1636: The Ottoman Onslaught – Snippet 16
Magdeburg, capital of the United States of Europe
This time, the plane landed with only a couple of slight bumps and came to a halt where and when and in the manner it was supposed to. Gretchen was still relieved when the plane finally came to a stop. Even the short period when it was driving across the tarmac on wheels under its own power made her nervous. For some reason, Eddie called it “taxiing” even though the exercise had no relationship Gretchen could determine with the famous postal service of Thurn and Taxis.
She hadn’t like flying the first time she did it, she hadn’t liked it this time, and she didn’t imagine she ever would.
That said, they had gotten from Dresden to Magdeburg in about an hour. It would have taken her several days on horseback and longer if she’d walked.
“Thank you,” she said politely, after Junker helped her to the ground. “The trip was very… uneventful.”
Eddie grinned. “Not pleasant, though, I take it.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think I will ever…” She broke off, seeing what looked like a small mob headed in their direction.
“What’s this?” she wondered.
“Your greeting, I imagine.”
Gretchen frowned. “Why are this many people coming to meet me?”
Eddie studied her for a moment, with a quizzical expression on his face. Then he grinned again. “I will say this, Gretchen Richter. It is perhaps the most reassuring thing about you that you really don’t know the answer to that question.”
Her frown deepened. “That makes no sense at all.”
Eddie left off any reply. By then, the lead elements in the procession had come within greeting distance and they’d sorted themselves out as a separate group from the rest. Tentatively, Gretchen classified the four coming forward as the actual delegation, while the others were simply servants or assistants of some sort.
“Frau Richter,” said the worthy at the head of the column. “Welcome to Magdeburg. I am General Lars Kagg. The emperor asked me to provide you with an escort to the royal palace.”
The general was wearing the sort of apparel you’d expect from a court official, not anything that resembled a military uniform. But that was no cause for surprise. The Swedes — this was true of most German rulers as well — made no sharp distinction between military and civilian posts. Officials of either sort were expected to be at the disposal of the state and prepared to assume whatever responsibilities were given them, in whatever location they were instructed to place themselves.
Kagg had a booming way of speaking, but he seemed courteous enough. Gretchen tentatively ascribed the loudness of his voice to nature rather than to any attempt on the general’s part at intimidation.
Kagg turned partway around and gestured to the men just behind him. “If you would allow me to make some introductions…”
The first man he brought forward was, like Kagg himself, somewhere in early middle age.
“This is Colonel Johan Botvidsson. He’s serving me at the moment as my aide-de-camp.”
The name was familiar. Tata had mentioned the man to Gretchen a few times. He’d been one of the Swedish general Nils Brahe’s aides when Brahe had been administering the Province of the Main. As Gretchen recalled, Tata’s impression of him had been favorable.
“And this is his aide, Captain Erik Stenbock.” As had the colonel before him, Captain Stenbock acknowledged her with a stiff little bow. The stiffness was simply the Swedish court style, not an indication of any particular attitude.
Stenbock was quite a bit younger than either Kagg or Botvidsson. He seemed to be in his early twenties.
General Kagg now gestured at the fourth man in the group. “And this is Erik Gabrielsson Emporagrius.”
Kagg assigned Emporagrius no specific post, rank, title or position, which Gretchen found interesting in itself. From subtleties in the general’s demeanor that she would have found it impossible to specify, she got the sense that — unlike the two military figures he’d introduced, to whom he seemed quite favorably inclined — he had no great liking for this fourth fellow.
At first glance, Gretchen had assumed Emporagrius to be close in age to Kagg and Botvidsson. But looking at him more closely she realized that was due to the severe expression on his face, a sort of facial acidity that made him seem older than he really was. She didn’t think he was actually much older than thirty or so.
Emporagrius returned her gaze with an unblinking stare. He made no gesture with his head that bore even the slightest suggestion of a nod.
The introductions completed, Kagg now gestured at the gaggle of servants standing a short distance away.
“And now, Frau Richter, we have carriages ready to transport you to the palace.”
There were plenty of towns in Europe where riding in a carriage was likely to result in bruises — sometimes even broken bones. In such places, people would choose to ride in litters suspended between two horses rather than risk direct contact with the ground transmitted by unforgiving wheels. Most of Magdeburg’s streets were hard-packed dirt, but the main streets of the capital were superb, compared to those of any town or city in the continent except those of Grantville.
Another surprise awaited Gretchen once they arrived at the palace. The chambers that Kagg ushered her into amounted to a suite. She’d been expecting something more closely akin to a room that a servant might occupy.
Why were they doing this? Gretchen’s ingrained hostility toward the aristocracy — and kings and emperors were just top shelf nobility — made her suspicious.
They were trying to soften her up! Fool her into… into…
At that point, her sense of humor came to her rescue. Yes, no doubt all these courtesies were designed for the purpose of softening her up. But she remembered Mike Stearns once making the quip: “If I was scared to death of being softened up, I’d never bathe. Is it really better to stink?”
She turned to Kagg and said: “Thank you. This is very nice. When am I supposed to talk to the emperor? And where?”
“The ‘when’ depends on you, Frau Richter. The emperor thought you might want to rest for a bit after the — ah — ardors of your travels.”
Gretchen made a little snorting sound. “What ardors? I admit that flying makes me very nervous, but it’s about as physically strenuous as sitting in a rocking chair. I am ready to meet with the emperor whenever…”
She’d been on the verge of competing the sentence with “whenever it suits His Majesty.” But that seemed excessively subservient.
“Now, if he wants,” she concluded.
Kagg nodded. “In that case, please follow me.”
There were enough servants of various sorts in the palace that at least some of them rushed ahead to warn the emperor that she was coming. So, by the time Kagg ushered her into an even more palatial suite — this one a meeting chamber, though, not a sleeping one — Gustav Adolf was awaiting her in a chair, alertly observant as she came in.
They’d never actually met, in the sense of being introduced, although on three previous occasions they’d been in the same room together. On the first of those occasions, Gustav Adolf had been standing over the corpse of the Croat cavalryman whose skull he’d split open with the sword in his hand. And the sword had been dripping blood, unnoticed by the Swedish king, onto the trouser leg of Gretchen’s husband, who was lying on his back with a wound in his shoulder.
That memory brought Gretchen up short, for an instant. She’d come into the chamber braced for a fight, but now she found herself disarmed. Whatever else — whatever divided them, whatever disputes they might have — she owed this man her husband’s life. And, probably, the lives of dozens and possibly hundreds of children who’d also been in the high school that day. It was not likely that, on their own, Gretchen and Dan Frost and a busload of police cadets could have driven off the thousand or so Croats who were assaulting the school. Not without Gustav Adolf and the hundreds of cavalrymen he’d brought in time.
She cleared her throat. “Your Majesty, I do not believe I ever thanked you for saving my husband’s life. That day at the school in Grantville.”
The emperor’s eyes widened. “I wasn’t aware that I had, Frau Richter.” Then, as the memory came to him, he snapped his fingers. “Yes, now I recall! You were the young lady who was clutching the fellow that Croat was about to cut down. Ha! I never realized until this moment that you and she were the — ah… the same Gretchen Richter.”
Gretchen couldn’t help but smile. “The notorious Gretchen Richter, you meant to say.”
Gustav Adolf made a little dismissive gesture. “Notorious, yes — but notorious to whom, exactly? I am not unaware that you were the central figure in holding together the population of Amsterdam when they successfully resisted the Spanish besieging the city. Today, of course, we are on quite good terms with those same Spaniards — not allied, no, but still on good terms. But would we have had that outcome without you? Probably not, I suspect.”
He seemed to sit a bit straighter. “And I am certainly not unaware that you were — no one doubts this at all, certainly not Ernst –” He nodded toward a figure sitting in another chair off to the side. Gretchen was a bit startled to see that it was Ernst Wettin. She’d been so pre-occupied with the emperor that she hadn’t noticed him at all.
“– the central figure in holding Dresden firm against the threat of Báner.” The imperial jaw tightened. “Who followed Axel into treason.”
His momentary dark mood vanished almost at once. He gestured toward a third chair, which was positioned approximately equidistant from his own and that occupied by Wettin. “But please, take a seat. We have much to discuss.”
As she sat down, Gretchen glanced over her shoulder and saw that Kagg had left the room. Except for two servants standing by a doorway — not the one she’d come in but one that was too distant for the servants to overhear their conversation — the three of them were alone in the room.
So. Apparently this was to be a genuinely private and informal discussion. That had been one of the possibilities, but the one she’d least expected.