1636: The Ottoman Onslaught – Snippet 52
There burns a truer light
Prague, capital of Bohemia
On their last night in Prague, Janos Drugeth came to Noelle’s suite. When she opened the door and let him in, he had a peculiar expression on his face. If she hadn’t known him better, she would have thought him to be undecided about something — no, more than that. He seemed downright indecisive.
An optical illusion of some sort. By now, Noelle had learned that Janos was a complicated man in many respects. But the one thing he wasn’t, ever, was indecisive.
Clearly, though, he wanted her advice about something. So, despite the late hour, she ushered him into the small chamber that served her as a salon of sorts, and invited him to sit.
Right after he did so, a servant hurried into the room, looking a bit disheveled. Her name was Ilona and she’d already retired for the night since Noelle had told her she wouldn’t be needed again until the next day.
Noelle looked from Ilona to Janos. “Would you like something? A glass of wine?”
“No. Well. I suppose… Yes. I would.”
Noelle had never seen him like this. She turned to Ilona and said, “Bring us two glasses of wine, please. I’ll have one also.”
She didn’t understand what was causing Janos to be so unsettled, but she figured if she had a glass of wine with him that might help settle his nerves. She drank little in the way of alcoholic beverages, although she’d found her consumption rising as time passed. In this as in so many ways, the seventeenth century’s standards were different from the ones she’d been accustomed to in the world of her birth.
Janos remained silent until Ilona returned with the glasses of wine. “Are you going to want another glass later?” she asked him.
Again, he seemed indecisive. “I don’t… Ah. I am not sure.”
Fascinating. But there was no reason to keep Ilona up. The poor girl seemed tired.
“Go back to bed, Ilona,” she said. “I know where the wine is, if we need more later.”
The servant seemed a bit scandalized by the notion that her mistress could — and would! — pour herself a glass of wine. But she said nothing; simply curtsied and left.
Noelle turned back to Janos. By then, he’d already drained half the glass — which was also quite unlike him. Drugeth, like almost all noblemen Noelle had encountered since the Ring of Fire, drank a lot of wine in the course of a day. But he stretched it out, so that he never seemed tipsy. She didn’t think she’d ever seen him guzzle half a glass like that.
Fascinating. What was on his mind?
She went straight to the point. “Something is bothering you, Janos. What is it?”
“Ah…” He drained the rest of the glass in one swallow.
“Would you care for some more wine?”
He raised the empty glass and stared at it for a moment. He seemed a bit startled that it was already empty.
“Ah, no.” He set it down on the side table next to his chair. That motion, at least, was decisive. “The reason I came here tonight is because tomorrow we will fly back to Vienna.”
She nodded. Janos had finished his negotiations with Wallenstein that afternoon. Nothing further could be settled until he spoke with Ferdinand to get the emperor’s approval to the terms he and the king of Bohemia had finally thrashed out. Eddie had flown the plane into Prague that same afternoon and would be ready to fly back out as soon as Janos and Noelle arrived at the airfield.
“Once we get to Vienna,” Janos continued, “we will be staying in the Hofburg and as I’m sure you remember, it is rather crowded.”
“To say the least,” she said, smiling. The type of buildings that up-time Americans thought of as “palaces,” like Versailles, generally dated from a much later period. There was a travel guide to Vienna in Grantville’s public library that Noelle had looked at before coming to Austria, and the “Hofburg” it depicted — much less the later and still more elaborate palace called Schönbrunn — was a far cry from what existed in the year 1636. Like most palaces in this time period, the Hofburg was a ramshackle structure parts of which dated back to the thirteenth century.
As lavish as the furnishings might be, the Austrian royal palace was overflowing with people, between the royal family and live-in courtiers and a horde of servants. It had a population density that reminded Noelle of some of the poorer trailer parks she’d seen in West Virginia. Kids everywhere; dogs everywhere; people idling on every stair stoop.
It finally dawned on her what Janos was skittering around, like the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof. She felt her own face getting warm.
“Oh,” she said. “You’re worried we, ah, won’t have any privacy.”
Janos smiled crookedly. “I can’t say I’m ‘worried’ about it, exactly. It is an absolute given that we will have no privacy.”
His expression became solemn. “One of the things I will try to persuade the emperor to do is to remove the royal family to Linz. They should not be there when the Ottoman army arrives. Once the siege begins, it may prove impossible — it will certainly be difficult — to get them to safety. And you should go with them.”
She started to protest but he held up his hand in a sharp gesture. “Please, Noelle! There is nothing you can do in a siege, and a great deal you can do elsewhere.”
“Will you be staying?”
“That will be up to the emperor. I suspect he’ll have other assignments for me, though, since he has Baudissin and other officers to lead the garrison. Once the royal family leaves the city, morale is likely to suffer, but the remedy for that is to have one of the younger family members volunteer to stay behind. That would be Leopold. Possibly Cecilia Renata as well.”
The logic was cold-blooded, but she understood it. The two oldest of Ferdinand II’s four children were the current emperor Ferdinand III and his sister Maria Anna, now married to Fernando, the King in the Netherlands. Ferdinand III had already sired a son and a daughter, and Maria Anna was reported to be pregnant. Even if that pregnancy did not come to term, Maria Anna was safely ensconced in Brussels, half a continent away from the oncoming Ottoman army.
That left the two youngest siblings, Leopold and Cecilia Renata, as something in the way of supernumeraries so far as preserving the dynasty was concerned. Having one of them stay in the capital during the siege would help the morale of the defending forces.
She brought her mind back to the subject at hand. There was no way that her marriage to Janos could be moved forward. No date had even been set yet, since the looming siege would made the sort of huge semi-official — more like three-quarters-official — ceremony impossible to organize.
Noelle had been taken aback when she realized what Janos and Emperor Ferdinand had in mind for the wedding. She still found it surreal that anyone was deluded enough to think that one Noelle Stull, née Murphy, was a suitable subject for the sort of weddings she’d never seen except on television.
Abstractly, she understood the logic here as well. Janos Drugeth was one of Austria-Hungary’s most prominent noblemen and known to be one of the emperor’s closest friends and confidants. Any marriage in which he was one of the participants was bound to be a major quasi-state affair, if for no other reason than to satisfy the always-tender sensibilities of the Hungarian aristocracy. The fact that he was marrying an American added a certain frisson to the business. There was still a wide range of opinions on the part of Europe’s aristocracy on the subject of exactly where Americans should be placed in the established social hierarchy. A number of Austrians had settled on the formula of referring to all Americans by the appellation “von Up-time” — an expression which Noelle thought was ridiculous and which she knew both Mike Stearns and Ed Piazza actively detested.
But whatever their attitude might be, one thing was clear: Americans were all celebrities. Back in the day, some people had fawned over Zsa Zsa Gabor, some people had found her ridiculous or even contemptible, and most hadn’t cared very much one way or the other. But everyone had heard of her.
Of course, there were celebrities, and then there were celebrities. Some were movie stars known the world over; others were minor figures known only in a particular locale. So it was with Americans also, here in the seventeenth century. Nobody thought of the local American souse of a handyman as the prince of anything. But the fact that he was American was still a matter of note.
The changed reality had snuck up on Noelle, but she was now a lot closer to such people as Mike Stearns or Ed Piazza or Melissa Mailey in the pantheon of American Legendary Figures, Large and Small, than she’d been a year ago. She wasn’t very happy with the change, either. But…
Her thoughts were skittering away again.
When in doubt, Noelle usually found refuge in bluntness.
“I’m a virgin,” she said abruptly. She could have added the qualification technically speaking but saw no point in detailing the complex behavioral permutations of her relationship with a former boyfriend who’d never come through the Ring of Fire so he couldn’t gainsay her anyway. She way she figured it, appendages other than The One didn’t count.
Janos’ face was stiff. “I did not ask,” he said.
“Yes, I noticed. And I appreciated it. But since it looks as if my, ah, maidenly status is about to change, I figured you ought to know that I’m likely to fumble around the business. Some.”
That broke his wooden expression. “I am not concerned about that in the least!”
“Okay, then.” She rose to her feet and extended her hand. “Follow me.”
He came to his feet and took her hand. Then, hesitated. “I do not — are you concerned about — how to put it?”
“Getting pregnant? It’s not likely, tonight. But it doesn’t matter because I hold to our church’s teachings on the subject of birth control. If I get pregnant, so be it.”
He was still hesitant. “I may not — it’s possible — that I will not survive this war.”
“I understand that. In which case I might wind up with a so-called illegitimate child on my hands, even though I think coupling the words ‘illegitimate’ and ‘child’ is grotesque.”
She grinned, then. “Quit stalling, buddy. You started this, I didn’t — but the girl is willing.”
She didn’t expand that to willing as all hell because that might be blasphemy. In the seventeenth century, you never knew.
Prague’s airfield — you call hardly call it an “airport” — was located just beyond the walls of the “New Town,” the section of the city known in Czech as Nové Město. To get to it you had to pass through the Horse Gate, so named because the area adjacent to it within the walls was the Horse Market. The Horse Market would eventually be renamed Wenceslas Square, assuming the history of this universe remained faithful to the nomenclature of another.
Which… it might or might not. In the Americans’ universe, the name change hadn’t taken place until the revolution of 1848. But in this universe, it might never happen at all or it could happen at any moment. The city’s Jews were now often referring to the Jewish quarter as the “Josefov,” in honor of the emperor Joseph II in another universe who would emancipate Prague’s Jews in his Toleration Edict of 1781. Given that in this universe the city’s Jews had already been emancipated a quarter of a millennium earlier by King Albrecht II (aka Wallenstein), that renaming seemed impolitic as well as absurd.
But, such was the nature of terminological upheavals produced by cosmic catastrophes. As had been said more than once, the Ring of Fire had a lot to answer for.
Eddie Junker had the Steady Girl fueled and ready to go shortly after sunrise, because Noelle had told him the day before that she and Janos wanted to get to Vienna as early in the day as possible. So he was disgruntled — he’d risen an hour and a half before dawn — that they didn’t show up until late in the morning. By his very excellent watch, 10:06 AM, to be precise.
Seeing the way they held on to each other as they neared, which he coupled with their slow progress, constant nuzzling and generally vacuous expressions, he made certain deductions and came to certain conclusions.
He was still ticked off. Getting up at 3:30 in the morning was a wretched business and those responsible needed a really good excuse to justify their own failure to match the schedule. A major earthquake, an outbreak of plague, the apocalypse, something of that nature. Getting laid just didn’t cut the mustard, even if Noelle had waited a preposterous amount of time to take care of the business.
“Are we finally ready to go?” he demanded, once they had reached the plane.
There was no answer. They were back to nuzzling again.
“This is getting ridiculous,” said Eddie.