1634: THE BAVARIAN CRISIS – snippet 5:



            Privately, Rubens understood perfectly well that he had to find a bride for Don Fernando who would be sufficiently attractive for the prince to spend enough time in her bed to succeed in his royal duties. Dynasties died out for many reasons, and the ill health or infertility of the wife was only one of them. Lack of interest on the part of the husband would do just as well to wither a royal line.


            But Rubens left all that unsaid. Like any vigorous and capable twenty-three-year-old prince, Don Fernando was also sensitive about his youth. He would not take kindly to the suggestion that he was not, actually, a wise old Nestor.


            So, he went back to the subject at hand. “As I say, those two—especially the older sister—would be the ideal one from your point of view. However, they are also the daughters of Emperor Ferdinand II. Who is, ah…”


            “A religious fanatic,” stated the cardinal-infante curtly. “To the point of bigotry.”


            “Well… yes, unfortunately. So I can see no likelihood that he would ever agree to such a match. Given that, under the best of circumstances, it would cause a severe strain to be put upon the Habsburg dynasty across Europe—to which he also belongs. He’d view it as a capitulation to the Dutch Protestants. Who are not even Lutherans, but Calvinists.”


            Don Fernando made a face. “I find it hard to see where a marriage to an Austrian Catholic would constitute a ‘capitulation’ to Dutch Calvinists. But…” He sighed. “Yes, I can see where he would view it that way. By producing a fissure in the solid ranks—not so solid as that!—of the Habsburgs, the premier family of Catholicism, I would indirectly be giving succor to the enemy of the true faith.”


            He raised his hand and almost clutched his blonde hair, as if he might pull it out by the roots. “Aaaah! Am I the only member of my powerful and widely scattered family who studies those up-time books, and is capable of drawing intelligent conclusions from them? Are all other Habsburgs village idiots accidentally wearing royal finery?”


            He lowered the hand and glared up at Rubens—or rather, glared at the world, with Rubens just happening to be in his line of sight. “Is the lesson so difficult to read, in those up-time histories? Every dynasty that survived—some of them even prospered—did so by abandoning the attempt to enforce religious beliefs and behavior. Am I not right?”


            “Well… In Europe, certainly.” Pieter did not add what he could have, that all those dynasties had also survived because they abandoned their attempts to rule as well, and satisfied themselves with simply reigning. Rubens knew that Don Fernando even understood that himself, somewhere in the recesses of his mind, but was not really prepared to accept it yet. And perhaps never would be, though he lived to the age of eighty.


            The prince slapped the armrest of his chair with exasperation. “Yet they won’t give it up! No matter the cost!”


             He shifted the glare about the room, transferring it momentarily from one portrait to another hanging in the salon. They were all portraits of Habsburgs, and they covered every wall. There had been a lot of Habsburgs, over the centuries.


            Then he looked back at Rubens and, with the same exasperation, waved at a nearby chair. “Oh, sit down, Pieter. Surely we can dispense with royal protocol at such moments.”


            Rubens made no move toward the chair. “Actually, we can’t, Your Highness. In the absence of a meal or some such acceptable—”


            “There’s only the two of us!”


            The artist glanced meaningfully at the three servants and two soldiers who stood not so far away; the servants, next to the table holding wine and other refreshments; the soldiers, by the entrance. Except for Don Fernando’s last outburst, they’d been speaking softly enough that neither the servants nor the soldiers could have understood the conversation. But they were not blind. And, almost certainly, at least one of them was accepting pay from some foreign spy—including Spain, as they now must, in the category of “foreign.”


            Understanding the meaning of the glance, the prince sighed and sagged a little in chair. “Damned silliness,” he muttered. “And I can assure you that once I—”


            But he broke off that line of thought, with the self-discipline to be expected from a grandson of Philip II. Instead, he levered himself erect in his chair. Stiffly erect.


            “Very well, Pieter. We’ll continue as before. Are you sure your correspondence with Alphonso is in no risk of interception?”


            “Not entirely. But the cardinal is a circumspect man, whose letters can always be interpreted innocently. And for those occasions when they can’t, he will use his sister in Vienna as his intermediary.”


            Don Fernando smiled. “The formidable Dona Mencia. I met her once, you know? I was very young, at the time. She quite intimidated me.”


            And that, too, Rubens decided to let pass without comment. As it happened, he maintained his own correspondence with Dona Mencia. He would not have described her as formidable so much as very shrewd. Of course, he had the advantage of enjoying the same years of age that she did, rather than encountering her as a lad.


            It was all he could do not to sigh himself. Dona Mencia was now the close attendant to the older of the two Austrian arch-duchesses, and she seemed to have discerned already—such a canny woman!—Rubens’ strategy, even though he had said nothing directly to her at all.


            So he presumed, at any rate. For there could only be two explanations for Dona Mencia’s constant praises of Maria Anna, archduchess of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire. The young woman’s intelligence; her physical vigor; her courtesy and considerations for others; her exceptionally thorough education; even her beauty, if the old woman was to be believed—and she probably could.


            The first explanation was that Dona Mencia understood and supported the goal of Rubens and his patron Don Fernando. And felt strongly enough on the subject of her mistress Maria Anna that she pursued the subject despite knowing full well herself, as she must, how impossible such a match would be under the circumstances.


            The second explanation was almost frightening. What if Dona Mencia hadn’t discerned Rubens’ purpose? What if her depictions of Maria Anna were simply those of an enthusiast?


            Almost frightening. For Dona Mencia was indeed very astute. As astute and experienced as any elderly and widely traveled noblewoman in Europe. Her assessments of people were generally superb, in Ruben’s experience.


            In which case…


            The continent of Europe actually possessed the closest thing that ever existed in the real world to the silly American notion of a “fairy tale princess”—and there was no chance at all that Rubens’ patron Don Fernando could wake her from her sleep. In the real world, if not the up-time fables, the wards and barriers that guarded princesses were far denser and thicker and mightier than paltry magic. At bottom, entire armies stood in the way—real armies—not the spells of witches.


            So it was. Rubens was not a man given to whimsy, outside of his art. He put all thoughts of Maria Anna aside. Her sister too, for that matter, since the barriers were the same.


            “I think the best possibility is the Polish girl, the Vasa, although she’s only fifteen. Failing her, the Lorraine.”


            Neither was actually very good, in his opinion. The daughter of Henri de Lorraine was rumored to have an attachment to one of her cousins, which, if true, would be awkward at best. As for the Polish princess…


            Again, Rubens suppressed a sigh. He suspected he’d be doing a lot of that, in the future, as he pursued this matter.


            The one portrait he’d managed to obtain so far of the eight eligible princesses was a portrait of Anna Katharina Konstanze Vasa, half-sister and first cousin of the king of Poland. It was possible that the artist had botched the assignment by making her less attractive than she actually was—but it was not likely. As a rule, artists bent the stick as far as they could in the other direction, when doing portraits of any wealthy patrons, much less royalty.


            So, she would be unattractive at best, and possibly downright ugly. Worse still, from what Rubens could glean from the maddeningly spotty historical records of the up-timers, he thought she might have died at the age of thirty-two, in that other universe. That might have been due to an accident, of course, which could be avoided in this separate existence. But there was also the possibility of exceedingly bad health.


            Maria Anna lived to the age of fifty-five, long past her child-bearing years, and might well have lived longer given up-time medical…


            But that was pointless. “I’ll do the best I can, Your Highness. Under the circumstances.”


            The prince nodded heavily. Then, his expression brightened. “And there’s always that, we shouldn’t forget. Since whatever other lessons brought by the Americans my family chooses to ignore, there is one that they simply can’t.”


            “I’m not quite following you, Your Highness.”


            Don Fernando was actually grinning,. now, and quite cheerfully. “Circumstances. They change, you know. That is the one thing you can be absolutely sure and certain that circumstances will do.”