We hope you enjoy this excerpt of Chapters 1 through 3 from At the Queen’s Command, the first book of the Crown Colonies series by Michael A. Stackpole, out now from Night Shade Books.
April 27, 1763
Temperance Bay, Mystria
Captain Owen Strake stood on the Coronet’s wheel deck, smiling as the ship came around the headland. The wind remained steady, but in the harbor the sea lost its chop. The angry clouds that had pounded the ship with nearly incessant storms had vanished, and the rising sun painted the sky blue. A light mist rose off the deep blue water.
Owen’s stomach began to ease and his flesh to warm. The crossing to Mystria had not been kind to him. Seven weeks of nausea had left him twenty pounds lighter and intolerably weak. Even disastrous campaigns, battle wounds, and long, cold retreats had never left him feeling so hideous.
The ship’s captain, Gideon Tar, turned toward Owen, smiling through weathered features as his steersman straightened the wheel. The First Mate bellowed orders sending men aloft to furl sails. “At least we beat May here, which I had not thought likely when we left Norisle.”
“I was counting the days.”
Gideon shook his head. “You were counting the hours, Mr. Strake. Or, Captain is more correct.” The sailor looked him up and down. “As wretched as you must feel, you wear the uniform well. Queen’s Own Wurms, yes?”
“Yes, and you’re being polite, sir.” Owen held his arms out to his sides. “I’m too small for it now. My wife had it tailored as a surprise. She’d be horrified.”
“You should have brought her with you. She could have taken it in.”
Owen shook his head. “I’m fair certain, Captain, my wife would have enjoyed the company of your wife and the other women on board, but she is delicate. I do not know how she would have taken the passage, but I do not think she would take well to the Colonies. She prefers her galas and society far too much.”
“And she was the one to whom you wrote all those letters?”
“Yes, and I would be obliged if you would see them back to Norisle when you sail again.” Tar nodded. “It would be a pleasure. I owe you at least that given your intervention with Mr. Wattling.”
“I appreciate how you handled the aftermath, sir.”
For the sake of secrecy, since the Tharyngians had spies everywhere, Owen had boarded at night. He had remained largely below decks until they were well away from the Auropean coast. Not even the ship’s small contingent of Marines, with whom he had bunked, knew who he was nor his rank until he’d pulled his uniform from his trunk that morning.
Captain Tar had known only that the man’s passage was of vital import to the Crown, and that no attention should be called to him. Owen had prevented a passenger from beating his servant to death—a violation of Owen’s orders to remain unremarkable. Tar had calmed things with Mr. Wattling, giving Owen time to absent himself.
“What fraud is this I see before me?” Wattling, a rotund man with a bright red face, mounted the deck and strode straight for the officers. “Dressing this man as a soldier will not preserve him. I ordered you to flog him, Captain Tar, and you will do so.”
Gideon raised his chin. “Mr.Wattling, may I introduce to you Captain Owen Strake, of the Queen’s Own Wurms.”
“I am not an idiot, Captain. Red coat with blue facings, the braid: I know the unit very well. A fraud, I tell you, and you shan’t get away with it. No, sir.” The large man hammered his walking stick against the deck. “You redemptioneers all do hang together. I should have known.”
“Do you suggest, sir, that I wear this uniform to deceive you?”
“Of course, damn you, I cannot say it more plainly.” Wattling’s piggish eyes tightened. “A Mystrian in Her Majesty’s service, perhaps, but a captain, never! Officers are gentlemen, and you are no gentleman. No Mystrian could be!”
Gideon Tar’s face flushed crimson.
Owen stepped toward the angry man. “Mr. Wattling, it has been a trying passage. I shall assume your ill-humor and poor manners are because of fatigue.”
“Assume what you wish…”
Owen raised his voice, his green eyes widening for emphasis. “Sir, you are speaking when you should be listening.”
Wattling raised his stick. “I will not have some grubby Colonial speak to me in such a tone. Flog him, Captain!”
Gideon Tar stepped between the two men. “I should remind you, sir, that you are on a ship crewed by ‘grubby Colonials’ and that it is yet a long swim to Temperance.”
Wattling hesitated a moment, then stepped back and barked out a harsh laugh. “You wouldn’t dare, none of you. Mystrians haven’t the fortitude. The moral defects for which you were shipped here are writ large on you all. You barely eek out an existence in a fecund land, but have neither the intelligence nor courage of true men.”
His cane became a scepter brandished. “I know all about you. I’ve read every word of Lord Rivendell’s The Five Days Battle of Villerupt. Had to. Set the type myself. I printed it on the very press in the hold of this ship. I know all about Colonial cowardice facing the godless Tharyngians.”
“You printed that sheaf of lies?” The moment he’d spoken Owen knew he had gone too far.
“Lies?” Rage cast Wattling’s expression in iron. Even his jowls ceased quaking. “I set every word as given to me by his lordship directly. Are you saying he lies?”
Owen shook his head. “He was not even at Villerupt. I was—First Battalion, Scouts Company. The closest Lord Rivendell got was L’Averne. Gout kept him from walking and his piles left him unable to sit a horse.” Owen almost added that medicinal brandy left Rivendell unconscious for the first three days, and hopelessly hungover for the last two, but thought better of it.
“This is an outrage! You slander the man.”
“As you slander the Colonials.”
Wattling shook his stick. “Are you saying the Mystrian Rangers didn’t break on the third day?”
Owen raised his chin and clasped his hands at the small of his back. “I am saying, sir, that they fought as hard as anyone. I was there.”
“Then you fled with them. Just another coward.”
“Mr. Wattling, have you any practical experience of war?”
Wattling refused to meet his gaze. “The Crown has not required my service.”
And you never saw fit to purchase a command. “It rained incessantly during the campaign, sir. The men, Norillians and Colonials alike, were wet and miserable, cold. Half our brimstone was wet, our muskets rusting. Many men were barefoot. This ship’s provisions have been far better than any we had in the field. The rains turned everything into a marsh, washed out roads and bridges.”
“Soldiers choose their own lot in life, sir.”
“They do, so you have to think on the courage of men who, born in Mystria, would answer the Crown’s call and board a ship for a land they’ve never seen. A hundred and eighty men, three companies. Major Forest’s had little training or drill, yet by Lord Rivendell’s order they were to anchor the left, tight against woods his lordship deemed impassable.”
Owen shivered, memories coming back too fast. Brigadier General Richard Ventnor, later made Duke of Deathridge, had fought Rivendell’s troops well, pushing hard toward Villerupt. The Tharyngians had given ground and that third day, on the narrow plain of Artennes, it appeared the conflict would be decided.
“You should understand, Mr.Wattling, that in the first two days, the Mystrians acquitted themselves well, acting alongside my troops as skirmishers. At Artennes, the Platine Guards Regiment came through those woods on logging trails—wide logging trails. You remember the Platine Guards. They forced Lord Rivendell off the Continent two years earlier.”
Owen didn’t wait for the man’s response. “A battalion of skirmishers against Tharyngia’s elite guards. The Mystrians gave three volleys before they broke. Even then, they regrouped and continued fighting, harassing the Guards.”
“Be that as it may, they broke. They let the enemy through. They should have sold themselves dearly, dying where they stood. But they couldn’t have. It’s not in their blood. It’s not in your blood.”
“Oh, they fought. Their leader lost half an arm, and his command well over half its number.” Owen’s hands tightened into fists. “And I hasten to add, Mr. Wattling, that Lord Rivendell’s son, John, never answered the call to come to our aid. His inactivity is what doomed the left flank.”
“Another slander from a coward’s mouth!”
Owen lowered his voice. “It is in deference to Captain Tar that I do not demand satisfaction of you, sir, right here and right now. And because my uncle, Richard, the Duke of Deathridge, frowns on dueling.”
“Your uncle, sir?”
“My mother is his youngest brother’s wife. That would make him my uncle.”
Wattling’s jowls quivered. “But, sir, your name. Strake is a Mystrian name.”
“And so my father was Mystrian, a sailor like the good captain here. He met my mother, married her, and got her with me before his ship was lost to pirates. She later married Francis Ventnor.”
Wattling’s mouth hung open. “I had no idea, sir.”
“Nor could you have, since Captain Tar was under strict orders to keep my identity secret. My orders, you understand, from my uncle.”
“The Duke, yes, quite.” Wattling smiled slyly, his complexion still ashen. “I should have seen through it, of course, your disguise, to your breeding. No Colonial would have stopped me as you did.”
“Yes, about that.” Owen turned to Captain Tar. “You’ll understand, sir, if I prefer charges of assault against Mr. Wattling here. I would make it attempted murder, but I cannot ascertain Mr. Wattling’s intent in beating the boy.”
Wattling’s eyes widened. “You cannot, sir! The boy is a redemptioneer. He is indentured to me.”
“I can, sir, and I will, unless…”
“You cancel his indenture contract and pay him a crown.”
“That is an outrage!”
“Captain, if you were to drop anchor here, and we tried Mr. Wattling, what would the penalty be?”
“You cannot flog me! I am a gentleman!”
Owen closed the gap between them in two easy steps. “No, sir, you are not. You are a pompous fool who has made the mistake of insulting the Mystrians who surround him, and will surround him. And let us not be coy, sir. If you were such a success in Norisle, you would not have packed your press and come so far over the sea. You’d hardly allow that Colonials can read, yet you bring a press to serve their need for reading material. Is it to make your fortune, sir, or to avoid paying a fortune to your creditors?”
Wattling shrank back against the ship’s rail. His voice barely rose above the hiss of sea against hull. “I haven’t got a crown, sir. All those damned pirated editions of Villerupt. They ruined me. And now, without a servant, how will I earn money? How will I live?”
Gideon Tar rested a hand on the man’s shoulder. “You will live like every Mystrian, Mr. Wattling. You will work hard. You’ll be cold in the winter. Hungry, too. You’ll marvel at some things and quake in fear at others. You’ll sweat, you’ll ache. You will live and perhaps even prosper.”
The Captain guided the man toward the main deck. “You’ll want to get below to finish gathering your things.”
Once Wattling had disappeared, Gideon returned to Owen’s side. “I don’t normally abide flogging, but for him…”
“If arrogance was a flogging offense, he’d have long since grown immune to the lash.”
“Doubtless true, my lord.”
Owen shook his head. “Don’t, Captain. I’m not a noble. My stepfather never adopted me. Out of deference to my mother’s father, Lord Ventnor provided me a basic education. He applauded my entering the army, with high hopes I’d die on the Continent.”
“And Duke Deathridge?”
“Much the same. My wife pleaded for him to give me this chance.”
Gideon slowly nodded. “So the endless war will be expanding to Mystria.”
“It’s a long way from a Minister’s notion to cannons thundering in the wilderness.”
“There are times I wonder if the Ministers even know why we fight the Tharyngians.”
“Honor? Because they overthrew their King and now the Laureates rule? Because the last generation failed to conquer them, so this generation must?”
Owen leaned heavily on the ship’s rail, fatigue both physical and spiritual making his limbs tremble. “They are evil. During Villerupt, I saw things no man ever should. You don’t want that coming to Mystria.”
Tar smiled. “Then I shall be happy you are here to prevent it.”
Owen laughed. “I hope, sir, you are right.”
Tar looked out toward the harbor. He fished a small crystal sphere from his pocket and held it up to his right eye. The glass glowed with a faint blue light. The man smiled. “Harbormaster is coming out to guide us in.”
Owen looked west, but shook his head.
Tar held the crystal out to him. “Use it, if you like.”
“Thank you, no. I never mastered the spell that focuses those things for me.” Owen held up a thumb. “All the magick they say I need is here.”
“Shooting fast and straight has its advantages in your line of work.”
“It does, sir, it does.”
A shout from a small boat called Captain Tar away to deal with a harbor-master.
Owen remained at the rail, sorely missing his wife. He should have felt relief at finally being in spitting distance of solid land, but in the absence of seasickness, loneliness opened a void in his middle.
I wish you had come, Catherine. At once he realized he was being selfish, because she truly would have been miserable. She would have hated the ship’s cramped quarters and found the ship’s fare inedible. Aside from Captain Tar’s wife, she would have found no suitable companions among the other women. Had she been called upon to actually work, she would have been completely lost.
He smiled, thinking of how she would have whispered about her adventures, no matter how minor. She could make removing a splinter seem like an assault on a fortress. That ability endeared her to him. Her world was so completely removed from his that he could take refuge in it.
And it was her desire to provide him refuge that had given her the strength and courage to beard Duke Deathridge in his own den and convince him that Owen had to be sent on this mission. They both hoped Owen’s adventure would allow him to earn enough of a reward that they could take a small home in Launston and live quietly. She’d even suggested I could write a book about my adventures and make more money that way. And I have just angered a publisher.
He glanced over at the main deck, where Wattling and the preacher, Benjamin Beecher, stood at the rail. Beecher had seemed harmless on the crossing, holding services every Sunday and not sermonizing for too long. Perhaps Wattling was looking for spiritual guidance, though Owen deemed it more likely that the fat man simply sought pity.
Owen turned his attention to the Mystrian shore. Ancient forests with tall pines, birches, oaks, and other trees he could not name formed a dark palisade warding rolling hills and far distant mountains. Deep in Temperance Bay, the Benjamin River flowed into the harbor. The town had grown back from the water and up over the hills, with buildings mostly of wood and many of stone.
The war in Auropa had lasted four years, consuming men and money with surprising ease. Norillian and Tharyngian colonies provided the wealth that drove the economies and backed the war bonds that paid for the war. If Norisle could cut off Tharyngia’s flow of wealth, the Tharyngians would be forced to surrender.
And likewise Norisle if we lose control of our Mystrian holdings.
He understood the wisdom that sent him half a world away to scout Tharyngian territory. It made perfect sense in the world of ledgers and figures. Men and brimstone and guns and uniforms all could be inventoried, then bundled on to ships with weighed-and-measured stores of food. Ministers would invest resources in the war—primarily to deny resources to the enemy—thereby winning that war. It would be a superior return on their investment.
But men were not numbers even though casualty lists suggested otherwise. Numbers do not scream. They do not cry out for their mothers. Owen shivered. Numbers do not beg to die.
Captain Tar broke through his thoughts. “It occurs to me, Captain, that men like Wattling want to believe they understand the reality of war.”
“That is the folly of many men.”
“Can anyone understand battle if they have not been there? I’ve not seen much fighting—fended off a pirate or two—but holding a Mate so the doctor can saw his leg off stays with a man.”
Owen straightened up. “Wattling was partly right. Soldiers and sailors, we choose our lot. Seeing a weeping man staggering beneath the weight of his wife’s headless body makes you wonder what war would do to Temperance.”
Tar turned toward their destination. “It’s a long way between New Tharyngia and Temperance Bay.”
“Let’s just hope it stays that way.” Owen gave the man a smile. “And if my mission is successful, it will.”
April 27, 1763
Temperance Bay, Mystria
Owen Strake disembarked from the Coronet once the longboats had pulled it to the dock. His papers had been sent ahead with the Harbormaster, bound for Her Majesty’s military headquarters. The Prince’s Life Guards had been stationed in Temperance, in deference to Prince Vladimir’s presence as Colonial Governor-General. The Guards had earned their assignment as a result of their failures fighting the Tharyngians—and hated it.
Though happy to be off the ship, reorienting himself to walking on solid ground presented challenges. Owen stumbled a bit, clearly appearing drunk to a pair of women who hurried out of his sight. Their long, somber grey clothing along with the disgust on their faces suggested they were of the Virtuan sect, which had founded both the Temperance Bay and larger Bounty colonies. While more liberal individuals had flooded Temperance in the pursuit of commerce, the Virtuan influence could be seen in a singular lack of visible public houses or bawdy houses near the wharves.
Both existed in Temperance. The Virtuans had gathered them in the South End, on the other shore of the Benjamin River—swampy land that festered with noxious vapors and biting midges. He had to admire the Virtuans’ pragmatic nature. They could not prevent men from indulging in vices, so they guaranteed that torment for sinfulness began at the moment of indulgence.
Likewise their practicality showed in the way the city had been laid out. The hills made a grid impractical, so they began with a hub at the wharves and sent seven spoke roads radiating out. Arcing roads cut across the hills and, further out, new spoke roads kept the space between blocks somewhat uniform. Six bridges crossed the Benjamin, which was one more than the city needed now, and three more than when founded.
Owen enquired of the Harbormaster where the Guards were located and set off on Fortitude Street. He worked his way up the gentle slope, then cut south on Generosity. Shortly, on the left, he found the headquarters. It appeared as nothing more than a house with a small sign in the narrow front yard. Save for the sign, and two Guards standing either side of the door, he could have walked past it without a clue as to its purpose.
The guards, in their red coats with buff facing, and tall, bearskin hats, neither saluted nor seemed to notice Owen at all. He entered and reported to a Sergeant Major sitting in what should have been a parlor. The man bade him wait, then slipped down the hall to another room.
Owen looked about, feeling uneasy. The room had wainscoting, a chair rail and plaster over lathe to finish it, yet had an incomplete quality. Soot from the stone fireplace stained the whitewashed wall, but that was hardly unusual.
Then it struck him. His wife would have caught it immediately. The room is utterly devoid of decoration. Back home in Norisle some cherished treasures would have a place of honor on the mantle. A picture of the Queen would have hung on a wall. Other pictures, or a shelf with books, or even a carving on a wooden panel would provide some character. A flag, a hanging of some sort, something to add color at the very least.
It is terribly sterile. He wasn’t sure if this was an artifact of Virtuan influence or that Colonel Langford was one of those humorless men who believed that Saturday floggings and Sunday services were the keys to maintaining a ready fighting force. Were that true, however, there should have been at least one wooden cross to display allegiance with the Church of Norisle.
The Sergeant Major returned and conducted him to Colonel Langford’s office. He announced Owen, then retreated, pulling the door closed behind him.
Owen saluted and the man returned it half-heartedly, never even looking up from his desk. Unlike the bare receiving room, the office was jammed with shelves bowed beneath the weight of books. Papers rose in piles on the desk, held down by a powder horn, two odd skulls, and several stone implements Owen could not identify.
“Sit please, Captain.” Langford pointed with the end of the quill, then went on to scratch another line into a ledger. The man’s powdered wig rested on a stand on a table by the window. His bald pate was beaded with sweat, and grime soiled his jacket’s cuffs.
Owen did as he was bid. “Have you, sir, had a chance—”
Langford hissed at him, looked up for a heartbeat, then scribbled another line. He then sighed and dipped his pen again before sitting back. The man’s glasses magnified his tired blue eyes and the bags beneath them.
“I have read your orders, sir. The Home Offices and Foreign Bureau have no understanding of Mystria.” Langford made another note and smirked. “I do not like having you here, sir. The wars on the Continent are not something we wish to have spilling over here.”
The quill flicked Owen to silence. “No, sir, I shall hear none of it. You will follow orders and report home. Let that be the end of this foolishness.”
Owen frowned. “I do not understand, sir, your ire.”
“I do not expect you do, Captain, nor will you.”
“I believe, sir, your perspective in this matter would be helpful to my mission’s success.”
“Success, Captain? You are as much a fool as those who sent you.” Langford set his quill down, then closed the inkpot’s metal lid. “Let me put it simply. We have forty thousand troops ready for this summer’s campaigning on the Continent. They will fight in an area that comprises roughly one tenth of the Crown Colonies—an area that has roads, has been settled for centuries, and is so close to Norisle that children could construct a raft that could easily make the journey. By contrast, it took you seven weeks to get here—and a swift crossing that was. We have three thousand regular troops on this side of the ocean, and can raise twice that in militia. Even if we were to do that, the lack of roads or any other sort of transport means attacking New Tharyngia is impossible. A campaign would also require us to deal with the Nations of Twilight People who inhabit the wilderness. Impossible.”
Langford pointed toward the northeast. “You, sir, will be heading into a trackless green Hell populated with infernal beasts and people, and all for naught.”
“These are my orders, sir.”
Langford snorted. “You are not the first they’ve sent. Sensible men have remained here and hired accounts written by others. Follow their example, sir.”
Owen stood and enjoyed Langford’s little fright as Owen loomed over his superior. “I shall assume, sir, this suggestion is a test to see if I will follow orders; and suitable disciplinary actions would have been taken if I agreed to it.”
Langford’s hand started toward his quill, then he thought better of it. “Yes, a test. Very good, Captain, you passed. Cannot be too careful.”
Owen nodded. “I will prepare a list of the things I need. I would appreciate your supplementing it with supplies that would facilitate my mission.”
Langford nodded and took his quill up again. “Gladly, sir.”
The sooner I am out of here, the sooner you imagine the wilderness will kill me. “There is also the matter, Colonel, of a packet I have for the Prince.”
Langford looked up. “You will wish to deliver this to him directly, I assume.”
“Those were my orders.”
“Very well.” Langford scribbled a note on a piece of paper, handed it to Owen. “Sergeant Major Hilliard will send you on your way. I will have your things sent around to your billet.”
“Very good, sir, thank you.” Owen came to attention and saluted.
Langford slowly rose and returned the salute. “Your mission is futile. Your determination will get you killed.”
Owen smiled. “I’ve no intention to make my wife a widow, sir, but I will fulfill my orders.”
The Guards’ stable master gave him a bay gelding and directions. Owen followed Blessedness Road around to Justice and out through Westgate, heading west on the Bounty Trail. The route roughly paralleled the Benjamin River for several miles, then diverged as the river dipped toward the south.
The trail deserved the name, since it was little more than a set of wagon ruts flanked by grasses trampled beneath foot and hoof. Most commercial traffic, Owen guessed, came down the river. He passed a number of estates with their own docks; very few of them had a drive connecting to the trail. The river, clearly, served as the primary transportation route.
Owen did not ride as swiftly as he might, despite his urgency to deliver the sealed packet to the Prince. The land’s breadth and lack of development surprised him. Back in Norisle there might be great expanses of fields, but walls divided them. All of them lay under cultivation. Forests dotted the land but more as private hunting preserves for nobility than places where no man had yet set ax to tree. Cresting hills and riding down into valleys, he expected to see small villages astride the trail, but none existed. A mile or two outside Temperance and he could have been the last man alive.
Were I slain here, no one would ever know. That thought sent a shiver down his spine and a brief glimpse of his wife in mourning. The black clothes would suit her, her brown eyes glistening with tears. She would dab at them with delicate hands, her brown hair gathered back, her flesh pale, beautiful in her grief.
Owen felt no overt threat, but Langford’s comment came back to him. He checked the horse pistol holstered on the saddle. Its presence reassured him, but the realization that he really didn’t know Mystria nibbled away at him.
Langford had described infernal beasts and hostile natives. In the capital, Owen had visited displays of stuffed creatures from Mystria, and of drawings revealing the Twilight People in all their savage glory. Many early colonists had perished on these shores because of poor harvests and brutal winters.
His horse pistol would do little to save him from either, or many of the monsters. But if he did his work quickly and well, he’d be back in Norisle before the first snow fell, safe again with Catherine, beginning his new life.
He half-smiled. Most people seeking to begin a new life did so by moving to the colonies. He wanted only to explore, then return home. With enough money, he and Catherine could escape his family and know true happiness.
Owen allowed the bright sun and play of butterflies amid fields of red and gold wildflowers to distract him from darker thoughts. His mission would provide enough information that wiser heads could craft a campaign for the coming year. He would complete his survey, carry his report back to Launston, and the Tower Ministers would issue orders that would win glory for some and kill many more.
And I shall be far away with my wife, happy at last.
By mid-afternoon Owen rounded a hill covered in tall oaks and looked down upon the Prince’s estate. A small trail broke off to the south between two lines of trees onto the forested grounds. The main house—a massive brick building—had been fashioned after a summer hunting palace, complete with two wings at right angles to the center. Other outbuildings lay half-hidden in the woods nearest the river. Surprisingly little of the forest had been cleared, and in a few places it had made inroads into flat lawns.
Aside from a thin trickle of smoke from a chimney, the only sign of life about the place was a peasant stringing pea-vines up in a small plot near the front door. Owen rode up and dismounted, making enough noise to attract the man’s attention. When the peasant continued puttering away, Owen assumed he was old and deaf, so moved to where the man could see him.
Unless he’s blind as well.
The man continued working.
“Excuse me.” Owen prepared to hand the man his horse’s reins, but hesitated.
The gardener wiped his hands off on his thighs, then tipped his broad hat back. He rocked to his feet fluidly—proving he was not particularly old, nor in any way deaf or blind. He smiled. “You would be Strake.”
Owen dropped the reins. “Forgive me, Your Highness. I…”
“I admire your restraint, Captain. The last man they sent was a Major who hit me with a crop.”
Owen’s mouth gaped.
Prince Vladimir laughed. Able to look Owen in the eye, he had a more willowy build. His brown eyes were a shade lighter than his mahogany hair, and a few wisps of white dotted his goatee. Leanness hollowed his face, and sun had weathered his flesh. He looked the very antithesis of nobles at his aunt’s court.
Closing his mouth, Owen pointed at the peas. “You were tending peas when I arrived as a test?”
“Come now, Captain, you are smarter than that.”
Owen thought for a moment. There had been no way that the Prince could have anticipated the day or time of his arrival. “But, Highness, your refusal to acknowledge me…”
“Yes, that was a test. Love to know a man’s temperament.” The Prince gathered up the bay’s reins. “Come along. You’ll have a packet for me and I’ll need my spectacles.”
The Prince led him past the eastern wing and handed the reins to a stable boy. The Prince washed his hands in a drinking trough, then they entered the manor through a door facing the trail. They passed through an interior door into a massive room that occupied most of that wing’s ground floor.
The Prince crossed to a large desk set against the interior wall. Owen waited in the doorway. Countless shelves filled the space, lining the walls and segmenting the room. Books filled some shelves, but others held jars in which dead specimens drifted in viscous suspensions. Frogs and fish he could easily recognize, but other things were beyond his ken. A live raven cawed from a cage opposite the desk. Posted on the top shelves, or hung from the ceiling, preserved and mounted alien animals stared at Owen with glassy eyes. The largest of them occupied displays in the corners, save for a huge bear reared up—claws and fangs clearly visible—beside the Prince’s desk.
Vladimir removed his hat and hung it over the bear’s muzzle. He waved Owen into the room. “The packet, Captain?”
Owen started, then removed the orders from inside his jacket and handed them over.
The Prince smiled as he unlaced the leather wrapping. “Feel free to explore. You may find, here in my little museum, that some of your work has already been done.”
April 27, 1763
Temperance Bay, Mystria
Owen cautiously approached the work table at the room’s heart. Several bound volumes lay open. Pressed and dried flowers had been affixed to the pages of one, with notes penned in an even, feminine hand. They described the flower in every detail, including its preferred habitat and range, as well as its known and suspected uses.
Other books displayed well-drawn images of birds and animals. The writing recorded many of the same details as in the flower book, but in a much bolder hand. Owen suspected that to be the Prince’s work. The animal accounts also included hunters’ anecdotes. Some entries had numbers beside them which, Owen quickly figured out, referred to specimens in jars.
The pages crackled as Owen turned them. The rough paper rasped across his fingertips. Many of the creatures strongly resembled those back in Norisle, often only differing in color or size. But some other creatures… Can such things exist?
He looked up. An ivory skull weighed down a stack of papers: clearly feline and much larger than any wild cat he’d ever seen. The curved fangs were nearly a handspan in length. He traced a finger along the inside edge and almost cut himself on the serrated surface. The teeth had been designed for slicing flesh and sinew.
The Prince glanced over his shoulder and chuckled. “That’s a small one. The adult is over there.” The Prince pointed toward the corner of the room, hidden behind a tall clutter of shelves. “They’ve coded this message. I will be a minute. Go take a look.”
Owen nodded as the Prince sat at his desk. The soldier squeezed into the labyrinth of shelves, careful not to upset anything. His shoulders brushed books on both sides. Twisting around to the right, he turned a blind corner, then gasped. His left hand came up to fend off his attacker as his right hand fell to where he should have been wearing a pistol.
Instead of the skull he’d been expecting to find, he’d come face to face with a fully mounted and articulated cat of enormous proportions. A few dark spots haphazardly dappled the short, tawny fur along its spine. Tufted ears flattened back against its skull. Its snarl revealed the saber teeth ready to drive deep into prey. Clawed paws reached for him, ready to hook and hold. From its nose to the tip of its stubby tail the creature had to have been at least eight feet long and would’ve been about five feet at the shoulder.
The glassiness of the creature’s dark eyes and its rigidity left no doubt that it was dead, but its lifelike pose made it a creature of nightmares. Owen peered closely at it, both admiring its size and looking for some sign of what had killed it. The creature appeared to be in full health and Owen found no obvious wounds.
The Prince appeared, smiling. “Bravo, Captain Strake. You didn’t scream. That was not true of Colonel Langford.”
“What is it?” Owen brushed a hand along its back, feeling the fur. “I’ve been to zoological gardens, but never…”
Prince Vlad stroked the creature’s other flank. “It has many names. Some call it a lion or a tiger. It doesn’t have enough spots to be leopard. I prefer sabertooth cat. Many Mystrians call it a jeopard. I believe it’s a play on the words leopard and jeopardy. It’s rather accurate so I may give in and adopt it.”
Owen shivered. Displays and pictures in Norisle had been completely inadequate. He assumed stories of fabulous beasts had been intended to scare children and credulous individuals who would never set foot on that distant shore.
The Prince smiled. “I apologize for sending you here unawares. I’ve closed off this little corner of my workshop as a test for visitors. Put it down to my odd sense of humor, perhaps?” He patted the nearby shelves. “I even reinforced the woodwork, since the common Norillian reaction is to flee gibbering madly.”
Owen smiled, imagining Mr. Wattling’s probable reaction. “Colonel Langford considered me as welcome in his office as he would a jeopard, I think.”
The Prince nodded and waved Owen back out toward the desk. “Langford never was much of a field commander. He does well for himself as a glorified quartermaster. I understand he rents his men out for work details and pockets the money.”
Owen blinked. “And you have not reported him for this?”
Vlad sat at his desk. “It is a game we play. He knows that I know, so occasionally the work projects are for the common good. Oh, Captain, don’t look so surprised. I really have no other alternative.”
“Highness, there are regulations and duties.”
The Prince nodded easily. “Were I to prefer charges, Langford would be sent to Rivertown, down in Fairlee. General Upton would hold him and send my request for a court martial back to Norisle. Six months later, after Parliament has argued about things, the request would be denied. Langford would return and the cycle would continue.”
“That hardly seems…”
“Fair? Equitable? It isn’t.” Vlad got up, moved books off a stool, and brought it over for Owen. “Sit, please. Norillians who come to Mystria greet this land in one of two manners. Some see it as a land of great riches. They harvest as much as they can, and return home. Some are refilling their families’ coffers, others are social climbers. The motive doesn’t matter. They each have their personal goal and they strive for it, and nothing more.
“The others, though, they have the spirit of the redemptioneers, even if they are here of their own free will.” The Prince hunched forward, his elbows on this thighs. “They see this continent as a place rich in possibilities. A man can be anything he wants to be here. He can be free.”
Owen found himself grinning at the Prince’s enthusiasm. It struck Owen as incongruous because here he was, sitting with the man who was third in line for the throne of Norisle, and yet there was no pretense. While the man may have tested him earlier, Owen felt accepted as an equal.
Vlad straightened up. “Your reaction to my jeopard and Langford tells me something about you, Captain, but I need to know more.”
Owen nodded. “As you desire, Highness.”
“Who is it that hates you so much that you were given this assignment?” The Prince tapped the unfolded orders. “The cover letter is rather plain. The phrase here, ‘…the mission, to be carried out to the best of his abilities,’ usually means they won’t mind if you don’t come back.”
“Not enemies, Highness, family. My wife beseeched my uncle to let me have this assignment.” Owen sighed. “The Duke of Deathridge, my uncle, allowed himself to be swayed by her passion.”
“Your wife must be charming indeed.” The Prince’s eyes narrowed. “Still, to send you to Mystria… I would guess you’re not his favorite nephew.”
“Far from it, Highness.” If I didn’t make it home, his only concern would be getting me a headstone cheap.
The Prince opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a crystalline disc. He held it so it fit neatly between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, tucked deeply into the joint. He squinted for a moment, and the glass began to glow. The Prince stared into it as he traced it back and forth across the pages of coded symbols. He paused in his reading every so often, setting the disc down, making a note in the margin of Owen’s orders, then picking the lens up again to continue reading.
Finished, the Prince sat back. “I can see your uncle’s hand in the mission document—not literally, of course, but close. While others have come on similar missions, your orders are by far the most complete and show the best understanding of the Mystrian situation. The way to defeat the Tharyngians on the Continent is to beat them here. Your uncle, it appears, understands that fact well.”
The Prince got up and pulled a large, scrolled map from atop a shelf. He spread it over the table, pinning down one corner with the jeopard skull and another with a sharpened stone blade. One of the flower books held down the map’s left side, allowing the corners to curl in.
“This is the entire continent—at least as much for which I have reliable information. The Tharyngians claim everything north of the Argent River and west to what are called the Four Brothers Lakes. They also claim everything on down the long, wide Misaawa River.”
“In the native tongue—or one of them anyway—it means ‘life.’” His finger traced a line of mountains to the east of the river, almost halfway to the coast. “Our Colonial charters grant us rights to the land between the ocean and these mountains. A century and a half ago the mountains were deemed impassible, and no one imagined we would expand so quickly. The redemptioneers, it turns out, were more fecund and industrious than thought possible. But then, when you have to work to live, and more hands make working easier, you create an interesting cycle of life.
“The Tharyngians have not been so fortunate. The north has a much shorter growing season. They regularly import food from Tharyngia. But because they work more closely with the Twilight People than we do, they’re sending a great deal of money back to the Continent. Fur sales finance their war effort. Timber and potash production and even limited amounts of gold contribute as well. To protect themselves, they’ve begun to establish a series of forts at critical river junctions and on the myriad small lakes in the west. They’ve chased off our trappers and settlers.”
The Prince tapped the Misaawa River with a finger. “I believe the Misaawa River Valley to be every bit as fertile as the best of our lands. If the Tharyngians establish settlements there, like the one they have at the base of the river, it won’t be long before their population will meet or exceed ours. Once that happens, we will be trapped. We will face open warfare here, just like on the Continent.”
Owen studied the map. The mountains had been sketched in with black ink, and rivers traced in blue—save for the Misaawa. That river had become a long, thick sepia line, looking like dried blood. That same hue had been used to create several other features, mostly in the south and west.
Owen frowned. “Have you just not put roads on the map?”
“Wouldn’t waste the ink.” The Prince shrugged. “Would you call the track you rode out on here a proper road?”
“You’re not alone. Colonel Langford cannot imagine how troops could march into battle lacking good roads. And our tiny patches of cleared land are nothing he recognizes as proper battlefields.”
Owen smiled. “I remember the Mystrian Rangers fighting throughout the Artennes Forest against the Platine Regiment. The lack of a cleared field didn’t seem to bother either unit.”
“Good, very good. If you understand that much, then perhaps you are the man for this job.” The Prince stroked a hand across his chin. “I’m going to make certain you see what needs to be seen. Langford will assign you a couple of his scouts—competent men, but lazy, I’m afraid. It won’t do.”
“I will write him a note telling him that I’m sending my man with you. Langford will protest, but I have dealt with that before.”
Owen nodded. “Your man is good, Highness?”
Vlad smiled broadly. “The best. He’s the one who killed that jeopard.”
Before Owen could ask, the prince led him back to the large cat. He spread the fur on the creature’s throat revealing a small hole. The Prince then rubbed a hand over the jeopard’s spine. “Went in at the throat, came out there. A hundred yards. One shot.”
Owen gasped. “Highness…”
The Prince raised a hand. “First, Captain Strake, I paced the distance myself. And while you’re about to tell me that a musket cannot hit a target with a killing shot at that range, a rifle can, and this is what Nathaniel used. Fourteen-weight of lead, flying true.”
Owen measured the angle between the entry and exit wounds. The thing was charging at the time, much as it is now. “That was quite a shot, Highness.”
“Two winters ago, very harsh. It got a taste for men, came down hunting. We stalked it.” The Prince blushed. “I missed, despite using a fine rifle given to my father by a Seljuk Calife. Nathaniel dropped it and had his rifle reloaded before it had finished thrashing.”
“I shall be pleased to meet such a remarkable marksman, Highness.”
Prince Vlad looked Owen up and down again. “And I shall be interested in seeing what he makes of you, Captain Strake. In fact, I wish I could join you on your expedition.”
“It would be an honor, Highness.”
“You’re kind, but I would just slow you down.” The Prince’s face brightened. “But, speaking of honors, I have a favor to ask of you, if I might.”
“Anything you desire, Highness.”
“Well then, come with me.” The Prince headed toward the yard. “I’d like to know what you think of my dragon.”
Copyright © 2010 by Michael A. Stackpole