1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 37

Eddie almost snapped his fingers: the Secret Service! That’s what O’Rourke’s attentive hover looked like. Eddie paused, reflected. Of course, maybe it looks like that because that’s exactly what it is.

But that wasn’t the way bodyguards typically worked in this day and age. They came as a large group, often in formation, and with bright uniforms that sent a clear message to all who saw: “get too close, and you’ll get run through.” But maybe it was different with Hugh. After all, even though he was the last prince of Ireland — a quixotic concept if there had ever been one — he certainly didn’t act like it.

Eddie felt his frown come back. Okay, so Hugh’s demeanor and interactions didn’t resemble those of an heir-apparent to a throne that the English would never let him have. That didn’t make it any less likely that any number of English — or other — leaders might want him dead. And maybe now more than ever.

Hugh had grown up in the down-time equivalent of the English crown’s cross hairs, as had the only other Irish earl, the late John O’Neill. But now that there was only one left, it was probably more tempting than ever to reduce that number to zero, thereby eliminating the only figurehead around which a rebellion might readily coalesce. That was why Hugh had been subtly maneuvered into his New World sojourn by his aunt, the Archduchess Isabella of the Spanish Lowlands: to put distance between her nephew and potential assassins. But that was at best a temporary expedient, which Aodh O’Rourke had apparently realized.

As they reached the head of the dock, Hugh scanned the street leading into the center of Oranjestad. “And there are our new recruits, looking more like lost sheep than men-at-arms.” He turned, smiled. “Maarten, Eddie, I want to thank you for making good on the promise I made to Hyarima. I’d not have made it alone, but lives were in the balance.”

The admiral inclined his head. “It was the right decision, morally and strategically.”  Eddie just grinned and nodded.

Smiling, Hugh shook their hands and then made to step away. “After our new boyos have their heads on straight, I’ve a promise to keep: that this mortal wound shall be tended to one more time.” He held up and wiggled his left small finger. What was left of it was well-bandaged.

Van Walbeeck leaned in, concern spiking in his tone. “Is it not healing?”

Hugh laughed. “Quite the contrary; nary a problem, now. Why so concerned, Governor?”

Van Walbeeck was frowning, staring at the mauled pinky as if it might leap free of the earl’s hand and begin attacking them. “My first employ was with the Dutch East India Company. In those jungles, an almost-mended wound may yet fester and take not just a limb, but a life.”

Hugh nodded. “I appreciate your concern, but no open flesh remains. The scar tissue is complete and no longer tender.”

Van Walbeeck’s frown changed to one of mere puzzlement. “Then I find it hard to understand why Dr. Brandão, would wish you to return.”

Hugh chuckled. “Oh, it is not Dr. Brandão that I must see. It did not warrant his expertise. I am under the care of one of his volunteers.”

Van Walbeeck’s frown was replaced by a round-mouthed, “Ohhh. Yes. I see now.” As the earl nodded his farewell and turned to leave, Jan sent an assurance after him: “I’m sure you are in excellent hands.” If Hugh heard van Walbeeck’s shift to a mischievous drawl, he gave no sign of it. After a moment, Van Walbeeck and Jol exchanged winks and grins. Tromp sighed but couldn’t hold back a small smile when Peg-Leg added, “I am told that Lady Sophie Rantzau was his dedicated nurse. Excellent hands, indeed!”

Eddie stared at the three of them. For one bizarre moment, he felt like he was eight again, watching the old ladies who sat around after Sunday service, furtively inspecting the “young people” and scheming to make matches between their preferred pairings. Which they never did.

And damn it if the three redoubtable Dutch sea captains weren’t standing at the intersection of the dock and the main street, staring about them with the same insufferably self-satisfied smiles on their faces. But maybe, Eddie relented, there was cause for that. Spirits were high and competition over merely speaking to a young woman no longer threatened to devolve into rutting combats that he mostly associated with National Geographic documentaries. Between the young ladies who’d come by boat from St. Christopher’s and the mass of colonists which had arrived with the convoy, the ratio was no longer dangerously lopsided.

“Would you say that the timing of tomorrow night’s dance was also another stroke of extraordinary ‘luck?'” Van Walbeeck asked over Eddie’s shoulder. “Look at them, men and women alike, running their fingers over those fine fabrics. The best Seville had to offer. All ‘diverted’ here at the most propitious moment!” Eddie managed not to roll his eyes. “Why,” concluded van Walbeeck, “it’s as if someone had planned it all!”

Tromp sighed. “Careful, Jan. You might break your arm, trying to pat yourself on the back.” Jol chuckled.

Van Walbeeck effected umbrage. “Laugh if you must, but ask yourselves: why is this glorious bedlam occurring now? Ships have been off-loading for a week.” He shook his finger at them. “Because the colony’s government prohibited open sales until this day. To ensure a fair opportunity for all potential customers to inspect all the goods, all at once. And so, all the merchants would have equal access to the equally full purses of their clientele.” He had to pause his self-praise for a moment; musicians strolled past, lutes, recorders, and mandolas weaving melodies and harmonies together like closely stitched seams that parted again.

“So, he resumed, “with buyers and sellers all champing at the bit, we have maximum bartering” — he gestured outward with both arms — “which drives up the amount of trade, which drive up tariffs on the sales. However, steps were taken to offset that bite from everyone’s purse.”

Eddie nodded, frowning: he’d been too busy with strategic and technology matters to follow the market arrangements. “That’s why you waived customs and port taxes for this week: that way, anyone selling is only paying what we used to call sales tax. Which they must declare as such to their customers.”

Jol frowned. “All very well, but then what keeps the vendors from increasing the sales tax and gouging the customers?”

“Nothing,” replied van Walbeeck with a beatific smile.

“But then how can these people afford those prices?”

“Because we, the government of St. Eustatia are paying their sales taxes for them, this week.”

Eddie felt like the lobes of his brain had just hit each other in a high-speed collision. “Wait. But that’s a loop. You would have received the taxes from the people. But now you’re paying it for them. To yourselves? So . . .  are you writing it off?”

“Not at all, because it is not quite a loop, my innocent young friend. You see, we are repaying ourselves . . . from the most useful items taken from La Flota.”

Jol sputtered before he could get out any words. “And you call me cunning and a pirate! So while you’ve used one hand to wave away the taxes and make everybody happy, you’ve used the other to dip into all the gold, silver, gems, and coin from La Flota to ‘repay’ the government for the taxes it agreed to pay for the purchases made this week.”

Walbeeck grinned. “As I said, it is as if someone had been planning it all from the beginning.”

“Planning what from the beginning?” The new voice from behind sounded suspicious. “When van Walbeeck is muttering about careful planning, I clap my hand over my purse.”