It’s a long, summer’s evening – finally, the humidity’s given way to a more pleasant heat, tempered by a light breeze. It’s the kind of night that could last forever, and none of them would complain. There are precious few of them left. The end of term’s approaching fast, and at the end of this summer, everything could change.
Of course, everything could change tonight, too, but nobody’s thinking that for now. They have reached a stasis, a peculiar stillness that even Arthur is keeping to, as he lies on his front in the long grass, watching a caterpillar make its way across the lawn. Douglas, headphones on and eyes closed, is leaning back in his garden chair, fingers occasionally twitching to betray the fact that he’s doing his piano practice, in the very lax way Douglas ever actually practices anything (ie, with the minimum amount of effort.) Martin and Theresa are sharing the swing-seat, her leaning her head on his shoulder and one of his arms wrapped around her. Next to them, there’s a discarded pile of aviation handbooks, because both are studying for their pilot’s licenses. By rights, Theresa could have taken her test by now, but Martin’s still a few weeks’ shy of his eighteenth birthday, and they’ve always said they’ll do it together, on the same day.
This is the kind of promise that Douglas mocks them for on a regular basis, but they’ve got used to ignoring him. They’d still be studying, but the light is starting to wane and Martin is mortally afraid of straining his eyes, lest poor sight disqualify him from flying. So the books have been stacked up, and the garden swing rocks them slowly back and forth. From the house, Arthur’s mother and her boyfriend, Hercules, would be able to marvel at the peaceful little group, if they weren’t too busy quibbling over meat-or-meatless lasagne to look out of the window.
The quiet is broken, though, by the sudden trill of Theresa’s mobile. Martin shifts his arm so she can reach it from her jeans pocket, but one glance at the screen later, Theresa is on her feet and separating herself from the group, treading the slightly overgrown grass of Carolyn’s garden as she listens to whoever is calling.
“Who’s she talking to?” Arthur asks, lifting his head from the site of his caterpillar watch.
Martin shrugs. “Didn’t see.” From the sounds of it, Theresa is speaking her native German, so the caller must be a family member. Two years of being her boyfriend have lent Martin a fair grasp of the language, but not one he cares to use for eavesdropping. So much so that even now, he doesn’t know an awful lot about her family. To be fair, Theresa herself has never met her father, so any extra knowledge on Martin’s part would be weird.
Douglas emerges from his musical cocoon with a sigh, pulling his headphones off and pausing playback. “Damn it. Can’t get that end section.”
“Maybe you should try practicing on an actual piano for once.” Martin says, pointedly.
“I do,” says Douglas. “When the mood strikes me. But music is just better out of doors.”
“You could get an electric keyboard,” Arthur pipes up. “Then you could play outdoors all the time!”
“Not a bad idea,” Douglas muses. “I could serenade the lovebirds whenever I wanted, then.” He raises his eyebrows in Martin’s direction. “Or have you scared her off at last?”
Martin gestured behind Douglas. “She’s on the phone.”
“Do you think a caterpillar knows,” Arthur asks, then, “When it’s time to go and do the next bit? You know, in the sausage thing.”
“Chrysalis,” Martin supplies.
“Does it know? Or does it just happen?”
Douglas hums. “I can’t say it’s something I’ve ever looked up. But I assume it just happens. Instinct.”
“I hope they know.” Arthur says, slowly. “It’s better to know what’s next.”
“But you love surprises,” Martin counters.
“Not all the time.”
Martin puts down a foot to stop the swing, and leans forward. “Is this about Herc’s job?”
Arthur picks a blade of grass, then discards it. “No.”
“Because you know your mum won’t make you move to Switzerland, if you don’t want to. She’ll work something else out.”
“Mmm. Probably.” Arthur doesn’t take his eyes off his caterpillar. Martin and Douglas exchange glances, but say nothing.
“Chuck me a book, then,” Douglas says eventually. “I’ll test you.”
Martin frowns, but hands him one of the textbooks anyway. “Don’t hurt your eyes.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Douglas says smoothly. “Plenty of doctors wear glasses. Some of us are going in for proper professions, you know.”
Martin ignores the jibe, and listens for his first test question.
Some time later, when Douglas is reaching the dreaded Protocols section, Theresa returns. Or rather, she heads back towards them, call terminated and phone pocketed, but stands on the edge of the group rather than returning to her seat. Her arms are folded across her chest, and she looks uncharacteristically…ruffled.
“Theresa?” Martin asks, looking up at her in concern. “What’s up?”
She meets his eyes, and hers are wide open, as though startled. “That was my mother. My father is dead.”
Her three friends attempt to take this in, with various degrees of success. Douglas curses. Arthur gapes. Martin tries to form words, but only a few vague syllables come out, something about being sorry, but Theresa isn’t listening.
“There’s more,” she says, her usually confident voice almost hesitant for once. “I found out his name.”
“What is it?” Douglas asks.
She draws a deep breath. “Franz Joseph the Second.”
“The second what?” Arthur asks, curious.
“The second…of Liechtenstein.” Theresa says, quietly.
Martin’s mouth falls open. “What! As in—?!”
“He was the king,” she says, and finally her voice catches properly, the disbelief and consternation palpable. “I’m…”
“You’re a princess,” Douglas finishes for her.
And there, in the dying glow of the evening, everything changes forever.
It suddenly occurred to me that this has a second chapter! Actually, it’s had a second chapter for over a year, ‘cause I wrote it for Summer Christmas 2019. I think the timeline works for it to be a follow-on but if not it’s just from a very similar AU.
“Hamlet,” said Douglas eventually, putting down his Spark Notes, “was a bit of a prat.”
Martin glanced up from his laptop. “What an original take. Full marks to Douglas.”
“I don’t hold it against him. It’s something he shares with almost everyone.”
“Except you, you mean.”
“No, I’m willing to concede multiple exceptions. Take Arthur, for example.”
Douglas held out his hand in the direction of their friend, who was currently trying to entice a shiny beetle into climbing aboard his French vocabulary book. “If someone killed Arthur’s father and tried to seize his kingdom, Arthur wouldn’t stand around gabbling about whether ‘to be or not to be’. He’d know exactly what to do.”
Martin looked sceptical. “Would he?”
“Of course. He’d come and ask me.”
“Ah, I walked right into that one.”
“You did, rather.” Douglas indicated Martin’s laptop. “How goes the essay?”
“Well, thanks to you, I’ve accidentally typed the word ‘prat’ twice in the last paragraph. I was on a roll, too. I sort of relate to Hamlet.”
“What, because you’re a—”
“No,” said Martin firmly. “I mean because his life was sort of turned upside down by a royal household….”
“Ah,” said Douglas, “And the death of a king, more so. Have you heard from her?”
“Not since Wednesday.” Martin sighed. “I’m going to Liechtenstein after exams are finished, though. If they haven’t let her come back.”
“On your own?”
“Well, who else is going to come?”
Douglas glanced over at Arthur again. “I can think of two people.”
“Well, because she’s my girlfriend, and… well, I just hadn’t thought of it.”
Douglas put on a wounded expression. “I’ll have you know that Theresa is my friend entirely independently of you. And Arthur’s not going to give up the chance to visit a castle.”
“Carolyn will never let him come.”
“She will. She trusts me.”
Martin raised his eyebrows. “If you believe that, you’re the prat.”
“No, she does. And what’s more, if she ever pours poison in Gordon’s ear, you can bet she’ll let me in on the scheme.”
Martin chuckled. “Hmmm. Gertrude and Claudius, though. Same initials but the other way round.”
“He was a clever one, that Shakespeare bloke.” Douglas picked up his book again. “Right, back to work. This act isn’t going to memorise itself.”