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.