Michael Stackpole: Of Limited Loyalty

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Michael Stackpole Of Limited Loyalty
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    Of Limited Loyalty
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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.”

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