I might have been able to return to the Fortress of Quietude in my basement to begin recording the audiobook for “Foes & Rivals,” but there was a little cough when I was showering, plus I had seen things about Prince Edward’s trip to Texas, so…
This skips over some political unpleasantness and jumps ahead to where the young man is going to have a dinner with his great aunt and uncle. And his non-blood cousin, who, we discover, is not an exhibitionist, but is just something of an autist: an over-focused ditz. I really want to hear their dinner convo.
Driving north, with MacDougal in the front passenger seat, Edward noted the hills higher on the right, to the north. When they turned off onto a smaller lane, rather than trees there was just low scrub everywhere.
“Strange land to grow grapes,” MacDougal said, glancing at the paper map he had taped to the dash. “Not something you see much, back home.”
“Wine grapes prefer a drier climate,” the prince replied, also looking about. “I’m guessing these hills serve as a windbreak against any winter chills. But you are correct: making wine is not much of an industry in the imperium. Whiskey and beer seem to predominate.”
“And that suits me just fine! Ah! Here’s we are!” A sign on their left said Erzsébet Winery next to an oversize mailbox with a number but no name. Edward wondered if that was a relic of Arpad’s birth country’s time under communism or Texas’s time under ExComm?
Negotiating the dirt road south, Edward noted there had been some small improvements and expansion to the processing and storage buildings to the right. To the left was the Rigó’s house, goodly sized at three stories and about thirty-five hundred feet, as he recalled. From his visit as a boy, Lily had told him the story that once her husband had left the design to her, she wanted a quiet little two-bedroom cabin. Given his anticipated increase in rank in the Field Forces and the Department of State, Arpad had objected, noting they would be entertaining guests of some importance and needed a home which reflected well upon them and Texas. Five or six thousand feet; lots of marble, he had suggested.
The pleasant, Western-style, timber frame design before him, as he stepped out of the sedan, was their compromise. There was no one at the front door to greet him but he heard running feet from an office building behind him. Turning, Edward saw his great uncle loping through the small rocks and dry dirt in his business casual clothes.
“Edward! Welcome!” he said, clasping his hand firmly. “Got caught up auditing some books – still not my son’s cup of tea – and the time got away from me. Come on in, please!”
For the season, it was, of course, already a little cool as the sun angled toward the west. Closer now, Edward noted all of the windows were open to let a breeze into the house. Arpad opened the door and waved his guest in before giving a perfunctory greeting to MacDougal.
“He eats very little,” Edward noted, deadpan. “You can feed him with your dogs.”
“Sic Parvis Magna, Prince,” his uncle shot right back. “I will at least have him at the kiddie’s table!”
Two small fluffy white dogs were immediately underfoot, yapping, and a cat appeared on each of the arched stairways leading up a floor on both the left and right, irritated to see another human.
Don’t worry, he thought to them, I’m not.
Wearing an apron over her cotton dress, Lily Rigó peeked around a corner ahead to see what the tumult was about. Still holding her stirring ladle, she ran to hug her distant relative, splashing just a little of what she had been cooking onto his back.
“Edward! It’s been so long! No, no! Not a word! Let me look at you with my own eyes!” she said, first pushing him away then taking a step back. He knew she meant to keep her best friend Ai from coloring her perception.
“Such a man you’ve become! You even look human!” she said without the slightest rancor. But her Han Chinese eyes got sly. “Still pining for my daughter?”
“Hello, Aunt Lily,” he said, ignoring her to step forward, take her hands, and kiss her cheek, a bit below his. “And no, I am older, now.”
“That reminds me…” Arpad began, suddenly cut off as his phone chimed in his pocket. Withdrawing it, he said, “Yes? What do you mean, ‘lost?’ You lived here for months! Just use GPS! No, we are not coming to look for you…!”
At a look, Edward’s aide stepped forward.
“Jus’ sen’ me her locale, Gen’ral,” MacDougal asked. “I’ll git ‘er in safe.”
The broad look he gave his master was lost on no one.
“Right. Here.” Arpad thumbed something on his phone as the prince’s aide made for the door.
“I’ve only been here three times, once as an infant,” Edward observed as the front door closed. “I could have walked here from Austin. How did…”
“My granddaughter,” Lily began, “is well… I’m afraid ‘absent-minded’ just doesn’t begin to cover it…”
Seeing MacDougal’s look, she pressed on.
“She’s going to need a remarkable man to take care of her!”
Unlike his mother or older brother and sister, Edward likely was the most empathetic of all the imperial family toward humans. “Normies,” as his mother once dismissively called them. Nonetheless, he closed that line of thought and faced his uncle.
“Arpad? I met your President a few hours ago. Would you like to hear how that played out?”
No one expecting that, Lily returned to the kitchen for dinner and his great uncle waved him through the house to two chairs on the back deck.
Arpad had gone in as soon as Edward told him where the meeting had been held and came back with what looked like whiskey in a rather full highball glass. When the young prince concluded his little story, there was barking at the front door, indicating distant-cousin Livia had been successfully guided in.
Arpad had waved for his first guest to stay put while he saw his granddaughter. Alone, Edward allowed his grin onto his face while listing to “just how the Hell stupid are you to not use GPS, much less having lived here a third of your life…!” happening in the house behind him. Only at Aunt Lily’s call of “Dinner! Eszunk!” in English and Hungarian, did he stand and come back inside.
“Liv!” he said, softly but clearly. Looking up, her face formed into a charming “oh!” He took her hands and kissed her cheek, just as he had with her grandmother. “I’m so glad you are here!”
He noted her mixed East Asian skin flushed red before she jerked out of his grasp and ran for a bathroom.
“You demi-humans suck at seduction,” Arpad noted with a snort, moving to help his wife bring food to the dining table.
“I’m aware.” He didn’t even try to object. “Reading humans, for Laszlo and me, it takes about ten minutes to get a girl’s clothes off.”
“And Liz and Ildi?” Lily laughed.
“Our eldest,” he said, slightly formally to the Empress’s first child, “has, er, some experience with men. Sister Ildi is only thirteen, Aunt Lily! Please do not be creepy like my mother!”
“I’ve been around my fr – ” as her granddaughter returned from the bathroom and her embarrassment, he watched his wise aunt change her words in mid-talk, “ – frank talk has ever gotten under anyone’s skin. Isn’t that right, my best grandchild!”
“I’m your best grandchild,” Livia said quietly, taking her place directly opposite Edward, down the long axis of the formal dining table, “because I am to-date your only grandchild. Although I am sure that Kalí is hard at it.”
“No,” Arpad rumbled, leaning back in his chair, reflective. “No: I think it is her husband who is hard at it.” After a tiny pause, they all laughed together. Thinking faster than any of them, Edward welcomed a homecoming such as this.