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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Three
Last updated: Monday, January 16, 2017 11:24 EST
Hamburg, United States of Europe
The door slammed behind Papa, ending another pointless argument.
At least the rooms they were renting were nicer than their usual, giving him a room of his own for his childish sulk. Monique sighed. Gervais had been in a funk since they’d been forced to leave Geneva, bickering with both Bertram and her at nearly every turn of the road from there to Hamburg.
Bertram shook his head. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
She smiled. “Please, Bertram, you needn’t apologize for Papa’s childish behavior.”
“If there is fault to be found, it’s with Papa. He just isn’t happy unless he’s working on — or in the hunt for — a wealthy mark.”
“I know, and I’ve been keeping him from pursuing his natural inclinations since Geneva.”
“Your payment for our travels and promise of an offer of employment are unprecedented in Papa’s experience. Makes him nervous, waiting for things to turn sour when he’s not running a con on someone.”
“There is a reason confidence is the name of the games Papa and I play. One must have it, or the mark will start to pick at the threads weaved to manipulate them. The mark must also have confidence in what the player presents as truth, or they don’t do as the player desires.
“Papa owes you, so he can’t run a game on you. His confidence suffers as a result.”
“But I don’t see him as in my debt.”
She smiled to take the sting from her next words: “Doesn’t really matter what you think about it. We might be confidence players, but we’ve our own set of scruples.”
“What do you suggest I do?”
“What is this employment you mentioned, this work that might be — how did you put it? Oh, yes: ‘suitable to our talents and skills’?”
Bertram smiled. She liked it a lot. It made his normally-unremarkable face light up, his brown eyes shine.
“My relation will tell all, tomorrow.”
“Teasing a woman that way is most unkind.”
“I’m sorry,” he said for the second time, “but I was given strict instructions.”
“You don’t trust me?” she asked, pouting in the manner she knew gave rise to urges he was uncomfortable with. She had, in the months since he’d rescued her from the Bishop of Geneva’s dungeon in Annecy — where she’d been kept by the Bishop as surety against her father’s compliance in the bishop’s plot to undermine the Calvinist faith — come to realize Bertram was far more knight than knave. And this despite the gift for guile he’d shown in telling the bishop outlandish lies, even to the point of claiming service to Cardinal Richelieu. That internal knight made it difficult for him to look on her as a woman who might entertain his affections, not out of a sense of obligation to her rescuer, but out of desire for the man himself.
His serious tone surprised her. “I do, just as I trust that I will not want to feel my relation’s ire, should he discover I’ve been speaking without leave.”
“How much?” Monique heard her father ask again.
It all sounded terribly exciting to Monique. Hoping to keep her father from ruining it, she spoke up. “Papa, you heard Don Francisco very well!”
Her father ignored her, asked Nasi, “But why us?”
Don Francisco set aside his glass of wine and leaned forward. “Because you like money and we’re offering a great deal of it?”
Monique had to agree with the USE spymaster on that point: Aside from the actual payment, the offer included a tiny percentage of profits from whatever trade deal was agreed to, an incentive that could prove profoundly profitable. Yet Gervais was acting as if it were nothing special. She couldn’t let him get away with it: “Even without the promised percentage of trade, it’s more than we made on our best five jobs, and in just three years. It took us the better part of two years setting up for the Turin caper.”
“No,” Gervais hiked a thumb at Bertram, “why us?”
“You’re smart, have useful skills, are adept with languages, and most importantly: you’re eminently available.”
“When I agreed to work with Bertram I thought we’d be in France, maybe the Papal States — not half-way round the world in heathen India.”
“Muslim India, really,” Nasi said. “Mughals are Muslims, somewhat like those of my former home, though they’re not terribly oppressive of other religions just now ”
Gervais sniffed. “I know the Mughal rulers are Muslim, thank you very much. But I am also told there are lots of Hindus in positions of power and prestige.”
“And rich, Papa, don’t forget: fabulously rich,” Monique added. Appealing to Papa’s greed usually worked.
Gervais turned on her, “Oh, no, don’t you try and play to my greed, that’s what got us here in the first place!”
“If I may, Gervais: Bertram’s bit of fast-talking was effective in freeing your lovely daughter,” Nasi said. Monique’s smile at the complement died as Nasi went on, “But it also destroyed his cover. Every priest that travels through the bishopric gets an earful, and every one of them has sent letters to their friends to be on the lookout for you.”
“So? You do know I’m a thief, right? I’ve always had nobles and churchmen after me.”
“But you aren’t just a thief, are you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Nasi’s thin smile sent a thrill of alarm down Monique’s spine. “Only that I know a little about the where, the who, and the what of your studies. Not to mention how they ended and why you took to a life of crime.”
Gervais sat back, face gone whiter than just about any time Monique could remember, save when he’d seen her in the tiny cell in Lyon.
Nasi wasn’t done: “Frankly, your skills at alchemy will provide a useful and legitimate reason for you to gain access to the court.”
“All right, I’ll be useful,” Gervais looked at Monique, “and I know how much I owe your man Bertram here, but there’s no reason my daughter should be exposed to su–”
“Papa!” Monique snapped.
Nasi continued on the heels of her outburst. “She’s an adult, Bertram speaks highly of her abilities, and there’s a good chance that you’ll need her to gain you access to people that men would be killed for even trying to lay eyes on. The harem-bound ladies of the court are powers unto themselves. If Monique wants to go, she’ll be welcome, and just as well-compensated as you.”
Papa opened his mouth to speak but Nasi held up a hand to silence him. “In the final analysis, while I think the mission might need your collective resourcefulness in an emergency, it’s still a trade mission, not one of your criminal enterprises or,” he looked significantly at Bertram, “some effort at espionage against an enemy power.”
Gervais shook his head, a legitimately sad look on his face. “Do you have any idea how many of the Dutch return from trade in the East? Because I do! When in Amsterdam I watched the widows cry for lost husbands every single time a ship made port. On those occasions they actually made port!”
Nasi shrugged. “While your concerns are certainly valid, the Dutch did not have the advantages of medical care the up-timers brought us.”
“I don’t want my daughter dying on some foreign shore, some exotic illness eating her alive.”
“Not when the outbreak in Milan could have killed us both with a perfectly home-grown plague,” Monique drawled.
Gervais was struggling to find an answer to that when the door opened and a tall couple walked in. If their height wasn’t sign enough, Monique identified them as some of Bertram’s up-timers as soon as they smiled. No down-timer’s smile ever displayed so many even, straight, and above all, white teeth.
Nasi climbed to his feet and bowed in courtly fashion over the woman’s hand. “Frau Totman.” The woman was extremely tall and expensively-dressed, if skinnier than Monique knew most down-time men preferred. The man with her was enormous. Monique wondered if he was another athlete like Tom Simpson who played that bizarre American game called “football.”
“Don Francisco,” the man said.
“Herr Totman,” Nasi returned with a smile, continuing around the circle of seats to make introductions. Both seemed at least as young as she was, though Bertram had said it was hard to tell with most up-timers.
Once everyone had taken seats and been introduced, Rodney Totman spoke. His English had an accent Monique had never encountered before: “Don Francisco, was that French I heard as we came in? Sounded heated.”
Nasi nodded, “Gervais has serious reservations about Monique participating in our trade mission.”
Priscilla Totman looked at Gervais and asked in heavily accented French: “Maladies?”
Gervais nodded emphatically.
Priscilla continued in that strangely accented English, “Forgive me, but I have exhausted my French.”
“Pray continue,” Gervais returned in that language.
“We have medicines to defeat some of the more common sickness, if we’re careful about food and water we’ll avoid most of the ick, and as we’re not headed to Bombay or the wetter regions of India, there’s less risk of mosquito-born infections like malaria.”
Monique watched Gervais grasping for some argument. “Less is not –”
“Aren’t you always telling me that risk is what makes life worth living?” she snapped.
Gervais threw his hands wide. “Oh, but it does!” He shot a dark glance at his daughter. “It’s right up there with the joy of haggling for a good price for one’s skills. A joy you killed, thank you very much.”
Realizing, at last, that her father’s antics had — mostly — been a tactic, she tossed her curls. “Papa!”
Don Francisco Nasi snorted. The Totmans chuckled.
Given time and a few choice words, Gervais could charm the hardest heart. It was a gift, and a curse. She saw that he’d already worked his magic on the Totmans, and likely Nasi as well, though the man was a much harder read.
Realizing the room had gone quiet, she turned to the up-timers. “And how were you two brought into this?”
Priscilla took her husband’s hand in hers. “I have always wanted to travel to India. Too many movies, I suppose. I’ve always loved the idea of seeing it. I had thought, well, there was no chance it would happen since the Ring of Fire, but then we got the offer.”
Her husband nodded. “As to why we got picked: we’re both trained medics, with some advanced medical and pharmacological training. That included a fairly intensive course in obstetrics from Dr. Adams. We’ll be along to keep everyone as healthy as we can, while maybe seeing if we can’t improve conditions for the locals.”
Nasi cleared his throat. “And they will consult on securing our wounded soldiers a steady supply of opium.”
Monique noticed that something about the unfamiliar word made both up-timers uncomfortable.
“What?” Monique asked.
“Laudanum,” Nasi tried to clarify.
“Oh,” Monique said, still not sure what the substance was.
“What is it about the stones of immortality that makes you uncomfortable, Madame Totman?” Gervais asked, simultaneously informing his daughter what they were discussing. It was a substance used for treatment of some ailments, and as a powerful painkiller. It was good for putting careless men to bed early, too.
Priscilla shrugged and glanced at her husband, who tried to explain. “We up-timers are conflicted about certain drugs.” He grinned. “Aw, hell, we’re entirely messed up about ’em. I blame Ronnie Raygun’s wife, she had a very successful ad campaign aimed at making Americans think all drugs are bad.”
Monique’s continuing confusion must have been apparent, as Priscilla added: “A president when we were both really just kids, back up-time: his wife was a part of a propaganda campaign in what was called, ‘The War On Drugs.’ When Don Francisco says, ‘secure a supply of opium,’ we flash over to an image of a man with an egg in one hand, saying: R#8216;This is your brain,’ then the egg frying in oil and the motto, ‘This is your brain on drugs.’ ”
“Ah,” Monique said, parsing all the unfamiliar terms.
Even Nasi looked as if he’d learned something new.
Rodney Totman’s laughter was loud, even in the large space: “Fancy being a drug kingpin, honey?”
She joined her husband, those white teeth flashing.
Monique liked the way Priscilla looked at her husband, it gave her hope for the institution of marriage.
“Forgive me being blunt, but I foresee some issues,” Gervais said, setting his wine aside.
Nasi gestured for him to continue.
“Muslims, like many devoutly religious folk, have particular views on the body and its administration. Those views may render Monsieur and Madame Totman’s undoubted medical skills a commodity without a buyer. Unless you wish to call on my talents for games of confidence, it seems that aside from their skills, we have very little to sell the Mughals in exchange for their opium and saltpeter.”
Nasi nodded. “We have some specialists arriving from Magdeburg in the next few days who will provide additional technical expertise we believe the Mughals will be interested in: several young men trained in railroad construction and engineering. They’ve just been released from service on detached duty, and will provide additional security for the trade mission.”
“Who?” Rodney asked.
“Ah, J.D. is good people. Met him while we were in basic training,” Rodney said.
“Just so,” Nasi said with a nod. “Along with him are three young men direct from the TacRail units; Maddox, Wiley, and Baldwin.”
“Bobby Maddox?” Mrs. Totman asked.
“Remember him from our wedding, Rodney? He’s a parishioner.”
Monique had the impression Rodney didn’t, but the huge man nodded anyway.
“Railroads, eh? Can’t say I know too much about them, but that I thought they required a great many up-time technical wonders to push cargo along.”
“Pull,” Rodney corrected, “in the case of trains, but yes, they do require locomotives.” He looked expectantly at Nasi.
“We have that settled, short-term, as well as how we’ve chosen to fulfill one of the other requirements of court life ”
“The giving of bribes?” Gervais said as the other man drank.
Swallowing and lowering his glass, Nasi smiled without humor. “In my experience, the courts of eastern potentates prefer calling such, ‘the giving of presents.’ That said, if they choose to give the mission the full diplomatic treatment rendered to the Ottomans or English, the mission members can expect to come away from this trip with some substantial gifts from the court, merely for showing up.”
Gervais yawned, looking terribly uninterested. Monique recognized the expression as the surest sign her father’s greed was holding the reins of his mind.
“Landsmen’s legs,” Captain Strand said, watching the three young Grantville men walk up the gangplank to board Lønsom Vind.
The captain, Gervais, and Rodney Totman were standing on the poop deck of the Danish fluyt. Well, Gervais and Strand were standing; Rodney’s nausea had him leaning at the rail.
Seasickness made distilling the Dane’s words from his accent difficult, but Rodney persevered: “Yes, yes it will.”
“And at the end of the voyage, more uncertainty.”
“Yes, there is that.”
“You talk little. This is good. Unexpected, but good.” Strand pointed a thick finger at the young men, now making their way below decks. “Any of them going to prove useful?”
“At sea? Probably not. Why?”
Strand turned to face Rodney and shrugged. “Going to be a long time at sea. Each journey made, I have lost sailors, either to the sea upon transit of the Cape or to disease caught along the way. We might have a need for young men.”
“I think you will find your losses to illness minimized.”
“I thought it strange, the way you insisted on spraying every inch of the ship.” The captain snorted. “But getting rid of my ratter? Sure, he was a flea-bitten mutt, but he was loyal, and well-liked by the crew.”
“That’s just it, Captain: fleas are the carriers of many illnesses. Besides, all the rats should have been killed by the fumigation process. You did set a watch on the mooring lines to prevent more rodents coming aboard, as instructed?”
The Captain nodded, pulling a face. “Next you’ll have us eating dainties.”
Gervais smiled. “How did you know?”
Blonde brows shot up in surprise. “An attempt at humor, only.”
“Preserved fruits, Captain, are quite tasty.”
“Your men will likely be in better shape, medically, once we arrive in India than they are now,” Rodney added.
Rodney caught a glance Gervais sent at Captain Strand. Realizing too late how condescending that might have sounded, he opened his mouth to apologize.
But Strand just shrugged. “I would say it was hard to believe, but then I look at the size and shape of you and the other up-timer men, and I believe. Is there a bent back or malformed leg among you?”
“A few. Believe it or not, we had more health issues from being fat than from badly-healed limbs, rickets, and that sort of thing.”
Strand patted his belly. “How is showing one’s prosperity a problem?”
“When it leads to heart disease and diabetes.”
Strand put a hand on his chest, brows drawing together, “Disease of the heart? Fleas carry this disease as well?”
“Well, no they carry Let me see how to explain ”
Gervais, chuckling, broke in, “Normally I would dread the boredom of a long sea voyage, but with you up-timers every conversation will provide five more things to talk about!”
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