most of her time with her British protector, and thus with the royal children. The young Princess and Natira were becoming friends, as well.

Of course, the heir apparent began to develop feelings for the young girl, and one day, the King called Lady Margaret to his office. He wanted to know if the girl was as noble as he suspected she was; Lady Margaret said that she was not at liberty to say, but she hinted that Maharaja Ranjit Singh could decide to reveal the truth to a fellow sovereign.

The King's courier came back, and Lady Margaret was summoned once more. The King looked sad when she entered the room.

'Did you receive bad news, Your Highness?' Lady Margaret inquired with worry.

'The Lion of the Punjab told me what you're doing for Princess Natira,' the King answered softly.

'Are her blood relatives in even more danger than when I met her?' asked Lady Margaret.

The King looked extremely sad when he said, 'She is an orphan now.'

Tears welled up in Lady Margaret's eyes. 'Is she in danger? Should I ask Christopher and Marianne to give her shelter at Delaford?' she asked.

The King shook his head and said, 'She has no legal claim to the province that belonged to her father. I don't think her uncle will try to have her killed. Ranjit Singh informed me that you are freed of your protective mission.'

All tears were instantly gone from Lady Margaret's eyes and she said coldly, 'I can assure you that I have no intention of throwing that poor lamb out of my house and my heart. Her ordeal is something I experienced firsthand. She lost her home, her family, but she will not lose me as a friend!'

'Or me!' the heir apparent exclaimed, thus revealing that he'd been listening to the whole exchange.

Lady Margaret turned to face the Prince and she said, 'Your strategy is far from perfect!'

The Prince realized that he could have helped Natira more by secretly using the information he'd discovered and blushed with deep embarrassment.

The King looked at his beloved son and then at their young, but wise and good, British friend, and he smiled. 'I think I have a much better idea for Princess Natira, but I must confer with the Queen first,' the King said.

The Prince was about to protest vehemently when Lady Margaret hastily grabbed the necklace he wore and forced him to follow her. 'We will find Her Highness and tell her that you wish to talk with her,' she said. She looked at the Prince and added, 'I will make him copy the Art of War once more, as well, Your Highness.'

The King laughed merrily as his heir was unceremoniously dragged away by a British lady.

'What's wrong with you, Margaret?' the Prince protested when they were half-way to the Queen's apartment.

She stopped in the middle of the corridor and quietly said, 'The King, your father, approves of Natira. He's sad for her, and I think he's ready to welcome her on a more permanent basis than as my alleged maid. However, being the good man and loving husband that he is, he cannot decide your marriage without your mother's consent.'

The Prince was at a loss for words.

Lady Margaret started walking again, and he followed her obediently. The Queen was instantly informed of the situation, and she rushed to her husband.

The Prince started copying his strategy book obediently, but Lady Margaret knew there was something bothering him.

'What is on your mind?' she asked him kindly.

'What do we tell Natira?' he murmured.

Lady Margaret still remembered her pain when she lost her father. She sighed deeply and said, 'I think it would be wise to allow your parents to tell her what happened. If she becomes their daughter, maybe her pain will not be as intense.'

'Do you think the Prime Minister might object to my parents' choice?' he asked.

'Your Kingdom doesn't wish to expand. What you need is a Queen as strong as your mother, and she is a valid candidate on that head,' Lady Margaret answered honestly.

'I wish I were as wise as you are,' the Prince said.

Lady Margaret smiled and said, 'It took me years to learn. Take your time, my dear Prince, and remember to listen to your parents - not because they are your parents, but because they are good sovereigns and should be your models.'

He bowed respectfully.

A month later, it was announced throughout the country that Princess Natira would marry the heir apparent a fortnight after the Queen's birthday. Ranjit Singh arranged to have Natira's dowry delivered to the Palace as soon as the good news reached him. The poor Princess cried for hours when she was told that her late father had not only managed to have her escape the siege of their palace, but he had also managed to protect her dowry.

'It looks like you brought me a most unexpected present from your travel in Lahore. Natira will be a charming daughter,' Queen Li told Lady Margaret as they were planning the birthday party and wedding ceremony.

'I am honoured to count queens among my friends, Your Highness,' she answered.

Queen Li's daughter exclaimed merrily, 'You will know two when Natira is my new sister!'

'I will know three, then,' Lady Margaret countered her.

The young Princess didn't understand. Lady Margaret explained, 'You will be a queen one day, too. Will you no longer be my friend then?'

The young Princess had forgotten her future fate. She embraced Lady Margaret and said, 'I'll always be your friend!'

Queen Li and Lady Margaret smiled at each other.

'I am honoured that you like Natira, but I took the liberty to have something from London shipped here for you,' Lady Margaret announced.

'You shouldn't have!' the kind Queen protested.

'Shall I have it shipped back then?' Lady Margaret teased her friend.

Queen Li glared at her, but Lady Margaret's merry smile made her smile in her turn.

A day before Queen Li's birthday, the King called his wife to review a few things.

They were sitting side by side at his desk when the servant at the door announced, 'Captain and Lady Forrester of Singhurst!'

The Queen was surprised because such ceremonious procedures happened only during official meetings - not when she and her husband were planning the details of their eldest child's wedding.

Forrester and Lady Margaret walked into the room. Lady Margaret pretended to look deeply embarrassed.

'Is there anything wrong?' Queen Li inquired with worry.

'Your present arrived today, and it is not something that can wait until tomorrow. Would you be very angry with me if I were to give it to you now?' Lady Margaret asked, pretending to be distressed.

'I would never be angry with you, Margaret!' Queen Li answered honestly.

Lady Margaret beamed at her friend and clapped her hands to give the signal to the servant who, like the King, was on the secret.

Loudly and clearly, the man announced, 'Colonel and Mrs Brandon!'

Queen Li emitted some un-royal little noise.

The Colonel and his wife walked into the room. They each had a child in their arms.

'Welcome, Colonel, Mrs Brandon,' the King said warmly.

'Thank you, Your Highness,' they answered in harmony, as he bowed and she curtseyed.

'You knew!' Queen Li almost shouted at her husband.

'Happy birthday, my beloved Queen,' the King said softly.

Queen Li beamed at him and caressed his hand as she walked around his desk to greet their new guests.

Lady Margaret and Forrester took their nephew and niece from their parents, and the Colonel and Marianne could shake hands with the Queen. In fact, Queen Li was so moved that she held Marianne and then Christopher; she was crying and laughing at the same time.

The Queen turned towards Lady Margaret. 'We all conspired together, but it was my idea, Your Highness. I wanted you to see my brother again,' Lady Margaret said.

'Bless you, dear friend,' the Queen murmured.

'There, there, my dearest Queen, don't cry. We must introduce you to our two miracles,' Brandon said.

'You didn't tell me you were expected a second child!' the Queen exclaimed.

'We had already decided we'd come and see you, Your Highness,' Marianne said. 'We wanted our Li to be a surprise.'

'Li?' repeated the Queen.

'Well, Lianne to be exact. Ferrars didn't want to baptize her Li,' Brandon explained.

'You know how our eldest sister can be. I'm convinced she had a hand in Edward's reaction,' Lady Margaret pointed out.

'We call her Li, and when she grows up, she will know all we owe you, Your Highness,' Marianne declared.

Queen Li caressed the cheek of the baby girl, who giggled. She looked at the baby's elder brother.

'This is our first blessing, our son, Alan,' Colonel Brandon said.

Queen Li took the toddler from Forrester's arms, and the boy kissed the Queen's cheek.

The King saw that his wife longed for another child. 'You will have grandchildren to keep you entertained soon,' he reminded her.

The Queen blushed.

The King smiled at his beloved wife.

'Is everything well at Delaford?' Queen Li asked her guests, as their party walked to the garden for tea.

'Absolutely,' the Colonel told her. 'We will stay here for two months. We can tell you in detail everything that happened since I announced to you my wedding.'

'Our dear Li shared your letters with us. I almost have the feeling that I know you,' the King said.

'Thank you, Your Highness,' Brandon said.

'I understand that you must take care of Delaford, but why will you leave so soon? I am delighted that you came to visit, but you could travel back later,' Queen Li told her friends.

'Something unexpected happened,' Brandon said.

Queen Li looked at her old friend closely and noticed that his cheeks looked slightly coloured.

'We must be back at Delaford within four months, Your Highness. That is what I promised our physician; otherwise he refused to let me go with Christopher,' Marianne explained.

'There seems to definitely be something in the air,' Queen Li declared merrily.

'I wonder if Elinor might share our condition,' Lady Margaret said happily.

Queen Li looked at her husband and said, 'I cannot tell if your eldest sister is blessed, as well, however I know that I am.'

In an instant, the King was kneeling by his wife, thanking her profusely for such a gift. When he realized that it might be a dangerous condition for her, she told him that the midwife she'd called in secret had no fear.

'Men can be so worried,' Lady Margaret said.

The ladies started talking about their physicians and respective husbands, a situation which prompted said husbands to flee to the stables to admire the King's best horse.

For a few weeks, the country would be the happiest place on earth. The sovereigns were blessed with gentle children - and were bound to have one more in a few months. Their friends were weaving links between the kingdom and the Empire, and those steady bonds would thrive even when the Brandons and the Forresters were back to their homeland.

When Christopher Brandon was saved by a young princess, he could not have imagined that her friendship would allow him to find happiness.

He could not have imagined either that the younger sister of his wife would have such an important role to play for the Empire - and for the country of adoption of his dear Li.

Alan, Lianne and Andrew Brandon grew up receiving letters from far away countries.

The day Christopher gave Lianne away to a nephew of Captain Chester, the bride received gifts from three queens and a princess - Li and her daughters had made sure their presents would arrive on time.

Warmed by Marianne's love, Colonel Brandon hoped to see many more years, and to send many more happy letters to Queen Li.

Damp weather still made Colonel Brandon ache and remember the day he'd lost his first love and almost died himself, but life had given him all that he desired. Marianne's quiet smile, when they spent their evenings by the fire, told him that she felt the same.

And they lived happily ever after...