1636: The Saxon Uprising — Snippet 16:

Chapter 6

Dresden, capital of Saxony

Gretchen Richter studied the man sitting behind the desk. He was slight of build, with a large-featured face framed by long, light brown hair and decorated with mustachios and a goatee. Two bright blue eyes peered at her above a bony nose. The gaze was composed of equal parts of apprehension, suspicion and curiosity.

He seemed to be using the desk as a shield to protect himself against her — more like a barricade, perhaps. He held his old-fashioned quill pen as if it might serve him as a pike against charging cavalry.

About what she’d expected. The very fact that Duke Ernst of Saxe-Weimar had chosen to meet her in his office with himself seated at his desk told her a great deal about the way the man approached the world. The leaders of the Spanish forces besieging Amsterdam with whom she’d negotiated had been politicians, first and foremost. Despite the vast formal gulf in rank between themselves and a printer’s daughter like Gretchen, both Don Fernando — then the Cardinal-Infante in command of Spain’s armies in the Low Countries; now the King in the Netherlands — and his great-aunt Isabella, the Austrian archduchess who was the Netherlands’ regent, had always met her sitting down at chairs in an informal setting.

But the duke was not really a politician, no matter that his older brother Wilhelm Wettin was now the prime minister of the USE and his youngest brother Bernhard had carved out an independent principality for himself from the Franche-Comté and parts of Swabia. Instead, Ernst was an administrator — what the Americans called a bureaucrat. His natural and instinctive response when face with a challenge was to withdraw into his redoubt, his desk. There, armed with pen and ink and paper, he was best equipped to deal with whatever might arise.

A very good administrator, by all accounts. Even a fair-minded one, and no more prone to favoring his own class than was more-or-less inevitable given his origins and upbringing.

Gretchen had spent some time discussing Wettin with Dane Kitt, just a few weeks before coming to Dresden. The SoTF soldier had been in Grantville for the birth of his daughter at the same time Gretchen had been there attending to some personal matters for her husband. Kitt had served in the Oberpfalz during the Bavarian crisis and had given her a hilarious depiction of Wettin’s insistence on bombarding the Bavarian defenders of Ingoldtadt with Lutheran religious tracts hurled by a catapult. That story meshed with what her grandmother had told her about Mary Simpson’s assessment of Wettin: the slightest whiff of chalk dust acts on that man like perfume.

She decided that was probably where the chink in his armor could be found.

“Saxony’s schools are wretched,” she said abruptly. “Even here in Dresden. Correcting that problem has to be one of our first priorities.”

Fiercely, she added: “And we won’t be satisfied with purely religious schools, either. I have nothing against them, as a rule, and they certainly have every right to operate according to the basic principles of the separation of church and state. But those same principles require the creation — or support and expansion, if they already exist — of secular schools established by the government of the province.”

Duke Ernst stared at her. Clearly enough, this was not what he’d been expecting to hear from her. Certainly not as her opening remarks in their very first meeting.

“Ah…” he said.

“And we won’t accept pleas of poverty. Saxony is a rich province. This is not Mecklenburg — and even in Mecklenburg they’ve begun creating public schools, now that the boot heel of the aristocracy has been thrown off.”

That last statement was certainly true, in and of itself, but she’d really added it to allay whatever suspicions the duke might be developing that she was trying to undermine his resolution to oppose her at every point. Which, of course, she was.

One of the negotiating ploys she’d learned from watching Mike Stearns was the value of giving your opposite number a choice between alternatives, one of which was so unsavory that it made the other look tasty by comparison even if it wasn’t actually a taste the person would normally enjoy at all. A standard form of that maneuver was to present a choice between persons: either make a deal with me or — here a finger would be pointed to a nearby ogre — you’ll have to try coming to terms with that creature.

As often as not, in fact, Gretchen herself had been the ogre to whom Stearns had pointed. The CoCs, at least, if not herself personally.

But there was a variation on the tactic which she’d also learned from watching Stearns. It was a more subtle version in which the opposite party was given a choice between personalities rather than actual persons. In essence: Either make a deal with me when I’m in a good mood and we’re discussing something mutually amenable or we can wrangle over something that puts me in a really foul mood.

The actual expression she’d heard Stearns use was “or we can talk when I’m on the rag.” When she’d asked for a clarification of the expression from Melissa Mailey, she’d been stiffly told that it was quite offensive to women and Melissa would say nothing further on the matter.

That had been enough in itself, of course, to make its meaning clear. Gretchen had found the expression amusing rather than offensive. Who cared what men thought about such things? If men didn’t like the inevitable by-products of female anatomy, they could bear their own children and see if they liked being pregnant any better.

So, she was giving Wettin a choice. Shall we spend the afternoon discussing the profoundly foul nature of the aristocracy — to which you belong yourself — or shall we spend it instead talking about the need for educational reform, a subject about which you yourself are enthusiastic?