It’s not a lot, but I really do feel better being able to write again. Yes, recording audio is my focus for winter, but I cannot let go an idea once it has been shown to me.

Please look up gentlemens_cigars on Instagram for a look where the imperial family is sitting in these next few scenes. Pour a drink, light up, and read on!

“This is rather nice, in an antiquarian sort of way,” Laszlo observed, relaxing into the plush leather chair with an unlit cigar in his left hand.

“You and Caillie always liked the old ways,” Edward replied, striking a match to light his, “but in this case I think you are correct.  This is old but looks renovated just before the Change.  Is that right?”

His question was directed at their host and owner of the Southern Gentleman Trolley.  When their mother had led them aboard, once the horses were secured, the young man only a few years older than the three introduced himself as Shadoe Dark.  As micro-regional cultures evolved quickly during and after the Change, no one thought his name unusual.  Dark had shown them to a collection of chairs and made cigar recommendations.  When asked what they wanted to drink, only Robert had requested some of the whiskey from the ages-old distillery ten miles to their south.  He did it knowing his demi-human older brothers and mother could not stand the effect alcohol had on their modified brains and they knew he only drank for that reason when around them.  They were a knowledgeable family.

“That’s correct, Prince Edward,” Dark replied to his question.  “An ancestor of mine dedicated a few years of his life to the renovation of this trolley, only to have his hopes of touring the South dashed with the Breakup of the US.  My father discovered it in a shed on the corner of his land and began to repair it.  I completed those repairs.

“Now that the great Empress has brought us order and peace,” the young man bowed deeply to Faustina, “I hope to take up this old family dream.”

Edward, she thought to her son.

I see, mother.  “Here,” he said, jotting an IP address onto a piece of paper from his pocket before handing it over to Dark.  “A former imperial legate not only manages several tobacco farms along the coast from Savannah to Jacksonville, he also has overseas contacts for cigars.  It is, ah, the Empress’ will that he be your patron.”

“I am forever in your debt and at your service, Empress,” Dark said with another bow.  “Is there anything else I can provide any of you?”

“Open the windows for a breeze,” Robert ordered.  “My demi-human seniors enjoy the rush and focus of nicotine but we are together so rarely we would like to see one another.  After that, leave us, please.”

Shadoe Dark did as he was bid, set out another decanter of spring water, and left, closing the trolley door behind him.

“So why us, Mother?” Laszlo immediately kicked off the conversation.  “It cannot be about succession as eldest sister Elizabeth is not here and because of what you have accomplished we know the imperium does not have to pass to a man.  Little sister Caillie does not share our nature, so would be unfit – ”

“Implying I am not fit to rule, brother?” Robert cut in, raising his glass in his hand.  “Your confidence in your family is palpable.  At least your recognized our oldest sister, even if she seems to have no interest in politics.”

“I never said you should not be considered for a position of authority, brother,” Laszlo replied easily in his deep voice, “just not for the throne.  The world now is too complex for a human mind.”

“I think,” Edward spoke up, always sidelined by the perpetual arguments between his older and younger brothers, “we should hear what our mother has to say.  Why she called this meeting.”

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