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At the Queen_s command cc-1

Michael A. Stackpole

  At the Queen_s command

  ( Crown colonies - 1 )

  Michael A. Stackpole

  Michael A. Stackpole

  At the Queen_s command



  Chapter One

  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 Mys
trians 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?"

  "Fifty lashes."

  "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 i
nvest 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."

  Chapter Two

  April 27, 1763

  Temperance Bay, Mystria

  O wen 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.