Monday, December 25, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven: An Angelic Intervention

Though my shattered heart would have had me remain there in the bliss of catatonia, unthinking and unfeeling, for the remainder of my miserable life; still my mind struggled to stir me to action, for I knew that I remained in peril. I knew this, and the truth of it lay all about me, yet for what seemed like a time interminable, it was as if all vitality had left my frame; though reason would have dictated a desperate effort to free myself, and to perhaps take advantage of the distraction of battle to attempt my escape, I could not stir myself to even the slightest movement.

What would it matter if I moved? Father was dead. Hope for rescue was gone.

It was as if, in that moment when Father had been burned from the world, that same fire had torn through my own soul, leaving me empty of all purpose and intention. I was a hollow thing, an empty vessel, a soulless golem whose animating force had left her. I was no more able to move than the now-motionless remains of Amanda beside me.

The thought of Amanda, and the sight of her form, pushed aside and damaged beyond likely possibility of repair, stirred an ember within in me; her care for me since childhood, her selfless sacrifice for my well being, an above all her final words as the Carriage plunged to earth, words that were not simply hers, but that reflected the fundamental duty of every servant of Her Royal Highness.

Was I a servant of any less competence or responsibility? Were the demands upon my person less, or did I as the heir to House Montgomery have a sense of honour that did not rise to the standards set by my childhood nursemaid? Of course not.

And from that thought, that ember within me grew hot and caught, for I was of course no longer simply the heir apparent to all that Father had lived and died for. I was, right now, in all actuality and in the eyes of the Crown, the Countess Montgomery.

I had, with Father’s death, taken on the heavy mantle of the Countess Wexton-Hughes of Montgomery.

The thought put the steel back in my spine, and as the engine of my pride the knowledge of my duty again animating my frame, I lifted my eyes again to regard the door that remained what I imagined to be the sole barrier between myself and my liberty.

My eyes grew wide, for there, peering in with a rapacious sneer, was the narrow, sallow countenance of a Caddiganite soldier.

“Hey!” he cried, in a rough voice. “Lieutenant! We got one a them alive in here!”

“What?” came an answering shout from nearby.

“There’s one a them alive.”

“A bot?” replied yet a third voice. “Gotta watch out for those bots. Stronger than you think.”

The cold blue eyes of the Caddiganite regarded me with a terrible avarice. “Nah. It’s a girl.”

I was, of course, no such thing, for I had not been a girl for years; but I do not think, given my estimation of the vile design underlying the soldiers’ leer, that it would have made a difference had I been barely more than a child.

“Who’s got the crowbar? Get me the crowbar! It looks like I’m gonna get me another girlfriend!” The hunger in the pale face before me was visceral, and cruel laughter followed from what sounded like a dozen voices outside.

I pressed back to the crushed far side of the cabin, as from within me rose a rage that I could barely contain, but though words both unladylike and profane offered themselves in defiant proclamation, I remained silent, cold and composed.

“Awww. She’s makin’ room for all of us to join her. Ain’t that sweet?”

Another face, flat, thick and scarred, appeared at the window, wielding a crude iron bar in his hands. “Here I was all mad about us being left behind to sort through the leftovers while most of the brigade gets to go after the prize, and, well, looks like we got us a prize too.”

“I saw her first. I’m first,” growled the sallow faced one in complaint.

“Hey, there’s a dead fembot, too. Maybe you can have a go at that!” the larger, flat faced one jeered, and there was much cruel laughter from the circle of faces that now pressed in to examine their cornered prize.

The bar was applied, and they began a struggle against the door, whose strength and concomitant resistance brought many imprecations and curses.

My righteous fury burned all the brighter with each futile heave given to the bar, and I could feel my hands begin to tremble with it; this would not do at all, not at all. I focused the rage into a white hot beam, pressed down hard with my will, and the trembling vanished, for I would need a steady hand. My retreat deeper into the cabin was not in fear, but strategic, and my withdrawal to my former seat near the inert Amanda was with a particular purpose.

In anticipation of any possible difficulty in our travels, I had been sure upon our departure from House Fairfax to place my ancient Ruger in the storage compartment next to my seat, along with several small boxes of ammunition crafted specifically for use in its venerable receiver. Although the cover to the compartment had shattered, I was able as I pressed myself back into the small space to slip my hand surreptitiously within, where I found the familiar comfort of the pistol grip as it slid into my grasp.

I withdrew the slender weapon from the compartment, and with it still hid behind my skirts, slid off the safety, whispering an ardent prayer for the strength to do what I must do; for with ten rounds in the magazine, I had resolved that nine of these rapacious troglodytes would die before I used my final bullet to make myself of no use to them, or at the very least drive my soul from my flesh, for I would not put an unnatural necrophiliac lust past such degraded brutes.

Still the barbarous Caddiganites struggled to breach the resolute Carriage door, with the utterance of many unrepeatable curses; having committed my soul to God and my mortal frame to the only possible course of action, I found rising within me a strange impatience at their incompetence, an eagerness to complete the terrible task that I had pledged to complete, and I found myself tempted to command them to hurry about their business.

Such a word was rising to my lips when, suddenly, from a soldier out of view, there came a shout of alarm.

“Anarchists! It’s an ambush! Ana…”

The voice of alarm was strangled out by single shot, in a terrible glottal abruptness, and then came a sudden storm of gunfire, a score of weapons discharging at once; the clatter of it was as a hail on a tin roof, punctuated intermittently and to my immense satisfaction with the death cries of one and then another of my erstwhile assailants. As they scrambled to find better cover than their vulnerable position near the crash, small arms fire tore through them, dancing bloody against the impermeable sides of the fallen Carriage, the rounds ricocheting wildly; the Caddiganites desperately returning fire with their own hastily seized weapons, using the Carriage itself as a woefully inadequate shield against an unseen assault from all sides.

“Grenade!” came the panicked cry of the sallow faced soldier, and it would be the last word he ever spoke.

A bright flash filled and rocked the cabin, and a burst of yellow and orange flame filled the window, penetrating through the window of my redoubt with a fiercely radiating heat which briefly reddened my face, but that mercifully passed in an instant. From without, the desperate war-shouts of those who had been seeking my flesh turned to shrieks of utter anguish; horrific cries of the mortally seared that continued until they were silenced one by one by a series of singular retorts.

Under other circumstances, perhaps, my natural womanly compassion might have been moved to pity by the gruesome sufferings of these burned men, but as it was, my only sentiment was a feral and bloodthirsty delight.

Now, though, the scent of fire that had been but a mild annoyance grew inescapable, and the air within the cabin hung thick with swirling and deepening smoke; a noxious particulate cloud that, though I covered my mouth and nose as best I could with my sleeve, nonetheless began to trouble my breathing most fearsomely. Outside of the cabin, the window showed embers and flame rising, and it appeared that for all of my glee at the immolation of the Caddiganites, I might soon experience their same awful fate.

Then at the window appeared a shadowy and hooded form amidst the rising inferno, one I struggled to discern through my smoke-teared eyes. It stood for a moment, as if in contemplation, and then stepped forward and reached an arm towards the edge of the door. To my amazement, the entire door was wretched bodily away, torn from its very hinges in a feat of near impossible strength; then hurled aside with the ease that a passing zephyr might fling a kite skyward.

Into the cabin the hooded figure leaned in, extending a hand of rescue towards me, a mechanical hand that was formed from alloy of the most sublime manufacture. Then the hooded form raised its head to me, and I was startled to see in that moment that it was not a machine but a man; and not just any man, but the most perfect Adonis I had ever in my life observed.

One does not typically impute beauty to the male of the species, but before me was such a face and such a form that Aphrodite herself might have swooned, such beauty that I confess that it was neither smoke nor shock that rendered me briefly unable to breathe.

Beneath the black hood: a cascade of lustrous hair, itself dark as a starless night; a strong brow, flesh cast in a fertile hue as rich as red soil; eyes more golden than brown that seemed somehow to cast their own light; full, inviting lips that were at that moment firm with manly purpose; a close cropped beard that traced the lines of a jaw seemingly chiselled from living rock.

His form was nigh-impossibly well turned, broad but not overbroad of chest and shoulder, possessed of a precise muscularity; his arms, striking in their distinction, one arm decorated with ornate tribal tattoos in a much pleasing pattern, the other a sophisticated and powerful mechanical prosthesis of dark alloy that only augmented his nearly overwhelming virility.

“Are you…real?” I may have stammered, although given the trials of the last hour and my tenuous emotional state, my recollection of that moment may not be entirely accurate.

“Time to go,” said my impossible angel, in a firm yet silky Latin-inflected voice that somehow only deepened his remarkable appearance; all I could do was nod as he took my delicate hand in his outstretched cybernetic grasp, and I felt most deeply the potency of his reassuring strength as I was drawn up to my salvation.


Wednesday, December 20, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Ten


Chapter Ten: The Cost of My Folly


It was in that moment, as I found myself frozen with horror at the monstrous truth of my predicament, that there was a sudden burst of movement; the Caddiganite soldiers rushed about, some seeking shelter, some gathering around the arrays that were searching the skies, as each of the great guns that ringed me turned in sequence, one after another like falling dominoes, and all locked their wicked intent upon a point in the heavens to the south south west.

Someone was coming, undoubtedly some kindly and stalwart friend and servant of the Crown, who upon hearing our cry of anguish and distress was rushing to our aid. Such meritorious intent, such goodheartedness, and yet they would soon be met with a fusillade of deadly malice from those who had crafted this malevolent ruse.

I was, in that moment, utterly mortified, for I was not in any way ignorant of my own foolish contribution to this wretched circumstance. My ill-starred choices had paved the road of woeful Providence; had I only listened to the warning so gently proffered by Father, rather than dismissing it as the empty fears spoken by a broken Father of my imaginings, this circumstance would not have come to be, and the thought of harm coming to yet another as a result of my blind, ignorant idiocy was in that moment cutting me to the quick.

My self-flagellation over the unquestionable path of causation was abruptly interrupted by a sudden and immense explosion; one of the tracked vehicles in my field of vision had simply ceased to exist, its dark form replaced by a great fountaining irruption of debris both metal and flesh. A second after the explosion came the thunder of a great metallic report, which I in an instant surmised was simply a part of that selfsame obliteration; the projectile that was responsible for this implacable and complete instant destruction must have been hypersonic.

No sooner had I come to this realisation than the moment repeated itself; another of the great guns vanished in a shower of flame and smoke and vapour, followed again by a sound worthy of a divine hammer striking the anvil of Vulcan.

As if startled to life, the remaining great guns thundered their reply in return, casting a wild hail of metal death towards the veil of clouds, around and within which blossomed a bouquet of deathly flowers wrought of black smoke and shrapnel.

I pressed my face again to the window, craning my eyes to the southern sky, my vision probing the greyness, and then; joy of joys, my heart thrilled to see a great cylindrical form parting the cloud before it; descending from the heavens like the rod of Divine Wrath.

It was the glorious vision of the HMS Firedrake, and from the clouds to its right and left, as stalwart and ready footmen, came the Dagger and the Weasel.

Father had arrived. His flotilla had left but a quarter of an hour after my departure, and our cry of distress must have reached his ears first; it was he who came fierce and swift to his daughter’s call.

All about me the Caddiganite guns roared their fury at the skies, their poisonous spite flying upward to strike the descending airships. Near and against the flanks of the Firedrake materialised a harvest of lethal blooms, whose terrible ferocity and accuracy had been previously sufficient to drive my Carriage to ground.

But the Firedrake was not a gentlewoman’s carriage, and Father had spoken discreetly but with pride at her construction; like all ships of the line, she was sheathed about with fabric, as airships have always been, but that fabric was of such wondrous ingenuity as to be stronger than the most robust alloy. Indeed, as my eyes watched the steel imprecations spat forth by the Caddiganite cannons, their hate failed against the best workings of the Royal Society, for all purposes as helpless as the petty blows of a child’s tantrum.

In reply, the Firedrakes’ great primary railgun spoke a third stern word of righteous anger, and another cannon was no more; the Dagger and Weasel, too, had their say, as each sent a triplet of rapier-quick rockets dancing earthward, missiles whose wroth rode on a bright point of fire, each guided on its implacable errand of justice by its own machine mind and eye. Every one found its hapless target, and now more than half of the vile guns lay sundered and afire.

It seemed, in that instant, that the day must be lost for the Caddiganites, and I felt the sweet joy that comes with a fervent hope fulfilled, and a deliverance realised.

Then, again, came the metallic blow of a nearby railgun, and my world came to an end.

The Caddiganites…they had…they must have…

For before my unbelieving eyes the noble form of the Firedrake was pierced; it staggered back heavenward as a man might reel from a mortal blow, then, in the time it took to me to take a single gasp, she vanished in a flash of brightness, one that for a moment lit the clouded world as if the sun himself had risen; my eyes were struck blind as if I had gazed directly upon its radiance.

I fell back, a cry of terror caught in my throat, and as I struggled to clear my vision that I might see what monstrous new trick the Fates had played upon me, there came another terrible percussion, and before my still clouded eyes a streak of white hot light leapt upward from a nearby copse, impaled the Dagger, and passed through it as a needle through cloth. The trusty frigate sagged, a portion of its superstructure shattered, but the generators and ceramic battery arrays that fueled it were unharmed, and it did not share the fate of the unfortunate Firedrake.

Below the now-bereft escorts, the flaming carcass of my Father’s murdered Firedrake drifted downward and to the south, lifeless as an autumn leaf, thick black smoke billowing from the punctured hulk as it clung insensate to the sky; debris and the charred bodies of her crew tumbling and scattering like ashes cast upon the earth.

The remaining Caddiganite cannons began their cruel assault again, filling the sky with flak and flame, and before the enemy railgun could strike again, the desperately crippled Dagger struggled upward, the now-outmatched Weasel casting down a hail of desperate rocketry and incendiary gatling fire to protect their retreat; together the two withdrew into the sheltering mists of the cloudbank as the Caddiganites spat iron and steel as a curse upon their departure.

Still the burning Firedrake drifted downwards, hanging in the sky like grapes before Tantalus, whispering that surely, surely in the smouldering, crumbling paradox of its gentle descent, there must be hope that some might have lived. The thought cried out to me, but I smote it down as a phantasm, nothing more than a delusion that spoke only lies about the horror that had come to pass. I turned my face away from that intimate vision of death and despair, for I could no longer bear to contemplate it.

None could have survived the destruction that I had just witnessed. There was no hope. All aboard the Firedrake had surely perished. Father was dead.

I sank back into the charred velour beneath me. I would have cried Father’s name, but my throat was closed, my whole body paralyzed by a blow of shock and grief that left me unable to move, unable to think, unable to speak, unable even to weep.

All was lost. O fool, O poor wretched orphaned fool.


Friday, December 15, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Nine


Chapter Nine: A Worm on the Hook

O dear reader, how my heart quailed when I awoke, for I felt upon regaining consciousness much as I had on those mournful, unwelcome mornings when I had opened my tear-wearied eyes following Mother’s passing; one finds oneself returning to a bitter dawn far less preferable than the Land of Nod, a reality from which the soft oblivion of unconsciousness had been a welcome respite.

My mind was an addled cacophony at first, uncertain of the nature of the waking nightmare in which I found myself, or the manner in which I had arrived in such a dreadful state, a confusion that likely rose from the great concussion of our crash to earth. I felt a deep nausea, and my head throbbed unbearably, both from the terrible whirling madness of my recent plummet from the heavens and the blow that my person had received when said plummet was halted with terrible abruptness.

The wreck of the Town Carriage upon striking the earth must have been a tumbling carnage, for it was clear that the Carriage had alighted with a force that was in diametric opposition to its typical grace, rolling and crashing upon terra firma repeatedly, and in so doing tearing itself nearly to pieces. The integrity of the Carriage cabin, which had been constructed with all of the ingenuity of Her Majesty’s Coachbuilders, was nonetheless sorely breached, crushed inward so that there was scarce room for me to move my limbs, stirring in me the trapped anguish of an enclosed claustrophobe.

Yet even more horrid to me was the state of my dearest Amanda, my most cherished servant from childhood. She remained arched above me, her strong legs and arms locked, her whole self a shield wrought from the deepest service. It was her body and its prodigious strength that had restrained the utter collapse of the cabin onto my far less robust flesh, and her intent to spare me from violation had been fulfilled only at the ultimate price.

A single structural spar had been thrust violently through her torso, and thusly impaled, her graceful form twitched and spasmed but inches from my bosom. Her eyes flickered and sparked, her ceramic face was cracked and broken, small fragments of porcelain from her face shaking loose to fall upon my own as her head spasmed again and again to the left. Each movement brought a rough whirring, as the damaged motors and actuators that had formerly imbued her every motion with such delicacy continued in a mindless reflexive rhythm; her movements driven not by her mechanical mind, which was utterly gone, but by some lingering impetus of her waning energies. Yet still her arms held firm, their strength lingering even after her untimely demise.

“Oh, Amanda,” I said, my eyes brimming with tears, extending my hand to touch the hard coolness of her broken cheek as it gave yet another empty clockwork twitch.

How many precious hours had Amanda dandled me on her knee, or chased me about the woods of the estate? How often, when Mother and Father were absent, away at some great gathering of society, did she dry a tear or bandage a scraped knee? She had been my protectress and companion, a comforter of my puerile sorrows and a chastiser of my childish, petty mischiefs. Like the dignity of the Crown, she was unchanging, or so it seemed even in light of her many upgrades over the years, and it had been in my heart that she might provide a similar care to any heirs produced by Stewart and myself, and perhaps to their children as well.

We all would like to believe that the ones we love are immortal, but in the case of Amanda, such belief was not simply the wishful fantasy of childhood, but could have…had Lady Providence not been such a cruel mistress..been an ongoing comfort for lifetimes.

Yet now, I faced a conundrum of potentially mortal consequence, for while the restraining netting of the Carriage had released as intended, I remained pinioned by Amanda’s inert form; close upon me, and pressed tight against my skirts, my protector had inadvertently become my prison. Her mass was considerable, for though she was of my stature, and the alloys from which she was wrought were the lightest our material science could muster, she was nonetheless almost thrice my weight. Of even greater concern, the grip of her lifeless hands on my chair remained unbroken, and I was quite trapped. Should I be unable to release myself from beneath her, I might soon find myself caught in some conflagration, for the smoke of nearby flames hung heavy in the air of the cabin, scratching at my lungs with every intake of breath.

Further, if I could not effectuate my escape, I knew that in but moments the brutish Caddiganites would surely descend upon the wreck, intending to take from it whatever they might steal from the Crown, including my own person as a hostage, or worse.

My mind raced in pursuit of a solution, until a lesson from my advanced robotics tutoring suddenly fell to hand; there was, as I recalled, a release of sorts, one integrated into the design of every Series 9, one that in a circumstance such as this one could disengage…yes…there it was. Unbuttoning her blouse, my fingers searched inward across the surface of her carapace, where they found the pressure point at her sternum, upon the pressing of which a small panel opened. Working at close quarters, it was terribly awkward, but my hands are nimble, and I was able…with effort…yes…there!

Her hands released, her elbows unlocked, and suddenly her weight was heavy upon me, whereupon I found myself much grateful for the hours I spend each week in the gymnase, for with the greatest of effort I was able to move myself from beneath Amanda’s dead weight, and, after similarly extricating my skirts, to move to the door on the opposite side of the cabin. This was necessary, as the final resting position of the Carriage had resulted in my own door being pressed hard against a mound of earth; my only option for egress was on the other side.

I pulled at the release, but found that the door would not open, for in the crash the structure of the cabin had been so deformed that the door was locked in place. I flung myself against it, once and then again, but found myself yet again imprisoned, for it would not budge. I pressed my face against the well-nigh impenetrable transparent aluminium of the window, hoping against hope that I might spy some hope of rescue without.

What met my eyes made my blood run cold in my veins.

All around my position had formed a veritable army of Caddiganites, who had evidently had the time to consolidate their positions whilst I remained insensate to the world. Judging from what I could see from my little window, there were overland trucks and transports of varying types and vintages, a motley assortment unified only by the drab dappling of grey, green, and black with which they had been painted. Even more alarming were a dozen or more tracked and armoured vehicles of crude yet purposeful design, which had surrounded my fallen Carriage at an approximate distance of one hundred yards, each of them emblazoned with the stark design of their vile movement; a stylized grey warhammer with a red handle, resting atop a white circle with a black border. Every one of these primitive yet effective war machines had a top mounted turret, from which protruded the long lethal snout of some kind of projectile weapon, undoubtedly the selfsame guns that had struck me and my entourage from the heavens.

I felt a thrill of terror, for no escape was reasonably conceivable, and surely I was to soon be their captive; yet as I watched, I found myself at first baffled, and then more and more filled with a rising sense of unease and trepidation.

Every one of the great cannons was pointed not towards me, but skyward, and not a soul amongst the dozens of black and grey clad soldiers who milled about several arrays of sensor equipment were making any noticeable effort to move towards me; for they, too, were looking upward at the lowering cloud cover with fierce intensity. Here I was, helpless and at their mercy, I and all of the subtle workings of the Carriage and its design there for the taking; yet none of them made any movement to do so, as if content with my position.

It was at that moment that I realised the truth of my unfortunate situation, and knowing the monstrous purpose to whose end I was being used, my mind recoiled in redoubled horror.

I was not the quarry.

I was the bait.


Sunday, December 10, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight: I Am Torn from the Heavens



“Milady!”

Amanda’s voice, loud and urgent as it was, was not what woke me from the sleep that always accompanied my travels in the Town Carriage. After manifold farewells and the arrival of both the Carriage and our turn to depart, I had taken some moments once airborne to again observe the mathematical beauties of the Gardens Fairfax. The day was heavy and overcast, the sky crowded with dark clouds that hung low over the earth, and the effect was one of greyness and foreboding.

We rose to our customary altitude, and maintained a level and smooth flight just below the ashen fatness of the burgeoning nimbostratus, as an array of gimbals and gyros and machine-mind trickery countered the stirrings of the atmosphere so common at that height. Higher is most certainly smoother, of course, but the view is not nearly as lovely, and from that vantage I watched with pleasure until the gardens fell out of sight. Then, with a sigh, I settled back and drifted into my customary torpor, savouring the calming thrum of the rotors and the comfortable journey to which I had become accustomed.

From the inestimable pleasures of that languorous reverie I was most rudely awakened, not by Amanda’s gentle ministrations rousing me upon our arrival at Port Baltimore, but instead by a sudden and terrifying jolt, as the Carriage banked hard left, and then struggled to ascend as best it could. A terrific retort from outside the Carriage was heard, as an errant firework on a New Year’s eve, the sound only partially muffled by the insulation and sound damping fields. 

Amanda, whose dextrous attentions in restraining me with her own strength had ensured that I was not flung about the cabin, quickly engaged a hidden mechanism within my seat, and a web of fibrous netting sprang out about my midsection, attaching itself to elements within my corsetry that existed for just such a purpose, all of which had the effect of holding me tightly in my place.

“We are under fire, Milady.” The warm silverbell chime of Amanda’s mellifluous diction remained, but underneath it could be perceived a hard and unfamiliar intention.

“Caddiganites?” I queried, as my heart and mind raced with intermingled fear and anger.

“Yes, Milady,” she said, bluntly. “We have already sent…”

Here, her words were drowned out by the roar of an impossible blow, as the Carriage was struck like a pinata at a young girl’s birthday, caroming for a moment wildly and out of control, before struggling to right itself, and then again banking and diving with desperate effort.

“We have already sent a cry of distress, Milady,” Amanda resumed, utterly unshaken. “Now we must…” and here she paused, as some fierce projectile, cast with malice from great guns below, passed perilously close and detonated above us.

“...must get out of range of these…”

A concussion of even greater magnitude than the first tossed us momentarily upward, and I saw, to my horror and for just an instant, that diligent and stalwart Bertrand had been wrenched bodily away from his post, his fragmented form cast away to the winds in pieces, tumbling to oblivion. From the mortal effects of this brutish, savage blow, the Carriage began to spiral dizzyingly earthward, my stomach lurching to nausea within me, as the scent of burning plastics filled my nostrils and a flat and doleful voice filled my ears, one that I immediately realised was that of the Carriage itself.

“Rotors six, seven, eight disabled. Integrity compromised. Flight systems compromised. Emergency protocols engaged. Priority One transmission: Mayday Mayday Mayday. One thousand. Mayday Mayday Mayday. Descent is not controlled. Nine hundred. Descent is not controlled. Mayday Mayday Mayday. Eight hundred. Descent is not controlled.”

I realised with horror that we were hearing our ever diminishing altitude, dwindling numbers that marked a fall both precipitous and injurious towards the implacable earth below; I also knew with a deeper horror still that such a fall would leave us an earthbound ruin, the Carriage snared, and all aboard either destroyed or in the clutches of our Caddiganite assailants and their infernal and maleficent purposes.

“Seven hundred. Mayday Mayday Mayday. Descent is not controlled. Six hundred. Descent is not controlled. Mayday Mayday Mayday.”

I recalled Father’s fears, of what might befall the Crown should our servants or our implements fall into nefarious hands, and in that moment was moved to cry out a command to Amanda. The cause of my cry was my sense of duty, one that had been inculcated into my nature since my very first remembering. I and my foolish impetuosity could not, must not, be the cause of any harm to Her Majesty, or to Her Majesty’s well being. It could not be. I should rather die. I felt this with all certainty, and though my voice trembled, I knew what must be done.

“We must destroy ourselves. We cannot fall into their hands. Destroy the Carriage. Now, Amanda, now!”

“No, Milady.”

Amanda’s voice, as clear as bells, as firm as a fist, refusing for the first time I could ever recall to do what I asked. Her eyes, their hard dark glass inscrutable, met my own, and they bore within them a resolve that was quite literally steel.

“Three hundred. Brace for impact.”

With a motion so rapid that my eye could barely follow it, Amanda then leapt upon me, locking arms and legs and arranging herself over me so that her very body became a cage of protection around my still seated form, a last and most desperate ward cast about my delicate and fragile flesh.

“I cannot allow harm to come to you, Milady. For House Montgomery and for the Queen, you must live, Milady.”

“Two hundred. Brace for impact.”

“Thank you, dearest Amanda, best of servants.” I whispered, still torn between shock at her refusal, wonder at her love for me, and ultimately finding my own strength bolstered by the resolute and unbending will that burned behind her unblinking eyes.

“One Hundred. Brace for imp..”

There was a great wrenching blow, and another, and then all fell into darkness.


Friday, December 8, 2023

Kintsugi and Kraal



In a metaphor

That has launched

A thousand feelgood sermons

And a thousand thousand feelgood memes

There is a technique in Japanese pottery

Kintsugi

In which a shattered pot is repaired

With molten gold

And becomes a thing

Of even greater beauty

Broken and

Beautiful

We sigh

Which makes me think

Being the sort of idiot I am

Of Maasai houses

In Maasai villages

Kraal, they are called

And Kraal are made of 

Mud and

Sticks and

Grass and

Bullshit

Because that is what is there

So when your home breaks

Or falls apart

You can always

Just patch it up

Good as new

With more

Mud and

Sticks and

Grass and

Bullshit

And I think

Being the sort of idiot I am

Hey

Whatever works.

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven: My Third and Final Mistake



Father’s arm that afternoon felt so very strong.

I recall it now, as I clearly as I recall his distinguished features; strong chin, finely-trimmed beard as white as the clouds in which the HMS Firedrake flew, white hair close-cropped to his skull in the manner of all who defended her majesty, his dress uniform perfectly fitted to his well-turned physique.

He and I walked arm in arm together through the elegant topiary of the Gardens Fairfax, as if strolling at leisure amidst the perfections of a lower circle of the heavenly realm. Our conversations were spare, as they always were, mostly confined to observations about our surroundings, reflections upon the events of the previous several days, and particularly his curiosity about the proceedings of the Ladies Aid Society the day before.

As I so thoroughly elucidated in the last chapter, the affairs of the Society are not a trifling affair, as they are so vital to the greater intent of the Crown that even Ministers hold them in the same esteem as they might a direct command from Her Royal Highness Herself.

Father had a particular interest in the flow of patients through the Royal Charitable Hospital nearest to the recent hostilities between the Caddiganite Militia and the anarcholibertarian irregulars (as if anarcholibertarians could be anything other than irregular). The matter was, of course, of great concern to the Ladies Aid Society, and had been discussed at length, as while that Hospital had such a capacity as not to be overtaxed by the influx of gravely wounded (most of whom were innocent noncombatants), there had from the Caddiganites been some overt threats towards Hospital staff and the small security contingent provided by the Ministry of Defense. They were, as is the manner of such ideological brutalists, most offended that Her Royal Touch should be provided with equanimity to both parties in the conflict.

As we walked by a pair of long reflecting pools, their fountains stilled by the onset of the winter months, I shared with him what I knew; and upon the completion of my peroration, he thanked me for divulging what I could.

“It isn’t a secret, Father. One could always simply read the minutes of the meeting.”

Father laughed, a short, sharp report. “One could. But perhaps, in truth, I am too like my youngest daughter to endure such tedium. I would much prefer to hear it in your measured voice.”

He slowed his pace, and then together we stopped. “Rebecca,” he said, his voice taken with a serious tone. “As your Father, I do fret about your return to Port Baltimore. Last night, yet another attempt was made on a messenger who was overflying the territory in which the Caddiganites have concentrated their forces. There have been other losses, ones of which I cannot speak, and it is our fear that Caddigan has within his leather-gloved grasp some purloined discoveries that might soon make him more than simply a nuisance. It is a source of much consternation to all in the Ministry, for his despotic intentions grow more and more baleful as his benighted movement grows.”

“Surely, Father, there can be no concern about a real threat to us. So many brutes and would-be tyrants rise among the common folk, only to be devoured themselves by yet another usurper with similar pretensions. It is the nature of all such men to destroy themselves, and it seems prudent to simply ignore him until he has accomplished that task.”

Father nodded gravely. “You speak the unvarnished truth, my dear daughter, but for now, it is not Her Majesty for whom I fear, but rather your own person, as the most recent indignity occurred along the very path you most recently took as you journeyed to this gala.”

I arched an eyebrow, for I found this most shocking.

“Really? How brazen! What an insult! Yet, Father, surely even the boldest of Caddiganite ruffians would not be so mad as to strike against a member of the Peerage. A single messenger on their appointed route might possibly be struck from the sky with impunity, but I travel with three most able servants, and the Town Carriage is itself hardly devoid of defences. And surely they must know that at but a moment, a cry for aid could be made, aid that would prove most terrible to any fool enough to incur our wrath.”

Father’s face tightened. “Again, what you say is eminently reasonable, Rebecca, and your logic is true. I fear, however, that we deal with a breed of man that has, through their own practised rapacity, become inured to the voice of reason; and only uses what intelligence they have been given to rationalise their spiteful actions and devilish schemings. That is why I ask that you consider travelling with me southward to Williamsburg, a journey during which you would both avoid possible assault and fall under the clear protection of my command. From there, you could then journey with me to the estate, which would guarantee your safety and ease my fatherly concerns.”

“Do you ask that I do so, or ask that I consider it? These are two very different questions, Father.”

“Simply that you consider it. I know, Rebecca, that I am likely being overanxious for your care, as I have so often been since…since…” 

 He paused, and his noble features were suddenly overcome with a terrible change, as there rose upon his visage a most heartwrenching and woeful affect, one that came so often unbidden from the great wellspring of sorrow and loss he felt for Mother. It had broken his mind for a season, as despite all of his diligence, manly virtue, and ferocity of purpose, Father’s tender love for Mother, Suzanna, and myself remained his single and Achillean vulnerability.

Father’s yearning to protect Suzanna and I had, on overfrequent occasion, become its own form of obsession, and while he had recovered enough of his wits to no longer require the aid of doctors, it was still a compulsion that rode him most cruelly. Many times had I been obliged to gently but firmly guide him back to the solid rock of sanity, and to step back onto the sure path of reason insofar as my security and safety were concerned.

O, cruel habit! For in hearing his desire to cast a fatherly arm about me, and to protect me from the possibility of harm, all that my ear perceived was the whispers of his old mania and my own predilection to keep my own counsel in matters of my actions and movements. Instead of giving full and proper consideration to his request, and understanding the unspoken intelligences that informed his concern, I presumed too rashly and interrupted his plea; in doing so, I contributed much to my own misery and to Father’s wreck and ruin. It is of such pain to me that I can barely speak it now, dear reader, but having begun this tale for you, I must needs tell it with as much veracity as I am capable.

“Father,” I said, stepping brusquely into his silence. “It is my intention to return to Port Baltimore prior to the cessation of festivities tomorrow, for with Stewart now departed for Williamsburg, and my summons to the Ladies Aid Society fulfilled, I find that I am at loose ends here at the house of Fairfax. I desire simply to return to my practices, and to the familiar comforts of the conservatory and its disciplines. Do not fear or fret unduly, as has been your habit, for I am certain that Lady Providence in her care will guarantee that you and I might spend more carefree time at the Estate Montgomery following the completion of your business. I shall impress upon Suzanna the necessity of joining us, and with Stewart there, we four shall have much opportunity to deepen the bond as our families prepare to solemnify our union.”

I spoke with such confidence, confidence that I now realise was of no more import than the prattling of a madwoman. For Lady Providence, having been presumed upon, had already determined our terrible fate.

“Very well,” he said, and he said nothing more on the affair.

My Father, always one to dote upon those for whom he bore the greatest love, yielded so very simply to his daughter and heir, and so, the matter decided, we walked on together, speaking of trivialities and the weather. When we finally returned to the patio gardens, we parted with words of affection, and as was his custom, he placed upon my forehead a single paternal kiss.

It would be the last time I ever saw him.


Thursday, December 7, 2023

Pushy



The man who likes to 

shout

and shove

Has never known

A Father's 

love

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Six


Chapter Six: The Ladies Aid Society


“Well. That was simply lovely, my dear. Thank you.”

It was the Duchess Fairfax who rose with grace to initiate the applause at the completion of my modest performance, which had fulfilled its purpose at the appropriate time during the morning meeting of the Ladies Aid Society, Old Colony, Eastern Seaboard Chapter.

Proceedings of the meeting to that point had been as they must needs be, according to the bylaws of the Society: Conclave, to begin precisely on the hour; a brief word of devotion, delivered passionately that day by The Very Reverend N’gongo, Bishop of Fairfax; determination of a quorum; certification of said quorum by affirmation; a full review of the minutes from the previous quarterly meeting, approval of said minutes by a simple majority, either as submitted or amended; and then a short reading, poem, or musical selection to be provided by a member in good standing of the society prior to our engagement with the pressing business of the day.

It was precisely the sort of event that would drive Suzanna mad.

My selection, as I had previously mentioned, was Chopin, the Etude Opus Twenty Five, Number Five. I had thought that I might instead play his Nocturne in E Flat Major, which is lovely, but my heart was troubled at Stewart’s early departure and the unseen dangers that seemed to cloud about Father’s journey to the Royal Seat, and determined that the willful dissonances of that most sublime Etude spoke more to the disturbance of my soul and the challenges of this season. As Debussy once so wonderfully declaimed, “Chopin est le plus grand de tous, car rien qu'avec le piano, il a tout dĂ©couvert.”

From around me, discreet affirmation rose from the esteemed members of the Society, whose elegantly begloved hands canted out a muffled percussion of appreciation; it was as if the room had filled with an eruption of soft-winged moths, which then settled again in their laps, as all heads turned as one to attend to the words of the Lady of the House.

Duchess Fairfax was always quite worthy of one’s attention, as her striking bearing and presence part of a natural giftedness, her imposing stature and fine, leonine features a blessing from her lineage as the Emebet Hoy of the Amharas. As the Grande Dame of the Society, a position to which she was re-elected annually by unanimous acclamation, she more than any other gentlewoman or Lady of the Peerage was responsible for the continuance of the manifold charitable works of Her Majesty. Now, it was for her to begin the proceedings.

“Thank you, dear Lady Montgomery, for giving us that sublime moment of musical reflection, and for setting us in a frame of mind to consider the serious business at hand. Now, ladies, I will ask you to turn to the first item upon today’s agenda, which can be found under tab one of your folio.”

There was a rustling of paper, as the two dozen leather-bound folios were opened gently by two dozen pairs of begloved hands.

“All should now be considering item one, tab one, the page headed Agricultural Yields of the Crown’s Mid Atlantic Fields-Beneficent in the second and third quarter. Are we all viewing the same information?” Two dozen elegantly and distinctly coiffed heads nodded in unison.

“Excellent. Then let us turn to the Dowager Lady Lancaster, Vice Chairwoman of the Committee for the Prevention of Common Hunger in the Old Colonies, for her report on the rousing success of the Society’s most recent harvest, and how it might meet the most pressing needs amongst the common people this winter. Lady Lancaster, I cede the floor to you.”

Lady Lancaster rose slowly, her silver hair shining, and in her wavering contralto, began to deliver her report as she peered down through her spectacles at her own folio. “Esteemed colleagues and Ladies of the Society, I am pleased to hereby report to you that the crop yields in the Fields-Beneficent this year were both bountiful and of most excellent quality. As you can see in row one of the alphabetically arranged table before you, this success began with the alfalfa crop, which had the following yields by county, again sorted by alphabetical precedence…”

At this point, dear reader, I shall show mercy and spare you a full reportage of the proceedings of our meeting, although I am sure you would find it entirely agreeable should you be currently afflicted with a bout of insomnia.

What is of more significance for your edification is the central role the Ladies Aid Society plays in the furtherance of the aims of the Crown. I realise this has been amply discussed in other literatures, and is routinely presented in digest to all avid readers of The Weekly Post, but I feel it would be remiss of me not to present at least a summary description of the Society and my role within it at this juncture in my tale.

My personal engagement with the Ladies Aid Society is somewhat irregular, as it is constituted primarily of gentlewomen of a more advanced age. These venerable doyennes and dowagers have shown their loyalty to Her Majesty over a lifetime of devoted service, and distinguished themselves by their wisdom, insight, and charitable intention.

I find myself among their august company for three reasons: Reason the First, that I am of such a temperament that my person is amenable to those who have experienced more of the joys and hardships of this life, or as Suzanna rather indelicately puts it, I can at times seem as wizened as a crone; Reason the Second, that it is an unspoken rule in every chapter of the Society to engage the adjunct, non-voting participation of at least one personage of fresher countenance and fewer years, a purpose that ensures the continuance of the Society, and; Reason the Third, that the Society has in years still painfully recent been of direct and invaluable support to the House Montgomery, Father, and myself.

For it was the Society that swept in with gentle words and support most material upon the tragic circumstance of Mother’s untimely death. I was still barely more than a girl, Suzanna but a child, and Father…though he would recover…was reduced to weeping and inconsolable ruin.

Death in childbirth is still lamentably commonplace outside of the peerage, but among our number it is exceedingly rare. The capacities of our medical science are exceptional, and the Royal Hospital performs marvels that would in prior times…even in that peculiar age just before the collapse…have been considered little less than miraculous.

Yet for all of our technical prowess, and the peerless competence and tireless ministrations of the Royal Hospital’s surgeons both human and mechanical, Mother died, as did the doomed male heir of Wexton-Hughes within her.

The deep duty and compassion shown by the estimable ladies of the Society at that shattering, sorrowful juncture left me forever in their debt, and with the greatest appreciation for their contributions to the wellbeing of all of Her Majesty’s servants.

Yet it was only upon my invitation to join the Society’s number that I was fully apprised of the extent and value of our efforts. For those of more limited vision, there can arise the most inaccurate assumption of the power of the Society, as if it is simply an idle pastime. It is most certainly not. Each of the Ministries of the Crown all serve their purposes ably, defending and organising, exploring and use of the fruits of said exploration. In a similar way, so also does the Royal Society, as it advances our scientific understanding in a way that preserves the integrity of Her Majesty’s Reign. The Ladies Aid Society is of no lesser stature, and in many ways should be considered even more vital to Her Majesty and Her Glorious Empire.

For it is through the diligent effort of the Ladies Aid Society that the Crown accomplishes the following necessaries: The Royal Charitable Hospitals, which extend The Royal Touch to commoners afflicted with all manner of ailments and injuries; The Royal Pantries Bountiful, which provide for commoners from the fruit of the great groaning table of the Fields-Beneficent, and are often their only ward against the Black Horseman of Famine; The Rescue Aid Society, which gives succour to the needs of commoners afflicted by storm, earthquake, fire, and the manifold other Acts of God to which they in their frailty are much vulnerable; and the Royal Geographic and Oceanographic Restoration Society, which, as a sister to the Royal Society, determines and implements the most efficacious application of our brethren’s latest advancements towards the replenishment of our blighted world and barren seas.

We are not the righteous fist of Her Majesty’s Wrath, nor the incisive searching of Her Eye, but the womanly hand of Her Patient Care and Gracious Charity. For it is with patience, grace, and charity that the goodwill of all might be won; and concomitantly, it is from the well-tilled field of that goodwill that the ranks of the common folk offer up those whose quality and dignity of person proves them worthy of Her Majesty’s acceptance into the circle of Her peers.

No man could serve Her towards that noble end as we do, for how could they, not being as She is, and being unable to understand Her Sublime Femininity?

Such is the great purpose of the Ladies Aid Society, although I will freely acknowledge that where Patience, Grace, and Charity are our cardinal virtues, it is patience that is of most necessity in enduring a quarterly meeting, particularly during the Dowager Lady Lancaster’s report.


Monday, December 4, 2023

In The Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Five


Chapter Five: A Moment with Stewart


How long he had been standing there at the doorway to the ladies parlour, I don’t think I would have guessed, had not Constance (the Lady Loudon, dear reader, if your memory of my prior mention of her talent as a violist eludes you) made a point of crossing the room and gently interposing herself into my rather extended conversation with the Lady Shiflett, Viscountess of Albemarle. Jennifer and I both share an enthusiasm for the markswoman’s arts, one that we freely admit can border upon an obsession, and whenever she and I find ourselves in one another’s company our discussions invariably turn to that topic. Animated by both the port that had recently concluded our repast and the Turkish coffee that invigorated the ladies of the party for a long evening of social merriment, we were in the midst of a delightfully opinionated exchange about the relative merits of two different vintage target pistols, when Constance rested her delicate hand upon my shoulder.

“Rebecca? Forgive me for my intrusion, but I have noted that for the last five and a half minutes, your fiance has been quietly and patiently waiting at the doors to this chamber. I am sure that he would wait until the return of Christ rather than interrupt you in your conversation, but I did feel that you might like to be informed of his presence.”

“Thank you, my dear,” I replied. “Jennifer, if you will forgive me, might I take a moment to speak with my intended?”

A sly and teasingly vulpine smile crossed the face of the Lady Albemarle. “Of course. I will remain at your service, Rebecca, and will give you the benefit of a few moments of tactical retreat to consider the error of your position regarding the Ruger whilst I refresh my coffee. Please do extend my greetings and well-wishes to your dear Stewart.”

“I shall, dear Jennifer, I shall.”

It was then that I chose to gaze in the direction of the door, which like the entire ladies parlour was covered in the softest and most luxuriant material. Doors were of padded velvet, while ornate tapestries of vintages both ancient and contemporary covered walls and hung on display from the high ceiling, which itself was decorated with geometric patterns cast in cloth, patterns paying homage to the beauty of Iberian Moorish tilework. While eminently pleasing in its aesthetics, the primary purpose of this was not for appearance sake, but rather to quiet the acoustics of a room in which a score of gentlewomen would prefer to be able to hold simultaneous discourse with one another without all having to screech like common harridans.

There, just beyond the threshold over which gentlemen would be unwise to tread, stood my Stew, accompanied by Thomas, the significantly modified Series 8 who served him ably in the three-fold role of butler, footman, and laboratory assistant. Stewart’s eyes met mine, at which instant he almost immediately looked down and away, as if he had inadvertently stared directly into the sun; an affectation that some might consider reticent or furtive, but that I understand now as merely a distinguishing feature of his unusual, distinctive mind and his particular care for me. His pale, delicately-featured face rose again, and his deep blue eyes now held my own in their affectionate observance. A smile of genuine pleasure crossed his lips, and, I must confess, mine as well.

As I came near in my approach, he bowed slightly, our eyes remaining fixed, his long lean body folding over in the paradoxically precise and ungainly manner that is his wont, a posture he maintained until I stood close enough that he could take my gloved hand in his own. Still partially bowed (for he stands a full six and a half slender feet in height), upon the back of my hand he placed a single delicate kiss. Closing his eyes for a moment, he pressed my hand to his cheek, and then, as if in prayer or an expression of rapt genuflection, touched it tenderly for a moment to his prominent brow.

He let out a deep sigh, his eyes full and startlingly bright with the deepest fondness.

“Oh, Becca, I have missed you dreadfully.”

Then it was I who averted my eyes, for the unexpected boldness of his proclamation had such a fresh clarity and force about it that I found myself momentarily without breath. Never had I heard such a declaration from Stewart, and certainly not one spoken with such intensity. I do not doubt that the loosing of his typical reserve was in part influenced by the fine Kentucky bourbon that flowed freely in the gentlemen’s parlour; but Stew was not inebriated in an unseemly or otherwise observable way, and I must confess that I too still felt some of the headiness of that festive evening’s libations.

“Stew, Stewart, I…” I began, but whereas under almost all circumstances I have no difficulty finding the words to express any sentiment, the intensity of the moment caught me uncharacteristically flatfooted. I looked back into the deep earnestness of his dear face, but though my mouth opened and closed, not a sound came forth.

“Dearest Becca. I did not mean to upend you with my declaration. Do you forgive me?”

I nodded, as I remained momentarily speechless.

Stewart drew himself to his full height, and continued, still holding my hand in his. “I realize that I am being more…direct. As these months have passed, I have…found our separations more and more unbearable. Our correspondences and messages are but cold comfort, and I find myself…coveting every moment that we might spend in one another’s company. I had hoped, indeed, I had assumed, that the Duke’s gala would provide just such an opportunity. When I sent my messenger with your lamentably delayed invitation, it was my fervent desire that we spend as much time together as propriety allows.”

“Mine as well,” I replied, my voice and mind finally remaking their acquaintance.

Our time at the gala had, in actuality, been quite different than either of us had expected. I had anticipated spending much of it on his arm, telling him the news from Port Baltimore and the estate, discussing music, or engaging in any of the many intimacies with which we spent our time together, but the affairs of the Ministry of Defense had held Stewart in conversation after conversation, all behind closed doors, as they had also detained Father.

If a match is ill-chosen, as lamentably some are, the betrothed are often glad of time apart, as the marriage is little more than a convenient and productive bond between two houses. But while Stewart’s mind is capable of doggedly pursuing the most intricate and esoteric of problems, he assumes that the simplest course of action is nearly always best. From that hypothesis, he always operated under the following postulates:

Postulate the first; I was to be his wife. Postulate the second; that the best marriages are marked by intimacy and devoted attention. Postulate the third; that he was desirous of only the best and most amenable of unions. From these postulates, he determined that he would from the moment of our very first meeting treat me as if I were his closest companion, and that all about me must necessarily be of the most lovable and agreeable character. With others, he could be aloof, clinical, and distant. Alone with me, he was confidently intimate, touchingly romantic, and thoroughly attentive in the most pleasing of ways.

Granted, he could forget himself in his work on occasion, and was prone to speaking at great length about matters about which I cared little at all. He was still a male of the species, after all, and thus congenitally defective in matters requiring more than one thought at a time. For this, I gladly forgave him.

Clearly, his heart was troubled, for he continued on fervently.

“Oh, Becca, I had so hoped that we would have time together, as that was my entire purpose in drawing you here, but I have received the unwelcome news that the Ministry requires my presence in Williamsburg tonight. I must depart within the hour aboard the Royal Society’s research cutter Darwin’s Finch, which dashes all of my hopes to ruin.”

This was, of course, deeply grieving to me as well, as spending long hours walking alone with Stew in the gardens had been the anticipated leaven that gave pleasure to the upcoming day of ladylike duty. Yet from his lament my interest in the purposes of his journey, so clearly bound together with Father’s, was stirred even further, and it was from my fresh disappointment that I spoke out of turn.

“This has something to do with Father’s errand, and whatever vital cargo rests within the bowels of the Firedrake, does it not? If you must be sent ahead, I am assuming it must be something to do with the design intricacies of mechanical minds, or…how do you put it…tera-qbit processors…which are, as we both know, your particular area of renown.”

“It, uh, you know that I, it isn’t, it isn’t that I don’t…” It was his turn to struggle to formulate a reply, and torn between his complete trust in me and his sworn duty, his vulnerability and awkwardness again manifested themselves. Clearly, I was near the mark, but seeing his distress, I at once relented.

“Stew, Stew, no no no. I am so sorry. I cannot help what I perceive, or the interplay between my intellect and my feminine intuition. The truth of that matter is not for my ears, nor would I impose on your duty to the Crown by in any way causing you to divulge information that you have pledged on your honour to keep secret. It is just…that I…that I too regret the loss of this time with you.”

“Your insightfulness is quite fearsome, dear Becca,” he sighed, recovering something of his composure. And then, as the sun re-emerging from behind a wind-driven cumulus, his subtle smile returned. “Perhaps…perhaps once this business is concluded, you and I might visit with one another at your Montgomery Estate. Your Father has generously invited me to join him there following our time in Williamsburg, and I am sure the Ministry will not disturb us there for a fortnight once our work is accomplished. If he has not already informed you of this, perhaps, well, perhaps you and I might…”

“Yes, Stewart,” I said softly, with meaning, pressing closer that we might speak in confidence. “Yes.”

Our conversation from that point on was for our ears only, and I am not of a mind to share it.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Four


Chapter Four: My Dinner in the Great Hall of Fairfax

It had been, as one might expect, quite the evening, one which to my sensibility began in earnest when Father and I met just prior to dinner, Father having been detained in an extended conclave with the other Lords of Defense about a matter of great importance to the Crown, the same matter that was engaging the full attentions of my dear Stewart.

We exchanged the usual pleasantries, and inquired after one another’s journey, although again, Father was by necessity and propriety very closed-lipped about the particulars of his travels over these last few days. This naturally piqued my curiousity, as what few smidgens of detail he did share caused my mind to pursue all of their possible implications. The Firedrake had travelled from Boston that morning, escorted by Her Majesty’s frigates HMS Dagger and HMS Weasel, and given that Father had departed after breaking the fast and arrived before his conclave at noon, they must have traversed the entire distance at flank speed.

Boston, of course, was home to the Royal Society’s primary regional research and development facilities, where the greatest minds in the old colonies turned their genius to the advancement of the Crown; it was also home to the most sophisticated manufactoriums in the colonies, capable of producing the most efficacious of devices. It was there, in perhaps the most remarkable instance, that much of the nanotube materiel for the East African Equatorial Space Elevator was produced, although obviously both the assembly and launch of componentry that comprised that marvel of the Crown were undertaken at Port Mombasa under the guidance of Mutongoria Kimathi and her House Gikuyu.

I had, that afternoon prior to dinner, finally availed myself of opera glasses, and with Amanda’s guidance had observed the distinct position of the Firedrake and her frigates. They were not, as I had mistakenly but justifiably surmised, part of the defensive picket surrounding the estate, but were instead positioned nearly above the Great House itself, well inside the protective veil of a dozen ships of the line, which given the Firedrake’s prodigious and fearsome capacities seemed an unusual and significant choice.

Father had also noted his intentions following the gala; to travel south to Her Majesty’s Royal Seat at Williamsburg, then following several days of urgent business to return north to our estate for a week of needed rest and recuperation, much of which would be spent hunting deer with several of his colleagues. All of these things were offered in the utmost discretion, for they were themselves not sufficient to enlighten me as to their specific purpose; I can only wish that some kindly muse had whispered that purpose into my waiting ear, for had I known the nature of Father’s errand and the significance of the Firedrake’s invaluable cargo, so much of my own unfortunate part in what was to occur would have been changed.

None of that was at the forefront of my mind as we took our places in the sumptuous dining hall, where beneath the finest crystal chandeliers an intricately carved mahogany table of stupendous length was set with service for one hundred and thirty five, with each guest at their assigned station; Father to my left, the Countess of the House Loudon to my right, and dear Stew and the Baroness Annandale seated so far up the great table that I could barely even catch the whisper of their voices amidst the chatter of polite conversation. A remarkable array of the Mid Atlantic and Northeastern peerage was present and in attendance, which meant that the meal, by necessity, was a repast that befitted such an august company.

The meal began with a first course of creamy butternut soup, coupled with the very best of sherries, a ‘10 Portuguese Quinta das Carvalhas, which combined to produce the most sublimely comfortable effect upon one’s palette.

After an exactly sufficient time for the gathered to appreciate the first course, the Duke’s bustling throng of servants offered up the second course, a delicate portion of vat-grown halibut, which was itself coupled with a measure of dry Riesling, a ‘17 from Prieur Montrachet; not the typical Chardonnay one might choose for vat-grown fish, but still an impeccable choice.

At, again, the precise moment the table was ready, our china was whisked away, and the third plate bearing our primary relevĂ© arrived. It was a seared cut of Wagyu beef, itself a buttery perfection, with a small tumble of fried garlic-brushed Jerusalem artichoke straws, accompanied by a ‘13 Chateau Latour Pauillac, from which I politely demurred. It is not that I am one of those unfortunate souls for whom a Cabernet upsets digestion, and only a boor could dislike that most excellent vintage, but I was already feeling the sherry and the riesling, and wished to keep my wits about me.

There was here a brief digestive pause, a considerate necessity which allowed the gathered to catch their culinary breath and to converse freely with their neighbours. Whilst Father exchanged pleasantries and Defense Ministry shop talk with an impressively bearded and moustachioed Rear Admiral, I and the Lady Loudon reacquainted ourselves with one another. Constance is a skilled violist in her own way, who makes up for her slight lack of discipline with a remarkable ear and an unerring intuition for tone and nuance. We’d played some delightful Schumann duets two years ago at a summer musical soiree she had hosted at her estate by the Potowmack, and we reminisced at some length about the loveliness of the river on that sultry moonlit evening.

She and I were still talking, now about my travails with the Grande Etude, when the next course arrived; generous slices of goose roasted in the Cantonese style, with a delectably seasoned pyramid of kalijira rice. Given the oriental character of the course, it was paired with a single ceramic cup of the finest heated Niizawa sake, which had the most delightful warming effect when ingested.

From that, the servants delivered in rapid succession the three entremets: first, a single but well-sized bacon-wrapped brussels sprout; second, a crisp and flaky blackcurrant tart no larger than the end of one’s thumb; and finally, an intimately-sized and elegantly plated portion of baked brie with fig, pistachio, and orange.

No sooner had the last silver forkful of the brie been swallowed than the entire waitstaff descended upon the great table like a murmur of starlings, and to the great delight and amusement of all assembled…many of whom may have had more than one glass of the Cabernet…fully reset the entire table in a display of prowess and dexterity unseen outside of the acrobats at the cirque. From the far end of the table it began, soiled plates and precious crystal glasses and goblets systematically thrown singing through the air by precise hands to others just as sure that caught and removed them, while yet others whisked away the fine linen tablecloths. They swept down the long table like a clattering, clinking wave, every moment teetering on the humorous illusion of disaster, whilst fresh plates and glasses were juggled and flung and abruptly placed just so with clockwork precision, nary a scrap of food or errant drop of liquid going astray, and not a single diner in any way disturbed. It was a marvel, and when the dessert setting was suddenly miraculously and materially perfected before us, finger bowls and dessert silver glistening all in their proper array, crystal port snifters still singing softly from the abruptness of their placement, the entire table affirmed our mechanical servers with an uproarious and slightly tipsy round of huzzahs.

I will confess to have demurred yet again from the ices and finger cakes, for which I laid apologetic blame upon the tightness of my corsetry, although I did indulge myself in a healthy glass of Cockburn’s Tawny Port.

At the conclusion of the dinner, as we ladies excused ourselves for coffee in the order of our rank, and I waited my turn to rise and take my leave, I for a moment found my thoughts, melancholy no doubt from the inevitable conclusion of such an insuperable repast, turning to the ramshackle shanties and humble villages I had overflown in the Town Carriage mere hours before.

What would the common, savage souls who scratched and struggled in such mean estate make of such a meal as the one that had just passed? Would they find it a delight to the senses, a taste of the divine feast here on earth? Or would it seem a horror of near diabolical indulgence?

I could not have known how soon I would receive a profanely direct answer to that question.


Chapter Five: A Moment with Stewart

Hillary's Republican

 As the non-race of the Trumpist party's pretend primaries moves towards its inevitable conclusion, there's a peculiar bit of pushback against the candidate who appears to be consolidating her position as a futile, distant second.

From Trump's camp, there were recent efforts to make hay of the fact that Nikki Haley once noted in passing that she was inspired by Hillary Clinton's run for the presidency.  

"Ahah," cried his hounds.  "Look at her!  Haley said a nice thing about Hillary!  Hale-aree!  SHE'S JUST LIKE HILLAREEE RINO RINO CLINTON HILLARY HALE-AAAA-RrrEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee (insert inaudible dogwhistle sound here)!"

This is an odd thing for Trumpists to highlight, simply because were it not for Hillary Clinton, Donald J. Trump would never have won the Republican nomination in 2016.   

By saying this, I'm not saying "Donald J. Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016 because he was the best person to win against Hillary Clinton."  I am also not saying:  "Hillary Clinton was such a terrible person that opposing her made Donald J. Trump seem like a perfectly reasonable choice."

I am saying: "Donald J. Trump was the person that Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign chose to win the Republican nomination in 2016, as she and her campaign successfully did everything in their power to get him nominated."

Why?  Because Trump was (and is) not just the worst possible candidate for the Presidency...venal, amoral, incompetent, and self-evidently unfit for office.  He was also the only Republican candidate in 2016 that Clinton's internal polling told her she had a shot at beating.   In the emails that Russian operatives hacked from Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta, which were subsequently disseminated through Wikileaks, it's without question that Hillary's strategy revolved around manipulating the media to cast Donald J. Trump as her main adversary. 

I mean, it's right there.  There are receipts.  It's a Known Known, as Rumsfeld might have put it.

Knowing how much the Clinton Industrial Complex was loathed by the far right and ultraconservatives, positioning Trump as her opponent would naturally strengthen him in the primary process.  It worked.  Rank and file conservatives took that bait.  I mean, if you're one of the souls who voted for him, you're living proof.

It produced...like about half of what the Democratic party does, and most of what McKinsey recommends...the sort of disastrous outcome that rises from being too smart for your own good.  

Because whenever you intentionally bend probability in a dark direction to your potential gain, your gamesmanship increases the chances for a catastrophic outcome.  If your candidate only beats a potential opponent...whose incompetence is a danger to the republic...by only two to three percentage points, you shouldn't be thinking about elevating that opponent.

What does it benefit you, to paraphrase an old friend, to gain a few percentage points but lose your republic?

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Two Old Men


So here are two old men.  I had an AI draw them, because AI is good at doing that quickly.

In many ways, they are the same.  They are, obviously, both old.  Quite old, in the stereotypical way that machine intelligence indicates it.  Long white beards.  Skin cragged and wrinkled.  I'm pretty sure they'd both talk plenty about some ailment or another at Thanksgiving dinner.  Perhaps describe a recent humorous colonoscopy episode in detail.

They are both American, which one can tell because whenever you slap Old Glory behind human beings, it means they must be American.  The more flags, the more American. It's kind of a rule.

They are both of European descent, more or less, because America was part of the prompt I gave Dall-E, and most Americans are, for the time being, that way.  It did create images where one was of one race, the other of another.  I didn't choose those, because I didn't want that to be a factor.

You have a choice between these two men.  Which one do you give power to rule?

That depends how we think about power.  Which one seems stronger?  Which one seems more dominant?  Which one is more aggressive?  Which one has More Flag, which means, per the aforementioned Flag Rule, that they're more American?  Which one reflects your anger, and will be more dangerous to your enemies? 

Now, let's think about machine intelligences for a second.  AI doesn't create new things, not really.  It just accesses all prior human thought, everything we know, and spits it back out at us.  It's a mirror.

When I asked it to make this picture, I distinguished between the two men in this way:  Draw one that's gentle and nice.  Draw another that's angry and evil.

Which one do we think is which?  What does that say about us?



Tuesday, November 28, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Three


Chapter Three: Of My Journey and Its Portents

As is almost always the case when one is preparing for one’s travels, even the most clearly laid out preparations inevitably seem inadequate. The distance of the journey itself was a negligible one, as barely seventy miles separated the Wexton-Hughes townhome in the Royal Redoubt at Port Baltimore from Duke Fairfax’s expansive and gracious garden estate, whose fields, mazes, and topiary rest upon the grounds of an old colonial battlefield at Manassas.

Time expended in the completion of the transit was not an issue of any consequence, as even in the stately Town Carriage, Father’s Heavy Shooting Brake, or the relaxed and recreational barouche, such a journey would only require a matter of three quarters of an hour; all three can comfortably maintain an airspeed of roughly one hundred miles per hour, although generally the Town Carriage travels at a more sedate seventy five. The twinjet aerophaeton, which was far more nimble, sporting, and required a human pilot, and was thus to be left to Suzanna as her preferred mode of travel, could complete such a journey in less than ten minutes.

Quite obviously, the journey required no mapping of physical terrain, nor any concern about the particulars of an roadbound overland route, which occupied many a thought of our forebears.
Distance and the route were of little import; rather, of greater and more pressing concern was the political terrain over which I and my small retinue would be travelling, as so much of the region surrounding the ruins of the old capital of the failed colonies remains a savage and inhospitable place.

Reports of late had raised concerns of a heightened level of local conflict among the endlessly fractious commoners, as the anarchist rabble and their brutal fascist adversaries contested with one another in an endless series of bloody reprisals. While it was generally understood that these petty conflicts over meagre resources and desolate territory did not involve the Crown, and both the republicans and Caddigan’s jackbooted thugs had historically endeavoured to avoid incurring Her Majesty’s displeasure, there was in the last missive from the Ministry of Information news of some concerning developments.

Messengers had repeatedly come under small arms fire and other crude and violent assaults whilst traversing areas nominally controlled by the Caddiganites, and a Series Nine belonging to the Marquess of Albemarle had been forced to destroy itself after its flight apparatus had been disabled and it had tumbled to earth. The intent of such an action was clearly to seize the fruits of the Royal Society’s significant technological advancements, and to use those stolen discoveries not just to inflict harm to other commoners, but potentially to endeavor a malevolent action against the Crown itself.

The Caddiganites denied any responsibility for this unacceptable violation of Her Majesty’s Property, and placed blame for the transgression entirely upon terrorists from the People’s Front for the Liberation of Powhatan Lands.

The leadership of the PFLPL, of course, had no coherent response, as it is utterly impossible to determine who is in charge of any given anarcholibertarian faction from one day to the next, or even if any particular organisation…although “organisation” is a generous description of such a squabulous, chaotic incoherence of class resentments and pseudointellectual presumptions…still exists.

Father and I suspected Caddigan, of course, as his unseemly lust for dominance unclaimed by the Crown was a far more likely motivation for such a crime than the earnest, childish naivete of the anarchists; that, and the Caddiganites innate willingness to lie and dissemble in the service of their despots’ brutal aspirations was without peer.

In summary, my journey to this gala would be potentially fraught with not-inconsiderable risks to both my life, limb and the property of House Montgomery, risks whose potential impacts I believed I was striving to minimize in every way humanly possible.

In the face of that primary concern, I still needed to accomplish the following on the day of our journey: be refitted into Mother’s dress, respond to a late message received just that morning from the Ladies Aid Society requesting my presence at a tea service tomorrow afternoon, refresh my competence at several familiar and relatively simple Chopin Etudes to the point where I would not embarrass myself when I was inevitably called upon to play, review the documents Father had sent regarding some necessary repairs to our Estate guesthouse, and respond to four outstanding pieces of pressing correspondence that I had somehow not managed to complete the day before.

It is no wonder, then, that when I was finally helped into the comfortable red velour seat of the Town Carriage I was feeling rather mentally fatigued, and hardly of a mind to apply myself to the genteel demands of polite society.

I had chosen the Carriage for expediency's sake, as the Shooting Brake was too bluntly functional for an event of this stature, and the plexiglass shrouded half-open barouche insufficiently resilient should Caddigan or the anarchists make an attempt to disrupt our passage. It was slower, but it would suffice.

As the eight great cowled rotors of the Town Carriage began spinning up with a high electric whine, my maidservant Amanda took her place in the compartment opposite me, the lenses of her glass eyes glistening in her bespoke porcelain face, her unbound synthetic hair softly tossed by the rotor-disturbed air.

“Are you quite ready, milady? Is there anything further you require before we depart?” Her voice lifted over the growing roar, calming and musical, and was a balm to my weary soul.

“Thank you for your consideration, Amanda. There is nothing further I require, and your attentions to our preparation have been most appreciated. Let us be on our way.”

Amanda gave a curt nod, and then paused almost imperceptibly as she communicated silently with the Town Carriage, at which urging the door closed of its own volition. The door hissed and sealed, the roar and whine of the engines vanished, and the carriage was as silent as a winter snowfall. My stalwart footmen Bertrand and Ernest then each took their places on the rear running boards to either side of the carriage compartment, from where they’d observe the terrain below as we flew. Like Amanda, both were Series Nines, and fully upgraded. They were, of course, careful not to in any way impede my view of our progress.

As the carriage rose away from the carriage house landing pad, my view of the city of Baltimore became more and more complete.

Describing it as a city was something of a misnomer at this point in its history, as it was in many ways a shadow of what it had once been. Most of the former city had fallen to ruin centuries ago following two crippling blows; violence following the colonial collapse, and an inexorable rise in sea levels, which remained to this day a challenge for any ports established for travel or trade over the seas. The location, however, remained highly advantageous for a seafaring port, and it was to that end that the Crown had claimed it from the sea. The Royal Redoubt of Port Baltimore covered but a small fraction of the land that had once been host to an industrial city, even as it served much the same purpose for the servants of Her Majesty as it had for a queen many centuries before.

Observing the fortified town through the window of the carriage as we ascended, it was as always striking for the gracious dignity of its architecture; the stately and capacious townhomes, the public gardens and fields, The Queen’s Store (from whence all produce, foodstuffs, and necessities were procured), the recently completed St. Mary’s Cathedral, the spire of whose steeple gleaming resplendent in the late afternoon sun, and of course the neat manufactoriums and processing facilities that lined the wharves of the seaport itself. Tracing along the port hillside, and arranged such that it provided an insurmountable strategic obstacle to any and all who might attempt to assail it, the fifty-foot-high walls of the outer fortifications cradled the ten thousand souls within in their protective embrace.

Outside, much of what remained of that city was still little more than rubble, although here and there the shantytowns of various indigenes and commoners could be seen, as they scrabbled out a meagre existence from small fields or the still-denuded seas.

Further we climbed, as as we flew to the southwest, the character of the land changed. It became more heavily forested, with much of that forest growing on what was once a great sprawl of distributed neighbourhoods, the homes of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of the old republican bourgeoisie. Here and there the remains of a rooftop could be seen, but what once was a maze of bland boulevards and cul de sacs was now devoured by the great forests. Countless souls lived in paper houses built for tuppence and sold for a fortune, and most lived their lives of quiet desperation rushing about trying to service their indebtedness, heedless of the house of cards on which they had built their whole existence. Like the passenger pigeons of legend, these “Americans” fluttered and flew about and filled the skies with their wings until, through the workings of Providence’s cruel sister Hubris, they snared and devoured themselves.

The world does not lament their loss.

As we progressed further to the southwest, the rotted ruins of that culture stretched on and on, providing the viewer with such a grim sameness of landscape that it wearied the imagination, a weariness that lead me to recline sideways against the warm velour of the wingbacked carriage seat, as fatigue and the pressures of the day weighed upon my eyes. The warm sun filled the cabin, even though the altitude was even more frigid than it was at ground level, and the soft movements of the carriage rocked it like a cradle, all of which combined to mean that when I nestled my brow against the familiar comfort of the deep, rich fabric, exhaustion overcame me.

I must have closed my eyes but for a moment, but Lethe visited me as the passing shadow of a noonday cloud, such that I was startled to wakeness when Amanda’s voice gently coaxed me from my slumber.

“Milady, we will be landing in five minutes. May I tend to your hair for a moment, and so prepare you for your arrival?”

I blinked once, and then again, as I sought to regain my composure. “Yes. Amanda, yes, please, please do so.”

She busied herself about my appearance, returning order and decorum to my sleep-scattered hair. As she did so, my gaze returned to the view outside of the window, which was now that of the great and extensive grounds of Duke Fairfax’s estate. Another carriage was disgorging its noble passengers on the landing pad beneath us, and as we hovered and waited our turn to be received properly by the Duke’s servants, I marvelled at the intricate and subtle geometries of the Gardens Fairfax, which ranged freely across nearly one hundred acres of softly rolling countryside, and which were well known as among the loveliest of the classical formal style.

Above and around the perimeter of the estate, a dozen of Her Majesty’s airships of the line kept diligent watch over the arrival of her servants, and whilst I knew that somewhere among them was the HMS Firedrake, Father’s fast attack cruiser, I did not ask Amanda to fetch me opera glasses so that I could gaze upon it in admiration. The Firedrake was a regular visitor to both the Montgomery Estate and Port Baltimore, and it was enough to know that these most stalwart of Her Majesty’s servants were casting their protective care over our persons.

It was a peculiar paradox, I thought in that moment, that such beauty should find its home upon ground that had been fought over and bled over by so many thousands of young men, so many of whom died for a cause…be it the chattel-mad Confederacy or the tragic, ultimately doomed Union…that now mattered to no-one, their cries of victory or of mortal anguish lost to history, as are all of the vicissitudes of our fleeting lives. The history of all human endeavour ends thusly, and all of our conviction that it is not so is, as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes so grimly affirmed, nothing more than vanity.

This was rather a more morbid thought than is best to harbour before arriving in society, and as Amanda finished her repairs to my coiffure, I cast such dourness from my mind.

In a matter of moments, we alighted with the sort of perfection that one expects from a Town Carriage, and with a whir and a hiss, the carriage door opened to welcome in the wind and descending timbre of eight decelerating rotors. Amanda helped me up from my seat, and from the running board Bertrand extended a hand to assist me in the accomplishing of a graceful dismount onto the landing platform, where a half dozen of the Duke’s servants awaited his arriving guests.

The Duke preferred his servants to be more imposing, likely a factor of his decades of stalwart service in the Ministry of Defense. His Series Tens were a hand-and-a-half taller than most, broadly built and massive, and uniformed in a martial manner. It is not that they were actually stronger than a servant of more modest stature…all Series Tens and upgraded prior series servants use the same synthetic musculature…but the impression of heightened power was nonetheless inescapable.

One of them stepped forward, snapped curtly to attention directly before me, and gave a surprisingly gracious bow at the waist.

“Lady Rebecca Wexton-Hughes, of House Montgomery, I assume?” The servant’s voice, a deep polite growl, made it sound as if I was being welcomed by a Bengal tiger, which I do not doubt was the Duke’s intended effect.

“Indeed I am. You are correct.”

“I hope, on behalf of House Fairfax, that your journey from Baltimore was uneventful.”

“It was, and thank you so much for inquiring.”

“It shall be my pleasure to escort you and your retinue to your assigned quarters in the Guest House. Please, follow me.”

I took a deep breath to fortify myself for the social whirlwind to come, and followed closely by dear Amanda, Bertrand, and Ernest, I did as he asked. In that moment, as I strode forward, I felt the pressure of what I presumed to be a trying time arriving unwelcome.

Which, given what was to come to pass, was little more than my own absurd vanity.