1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 03

Morris stared at Wallenstein. The recently crowned king of Bohemia and proposed usurper of much of Eastern Europe stared right back at him.

It was true, actually. Wallenstein hadn’t been so much a general as what you might call a military contractor. He put together armies–and then found men like Pappenheim to lead them into battle.

Put that way…

It didn’t sound quite so bad. Of course, Morris would still have to find his equivalent of Pappenheim, since he had no doubt that Pappenheim himself would be fully occupied in the next few years fighting Bohemia’s immediate enemies. That’d be the Austrians, mostly.

Morris looked back at the map, trying to estimate the territory Wallenstein expected him to seize and hold over the next few years. At a rough guess, somewhere around one hundred thousand square miles. About the size of Mexico, he thought. Just what a former army supply clerk-cum-jeweler had always expected he’d wind up doing.

“Piece of cake,” he said.

October, 1634

Vienna, capital of Austria-Hungary

“So, what do you think?” asked Piccolomini. The Italian general from Florence who was now in Austrian service raised his cup.

The man sitting across from him at the round little table in the small but very crowded tavern frowned down at the cup in front of him. He’d only had a few sips of the dark liquid contained therein. He still didn’t know what he thought of the stuff–and he certainly would never have ordered it himself, as expensive as the concoction was.

His name was Franz von Mercy. He came from a noble family in Lorraine, not Italy, as did his table companion. But in other respects, they were quite similar. Like Piccolomini, von Mercy was a general and a professional soldier. They were long-acquainted, if not quite friends.

There was one critical difference between them, however, which explained part of von Mercy’s skepticism toward the black substance in his cup. Octavio Piccolomini was gainfully employed by the Habsburg ruler of Austria and von Mercy was not.

In fact, he was not employed by anyone. Just a short time earlier, he’d been in the service of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. But after the traitor Cratz von Scharffenstein surrendered the fortress of Ingolstadt to the Swedes, von Mercy had taken his cavalrymen and fled Bavaria. He’d known full well that, despite his own complete innocence in the affair, the murderous duke of Bavaria would blame him for the disaster and have him executed.

So, he’d come to Vienna, hoping to find employment with the Habsburgs. But he’d been turned down, with only this bizarre new hot drink offered by way of compensation.

He looked up from the cup to the window. He’d wondered, when they came into the restaurant, why the owners had defaced perfectly good window panes by painting a sign across them. And he’d also wondered why they chose to call their establishment a café instead of a tavern.

Now he knew the answer to both questions.

“God-damned Americans,” he muttered.

Piccolomini winced at the blasphemy, even though he was known to commit the sin himself. Perhaps he felt obliged to put on that public display of disapproval since he was now quite prominent in the Austrian ranks. They were, after all, right in the heart of Vienna–not more than a few minutes’ walk from either St. Stephen’s cathedral or the emperor’s palace.

“Damned they may well be,” said Piccolomini. Again, he lifted his cup. “But I enjoy this new beverage of theirs.”

“Coffee,” said von Mercy, still muttering more than talking aloud. “We already had coffee, Octavio.”

His companion shrugged. “True. But it was the Americans who made it popular. As they have done with so many other things.”

He set the cup down. “And stop blaming them for your misfortunes. It’s silly and you know it. They had nothing to do with Scharffenstein’s treason–they certainly can’t be blamed for Maximilian’s madness!–and it’s not because of them that the emperor decided not to hire you. That, he did for the same sort of reasons of state that have led rulers to make similar decisions for centuries.” He paused while he picked up the cup and drained it. “I happen to love coffee, myself.”

He gave his fellow officer a look of sympathy and commiseration. “Tough on you, I know. Tougher still on your men. But look at it from Ferdinand’s perspective, Franz. He’s expecting a resumption of hostilities with the Swede and his Americans by next year. No matter how badly Maximilian has behaved and no matter how much the emperor detests him, do you honestly expect Ferdinand to take the risk of escalating the already-high tensions between Austria and Bavaria by hiring a general who–from Duke Maximilian’s peculiar point of view, I agree, but that’s the viewpoint at issue here–has so recently infuriated Bavaria?”

He shook his head and placed the cup back on the table. “It’s not going to happen, Franz. I’m sorry, I really am. Not simply because you’re something of a friend of mine, but–being honest–because you’re a good cavalry commander, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I have need of one before long.”

Glumly, von Mercy nodded. He realized, in retrospect, that he should have foreseen this when he left Bavaria. He knew enough of the continent’s strategic configurations, after all, being by now a man in his mid-forties and a very experienced and highly placed military commander.

He’d have done better to have accompanied his friend von Werth to seek employment with Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar. Bernhard would certainly not have cared about the attitude of the Bavarians, seeing as he was already infuriating Maximilian by threatening to seize some of his territory. Or so, at least, Maximilian was sure to interpret Bernhard’s actions–but, as Octavio said, it was the Bavarian duke’s viewpoint that mattered here.

Nothing for it, then. He’d have to head for the Rhine, after all, and see if Saxe-Weimar might still be in the market. Von Mercy could feel his jaws tightening at the prospect of leading a large cavalry force across–around–who knew?–a goodly stretch of Europe already inhabited by large and belligerent armies. Most of whom had no reason to welcome his arrival, and some of whom would actively oppose it.

Alternatively, he could head for Bohemia and see if Wallenstein might be interested in hiring him. But…

He managed to keep the wince from showing in his face. That would be certain to infuriate his Austrian hosts, who’d so far been very pleasant even if they’d declined to employ him and his men. He had even less desire to fight his way out of Austria than he did to fight his way to the Rhine.

He heard Piccolomini chuckle, and glanced up. The Italian general was giving him a look that combined shrewdness with–again–sympathy and commiseration.

“I have another possible offer of work for you, Franz. And one that is rather close at hand.”

Von Mercy frowned. “The only possibility I can think of, close at hand, would be Wallenstein. And why would you or anyone in Austrian service be sending me to Wallenstein? Like as not, a year from now, you’d be facing me across a battlefield.”

A waiter appeared. Piccolomini must have summoned him, and Franz had been too pre-occupied to notice.

“Another coffee for me,” the Italian general said. He cocked a quizzical eyebrow at von Mercy. “And you? What’s in your cup must already be cold.”

Franz couldn’t see what particular difference the temperature of the beverage would make. Hot or cold, it would still be extremely bitter. But…

Piccolomini was obviously in an expansive mood, and under the circumstances Franz felt it prudent to encourage him. “Yes, certainly. And thank you.”

After the waiter was gone, Piccolomini leaned across the table and spoke softly.

“Not Wallenstein directly. In fact, part of the agreement would be that you’d have to be willing to give me your oath that–under no circumstances–would you allow yourself or your soldiers to be used directly against Austria. But… yes, in a way you’d be working for Wallenstein. He wouldn’t be the one paying you, though, which–”

He gave von Mercy a vulpine grin. “–is always the critical issue for we mercenaries, isn’t it? Or ‘professional soldiers,’ if you prefer the circumlocution.”