1633 David Weber and Eric Flint



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Chapter 32


Rebecca returned to the prince's quarters early the next morning. "My husband agrees to the alliance," she said, as she began lowering herself into the seat offered.

Frederik Hendrik smiled. "So. Overnight, no less. How nice to see that my advisers were wrong about something else. Your mysterious 'radio,' it seems, does not require gigantic constructions after all."

Rebecca was so startled that she plopped onto the chair instead of sliding gracefully into it. She realized—too late—that she had not even considered what she would be revealing.

Sensing her unease, the prince waved his hand. "Have no fear. Your secret will remain safe with me." As he took his own chair, his expression was odd. Something like a combination of a scowl and a grin of pure glee. For a moment, with his gingery facial hair and ruddy plump cheeks, he looked a bit like a prosperous pirate contemplating another rich prize.

"And let's hope Richelieu doesn't find out until it's too late. Which he probably won't, the cocksure bastard. That's the one advantage to having a cardinal for an archenemy. He thinks God is whispering tactics into his ear."

Once seated, Frederik Hendrik planted his hands on his knees. "What I need, immediately—although I can't see what it would be—is whatever help you can give me in holding Amsterdam. We will be under siege here within a week, and it will be a bitter one. In fact—as I'm sure you know—the siege has begun already. Spanish warships fired on the city yesterday evening."

Rebecca nodded. She'd heard the sound of the cannonade from the house the American delegation had taken for its quarters. The owners of the house had rented it to them shortly before leaving Amsterdam themselves, seeking refuge in a town further east. They hadn't seemed too concerned about how they'd collect the rent, either. Two months in advance, coin in their hands, and they were off.

"Within a week—two at the outside—the land approaches to the city will be completely invested," the prince predicted. "And since the Spanish also now control the Zuider Zee, there will be no relief from that quarter either. I will do what I can to smuggle supplies into the city, but . . . it will not be much." A bit hurriedly: "More than you might think, though. No Spanish fleet is going to be able to stop Dutch boatmen from getting at least a trickle of supplies into Amsterdam. Certainly not after winter sets in."

Rebecca nodded. She knew, from her studies, that navies of the future would maintain year-round blockades. But that was not something within the capability of 17th-century fleets.

"Still," the prince said grimly, "it will be a very difficult siege. Very difficult. Hunger and disease are certain, epidemic is very likely. Even if we succeed in holding off the Spanish, a large part of the city's populace is sure to die before it is over."

"Can you hold the city?" she asked.

"Oh, yes."

She was a bit surprised by the quick and relaxed answer, and it must have shown. Frederik Henrik smiled.

"Trust me on this subject, Rebecca. If there is one thing the House of Orange knows, it is siegecraft. Amsterdam is a large city, and well fortified. So long as the populace and the garrison retain their will, the city can be held. For at least a year, probably longer." He frowned. "What we lost thus far was due to treachery on the part of the French, boldness on the part of the Spanish, bad luck, and—most of all—our own complacency. But the cardinal-infante has now used up that treasury, every coin in it. So now he will learn the cold facts of life.

"The first thing he's going to learn—has already, unless I miss my guess—is that his victories have outrun his supply train. That means he has one of two choices: plunder the countryside, which would immediately undo everything he has accomplished by his light-handed policies. Or, stop everything except investing Amsterdam, and thereby give me the time I need to organize the resistance in what is left of the United Provinces. While he twiddles his thumbs outside Amsterdam waiting for supplies, money, reinforcements—everything. By the time he can resume his advance . . ."

The prince's chest seemed to swell. "By then, I can and will have a sizeable force back in the field. Or, I should say, behind fortifications in northern Gelderland and Overijssel. The Spanish will be back to a grinding war of attrition—and this, after having paid a heavy price in blood and treasure for what they have gained already. Cardinal Richelieu used them as well as us, you know. By all accounts, it was the Spanish—not the French or the English—who paid the butcher's bill at Dunkirk."

"But you do not think the cardinal-infante will want to negotiate a settlement?"

"Not right away, no. Why should he? He's come this far on audacity and boldness, why should he stop? If he were Spinola, canny from decades of warfare, yes. But he is a young prince, Rebecca—and still undefeated. He will inevitably go for the final and most dramatic stroke, hoping thereby to end the thing entirely on Spanish terms."

"Take Amsterdam."

"Precisely. And I will use that audacity for my own ends. Draw him into a siege of Amsterdam, which will tie him up and give me the time I need to fortify what is left to me in the eastern provinces."

"How long can you maintain that situation?" she asked, frowning. "I am not a soldier, to be sure. But . . . with only Overijssel left and part of Gelderland . . . Spanish to the south, Danes to the north—the French everywhere, it seems—"

"Not everywhere, Rebecca." Frederik Hendrik cleared his throat. "As I recall, central Germany is still in the hands of the king of Sweden. Whom the French—and Danes—have now taken it upon themselves to attack also. With the Spanish—and English—having been so foolish as to sign their names to the enterprise."

"But—" She broke off.

The prince was smiling gently. "Yes, yes. I realize that, at the moment, things look rather bleak for Gustav Adolf also. But—unlike me—he has not already lost most of his realm. And—also unlike me—he has been fortunate enough, or wise enough, not to have his populace paralyzed by endless disputes over religious doctrine. Indeed, from what I can see, he seems to be increasingly drawn toward your American-style . . . what shall I call it? 'Arminianism Excelsior'?"

Rebecca laughed. "Hardly that, Frederik Hendrik! Arminianism is a religious doctrine itself. What the Americans preach—and practice—is something far simpler. 'The separation of church and state,' they call it. Worship whatever you will, however you will, and do so in peace. The state has no business in it—nor, on the other side, do the churches have any business meddling in state affairs."

The prince grunted. "A month ago—a week ago, even—I would have said you were mad. And I am considered—accused, as often as not—of being an Arminian myself. Now . . ."

For a moment, he studied the same painting he had studied the day before. "Odd, isn't it? The way your husband seems to force people to adopt his own practices in order to fight them. I've been getting continual reports, you know. The Dutch navy may be destroyed, but Dutch merchant vessels continue to ply their trade. It seems that Richelieu is setting up what he calls 'religious havens' in the northern towns and ports of France. Hoping, no doubt, to draw Protestant workmen there in order to build his own armaments industry. And now I hear that Earl Strafford has put a complete stop to any attempts to enforce strict religious adherence in England. Scotland too—even Ireland, if the reports are correct."

He turned back to her, smiling. "Of course, what else can he do? He—like every statesman in Europe now, probably even the Tsar of Russia—knows what history is supposed to bring. So, trying to stop it . . . ha!"

He slapped his hands on his knees. "That is my plan. In the long run, obviously, I am counting on Gustav Adolf to humble my enemies. In the short run, I can simply try to hold on to what I can—Amsterdam above all else. To be honest, Rebecca, I do not see what you and the United States can do for me in the short run. Throw your support behind the king of Sweden, of course, which I am sure you will be doing. I think you would be wise, therefore, to leave Amsterdam now. For the next few days, I am fairly confident I can get you safely back to Germany. But once the siege closes in, you will be trapped here for months."

Rebecca took a deep breath. "Well, actually, that is what I came here to tell you. I discussed this with my husband last night—no, you are right, we do not need great edifices for all forms of radio—and we are agreed." She took another deep breath. "I, and the entire delegation, will remain here in Amsterdam. If for no other reason, both Michael and I feel that will be a dramatic public gesture making clear that the United States stands firmly with the United Provinces and has confidence in your survival."

"As dramatic as possible," grunted the prince. "The wife of the President herself. But—" He winced. "Rebecca, the risk . . . if I did not make it clear yesterday, the siege is going to be terrible. Disease alone—"

"That," said Rebecca firmly, "is in fact the main reason I am staying. We cannot do much, obviously, to help you fight your Spanish enemies. Not directly, at any rate. But we can do something about the rest of it."

After she finished explaining the American proposal, Frederik Hendrik arose and went over to the painting. He studied it for a moment, his hands clasped behind his back, and then moved over to the next painting on the walls.

"It's what they never show, you know. You can find everything else in these paintings. Portraits, scenes of daily life—even the carnage of war. Occasionally, perhaps—not often—someone is bold enough to allow the painter to portray the smallpox scars. But never the rest of it. Never the endless supply of infants slid into graves before their first birthday. Never the quiet grief of parents who have seen as many children die as live. Never—not once, that I can recall—a portrait of a mother sitting by the bed of a three-year-old child. Just watching—nothing else to do—while Death spreads its pitiless wings."

His voice became a bit shaky. "It has been the silent terror of the world since time began." When he turned back to face her, his cheeks were hollow—but his eyes seemed bright. "Dear God in Heaven," he whispered, "you can do this?"

For once in her life, Rebecca would meet the arrogance of nobility on its own terms. She lifted her head and spoke in as haughty a manner as she could manage. "Yes, Prince of Orange. A world forged by commoners can do what kings and princes and dukes and earls and cardinals and archbishops never could. Can give life to children, where you could only watch them die." Coldly: "Your own faces—often enough—scarred and pitted beneath the costumes and the cloaks and the crowns."

He did not flinch from the rebuke in her tone. He did not even lower his eyes.

"Give me that, Rebecca, and even I might be convinced." He grinned suddenly. "Who knows? I might even abdicate my title."

Rebecca laughed. Prince he might be, but she liked this man. "I hardly think that would be the best tactic. Certainly not at the moment! If you wish to hold Amsterdam, you will need the full support of its commoners. You know that as well as I do—better, I imagine."

"As if I'd have much choice! Most of the real oligarchs have packed up their bags and already left. There aren't more than a handful of regents still in the city. The burghers who remain—lots of them, of course—are the small ones. Their wealth depends on their little shops and enterprises, with them running it with their own brains and hands. No going into comfortable exile for them—much less the city's artisans and apprentices and common seamen."

Rebecca nodded. "A commoner city—but with the authority and legitimacy of the prince of Orange to give them confidence. Quite a tough combination to crack in a siege, I would think."

The prince was back in full measure, now. Frederik Henrik's next words came with ringing confidence. "That same combination broke the butcher Alva at the siege of Middelburg—and then again, at Leiden." Proudly: "My father, that was."

"Indeed. And you are already well liked by the residents of Amsterdam. Far more so, if you will pardon my frankness, than was your intolerant half-brother Mauritz. Which brings me to the next point. As I am sure you know—better than I do—the existing structure of authority in the city is, ah—"

"As ragged as a pauper's cloak. Half the town council has already fled. Half the remainder will have done so within three days. For all practical purposes, the city is falling under the control of the civic militia. Which—" His head rose a bit. "—is most favorably inclined to the House of Orange. So I can't say I'm all that sorry to see the rats scampering away. Frankly, it will make things easier for me."

Rebecca cleared her throat. "Easier still, I think, if the growing militant sentiment of the city is channeled, organized, given—at least for many—a clarion call and symbol of resistance." She cleared her throat again. "This is, ah, somewhat delicate . . ."

* * *

When Rebecca finished, the prince broke into laughter.

"Richter? You brought that lunatic here with you?"

"She is not a lunatic. Quite a dear friend of mine, as a matter of fact." Rebecca shifted a bit in her chair. "I grant you, she has a reputation. Grant you, also, the reputation is not entirely undeserved."

"Ha! Which is the reason, of course, that you never mentioned her name when you arrived. 'One of my servants,' I believe you said, if I recall my spies' reports correctly."

There didn't seem to be any point to denying that, so Rebecca didn't bother to try. Besides, the prince didn't really seem angry. Amused, more than anything else.

"Frederik Hendrik, she is a superb organizer. Public orator too, I might add. And you will need that organization, Prince. The chemical substances we will bring to the city—smuggle them in somehow; my husband says he can do it—are not a magic wand. They need to be dispensed in a rational and organized manner, and combined with measures—strict measures—of public sanitation. No civic militia is set up to oversee something like that. Whereas the Committees of Correspondence can and will."

She ran her hands down her thighs, smoothing the rich fabric. "I do not propose that you acknowledge her publicly, of course, or give the Committees themselves any official sanction. That would be most indelicate, given your need to maintain the loyalty of the noblemen in Overijssel. But here in Amsterdam . . ."

The prince leaned back in his chair, his eyes growing slightly unfocused. "Yessss . . . The men guarding the walls will be simple workmen, more often than not. Many of them, apprentices. Essential to keep their spirits up, I agree. Will agree further, for that matter, that I wouldn't mind at all seeing the civic militia organized along less purely military lines." He frowned. "That always starts causing its own trouble, the longer a siege goes on. The soldiers start taking advantage . . . Still . . ."

He chuckled. "Talk about a Devil's bargain! You offer to free me from plague, with one hand, while handing me a different sort of epidemic on the other."

Many times, Rebecca had found Gretchen's unrelenting attitudes somewhat annoying. But now, she discovered—not for the first time—that annoyance only went so far. Much as she liked this particular nobleman, she had no doubt at all where she stood in the great chasm which ran through European politics.

"Call it that if you will," she said, as harshly as she'd ever spoken in her life. "But that 'epidemic' is, in the end, the one which can cure the other. Choose, then, Prince of Orange."

He didn't hesitate for more than a few seconds. "Oh, I'll take my chances with Richter. One enemy at a time."

Rebecca smiled. "Exactly what my husband says."

After she returned to the U.S. delegation's quarters, Rebecca plopped herself onto a couch next to Gretchen. "You're on," she said.

Gretchen sniffed. Rebecca smiled. "I knew you'd wait for permission." Her eyes were drawn to the door leading to the kitchen. There seemed to be an unusual amount of noise coming from within.

"We have guests?"

"Three apprentices," Gretchen replied. "Two journeymen also. All employed in the copper-working shops here in Amsterdam. Heinrich and I met them yesterday. And the daughter of the master craftsman one of the journeymen works for. They're affianced."

That was a common enough situation. What was not common, of course, was to have such a group gathered in the kitchen of what was, technically, a prestigious and snooty foreign delegation's quarters. Rebecca didn't know whether to sigh or giggle.

She giggled. Impossible not to, given the bet she'd made with Frederik Henrik.

"By the way," she added casually, fluffing her hair, "the prince of Orange says he'd like to meet you. He's quite curious. It would have to be a very discreet meeting, of course, so you'd need to use the servants' entrance."

"The prince of Orange can kiss my sweet German ass. Discreet is fine. He can wear a disguise. The servants' entrance is out."

"Exactly what I told the prince you'd say," said Rebecca cheerfully. "Now what shall I spend the money I won on?"

"With a siege coming? Get salted herring."
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