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Of Limited Loyalty cc-2

Michael A. Stackpole

  Of Limited Loyalty

  ( Crown Colonies - 2 )

  Michael A. Stackpole

  Michael A. Stackpole

  Of Limited Loyalty


  Chapter One

  27 March 1767 Temperance Bay, Mystria

  O wen Strake leaned on tea crates, watching sea gulls wheel and listening to them shriek above the wharf. One landed not twelve feel away, eying him suspiciously from atop a weathered piling. The bird adjusted its feathers with a quick nip, then brought its head up warily as waves slapped pilings, spraying a salty mist into the air.

  Owen smiled as the cool droplets drifted over his face, looking past the gull toward the rowboats tugging the Sea Mistress toward the docks. Anxious passengers stood on deck, centermost among them a portly man clutching an oilskin parcel. Owen took the general pallor of the passengers and the fact that their clothes hung loosely as a sign that the crossing from Norisle had not been kind or calm.

  A tow-headed young man trotted over to Owen, his brown eyes filled with mischief. As did Owen, the young man wore a white shirt, black breeches over white stockings, and low shoes. They both wore dark woolen jackets against the breeze. Neither wore wigs and the younger man had eschewed wearing a hat. “Looks like Horace Wattling can’t wait to be on solid ground again.”

  Owen nodded. “It would appear he’s looking for the coach he ordered. Its absence isn’t going to help his disposition.”

  “I don’t figure much could.” Caleb Frost smiled broadly. “I’ve got a crown says he just gets back on the ship and sails for Norisle.”

  “Your mother would not be pleased with your gambling.” Owen laughed. “And it’s for fear of her I don’t take your money.”

  He turned back and watched the ship bobbing in the bay. Out at the headland, the Mistress ’ captain had sent word for a harbormaster to guide him in, had passed on some news, and had relayed orders from passengers. Wattling’s request for a coach had been delivered to his printing company and subsequently transferred into Caleb’s hands. Caleb had sent word to Owen’s estate and Owen had ridden in earlier that morning to await Wattling.

  As much as Owen looked forward to dealing with him, his thoughts flew back three years to when he’d been on a similar ship making the crossing to the colonies. Even when in the field, fighting the Tharyngians, being rained upon, frozen, and shot, he’d never been so miserable. The sight of the Mystrian coast had been incredibly welcome, but even as grateful as he had been then, he never would have imagined he’d come to love the land as he did now.

  I will never sail back to Norisle. Owen shook his head. The nation he had once considered his home now no longer had any allure for him. Mystria provided him distance and sanctuary from his stepfather’s family. Were it within his power to widen the ocean, Owen would have done it in a heartbeat. There’s nothing there for me.

  Longshoremen made the Sea Mistress fast and raised a gangway. Wattling elbowed his way past a family and bounded down to the dock. His knees almost buckled when he hit the pier, but he caught himself and stormed toward the shore.

  Caleb intercepted him. “Good morning, Horace.”

  Wattling stopped and stared, his piggish eyes narrowing. “Frost, isn’t it? Good day to you. Where is that blasted coach? I’ll have Redland flogged if he’s forgotten me.”

  “William sends his regards, and he goes by Scrivener now.”

  Wattling’s head came up, his jowls quivering. “What?”

  “It’s Mystrian custom to change your name when you begin a new life.” Caleb nodded solemnly. “He thought Inkhand would suit him, but we convinced him Scrivener sounded better.”

  “I am aware of the abominable custom, Mr. Frost, but he is a redemptioneer. He cannot change his name, he cannot do anything, until his term of service to me is up.” Wattling stamped a foot. “And that term is getting longer with every minute I wait here. Where is my coach?”

  “This is what we need to speak to you about.” Caleb turned and indicated Owen with a quick nod.

  Wattling followed his gaze and paled. “Captain Strake. What have you done?”

  Owen shook his head. “It’s not what I’ve done, Mr. Wattling; it’s what you’ve done. You called a tune, and now you’ll pay the piper.”

  “I have no idea what you are suggesting.”

  Caleb took a step toward Wattling. “I think you do, but you have no idea what the consequences of your action have been. While you were in Norisle, in the company of Lord Rivendell, preparing his book on military theory, you obtained a copy of Captain Strake’s account of the expedition to Anvil Lake. You rewrote the book, injecting yourself into the narrative as if you had joined us. You also wove in an inordinate amount of praise for Lord Rivendell, painting him as the savior of Mystria, and completely discounted Mystrian accomplishments. You made Captain Strake appear to be a mutinous renegade. You cast the Mystrian Rangers as bumbling amateurs, failed to mention Count von Metternin, and reduced Prince Vlad to a fop who took his wurm for a swim while the battle raged.”

  Wattling took a step back. “You must understand, gentlemen, that I had instructed Redland to obtain permission to prepare a Norillian edition of Captain Strake’s book…”

  Owen’s eyes narrowed. “Permission, which was denied.”

  “I never got…”

  Owen crossed his arms. “I sent my own man to hand-deliver the message. He traveled back with you on the Mistress.”

  Wattling’s shoulders began to sink. “You don’t understand. Lord Rivendell was being slow, so very slow, with his book. He would constantly revise. I was going broke waiting for him, but he could not be rushed and there was a hunger for news. The ’65 campaign on the continent was a disaster. The people hungered for a tale of victory-which they’d not get for a year until the issue was settled at Rondeville… But no one would have believed your account, so I had to take liberties. It’s just a thing which is done.”

  “I’m afraid it’s not, Horace. Not in Temperance Bay. Doing what you did, you unleashed forces which would make demons quail.”

  Owen shivered involuntarily. His wife, Catherine, loathed Mystria and had only intended to remain long enough to give birth to their daughter, Miranda. She dreamed of returning to Norisle and resuming her place in society. Toward this end she urged Owen to write his memoirs of the Anvil Lake campaign and had even consented to Caleb’s sister, Bethany, editing it. Though Catherine barely skimmed a page or two, she was overjoyed with Temperance College’s willingness to print the book. She trusted that some publisher in Norisle would subsequently be willing to print it to great acclaim, allowing her to return home covered in glory.

  Horrible weather and sickness prevented Catherine from traveling to Norisle through the summer of 1765. She longed so to return that Owen even maintained an apartment in Temperance so she could feel she was that much closer. Then, in August, she received a copy of Wattling’s book, sent by a woman who had been a social rival. The accompanying note, while polite in form, ridiculed Catherine and suggested that anyone she had once counted as a friend in Norisle was greatly amused by the match she had made in Owen.

  Caleb stabbed a finger against Wattling’s breastbone. “Catherine Strake gathered together the women of Temperance and convinced them that your book amounted to high theft, extreme defamation, and blasphemy. Princess Gisella, who was likewise displeased with how you treated her friend, Count von Metternin, and her husband, Prince Vlad, pushed for and caused to be passed through our assembly fairly strict laws against what you had done. By December 1765, you had been tried, fined, and your property seized to satisfy your civil debt.”

  “What? That is outrageous!”

  Caleb held a hand up. “Your
assets were purchased at sheriff’s auction. My uncle, Balthazar, purchased everything, lock, stock, and barrel. He opened the Frost Press. We publish the Frost Weekly Gazette, as well as books and pamphlets by Captain Strake and Samuel Haste. We also did an edition of your book, To the Fortress of Death.”

  “Ah ha!” Wattling shot a finger into the air. “You commit the very crime you have accused me of committing.”

  Owen snorted. “The court found that your book was my book, so all rights to it are mine.”

  “And here, Horace, is what will really turn your stomach.” Caleb chuckled coldly. “We sent your book to the Mystrian Rangers, along with a copy of Captain Strake’s book. Both have gone all over Mystria. Your book so outrages people, they buy dozens of copies of Captain Strake’s book. William, who is now our pressman, can barely keep up with demand.”

  “This will not stand!” Frothed spittle collected at the corners of his mouth. “This will be overturned and you will be paying me for the work of mine you have stolen.”

  Owen now stepped forward. “Caleb has not told you the worst of it.”

  “How can it be any worse?”

  “Your property was forfeit to satisfy civil penalties. The criminal penalties, however, are still to be addressed.” Owen opened his hands. “You stand convicted, but have yet to be sentenced. The court is willing to listen to witnesses who swear to your character. If you show signs of contrition, if you have work, and are a man of substance, the judge may be inclined to pass a very light sentence.”

  Wattling’s knees gave way. Owen caught him before he went down. Caleb rescued the parcel. Hodge Dunsby, Owen’s messenger, came up on Wattling’s right and helped Owen straighten him.

  “Good to see you, Mr. Dunsby.”

  “And you, Captain, Mr. Frost.”

  “You’re looking good, Hodge.” Caleb tucked Wattling’s parcel under his arm. “The thing of it is this, Horace: Frost Press needs another pressman. You can have that job. You’ll live above the press. You’ll be in charge of getting out the Gazette.”

  “A pressman? I am an editor.”

  “My sister is the editor.”

  “A woman?”

  Owen smiled. “The passages she worked hardest on in my book are the only ones you refrained from editing, Mr. Wattling.”

  “That is immaterial, sir. No woman has the proper temperament or intellect to deal with the nuances of words.”

  Caleb’s eyes and voice tightened. “Are you saying my sister is stupid?”

  Wattling appeared, for a moment, inclined to reply in the affirmative, but the fire in Caleb’s eyes sent a shiver through him. He shook both Owen and Hodge off. “Gentlemen, this whole problem is because of the involvement of women. Captain Strake, had you kept proper control of your wife, none of this ever would have happened.”

  “You say that, but you have left your own wife back in Norisle, if I am informed correctly.” Owen clasped his hands behind his back. He feigned indignation because, in reality, he owed Wattling a debt. Catherine’s pride at Owen’s book had quickly evaporated. She had not spared him the sharper side of her tongue when telling him everything that was wrong with Mystria. Doctor Frost, Caleb’s father, suggested some women had such moods after they’d borne a child and urged Owen to endure. Owen did, devoting himself to their daughter and hoping for leavening in his wife’s demeanor. Until Wattling made himself a target of her ire, however, she had been content to gnaw on Owen.

  “You leave my wife out of this.”

  “You should have left mine out, Mr. Wattling.”

  Wattling snorted. “My portrait of you is not wrong. Were you a true man, you would have her under control.”

  Caleb stepped back, his expression slackened with astonishment. Before he could offer a comment, however, Hodge Dunsby hauled off and cuffed Wattling in the back of the head, knocking him a step forward. “You listen here, Horace Wattling. I don’t got too many letters, but some as do read me what you said about Captain Strake. I was there, right before that Fortress of Death, and I’d have been dead long since but for Captain Strake ordering me to my feet. He led me through fire and shot, through Tharyngian regiments into the lair of Guy du Malphias his own self. Now maybe he gone and done married himself a willful woman. That marks him a braver man than you will ever be. And what he did out there to Anvil Lake confirms it.”

  “I will not be lectured to by some gutter-spawn coward!”

  The young, brown-haired man spat at Wattling’s feet. “Then take some advice. You call Captain Strake a coward around here, there’s men what’ll dispute that with switch, sword, or shot. And if that isn’t enough, you’ll like as not make his wife mad all over again.”

  Owen raised both hands. “Thank you, Hodge. Here’s the thing of it, Mr. Wattling: I’ll speak for you to the judge. The Prince will as well. The judge will suspend your sentence. Spend a year or two working hard, and you’ll be free to do your own business. Take Caleb’s offer. You really don’t want to see the inside of what passes for a prison in Mystria.”

  Wattling’s lower lip began to quiver. Owen feared he would cry. “It isn’t fair, what you’ve done. It’s counter to Norillian law.”

  “But, Horace, you’re no longer in Norisle.” Caleb patted him on the shoulder. “Back there you’d already be in irons. We’re offering you a chance, just like all of our ancestors had. What you did was wrong, but it doesn’t have to haunt you forever.”

  “I’m too old to start over.”

  “Better that than jail, isn’t it?” Caleb shrugged. “Two years, you can change your name and…”

  “No, never!” Wattling shook his head vehemently. “I may be trapped into being your servant, but I shall never become one of you. You’re all the spawn of criminals. Over here, given a society of your peers, it’s no wonder you are able to twist the laws to mock honest men. Well, you have me. You’ve robbed me of my resources, you have stacked the courts against me, I have no choice but to bow to your will. It does not mean, however, that I accept your warped concept of justice. I shall make certain people know what you have done.”

  Caleb smiled. “Write it down. If my sister likes it, we’ll even publish it.”

  Various emotions fought across Wattling’s face, and the battlefield reddened. Before he could explode, however, a tall, strongly built blond man wearing a Norillian Army uniform came up the gangway and paused between Caleb and Hodge. “Are you well, Mr. Wattling?”

  Wattling nodded quickly. “As best I can be, Colonel.”

  The man’s red coat had black facings with two red stripes. The black vest beneath likewise had the stripes. Owen recognized the regiment easily. Fifth Northland Cavalry. Two curled dragon ensigns in silver decorated each black lapel, marking the man as having been afforded the courtesy rank of wurmrider. Had they been gold, it would have meant he’d been assigned one of the wingless dragons for combat.

  Owen offered the man his hand. “I’m Owen Strake. This is Caleb Frost, and you traveled with Hodge Dunsby. Mr. Wattling you already know.”

  The officer, being slightly taller and heavier than Owen, met him with a firm grip, yet did not try to overpower him. “Strake, formerly of the Queen’s Own Wurm Guards?”

  “The same.” Owen freed his hand from the other man’s. “And you are?”

  “Ian Rathfield.” The Queen’s officer smiled easily. “Your uncle sent me to finish the job he’d given you.”

  Chapter Two

  27 March 1767 Government House, Temperance Bay, Mystria

  P rince Vlad stuffed the last of his soiled clothes into the portmanteau and began to buckle it closed when Chandler, his aide, entered his chambers. “Is the cart here already?”

  “No, Highness.” Chandler closed the oaken wardrobe’s doors as he moved past. “Captain Strake has arrived with a Colonel Rathfield to see you. The Colonel came in on the Sea Mistress.”

  Him, here? What is my aunt up to? Vlad ran a hand over his chin. “Describe the man.”

tain Strake’s size perhaps, blond. He wears the Fifth Northland Cavalry uniform, with wurmrider badges.”

  “Very good. See them into the audience chamber… what is it?”

  The aide glanced down. “The Colonel insisted that he see you in private.”

  “I see. Send him to me in the audience chamber. Tell Captain Strake to wait outside.” Vlad pointed at the well-worn, brown leather case. “Finish up with this and get it into the cart, whenever it arrives.”

  “As you wish, Highness.”

  His aide withdrew and Vlad crossed to the wardrobe. Within it hung several coats. For official business he often chose a red-and-gold brocade-a gift from his aunt, the Queen, after the Anvil Lake affair. The gold threads had been worked in a wurm design. It impressed visitors, though tended to make Mystrians of Virtuan stock uneasy because of its sheer ostentation.

  No, that won’t do for this man. Instead he selected a forest green woolen jacket, cut after the military style, with black facings. This, too, he’d been awarded after the Anvil Lake campaign, and he prized it much more highly than his aunt’s gift. The Mystrian Rangers had all voted him the rank of Colonel and presented him with the coat on the first anniversary of the battle. Within two weeks, his son Richard had been born, making August 1765 the single best month of his life.

  Vlad had instantly recognized his visitor’s name. Scant few would not. The Battle of Rondeville nine months previously had ended the long war between Norisle and Tharyngia. Colonel Rathfield-then Major-had been sent into the city by Richard Ventnor, Duke Deathridge, to offer the Tharyngian commanders a chance to surrender. Laureate-General Philippe de Toron laughed at the suggestion, accused him of being a spy, and imprisoned him. Rathfield escaped and killed de Toron and his command staff. Without leadership, the Tharyngian forces collapsed and the war ended.

  Norillian forces entering the city found Rathfield seriously wounded and barely alive. He managed to recover and became the sort of hero Norisle desperately needed.