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Chapter 23


Brussels, the Spanish Netherlands

Don Fernando was, of course, only twenty-three years old. That accounted for many of the things that he had already achieved. He did not yet know that they were impossible. His aunt Isabella and her advisers, on the other hand, did—and she was still the ruler of the Spanish Netherlands.

Isabella Clara Eugenia was certainly old enough to know better. According to the incredible encyclopedias to be found in Grantville, she should have been dead by now. More than three months ago, in fact, on the first day of December 1633.

Given how she felt this morning, that did not surprise her in the least. However, instead, she was quite alive and sitting in a wheeled chair at the conference table in her palace in Brussels, in the presence of her very closest and most trusted advisers and confidants. Wearing, as she had since she'd joined the order in 1625 a few years after her husband's death, the vestments of a nun of the Sisters of Saint Clare rather than the flashy court apparel and regalia of her younger years.

The decision that they had just placed on the table was not, perhaps, impossible. It was just . . . dangerous. Dreadfully dangerous.

"It is my will," she said.

Hers was an imperious voice, still, for all that it was beginning to quaver with age. Infanta of Spain by birth; daughter of Philip II, archduchess of Austria by marriage, joint sovereign of the Netherlands with her husband Archduke Albrecht VII of Austria, and sole sovereign since his death twelve years earlier.

"It is signed. Witnessed. Sealed. From the first, it was my father's intent that the Netherlands should be an appanage for us, for Albrecht and me. The lawyers have revisited all the provisions of my marriage contract in detail. For us, and for our children, to revert to Spain only if we did not have children."

A shadow of regret for three tiny, frail, babies, dead so long ago, flitted across her face. "Not that they should return to being directly ruled from Madrid after my death. I bore children, so the Netherlands became ours, no matter that they died soon after their birth. Mine, since my husband Albrecht's death. Not, of course, that it will prevent other lawyers, paid by other masters, from interpreting the clauses in other ways. So be it.

"It is my will," she repeated. "My nephew Fernando has earned my trust. I have bequeathed my holdings to him. Let the king of Spain react after he finds that the deed has been done. It will not be long."

Her confessor Bartolomé de los Rios y Alarcon shook his head. "Please, Your Grace! You are not dead until you are dead—and you are only sixty-seven years old."

The archduchess gave the Augustinian priest a rather cool look. Arch, it might be called.


De los Rios seemed discomfited, and looked away. Across from him at the table, Pieter Paul Rubens chuckled. "He's a priest, Your Grace—and Spanish, to boot. You can hardly expect him to say it out loud."

He shifted his chair forward and planted his forearms on the table. "But since I am merely an artist—and Flemish, to make it worse—I will undertake the crude business. You thought you were on your deathbed last summer, remember? And yet here you are, quite definitely alive. The only reason you know you were 'supposed' to have died at the end of last year is because you read it in a copy of a Grantville book."

She nodded. "And . . . so?"

A bit sternly, he said, "So read some of the other books. In the world that book was written, the average age at death of an American woman was almost eighty. And most of them were active and alert—reasonably enough—until the end. So stop predicting your imminent demise. Who knows?"

"I say it again—and so? In that same world, my three children would not have died in infancy. But they did, nonetheless."

She leaned back in her wheeled chair, sighing. "Let us not quarrel. Especially since it hardly matters anyway. Whether I live or die"—she pointed to the papers on the table—"if this transpires, it will be my great-nephew and not I who will have to defend it in a test of arms. Not even when I was twenty could I have led an army into the field as its commander, after all."

De los Rios winced, as did two of the other advisers at the table. Those were Henri de Vicq, who was Flemish, and the Walloon Gerard Courselle. Both of them were men well past middle-age. De Vicq was sixty years old and Courselle, sixty-five.

"Perhaps it will not come to that," the priest said.

"Perhaps not," said Isabella. "But who at this table can make such a promise—or claims to be able to foresee the future? Keep in mind that while King Philip IV may be reluctant to wage war against his younger brother, he has counselors also. The count-duke of Olivares is not likely to hesitate, and those around him, still less. Spain has dominated the field of battle for so long, I'm afraid, that a military solution comes immediately to mind, whenever it is challenged."

Silence fell on the room, for a moment. Then Rubens shrugged and said: "It's still not so easy as all that, Isabella. Just to begin with, how would they send troops from Spain or the Italian possessions? The Spanish Road is no longer open—and won't be, so long as Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar squats atop part of it while the Swedes squat upon much of the rest. Each for their own reasons, neither is about to allow passage to Spanish troops—and both are strong enough that any Spanish army that fought its way through them would be too weak to do anything once they reached the Netherlands. If they could fight through at all, which they might against Bernhard but I doubt very much could do against the Swedes."

He leaned forward still further, his expression intent. "That means transport by sea, and that requires a fleet—and it remains to be seen exactly where Admiral Oquendo will end up, when the time comes. He is deeply bitter over the way the Spanish navy provided Richelieu with his cannon fodder at the Battle of Dunkirk—with the consent of Philip IV and the count-duke of Olivares."

"If the time comes," the archduchess said. She smiled a bit wanly. "Let us not overlook the minor detail that my great-nephew has not agreed to any of this. And without Don Fernando—leading, not simply acquiescing—it will all mean nothing."

Rubens looked at her from lowered eyes. "He is much inclined that way, though. Of that, I am certain."

The old woman shrugged. "Yes, so am I. And—again—so what? You know him, Pieter, by now probably better than anyone of us here at this table. He is a prince of Spain, for good or ill, not a Flemish burgomaster. And he's very young, too, which makes it all the harder."

Rubens nodded. "Yes, I know. He will wait, until the test of arms in the spring. But I can tell you this, Isabella. He may be waiting like a very young fox, but fox he surely is. I know enough of military matters to know that his troop dispositions are not those of an impetuous commander eager to sally forth onto the field again, as soon as the season permits. There will be no repetition of Haarlem, come the spring. He will make Fabius Maximus look like a daredevil."

That brought a little round of laughter. Rather relieved laughter.

"You're sure, Pieter?" asked Alessandro Scaglia.

Rubens swiveled his head and examined the man, for a moment. Privately, Pieter still had doubts about the former Savoyard diplomat. He thought Isabella had been incautious to draw him into her very closest circle. The problem wasn't that he disliked Scaglia—he'd quite enjoyed his company, actually, the few times he'd spent with the man—it was simply that the Savoyard's history was almost too cosmopolitan. Could a man who had served so many courts really be depended upon, in the end, to serve only one? Most of all, why had he left Savoy's service in the first place? Rubens had never gotten a very satisfactory explanation of that.

But, mentally, he shrugged. It was done now, for better or worse. Scaglia already knew enough, if he changed his allegiance, to have all of them executed for treason except the archduchess herself. Because of her royal blood, she'd more likely be walled up in her beloved convent of the Discalced Carmelites attached to the palace—with Spanish guards at the door of her cell, instead of nuns.

Besides, there was something downright preposterous about Pieter Paul Rubens faulting another man for an excess of cosmopolitanism. That stray thought almost made him laugh out loud.

"Yes, I'm sure, Alessandro. Partly from my own observations—alas, I've become far better educated on military affairs than I really ever wanted to be—and partly from various remarks made to me by the cardinal-infante himself. Most important of all, however—my opinion, at least—is that I've watched carefully which officers Don Fernando has made his closest subordinates, as the siege went on."

Scaglia lifted an eyebrow. "Ha. I wouldn't have thought to look there. But I don't really know any of them all that well to begin with."

"I do, by now," said Rubens. "Here is where it stands."

He lifted his forearms from the table and began counting on his fingers.

"His closest military confidant—no question about this—is Miguel de Manrique."

"Ah," said Scaglia. "That is . . . significant. I agree."

Bartolomé de los Rios y Alarcon looked from one to the other. "I'm a priest, not really a diplomat and certainly not a soldier of any kind. Please explain."

"Manrique commanded the Spanish army that surrendered to the Americans at the Wartburg," said Scaglia. He held up his hand, with thumb and forefinger almost touching. "He came this close to being executed for it, after his return to Spain. It was the worst disaster for Spanish arms in a century, at least."

"It was Don Fernando who got him out of the clutches of the Inquisition and brought him to the Low Countries," Rubens elaborated.

"The point to all this," Scaglia continued, "being that if there is any captain of Spain least likely to underestimate the enemy, it is Manrique—and from what Pieter tells us, he is closer to the cardinal-infante's ear than any other of his officers."

"I see. And the others?"

Rubens went back to his finger-counting. "Not one is a Spaniard, to begin with. Two Italian officers—in the Spinola mold, if you understand what I mean—and the Irishman, Owen Roe O'Neill."

Isabella frowned. "I know the two Italian officers you're referring to—and, yes, I agree. They think of themselves more as professional soldiers of a Netherlands army than agents of the king of Spain. But while I've met O'Neill—twice, briefly—I don't understand why you think he's important."

Rubens lowered his hands and smiled. "I think in some ways he may be the most important of all, at least in the long run. Whatever else, he'll not want to see Don Fernando embroiled in wars on the continent. O'Neill has a cause of his own, you see. He's what you'd find called an 'Irish nationalist' in the up-time books."

The priest frowned. "Since when is Ireland a 'nation'? It's just an island, full of half-savages who quarrel even worse than Italians. Even worse than Catalans, if that's possible."

That brought another little round of laughter.

"True, true—today. But O'Neill already detested England—and any English ally—even before he got his hands on copies of Grantville's books."

Isabella gave the arms of her chair an exasperated little slap. "Does anyone in the world not wind up reading those things? It's absurd!"

Rubens tilted his head and gave her a sly smile. "Well, you did, after all."

She half-scowled at him. "I'm rich. Those books—copies, not even the originals—emptied half my treasury. Well. A tenth, at least."

Scaglia chuckled. "Your Grace, you either got cheated or you insisted on very fine copies." He, also, tilted his head. "Or perhaps it was simply that you got the very first editions."

She sniffed. "Well, of course I got the very first copies. The ink was barely dry on them. I'm the daughter of Philip II of the Spanish empire, an Austrian archduchess, and the sovereign of the Netherlands in my own right. I should wait?"

Now, both Rubens and Scaglia chuckled. "Your Grace, I hate to tell you this," Pieter said, "but the production of replicas of up-time books has become a staple of the printers' trade everywhere in Europe. They're not quite out-selling the Bible yet, in most places, but I was told—just last month—by the biggest printer in Brussels, that he expects they will within a year. And I know from speaking to printers in Amsterdam that they did so there within a month after the siege began. Even in Counter-Remonstrant households, it seems."

Isabella rolled her eyes. "Marvelous. Pedro the shepherd and Hans the sausage-maker will be trying to direct their little farms and shops based on their attempts to read their fortunes. I predict disaster."

"You don't have to predict it," Rubens said solemnly. "It's already happened, right in front of our eyes—and on the scale of kings and princes, not shepherds and sausage-makers. What else was Richelieu's Ostend scheme but an attempt to read the future and force a different outcome? And"—he held up his hand, forestalling a comment from de los Rios—"let us not wax too indignant on the subject. For we, too, are attempting the same, are we not?"

He rose out of his chair, leaned over, and planted his forefinger on the papers in the middle of the table. "What else is all this, after all? But an attempt on our part to circumvent—'short-circuit,' the Americans would call it, and don't ask me to explain the precise details of what that means because I asked Anne Jefferson and she couldn't tell me—three and half centuries of bloodletting and misery, most of which served no purpose whatsoever. Not even, in the end, the purposes of the bloodletters."

There was no trace, any longer, of the genial humor which usually tinged Rubens' voice when he spoke. For once, the artist and diplomat was speaking in dead earnest.

"Richelieu is a madman if he thinks he can circumvent the single most obvious and overriding reality of that future world. And that is this." He half-turned and half-bowed to Isabella. "Meaning no personal offense, Your Grace, for you are indeed—I make no jest here—beloved by most of your people. Today, all nations are ruled by kings and princes. Beginning less than two centuries from now, all that will be swept aside and the common folk will come into their own. For good or ill, they will. You—we—anyone—has as much chance of preventing that as the legendary King Canute had of ordering back the tides. Be sure of it."

He sat down heavily. "The difference between us and Richelieu—us and the king of Spain—is that we are not looking to block the outcome. Simply to . . ." He smiled. "The Americans have another term for it. I swear, they produce the things with even greater profligacy than they produce gadgetry."

"If anyone at this table uses the word 'okay' I shall have them executed," Isabella stated firmly. She waggled her finger. "I'm serious!"

There was a burst of laughter, in which the archduchess did not participate, although she seemed to be struggling against a smile.

"I'm serious," she repeated, still wagging the finger. "The gloves will come off!"

"Ah!" Rubens exclaimed. "That's one of my favorite American expressions."

That brought uproarious laughter; from Isabella, also. When the humor faded, Scaglia asked: "And what is the term, Pieter?"

"Well . . . it would mean a great deal more to you if you had seen one of their airplanes come down from the sky onto the ground. I watched myself, when Stearns came to Amsterdam. For the entire last part, I was holding my breath. The term is 'soft landing.' I think it's a very good description of what we are attempting here. A soft landing for the future. Foolish to stand against that future, yes. But I see no reason we need to submissively accept every particular in it. No reason, to name just one matter, that we need French and German troops—English, too—marching back and forth across our Low Countries once every generation, it seems."

He smiled again. "We are not, after all, Calvinists with idiotic and heretical notions concerning predestination."

That brought a round of chuckles. Rubens continued. "Neither, by the way—he sees the matter from a very different viewpoint, of course—does Michael Stearns himself. From a political standpoint, I think that was the single most important thing I learned about the man from his visit. If we are willing to compromise, he will at least begin with that stance also. There will of course be many disputes."

De los Rios looked skeptical. "Him, maybe. But what about that Richter creature of his?"

Rubens stifled some irritation. For all the priest's undoubted kindliness, he still had much in him of Spanish insularity if not Castilian arrogance. "She is not a 'creature' to begin with, Bartolomé—and she's certainly no creature of his."

"She carries a pistol at all times, they say! What sort of woman—"

"A woman who was gang-raped at the age of sixteen by mercenaries, saw her mother abducted, her father murdered before her eyes, and spent two years as the concubine of one of her rapists in order to keep what remained of her family alive," Scaglia said bluntly; indeed, almost coldly. "I've learned her history, Father de los Rios, which I suspect you haven't."

"Oh, how ghastly." Isabella had her hand pressed to her throat. "I had no idea."

Rubens was too astonished by Scaglia's statement to speak, for a moment. He'd known Richter's history himself, but had had no idea Scaglia did. That was . . . 

Very telling, he thought. He could sense a transformation—sea-change, an American term which ironically came from an Englishman already dead—happening in his attitude toward the Savoyard.

But, for the moment, he simply cleared his throat and added: "Yes, what Alessandro says is quite true. I learned of it from her husband, as it happens. Quite a nice young fellow, by the way, in my estimate. But what's perhaps more to the point is that he also told me she's never used the pistol except on a practice range since she participated in fending off the Croat raid on Grantville that Wallenstein launched. That was well over a year ago."

He turned toward the priest. "Do not underestimate that woman, Bartolomé. Whatever else, do not. She could teach Richelieu himself the meaning of ruthlessness—but she's no hothead. In fact"—he was able to smile again—"Don Fernando was quite taken by her, when they finally met last month."

"He did?" Isabella was back to her throat-clutching. "That reckless boy! What was he thinking? I hope—please tell me this much—that he did not permit her to bring that horrid pistol into his presence."

Rubens grinned; he couldn't help himself. "Quite the contrary. He made that stipulation in his request that she come into his camp for a visit—and invited her husband along also, with his shotgun. A weapon, I might add, that is considerably more ferocious and one which, in his case, is almost as famous as hers. He's quite an impressive fellow, actually, in his own much quieter way."

Isabella was practically gaping. "My nephew is a prince of Spain!"

"Your Grace, he did not dispense with his own bodyguards," Rubens said, in a more serious tone. "Please—you must stop thinking of these people as simple, unlettered rabble-rousers. To be as blunt as I can, they could also teach Europe's kings and princes and counselors"—his eyes swept the table—"I do not exempt us, either, the meaning of organization and leadership."

He leaned back in his chair. "Besides, the cardinal-infante had no real choice. By that point in his negotiations with Fredrik Hendryk, everything had been settled. But he had not reached a settlement with Rebecca Abrabanel over the issue of whether the Dutch right to retain their councils and deliberative bodies would be extended in full across the entire Netherlands, in the event the nation was reunited. Not one that she was satisfied with, at least—more precisely, one that she said would satisfy Richter and her Committee of Correspondence. So, Don Fernando decided to talk to Richter himself."

Isabella shook her head, chuckling. "Dear me. I had no idea my rambunctious great-nephew was thinking that far ahead."

"I told you, Isabella. He's a very young fox—young enough that he can't accept the inevitable without at least one clash of arms—but he's a genuine fox, nonetheless. Fredrik Hendryk once told me, rather ruefully, that Don Fernando reminds him in some ways of his father, William the Silent."

That brought a moment's respectful silence. Given the source—any knowledgeable source, really—that was high praise indeed.

"And what was the outcome of the meeting?" Scaglia asked.

"Oh, Don Fernando agreed, in the end. Richter's bargaining argument was so simple, he told me afterward, that he saw no way to refuse."

"And this argument was . . . what?"

"She told him—very pleasantly, apparently, no shouting involved at all—that she was ultimately indifferent to the matter. Don Fernando could give her the extension of democratic representation across the Netherlands that she wanted. Or she would take it. The difference, she estimated, was not more than two years. Four, at the outside."

Isabella stared at him, wide-eyed, her hand back at her throat. "She bullied a Spanish prince?"

"Oh, hardly that. No, no, Your Grace, you don't understand. It wasn't any implied threat that persuaded Don Fernando. It was simply that—so he told me, afterward—it was quite apparent that Richter was indifferent to the matter. Completely indifferent. He said it was like negotiating with a glacier whether it will reach the sea."

Isabella lowered her hand. "I must meet this woman. Can it be arranged, Pieter?" Impatiently, she waved her hand. "Fine, fine. She can bring the pistol, if she insists. Her husband, too, with his—whatever you call it."

Pieter was taken by surprise again. "I . . . don't know. I shall enquire, when I return to Amsterdam. Which, by the way, I must do on the morrow. Is there anything further we need to discuss? I will need most of the afternoon and evening to make preparations for the journey."

Isabella and her advisers looked at each other. Finally, seeing that no one seemed to feel any urge to speak, she said: "It seems we are finished, for the moment. Nothing more we can do, really. Everything is ready from our side for the transition, once—if, but let us pray it is simply 'once'—my great-nephew finally decides."


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