1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 80:



Chapter 29



            Thorsten hadn’t hesitated in front of the door to the settlement house since the first time he’d visited, back in January. In the two months since then, he’d come to see Caroline Platzer every time he’d been able to get leave from the army’s training camp outside the city. Six times, now, all told. Half of which he’d been able to spend a full day in her company; none of them, less than three hours. His friends in the volley gun batteries had taken to ribbing him mercilessly about it, with Eric Krenz leading the charge. Complete with every conceivable variation of a joke on the subject of brainless moths being drawn helplessly, with no willpower of their own, into the scorching flames of a lamp or a fire.


            All that, Thorsten had ignored with no difficulty. To hell with them. He hadn’t let the opinions of others deter him from pursuing a goal since, at the age of seven, he’d let one of his more timid cousins persuade him not to swipe an apple from the orchard of a neighboring village that everyone knew produced the best apples in the area.


            Twenty years later, almost, and Thorsten could still taste what that apple probably would have tasted like. The very next day, he’d made a solemn vow to himself, in the way small boys will, that whatever else happened in his life he would not find himself on his deathbed passing into the afterworld with a cart-load’s worth of regrets. He’d added a great many curlicues to that vow since, with the increase of wisdom that the years brought and a better recognition of what was realistically possible and what wasn’t—but he’d never relinquished the heart of it.


            Nowadays, of course, he could pass up a stolen apple without a second thought. But that was just a piddly fruit. Figuratively speaking, Caroline Platzer was the biggest and juiciest apple he’d ever seen in his life. Bigger and juicier than he’d ever imagined in his life.


            Still, he hesitated. Not because the step he was about to take was irrevocable, but from a much deeper worry. Irrevocable steps came quite easily to Thorsten Engler. He was not in any way a man prone to indecision—nor was he a man who’d second-guess himself once he did make a decision.


            The problem was far simpler, and perhaps intractable. Would the blasted Americaness understand what he was doing?


            He’d wracked his brains for a month over the problem. He’d gone so far as to ask the advice and opinions of Eric and the rest of his soldier friends—and gotten nothing in return except more stupid jokes. He’d even gotten up the nerve to ask Gunther Achterhof, who, when the mood took him, could be the most savagely caustic humorist in the world.




            Alas, while Gunther had been sympathetic, he’d been no help either.


            “Sorry, Thorsten, I’ve got no idea. I’m afraid”—here the vulpine grin—“my relations with the Americans, although close in many respects, have never extended into this little area. What the up-timers would call a ‘minefield,’ by the way. They also talk about ‘walking on eggshells.’ What the first means—”


            “I know what a minefield is,” Thorsten growled. “We’re starting to train on laying them as well as digging them out. The up-timers didn’t even invent them, although—damn complicated people; too gnarly-brained to understand, half the time—I’ll grant you they developed some fiendish elaborations. And why would any sane person be walking on eggshells to begin with? Stupid. Waste of good eggs, trampling them into the dirt—not to mention the pain of cleaning your shoes afterward. Crack them and put them in a pan. Only Americans would even think of such a silly expression.”


            “Oh, my. Disgruntled, aren’t we?”


            “I don’t know what to do,” Thurston said, between gritted teeth. “I’m certain she likes me. As a man, too, not just… you know. A friend. I’m certain of that, by now. But—but—”


            “Yes, I understand. Where do you go from here? I take it you’ve gotten no indication from the lady herself?”


            “Who knows?” Thorsten threw up his hands with exasperation. Fortunately, he remembered to relinquish the tightly-gripped full mug of beer before he did so, or he’d have flung the contents onto the men at the next table. That would have produced a fight as well as waste of good beer. The fight, Thorsten wouldn’t have minded at all, the mood he was in. But he was saving up all the money he possibly could from his sergeant’s salary, and he could ill afford to throw away the beer.


            “Who knows,” he repeated, hissing a statement rather than a question. He took a draught from the beer. “Gunther, for all I know she might have been giving me signals every five minutes of every hour I’ve spent with her—and that’s a lot of hours by now. But if she has, they’re Americaness signals—and from three and a half centuries in the future, to make it still worse. Who can tell what she wants me to do? Or not do.”


            “Why don’t you just ask her?”


            Thorsten glared at him. Not because the proposal was insane—he’d considered it himself, at least a hundred times—but because…


            He couldn’t. It was as simple as that.


            Could. Not.


            Achterhof understood, of course. “Can’t, ha? Well, no, I suppose not. Even for me, the way they sometimes come right out and blurt things in the open makes me feel like I’m dealing with village idiots.” He slapped his chest. “We’re proper Germans, after all. And you, a farmer, to make it still worse.”


            Silence followed. Then Achterhof drained his beer. “Another?”


            “No.” Thorsten held up his own. “All I can afford, for today.”


            Gunther studied him for a moment, then chuckled. “Yes, I can see that. Not for Thorsten Engler to settle for a good pair of socks.”


            Thorsten had considered a good pair of socks, in fact. It hadn’t taken him two seconds to discard the idea as preposterous. For a German village woman, maybe. For an Americaness from the future, who knew how the different parts of the brain worked? God only knows what she’d think.


            “Oh, I’ll buy you one. But just one! Not that I’m stingy, Thorsten, but you clearly need to keep your wits about you.”


            They finished the next round of beers more or less in silence. Chatting a bit about the weather, that’s all. When Achterhof finished his beer, Thorsten followed his lead. He suspected the CoC organizer was probably good for another round, regardless of what he said, but Thorsten didn’t like to impose. Besides, the bastard was right. He did need to keep his wits about him. The few that the damn woman had left him.


            He rose. Achterhof looked up at him, and shrugged. “You’ll just have to do it like an impetuous cavalry charge, that’s all. And hope you don’t suffer the all-too-common result.”