"Will you cut it out?" interrupted Julie crossly. She folded another corner of the blanket around her baby's head. "If I have to listen to one more lecture about this, I think I'll scream." She gave her husband a sour glance. "Alex chews on my ear about it ten times a day."
Julie's Scot husband flushed. With his fair complexion and redhead freckles, a "flush" was fairly dramatic. "Damnation, lass," he growled, " 'tis no joking matter. I shouldna allowed you to come on this trip at all, much less bring the child."
For a moment, Julie's lips parted. Melissa almost winced, imagining the retort. And how the hell do you propose to have STOPPED me from coming? You—!
Fortunately, Julie reined in the impulse. Whatever the realities of their personal relationship, Julie had learned to accommodate her husband's need to maintain, at least in public, the façade of being the "man of the house." That—just as his willingness, however reluctant, to allow her and their infant daughter Alexi to accompany him on his sudden emergency trip to Scotland—was one of many compromises the two young people had learned to make in order to keep their marriage a going concern.
It had not always been easy for them, Melissa knew. The clash of cultural attitudes between a 17th-century Scot cavalryman and a 21st-century American woman was . . . awesome, at times. That wasn't helped by the fact that, on one side, Alex Mackay was a Scot nobleman—born under the bar sinister, true, but still with a nobleman's attitudes. And, on the other . . . Melissa had to force herself not to laugh. To describe Julie Mackay as "stubborn and strong-willed" would have been much like describing the ocean as "wet and salty." A given; a fact of nature. As well command the tides to roll back as expect her to be meek and demure.
Then, too, they were both very young. Alex in his early twenties; Julie still months away from her twentieth birthday. With all the advantages of being in late middle age, and separated by far less in the way of a culture gap, it was not as if Melissa herself and James Nichols hadn't had their share of domestic quarrels.
Feeling a little guilty that she'd occasioned this latest clash, Melissa groped for words to soothe the situation. Dammit, woman, you're supposed to be a peacemaker on this mission. You're not a '60s college radical any longer, cheerfully poking the establishment.
Grope, grope. The truth was that Melissa found agitation and troublemaking a lot more natural than being a diplomat. She couldn't find the words.
Fortunately, Julie had other characteristics than stubbornness. One of them—quite pronounced, in fact—was affection. So Melissa was spared the need to play the role of peacemaker. Julie suddenly smiled, slid an arm around her husband's waist, and drew him close. A wet and enthusiastic kiss on the cheek drained the flush right out of Alex's face. And immediately put another one in its place, of course. But that was a flush of pleasure, not anger.
Nor embarrassment, even though Julie's display of affection was quite public. They were all standing on the quays where the ship from Hamburg was moored. The Pool of London was crowded with stevedores and sailors and people waiting to embark on other ships. But Alex was not disturbed. Not at all, judging from the way his own lips sought Julie's.
One of the things Melissa had learned, in the two years since the Ring of Fire, was that people of the 17th century were far removed from the prim and proper attitudes of that later era usually labeled as "Victorian." That had surprised her, even though she was a history teacher by profession. Without ever having thought much about it, Melissa had assumed that European culture got progressively more "Victorian" the further back you went in time. She certainly would have expected the early 17th century—the heyday of religious zeal; the era of "Puritanism"—to have been one characterized by tight-lipped reserve on all subjects, and sex in particular.
The reality was quite otherwise. The primness of social customs in the 19th century had been a recent development, occasioned by the Wesleyan Methodist response to the horrors of 18th-century English city life, and its spread onto the Continent through the Pietist movement. Melissa had discovered that people of the 17th century were actually quite earthy—even bawdy. If the Scot cavalrymen who stumbled onto Grantville soon after the Ring of Fire had found the clothing of American women rather scandalous, they hadn't thought their "modern" casualness about sex to be peculiar at all. They themselves, like most people of 17th-century Europe, had a relaxed attitude about sex which had far more in common with the mores of late 20th- and early 21st-century America than either did with the Victorian era.
More so, in some ways; even incredibly so, to someone with Melissa's upbringing and attitudes. She could still remember the shock she had felt when she discovered that one of the widowed farm women near Grantville had sued one of her employees because the man, coming upon her bent over in her vegetable garden, had cheerfully taken the opportunity—as the euphemism of a later era would put it—"to have his way with her" despite her vehement protests.
The shock hadn't been at the fact of rape. Melissa was no sheltered girl, and rape was common enough in 21st-century America. It had been the attitude of the woman herself which had appalled her. True, the farm woman had been furious at the man, for acting like such an oaf. But she had not filed criminal charges of rape. She'd simply stormed into the courthouse to demand that the crummy SOB be placed under a bastardy bond to provide child support in case he'd gotten her pregnant.
The case had been quite notorious in Grantville, at the time, because it had caused something of a firestorm in the already-turbulent attempt to forge a unitary legal code for the new society being constructed. On this question, as on many others, where modern Americans tended to see things in terms of personal rights, 17th-century Germans tended to see them in terms of property and its obligations. The fact that the man had violated the woman herself was a matter for anger, to be sure. But the real outrage was that he had endangered her property—by, possibly, begetting an unwanted child on her which would be a continual drain on her none-too-substantial resources. Even the culprit himself had seen it in those terms. On the stand, he'd admitted quite freely that he'd been hoping to embarrass his employer into marrying him and thus giving him a secure lifetime interest in the farm.
In the end, the case had been settled on the woman's terms. And, while Melissa had been angry at the time, in retrospect she wasn't sure the lout of a handyman wouldn't have been better off spending a few years in an American prison—with time off for good behavior—than being stripped of every penny and possibly locked into what amounted to a condition of involuntary servitude for two decades.
Remembering that episode as she watched Julie's kiss turn into something verydemonstrative—Alex's face was almost beet red, now, but he was returning the kiss with enthusiasm—Melissa found herself fighting down a laugh again. O brave new world, that hath such people in it! There were things she detested about 17th-century society; others, which she had found herself coming to treasure, almost despite herself.
Disease, however, was not one of them. And the fact was that Julie was taking a real risk in bringing her child on this voyage. As a rule, people of the time left their children behind—especially infants—whenever they traveled anywhere beyond their immediate vicinity. Rebecca and Gretchen hadn't even considered bringing their babies along on their own mission. Leaving aside the very real danger of piracy and highway robbery, there was the ever-present risk of disease whenever a child was exposed to strange populations. Even without travel and unnecessary exposure, a third of all children born alive did not survive their first year; fully half died before the age of five.
Hearing a clatter of hooves, Melissa turned away from Alex and Julie. A small party of cavalrymen was trotting onto the quays, some fifty yards away. They were using the weight of their mounts to brush aside the stevedores and sailors, exhibiting all the arrogance of soldiers toward civilians that was another of the characteristics of the time which Melissa despised. Move or be trampled, damn you.
Her lips tightened. The officer at the head of the troop was scanning the area, obviously looking for someone. Which, she had little doubt, was Melissa herself. Or her party, rather. Although the cavalrymen weren't wearing uniforms as such—which were still uncommon in this day and age—the similar buff coats and knee boots and gauntlets and plumed hats amounted to the same thing. Only royal troops would be so accoutered in this area.
An official escort. I'm not sure whether to be pleased or not.
She felt a looming presence behind her. She didn't have to turn her head to know that was Tom Simpson. Rita's husband had a personality which was diametrically opposite that of the haughty officer coming toward her. Melissa had seen Tom Simpson step aside for almost everyone he encountered. But the man's sheer size was enough to make him "loom" just by being in the vicinity. That wasn't due to any great height—Tom was not much over six feet tall—but simply to his bulk. All of which, she knew, was bone and muscle. Tom Simpson hadn't been out of shape as a nose guard for West Virginia University's varsity football team. The time since, most of it spent as an officer in the army of the new little United States, had kept him in even better shape.
She found that presence comforting, the more so as the officer and his cavalrymen approached. Melissa had learned, in the two years since the Ring of Fire, to dismiss her long-standing prejudice against soldiers for what it was: prejudice. But if there were Alex Mackays and Tom Simpsons and Heinrich Schmidts in the world's armies, there were also officers she wouldn't have trusted any more than she would a rattlesnake. Quite a bit less, in fact—no one had ever accused a rattlesnake of committing "atrocities."
The officer in charge of this party . . . didn't look promising. Plumed like a peacock, staring at everyone in a haughty manner which was almost a parody from a movie, his long nose tight with what seemed a perpetual sniff.
Not, I admit, that this place doesn't stink. Whatever else Melissa liked about the 17th century, the smell of its cities and towns was notone of them.
"That's got to be for us," murmured Tom. "I'll get Rita."
Melissa nodded. Rita Simpson was the official ambassador to King Charles I. To all the Americans in Grantville—including the woman herself, all of twenty-three years old—that seemed a little ridiculous. But, following the advice of Balthazar and Rebecca, and Francisco Nasi—and Gustav's chancellor Oxenstierna, for that matter—Mike had given his kid sister the assignment. For 17th-century Europeans, "diplomacy"—in the sense of crucial, binding, negotiations rather than routine matters—was not something conducted by professional ambassadors. The distances involved were simply too great, and transport and communications too poorly developed, for nations to oversee closely their own envoys. As a result, it was the common practice for ambassadors to be relatives of the rulers involved, because only they could be presumed to speak with real authority.
Granted, Mike Stearns was not a king. But he was the closest thing the United States had; and so, willy-nilly, the embassies to France and Holland and England were being officially headed up by his wife and his sister.
In the case of Rebecca's mission, formality and reality matched. Everyone, except possibly herself, had full confidence in Rebecca's ability to handle the task. Indeed, she had been given the more difficult and critical mission—to make peace with France, if at all possible, and forge an alliance with Holland.
With the mission to England, the situation was different. There was nothing wrong with Rita. Melissa thought she was a splendid example of an American young woman, sane of mind and sound in body. But nobody, certainly not Rita herself, thought she had the same brilliance which Rebecca had demonstrated many times over.
Thus, despite her own wishes, Melissa Mailey had been dragooned into serving as Rita's "adviser"—in truth, the real head of the delegation.
Damn it, I'm closing in on sixty! I'm too old and decrepit for these adventures. And I miss my bed at home, with James in it. And my little creature comforts and habits. I even miss the squeaky hinge on the kitchen door that James swears he'll get fixed some day.
The oncoming officer still hadn't spotted them. Moved by an impulse, Melissa turned back to Alex and Julie.
"We should part company. Now. There's no reason to think . . ." She hesitated. "Still—"
Alex nodded. "In case of trouble, best there be no known connection between us." He put his arm around Julie's shoulders and began to turn her away. Then, with a little smile: "Of course, there will be spies. But by the time they finish squabbling with Charles' tight-fisted paymasters over the price for the information, we'll be halfway to Edinburgh."
Melissa could see Julie starting to rebel, a bit. The young woman obviously wanted to give her a parting hug. But Julie was stubborn, not stupid. So, after a moment, she satisfied herself with a warm smile and a whisper: "Don't forget to stay in touch with the radio. I'll listen every day, just like we planned."
Melissa nodded. Since her head was turned away from the officer, she blew Julie a kiss. Then, firmly—and not easily; Julie had become something of an adopted daughter to her, since the Ring of Fire—she turned her back on them.
Turned her back, straightened her shoulders, reared her head as high as her long neck allowed; then, bestowed upon the approaching officer a nose which—truth be told—was every bit as aristocratic as his and a gaze whose haughtiness would have graced an empress. Not for nothing had Melissa Mailey spent years as a schoolteacher staring down youthful insolence.
The officer spotted her, then. And, a moment later, Tom and Rita Simpson standing next to her. Behind them, Darryl McCarthy and Gayle Mason and Friedrich and Nelly Bruch were standing next to the party's luggage. The two couples—true couple with the Bruchs, faked with Darryl and Gayle—were the "servants" for the mission. All embassies of the time would bring their own servants. Whose tasks, cheerfully enough, all of them would carry out—even if Darryl and Gayle could be counted on to make sarcastic remarks about it in private. But their real reasons for being there were to maintain the radio communications, in the case of Gayle; provide Tom with whatever he needed in the way of physical security, in the case of Darryl and Friedrich; and, since Friedrich's wife was a native Londoner and he was familiar with the city himself, whatever local intelligence might be needed.
Melissa saw the officer's eyes widen a bit. His nose seemed to narrow still further.
Sorry, jackass. I don't wear feathers and plumes. Low-class we may be, but this is the official delegation from the United States.
That was a bit unfair. She had, after all, tried to talk Rita into wearing a very elaborate outfit, complete with plumed hat. But that had been too much for Rita's ingrained Appalachian modesty.
The officer's eyes fell on Tom. Melissa found herself chuckling softly at the subtle change in the man's arrogant expression. Even sitting astride a horse, the officer was obviously pondering the very real possibility that Tom could bring the horse down with one hand while he plucked the officer off with the other. Judging from his squint, Melissa suspected the man was now considering what might follow.
Too horrible to contemplate, apparently. The officer forced a smile on his face and trotted up.
"Ah. Lady Stearns, I presume?"
Melissa had managed to coach Rita well enough that she didn't blurt out what would normally have been her response. You've gotta be kidding. Besides, I'm Mrs. Simpson now—this big fella is my hubby. Instead, Rita simply nodded graciously and gestured to the others. "And my party," she said.
A bit too softly, thought Melissa. But . . . not bad. Hey, what the hell. As long as I'm here, I may as well enjoy it.
Some time later, as their coach and its cavalry escort approached their destination, Melissa was not enjoying herself at all. She recognized the place, as it happened, having visited it as a tourist three times in her life.
"What's the matter?" asked Rita softly. "You look like you just ate a lemon."
Melissa pointed a finger out the window. "That's the matter. Where we're going. I thought they'd take us to Whitehall Palace, which is the royal residence in this period of English history."
Tom leaned over and peered out the window. A moment later, he grimaced. Melissa was not surprised to see that he recognized their destination, even though, unlike her, he'd never been to England. Tom had grown up in Pittsburgh, not a small town in West Virginia, and his parents had been very wealthy. The kind of parents who got mail from all over the world.
The place whose gates they were approaching wasquite famous, after all. Its distinctive outline graced millions of postcards.