"I have it!" Gustav Adolf suddenly exclaimed. "Let's pay them a visit!"
Standing next to him at the open window of the new palace overlooking the heart of Magdeburg, Axel Oxenstierna's eyes widened. He was staring at one of the new buildings which had been recently erected in the city. More precisely, he was glaring rather than simply staring; and doing so at the peculiar ornamentation of the building rather than the building itself.
The fact that the ornamentation was even newer than the building was not the cause of the Swedish chancellor's irritation. Almost every edifice in Magdeburg was new, or largely so. Two years earlier, in the single worst atrocity of a long war filled with atrocities, Tilly's Bavarian soldiers had sacked the city. Most of the inhabitants had been slaughtered—some twenty to thirty thousand people, depending on who told the story—and Magdeburg itself put to the torch. Between the damage caused by the siege and the sack, there had not been much left standing intact when Tilly's army withdrew.
For months now, starting with Gustav Adolf's decision the previous autumn to make Magdeburg the capital of his new imperial realm called the Confederated Principalities of Europe, Magdeburg had been a beehive of activity. No one knew the size of the population, but Oxenstierna was certain it had already exceeded thirty thousand. People from all over central Germany—even beyond—were practically pouring into the city to take advantage of its prospects. New construction was going up everywhere, and of all kinds. New residences, of course—as well as the emperor's new palace in which Oxenstierna was standing. But also, along the banks of the river Elbe, the somewhat bizarre-looking new factories which Gustav's American subjects had designed. From where he stood, Axel could see the naval works where John Simpson and his men were building the new ironclad riverboats.
"Subjects," thought Oxenstierna sourly. Like calling a wolf a "pet" because—for the moment—the wild beast has agreed to wear a collar. With a string for a leash, and no muzzle.
"You must be joking," he growled. "Gustav, you can't be serious."
He twisted his head to look up at his ruler. Gustav II Adolf—Gustavus Adolphus, in the Latinized version of his name—had a personal size and stature to match his official one. The king of Sweden and emperor of the Confederated Principalities of Europe was a huge man. Standing more than six feet tall, he was wide in proportion and very muscular. The layers of fat which inevitably came to him whenever the king was not engaged in strenuous campaigning only added gravity to his figure.
"You must be joking," repeated the chancellor, more in a half-plea now than a growl.
Gustav shrugged. "Why should I be joking?" He lowered his heavy face, crowned with short blond hair and framed with a thick mustache and a goatee. The powerful beak of a nose seemed aimed at the offending structure below.
"They are my subjects, Axel, even if—" A little chuckle rumbled. "I admit, the rascals seem to wear their subordination lightly. But I remind you that not once—not once, Axel—have they done anything openly rebellious."
"Not openly, no," admitted the chancellor. Sourly, he studied the peculiar twin arches adorning the far-distant building. The arches had been painted a bright gold, which made them stand out amidst the gray buildings which surrounded them. All the more gray, in that most of those buildings were factories.
The color annoyed Oxenstierna perhaps more than anything else. Partly because its vividness, against the backdrop of the drab new factories and workshops, served to accentuate the awkward fact that these cursed Committees of Correspondence almost invariably found a receptive audience among the new class of workmen which was rapidly arising in central Germany. Nowhere more so than in Magdeburg.
But, mostly, he was annoyed because gold paint was expensive.
The implications were disturbing to Oxenstierna. It was one thing for a realm to have a layer of its population filled with unrest and radical notions. There was nothing unusual in that. For two centuries, Europe had been plagued with periodic eruptions of mass discontent—even rebellion. The Comuneros had shaken even Charles V's Spanish kingdom to its foundations—the Dutch had thrown the Habsburgs out completely—and Germany itself had been convulsed, a century earlier, by the great Peasant War and the Anabaptist seizure of Münster. Even Sweden had had its share of domestic turbulence, now and then, such as the rebellion led by Nils Dacke a hundred years earlier.
But, for the most part, the rebellions had been easy enough to suppress. The rebels, as a rule, were a motley assortment of poor peasants and townsmen, many of them outright vagabonds, "led"—if such a term could be used at all—by a sprinkling of the lowest layers of the nobility. Poorly educated, as much in the realities of politics as anything else, with not much in the way of any guiding principles beyond extremist theology and sullen resentment at the exactions of the mighty. However large the "armies" such rebels could field—the peasants of central and southern Germany had put as many as 150,000 men into the fighting, at one time or another—properly led and organized regular armies could usually crush them within a year or two. Except for the Dutch, who enjoyed special advantages, none of the rebellions in Europe had lasted for very long.
This . . . was something different. The very fact that the Committees of Correspondence could always manage to raise enough money from their adherents to afford gold paint was a small, but vivid, indication of it.
"Curse that damn woman," Axel muttered. "I sometimes think . . ."
"Do not say it," commanded the king. "Do not, Axel. Not in my presence, not in anyone's." Gustav swiveled his head, bringing the predator's beak to bear on his chancellor. "I am notthat English king—Henry the Second, wasn't it?—who is reputed to have said: 'will no one rid me of this priest?' "
The head swiveled back, resuming its scrutiny of the golden arches. "Besides, you worry too much. The very thing that frightens you the most about Gretchen Richter and her malcontents is actually the thing which reassures me. Those people are not ignorant villagers, Axel, never think it. I've read their pamphlets and their broadsides. So have you, for that matter. Very thoughtful and learned, they are, for all the shrillness of their tone. And do they ever name me as their enemy?"
Oxenstierna tightened his jaws. "No," he admitted grudgingly. "Not yet, at any rate. But I've met the woman—so have you—and if you think for a moment she wouldn't just as soon—"
"Can you blameher?" grunted Gustav. "Tell me, nobleman—had youundergone her personal history, would you be filled with respect and admiration for your so-called 'betters'?"
Again, the swiveling beak. Accompanied, this time, by a laugh rather than a frown. "I think not! You would do well to remember, Chancellor, that the simple fact that a man—or woman—who has a grievance is of low birth does not make the grievance illegitimate. Nor—"
The frown returned. "Nor should you forget that God does not carry these distinctions all that far. Certainly not into Heaven, whatever He may decree on this earth."
Oxenstierna suppressed a sigh. His king was a pious man, and given to his own somewhat peculiar interpretation of Lutheranism. Or perhaps, that was just the legacy of his family's traditions. The Vasa dynasty had come to power in Sweden, as much as anything else, because the great founder of it—Gustav Vasa, the grandfather of the man standing next to him—had always been willing to side with the commoners against Sweden's aristocracy. Periodically, Gustavus Adolphus saw fit to remind all of his noblemen of that fact.
"Enough!" exclaimed Gustav. There was a little tone of jollity in the word. "I want to pay them a visit, Axel, and we will do so. Today."
He turned away from the window and began lumbering toward the door. "The more so since—you told me yourself, they're your spies—this 'Spartacus' fellow is now residing in the city. I may as well take his measure now. Your own spies tell us that he, more than Gretchen Richter, is really the leader of the pack."
"They don't have a proper 'leader,' " grumbled Axel, following after his king. "Richter is the most publicly visible and best known, but there are at least half a dozen others who are as important as she. Even if—"
The sourness came back to his voice, in full measure. The next words were spoken more like a complaint than a condemnation. "How in the name of Heaven did a printer's daughter learn to speak so well in public?"
They were in the hallway now. Gustav's lumber could hardly be described as a "stride," given the oxlike weight of his steps. But he covered ground very quickly.
"So tell me more of this 'Spartacus,' " he commanded over his shoulder.
"That's nothis name, first of all. Just a silly affectation he uses on his pamphlets. His real name is Joachim Thierbach—or possibly von Thierbach—and he seems to be from some minor branch of the Saxon knighthood."
"If it's 'von' Thierbach, perhaps not so minor."
Axel twitched his head with irritation. "Saxons! All Germans, for that matter. Who can keep their complicated rankings straight? Not even they, I suspect."
They were at the entrance to the palace, now, the king almost bounding down the steps to the street below. Insofar as the muddy area could be called a "street" at all. Even here, in the imperial quarter, the workmen laying new cobblestones or repairing old ones were far behind the spreading growth of the reborn city.
A squad of the Scot mercenaries guarding the entrance began to form up around the king. Gustav Adolf waved them back to their posts.
"A diplomatic mistake, that, I think." As always, the mere prospect of being bold seemed to cheer up the Swedish monarch. "I think it would be wiser to make my entrance as Captain General Gars."
He stopped and grinned back at Oxenstierna. "And would such an intrepid soldier require bodyguards?"
Axel, finally deciding to bow to the inevitable and get into the spirit of the thing, returned the grin.
"Certainly not." He eyed the sword belted onto Gustav, and placed a hand on the hilt of his own. "These are quite functional, after all, and we're experienced in their use. Students and artisans and street urchins! They'll cower before us!"
Gustav laughed. "Hardly that. But I suspect they'll be polite."
In the event, "Spartacus" was more than polite. He was downright gracious. And demonstrated, in his easy manners and relaxed if respectful demeanor, that Oxenstierna's suspicions were well-founded. "Von" Thierbach, almost certainly.
Gustav saw no reason not to find out. So, once he and Axel were seated at a table in the corner of the "Freedom Arches" of Magdeburg—the king, if not the chancellor, finding it hard not to burst into laughter at the sight of the small mob ogling them from every nook and cranny of the capacious central "dining room"—he went straight to the point.
"So which is it, young man? Joachim Thierbach? Or von Thierbach?"
Joachim smiled. The man seated across from the king and the chancellor could not be past his mid-twenties. He was slender in build, and on the tall side. The glasses perched on his nose, combined with a prematurely receding hairline, gave him a scholarly appearance.
"Von Thierbach, Your Majesty. My family is the aristocracy of a small town not far from Leipzig."
"An odd background, I should think, for someone of your—ah, shall I say, 'extreme opinions.' "
Thierbach shrugged. "Why so, Your Majesty? Why should I limit myself to the horizons of a petty Saxon nobleman?" The smile segued into a half-bitter, ironic grimace. "And 'petty' is the word, too. Squatting on a not-so-large estate, lording it over a not-so-large pack of dirty and half-literate peasants. Such is 'nobility.' "
Axel glared. Gustav smiled. "True, often enough," allowed the king.
Gustav waved his hand about, indicating the surroundings. The interior of the cavernous building which the Committees of Correspondence had obtained for their own in Magdeburg was kept very clean. Extremely so, compared to most buildings of the time. Cleanliness and personal hygiene were almost fetishized by the adherents of Gretchen Richter's political movement, simply because it was "modern" if for no other reason. Even Axel would admit, in private, that he appreciated that aspect of the Committees if nothing else about them.
Still, for all its size and cleanliness, the building's interior was spartan in the extreme. The furniture was cheap and crude, as were the stoves and ovens in the kitchen area of the building. The one exception was the new cast-iron "Franklin stove" situated in a corner of the main room. Gustav restrained himself from grinning. One of his Swedish courtiers, sourly, had recently remarked that the Committees of Correspondence had adopted the Franklin stove much as the early church had adopted the symbol of the crucifix.
The king glanced down at the platter of food which had been slid onto the table by one of the youngsters acting as a waiter. The platter contained some slices of an odd concoction of sauerkraut and cheese melted over what looked like crude bread. Gustav, despite having skipped his usual heavy lunch, was not even tempted to sample the food. It had obviously been made on the premises, by a none-too-skilled amateur baker, out of the cheapest materials available.
That, too, the king knew, was one of the things which fretted his chancellor. The combination of austerity in their personal habits and their all-too-evident skill at raising funds, bespoke a certain fanaticism in the members of the Committees of Correspondence. However much their ideology derived from their American mentors, the Committees filled that ideology with a fervor which Gustav suspected made even the Americans a bit nervous.
He understood Axel's concern. Potentially, the Committees were indeed quite dangerous. But . . .
A war is a war, a campaign is a campaign, a battle is a battle, and a skirmish is a skirmish. Let us not confuse them, the one with the other.
"Let me speak bluntly," he said. He hooked a thumb at the chancellor sitting next to him. "My friend and adviser Oxenstierna here is worried about your intentions. And the threat those intentions might pose to my rule."
Joachim studied Axel for a moment. There was something owl-like about the examination. Scholarly, yes—but owls are also predators.
"He's right to be worried," said the young man abruptly. "Not about our intentions, but about the logic of the situation. I will not lie, Your Majesty. The time might come—might, I say—when we find ourselves clashing. But—speaking for myself—I would much prefer to avoid such an eventuality."
The king grunted. So. Even the most radical have factions. I thought as much.
"Richter will be gone for some time," he commented mildly, probing.
Thierbach transferred the owl gaze to him. Again, he spoke bluntly. "Do not presuppose divisions in our ranks, Your Majesty. Or, at least, do not read more into them than exists. It is true that Gretchen and I do not always agree. That is no secret, after all. We've each written pamphlets and given speeches where those differences are quite evident."
Gustav cocked an eye at Axel. The chancellor seemed to flush a bit. The king was torn between amusement and irritation. Clearly enough, to the aristocratic Oxenstierna, the subtle differences in the opinions of democratic radicals had been beneath notice.
I need to set up my own network of spies, thought the king. Subtle ones, who understand what they are observing, instead of huffing with indignation. Unless I'm badly mistaken . . .
He set the thought aside, for the moment. He was finding the subtleties of the young man seated across from him far too interesting to be diverted.
. . . I will be dealing with Thierbach and Richter and their ilk for the rest of my life. Always best to know your enemies—and your friends, for that matter, since for a king the distinction is not always very clear.
"Expand on that, if you would." For all the mildness of the words, it was a royal command.
Young Thierbach did not bridle. A fact which was also interesting. Most hotheaded youngsters would have, in Gustav's experience.
"The differences between Gretchen and me are not so much differences of opinion, Your Majesty—certainly not differences over principles—as they are simply the natural differences which derive from our differing activities. Gretchen is . . ." He didn't seem to be groping for words so much as simply trying to find the most precise. "Call her our 'guiding spirit,' if you will. She is fearless, bold—the one who will always lead the charge into the breach."
Gustav nodded. He'd met the young woman—and the first time, while she was standing with a smoking pistol over the bodies of Croat cavalrymen in the service of the Habsburg emperor. Some of whom she'd slain personally.
Joachim smiled, adjusted his glasses, and ran fingers over his balding forehead. "I like to think I would not flinch at that breach myself, you understand. But I'm hardly cut from the same cloth. I am more of what you might call the organizer of our Committees. The one who comes behind and makes sure that the fearless ones in front don't fall over in a faint from lack of food." The smile widened. "The Americans have a crude expression for it. They abbreviate it as 'REMF.' "
Gustav grinned. Oxenstierna laughed outright. For all his snobbery, the chancellor was not a prig—and he'd led troops himself in battle. "Rear echelon motherfuckers," he chuckled. He glanced sidelong at his monarch and added: "Which is the role Gustavus Adolphus usually bestows on me, you know."
Oxenstierna's eyes moved back to the young political radical at the table, and, for the first time, Gustav saw something beyond blank incomprehension and veiled disdain in that gaze.
Thank God. I could use your intelligence for a change, Axel. Your prejudices are no good to me at all.
"Please continue," said the chancellor. For a wonder, the tone was as polite as the words themselves.
"The point I'm trying to make is simply that Gretchen, because of her position at the front, often ignores what you might call the political logistics of the campaign." Joachim's face seemed suddenly that of a much older man. "I am not oblivious, King and Chancellor, to the cost of a revolution as well as its benefits. I've studied the same history books the Americans brought with them—as I'm sure you have. And while those books played a great role in leading me to the conclusions which I have reached, they have also—more than they did with Gretchen, perhaps—cautioned me about the possible dangers. So, personally, I would prefer a slower campaign."
The owlish gaze was back—and, this time, very much that of a raptor. "Sieges can be won in many ways, after all. A furious battle at the breach, followed by a sack, is only one of them—and not, all things considered, usually the ideal resolution."
Gustav II Adolf, king of Sweden, emperor of the Confederated Principalities of Europe, returned the raptor gaze with one of his own. Given that he was almost universally acknowledged as the greatest soldier of his time, it was an impressive stare. The great beak of a nose helped, of course.
Still, the young owl did not flinch from the eyes of the eagle in his prime. For some odd reason, Gustav found that reassuring.
"True," he said abruptly. "I've fought and won many sieges, you know—more, perhaps, than any man of my time. The best way to resolve a siege is for the defenders to surrender. And, in my experience, that's always helped greatly if they are allowed to surrender with honor and dignity, and march out of the town still carrying their colors and arms. Best of all, if they then take service in your own ranks."
Finally, Thierbach seemed to be what he was—a very young man, confronting an older and much more powerful one. His expression was . . . not abashed, no, not even nervous—but perhaps a bit uncertain.
"So I believe also," he said softly. "I have no love for bloodshed, Your Majesty. Neither does Gretchen, for that matter, whatever others might think."
A very young man, now. His eyes were worried. "How is she, by the way? Have you heard anything?" He made a little gesture toward the crowd of people in the room. "We're all worried about her. Things in France seem . . . not good."
Gustav barked a laugh. "Isn't that why you sent her there in the first place? 'Not good,' indeed! The perfect place for a trouble-maker."
Joachim managed a smile, but the worry was still evident.
The king waved his hand heavily. "I have not heard anything, no. But—"
Afterward, Axel would chide and scold him. For hours, and days, dribbling on into weeks and months. But Gustavus Adolphus had always been a decisive man. Convinced, since he was sixteen, a teenage prince leading his father's troops in the capture of a Danish fortress, that hesitation lost far more battles—and wars—than mistakes ever did.
"Done," he said firmly. "Whatever I can do to help your firebrand lady, if it proves necessary, I will do. You have my word on it. For my part—if it proves necessary—I will expect your full support against my own enemies. Things in France, as you say, do not look good."
"Richelieu," hissed Joachim. Gustav was gratified to hear the hiss echoed throughout the room.
The young radical straightened. "Richelieu, the Habsburgs—all that carrion—against them, Your Highness, the Committees of Correspondence stand firmly at your side."
Again, the murmur rippling through the crowd indicated that young Thierbach spoke for all of them. Gustav nodded his head.
"Good. And now, before I leave, is there anything further you wish to discuss?"
Joachim studied him with those solemn, owlish eyes. Then, a bit abruptly: " 'Discuss' is not perhaps the right term, Your Majesty. 'Illustrate a point,' might be better."
He swiveled in his chair and pointed to one of the young men standing toward the front of the crowd. A stripling, perhaps seventeen years old, short and skinny. "That's Friedrich Gulda. He comes from Mecklenburg. He's an orphan now. Has been for five years, since Wallenstein passed through the area. He managed to hide in the fields while his family was destroyed. He was there for hours, listening to it all. Wallenstein's soldiers took their time about it."
He allowed Gustav Adolf and Oxenstierna to flesh out in their own minds the details concerning what 'took their time about it' meant. Being very experienced soldiers, neither of them had any difficulty doing so. Joachim's finger moved on.
"That girl is Hannelore. She's sixteen years old. She's from Brandenburg. A similar story, except her older brother survived also and their people were killed by Danish troops. They think, at least. Might have been some of Mansfeld's men. Who knows? To commoners, especially peasants, mercenary armies are hard to tell apart."
Gustav Adolf's jaws tightened. Hard to tell apart for their own supposed "commanders," too. Not the least of the reasons I agreed with Stearns' proposal. Or Simpson's, as I think it really emerged.
The finger moved on, centering on a hard-faced man in his mid-twenties. The expression on the man's face was . . . implacable.
"That's her older brother, in fact. Gunther Achterhof." Joachim's lips twisted. "When Gunther first arrived here he had some ears and noses wrapped up in a cloth. Horrid withered things. It took me a week to convince him to throw them away. Fortunately, he'd already thrown away the private parts."
He gave king and chancellor a glance which was every bit as hard as Achterhof's face. "He and his cousin and some neighbors, you see, caught two of the soldiers afterward. Stragglers. Probably not the soldiers who murdered his family, but Gunther doesn't care much. Not at all, in fact. A mercenary soldier is a mercenary soldier. And . . ."
If anything, Joachim's face was now even harder than Achterhof's. "As far as he's concerned, the prince who hired the soldier is simply another prince. Gunther Achterhof is no longer interested very much—if at all—in making fine distinctions. Neither is his cousin Ludwig, who is the tall man standing over there in the corner."
The inexorable finger moved on. "That red-headed man is Franz Heidbreder. He comes from Mecklenburg also. Most of his family survived, fortunately. In fact"—the finger slid sidewise—"that's his brother Friedrich and over there are his cousins Moritz and Agnes. Their farms were destroyed three years ago when your own Swedish army arrived in Germany. All the sheep were requisitioned, along with just about everything else. True, they were paid for the sheep. But you have debased your currency so many times that Swedish coin isn't accepted by most merchants."
Gustav's heavy jaws tightened still further, but he did not argue the point. He had debased his currency, trying to cover the huge expenses of his expedition to Germany.
Softly, but in a tone as unyielding as granite, Joachim continued. "Franz's mother died that first winter, from disease brought on by hunger. His youngest brother died in the spring. After the whole family left Mecklenburg to try to find shelter elsewhere, one of his cousins and an aunt died on the road. Again, disease; again, because they were weakened by hunger and had no shelter. When Franz found his aunt's body, she had a handful of grass stuffed in her mouth. At the end, apparently, she tried to eat it."
By now, Oxenstierna's face was pinched. Gustav's was simply impassive. The chancellor began to say something but the king laid a firm hand on his arm.
Meanwhile, Joachim's finger had moved on. The young Saxon nobleman's face seemed to soften a bit. "That girl there is Mathilde Wiegert. She was the one who introduced me to Gretchen Richter, as it happens. She's from the Palatinate, also driven into exile when the war struck. I met Mathilde herself when I was a student at Jena. She and her cousin Inga had become prostitutes by then, in order to support themselves and the younger girls with them."
The pretty young woman named Mathilde gave Gustav Adolf a little smile. Hers was the only smiling face in the room. But the king understood that the smile was not really directed at him. It was directed at the young man who was giving the king a none-too-subtle "illustration."
Joachim swiveled back in his chair, to face Gustav and Oxenstierna squarely. "As it happens, also, Mathilde is the immediate cause of my estrangement from my family. My noble father had no objection at all to my having mounted a commoner prostitute—in fact, he encouraged me to do so as part of my education—but he was outraged when I told him I plan to marry her once the laws have been changed here in Magdeburg to match the laws of the United States."
Once the laws have been changed. Not if. There, too, was a point being made.
"Such is the piety of aristocracy, King and Chancellor. Such is what—nothing more—all of your fine distinctions between Lutheran and Calvinist and Catholic come to in the end. Which nobleman gets to plunder and abuse which commoner at his convenience."
"Enough!" barked Oxenstierna.
A little growl rumbled through the cavernous room. Joachim fixed Oxenstierna with a stony gaze. "Yes, indeed, Chancellor. Precisely my point. Enough."
Oxenstierna started to rise, angrily. But Gustav's hand, this time, was more than "firm." The king of Sweden was an immensely powerful man. He simply seized Oxenstierna by the shoulder and drove him back down into his chair.
"You will listen to my people, Chancellor," he hissed. "I will not lose my dynasty because of the folly of nobility." He gave Oxenstierna his own version of a stony gaze; which, if it had none of the fervor of Joachim's, made up for the lack by sheer self-confidence. "Vasa. Do not forget."
He turned back to Joachim, sensing the crowd settling down a bit. For a moment, the king and the revolutionary studied each other. Then Gustav Adolf nodded, and came to another decision. It would not be the first time, after all, that the king of Sweden had found it necessary to burn a bridge while on campaign. Some of those bridges had been behind him.
"I have decided to bring my family from Sweden here to Magdeburg. My daughter, at least. Kristina, as you may know, is quite young. Seven years old."
He glanced around the room. From their appearance, most of the crowd consisted of teenagers and people in their twenties. But, sprinkled here and there, he could see a few older ones—and a handful of children.
"Palaces are stodgy places. Very boring, for a spirited young girl. I think she would enjoy an occasional outing here."
He brought his eyes back to Thierbach. The young man seemed paralyzed for a moment. Then, astonished; then . . .
His thin shoulders squared. "She would have to learn how to bake," he said firmly, in a voice which had barely a trace of a quiver. "It's the rule."
Axel looked like he might be on the verge of apoplexy. Gustav burst into laughter.
"Splendid!" he said, slapping the table with a meaty hand. "Her mother—my wife—will have a fit, of course. So would my own mother. But my grandmother, on the other hand—the wife of the great Gustav Vasa—is reputed to have been quite an accomplished baker. I see no reason not to restore that skill to the family."
Oxenstierna began expostulating his protests the moment they left the building. But Gustav waved him down impatiently.
"Later, Axel, later. You know as well as I do that my wife is unfit to bring up my daughter. She's a sweet woman, but . . . weak. How much trouble has she caused us already, by her susceptibility to flattering courtiers?"
He stopped, boots planted firmly in the muddy street, and glared down at his chancellor. "And you also know—you've read the histories, the same as I have—what happened to Kristina. In the end, for all her obvious brains and talents and spirit, she converted to Catholicism and abdicated the throne. I won't have it!"
"You were dead in that—" Axel's hand groped in midair. "Other history. You're alive in this one."
The king shrugged. "True. She still needs to be brought up among women. Part of the time, at least." He jerked his head toward the Freedom Arches. "Say whatever else you will about Gretchen Richter and her cohorts, they are not weak."
Axel's face was almost red. Gustav decided to relent. He placed a hand on his chancellor's shoulder and began guiding him back toward the palace. "Oh, do relax. I don't plan to have Kristina spend much time with that radical lot, I assure you. No, no. I'll find some suitable noblewoman to serve as her—what do the Americans call it? 'Role model,' as I recall."
Oxenstierna seemed mollified. Gustav, looking ahead to a day filled with contentious meetings, decided to leave it at that. No reason to mention the precise noblewoman he had in mind, after all.
Alas, despite his often unthinking prejudices, Oxenstierna's own brains were excellent. Within ten paces, the chancellor was scowling fiercely again.
"Don't tell me. Gustav! You can't be thinking—"
"And why not?" demanded the king. "I think my newest—and youngest—baroness would make a splendid companion for Kristina."
He held up a finger. "Given the nature of the times, Kristina should learn how to shoot." Held up another. "And, in reverse, Julie Mackay rides a horse like a sack. Kristina's already an excellent rider, so she can teach the baroness that skill—which, I'm sure you'll agree, is essential for a proper and respectable Swedish noblewoman."
"Julie Mackay is in England," grumbled Oxenstierna. "Maybe even Scotland, by now."
"So? She'll be back."
"Things in England also do not 'look good.' "
"So?" repeated Gustav. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, pointing back to the Freedom Arches. "If I wind up having to rescue one contentious young woman, why not two?"
They plodded on in silence for a bit. Then, Axel sighed. "Or three, or four. I never thought the day would come I'd say this, but I wish Rebecca Stearns were back in our midst. I . . . miss her advice. She is very shrewd, and easy to work with."
Gustav chuckled heavily. "Indeed. It's a bit amazing, isn't it, the way it works. Having Gretchen Richter—or Julie Mackay—as a frame for the portrait, Rebecca Stearns suddenly looks like the wisest woman in the world."