After the door closed, Richelieu turned away and resumed his seat. A moment later, Etienne Servien came through a narrow door at the rear of the room. To all appearances, the door to a closet; in reality, the door which connected to the chamber from which Servien could spy upon the cardinal's audiences whenever Richelieu so desired. Servien was one of the cardinal's handpicked special agents called intendants, and the one he relied upon for the most delicate work.
"You heard?" grunted Richelieu. Servien nodded.
Richelieu threw up his hands, as much with humor as exasperation.
"What a formidable woman!" Feeling a little tug on his robes, the cardinal gazed down at the kitten playing with the hem. The serene smile returned. He bent over, picked up the small creature, and deposited it in his lap. Then, as he petted the kitten, continued to speak.
"I never would have thought it possible, Etienne. A Sephardic Jewess—Doctor Balthazar Abrabanel's daughter, no less! That breed can talk for hours on end, ignoring hunger all the while. Philosophers and theologians, the lot. I'd expected to simply smile and let her fill my ears with information. Instead—"
He chuckled ruefully. "Not often that happens to me. I trust I didn't give away anything critical?"
Servien shrugged. "The Sephardic Jews also provide Europe and the Ottoman Empire with most of its bankers, Your Eminence—not a profession known for being loose-lipped. Moreover, while he may be a doctor and a philosopher, Balthazar Abrabanel, as well as his brother Uriel, are both experienced spies. Also not a trade which favors blabbermouths. Then, to make things still worse, Abrabanel's daughter Rebecca—by all accounts, including those of her enemies—is extremely intelligent in her own right. She would certainly have deduced, in any event, that France has not laid down its arms. So . . . best to do as you did, I think. Beyond that, she learned nothing. There was certainly no hint in your words of our grand strategy."
" 'Grand strategy,' " echoed Richelieu. "Which grand strategy are you referring to, Etienne? The greater, or the lesser?"
"Either of them, or both. I assure you, not even Satan himself could have deduced our plans from anything you spoke. The woman is intelligent, yes. But, as you said, not a witch."
The cardinal pondered silently for a moment, his lean face growing leaner still.
"Still, she is too intelligent," he pronounced at length. "I hope she will accept my offer to provide her with an escort for a journey overland to the Spanish Low Countries. That would enable us—in a dozen different ways—to delay her travel long enough for our purposes. But . . ."
He shook his head. "I doubt it. She will almost certainly deduce as much, and choose to make her own arrangements for traveling by sea to Holland. And we simply cannot allow her such a close examination of the ports. Not now, of all times!"
Servien pursed his lips. "I could certainly keep her away from Le Havre, Your Eminence. Not every port on the Channel, of course—that would be too obvious. But if she were forced to take ship from one of the smaller ports, she might not notice enough—"
Richelieu interrupted him with a gesture which was almost angry. "Desist, Etienne! I realize that you are trying to spare me the necessity of making this decision. Which, the Lord knows, I find distasteful in the extreme. But reasons of state have never been forgiving of the kindlier sentiments." He sighed heavily. "Necessity remains what it is. Do keep her from Le Havre, of course. One of the smaller ports would be far better anyway, for . . . what is needed."
The cardinal looked down at the kitten, still playing with his long forefinger. "And, who knows? Perhaps fortune will smile on us—and her—and she will make a bad decision."
The gentle smile returned. "There are few enough of God's marvelous creatures in this world. Let us hope we will not have to destroy yet another one. On your way out, Etienne, be so kind as to summon my servant."
The dismissal was polite, but firm. Servien nodded and left the room.
A moment later, Desbournais entered the room. Desbournais was the cardinal's valet de chambre, and had entered Richelieu's service at the age of seventeen. Richelieu was popular with his servants, as he was with all of his allies and associates. However ruthless he might be in the service of France, the cardinal was invariably considerate and polite to those around him, no matter what their station. Very generous to them, as well. Richelieu repaid loyalty with loyalty of his own. That was as true of his kitchen help as Louis XIII, king of France.
The cardinal lifted the kitten and held it out to Desbournais. "Isn't he gorgeous? See to providing for him, Desbournais—and well, mind you."
After Desbournais left, Richelieu rose from the chair and went to the window in his chamber. The residence the cardinal used whenever he was in Paris—a palace in all but name—was a former hotel which he had purchased on the Rue St. Honoré near the Louvre. He'd also purchased the adjoining hotel in order, after having it razed, to provide him with a better view of the city.
As he stared out the window, all the kindliness and gentleness left his face. The cold, stern—even haughty—visage which stared down at the great city of Paris was the one that his enemies knew. For all his charm and grace, Richelieu could also be intimidating in the extreme. He was a tall man, whose slenderness was offset by the heavy and rich robes of office he always wore. His long face, with its high forehead, arched brows, and large brown eyes, was that of an intellectual, yes. But there was also the slightly curved nose and the strong chin, set off by the pointed and neatly barbered beard—those, the features of a very different sort of man.
Hernan Cortez would have understood that face. So would the duke of Alba. Any of the world's conquerors would have understood a face which had been shaped, for years, by iron resolve.
"So be it," murmured the cardinal. "God, in his mercy, creates enough marvelous creatures that we can afford to destroy those we must. Necessity remains."
* * *
"Well, how'd it go?" asked Jeff Higgins cheerfully. Then, seeing the tight look on Rebecca's face, his smile thinned. "That bad? I thought the guy had a reputation for being—"
Rebecca shook her head. "He was gracious and polite. Which didn't stop him—not for a second—from issuing what amounted to a declaration of total war."
Sighing, she removed the scarf she had been wearing to fend off a typical Paris drizzle. Seeing it was merely a bit damp, she spread it out to dry over the back of one of the chairs in the sitting room of the house which the delegation from the United States had rented in Paris. Then, seeing Heinrich Schmidt entering the room from the kitchen, Rebecca smiled ruefully.
Major Heinrich Schmidt, as it happened. The officer who commanded the small detachment of U.S. Army soldiers who had accompanied Rebecca in her voyage, along with Jeff and Gretchen Higgins and Jimmy Andersen.
"I'm afraid—very much afraid—that you gentlemen may soon be earning your pay."
Heinrich shrugged. So did Jeff, who, although he had a special assignment on this mission, was—along with his friend Jimmy—also a soldier in the U.S. Army.
The next person to enter the room was Jeff's wife. "So what's happening?" she demanded, her German accent still there beneath the fluent and colloquial English.
Rebecca's smile widened. She always found the contrast between Jeff and Gretchen somewhat amusing, in an affectionate sort of way. What the Americans called an "odd couple," based on one of those electronic dramas which Rebecca still found fascinating, for all the hours she'd spent watching television—even hosting a TV show of her own.
Jeff Higgins, though he had been toughened considerably in the two years since his small American town had been deposited into the middle of war-torn central Europe in the year 1631, still exuded a certain air of what the Americans called a "geek" or a "nerd." He was tall, yes; but also overweight—still, for all the exercise he now got. Although Jeff had recently celebrated his twentieth birthday, his pudgy face looked like that of a teenager. A pug nose between an intellectual's eyes, peering near-sightedly through thick glasses. About as unromantic a figure as one could imagine.
His wife, on the other hand . . .
Gretchen, nee Richter, was two years older than Jeff. She was not precisely "beautiful," not with that strong nose and that firm jaw, even leaving aside her tall stature and shoulders broader than those of most women. But, still, so good-looking that men's eyes invariably followed her wherever she went. The fact that Gretchen was, as the Americans put it, "well built," only added to the effect—as did the long blond hair which cascaded over those square shoulders.
Gretchen, unlike Jeff, was native-born. Like Rebecca herself, she was one of the many 17th-century Europeans who had been swept up by the Ring of Fire and cast their lot with the newly arrived Americans. Including, as was true of Rebecca herself, marriage to an American husband.
Regardless of her native origins, Gretchen had adopted the attitudes and ideology of the Americans with the fervor and zeal of a new convert. If almost all the Americans were devoted to their concepts of democracy and social equality, Gretchen's devotion—not surprisingly, given the horrors of her own life—tended to frighten even them.
Rebecca was reminded of that again, as Gretchen idly played with the edge of her vest. The blond woman's impressive bosom disguised the thing perfectly, but Rebecca knew full well that Gretchen was carrying her beloved 9mm automatic in a shoulder holster. She had sometimes been tempted to ask Jeff if his wife slept with the thing.
For the most part, however, Rebecca's smile was simply due to the fact that she both liked and—very deeply—approved of Jeff and Gretchen Higgins. In Jeff's case, if for no other reason, because the young man had once saved Rebecca from certain murder at the hands of Croat cavalrymen in the service of the Austrian Habsburgs. In Gretchen's case, leaving aside their personal friendship, because Rebecca knew full well that Gretchen's near-fanaticism was every bit as essential to the survival of the new society Rebecca and her husband Mike were creating as anything else.
Gretchen might frighten others, but she never frightened Mike Stearns. He did not always agree with her, true enough—and, even when he did, often found her tactics deplorably crude. But, no matter how high he had risen in this new world, Rebecca's husband was still the same man he had always been—the leader of a trade union of Appalachian coal miners, a folk which had its own long and bitter memories of the abuses of the powerful and mighty.
"Don't kid yourself," Mike had once growled to Rebecca, on the one occasion where she had expressed some exasperation with Gretchen's zeal and disregard for the complexities of the political situation. They had just finished breakfast, and Mike was helping Rebecca with the dishes. For all that she had grown accustomed to it, Rebecca still thought there was something charming about having such a very masculine sort of husband working alongside her in kitchen chores.
"When push comes to shove, the only people I can really depend on—outside of my coal miners and the new trade unions, and probably Willie Ray's new farmers' granges—are Gretchen and her wild-ass kids." Mike finished wiping the last plate and put it in the cupboard. "Yeah, sure, right now we're in the good graces of the Swedes. Gustavus Adolphus is a friend of ours—so is even his chancellor Oxenstierna. But don't ever forget that he's a king, or that the nobleman Axel Oxenstierna is every bit as devoted to the aristocracy as Gretchen hates the bastards. If the tide turns . . ."
Staring out the kitchen window of their house in Grantville, he shook his head firmly. "As regretful as he might find the necessity, Gustav II Adolf will cut our throats in a heartbeat, under the right circumstances. Whereas without us, Gretchen and her radical democratic Committees of Correspondence are so much dog food—and she knows it perfectly well, don't think she doesn't. However often I may piss her off by my 'compromises with principle,' she knows she needs me as much as I need her."
When he turned away from the window, his blue eyes had been dancing with humor. "Besides, she's so handy to have around. You've read about the American civil rights movement, haven't you?"
Rebecca nodded. She'd devoured books on American history—any kind of history, actually, but American in particular—ever since Mike had rescued her and her father from marauding mercenaries. That had happened on the very same day as the Ring of Fire. Two years ago, now—and Rebecca was a very fast reader. She'd read a lot of books.
Mike smiled. "Well, there's a little anecdote that illustrates my point. Malcolm X once made the wisecrack that the reason the white establishment was willing to talk to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was because they didn't want to talk to him. And that's about the way it is with me and Gretchen."
A motion outside the window must have caught his eye, because Mike turned away from her for a moment. Whatever he saw caused his smile to broaden into a grin.
"Speak of the devil . . . Come here, love—I'll show you another example of what I'm talking about."
When Rebecca had come to the window, she'd seen the figure of Harry Lefferts sauntering past on the street below. It was early in the morning, and from the somewhat self-satisfied look on his face, Rebecca suspected that Harry had spent the night with one of the girlfriends he seemed to attract like a magnet. Harry was a handsome young man, with the kind of daredevil self-confidence and easy humor which attracted a large number of young women.
She was a little puzzled. Harry's amatory prowess hardly seemed relevant to the discussion she was having with Mike. But then, seeing the little swagger in Harry's stride—nothing extravagant, just the subtle cockiness of a young man who was very sure of himself, Rebecca began to understand.
Whatever women might find attractive about Harry Lefferts, not all men did. Many, yes—those who hadn't chosen to cross him. Those who did cross him tended to discover very rapidly what the Americans meant by their expression "hard-ass." Harry was a muscular man, and his mind was every bit as "hard-ass" as his body. When he wanted to be, Harry Lefferts could be rather frightening.
"Did I ever tell you how I'd always use Harry in negotiations?" Mike murmured in her ear. "Back in my trade-union days?"
Rebecca shook her head—then, laughed, as Mike's murmur turned into a more intimate gesture involving a tongue and an ear.
"Stop it!" She pushed him away playfully. "Didn't you get enough last night?"
Mike grinned and sidled toward her. "Well, I'd always make sure that Harry was on the negotiating team when we met with the company representatives. His job was to sit in the corner and, whenever I'd start making noises about maybe agreeing to a compromise, start glaring at me and growling. Worked like a charm, nine times out of ten."
Rebecca laughed again, avoiding the sidle. Oddly, perhaps, by moving into a corner of the kitchen.
"I pretty much think of Gretchen the same way," Mike murmured. Sidling, sidling. The murmur was becoming a bit husky. "The nobility of Europe hates my guts. But then they see Gretchen sitting in the corner . . . growling, growling . . ."
She was boxed in, now, trapped. Mike, never a stranger to tactics, swooped immediately.
"No," he said. "As it happens, I didn't get enough last night."
The memory of what had followed warmed Rebecca, at the same time as it brought its own frustrations. She envied Jeff and Gretchen for having been able to take this long journey together—never more so than when she heard the noises they made in an adjoining bedroom, and Rebecca found herself pining for her own bed back in Grantville. With Mike, and his warm and lovely body, in it.
But . . . there had been no way for Mike to come. He was the President of the United States, and his duties did not allow him to be absent for more than a few days.
Something in her face must have registered, for she saw Gretchen smiling in a way which was both self-satisfied and a little serene. However much they might seem like an "odd couple" to others, Rebecca knew, Gretchen and Jeff were every bit as devoted to each other as were she and Mike. And, judging from the noises they made in the night—night after night, damnation!—every bit as passionate.
But perhaps she was reading the wrong thing into that smile. If nothing else, Gretchen's fervent ideological beliefs often made her a bit self-satisfied and serene.
"What did you expect?" demanded the young German woman. "A cardinal! And the same stinking pig who tried to have our children massacred at the school last year, don't forget that either."
Rebecca hadn't forgotten. That memory, in fact, had been as much of a help as her husband's advice, during her interview with Richelieu. Charming and gracious the man might be. But Rebecca did not allow herself to forget that he was also perfectly capable of being as deadly as a viper—and just as cold-bloodedly merciless.
Still . . .
There would always be a certain difference in the way Rebecca Stearns, nee Abrabanel, would look at the world compared to Gretchen. For Rebecca, for the most part, the atrocities committed by Europe's rulers had always remained at arm's length. Not so, for Gretchen. Her father murdered before her eyes; she herself gang-raped by mercenaries and then dragooned into becoming their camp follower; her mother taken away years before by other mercenaries, to an unknown fate; half her family dead or otherwise destroyed—and all of it, all that horror, simply because Europe's nobility and princes had chosen to quarrel over their competing privileges. The fact that they would shatter Germany and slaughter a fourth of its population in the process did not bother them in the least.
Rebecca was an opponent of that aristocratic regime, true enough, and, along with her husband, had set herself the task of replacing it with a better one. But she simply never felt the sheer hatred that Gretchen did. And knew, perfectly well, that Gretchen would have found nothing charming or gracious about His Eminence, Cardinal Richelieu. She would have simply measured that long and aristocratic neck for a noose.
"Which," Rebecca muttered to herself, "is not perhaps such a bad idea, everything considered."
"What was that?" asked Heinrich.
The major's face exhibited its own serenity. For all his youth—Heinrich was only twenty-four—the former mercenary had already seen more of bloodshed and war's ruin than most soldiers, in most of history's eras, ever saw in a lifetime. Rebecca liked Heinrich, to be sure. But the man's indifference to suffering sometimes appalled her. Not the indifference itself, so much as the cause of it. Heinrich Schmidt was a rather warm-hearted man, by temperament. But the years he had spent in Tilly's army after being forcibly "recruited" at the age of fifteen had left him with a shell of iron. He had enrolled readily enough in the American army, when given the chance. And Rebecca was quite sure that, in his own way, Heinrich was as devoted to his new nation as she was. Still, when all was said and done, the man retained a mercenary's callous attitudes in most respects.
"Never mind," responded Rebecca. "I was just reminding myself"—here, a little nod to Gretchen—"that Richelieu is capable of anything."
She pulled out the chair over which she'd spread the scarf and sat down. "Which brings us directly to the subject at hand. There's no point in remaining in Paris any longer. So the question posed is: by what route do we try to reach Holland?"
A motion in the doorway drew her eyes. Jeff's young friend Jimmy Andersen had entered from the kitchen. Behind him, Rebecca could see the other five soldiers in Heinrich's detachment.
She waited until all of them had come into the room and were either perched somewhere or leaning against the walls. Rebecca suspected that her very nondictatorial habits would have astonished most ambassadors of history. She dealt with her entourage as colleagues, not as subordinates. But she didn't care. She was an intellectual herself, by temperament, and enjoyed the process of debate and discussion.
"Here's the choice," she explained, once all of them were listening. "We can take the land route or try to hire a coastal lugger. If the first, Richelieu has offered to provide us an escort to Spanish territory and assures me he can obtain the agreement of the Spanish to pass us along to the United Provinces."
Gretchen and Jeff were already shaking their heads. "It's a trap," snarled Gretchen. "He'll set up an ambush along the way."
Heinrich was also shaking his head, but the gesture was aimed immediately at Gretchen.
"Not a chance of that," he said firmly. "Richelieu's a statesman, Gretchen, not a street thug." He smiled thinly. "The difference isn't one of morality, you understand—if anything, I'd rather trust a footpad. But there is a difference in methods. If he has us murdered while we're clearly under his official protection, he'd ruin his reputation."
Gretchen was glaring at him, but Heinrich was unfazed. "Yes, he would. And stop glaring at me, silly girl! Hating your enemies is a fine and splendid thing, but not when it addles your wits."
"I agree with Heinrich," interjected Rebecca. "Not the least of the reasons for Richelieu's success is that people trust him. His word is his bond, and all that. It's true, Gretchen, don't think it isn't."
She reached back and pulled the scarf off the seat's backrest. It was dry enough, so she began folding it. "I have no doubt at all that our safety will be assured, if we accept Richelieu's offer. But I also have no doubt at all—"
Heinrich was chuckling softly. "We'd be 'enjoying' the longest damn trip anyone ever took to Holland from Paris. Not more than a few hundred miles—and I'll wager anything you want to bet it would take us weeks. Probably months."
Now that Gretchen's animosity had been given a new target, the woman's usual quick intelligence returned. "Yeah, easy enough. Broken axles every five miles. Lamed horses. Unexpected detours due to unexpected floods. Every other bridge washed out—and, how strange, nobody seems to know where the fords are. At least two weeks at the border, squabbling with Spanish officials. You name it, we'll get it."
Jeff, throughout, had been studying Rebecca. "So what's the problem with the alternative?"
Rebecca grimaced. "There's something happening in the ports of northern France that Richelieu doesn't want us to see. I don't know what it might be, but it's more than simply this alliance with the Dutch. I'm almost sure of it. That means"—she smiled at Heinrich—"and I'll offer this wager, that we'll never be allowed into Le Havre. Some excuse or other, but Richelieu will see to it."
"You're right," agreed Heinrich. "We'll have to take ship in one of the smaller and more distant ports."
The major, clearly enough, was thinking ahead. The man had a good and experienced soldier's instinctive grasp for terrain, to begin with. And, where Rebecca had spent the past two years devouring the books which Grantville had brought with it, Heinrich had been just as passionately devoted to the marvelous maps and atlases which the Americans possessed. By now, his knowledge of Europe's geography was well-nigh encyclopedic.
"I still don't see the problem," said Jeff. "So what if we add another two or three days to the trip? We'd still be able to make it to Holland within two weeks."
"Pirates," replied Heinrich and Rebecca, almost simultaneously. Rebecca smiled; then, nodding toward Heinrich, urged him to explain.
"The English Channel is infested with the bastards," growled the major. "Has been for centuries—and maybe never as badly as now, what with the French and Spanish preoccupied with their affairs on the Continent and that sorry-ass Charles on the throne in England."
Five of the six soldiers in the kitchen nodded. The sixth, Jimmy Andersen—who, except for Jeff, was the only native-born American in the group—was practically goggling.
"Pirates? In the English Channel?"
Rebecca found it hard not to laugh aloud. For all that they had been somewhat acclimatized in the two years since their arrival in 17th-century Europe, she had often found that Americans still tended to unconsciously lapse into old ways of thinking. For Americans, she knew, anything associated with "England" carried with it the connotations of "safe, secure, even stodgy." The idea of pirates in the English Channel . . .
"Where do they come from?" demanded Jimmy.
"North Africa is where a lot of them are based," replied Heinrich. With a shrug: "Of course, they're not all Moors, by any means. The Spanish license 'privateers' operating out of Dunkirk and Ostend against Dutch shipping, and the Dunkirkers are none too picky about their targets. And even for the Moors, probably half the crews, at least, are from somewhere in Europe. The world's scavengers."
Jimmy was still shaking his head with bemusement. But Jeff, always quicker than his friend to adjust to reality, was giving Rebecca a knowing look.
Rebecca wasn't sure herself. Neither, judging from his expression, was Heinrich.
Gretchen, of course, was.
"Of course he will!" she snapped. "The man's a spider. He has his web everywhere."
With Gretchen, as always, response was as certain as analysis. Sure enough, just as Rebecca had thought, the 9mm was in its place. A moment later, Gretchen had it in hand and was laying it firmly down on the table in front of her.
"Pirates it is," she pronounced, sweeping the room with a hard gaze. "Let's give them a taste of rate of fire, boys—what do you say?"
A harsh—and approving—laugh came from the soldiers. Rebecca looked at Heinrich.
He shrugged. "Seems as good a plan as any."
Rebecca now looked to Jeff and Jimmy. Jeff, not to her surprise, had a stubborn expression which showed clearly that he was standing with his wife. Jimmy . . .
This time she did laugh. Befuddled, he might sometimes be, at the nature of his new world. But Jimmy Andersen, a teenager devoted to his games, adored the opportunities.
"Oh, how cool! We can try out the grenade launchers!"