1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 27:



Chapter 9





            Thorsten found the office easily enough. After he entered Government House, for the first time since he’d settled in Magdeburg, he discovered a big plaque posted right next to the entrance that listed every office in the building and specified which floor they were on and even gave the room they were using a number. Then, once he reached the third floor, there was another plaque facing the stairwell that listed the offices on that floor—with arrows pointing either to the left or right, along with the name and number of the office. Only a village idiot could not have managed to find their way.


            He found it all somewhat amusing. The term Amerikanische had many connotations in Amdeutsch, to be sure, most of them very positive. But one of the prominent connotations was “fussy, obsessed with detail, precise to the point of absurdity.” Those neat plaques and arrows were a perfect illustration of the trait. Everything must be in order!


            What was amusing about it was that Gunther Achterhof had told Engler that in the universe the Americans came from, they perceived themselves as “rugged individualists”—whatever that might mean, exactly—and it was their accepted mythology that Germans were the world’s natural bureaucrats.


            Germans! Who squabbled about everything, including even the language they spoke, and were notorious throughout Europe for the production of religious sects, mass rebellions, mercenary soldiers—everything except “order.”


            So, getting to the right office was easy. And, sure enough, there was another precise plaque on the door:



Room 322


United States of Europe


Department of Social Services



            When it came time to enter, though, he found himself hesitating. Unlike Gunther, he’d had very little contact with up-timers—and that, only with male Americans. But this office was reputedly run by Americanesses, and the stories about them were enough to make any sane man pause.


            Incredible women, by all accounts—although the stories Thorsten had heard rarely agreed with each other from that point forward. Some legends claimed they were the most lascivious creatures in the world, short of outright succubi. Others claimed they could find an issue concerning sex over which to take offense that no one else could possibly discern. The deadliest females in the world, and the most fragile females in the world. Sorceresses and fools at the same time, who could undertake chemic wonders but had no more sense than a chicken when it came to a multitude of practical matters.


            Thorsten didn’t know what to think—and was not at all sure he wanted to find out.


            He paused with his hand on the door handle for a while. Finally, he decided to open it. They couldn’t possibly be any more peculiar than his great-aunt Mathilde, after all. So, fortifying himself with the image of Mathilde’s fierce eyes—badly crossed and near-sighted, but always fierce—and her constantly disheveled hair and the bizarre utterances that issued from a mouth whose teeth were about the worst anyone had ever seen, he entered the office.


            And found himself staring at a young woman seated behind a desk, looking up at him with a smile.


            About his age, he thought, somewhere in her mid-twenties. Hard to be sure, though. One of the things Americanesses had a reputation for—most accounts agreed on this—was that they seemed to have a peculiar resistance to aging. Some pointed to that as a sign of witchcraft, but most people ascribed it to their well-known chemic skills.


            It was certainly impossible to imagine this woman as a witch, whatever her age. If someone had set Thorsten to the task of picturing a woman who was the exact opposite of his great-aunt Mathilde, he didn’t think he could have come up with anything better.


            To begin with, where Mathilde had been always been very short and became shorter as she grew old—shorter and hunched—this woman was tall. That much was obvious, even seated as she was. Secondly, every hair was in place. True, the style of the hair was perhaps a bit strange, cut short the way it was, but not really all that much. More important, the hair was colored a rich brown, almost chestnut, and very healthy looking, where his great-aunt’s hair had gone from an ugly black to a still uglier gray without ever once losing its most distinguishing characteristic, which was looking like a sheep that had gone unshorn since it was a lamb—but had had many an encounter with briars and thorns. Family legend had it that small animals and birds were occasionally spotted nesting in Great-Aunt Mathilde’s hair. Even as boy, Thorsten had had his doubts, but… you never knew.


            The eyes were completely different, too. Straight, not crossed; a bright and clear greenish color that went superbly with the hair, where Mathilde’s eyes had wavered from a sort of muddy blue to a still muddier gray, depending on her mood of the moment. More striking still was that the green eyes studying him seemed friendly. Mathilde’s mood of the moment had either been frenzied or angry or simply crotchety—but never friendly.


            But all of that Thorsten noticed almost as an aside. From the moment he set eyes on the woman, his gaze was riveted on one feature alone.


            So. At least one legend proved to be true, in every particular. The woman’s teeth were perfect.


            Perfect, and…


            Also stunning. Because the teeth came as part of a wide mouth that had a smile on it that was the most beautiful smile Thorsten had ever seen. It would have been a little scary, if it hadn’t been for the friendly green eyes floating somewhere above.


            “Well, you sure took your time about it,” the woman said, somehow managing to smile more widely still. “I was starting to wonder if I’d need to get help, come nightfall, prying your hand off the handle so we could leave for the day. Or if I could do it myself, with a crowbar.”


            Startled, Thorsten glanced behind him. Only then realizing that he’d turned down the handle before he’d paused for a while.


            “Ah,” was all he could think of to say.


            The smile stayed on her face, but at least the mouth closed. Thorsten thought if a man stared at those teeth for too long, it might turn him to stone. Or something.