Finally, there was Noelle’s athleticism and quite evident good health. Anna had been less athletic than the average noblewoman, which, in and of itself, had not much bothered Janos. He was not one of those idle aristocrats who spent half their waking hours on the hunt, and wanted a wife who could ride with him. Where Janos was most likely to be riding at a full gallop was on a battlefield, where no wife could go or was wanted to go.

            Unfortunately, Anna had been sickly, not simply sedentary. Had been since she was a girl. Janos had known that when he married her, but had chosen to overlook the problem in favor of her many other virtues. Having lost one wife after a short marriage, however, he had no desire to repeat the experience. That had been anguish such as he’d never felt in his life, and never wanted to again.

            True, Noelle was not as physically attractive as Anna had been. The woman was pretty, where Anna had been a real beauty. But that did not concern Janos. First, because it was a matter of flesh, and thus trivial. Second, because it was always transient, as was the nature of fleshly things. Finally, because given time it would be irrelevant in any event. The Americans could wallow in their romanticism, as they called it, but that was another of their odd superstitions. A good marriage produced affection and physical desire as naturally and inevitably as trees grew. Love was simply the fruit, which they confused with the seed.

            There remained, of course, all the immense obstacles of a political nature. Which might indeed be too great to overcome. But he’d decided the matter was worth raising with the emperor. He’d need his permission to pursue the matter, anyway. Beyond that, Ferdinand was one of his closest friends and a man whose advice was often shrewd, sometimes uncannily so.


            “I’m telling you, Noelle, you oughta ask him out on a date. Or finagle him into asking you out, if you’re still hung up on proper gender roles on account of you’re such an ancient.”

            “Why don’t pharmacists develop the most useful drug of all?” Noelle grumbled. “The label would read: ‘Eliminates shit-eating grins. Especially effective on teenagers.’”

            Denise ignored that, of course. “Me, if I want to go out on a date with some guy—not often, but it does happen—I just tell him when I’m going to pick up with my bike.”

            “He’s an enemy, in case you’ve forgotten.”

            Denise waved her hand. “Wars come, wars go. True love remains.”

            “You are insufferable, sometimes. And shut up, will you? He’s heading our way.”


            A few minutes later, after Janos explained that they’d be parting company, Denise’s silly idea became a moot one as well.

            Which made it all the more alarming, to Noelle, that she felt such a sharp anxiety at the news. Denise, at least, had the excuse of being sixteen years old. What was hers?

            Firmly, she told herself she was simply worried about the practical aspects of the situation.

            “I think it’s outrageous, Captain Drugeth, that you are abandoning us without even a single horse.”

            He gave her that damned soulful smile that did annoying things to the primitive and ancient parts of her brainstem.

            “First, Ms. Stull, it is rather absurd to use the term ‘abandoning’ when I am simply doing what you would have done yourself several days ago had you not given me your parole. Secondly, you don’t need a horse to travel. Lannie Yost’s ankle has healed and Eddie Junker’s broken arm does not impede him from walking. Thirdly, this is hardly a wilderness or a desert which must be crossed swiftly on pain of death. I am not, I remind you, depriving you of money with which you can buy food and shelter from any of the villages in the area. I am even allowing you to keep Eddie Junker’s rifle and its ammunition, should you need to hunt for sustenance. Something for which, I can assure you, Austria’s gunmakers would curse me if they found out.”

            Noelle sneered. Tried to, anyway. “You know perfectly well it’s an antique.”

            He shrugged. “All the better, actually, from the standpoint of a down-time gunmaker using it for a model. As you know perfectly well, the USE’s now-famous SRG is patterned after an even more antiquated design.”

            Which was true, of course. So Noelle fell back to glaring silently, feeling as if she were all of fourteen years old. Drugeth’s conditions for releasing them were perfectly rational. Even somewhat generous, in fact. Her anger was just the way the underlying anxiety was working its way to the surface.

            Why didn’t the stupid pharmacists develop a drug that would anesthetize those useless brainstem parts?

            Probably because we’ve been tested over and over again by evolution, and passed with flying colors, came the unwanted reply.

            Out of the tension and confusion of the moment, like a thesis and antithesis struggling, came the synthesis.

            “Very well!” she snapped. Her eyes became slitted. “But I warn you, Captain Drugeth. You haven’t seen the last of me!”

            “I look forward to that with great anticipation.”

            And off he went.

            Denise shook her head. “Well, that’s about the weirdest way I ever heard anybody make a date, but sure enough. It’s a date.”

            “Shut. Up.”