The ride to the Imperial Residence was a short one. Rick made some small talk about the United [Progressive] States’ latest offensives, but neither Cooper or Lise picked up on any of the openings he made in the small talk. Instead, they sat next to each other, like they had so many times before, the only thing different being that Cooper’s left hand held Lise’s right, their fingers intertwined, as they each looked out opposite windows. If the driver noticed, he had the good sense not to acknowledge it. Rick silently reminded himself to never play poker with any of the RCMP on the detail.
When they arrived, they found much of the general staff already waiting in the drawing room. Lise was certain that her immediate superior’s gaze was on her for a second too long, as if to surreptitiously say “I know about the two of you.” Shortly after their arrival, they all took their seats around the long rectangular table, two high-ranking medical staff officers taking seats between Cooper and herself. The room darkened, and a three-dimensional hologram appeared over the table as a brigadier explained the latest intelligence on their neighbor to the south. Lise found it impossible to concentrate on the briefing, her thoughts focused instead on a larger than life separation scene where she would be approached by MPs, who would read her the charges, and then take her away in handcuffs, to a trial and prison, where she would never see Cooper again.
After what seemed to her to be an eternity, the hologram turned off, the lights came back up, and the King rose to address the assembled personnel. “Ladies and gentlemen, I realize that some of that was a bit grim, but I also wanted you here for something a bit more cheerful. Two of the gentlemen here once had a feast on this day annually with family, as one of their former nation’s most popular holidays. Mr. Cooper, Mr. Gearheart, we would be honored if you would have Thanksgiving dinner here with us this evening. Rick smiled and Cooper nodded his head slightly. “We’d be the ones honored, Your Majesty.” the two said, almost in unison.
“Excellent!” exclaimed the King. “The dinner is not yet quite ready, and the table must still be set, so we should all retire to the Library for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.”
The mass of uniformed men and women rose and milled out of the room in and into the library, where they separated into clusters all around the room, talking, eating, and drinking. The King made his way around the room, talking to the various groups, while Cooper, Lise, and Rick were cornered by an Air Marshall and his adjutant, who both asked endless questions about what Thanksgiving had been like before the Purge. Lise couldn’t pay attention to the conversation, and instead, brushed her hand against Cooper’s as she looked around the room, just in time to see the King talking to her superior, Colonel Rafferty, while both looked first at Cooper and then at her. Immediately, she could feel her heart climb up into her throat, and start beating as if she’d run a marathon. She grabbed Cooper’s hand and squeezed it urgently as both Colonel Rafferty and the King turned their backs to them. Cooper turned to see the look of panic in her eyes as she turned her back to Rafferty and the King and in a shouted whisper said “THEY KNOW!”
Cooper wasn’t sure that there was anything that he could say that would help her to dial back, so he simply smiled back at her and squeezed her hand lightly, as he turned to see the King walking over to their corner of the room.
“Major Philips, you look ravishing this evening. I’m both startled and gratified that this can happen. It’s good to know that no matter how ugly we make the uniforms, women can’t help but to let their beauty shine through when they wear them.”
Lise uttered words of thanks which were barely audible as she tried not to meet the King’s gaze.
“However, there is still some business to discuss this evening. Cooper, if I could have a private word with you?”
Cooper responded “Certainly.” and turned to the Marshall to offer his excuses, before following the King into his study.
As he walked in, a servant appeared, as if out of nowhere, and walked out through the entrance, shutting the door as he left.
The King stood behind a desk in the corner, and said “Cooper, I have a problem.”
Uncertain if he was a bit more loose than usual due to the day’s events, or the whisky he’d been sipping in the other room, Cooper responded “Your Majesty, you’re fighting a war against an enemy who loves death more than life, and what remains of my former country is about to become another front in that battle. I’d say you have several problems.” He immediately regretted the flippant nature of these words right after they left his lips, but if the King was offended, he didn’t show it, instead permitting himself to smile.
“Cooper, I know about you and Major Philips.” said the King, letting the implication of the statement sink in.
“Oh.” was the only response Cooper could muster.
“Oh?” asked the King.
“Well, to be fair, she thought you knew. I guess she expects that the King’s eyes are really everywhere, and it would appear that I’ve been naive about that.”
“Those eyes are not in as many places as I’d like for the comfort and security of us all.”
“She’s convinced that her career is over, and that you, or more accurately, your subordinates, will take her career from her, and toss her in jail.”
“Is that what you want?”
Cooper stiffened, wondering what he could say. After what felt like an eternity, he found himself saying “I understand the need for discipline and integrity in the work that we do, Your Majesty.”
“That wasn’t the question I asked.”
Cooper hesitated. The King noted his obvious discomfort and volunteered “If there is to blame for Major Philips’ conduct, it rests with me, Cooper.”
Cooper’s eyes blinked, then narrowed as the unasked question clouded his face. The King leaned back in the overstuffed chair and sighed. “Cooper, I’m older than both you and the Major. I’ve been reading her reports from the beginning, and if there is one thing I’ve known a lot longer than either of you, it’s that she’s been hopelessly in love with you almost from the start. And I let it go, because I believed that it was actually adding to the insights spelled out in her reports.”
The King stood up, and walked over to the sideboard where a decanter half full of a clear, rich brown liquid sat, and he poured two finger’s worth into the pair of glasses sitting next to the decanter. “And while I don’t expect that you will discuss everything that you and I speak about here this evening with her later tonight, I do expect you to tell the Major what I said about this being my fault and not hers.” The King turned to face a stunned Cooper, and handed him one of the glasses.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness. Am I to take it that the Major isn’t going to be cashiered out and sent to prison?” Cooper stammered as he took the glass from the King.
The King could barely conceal his amusement. “Is that what you want?” he asked, a mischievous smile dancing on his lips. “Honestly, Cooper, I can’t believe how slow you’re being about this. No. She isn’t in any trouble at all. ” The King paused, then smirked. “Let me correct myself. She isn’t in any trouble with me. She’s got you, and I suspect that will be the source of some…challenges. But in that, she’ll be no different from any other wife.”
Cooper’s throat closed around the whisky he had just started to swallow, causing the burn of the alcohol to spread 365 degrees in his neck. Coughing, Cooper choked out “Wife?“. The King’s smile grew larger, and he laughed “Yes, “wife”. I can’t very well have the head of my chaplain corps “living in sin”, now can I?”
“B-b-b-b-but…” Cooper stammered again. The King took a sip of his whisky and said “I know, I know. “But I haven’t asked her.” is what you want to say. Cooper, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. She’ll say “Yes.” And it will be my pleasure to announce your engagement at dinner.”
Cooper, who had only just recovered some of his composure, jerked his gaze back toward the King. “At DINNER?”
The King said “Of course. I’ve already sent for a respected jeweler, and instructed him to bring rings in your price range, so you can pick one, and ask her before dinner. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m aware of what you can afford, even if you’ve probably never given it a thought. It has something to do with signing the checks, I suppose.”
Cooper remained silent as he took another pull on the whisky.
The King lifted his glass to his lips, and before taking another sip, he said, with a touch less volume, “And you should probably be married as soon as possible. No longer than a week. The way you two are, I expect you’re going to be a father again very soon.”
Cooper’s eyes bulged as it took all of his strength to keep from spitting out the drink he just started to sip.