Duchess Josephina Barrow
Location: Windsor City, Windsor, Star Kingdom of Windsor
“Is this confirmed?” The Duchess, who also served as the Chief of Intelligence for the Star Kingdom, watched the man in the red dress uniform of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy closely. “Think very carefully about how you respond because it will determine the foreign policy of this Kingdom for the next generation.”
The man was tall, fit, came from a noble house, and was every inch the product of rigorous training and genetic expression, but after the Duchess’ words he gulped nervously.
“Reading long range sensor scans is as much an art as a science, especially from this distance,” he began, “but I’m willing to stand by my production. We have seventy-two to ninety-six hours, Your Grace.”
“Shit.” Josephina leaned back in her chair and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and pointer finger. She hated showing weakness in front of subordinates, but this was a rare exception.
“Begin preparations, Lord Admiral. I must go see the Queen.” She rose and the Admiral snapped a small bow.
It was never a question what the proper etiquette between them was. The options were a salute for her governmental position as Chief of Intelligence or a bow for being a Duchess. Peerage always won. He scurried out of the door, as much as a man nearly two and a quarter meters tall could scurry, and was immediately mobbed by his considerable staff. All of the nervousness he’d shown in her office was gone. He issued commands like he ran a Fleet, which he did.
Josephina went the other direction, after making sure her office auto locked behind her. The Royal Marine sentry standing guard didn’t move, and knew no one aside from a few very specific people were allowed into her office when she wasn’t there.
“Bring the car.” She spoke to no one in particular as her personal guard fell in behind her.
An armored air car hovered in position by the time she exited the inconspicuous government building she worked in. Whitehall was two kilometers away, and Parliament twice that. The distance could be irritating at times when face-to-face meetings were required, but it also gave her breathing room so she wasn’t constantly entangled in parliamentary politics. It was a good thing for everyone.
The last time she’d been forced to speak to Parliament it had ended with a man thinking his honor had been impugned, a duel, and that man dead in the dirt. By law, Westwoodshire had been added to her holdings, so any heir she produced would not only be the Duke or Duchess of Rose Bay, but also the Count or Countess of Westwoodshire. For now, she would turn over management of the Shire to her youngest sister. The girl was thirty years younger than Josephina, had been skating by so far on the family name, and needed a new direction in life. Being charged with the administration of a Shire with three hundred thousand subjects would be a good starting point.
Josephina was happy to have the extra revenue added to her monthly peerage stipend. Someone in her position and with her needs could always use more funds, but the stipend didn’t cover any businesses and industry her family purchased or started in the new Shire. Westwoodshire’s timber industry was used for luxury goods through the Kingdom, and its pulp for more standard manufacturing processes. Now, the goods coming from some of the best carpenters on Windsor would have the Barrow family crest blessing their work.
The hardest part of the transition was ensuring the loyalty of those the foolish Count left behind. All the extra work went to staff members, and she couldn’t replace everyone, just like she couldn’t replace all of the old Count’s lancers – soldiers who swore an oath to serve a Noble House. By law, members of the nobility were allowed a small protective force – both soldiers and ships – to secure their holdings. The number was set by a mixture of precedent, royal favor, and demographics. Westwoodshire had thirty-five-hundred lancers and two destroyers that were now members of the House of Barrow’s force. Josephina put trusted men and women in key positions, but it would take time, patience, and good pay to secure the loyalty of the new soldiers and administrators.
On top of that, she needed to be conscious of the potential of a blood feud between the shamed Count’s surviving family and her own. Because of her position, Josephina was untouchable, but some of her extended family could be vulnerable. She had siblings, who had children, and those children had children. Then there were her cousins, and some of her aunts and uncles were still alive, but she was the matriarch of her house. It fell to her to use her resources and reputation to stop the old Count’s family and allies from seeking vengeance. It was amazing the types of changes a single thrust of a nano-blade could bring about.
As far as any day-to-day issues, Josephina’s sister would handle any disloyalty. Managing people Josephina would only see once or twice year didn’t make sense with all her responsibilities, but there was something truly satisfying about the whole process despite all of the hassle. She’d legally retrieved land from the Low Nobility. The Counts, Countesses, Barons, and Baronesses thought because they’d done something good at one point in their life that they were a noble house. They were sadly mistaken, and now House Barrow was stronger than ever because of a Count’s naiveté.
<When I find a husband I’ll have him deal with all this.> She dreaded even the few events she’d have to participate in as part of the transfer of power.
She pushed the thought of family to the back of her brain. She was the firstborn, but had never sought to marry and have children. There was no time for that right now. Maybe after the conflict passed she would find some well-bred war hero, but until then, her Kingdom required her full attention.
“The Palace.” She didn’t look up from her notes as the car zoomed off to its destination. The priority transmission coming from the car ensured traffic parted for her. Anyone that didn’t was ticketed by the automatic traffic features of Windsor City’s streets, and would probably get a visit from their local Bobbies about proper civic protocol.
The Palace was a modern, larger replica of Windsor Castle, but it sat on the outskirts of the city instead of right in the center. It reinforced the standard that people came to the Queen. The Queen did not come to them.
A dozen square kilometers of lush greenery surrounded the palace, and the grounds were secured by soldiers in the black armor of the Obsidian Guard. A whole squad of them manned the front gate. They looked like they could take on an army and win. The nobles might have their lancers, but those were mortal men and women. The Obsidians were the closest thing to demigods of war science had been able to create, aside from the High-Nobles themselves.
<That’s the point.> The Obsidian Guard were the best, and the best were there to protect the Kingdom’s most cherished possession.
Josephina had barely left the vehicle when she dropped into a low curtsey. Queen Victoria IV marched out of the large, ornate doorway with her pale blonde hair swept behind her by the soft breeze.
“Rise,” she waved to Josephina, but kept on walking. They might be old friends, but in public she was Queen.
Josephina rose out of her curtsey and followed four steps behind the tall, elfin woman. She didn’t speak a word as the Queen marched into her favorite gardens, past the one-story-tall family coat-of-arms made of multicolored roses, and back to her private tea area. Her guards peeled off to stand around the small clearing while she waved for Josephina to join her at the table. Josephina stayed standing until the Victoria was seated.
She sat their silently while the Queen took a biscuit and began to lather jam onto it.
“I’m with child.” She didn’t look up.
Despite her best intentions, Josephina’s professionalism cracked and a big smile crossed her face. “That’s fantastic news, V…Your Majesty.” She caught herself at the end.
“Yes, it is.” Despite the smile teasing the corners of the Queen’s mouth, the rest of her face was composed. “So, it ruined my mood a little that on the day we planned to announce my pregnancy to the Kingdom I also get word that the lid of our whole operation is about to be blown clean off.”
“It was beyond our control, Your Majesty.”
“I had assurances we would have more time.” She shot a look over her shoulder at a wall of finely-carved shrubs.
Josephina looked closer and saw there was someone back there with a large number of guards standing between them and the Queen.
“They stepped up their schedule…” the voice was robotic and spoken through a translator.
“Never mind them,” Victoria cut off the voice. “The question is what do we do now?”
“Our hand is being forced.” Josephina addressed the Queen more than the person in the shadows. “Lord Admiral Kent is mustering the fleet. We need to hit hard and fast. If the Ambassador promises troops and ships…”
“I do not,” the robotic voice answered immediately.
“Well then, we’ll handle this alone.” Josephina replied with complete confidence.
“Will we beat them to their destination?” the Queen asked.
“From the figures Lord Kent has sent me…no. We’ll be at least twenty hours behind them, and that’s only if we marshal a portion of our forces. To step off with our battle plan, as originally presented, he’d need another four days to consolidate.”
“We can’t give them that time.” Victoria ate a tiny bite of the biscuit and grimaced. “Bloody morning sickness.” She swallowed with considerable effort and gave Josephina a glare. “You’re next.” She didn’t sound like she was kidding. “Even if I have to royally decree it, you’re going to feel my pain and give my children a playmate.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Josephina knew from her friend’s other pregnancies that she shouldn’t be joking at a time like this. “Concerning the fleet…”
“Deploy the fleet and secure the objective. Be about it.” The Queen turned her attention back to her biscuit.
Josephina rose, curtsied deeply, and walked at a brisk pace back to her air-car. Things were about to change, and she needed to make sure the Star Kingdom of Windsor came out of this on top. Anything less than that was unacceptable.