Sir Henry Wallace sat at his ease in his favorite chair-carved wood with a straight, rigid back and a worn rose-colored cushioned seat-in front of the fireplace in his bedroom. The servants had closed the heavy curtains that covered the mullioned windows and snuffed the candles and then quietly withdrawn, dismissed for the night. The fire provided the room’s only light. The flames glowed warmly on the burled walnut of the headboard of the bed in which his young wife lay sleeping. She was seven months pregnant with their first child.
His gaze lingered on her fondly. She lay on her side, her hand resting on her swollen belly. Her brown hair strayed out from the lace nightcap. She was small, and was almost lost in the bed with its huge, ornately carved headboard and heavy, fringed tapestry curtains. She was faintly smiling; her dreams were pleasant. Lady Anne was no great beauty. With her brown hair and large brown eyes, small form, shy demeanor, and thin, winsome face, she was considered dull and mousy. And, indeed, “Mouse,” was Henry’s pet name for her.
Sir Henry had never planned to fall in love with his wife. He had married her because she was the queen’s niece. The marriage had brought him prestige and this fine manor house on an estate located in the countryside outside Haever, the capital city of Freya. The marriage was ostensibly a reward for years of service to Crown and country. In truth, the estate, the wife, and now the child made Henry the Earl of Staffordshire and solidified his ties to the Crown. Queen Mary Chessington wanted to ensure that her Master of Secrets (Sir Henry’s unofficial and not particularly complimentary title) never let those secrets pass his lips.
Henry was grateful to Her Majesty, but he required none of these royal favors. Henry Wallace was a patriot to the core of his being. He was loyal to his queen. He considered her a strong and intelligent ruler (unlike her counterpart, that arbitrary egoist King Alaric of Rosia). Henry had been pleased and even moved to think that Her Majesty thought well enough of him to give him her niece’s hand in marriage.
Lady Anne was seventeen. Henry was forty-two. Lady Anne was retiring and not particularly intelligent, but she was sweet-tempered. He was brusque, acerbic, and the smartest man in the kingdom. Some in court termed him cold-blooded and calculating, particularly when it came to Freyan politics. No one had been more surprised than Sir Henry Wallace to discover he loved his Lady Anne, his Mouse. Given his tall, athletic frame, thin face, hooded eyes, and long, crooked nose, he had been surprised to discover that she adored him.
Unfortunately, his love for his wife and his unborn child made him vulnerable, could make him weak.
Sir Henry sighed and frowned slightly at himself for having strayed into sentimentality and turned back to business. In one hand, he held a cut-crystal goblet in which a swallow of rare, fine brandy still remained. In the other hand, he held a plain metal tankard, such as one might find in any number of city taverns. As the Earl of Staffordshire, Sir Henry was accustomed to the finest things money and station could provide. Yet it was this ordinary tankard that kept him up past midnight, hoping for a better future for his child and, God willing, the other children to come.
The steadily burning fire wavered with a change in the movement of the air in the room. Sir Henry turned to see the arrival of his adjutant and trusted secretary, Mr. Sloan. Sloan entered the room quietly, without knocking, shielding the light of his candle with his hand so as not to disturb Lady Anne. Closing the door behind him, he walked across the thick carpet without making a sound. His given name was Franklin, but few knew that. He was known to everyone from Her Majesty on down as Mr. Sloan.
“All is in readiness, my lord.”
Sir Henry did not turn around. He seemed fixated on the tankard in his hand.
“It doesn’t look like much, does it, Mr. Sloan?”
“No, my lord,” Sloan said softly.
Sloan was a large man, over six feet tall, with a developing paunch. He was bald, with a neatly trimmed goatee. Years of service in the Freyan army were still visible in his stance and bearing. He had been a sergeant in the Royal Marines prior to taking service with Sir Henry.
“Your instructions were fairly vague, my lord, but I believe I have fulfilled all your requirements,” said Mr. Sloan, adding, hinting, “If I knew what you intended…”
“Assuming this tankard is all it claims to be, we are looking at the future, Mr. Sloan,” said Sir Henry. He finished off the brandy, set down the crystal goblet, and rose to his feet. “We need to test these claims.”
“We are going to test the future, my lord?” Mr. Sloan asked with a faint smile.
“No, Mr. Sloan, we are going to blow it up,” said Sir Henry.
He lit his own candle to find the way through the dark house, left the bedroom silently and, with one final fond glance at his wife, gently and softly shut the door. The two men traversed the sitting room, walked past the many other bedrooms, drawing rooms, dressing rooms and the nursery, all of which were located on the third floor of the manor house. A grand staircase of red-and-black marble and oak led from the third floor to the second where there was a dining room, a ballroom, a long gallery, the enormous library, and Sir Henry’s study.
A smaller, more cramped back staircase took them from the second floor to the ground floor. The two men walked down a stone corridor and came to the kitchen. Mr. Sloan opened the door and stood back for Sir Henry to enter.
Henry gazed about with interest. He had never been in the kitchen, which was the province of Cook and her servants, and he was surprised by the remarkable view that could be seen from out the tall, narrow windows. Haever, Freya’s capital, lay in the distance-a sea of glittering lights on a black backdrop.
When originally built, the kitchen had been separate from the main building. Kitchen fires were commonplace-given the fact that fires were burning daily in the two large fireplaces. With the two buildings kept apart, a fire in the kitchen would not spread to the main house. The kitchen walls and floor were made of stone to prevent sparks from setting them aflame.
Unfortunately, this meant that the servants had been forced to carry the food to the house through all sorts of inclement weather. So, fifty years ago, for the sake of convenience, the kitchen and manor house had been connected by a stone-walled corridor. The kitchen consisted of one large room used for general cooking and several smaller rooms designed for more specific purposes: the cold storage room, the pantry, the wine cellar, and so forth.
A fire in one of the fireplaces, usually allowed to die down during the night, had been built up by Mr. Sloan and filled the room with light. Sir Henry gazed around curiously. Tables, cabinets, and washstands occupied the central room. Large pots hung on hooks set in the timber beams that ran overhead. Other utensils stood in rows on the inner wall. Everything was neat, clean, and well organized, reminding Sir Henry of a military camp.
“My lord, I have everything arranged over here,” said Mr. Sloan.
“Allow me a moment, please, Mr. Sloan,” said Sir Henry. “I have never been in this kitchen or even gave it much thought.” He walked over to study with interest a copper-bottomed kettle. “Copper, you see, to better disseminate the heat.”
Henry regarded the kitchen with approval. “Simple order, Mr. Sloan, designed to prepare for the coming chaos. You look amused, Mr. Sloan.”
“I was merely wondering what your enemies would say if they could see you now, my lord.”
Henry gave a dry chuckle. “Henry Wallace, the most dangerous man in Freya, master spy, deceiver, liar, thief, and assassin with his nose in a stewpot. Was that what you were thinking, Mr. Sloan?”
“Something like that, my lord. Although I confess to being lost at your reference to chaos.”