1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 83:



Chapter 30



            Caroline sat at her desk for two hours. Part of the time, staring at the objects on it. Part of the time, staring at a photograph which she pulled out of her desk drawer. Most of the time, staring out the window. To the northwest, where the army camp lay, so she had to crane her head a little.


            Finally, seeing the sun lowering itself into the window, she realized what time it was. And how little time remained.


            She snatched up the objects—re-bundled them, actually, since Thorsten had left the cloth too—and hurried into Maureen’s office. To her great relief, the Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt countesses hadn’t left yet. They were usually in Maureen’s office, this time of the afternoon, having a leisurely chat over the affairs of the settlement house.


            That was good, because she didn’t think Maureen would know the answer any more than she did. Not for sure, anyway—and this was one of those times you had to be sure.


            Ignoring their startled greetings—she’d pretty much just burst in—she laid the half-wrapped bundle on the table.


            “Do these mean what I think they mean? I need an answer, ladies. No fooling, down and dirty, and now.


            Frowning, Anna Sophia rose and came over. But her nineteen-year-old counterpart was there first, already unfolding the cloth.


            “Oh, Caroline, how splendid. Thorsten gave them to you, I assume?”


            Emelie held up the salt cellar and pepper grinder. “Nice enough, if not fancy. These would be an heirloom, you understand. Something—probably his mother’s—that he was able to save from the farm.”


            She put them down and held up the other pair of objects. “These now… Very good shoes, they are. He must have saved half his salary to buy these.”




            The young countess of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt handed the shoes to her. “Don’t be silly,” she said, smiling. “Yes, they mean exactly what you think they mean, Caroline. What else would they be?”


            The older countess was at the table, now, frowning at the things.


            “Yes, of course. He is asking you to betroth him. But—Caroline… You can do better than a former farmer and an army sergeant. I’m quite sure. Much better, in fact.”


            Caroline looked around, saw an empty chair, and sat down. Then, quickly, took off her shoes and began trying on the new ones. As always when she was under tremendous emotional stress, she grasped at practicality.


            “No, Anna Sophia, I don’t think I can. I really don’t—and believe me, I’ve thought about it a lot, the last few weeks. More to the point—way, way more to the point—I don’t want to.”


            Her foot got jammed halfway into the shoe. “Three years is too long, isn’t it, Maureen?”


            “Don’t be stupid. If we were still back up-time, with what you’ve learned, you’d be a licensed clinical social worker by now. If it was up to me, excessive and self-indulgent grief would be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a no-kidding mental disorder. Of course it’s too long. Way too long.”


            “Yeah, I know. It’s just—oh, damn the man! Why didn’t he ask? They’re at least a size too small!”


            “Same reason you didn’t, I imagine. Didn’t know what to ask or how to ask it in the first place.”


            Caroline put back on her own shoes, her shoulders slumped. “I’m an idiot. And now it’s too late because—”


            Her shoulders unslumped and her head came back up. “Is Kristina still here?”


            “Should be. Last I saw she and the four-headed Cerberus were—”


            Caroline didn’t hear the rest. She snatched up the shoes Thorsten had left and raced out the door. Once in the hall beyond, she located the princess by the simple, direct—and incredibly improper—expedient of just bellowing: “Kristina! Where are you? I need you right here, right now!”


            Kristina popped out of a doorway not three seconds later.


            “Okay, girl, you keep telling me what a great horsewoman you are. I need to get to the army camp before they close the gates at sundown. No way there’s enough time to get a carriage—too slow, anyway—and if I tried to ride a horse I’d fall off before I got to the end of the street.”


            “Oh, I can take you! Just ride behind me and hold on tight!”


            It didn’t strike either one of them that the notion of a full-grown woman—bigger than most, at that—“holding on” to a seven-year-old girl—smaller than most, at that—while cantering on a horse was perhaps not a good idea.


            Of course, it did occur to the four-headed Cerberus.


            “You can’t do that!” they shrilled as one.


            “Watch me!” came the imperious reply, and off they went. Kristina only paused long enough once they reached the stable to tell Caroline, “You’d probably better put those shoes in the saddle-bag. So you can hold on with both hands.”


            The four noblewomen almost got trampled as they came into the stable, just at the moment the horse and its two riders went out. Fortunately, they were spryer than they looked. The two soldiers had been lagging so far behind they only needed to take two steps aside to clear the street.


            “This is so much fun!” Kristina shrieked.


            Caroline was far too scared to think it was “fun.” Kristina had—what a surprise—a truly superb horse, and she did in fact know how to use it. Her notion of a “canter,” however, was nothing Caroline would have called by the name. Not, admittedly, that Caroline could tell the difference between a trot and a canter and a gallop much better than she could the difference between a horse and a cow. But it did seem to her that they were racing along faster than she could remember driving on a freeway.


            All things are relative, though, and at the moment Caroline’s fear of their speed was pretty much drowned beneath her fear at the speed with which the sun was setting.


            However, they got to the gates before sundown. The question now became…


            How does a civilian female holding a pair of shoes get herself admitted into an army base?


            Luckily, Kristina had the answer. “Open the gates! I’m Princess Kristina, daughter of the King and Emperor! My friend Caroline, the countess of Oz, needs to see Thorsten”—there might have been just the tiniest hesitation here—“the count of Narnia!”


            The four guards stared at her. The princess stamped her foot. “Now! Or I’ll—well, you won’t like it.”


            She cocked an eye up at Caroline. “Is that okay?” she half-whispered.


            “I’m not about to give you a hard time over it, that’s for sure. But where in the world did you learn to tell fibs like that?”


            Kristina sniffed. “How silly. Watching my father and Uncle Axel. And all the others. They’re frightful fibbers, you know.”


            An officer emerged. “What’s this all about?” he demanded, half-sternly and half-worriedly. Whether or not his soldiers knew who the girl was, he certainly did.


            It took another two minutes, but in the end he let them through. In fact, he even offered to guide Caroline and Kristina to the right barracks. Surprisingly, perhaps, Caroline was almost sure it was more the silent appeal in her own eyes than Kristina’s royal proclamations that turned the tide.


            Or perhaps it was simply that he knew Thorsten Engler. And, like everyone Caroline had met, liked the man. That didn’t surprise her at all.


            “There,” he said, pointing to one of the barracks, once they were fifteen yards away.


            Kristina surged to the fore again. “Thorsten Engler! Come out!”


            A few seconds later, he did. Stared at Caroline, then at the shoes in her hand. Then, turned his head away slightly. A subtle but unmistakable look of great sadness came over his face.


            She’d done something wrong. In God’s name, what?




            So, it was over. Thorsten realized—he should have listened to Eric and the others—that he’d not only been foolish, but had even insulted the woman. So greatly that she’d come out here, the same day, to return the gifts in person. Lest he be under any misapprehension at all.


            Suddenly, she started striding toward him. That same very athletic stride that could still arouse him so. But he only watched from the corner of his eyes, since he couldn’t really bear to look at her directly.


            Until she was standing just three feet way, and extended the shoes. The gesture was oddly tentative, not the firm thrust he’d expected.


            “Thorsten… Oh, damnation. Look, I can’t help it. It’s just the way I am, take it or leave it. I’m a practical girl. And I’ve got big feet for a woman. The shoes are too small. But…”


            Hope surged, where he’d thought there was none. His eyes went to hers.


            There was no anger at all, in those green orbs. No smile on the face below, either. But the eyes were simply…


            Appealing? Uncertain?


            “Can I—or you?—I don’t care—trade them in? I’d love to have a pair that fits.” Her eyes started watering. “I can’t tell how much I would. But…”


            Her voice was barely above a whisper. “I don’t know what to do, either. And I don’t want to do anything wrong. Not now. God, not now.”


            Perhaps he smiled. He never remembered. Whatever. Finally—for sure—he did something right.


            Caroline’s full smile erupted. She dropped the shoes. “Oh, fuck it,” she said. “And fuck whatever horse anybody rode in on.”


            The next thing he knew she had him in a fierce embrace, and was kissing him more fiercely still.


            So. At least that legend was true. Americanesses did all use the Austrian kiss. Her tongue felt like it was halfway down his throat. Good thing he came from sturdy farmer stock, with stout hearts on both side of the family. Or he would have died, right then and there.


            Eventually—who could say when? who cared?—she broke off the kiss and nuzzled his ear. “I’ll write to you, but I don’t know if the letters will get delivered. Please write to me, whenever you can.”


            “They might,” he murmured back. “Hard to know. Damn army. But whether they ever get to you or not, I will write them.”


            The bugle blew. “Oh, damn,” Caroline said. “Does that mean what I think it means?”




            Kristina managed to extort another five minutes for them. She’d inherited her father’s ability to throw a truly majestic temper tantrum along with his prominent nose. But, eventually, the officers insisted. Push comes to shove, officers with combat experience are less susceptible to the menace of a shaking seven-year-old finger than noble ladies.


            But, by then, it really didn’t matter. Enough had been said—enough finally understood—that Caroline and Thorsten would either have all the time in the world, or Thorsten would be dead before she saw him again.


            Grief she could handle, if need be. Hopefully, this time, she’d handle it better. But at least uncertainty was gone.


            Oh, so very very very gone. He had a wonderful kiss, too. And she already knew he’d make a wonderful father, just from watching him with Kristina.




            After she was out of sight, Thorsten turned back and re-entered the barracks. There, in the middle of the room, he planted hands on hips and looked about at the pitiful inhabitants. They’d all watched, of course, half of them crammed into the doorway and the other half crowded at the windows.


            “Go ahead,” he said. “Make a joke. Any joke..”


            Eric Krenz covered his eyes. “He’s going to be insufferable, fellows. Absolutely insufferable. How did it come to this, anyway? This is absurd. It’s not in any of the legends.”