Chapter 12



The Bohemian Border, near Cheb


            A little after noon, three and a half days later, Drugeth called a halt and ordered a rest. The last stretch before they reached Cheb was going to be very difficult, and they couldn’t afford to lose the last wagon due to someone’s fatigue. The other one had broken a wheel two days earlier, and they’d lost two hours repacking the surviving wagon with the items that were too bulky or heavy to be loaded on pack horses. By then, fortunately, they had several of those. Foreseeing the likelihood that at least one of the wagons would not survive the trek across the Fichtelgebirge, Janos had purchased pack animals at any of the small villages they’d passed through which had one they were willing to sell.

            They needed to stop, anyway, because it was time to release Noelle Stull and her companions. By now, Janos was sure that Noelle had figured out that his escape route was taking them into Bohemia. He wasn’t concerned about that, in itself, because by the time she could return to a town that had a radio with which she could alert the USE authorities, his expedition would have long since left Cheb and would probably already be re-entering the USE further south. The main thing was that he didn’t want her to realize that Austria had suborned the commander of the Cheb garrison.

            Partly that was a matter of simple straight-dealing. Honesty among thieves, perhaps. But just as the up-timers had a witty saw that “an honest cop is one who stays bribed,” it was equally true in the gray world Janos now spent more of his time in than he liked, that the man who bribes the cop is obliged not to carelessly betray him afterward.

            Mostly, though, it was cold-blooded calculation. The future was impossible to predict, and Janos still hoped he could persuade the emperor to make peace with Wallenstein. But he’d probably not be successful in his effort, and the war with Bohemia would heat up again. In that event, as unlikely as it might be given the geography—but who could say where the winds of war might blow?—it could be highly advantageous to Austria to have the commander of the Cheb garrison on its payroll. Even if the man objected to flagrant treason, he could be blackmailed into ceding the fortress with the threat of exposure.

            Janos was feeling a little guilty, actually, allowing Noelle and her group to come this far. If one of them had a good enough knowledge of geography, they might be able to deduce that Cheb was his destination. He should have set them free the day before, in retrospect. Without horses—which he certainly wouldn’t give them, even if he had any to spare—they probably still couldn’t have gotten out of the Fichtelgebirge in time to cause any damage to his project.

            But… he’d stalled, since there were so many “mights” and “probablies” involved on both sides of the equation. Looking back on it, he’d allowed himself to be influenced by a purely personal factor. He was reluctant to part company with Noelle Stull, it was as simple as that.

            As the days had passed, his interest had deepened. He’d never thought about it before, but he’d come to realize that spending several days with a woman in a forced march, under considerable tension and strain—conflicting and complex ones, too—was as good a way as any to get a measure of her.

            Which he had, at least to the extent possible in the few days they’d spent together.

            Noelle was as perceptive as his dead wife had been, when it came to navigating difficult political waters. Demonstrated, in Anna’s case, by her ability to work a compromise between the Catholic church and the many Orthodox inhabitants on their domains, which satisfied everyone well enough and kept the peace. In Noelle’s case, by the way she maintained a workable relationship between her own captured party and the defectors. There was no love lost there, and she’d refused—quite firmly—to allow her people to be used in any of the labor directly connected to the defection. They’d taken no part, for instance, in the strenuous labor needed to repack the wagons again. But, that line drawn, she’d not been foolishly obstreperous about anything else.

            So. Principles combined with flexibility where needed. A combination much rarer than you might think.

            She also knew how to maintain authority over her own charges; smoothly, easily, and without either bullying them or ceding anything important. No easy task, that, given the nature of the people involved. Not a problem with Eddie Junker, of course. Although Janos was sure that Noelle would insist that Eddie was her “partner,” as well as a close friend, the fact remained that the relationship was one of mistress and subordinate. Something which he was equally sure Junker himself understood—but was good-natured about because of the light hand of the mistress herself.

            Lannie and Keenan, on the other hand, while they had the habits and temperament of subordinates by virtue of their origins and history, had not had a previous relationship with her, other than a family one in the case of the Murphy fellow. More than once—many more times than once—Janos had seen how awkwardly a new commander handled such a situation. In contrast to Anna, who had swept into her new position as the mistress of the estates at Homonna with complete ease. Within a short time, as the Americans would put it, she had the servants in the large household—even many of the peasants nearby—“eating out of her hand.”

            Noelle had even managed to keep Denise Beasley under control, for a wonder. And had done it, not by the harsh disciplinary methods a less perceptive person would have tried—and which would have succeeded poorly, if at all—but because she had the art of persuading a young, bright and rebellious girl that she was more in the way of a trusted older sister and a confidant than a substitute mother. It had been quite deftly done, and the fact that Noelle herself would no doubt be indignant if he suggested she was being manipulative, did not change the reality. The up-timers seemed to feel that “being manipulative” was a negative trait, even an evil one, but that was just one of their many superstitions. The ability to get other people to do what needed to be done was simply a valuable skill, that’s all—especially for the wife of an important figure in a major realm.