Anna Margaret was shown into the villa by a couple of security men in tracksuits. They had recognised her, of course. George had not even had to act all official. They seemed to know whom she had come to see, because without asking her for her purpose or identification, they took her to something that looked like a crossover between a sitting room and a study. She was glad, because part of her had been fearing during the flight that she would be turned away at the door, which would make her trip to Italy useless and mortifying.
She took the liberty of sitting down and waited. George had made himself scarce with the security men. At times like these, when he was not fully behind her decisions, he behaved as if being her secretary was an insignificant position, with no power and no responsibilities, and certainly no desire to share in the fallout. He had had to obey and come with her, but he was clearly not going to stand beside her if His Majesty King Frederick exploded.
This made Anna Margaret wonder if he was likely to explode because she had come here.
She met him once a week, usually, unless one of them was out of the country, but he had always been rather unexcitable. Of course the topics they discussed could be considered boring and they never really inspired excitement in some people. She could understand that. He could give his opinion on them, but he had no power, so he rarely exerted himself to say more than what was required. But how would he react to something personal? She did not know.
Compared to his father, with whom she had dealt for a few months until he died, he spoke less. Of course contrary to the old man he might not think himself qualified to give his opinion yet. The old king had spoken his mind often. He had had definite ideas on what should be done or decided. Anna Margaret had always felt as if he considered himself the only reliable and well-informed factor, what with politicians changing every so often. And a woman especially had needed to be told what he thought.
His son, on the other hand, had never behaved in a patronising manner simply because she was female. At least, she did not think he would have been involved more if the prime minister had been a man. Not more, not less. He never used his lecturing voice for masculine subjects like military action. He simply assumed it had all been discussed with experts and he did not count himself among those.
Clearly she had not feared anything when she had had George book plane tickets, but now that she was actually here, she wondered. Of course King Frederick could explode politely. That was also an option. Some sort of stately implosion. He might change colour and have smoke come out of his ears. But it was really difficult to imagine.
The next to appear was another man in jogging trousers. He was not wearing any shoes, only socks, and his moist-looking hair stood on end. He pushed his glasses a little further up his nose and addressed her. "To what do we owe the honour, Madam Prime Minister?"
She looked slightly confused as she stood up. "I beg your pardon?" She had not expected one of the security men to come and ask her this question. Perhaps not all reasons for visiting were good enough and they first had to be vetted.
"Is this the yearly 'go forth and procreate' chat?" the man inquired, flopping himself on the sofa.
She decided tentatively that perhaps he was not one of the security men, although he was dressed exactly like them. His tone, however, was far more insolent than they would dare to use. It was stupid of her not to recognise him, but was it really her fault? "You wear glasses?" When she saw him normally, he wore a suit, his hair was neatly combed and he did not wear glasses. He appeared to have changed everything he could change, down to not wearing shoes.
"It is I, LeClerc," he said with a mock French accent, taking off his glasses for a second. "So, you flew all the way to Italy to remind me of my responsibilities to the people?"
She curtseyed belatedly. "Er, no -- Your Majesty." She supposed she should say that, although he had not reacted to her impolite question about the glasses.
He nodded that she could sit down again. "Your father started this, you know. All his successors did the same."
Anna Margaret was at a loss for words. She was not usually struck dumb by the powerful and the wealthy; she had seen far too many of them by now. But they were not usually disguised. Perhaps she had expected him to be studiously casual in his spare time, but certainly not unkempt. It was difficult to address such a person with the obligatory reverence. His hair! Could he not have brushed it when he was told he had a visitor? She decided he either did not care, or he meant to shock her by leaving it uncombed like that. But what purpose could he have with that?
"I expected no less from you," said His Majesty. "But what else could it be?"
"You've not followed the news, Your Majesty?" Anna Margaret inquired. It would be easier if he had some clue. It would save her unnecessary explanations. And unnecessary explanations, she felt, would not go down well.
"I'm on holiday."
He was a bad liar, she decided, or perhaps she was simply good at spotting a lie. He knew very well what she was here for. In spite of nearly always appearing uninterested, he did seem to keep up with the news and he had likewise read about this issue. He knew what had brought her here, although he might not have known it would bring her here. He might simply have expected a mention next week. "There's something I'd like to talk to you about," she said briskly. He might not like her visit, but she was not going away until she had spoken. Unless he called in security, she could and would speak, or else she had come for nothing.
"And it couldn't wait until I get back?"
"No." She had decided it could not.
He inclined his head slightly. "They've been giving you a rough time. Who knows, I might have done the same in your position. Nothing like a mini-break to Italy, right? Lovely spring weather and a beach."
"I'd like to get down to business straight away, if you don't mind, Your Majesty. The sooner I'll be in my hotel."
"Oh, you're not staying?" He feigned disappointment. "That's fine. May I offer you a drink?"
She did not think she wanted any liquor or anything else he had to offer. She had to keep a clear head. "No, thank you."
He poured her a glass of water regardless and took one himself as well. She was secretly glad for the water. The few sips on the plane had been the last drink she had had. George was no doubt indulging in as much drink as he wanted, but he would not think of getting her any. "Well, as you know," she began. "There's been some uproar about this young woman who claims you're the father of her child -"
"Weren't there three of them?" he interrupted, betraying at least some knowledge of what was in the tabloids. "Or have two of them seen sense and withdrawn those claims?"
"Three, yes, but only one was underage when it occurred, and as you know, this is a bit of a problem." And it could get worse if the discussion about class justice really got underway. Some people were already suggesting he would not be punished because of who he was. She did not want to have to explain all that to him. Someone had probably already told him already, if he had not read it himself.
"When she says it occurred," he corrected her.
"You deny..." She was hopeful, but a second later she realised everyone was likely to start out with a denial. Only when they could no longer avoid it would people confess. It meant absolutely nothing at this stage of the conversation.
His eyes began to gleam. "I was going to say, I never had....and so forth, but that's what they all say, isn't it? And then it turns out they're lying. Though in my case it's the truth. I never."
"You could do a paternity test." In fact, she had never understood why the Palace had not turned to that option straight away. All they did was deny or say no comment, making everyone think he was indeed guilty of whatever they accused him of. And after the first woman, two more had appeared, as if it was contagious. In fact, without serious action against all the claimants, it probably was.
"I could," he agreed. "In fact, I'm not opposed to it at all, in any of the three cases, but my advisers are."
"Why?" she exclaimed, surprised that he was not opposed. She had half expected him to be angry and offended, and reluctant to cooperate. Instead he was calm and, could she say it, rather reasonable.
"It makes one look guilty. Simple denial makes one look innocent, or so they say."
She frowned. "What?" That did not make much sense. Doing a test, especially if it proved he was innocent, did not make him look guilty. "Not wanting to do a test only makes you look guilty if you are guilty."
He shrugged. "I couldn't agree more."
"So you're saying you had nothing to do with any of them?" she asked, before she could give in to relief and positivity.
"And a paternity test would prove you're not the father of their children."
"That leaves one problem, though: this doesn't prove you never slept with a girl who was underage at the time." And that was precisely what all the uproar was all about. People would forgive him for affairs and illegitimate children, but far fewer would condone that.
"I have a certain dysfunction," he winked.
"You do not," Anna Margaret said immediately and she also immediately regretted her insolence. Still, she was sure he was making that up. People who had certain dysfunctions at his age did not wink. They would keep silent about it in embarrassment.
"Did we ever...?" he asked uncertainly, gesturing back and forth.
She coloured, even though she knew he was doing it all on purpose. "I can tell you're...not speaking the truth." That sounded more politic than telling him he was lying. She was not very good at tactfully dealing with large egos, which was precisely why she had got her job. People had been fed up with all the manoeuvring. What they did not realise was that she was not carelessly tactless, like the king, but that it always bothered her afterwards. And she blushed sometimes.
"Right. I'm celibate."
"Since when? Last month? Last week? Last night?" She felt he was not taking this as seriously as he ought. He could have any woman he wanted and he was probably more than aware of it. Why should he turn them away?
"Since I realised it was the sensible thing to do."
"I'm not sure you realise the seriousness of the situation." Could she say that to him? Well, no matter - she already had.
"Oh, I do. But damn it, you coming here to question me about it is really making me contrary," he said a little plaintively.
She could understand that, in a way. "I don't suppose you've ever been questioned about anything." She was not sure she had the authority or the courage to question him now either. Their weekly sessions had been strictly about work. He had not always been completely serious or focused, or even polite, but they had never strayed into personal topics. She had never questioned him.
He took up an even more relaxed position on the sofa, pulling up his legs. "I didn't sleep with any of them. I simply don't have the time."
"You go to parties." There were pictures of that. Plenty of them. She was sure that if he showed up at a party, one or more women offered themselves. He did not even have to be attractive if he had a title and money. Today he was more attractive than a few days ago, however, and it was even less believable that he would turn them all down. The way he sat on the sofa, plenty of women would be willing to join him. And he was telling her he would ignore them and push them away?
"And then I go home, because I always get up early. We're running at six tomorrow morning, if you're inclined to join us, by the way."
She was not allowing herself to be sidetracked. "As far as I recall, one of the women spoke of a broom cupboard."
King Frederick looked at her as if he had never heard anything more stupid. "Do I strike you as being so absolutely needy and frustrated that I would consider going into - what exactly is a broom cupboard anyway? Am I supposed to know?" He took out a phone and looked something up. Then he held it out to her.
Anna Margaret had waited patiently. One did not rush a king, she supposed, even if she had already violated etiquette in other ways. There must be limits to his forbearance, however, otherwise protocol, etiquette and the entire monarchy would have been dispensed with long ago.
"This, google says, is a broom cupboard," he said, showing her a photo. "Just exactly where and how...?"
She bit her lip so she would not laugh. This topic was far from amusing and she did not know why she felt the need. Perhaps it was his amazed indignation. "I can't say I have any experience trying."
"I'd be shocked if you did, Madam Prime Minister." He studied the photo again in bemusement. "Really. How?"
"All right, all right, I believe you," she said hastily before he would start speculating. She did not think she could take speculations, especially not from someone in a ridiculously contrary mood. "Not the broom cupboard then. Do you have any idea why they'd make such claims? With so many details? Where do they get the details? Do they invent them?"
"Money? Attention?" he said in a bored voice. "They probably think I'd rather pay fifty grand than investigate the matter. Because, really, if they were truly my children they could get much more than fifty grand out of it."
Anna Margaret had taken out a small notebook and wrote that down. "That's hardly evidence." Although it made sense. Someone who was very certain that he was the father of her child, would aim for a much higher amount. Millions? Yes, probably. There would be millions somewhere. They had not been spent on the inside of this villa, unless there had been no money left after landscaping the grounds.
"It is telling enough, unless you're stupid. The reason is money. I am suspected to have plenty of it."
Then perhaps it really had all been spent on the swimming pool here. "You're also suspected to have plenty of the other it," she pointed out.
"I have never been caught in flagrante delicto, so I'm not sure why anyone would think that. Unless people are simply projecting what they'd do in my position, which is usually strikingly different from someone who lives this life day by day. So many misconceptions." The king shook his head.
"But if you agree to the DNA test, that will be the end of it. Maybe you could sue for defamation at the same time and then women would think twice before they went down this path. But of course that would only work if you really abstained from now on."
His Majesty looked back neutrally. "People who tell me what to do always make me rebellious. They make me want to get some body part pierced, or a tattoo or maybe a gold tooth."
The prime minister was horrified. "You're too old for that," she said. "It's time you -"
He held up a hand to silence her. "--found a woman and produced some heirs? They've been pressing for that for at least fifteen years. Frankly, I think I don't want any children at all."
Anna Margaret said nothing.
"What will you tell Parliament?" he asked, sitting up straighter and evidently nearly done with the interview. "Tell them I'm willing to do paternity tests, but that I'm not ready to marry. At least if I'm seventy I wouldn't have to pretend that marriage is a business arrangement; I would now. All the family photos with happy smiles and all. I'd be tempted to - no, I'd better not tell you. So, six o'clock tomorrow morning?"
"I never said I would!" she protested. What was it again, running?
"You look like you could lose a few pounds," he said critically.
She gaped at him.
He got up. "Six o'clock."
Anna Margaret had a quick dinner with George. When she had told him the king had requested her presence at six the following morning, he had not looked too pleased. He had refused to buy running shoes and clothes around the corner from the hotel like she did, and he looked extremely suspicious when she added swimwear to her pile of purchases. "What?" she asked crabbily. "He has a swimming pool and a beach. I must be prepared."
"You may not be invited for a swim at all," he pointed out.
"No, but if I have no swimwear, I must decline if I do get invited, and I won't be able to keep an eye on what sort of women do attend." But invitation or not, the beach had looked incredibly tempting. She was sure it was at least partially private and there would not be any tourists snapping pictures of well-known politicians carrying just a little too much weight. She was still a little insulted by that remark. Not that anyone would really care about politicians from small countries, but still.
"I didn't see any women," said George. "Security didn't mention any either."
"You're gay; you wouldn't think of bringing them up."
"You're straight, yet you bring them up?"
Point taken. Anna Margaret grumbled a little and took the plastic bag with her purchases up to her hotel room. George had better be ready at a quarter to six or she would wake him - and she would force him to run anyway.
But why did they run so early? And for how long? And why could she not simply ignore the order?
After a look at the clock she went straight to bed.
At five-thirty Anna Margaret took a quick shower, pondered whether to dress in running gear already and tied her hair back. She did not usually go out like that, but no one knew her here.
At a quarter to six, there was a soft knock on her door. George looked awake. He was probably up early at home as well, since he was never late to work. He simply did not look ready to run, but ready for anything else.
"You sure?" she asked him.
"Coffee and a nice view of the beach will do just fine. If anyone calls, what should I tell them?"
She clutched the bag with her other clothes under her arm and wondered who on earth would call so early on a Saturday morning - and why this was different from any other moment since she had been appointed. He had managed to survive not attending meetings she was in, too, by taking notes or asking people to ring back. "If it's an emergency, planes going down, bombs going off, I suppose you will need to come running after us. If it's something else, you can just tell them I'm running and I'll be back eventually."
"With the king."
Oh, so that was the problem. He could not bring himself to say she was running with the king, but he did not have to. "You don't have to mention him. I don't know if he's going. I wouldn't put it past him to let me show up in running tights and then have a laugh at how foolish or fat I am."
George either had no opinion of women in running tights or he chose to keep it to himself. He also did not care about reassuring her.
"I suppose his security staff are going, though," she continued. "I suppose they must keep fit."
"Yes, they seemed very fit."
"The king implied that I was not fit." She could not keep a small degree of indignation out of her voice and until someone reassured her on this point she might keep bringing it up.
"If he worked as much as you did, Madam Prime Minister, he would also be less fit."
That was not exactly what she wanted to hear. "Damn, George, you're supposed to say that for my age and position in life, I'm exceptionally fit and well-built."
"Oh." They had reached the car park and he unlocked the car. "Do you think the king will serve breakfast?"
"Men only think of food, don't they? He didn't say. Do you mean my predecessor -" Anna Margaret knew George had worked for one other before her, "-- never visited the king in his hideouts with you? What's standard procedure?"
"The previous prime minister would never have flown out to see the previous king in this manner," George said with his lips pursed. He had had to obey this time, but it was clear he had his reservations about the necessity.
"I suppose the previous king never gave any occasion for it," she shot back. He was making it sound as if she was doing something unthinkable. All she had done was arrive unannounced. What was so bad about that?
"This one is indeed not his father. But, he does not have any children?"
She had told him that last night. "That's what he says. He says he may not want any at all."
George gasped. That was a dereliction of duty for sure.
The gates of the villa opened automatically when they came closer. Someone was apparently waiting for them. It made Anna Margaret feel a little more reassured that the run was indeed going to take place. Another man in a tracksuit opened the front door for them. It seemed to be a uniform of sorts around here. She watched him closely to see if he was the king, but his hair colour was different. And of course he would not be opening the door himself.
Then three nearly identically clad men appeared, all wearing sunglasses. They looked to be too fast for her and she tried to come up with a good reason to wriggle out of the running party. "Er..." she began, slightly visually overwhelmed. She spent too much time around older men in suits, if younger men in running tights had this effect on her - and she definitely spent too much time around old men if she considered these men young. "Are you all going? Because I'm fairly sure I'll be slowing you down and His Majesty said I was too fat and -"
There was a suppressed snort from one of the identical trio, but he stepped aside. The middle one removed his sunglasses and squinted at her. "What's this backtracking? They say you've got balls."
So he was the middle one. She saw him smirk, but she did not immediately know what to respond. Surely formality was not required if he began about balls? It was Saturday, of course, and he might be off-duty. "Well, anyway, my secretary would like a cup of coffee and a view of the sea. He opted out of the run."
George looked embarrassed. Or perhaps he was shocked that she did not bow and wait until she was spoken to.
King Frederick, if that was indeed him, put his sunglasses back on. He was completely unfazed by the lack of manners. "Sure. Off we go. We'll be back at eight."
At eight? Anna Margaret did her best not to cry out in protest. That was two hours from now!
She followed the men out of the house, down a short slope onto the beach. Apparently it would be just the four of them. They set out in a slow jog. "Are you really going for two hours?" she asked, trying not to pant already. Having balls had very little to do with managing to run for two hours.
"You can go as far as you usually go and pick me up on your way back," she suggested.
"Now that would be dangerous," said His Majesty. "Leave you alone? All the things that might happen."
She glanced over the empty beach. "Right. The worst is that I might sit down."
Or were other things likely to happen? "Are you fellows armed?"
"Yes," said two of them simultaneously. They did indeed have bulges in the back of their shirt.
"Not that it would help," said their charge cheerfully. "But it's the idea that counts."
Occasionally the two men in front exchanged some words she could not overhear, but the bodyguard beside her was pretty silent. She was sure they kept their pace down for her sake and she had a good view of their backsides. At the end of the beach there was a high cliff closing in the small bay. She supposed they would turn there.
Arriving there, however, the men stopped. She was glad for the break and rested against a rock. The others, however, did no such thing. One placed his feet on a small elevation and did push-ups. She had to cede her rock to one who wanted to jump onto it - repeatedly. Anna Margaret lay down on the sand and watched. Although they made her feel lazy, they were agreeable to watch.
"Do you do this every day or is this a special performance?" she inquired at some point.
"Both. We have to keep busy. You don't seem ready to run back yet, though for a politician your fitness isn't half bad."
"But I could lose a few pounds." It still stung, even if he was probably right. She regarded her legs in the running tights. They did not look too bad, did they?
"I only meant running wouldn't do you any harm." That was really not an improvement on his earlier statement.
"Well, anyway, don't run behind me on the way back. I don't think I'd be comfortable being watched from behind. How long will you be staying here?" She would offer to walk on ahead, but only if they were not looking.
"Not long. We still have to run to the other side of the beach," he said between sit-ups.
"Is this a holiday or a training camp?"
"A training camp is a holiday."
"But when do you party?"
"Don't you mean, when do you have time to impregnate all those women?"
She could not see his eyes. They were well hidden behind his sunglasses and she could not tell if he was serious. She gave a little nod.
"I don't. As you see, I always have two spectators, so I'd rather not. Are you staying for tennis?"
"Tennis? After two hours on the beach, you're going to play tennis?" He was either completely mad or he was provoking her. It was not the first time she had that idea.
"First we'll have breakfast."
Anna Margaret eyed the distant other end of the beach. If she had gone all the way there and back, she doubted she could still play tennis. She might not be able to stand up. "You're pulling my leg, right?"
"Well, I don't manage this at home, no. They have me cut far too many ribbons for me to squeeze in more than two workouts a day." He got to his feet and joined one of the bodyguards who was doing some exercises a little distance away.
She could not hear what they were saying. Maybe they were discussing the way back, or the tennis game, or breakfast. Or, more likely, the exercise they were doing. She got up as well and slowly stretched her limbs. Although she tried to exercise once a day at home, there were days that she did not manage at all. She certainly did not run every day and never on a beach. Since the men were focused on their exercises, she decided they would not watch her backside and she could easily get a head start walking back. She did not want to give up too quickly, but she really did not know if she could run to the other end and then back to the middle.
As she walked, she went over what she would tell Parliament on Monday. King Frederick denied any involvement, he was willing to do a paternity test and she believed he was speaking the truth. Did she? He had been confident that he had had nothing to do with it, so she would have to go with that.
Surely he had not staged this morning run to show her he never had time for women? She glanced over her shoulder. He looked too fit to have staged a run. He would be doing this often. Still, he could have done with other women as he had done with her. He could have taken them running.
And then hidden behind a rock with them while his bodyguards were doing push-ups.
She had flown to Italy energised by irritation and determination. There was not much left of either. She began to feel embarrassed about coming here. "What on earth am I doing here?" she muttered to herself. Was it even professional to parade around in tight trousers? Could she not simply have phoned? Now that she had her answers, she ought to go.
The run, which she completed because she had balls, was killing, and the few steps back up to the garden seemed an insurmountable hurdle. One of the bodyguards had to give her a hand. The other had run ahead. By the time they caught up with him he had showered under one of the two open showers by the poolside and he had a towel around his waist.
Anna Margaret watched in dismay as His Majesty took off his shirt. "Wait!" she said, pointing from him to the shower questioningly.
"No, it's not heated," he responded.
"That was not what I wanted to ask."
He stuck his fingers behind the waistband of his running tights and moved it down a fraction.
"Stop!" she ordered. "You're implying everyone is to shower here in plain view?"
"Everyone is covered in sand and sweat. And the cleaning lady has forbidden us to go into the house like that."
"I'd prefer a private shower with hot water," she said, pressing her lips together. The cleaning lady ran the place? How ridiculous.
"You can only have that at night. But if you go last, it will be very private, because we'll be at the breakfast table already."
The other bodyguard had continued to undress and was now stepping under the shower. Defeated, she sat down and looked the other way, checking if the shower was visible from the cliffs or the beach. It did not appear to be, which was a small relief. No paparazzi could see her. When there were no more sounds, she turned around. All men were gone. There was a pile of clothes and towels and a row of shoes. She was not sure what they had changed into. Someone had left her bag with clean clothes there, however, but no one was in sight.
She hated cold showers and she hated being spied on, so she was extremely quick to wrap a towel around her body after splashing a little water on herself. When she was finally dressed she went in search of the breakfast table. It was outside, just around the corner. It was tracksuit time again, she noticed, and she was definitely overdressed. Then again, she was here for work purposes, sort of, and they were not.
There were newspapers on the table, but most were engrossed in their mobile phones. King Frederick was squinting at a tablet he held at arm's length. When he put it down she saw he was reading an online newspaper. He got up and disappeared.
She took the liberty of eating something. Although the men had reached the table before her, they had not waited and they must have started long before her, but they were still eating. After the long run she quite understood their hunger.
His Majesty returned with his glasses. She supposed he usually wore lenses during his public appearances. Either that, or he never had to read much then. No, wait. He did not wear glasses during their meetings and he had to read then. Or was he always on the verge of indifference because he simply could not read whatever document was in front of him? No. He did not appear to be vain.
"When is your flight?" he inquired.
He raised his eyebrows. "You must have been expecting a lot of trouble here then."
"No, all flights today were fully booked. Although," she added, "I did work in a sort of margin, because I didn't know how accessible or amenable you'd be." And indeed, nothing like a mini-break to Italy with nice spring weather and no laptop.
"Accessible." He spoke the word as if it was very strange.
"Well, you might have partied and not been available until late afternoon," she explained. "Which would be a little problematic if my flight left in the morning. Or you might not be willing to see me immediately."
He sighed and helped himself to two more rolls. He did not speak until after he had cut them open. "Usually prime ministers do not fly over for mere trifles, I should think, although I don't have any experience with them visiting me outside office hours. But the taxpayer would think it a waste of money. Or the opposition would think the taxpayer would think it a waste of money."
"I'm sure I more than made up for it by taking a cold shower. But I paid for the tickets myself."
"So if the prime minister appears, it's fairly logical to assume the matter is serious," he continued.
"Which still doesn't mean you'd care."
"I might still think it could wait," he agreed. "Although some people let one get away with that and some don't. In itself, the matter isn't particularly serious, but your taking it very seriously makes it so."
"It is quite serious. In itself."
"As you wish." He began to eat. "Does your father know you're here?"
Her father had been a politician in his days. Of course she would never have got this far if she had not been his daughter, but he did not pull her strings and she did not inform him of everything. He had a tendency to think his days were not yet over. And other people had a tendency to think he still ran the show, which was rather aggravating. "Oh, he would like to know, I'm sure. Which is why I don't tell him these things."
He gave her a thoughtful look. "I had already deduced this was not his idea."
"Why is that?"
"I got the impression, in the past, that my father and your father had quite different notions of what was acceptable. For people like me. I'm not saying your father also applied these standards to himself - I don't know about that - but he would definitely not say anything to others."
She was not prepared to discuss her father in great detail in front of the bodyguards, so she did not give him a reply. He was probably right, when she thought about it. Her father had said he wished the king was more discreet, when her opinion was that he had to give it up altogether. Whatever it was.
The bodyguards disappeared one by one and in the end only Anna Margaret and the king were left. He kept on eating and he kept on reading. She was long finished, but she did not know where to go. And quite frankly, her legs felt too tired to stand up. She preferred being ignored if that meant she could stay seated.
"So," he said eventually. "You're not here to tell me I must get a move on with this heirs business?"
"No. I'd best get back to my hotel." Still, her legs did not respond to the order she gave them and they failed to lift her out of her seat.
He leant his elbows on the table. "Why? I was looking forward to discussing with you how we can put an end to this interference in my life."
"I'm afraid there aren't many options." She stumbled as she tried to get up from her chair.
He stood up to steady her. "It's not a good idea to walk to your car like that. They might think you're drunk."
"Drunk?" She was alarmed. "Why? Who?"
"It's Saturday. There might be one or more people trying to catch a glimpse. There usually are on Saturdays. Especially after what was in the paper this morning."
There were loud pangs suddenly, like fireworks. She gave a start. His Majesty did not wait around. "Come," he said, heading for the wooden panelling that shielded the terrace from the wind coming from the sea. One panel niftily turned out to be a door.
She had trouble following. Her legs were stiff. Whatever this was, it could not have come at a worse moment. "What is it?"
"I've no idea, but it's best to assume it's serious." He carefully closed the wooden panel behind them.
"Just so you know, I'm pretty much dead from running. Just leave me here if that's easier for you." She would hide among these thick shrubs here.
"Crawl," he ordered.
While she did not mind sitting or lying down, crawling was a little beyond her abilities at the moment. She followed nevertheless, trying not to make any sounds. All the while she tried to figure out if the action was coming closer.
He had halted at some point and waited for her to catch up. "I suppose you have enough brains to figure out you should keep your head down?"
"Yes." She had heard more of the fireworks in the meantime, which she could only think were gunshots at this time of the day. It could, she thought hopefully, be his bodyguards shooting at people and not the other way around. Her chest had tightened when the pangs did not stop and she was hoping it could all be explained in some innocent way. Maybe people were hunting?
He wriggled out his phone. "Set your phone to silent. This is serious," he said as he seemed to read a message.
Her chest tightened some more and her stomach felt strange. "Who's doing the shooting?"
"They didn't ask." He was calm, as if this happened regularly.
"Where will we go?"
"We don't have many options. The beach is too exposed, unless we go fast and run towards the rocks. We appear to have a few minutes. I don't know how tired you are."
"Yes, do it," Anna Margaret said without waiting for the other options. She had considered them when they were crawling, but going back in the direction of the house was definitely out. And people might find that door. She preferred to be figuratively dead, not literally.
"We don't know where they are. We'd best stick close to the land." He crawled ahead and slid down the rocky slope.
She followed him and they jogged towards the cliff. Sometimes she glanced back in fear, but the trees around the tennis court were hiding them from view. Only if someone descended the steps by the swimming pool would they be seen. Hopefully they would have a few minutes before that happened, although it had taken them longer than that to reach the large rocks earlier. There was one in the middle of their path and King Frederick dropped down behind it to let her catch her breath. Or maybe he wanted see what was happening behind them. Occasionally they still heard gun shots.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
She nodded, but her legs were killing her.
"Next rock then."
They ran from rock to rock. No one appeared on the beach behind them, but of course people might be watching from the windows. Eventually they were close to the end of the beach. From here they would be able to see everyone coming, but they would not have anywhere to go. To the left was the sea, behind them a steep cliff that protruded into the sea and to their right the same rock, that at this end of the beach was far too steep to climb.
The villa had been built in a nicely secluded hollow. A few old houses had been torn down to make room for the villa, its tennis court and its swimming pool. There had been an uproar at the time, both at home and here, because of the money it had cost, the building permits that should not have been issued, and the people who had been paid handsome sums to sell their land.
But a place that had been chosen because it was difficult to access was also difficult to escape from. Anna Margaret rested her head against the rock and wondered what plans His Majesty had, if any. He had got them here, that was good. But now what? Were they to hide here until the threat had passed? Anyone shooting at the villa would want either him or her and it was unlikely they would not search the beach if they could not find them anywhere else.
He was doing something on his phone, presumably sending messages. Then he looked up. "We'll have to round the cliff through the water."
She was less afraid now, but the numb feeling inside did not go away. "And then? How do you know you won't run into anything on the road? Is there even a road?"
"We can't stay here."
She was glad she had dragged her bag with her, even if it did contain two pairs of shoes. She had taken one pair off somewhere behind a rock. "I can't keep all of this dry. How deep is the water? Will we have to swim?"
"We can wade, but there are rocks and waves. It won't be easy."
He eyed her bag. "Have you got a plastic bag in there?"
"Yes." It was the plastic bag that her new running clothes had come in.
"We should wrap my phone in it."
"And mine, thanks." Why only his? She got out the plastic bag and wrapped as much in it as she could. Then she put it back into her bag.
He still did not look afraid, but he was much more serious than before. "Does anyone know you're here? In other words, could they be after you and not me?"
"I doubt it." She took off her trousers and blouse while trying to stay hidden behind the rock.
He looked alarmed. "What are you doing?"
"You said we have to wade. My clothes will be soaking wet otherwise. They would take hours to dry and it would look very conspicuous. Just look the other way if you can't stand the view."
"Oh. It might be a good idea."
Around the promontory was another beach, but smaller and with more pebbles. Up on the hillside were a few houses and beyond them a road. His Majesty studied the first house. All its shutters were closed. It was only 8:30 of course. He climbed the rocky steps towards it. There were two small cars in front of the house, but the owners seemed still asleep. He pointed at the grassy hill across the road. "Up there."
It was steep to climb, but they made it. On top, out of sight, he lay down. Anna Margaret had followed, occasionally with some assistance, hoping no one in any of the houses had seen them climb. Not that they might interfere with two people climbing hills in their underwear, but they would definitely remember it.
"We need to dry up and get dressed. When I get home I'm going to resign and shag women with impunity."
Anna Margaret had no comment on the first part; she quite agreed. The second part of his remark, however, she could not really let pass. "There's no such thing as shagging women with impunity."
"You'll still have money, for one, and they'll want it."
"I'll give it away."
"Then, I'm afraid, that long queue of women will disappear, unless you give it to them."
He turned his head in shock. "You - that is -"
She did not know if his shock was real, so she shrugged.
"I'm still going to resign. What did I ever do to warrant people coming after me with guns?" he asked, as if he really had no idea.
"You don't know if it was you they came to shoot. It could have been me."
"Why shoot you on an unexpected trip to Italy that no one knows anything about? At least I assume no one knows. You haven't pissed off any Italians, have you?"
Anna Margaret admitted that it made little sense. She had had little difficulties with Italians and she had not informed anyone she would be going here. She was also rarely ensconced in villas with high fences and armed security. At home she had no protection at all. Anyone could get to her there. Why wait until it was difficult?
"Where's your backup?" she asked after a while after willing her underclothes to dry faster. It was not working yet in the early morning sun and she was shivering. Also, she was feeling rather exposed, even if her companion was not the least bit interested in ogling her. Her swimwear might have been better, but she had not wanted to strip completely. "Surely there must be some emergency plan or squad in case something like this happens?"
"Backup's local. The rest is down to you, I'm afraid."
"What?" she cried. Down to her? What did he mean?
"I'm serious. We did look at how to get off the beach, but we didn't actually practise what to do after."
"You have no numbers to call?" He had wanted to keep his phone dry; she had assumed he was going to use it.
"I'm not going to call any numbers until I know for certain that it was serious. I'd look a fool otherwise. Suppose someone was shooting pigeons."
While it was true they had not seen anything of the shooting themselves, she recalled him looking at his phone. "Did your security staff send you a message?"
"Yes. That they were under fire."
"And they're not pigeons. So call your numbers."
"I don't actually have numbers of useful people," he confessed. "Other people call them for me."
Of course. He was never alone and nobody ever counted on him being alone either. She made a mental note to have this changed somehow. These people should be able to help themselves. "Call someone whose number you do have. Someone useful. Not your mistresses."
He retrieved his phone from the plastic bag and crawled away a bit to make a call. Anna Margaret crept to a point from where she could see the road. It was deserted, as were the gardens of the houses that she could see. The inhabitants still had not come out.
King Frederick crawled back. "I called the ambassador. She said she'd call you. I didn't tell her we were on a hilltop in our underclothes together and that you already knew."
"It may be a little tricky to get out of that," she said with a frown.
"If she sends a car, where will you leave me? Pretend I just turned up?" How was he going to explain that?
"She's not going to send a car. I told her it was safer if I took the bus to Rome."
She gasped for air. "So she's going to send ten cars, if not more." Such a reassurance was really going to put the ambassador off. Yes, really. What was he thinking? Taking the bus to Rome? On his own? And he expected the ambassador to let this happen?
"Ah!" He smirked. "But you know, I'm more intelligent than most people. We won't be going to Rome, but to France and then home."
Modesty was a delightful virtue. It was a pity people did not cultivate it more. "I'm duty-bound to stick with you," Anna Margaret said with regret. "They'd have my head if I abandoned you in this situation, as you have very obviously no clue how to get yourself to anywhere. And if the ambassador calls me, am I supposed to deny that I'm here? I went to school with her."
"I don't know what would be wise."
"You're more intelligent than most people."
"Which means most people would either be completely clueless or ready to do something utterly stupid," he said readily. "Not that I have every solution."
She felt her bra. It was still moist, but she would not feel comfortable speaking to anyone else without her blouse on, even if it was over the phone and someone she knew. "Do you have any money on you?"
"Then how were you going to buy a bus ticket?" She buttoned up her blouse.
"I have a credit card and a bank card."
"Right." That was something, at least. "But you can't use credit cards on the bus."
"Oh. Well, you know, I am going, whether you like it or not. Either you come with me or you will have to explain to everyone how you let me walk away."
She had been fearing as much, but hearing him say it was nevertheless a bit of a shock. He had some nerve to say it so casually too. But they did not have time to argue. "Listen. The ambassador knows you're in the vicinity of the villa. The local police probably know. Whoever was shooting may also know, depending on whether they managed to gain access and search the house. I'm not sure it would take very long for anyone to come looking this way, be it friend or foe."
"They'd have to search the house and grounds first to make sure I'm not hidden anywhere."
"Yes, but once they've done that, they'll move to that road down there, as it's the only effective way out of the area, isn't it? I don't think anyone will assume you'll be hiking over rocky hills. If there was a way to get over, there would be a path - and a couple of hotels." She looked around pointedly. There was nothing. That meant that accessibility was limited. "And they'll think you're impractical and spoiled, so you'll be on the road."
He looked at her without speaking. Presumably she was making too much sense to be contradicted.
"Where does the road lead?" she asked.
"There's a village after a few more bends. Five minutes by car maybe? The village on the other side is closer."
"And that's where they were shooting, so that's not where we're going. Is there a way out on the other side of your beach, or is it going to be absolutely clear that you're on this side?"
"The water is deeper there. You'd need to swim."
"Basically all anyone would need to do is go down this road in two directions and see where you'll turn up. Great." She crawled to watch the road again. A small white car went past, but it went in the direction of the villa.
When she came back, His Majesty had got his tracksuit back on and was working on his shoes. She pulled on her neat black trousers and her running shoes. Her underwear was not completely dry yet, but they could not hang around for longer. Then she moved away from the coast, into the wilderness. Just when she was navigating a combination of rocks and prickly bushes, her phone began to vibrate.
Anna Margaret answered it. It was the ambassador, who sounded panicked. As she listened, she still could not decide whether she would reveal her whereabouts once she could get a word in. The ambassador also seemed more concerned about the king being loose on his own than about people getting shot at.
"Could it be true?" the ambassador asked. "Or are they holding him and were they making him phone? I mean, the plan sounded completely daft!"
"Unfortunately, he is completely daft," Anna Margaret said dryly. She made a decision. "But fortunately, I am here."
"In Italy? What are you doing in Italy?"
"I was here for a working visit, trying to talk some sense into...him."
The other woman paused to process this news. "But what can you do? Can you find him?"
"Oh, I have him here. He's all right. Physically, at least." She could see him glaring at her and she smiled back sweetly. "But that doesn't mean he'll allow himself to be picked up by a car."
"You have him there? I sincerely hope you won't allow him to take the bus to Rome!"
"The thing is, I'm not exactly clear on who is to obey who in this situation." She could tell from his face he had an opinion on that, but this was not the time to discuss that. "But listen, it's a bit difficult for me to use the phone here. I'd rather you made sure things are okay at the villa. We'll talk later." She put away her phone before she dropped it into a crevice.
"What did she say? At least you didn't give her our exact location."
"That is in part because I do not know our exact location." She slid off the rock she had had to climb over. The terrain was sloping gently downwards. Well, on average - there were rocks and holes that were not so gentle. It was not impassable yet, but they could not see too far ahead. Ahead of them were trees. There was no telling what was beyond that. "She hopes I won't allow you to take the bus to Rome."
"Did she mention a car again?"
"No. She didn't know if you were really free and not saying things with a gun to your head."
It was probably around nine o'clock now and growing warmer. He paused in the shadow of a lone tree. "What time would you expect people to come looking, assuming they haven't all been killed?"
She had no idea. "They could be fifteen minutes behind us, if they first searched in the same direction. But they could not know where we went, so it's probably more. Personally I'd first check the road before I climbed a hill. You'd only have to drive a few minutes to find out that's not where we went, whereas it would take you much longer to ascertain we are nowhere up here."
"Twenty minutes ago, we were climbing up."
"Yes, so if anyone is following us, they could be appearing at the top any moment." She looked towards it.
"And they wouldn't be the good guys."
She agreed. "From the size of the villages around here, I doubt the locals have enough manpower to be at work on two fronts. They can't be both at the villa and here. Any more sophisticated manpower will have to travel for a while to get here."
King Frederick was keeping a wary eye on the top of the hill. He rolled behind a stone outcrop. "That is exactly right. Any extra security has always been our own responsibility. They appointed one of their local constables as liaison, but that's it. Whatever they could bring in, it's not yet here."
"Can you phone your men?"
He hesitated. "I didn't want to have a ringing phone reveal their location in case they were hiding, but they have not sent me any messages since the first one."
"So we don't know if there are any attackers and how many."
"Presumably they do keep in touch with the local police in such cases," he said hopefully. "Since that's where reinforcements should come from. Not from me. I'm merely someone who has to get out of the way. I might have stayed there if you hadn't been with me, though."
"Those breakfast knives are very efficient against guns, I'm sure," Anna Margaret said in a sarcastic tone when she imagined him defending her with cutlery.
"I have a gun. Still, my role is to be a coward and to get out of the way. If I stayed to shoot, I might get shot myself." He sounded a little bitter.
Anna Margaret glanced up at the top of the hill. There was still no one in sight, but she hid behind the same outcrop just in case. They had not come down in a straight line, although that would have been possible. Anyone coming down might not find them right away. She hoped no one would want to look behind every rock. "They're your friends, aren't they?" she asked quietly.
She squeezed his hand and held it for a moment. "Do you have your gun with you?"
"No," he said, exhaling deeply. "I don't generally carry it around. Now I wish I did. Your secretary, are you fond of him?"
"My secretary?" She looked puzzled.
"He's at the villa."
"Oh. Would I be sad if he got shot, you mean? We're not in a relationship. He'd fancy you rather than me. I'm probably less fond of him than you are of your men, but I still care." She looked at the green and brown smudges that had appeared on her trousers and blouse. It would be difficult to get on a bus without attracting curious looks, but there was no other transportation out of this area as far as she knew. "I hope he went back to the hotel. With the car."
"Can you send him a message?"
While she was tapping away, he peered around the outcrop. There was nothing. In the distance a helicopter appeared. He peered at it suspiciously. It appeared to go in the direction of the villa. "But it's not the authorities, I think."
"Who could employ shooters and a helicopter and why?" She moved a little closer, although it was pretty useless to depend on him for protection if he did not have a gun.
"I don't know. Listen. If anyone asks, were we professionally dressed at all times or not?"
She glanced at the smudges on her blouse and then at his tracksuit. Professionally indeed. "I don't think anyone would dare to inquire. By the time the anecdote ends up in my memoirs you'll be too old to care."
"My father is working on his memoirs. He seems to think people will read them. If people read his, they would certainly read mine if I include today's episode."
He moved away from her a bit, under an overhanging bit of the outcrop. "Come."
"Why?" But she was moving already.
Her phone vibrated. "It's a message from George!"
"My secretary. He's at the hotel. How could he be at the hotel? If nothing is happening, what do they think we are doing?" Would their disappearance not look strange in that case? And how would it look if they came back?
He glanced at the top of the hill again and then at the sky. There was nothing. "Call him."
Anna Margaret did so. "How can you be at the hotel? Do you know about the shooting? No, I don't know. I have no idea. I'm not there anymore. Can you make inquiries, discreetly? No one should know I'm here. No, I can't say. I'll let you know later."
King Frederick studied her as she ended the call. "He's safe, then?"
"Yes. Apparently your men told him you'd keep me busy all day and he decided to go back to the hotel long before seven o'clock."
"Busy? With what?" he asked innocently.
"I don't know what they told him, but he's not the sort to think anyone would say no to you, so my saying no didn't even occur to him and he thought he had all that time to himself."
"If he's got a car, he can pick us up."
"And take you to Rome."
"I'm not going to Rome." He heard the helicopter again and pulled her further under the overhang.
"I hope they're not paparazzi." They would have a field day with photos of this position. She knew he was probably hiding her because her white and black clothes were more noticeable than his grey jogging trousers, but this was never the sort of practical thing that occurred to paparazzi first.
"You'd rather they were terrorists?"
"Why won't you go to Rome?"
He kept her pressed against the rock as he tried to peer out of their hiding place. "And hand myself over? This is freedom."
"So effectively you're kidnapping me for the sake of your freedom? You can't seriously be thinking this is freedom. What do you need me for?"
"The helicopter is flying away along the coast," he said. "Good. What do I need you for? Well, for instance you must know how to buy bus tickets and things like that."
She sighed and pushed him away. If the helicopter was gone, there was no need to keep her confined here. "If you are in serious danger, call in serious help."
"I want to go home and I believe the safest way is to go incognito. And certainly not via Rome. Rome is the other way."
"My dear sovereign, I hope you were not thinking you could board a bus in these parts that would take you directly home?"
"I realise we may have to take a few."
More than a few, she would say. "Probably, if you insist on buses, at least thirty. Which implies you would have to spend the night somewhere. Probably, if you insist on buses, at least ten. Does it still sound so attractive now?"
He said nothing, stood up and after a glance up the hill, began walking towards the trees.
Anna Margaret groaned and followed. She reached them a few minutes after he did. "I don't like this. You have no idea what you're getting into. I doubt you're equipped for the real world. Show me you really have a credit card and a bank card on you."
He showed her his phone cover.
"But you have no ID."
"ID?" He looked as if he had no idea what he might need that for.
She spoke as calmly as she could. "The nice paradox is, if you want to travel incognito, you need ID."
"It's at the villa."
"Of course. And that's why you need someone to book the hotels." She nodded, but his face betrayed that he had not given any thought to either his ID or the booking of hotels. Of course not. He might not even know hotels had to be booked and paid for. "Do you realise that if we disappear, police everywhere will be mobilised? Hardly freedom. You'll be caught at the first roadblock and I'd rather not be involved. The headlines!"
"Then let them know we've not disappeared. Besides, you cannot disappear, because they don't know you're here. Except the ambassador, whom you probably shouldn't have told."
"I told her so she wouldn't mobilise every security agency thinkable. Though she still might." She moved a little further among the trees, to see what the terrain was like. It was secluded, but more impassable. Great. And they might get lost.
"They will do that anyway." He held out his phone. "Twitter says I'm dead."
'What made you look on Twitter?" She found him amazingly unpredictable. Twitter, of all places.
"Terrorists make good use of Twitter, usually."
"I hope you didn't post anything on Twitter yourself." Anna Margaret's phone vibrated again. "Yes?" she answered. "Oh. Yes. He just told me that too. What? All right. Thanks."
She put her phone away again and looked at him seriously. "Three attackers got away on foot. Contradicting Twitter is still a bit premature. What the --" she exclaimed when her phone vibrated again. "Louis? What can he want?"
"He wants to tell you I'm dead." He took her free arm and led her away from the edge of the trees.
"Yes?" Anna Margaret answered Louis's call. "Yes, I heard. But it's not true. He's not dead. I've just spoken to him. Yes, really. I don't know. Perhaps you should try to contact him. He's obviously got his phone with him."
At this, His Majesty turned towards her and grimaced. He seemed to like being dead.
She did not think that was nice of him. "No, I'll leave that up to you for the time being. I don't yet know what would be wise. Er, no. I can't attend. I'm abroad on a private visit, but I'll try to return as soon as I can. Which may not be very, very soon. But you can always contact me by phone."
He pointed into the air.
Helicopter? She listened carefully, but heard nothing. Then she spoke again. "Yes, yes, thanks. Bye."
"He knows your number. He'll have your location in five minutes," said the king. "Was he sad or glad that I'm alive?"
"He wasn't sure he could believe me. So he'll probably phone you to check."
"There you go," he said, as his phone vibrated too. "Yes? Hello, Louis. Yes, I heard. No, I don't want my death to be either confirmed or denied. Yet. You're still investigating. I've no charger with me, so I'm going to have to switch off my phone after this call. I need it later for more important matters. Listen, I was told three attackers escaped on foot, so I'm not going to waste any time persuading you I am me and I am alive, because nobody knows where they might be. No, I can't do that. I don't want to give away how I currently look."
He slid his phone into his pocket after switching it off. "I had the feeling he thought I was a terrorist posing as me. Asked me for a selfie. He's going to call you back, I bet. Do I sound like a terrorist?"
She could not say. "Do you really think he will try to find out where we are?"
"Where I am, certainly. Now, I don't think he can get any men here very fast, so..."
"We should keep our phones switched off and get on a bus."
"I cannot switch my phone off." She was the prime minister, for heaven's sake, and this was an emergency. She needed to make reassuring noises from time to time and make decisions.
"In the interest of my safety, you can. All this phoning costs time as well. And I bet you don't have a charger with you either, so we won't be able to look up anything useful by the time we need to."
Before she could do anything, she got another call. It was Louis again. "Yes?" she answered. "Yes. Yes. I know it sounds dodgy, but - yes. No. I advise you to leave him be. He says he knows what he's doing. Concentrate on the attackers."
They had been moving north, parallel to the tree line, instead of further into the wood. "There's a very steep drop that way," His Majesty informed her when she put her phone away again. "I'm looking for a place where it's less steep. We'll go down there and find a bus."
This did not look a very likely place for a bus, but Anna Margaret was too tired to contradict him or to get him off the idea of buses. Now and then they stopped to examine the slope, but she was glad he kept judging it too steep. At some point they saw something below that looked like a garden. This excited him, because where there were gardens, there were people, and where there were people, there were bus stops. She wisely did not point out there had to be a sizeable population to warrant a bus line. He would simply not understand.
It was a good five more minutes trekking -- descending slightly, or so she thought - until they reached a narrow, paved road. It could even be someone's driveway, as it clearly was not designed for two cars to pass each other. Still, it was infinitely more comfortable than the wilderness and King Frederick led her to the left. He kept a grip on her arm, because he felt she did not keep to the side of the road well enough and he did not want her to be run over before she had shown him where to buy bus tickets.
After three sharp bends going down, they saw a junction ahead. Suddenly a pavement appeared too, as well as garden walls. They were slowly entering the civilised world.
"Look at me," said Anna Margaret, gesturing at the smudges on her trousers.
He missed the gestures. "Why?"
"I'm dirty. My blouse is all wrinkled, too." She pulled the blouse from her trousers, undid the lower buttons and made a knot. "But now no one will notice." She looked awful, like a sexy tourist showing off her belly button. But at least she no longer looked like she had rolled over a dirty floor in an office.
"Do they have shops in this place?" he wondered when he had gone left onto the wider road.
"I hope so." After another five minutes following the wider road, they hit the main street. In the meantime, they had not seen anybody pass them. The only people Anna Margaret had seen were two middle-aged women doing household chores. It was Saturday, she reminded herself, but she had completely lost track of what time it could be. "Are we actually too early for the shops? It feels like I've been up for an entire day by now!"
"No, they're already open. Look, I see people."
She pointed at an ATM. "First, get some cash. It's always useful to have some cash. Then we find a supermarket."
"I don't see any bus stops." He sounded disappointed.
She wondered if he even knew what bus stops looked like. But at least there was a place name. Just when she switched on her phone again to see if there were bus stops at all in this village, Louis rang again. "Yes?" she asked with some irritation, stepping away from the ATM. It was annoying that he was interrupting both her google search and her supervision of how much cash His Majesty was taking out. She did not know if he had any idea of what was necessary. She could stand next to him, but then he would overhear her conversation and she did not want that.
"He turned off his phone, and you turned off your phone. What the hell is this about?"
"He thought this a good occasion to go rogue. He accepts some interference from me, but I strongly advise you to leave him alone, like I said. Leave. Him. Alone." She would undoubtedly have to say it a few more times before the message got through.
"I don't know what you mean. Go rogue?"
"I suggest you look it up in the dictionary," she said sharply.
"Is he about to do something stupid? Does he have any protection with him?"
"I'll tell him to buy some, okay?"
There was a pause on the other side of the line. "I understood the bodyguards are all still at the villa and he's not. Where is he?"
"As if you don't know." She did not know if they could be traced. In reality, that was. In films they certainly could be.
"We lost track. There are concerns that he was taken by the three attackers when they got away, because his responses have been quite peculiar. And he has not phoned his mother."
"His mother?" Anna Margaret cried. What on earth did his mother have to do with it all?
"One would expect him to call his mother to say he's all right."
She would not expect that at all, as he had theoretically grown up years ago. "Well, he's all right. He was not taken by attackers and he is under my control." She stared at the king's back. She hoped he had not heard.
Louis continued to be concerned. "I could have a team of psychologists fly over immediately."
"Louis, I've said before that I want you to leave him alone. You will be contacted if your help is needed. The same applies to everyone else who's listening in." She did not doubt he had put her on speakerphone in some crisis meeting that she would have been attending had she not been abroad.
"Where are you?"
"Safe." She hung up. "How much did you get?" she asked her companion.
"A few hundred."
"That's fine. Let's find the shops." She washed her hands in a fountain they passed. They had got very dirty from climbing and crawling.
Across the street was a supermarket and on this side a shop with household items. "What do we need?" Anna Margaret said in a low voice, although there was no one there to overhear her. "Water would be nice if you're serious about the bus. Why don't you go in while I google where we are and how far my hotel is from here."
King Frederick looked as if he was six and being allowed to shop for the first time on his own. "Do you plan to go to your hotel? What for?"
"If it's near, I might as well pick up my own toothbrush and clothes."
"What should I get?"
"Just use that superior intelligence of yours and figure it out."
She checked her phone, hoping no one would call during the search. The town her hotel was located in was not far. She pondered if it was wise to make a detour to go there, but having her own things would be nice. And she could give George some orders. She could not find any information about buses online. Usually bus stops showed up on a map, but they were conspicuously absent here.
His Majesty appeared again with a large plastic bag. He gave it to her - for inspection, she presumed, because she was not going to carry something as heavy as this. Two large bottles of water, some apples, bananas and grapes, tasty rolls, a notebook, pens, toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo and a package with two razors. It all looked surprisingly useful and she was amazed.
She took a sip of the water and handed the bag back to him. "Let's find a place where we could buy underwear."
"Please buy your own underwear." Evidently he did not want to be sent in again on his own.
They walked down the main street and passed a dusty square with a shop, a restaurant and a church. Finally they came across a shop that might sell what they were looking for. It looked to be cheap and limited in its range, but it would have to do.
He followed her inside like an obedient dog. "If you see something you need, put it in the basket," she whispered at him, although it was doubtful whether anyone else would have cared. "I have no idea of your taste and size."
He seemed to find that funny.
In an old taxi that had been parked in the dusty square, they had been conveyed to the hotel. It was a lot quicker than walking, which she estimated would have taken them over an hour. She was glad she had spotted the taxi just when she had decided to walk. "All right, come on up."
The hotel was large enough for no one to pay much attention to yet another guest coming in and she was not even sure they had been noticed at all. Her room was on the first floor. Her companion was evidently used to larger rooms, because he expressed his amazement at the size of the bathroom.
"It serves its purpose," she said briskly. "Now get out, I've been dying to use it for an hour." When she came out, he was looking out of the window, but he soon disappeared into the bathroom himself for a closer inspection. She did not pay attention. First she had to get out of these clothes. Unfortunately her only other set of clothes was more or less the same as this one and the small shop had only carried things that were not to her liking. She had bought the least ugly top and chose that over a formal-looking blouse. Then she packed everything into her suitcase, except for the food and his clothes.
Only then did she check what he was doing, which was still being in the bathroom. She knocked. "I'm going to see if George is in. Are you going to change when I'm gone?"
"No, I'd do it in front of you, but I don't have to change. I'll have a banana."
"Er... right." She went out and knocked on George's door. He answered after a few seconds and looked very relieved to see her. Before he could say much, however, she beckoned him to her own room.
The king was eating a banana, as he had said. He observed George's instant reverence with a peculiar look.
"Now, I'm going to leave this hotel and travel home," Anna Margaret began. "I won't tell you how, so you won't be able to tell anyone. I don't think I'll manage to be at the office on Monday. Maybe Tuesday. I will occasionally have my phone switched on. Did you find out anything about the shooting?"
"Not much. Two attackers were wounded and a few got away. No one at the villa was killed."
"Check Twitter," said His Majesty, finishing his banana. "Hashtag me."
Anna Margaret was not sure George understood that language. He had always been a little weary of social media. She hardly understood it herself. "It says he's dead."
"I am, sort of. I'm going to retire."
"I advise you not to tell anyone. Louis has a team of psychologists ready to fly over because you've been exhibiting signs of peculiarity." She had an inkling that Louis would think plans to retire were the fruits of a mentally unstable mind.
"I do admit I toyed with the idea of sending him a very peculiar selfie, but I was afraid he'd send it to others. But why are you telling me this only now, about the psychologists?" He frowned in concern.
"I didn't know how you would take it."
He got up, set her suitcase on the floor, stuffed his clothes in it and wheeled it to the door. "But we should go before they've really tracked our phones. George, you don't know where she went, should they ask. I'm kidnapping the lady. They always have female sidekicks in films, so I need one too."
George looked about to have a seizure. Even Anna Margaret herself was a little lost. She picked up the plastic bag with the food.
"I'd go alone, but I don't quite trust her not to ask Louis to send the men in white coats. I have to keep an eye on her."
"This is not a film," she said.
"I know. Bye, George." He walked down the corridor. "What do I call you, by the way?"
"My name would be fine," she replied tiredly. For some strange reason she was looking forward to sitting on a bus for hours. All this moving about was fatiguing. And they would not have to think, sitting on a bus.
"Mine too. Let me carry that bag. Those bottles are heavy."
She wasted no time in giving him the bag. "I wonder why you're suddenly much saner."
"I am an extremely sane person essentially."
This village boasted of a bus service to the nearest larger town. That did not take too long, but the bus north, going over the winding coastal road, took ages. It had grown grey and rainy, so there was not much to look at either. At first Anna Margaret had enjoyed sitting and doing nothing, but then doing nothing had begun to be boring. Her companion was not talking either. He was simply sitting there, looking out of the window, or at the people who got on at bus stops on the way.
"It didn't take this long when we drove from the airport," she sighed.
"You took the motorway, I suppose." He leant against her and kept his voice down so the people behind them would not hear. "Will we get to the border before the night?"
"Definitely not," she said pessimistically and got the notebook out of the plastic bag to write things down. "We have several options. First: the bus. Second: take the train to Turin and then into France. Third: take the train to France via the coast. Fourth: rent a car for a one-way trip. I can be at the office on Monday if we do that."
"Do you want to be at the office on Monday?" He seemed surprised that she was in a hurry and not enjoying this freedom.
"The sooner I get this package delivered, the better."
"I see your point. Will it have consequences for you?"
"There are personal consequences as well?"
She sighed. "You've only been thinking of the consequences for yourself so far, but yes, undoubtedly this will have both professional and personal consequences for me. I can't tell you precisely what they'll be. Otherwise I would have known better what choices to make." She had tried to sound neutral, but perhaps it had come out a little more sharply than she had wanted.
"Sorry." He took her hand and glanced out of the window again.
Anna Margaret wondered why he was holding her hand. It was strange rather than unpleasant. They could phone Louis from the bus station and pretend they had never travelled away from the villa. That was option five. "Why did I ever fly to Italy yesterday?" she muttered. She tried to think if she should have told someone before going. Would someone think they should have been informed?
"I was a little annoyed when you showed up," he admitted. "But after I've resigned I'll tell you something."
There was no better way to make her curious. "Why after you've resigned?"
"Because then I can."
"Why not now?"
"You can't be distracted from your very serious duty of transporting this sensitive package back home. I can't be distracted either. I'll put it off."
Arriving in Genoa, Anna Margaret was no closer to deciding what they should do. She disliked this immensely. Usually she was all for swift decisions. "Shall we get some coffee before we move on? We still need to decide how we're going to get out of here."
King Frederick had not become more talkative on the bus ride. In fact, he had napped. Which had been rather annoying, since it had made her the one who had to look out for attackers. And, she supposed, the one who had to act if attackers really did show up. From shoving the king under the seat to throwing apples at the attackers, she had considered all options. Unfortunately none seemed very effective.
They chose the nearest establishment, in case they would need to take another bus. Frederick, as he now wanted to be called, looked at his phone. "So many missed calls," he whistled. "So many voicemails."
Anna Margaret suspected it was much the same with her own phone. She had her charger now, but no way to plug it in anywhere, so she still had to be careful. There was a socket next to their table and she considered using it.
"Twitter is now undecided about my fate," he summarised.
She switched her phone on as well and phoned Louis, since he would probably try again in less than five minutes. His number was among the many missed calls.
"Ah, there you are," he said. "How is the king?"
"Fine." She could not say he was enjoying himself tremendously. Given the circumstances it would make him look very superficial and more than a little strange. But she thought he was enjoying himself. He was in a good mood.
"I know where you are," said Louis. "I took the liberty of sending some men to watch over you."
"Seriously?" she cried. She did not know if she was disappointed about having been found, angry about being watched or relieved about being safe.
"You won't see them. They're professionals."
It was worse if she did not see them. It made one paranoid. How many were there? Two? Four? Ten? Her eyes furtively darted around the café. "And how do you know where I am?"
"I have people who are excellent at finding that out. Besides, the attack was in the morning. I've had enough time to get people in place, especially because you took the bus." He made that sound like an utterly ridiculous idea.
She blushed in embarrassment. "Sorry, that was his idea." Nevertheless, she tried to figure out how he could have discovered where they had gone. Had his men spoken to people? Had they tracked their phones? Had George contacted them? It was just like George to think the safety of the king went before everything else.
"What's your next plan?"
"Still deciding. Who were the attackers?"
"The two who were caught will be questioned as soon as possible. I have no reliable information about them yet. We were not aware of any specific threats against the king. Could I speak to him? I know he's with you."
"I'll try." She handed her phone across the table.
"Yes?" he said to Louis and then listened for a while. "Don't try to pick me up anywhere. Don't do anything I wouldn't like, or I'll do something you wouldn't like," he said finally and gave the phone back.
Anna Margaret checked if Louis was still on the line. He was. "So..." she said, hoping to conclude the conversation, but he could not be pleased with the king's words.
"I wish he would let himself be picked up," Louis complained. "What is he threatening to do? Is he giving you any trouble?"
"We'll have to do as he says," he said and then hung up.
She was glad for it. There were no precedents, naturally, and she had not known whose orders were to be followed, although she suspected Louis had to follow hers, since he was merely the vice prime minister. "How are your bodyguards?" she asked of her companion. He had not asked about them, as if he was not interested in knowing. He did seem a little self-centred at times. At other times he was not, which made it difficult to read him.
"I apped. They apped back."
Fair enough, she conceded. He did not have to share everything with her. Presumably the fact that they had exchanged messages meant they were all right and their being men might mean the messages had been very short. "And what did Louis tell you?"
"We're being watched - or will be soon. I don't know if he was bluffing about that. I suppose you're pretty recognisable to those who know." He studied her critically. "Could you dye your hair?"
"You've watched too many films." She glanced around, but there was no one in the café who paid them any attention. Most people looked to be Italian and they could not be working for any of their own country's services. Or maybe that was what one was supposed to think. She could not be very recognisable here. "In films they always cut their hair too, but they never have a job to return to the next day. I do."
"Point. Excuse me," he said, leaning across the table so he could speak softly. "Check if anyone follows me to the toilets."
"Why should they, though?" Watchers were supposed to watch him, but would they really need to follow him to the lavatory?
"I could escape through the window."
"And leave me with the bill." She had just gestured for more coffee. "Of course."
"I paid for the groceries. Now it's your turn."
"I forgot." She watched him walk to the toilets, but although she kept her eyes on the door, no one followed. Two new cups of coffee were brought to the table and she paid. "I didn't see anyone," she said when he returned.
He looked smug. "Well, I did."
"You did?" She put her coffee cup down instantly, too curious.
"There was a man who got there just before me, which is possible because I didn't go straight away and anyone could have guessed my intentions from my looking around to see where I had to go. You know how you can guess where someone is going and then pretend to run into them by accident?"
"I'm surprised you have to run into women by accident." She was also surprised that a man whose every public move was orchestrated even had the opportunity to plan his own private moves.
"Why? Do you think I'm handsome enough for them to come to me?"
She would not answer that question at the moment. "The man?"
"Standard issue. Took too long peeing."
She closed her eyes and shook her head. "I prefer not to discuss peeing habits, thanks. And don't tell me what standard issue means. I don't think I want to know."
He was amused. "It means he was trained by some service or other."
Anna Margaret was sceptic. "And how can you tell?"
"I've been surrounded by these people all my life." He curled his hands round the coffee cup so that it disappeared from sight.
She supposed that was a reasonable enough explanation. He had always been surrounded pretty much like his coffee cup. And apparently he had watched people as they had watched him. Why not? But it begged a question. "Why would they provide you, of all people, with standard issue agents?"
She touched his hand and spoke gently. "Listen, we still have to decide how we're going to travel on."
"I vote for renting a car and getting a hotel somewhere in France. If we were spotted anyway, we might as well make ourselves comfortable."
She raised her eyebrows. "You know, I was expecting you to suggest we try to escape from Mr Standard Issue." It was almost like giving up.
He looked around the café. "I would, but he's probably not alone."
No, probably not. Louis had spoken in the plural.
"No point in taking more buses. I now know how buses work," he went on. "People sit practically on top of you, too. No opportunities to discuss anything private. The ones behind us might be them. Oh yes, and about the hotel...how many rooms will we get if we show up at a hotel?"
She matched his careful look. "Assuming there are rooms available, as many as we want."
"If they have only one, do we drive on?"
"That depends," she answered slowly. "Now that we're under surveillance, that might be a good idea. Just imagine Mr Standard Issue, or his superior, reporting to the crisis meeting. 'They're in room 105, together.' Nice." She cringed. "Speakerphone. Room full of men. Brilliant."
"That's what I was thinking. Even though I wasn't actually planning to sleep with you."
"Oh, right. Your new-found celibacy resolution." She still did not trust that.
"Don't be sarcastic or I might change my mind."
She was confused. "About what?" Change his mind about celibacy, about feigning celibacy, or about sharing a room? Or were they the same?
"Of course Louis might think you flew to Italy to stay with me in the first place," he mused. "You could have sent a man to Italy to question me, after all, since man-to-man talks are generally more open, but you went yourself."
She blushed. "But you know I didn't."
"I know you didn't. But you don't know I didn't." He tapped the table as he was thinking.
Didn't what? "What would you have said in a man-to-man talk?"
"You would think two men would discuss details, but if there's nothing to say, there's nothing to say."
"You keep hammering at that point."
"It doesn't seem to get through." He drank his coffee. That did not take long; the cups here were rather small. The sooner the cups were empty, the sooner the customers would probably make room for other customers.
She shook her head slowly. "I'm going to take a break." She walked to the door with the toilet sign on it. Beyond it was a narrow corridor with walls hung with posters and other notices. To the left were the toilets and at the end a door marked private that doubled as emergency exit. The women's lavatories were clean enough, although everything was covered in graffiti. She wondered if he had ever been to such a place before, but he had not said anything about it. There was no one there already and no one followed her. Female agents were probably harder to come by. Or no one cared about her taking the emergency exit.
The idea of sharing a room was rather more appealing than it ought to be, she admitted, even if the main advantage was just to have company. But if people were watching over her shoulder, so to speak, it probably was not a good idea to become too friendly with this man. It was a pity that she could not say he was unattractive and that if they had not been under surveillance there was no telling what she might have done. In response to some move from him, naturally.
"Let's go rent a car," she said when she got back to the table.
"I've reserved one," he answered. "But now my phone battery is dead, so I really need to buy an extra charger. We can pick the car up in two hours, so we'll have time to go shopping and then take a taxi to the pick-up point."
This sounded surprisingly organised and surprisingly knowledgeable. "You know how to rent cars?"
"I do now. You took so long, I thought you'd gone out the back door."
"There was a lot to read."
"I was wondering, why do women leave business cards in the men's loo?"
"What do you think?"
"I wasn't sure." He got up and picked up the plastic bag that still contained two bottles of water and a lot of fruit. "Let's go."
Anna Margaret had some questions, but she did not ask them until they were driving away in their rental car. After having observed traffic from the taxi, she had decided she would let him drive, after he had reassured her that occasionally he did drive, in Italy especially. At first she thought he did not have his driving licence with him, but it was stuck in the cover of his phone with a few other cards. Not that it would matter - if they were pulled over his last name might get them into as much trouble as if he had not had a licence with him at all. She hoped, however, he had chosen to have something nice and brief for a name.
They had planned to stop somewhere before Lyon and have dinner, and maybe find a hotel. Once they got out of Italy, she could take over the wheel if he liked. For now, she just shook her head at the Italian drivers.
"Have you informed your sister that you're planning to retire?" she asked. Since he did not have any legitimate children, his sister would have to succeed him. The law had been changed in the past year to allow for female succession, but a bit too late for his elder sister herself. His father had always opposed such a change behind the scenes and it had only been possible to put it into effect after his death. The present king had encouraged the change and even, if Anna Margaret remembered well, suggested it. She had not found it significant at the time, but now she viewed that in a different light. He had been working on his successor all right; only it was not a son, but a sister.
"Er, no. Not today, if that's what you mean."
"What would she say?" She did not know his sister personally, but his sister and her family were always stereotypically perfect in everything they did - perfectly well-behaved, perfectly dressed, perfectly mannered. "Is she real?"
He laughed. "I'm always trying to hack her programming."
"Is that what you tried to do with me yesterday? When I arrived well-dressed and you chose to look like a..."
"Maybe. Although I didn't change for the occasion on purpose. I was already in pyjamas."
"Pyjamas? I thought they were jogging trousers."
"They were. That's why I thought I might as well keep them on and maybe you wouldn't notice they were."
"What does your sister think of you?"
"She thinks I have a deplorable fashion sense, but the feeling is mutual."
She did not know if his fashion sense was deplorable - he had managed to buy a pretty nice jacket at her insistence that he needed something with sleeves, after all - but perhaps it was far too casual for his job.
"I sense you think she doesn't think too well of me," said he. "Or you wouldn't be asking."
"I asked because I doubted she'd be walking around in such casual clothing when she is off duty. But I could be wrong."
"No, you're not wrong. Do they always call you Anna Margaret?"
"No. My father does, but he was the one who wanted to name me after Queen Anna and yet be unique. You know, your mother."
"You're named after my mother?" He seemed to find that strange.
"People do that. Don't you think there are little baby Fredericks around now?"
He looked uncomfortable with the idea. "Why would they do that?"
"Do you think we're still being watched?" Frederick asked when traffic on the motorway had slowed down. "I've not kept track of which cars were behind us."
"I haven't either, but they would have had to work really hard to figure out where our taxi was going and no one came into the rental office there after us. Of course they could have had a car ready and followed the taxi, but with that kind of traffic I don't see how anyone could."
He shrugged. "They're professionals. They should be able to do it without us seeing them."
"Wouldn't you like them to be there, just for the sake of safety?" She did not know what she wanted. Yes to safety, no to people seeing too much. She did not even know why there might be too much.
"Oh, I don't know. What's happening here?" He gestured ahead.
"There's a tunnel. Another toll station, probably." They had already paid toll without any problems. Nobody had been looking out for anything there. Why should they be here? Well, they ought to be, but it was not logical to expect them this far away if they had not been anywhere close to the scene of the incident.
"But it's close to the border. They might actually check us."
"We don't look suspicious. Don't worry. You're not a criminal," Anna Margaret lectured patiently, although she had forgotten this was the border and he had a point. "If you get stopped and they want more than your driving licence, we have people we can call."
"But they could have been ordered to look out for me."
"Why? What did you do?" She was torn between thinking someone ought to be trying to find him and not wanting him to be disappointed. She could not bring herself to say that if some king had gone rogue in her own country, she would have ordered every service to find him. It was simply the most sensible thing to do, whatever he might think and whatever he might have ordered.
However, being stuck with the man himself was clouding her judgement. She was helping him and she was completely on his side, given that she was hoping they would not be stopped.
There were policemen standing by every toll booth, giving each car a cursory glance, but they did not order any cars to stop. Frederick breathed a sigh of relief when they sped up again. "Whew. I really didn't like that."
"I don't want to get caught already."
Already. She pondered that. He was behaving as if he had escaped from jail. He certainly seemed to want to make this last as long as he could. What was worse was that she could not blame him. She even made sure to check no police vehicles were suddenly in pursuit.
Somewhere in France they stopped to have dinner. It was quite busy at the roadside restaurant. The holiday season in Northern Europe had not yet started and there were not many tourists, but with a few busloads of older people the place was rather full nonetheless. Anna Margaret liked the self-service aspect; no one would come to their table, but instead they were anonymous faces behind trays that had to be processed as quickly as possible. Nobody would remember them, she hoped.
"I'm glad you forced me to buy a coat," said Frederick when they were eating their food at a table by the window. It looked rather dreary outside.
"I didn't force you; I suggested it."
"Same thing. I did have a coat, you know. It's at the villa."
"I did think you had clothes other than these, yes. You have suits, for example." If they met for work, he always wore a suit. His wardrobe had to be a little more extensive than this.
"Suits," he sighed, as if he hated them with a passion.
"But you don't bring them when you go on holiday?"
"Not if you don't like them." She glanced around. Most of the tables were occupied by older people. "Any standard issues around?"
"No, but if it was my job, I'd grab a sandwich and watch the car. I didn't see anyone grab a sandwich, by the way. These people are too old to be in any service."
"But you don't need suits on a holiday?"
"I hadn't planned to dine with the mayor or anything, no. I was only there for a few days."
"Do you often dine with the mayor?"
"No. I suppose I must, some time, but the time was not yet right."
Anna Margaret frowned. "What do you mean?"
"My father often dined with the mayor. She's nice enough, I suppose, but to have dinner with her and to be wondering constantly if dinner was the only thing my father had with her..." He shrugged. "I couldn't. I shouldn't even be wondering."
All right. She would not ask.
"Let's find a hotel," he said after dinner.
"Already?" Anna Margaret had thought they would drive as far as they could. She had taken over the wheel after their stop and she had barely driven ten minutes. "Is my driving that bad?"
"It's not your driving," he smiled. "I've been up since 5:30. I just want to lie down."
"And watch stupid American sitcoms dubbed in French." She assumed, at least, that he would not already go to sleep.
"Because that's all they'll have."
"I don't watch television that often. Let's take this exit and check."
"All right," she sighed. They drove past a hotel that he dismissed with a shake of his head. She was glad, because it did not look too appealing to her either. Still, here in the countryside there could not be much else. She foresaw having to find the motorway again to drive to the next larger town.
"There!" he said with glee after two minutes, pointing at a sign by the roadside. "L'Hôtel du Roi."
"Did you know we'd come across that?" she asked suspiciously, ignoring the phrases of surprise and self-praise he was uttering.
"No. No, I swear I had no idea, but now that we've found it, we really have to take it." He looked at her pleadingly.
"Take it? They'll have to take us." But she turned into the car park nonetheless when it appeared a minute down the road. There were four cars and a van in it. "We'll have to check if they have rooms for us. Why didn't you go on holiday to a place like this? Why draw attention to yourself in a huge villa with a fence and a swimming pool? Nobody would know you're here. There's no one around to notice and the landscape is much friendlier, although the houses look worse. At home this building wouldn't even be fit for cows."
"I inherited the villa; I didn't have it built. Do you speak French?"
"Enough to ask a simple question."
"Okay." He lingered behind her when she made for the door, checking over his shoulder if anyone had followed them into the car park.
The building looked as if no maintenance had been done on it since the last French king had stayed here. If it had not been for its name, Frederick would have wanted to drive on, she was sure. The inside, however, was surprisingly modern and neat.
She approached reception and asked if they had any available rooms. First that, and then she would decide whether they needed one or two. It was a decision she would rather not make, as there were advantages and disadvantages to both options.
The girl behind the desk checked, checked again and looked concerned. She was very sorry, but they only had the King Suite available and it was very expensive. Clearly she believed that a couple of which the man was wearing jogging trousers would want something cheaper.
Anna Margaret turned to consult her companion. She was not sure he had heard, but his face told her he had. He was trying not to look absolutely delighted. And she tried to keep her eyes from rolling.
"Take it," he said in a strange voice.
"All right," she said to the girl. "We'll take it. One night." It cost a bomb, but then, it was only once and she could afford it. On top of what she had shelled out for the rental car it did hurt a little, though.
"I can pay you back, you know," Frederick said as he carried the suitcase to the lift. "You lifted your head in shock when she mentioned the price. I gathered it was a lot. It doesn't mean anything to me."
"It's all right. I just don't usually spend that much on a bed. I suppose it would be worse in a hotel that's actually near things." She would definitely have said no to the King Suite in a city-centre hotel.
He contained himself until the doors of the lift had closed. Then he erupted into laughter. "The King Suite!"
"Act your age," she muttered and hoped no one else would come into the lift with them.
"But this is humour at its best."
On the second floor they got out. It was not a large hotel and on this floor there were only three rooms or suites. The one closest to the lift was merely numbered, but the two others bore names. King Frederick gleefully opened the door to the Suite du Roi. "I wonder who's in the Suite de la Reine."
"Your future wife?" Anna Margaret suggested.
"Funny." He then explored the room. "This is more like it."
"More like what?"
"More like a normal hotel room. There's even space to walk around."
She thought it was huge. There was a bedroom section, a sitting room section and a large bathroom. There were even doors to a balcony or roof terrace. It was all nice, but wholly unnecessary for one night. She did not even get this much on official trips. Still, there had been nothing else for them.
She eyed the bed. King size, of course. Maybe he would say something about that too, but she would head him off. "I'll sleep on the couch." It looked comfortable enough.
There were gentlemen and there were kings. This one merely said, "okay" and turned on the taps to run a bath.
Anna Margaret inspected the refrigerator. It was stocked. "I advise you not to take anything from the fridge. It's not free." She did not know how much he knew about these things, but she did not want an even higher bill in the morning.
He came to have a look. "I don't eat or drink any of those things anyway." He then took off his shirt and dropped it on the floor right where he was standing.
She watched this. "Whenever you stay in a hotel, do you have someone to tidy up behind you?"
He gave her a funny look. "Why do you ask?"
She pointed at the shirt.
"You can walk around it."
"You could also pick it up."
"Yes, I could," he answered, but he did not do it. He went to inspect the bath, which could not possibly be full already.
She realised he was not going to do it because she said so. In fact, he was probably going to leave the shirt on the floor on purpose because she had said something about it.
Then his phone rang and he came hopping out of the bathroom, jogging trousers half off. Anna Margaret groaned and looked away. He insisted on provoking her. When he thought jogging trousers were not shocking enough, he simply took them off. She walked to the window and looked out.
"Yes?" he said into the phone. "Hi, I have to warn you, I'm running a bath." He kicked his other leg out of his trousers as well and left the trousers on the floor, of course.
She kept looking out of the window, but she was wondering who was on the other end. It was someone he liked, she decided. He sounded friendly.
"Oh, you heard? No, don't worry. I'm absolutely fine. I wasn't injured. I bumped into a few rocks, that's all. Now? Ah well, I don't know if I should tell you. We seem to have lost our tail and I rather like it that way. If I told you, you might tell them and they'd be back."
Anna Margaret half turned. She was listening, of course, although she feigned interest in a plant.
"But -" he then said, looking more serious. He did not seem to be allowed to speak, however.
This was definitely interesting. The person on the other side was saying a lot and he could not answer. Who was it who was not letting him speak? Definitely not Louis. Louis would not dare.
"What do you mean, love me?" he asked in irritation. "Who? That's not me, that's an image of me. Nobody -" But then the other person cut him off again.
Anna Margaret almost pitied him. She felt she was intruding, and she went to check on the bath. She sat watching it.
He joined her after a while; she had no idea how much time had passed. "Do people love me?" he asked.
"I don't know." She trailed her hand through the water.
"See, I don't think so. You can't love someone you don't know."
She would agree.
"And therefore I don't feel obliged to...er...let everybody know where I am, I suppose. I don't feel that responsibility right now."
She watched the water drip off her hand. It was fascinating. It was also a way to avoid giving a reaction. She forced herself to look away. So someone had been giving him a hard time about his responsibilities and the people who loved him. "You and this other person," she began carefully, "seem to disagree about the number of people who love you?" She did not think she would disagree much with someone saying he was not feeling his responsibilities too strongly.
"Does he or she love you?"
"She. And yes, I suppose so."
Anna Margaret glanced at the water again.
"I don't want to have to turn myself in simply because someone out there has the mistaken notion of loving me," he said petulantly. "If you love me, you let me stay here. I need this."
She stood up and lightly touched his arm. "Your bath is ready." Then she walked to the door.
"But what do you think?" he called after her.
Does my opinion count more than hers, she wondered. "I think you should take your bath."
"Listen. She has no authority. She cannot force me to leave." But he did not look too certain of that. "I need a hug. I don't need crap about my responsibilities."
She stepped over the threshold into the suite. Granted, it was backwards and not as rejecting of a hug as it probably should be, but it put some distance between them regardless. "Don't hug me. I'm a really bad hugger."
"I'll be the judge of that."
She took another step back. "Don't do it. It would be a really bad idea." He might discover she needed one as much as he did. And then what? No, it was a really bad idea.
"You know I like really bad ideas."
"Unfortunately," she said warily. "You're the king, you're in your underwear, you have someone who loves you and you want me to hug you? I'm sorry, that's just a triple no-go. I might do it if you weren't the king and you weren't in your underwear." And if no one loved him, but she could not say that for fear he would ask her why that mattered.
"I can take the underwear off, but not the title."
She closed her eyes. "Oh for heaven's sake! I meant clothes on, not clothes off! Why are you so bloody stupid at times?"
Frederick did not admit or deny that he was stupid, or whether he perhaps had other intentions. "Who loves me and what does that have to do with my needing a hug? I mean, it matters to me, but why does it matter to you?"
"She might not like it." She meant, of course, the one who had phoned him. The one she did not like to hear about, for reasons she did not like to investigate.
"Why should she care if you hugged me?"
"Someone phoned you." Who was she? And why could she not simply ask the question? She supposed it was because she might not like the answer.
He seemed to understand nevertheless. "My aunt."
"Your aunt." Now that was confusing and not quite what she had been expecting. His aunt?
"And why on earth can't kings wear underwear? Did you think I even slept and bathed in three-piece suits?" He raised one eyebrow. "Or is it simply not the sort you'd expected?"
She spoke automatically. "I honestly never gave your apparel any thought until I came to Italy." His aunt?
"Hug?" he demanded.
"I don't think that would be a good idea. First you take your clothes off at every opportunity so that people can become physically attracted to you, and then you ask for hugs. It's only four steps towards that bed!" Well, maybe it was three or even six. She had not measured.
Frederick had the grace to blink innocently. "I didn't know that was why I was taking off my clothes. At every opportunity? One, I was going to take a shower - and if you'd looked you would have seen I kept my underwear on. Two, we had to keep our clothes dry - and it was your idea. Three, I want to take a bath - and I won't have dry clothes tomorrow if I don't take them off. I fail to see where I ever took my clothes off to seduce you."
Anna Margaret blushed. Now it was her fault, was it? And he had kept his underwear on? "You kept your underwear on? Why?"
"Because you're the prime minister and you were there, essentially, on business. And I honestly never gave the shower any thought until we stood right in front of it. And then what? Eat in sweaty clothes? But do tell me about this physical attraction."
"No." She turned away to stop seeing his good-looking body. "Take your bath."
"Are you afraid you'll drag me off to the bed?"
She gave a half-cry, because the notion was too absurd. Or perhaps it was not and she was simply afraid he was going to say the attraction was not reciprocated. It would be mortifying. She did not even know if she was physically attracted to him.
"At this point the physical stuff is not going to help me anyway," he said briskly, as if to order himself to get over this problem. "I just need to know someone understands me and has my best interests at heart. Satisfying someone else's lust is not going to help me."
"I have your best interests at heart. I can't say I understand you, though. Now, get into the bath." She closed the door. There was no lust. And he was an inconsiderate oaf. He would not care anyway.
There were about two dozen calls that she had missed. Most, she guessed, could wait. They would be from curious people who could hardly make any useful contributions to the situation. Louis might, but he was very likely wanting to know where they were.
She called him. That it might give away her location was not something that she was concerned about. She did not have a real problem with being followed, as long as they did not see everything. Or hear everything. She cringed as she imagined someone overhearing the conversation that had just taken place.
"Where are you?" he asked predictably.
"In a hotel."
"And the king?"
"In another room." She was glad that was not a lie. The bathroom was another room. If he asked on she might have to be more specific, but perhaps not. He might still be on speakerphone.
"Our men lost you. They hadn't thought you'd rented a car and by the time they'd got a car themselves, you were gone."
"I thought they were professionals."
He was not personally responsible for those professionals, so he let that pass. "Are you in Italy?"
"No, in France. But don't bother sending anyone over. They haven't got any more rooms in this hotel. Is there any news on the terrorists?"
"You know we don't like speaking of them as terrorists too quickly."
"For fear of angering certain kinds of people," she said sarcastically. "But that tells me enough. They were Islamists then?"
Louis paused. "We've not researched their backgrounds in enough detail yet to be able to state that with absolute certainty."
"But they have names and appearances that all point to the same thing. Why were they targeting the king?" She had not been briefed on specific threats against their country, let alone against the king. They were small and half the people in the world would not even know where they were.
"Because he's a symbol and the entire nation would be grieved and shocked."
"Surprisingly he believes no one would give a damn." She looked away from the bathroom door.
"It doesn't appear to have been a very professional action."
Intentions mattered, not how they were carried out. But perhaps people were defending themselves for not having foreseen this threat - because it had come from amateurs they could not possibly have noticed before. She shook her head. They would sort that out later.
They were not being very professional here either. Well, she was trying. His Majesty was trying his hardest to be as unprofessional as possible - and then pretending not to realise it.
She forced her thoughts away from him. "Have there been any statements about how he came through? I know he was pronounced dead on Twitter, but then what?"
"We've not provided any definitive information about his fate," Louis said gravely. "Because he said so and because we hoped it would flush some of the rats out of their hiding places."
"On the other hand, saying he survived might also flush out some rats - the ones who want to finish the job." It was not an appealing prospect, but, she thought, not the most likely one.
"Yes, but that's more dangerous, especially when we have no idea where he actually is. So far, a dozen arrests have already been made. Haven't you been watching the news?"
"At the risk of you calculating where we are precisely, we haven't yet had time to turn on the TV. Besides, it probably only has French channels."
"We need your approval in this matter. Different statements have been prepared and we can broadcast them at very short notice."
"Well..." She ran a hand across her eyes as she was thinking. She did not want anyone to start looking for them here or anywhere else along the road home, even if they only wanted to take pictures. Security services were all right, but making public that they were in France would also attract the media. "Just pretend you went with the original plan - he was taken to Rome. By the time someone figures out he's not in Rome, we'll have driven home."
"And he's alive?"
"Improving," she said finally. She did not think he would still do something utterly unexpected.
"But if they figure out he's alive and not in Rome..."
"They won't think of France."
"Switzerland is the fastest route, but the man has no passport. Well, not with him, anyway. And they don't know he doesn't have it with him, so nobody will think we're going around Switzerland."
"We have taken his effects from the villa. There was very little, I was told, so we assumed he took most."
Anna Margaret sighed. "Jogging trousers, a sports shirt, a phone, a bank card and a credit card. That's what we're working with. I think he takes travelling light to the next level."
Louis probably looked shocked, because he was silent for a moment. "His effects have been sent home."
"Good. Listen, given how early he wanted us to look for a hotel because he wanted to lie down, I'm not sure we could do the remainder of the journey before tomorrow evening. It will depend on how tired we are whether we'll get another hotel or drive on until we get there. He seems to have a preference for authentic-style, off-the-motorway places. However, I should definitely be able to drop him off before Monday lunch time."
She would force him to sleep in the car if they threatened to run out of time. She was beginning to feel a little better now that she was talking business. Her confidence returned. She could do this - bring the inconsiderate, childish sports freak home. "Trust me," she said to Louis. "I'm the only one he'll listen to."
"Let us know where you are at least."
"Some department can figure that out, I'm sure. You have my phone number. Can I trust all the people who are listening in?"
"Of course you can! You know them."
Did that mean anything? No. Not all of them took her seriously because of her age and because she was a woman, and the combination was even worse. She liked having the upper hand now, being the one in charge of the nation's most prized object. Frederick would not agree with that description of himself and he would do something rebellious if she told him.
He would probably offer to drive and then take the back roads north if she did that.
Anna Margaret knocked on the bathroom door.
"Come in," he called.
She opened the door enough so that she could talk. "Your phone keeps ringing."
"Let it ring," he answered indifferently. "I'm enjoying my bath. This thing is huge. Care to join me? I'm wearing my underwear just in case."
Just in case. Well, in that case, she remembered she had a swimsuit. "I'll be right back." She dug her swimsuit out of her suitcase and pulled it on. "Did you purposely keep something on?" she asked when she got back, hoping he had not lied.
"Yes. And because it gets washed this way, just in case I need a clean one in two days."
"It does not -" Oh, what the heck, she thought. He lived in a different reality and if in this reality his underwear could be washed by sitting in a Jacuzzi, who was she to argue with him? They had two days before it became relevant anyway.
"You came prepared." He noticed her swimsuit in approval.
She slid into the Jacuzzi, not yet able to decide whether this was a good or a bad idea. Her muscles obviously liked it. Perhaps she could focus on that.
"Are you tired?"
"And tomorrow you might be sore from running. I'll drive."
"I was afraid you'd offer. I know exactly what you'd do." She did not know if that was a gentlemanly offer or simply a very sly one.
He looked expectant. "And that is?"
"Take the back roads."
"Would I? The back roads are lovely, although I've never seen them in this season. I've been skiing a bit north of here a few times. Or is it east? It's been a few years."
"Since you went skiing?"
"Yes. I haven't been since I injured my knee. I didn't like being unable to do things for so long, so I stuck to other sports since then with fewer risks. And you?"
"I've been never been skiing."
"Don't worry. And don't go. You'd only twist your knee."
"Do you sit in Jacuzzis a lot?"
"Not as often as you probably think." He looked amused. "Occasionally I find one in a hotel."
"You don't have one at home?" She was curious about his home. She imagined his room to be something like this suite.
"Are you referring to the amount of money that was spent on renovating my apartment?"
"Well..." She had read dazzling sums, although for some people any sum would be dazzling and a good reason to voice a protest against the money-sucking monarchy. It had to have been spent on some luxuriousness at least.
"Installing proper plumbing and heating in a very old building is pretty costly. Then there were some cosmetic touches that I didn't want made public, but I can tell you that I don't have a Jacuzzi. Not even one with gold taps."
"So what do you have?" She was still curious.
Frederick grinned. "A shower. Water-saving, naturally."
"And you don't sit in Jacuzzis at parties?"
"I never get invited to that type of party."
"You brought a swimsuit," he pointed. "Why bring a swimsuit if you're not expecting pool parties at every turn?"
"All right, all right," she conceded with some embarrassment. "I did wonder if you threw pool parties and I bought a swimsuit so I could keep an eye on what sort of things went on there."
"Are you serious?" he exclaimed.
"And you thought you were attractive enough to be invited if I did?" he asked jokingly.
She splashed water at him. "Stop."
"I suppose you were thinking I was of the opinion that the more women there were, the better, even women who just told me off for that sort of thing."
"I never throw pool parties of that nature. If I'm invited elsewhere, by the time the half-naked people hit the Jacuzzi, I'm already on my morning run. I swear. I've only ever seen this happen in photos."
She said nothing. He certainly spoke convincingly.
"But if I do ever throw a pool party, I'll invite you," he reassured her. "I think you'll be able to handle it."
"What would it be like? Who else would you invite?" She could not imagine it being a formal party. He would not be wearing a suit, but she could not imagine him throwing a party in his underwear either.
"Not a lot of women. I don't know a lot of women who'd be up for beer and water volleyball or something of that nature."
"But I am?" She had no idea in fact.
"Not sure. But you'd come to make sure there weren't any unsuitable women, wouldn't you?"
She had gone to sleep on the couch, tired enough not to mind that it was a couch. Frederick had let her; he had merely said goodnight. In the morning, she was woken by someone lightly shaking her shoulder. "What is it?"
"I'm going for a run."
"A run." It was still dark in the room, but she did not know how it was outside. "What time is it? Is it dark? You'll be run over." There was no room for even cyclists on these roads. Runners without lights would not be seen and they had nowhere to go. Had he not noticed? Did his staff always close off roads if he wanted to go running?
He groaned softly. "I knew it would be a bad idea to tell you."
"Yes." She sat up. Maybe she should go with him.
"But even worse to go without telling you." He pushed her back down. "There's a small road leading up the hill behind us. I'll run there, not on the main road. I'm not expecting any cars this early on a Sunday morning."
"Cars won't be expecting any runners this early on a Sunday morning either."
"Well, if I don't come back, I'll either have been run over or I'll have been kidnapped." He did not seem to care either way.
"That's an uplifting thought. Do you expect me to be able to sleep on?" As far as she knew without having peeked all too often, he had gone to sleep in his underwear - not the same one he had sat in the bath in - but he now appeared to be wearing a shirt. Apparently he was ready to go and she was not.
"I have no idea." He stood up straight and walked towards the door. "See you in an hour."
It was her turn to groan now. She rolled herself into a ball and tried to sleep some more. Not surprisingly she failed. After imagining all sorts of accidents for fifteen minutes, and cursing his stupidity, she got out of bed. The best she could do was get up. The clock said it was close to 6:30. Since he had not come back, the front door of the hotel must have been open and he must have gone out.
She showered and dressed, taking advantage of the undisturbed time. Only then did she think of stepping onto the roof terrace. From there she could see a road, very narrow, that led higher up the hill. He had said he would run there and after a few minutes she could make out a moving figure. There were no cars or other runners following him. That was a relief and she left the chilly morning air to go back inside.
It was almost seven o'clock now. Breakfast would soon be served downstairs. They might be back on the road by eight, although that was probably an optimistic calculation. He was not back yet and he still had to shower. And then he might have breakfast at leisure.
She turned on the television and tried to find a news channel. Whenever there was something like a news bulletin on, they were speaking in too rapid French for her to be able to understand much. Besides, none of the news seemed to be about King Frederick. Either it was no longer newsworthy here or it had never been.
Checking the news on her phone was always a chore, but she had to resort to it anyway. Earlier she had not been ready to read any news, but now she was. Their own national news sites carried more information, fortunately. She scanned the articles to get an idea of how much had been revealed. King Frederick was reported to have been unharmed and taken to Rome, from where he would be flown home. The live blog could not yet confirm his arrival there, although cars had been seen arriving at the embassy.
The live blog proved to be a useful source of information. It mentioned the names of the two attackers who had been injured and arrested. They were Italian students of North African descent and the three other attackers were assumed to be the same. They had so far not been caught, although they had hijacked a car and driven off in the direction of Genoa. It was unclear whether they were armed, but since they had not left any weapons behind, there was every reason to assume that they were.
Anna Margaret calculated when they might have arrived in Genoa given the time of the hijacking, but it would almost certainly have been before she had got there. Yet there had been no signs of police looking for the fugitives anywhere. Either the authorities had information they had not shared with the media, or they simply were not looking. It was rather strange in any case.
She walked onto the roof terrace to check the back road. There was no one running anymore, as far as she could tell from watching it for a few minutes. Unless he had gone over the hill, he must have gone back to the hotel. Or he was doing exercises behind those patches of vegetation.
She went back inside and boiled some water for tea. Most of the bags on the tray with the electric kettle were for instant cappuccino and the like, but she did not like that. As she was busy preparing her tea, the door opened. She turned and saw in relief that it was him.
"Hello," he said cheerfully. "See? I didn't get run over. I didn't even see a car."
But he could have. Not seeing a car did not make it safe. She hid her relief. "Get dressed. I'm hungry."
"So am I. Any news?" He nodded at the television that was still on.
"The other three attackers hijacked a car and drove to Genoa, before we got there, but we never saw any signs of anyone looking for them. Isn't that odd?"
"I'll think about it in the shower."
That was frustrating. She needed someone to say it was odd. And her tea was still too hot to drink.
It took him ten minutes to shower and shave, another few to get dressed. "Maybe we could stop somewhere to buy you some new trousers today," she remarked. "You've been running in those."
"Nobody will know that. I'm wearing a clean shirt."
"Let's have some breakfast." He held out his hand.
She did not know for what.
The breakfast room was quiet. There were only two men there so far. The other guests were still asleep, which was not remarkable at this hour on a Sunday morning. They were probably the first guests ever to have slept in the King's Suite and to have come down for breakfast this early, too.
"So, did you think about it in the shower?" Anna Margaret asked in a low voice once they had got coffee and some bread. They were seated as far away from the two men as possible, so they would be able to talk freely.
"Yes, I did. You're right, we didn't see anyone. But if they drove there ahead of us, maybe they were already caught? Or they turned around halfway."
"We didn't see anything halfway either." Well, she had not. He had taken a nap at some point.
"We were on the slow road. No one would use it for a fast escape."
"If we took it because of that, so could they," she pointed out. "To fool everyone."
"We'll just have to take the absence of police to mean that they didn't get as far as Genoa, or they were already out of Genoa by the time we got there. It's also a pretty big city. There are more ways in and out than people could watch."
"We might have taken the same road north." She did not like following them.
"But they don't know we did, so they won't be waiting for us anywhere. They're trying to escape the police, not trying to catch us. Right?"
"Right," she repeated, but she was uncertain. And she also did not understand why he had been nervous about being caught by harmless policemen, but completely indifferent about being caught by terrorists. "They were Italians, you know."
"Of North African descent. Why pick on you?"
"The supposedly illegally-built villa? I have no idea. Of course they could have been hired by someone else, because they were local. It doesn't mean they came up with this plan themselves. Someone at home might have thought of it and then needed someone to do the dirty work for him."
"In which case there would have been communications." Their heads of the security services would undoubtedly have thought of the same thing. She did not have to do their thinking for them, she reminded herself. "Louis said yesterday that some arrests had been made, but I didn't ask him where or who. The live blog didn't mention them."
"Then maybe the live blog isn't as informed as it would like to be. And maybe no one drove to Genoa at all, but it was simply assumed they did because it's the only large town nearby."
"I wouldn't want to run into them anywhere." She glanced at the two other men in the room, but they were safely middle-aged and not students. At least they were not here.
"We won't. If they're Italians they won't go to France. Let's enjoy breakfast." He covered her hand with his. "Did you sleep well?"
She looked at his hand, then quickly at the other tables, but no one cared.
"I thought later that maybe I should have taken the couch myself," he continued. "But you were already on it."
Anna Margaret made a little gasping noise. Where did this belatedly gentlemanly idea come from? Or was it even gentlemanly? "With or without me?"
"Without you. You don't trust me at all, do you?" He was amused rather than disappointed.
"Not completely," she admitted. "I still only have your word for it."
"And I didn't even try anything in the Jacuzzi. You're completely brainwashed by the tabloids. They're useful, in a sense, because they can be manipulated, but manipulation works both ways."
"How do you manipulate them?"
He shrugged. "I talk to some girl so they take a picture."
"To piss off my father, of course. Sorry for the language."
"But he's dead."
"Yes, so there's no more point in doing it."
Anna Margaret had a flash of insight. "Are you gay?"
He shook his head and smiled. "No. And yes, I am very sure of it."
"Then I'm really lost."
"Oh, so am I at times. I think - maybe I don't like all that attention when I really like someone. I don't mind it if it means nothing."
"Do you ever really like someone?" Besides himself, of course. She assumed he did not, or she would have read something about a relationship some time.
He gave her an earnest look. "I'd like to kiss you some time."
"And shag me with impunity," she said without thinking.
The earnest look was replaced by a wide grin. "Yes."
She drank a whole glass of milk before realising hers was the other glass. "Me."
"Yes." He reached for the other glass of milk and pushed it towards her. "Why are you shocked? You've been implying all along that I'm not very particular. You must already have been including yourself in my sweeping generalisation of women I'd like to...did I really use that word?"
She did not know if she had been including herself. "You're a cold fish. You're not even embarrassed."
He laughed. "Because you are not. If I'd said I'd like to kiss and you'd have looked back like oh yes, right now, please! I might have run off."
"But instead, you say something outrageous and looked as if I was mad."
She blushed. "I didn't say anything outrageous. I simply repeated your own words." But yes, he was mad.
"Yes. And there's no danger yet, because there's no impunity yet."
"Well, there are two men over there, of course. And a waitress."
"I see what you're doing. I'm always doing it too," he merely said. "Should I refill your coffee for you?"
She was glad to speak of coffee. It was innocent. "Yes, please. How did you know you had to refill it yourself? I'm sure you're always being served."
"I saw that man there do it." He walked away with their cups. When he returned, he said, "move over a chair."
Anna Margaret did so, curious what he had in mind. He sat beside her and set down the cups. That was still all very normal. He laid an arm around her shoulders, which was not very normal. She stiffened.
"Relax," he whispered. "There are two men over there, and a waitress, as you pointed out. They don't want to see much. I'll just kiss you."
"Don't you require my permission?" She hoped dearly that her permission was not all over her face. She was not that easy. She should not be.
He rephrased the sentence obediently. "I'll just kiss you if you give me your permission."
"All right," she said, trying to sound indifferent.
After this more than pleasant kiss, he returned to where he had been sitting before, grinning at her mysteriously.
Anna Margaret felt hot and more than a little embarrassed. Neither of the two men, nor the waitress, showed the least bit of interest in them, however. It even remained to be seen whether they had noticed the kiss at all. She did not want to speak unless she had something intelligent to say, but unfortunately only unintelligent words came to mind.
"Shall we take the stairs?" she suggested hurriedly after breakfast. There was no telling what he might do in the lift. He was still looking like the cat that had got the cream. But then there was the room upstairs. Any casual touch would make her fear he had something in mind. "Listen," she said halfway between the first and the second floor when she had had time to think. "What are your plans?"
"Pack and drive?"
"No, I mean with regard to me." Her face felt warm. "I know what your plans are after your retirement. Maybe you shouldn't have told me, because I'm afraid now I think you're completely obsessed with it." Did she really think that, if she evaluated his behaviour? No. He had not touched her in the Jacuzzi. And he had only kissed her so far, but that had been sweet, not seductive. Of course he might have amazing self-control and just be waiting for the right moment to strike. He might find it funny to see her squirm in the meantime.
"Oh." He stopped climbing. "That. And you're on top of my list, so to speak?"
She nodded. "You spoke as if you couldn't wait to sleep with every woman available and now you've kissed me. Are you now going to try things when we get to our room?"
His eyes widened. "No. And I don't want to sleep with every woman available. Not if I really think about it."
"But..." She needed to hear more, although she did not know precisely what. It would not be flattering to hear he wanted to sleep with everyone except her, but it would be extremely unsettling to hear he was going to try something upstairs. The timing was all wrong. His position was all wrong. Her job was not exactly the most suitable for it either.
"Only with you," he said reluctantly, "but not yet."
Anna Margaret was glad she was standing still. She would have stumbled otherwise. "Oh. And er, when did you single me out for this particular favour?"
Frederick shrugged. "I want to and I don't want to. But not yet." He hurried up the stairs.
She sat down on the stairs as he took the door out of the stairwell. He wanted to and he did not want to. Well, that summarised pretty nicely how she was feeling as well.
He came to fetch her about five minutes later. He held out his hand to pull her up. "Come. We want to travel on, don't we?"
Once on the road again, Anna Margaret felt much calmer. He had been correct; her muscles ached today. She had been happy to sit in the passenger seat and after making him promise he would take the first motorway he came across, she allowed him to drive north over the back roads. It was not the most sensible compromise for people who did have a deadline, but it felt good.
"Call my sister," he said, handing her his phone. "She's listed under Sister."
"With your phone?"
"You can use yours as well."
"Why should I call her?" Without knowing how things were going to work out, it was highly premature to tell his sister he had met the love of his life and even worse to have her do it. Anna Margaret could not see what else she would need to tell his sister, however. Perhaps it was really bad of her to think of the kiss immediately. He must have something special to have managed this so easily. Something more than merely a good physique. She would not mind exploring what this was, but it was far too early to tell anyone else about it.
"Tell her I'm going to abdicate."
That was a relief, but it was still strange. "Shouldn't you be doing that yourself?"
"Please do it. You'll find out soon enough why."
Anna Margaret found the number. It was hopefully no longer too early to phone on a Sunday morning. "Is she up? She's not gone to church or something?"
"We only go to church for weddings and funerals. But she'll be up."
She pressed the numbers. "Your Royal Highness?" she asked and then she introduced herself. It was a simple enough errand and she could even pretend she was doing this on behalf of her job, and not as a loyal partner of a potential future lover.
The voice on the other end did not sound too annoyed, so she had probably already been awake. Of course someone as perfect as the princess could not possibly betray any signs of less than perfect emotions. She would simply not do annoyance. "I suppose you're calling about the situation in Italy," said the princess.
"In a way. I called to inform you that your brother will be abdicating."
"Again?" The princess collected herself and then spoke more coolly. "You're forcing him to, aren't you? It's probably because of those women. I can't believe you would actually take the word of those women over his. He would never get himself trapped in situations like that."
"I'm not forcing him," she interjected when the princess was taking a split second to breathe, but she could not say any more.
"But you've suggested the idea to him, because people believe a man in his position shouldn't be engaging in such actions. But let me tell you this - he has never engaged in such actions in his life," the princess said decisively. "But there you are believing he has even gone so far as to have fathered illegitimate children. I am appalled. And now he was shot at and he is traumatised and he needs therapy."
"Therapy," Anna Margaret said weakly, thrown off balance by the leap from illegitimate children to therapy. "But I don't think he was literally shot at."
"I didn't say the therapy was for being shot at. He has more issues. Which I am not going to share with you, if you don't mind. You will not urge him to resign. That is not up to you."
"I told you, I'm not forcing him." And that was more or less the end of the call.
"What was that about therapy?" Frederick inquired.
"She thinks you need therapy."
"I know," he answered surprisingly. "Did she tell you for what?"
"She's not going to share your issues with me, she said." Which was a pity. She was rather interested in his issues now. "But you have shared them with her?"
"She's shared her impression of my issues with me, naturally."
"But you don't think you have issues?"
"I do have issues," he admitted candidly. "I have issues with women, I have issues with clothes, I have issues with responsibilities. Probably lots more. But they might not coincide perfectly with her impression of my issues."
"Fair enough. I can sort of imagine those are your issues. However, I can say she had issues with being told you were going to resign. I don't think she accepted it."
"It can't have been news to her; I've threatened her with it at least once a month. Maybe she wants to be the one to decide when it's my time to go. I know she has plans. She thinks if I marry someone off her list, I shall magically lose some of my issues and be happy in my position." He grinned wryly. "So my objectives are more or less the opposite: I'll resign and then live in sin with someone who's not her on her list."
"But there's a problem," she deduced. "Or you would have done it already."
"So what was the problem?"
"Nobody ever takes me seriously if I say I want to resign. Nobody ever took me seriously when I said I didn't want to succeed my father either. Probably also because there was nothing I could officially do except marry an unsuitable woman to get out of the line of succession and I could never find anyone who was suitable to me and unsuitable to them. You have to become the king before you can say you don't want to be the king. So instead they offered surgery and therapy as cures for everything."
"Surgery?" That was the first she had ever heard of it. She wondered what he had needed surgery for.
"Yeah, they thought that if they fixed my protruding ears, I'd start to listen to them."
Anna Margaret studied his ears. "I didn't know you had protruding ears."
"And huge braces and glasses. I was a terribly attractive child." He looked at his own phone when it began to ring. Being on a back road, it was easy to slow down, though not as easy to find a place to park.
"Now let's see what she's sending me," he said when he had stopped the car. Although it was Sunday, they might always encounter a tractor after the next bend. "She's sending me photos that Louis sent her."
"My sister. She's messaging. Messaging doesn't go very quickly; she's always very picky about typing grammatically correct sentences."
"Louis sent her photos - of what?"
"Of me. Proving that I'm alive." He showed her the phone. "Look, that's us shopping in Genoa."
"Why is she sending you that?" So one or more of the watchers had taken pictures and sent them back home. Why? To check whether they were looking at the right people? To reveal what they were doing? She did not like it much. She dearly hoped no one had been present in the breakfast room.
"She's probably typing that right now." He sat waiting. "Ah, there it is. Who is that woman?"
"Was I in the photo?" She had not seen it very well.
"Yes, I was handing you a shopping bag there. So, Louis thinks he was reassuring her by sending her a photo of me, but she's now going out of her mind wondering who I was with."
"Are you going to tell her?" And if he was, what else was he going to tell his sister about her?
"She's not finished typing, I think. Who is that woman? Why are you out shopping when they say you were attacked?"
"Um, I escaped?" He said it as he typed. "And then I needed clothes."
"Sounds logical," Anna Margaret commented. "But then, I was there." She was not sure it was all so very logical in retrospect, however.
"Let's annoy her," he said. "I'll type that she knows the woman."
"This is not a game."
"Oh, come on. We have some time to play games. Just a few minutes. How many times have I told you to watch out for women? I don't know. Too often to count."
"Has she really?" Did sisters do that? She was the eldest and she never did. His sister was older. Maybe that explained it.
"Oh yes. Let me type that you're my personal bodyguard."
"This is not a game," Anna Margaret repeated. "Let me type. She won't know it's me anyway and at least sensible things will be said."
"She won't know it's not me when sensible things are being said? Are you open to the possibility of me saying sensible things then?"
She held out her hand and her expression showed that she would not accept a refusal. She received the phone, naturally, and checked whether anything new had been written. Where are you now?
Anna Margaret began to tap the letters, carefully, because she had seen he too employed proper spelling and capitalisation. On my way home.
His sister was persistent. Who is the woman and where is she?
"I could have been killed and she wonders about my chastity?" he exclaimed.
In some aspects they were not very different, his sister and he. Both focused on the less important matters. He was enjoying himself and she was worrying about his chastity. "All right, I'll type that." She began typing, but it was too long and she changed it. I'm unbelievably chaste. She had no idea if he was, but it was definitely something he would say. "But please, we should drive on or we won't make it home tonight. Why isn't she phoning you?"
"I don't know. Maybe she's having breakfast with the family and she doesn't want the children to overhear? That happened the previous time she messaged me. It is of course a very sensitive topic, women. She couldn't possibly voice the things women might do to me."
"It might give her children ideas. But say goodbye. I'll drive on. Why do you want to be home tonight?" There was a slightly disappointed emphasis on the last word.
"I have to go to work tomorrow. They don't pay me to be your nanny. I'm off to South America for a few days later this week." In the consternation she had nearly forgotten about it. Now it was even more imperative for her to get home in time so she could prepare herself, assuming the visit would not be cancelled because of the attack.
"I could drop you off and then make another little tour of Europe," he mused. "On my own. I think I'll manage."
Anna Margaret could only give him her best discouraging stare. He was crazy enough to do it. Or perhaps not crazy. Longing for freedom.
"Okay," he sighed. "I'll have to hand in my resignation and I'm sure it will take a while before it's accepted, so I'd better do it immediately."
"I'll accept it."
"Yes, but it will have to pass through a few uncooperative channels before it gets to you. They might simply decide not to pass it along."
"There's very little they could do to stop it if I announce the news to the press, based on a personal communication of yours."
"Oh, you think."
"I see why you want out. I'll take care of it. Your sister has been informed already. If chooses not to prepare herself, that's her problem." She looked at the road ahead and wondered when they would reach the motorway. "But, this is our deal. You will accept that I can overrule your foolish ideas and I will do that for you when we get home."
"You mean my ideas that you think are foolish. They might not be, objectively speaking."
"We've got you again," Louis announced triumphantly around ten o'clock.
Anna Margaret looked at the road behind them. There was nothing. "So where are we then?"
"You stayed at a placed called Hôtel du Roi. At some point you're going to have to take the A39."
She had no idea where the A39 was precisely. It was not yet shown on the map of their navigation system. Louis was being rather optimistic. "We're still on a D road. The scenic route. His Majesty is intent on enjoying himself before he gets locked up again."
His Majesty slapped her thigh.
She ignored it - or tried to. "What are the latest updates? I was reading some sites last night but the information didn't make sense to me. Why, if the attackers escaped to Genoa, wasn't there any evidence of police looking for them there? Nobody was monitoring the motorway there."
"The Italians assured us that they were."
"So, not only do they have citizens of theirs attack a foreign head of state, but they also don't make any effort to find them?" Anna Margaret tried not to get worked up about this or about the motives of the attackers. Facts, she should stick to facts, and she did not have all of those.
"The attackers got away in Milan and are thought to be hiding there."
"Milan." At least that was not nearby like Lyon. "And the ones who got caught?"
"They are being interrogated."
"But they've not revealed anything."
"No. And by the way, your father has contacted me. He couldn't get hold of you."
"My father doesn't have my mobile number. I hope you didn't give it to him. I also hope you didn't tell him where I was." She feared he was one of those people who looked up to her father still and who could not resist an order. Still, her father had not yet phoned, which he would have done immediately after being given her number.
"I said you were on a private holiday, but in contact with us."
"Good. And put a little pressure on those Italians. Have Eric contact his counterpart if he hasn't done so already. If you give me a phone number I'll do it myself."
There was some muted conversation on the other end. Evidently he was talking to Eric. "No, he'll do it again."
They discussed for a while what Eric should say precisely and what he already had, and then Louis thought of something else before he hung up. "What if it leaks out that you actually went home by car?"
She had wondered about that herself, but she had never allowed herself to speculate very much. "May I remind you that the alternative was His Majesty escaping on his own? I can probably get him to confirm that if you like." She glanced sideways, but all she saw was him stick out his tongue. She rolled her eyes. Still not grown up.
"Is there still any danger of that?"
That was a good question. "I don't know. Maybe if you mentioned the team of psychologists again? So maybe you shouldn't."
"In your opinion, is he...er...unstable?"
"No." She could say that without thinking. He was a lot of things, but not that. His madness was quite stable.
"This is a very strange situation."
"You don't say."
"I insist that you inform me where you'll have lunch and that you'll wait there until you've heard from me that it's safe to go."
Anna Margaret wondered if she should tell Frederick about this. She did not see how she could keep it a secret from him that they were to wait somewhere until the watchers were in place. That, at least, was the reason they were to wait, she assumed. "What if he does not agree?"
"You don't have to tell him, do you?"
"No, he'll probably spot them himself, like in Genoa," she said sarcastically. Then she wondered if this had led to him renting a car over the phone. He might have suspected it would be difficult for them to overhear what he was doing and that it might take them by surprise.
And then the watchers lost them. She was beginning to think it was not such a coincidence as it had appeared to be. It could not be ascribed to chaotic traffic alone, in any case.
"Listen, maybe we should give you a specific Aire," Louis said, perhaps in response to what someone else in the room was suggesting. "On the A40 not long after you get onto that road. It only has toilet facilities, so you'll be easy to find. There's a second one a bit further on and you could have lunch there if you're hungry."
How was she going to explain that they might have to stop twice without revealing why? She ended the call without making any promises.
"Listen," she then said to her companion. "If you're too skilled at losing the surveillance team, nobody's going to think you were always too well guarded to have intercourse with women in broom cupboards. If you give people the slip now, you could have given them the slip then."
"So..." She wished he would deny or admit something.
"So they're sending another team our way and you're afraid I'll give them the slip?"
But at least he was quick. "Yes."
"And what do we have to do for them to find us?"
"If I tell you that, you're going to take advantage of it."
"You give me too much credit." He zoomed out on the sat nav map. "Where?"
"Where will they be waiting?"
"Will you go along with it?"
"Your argument is compelling enough. Once is a coincidence, twice is a habit. But I'm not sure I like it. If they take pictures of every time I touch you, I might have been better off giving them the slip."
Anna Margaret pondered that. Every time. That certainly sounded as if he had not finished.
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