1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 05
“Yes, certainly. But you understand, surely, that if I enter–indirectly or not, it doesn’t matter–the service of Wallenstein, that I will simply be freeing up some other general and his forces to come against you.”
The Italian shrugged. “True enough. But they’re not likely to have your skills, either. I think what finally convinced the emperor was Drugeth’s point that if we simply let you roam loose as a free agent, since we didn’t want to hire you ourselves, the end result was likely to be worse for us than having you leading Wallenstein”–he waved his hand toward the east–“somewhere out there into the marshes of the Polish and Lithuanian rivers.”
Once more, that heavy chuckle. “It was hard to dispute that point, at least.”
After they left the tavern–or “café,” rather–Piccolomini glanced up at the sky, which had grown leaden.
“Getting cold,” he said, reaching up and drawing his cloak around him more tightly.
Von Mercy followed suit. The temperature wasn’t too bad, but there was something of a wind that added considerably to the chill. “Where are we headed? Unterer Werd?”
Piccolomini shook his head. “No. The ghetto would be too far from the center of things for Abrabanel’s purposes. And he’s got plenty of money.” With his chin, he pointed straight ahead down the street. “Just up there a ways. Less than a five-minute walk.”
Franz was a bit surprised, but only a bit. Although Jews in Vienna usually lived in the ghetto located on the island formed by the Danube and one of its side branches, the city did not enforce the provision strictly if the Jew involved was wealthy enough.
As they walked, Franz noticed two other taverns sporting the new title of “café.”
“I swear, it’s a plague,” he muttered.
Glancing in the direction of von Mercy’s glower, Piccolomini smiled. “If you think it’s bad here, you should see what it’s like in Italy. My younger brother is the archbishop of Siena and he told me there was almost a public riot there a few months ago, because of a dispute involving the rules in a game of soccer.”
“A game of… what?”
“Soccer. If you don’t know what it is, be thankful all you have to contend with is the occasional tavern with pretensions. And pray to God that you never have to deal with the intricacies of baseball.”
“Intricacies of… what?”
“Never mind. Stick to the cavalry, Franz.”
A few dozen yards further along, Piccolomini pointed with his chin again. This time, at a small shop they were nearing. There was a sign over the door, reading: Sugar and Things.
“There’s the real money,” said the Florentine general. “That shop’s owned by a partnership between two local merchants and one of the American mechanics whom the emperor hired recently to keep his two automobiles running. Sanderlin’s his name–although it’s really his wife who’s involved in the business.”
“They are sugar importers?”
“Yes–but mostly they process it into something called ‘confectioner’s sugar’ and sell it to the city’s wealthiest residents and most expensive restaurants.” He shook his head. “Sugar is already worth its weight in gold. What they do with it…”
He shook his head again. “But people are besotted with things American–especially anything they can find involving Vienna in those up-time tourist guides. So, they say Vienna needs its cafés with coffee and pastries–and the best pastries require confectioner’s sugar.”
“A plague, as I said.”
“May as well get used to it, Franz,” Piccolomini said heavily. “When Wallenstein’s Croats failed in their raid on Grantville, all of Europe was doomed to this lunacy. Even in Paris, I’m told.”
He stopped in front of a nondescript doorway. Just one of many along the street, marked in no particular way.
“And here we are.”
Uriel Abrabanel proved to be, just as Piccolomini had said, a man whom no one would think to call “comely.” He was saved from outright ugliness only by the fact that an animated and jovial spirit imparted a certain flair to his coarse and pox-marked features. It was hard to believe, though, that the man was closely related–uncle, no less–to Rebecca Abrabanel, reputed to be one of the great beauties of Europe.
But von Mercy was skeptical of that reputation, anyway. He didn’t doubt the woman was attractive, probably quite attractive. But he was sure that the near-Helenic reputation given to her appearance was mostly the product of the same glamorous aura that surrounded everything American by now, almost four years after the Ring of Fire. An aura that was just as strong–probably stronger, in fact–among the peoples who were the USE’s enemies than those who lived under Stearns’ rule directly or counted themselves as his allies. Unlike the Swedes or the Germans or the Dutch, who had had many occasions to encounter Americans or their Abrabanel associates directly, for most Austrians or French or Italians (outside of Venice)–to say nothing of Spaniards or Poles–they remained mostly a matter of legend and hearsay.
And if much of the hearsay and many of the legends involved their wicked ways and nefarious schemes, there was no reason those couldn’t be combined with other qualities. So, if Mike Stearns was a relentless savage bent upon destroying all that was fine and sensible about Europe’s social and political arrangements, he was also surely the most cunning and astute barbarian who had stalked the earth since Attila raged out of the east. So also, if his Jewish spymaster Nasi was evil incarnate he was also intellect incarnate–just as Stearns’ Jewish wife combined the appearance of a goddess with a spirit fouled by the demons of the Pit.
For, indeed, the same aura extended to those closely associated with the Americans, even if they were not American themselves. That was especially true of the Jews, especially the Sephardim of the widely-flung and prominent Abrabanel clan.
Franz believed none of it. He’d read some of the philosophical and theological speculations concerning the nature and cause of the Ring of Fire. But, in the end, he’d come to the same conclusions that, by all accounts, the Americans had come to themselves. Namely, that they had no idea what had caused the miraculous phenomenon, and they were certainly not miraculous themselves. Just people, that’s all. Granted, people from a distant future possessed of incredible mechanical skills and knowledge. But no more exotic, for all that, than visitors from Cathay.
Less exotic, in most ways. They spoke a well-known European language, and most of them were Christians. And all of them except a small number of African and Chinese extraction were of European origin. Solid and sturdy origin, at that: English, German, and Italian, for the most part.
As von Mercy had been ruminating over these matters, Abrabanel had spent his time studying Franz himself. Eventually, he seemed to be satisfied with something he saw, if Franz interpreted his expression correctly.
“Not a bigot, then,” Abrabanel said softly. “Octavio told me as much”–here he gave the Florentine general a sly glance–“and I was inclined to believe him, even though he is an Italian and thus of duplicitous stock. So unlike we simple and straightforward Hebrews and even simpler and more straightforward Lorrainers.”
Franz couldn’t help but laugh. Partly, at the jest itself; partly, at the truth lurking within it. For, in point of simple fact, the seemingly-bluff Piccolomini was a consummately political general, as you’d expect of a man from a prominent family in the Florentine aristocracy. He’d spent a good portion of his years as a military officer serving more in the capacity of a diplomat or even–in truth if not in name–as what amounted to a spy.
Duplicitous, as such, he might not be. But Franz didn’t doubt for a moment that lies could issue from Octavio Piccolomini’s lips as smoothly and evenly as a gentle tide sweeps over a beach.
He recalled himself to the matter at hand. “No, I am not a bigot. I claim no particular fondness for Jews, mind you. But I bear no hostility against you, either. What I don’t understand, is what any of that has to do with your purpose in asking me here.” He nodded toward Piccolomini. “Nor why you needed to use him as your conduit.”