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Chapter 10


The siege lines of the Spanish army in the Low Countries, outside the walls of Amsterdam

"This would be an irrevocable step, Your Highness. I do not say you should refuse, simply . . ."

Pieter Paul Rubens shrugged. "Simply be aware, from the beginning, of the likely consequences. They will most probably be severe."

Don Fernando turned his eyes away from their examination of Amsterdam's walls to look at Rubens. The Habsburg prince most people called the cardinal-infante—he was the younger brother of Philip IV, king of Spain—knew from his reading of the up-time texts that as the centuries passed, Rubens would be remembered almost entirely for his art. But in the world he lived in, he was just as well-known for being one of Europe's premier diplomats.

And not by accident. In the weeks—months, now—since the siege began, Don Fernando had come to have the same confidence in the artist that most members of the Habsburg dynasty did. Members of other dynasties, for that matter. Whatever his private opinions, which he generally kept to himself, Rubens invariably gave counsel designed to help the person asking for it determine what they actually wanted in the first place. He did not ever seem to have—to use the American expression the prince had learned from the nurse, Anne Jefferson—"an ax to grind."

A charming expression, as were several others the prince had learned from Jefferson in her various visits to the Spanish camp. Visits that she'd officially made as a model for Rubens, but which had actually been disguised diplomatic maneuvers of one sort or another. Both the cardinal-infante and his opponents on the other side of Amsterdam's walls, the prince of Orange and the Abrabanel wife of the USE's prime minister, had found the young and innocent-looking nurse a most handy instrument for conducting what amounted to negotiations while officially fighting a bitter siege.

But he was not thinking of those charming expressions, explained to him by a very charming woman. It was something else she'd said to him, in her last visit, that had been gnawing at him for days, now. Especially coming on top of many months of growing doubts and uncertainties. To use another one of her expressions, the straw that broke the camel's back.

"I asked her," he said abruptly, "what she—an educated woman, quite intelligent—knew about the Habsburgs. Not today, but when she still lived in that . . ."

He waved his hand, vaguely. "Future world she came from."

He would leave it at that. The prince knew of the speculations and arguments that had been roiling Europe's theologians and philosophers—not to mention kings and princes and their advisers—since the Ring of Fire. They ranged from crude and simple accusations of demonism and witchcraft to logical arguments that were so convoluted they were impossible to follow at all. Inevitably—God knows how they managed it, but they did—a number of the theologians had even tied the debate back to the dispute over transubstantiation versus consubstantiation.

One bishop in southern Italy had gone so far as to suggest that the Ring of Fire somehow called into question the Nicene Creed. Of course, the man was obviously a lunatic—the proof of it being that he'd advanced the argument within reach of the Spanish Inquisition. A reach which had grasped him as quickly and surely as a snake seizing a mouse.

Rubens inclined his head. "And her response was . . ."

Don Fernando could feel his jaws tightening. "She was quite startled, you understand. And I pressed the matter—perhaps rudely—because I really wanted to see what her answer would be."

He took a deep breath and let it out. "Worse than I'd feared. Far worse." He could still remember, quite vividly, the nervous way the nurse's eyes had shifted about. As she so obviously tried to think of something pleasant she could say. Inoffensive, at least.

She'd failed, because the prince had not given her time. He had been rather rude, he could see now. Still, the rudeness had served its purpose.

"What she said—her exact words, Pieter—was: 'Well, you suffered from a lot of hereditary illness. And you all had that famous lower lip.' "

Rubens smiled faintly, as did the prince himself. Hard not to—since Don Fernando himself had the famous lip.

"Perhaps . . ." said Rubens. "Please remember that—yes, the woman is quite intelligent, but still—she had a limited education. Tightly focused, it would be better to say."

"And what does that matter?" demanded the prince, with some exasperation. "It makes it all the worse, in fact. She's certainly no more poorly educated than most people of her time. Which means that her unstudied response is a good reflection of what posterity will remember about us. What the world will remember. Who cares what a few scholars in that future might think?"

He waved his hand again, not vaguely but firmly. "And what they think is not much different, anyway. Don't play the diplomat here, Pieter. I've read some of the scholarly accounts."

Don Fernando had to force himself to loosen his jaws. He'd almost snarled the last few sentences. It wouldn't do to have Rubens think he was angry at him. He wasn't, at all. He needed the man's sage advice, now more than ever.

"We were—are, damnation—the greatest dynasty ever produced by humanity. If that sounds arrogant, so be it. Who compares to us? The Plantagenet dynasty of England that those up-time accounts romanticize so grotesquely? They were limited to part of an island and part of France, and they only lasted three centuries. We've already lasted longer than that, and according to those same up-time accounts, will—would—ah! how does one express it grammatically?—better those idiot logicians should concentrate on that practical problem—last well over half a millennium. And we dominated the entire continent almost throughout. As we do today. As we have since at least Charles V. And not just Europe! Half the world, for the past century."

Now he waved—again, firmly—toward the east. "I even examined what I could find about the Chinese and the Persians and the Hindus. None of them, so far as I can determine, ever produced a dynasty that lasted longer than the Plantagenets. Nor did anyone in the ancient world. The famous Roman Antonines didn't even last two centuries."

He looked at Rubens, almost glaring. "You've read more of the texts than I have, I imagine. Did you encounter anything different?"

After a pause, Rubens shook his head. "No, Your Highness. I did not."

"Thought so! No, Pieter, I am not mistaken about this. Let things continue as they did—as they will, if nothing is done—and our posterity in this universe will be the same. Some sort of horrid diseases, and"—he flicked his fleshy lower lip with a finger—"this stupid thing. Not even a nose!"

He lowered the hand and clasped the other behind his back. Then, began rocking on his feet a little. "Will you keep our discussions privy, Pieter? I mean, from my brother as well."

Rubens nodded. "Yes, Your Highness. I do that with all such discussions, in any event. But in this case . . ."

The artist and diplomat gazed at Amsterdam. "In this case, I have been coming to many of the same conclusions myself. And being a Catholic and not a blithering Calvinist, I know that God gave us free will."

Now he looked at the prince directly. "And that good works will receive their reward in the afterlife."

The prince smiled. "Of course, the trick is defining 'good works' in the first place, isn't it? And then, only being able to hope that the saints and the angels and the Lord Himself will agree with your definition. Which, alas, you won't discover until it's too late to correct whatever errors you made."

Rubens smiled back. "Yes, indeed. That is the difficulty. Inevitable, of course. Without that uncertainty, 'free will' would be meaningless."

There was silence, for a time, as the prince and his adviser both went back to their study of Amsterdam's fortifications. It was a pointless study, really, just a means for the prince to finally steel his will. By this time, he knew every foot of those walls. And knew, as well, just how terrible the cost would be of passing through them. The heady and triumphal glory of the first weeks of the reconquest of the United Provinces had long gone. Ages past, it seemed, even though it had only been a few months.

"Enough," he said quietly. "Let my family rot in Spain, as they certainly will so long as they listen to Olivares and his ilk. With my brother and the count-duke demanding from me every week more and more treasure from the Low Countries. They insist I must despoil and ruin the Netherlands—and for what? So they can piss it away down a bottomless toilet, as they have done for a century with the New World's silver. Let my cousins in Austria do the same, if they choose, as they did in another world. I will start here, anew. My dynasty had six centuries in that other world. In this one . . ."

He laughed softly. "What do you think, Pieter? If I claim a full millennium as my goal, would that constitute the sin of pride?"

"I couldn't say, Your Highness. I'm not a theologian. But I am an artist, and I can promise you some splendid portraits."

He eyed the prince's costume, which was a purely martial one. "I assume you will not wish to pose in your cardinal's robes."

Don Fernando grinned. "Be a bit awkward, wouldn't it? Since the most important portraits will be of me and my future wife—whoever she might turn out to be—surrounded by our children. That is, after all, the first thing you need for a successful dynasty."

"Indeed." The diplomat pursed his lips, for a moment, thinking. "Dispensing with the title of cardinal should not be too difficult, I think. You could simply resign unilaterally, although that would cause a stir. But the pope is generally quite practical about these things, and I know—I've spoken to him—that Urban is none too pleased with the endless war."

"I've come to the same conclusion," the prince said. "As God Himself knows, it's not as if I ever wanted a cardinal's robes in the first place. My father and his advisers insisted on it. That leaves . . ."

His eyes became slightly unfocused, for a moment. "A wife. It will have to be someone acceptable to the haughtiest monarch or nobleman in Europe. That's essential."

Rubens inclined his head. "Yes, of course. Under the circumstances, a morganatic marriage—anything that even had a whiff of it—would be out of the question." He went back to pursing his lips. "I can begin some discreet inquiries. There are not really all that many options, you understand?"

Don Fernando gave him a quick, stoic nod of the head. "Yes, Pieter, I know. Do your best to find someone reasonably pleasant and not too ugly, if you can. But what matters is that she be fertile and young enough to bear a number of children. The rest I can—will have to—just live with."

His expression brightened. "But what I am saying? First I have to win this war—or get a good enough settlement, at least. A wife can wait. Must wait, in fact. No suitable bride will be found for a king who doesn't have a realm to show for the title. Even the Germans would laugh at such a one."

Rubens was a little amused to see the way the prince—a man still in his early twenties—so obviously found the demands of war more congenial than the demands of marriage. Of course, for royalty, that attitude was not so unusual, even in much older men. Very rarely was congeniality, much less affection, a significant factor when it came to choosing spouses. As it would not be in this instance, either.

Within seconds, after a polite but brief dismissal, Don Fernando was consulting with his officers over the best place to prepare what the Americans called a "landing field." Before too long, Rubens was sure, the prince would come to the inevitable conclusion that—since neither he nor any of his officers had ever seen an airplane—they would need to send an envoy to Amsterdam to discreetly inquire if the up-timers residing in the city could provide them with some advice.

Rubens himself would probably be the envoy chosen, in fact.


As he walked back to his quarters, picking his way carefully through the trenches and earthworks that had turned the land around Amsterdam into something that reminded him of nightmarish paintings by the elder Brueghel, Rubens mused over which up-timer would be sent as a consultant.

Not Anne, unfortunately, as much as Pieter liked the woman. The young nurse had several times commented jokingly on her complete ineptitude with up-time mechanical devices. "Outside of nursing and medical equipment, I'm hopeless. I can change a light bulb and that's about it. Ask me to tell a spark plug from an alternator, and I'd have to go eeny-meeny-miny-mo."

The terms themselves had all been meaningless to Rubens, but the gist of the statement was clear enough.

Who, then?

Probably the big one, who was married to the agitator woman, Gretchen. Jeff, his name was, if Pieter remembered correctly. The artist had gathered, from various comments he'd heard, that the young man was considered a "geek." So far as Rubens could determine, that referred to a person who was obsessed with up-time devices and mechanical skills—something called "electronics," especially. Like some astrologers and alchemists of his own time, it seemed, about whom similar jokes were made.

Odd, really. From the man Jeff's appearance, Pieter would have assumed he was a simple soldier—and perhaps a brutish one, at that.

He paused for a moment, after negotiating his way through a particularly tortuous set of trenches, and gazed back at Amsterdam.

But that was the key to it all, he thought. In a small way, that contradiction between a young up-timer's appearance and the lurking truth behind it was a good symbol.

How else describe that titan who stood behind the boy? Who had in some way, even been responsible for creating him. A brute on the outside, but underneath . . . 

Rubens resumed his walk. Very slowly now, because his thoughts were mostly elsewhere.

The cardinal-infante's confidences had come as no surprise. Rubens had been expecting them, before too long. The enemy's proposal to allow their prime minister to fly to Amsterdam and land safely beyond the walls right in front of the Spanish guns had simply been the immediate trigger. Had the proposal not been made, the prince would still have done the same a bit later.

Rubens had seen it coming, for weeks. Partly because, from his long experience as a diplomat, he could see the logic and sense the way it was unfolding in the mind of the prince who sought his advice and counsel. But mostly for the simplest reason of all.

Pieter Paul Rubens, a man who had been faithful to the Habsburgs all his life—and he was now fifty-six years old—had come to the edge of treason. To call things by the name that almost everyone would soon be calling it. Granted, the difference between a "traitor" and a "loyalist" being something that only history could finally pass verdict upon. If Don Fernando's scheme succeeded, the world would only remember the success. All but a sullen few would forget that the triumph began with treason, for treason it surely was—just as surely as Rubens would be executed for it, if the prince's plans failed and Rubens fell into the hands of the Spanish crown.

For, even before the prince spoke, Rubens had already decided he would support the plot and do everything in his power to make it succeed.

And why? Because a titan had been set loose in the world, and the monster had a mind more cold and savage and ruthless than any king or prince of the day. Not since Constantine, Rubens thought, had such a terrible soul walked the earth. Perhaps not since Alexander.

And there, of course, lay the quandary. For had not Constantine created the basis for the triumph of the true church? Had not Alexander, before him, created the world in which that church could arise?

Let the churchmen and the theologians insist that Constantine was a saint who had been impelled by his own faith. What difference did it make? Suppose the opposite were true, and the Roman emperor had been motivated by nothing beyond his own ambition. The result was the same, no?

Rubens had reached his quarters, now. He could hear his wife chatting with a servant in the kitchen, but he passed by the entrance and went to the room set aside for his work. There, as if driven by compulsion, he opened a drawer and drew out the document. He still had the original papers the nurse had left behind. Acting, he was quite certain, on another's orders.

How to Make Chloramphenicol

The pages that followed that title gave precise instructions for how to manufacture the world's most potent medicine.

The monster's stiletto, that the creature had driven into the heart of the world's greatest dynasty, his aim guided by a dragon's cunning and the force of the thrust by a titan's thews.

Who else could have conceived such an assassin's stroke?

For a moment, he had to fight not to crush the papers in his hands. Those papers that had opened the door to treason.

A sudden burst of laughter from the kitchen drew him there, again as if under compulsion.

When he entered, his wife looked up at him, smiling. Helena Fourment, only nineteen years old, of whom he was very fond. He would have five children by her, the first of whom was now sitting on her lap. The last child would be born eight months after his death at the age of sixty-three. Which would seem to indicate that he never lost that affection, even at the end—nor the ability to express it.

Seven years from now.

Perhaps. That was his biography in another world. Who could say, in this one?

But he wasn't really looking at Helena. He was seeing another face there. That of his first wife, Isabella Brant, whom he had also loved.

But that was the past, fixed, certain. Not something even the monster and his minions could change.

Isabella had died five years before the Ring of Fire. Taken from him by disease, at the age of thirty-five, in the prime of her life.

He looked now at his new daughter. Barely one year old. He had named her Clara Johanna, in memory of his first daughter by Isabella, Clara Serena.

Who had also been taken from him by disease, at the age of twelve. One of many struck down by another epidemic.

"Is something wrong, husband?"

"No, dearest. I'm . . . simply preoccupied."

And he was, suddenly. With a glorious burst of inspiration, such as he had not felt in years. Not since he first saw the up-time book that depicted his life and work—much of which he still hadn't done, or even conceived of—and sensed a great emptiness yawning beneath him.

How does an artist paint something he has already painted? Without the master becoming his own apprentice? Ending a life full of triumphs as if he were nothing more than an understudy?

Another of those impossible quandaries the monster brought with him into the world. But Rubens could resolve it now, using the monster himself.

He came into the room and wiggled fingers at his daughter, who was staring up at him with the wondering eyes of a child barely one year into a life that, for half the children in the world—including some of his—would never be much longer than that.

Then he smiled at Helena to reassure her, while he gently stroked the hair sprouting on Clara Johanna. "You will live, girl," he said, so softly that he didn't think Helena could hear the words. He hoped not, certainly, since she would insist on an explanation later, and what could he say? If nothing else, he would carefully shield Helena from any charges of treason.

"But I must go to work now," he said abruptly, and left.


By the end of the day, he already knew it would be one of his best paintings. He had that sure sense of the thing, that always came with the very finest ones.

A painting that existed in no up-time book, because he had never conceived such a portrait in that other world. Could not have conceived it. He didn't think Brueghel's fevered mind could have dreamed of it—nor even the mad brain of Hieronymus Bosch, for all that the structure of the image shared the logic of Bosch's triptychs.

"The Titan's Choice," he thought he would call it. Or, better still, simply "The Titan." The choice being obvious in the painting itself. Cities wracked by flame and destruction issuing from the right hand, clad in mail and armor. The right hand that any man could resist, with sufficient will and courage. While the left hand, unarmored—the assassin's hand, with the main gauche—delivered the fatal blow. Children spilling out like fruit from a cornucopia. The blow that passed beneath any armor, any defense, any will or steadfastness or courage, because it did not strike at kings and princes and soldiers at all. It struck the fathers and husbands hidden beneath.

Of course, he would not be able to show it in public, but that didn't really matter. The joy of finally recapturing his own creation was enough.

Who could he show it to, after all? Even if Don Fernando triumphed, Rubens would have to conceal it from the prince become a king. Rubens liked the young Habsburg scion, a great deal, and he wished him all the best. A long reign over a prosperous realm, with many children to carry on his line, sired upon a convivial and comely wife he actually loved. Had affection for, at least.

For that matter, Rubens was partial to the Habsburgs taken as a whole, and hoped that Don Fernando would be able to revitalize that great family. But he also knew that Don Fernando's dreams of future Habsburg glory were already doomed. The best the prince and his heirs would manage—no small thing, of course—would be to protect and nurture one corner of the world.

The world itself no longer belonged to them. A titan had come, and shaken it loose. For good or ill, it would be his name that the future would bestow upon this time, just as it had in ages past upon Alexander. And would, in the future of the titan's world, bestow upon a man named Napoleon.

His enemies could assassinate him tomorrow, and it wouldn't matter. The deadliest blows had already been delivered. Alexander died in Babylon at the age of thirty-three—but the Persian world was already gone, swept aside by the Greek torrent brought by its conqueror. Just as surely as the world Rubens and Don Fernando had been born in was already gone.

So be it. Rubens had made the father's decision, the husband's decision. In the end, dynasties were a small thing.

He decided he would leave the face till the last. True, he could request a portrait of some sort—they might have one of those "photographs" in their possession, in Amsterdam—but why bother? That would require awkward explanations, and he would have several days to study the titan himself after he arrived, with no one being the wiser.


He came. He went. For days, that fair but plain face fascinated Rubens. He'd thought he would have to idealize it—or demonize it, perhaps—but in the end decided the face was perfect as it was. Inscrutable in its simplicity, just as were the titan's deeds themselves.

A week later, the painting was done. It was the best work Rubens had done in years. A pity it would have to remain hidden, of course. But whatever else, the work had shattered the artist's paralysis. Everything he'd done since the Ring of Fire, except this, had been a copy of something, in one way or another. If not a copy of his own works, those of another—like that portrait he'd done of the Gretchen woman and her magnificent bosom, mimicking an artist of the future named Delacroix.

Well, not some of the Jefferson portraits, perhaps. But those had been so closely tied to a public purpose that he'd felt tightly constrained.

He thought he probably still only had seven years left, himself, regardless of what happened. He'd died of gout, in that world that would have been. From what Anne had told him, there didn't seem to be any magical medical cure for that condition, not even for the up-timers. Only a dreary list of things he shouldn't eat, and a still drearier list of things he shouldn't do. It hardly seemed worth it, just to gain a few extra years. Sixty-three wasn't so bad, better than most.

He didn't care much, really. They would be seven productive years, perhaps the most productive of his life. And he always had the consolation—given to precious few men since Adam—of knowing that almost the last act of his life would be to impregnate a wife whom he would leave behind in comfort and good health.


Still, as weeks passed, he felt increasingly dissatisfied. He hadn't even dared show the painting to Helena. Somebody should see it, before his death.

Finally, he realized that there was one witness possible. Who better, really? And she could certainly be relied upon to hold the confidence, for a multitude of reasons.

So, in one of the many visits across the lines into Amsterdam—those had practically become a regular traffic, by then—he passed the word along. And, two days later, his witness arrived at his home.

He ushered her into the small room where he kept the painting tucked away in a closet. He'd chosen that room because, small and awkwardly designed as it was, it had the only closet in the house that was big enough. It was a very large painting.

After setting it up on an easel for viewing, he unwrapped the cloth that hid it. Then, waited while she studied his work.

By the time she was done, Rebecca Abrabanel's brown eyes were watery. "Oh, Pieter," she whispered. "It's magnificent. But it's so . . . wrong."

She turned the eyes to him, her gaze almost—not quite—an accusing one. "He is not a cruel man. I can assure you of that. Very kind and gentle, actually, most of the time."

So, Rubens knew he had succeeded.

"Of course not. I never imagined he was cruel." Finally satisfied, and in full, he gazed upon his work. "Nothing but grace can wreak such havoc and destruction, Rebecca. Nothing else can even come close. Had Lucifer understood that, we would never have needed for the Christ to be sent at all."


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