1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 39

“So our choice was between standing around while the knowledge from Grantville’s library drives a radically new history, or to have a hand in shaping it. And these islands are among the places where those changes will come the fastest and the hardest.”

Joost Banckert’s frown was no longer impatient but somber. “There is much to think about in what you have said, Eddie. But none of it shines a light on how mariners such as us, bred to pursue profit individually and aggressively, can make money when we are all part of one navy with many restrictive rules.”

Eddie smiled. “You really think there’s a short answer to that question?”

Joost’s frown lessened. “I know you cannot show me the whole tapestry of that new reality, Commodore Cantrell, but a quick sketch of the general design would suffice. For now.”

Eddie shrugged, drew in a deep breath. “Okay. So, there will still be profits in taking ships, and there will still be crew shares, just like now. The difference is that the total value will be set by a prize court which will operate under the auspices of . . . “

*   *   *

Eddie Cantrell was, somehow, still standing as the last sliver of the sun sank down toward the almost purple sea. He distinctly remembered hitting the head (such as it was) once, maybe twice. He was pretty sure he’d eaten an extremely crumbly cassava roll with bacon specks baked into it. He remembered watching all the goods get trundled past, either on their way to being sold or out to the wharf and a waiting lighter and thence to a buyer’s ship.

The biggest draw of the day were the down-time manufactured steam engines. To his eye, they were heavy, inefficient, and over-engineered, but on the other hand they were rugged and designed for ease of adaptation to a variety of purposes: for wheels or propellers, for electricity generation, for grinding. The stall right next to that one seemed to specialize in saws of all types, including several which had cranks. And — surprise, surprise! — they just happened that their rotary mechanism was the right size and shape to facilitate easy connection to the steam engines, once the crank was removed. Where the fuel for the engines would come from was another issue. St. Eustatia was not densely wooded, and shipping it from other islands simply to burn it would an expense that would increase as a function of distance from the source. But upon studying the firebox, Eddie discovered that it too was modular insofar as it was clearly designed to be swapped out. He’d thought a moment, wandered over, and asked the self-styled “engineer” peddling the engines if they could be modified to burn bitumen. He had to back away less than thirty seconds, so eager and emphatic was the sales pitch with which the purveyor of engines assaulted him.

Sometime in the late afternoon, various important passengers debarked from the Dutch frigates: the general and former governor of Recife, Diederik van Waerdenburgh, was received with as much ceremony and pomp as van Walbeeck and Tromp could muster. Following soon after, they toasted the arrival of two military commanders who’d distinguished themselves under him: Major Berstedt and the legendary Hermann Gottfried van Stein-Callenfels. It added a bit of official solemnity to complement the last ferocious commercial surges of the day.

Svantner, delivering a list of engineering issues that had been detected on the two new destroyers during their Atlantic crossing, watched as the martial luminaries passed into the fort for a combination inspection/reception that Eddie would soon have to attend. “Why?” he’d asked when the stout doors had closed behind them.

“Why what?”

“Well, you have pointed out that officers in a combat…er, zone, should never cluster together, even if they believe themselves to be in a friendly place. They make too easy and tempting a target. So why have them disembark and arrive as a group?”

Eddie had smiled. “To give the Spanish spies something to look at and get excited about.”

Svantner’s frown deepened. “Is that wise?”

“It is if we want them to believe that, having seen the arrival of those commanders, they’ve seen everything that’s worth seeing.”

Svantner’s mouth made a soundless, “Ah!” He showed enough perspicacity not to inquire after those items or matters from which they were meant to distract Spanish attention.

Actually, of all the new arrivals, Eddie’s main interest had been in the father and son mapmaking duo, Willem and Joan Blaeu, who had been charged to make highly detailed maps of key locations that the up-time charts only showed in broad outlines. But ask as he would, he had not been able to learn their whereabouts.

Shortly after, he’d trudged into the fort, so tired that his Dutch was beginning to fail him as he met and attempted to converse with the new warships’ post-captains, several of whom spoke almost no English. Those two hours felt more like two weeks, and when he finally emerged into the street, it was everything he could do not to limp on his prosthesis. It was far more comfortable than the old one, and much more rugged, but the fact remained that when he was on his feet — well, foot — for an entire day, the amputation site and proximal muscles began aching and spasming. He steadied himself on the wall for a few moments, and then made his way home, resolved not to appear weak in front of his energetic bride who had every reason to expect that he would have been home at least two hours earlier.

*   *   *

Eddie crept up to the bedroom door, leaned his ear against it. No sound. He sighed. On the one hand, even when he was dog-tired, returning to Anne Cathrine was one of the best parts of his day. Even if it was just to collapse into sleep beside her. Seeing her smile, touching her face, smelling her scent were — well, it made his senses and his heart silently affirm, home. Not merely that he had “come home”; she herself was home, to him.

He released another sigh, longer but no less controlled and quiet, and with it he exhaled the tension and non-stop activity of the day. He turned the latch and slipped in.

Anne Cathrine was on the bed. Not in it: on it. Bolt upright. She was on her knees, but Eddie had never seen a less coy or submissive posture in his life. Her eyes were bright. “So. You’ve come home.” Her voice was not reproachful, but it was — tense?

Eddie nodded, rushed to the end of the bed, tried not to limp but failed. He took her two hands in his. “I’m sorry, Cat” — only he used that name for her, and only when they were alone — “but it was exactly the kind of day we expected. I thought you might be asleep, already.” Like the rest of the denizens of the seventeenth century, Eddie had gradually come to live in accord with the sun, rising and setting when it did. Well, mostly: the predawn rising crap was still a pain in the —

Anne Cathrine squeezed his hands gently. She was wearing a nightgown — or robe, or something — that left very, very little to his always-active imagination. “I knew you would be late. I waited.”

Eddie nodded, kept from frowning at her unusual demeanor and almost distracted tone of voice, almost as if she was speaking in her sleep. Which she never did. “Are you okay, love?”

“I am very well. And I am very glad you are home.”

For a moment, Eddie wondered if he should send for Dr. Brandão. Anne Cathrine speaking in short, simple sentences that declared the obvious? With barely a hint of animation? Was this the onset of some unusual tropical disease?

She slipped her hands out of his, reached up toward him. “I love you, Eddie.”

He smiled, moved in to give her a hug, knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was absolutely the luckiest man in the —

Anne Cathrine grabbed him: hard. Her mouth was on his faster and even harder. She was already breathing like she’d just finished a marathon. All of which he noticed as, with her hands firmly on his shoulders, she twisted sharply at the hip.

Eddie, exhausted and leaning over into what he had expected would be a gentle embrace, fell, her arms guiding and turning him as he did. He landed on his back, too surprised to react, at first.

But Anne Cathrine was not waiting for his response. She turned with his fall, wound up straddling him. He had a fleeting thought that he sure was glad she loved him, because given the expression on her face, her only other possible intent would have been to kill him.

In fact, her hands and arms moved with the speed, force, and focus of an assassin’s. She pushed him down with one hand, grabbed the front of his shirt with the other. She pulled: not merely hard, but savagely. Buttons sprang loose with dramatic snaps and pops, the force of which sent them flying.

They sprayed in all directions, rolling under doors, down between planks, never to be seen again.