/ Language: English / Genre:sf_history

1634: The Baltic War

Eric Flint


Eric Flint

1634: The Baltic War

David Weber

Part One A mist that is like blown snow is sweeping over all

Chapter 1

Hans Richter Field Near Grantville, in the State of Thuringia December 1633

Colonel Jesse Wood turned off the computer in his office, removed the floppy disk and carefully slid it into its protective sleeve. It was a copy of the original disk he had already placed in an envelope and addressed to Mike Stearns, the Prime Minister of the United States of Europe. The copy itself was destined for Admiral John Simpson, Chief of Naval Operations, advisor to the head of all the USE's armed forces, and one of the chief architects of the new nation's growing industrial capability in Magdeburg.

And how he manages all three, I have no idea, Jesse thought. Lord knows I always feel about two weeks behind in my sleep. At least this report should cheer him up.

The thought wasn't as sour as it would have been some months earlier. In fact, it was rather respectful. Whatever Jesse thought of the way John Simpson had conducted himself in the two years following the Ring of Fire, the man's actions after Mike Stearns had put him in charge of the new little navy-especially during and after the Battle of Wismar-had pretty much washed all that old antagonism away. As it had, Jesse knew, for Stearns himself. Simpson might have been a disaster as a political leader, but there was no denying that as a pure and simple military commander he had a lot going for him. Even if his insistence on the punctilio of military protocol still rubbed Jesse the wrong way, now and then.

The colonel squinted out the window at the unseasonably bright, late afternoon sunlight, catching a glimpse of Master Sergeant Friedrich Krueger giving the welcoming briefing to a bunch of newly arrived recruits. The sergeant was not being gentle about it. A recruit was on the ground, rubbing his head, no doubt after having been instructed in some fine detail of service courtesy. The tall German NCO had well earned his nickname of Freddy Krueger, although Jesse doubted he understood the allusion.

He watched as the sergeant pointed to the white stripes on the sleeve of the dark brown jumpsuit that was his uniform. Perhaps he does, though, Jesse reflected. God knows they made enough of those crappy movies. One's sure to be in town somewhere.

Jesse made a mental note to ask Major Horton to have another word with the NCO about his temper. He had to admit that Krueger's techniques were highly effective, if rather crude. Still, there was no sense in beating men who had just arrived, since they probably didn't yet have enough sense to absorb the lesson. Looking at the assembled recruits, Jesse felt he knew the source of Krueger's irritation. They were a very mixed bag, as all of the latest had been. Recalling the roster on his desk, Jesse thought he could spot their origins, for the most part. Among the fifteen men, he saw several Dutch, a couple of Bavarians, other Germans of all regions and dialect, two Spanish deserters, and a Swede. One man, by his dress, appeared to be either a nobleman or the son of a rich merchant.

I wonder what he's running from? Jesse mused. Well, it doesn't matter, he's in Freddy's gentle care, now. I'll wager not one of them knows a word of English. I wonder how many of them brought families with them?

They were refugees for the most part, from all over Europe. The same sort of people who filled the ranks of most of the armies of the era. Mercenaries, at bottom, regardless of the official label of "citizen soldiers" they had in the United States of Europe.

Unfortunately from Jesse's point of view, although it saved him a lot of grief in other ways, the air force didn't get too many volunteers from the Committees of Correspondence. He'd been surprised by that, at first, since Hans Richter had been an airman and Hans was the poster boy for the CoCs. But after a little experience, the reason had become obvious enough. Lots of enthusiastic CoC members volunteered to become pilots like Hans Richter, sure enough. But in an air force that still only had a literal handful of planes, how many pilots did you need? What the air force mainly needed were people for the ground crews-and for all but a tiny number of CoC firebrands, serving behind the lines doing what they saw as mostly menial chores just didn't appeal to them. One of the many American terms that had made its way into the hybrid mostly-German dialect of the new nation emerging in central Europe was "REMFs".

Instead, they volunteered for the new regiments in the army Gustav Adolf was creating, which were sure to see action come next spring. So, for the most part, Jesse had to make do with men-and some women, here and there-who "volunteered" out of necessity rather than political fervor. Granted, that saved Jesse from having to deal with the rambunctious politics that saturated the new army regiments and had most down-time officers tearing out their hair. Most up-time officers, for that matter, who were often just as aghast as their down-time counterparts at the radical conclusions their volunteers sometimes drew about the logic of democracy as applied to military discipline.

So, true enough, Jesse was generally spared that problem. What he faced instead were the traditional ones of maintaining efficiency and discipline in a mercenary force-a problem that officers in the new army regiments rarely had to deal with. If a recruit in one of those regiments slacked off, he'd get disciplined by his CoC mates before any officer even knew a problem existed-and the discipline could be a lot more savage than anything even a sergeant like Krueger would hand out.

Jesse rubbed his eyes, pulled his leather jacket over his own brown flying suit, and grabbed the two often-used envelopes. Sweeping up his beret with its eagle insignia off his desk, he stretched his sore back and stepped out of his office into that of his adjutant. Lieutenant Cynthia Garlow was seated behind her desk, sharpening a goose feather quill, her own computer showing a floral screen saver pattern. For reasons Jesse had never been able to grasp, she preferred using quill pens over the still-perfectly-functional modern pens that had come through the Ring of Fire in plentitude.

She didn't stand up as he entered. She couldn't, having lost the use of her legs in a riding accident on the far side of the Ring of Fire. Instead, the former CAP cadet straightened to attention in her wheelchair and looked at Jesse expectantly.

"Yes, Colonel?"

Jesse smiled. "Cynthia, how many times have I told you to save the 'attention' bit for visitors? It's just the two of us here. At ease, for Pete's sake."

Cynthia tossed her short auburn curls impatiently. "About a million times, Colonel. Almost as often as I've told you I can type faster than you, so why not just dictate to me?" She looked meaningfully at the envelopes in Jesse's hand.

Jesse laid the envelopes on her desk. "Not this time, Lieutenant. This report was a pleasure to write. I've declared the Gustav flight tests completed. Now that we've finished those, the real fun begins. With luck and good weather, we'll have half a dozen trained crews by spring. Send the original to Mike Stearns in Government House on tomorrow's courier run to Magdeburg. The copy goes to Admiral Simpson."

"Yes, sir. That's great news. Anything else?"

"Yeah, send word to Major Horton that I'd like to see him in my quarters tonight at 2030, will you? I'm going to take a turn around the base, then go home. Why don't you wrap up things here and take off?"

Cynthia gave him an impish grin. "Why, thank you sir. Friedrich promised to take me to dinner in town, if we both got off early enough."

Jesse nodded and wondered again at the dichotomy of Sergeant Krueger's renowned harshness to recruits and his obvious love for the crippled girl in the wheelchair. His gentleness and deference to her was an unceasing wonder to all who witnessed it. Cynthia was lovely and doubtless her fluency in German helped, but still… Jesse was glad he hadn't found the need to institute any of the fraternization rules from the other time line. Planting his beret on his head, eagle shining, he moved toward the door.

"Evening, Cynthia."

"Good evening, Colonel."

Jesse stepped outside the newly constructed headquarters cum bachelor officers' quarters. Walking down the ramp built for Cynthia's use, he glanced down the side of the building. Like all the other new buildings at the field, it was a simple wooden design, having few windows, and without central heating-the lack of which Jesse was feeling acutely, now that winter had arrived.

Due to a recent heat spell-using the term "heat" loosely-most of the snow that had covered the ground the week before had melted. Jesse walked down the damp, unpaved surface of Richter Avenue, doing his best to avoid the worst patches of mud. He then walked past the NCO quarters, the mess hall, the married enlisted buildings, and the single enlisted barracks, their new wooden walls already grayed by the elements. Opposite the buildings, children were playing in the parade ground, which was as yet unused for its named purpose.

The snap of the flag at the top of the smooth wooden pole drew his eye and he felt suddenly better, less tired.

You should see the old field now, Hans. All because of you.

Jesse hadn't meant to capitalize on Hans' death, of course. But, once the initial shock had worn off and he'd been able to analyze the battle of Wismar, he had become angry. His anger wasn't directed at the Grantville leadership-he understood military necessity-but at the enemies who threatened to destroy all he knew and loved. The depth of his anger had surprised him. He had always been slow to anger and his ire had nearly always passed swiftly. Certainly, he'd never felt any particular hatred towards the enemies of the U.S. in the old time line. In reflection, he realized his anger was more than half fear-fear that, should these enemies win, there would be no starting over, since there was nowhere to run in this world. So, he had concentrated on the anger, had shaped it into a weapon. And in doing so, he had changed himself. Before Wismar, he had been a pilot playing the role of commander. Afterward, though he would never voice it, he became a commander, with a commander's view of things.

Within days, he had returned to Grantville, directing two pilots, Lieutenants Woodsill and Weissenbach, to take the Las Vegas Belle II and rejoin the ground contingent at Richter Field in Wismar. Woody and Ernst had been thrilled to be left with the only functioning aircraft-and within range of the enemy, at that. Jesse felt he had taken the edge off a good deal of that enthusiasm, and he was sure the two young pilots would follow his cautious operational instructions. They were to provide aerial reconnaissance for Gustavus Adolphus in Luebeck, and that was all. Even so, he had taken care to not stifle their spirit. A pilot's elan is as important as fuel.

Only in the past month, with the completion of two more Belles and Gustav production now running smoothly, had he relaxed his restrictions on the Wismar detachment. He'd allowed them to try their hand at rocket attacks on the enemy encampment, a duty the two young pilots had accepted with the eagerness of unleashed tigers.

Jesse had channeled his own efforts into convincing Grantville to give him the resources to accelerate aircraft production, to give him the tools to punish their enemies. While he talked practicalities with President Stearns, Admiral Simpson, and Hal Smith, to all others he spoke in terms of duty, sacrifice, and honor. As much as he hated public speaking, he gave speeches to citizen groups and retold the Battle of Wismar and Captain Richter's heroism countless times.

The story was certainly gripping. The account of a valiant few fighting against long odds with makeshift weapons-buying time, as Jesse put it, so their people could prepare for the inevitable onslaught-caught the imagination of the public. In Magdeburg even more than in Grantville. Before long, most who deemed themselves politicians in the newly formed United States of Europe had jumped on board.

Not that everything's gone my way, Jesse grumbled. The frigging Kellys, for instance. What do those stupid politicians think we are, anyway? Boeing vs. Lockheed?

The object of his ire came into view as he walked towards the flightline. On the opposite side of the field, a sizable building, smoke curling from one of its chimneys, stood in the midst of squalor, despite its newness. Junked cars, stacks of lumber, cans of waste, and piles of trash unidentifiable at this distance stood in front of the building's wide, closed doors. It was the Kellys' touted "Skunkworks," and Jesse's irritation surged as he thought of the waste involved.

He'd been shocked when, just as the politicians seemed certain to give him all he needed to build a fighting air force, a small but vocal faction had temporarily stopped everything by demanding competition in aircraft construction. He'd even complained to Mike Stearns, demanding that he intervene in the foolishness.

Only to be turned down. Stearns, though sympathetic, had given Jesse a short, painful lesson in politics. He'd pointed out that many thought it unfair for Wood and Smith to be given so much deference and support in their aircraft building business-never mind the fact that they had built aircraft that had proven themselves in combat and hadn't yet realized a dime in profit from the enterprise.

"And there are new angles involved too, Jesse," Stearns had explained. "Now that the Confederated Principalities of Europe is on the junk heap, replaced by the United States of Europe, we don't have the same autonomy we used to have. We're a province in the USE now, which has a federal structure. We're no longer the independent-in-all-but-name New United States."

"So?"

Mike rolled his eyes. "So stop it with the pigheaded 'I don't need no steenkeeng politics' routine, Jesse. What do you think? You know damn well that most of the principalities that Gustav Adolf roped into the USE were frog-marched into it. From the standpoint of those disgruntled little princelings, one of the few bright spots is that they can now make a claim to getting a piece of up-time technology."

It was Jesse's turn to roll his eyes. "You've got to be kidding! What? We're supposed to divert resources to having-who, for God's sake?-the Hessians? the Pomeranians?-start building airplanes?"

"Oh, it's not that bad. None of the important princes are dumb enough to think they can set up an aircraft industry right now, from scratch. But look at the issue of the Kellys from their point of view. As long as you and Hal Smith have a monopoly on aircraft construction-with your close ties to the federal authorities-they can't see any way to get a foot in edgewise."

Jesse made a face. "Hey, look, Mike. It's no secret that I don't like the Kellys, especially She-Who-Will-Not-Be-Named. But I never suggested they were traitors."

"You couldn't anyway, even if you did think it," said Mike forcefully. "What 'treason' would be involved? Moving their aircraft works from Grantville to Magdeburg or Kassel? That's just silly. It'd be like accusing Lockheed of 'treason' if they decided to move their works from Burbank, California, to somewhere else in the United States. We're a federation now, Jesse. If the Kellys wanted to, they'd have every right to pack up their operation and move to another city in the USE."

He ran fingers through his hair. "But that's not even the issue. So far as I know, the Kellys have no intention of leaving Grantville. The Kellys aren't really what's at stake, to begin with, from the standpoint of the down-time princelings. Right now, they simply want to break up what amounts to your semi-official monopoly over up-time aircraft technology. And there's only so far I can resist that pressure, without starting to feed the sentiment-and there's plenty of it-that we up-timers are dogs in a manger. We can afford some waste in aircraft production a lot more than we can afford that issue to start getting explosive. So live with it, Jesse."

Jesse had kept trying, even to the point of resigning as a partner in the aircraft firm, but it hadn't been enough. The powers-that-be, in their wisdom, had seen fit to authorize assistance to both firms in the form of "a suitable building, strategic materials, and such labor and facilities as are deemed necessary by the strategic resources board for aircraft construction." And so, while Hal and his workers had used the assistance to move construction of the "Gustav" model into high gear, the Kelly Aircraft Company had moved into their new digs-and, so far at least, had shown precious little for it.

But it was a done deal, so Jesse let it go. He turned his attention to the aircraft shelters he was passing, five completed now and one in progress. Three had aircraft in them, a Belle and two of the new Gustavs, low wing, powerful looking birds. Their ground crews were still working on them in the lowering sunlight, busy, purposeful. The Belle ground crew was fueling their aircraft from a horse drawn fuel bowser. At the next shelter over, the crewchief of Gustav I, Sergeant Hiram Winters, noticed Jesse and raised a hand. Jesse smiled and raised his own hand in greeting before he moved on.

Good kids, he smiled. Good aircraft. Thank you, God, for both.

He neared an airman lounging on a small tractor near the landing zone. With two hundred and thirty-five men and women now on the rolls, he no longer worried about manpower to work on the field, though the constant effort required brought to memory the old British secret for a nice lawn: good seed, plenty of water, and rolled daily for three hundred years. To that end, the tractor had a roller in tow. Filling in and smoothing out the ruts made in the runway's landing zone was a routine end-of-flying-day chore. He waved his hand down as the young man made to get off his machine.

"Good evening, Airman…" He looked for the airman's nametag.

"Guten abend, Herr Oberst. Mein name ist Fleischer. 'Gus' Fleischer."

"Fleischer." Jesse put his hands in the small of his back and stretched. "Waiting for the last aircraft?"

"Jawohl… I mean, 'Yes sir,' " Fleischer replied.

Jesse checked his watch. "Soon, I think. How long have you been with us, Fleischer?"

"Drei, uh, three month, Herr Colonel," Fleischer said slowly.

"And driving already, huh? Very good."

"Yes, sir." The young man lifted his chin. "I will be a pilot, someday." He lifted his arm and pointed. "Look, Herr Oberst! Er kommt!"

"Yes, he does," said Jesse, watching the Belle III slide over the field boundary and touch down. He clapped the airman on the shoulder. "Study hard, Gus, eh?"

"Ja, Colonel!" The young German nodded, started the tractor, and drove off proudly to his duty.

Chapter 2

Magdeburg, on the Elbe River Capital of the United States of Europe

"Short handed again," Thorsten Engler muttered to himself, as he counted those still out sick. Fortunately, all they had to do at night was keep the furnace running until morning. Things were usually pretty quiet, although one time the gas had started to run out, and he'd had to scramble to unload the coke and load new coal in several retorts. That could be the case tonight, with the cold and the snow increasing demand for heat.

Being the recently promoted foreman for the night shift at the coal gas plant-which was almost as new as he was-Engler always tried to walk around the plant every hour, whether it was clear, rain, or snow. It was the only way to make sure everyone was awake, and it tended to keep him awake as well. Despite the snow falling, the plant was mostly clear. That was probably due to the heat of the furnace, and maybe some shoveling as well. He'd have to make sure that they continued that during the night, or he'd look bad in the morning when the plant manager arrived.

He walked around the plant, looking at the furnace and the machinery. As he had many times by now, he wished he knew more about the manufacturing processes involved in the operation. It had only been a month since the plant officially opened. He had trained for it and even helped build it, but no one here had ever seen such a collection of machinery before.

To make the situation worse, his training had been narrowly focused on the job of repairman he'd been originally hired on for, not the more general training a supervisor should get. Neither he nor the plant management had expected him to become a foreman almost as soon as he started. That was another effect of the influenza that was ravaging the city. The original foreman had been a much older man. He'd died from the disease just three weeks ago.

Everything looked good, though, so far as Thorsten could tell. He was about to head inside when he heard a faint high-pitched whistle. That was odd, he thought. The wind didn't seem strong enough for that.

But, not seeing anything amiss, he went into his office to catch up on his paperwork. With all the men out sick because of the influenza, the work records were more of a tangle than usual.

A couple of hours later, one of the workmen came into the office. That was Eric Krenz, who served the night shift as its crane operator. Since they still didn't have a full-time repairman on night shift, he also helped Thorsten in that capacity. Both single men in their mid-twenties, they'd become quite good friends in the short time since they'd started working together.

"Something's wrong, Thorsten," Krenz said. "The street lamps seem to be going out."

Thorsten quickly went outside. The lights were indeed dimming. Those farther away from the plant were already out.

"Shit. There'll be a lot of pissed people soon. Did we run out of gas?"

"I don't think so," said Eric. "It's only been two or three hours since we started this batch. I don't know what's going on."

Engler decided to start at the beginning, with the coal loading operation. That was being handled by Robert Stiteler these past few days. Stiteler was an Alsatian, one of the many immigrants who'd arrived in Magdeburg over the past year. He normally helped Krenz operate the steam-powered crane that moved the kegs containing the coal tar products and ammonia water. But with so many of the men off sick, he'd agreed to handle loading the coal instead. It was back-breaking work, using a shovel instead of a steam crane, but he'd done a fine job with it. He'd kept the coal going in and the coke going out, which was what mattered.

When Engler appeared in the furnace room, with Krenz in tow, Stiteler broke off from his work and leaned his shovel against one of the stanchions that supported the furnace room's walls and roof. As a safety measure, the stanchion was much thicker and sturdier than it really needed to be. The furnace "room" was really a big shed, with walls and a roof made of thin planks just thick enough to handle rain and snow.

"Evening, Thorsten," he said pleasantly. As was true of the most of the men working in the plant-anywhere in Magdeburg-the Alsatian immigrant had quickly adopted the informality favored in work places by the American up-timers. All the more so since the Committees of Correspondence who were almost a separate, informal government in the capital city insisted on it as a matter of principle. They had members everywhere, especially in the ranks of the industrial workers and their unions. Thorsten wasn't a member of the CoCs himself, simply because he'd been too busy for the meetings involved. But his friend Eric Krenz belonged, as did perhaps a fourth of the workmen in the plant.

"Evening, Robert," he said, trying to be just as pleasant but wanting to get on to the problem at hand. Normally, he would have taken the time to chat idly with Stiteler for a minute or two, just to give the man a legitimate excuse to take a rest from the grueling labor of shoveling coal down the chute into the retorts. "We seem to be losing gas somewhere along the way. Are you having any problems?"

Stiteler shook his head. "No, nothing."

Thorsten inspected the furnace, which seemed fine. Then he headed toward the gas main.

Stumbling over something, he looked down. There was a grate lying on the floor, which he hadn't spotted before because it was half-covered in the coal dust that was spread over much of room. Frowning, Thorsten looked over at the furnace again and noticed for the first time that the grate that should have been located on the coal chute was missing. Instead, the opening for the grate seemed to be covered with something solid, from what little of it Thorsten could see because of the coal dust.

He looked back down at the object he'd stumbled over. "Robert, what is this grate doing here? And what have you got covering the hole it was on?"

Stiteler had gone back to shoveling, but now looked over. "Oh, that damned thing. I took it off two days ago and replaced it with some wood. It kept getting fouled with the smaller pieces of coal. Made it hard to shovel the coal in, because it kept catching the blade. This way works much better."

Engler hissed in a breath. "Robert, it's supposed to get fouled. You don't want the fine pieces…"

Robert was frowning at him. "Why? What's the matter?"

Truth be told, Engler wasn't sure himself why the grate was important. But he had a vague memory of one of the up-time engineers who'd designed the plant telling him that it was. If he remembered correctly, the function of the grate was to make sure that only the larger chunks of coal got into the furnace itself. If you let the coal pieces that were too fine into the furnace, especially the dust…

He couldn't remember what would happen. The foreman's training he'd gotten-all half a day of it-had been too quick and hurried for him to remember a lot of what he'd been told. But it was certainly nothing good.

"Put the grate back on," he ordered, "and don't take it off again."

Moving more urgently now, he began moving down the main, inspecting the big pipe. Eric Krenz came with him.

"The main looks wrong," Thorsten said. "See, Eric?"

Krenz nodded. "The pipe should be entirely red hot, but only the top half seems red. It stops at the bend."

There was a loud crack from inside the furnace, the sound of metal breaking.

"What was that?" half-shouted Stiteler, stumbling back and almost dropping his shovel.

"I don't know," Thorsten replied. "I've never seen something like this." He began to smell smoke. "Smoke?"

"Look, Thorsten!" said Eric. "There's your smoke!"

Sure enough. Smoke was starting to pour out of one of the short smokestacks next to the furnace.

Understanding came instantly to Thorsten. "One of the retorts must have broken, and the coal has caught fire. But why?"

He looked again at the gas main, thinking quickly. With the grate removed, small pieces of coal-a lot of it nothing more than dust-would have…

He wasn't sure. But with the inside of the gas main lined with coal tar, as it inevitably became… and as gummy as that stuff was… he had a bad feeling that the coal dust would have started piling up in there, constricting the main.

"There has to be a blockage," he stated firmly. "Quick, turn the gas off!"

"If the coal has caught fire in there," said Eric, "that won't do any good. We can't put that out."

Thorsten wavered for a second. He wanted to handle this problem himself, but not bringing the fire under control could be disastrous. "Yes, you're right. Run over and get the fire brigade now!"

"Please get these messages out ASAP," Mike Stearns said, handing the radio operator a sheaf of papers. "And let me know if any of the messages are not acknowledged."

"Yes, sir," the operator said. "Conditions seem pretty good tonight. I'll encrypt them and get them out. Any special priorities?"

"Not really. But send the one to my wife first, please. And make sure the one to Colonel Wood gets through. I'd like him up here tomorrow, if it's at all possible."

Mike turned and walked out of the room. The Marine on guard outside stood at attention as he walked by, and nodded in response to Mike's "good night." He was leaving the building when he heard a bell ringing in the distance and the clattering of horses. By the time he was at the entrance to the USE government's main building-the Hans Richter Palace, to use its official name, although most people just called it "Government House"-a dozen Marines and sailors had come out of the nearby barracks, apparently curious about what was going on.

Almost immediately, they heard the horses slow and then stop. Realizing it was close, Mike said "Let's go, guys." With his impromptu military escort, he headed toward the commotion at a brisk walk.

Thomas Kruz, Chief of the First Fire Brigade in Magdeburg, had been playing cards with several of his men when the runner arrived with the news. His men knew their jobs, and they'd quickly hitched their horses to the fire wagon and ridden out into the night. The wagon was new, a first-of-its-kind steam pump fire wagon, and he was proud of it. He and his men had trained with it over and over, until they could operate it in their sleep. He was sure beyond any doubt they were prepared for a fire.

Within a couple of minutes, they had reached the coal gas plant. When they arrived, they saw thick black smoke rising from one of the smokestacks. The snow falling everywhere else turned into steam before it struck the furnace. But, fortunately, there were no flames, no exposed fire, nothing that really screamed Emergency!

He saw someone running towards him. As he got closer, Kruz recognized the night shift foreman, Thorsten Engler. As it happened, they were neighbors.

"There's a fire in the furnace, Thomas," Thorsten said, "and we can't put it out. It could destroy the furnace."

Chief Kruz had toured the coal gas plant, several times, since a fire here was one of his biggest fears. Still, he really didn't know much more about it than most people did-including, unfortunately, most of the people working in the plant itself. The drive to expand industry in Magdeburg in response to the war with the League of Ostend was forcing people to take shortcuts and use makeshifts everywhere. His fire crew was actually quite exceptional in having had the time to be trained properly. Most of the factories in the city were being run by half-trained people, with foremen who often had little more training than the men they supervised.

Quickly, he looked toward the area of the plant where the vats of pitch and other flammable materials were stored. But they seemed to be safe, not being very close to the furnace. He breathed a sigh of relief that his worst fears were not realized.

"What's the problem, Thorsten?"

"I'm not sure. But I think the gas main is blocked and the gases are backing up into the furnace. It's starting to break on the inside."

"Show me where it's blocked."

Kruz followed Engler into the furnace room. Once inside, they walked around to the other side of the furnace, and Thorsten pointed out a big wrought iron tube, the upper half of it glowing red against the dim light. "You see? That's the main. It's got to be clogged. The gasses are backing up into the furnace."

The fire chief wasn't sure what to do. He'd been trained to deal with open fires, flames. This…

"What can we do to help, Thorsten?"

Engler ran fingers through his thick black hair. "We have to stop the fire and cool the furnace, before there is any more damage. This plant is providing gas to light the street, to heat and run several factories here. It is important!"

"Yes, fine, but what's the best way to do that? Thorsten, we can't pump water over the furnace, because we can't keep it from hitting those metal doors." He pointed at the doors to the retorts which, like the gas main, were glowing dull red with heat. "The water could well cause them to crack."

Exasperated, Engler shook his head. "You're right. And it wouldn't put out the fire inside the furnace anyway. We have to put that out first and let things cool down."

They hurried back around to the front, where the smoke from the left smokestack was, if anything, increasing. One of the plant workers was already there. Another of Kruz's neighbors, as it happened, the crane operator Eric Krenz.

"There! The air is drawn into the furnace over there!" Krenz was pointing to a smokestack on the right. His finger moved over. "And the smoke is coming out there. We change the direction every ten minutes. We need to pump water in both."

Finally having clear directions, Kruz nodded vigorously. "You three, set up the pump," the chief instructed his men. "You two, run a canvas hose down to the river. We'll pump water from there."

He looked over the situation. Pumping water there seemed reasonable. It wouldn't hurt to try. "That furnace is very hot. Stand well back!"

Within three minutes, his men had set up the pump, attached a hose from the river and two hoses to the pump, and had the steam engine up to heat.

By now, a small crowd had gathered outside the plant, and were watching them. Kruz took a quiet pride at how his fire crew was holding up under pressure. Two men were holding each fire hose, one was stationed at the river to control the hose there, and another man reported to the Chief: "We're ready."

"Start up the pump," Kruz directed.

The Marine sergeant at Mike's side leaned over toward him. "Is there anything you want us to do, Mr. Pres-ah, I mean, Prime Minister?"

Mike had to fight down a little smile. The sergeant was an up-timer, and like most such was still getting used to peculiar "foreign" titles like prime minister instead of the familiar president. Not surprising, of course. The United States of Europe had been in existence for less than three months.

"No, Sergeant. The firemen are here and they seem to know what they're doing. We'd just be getting in their way."

He almost ordered everyone to go back to the barracks, but…

Didn't. The problem was that Mike knew full well just how desperately undertrained most people were in Magdeburg's new industrial plants. The capital of the new USE was also rapidly becoming both its largest city and its major manufacturing center. Those were both developments that Mike was encouraging every way he possibly could. Grantville was simply too small and too isolated in the Thuringian hills to serve as the center for the new society coming into existence in central Europe. Nor, even if its location had been better, could it ever grow very big because of the surrounding terrain.

He'd been very cold-blooded about it all, willing to accept the risks for the benefits. However diplomatic he might be, most times, and however much he was willing to tack and veer in the requisite political maneuvers, Mike never lost sight for a moment of the fact that what he was really doing was organizing a revolution. And one of the lessons he'd taken from the voracious reading of history he'd been doing since the Ring of Fire-with advice from Melissa Mailey and his wife Rebecca, who read even more extensively than he did-was that revolutions were greatly assisted by having a big capital city that doubled as a nation's industrial center. The role that, in other revolutions in another universe, had been played by cities like Paris and "Red Berlin" and St. Petersburg, Mike intended to be played in this one by Magdeburg.

But nothing came free, and the price they paid for that explosive growth was inevitable. Everything and everybody was stretched very thin, and they weren't so much cutting corners as lopping them off with an ax. With his own extensive experience in coal mining and stevedoring, Mike knew full well just how dangerous that could be.

So, he decided to stick around for a bit. True enough, the firemen seemed to know what they were doing. However, that could simply mean that they were efficiently going about their work, but the work itself wasn't what they should be doing.

It was hard to know. The sight in front of him, mostly in darkness with a soft snowfall obscuring everything still further, was a pretty good summary of the whole situation in Europe as the year 1633 came to a close.

Chapter 3

Within a few seconds, two thick streams of water began arching into the air and falling into the smokestacks. A thick cloud of steam flashed instantly into the air, as the water contacted the hot brick. Fortunately, the smokestacks were ten feet high, and the steam flashed above them, so the firemen weren't cooked where they stood. Courageously, they continued pumping water into the smokestacks.

Then disaster struck. The incredibly hot firebrick in the reverberatory furnace had some resistance to water at room temperature, but none at 900C. It dissolved under the impact of the water, collapsing and blocking both smokestacks, trapping high temperature steam within. The main furnace chamber, containing the retorts, held.

"My God!" the chief reacted. He looked at the foreman and the other two plant workers, who were staring, mouth open, at the damage.

"Stop the pump! Get the wagon back! Everyone get back!" he directed. He stared at the furnace. It was a ruin, obviously enough. But at least the smoke had stopped. The fire was probably out.

"Hell's bells," Mike hissed, when he heard the bricks collapse. "We could use Jerry Trainer right now," he said to no one in particular.

"What's happening, sir?" the sergeant asked.

"No idea," he replied. "We'll keep the men here, though, just in case we're needed."

By now, they were in the middle of a large crowd, standing behind a very sturdy-looking waist-high brick wall that surrounded the plant everywhere except along the river. The men at the plant had ignited torches to replace the gas lamps, and the faint light and drifting snow gave the scene an eerie look.

"Do you see flames there?" One of the sailors pointed to the location where the gas main entered the furnace room.

Mike squinted, trying to see through the snowfall. It was very faint, but something did seem to be burning. And the flames were blue.

Chief Kruz and his men were also watching the furnace. "Look!" one of them yelled. From closer up, very faint blue flames were apparent where the gas main entered the furnace, and also around the doors of the retorts.

"Get the men back! Back!" Kruz had never seen flames like that, and he didn't like it.

The flames were indeed blue, the color of burning hydrogen gas. When water was pumped into the furnace, besides destroying the firebrick, it reacted with the red-hot coal in the furnace to make hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The hydrogen, being very light, pushed the coal gas down as it sought the highest elevation. It then began leaking out between the firebrick and the gas main, as well as around the retorts. When the hydrogen reached the air it burned, creating high temperature steam, which began to eat through the firebrick. The structure holding the gas main in the furnace dissolved, and the pipe shifted. When that happened, all the remaining hydrogen rushed out, and air rushed in to fill the gap, where it mixed with coal gas into an explosive mixture.

The fire chief was not positioned to see the gas main shift, but one of his men was. He saw a flash as the hydrogen escaped and exploded, and yelled "Down!" A split second later, the coal gas-oxygen mixture exploded.

The gas main pipe went flying end-over-end, spewing smaller pieces of red-hot iron and crashing into a large metal distilling vat. Some of the retorts also split, blasting out of the furnace like cannon fire. The thin walls of the furnace rooms came off, as did large sections of the roof.

One of the retorts smashed into Stiteler and slammed him into the column behind him, killing him instantly. The shovel flew from his hand and Engler and Krenz ducked to avoid being hit by it. Luckily for them, as it happened, because a second piece of wreckage hurtled right through the air where they'd been standing a second earlier.

Another piece of a retort went through the thin wall as if it weren't there and landed on the barge holding the coal for the plant. Another, much bigger one, did the same thing to a different wall-and then shattered the wall of an adjacent factory as it struck, instantly killing two workers and starting the structure on fire.

Stone, iron and coal sprayed in all directions from the impact site. In other cases, only the doors to the retorts flew out, red hot frisbees delivering death and destruction. One of these struck the fireman holding the hose by the river, cutting him in half and throwing what was left of him into the waters of the Elbe. Another flew across the street into an apartment building, starting yet another fire. Fortunately, no one was killed outright, although a young mother was badly hurt and the baby she'd been feeding would wind up losing his arm below the elbow.

The last one flew unerringly into the vats of coal tar products, badly damaging the support structure for one of the vats. At the same time, pieces of burning coal from the retorts flew into the air, bombarding those passersby not lucky or smart enough to be crouching behind the wall or under shelter.

Mike rose from behind the wall and briefly looked at his escort to make sure they were unharmed. Some of the sailors and Marines were purposefully moving to put out flames and administer first aid to bystanders who had been hit by flying coal. The coal plant itself seemed to be fairly free of flames, now. There were a few piles of flaming coal but little other damage beyond the explosion. As he watched, he saw two people come stumbling to the wall.

"What happened to the plant?" the sergeant asked them.

Now leaning with both hands on the wall, one of the men shook his head. "I don't know. Robert…" He shook his head again. "Robert Stiteler. He was killed. I don't believe this."

"Do you work here?" Mike asked.

"Yes. I am the night shift foreman. Thorsten Engler." He nodded to the man next to him. "This is Eric Krenz, the crane operator."

Hearing a new sound, of collapsing metal, Engler and Krenz turned their heads around to look back. As they and Mike watched, the damaged vat began to shift, finally falling on its side. It impacted with a loud crack, and gallons of thick pitch began to ooze out.

By now, the fire chief had reorganized his men and moved to put out the fires in the adjacent factory and the apartment buildings across the street. Only one other structure was aflame, the roof of a shed near the river, away from both the coal tar and the machinery.

"What's in that shed?" Mike asked.

Engler looked over. "Nothing much," he said. "Just fertilizer. For growing plants."

Mike frowned. "Why do you have fertilizer at the coal gas plant?"

"It's very new. They call it… 'ammonium nitrate,' I think. Supposed to be the best fertilizer ever. We make it from some of the waste from the coal tar."

Mike would swear he could literally feel the blood draining from his face. Ammonium nitrate, for the love of God!

Bituminous coal mining operations rarely used explosives much, any longer, but he'd been around enough blasting operations to know what the stuff was used for besides farming.

The sergeant was staring at him. "Is it dangerous, sir?"

"Hell, yes, it's dangerous," Mike replied. "There was a cargo ship full of it in Texas City that blew up once and took out most of the town-not to mention that it was the stuff that provided most of the force for the Oklahoma City bombing."

Mike looked again at the shed. The flames had moved down from the roof to the walls, and the whole thing was being consumed. "Everybody down!" he yelled. Then, repeated the yell for the benefit of the firemen, accompanying it with frantic arm waving.

Fortunately, the fire chief wasn't pigheaded. He immediately ordered his men out of the area and behind the wall. Mike grabbed Engler and Krenz and dragged them over the wall, then dropped down himself below the top.

For perhaps twenty seconds, nothing happened. A few people started to get up, here and there. Then there was a tremendous explosion that seemed to obliterate everything in a sheer blast of noise. Half-dazed, Mike saw one of the bystanders who'd been incautious enough to raise his head over the wall get decapitated. By what, he had no idea. A piece of brick, who knew? One moment the man had a head, the next moment a corpse was collapsing to the ground with blood gushing out of a neck stump.

When it seemed to be over, Mike carefully peered over the top of the wall. There was a ten-foot crater where the shed had been. Some of its flaming remnants had apparently landed on the coal barge, and were completing its destruction.

Mike shifted his gaze, and saw that the vat that had tipped over seemed mostly empty. However, two more of the vats had shifted from the impact, and were now also tilted.

Engler's head had come up next to his, with Krenz following a second later. Mike pointed at the vats. "What's in those vats?"

"Coal tar," said Krenz. "Different kinds. We separate them, and sell the different kinds."

"The one that fell on the ground contained pitch," Engler added. "We usually don't have more than a few days' worth; there's a lot of demand for it. That one"-he pointed to the one starting to list-"contains something called 'light benzoils.' We don't get much call for it, so we've been saving it up to sell to the Americans."

"How much of it is stored up?"

"I add a new barrel or two to that vat every day," said Krenz. "Maybe a couple of hundred barrels worth."

Mike felt his face paling again. That was the equivalent of several thousand gallons of gasoline. If it spread and ignited, half the city was likely to burn down before it was all over.

He turned to the sergeant. "Get every available man from the base."

He turned to another Marine. "See if you can find Gunther Achterhof, the CoC guy for this district. We need all the manpower we can get. Tell him to bring shovels, buckets, whatever will fight the fire."

He looked back again. Fortunately, the pitch still hadn't caught, despite the hot fragments of furnace littering the ground. "Two of you Marines get shovels and buckets and get those fragments out of here before they ignite the pitch."

Once those pressing immediate tasks were seen to, he turned to the contingent of sailors and Marines who were gathered around him. "We've got to keep that vat from tipping over. Get some long pieces of lumber from the dockyards. Get block and tackle. Fast!"

Half a dozen sailors took off, heading for the base. As he looked again, he saw the pitch slowly oozing out of the plant and into the street. Beyond it, he saw the road leading to the open end of the sewer under construction. "Christ on a crutch," he said. "If the stuff in that vat gets in the sewers, the entire city will go."

"There isn't enough time," Engler said. "We have to get in there now." He climbed over the wall and into the plant's yard, heading for the coal tar vats. Krenz came right behind him.

Mike stared at them, decided they were right, and followed himself. His men joined him.

The ground was an obstacle course, requiring them to zigzag to avoid the still-hot debris from the explosion. They ran over to the fire chief, who was lying on the ground, stunned. "Wake up!" Mike shouted. "You've got to get your pump going."

"We still have steam, we can pump!" one of the firemen yelled, having heard him. "But we have to put out those fires now." He was pointing to the apartment buildings, and Mike could see that he was right. As tightly packed as those buildings were throughout most of Magdeburg, if a fire got out of control it would be almost impossible to stop.

One of the other firemen pulled out a knife and cut away the harness for one of the horses. The animal's back had been shattered by a big chunk of flying debris. The fire chief staggered to his feet and looked around. The first fireman ran over to him. "Sir, there are buildings on fire. We've got to put them out now!"

Mike came to a quick decision. "Go," he said. "My men and I will take care of the plant."

The fire chief nodded, and stumbled after the pump as his men led it away.

Mike continued through the obstacle course, finally arriving at the upended vat, He looked beyond it to the damaged one. It was still standing, but was now starting to leak a thin liquid on the ground.

"Make way!" Krenz yelled. He carried an empty barrel across the pitch to put it under the leak. "That won't stop it for long."

"We've got to jack up that platform, or that won't matter," one of the sailors said.

"Over there," Mike directed. "The platform for the destroyed vat. See if any of the wood can be salvaged." Several men started pulling lumber off the ground. Others pushed the grounded vat a few feet out of the way. They replaced parts of the damaged supports.

"The vat's too badly damaged," Engler said. Mike could see that he was right. The leak was increasing. They had to move the tar before it ruptured entirely. As he watched, the first barrel filled up and overflowed. The liquid quickly overtook the thick pitch in its downhill flow. A couple of men rolled the barrel out of the way, and replaced it with a new barrel.

"We can't keep this up. We don't have enough barrels." Mike glanced at the nearby steam crane and turned to Krenz. "You said you filled the vats. Can you put those barrels into other vats?"

"Yes," he replied. "But it takes time to bring the boiler to steam. We don't have enough time."

One of the Marines pointed to the burning coals scattered across the yard. "We can use that coal."

"Do it," Mike said. He directed some of the newly arrived troops to use their shovels to fill the firebox of the crane. Others, he directed to help the fire brigade put out the nearby fires.

Krenz sat down in the crane, then yelled, stood up, and batted a small lump of coal from the seat. Despite the tension of the moment, a burst of laughter went up from the men who saw. Krenz grinned himself, shaking his head ruefully, before he sat back down at the controls.

The crane lifted its bucket, which Krenz sat down next to the first barrel. By this point, there were three filled barrels, and the last one was almost full. Several men tipped one of the barrels into the bucket, which was quickly raised and poured into a different vat.

Mike looked at the barrels and the vat. "It's not going to be enough," he muttered. "It's just a finger in the dike." He called several of the men, both naval personnel and the CoC members who were starting to arrive.

"It's not enough. We've got to keep it out of the sewers." He looked around. "Some of you, fill in the end of the sewer. The rest of you, we need to direct what gets out into the river. Start a trench here."

Gunther Achterhof came running up with a number of his people. "This looks bad, Prime Minister. How can we help?"

"Could your people relieve my troops helping the fire brigade? We've got to handle this leak before it gets in the sewers."

"Yes, of course."

Mike turned back, to see that the trench was beginning to take shape. But the leak was getting worse, and was clearly winning. He moved back to Krenz and the crane. "The leak is speeding up; soon it'll be more than we can stop. How can we redirect the benzoil?"

"It would take too long to use the crane to dig a trench," Krenz said, "and this is the wrong scoop, anyway."

"Okay, then. Can you use the crane to knock the vat so that it goes into the river?"

Mike thought, briefly and little ruefully, of what environmentalists in the world they'd left behind would say to a thousand gallons or so of toxic organic chemicals being poured into the river that ran right through a major city. But they were three and half centuries away in a different universe and didn't have a town burning down around them.

"I can lift the side of the vat with the scoop. The crane isn't strong enough to pick it up, but that might be enough. Make a shitpot of a mess, though."

"If most of that liquid reaches the sewer, we'll have a lot bigger mess on our hands. I'll tell the men."

Mike went over to the men desperately unloading the vat. "We're going to lift that side of the vat, and pour the liquid into the river. Get some long pieces of lumber as levers, and we'll try to direct which way it goes. The rest of you, get the hell out of here. Move!"

Krenz carefully brought the scoop under the side of the vat, and two sailors used pieces of wood to direct it into place. Several others braced lumber against the vat, now pouring its flammable contents at a rapid rate onto the ground. While they did that, the people digging the ditch started running from the plant.

"Now!" Mike yelled, and the scoop lifted up. Under the combined efforts of the crane and the men, the platform started to collapse on the opposite side, and the vat slowly started to topple. A moment later, most of the contents poured out of the vat and surged towards the river. He grimaced as he saw a small stream of it heading for the base of the furnace. The chemicals lapped against the side of the furnace, where the heat caused some of it to vaporize. It touched some of the burning coal near the furnace, and there was an almost-explosion as gallons of it caught fire. Flames raced outward, following the path to the river and entering it. Only there did they stop. Other flames raced towards the other vats, but fortunately couldn't quite reach them before they burned themselves out.

It was over. Leaving behind a ruined coal gas plant and one unholy mess, true. Not to mention a number of people killed and injured. But at least an industrial accident hadn't become transformed into a city-wide catastrophe.

Mike sat down and caught his breath. Thorsten Engler sat down next to him, and a naval rating on the other side.

"What a cluster-fuck," the rating said.

Engler rubbed his face wearily. "Poor Robert. And all of it because of a stupid grate."

Mike didn't say anything. Eventually, he'd get a full report of what had caused the disaster, in considerable detail. But he already knew the gist of it.

They were pushing too hard, because of the war. And the only way he could see to end it was to win the war as soon as possible.

When Mike got back to the government building, he went directly to the radio room.

"Did we hear anything-"

Smiling, the operator held up a sheet of paper. "Yes, Prime Minister. Your wife is fine and she says-"

"Not her," Mike said impatiently. "I meant did we get anything from Colonel Wood?"

The radio operator stared at him for a moment. Then, clearing his throat. "Ah, yes, sir. He'll fly up here tomorrow. He'll be here by noon, he says."

"Good." Seeing the operator still staring at him, Mike smiled a bit crookedly. "And, now, yes. Of course I'd like to see the message from my wife."

Chapter 4

Admiral John Chandler Simpson quietly slid himself back into his seat in the chamber of the new royal palace that was being used for public musical performances until the still-newer music center was completed. The gesture was smooth and practiced, as was his wife Mary's sang-froid at the abrupt departure and return of her husband in the middle of a performance. She was accustomed to the problem, and had been for decades.

True, in times past in Pittsburgh her husband would leave because some assistant whispered urgent news in his ear concerning his large petrochemical corporation-not because of an explosion so loud it had rattled the windows in the chamber. But, from Mary's viewpoint, the distinction was minor. When moving in high society, one always maintained one's cool-even if no one would think of using such a gauche term to describe the behavior. Appearances weren't everything, to be sure. But they mattered.

"An industrial accident of some sort," he whispered into her ear. "A bad one, it seems. But from what I could determine, no enemy action seems to be involved."

Her responding nod was a minute thing. To all outward appearances, all her attention was focused on the performance. Which, in fact, almost all of it actually was.

Frescobaldi, for the love of God!

The man himself, that was to say. Truth be told, in the world somewhere on the other side of the Ring of Fire, Mary Simpson had never been all that fond of Frescobaldi's music. She hadn't been very fond of any music between that of Monteverdi and Bach, in fact. Like most classical music enthusiasts, she'd generally considered the whole seventeenth century something of a musical desert between the great eras of the High Renaissance and the Baroque. A great period in western civilization in terms of the visual arts, of course, but not music. Perhaps aficionados of the organ felt differently about the matter, she supposed, but the organ was very far from her favorite musical instrument.

But that was then and there, and this was here and now. And the fact remained that Girolamo Frescobaldi was one of the tiny number of composers whose name and music would survive for three and a half centuries. And not simply as a footnote in scholarly studies, either-some of his music was still in the standard repertoire, in the universe they'd left behind. Not much of it, true, and that almost entirely organ music. Still he was a genuine name-and he was here in person.

Mary was quite simply thrilled to death, whatever she thought of the man's music itself. Especially since she was pretty sure that her relentless campaign-sophisticated, suave, yes, yes, but still relentless-to persuade Frescobaldi to resign his post as organist for the Medicis in Florence and set up in Magdeburg was nearing success.

Fortunately, Amalie Elizabeth shared her enthusiasm for music. The landgravine of Hesse-Kassel was even, unlike Mary, a fan of organ music. True, her husband Wilhelm V had instituted tight budget limits in order to pay off the debts of his profligate father Moritz. But Hesse-Kassel was a wealthy enough principality that even with limits, Amalie Elizabeth still had some money to throw at music and the arts. So, Mary was able to waggle a very nice stipend under Frescobaldi's nose if he moved to Magdeburg. That, combined with the fascination the composer and keyboard performer had for the new innovations brought by the up-timers ought to do the trick. In that respect, and despite being now middle-aged, Frescobaldi was no different than almost all musicians of the era.

Still, she couldn't deny she was a bit relieved when Frescobaldi finally stood up from the harpsichord where he'd been playing what seemed like an endless series of pleasant but slight toccatas. Mary was even less fond of the harpsichord than she was of the organ. Why subject oneself to that damn tinkle-tinkle-tinkle when you could listen to the rich sounds of a pianoforte?

The auditorium was drowned in applause, to which Mary added her own vigorous share. She even whistled, something she'd never have dreamed of doing in the concert halls she'd left behind. But she'd discovered that seventeenth-century music patrons, from royalty on down, had a far more raucous notion of applause than their counterparts possessed in the twentieth century. And, well, as a child Mary had discovered she was a superb whistler-an uncouth skill which, sadly, she'd had to abandon once she grew old enough to participate in proper society.

She caught a glimpse of her husband grimacing slightly, out of the corner of her eye.

"Hey, look," she murmured, "I'm a great whistler. Being able to do it again makes up for a lot. Almost makes up for seventeenth-century plumbing."

Her husband's grimace deepened. "Mary, nothing makes up for the plumbing in the here and how. But that's not why I was wincing. I simply can't for the life of me understand-never could-why anyone would applaud a performer who subjected them to that damn harpsichord. Tinkle-tinkle-tinkle. It's like listening to a concerto for nails-scratching-a-blackboard and orchestra."

Mary chuckled. "Well, take heart. Our very own Marla is up next."

That announcement caused John Simpson to lean back in his chair with some degree of anticipation. Mary had always had proteges in the past. Marla Linder was the latest; a young woman Mary had discovered in Grantville who, while she might not be a prodigy, was clearly gifted. She had been their guest in Magdeburg the last few weeks, preparing for this concert. Having heard her singing snippets of songs around their townhouse, John was actually looking forward to hearing her.

The harpsichord had been moved out of the way and the grand piano muscled into position. John joined the applause as Marla came out, gave a nod of her head in acknowledgment, then sat and began. Several selections followed, all sounding somewhat familiar to him, ending with a Chopin showpiece. Loud applause erupted. After it died down, John leaned over to Mary. "I think that made Signor Frescobaldi sound a bit insipid." He smiled at her frown.

Marla returned, taking a stand in front of the piano. What followed was remarkable, even to John's less than trained ears. Song followed song, lyrical, polished, enrapting; classical was followed by show tunes, ending with Christmas music. Some were sung as duets or ensembles, one with her violinist fiance Franz Sylwester, but most were solos. The final piece was "Ave, Maria," during which John looked over to see a bit of moisture in Mary's eyes. Truth to tell, he had a bit of a lump in his own throat.

After the concert was over, John Simpson waited while his wife did her usual gadding about, congratulating the performers, chatting with-or chatting up, rather-various key members of the nobility and wealthy merchants present, comparing notes quickly with Amalie Elizabeth and the abbess of Quedlinburg. The usual conspiratorial business of the dame of Magdeburg, in her drive to turn the brand new USE's brand new capital city into one of Europe's cultural powerhouses.

To Simpson's amusement, some of the city's newspapers were already starting to use that title for her. He wondered if they'd come up with it on their own, or if somehow they'd discovered that in a different universe Pittsburgh's newspapers had often called her "the Dame of the Three Rivers" and decided it was catchy.

Whatever. Over the years, he'd learned to be patient about the whole business, even though he had very little interest in the matter himself. As one of Pittsburgh's premier industrialists, he'd found Mary's constant cultural and philanthropic enterprises had added a great deal to his own prestige and status. Now as an admiral in the USE's growing little navy-the admiral, really-he knew her activities would have the same effect. More so, probably, in this world than the one they'd left behind.

So, he waited. Still, it was with some relief that he was finally able to escort her out of the palace. He hadn't let any of it show, but he was actually quite concerned about that industrial accident. True, the location of it wasn't close enough to the navy yard to pose any direct threat to his own enterprises. But as stretched thin as all of Magdeburg's industries were, any major disaster would have an impact-especially since his naval building projects were the main customer for a lot of those industries.

As soon as they stepped out of the palace onto the portico, his concern spiked sharply. The portico was elevated a good fifteen feet above the rest of Magdeburg-a city whose terrain was as flat as a pancake, where it wasn't outright marshland-with a wide stone staircase descending to the street below. From that perch, they had a good view of the Elbe.

"Oh… my… God…" said Mary, staring.

The portico was packed with people, staring along with them.

Suddenly, Mary chuckled. Almost a giggle. "Well, we won't be able to make jokes about Cleveland any more."

The nonsensical comment jarred Simpson out of his anxiety enough to look at her. "Excuse me?"

"The Cuyahoga, remember?"

Simpson still couldn't make any sense out of what she was saying.

"The river that burned? That song by Randy Newman?"

"Oh. Yes."

He looked back. True enough, the Elbe itself seemed to be aflame. That was an illusion, he knew. Somehow a large quantity of flammable substances must have gotten spilled into the river and had caught fire. It wasn't really as dangerous as it looked, since even the slow current of the Elbe would soon enough carry it away. Assuming it hadn't burned out by then, which it probably would. Whatever was burning there had to be some sort of light oils, floating on the surface. There simply couldn't be that much of it, given the still-primitive state of the USE's petroleum industry.

Nevertheless… the navy yard was downstream. As dark as it was, with a light snowfall, Simpson couldn't actually see it. But he knew the location of the Yard perfectly. The edges of the flames might already have reached it by now.

"I need to get down there."

"Yes, dear, of course. I'll come with you."

With Mary in tow, Simpson shouldered his way through the little mob on the stairs, being as polite about it as he could, but not to the point of being delayed. There would be a wait anyway, to get a carriage, once they reached the street. He wanted to be one of the first in line.

As it happened, however, no wait was necessary. By the time he got down to the street, he discovered that there was a Marine carriage already drawn up for him.

Lieutenant Franz-Leo Chomse emerged from the carriage and held the door open for them. "I assumed you'd wish to be taken to the navy yard, sir."

Simpson was pleased to see him. Partly because of his general anxiety, but also because it demonstrated once again that Chomse was turning into an excellent aide. He would have taken this initiative on his own, of course. Chomse wouldn't ever replace Eddie Cantrell somewhere in that place in Simpson's heart he almost never admitted existed, even to himself. But as an admiral's aide, he was actually better. If he had less of Eddie's occasional brilliance he had a lot more in the way of methodical thoughtfulness-and, thankfully, none of the up-time redhead's annoying rambunctiousness.

"Thank you, Lieutenant. Yes, I would, please."

John and Mary entered the carriage and took their seats. Chomse joined them on the bench opposite, after a quick command to the driver. No sooner had he closed the door than the carriage set off.

Almost immediately, Mary got jostled into her husband. "You and your blasted notions of military protocol," she muttered.

Simpson ignored the wisecrack. Like most people, Mary thought using a wheeled carriage in the streets of Magdeburg was just silly. Between the ruts and the mud and the potholes-not to mention those few stretches which had been cobblestoned, which were often worse-riding through Magdeburg in a wheeled contrivance guaranteed a rough ride. Bruises, often enough. Far better to take one of the more common conveyances, which were essentially small palanquins toted between two horses, like covered litters. Or four horses, in the case of big ones. The conveyances never had direct contact with the street, since the legs and hooves of the horses absorbed the impact.

But Simpson found the contraptions repellent and insisted on "proper" carriages for the Navy and the Marines. He wasn't sure why, actually. In public, even to Mary, he stood stoutly by his claim that the arcane demands of military protocol required wheels. But he suspected it was really an emotional residue from the Vietnam War. A war which he had faithfully served in, as a junior officer, but had detested just as much as almost anyone in the military at the time.

The seventeenth-century palanquins, in some vague way, had an oriental flavor to them. And not the Orient of Vietnam's peasants and poor town dwellers, which he had often found irritating-their consequences, rather-but had never despised. Poverty was simply what it was, no more to be sneered at than sneering at the winds or the tides. No, the palanquins somehow reminded him of South Vietnam's elite, a class of people he had come to loathe, as had most American officers. He had no desire whatever to infuse that spirit into the ranks of his new navy, even indirectly or purely symbolically. Real soldiers would have their teeth rattle when they rode in carriages, damnation.

Fine, it was silly. So was war, if you looked at it from a certain perspective. But war was now John Simpson's business, and he took it seriously.

"What happened, Lieutenant?" he asked Chomse. "Do we know any details yet?"

"Almost all of them, sir. A large number of naval ratings and Marines were involved in dealing with the disaster at the coal gas plant. The prime minister happened to be nearby when the fire started, and he pretty much took charge of things, using sailors and Marines from the navy yard."

Quickly and precisely-by now, the lieutenant had learned to give excellent briefings-Chomse explained what had happened.

When he finished, Mary shook her head. "My God, is the man insane? He's the prime minister of the United States of Europe! He's got no business risking his life like that!"

Simpson looked out of the window. There was still nothing much to see, beyond an occasional street lamp in front of a tavern or one of the wealthier residences-and, then, only the old-fashioned oil lamps. None of the newer gas lights were working. As a result of the catastrophe, obviously.

He felt his wife tugging on his elbow. "John, you must speak to Mike about the matter. He simply can't do things like this."

Simpson thought about it for a moment. "No, Mary, I don't think I will. First, because Mike Stearns wouldn't pay any attention to me if I did. And second, because I don't really agree with you anyway."

"How can you-"

"Mary, leave off. The man is what he is. You might as well ask an iceberg to stop being chilly. Or-perhaps a better analogy-ask a general like George Patton to lead from the rear, the way a sensible general should."

His wife shook her head. "People will think he's crazy."

"Which people, Mary? That crowd we just left in the palace? Oh, yes, they will. Many of them, at least." He tilted his head toward the window. "But I can assure you that most of the city's residents won't have that reaction. This is a workingmen's city, dear, don't ever forget that. If the fire had spread, it would have been their modest and cramped apartments that went up in flames-along with what little they possess in the way of material goods, and quite possibly they themselves and their children."

Mary stared at him. Simpson felt an old exasperation stir a little, and suppressed it. Being fair, it wasn't that his wife was callous in her attitudes toward people of the lower classes. In fact, she was quite popular with those of them she had contact with. She was invariably gracious and the graciousness wasn't simply a facade.

Put any single person in front of Mary Simpson whom she had to deal with, and she had no difficulty at all seeing that person as an individual human being, regardless of what class they came from. And she was quite indifferent to matters of race. In fact, she was generally far more perceptive in her dealings with people than Simpson was himself.

The problem lay elsewhere. It was simply that Mary didn't deal with such people all that often, and almost never at close range except for servants. Her world-both of those worlds-had always been that of the upper crust. Whereas Simpson himself, as the CEO of a major corporation, had always had to deal with his workforce-and now, as an admiral, had to lead men into combat, almost every one of whom came from very modest circumstances. The prestigious service for seventeenth-century noblemen was the army, not the navy.

That included the young man sitting across from him, in a naval uniform that he wore all the more proudly because his father had been a simple butcher. Chomse's expression was outwardly noncommittal, but some subtlety there made it perfectly clear to Simpson that the lieutenant did not agree with the opinion of his admiral's wife. Not that he would ever say so openly, of course.

In the event, he didn't need to. Mary hadn't missed the subtleties in his expression either.

"I take it you don't agree with me either, Lieutenant Chomse?"

Franz-Leo shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Well… to be honest, Mrs. Simpson, no. I don't. I understand your point of view, but…"

He, too, looked out of the window. In his case, not to gather his thoughts but because they'd now entered the industrial zone and were passing by an area of flat land devoted to storing timber. For the first time, they had a close-up view of the burning river, with no buildings to obstruct the view.

It was an impressive sight, in its own way. Now that they were much closer, it was obvious that Simpson's guess had been correct. The flames emerging from the river were clearly coming from a thin film of oil on the surface. The fire actually seemed less threatening from this distance, since it was clear from the dancing and flickering motion of the flames that it was literally skin-deep. There was nothing burning here that could last for all that long.

"Skin-deep," however, meant a lot of skin, spread out of that much expanse of water. Gloomily, Simpson was quite certain that the USE had just suffered a noticeable dent in its stock of petroleum products-which had been none too extensive to begin with.

"The thing is, Mrs. Simpson," Chomse continued, "however much the prime minister might frighten many people in the nation, his own people are ferociously loyal to him." He did not need to add-in fact, Simpson was sure, didn't even think about it-that by "his own people" Chomse was referring mostly to German down-timers.

That thought was more than a bit of a rueful one, for Simpson. He knew he'd been wrong about many things, in the period after the Ring of Fire. But about nothing had he been more wrong than his assessment that seventeenth-century Germans would be oblivious to the appeal of democracy. Many of them, especially from the lower classes, had adopted Mike Stearns' ideology quite readily. Often, in fact, with a fervor that made Simpson himself uncomfortable.

"So tonight will simply deepen that loyalty," Chomse concluded. "In private, you know"-he made a little sweeping motion with his forefinger at the apartment buildings visible through the opposite window of the carriage-"these folk are more likely to call him 'Prince of Germany' than they are to use his actual title of prime minister."

Prince of Germany. Simpson had overheard the term once or twice himself, spoken by his sailors. But he hadn't realized it had become so widespread.

He had to fight down another wince. There were at least three edges to that sword. One, he approved of; one, he didn't; and of the third he wasn't sure.

The edge he approved of was the obvious one. The informal title bestowed on its prime minister was a focus of militant enthusiasm for the new nation, which translated in time of war into a determination to defeat its enemies. Simpson would be depending on that determination himself, in a few months, when he finally took the ironclads down the Elbe to deal with the Ostender fleets. If a smaller proportion of his sailors were members of the Committees of Correspondence than the volunteers in the new army regiments, they were still plenty of them-and most of the men who weren't actual CoC members shared many of their opinions.

But there was also the second edge, which worried him. Mike Stearns was leading a revolution in Europe. It was a simple as that, regardless of the fact that he was now doing it wearing his fancy dress as a head of government, and sitting in a office. And it was just a fact, attested to by all of history, that charismatic revolutionary leaders often wound up becoming tyrants. "Tyrants," in the literal and original Greek meaning of the term, which was not a sloppy synonym for dictators but a reference to men who led the lower classes in revolt and whose determination to champion their interests often led them to crush ruthlessly everything that stood in the way. You did not have to impute wicked motives to such men to understand that, carried too far, their virtues could become vices. In fact, those very virtues-real ones, undoubted ones-could make them ten times more dangerous than men whose motives were simply personal ambition.

Now that he'd gotten to know Stearns much better, Simpson didn't believe any longer that the man's character and temperament would incline him in that direction. But a political leader's personality was only one factor in history. Given enough pressure, any personality was malleable. And there was a great deal of pressure on Mike Stearns in the last month of the year 1633-and there would be still more in the years to come.

Finally, there was the third edge. Prince of Germany. No other man of the time would be given that title, because there were no other princes of Germany. Plenty of princes in Germany, to be sure-or "the Germanies," as people usually expressed it. Most of those princes could even be called German princes, for that matter.

But there was no Germany, as such. In the world they'd left behind, Germany would not become a nation of its own for another quarter of a millennium. In this world, it was already emerging-largely because of Mike Stearns. And so, that third edge, that Simpson was very ambivalent about. A genuine national consciousness was emerging here, two hundred and fifty years ahead of schedule. The name for the nation might be the neutral "United States of Europe," but for all intents and purposes what was really happening was the unification of the German people and the German lands. A phenomenon that, in the universe Simpson came from, had had very mixed results indeed.

His wife, who knew far more general history than he did, was more sanguine about the matter. So, at least for the moment, he deferred to her judgment.

"Oh, don't be silly, John," she'd once said to him. "It's inevitable that Germany is going to exist, sooner or later. Me? I'd just as soon have it emerge a lot earlier, without a chip on its shoulder, and with Mike Stearns conducting the orchestra instead of Otto von Bismarck. Fine, he's an uncouth hillbilly, a lot of the time. But at least he's never a damn Prussian."

They'd finally arrived at the navy yard. Chomse got out of the carriage and held the door open for the admiral and his wife.

As soon as he emerged, Simpson looked to the ironclads. They were still there, of course, although in the darkness they weren't much more than looming hulks against the piers, covered with snow. No fire such as the one that was drifting down the Elbe could really threaten the things. Still, Simpson was relieved.

The relief, combined with the sight of the great engines of war, joggled another thought forward.

"And don't forget something else, dear," he murmured to his wife. "There is at least one aristocrat in the nation who will have no trouble at all understanding what Mike did tonight-because he would have done the same. His name is Gustav Adolf, King of Sweden and Emperor of the United States of Europe, and he's the only one that really matters."

Mary chuckled. "That madman! At least he's stopped leading cavalry charges. Well. Until the campaign starts next spring, anyway. After that, we'll just have to hold our breath."

As he escorted his wife toward the naval yard's headquarters, the admiral found himself still thinking about the emperor. Because there was that, too. Yet another variable in the complex political equation. The emperor of Germany's background, training, political attitudes-not to mention the advice of his counselors-would lead him to oppose his nation's prince. But he was a strong-willed man, as much so as any European monarch of the past several centuries-and it was also a fact that he and Stearns were much alike, in many ways. If the emperor often looked askance at many of the doings of his prince, he did not distrust him. Not much, at least-and once he heard about tonight, as he surely would, whatever distrust might still be there would drop a little lower.

That might count for a lot, some day. It was hard to know.

Stearns was in the headquarters already, in the admiral's own office, sitting in one of the chairs near the desk and wiping the soot from his face with a rag. When he saw Simpson and his wife come in, he gave them a small, slightly crooked smile.

"Don't start in on me, Mary."

"I never said a word," she replied primly.

Chapter 5

"This better be goddam necessary, is all I gotta say," Jesse Wood groused as he stomped into Mike Stearns' office, still shedding a little show from his jacket. Catching sight of the three other occupants of the room-he hadn't been expecting them-he made an attempt to retrieve the military formalities he'd so flamboyantly discarded on the way in.

A stiff little nod, to the Swedish officer sitting in a chair near the prime minister's desk. "Morning, General Torstensson." Another one, to the man sitting next to him. "Morning, Admiral." And a third to the man sitting on the other side of the room. "General Jackson."

Mike Stearns looked up from the pile of papers on his desk and grinned. So did Frank Jackson. Torstensson smiled. A bit thinly, but it was still a genuine smile. Admiral Simpson, on the other hand, was frowning. From his viewpoint, the top command of the USE's other armed forces had a terribly slack attitude when it came to military protocol.

"Well, I think it is, Jesse," Mike said, waving at an empty chair next to Jackson. "Have a seat. Want some tea?" Stearns rose and reached for the pot on the small table next to his desk.

"Thanks, I will. It's damned cold outside in mid-December, especially at eight thousand feet. It's a good thing the weather cleared or I couldn't have come at all." The flyer removed his old Nomex and leather gloves, unwrapped the scarf at his neck, and unzipped his pre-Ring of Fire leather flying jacket.

"To be more precise," said Torstensson, "the prime minister believes the matter is necessary. I've got my doubts, myself." Although Torstensson's English was still heavily accented, by now he'd not only become fluent in the language-he'd been almost fluent, anyway, when the Americans had first met him as the commander of Gustav Adolf's artillery-but was even becoming adept at American idiom. "I believe it's fair to say that Admiral Simpson thinks he's completely off his rocker."

Simpson's frown came back. "I certainly wouldn't put it that way, to the prime minister. But, yes, I think his proposal is unwise."

Stearns handed Wood a steaming mug. "Sorry about hauling you up here on such short notice. You want something to eat?"

After taking a seat, Jesse shook his head. "It'll wait. Besides, that behemoth out there you call a secretary doesn't look like he's the type to cook. Where'd you get him, anyway?"

Stearns put down the teapot and leaned back into his seat. "David? Well, believe it or not, he's a professor at the University of Jena. Or was, until he volunteered for government service. He taught rhetoric and languages. Speaks about six, near as I can tell. A very handy man."

"I don't doubt it," Jesse said. "Rhetoric, eh? He didn't get those scars declining verbs, though, did he?"

Torstensson chuckled. "He wasn't always a scholar, and today he's also one of Achterhof's people. I don't object, mind you, even if Axel would be aghast to learn that many of the USE prime minister's personal staff were hardcore CoC members." That was a reference to Axel Oxenstierna, the chancellor of Sweden, who was still fully committed to the general principles of aristocratic rule. "But-"

The Swedish general who was the top commander of the USE's army shrugged heavily. "Since one of our prime minister's many foolish whims is a distaste for having a proper military escort, I figure it's just as well to have him surrounded by people like Achterhof and Zimmermann. Any Habsburg assassin trying to get past Achterhof will need mastiffs-and to get past Zimmermann, they'll need climbing gear."

Jesse hadn't noticed Gunther Achterhof, on his way into Government House. But as one of the central organizers of the CoC for all of Magdeburg, Achterhof often had other things besides Mike Stearns' security to keep him busy. It didn't matter. Jesse hadn't spotted Achterhof himself, but he had spotted at least three other CoC members keeping an eye on the building.

He was inclined to share Torstensson's view of the matter. The special CoC unit that Achterhof had assigned to guard Stearns-as well as Admiral and Mrs. Simpson, and Frank and Diane Jackson-might lack the formal training of the up-time Secret Service, when it came to guarding dignitaries and heads of state. Not to mention lacking fancy communication gear. But Jesse thought they probably made up for it by their instant readiness to engage in what up-time spin doctors and public relations flacks might have labeled "proactive security."

The CoC didn't exactly have an iron grip on Magdeburg. Not when Torstensson had twenty thousand men in army camps just outside the city, and the CoC was maintaining good relations with him. But there wasn't much that happened in the city that they didn't find out about very quickly. Jesse had heard the rumor-never officially confirmed-that a presumed enemy assassination team had found themselves at the bottom of the Elbe less than two days after they got into the city. With weights around their ankles to keep them there.

"Presumed," because Achterhof's men had never seen any need for something as fussy and officious as pressing formal charges and holding an actual trial.

By now, Jesse was intrigued. For all the jests about Mike Stearns' recklessness, it was actually rather unusual for both Torstensson and Simpson to be this strongly opposed to something he wanted to do. Which meant this was going to be a real doozy.

"So what's on your mind, Mr. President?"

"It's 'Prime Minister,' " Simpson corrected him stiffly.

"Yeah, sorry. I forget. Whatever. What do you want, boss?"

Mike looked him right in the eye. "I want you to fly me into Luebeck, if it's at all possible."

Jesse thought about it. Not for long, however, because he'd already given the matter quite a bit of thought. Not from the standpoint of being able to fly Stearns into Luebeck, admittedly. Jesse's concern had been whether he could fly Gustav Adolf out, in case the Ostender siege of the city looked to be succeeding. But the technical problems involved were the same, either way.

"Yeah, I can-provided Gustav Adolf is willing to cooperate. There's no way to land inside Luebeck itself, you understand? But if the emperor can keep a big enough field clear of enemy troops just outside the walls, we can manage it."

"That much is not a problem," said Torstensson. "Here, I will show you."

He pulled out a map from a satchel by the legs of his chair and spread it over Mike's desk, after Mike had cleared some room. Torstensson pointed to an area just outside the walls of the city and across the moat that guarded Luebeck on the east. There were field fortifications shown there, that provided something of a sheltered area because of a large bastion shown on the southern side of the field. It would be an earthen bastion, nothing fancier, but it would be enough to protect the field from the French troops who'd crossed the Trave south of the city.

"Will this be enough space?" Torstensson asked.

Jesse studied the map for about a minute. His main concern was to get a sense of how accurate the whole map was, from the standpoint of maintaining consistent measurements of distance. As a rule, especially when working on the scale of a city, seventeenth-century cartographers tended to be reasonably accurate even if they were still rarely able to use the sort of precision surveying equipment that Grantville had brought-in no great supply, alas-through the Ring of Fire.

Finally satisfied, he sat back down. By now Jesse had overflown Luebeck at least half a dozen times and the map pretty much corresponded to his own memory. As it happened, he'd noticed that field himself, on one of those flights, and had even taken the time to overfly it again as a way of getting a rough estimate of whether it would work as a landing field. He'd thought at the time that it would, although it would be a bit tight.

"That'll do," he said. "But they'll need to check it carefully to make sure there aren't any obstructions. All it takes is one good-sized rock to break the landing gear."

Torstensson nodded. "Not a problem. I doubt if there'll be much in the way of obstructions anyway. The city's residents-even some of the king's soldiers-use that area to pasture goats, since it's shielded from enemy artillery. And it's much too far from the bay for the enemy's naval forces to pose a threat." He grinned, rather wolfishly. "Needless to say, the Danes and the French don't even try to enter the river any longer. Not after His Majesty let them know that he still had his American scuba wizards residing in Luebeck."

Mike smiled, and Frank Jackson laughed outright. But Jesse noticed that Simpson didn't share in the amusement.

Neither did he, although he smiled politely. The problem was that he and Simpson led the two branches of the USE's military that dealt more closely with German artisans and craftsmen than the army did-or politicians like Mike Stearns. By now, Jesse had come to have a much deeper respect for the abilities of seventeenth-century skilled workers than he'd had in the first period after the Ring of Fire.

True enough, by the manufacturing standards of the world they'd left behind, the skilled craftsmen of the time worked very slowly. More precisely, they could only produce a small quantity of something in the same time that, back in the twentieth century, any factory could have churned out large numbers. But it was amazing what they could produce, even if only in small quantities. All they really needed to know was that something was possible, and be given a rough idea of the general principles of how it worked.

Personally, he thought Gustav Adolf had been foolish to let the enemy know how his forces had destroyed the ships that the Danes had sent up the river to threaten Luebeck early in the siege. It hadn't taken more than six weeks thereafter for two of the spare scuba rigs in Grantville that Sam and Al Morton had left behind to vanish.

Where, and by whose hands? No one knew. But Jesse was certain that enemy agents had been responsible. Probably French agents, but… it could have been almost any one. Perhaps simply one of the many independent espionage outfits that worked on a freelance basis for anyone willing to pay their price. Like mercenaries in general, they seemed to be crawling all over Europe-and nowhere in greater concentration than in Grantville. For good or ill-and Jesse could feel either way about it, depending on his mood of the moment-Grantville's ingrained traditions and customs didn't allow the CoCs there the same latitude when it came to "proactive security" that they had in Magdeburg.

So…

Jesse would be very surprised if there weren't already French or Danish top secret projects working around the clock to duplicate American capabilities with underwater demolitions. Or both, and he wouldn't rule out the Spaniards either, especially the ones in the Low Countries, which had probably the highest concentration of skilled craftsmen anywhere in the world outside of Grantville itself. For sure and certain-Mike's head of espionage Francisco Nasi had been able to determine this much-there were at least three enemy efforts underway to build submarines.

Primitive ones, surely, just as whatever they came up with in the way of diving equipment would be primitive. Not to mention dangerous as all hell for the men operating them, with sky-high fatality rates. But there was no more of a shortage of bravery in Europe than there was a shortage of ingenuity. Soon enough, some of that stuff would be put into action-and not all of it would fail.

But there was no point in fretting over that now. Especially since whatever energy and time Jesse had to spare for fretting, he'd spend fretting on the subject that would impact him immediately and directly. Nasi had also been able to determine that there were at least eighteen separate projects underway somewhere in Europe to build aircraft. Most of them in enemy territories, but not all. Many of them harebrained, but not all.

And if all of them were risky, so what? In the world they'd left behind, the early pioneers of flying had been willing to accept ghastly casualties. Why would anyone in their right mind think that seventeenth-century aviation pioneers would be any less bold? These were the same people who didn't think twice about undertaking voyages around the globe on ships that were practically rowboats, by late twentieth-century standards. Something like thirty percent-nobody knew the exact figure-of the commercial seamen in the seventeenth century wound up dying at one point or another, just in the course of doing what was considered a routine job. Probably an equal percentage wound up maimed or crippled or at least seriously injured in the course of their working lives. So far as Jesse was concerned, anybody who thought down-timers would shy away from still higher casualty rates for the sake of mastering aviation or underwater demolitions was just a plain and simple idiot.

Unfortunately, whatever his many virtues, Gustav Adolf shared in full what was perhaps the most common vice of seventeenth-century monarchs and princes. He liked to boast. So, boast he had, to his enemies, and damn the price his people would wind up paying for it downstream.

But Jesse tore his mind away from those gloomy thoughts. Mike was coming back to the subject.

"So it's doable, then?" he asked.

"Yes."

"How soon?"

Jesse shrugged. "The weather's fine. We could leave this afternoon, if you're ready to go. Well… at least once we hear back from Luebeck that that field is clear. But the radio connection is good enough now that we shouldn't have to wait for the evening window to get word back."

Mike shook his head. "There's not that much of a rush. And I need to spend this afternoon"-he made a little sweeping gesture with his head toward the other officers in the room-"dealing with some other matters. Let's figure on tomorrow morning; how's that?"

Jessed nodded. "Fine. Do you need me to stay for that discussion?"

Mike looked at Jackson and then Simpson. "Gentlemen?"

Jackson grinned again. "Not unless Colonel Wood's changed his mind about fitting machine guns onto his planes."

Jesse grimaced. There were times he felt like a man under siege himself, the way enthusiasts-down-timers worse than up-timers-would deluge him with eager questions on the subject of when the USE's warplanes would be able to start riddling the enemy with machine-gun fire. "When," measured in terms of this week or next week. Alas, among the many American terms that had made its way into the down-time German lexicon, some damn fool had included the verb "to strafe."

"No," Jesse growled. "I haven't. We're still at least two generations of aircraft away from mounting machine guns. Any that are worth mounting, anyway-which those antique contraptions you're talking about aren't."

"Okay, then," said Stearns. "In that case, there's no reason you need to stick around for the wrangle. Unless you want to, of course."

Jesse shook his head. "No, I've got plenty of other things to attend to. And participating in another argument over machine guns ranks somewhere below getting a colonoscopy, in my book."

Torstensson perked right up. "What is a colonoscopy?" he asked. "And how soon could we have one deployed against the Ostenders?"

After Jesse left-and Frank had clarified the nature of a colonoscopy-Mike decided to cut right to the chase. He had a faint hope that Simpson wouldn't argue the matter for more than an hour, if Mike made clear from the outset that he'd made up his mind.

"Gentlemen. After long and careful consideration, I've decided that the army's claim to the volley guns has to take first priority."

"Blast it, Mike!" exploded Simpson, jettisoning his beloved protocol. "We need volley guns for the timberclads, if we're to have any hope at all of suppressing cavalry raids on our river shipping."

A faint hope got fainter.

"And who cares about that if we can't win the battles?" demanded Jackson. "The best way to suppress cavalry raids is to smash up enemy cavalry before they can go out on raids in the first place."

"Yes, I agree completely," said Torstensson. "With all due respect, Admiral-"

Fainter and fainter.

It took closer to two hours, but in the end Simpson gave up the fight. Looked at from one angle, it was absurd for him to persist so stubbornly in the matter. With both his prime minister and the top commander of the USE's military arrayed against him, he was bound to lose the dispute and was perfectly smart enough to have been aware of that five minutes from the outset.

Mike knew full well, of course, that what Simpson was really doing was storing up negotiating points. He'd eventually conceded the Requa volley guns-and within two days, at the outside, would be using that to twist Mike's arm for something else he wanted.

So it went. Mike was no stranger to negotiating tactics himself. He'd probably agree to whatever Simpson wanted, if it was within reason. But, push came to shove, he'd never been a stranger to the magic word "no."

After Simpson left, Mike gave Frank Jackson a sly little smile. "I take it from the vehemence of your arguments that you lost the debate you'd been having with Lennart here."

Jackson gave Torstensson a look that was unkind enough to be right on the edge of insubordination.

"Well. Yeah. I did."

Torstensson sniffed. "As if we down-timers are so stupid that it never occured to us that skirmishing tactics are a lot safer than standing up in plain sight, all of us in a row. Ha! Until a good cavalry charge-even good pikemen, with good officers-shows us the folly involved."

The jibe made and properly scored, Torstensson relented. "Frank, when your mechanics can start providing us with a sufficient quantity of reliable breechloaders, we will rediscuss the matter. But, for now, even with the new SRGs, we simply do not have a good enough rate of fire to be able to risk dispersing our troops too much."

Jackson didn't say anything. He just stared out of the window gloomily.

"C'mon, Frank, fill me in," Mike said. "What happened in the exercises?"

Frank took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. "Pretty much what this cold-blooded damn Swede said would happen. The skirmishers did just fine-until the OPFOR's cavalry commanders decided they'd accept the casualties to get in close. After that, it was all over. Even the best riflemen we've got need twenty seconds to reload those SRGs. They're still muzzle-loaders, Minie ball or no Minie ball. Cavalry can come a long ways in twenty seconds."

He gave Torstensson another unkind look. "As he so cheerfully rubbed salt into my wounds, so can a good line of pikemen, if their officers are decisive enough. Which his were."

Jackson sighed again. "After that, it's just no contest. The skirmishers are scattered, not in a solid line with their mates to brace them and their officers right there to hold them steady. And a cavalry charge is scary as all hell. Most of them just took off running. The ones who did try to stand their ground got chopped up piecemeal. Bruised up, anyway." Another unkind look was bestowed on the Swedish general. "They weren't any too gentle with those poles and clubs they were using instead of lances and sabers, let me tell you."

"Spare the rod and spoil the recruit," Torstensson said cheerfully.

Mike nodded. He wasn't really surprised, though. One of the things he'd come to learn since the Ring of Fire, all the way down to the marrow of his bones, was that if the ancestors of twentieth-century human beings didn't do something that seemed logical, it was probably because it wasn't actually logical at all, once you understood everything involved. So it turned out that such notorious military numbskulls as Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Phil Sheridan, Stonewall Jackson, William Tecumseh Sherman and all the rest of them hadn't actually been idiots after all. It was easy for twentieth-century professors to proclaim loftily that Civil War generals had insisted on continuing with line formations despite the advent of the Minie ball-armed rifled musket because the dimwits simply hadn't noticed that the guns were accurate for several hundred yards. When-cluck; cluck-they should obviously have adopted the skirmishing tactics of twentieth-century infantry.

But it turned out, when put to a ruthless seventeenth-century Swedish general's test in his very rigorous notion of field exercises, that those professors of a later era had apparently never tried to stand their ground when cavalry came at them. After they fired their shot, and needed one-third of a minute-if they were adept at the business, and didn't get rattled-to have a second shot ready. In that bloody world where real soldiers lived and died, skirmishing tactics without breechloading rifles or automatic weapons were just a way to commit suicide. If the opponent had large enough forces and was willing to lose some men, at least.

Seventeenth-century armies did use skirmishers, to be sure, but they were literally just that-skirmishers, usually called "light companies" attached to the regiments and battalions. When two heavy formations closed for battle, the respective skirmishers who'd often started the fighting withdrew back into the safety of the main formations when the two sides closed within long gun shot.

"So be it," he muttered. That meant high casualty rates, of course. But it was also the reason he'd come down on the army's side over the issue of the new volley guns. True enough, the navy could put them to good use. But for the army, they could be a Godsend. If enough volley guns could be provided for the army in time for the spring campaign, Torstensson could put together heavy-weapons units for all of his regiments and incorporate their capabilities into his plans. That still wouldn't allow for real skirmishing tactics, but it would go a fair distance in that direction. At least the infantry could spread out a little, instead of having to stand shoulder to shoulder and make the world's easiest target.

"How'd the two volley gun batteries do against the cavalry?" he asked.

Finally, both of the generals smiled in unison.

"Oh, splendidly," said Torstensson. "It was almost as humiliating an experience for my arrogant cavalry captains as a colonoscopy would have been. By the way, are there enough of those devices in Grantville that I could get one for the army? I'm thinking it would do wonders for discipline."

Chapter 6

After the waitress brought them steins of beer, Eric Krenz started drinking right away. But Thorsten Engler just stared at his stein for half a minute before, almost desultorily, beginning to sip from it. After setting down the stein, he let his eyes wander about the tavern for another half minute. Seeing, but not really thinking about what he saw. No matter what he looked at, the image that kept flashing back into his mind was that of Robert Stiteler having the life swatted out of him as if he'd been nothing but an insect. He'd had a nightmare about it the night before, too.

Eric's voice startled him. "If you can't get it out of your head, you should go see those American women. The ones I told you about. The 'social workers,' they call them."

Engler stared at him, for a moment, trying to bring his mind to bear on what his friend was saying.

"What are 'social workers'?" he asked.

Eric shrugged and drained some more of his beer. "I'm not sure, really. I think-"

A voice coming over Thorsten's shoulder interrupted him. "They're a variety of what the up-timers call 'psychologists.' Except real psychologists-so I'm told, anyway, I don't think the Americans actually have any here-only handle customers one at a time and they charge a small fortune for it. These 'social workers' are apparently the type that get assigned to the unwashed masses."

Grinning in his vulpine sort of way, Gunther Achterhof pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. "Like you and me," he finished.

He leaned back in his chair, turned half around, and waggled a hand at a nearby waitress. When she came over, he ordered a beer for himself. Then he turned back to look at Thorsten. "And I agree with Eric. Especially if you find you're having regular nightmares about it."

Thorsten winced a little.

"Thought so," Gunther said, nodding. "They have a name for it, even. They call it PTSD. The letters stand for 'post-traumatic stress disorder.' "

He used the actual English terms rather than trying to translate. Engler and Krenz had been in Magdeburg long enough to have a good grasp of the peculiar new German dialect that was emerging in the city-as it was in Grantville and many other towns in the USE. People were starting to call the dialect "Amideutsch." It was a blend of Hochdeutsch and Plattdeutsch, essentially, but with a very large number of American loan words and a more stripped down grammar than that of most German dialects. The new dialect had adopted the simplified English system of verb conjugations, for instance. Newcomers to Amideutsch found it a bit peculiar to say Ich denk instead of Ich denke, but they soon got used to it.

Although Engler and Krenz didn't have any difficulty with the fact that the terms were English, they still didn't really understand what they meant. So Achterhof spent a minute or so clarifying the matter.

As best he could, anyway.

"Stupid, you ask me," was Krenz's conclusion. "So bad things that happen to you are upsetting. What else is new? For this we need fancy up-time words?"

Achterhof shook his head. "For you, Eric, it's maybe that simple. Crude and coarse blockhead that you are. But for sensitive and poetic types like me and Thorsten, things are different. It's more complicated than you think."

Krenz snorted in his beer. "You! 'Poetic'!"

But Engler found himself wondering. "These 'social workers.' Have you been to see them?"

Achterhof nodded. "The prince himself suggested I go to them, when I told him once about the nightmares. So I did. They were quite helpful. I still have the nightmares, but not as bad and not as often. And there are… other things, that are not so bad."

He didn't seem inclined to elaborate, and Achterhof was not a man whom one would lightly press on such a matter. Engler knew enough of his personal history to know that he'd had plenty of things to have nightmares about. Quite a bit more than Thorsten himself, for certain. A terrible accident was one thing. What Achterhof had lived through…

A little shudder went through Thorsten's shoulders.

"How much do they charge?" he asked. "I can't afford much, now. I got fired this morning. Because of the accident."

"Assholes," said Krenz. "It wasn't Thorsten's fault."

Gunther shrugged. "No, it wasn't. But the coal gas plant was owned by Underwood and Hartmann. The biggest American prick in partnership with the biggest German prick. What do you expect? 'Shit rolls downhill,' as the up-timers say-and any company owned by Underwood and Hartmann might as well have that for its official motto."

He took a long pull on his beer. "They probably would have fired you too, Eric-every man working the shift-except the rest of you were in the union." He tipped the stein in Thorsten's direction. "Engler wasn't, since he was officially part of management."

Eric shook his head. "I still say that's silly. In the guilds-"

"Fuck the guilds," said Achterhof harshly. "Yes, I know. In the guilds, a foreman like Engler would have been a member. Which is one of the many things wrong with the guilds. It's the guildmasters and top journeymen who run them, and fuck everybody else. The American union system is better for the common man. Much better-even if, now and then, something shitty happens like this. Just the way it is."

Engler agreed with Achterhof, actually. Krenz came from a family of long-established gunsmiths. Even though he'd joined the Committee of Correspondence soon after he arrived in Magdeburg, in some ways he still had the attitudes of a town guildsman. Thorsten's family, on the other hand, had been farmers from a small village. Prosperous enough ones, until the war ruined them and forced the survivors into the towns-where they got no help or friendship from the haughty guilds.

"Yeah, fuck the guilds," he murmured. "I understand the situation, Gunther, but it still leaves me in a bad place. I've got enough money saved to get me through for maybe a month. After that…"

He shrugged. "There's always plenty of work here. But it won't pay very well. Unlike Eric, I don't really have any skills. I was lucky to get that foreman job."

"Luck, bullshit," said Krenz. He used the English term. No American loan words except purely technical ones were adopted wholesale the way their delightful profanity was. "You were a good foreman, Thorsten. That's why they promoted you in the first place. They're shitheads, but they're not stupid."

Achterhof drained his stein and called for another one. "Eric's right, Thorsten," he said, after the waitress left. "I asked around. All the men thought well of you. Being a foreman is a skill too, you know."

"Sure is," agreed Krenz. "I know. I've had plenty of bad ones. Either they didn't know the work or they were afraid to make a decision-usually both-or they knew what they were doing but were rude and unpleasant bastards to work for. It's not that common to find a foreman who doesn't have either vice."

Engler made a face. "I didn't really know what I was doing."

A sudden flashing image of Stiteler came, and he paused while he desperately tried to fend it off. It was the same image as most of them. There'd been a moment there, after Robert had been slammed into a stanchion, when his body seemed to be glued in place by the force of the blow. His face had been untouched, but the back of his head had been completely crushed. Eyes still open but empty, the man already dead, with blood and bits of his skull and pieces of his brain starting to ooze down the metal column.

Thorsten closed his eyes and shook his head. That seemed to help, sometimes.

When he opened his eyes, he saw Achterhof gazing at him. Sympathetically-and knowingly.

"Go talk to the up-time women, Thorsten," the CoC organizer said softly. "If you can't pay right away, they'll make arrangements."

Engler took a slow, deep breath. "All right, I will. Where is their business?"

"It's actually a government enterprise. Part of what they call the 'Department of Social Services.' " The waitress arrived with Achterhof's beer, and he paused long enough to pay her. Then, with the stein, gestured in the direction of Government House. "They're in the corner next to the river, on the third floor. Just ask for the social workers."

Thorsten nodded, drained what was left of his own stein, and then contemplated the empty vessel. More to the point, contemplated whether he could afford to order another. The very fact that he even had to think about whether he could do so drove home to him just how quickly his financial situation would become desperate.

Well… "desperate," in a sense. Finding a job that would pay enough to keep him fed and sheltered and even reasonably clothed wasn't the issue. Magdeburg was what the Americans called a boom town. If he started looking early the next morning, Thorsten could have a new job by the end of the day. Maybe even by noon. But it would be unskilled labor, almost for sure.

The problem wasn't even the work itself, as hard as it would most likely be. Thorsten was not lazy and, though he was no taller than the average man, was stocky and very strong for his size. In particular, like most people raised to farm work, he had a lot of endurance.

It was the boredom that would slowly-no, not so slowly, not any more-drive him half-mad. Now that Thorsten had had the experience of a job that was interesting and challenging, the idea of going back to spending all day wielding a pick or a shovel was far more distasteful than it would have been a few months earlier. He'd been spoiled, really.

"I'll have to make arrangements," he said, almost sighing the words. "Even though I hate being in debt."

He noticed, suddenly, that Achterhof's earlier sympathetic expression had been replaced by something else. There was now a look on his face that wasn't exactly what you could call predatory. But it reminded him of the way hunting dogs fixed their gaze on something that might be prey.

"Join the army," Gunther said. He nodded toward Krenz. "Like he's going to do."

Surprised, Engler looked at Eric. Krenz shrugged, smiling perhaps a bit ruefully. "Hey, look, Thorsten. They didn't fire me, true enough. But there's not going to be any work for me there until they rebuild the whole factory. Which will take months-and Underwood and Hartmann are not the old-style type of masters who'll pay a man when he's not actually working."

The young repairman looked a bit uncomfortable, for a moment. "Besides. I'd been thinking about it anyway. It's also a matter of patriotic duty."

Patriotic. That was another up-time loan word in Amideutsch. The notions involved in the term weren't completely foreign, not by any means. Any German who had citizenship rights in a town-which many didn't, of course-understood perfectly well that the rights also carried obligations. Including the obligation to serve in the militia when and if the town was threatened. But the Americans gave a sweeping connotation to the notion that was quite different from the traditional one. Almost mystical, in a way. As if such a nebulous thing as a "nation" was as real as an actual town or village, and could make the same claims on its citizens.

Now suspicious, Thorsten looked back and forth between Eric and Gunther. "You set this up," he accused. "The two of you."

Achterhof snorted. "Don't be stupid. Of course we did. The minute Eric told me you were moping around-that was halfway through the morning-I told him to get you down here this afternoon and I'd recruit you into the army. Both of you. That'll solve all your practical problems at one stroke-and you can stop feeling like a worthless parasite feeding on your nation like a louse."

"I wasn't feeling like a worthless parasite," Thorsten said stiffly.

Gunther's eyes widened, almost histrionically. "You weren't? A man as smart as you?"

Thorsten was starting to get a little angry, but Eric's sudden burst of laughter punctured that. His friend had a cheerful outlook on life that was often surprisingly contagious.

"He's only smart about things that he's actually thinking about, Gunther," Krenz said, "and he concentrates his attention to the point of being oblivious about everything else. That can make him as stupid as a mule about something he hasn't really considered."

He took a swallow of beer, then raised the half-empty mug in a saluting gesture. As if he were making an unspoken toast. "Like the war."

A bit defensively, now, Thorsten said: "Keeping the factory going was part of that."

Achterhof nodded. "Yes, it was. That's why nobody from the CoC came by to urge you-pester you, if you prefer-to volunteer. But the factory blew up, and even after they get it rebuilt there's no job for you there. And while I'll admit that if you squint real hard, you can claim that digging a sewer ditch is also a contribution to the war effort, it's pushing it. Not to mention being a complete waste of your skills."

Engler made a derisive sound, just blowing air through his lips. "Ha! As opposed to carrying a musket? At least digging a ditch, I don't have to work shoulder to shoulder with some smelly Saxon like Krenz here."

Eric grinned, and so did Gunther. But that expression on Achterhof's face was predatory now. He might as well have been a fox in human clothing, sitting at a table and drinking beer.

"Who said anything about carrying a musket?" He issued his own derisive puff of air. "And you can forget that 'shoulder-to-shoulder' nonsense."

Eric leaned forward. "They're forming up new units, Thorsten," he said eagerly. " 'Heavy weapons squads,' they're called. Gunther told me he could get us into one of them."

Thorsten eyed Achterhof skeptically. Granted, the man was one of the top organizers for the CoC in Magdeburg, and granted also the CoCs had a lot of influence in the new regiments. But one of the things that made those regiments "new" in the first place-even the most ignorant farmboy knew this much-was that recruitment wasn't based on the same who-you-know methods that were standard for most mercenary regiments. Instead, it was done-depending on who you talked to-in a manner that could be described as "fair" or "nonsensical" or "as stupid as you can imagine."

Red tape, after all, was another up-time loan word in Amideutsch. At least the old-style mercenary recruiters could generally be depended upon to deliver on whatever promises they made. No such thing could be said about recruitment into the new regiments. Thorsten personally knew a man-he'd been working at the plant when Engler first hired on-who'd signed up for the army thinking he'd become a cavalryman because the recruiter had told him his horsemanship skills were useful and would be prized. Instead, he'd wound up in the Marines-spending all day on his feet standing at attention while guarding the navy yard, bored half to death. Not even the fancy uniform had consoled him.

And why? Apparently because some careless clerk had jotted down something wrong in his papers. But try getting it changed, after the fact! In the real world, often enough, we play no favorites was a gleaming phrase whose immediate and tarnished successor was and we don't pay any attention to what we're doing, either, followed by the downright sullen no, that's too much of a bother to fix now that it's done.

"It's true," Eric insisted.

Thorsten was still squinting at Achterhof. Gunther smiled, took another drink from his beer, and then shrugged.

"No, I can't guarantee anything. But I know General Jackson and he's an easy man to talk to. More to the point, the Swede Torstensson put Jackson in charge of the new units. And why did he do so? Because the reason they're called 'heavy weapon' squads is because they'll be using gadgets that only the Americans really understand that well yet. And the Americans-you know this to be true, Thorsten, from your own experience-prize nothing so much as a down-timer who seems to have an aptitude for mechanical things."

He pointed at Eric with his beer stein. "That's him. And they also prize down-timers who seem to know how to manage men with mechanical skills. Which is you."

Another flashing image of Stiteler came. And went, thank God, faster than most.

"Oh, yes," Thorsten said gloomily. "I can just imagine how enthusiastic your Jackson fellow will be, Gunther, when you tell him that-O happy occasion!-the foreman who managed to oversee several men getting killed and the whole coal gas plant getting destroyed is now available to be a sergeant-that's the rank they use, am I correct?-in his new units."

Eric grimaced. But Gunther's smile actually widened.

"It'll be the easiest thing in the world, Thorsten," he said. "After I tell the general that Quentin Underwood owned the factory-which he knows already-and that he blamed you because he didn't take the time and spend the money to have you trained properly. Jackson will have you sworn in ten minutes later."

Engler squinted at him. "Why?"

"Ha! You don't know anything about Frank Jackson, do you? Well, he wasn't a general up-time, I can tell you that. He-and the prince himself, you know-were both coal miners. Leaders of their union. And Quentin Underwood was the mine manager. And if you think you have a low opinion of Underwood, ask Jackson about him someday. Make sure you stand back a few paces, though. Your skin will likely blister if you don't."

Thorsten pondered the matter. He'd had so little direct contact with up-timers that he'd never really given any thought at all to what they'd done or who they'd been in the world they came from. To him, as to most Germans he knew, all the Americans seemed somehow Adel. True, they didn't fit any of the existing categories of the nobility, but what difference did that make? They'd simply added another one of their own, which they enforced either by simple prestige or the still simpler method of beating naysayers into a pulp on a battlefield.

A coal miner.

Thorsten came from a village not far from Amberg in the Upper Palatinate. There were iron mines all over that area. For generations, men in his family had often supplemented their income by doing a stint of work in the mines. Thorsten himself had done so for a few months, when he was seventeen.

A former miner, for a commander. That might be… pleasant. Even in a war.

Perhaps especially in a war. Anger that had been simmering for a day and half, under the grief and the guilt, fed by the nightmares and the horrible sudden images, began to surface.

The accident hadn't been Thorsten's fault. Being fair, it hadn't even been the fault of Underwood or the plant manager. Everyone was being pushed, by the demands of the war. Which was just another way of saying, by the aggression of Richelieu and Christian IV of Denmark and Charles of England and the Habsburg king of Spain.

"So fuck them," Thorsten growled softly. He liked the way things were happening in Magdeburg, and everywhere else that he knew of in the Germanies that the up-timers had an effect upon. One of his uncles and three of his cousins had moved to Bamberg after their village had been destroyed. Thorsten had gotten some letters from them since. Part of what they talked about in those letters was their good opinion of the new up-timer administration of Franconia. And part of the letters seemed very veiled, which meant that something explosive was brewing down there. Something which the Americans might not be leading or even really know about, but also something that his uncle and cousins didn't expect the up-timers to oppose, either.

A prince of Germany-the only prince that all Germans had, commoners for sure; that much Thorsten had already concluded-who had once been a coal miner. That was also… pleasant to think about.

"Okay," he said, unthinkingly using the one American loan word that had swept over Germany faster than any plague and bid fair to do the same across all of Europe. "Where do I sign up?"

Achterhof hoisted his stein in another half-salute. "Right here. In about"-he glanced at the big clock hanging over the bar-"forty-five minutes. I told Frank to meet us here."

Both Engler and Krenz stared at him.

That vulpine smile that fit so easily came back to Gunther's face. "I told you. I know him. Quite well, in fact. And he's partial to the beer in this tavern, and doesn't mind getting his general's hands dirty doing lowly recruitment work. He's very enthusiastic about the new squads, too."

He looked down at his stein, which he'd set back on the table. It was almost empty. "Speaking of which-another round? Oh, stop looking like a fretful housewife, Thorsten. I'll buy."

Achterhof did know Jackson quite well, as it turned out. The first sentences out of the American general's mouth after Gunther finished his summary of the way Thorsten had been singled out for blame with regard to the accident was:

"Quentin Underwood is the biggest fuckwad asshole who ever disgraced the state of West Virginia. Yeah, fine, he's a competent mine manager. He's also a complete prick and a miserable shithead and if the cocksucker was lying in the gutter dying of thirst the only thing I'd do is walk over there to piss all over the worthless motherfucker."

He took a long pull on his beer. "So forget that bullshit. What matters is that after Gunther raised this with me, I went and talked to Mike about it. He was right there next to the two of you all the way through that nightmare. He told me if I didn't sign you up, assuming you volunteered, I'd be an idiot. Not to mention a bigger asshole than Underwood, which probably isn't possible anyway given the laws of nature."

Another long pull. "So. Thorsten, I can start you right off as a sergeant. We promote from the ranks, so anything after that is up to you. Eric, you'll be what in my old army we would have called-ah, never mind-but what it amounts to is a technical specialist. The thing is, these volley guns aren't that complicated all by themselves. They're really just a fancier version of organ guns. But what I'm looking toward is replacing them as soon as we can with real machine guns. That'll most likely be Gatlings, first off, but who knows? So I need as many men as I can get who've got the knack for this stuff. Especially someone like you-this is what Gunther tells me-who comes from a gunsmith's background."

When Engler and Krenz reported to the army headquarters the next morning, so it proved. The papers were already prepared and ready for their signatures, enlisting both of them in one of the new heavy weapons units. As promised, Engler with the rank of sergeant and Krenz with a specialist rating.

No clerk had made an error.

Given Jackson's command of the more salient features of Amideutsch, Thorsten was not surprised. Paper was flammable, after all. So were clerks, when you got right down to it.

Chapter 7

Luebeck

Two hours later that same morning, Jesse Wood and Mike Stearns were at eight thousand feet, flying toward Wismar. The air was cold and clear, albeit choppy and turbulent. Jesse noted the course as best he could on the bouncing compass, confirmed it with familiar ground references, and put in a large chunk of drift correction. The wintry earth below appeared lifeless, blotched with large white patches of snow-covered fields and some dark woods here and there. The aircraft bucked, pitched, and shuddered in the uneven bottom edge of the low winter jet stream. Jesse looked at an obviously uncomfortable Mike Stearns in the right seat and chuckled.

Stearns shot him a look. "Something funny?"

Jesse realized that Stearns had misunderstood his attitude and held up a placating palm.

"No, well, yeah, a little. Do you remember last summer when that group wanted us to concentrate on ultralights? 'They're cheaper, they burn less fuel, they're easier to fly.' All that horsepucky? Well, every time I get up here where it's a little bumpy or cloudy, I remember how Hal Smith stood up in front of the resource board and said, 'I build aircraft, not toys.' He reminded me of that German engineer in that old movie, Flight of the Phoenix." Jesse grinned.

Stearns mustered a small smile of his own. "I remember. You don't look much like Jimmy Stewart, though."

Wood was about to reply when a stiff gust swatted the aircraft, forcing him to take a moment to wrestle the plane roughly back on course.

"Well, anyway, don't worry about this bird. She flies just fine. I would've liked to use a Gustav, but I'm still learning about them myself." He passed Stearns a thermos full of tea. "Here, warm up a bit. But take it easy, we've got maybe three hours to go with this headwind. We're lucky Hal figured out a way to get a little heat in this version of the Belle. It's probably twenty below out there."

Stearns took the thermos and nodded his thanks. Jesse let him alone and concentrated on flying. The cold and the constant juddering of the aircraft discouraged talk as they flew over the seventeenth-century landscape.

When they finally reached Wismar, Jesse flew low over the town, which looked almost deserted on this cold December day, save for the curls of smoke from nearly every chimney. The few townsfolk in the streets looked up at the sound of the aircraft and watched it for a bit, but there were none of the gawking little crowds there would have been just a few weeks earlier. Jesse reflected again on how quickly the people of this time became used to the wondrous American machines. He turned towards the airfield as Stearns took in the sights.

Jesse flew over Richter Field, checking the wind and surveying the light snow covering on the grass. He noted many improvements made since his last visit, over a month ago. No need for a tower, as yet, but already there was a shed big enough for two aircraft and the shack that had been the sole building in October had been replaced by a big, solid-looking structure with new plank walls. He reckoned that another low building, surrounded by a berm near the field, must be the armory cum fuel storage. The new construction showed the importance placed on this small spot of turf near the frigid Baltic.

As he took in the scene, it was as if Stearns read his mind.

"Shame it takes a war to get things done quickly, eh, Jesse?"

Jesse glanced over at his passenger and nodded. Looking down again, he noticed two figures, hands jammed in coat pockets, standing next to the wind sock, faces turned upward. He hooked a thumb towards his window.

"It's also those boys down there. Nothing very important gets done without the 'Sons of Martha.' "

After he spoke, Jesse realized that Mike might not understand the reference. The man had had something of a haphazard education, with just three years of college. But you never knew. He also read extensively and had a wife who was a genuine intellectual.

So, Jesse wasn't really surprised by Mike's nodding reply. "Yeah. Kipling knew a thing or two, didn't he?"

"Yes, he did. Or will. Or something."

Jesse checked the windsock again and turned downwind for landing.

"Might as well get this beast on the ground."

Later that afternoon, two aircraft moved through the North German sky at five thousand feet, headed toward Luebeck. "Snarled through the sky," Jesse often thought of it. There was that one advantage to propeller aircraft compared to the jets that he'd mostly flown up-time. Damnation, they sounded like warplanes.

Jesse flew as wingman, in a rather loose formation off Lieutenant Woodsill's left wing. He'd decided to let Woody lead, since he knew the way. In any case, he realized that Woody and his copilot Ernst Weissenbach had not had any recent formation practice.

Best keep 'em where I can see 'em, Jesse thought.

Otherwise, he had absolutely no complaints about the two young officers. Having been left in charge of the airfield at Wismar and with the original Belle, once a third had been built, the two young pilots had performed superbly. They'd made good use of the shipments of fuel and rockets sent to them overland. According to accounts from Luebeck, their observation and harassment of the League of Ostend's armies besieging the city had been instrumental in holding off several assaults.

As a result, Colonel Wood had listened carefully to Woodsill as the lieutenant had described what they could expect around Luebeck. Though the enemy had crossed the river and nearly cut off the city, they had not yet gotten any artillery across, apparently content, for the time being, to keep all of their field pieces on the west side of the river. That would probably change, especially if the rivers froze solid, but it meant that, for now, the area near the city's eastern walls was reasonably unmolested. Unless very unlucky, they could probably land fairly close and reach safety under the city guns before the enemy pickets could even give warning.

"Aside from scattered pickets and some small cavalry units, the Ostenders aren't very much of a bother there, sir," Woody had said. "Naturally, we've been concentrating our attacks on the main encampment of the Dennies on the other bank."

"Dennies?" Jesse had interrupted.

Woody hesitated. "Uh, yes sir, that's what folks have taken to calling them."

Jesse was mildly amused. It seemed to be an iron law of nature that soldiers immediately found pejorative terms to refer to the enemy. All very politically incorrect, no doubt, but he figured it was fair and square. He was quite sure the enemy reciprocated in full. Going way back, for that matter. A friend of his who was a military history buff had once told him that Napoleon's soldiers referred to Austrian troops as "Kaiserlicks" and English troops as either "the grasshoppers" or-Mike's own favorite-"the goddams." Jesse didn't doubt at all that the ancient Assyrians and Hittites had done the same.

"Anyway," Woody continued, "we've mainly been concentrating on the Frogs, since they constitute most of the enemy troops who crossed the Trave and are threatening Luebeck from the south."

"How many are there now?" Jesse asked.

The Air Force lieutenant pursed his lips. "Hard to know exactly, sir. Most of them arrived early on in the siege, transported by ship, but there have continued to be smaller units arriving by overland march. The Spanish are apparently letting them though the Low Countries as long as they don't send too many at a time. We figure by now there are about twenty-five thousand French troops, to add to the Danes' twenty thousand. Then figure maybe two thousand Spanish-they're mostly cavalry-and one thousand English."

Jesse frowned. It said something for Gustav Adolf's gambling spirit-and his confidence in Luebeck's garrison and fortifications-that he'd been willing to withstand a siege waged by almost fifty thousand men with a defending force of not more than twelve thousand. Even taking into account the fact that he was favored by winter conditions-disease in the besieging forces had to be getting terrible by now-and a large civilian population that would be desperately supporting him because if he failed the city was sure to be sacked. As it had so many times since, the savage destruction of Magdeburg and the slaughter of most of its inhabitants by Tilly's army in 1631 had backfired on the imperials. Cities under siege that might have contemplated surrender in earlier times rarely did so any longer.

"I didn't realize the English had sent anybody."

"It's really a token force, sir, is the way we figure it. When I said 'one thousand' I was probably being generous."

Woody went back to the map. "We've mixed up the timing and direction of our attacks, trying to keep the enemy off balance. It's been working pretty well, but if you see a block of soldiers standing motionless while everyone else is running, break off your attack run. They know by now that our rockets aren't all that accurate and any group standing still is probably under the command of a steady officer. It's pretty clear they're hoping for a lucky shot from massed fire to bring us down, the way they got Hans. We try to discourage that little trick by carrying a couple of black powder grenades. Ernst here, has gotten damn-uh, quite good at chucking grenades. They're actually more accurate than the rockets, though they don't have as much punch, of course."

Woody paused and pointed to a spot on the map he had made of the Luebeck area.

"One other thing, Colonel. During our last reconnaissance a couple of days ago, we noticed some activity in this grove to the south of this one Dennie encampment. Right about here. We'd already expended our rockets and we didn't get too close. Don't know what it is, but it looked like tents and buildings of some sort. I recommend we give it another look this afternoon. Maybe one of us can make a low pass, while the other flies cover. No telling when we'll have two aircraft here, again."

The idea was tempting, but…

Jesse hesitated, glancing at Mike. This was already a somewhat risky enterprise, flying the USE's prime minister into a city under siege. Adding into the bargain getting him involved in an actual combat operation…

But Mike just grinned. "Sure, Jesse, go ahead. Don't mind me. Actually, I'd like to see how it works. Give me a much better sense of what 'air power' does or doesn't mean in the here and now."

There was always that about Stearns. He was a politician, sure enough, and had most if not all the vices of the breed. But you couldn't ever accuse the man of lacking balls. Even brass ones, in his case.

Jesse finished replaying the briefing in his mind. The flight from Wismar to Luebeck hadn't taken more than twenty-five minutes and he could see they were nearing the city. The radio crackled and Woody's steady voice came out of the speaker.

"Two, this is Lead. Approaching Luebeck and descending to one thousand feet. Luebeck Radio should be listening." A pause, then: "Luebeck, Luebeck, this is the Richter Express, five minutes out."

Whoever was manning the radio for Gustav Adolf was on the ball.

"Guten Tag, Richter Express, Luebeck here. Have you brought presents for the enemy, today? They've been getting lonely this past day or so."

"Roger that, Luebeck," Woodsill confirmed. He sounded amused. "And some visitors. Better send for His Majesty."

"Roger, Express. Ein moment, bitte."

The Swedish king must have been nearby. The sound of someone fumbling with a microphone and a muffled, "Closer to your mouth, Your Majesty" was followed by the unmistakable voice of command.

"Halla dar, Lieutenant Woodsill. Do you have Colonel Wood with you?"

"Yes, sir. Standby, please. Go ahead, Two."

Jesse was ready. "Good afternoon sir. Colonel Wood here. As promised, we have your mail and will deliver it shortly."

They didn't think anyone had sold the Ostenders a radio yet, but communications security was always a good idea. The enemy would soon know there were two aircraft in the area, but there was no sense in letting anyone, even the radio operator, know who Jesse's passenger was. Word had already been passed to Gustav Adolf by coded message the day before.

"Very good, Colonel," the bemused sounding monarch replied. "All is in waiting for you."

"Yes, sir, thank you. But first, we must deliver some gifts to your neighbors. We will call again in fifteen minutes."

"We will be ready for you, Colonel."

Jesse clicked the mike. He looked over to see Mike Stearns give a thumbs up and gave one in return. Time to get to work.

"Lead, this is Two."

"Two, Lead."

"It's your show, Lieutenant. Call the shots."

The Richter Express, flight of two, flew low over the besieged battlements of Luebeck. As they passed, Jesse paid close attention to the flat green just outside the city's east wall. Thousands of faces craned upward, mouths open, cheering wildly. Most of those cheering people, whether noblemen, soldiers, or peasants, had never seen an aircraft until two months ago. Waggling their wings, the aircraft flew the length of the city and then turned westward towards a decidedly less friendly audience.

As had been briefed, the aircraft overflew the enemy encampment, the pilots taking careful note of potential targets. From high above, the camp looked like a disturbed ants' nest, as men scattered or ran to their posts. Jesse could see no tent city, no large horse herd, no grouping of flags and standards-which would seem to indicate that air power had already made an impact on this bit of seventeenth-century warfare. Siege cannon facing the city were thoroughly dug in, even from the rear and, all around, men were jumping in holes dug into the frozen earth. A large train of wagons was hurriedly pulling off the road leading into the camp from the west. By now, traders and camp followers knew the danger as well as any soldier. As the aircraft passed the camp, Woody gave his first order.

"Two, maintain orbit at one thousand feet just south of camp. Rejoin on command."

Jesse merely clicked the mike and banked left, turning back over the French camp. Blocks of men had begun to form on the ground below. Woodsill and Weissenbach continued westward passing from view of the enemy. Jesse continued to circle, just over the southern edge of the camp. Once, smoke erupted from a regiment formed up in a square below. Though no sound reached him, Jesse unconsciously edged upward two hundred feet.

Come on, come on, Jesse thought. Let's get going, Woody.

As if reading his mind, Woodsill called. "Two, Lead has you in sight, beginning run. We'll take a left climb out."

Jesse wracked the aircraft around and immediately spotted the other Belle, which, having circled well to the south, was now at no more than three hundred feet, hurtling at full power. The lower aircraft passed directly over the trees where the suspected enemy activity had been spotted. Just as he reached the edge of the trees, Woody turned energy into altitude, zoom climbing to the left. A group of soldiers sent a futile volley into the sky, far behind the climbing aircraft.

Keeping the lead aircraft in sight, Jesse put the stick over and pushed left rudder, putting his nose inside of Woodsill's turn. Performing a three dimensional aerial ballet, the two Belles continued turning, with Jesse sliding his aircraft "up the line" until the two were once again a rejoined flight.

The Richter Express once again flew over the enemy camp. People on the ground a thousand feet below hugged the dirt in their holes, fearing what might come. Woody reported what they had found.

"Two, target is a hidden gun park under trees. Tents, wagons, guns, and what appear to be unfinished bunkers. Lots of people down there. We might catch a loaded caisson or two."

Jesse's jaw tightened into a hunter's grin as Woodsill rapidly went on.

"We'll racetrack north and south, right-hand turns, ten second spacing. Aimpoint is just inside the tree line. Fire at six hundred feet, four rockets per pass, and watch for secondaries. Copy, Two?"

Jesse replied. "Roger. Two copies all. Right racetrack, ten seconds."

Woody gave the signal. "Lead's in the pitch… now!" His aircraft turned sharply right, rolling out just as sharply when aligned with the target. Jesse continued north, counting to ten, and then copied the other aircraft's steep turn and rolled out precisely behind it. Focusing entirely on lead, he waited, waited.

Suddenly, the aircraft ahead changed aspect, beginning a dive. Jesse again counted to ten and followed in a dive of his own. For the first time, he could focus on the target. From a slant range of no more than half a mile, Jesse could pick out shapes among the trees. Conforming to Woody's dive angle, he displaced slightly left of Woody's path and waited for him to fire.

Suddenly, smoke and fire burst from under Woody's wings, as four rockets came off their rails and streaked downward. Woody's aircraft pulled up into a climbing right turn and then it was Jesse's turn. He'd begun counting when Woody fired, but when he reached ten, he held fire for a couple more seconds. Woody's rockets had already impacted in the trees, four explosions throwing dirt, branches and smoke skyward. Just as Jesse fired his rockets, he saw a small figure running out of the woods, chased by a larger one in skirts. A woman following a child. He didn't have time to look longer, pulling hard and banking into his turn. He could hear his rockets explode in the trees beneath him as Stearns craned his neck, looking behind.

"Christ, Jesse, there are women and kids in there!" Stearns shouted.

Busy following the first aircraft, Jesse did not turn his head or answer immediately. As he reached a trail position behind Woody, he turned toward Stearns and asked, "Mike, did you see any secondary explosions?"

His face pale, Stearns replied, "Uh, no. Not that I could tell."

"Okay," Jesse said. "Maybe we'll get lucky next pass."

He didn't say anything further. With Stearns-in this respect, he was different from most politicians Jesse had known-you didn't have to waste time with stolid and antiseptic little speeches about the "unfortunate but inevitable side effects that come with war." Mike detested the phrase collateral damage as much as Jesse did himself, and he was perfectly aware that given the nature of seventeenth-century armies, almost all of them had lots of camp followers mixed in with the soldiery.

You simply couldn't fight against such an army without accidentally killing or wounding some women and children. Mike's protest had been the simple horror of the moment, that he'd just swallow and let go. Unlike-some very sour memories got stirred up here-any number of politicians Jesse could remember from back up-time. Men who had no hesitation ordering something done-nor any hesitation thereafter washing their hands of the consequences that had been guaranteed by those same orders.

The second pass was performed like the first, except that they now had smoke and dust as an aimpoint. Woody aimed to the right side of the smoke and Jesse slightly more left. Once again, Jesse and Mike watched as rockets hurled from Woody's aircraft. This time, as they impacted, there was a huge secondary as one of the rockets found something very explosive. Fire and smoke belched upward with a gigantic sound. Without thinking, Jesse fired his rockets and stomped left rudder, turning to avoid the still climbing smoke and debris. The blast's concussive force shoved them sideways. Stearns stared out the window on his side, peering intently downward until the turn took the scene from his view. As he regained control and rolled out, Jesse could see where his rockets had struck. He saw no secondaries, but there were several fires burning down there and he could see people prone on the ground. Where Woody's rockets had struck, there was nothing but a large smoke-filled gap, the trees blown flat, flames and smaller explosions hiding the ground itself.

The rockets had done better than they usually did. Quite a bit better, in fact. But that was part of war, also. You got good luck as well as bad. More of the former than the latter, if you were aggressive but kept just this side of recklessness.

Once the two aircraft had rejoined, Jesse could smell his own acrid sweat and tried not to consider what might have happened if he had flown directly behind Woody on that pass. He'd crossed that line some, he knew. This really had been too risky, after all, with Mike on board. There'd probably be hell to pay after Admiral Simpson found out.

So be it. Jesse wiped his brow and grasped the radio mike.

"Lead, Two. Good show, gentlemen. Well done. I suggest you revisit that spot in a day or two. That secondary was no caisson. It was probably a hidden magazine. Keep hitting the tree line all around their camp. They're sure to have more such stores around the perimeter. Oh, one more thing. Should we ever do that again, I suggest that a thirty second spacing between aircraft might be more suitable."

Woody replied crisply, "Yes, sir. That might be more comfortable."

Jesse felt almost calm, now. "Excellent work, Woody. By the way, you are now a captain and Ernst is now a first lieutenant. Now let's complete this mission and the two of you can go home and wet down your promotions. I'll be sending you some help before very long."

The rest of the flight went smoothly enough. While Woody and Ernst distracted the French pickets by overflying their positions, Jesse slipped in behind, flying slow and low. Lined up on the grassy sward just outside the city wall, Jesse carefully picked his aim point and flew his approach only a few knots above stall speed. Power up and nose abnormally high, he firmly dropped the Belle onto the turf, rolling to a stop in only a short distance. He actually had to add power to taxi toward the outlying bastion where Swedish soldiers waited to aid them. After Jesse had shut down, the soldiers pushed the aircraft into dead space next to the bastion and surrounded the machine with fascines readied for the purpose. It would be well guarded for their overnight stay.

Chapter 8

Mike found Gustav Adolf waiting for him in one of the many rooms of Luebeck's Rathaus, which he'd turned into his central headquarters for the siege. He had only one aide with him, Colonel Nils Ekstrom. He and his brother Siguard were among the small circle of Swedish officers that Gustav used for the most delicate matters. That was a signal, in itself, that the emperor wanted to be able to speak freely-which, with Gustav, usually meant bluntly. If he'd had his usual coterie of officers, he'd be quite a bit more discreet. But Ekstrom was his closest adviser in Luebeck, and Mike knew the emperor had complete faith in him.

Mike had to struggle a little to keep his expression solemn. There was something about the bearing of the emperor and the colonel-perhaps they were breathing a bit too heavily, it was hard to know exactly-that made it clear to Mike that they'd just gotten here themselves. Having walked there very quickly, so they wouldn't have to admit to Mike that they'd actually been standing on the city walls watching his plane land, just as if they were one of the city's bumpkins, instead of awaiting his presence in royal serenity.

As was his way, Gustav went right past the usual formalities.

"So!" he half-bellowed. "Deny it if you will! It was you who gave the order to pass our medical secrets to the damned Spaniards outside Amsterdam." The sneer that followed was as royal as you could ask for. "Or will you try to claim-I believe you scheming up-timers call it 'plausible deniability'-that the fault was entirely that of the nurse. Anne-Anne-"

He cocked an eye at Ekstrom.

"Anne Jefferson," the colonel supplied. "Although it might be Anne Olearius, now. She was to be married to that Holstein diplomat, I'm told, and she may insist on that peculiar American custom of women changing their last names to their husbands'."

"It's actually an English custom in its origins, I believe," Mike said mildly. "They're not married yet, anyway. As for the other, Your Majesty, the answer is yes. Of course I'm the one who gave the order. Leaving aside the fact that she's no more careless than any good nurse, why would Anne have been carrying the formula with her in the first place-when she was simply posing for Rubens?"

"Ha! You admit it, then!"

That was…

About a three-quarter bellow. Between the volume, the tone, and various subtleties in the emperor's expression lurking under the bull walrus ferocity on the surface, Mike decided Gustav Adolf was in negotiating mode. He did have a temper, and he was perfectly capable of throwing a genuine royal tantrum at whatever subordinate had roused his ire. But he was very shrewd, too, and knew that his famous temper could also serve as a useful bargaining ploy.

It was all old hat, for Mike. In times past, when he'd been the president of his mine workers local having a confrontation with management, Quentin Underwood had used exactly the same tactic. Granted, Gustav was much better at it-not to mention having the status of an emperor instead of a mere mine manager, to give weight to the thing. But a bargaining tactic is a tactic, no matter how different the circumstances of the negotiation.

So, he responded with his usual riposte. Calm, forebearing reason. Not quite suggesting that the emperor was a five-year-old having a childish fit, but bordering on it.

" 'Admit' is hardly the correct term, Your Majesty. The ploy was obviously to our benefit and could not possibly do us any harm."

"Do us no harm! You may well have saved the lives of thousands of enemy soldiers-the same ones baying at our allies in Amsterdam like a great pack of wolves."

"Oh, hardly that, Your Majesty. To begin with, chloramphenicol is so hard to make in any quantities-even for us, much less the Spaniards-that providing them with the formula was almost entirely a symbolic gesture. I doubt if more than a dozen Spanish soldiers will benefit from it, over the next year-and they will be entirely top officers, not the men who would be storming the ramparts. As for the rest-"

He shrugged. "My wife tells me that after the first week, the Spanish have not been pressing the siege. And pressed it even less, after we passed them the formula. They're behaving like watch dogs, not wolves. Which makes perfect sense, since the cardinal-infante is really aiming at a settlement, and would far rather keep Amsterdam and its productive population intact than see it all destroyed in a sack."

Gustav glowered at him, for a moment. "Still. Michael, you are trying to maneuver me. Do not deny it!"

Mike decided it was time to show a little of the bull walrus himself. So he almost sneered. Not quite. "Oh, for the love of-"

Now, a sigh, almost histrionic. Not quite.

"Gustav II Adolf, you've been a king for over twenty years-and a smart one, to boot. You know perfectly well that every adviser you have is trying to 'maneuver' you-if you insist on that term-practically every time they talk to you."

"Not me," said Ekstrom mildly.

Mike glanced at the colonel, and gave him an acknowledging nod. "No, Nils, not you. Not directly, at least. But-don't deny it, since we seem to be demanding that all cards be placed up on the table-your whole stance toward the emperor is a maneuver, in one sense. Yes, I know you simply try to help him determine what his own wishes really are. That's part of what a monarch needs."

Mike smiled. "Let's say that the emperor is using you as a tool to maneuver himself, if you prefer."

Ekstrom smiled back. "Yes, I would prefer it. And it's not a bad description of my duties"-he glanced apologetically at the emperor-"if Your Majesty will allow me the liberty of saying so."

Gustav puffed out his thick blond mustache. "And why not? Since my prime minister takes far greater liberties."

He began pacing a little, half-stomping in the heavy cavalry boots he favored. That was a familiar sign to Mike-to Nils also, judging from the slight look of relief on the colonel's face. It meant the sumo wrestler preliminaries were over, for the most part, and the serious negotiations were about to begin.

"And you think we should do everything in our power to move that along," the emperor said. Almost growling the words, but not quite.

"Yes, Your Majesty, I do."

"Why? Michael, I am quite certain that when I launch our counteroffensive in the spring that I will crush the Danes and beat the French bloody. That stinking traitor Bernhard also, if he lets his arrogance rule him instead of his brain, and gets in my way. The Spaniards too, if they come out into the field."

"But they won't," said Mike firmly. "I don't care what they promised the French. The Spanish shed most of the blood in the naval war, and they are in no mood to do the same on land. Don Fernando has never sent more than a token force to the siege here. And when the fighting starts in the spring, he'll only move his main forces out just far enough to look like he's doing something-but will make sure he can get back behind his fortifications if your offensive succeeds."

He gauged that the time was right to adopt informality. "Gustav, on that subject we have-being blunt, the Committee of Correspondence in Amsterdam has-superb intelligence. Partly, by the way, as a side effect of the medical assistance we've been providing the army outside the walls of the city. Gretchen's made sure that at least half of those medical advisers are CoC members."

That roused the emperor's temper again, as Mike had known it would. But since it would happen in any event, best to get it out of the way now.

"That damned Richter! All we need in the mix is that she-devil in Amsterdam! And that was your doing, too! Deny it!"

"Well, in this instance, I will deny it," said Mike patiently. "None of us had any idea the NUS embassy to the Netherlands would wind up getting trapped in a siege in Amsterdam. Or"-he arched an eyebrow-"are you now suggesting I somehow manipulated Richelieu and Christian IV and Charles I and Philip IV into forming the League of Ostend and launching a sneak attack on the Dutch? If so, that makes me the devil himself."

Gustav waved a meaty hand impatiently. "Fine, fine. You did not plot and scheme to plant Richter in Amsterdam. She's still there, stirring up trouble."

Mike maintained the same patient tone. "By all accounts the city's population is not restive at all. Gretchen's people are actually helping to maintain morale and discipline. Becky tells me that Fredrik Hendrik has now had three meetings with her, all of which went quite cordially."

Gustav stopped his pacing and frowned. "Is that true?"

"Yes, it is. Even Gretchen is now willing to admit that a good settlement in the Low Countries would be preferable to a deepening of the conflict. So Becky tells me, anyway." Mike smiled. "Mind you, Gretchen's definition of a 'good settlement' is pretty astringent."

"Ha! I can imagine! Not only complete freedom of religion but sheer anarchy of expression and belief!" The emperor's mustache was practically quivering.

Mike responded a bit stiffly. "I simply think of it as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the freedom to assemble. We have the same principles encoded in the constitution of Thuringia, as you well know, and-as you well know, also-I am doing my level best to incorporate them in the new constitution of the USE. I probably won't be able to pull it off-yet-because I think Wilhelm will win the election. But those are my beliefs, and I will not waver from them."

The emperor got a distracted look on his face. "Speaking of which, when do you propose to hold the elections?" He gave Mike a look through those bright blue eyes that reminded Stearns that the emperor was a very shrewd man, beneath the sometimes blustery exterior. "You know-if you were a proper schemer and plotter-you would hold the elections right in the middle of the campaign. Most Germans would be more comfortable with Wilhelm Wettin as their prime minister, I think also. But… in time of war? I'm not so sure, Michael. You might get reelected."

Mike shrugged. "And so what? The war would be over, soon enough, and then I would face a reluctant electorate when it came time to implement the policies I want. Better, I think, to let things unfold at their own pace. Once Germany has the experience of Wettin in power, people may feel differently about things."

Ekstrom had been following the discussion closely, and by now had become an astute observer of the politics of the USE. "You think he will insist on restricting the franchise? That will be the explosive issue, you know, not the religious business. I wouldn't think Wilhelm would be that stubborn."

Gustav Adolf was now listening intently also, but not saying anything. There was more in his stance and expression of an interested and curious observer than that of a ruler who had to make a decision any time soon. Mike wasn't positive, but he didn't think Gustav had any definite opinion on the subject of who should-and should not-be a citizen of the United States of Europe.

There was no reason he needed to have one, after all. Not yet, at least. His title of Emperor of the USE might be abstractly more prestigious than his title of the King of Sweden, but Gustav's real power stemmed from the latter, not the former. In Sweden, he ruled as a monarch, with none of the constitutional restrictions he faced as emperor of the new German nation. And as thorny and potentially volcanic as the problem of defining citizenship was for Germans, it was simply not an issue in Sweden.

"Left to his own devices, Nils," Mike said, "I think Wilhelm would prefer to just let the controversy over citizenship die a natural death. He knows that my party will introduce a proposal for complete and universal adult suffrage, whether I'm still the prime minister or simply the leader of the opposition. And no matter what, I can't see any realistic outcome of any election held within the next year or two that didn't produce a legislature at least one-third of whose members belonged to my party. In the lower house, we might even wind up with a majority. So all Wilhelm would have to do is quietly see to it that enough of his supporters agreed to it. And since the prime minister has no say-so over measures adopted in a special constitutional convention, he couldn't even be blamed for not vetoing it."

"But…" The emperor cocked his head.

Mike shrugged again. "He owes too many favors, Gustav. Way too many. He made the mistake-this is my opinion, anyway-of going for a quick victory instead of taking the time to solidify his position. Those 'Crown Loyalists' of his are not really a political party so much as a coalition of several different parties, first of all. Second, they don't have anything you could properly call a program. What they have is basically just a pastiche." He grinned, rather sarcastically. " 'What we don't like about Mike Stearns,' is really all it amounts to-which is not the same thing as 'what we believe.' And finally-"

He started scratching his jaw, in an old mannerism, before remembering Francisco Nasi's insistence that it was a bad habit for a political leader. Before she left, Becky had told him the same thing.

"And finally"-he dropped his hand-"the only real cement that holds that ramshackle 'party' of his together is a complicated crosshatch of favors exchanged between Wettin and a large number of people, most of whom-almost all of whom, except for Quentin Underwood and a few other up-timers-are noblemen of one sort or another. There are a few of them, like the landgrave and landgravine of Hesse-Kassel, who are smart enough and secure enough that I think they'd just as soon see the citizenship issue buried. Ironically, I think Wilhelm's brother Ernst feels the same way about it."

That last sentence was as much of a question aimed at the emperor, as it was a statement. Ernst Wettin had decided to let his brother Albrecht assume the position of Duke of Saxe-Weimar after Wilhelm abdicated in order to run for office in the Commons. Instead, Ernst had accepted Gustav Adolf's offer to become the imperial administrator for the Upper Palatinate. Officially, he still retained his title as one of the dukes of Saxe-Weimar, but that no longer really meant very much.

Gustav nodded. "Yes, I think you are right. Judging from what I hear from General Baner, at least. Ernst is too fussy for Baner's taste-of course, almost anyone is too fussy for that man-but he never issues the sort of complaints about stupid petty aristocrats that he normally bestows on German noblemen."

Mike decided to let the matter drop, for the moment. He was tempted to probe a little further, to see if he could get the emperor to take a definite stance on the citizenship issue. But…

One thing at a time. He had an immediately pressing issue to deal with. And one that he could no longer handle by-he'd admit to himself the charge had been true enough-maneuvering Gustav Adolf. To do what needed to be done now, he had to have the emperor's full agreement, or it would all unravel come next spring.

Gustav, as perceptive as he normally was, spotted the moment also. "You want to keep driving the negotiations with the Spaniards. Or rather-since what you obviously have in mind is splitting the Spaniards-with the cardinal-infante."

"Yes."

Gustav, cheerfully defying all counsels concerning the proper mannerisms for august political leaders, began tugging at his mustache. "It's tempting, Michael. Yes, it is. As God is my witness, I can think of few things that would delight me more than seeing those stinking Habsburgs divided and quarreling among themselves as much as possible."

He left off the mustache-tugging and held up an admonishing finger. "But! Two things concern me. The first-the simplest-is that I am also sure I can overrun the Netherlands myself."

Catching sight of Colonel Ekstrom's slight wince, the emperor barked a laugh. "You too! Another skeptic!"

He went back to his mustache-tugging. "Well. I should have said, the three northern provinces. None of them have any great allegiance to the United Provinces, being mostly Catholics. I agree it would be unwise to try to push further, into the Dutch heartland."

Mike took a deep breath. They had now entered very perilous territory. For all that he basically liked and admired Gustav Adolf, he never let himself forget that at bottom the king of Sweden was not that much different from any monarch of the time. He was an imperialist, at heart. For seventeenth-century rulers, grabbing as much land as possible was second nature. The nationalist sentiments that would dominate Europe before too long were still nascent in most places, although you could easily see them emerging if you looked and knew what to look for.

But no monarch did, not even Gustav Adolf. They thought in dynastic terms, not national terms-even those of them who, like Richelieu or Gustav himself, had carefully studied the histories brought back in time through the Ring of Fire. There was simply that deep-seated part of them that didn't quite believe that any ramshackle dynastic territory they built up would surely come to pieces, sooner or later, if it didn't have firm roots in popular sentiment.

Again, however, Mike decided to let it slide. He was pretty sure that Gustav's desire to add three small Dutch provinces to his dynasty wasn't really important to him. Assuming Gustav won the war, Mike intended to keep just enough to allow the USE Navy to dominate the Zuider Zee, if need be. His own motives were mostly as a way of throttling the life out of the slave trade while it was still in its infancy. But he was fairly certain that Gustav would settle for that, over time, simply as a token of his triumph.

The emperor's real territorial ambitions were toward the east. First, once the war with the Ostenders was over, Mike knew that Gustav was determined to punish the electors of Brandenburg and Saxony for their treacherous behavior by expropriating their territories outright. He'd do what he'd already done with Mecklenburg and Pomerania, simply add them to the USE as provinces.

So much, Mike had no quarrel with. In fact, he was for it. Saxony-even Brandenburg in this day and age, which hadn't yet undergone its metamorphosis into Prussia-were both German lands. But the problem was that any war with Saxony and Brandenburg was almost sure to bring in the Poles, and Gustav would then use that as a pretext to try to conquer Poland. Or a good chunk of it, at least. From his point of view, why not? Poland and Sweden had been fighting for decades, and it wasn't as if the king of Poland didn't claim that he should rightfully be the king of Sweden. Serve the bastard right.

Except, if that happened, Mike knew full well that the USE would simply be tying an albatross to its neck. Giving itself the same grief with Poland that, in a different universe, the Russians had done-more than once, and it had never worked.

But…

Let it slide, just let it slide. That was going to be quite literally a battle royal, when it happened. But it was a problem that wouldn't arise for about a year-and Mike had the situation in the Low Countries on his plate right now.

It was better, for the moment, to deal with Gustav's other objection. Mike was pretty sure he knew what it was going to be-and, if so, he thought he could persuade the emperor to follow his advice.

"And your second reservation, Your Majesty?"

Gustav dropped his hand from the mustache and spread both arms wide. "Oh, come, Michael! Surely it's obvious. The inevitable result of your plotting and scheming-your wife's, too! even worse than yours!-will be a powerful realm in the Low Countries. More than that. A united Netherlands is bound to sweep into it any number of the surrounding small principalities. What you propose is nothing less than the recreation of old Burgundy. And is that-"

Gustav went right back to his mustache-pulling. A bit enviously, Mike reflected that there were some advantages to being a king. To hell with advisers nattering you about perfectly comfortable habits. L'Etat, c'est moi-and that includes the damn mustache.

"Is that really in the interests of the United States of Europe?" Gustav concluded. "Or Sweden, for that matter, especially since-I will brook no arguments on this, Michael-you know I have every intention of recreating the Union of Kalmar. Once I've finished pounding that drunken Danish bastard Christian into a pulp."

There was no way Mike was going to stick his thumb into that issue. Not now, anyway. Personally, he had reservations concerning the emperor's plan to forge the first united Scandinavian realm since the Middle Ages. Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn't-but, either way, it was not an issue that directly confronted the USE.

"Look at the problem the other way, Gustav. You read the histories. Half the grief suffered by Europe-the western part, anyway-came from that endless back-and-forth between the Germans and the French over the territory in the middle. In the here and now, and all the way through the next two centuries, mostly as a result of French aggression. Thereafter, usually, because the Germans got strong enough to respond in kind. And to what purpose, in the end?"

The emperor scowled slightly, but said nothing.

"No purpose at all-but tens of millions of people lost their lives in the process. So I think it would be wise to do what we can to forestall the mess altogether. And I can think of no better way to do it than to create a nation in the middle which is powerful enough-unlike the Holland and Belgium of my old universe-that both the French and the Germans have to think twice before they decide to pick a fight.

"Besides that," he pressed on, "having a commercially prosperous and industrious Netherlands will be to our benefit economically. And they can't ever pose a real military threat, because even a recreated Burgundy simply can't have a large enough population to field big armies."

"They could certainly become a major naval power," Ekstrom pointed out. "The Dutch have managed that much on their own, even today."

There wasn't much vehemence to his statement, though. It was more in the way of an observation than an argument.

Mike didn't even have to answer that himself, in the event, since Gustav Adolf did.

"I am not much concerned about that, Nils," he said. "Without Denmark, they can't bottle us up in the Baltic. And"-here, a heavy shrug-"I do not foresee us having to squabble with them much with regard to the world beyond."

He was eyeing Mike by the time he finished, but didn't add anything. Mike was almost certain that Gustav knew how unyielding Mike intended to be over the slave trade-an issue that would certainly produce clashes with the Dutch, no matter what political entity emerged in the Low Countries. True, the Dutch weren't involved much in the slave trade yet-but "yet" was the operative term. They almost surely would be, within a decade at the latest. The same powerful commercial dynamics that had led them to become one of the leading nations in the slave trade in Mike's former universe applied just as fully in this one.

But, as with the issue of USE citizenship, the slave trade was simply not an issue that a king of Sweden cared much about. Not directly, at least. Neither Sweden nor any of the Scandinavian countries had been significant players in the slave trade, in the world Mike came from, and there was not much likelihood they would be in this one either.

Like Mike himself, the emperor had enough sense to let issues slide for a time, that didn't need to be dealt with immediately. His gaze was very keen, now, his eyes seeming to be as blue as blue could get.

"All right, Michael. Let's get down to the heart of things. You did not undertake such a flamboyant and somewhat risky venture as flying into Luebeck-I admit, it was splendid for the morale of my soldiers-simply to chat with me. You have something specific in mind. Something you suspect-ha!-I would dismiss out of hand if it came to me in the form of a radio message."

"Yes, I do. Here's what I propose…"

Gustav didn't explode, when Mike finished. Not in a temper tantrum, at least. He did, however, erupt into a truly imperial spasm of uproarious laughter.

"Ha! Ha!" he finally managed to exclaim. "Never since Menelaus has a husband displayed such an obsession for a wife! But that pitiful Greek wench simply launched a thousand ships and destroyed a city, so her husband could bed her again. To do the same to your wife, you propose to launch an entire nation!"

Mike could have argued that, of course, any which way from Sunday. It was actually not true at all that a crude desire to see his wife again after an absence of many months-fine, copulate with his wife again-was the motive impelling him forward.

Well, not the first one, anyway. Not even the second. The third, he'd grant.

But he said nothing. Partly because that third motive was pressing so closely on the first two that he wasn't quite sure he could pull it off with a straight face. And partly because the ribaldry had put Gustav in such a good mood.

"The cardinal-infante would have to agree to a cease-fire, though," Ekstrom cautioned. "I don't see any way you could land the plane in the city itself."

Mike nodded. "Well, yes. That would have to be part of the deal-and as good a way as any to test his trustiworthiness."

Finally done with his laughing, Gustav peered at Mike. "And you are willing to be the bait? Well, I can see that. She is a very beautiful woman. And not unfaithful, like that wretched Helen. What was Menelaus thinking, the idiot?"

Chapter 9

Magdeburg

Thorsten found the office easily enough. After he entered Government House, for the first time since he'd settled in Magdeburg, he discovered a big plaque posted right next to the entrance that listed every office in the building and specified which floor they were on and even gave the room they were using a number. Then, once he reached the third floor, there was another plaque facing the stairwell that listed the offices on that floor-with arrows pointing either to the left or right, along with the name and number of the office. Only a village idiot could not have managed to find their way.

He found it all rather amusing. The term Amerikanisch had many connotations in Amideutsch, most of them quite positive. But one of the prominent connotations was "fussy, obsessed with detail, precise to the point of absurdity." Those neat plaques and arrows were a perfect illustration of the trait. Everything must be in order!

What was amusing about it was that Gunther Achterhof had told Engler that in the universe the Americans came from, they perceived themselves as "rugged individualists"-whatever that might mean, exactly-and it was their accepted mythology that Germans were the world's natural bureaucrats.

Germans! Who squabbled about everything, including even the language they spoke, and were notorious throughout Europe for the production of religious sects, mass rebellions, mercenary soldiers-everything except order.

So, getting to the right office was easy. And, sure enough, there was another precise plaque on the door: Room 322 United States of Europe Department of Social Services

When it came time to enter, though, he found himself hesitating. Unlike Gunther, he'd had very little contact with up-timers-and that, only with male Americans. But this office was reputedly run by Americanesses, and the stories about them were enough to make any sane man pause.

Incredible women, by all accounts-although the stories Thorsten had heard rarely agreed with each other from that point forward. Some legends claimed they were the most lascivious creatures in the world, practically outright succubi. Others claimed they could find an issue concerning sex over which to take offense that no one else could possibly discern. The deadliest females in the world, and the most fragile females in the world. Sorceresses and fools at the same time, who could undertake chemic wonders but had no more sense than a chicken when it came to a multitude of practical matters.

Thorsten didn't know what to think-and was not at all sure he wanted to find out.

He paused with his hand on the door handle for a while. Finally, he decided to open it. They couldn't possibly be any more peculiar than his great-aunt Mathilde, after all. So, fortifying himself with the image of Mathilde's fierce eyes-badly crossed and nearsighted, but always fierce-and her constantly disheveled hair and the bizarre utterances that issued from a mouth whose teeth were about the worst anyone had ever seen, he entered the office.

And found himself staring at a young woman seated behind a desk, looking up at him with a smile.

About his age, he thought, somewhere in her mid-twenties. Hard to be sure, though. One of the things Americanesses had a reputation for-most accounts agreed on this-was that they seemed to have a peculiar resistance to aging. Some pointed to that as a sign of witchcraft, but most people ascribed it to their well-known chemic skills.

It was certainly impossible to imagine this woman as a witch, whatever her age. If someone had set Thorsten to the task of picturing a woman who was the exact opposite of his great-aunt Mathilde, he didn't think he could have come up with anything better.

To begin with, where Mathilde had been always been very short and became shorter as she grew old-shorter and hunched-this woman was tall. That much was obvious, even seated as she was. Secondly, every hair was in place. True, the style of the hair was perhaps a bit strange, cut short the way it was, but not really all that much. More important, the hair was colored a rich brown, almost chestnut, and very healthy looking, where his great-aunt's hair had gone from an ugly black to a still uglier gray without ever once losing its most distinguishing characteristic, which was looking like a sheep that had gone unshorn since it was a lamb-but had had many an encounter with briars and thorns. Family legend had it that small animals and birds were occasionally spotted nesting in Great-Aunt Mathilde's hair. Even as boy, Thorsten had had his doubts, but… you never knew.

The eyes were completely different, too. Straight, not crossed; a bright and clear greenish color that went superbly with the hair, where Mathilde's eyes had wavered from a sort of muddy blue to a still muddier gray, depending on her mood of the moment. More striking still was that the green eyes studying him seemed friendly. Mathilde's mood of the moment had either been frenzied or angry or simply crotchety-but never friendly.

But all of that Thorsten noticed almost as an aside. From the moment he set eyes on the woman, his gaze was riveted on one feature alone.

So. At least one legend proved to be true, in every particular. The woman's teeth were perfect.

Perfect, and…

Also stunning. Because the teeth came as part of a wide mouth that had a smile on it that was the most beautiful smile Thorsten had ever seen. It would have been a little scary, if it hadn't been for the friendly green eyes floating somewhere above.

"Well, you sure took your time about it," the woman said, somehow managing to smile more widely still. "I was starting to wonder if I'd need to get help, come nightfall, prying your hand off the handle so we could leave for the day. Or if I could do it myself, with a crowbar."

Startled, Thorsten glanced behind him. Only then realizing that he'd turned down the handle before he'd paused for a while.

"Ah," was all he could think of to say.

The smile stayed on her face, but at least the mouth closed. Thorsten thought if a man stared at those teeth for too long, it might turn him to stone. Or something.

"Never mind," she said cheerily. "You managed to get in. I'm Caroline Platzer, by the way. I'm the receptionist here, three mornings a week. What's your name, and what can I do for you?"

Thorsten cleared his throat. "My name is Thorsten Engler. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Fraulein."

He thought he was safe enough, using that last appellation. So far as he could see, the Platzer woman wasn't wearing one of those gold rings that Americanesses used-so legend had it, at least-to signal their status as married women. He couldn't be positive, though, because even while speaking to him her hands continued to fly about the desk, doing… whatever it was a "receptionist" did. He might have missed one of the fingers.

She startled him with a soft laugh. "Oh, relax, will you? Herr Engler, I promise you I won't bite. Even if you do use one of the-how many are there supposed to be, by now?-eighty-three thousand, six hundred and forty-two Absolutely Forbidden Words in my presence. That includes any one of the five hundred and six Absolutely Prohibited Forms of Address, except three."

Warily, Thorsten eyed her. "And those three… are which?"

"If you call me a bitch or a cunt or a twat, I'll knock your head off." Her right hand came up, waggling a little. "A broad or a dame… depends."

He stared at her. He was familiar with the terms "bitch" and "cunt," since the words had been absorbed into Amideutsch. He had no idea what "twat" meant, but in context, he could guess. "Dame" was obvious, although he suspected he'd encountered a different connotation than the usual one.

"I would never do such a thing anyway," he said. The words came out automatically, not even a protest so much as a simple statement of fact. Most of his mind was still trying to make sense of "broad." He understood the approximate meaning of the term, but could see no connection to women.

Her eyes crinkled. "Y'know, I believe you. Would you like some tea?"

Without waiting for the answer, she rose from her seat and went over to a counter where a pot waited, simmering on a peculiar little mechanical candle of some sort. On her way, Thorsten saw one guess confirmed. She was indeed tall. Slightly taller that he was, he thought, though not by much. Less than an inch.

Then she bent over to reach the jar of tea nestled on a shelf below, and the sense of the term "broad" became instantly clear to Thorsten. Just as instantly as the stirrings of an erection.

Dear God in Heaven. None of the legends had prepared him for this.

Yes, certainly, she was a bit exotic and a bit startling with that direct manner she had, and she was a bit of this and a bit of that and it was all silly nonsense. She wasn't even beautiful, although she came awfully close. What she was, was something Thorsten had felt and understood since he was fourteen years old and had first laid eyes on one of his second cousins.

Desirable. Sheer and unalloyed, it was as simple as that.

Poor Brigida, that had been, who had died in the first epidemic that swept the village. She'd only been sixteen years old, a little older than Thorsten at the time. But for every day that had passed in the two years since the glorious moment he first met her and the horrid time they took her body away to be burned, he had desired her. He'd been completely smitten, in the way boys often were and young men were never supposed to be, once they entered adulthood and had to be practical about such things.

Thorsten had never expected to encounter that sensation again. Certainly not under these circumstances.

Fortunately, while those thoughts and emotions roiled through him, the Platzer woman was looking elsewhere as she went about the business of preparing the tea. By the time she turned around to face him and, still smiling, handed him a mug of tea, he was reasonably composed again.

"Reasonably composed," that is to say, in the way that a twenty-six year old man will be when raw desire is sweeping through him, back and forth, like great waves washing over a ship's deck in a storm. Not more than one-fourth of his brain was able to concentrate on anything besides the woman herself. Fortunately again, the heavy workman's clothing he was wearing to fend off the December cold kept the half-erection from showing. He did manage, as casually as he could, to wipe his mouth with his hand. He was afraid there might be drool showing. He had no idea at all how a man went about courting an Americaness, but he was quite sure that starting off by acting the uncouth boor would not be helpful at all.

"You still haven't answered my question, Herr Engler," she said, resuming her seat behind the desk. "What can we do for you? And would you please sit down?" She pointed at a chair behind him and a little to his left.

A bit clumsily, Thorsten sat down. Clumsy, because three-quarters of his attention was elsewhere. Her fingers were gorgeous. He could imagine them-

That way lay disaster. Hastily, he broke off the surging reverie and wracked his brain to think of something appropriate and intelligent to say.

Informality. That little piece of the many legends got jostled loose and rose to the surface. Almost all of them agreed on that, too, so it was probably true.

"Please, call me Thorsten." That came out much more stiffly than he'd intended. But he was afraid to smile. His mouth open that far, drool was sure to come.

"Thorsten it is, then. And please call me Caroline." She leaned forward a bit and waved a finger at him, playing the scold. "But I warn you, sir! It's 'Caroline,' not 'Carol.' Cross that line at your peril."

The same finger, alas. Was there any part of the woman that was plain, at least, since he couldn't imagine anything actually ugly. Something he could focus on to keep from sliding into the behavior of a village idiot or-worse yet-a schoolboy.

The best he could come up with was: "I would not dream of it. Caroline it shall always be."

He said it too intently. Too… roughly, almost. She would think he was coarse.

And, indeed, the smile that seemed permanently fixed now faded some. And, suddenly, she had a different look in her eyes. But it didn't seem to be one of irritation or revulsion. Simply…

Startled, perhaps?

Who could say, with an Americaness?

Luckily, he still had enough of his wits to remember that she'd now asked him the same question twice. Or maybe it was even three times.

"Friends told me I should come here. Today, because I just enlisted in the army and I will soon be leaving for the training camp. I was involved in the accident at the coal gas plant. Very closely involved. And… well, I am having nightmares. And I keep seeing images of what happened. Very vivid images. They told me I might be suffering from some sort of-of-what is it called?"

Caroline was not smiling at all, now. "Post-traumatic stress disorder. We heard about the accident, of course. That must have been horrible."

He took a breath. "Yes. It was. Does this mean I might be… ah, going insane?"

She shook her head, very forcefully. "Oh, no, nothing like that. In fact, you may not have PTSD at all. Thorsten, all the reactions you're having are perfectly normal, after people go through an experience like that. We don't define it as PTSD until quite a bit of time has passed. It's only if the symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance-there a lot of them and they vary from one person to another, but those are the most common-don't fade, that we conclude something abnormal is happening. But 'abnormal' does not mean insane. There's nothing at all wrong with your mind."

She leaned forward still further, lowering her head and pointing to the back of her skull. Which, of course, was also shapely. Thorsten was racked by a sort of thrilled despair.

"Back here is what we call the limbic part of the brain. To simplify some, you can think of it as the most primitive-and most basic-part of the brain. It's where automatic responses and our animal instincts are centered. But it's not where thoughts are formed and emerge. That happens here"-she raised her head and pointed to her forehead, using both forefingers this time-"in what's called the cortex."

She paused briefly, gathering her own thoughts. "What seems to happen with PTSD is that the traumatic memories get stored in the limbic part of the brain, instead of the parts where they would normally get stored. We don't know why it happens, really. Or rather, why it happens to some people and not to others. But once it does happen, the problem is that the memories are now locked into a part of the brain that doesn't think rationally and doesn't respond to reason. That's why traditional talk therapy doesn't usually work all that well, with PTSD. In fact, a lot of specialists-Maureen Grady, who set up and runs this department, being one of them-think talk therapy by itself is more likely to be harmful than helpful. They think all it does is keep stirring up the traumatic memories without doing anything to alleviate them."

Thorsten tried to sort through what she was telling him. Relieved, finally, to have something interesting to think about other than Caroline Platzer herself. That would help him… he though the American expression was "keep his cool."

It was interesting, too, even fascinating. It had never occurred to him to think of the brain as something with different parts that did different things.

"So-perhaps I do not understand something-what you are saying is that there is not much that can be done for me. Yes?"

"No, not exactly. There are some techniques for dealing with PTSD that seem to be successful much of the time, or at least helpful. Using mental imagery as a way of soothing your limbic system before you engage in talk therapy often helps. There's even"-here she chuckled softly, and shook her head a little-"don't ask me how it works, because it's always seemed like magic to me. Maureen could explain it to you. It's a peculiar method of getting a person's eyes to move rapidly back and forth while they're undergoing therapy-a lot of times the therapist just has them follow their finger-which seems to decouple the limbic responses. Like I said, it seems like magic. But, however it works, it does seem to work a lot of the time."

She leaned back in her seat and half-turned, glancing first at a clock on the back wall and then at one of the doors behind her. "Maureen's seeing a client right now, but she should be free, in a moment. I'll talk to her about giving you the finger therapy. It's also useful even for people just suffering from temporary symptoms."

She turned back to face him, lacing her fingers together. Caroline was the sort of person who gestured a lot when speaking, so her fingers had been fluttering about. Now, for the first time, all of them were still and visible. He'd been almost certain already but now he could definitely see that while she was wearing three rings, not one of them fit the description of an up-time wedding band. And none of the three rings was on the finger that, if he remembered correctly, was supposed to hold the wedding band.

He could only hope that that legend was true, at least. Any number of the others had already fallen like pigs at slaughtering time.

"But the main thing," she continued, "is simply that it's much too soon to determine if you have PTSD in the first place. You may very well not be suffering from it at all, Thorsten."

The door behind her opened, and a middle-aged woman emerged, followed by another. From various subtleties of dress and manner-mostly the latter-Thorsten knew that the second woman was the up-timer.

His assessment was confirmed an instant later.

"Thank you, Maureen," said the first woman. "I shall see you next week, then."

"Yes-but at noon, not the usual time, Cleopha."

While the German woman passed through the outer room, nodding in a friendly way to Caroline and a polite way to Thorsten, Maureen held her door open. Once Cleopha had left, she glanced at Thorsten and then looked at Caroline.

"Can I speak to you for a moment, Maureen?"

"Of course, Caroline. Come in."

Once Thorsten was alone in the room, he was finally able to relax a bit. "Relax," at least, in the way that a twenty-six year old man will relax while his mind seems to have dozens of ideas ricocheting about at random-all of them involving a plot or scheme or ploy or maneuver to figure out how he could possibly manage to see this woman again, each and every one of which he is almost certain is completely harebrained.

After Caroline finished her quick summary of the Engler case, Maureen Grady shook her head. "God, that accident was horrible. Dennis got there toward the end, you know. There were still pieces of people lying all over. One corpse he saw hadn't even been decapitated. The head was simply disintegrated. Dennis almost vomited."

Caroline grimaced. Maureen's husband Dennis was a cop, and as hard-boiled as most cops are. It took a lot to penetrate his hide.

Maureen was now consulting her calendar. "Did he tell you when he'd be leaving for boot camp?"

"No. I don't think he knows himself."

"Damn army!" Maureen said, half-chuckling. "Whatever else is different between this universe and the one we left behind, one thing for sure and certain stayed the same. The army's motto is still 'hurry up and wait.' "

She pushed the calendar aside. "I can see him tomorrow, at two o'clock. After that…"

She shrugged slightly. "We'd have to wait anyway, even if he weren't going into the service. But it might still be helpful for him to have a counselor to talk to. Do you want to handle it yourself? It doesn't need to be here, since you're mostly at the settlement house. You could set it up to see him over there, in one of the spare rooms."

Caroline issued the same sort of half-chuckle. " 'Spare rooms'! A broom closet, maybe."

She hesitated, then looked at the door beyond which an unseen Thorsten Engler was waiting. Then, still hesitating, looked out of Maureen's window.

"Oh, don't tell me," Maureen said. The chuckle that came out this time was a full one.

Caroline made a face. "For Pete's sake, Maureen, I just met the man. Still…"

She gave Maureen a look that tried and failed to be aloof. "Seeing as how you insist on maintaining the social workers' professional ethics code, in every jot and tittle…"

"You're damn right I do, young lady. I don't care if we'd been planted back in the Stone Age. If you take someone on as a client, that will be your one and only relationship with that person. Ever. I don't care if it's twenty years later."

Caroline nodded, and looked back out the window. She hadn't expected a different response-and, for that matter, didn't disagree with Maureen anyway. There was a very good reason for that tight-laced code of ethics.

Mostly, she realized, she was just startled. Twice, today, and by the same man. That… certain sort of startlement. The one that suddenly, unexpectedly, makes you focus on a person. She hadn't felt that since the Ring of Fire, which had torn from her the man she'd loved since she was seventeen and had been planning to marry in six weeks. Hadn't really expected she ever would again.

"In that case, no," she said. "I think it might be better if someone else took him on as a client."

"Fine." Maureen was all business, now, back to checking her calendar. "If he wants to see someone before he leaves, tell him I can set something up. Lutgardis would do fine. So would Maria Magdalena or Rosina. Maybe Gertrud, too, although I'd be happier if she had a little more experience. We'll manage, one way or another."

Maureen made sure to get a good look at the Engler fellow, as she ushered Caroline out the door. Nothing too long or rude, of course. Just enough to get a sense of things.

She was quite satisfied by the brief study. Engler had that certain unmistakable look about him. Caroline wouldn't really grasp it, of course, since she was too close to the matter. But to Maureen it was obvious.

Rather a good-looking man, too, even if you couldn't really call him handsome. Dark-haired, blue-eyed, quite a nice mouth and a perfectly acceptable nose. A bit on the stocky side, maybe-but to make up for it he seemed to have better teeth than usual.

But all that was trivial. What mattered was the look on his face, that Maureen had seen but Caroline hadn't because she'd been too busy looking somewhere else while Engler tried and failed miserably to keep from ogling her.

Okay, "ogling" wasn't really fair. He seemed a perfectly polite man. But it was still The Look. The one-perhaps the only one-that made men really, really cute. She could remember the same look on her husband's face, years back, when he'd spent two hours skittering all over before he finally asked her out on a date. By the end, she'd thought he might have a complete meltdown before he managed to get the words out.

It was the look on an ox's face, she imagined, when the hammer comes down. She'd never worked in a slaughterhouse, so she wasn't positive. But if it wasn't, it ought to be.

She checked to make sure the door was closed. It was a nice thick heavy seventeenth-century door, too. Not quite soundproof, but close enough. Then, started hopping up and down and pumping her fist in a cheerleader's gesture of victory.

"Yes! Yes! Yes! About fucking time!"

"No, you wouldn't be seeing me, Thorsten. I only work here part of the time, anyway. Just in the mornings on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Most of the time I work at the settlement house. Are you familiar with it? It's almost on the river, not far south of the navy yard."

"Oh. Yes, I've seen it. Never went in, though."

She gave him her best smile. "You should drop by some time, then."

"I would not wish to intrude."

"Oh, don't be silly. It'd be nice to see you again. Really, it would."

Chapter 10

The siege lines of the Spanish army in the Low Countries, outside the walls of Amsterdam

"This would be an irrevocable step, Your Highness. I do not say you should refuse, simply…"

Pieter Paul Rubens shrugged. "Simply be aware, from the beginning, of the likely consequences. They will most probably be severe."

Don Fernando turned his eyes away from their examination of Amsterdam's walls to look at Rubens. The Habsburg prince most people called the cardinal-infante-he was the younger brother of Philip IV, king of Spain-knew from his reading of the up-time texts that as the centuries passed, Rubens would be remembered almost entirely for his art. But in the world he lived in, he was just as well-known for being one of Europe's premier diplomats.

And not by accident. In the weeks-months, now-since the siege began, Don Fernando had come to have the same confidence in the artist that most members of the Habsburg dynasty did. Members of other dynasties, for that matter. Whatever his private opinions, which he generally kept to himself, Rubens invariably gave counsel designed to help the person asking for it determine what they actually wanted in the first place. He did not ever seem to have-to use the American expression the prince had learned from the nurse, Anne Jefferson-"an ax to grind."

A charming expression, as were several others the prince had learned from Jefferson in her various visits to the Spanish camp. Visits that she'd officially made as a model for Rubens, but which had actually been disguised diplomatic maneuvers of one sort or another. Both the cardinal-infante and his opponents on the other side of Amsterdam's walls, the prince of Orange and the Abrabanel wife of the USE's prime minister, had found the young and innocent-looking nurse a most handy instrument for conducting what amounted to negotiations while officially fighting a bitter siege.

But he was not thinking of those charming expressions, explained to him by a very charming woman. It was something else she'd said to him, in her last visit, that had been gnawing at him for days, now. Especially coming on top of many months of growing doubts and uncertainties. To use another one her expressions, the straw that broke the camel's back.

"I asked her," he said abruptly, "what she-an educated woman, quite intelligent-knew about the Habsburgs. Not today, but when she still lived in that…"

He waved his hand, vaguely. "Future world she came from."

He would leave it at that. The prince knew of the speculations and arguments that had been roiling Europe's theologians and philosophers-not to mention kings and princes and their advisers-since the Ring of Fire. They ranged from crude and simple accusations of demonism and witchcraft to logical arguments that were so convoluted they were impossible to follow at all. Inevitably-God knows how they managed it, but they did-a number of the theologians had even tied the debate back to the dispute over transubstantiation versus consubstantiation.

One bishop in southern Italy had gone so far as to suggest that the Ring of Fire somehow called into question the Nicene Creed. Of course, the man was obviously a lunatic-the proof of it being that he'd advanced the argument within reach of the Spanish Inquisition. A reach which had grasped him as quickly and surely as a snake seizing a mouse.

Rubens inclined his head. "And her response was…"

Don Fernando could feel his jaws tightening. "She was quite startled, you understand. And I pressed the matter-perhaps rudely-because I really wanted to see what her answer would be."

He took a deep breath and let it out. "Worse than I'd feared. Far worse." He could still remember, quite vividly, the nervous way the nurse's eyes had shifted about. As she so obviously tried to think of something pleasant she could say. Inoffensive, at least.

She'd failed, because the prince had not given her time. He had been rather rude, he could see now. Still, the rudeness had served its purpose.

"What she said-her exact words, Pieter-was: 'Well, you suffered from a lot of hereditary illness. And you all had that famous lower lip.' "

Rubens smiled faintly, as did the prince himself. Hard not to-since Don Fernando himself had the famous lip.

"Perhaps…" said Rubens. "Please remember that-yes, the woman is quite intelligent, but still-she had a limited education. Tightly focused, it would be better to say."

"And what does that matter?" demanded the prince, with some exasperation. "It makes it all the worse, in fact. She's certainly no more poorly educated than most people of her time. Which means that her unstudied response is a good reflection of what posterity will remember about us. What the world will remember. Who cares what a few scholars in that future might think?"

He waved his hand again, not vaguely but firmly. "And what they think is not much different, anyway. Don't play the diplomat here, Pieter. I've read some of the scholarly accounts."

Don Fernando had to force himself to loosen his jaws. He'd almost snarled the last few sentences. It wouldn't do to have Rubens think he was angry at him. He wasn't, at all. He needed the man's sage advice, now more than ever.

"We were-are, damnation-the greatest dynasty ever produced by humanity. If that sounds arrogant, so be it. Who compares to us? The Plantagenet dynasty of England that those up-time accounts romanticize so grotesquely? They were limited to part of an island and part of France, and they only lasted three centuries. We've already lasted longer than that, and according to those same up-time accounts, will-would-ah! how does one express it grammatically?-better those idiot logicians should concentrate on that practical problem-last well over half a millennium. And we dominated the entire continent almost throughout. As we do today. As we have since at least Charles V. And not just Europe! Half the world, for the past century."

Now he waved-again, firmly-toward the east. "I even examined what I could find about the Chinese and the Persians and the Hindus. None of them, so far as I can determine, ever produced a dynasty that lasted longer than the Plantagenets. Nor did anyone in the ancient world. The famous Roman Antonines didn't even last two centuries."

He looked at Rubens, almost glaring. "You've read more of the texts that I have, I imagine. Did you encounter anything different?"

After a pause, Rubens shook his head. "No, Your Highness. I did not."

"Thought so! No, Pieter, I am not mistaken about this. Let things continue as they did-as they will, if nothing is done-and our posterity in this universe will be the same. Some sort of horrid diseases, and"-he flicked his fleshy lower lip with a finger-"this stupid thing. Not even a nose!"

He lowered the hand and clasped the other behind his back. Then, began rocking on his feet a little. "Will you keep our discussions privy, Pieter? I mean, from my brother as well."

Rubens nodded. "Yes, Your Highness. I do that with all such discussions, in any event. But in this case…"

The artist and diplomat gazed at Amsterdam. "In this case, I have been coming to many of the same conclusions myself. And being a Catholic and not a blithering Calvinist, I know that God gave us free will."

Now he looked at the prince directly. "And that good works will receive their reward in the afterlife."

The prince smiled. "Of course, the trick is defining 'good works' in the first place, isn't it? And then, only being able to hope that the saints and the angels and the Lord Himself will agree with your definition. Which, alas, you won't discover until it's too late to correct whatever errors you made."

Rubens smiled back. "Yes, indeed. That is the difficulty. Inevitable, of course. Without that uncertainty, 'free will' would be meaningless."

There was silence, for a time, as the prince and his adviser both went back to their study of Amsterdam's fortifications. It was a pointless study, really, just a means for the prince to finally steel his will. By this time, he knew every foot of those walls. And knew, as well, just how terrible the cost would be of passing through them. The heady and triumphal glory of the first weeks of the reconquest of the United Provinces had long gone. Ages past, it seemed, even though it had only been a few months.

"Enough," he said quietly. "Let my family rot in Spain, as they certainly will so long as they listen to Olivares and his ilk. With my brother and the count-duke demanding from me every week more and more treasure from the Low Countries. They insist I must despoil and ruin the Netherlands-and for what? So they can piss it away down a bottomless toilet, as they have done for a century with the New World's silver. Let my cousins in Austria do the same, if they choose, as they did in another world. I will start here, anew. My dynasty had six centuries in that other world. In this one…"

He laughed softly. "What do you think, Pieter? If I claim a full millennium as my goal, would that constitute the sin of pride?"

"I couldn't say, Your Highness. I'm not a theologian. But I am an artist, and I can promise you some splendid portraits."

He eyed the prince's costume, which was a purely martial one. "I assume you will not wish to pose in your cardinal's robes."

Don Fernando grinned. "Be a bit awkward, wouldn't it? Since the most important portraits will be of me and my future wife-whoever she might turn out to be-surrounded by our children. That is, after all, the first thing you need for a successful dynasty."

"Indeed." The diplomat pursed his lips, for a moment, thinking. "Dispensing with the title of cardinal should not be too difficult, I think. You could simply resign unilaterally, although that would cause a stir. But the pope is generally quite practical about these things, and I know-I've spoken to him-that Urban is none too pleased with the endless war."

"I've come to the same conclusion," the prince said. "As God Himself knows, it's not as if I ever wanted a cardinal's robes in the first place. My father and his advisers insisted on it. That leaves…"

His eyes became slightly unfocused, for a moment. "A wife. It will have to be someone acceptable to the haughtiest monarch or nobleman in Europe. That's essential."

Rubens inclined his head. "Yes, of course. Under the circumstances, a morganatic marriage-anything that even had a whiff of it-would be out of the question." He went back to pursing his lips. "I can begin some discreet inquiries. There are not really all that many options, you understand?"

Don Fernando gave him a quick, stoic nod of the head. "Yes, Pieter, I know. Do your best to find someone reasonably pleasant and not too ugly, if you can. But what matters is that she be fertile and young enough to bear a number of children. The rest I can-will have to-just live with."

His expression brightened. "But what I am saying? First I have to win this war-or get a good enough settlement, at least. A wife can wait. Must wait, in fact. No suitable bride will be found for a king who doesn't have a realm to show for the title. Even the Germans would laugh at such a one."

Rubens was a little amused to see the way the prince-a man still in his early twenties-so obviously found the demands of war more congenial than the demands of marriage. Of course, for royalty, that attitude was not so unusual, even in much older men. Very rarely was congeniality, much less affection, a significant factor when it came to choosing spouses. As it would not be in this instance, either.

Within seconds, after a polite but brief dismissal, Don Fernando was consulting with his officers over the best place to prepare what the Americans called a "landing field." Before too long, Rubens was sure, the prince would come to the inevitable conclusion that-since neither he nor any of his officers had ever seen an airplane-they would need to send an envoy to Amsterdam to discreetly inquire if the up-timers residing in the city could provide them with some advice.

Rubens himself would probably be the envoy chosen, in fact.

As he walked back to his quarters, picking his way carefully through the trenches and earthworks that had turned the land around Amsterdam into something that reminded him of nightmarish paintings by the elder Brueghel, Rubens mused over which up-timer would be sent as a consultant.

Not Anne, unfortunately, as much as Pieter liked the woman. The young nurse had several times commented jokingly on her complete ineptitude with up-time mechanical devices. "Outside of nursing and medical equipment, I'm hopeless. I can change a light bulb and that's about it. Ask me to tell a spark plug from an alternator, and I'd have to go eeny-meeny-miny-mo."

The terms themselves had all been meaningless to Rubens, but the gist of the statement was clear enough.

Who, then?

Probably the big one, who was married to the agitator woman, Gretchen. Jeff, his name was, if Pieter remembered correctly. The artist had gathered, from various comments he'd heard, that the young man was considered a "geek." So far as Rubens could determine, that referred to a person who was obsessed with up-time devices and mechanical skills-something called "electronics," especially. Like some astrologers and alchemists of his own time, it seemed, about whom similar jokes were made.

Odd, really. From the man Jeff's appearance, Pieter would have assumed he was a simple soldier-and perhaps a brutish one, at that.

He paused for a moment, after negotiating his way through a particularly tortuous set of trenches, and gazed back at Amsterdam.

But that was the key to it all, he thought. In a small way, that contradiction between a young up-timer's appearance and the lurking truth behind it was a good symbol.

How else describe that titan who stood behind the boy? Who had in some way, even been responsible for creating him. A brute on the outside, but underneath…

Rubens resumed his walk. Very slowly now, because his thoughts were mostly elsewhere.

The cardinal-infante's confidences had come as no surprise. Rubens had been expecting them, before too long. The enemy's proposal to allow their prime minister to fly to Amsterdam and land safely beyond the walls right in front of the Spanish guns had simply been the immediate trigger. Had the proposal not been made, the prince would still have done the same a bit later.

Rubens had seen it coming, for weeks. Partly because, from his long experience as a diplomat, he could see the logic and sense the way it was unfolding in the mind of the prince who sought his advice and counsel. But mostly for the simplest reason of all.

Pieter Paul Rubens, a man who had been faithful to the Habsburgs all his life-and he was now fifty-six years old-had come to the edge of treason. To call things by the name that almost everyone would soon be calling it. Granted, the difference between a "traitor" and a "loyalist" being something that only history could finally pass verdict upon. If Don Fernando's scheme succeeded, the world would only remember the success. All but a sullen few would forget that the triumph began with treason, for treason it surely was-just as surely as Rubens would be executed for it, if the prince's plans failed and Rubens fell into the hands of the Spanish crown.

For, even before the prince spoke, Rubens had already decided he would support the plot and do everything in his power to make it succeed.

And why? Because a titan had been set loose in the world, and the monster had a mind more cold and savage and ruthless than any king or prince of the day. Not since Constantine, Rubens thought, had such a terrible soul walked the earth. Perhaps not since Alexander.

And there, of course, lay the quandary. For had not Constantine created the basis for the triumph of the true church? Had not Alexander, before him, created the world in which that church could arise?

Let the churchmen and the theologians insist that Constantine was a saint who had been impelled by his own faith. What difference did it make? Suppose the opposite were true, and the Roman emperor had been motivated by nothing beyond his own ambition. The result was the same, no?

Rubens had reached his quarters, now. He could hear his wife chatting with a servant in the kitchen, but he passed by the entrance and went to the room set aside for his work. There, as if driven by compulsion, he opened a drawer and drew out the document. He still had the original papers the nurse had left behind. Acting, he was quite certain, on another's orders. How to Make Chloramphenicol

The pages that followed that title gave precise instructions for how to manufacture the world's most potent medicine.

The monster's stiletto, that the creature had driven into the heart of the world's greatest dynasty, his aim guided by a dragon's cunning and the force of the thrust by a titan's thews.

Who else could have conceived such an assassin's stroke?

For a moment, he had to fight not to crush the papers in his hands. Those papers that had opened the door to treason.

A sudden burst of laughter from the kitchen drew him there, again as if under compulsion.

When he entered, his wife looked up at him, smiling. Helena Fourment, only nineteen years old, of whom he was very fond. He would have five children by her, the first of whom was now sitting on her lap. The last child would be born eight months after his death at the age of sixty-three. Which would seem to indicate that he never lost that affection, even at the end-nor the ability to express it.

Seven years from now.

Perhaps. That was his biography in another world. Who could say, in this one?

But he wasn't really looking at Helena. He was seeing another face there. That of his first wife, Isabella Brant, whom he had also loved.

But that was the past, fixed, certain. Not something even the monster and his minions could change.

Isabella had died five years before the Ring of Fire. Taken from him by disease, at the age of thirty-five, in the prime of her life.

He looked now at his new daughter. Barely one year old. He had named her Clara Johanna, in memory of his first daughter by Isabella, Clara Serena.

Who had also been taken from him by disease, at the age of twelve. One of many struck down by another epidemic.

"Is something wrong, husband?"

"No, dearest. I'm… simply preoccupied."

And he was, suddenly. With a glorious burst of inspiration, such as he had not felt in years. Not since he first saw the up-time book that depicted his life and work-much of which he still hadn't done, or even conceived of-and sensed a great emptiness yawning beneath him.

How does an artist paint something he has already painted? Without the master becoming his own apprentice? Ending a life full of triumphs as if he were nothing more than an understudy?

Another of those impossible quandaries the monster brought with him into the world. But Rubens could resolve it now, using the monster himself.

He came into the room and wiggled fingers at his daughter, who was staring up at him with the wondering eyes of a child barely one year into a life that, for half the children in the world-including some of his-would never be much longer than that.

Then he smiled at Helena to reassure her, while he gently stroked the hair sprouting on Clara Johanna. "You will live, girl," he said, so softly that he didn't think Helena could hear the words. He hoped not, certainly, since she would insist on an explanation later, and what could he say? If nothing else, he would carefully shield Helena from any charges of treason.

"But I must go to work now," he said abruptly, and left.

By the end of the day, he already knew it would be one of his best paintings. He had that sure sense of the thing, that always came with the very finest ones.

A painting that existed in no up-time book, because he had never conceived such a portrait in that other world. Could not have conceived it. He didn't think Brueghel's fevered mind could have dreamed of it-nor even the mad brain of Hieronymus Bosch, for all that the structure of the image shared the logic of Bosch's triptychs.

"The Titan's Choice," he thought he would call it. Or, better still, simply "The Titan." The choice being obvious in the painting itself. Cities wracked by flame and destruction issuing from the right hand, clad in mail and armor. The right hand that any man could resist, with sufficient will and courage. While the left hand, unarmored-the assassin's hand, with the main gauche-delivered the fatal blow. Children spilling out like fruit from a cornucopia. The blow that passed beneath any armor, any defense, any will or steadfastness or courage, because it did not strike at kings and princes and soldiers at all. It struck the fathers and husbands hidden beneath.

Of course, he would not be able to show it in public, but that didn't really matter. The joy of finally recapturing his own creation was enough.

Who could he show it to, after all? Even if Don Fernando triumphed, Rubens would have to conceal it from the prince become a king. Rubens liked the young Habsburg scion, a great deal, and he wished him all the best. A long reign over a prosperous realm, with many children to carry on his line, sired upon a convivial and comely wife he actually loved. Had affection for, at least.

For that matter, Rubens was partial to the Habsburgs taken as a whole, and hoped that Don Fernando would be able to revitalize that great family. But he also knew that Don Fernando's dreams of future Habsburg glory were already doomed. The best the prince and his heirs would manage-no small thing, of course-would be to protect and nurture one corner of the world.

The world itself no longer belonged to them. A titan had come, and shaken it loose. For good or ill, it would be his name that the future would bestow upon this time, just as it had in ages past upon Alexander. And would, in the future of the titan's world, bestow upon a man named Napoleon.

His enemies could assassinate him tomorrow, and it wouldn't matter. The deadliest blows had already been delivered. Alexander died in Babylon at the age of thirty-three-but the Persian world was already gone, swept aside by the Greek torrent brought by its conqueror. Just as surely as the world Rubens and Don Fernando had been born in was already gone.

So be it. Rubens had made the father's decision, the husband's decision. In the end, dynasties were a small thing.

He decided he would leave the face till the last. True, he could request a portrait of some sort-they might have one of those "photographs" in their possession, in Amsterdam-but why bother? That would require awkward explanations, and he would have several days to study the titan himself after he arrived, with no one being the wiser.

He came. He went. For days, that fair but plain face fascinated Rubens. He'd thought he would have to idealize it-or demonize it, perhaps-but in the end decided the face was perfect as it was. Inscrutable in its simplicity, just as were the titan's deeds themselves.

A week later, the painting was done. It was the best work Rubens had done in years. A pity it would have to remain hidden, of course. But whatever else, the work had shattered the artist's paralysis. Everything he'd done since the Ring of Fire, except this, had been a copy of something, in one way or another. If not a copy of his own works, those of another-like that portrait he'd done of the Gretchen woman and her magnificent bosom, mimicking an artist of the future named Delacroix.

Well, not some of the Jefferson portraits, perhaps. But those had been so closely tied to a public purpose that he'd felt tightly constrained.

He thought he probably still only had seven years left, himself, regardless of what happened. He'd died of gout, in that world that would have been. From what Anne had told him, there didn't seem to be any magical medical cure for that condition, not even for the up-timers. Only a dreary list of things he shouldn't eat, and a still drearier list of things he shouldn't do. It hardly seemed worth it, just to gain a few extra years. Sixty-three wasn't so bad, better than most.

He didn't care much, really. They would be seven productive years, perhaps the most productive of his life. And he always had the consolation-given to precious few men since Adam-of knowing that almost the last act of his life would be to impregnate a wife whom he would leave behind in comfort and good health.

Still, as weeks passed, he felt increasingly dissatisfied. He hadn't even dared show the painting to Helena. Somebody should see it, before his death.

Finally, he realized that there was one witness possible. Who better, really? And she could certainly be relied upon to hold the confidence, for a multitude of reasons.

So, in one of the many visits across the lines into Amsterdam-those had practically become a regular traffic, by then-he passed the word along. And, two days later, his witness arrived at his home.

He ushered her into the small room where he kept the painting tucked away in a closet. He'd chosen that room because, small and awkwardly designed as it was, it had the only closet in the house that was big enough. It was a very large painting.

After setting it up on an easel for viewing, he unwrapped the cloth that hid it. Then, waited while she studied his work.

By the time she was done, Rebecca Abrabanel's brown eyes were watery. "Oh, Pieter," she whispered. "It's magnificent. But it's so… wrong."

She turned the eyes to him, her gaze almost-not quite-an accusing one. "He is not a cruel man. I can assure you of that. Very kind and gentle, actually, most of the time."

So, Rubens knew he had succeeded.

"Of course not. I never imagined he was cruel." Finally satisfied, and in full, he gazed upon his work. "Nothing but grace can wreak such havoc and destruction, Rebecca. Nothing else can even come close. Had Lucifer understood that, we would never have needed for the Christ to be sent at all." Part Two Frenzies bewilder, reveries perturb the mind

Chapter 11

The Tower of London January 1634

"I think I'm going to tear my hair out," Melissa Mailey announced, to no one in particular. She was looking through one of the windows in St. Thomas' Tower that overlooked the Water Lane that separated it from the Inner Ward and the rest of the Tower of London. Glaring through it, more precisely.

Sitting next to each other on an ornate divan, not far away in the big central room of their quarters, Tom and Rita Simpson looked at each other. Then, back at Melissa.

Tom cleared his throat. "I think it's an attractive shade of gray, myself." His wife winced.

Melissa swiveled her head, bringing the glare onto Tom. "I am not that vain, thank you."

She was fudging a bit. Outside of being clean, well-groomed and reasonably well-dressed, in a schoolteacher's sort of way, one of the few things about her appearance that Melissa was sensitive about was her hair color. Perhaps it was because she was a natural dark-blonde who'd spent too many years being belligerent about blonde jokes. Whatever the reason, as she'd gotten into middle age she'd found herself dismayed by the gray creeping into her hair, where the wrinkles creeping into her face and the various little sags in her body hadn't bothered her in the least.

So, for years, she'd dyed her hair. Subtly, of course. Melissa Mailey would just as soon commit hara-kiri as become a peroxide blonde. In her lexicon of personal sins, being garish ranked just barely below being reactionary or bigoted.

Alas, while the seventeenth century had plenty of methods for coloring hair, "garish" pretty well defined the end result for any of them. So, since the Ring of Fire, Melissa had rationed the supply of up-time hair-coloring that existed in Grantville which suited her needs. But she'd only brought a small amount when they came to England on a diplomatic mission, the past summer. That had long since vanished in the months since they'd found themselves imprisoned in the Tower of London.

She looked back out the window. "I propose to tear my hair out not because of its coloring-which suits me well, enough, I assure you-but because of the activities and behavior of a certain Darryl McCarthy. One of your soldiers, let me remind you, Captain Simpson."

Tom settled his massive frame a bit further into the divan. "Oh. That."

"Yes. Oh. That. If he gets that girl pregnant…"

Tom cleared his throat again. "That'd be a neat trick, Melissa. Seeing as how-being crude about it-he hasn't managed to get into her pants yet. Well, not pants, ladies' garments being what they are in this day and age. Lift her skirts and undo… whatever she's got on underneath."

Rita Simpson winced again.

So did Melissa. "The operative phrase being 'yet,' I take it. You admit he's trying."

"Well, yeah, sure. Of course he is. He's a dyed-in-the-wool hillbilly, Melissa. Might as well ask him to give up his pickup and Cat cap for a VW and a beret, as ask him not to put the make on a girl. He's got his self-respect, y'know. On the other hand, he's not being crude about it and he's not even really pushing all that hard. Just enough for form's sake. Being as how-miracles do happen, from time to time-he's actually got the serious hots for the girl, he's not just trying to get laid."

Melissa looked back at him, squinting a little. "And exactly how do you know all this?"

"He talks to me about it, how else?" Tom spread his huge hands. "Who else would he talk to, concerning this subject? He's a hillbilly, Melissa. He certainly isn't going to discuss something like this with-you know-"

His wife chuckled. "A girl. And he defines anything female as a 'girl.' "

"Well, not Melissa. He pretty much still defines her as the Schoolmarm From Hell. Her gender comes a long way second to her innately demonic essence. But, yeah, a girl. It wouldn't even occur to Darryl to talk to anyone except a guy about it."

Melissa tossed her head a little, indicating one of the rooms to the side. "There's Friedrich."

Tom shrugged. "Friedrich's a down-timer. Darryl gets along fine with down-timers, but this isn't a subject he'd feel comfortable discussing with one of them. Even a male down-timer. So that leaves me-even if I am his commanding officer."

Sitting a bit further off in a chair, Gayle Mason issued a soft, half-grunted chuckle. "Especially since rank sits very lightly on Darryl McCarthy's consciousness. It's a good thing you don't have a General MacArthur sort of temperament, Tom, or he'd have been court-martialed by now."

"Ten times over," Tom Simpson agreed placidly.

"You're sure about this?" Melissa demanded.

Rita spoke up. "Melissa, I really do think you're worrying too much. I spend a lot more time than you do in the Tower's residential quarters, because of my medical rounds. It's not simply a matter of Darryl's intentions. Or the girl's, for that matter. As cramped as everything is in the Tower-and as good-looking as Victoria Short is-I can guarantee you there isn't more than five minutes at a time when she's out of somebody's sight."

"The 'somebodies' involved usually being her own family," Tom added. "Who include her brother Andrew, who's a Yeoman Warder; her mother Isabel, who is definitely in the 'no sparrow shall fall' camp of parenthood; her brothers, motivated to watch her by honor, and her sisters, motivated by envy; several cousins; and, last but not least, her uncle Stephen Hamilton-"

"Eek," issued from Gayle.

"-whom nobody this side of an insane asylum, and sure as hell no level-headed hillbilly like Darryl, is even going to think of pissing off. Relax, willya? Yes, it's true that Darryl has the serious hots for Victoria Short. No doubt about it. But I can tell you, Melissa, that the hots are serious enough that he's even-twice, no less-uttered the young male hillbilly's ultimate curse."

Melissa lifted her eyebrows. "Which is?"

Gayle snorted again. "Can't you guess?" Her voice dropped an octave, roughened, and got a heavier West Virginia accent. "Damn, I think I'm gonna have to get married."

"Yup," said Tom. "Except the prologue was a tad stronger than a mere 'damn.' The first time it was 'I'm fucked, aren't I?' The second time it was just a simple declarative 'I'm fucked.' "

Melissa couldn't help but laugh. "O brave new world, that hath such miracles in it! Well, I hope you're right. The only thing that's made our captivity here fairly tolerable-well, I'll admit the earl of Strafford has been civilized-is that the Warders have been so friendly to us."

She gave Rita an acknowledging nod. "Mostly because they think-and rightly so-that she's kept their kids alive and in good health."

Rita's face darkened a little. "Mostly. There've still been a few deaths, and it was touch and go with some others. Still is, with poor little Cecily."

Her husband laid a hand on hers. "That's way better than they expected, love, child mortality rates being what they are in the here and now. You know it-and so do they."

Melissa looked back out the window. "Speak of the devil, here he comes."

In the alley below, Darryl McCarthy was heading for the stairs leading up to St. Thomas' Tower. The young American soldier barely returned the friendly nod the Warder on duty gave him. Not surprising, that, given the expression on his face.

It was a mix of emotions. Gloom. Frustration. Yearning. Despair.

Melissa laughed again.

Not far away, in that section of the Tower of London known as the Lieutenant's Lodging, Thomas Wentworth, the earl of Strafford, was fending off questions raised by his daughter. No easy task, that. Nan was precocious, not in the least bit bashful, and had the normal lack of tact possessed by any six-year-old child.

"But why don't you have them standing guard outside the dungeons? A prisoner might escape!"

"There are guards watching the dungeons, Nan," her father explained patiently.

She waved her hand, the gesture accompanied by a derisive noise. "They're just standing on the wall, here and there. And not too alert, at that. They're lazy, those Warders. You should have at least four of them outside of every dungeon entrance."

He smiled wryly. "I can just imagine how well the Warders would take to that idea."

"Just tell them!" his daughter insisted. "You're the king's minister! They have to do what you tell them!"

Wentworth briefly considered trying to explain to the child that formal authority and real power were not synonyms, and that any official who routinely abused his authority would soon find that authority undermined. In practice, at least, if not in theory. In this instance, if he infuriated the Yeoman Warders by constraining them to tasks they considered irksome, pointless and annoying, they would soon retaliate by slacking off at every occasion. Be a man never so powerful, he still only possessed two eyes, neither of them at the back of his head.

As it was, whatever their sometimes informal manner, the Warders made a superb guard force for the Tower. They were elite soldiers and considered themselves such, and did so with good reason.

But, after a moment, he discarded the notion. Bright as she no doubt was, Nan was still six years old. There'd be time enough, as the years passed, for her to learn that the world was mostly composed of shades of gray, with precious little in the way of black or white.

So, all he did was pick her up playfully and exclaim to his wife Elizabeth: "I have it! We'll betroth her to the tsar of Russia! What a natural match!"

That was a joke twice over, actually. The current tsar was no Ivan the Terrible. Russia's so-called "Time of Troubles" had ended with the ascension to the throne of Mikhail Romanov twenty years earlier. But the new dynasty's hold on power was still fragile and depended at least as much on the authority of the new tsar's father, the Patriarch Filaret, as it did on the tsar himself.

"What's a Zar?" Nan demanded. "And who's Russia?"

***

Later, early in the afternoon, Strafford made his farewells to his wife and children.

"I really wish you would spend more nights here, Thomas," Elizabeth said wistfully. "I miss you, often."

The words pleased the earl. He was under no illusion that his nineteen-year-old wife was really consumed with passion for his forty-year-old self. Theirs had been essentially a marriage of convenience, made the year before. He'd needed a mother for his children after the sudden death of his wife Arabella; and Elizabeth-more her father, Sir Godfrey Rodes, really-had seen in the newly appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland a splendid match for his daughter and a way of advancing his own prospects.

Still, Thomas had become very fond of his new wife, and he knew the affection was reciprocated. He missed her, too, often enough, in his solitary bed in the royal palace at Whitehall.

"I simply can't, dearest, except on rare occasions." Wentworth hesitated, glancing around to make sure that the children were out of hearing range, then said quietly: "Things are a bit tense at the palace, Elizabeth. It's all I can do to persuade His Majesty to remain in London, during this unsettled period, instead of haring off to Oxford as he wants to do. If I slept outside Whitehall myself that often, it would just encourage him in…"

He left off the rest. Using the word "folly" in reference to the king's state of mind would be unseemly, even to his wife in private.

Elizabeth frowned. "Is he still fretting over the danger of epidemic? I thought he'd gotten over that."

"He did, for a time. But there is a lot of disease in the city, since we brought over so many mercenary soldiers from the continent. It flares up constantly, you know. And the queen-"

Again, he left the rest unsaid. And if the king's a fool, half the time, his wife is an hysteric three-fourths of the time…

Would be even more unseemly, said aloud. Even to his wife. Even in private. Even given that it was true.

Elizabeth shook her head. "Why don't His Majesty and the queen come to reside here at the Tower, then? You were quite right, you know, I've become convinced of it. Since you allowed the Americans held pris-ah, staying in St. Thomas' Tower-to oversee the castle's sanitary and medical affairs, there's been very little disease of any sort here. And that, almost all children."

Wentworth sighed. "I tried, Elizabeth. I pointed out that within a week I could have Wakefield Tower completely refurbished as a royal residence. It was used as such by Henry III, after all. But the king refused. He said it would seem as if he were afraid of the city's unsteady population."

Which he is, the earl left unsaid also, despite the fact that the new mercenary companies have a firm grip on London.

Daughter of a country squire she might be, but Elizabeth was not dull-witted. Her mouth twisted into something halfway to a derisive sneer. "And racing off to Oxford wouldn't?"

Wentworth rolled his eyes. "Exactly what I said to him. But-ah, come, dearest, let's not squabble. It's the way it must be."

"Of course, husband. Whatever you say."

Once outside the Lieutenant's Lodging, Thomas headed for the gate next to Wakefield Tower that gave onto the Outer Ward and, from there, the gate at Byward Tower that allowed egress from the fortress entirely. But he paused, for a time, realizing that he hadn't spoken to Oliver Cromwell in weeks. Had rarely even thought about him, in fact. As the months passed with no incidents since Oliver's arrest, Thomas had come to the conclusion that while he still thought it would be wiser to have Oliver executed, there was really no pressing need to do so. And…

He liked the man, when all was said and done.

"Oh, why not?" he murmured to himself. Even in London in midwinter, he still had plenty of daylight left to reach Whitehall. And it was an unseasonably warm and sunny day, to begin with.

There were Warders standing guard at this door, of course. The only door to the dungeons of which that was true, in the whole castle.

Only two of them, however, not four. Oliver Cromwell was not an ogre, after all. Even if, in another universe, he'd overthrown the English monarchy, executed the king, and set himself as what amounted to a dictator under the benign title "Lord Protector."

Not a particularly brutal or capricious dictator, granted, judging from the up-timers' history books. But a dictator nonetheless; certainly a regicide.

After the Warders unlocked the bolts and chains and let him in-which they had to do twice; once at the entrance and once at the actual dungeon-Thomas found himself in the same small cell he remembered from his early visits. But it was much cleaner, and while it was still definitely a dungeon it was no longer a place of sheer misery and squalor.

Oliver even had a small table now, with a chair, along with his sleeping pallet. Unwise, that, looked at from a certain viewpoint. A desperate prisoner could provide himself with a club by dismantling either piece of furniture. Quite easily, in fact, as rickety as they looked to be.

Wentworth decided the judgment of the Warders was sound enough, in this case. Oliver was rather well-built, true enough, but he was no giant. Against two trained Warders equipped with bladed weapons, he'd have no chance at all armed with a mere club.

Probably more important was simply the man's temperament. There was an innate sureness to Oliver Cromwell-the term "dignity" came to Thomas, and he couldn't deny it-which would not allow him to ever descend that far into despair. Did the worst come, and he be summoned to lose his head, Oliver would not put up a pointless and futile struggle, like a common criminal might do. He'd simply march to the execution ground with no resistance. He'd sneer when the sentence was pronounced, spit on the ground at the king's name, kneel calmly to lay his neck upon the block-and tell the headsman, jokingly, not to fumble the business.

Cromwell had set aside the book he was reading before Thomas entered. He'd heard them coming, of course, for well over a minute.

It was the Bible, Wentworth saw. "Which book?" he asked.

"The Lamentations of Jeremiah, at the moment. You're looking well, Thomas. But you've aged, I think."

Thomas smiled thinly. "What man doesn't, as each day passes? But, yes, I suppose I've aged more than I might have otherwise."

"He must be a horror of a king to serve. Craven and stupid in big things; petty, spiteful and stubborn in small ones. No, you needn't respond to that. I hope your wife and children are well."

"Yes, quite well." Wentworth nodded toward the west. "They're living here now, in fact. There's disease in the city-not quite an epidemic, but too close for my comfort-and I thought they'd be safest here."

Cromwell's smile was thin, but not unkind. "You too, eh? Well, you're right. I have an American visit me from time to time, cleansing my cell of pests. 'Fumigating,' he calls it, which seems to be the word they use for killing pests you can't see."

He glanced at the pallet. "Barely an occasional bedbug, any more. Mind you, it's a bit of a mixed blessing, since the same man who sees to my bodily health hates me with a passion, and spends all his time here leveling curses upon me."

Wentworth frowned. "Why?"

"He's of Irish stock. And it seems-in that other universe, you know-that I butchered half the world's Irishmen. So he says, at any rate. I can't really see why I'd bother, myself."

"Neither can I. Beat them about a bit-which is not hard, since you can always find one Irish clan chief who'll beat another for you, at a small price-and they're manageable enough."

Now that he thought upon the matter, Wentworth did remember that among the many things he'd read about Cromwell in the American books that had made their way to England-copies of them, usually-he'd read something about Cromwell's ferocious reputation among the Irish. But he couldn't remember the details, since he hadn't cared about that.

A thought came to him. "Does he speak of me, at all? If I recall correctly, in that other universe I served for years as the Lord Deputy of Ireland, instead of being summoned back almost immediately to London."

Oliver's smile wasn't thin at all, now. "Oh, yes. 'Bloody Tom Tyrant,' you are. Or were, I suppose I should say. The grammar's tricky, dealing with that business. Quite a notorious fellow, it seems, in the Irish scheme of things."

Wentworth returned the smile. "Well. That's a cheery thought."

Cromwell cocked his head slightly. "Why did you come, Thomas?"

Wentworth had his dignity also. He'd lie, readily enough, for purposes of state. But not here, not to this man. "I don't really know, Oliver, to be honest. I just felt an urge to see you again."

There was silence for a moment, as both men remembered a time years earlier when they'd served together as young members of Parliament. They'd been on quite good terms, then.

"But there's really nothing much to say, is there?" said Oliver Cromwell.

Thomas Wentworth-the earl of Strafford, now-canted his head in agreement. "No. There really isn't. Goodbye, Oliver."

He left, and Cromwell went back to his perusal of the Bible.

***

"Fucking bastard," muttered Darryl McCarthy, as he watched the earl of Strafford passing below the windows in St. Thomas' Tower, on his way to the outer gate of the fortress. "Bloody Tom Tyrant."

But there wasn't any heat to the words. In fact, Tom Simpson could barely hear them at all, even standing at the window right next to Darryl. They didn't really sound so much like a curse, as a simple mantra a stalwart Irish-American lad might speak aloud. As he steeled himself for a moment of great spiritual crisis and peril.

"Yeah, there it is, Tom. I've thought about it until my brain's just spinning in circles. No way around it. I am well and truly screwed, blued and royally tattooed."

"That bad, huh?"

"Yeah. Maybe if Harry Lefferts was here-bracing me, so to speak-but-"

"It's not really the end of the world, y'know? Hell, I did it myself."

Darryl gave him a glance that was none too friendly. "Yeah. So? You ain't no hillbilly."

"Oh, come off it, Darryl. Even hillbillies do it, more often than not. Can't be more than twenty percent of you that are outright bastards. Legally speaking, I mean. Figuratively, of course, the percentage rises a lot."

"Fucking rich kid."

Tom chuckled. "Poor old Doug MacArthur's got to be spinning in his grave, right now."

"Huh? What's that supposed to mean?"

"Never mind. You sure about this?"

"Well." Darryl took a deep breath. "Well." Another deep breath. "Yeah."

"I mean, really sure? As in: steps will now be taken. You've been making people kind of nervous, you know."

That required perhaps half a dozen deep breaths. But, eventually, Darryl said: "Yeah. I'm sure."

"Okay, then." Tom turned his head, looking toward his wife and Melissa and Gayle Mason, who were politely sitting some distance away. Thereby, of course, allowing The Guys to conduct their affairs in the necessary privacy.

But Tom didn't give those three women more than a glance. All up-timers, all Americans, they'd have only the barest knowledge of how to handle the situation.

No, he needed Friedrich Bruch's wife, Nelly. She was not only a down-timer, but she'd been born and raised in London.

He was about to call out her name when he saw her emerge from the small room she shared with Friedrich.

"Nelly! Just the person I was looking for." He hooked a thumb at Darryl. "Our young swain here wants to know how a fellow goes about proposing to a girl, in the here and now."

Nelly smiled. Rita and Gayle grinned. Melissa looked to the heavens.

"Well, praise the Lord," she said.

Darryl scowled at her. "Melissa, you're a damn atheist."

Still looking at the ceiling, Melissa wagged her head back and forth. "True, been one since I was twelve. But maybe I should reconsider. Seeing as how I think I'm witnessing an act of divine intervention."

Several hours later, after Gayle took down all the radio messages relayed from Amsterdam that had come in during the evening window, she came into the main room with a big grin on her face.

"Speaking of divine intervention, you're all going to love this. Especially you, Rita." She held up a message in her hand, one of the little notepad sheets she used to record radio transmissions.

"What is it?" demanded Rita, rising from the divan and extending her hand.

"Tut, tut! It's not for you, dear, it's for your husband." Still grinning, Gayle came over and handed the message to Tom, who'd remained sitting.

Tom read it. Then read it again. Then, read it again.

"Well," Rita asked impatiently. "What?"

"It's from Mrs. Riddle." He reached up and started scratching his hair. " 'Bout the last thing I ever expected."

"The wife of the chief justice?" Melissa asked. "Why would she be sending you a radio message?"

"No, not her. Chuck Riddle's mother."

Rita nodded. "Mary Kat's grandma. She was a year ahead of me in high school. Mary Kat, that is. Not Veleda. What does she want?"

"Here, read it yourself. Better read it out loud, while you're at it."

Rita took the message and began reciting it so everyone could hear. By the time she got to the last few sentences, she was rushing. tom. while you're there. episcopalians in grantville have no priest. should have a bishop too but that gets complicated. arrange to see archbishop laud. be ordained. as a priest if nothing else but shoot for bishop. am sure he can make an exception to the rules. best wishes. v riddle

"Ordained?" Rita's voice rose to a shriek. "Over my dead body!"

Melissa Mailey looked concerned. "Tom, you've never said anything about having a religious vocation."

"Well, I didn't have one." He cleared his throat. "Until now."

"You don't have one now!" Rita protested.

Tom settled back in the divan. He seemed to be struggling against a smile-or a grin as wide as the one still on Gayle's face.

"Yes, I do, dear. You read it yourself. I didn't have one two minutes ago, but I do now." He looked up at his very non-Episcopalian wife; the grin started to show around the edges of his still-solemn face. "You can't think of it-a vocation, I mean-as being something that's all inside you. It's like those bishops and things back in the early church, who wrapped their arms around a pillar of the church yelling, 'No. Not me!' while the congregation dragged them out to be promoted."

Melissa nodded, apparently quite solemnly. Rita just looked blank.

Tom continued, "Or, maybe like the prophets in the Old Testament who were just sitting there when the voice of God mucked up all their plans. Jonah, for instance. God said, 'Go there,' and he said, 'I don't think so, thank you very much,' so it took some persuading. A calling can come from outside, too."

There was no smile on Rita's face, for sure. "I wasn't born to be a preacher's wife," she hissed. "No. Tell her no. That's easy enough."

Tom went back to scratching his hair, lowering his face in the process. In that pose, the grin that was now spreading openly on his face made him look a bit like a weight-lifter shark, coming to the surface. "She does have a point, you know. That is, the Episcopalians in Grantville do need a priest, for sure, and we should really have a bishop."

He pointed to the message still in Rita's hand. "The reason it gets complicated is because none of the national churches in the Anglican Polity-that's what we called all right-thinking Episcopalians all over the world, back where we came from-actually had any authority over each other. But they all recognized the archbishop of Canterbury as sort of the first among equals, so it makes sense to see if he'd be willing to get the ball rolling."

He looked over at Melissa, still grinning. "Maybe I should just ask Laud for an appointment? Talk to him about it? What could it hurt?"

"What could it hurt?" Rita's fists were clenched. "I could end up chairing Ladies' Aid meetings at a church I don't even belong to!"

Gayle and Tom started laughing. Even Melissa was smiling, now. "I agree, Rita. Fate worse than death-and I've chaired a lot of godawful meetings in my day."

Eventually, Rita's glare stifled her husband's laughter. "Look, sweetheart, I've actually got no intention of proposing myself. I have no idea why Mrs. Riddle came up with the idea. But if you strip that aside, she does have a point. We've got some Episcopalians in Grantville, with no structure-and no clear idea how to set one up with legitimate authority. Like she says, we'd be bending the rules-so would Laud, although he doesn't know the rules have been set up yet-but I'm pretty sure she's right. If I could get the archbishop of Canterbury to ordain somebody-or send somebody himself-we'd be off and running."

Tom shook his head. "It wouldn't have to be me, or anybody in Grantville. Maybe the archbishop could find someone else to send, from England. Someone who wants to be a missionary in foreign parts, or just someone he'd like to get rid of."

"He'd like to get rid of us, I expect," Darryl McCarthy interjected.

"Yes, he would," said Melissa. She looked at the message. "Especially after I pass this along."

Chapter 12

The English Channel

"Well, that's a pisser," said Harry Lefferts, lowering his eyeglass.

Standing next to him at the small ship's rail, Donald Ohde scowled at the vessel in the distance. "Doesn't anybody have any imagination? They tried this once before, and it didn't work."

"The Channel is notorious for pirates," Harry pointed out mildly. "I really don't think we got spotted making our way through France. Especially as fast as we moved."

Paul Maczka was standing at the same rail, to Harry's left. "No ambush, you're saying."

"Can't see it, Paul. I mean, why would the French bother with a complicated ambush? They had to do it with Becky's ship, because she was a diplomat and they couldn't let their hand show. Us? We were just thugs sitting in a tavern in Dieppe, dickering to buy a boat. The guy who sold it to us probably figured we wanted it to turn pirates ourselves. Send in a platoon of infantry, that's all."

Both Paul and Donald were scowling now. Harry smiled. "Yeah, well, so that platoon gets shot up. They send in a whole company. We're still fried, guys, before we even set foot on our new boat."

He looked back at the ship pursuing them. "No, this is just garden-variety piracy. We still got to deal with it, though."

Donald shrugged. "Easy enough."

Harry shook his head. "Not so easy as all that. Oh, sure, ole Jeff could just send them packing with a few grenades. But he didn't care if there were any witnesses left. We can't afford that."

He'd said "ole Jeff" with that certain note of approbation that one righteous hillbilly refers to another member of the clan. A few years back, he'd have done no such thing, of course. Harry had never been one of those high school jocks who harassed geeks, but that was simply because such behavior was beneath his dignity. Does a lion harass mice? Still, his attitude toward geeks like Jeff Higgins hadn't been any different, really.

However, that was then, and this was now. Jeff still wasn't a hillbilly, properly speaking, and never would be, but Harry was quite willing to extend him honorary membership. He'd landed one of the best-looking girls around and blown close to a dozen Croat cavalrymen into pieces, hadn't he? What more could you ask for?

"No…" Harry mused. "We can't do it Jeff's way."

He glanced to the northeast, checking to see that they weren't too close yet to entering the Strait of Dover. Then he turned his head and looked at the helmsman. That was Matija Grabnar. Like many of the commandos in Lefferts' unit, his ethnic background was a mix; in his case, German, Slovene and Lithuanian. For whatever reason, Harry seemed to attract hybrids. He claimed it was because his charismatic personality and proven leadership qualities just naturally drew the cream of the crop from every nation.

Mike Stearns had once commented that it might even be true-if you defined "cream of the crop" the way Harry did, and nobody else would except Ba'alzebub.

"Hey, Matt! Get us out into the middle of the channel, will you? I don't want any witnesses."

Felix Kasza, who'd been sprawled comfortably on the deck, lounging against the mainmast, rose to his feet. Then, ambling over, he said: "We do it like Guns of Navarone, eh?"

"Yeah, what I figured." Harry gave the three men around him a sly little grin. "Good thing I overruled you male chauvinist pigs and let the girls come along, ain't it? This'll work a lot easier with Sherrilyn and Juliet to dangle like bait."

"I heard that, Lefferts!" One of the two women in the unit, both of them sitting on the deck next to the opposite rail, lifted her head. "Talk about male chauvinist pigs. You got your nerve. What're we? The designated rapees?"

Harry shrugged. "Well, yeah-except it'll never get that far."

"Sure won't," she half-snarled. It wasn't a particularly cold day, for this time of year, but it was late January, in the English channel. So, sitting on the deck, Sherrilyn Maddox and Juliet Sutherland had covered themselves with a couple of wool blankets. Sherrilyn flipped part of the blankets aside and rummaged somewhere beneath for a moment. Her hand emerged holding a very lethal-looking 10mm automatic.

"They'll have to fuck my dead body-but I guarantee you, Harry, if you aren't dead by then already, I'll make sure of it. You and your stupid movies!"

All of Harry's male commandos, including Harry, were addicted to action movies. The down-timers, though not Harry himself, were also addicted to action novels. It was their commonly held and firm belief that, when it came to fiction, there was no God but Matt Helm and Donald Hamilton was his prophet. Admittedly, the Sacketts and Louis L'Amour came a close second.

The woman sitting next to Sherrilyn was the female half of the only married couple in the unit. She took the pipe out of her mouth, did her-very feeble-best to look prim and proper, and said: "My husband will have to agree. He's crazy jealous, you know. His wife being gang-raped by dozens of pirates is likely to set him off."

Her husband, as it happened, emerged from the hold just in time to hear that. Frowning, he lifted his head and peered over the rail. "Didn't realize they were getting that close," he said. "Guns of Navarone?"

"Yeah, that's the plan."

George Sutherland planted his hands on either side of the hatch and heaved himself onto the deck. As big and heavy as he was, that took quite a heave, but he had the muscle for it. It wasn't actually true that he was particularly jealous. An easygoing and phlegmatic personality combined with nineteen-inch biceps made him one of the most placid husbands Harry had ever met.

George and his wife were both English, which was the reason Harry had selected them for this expedition. Better still, they'd both been active in London's theater before a byproduct of a brawl George had gotten into forced them to flee to the continent. The byproduct in question had been the broken neck owned by the brother of one of Southwark's more notorious criminal gang leaders. Unfortunately, between his drunkenness and the chaos of the melee, George had gotten confused. He'd thought the neck he was breaking belonged to the gang leader himself, which he'd figured would settle the business well enough.

Once they arrived in London, Harry planned to set up their base of operations in the sprawling slums on the south bank of the Thames across from the Tower, where the theater district was located. That might get a tad awkward, if they happened to accidentally stumble across the same gang leader in their comings and goings. But Harry wasn't particularly concerned about that problem. There was an easy solution to it, after all.

Juliet claimed to have become an actress, once she got to the continent where women were permitted to play roles on stage, although she allowed that her parts had been minor. That most likely meant she'd started off as a young woman in London as a whore working the theater district, before she got hooked up with George, who'd been a stagehand. But Harry had never pried into the matter. None of his concern, first of all; and, second, having a husband the size of George would have made even a Nosy Parker shy away from the business.

"You'd better stay below, George," said Harry. "Big as you are, you're likely to make them nervous. Give Gerd a hand with the fireworks."

Sutherland sucked his yellow crooked teeth, pondering the problem. "Grenades?"

"I'd rather save the grenades, if y'all don't mind." The last phrase was said in English, drawled with a heavy Appalachian accent, tacked onto the Amideutsch that was their standard lingo.

George smiled, and began lowering himself back into the hold. "Tightwad. But we'll manage."

By now, Grabnar had the small ship heading into the center of the Channel, miles from either shore. Anyone on land who observed the unfolding little drama wouldn't really be able to make out any of the details, even with an eyeglass. Two ships meet; one leaves; one doesn't. Who can say what actually happened?

Matija was also, cleverly, making sure the ship lost headway while he was at it. The pirates pursuing them would notice, probably, but they'd just write it off to panic and lousy seamanship. Harry didn't think there was much chance they'd get suspicious at all.

Why should they? The English Channel had been infested with pirates for centuries, going back into medieval times. For the past few decades, piracy in the Channel had been dominated by so-called "Sallee rovers," because they operated from the port of Sale in northwest Africa, not far from Rabat. They were usually referred to as Algerines, although the members of the crews came from all over Europe as well as the Moslem world.

A few rare occasions aside, neither the English nor the French crown had ever made much of an effort to eliminate the vermin-not even after the Sallee rovers, early in the seventeenth century, became bold enough to raid towns and villages in Cornwall as well as attack ships. Partly, that was because neither nation had a powerful navy, and partly it was because the usual victims of the pirates were poor fishermen. The Algerine pirates were more interested in capturing slaves than cargo.

So, they'd grown arrogant, which was fine with Harry Lefferts. He'd been dismantling overconfident bullies since he was eight years old. Six years old, if you counted Fatso Binghampton.

He looked around the deck, and then pointed to a tarpaulin piled up untidily toward the bow. "Paul, you set up with a shotgun. You can hide in there until the business starts. Donald, you go back with Matt at the helm, and figure on using rifles when the shit hits the fan. Felix, you stay with me. You're the best shot with a pistol. You got a backup?"

Kasza sniffed. "Do I have a backup?"

"Sorry, didn't mean to offend you."

"Yes, of course I have a backup. Two, if you count the little ankle gun."

"Ought to do. Blow 'em off the rail, scare the shit out of them, George and Gerd will do the rest."

"What about me?" demanded Sherrilyn. "If you think I'm just going to sit here looking terrified, you can-"

"Easy, girl, easy." Harry glanced at the oncoming pirates. They were still three hundred yards away, too far to really see anything. "Holler down to Gerd to pass you up his ten-gauge. Now's your chance to prove you can handle a man-sized gun."

Sherrilyn's sniff was on a par with Kasza's. "He'll whine at me. He loves that ten-gauge. There's something unnatural about that relationship, if you ask me. Even for you gun nuts, it's over the top."

Harry chuckled. It was invariably Sherrilyn's habit to ascribe to the male members of the unit all of the macho sins to which she was even more prone herself.

Gun nut? She owned at least twenty that she'd admit to. And when it came to the Ultimate Macho hang-up, Harry was convinced there was no greater practitioner in the world than Sherrilyn Maddox. The woman simply could not resist a challenge. Evel Knievel with tits. Before the Ring of Fire, she'd been one of the high school's P.E. teachers. She'd been a rock-climber, sky-diver-you name it; if the sport was dangerous and within the pocketbook of a West Virginia schoolteacher, she'd done it.

She'd also been an avid hunter, and while she wasn't in Julie Mackay's league-nobody was-she was undoubtedly one of the best shots in Grantville. She'd brought home her deer every year, never later than the second day of hunting season. Her second deer, rather, because she'd already gotten one during bow-hunting season.

Needless to say, the charge of lesbianism had followed her like a trailing mist for years, despite the fact that Sherrilyn had been no slouch at proving otherwise. With Harry himself once, in fact, in a fling that had only lasted three weeks but was still a fond memory. Very fond memory, indeed, the way that a man who'd been only twenty himself at the time will remember an affair with a woman eight years older than he was.

Sherrilyn was a lot of fun and somebody you could always count on, even if part of that was counting on her to blow you off sooner or later. The truth was, outside of a purely formal bow in the direction of male chauvinist protocol, Harry hadn't hesitated at all when she'd volunteered to transfer from the Thuringian Rifles to his unit. Leaving aside the fact that he knew Sherrilyn could cut the mustard, guts and mayhem-wise, her being a woman might come in handy for the unit someday.

Every man in the unit had raised a fuss at the idea, of course. And then, of course, every one of them had hit on her as soon as she joined. Fat lot of good it did them. They would have bounced anyway, even if Sherrilyn hadn't heard about the ruckus they'd raised over her transfer-which she didn't hesitate to rub in the faces of the would-be Casanovas once she arrived.

Harry could have told them, but hadn't bothered. Good ole boys, sure, but they just weren't suave and debonair enough to have profited from his advice anyway. The only way you hit on Sherrilyn Maddox was to get her intrigued by a challenge. Standard issue lines were a pure waste of time. The way Harry had pulled it off was to ignore her altogether until he ran across her one day in a bar over in Clarksburg, where he was drinking with a fake license, and she'd started making suggestions herself.

"I dunno," Harry had said, looking at her dubiously. "Word is you're a rock-climber. Is that true?"

After she confessed to an enthusiasm for the sport, a little shudder had swept his shoulders. "Jeez, Sherrilyn. Your hands must be like sandpaper. Strip the skin right off a man's back."

Worked like a charm.

He smiled at the memory, as he watched the ten-gauge getting hoisted out of the hold and into Sherrilyn's hands. He could hear Gerd's voice coming from below, although he couldn't quite make out the words themselves. From the tone, though, Gerd was sure enough whining and grousing. There was something a little kinky about his love affair with that monster, even if Harry didn't think it quite crossed the line into outright perversion.

He looked at the pirate ship. Two hundred yards away.

"Hey, Paul! We ought to be starting to get drunk around now."

Maczka frowned at him. Harry's unit had a capacity for prodigious alcohol consumption, when they relaxed. But they were stone sober any time they were on duty. Then, realizing what Harry was getting at, his frown deepened.

"I don't think we got any empty bottles. Hate to waste good liquor, pouring it out."

Sherrilyn looked up from checking the loads in the shotgun. "Pour it into one of Juliet's bowls. We'll make a punch for the celebration afterward."

Paul nodded and lowered himself down the hatch.

"Bring up my second-best hat, while you're at it!" Harry hollered at him. Then, went over to Sherrilyn and sat down beside her.

"You'll need the hat to keep your face hidden. Mostly covered by a blanket, lady weight-lifter or not, and even pushing forty like you are, ain't no way anybody's going to mistake you for a guy, up close."

"Harry, have I ever told you that you have the worst come-on lines of anybody I know?"

"Sure. The morning after we spent the first night in bed together. I couldn't tell if you were really pissed, though, the way you were laughing."

She chuckled, softly. "Walked into that one, didn't I? Okay, genius boss, what's the plan?"

"You open it up. That ten-gauge will deafen 'em, even if you miss-which you hardly can't, at this range, as short as Gerd sawed down the barrels."

"I'll bust my shoulder if I try to fire this thing without-"

"I ain't stupid," Harry cut her off. "Don't bother getting up. You don't really gotta aim it anyway, just point it in the general direction." He nodded at the blankets covering her and Juliet. "You don't need both of them now. Roll one of 'em up tight and use it as a brace for the butt."

Sherrilyn thought about it for a moment, and then nodded. "Okay, that'll work. Well enough, anyway. But the blanket-the one that'll still be on us, I mean-"

"Way ahead of you, Sherrilyn. I should have said you'll open up the shooting. I'll start the whole business by yanking the blanket off you and waving it at the foe. Works for matadors, and these guys are way dumber than any bull."

Paul emerged from the hold with Harry's hat perched on his head. He was climbing the ladder a bit awkwardly since he held a bottle in each hand. Both were filled with clear liquid. Water, presumably, taken from the supply they boiled for drinking purposes.

"You hear that, Paul?"

"You start it, Sherrilyn shoots first, the rest of us pitch in afterward."

"Right. Pass it on to everybody else, will you?"

Paul leaned over and handed Harry one of the bottles and the hat. Then, moving more easily with one hand free, came the rest of way out of the hatch and headed toward the stern where Donald Ohde was talking to Matija Grabnar. He still had time to pass along the plan to them and get back to the tarp in the bow before the pirates got close enough to make an accurate count of the crew members of their prospective victim.

Not that it really mattered if the count was a little off. By now, realizing that escape was impossible and resistance even more so, the ship's crew would be in semi-chaos. A man might be on deck one minute and cowering somewhere in the hold, the next.

Speaking of cowering…

Harry leaned over Sherrilyn and looked at Juliet. Sutherland was still sucking away on her pipe, looking as placid as a cow.

"Can you really act?" he asked.

She took the pipe out of her mouth. "The audience adored me. I've told you before-I would've been a star except jealous rivals kept me down."

"Right. So you did." He looked at the pirate ship. One hundred and fifty yards. "Well, here's your chance to prove it, Lady Sutherland. I'll give the signal."

She nodded, still as placid as ever, and put the pipe back in place.

"Okay, then," Harry said. "We got a few minutes to relax. Contemplate philosophical thoughts. Whatever does the trick."

He settled back comfortably against the rail and tilted his head toward Sherrilyn.

"Whaddaya say we get laid afterward?"

"I never screw the boss."

"Okay. I'll resign my commission. Become one of the guys."

"I never screw guys in my unit."

"Damn, you're a hardass, Sherrilyn. Fine. I'll quit the army. Become a civilian. How's that?"

"Like I said, Harry. You've got the worse come-on lines I ever heard. Three complete losers in a row."

"Oh, hell, that's nothing. I can come up with way worse come-on lines than that."

She gave him a skeptical glance. "Prove it."

"Look, Sherrilyn, you gotta face facts. You're a natural dyke, all there is to it. Your desperate efforts to go straight are just distorting your soul. Spend a night with me in the sack and the experience will be so repulsive that you'll finally be able to see your way to dykedom and sexual freedom."

Maddox burst into laughter. Loud enough and long enough that Harry started worrying. Even with the wind blowing, the pirates were getting close enough to hear.

"Hey, cool it, willya? Or at least make it sound hysterical."

That shut Sherrilyn up instantly. "I don't do hysterical," she said, scowling.

Harry looked at the Algerine ship. One hundred yards off, now. From the looks of the figures crowding in its bow, he estimated a crew of somewhere around thirty men.

"Any minute, Juliet."

She removed the pipe from her mouth and spent a few seconds making sure the tobacco wasn't still burning. There wasn't really much chance that smoldering tobacco could set a ship on fire, but anyone familiar with wooden sailing ships wasn't going to take any chances. That done, she stowed it somewhere in her skirts.

"Just say the word."

Harry saw that Donald and Matt were starting to pass their bottle back and forth, and decided it was time to emulate them. So, he took a swig from the bottle Paul had handed him.

Water, sure enough, with the flat taste of boiled water that hadn't been any too good to begin with. There was a reason that people in the seventeenth century didn't usually drink the stuff.

He passed it over to Sherrilyn. By now, she had the hat on, tilted forward to cover most of her face. She took a swig from the bottle, careful not to tilt her head too far back in the doing.

They passed the bottle back and forth a couple of times. Just taking sips, really. The only purpose of the exercise was to make the oncoming pirates think the despairing crew had decided to indulge themselves in one last hurried drunk before entering years of enslavement and hard labor at the hands of Moslems who weren't supposed to drink liquor at all.

True, the Moslems on that ship were probably none too faithful about the business, especially since at least half of them would be Europeans whose conversion was pretty much a formality. Algerines treated their Christian slaves harshly in order to goad their relatives into ransoming them. But if the goad failed, after a few years they were usually fairly lenient about letting a slave convert to Islam and get out of servitude. A fair number of the pirates on that ship would have once been slaves themselves.

That didn't make Harry any more inclined to show them mercy. A man got his ticket punched on the wrong train, that was his problem. In the Lefferts' school of theology, being stupid was the eighth mortal sin. If he'd been the guy bringing the stone tablets down the mountain, he'd have added Thou shalt not be a cocksure dumbass to the other ten. He couldn't see where God would have objected, being no dummy Himself according to all accounts.

"Okay, Juliet," he said. "Showtime."

Chapter 13

"Give me the bottle," she said.

Harry passed it over, still half full. Juliet rolled out from under the blanket and surged to her feet. It was an ungainly motion, due to her own chunky build and the need to use one hand to hold the bottle. But there was plenty of muscle under the Englishwoman's heft, and she was up in less than two seconds.

Once erect, she staggered over to the rail and flung the bottle at the Algerine ship. It was thirty yards off now, coming alongside and preparing to board.

It was a vigorous heave, but her aim was off-or wasn't, more likely. Instead of hitting any of the pirates, the bottle smashed into the side of the ship itself. A product of the stout German school of bottle-making, it didn't shatter but simply bounced off into the waters of the Channel.

One of the pirates whooped. Just about all of them were grinning. Leering, it would be better to say.

Juliet flung her hands wide, rolled back her head, and emitted a truly ear-splitting shriek. It was loud enough and piercing enough that several of the pirates winced. But most of them were too preoccupied examining her figure. In that pose, even with her heavy winter garments, Juliet Sutherland's female identity was blindingly obvious. The woman was rather homely, in point of fact. Not ugly, just having the kind of a heavy, bluff-featured face that would suit her as a matron once she was fifty instead of thirty. But her figure was the sort that Rubens favored for his paintings.

Some of the pirates started yelling at her. Harry couldn't make out the words. They weren't from any European language he was familiar with, and by now he was familiar with a lot of them. But they didn't sound particularly Arabic, either. If he remembered right, a lot of the Sallee rovers were Berbers. Back before the Ring of Fire, like any hillbilly, Harry had pretty much lumped all ragheads together. But he'd gotten a lot more sophisticated since then, especially from the months he'd spent traveling with the very cosmopolitan Catholic diplomat Giulio Mazarini.

Whatever the exact meaning of the words, however, the general drift was obvious. The ogles and the grins were clear enough. Just in case there was any doubt at all, one of the pirates unlaced his trousers, pulled out his penis, and waved it at Juliet.

That drew a really ear-piercing shriek. Juliet clapped both hands to the sides of her head, in a gesture of horror and despair that would have made any actress in the silent-film era look like a devotee of the method school of acting. Then she flung her arms apart again, issued another shriek, and began racing up and down the deck.

"Racing," at least, in spirit. Her actual progress was more of an unsteady stagger. The seas weren't especially heavy this day, but the deck was rolling noticeably. That was something Harry had already taken into consideration in his own plans, as he was sure the other members of the unit would have also. This would have to be done upclose and personal. The footing just wasn't good enough for fancy marksmanship.

On her way, Juliet shook her fist at Harry and Sherrilyn. Then, when she neared the stern, shook her fist at Donald and Matija.

"Fucking cowards!" That was more of a bellow than what you'd call a shriek. As you might expect from a woman with that bosom, Sutherland had a splendid pair of lungs.

She came back toward the bow, staggering worse than ever now that she had both hands pressed to the sides of her head again. She almost fell, at one point. Probably would have, except she regained her balance by throwing both arms wide and emitting another shriek.

"I am fucking impressed," Harry murmured.

"Yeah, me too," came Sherrilyn's voice from under the brim of the hat. "Does it look as good as it sounds?"

"Even better. All this time, I thought she was bullshitting about the jealous rivals."

To be sure, in the world somewhere on the other side of the Ring of Fire, Juliet Sutherland would have been laughed off the stage. Any stage, even that belonging to an amateur theater group in West Nowhere. But patrons of the theater in the here and now would have had an equally derisive opinion of the understated and subdued thespianism of the late twentieth century. They would have thought even silent-film era stars were pale imitations of True Actors.

Juliet certainly had the Algerines mesmerized. The pirate ship was now completely alongside, with less than ten yards separating the two vessels. Four of the pirates had grappling hooks ready. Harry estimated the length of the poles at no more than twelve feet.

Five yards, then. He wanted them as close as possible without the two ships actually being linked together. Whatever concoction Gerd had come up with in the hold, it was sure to be hellish. Quite literally, incendiary-and having his own ship burn up was no part of Harry's plan.

In the end, he got nervous enough about that possibility that he decided six yards would do the trick. He surged to his feet, far more athletically than Juliet had done, and yanked the blanket off of Maddox.

Juliet had been watching for it, of course. The moment she saw him move, she issued the loudest shriek she'd managed yet. Then-she must have undone the lacings while Harry hadn't noticed-she clawed aside her upper garments and exposed her bosom.

A very impressive bosom, indeed. Between the shriek and the breasts, the pirates barely noticed Harry at all until he snapped the blanket wide open and hurled it into the air at them.

There was no chance the blanket could make it across the space, even if there hadn't been any wind, but that didn't matter. As a visual distraction, it worked almost as well as Juliet's tits. The incredible thunder clap of the ten-gauge going off came as a complete surprise to the Algerines.

One of the pirates holding a grapping hook was flung back as if he'd been struck by a titan, his upper body shredded and spraying blood everywhere. The men on either side of him were killed also. They were spun around like tops more than being smashed back, but that did even better because they tangled up the men next to them. At least one of whom had himself been hit, from the way he was clawing his face.

Harry waited until the second barrel went off before he sprang to the rail. As good a shot as she was, and as much as he trusted Sherrilyn, nobody in their right mind is going to get anywhere near the possible line of fire of a sawed-off ten-gauge loaded with buckshot.

Maddox's second shot took out another grappling hook holder, and the men bunched around him. Harry was at the side an instant later, bracing his left hip against the rail and firing half-sideways with a two-handed grip. He favored a nine-millimeter himself, which he could easily fire one-handed. But that was on dry land, not a ship's deck at sea. Even at a range of six yards, he had to concentrate.

He double-tapped the pirate right across from him in the chest. Then he shifted his aim from left to right, double-tapping each target as he came to it. Following right behind him, Felix had taken position toward the stern and was doing the same. A better and faster shot with a pistol than Harry, even starting a bit later, Kasza had taken down his fourth man by the time Harry killed three-and he'd managed to shoot another one of the pirates holding a grappling hook, while he was at it.

That left one grappling hook holder still to worry about, but Harry didn't bother looking for him. Speed was everything in this situation, and he just concentrated on killing the nearest targets, whatever they had in their hands.

Swords and other hand weapons only, so far as he could see. That was what he had expected. No sensible pirate captain would arm his men with firearms just to capture an unresisting merchant vessel with a crew less than a third the size of his own. Leaving aside the ever-present risk of accidentally shooting one of your own in the excitement of the moment, loaded guns on a ship-and they'd all be matchlocks, to make it worse-posed too great a danger of starting a fire.

The pirates were shrieking themselves now, but Harry blocked that out of his mind. There was just a row of targets, that's all. The only sounds that registered at all clearly were the sharp and unmistakable cracks of a semi-automatic rifle going into action from the stern.

One rifle only, from the sound. That meant Matt, who could see everything unfolding from his position far better than Harry could, had gauged that the situation was well enough under control that he needn't take the risk of releasing the helm and adding his own rifle to the mix. And it also meant Harry didn't have to worry about that last grappling hook. Donald would have targeted that man first, and he was a superb marksman with any kind of rifle.

Not in Julie's class, of course, but Julie was a freak of nature. What difference did it make? The range here was measured in yards, not hundreds of yards.

When his pistol ran out of ammunition, Harry just dropped it onto the deck, pulled out his backup, and kept firing. This ship had solid bulwarks, so there was no danger of the valuable gun slipping overboard.

Maddox had joined Harry and Felix at the rail with her own pistol, and, not more than two seconds later, Paul Maczka was out from under the tarpaulin he'd hidden under and weighed in with his shotgun at the bow. Like all seventeenth-century soldiers Harry knew, Paul positively adored pump-action shotguns. Clickety-BOOM, clickety-BOOM, clickety-BOOM, clickety-BOOM. By the time he started reloading, the bow of the enemy's ship was a charnelhouse.

Harry decided he could afford to pause himself. Not to reload-he still had four rounds left-but to take stock of the overall situation.

Good enough, he decided, after a quick scrutiny. They'd killed or wounded close to half of the Algerine crew already. More than a third, for sure. And while the pirates still outnumbered them, they were obviously so stunned by the incredible mayhem that had been visited upon with no warning that they posed no immediate danger at all. Whatever rumors they might have heard about the rate of fire of the witch-weapons brought from the future, they'd dismissed as nonsense.

They wouldn't any longer, of course. But, for them, "any longer" was a time span that had shrunk down to minutes.

"Front and center, Gerd!" Harry shouted.

Gerd popped out of the hatch. Literally popped. George must have been standing in the hold below with Gerd's feet in his hands and just heaved him up.

Gerd rolled when he reached the deck, not even trying to find his feet right away. He was simply concentrating on keeping the large canvas package in his hands from getting damaged.

Once he got to his knees, he leaned back over the hatch and held the package out. A very large hand came up holding a slowmatch and lit the fuse sticking out from the canvas.

It was a very short fuse. Gerd surged to his feet, raced to the rail, and pitched the package onto the deck of the pirate ship.

"Get us the fuck out of here, Matt!" he yelled, half-sprawled over the rail. Then he just flung himself down onto the deck.

Matt already had their ship veering aside. Harry and the other shooters sprawled to the deck also, as fast as they could while making sure their guns didn't go off by accident. The package went off not more than a second later.

The blast wasn't so bad, but Harry could feel the heat through his heavy coat, even sheltered where he was. Whatever Gerd had put in that makeshift bomb, it was mostly designed to set the enemy ship on fire. Harry could only hope it wouldn't ignite one of their own sails before they got far enough away.

"Cut it a little fine there, didn't you?" Paul hissed at Gerd.

Harry was tempted to add his own admonishment, but manfully resisted. What could you expect? "Cutting it fine" and "let Gerd handle the fireworks" were pretty much a given. Which, of course, was the reason Harry had given him the assignment in the first place. As hair-raising as the results might be.

He levered himself up and peered over the rail. The Algerine vessel was an already an inferno. Several more pirates had been killed outright by the blast, at least as many injured-and the intact members of the crew were paying no attention to anything except getting their two dinghies overboard. They didn't have a prayer of stopping that blaze, and they knew it.

By now, Grabnar had them far enough away that there was no danger of the fire spreading to Harry's own ship. He rose to his feet and took a few seconds to study the pirates working at the dinghies. By the time he was done, Sherrilyn was on her feet also and standing next to him, reloading her ten millimeter. A bit guiltily, Harry looked around until he spotted his own pistol, lying against the rail a few feet away. But there was really no rush, and the weapon wasn't going anywhere. He could reload later.

"You're the best rifle shot we got except maybe Ohde," he said to her. "Go to the stern and get Paul's rifle. Between you and Don, you ought to be able to keep them from launching either of those dinghies."

The pirates did manage to get one of the dinghies into the water. Or Sherrilyn did, if you believed her later boast that one of her rounds had cut the last remaining line and dumped the dinghy before any pirate could get into it. Either way, it didn't matter. That dinghy drifted off, unoccupied, while Donald and Sherrilyn systematically slaughtered any pirate who tried to lower the other one.

At the end, not more than half a dozen pirates threw themselves into the sea to get away from the holocaust that their ship had become.

"Get us closer and we can pick 'em off!" Ohde hollered.

Harry shook his head. "Waste of ammo, Don. Just let 'em be. They'll all be dead anyway, in less than ten minutes."

People had swum across the English Channel from time to time, Harry knew, in the world he'd left behind. But they hadn't been Algerine pirates picked at random, they'd been people who'd trained for it for years. And he was pretty sure they'd done it at the narrowest stretch of the Strait of Dover, which was still many miles away. And he was dead sure they hadn't done it in January. Maybe if he were wearing a wet suit-and assuming he was a good enough swimmer in the first place-a man could make it to the French shore, well over ten miles away. But these pirates didn't stand a chance. Hypothermia would take them under before they got a mile.

No, there'd be no inconvenient witnesses to make awkward comments about the little group of disreputable-looking travelers who'd be arriving in London soon. Disreputable didn't matter, certainly not in Southwark. Dangerous as demons did, until the demons finally bared their fangs at the Tower.

George came up out of the hold. "You all right, love?"

"It was horrible. Look at this!" She'd never relaced her vest, having concentrated entirely on just getting out of the way once the shooting started. Her breasts were more impressive than ever, now that she hauled them out in her hands. "They're frostbitten!"

George ambled over. "Not to worry. Come down below and I'll take care of the problem. Between me and some rum-especially me-they'll be as good as ever in no time."

"Right." She stuffed the medical objects in question back where they'd come from. Then, gave Harry a very haughty look. The sort that would have fit a real dame far better than did her face.

"See? Didn't I tell you? It was jealous rivals did me in."

"I never doubted you once," said Harry. Proving, despite his flamboyant reputation, that he followed the eleventh commandment with devout scruple even if he was none too diligent about the other ten.

Chapter 14

Magdeburg

"Well, go in, why don't you?" Eric Krenz had his arms crossed and his hands tucked into the folds of his heavy coat. "It's cold, Thorsten. I always hated January even before an up-timer told me we're in the middle of what they call 'the Little Ice Age.' "

Thorsten was very cold himself, it being one of those clear-skied days in midwinter when everything seemed to turn to ice. But he still wasn't ready to take the last few steps to reach the entrance to the settlement house. Mostly-so he told himself, anyway-because the settlement house was actually a large and impressive-looking monastery. The oldest surviving structure in the city, in fact, founded centuries ago.

The Kloster Unser Lieben Frauen, as it had formerly been known. The literal translation into English was "the Monastery of Our Loving Women," but it was actually a convent dedicated to the Virgin Mary-and it was still referred to as such by Magdeburg's more devout inhabitants, who cast a skeptical eye on the new activities to which the ancient building was being put today. The Lutherans, perhaps oddly, even more than the Catholics from whom the monastery had been seized after Gustav Adolf established his control of the city and began rebuilding it from the devastation left by Tilly's army in 1631.

But perhaps that was not so odd. There weren't that many Catholics in Magdeburg, which had been the center of Lutheranism in Germany since the previous century. Or, at least, not many who made a point of it. Feelings could still run high about the horrible massacre, which had happened less than three years earlier. Since the emperor had allowed the Catholics to retain the small cathedral of San Sebastian not far from the huge Lutheran Dom, and his soldiery-the CoC, still more so-kept the religious peace in the city, Thorsten imagined the city's Catholics were inclined not to make a fuss about the former Kloster.

"Thorsten, I'm freezing. And we've only got a one-day leave. Either shit or get off the pot. If you can't work up the nerve to see the Americaness again, then"-Eric snatched a hand from beneath his coat and pointed to the north; then stuck it right back-"there's a nice warm tavern not two blocks away."

A tavern sounded… very tempting. Warm, good beer-and most of all, a familiar and comfortable situation. As opposed to marching into a monastery-become-peculiar-charity-project, where lurked a young female who intimidated Thorsten almost as much as she attracted him.

In the end, the decision was made for him. The big door to the settlement house opened and Caroline herself emerged. With the same incredible smile on her face that Thorsten vividly remembered.

Did more than remember, actually. In the weeks since he'd last seen her, he'd used the memory of that smile to fend off the image of Robert Stiteler being slaughtered. That worked very well, he'd found. He was having fewer and fewer nightmares and flashbacks as time went on.

"Do you always make a habit of this?" she asked him cheerfully.

Peering out the same frosted window through which Caroline had first spotted Thorsten Engler standing outside, Maureen Grady smiled almost as widely as Caroline. "Well, this is shaping up nicely. I am so fond of men who aren't always cocksure about everything."

Anna Sophia, the dowager countess of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt, half-rose from her seat near the window and looked out also. "Is that the young man you mentioned to me last week?"

Her nineteen-year-old sister-in-law Emelie, born a countess of Oldenberg-Delmenhorst but the new countess of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt since her marriage the previous summer, rose from her chair and came to the window also. "Nice-enough looking fellow, I will say that. But are you sure he's suitable for our precious Caroline?"

Maureen started to say something, but broke off in a half-choked laugh when she spotted the expression on the face of the older countess. Anna Sophia was looking very prim and proper indeed. Much the way a middle-aged and eminently respectable lady reacts to something unmentionable being spoken aloud in public. Silence, that somehow still manages to exude wordless disapproval.

"Yes, I'm sure," Maureen said, when she recovered. "The dowager countess is none too pleased about it, mind you. But I checked with my contacts in the Committee of Correspondence."

Emelie glanced at Anna Sophia and smiled. "Your very extensive contacts in the CoC."

"Well, yes. In this instance, I checked with Gunther himself. Then, after hearing his story, I had my husband ask around in the navy yard. If anyone has anything bad to say about Thorsten Engler, they're keeping very quiet about it."

"As if anyone could hide anything from those people, with their spies in every house," the dowager countess said stiffly. "I do not approve, Maureen. I say it again. No good will come of this."

She didn't add mark my words, but she might as well have.

Her sister-in-law resumed her seat. "Oh, stop it, Anna Sophia. We've had no trouble with the CoC at all. What really upsets you is that our work depends so heavily on them."

"We should be relying on the churches," the older countess insisted. She and her sister-in-law shared the same birthday, June 15, but they were thirty years apart in age-and at least that far removed in some of their social attitudes.

Maureen slouched back in her chair with her elbows on the armrests, and steepled her fingers. Then, gazing at Anna Sophia over the fingertips, said: "I will be glad to, Countess-as soon as you can find me more than three churches in the city whose pastors or priests don't insist on imposing doctrinal qualifications on our clients. I will add that the only one of those three churches which carries any weight is-brace yourself-the Catholic church."

Anna Sophia's lips tightened but she said nothing. If she had, Maureen suspected, the words she'd have said would also have been: Those people. With perhaps even more disapproval in her tone than when she used those people to refer to the Committees of Correspondence. Like most upper-class Lutherans in the USE-young Emelie being one of the exceptions-the dowager countess of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt viewed the recent upsurge of the Catholic church in Magdeburg with great alarm.

By what insidious devices had the miserable papists come to wield so much influence over the masses in central Germany? Until very recently, a bastion of Lutheran orthodoxy?

In public, they usually ascribed the phenomenon to the well-known deviousness and cunning of the Jesuits, "the damned Jesuits" being a handy catch-all explanation for Lutherans of their class. Or they ascribed it to the supposedly massive immigration of uneducated Catholics into the burgeoning capital city. But Maureen wondered how much they really believed that themselves. The great majority of immigrants into Magdeburg came from Protestant areas of Germany and Europe, not Catholic ones. And while the reputation of the Jesuits was well-deserved in some respects, the near-magical powers ascribed to them by their enemies was just plain silly.

No, the explanation was far simpler, and required no formula to explain beyond the well-tried and ancient one. As usually happens with powers-that-be, the Lutheran establishment in central and northern Germany-laity and clergy alike-had gotten fat, self-centered and complacent. And more than a little selfish. The headway made by the Catholic church was no more mysterious than the headway Protestant churches had made against Catholicism in the Latin America of the world Maureen had left behind in the Ring of Fire.

But there was no point in raking this old argument over the coals again. Anna Sophia was one of a dozen important figures in the Lutheran establishment in Germany-which, in this area, was essentially identical with the political establishment-who'd been willing to serve as public sponsors for the settlement house. With no lesser a person than the queen of Sweden herself as the figurehead-and her very energetic seven-year-old daughter as a frequent and enthusiastic visitor.

For Maureen Grady's purposes, that was plenty good enough. Emelie was the only one of the "Elles," as Caroline called them-"Eminent Lutheran Ladies"-who had a get-your-hands-dirty involvement in the daily work of the settlement house, anyway. Whether as a matter of personal temperament or simply because she was by far the youngest of the Elles, being still a teenager, Emelie had no trouble working with either the CoC or the Catholic church in Magdeburg.

In any event, it was time to break off the gossip session. The door was opening and Caroline was ushering the Engler fellow into the room.

Thorsten's relaxation at Caroline's obviously friendly attitude vanished the moment he went through the door she'd led him to. Other than Maureen Grady, he knew neither of the women in the room beyond. But everything about them, from the obviously expensive clothing they wore to their hair styles to subtleties about their expressions and mannerisms made it clear as day that they were noblewomen. Probably Hochadel, to boot, not lesser nobility.

Thorsten didn't share the automatic hostility toward the German aristocracy that many CoC members possessed. But he was certainly not partial to them, either-and, more to the point in this situation, had had so little personal contact with any real ones that he didn't know how to conduct himself properly. The one reichsritter who'd lived near Engler's village had been a very small landowner without much more in the way of pretensions-and certainly not refined manners-than any prosperous farmer in the area.

Fortunately, the younger of the two noblewomen smiled and extended her hand for an American-style informal handshake. That much, Thorsten had long since mastered.

"A pleasure, ma'am," he said, managing to get the words out smoothly and evenly.

"I am Emelie, the countess of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt," she said. Then, gesturing toward the older noblewoman sitting by the window: "And this is my husband's sister-in-law Anna Sophia, the dowager countess."

There being no offer of a handshake coming from that quarter, Thorsten simply bowed. "A pleasure, ma'am." The elderly countess nodded in return but said nothing.

"This is the inner sanctum, Thorsten," said Caroline. "I figured I'd bring you in here first, so you wouldn't think this place was being run according to principles of anarchy. Appearances to the contrary. But we can go now, and leave the ladies to their machinations. See you later, Maureen. Emelie. Countess."

And off she went, taking Thorsten by the hand and leading him out. He made no protest. Leaving aside his own desire to escape, this was the first time they'd had any physical contact. He was quite thrilled.

After the door closed, the dowager countess of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt emitted a sniff. "I find myself wondering if your precious CoC fellow made any recommendations about her. She's quite shocking at times, you know."

"Don't be silly, Anna Sophia. I find Caroline immensely refreshing."

Maureen looked from one to the other. "For what it's worth, I share Emelie's enthusiasm for Caroline-and, yes, Anna Sophia, sometimes the girl practically defines the term 'bluntness.' But what I mostly care about, seeing as how I really know very little about Thorsten Engler, is that I'm seeing a human being's emotional paralysis finally coming unraveled."

Now simply interested, the older countess raised her head. Maureen nodded toward Emelie. "She knows the story, but I don't think I've ever told you. Caroline's not a native of Grantville like most of us here. The only reason she was in town when the Ring of Fire hit is because she was one of Rita Stearns' college friends attending her wedding to Tom Simpson. Part of the reason she came is because she thought she might pick up some good tips-seeing as how she was supposed to get married to her own fiance six weeks later. In Philadelphia, where he lived-and where the Ring of Fire left him."

"Ah." Anna Sophia looked out the window again. "I wonder if we will ever understand God's purpose there. I don't think so, myself, whatever the parsons say. The learned arguments they advance today to explain the Ring of Fire are no more learned, after all, than the arguments I can remember them advancing not so many years ago-which sagely explained why the age of miracles is long past and will never return until the Christ himself."

Maureen was startled by the words, as she always was whenever someone spoke of the Ring of Fire that way. She shouldn't be, really, since this was hardly the first time she'd heard a similar sentiment expressed. Looked at from that viewpoint…

True enough, the Ring of Fire was a palpable, physical miracle, like something right out of the Bible. The parting of the Red Sea might have been more spectacular, perhaps. But those waters had returned, after Moses and his people passed. Whereas all anyone in Europe had to do-as untold thousands had done, by now-was travel to within three miles of Grantville to see the modern miracle with their own eyes. Nine-hundred-foot-tall cliffs that had not existed an eyeblink before God made them to be; rivers running in new courses; lakes drained and lakes created. Perhaps most of all, if a bit more subtle, thousands of sometimes peculiar people set loose in the world, who had in less than three years been the human equivalent of an earthquake.

The problem was that, despite her own sincere Catholicism, Maureen Grady simply couldn't think that way. She knew Grantville, having lived there for years since she'd left Chicago to take a better job at the big Veterans Administration center in Clarksburg. The idea that she and her neighbors-her cop husband, too, with his mania for baseball? their two sons, with a worse mania? their three dogs, with their mania for stealing the best seats in the house and shedding fur all over them?-were all part of a miracle just seemed completely absurd to her. Miracles were like Star Wars. They happened long, long ago in places that were far, far way-and had names that were hard to pronounce. They did not happen in dog-food-out-of-a-can plain old West Virginia.

They just didn't, unless God was a lot more like an American Indian style prankster deity than the one Maureen had grown up with and worshipped. So, Maureen had long since plunked herself down on the "unknown natural causes" side of that debate. She could accept that blind nature might pick West Virginia for the Ring of Fire.

Why not, since nature had given them the seemingly immortal Senator Robert Byrd? Nobody ever explained him as being due to any sort of miracle. The occasional Republican whispers that he'd sold his soul to the devil could be discounted, she thought.

"This is the day-care center," Caroline said, as they entered a section of the settlement house that was a newly constructed extension from the medieval monastery.

Thorsten looked around carefully. The great one-room wooden structure was really just a huge barn, with what amounted to big stalls for children instead of horses or cattle. True, the floor was wood instead of dirt, and was amazingly clean given the swarms of children everywhere. But the design and craftsmanship of the extension itself was just about exactly what you'd get with a well-made barn. Very sturdy and solid, to be sure, but with no frills whatsoever.

The one thing that puzzled him at first was how they managed to keep such a big wooden structure warm enough in the winter. He saw no signs that the walls were insulated by anything except a double layer of planking. But then he spotted one of the peculiar-looking new American stoves that were becoming quite popular in the city. "Franklin stoves," they were called. Thorsten's own landlord had been talking lately about getting some for their apartment building.

He looked around again, and spotted two more. Apparently, they had such a stove in almost every one of the stalls for children.

"Well, what do you think?" Caroline asked. Glancing at her, Thorsten realized that he'd been silent for quite some time, as he'd given the day-care center much more than a casual examination. His friend Eric teased him about that characteristic quite often. Thorsten supposed it was probably true that he tended to concentrate on something to the point of being half-oblivious to the world around him.

"It's very sturdy," he said. "Former farmers built it, I am thinking."

"Well… yes, I suppose it could have been. It was done by a crew sent from two of the construction workers' unions. Most of those men are from rural areas, true enough. I don't know if they were farmers, though. Why do you say that?"

Thorsten waved his hand about. "It's designed like a big barn, Caroline. Better made than usual, but that's what it is."

She looked a little startled. "A barn? I wouldn't have said so!"

Fearing that she was on the verge of becoming offended, Thorsten chose his next words carefully.

"Ah… I don't mean to be impertinent, but I take it you were not born and raised in a country village?"

Caroline's burst of laughter reassured Thorsten, as well as intrigued him. She had a raucous, almost harsh-sounding laugh, quite at odds with her actual voice. Everything about the woman was fascinating.

"Hell, no! I'm the o-riginal city girl, Thorsten. Born and raised in and around Washington, D.C. When I was growing up, going on a 'country outing' meant finding an Eritrean restaurant instead of the run-of-the-mill Ethiopian ones. The first time I saw a cow was when I transferred to WVU my junior year because I didn't like-well, never mind. Let's just say it took Rita Stearns fifteen minutes to walk me through the differences between a cow and a horse so I could tell them apart." She frowned rather dramatically. "And she's never let me forget it even though the truth is I could have managed it in two minutes if she hadn't been laughing her head off the other thirteen."

Thorsten tried to imagine not being able to tell the difference between a cow and horse at a glance. Finally! Something about the woman that was clearly far from perfect. It came as a great relief.

"For someone like me, Caroline, a good and well-made barn is nothing to sneer at. Many people live their whole lives in much worse. I meant no offense."

She turned her head and looked at him for a long moment, without a trace of her usual smile. "I believe you," she said eventually. "I think you're one of the nicest men I've ever met. And none of it's phony."

He didn't know what to say to that. But the smile returned, and she took him by the hand again and led him elsewhere. The "soup kitchen," she called it, even though they were serving no form of soup at all, so far as Thorsten could determine.

"So how was the food?" Eric asked him that evening, over beers in the tavern. He'd left the settlement house much sooner than Engler, of course.

"Who cares?" was Thorsten's reply.

"That silly smile has no business on your plain German farmer's face," declared Krenz. He turned to Gunther Achterhof, who was sitting at the table with them. "Don't you agree?"

"No." Gunther studied Thorsten for a bit. He really did seem quite distracted.

"Still having dreams?"

"Oh, yes."

Gunther drained his beer. "I changed my mind. You're right, Krenz. That is the silliest smile I've ever seen, on anybody's face. Better he should have kept suffering, like a farmer should."

Chapter 15

Frederiksborg Castle Hillerod, Kingdom of Denmark

The more he saw in the workshop that his father had built in a new wing of Frederiksborg Castle, the more appalled Prince Ulrik became. By the time he got to the worktable at the end, with its dully gleaming centerpiece, Ulrik felt as if his stomach was residing somewhere below…

Best not to think about that.

He turned his head to examine his guide. More precisely, to gauge how much he could confide in him.

Oddly, there was something about Baldur Norddahl's piratical appearance that was reassuring. Perhaps it was because Ulrik had concluded the appearance was by no means skin deep. He'd spent enough time with Norddahl, since he'd returned to Denmark from Schwerin a few days earlier at the king's command, to get a sense of the man. Even that portion of the Norwegian's history that he'd been willing to divulge-and that usually took several mugs of good strong beer to wheedle out of him-made Baldur Norddahl an adventurer with few equals. Ulrik wouldn't be surprised at all to discover that some of those adventures had included piracy. Where else would the Norwegian have learned Arabic but from the Algerine corsairs? He was rather fluent in the outlandish tongue, although he claimed he couldn't read it except bits and pieces of the aljamiado script.

Spain, Norddahl claimed, was where he first learned Arabic, along with several dialects of Spanish itself. His proficiency in the Muslim tongue he'd gained in parts beyond, when he spent some time with Morisco traders-plunderers and slavers, too, one got the sense-in caravans crossing the great desert to the fabled city of Timbuktu.

If there were a camel in Denmark, Ulrik would be interested to put the matter to a test, and see if Norddahl could ride one of the grotesque animals. On the other hand, he probably could, even if the rest of his stories were false. To use one of the many American expressions that were spreading all over Europe, Baldur Norddahl was a man of many parts.

True, most of those parts wouldn't bear close examination, taken one at a time. Even his name was suspect. Baldur was most likely accurate. But Norddahl simply meant "of the north valley"-which could be just about anywhere. Norway had a thousand little valleys in its northern parts. Most Norwegians didn't use farm or location surnames, in the first place, they used patronymics. But a father could be traced a lot easier than a valley somewhere "to the north," should someone go looking.

Nonetheless, that there were a lot of parts to the rogue, the prince didn't doubt at all.

"This strikes me as madness, Baldur, now that I've finally been able to see it myself. Tell me the truth."

The Norwegian took a few seconds to look around the immense workroom. It was deserted now, except for the two of them. Norddahl had ordered all of the workmen to take a break from their labors while he guided the prince about.

"It depends how you define 'madness,' prince. All of these devices-their descendants, at least-will work. Even the submarine."

"Even this?" Ulrik picked up the huge bronze helmet with its bizarre glass visor. With considerable strain, since the thing was very heavy. He tried to imagine himself fitting the ghastly device onto his head, and then lowering himself into water with it.

"Oh, yes. Actually, the problem with this particular enthusiasm of your father's isn't the diving helmet. I'd be quite willing to trust my life to that. It's the hose"-he swept his hand down the long table, indicating the canvas and wire contraption that lay sprawled across it in great coils-"and the pump and the rest of it that makes the project so close to suicide that I told His Majesty I refused to test it myself."

Ulrik winced. Given the risks Norddahl was usually prepared to take-for enough money-the fact that he considered this one almost suicidal made it suicidal indeed.

"Did you ask the American lieutenant?"

Baldur smiled. "Does a bear shit in the woods? As God is my witness, I would forgive the up-timers just for their delightful sayings alone, even if they hadn't brought such wonderful gadgets with them. Yes, Prince, of course I asked him. Pried him rather, over the many beers I bought the lad." The smile expanded a bit. "Which I charged to your father's account, you understand. Being, as it was, clearly a research expense."

The prince smiled back. He couldn't help it, even if one of the things about his father that aggravated him was the king of Denmark's ability to shed money like rainwater. But he was unable to get angry over Baldur's amoral cheeriness. Ulrik had come to realize that the Norwegian adventurer lied about very little, except his past. That was something of a relief, for a prince who'd been acquainted with courtiers all his life.

"And what did Eddie say?"

The smiled left Norddahl's face. "He said it was very dangerous-all of this-although he claimed that he couldn't provide me with many details beyond depicting what he called 'the bends.' "

Ulrik grunted skeptically. "I'm surprised you got anything out of him-or that he didn't regale you with the outlandish claims he tells my father."

"Oh, it's not hard. You simply have to know the trick of it."

The prince cocked an eyebrow. "Which is?"

"The lad's squeamish. You wouldn't think it, of a man who drove what the up-timers call a 'speedboat'-and isn't that an appropriate name!-into a Danish warship. But he is. Eddie Cantrell will lie through his teeth without hesitation, if he thinks he's deceiving his enemies." Norddahl shook his head. "Meaning no disrespect, Prince, but your father is far too gullible when his enthusiasms get the best of him."

Ulrik chuckled. "To say the least. Yes, I know. But you still haven't explained 'the trick.' "

The Norwegian shrugged. "Eddie's not a cold-blooded killer. If you make it clear that someone's life depends on what he tells you-depends directly; immediately; soon, not as vague later possibility-he simply can't bring himself to keep lying. He'll get vague, evasive. If you press him-beer helps-you can eventually pry some honest warnings from him. Even details, if he knows them."

"But he doesn't, I take it?"

Baldur shook his head. "No, not really. Not about this business, at least." The last, he said with another sweep of the hand at the contents of the workshop. "He came from a mountainous province, far inland. I think the only time he started learning anything about ships and the sea was after he came here through the Ring of Fire. So most of what he knows is what he calls 'book-learning,' and spotty at that."

"What are these 'bends' he warns about?"

"I'm not entirely sure, Prince. Eddie couldn't really explain it-and much of what he said didn't make a great deal of sense to me to begin with. But if he's right-I'm sure he's not lying here, he simply may be wrong himself-it seems that if a man goes deep enough into the water various parts of the air enter his actual blood. One of them is supposed to be particularly dangerous. Niter… something."

Ulrik had been feeling slightly dizzy ever since he arrived in Denmark and his ebullient giant of a father had immediately placed him in charge of what the king was pleased to call "our secret navy projects." The dizziness increased slightly, as he tried to wrack his brain to pull up what he'd managed to learn in hasty perusals of up-time texts.

"Yes, I remember. Nitrogen, they call it. The up-timers claim that air"-the hand-wave the prince now made took in everything about them-"is not really 'air' at all, but a mixture of several airs. What they call gases. Oxygen is the one we actually use to breathe. Most of it is nitrogen. Four parts in five, if I remember correctly."

He frowned. "But they also claim that nitrogen is harmless. 'Inert,' is the word they use."

"Most of the time, maybe. But Eddie insists it's dangerous underwater. At least, if you go far enough down. He says what happens is that the-'gas,' you call it?-saturates the blood. Then, when a man rises back to the surface-if he rises too quickly, that is-the gas boils back out of his blood. That's what they call 'the bends.' Does terrible things, apparently, especially to the joints. It can even kill you."

Ulrik grimaced at the image. As if there weren't already enough sickening ways to main or kill a man!

"And what else is dangerous?"

Norddahl shrugged again. "That was the only thing he could tell me specifically. But all of the dangers, including the bends, seem to come from the same general peril. What he calls the pressure of the water itself. That's another way of saying-"

"Yes, I understand." That much of the up-time texts, at least, had been easy enough to comprehend. The idea that even the air had weight, pressing down on a body, had seemed peculiar at first. But once Ulrik remembered his experience trying to breathe, the one time he'd ventured into the high Alps, the concept had come into focus. And he'd swum and dove often enough-and deep enough, now and then-to understand full well that water got… thicker, the farther down you went. "Pressure" was not a bad term at all to describe it, since his ears had felt as if a soft-handed giant had been squeezing them.

On the other hand…

"There's something I still don't understand." He set down the helmet. "Not even my ebullient sire proposes to send a man or a machine very far beneath the surface." He turned slightly and pointed to the submarine being built. "Even that preposterous device is not intended to go much deeper than thirty feet."

"Nor"-he rapped the helmet with a knuckle-"is this. Fifty feet perhaps. Sixty or seventy, at most. Am I right?"

"Yes, Your Highness."

Ha! Apparently Ulrik was making an impression on the rascal. Norddahl was finally using the proper appellation, instead of the "prince" business that bordered on disrespect.

"And I understand what you're questioning," the Norwegian continued. "Many men dive that deep, or even deeper. I've been thirty feet down myself, more than once, and there are sponge fishermen who go much deeper than that. Do it for a living, day after day, and suffer none of the consequences Eddie warns about."

"And what do you conclude? Since you don't believe he's lying."

Baldur paused, scratching his chin while he examined the helmet himself. Then, with a very dubious look in his yes, studied the coils of the hose. "I posed that very problem to him, as it happens. He was obviously puzzled for a moment. I really don't think he knows very much about all this. But he finally said I was overlooking what he called 'the differential.' What he meant by that is that-this is what he says-when a diver without all this complicated gadgetry goes deep, somehow the pressure of his body is enough to resist the pressure of the water."

Ulrik's eyes almost crossed. "That's… hard to make sense of."

"Isn't it?" The cheery smile returned. "But I think I understand what he's talking about, Your Highness. When a diver goes deep, what he does is breathe very heavily-but then he expels all the air before he dives. If you didn't-I learned this myself-you simply can't get very deep to begin with."

Comprehension began to come again. Even at the age of twenty-two, Ulrik had quite of bit of military experience. He'd seen a human body-more than one-torn to pieces.

"Yes, I see. If you picture the lungs as empty sacks, not full of air…"

He turned his head and squinted at the bizarre-looking boat being constructed at the far end. "But that shouldn't affect men in a submarine."

"No, I don't believe it does-unless the hull shatters. But what about a man in this contraption?" Again, Norddahl wrapped the diving helmet with a knuckle. "So long as the pump above is keeping him supplied with air, he should be fine. But what if the pump fails-or the hose ruptures?"

The prince tried to imagine the consequences. "Well, he'd drown very quickly, if you didn't pull him up in time."

Baldur shook his head. "No, Your Highness, I don't think he would. I think something much worse would happen to him."

"What?"

"I don't know. Neither does Eddie. He says he read about it once, but can't remember any of the details. What he did remember was that, whatever it was, it was quite horrible."

"And you believe him?"

"Oh, yes. That's why I told His Majesty I wouldn't go down in it myself, once we got it finished. The submarine, I'd be willing to try-but not this devilish device. Of course, no one will be able to test it for a few months anyway, even if we had the pump ready. The water would be much too cold during the winter, assuming you could find a spot without ice cover. But, come spring, by which time everything should be done, I still won't do it."

Ulrik didn't blame him. Courage was one thing. This was just lunacy, and it got worse the more he learned. Devoting any effort to this particular project was completely pointless. It had no possible military application at all, that Ulrik could see. How was a man laboring under the weight of a huge bronze helmet and a heavy diving suit-even assuming you could make a long enough hose to provide him with air, which was impossible-supposed to pose a threat to a warship?

He suspected that not even his father thought it could. The king had simply… gotten interested. Christian IV was also a man of many parts. He read relatively little, unfortunately, but he was very intelligent and was fascinated by a wide range of things. In particular, he adored mechanical contrivances and would have made quite a good artisan himself.

"So let us return to the beginning, Baldur. I said this seemed all madness, and you disagreed. Why?"

"I disagreed only in general, Your Highness. Eventually, I think all of these contraptions can be made to work. I'm quite partial to the submarine, in fact. But I think it's… well, not wise-not for me to label your august royal father a madman!-to believe they can be made to work in time to fend off the American ironclads. They'll be here by May, I'm thinking, at the latest."

Ulrik looked back to the submarine, then at the helmet. "You don't share the opinion of my father's courtiers, I take it? Most of them insist that the up-timers are not magicians, simply artisans-and that there is no way to get such ungainly boats down the Elbe and through the North Sea and the Kattegat and Skagerrak. Even leaving aside the political problem of passing Hamburg and the likelihood-the near-certainty, to hear those very martial fellows talk-that heroic units of our army-perhaps even the miserable French-will destroy them before they ever smell a whiff of saltwater."

Baldur chuckled. There was a bit of a sneer in the sound. "Oh, the Americans are certainly not magicians. On that much, I quite agree. But I'm wondering how many of those courtiers were there, at the battle of Wismar?"

"Not one," said Ulrik flatly. "I asked."

"What I thought. Well, I was there, Your Highness. I was aboard the Lossen. Fortunately for me, after the airplane crashed into us, I was one of the officers detailed to command the lifeboats we lowered. So I wasn't aboard when the magazine finally exploded, a few minutes later."

There wasn't a trace of the usual humor in Norddahl's face, now. In that moment, Ulrik thought he was finally seeing the man beneath the rogue. A burly Norwegian, somewhere around the age of forty, with ash-blond hair and very light blue eyes-and an impressive collections of scars even on that small part of his body that was visible. The prince didn't doubt for a minute that there were plenty more beneath the heavy clothes Baldur wore in the workshop. This was a man who had seen more of danger than most any ten other men. Without the sheen of humor on the surface, he was like a grim ancient who'd gone a-viking every summer of his life since he was a boy.

The prince sighed. "What I feared."

Ulrik's eyes moved around the workshop again. Slowly, because there was so much to be seen. His father was nothing if not an enthusiast, once something took his fancy. Where another monarch might have ordered one or two such dubious naval projects set underway, the king of Denmark had ordered a dozen.

"Is there anything in here that isn't harebrained?"

The smile came back. "Oh, yes! Two of the projects, in fact. Alas, I've not been able to generate much interest in them on the part of His Majesty. Too simple for his taste, you understand. But I think they have quite splendid possibilities. Here, let me show you."

After he finished his study of the first project Baldur had led him to, Ulrik straightened up. His spirits, even more than his back.

"A 'spar-torpedo,' you call it? Nothing more than a big simple bomb, really, stuck out on the end of a pole. Taken into battle by a sturdy boat, such as we've known how to make for centuries."

"Your Highness has penetrated to the heart of the matter splendidly," agreed Baldur, his customary cheer back in place. "Better still, a device that's been tested recently and shown to work quite well, even using down-time equipment almost throughout. This was how the up-timers in Amsterdam sank a Spanish ship, you know. There is one problem, though."

Here he pointed to the one and only exotic part of the whole project. "The up-timers in Amsterdam had to row the whole way. Whereas we lowly Danes will have an American engine to propel one of our boats. What they call an 'outboard motor.' I obtained it through… well, let's just say informal methods, and leave it at that. Luckily for us, that Americans are definitely people and not devils is proven by the fact that they share all of the usual human vices. Greed and carelessness being prominent among them."

A bit skeptically, Ulrik eyed the gadget. "Are you sure…"

"Oh, yes, Your Highness. I've tested this myself, many times, on boats I've taken out onto the Castle Lake. So long as you have the fuel for it-and that's not really so hard to buy on the black market in the Germanies, certainly not the little we'd need-this thing is just about as reliable as oars. That's because it's what the Americans-have I told you how much I enjoy their little saws and turns of phrase?-call 'store-bought.' This isn't something they cobbled together here themselves, from whatever bits and pieces of their old world they brought with them. This is something that was made-in great huge lots of thousands, they say, like a shop making nails-in one of those giant factories they had up-time."

The dizzy feeling returned, for a moment. Ulrik tried to imagine a world whose cities housed millions and whose landscapes-he'd seen many of the pictures himself, when he'd visited Grantville-were dotted by giant manufactories as if they were dairy farms.

He shook it off. Thankfully, the kingdom of Denmark in the coming year would not have to fend off such an incredibly powerful world. Simply a fragment of it. Insofar as the term "simply" could be applied to a task that even such a fellow as the Norwegian with him viewed grimly.

Ulrik was quite fond of up-time expressions, himself, as it happened. He'd picked up quite a few while he'd visited the Germanies where the Americans had spread their influence.

"Hard-boiled," the Americans would have labeled Baldur Norddahl. Very hard-boiled, indeed.

"You said there was a problem with it, though."

Baldur ran fingers through his hair. "Yes, there is. Once I finally got my hands on the contraption and tested it, I discovered that with a boat that has any weight at all-and we need something fairly sturdy to support a heavy bomb on the end of a long pole-the outboard motor isn't really any faster than just using oars. The big advantage it has is that it doesn't wear out the crew the way pulling oars does. But any attack we launch on those American ironclads will have to be quick, anyway, so the advantage disappears. And the engine makes an incredible racket. A very distinctive sound that the Americans will certainly recognize."

Ulrik thought about it. "Perhaps we should plan on using the thing as a decoy, then. Draw their attention with the outboard motor, but plan the real strike with oared boats."

Baldur looked surprised. Then, quite respectful. "That's an intriguing idea, Your Highness. I hadn't thought of it. Be awfully rough on the men on the decoy ship, though."

"Yes, it would. Unless we can figure out another way of confusing the enemy at the same time. But let's leave that be, for moment. What was the other project you thought had promise?"

"That's even better-or would be," he said, half-sighing, "had I been able to interest His Majesty in it. That's over there."

Five minutes later, Prince Ulrik was struggling not to curse his own father.

"This would have been sensible!"

Norddahl shook his head, his expression unnaturally lugubrious. "It certainly would have. Almost no risk involved at all. And the up-time texts say that it's the most effective anti-ship device ever designed by the hand of man. Beautiful in its simplicity, isn't it? It's not even very different from things we down-timers have done before, although never on such a scale."

Ulrik looked first at the device itself-Baldur called it the "prototype," using yet another American term-and then spent some seconds admiring the clever way the Norwegian had shown how it would work in practice. He called that the "scale model."

As simple as you could ask for. Just litter the narrow confines of the Danish straits with mines. Straightforward bombs, whose design posed no insurmountable problem, each big enough to sink even an ironclad. Devices that could be set in place by boats such as the Danes already had in profusion, rather than one or two intricate and exotic ships to be designed and built in a hurry-with who could say what result in practice?

With enough of them, they could possibly do more than close the Straits. If they closed the Kattegat, they could keep the ironclads from even getting near to Copenhagen. Granted, that would take an enormous number of mines and was probably impractical.

"We could still…"

But Norddahl was shaking his head, his expression more lugubrious still. "I'm afraid not, Your Highness. There simply isn't enough time left. I did my best to persuade the king-right from the beginning-that we should abandon everything else in favor of this alone. But…"

He spread his hands. "Your father, you understand."

Ulrik had to suppress a sudden spike of near-hysterical laughter.

"Yes, I understand. My father."

The up-time texts and records didn't really have very much concerning the history of Denmark, taken as a whole. It had been a small and unimportant country in their time, and not close to their own. But there was a fair amount in the libraries in Grantville-the woman with the huge and eccentric personal library had had even more, which she'd been kind enough to let Ulrik examine-concerning King Christian IV himself. A very flamboyant and long-lived monarch he'd been, it seemed, who'd been quite popular with his people despite his seemingly endless excesses. Ulrik's father had made such an impression on his land that he would be one of the few monarchs of the era still vividly remembered centuries in the future.

Remembered for many things. One of them being the fact that he'd produced over two dozen children, a goodly number of them illegitimate.

Such was Ulrik's father, for good or ill. You could hardly expect such a man to satisfy himself with one or two special projects for his navy-when he could conceive a dozen.

"You're certain?"

"Yes, Your Highness. I did the calculations. If we'd started earlier, things would be different. Starting now…"

Norddahl's eyes went to the prototype. "Even now, if you could persuade your father to drop everything else, I think I could get enough made and put in place to close the Oresund. That would protect Copenhagen, at least. But there's no chance any longer that we could make and place enough to close off even the Little Belt, much less the Great Belt."

"Either of which would allow Admiral Simpson access to the Baltic-and our fleet blockading Luebeck."

"Yes, Your Highness."

"Let's assume-for the moment-that I could keep the king pried off your back enough to allow you to devote… oh, let's say one-half of your efforts to the mines."

Norddahl's eyes narrowed and grew a bit unfocused, while he did his calculations.

"I couldn't close off the Oresund. But I could certainly make and put in place enough mines to make it dangerous for the enemy's ships."

"And you're certain that one of these mines would be enough to sink an American ironclad? I've seen them, Baldur. At something of a distance, of course. They were friendly enough, when I passed through Magdeburg, very respectful of my diplomatic status, but they obviously weren't going to let me into the shipyards. But even under construction, seen from afar, they are formidable looking things."

Norddahl chuckled again. "Oh, yes, Your Highness. I've never been able to get my hands on a copy of the actual plans, but there's really no great mystery about the ironclads. Give me the wherewithal and enough time-"

He waved at one of the projects looming darkly in a corner. "-and I could build one myself. Though even the king agrees that would take far too long, so I've never done much but fiddle with it. But one thing is known for sure. However much armor the ironclads may carry above the water, the hulls themselves are just wooden hulls. These mines are powerful enough they'd probably even hole an iron hull. They'll certainly shatter a wooden one."

Ulrik nodded, and then looked back toward the area where the spar torpedo project was underway.

"And how many of those could you have ready by May? Assuming-for the moment-that I could give you enough breathing space to devote… oh, half the time that's left, after the mines. I'm afraid there's no way around the fact that you'll have to keep at least a quarter of your effort devoted to these other ridiculous schemes. I can keep my father at a distance, to a point. But I'd have as much chance of fending off a great bear with my hands as I would keeping my illustrious sire from meddling at all."

He was a bit startled to realize how far he'd allowed himself to discard circumlocutions in the presence of a man who was, technically, nothing but a servant. His instincts had led him there, though, and Ulrik trusted his instincts about people. He'd come to have a great deal of confidence in Baldur Norddahl, and needed to make sure the reverse was true as well. This was going to be a desperate enough business, under the best of circumstances. If anything was to work at all, it would require a close bond between a prince of Denmark and a Norwegian adventurer, rascally as he might be.

Baldur had been pondering the question. "It's not quite as simple as that, Your Highness. I could have six or seven boats built and ready with spar torpedoes, by May. But I have a bad feeling they won't do much good."

Ulrik frowned. "You just told me yourself that's how the up-timers sank a Spanish ship in Amsterdam."

"Not the same thing at all, Your Highness. In Amsterdam, the Americans had the advantage of complete surprise. In the Oresund, we won't. You can be as sure as anything in the world that the American admiral knows all about the danger of mines and… they'd call them 'torpedo boats,' I think. They'll be alert at all times, even in a storm, and they have more than enough weaponry on board those ships, even leaving aside the main guns, to destroy any rowboat before it got close enough to pose a danger."

He grimaced. "I'll be willing to lead the thing, when the time comes. But only because it's not completely suicidal, and I have a taste for adventure."

"More than a taste!" exclaimed Ulrik, half-laughing. "But I see your point. All right, then. There's no point in throwing away the lives of our sailors to no purpose. Spend enough time to make sure you have six or seven spar torpedo boats ready, in case we can figure out a way to make them effective. The rest, devote as much as you possibly can to the mines."

"And you'll keep your father as far off as you can."

"Yes. And when the time comes, you and I will both see what a torpedo boat can do."

Norddahl's eyes widened. "Ah… you're a prince, Your Highness. I'm not sure your father-"

"Damn my father. As many children as he sires, what difference does it make? I have two older brothers anyway, not even counting the morganatic line."

He gave the Norwegian the best royal stare he had. He knew it was quite good, too. He'd learned it from watching Gustav Adolf, the king of Sweden, in the time he'd spent with him as a youngster. A man he liked and generally admired-and was now his enemy. But such was the life of a prince.

Finally, Ulrik got what he needed. There was nothing but respect in Baldur Norddahl's gaze, any longer. No trace of the rogue or the rascal. Just that of the grim old ancient that the prince of Denmark would need at his side come a desperate moment in the spring, when they both went a-viking.

Chapter 16

When he emerged from the workshop, Prince Ulrik discovered that the overcast skies of the morning had turned into an afternoon's snowfall. He was just as glad, though. First, because the really bitter cold days in January were the days with clear skies; second, because he liked snow anyway. When he was a boy, he and his brothers had greeted a heavy snowfall with great enthusiasm. It meant days of marvelous play in the castle gardens, digging tunnels through the snow and erecting what they were pleased to call fortresses.

The big workshop the king had had built for Baldur Norddahl was on the southernmost of the three islands in the lake that Frederiksborg Castle was built upon. It was located almost adjacent to the two round towers erected by the castle's original founder, Ulrik's grandfather Frederik II. Giving those familiar sights a mere glance, the prince headed for the S-bridge that would take him to the middle island.

He took a shortcut through the royal stables. That was quicker, warmer-and he liked horses even more than he did snow. As he passed through, he exchanged greetings with the stablehands he encountered, but did not, as he usually would, take the time to chat with them. He was preoccupied today, lost in thoughts that were dark and foreboding.

Once across the S-bridge and onto the middle island, Ulrik stopped in the square to gaze at the Neptune Fountain.

There'd been snowball fights also, of course, many of them in this very square. Lots of those. Ulrik liked to fancy that he first learned military tactics in those melees.

Melees they'd been, too. One of the advantages of being a boy prince-perhaps simply one of the realities, advantageous or not-was that you always had a coterie of other boys around you. Sons of courtiers or sons of stablehands, either way or both. At that age, people did not make the fine distinctions they would grow into as time passed. That was one of the things about his childhood that Ulrik found himself missing a great deal, especially after he visited Grantville and came to realize how very differently the up-timers calculated rank and station in life.

Sadly, the main lesson Ulrik had learned from those mass snowball fights was that the surest of all military tactics was simply to outnumber the foe. "Sadly," because his illustrious father, for all his erratic but undoubted brilliance, seemed to be unable or unwilling to accept that reality and everything that flowed from it.

Slowly, ignoring the snowfall that was covering his hat and the shoulders of his heavy coat, Ulrik walked most of the way around the Neptune Fountain in the middle of the square, examining, as he passed, the edifices around him.

His father had ordered this castle built, transforming Frederik II's rather modest hunting manor into one of the great royal palaces of Europe. No idle boast, that, either. Ulrik had traveled enough to have seen many of them. Christian IV had had Frederiksborg designed in the Dutch Renaissance style, with its copper-covered roofs and spires, sweeping gables, sandstone decorations. The end result, completed in 1615, was quite magnificent.

Having completed his round of the fountain, the prince continued to the north, to the island that held the royal palace and his own quarters.

Easy to forget, when you lived in such a palace, that the kingdom which had been wealthy enough to afford it was still a small kingdom. Easy to forget, when you woke up every morning in a bedroom as magnificent as that of any monarch in Europe, that great bedrooms and halls and gardens and fountains did not translate into great armies and navies.

Easy to forget, staring up at ceilings as splendid as any in the world, that they were still ceilings and not endless open skies. Easy to forget the most important lesson that Ulrik thought any king or prince had to learn down to the marrow of his bones.

For all beings except the Almighty, there were limits. No matter who you were, there were limits. And you had to develop as keen an eye for them-as acute a taste, if you would-as you did for good architecture and fine paintings and music. Or you would soon enough find that you had lost everything within those limits. A great deal, at least.

Ulrik himself had always been good at seeing limits. Perhaps that was because he was an average-sized man, in all respects, where his father was not at all. Christian IV was tall, immense in girth, and possessed a capacity for procreation that was only exceeded by his imagination and his capacity for drink. Had he not possessed a reasonably kind disposition-certainly by royal standards-he would have been a veritable ogre.

This war was madness. Ulrik's father had been well-nigh insane to believe that by allying himself with the two of the three great Catholic powers in Europe he could somehow displace the Swede as the preeminent monarch in the Protestant lands. Even that wretched King Charles of England had been thinking more clearly. Richelieu and the Spaniards would use Denmark like a man squeezes all the juice out of an orange, and then cast the husk aside. And it would be that husk-not France, not Spain, certainly not England-upon which the full fury of the Germans fell.

And it was their fury that Ulrik feared, not that of the Swedes. Sweden was not so big a kingdom itself, when all was said and done. Larger in size but smaller in population than Denmark. It was that reality that always grated on his father. Why Sweden, and not Denmark?

They were all idiots. In the end, Ulrik thought, Gustav Adolf as much as Christian IV. Unable to see that the role played by Sweden and Denmark over the past century or two was solely due to the fact that the Germanies had been disunited and, to make the blessing of Scandinavia complete, ruled by as sorry a lot of squabbling and incompetent princes as you could ask for.

Ulrik was now passing over the second bridge, and into a crosswind. He shivered, from the sudden cold.

So he tried to tell himself, knowing that was an excuse. With these thoughts running through his head, he would have shivered on the warmest day of summer.

He could remember shivering exactly so, in fact, on a warm summer day in Magdeburg.

Grantville had been exhilarating. Magdeburg had been…

Terrifying. All the energy and ingenuity brought by the up-timers through the Ring of Fire, that Ulrik had seen in Grantville also. But Grantville was a place of limits. Tightly circumscribed, first, by its surrounding hills; even more, circumscribed as well by the customs and traditions of its inhabitants.

By and large, Ulrik had discovered that he liked most of the Americans. Not all, of course. But they were a decent and unassuming folk, for all their mechanical wizardry.

Magdeburg seemed limitless. A new city arising like a phoenix from the ashes and ruins that Tilly and his butchers had left behind, on a vast and open plain. But now, with that same American ingenuity coupled to a people who outnumbered all other people in Europe and had a great rage coiled within their souls.

And who could blame them-when, for fifteen years, every other land of Europe had used theirs for a battlefield? Taking advantage of Germany's disunity and the fecklessness of its princes to turn Europe's center into a wasteland. Destroying their towns and cities and villages, slaughtering their men, ravishing their women, starving their children and old folk.

And for what? So this prince over here could claim a bit more land than he had before, and that king over there could add a new title to a list that was already preposterously long.

Well, it was over, whether or not those bickering kings and princes were able or willing to recognize it. The Germanies had become Germany-call it whatever you will-and it had produced a prince like no other before him. And this one cared not in the least for the trappings of royalty. He cared only for the substance of the power those titles claimed to embody-and did so, to make it worse for the princes with the fancy titles, on behalf of the commoners who had suffered the most from the war.

Ulrik had met him, twice. Very briefly, on both occasions. He certainly couldn't claim to know him, but he didn't need to. He'd spent considerable time in Magdeburg just walking through the new industrial districts, drinking in the taverns of the men who worked there, and idling many hours in the Freedom Arches which dotted most of the city. And, everywhere he went in that most plebeian of all great cities in Europe, hearing over and over the term Prince of Germany. The prince who would, they all seemed as certain as the tides, lead them to victory come winter's end.

The phrase was a shell, depicting a man. The confidence and determination that his people poured into that term, no shell at all. Any monarch or chancellor in Europe who believed so was either blind or mad or both.

The Swedish king, to give him credit, had held off the alliance Richelieu formed to destroy him. The alliance Ulrik's father had been fool enough to join. Whatever delusions Christian IV might still have, buttressed by the flattery of a pack of worthless courtiers, Ulrik had spoken to enough Danish officers to know that no one seriously expected to be able to take Luebeck this winter.

By summer, they'd say. But that summer would never arrive, because spring would come before it. The spring of the year of our lord 1634, when the fury of Germany finally fell upon its torturers. Ulrik could only hope-and he'd do what he could for the purpose-that Denmark itself might survive that storm.

He'd reached the northern island, and the royal palace. By now, his mood was far darker than the leaden skies.

So…

He was finally able to laugh, a bit. So he'd do what he'd found himself doing quite often, these past three months.

Go visit an American, what else?

Eddie Cantrell stared up at the canopy over his bed, feeling like an idiot.

Four times over, to make everything perfect.

To start with the smallest idiocy, what was a country boy from a small town in West Virginia doing in a bed-no, a whole bedroom-that he didn't think the fanciest up-time hotel in the world could boast?

Just look at it, fer chrissake.

Okay, the bed was a bed. Big, sure, but not actually as big as a king-size bed you could have bought up-time for a few hundred dollars. In that small respect, at least, there was still a trace of sanity in the world.

From there, all reason fled. The bed coverings would have cost a small fortune, and God only knows what you'd have had to pay for the four-poster bed frame and the canopy hanging from it. The thing was a no-fooling fricking tapestry. Eddie was dead certain that its like back up-time could be found only in museums.

His eyes dropped from the canopy to scan the bedroom. Of course, why not?-since the whole damn room belonged in a museum. There wasn't a square inch of the ceiling that wasn't decorated; not a square foot of the walls that didn't have a painting or some sort of art work on it. Any of which, Eddie was just as certain, museum curators and art thieves back up-time would have drooled over. Nor was there a square yard of the floor-a beautiful parquet floor, naturally, that would have probably bankrupted your average American millionaire back home-that didn't have a piece of furniture on it, or statuary, or just huge vases, any one of which would probably have bankrupted your average up-time multimillionaire.

Eddie's eyes went to the big window across the room from the bed. Not to mention, of course, that if he hauled his sorry ass out of bed and hobbled over to the window, he'd be looking out at a vista that these crazy Danish royals chose to call "gardens" but didn't look like any gardens Eddie had ever seen. Sure as hell not the vegetable gardens his mother or any of their neighbors had had. Even leaving aside the fact that they were bigger than several football fields put together.

And that was only the smallest of the idiocies.

Move on to the next. What was a proper West Virginia country boy doing in bed in the first place, now that it was afternoon? Lolling about like that crazy French writer he'd read about once, who not only spent half his life in bed but wrote books-famous books, even-about a man who spent most of his life in bed.

Eddie didn't even have the excuse of being bored. How could he be bored, when he was a captive of a medieval king who had dungeons to spare and torturers on his payroll?

Fine. "Early Modern Era" king, if that'd make the scholars happy.

Swell. What that meant in the real world, as far as Eddie was concerned, was that he was in transition from brutal illiterate kings whose powers were actually limited in practice to the Brave New World of absolute monarchies, whose torturers and executioners were literate so they could stay up on the latest innovations. Thank you very much.

No, he was just in a funk. The sort of funk that might be respectable enough somewhere in Greenwich Village or the lower east side of Manhattan, but any solid hillbilly would sneer at. Go fix the suspension on your car or something, you dummy.

And why was he in a funk? Oh, let's move on to Idiocy Number Three.

Secret Agent Man. James Bond, 007. Mike Stearns had entrusted him with the task, in captivity, of ferreting out the secrets of the enemy and foiling their plans with fiendishly clever countermoves. Like fucking Houdini.

Right. That made Mike Stearns an even bigger idiot than Eddie, sure, but Stearns wasn't sleeping three floors over a dungeon.

Well, maybe he was, actually-given that Gustav Adolf had insisted on having his architects draw up the plans for Hans Richter Palace and oversee its construction. The Good Old Swedes, in this day and age, weren't exactly what you'd call good ole boys. A lot closer to their troll roots, still, than they were to Ingrid Bergman.

But so what? They were Mike's dungeons, whose tongs and pincers and God knows what else he didn't have to worry about.

Well. At least not until he lost the election. After that-this day and age being what it was-who could say?

Big deal. The election Mike had to worry about was at least a year away. Eddie could lose his election any time that damn drunken Danish king who kept him up half the nights till the wee hours drinking along with him chose to punch his ticket.

Did I mention I have absolute power? No? Well, not to worry-here's the proof of it. Lads, take this fellow downstairs and pluck off another part of his body.

Eddie heard the door opening. All thought of the Three Lesser Idiocies were swept from his mind. The Great One had arrived.

"Still in bed! Eddie, you should be ashamed of yourself! And don't pretend you have a hangover because my father let you go long before the carousing was over last night. I know, Ulrik told me. Oh, he's here, too."

Eddie sat up to look. Sure enough, the youngest of the king's three sons in the royal line was coming in right behind.

Perfect. The outrigger, so to speak, to the Greatest of All Idiocies.

On the other hand-they had bestsellers in this day and age, too, he'd discovered-maybe if Eddie survived it all he could write a book and become rich and famous. Okay, rich and the laughingstock of an entire continent, but what the hell.

The Life of a Secret Agent. No, that'd be fudging. The Secrets of a Secret Agent; or, How to Turn 007 Into a Seven Percent Solution.

Chapter One. Get captured in a naval battle. Make sure you lose a foot while you're at it.

Chapter Two. Get some moron of a president to make you his secret agent while in captivity.

Chapter Three. Ingratiate yourself to an alcoholic enemy king by drinking as much as you possibly can in his company, when you don't like liquor to begin with and the stuff scares you to death because your dad was a souse.

Chapter Four. Feed him a pack of silly lies and just hope that he's not sober enough to catch you at it.

Chapter Five. Make friends with his son the prince.

Chapter Six. Fall in love with his daughter the princess. Fine. The "king's daughter"-as if that's going to make any difference when they figure it out, seeing as how James Bondaged.07 was clever enough to pick a girl who's jail-bait back up-time and dungeon-bait in this one, so it wouldn't matter if she was a butcher's daughter.

Chapter Seven…

But Eddie flinched from that still-unwritten one. He couldn't only hope the red-hot tongs would cauterize the wound at the same time they rendered him unconscious from agony, when they removed the offending body part in question. Sometimes he found himself wondering if, in this day and age, they made wooden peg-dicks to match wooden peg legs.

The scariest thing was, they probably did.

"Why are you staring at me like that?" Anne Cathrine demanded. "You'd think I was a ghost or something."

Ulrik pulled up a chair next to the bed, blithely ignoring the cost of the chair or whatever damage it might do to the floor. Eddie was afraid to sit in most of the furniture, himself, and whenever he couldn't walk barefoot on the floor he practically tiptoed.

Of course, Ulrik could confidently expect to inherit the dungeons and the tongs and the what-not. He had a chance of it, at least. Danes still had the custom that the nobility got to elect the king, choosing from whoever was eligible in the royal family. They'd already elected the oldest prince Christian as the successor, but if he died before his father did, Ulrik might still wind up on the throne even though he was the youngest of the three princes. Even if he didn't, he'd surely come out of it with a dungeon or two, along with a reasonable share of the torturers and tongs and pincers and what-not.

"It can't be you, Sister," said Ulrik cheerfully. "Look! He's giving me the same stare."

Anne Cathrine planted her hands on her hips. Very shapely hips. She was fully past puberty now, but still had a completely teenage female figure. Fifteen going on Eddie-if-you-ever-lay-a-finger-on-her-your-ass-is-grass.

Fortunately, he'd managed-so far-to avoid that one and only idiocy. But unless Admiral Simpson steamed into the Oresund with an icebreaker before the winter was over, Eddie wasn't sure how long he could hold out.

The problem was that Anne Cathrine wasn't exuding any of the well-known signals from Eddie's past that informed him in no uncertain terms that this girl ain't interested, buddy, so forget it. If she had, his course would have been easy. Miserable, sure, and pining away with unrequited love-but he was used to that. His high school experience had been four almost solid years of pining away after girls whose titles might as well have been You-Gotta-Be-Kidding or In-Your-Dreams, Buster.

What he wasn't used to was a princess-fine, "king's daughter"-who planted those same very shapely hips on the bed right next to him, leaned over, spilling her gorgeous red-gold hair, took his cheeks in her hands and gave them a little shake. "Stop looking at me like that, I tell you."

Ulrik laughed. "Sister, you're being forward. If I tell Father, he'll scold you."

"No, he won't," she said serenely.

"Yes, Princess," Eddie said, not serenely at all.

That got him another cheek-shaking. "How many times must I tell you! 'King's daughter.' Not 'princess.' My mother's marriage to my father was morganatic." She twitched her head toward her half-brother. "Ulrik is a prince because he is in the royal line. I am not. Just a 'king's daughter.' "

Eddie nodded, simply thankful that he'd escaped disaster. He'd almost said "Yes, dear."

He wondered what might have resulted from that. Would they just satisfy themselves by removing his cheeks with hot tongs, or would they add all his teeth into the bargain?

Ulrik laughed again. "Eddie, you always cheer me up. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because you can do melancholy better than any Dane."

"Well, sure. I read the book. I don't know if it's been translated into Danish yet."

"What book?" the king's daughter asked.

"It's the one I told you about," her half-brother explained. "I read it in English. The play that Englishman wrote about a Danish prince in Helsingor-he called it 'Elsinore'-who finds out his father was murdered and can't decide what to do."

"Oh, that one." She released Eddie's cheeks and waved a dismissive hand. "I don't want to read it, even when my English gets better. What a silly fantasy. Any Danish prince-princess, too, even a king's daughter-who found out that someone had committed such a crime would have his head by the morning."

Chapter Eight. Did I mention the jailbait will inherit the jail? Well, at least one or two cells in it. With a share of the tongs and the pincers and the what-not.

Chapter 17

Whitehall Palace London, England February 1634

"Three more!" shouted King Charles, holding up the middle three fingers of his left hand. With his right, he pointed accusingly in the direction of the palace's servants' quarters. "A cook and two cleaning women. That's quite enough! The city has become a pesthole. The queen and I depart for Oxford on the morrow."

Sitting in his chair, the king lowered his head, gazing up at the earl of Strafford in the way that a stubborn child will make clear to his parent that he is most displeased. The royal expression combined sullenness, petulance, anger and resentment-and was about as unregal as anything Thomas Wentworth could imagine.

He took a breath, but before he could speak Charles snapped: "That is all, I say! There will be no further discussion on this matter. Simply see to the arrangements. I want a full escort out of the city, mind. London has become as infested with unruly apprentices as it has with vermin and disease."

Thomas bowed his head, bowing to the inevitable at the same time, and left the royal chamber. Outside, in the corridor, he took several deep breaths. Partly to control his anger; partly to give himself time to decide what steps he might still be able to take to alleviate some of the political damage that would be caused by the king leaving the capital for Oxford.

He considered, for a moment, simply biding his time and approaching the king with a proposal to reconsider later that day, or in the evening. That had worked twice before, after all.

Almost instantly, he discarded the notion. On the two previous occasions, the king hadn't been as set in his course. And, what was more important, his wife hadn't been involved. But Thomas has already learned from one of his assistants that Queen Henrietta Maria had been in hysterics this morning, after she heard about the latest outbreak of disease in the palace. With the queen in that state of mind, there was simply no chance any longer of persuading Charles to remain in the capital. The king doted on his wife. It was a personal characteristic that Thomas might have respected and even found attractive, had the king's doting not been so excessive and the wife herself such a blithering fool.

The fact that disease continued to crop up in a huge palace in the middle of winter, especially in the cramped servants' quarters, was a given. Thomas' assistant had told him that none of the cases involved plague. They were simply the sort of illnesses that were inevitable under the circumstances, and posed no real danger to the king and queen, living where they did elsewhere in the palace-in conditions that were anything but cramped.

For that matter, they weren't even inevitable-if the king has been willing to either move to the Tower or allow Thomas to bring the American nurse Rita Simpson into Whitehall to oversee the reorganization of the sanitary and medical practices in the royal residence. But the king had refused, to the second proposal even more vehemently than the first. As the months had passed, Charles had developed a detestation and fear of the captive Americans that was simply not rational. Even for him, it was not rational.

Thomas wasn't certain yet, but he was coming to the conclusion that a cabal against him had formed among the queen's courtiers. More precisely, a competent cabal. Even more than disease in winter, it was a certainty that a cabal would be formed against the most powerful minister in the government, by one or another of the cliques that made up the not-so-small horde of courtiers who infested the palace even worse than vermin did. The queen, with her love of flattery and lack of common sense, provided them with a natural center. And the long nights and slow months of winter provided them with the time and idleness to engage in their schemes and plots.

A given, in short, and not something Thomas was normally given to fretting about overmuch. Every powerful chief minister in English history had faced the same, after all.

But, lately, some new faces had been showing up at the queen's masques. Men of real substance, like Sir Francis Windebank and Sir Paul Pindar, Endymion Porter, or noblemen such as the earl of Rutland, Francis Manners. The most dangerous of them was probably Richard Boyle, the earl of Cork. He was one of kingdom's richest men, very astute, given to malevolence, and as ambitious as anyone Wentworth had ever met.

Thomas began pacing slowly down the hall, his hands clasped behind his back. He'd been incautious, he realized. The severe and unprecedented measures he'd taken to secure the king's rule and forestall any possibility of the English revolution that the up-timers' books depicted had enraged much of the populace. Especially those inclined toward Puritanism, of course.

So much, he'd expected and planned for. What he hadn't considered was that the same measures would stir up the ambitions of men who were inclined to support them. In a sense, by breaking the rules under which England had managed its affairs for so long, Thomas himself had inspired others to do the same. If he could do it, why couldn't they? The fact that his own motives, allowing for a reasonable amount of personal ambition, had been primarily political, was neither here nor there. Men like the earl of Cork wouldn't care. Such men were simply too self-centered to see any distinction at all between what they wanted and what the nation needed.

So be it. Thomas was confident enough that he could outmaneuver his rivals. Their great advantage was equally their disadvantage. Seeing-correctly-in the queen, the softest target in the court, they set their aim there. It was not hard to gain her confidence and support, after all, if you were prepared to ladle flattery and fawning with neither shame nor restraint. But once it was gained, the confidence always proved to be as soft as the target itself. Henrietta Maria was a superb complainer, whiner, critic and naysayer. But Thomas had never once seen her throw her influence with the king behind a project or person for any motive beyond petty and usually personal ones. She was simply not cut from the same cloth as Marie de Medici, the French king's mother who had been an incorrigible meddler in political affairs for years, and was still continuing her intrigues from her exile in Brussels.

Whitehall was possibly the largest palace in the world-certainly in Europe-and it was more in the nature of a small town with buildings all jammed together than a palace as such. All told, it had more than a thousand rooms and a multitude of corridors. So, long before Thomas reached the quarters he'd set aside for himself, he'd settled his nerves over the king's foolish decision. There was nothing for it except to make sure the foolishness went smoothly.

Encountering two guards at a corridor intersection, both of them in the colors of the mercenary company he'd decided to use for the purpose, he instructed one of them to find Captain Leebrick and have him report to the earl's quarters. Anthony Leebrick was one of the steadiest of the mercenary captains, with a well-trained company and good lieutenants. He also had a phlegmatic personality, which he'd need dealing with Charles and Henrietta Maria in the course of a long journey to Oxford in midwinter. Their complaints would be incessant, especially the queen's.

Leebrick arrived not long after Thomas reached his quarters. Once Wentworth had explained the situation, and what was needed, the captain quickly left to make the arrangements. Even with as well-trained and disciplined a company as his, Leebrick was still dealing with mercenary soldiers-who were not prone to do anything "on the morrow" except sleep off a bout of drunkenness, unless they were actively on campaign in the field.

That done, and remembering that his friend William Laud was still in London, Thomas decided to pay him a visit. The archbishop had decided to postpone his visit to Canterbury for a few more days, in order to deal with a few problems that had come up lately. Having only recently been elevated from bishop of London, he was a bit overwhelmed by the demands of his new station.

That probably meant Thomas would have to put up with at least half an hour's worth of listening to William's querulous complaints, until he settled down his nerves. But it was a small price to pay. One of the drawbacks to becoming England's most powerful minister was that Wentworth had found he had very few friends left. More precisely, friends whose motives he didn't have to scrutinize carefully at every turn. He had plenty of the other sort, most of them men who'd never indicated the slightest fondness for him in times past-and a fair number who'd been actively hostile.

For all his many faults, William Laud was one of the few left whom the earl of Strafford could accept at face value. Perhaps the only one, really, except…

And there was an odd thought. Except a prisoner sitting in a dungeon in the Tower named Oliver Cromwell. Who, to be sure, had played a major role in separating Thomas Wentworth's head from his body a few years from now in another universe. But who also, Thomas was quite sure-in that world as much as this one-had never lied to him or told him anything except what he thought.

There was an irony there, of course. It seemed the more powerful a man became, the more limited became his pleasures. To the point where, reaching the pinnacle, it sometimes seemed that the only pleasure left to him was simply knowing that a statement made was the truth and not a lie or a ploy. Even if the statement was "let me out of here, and I'll try to slit your throat."

He even laughed then, in a very dry sort of way.

"And now this!" the archbishop exclaimed, throwing both his hands in the air. When they landed back on the armrests of his chair, Laud had them clenched into fists. Then, after taking a couple of deep breaths, he gave Wentworth something of an apologetic grimace.

"Yes, yes, I realize it must seem like a small matter to you, this business of the Americans asking me to appoint a bishop for them. Certainly compared to the problem you're having to deal with." He sniffed, disdainfully. "Our beloved monarch decamping from his own capital in the middle of a crisis."

"I wouldn't call it a 'crisis,' " Thomas said evenly. "More in the way of a tense time. But you're actually wrong about the rest. I don't think the matter you're wrestling with is a small one, at all. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if-"

He broke off abruptly, realizing the precipice he was nearing.

Unfortunately, he'd forgotten just how perspicacious his friend could be, at times. The Archbishop of Canterbury's faults were so pronounced that it was easy to underestimate the man. William Laud hadn't fought his way up from very humble beginnings to become the primate of the Anglican church without there being a keen brain there, beneath the mulishness and the peeves and the personal quirks and foibles.

"You're thinking about it, aren't you?" said Laud, peering at him intently.

Frowning in as innocent a manner as he could manage, and being careful not to clench his own fists, Wentworth said: "Thinking about what?"

"Don't play the innocent with me, Thomas-and for sure and certain, don't try to play me for a fool. You know perfectly well what I'm talking about. It's not as if we haven't danced about the subject for weeks, now. You're thinking about the Glorious Revolution, that's what."

Wentworth sighed, and turned his gaze from the archbishop to the window looking out over London. Slowly, his hands curled on the armrests of his own chair. Not quite into fists; more like a man might try to seize something intangible in midair.

"Oh, yes, it's been quite obvious to me for some time," continued Laud. "Even if you do manage to stymie the revolution of 1640, then what? You can't continue this way, you know it as well as I do. This is England, not-not-the Ottoman empire."

Wentworth said nothing. He just continued to gaze out over the city. There really wasn't much to see, beyond a gray sunset lowering over a city that was grayer still. Gray everywhere he looked, nowadays, it seemed to him.

"Come, come, Thomas, speak up. I shall not betray you. You must know that, if nothing else."

There was that, after all. One of the few certainties in a world that grew less certain by the day.

"Very well, William. Yes, I am thinking about it-and, yes, of course you're right. Everything I've done since the king brought me to London has been a stopgap. Just a temporary measure-often enough, a ramshackle one-to keep a situation from spiraling out of control. But that's all it is. The king may be under the delusion that he can rule this way for a lifetime, and his successor after him, but that's all it is. A delusion. A ruler needs legitimacy before all else, and legitimacy in the end must have its base in the consent of the governed. Their acquiescence and acceptance, at the very least. When all is said and done, that's as true for the Turk as it is for the Englishman."

Laud made a face. Wentworth chuckled. "Granted, the Turk is more acquiescent to begin with. But read the histories, William. Even the Ottomans fell. Even the tsars fell. All of them fell-or they accommodated to survive. How is England to be the sole exception? Even allowing for God's special favor."

He planted his hand on the armrests and pushed himself erect, feeling far wearier than any forty-year-old man should be, who hadn't done anything more physically strenuous that day than walk corridors and sign documents. He went to the window, hoping, perhaps, that the city might look less gray if he could peer at it directly.

No, it didn't. He wasn't surprised.

"He was an excellent ruler, you know," he said softly. "I've pored over the records that we've been able to obtain. All of them, twice over and more. And the more I read, the more I found myself wishing that I'd been his chief minister. All that Charles isn't-nor his father before him, nor any of the Stuarts-Oliver Cromwell was. Firm, steady, decisive. Yet not given to harshness for no purpose. He'd be labeled a tyrant after his death-they even dug up his corpse to decapitate it-but it wasn't true. Compared to Henry VIII? Or Elizabeth? Any of the Tudors? To say nothing of the Plantagenets. Ridiculous."

"He was a rebel and a regicide," Laud said stiffly. "Graciously, I will leave aside that he had the two of us executed, as well."

"Yes, he did, and so he was. But much more to the point, William, he was a rebel who never found the path to legitimacy. That's what did him in, in the end. His regime, rather, since"-Wentworth barked a harsh laugh-"no one tried to beard the lion while he was still alive. But after he died, it all fell apart. And there's really the lesson, I think. If a supremely capable and successful rebel can have his regime undone by a lack of legitimacy, what chance does a legitimate monarch who is not capable and successful at anything beyond petulance and caprice have of not squandering it away?"

He turned from the window to face the archbishop squarely. "That was not a rhetorical question, William. I need an answer to it. Quite desperately."

It was Laud's turn to look away. He glanced at the various portraits on the wall-men and women once famous, now half-forgotten-before spending a minute or so staring at a vase. A very attractive vase, and a very fragile one.

"No chance at all," he said finally, the words almost sighing from his mouth. "No more chance than I have, in the end, in what I had hoped to do. Damned Scotsmen."

Wentworth laughed again, rather gaily this time. "Oh, please, William! It was hardly just the Scotsmen!"

"They started it," Laud growled. "But… no, it wasn't just them."

He looked up at Wentworth, the expression on his face a half-pleading one. "I've been pondering the matter a great deal myself. Always managing to evade the collision, until…"

"Until Tom Simpson and Lady Mailey asked you to appoint a bishop for Grantville."

There'd been a time when William Laud would have objected to the term "Lady," applied to a commoner like Melissa Mailey. But, like many things, that time had passed. Seemed very ancient, in fact.

"Yes. A simple and straightforward request, on the face of it. Underneath, something vastly different. If I refuse, I undermine the true church of which I am the primate. But if I accept, I must limit that same church. I must agree-acquiesce, at least-to limits I have never heretofore accepted."

"And?"

"And… I don't know yet, not for sure. But I think I will finally agree. Because, in the end, I don't believe I really have any choice. Whether I like it or not."

Wentworth nodded. "No, I don't believe you do. Any more than I do."

Silence, again, for another minute. Then Laud asked: "What do you propose to do, then?"

"I have no idea, at the moment. My thoughts have gone everywhere for the past weeks-and come back as if they'd never gone. I even contemplated for a time releasing Oliver from the Tower and helping him overthrow the dynasty."

Laud's eyes were practically protruding. "You must be joking."

"Oh, no. I gave it quite serious thought. But what would be the point? He failed once; why would he succeed now? The goal was unobtainable in the first place, insofar as he ever had a clear goal in mind."

For a moment, his gaze grew unfocused. "It would be quite fascinating, you know, to be able to speak to that man. Not the man in his early thirties named Oliver Cromwell who sits this moment in a dungeon, but the man he became in that other universe, a quarter of a century from now. The lord protector of England, in his late fifties. What had he learned? What did he regret? What would he do otherwise, could it do it over again?"

The gaze came back into focus; a very keen one, in fact. "A fancy, you'll say. But is it? Are we not-you and I-in a position every bit as fanciful? Two dead men-my head rolling off a block on Tower Hill on May the twelfth of 1641, and yours in the same place on the tenth of January, not four years later-who are even this moment speaking to each other nonetheless. As if two severed heads on a mantelpiece were to be having a conversation."

"Oh, that's…"

"Yes, I know. Fanciful."

"I was going to say, 'silly.' "

"That, too, I suppose. But the substance remains. We are not in much different a position than two men who have a chance to relive their lives. What we chose once, we do not need to choose again."

"Yes, true enough-but it doesn't make our current choices any easier or less uncertain. And, for me at least, what shakes my resolve is not my knowledge of errors made in another universe, or a life that might have been. What shakes my resolve-all my certainties, except that I believe in Him-is what God did in this world."

Laud rose from his chair. Almost sprang from it. "It's none of that, Thomas! It's the Ring of Fire itself that my brain cannot wrap itself around. Let the papists prattle about 'God's hidden purpose' all they want. Let the Calvinists do the same. The fact remains. For the first time since the Resurrection, the Lord moved His hand so powerfully and so visibly that any man can see it. The first undoubted miracle in sixteen hundred years. Why?"

"I don't know."

"Of course you don't. None of us do. But He did. That, whatever else, can neither be questioned nor denied."

He fell back into the chair, collapsing as quickly as he came out it. "We ignore the deed at our great peril. I am uncertain of most things, now. But of that, I am not uncertain at all."

Again, silence.

"So. What will you do?" the archbishop asked the minister.

"I don't know. I simply know that it cannot go on like this."

Wentworth glanced at the window, and saw that the sun had set. He hadn't noticed earlier, because of the grayness of the day outside and the light cast by the lamps in Laud's chamber.

"I must be off. The captain I entrusted with the task is a capable one, but I'd best make sure there any no unforeseen problems."

Laud nodded heavily, but said nothing.

When he reached the door, a thought came to Wentworth. Half-smiling, he turned back. "You, on the other hand, should have-just now-answered your own question."

The archbishop looked up. "Eh?"

"The question of the bishop. As you said yourself, God moved His hand. That being so, how can you refuse to send a bishop to that very place He did the deed, when his presence is requested from there?"

For a moment, Laud looked alarmed. Then, smiled-and quite cheerfully. "Why, yes. That's very nicely put, Thomas. My thanks, indeed. It would seem to border on apostasy, wouldn't it? Can't have that."

Chapter 18

Between the nature of his assignment and the day's weather, Captain Anthony Leebrick was in a foul mood. With his usual imperturbability, he hadn't let any of it show; certainly not to his own soldiers and not even to any of the royal party, not even the coachmen. But when he saw the first elements of a Trained Band moving out of a side street to block Tyburn Hill Road, he finally lost his temper.

"Oh, God's blood!" he snarled. "Not today, lads. I'm in no mood for it!"

He wouldn't have been, even if the sun was shining. Under these conditions, with a sleet coming on top of the past few days' thaw turning every road in the city into a mess of half-frozen mud, he had more than enough to worry about.

The horses were skittish already, as large animals always are when the footing is treacherous. That was even true-especially true, perhaps-of the horses hauling the royal carriages. Where a sensible and level-headed farmer or tradesman who needed to haul a heavy wagon would have selected horses for the purpose who were sturdy and placid beasts, kings and queens and high noblemen were far more likely to select them for their appearance. And, indeed, the eight steeds pulling the king and queen's conveyance were a fine-looking group, and even matched for color. So were the ones pulling the carriage behind it, which held the royal children and their nursemaids and nannies. But they were very far from the sort of animals Leebrick wanted to rely on to carry the royal party to Oxford under bad weather conditions in the middle of winter.

He'd made an attempt this morning to persuade King Charles to postpone the journey until the weather cleared. But the king had been adamant, and the queen even more so. They were convinced that London was so infested with disease that the risk of remaining for another day or two was unacceptable. Henrietta Maria had even started shrieking at Leebrick.

Fine for her, of course, to ride through sleet in a sheltered carriage. Fine, at least, in terms of her immediate comfort. Leebrick was quite certain it had never once occurred to Her Majesty that the driver and coachmen-and the horses-were going to be miserable and doing their jobs under terrible conditions. More to the point, that their ability to do their jobs in the first place might very well affect her own well-being.

So be it. The queen of England was well known for many things. Good sense had never been one of them.

About the only consolation the weather was giving him was that the sleet wasn't so heavy that everyone on the road couldn't look over and see the gallows alongside Tyburn Hill. Great heavy things, too, they were-a three-beam affair on three legs, for when they had a batch to hang at once. Leebrick glared at the Trained Band taking up positions across the road ahead of him, imagining several of their commanders swinging from the scaffold.

His anger was due to the moment, not the general situation. Ever since the earl of Strafford had brought a large number of mercenary companies from the continent to impose iron royal rule over England, there had been frequent clashes between the mercenary companies and London's long-established militia. For the most part, however, aside from the initial period, it had been a reasonably good-natured business. The earl had been careful to give the assignment of controlling London to companies like Leebrick's own, whose soldiers were almost all Englishmen-many of them from the same plebeian neighborhoods in London that were the stronghold of the Trained Bands. A fair number of Leebrick's men, in fact, had once belonged to one of the Trained Bands themselves.

As long as no one got too rambunctious, the confrontations and scuffles these days were more in the way of a very rough sport than anything a hardened soldier like Leebrick would call "combat." A lot of bruises, the occasional broken bone or gash from a pike, but almost no fatalities and not even many serious wounds. Mostly, once they accepted the verdict of the first few weeks of serious clashes, the Trained Bands were simply determined to demonstrate their stout London spirit and their unwillingness to capitulate to royal tyranny like so many curs.

"Not today, lads," Leebrick repeated, now growling softly instead of snarling.

His two lieutenants, Richard Towson and Patrick Welch, had drawn their horses alongside his. "How do you want to handle it, Captain?" asked Towson.

Before Leebrick could respond, Welch added: "There's another group coming down the side road we just passed. Not as big, but enough to require more than a handful of men."

Leebrick frowned. The Trained Bands didn't normally do anything as complex as a flanking maneuver. For the first time, he wondered if this encounter was more than the simple bad coincidence he'd assumed it was. Could the Bands have gotten word that the king was leaving the city? They'd have had precious little notice, even if they did, since the royal decision to go to Oxford had been made impulsively. The servants had had to scramble madly to get everything ready by the morning.

It wasn't impossible, by any means. Servants talk, after all. The reason Leebrick still thought it unlikely that this was a planned encounter was that the Trained Bands were a militia, mostly made up of the city's artisans and their apprentices. He'd had a hard enough time himself, getting his own company of professional soldiers ready on such short notice. What was the likelihood that the Trained Bands could so as well?

Not very. But whether planned or not, he still had a bad situation on his hands. The problem wasn't the Trained Bands, in themselves. He and his men could handle those perfectly easily, even if it came to a real fracas. The real problem-

A piercing female shriek from behind let him know that "the real problem" had just surfaced. Apparently, the queen had spotted the Trained Band advancing toward them down that side road. Glancing back, he could see that the royal carriage had come to a stop right at the intersection of that road and the Tyburn Hill Road.

More bad luck, piling on top of other. As that playwright whose work Anthony's paramour Liz was so fond of quoting had put it in one of his plays, when troubles come they come not single spies but in battalions.

"Nothing for it," he muttered. "I'll have to go back there and seen if I can calm down the stupid bit-ah, Their Majesties. Richard, you keep the main body of the company here. Move into formation in case the Band ahead of us thinks of doing something foolish, but don't do anything else unless you're attacked. Patrick, take your men onto that side road and do the same."

He turned his horse and headed back for the carriage, moving as quickly as he dared given the icy footing. Which wasn't quickly at all, since he could sense the nervousness of his mount. Like any good horseman, Leebrick knew full well how much horses hated bad footing-and how easy it was to panic even an experienced warhorse if his rider seemed agitated or unsteady.

From their vantage point atop Tyburn Hill, three men could see the situation unfolding below them quite well, despite the sleet. The hill wasn't especially tall but it had a good view of the gallows. In fact, it was the popular spot for the mob to gather for entertainment when a hanging was in progress.

"Oh, this is shaping up very nicely, indeed," chortled Richard Boyle, the earl of Cork. His good humor completely overrode the discomfort that, until just a minute or two ago, had kept him shivering in his coat and made him wish he'd never agreed to this affair-or, at least, hadn't been foolish enough to come watch it himself. "My congratulations, Endymion."

One of his two companions shrugged, the motion barely visible under the heavy outerwear he had on himself. "Won't come to much, of course, Your Lordship. Not with Leebrick commanding the force."

"A steady man, I take it."

"Oh, yes, very steady. That's why Wentworth uses him for these things."

"Any chance-"

"No, I'm afraid not. Leebrick's just a mercenary, that's all. The man has neither interest in politics nor any desire to get involved in them. I made two attempts-my agents, rather-before I wrote him off."

The third man grunted, a bit humorously. "Even with my money to wave under his nose. The captains of the Trained Bands weren't so particular, I can tell you that, when I put them on notice last week that the king might be leaving for Oxford some time soon. Of course, it helped that the agent I used as my go-between was a known Puritan."

The earl frowned. "Paul, that seems a bit unwise."

Sir Paul Pindar pulled his hand out from his coat where he was keeping it from the chill, and made a little deprecating motion. "The man's not actually a Non-Conformist, Your Lordship, he just keeps up the pretense. I find it useful, from time to time."

"Ah." The earl peered down at the scene below, squinting to shield his eyes from the sleet. "Well, let's wait a bit longer to see how it unfolds. Even just as it is, that damned Wentworth will find another stain added to his reputation with the king. All we could hope for, of course."

Boyle glanced back at their horses, being held by servants a little ways down the hill. He was tempted to simply leave. They'd already accomplished their aim, and the conditions were truly miserable. There was nothing quite like a sleet to chill a man down to his bones, even if the temperature wasn't nearly as cold as a bright sunny day in winter. Especially at the age of sixty-six.

As he drew closer, Captain Leebrick could see that the eight horses pulling the royal carriage were considerably more nervous than his own, even though they weren't moving at all any longer. The queen's shrieks-half fear; half fury-were stirring them up. The coachman riding the near lead horse was doing his best to keep the beast steady, but his efforts were continually undermined by the queen's outbursts. When she was agitated, Henrietta Maria's voice had a particular shrill tone that would put a stone's nerves on edge. It didn't help any that she also tended to lapse into her native French, which confused her servants-and probably added to the horses' agitation. Anthony couldn't prove it, but he was certain that horses grew familiar with a certain language, even if they couldn't understand the actual words.

He pulled up alongside the carriage window, after glancing down the side road where a new Trained Band was advancing. Just a glance was all it took, to his experienced eye. That group posed no danger at all, even now, much less once Patrick got his men in position. From the queen's squeals of panic you would have thought those apprentices moving up the icy road were a veritable horde of Barbary pirates, already clambering aboard. In fact, they were still at least fifty yards distant and were moving across the treacherous footing in a very careful and gingerly manner. He could see two of the lads sprawled on their buttocks, where they must have slipped and fell. One of them was still clutching his club, but the second had two other Bandsmen yelling angrily down at him. He'd probably been carrying the pike that Anthony could see lying on the road a few yards away, and had come close to injuring them when he lost his grip on it.

Leebrick had chosen to approach the carriage window on that side in the hopes that because he and his horse would block the sight of the Bandsmen, he might thereby steady the royal nerves. Unfortunately, that also put him on the queen's side, instead of the king's. Dealing with Charles himself under these circumstances would have been difficult, but manageable. Leebrick had no high opinion of England's monarch, any more than most people he knew did. Still, being fair, Charles was not really given to hysteria. He was simply unpleasant to deal with because of his unreasoning mulishness and petulance. Now, alas, he had to try to talk to the king by shouting across the queen-shouting, because her French gibberish was so loud that speaking in a normal tone was impossible.

Luckily, Anthony didn't speak French, never having served under French colors. His German was fluent, his Spanish near fluent, and his Italian was passable. But he didn't comprehend French at all-certainly not spewed at him in an angry stream-and the king knew it. So, later, if need be, Anthony could claim he'd certainly never intended to offend Her Majesty, he'd simply not grasped what she'd been saying to him. Which probably didn't amount to anything more than curses and condemnation anyway.

"Your Majesty," he began, leaning over from the saddle, "I can assure you the situation is quite under control. Give me ten minutes-no more-and I'll have these rascals out of here."

"I need to get to Oxford!" the king shouted.

"Yes, I understand, Your Majesty. As I say-"

He broke off, unable to keep from wincing. The queen had stuck her face in the window and shouted something at him.

"As I say-"

She shouted again.

"Just allow me-"

She shouted again. The king waved his hand in a gesture of dismissal, and moved to comfort his wife. Even in a royal carriage, that meant pushing aside some blankets to reach her. English coaches were still primitive compared to continental ones, with the passengers resting on trunks covered with cushions and blankets instead of real seats.

But the hand gesture was enough to satisfy protocol. Heaving a sigh of relief after he turned his horse away, Anthony took a moment to gauge the situation on the side road before returning to the front of the column.

No danger there at all, now. Leebrick had chosen Patrick to cover that flank because the Irishman's men were more lightly equipped than most of the company and could move very quickly. In battle, he usually used them as skirmishers.

Lightly equipped or not, even just the thirty of them, they were more than a match for the Trained Band on the side road. They were outnumbered perhaps two-to-one, but that made no difference. Welch's skirmishers were mostly armed with rifled muskets and swords, with just enough pikemen to form a shield. One volley-if needed at all, which Leebrick doubted-would take down the front rank of the Bandsmen and send the rest scampering.

He still hoped nothing of the sort would be necessary, though. Wentworth had given him clear instructions to handle the Trained Bands firmly but avoid, if at all possible, the sort of mayhem that would stir up the whole populace. It was a sensible policy, in Anthony's judgment-and, by temperament, he wasn't a man given to pointless bloodshed himself.

"Well, that seems to be it," said Boyle, looking down from the hill at the company commander of the royal escort making his way back to the front. The earl of Cork peered for a moment at the larger of the Trained Bands that was positioned across the Tyburn Hill Road. There were at most a hundred and fifty of them. They didn't even outnumber the soldiers Leebrick had under his command, and there was no comparison in terms of fighting ability. Even from the distance, it was obvious that the Trained Bandsmen were edgy. The ones in the front rank still seemed steady, but there was already a small trickle of Bandsmen in the rear ranks who were starting to sidle away.

One charge-not even that; just a lowering of pikes and a steady advance-would send them all packing. In the first few weeks after Wentworth brought over the mercenary companies, some of the Bands had made a serious effort to fight in the streets. But they'd soon learned, at bloody cost, that they were no match for professional soldiers who were veterans of the great war that had been raging across much of the continent since the Battle of the White Mountain fifteen years earlier.

"Enough," said Boyle, drawing his coat around him tightly. "I'm freezing. Let's be off, gentlemen."

He turned-carefully, because of the icy ground-and began walking down the hill. His steps were almost mincing ones. Endymion Porter came with him. Paul Pindar stayed atop the hill for a few seconds longer, and then started to follow.

"Wait!" he suddenly cried out.

"All right, Richard," said Leebrick, after he rejoined his lieutenant. Towson already had the front ranks of the company drawn up, ready to begin a pike charge. A pike advance, rather, since "charging" was quite out of the question in the condition the road was in today. "Before we do anything, I'm going to cross over there myself and see if I can speak to the lads. Explain to them that today's no day for tomfoolery, and if they bloody well aren't out of my sight in three minutes there will be-"

A sudden ruckus brought his head around, looking to the rear. Shouts and the sounds of gear clattering. The royal carriage was being turned around to head back into London. The second carriage holding the royal children was preparing to do the same thing. For a moment, Leebrick could only gape at the sight. By the time he clamped his mouth shut, the first carriage was already on its way-and moving far more rapidly than any sane driver would push any sort of vehicle on the road today, much less a carriage as big and heavy and ungainly as the one carrying the royal couple.

"What are they doing?" demanded Towson.

Leebrick had no idea himself. Until a moment ago, the king and queen had been in no danger at all. Nothing worse than perhaps a ten minute delay in making their way to Oxford. Now, not only had they left their military escort behind and were completely unprotected, but-far, far worse-they ran the serious risk of having a bad accident.

The queen's panic must have finally unsettled the king, was all he could imagine. A king, unfortunately, who was none too steady himself.

"God only knows," he said, between gritted teeth. "Richard, clear this bloody damned road. If they won't give way, then kill all of the bastards if you have to. I'll see to the king."

He sent his horse after the fleeing carriage, moving as rapidly as he dared. It didn't take him long to overtake the carriage holding the children, which had just completed the turn-around. The driver of that carriage, clearly unhappy at the situation, was keeping his team to a slow pace. But to Anthony's growing horror, he saw that the carriage holding the king and queen was actually outdistancing him. There was no way in Heaven that an experienced and capable driver-which that carriage certainly had-would be pushing his mounts like that, under these conditions. It didn't matter how many threats the king shouted at him. That meant the driver was already losing control of the team. He could see the coachman riding the near lead horse staring back at the driver. Even at the distance, Anthony could sense the panic in the man's expression.

"After me!" he shouted at Patrick and his men, when he reached the side road. "To perdition with those lads!"

He didn't care any longer about the small Trained Band on the side road. If need be, Towson would handle them also. Anthony and Patrick and his skirmishers needed to catch up with the king's carriage. It wouldn't even take Patrick that much longer than it took Anthony himself. Welch was the only one with a horse, but with this sort of footing a man could move as fast as a horse anyway. Faster, if the horse wasn't being pushed beyond its natural inclination.

So, alone for the moment, Leebrick continued his pursuit of the carriage. By now, it had passed around a bend in the road and he couldn't see it any longer. All he could hope was that the driver could bring the team under control again.

"Oh, marvelous!" exclaimed the earl of Cork, who was now back on top of the hill. He watched the royal carriage disappear around the same bend in the road. "Wentworth may even be dismissed, on account of this affair!"

He turned eagerly to his horse. After taking two steps, one foot flew out from under him and he landed on his buttocks, then slid down the slope for a good fifteen feet before he stopped. The fact that he slid that far on a gentle slope was a sharp reminder of just how bad the footing was. Sleet mixed with the mud from a long thaw made for truly treacherous ground.

His two companions hurried to reach him, as best they could, and help him to his feet. By the time they got there, Richard Boyle was grinning cheerfully. "I'm fine, I'm fine. Just a moment's embarrassment. Oh, what a splendid day! Is there a patron saint for sleet?"

Saints weren't exactly frowned on by the Church of England, although they weren't anywhere nearly as prominent as they were for the Catholic church. But neither of the earl's companions was surprised by the remark. For all his Protestant Irish harshness toward Catholics, the earl of Cork didn't feel himself bound personally by any fussy doctrinal obligations.

"I'm not sure, Your Lordship," said Pindar, helping him to his feet and brushing off the mud from the earl's coat.

"Well, if there isn't, by God, there damn well should be! And I'll see to it!"

Chapter 19

Coming around the bend, Leebrick saw one of the coachmen lying on the side of the road, holding his head in both hands. Thrown off, apparently. Or perhaps he'd simply jumped, figuring he could claim he was thrown. Under the circumstances, Anthony couldn't blame the man.

There was another bend, perhaps seventy yards farther. To Leebrick's dismay, it looked to be a much sharper one. That matched his memory, also.

His own horse almost went out from under him as he neared the bend. He spent a minute standing still, simply calming the poor beast. He'd been transmitting some of his own anxiety, he realized. Under these conditions, that was utterly perilous. As heavy an animal as it was, with this sort of icy and unsteady surface, all four of a horse's legs would tend to go in separate directions. Left to its own devices, in fact, the horse wouldn't willingly move at all.

The problem was that horses simply weren't very smart; they were herd animals-and they considered their human masters to be the leaders of the herd. So, once let panic seize them, they'd go from unmoving stolidity to a blind and bolting runaway pace. That was dangerous enough on a good dry road in midsummer. On this road on this day in midwinter, it was-

Leebrick's head came up from speaking soothingly to his mount. He thought he'd heard a scream, coming from around the bend.

He set his horse back into motion, not trying for anything faster than a walk. As imperative as it was to find out what had happened, there was no point in adding himself to whatever havoc had occurred.

Before he got to the bend, he hear the sound again, and it was definitely a scream. Not a scream of fear, either, for it came from no human throat. That was the sound of a badly injured horse.

When he came around the bend and could finally see down the next stretch of road, his worst fears materialized. Some thirty yards beyond, the royal carriage was a shattered wreck. He could see a deep rut in the road ten yards ahead of him, and what was left of one of the carriage's wheels.

He was aghast, but not surprised. Having a wheel or axle break on a carriage, especially a heavy one, was a frequent occurrence. Adventuresome young men in taverns would make bets that they could make it from one city to the next without a broken wheel or axle-and the house odds were against them.

That was in midsummer. Nobody laid bets on the matter in wintertime, not even drunken young carousers.

To make things worse, the royal carriage was of the new Cinderella design. They were fancy looking things, but their suspension was even more fragile than that of most carriages. They were particularly prone to having the rear axles break.

Leebrick had no trouble figuring out what had happened. Coming around the bend as fast as it had been going, the carriage must have started to slide on the slick surface. Then, either from panicky movements of the team, or too sharp a correction by the driver, or simply a minor obstruction in the surface-any or all three put together-the axle had broken. That, in turn, had simply splintered the wheel.

Within a few yards, the carriage had spilled on its side-and then, on this surface, it had slid right into the wall of a building. One of the horses had been killed outright, and at least one-the one screaming in agony-had suffered a shattered leg. Two others were lying on the road. One appeared to be just stunned but the other was clearly dead. A great jagged piece of wood had been driven into the creature's belly.

They were the only horses in sight. The harness had come to pieces in the accident. The pole holding the doubletrees must have shattered-that would be the source of the wood that had killed the one horse-and the four lead horses must have continued their panicked race around the next bend in the road. At a distance, Leebrick could see the body of the coachman who'd been riding the near lead horse. He, too, might either be dead or simply stunned.

But he'd have to wait. Anthony needed to find out what had happened to the king and queen. He still had hopes they might have remained uninjured-or simply bruised, at least. They'd had the protection of the carriage body and all the cushions and blankets within.

But as he came nearer, Anthony's hopes started fading. He'd thought at first that the carriage had struck the side of the building and then been upended from the impact. But now he saw that the situation was far worse. There was apparently a sunken stair into which the carriage had plunged. Instead of the weight of the carriage's body protecting the occupants, the body had caved in on them.

He brought the horse to a halt, got off, and clambered onto the carriage. The first thing he saw was the driver. His body, rather, for there was no question whether this man was dead or stunned. He'd been thrown into the stairwell and part of the carriage had landed on top of him. The front axle had crushed the poor man's chest like a great blunt spear. His sightless eyes staring up at the sky were already half-covered with sleet.

Almost frantic now, Anthony reached the carriage's door and tried to pry it open. Finding it jammed, he drew his sword and used it as a lever. Thankfully, it was one of his everyday swords, not the expensive one he kept at Liz's lodgings for ceremonial occasions. He was quite likely to break it, since swords were not designed to be tools for such use.

Indeed, it did break-but not before it finally snapped whatever obstruction was keeping the door jammed. Anthony tossed the hilt onto the ground and, using both hands, pried the door the rest of the way open.

Peering in, he couldn't determine anything at first. It was a dark day because of the overcast and very little of what light there was made its way into the carriage. To make thing worse, the interior was in a state of sheer chaos. The trunks must have been flung open and had scattered their contents everywhere. At first glance, the inside of the carriage looked like nothing so much as a huge, half-filled laundry basket.

Then something pale moved, coming up from under the blanket that had been covering it. A face, Anthony realized.

The king's face.

"Help me," Charles whispered. "My leg…"

Hearing a call, Anthony looked back. To his relief, he saw that Patrick had arrived with his Irish skirmishers.

"Just a moment, Your Majesty, I'll be right there," Anthony said hurriedly. Then, to Patrick: "I need three of your men up here. Have the rest tend to whatever else they can-but don't shift the carriage about yet."

Hearing the horse scream again, Leebrick winced. "And put that animal out of its misery, would you?"

That done, he lowered himself into the carriage, being careful not to step on the king's body. Wherever that body was, since all he could see was still just the royal face, staring up. He had no idea at all where the queen had wound up.

Once he got to the king, he slid his arm down into the tangle of blankets and cushions to cradle the man's shoulders and lift him. But the moment he did so, the king started to shriek. "My legs! My legs! Stop, damn you!"

Anthony left off immediately. He'd thought from the king's first plaint that he'd suffered a broken or wounded leg. But "legs" probably meant something worse. He didn't dare move Charles at all until he could see what the problem was.

One of the Irish soldiers was at the window, now.

"Come down," Leebrick ordered. "But make sure you put your feet over there." He pointed behind him, to a part of the carriage that seemed safe enough. He still didn't know where the queen was.

While the skirmisher lowered himself into the interior, Anthony shifted himself a bit and began carefully removing the items that covered the king's body.

"Where's my wife?" Charles asked. He seemed more puzzled than anything else.

Leebrick decided to ignore the question, for the moment. He had no answer, and that was more likely to panic the king than anything else. He just kept at his labor.

"Where's Henrietta Maria? Where is she? Why isn't she here?"

Thankfully, it was clear from Charles' tone of voice that the king was in a daze. He wasn't really asking a question aimed at a specific person, he was simply uttering a confused query to the world. He sounded more like a child than a grown man.

Finally, Anthony cleared enough away to see most of the king's body. By then, he knew the situation was a very bad one. The last blanket he'd removed had been blood-stained.

Charles' hip was shattered. Anthony could see a piece of bone sticking up through the flesh and the heavy royal garments.

He tried to restrain himself from hissing, but couldn't.

"What's wrong," asked the king. Still in that confused little boy's voice.

"Everything's fine, Your Majesty. It'll just take us a moment to get you out of there."

Leebrick wondered if he even dared move the king at all, until his men had cut away most of the carriage. If Charles' hip was shattered, there was a good chance he had a broken back also.

But he decided he didn't have any choice. If the only problem had been the king, he'd just wait. But even after spending several minutes in the carriage, he'd still seen no sign of the queen. He had to find her, and probably very soon-if it wasn't too late already. The carriage had landed on her side, not the king's. If the impact had caused this much damage to Charles, it was likely to have caused worse to her.

A second skirmisher had made his way into the carriage.

"All right, lads. Here's the way we'll do it. Tell Patrick to have two men-no, it'll likely take four-to start cutting away the side of the carriage. And tell him, for the love of God, to do it carefully. This carriage is half-shattered already. We just need enough space to lift His Majesty out using a sling of some sort. A big one, that'll cup his whole body. We can make it out of these blankets and what's left of the harness. Understood?"

Gravely, both men nodded.

"All right, be about it. I've got to find out what happened to the queen."

The last he said very softly, not to alarm the king. But when he turned back, he saw that his caution had been unnecessary. Charles was no longer conscious.

Under the circumstances, that was a blessing. Moving as fast as he could in the cramped space, Anthony used a blanket and the aid of one of the skirmishers to shift the king's body far enough to the side to be able to see what might be lying under him. That took some time, despite the urgency of the situation, because he had to be as careful as he could not to twist the king's back in the process.

But, finally, it was done. Feeling like a miner digging through expensive clothing and blanketry-practically tapestries, some of them-Anthony worked his way toward the side of the carriage that now served as its floor.

The first thing he spotted were the queen's eyes, staring at him. He couldn't see the rest of her face, because it was covered by some sort of heavy garment.

"Your Majesty! Just a moment and I'll have you out of there." Hurriedly, he shoved more things aside to clear her shoulders.

"Your pardon, please." He took her shoulders and tried to lift her up. But after shifting perhaps two inches, her torso seemed to hit some sort of obstruction. A very sudden one, in fact.

To his surprise, he realized that the queen still hadn't said anything to him. Very unusual, for her.

He looked down at her face and instantly understood the reason. Her eyes were still looking at him, but that was sheer chance. Those weren't eyes, any longer. They were just pieces of a human body. Henrietta Maria, sister of King Louis XIII of France and wife of King Charles of England, would no longer be saying anything to anybody, in any language, except whatever tongue might be spoken in the afterlife.

Below, the mouth gaped open. What had once been a torrent of blood was starting to dry on her chin and her neck and what he could see of her chest. Roughly, he shoved the rest of the material down to her waist, trying to spot the obstruction.

Nothing, oddly. But there was certainly no question the woman was dead. Even if she could have survived that much loss of blood, the fact that there was no further blood coming was proof enough.

He closed his own eyes, and took the time for a quick prayer for the woman's soul. Then, moving much more quickly because he needn't fear any longer the queen's displeasure at having her body groped, he pried his hand under her back looking for the obstruction.

It didn't take him long to find it. Her torso hadn't been kept from moving by something on top, it had been hooked from beneath. From what he could sense with his fingers, a large piece of the carriage's frame had been smashed up just as the queen's body came down. As ragged-edged as a barbed spear, the huge splinter had pierced her heart and jammed somewhere in her ribs, or perhaps against her spine.

He'd seen very much the same thing happen as a young man, when he'd spent some time serving on a warship. After two naval battles, he'd decided to make his fortune as a soldier rather than a seaman. A soldier had to fear metal in many shapes and varieties, but at least simple pieces of wood weren't likely to tear him to shreds. For a boy whose father had been a cabinetmaker and for whom wood had been a comfort, that seemed somehow grotesque.

He heard Patrick's voice. "We're ready, Captain."

Looking up, Anthony was surprised to see that Welch and his men had already cut away most of the carriage's side. Roof, now, the way it was lying. He must have spent more time working to find the queen than he'd realized, and he'd been so focused on the task that he hadn't even heard the noise they'd been making.

That meant there was also more light coming into the interior, thank God. Looking over, Anthony saw that the king was still unconscious. Thank God, again.

"All right," he said, standing up. A bit carefully, because although his footing wasn't as bad as icy mud, it was still nothing much more than soft rubble. "Let's get the sling under him and get him out of here."

"The queen?"

Leebrick shook his head. "I found her, but there's no hurry there. No hurry at all."

Patrick winced, understanding. "There's going to be hell to pay, Anthony."

Gloomily, Leebrick nodded. Hell to pay, for sure and certain-and the devil was most likely to present the bill to the officer in charge. Given that he had neither friends in high places nor fortune of his own.

In fact, when he emerged from the carriage after the king's body was lifted out, Anthony saw that the devil's bookkeeper had already arrived.

The earl of Cork himself, no less.

But, to his astonishment, Richard Boyle was both friendly and considerate.

"Yes, yes, Captain-Leebrick, is it?-I understand completely," said Boyle, waving down Anthony's attempt at an explanation. The earl jabbed a thumb at his two companions. Anthony recognized them also, although he couldn't say he really knew either of them. Sir Paul Pindar and Sir Endymion Porter, both prominent figures in court. In his few encounters with the men, he'd found Porter to be aloof but Pindar to be a civil enough fellow. Perhaps that was because Pindar's influence was due to the wealth he'd amassed as a major figure in the Levant Company and a moneylender to the crown, rather than pure and simple favoritism from the high and mighty.

Porter was considerably younger than the other two men, being in his late forties where the earl and Sir Pindar were well into their sixties.

"We happened by chance to be in the vicinity and saw the whole thing unfold," the earl continued. "No fault of yours or your men, it was obvious. The king-"

Boyle shook his head lugubriously. "Well, who's to say what motivated him? Most unfortunate. Had he simply stayed in place, the whole affair would have ended with no trouble. A splendid company you have, by the way."

Endymion Porter was frowning at the carriage. "The queen…?"

"She perished in the accident, I am most aggrieved to report. Must have died instantly, however, so she didn't suffer."

The earl's head-shaking speeded up. "How terrible. His Majesty will be beside himself."

So he would-and beside himself did not bode well for one Anthony Leebrick, captain of the royal escort.

As much as he disliked asking for favors, Anthony saw no choice. He cleared his throat. "Begging your pardon, my lord, but…"

The head-shake turned into a nod faster than anything Leebrick would have imagined. "Oh, yes, certainly. You needn't fear, Captain, I shall be glad to give the same testimony to the king himself." He looked a bit startled. "Well…"

"The king won't want to hear it, Richard," said Pindar quietly. "You know he won't, whether it's true or not. Not from you, not from anyone."

The merchant looked at Leebrick. "If you'll take my advice, Captain, I strongly recommend that you"-he glanced at Welch-"as well as your lieutenants, make yourselves hard to find for a few days. Once he recovers consciousness and discovers his wife is dead, I'm afraid His Majesty is likely to simply lash out at the most obvious and convenient target."

That was exactly what Anthony figured himself. "Yes, Sir Paul. But if I do that, I'm just likely to bring further suspicion on myself."

Boyle went back to head-shaking. "Only if you do it the wrong way, Captain. Go into hiding somewhere unknown… then, yes, certainly you'd draw suspicion."

The head-shake came to an abrupt stop, and a big smile appeared on the earl's face.

"But not if you place yourself in the custody of a respected public figure, and await His Majesty's pleasure at a well-known location. I'd recommend, in fact-"

"Richard!" said Porter.

The earl waved his hand impatiently. "Be done with your constant caution, Endymion. Be done, I say! Captain Leebrick, I recommend that you simply return with me to London-you and your lieutenants; Paul's quite right about that-and plan on spending a week or so at my residence there."

Anthony stared at him. The offer made him suspicious, simply because Richard Boyle, the earl of Cork, had no reputation at all for being a man given to goodwill toward his lesser fellows. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Apparently sensing the hesitation, the earl's smile became something vaguely predatory. "Oh, please, Captain. Surely it's no secret to you-is it to anyone in England, other than village idiots?-that I'm on no friendly terms with Thomas Wentworth." His mouth pursed, as if he'd tasted a lemon. "The earl of Strafford, as he likes to call himself now-but he's only an earl due to the king's favor. Which I daresay-"

There was nothing at all vague about the predation in that smile, now. "-is about to be abruptly removed. Indeed, I shall do my very best to see that it is."

Put that way…

Anthony felt his suspicions ebbing, at the same time as he felt his distaste for the earl of Cork rising. Given a choice, he'd far rather serve a man like Thomas Wentworth than Richard Boyle.

But he probably didn't have a choice, any longer. And when it came down to it, although he'd found Wentworth a good master, he was hardly what you'd call a personal friend of the man. It was likely true that the kingdom was about to be swept by another royal storm, and that Boyle would surge to the fore as Wentworth was cast out. Better to be in Boyle's good graces, then, than stranded as he now was with no friends at all in court.

He glanced at Patrick, who'd overheard the whole discussion. The Irishman gave him a slight nod. He'd come to the same conclusion, obviously. So would Richard, most likely, had he been present.

"Very well, my lord. I accept your offer, and with thanks. I'd need to bring Patrick here with me, and one other man." He pointed up the road. "That's Richard Towson, the lieutenant I left in charge-"

"Oh, yes. Splendid man. He sent those Trained Band louts scampering smartly. I saw a bit of it before I raced off to see what had become of His Majesty."

That very moment, Anthony heard the sound of a military force approaching. A few seconds later, the first ranks of his company appeared around the bend. At the fore was Richard himself, on his horse. Still better, the carriage holding the children came right after him, with soldiers helping the driver and coachmen to steady its team. Whatever else had happened, at least the heirs to the throne were still safe.

"I'll need to see to my men first," Anthony said.

"Don't tarry, Captain," said Porter. "Haven't you a good sergeant or two, who can take charge of the rest of this business and then get your company back to their quarters?" He pointed at the carriage. "We still need to extract the queen's corpse, you know. And get the king himself back to the palace where he can get proper medical attention."

Before Anthony could say anything, Pindar spoke up. "Yes, Captain, that will also stir Wentworth into motion-and he's a man who can move quite well, under most circumstances. But not these. I'm afraid the so-called earl of Strafford is about to discover that turning most of the court into enemies is a tactic that only works so long as you have the royal favor."

The merchant glanced at the king. Charles was now resting in the same sling that had gotten him out of the carriage, but two poles had been added to create a litter held by four of Patrick's skirmishers. Welch must have ordered that done. Wisely, he'd decided that on the road today, a litter would be safer carried by men than horses.

"A royal favor which is not conscious at the moment," Pindar continued, "and will almost certainly vanish when consciousness is regained. Time presses, Captain. If you intend to take up the earl of Cork on his gracious offer, you'd best do it very quickly. We weren't the only witnesses, be sure of that. It won't be long before word of the disaster reaches Whitehall. By midafternoon, if you and your lieutenants aren't in the earl's custody, Wentworth will have you arrested. He'll have no choice, you understand."

No, he wouldn't. Somebody would have to take the blame for this. Were there any justice, the blame would be accepted by the man actually responsible, who was the man lying unconscious in the litter. But there was less chance of Charles doing that than there was of the sun stopping in its tracks.

For a moment, Anthony found himself desperately wishing he'd joined his friend Christopher Fey and enlisted in the new regiments that Gustavus Adolphus was forming in the Germanies. True, Kit complained bitterly in the letters he occasionally sent Leebrick about the riotous conditions in the ranks of those regiments. But Kit was a complaining man at all times-and the one complaint that had been noticeably absent in those letters were any complaints about the monarch he served. The Swede wouldn't have panicked in the first place, at the sight of a ragged militia. And, if he had, would have taken the responsibility for whatever happened on his own shoulders.

But, Leebrick had turned down the offer. The money Wentworth had offered was better, first of all. Even more important was that Liz was in London, not Magdeburg. Ten years ago, that wouldn't have weighed much with Anthony. But now that the age of forty was nearer than the age of thirty, he'd found the pleasures of a purely bachelor mercenary's life were waning. Rather quickly, in fact. There was a lot to be said for the regular company of a woman he liked and trusted, even if her history didn't bear close examination. It wasn't as if Anthony Leebrick came from the sort of family that had to worry about such matters.

"Yes, you're right," he said. He gave Richard Boyle a little bow. "If you'll just give me a moment or two to speak to the sergeants."

"Of course, Captain. There's not that much of a hurry, never mind what Paul says."

The smile hadn't left the man's face, although it wasn't that of a predator any longer. Not, at least, a predator in pursuit of prey. It was simply confident. As a lion's might be, after a meal.

"I am the earl of Cork, after all. Hardly likely that anyone-including Wentworth-is going to pester me when I'm about my lawful affairs, now is it?"

Chapter 20

Amsterdam, Holland

"He was only here for a short time, woman," Gretchen Richter said accusingly. "Not even a month!"

Rebecca Abrabanel looked serene.

Sitting on a divan in the USE embassy's salon next to her fiance Adam Olearius, Anne Jefferson laughed softly. "God, she does that better than anyone I've ever known."

Rebecca looked toward her. "Are you referring to me? Does what?"

Anne laughed again, louder. "Oh, sure, play the innocent. That Mona Lisa look. Serene. Inscrutable."

"What nonsense," said Rebecca. "I am simply not given to pointless passions"-she stuck a finger at Gretchen-"like this one here."

Gretchen's eyes widened, her expression going from accusatory to outraged. "Pointless passions? Pointless passions? You-you-have the nerve to accuse me of such?"

She clapped a hand on the broad shoulder of her husband Jeff, sitting next to her on another divan. "I remind you that he and I have shared the same bed here for months now-and used it to good purpose, rest assured! But you do not see me"-here she slapped her midriff, which was surprisingly slim given her impressive bust and hips-"pregnant again, do you? Whereas-you! He was here less than a month!"

Rebecca shrugged, somehow managing to do it without losing a trace of the serene expression on her face. "You are more disciplined than I am, Gretchen. Besides, fine for you to preach the virtues of the rhythm method, rigorously and ruthlessly applied as only you could manage the miserable business. But I remind you-as you pointed out yourself-that you have had your husband available the remaining three weeks of every month. I did not. I was supposed to tell him, poor fellow, that he chose the wrong time of the month to fly into Amsterdam? Ha."

She looked out the window at the snow-covered streets. "I say it again. Ha. Besides, what does it matter? I enjoy having children. If it had not been for Baruch I think I might have gone mad here, so much do I miss my little Sepharad."

Jeff Higgins glanced over into a corner of the salon, where Baby Spinoza-as everyone called him except his adoptive mother-was sleeping in a crib. "He's a cute kid, Becky, I'll give him that. Even if he is a genius."

But Gretchen was not to be so easily diverted. "All kids are cute, it's in the nature of the creatures," she said dismissively. "How else could they survive? But two are quite enough for any reasonable woman, if she plans to spend her life engaged in worthwhile work beyond using her tits. I leave aside the small matter that this irresponsible vixen chose to get herself pregnant in the middle of a bitter siege."

Rebecca looked at her.

"Fine. Not-so-bitter siege. It's still a siege. And who knows how long it will last? If your new baby is not born in rubble, so he-worse yet, she-will be born into starvation and disease."

Rebecca was still looking at her. Gretchen threw up her hands.

"Damn Mona Lisa! Fine, Becky. Tell us how long the siege will last."

Rebecca's serene smile returned. "Do not be silly, Gretchen. How could I possibly do that? But what I can say, based on my meeting with the prince of Orange yesterday, is that-"

"Hold it, hold it, hold it!" Anne Jefferson rose to her feet and extended her hand to Adam. "I think it's time for us to be out of here. Seeing as how my fiance is officially the agent of a foreign and possibly hostile power. Which for some damn reason y'all seem to keep forgetting."

"Hardly that, dearest," Adam said, rising. "The hostile part, I mean. I will allow a foreign power, but it's absurd to think my employer is going to be engaging in hostilities with anyone. Alas for him, the duke of Holstein-Gottorp is in the position of a mouse surrounded by cats. Hungry cats, to make it worse. His strategy these days is entirely that of the sensible small rodent caught in the open. Hold completely still and hope no predator notices you."

Jeff waved his hand. "Oh, hell, Adam, sit down. By this time"-he glanced around the room-"I don't think any of us is worried that you'll spill our beans on anybody's else plate. And if you did, who cares? Who would you tell? The cardinal-infante already knows what the beans look like."

"Not the point," replied Adam, shaking his head. "You may not care, but I do. Much as I'd personally prefer making my living as a mathematician, I do not live-neither do you, any longer-in that magical up-time world where great universities paid people simply to teach and research mathematics. No, alas, here I need a job. And since my existing credentials are as a diplomat, I think it best that I not-how would you say it?-tarnish my resume, I believe."

Jeff squinted at him. "I'm not following you."

"Jeff, of one thing you may be completely assured. If Rebecca's scheme works even remotely the way she plans-yes, of course, I know what it is even if no one ever told me in so many words-then this episode will go down in the long annals of European diplomacy as one of the art's true masterpieces. Which means, in turn, that the deeds of everyone involved-and that includes me, as mouselike as my role may have been-will be subjected to long and careful scrutiny, by a very large number of minds. Some of which are exceedingly acute-and would be my most likely future employers. Now do you understand?"

"Oh."

"Yes. Oh. Whatever other lines may exist on an unemployed diplomat's resume, the one that absolutely cannot be there is: 'not to be trusted; plays both sides of the fence.' "

He went over to the rack beside the door and removed his coat as well as Anne's. "And now, we shall be off."

Once they were outside, Anne tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. "Is that going to be that bad? 'Unemployed,' I mean."

Olearius pursed his lips. "Mostly likely, I'm afraid. No matter what happens, I can see very few alternatives that would produce a still-independent duchy of Holstein-Gottorp at the end of it. Neither can my employer. My instructions from Duke Frederik are no longer to strive to maintain his independence. Simply to get him the best possible deal when he gives it up."

Anne nodded, sighing. "Well, I was afraid of that, not that I'm really surprised. It means we'll have to move around a lot, I suppose. Damn it all. I like Amsterdam, and now I've got a practice of my own. I was hoping we could stay."

"I… wouldn't be so sure of that, Anne." Olearius stopped at a corner, gently disengaged her hand from his elbow, and turned to face her squarely. "Perhaps it is best for me to say this as bluntly as possible. Lay all the cards on the table, as you might put it."

Anne looked up at him, tucking her hands into her pockets. "Okay."

"It's not complicated. We both want children, and children require a good income. No matter what employer I wind up with, however, it will almost surely be the case that your income as a medical practitioner-let's call it doctor, rather, since neither one of us is a guild idiot-will exceed my own."

He smiled, a little ruefully. "By a great margin, most likely. Much as it grieves my proper seventeenth-century masculine spirit to say it."

Anne chuckled. "Honey, relax. You do one hell of a lot better job of keeping the testosterone to a reasonable level than most up-time men I ever knew. Sure as hell West Virginia hillbillies. I'm not complaining."

He gave her a little appreciative bow. "Well, then. It seems quite obvious. By all means, let us stay in Amsterdam. Within a year-two, at the outside-you will have a medical practice here that dwarfs that of all other so-called doctors in the city. And since your clientele-your extremely loyal, even devoted-I will not say fanatical clientele, although I could-consists mostly of CoC members, it's not as if you'll have any worries that the medical or apothecary guilds will be able to shut you down. Much less threaten you with physical reprisals."

Anne chuckled again, quite a bit more loudly. "Ah… no. That's not likely. As in snowball's chance of hell likely." She cocked her head slightly. "Do they really do that in most places?"

"Oh, yes," Adam said solemnly. "Believe it that they do, dearest. The guilds will not tolerate even a man who officially and publicly practices medicine or dispenses medications without their license. A woman, except as a midwife? Unheard of."

"Jesus." Anne looked around, as if finding reassurance from the familiar sights of Amsterdam. Which, in fact, she did. After months of the siege-more to the point, months of Gretchen Richter-the largest Dutch city was a CoC stronghold. Not even the prince of Orange tried to pretend otherwise, any longer. Not after, a few weeks since, the CoC had simply disbanded the former city council-most of whose patrician members were in exile to begin with, having been wealthy enough to flee the city before the Spanish army invested it-and replaced it with a new one of their own creation. To which eight out of ten members elected had run openly on a CoC platform.

Two days later, they'd done the same to the city's militia, most of whose officers had also fled into exile. Nine out of ten of the officers who'd replaced them had been CoC members. To be sure-Gretchen Richter had gotten far more sophisticated, with experience-they'd been quite careful to elect the prince of Orange's seven-year-old son William as the official commander of the city's military forces. No one except possibly the boy himself was fooled by the formality; certainly not Fredrik Hendrik. Still, it allowed the prince of Orange to maintain the necessary public image.

Gretchen would be gone some day, of course. Probably, Anne thought, with as many regrets as Anne would feel, if she had to leave. Amsterdam was the place where Gretchen Richter had finally come into her own. The place where she'd learned to make herself and her skills match her reputation; where she went from a famous but uncertain firebrand and orator to a superbly capable organizer and revolutionary political leader.

Which meant, in turn, that it wouldn't really matter to Anne whether Gretchen was still here in the flesh or not. Firebrands are very visible, but they leave few traces behind. Gretchen's footprints would stamp Amsterdam for at least two generations, and probably forever. Deep enough, certainly, that if any guild doctor or apothecary returning from exile was foolish enough to protest Anne's medical practice, he'd be lucky if he just got out of it with his shop turned into a wreck. The journeymen and apprentices who were the backbone of the city's CoC were in no mood to tolerate any presumptions by returning guildmasters. Not any longer; not after they withstood the might of Spain, while their former masters fled into exile.

Anne took Adam by the arm again and resumed walking. "But what will you do? Adam, I really don't like the idea of you leaving for long stretches on diplomatic missions."

He grimaced. "Neither do I. But I probably won't have any choice, dearest."

Anne took a deep breath. "Uh… How's your testosterone level doing, at the moment?"

He looked down at her, curious. "No worse than ever, I'd say. Why?"

This time it was she who stopped, disengaged her hand, and turned to face him squarely. "Okay, fine. Then let's cut through all of it. Here's the truth. If I put my mind to it-yes, even with children-I can turn this half-assed medical practice I started on the side, more to keep from getting bored stiff than anything else, into a serious money-maker. I wouldn't even have to gouge anybody. I've already got such a long line every time I open my door that what I really need to do anyway-I'll ask Mary Pat if she thinks Beulah MacDonald is up to leaving Jena for a couple of months to come here and walk me through it-is set up a real medical clinic. Eventually, maybe, the city's first hospital worth calling by the name. You follow my drift?"

He frowned. "I'm not sure I even follow your idiom."

"Oh. Sorry. I forgot we were speaking English instead of German. Easy for me to lapse into American slang when we do that. What I meant was, do you understand what I'm proposing? We both stay here. You only take diplomatic missions that won't keep you from home for… what's reasonable? Two months?"

He shook his head. "You have to allow at least four, Anne, for anything serious. Even if I'm going no farther than a hundred miles."

She thought about it. "Okay. I can live with four months. Six, tops. But that's it."

"That would mean I'd be unemployed most of the time."

"Don't be silly. You just do the work you really want to do, anyway. Your mathematics. And-pardon my English-fuck whether or not you're getting paid for it. Who cares? I'll make enough for both of us."

He looked away. "Let me think about it."

"Sure. How long?"

"Um. Two days?"

"Make it four."

He laughed, and they went back to walking. After a few minutes of companionable silence, Adam cleared his throat.

"Do you think that was really true? What Rebecca said, I mean, concerning Gretchen's-ah, what was the phrase?-rigorous and ruthless methods for preventing pregnancy. Granted that Gretchen is the dominant one of the couple, but I wouldn't have thought she could keep her husband that much under her thumb." He looked a bit alarmed. "I trust that you have no such plans?"

Anne grinned. "You haven't seen any signs of it so far, have you? Relax. I'm a doctor, remember? Well, nurse-but that makes me one of the few doctors worth calling by the name, in the here and now. I've got other ways of handling that little problem. Which I've been using since the first time you finagled your way into my bed, not that you'd ever notice. Men. So would Gretchen, if she'd follow my advice. But you know what she's like. Politics aside, she's almost a reactionary. The old methods work, so why mess with them?"

Adam had the grace to look a little embarrassed. "I had wondered, actually. But… ah… since you didn't seem concerned…"

"Ha! Men, like I said. And besides, you're wrong about the rest of it, anyway. The part about Gretchen and Jeff, that is."

"How so?"

"She's the flamboyant one of the two, no doubt about it. And since she also knows what she wants to do with her life and has the determination of a glacier-and Jeff really doesn't care otherwise and is willing to go along for the ride-you make the mistake of thinking there's dominance involved. There really isn't, Adam. I think Gretchen would be quite lost without him. He's her anchor, you could say."

"You know them much better than I do, so I shan't question your judgment. Still, it seems odd. He's such an unassuming young man."

Her eyes narrowed. "And this became a problem for women… when, exactly?"

He laughed. "I surrender!"

"Best you do, buddy. Or the next time Rubens asks me to pose for him, I'll do it in leather and spike-heeled boots."

***

After Rebecca finished her report of the outcome of her last meeting with the prince of Orange, Gretchen rose and went to the window.

Jeff, from the couch where he'd remained, said: "I don't get it. Why doesn't Don Fernando just cut the deal now? I mean, what's there left to squabble about? Nothing but a bunch of third rate issues that neither he nor Fredrik Hendrik cares that much about anyway."

His wife shook her head. "You're thinking like a commoner, husband. A level-headed and unassuming one, at that."

"Well, sure. Any geek who isn't a moron learns to do that by the time he's in tenth grade. Or he's just a great big bruise. Your average high school jock could give any prince in Europe lessons on being a cocksure, stupid and arrogant bully."

Gretchen turned her head to look at him, smiled, and then looked into the corner where the arms were kept in a cabinet. Prominent among them, Jeff's shotgun. "Not any more."

"Well. No. Not any more. Any of 'em tried it now, they'd be hamburger. But it's still the way I think. The only difference, nowadays, is I know how to handle it if I have to."

Gretchen stifled a sigh. Alas, it was the wrong time of the month. There were times she was tempted to take up Anne's offer, for sure and certain, as much as she distrusted fancy methods to do what simple methods could. Tonight would certainly be one of them. Jeff had so many ways to trigger her passion. The fact that he almost never realized he was doing so, being perhaps the greatest of them all.

So be it. Discipline!

She turned her back to the window, leaning on the sill with her hands. "His mind is full of wickedness, Jeff. Ancient royal evil pretensions. So he cannot-yet-bring himself to the simple recognition that the good he would do for an entire nation is not outweighed by a medieval sense of honor."

"To put it another way," Rebecca added, "for Gretchen is surely right, Don Fernando cannot betray his brother in cold blood. No matter how sensible doing so would be."

Jeff frowned. "I still don't get it. He's already betrayed the king of Spain. Not that I give a shit, since I can't think of anybody who deserves it more, except that asshole Charles in England. I mean, what else would you call the secret negotiations he's been having with the Dutch?"

"No, he has not," said Rebecca, shaking her head. "Not in his own mind. What he has been doing-never forget that he was born, bred and trained a prince in Europe's greatest dynasty-is simply preparing an alternative course of action, should the results of the valiant test of arms be unfortunate."

"Huh?"

Gretchen burst out laughing. "You are my beloved, for sure, but you would make a truly wretched prince."

"Hey, look, I flunked out of Royalty 101. Didn't need it for my math and sciences track."

"You must have been inattentive in the introductory course on royalty, also," said Rebecca. "Until the war is settled, Jeff, the cardinal-infante of Spain is paralyzed. Not by external reality, but by his inner self. He can make plans, yes; negotiate to see to it that those plans can be set in motion, yes. But act until he can claim he had no choice? No, that he cannot do. You could. I could. Gretchen could. My husband-him!-would have done it last month. But the Habsburg prince cannot."

Jeff looked over at the gun cabinet. "Fine, then. We'll do it his way-and you watch Fredrik Hendrik carve another great piece of his flesh, when Mr. Habsburg and his fine Spanish army come tumbling back in rags."

"Oh, hardly a great piece," said Rebecca. "He's a very cunning sort of Habsburg, and they're a cunning family to begin with. His army won't come tumbling back in rags. They'll simply turn around, take two steps, and find themselves right back in their fortifications. But that'll be enough to save the royal face and salve the royal conscience."

"Jesus. Stupid fucking kings. Who needs them, anyway?"

"Not I," said his wife serenely.

Rebecca smiled. "You say that better than anyone I've ever known."

Chapter 21

London, England

"Sorry, fellows," said Captain Anthony Leebrick. His hands clasped behind his back, he was looking out the window in a room on the second floor of the earl of Cork's mansion. There was nothing much to see beyond an occasional pedestrian on Pall Mall, slipping and sliding as they made their way. Here in Westminster, it had been a slushy snowfall rather than a sleet. The precipitation had stopped for the moment, although it looked as if it might resume at any moment. Even without precipitation, it was still a very gray day, between the heavy overcast and the approaching sunset.

"I should have known better," he added.

"Or supped with a longer spoon," said Richard Towson ruefully. "Need a longer one with Richard Boyle than you do with the Devil himself, I suspect."

The third man in the room, Patrick Welch, turned away from one of the portraits on the far wall. "Stop flagellating yourself, Anthony. It's not as if Richard or I made any objections. It seemed the best thing to do, under the circumstances. We all agreed on that."

Leebrick's jaws tightened. "Still. The earl of Cork. Given his reputation, I should have had more sense."

There were no bars on the windows, but aside from that the room they were locked into made as good a gaol as almost any in England. Given the dimensions of the mansion, it was impossible to simply jump down to the street below, from the second floor. Impossible, at any rate, without breaking at least one major bone in the process.

And that was after you'd smashed the windows, since the earl had seen to it that the room was one that had sealed instead of latched windows. That would be easy enough, yes. A dirk pommel would suffice to smash the windows-or they could simply use any of the heavy pieces of furniture in the room. Unfortunately, these were heavy and well-built windows, with solid glass. No way to do it without alerting the two guards standing in the corridor outside. Who, unlike Anthony and his mates, had guns and swords in their possession.

They no longer had their swords, because the earl had politely but firmly insisted that they give them up once they came into the mansion. They were technically "in custody," he explained, even if it was just a formality-but a formality that would be completely threadbare if it was discovered the earl had allowed them to remain armed.

That had been the first thing to arouse Anthony's suspicion. Still, the explanation had been plausible enough, and he'd not seen any clear alternative to obeying. It hadn't been until they heard the door locked behind them that he'd finally realized they were cat's paws in some game of Richard Boyle's. Disarming a officer in custody was reasonable enough; locking him into a room was not. Criminals needed bars and locks to keep them in, not gentlemen who'd given their word they'd make no attempt to escape.

Foolishly, however, the earl had not had them searched. Either out of lingering politeness or simply because, not having any military experience, he hadn't realized that mercenaries often carried hidden weapons. Anthony and Patrick still had their dirks. Anthony's in his boot and Patrick's in a sheath concealed under the back of his coat. Only Richard had carried his in plain sight.

So, breaking the windows was a simple enough proposition. But then what? Had this been a bedroom, they could have torn up the bedding to make a substitute for a rope. But it was simply a small salon. The one tapestry hanging on a wall wasn't nearly big enough to suit the purpose, even leaving aside that cutting the thing into strips would be an incredible chore.

Without a rope of some sort, Anthony didn't think there was any way for them to lower themselves safely to the street. With the windows locked, he couldn't actually see the side of the building. But from what he'd seen on their way in, the exterior had been rather plain, with none of the ornamentation some buildings featured that might have given them handholds.

In short, they were in a trap, and the fact that it was an impromptu one didn't make it any the less difficult to escape. The truth was, the only way out was to fight their way out-with two armed mercenaries standing guard outside the door, and who knew how many more somewhere in the great building? There could easily be a small company of soldiers. Richard Boyle was not only one of the wealthiest men in England, he had no hesitation when it came to displaying those riches. His mansion was huge. And he certainly had enough money to pay for as many mercenaries as he needed, short of an actual army.

"What should we do?" asked Patrick.

"I don't know," replied Leebrick. He turned away from the window, tired of staring pointlessly at the street below. "I suppose we'll simply have to wait to see what the earl has in mind for us."

"And if what he had in mind doesn't suit us?" Towson's expression was dark. "I mean, really not suit us, Anthony?"

Leebrick considered the problem, but not for long. Ten years worth of fighting in the Germanies hadn't left much in the way of timidity in his soul. Precious little charity or mercy, either.

"We'll fight our way out. Try to, at any rate."

Patrick nodded. "Fine with me," said Richard. "What signal? It can't be anything obvious."

Anthony paused, considering again. Welch suddenly grinned. "I have it. Just refer to me as 'Paddy,' why don't you? That'll get my blood up in an instant."

Leebrick and Towson chuckled. Patrick was a common first name in Ireland, used by Protestants as well as Catholics. But "Paddy" was a Catholic nickname-and Welch came from a sturdy Presbyterian family, even if he wasn't much given to piety himself.

" 'Paddy' it is, then," said Leebrick.

Not far away, Whitehall was a scene of confusion. Word had reached the royal palace of the accident, although the details were contradictory. The king was dead; the king was fine but the queen was dead; they were both dead; they were both injured; the queen, three months' pregnant, had had a miscarriage-who knew?

Officials and ministers raced about, trying to find the earl of Strafford to get clear directions. As much as many of them disliked the man, Thomas Wentworth was nothing if not decisive.

But Wentworth was nowhere to be found. Eventually, several guards were found who explained that he'd left the palace an hour earlier-because he'd been brought an early warning that the king's carriage had suffered a bad accident on the West Road near Chiswick. The earl of Strafford had hurried off to see to the matter himself.

The West Road? Why in the world would the king have decided to go that way?

Fortunately, the earl of Cork arrived soon thereafter, bringing order into the chaos. Even a measure of calm.

"Yes, it's true. A terrible accident on Tyburn Hill Road. My companions and I happened upon the scene shortly afterward. His Majesty is badly injured and I'm afraid the queen is dead. The children are fine, fortunately, since their carriage was not involved. Where's Strafford?"

Babbled explanations came.

"What's he doing haring off to Chiswick? It's a miserable little fishing village. The royal party wasn't within miles of there. And he shouldn't have left the palace himself, even if he had managed to get the right location. What was he thinking? With the city on the edge of revolt?"

After heaving an exasperated sigh and composing his features into firm and steady resolve, Cork continued. "Well, we can't wait for him to return, whenever he got himself off to. The situation is far too perilous. There was clearly treason involved. There's no way Trained Bands would have known the king's route fast enough to have laid that ambush without forewarning from right here in the palace."

More official babblement.

"Oh, yes, be sure of it. Treason, I say. Get moving, all of you! I'm having His Majesty brought here to Whitehall, under military escort, along with the heirs. And Her Majesty's body, lest rumors begin to fly about. Get moving, I say! Find the king's doctors and make sure they're here when he arrives. Shouldn't be more than an hour, at most. And have the companies mustered and summon their captains here as well. We must keep the mob from even thinking of rebellion. Until Strafford returns, I'll take charge of things."

He had absolutely no authority to do so, and some of the officials and ministers were a bit taken aback. But instantly, it seemed, there were well-placed and prestigious figures supporting Cork's course of action. And not just Sir Paul Pindar and Sir Endymion Porter, either, who'd accompanied him. Men like the secretary of state, Sir Francis Windebank, threw their support to Cork also.

The flock of ministers charged off, leaving Boyle alone for the moment with Pindar and Porter.

"Very nicely done, Paul," he murmured. "My apologies for doubting you."

"I thought it would work. Wentworth's headstrong, and not good at delegating authority. I was almost certain he'd race off himself if I had word sent ahead."

Porter smiled thinly. "And sent him off the wrong way, to boot. Masterful, Sir Paul."

The elderly merchant made a face. "Let's not get overconfident. Cork, you have perhaps three hours to seize the reins before Wentworth gets back. Might be as little as two. And if the man is headstrong, don't forget that's a compound term-and the second word is 'strong.' He knows how to command men also."

The earl just smiled. "So he does-but who'll listen to a traitor? Endymion, I believe it's time to bring our dear captain into play. See to it, would you?"

"Yes, milord. Shouldn't take me more than an hour to get back with his testimony. Leebrick's nothing but a mercenary, so he'll see reason soon enough. And your mansion is just down the street."

"Remember, I want no loose ends."

After Porter left, Cork started rubbing his hands. It wasn't actually the gesture of glee it appeared to be. His hands were simply still cold.

"I think it's going quite well, myself. Amazingly well, in fact, given that we had to put it all together on the fly."

Pindar, on the other hand, was starting to get overheated in the palace. He looked around for a servant to help him with his heavy coat. "That's actually what works most in our favor, Richard. It was always hard to get a plot going against Strafford, because he maintains so many spies and informers. He really is quite a competent man."

Seeing his imperious gesture, one of the servants standing nervously some distance away came over and got the heavy coat off, then took it away to be hung up to dry somewhere. "Unfortunately for him," Pindar continued, "Wentworth confuses efficiency with results. He's like a horseman who thinks he's getting to his destination because his mount is trotting along smartly. And he's never understood-not well enough-the difference between having subordinates and friends. He's feared at court, but not liked at all. Not by any of the factions, since he's run roughshod over all of them."

Cork scowled. His faction included. The truth was, he'd come to purely detest Wentworth. "There's Laud," he pointed out.

"Yes, we'll have to do something about him. A pity, really. Laud's a good enough man and his theology suits me. But…" Pindar shrugged. "His well-known ties to Wentworth make him a easy target, under these circumstances, and he's too stubborn to know when to give way."

"True. But the Tower's a big place. Plenty of room for him, too." Now the earl's hand-rubbing was definitely gleeful. "And whether you think well of him or not, Paul, I detest the man."

Cork was good at detesting people. Almost as good as he was at hiding the fact, when he needed to, until it was too late for his prey.

"So that's how it'll be, Captain." Endymion Porter tapped the sheet of paper he'd set down on the small table in the salon where the three officers had been imprisoned. "Your signature here-all three of your signatures-and you're on your way." The same finger flicked the small but heavy bag he'd set down on the table alongside the document. "As you've seen, there's enough silver here to get you to the continent quickly and set you up-all three of you-for some time. More money than you'd have made in His Majesty's service in several years, and nothing to do for it beyond the few seconds it takes to sign this sheet of paper."

Anthony ignored him, still studying the document. The testimony, rather.

It didn't take much time, and most of that was simply due to the poor penmanship. The testimony wasn't long, covering less than a single page. He was quite certain Porter had scrawled it hurriedly himself, just minutes ago.

It didn't need to be long, because it was very cleverly done. Porter-and Cork and Pindar, of course, since the plot was now obvious-hadn't made the mistake of trying for anything too elaborate. The document simply testified that the earl of Strafford had instructed Captain Leebrick, in the event there was any sign of interference by Trained Bands in the king's progress out of the city, to return the royal party at once to Whitehall. Over the king's objections, if need be.

Nothing more. Leebrick wasn't being asked to confess to any treason himself. He'd simply been obeying orders.

He no longer wondered at the manner the Trained Bands had appeared on the roads, coming from two directions. Cork himself-his agents, more likely-must have had them in readiness. Not to produce the end result that had occurred, to be sure. That had been a completely unforeseen accident, brought on by the king's own folly. Cork had simply wanted to embarrass Wentworth and undermine his position at court. Aside from being more clever than most, it was just the sort of petty political maneuver that Leebrick had seen dozens of times on the continent. One nobleman trying to jostle aside another, that's all.

But once the accident did occur, with its catastrophic consequences, Cork and his people were moving quickly to take full advantage of the situation. They'd match Leebrick's signed testimony against something similar they'd extract from whichever leaders of the Trained Bands had taken their money. Again, nothing that implicated those leaders directly in any treason-but did implicate Wentworth.

Looked at from one angle, the hastily conceived plot was completely ramshackle. Any judicious eye would start picking it apart, soon enough, and with a bit of patience could unravel the thing completely.

But it would be no patient set of eyes that looked at these documents. It would be the eyes of England's king, his body wracked with agony and his spirit wracked still worse by the death of his wife. Even if that king had been of the caliber of Henry II, he might be taken in, under these circumstances. Given that Charles wasn't fit to shine the great Plantagenet's boots, England's current monarch would swallow it whole.

So much, Anthony was almost sure of. What he was completely certain about, was that he and Patrick and Richard wouldn't survive putting down their signatures for more than a day. Probably not more than the few hours it took to get them out of London.

"And, as I said," Porter went on smoothly, gesturing at the officer standing behind him, "Captain Doncaster and his men will escort you out of the city and see you safely onto a ship at Dover."

Anthony glanced at Doncaster, and then at the two soldiers standing behind him, not far from the open door. He didn't know Doncaster personally, having only met him briefly and casually on a few occasions. But the flat look in his eyes was enough. If it hadn't been, the sight of two common soldiers armed with wheel locks would have done the trick. Those pistols were far more expensive than anything men in the ranks would be carrying. They must have been loaned by some of Doncaster's officers, or perhaps they were even his. They were an officer's or a cavalryman's weapon-and Doncaster's was an infantry company.

The great advantage of wheel locks, of course, was that they could be carried with the wheel's spring already under tension and the weapon ready to be fired. There was no need to fiddle around with matches, as there was with a matchlock. Just flip down the lever holding the pyrite-that was called either the cock or the doghead-against the wheel, and then pull the trigger. That was a great advantage to a cavalryman. Or an assassin.

But Anthony's glance had mainly been for the purpose of assessing the tactical situation. So far as he could determine, Porter must have ordered the two guards who'd been at the door earlier to leave. They'd be part of the mansion's regular guard force, and not privy to anything beyond their normal duties.

More importantly, Richard had slowly edged his way into position. And Patrick was scratching the back of his neck, the way a man pondering a difficult decision might do.

"Very well, I'll sign it." Anthony took the quill pen and dipped it into the ink well, taking a moment to gauge the modest thing. It was a sturdy pen, and recently sharpened. He leaned over to sign the testimony-which also brought him closer to Porter. "I'm sure Richard will sign also."

He paused just before signing and grimaced. "Mind you, I make no guarantee about Welch. He's a damned Irishman and like any Paddy-"

Chapter 22

Welch's hand was already coming away from his neck with the dirk in it before Anthony even got to the "Paddy." He'd been following the logic-and that wasn't actually a dirk, it was a throwing knife. It struck one of the soldiers squarely in the throat, sinking almost to the hilt.

Richard slammed into the legs of Doncaster, spilling him.

Anthony seized Porter by the back of his head and drove the quill point into his left eye. Hard and deep enough to pierce the brain. Then-he was quite strong-lifted the small table and the corpse collapsing onto it and used them as a battering ram against the soldier who'd yet been untouched.

A good man, that. He had the pistol out and even managed to get the doghead down before Leebrick could reach him. But between the shock and his haste, he had no time to aim. All he did when he pulled the trigger was shoot Porter in the back and kill him again.

The impact slammed the soldier back against the side of the door. His helmet flew off, clattering into the corridor beyond. But it hadn't protected him enough to keep from being momentarily stunned-and a moment was all it took Leebrick to get his dirk from his boot and stab him under the chin.

He twisted the blade loose, letting the corpse fall into the corridor alongside the helmet. From the sounds behind him, there was still a struggle going on.

He spun around. Not a struggle, as it turned out. The sounds he'd heard had been Doncaster's boot heels drumming the floor. Richard was lying under him and had a garrote around his neck. Leebrick had forgotten that Towson carried the horrid thing, even though he and Patrick both made jokes about it.

But even with a garrote, strangling was too slow. There'd be more guards coming any moment. Glancing over, Anthony saw that Patrick was still occupied trying to pry his knife from the other soldier's throat. The throw must have gotten the blade jammed into the vertebrae.

He strode over to the two men struggling on the floor and slammed the pommel of his dirk down on Doncaster's head. Being an officer, Doncaster had been wearing a hat instead of a helmet and the hat had flown off, so there was no obstruction to the blow.

Once, twice, on the forehead. Doncaster went limp. Leebrick seized his thick mane of hair and twisted his head sideways, then brought down a ferocious strike of the pommel on his temple. For good measure, did it again. That was enough. If he wasn't dead already, he would be soon. Either way, he'd never regain consciousness.

Anthony yanked Doncaster's body off Richard, who'd already released one end of the garrote. "Let's go! Quickly! For the love of God, Patrick, just leave the knife be!"

Welch was still trying to pry the blade loose. But he quit the business, as soon as Anthony yelled.

"That's an expensive knife," he hissed, leaning over and scooping the dead man's unused wheel lock from the floor.

"Who cares?" said Towson. On his way off the floor, he'd scooped up the bag of silver that had wound up lying close to him. "We'll buy you another. A hundred, if you want, with what's in here."

Leebrick looked around for the document, but couldn't see it anywhere. God only knew where it had flown to, in the fracas.

There was no time to hunt for the thing, and it had no signatures on it, anyway. That wouldn't help Wentworth, of course. But so it went. The earl of Strafford was on his own.

"Now, out!" Anthony just took enough time to extract Doncaster's sword from its scabbard. He ignored the second wheel lock. It had already been fired, and he doubted very much if they'd have time to reload it.

Once in the corridor, Leebrick raced toward the main staircase with Patrick and Richard close behind. He'd have preferred to find a more obscure servants' stairwell, but he didn't dare risk the time it would take to find one. The only route he knew out of the mansion was the same one they'd taken when they were brought in.

As it turned out, he was in luck. Hearing a martial clatter from the far end of the corridor, he realized that the mansion's guards must have been stationed in the servants' area themselves. So they were charging up that stairwell-while he and his two fellows would take the main stairs.

Two guards did emerge from the main staircase, just as Anthony arrived, matchlocks in hand with the fuses lit. He cut one of them down. Richard booted the other back down the staircase, head over heels. The man's musket went off, sending the bullet smashing into the ceiling above.

Patrick picked up the gun that had been held by the soldier he'd sabered. Fortunately, while the blood gushing from a neck hacked halfway through had soaked the barrel-and was still soaking the carpet, as the body slid down the staircase-the grip was clean. He handed it to Welch, who checked to make sure the match was still smoldering.

Edging to the side to keep from slipping on the blood, they scurried down the stairs and into the mansion's great entrance hall. Once they reached the bottom of the stairs, Anthony pressed the tip of his sword against the throat of the man who'd been sent flying by Richard's kick. But there was no need to kill him, since he was clearly unconscious. Leebrick had made it a point to kill Doncaster because of the officer's treachery, but this was just a common soldier.

Just as he straightened up, two more guards emerged, bursting into the room from a side door. Richard shot one with the wheel lock; Patrick shot the other with the matchlock. The Irishman's shot was dead on into the chest, punching right through the breastplate. Patrick's only struck his man's arm.

It didn't matter. The guard was down and would stay down. A three-quarter-inch musket ball did terrible damage when it struck any solid part of a human body. If the man didn't bleed to death, he'd probably lose the arm. If he survived the surgeon, which he probably wouldn't. Either way or any, Leebrick didn't care at all.

There was a doorman standing at the front entrance. Standing quite still, paralyzed with shock and terror, just staring at them.

That was good enough, too.

"Open the fucking door or I'll kill you," Anthony said, speaking almost conversationally. The man was so frightened that a shout would probably just keep him paralyzed. "Now, damn you."

The man did as he was told. "Leave him be," Leebrick ordered, on his way through the door. There was no point in killing the doorman. It wasn't as if there was any chance of hiding their identities, after all.

In the event, the mercy was pointless. Before Leebrick and his two companions made it down the outer stairs to the street, soldiers from within the mansion started firing at them. They missed, mostly because the doorman was still standing in the doorway, gaping down at the three fleeing men. Four bullets struck him and sent him flying. His body hit the street just a split second after Leebrick and his fellows started racing off.

"Racing," at least, insofar as the term could be applied to men who were skating as much as they were running. The footing wasn't quite as bad as it had been on Tyburn Hill Road, but it was still terrible.

Anthony was glad of it, however. The same footing would slow the pursuing guards just as much. Probably more, in fact, since they were the pursuers and not the prey. The hound runs for his meal; the hare runs for his life.

Best of all, it had started snowing again and it was now late in the afternoon. The sun set very early in London, in midwinter, even on a clear day. The visibility was bad and it would soon get worse. Within an hour, they would have the further shelter of nightfall.

One more shot was fired, just as they went around the first corner. At them, presumably, but Leebrick couldn't see where the bullet had gone. As confused and anxious as the mansion's guard force had to be, after the carnage, whoever had fired that shot might well have just hit a building across the street. Or simply fired into the air at nothing at all.

Glancing back as they went around the next corner, Leebrick saw that they'd outraced the guards completely and were now finally out of sight. He turned the next corner the other way and then came to an abrupt halt. He needed to catch his breath, before they did anything further. From the way their chests were heaving, so did Patrick and Richard.

He leaned over and planted his hands on his knees. Started to, rather, until he realized he still had the sword in his hand.

Fortunately, while Cork had taken their swords, he hadn't taken the scabbards. Fortunately also, Doncaster had favored a blade not too dissimilar from Anthony's own. It didn't fit the scabbard perfectly, and it would have to be yanked out with some effort in the event of another fight, but it would do. An officer making his way through London with a sword in a scabbard was a common sight. If he kept it in his hand, people would notice.

He saw that Patrick and Richard had already disposed of their guns somewhere along the way. "Better throw away your scabbards too," he said, still gasping a little. "Empty, they'll be noticed."

Richard complied instantly, tossing the thing into some bushes. Welch followed, after a moment's hesitation. Good scabbards were as expensive as good knives, and the Irishman was something of a miser. On the other hand, he wasn't stupid.

"Now where?" asked Richard. "Don't dally about, Anthony. The guards will be here any minute. They'll search every street."

Leebrick already had part of the answer-the end goal. What he wasn't sure of, was how to get there.

"I'm not that familiar with Westminster. Either of you?"

Towson nodded. "I know it quite well. Spent years as a lad, helping my father make deliveries in the area."

"You lead the way, then."

"Lead the way, where?"

"Southwark. Liz will hide us."

Welch and Towson stared at him, their expressions both full of doubts.

Different ones, as it turned out, as were their different temperaments. Richard inclined to the practical, being from Derbyshire; the Irishman, to the acerbic.

Richard expressed his first, as he led them down an alley. "Only way across is either London Bridge or taking a boat at Westminster Stairs, which I don't advise. It's the first place they'll look, and boatmen talk."

"It'll have to be the bridge," said Leebrick. He wasn't looking forward to a walk of two or three miles on streets in this bad a condition, but he saw no choice. Taking a boat would be madness, unless they could steal one-and finding an unguarded boat in midwinter was a dubious proposition. Any time of year, for that moment. Boats were expensive, too.

"They might close off London Bridge before we can get there," pointed out Welch.

"Not likely," said Leebrick. "This wasn't part of any well-planned conspiracy. Cork is just putting it together as he goes, taking advantage of happenstance. The ink was barely dry on that stinking document of Porter's. There's no way Cork has control of the military forces in London yet. Not all of them, for sure-which means not enough of them to seal off every exit."

"True," mused Towson. "But London Bridge is a pretty obvious one, I'd think."

Even while talking, though, he'd been leading them as quickly as the ground allowed in the direction of the Bridge. By now, they had to be far ahead of any pursuit coming from Cork's mansion.

"No, actually, it isn't," said Anthony. "Aside from the two of you, no one knows of my liaison with Elizabeth Lytle. I've kept it-"

Seeing the sour expression on Welch's face, he let that drop for the moment. "The point is, no one has any reason to think we have any connection with Southwark. So why would we try to hide there, instead of leaving the city entirely?"

"Same reason any criminal does," snorted Welch, his tone sounding as sour as his face looked.

"Not the same thing, Patrick. All a common criminal has to evade are the courts and constables. We'll be charged with treason-and Cork has enough money to offer a huge reward for us. Southwark's the worst place in England for someone to hide, if there's money being waved about to find their whereabouts, unless they can stay completely out of sight. Scratch any criminal and you'll find an informer."

Patrick came to a sudden stop, planting his hands on his hips. "Right, so you will. And here's what else is true, Anthony Leebrick-and I'll say it straight out even if Richard won't. Scratch any whore and you'll find an informer, too."

So, there it was. Towson drew in a breath, almost hissing.

But Leebrick had seen it coming, and was ready for the matter. "She stopped whoring when she took up with me, Patrick, which not even you will deny."

He paused, forcing Welch to answer.

The Irishman drew in a sharp breath of his own. "Fine. No, I'll not deny it. I'll go further and say that I've no particular animus against whores to begin with. On average-and this is based on lots of experience-I've found them no more dishonest than most and considerably less than some."

A quick smile came to his face; Patrick's saving grace was that he was acerbic about everything, himself not excepted. "Including just about every soldier I ever met, leaving aside thee and me and Richard here. But they're still no less the mercenaries, themselves, even if they use fleshy instead of iron tools in their trade. So, tell me, Captain Leebrick. Why wouldn't your precious Liz turn us in for the reward?"

But by the time Patrick had finished-as Anthony had expected would happen-he'd already talked himself out of his position. Halfway, at least. It was obvious just from his expression. And he'd talked Richard completely around.

"Oh, leave off, Patrick," said Towson, sounding quite acerbic himself. "The woman dotes on our dashing captain; you know it as well as I do. Even whores fall in love, you know."

Patrick did his best to rally, essaying a sneer.

"Oh, come on!" Towson jerked a thumb at Leebrick. "Why else do you think he keeps her a secret from everybody except us? Most officers brag about their kept women, especially ones as good-looking as Lytle. The reason he doesn't is because he knows he'd be the laughingstock of the companies if they found out he was keeping one he planned to marry."

"Against my advice, I remind you," said Patrick. "I want that registered on the record. This current mad scheme even more than that idiot proposal of marriage."

From Welch, that was complete capitulation. Towson set off again, leading the way to the bridge.

They got across London Bridge with no problems at all. So far as Anthony could determine, whatever pursuit had been organized still hadn't gotten out of Westminster.

"So, here we are in Southwark," said Patrick, a while later, "about to test a legend. Is there really such a thing as a whore with a heart of gold?"

From anyone else, Anthony would have taken offense. But he and Patrick went back a long way together. So he just chuckled. "And after it's all over, you'll insist the test was false, anyway."

Welch frowned. "Why would I do that?"

"You idiot," said Towson, chuckling himself. He dug into his coat and pulled out Porter's bag. "I'll be glad to set this great heavy thing down finally, I can tell you that. Patrick, you benighted Irishman, there's enough silver in here to offset any reward of Cork's. Halfway, at least."

Welch stopped again, planting hands on hips. "You miserable bastard, Leebrick. You're cheating!"

"That's why he's the captain," said Towson, "and we but his lowly lieutenants."

"Dear God," said Richard Boyle, his face pale. "Endymion? Murdered?"

He looked away, his eyes ranging across the crowd that was now packed into the outer rooms of the palace. Mostly courtiers, standing about and gossiping pointlessly, with some harried officials here and there trying to make their way through the mob. The king had arrived, just minutes earlier, and Cork had had to threaten to have soldiers fire on the crowd to clear a path for the litter. Then, do the same shortly thereafter to clear a way for the royal heirs and the queen's corpse.

"Dear God," he repeated. "I can't believe it. He was alive-right here!-just-just-"

"Cork, pull yourself together," said Sir Paul Pindar sharply. "I'm as sorry as you are about poor Endymion, but Wentworth will be here any moment. Don't you understand? Porter's murder casts the final die-and it's perfect."

The earl gaped at him. For all his ruthlessness, Cork was a man who'd made his way up using money, not steel. The same could be said of Pindar, of course, but the merchant's fortune had come from the often steely demands of the Levant trade, not peddling influence and making advantageous marriages.

"He's right, Richard," said Sir Francis Windebank. "A signed testimony is one thing. Might be forged, who's to say? But now there are bodies to point to, corpses anyone can look at. Brutally slain, by men whom everyone can now see must have been skilled and deadly assassins. Appointed to their posts by Strafford himself. Probably working in collusion with a foreign power."

That was sheer gibberish, from any logical viewpoint. But Boyle was starting to regain his wits. Gibberish, yes, if you pulled it all apart. But if you ran it all together quickly-past a dazed and grief-stricken monarch-and you controlled the ensuing investigation yourself… and had plenty of money to throw around…

"Yes, you're right. Poor Endymion-but he'd be the first to tell us to seize the occasion."

There was a stir at the outer entrance. A moment later, Thomas Wentworth was forcing his way through the crowd.

"Clear a path, damn you!" he shouted angrily. "Make way! I'm the earl of Strafford!"

He caught sight of Richard. "Cork!" he cried out. "Is there word of His Majesty? I could find no sign of him-"

Before Wentworth got halfway through that last sentence, Boyle had already gauged the crowd in the vicinity. Courtiers, mostly, not actual ministers except the secretary of state standing right beside him. Best of all, the soldiers were the same ones he'd used to bring in the king. And given their captains the promise of a very hefty bonus.

"Arrest that traitor!" he bellowed, pointing at Wentworth.

Chapter 23

Brussels, the Spanish Netherlands

Don Fernando was, of course, only twenty-three years old. That accounted for many of the things that he had already achieved. He did not yet know that they were impossible. His aunt Isabella and her advisers, on the other hand, did-and she was still the ruler of the Spanish Netherlands.

Isabella Clara Eugenia was certainly old enough to know better. According to the incredible encyclopedias to be found in Grantville, she should have been dead by now. More than three months ago, in fact, on the first day of December 1633.

Given how she felt this morning, that did not surprise her in the least. However, instead, she was quite alive and sitting in a wheeled chair at the conference table in her palace in Brussels, in the presence of her very closest and most trusted advisers and confidants. Wearing, as she had since she'd joined the order in 1625 a few years after her husband's death, the vestments of a nun of the Sisters of Saint Clare rather than the flashy court apparel and regalia of her younger years.

The decision that they had just placed on the table was not, perhaps, impossible. It was just… dangerous. Dreadfully dangerous.

"It is my will," she said.

Hers was an imperious voice, still, for all that it was beginning to quaver with age. Infanta of Spain by birth; daughter of Philip II, archduchess of Austria by marriage, joint sovereign of the Netherlands with her husband Archduke Albrecht VII of Austria, and sole sovereign since his death twelve years earlier.

"It is signed. Witnessed. Sealed. From the first, it was my father's intent that the Netherlands should be an appanage for us, for Albrecht and me. The lawyers have revisited all the provisions of my marriage contract in detail. For us, and for our children, to revert to Spain only if we did not have children."

A shadow of regret for three tiny, frail, babies, dead so long ago, flitted across her face. "Not that they should return to being directly ruled from Madrid after my death. I bore children, so the Netherlands became ours, no matter that they died soon after their birth. Mine, since my husband Albrecht's death. Not, of course, that it will prevent other lawyers, paid by other masters, from interpreting the clauses in other ways. So be it.

"It is my will," she repeated. "My nephew Fernando has earned my trust. I have bequeathed my holdings to him. Let the king of Spain react after he finds that the deed has been done. It will not be long."

Her confessor Bartolome de los Rios y Alarcon shook his head. "Please, Your Grace! You are not dead until you are dead-and you are only sixty-seven years old."

The archduchess gave the Augustinian priest a rather cool look. Arch, it might be called.

"Only?"

De los Rios seemed discomfited, and looked away. Across from him at the table, Pieter Paul Rubens chuckled. "He's a priest, Your Grace-and Spanish, to boot. You can hardly expect him to say it out loud."

He shifted his chair forward and planted his forearms on the table. "But since I am merely an artist-and Flemish, to make it worse-I will undertake the crude business. You thought you were on your deathbed last summer, remember? And yet here you are, quite definitely alive. The only reason you know you were 'supposed' to have died at the end of last year is because you read it in a copy of a Grantville book."

She nodded. "And… so?"

A bit sternly, he said, "So read some of the other books. In the world that book was written, the average age at death of an American woman was almost eighty. And most of them were active and alert-reasonably enough-until the end. So stop predicting your imminent demise. Who knows?"

"I say it again-and so? In that same world, my three children would not have died in infancy. But they did, nonetheless."

She leaned back in her wheeled chair, sighing. "Let us not quarrel. Especially since it hardly matters anyway. Whether I live or die"-she pointed to the papers on the table-"if this transpires, it will be my great-nephew and not I who will have to defend it in a test of arms. Not even when I was twenty could I have led an army into the field as its commander, after all."

De los Rios winced, as did two of the other advisers at the table. Those were Henri de Vicq, who was Flemish, and the Walloon Gerard Courselle. Both of them were men well past middle-age. De Vicq was sixty years old and Courselle, sixty-five.

"Perhaps it will not come to that," the priest said.

"Perhaps not," said Isabella. "But who at this table can make such a promise-or claims to be able to foresee the future? Keep in mind that while King Philip IV may be reluctant to wage war against his younger brother, he has counselors also. The count-duke of Olivares is not likely to hesitate, and those around him, still less. Spain has dominated the field of battle for so long, I'm afraid, that a military solution comes immediately to mind, whenever it is challenged."

Silence fell on the room, for a moment. Then Rubens shrugged and said: "It's still not so easy as all that, Isabella. Just to begin with, how would they send troops from Spain or the Italian possessions? The Spanish Road is no longer open-and won't be, so long as Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar squats atop part of it while the Swedes squat upon much of the rest. Each for their own reasons, neither is about to allow passage to Spanish troops-and both are strong enough that any Spanish army that fought its way through them would be too weak to do anything once they reached the Netherlands. If they could fight through at all, which they might against Bernhard but I doubt very much could do against the Swedes."

He leaned forward still further, his expression intent. "That means transport by sea, and that requires a fleet-and it remains to be seen exactly where Admiral Oquendo will end up, when the time comes. He is deeply bitter over the way the Spanish navy provided Richelieu with his cannon fodder at the Battle of Dunkirk-with the consent of Philip IV and the count-duke of Olivares."

"If the time comes," the archduchess said. She smiled a bit wanly. "Let us not overlook the minor detail that my great-nephew has not agreed to any of this. And without Don Fernando-leading, not simply acquiescing-it will all mean nothing."

Rubens looked at her from lowered eyes. "He is much inclined that way, though. Of that, I am certain."

The old woman shrugged. "Yes, so am I. And-again-so what? You know him, Pieter, by now probably better than anyone of us here at this table. He is a prince of Spain, for good or ill, not a Flemish burgomaster. And he's very young, too, which makes it all the harder."

Rubens nodded. "Yes, I know. He will wait, until the test of arms in the spring. But I can tell you this, Isabella. He may be waiting like a very young fox, but fox he surely is. I know enough of military matters to know that his troop dispositions are not those of an impetuous commander eager to sally forth onto the field again, as soon as the season permits. There will be no repetition of Haarlem, come the spring. He will make Fabius Maximus look like a daredevil."

That brought a little round of laughter. Rather relieved laughter.

"You're sure, Pieter?" asked Alessandro Scaglia.

Rubens swiveled his head and examined the man, for a moment. Privately, Pieter still had doubts about the former Savoyard diplomat. He thought Isabella had been incautious to draw him into her very closest circle. The problem wasn't that he disliked Scaglia-he'd quite enjoyed his company, actually, the few times he'd spent with the man-it was simply that the Savoyard's history was almost too cosmopolitan. Could a man who had served so many courts really be depended upon, in the end, to serve only one? Most of all, why had he left Savoy's service in the first place? Rubens had never gotten a very satisfactory explanation of that.

But, mentally, he shrugged. It was done now, for better or worse. Scaglia already knew enough, if he changed his allegiance, to have all of them executed for treason except the archduchess herself. Because of her royal blood, she'd more likely be walled up in her beloved convent of the Discalced Carmelites attached to the palace-with Spanish guards at the door of her cell, instead of nuns.

Besides, there was something downright preposterous about Pieter Paul Rubens faulting another man for an excess of cosmopolitanism. That stray thought almost made him laugh out loud.

"Yes, I'm sure, Alessandro. Partly from my own observations-alas, I've become far better educated on military affairs than I really ever wanted to be-and partly from various remarks made to me by the cardinal-infante himself. Most important of all, however-my opinion, at least-is that I've watched carefully which officers Don Fernando has made his closest subordinates, as the siege went on."

Scaglia lifted an eyebrow. "Ha. I wouldn't have thought to look there. But I don't really know any of them all that well to begin with."

"I do, by now," said Rubens. "Here is where it stands."

He lifted his forearms from the table and began counting on his fingers.

"His closest military confidant-no question about this-is Miguel de Manrique."

"Ah," said Scaglia. "That is… significant. I agree."

Bartolome de los Rios y Alarcon looked from one to the other. "I'm a priest, not really a diplomat and certainly not a soldier of any kind. Please explain."

"Manrique commanded the Spanish army that surrendered to the Americans at the Wartburg," said Scaglia. He held up his hand, with thumb and forefinger almost touching. "He came this close to being executed for it, after his return to Spain. It was the worst disaster for Spanish arms in a century, at least."

"It was Don Fernando who got him out of the clutches of the Inquisition and brought him to the Low Countries," Rubens elaborated.

"The point to all this," Scaglia continued, "being that if there is any captain of Spain least likely to underestimate the enemy, it is Manrique-and from what Pieter tells us, he is closer to the cardinal-infante's ear than any other of his officers."

"I see. And the others?"

Rubens went back to his finger-counting. "Not one is a Spaniard, to begin with. Two Italian officers-in the Spinola mold, if you understand what I mean-and the Irishman, Owen Roe O'Neill."

Isabella frowned. "I know the two Italian officers you're referring to-and, yes, I agree. They think of themselves more as professional soldiers of a Netherlands army than agents of the king of Spain. But while I've met O'Neill-twice, briefly-I don't understand why you think he's important."

Rubens lowered his hands and smiled. "I think in some ways he may be the most important of all, at least in the long run. Whatever else, he'll not want to see Don Fernando embroiled in wars on the continent. O'Neill has a cause of his own, you see. He's what you'd find called an 'Irish nationalist' in the up-time books."

The priest frowned. "Since when is Ireland a 'nation'? It's just an island, full of half-savages who quarrel even worse than Italians. Even worse than Catalans, if that's possible."

That brought another little round of laughter.

"True, true-today. But O'Neill already detested England-and any English ally-even before he got his hands on copies of Grantville's books."

Isabella gave the arms of her chair an exasperated little slap. "Does anyone in the world not wind up reading those things? It's absurd!"

Rubens tilted his head and gave her a sly smile. "Well, you did, after all."

She half-scowled at him. "I'm rich. Those books-copies, not even the originals-emptied half my treasury. Well. A tenth, at least."

Scaglia chuckled. "Your Grace, you either got cheated or you insisted on very fine copies." He, also, tilted his head. "Or perhaps it was simply that you got the very first editions."

She sniffed. "Well, of course I got the very first copies. The ink was barely dry on them. I'm the daughter of Philip II of the Spanish empire, an Austrian archduchess, and the sovereign of the Netherlands in my own right. I should wait?"

Now, both Rubens and Scaglia chuckled. "Your Grace, I hate to tell you this," Pieter said, "but the production of replicas of up-time books has become a staple of the printers' trade everywhere in Europe. They're not quite out-selling the Bible yet, in most places, but I was told-just last month-by the biggest printer in Brussels, that he expects they will within a year. And I know from speaking to printers in Amsterdam that they did so there within a month after the siege began. Even in Counter-Remonstrant households, it seems."

Isabella rolled her eyes. "Marvelous. Pedro the shepherd and Hans the sausage-maker will be trying to direct their little farms and shops based on their attempts to read their fortunes. I predict disaster."

"You don't have to predict it," Rubens said solemnly. "It's already happened, right in front of our eyes-and on the scale of kings and princes, not shepherds and sausage-makers. What else was Richelieu's Ostend scheme but an attempt to read the future and force a different outcome? And"-he held up his hand, forestalling a comment from de los Rios-"let us not wax too indignant on the subject. For we, too, are attempting the same, are we not?"

He rose out of his chair, leaned over, and planted his forefinger on the papers in the middle of the table. "What else is all this, after all? But an attempt on our part to circumvent-'short-circuit,' the Americans would call it, and don't ask me to explain the precise details of what that means because I asked Anne Jefferson and she couldn't tell me-three and half centuries of bloodletting and misery, most of which served no purpose whatsoever. Not even, in the end, the purposes of the bloodletters."

There was no trace, any longer, of the genial humor which usually tinged Rubens' voice when he spoke. For once, the artist and diplomat was speaking in dead earnest.

"Richelieu is a madman if he thinks he can circumvent the single most obvious and overriding reality of that future world. And that is this." He half-turned and half-bowed to Isabella. "Meaning no personal offense, Your Grace, for you are indeed-I make no jest here-beloved by most of your people. Today, all nations are ruled by kings and princes. Beginning less than two centuries from now, all that will be swept aside and the common folk will come into their own. For good or ill, they will. You-we-anyone-has as much chance of preventing that as the legendary King Canute had of ordering back the tides. Be sure of it."

He sat down heavily. "The difference between us and Richelieu-us and the king of Spain-is that we are not looking to block the outcome. Simply to…" He smiled. "The Americans have another term for it. I swear, they produce the things with even greater profligacy than they produce gadgetry."

"If anyone at this table uses the word 'okay' I shall have them executed," Isabella stated firmly. She waggled her finger. "I'm serious!"

There was a burst of laughter, in which the archduchess did not participate, although she seemed to be struggling against a smile.

"I'm serious," she repeated, still wagging the finger. "The gloves will come off!"

"Ah!" Rubens exclaimed. "That's one of my favorite American expressions."

That brought uproarious laughter; from Isabella, also. When the humor faded, Scaglia asked: "And what is the term, Pieter?"

"Well… it would mean a great deal more to you if you had seen one of their airplanes come down from the sky onto the ground. I watched myself, when Stearns came to Amsterdam. For the entire last part, I was holding my breath. The term is 'soft landing.' I think it's a very good description of what we are attempting here. A soft landing for the future. Foolish to stand against that future, yes. But I see no reason we need to submissively accept every particular in it. No reason, to name just one matter, that we need French and German troops-English, too-marching back and forth across our Low Countries once every generation, it seems."

He smiled again. "We are not, after all, Calvinists with idiotic and heretical notions concerning predestination."

That brought a round of chuckles. Rubens continued. "Neither, by the way-he sees the matter from a very different viewpoint, of course-does Michael Stearns himself. From a political standpoint, I think that was the single most important thing I learned about the man from his visit. If we are willing to compromise, he will at least begin with that stance also. There will of course be many disputes."

De los Rios looked skeptical. "Him, maybe. But what about that Richter creature of his?"

Rubens stifled some irritation. For all the priest's undoubted kindliness, he still had much in him of Spanish insularity if not Castilian arrogance. "She is not a 'creature' to begin with, Bartolome-and she's certainly no creature of his."

"She carries a pistol at all times, they say! What sort of woman-"

"A woman who was gang-raped at the age of sixteen by mercenaries, saw her mother abducted, her father murdered before her eyes, and spent two years as the concubine of one of her rapists in order to keep what remained of her family alive," Scaglia said bluntly; indeed, almost coldly. "I've learned her history, Father de los Rios, which I suspect you haven't."

"Oh, how ghastly." Isabella had her hand pressed to her throat. "I had no idea."

Rubens was too astonished by Scaglia's statement to speak, for a moment. He'd known Richter's history himself, but had had no idea Scaglia did. That was…

Very telling, he thought. He could sense a transformation-sea-change, an American term which ironically came from an Englishman already dead-happening in his attitude toward the Savoyard.

But, for the moment, he simply cleared his throat and added: "Yes, what Alessandro says is quite true. I learned of it from her husband, as it happens. Quite a nice young fellow, by the way, in my estimate. But what's perhaps more to the point is that he also told me she's never used the pistol except on a practice range since she participated in fending off the Croat raid on Grantville that Wallenstein launched. That was well over a year ago."

He turned toward the priest. "Do not underestimate that woman, Bartolome. Whatever else, do not. She could teach Richelieu himself the meaning of ruthlessness-but she's no hothead. In fact"-he was able to smile again-"Don Fernando was quite taken by her, when they finally met last month."

"He did?" Isabella was back to her throat-clutching. "That reckless boy! What was he thinking? I hope-please tell me this much-that he did not permit her to bring that horrid pistol into his presence."

Rubens grinned; he couldn't help himself. "Quite the contrary. He made that stipulation in his request that she come into his camp for a visit-and invited her husband along also, with his shotgun. A weapon, I might add, that is considerably more ferocious and one which, in his case, is almost as famous as hers. He's quite an impressive fellow, actually, in his own much quieter way."

Isabella was practically gaping. "My nephew is a prince of Spain!"

"Your Grace, he did not dispense with his own bodyguards," Rubens said, in a more serious tone. "Please-you must stop thinking of these people as simple, unlettered rabble-rousers. To be as blunt as I can, they could also teach Europe's kings and princes and counselors"-his eyes swept the table-"I do not exempt us, either, the meaning of organization and leadership."

He leaned back in his chair. "Besides, the cardinal-infante had no real choice. By that point in his negotiations with Fredrik Hendryk, everything had been settled. But he had not reached a settlement with Rebecca Abrabanel over the issue of whether the Dutch right to retain their councils and deliberative bodies would be extended in full across the entire Netherlands, in the event the nation was reunited. Not one that she was satisfied with, at least-more precisely, one that she said would satisfy Richter and her Committee of Correspondence. So, Don Fernando decided to talk to Richter himself."

Isabella shook her head, chuckling. "Dear me. I had no idea my rambunctious great-nephew was thinking that far ahead."

"I told you, Isabella. He's a very young fox-young enough that he can't accept the inevitable without at least one clash of arms-but he's a genuine fox, nonetheless. Fredrik Hendryk once told me, rather ruefully, that Don Fernando reminds him in some ways of his father, William the Silent."

That brought a moment's respectful silence. Given the source-any knowledgeable source, really-that was high praise indeed.

"And what was the outcome of the meeting?" Scaglia asked.

"Oh, Don Fernando agreed, in the end. Richter's bargaining argument was so simple, he told me afterward, that he saw no way to refuse."

"And this argument was… what?"

"She told him-very pleasantly, apparently, no shouting involved at all-that she was ultimately indifferent to the matter. Don Fernando could give her the extension of democratic representation across the Netherlands that she wanted. Or she would take it. The difference, she estimated, was not more than two years. Four, at the outside."

Isabella stared at him, wide-eyed, her hand back at her throat. "She bullied a Spanish prince?"

"Oh, hardly that. No, no, Your Grace, you don't understand. It wasn't any implied threat that persuaded Don Fernando. It was simply that-so he told me, afterward-it was quite apparent that Richter was indifferent to the matter. Completely indifferent. He said it was like negotiating with a glacier whether it will reach the sea."

Isabella lowered her hand. "I must meet this woman. Can it be arranged, Pieter?" Impatiently, she waved her hand. "Fine, fine. She can bring the pistol, if she insists. Her husband, too, with his-whatever you call it."

Pieter was taken by surprise again. "I… don't know. I shall enquire, when I return to Amsterdam. Which, by the way, I must do on the morrow. Is there anything further we need to discuss? I will need most of the afternoon and evening to make preparations for the journey."

Isabella and her advisers looked at each other. Finally, seeing that no one seemed to feel any urge to speak, she said: "It seems we are finished, for the moment. Nothing more we can do, really. Everything is ready from our side for the transition, once-if, but let us pray it is simply 'once'-my great-nephew finally decides."

Chapter 24

Rubens paused, in the corridor beyond the conference room, until Scaglia emerged, then fell in beside him.

"I was thinking we should talk some more. We've really not had that much in the way of private discussion."

"Yes, I agree. I was meaning to approach you myself, Pieter. Where? I can come up to the siege camp, if that's easier for you."

Rubens smiled. "Oh, there's no need for anything so rigorous. Mind you, the house I purchased there is quite adequate. But within a week, I believe I shall have acquired a much more spacious home in Amsterdam itself."

"Dear God," Scaglia said, chuckling. "What a preposterous siege this has turned into. The chief diplomat for the besiegers setting up his domicile in the city besieged. What's that American expression? Charles V must be spinning in his grave."

"There are some precedents, actually. Not many, I admit. But that's always the advantage of being an artist, you know. People are willing to label my behavior as 'eccentric' when they need to look the other way."

"True enough." Scaglia sighed. "I should have thought of that, when I began my career. Of course, I doubt if even the most wretched and ignorant reichsritter in Germany would have paid a Swedish copper for anything I painted. Two things, Pieter."

"Yes?"

"I've been to Grantville myself, you know. The first thing is that I want your solemn assurance that you will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me in doing everything in our power to prevent the American trampling of the Low Countries. They can have their Freedom Arches, fine. But no hamburgers. I want those abominations banned."

"Done. Mind you, I doubt we can do it by law. But I'm sure we can find more subtle means to the same end. If nothing else, I'll do a still-life of a hamburger that will nauseate anyone who looks at it. And the second thing?"

They'd reached an intersection at the end of the corridor. Scaglia stepped to the side, out of any traffic, drawing Rubens with him. Very quietly:

"I was taken by the expression 'soft landing,' once you explained it. And I've been thinking for some time myself-you're absolutely right about Richter-that we need our own committees of correspondence. One that is completely continental, just as they are. Call it the European Committees for a Soft Landing, if you will."

Rubens thought about it. He'd often had similar notions himself, although he'd never crystallized them the way Scaglia had.

"The membership to consist of?"

"Open to anyone, from prince to pauper, who wishes to join. I think that's essential, Pieter."

"Yes… I agree. Difficult to carry out in practice, you understand. Neither you nor I-not I, for certain-is really that well-suited to organizing the masses."

"No, we're not. We're diplomats, not agitators. But I have studied the CoCs very carefully, Pieter. I've read a great deal of their literature, spent time in their Freedom Arches, talked to their supporters and activists. Most of what their enemies ascribe to their supposedly demonic methods is no more intelligent than the Protestant prattle about Jesuit devils. The real key to what the CoCs do is simply that they plant their flag, out in the open, where everyone can see it. And then people come to them. And it is among those people that you find your organizers. We can do the same. Not as easily, no, and we'll certainly be drawing a much higher portion of our supporters from more prosperous classes than they do. That will give us the advantage of more money and better connections with existing powers, but shallower roots in the populace as whole. Still, it can be done. With will and energy, it can be done."

Rubens studied him, for a moment. "Are you willing to be-what's that American term?"

"The point man. Yes. I believe I have the skills for it, also."

Rubens continued to study him, for quite a while longer. "So do I. And I think a little mystery-for me, at least-just got cleared up. This is really why you left Savoyard service and came here, isn't it? And-ah, I will not say 'wormed' or even 'worked'-but got yourself into Isabella's graces."

"Yes. I've been thinking about it for two years, now. Ever since the full ramifications and implications of the Ring of Fire became clear to me." He made a little waving gesture with his hand. "I'm partial to the Savoyards, I admit, and probably always will be. But the Savoy is a hopeless place from which to… Perhaps a better way to put it is to remember Archimedes. 'Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum, and I can move the world.' "

Rubens nodded, looking away down the corridor. Not at any of the decorations on the walls, or the guards standing at the end, but simply seeking a sense of space and perspective. "Yes, I see it. It will be up to us to construct the lever. But the Low Countries can be the fulcrum. God and Don Fernando willing, at least."

"Exactly."

"Done." He extended his hand and they exchanged a clasp. "How soon can you come up to the siege?"

"A week, you said, for the new house? How about… eight days from now?"

Gretchen Richter arrived in Brussels three weeks later. She came quietly, with her husband, not quite in disguise but absent her usual insistence on doing everything as visibly as possible. She brought her pistol, too, and her husband brought his shotgun. But after she came into the archducal palace and was escorted to her room, she and her husband left the weapons there.

"I only brought them in case we encountered robbers," she explained to Isabella, once they finally met in a private audience chamber. Other than two guards standing some distance away at the door, the only person who accompanied Isabella was her confessor, Bartolome de los Rios y Alarcon. But the priest never spoke once, throughout.

"Well, I am relieved, I will admit," said Isabella.

The Richter woman's husband smiled. It seemed a very sweet sort of smile, too, although the man was much larger and more imposing-looking than the archduchess had expected. Perhaps that was because Gretchen Richter's reputation was so much that of an ogress that Isabella had assumed any husband would seem tiny next to her.

"Ms. Isabella," the husband said, "I'm not really what you'd call a religious person. But you never know-and while I'm willing to risk the devil, I'm not willing to risk the chance that I might run into my parents in the afterlife. Anywhere in an afterlife, heaven or hell or anything in between. My mother finds out I brought a gun into the presence of a lady, I'd never hear the end of it for eternity. And my pa-this is guaranteed-would whip my ass for a good portion of it."

The meeting went quite well, to her surprise. Very pleasant, in fact, more often than not.

Partly, because they made no attempt to negotiate anything of political substance. There was no point in that, really, under the circumstances. Everyone in the room-probably half the people in all the Netherlands-understood that everything now waited until a young prince of Spain could finally make a decision.

Isabella had simply wanted to get a sense of the woman, beneath the reputation. And, after two hours, thought she had done so.

The key was the husband. From almost the moment he'd come into the room, something about him had nagged at her memory. It took two hours, however, before she could finally bring it into focus-and when she did, she felt a catch in her throat.

Twelve years, now. They didn't look the least bit alike. But there was something there that reminded her of Albrecht. A quiet gentleness-say better, considerateness-beneath the massive appearance. In the young husband's case, the physical mass; in her husband's, the mass brought by titles and position. But both of them were men who would take that extra moment to consider what their actions might do, to those around them, before they shifted the mass.

She could not imagine such a man, married to an ogress. A ruler, yes, even a ruthless one as all rulers must be at times. And that Gretchen Richter was a ruler was no longer in doubt, to Isabella. Titles were ephemera, in the end. The Christ had said so himself, in terms which were unmistakable to anyone not willfully blind. The young woman already wielded more in the way of real power in Europe than most princes, did she not? She'd even bullied Isabella's great-nephew!-and Pieter's attempt to put a philosophical gloss on the matter could go into a chamber pot, as far as Isabella was concerned.

The archduchess could live with that, well enough. It would be hypocrisy, if nothing else, to feel otherwise. She, too, had been what most people had considered the dominant partner in the joint sovereignty she'd exercised with her husband. By his nature, Albrecht had been too… considerate, to be able to do what was sometimes necessary. But he'd always been there, for her; her bulwark, when she needed it; her restraint also, when she needed that. She often thought that only his memory had enabled her to continue after his death. For sure and certain, she'd only been able to make the great and fateful decision she'd just recently made after many hours spent on her knees in the chapel, consulting his spirit as much as she prayed to the Lord they both worshipped.

There was only one ugly moment, at the very end.

"It has been most pleasant," she said, when they rose to leave. "I would ask you to visit again, but…" She sighed, half-caressing the arms of her wheeled chair. "It's not likely I'll be alive long enough to do so."

Richter's face turned to stone. A very pretty young woman-almost beautiful, actually, and Pieter had certainly been right about that magnificent bosom-transformed, in a instant, into something so harsh it was almost cruel.

"You are what? Sixty-five?" she demanded.

Startled, Isabella replied: "Ah… no. Sixty-seven."

"My grandmother is not so much younger. Do you know my history?"

"Ah… yes. Basically."

"Do you know hers?"

"Ah…" Isabella had never even considered the possibility that someone like Richter would have a grandmother in the first place. "No."

"When the soldiers came, she was too old to be raped. So she was able to protect my younger sister while they murdered her son in front of her eyes and raped me. In the two years that followed, she lived through torments that you have never seen outside of paintings."

Like an ancient heathen idol, that face was now.

"Many times I've heard her complain about her age. Bores everyone to tears, sometimes, going on and on about her aches and pains. But I've never once heard her sighing like a stupid sheep and whining about her inevitable imminent death. Stop it, woman. I despise cowardice-and you have no excuse at all."

With that, she turned and left. On his way out, following her, the young husband paused at the door and looked back. With that same sweet smile with which he'd entered.

"Yeah, I know, she's rougher than a cob, sometimes. Sorry 'bout that. But she's still right."

And he was gone, too. Isabella gaped at the empty doorway. No one had spoken like that to her…

Ever, so far as she could recall. Not even her father. And he had been the ruler of the world's mightiest empire!

"The impudence! I can't believe-!"

For a moment, she considered summoning the guards.

But… Well, she had promised safe conduct. And as quickly as she imagined the Richter creature was striding, she'd probably reach her room before the guards could catch up with her. With that horrid pistol in it, which Isabella had no doubt at all the monstrous creature would use before letting herself be arrested.

Her husband's shotgun, too, which might well be worse. Isabella had heard tales of the destruction those up-time weapons could deliver, at close quarters. Higgins himself was even famous for it, apparently. But it hardly mattered. Albrecht had been but an indifferent armsman, but had anyone ever come for Isabella they would only have reached her over her husband's corpse.

So, she let it pass. But she was livid for the rest of the day, furious for three, and sour and disgruntled for a week thereafter.

That night in the chapel, though, when he said his evening prayers, Bartolome de los Rios y Alarcon added a prayer for the soul of Gretchen Richter. She was Catholic herself, after all, even if mostly a lapsed one. But Bartolome would have prayed for her soul even had she been an outright heathen. He was quite sure the ogress had just added five years-three, for sure-to the lifespan of the archduchess.

Chapter 25

Southwark, England

"Well?" asked Harry Lefferts, after George and Juliet Sutherland had brushed the snow off their coats and hung them up. "Do we need to start planning how to get rid of that crime lord of yours?"

Looking even more placid than usual, George glanced around the large central room of their lodgings, where most of Harry's wrecking crew were sprawled about. The assortment of furniture that served them for the purpose could most charitably be described as "modest." Like the house itself, the furnishings were old, often ramshackle, and looked to have been assembled in a completely haphazard manner.

Not bad, though, by the standards of Southwark. Although Southwark was now legally part of London, under the formal designation of "The Ward of Bridge Without" and the more commonly used term "The Borough," it amounted to a separate city in most practical senses of the term. It dated back at least to the time of William the Conqueror and hadn't been officially incorporated into London until 1550. And, for centuries, it had been divided from the larger city just across the Thames by long established customs and traditions.

Southwark wasn't exactly the lawless part of London, but it came rather close. It was where England's capital perched its most disreputable establishments, like the theater, and was the city's largest and most active red light district. Much of the area was simply slums, but nestled here and there were any number of more prosperous dwellings. If there was a lot of poverty in Southwark, there was also quite of bit of wealth-and some of it highly concentrated.

Harry wasn't sure yet, because he hadn't moved about much himself since they'd arrived two days before. But he thought he was going to love the place. It reminded him of Las Vegas. Not the boring and oh-so-damn-proper adult amusement park that Las Vegas had become in his lifetime, once Big Respectable Money started erecting their huge theme casinos on the Strip, but the fabled city of vice and sin that his father and uncles had told him about.

It was too bad, really, that he hadn't rented one of the fancier houses in the area. He could certainly have afforded it, with the money they'd finagled out of a semi-legal art deal they'd pulled off in Amsterdam before leaving for England.

Regretfully, he'd concluded that would give them too high a profile. And there was always the possible awkwardness of having to explain to Mike Stearns exactly why a commando unit which was officially part of the USE's army-even if most of that army's officers would have been surprised to discover the fact, and a fair number would have been positively aghast-had found it necessary to spend money on lavish digs while in the middle of a Desp'rate Feat of Derring-do.

Well… he could probably razzle-dazzle Mike himself. But there was no way he'd get the explanation to fly past Don Francisco. The Sephardic nobleman who served as Mike's head of intelligence was not only very shrewd, he was so wealthy himself that simply handwaving references to the need to spend a lot of money wouldn't make him blink.

Yes, I understand that. What I fail to grasp is why you needed gold cufflinks instead of silver ones. The last time I checked the market-just yesterday-

No, not a chance. Besides, this house was suitable enough. It wasn't actually falling apart anywhere, and the furniture worked even if some of it was weird looking. Better still, the location and the design of the house made it very private, with no way for a nosy neighbor to see what they were doing by just leaning over a fence or peeking through a window. And best of all, the house was situated almost directly across the Thames from the Tower of London. With a simple eyeglass, a man could keep the Tower under close observation so long as the sun was up.

"We'll not have to be concerned about him," said George. "It turns about that Johnny Three-Fingers fell afoul of the authorities last year. And I doubt if his ghost will bother us any."

"Hung him, did they?" said Sherrilyn. She shook her head, somehow managing to combine disapproval and admiration in the same gesture. "You can't accuse the courts in this day and age of coddling criminals, I'll say that much."

"No, no." George made a dismissive motion with his hand. "Not those authorities. The authorities. In Southwark, I mean."

"Ah," said Harry. Seeing that Sherrilyn was looking puzzled, he added: "I think what he means is that Johnny Three-Fingers pissed off the local equivalent of Al Capone."

George knew who Al Capone was, so he'd catch the reference. In fact, the whole wrecking crew had a long-running friendly argument over which of the movie versions was the best. It was a fair split between Rod Steiger's 1959 portrayal and Robert De Niro's in the much later The Untouchables, with George plumping down firmly for Steiger. All of them, of course, felt that both movies were a pale imitation of the great gangster performances by Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson-but since none of their films had technically been about Al Capone, they were disqualified from the debate.

"Not exactly," said George. "You Yanks have a shockingly casual attitude about such things. The authorities here are more like the original Sicilian fellows that your Yank gangsters were trying to imitate. Be that as it may, Johnny Three-Fingers is in no position any longer to avenge his brother. Neither is his other brother, for that matter, since the authorities felt it wise to dispose of him at the same time." He gave Sherrilyn a reproachful glance. "And they certainly didn't hang them. Barbarous business, that is, sometimes a man lasts for minutes. The authorities are far more civilized." He illustrated his definition of civilization by drawing a finger across his throat.

That was something of a relief, if a minor one. But by the time George had finished, Harry realized that his wife was looking rather distressed.

"What's wrong, Juliet?"

"I'm not sure if anything is wrong. But we also ran across an old friend of mine. Liz Lytle, her name. A very close friend, when I lived here. But…" She gave her husband an uncertain look.

"She seemed very distant," George finished for her. "As if she were distracted by something. Odd, that was. Liz was normally as cheerful a woman as you could find. 'Outgoing,' as you Yanks put it."

George had taken to calling Americans "Yanks" from watching too many of those same movies. More in the interest of precision than because he really cared, Harry had once tried to explain to him the none-too-fine distinctions between a New Englander and a West Virginian, but George had waved off the matter. "Might mean something to you Yanks, but to us Englishman a Yank is a Yank."

Naturally, the first thing George had done once they set foot on English soil was bestow a very disapproving look upon Harry. "And, indeed-just as I was warned. Here the Yank is, himself. Overpaid, oversexed and over here."

Harry had ignored the quip. It was silly, anyway. Oversexed, he'd grant, and "over here" was a done deal. Overpaid was ridiculous.

"Not like her at all," Juliet said, looking a bit drawn. For the first time, Harry realized that the Englishwoman was actually quite upset. Juliet had a temperament that was, if anything, more placid than her husband's. For her, this amounted to a screaming fit.

"You really think something is wrong? With her personally, I mean. Keep in mind that from everything you told us last night the whole city's been in an uproar ever since the queen got killed."

Juliet sneered. "Who cares about that silly French bitch? Nobody in Southwark, I can tell you that."

Her husband smiled. "Not until the lord chamberlain finally remembers to order the theaters closed for a period of mourning, at any rate. But she's got the right of it, Harry. Westminster is in an uproar, sure enough. Rumors are flying all over the place, even here in Southwark. But it's not as if any of London's commoners will shed a single tear over the accident. That would have been true even if the whole royal family had been killed. They'd be more likely to throw a celebration, come to it."

Harry wasn't surprised. The Stuart dynasty had spent the three decades since it came to power steadily squandering away whatever goodwill it might have started with. Constant clashes with Parliament, the incredibly excessive favoritism showed to the duke of Buckingham by both James I and his son Charles, the son's asinine attempt to marry a Spanish infanta with that same Buckingham as his sidekick, the list went on and on. Charles I hadn't been popular even before he brought in Wentworth and imposed direct royal rule, using mercenary companies from the continent paid for with a very mysterious and suspicious source of money.

Juliet nodded. "Elizabeth and I were very close friends, Harry-and we hadn't seen each other in several years. But she acted as if she just wanted to get rid of me."

The first thought that crossed Harry's mind, of course, was to wonder if that was because this Lytle woman had figured out why they were in England. But he dismissed the notion almost instantly. None of the crew had left the house since they arrived except George and Juliet. Since they were natives and knew Southwark particularly well, Harry had sent them to cruise about to get the sense of things. There was no way Lytle could have deduced anything simply from the fact that the Sutherlands had reappeared in England.

"See what you can find out, then," he told her. Then, seeing a questioning look from Gerd, he shrugged. "Why not? We can't do anything more until we get in touch with Julie and Alex. Speaking of which-"

He glanced up the stairs, where Paul Maczka was setting up the radio in one of the upper rooms. "It's probably about time for one of us-"

"It's your turn, Harry," said Matija. He held up his hand forcefully. "Don't argue about it! I've kept the records."

Harry scowled. "Where the hell did this idiot tradition get started that everybody in the crew shares equally in the manual labor? Dammit, I'm the commanding officer."

George cleared his throat. "Well, actually, you started it. If you'd been an Englishman, you'd have more sense. But you Yanks are besotted with that silly egalitarian business." He started putting his coat back on. "Come on, Juliet. Let's see what's up with Lizzie dear."

She looked a bit startled. "Right now? It's getting dark out."

"Yes, I know. That's why right now. A man my size creeps about better in the dark than he does in broad daylight." He gave his heftily built wife a look that was both measuring and appreciative at the same time. "So do you, for that matter."

***

After they left, Harry climbed the stairs. He didn't quite trudge the steps, but that was only because he felt he had to maintain a certain august demeanor as the commanding officer. Even if all he was going to be doing was the coolie work of cranking the pedals to fire up the blasted radio so Paul could get in touch with Amsterdam.

Luckily for him, they had a good window that evening and they got all the reports relayed sooner than usual. So, it was with light and airy steps that Harry came back down the stairs.

"Gentlemen!" Then, with a little bow to Sherrilyn: "And lady. I am pleased to announce that we've gotten in touch with Julie and Alex Mackay. Indirectly, at least-but it won't be necessary to use the Amsterdam relay any longer."

"They're that close to London?"

"No." Harry struggled to make his grin cheery instead of savage. "They're not 'close.' They're here." He pointed to the wall of the house that faced the west. "Apparently, they're taking in the theater tonight. Julie insisted she wanted to see the Globe Theater while she was in town. Seeing as how she probably wouldn't have the chance again."

"Harry," said Sherrilyn. "Stop grinning. You'll scare the children."

His grin widened. "Don't be silly. There aren't any kids here in the first place."

She covered her face in the peekaboo manner a child uses. "Fine. You're scaring me."

"Me, too," said Felix.

Harry went alone, since he saw no reason for a large party. He spotted Julie and Alex Mackay as soon as they came out of the Globe. It wasn't hard, since they were almost the first ones out.

He angled across to intersect them. Alex spotted him coming before Julie did, and his hand moved down to the hilt of the sword at his waist. In the dark, of course, Harry would just look like any man.

"Psst!" he hissed. "Hey, lady!"

He opened one side of his Lee Van Cleef style coat. "Wanna see some feelthy pictures?"

The couple came to an abrupt half. There was silence, for a moment. Then Julie said: "Harry, you're a jackass."

"Hey, it worked, didn't it?"

***

On their way to the house where the crew was staying-the Mackays had rented quarters on the other side of the theater district-Julie was full of complaints.

"Jesus, that theater stinks. If that was Shakespeare, you can have it. The audience were pigs. And since when"-her voice got a bit shrill-"does Juliet get played by a guy?"

Alex cleared his throat. "I did try to warn you, love."

"I thought you were pulling my leg. Juliet-played by a guy? So was every so-called woman in the play-including the nun! Jesus! Why don't they just call it the Drag Queen Palace and quit pretending they're doing legitimate theater? It's disgusting!"

Thankfully, the skies were overcast and it was quite dark. So Harry didn't think Julie could see his smile. "Well, tell me. Did you find out the truth? Did Balthazar have it right? Shakespeare wasn't actually written by Shakespeare?"

"Who cares?" Julie hissed. "Whoever the hell wrote that play, he was a fucking pervert. Juliet-played by a guy."

Once they arrived at the house, Julie quickly became the center of attention. For a wonder, given the group of men there, that wasn't because she was young and pretty. Testosterone can work in mysterious ways.

"Did you bring the rifle?" Felix asked. He said "the rifle" much the same way that a breathless child speaks of a wondrous magic item.

"Sure," said Julie. She jerked her head over her shoulders. "Got it hidden back at our place."

Harry thought for a moment that the guys were almost going to say "ooh" and "aah." None of them except Harry and Gerd had been there when Julie carried out her now-legendary feats of marksmanship. But by now they knew about them-down to every last detail, in fact. They could be a little obsessive, that way.

"Where'd you learn to shoot like that?" asked Matija.

"My grandma, mostly. She was the best rifle shot in the area in her day, too."

Donald looked skeptical. "One small town produced two women who are great shots?"

Hurriedly, before Julie could get her dander up, Harry intervened. "Hey, man, she's just telling it just the way it is. Her grandmother was Anna Lou Ballew, although I only knew her as Mrs. McQuade. She was the national teenage rifle champion at Camp Perry twice-first time when she was fourteen-and she qualified for the U.S. Olympic team." Harry gave Julie a sly smile. "They wouldn't let her go, of course, men being men in those days and her being a girl and all. But she was sure as hell good enough. She was appointed West Virginia athlete of the year, too. I can't remember which year."

"1940," said July. "First woman ever got the honor. And the only one who's ever done it in Marksmanship. She kept shooting on her company team until she retired, and she spent every summer traveling to Camp Perry for the nationals."

Julie paused, for a moment, her face scrunching up a little. "She's probably still doing it, in fact, wherever she is. She was still alive and in good health last time I saw her-and so was Grandpa. They were living in Florida by then, though, so they got left behind when the Ring of Fire hit us."

By now, Julie's initial ire had vanished. She even gave Harry an appreciative little nod. "Yup, that was my grandma. Anyway, she's the one who taught me. 'Course-not wanting to sound like I'm a braggart like Harry here-there was some natural talent involved. Mine, I mean."

Harry took her by the arm. "Come on, Julie. Let's go upstairs and I'll show you the shooting gallery."

Julie peered out the window in the corner room upstairs that was closest to the Tower, looking across the Thames. "Can't see a damn thing, in this light. What's the range?"

"Oh, hell, I was kidding. I didn't actually mean you'd be shooting from here."

"What's the range?" she asked again, very firmly.

He started to say too far but decided that was risky. With Julie, you never knew. She might insist on trying it, just to prove she could make the shot.

"Look, Julie, it doesn't matter. You might be able to make the shot-except it won't be 'the shot,' it's likely to be a lot of them. You have heard the term 'getaway,' haven't you? We're not exactly going to be nestled in the palm of our own army here, with the emperor himself looking over your shoulder, the way he was at the Alte Veste. Once it's done, we've gotta get out of here. Mucho pronto. And this house is hardly the best place to start from, taking it on the lam-wise."

She chewed her lip, for a moment. "Okay, that makes sense. Where do I set up, then? You have heard the term 'gun rest,' haven't you? Across this big a river, you can't make a good shot just standing up. Not me, not anybody."

"Relax, willya? Tomorrow we'll look around. We'll find something suitable."

Julie looked at Sherrilyn, who'd come up to the room with them. "Does this Great Commando Leader always plan his operations with such careful and deliberate precision?"

"Oh, hell no, girl. Usually Harry just wings it."

"You're ganging up on me," Harry complained.

"Sure we are," said Sherrilyn. "We're girls. You're a guy."

Julie patted her arm. "Still, we oughta ease up. At least Harry's a guy playing a guy. Now that I've seen the pervert ways of London, I figure that's gotta count for something."

By the time they got back downstairs, Juliet and George Sutherland were back.

"Something is wrong," Juliet said. "Liz has three men staying with her."

"Ah…" Harry tried to find the right way to say it. This could get delicate.

"Oh, leave off!" snapped Juliet. "You and your nasty mind. Sure, in times past there might have been the odd fellow coming and going, of an evening. What was that, George?" The last question had been addressed rather sharply at her husband.

"Nothing, dearest. Just talking to myself. Thoughtless habit of mine, now and then."

What he'd actually murmured-Harry had heard it, quite clearly-was several odd fellows, and at any time of day or night. But he thought that remark was best left buried. Perhaps run a herd of horses back and forth across it too, to obliterate all traces, the way he'd heard the Mongols had made sure nobody could find the grave of Genghis Khan and dig him up.

Fortunately, Juliet seemed inclined to let it go. "As I was saying, while it's true that Liz was not exactly what you might call a proper lady, she'd never have had three strange men staying in her lodgings at once. And they look to be settled in, too."

"Especially one of them," added George. That got him another sharp look from his wife, but this one he didn't evade. "Dearest," he said, spreading his hands, "it's just a fact. You saw it as well as I did. Whoever those other two fellows were, she certainly wasn't unhappy with the presence of that one."

"How do you know?" asked Harry.

Juliet looked a bit embarrassed. George, however, was pretty much a stranger to that sentiment. "How do you think? Once we found out where she was living-which wasn't hard, seeing as how it's the same place she was living when we left some years back-we crept up and peered through the window. The bedroom window, to be specific. Juliet, when you speak to Liz again, you should caution her that cheap curtains don't really provide much in the way of privacy. It would have helped if she and her unknown paramour had put out the lamps before they started-well, no need to get into the details."

Harry ran fingers through his hair. "All right, fine. So she's glad the one guy is there, and who knows why the other two are. But I can't see where any of this has anything to do with us. I mean, I didn't mind the two of you going out to set your minds at rest regarding your old friend-or not-but that was just because I thought we had plenty of time to kill. Now that Julie's here, we really oughta get rolling. You know. The Tower. The Great Escape. Stalag 17. Von Ryan's Express. That is why we're here, after all. Not to play Sherlock Holmes."

"Yes, of course," said George. He laid a hand on his wife's shoulder. "He is right, dearest."

Juliet looked very unhappy, but all she did was nod.

Harry offered to walk Julie and Alex back to their quarters. Insisted, in fact, after Alex told him it really wouldn't be necessary.

"I want to get a good look at the Globe. I barely had a chance, earlier, since Julie was in such an allfire hurry to get away from the place."

"Since when did you give a damn about high culture?" Julie demanded. She pronounced it kult-cha.

"Hey, I spent months with Giulio Mazarini. Rome, Paris, places like that. You wouldn't believe how much culture I got exposed to." He pronounced it the same way.

"Oh, bullshit! You were just checking out the red light districts, don't lie to me, Harry. And you'd be wasting your time at the Globe, for sure. Any whores hanging around there would most likely be guys pretending to be girls." The expression that now came to her face was one of Dawning Comprehension. Like Juliet Sutherland, Julie Mackay would never get any plaudits from devotees of method acting. "Unless…"

Neither was Harry, come down to it. His shrug exuded Shameful Confession.

"Yeah, I been corrupted." He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "It's Sherrilyn's fault. She's been playing so hard to get lately that it's twisting me inside."

"Harry, you're a jackass," said Sherrilyn.

"Two women in one night," said Harry smugly. "Maybe there's hope for me yet."

Julie and Sherrilyn blew simultaneous raspberries.

"It's true," Harry insisted stoutly. "A real man measures his macho by the number of times women dump on him. That's why we only watch chick flicks under protest. Might screw up the readings on the wimp-o-meter."

Julie and Sherrilyn looked simultaneously cross-eyed, trying to follow the logic. "What the hell is a wimp-o-meter?" Julie demanded.

"You wouldn't understand. It's a guy thing."

Chapter 26

"She says she wants us to lock everything down, for the moment, until she can find out what's happening with Wentworth. Do nothing until she gives us the word." The expression on Paul Maczka's face was just as dubious as the tone of his voice. In some indefinable manner, so was the way he tossed the radio note onto the kitchen table.

"What the hell for?" demand Donald Ohde, sitting at the far end. "Who cares which minister they throw in the Tower this week? Give it a few days, and you'll see Wentworth out and Cork inside, staring at the walls." Irritably, he slapped the table. "You ask me, I think the woman's just losing her nerve."

Harry Lefferts wagged his fingers in a gesture of restraint. "Easy, Don, easy. I know Melissa Mailey; you don't. High school kids don't call her the Devil's Bitch for nothing. She is one tough old broad." A little reminiscent smile came to his face. "I always liked her myself, even if none of the other guys did. Even after she made me write I will not be a smartass in front of a way smarter teacher two hundred times on the blackboard. What the hell, I had been a smartass-and, more to the point here, she is smarter than me."

Ohde made a face. "Fine. I still say, so what? She can be the Devil's counselor as well as his bitch, what difference does it make? We're commandos, for Christ's sake, not monks in a cell. We don't meditate patiently, we break things."

Like all of Harry's unit, whatever seventeenth-century inhibitions against blasphemy Ohde had ever possessed, he'd long since cast aside.

Harry repeated the finger-wagging gesture. "I think she's got something in mind. And if I'm right…"

Slowly, a huge grin spread across his face. Amazingly huge, given that there was really not a trace of humor in the expression at all. "Great Escape, indeed. Stalag 17,000. Von Ryan's great big long freight train. Piss on 'Express.' "

Ohde stared at him. So did everyone else gathered around the table. Maczka looked around for a vacant chair; finding none, he leaned back against a wall.

"Holy shit," he said. "Are you serious?"

"I told you. She is one tough broad-and don't ever let that prim and proper manner of hers fool you any. Underneath it all, she's got a temper like you wouldn't believe, even if she's the only person I ever knew who could chew you up one side and down the other in grammatically correct sentences and never use a single cuss word."

He glanced around the table. "Guys, we're talking about a sixty-year-old woman who's spent her whole life giving the finger to the establishment. And now that same establishment"-this time, he waved his whole hand, not just the fingers-"close enough, anyway, the Devil's Bitch never saw much distinction between one establishment and another-just went and locked her up for over half a year."

The grin came back, though not as large and with some actual humor in it. "I don't remember it myself, 'cause I was just a little kid then. But she got herself tossed in jail during the big '78-'79 coal miners strike for heckling the cops too much. Soon as they let her out she went home just long enough to make up a picket sign and then-I mean, she didn't stop for a hamburger, nothing-she made a beeline right to the big police station in Fairmont and started up a one-woman picket line of her own. Sign read: You're STILL assholes."

Everybody laughed. "I thought you said she never used cuss words," said Felix.

"Well… she never did, dealing with kids. Not even a 'damn.' But I guess she figured it was okay if she was picking on somebody bigger'n her."

"Did they arrest her again?"

"Naw. Truth is, the Fairmont cops weren't really bad guys. I think most of them thought it was pretty funny themselves. And what would be the point, anyway? They'd have to let her out sooner or later, and-given Melissa-who knows what she'd have come up with next?"

Smiling now, Ohde shook his head. "All right, I get the point. But do you really think she's seriously considering springing anybody but them?"

"Yup. I think she's mad enough she wants to get even as well as get out."

"Why not?" said George Sutherland heavily. "We were already planning to get Cromwell out. What's one more man?"

"Be more than that," his wife mused. "Wentworth's wife and kids are in the Tower, too. I can't imagine he'd leave without them."

Harry scratched his chin. "Good point." He stood up and waved at Paul, summoning him to follow. "Let's back up there and find out exactly how many people she's got in mind. I only figured on two boats. We might need another one."

The answer came back immediately. Paul didn't bother writing it down, with Harry at the receiver. He'd only written down the first one out of habit, anyway. At this close range, they were in direct verbal communication, not using Morse code.

"Don't know yet, Harry. From what we can tell, everything's up in the air. But we haven't been able to find out much, beyond the obvious fact that a coup d'etat is in progress. The Warders aren't talking to us, but Darryl says Vicky's whole family is edgy. 'Tenser'n cats at a dog convention,' is the way he put it."

Harry frowned. "Who's Vicky-and why's her family figure into this?"

"Oh. Forgot to tell you. Darryl got engaged. Vicky's his fiancee. Most of her family-men, that is-are members of the Yeoman Warders."

"You're shitting me!"

"Still cussing, huh? If there's a blackboard over there, write on it fifty times 'I will not use bad language in front of my ex-schoolteacher.' No, I'm not shitting you. Why is that a surprise, anyway? A lot of the men in the Tower are Warders."

"Not that! Darryl got engaged?"

"Sure did. Hey, we're in the seventeenth century, Harry. Age of miracles. If Darryl were a statue, he'd probably be leaking tears of blood."

Blankly, Harry stared out the window. The Tower was quite visible in the bright winter sunlight. The weather had finally cleared up.

"We're talking about Darryl McCarthy, right? I mean, you didn't get something criss-crossed and wind up with a different Darryl?"

"Don't be silly. How many other Darryls did I ever have write on a blackboard three hundred times 'My name is Darryl McCarthy, not Redd Foxx'?" And then make him correct his spelling because he kept dropping the extra d's and x's."

Harry chuckled. "All right, good point. He was pissed as hell about it. Didn't stop crabbing for two weeks afterward. Still. I had him figured for a lifelong righteous bachelor."

"Like you, I take it?"

Even though she couldn't see him, Harry twisted his face into something that was halfway between a grimace and a questioning expression.

"Not actually sure any more, Ms. Mailey. The seventeenth century makes a man think about things a lot more carefully. God, I love this time and place." A bit hurriedly, he added: "Not that I'm in any hurry to get married, y'all understand."

"You would love this time and place, you young rascal."

"Damn right I do. Back home I would've just been calculating how long I could stay in the mines before I started getting black lung and had to quit and go flip hamburgers for minimum wage. Get to look forward to retirement, sitting on a rocking chair on a beat-up old porch wheezing to my buddies about the good old days. Hell with that. This here's like being in Las Vegas-the old, real one I'm talking about-except the bouncers've got swords and guns and the cops use red hot tongs instead of handcuffs. Just makes the odds more of a thrill."

"God help us."

"He might have to-if we're supposed to spring Darryl's whole pack of new in-laws too. I mean, jeez, Ms. Mailey, I was figuring on a couple of little riverboats, not a cruise ship."

"I don't think it would be all of them. They're Yeoman Warders, don't forget. Just Vicky. In fact, I'm not even sure-hold on a minute, Harry. From the sounds outside, I think something's happening."

Paul had drifted to the window, as he listened to the conversation-Melissa's end of which he could hear clearly from the microphone.

"Something sure is happening," he said sharply. "Better come here and look at this, Harry."

Harry came over to the window. Unlike late twentieth-century cities, which didn't use wood for heating, London in the seventeenth century had very few trees. So he had an unimpeded view of the Tower across the Thames-and he'd picked this house to rent partly because it had a good view of the fortress' main entrance on its western side.

He pursed his lips, and then blew air through them slowly. "Oookay. Paul, I gotta bad feeling all our plans just flew south for the winter."

An army was marching up to the Tower. The lead elements were already beginning to pass through the Middle Tower and nearing Byward Tower. A small army, true enough. But Harry was pretty sure the guard force at the Tower had just gotten massive reinforcements. It certainly wasn't an attacking force-the gates of Byward Tower were swinging wide open to let them in.

These were professional soldiers, too, it was obvious even at the distance. Probably several of the mercenary companies the English crown had hired on when Charles threw in with the League of Ostend. As an actual guard force, Harry doubted if they were as good as the Yeoman Warders. But so what? A jailbreak had just turned into the prospect of a siege-with a handful of besiegers.

"Well, shit," he said.

"No, not in there," said Sir Francis Windebank. "I don't want Laud in communication with Wentworth. Even on separate floors, I don't want both of them in the Bloody Tower."

Stephen Hamilton, one of the captains of the Yeoman Guards, considered the problem, letting no sign of his fury show on his face. "Well, Sir Francis, that's a bit difficult-seeing as how you'll be needing the Lieutenant's Lodging and Beauchamp Tower for your officers, and you're wanting Wakefield Tower for yourself and your staff."

"And the White Tower for my men, yes, I know. How long will it take to clear that out, by the way?"

"Can I draw on the soldiers themselves for labor?" asked Hamilton, eyeing the huge central keep of the fortress. "It's mostly been used for storage for some thirty years, now. The inside's a jumble."

"I can't see why not," said Windebank impatiently. "Yes, yes, the soldiers will complain, but that's a problem for their captains. They either clear it out or they can sleep in the open."

They'll be shitting in the open, either way, thought Hamilton. The White Tower was ancient, dating back to the time of William the Conqueror. Its sanitary facilities were scanty and primitive. Not the least of the reasons Stephen was so angry was that he knew the careful sanitary arrangements that the American nurse Rita Simpson had spent months overseeing were being shat upon along with the Warders. Give it a few weeks, with hundreds of new soldiers crammed into the Tower, and the diseases which had been mercifully almost absent the past months would come back with a vengeance.

But there was nothing he could do about it. Cork had replaced Strafford, and the earl from Ireland was determined to prove to anyone that his fist was even harder than that of his overthrown predecessor-and he'd not be bothering with gloves, thank you. Not dealing with such as the Yeoman Warders, at any rate, however gracious he might to English noblemen and wealthy merchants.

"It'll have to be the Salt Tower, then," said Hamilton. "It's not really fit for the archbishop, what with all the priests that were held there a time back-that many, they left it a mess and we've never had the funds to repair the damage-but it's the only space that remains." He set his jaw. "Unless you're prepared to place William Laud in one of the dungeons."

Sir Francis winced. For just an instant, the man's arrogant surface vanished and Hamilton got a glimpse of the fear and uncertainty that lurked beneath. He and Cork and their new ruling party were taking a fearsome gamble, here. That much was obvious to any simpleton urchin in London, much less a captain of the Yeoman Warders. Their authority was even less broadly based than Wentworth's had been. In the end, it rested on nothing more substantial than the support of King Charles, who was by all accounts now a cripple, half-out of his mind with grief over the death of his wife-and a monarch who was notorious in any event for being fickle and undependable.

The only reason their sudden coup had succeeded at all-this much was also evident to a Warder captain, if not to street urchins-was that Wentworth had amassed such a great pile of resentment against him on the part of England's upper classes. The earl of Strafford was without doubt a very capable man, but he tended to be oblivious to the personal reactions of people around him. He could and did give offense without even realizing it; often enough, without even meaning to. He was like a good blacksmith who understood every aspect of his trade-except the fact that he was trying to mold people instead of metal. Iron does not resent the strike of a hammer or the rough grip of tongs. People do, deeply.

"No, no, that's absurd," Windebank said hastily. "The archbishop of Canterbury, in a dungeon? Grotesque."

He didn't add "and most unwise as well," but that was clearly uppermost in his thinking. As well it should be. Let the king's favor turn, and Sir Francis Windebank might easily find himself in the Tower-and given the same accommodations his enemies had been given. A prisoner could survive decent lodgings in the Tower for a very long time. Kings had lived here, in times past. Sir Walter Raleigh had lasted in the Bloody Tower for thirteen years-and then had died, not from ill health, but the ax-blade of the headsman. Surviving one of the dungeons was a much different proposition, especially for a sixty-year-old man like Archbishop Laud. Or a man in his early fifties, like Windebank, for that matter.

"Very well, Sir Francis, I'll see to the archbishop's new quarters."

He turned to leave, but Windebank held him back with a hand on the arm. "One last thing, Captain Hamilton. In case I haven't made it clear enough. Both Wentworth and Laud are to be well kept, and in good comfort. But they're not to speak to anyone, beyond the guards themselves. Is that understood? No visitors of any kind, nor are they to be allowed onto the grounds."

Hamilton nodded. Again, he had to fight down an expression. Not a scowl of anger, this time, but a sneer of contempt. Windebank's fear of allowing either of the two new prisoners to have any outside contact was itself a sign of the new regime's fragility. Beyond that, it was a sign of the man's stupidity.

No, not outright stupidity, he thought, as he walked away. Just that imitation of it that so many men fell into, when they let their preoccupation with immediate tasks blind them to the world beyond.

Hamilton passed through the gate next to the Bloody Tower that connected the Inner and Outer Wards. Then he headed west down the Water Lane toward the group of men alongside Bell Tower, who were guarding the archbishop. Along the way, he passed by St. Thomas' Tower, and gave it a glance.

Sheer stupidity it was, though, whatever it's provenance. Sir Francis had given orders that no one was to be allowed contact with Wentworth and Laud-but had given no such orders regarding the people held prisoner in St. Thomas' Tower. Stephen Hamilton smiled, thinly. That was like a man ordering mastiffs muzzled as well as collared-while leaving bare the teeth of wolves.

And wolves they were, too, no matter how much the Warders might have come to like the beasts. Stephen Hamilton liked the Americans himself, for that matter, insofar as his cold soul had it in him to like anyone who was not of his own family. But he'd never once lost sight of the fact that he had wolves under guard.

He hadn't brought the matter to Windebank's attention, however. And now that he had a bit of time to think, Hamilton had to ask himself why he hadn't.

The answer didn't take long in coming. Nor did it surprise him. He'd given the matter some thought already, from time to time. He'd had no difficulty understanding the nature of those prisoners in St. Thomas' Tower, for the good and simple reason that he was at least half wolf himself. Not even that, really, since his wife died. He was simply a wolf who'd chosen to wear a watchdog's uniform, for the well-being of his family.

Treat me like a cur, would they?

After he finished seeing to the archbishop being placed in the Salt Tower, Hamilton returned to his own quarters. He shared rooms in the Lieutenant's Lodging with the rest of his family. Quarters which had been quite spacious, until today.

The first persons he encountered when he entered were Patricia Hayes and Victoria Short. As was true of all the members of Stephen's family, they were in-laws, not blood relations. The Warder captain had no surviving kin of his own, only those whom his wife Jane had given him before she died in childbirth. The infant had died with her, leaving Hamilton bereft of children as well as spouse.

Patricia was his wife's sister. She was a widow, now, her husband having been killed in a horsefall a few years since. Victoria and her older brother Andrew were the children of his wife's long-deceased half brother.

Both women were carrying bundles of bedding. "They're driving us out!" Patricia said angrily. "We're losing two of our rooms!"

"Better than most, at that," Stephen said. "Some of the Warders with no officers in the family are being forced out of the Lodging altogether. They'll have to find a shack out on the grounds against the wall. Or make one, more likely."

"What's happening?" asked Victoria plaintively.

Hamilton now had his anger completely under control. Iced down, it would be better to say. "The earl of Cork feels that leaving his new prisoners in the care of Yeoman Warders might be risky. It seems-this will come as a surprise to everyone, of course, including ghosts-that there might be some questions concerning our loyalties. So he's brought in three companies of mercenaries to see to the Tower's security."

"That's idiotic!" snapped Patricia.

So it was. The Yeoman Warders of the Tower answered to the king of England, whoever he might be and whatever they thought of him. No business of theirs, which ministers came and went at the king's favor. Lock one up; let another go; theirs was simply to see to it that the locks were sound.

"As it may be," was all he said, however. "Victoria, I need to speak to you. In the kitchen, as soon as you've put away that bedding."

She looked at him, blankly. "Just me?"

He considered the matter for a moment. "Is Andrew about?"

"He's next door, helping the Hardwicks," said Patricia. "Poor people. They're being forced into a single room-even losing their kitchen."

"Get him too, then." Hamilton headed for the kitchen, not waiting to see if the women would obey. He had no doubt they would. Although he was no blood relation to anyone in his family, over the years he'd come to be what amounted to their patriarch. Partly because he was the oldest, being now into his forties. Partly because…

He was who he was. He never bit. He never snarled.

He never needed to.

Victoria came into the kitchen with her brother Andrew just behind her.

"Sit, girl." Hamilton pointed to the chair across from his at the small work table in a corner. "I've a question."

"What is it?" she asked uncertainly, pulling out the chair. There being no other in the room, her brother just stood to one side, his arms crossed over his chest.

"Your swain, the McCarthy lad. He hasn't come through the window, has he?"

She was startled. Then, flushing, she started to glance nervously over her shoulder, toward her brother.

"Well…"

"I want the truth, Victoria. Whatever it is. I won't care-and neither will Andrew. You're betrothed, now, so what does it matter?"

After a moment, she swallowed. "No. He hasn't."

"It's upset you."

Her nervousness at being asked such questions in the presence of her brother suddenly vanished, replaced by simple hurt. Her green eyes seemed a bit watery. "Yes. It makes me wonder…"

Hamilton chuckled. He glanced at Andrew and saw that the girl's brother was trying to suppress a smile.

"Oh, I shouldn't worry about that, Victoria," Hamilton said. "Whatever Darryl's reasons, lack of ardency is hardly the answer."

The look she gave him belonged more on the face of an eight-year-old girl, than one who'd just passed her twentieth birthday. "You're certain, Uncle?"

He had to suppress a smile himself, now. Victoria's brother wasn't bothering to do so, any longer, since he'd sidled over a bit and was now standing behind his sister where she couldn't see him. Stephen and Andrew had made jokes to each other, often enough, about the way Darryl McCarthy looked at Victoria when he thought no one was observing. Jokes about tongues hanging down to belt buckles and enough drool to drown an ox.

"Oh, yes, I'm quite certain."

"Then, why-"

Suddenly, she gave him a hard look. Almost an angry one.

"It's because he's afraid of you," she pronounced. "It's your fault. Uncle, you shouldn't scare people that much."

Hamilton knew that wasn't the reason either. Darryl McCarthy was wary of him, true enough. All men were, once they got to know Stephen Hamilton-if they had the sort of background that enabled them to gauge him in the first place.

That same background, however, was the key. Hamilton had always understood Darryl McCarthy, from the first day the young man had spent some hours in their quarters. Not too different from Hamilton himself, really-or from Andrew, rather. A tough young man from a tough background, who wasn't a fool but wasn't afraid of men, either.

Hamilton had understood McCarthy, yes-but he'd still underestimated him, and badly. So much was now clear.

"No, I don't think that's it," he said calmly. "I think the reason he hasn't come through the window is simply because he's afraid of getting you pregnant."

She almost crossed her eyes. "But-but-"

Her confusion was understandable. Once a couple was betrothed, the girl's family relaxed. By law and custom both, a betrothal was as good as wedding vows. Young couples often had to postpone the marriage, sometimes for years, until they could put together what they needed to set up their own household. It would be stupid, not to mention cruel, to force them into unnatural abstinence in the meantime. If the girl got pregnant, so be it. She'd hardly be the first one to waddle up to the altar. Likely enough, her mother and half her sisters and aunts had done the same.

But it was time to end this, before the girl's suspicions became aroused. Hamilton shook his head. "No, it's simply that I think the Americans have different customs."

He gave Andrew a quick, meaningful glance.

"I'm sure that's the reason, too," her brother said reassuringly. "I inquired with Lady Mailey, you know. They were a wealthy enough people that they got married quite young. Not like us. So they'd wait-were supposed to, at least, and Darryl's a good lad-until they were actually married."

That was twaddle, of course. Not the generalities-Hamilton had inquired himself, not from Lady Mailey but Captain Simpson-but its application to Darryl. Simpson hadn't come right out and labeled McCarthy a tomcat, but he'd said enough in the way of warning that Hamilton had made sure the girl was watched carefully until McCarthy finally betrothed her. Ironically, his only concern thereafter had been that the American might view his betrothal casually. Hamilton knew their customs were different there, also.

Ironic, indeed, in light of what he now understood.

"You really think that's all it is?" Victoria asked. She seemed aggrieved and mollified at the same time.

"Oh, yes. But now I need to talk privately with Andrew, Victoria."

She rose from the table and left immediately. More slowly, Andrew came over and took the chair she'd vacated.

He started to say something. But then, seeing the distant expression on the Warder captain's face, he fell silent.

Stephen Hamilton was distant, indeed, for a time. Not dwelling on his past-it was not one he liked to think about, except for those few years after he met Jane-but simply letting its essence saturate him. He'd passed through a hell that had left nothing much of the tough young man from a tough background who'd begun the journey. Just a cold, hard predator who'd luckily managed to find a pack of his own. That was now his only lifeline to humanity.

And even that was conditional. Stephen Hamilton would accept duty, well enough. Not because he cared about leashes but simply because he found a certain personal comfort in restraints. That comfort removed, his view of the world was very stark and very simple.

There were two sorts of people. Two, and only two.

His, and everyone else.

"Good God!" Andrew suddenly exclaimed, pulling Hamilton back into the kitchen. From the look on the Warder's face, he'd finally worked his way through the puzzle.

"He's planning an escape, Stephen. That's why he's afraid to get Victoria pregnant."

Hamilton shook his head. "Not exactly. Yes to the second, no to the first. Yes, that why he's restrained himself. But, no, he's not planning an escape. He's expecting one."

Andrew's head turned, in the direction of St. Thomas' Tower. Hamilton had no difficulty following his thoughts. Who knew what devices the Americans had with them? Wentworth had never ordered a search of their quarters. Who knew if they'd been able to stay in touch with their people back on the continent? And if they had, who knew what might be coming to the Tower? Stephen and Andrew had not only heard the accounts, they'd spoken to veterans returned from the continent. Yes, it was true that Wallenstein had been struck down from a range that was not known for certain-but it was certainly longer than the Thames was wide.

"What do you want to want to do?" asked Andrew. He gave his older kin a look that was quite hard itself.

"Can't see where it's any of our business, any longer," said Hamilton. "Seeing as how our superiors have not seen fit to trust us."

Andrew nodded. "The way I see it too." His gaze went back to the wall of the kitchen that faced St. Thomas' Tower and, after a moment, softened a great deal.

"This speaks well of my future brother-in-law, I'm thinking."

Hamilton could feel the latch closing, and knew that he'd come to his decision. Somewhere in that bleak and savage wasteland within the Warder captain that other men would call a soul, a young American had just completed a journey. He'd passed over from one of them to one of mine.

"Oh, yes," said Hamilton softly. "It speaks very well of him indeed."

Chapter 27

Amiens Picardy, France March 1634

After stomping into the office that Robert du Barry and Yves Thibault maintained for their new arms manufactory, shrugging out of his winter coat and hanging it on a peg, Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne glared at his two subordinates. Or glared in their direction, at least.

"The Vicomte de Turenne seems in a foul mood today," said du Barry. The French cavalry office's tone of voice was mild.

His civilian gunsmith partner looked up from the sketches on the table. "Must be the local Picards pissed him off again, the way they butcher the French language. Or maybe he just doesn't like every building made out of dark red brick."

"Including ours."

"Very witty," growled the twenty-two-year-old French marshal, brushing a bit of snow from his trousers and wiping his boots on a mat. "I wasn't actually thinking of you at all-though if you maintain this stupid badinage, I may yet."

"God forbid." Du Barry pointed to the sketch. "Well, come here, then. This should cheer you up, Henri."

His expression lightening, Turenne came over to the table. "Do you really think you can get it to work?"

Thibault laughed. Du Barry grinned. "Better yet." He jerked a thumb at the gunmaker. "Yves has one already made. And, yes, it certainly does work."

Hearing that, Turenne simply glanced at the sketch. "Show me the gun itself, then. I'm a soldier, blast it, not an artist-of which the French army has sufficient as it is." His scowl returned. "All of them loudly assuring Cardinal Richelieu that they are about to unveil a military masterpiece, in two months."

Du Barry lifted an eyebrow but asked for no clarification. It was a mark of his young commander's anger that Turenne had said anything at all on the subject of his clashes with the French military establishment, in the presence of a civilian. He'd give Robert the details later, in private.

Thibault was already heading for the door into the workshops. "This way. Since I knew you'd be arriving today or tomorrow, I have it set up in the firing range."

Five minutes later, after handling the new gun without firing it, Turenne shook his head.

"I owe you an apology, Yves. I take back every sarcastic remark I ever made on the subject of breechloaders and gunsmiths who can't control their obsession with the things."

Thibault smiled, then shook his own head. "You would probably have been right, if Servien's spies in Grantville hadn't found enough of a diagram of this mechanism for me to work from. I confess I was thinking only in terms of those wonderful modern American breechloaders. That would have been… not impossible, no, to make in small numbers. But-"

He hurried forward to cut off Turenne's certain interruption. "Yes, yes, Henri, I know! You told me once, you told me a thousand times. Better to have weapons that are good enough in numbers an army can use, than to have a few splendid ones that will only wind up hanging on the wall for a general to admire."

Turenne grinned at him, his mood obviously lightening. "My motto, indeed." He hefted the rifle. "And…"

Thibault wiggled his hand back and forth. "I can't possibly make enough of these-not in time for this spring's campaign, certainly-to arm every soldier of France. But I can have enough ready by the end of May to equip your force for what you need."

"Not soon enough, Yves. Things are getting darker by the day. How many can you have ready by… let's say, the end of April."

The gunmaker scratched his chin. Then he took a few steps to the entrance of the firing range and looked out at the big workshop beyond, in which dozens of workmen were plying their trade.

"Let's see…" he murmured. "If I take Francois off…"

Turenne turned away. From experience, he knew that Thibault would take several minutes in his muttering cogitations before he'd provide him with an answer. Might as well take the time to test the gun himself, while he waited.

He held up the rifle again, looking at du Barry. "Have you fired it, Robert?"

"Oh, yes. It's not complicated at all." He extended his hands and Turenne gave him the weapon.

"This lever here. It looks like a large trigger guard-which it is also-but it's actually what works the mechanism." He lowered the trigger guard and pulled it forward. "See how this block slides, opening the breech for loading? It's called the drop block."

Turenne leaned forward. "And the block is solid enough to withstand the powder charge?"

"More than solid enough." He closed the lever, showing how the block moved back into position, then reopened it. "There's some leakage, you understand? No way to eliminate all the backflash. The breech will wear and leak more over time, too, but it is adjustable with this screw here. That's the only adjustment on the whole rifle, so the shooters shouldn't be able to fuck it up too badly. Still, the soldiers will complain about it, so be prepared."

Turenne grunted. "Troops always complain. But they'll be so delighted at the prospect of being able to reload without standing-or reload in the saddle without dropping everything half the time-that I don't imagine the complaints will be more than what's needed to maintain soldierly self-respect."

"What I figure also. And there's this added advantage." He pointed to the face of the breechblock. "The rifle is a single-shot, you understand. Still needs to be reloaded each time it's fired. But we can used prepared cartridges-no need for messy and clumsy powder flasks-and you see this edged blade here? It will cut the linen cartridge and expose the powder, all at the same time, which makes everything very quick. All you have to do-"

He broke off while he demonstrated the steps by which the rifle was to be loaded, ending with: "And now you simply place the percussion cap on the nipple-like… so-and all that's left is to cock the hammer and pull the trigger."

He extended the weapon to his superior. "Go on, try it."

Turenne fit the stock against his shoulder, cocked the hammer, and took aim at the post some twenty yards down the range. "Anything I should know?"

"Prepare to have a bruised shoulder, if you fire it enough."

Turenne frowned. "I thought it was only a half-inch bore."

"It is. What the Americans would call a.50 caliber. But it's a.50 caliber carbine, Henri. You wanted a light gun, short enough for cavalrymen to handle easily. There isn't much weight there to absorb the recoil."

"So I did-and so it is. I forgot-well, to be honest, I didn't really expect Yves could have it done in time."

He pulled the trigger, not trying for more than an indifferent aim. Then, lowered the rifle and gave it a very respectful look. "Sure enough, it kicks like a mule."

"Something else to keep the troops happy, in their grousing. But they'll love it, they surely will. This is a real cavalryman's weapon. The first gun you could properly call that in history, I think."

"Yes, it is." Seeing that Thibault had finally concluded his self-deliberations, Turenne placed the rifle back on the bench.

"I can have two thousand ready by then, Marshal. No more, I'm afraid. But training is very important if the rifle is to be used properly. So I will have twenty guns ready in two weeks, so your sergeants and officers can start learning how to use it soon enough to train the rest."

Turenne pursed his lips, while he did his own much quicker calculations. "Two thousand should be enough, I think. It means I can arm almost half-well, no need to get into the details. Intending no offense, Yves, but the enemy has spies too."

"None of my business," the gunmaker agreed pleasantly. "And now, I'll take your leave and give Francois his new marching orders."

After he was gone, du Barry turned to Turenne. "Are you sure-"

"Robert, please! I know you want to accompany the expedition, but that's just foolish. I have enough good cavalry commanders. This-right here-is where you're indispensable. Without you to serve as my watchdog, these maniacal gunsmiths would have gone in twenty different directions. You know it as well as I do. We need a real soldier in command here."

Du Barry took a breath, and blew it out loudly. "Well, so be it. Are you still planning the same campaign?"

"Basically, yes." Turenne looked back at the rifle. "But with these… I think I can add a nice extra touch. Send perhaps a third of the force to threaten Hesse-Kassel while I press on to the target with the rest. I'd keep all the breechloaders-what name have you picked for them, by the way?-for the main force, since they'd make up for the fewer numbers, and the diversionary force wouldn't actually need to engage in any real fighting."

Smiling slyly-and perhaps a but ruefully-du Barry ran fingers through his hair. "Well, that's a problem, there. What to name the rifle, I mean. It depends on whether you'd prefer to taunt the enemy or instill pride in our own. If the former, then why not just call it a Sharps rifle? Let the damned Americans grind their teeth, that we have their own famous historical rifle and they have nothing but muskets."

Turenne chuckled. "Well… it's tempting. But not altogether wise, I think. Besides, it's not even really true. Yes, we got the design of the gun from our spies, but the key is the percussion caps. Which-"

Here, his chest swelled with genuine pride. "Resulted entirely from the genius of France."

Turenne was not a puffed-up peacock by nature, however. So, a second or two later, his chest deflated and a similar smile came to his face. Half-sly; half-rueful. "I grant you, the genius consisted mostly in hiring a German alchemy wizard, who did the actual work."

"John Rudolph Glauber." Du Barry shook his head. "It's amazing, in a way, that he could see what not even the up-timers could. They decided to abandon any quick attempt to develop percussion caps because they could only think of using fulminate of mercury." He grimaced. "Which is, indeed, very nasty stuff. We lost three men here, ourselves-and twice that many, maimed or badly injured-before Glauber came up with his alternative of using potassium chlorate, as he calls it."

Turenne shrugged. "Not so amazing as all that, Robert. The Americans are no different from anyone else. Once people get a notion firmly fixed in their heads, they usually become blind to any alternative." His early scowl started coming back. "I could show you a much worse example-not that I'd subject you to the misery-at any collection of generals back in Paris."

"They haven't budged at all?"

"Not an inch. I'm afraid I'm partly to blame for that. They're none too smart at the best of times, but this degree of mule-headedness is unusual even in their circles."

"They resent you, Henri, it's as simple as that." Du Barry clapped Turenne on the shoulder. By now, at least in private, their relationship was as much that of two friends as commanding and subordinate officer. "You're half the age of most of them, and already a marshal."

Turenne grunted softly. "Yes. I often think the cardinal made a mistake, promoting me so quickly."

"That's crap. Pure crap. I know those generals in Paris. And why are they still in Paris to begin with, dining in palaces-when their soldiers are shivering in trenches around Luebeck? I served under them, for more years than I want to remember, not being a sprig like you. De la Valette is probably the worst of the lot, but none of them are any prizes. It's been too long since France fought a real war, that's all, unless you count that butchery in Mantua. The officers have gotten rotten and the men are mostly undisciplined. And what good young officers do show up, like Jean de Gassion, have been coming into your service. No fools, they."

"Yes, I know. It means I have as good a cavalry force as probably any in the world-but that's still only five thousand men. Even if every last man in the ranks was armed with one of these"-he pointed to the rifle-"five thousand men simply can't withstand what's coming in the spring."

"That bad?"

"I think so, yes," said Turenne gloomily. "Fucking idiots. All they hear from the spies-all they listen to, rather-is 'volunteer regiments.' So they assure the cardinal that the Swede will be bringing nothing but a poorly trained rabble into the field. All the rest of what the spies tell them, they simply ignore. Have no illusions, Robert. Say what else you will about him, Gustavus Adolphus is one of the great captains of the day. He didn't sit in Luebeck for months waiting for Torstensson to present him with a shiny new army, if he thought it would collapse at the first trial of arms."

He threw up his hands. "But what does Gustavus Adolphus know? A barbarous Norseman, is he not? We shall forget that he's probably fought and won more battles-and bigger ones-than all of today's French generals put together."

The firing range was filled with a grim silence, for a moment. Then du Barry sighed and said: "So we'll be depending even more heavily on Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar and his mercenaries than ever. At least you can always count on that shithead to fight. He can move troops quickly, too. Enough that he could come up in time from Alsace, even with his fifteen thousand strong army."

Turenne made a face. "I'm not so sure about that, any longer, I'm afraid."

Robert cocked his head. "You know something?"

"I don't know anything. Neither does the cardinal, I don't believe. Servien told him that getting spies into Bernhard's inner circles had proven impossible, so far. I just have a bad feeling about that whole situation. Mostly"-here he smiled, thinly-"because I've noticed that Bernhard hasn't been bragging as incessantly as usual, the past two months."

"Ah." Du Barry swiveled his head and studied the target at the other end of the range. The thick wooden post was getting pretty badly shredded, by now. "Yes, that is a bad sign."

Two hours later, as Turenne was putting his coat and hat on for the long trip back to Paris, du Barry reminded him of an overlooked detail.

"The name of the rifle. You still haven't decided."

Turenne finished buttoning his coat, while he thought about it. Then, with a smile: "Let's call it the cardinal."

Besancon, The Franche-Comte

From Saint Etienne, a high plateau that opened onto the Jura massif and overlooked the ancient town of Besancon, Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar studied the Doubs. The river made a great loop below, which enclosed the town on three sides-more like eighty percent of its circumference, actually. The town itself was situated inside the loop, with a fortress protecting the neck and the beginnings of fortifications on the two hills which flanked it.

Only the beginnings yet, at Besancon. Bernhard's official military headquarters were much farther to the northeast, at the Abbey of St. Peter and Paul at Schwarzach on the Rhine. Though by nature a very thrifty man, Bernhard had spent a great deal of money to acquire his own copies of the Encyclopedia Brittanica brought by the Americans through the Ring of Fire. He'd chosen that location, to the discomfiture of the Benedictine monks residing there, on the basis of his careful reading of some of Louis XIV's Rhineland campaigns in the 1680s. That world would now not happen, of course, but the logic of the choice of location remained. Schwarzach had a convenient set of large buildings and was not far from what had once become Fort Louis. What was now becoming Fort… Whatever, since it didn't have a name yet. But construction was well advanced.

However, Bernhard and his handful of intimate advisers-Der Kloster, they called themselves since they had settled at Schwarzach, "the cloister," only half-joking-had agreed that to do more to fortify Besancon at this point would create too much suspicion. Bernhard's civil administrative headquarters were already in the town's Hotel de Ville, true enough. Cardinal Richelieu had agreed that an army the size of Bernhard's needed a civil administration to support it, or the mercenary soldiers would start looting the inhabitants they were supposed to protect. But no one really expected any military action in Besancon, or anywhere near it. Why would any army come here? The town was prosperous but not wealthy, and it was tucked against the mountains. It was certainly not the most inaccessible place in Europe, but the terrain was difficult enough to deter any of the casual plundering expeditions that the war had spilled around itself like a dog shedding water.

"Any chance the cardinal will increase your commission, Your Grace?" asked Friedrich Kanoffski von Langendorff.

Bernhard turned his head to glance back at the Bohemian mercenary officer who was perhaps the most trusted adviser he had in the Cloister. "No," he said firmly, shaking his head. "I don't dare even ask any more. Richelieu's the canniest fox of the lot, you know. I think he's already starting to ask himself questions. We'll simply have to settle with our existing commission. Ten thousand foot and six thousand cavalry. Less than we'd like, of course, but we can live with it for the moment."

Kanoffski wasn't surprised. The closer they came to the spring, and what everyone expected to be a volcanic resumption of hostilities in the field against the Swede and his Germans, the more insistently Richelieu was calling on Bernhard to move his army farther north. Saxe-Weimar had been able to forestall him so far, pointing out quite reasonably that he had to keep an eye on the Swedish general Horn's forces in Swabia. Since that was, indeed, the specific task for which the cardinal had employed Bernhard and his mercenary army-and one which Bernhard had carried out quite satisfactorily for the past two years, keeping one of the Swede's most capable generals and his army pinned to the southwest and away from the main theater of the war-Richelieu had accepted the excuse. Thus far.

But Richelieu's intendants ran a very extensive and capable network of spies. They had no one in or near Bernhard's inner circles, the Cloister was quite certain of that, but they were hardly deaf or blind. By now, if nothing else, Richelieu would be wondering why Bernhard was keeping so many of his troops this far into the Franche-Comte instead of closer to the Rhine.

"Yes, we can live with it, Your Grace," Kanoffski said, "but let me take this occasion to make clear that I am a most unhappy soldier. More precisely, a most unhappy payroll officer."

A little smile came to Saxe-Weimar's face. "Don't tell me. You're going to desert."

They both chuckled, softly. Kanoffski could remember a time when the same remark would have triggered off one of Bernhard's rages, instead of a jest. The man was as notorious for abusing his officers as he was for his arrogance toward almost everyone. Kanoffski had gotten his share of that, in the beginning, and still got some today, from time to time. But he'd found that once Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar did let someone into his confidence, he could be as charming and witty-and generous-as he normally was not at all.

Granted, he was still not an easy man to work for, as a close subordinate. But Kanoffski was thick-skinned by temperament, and had had plenty of experience as a mercenary officer since he left Bohemia. He'd served under commanders every bit as arrogant and harsh as Bernhard-some, more so-but who had not one-tenth of the Saxe-Weimar duke's intelligence and ability. Bernhard was frugal without being stupidly stingy; he was a truly excellent administrator; bold in battle and shrewd on campaign. Overall, in Kanoffski's estimate, one of the very best commanders in all of Europe.

He was even, in his own way, a pious man. His ordinances for the conduct of chaplains in his mercenary army demonstrated both his concern for the spiritual well-being of his soldiery-and his usual canny sense of the abuses to which chaplains were prone. Well, not abuses, precisely. "Limitations" might be a better word. The ordinances made plain that although the chaplains, like Bernhard himself, were all Lutheran, they were to avoid doctrinal fine points in their sermons and stick to the basics, as the duke saw them. "Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil" worked well, right along with, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." The duke disapproved of blasphemy. That might be the only thing he had in common with his brother Ernst. Plus, they made it clear that any chaplain who wanted to collect his pay was going to provide spiritual consolation to every man in the regiment, no matter what his own official religion might be. Catholic or Calvinist, sectarian or heretic, a dying soldier was to be given words of comfort.

Kanoffski didn't think it was even hard to understand Bernhard's sometimes outrageous behavior. He was the youngest of four brothers. Four living brothers. Six other sons of his parents had died as infants or children, or been killed in the war-or, in one case, gone mad and committed suicide. That didn't count the one, William's twin, who had been stillborn. All four of the surviving brothers had inherited the duchy of Saxe-Weimar, and Bernhard quite obviously nursed a certain sense of grievance at not having gotten his just due. As the youngest of the four, he could never realistically expect enough of an income from the inheritance to live on it in the manner of a Hochadel.

So, from the moment he became his own agent as an adult, his consuming passion was to find a place for himself in the world, one that suited his sense of his own stature. Which was perhaps grandiose, but certainly not absurd. In Kanoffski's estimate-being in many ways, not so different a man himself-it was that ambition as much as any admiration for Gustav Adolf or commitment to the Protestant cause that had led Bernhard to seek his fame and fortune as a soldier under the Swedish king's banner.

But that lurking sense of grievance had exploded when Gustav Adolf, for all practical purposes, handed over Saxe-Weimar's lands to the American upstarts. The fact that Bernhard had not really lost very much from the decision, in cold-bloodedly calculated material terms, simply didn't matter. What mattered was that a man trying to gain in stature had just had what little he started with cut out from under him. The fact that the three older brothers had acquiesced in the outrage, arguing political and military necessity, had simply incensed Bernhard further.

He'd given his oath of allegiance to Gustav Adolf-and the treacherous Swede had repaid him with a stab in the back. And an insult, to rub salt into the wound. Not directly to the duke's face, of course, but various people-several of them-had made it their business to ensure that he heard what the king had said to Oxenstierna at Mainz. In the hearing of others.

No, no, no. In this, the dukes of Saxe-Weimar are proving to be as petty as any German noblemen. In their absence-protracted absence, let me remind you-the people of their principality have seen fit to organize themselves to survive the winter and the depredations of the war. What were they supposed to do, Axel? Starve quietly, lest the tranquility of the dukes be disturbed?

As if the reason for their "protracted absence" had not been that they were serving in the king's own army! As if they had been luxuriating at some mineral hot springs rather than fighting in his campaigns!

Kanoffski had heard it often enough. From Bernhard's point of view, the common perception that he had "betrayed" Gustav Adolf stood reality on its head. The truth was the other way around. He'd simply repaid the Swede's infidelity with its just reward.

They were quite a quartet, those brothers, Friedrich mused. Saxe-Weimar had never been a very important principality in Germany, even before the Americans overran it with their rebellion. Yet, even though dispossessed from what little they'd had, at least three of the four brothers looked to be emerging as major players in the great game of the continent, almost entirely due to their own capabilities. They were an exception-not the only exception, to be sure, but perhaps the most startling one-from the usual run of German princelings, whose pretensions were generally in inverse proportion to their measly land-holdings and still measlier talents.

The day might even come when the oldest of the brothers, Wilhelm, faced the youngest across the field of battle. Not as two generals, but as two heads of state.

Who could say, any longer? The war that had begun at the White Mountain in Bohemia fifteen years earlier had steadily pulled more and more of Europe into its maelstrom. And then God had thrown the Ring of Fire into the very center of it. For what purpose, neither Friedrich nor Bernhard had any idea at all.

But to what effect?-oh, to that question, they had found an answer, with Bernhard leading the way.

When the youngest duke of Saxe-Weimar broke his oath to Gustav Adolf, he also broke all his ties to established custom. Whether you viewed him as a traitor or-as Bernhard did himself-the one betrayed, the end result was the same. He was now a man on his own, with no limit to his ambition and no restraints beyond whatever objective reality might pose.

In their smaller and less ambitious ways, all of the Cloister shared the same view. They were new men, in a new world.

Altogether a new world, even if most of Europe's powerful and mighty persisted in closing their eyes to the reality. Bernhard and his intimates thought most of the American prattle about equality and liberty was just that-prattle-but they'd all come to accept what they saw as the heart of thing. Which Bernhard himself, something of a patron of the arts like all the Saxe-Weimars, said he'd found best expressed in an up-time book of poetry he'd run across in Grantville. A line penned by an English poet of the future.

A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a Heaven for?

So, Der Kloster. As Bernhard had put it to them, in what Friedrich had whimsically come to think of as their own-very different-version of a constitutional convention, held four months earlier at Schwarzach:

"If Wallenstein can do it, why can't we?"

That really meant me, not "we," since Bernhard was not proposing any sort of constitutional monarchy, much less a republic. But none of the seven officers in the room had objected to that aspect of the matter. That there would be a first among equals-and quite a long ways first, at that-was a given. They remained monarchists, at bottom; they'd simply shed the false and illusory notions concerning so-called legitimacy with which the powers-that-be cloaked themselves. Legitimacy, to a new man with eyes to see, was simply what you made of it. Nothing more-and nothing less.

Friedrich Kanoffski had been the first to speak. Verbally if not in writing-of course not in writing, since they weren't fools-putting down what the Americans would call his John Hancock.

"Wallenstein is Bohemian, you know. So am I."

That brought a circle of grins. They probably should have called it the Wolfpack rather than the Cloister.

Bernhard turned away from the view below. "I think it would be prudent for the time being, Friedrich, for me to take quite a few companies into the Breisgau. Put the cardinal's mind at rest. Send Caldenbach and Ohm, maybe Rosen as well, toward Mainz. All three of those units can move very fast when they need to."

"Yes, your Grace. Anything else?"

Bernhard looked down at the ground beneath his boots. "Here," he said, stamping his foot on Saint Etienne. "We'll put the big fortress here. Tell Bodendorf to have his military architect start working on the plans while I'm away."

Chapter 28

Magdeburg

"I'd recommend we include Nils Krak's men, too," said Frank Jackson. "They're all dragoons as well as sharpshooters, and with their rifled muskets they should give the Thuringian Rifles whatever extra support they might need. We can only send one squad of the Rifles with the combat team."

John Chandler Simpson was half-amused and half-irritated at Jackson's stubborn insistence on using the up-time phrase "combat team" to refer to the special combined arms force they'd be sending as an escort for the ironclads as they made their way downriver to Hamburg. They'd all agreed that sending the ironclads without a land escort would be foolish. As powerful as the war machines were, there were just too many ways in the narrow confines of a river for the enemy to set traps. It could be something as simple as obstructions in the river bed that required the ironclads' accompanying service craft to pause for a bit, while the crews removed the obstacle-easy targets for snipers firing from the river banks. In much the same way that a main battle tank working its way through the narrow streets of a city needed infantry support, so long as they were on the river the ironclads did as well.

The problem-tiny, tiny problem-was that the down-timers had no fixed terminology to use for most such military purposes, just as they tended to use terms like "lieutenant" and "captain" in a very loose and fluid manner. That didn't bother Simpson much, but it drove a former sergeant like Frank Jackson half-crazy. So, once he got on Torstensson's staff, Jackson had insisted on developing precise terminology.

The Swedish general had been willing enough to accommodate him, in principle. But, alas for Jackson, Torstensson insisted on picking the actual terms. And after Simpson had casually mentioned that the sort of combined arms land force they were putting together, as a temporary unit for a specific task, had a different term in the up-time German tradition than the American "combat team" appellation Jackson proposed, Torstensson had chosen it instead. He thought it sounded better.

So, "battle group" it was to be-but Jackson wouldn't budge from using combat team instead. Granted, no one who knew the man could accuse Frank Jackson of being xenophobic, especially after they met his Vietnamese wife Diane. But in many ways, the former coal miner's American chauvinism was so unthinking and deeply ingrained that it was impossible to uproot. In that respect, he was very unlike his long-time close friend and former union associate Mike Stearns, who was generally quite cosmopolitan.

Fortunately, the Swedish general whom Gustav Adolf had placed in overall command of the USE's military seemed more amused than anything else by his American adjutant's recalcitrance.

"Of the two other squads," Jackson continued, "one of them is in Luebeck and I'm assuming"-he cocked his head toward General Torstensson-"that you'll want to keep the third squad in reserve, for whatever you might need them for."

"Whatever Gustav Adolf might need them for," Torstensson grunted. He smiled thinly. "Or are you foolish enough to think the king will let me remain in command after he's broken the siege?"

Admiral Simpson half-scowled. "He certainly should."

The young Swedish general shrugged. "Yes, perhaps. But there is not much chance of it, John, as you well know. I will do my best to restrain him from personally leading any cavalry charges. Even there, I can make no promises."

Simpson was tempted to pursue the matter, but it would be pointless. For good or ill-and it was sheer irresponsibility on his part, as far as John was concerned-Gustav Adolf was one of those monarchs who insisted on leading his men on the battlefield. Perhaps the only such monarch left, in this day and age, although there were several princes who'd do the same. Quite capably, in some cases, as the Spanish cardinal-infante had so graphically demonstrated in the Low Countries over the past six months.

He decided he'd do better to save whatever few bargaining points he had left-he'd already used up most of them, he figured-to try to get Colonel Christopher Fey's force beefed up a little.

"Frank," he said, clearing his throat, "please don't take this as any sort of implied criticism of either Krak's people or the Thuringian Rifles. But the fact remains that I don't think they're enough, by themselves."

Jackson frowned. "They aren't by themselves. I'm assigning two volley gun batteries to the combat team."

"Yes, I know. But that's still not enough, if they run into a large cavalry force that's willing to accept some casualties. Don't forget that the only unit that'll have repeating breechloaders will be the one Thuringian Rifles squad commanded by Sergeant Wilson. That's not more than-what?-a dozen men?"

"Ten men and two women, to be precise," said Jackson. His expression made it clear that he wasn't too happy about the last part of that equation.

Neither was Simpson, for that matter. On this subject, if not many others, he and Frank Jackson were generally in agreement. Fortunately, it was not a problem Simpson had to deal with much himself. Since the navy had been formed later than the army and drew most of its personnel from the Magdeburg area, John had been able to resist-sidestep, at least-letting any women into the combat units. The pressure for that had come almost entirely from up-time women in Grantville, and had naturally focused on the army and the air force.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Colonel Wood smiling a little. There was just a hint of derision in that expression. Oddly, given that he was such a dinosaur in so many other ways, Jesse Wood didn't seem to have any reservations about including females in combat positions in the air force.

The smile was a bit irritating, but Simpson didn't rise to it. He was certain that if Wood had to command people who'd spend months at sea together instead of a few hours in a plane, he'd change his tune quickly enough. John's reservations about having women in combat units didn't stem from the same simple paternalistic traditionalism-call it male chauvinism, if you insisted-that lay behind Jackson's opposition. Nor did it result from Simpson's assessment of the martial capabilities of women. Except for units-mostly infantry-whose job required a considerable degree of muscular strength, he thought women were just as capable of killing as men were. More capable, in some instances. If he'd had any doubts, all he had to do was examine Julie Sims' track record.

No, the problem was that they got pregnant. Something that couldn't be managed without incredible acrobatics in the two-seat cockpit of a small airplane could be managed quite easily on a ship. And a state of pregnancy that posed nothing more than a minor nuisance on an army or air force base could be a real headache on a ship that couldn't return to port for months on end. True, that wasn't a problem he'd face in his ironclads, since the things were only marginally seaworthy. But Simpson was already looking ahead to the next generation of warships for the USE Navy. Those ships would be faster than any sailing ship of the time, but they would still wind up spending a year or more away from their home ports. Months at a time, at sea.

One of Torstensson's colonels spoke up. Bryan Thorpe, that was, one of the many mercenaries from the British Isles who served under Swedish colors. A bit unusually, an Englishman instead of a Scotsman.

"Frank, that will not be enough," he said, "if they run into real opposition." He spread his hands in a vaguely apologetic gesture. "Unfortunately, we do not have time to put the matter to a test in field exercises. But I can assure you that if they run into a regiment of good cavalry they are likely to get ripped to pieces unless they have some units who can defend them."

Jackson was starting to get exasperated. Enough so that he lapsed into the sort of casual blasphemy that Americans took for granted but rubbed seventeenth-century people the wrong way. "For God's sake, Bryan! We're only talking about an expedition from here to Hamburg-almost all of it in our own territory. Where the hell is a whole regiment of enemy cavalry going to come from in the first place?"

Perhaps because the blasphemy annoyed him-he was something of a Puritan-Thorpe's rejoinder was even sharper in its tone. "Where would they come from? I have no idea, General Jackson. The enemy is not in the habit of confiding his plans to me. That's why he's called the enemy, you understand?"

Torstensson intervened, to keep the issue from escalating into an outright quarrel. "I have to say I agree with Bryan, Frank," he said mildly. "USE 'territory' is a bland phrase, you know. Very mushy, like oatmeal. Let us be more precise. We are not talking about the vastnesses of the Russian forests or the great steppes. We are talking about a stretch of land between here and Hamburg that is not more than two hundred and fifty miles following the river. None of which beyond the bend of the Elbe is patrolled by anything other than local militias, except in the vicinity of Lauenburg and Domitz. And those are garrison troops, not likely to react swiftly and sally out to deal with a passing cavalry raid."

He raised his voice a little, overriding Jackson's beginning of a protest. "More to the point, as the ironclads and their accompanying land escort approach Hamburg, they are not more than fifty miles from the French and Danish lines around Luebeck-and the emperor's forces are hemmed in the city, on the other side of those lines. They certainly won't be available to come to the admiral's rescue, will they?"

Fortunately, Jackson had enough sense to yield the point, seeing that the army's top commander had come down on the other side. Simpson was sure that Frank's opposition hadn't been all that deeply rooted, anyway. He had no specific objections, he was simply reacting automatically. Guarding his pieces against the plundering damn squids.

Still, when he wanted to be, the man could be more mulish than a mule. "Fine. But I don't see how you expect pikemen to keep up with dragoons. They're certainly not going to be able to handle those eighteen-foot spears on horseback. Assuming they could ride a horse in the first place, which a good half of them can't."

Torstensson took a deep breath, settling his temper. "Frank, please do not be more pigheaded than necessary, would you? We have hardly any pike units left in the USE's army, in any event. Obviously I do not propose to send pikemen. We will simply use…" He turned his head and cocked an eye at Thorpe. "Bryan?"

Thorpe was the adjutant Torstensson generally used for such matters. What, in the U.S. Army back up-time would have been called the G-1, assistant chief of staff, personnel. The English colonel mused for a moment, then said:

"Mavrinac's company, I think. Erik has them trained to serve as dragoons, if need be. They won't ride as well as the Thuringians and Krak's people, but well enough to keep up with the ironclads. We've already agreed that the volley guns can't make better than thirty miles a day. Mavrinac and his men can certainly manage that. We'll have to provide them with the horses, though. They won't have enough of their own, not for a company of two hundred men."

Torstensson nodded and looked around at the other officers in the conference room. "Gentlemen? Any further objections or considerations you wish to raise?"

Frank was still looking skeptical, but didn't say anything. For his part, Simpson went over the matter in his head, to see if he agreed with Thorpe's assessment.

He didn't know the unit in question, and to the best of his recollection had never met the commanding officer. But Thorpe wouldn't have picked a green unit, and by now most of the volunteer regiments had gone through enough training that just about any of their companies could handle the relatively straightforward task of forming a line or square to defend against a cavalry charge. Two hundred well-disciplined men armed with rifled muskets and bayonets would provide enough of a shield for the volley guns and the sharpshooters to defeat any cavalry force no bigger than a regiment. The likelihood of encountering anything larger than that was remote.

John was more concerned about the ability of Mavrinac's company to keep up on the march, actually, than he was with their fighting capabilities. The problem was their horsemanship, not their marksmanship. Strip away Thorpe's politesse and the gist of what he'd said was that Mavrinac's men were half-assed dragoons. Men who could ride a horse, but most of them not particularly well.

He looked out of the window onto the training ground below. From the second story vantage point, he could see one of the volley gun batteries going through some exercises. Quite nicely, so much was obvious even at a distance. But most of the men in those batteries had been selected, in part, because they were experienced riders.

John brought his gaze back into the conference room, still gauging. He'd only reluctantly agreed to the thirty-mile-a-day estimate in the first place. Unless they had mechanical trouble, he thought his ironclads would manage quite a bit better than that, at least forty and perhaps fifty miles in a day. He hadn't pressed the point too far, however, because he'd also been confident that the volley guns could match whatever his ironclads would do. Certainly the Thuringians and Krak's men could. They were officially dragoons, but all of them were excellent horsemen. As good if not better than most cavalry units.

After a moment, he decided Mavrinac's people could probably manage well enough. The Elbe was flanked by roads all the way down to Hamburg, so it wasn't a matter of riding cross-country. And the whole force simply wasn't big enough to pose the usual problem of a march, which was simply that no one road could possibly handle a sizeable army. More often than not, the real problem wasn't the ability of the grunts to stay on their feet or in the saddle. It was the ability of their officers to coordinate a march that required using multiple roads.

That simply wouldn't be an issue here. John did the arithmetic quickly. Two hundred dragoons added to a dozen Thuringians and Krak's three dozen sharpshooters, then figure two heavy weapons batteries with a total of…

He searched his memory, and found the figures easily. That briefing had been recent. There were six volley guns in a battery, and each gun was served by a three-man crew. The crews themselves handled the six horses who drew the limber. They'd ride the three near horses unless one or more of the horses fell by the wayside, at which point some of them would either walk or ride the limber. Add an ammunition wagon for each battery, each with two men, and a battery wagon carrying the repair equipment and gear needed for the whole force. Another two men. Add a sergeant in command of each battery and a captain and a lieutenant in command of the whole unit…

Forty-six men. Added to the others, a total force of about three hundred. Even with all of them on horseback, the roads along the river were sufficient to handle the traffic without having to break up into separate columns, which was where the grief usually came in.

Unless they ran into a lot of mud. And things would get muddy, the farther they got into April. Leaving at the beginning of the month, the way they were, they were catching the spring flood just as it started really rolling. Within a week… on the other hand, the roads were mostly at least fifty yards from the river itself, usually farther…

"Admiral?" Torstensson's voice snapped John out of his brown study. He saw that everyone was peering at him. A bit embarrassed, he realized that they'd all been waiting for him to finish whatever he was pondering over.

He still had some reservations, but none of them were really that severe. And, in any event, he was pretty sure he'd just used up all his bargaining leverage. Torstensson was looking a bit impatient.

"Yes, fine," he said. "That should do nicely."

"Excellent," said the Swedish commander. "Now I propose to move on to the issue of refueling. John tells me that there is now sufficient diesel stocked at Lauenberg to provide enough fuel to get the ironclads through Hamburg-patience, patience, Bryan, I'll get to the political situation in a moment-and well into the Frisian islands. But that still leaves the problem of bringing enough diesel down the river so that the ironclads can get the rest of the way." He smiled around the room. "Which is essential, of course. I've seen the Frisian islands. I wouldn't wish my worst enemy stranded on those miserable things, much less our splendid navy."

That got a little laugh.

They spent a few minutes resolving the fuel issue. That really didn't take long, because the key problem was the political one of getting passage through Hamburg, not supplying the ironclads once they did.

Torstensson cleared his throat. "Now. As for the politics involved-"

That seemed to take forever. John was puzzled by the fact that Torstensson was giving such a detailed recitation of the political situation involving Hamburg. There was nothing new in what he was saying. It was almost as if he were deliberately using up the time left for the meeting.

The gist of the problem was quite simple, and could be easily summarized in two or three short paragraphs.

There was no way to get the ironclads into the North Sea except by using the Elbe, and Hamburg stood astride the Elbe and Hamburg was an independent imperial city. Alas, the Hamburg authorities were still dancing about, unwilling to make any commitment. They wouldn't say yes; they wouldn't say no.

Alas again, with the emperor locked in Luebeck, there was no real possibility of bringing military pressure to bear. Needless to say, once the emperor broke out and began his counterattack, his ability to snarl at the Hamburgers would escalate with incredible speed-and he snarled very nicely, thank you. But the delay involved would be enough to scramble the timing needed to get the ironclads in place for the breakout itself.

It was all very tangled. A thorny problem, indeed.

Jackson and Thorpe began to speak simultaneously, but Torstensson raised his hand. "Gentlemen, please." He consulted his up-time wristwatch. "I'm afraid I used up too much time. Admiral Simpson still has a great deal of work ahead of him, if the ironclads are to-slip their moorings, I believe is the correct nautical expression?-the day after tomorrow."

"At dawn, day after tomorrow," Simpson half-growled.

"Yes. And most of the rest of you will need what's left of the afternoon to get Mavrinac and his men ready to go. And all the rest of the preparations. So let's not waste any more time."

He shrugged heavily. "And a waste of time is what it would be. We've thrashed out the mess in Hamburg half a dozen times already. In the end, it's a political problem, not a military one. That'll be the emperor's business-and decision-not ours."

Torstensson clapped his hands on his knees. "So that it's, then. Let's all get about our business. Admiral, I'd appreciate it if you would remain behind."

The cue being obvious, everyone else rose and filed out of the conference room. When they were gone, and the door had closed behind the last officer to leave, Torstensson rose and went over to the same window John had looked through before.

"The situation in Hamburg hasn't changed a bit in months, John. And we can't postpone deciding on a policy any longer. So-it is his decision to make-I had a long radio exchange on the matter with the emperor last night. As it happens, he's been reading a history of the United States-the one you used to have, I mean, the one up-time-in his spare moments. He instructed me to tell you one thing and ask you two questions."

"Yes, sir?"

"What he wanted me to tell you is that he is prepared to make the decision himself. But, for a variety of reasons, would much prefer it if he did not have to. The diplomatic repercussions, you understand."

Simpson nodded. "Yes, I understand. And the questions were?"

"The first question. Are you familiar with the history of your country? Especially its military history."

Simpson nodded again. "Fairly well, to the first. Very well, to the second."

"Good. The emperor told me that you needed to be able to answer 'yes' to that question, or the next one would be meaningless."

By now, John was intrigued. It was quite unlike Gustav Adolf to play games like this. The fact that he was doing so made it clear just how severe the "diplomatic repercussions" might be. He was not a man to shilly-shally and dance around a subject.

"And that question?"

Torstensson turned his head to look John. "The question makes no sense at all to me. But it's quite simple. The emperor wanted me to ask you if you were willing to take Florida for him?"

After a couple of seconds, Simpson began laughing softly. He even slipped into informality. "I have to tell you, Lennart, that's got to be the first time anyone ever compared me to that no-good class-baiting rabble-rousing bank-busting son of a bitch. But, yes. You can tell Gustav Adolf that I will be his Andy Jackson. I'll give him Florida on a plate, and if he needs to he can wash his hands of the whole thing and swear up and down he had no idea I was going to do it. Of course, just like Monroe did, he'll keep Florida. A fait accompli is what it is."

"Oh, splendid. No, no, please!" Torstensson held up both hands, and then brought them together as if in prayer. "Do not explain the specifics."

"I wasn't about to. You might very well be called upon to do some public hand-washing yourself."

"So I might. It's shocking, really, the sort of outrages that headstrong subordinate officers can commit when they take it upon themselves to act on their own initiative instead of remaining within the limits of sober official policy."

He lowered his hands and then gave Simpson a quick, stiff nod. Not quite a bow, but close.

"Should I not have the chance again, John, let me say that it has been a great pleasure to work with you."

Simpson rose and returned the nod. "Thank you, sir. One favor, though."

"Yes?"

"Whatever happens, please don't tell my wife about this conversation. My opinion of Andy Jackson is pallid compared to Mary's. On this subject, her blood runs as blue as the Danube is supposed to and doesn't."

"Ah. This Andy Jackson fellow was not favored by proper folk, I take it?"

"To put it mildly."

Quizzically, Torstensson cocked his head. "Yet… your own opinion of him is not so severe. Why is that?"

Simpson smiled. "The son of a bitch got us Florida, didn't he?"

Chapter 29

Thorsten hadn't hesitated in front of the door to the settlement house since the first time he'd visited, back in January. In the two months since then, he'd come to see Caroline Platzer every time he'd been able to get leave from the army's training camp outside the city. Six times, now, all told. Half of which he'd been able to spend a full day in her company; none of them, less than three hours. His friends in the volley gun batteries had taken to ribbing him mercilessly about it, with Eric Krenz leading the charge. Complete with every conceivable variation of a joke on the subject of brainless moths being drawn helplessly, with no willpower of their own, into the scorching flames of a lamp or a fire.

All that, Thorsten had ignored with no difficulty. To hell with them. He hadn't let the opinions of others deter him from pursuing a goal since, at the age of seven, he'd let one of his more timid cousins persuade him not to swipe an apple from the orchard of a neighboring village that everyone knew produced the best apples in the area.

Twenty years later, almost, and Thorsten could still taste what that apple probably would have tasted like. The very next day, he'd made a solemn vow to himself, in the way small boys will, that whatever else happened in his life he would not find himself on his deathbed passing into the afterworld with a cart-load's worth of regrets. He'd added a great many curlicues to that vow since, with the increase of wisdom that the years brought and a better recognition of what was realistically possible and what wasn't-but he'd never relinquished the heart of it.

Nowadays, of course, he could pass up a stolen apple without a second thought. But that was just a piddly fruit. Figuratively speaking, Caroline Platzer was the biggest and juiciest apple he'd ever seen in his life. Bigger and juicier than he'd ever imagined in his life.

Still, he hesitated. Not because the step he was about to take was irrevocable, but from a much deeper worry. Irrevocable steps came quite easily to Thorsten Engler. He was not in any way a man prone to indecision-nor was he a man who'd second-guess himself once he did make a decision.

The problem was far simpler, and perhaps intractable. Would the blasted Americaness understand what he was doing?

He'd wracked his brains for a month over the problem. He'd gone so far as to ask the advice and opinions of Eric and the rest of his soldier friends-and gotten nothing in return except more stupid jokes. He'd even gotten up the nerve to ask Gunther Achterhof, who, when the mood took him, could be the most savagely caustic humorist in the world.

Alas, while Gunther had been sympathetic, he'd been no help either.

"Sorry, Thorsten, I've got no idea. I'm afraid"-here the vulpine grin-"my relations with the Americans, although close in many respects, have never extended into this little area. What the up-timers would call a 'minefield,' by the way. They also talk about 'walking on eggshells.' What the first means-"

"I know what a minefield is," Thorsten growled. "We're starting to train on laying them as well as digging them out. The up-timers didn't even invent them, although-damn complicated people; too gnarly-brained to understand, half the time-I'll grant you they developed some fiendish elaborations. And why would any sane person be walking on eggshells to begin with? Stupid. Waste of good eggs, trampling them into the dirt-not to mention the pain of cleaning your shoes afterward. Crack them and put them in a pan. Only Americans would even think of such a silly expression."

"Oh, my. Disgruntled, aren't we?"

"I don't know what to do," Thurston said, between gritted teeth. "I'm certain she likes me. As a man, too, not just… you know. A friend. I'm certain of that, by now. But-but-"

"Yes, I understand. Where do you go from here? I take it you've gotten no indication from the lady herself?"

"Who knows?" Thorsten threw up his hands with exasperation. Fortunately, he remembered to relinquish the tightly gripped full mug of beer before he did so, or he'd have flung the contents onto the men at the next table. That would have produced a fight as well as waste of good beer. The fight, Thorsten wouldn't have minded at all, the mood he was in. But he was saving up all the money he possibly could from his sergeant's salary, and he could ill afford to throw away the beer.

"Who knows," he repeated, hissing a statement rather than a question. He took a draught from the beer. "Gunther, for all I know she might have been giving me signals every five minutes of every hour I've spent with her-and that's a lot of hours by now. But if she has, they're Americaness signals-and from three and a half centuries in the future, to make it still worse. Who can tell what she wants me to do? Or not do."

"Why don't you just ask her?"

Thorsten glared at him. Not because the proposal was insane-he'd considered it himself, at least a hundred times-but because…

He couldn't. It was as simple as that.

Could. Not.

Achterhof understood, of course. "Can't, ha? Well, no, I suppose not. Even for me, the way they sometimes come right out and blurt things in the open makes me feel like I'm dealing with village idiots." He slapped his chest. "We're proper Germans, after all. And you, a farmer, to make it still worse."

Silence followed. Then Achterhof drained his beer. "Another?"

"No." Thorsten held up his own. "All I can afford, for today."

Gunther studied him for a moment, then chuckled. "Yes, I can see that. Not for Thorsten Engler to settle for a good pair of socks."

Thorsten had considered a good pair of socks, in fact. It hadn't taken him two seconds to discard the idea as preposterous. For a German village woman, maybe. For an Americaness from the future, who knew how the different parts of the brain worked? God only knows what she'd think.

"Oh, I'll buy you one. But just one! Not that I'm stingy, Thorsten, but you clearly need to keep your wits about you."

They finished the next round of beers more or less in silence. Chatting a bit about the weather, that's all. When Achterhof finished his beer, Thorsten followed his lead. He suspected the CoC organizer was probably good for another round, regardless of what he said, but Thorsten didn't like to impose. Besides, the bastard was right. He did need to keep his wits about him. The few that the damn woman had left him.

He rose. Achterhof looked up at him, and shrugged. "You'll just have to do it like an impetuous cavalry charge, that's all. And hope you don't suffer the all-too-common result."

And now, it was time for the charge-and Thorsten was hesitating again.

Fortunately-or not-Caroline emerged from the door. Smiling the way only she could.

"You haven't done this in ages! What's the matter, Thorsten?"

Before he could think of an answer, there was some sort of commotion behind her. Caroline turned her head.

"Oh, God, she's impossible sometimes!" She began to hurry back in, but paused quickly to wave an invitation at Thorsten to follow.

A bit hesitantly, he followed-and found himself, once he entered the big outer room of the settlement house, looking at a small girl in very expensive clothing standing at bay, surrounded by four women in clothing that was just barely less expensive. Put together, at a guess, there was enough valuable finery there to set up a butcher shop.

Caroline was in the midst of it, looking like a plain sparrow among peacocks-except she was taller than any of them and, leaving aside her utilitarian working clothes, much better looking.

Much better for Thorsten, at least. But even an observer as judiciously impartial as Solomon would have allowed him half of that. Three-quarters, more likely, since Solomon had been male himself with a reputation for having an eye for women.

"Kristina, you can't; it's as simple as that." Unlike the others, who were trying to use the advantage of their height to overawe the child, Caroline had squatted-she did that so easily, with her athletic figure, and the end result had the usual effect on Thorsten-to bring her eyes level with the girl. "Your father would have a fit if he found out."

"So don't tell him. He's in Luebeck. And he does it himself! All the time!"

One of the other women-all down-timers, Thorsten now recognized-tried to intervene.

"Be still, girl! Your father is the king, and you are not. And there's an end to it."

Thorsten had none of Caroline's psychological expertise, much less Maureen Grady's, but no villager he knew-certainly no village woman-would be so obtuse as to think that such an obviously headstrong child could be reined in with a mere admonition. In a situation like this, you either reasoned with a child or simply beat them into obedience.

In a village, of course, the second option would already be in play by now, nine times out of ten. Thorsten wasn't sure, however, if the same rules applied to royalty. He'd had even less contact with such than he'd had with Americans.

The girl's reply led him to believe the rules were otherwise.

"Will be someday!" came her very spirited response. She seemed as unabashed as a small wolf being chastised by large lambs. She even-Thorsten almost laughed-shook her finger in the face of the woman who had admonished her. As high up as she could reach, at least. She wasn't more than seven years old, eight at the most. The finger was actually being shaken at the woman's midriff.

"And you watch what happens to you then! I've got a good memory!"

The woman seemed to flinch, a bit. But Caroline's response was quite different. She took the girl's finger-shaking hand and brought it down. Then, spoke to her quietly but very sternly.

"That is enough, Kristina. And don't you ever let me hear you threaten someone again." When the girl-by now, Thorsten had deduced this must be the famous daughter of Gustav Adolf-avoided Caroline's eyes, the Americaness seized her cheeks with her other hand and forced her to look at her.

"Look at me. You can't do that, Kristina. It's not fair, it's not right-and it's bad for you too. You know it is, and you know why. We've talked about it, plenty of times. Haven't we?"

Kristina was trying to glare at Caroline now. Not… very successfully.

"Haven't we?"

By now, Caroline's grip on the girl's face had loosened into something closer to a caress than the initial vise.

"Yes," said the princess, in the half-whine of a child agreeing-very grudgingly-to an adult's wisdom.

"And why is that?"

Thorsten glanced at the four down-time women. Noblewomen, he assumed, assigned to watch over the princess. Fortunately, this time, they seemed far more inclined to let the much younger American woman handle the situation. In fact, they seemed downright relieved. There were also two soldiers standing against the very far wall. The princess' bodyguards, those would be. From the expressions on their faces, it was quite obvious they intended to continue their splendid imitation of wooden soldiers, too.

He looked back at Caroline and the princess. The girl was looking away again, trying evade the question. But Caroline didn't repeat the stern cheek-grabbing maneuver. Instead, she lowered her hand from the girl's face altogether, and shifted it to her left shoulder. That was definitely a caress, now.

"And why is that?" she repeated. Softly, gently, not in the same stern tone she'd used earlier.

Kristina wiped her nose. "Because all the studies show that kids"-the English term slid easily, in and out of the German-"who are mean to animals grow up to be nasty people. Monsters, some of them."

"And?"

The nose got wiped again, more vigorously. "And it's much too easy for a kid whose father has a lot of power, and will herself someday, to start thinking of people as animals. Which is even worse."

That seemed to open the floodgates. Every trace of the royal fled from Kristina's face, leaving only the greatly distressed child. She flung herself into Caroline's arms, sobbing in the unrestrained and chaotic way that a seven-year-old will.

"But I'm such a good rider, Caroline! I can do it! I know I can!"

"Yes, dear, I know. You're a wonderful horsewoman. Everyone says that, and I don't doubt it. Even if-"

Sudden shrieks of laughter burst through the sobs. "You! You can't hardly tell a horse from a cow!"

They were both laughing, now. Thorsten, on the other hand, almost felt like crying from despair. The biggest apple he'd ever seen in his life had just gotten so big he could barely see the edges. He'd wondered, often, what sort of mother she would make.

To his surprise, Caroline suddenly turned her head and gave him a strange look. A very considering one, it seemed, as it she were gauging something.

What? His clothes? But he was just wearing the same uniform he always wore. He managed to keep himself from raising his hand to stroke his own cheeks. Silly, that. He knew he'd shaved this morning. He'd checked several times. Eric had made jokes about that too.

Caroline looked back at the noblewomen, giving them a subtle but unmistakable glance. Leave, please. I'll handle this.

Not being fools, they obeyed, sidling quickly toward a distant corner of the room.

Caroline rose and took the princess by the hand. "Come here, Kristina. I want you to meet a… good friend of mine. He can explain to you better than I can. He's a sergeant in the new volley gun batteries. Almost a cavalryman himself."

That perked up the girl's interest immediately. Thorsten had the sense of a very bright child who was interested in a great many things. No dullard, for sure. Hardly surprising, of course, given her sire.

Before Thorsten quite understood what was happening, Caroline had ushered him and the princess into the office nearby that she used for consultations. She even closed the door behind her, which she'd never done the times Thorsten had visited her alone.

"Please sit, Thorsten. You too, Kristina." Both obeyed, and Caroline went around behind her desk and took her own seat. "Thorsten, the princess-"

"What's that big package you've got?" Kristina demanded, staring at the large cloth-wrapped bundle Thorsten had awkwardly perched on his knees.

"Ah…"

"Kristina!" Caroline half-barked, half-laughed. "Can't you keep your attention focused on one thing for one minute?"

The girl looked at her a bit guiltily. With that inimitable smile on her face, Caroline shook her head and pointed to the closed door. "Wasn't but a minute ago you were throwing a fit, remember? Forget Thorsten's package, whatever it is. Ask him to tell you why you can't participate in the army's field maneuvers."

Lightning-quick, all thoughts of anything else left the girl's mind. She looked at Thorsten, with a half-pleading and half-eager expression on her face.

"I can really ride a horse! Really, really, really. Ask anybody!"

Thorsten stared at her. How in the name of all that was holy had a mere obsession with a most-likely-unobtainable woman led him to this state of affairs? If Krenz ever found out about it, he'd be teasing Thorsten all the way into the grave. Maybe beyond, who could say?

Not knowing what else to do, he fell back on his sturdy village background. Forget that she was the daughter of Gustav Adolf, king of Sweden and emperor of the United States of Europe, perhaps the premier captain of the day. Thorsten couldn't begin to deal with that.

What he could deal with, however-had, in fact, many times-was explaining to an overly confident child why it wasn't a good idea for them to try helping with the heavy farm work. No sensible farmer would beat his boys for pressing him on such a matter. The heart of it, in fact, was something he needed to encourage. So, it was a time for calm explanations. Not talking down to the boy-avoid that at all costs-but simply taking him into your confidence and trying to get the child to look at the problem from the standpoint of what would best help the farm.

That wasn't so bad, he discovered. True, he was dealing with a girl instead of a boy, but so what? The phenomenon that Americans called a "tomboy" was hardly unknown in German villages.

"-and that's really the biggest problem, Your Highness. It's not riding the horses, it's-"

"Call me Kristina!" she commanded. "I like you. I'll tell my father to make you a count or something. At least an officer."

"Ah…" Best to ignore that altogether, he decided. The girl really did seem extremely intelligent, but she was only seven years old. Still too young, even for someone raised in a royal court, to be able to follow the tricky issues involved in whether or not the emperor of the USE-but technically only the captain-general in Magdeburg province, as he was in Thuringia, not the king of Sweden-could override the normal procedures for advancement in the very prickly and often radical regiments. Technically, he could, of course. But it would be very unwise, with a few possible exceptions-and this was certainly not one of them. Thorsten could just imagine the reaction of his fellow soldiers if he got promoted because he'd ingratiated himself to a child princess. Not even Krenz would be friendly about it.

"Kristina, then. What I was saying is that the real problem is that handling the guns in action has to be done very, very carefully. What everyone will be worrying about is hurting your own people. The American term-we've adopted it-is 'friendly fire.' It's a really big problem in a battle, you know. Lots of times as many men get hurt or even killed by their own as they do by the enemy. Not as bad, it's true, on training maneuvers, but you still have to be very careful."

"I won't get in the way! And I certainly won't get thrown. I'm a really wonderful rider!"

"Yes, but… you're not understanding me. No, it's probably that I'm not explaining it well. The problem isn't so much what you might do, it's that the men will all be worrying about you. They won't be able to concentrate on what they should be concentrating on, because all of them-trust me, please, because I certainly would-will be devoting half their attention to looking around to see where the princess is. Kristina, please. It is so easy for a man to hurt or kill himself-or his buddies-when you're dealing with firearms. Any kind of firearms, much less the kind we work with."

There was silence, for a moment. Then, deflating like a little balloon, Kristina said: "Oh."

Then, a bit later, in a very small voice. "I wouldn't want that to happen. I'd feel really bad about that."

She looked up at Caroline. "This is part of not being mean to people, isn't it?"

Caroline gave her a gentle smile, not the gleaming one. "Not exactly. There's nothing mean involved here. But, yes, it's the same principle. You have to be careful, Kristina. Being a princess has disadvantages as well as advantages; it's just the way it is. It's much easier for you to hurt someone, even when you don't mean to. So you have to learn to be more careful than most girls your age need to be. I know it's upsetting, sometimes. But-"

She held up and waved that same humorously-scolding finger that Thorsten remembered so vividly from his first encounter with her. "Don't complain. If you weren't a princess, you'd never have gotten your own horse by now. Certainly not the one you got." The finger was now pointed at Thorsten. "Ask him. He comes from a farm family."

In that lightning-interest way she had, Kristina was now peering at him. "Really? Where is your family's estate?"

"Ah… it was destroyed in the war, I'm afraid." His innate honesty made him add: "But it was a very small estate."

Not that honest, but… He pressed forward. "At this age, you'd maybe be riding a pony. But probably not. Probably one of the really old horses, that aren't able to do much work any longer."

"Oh." She made a little face. "That doesn't sound like fun."

Thorsten almost blurted out: To the contrary, the farm girls love it. What is it about girls and horses anyway? They're just dumb beasts, and they'll break your foot in an instant.

But he said nothing. After a moment, the girl's eyes got fixed on the bundle again.

"What's in the package? You still haven't told me!"

"Ah…"

Fortunately, Caroline diverted her again.

Excrutiatingly, Thorsten couldn't tell if that was because she'd already guessed what was probably in it.

He squirmed inside that Iron Maiden for five minutes, until Caroline finally shepherded Kristina out of the room and back into the clutches of the four down-time ladies.

Then she came back and returned to her desk, smiling.

"All right, Thorsten, I'm curious myself. What is in that bundle?"

He rose, unfolded the cloth, and laid the contents on her desk. "I would like you to take these. From me."

He had no idea what to do next. In his growing panic, all he could think of was to race to the rear.

"But I must be off, Caroline. We're leaving tomorrow morning-very, very early, the admiral insists-on our expedition."

Out the door he went. Not quite running.

Once in the street, striding as quickly as he could toward the army depot where he could get a seat on a wagon returning to the base, his stern sergeant's training came back.

He'd just violated security, he realized-and grossly at that. The expedition was supposed to be kept a secret.

But as stern as it might be, his sergeant's training was a patina over a young man in a state of emotional chaos-and a practical German farmer, at that.

Fuck it. The up-timers were lunatic on the subject of security. What difference did it make if a civilian in Magdeburg knew what several hundred enemy spies certainly knew by now anyway? No one doubted there were that many spies in the city. Not even Gunther Achterhof thought the CoC security apparatus could do more than keep the bastards from anything direct or ambitious. But there was no way to keep them out of Magdeburg altogether, since it was a city full of immigrants and more coming every day.

All a man needed was half a brain and a decent eyeglass-which were hardly rare-and a good patch of woods. There were woods all over. From there, he could watch the regiments in their training. If he had any military experience at all, which he certainly would, he'd know the battle group was getting ready to march. There were apartments all over, too. The city was full of modest windows-but plenty big enough for an eyeglass. From one of them, he could watch Simpson's ironclads getting ready also.

Fuck secrets. All the more so, this day, when the only secret in the world that Thorsten Engler cared about was the secret heart of a woman he could only half-understand.

Chapter 30

Caroline sat at her desk for two hours. Part of the time, staring at the objects on it. Part of the time, staring at a photograph which she pulled out of her desk drawer. Most of the time, staring out the window. To the northwest, where the army camp lay, so she had to crane her head a little.

Finally, seeing the sun lowering itself into the window, she realized what time it was. And how little time remained.

She snatched up the objects-rebundled them, actually, since Thorsten had left the cloth too-and hurried into Maureen's office. To her great relief, the Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt countesses hadn't left yet. They were usually in Maureen's office, this time of the afternoon, having a leisurely chat over the affairs of the settlement house.

That was good, because she didn't think Maureen would know the answer any more than she did. Not for sure, anyway-and this was one of those times you had to be sure.

Ignoring their startled greetings-she'd pretty much just burst in-she laid the half-wrapped bundle on the table.

"Do these mean what I think they mean? I need an answer, ladies. No fooling, down and dirty, and now."

Frowning, Anna Sophia rose and came over. But her nineteen-year-old counterpart was there first, already unfolding the cloth.

"Oh, Caroline, how splendid. Thorsten gave them to you, I assume?"

Emelie held up the salt cellar and pepper grinder. "Nice enough, if not fancy. These would be an heirloom, you understand. Something-probably his mother's-that he was able to save from the farm."

She put them down and held up the other pair of objects. "These now… Very good shoes, they are. He must have saved half his salary to buy these."

"Emelie!"

The young countess of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt handed the shoes to her. "Don't be silly," she said, smiling. "Yes, they mean exactly what you think they mean, Caroline. What else would they be?"

The older countess was at the table, now, frowning at the things.

"Yes, of course. He is asking you to betroth him. But-Caroline… You can do better than a former farmer and an army sergeant. I'm quite sure. Much better, in fact."

Caroline looked around, saw an empty chair, and sat down. Then, quickly, she took off her shoes and began trying on the new ones. As always when she was under tremendous emotional stress, she grasped at practicality.

"No, Anna Sophia, I don't think I can. I really don't-and believe me, I've thought about it a lot, the last few weeks. More to the point-way, way more to the point-I don't want to."

Her foot got jammed halfway into the shoe. "Three years is too long, isn't it, Maureen?"

"Don't be stupid. If we were still back up-time, with what you've learned, you'd be a licensed clinical social worker by now. If it was up to me, excessive and self-indulgent grief would be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a no-kidding mental disorder. Of course it's too long. Way too long."

"Yeah, I know. It's just-oh, damn the man! Why didn't he ask? They're at least a size too small!"

"Same reason you didn't, I imagine. Didn't know what to ask or how to ask it in the first place."

Caroline put back on her own shoes, her shoulders slumped. "I'm an idiot. And now it's too late because-"

Her shoulders unslumped and her head came back up. "Is Kristina still here?"

"Should be. Last I saw she and the four-headed Cerberus were-"

Caroline didn't hear the rest. She snatched up the shoes Thorsten had left and raced out the door. Once in the hall beyond, she located the princess by the simple, direct-and incredibly improper-expedient of just bellowing: "Kristina! Where are you? I need you right here, right now!"

Kristina popped out of a doorway not three seconds later.

"Okay, girl, you keep telling me what a great horsewoman you are. I need to get to the army camp before they close the gates at sundown. No way there's enough time to get a carriage-too slow, anyway-and if I tried to ride a horse I'd fall off before I got to the end of the street."

"Oh, I can take you! Just ride behind me and hold on tight!"

It didn't strike either one of them that the notion of a full-grown woman-bigger than most, at that-"holding on" to a seven-year-old girl-smaller than most, at that-while cantering on a horse was perhaps not a good idea.

Of course, it did occur to the four-headed Cerberus.

"You can't do that!" they shrilled as one.

"Watch me!" came the imperious reply, and off they went. Kristina only paused long enough once they reached the stable to tell Caroline, "You'd probably better put those shoes in the saddlebag. So you can hold on with both hands."

The four noblewomen almost got trampled as they came into the stable, just at the moment the horse and its two riders went out. Fortunately, they were spryer than they looked. The two soldiers had been lagging so far behind they only needed to take two steps aside to clear the street.

"This is so much fun!" Kristina shrieked.

Caroline was far too scared to think it was "fun." Kristina had-what a surprise-a truly superb horse, and she did in fact know how to use it. Her notion of a "canter," however, was nothing Caroline would have called by the name. Not, admittedly, that Caroline could tell the difference between a trot and a canter and a gallop much better than she could the difference between a horse and a cow. But it did seem to her that they were racing along faster than she could remember driving on a freeway.

All things are relative, though, and at the moment Caroline's fear of their speed was pretty much drowned beneath her fear at the speed with which the sun was setting.

However, they got to the gates before sundown. The question now became…

How does a civilian female holding a pair of shoes get herself admitted into an army base?

Luckily, Kristina had the answer. "Open the gates! I'm Princess Kristina, daughter of the king and emperor! My friend Caroline, the countess of Oz, needs to see Thorsten"-there might have been just the tiniest hesitation here-"the count of Narnia!"

The four guards stared at her. The princess stamped her foot. "Now! Or I'll-well, you won't like it."

She cocked an eye up at Caroline. "Is that okay?" she half-whispered.

"I'm not about to give you a hard time over it, that's for sure. But where in the world did you learn to tell fibs like that?"

Kristina sniffed. "How silly. Watching my father and Uncle Axel. And all the others. They're frightful fibbers, you know."

An officer emerged. "What's this all about?" he demanded, half-sternly and half-worriedly. Whether or not his soldiers knew who the girl was, he certainly did.

It took another two minutes, but in the end he let them through. In fact, he even offered to guide Caroline and Kristina to the right barracks. Surprisingly, perhaps, Caroline was almost sure it was more the silent appeal in her own eyes than Kristina's royal proclamations that turned the tide.

Or perhaps it was simply that he knew Thorsten Engler. And, like everyone Caroline had met, liked the man. That didn't surprise her at all.

"There," he said, pointing to one of the barracks, once they were fifteen yards away.

Kristina surged to the fore again. "Thorsten Engler! Come out!"

A few seconds later, he did. Stared at Caroline, then at the shoes in her hand. Then, turned his head away slightly. A subtle but unmistakable look of great sadness came over his face.

She'd done something wrong. In God's name, what?

So, it was over. Thorsten realized-he should have listened to Eric and the others-that he'd not only been foolish, but had even insulted the woman. So greatly that she'd come out here, the same day, to return the gifts in person. Lest he be under any misapprehension at all.

Suddenly, she started striding toward him. That same very athletic stride that could still arouse him so. But he only watched from the corner of his eyes, since he couldn't really bear to look at her directly.

Until she was standing just three feet way, and extended the shoes. The gesture was oddly tentative, not the firm thrust he'd expected.

"Thorsten… Oh, damnation. Look, I can't help it. It's just the way I am, take it or leave it. I'm a practical girl. And I've got big feet for a woman. The shoes are too small. But…"

Hope surged, where he'd thought there was none. His eyes went to hers.

There was no anger at all, in those green orbs. No smile on the face below, either. But the eyes were simply…

Appealing? Uncertain?

"Can I-or you?-I don't care-trade them in? I'd love to have a pair that fits." Her eyes started watering. "I can't tell how much I would. But…"

Her voice was barely above a whisper. "I don't know what to do, either. And I don't want to do anything wrong. Not now. God, not now."

Perhaps he smiled. He never remembered. Whatever. Finally-for sure-he did something right.

Caroline's full smile erupted. She dropped the shoes. "Oh, fuck it," she said. "And fuck whatever horse anybody rode in on."

The next thing he knew she had him in a fierce embrace, and was kissing him more fiercely still.

So. At least that legend was true. Americanesses did all use the Austrian kiss. Her tongue felt like it was halfway down his throat. Good thing he came from sturdy farmer stock, with stout hearts on both side of the family. Or he would have died, right then and there.

Eventually-who could say when? who cared?-she broke off the kiss and nuzzled his ear. "I'll write to you, but I don't know if the letters will get delivered. Please write to me, whenever you can."

"They might," he murmured back. "Hard to know. Damn army. But whether they ever get to you or not, I will write them."

The bugle blew. "Oh, damn," Caroline said. "Does that mean what I think it means?"

Kristina managed to extort another five minutes for them. She'd inherited her father's ability to throw a truly majestic temper tantrum along with his prominent nose. But, eventually, the officers insisted. Push comes to shove, officers with combat experience are less susceptible to the menace of a shaking seven-year-old finger than noble ladies.

But, by then, it really didn't matter. Enough had been said-enough finally understood-that Caroline and Thorsten would either have all the time in the world, or Thorsten would be dead before she saw him again.

Grief she could handle, if need be. Hopefully, this time, she'd handle it better. But at least uncertainty was gone.

Oh, so very very very gone. He had a wonderful kiss, too. And she already knew he'd make a wonderful father, just from watching him with Kristina.

After she was out of sight, Thorsten turned back and reentered the barracks. There, in the middle of the room, he planted hands on hips and looked about at the pitiful inhabitants. They'd all watched, of course, half of them crammed into the doorway and the other half crowded at the windows.

"Go ahead," he said. "Make a joke. Any joke…"

Eric Krenz covered his eyes. "He's going to be insufferable, fellows. Absolutely insufferable. How did it come to this, anyway? This is absurd. It's not in any of the legends." Part Three A glittering sword out of the east April 1634

Chapter 31

The next morning, Thorsten Engler was trying hard not to laugh at his friend Eric Krenz. Eric was in a foul enough mood as it was. Fortunately, since Eric was riding behind him and to his right, Krenz couldn't see the grin on Thorsten's face.

"Where did they get these fucking nags, anyway?" he heard Krenz complain.

After making sure he'd suppressed the grin, Thorsten turned his head and looked back. As he'd expected, Eric wasn't even looking at the horses drawing the battery wagon at all. Instead, his gaze was fixed, like a paralyzed rabbit's on a snake, at the limber pole swaying back and forth very close to his right leg. The "tongue," as it was often called, would inevitably wind up slamming against that leg from time to time, when the limber's wheels struck an obstruction or rut of some sort. Of which there were bound to be some, especially this time of year, even in a road as well designed and graded as the road that followed the Elbe north of Magdeburg.

The blow could easily cause bruises, and possibly even break a bone. That was the reason that the right legs of the volley gunners riding the three near horses of each gun crew had an iron guard encased in leather. So did those of the riders on the ammunition wagon and the battery wagon. The devices worked perfectly well, even if it was a bit startling to have the tongue suddenly slam against you.

The problem was twofold. The first aspect was that Eric simply wasn't accustomed to it. By now, Thorsten had plenty of experience riding the near horses on a gun team, even if-as was true today-he would normally ride his own horse on campaign. That being one of the chief perquisites of his august status as the sergeant in command of a battery, not assigned to any specific team.

Eric, however, being none too fond of horses to begin with, had used every opportunity during their training to avoid riding the blasted beasts. He'd been able to get away with it because he wasn't assigned to one of the crews in Engler's B Battery either. Instead, he'd accompany the battery wagon with its load of tools and equipment to repair whatever needed to be repaired on campaign.

The second part of the problem was even simpler. Krenz was a mediocre horseman, at best. He invariably referred to horses as "surly brutes"-even though, in point of fact, Captain Witty and Lieutenant Reschly had selected the most placid animals they could find. Eric's stubborn insistence on indulging his dislike for horses meant that his rudimentary skills in a saddle had not improved much throughout the course of their training. By no means all of the volley gunners came from backgrounds, like Thorsten's own farming, that gave them experience with horses. But, by now, all of them-except Krenz-were at least passable riders. Thorsten's own horsemanship was quite good, as good as that of most cavalrymen.

Engler had warned Krenz several times that eventually Eric would have to get on a horse. But Krenz had cheerfully insisted that what he called "proper military doctrine"-and there was a laugh, since Eric missed as many of the formal classes as he could, too-meant that he'd always either be on foot or, at worst, riding on the limber.

"Artillery officers want their men on foot, Thorsten," he'd said stoutly, a few weeks back. "I read that in the manual."

"Not our manual, you didn't," replied Engler, a bit irritated. "That's the general manual you're talking about, which is mostly addressed at heavy artillery. Eric, we're the lightest artillery there is. What they call 'flying artillery' or-brace yourself-'horse artillery.' We're supposed to be able to keep up with cavalry, on anything except an actual charge or a fast reconnaissance."

Krenz just looked stubborn. He could do that superbly well, when he was of a mind. "I read it," he persisted.

"No, what you read was that in the regular artillery, they only use one or two riders on the near horses. Yes, fine, you could get around that, if you were assigned to something like a six-pounder or twelve-pounder battery. As bad a horseman as you are, no sergeant in his right mind wants you guiding a horse team. The manual's insistence that the gunners who aren't riding must stay on foot except under special circumstances like fast maneuvers is because they don't want lazy gunners riding on the limbers, like so many of them will do if the officers or sergeants aren't watching. That's because they're likely to get injured if the limber hits a hole or a rock and jostles them hard enough."

He might as well have been talking to a brick wall, from the expression on Krenz's face.

Thorsten sighed. "Still don't get it, do you? When we actually go out on a campaign-especially the one we're training for, where we have to keep up with the ironclads-you will be riding a horse. Everybody will. There's no way we could keep up otherwise."

Alas, when he wanted it to be, Eric's capacity for self-justification was an endless cornucopia.

"Oh, that's nonsense, Thorsten. I heard one of the up-timer sergeants in the infantry-not more than two weeks ago-saying that a properly conditioned man on foot can travel longer and faster than a horse over long distances. He said they even had some tribe of savages in their old country-'Apashoes,' or something like that-who could make a hundred miles a day on foot."

Thorsten silently cursed Paul David Willcocks. Though now in his mid-forties, with no excuse for the childish habit, the up-time sergeant who served the volunteer regiments as a special trainer had the incorrigible practice of regaling his soldiers with tales from his former universe, many of which Engler thought were probably what the up-timers called "tall tales." But whether true or not, Willcocks never seemed to give any thought at all to whether the stories were appropriate for a training sergeant to be blathering to his men.

"Apaches," he corrected. "Yes, I know, I've heard the story. Here's what else is true. Since you now seem besotted-and when did this magical transformation take place?-with proper military doctrine. Apaches were light infantry-as light as it gets-detached into small units. A dozen men, perhaps. They didn't have to worry about keeping hundreds of men moving on a single road, and they weren't carrying any equipment worth talking about. You, on the other hand, unless you used horses, would have to carry several hundred pounds of gear, powder and shot. You couldn't even pick up your share and take one step, much less outrun a horse. You couldn't outrun a tortoise. Even in the infantry, the average soldier in the regiments has to be able to tote fifty pounds on campaign."

Since Krenz was obviously still willing to argue, Thorsten had broken it off. "Never mind," he'd said, waving his hand. "Be as stupid as you want. But if you fall off your team horse a few weeks from now and get turned into sausage by the wheels of the limber and the wagon, don't claim I didn't warn you."

Now that the joyous day of I-told-you-so had finally come, Thorsten wasn't actually worried that Eric would fall off his mount. Given the white-knuckled way he was grasping the pommel, Krenz would probably manage to stay in the saddle even if he and his horse were both swept up by a tornado. In any event, Thorsten had made sure the least skilled horseman in his battery was riding the third of the near horses, the one closest to the limber. The "wheelers," as they were called-the other two on each side would be the "swing" and the "lead" horse-were the biggest and steadiest horses on each team. Even if Eric did fall off he'd manage to land on the limber instead of under it.

Of course, Engler knew he probably wouldn't be able to bask in the sunshine of just retribution for more than a few weeks. They were setting off on the expedition with six horses assigned to each gun or wagon, when four would be plenty and, in a pinch, the volley guns were so light they could be hauled by two. That was because it was inevitable that some of the horses would fall by the wayside as time went on. Lamed, ill, killed or wounded in action. So, sooner or later, Eric probably would be able to start walking or riding on the limber.

Captain Witty had told Thorsten that they could expect, at best, to lose one horse in ten over the course of the expedition-and that was assuming they didn't fight any major actions. That was the average for a good cavalry unit. In reality, Witty thought their losses would be closer to one horse in four. Most of the men in the volley gun batteries were only passable horsemen, and the price for their inexperience and clumsiness would mostly be paid by the horses themselves.

***

As it happened, Captain Carl Witty was thinking about the matter himself, that very moment. And his thoughts were every bit as acerbic as that of his master sergeant.

"Let's hope they get better as time goes by," he grumbled to his second-in-command.

Lieutenant Markus Reschly-"Mark," now, since he'd adopted the up-time abbreviation of his name-was a more cheerful man by nature than his commander. Smiling, he said, "Oh, they're bound to. Training exercises are one thing; a real campaign, quite a different matter. They'll learn."

"Yes, I know. But how many horses will they grind up while they do? Horses are not cheap."

From the blank look on the young lieutenant's face, it was clear as day that he'd never once thought about that aspect of the problem. That was a bit odd, actually. Had Reschly been one of the usual volunteers, Witty wouldn't have expected him to understand that whatever else war was, it was also an economic enterprise. But Reschly was one of the traditional sort of mercenaries, of whom there were plenty in the USE's new army, especially in the officer corps. Witty himself was another, from Switzerland.

Reschly came from the Moselle valley, a region that produced both horses and mercenaries. Plenty of the former and, if not as many as Switzerland, a fair number of the latter. Mercenaries usually understood the economics of war quite well, especially mercenary officers who had to bear a lot of the cost out of their own pockets. And Markus came from a traditional mercenary family, too.

On the other hand, Reschly was still very young. And although he was officially a "mercenary" it had become quite obvious that he'd used the family tradition, along with a decent amount of training in the skill of arms, to wrangle himself a position in the USE's Army for primarily ideological reasons. If most of the volunteers came from the German lands heavily influenced by the pestiferous Committees of Correspondence, the new USE Army was drawing enthusiasts from all over Europe.

Which was a damned nuisance, as far as Witty was concerned. Not even in the most ill-disciplined mercenary company he'd ever served in had he encountered such a disputatious lot of soldiery. True, the men maintained a tight discipline over themselves when it came to the usual problems of drunkenness and thievery. Much better than mercenaries would. But they were quite prepared to argue about almost anything else. Gloomily, Witty foresaw the day when these idiot "democrats," as they liked to style themselves, would insist on the right to vote whether or not to have a battle-or even a charge.

He consoled himself with the thought that the pay was as good as that of most armies in Europe, and there was that one great benefit on the side. Among the many peculiar ramifications of the up-timers' notion of "democracy" was that they considered it outrageous to expect soldiers-even officers-to pay for their own military equipment. That was to be provided by the state, it seemed.

An idiot notion, of course. If Witty were the emperor, he'd damn well see to it that his soldiers bore as much of the financial burden of war as possible. Let them make up for it by looting.

Which the up-timers also considered outrageous-to the point where they'd even persuaded General Torstensson to ban looting altogether, under pain of draconian punishments. There seemed to be no end to the silliness they could generate out of their heads. Perhaps the absurdly lavish care they devoted to their teeth made their brains rot instead.

Ah, well. Witty had calculated everything carefully, before he agreed to take a commission, and decided it was still worth doing. The pay was decent, after all, and he figured that whatever he'd lose by not getting a captain's share of the loot, he'd make up for by also not having to pay a captain's share of the expenses.

Still, old habits died hard. Every time he saw one of the inexperienced gunners misusing a horse, he couldn't stop calculating what that was likely to cost a few weeks down the road, even if he wasn't the one who'd be paying for it.

On the positive side, the road was good. Very good. However fantastically impractical the up-timers might be in their politics, there was no question they designed good roads. The best roads Europe had seen since Roman times were now those in the Germanies. Well, some of the Germanies, at least. Pomeranian roads were still said to be as bad as ever.

But Pomerania was the armpit of the continent anyway. Witty had been there once. Hopefully, he'd never go again. He was thirty-three years old now. A few more years and he'd be able to return to Switzerland with enough money to set himself up nicely.

Who knows? He might even have enough to pay a dentist before he retired. Not likely, of course.

The river was unpleasantly cold in the bright morning light.

Well, of course it was. It was only late March, and the Elbe River was never exactly what one might have called toasty warm, Admiral John Simpson reflected as he stood with hopefully impressive calm in the conning tower of SSIM Constitution. He'd been a bit surprised that the river hadn't frozen, although intellectually he'd understood that the past winter hadn't really been as cold as it had sometimes felt, Little Ice Age or not.

It was still cold enough to offer the very real threat of hypothermia to anyone who found himself immersed in it, though. A thought which John Chandler Simpson found rather reassuring as he contemplated the intelligence reports about possible threats his command might face. Not that there weren't entirely enough purely physical problems, without any need for enemy action behind them, to make his current task sufficiently daunting.

Captain Franz Halberstat maneuvered Constitution cautiously away from her dockside mooring. "Give me ten degrees of starboard rudder, reverse thrust on the starboard jet, and increase to ten percent power on the port jet," he said.

"Ten degree starboard rudder, ten percent power on the port jet, aye, aye, sir!" his helmsman repeated crisply, and the engine-room telegraph jangled as the quartermaster transmitted the orders.

The ironclad's twin rudders moved, and a curved section of pipe lowered itself over the nozzle of the starboard pump as a pair of engineers spun the geared wheel that controlled it. The pipe clamped tight, capturing the output from the pump and directing it forward, underneath the ship's hull, while the port jet continued to push forward. The combination turned the vessel sharply, and Constitution's five-hundred-ton bulk seemed to quiver slightly underfoot.

That was probably his imagination, Admiral Simpson told himself. On the other hand, maybe it wasn't.

The ironclad moved slowly but smoothly towards midstream and away from her mooring, and Halberstat's quiet orders returned the starboard jet to normal operation. Simpson nodded in satisfaction, and then stepped out onto the bridge wing, looking astern as the other six ships began to move as well.

He wasn't the only person watching them. The navy yard's entire work force was out in strength, standing on the river banks, bobbing about in every rowboat they could lay hands on, shouting and cheering and stamping their feet. The sound of their voices would probably have been deafening, if the raucous sound of the ironclads' sirens (actually, horns purloined from diesel trucks that weren't going to require them any longer), the timberclads' whistles, and the ringing of Magdeburg's bells hadn't drowned out any purely human sounds.

So much for operational security, Simpson thought dryly.

Of course, there'd never been much chance of maintaining any sort of security, even if Mike Stearns-or John Chandler Simpson-had wanted to in the first place. Everyone in Magdeburg, which undoubtedly included literally hordes of spies for everyone from Richelieu to Christian of Denmark to Emperor Ferdinand of Austria to the Wizard of Oz, had known the navy would be moving out as soon as possible for its spring showdown in the Baltic. There'd been no possible way to conceal that. Nor was Simpson particularly averse to letting the other side know what was coming.

There's damn-all they're going to be able to do about it, anyway, he thought with a certain grim satisfaction. It wasn't a thought which someone with his own profound respect for the Demon Murphy was prepared to express out loud, but Simpson was well aware of the potency of the weapon he had forged.

Standing there and simply watching the ships of his squadron was one of the more difficult things Simpson had ever done. Every nerve ending in his body cried out to take the con himself, at least for his flagship. Certainly, even ten or twelve months ago, the mere thought of allowing seventeenth-century officers to command vessels like this would have been a guaranteed source of permanent insomnia. After the exhausting weeks and months he'd spent working with and training the officers in question, that problem at least no longer applied.

Well, he thought, let's be honest with ourselves here, John. It doesn't apply very much, anymore.

He snorted with humor carefully concealed behind his impassive "the admiral is on duty" expression as he admitted the real reason his entire epidermis itched with the need to give the helm and power orders himself. These ships were very much his babies. Building them, and the navy to employ them, had been probably the most satisfying task he'd ever undertaken in a life filled with substantial accomplishments. He wasn't prepared to admit that to anyone except, possibly, his wife Mary, but he knew it was true, and he simply hated the thought of delegating responsibility for what happened to his ships in any way to someone else.

At least the skippers he'd appointed to command the ironclads had all been given the opportunity to practice with the slower, clumsier, smaller river steamers already in commission. In fact, Simpson had used those practice and training sessions to wash out several prospective watch-standing officers. The transition from sail or oar power to paddlewheel steamers had required greater mental flexibility than most up-timers would have expected, for a lot of reasons, and some people-whether up-timer or seventeenth-century-simply lacked that flexibility.

One problem that had caused quite a bit of confusion for the down-timers, at least initially, was the fact that Simpson had insisted upon providing all of his new vessels with wheels, rather than the simple tillers virtually all seventeenth-century ships utilized. There were several reasons for that particular decision, and the opinion which he knew some people had expressed-that it was simply the system with which he was familiar-wasn't actually one of them. The use of a geared quadrant system to shift the rudder not only permitted him to build in a much greater mechanical advantage for the helmsman, but also offered a substantially greater amount of maneuverability.

All contemporary vessels used a tiller. For all intents and purposes, it was simply a stout bar attached to the head of the rudder stock and used to steer much as the tiller was used in a modern sailing dinghy or outboard motorboat. Unfortunately, the length of the tiller had to be in direct proportion to the forces required to shift the rudder, and its maximum length was restricted by the width of the ship itself. In larger ships, a "whipstaff" was required simply to control the rudder, and that made things even worse. The whipstaff was essentially a vertical lever, mounted on a pivoting center and extending from the ship's quarterdeck down to the level of the tiller, where it was attached to the end of the bar. It provided the helmsmen with a powerful mechanical advantage, but meant that the rudder's range of movement was even more sharply restricted. As a result, a large sailing ship (although "large" was a relative term) found it impossible to apply more than five or six degrees of rudder.

That Simpson's ships, on the other hand, could apply up to eighty degrees of rudder, would have made them immensely more maneuverable even without the fact that they weren't solely reliant on wind power or oars. It had taken his seventeenth-century officers a while to make that mental adjustment, and then to make the necessary counter-adjustment and learn to respect the limitations that still existed. Actually, the second adjustment had been rather more harrowing for Simpson to observe. For a while, it had reminded him forcefully of Hans Richter's adventures behind the wheels of up-timer vehicles.

After that, they'd settled down, and Simpson felt reasonably confident of their ability to handle the paddle-wheel timberclads. The ironclads, though, were a different kettle of fish entirely. Crude as they might still appear to up-timer eyes, they were far more advanced in both concept and execution than the steam kettle timberclads. For all their greater size, they actually accelerated faster and had a tighter turning radius (proportionately) and a higher sustained speed than any of the steamboats that had yet been produced here in the United States of Europe.

And they were lots, lots bigger.

"Meet her," Captain Halberstat said.

The captain's voice came faintly but clearly through the open armored door. Simpson couldn't hear the helmsman's response, but Constitution steadied on her new heading, steaming directly down the center of the river. Well, not "steaming," precisely.

The pair of pumps around which each of the four ironclads had been built turned them into what Simpson sometimes thought of as the world's biggest jet skis. They'd allowed him to avoid all sorts of problems in building the things, and they offered significant tactical advantages. They didn't come without drawbacks of their own, of course. For one thing, they were big, and designing their intakes and flow lines had presented quite a few headaches. Foreign object damage was also a consideration, and designing screens to protect the intakes against objects large enough to inflict damage without thoroughly obstructing water flow had provided another set of headaches.

On the other hand, they'd kept Simpson from having to figure out how to design truly efficient propellers-something he was going to have to do by the time they started laying down the proposed screw-frigates. They were also far less vulnerable (and far more mechanically reliable) than the paddle wheels he'd used for the supporting steamers. And they were immensely more efficient at moving water… which, after all, was what any mechanical propulsion system had to do.

He stepped to the front of the open bridgework wrapped around the armored conning tower and looked ahead down the river. The pair of up-time power boats leading the ponderous line of gunboats downstream looked particularly anachronistic this morning. The fact that they were stuffed with Marines armed with flintlock rifles only added to their incongruity, but Simpson couldn't have cared less. Each of those boats, like each of his ironclads, mounted one of the precious up-time fishing fathometers and carried one of the experienced Elbe River barge pilots. Over the last several weeks, those boats and pilots had scoured the upper reaches of the Elbe, familiarizing themselves with its waters in order to pick practicable channels for Simpson's vessels.

The fact that the river was running springtime deep and that the ironclads' draft could be reduced to as little as five feet by pumping out their trim tanks had helped immeasurably with that task, but there were still a few problem areas waiting for them. Most of those had been addressed by building staustufen, or temporary holding dams, on the shallow bits. Like the more permanent wehrleucken, the staustufen's function was to raise the water level in a given section of river to something which would float the gunboats. Unlike the wehrleucken, staustufen were intended from the beginning to be temporary structures. Once the water had risen sufficiently, they were simply breached and the vessels upstream of them rode down with the released wave. Wehrleucken, on the other hand, were permanent dams with central spillways that were supposed to be broad enough for barges and other river traffic to pass through.

Unfortunately, none of the existing wehrleucken had been built to handle anything like the size of the USE's steamboats and gunboats. In the long run, a more formal and efficient system of locks was going to be necessary, and its construction was already underway. But for now, Simpson was stuck with what was already in place.

And what's already in place is stuck with me, too, he thought with a certain grim satisfaction. You should have listened to Matthias, Freiherr. He was trying to be much more reasonable than I'm going to be.

One thing about Mike Stearns, the admiral reflected. The man had nerves of steel and an intelligent ruthlessness whose depth Simpson, for one, had been woefully slow to recognize. In his own way, Stearns was every bit as ruthless and willing to resort to bare knuckles at need as Gustav Adolf himself… and just as pragmatic.

The prefix for the ships themselves, in fact, was a reflection of that characteristic of the man. SSIM stood for Schiff seiner imperialen Majestat-"His Imperial Majesty's Ship," in English. The CoCs had raised a ruckus, wanting USES instead. But since there'd been no substance to the matter beyond pure symbolism, and the issue was raising the emperor's hackles-more because he saw the CoCs as challenging him than because he really cared himself-Stearns had squelched the CoCs and settled the issue to Gustav Adolf's preference. Figuring, Simpson had no doubt, that he'd save his bargaining leverage for issues that really mattered. When the time came to fish or cut bait, Prime Minister Stearns, unlike certain other up-time political leaders Simpson could have named, never waffled.

Careful, John, he told himself. You're actually starting to like the man!

Chapter 32

"Are you sure about this, Darryl?" asked Melissa. Both she and Tom Simpson were practically squinting at McCarthy, with pretty much the same expression on their faces they might have had if Darryl McCarthy had just announced he was going to become a monk. Or, perhaps more to the point under these circumstances, he'd announced that he knew a batch of Las Vegas showgirls who'd decided to take holy vows.

"Yeah, I'm sure. Why is it so goddam hard to understand?"

"They're Yeoman Warders, Darryl," said Tom patiently. "You know. The Tower of London's Beefeaters-even if they won't be called that for another half century or so. Renowned for their unswerving loyalty to the king. That sort of thing."

"Oh, piss on that," snapped Darryl. He gave Melissa a wary eye. "Meaning no offense."

"Good thing for you there's no blackboard around," she said, half-smiling. "As I believe I've mentioned about twenty times since we got stuck in here. But Tom's question still stands, Darryl. I'll grant you that the Beefeater reputation got overlaid with a lot of sentiment by our time. But it's still true enough-and nothing we've seen since we got here has indicated otherwise. Yes, they've been very pleasant to deal with. Far more pleasant, God knows, than this bunch of thugs who've been running the Tower for the last few weeks. But I've never doubted for a moment that the Warders would do their best to stop us from trying to escape."

"I ain't talking about 'the Warders,' " Darryl pointed out, trying for the same patient and level tone of voice that his commander Captain Simpson always did so well. "I'm just talking about one family among them. More to the point, Stephen Hamilton's family. You think you're pissed about these new mercenaries who've been running roughshod over everybody in the Tower? You don't know what the word 'pissed' even means, to somebody like him. And it's a double whammy. Just being angry wouldn't have given Stephen Hamilton a way to do anything about it. But now, me being part of the family and him having figured out we're planning to escape… I think from his point of view, that settled the question."

Tom rubbed his heavy jaw. "I think Darryl's probably right, Melissa. All the Yeoman Warders are quietly furious about the situation, not just Hamilton and his kin. I haven't spent much time out and about in the Tower since the lid came down, because we all agreed we'd be wise to keep a low profile. Darryl and Nelly are the only ones who go out regularly any more, because they've both got legitimate excuses that not even that prick Windebank questions. A sweetheart in Darryl's case-betrothed, to boot-and simply shopping for food in Nelly's. But I've been out there a couple of times, for an hour or so, and all it takes is a few minutes to figure out how mad they are. If word came down from Whitehall that King Charles had tired of Windebank and the Warders could do with him as they chose, they'd have the arrogant bastard staked out naked on the Tower green and be laying bets on which ravens would pluck out his eyes."

When Melissa had visited the Tower of London as a tourist, back in the late twentieth century, she'd thought the ancient custom of having ravens as pets of a sort in the Tower was charming. Even then, she'd known the historical origins of the custom. But it had all seemed very far removed, as harmless as a medieval sword displayed in a museum case. Now that she'd been imprisoned in the Tower during its "operational period," so to speak, she'd developed a different attitude. The ravens were indeed there to pluck out eyes-the eyes of men beheaded on the orders of the English crown.

Tom was still rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "And Darryl's also right about Stephen Hamilton. You haven't met him, not really. I have. That is one scary human being. Not somebody I'd want mad at me, for damn sure."

Melissa grimaced. "Tom, I have to tell you that 'one scary human being' is not actually a recommendation on a resume. Not for me, anyway."

Tom gave her a thin, rather cold, smile. "We're in different lines of work, so to speak. From my point of view-being the commander of a military force that you couldn't call a 'squad' without breaking into hysterical laughter-'scary human being' looks pretty damn good, unless we're dealing with an actual sociopath. Which I don't think is true of Hamilton."

Darryl frowned. "Hey, take it easy. He's really a pretty good guy, you know. Hell of a nice grandpa for all the kids. I know him a lot better than either of you. He's just… Well, he never talks about it-nobody does in the family-but I think he's been in some very bad places in his life. The one thing for sure is that he's nobody you want to cross unless you've got a really good reason. 'Really good reason' like in: 'I'll die if I don't, so I may as well, even though he'll probably kill me.' I could tell that the first day I met the guy. Even Harry would walk carefully around him."

He cleared his throat. "Which, uh, kinda brings us back to the point. Is it gonna be 'would' or 'will'?"

"A miracle," stated Melissa. "God, they seem to happen every other day in this time and place. Darryl McCarthy just made a clear and correct grammatical distinction."

Darryl looked vaguely alarmed, the way a righteous hillbilly will when his credentials are challenged. She might as well have suggested he liked Brie and crackers with dry white wine.

"Hey!"

"Oh, relax, Darryl," said Tom. "I'm sure it was just a momentary lapse. My lips are sealed." Then, to Melissa: "But, yeah, you're right. It is a clear grammatical distinction. So what's going to be our correct response?"

Now it was Melissa's turn to look vaguely alarmed. "Oh, dear. Tom, I'm really not good at this sort of thing. Gauging violent people, I mean. I thought my college boyfriend was really cute until he turned out to be a screwball, fiddling with explosives that he had no idea how to make and even less idea of where and why and how he'd use them. I think it just made him feel like a dangerous anarchist."

Darryl sneered. "Ain't the same thing, Melissa. Stephen Hamilton is the real deal. For that matter, so's Andrew and the other guys in the family, even if none of 'em are in the same great gray wolf league that Stephen is."

"Got to tell you I agree with him, Melissa," said Tom. "If Darryl's right and the veiled remarks Stephen and Andrew have made to him mean that they're offering to switch sides, we'd be crazy not to accept." The army captain twitched his head, using it to point across the Thames that ran below one set of the windows in their quarters. "I can tell you for sure and certain that Harry'll be tickled pink. Even as brash as he is, Harry's been scratching his head for weeks trying to figure out how to pull off Jailbreak, Version Two, Super-sized. Having half a dozen Warders to work with would make a huge difference."

He smiled wryly. " 'Course, he'll also have conniptions when we tell him he's got to plan for springing another couple of dozen people-all the way down to toddlers."

Melissa winced. So did Darryl. Harry's last remarks on the subject of jailbreakees who kept adding more jailbreakees to the list had started with sarcastic and gone downhill from there.

In the event, however, Harry Lefferts' reaction was quite otherwise.

"Hot diggedy damn!" he exclaimed, after switching off the walkie-talkie. "Guys, scrap plan-whatever number we're up to. Things are looking up. Way, way up."

He'd been using the walkie-talkie in the kitchen, instead of the room upstairs that they'd set up as their radio room. Over the weeks they'd now been in Southwark, once their initial plans for a quick jailbreak had gotten scrapped after the earl of Cork's coup d'etat, Harry had soon realized that the radio room was pointless for the walkie-talkies. Just a relic from old habits, when they'd had to rely on fancy communications equipment with tricky antennas and, even then, relaying everything through Amsterdam. The walkie-talkies worked just fine in the kitchen, and that way he didn't have to repeat everything to the rest of the team.

Felix didn't share his enthusiasm. "For Christ's sake, Harry, twenty or so more people? Three of them babies?"

"None of them babies," said Juliet, sniffing disdainfully. "You've got to understand the distinctions here. Good thing you have women with you."

She began counting off on her fingers. "If I've followed all this properly, we've got one infant, two toddlers, and five other children. I don't count the teenagers. They're not a problem."

Sherrilyn Maddox rolled her eyes. "I'd love to hear you say that to my mother."

Juliet sniffed again. "I doubt if your mother ever participated in a mass jailbreak. Not a problem, I say. Unless the two boys get too eager and we have to haul them away by the short hairs."

"They'll get too eager and we'll have to haul them away by their short hairs," predicted her husband calmly. "But, yes, not a problem." He opened a huge hand and closed it. "See? Easy."

That brought a little ripple of laughter around the table, from everyone except Felix. As usual, he was the self-designated Cassandra of the team. "Maybe not in the escape out of the Tower-but what then?"

It was his turn to start counting on his fingers. "Let's add it all up. Start with our own people in St. Thomas' Tower." He did a quick count. "Mailey, the Simpsons, Darryl, Gayle, and Friedrich and Nellie Bruch. That's seven." He started over again with a new finger count. "Cromwell. Wentworth. Add in Wentworth's wife and his three children. How old are they, by the way?"

"The son Will's the oldest," said Juliet. "He's almost eight, I think. The oldest daughter Nan is about six and a half years old. The youngest daughter Arabella is only four and a half."

Felix rolled his eyes. "Marvelous. More kids. Just what we need. But let's keep going. So far, we're up to thirteen, three of them children. No teenagers, either; we're speaking of real children. Then we add Laud to bring us up to fourteen."

He broke off the finger count and spread his hands wide, encompassing everyone in the kitchen. It was a large kitchen, but it was still very crowded. "And that's just the escapees. Since I assume our fearless leader wasn't planning to have us surrender ourselves into the king's custody, we've also got to plan for our own escape. And there are nine of us-eleven, counting Julie and Alex."

Mackay and his wife were in a corner, Alex perched on a stool and Julie perched on his lap. She shook her head. "I don't know if you should figure us in it. We gotta get out of London, sure-but then we're headed back to Scotland, where we left our daughter with my father-in-law."

"I imagine Cromwell will want to come with us, too," added her husband. "He's still got his own children hiding out in the Fens somewhere, don't forget. I doubt very much if he'd agree to leave England without them."

Seeing the gathering storm on Kasza's brow, Alex barked a laugh. "Oh, leave it be, Felix! You needn't plan a second escape. It'd have to be weeks or months later, anyway. Let us worry about it. Or Cromwell, if he decides to go on his own after he finds his kids. By all accounts, y'know, he's a full-grown man and quite capable of handling his own affairs. He did manage to become lord protector of England, in whatever other universe his duplicate self is in."

Harry coughed. "Ah… I think it's a little more complicated. I know Darryl is planning to stick with Cromwell-dunno about whether his squeeze Vicky will go with him, though-and I'm pretty sure Gayle is too."

Everyone stared at him. "You never said anything about that," complained Ohde.

"Yeah, Don, I know I didn't. Darryl asked me to keep it to myself, until we got closer to Der Tag. Seems he's gotten to be friends with Cromwell-you gotta know Darryl like I do to understand how completely weird that is, but I'll skip over it now-and he also thinks he's got to keep an eye on him."

The stares didn't waver. Harry sighed.

"Look, guys, this'll mean a little bit to Julie and Sherrilyn but it won't mean squat to the rest of you. Darryl's family are Irish, and they get real fruitcake on the subject. Give money to Noraid, the whole bit. For reasons I am not going into now, Oliver Cromwell ranks right up there with Satan's top demons, in their book-and here Darryl's gone and made friends with him. But I guess Darryl figures the guy's probably still a demon, even if he likes him, so he isn't letting him out of his sight."

Maczka shook his head. "Never mind. Politics in this century are bad enough. And Gayle? Is she one of these fruitcakes too?"

"Ah… no. Seems she's gotten interested in Cromwell. Personally, I mean. Which is a neat trick, seeing as she's never even met the guy. Just talks to him on the radio they snuck into his cell."

Kasza threw up his hands again. "This is sheer lunacy!"

Harry grinned. "It's like Melissa says. We're in an age of miracles. But you oughta keep going, Felix. I'm finding it actually helpful."

Felix scowled a little, but went back to the finger counting. "Fine. So we had already reached the preposterous figure of twenty-five people, for what we laughingly call a 'jailbreak.' " He gave Julie and Alex a sharp glance. "For the moment, we've got to include the two of you also. Regardless of how many parties wind up going in separate directions, we've got to get everybody in the Tower out of there and them and the rest of us out of London."

He looked at Harry from lowered brows. "And now, how many Warders are we talking about? Keeping in mind that if they're the berserk clansmen they sound like, they won't agree to leave without bringing every single one in the clan."

"I'm not sure, exactly. I'll have to get Darryl to give me an exact count. Somewhere around twenty is all I know, including all the women and kids."

By now, even George Sutherland was starting to look aghast. "Ah… Harry. You're talking about almost fifty people. Just exactly how many boats did you figure on using?"

Throughout, Harry had been standing up, leaning back against one of the kitchen walls. Now, he pushed himself off the wall with a little heave of his shoulders and came up to the table.

"The way I figure it, we get one big boat for all of us except the people heading for the Fens."

Matija grimaced. "For the love of God, Harry. A boat big enough to hold something like forty people, even packed like sardines? You're talking about one of those Thames barges. We'll be lucky if we make three miles an hour over whatever the current's doing, unless we've got a good wind-and who knows if we will?"

"Yeah-and so what? I figure there'll be enough confusion that we can get out of London without any trouble. After that, it won't actually be all that easy for cavalry-much less infantry-to catch up with us. We're on the river, doing at least five miles an hour with the current. They've got to follow country roads, most of which don't parallel the river hardly at all. Brit road-makers in the here and now aren't any crazier than they are up-time. You don't build roads right next to rivers, especially not a river like the Thames. The soil's too crappy."

"There are tow paths all along the Thames," pointed out Paul. "Stretches of them, anyway."

Harry shrugged again. "Sure. And would you want to take a cavalry horse down one of them? With us on the boat with up-time weapons and plenty of ammunition? And we've got enough ordnance here that we can give most of the Warders up-time guns."

"They've never used them," protested Gerd. Feebly.

Harry laughed. "Yeah. I know. They're also Warders. How long did it take any of you to figure out how to operate a pump-action shotgun? Being delicate and all, I won't mention the sicko kinky love affairs that followed."

That drew a laugh, even from Kasza.

"I'm not actually worried about any of that," said George. "The Thames is a wide river, even here in London. By the time you get down to Tilbury, where it narrows a bit, it's almost a thousand yards wide. Even at Tilbury, it only 'narrows' to something like seven hundred yards. Cavalrymen-even infantrymen-standing on the banks and shooting at us with matchlocks and wheel locks stand almost no chance of hitting us. We'll stay in the center of the river, of course, just to avoid the shoals if nothing else."

He held up a big forefinger in the way of warning. "There's the fort at Tilbury to get past, too, don't forget."

He didn't say it with any great alarm, just more in the way of a reminder. Harry and his crew had made it a point to visit the fort on their way up the Thames when they arrived in England. That hadn't been hard, since they'd sold their boat in Tilbury and therefore had an excuse to be lounging about for a time. Harry and Don Ohde had taken the opportunity to visit the fort while the others handled the commercial transaction. The soldiers manning the fort had been so delighted to have visitors that they'd shown them all about. For their part, Harry and Don had been polite, letting no sign of their professional contempt show visibly. Henry VIII had had the fort built, in the previous century, and it had fallen into a state of almost complete desuetude. The entire garrison wasn't more than thirty men, and none of the fort's few cannons looked to have been fired for years.

Felix being Felix, he rallied and went back to his Cassandra routine. "Fine. So we make it down to the mouth of the Thames. And then what, Harry? I'll grant you, especially with some initial confusion, that even a barge can probably make it down to the sea before a cavalry force can intercept them. But nobody's ever accused the earl of Cork or the men around him of being morons. Greedy assholes, yes; imbeciles, no. They'll certainly have enough sense to send couriers down to the royal dockyard at Sheerness. And there'll be at least one or two warships stationed there. Once they move into the Thames, we're fucked. Or do you propose that a shallow-draft barge spilling over with women and children and armed with a few rifles and shotguns can take on a Royal Navy warship? Even one of those converted merchant ships."

"No, of course not," said Harry. "But I doubt very much if those warships are going to be in any position to intercept us. In fact, I'll be surprised if they still exist at all."

Everybody was staring at him again. Harry planted his hands on his hips and gave them a look of exasperation. "Give me a break, willya? I treasure my reputation more than anybody-but I'm not actually a loose cannon on the deck. Wildass cowboy, sure; rebel without a cause, no. Obviously I'm not going to do something like this unless we get backup. Like in real serious, Admiral Simpson type backup."

"Those ironclads aren't really seaworthy," protested Matija.

"No? Then why is Simpson proposing to sail them out into the North Sea, around the Skaw, and into the Baltic?"

"Risky. And he's got four. I'll bet you-good odds-that at least one of them breaks down and doesn't make it."

"Maybe you're right," said Harry, "and maybe you're not. But I figure that's the admiral's business. And what I know for sure, is that this decision is way over my pay grade. In fact, Melissa told me yesterday it was way over her pay grade. So she relayed the whole thing to Magdeburg."

That brought a moment's silence. Then Felix said: "And the answer was…"

Harry gave him a very cheerful grin. "What do you think? We're talking about the prince, guys. Of course he told us to go for it. He said he'll make sure we've got the backup we need, when the time comes."

It was almost comical, the way everyone at the table seemed to simultaneously relax and perk up at the same time. They almost never discussed the subject, simply because it was something taken completely for granted amongst them. But, like Harry Lefferts himself, all of his team had become dyed-in-the-wool partisans of Mike Stearns. It wasn't really even a political matter for them, or if it was, only tangentially so. True, they all accepted the basic principles of Stearns' political view, but that was simply a veneer. What lay underneath was simple, rather savage, and completely medieval. He was the prince and they were the prince's men. And-once again-he had not failed them.

Felix clapped his hands together, all traces of Cassandra gone. "Well, then. Now that we don't have to worry about the women and children-"

He broke off, his peripheral vision having spotted the Rapidly Rising Backs of Sherrilyn and Julie Mackay-even Juliet's was coming up-and hastily said:

"The noncombatants, rather. But let's move on to the rest. Now it gets interesting."

Later that evening, in the kitchen that was used by the small clan of Warders, Darryl spoke quietly to Stephen Hamilton and Andrew Short.

"So there it is, guys. Up front, and all cards on the table. You're in or you're out."

He could have added, or you turn me over to the authorities, but didn't. Partly because he knew it was no longer necessary, but mostly because he knew that saying any such thing would enrage Stephen Hamilton. Now that he'd become part of the clan himself-so much, Hamilton himself had made quite clear-any suggestion that the clan would turn on him would be deeply offensive.

"We're in," said Stephen immediately. Andrew's nod came not more than a split-second later.

With someone else, Darryl might have asked if they were really sure. But, again, that was both unnecessary and might quite possibly trigger off Hamilton's anger. The Warder captain was not a hot-tempered man-quite the opposite, in fact-but if you made the mistake of treading on areas that meant a great deal to him, you ran the risk of stirring up that hidden, incredibly cold and ruthless capacity for fury. Darryl would no more have considered stepping on a cobra, just to see if it was awake.

"Good. Now, first thing. Since they're still letting the Warders guard our quarters in St. Thomas-fucking idiots, but there it is-we need to start sending the men over there, one at a time. Whenever nobody looks to be watching."

"That's not a problem," said Andrew. "We've often come into St. Thomas' Tower, helping Nellie with the groceries. Can't stay inside for more than half an hour, though, or suspicions might get aroused."

Darryl smiled thinly. "With you guys, half an hour will be plenty. Biggest problem will be just tearing you away from your newfound loves."

Both Warders frowned at him, puzzled.

"Won't be able to fire them, of course. But the noise of working the slides ain't much, and we'll only do it when one of your kin is standing guard at the door anyway."

Darryl's smile wasn't thin at all, now. "Gentlemen. I will shortly be introducing you to a couple of very sleek dames. Lady Pump-Action Shotgun and Lady Automatic Pistol. Several sisters there, actually. I'm personally partial to Ms. Ten Millimeter. You'll even like their papa, Mr. Dynamite."

Chapter 33

"There's something very peculiar going on over there, I tell you." Elizabeth Lytle finished pouring the broth and started passing out the cups to the three men sitting at her kitchen table.

"What? Followed her, did you?" asked Richard Towson, nodding his thanks.

"Good idea, that," said Patrick Welch, blowing on his broth to cool it off. "Just in case this friend Juliet of hers might turn out to be an informer of some sort."

Liz gave him a disdainful look. "Not likely! If you knew her the way I do…" After setting down the kettle, she gave her short dark hair a little toss. "I was just curious, really. There's something… mysterious about her, now. Not like she used to be."

"It's been years since you saw her, love," pointed out Anthony Leebrick calmly. "While she was on the continent."

"Not that many years. And what difference does it make, anyway? George is still with her, so nothing fundamental's changed. I met him too, on one of my lunch encounters with Juliet. He hasn't changed a bit, from what I can tell."

"Are those wise in the first place?" asked Richard, a bit carefully, since Liz had something of a temper.

"I suggested she do so," said Anthony. "Avoiding an old friend completely when there was no obvious reason to do so was more likely to cause suspicion."

"Let's get back to the point," said Welch. "Since you followed her, what did you discover?"

Liz sat down and stared pensively at her own cup of broth. "The first thing I discovered was that I couldn't get near the house she's living at. Not without being spotted by several pairs of eyes. Very keen ones, too, let me tell you. There are men in that house, several of them, and at least one other woman. And two other men lounging about the tavern nearby, that don't belong there."

Welch looked dubious. "And how could you tell if they belonged there or not? People come in and out of Southwark all the time. It's hardly what you'd call a stodgy little village."

"They didn't look right," Liz insisted. "Too alert. Too fit-looking. At least, too fit-looking for men who weren't swaggering about bullying people and looking for a fight. They made me edgy. They spotted me as soon as I entered the street and their eyes kept following me the whole time I was there. I felt like a plump mouse being watched by cats."

Towson hid his smile behind his cup. Leebrick cleared his throat, a bit smugly. Patrick, undiplomatic as usual, barked a harsh little laugh. "For the love of all that's holy, Liz. Men do have a habit of eyeing you, y'know?"

"Excluding our couth selves," added Richard. "But he's got a point, Liz."

She gave both him and Welch an exasperated look. "Let me see if I understand this. Your suggesting to me-a woman whose past bears no close scrutiny-that some men are lecherous. Oh, dear. I never would have guessed."

Towson chuckled. Welch tipped his cup a little, in a gesture that acknowledged a hit had been scored.

Elizabeth Lytle had inherited a number of things from her Portuguese mother, along with her dark eyes, slender frame, and attractive appearance. Among them was a wide mouth that lent itself very nicely to a derisive expression. "Tell a former whore about the salacious nature of the male sex, will you? I believe I am quite familiar with that phenomenon, Patrick Welch, thank you very much. And I'm telling you those two men weren't thinking of bedding me. They were contemplating-not seriously, simply as a possible measure-whether they might have to slit my throat."

Her slim shoulders shivered slightly. "Scary, they were, in a quiet sort of way. I'm telling you, they didn't belong there. They're up to something. Some sort of criminal enterprise."

"That hardly makes them out of place in Southwark," said Leebrick. "They might have no connection to Juliet and George at all, you know?"

Liz sipped slowly at her tea, thinking about it, then shook her head. "I can't prove it, Anthony, but I think they do. The tavern they were sitting outside of-with the table they'd chosen-allowed them to keep Juliet's house under observation. Along with the rest of the street leading to it. Well, part of the house, at least. It's set back a ways from the street, right close to the river."

Leebrick looked at his two companions. After a moment, Towson shrugged. "The hunt for us has died down. As many weeks as it's been since we escaped Cork, by now they must think we're out of England entirely. They certainly don't think we're anywhere in London. And I, for one, am sick to death of never seeing anything except the inside of Liz's lodgings. Meaning no offense, you understand."

Patrick scowled, slightly. But the expression was more a matter of habit than anything concrete and specific to the moment. Perhaps because he was Irish, Welch was the sort of man who just naturally looked for the trap, the moment he spotted a juicy morsel. That made him occasionally annoying, in casual circumstances, but it also made him a superb officer to lead reconnaissance missions.

"I've got no objections," he announced, after a few seconds. Again, he made that little tip-of-the-cup acknowledging gesture, this time at Leebrick. "I will admit-not that I'll sign anything to that effect, mind-that our gallant commander has proven to be right. Hiding in London was a stroke of genius. The hunt passed right over our heads, and they'll never think of looking for us here now. So why not move about some, finally?"

His sneer was even better than Elizabeth's. "We have the added protection, after all, of the portraits they circulated everywhere on reward notices. A man could have those posters in his hand, be staring right at us-and he'd swear there was no resemblance at all."

Leebrick chuckled. "They were wretched, weren't they? I was quite offended, actually. The only thing they got right was our beards."

Smiling, Towson tugged at the goatee of his Vandyck. "So they did. Doesn't help much, though, does it? Seeing as how every other man in England-half the continent, too-shares the same style. They showed us wearing clothing, too. Thereby clearly distinguishing us from all the traitors running about the island stark naked."

Leebrick finished his cup. "Fine, then. Liz, draw us up a little map, would you? We'll go tonight, and see what your friend is about."

She frowned. "Why don't I just guide you?"

Welch shook his head. "Not a good idea. You said yourself those two men watched you closely. Even in the dark, they'll recognize you."

"Oh, nonsense. I'll wear a bonnet."

Patrick scratched his head and said nothing. For a wonder, a spasm of diplomacy seemed to have seized him.

Leebrick smiled. Towson chuckled outright. "Won't matter if they see your face, girl. They'll recognize your walk."

"My walk?"

"Yes. You have a certain way of… well, you're not prancing, exactly. But it's quite distinctive."

She gave her paramour a sharp, suspicious glance. Anthony's smile widened. "I'm afraid he's right, love. First thing I noticed about you, when we met. Well. More precisely, when I first spotted you on the street and began following you. We hadn't actually met yet. Quite entrancing, it was."

She sniffed disdainfully. "Men. It's a wonder you get anything done."

Since everyone had finished, she gathered up the cups. "All right, but be careful. They really are rather frightening-looking people."

At least, they'd allowed him paper and a pen. So Thomas Wentworth was able to communicate with his wife in some manner, even if it was ridiculous to be writing letters to a woman to whom he could have spoken in person by simply taking a two-minute walk from the Bloody Tower to the Lieutenant's Lodging. But Sir Francis Windebank refused to allow Thomas to leave the Bloody Tower, for any reason, and he refused to allow him visitors of any sort. Not even his wife and children.

Naturally, they wouldn't allow him to seal the letters he wrote. Windebank's men would read every line before they passed the letters on to Elizabeth-and the same, with any of her replies.

Once the shock of those first days had passed, Thomas had been able to gauge the near-maniacal manner of his imprisonment for what it was. A sign of fear on Cork's part, not confidence. Richard Boyle had come to power by seizing on a fluke, not by dint of anything more substantial. True, he'd had a powerful faction following him already, but so had several other men. It had only been the terrible nature of the completely unforeseen accident combined with Cork's sheer luck in being in the right place at the right time-and his own decisiveness, of course; Thomas would give him that much credit-that had allowed the earl to seize power in a single day.

Wentworth wondered again, as he had so many times since he'd been overthrown, whether Cork's presence at the scene of the accident had simply been fortuitous. The coincidence reeked, after all. But, no matter from what angle he examined the problem, he simply couldn't see any way that Boyle could have manipulated the situation. Not the accident itself, at any rate. He'd certainly manipulated the aftermath. It was blindingly obvious, in retrospect, that the warning brought to Thomas that the king had suffered a mishap on the West Road was a ploy of Boyle's-and, for perhaps the hundredth time since that day, Wentworth cursed himself for having been a fool. If he'd simply stayed at Whitehall and sent a lieutenant to investigate, he'd have been able to forestall Cork's later machinations.

But he was well-nigh certain, after weeks of thinking upon the matter, that the horrible accident that had taken the queen's life was simply that. An accident, unforeseen by anyone. True enough, the sudden appearance of the Trained Bands at that particular time and place might have been the work of Cork, or one of his accomplices. But the Bands hadn't caused the accident. Leebrick and his mercenary company could have dispersed them in a few minutes. Something else had caused the carriage to race off, and there could only be two explanations. Either the king had panicked-the queen, more likely, with the king acquiescing-or the commander of the escort had somehow caused it to happen.

Again, as he had dozens of times before over the past weeks, Thomas reviewed his knowledge of the king's character, and that of Captain Leebrick-and again, as he had dozens of times before, came to the same conclusion. That Charles or Henrietta Maria would panic in such a situation was not difficult to believe at all. That Leebrick was a traitor was not impossible, but Wentworth thought it extremely unlikely. All the more so since one of the guards keeping him captive in the Bloody Tower had let slip that there was a giant manhunt on for Leebrick and two of his lieutenants. They'd been taken for questioning by Cork, it seemed, and had then made a daring-and quite bloody-escape from his mansion.

That same bloody escape, of course, was being pointed to by Cork and his party as proof of Leebrick's complicity in a treasonous plot masterminded by Wentworth himself. But Thomas knew that was nonsense, and nonsense thrice over.

First, because as the supposed mastermind of the plot, he knew for a certainty it had never existed.

Second, because the supposed plot was preposterous to begin with-which was exactly the reason, he was quite certain, that Cork had not as yet pressed any formal charges against him. The charge was simply incoherent, looked at from the standpoint of logic.

What was he accused of trying to do? Take power? Thomas Wentworth had already had the power. As much as any minister of any king in English history had ever had. The only step up he could have taken would have been to depose the dynasty and replace it with one of his own-which was so ludicrous a proposition that he wondered if anyone even in that den of fools that called itself Parliament could say it publicly and keep a straight face.

In the end, he imagined, they'd accuse of him of having plotted to make himself "Lord Protector of England," using the known history of that other world as his guide. They might even go so far-probably would, in fact, since Thomas had never made a secret of his visits to the dungeon-accuse him of plotting with Cromwell himself.

Finally, it was nonsense because of the business with Leebrick. If he'd been working for Cork, why not simply pay him his thirty pieces of silver? Richard Boyle could certainly afford it. And even if one presupposed that Boyle had wanted to silence Leebrick and his men, surely-with a prepared plot and a cabal in place-he could have managed it without there having been the possibility of such a flamboyant escape by his intended victims.

No, none of it made sense. Happenstance alone had given Cork his opening, and he'd taken it.

Bleakly, Thomas stared out the window. His weeks of captivity had forced honesty upon him. Well, not that, exactly. Thomas thought he'd always been an honest man. But he'd now allow that he'd also been a man who was so intent on the rightness of his own course that he'd been oblivious-indifferent, certainly-to what other people around him might think of that course. Especially those who purported to be its supporters.

He'd made enemies, many of them, and many of them unnecessary ones. Cork had seized upon that, too.

Thomas could also have made the walk to Tower Green in two minutes, and someday he might very well do so. Walk to the same spot on the Green where William, Lord Hastings, had lost his head in 1483. The same spot where Henry VIII had beheaded two of his wives, and Queen Mary had beheaded Lady Jane Grey.

Not likely, though. The Tower Green was only used for executions that the crown wanted to be kept reasonably private. Most men lost their heads on Tower Hill, in front of the cheering mob-the London mob that detested Wentworth, because he'd stifled them. Cork would surely want to pander to that same mob.

So be it. Thomas knew now, with the advantage of hindsight, that Cork was repeating many of his own mistakes-and adding ones of his own into the bargain. Richard Boyle would find that the mob was fickle, and the king's favor more fickle still. He'd seized the power. Now, let him try to keep it.

A clatter at the door announced the arrival of the cleaning woman. The guards who accompanied her, rather. Left to her own devices, the woman would have knocked before she entered. The guards simply slammed the door aside. It was just one of the many petty little arrogances they indulged themselves in, not realizing that their effect was the exact opposite of what they intended. The earl of Strafford knew the ways of power far better than his captors. It was not true, of course, that all bullies were cowards. Many of them were not. But it was true that all bullies were insecure. Fearful of the world, if not the man they confronted at the moment.

She was a new one, he saw, but obviously a Warder's kin like the former one. Perhaps his regular cleaning woman had taken sick. That would hardly be surprising, given the cavalier way the new mercenaries had ignored Rita Simpson's sanitary arrangements. Wentworth worried now about the health of his own wife and children.

The woman placed the basket of foodstuffs upon the table and then went about her business quickly and efficiently, while the guards waited at the door, lounging against it in boredom and chatting idly. Wentworth himself simply remained at the window, ignoring them all.

To his surprise, the cleaning woman spoke to him briefly on her way out. Very softly, in words the guards couldn't hear.

"Make sure you try the new bread, my lord. It's quite tasty."

He stared at her for a moment, as she hurried toward the door, then looked back at the window. A few seconds later, he heard the guards closing the door and bolting it from the outside. That took a few seconds, since the original bolt was a heavy one and they'd added two more.

Even if they decided to re-enter, they couldn't do so quickly. Now intently curious, Thomas went over to the table and picked up the loaf of bread. When he broke it open, he discovered that a note had been tucked inside. He extracted the little piece of paper and went over to the fireplace. This early in spring, there was a fire going. Not a big one, but big enough to consume any small piece of paper that got tossed into it, within a few seconds.

It was a short note, with no signature. But Thomas was fairly certain that he recognized the handwriting. Lady Mailey's, he thought. He and the American ambassadress had exchanged a fair amount of correspondence over the months since he'd had her and her party sequestered in St. Thomas' Tower-which he could have reached from here with a walk of less than a minute. He'd been struck by the combination of her excellent penmanship and the complete absence of any of the flourishes that people in his time who had good penmanship normally added as a matter of course.

A very short note. King James. Jeremiah 51, Verse 44.

The one book they'd allowed him-no way to refuse, not that book-was the Bible. And it was the King James version, of course.

He found the passage quickly.

And I will punish Bel in Babylon, and I will bring forth out of his mouth that which he hath swallowed up: and the nations shall not flow together any more unto him: yea, the wall of Babylon shall fall.

Slowly, he set the Bible aside and stared at the fire. Then, placed the note into the flames. Then, went back to staring at those same flames, as they consumed the wood that had once been solid and hard.

Chapter 34

By midnight, Elizabeth Lytle was anxious. Anthony and the others should have returned by now. Quite some time earlier, in fact. It didn't take but twenty minutes to walk to the house where Juliet was staying. They'd been gone for over two hours.

She put on her outerwear and opened the door, then hesitated. Walking the streets of Southwark in the middle of the night was not safe for a woman. Not for a man, either, come down to it, unless he was armed and capable with weapons.

For a moment, her lips twisted into a grimace. There was one sort of woman who did it as a matter of course, without normally being bothered. Attacked, at least. But in her whoring days, Liz had never worked the streets. She'd worked the theaters, with a far more select clientele-and one that invariably carried swords. She applied the term "whore" to herself simply because she was blunt by nature, but she'd actually been more in the way of a courtesan for gentlemen.

Still, although she'd never done it, she knew the way it was done. So, after a moment, she took off the outerwear and spent a few minutes changing into more flamboyant costume. Fortunately, with the early spring chill, she'd still cause no notice if she wore the outerwear. But any footpad would spot the underlying garments and assume she was a streetwalker plying her trade. More to the point, he'd also assume that whatever money she was carrying from her night's work wouldn't be enough to warrant the risk. Whores could be dangerous in their own right; their pimps, even more so.

She went out the door and hurried into the night. She was actually far more worried that she'd encounter a pimp who, not recognizing her, would assume she was attempting to operate on her own, and would take it upon himself to explain to her-with a beating-that such was not the way her business was properly done.

This late at night, though, the pimps would mostly be in the taverns. There really wasn't much trouble with whores in Southwark, neither from footpads nor the whores themselves. The rules were far too well established and understood. The biggest problem was usually just a too-drunk customer, but most whores could handle that difficulty on their own. All of them carried knives, if the need arose.

Liz had a knife herself, even though she'd never carried it in the course of her own assignations, in times past. Perhaps ironically, though, she probably knew how to use it better than any but the coarsest streetwalkers. Anthony had taught her-and she was carrying it tonight.

Luckily, she encountered no pimps, and only one would-be customer. He'd accepted her refusal readily enough, without pressing the matter. A youngster, somewhere from the country west of London. A village lad, probably, in London for whatever reason, who'd decided to sample the wares in famed and sinful Southwark-and was far more nervous than she was. He'd practically scampered off when she declined. The biggest problem Liz had faced was not bursting into laughter at the look of confusion on the face of the poor boy. Nowhere in the legends he'd heard about Southwark was there a place for a harlot who said no.

Soon enough, she was near the house that Juliet and George occupied. Deliberately, she avoided the obvious approach using the street. Those same two men who had observed her earlier might still be there. Whether or not Anthony and his friends were right about her distinctive walk, and even wearing a bonnet, Liz didn't want to risk it.

So, reluctantly, she made her approach through the backways and alleys. Reluctantly, because she'd made the mistake of wearing one of her two good pairs of shoes-and Southwark's backways and alleys were even filthier than London's. She'd have to spend at least an hour getting them clean. Two, more likely, judging from the stench.

But, eventually, she made it to the house that was closest to the one she sought. Carefully peering around the corner of the house, she found herself staring right into the barrel of what she thought was a gun. A pistol of some sort, although it seemed much smaller than the wheel lock Anthony had owned.

"Not bad for an amateur," said a soft male voice. "Didn't trip even once, the last stretch. All right, Elizabeth Lytle, just step around quietly. No fuss, no ruckus. I'm not going to hurt you, I'm not going to rob you, and I'm not going to rape you. But if you give me any trouble, I will shoot you dead on the spot. Don't think I won't."

She didn't doubt it for a moment. There was something very deadly in the casual and relaxed way the man said the words, whoever he was.

She couldn't see much of him, even after she came around the corner and he was standing in front of her. On the big side, though not especially massive. But something in his easy stance made it clear to her that he would be a formidable opponent in any sort of physical confrontation. Whatever vague thoughts she'd had about the little knife tucked into her garments vanished on the spot.

His face wasn't discernible, though, between the darkness and the hat he was wearing.

"All right," he said, still speaking softly. "Now let's just go into the house."

She obeyed, moving ahead of him. She did summon up the courage to ask him: "How did you know my name?"

"What other woman would be creeping about tonight? I didn't get the name by torturing your handsome captain, if that's what you're worrying about. Just pure deductive logic. Sherlock Lefferts, that's me."

The first thing she saw when she went through the door was Anthony. He and Richard and Patrick were sitting close together on three chairs toward the back of the main room. Sitting very, very still, with their hands placed visibly on their knees.

She didn't wonder at the stillness, once she looked around the room. It seemed packed full of men, all of whom were holding peculiar weapons. Guns of some sort, although none she'd ever seen before.

There was a woman, too-not Juliet; someone Liz didn't know-holding a gun of her own. She didn't look any less dangerous than the men.

Thankfully, Juliet and George were in the room also. George looked placid; Juliet seemed distressed.

"Sorry, love," said Anthony. "I'd hoped you wouldn't come. I'm afraid they caught us as soon as we got here. It was as neat an ambush as I've ever seen."

"Wouldn't call it an 'ambush,' exactly," said the man who'd captured Liz and had just come in behind her. She heard him close the door. "I imagine you're good soldiers, Captain Leebrick, but you've got a lot to learn about our line of work."

Anthony cleared his throat. "Which is what, exactly, if I might ask? And I'd be curious-just idly, so to speak-as to how you learned my name. You've asked us no questions at all since you caught us, and we certainly didn't volunteer anything."

The man who'd captured Liz moved around her into the center of the room, so she could finally get a look at him. He'd already removed his outerwear.

Quite a handsome fellow, actually. And once she saw the grin that spread across his face, she didn't think he'd ever lack for female company. Unless he was very shy, which seemed about as likely as the Thames running backward.

"We call it commando work," he said. "As for the other, it's like I told your sweetheart. Sherlock Lefferts, they call me."

"Oh, bullshit," said the woman Liz didn't recognize. There was something quite odd about her accent. Liz was familiar with most of the accents and dialects of English in the islands, but she didn't recognize this one at all. She realized now that she'd detected the same accent in the voice of the Sherlock fellow, but it had been far more subdued. Much the same way as the accents of Anthony and Richard, if not Patrick. They'd traveled enough that they more or less automatically adapted their speech to whichever native inhabitants they found themselves among.

"Harry, stop bragging," she continued, sounding exasperated. "You got as much resemblance to Sherlock Holmes as I do to Mata Hari." She gave Liz a look that was even more exasperated. Not quite unfriendly, but close. "The only reason any of you are still alive is because you're friends of Juliet and George-well, you are, anyway. Juliet says she doesn't know these three characters from Adam. Harry figured out who the captain was just by using plain horse sense. We've known for weeks that you had three men in your house. Three men who never left it. Why? Once we got curious, Juliet asked around. Nobody knew your name, but plenty of people knew that Elizabeth Lytle had become the kept woman of an officer. A captain, not that that rank means anything in this day and age."

She turned to one of the men standing next to a side table. "Hand me that stupid thing, Don."

She held up what he passed her, and Liz saw that it was the reward poster that had been passed around all over the city. "Good thing for you the crown of England apparently is too broke to afford anyone who can draw," the woman said sarcastically. "Like idiots, we took this for good coin. I say, 'like idiots,' because we'd already figured out who those three men had to be-until we saw this stupid thing, and figured we had to be wrong. But after they tried to creep up on us tonight, the lightbulb went off."

Liz had no idea what a "lightbulb" was, but the gist of the remark was clear enough. "They might have been simple criminals," she protested. Pointlessly, of course, now that Anthony himself had already confirmed his identity.

The woman tossed the poster on the floor. "Oh, sure. Three footpads who decided it was a really bright idea to break into a house full of men. Lady, even though we've made sure none of them ever got a glimpse of our up-time weaponry, we saw to it within the first week we got here that no ambitious cutpurse would bother us. The local hoods are scared to death of us. They must figure we're a new gang of criminals setting up shop. Biggest thing we've been worried about lately is that one of Southwark's self-proclaimed 'crime lords' would hear about us and decide to lower the boom. At which point, of course, the boom turns into splinters and Ye Great Crime Boss gets turned into mincemeat, but we don't want the publicity."

"Oh, Lord in Heaven," muttered Patrick. He glanced about at the peculiar-looking guns. "You're Americans, aren't you? Come here to break into the Tower and get your people out."

"Bingo," said the Harry fellow. "Sherlock, meet Nero Wolfe. Except there's actually only two Americans in this room, properly speaking." He pointed at the woman who'd been talking. "Sherrilyn over there, and me. The rest are a bunch of down-time thugs and hoodlums I picked up along the way, being as my life's work is the rehabilitation of the criminally inclined."

Every face in the room suddenly displayed a grin, even Juliet's. Liz didn't find the sight at all reassuring, however. They looked more like a pack of wolves than ever.

The Harry fellow studied Anthony and his two companions for a few seconds. "All right, now that identities are established and everything's out in the open, let's get down to business. Captain Leebrick, the way I see it, you've only got two choices. If you choose the first option, I'd appreciate it if you'd move into the kitchen so's I can slit your throat over the washbasin. Be a lot less cleaning up to do."

"I believe I can safely state that I shall not choose that option," said Anthony. "I shan't even bother inquiring as to the opinions of my two mates. Seeing as how, come down to it, they're my subordinates."

"Didn't think you would. The alternative, then, should be obvious to you."

"Indeed it is." He was sitting between Welch and Towson, and gave them each a quick glance. "Our former employer having proven to be an unreliable fellow, we are in need of a new one. Rather desperately, in fact, especially one who has the wherewithal to get us over to the continent."

"For Christ's sake, Harry!" Sherrilyn exploded. "Are you out of your mind?"

For the first time since Liz had met him, the Harry fellow didn't seem even slightly amused. "No, Sherrilyn, I'm not," he said forcefully. "And don't push it, or I'll actually go so far as to pull rank on you. Much as I hate the idea in general. What the hell else do you want to do? Those are the only two options we've got, under the circumstances."

He jerked a thumb at Liz. "And if we kill them, we've got to kill Lytle too."

A little noise came from Juliet. Something halfway between a growl and a snarl.

The Harry fellow didn't even look at her. "Right. And then we've got what I will delicately call 'dissension in the ranks,' which is the last goddam thing we need. Screw it, Sherrilyn. We can always use a few more men handy with weapons, right?"

"We don't know a fucking thing about them! They could turn us in tomorrow!"

Harry stared at her. After a moment, she looked aside. "Well…"

"Yeah, 'well.' " He took two steps, leaned over with easy grace, and plucked the reward poster off the floor. "Yeah, well. Turn us in to the same jolly fellows who had this printed up and passed all over London. Hoping, I guess, that the picture's so crappy they wouldn't be recognized."

"Ah, not possible," said Anthony, clearing his throat. "The portraits are a travesty, true enough. But any reward for American assassins would certainly be large enough that Richard Boyle's purse would have be tapped-and I'm afraid the good earl spent some time in our company. So did Sir Paul, for that matter, and he's the other moneybags of the group."

"We'd be utter fools to even think of it, anyway," added Towson. "They'd have our own throats slit before we could start counting the money. What else could they do? We know enough to be a major embarrassment-at the very least-once they finally bring charges against Wentworth."

"Charges which they'd have to press before Parliament," Anthony picked up smoothly, "and if Parliament discovers we've surfaced-and there'd be no way to hide the fact-they'd demand our testimony."

The Sherrilyn woman's face was pinched, but she wasn't putting up any argument. Her expression was that of someone forced to eat something she didn't like, but knowing she had no way to refuse.

After a moment, she gave something in the way of an appealing look to one of the men who hadn't spoken yet. He was a tall, spare fellow standing in one of the corners of the room. There was something saturnine about his face; not sluggish, but certainly skeptical.

"Don't look at me, Sherrilyn," he said. "I think it's a splendid idea, myself."

"Et tu, Felix?" the woman muttered.

He smiled, the expression making him seem much less gloomy, then moved into the center of the room and took the poster from Harry and held it up in front of her.

"What more do you want, Sherrilyn? You, especially, being an American and thus obsessed with forms and documents and paperwork."

"And just what is the point of that wisecrack?" she demanded.

"I'd think it was obvious. First thing any proper bureaucratic American wants when someone applies for a job is a resume. And here it is-complete with the best character references you could ask for. Three officers, feared enough by the earl of Cork that he wants them dead."

"Doesn't say that," she protested.

Felix waited.

"Well, not exactly," she added. Then, after glancing again at the poster held up in front of her: "All right, all right, fine. Sure, and any moron knows the truth. It's easier to bring in somebody dead than alive, anyway."

She gave the three officers a sour look, and then transferred it to Liz herself. "I withdraw my objections. But I still don't like the idea."

"Right," said Harry, clapping his hands. "Captain Leebrick, we'll discuss your pay later. Don't worry, we're not misers. And you certainly don't have to worry about getting out of England. For the moment, though, I'd like your opinion. You have been inside the Tower of London, I hope?"

"Oh, yes, many times. So have Richard and Patrick."

"Once had the assignment of transferring old ordnance into the keep, in fact," added Richard. "Spent a week and a half in the Tower. Went all over the place."

"I knew this was a great idea. Juliet, would you be so kind as to haul out the diagram we've been fumbling with? We can move the kitchen table out here and finally get that damn thing up to snuff."

Juliet headed for one of the rooms. Two of the men moved toward the kitchen. Harry bestowed that quite amazing grin on everyone in general and no one in particular.

"I'll think I'll retire the Sherlock monicker," he announced. "Fu Manchu Lefferts, that's me. You know, the guy that was Sherlock's enemy."

Sherrilyn squinted, painfully. "God save us. Harry, Sherlock Holmes' archenemy was Professor Moriarty."

"Oh. Well, can't have that. I ain't got a tweed jacket with elbow patches."

"How about Harry the Merciless?" suggested Felix.

"Got a nice little ring to it, doesn't it?" mused Harry.

"God save us," repeated Sherrilyn. "God save us all."

Liz thought it was probably a good sentiment. But whether it was or not, the glance Sherrilyn gave her now was more of an appealing one than a hostile one. Us all, clearly enough, was a term that had just been expanded to include four more people.

Chapter 35

The Elbe, near Domitz

"You can't do this! You're destroying my property! It's illegal!"

Admiral John Simpson stood on the foredeck of the SSIM Constitution, his back to the closed port stoppers of the wing ten-inch guns, and glanced at his wristwatch while Freiherr von Bleckede frothed.

"Unfortunately, Freiherr," Matthias Schaubach said reasonably, "Time is no longer-"

"Be silent!" Bleckede literally stamped his foot, glaring at the ex-salt merchant who had inherited the thoroughly unpleasant task of negotiating with the scores of people-like Bleckede-who controlled the existing means of navigation along the Elbe.

Or, rather, Simpson thought coldly, the scores of people who used to control the means of navigation.

"I refuse to permit this!" Bleckede snapped. "If you dare to-"

"Excuse me, Freiherr von Bleckede," Simpson said, looking up from his watch, "but I'm afraid this entire conversation is rather pointless. Unless, of course, you are prepared to resort to force."

Schaubach hid a smile behind a suddenly raised hand as Simpson quirked one eyebrow. The admiral simply gazed attentively at Bleckede, without once so much as glancing at the escorting cavalry and volley gun crews watching with interest as Simpson's Marine combat engineers placed the charges.

Bleckede seemed to swell to even greater dimensions, and his face turned a remarkable shade of puce. For a moment, Schaubach entertained the hope that apoplexy was about to carry the man off-and leave the world a better place, afterward, the Magdeburger thought tartly. But he was disappointed. Instead, the baron drew a deep breath and clenched his jaw.

"Of course I can't 'resort to force,' Admiral!" he said after a moment. "But that doesn't change the fact that-"

"Freiherr," Simpson said, "Herr Schaubach has been attempting for months to negotiate a mutually satisfactory solution to our problem. You, unfortunately, have declined to cooperate with that effort. Well, we've run out of time, and we are going to move these ships down this river. Which, unfortunately, means that unless you wish to come with us, it's time for you to go ashore."

"But… but…!"

"I'm afraid this conversation is over, Freiherr," Simpson said coolly. "If you have any further points to make, I invite you to make them directly to Emperor Gustav. In the meantime, I have a schedule to keep. Lieutenant," he glanced at the uniformed, stonefaced Marine standing at Bleckede's elbow, "would you be kind enough to escort the baron ashore?"

"Of course, sir!" the Marine replied crisply in a broad, lower-class Saxon accent. It would, perhaps, have been untactful to have dwelt upon the undeniable gleam of pleasure in the lieutenant's eyes as he turned and bowed with exquisite courtesy to Bleckede.

"If you'll come this way, Freiherr," he invited. The baron glared at him, then started to turn back to Simpson, and the lieutenant, who was at least three inches taller than the dyspeptic, overweight, middle-aged aristocrat, took him politely but firmly-very firmly-by the elbow.

"I'm afraid I'll have to insist, Freiherr."

The Marine's tone was still polite, but just a bit more frigid than it had been a moment before, and Bleckede winced as the lieutenant's fingertips dug into the nerves of his elbow.

"I have friends close to the emperor!" the baron said, rather less forcefully. "I assure you, you haven't heard the last of this, Admiral."

"No doubt, Freiherr," Simpson agreed. "And now, good day."

He nodded to the lieutenant, and Bleckede was escorted courteously across to the rowboat moored alongside Constitution. He climbed down into it, still spluttering like eggs frying in bacon grease, and the grinning navy sailors at the oars promptly cast off and began pulling strongly towards the shore.

"Admiral," Schaubach said as the boat moved away, "did you enjoy that conversation as much as I did?"

"Probably," Simpson said judiciously. "At any rate, I've been looking forward to it for quite some time."

"As have I." Schaubach's profound satisfaction was evident, and Simpson chuckled.

"I must confess," the ex-salt merchant continued after a moment, "that I expected him to… see reason in the end."

"Some people are just too deeply committed to the way they think the world works to recognize the way it really does work," Simpson replied. In fact, as he was unhappily well aware, he had occasionally found himself in that particular group. "Usually, they discover their error rather… painfully," he added. And that, too, was something John Chandler Simpson knew about from personal experience.

"Well, it may be petty of me, but I can't deny that I feel a certain satisfaction that the good baron's refusal to cooperate means he won't be compensated for his losses," Schaubach admitted, and this time Simpson's chuckle of agreement was harder and harsher.

Freiherr von Bleckede was the owner of one of the wehrleucken. Unlike the majority of his counterparts, he had flatly refused to cooperate with the effort to get Simpson's squadron down the river. Work crews had labored through the wet and miserable winter to build temporary staustufen atop most of the existing wehrleucken. In some cases, where the owners had signed on enthusiastically to the original plan to improve navigation on the Elbe, the modifications were permanent, not temporary. In those instances, the wehrleucken themselves had been raised to the new, higher level, with much wider spillways-effectively, locks controlled by movable wooden cofferdams. Those wehrleucken were now large enough-and deep enough-to allow the gunboats passage, and their owners could anticipate substantial future revenues from the increasing trade moving up and down the river.

Others, who had initially resisted, had capitulated when Schaubach mentioned that the emperor would be personally very grateful if they could only see their way to assisting his American allies and subjects at this particularly crucial moment. Since there had usually been at least a hundred or so of the emperor's Finnish cavalry standing rather prominently about and looking as disreputable as possible, even the most recalcitrant had generally found it within themselves to cooperate with their emperor in his time of need.

Those individuals had watched as their wehrleucken were raised by additional staustufen. In most instances, breaking the staustufen to allow the gunboats to surf through on the resultant wave had resulted in fairly moderate, repairable damage to the wehrleucken involved. In some instances, unfortunately, the damage had been much more severe. But because their owners had cooperated, they could expect reasonable compensation for their losses. Of course, "reasonable" as defined by Gustav Adolf might not be precisely the same amount they had in mind, but it was certainly going to be better than nothing.

And then there was that handful of individuals, like Freiherr von Bleckede, who had obstinately refused to see reason. There were no staustufen in their cases. Instead, they could anticipate visits from Simpson's demolition engineers.

And, unfortunately, Gustav Adolf, who was a firm believer in the stick, as well as the carrot, was about to prove remarkably resistant to their demands for compensation.

Too bad, John Chandler Simpson thought cheerfully as he turned and started up the steep ladder to Constitution's bridge once more while Captain Halberstat carefully maneuvered his command into position. He could see spectators lining the banks, and every crewman who could had come topside to watch the show, as well. Although Halberstat and the other gunboat skippers had already done it several times, shooting the gap in the dam through the flurry of rushing water and foam was going to be exciting, for both spectators and participants, and Simpson grinned at the thought. He wasn't about to admit it, but he found the experience just as exhilarating as his most junior seaman did.

And this time, he reflected as the last of the engineers finished placing their charges and scampered for cover, it was going to be even more enjoyable than usual.

The Oresund, near Helsingor

"I'm none too happy with these things, Ulrik," said Baldur Norddahl. He was bestowing a very dubious look on the mine they were about to lower off the stern of the little ship into the Oresund. More precisely, a dubious look at the five flimsy-looking contact fuses that protruded from it, all of which were tied together by a thin cord. Once the mine's anchor was resting on the bottom somewhere between thirty and sixty feet below the surface, and the mine's depth was properly adjusted, Baldur would yank on the cord. That would remove the little pins that kept the fuses from being armed prematurely.

In practice, Baldur had told the prince, the act of yanking the cord itself would set off the mine one time in six. That could produce a dangerous situation for the mine-laying ship, of course. But it was not nearly as dangerous as taking the risk of fuses that were too sensitive.

"Don't blame you," said Ulrik. He would have added-for perhaps the thousandth time-my father and his damned enthusiasms, but in this instance that wouldn't have been fair. The king of Denmark had allowed his son to determine how to detonate the devices, since he wasn't very partial to them anyway. Ulrik had been the one to finally order this method, since it was the only one feasible in the time they had.

A pity, that. Ulrik had wanted to use the sort of manually controlled detonations by wire that Baldur had found in one of the copies of up-time texts. The Oresund was narrow enough here between Helsingor and Helsingborg-only three miles-that that had seemed feasible. But…

There just hadn't been enough time. By now, Baldur's artisans understood the basic methods for generating electricity, well enough. Getting a good enough current to pass through a long wire immersed in salt water, however, had proven to be a lot more difficult than they'd anticipated.

So, in the end, Ulrik had opted for the contact fuses. With the new percussion caps supplied to them by the French, those had been workable. Tricky-not to mention risky-but workable.

The men handling the mine slid it into the water. Ulrik straightened up and looked across the sound at Helsingborg, on the Scandinavian mainland. The town and its fortress belonged to Denmark in this era, as it had for a very long time. At some point in the middle of this century, however, it was "scheduled" to be taken by Sweden. The prince's father was determined to see that wouldn't happen, but as time passed Ulrik himself was becoming increasingly gloomier. He wouldn't be surprised if the Swedes held it by the end of the year.

Or the end of the summer. The young Danish prince knew that his father had been both foolish and reckless to throw his lot in with the League of Ostend. Richelieu and his assurances, bah!

There was simply not enough time. At best, even at the relentless pace Baldur and his men had been working, they'd only have perhaps a third of this narrowest part of the Oresund protected by mines before the ironclads arrived.

If they arrived at all, that is. Christian IV's courtiers were still assuring the king of Denmark that the foolhardy American admiral would come to ruin long before he could even reach the Skagerrak. That was possible, of course, but Ulrik had his doubts. He thought Simpson would come-but might very well avoid the mines altogether. The American admiral certainly had to be aware of the possible danger, and he'd also have figured out that the Oresund was the only one of the straits that his enemy could possibly have laid with mines. All he had to do was simply approach Copenhagen through the Great Belt. That would add many miles to his voyage, true enough-but what would that matter, if he could make the much longer voyage from the mouth of the Elbe through the North Sea, the Skagerrak and the Kattegat?

At which point, of course, he might ignore Copenhagen altogether. At least initially. Once he exited the Great Belt, he would be closer to Luebeck than to the Danish capital. He'd probably go after the Danish fleet in the bay outside the besieged city before he came to threaten the Danish capital.

But come he would, sooner or later; of that Ulrik had become almost certain. And if he came from the south, all the labor of planting these mines would have been useless. In the end, all they'd have would be the spar torpedoes.

Ulrik saw that Baldur seemed satisfied with the placement of the mine. The Norwegian planted a foot on the gunwale and took a tighter grip on the arming cord.

"Brace yourselves!" he hollered. "This is the joyous moment, boys."

Seeing the Danish sailors around him flexing their knees-the "minelayer's stance," they called it-and grasping whatever supports stood nearby, Ulrik did the same.

After glancing around to see that everyone was ready, Baldur gave the cord a heroic yank.

The prince held his breath. There was…

Nothing. Not a trace of the water column Baldur had warned him about, that could snap a ship caught by it right in half and break the legs of a man if he was standing stiffly. The fuses had been armed without being detonated.

"And wasn't that fun?" said Baldur cheerily, coiling the lanyard as he reeled it out of the water.

"We'd best return," said Ulrik. "My father insists that I attend the diving demonstration."

"Another joyous occasion," said Baldur. "I wouldn't miss it for all the world."

Ulrik could have said those sentences dripped sarcasm, but that would be inaccurate. They were saturated with sarcasm. Oozed it from every pore.

"Yes," said Ulrik. "Not for all the world."

He could have added my father and his enthusiasms, but there was no point. By now, as closely as they had worked together for the past few months, Ulrik and Baldur had exhausted all possible variations on that theme.

The man being fitted into the diving suit had very pale skin to begin with, so it was hard to tell if his pallor was due in any part to fear. If that had been Eddie himself, he was sure he'd have been as white as a ghost.

"You look very pale," Anne Cathrine said. "Are you ill again?"

Damn the girl, Eddie would have thought, except he was long past the point where he could bring himself to curse this particular female, even to himself. How in the name of God had a sensible-well, within reason-twenty-year-old naval officer developed a crush on a fifteen-year-old? The worst crush he'd ever had in his life, to boot, even worse than the one he'd had when he was her age for Casey Stevenson, the head cheerleader at the high school.

Maybe he just had an attraction for unobtainable women, he thought gloomily. Casey had been three years older than he, which, in the social context of a rural high school, made her no less out of his league than the princess standing next to him.

Fine. "King's daughter." What was the difference, in this day and age? Even leaving aside the fact that she was the offspring of his sworn enemy?

"Are you ill?" Anne Cathrine repeated, this time with more concern in her voice. "You are still weak, Eddie. And you are a bit frail to begin with."

Oh, swell. Frail to begin with. Any moment now, Eddie, you'll be sweeping her off her feet.

"No, I'm fine," he muttered.

Actually, he was, relatively speaking. His stump didn't ache much anymore, he'd gotten fairly accustomed to the wooden pegleg, and he'd recovered from the illness he'd come down with for a week in February, whatever it had been. Eddie just labeled it "the medieval crud" and left it at that. If he were the king of Denmark, he'd be throwing every spare coin he had at the plumbing industry, not wasting it on a dozen grandiose military schemes-at least half of which had no serious application to warfare anyway. Not for a decade, at least.

Like this one. Leaving aside the incredible risk to the men involved, what in God's name did Christian IV think he could do against Simpson's ironclads with a man in an old-fashioned diving suit?

Scuba equipped divers, now, that might be a different story. Eddie knew that the French had somehow managed to get their hands on some of that equipment. The king had let that slip in one of his drunken confidences-along with his bitter resentment that the French refused to let him have any of it.

Eddie and Ulrik had once teamed up to try to talk the king out of the diving suit nonsense. Eddie had felt a little guilty about that, since from a cold-blooded Agent 007 standpoint, he should probably have been encouraging Christian to continue with the foolish business. But…

The problem there was that, over the months of his captivity, he'd come to be almost as fond of Ulrik as he was of the prince's half-sister Anne Cathrine. And, as bold as the prince was, Eddie was worried he might test the crazy diving suit himself.

Damnation. He was reminded of a quip that he'd once read in a book, made by one of the great particle physicists up-time when they'd discovered a particle nobody had expected or predicted. He wasn't sure which one had made the wisecrack-Fermi, maybe, or Murray Gell-Mann-but he'd been charmed enough by the comment itself to remember it.

Who ordered this?

Exactly the plaint Eddie had been making silently for some time now. If Fate were to have him be captured by the enemy, what idiot ordered captors that he liked? Even had the hots for, in the case of one.

Eddie half-glared down at the king. Eddie and Anne Cathrine were standing by the stone ledge that served as a safety barrier for the road running alongside the Oresund a few miles north of Copenhagen. Christian IV, besotted as always with mechanical contraptions, was standing below them on the wharf right next to the pump, overseeing the whole process. Or driving the artisans nuts, take your pick.

The truth was, Eddie even liked the Danish monarch. Except when he was drunk, at least, which was half the time. Even then, Christian was a friendly and jovial souse, not at all like the nasty bastard Eddie's father had been when he was pickled. But having grown up with an alcoholic parent, Eddie didn't drink much himself and had a low tolerance for drunkards.

Anne Cathrine tugged on his sleeve. "You should be wearing a better coat, Eddie. It's still cold, in the beginning of April."

He almost grit his teeth. The princess-fine, "king's daughter"-was wearing nothing more than her usual apparel. The same sort of garments she wore in the castle.

She wasn't frail, of course. Oh, hell no. A cross between a Valkyrie and a Danish dairy maid. With the looks of the former and the constitution of the latter. All she needed was breast plates.

Best not to think about that, though. They'd probably have to be whatever the Valkyrie equivalent of D-cups were-C-cups, for sure-and Eddie was trying to maintain his sanity and not do anything incredibly stupid and suicidal like-

Really best not to think about that.

Fortunately, he had a distraction. The diver was finally entering the water, carefully lowering himself into the Oresund with the help of two other men holding ropes. Even leaving aside the risk, Eddie didn't envy the poor man. That suit had to weigh a ton, and the water would be frigid. Hopefully, the first misery would offset the latter, at least to a degree.

The man wasn't supposed to spend all that long underwater, at least. Even the king had allowed that it wouldn't make much of a test if the testee froze to death halfway through.

"He's a brave man," Eddie said, shaking his head.

Anne Cathrine shrugged. "Not so brave as all that. He was supposed to be executed next week. Tortured first, too, I think. Killed a man and his wife in a robbery. Our father promised him a pardon if he survived the test."

The matter-of-fact way she said that reminded Eddie forcefully-it was easy to forget, often, around her and her half-brother-that he was not only a captive, but a captive in the miserable benighted seventeenth century, to boot. "The Early Modern Era," historians called it.

What a laugh. Ripe Medieval would have been Eddie's pick. Complete with dungeons and heated tongs and outdoor sewage.

Hearing a commotion behind him on the road, he turned his head. A carriage was pulling up and coming to stop. Prince Ulrik and his tame Norwegian half-tech-whiz and half-cutthroat had finally arrived.

"About time!" boomed the king, once his son emerged from the vehicle. "You almost missed it!" He pointed at the water, where the diver's helmet was disappearing beneath the surface.

Ulrik gave his father an half-apologetic wave of the hand and came to stand next to Eddie and Anne Cathrine. His Norwegian sidekick, on the other hand, climbed down the ladder to the wharf and went over to the pump. Baldur was almost as bad as the king, when it came to being obsessed with gadgetry, even gadgetry that he didn't approve of. Eddie knew that Norddahl was no more in favor of working on diving suits than Ulrik was.

But the king had decreed, and so it would be-and Baldur wasn't about to miss the chance to fiddle with his gear.

Hopefully, he wouldn't be fiddling much, if at all. Ever since Ulrik and Baldur had raised this project with Eddie, he'd been trying to remember what he'd read about it years earlier. There'd been a brief stretch there, back when he was fourteen, where Eddie had developed the ambition to become an oceanographer. He'd dropped the idea, soon enough, once he got a better sense of how much tedium the apparently glamorous profession actually had in practice. In that respect, it was much like being an archaeologist or an astronomer. They were all professions that looked really cool in the movies, but in the real world mostly involved tedious and repetitive work recording data. The intellectual equivalent of being a ditch-digger, it seemed to him. By then, he'd veered off into his I'll-be-a-NASCAR-race-driver phase, anyway.

The problem was that Eddie couldn't remember much about whatever he'd read concerning this sort of diving. Or scuba diving, for that matter. Like any proper fourteen-year-old enthusiast, Eddie had been interested in deep sea diving. The sort of enterprise that you couldn't possibly do in any kind of personal diving gear. For that you needed the really nifty stuff like bathyspheres or bathyscapes-and if something went wrong at those depths, there wasn't anything to worry about.

Poof-or maybe crunch-and it was all over.

The only thing he did recall was that something he'd read had made him solemnly vow he'd never get into this sort of diving suit. But he couldn't for the life of him remember what it was. Just… something, that went beyond the usual perils of drowning or the bends. Something really grisly.

The diver had now apparently reached the bottom. Eddie didn't know what sort of surface he was walking on. Nothing too rocky, he hoped. But he did know that the depth here was almost sixty feet, because the king had remarked that he'd picked this spot because it was the deepest place his workmen had been able to find in the Oresund that wouldn't require doing the test from the back of a boat. At least Christian had had enough sense not to add that complication on top of everything else-although it was typical of the man to have chosen the deepest possible place for a first test. God forbid anything should be done by halves in Denmark, the way they were in more sensible lands ruled by dullard but thankfully unimaginative kings.

There being nothing to see beyond a hose entering the water and moving slowly about, Eddie dredged up his memory and did some calculations. Water pressure increased by one atmosphere every thirty-three feet, with sea level pressure being 14.7 pounds per square inch. Call it thirty pounds per square inch at a depth of thirty-five feet, and forty-five pounds at a depth of sixty-five feet. That meant the diver, at a depth of approximately sixty feet, had about forty pounds per square inch pressing on every square inch of his body surface.

The suit's surface, rather. How many square inches did that suit have?

Eddie had no idea. The only answer he could come up with was lots. He lifted his forearm and looked down on it, trying to estimate how many square inches there were just on that small part of his body alone. The coat sleeve wasn't as thick and bulky as a diving suit, of course, but…

Close enough. He figured there were somewhere between sixteen and twenty-four square inches of surface just on the upper side of his forearm. Call it twenty square inches. Then multiply by… he figured three times would give a reasonable estimate of the total surface area of his entire forearm. Sixty square inches, then.

Each and every one of which, for that diver down there, had an extra twenty-five pounds squeezing down on them. That was three-quarters of a ton's worth of pressure just on one forearm alone. For his whole body, who knew? Ten tons, at least. Maybe fifteen.

To be sure, he wouldn't be feeling it, since the pump was maintaining a higher air pressure in the suit to compensate. But if anything went wrong…

Eddie suddenly remembered what he'd forgotten.

No wonder he'd forgotten it!

"Eddie, you should go inside," Anne Cathrine said forcefully. "You're looking more pale than ever."

He ignored her, turning to Ulrik. "Do you have a-a-? Ah! I can't remember what they're called. A safety valve. On the hose, near the pump."

He made vague, groping gestures with his hands, trying to delineate something he could only vaguely describe. "It's like a check-valve. What it does, if the pump suddenly fails, is automatically lock-so the higher air pressure in the suit can't escape."

Ulrik frowned. "I don't know. I don't believe so. But I'd have to ask Baldur."

As always, they'd been speaking the German which served the royal Danes and Eddie alike as a common tongue. The prince raised his voice and started jabbering some Danish at the Norwegian standing next to the king below. Eddie could now understand some of the language, but these quickly shouted words he could only guess at.

Baldur looked up. After a moment, he shook his head and jabbered something back. It was clear enough to Eddie from the expression on Baldur's face that the answer wasn't even no, we don't. It was more along the lines of what are you talking about?

"Get him out of there, Ulrik," Eddie hissed. "The diver, I mean. Pull him out. Now."

Ulrik frowned. That would require overriding-trying to, anyway-his father. Which was no small chore, to put it mildly, whenever Christian IV had his heart set on something.

He shrugged. "I'll try."

But before he could even speak a word, there was a sudden hubbub among the men working the pump.

One of them jabbered something at the king. Eddie had gotten familiar enough with Danish to grasp that the gist of what he was saying was that something seemed to be wrong.

Eddie looked at the hose. Sure enough. There were so many ways to get killed doing this. The hose was now thrashing about, in a sluggish sort of way. Eddie was sure it had ruptured somewhere along the line.

"Pull him out! Now!" Ulrik shouted. Those simple Danish terms, at least, Eddie understood.

The king didn't seem inclined to argue the matter. The diver had two ropes attached to him as well as the hose. The workmen standing by started hauling on them. Meanwhile, the men at the pump continued their useless labor.

Baldur took off his boots and his coat and jumped into the water, disappearing below the surface.

"What's wrong, Eddie?" asked Anne Cathrine. "And you look really sick, now. You should go inside."

He grasped at that straw. He knew what was coming up out of the water-he remembered it all, now, too late for it to do any good-and he had no desire to let the king's daughter see it. She was only fifteen years old.

For that matter, Eddie didn't want to see it himself. He could remember being sick to his stomach, just reading about it.

"You're right, I'm not feeling well. Perhaps I should return."

"Into my brother's carriage, at least. We'll have to wait for Ulrik before we can go back to Rosenborg Castle. But it'll be warmer in the carriage than it is out here, with the wind. Here, let me help you."

She took him around the waist with her right arm and began propelling him toward the carriage some twenty yards away. Then, not satisfied with the arrangement, pulled his left arm over her shoulder so she could carry more of his weight, while he used his cane with his other arm. By now, Eddie was getting around well enough on his wooden leg that he'd been able to dispense with the crutches.

The contact was intimate enough to distract Eddie quite nicely from more unpleasant matters. Of course, it also made him very nervous. Even after the months he'd spent in Danish captivity, he still hadn't been able to figure out the social parameters involved. Christian IV seemed oddly oblivious to the relationship that was developing-so to speak, since Eddie didn't really know what it was himself-between his American captive and his oldest surviving daughter.

Fine, she wasn't technically a "princess" because her mother, Kirsten Munk, hadn't been highly enough ranked in the nobility for anything but a morganatic marriage. Big deal. The oldest daughter was still the oldest daughter-and the father was a no-fooling seventeenth-century goddamit king. One hell of a lot closer in time and spirit to Henry VIII than he was to the harmless royals that Eddie had grown up with. Queen Elizabeth II waving at crowds from an open car, looking sweet and just a bit insipid; Princess Diana, who couldn't harm anything except the reputation of the British royal family and who cared anyway; and a whole passel of silly idiots losing money in the casinos in Monte Carlo.

Eddie never quite knew what might or might not get him hauled to the chopping block. What made it all the more odd was that Anne Cathrine seemed just as oblivious to the matter as her father. From one day to the next, Eddie couldn't tell if she was in any way attracted to him as a man. One day, he'd swear she was. The next…

Who ordered this?

Granted, Eddie had never been what anyone in their right mind would call a ladies' man, bowling over the girls right and left. But at least in his comfortable and familiar world back up time, he'd known when he was pining away hopelessly.

Okay, pretty much all of the time, that had been. But he'd known.

"Will that man be all right?" Anne Cathrine asked, as they came up to the carriage. A coachman held the door open for them.

There was no point in lying. "No, he won't," Eddie said harshly. "He's already dead. He was dead before Baldur went down after him."

Frowning, the king's daughter more or less hoisted him up into the carriage without waiting for the coachman's assistance. The combination of that pretty teenage frown and the Valkyrie strength almost made Eddie laugh, despite the circumstances. His new world seemed full of contradictions.

"That can't be right," she said firmly, climbing in after him. "Drowning isn't that quick."

Eddie eased himself into the bench, and the king's daughter sat next to him. He was about to say, "He didn't drown, Anne Cathrine," but caught himself in time. The girl was nothing if not inquisitive. She'd want an explanation, and that was the last thing Eddie wanted to provide her. He didn't even want to think about it himself.

Especially not after, thirty seconds later, she gave him a mischievous smile. "You are too much the gentleman," she proclaimed. "I've given up."

Then, kissed him. Then, did it again, for a lot longer.

So, at least one question was answered. There remained only the petty details of which form of execution the king would select, once he got wind of the situation. But Eddie, in the middle of the hottest necking session he'd ever had in his life, gave that piddly problem no thought at all.

Some time later, they heard people approaching the carriage and resumed more decorous positions. Anne Cathrine looked a bit flushed, immensely pleased, and fifteen going on thirty. Eddie had no idea what he looked like. Twenty going on thirteen, he suspected. Not that he cared. Bring on the headsman; he'd greet him with a sneer. The world has no greater armor than a flood of hormones.

Ulrik came in first, with his sidekick right behind. As he clambered in, Norddahl called out something to the coachmen. As soon as he closed the door, the coach set off for Copenhagen.

"Ghastly," the prince proclaimed. "Never seen anything like it."

He was sitting on the bench opposite Eddie and Anne Cathrine. Norddahl slid onto the same bench. "You, Baldur?" the prince asked. "Have you?"

The Norwegian shook his head. "No, Your Highness. And I'd have thought by now I'd seen just about any way a man could get killed."

Alas, Anne Cathrine was now intrigued. "What happened? I thought he drowned."

"Oh, no. Lucky for him, I suppose," said her half-brother. "Drowning's slow. People say it's a good way to go, though I have my doubts. But this one died instantly."

"Couldn't have even known it was happening," Baldur said, "it had to have been so quick. Judging from the results."

The king's daughter's eyes were wide. She didn't look fifteen-going-on-thirty, any more. She looked fifteen-and-no-kitten-is-more-curious.

"What happened?"

Ulrik grimaced and held up his hands, as if holding a big globe. "Most of his body was in the helmet. All mashed up like you wouldn't believe. Every bone in pieces, all crushed together with flesh and blood. You couldn't really recognize most of the organs."

"Never seen anything like it," Baldur repeated. "The first fifteen feet of the hose attached to the helmet were full of him, too. Like a bloody meat paste."

The king's daughter clapped her hand over her mouth. "Oh! That's horrible!"

Norddahl shrugged. "He died a lot quicker than he would have, a week from now, in the executioner's hands. But it was the most gruesome thing I've ever seen."

Ulrik was peering at Eddie. "Can you explain what happened?"

Since Eddie's attempt to shield the girl was now pointless, he heaved a little sigh. "Yeah. There was probably something like twelve tons of pressure on his body, that all caved in at once. Like a giant squeezing a toothpaste tube. His body had nowhere to go except into the helmet and the hose. I think they call it 'excarnation.' "

He had to say the last word in English, of course. But what everyone really wanted was an explanation of the other American term. And once he explained what a toothpaste tube was, even Norddahl grimaced.

"Oh, that's icky!" said Anne Cathrine. She frowned at her half-brother. "Ulrik, you have to promise you won't try that yourself. You either, Baldur."

"No fear of that!" Ulrik exclaimed. "Even our sainted father is now persuaded that it's a hopeless way to wage war."

The Norwegian wasn't looking as cheerful, though. "He'll still want me to keep working on it. Not much, of course, since I've already provided him with what he needs."

Eddie squinted at him. "Huh? I thought you said-"

"Hopeless for war," explained Ulrik. "On the other hand, it struck my father that it would make a splendid form of execution. Too expensive, of course, for common crimes. But for high treason-gross outrages against the monarchy-that sort of thing-the king thinks it would serve nicely."

That sort of thing. Eddie wondered if necking with the king's daughter fell into that category. It might. You never really knew until it was too late. Fucking goddam seventeenth century.

Anne Cathrine's hand slid into his and seemed bound and determined to stay there. Her half-brother gave the clasp a glance, then smiled slightly, but said nothing.

On the other hand, you really didn't know. It might all work out very nicely, too.

Who the hell ordered this, anyway? I'm just a West Virginia country boy.

Chapter 36

Magdeburg

"But no bombing?" Jesse asked.

Mike Stearns shook his head. "No. John's got his ironclads parked-moored, anchored, whatever the right term is for boats on a river-not more than three miles from Hamburg. If he has to make the run, he tells me that any bombs you could drop would just be a drop in the bucket." Mike grinned. "He also added that you shouldn't take offense at any implied sneer coming from a squid."

Jesse sniffed. "Give it a few more years and let's hear him say that." But he didn't argue the point. Right now-probably for a fair number of years-the destruction Simpson could bring down on Hamburg with four ironclads and their ten-inch main guns simply dwarfed anything Jesse could do with two airplanes. Even the Gustavs were still small warcraft. While they could carry far more weight than a Belle, they weren't exactly B-17s. They were armed with a mixture of rockets and bombs, though the rockets were still inaccurate and the few bombs no more than one-hundred-pounders.

Not that they didn't pack a punch. Unlike the Belle, the Gustav had been designed from the start with hardpoints under its low wings and fuselage and had the power to lift a solid war load. Up to eight twenty-five-pound rockets could be carried under the wings, plus either two fifty-pound bombs or one hundred-pounder under the fuselage. At need, two rockets could be replaced with an additional fifty-pounder on each wing.

But the bombs were black powder packed into aerodynamic wooden casings. An inner lining of rifle balls made them deadly against soft targets, but they couldn't penetrate squat all. Hal Smith was working on an incendiary version, but they hadn't tested it, yet.

"Besides," Mike continued, "I want to avoid that anyway. I know you don't want to hear this from a politician covered in muck, but the fact is that I want to avoid as much as possible anything that neither you nor I likes to call 'collateral damage' but there it is. Meaning no offense, again, but you're also a long ways away from what anyone would call precision bombing. And you don't have a so-called 'smart bomb' to your name."

Jesse sniffed again. "I always thought those terms were oxymorons, anyway. A bomb's only as smart as the person aiming it. War's war. People get killed, and plenty of them are noncombatants. Way it is."

He gave the prime minister a skeptical look. "Although why you think that Simpson's guns are going to do any better is a mystery to me. Dive-bombing, I can pretty much promise a circular error probable of one hundred feet. That can't be any worse than his ten-inch guns will do, firing into Hamburg from the river."

Mike shrugged. "They won't do any better. At least some of those shells are bound to miss the fortifications and go sailing into the city. But down-timers are plenty familiar with cannons and what they do and don't do. If John misses, people will assume he missed. If you missed, who knows that they'll think?"

Jesse thought about it and decided Mike was probably right. Whether he was or not, however, he was certainly the boss so that was that. And Jesse didn't really care anyway. For all the back-and-forth ribbing and needling between him and Simpson, there wasn't any real heat to it. The few genuine arguments they got into at least involved genuine issues. Thankfully, they were also a long ways from being in a situation where they had to squabble over contracts for the sake of guarding budgetary turf. If Jesse was lucky, he'd be dead before that became a problem.

"And they'll have an airfield ready?"

Mike nodded. "John already has his army escort working on it. Doesn't take much, he said, since they found a nice field close to the river. It's actually on a big island formed by the confluence of the Elbe and one of its tributaries, so it's well protected even if it's not a huge area. Meaning no offense from a squid, he added, suggesting that your splendid fighting machines didn't exactly require a landing field suitable for a B-52."

"Guy's a smart-ass, Mike, beneath that oh-so-proper upper crust exterior. But I'll take his word for it. How soon?"

"He said you could land by tomorrow, midafternoon. Then do the overflights the next day. He needs that time anyway to do maintenance on the boats and get their fuel tanks topped off. If the Hamburg establishment doesn't come to their senses, he'll do the run the following morning."

"He'll do it in daylight?"

"That's his plan-unless you spot something that requires him to rethink it."

"Like what?"

"Who knows?" Mike said, shrugging. "A fourteen-inch gun that might actually threaten his armor, instead of the cannons he's pretty sure they have. Failing that, he'd rather have the advantage of daylight."

"If the Hamburgers were smart they'd have a big chain across the river-and a mine field. I might spot the chain, but I'm not likely to spot any mines unless they're badly placed."

"They've got a chain, all right. But no mines."

"You're sure about that?"

Mike smiled coolly. "Oh, yes. There are advantages, you know, to being a disreputable rabble-rouser."

"Don't tell me. Gretchen's got people in Hamburg."

"Be better to say the CoC does. They've become quite powerful there, in fact, But I don't think Gretchen herself had anything to do with it. That she-devil reputation she's gotten-all across Europe, seems like-is more than a little inflated."

Jesse chuckled. "Handy, though, isn't it?"

"Yup. For me even more than her, as often as not. But the point is-yes, we have excellent intelligence in Hamburg. More than that, in fact. The CoC is prepared to cut the chain for us. I don't know the details, but Simpson's been in touch with them and seems confident they can manage it."

Jesse grimaced. "That's likely to get tough on them, after the ironclads pass through."

The expression on the prime minister's face lost any trace of humor. "No, it won't, Jesse. The CoC has a lot of people in Hamburg by now, enough to hold off the garrison for a day or two. And that's all it'll take. Torstensson's personally leading eight regiments to Hamburg. They started marching five days ago-they'd already been pre-positioned at Lauenburg-and by tomorrow evening should have reached the airfield. They'll set up camp there. At which point you'll fly back here and be ready to fly me to Hamburg."

"Ha. The negotiator with a big gun. Walk softly and carry a Sequoia. You're not fooling around, I take it."

"Nope. And Gustav Adolf sure as hell isn't. If Simpson has to blow his way through Hamburg, that city's authorities just lost whatever trace of goodwill they still had in the emperor's account. Which wasn't much to begin with. They'll register a flaming protest to him, and the gist of his answer will be: 'If you think that was bad, heeeere's Torstensson. Or you can cut a deal with Mike Stearns.' And I'm going to be a real hard-ass."

"I'm not sure eight regiments are enough to storm the city, Mike, if they balk. Hamburg's got pretty damn good fortifications, by all accounts."

Mike's cool smile came back. "Not after the admiral goes through them, it won't."

The Elbe, near Hamburg

"That's the final readiness report, sir," Lieutenant Chomse said.

"Good." Admiral Simpson nodded in satisfaction. Franz-Leo Chomse was as conscientious and efficient an aide as he could have asked for. In fact, in most ways, he was far more satisfactory than Eddie Cantrell had ever been. He was certainly more attentive, and he carried around none of Eddie's impossible to eradicate "smartass attitude," for want of a better word. And yet, however little he was prepared to admit it to most people, Simpson found himself deeply regretting Eddie's absence.

It wasn't the first time that had happened. Simpson often wondered if Eddie was as surprised by the turn their relationship had taken as he himself was. Or, for that matter, if Eddie was actually fully aware of that turn. It didn't really matter one way or the other, of course, but as the inspiration behind the squadron's construction, Eddie should have been here to see it go into action for the first time at last.

And if he were here, he'd undoubtedly be busy comparing this to running the batteries at Vicksburg, or possibly Farragut's attack on New Orleans. Simpson shook his head. Unbelievable. I'm actually miss