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The Two Elizabeths

Philip Apps is a data scientist who lives in California. He has been published in Daily Science Fiction and McSweeney's Internet Tendency.
"So, what are you reading these days?" he asked, as we sat down for lunch under the portrait of Henry XVIII.
It was an easy question, but I paused a little to think. It was always best to think when you were meeting with Guillermo Smith-Rodriguez--head of the department and my jefe's jefe, so I chewed my bite of cod burrito just a little longer than usual.
"A novella," I said after the smallest of delays. "The Two Elizabeths."
"What's it about? No--let me guess. A thriller, like 'Dr. Jekyll and Senor Hidalgo.' Elizabeth uno is prim and proper, but at night, she becomes Elizabeth dos, a sultry seductress and mujer fatal."
"No, it's--"
"Wait--I have it. A romance of forbidden love. How can the two Elizabeths survive, persecuted by a world that neither understands nor cares for them?"
"No, it's a kind of historical fiction."
"Interesting. Tell me more."
"Well, you know Henry VIII had a son, Henry IX?"
"Really? Please, educate me, cabron," he said, sarcastically. The word "cabron" played a large part in Guillermo Smith-Rodriguez's lexicon. It usually meant asshole, but sometimes it could mean idiot, dude, or good friend, depending on context, tone, and his facial expression. This time, all factors pointed to the first and customary meaning, which was not a good sign.
"No, I mean, I'm setting the scene. It's a world where history went differently. So in this alternate world, Henry's wife Catherine of Aragon never has a son. Henry goes crazy trying to get a male heir, and he sets up his own church so he can divorce her and marry an English harlot called Anne Boleyn."
"Henry, the original Defender of the Faith? Break with Rome? Sounds implausible," he scowled.
"Si, but that's the story idea. So he marries Anne, but she just has a daughter. He goes even more loco and marries four more times, beheading a bunch of them. Then eventually Anne's daughter, called Elizabeth, she becomes Queen. There's a big war with Spain, and England becomes a major heretical power, so the Lutherans in Germany aren't crushed."
"So no Anglo-Spanish Empire?"
"No empire, no Pax Catholica, no Council of Canterbury. The royal families never remarry and England and Spain never unite. Europe suffers through many long and brutal wars, with each nation producing its own madman."
"And why is it called 'the two Elizabeths'?"
"Ah. The story ends in our time, when Elizabeth II is the powerless Queen of England and head of her ancestor's schismatic church. It's a dystopian present: Catholicism has been defeated in England, Spain is a third-rate power, and the rest of the world is dominated by heretics, atheists, and pagans."
"So what do you think?" Guillermo asked.
"Well, it's an interesting story. It gets a bit confusing, though, as he throws in some changed place names, like Drakestown becomes--"
"No, cabron," he interrupted impatiently. "Is it publishable?"
"Ah, claro. Well, no."
"But why, exactly? Blasphemy? Treason? Brother Felipe Garcia-Dick wrote historical fiction kind of like this, and he got away with it."
Luckily, I had my teacup to my lips, so I took a sip and used that extra bit of time to marshal my argument--a useful ploy I had learned when I studied literature and law at Cambridge. "No," I said. "Not treason. Not blasphemy. The judge wouldn't convict on those: it's not attacking the current monarch or the Pope. It's ancestral lese-majeste: an insult to a founder of the Tudor dynasty to say that he could act like that."
Guillermo Smith-Rodriguez paused for a while. "Ancestral Lese-Majeste," he said, thoughtfully. "It's unusual. Novel and archaic at the same time, but it fits. Yes, even one of those By-Our-Lady Oxford Jesuit Devil's Advocate cabrons couldn't poke a hole in that." He smiled like a man who had solved a particularly tricky crossword puzzle.
"You can't touch Good King Hal," I said, trying to reinforce the point.
"Good King Hal," he repeated. "Henry XV, maybe this cabron writer could have gotten away with, but Henry VIII, the greatest king in all of English history? No go, Joe," he said, fully convincing himself.
"Very good," he said, finishing up his chicken tikka paella. "I think you have a bright future here at the Office for the Defense of Public Morality, cabron. Write it up, and send a telex to Nueva Sevilla to have the copies pulped and the author arrested. Good work."
"Gracias, jefe," I said.
"And for your next case, see what you make of this one," he said, handing me a thick volume, titled "Harry Lopez-Potter and the Witchfinders' School."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 26th, 2019


I listen to a podcast called "The History of England," which was one of the inspirations for this story. It was a lot of fun to write, particularly thinking of all the little points of a long-established Anglo-Spanish empire and culture. I hope you enjoyed it, too!

- Philip Apps
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