1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 31
Pescia, Grand Duchy of Tuscany
“I assure you we will be undisturbed here,” Fakhr-al-Din said to Mike Stearns. “I have used this villa before, both as a retreat and a refuge from Florence’s noise and disquiet. Furthermore, it belongs to me personally. It is not a gift from the Tuscans. I purchased it through an intermediary, so no one here knows who I am.”
After the translator passed that on, Mike was careful to keep the expression on his face from reflecting his true reaction. Mike was skeptical of the last claim. Fakhr-al-Din had insisted on keeping his wife Khasikiya clothed in what he considered a properly modest manner. If she’d stayed in their carriage the whole time, no one might have noticed, but she’d gotten out every time they stopped in order to sleep in the more comfortable rooms of a tavern. People who saw her wouldn’t have known who she was, because of the veil and the very unrevealing garments, but she’d certainly drawn attention–not only to herself but to the husband who accompanied her. Fakhr-al-Din himself wore Italian clothing, but, unlike his wife, his face was not covered.
As security precautions went, those of the Druze emir were pretty wretched, in Mike’s opinion. Three of Fakhr-al-Din’s bodyguards had accompanied them on their trip from Florence to Pescia. The guards had the bearing of men who knew how to fight and would almost certainly be able to handle one or two assassins. Highwaymen wouldn’t even think of attacking their party. But in the turmoil that raged in Europe in the middle of the 1630s, it was not unheard of for assassination attempts to be mounted by large parties of men. That was how Pope Urban VIII had been killed, and Julie and Alex had come close to losing their own lives in Scotland from such an assault.
Mike was now regretting his decision not to bring bodyguards on this trip to Italy. But he’d assumed they’d be staying in Florence, where Fakhr-al-Din not only had a well-guarded palace of his own but where there would be plenty of Tuscan troops available as well.
What he hadn’t taken into account were the foibles of Levantines, because he wasn’t familiar with them. Privacy ranked very high on their list of things to be greatly desired. And unfortunately, the patience of the emir and his wife had been badly frayed in the weeks prior to Mike’s arrival. The dowager grand duchess of Tuscany, Ferdinando’s grandmother Christina of Lorraine, had died not long before. She’d been the regent of the grand duchy for years after the death of Cosimo II in 1621, and even after Ferdinando came to maturity she continued to be immensely influential. She’d played in Tuscany much the same role that the formidable Archduchess Isabella had played–continued to play–in the Low Countries.
Christina’s funeral had been a major affair of state, and Florence had been filled with visitors before and since. Eventually, Fakhr-al-Din had decided he and Khasikiya needed a break. And what better place to do it than his little-known villa in the town of Pescia, right on the border with the Republic of Lucca? The republic had good relations with Tuscany, so it was not as if they’d be near any of the potentially hostile Papal States.
Despite his misgivings, Mike had agreed to the relocation. The negotiations he’d started with the Druze leader looked very promising and this was no time to be breaking them off.
He accepted the cup of tea offered to him by one of the servants Fakhr-al-Din and his wife had brought with them. (There were only four, which was the emir’s notion of “roughing it.”) It was still too hot to drink, so he set it down on the small round table in front of him. He’d hesitated to do so when they first arrived at the villa, since it was a work of art–beautifully polished brass with intricate designs etched into it. Mike wasn’t certain, because he wasn’t familiar with Arabic, but he thought the design of the etchings derived from calligraphy. Whether they did or didn’t, they were gorgeous. It hadn’t been until the third time he accepted tea from Fakhr-al-Din after they arrived in Pescia that he accepted the emir’s assurance that the table was “just an old family piece, intended for practical use.”
“It is unfortunate that Borja has taken the papacy,” said Fakhr-al-Din, after Mike set down the cup. The emir had started drinking from his own cup immediately, and now used it to indicate a window that looked to the south. “Whatever the Spanish usurper claims, he has made himself a pope in all but name. Which is a pity, since I got along quite well with Urban. With the archbishop of Florence also. Pietro Niccolini, that was. But he was one of those murdered in the Spanish coup, and the man who replaced him–“
The emir made a face and drank again from his cup. When he lowered it, his expression was one of distaste. “He’s an Italian, not a Spaniard, but he’s still a swine.”
Mike had understood most of that without translation. His Italian was improving rapidly, partly due to his natural linguistic skill and partly because he was now immersed in the language.
Still, he waited for the translator to finish before speaking, to make sure he’d understood everything. “Which means you can’t get any help from the papacy in approaching the Maronites,” he then said.
“I am afraid not. But I don’t believe that’s a critical problem. My relations with the Maronites are already very cordial. They, too, chafe under Ottoman rule.”
Mike didn’t think he was boasting. He’d heard from several reliable sources that in this day and age the Druze and the Maronite Christians generally got along quite well. Rebecca had heard the same thing, before she left. The savage wars between the Druze and Maronites of which there’d been some mention in Grantville’s records were two centuries in the future–and a future that would now never happen, anyway.
All in all things were looking good. Put together an alliance of Druze and Maronites, each of whom could probably field an army of ten thousand men, add to that Mike’s own Third Division…
That was enough to hold Mount Lebanon and the cities cupped along the coast in its shelter. Of course, there was still the issue–hardly a small one!–of getting Simpson’s fleet into the Med, without which a seaborne seizure of Beirut would be too risky. And there was also the question–no small one, either–of whether David Bartley’s logistical plan could be made to work.
Still, things were looking good. Very good.
Capital of Lower Silesia
The first word Rebecca got of Koniecpolski’s death was after she landed at the airfield in Breslau. Both Gretchen and Noelle were there to greet her, which didn’t surprise her that much. It was taking her a while to get accustomed to her new status in the world. Her life until the Fourth of July Party won the election and Ed Piazza became the new prime minister and she became the secretary of state had been–or so she thought, at least–one of circumspection. She was just Michael Stearns’ wife. True, she’d held a position for a time in the legislature, but she’d been one of many legislators. True also, she’d been an envoy extraordinaire to France and the Netherlands. But she thought of that as a temporary and provisional position.
In point of fact, she’d long been one of the most famous women in Europe. Notorious, in many circles. The anti-Semites had hated her with a passion. But Rebecca had been able to dismiss most of her fame as silliness–what Americans called “celebrity,” a concept she found utterly absurd. In essence, it meant you were famous because you were famous, a form of tautological reasoning that any reputable school of philosophy could dismantle easily.
But over the past three months, since she’d become the secretary of state, Rebecca had been forced to admit to herself that her days of being out of the public eye were now gone–and probably gone forever. That unsettling state of affairs was about to get worse, too, she was pretty sure. She’d passed through Magdeburg on her way from Tuscany to Silesia. Most of the time she’d spent there had been with her latest child, Kathleen, who had been born just two months earlier. She’d also had meetings with Ed Piazza and other top government officials, and she’d taken the opportunity to visit her publisher, who had excitedly informed her that the first print run of her new book, The Road Forward: A Call to Action, had sold out in less than a week.
“Of course, almost all of the sales were right here in Magdeburg,” the publisher told her. “But I was surprised by how many orders I got from other provinces, too. The landgravine of Hesse-Kassel ordered fifty copies, can you imagine that?”
Rebecca could, actually. She knew the woman. Amalie Elizabeth, the widow of Wilhelm V who was now the regent of that province, was one of the most astute political figures in the USE. Rebecca knew that the landgravine had required all of her top officials and advisers to read Alessandro Scaglia’s Political Methods and the Laws of Nations. Rebecca’s book had been written in part as an analysis and rebuttal to some (not all) of Scaglia’s arguments. It would be very much like Amalie Elizabeth to require her advisers to read it as well.
One aspect of the news was very pleasant to hear. “Big sales” meant a lot of royalties, and she and Michael could certainly use the money. They’d piled up quite a bit of debt and their family kept expanding.
But “big sales” also meant more fame–or notoriety. Rebecca sometimes found it hard to tell the difference.
So, she wasn’t particularly surprised to see that the Lady Protector of Silesia and the new Countess of Homonna–Noelle Stull, in a former life–had come out to the airfield to greet her personally. What did surprise her was the presence of the two Poles who’d come with them. One of whom, the last she’d heard, had been imprisoned for espionage.
Gretchen was never one for “beating around the bush,” as Rebecca’s husband would say. “Grand Hetman Koniecpolski’s dead,” she told Rebecca, as soon as she deplaned. “Murdered, apparently. Poison.”
Rebecca stared at her. Then at Jozef and Lukasz.
“I see,” she said. She had the bizarre sensation of simultaneously feeling her spirits rising and her stomach sinking. The rising spirits were due to the obvious possibilities that might now open up; the sinking stomach because she’d hoped to make this a quick visit so she could return home to her infant daughter.
Rebecca was a down-timer and didn’t share the obsessions of up-timers over the proper care of babies. As long as they didn’t get sick, the creatures were quite sturdy. The up-time terror that any slight disturbance in an infant’s life–a mother gone for a few weeks here and there, for instance–would mutilate their dispositions, was just nonsense.
Still, it had been disconcerting to realize that Kathleen had really had no idea who Rebecca was. The important attachment she’d made in her first weeks of life had been to her wet-nurse.
But her new-born daughter would just have to wait for a bit. Koniecpolski dead…
No, not just dead–murdered.
“We need to talk,” she said to Jozef and Lukasz.
Pescia, Grand Duchy of Tuscany
It really was a lovely town. As he leaned slightly out of the window, Mike’s gaze wandered randomly over the surrounding countryside. He wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just enjoying the view.
Pescia was situated on a river–the Pescia River, which presumably gave the town its name–which meandered through a valley in the foothills of the Apennines. There were some architecturally interesting buildings, a couple of palazzos and a cathedral that obviously dated far back into the Middle Ages. All of the stone structures would probably be freezing cold before long, but so far the autumn had been quite mild, especially for November. There was still no snow on the ground.
The town was attractive enough that he wished he could take a couple of days to just sight-see. But that simply wasn’t possible.
The problem wasn’t that his host would grow impatient at his absence. Whether because of his cultural upbringing or simply his age, Fakhr-al-Din had very leisurely notions of the proper pace of political negotiations. The problem was a crude and simple one. As pleasant as his stay here was proving to be, Mike was still not happy at what he considered the emir’s lackadaisical, almost nonchalant, attitude toward security. The least he could do was not add to the problem by parading himself around the town in plain view.
He wasn’t worried that he’d be recognized. This was an age of woodcuts, not photographs. The likelihood that the inhabitants of a town in seventeenth century Europe–even in the USE, much less Italy–would recognize Mike from having seen a woodcut of him was miniscule.
But he wasn’t concerned about casual passers-by and inhabitants. The real risk came from spies who were following them, even if they were only guided by rumor.
“You worry too much,”the emir had told Mike, just the day before. That hadn’t been a reproof so much as a tease, since Fakhr-al-Din had been smiling when he said it. “Who would attack us here? And why?”
He’d waved his hand, as if brushing away an annoying but harmless insect. “The Ottomans? No, they’re accustomed to restive provinces. They made no attempt on me during my first exile in Italy. Why should they do it now?”
Because of the Ring of Fire, Mike was tempted to say. Everything is different now.
It was ironic, in a way. Mike’s usual criticism of the reaction of down-time rulers to the Ring of Fire was that they developed the delusion that they could use knowledge of the future–no, a future–to unerringly guide them in the present. What they failed to understand was that this present, the one created by the Ring of Fire, was a historical reality of its own. The future of another universe could serve as something of a guide, but only in the broadest possible sense. It was not a blueprint.
But that didn’t mean that the Ring of Fire had been irrelevant. No, it really had changed all of the world, especially its political affairs. This world’s rulers often raced about hysterically, thinking they could control the future. That belief was a delusion–but the hysteria was real and was a danger of its own.
Fakhr-al-Din came into the room and joined Mike at the window. “A beautiful day, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” said Mike.
Magdeburg, capital of the United States of Europe
The first thing Rebecca did when she returned from Breslau was go to her home and make her way to her new daughter’s room.
Kathleen was awake, happily. Her wet-nurse, Sibylle, handed her to Rebecca as soon as she came into the room.
Rebecca cradled her infant and gazed down at her, with a big smile.
Kathleen stared up at her mother. Her mouth was open, as if she was trying to figure out a mystery.
She couldn’t speak, of course. She was only two months old. But Rebecca had no trouble interpreting her daughter’s expression.
Who are you?