Eric Flint: The Wallenstein Gambit

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    The Wallenstein Gambit
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At least, Ellie Anderson thought so. More and more, in fact, as time went on.


***

As was her own nature, the surge of sentiment made her brusque.

"C'mon, Len! Let's quit gawking at the sights. We're supposed to be on a secret mission for Morris Roth, remember?"

Tanner gave her a sour look. Then, bestowed a look considerably more sour on the squad of men who were following them. Lounging along behind them, it might be better to say. The four mercenary soldiers in Pappenheim's pay somehow managed to make their way across a bridge as if they were loafing in an alehouse.

"Some 'secret' mission," he grumbled. "With those clowns in our wake. Why don't we just put on signs saying: Attention! Dangerous furriners!"

She took him by the arm and began leading him along the bridge, toward that part of Prague known as the Stare Mesto-which meant nothing fancier than "Old Town"-where the eastern end of the Charles Bridge abutted.

"Jesus! Were you just as suspicious of tourist guides, too, back in your globe-trotting days? You know damn good and well-ought to, anyway, as many briefings as we had to sit through-that nobody in this day and age thinks of anybody as 'furriners.' Well. Not the way you mean it. A 'furriner' is anybody outside of your own little bailiwick. So who cares if they're 'Czech' or 'German' or 'French' or 'English'-or even 'American,' for that matter? That's the business of the princes, not the townfolk."

By the end, she was almost grumbling the words herself. Tanner's quirks, harmless as they might be, were sometimes annoying.

"I never trusted guide books. They don't pay the guys who write 'em to tell the truth, y'know? They pay 'em to sucker in the tourists."

Her only response was to grip his arm tighter and march him a little faster across the bridge. And maybe tighten her lips a little.

Stubbornly, Ellie continued her little lecture. "So nobody-except you-gives a fuck about whether we're here on a 'secret mission' or not." She jerked her head backward a little, indicating the castle behind them. "Not even Don Balthasar de Marradas gives a damn what we're doing here. If he's even noticed us at all."

Len's good humor returned. "How's he supposed to? He's too busy squabbling with the Count of Solms-Baruth over which one of them is really the Emperor's chosen administrator for Prague. Gawd, there are times I love the butterfly effect."

Ellie grinned. Grantville's knowledge of central European history in the seventeenth century was spotty and erratic, as you'd expect from the records and resources of a small town in West Virginia that had neither a college nor a business enterprise with any particular reason to develop a specialized knowledge about central Europe, even in their own time much less three or four centuries earlier. But, there were occasional exceptions to that rule, little glimpses of historical detail-like islands in a sea of obscurity-usually engendered by some individual interest of one or another of Grantville's residents.

And, as it happened, Prague in the middle of the seventeenth century was one of them. That was because, some years before the Ring of Fire, Judith Roth had developed an interest in genealogy. She'd traced her ancestors back to the large Jewish community which had lived in Prague since the tenth century and had enjoyed something of a "golden age" recently because of the tolerant policies of the Austrian Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II, who'd reigned from 1576 to 1612.

Judith's interest in genealogy had lapsed, eventually. But she'd never bothered to erase the data she'd accumulated from her home computer's hard drive. Eventually, some months after the Ring of Fire, it had occurred to her to look at it again.

Melissa Mailey-for that matter, the entire executive branch of the U.S. government-had practically jumped for joy. Most of the information, of course, concentrated on Jewish genealogy and history. But, as is invariably true when someone does a broad and sweeping search for data on the internet, there was a lot of other stuff mixed in with it, mostly disconnected and often-useless items of information.

One of those little items-the one that was causing Tanner and Anderson to enjoy a moment's humor as they crossed the Charles Bridge-was that Johann Georg II, Count of Solms-Baruth and one of the Austrian emperor's top administrators, had died in the plague that swept Prague in the spring of 1632.

But that had been in a different universe. In this one, he was very much alive a year later, in the spring of 1633. Apparently, following Gustavus Adolphus' victory at the battle of Breitenfeld in September of 1631, the influence of the newly arrived Americans on events thereafter had been enough to send a multitude of ripples through "established history." Small ones, at the beginning, as was always true of the butterfly effect-so named after the notion that the flapping of a butterfly's wings could eventually cause a hurricane. But big enough, obviously, to allow one Count Johann Georg II to survive the disease that had felled him in another universe.

Good for him, of course-but now, also, good for those who were secretly scheming with Wallenstein to overthrow Austrian rule in Bohemia. Because the Count of Solms-Baruth was a stubborn man, and refused to concede pre-eminence in Bohemia's administrative affairs to the Emperor's favored courtier, Don Balthasar de Marradas. The enmity between Count Johann Georg and Don Balthasar went back to 1626, apparently, when Wallenstein had selected the count over the don as his chief lieutenant in the campaign against the Protestant mercenary Mansfeld.

Neither Tanner nor Ellie knew much of the details, which were as tangled as seventeenth-century aristocratic feuds and vendettas usually were. All that mattered to them was that Solms-Baruth was tacitly on Wallenstein's side, and he was doing his level best to interfere with Marradas' ability to retain firm Austrian control over political developments in Prague and Bohemia. Which, among other things, meant that the two of them could carry out their special project in Prague-even go on side expeditions like the one that was taking them across the Charles Bridge-without any real fear of being stopped and investigated by Austrian soldiery.

In fact, the only soldiery in sight were the four men in the squad following them-who had been given the assignment personally by Wallenstein's general Pappenheim, and had an official-looking document signed by the count to establish their credentials should anyone think to object.

"There are times," Ellie mused, "when the 'Machiavellian' scheming and plotting of these fucking seventeenth-century princes and mercenary captains reminds me of the Keystone Kops more than anything else."

Tanner came to an abrupt halt. "Think so?" He pointed a finger ahead of them, and slightly to the left. "We'll be coming to it soon, on our way to the Josefov. The Old Town Square-'Starry-mesta,' the Czechs call it, or something like that. That's where Emperor Ferdinand-yup, the same shithead who's still sitting on the throne in Vienna-had twenty-seven Protestant leaders executed after the Battle of the White Mountain."

Now he swiveled, and pointed back toward the Hradcany. "The guy who did the executing was-still is-one of the most famous executioners in history. Jan Mydlar's his name. When I was here, I saw his sword hanging in one of the museums in the Castle. They say he could lop a man's head off with one stroke, every time."

The finger lowered slightly. "They stuck the heads on spikes, right there, all along the Charles Bridge. They left them there to rot, for years. Only took the last down maybe a year ago."

He turned and they started walking again. In silence.

As they neared the end of the bridge, Ellie cleared her throat. "Whatever happened to that guy? The executioner, I mean. Jan Whazzisname."

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