Archive for the ‘Sample Chapter’ Category

Sample Chapter from The Wildcat’s Burden

May 6, 2010

Chapter One – Riot

Major Gisel Matah, military governor of the city of Skrona in liberated Tarnland, stepped onto the concourse at the top of the Town Hall steps as the mob reached the Great Square. Her four Iskander security guards fanned out around them as the two officers accompanying her scanned the approaching crowd.

“You were right, Major.” Captain Jans commanded the cavalry of the garrison, the same 3rd Light Cavalry she’d led in the last campaign the previous year. “The demonstration has turned into trouble, but my troopers are ready.”

Gisel studied the crowd a moment, all displaced Lubitz settlers. They had genuine grievances, but she wasn’t about to let them bring their anger into the streets. The mob streamed down the three major arteries into the square from Hagriche Park where their leaders had inflamed them with speeches. The words they shouted were incomprehensible but raised fists and brandished iron bars and pick helves told her everything she needed to know.

“Return to your squadrons, Captain Jans. Seal off all the exits from the square once the mob is inside. Leave the main avenue to the naval docks open. Keep your sabres sheathed unless I order otherwise. Your officers will herd the protestors south against the dockyard walls.”

“Yes, Major, but I will leave you a half troop here to support your Peace Officers.”

She turned her head to fix him with a fierce stare. Her men had started bending her orders of late – something they’d not presumed to do with her instructions before. Almost in the last month of her pregnancy, they treated her as a delicate flower instead of the fierce Wildcat. She scowled and shook her head. “I may waddle like a goddamned duck, but I can still shoot straight.”

Jans grinned and saluted.

As he turned away she softened her tone. “I appreciate your consideration, Captain; a section will do. My husband will be grateful for your care of me while he’s away.” Yohan bitterly railed at her commanders, who refused to allow her maternity leave, but clearly they did not want the pregnancy to diminish her Wildcat persona. Ha! Thanks, guys.

The Lieutenant of the Peace Officers, once a sergeant of the town militia, regarded her expectantly. “My men are in the street behind the building, Governor. What are your orders?”

Gisel eyed the crowd that streamed into the square. Mostly men, but she could see women and a few children running between the groups of ruffians. “Form your men into a single line across the concourse, about fifty paces from the bottom of the steps. Hold firm to keep the mob from reaching the building.”

He licked his lips. “Yes Governor . . .. There are . . . a lot of them.”

“I see that, but I have backup for you.” She scanned around the tiled rooftops of the tall buildings opposite, looking for visible heads. “My riflemen are waiting on the far side of the roofs for my order to move forward. You understand that I do not want to have them open fire, but if your men are threatened I will so order them.”

“Thank you, Governor.” He threw a loose salute, pivoted about, and marched away.

She had selected his detachment recruited from the Lubitz citizens to keep order against their countrymen. The Tarnlish Peace Officers were patrolling the rest of the city. The genocidal dissension between the two groups wasn’t new – it had been ongoing ever since Iskander captured the city five years before. Forty percent of the inhabitants were from Lubitz and they disputed the inevitability of returning Skrona to the Tarnlish crown.

Their anger had caused this riot. A group of Lubitz citizens had accepted an offer to travel to new lands outside Tarnland where they would build new homes. It was a good deal for the new settlers, but their fellows remaining behind demonstrated against reducing their numbers and power.

She was as much a target of the anger as her fellows. Her first successful undercover mission had opened the main gate to let Lord Ricart’s Iskander cavalry columns take the city. Since the stranding of the starship Iskander on Gaia seven years before, their technology had revolutionized the 17th century world. But the changes that had improved the lives of many had diminished the power of others. Those who had lost, hated them.

Everyone assumed her governorship had been a reward for her early success. She knew better – it was no reward – the position she held required her to take actions she hated. She believed any action ethical when defending herself, but keeping order over an unruly populace narrowed her options to a knife edge. Tarnland’s rulers expected her to seize these ringleaders and hang them – but she wouldn’t. Neither would she let loose the cavalry sabres to cut down rioting citizens – unless she had no option left.

A movement to her right made her turn her head. The Peace Officers in full riot gear marched into the square in single file. She caught the Lieutenant’s eye and clapped her hands together. He turned to march backwards as he gave an order. The men raised their riot shields and clapped their riot sticks against them in a loud cadence to their marching steps.

The ominous sound echoed across the square as the men marched into position. Most of the oncoming crowd slowed but some picked up rocks to throw. The Peace Officers pulled down their face shields and turned to face the crowd. They locked their shields into a continuous wall and braced themselves against the expected onslaught.

Gisel turned to gesture to one of her orderlies in the doorway. “Bring me a loudhailer.”

The clatter of hooves heralded the arrival of a dozen cavalrymen. She smiled as she recognised the leader – Sergeant Major Cubbins, one of her most reliable men of the 3rd Light Cavalry the previous year. He now commanded the new D Squadron as Iskander built up the battle-scarred battalion to full strength.

Those in the mob who had resumed running forward slowed to a walk at the arrival of the cavalry. With their eyes on the horsemen, they edged across the square to about twenty metres from the riot police – throwing stones at them. Behind the first ranks of the mob she recognised Nakred the rabble-rouser and Davadis the hot-headed reporter for the Skrona-Lubitz News – a fledgling free press that Iskander had encouraged. Gisel ruefully acknowledged the paper she allowed to operate fanned the flames of the Lubitz citizens’ resentment.

Her orderly reached her with the loudhailer and she switched it on to put to her lips. She gulped a deep breath, not quite full with her babe pressed up against her diaphragm. “Pavel Nakred,” she boomed, “permission to hold this gathering is rescinded. Disperse these people at once.”

“Not until you have heard our grievances,” he shouted back.

“Order your people to cease throwing stones.”

“Their anger is too strong for me to so speak. You may shout with your huge voice machine.”

Gisel signalled to the sergeant of the Assault Infantry Company, near the door behind her. In a moment, the riflemen climbed over the roofs to take up positions where they could shoot down into the crowd. She fixed her gaze on Nakred. “Order your people to disperse before I quench their anger with rifle bullets.”

Nakred and his companions turned to stare up at the surrounding riflemen. After a minute’s argument he faced her again. “I don’t believe you will do it.”

A movement beside him revealed one of his bodyguards carrying a firearm – possibly a cavalry carbine. He seemed ready to aim at her. Fear for her unborn child lanced through her.

She covered her belly with both arms as she turned to the sergeant. “Your sharpshooter. Quick!”

He shouted into his radio and a shot rang out from a window above them in the building . The armed man threw up his hands and collapsed with a shriek.

Her heart pounded in her breast and she felt sweat break out all over her forehead and down to her shoulders. She had thrown down her biggest trump – would he call her bluff? “There’s one. Do you want to see a hundred fall? A thousand? I have killed that many on the battlefield – I can do it more easily here.”

Those at the rear of the mob shouted. At first she thought they wanted to know who had fired, but the sounds turned to cries of alarm. Gisel could see into several of the thoroughfares from her vantage point. The cavalry appeared in the distance, horses shoulder to shoulder. Good for Jans – he had judged his moment to a tee.

All around Nakred and Davadis the mob milled about, bending toward the fallen man and gesticulating. No doubt they shouted to one another, but their voices were lost in the din of the mob. Nakred emerged from the milling crowd, his voice indistinct. “You . . . killed . . . cousin. I accuse . . . cold-blooded murder.”

“Order your people to disperse or there will be more. Do you see the cavalry advancing down the avenues? I have only to give the order for them to break into a charge.”

“Never!” He stepped out of the mob, arms on hips. “Shoot me down, you bitch. I will not move from here.”

Gisel caught Sergeant Major Cubbin’s eye. The old soldier’s face looked grey but he nodded his head toward the riot police, now standing motionless and unengaged.

She caught his meaning – a good idea. “Lieutenant!” she said in a lower voice. “Take six of the riot squad forward and seize that man. Arrow formation. Sgt Major, take your horses in support.”

This had to work. If the mob resisted the police advance she’d have no choice but to order the riflemen to fire. Her pulse pounded like a jackhammer. It all depended on the execution – her men must act before the crowd realised what they were doing.

She needed to hold the crowd’s attention. She raised the loudhailer again. “Pavel Nakred, if you want to discuss your settlers’ grievances, I am willing to listen. But this square must be cleared first. Send the people to the Autarch’s Avenue and leave by way of the dockyard wall.”

“No! You will not intimidate us. Your Wildcat trick is -”

His words dried up as the wedge of riot police charged him. He attempted to dodge back to his escort but the two flanking columns of cavalry horses pushed the dense mass of rioters closed. The riot squad seized him and frog-marched him away, even as his protective escort reacted. These men were armed, Gisel could see several muskets and at least one more stolen Iskander firearm. Their attempts at rescue were beaten back by the sabres of Cubbins’ men. Three of the rioters fell before the rest fled into the crowd.

Gisel watched the mob mill about, some running forward, some back. At this point she expected anything. They could rush forward to attempt a rescue or they could break and flee in terror. The riot squad did exactly the right thing – testimony to the painstaking effort she’d put into their training. They marched forward again, beating their riot sticks against their shields, closing their ranks around the withdrawing men and their prisoner.

Gisel raised the volume on the loudhailer. “Your ringleader has agreed for you to disperse,” she boomed. “Leave the square. Go down Autarch’s Avenue to the dockyard walls. Go quickly and I will hold the cavalry back. All of your grievances will be heard. I give you my word.”

The mob wavered, their voices loud and shrill. Davadis stood firm, shouting at her but drowned out by the din.

“Oddr Davadis,” Gisel boomed again. “Your chance has failed. Do not lead more of these innocents to their destruction. The demonstrators are dispersing – their protest has been heard. Go in peace.”

She found herself holding her breath as she watched. The Sgt. Major’s small cavalry force regrouped against the front rank of the mob. No one attempted to rush forward to pull them from their mounts. That in itself said the nerve of the rioters had been broken. As the cavalrymen urged their horses slowly against them the mob fell back, sweeping Davadis and the remaining ruffians away with them.

The crowd changed from a pattern of angry faces to their retreating backs. Women rushed to grab up their children; men hastened to shield their wives. Gisel let out a long breath. Her hands trembled, but this time she’d won. Governorship as a reward? Hell no, it was torture.

The Wildcat’s Victory; Chapter One

February 28, 2008

Major Gisel Matah walked aft, the sharp breeze of the Swift’s passage becoming a reek of steam-scented mist. She pulled the collar of her quilted jacket higher to ward off the first threat of a northern winter. The two steam engines below thumped a steady rhythm into the soles of her feet. As she passed the bare mizzenmast she trailed a hand along the furled sail on its boom, and looked up at the moon: not full, but nearly so, a bright lantern for their night passage across the Inland Sea.
A crewman passed, heading for the wheelhouse from some errand at the stern. No one else showed up in the moonlight on the aft deck, but she hoped to find a man sheltered in the slanting shadows. She’d been surprised to see him board. She’d slipped a message under his cabin door. He’d better be there.
Swift was the first steam packet in the Partnership, making the 250 km crossing between Skrona and Lubitz in less than fifteen hours. Yohan had seemed uneasy this morning at breakfast when she’d told him she’d be accompanying him on this trip. “Is the manager going to refuse his security chief’s request for passage?” she’d said in response. “This is my opportunity to bring our guards for the river traffic.” He’d recovered his poise after that; his eyes regaining their brilliant blue sparkle; his over-long sandy hair threatening to fall across them.
But she guessed the reason for his concern when she’d reached the dock and seen how deeply Swift lay in the water. She’d known the hold would contain the last two steam powerplants for the tugs under construction in Lubitz. Other than her eight guards, most of the passengers on this trip were technicians picked to assemble the powerplants. It’d be interesting to see how guilty Yohan looked when he tried to hide the third powerplant from her.
She paced her stride to the moderate roll of the ship. The sea was calm, and as she reached the stern rail, the moonlight glinted off the water and broke into a million shards in the propeller’s wake. She stood to watch their movement through the water, although she listened for sounds of human origin on deck. She smiled fleetingly, the iron rail in her hand reminding her of ships back home.
To Gisel’s left and right hung lifeboats on their quarter davits. These two crafts were those most handily used as tenders when in harbor. Around them were stacked a few cargo items in readiness for their arrival, and from the shadow of one of these piles a large man emerged. She recognized him instantly from the withered left hand he held to his chest. Gisel turned to lean her back against the rail and face him.
“What work is done in the light of the moon?” she said quietly.
“The peoples’ work, Major.”
“What are you doing aboard, Markov?”
“Control hasn’t told you? Then neither will I.”
She stared toward his face, shadowed in the slanting moonlight. This man took pay from Iskander’s Security Service, but she knew his activities were little changed from those he followed before his recruitment. In every society, some men live very well by fetching and carrying that which more timid — or perhaps more manifestly honest — men eschewed. In Iskander’s service, only the nature of his merchandise had changed. Now he traded names and information more often than valuables with an aura of spilled blood about them. Was he here because of Yohan’s extra steam engine, or the Radicals?
“Are you watching the men brought to assemble the steam plant? You needn’t trouble yourself about them.”
Markov shook his head slowly. “I am told the lead man is far greater in skill than the task ahead requires. Some say he would be counted an engineer in Iskander but for jealousy against a man born in Tarnland.”
“He’s an able man. Sure, we Iskanders can be a conceited bunch. Would you doubt me if I said I persuaded my father to send him so he could prove himself?”
The shadows around Markov’s mouth stretched into a smile. “If you say so, Major.”
“Yohan asked for him to be posted in Lubitz.”
“Your lover would steal him from Iskander? What will your commanders say?”
“That’s my concern, Markov. And the word isn’t lover — you’ll stir up scandal. We’re engaged. As soon as his stubborn father relents, we shall marry.”
“And as soon as our commanding officer gives you leave to be a proper wife, you can take on a woman’s duty. I’d love to see you give suck to a bairn — it would restore my faith in motherhood.”
“The day you have faith in anything outside of a purse, the moon will faint into the sea, Markov. You may safely leave mothering to me. Now tell me what I want to know.”
She strove to steady her breath and skim over the anger she felt at his words. Goddamn the man, but he knew how to get her goat. How the hell did he know how uncertain she felt about her nurturing abilities? Did your mother kill as many men as I have, asshole?
“I hear the Radicals are active in Lubitz,” Markov said, leaning on the rail beside her.
“Are they? What of our man — have you news of him?”
“Ah, that is what I need to learn.”
“God dammit! Don’t go poking around the underworld and lead the city’s security to everybody.”
“I pass among the underclass of Lubitz as easily as this ship rides the Inland Sea. That is why Iskander pays me so well. You know that, Major.”
“The Radicals cannot be planning to start strikes and riots — I doubt if they’ve a dozen hotheads in their cell yet.” Gisel frowned — all change breeds opposition, and Iskander had caused more change in the past five years than this world had experienced in a millennium. Her father’s operations had already suffered sabotage in the factories and mines. Nothing too deadly… yet. She wasn’t convinced they were all the actions of  anarchists — the Empire’s ringleader could be responsible for more than the spying she’d uncovered. “The Radicals will be useful to Iskander — everyone sees that. The unrest could be worth an army to us if we can get them into the Empire’s factories.”
“Yes, I know. You want to pass troublemakers through into the Empire from a tame Radical movement in Lubitz. You hope your Industrial Revolution can make over the world the way you Iskanders want it. Do you think you can manage a bloody revolution as well?”
“We’ll watch and wait. As long as we can keep the lid on it –”
“And keep allies from knowing what you do. I suspect you’d not fret if the Radicals did get out of hand. What would your lover think?”
“Yohan has enough to worry about with the management tasks he has. I’ll take care of the revolutionaries in the factories for him.”
“You hope to keep them quiet. But what happens when he finds they are there? What if he learns you know all of them — more — that Iskander even pays and helps them?”
“Iskander is prepared to live with people’s aspirations, not kill to silence them. That’s the difference between us and the Empire.”
“Until they threaten you. Then the knives will come out.”
Gisel looked away. She didn’t know how Iskander’s leaders would react in that event, but she still believed they should ride the social changes as they rode the technological waves. “If we can guide the Radicals well enough, that may never come to pass.”
“But someone must be prepared to act. Better a puddle of blood than a torrent.”
Gisel turned her head sharply. Did she understand his mission? That was the bitch of it — running her own secret program separate from Iskander’s. But she and her father agreed — their leaders had too great a phobia about popular movements to be told. They were inclined to cater to their royal allies too much. Time would come when Iskander would need to go its own way, and a secret power base among the Radicals could prove its worth. They must build it up, and keep leaders they valued safe. “I don’t care what secret instructions Control might have given you — don’t terminate anyone without my say so.”
“Who do you value, Major?”
“No names. There are people among the Radicals who can be of service.”
“To Iskander, or to the Matahs?”
“What makes you think there’s a difference?”
Markov shook his head slowly. “What makes me useful to you?”
Gisel laughed to mask her concern. “Goddammit, Markov! You’d suspect your mother’s milk. Don’t you think I’ve enough to do keeping the peace in Skrona?”
“I’m sure you can handle Skrona.”
“With your help, perhaps.” Iskander’s security was tenuous at best. That’s why she scrounged for information everywhere she could. The war against the Empire was at a stalemate — they could even lose it. She’d do anything to make a difference. “I’ve told Control I want you back — as soon as this business is done.”
“A pleasure, Maj . . . What’s that?”
A loud splash came from the starboard side. Gisel jerked away from the rail. She scanned their wake in the scattered moonlight. Something lifted momentarily — a hand.
Markov pointed. “Someone’s fallen overboard!”
Gisel didn’t answer. She yanked out her new communicator, stabbed the position button, and sprinted along the deck toward the wheelhouse.

*    *    *    *    *
Just before eight bells, Slin Murrin sat uneasily on the stool Major Matah indicated. The Swift had long turned back on course, and the engines pounded harder as the Master tried to make up the lost time. Poor Durden, all they’d found in the water was his corpse. Did the Major know Durden had been a friend? Perhaps all she knew was that they had shared a cabin.
She stared at him with eyes that seemed to see right through him. “How long did you know Durden?”
“Nigh on four month, Major. We was buildin’ boilers together.”
“Did you get on well?”
Murrin swayed back on the stool. What did she want to know? High-up folks was all the same . . . couldn’t trust they . . . they was always looking to punish a fellow. “We was good workmates, Major. Foreman called us his num’mer one team.”
“What did you do this evening?”
“Nort, Major. We was in the cabin, fixin’ our kit. Ee were darnin’ ’is overalls an’ I was oilin’ my tools.”
“But he left the cabin. When was that?”
“Don’t know . . . were after three bells.”
“In the first watch? Right … Did he say why he was going?”
“Some man came for ’im. Called ’im up on deck.”
“Did you see the man? Did you recognize him? What did he look like?”
Murrin put his hands to his head. “Nay, Major. I di’n see ’im. Stood outside the cabin door.”
“He must have spoken. Did you recognize the voice?”
His heart thumped — why all these questions? Poor Durden had fallen overboard, and this officer acted like he could have pushed him. Best he say nothin’ more — she doubtless disbelieved him. Lookin’ for someone to blame — twas the same in the factory. You made a mistake . . . broke a castin’ or set a valve badly, an’ foreman an’ engineers was all over ye.
Major Matah stared into his eyes. “Apprentice Murrin, I’m waiting for an answer. Did you recognize the man’s voice?”
“Nay, Major. Why is you askin’ all this? Poor Durden have drowned . . . baint that enough?”
She leaned forward so closely he could feel her breath on his face. “Machinist Durden didn’t drown. He was thrown overboard — after his throat had been cut.”
“Cut! Th . . . th . . . throat cut?”
“Yes, lad. Now you know why I’m asking. Would you recognize the man’s voice if you heard it again?”
He stared. Now his heart really raced. Who would want to kill Durden? If he did remember the voice — would he be killed next? Didn’t do to get mixed in with evil doin’s. “I dursen’t think I would, Major. Wasn’t a . . . a strange voice — jus’ summat like a man hears ever’ day. No — I’m sure I wouldna know it again.”
“How much money did Durden have on him?”
“Lor. I expec’ the same as me. We was paid twenty thalers allowance for us to arrive in Lubitz.”
Major Matah nodded. “It was still in his money belt. What about in the cabin — did he have more?”
“Not as I knows.”
“You’ll come with me. We’ll search his things.”
“Fer certain, Major. If ye chooses.”
*    *    *    *    *

Yohan looked up as the wheelhouse door opened, to see Gisel step inside. She looked very official in her black Security uniform, its silver insignia gleaming like stars above evening thunderheads. She had her black hair in braids and piled under her service cap, businesslike. Tonight she hardly seemed the same gentle creature who shared his bed. He smiled and raised a hand — then guilt knotted his stomach and he tasted bile. She gave no sign, although her eyes were the same dark lances they always were when she was onto something.
She turned to the Swift’s Master. “I’ll interrogate the rest of your crew in the morning, before we dock. What time will we get in?”
“We lost nigh on two hours, Major, pickin’ up that corpse. Lucky us was to dock afore high tide — I think Swift has steam enough to catch her mooring afore it drops.”
Yohan took three steps across the wheelhouse to place an arm around Gisel’s waist and smile into those eyes, just a couple of inches below his. For the hundredth time, the desire to tell her about the steam engine surfaced in his mind. He wanted to, but would she think his betraying the Baron a weakness? She was too intent upon this new trouble to notice his unease. “You should get some rest now, dearest. I’ll see you’re called in time in the morning.”
“Thanks. That’ll give me about an hour. I may as well stay up.”
Yohan sighed; he sometimes wondered if she needed no sleep. “What have you learned?”
“Not much — yet. I’ve interviewed all the passengers, and no one seems suspicious. No obvious Empire agents among them.”
“You suspect the Empire is behind this, then?” Yohan said. The words sounded like lies in his head. After several generations of preventing innovation, the Empire had recognized the need to match the Iskanders’ knowledge. They had approached the Felger mercantile enterprise in secret — and the task of obtaining the engine, the extra one in Swift’s hold, had fallen to him. But had some Imperial agent misunderstood the plan and tried to sabotage the shipment by murdering Durden? He knew no reason to suspect the fellow of any subterfuge — he had been an artisan in the Felger’s employ for several years. The Baron had approved him for the steam training himself. “Why would an Empire spy want to kill Durden?”
Gisel shrugged. “Seems the most logical suspect. No doubt they have people somewhere in the Inland Sea area, with a brief to disrupt our operations.” She turned to the Master. “You can vouch for all your crew?”
He scratched at his grizzled chin. “Most be fellows what served on Swift afore the dockyard work. We hired a few more from Skrona . . . an’ then there is the steam artificers an’ stokers what was sent by your own factory.”
“I don’t think we can suspect any of the Iskander men,” Yohan said.
Gisel shook her head. “I’m not ruling anyone out. We’ve caught two Imperial spies in our industrial complex this year.”
“You are sure?” Yohan said, aghast. “Why did you not tell me?”
“I’m telling you now. One committed suicide, the other won’t talk. We have no proof. I wanted to let the man escape to see where he goes, but Control won’t hear of it.”
Yohan stared at her. What else had she kept from him — as much as he strove to keep from her? If she learned of the Felgers’ duplicity — that he was even now conveying the secret cargo to ship to their enemy — their engagement could be over. Would she ever trust him again, or forgive his treachery? His stomach squirmed at the thought. If only there was a way he could tell her without betraying the Baron.
Gisel seemed oblivious to the turmoil inside him. “I don’t think we have a robbery here, and likely no crime of passion. There’s no suspicion that he was a boy lover. Do you know of any business in the shipyards and factory which would give rise to murder?”
She looked hard at him as she said this. Was she testing him? Did she suspect?
He strove to hide his secret — keeping the awful image of Durden’s waterlogged corpse before his eyes. “No, nothing at all. You know as much as I do.”