Chapter One: Mules and Meetings
“The eastern border is too quiet for you, isn’t it.”
Countess Elizabeth von Sarmas, colonel in the armies of the Eastern Empire, looked up from the Lander artifact she’d been playing with to find Archduke Lewis Babenburg glaring at her, arms folded, green eyes snapping with an all too familiar expression of frustration. Puzzled, she blinked and inquired, “Your grace?”
The lean, dark-haired man stared up at the whitewashed ceiling as if imploring Godown for patience. At least Elizabeth assumed that’s what he was asking for. She seemed destined to inspire near-permanent irritation in the emperor’s younger brother. He repeated, “I said, do you not think that it is too quiet?”
She set down the bit of swirled blue and yellow plaztik and metal and laughed without mirth. “Your pardon, your grace, but Duke Grantholm would beg to disagree. As would the poor women fleeing what remains of Sheel and the peasants fleeing the Morloke borderlands.”
Lewis walked to her worktable and leaned forward, planting his hands on the dark wooden surface. She’d been surprised to realize that he was not much bigger than she was—his lean build and closely cut jackets and breeches made him look taller. But then she loomed over the most fashionable beauties in the Imperial court, even without her wig. Lewis glared down at her, almost nose-to-nose. “That is exactly my point, Colonel. Tayyip and the Turkowi are consolidating, not advancing. When have they ever done that?”
She blinked again, idly noting that he needed a haircut before campaign season began. Although some of the court dandies had begun sporting long hair, tied back with ribbons. Perhaps he intended to imitate them? He was the only remaining unmarried archduke, after all. Don’t try the shaggy look, your grace. You’re too old, she thought at him. “I do not know, your grace. We have no histories of the Turkowi before their first crossing of the Dividing Range,” she reminded him. “There are rumors that someone has been harassing their eastern borders, but,” she shrugged.
“I know.” He ducked his head, giving her a glimpse of grey in his black hair. “My nephew’s . . . associates . . . can learn nothing.” Prince Gerald André, head of Imperial foreign intelligence, knew people who knew people in every port, market, and monastery, or so it seemed to Elizabeth. If he knew nothing, then there was probably nothing to be known. She shivered, thinking, or because no one has survived whatever is harrying the Turkowi.
Lewis pushed off of the worktable and Elizabeth grabbed at an especially fragile piece of metal and glass before it could fall off its little wooden stand. “The ambassador from Frankonia inquired after your health.”
“I’m certain that he did.” She bared her teeth in a most unwomanly snarl. Laurence V, King of Frankonia, still wanted her dead or confined. Both her escape to the empire and subsequent elevation to Imperial countess had inspired fits of temper unrivalled by any seen since Laurence’s toddler years, or so rumor had it. She believed the rumor.
“He also mentioned how much you resemble your mother.” Lewis gave her a half-grin and she shook her head, sighing. The serving girl sitting in the corner with her needlework and acting as chaperone made a strange noise, probably smothered laughter. “And the animal train from Donatello Bend is to arrive in less than an hour.”
Elizabeth shook her head again. She picked up a flat leather case from the top of the rough table and scooted her chair back, then got to her feet. The servant collected her sewing and followed suit. “By your leave, your grace?”
“You may go.” He walked out of the workroom. She put out the lamp and counted to thirty before shooing the maid through the door ahead of her. Elizabeth glanced around the room one last time, making absolutely certain that no candles or lamps still burned, and then she locked the door. There was no point in tempting someone to mischief, or making them uncomfortable enough to complain to their priest about the large number of Lander artifacts in Donatello House.
The maid coughed under her breath before asking, “Which headdress, my lady?”
“Hmm? Oh, that new riding hat. The one with the feathers.”
“I’ll tell Mina, my lady.” The young woman gathered her skirts and hurried off, her slippers making a soft patta-pat on the scuffed wooden floors.
Now alone for the first time since Lewis’ surprise appearance at her workroom door, Elizabeth slapped her empty hand against the sturdy material of her dark blue riding skirt, the only public sign of frustration that she allowed herself. “Blast that man,” she whispered. Granted, half of Donatello House did belong to him, but even he’d agreed that no one was allowed into her workroom without her invitation! That cluttered, quiet space had been her last refuge from Imperial business, now that messengers even invaded her bedroom. She grimaced at the memory. It had been a rude discovery, the night a courier from Duke Grantholm had shaken her awake with an emergency summons. But no matter who wanted her attention, the Lander relics in her workroom kept all but the bravest, most foolhardy, and Archduke Lewis, at bay. If this keeps up I may start sleeping with Snowy. Not even his grace would dare bother me there. Maybe I should have a stall built into my office, or vice versa?
The thought of having “the killer mule” in her study made her smile. She kept the thought in mind as she changed into a heavier blouse and dark blue riding jacket, took off her house wig and tied on a kerchief. Only the ill, professed religious, and women of the night cut their hair short. Elizabeth had been two of those, and was often accused of being the third, although no longer in her hearing. She accepted the dark brown hat with the large white plume from Mina Green, her personal servant. “Thank you. Did you re-sew the feather?”
“Yes, my lady, and added a little more trim to keep it even more secure.” The two women shared a tired look. Mina observed, “With all due respect to Mistress Corliss, I don’t think she ever sets foot outside the city wall, and neither do her hats.” Mina dusted her hands on the plain brown twill of her skirt.
“I will not argue with you.” Not after the last bonnet she made for Lady Marie blew apart on a gentle ride! But Duchess Starland would have the latest styles, and Mistress Corliss happened to be the only person thus far to rediscover how to harden felt into a sturdy, stylish, riding helmet. Elizabeth caressed the beautiful white plumes and smiled as she walked down the stairs and out to the stables. She’d wanted one of those feathers ever since she first saw a river storch break cover on the banks of the Donatello River, and her aid, Major Lazlo Destefani, had somehow managed to kill one without destroying the plumage.
On her way to the courtyard she stopped by Snowy’s large box stall. The white mule, at least fifteen years old and still feisty, brayed at her. She hung the hat on a peg well out of his reach before unlocking the door and stepping into his loose box. “I see you are well,” she told him, thumping the white neck and scratching along his crest. He snorted on her jacket. She ran a practiced hand over his legs, checking for warm spots, before giving him one of the reject apples she “snuck” from the barrel. “No, not today. You had your turn yesterday, and we’ll be out all day tomorrow. I can’t have you terrifying the new stock or eating a groom,” she told him. He crunched the apple and gave her a look of mulish disdain.
Major Destefani found her there, playing with Snowy’s nose, stroking it and murmuring into the long white ears. He coughed, staying well clear of the mule. She nodded, patted Snowy’s neck, and shut the stall door. “He won’t attack you, Lazlo,” she reminded the average-sized, brown-haired man as she led the way out of the stables and into the courtyard. Their dark blue uniforms blended into the shadows so well that the girl bringing in a large basket of freshly aired bedding squeaked with surprise when they emerged from the shade beside her.
Lazlo smiled at the housemaid and slapped his tan gloves against his trouser leg, knocking off invisible dust. “Perhaps, my lady, perhaps not. Master Snowy still does not believe that war mules don’t exist, and I do not care to be the next notch on his shoe.” They laughed as they walked over to their waiting mounts. It had become a joke in her household that after Snowy bit, kicked, or pooped on the latest unsuspecting groom, he carved a mark into a mule shoe he kept hidden in his stall, like the hunters who stalked the pseudo-boar notched the hilts of their boar daggers.
“True. And everyone knows that white mules are inferior creatures with thin hoofs, weak eyes, and fragile skins and backs.” The semi-retired soldier acting as her groom chuckled, as did Lazlo. Snowy had crossed half the continent ten years before, carrying Elizabeth on their wild flight from Frankonia to the Eastern Empire. He’d also fought in more than one battle and had killed at least three men. Elizabeth looked at today’s animal and asked, “Any trouble with the molly?”
The soldier gave Lazlo the reins and knelt on the cobbles, cupping his hands to help lift Elizabeth onto the sidesaddle. “No, my lady colonel. She seems fit. I checked her girth just before you came out, my lady.” He boosted her onto the brown molly mule’s back. One of the first of the Greyland cross mules Archduke Lewis had wanted, the placid beast stood steady, playing with her bit and swishing her stringy tail. Once she’d arranged her skirts, Lazlo handed Elizabeth the reins and swung onto his own horse, an Oberland cross gelding that the archduke had rejected.
They rode out of the gate of Donatello House, the small town palace where Elizabeth and her staff resided during the months she spent in Vindobona, the capital of the Eastern Empire. The cream and pale blue “house” faced a busy street that paralleled the earliest walls and that marked the border between the new part of the city and the old Lander buildings of the palace district. City-folk on foot dodged in and out of the steady stream of carriages, delivery carts, and riders, and the two soldiers waited for a gap before they joined the flow of traffic. The ring of hoofs on stone echoed from the ornately painted facades of the adjoining town palaces and exclusive shops.
One of the younger ladies of court trotted past on a delicate filly and Lazlo turned in his saddle to watch her. Elizabeth smiled, wondering if the horse or the rider had caught his eye. Probably the horse, given all the rumors about Lazlo following St. Jenna as well as St. Kiara, Elizabeth mused. As consistent as the stories are, there’s probably some fire under all the smoke of rumors and whispers. Or perhaps not. It’s between him and Godown, so long as his family agrees.
The lovely, unusually warm early spring day brought people out of their houses in droves. Through the few open gates, Elizabeth could see laundry hanging out to air and bleach in the warm sun. Children chased each other and laughed under the careful eyes of their nurses and servants. Soon the riders passed into the newer precincts, where the tradesmen, servants, merchants, and others lived. The poor clustered outside the walls in the flood plain along the Donau Novi River or near the industrial area downstream, where the tanners, fullers, and other noisome crafts plied their trade well away from the great city’s drinking water supply. “Major, how many souls have squeezed into the walls by now?” She asked, looking around, alert for trouble and for the occasional wash-water toss.
“It is said thirty thousand, my lady, but I doubt that. To fit thirty thousand within the walls would be madness.” He too skimmed his eyes over the people flowing around them. Traffic slowed as they encountered freight wagons coming in and out of the city, making deliveries of supplies and trade goods. They had reached the western gate, and joined the line of vehicles trundling out under the watchful eyes of the city guard. The guardsmen saluted the two officers, letting them cut ahead of several carts and pass between waiting wagons and a haywaine.
Once in the open air they urged their mounts into a trot, covering the ground between the outer walls and the military reserve at a good speed. Elizabeth did not care for Molly’s choppy trot, but she’d ridden worse. They passed into the military area and Elizabeth spotted Archduke Lewis in his pale gray coat, striding among the horses and mules and sorting them into groups, some to consider for his own use, some for the army, and some rejects to be sold. All were good animals, since the worst stayed at Donatello Bend for the farmers to rent or buy as plow, pump, and wagon beasts. As the Archduke paced back and forth, Elizabeth smiled again at his strange fascination with mule breeding. “He never has forgiven the Oberland mares for not producing good mules, has he?” She asked Lazlo as they stopped beside the remuda fence, well out of the way.
He snorted. “No, my lady. And we did try to warn him.” His family had attempted the combination down south, on the Starland lands, and had sworn off Oberland cross mules after the first attempt. “Some of them did prove to be serviceable gun carriage mules though, my lady.” Lazlo stopped and raised a hand, shading his eyes as he looked at the small band of horses waiting to the side of the larger remuda. “No.” He rose out of the saddle a little and peered again. “My lady, look,” and he pointed with his riding whip.
“By St. Michael-Herdsman.” She stared. “Godown as my witness, that’s not possible.”
© 2014 Alma T.C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.