The novel should be starting to appear in the bookstores now, so this will be my last snippet. It’s a nice long one, and I think it makes a good send-off.
1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 89:
The Elbe, near Dömitz
“You can’t do this! You’re destroying my property! It’s illegal!”
Admiral John Simpson stood on the foredeck of the SSIM Constitution, 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 guns 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 Øresund, 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 Øresund. 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 Øresund 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 gloomier all the time. 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 Øresund 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 Øresund was the only one of the straits that his enemy could possibly have lain 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.”
You 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 a 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 left 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 his 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 Øresund 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 Øresund 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 have been able to find in the Øresund 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 over-riding—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 wear 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.
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.