1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 20
Vienna, official capital of Austria-Hungary
Now under Ottoman occupation
“I can’t play another word game today,” said Judy Wendell–Judy the Younger, as she’d been called in a previous existence, since she had the same first name as her mother.
That existence seemed almost a fantasy now, after two months living in cellars lit only by a few candles. Fortunately, since the cellars beneath an unused wing of the Austrian royal palace had been designed as a secret shelter, there had been a big supply of candles. Judy didn’t want to think what it would have been like if they’d had to hide down here in darkness. Day after day after day–which would have seemed like night after night after night.
“I just can’t do it,” Judy said. She tried to glare at the young woman leaning back against a nearby pile of grain sacks, comfortably nestled inside the arm of a man not much older than she was. “Minnie, when you went out there with your cart whose contents I will not get into, why didn’t you bring back a deck of cards instead of that stupid radio?”
Minnie just smiled in response. The accusation was wildly unfair as well as ridiculous, and the four people present knew it including Judy herself. Minnie had risked her life for all of them weeks earlier, when she’d sortied from the cellar disguised as a night soil worker in order to bring back the radio she and Denise Beasley had hidden. Hidden halfway across Vienna. It had been a harrowing journey.
The man who had his arm protectively around her did not share Minnie’s blithe indifference.
“You should be ashamed of yourself for saying such a thing, Miss Wendell! That stupid radio, as you call it, is the only thing that might someday save our lives.”
“The two operative words in that statement are ‘might’ and ‘someday’,” Judy retorted. “In the meantime, I’d give my right arm–okay, left arm–to be able to play hearts, spades or whist instead of Ghost and Botticelli. Hell, I’d even be happy to play Old Maid.”
The man who’d chided her bore the august title and name of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria. He was the youngest of Austria’s four royal siblings. Since the death of their father two years earlier, his older brother had assumed the even more august title of Emperor Ferdinand III of Austria-Hungary.
“My brother’s right, Judy,” said Cecilia Renata, the fourth of the people in the cellars. She was Leopold’s sister and bore the title of an Austrian archduchess. “Like he says, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
There was no great energy is the words, though. Despite being, at the age of twenty-five, considerably older than Judy, the two women had become good friends in the course of their adventures. As much as anything else, Cecilia Renata had only said it to give herself something to do.
Yes, they were all in a very perilous situation, hiding from ruthless janissaries in a city occupied by one of the world’s greatest powers. But that had only lifted their spirits for a short time. They’d been in the cellars long enough by now–more than long enough–to be forced to confront the greatest horror of all.
Boredom. Judy thought of it as a dentist’s waiting room on steroids. Tedium cubed. They were adrift on a great ocean in the lifeboat Ennui, with no land in sight.
“It would be nice to have a deck of cards, though,” Cecilia Renata admitted.
“Be nicer still to have one of the up-timer board games,” said Minnie. “I don’t think you two royals have ever played them. I learned when I was in Grantville.”
“Which one?” asked Judy. “I’m partial to Monopoly, myself. But I’d settle for Clue.”
“Monopoly and Clue are okay. But if I had to pick one for the desert island scenario, I’d either go for Backgammon or Parcheesi. Preferably Backgammon.”
Judy frowned. “That’d be anti-social. Backgammon can only be played by two people.”
“Two people at a time,” Minnie qualified. “All the better. While two of us played, the other two could be doing the exercises that we’ve all agreed we ought to be doing.”
“You’re not doing them either, Minnie,” Leopold pointed out.
“‘Course not. Exercise is boring. Just what I don’t need. More boredom.”
“You’ve got a lot of nerve complaining,” said Judy. “You and Leopold get to… Well, you know.”
“They do it a lot, too,” said Cecilia Renata. “It’s quite reprehensible.”
Silence followed for a minute or so. The topic they’d wandered into was one they normally tried to avoid.
That was not due to ethics, though. When it came to sex, Minnie Hugelmair was the embodiment of hard-boiled seventeenth century pragmatism. Judy had the usual romantic attitude of up-time teenage girls, but the attitude had been tempered by the fact she was so good-looking that teenage boys–adult men, too, plenty of them–had been buzzing around her since she was thirteen. She’d become so distrustful and cynical that she’d held onto her virginity to the present day–not out of any deep moral concerns but simply because she was damned if she’d let some lying slob get it from her.
As for Leopold and Cecilia Renata, their sexual mores were the inevitable result of knowing since they were children that they’d eventually be married off to someone for purely political reasons. A complete stranger, often enough. Or, which could be even worse, a close relative. Their older sister Maria Anna had been shipped off to Bavaria not long ago to get married to her uncle Maximilian I. She’d been twenty-four and he’d been in his sixties. In the event, Maria Anna had decided not to go through with it and had fled to the Netherlands, thereby precipitating what had become known since as the Bavarian Crisis. But in the history of the world the up-timers came from, she had married her uncle–and borne him two sons.
Although they looked at the matter from the top down instead of the bottom up, as Minnie did, the two Austrian royals were just as cold-bloodedly practical as she was.
Had been, at any rate. To his surprise and his sister’s outright shock, Leopold had developed a genuine attachment to Minnie, never mind her low birth, orphan status, and glass eye. He’d never used the word “love,” but he had declared that after they were rescued he’d insist his brother keep him as a bishop so he couldn’t marry anyone and could maintain his liaison with Minnie.
She had also developed an attachment to him–but thought his plan to remain a bishop was foolish sentimentalism. There was no reason he couldn’t get married to someone of suitable lineage and maintain his relationship with her. As had been royal custom from time immemorial.
After allowing the silence to last just long enough to restore propriety, Judy rose to her feet and beckoned to Minnie.
“Come on, girl, let’s go. I’m pretty sure it’s time for our weekly radio message.”
Minnie rose from her pleasant snuggle. “I think it’s probably still too early, but maybe you’re right. It might even be later than we think. It’s too bad you brought one of those clever up-time battery watches instead of an old-fashioned manual wind-up one.”
Judy raised her arm and glanced down at the watch on her wrist. “Yeah, I just wear it out of habit, these days. The battery died almost a year ago.”
Leopold brought forth a large pocket watch. An impressive one, too–it had jewels embedded it. “I have one!” he pronounced. “Just wound it not two hours ago.”
Minnie and Judy made no effort to consult the archduke’s watch. “And when was the last time you calibrated it?” asked Judy.
Leopold made a face. “Well… It was before we had to come down to the cellars. How am I supposed to calibrate it here, with no way to gauge the sun properly and no functioning up-time watch to check it against?”
“What I thought,” said Judy. “And what time does it claim to be now?”
Leopold studied the dial. “Two and a quarter hours past noon. Or maybe midnight.”
“Or maybe any time of the day and night,” said Minnie. “Leopold, you know perfectly well that watch loses at least ten minutes every day–and we’ve been here–I keep a record, you know–for exactly–”