“My lady, the coach is here.”
Princess Wynefrede Aumberden of the kingdom of Choochovia glanced up from her mail and nodded at her servant in acknowledgement.
She was at her breakfast table in the conservatory where she could look out over her mansion’s small rose garden while having her tea and crumpets. Herbal tea. Real tea hadn’t made it to England until the mid-1600s, and Krim was ostensibly based on the year 1500. The grid’s founders weren’t always consistent when it came to historical accuracy, but tea, coffee, potatoes, tomatoes, and tobacco were all notably absent. Several explorers had tried to find passage to the world’s equivalents of both China and the New World, but none had yet succeeded.
At least, that’s what Wynefrede’s servants kept telling her each time she asked for one of those forbidden items.
“Your picnic basket is ready,” the servant said. “Would you like me to pack up the rest of the breakfast so you can take it with you?”
“I’m good.” Wynefrede stood up and grabbed the letters. Then she also picked up the one last uneaten meat pie to take with her. She planned to finish it in on the drive.
The coach belonged to Margarett. Or, at least, was available for her use during the Royal Season. With a servant’s help, Wynefrede climbed in to sit across from her friend and offered her friend a bit of the meat pie. Margarett shook her head with a little self-satisfied smile on her face. The servant then passed up the picnic basket and a folded blanket, in case it got chilly. And the coach set off.
“You’re smiling in a suspicious way,” said Wynefrede, between bites of the pie. “Something good happen?”
“Well, if you insist…” Margarett pulled a folded piece of paper out of her bodice. “A secret admirer dropped this off at my house this morning.” She unfolded the page. “Listen to this. Dearest Maggie…”
“That’s very familiar,” said Wynefrede. “Even I don’t call you Maggie.”
“Shh,” said Margarett, and resumed reading. “The flower of your beauty pales next to the grace of your presence which is, itself, nothing next to the warmth of your sod.”
“It might be soul.” She passed the letter to Wynefrede. “Whoever it is, their handwriting is atrocious.”
“It’s probably soul,” Wynefrede agreed.
“I wonder if my handwriting is equally bad. I think I’ll take a calligraphy class,” said Margarett. “Would you like to join me?”
“It sounds very pleasant and restful,” said Wynefrede. “So, no.”
“Fine.” Margarett returned to her letter. “They talk about all the ways that I’m better than a summer day, how they loved talking to me, and how they can’t wait until they see me again.”
“Who is it from?”
“I honestly can’t tell.” Margarett passed the letter again. “That squiggle could be their name. Tom? David?”
“It looks like Hitler to me,” said Wynefrede.
“Hitler? Really?” Margarett took the letter back. “I guess if you squint hard enough… Did you get some mail, too?”
“Just messages from home,” said Wynefrede. “My parents telling me how exclusive the Royal Season is and how lucky I am to be here. I don’t know why they think I’m lucky. Didn’t they just pay the entry fee?”
“No, you have to be invited,” said Margarett. “It’s very hard to get in. There’s a long waiting list, and even if you’re at the top, there’s no guarantee you’ll make it in. Frankly, I’m a little surprised that you made it in, too.”
“Well, you don’t really seem like the monogamy type,” said Margarett. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you really seem to be enjoying the single life.”
“You never know,” said Wynefrede.
“Maybe one of the gentlemen from last night? What about Raphe?”
“The guy you went to the balcony with. The one with the floppy hair.”
“He was nice.”
“Or Nigel, the one you danced with. Short guy, purple jacket.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“He had a mustache, and glasses. You said he was a murderer. Then you danced with him. Do you really not remember?”
“Right, the possible murderer. I liked him.”
“And then you spent the rest of the evening talking to some guy in a suit.”
“Mitchell. Or maybe Michael? Totally unsuitable. Just a little man with a boring tech support job.”
“Whatever was he doing at the ball, then?”
“The Royal Season organizers snapped their fingers and he came running,” Wynefrede. “It must be very sad to be so powerless. I don’t think he wanted to be there at all. He wanted to be out looking for missing people, I think.” She opened the letter from her parents again. “They tell me not to worry about work, that my cousin has stepped up perfectly adequately.”
“You work for your family?”
“Well, it’s not a job per se,” said Wynefrede. “I help manage some of our investments. Right now, we’re making the final decision between two big opportunities. But unless something unusual happens, the rest of it should go pretty smoothly. And if something unusual does happen and my cousin needs help, well, my parents are right there. They say I shouldn’t worry about anything, just enjoy myself, and find someone nice.”
She picked up the other letter, labeled as being from Mark Stein. The name was accompanied by a twenty-character personal identification code. She opened it. Mark pretty much repeated what her parent said, then added that something new had come up with one of the contracts. “But I’m handling it, don’t worry about it. We’re all going to be very very rich very soon. Well, we’re already very very rich. But we’re going to be a smidgen richer. Drinks are on me when you get back.”
“They’re all getting along fine without me,” she told Margarett.
“Are you going to write back?”
“Tonight, when I get home. I’ll tell them all about the very suitable gentlemen I’ve met here, and about our trips to the historical society and the hospital.”
“You left out leper. Leper hospital.”
“I was thinking of leaving that part out.”
“How about today’s battle?”
“I was planning to describe it… as a trip to the countryside. With a nice picnic in the fresh air.”
“I wonder if whoever wrote the letter to me is going to be there,” said Margarett.
“I’m sure they will. It’s a battle. Everyone is going to be there.”