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1636: The Ottoman Onslaught: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Wednesday, September 7, 2016 20:08 EDT



Magdeburg, capital of the United States of Europe

    This time, the plane landed with only a couple of slight bumps and came to a halt where and when and in the manner it was supposed to. Gretchen was still relieved when the plane finally came to a stop. Even the short period when it was driving across the tarmac on wheels under its own power made her nervous. For some reason, Eddie called it “taxiing” even though the exercise had no relationship Gretchen could determine with the famous postal service of Thurn and Taxis.

    She hadn’t like flying the first time she did it, she hadn’t liked it this time, and she didn’t imagine she ever would.

    That said, they had gotten from Dresden to Magdeburg in about an hour. It would have taken her several days on horseback and longer if she’d walked.

    “Thank you,” she said politely, after Junker helped her to the ground. “The trip was very… uneventful.”

    Eddie grinned. “Not pleasant, though, I take it.”

    She shook her head. “I don’t think I will ever…” She broke off, seeing what looked like a small mob headed in their direction.

    “What’s this?” she wondered.

    “Your greeting, I imagine.”

    Gretchen frowned. “Why are this many people coming to meet me?”

    Eddie studied her for a moment, with a quizzical expression on his face. Then he grinned again. “I will say this, Gretchen Richter. It is perhaps the most reassuring thing about you that you really don’t know the answer to that question.”

    Her frown deepened. “That makes no sense at all.”

    Eddie left off any reply. By then, the lead elements in the procession had come within greeting distance and they’d sorted themselves out as a separate group from the rest. Tentatively, Gretchen classified the four coming forward as the actual delegation, while the others were simply servants or assistants of some sort.

    “Frau Richter,” said the worthy at the head of the column. “Welcome to Magdeburg. I am General Lars Kagg. The emperor asked me to provide you with an escort to the royal palace.”

    The general was wearing the sort of apparel you’d expect from a court official, not anything that resembled a military uniform. But that was no cause for surprise. The Swedes — this was true of most German rulers as well — made no sharp distinction between military and civilian posts. Officials of either sort were expected to be at the disposal of the state and prepared to assume whatever responsibilities were given them, in whatever location they were instructed to place themselves.

    Kagg had a booming way of speaking, but he seemed courteous enough. Gretchen tentatively ascribed the loudness of his voice to nature rather than to any attempt on the general’s part at intimidation.

    Kagg turned partway around and gestured to the men just behind him. “If you would allow me to make some introductions…”

    The first man he brought forward was, like Kagg himself, somewhere in early middle age.

    “This is Colonel Johan Botvidsson. He’s serving me at the moment as my aide-de-camp.”

    The name was familiar. Tata had mentioned the man to Gretchen a few times. He’d been one of the Swedish general Nils Brahe’s aides when Brahe had been administering the Province of the Main. As Gretchen recalled, Tata’s impression of him had been favorable.

    “And this is his aide, Captain Erik Stenbock.” As had the colonel before him, Captain Stenbock acknowledged her with a stiff little bow. The stiffness was simply the Swedish court style, not an indication of any particular attitude.

    Stenbock was quite a bit younger than either Kagg or Botvidsson. He seemed to be in his early twenties.

    General Kagg now gestured at the fourth man in the group. “And this is Erik Gabrielsson Emporagrius.”

    Kagg assigned Emporagrius no specific post, rank, title or position, which Gretchen found interesting in itself. From subtleties in the general’s demeanor that she would have found it impossible to specify, she got the sense that — unlike the two military figures he’d introduced, to whom he seemed quite favorably inclined — he had no great liking for this fourth fellow.

    At first glance, Gretchen had assumed Emporagrius to be close in age to Kagg and Botvidsson. But looking at him more closely she realized that was due to the severe expression on his face, a sort of facial acidity that made him seem older than he really was. She didn’t think he was actually much older than thirty or so.

    Emporagrius returned her gaze with an unblinking stare. He made no gesture with his head that bore even the slightest suggestion of a nod.

    The introductions completed, Kagg now gestured at the gaggle of servants standing a short distance away.

    “And now, Frau Richter, we have carriages ready to transport you to the palace.”

    There were plenty of towns in Europe where riding in a carriage was likely to result in bruises — sometimes even broken bones. In such places, people would choose to ride in litters suspended between two horses rather than risk direct contact with the ground transmitted by unforgiving wheels. Most of Magdeburg’s streets were hard-packed dirt, but the main streets of the capital were superb, compared to those of any town or city in the continent except those of Grantville.



    Another surprise awaited Gretchen once they arrived at the palace. The chambers that Kagg ushered her into amounted to a suite. She’d been expecting something more closely akin to a room that a servant might occupy.

    Why were they doing this? Gretchen’s ingrained hostility toward the aristocracy — and kings and emperors were just top shelf nobility — made her suspicious.

    They were trying to soften her up! Fool her into… into…

    At that point, her sense of humor came to her rescue. Yes, no doubt all these courtesies were designed for the purpose of softening her up. But she remembered Mike Stearns once making the quip: “If I was scared to death of being softened up, I’d never bathe. Is it really better to stink?”

    She turned to Kagg and said: “Thank you. This is very nice. When am I supposed to talk to the emperor? And where?”

    “The ‘when’ depends on you, Frau Richter. The emperor thought you might want to rest for a bit after the — ah — ardors of your travels.”

    Gretchen made a little snorting sound. “What ardors? I admit that flying makes me very nervous, but it’s about as physically strenuous as sitting in a rocking chair. I am ready to meet with the emperor whenever…”

    She’d been on the verge of competing the sentence with “whenever it suits His Majesty.” But that seemed excessively subservient.

    “Now, if he wants,” she concluded.

    Kagg nodded. “In that case, please follow me.”



    There were enough servants of various sorts in the palace that at least some of them rushed ahead to warn the emperor that she was coming. So, by the time Kagg ushered her into an even more palatial suite — this one a meeting chamber, though, not a sleeping one — Gustav Adolf was awaiting her in a chair, alertly observant as she came in.

    They’d never actually met, in the sense of being introduced, although on three previous occasions they’d been in the same room together. On the first of those occasions, Gustav Adolf had been standing over the corpse of the Croat cavalryman whose skull he’d split open with the sword in his hand. And the sword had been dripping blood, unnoticed by the Swedish king, onto the trouser leg of Gretchen’s husband, who was lying on his back with a wound in his shoulder.

    That memory brought Gretchen up short, for an instant. She’d come into the chamber braced for a fight, but now she found herself disarmed. Whatever else — whatever divided them, whatever disputes they might have — she owed this man her husband’s life. And, probably, the lives of dozens and possibly hundreds of children who’d also been in the high school that day. It was not likely that, on their own, Gretchen and Dan Frost and a busload of police cadets could have driven off the thousand or so Croats who were assaulting the school. Not without Gustav Adolf and the hundreds of cavalrymen he’d brought in time.

    She cleared her throat. “Your Majesty, I do not believe I ever thanked you for saving my husband’s life. That day at the school in Grantville.”

    The emperor’s eyes widened. “I wasn’t aware that I had, Frau Richter.” Then, as the memory came to him, he snapped his fingers. “Yes, now I recall! You were the young lady who was clutching the fellow that Croat was about to cut down. Ha! I never realized until this moment that you and she were the — ah… the same Gretchen Richter.”

    Gretchen couldn’t help but smile. “The notorious Gretchen Richter, you meant to say.”

    Gustav Adolf made a little dismissive gesture. “Notorious, yes — but notorious to whom, exactly? I am not unaware that you were the central figure in holding together the population of Amsterdam when they successfully resisted the Spanish besieging the city. Today, of course, we are on quite good terms with those same Spaniards — not allied, no, but still on good terms. But would we have had that outcome without you? Probably not, I suspect.”

    He seemed to sit a bit straighter. “And I am certainly not unaware that you were — no one doubts this at all, certainly not Ernst –” He nodded toward a figure sitting in another chair off to the side. Gretchen was a bit startled to see that it was Ernst Wettin. She’d been so pre-occupied with the emperor that she hadn’t noticed him at all.

    “– the central figure in holding Dresden firm against the threat of Báner.” The imperial jaw tightened. “Who followed Axel into treason.”

    His momentary dark mood vanished almost at once. He gestured toward a third chair, which was positioned approximately equidistant from his own and that occupied by Wettin. “But please, take a seat. We have much to discuss.”

    As she sat down, Gretchen glanced over her shoulder and saw that Kagg had left the room. Except for two servants standing by a doorway — not the one she’d come in but one that was too distant for the servants to overhear their conversation — the three of them were alone in the room.

    So. Apparently this was to be a genuinely private and informal discussion. That had been one of the possibilities, but the one she’d least expected.



    As soon as she was seated, the emperor went straight to the point.

    “I have a proposal to make,” he said. “Not to you alone — not by any means — but I am starting with you because if you are not willing to accept the proposal the rest will be pointless.”

    She braced herself. The most likely proposal she could imagine would be something on the lines of: You, Frau Richter, must go into exile, preferably to someplace in the New World. In exchange, I will make this or that concession to your band of radical malcontents.

    “The proposal is this. I will agree to remove imperial administration from Saxony, Mecklenburg, the Oberpfalz and Württemberg. I will also allow Württemberg to form its own province separate from the rest of Swabia. And, finally, I will allow all four provinces to become self-governing with a republican structure of some sort.”

    For an instant, a look of exasperation came and went on his face. “One of the reasons I’m agreeing to this is to save myself the grief of trying to referee the claims of far too many Hochadel to these areas. But the main reason is to see if you and I can reach… what to call it? A modus vivendi, let us say.”

    Gretchen’s knowledge of Latin ranged from poor to dismal. Some of her uncertainty must have shown because Ernst Wettin spoke up, for the first time. “His Majesty is using the Latin phrase the way the up-timers do. It refers to an arrangement — something of an informal agreement, if you will, but still binding — that enables parties with conflicting interests or goals to nonetheless coexist peacefully and without resort to violence on either side. This arrangement may be temporary — it usually is — but it can also last indefinitely.”

    Gretchen looked back at Gustav Adolf. “I see. And what would you want from me in exchange? By ‘me,’ of course, we’re referring to the Committees of Correspondence.”

    “Actually, no — or at least, not entirely.” The emperor leaned forward and fixed her with an intent gaze. “Much of this is specific to you. What I want in exchange — will insist upon, in fact — is that you must agree to run for election as the governor of Saxony.”

    Of all the things Gretchen had foreseen as possibilities, that one had never occurred to her even once.

    “Me? Governor?” She almost gasped the words. “But — whatever for?”

    Gustav Adolf nodded at Ernst Wettin. “I will let him explain. Since it was his proposal to begin with.” He grinned and barked out a laugh. “Ha! And be sure I was just as astonished then as you are now. What a mad idea!”

    He leaned back in his chair, still chuckling. “But… one with great merit, once he explained.”

    Gretchen looked back at Wettin.

    “It’s quite simple, really. I’ve spent months with you in Saxony now. Me as the official administrator of the province — and you as the person who really wields the power.” Wettin shook his head. “The arrangement is simply untenable, Gretchen. It must be settled — whichever way. The formal power must coincide with the real power, or government itself becomes impossible. Certainly in the long run.”

    “But… but… I have been assuming all along, Ernst, that if Saxony became a republic that you yourself would run for governor.”

    Ernst nodded. “And so I will. I would say ‘with the emperor’s permission’ but he’s already given it to me.”

    “More precisely, I insisted on it.” Gustav Adolf pointed at Wettin with a large forefinger. “Make no mistake about it. Ernst Wettin has my confidence and I will certainly be urging all Saxons to vote for him instead of you.”

    He grinned again. “Ernst tells me, though — I find this quite shocking! — that the pigheaded and surly Saxons are likely to ignore me and vote for you instead. If you run, that is.”

    “And if you don’t,” said Wettin, now leaning forward himself, “here is what will happen. The Fourth of July Party will certainly run a candidate, but they won’t garner more votes that I will. They don’t have much of an organization in Saxony, as you know. I estimate we would each wind up with about thirty percent of the vote. The rest…”

    He shrugged. “The Vogtlanders will probably pick up fifteen percent or so. The reactionaries — assuming they manage to form a common front — could pick up perhaps ten percent. If they run as squabbling individuals, which is more likely, they’d wind up with less.”

    Gretchen’s Latin might be wretched but her grasp of arithmetic was excellent. She’d had no trouble following the calculations. “That leaves fifteen to twenty percent.”

    “The church, I think. In one form or another.”

    She followed that logic also. Saxony had a solidly Lutheran population and the clergy commanded a great deal of respect. Everyone who was uncertain would tend to listen to their pastors — would seek them out for advice, in fact.

    “A mess, in other words,” Wettin concluded. “No one would have a majority. I’d probably have a plurality, so if we adopted an American-style governor structure — what they call the presidential system — I’d become the new executive outright. If we adopted the more common German system wherein a republican province’s executive is not separate from the legislature — the parliamentary system, in the up-time lexicon — then I’d have to negotiate with others to form a cabinet.”

    He threw up his hands. “And wouldn’t that be a delight! Assuming the Fourth of July Party is the opposition and the Vogtlanders bloc with them —#8212; which they generally would — I’d have to form a coalition with pastors and reactionaries. The first of whom tend to be impractical when it comes to world affairs and the others…”

    He smiled now, albeit thinly. “There’s an American quip I’m fond of — which they stole from a Frenchman, I think. ‘They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.’ That summarizes perfectly, I think, the state of mind of the nation’s reactionaries. What would really happen, of course, is that effective power would continue to be in your hands. It’s just not workable, Gretchen. Either I rule or you rule — one or the other. Straightforward and visible to all.”

    Gretchen had already seen the flaw in the logic. “Then why not simply ask — insist, if you will — that I leave Saxony altogether?”

    She looked away from Wettin to Gustav Adolf. “There’d be a great deal of unrest if you did, but it wouldn’t rise to the level of violence. Not unless I called for it, and I’m not that stupid. That would be –”

    She managed to cut herself off before saying: would be playing into your hands.

    The emperor nodded, as if with satisfaction. “It’s nice to be negotiating with someone who’s not a fool. You’re right, of course. You could rouse the people to rebellion against a brute like Báner, who was threatening a massacre. But against Ernst? Or even worse, against me? When all we asked was for one person to please leave the province?”

    But she’d already left all that behind because she’d finally realized the true nature of the proposal.

    She was quite startled. She wouldn’t have thought that an emperor — first among nobles — would be that shrewd and astute.

    He probably wouldn’t have come up with the idea on his own, of course. But he’d been shrewd enough and astute enough to be persuaded by Ernst Wettin.

    “You don’t want me to leave Saxony,” she said. “You want me to stay.”

    She gave Wettin a look that was almost accusatory. “Because you think I’d win the election.”

    “In a landslide, if we have a presidential system.” Wettin shrugged. “More complicated, with a parliamentary one, since you’d have to run officially as a member of a party rather than as an individual. But that would just add a minor curlicue. The Fourth of July people would be delighted to have you take up their banner. But if you chose to you could simply run as the candidate of the Gretchen Richter Party.”

    She looked back at the emperor. And, for the first time in her life, had a sense of what a wild lion or tiger felt when they confronted a tamer.

    Gustav Adolf apparently sensed her thoughts because his expression became quite sympathetic. “Don’t think of it as being housebroken, Frau Richter — or may I call you Gretchen, in private?”

    Mutely, she nodded.

    “This is something that Michael Stearns has always understood, you know. Eventually, a revolutionary must either” — he looked at Wettin — “what’s that crude but charming expression he likes?”

    “Shit or get off the pot.”

    “Yes, that one.” He turned back to Gretchen. “Once you become powerful enough — which you are, today, certainly in Saxony — then you must decide. Either try to overthrow the existing power or claim it for your own. But what you cannot do — not for long — is try to straddle those two options.”

    “You want me to become respectable.” The word came out like an accusation.

    She could see that Gustav Adolf was doing his best to suppress another grin. “Ah… Gretchen. I am told there exists a painting of you done by no less an artist than Rubens that hangs in the royal palace in Brussels. Apparently the King in the Netherlands, as he likes to style himself, thinks it makes a useful cautionary reminder.”

    She sniffed. “Yes, I’ve heard about that.”

    “And in that painting –”

    “My tits are bare. Yes, I know. I remember quite well. It was a cold day and I maintained that pose for hours. What is your point?” A bit belatedly, she remembered to add: “Your Majesty.”

    “My point is that I think no matter how long you live you will never have to fear the horrid fate of slumping into dull and undistinguished respectability.”

    “I will need to think about this,” she said.

    The emperor nodded. “Yes, of course.”

    “And I will need to discuss it with other members of the Committees of Correspondence here in Magdeburg. That will include, you understand, Spartacus and Gunther Achterhof.”

    “Yes, of course. May I also suggest you discuss it with Rebecca Abrabanel. And Herr Piazza also, if you choose. He’s resident here.”

    “Yes, of course,” she said.

    The emperor rose. “That’s it, then. When may I expect an answer, Gretchen?”

    She came to her feet as well. “Soon.”

    He smiled. “Just as I thought.”

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