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Looking out the large windows of the palace’s ballroom, Queen Eloise II looked over her city with the slightest crease in her brow. She could barely see the flags of these United Kingdoms fluttering in the smog and smoke choked winds. When her namesake united the squabbling nations of these islands, she doubted the woman would ever have foreseen the urban sprawl that Eloise looked upon now. So much had changed since a those flags were sewn by hand in a back alley shop. Now hundreds were pumped out by the day from machines of spinning gears, pipes, needles and so much more.
“Much has changed even in our lifetime your grace,” Annabelle Steward said as she stepped up beside her queen, the handmaiden only using the formal honorific in this public setting. Behind them the soft music of violins carried over the gentle chatter and clinking of glasses between the nobles and those wealthy enough they might as well be nobles.
It was a simple party, compared to the balls and dalliances held in years past. But the war across the channel had drained the coffers. Still, now that victory and peace was upon them, etiquette dictated a celebration of some manner. Not just for those who led upon the battlefield, but those whose wallets had aided crown and country while the young took their rifles to bear upon the foe.
“And it will continue. At the rate the parliament rises in prominence, my grand-daughter will be queen in title alone,” Eloise said, but eased the frown on her face and put on a practised smile as she turned to Annabelle.
“You should attend the guests your grace. Moments like this will stave that moment off for a time.”
“Perhaps. Once it was easy to know who was friend and foe in court. But lineage becomes less prevalent with each year, and it is becoming impossible to know who will hold the ears of the commoners, much less the seeming nobility, from one week to the next.”
“Just so your grace. But the guest of honour should be arriving momentarily. One of the servants told me he was just arriving, with a young woman at his side.”
“It seems war hasn’t slackened his desires, or his taste for controversy. How that man has kept the parliament from demanding his titles, I shall never know.”
“People love a hero your grace. General Harrington is a more popular man than even the Prime Minister.”
“According to the opposition, many are more popular than our Prime Minister,” Eloise let out a gentle sigh.
“Let us go and great him then shall we?” she said, walking forwards through the gathering of the influential. She took note of the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition near one of the walls in heated debate. If not for etiquette they would have been at blows by now, Eloise was sure. Others bowed and curtsied in their carefully tailored suits and gowns as she walked through the party. In turn she offered a gracious nod of her head, greeting each by name, asking after spouses and children. Inquiring into businesses she knew they were involved in, if acquisition deals had gone through, or if there were still rumours of a strike. Was trade still flowing from the colonies, despite their recent independence.
They of course told her all was well. Judging by the words that flowed from their lips, all was perfect in the capital of these United Kingdoms, and in the world beyond its sprawl. But Eloise did not keep the crown on her head by believing anything told to her in polite conversation. Beyond the shores of these islands the world was on the verge of something terrible. Even among the hills and forests of her homeland, ideologies were shifting, and power changing hands.
Following just behind the queen, Annabelle took careful note of the words used. Which ones would require deeper peering, and which could simply be waved off.
Then the two footmen standing on the other side of the room’s entrance pushed the doors open. Resplendent in his bright red jacket with gold braided cord running over both shoulders, freshly pleated black slacks, well shined black riding boots, and his officer’s sabre sheathed at his hip in its polished scabbard, the Earl of Gwynedd, General Elliot Harrington, entered the room. He was grinning as he snapped his heels together and gave a bow to the queen. All while everyone in the room applauded, knowing that it was his final victory that had been able to secure such an advantageous peace treaty with the foe.
With most eyes upon the General, Eloise tried to glance around him, to see who this woman he had deemed appropriate for the Palace was.
He rose, and waved his hands, calling the room to quiet. The silence spread in a wave as everyone waited to hear what the hero had to say.
“Thank you, thank you esteemed ladies and gentlemen, your grace. But, victory in Flanders was not won by my hand alone. Please, let me introduce the true hero at Flanders. Captain Lauren Blackburn,” the general stepped aside, and there was shocked silence.
Entering the doorway was a young canlı bahis woman who wore her nervousness clearly on her expression, her dark hair pulled into a tight and neat ponytail. Any traditional beauty though was marred by the scar across her left cheek, still bearing the black thread of stiching. Her military jacket was long in the back and coloured dark green with black trimming; even the buttons were darkened. A freshly forged sabre was sheathed at her hip; a battlefield commission then. Her boots had scuffs from the road, yet they still clicked sharply when she brought them together and bowed before the crowd.
As she rose she stood at rigid attention, and looked embarrassed as everyone stared at her. Even General Harrington looked about nervously, wondering if he had finally overstepped his bounds.
“To the hero of Flanders,” Eloise said, letting her voice carry across the room as she began the applause. Everyone else hurried to catch up, and inwardly Eloise grinned, though she did catch the glance that Annabelle threw her way from the crowd.
As the applause died out, General Harrington let out a visible breath, and he turned to say a few quiet words to Captain Blackburn. She gave him a short nod, before her eyes roamed the room. Eloise let her attention shift quickly to the General, who stopped just before her and bowed.
“General Harrington, Earl you may be, but it seems we have your military mind to thank. We have heard much of your victory, and I’m sure many here would love to hear the details. Though, I find your choice in companion curious. A woman, in uniform,” Eloise said, keeping her expression neutral.
“It would seem your Grace, that despite unifying the crowns into one, those in the North still cling to certain… more savage traditions. And it certainly shows on the battlefield. Captain Blackburn, woman she may be, has a mind for battle,” Harrington said, and Eloise cast her eyes over to the captain who stood near the entrance still, hands folded behind her back.
“I’m sure Boadicea caused a stir when she took rule of her people. Our history is full of stories of women who fight, and rule. The days are changing, and gentlemanly war fare is coming to an end. It is good to know that our perhaps most esteemed General, is ready to change as the world does,” Eloise said, then let her eyes return to Harrington, who was smiling.
“Warfare has stayed stagnant for so long your grace. It will be frightening to many, even among your own Chief Staff.”
“I will imagine it will be the same for our rivals. I want you to start training our senior officers. We cannot let a single victory make us complacent.”
“It is good to know your grace has an eye for the less glorious ways of battle. It will be done.”
“Then we are pleased. But, this is a celebration for your victory. Go mingle. See what trouble you can narrowly avoid today,” Eloise said, and offered Harrington a soft smile. The man laughed in turn.
“You know me well your grace. But that doesn’t surprise me either. With your leave,” Harrington bowed once more, then was near immediately pulled away and into conversation. Annabelle was almost immediately at Eloise’s side.
“A woman, in uniform, bearing scars of battle, and you supported her publicly. You know this will not go over well with Parliament your grace, and the Opposition will use it to their advantage,” she said in a low yet conversational whisper.
“Then, perhaps it is time to remind them who is sovereign.”
“Is that wise your grace?”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. But it is certainly a bold move. And these are the days of bold moves. How else would the likes of Mr. Morely be invited to the Palace,” Eloise said, gesturing to an aging man with a monocle over one eye.
Annabelle held in a smirk, though Eloise did take note of the slight twitch in her lips. After a final curtsy, she slipped back among the crowd, leaving Eloise to her own machinations. The Queen stood for a few moments in the middle of the room, before making up her mind and walking towards the lonely soldier standing by the doorway.
She could all but feel Annabelle’s frustration, and if Eloise was honest with herself, that amused her somewhat.
As the queen approached, Captain Blackburn snapped her heels together and bowed. Eloise took note, with another light smirk toying with her lips, of the specks of dirt that came off those scuffed boots.
“Even the General doesn’t snap his heels when speaking to us directly. It’s refreshing to see such respect again,” Eloise said as Blackburn stood properly, the movement from her bow making the tightly tied tail of hair bounce along the back of her neck.
“As it please, your Grace,” Blackburn said, and Eloise couldn’t help but laugh. She almost regretted the sound though as she took note of the reddening cheeks. The woman was entirely on her back foot in this place. And the still healing gash stitched on her cheek told how much she had seen and faced in Flanders bahis siteleri alone.
“It does, but please. Relax. It seems this party is as much for you as General Harrington. Yet here you are, by your lonesome.”
At the suggestion to relax, Blackburn let her heel drift apart, and folded her hands behind her back. It looked like the parade rest that Eloise had seen on so many ceremonial military functions.
“All due respect your Grace, but is it? I may have been given the rank of officer, but I am still a commoner with barely a quid to my name,” Blackburn’s northern accent was indeed beautiful to listen to, even if rougher than most that Eloise encountered hailing from beyond the ancient wall.
“Many of those in here were little more than commoners themselves. Picking their way upwards with hard work and ingenuity.”
Eloise had now earned herself a genuine smile from the woman. Though, she felt a hint of sarcasm from the tilt.
“Yet they are not. They were invited here by royal hand, while I was all but smuggled in. Not a one of them would bleed on the fields, not a one of them would work in the factories. I doubt any of them even get coal smudges on their shoes despite owning factories. Your Grace, if you think me and them are on the same level, you don’t know your people very well,” Blackburn said, but then her smirk faded as she seemed to realize how she’d spoken to the crown.
Pursing her lips, Eloise thought for a moment of a reaction. This Captain Blackburn reminded her of Annabelle in so many ways.
“Perhaps you are right. Though, you are a hero now, and the Kingdoms will soon know your name. Printed in papers and distributed. A shame about your cheek though. It does look awfully frightening,” Eloise.
“I don’t know about that your Grace. If I were a man, it’d be quite dashing,” came the almost immediate retort.
“How true. But tell us, Hero, do you plan on returning home?”
Blackburn tilted her head slightly, her left eyebrow scarcely rising above the other.
“Not, home. But my company does come from the North, and I’ll be heading to rejoin them on the morrow. We’re a standing unit so it’ll be some time before I see home again.”
“Of course. The Rangers have shown their skill and professionalism again and again. From the colonies to the mainland. But you deserve some rest… for We have plans for you Captain…” the Queen trailed off, lifting her hand upwards, resting a knuckle against her lips.
For her part, Blackburn glanced around the room again. Was she looking for ways out? Or was it something else.
“Where are you staying this evening, before your journey tomorrow?” Eloise finally said.
“I was going to rent a room down at an inn on the Thames.”
“No. That simply will not do for a hero of these United Kingdoms. You will stay here in the palace this evening. Don’t worry, it will be arranged. We have plans for you Captain Blackburn. We hope you are prepared for a very different kind of battlefield,” Eloise said.
“As prepared as I think I could be your Grace,” Blackburn said, and the Queen smiled.
“At least this evening will be more pleasant than Flanders was.”
“Perhaps your Grace. The French lasses were pretty,” she said, and Eloise raised an eyebrow. Blackburn snapped her mouth closed and her cheeks reddened again.
“Enjoy the party Captain. Do try and mingle, We are sure some would love to hear your tales. We shall be in touch,” Eloise said and made to leave. Captain Blackburn promptly snapped her heels with the sharp click of hard leather and bowed once again. Eloise let her eyes linger just a moment before she walked away.
It did not take long for Annabelle to be at her side. Eloise kept a careful guard of her expression as she moved guest to guest, speaking to each of them. Dropping little hints of the information she had hoarded away. Of the power she could still wield. Finally, in a pause of conversations, Annabelle spoke.
“I saw the way you looked at her. No.”
“Yes. As I said, it is a time for boldness. And I need Captain Lauren Blackburn as an ally. She will have the attention of the public, and I would have hers. It is the public the Opposition claims to support, and if we control the narrative, we can undermine them,” Eloise said, turning to face her friend and handmaiden, but glanced over her shoulder to regard Blackburn.
The Captain found herself in conversation with Mr. Carlyle, a man who had offered a great amount of monies to the Crown’s coffers for the war. Whatever she was saying, it certainly appeared she had him on the back foot. It only made Eloise like her more.
“Send a letter to Mr. Travis White this evening. Tell him I have a story for him,” Eloise said, and Annabelle nodded, hiding her own smile. It seemed the handmaiden agreed with this course of action at least.
“And see what else you can discover about our dear Captain. See if we might be able to get her an advantageous marriage for bahis şirketleri us. Enemies closer was always a foolish suggestion in court, when you never know who your enemies are.”
“Isn’t it everyone your Grace?”
“Very nearly my dear.”
“I shall have it attended to. While you, attend our hero,” Annabelle said, giving another curtsy as she fluttered away. The woman was such a viper.
And that’s why Eloise kept her draped over her shoulders.
The room smelled of burned whale oil from the lamps, and Lauren found she preferred the gunsmoke of the battlefield. At least it was better than the choking coal scent that was filling the streets of the capital, and all its shops that plied far too much incense to hide the scent. Even the prostitutes were wearing far too much perfume anymore, though luckily Lauren had grown to enjoy that particular scent.
And all the French lasses, hardly wore any. Which, considering the stories coming from Paris, was a slight surprise to Lauren. But, they had known how to use their tongues far better than many north of the channel. Even Lauren had learned a thing or two.
With a sigh she tossed removed her sabre and tossed it on the bed. The sword rattled slightly inside it’s scabbard and bounced on a mattress that seemed more comfortable than any she’d lain on before. That at least Lauren was looking forward to. She turn then and sat on one of the chairs in the room, thankful to be off her feet. The party, supposedly in her honour, had been dreadfully boring. They had wanted to hear tales from the battle, but had gotten shocked and frightened when she started relaying the blood and the screams that she’d partaken in. Perhaps forgetting that she was no general that sat on a horse in the rear to overlook, to send commands, not to partake.
Letting out a sigh, and wishing she’d not been brought to such admittedly nice apartments, Lauren leaned down to start working off one of her boots. She could have been in a run down inn right now, savouring the scent of a woman of the night, who was seemingly happy to be making coin and not being thrust into with her back to a wall. They didn’t care about her attractions; just her coin.
A soft knock at the wall startled Lauren. She sat up, staring at the overly detailed wallpaper. Slowly she rose from her chair, and took up her sabre from the bed. One hand gripping the scabbard, the fingers of the other slowly curling around the grip, she looked towards the wall. She pushed down on her left foot, slipping her boot firmly back into place.
“Hello?” she said, unsure if she should be whispering or shouting.
There was another soft knock, before the sound of metal clicking. Like lock tumblers falling into place, making Lauren’s brow crease. She let a few inches of steel show between hilt and scabbard. When the wall quietly began to swing open, Lauren wished she could have been surprised by discovering secret passages in the Palace. What was the surprise though was seeing the Queen personal handmaiden entering the room, holding a candle on a thin bronze tray.
“Captain. Your presence is requested,” the woman said softly, and Lauren let out a breath, snapping her sword home.
Secret passages and personal handmaidens passing on requests that weren’t truly requests. Lauren was starting to regret accepting this commission. She started forward, and the handmaiden’s eyes flicked for a moment to the sword at the captain’s hip. In the end, she said nothing. Instead, leading the way through a labyrinth of hallways and stairwells. All hidden within the walls of the palace. The doors were much more obvious on this side, and Lauren wondered where there popped out. Whose rooms, which back chambers.
How much had this handmaiden gleamed simply by knowing her way through this maze? Without the lamps that lit much of the Palace, the place smelled of wood, plaster, and dust. It was dark, with only a candle’s flame protected by a cupped hand to light the way. It threw the handmaiden’s shadow across the ceiling in twisting patterns, thrown asunder ever more by the cobwebs clinging to wooden beams. The two continued to creep through these secret passages.
It felt longer than it was, but the two reached one of the hidden doors. The handmaiden stood to the side as she pulled a key out from the folds of her dress, and unlocked the door. She gently pushed it open, revealing a long and opulent room, though it was lit only by a few fluttering candles. Lauren glanced to the Handmaiden, who only gently waved her hand.
The captain entered, pleasantly surprised by the lack of whale oil scent. She looked around, as she heard the door closing behind her, quickly found the actual entrance to the room. A bedroom she found shortly after, by the sight of the four corner bed against one wall. White silk drapes hung low over it, obscuring any that might be resting within.
The Queen though was sitting at a small table, holding a small tea cup. As Lauren clued in to where she was, the Queen rose and gestured to a seat around the table. Lauren was about to clap her heels together, but the Queen rose a hand.
“No ceremony here. Let us talk as two people. Now please, sit,” she said.
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