At The Queen’s Command Chapter Three
(For your reading pleasure, the third chapter of At The Queen’s Command)
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 and 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, being 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 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 Col. 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 is to flee gibbering madly.”
Owens smiled, imagining Mr. Wattling’s probable reaction. “Col. 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 family’s coffers, others are social climbers. The motive doesn’t matter. They 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 it 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 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 river 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.
The scout 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 entry-wound and exit. 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 man, 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.”
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