The past few weeks had gone so fast that Anna Margaret was glad for the slower pace of the summer holidays. It gave them plenty of time to find a house - something on which Frederick definitely insisted - and to have it prepared for them. He had taken one step to some form of assisted living, but he really wanted to reach full independence.
Before they would be able to move in a security system needed to be installed and other similar things she would never have reckoned with. Considering that Frederick would be scaling down the number of his official engagements, but not giving them up altogether, he would still have a right to some security. This was not what she called full independence herself, but he did not know any better.
In the meantime they lived at the Palace, which was private in a sense - the public and the media could not see a thing - but not so private that no one meddled, given that there were a lot of curious family members around.
Anna Margaret was glad her family did not live there. Now that she was not at her office much, she could not be contacted by her parents unless she visited them. Giving them her cell number was still out of the question. She tried to visit briefly once a week, but the sole topic under discussion was whether or not she would get married.
They would like a big wedding, she knew, where they could rub shoulders with European royalty. Unfortunately this would be her wedding from hell and if she had any say in the matter it would never happen. She tried to be politely vague about it and say they would not be married, which always brought on more questions than she liked. They were comfortable with people not marrying, except their daughter who was in a relationship with a prince.
It was not surprising that Frederick had only accompanied her once.
Her sisters had met him only once too, at her mother's birthday. She had said he would not bring him, so no curious people would be invited and then she had brought him anyway. Apparently this had not been nice of her, for reasons she did not quite understand. They might have wanted to dress differently or something, despite the fact that he did not care what they wore. She doubted he even noticed.
And then, of course, he had asked Anna Margaret to take him home an hour after arriving there. She had obliged, with some vague excuses, but her family had not been amused. She had been accused of already feeling herself to be above them.
When the fact was simply that he did not enjoy all types of parties - and that sometimes he might enjoy them and sometimes he might not. Of course he could have made an effort for Anna Margaret's sake, but she had not asked it of him and she had not minded at all. Perhaps next time. Although that next party would definitely not be her wedding.
Frederick had suggested he could ask parliamentary permission anyway, so all options were covered, and asking permission did not mean he definitely would have to get married. But that would have to wait until the proposed changes had been rejected or accepted.
She could not tell her parents, of course, that Isabelle was going to lobby for a change to the law. The law was rather strict about whom members of the Royal Family could marry. They had to ask permission and they had to belong to the right church, to name but two things. Isabelle, with five children having reached or approaching maturity, thought the latter clause was outdated and she would rather give her children - and her brother, in case he felt like marrying - more of a choice.
If she told her parents they would see this as a definite sign.
Not everyone agreed with Isabelle. Aunt Agnes sided with the bishop in this matter. Both were horrified, according to Isabelle's eldest son, who seemed pleased to have someone paving the way for him and who was a little concerned that it would not happen. And undoubtedly Aunt Agnes and the bishop would spend the summer lobbying for MPs to vote against, should it come to a vote.
Anna Margaret had purposely not checked whether she had ever been baptised. "I have no idea," she indifferently told everyone who asked. Of course her parents never asked - supposedly they had been there if it had ever taken place - so either she was safe or they did not know the law. Either way, she did not care, she told herself.
Frederick ostensibly did not care much either. There were simple ways to arrange things legally, if they needed to do that at all, he said. Of course hardly anyone knew they were expecting. Simply living together did not require many administrative adjustments and other people might indeed think there was as little to arrange as Frederick said.
Princess Agnes had offered her the services of a lady-in-waiting to teach her proper manners in case she got married. Apparently this was not necessary if she did not. She had politely refused, though. She had no time for it and no plans to make being a Family member her primary occupation.
But Aunt Agnes' game was complex. It was difficult to see what she wanted, if on the one hand she opposed a wedding and on the other hand she did offer this assistance. Anna Margaret did not see how anyone could reconcile the two, but she gathered that a few others thought the connection was perfectly logical - to Agnes herself, at least.
She was not sure who knew about the baby. Frederick's mother and sister did, although his mother at least was far too discreet to bring it up. Aunt Agnes probed. George knew, because Anna Margaret had had him look ahead in her diary to see if any trips needed to be cancelled and he had guessed why. But she did not know about any other people.
She had not visited a doctor or midwife yet, too afraid her visit would leak out and the media would be all over her all the time. They would want pictures of everything. She wanted to be able to move around in relative peace for as long as she could. Besides, until she got it confirmed, she would be able to act as if her life was not going to change at all. So far this was going splendidly; apart from fatigue nothing bothered her. Cutting down on coffee had only caused her to doze off at a European summit, but that was all.
If she was busy with work, Frederick was training or meeting people for vague purposes related to rowing. Anna Margaret did not know what that was about exactly - some rowing lake - and she had not asked too much about it. Permits and funding had apparently all been obtained before she had appeared on the scene anyway. Yet if she learned too much about it she might accidentally say the wrong things to the wrong people and it might be construed as getting favours from them, so she tried to keep a little distance from projects he might be involved in.
A closer acquaintance with the Family was beginning to show her that several of them had their own peculiar ways. Presumably it was related to being in the public eye all the time.
Anna Margaret was standing in line at the bakery because it was a popular one. The residents of this neighbourhood liked their bread fresh and healthy, and they could afford it. Behind her stood a tall young man. She vaguely recognised him, either from seeing him in the street or from seeing him on television. He might be an athlete or something. Behind him, a woman with a large hat entered the shop. Anna Margaret paid her no attention, still wondering where she had seen the man and if she should say hello if he looked her way. She met so many people that someone recognising her was never a good clue, but not saying hello if she was supposed to know this man might not be very nice.
"Psst, Anna Margaret," the woman whispered in dramatically conspiratorial tones. "My aunt wishes to know if you have wedding plans."
Anna Margaret turned and gave her a good look. "I'm not sure I want to marry into a family of lunatics." She shook her head.
"You must come home with me," she invited, because under the hat the face looked strangely familiar. "See how the house is coming along."
Isabelle had not been there yet, her brother not having realised she might be able to look without offering advice. He was determined to be independent and involving his sister was not compatible with that wish.
"Do you often sneak around looking like that?" Anna Margaret asked as she made tea. In other rooms, contractors were busy. Cameras and alarms were being installed today. Although none of them were working yet, it was still a safe place to entertain the queen, especially if she was in disguise.
"When I have time. Have you got yourself checked out yet?"
"Mentally? Yeah, I was fine."
Isabelle gave her a stern look. She was of course about ten years her senior and she could do that. "I meant the other thing."
"Is it not done to be direct about that in royal circles?" Anna Margaret wondered. Perhaps she should take Aunt Agnes up on that etiquette offer, even though she had never considered the Family particularly indirect about private matters. They might be discreet, but they did not lack for curiosity.
"Someone might hear." Isabelle gestured at the door.
"Oh, that. No, I haven't." Maybe she should see about visiting a doctor one of these days. She could not put it off forever and this was the first person who questioned her directly. "Which doctor would they expect me to see?" she asked.
"Lamotte Clinic, no doubt."
"I'll avoid that one then." It would be under tabloid surveillance. If it had once been used by Isabelle, it would now be frequented by anyone who imagined she had a claim to fame.
"But don't you want -"
"It's not as if only private clinics offer decent care," the prime minister lectured. "It would look as if I didn't trust public healthcare if I did that in my position. I simply cannot go private. Our public facilities are just as good."
Isabelle did not look convinced.
Anna Margaret was sure a private clinic offered lots of advantages, but at the moment she had no need for them. "I'll ask Danielle if she goes anywhere or where she would go. She was trying to get pregnant."
"You're a bit cool about it. Are you afraid?"
That question took her by surprise. "No. I suppose. I don't know."
"We'll help out. If you need it."
"But my job -" It should be clear where her job figured in this. It was quite natural for her to worry how it would all fit and to put off informing the public. Some people might call it afraid.
Not everyone accepted the fact that the prime minister had struck up a relationship with the former king. She did not read everything, but she knew these people existed. If word got out that she was pregnant and some people did their calculations, they might have something to say about the fact that it could well have happened when Frederick was still the king, and then they might think he had abdicated because he had got the prime minister pregnant - which was all very unprofessional, she would agree, yet not quite true.
Of course if her pregnancy leaked out towards the end people would still be calculating, she knew that, but at least she would be spared a few months of nonsense.
Isabelle shrugged. "There are worse health problems that you could get that could keep you from working. You could break your leg. You could need an operation."
"I could work with a broken leg."
Isabelle did not accept this objection. "You can work with a baby. I did. Several times."
"But you -" Now, that would not be nice. She did not say that some things were not work.
"Love it. Make it feel welcome."
"What?" Anna Margaret stared. Clearly this was not one of Isabelle's sane days. First she sneaked around with a huge hat on and now she talked of love. Next she would talking to the trees in the backyard.
"But I don't want to think about it at all yet," she protested. She wanted to do that when she was ready, not when someone else told her to. And love it? What kind of nonsense was that?
"It's not something you can ignore."
"I cannot love something that isn't there."
"It's there. But don't, if you can't," Isabelle replied with a haughty smile that hid something else as well. "We'll take it after the birth."
Anna Margaret rubbed some moisture from her eye. She did not know where that had come from. She could not figure out Isabelle's purpose and therefore she could not decide on what she was feeling herself either. "Why?"
"Just because you didn't plan what would happen after intercourse doesn't mean you shouldn't plan what comes after the birth."
"We did plan!" she protested. "We had contraceptives. We used them. We waited."
"Waited," Isabelle repeated. There was that haughty, mysterious smile again. "And how long exactly did you wait?"
"That's not relevant."
"I'm not judging you on that; I simply found it amusing. The speed you two moved at could hardly qualify as waiting." She held up her hand when Anna Margaret wanted to say something. "But you're old enough not to wait. But only if you're also old enough to sort this out. Is Frederick any help?"
"Sure. He supports me."
"But he does not tell you to do things. He's OK with you not doing things."
"Er..." Anna Margaret was surprised. "No, he just doesn't want to put any pressure on me."
"But he should."
"Because you're not doing anything. If no one interferes, you'll keep working till you're forty weeks along and pop out the baby in your office."
"Sounds good, actually," Anna Margaret tried. "But you can't seem to imagine Frederick as a responsible adult."
"It's hard to overlook that instead of using his common sense he...er...followed his desires."
"After being forced to suppress them for twenty years," she shot back. "Your idea of a responsible adult is a robot who only lives the life his family tell him to. No will, emotions or ambitions of his own."
"Until you saved him."
"I did not save him. I'm giving him the freedom to do what suits him."
"So you saved him." Isabelle was frustratingly amused. "But it's not funny, really. What will you do if you tire of this project?"
"I don't know what you mean." What would she do if she tired of that project? She did not know if Frederick was the project Isabelle seemed to think he was. Or was she unable to interpret her own behaviour? And what could Isabelle want by telling her this?
"You allow Frederick near because he's your project. But there's no one else. You don't allow anyone else. You've got this under control, right?" Isabelle shook her head. "But, you got pregnant. Some control was lost somewhere. More will be lost in the future."
Anna Margaret had trouble breathing. "I can't follow you." Or rather, she could not follow how Isabelle was able to see this.
"It's OK to fail."
"I still can't follow you."
"Do your parents support you?"
"I'm an adult." She should not be looking towards her parents for support.
"That's what I mean." Isabelle sighed. "All this needless self-sufficiency."
"My family support the idea of a large wedding." Her voice sounded strange. Maybe she did want some type of support, but not that.
"Which is a very bad reason not to get married."
Anna Margaret blinked. "Is that what you think is holding me back?"
"No, it's not. I'm not against it, but I do not view it as a necessity. Marriage, that is." And large weddings were certainly not a necessity.
Isabelle slowly drank the last of her tea. "No, of course not."
"I'd be expected to hold his hand while he cuts ribbons."
"Well, I wasn't expecting that," said Isabelle after a perplexed look into her empty cup. "On the other hand, why is this nevertheless not surprising? But it can be lonely being in the public eye. It is very agreeable to have a hand to hold."
"I'm sure it is." Anna Margaret poured some more tea. If she had held anybody's hand she would have squeezed it painfully. Yes, it could be lonely. She supposed Isabelle would think that was why she had moved in with Frederick so quickly. It might have played a role, but really it had been the most practical thing to do if one did not want any visits to each other to be noticed.
"But you're above all that nonsense, aren't you?"
"Did I say that?" She had the feeling she did not have to say things out loud.
"Things being as they are, it would probably boil down to you cutting Frederick's ribbons while he holds your hand. He's not - how shall I put it - a forceful personality."
"He gets his way," she said with a shrug. But why could she see that happening? Frederick might indeed let her do it. Isabelle clearly did not see it as a good thing.
Isabelle narrowed her eyes. "He had his way with you, obviously, but that's not what I meant, because I'm sure you think he's attractive and he may have been forced to have his way. Our mother was especially selected for her good looks and submissive personality and you know which child both of those traits ended up in."
Anna Margaret tried to regain some advantage. "Since you don't strike me as having a submissive personality you must mean Frederick. But just because I haven't known him for as long as you do doesn't mean I don't see what he is like and I may have a different opinion. Think - just as you seem to think you see what I am like without having known me for long..."
"You and the baby are part of the family. We are there to...provide witnesses to discreet weddings, childminding services, you name it. But you seem to think we are trying to take over your life."
Anna Margaret squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her temples. Could it become even more confusing? Was this help or criticism? First she was too independent, then Frederick was too weak and all it was about was an offer of help?
"Now," Isabelle continued. "Think about it. You don't have to do this alone."
When Anna Margaret opened her eyes again, having got rid of annoying emotions, Frederick entered the room. He frowned a little when he saw his sister, but he kissed them both. "What a surprise."
"We ran into each other at the bakery," Isabelle said innocently.
"How do you like the house?"
Anna Margaret detected a little anxiousness in his tone. She leant against him, needing some contact. "We've only had tea."
"I wanted to see about the baby, not the house," said Isabelle.
"What about the baby?" answered her brother. "Nosy?"
"I'll go and see if I can close the windows upstairs," Anna Margaret said, getting up. She would leave them to discuss this. Upstairs she walked around. There was not much to steal yet, so it would probably not even matter if she left the windows open when she went back to the Palace, but the security staff would probably not like it after they had spent all day installing cameras and locks.
She sat down in one of the window sills and looked out into the garden. Isabelle's offer was probably kind, she decided. She was a little hesitant to think so - it might make her cry. In the kitchen she had already come dangerously close to giving in to her emotions, although she had not been quite certain what those were precisely. She had been trying not to think of it until now. Isabelle was forcing her before she was ready.
She had only barely got used to living with someone and being in a relationship. Although it had gone without much effort, there were moments that she could hardly understand how it had happened. The best way to handle everything had been to simply move forward. Dwelling on her pregnancy would mean she also had to evaluate her relationship and wonder if it was going to change. She did not want to go there. It was difficult enough giving fleeting thoughts to how it might affect her job.
As she sat wondering what they could do with the wilderness in the garden - anything except thinking about herself - Frederick and Isabelle came upstairs. She could hear them move from room to room before they reached hers, but she could not overhear what they were saying.
"Come home with me. You need to lie down," Isabelle said to her.
"I'm all right." She was merely depressed by not wanting to think about things she did not want to think about. "I have to wait until -"
"I can do that. I finished early. It started to rain," said Frederick.
She glanced at him. He did not seem to be angry or annoyed with his sister, so she wondered what they had spoken about together. "Just because I'm pregnant doesn't mean I need to lie down at every opportunity."
"Just because you're prime minister doesn't mean you cannot lie down when you have the opportunity."
Frederick was just standing there. It was impossible to tell with whom he sided.
Isabelle's phone bleeped. She took it out. "What!" she cried after reading a message. "Philip broke his ankle stepping out of a golf cart. He's already back at home."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Frederick. "Do you mean he's already in a cast?"
"Apparently." His sister was astonished. She scanned her phone for more, but there was nothing else.
"And you were not in the golf cart with him?"
"Well, when he broke his wrist you two -"
She silenced him with her finger. "Don't you dare bring that up. But what are we going to do now? We have a wedding to go to tonight. With dancing. A friend's daughter is getting married and they love balls. They have a proper orchestra and dancing."
"A good reason not to dance."
"Oh no," he replied, apparently seeing a plea in her expression. "Take Florian."
"Florian," she scoffed. "Do you think that if I took him, he would dance with me, if there are young women around? Besides, he steps on my toes."
"And Frederick doesn't?" Anna Margaret was fascinated. She was happy the conversation had moved away from how she should be feeling.
"He's had a decent education."
"Is Philip all right?" Frederick wondered.
"I'll check when I get home. Practical things first."
"But I can't live like that?" Anna Margaret protested.
"No. The difference is, he's an adult who can take care of himself, so I can. Your baby is not. Now, Frederick?"
He looked reluctant. "You can sit out, can't you?"
"People will rescue me from being slighted if I sit out. I need a partner and I want one of my own choosing. Frederick?"
"Shouldn't you ask Margaret if she can spare me?"
"You do that."
"Well, all right," he relented. "If she says OK. But no more than one dance and we don't stay late, because I never stay late. Do you say OK?"
"If you must." Anna Margaret could understand Isabelle's point of view. If she said people were going to ask her to dance, it was probably like that. She would not enjoy being asked by undesirable older men herself either. And she could handle one night without Frederick - though she was not sure he could handle a night out. "Will you -" She stopped. It would make her sound jealous.
"Will I what?" asked Isabelle.
"Will you make sure he does not have to...do anything he does not like to do?" She cringed.
"He may not like to dance with other people either, so I wish you would not lend him out." Anna Margaret disliked her blush and her feeling of vulnerability. "What if people feel sorry for him for having to dance with his sister?"
"Isabelle is imagining a queue of dirty old men wanting to dance with her," Frederick said, nonchalantly studying a button on his shirt, "and you are imagining a queue of dirty young women wanting to dance with me."
"I could handle that! You cannot," she protested.
"You could handle dancing with vacuous blondes?"
Anna Margaret nearly stamped her foot in annoyance and went downstairs. She was not jealous.
She went home with Isabelle, who had to prepare for the wedding party and who, Anna Margaret supposed, would want to check how her husband was doing.
"Thank you for letting Frederick come with me," said Isabelle. "I don't mind talking to all and sundry, but I prefer not to dance with all and sundry. That's really too intimate."
Anna Margaret did not know whether she and Frederick had really had a choice, given that Isabelle had been fairly insistent. "It may look that way, but I don't really decide if he goes with you. He does."
"Oh, you only seemed a little anxious about his dancing with blondes there."
"Because he would not like it, not because I would not like it," she corrected. "And I told him so. He knows that. And I know he can't stand up to you, so I have to let you know what he may not like."
"I don't think you're taking me seriously," Anna Margaret realised.
"On the contrary. I'm quite pleased you look out for Frederick and even more pleased he still doesn't seem to mind. You'd have a problem if he did. But so far I think that kiss wasn't meant to shut you up; it was probably a genuine thanks of sort."
"You should look the other way." She looked the other way herself and pursed her lips.
"Because it was a private moment."
"Not if you have your private moment in the hall right in front of me. I still have to get a measure of your relationship. And if you want him to stay away from vacuous blondes, I need to know how prone he is himself to avoiding them."
Anna Margaret wanted to talk about something else. "Would your husband not mind your going to a wedding if he's injured?"
"He's not alone. There are probably at least three children at home. And the people I'm going to wouldn't consider it a very strong argument if I said I had to stay home to take care of my husband. We have servants, they would say."
"Are you sure they are good friends, in that case?" It did not sound so very nice to her to insist that someone come to their party if she was more needed at home.
"You would doubt it."
"Well..." Isabelle pondered it, but did not say which conclusion she had reached. "Well, anyway. Do get yourself checked out. You don't want to be surprised by a miscarriage. I'm sorry to bring them up, but I've had too many and in a public function you really don't want them to surprise you. Thankfully at forty-seven one is quite safe."
"Yes, Your Majesty," she said meekly. She had not given miscarriages any thought. She did not even know how they happened. "But I refuse to go to a private clinic. It would leak out in no time."
"Really? Did you know Frederick went there?"
That was puzzling. "Like, in his previous life when he was a pregnant woman?"
"They do not only have a maternity department." Isabelle spoke as if this was common knowledge. "It's a private hospital with many departments."
"Oh. Did he get his ears fixed there?"
"Oh, he told you that? And he had therapy there too. But the fact that you didn't know means they're very, very discreet."
"I'm inclined to think it means I don't read the tabloids," Anna Margaret muttered. "What did he have therapy for?"
Family-induced, no doubt, but she did not say that. Instead she simply looked sad. Poor Frederick.
"Frederick will be dining at the wedding," Isabelle said when she parked at the Palace. "Are you all right on your own?"
"Yes, thanks." There was undoubtedly something in the refrigerator that she could cook up.
She went into Frederick's apartment and wished she could run a bath, but unfortunately he only had a shower. She would have to settle for checking her email from the bed. Next week Parliament started up again and she would spend full days at the office. This week she could still take advantage of an excess of free time. It was too much sometimes. She was sure that next week, when she had no time for it, she would not feel any need to lie down.
Everyone had been notified that Frederick was away tonight, because the first offers to entertain her were not long in coming. There was bridge with Aunt Agnes, tennis with Frederick's mother and a trip to the cinema with two of Isabelle's children. She could not possibly fit that all in.
"You don't have to," said Frederick, shrugging himself into his suit.
"Are they concerned about me?" She did not know if her condition - which was not known to all of them anyway - made her more fragile in their eyes, if they liked her or if they simply felt it to be their duty to entertain her.
"Making use of you, is more likely. Which film? Mind you, it might not be the one they actually want to see when they get there."
She stared. "What? No?"
"Did you never do that?"
"They can only go out with a chaperone and only see something appropriate. So if they want to go with you..." He shrugged. "I'm hearing a lot of alarm bells going off. Either that or they think you will allow them junkfood, which we never do."
"Oh." She knew what she was going to do. It was so absolutely clear.
"I allowed them to eat in the cinema once," Frederick said to save his reputation.
"Wow, darling. I think I have just decided how I'm going to spend my lonely evening." She might not eat any herself, but if the girls wanted to she would allow them. And she had not been to the cinema in years, so it might be fun.
"I'm jealous. This wedding is bound to be boring. And I still hate suits."
He looked pretty gorgeous in his suit regardless, she decided, so it must not be uncomfortable to wear. He probably had more problems with how he was supposed to behave while he was wearing it. "Take your phone in case it's boring, or is that bad manners?"
"It is, but I'll take it nonetheless. I've got games on it too."
"How was it?" Anna Margaret asked when he came home. She had beaten him there by about half an hour and she was already in bed.
"I've never liked those things much and I wondered if it was any different once I was taken, so to speak," Frederick said, undressing. "But instead everyone wanted to talk to me about it."
"You." He threw his suit on the floor, but picked it up when he was done. Either he had made an effort since France, or he had been provoking her on purpose then. She had noticed this, but never commented on it. "I'll brush my teeth first. Will tell you about it in a minute."
She might be asleep then. Or rather, she wanted to be, but she also wanted to hear why everyone had wanted to talk about her.
Three minutes later he reappeared. "Well," he said, getting into bed. "I've had some inquiries. Either people had seen us on television or they heard about it in some way, and some old ladies were saying how nice and everything. Those were the good things."
"There were bad things?"
"I don't know if they were bad exactly, but I wouldn't call them good exactly either."
Anna Margaret kicked him and wished he would get to the point. "Did anyone dance with you?"
"The only vacuous blonde I danced with was Isabelle, but she was not amused when I mentioned that. They can't just dance with me. Gentlemen have to ask ladies. I don't ask them."
"And what did they say? I assume they can speak to you?"
"Are we still a couple, some wondered, because they never saw us together. I said I don't live to be seen."
They had not very consciously avoided being seen together, but Anna Margaret at least had not suggested any outings where they might be. Never mind that this was her time off, people might criticise her for spending time with her boyfriend and not personally putting an end to people drowning in the Mediterranean. She had seen similar things happen to others. "And then what?"
"Are we getting married? Some people seem to want to be invited. Apparently it could be the highlight of a guest's existence."
"Would it be like the inauguration?" She imagined something on that scale. Again, she imagined the criticism it would draw. It would be too frivolous for a prime minister and cost too much money. No matter who paid for it.
"No, it would not, if I had any say in the matter. I will not be driven across town in a carriage waving at people. Why would I be so enormously happy because of some legal formality? I don't expect you to leave me if we don't marry."
Anna Margaret tried to chuckle. "No, I won't. But they wouldn't expect you to do it big, would they? You're no longer the king."
"Yes, who would care? But apparently people do. Some people just want to be seen. Upstarts."
"Hmm." She felt quite keenly that her family were upstarts too. They would want to attend and be seen. "Yes."
"But I'm never going to do it that way."
"As far as anyone knows, you're never going to do it at all," she said slowly. "Even I don't know. But let's first see what changes Isabelle may push for before you decide anything. It's in her best interest too to keep you on board. You still share some of the work. The changes might remove some of the obstacles that your ancestors considered necessary to prevent the monarchy from falling prey to undesirable influences."
"Hmm," said Frederick. "I suppose this means you'll never ask me?"
"Oh, I could," she said readily. "But I do like to know exactly what I'd be getting into and at the moment I don't. But ideally we'd simply agree."
"It's between you, me and the child anyway."
"Speaking of a child, your sister says I should see a doctor." She wondered what he was going to say. Would he urge her to go? Or would he leave it up to her?
"Maybe. Do you think you should?"
"I was putting it off because I can no longer ignore it once I've gone." She paused for a moment. "And I might be seen. I can't go to a private hospital. I'm the prime minister. It would look as if I didn't trust public hospitals."
Frederick had never looked at it that way. "OK. I don't even know which hospitals are private."
"No. Should I? I just go wherever they tell me to go. Well, whatever. Tell me if I need to come and when. I don't know how those things work."
"I'll ask Danielle or Lea where to go." She wished she could do just like ordinary people and simply visit the nearest place, without reckoning with what other people thought of it. She assumed, at least, that ordinary people simply chose the nearest place.
"Good. How was the film?" He had taken his phone to the wedding, but he had not actually used it to send any messages.
"Amusing enough. We had Pringles. Think Isabelle will let me go with them again?"
"Well, tomorrow they want to see a romantic comedy."
"Yes, today was a must-see in order to take part in conversations at school, but they noticed there was this other film and...next week they're back in school and there's no more time for it. I won't have time for it anymore either. Things are starting up again. Tomorrow we have to interview interns at the office and I have a TV programme I need to go to. Next week will be even busier."
"So in fact you'd need to squeeze in a medical appointment this week?"
She sighed. "Yes, I suppose. I'm sorry. I'm just feeling a little overwhelmed by the job and you and the pregnancy and the way people may connect the three in a negative way."
"May. They may not."
"Is it all right if I take them to the cinema again? Or do you want to come?"
"Romantic comedy? I think I'll go watch darts with Philip."
"Darts? That's so...lower-class."
"If the girls are all out, he'll watch darts. Don't tell anyone."
In the morning they went for a swim and they had breakfast, after which Frederick left for Isabelle's offices to discuss his schedule and Anna Margaret went to her own office to do some work. She did not personally have to interview any interns, but she wanted to catch a glimpse of who were going to be let into the building. And she needed to find either Danielle or Patrick, who would hopefully be back at work. First, however, there were phone calls to make.
That took her far too long. By the time she was done, she could see the latest candidate leaving. Then there was no point in asking which of the three was likely to be chosen. She picked up a cup of coffee and walked to the Ministry of Agriculture, which was closer than Transport and Infrastructure. Next week there would be dozens of people walking to and fro; today it was quiet.
Patrick was in. "Hey, neighbour," he said. "I'm meeting a delegation in five minutes."
"That's all right, I won't take long."
"How's your new house?"
"We haven't moved in yet. There's still some work that needs to be done. How's your new neighbour?"
"Moved in two weeks ago, but we're looking at houses with gardens now, for the baby."
"Well, speaking of that..."
"Houses with gardens or babies?"
"The latter..." Anna Margaret tried to keep her face inscrutable, as if everything would not be clear from what she was going to say. "Where does Lea get her check-ups?"
"For her eyes?"
She gave him a look.
"Oh, well, there's a practice down our street, towards the higher numbers. Never noticed?"
"I rarely go that way. Is it any good?"
"I can't compare, I've only been once. You don't have to go until you're about seven weeks along, by the way."
"I think I've managed that," she said cautiously. Her brain mysteriously malfunctioned every time she thought about calculating it, but she was sure she was past that. This was late August, after all.
His eyes travelled to her waist. "I can't see it yet."
"Not really, no, but my trousers were getting tight."
She walked back thoughtfully. The practice was not a long walk away. She could try to walk over during her lunchbreak. It was likely that she would have to register first anyway and that she would not be examined the first time. It would not be necessary to have Frederick there today, she supposed.
It was practically time for lunch when she returned to her office, but there were some emails to read first. After that she hurried to the restaurant to buy a sandwich. She had not often been there recently, especially not when it was quiet and there was time for a chat. The woman who had been sitting at the till for the last forty years had not had any opportunity to ask her any private questions, but she could do so now.
"It was nice to see you have a suitor. You still do?"
Anna Margaret was rehearsing what to say when she got to the midwife practice, even though she would probably end up saying something completely different. "Suitor?" The question surprised her and so did the phrasing. Suitor sounded so old-fashioned and passive, as if she was not at all involved in the process.
"You don't have him anymore?"
"Oh, him. Yes." She fumbled in her wallet for her card.
Rosa tapped the code for the sandwich. "Bring him in sometime so I can see if he's your type. I know all the men here thought they were, but they weren't."
"Which men here?"
"The ones you didn't notice."
"Names?" Anna Margaret could not imagine who they might be.
"No, some got over it, so it wouldn't be fair," Rosa said dismissively. "Trying to impress you in the queue, but you never looked impressed."
"I can't remember that, no." Anna Margaret was still surprised. "I thought you only looked at what we ate." And what they said, of course. Rosa talked to everyone who passed her, but that was different from seeing what went on with people who did not talk.
"That too," Rosa admitted readily. "How did he impress you?"
"He took off his shirt." That was not even completely untrue, but enough to stun Rosa. She winked and carried her sandwich out.
Maybe she should not have said that, she reflected as she walked to the street where she had been living. She went out the side door.
She had never noticed the midwife practice here. When she had gone to work she had walked the other way and the shops were a left turn before this stretch of road. The only time she could remember going this way was when she had walked to George's party, but she had been rather focused on Frederick and under an umbrella besides. Signs on windows and doors had not been interesting at all.
She resisted the urge to look over her shoulder as she found the right number and went inside. Right in front of her a girl with a toddler had just entered. She simply followed, without checking if anyone was watching her. The girl went to a desk and said hello, but then she continued on to a waiting room where two more small children were playing so loudly that no one there would be able to overhear what Anna Margaret said. That was good.
"Hi," she said to the woman behind the desk. "I'm pregnant. I'd like to know how it works here." It sounded stupid. She disliked sounding stupid. Perhaps they had a website, but she had not had any time to look it up.
Apparently there were lots of women who did not know how it worked, because the woman found this completely normal, because she greeted her without surprise or judgement and simply proceeded to the questions. "Do you live in the city centre?" She pointed at a map on which a part of the city had been coloured in.
"How far along are you?"
"I'm not sure. Between two and three months?" It was probably very close to three. And that probably meant she should have come sooner. Most people, she assumed, were delighted and got themselves looked at right away.
"Please fill this in," said the woman, pushing a form towards her. "I've had a cancellation. If it's that late we should probably see if you can be seen right away, if that is no problem for you. In ten minutes."
"Oh." This was a little frightening. She finished filling out the form with address and insurance data for the administration. That, at least, was factual and simple. She had been using the address of the new house ever since they had bought it, not having wanted to use the Palace address.
When she was done, another woman had appeared from the office behind the reception. "Iris will see you, she said," said the woman. "Please wait."
Anna Margaret did not look forward to going into the waiting room where she might be stared at, so she feigned business on her phone.
The same woman who had first helped her and who she assumed was Iris beckoned her in without using her name a little over ten minutes later. Anna Margaret was grateful for the discretion. She was sure Iris had either recognised her or read her name upside down.
"Did you only just find out?" asked Iris.
"Er, no," she said, a little embarrassed. "But it was simply not convenient to do something about it."
Again, apparently, they had seen this all before here. Iris simply took another sheet without questioning or lecturing her. "I've got another form here. This is about your health. You have to bring this to every appointment and whoever is seeing you will mark your progress on it. You won't be seeing the same person every appointment. We work in shifts, because we also work nights."
She had to answer questions about illnesses and habits, but apart from the fact that they were slightly mad, she did not know if Frederick's family had any illnesses. It seemed that when it came to habits she was completely fine.
"I think we should do a scan," said Iris. "We have a machine, not for the medical scans but for seeing how far along you are - and if there's a beating heart. The medical scan takes place around twenty weeks. Would you like to do it now or would you like to come back next Monday with the father?"
"I may not have time. I'll do it now," she decided. Frederick might want to see it, but she might look silly if she needed him there. She had no idea what the usual practice was. And if she did not do it now, she would be thinking about it all weekend.
Going back to work after the midwife visit was a bit of a problem. She hoped to have got rid of most of her distractedness by the time she reached her office, but she still blinked as she sat down, as if she had no idea what to do.
Soon, however, she was disturbed by a visitor. The Pitbull.
"I have a question," he said.
"Don't you always," she said wearily. He was really the last person she wanted to see right now. She was not sharp enough.
"Actually it's about your boyfriend."
"Is he still your boyfriend?"
"One of the green groups is planning to raise a stink about his upsetting the ecosystem in the Royal Domains."
It took her a few moments to understand those words, but then she pulled herself together. She had to look calm and knowledgeable. This baby thing did not affect her ability to work. The Royal Domains. Right. She thought they fell under someone else. Ecosystems certainly did. Behaviour of royals did not. "And how would he be upsetting the ecosystem?"
"You don't know?" the Pitbull asked with a shrewd look.
"It's a dysphemism for which activity precisely?" She tried to remember what the deal was with the Royal Domains. It was not quite private royal property, she thought, but the family derived some income from it and in the old days they were allowed to hunt there.
"You don't know?"
"Clearly he doesn't use the same terms in describing his activities," she said with a tight smile. "So I have no idea what you mean by upsetting the ecosystem." And she had no idea how Frederick could be doing it. Hunting did not seem to be his thing, yet she did not see what else could be done there. Chopping trees? Riding horses?
"He's digging a rowing lake."
"Oh, that." She was relieved to have heard at least a little bit about it. He had once mentioned a lake and finally being done with all the permits. "Research and permits were all taken care of a few years ago. Permits?" she asked with a significant nod.
"This green group says his activities are seriously affecting the habitat of the grass snake."
"Human building activities always seriously affect the habitat of some animal or other. Permits were issued after extensive research -" Or rather, she hoped it had been extensive. "-- and I'm sure the fate of the snake was given ample consideration. Are you seriously bothering me about a snake?"
"Yes, well..." The Pitbull was not impressed. "I'm on a green committee, you know."
"I'm sure you're on several committees." She told herself it was good for someone to be involved. At least he was doing something for his money.
"What we'd like to act against is people in some position of power, or with money, abusing that power or money to get away with things. Also, I'm sure someone would have something to say about unauthorised alterations to the land use in a part of the Royal Domains."
"Permits were issued." She rested her elbows on the desk. He ought to know that these things sometimes took years. "You know that I might still have been working in Brussels when this happened. Why don't you go to whoever was responsible at the time?"
"If no permits were issued, you are responsible."
"Then I suggest you go to Frederick himself. I'm sure he'll be able to tell you anything you need to know."
"I didn't get the impression he enjoyed helping you out in that manner the previous time."
"Are you developing some sensitivity?" she wondered.
"You very easily refer people to him."
"Well, honestly. If you have questions only he could answer, don't ask them of me. That ought to be self-evident. I thought you would have learned this last time. I don't really appreciate people who are wasting my time for no reason at all."
The Pitbull looked innocent. "I'm not sure that's what I'm doing. I'm helping you. He doesn't need another scandal on top of the rest."
"Helping me? That sounds pretty unbelievable for a member of the opposition."
"Amazing, isn't it?"
She decided not to question him. "Anyway, I can't help you. I was not involved. If you want a quick and detailed answer, you should approach someone who was involved."
"The group is threatening to go public."
"Let them. I don't doubt they'll look foolish. I mean, a snake? And did they have permission to study snakes in the Domains in the first place?"
In the afternoon a car came to pick her up to take her to the television studios. She had been there before, of course. It was nothing exciting. They did not generally ask more difficult questions than MPs. On the way she tried to memorise next week's schedule. Her secretary had printed it out. When the car stopped, she folded it and slid the scan inside it. There might not be anybody searching her bag while she was being interviewed, but one never knew.
A scan was tabloid gold, especially with her name on it. Imagine someone finding it. It would be in tomorrow's tabloid edition for certain. While at least the timing on it corresponded to what they had said about the length of their relationship, there was always something someone could say about that. Isabelle had had a point. They had moved rather fast.
Of course people who could not imagine that, would imagine they had been in a secret relationship for longer, but that they had chosen to pretend it had started after this event. She would think the same if it concerned someone else, as she had never been in the habit of moving so incredibly quickly.
When she was finished at the studios she was rather hungry. As she stood waiting for the car, she contemplated pulling a chocolate bar from the machine. It was far from being good food, but it was better than nothing. At long last she decided to check if she had enough small change.
"That was brilliant," said one of the hosts of the talk show that she had just been on.
She turned. He could not be referring to her managing to extract a chocolate bar from the machine. Maybe he was not even talking to her. Still, there was no one else near enough except the hostess, who had not been doing anything brilliant, as far as she knew. "What was?"
"What you said. It was great. Do you need a ride home?"
"No, thanks. There's a car picking me up."
"You could call that off, right? We could go for a drink to evaluate our performance."
Anna Margaret took a bite from her chocolate bar and pondered this surprising offer. "No, sorry. People are waiting for me." There was Frederick, who would probably want to have dinner with her, and then the girls, who wanted to go to the cinema again.
"Next time then, maybe?"
"I wouldn't get your hopes up," she said with a smile as she spotted her driver.
"Are you in a relationship?" he asked, but he did not seem to view it as a problem.
As she leant back in the car she shook her head at the offer. The man had been well in his fifties. She did not care how many women liked him, but he was far too old - and she was taken besides. She did wonder if it was standard procedure to try and take the female guests out. It could not be, since he had not tried it with her before, but why he had tried it now was a mystery to her.
The girls were waiting for her already when she arrived at Frederick's flat. They were watching him cook. She remembered the scan in her bag, but she could not show it to him right now. He set the table for two - apparently the girls had already eaten.
"How was it?"
"I don't know if you know him, the blonde one? He said it was brilliant, but I suppose that was just an overture to asking me out for a drink."
"He may do that to all his guests. But it was still odd. I can't remember him doing it before."
"You have somewhere to go," said Charlotte. "You had no time."
"That too. But I wouldn't have gone if I did have time either."
She ate quickly and then hugged Frederick. "I saw the midwife this morning," she whispered. The girls did not know she was pregnant. Isabelle might not appreciate her breaking the news to them already. She would first confer.
"Yes, I got your message." She had sent one, but he had not been able to come over at such short notice.
"There's a scan in my bag, in my schedule."
"I'll have a look."
Although it was probably one of the safest places in town and she had done the same thing yesterday, crossing the Palace courtyard in the darkness still gave her the creeps. There were only a few decorative lights and what she first mistook for a crouching figure was in fact a potted plant. More lights came on as she approached Frederick's door, yet she still fumbled with her key to get inside as quickly as possible. She decided it was the fact that she did not know who were looking. She had never had this in the dark in her own street, but here there were eyes everywhere.
He was in bed when she came in, but he was still awake.
"I looked at the scan," he said. "It actually looked like something."
"Yes, moved a fair bit. Not that I feel that yet." It had been unsettling to see it move, but she really did not notice it was there. She could not feel it move at all.
"Is it real to you now?"
"I suppose." Seeing it had made a difference. She did not know how that had worked. She wondered how it worked for him. He had only the scan and not the moving images, and frankly, the thing on the scan merely looked like a blob with a head. "Though not completely. And you?"
He pulled her into the bed. "I thought it might be real. Is it all right? And there's only one?"
"Please! It would kill me if there were two." There were three things she had been fearing right before the scan. One was reacting in front of a stranger, regardless of the outcome. She had thought she might appear too cool and in retrospect she thought that maybe she had.
However, she might also have appeared too cool if there had no longer been a beating heart, yet not at all cool if there had been twins. She feared she might have had reactions completely opposite to everyone else's.
Then again, she might not. She had no idea.
"Could they see what it was?" asked Frederick. "I googled and it's not usually possible, apparently."
"It kept its ankles crossed, but even without that it would have been a little too early to tell. Would you want to know?"
"I have no preference, but it might be practical to know in advance. Unless you'd like to be surprised?"
"No, I think I'll need to know. Now I can't imagine anything definitive. Next year, what will we do and with whom?" She had tried to think ahead, but she had drawn a blank. It might be easier if she could imagine a boy or a girl.
Frederick pulled her on top of himself. "I took the liberty of filling out the parts of the form you left empty. I suppose you took it home because you needed to fill it in."
"There are no illnesses in my family that we know of."
"Except the mental."
"But do you want to come to one of the appointments? The next one is only next month. I have to get a blood test next week, but that isn't very exciting. You can come if you want, but I'm afraid it will be boring - I'm not afraid of giving blood. If everything is fine they don't have to see me all that often. Which is good; it can't leak out that way."
He chuckled. "Leak out."
"What?" Anna Margaret did not know why that was funny.
"I was imaging the baby leaking out."
"I wish it would, but I'm afraid it will hurt a lot more. Do you want to come to the next regular appointment?" She noticed he had not given her an answer.
"Is that the done thing?"
"Who cares if it is or isn't?" She had not seen any men there today, but that did not mean they never accompanied their partners. "If you want to."
"Wouldn't you be noticed much sooner if you took me? I think more people would recognise you than they would recognise me, but still."
"Maybe. But maybe I could arrange something when there's no one else there. The next scan, which might be interesting, will be in two months. There's plenty of time. By that time I might be showing," she realised. "Although I hope not, because I'd grow like mad in only two months. But if I do people might already know."
"I don't want to get you into trouble."
"You already did," she teased. "But you are interested, right?"
"Of course. But I thought I might be superfluous at an appointment. I'm probably more useful doing something else than watching someone check your blood pressure."
She was surprised. "How do you know they do that?"
So he was interested. "Anyway, your sister..."
"My sister's methods are different from mine."
"Did she talk to you?"
"This morning. She came to ask whether you were going to get yourself examined."
"What did you say?"
"I told her what you told me. She seemed to think I should have dragged you off to the nearest hospital. But why? If you have no complaints why do they have to look at you?"
She had been just as ignorant until that morning, so she could not really blame him. And she did not know if she did not still feel that way.
"I have to take the guy you call the Pitbull to the rowing lake," Frederick announced on Saturday morning after they had been running. He had done a few more rounds than Anna Margaret and she had been waiting for him on a bench. While she did not mind exercising, she did not want to overdo it.
She could have gone inside already, but she had preferred to wait. The advantage of running inside the gates was that she could see him pass a lot. "Oh, I forgot he came by yesterday. So he contacted you then?"
"Yes, my office. I decided to call him back to save you from his idiocy."
"Thanks darling, that's much appreciated. He does have a knack for asking me about things I know nothing about and then pretending it's my responsibility somehow." She felt a little guilty for sending him to Frederick, although he did not seem annoyed.
"Come with us and you'll know all."
"I told him you had all the permits. I hope you do?" He did not strike her as someone who would have abused his position, but someone might have done him a favour and in such a case he would not know it was illegal.
"Of course. That's why it took years."
She was glad she had estimated correctly that it had taken years. "It's in the Royal Domains?"
"No, of course not. It has always been a useless swamp, no ruler ever wanted to add it to his lands. It's just outside, but what do eco nuts know?"
"Right. I suppose the grass snake doesn't know where the royal land ends either."
"So the land is my property. I bought it."
"And you're digging."
"I didn't think you were. It would take too long." So he had bought the land, which might not have cost much, but employing people there would. She could not begin to imagine how much, but he supposedly had plenty.
"Exactly. Will you come?"
"Yes." She felt guilty for not having displayed more interest before. The least she could do was go with him. "Maybe I should have asked something sooner."
"I thought you'd wait until it was done. Because it's more interesting when it's done."
"Oh." The similarity struck her. "Like you and the pregnancy."
Frederick smiled. "Now that you mention it. Except that you may still not be interested in a rowing lake once it's done, whereas a baby is mine as well. But I could have told you more. Only I was afraid you might think it a bit odd."
"Unusual. It's not what people usually spend their time on."
The Royal Domains, in which Anna Margaret had never had much interest, turned out to be stretches of unremarkable forest. Some parts seemed well-maintained, but other parts were full of fallen trees. Frederick said there was a particular philosophy behind that, however. Anna Margaret thought that if he had some knowledge of these things, he was likely to have been told if the grass snake was in grave danger.
They reached the digging site via a private road. "The other road," he said, "is being used by the construction workers. We'll park right on the edge of the land."
When she got out Anna Margaret could indeed see a sign next to the road they had just came over. Private Property, and then some small letters underneath. "Is it forbidden to drive there?"
"No, it says special laws apply."
"Which means you can be fined or evicted for hardly any reason at all."
"Are you going to put up such signs here as well?"
"Maybe. Don't know if it's necessary. I could close it off completely if I wanted." They walked a short distance across grassland with heaps of sand. "There."
Anna Margaret could see a canal that stretched on for hundreds of metres. At the far end she could make out a few machines. She could not even see if they were in the water or not. "That's pretty big. I had no idea." She had been imagining a small, roundish lake, but now that she was here, she did not know why. She had seen rowing on television once or twice.
To the left and right of the canal she could only see piles of sand, grass and low hills, and on one side a few cabins for the construction workers. There seemed to be plenty of grass left for the grass snake.
"So where is this Pitbull?" asked Frederick, looking around.
A man descended from one of the piles of sand and came towards them. "Impressive, Your Highness. Why exactly did you want it?"
"I don't care for Ferraris?" Frederick said with a shrug.
The Pitbull frowned. "How does that follow?"
"Nobody would care if I bought twenty of those. They would think that's what we do. Spend our money on useless cars. But if we spend our money on something that might actually have some use, they are surprised."
"I admit I'm surprised, but not for that reason. And it's not why I was interested. The Wildlife Foundation is concerned about a snake."
"So I heard. It's a pretty common snake."
"This lake is affecting its habitat."
"What do they want?" asked Frederick. He did not look too impressed.
"They're convinced you didn't go through the appropriate channels."
"I have half a metre of paperwork."
"I'm guessing you consulted everyone except this hobby club?" asked Anna Margaret with raised eyebrows. "And they're now pissed off? Oh, crap. I was going to stay out of this. That's why I didn't ask you anything about it. I'll just...sit on that hill, all right?"
She sat down on a bit of grass. She let the two men walk away as Frederick explained the technicalities of how to get and keep water in the lake. She had best not interfere with more comments and she knew she might not be able to stop herself. The view was nice. She was a little higher here and she could look out over the water. When it was all done it would be nice in the summer.
Frederick might not have to go all the way to Germany to go rowing then. That would be a plus, especially if there was a baby to look after. She did not suppose he would give up rowing altogether and she would certainly not ask it of him. They would find a way to fit it all in. Isabelle came to mind. Even she had offered to babysit. Anna Margaret wondered if she had indeed meant she would do that personally or if she had a lady-in-waiting or retired nanny for the purpose.
"So, Pit. What's your game?" she asked when the Pitbull came over to where she was sitting and Frederick went back to the car. He had not said he was leaving, so she assumed he was going to fetch something. Probably some of that paperwork.
"Game? Just doing my job on behalf of concerned citizens. What are you doing here, Prime Minister? Just doing your job as well?"
"No, just here to look. Are you going to insist on seeing every frigging permit?" She did not doubt he could be annoying like that. It made her a little vehement.
"I'll just have a look at his paperwork, but from the sound of it he researched this well. He seems a well-informed bloke."
"Yes, why not?" she asked. Was it so strange that he could be a well-informed bloke?
"With peculiar hobbies."
"Safe, though." Except for the grass snake, she thought with a guffaw. Although even that was up for debate. She did not know anything about the snake, but if it could swim it would have plenty of room.
"He certainly likes talking about it better than he likes talking about women."
Frederick returned with a few binders. He handed them to the Pitbull and sat down beside Anna Margaret. The Pitbull sat on his other side and began to leaf through the papers.
"Impressive," the Pitbull said after a few minutes. "Is this colour-coded, Your Highness?"
"You've been working on this for a while."
"Did you employ your contacts?" The Pitbull gestured at Anna Margaret.
"I was not acquainted with that particular contact at the time," Frederick replied stoically.
"Just checking. They will ask."
"Do they even exist?" Anna Margaret wondered. "They seem too stupid to exist, with all this uproar about a common snake. Do they also protest against the fate of the earthworm whenever someone builds something?" Frederick placed his hand on her leg, but she did not know if he meant anything significant. It did not feel as if he wanted her to shut up.
"I'll advise them against any uproar," said the Pitbull. "They won't come out looking good."
"Now that's sensible," Anna Margaret said approvingly. "Where on earth did they get this idea anyway?"
"I don't know. The snake wasn't an issue for me," he said. "It was the possible abuse of your position."
"I didn't get any favours, only opposition because of who I was," Frederick said drily.
"Why was this project kept a secret?"
"It wasn't a secret as such, but my father was against it."
"Your father," Anna Margaret began. Whenever the man was mentioned, she felt angry because he never seemed to have supported his son. "No, I'd better not."
"He was a brilliantly supportive parent, I should think."
"What about my father?" Frederick inquired when they were back by the car. He paused before opening the door.
"Why was he against this?"
"He thought I should spend my time on things that require being dressed up."
"Oh. But you started this when he was still alive? How come he allowed it?"
"One, he wasn't omnipotent. Two, I was rowing for Germany because we didn't have a federation and he thought that was a disgrace. I might have used that second point in my favour," Frederick said with an innocent look. "But he certainly didn't help me. Philip did, though. Not that my father knew."
"That's nice of him. Did Isabelle know?" She had met Philip, of course, but he had been quiet and unnoticeable. He had certainly not given her the impression that he would do something without his wife's approval or knowledge.
"Yes, she did, and no, she didn't order him to."
Anna Margaret leant against the car. "What would your father make of us?"
He stood in front of her, the way he had done in France. "He'd roll over in his grave."
She placed her hands on his back, so this time he could kiss her if he wanted. "Why?"
"Women in leading positions, he would say, were not real women. They were competent and everything, but no man would want to marry them."
"I'm a bit surprised - and yet not surprised at all."
"He started out like 'let me tell you how this goes, young lady, because you cannot possibly know, and let me get a good look at your legs while I'm at it', but maybe you didn't want to know that last bit. I suppose it's a compliment that I improved to competent and unmarriageable?"
"I'm not surprised, really. But I hope that was all."
"Yes. Honestly. I can give people very discouraging stares." Assuming she noticed the interest, that was, which apparently she did not always do. But then, if she did not notice, it was fairly innocent and no stares were required.
"I never noticed."
"Well, you had a completely different attitude coming to those meetings, didn't you? So there was no need. You were always looking like 'can I get out of here?' and not like 'I wonder what she's wearing underneath'."
"No, that was later."
"Later?" she cried.
"No, actually you stripped before I could even wonder, but I may have had thoughts of a similar nature later, not exactly the same ones." He smiled.
She pulled him closer for a kiss. Never mind the bodyguards and the Pitbull, who were probably all watching. Luckily Frederick's attitude had changed since their first meeting; he was definitely not keen to get out of here now. "I stripped before you could even wonder! That really makes me sound..."
"I know. But I'd never tell anyone. And the people who are looking won't have to be told."
She giggled, but she did not pull away. She did not pull Frederick onto the backseat either - that would go a little too far. She kissed him again.
"What does your father actually think? About your getting into a relationship?" he asked.
"He hasn't said. He was a bit blinded by your status, but he may have begun to worry about my job by now. He thinks I'm his extension." And this relationship might jeopardise her career. It seemed to go well now, but something might always come up.
"Do you like being his extension?"
"I thought I had some say in what happened in my life, more than you, in any case. But..." She was no longer sure when she thought of it.
"I was definitely steered. If my term ended prematurely due to anything I did myself he would be extremely disappointed."
"Why should it? And why should you care?"
"Good question - the second." She could come up with answers to the first.
"If you could justify it to yourself..."
"I know. But our fathers, they were quite similar in some ways. We were living their dreams." Anna Margaret wondered if instead of being ahead of him in this matter, she was in fact behind. "It might have looked like support in my case, but I'm not sure he would have supported anything else. And that is definitely not on..."
"That's one of the reasons why I said I might not want any children, I suppose," said Frederick. "Because at least one of them wouldn't have any choice. But now I could handle several."
"Several." She cleared her throat. "Let's just do the one and then see, all right? You do know I'm thirty-seven?"
He smiled. "Yes, I know. By the way, speaking of supportive family members and their expectations, you've not met my grandmother yet."
"Your grandmother? On which side?"
"Queen Florence. Why, by the way, were you not named after her?"
"My father 'looked ahead', so to speak. Don't ask me. I can't follow it either. He might even have come up with the idea long after my birth. But I didn't know Queen Florence was still actively living."
Frederick was amused. "What on earth is actively living?"
"Well, attending occasions. If I recall correctly she didn't attend your father's funeral or anything since then. I assumed she was in bad health." She had no idea how old his grandmother was, but she had to be close to a hundred.
"That was a sensitive matter," he nodded. "And not because she was not actively living, but because she felt that by dying at such a young age - compared to her anything would be young - he had brought it on himself. He had drunk too much alcohol and too little milk."
"No, she really said that. Repeatedly. She says things. Repeatedly."
"Too little milk."
"Is this where Aunt Agnes and Isabelle get their mad streaks from?"
Frederick gave this serious consideration. "I thought it was dementia, but I've never known her as a young person. So some of it might be innate and some age-related."
"And you've never mentioned her, why?"
"Not that important, I suppose. I used to go regularly, but now I've not been for over two months. I should take you there some time. We could go on our way back."
"I'm a little hungry."
"We could take her out for lunch. She lives near here, I just realised."
"But she says things. Repeatedly," Anna Margaret said doubtfully. "And I don't even know if you have a positive or a negative opinion of her."
"I don't know that either."
Anna Margaret had agreed they would stop by his grandmother's retirement home and have lunch with her. Apparently the old lady was not otherwise engaged.
The villa was on the edge of a village. The gate was open. It would look unfriendly if it was not, said Frederick. He had to park in the street; evidently Saturday was a popular day for visits. He took Anna Margaret to the front door. Inside the place looked like a hotel, with a reception desk and comfortable chairs in the lobby.
He told the woman behind the reception desk that he had come to see his grandmother and she said she would call the hostess.
"Hostess?" Anna Margaret whispered.
"Yes, you don't think they'd allow visitors to wander around on their own, do you?" he whispered back. "Some of the old ladies have valuable jewellery in their rooms. So if your relative is in her room, the hostess takes you there. Not that they say that is why."
A woman in a neat skirt and blouse with a nametag arrived shortly. She greeted them most respectfully and said that Her Royal Highness was still in her room.
"I thought maybe we could have lunch," Frederick said to her as they followed her through a glass door that was opened by a card. "Although she may disagree."
The woman gave a little smile, as if she was well-acquainted with Queen Florence's peculiarities, but not allowed to comment on them. "She will be pleased to see you, Your Royal Highness."
"That does not bode well." He turned to Anna Margaret. "Brace yourself."
The room they were shown into was more like an apartment. Several doors led off the sitting room. At an oak table an elderly woman sat playing patience. She looked up with some annoyance when they entered. "Lisa!" she exclaimed. "I have not yet finished my game! You are too early."
Lisa looked apologetic, yet firm. "You have visitors, Your Royal Highness."
"Visitors?" Queen Florence peered at them. "Is that you, Freddie? Freddie!" She pushed her chair back with surprising force for someone on the wrong side of ninety.
"You gave up the throne!"
"And you didn't even come here to tell me!"
"I was busy, Grandma."
"And who did you bring? Did you bring your mistress?"
"She's not my mistress."
"If you have relations with her, she's your mistress." Queen Florence moved closer with a cane, with which she moved tolerably well. She peered at Anna Margaret, giving her a slow glance from head to toe. "And why do you bring her here?"
Anna Margaret did not flinch. Frederick was evidently used to this kind of behaviour and Lisa the hostess merely looked embarrassed for her sake, not because she was shocked. For her part, she was wondering if it was acceptable to talk back to an old woman who might not be all there.
If she was not mistaken Queen Florence had once been nothing but a commoner, or perhaps the daughter of a local baron. She had not, at any rate, been a German princess like Frederick's mother. Then again, if she had married young she would have been a royal for most of her life and it might have gone to her head.
"I was thinking of having lunch," said Frederick.
"With you and your mistress?" exclaimed his grandmother.
"Or we could leave you here," Frederick suggested.
"What! With these old people here? With their same old stories?"
Apparently his grandmother always wanted to be taken to the same lunchroom. It took her an age to get ready and put her jewellery on. In the meantime Frederick and Anna Margaret waited in the lobby. "You drive," he had said.
"You drive?" cried Queen Florence ten minutes later. "In my days we had chauffeurs."
Anna Margaret still had not said much. There might not be any point. Besides, she was taking her cues from Frederick, who was behaving as if this was completely normal. She parked outside the lunchroom and Frederick helped his grandmother out of the car.
They definitely knew her here, because they were greeted by at least half the staff and shown to a table right in the middle of the establishment marked 'reserved'.
"I always have wine with my lunch," said Queen Florence. "Today I shall have red wine. You, Frederick?"
"I'll have that, Grandma."
"And your friend?"
"No wine for me, thank you," said Anna Margaret.
"You do not drink wine? How can you not drink wine?"
"She's driving," Frederick said with a wink at Anna Margaret.
She understood it now and she smiled.
When the waiter had taken their orders, Frederick's grandmother turned to Frederick. "Scandalous, scandalous. You gave up the throne after less than a year and immediately bring your mistress out in public. Your grandfather would be shocked."
Most people at the surrounding tables had heard. Some were trying not to stare and Anna Margaret was trying not to look back at them. She could only hope all of them were as regularly here as Queen Florence herself and that none of this was at all surprising.
"Just for the record," he replied. "I resigned and then I got her."
"My hairdresser says that's unlikely."
"Your hairdresser, Grandma?" He would almost laugh. "You get your information from a hairdresser?"
"But Frederick, one does not take one's mistress out in public."
Anna Margaret was fairly sure that one also did not speak to others about their mistresses in public. The question was which offence was worse. She had been silent until now, trying to assess the situation. She still had no idea what to make of Queen Florence.
"Then it follows that she's not my mistress," said Frederick.
Queen Florence looked confused. "This is not your mistress? This is not the Prime Minister?"
Everyone at other tables now had any doubts removed, Anna Margaret reflected. The old lady was far from having a modest and quiet voice. She wondered in which paper or tabloid this little story would end up and when.
"She's the Prime Minister all right, but she's not my mistress," said Frederick.
The waiter served the wine. Anna Margaret got her mineral water.
"If you're not married, she's your mistress. I missed the engagement notice. You're not engaged, you're not married, she's your mistress," his grandmother insisted.
"Well, you'll have something to tell your hairdresser then, won't you?" Frederick said airily.
"Well, that was interesting," said Anna Margaret after they had taken Queen Florence back to her suite. She did not know how else to describe it. Frederick had been right when he had said she said things repeatedly.
"Yes, I'm sorry if she insulted you by insisting you were a mistress."
She shrugged. "I've heard worse."
"There wouldn't have been any point in contradicting her. You're my mistress. That's how she sees it."
"So I gathered." She paused. "I do wonder when the whole story will be publicised. Most of the lunchroom was listening in." It had fortunately not occurred to Frederick's grandmother to ask whether they were having children at some point. Mistresses probably did not have children. That, at least, was a good thing.
But if they did, they had bastards. That would have won them the sympathy of everyone listening. Although a tabloid would immediately claim there were huge conflicts in the family.
"Yes, they're always listening." He did not seem to care much anymore.
"It can't usually be that...scandalous."
"No, usually it's about hairstyles or clothes. But I don't think they heard anything they didn't already know. They might even have felt sorry for us. And they might have heard me say you were not my mistress."
"It was ironic that your bringing your mistress was apparently a greater faux pas than her talking about it."
"Certainly if you're horrified you don't inform the whole lunchroom," Frederick agreed. "But there would have been no point in pointing that out. We have all tried, on other occasions."
"Well, thanks for the introduction." It had been a dubious honour.
"Did your parents ever mention her? My grandparents might have met them socially once or twice. I don't know if they ever invited politicians, but if my grandfather met with your father every week, they might have."
"Or maybe that was quite enough. Your father didn't invite me and neither did you." They had on occasion attended the same events, but that was all. Of course it might have happened after a longer acquaintance, but she had not known Frederick's father for long enough.
"But he might have, if you'd been middle-aged and married."
Anna Margaret raised her eyebrows. "The same age and situation in life, you mean? Nearly pensioned? So how come the king who was my age and equally unmarried never invited me?"
"Good point. I should have! But you know I didn't organise any dinners myself. The women in the family do that and my mother thinks getting invited is social enough, so that leaves only Isabelle and my aunt and they had women who were higher on their list if they needed one to make up the numbers."
"Wasn't that all too obvious? If the women invited to make up the numbers were all younger than you, I mean."
"Yes, of course."
"And you never said a word?"
"No. It's not as if I was forced to do anything with them privately. They were guests at the dinner table. They did not bother me, although my sister's having a list did sometimes." Frederick paused. "Though not always. I made a guest list generator for her once. I don't know if she ever used it. You could enter names and attach qualities to them, so you could ask for particular qualities among your guests."
"Well, it might have been if all the qualities I entered had been complimentary. You could, for example, ask the generator for six boring men and six boring women."
"Er. Oh. And how," asked Anna Margaret carefully, "did you label the women who were on your sister's list?"
"You don't want to know."
When they got home, Anna Margaret chose the couch and Frederick the ergometer. She had some things to read, but she closed her eyes first.
When she opened them again, it was suddenly much later. Frederick was already back. He was doing something on his laptop. "Your phone rang," he said, "but it didn't wake you up. I answered it."
"Oh. Was it important?" She supposed it was not, or he would have woken her up immediately. Or would he? But he did not strike her as someone who had become overly protective of her now that she was carrying his child. He even took her running. So it followed he would disturb her naps if something important occurred.
"I don't know anyone by that name." Not personally, anyway.
"You're probably not on a first-name basis with him."
"Oh. No. Definitely not." If that was really the only Oleg she could think of.
"What could he want? He didn't really say. Just that he wanted to speak to you."
"Nothing urgent then? Nothing happened anywhere?"
"That's not the impression I got, no."
She sat up and rubbed her eyes. "Could be anything. We're doing things that the Russians don't really like." But she did not immediately see what she had to do with that personally. During the holidays she had been mostly busy on the European front. Nationally, there was no Russian connection anywhere.
"So he phones someone young, female and in a very small country and thus supposedly flattered by this attention."
"That would be my guess, since I've never had anything to do with him before." But, contrary to what she supposed Oleg was thinking, she was not actually flattered.
"Or because he and I have met."
"Two or three years ago. When he realised who I was, he invited me to Moscow."
Anna Margaret frowned. "What for?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Just a visit."
"What did you say?"
"I didn't commit to anything. I don't usually take such invitations as more than politeness."
"Should I call back or is he going to call again?"
"I said you'd call back. I mean, I said I'd ask you to call back, without guaranteeing that you actually would." He closed his laptop and stood up. "I'll fix some dinner."
"Well?" asked Frederick when she came into the kitchen. "Was he looking for an ally?"
"Oh, definitely. I told him I couldn't be flattered into it." She sat down. That was the summary, of course. It had taken a bit longer than that to explain it politely.
"Did he retract the invitation to me?"
"Actually, no. If you go, you're welcome to bring me as well."
"Two allies look better than one," he agreed. "But I'll only go on private visits. Not as the First Boyfriend."
"Complicate the issue, will you?" she scoffed playfully. "But anyway, what with all the work trips I already have I don't think I have a lot of time for private trips. If I have some time off I'd rather stay home."
"I had sort of guessed that," he said in amusement. "Since you haven't ever suggested any trips."
"We were busy!" she protested, thinking of how they had had to empty her flat, sell off some of the furniture and oversee the work in the new house. "We'll also be too busy for a while."
"For the next twenty years, I think."
"That's long. Won't they have an uncle or aunt to take them to the cinema before then?" she joked, but she was acutely aware of the fact that this would not work with a baby. "Where would we leave the baby during the day if you have things to do?"
"As if she has nothing to do."
"It will work out. Trips may be difficult."
She had no idea if she should leave a baby behind in such a case. Could she? What did other people do? "Were you left at home when you were little?"
"I think so."
"Did you like it?"
"I was used to it. But I wouldn't do it myself," he added.
"So you wouldn't want me to do it? Or would it be all right if one parent stayed home?" She did not think he meant that only his father had gone. If he was left at home, he would mean his mother had gone too and that he would have been left in the care of a nanny. But his mother might not have gone until he was older.
"Don't worry about that yet. We can't make plans if we don't know what sort of baby we're getting."
"But I need to make plans," she protested. She was not one of those people who liked to be surprised. It was not that she could not handle it, but if she had the opportunity she preferred to plan.
"You always get a double bed in a hotel, so you can always bring me."
"Oh. Yes." That was a relief. "And babies sleep in something small."
"That'll be easy enough to find out. But before we buy that, we should first get its room done at home. Tomorrow we could see which room would be best and which colours."
She had not really given that much thought yet, only hesitantly. She had walked through the rooms and thought of what they might be for, without giving them any definitive purpose. There was also the fact that she had no idea what would be the most practical room for a baby, something most people did not even have to consider because they had no choice. She had several rooms to choose from.
"And then we could order some furniture. If you want to plan ahead."
"If you don't want to be seen shopping, we have to order online."
That was true. She did not yet want to be seen looking at baby things. But there was something else as well. "But then they'd see it in the room if they visited."
"We'll just have to wait with the really baby-specific things then. I don't know what those are anyway."
Monday started early as usual. Anna Margaret skipped the exercising in favour of making an early start at work, where she arrived well before eight. She was pleased to start up again, although a little anxious how she would manage energy-wise. It helped that she had not been away. There was nothing to catch up on and hopefully she could ease back into the daily stuff.
The questions outside - because the journalists had also returned from their holidays - had been a little difficult. What would be her biggest challenge this year? She knew what it was, but she could not say it. There were plenty of other things that could prove challenging and she had mentioned some of those.
Her mother phoned her at the office halfway through the morning. "Listen, Anna. You need to give your mobile number to your sister. She has something to tell you."
While that might be the case, Anna Margaret thought, she was not going to give her mobile number out for that. There were other ways. She could phone her sister, for example. If she was told which sister, naturally. Irene Louise or Claire Sophie? All names that were out for a baby, she reflected inconsequentially. "Which one?"
"Who? Which sister?"
Her mother made a surprised noise, as if that ought to be more than clear. "Irene, of course."
"And how was I to know it was Irene?" She kept her voice even. "But I'll ring Irene, if that's what she wants." There was, of course, the possibility that Irene had nothing to say and this was her mother's idea of promoting communication. It would be just like her.
It would be a waste of time in that case, but she felt a little guilty because she had not spent any time on them lately. While Frederick had suggested they visit his grandmother, it would never have occurred to her to suggest they visit one of her sisters or even her parents. Not spontaneously. His relatives also had an easier job of inserting themselves in their lives physically, too. The least she could do was listen to her own relatives over the phone.
"No, you should give me your number and I'll pass it on to her," said her mother.
"No." Definitely not. Why the complicated roundabout way anyway? "You could have given her this number." But she suspected her mother had wanted to be in the middle of the chain.
"Yes, I'll call her myself if you didn't think of giving her this number. That's all far easier and quicker."
"But?" From her mother's tone she was guessing the news was not bad. Bad news was generally accompanied by dramatic sighs and meaningful pauses. This, for some reason, was exciting, and her mother wanted to be a part of it, but Irene had likely forbidden her to break the news herself.
It could only be one thing.
"*#*#," said the Prime Minister soundlessly.
Anna Margaret rang Irene during her coffee break. Well, she did not have scheduled coffee breaks as such and she did not even have coffee, but she did try to eat or drink something every two hours now and she had to plan those moments or she would forget. Apparently her mother had not passed her office number to Irene in the meantime, because she had not called.
"Hi, I heard from Mum that you had something to tell me?" she began.
"I would have appreciated your private number, but Mum says you won't give it."
That started out well. Anna Margaret tested her tea. It was still too hot. "That's right. You know I will not give Mum and Dad my mobile phone number - because it's not private, but work, and I'm not going to carry two phones around." She had in fact explained this numerous times before. It was, as far as she was concerned, perfectly logical. It was incomprehensible that they did not understand or remember. "So, did you really have some news or was this a ruse from Mum to get my number?"
"No, I did have news. I'm pregnant." There was a hint of triumph in Irene's voice.
Luckily Anna Margaret had practised what to say, since this was one of the scenarios she had considered and it had been the most likely. "Wow! That's wonderful. Congratulations. How far are you?"
She had not practised what to say to that.
In any case, she had earlier decided that this phone call did not seem to be the right moment to tell her sister she was pregnant too. Her sister would think she was being upstaged. Although of course it would not be appreciated any more if she did not mention it and it came out later. Her family would think she should have told them weeks ago and they would not understand the reasons why she had not.
There was no way she could have told them at five weeks. She had not even known about it then.
It was too late now to do good, so she decided not to mention herself even if the consequences would be dramatic. Again being the first of the family to do something would not go down well. She was the eldest and as such it would be logical, but that was not how her sisters were thinking. They hated always being second or third, even when it came to things that did not matter at all.
"Er. Oh," she said after a moment when she felt an answer was expected. "That's quite in the early stages. How are you feeling?"
"Oh, it's terrible. I feel sick and I can't stand the smell of some foods anymore. I have a feeling my trousers won't fit anymore next week. That's how much I've gained already. You have no idea. I feel so terribly pregnant. I knew right away that it had to be it. It was unmistakable. I woke up one day and I just knew I was pregnant. My breasts are so sore."
"Oh, that sounds terrible indeed," Anna Margaret tried to say in a sympathetic voice, but she did not know if she succeeded. She had not noticed anything of the sort herself.
"I knew right away. But we're thrilled. And Mum and Dad are so thrilled, you wouldn't believe it. A grandchild! Their first! They're simply over the moon. Mum is taking me shopping next week and we're going to pick up some things already. I can't wait."
"That's great. Do you know what it is yet?" She had better display some ignorance about the whole process.
"Already? Of course not! Duh! Of course you wouldn't know about these things, but they can't tell yet if it's this early. I'm taking Mum and my mother-in-law and Claire to an appointment in two weeks and then we'll be able to get a photo. But I've heard that if you're very sick it will be a boy. Dad was thrilled about that."
"Well, have fun," Anna Margaret said warmly. "I'm sure it will be really exciting."
Of course it did not take until her next break for her mother to ring. Anna Margaret briefly considered not answering, but that would only mean she would ring again and again. "Hi," she said curtly. "I'm at work, my coffee break is over, please keep it short." She had already spoken to her mother, so she felt justified.
"You should give us your private number if you don't want us to ring you at work."
"Never going to happen," she muttered and she did not care if her mother had heard. She had explained this a million times before. Either she was at work or she was asleep. There was very little time to catch her awake at home and she did not want to be kept awake by social calls. Of course some people would never understand that.
"You phoned Irene, she said."
"Yes, I did." Now this was exactly why she did not want to give out her mobile number. There would be a lot more of these useless communications.
"So what did you think? She said you weren't too enthusiastic."
They could always find something to surprise her, yet in retrospect she should always have seen it coming. "Mum..." Anna Margaret tried to be rational. "She's at five weeks. Let's not overreact here. It's great news for her, but it's just not..." How did one say that nicely? There was probably no way of saying it nicely. And all the imagined and exaggerated symptoms did not help much either.
"She's very disappointed that you always put what is happening in your life first."
All right, so this was not the right moment to reveal her own pregnancy, or she would be doing exactly that. She sighed. "Where did I put my own life first? I congratulated her. What else could she want? At five weeks..." she added with a little whine.
"You didn't offer to take her shopping, for example."
"You are already taking her shopping, she said." How much shopping could be needed when one was at five weeks? Isabelle would not hesitate to mention miscarriages.
"Your boyfriend has money."
That was a bit strange, considering that her father had earned quite a lot in his various positions and he still gave speeches that paid nicely. There should still be some of that left, even not quite as much was coming in these days. Her parents would have plenty of money to take her sister shopping. "If my boyfriend has money - and you wouldn't know how much or how little - why should I use that money to take Irene shopping? I really don't understand why his possibly having money should play a role in her pregnancy."
"Well, I could understand you wouldn't want to buy a bigger house for her now that she has a baby on its way and she's still living in that tiny flat," her mother said reasonably, "although it's really far too small to raise a child in, but you could contribute to one of the larger necessities."
"You're well on your way to pissing me off, Mum," Anna Margaret announced. She imagined her mother proudly telling friends that Prince Frederick had bought a gilded pushchair for his future niece or nephew. Well, it was good to know in advance that there were expectations. She would have to discuss those with him and steer him away from anything that was larger or more expensive than a plastic toy.
"Why?" Her mother sounded genuinely surprised.
"If you think Irene needs money, you can give her some yourself, but as far as I'm aware they both have jobs and lack for nothing. Whether Frederick has any money is nobody's business but his own. It's not even mine, because I earn more than enough to support myself."
"All right, all right. No need to be so irritated. When are you getting married?"
"I'm not getting married. Why?"
"Not all dates are available now, are they!"
Anna Margaret pulled an astonished face.
"I've really screwed up," Anna Margaret said to Frederick when he came home. She had been earlier and she was just looking in the refrigerator to see if she could make some dinner. It was unfair always to leave that to him. Since he had kept up his habit of ordering groceries online, there was usually enough.
"First of all, I got pregnant first, before my sisters."
"It's a thing. It's always a thing. I thought they might be over it by now, but apparently not."
"Second?" he asked.
"I haven't told them yet."
"My sister got pregnant. She's at five weeks. Which means she thinks she beat me to it, but it will turn out that she didn't."
"My mother suggested I use your money to buy my sister things - although she could understand if I didn't want to buy a bigger house for her."
"Fifth?" Frederick did not display any shock or surprise at hearing other people wanted to spend his money for him.
"She's at five weeks. Your sister would have a lot to say about that. And symptoms!"
"I told my mum she was pissing me off."
"Not all dates are now available to get married on, she said."
"I can't think of anything else."
He took the mushrooms out of her hands and set them on the table. "So where did you screw up?"
"That doesn't matter. They will think I did."
"Let's tackle all the points one by one. I forgot them, though, so write them down."
She made a list, although she was not sure what he was going to do with it. Perhaps he was going to roll it into a ball and tell her she was silly.
"So you got pregnant first," he read up. "Why is that bad?"
"Because I'm the eldest and everything happens to me first. It doesn't count when it does not. Such as relationships. I'm not even trying to do things first, but they hold it against me anyway."
Frederick stared at the paper. "Right. I'm the youngest. Everything happens to me last, but I've never felt any competitiveness. Why do your sisters have that? Because they're also girls? Are you close in age?"
"Three years, then two years between us. Or one and a half. Something like that."
"They probably don't like that you're your father's favourite."
"Even my grandmother remembered that."
"You didn't tell me she said that."
"No, I didn't, because not everything she said was worth repeating. You were in the loo, by the way. Number two. You haven't told them yet. I know why. They would not keep it a secret."
"They won't understand why I didn't tell them, when it comes out. They will say that of course they would have kept it a secret and they'll act all disappointed and hurt that I didn't confide in them."
"Probably," he agreed.
"Besides, it would be all about you or about my job. Not about me. There's a difference between it not being at all about me and wanting it to be about me. It doesn't have to be all about me, but it shouldn't be about anything but me."
Frederick nodded. "Three. Your sister is pregnant. How does that affect you?"
"She thinks she's the first and it will turn out she's not. She'll be extremely happy that she's beaten me to it, gloating even, so the anger will be all the greater when she finds out the truth. And I'm not even playing this game! I'm not trying to outdo anyone. If that was the case I would have started fifteen years ago!"
"Four. She's five weeks along."
"Yes and she's full of symptoms that I don't think anyone could have at five weeks. I looked it up at work today and it's as if she's simply memorised one of those lists."
"Five. She's after my money. What?" He gave her a questioning look.
"My mother hinted at the expectation that you would spend."
"Why? What would I spend it on?"
"Don't know. Gifts? Large gifts they could brag about? Although she'd understand if I didn't buy my sister a house. A house. I could cry."
"Darling, I already bought you a house. My money's gone. I assume you haven't told them how we financed it?"
"It's none of their business, really, so I told them I paid for it." And the truth was, as always, in the middle. "I got the impression they thought this was horribly stingy of you."
He grinned. "I totally am. Six. You told your mum she pissed you off."
"Yes. Even you would have."
"It's possible. Seven. We have to keep that baby's due date into account when we plan the wedding. Our wedding? Because?"
"I suppose they can't attend on her due date? Or maybe all six weeks before and after it? Or until she's shed her baby weight? I have no idea, because I was too surprised to ask what the connection was. But I don't want to be told I have to take it into account - and as far as they've been told, we're not marrying at all!"
"Just when I was considering that we might..." he said reflectively.
"I don't think anybody really understands how many things we have to reckon with! It's not just a romantic ceremony or an administrative formality. Life-changing things like work and income depend on it. If I don't pay attention they might give me a title!"
Frederick snorted. "Unfortunately, yes. Your mother would like that, I think."
"I do not! I think! Although all of you are pretty nice and I really don't feel unwelcome. But if she continues in this vein she won't even get to attend." Anna Margaret was still upset.
"Are you planning on asking me? If you do, don't do it in public or I'll say no."
The next day Anna Margaret instructed her staff to take messages from her relatives only and never to put them through. She could do without the drama. It made her wonder if they had ever tried to call the Palace. If they had, they had not been successful. Her father, she knew, would try to bully her staff at the office if he was not given his way, but he might not dare to do that to Palace staff.
She made a note to speak to Louis, the vice prime minister, to let him know he would have to replace her at some point, but she was not sure when it was wise to do so. She still had nearly six months to go, but it was only fair to warn him in advance. Six months in advance might be a bit much, given that she only had one visit to the midwife behind her. So far she knew very little, except an approximate due date that might still change. If she started telling people now, she would feel as ridiculous as her sister.
Still, it would have to be before it leaked out, she reflected during her next tea break. It would be nicer for him to hear it in person and not learn about it from the media. The same would apply to her parents, but there was even more potential trouble in that quarter. She tried to ignore them for the moment. They could not force her to resign.
At work, however, people might have serious doubts about her ability to handle her job after the birth if she already did not handle her replacement perfectly. Although she had never looked for or noticed anyone who was deliberately trying to bring her down, this probably meant she was not devious enough to notice. A failure to arrange a timely replacement would definitely be an issue - and what was considered timely by law would not be important. She should not give anyone any reason to think she could not handle this.
She knew when she was allowed to go on maternity leave. They had had enough debates about that a few months ago. Even women without pregnancy wishes would remember. She could of course tell Louis she might not need that long, but six months was a long time and she did not know how things would develop. And there were of course babies who came earlier. But all that he could imagine himself. He would understand she could not give him any guarantees.
She decided not to put it off. She could handle this. She had to.
Anna Margaret studied Louis. What was he going to say? She could still back out now, but then what reason would she invent for asking him to see her? No, she must go through with it.
"I need to know," she began, "if what I tell you will stay a secret." It was pretty useless asking that of some people, she realised, but she hoped he was not one of those.
"Oh," he said. "Don't tell me you're pregnant."
She kept her face straight. "Is that the only secret I could have?"
"Well, it couldn't be work. You wouldn't ask me about secrecy if it was work, because it would be automatically understood. And we already know about your relationship. But you can't be serious." It looked as if Louis had not really thought his first thought through until now. He might only have been joking. "Are you?"
"Yes, I am."
His eyes widened. "Goodness. How did that happen?"
Anna Margaret tried to keep her face straight and serious. This was not a happy announcement; this was work. And she was also not here to go into detail about how it had happened. "The way it usually happens."
"All right, yes, sorry." He even looked a little embarrassed. "And now you're pregnant."
"Why are you surprised? Several people said it would happen when I was appointed, don't you remember?" Or more specifically, they had said that you should never appoint younger women, as they would undoubtedly have babies.
"So why did it? I mean -" He stopped.
"You mean did I not think of my job? Because people said it would happen if you appointed a woman under forty?" If Danielle had succeeded in getting pregnant as well those people would have been absolutely right: it would have happened to both women under thirty in the cabinet. Nobody would think of including men under forty like Patrick; men could procreate when and where they liked, at any age and in any job.
"I did think. That was the unfortunate thing. It wasn't planned."
"How do those unplanned things happen? I never get that."
"That would be way too much information for you," she said. "Contraceptive failure. It happened, so I'll have to deal with it."
"And you'll keep it."
"Of course. If I wasn't keeping it, I wouldn't have to tell you. I'm in a relationship. I'm not a single mother. There's no reason not to keep it." It might be inconvenient, but she had never considered not keeping it, she realised. Her age must have played a role as well. If she passed up this chance there might not be another.
"And now what?"
"You will have to replace me for a few weeks when the time comes. That's what I came to tell you."
"You'll continue?" Louis seemed amazed.
"Why not? Some of my predecessors had children. You do too. And my father did."
"Yes, but you were older in his days."
"True," she admitted. "He didn't have small children, but I'm sure there was once someone who did - and even if there wasn't, there's no reason why there couldn't be." She was not as sure of that as she sounded. Rationally she completely supported the idea. Emotionally she had no clue.
"Some conservative elements in my party..."
"Yes, I know." They would think mothers could not do important jobs. They hardly even considered women capable of doing important jobs. "Don't think they'll be the only ones speaking up about it. The so-called progressive elements will too, just because they can." They had not been after her yet, but they would. She could simply deduce this from reversing the things they had praised about her.
"What could they say?"
"Oh...I've already crossed over to the dark side by getting a man. Women don't need men, you know. Women succumbing to outdated biological dictates by getting pregnant are even worse."
This was all beyond Louis. It was really beyond Anna Margaret as well, but at least she had tried to follow this reasoning once.
"Yeah, never mind them," she said. "I never said anything one way or the other. I never said I wouldn't have children and I never said I would. They appropriated me for their cause, but I never supported them." It was stupid to be worried, she realised. She could never please them all.
"I don't plan to take a lot of time off if I feel well. I sit a lot. I don't see why I can't do any desk work being a little fatter." She did not know how work visits would go. A lot of walking or standing might be out of the question, but she could not predict that now.
"When is your due date?" He glanced at her waist.
"Huh," he said.
"That's six months from now, which means..."
"This didn't happen last week."
She raised her eyebrows. "You don't think I'd ring you right away after a contraceptive failure, do you?"
"Er, no." Louis looked embarrassed again. "But it happened three months ago or so? When exactly did your relationship begin?"
Anna Margaret sighed. She knew other people would wonder as well. "After the abdication notice, before the abdication."
"So the king..."
"Did not resign on my account. But yes, people will think we should have waited. Unfortunately that did not happen. So. Anyway, I have a right to a private life like everyone else."
Louis did not say he disagreed. "And when do you plan to take your leave?"
"I can't say."
"Wouldn't that be late January?"
"That's what I have a right to," she replied. "But I may not make use of it. I'm inclined not to, if all goes well. As I said, I don't see why I couldn't do any desk work. What would I do at home for six weeks? If I can get the house ready and do my shopping, I can work." She paused. "After last year's discussion on maternity leave I suppose not everyone will like that, but there might be an equal number not liking it if I took three months off. I'll just do what feels right to me." That felt like a relief.
Louis nodded. "All right."
"I'll let you know in time how much time off I'll need. I can't say right now. Contrary to some people, I have absolutely no symptoms, so I'm likely to be very optimistic."
She got her bloodwork done as well. Thankfully from the number of old people in the waiting room it would not immediately be apparent why she had to get hers done. Equally fortunate was the fact that she was given a number and that nobody would be calling her name. The only two who knew what she was here for were the woman processing her form and the woman taking her blood.
Until they had their break, no doubt. Then they would discuss it.
In the evening they were dining with Isabelle and Philip. The latter hopped over on his crutches, but he seemed otherwise fine. The children were not with them.
"I have to thank you for taking them to the cinema last week," said Isabelle.
"No problem," Anna Margaret answered. "I hadn't been for ages myself. It was sort of fun."
She did not know what this dinner was for. Presumably it was just for fun as well. Frederick had asked her by means of a message earlier in the day and she had agreed. She could have asked him why, but that would have sounded as if she would rather not.
The table in the dining room was set, which was either because it was supposed to be more formal, or because that table was larger. Nobody had said anything about where she placed the cutlery and glasses, so either she had done that right or they did not care.
Frederick had cooked, since he had been home earlier, but it was not anything elaborate as far as she could tell.
"What would you like to drink?" asked Frederick.
"Oh, don't open a bottle on my account," his sister said hurriedly. "I'll have water. I'm trying to lose weight."
"Morning runs," Anna Margaret suggested. "I have actually lost weight in the past weeks."
"Yes, that's how I noticed." But she did not say what she had noticed precisely. "But I hate runs. I don't think that will work. I'll stick to water."
"Don't visit Grandma then," Frederick remarked. "Even I have to drink wine there. We went Saturday, by the way."
"Did you now. What did she have to say?"
"She repeated the word mistress quite a lot."
Isabelle gave Anna Margaret a sympathetic glance. "I hope he had warned you in advance."
"A bit. But still. Is it her age?" she asked when Frederick had gone to the kitchen to get the drinks. Surprisingly neither she nor Philip had yet told him what they would like to drink, so she wondered what they were getting. Maybe Philip always wanted the same thing, but what about her?
"Oh, no. She's always been like that. She doesn't fool me. I used to be a nurse."
"You did?" Anna Margaret had never paid much attention to what Isabelle might have done with her time. She supposed that when Isabelle had finished her education she had been a teenager herself and utterly focused on school and sports. If she had been aware of celebrities at all, she had certainly not followed them. Besides, in those days one still depended on paper media.
"My father believed in letting me try out a number of suitably useful professions."
"And they let you do some actual work?" For some reason that still surprised her, although now that she knew them better, it should not.
Isabelle seemed amused. "Well, as we are actual people with actual abilities, yes."
"Yes, I know that now," Anna Margaret hurried to say. "But I'm sure most people don't think you'd do actual work, like changing bedpans."
"I can't say it's anyone's favourite pastime, but if you want to be taken seriously at your place of work that is definitely something you need to do. Even if they try to let someone else do it for you."
"Oh, do they?"
"Sometimes they do. Did. Obviously I no longer have to do these types of internships."
"I was sent to work for my father's friends during my summer holidays," Anna Margaret remembered. "But thankfully that was just office work."
"Sent," said Isabelle, but she did not continue when Frederick brought her an entire jug of water. "Is that tap water?"
"What do you think?" asked her brother.
"Did you read that one of my colleagues went to Amsterdam and required nine lorries for the luggage he and his entourage were bringing? When I went to Amsterdam two weeks ago we could fit everything into two cars. But then, I drink tap water too."
At some point Anna Margaret wanted to tell Isabelle that her sister was pregnant, but she wanted to wait for the right moment. She would sound mean otherwise, since she was sure some judgemental remarks would slip out of her mouth.
First she watched how Frederick got beer for Philip and himself. Beer. Her parents would be shocked. Luckily they poured the contents into glasses. Still, she must have stared quite a bit, because Philip had to laugh.
"I grew up quite normally," he said.
Again, she had not been paying attention to the media when Isabelle had married him. She had not been very interested at the time. What the media later made of his situation was probably not quite the truth and she had not really committed it to memory. She had never known they would once be related. "With beer?"
"What's wrong with beer?"
She had grown up quite normally too, she had always thought, yet she had never seen her father drink beer at home. "Nothing," she said, disliking the idea that she had apparently not yet accepted the idea that everyone could drink beer and that she had been influenced by snobby parents in this matter. She could imagine Frederick doing it, but then, she knew him and he was not formal. In fact, she could imagine everyone doing it, except the queen and her husband. She was silly. It was not as if she had never met any heads of state before. "I didn't know we had any."
"I visited a brewery today," Frederick answered. "They gave me a few bottles to take home, so I invited Philip, because he never gets any beer anywhere."
"Oh." Perhaps she was not that unusual then after all, if Philip never got it anywhere. She changed the subject. "I visited the blood lab, so I got out a bit as well." That, again, was silly, because she regularly had work visits to take her out of her office.
"Are you still sticking to public services?" asked Isabelle.
"I hardly have a choice. But I'm okay with it."
"I thought about it and you're probably right."
"What would you like to drink?" Frederick asked her.
"Some juice would be fine." She was still surprised to hear Isabelle say she was probably right. "What did you use? Not the public blood lab, I suppose. You probably had a courier."
Isabelle screwed up her face as she tried to imagine a courier. "No, the regularly private service. I have no complaints, but I also didn't have a choice at the time, so my opinion is probably not as informed as I'd like. I simply know the information never leaks out before I want it to."
"Did the family decide things for you as well? Or only for Frederick?" She did not think Isabelle would have been easy to manipulate. Or perhaps she had simply learned not to be over time.
Isabelle poured some water into her glass. "They tried. But I wasn't the first in the line of succession. As far as they were concerned I was only a temporary second, because of course Frederick would marry and have at least one son. There weren't as many requirements I had to meet."
"And did you think Frederick would have at least one son?" Anna Margaret glanced over her shoulder, but he was not in sight.
"I began to doubt it. Of course he also kept saying he didn't want the job. Not that it's a job, really."
"Not for you," Frederick answered as he appeared again with Anna Margaret's drink.
"It doesn't have regular hours. It doesn't even have irregular hours. So..." she said as she studied Anna Margaret. "Who else did you tell?"
"I had to tell Louis today. I thought that was only fair. He asked how it happened. I said the usual way. He asked how unplanned things happen. I said -"
"Nosy," Isabelle commented. "Everyone knows how they happen."
"You do too?" As she spoke she wondered if she was not too nosy herself.
"Certainly. Have you told your family yet?"
"No." Now she had to take care not to be too eager, so she spoke calmly. "I've thought about it, but before I could decide on anything, something came up that made it unwise to tell them. You see," she said in case Isabelle would not ask for clarification. She simply had to get this off her chest. "My mother rang me at the office, which is the only place they can reach me, and she rang me to say I should give her my mobile number, so she could pass it to my sister, who had something to tell me."
Isabelle nodded slowly.
"But I don't want to give them my mobile number and they know that, so I thought it was a ruse. It thought it didn't make much sense. Why ask me for my number so my sister can call me? She could have called me at the office straight away. So I called my sister, because there was only one thing that made sense."
Isabelle held up her hand. "Can I guess?"
"Of course." Anna Margaret sipped her juice.
"The only reason you couldn't tell your family that you're pregnant is because your sister told you she is too."
"Why can't you tell them you're pregnant if your sister is as well?"
"I could, but they wouldn't like me for it." She squeezed her glass tightly.
Anna Margaret tried to speak evenly. "Because I'm fairly sure she's thrilled to have beaten me to something and if it turns out that I still won this game that I'm not even playing, she's not going to be pleased with me."
Isabelle looked bemused. She had no sister, naturally. "It would be nice to have a cousin the same age, no?"
"I don't know what she would think. And she's at five weeks. The rest of them will think I should have told them about myself two months ago as well. They won't be pleased that I've kept it to myself for so long, even though I didn't know anything at five weeks. There's just no way out of this without upsetting someone."
"Then tell them."
Anna Margaret shook her head, although the same thing had occurred to her a few seconds ago. "It would leak out in no time. Especially if the child will be titled. Will it? I hope not. My grandson the prince. I'd like to avoid that for as long as possible." She took another sip. "If my sister had a child at the same time it might not get any attention. She'd probably see that correctly. It's just not my fault. It just wasn't on my list of things to think of. If I get involved with this man, will my sister be miffed if I have a child?"
"It was definitely on my list," Frederick snorted.
"And you thought I wouldn't be miffed?" Isabelle attempted to look dangerous.
"Not about the child, but perhaps about the timing of it."
"Well, she's reasonably pedigreed... So," said Isabelle. "Your family still doesn't know. Philip knows, by the way, but the children don't. When do you think will be a right moment to tell your parents, and maybe your sister? Or any other relatives?"
"There won't be a right moment."
"They might not be pleased to learn about it from the media either."
"Oh, definitely." Anna Margaret sighed. "There'll be drama in any case."
"Or there won't be. Were you like this before you got pregnant?"
"Worried about these things?"
Anna Margaret considered it. "Not sure. There was no one to talk to. But there's a reason why they don't get my mobile phone number anymore, obviously, and that predates Frederick by a few years." She had always had little time for drama and nonsense.
"I'll try to run into them socially some time and see what's up," Isabelle decided. "Relax, I won't tell them anything!"
"They might ask you if there's a wedding in the works."
"They wouldn't be the first."
"People even asked me about that," Philip revealed. "I said I always found about those things on the day, so it was useless to ask me."
"Philip!" Isabelle cried in dismay.
"Well, it worked. They stopped asking me."
"I'm going to use that line too," Frederick said appreciatively. "Besides, it happens when the women in the family say it must happen."
Philip raised his glass in agreement.
"Are you planning to take maternity leave?" asked Isabelle.
That was difficult. She had no idea. "If I need it. If I don't need it, I don't see why I should."
"And who decides if you need it?"
That was difficult as well. "I'm sure someone will tell me. You were already telling me to lie down."
"Where will you leave the baby after the birth? Are you planning to breastfeed?"
"Do you work for the midwife practice?" Anna Margaret wondered. "They have such questions on their forms. I had to answer them without having thought about it at all."
"What did you answer?"
"That I hadn't thought about it yet. I realised it sounded stupid, but I thought it was best to be honest. I didn't know they'd be asking me all those questions." And she had not known she would be asked them now either. She still had not thought about the answers.
"Here's the thing. If you breastfeed, the baby has to stay with you, until you can pump enough."
"Milk," Isabelle explained patiently. "By the time you can, you can leave it with someone else for longer spells. That means, and you don't have to decide now, that you have a few options. One, you stay home with the baby. Two, you take the baby to work and feed it there. Three, you leave the baby with someone else and meet up every two to four hours to feed it. Four, you leave the baby with someone else and you don't feed it. Five, there's probably another option as well."
"Oh." Anna Margaret considered it. "Well, we'll think about it. So far we've only looked at furniture."
"That's a step. Of course Frederick's old cot is in the attics somewhere, but it's hideous. In fact there's a whole lot of furniture in the attics."
"I can't remember what my cot looked like," said Frederick. "It's been a while."
Isabelle looked around at the room's furniture. "I somehow think you won't like it. I also don't think your new-born baby will be photographed in a white lacy dress. I ordered something else for him or her that I'll give you after the first photos, to see if I was right."
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