At the Queen’s Command Chapter Two
(For your reading pleasure, the second chapter of At The Queen’s Command)
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 due to their failures fighting the Tharyngian and hated it.
Though happy to be off the ship, reorienting himself to walking on solid ground presented challenges. He stumbled a bit, clearly appearing drunk to a pair of women who hurried out of his sight. Their long and 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 due to 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 had 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 here or there would provide some character. A flag, a hanging of some sort, something to display 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. He never even looking up from his desk. Unlike the bare receiving room, shelves bowed beneath the weight of books jammed the office. 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 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.”
“Colonel . . .”
The quill flicked Owen to silence. “No, sir, I shall hear none of it. You will follow orders, and shall report home. Let that will 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 which has roads, has been settled for centuries, and is so close to Norisle that children could construct a raft which would 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 which inhabit the wilderness. Impossible.”
Langford pointed toward the northeast. “You, sir, will be heading into a trackless green Hell, will face 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 have hired accounts written by others. Follow their example, sir.”
Owen stood and enjoyed Langford 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 which 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 dead.”
Owen smiled. “I’ve no intent 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 came down the river. Owen passed a number of estates with their own docks and very few of them had a drive which connected 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 state of nature 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. That gave him a quick sense of reassurance, then the realization that he really didn’t know Mystria nibbled away at it.
Langford had described infernal beasts and hostile natives. In the capital, Owen had visited display of some 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 along past the eastern wing and handed the reins to a stable boy. The Prince washed his hands off 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 the wall shelves, but the 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.”
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