1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 82:



            Thorsten stared at her. How in the name of all that was holy had a mere obsession with a most-likely-unobtainable woman led him to this state of affairs? If Krenz ever found out about it, he’d be teasing Thorsten all the way into the grave. Maybe beyond, who could say?


            Not knowing what else to do, he fell back on his sturdy village background. Forget that she was the daughter of Gustav Adolf, King of Sweden and Emperor of the United States of Europe, perhaps the premier captain of the day. Thorsten couldn’t begin to deal with that.


            What he could deal with, however—had, in fact, many times—was explaining to an overly confident child why it wasn’t a good idea for them to try helping with the heavy farm work. No sensible farmer would beat his boys for pressing him on such a matter. The heart of it, in fact, was something he needed to encourage. So, it was a time for calm explanations. Not talking down to the boy—avoid that at all costs—but simply taking him into your confidence and trying to get the child to look at the problem from the standpoint of what would best help the farm.


            That wasn’t so bad, he discovered. True, he was dealing with a girl instead of a boy, but so what? The phenomenon that Americans called a “tomboy” was hardly unknown in German villages.


            “—and that’s really the biggest problem, Your Highness. It’s not riding the horses, it’s—”


            “Call me Kristina!” she commanded. “I like you. I’ll tell my father to make you a count or something. At least an officer.”


            “Ah…” Best to ignore that altogether, he decided. The girl really did seem extremely intelligent, but she was only seven years old. Still too young, even for someone raised in a royal court, to be able to follow the tricky issues involved in whether or not the Emperor of the USE—but technically only the Captain-General in Magdeburg province, as he was in Thuringia, not the King of Sweden—could override the normal procedures for advancement in the very prickly and often radical regiments. Technically, he could, of course. But it would be very unwise, with a few possible exceptions—and this was certainly not one of them. Thorsten could just imagine the reaction of his fellow soldiers if he got promoted because he’d ingratiated himself to a child princess. Not even Krenz would be friendly about it.


            “Kristina, then. What I was saying is that the real problem is that handling the guns in action has to be done very, very carefully. What everyone will be worrying about is hurting your own people. The American term—we’ve adopted it—is ‘friendly fire.’ It’s a really big problem in a battle, you know. Lots of times as many men get hurt or even killed by their own as they do by the enemy. Not as bad, it’s true, on training maneuvers, but you still have to be very careful.”


            “I won’t get in the way! And I certainly won’t get thrown. I’m a really wonderful rider!”


            “Yes, but… you’re not understanding me. No, it’s probably that I’m not explaining it well. The problem isn’t so much what you might do, it’s that the men will all be worrying about you. They won’t be able to concentrate on what they should be concentrating on, because all of them—trust me, please, because I certainly would—will be devoting half their attention to looking around to see where the princess is. Kristina, please. It is so easy for a man to hurt or kill himself—or his buddies—when you’re dealing with firearms. Any kind of firearms, much less the kind we work with.”


            There was silence, for a moment. Then, deflating like a little balloon, Kristina said: “Oh.”


            Then, a bit later, in a very small voice. “I wouldn’t want that to happen. I’d feel really bad about that.”


            She looked up at Caroline. “This is part of not being mean to people, isn’t it?”


            Caroline gave her a gentle smile, not the gleaming one. “Not exactly. There’s nothing mean involved here. But, yes, it’s the same principle. You have to be careful, Kristina. Being a princess has disadvantages as well as advantages, it’s just the way it is. It’s much easier for you to hurt someone, even when you don’t mean to. So you have to learn to be more careful than most girls your age need to be. I know it’s upsetting, sometimes. But—”


            She held up and waved that same humorously-scolding finger that Thorsten remembered so vividly from his first encounter with her. “Don’t complain. If you weren’t a princess, you’d never have gotten your own horse by now. Certainly not the one you got.” The finger was now pointed at Thorsten. “Ask him. He comes from a farm family.”


            In that lightning-interest way she had, Kristina was now peering at him. “Really? Where is your family’s estate?”


            “Ah… it was destroyed in the war, I’m afraid.” His innate honesty made him add: “But it was a very small estate.”


            Not that honest, but… He pressed forward. “At this age, you’d maybe be riding a pony. But probably not. Probably one of the really old horses, that aren’t able to do much work any longer.”


            “Oh.” She made a little face. “That doesn’t sound like fun.”


            Thorsten almost blurted out: To the contrary, the farm girls love it. What is it about girls and horses anyway? They’re just dumb beasts, and they’ll break your foot in an instant.


            But he said nothing. After a moment, the girl’s eyes got fixed on the bundle again.


            “What’s in the package? You still haven’t told me!”






            Fortunately, Caroline diverted her again.


            Excrutiatingly, Thorsten couldn’t tell if that was because she’d already guessed what was probably in it.


            He squirmed inside that Iron Maiden for five minutes, until Caroline finally shepherded Kristina out of the room and back into the clutches of the four down-time ladies.


            Then she came back and returned to her desk, smiling.


            “All right, Thorsten, I’m curious myself. What is in that bundle?”


            He rose, unfolded the cloth, and laid the contents on her desk. “I would like you to take these. From me.”


            He had no idea what to do next. In his growing panic, all he could think of was to race to the rear.


            “But I must be off, Caroline. We’re leaving tomorrow morning—very, very early, the Admiral insists—on our expedition.”


            Out the door he went. Not quite running.




            Once in the street, striding as quickly as he could toward the army depot where he could get a seat on a wagon returning to the base, his stern sergeant’s training came back.


            He’d just violated security, he realized—and grossly at that. The expedition was supposed to be kept a secret.


            But as stern as it might be, his sergeant’s training was a patina over a young man in a state of emotional chaos—and a practical German farmer, at that.


            Fuck it. The up-timers were lunatic on the subject of security. What difference did it make if a civilian in Magdeburg knew what several hundred enemy spies certainly knew by now anyway? No one doubted there were that many spies in the city. Not even Gunther Achterhof thought the CoC security apparatus could do more than keep the bastards from anything direct or ambitious. But there was no way to keep them out of Magdeburg altogether, since it was a city full of immigrants and more coming every day.


            All a man needed was half a brain and a decent eyeglass—which were hardly rare—and a good patch of woods. There were woods all over. From there, he could watch the regiments in their training. If he had any military experience at all, which he certainly would, he’d know the battle group was getting ready to march. There were apartments all over, too. The city was full of modest windows—but plenty big enough for an eyeglass. From one of them, he could watch Simpson’s ironclads getting ready also.


            Fuck secrets. All the more so, this day, when the only secret in the world that Thorsten Engler cared about was the secret heart of a woman he could only half-understand.