May 31, 2010

Query Me This...On Her Majesty’s Special Service

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Lady Alexandra Beckwith-Smythe’s mission was simple--infiltrate the household of William Payne, the suspected leader of the American colonial terrorist organization the Sons of Liberty, and stop him by any means necessary.  Simple until she discovers the same Prussian agent who supplied information on Payne is also selling munitions to the Americans.

Simple until someone within the Special Services Ministry betrays her to the colonials.

Now, she has to convince Payne to help her, instead of blowing her brains out, because he let slip one crucial bit of information.  The Prussians have a new weapon, modified Chinese rockets that can level a city.  And she has no doubt that once the Prussian Kaiser is finished blowing Mother England to shreds, he’ll come after her colonies next.

On Her Majesty’s Special Service is an 80,000-word steampunk thriller.


Chapter 1

It took all of Lady Alexandra Beckwith-Smythe’s training and discipline not to scratch at her moustache.  Jehoshaphat, the glue itched.  If it weren’t for the infernal irritation underneath her nose, she’d more thoroughly enjoy the freedom of wearing trousers.

Instead, she raised the opera glasses to her eyes and scanned the crowd.  A loud buzzing filled the hall, the peerage greeting each other before assuming their seats.  Her body tensed each time a personage approached her charge, but most simply wanted an alliance with the Orleans heir to the French throne. It didn’t matter his own country had exiled him.

From the taunt lines of Prince Phillippe’s shoulders, the noble was too immersed in his own anxiety to notice hers.  She had to give him credit though.  His charming smile hid whatever nerves threatened his composure.
After sending another simpering baron’s daughter on her way, he leaned closer to Alexandra.  “Have you seen anything?”

With the level of noise, his whisper didn’t carry more than the few inches between them.  Still, she lowered the glasses and glanced around before answering.  “No, Your Highness.  The Ministry is closely watching the situation.  I assure you there is no danger to yourself.” 

An unprincely sound snorted in her ear.  “I am not worried about myself.”

Alexandra bit the inside of her lip to keep from laughing out loud.  Of course.  He would be worried more about his mistress of the moment.  And in the happenstance her associates should fail to protect the opera singer tonight, she had no doubt the prince would find another comely bed warmer rather rapidly.

But the light in his eyes made her reassess her estimate of the prince’s feelings.  She dared to lay a hand on Phillippe’s arm.  “I assure you.  Miss Melba is quite safe.”

The dimming of the gas lamps prompted a hustle for seats.  Alexandra nodded toward the prince’s box.  He turned to follow.

Movement in the crowd caught her attention a moment before a masculine voice shouted, “A word with you, Prince Phillippe.”  Something metallic rested in the man’s hand.

Protocol be damned.

Her hard shove sent the already off-balance prince sprawling into the crowd.  A scream shattered the air.  Alexandra charged the approaching man, focused on the derringer in his hand.  Fear and exhilaration strangled her bowels upon the realization the firearm was double-barreled.  A gunshot blasted in her ears as she grabbed the man’s fist.

***

The next morning Alexandra kept a stoic front as she stood in the wood paneled office of Captain James Stewart, the nominal chief of Her Majesty’s Special Service.  The dressing down was unavoidable after the previous evening’s fiasco.  Best to bear it and proceed with the next assignment.

He slapped the earliest edition of the newspaper on his desk, its headline emphasized her superior’s glare.  Cuckolded Husband Attempts Murder.  Underneath, the subtitle blared, “European Prince in Affair with Noted Opera Star Nellie Melba.”  When Alexandra failed to wince at the gesture, he resumed his shouting.

“Just what am I supposed to do about this!”

She stared at the portrait of the queen hanging behind his desk.  “With all due respect, sir, my task was to guard the prince’s person-”

“Not at the expense of his reputation!”

“For all I knew, the gentleman was anarchist assassin-”

“You shoved the prince into the Duchess of Wessex!”

“Given the duchess still wears old-fashioned hoop skirts, their falls were cushioned quite well, sir.”

A deep chuckle sounded behind her.  She pivoted to find the unofficial head of the Special Service Ministry standing behind her.  The curtsey was so automatic it took a second to realize she never heard the door open.

“Tut, none of that in here.”  The Prince of Wales waved a hand before claiming a chair next to the desk.  His expression turned serious as he eyed her.  “However, Baby is quite upset this morning over the hole in her favorite hat.”

Alexandra did wince at that statement.  The one wild shot Melba’s husband fired had come perilously close to hitting Princess Beatrice, the queen’s youngest daughter.  She bowed her head once again.  “My sincere apologies, Your Highness.”

“The queen wants you exiled,” he continued before taking a sip from the cup of tea the Captain handed him.
Pain stabbed Alexandra’s stomach.  He wouldn’t go along with this demand, would he?  “She must understand-”

“That will be enough, agent!”
She glared right back at the captain.  “I performed my duties exactly as you ordered me-”

The prince’s raised finger silenced her far more effectively than the captain’s shouting.  “At least Prince Phillippe relayed the information he brought to London before last night’s adventure.  I believe we have a solution that will appease the queen and keep you in our employ.”  He favored her with a smile, one she was sure boded ill.  “What do you know about the Sons of Liberty?”

“An American revolutionist organization from a century ago.  They failed in their attempt to secede from the empire. . .”  She watched as the two men exchanged looks.  “Surely, you are not suggesting they still exist?”
Stewart reached into his top drawer and withdrew a sheaf of papers.  “Someone is selling a great deal of munitions to unknown civilians in the American colonies.  Our Prussian contact has confirmed the transactions.”

She stepped forward and took the papers from his outstretched hand.  Her heart leapt to her throat as she perused the numbers.  Numbers far greater than necessary to keep the colonial border with New Spain in check.  A quick glance at the men confirmed this was no joke.

The prince set down his cup on the edge of the desk.  “One of our local operatives in New York has obtained introductions for you to join the household of William Payne.  We believe he is the head of the Sons.”

Her heart quit trying to exit through her mouth, instead seeking a different egress.  It wasn’t pride instilling such desperation.  It was fear of exposure.

He continued as if he was suggesting a walk through one of Buckingham’s gardens.  “A zeppelin ticket and papers issued in the name of Alexandra Hemmings-”

Enough was enough.  “You cannot be serious!”  Her family had taken to many pains to erase their connection to the New World.  For him to flaunt that link went far beyond the bounds of their relationship.

“I am serious, agent.”  Ice blue eyes bore into hers.  “Unless you are submitting your resignation?”

He knew she couldn’t resign, and damn him to Hell, he knew why.  But arguing never worked with him.

Arms spread in supplication, she tried a different tack.  “Bertie,” she ignored Stewart’s startled expression at her undue familiarity with the prince, “for whatever respect you had for my husband, whatever affection you may have had for me, I beg you not to ask this of me.”

He rose and reached for her free hand, his giant, pale palms encasing her much darker skin.  The irony was not lost on her.  Mother England swallowed everything she touched.

“Alex, darling, there is no one else who could succeed in this mission.”

Of course.  Queen and country came before anything else with him.  One would have thought she’d learned that bitter lesson in the months after Henry died.  She swallowed the giant mound of sand in her throat.  “And what exactly is my assignment, Your Highness?”

He withdrew his touch at her formal tone.  “Discover who is supplying arms to the Sons of Liberty and assassinate their leader.”

Click here for the discussion thread.  

1 comment:

Jenny said...

I like this query--tight, suspenseful, with the author's voice present but not getting in the way of the story. And the first line of the pages is marvelous.

I'm not buying that Alexandra's sent on this punishment mission because of the headline in the paper--I don't see how she ruined his reputation--but that would be simple to fix. I've only read one steampunk book (Boneshaker, which is excellent but I've heard atypical of steampunk), so I don't know whether it's acceptable to have women in this line of work. Heck, I guess I don't know if they really were in this line of work, back when. But it doesn't feel right to me, so I'd want some sort of explanation.

I'd also want something more for the stakes than "she has no doubt that..."