“Do you have a wife, Sir Arthur?"
When England looks down, following the input given by the small hand tugging at his doublet, Elizabeth is staring back up at him. Her eyes are serious and her posture rigid due to the elaborate gown Miss Champernowne made her wear today. Part of him still believes it's way too elaborate for a five year old kid, even if she’s royalty.
"I don't, actually," he replies, repressing the impulse to crouch to be at eye-level with the kid. She looks like her mother, he considers. Same face shape and same eyes. Elizabeth's hair is her father's, however, and her personality a strange clash of both her parents’.
"Why? Nanny Katherine told me a man needs a wife to be happy."
England stills, pursing his lips in what he intends to be a thoughtful, maybe even a slightly sad smile. He takes her by the hand and nods with gravity as they walk down the empty corridors of Hatfield House.
“Maybe I just haven’t found the right person,” he concedes, setting aside for a moment that love and being compatible are rarely qualities deemed necessary in political unions.
"When I grow up, I could be your wife then,” Elizabeth says after a moment, small alabaster forehead all wrinkled in concentration. "Would you like that?”
“I am certain you will be an exquisite companion.”
Elizabeth’s little hand is warm in his. Part of him even believes what he’s just said; if the blossom is an indication of the plant that'll grow, Elizabeth is bound to be a wonderful woman.
“However, I am afraid it would be impossible.”
It’s cruel to shatter a kid's dreams, but better to do it at the start, than leave someone to dwell in illusions until truth is inevitably slammed in their face. The wrinkles deepen.
Little Elizabeth doesn't belong in the royal court anymore, and members outside the king's entourage, save for a few exceptions, are not meant to know about him. In this case, she’s still a child, no matter how smart and precocious. Moreover, she may regain the title of princess one day and be destined to better matches.
“You must marry someone of your status. I am not, I am afraid. I am but a humble servant.”
After that conversation, five whole months pass. England spends half of them away in foreign courts to maintain diplomatic relationships. The other half, he stays at Hampton Court, at least until he can soothe Henry's gloomy mood after Jane's death. That's when he saddles the first horse and rides out to visit little Elizabeth.
She grabs his hand the instant he has jumped off his horse and practically drags him around, an iron grip, with Miss Champernowne and a couple of maids rushing after them, the complicated gowns limiting their movements.
Of course, England could easily slip free. Instead, he lets little Elizabeth conduct him to the small private chapel in the palace.
Looking over his shoulder, he glances apologetically at the maids, shaking his head as though to assure them that the kid is not bothering him. He actually loves the days when he can visit her. At home, Henry's temperament is often insufferable, and that’s when it doesn't clash with his own with disastrous effect; moreover, poor Mary walks the corridors with the gloom that follows those who have fallen in disgrace once already, and are afraid their power will be stripped from them again.
Elizabeth's shenanigans, albeit rare - if he has to be honest - are a blessing.
"Would milady explain to me what this is about?" England pants, face sweaty and checkered from the sun filtering through the stained-glass window that decorates the chapel.
"I believe it was obvious. I want to marry you," Elizabeth explains, hands on her little hips. "Oh, right on time," she adds with gravity, at the sound of footsteps. Now, on the threshold a chubby priest stands, his face reddened by the effort.
Not allowing him but a couple of steps inside the chapel, England grabs him by the arm and pulls him aside, ignoring for once Elizabeth's protests. A couple of words whispered in the ear, a quick discussion, assures him that this will only be a children’s game, with no value whatsoever.
Only then, England nods. He doubts the priest will ever pull out the story of a pretend marriage between a kid and a member of the household, even if done with the proper formula as Elizabeth intended.
She smiles, radiant and so, so young.
She smiles less and less the following years, always so busy with the studies to which she dedicates herself body and soul.
Looking at her now, almost nine years old, it's strange to believe that child ever existed.
Because Elizabeth is in a bad mood today, an awful mood, actually. Head buried in some Latin poems she already reads with the same facility as English, she answers all attempts at conversation with polite but cold monosyllables.
"You are not wearing your ring this morning, milady," England attempts again, his own attention captured by documents he needs to revise before sunset.
“I will not anymore. It was too small and frankly quite childish.”
Elizabeth doesn’t even lift her head from the table, red curls held by a complicated headpiece. “Besides, marriages are foolish. I will never marry.”
And the last sentence has the tone of a conclusion. She's growing up, growing up so fast.
Tomorrow Elizabeth will be sixteen, nine years since she’s been allowed again into the royal court, most of her days spent in reading and studying more than the average woman - or man - does in a lifetime. Growing has only accentuated the sharpness she already had as a kid, and England feels it's time for some revelations. The King agreed, not without some fuss, and he himself would be a fool to believe Elizabeth wouldn’t discover things about his person, if she hasn't already.
"May I have a word, your highness?" he asks, lightly tapping on the door to have her attention. She’s always engaged in some reading, whether poems or philosophical or political treaties, and there's a certain grimace on her face for having been disturbed. Once Elizabeth doted on him like on an older brother. Now he's barely a servant, who for some reason can sit at the right of the King.
"Will it take long?"
"I would hope not."
Taking a seat without waiting for the princess's permission, England hopes to resolve the question swiftly and painlessly. She's a smart, open-minded woman. She will understand.
And understand she does, almost immediately submerging England in philosophical questions, his presence a blessing for her continuous thirst for knowledge. She asks him to read some poems in old English, which England does, though his pronunciation is still a bit rusty.
More often than not, instead, they talk about what will become of her. Though daughter of the king, she's only third in line and England has learnt better than to sugar-coat things with the princess.
"You will probably marry a young and noble fellow," he tells her. "But one day you may well be crowned Queen."
Given the alternatives, he dearly hopes for it. He hopes while watching a teenage, frequently bed-ridden Edward sit on a throne he has no strength to control. He hopes when Mary's marriage to the king of Spain makes the whole country fear losing freedom.
He hopes, as Elizabeth is crowned Queen, that she'll bring - if not prosperity - at least some years of peace. He bows at her passage, as a servant is supposed to do.
“Do not look at me like that," she says, instead, some time after the coronation. "I am always the same."
She repeats the same sentence again in the following years, though not always in a light mood. Often her eyes are icy with the coldness that derives from conducting a kingdom. Her face is stern with reprimand, feather pen held white-knuckled between index and thumb and an abandoned plate of half-eaten vegetables next to her elbow.
“Like what?” England wonders.
“Like I am still a child.”
“My apologies. I do not want to disrespect you. I suppose I am just a nostalgic man, in the end.”
She will turn thirty in a couple weeks. She's been Queen for already five, but the more he looks at her, the more he sees the kid that once pretended to marry him to make him smile. Sometimes he still expects to hear her cry in the middle of the night after a nightmare, or to have him help her study.
He closes his fists, digging nails into the skin. Get a grip on yourself, he mutters. She’ll grow old, and by the time he realises it, she’ll be dead, if sickness or attempts on her life don’t do the job first.
Sometimes, following Elizabeth from a short distance, a bundle of books and papers under his arm, England can feel the gazes of the courtiers on his person, as they pass by. He hears murmurs, too.
He knows how in the various rooms of the palace, during the continuous chatting that delivers men from one day to the other, courtiers spread around the rumors he must be a bastard of the Queen, for how close she acts toward him and how she dotes on him. Others snicker at the sheer stupidity, cackling loudly and without shame so that everyone can hear. They scream with their drunken mouths about how the Queen must have good taste, to bed such a young, obedient fellow.
"Good taste? You must be out of your mind. Like, have you seen him?"
"I don’t even think she’s a good fuck, that frigid bitch."
This coming from a footman to a fellowman, along the way to the palace kitchens.
Moments later his back hits the cold pavement, hard, as England pins him down with the full strength of a nation. His head reels as his fist connects with the footman’s nose, jaw and cheekbones. Short, erratic blows, in a litany of terrified pleas and of “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you, I'll kill you.”
There’s a pool of blood on the floor by the time a couple guards manage to drag him away from the fool footman, who’s little but a crying mess, his face butchered. There’s blood on England’s hand and his tunic and his hair. Blood all over, and his knuckles hurt. He feels lightheaded, letting the guards guide him to the throne room.
Elizabeth is furious, livid, so much so that the red of her flushed, angry cheeks peers from underneath the layers of white lead. Her nails dig into the armrests of the throne, posture rigid with power.
“Unacceptable. It is unacceptable" she repeats, shaking her crowned head, not even looking at him. "I can expect such behavior from urchins on the streets. But you!" she goes on, filling each word with her disappointment.
It makes England realise. In one second, he realises it all. It feels like having the floor dragged from underneath his feet. She's treating him like an exasperated mother treats a rebellious child. She's treating him like a Queen does, no different from all the Kings and Queens that came before him.
He doesn't like it.
When did it start? When did the daughter become a mother? She was a child, smart, precocious, but still a child, doting on him like a sister does with an older brother.
Of course, he has always known everything would change, that she would grow up, become a woman and get old, just as he would stay the same, a strange creature trapped in between adolescence and maturity.
"He had it coming," he forces out, nails digging into his palms, trying his best not to act like the person she's seeing him as right now. "He crossed the line."
"If we were to execute everyone who crosses the line at the palace, we would be executing half the court."
"Maybe we'd be better off."
This she doesn't answer, just sinking imperceptibly into her throne and dismissing him with a wave of her hand, refusing to look at him until England gets the message and walks backwards toward the door, performing the stiffened bow he can still manage.
He leaves in the evening, taking his horse to the South, claiming some private business he needs to fix as soon as possible. He knows too well this will make Elizabeth even more furious. He doesn't care a bit. She may be the Queen, but he's a living Nation, and he knows which of them will still be around in the distant future.
The salty wind tangles his hair. England never planned to set out to sea after his impromptu escape from the court, but one thing leads to the other and soon he finds himself at the harbor, where his ship lies in wait. It had been a gift from Elizabeth, belonging directly to him, not to the Queen, not to England the nation, but to Arthur Kirkland himself.
She's big enough to sustain a trip across the Atlantic, and yet quite small and manageable, with a handful of faithful men who have been sailing the oceans up and down at his side for years. Some he employed as sailors, and watched them climb to the top as they grew older and their skills improved. They have long learnt their Captain is not a simple human.
England doesn't have a second-in-command to act as a façade for his orders, for men do not willingly obey a boy who looks seventeen and can't even grow a beard.
"Spanish ship to starboard," the lookout announces. Soon a telescope is in England's hands, ready to be pointed at the face of the nation that has been rivaling him at sea for the last ten years. Oh, how his blood boils at the idea of engaging in battle, finally a vent for all the anger and frustration that had been accumulating in his gut for years.
England's ship, however, is not prepared to withstand a direct attack from even one ship of the Spanish fleet. England may be ruthless at sea, but he cares for his crew.
England puts away his telescope. Today must be Spain's lucky day. Still, no one prevents him from following Spain's ship for a while more, being satisfied to stay at a safe distance. Then, he'll go to American lands, and return if needed.
He stays at sea for a couple years: what feels like the blink of an eye, given the way his kind perceives time, keeping updated with court politics by the letters that reach him even in the middle of the Ocean. Elizabeth demands by virtue of her power for his return to the palace, but she also knows too well his presence is needed to keep the Spanish fleet in check. It's a compromise she detests, as England can read in her missives, and which she has to accept nonetheless.
She gives him the cold shoulder for months when he sets foot in the palace again, and it doesn't help that he stays dressed in his sailor garments, hair ruffled and dried by the sea wind, with a swagger he's welcome to have with everyone but the Queen.
"Once, you told me I could do as I pleased," he mutters one day, arms crossed over a pile of documents he is supposed to revise for his own sake. He's already missing the days at sea. A hundred times over, he’d exchange boring treaties and countless lies from supposed allies for storms and weeks of bad wind.
"That regards your faith," Elizabeth reminds him, not even looking up at him, her wrist moving to the rhythm of a new signature. "Do as you please within the boundaries of common sense."
"And who decided what's common sense?"
Rulers just keep changing, and with them, the set boundaries of what he is and is not supposed to do. First there was Henry and his decision to break from the Church, to which England had agreed, because, actually, it was nice to not have to continuously listen to that old fart in the Vatican. Then Mary came, poor, strict, Catholic Mary, and once again England had to reconsider his faith to not be killed by his own ruler. Freedom wasn't a luxury nations could have, after all.
With Elizabeth and her general religious tolerance, it had felt like heaven to finally have a moment of peace after years of civil war. But the instant she dies is the moment the war will start again.
"Besides," he continues, "common sense should dictate you find a suitor and provide the kingdom with an heir."
She doesn't need to speak to let him know he has committed a terrible faux-pas. After a moment, however, she simply huffs.
"Why do you always wear that ring?" she asks, nodding at the simple band England wears around his ring finger, for so long now that he often forgets it’s there. She once had a twin ring, but it got lost somewhere during her childhood.
"It is just an old habit, my Lady," England answers, absentmindedly brushing the metal of the ring with the pad of his thumb, waiting for Elizabeth to comment. When she does, it's not what he expected.
"A gift from a beloved?"
It shouldn't be a surprise, really, that she doesn't remember what happened, so many years ago. In perspective, it would be like him pretending he knew the day by day routine from when he was still a toddler. It hurts nonetheless. Though it was only a joke, a kid’s game, it gave them some sort of bond.
It doesn't matter now.
Not when there are more pressing subjects - deciding an heir, above all.
Suitors pass, come and go, but they never stay. "I belong to my people," Elizabeth often says. More often than not, any discussions about heirs and marriages leave her in a terrible mood. It doesn't help that she's recovering from smallpox.
"Do you realise what will happen when you die, if you don't nominate an heir?" England insists, pacing nervously around the room, still sleep-deprived from the days when Elizabeth's illness was at its peak. The Lords of the Parliament have prayed to him to make her see reason.
Of course, he can try, but, as he reminds them, she's the Queen of England, and so he must still obey.
"Do not worry. I do not plan to die anytime soon." Elizabeth is tired from her convalescence, but there is still iron in her voice.
"You will die, though," England mutters to himself.
It has always been like this, and it will remain like this until the end of time. It's in moments like this, when his boss is walking on the edge of death, that England understands it the most, the Fate of his life now and forever. At the same time, he wants to trust his Queen a little bit more, trust that her - and his - demise is still far away. He bows, not knowing anymore what he is, whether he’s a father, a brother, or a son.
"Fine. I'll leave you now."
As he's about to walk his way to the door, Elizabeth calls him back. There's nothing sentimental in it, just the need to start revising some treaties that she was forced to ignore while sick. Yet, it's something.
He takes a chair. Elizabeth's Fate is to rule and one day die; England's is to obey and survive, but for a while he can set the thought aside. He gathers some more papers. "Very well. I'm at your service, my Queen."