Our heroes have safely reached Gaunner.
Drake and I caught up on our sleep after the events in the Vollec system. I felt certain neither of us would have many opportunities for such luxuries once we reached Gaunner. We were as well-rested as possible when Captain Tucci guided the Lady of Neert to her first-ever landing on Gaunner. Before debarking, I gave final orders to Captain Tucci and Chief Engineer Mills.
“Chief, the hyperdrive is your top priority. If any of the locals show recalcitrance, feel free to invoke my name and direct them to call my office.”
“Of course, my lady,” the Chief said. “I’ll have my people do all of the actual work on the Lady, of course.”
I shook my head, “No, I want you to hire the best local crew you can find and let them install the hyperdrive.”
“I must protest, my lady!” Captain Pennington said. “We can’t trust Gaunnerians with this work. They could easily sabotage the ship while pretending to do the work.”
Chief Mills nodded emphatically, “Exactly. We can’t-”
“Convince the people of the Duchy of Gaunner they can trust us unless we’re willing to trust them,” I said. “I appreciate your concerns, gentlemen, but this is the perfect opportunity to begin mending the schism between Neert and Gaunner.”
“Will you at least allow my people to supervise the work and perform a private inspection once it’s done?” the Chief asked.
“If it will make you and Captain Pennington feel better, Chief, go ahead,” I said. Both men nodded in relief, so I turned to Captain Tucci and said, “To show these gentlemen that I’m not ignorant of the possible dangers ahead of me, I want all of the Lady’s stations manned at all times. If you detect any threats to the ship, take off and then call Drake or me.”
Captain Tucci was no more pleased with her orders than the Chief had been. “And abandon you, my lady? Surely-”
“I appreciate your concern, Captain, but those are your orders. Once you’re outside of the atmosphere, place a subspace call to Neert and the nearest Royal Navy base and summon help.”
Tucci said, “I will do as you order, my lady. But what if you are threatened?”
“I’ll have Drake, Captain Pennington, and his guardsmen protecting me.” Seeing everyone opening their mouths to protest, including Drake, I hurriedly added, “But we will call the ship if we need immediate extraction. If we do call, come and get us—wherever we are and whatever you have to smash through to reach us.”
“While also calling Neert and the Royal Navy,” Drake added.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“I can’t leave orders for every eventuality, Captain,” I interrupted. “In any other emergency, use your best judgment and act accordingly. You have my full trust.”
With that, Drake, my guards, and I exited the Lady. A stiffly proper man in the uniform of the Duchy of Gaunner waited for us at the bottom of the ramp. He saluted and, between us and several ground cars, a squad of ducal guards snapped to attention and presented their arms.
“On behalf of your new subjects, welcome to Gaunner, my lady.”
I checked his rank insignia and said, “Thank you, Captain…?”
“Reel, my lady. Bryan Reel, Commander of the Duchess’s Guard.” His eyes flicked over my shoulder to Captain Pennington and the dozen guardsmen under his command. “Where are the rest of your personal guards, my lady?”
Without looking, I could picture the pained expression Captain Pennington was giving to Captain Reel. I’d seen it many times since I told the Captain he could bring no more than a dozen guardsmen. To be fair to Captain Pennington, I’d also seen that same expression on Drake’s face many times, as well. I gave Captain Reel the same explanation I’d given back on Neert.
“A dozen dedicated guardsmen, plus the fine gentlemen lined up behind you, should be more than sufficient to protect me from any normal threats.”
“But, my lady,” Reel said, “a large and determined force could overwhelm our combined forces and capture or kill you.”
Captain Pennington muttered, “That’s exactly what I said.”
Ignoring the comment from behind me, I asked, “Do you have any idea how many people live in the Duchy of Gaunner, Captain Reel?”
The question took him by surprise. “I, um… Not right offhand, my lady.”
“At the last census, it was close to fifty billion people living on the duchy’s eleven planets. Gaunner, alone, holds almost a quarter of that population. If even a fraction of those people rose up against me, could the entirety of Gaunner’s military stand against them?”
“Not if they were truly determined, my lady.”
“Exactly. Ducal guards exist to stop small bands of attackers. Between your guards and Captain Pennington’s guards, I have three dozen highly-trained and, most importantly, loyal guards watching my back.”
“Not that my lady’s assessment is incorrect, but may I ask why you think my men and I are loyal?”
“Because I’m not dead. You could have killed us all in the blink of an eye, had you wished to do so. You must have worked closely with my predecessor before she married into the royal family. Had you reached out to her, I have no doubt Her Highness would have arranged for immunity from justice and a quite lavish retirement for the men who ended my life.”
Captain Reel gave a thoughtful nod. “I see your point, my lady.”
“Good. May I assume you have plans to brief Captain Pennington on all security matters after we reach the palace?”
“Excellent. Then let’s get going.”
The ride from the spaceport to the palace was…strange. Though I’d specifically forbidden any kind of a procession or parade for me and even kept my arrival time vague to avoid any such disruptions, word got out. Our little convoy of cars drove through streets lined with people.
Faces impassive and voices silent, they watched us pass. There were no welcoming calls. There were no hateful denunciations. The mute reception quickly went from strange to unsettling. And, finally, it was too much for me.
“Stop the car.”
“What?” Captains Pennington and Reel said.
Speaking to our driver, Captain Reel added, “Corporal, do not stop this vehicle.”
Glaring at Reel, I said, “Corporal, the Duchess of Gaunner commands you to stop the car. Now.”
The car was already slowing when Reel said, “Do as her ladyship commands, of course.”
Pennington, perhaps hoping to invoke a higher power, said, “Captain Haral, could you convince the duchess that whatever she is doing is…hasty?”
“Don’t you think we should find out what she’s planning before we pass judgment, Captain?” Drake asked.
“I will have to address my subjects at some point,” I said. “Why not get a head start on it and do so now?”
“You’ll let the captains deploy their guards around the car before you get out?” Drake’s voice was not very hopeful.
“Good God, no! I’m not a conqueror come to lord over the vanquished. I’m just going to talk for a bit and then we’ll continue on our way.” I turned my attention to Captain Reel. “You know these people, Captain. Do you honestly think I’ll be in any real danger? If you do, I will order the Corporal to drive on.”
Captain Reel obviously wanted to claim such danger existed, but he couldn’t bring himself to lie. “I doubt it, my lady, though I cannot rule out the possibility of someone acting unexpectedly.”
“I understand, Captain. Will it make you feel better if I allow you and Captain Pennington to accompany me?”
As both captains nodded, Drake said, “And me. You’re not putting one foot outside of this car unless I go, too.”
“Of course, dear. I expected nothing else.”
Drake opened the door and climbed out of the car. I came next and, as the two captains followed, walked toward the crowd. Smiling broadly and hoping no one else could hear my hammering heart, I stopped before a woman about my own age. She held a very young boy in her arms while a girl, no older than three or four, clutched her skirt.
Stopping before them, I said, “Hello. I’m Jeanine Langston, Duchess of Neert and Gaunner.”
How will Jeanine’s first interaction with the people of Gaunner go? Find out in Chapter 18, coming Monday.