1636: The Ottoman Onslaught – Snippet 13
Vienna, capital of Austria-Hungary
Minnie Hugelmair was not easy to impress. Her best friend Denise thought that was simply a function of her personality, but Minnie herself ascribed it to her glass eye.
Well, not the glass eye so much as the absence of the real one. She’d lost that in the course of a riot in the streets of Jena which got started when some drunken Lutheran apprentices interpreted a song she was singing — a German rendition of The Romish Lady, whose verses were as stalwartly anti-Catholic as you could ask for — as advocacy for Popery and work righteousness.
Prior to that time, Minnie had been a foundling with no particular political or theological convictions. She’d been taken in by the American Benny Pierce and taught to play the fiddle and sing, something she discovered she had a real talent for and enjoyed doing. Then she lost her eye to a thrown cobblestone — she’d gotten a concussion out of that, too — and when she regained consciousness she came to several conclusions to which she’d held firmly since.
First, since Benny had adopted her in mid-riot to keep her from being arrested and hauled away to prison, she had a fierce attachment to him. And, by extension, to all his fellow Americans since she now considered herself one as well.
Second, all theology was idiocy and all theologians were idiots.
Third, theologians being invariably supported by the state, you had to keep a close watch on all public officials, who were also prone to being idiots.
Finally, having only one eye was an advantage in some respects. In particular, a one-eyed young woman was not likely to be fooled by swindlers, charlatans — theologians being prominent in that category — or any other manner of scoundrel, especially official ones. That, because all such rascals depended upon the illusions created by stereoscopic vision. Seeing everything in two dimensions allowed a young woman to see them for what they really were.
Still, there were times…
“Wow,” she said, looking around the chamber she and Denise had been ushered into. “This is ours?”
Denise seemed a bit abashed herself — and she was normally about as easy to abash as a hippopotamus. “That’s what Noelle said.”
A few seconds of silence followed, as they continued to examine the room. Then Minnie said: “I don’t think there’s more than ten square inches of undecorated wall anywhere.”
“Doesn’t look like, does it? I’ve never seen this many portraits outside of a photographer’s studio in Fairmont my mom dragged me into once. Except these are painted. I bet one or two of them are even by that guy Michael Angelo.“
“Some famous Italian artist. He painted the… Pristine Chapel, I think it was. Or maybe it was the Vatican. I can’t remember.”
As they’d been talking, they’d been slowly circumnavigating the room — or it might be better to say, navigating it, since there weren’t all that many open square inches of floor space either.
“It’s like a furniture store show room,” Denise said, maneuvering her way around an expensive looking armchair. It was ornately carved but, from an American viewpoint, scantily upholstered.
Once they completed their investigation of the quarters they’d been assigned in the royal palace, they began examining the central item of furniture in the room.
“That is a bed, right?”
“I think so. I want this side,” said Minnie, pointing.
“Yeah, sure.” Denise and Minnie had shared a bed plenty of times and Minnie always wanted the side that let her good eye see what was coming.
There was a knock on the door.
“Come –” But the door was already opening before Denise could finish the invitation. Noelle Stull came through, looking simultaneously pleased and preoccupied.
Neither Denise nor Minnie had any trouble interpreting the peculiar combination. Noelle was pleased because for the past two days, since they’d arrived in Vienna, she’d been able to spend considerable time in the company of Janos Drugeth. She hadn’t seen the man in person since…
Well, since she more-or-less tried to shoot him on the Danube but wound up shooting the river instead. She even had a tattoo placed on her butt to commemorate the occasion, depicting a death’s head topped by a debonair feathered cap over crossed pistols and the logo I Shot The Danube.
That had been almost a year and a half ago. Since then they’d conducted their courtship by mail. Janos hadn’t seen the tattoo yet but it was becoming increasingly obvious that he would before much longer.
Probably not before they got married, though. Both of them were devout Catholics and, allowing for some leeway in how one interpreted the phrase, pretty straight-laced.
The preoccupied part of her expression was due to the reason for Noelle’s presence in Vienna. She hadn’t come here simply or even primarily to conclude a courtship. That had been an excuse which everyone found convenient because it allowed the USE and Austria-Hungary to begin comprehensive negotiations without anyone’s having to formally admit as much.
Which they weren’t prepared to do yet because the diplomatic situation had any number of awkward aspects.
For the Austrian emperor — Ferdinand was still using that title even though he’d disavowed any intention of reconstructing the Holy Roman Empire — the awkwardness began with the fact that he was a Habsburg and his Spanish cousins were still enemies of the United States of Europe. That enmity was no formality, either. Spain and the USE had clashed militarily in the recent past and both nations expected such clashes to continue.
For the USE and Austria both, there was the still more awkward problem that the USE was allied to Bohemia and now wanted to make peace and if possible develop an alliance with Austria — which still officially characterized King Albrecht of Bohemia as the traitor Wallenstein whose head need to be removed as soon as possible. Not surprisingly, Wallenstein was adamant that any rapprochement between the USE and Austria had to include a settlement on the status of Bohemia that was acceptable to him.
For the moment, no ambassadors were being exchanged. Instead, a lovestruck American lady who just happened by coincidence to have the confidence of the current president of the State of Thuringia-Franconia and the probable future prime minister of the USE just happened by coincidence to be in Vienna visiting her betrothed who just happened by coincidence to be one of the Austrian ruler’s closest friends and advisers.
Hence the mixed expression on Noelle’s face. Pleased; preoccupied.
“So when does Count Dracula get to see the tattoo?” asked Denise.
Noelle gave her a look that would have been irritated if she hadn’t been in such a good mood. “That joke stopped being funny at least a year ago. And it’s particularly inappropriate since I just got back from spending a couple of hours at Janos’ church talking to the priest who’d be officiating at the wedding assuming it happens which seems pretty likely given that Janos was right there with me discussing the same issue.”
Minnie nodded solemnly. “That settles it, then. Janos Drugeth is not a vampire. Can’t be if he was standing on consecrated ground and didn’t burn right up on the spot.”
Now she looked at Denise. “And I have to say I’m with Noelle on this. That joke stopped being funny at least a year ago.”
Denise grinned. “Fine. I’ll let it go. What’s up, Noelle? I don’t think you came here just to tell me that your squeeze turns out not to be undead after all.”
Noelle pointed over her shoulder with a thumb. “They’re going to be holding some sort of fancy formal feast tonight, officially in honor of some official but really for our sake.”
“Oh, yuck,” said Denise.
“Double yuck,” agreed Minnie.
“Yeah, I know, it’s not exactly your cup of tea. But you’ve got to show up, whether you like it or not.”
“What the hell are we supposed to wear?” demanded Denise. “What I know about how to dress for a formal seventeenth fucking century formal dinner is — is — ” She looked like a fish gasping out of water as she tried to think of a suitable analogy.
“If I took out my glass eye would they still make me come?” That was Minnie’s contribution.
“Cut it out, both of you.” Again, Noelle pointed over her shoulder with the thumb. “I know you don’t know squat. That’s why I’m taking you to see Sarah and Judy Wendell and the other Barbies. They set up shop in the palace an hour ago, so they can all get ready for the occasion.”
Denise frowned. “Why are they coming?”
Minnie shook her head and gave Noelle a sad look. “Sometimes I worry about her, Noelle. Denise is usually pretty bright, but now and then…”
She looked at her friend. “They’re stinking rich. What more does anybody need to get invited to a fancy whatever-they-call-this? Dinner, ball, soiree, whatever.”
Noelle headed for the door. “Follow me. Now, Denise.”
As it turned out, the Barbies — especially Judy Wendell — were a lot of help. Denise and Judy knew each other, of course. They were just about the same age and they’d gone to school together before the Ring of Fire. But they’d never been close — and that, for two reasons.
First, they belonged to different crowds. Simplifying a great deal — which, of course, was exactly the way kids in middle and high school categorized everyone — Denise was a bad girl and Judy was a good girl. Denise’s father had been a biker who made his living as a welder; Judy’s father had been an insurance agent. Denise could often be found sneaking a cigarette behind the girls’ gym; Judy had never smoked in her life.
Secondly, the one thing they had in common had tended to keep them apart as well. They had been, by the generally held opinion of most girls and all boys, the two best-looking girls in their class. Neither Denise nor Judy cared very much about their appearance themselves. But the boys who clustered around them did, and that automatically tended to keep them at a distance from each other.
It was too bad, in a way, Denise was now realizing. Judy was a big help getting her and Minnie properly fitted out for the upcoming fancy event. Yet, much to their surprise, Judy was just about as irreverent and sarcastic about the whole business as they were. Looking back on it, Denise could now see where her impression of Judy as a stuck-up snot had probably been unfair. Up close, the girl had a pretty wicked sense of humor.