Parliament met as it always did in their designated wing of the palace, at the traditional time, in the cool of the day. Centuries ago their Genovian ancestors would have enjoyed crackling fires in great stone hearths and long, leisurely dinners with music, delicacies, mead and spiced wine after a day of managing their manors and their estates. This tradition was second only to the coronation itself, Mia remembered Lady Jacoby drilling into her during her stint on state history.
Official meetings of Parliament took place once a month and were formal, highly styled affairs. The Queen and her consort would welcome and greet each robed, powder-wigged member in turn, read from the Genovian Book of Common Prayer, and formally open the session. Genovia's business would come first, and could last anywhere from one to three hours, depending on the state of the country at the time. Then wigs and robes were set aside to reveal formal evening dress, and a seven-course meal followed, an opportunity for the Queen to honor her advisors for their dedicated service.
Mia looked very well that night, in a dress of ice-blue velvet that clung demurely to curves that were slowly reemerging after months of nervous lack of appetite. She walked calmly into the Wing of Parliament with a quick, confident step, paused as the members paid her reverence, and paid the opening addresses with a clear sweet voice that rang of authority.
Could she possibly be getting the hang of this?
Nick was there, of course, at his uncle's right hand; he even looked good in that silly wig. His skin was tan beneath the white powdered hair, and his eyes looked twice as blue…
Focus, she told herself sharply, and switched quickly back to the issues at hand—and to Andrew, who'd accompanied her, as usual. Her eyes flickered over him anxiously, as if trying to reassure herself that yes, the man she'd married was superior to Nicholas in every way.
Andrew wore sober dark evening dress, and the national seal of Genovia was pinned to his lapel as his only ornament. Under the lights his light brown hair shone, perfectly arranged as usual. Mia realized with a start that this had been the first time she'd seen her husband out of uniform at a formal event. During previous meetings he'd always come in full RAF military dress, as if reminding them all of his origins, but today—
"The Prime Minister asks for her Majesty's permission to proceed with this session of Parliament," came a voice sudden and loud, in her ear. Andrew poked her subtly, and she jumped.
"What? Fine. Go on," she responded, then winced at the PM's expression and switched to French, the formal language of all Genovian state affairs. "I mean, sorry."
The Prime Minister eyed her a bit skeptically, but he continued, and Mia forced herself to relax. Andrew and his new position would be formally offered by the Minister of Defense near the end of their session.
She had no idea why she was so antsy. The Minister of Defense had assured her that it would go off without a hitch. It was unprecedented for the Royal Consort to actually take a position in Parliament, but there was no law against it. Mia studied her husband's face, but it was unreadable. As business was conducted, the faint, polite interest on his face never waned. He barely even blinked.
When the time came, the Minister of Defense stood, asked Mia for permission to approach the bench. She did so, and with a flourish, the man bowed before both she and Andrew, then made his proposal in terms that were both respectful and correct. The Genovian ministry of defense, he said, raising his voice so that the entire assembly could be heard, would be honored to have His Highness in an advisory position on staff. His vast experience with the RAF would be naught but an asset, and—
Mia tuned him out as she prepared to lift the skirt of her dress and descend the throne. She'd have to outfit Andrew in a moment, swear him into Parliament, and…oh, there was Andrew, standing up. She'd have to move a little faster, now. Here it was—
Wait. He wasn't answering.
Mia's eyes widened slightly. She looked significantly at her husband, as if to say, now's your part. His blue-grey eyes were calm and inscrutable; he tilted his head, as if trying to collect his thoughts.
"Do you need a translator, your highness?" came a mumble from Nick's side of the room; there was a nervous, stifled laugh, one that ended immediately when Andrew looked directly at the culprit. Mia felt her cheeks flush, but she managed to contain her anger. Andrew waited a moment to speak and when he did, it was in grammatically perfect, if slightly accented French.
"Lord Minister," Andrew said simply, inclining his head towards first the Minister of Defense, then the assembly and finally, Mia. "I am not unaware of the honor, but I must respectfully decline."
It took a moment for this to register; and when it did, everyone blinked.
"I'm sorry, my Lord Duke?" the Minister stuttered a bit.
"I must decline." Andrew spoke slowly now, as if to a child. "Sir, I fear that you overestimate my level of participation in the Royal Air Force. I was a mere flight lieutenant."
The silence in the room was deafening, and Andrew continued, speaking easily, calmly. "I am the Queen's consort, Lord Minister. My time now would be best spent learning and experiencing your culture and your country. I do not know that the Genovian people would welcome a foreigner making decisions on national military matters, at least not yet. There is plenty of time for me to prove my worth to Genovia. Her Highness has decades of rule ahead of her, and God willing, I will be here to support her during them all."
With that, he bowed deeply, receded from the bench, and took his seat, not looking at Mia, not looking at anyone.
"Well," the Minister of Defense said. He floundered, a bit helplessly, looked at Mia, looked at the floor, looked back at his fellow members. This was not going according to script. "Her Highness will now make closing remarks," he finally belted, and hurled himself back into his seat.
Mia stood and did so, feeling faint.
Dinner after the session that night was quite subdued. Nobody knew the entire story, but everyone knew that the Queen was troubled. She offered the first course twice, dropped her salad fork, and spilled a glass of wine. Andrew, at the foot of the table, witnessed this but was helpless to do anything. Instead, he sighed and focused on his food. Her reaction was as expected, after all.
He knew that from the moment he'd made the decision, late the night before when Mia had first brought her proposal to his attention—the kind, well-meant, but utterly, utterly naive plan. What had his wife been thinking? And why had her ministers allowed her to make such a blunder?
He could have stopped it the night before, of course, had her call the Minister of Defense and order him to never offer the position. However, that would have been worse, he reasoned. Rumors that the Monarch and her consort were not in accord would spread like wildfire. Better that it all happen out in the open, that all potential blame would rest on him alone. It would be a public relations goldmine—he would be painted as humble, Mia as generous. If only, he thought, catching her stormy-eyed gaze at the head of the table, she would be able to recognize that…
She looked away, and he was forced to do so as well when someone began speaking to him.
"Nice work, Prince Andrew."
He jumped a bit. "Pardon?" he said in English without thinking. Dinner conversation, per tradition, was in French as well. Dashed inconvenient if you asked him.
"I said, nice dealing today." The speaker was Nicolas Devoraux. Andrew had been so engrossed in his own thoughts he hadn't noticed that the young man had been seated directly to his left. "Should I speak English?" he asked, with a grin.
"Non," Andrew said coolly, eyeing Nicolas with some trepidation, remembering his earlier crack. His dealings with Nicolas had been small, and at state events he rarely spoke to him. Now, though, the latter rattled on in French so rapid and so peppered with Genovian slang that it was a bit hard to follow.
"I think they sat us together because we're the youngest guys in the room," Nicolas said, flashing Andrew a wry smile.
"Indeed?" Andrew didn't even try to smile. He looked at Nick frankly, trying to honestly see what Mia saw in him. The younger man was fairly good-looking, he supposed. He had all his teeth and had a full head of hair, both things that young women held in fairly high esteem. He didn't spit when he talked.
"I admire your decision today," Nick was saying, lifting and lowering his dark eyebrows as he spoke. If he had a mustache, Andrew thought idly, he'd be twirling it. "Not many people can admit they are a bit out of their element."
"Indeed?" Andrew asked icily, reaching for his brandy glass. He'd chosen a good whisky instead of wine that night; he'd a premonition that he'd need it. "Is that how you saw it, then?"
What an ass, Andrew thought, taking a long sip. By the time he lowered his tumbler he had his answer, though. "My service is to the Queen and the Queen alone."
"And I suppose Genovia has little to do with that."
"The Queen is Genovia, Lord Devaroux."
"It's a pity not everyone thinks that way."
At that, Andrew leaned back. "If you're insinuating something, do say it. Otherwise don't sully your own name by speaking like a…" he wanted to say traitor, but that did seem a little dramatic. What was this, the 1700s? "…a person who opposes the monarchy, "he finished lamely. God. That sounded even worse.
"Your wife," Nicolas was saying slowly, ignoring him, "would do well to listen to both sides of the story. I know that you—" and with this he sniffed a bit—"—are a traditionalist, but Genovia is changing. Genovians are changing. Your wife—pardon me, the Queen, would do well to acquaint herself with her people."
Andrew studied the younger man for a moment. He was ambitious, it was clear. Clever. Well-informed, and clearly with some influence.
Nicolas seemed unperturbed by the scrutiny. "Just trying to help, your highness," he added, affably. "After all, I've also sworn my allegiance to her. For better or for worse, right?"
Andrew flushed. Before he could answer, sudden movement from the head of the table told him that Mia was moving the party into the after-dinner lounge for port and cigars.
Everything else would have to be said later.
"I wish you'd say something."
It was hours after Parliament had met, and the royal couple had long since dismissed the last of the staff for the night. Mia had crept into Andrew's room on the pretense of texting Lily ("You get better reception,") and had long since changed position on her husband's large bed, sliding under the covers when the room had grown chilly. She still hadn't spoken to him, though.
"Are you angry with me, Amelia?"
Mia didn't answer for a long while; instead she propped herself up on her elbow, rested the flat of her palm on his face. Hers was tired, withdrawn, and more than a little sad; instinctively he leaned in to kiss her, but she shook her head.
"I didn't know it wasn't right, what I offered," she said, and her voice was so cool and emotionless that it made him sit up. "I'm sorry."
"Amelia. Let me explain."
"I don't want to talk about it." Her slender shoulders were hunched, and she hadn't met his eyes. "You coddled me. You knew you weren't going to accept."
He couldn't disagree with that, and so he didn't "Amelia—"
"Nick," she said, and her voice was calm, "manipulated me, Andrew. Maebry did, too. And in a sense, so did Grandma." She met his eyes then. "I don't think I can take it if you do the same."
Andrew recoiled as if from a snake; he actually felt as if she'd punched him in the gut. "Mia, I would never—"
"Then don't. I'm not as…subtle as you all are, okay?" her voice was becoming stronger, more frustrated with each word. "I don't get the fine nuances of this job. But I'm not going to get it if you all treat me like I'm some sort of brainless puppet—"
"Anyway," she cut him off, outburst over as quickly as it began, "it doesn't matter."
Silence hung between them for a moment, thick and long; then, he sighed. He could explain himself, but she had a point—and suddenly, his carefully convoluted plan didn't seem so brilliant any more. He could have easily told her, despite the excuse he'd given himself. Had he been trying to show her up, to make himself feel….well….
He shifted the thought away, forcing himself to speak. "I'm glad you were honest with me. And I am sorry."
Mia peered at him hard from beneath the dark-brown fringe of her hair; then, she lowered her head to the pillow. He hesitated before touching her shoulder.
"What are you thinking?"
She shook her head once as if to say, no more."I forget how this is sometimes," she said quietly, and her voice was almost lost in the pillows.
"This. How this feels." She lifted a hand and waved it briefly, indicating them. "Sometimes—during the day, when we're working, I think about you. But I can't remember how it feels, exactly. Not until at night when we're alone, and I remember why I wanted to so badly—" she broke off, suddenly realizing that perhaps she sounded more than a little crazy. Why was she rambling?
Andrew was silent for a minute, but his arms tightened. Perhaps he understood, after all. She sighed, closed her eyes, and for the first time that day her body relaxed.
"Amelia. About today—" he began—
She shook her head. "l don't want them in our bed, Andrew. Please?"
"I just wanted to explain—"
"Not here. Let's make an agreement never to… talk shop here, okay?"
"Tomorrow, maybe," Mia whispered, and there was a sudden urgency in her voice that stopped him, despite the fact that he had much to say. "Please, Andrew. It's peaceful here. Not here."
"If you wish…" his voice hitched for a moment, for his wife's lips were on his neck now, and one long bare leg was sliding between his.
"This is probably the dumbest thing I'm going to say all day," she said softly against his skin—and Christ, her lips were soft- "but…sometimes when we're together, sometimes I pretend I'm an average Genovian newlywed, with a handsome, slightly uptight, ridiculously posh husband—"
"What!" he sat half-up. "I'm not—!"
"Shsh." Mia laughed softly. "You're a snob, Drew. It's the truth. Get over it. Anyway—"
"You're a newlywed," Andrew said dryly, picking up the narrative thread and rolling his eyes. "…with a rakishly handsome English husband of the landed gentry that you're absolutely mad for…"
Mia hit him with her pillow, and he laughed out loud, pulling her close. She wriggled from his grasp and half-straddled him, trying to catch her breath. "Listen to me when I talk, sir," she ordered a little breathlessly, still grinning.
His hands slid down to her hips, bunching fabric upwards as they went. "I'm not required to at night," he quipped, and grinned.
A peculiar expression crossed her face, but it was gone in a moment when he tugged her hair gently, then pulled her face down to meet his in a kiss. Her mouth sought his just as eagerly; then, she sighed.
"Christ, I wish I'd met you at university," she said softly, as his fingers began creeping up her spine, and now-familiar tendrils of liquid warmth started pooling deep inside. "Or…" It was harder to talk now. "…somewhere else," she managed.
He chuckled, low. "You wouldn't have given me the time of day."
"Probably." Mia's breath hitched once as his fingers dropped below her waist, flicking damp fabric aside, stroking her hard exactly where she wanted him to; she had ceased to be embarrassed in their more intimate moments. Sometimes being with him was as easy as breathing, and this was shaping up to be one of those moments. "I'm glad all this happened, then." And it was hard, she thought, to remember Nick in moments like this. Or anything else.
He said nothing, only made a sound deep in his throat, shifted once. His wife let out a half-gasp, half whimper he knew so well now, and he knew the conversation was over. Very well. He didn't have the words to tell her how much he was beginning to care for her, but….
His wife. First and foremost. He'd been right to do what he did, he told himself.
"Tomorrow you take the day off," he said quietly, running the thumb of his free hand over her lower lip. "Fly with me? I haven't been out in weeks."
"Fine," she husked out, and he supposed with a faint smile that all was forgiven, at least for now.