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Postage Due

Eric Flint

"You've got to be kidding."

Anne Jefferson looked around the table in the big dining room of the USE's embassy in Amsterdam, at each of the other people sitting there. Immediately to her left sat Rebecca Abrabanel, the ambassador of the United States of Europe to the United Provinces. Sitting next to her, at the end of the table, was her husband Mike Stearns. Mike was the prime minister of the USE, and had arrived in besieged Amsterdam only two days earlier, in a daring airlift that still had the entire city talking—as it did the Spanish army camped in the siege lines beyond.

He and Rebecca were holding hands, clasped on the table. To Mike's left sat Jeff Higgins and right next to him—directly across the table from Anne—sat Jeff's wife Gretchen Richter.

Finally, at the other end of the table facing Mike Stearns and just to Anne's right, sat Adam Olearius. As of the day before, Anne Jefferson's new fiancé. He'd finally proposed, and she'd taken all of two seconds to accept.

"This is a joke, right?"

That was more in the way of a firm statement than a question.


"This is a joke, right?" she repeated. Her voice rose with the last word, a firm statement transmuting into a real question.

"A joke. It's got to be."

Desperation was creeping into her voice.

Anne now glared at Mike Stearns, her glare almost instantly being transferred to the handclasp.

"Stop holding hands with your wife!" she snapped. "It's disgusting."

Mike's eyebrows went up a little. Rebecca's went up quite a bit more.

Anne's jaws tightened. "Fine," she said, through gritted teeth. "It's not disgusting, it's aggravating. But that expression on Mike's face is disgusting. We all know you're getting laid since you flew into Amsterdam in that reckless flying stunt of yours, Mike. You don't have to be so infuriatingly smug about it."

Rebecca's eyebrows came back down, and a very serene expression came to her face.

"You!" snarled Anne. "That expression is even worse!"

Rebecca smiled—very serenely—and replied:

"I will point out that I have also sat for a portrait, in the interests of the nation."

"Baloney! You just sat for that stupid portrait Mike keeps in his office in Magdeburg so he'd be able to keep admiring you after you left for Amsterdam. Don't give me any crap about 'the national interest.' And—"

Her voice was rising again, as desperation returned. "—you didn't pose half-naked."

Across the table from her, Gretchen Richter sniffed. "Half-naked, nonsense. The proposal was clearly explained. By the time the portraits are finished, you will be modestly garbed in various banners. To be sure, Rubens and Rembrandt and the Hals brothers will see you half-naked while you pose, but so what? They're artists. They don't count. Besides, Rubens has already seen you half-naked, plenty of times. Half, did I say? Nine-tenths naked."

Anne's glare at Gretchen made the one she'd bestowed on Mike and Rebecca seem like a fleeting glance of mild disapproval.

"So why don't you do it, then? The whole damn world has seen you half-naked!"

Gretchen sniffed again. "Don't be ridiculous. Only the Spanish army camped outside in the siege works and maybe half of Amsterdam's residents."

"Pretty much all of the city's residents, sweetheart," said her husband mildly. "It was a very popular, ah, tourist attraction while it lasted. I think the only ones who didn't come for a look-see were some old crones, and some of the preachers. Well, a few of the preachers."

Jeff didn't seem aggrieved any, though, at the thought of tens of thousands of people having gazed upon his wife's naked breasts. Actually, he seemed a little smug about it himself. Given Gretchen's bosom, that was perhaps understandable.

"You didn't answer my question!"

Gretchen shrugged. "I offered. They turned me down." She gave Mike and Rebecca a dismissive glance. "They said I wouldn't be the appropriate model for the purpose."

"Not hardly," drawled Mike. "The Spanish would have had conniptions. So would the prince of Orange, for that matter."

His eyes grew a little unfocused, as if he were contemplating something in the distance. "Now that I think about, I doubt Gustav Adolf would have been any too pleased, either."

"Kings." Gretchen's tone was icy. "Wretches, all of them. That fat Swedish bastard is depending on the Committees of Correspondence to keep his new little empire for him when the fighting starts up again next spring. But God forbid he should admit it."

Rebecca cleared her throat. "As it happens, Gretchen, I did pass your offer on to the cardinal-infante. The reports I've received indicate that Don Fernando was rather intrigued by the idea. But, not surprisingly, his advisers were adamantly opposed."

Her eyes moved back to Anne Jefferson. "You, on the other hand, are most acceptable to all parties involved. Especially with Gretchen as the alternative. You are a nurse, after all, a healer. Not a revolutionary agitator with a reputation for being distressingly quick with her revolver."

"Nine millimeter automatic," corrected Gretchen. "I don't like revolvers. Rate of fire is too slow."

"It's a conspiracy!" wailed Anne.

"Well, sure," said Mike. "How else would you pull off a stunt like this?"


In a tavern not far away, four men sat around a small table in the corner, hunching their upper bodies forward in the way men will when they conspire.

"So he's agreed, then?" asked Harry Lefferts, the leader of the little group.

The man to his left nodded. Donald Ohde, that was, the Scot-born German who served as the financier for Harry's special team. Or the "dog robber," as Harry called him.

"Oh, sure. He's always short of money, and his brother Frans even more so."

"It'll take everything we've got in the way of specie," cautioned the man across the table from Harry. That was Thorsten Engler. Like most of the men in Harry's team, he was of hybrid origin: in his case, part-Swede, part-Saxon. And, like every single one of them, an adrenaline junkie addicted to adventures. But he tended to be very conservative whenever financial matters arose.

Harry waved his hand. "It's only money. We're not giving up any of the essentials."

Ohde nodded. "I told Hals. No up-time guns, no dynamite, nothing. Just money." He sneered, slightly. "Artist. Didn't even know what dynamite was, I think."

But Thorsten was not one to give up easily. "You can't get food, shelter and transport with weapons," he pointed out. "Not unless we're going to rob our way across to England, which would be stupid. We need some money."

The fourth man at the table spoke up. "We'll have lots of money once the deal closes. Ten times what we've got now. More than that. Enough to turn this shoestring operation into something out of a James Bond movie. Too bad they haven't invented jet skis yet. We could afford enough for all of us."

Gerd beamed. "Imagine the sight we'd make! Blowing our way up the Thames thumbing our noses at King Charles' soldiers."

Gerd went all the way back to the formation of Harry's special team. So, of all the down-timers there, he more than any of them could claim to be an "old Grantville hand." But it hardly mattered. By now, all of Harry's commandos had seen plenty of up-time films.

James Bond movies were very popular with them. Almost as popular as The Terminator.

Engler was still skeptical. "That stuff is hardly what you can call liquid assets."

Ohde shook his head. "I've already got the buyer. Three of them, in fact, but it'll be the Frenchman who outbids the others. Stop fretting, Thorsten. Two days after it's all over, we'll be rich and on our way to the Tower."

He paused a moment. "Well, we won't be rich. But the cause will."


He even meant it, and quite sincerely. Of all the odd things about Harry Lefferts' special unit, perhaps the oddest was their code of honor. Very flexible and fuzzy at the edges, but hard as iron at the center.

Mike Stearns had once remarked that it was all that kept them from being the most frightening pack of bandits in Europe. He'd made the remark to his wife Rebecca after one of his meetings with Harry, where he'd given Lefferts another "special assignment."

Mike had shaken his head ruefully, his hands cradling a cup of coffee. "Harry Lefferts. I swear. I told him to be a little careful about the way he raised funds for the operation. I didn't want any CIA drug-dealing scandals."

Rebecca sipped from her own coffee cup. "What did he say in response?"

Mike chuckled. "Harry Lefferts. What do you think? 'Can't, Mike,' he said. 'Drugs ain't illegal in this day and age.' "

Rebecca nodded. "True. That must have been a bit of a relief for you."

Mike shook his head. "No, not really. Not when the next words out of Harry's mouth were: 'More's the pity. We'll have to figure out something else.' "



On their way back to Anne's residence, her hand tucked into the crook of Adam's elbow, she gave her brand-new fiancé an uncertain look.

"You sure you won't mind?"

"Oh, no," he said, smiling. "Leaving aside her indelicate phrasing, Gretchen was quite right. You'll be wearing a pair of shorts and a halter in this pose. Which is considerably more than you wore for Rubens in your previous sessions."

Anne's mouth twisted into a grimace. " 'Pair of shorts.' Pair of hot pants, is what they actually are. And that so-called halter they want me to wear is what plenty of people would call a bikini top."

After a moment: "Okay. Not on the Riviera, I guess. But they sure would have called it that back in West Virginia."

Her expression grew a bit grumpy. "The real West Virginia, I mean. Not this screwy wild-ass version of it we've somehow turned into since the Ring of Fire."

After a few more seconds, she said: "Well, okay. I'll do it, then."


The sessions started two days later. As agreed, in a house in Amsterdam, this time, instead of the Spanish camp where Anne had posed for Rubens on previous occasions. Three out of the four artists were Dutch, after all. Easier for Rubens to join them, than the other way around.

Rubens didn't mind. He was a very experienced diplomat as well as an artist, who'd often served the Habsburgs in their foreign affairs.

He'd always liked Amsterdam, in any event. And, who was to say? If this latest of many complicated steps in the dance of state affairs advanced matters still further, he might someday be able to buy a house of his own in the city.

"Let's begin," he said. Without there having been any discussion, Rubens had assumed leadership of the little project. It seemed natural enough. Not only was he slightly older than the two Hals brothers, he was considerably better known and more successful. The chaotic habits of the Hals family left them usually just two steps ahead of the debt-collectors.

Rembrandt might have challenged the matter. By now, they all knew that in the future world Grantville came from, Rembrandt would be an even more famous artist than Rubens. In many peculiar and subtle little ways, knowledge of what would have happened was modifying social status all across Europe. Rembrandt was still very young—only twenty-eight—and had not yet created the masterpieces that would, three and half centuries later, rank him among the greatest artists of all time. But everyone knew he would be—or had been, at least, in another world, since there was no telling what would happen in this one. So, he already had most of the prestige of a master.

He'd confided to Rebecca once that it made him very uncomfortable. And he handled the problem by maintaining a stance of modesty that was sometimes almost comical.

So, he made no objection. In this day and age, Rubens was preeminent among them.

"Let's begin," Rubens repeated. "Anne, if you would be so good as to remain still and steady."

"Still and steady ain't the problem," replied Anne, somehow managing to talk clearly while barely moving her lips. "It's keeping this stupid fucking bimbo smile plastered on my face that's the problem."

There had been a time when the thought of using foul language in front of great artists would have appalled Anne Jefferson. But now that she'd come to know them, in their own time and place, she didn't think much of the matter. All things considered, West Virginians and seventeenth-century Europeans got along quite well. It was an earthy age, whose people were at least as rowdy and raucous as Appalachian hillbillies.

Standing at his easel, Rembrandt smiled and went to work. The Hals brothers had already started.

Not a word was spoken in the salon for over an hour. Then Dirck Hals paused at his labor, frowned, and muttered to his older brother.

"It's slipped my mind. Which banner am I supposed to be portraying?"

"You idiot," came the toneless response. Frans Hals lifted the brush from his canvas and pointed at one of the flags hanging from the far wall. "That one."


Three days later, it was done. The salon of the house was now crowded with people gazing admiringly at the four portraits displayed to one side.

Anne Jefferson was the model for all of them, a fact which was obvious at a glance. The American was most attractive, in the way that young women who are pretty but not beautiful are. Pleasing to the eye, but not threatening or intimidating, and with just enough in the way of irregularity of features to make her face distinctive and easily remembered.

"Perfect," murmured the cardinal-infante. The commander of the Spanish army and his aides had been given a safe-conduct for the day, so they could cross the lines and come into Amsterdam to see the portraits. By now, after the long weeks of what had become a very peculiar siege, not even his advisers had raised much of a protest.

A bit, of course. Don Fernando was, after all, the younger brother of the king of Spain as well as a cardinal and an army commander. From the standpoint of a hostage, as good as you could ask for.

But the man across the room had given his word, and he was the prince of Orange. Enemies they might be, but by this point in time there was also a great deal in the way of trust between Don Fernando and Fredrik Hendrik.

There had been many negotiations and diplomatic advances, after all, of which this was only the latest. More to the point, the days of the duke of Alva and his massacres and the equally bloody Dutch responses to them were thankfully many decades in the past. Even the sturdiest Calvinist in Amsterdam, except for diehard Counter-Remonstrants, would allow that Don Fernando was a good enough sort, for a papist and a Spaniard. And most of the soldiers in the cardinal-infante's army would reciprocate the sentiment, with regard to the House of Orange. It had been a hard-fought war, but not a savage one.

Don Fernando's eyes lifted from the canvas he was particularly interested in, and met Fredrik Hendrik's gaze. "I might need a bit of help with the printing," he said, "once we're ready to begin producing large quantities. I fear that siege lines tend to be short of printing presses."

"Not a problem," said the prince of Orange. "I shall see to it you have the services of some of the printers in the city."

Graciously, he left unsaid the fact that only Spanish siege lines would be short of printing presses. Dutchmen would have plenty, anywhere they went, not being semiliterate jumped-up sheepherders who called themselves "hidalgos."

Don Fernando nodded and made a little gesture to his aides. Two of them stepped forward and took up one of the portraits.

"We'll be off, then. I think we can safely expect the service to begin . . . in a month?"

Fredrik Hendrik pursed his lips, considering. "In the United Provinces, certainly." A bit wryly: "There's not much left of them, after all, since you arrived. I imagine you'll be able to do the same in the Spanish Netherlands. For the rest—"

He shrugged. "No telling what Gustavus Adolphus will decide."

"No, not yet," agreed the cardinal-infante. "The great test of arms is still ahead of us, in the spring. But what about the other small principalities?"

"I've already raised the matter with De Geer, and I think Essen will certainly agree. Probably Duke Anton of Oldenburg, also. You'll have to deal with the archbishop of Cologne, of course. As for Cleves . . ."

He rolled his eyes, the Spanish commander almost immediately doing the same. Since the death of Duke Johann Wilhelm in 1609, and the passing of the inheritance to his sisters, Cleves had splintered badly.

"We'll manage something," said Fredrik Hendrik.


A week later, the end result began appearing. In Amsterdam first, of course.

"Marvelous," said the dye-maker, examining the sheets of paper with their many small portraits. "And you guarantee they will be accepted anywhere in the Low Countries? These in Brussels, for instance?"

The agent from the new postal service nodded. "And those from Brussels will be accepted here. As long as the blonde is portrayed, it doesn't matter which flag she's got wrapped around her. House of Orange colors, the cardinal-infante's colors, it doesn't matter. The stamps are all good anywhere that either Fredrik Hendrik or Don Fernando's authority reaches. That, for sure, right from the start. Soon enough, we expect other principalities to join in. Who knows? Within a year, perhaps even the USE and Denmark and France."

The dye-maker chuckled. "That'll depend a lot on who wins the war. Still . . ."

The dye-maker's wife intervened. She'd been silent up to now, standing next to her husband and squinting suspiciously at the sheets of paper. "We want some of the glue thrown in. And a brush to apply it. Brushes are expensive."

"Not a problem. A pot of glue and a small brush comes with every purchase of a sheet. One hundred stamps to a sheet."

The postal agent pointed to one of the sheets spread out across the dye-maker's table. "They're already creased, as you can see. Easy to cut them out. We're hoping, within possibly a year, to provide them with some gum already pasted to the back surface. Just wet them a little—a tongue-licking will do it—and the stamps will adhere to the parcel on their own. No glue needed at all."

The dye-maker pondered the matter, for a moment. But not for long. The established method for using postage worked, yes. But it was time-consuming, for a busy artisan, to have to go to a postal agent and have him manually stamp the parcel with a seal and sign it. Something of a nuisance. This way, with pre-paid postage, it would be much simpler.

And less costly, too. Not only were the new "stamps" slightly less expensive than the existing postal rates, simply in terms of money, but they were also much less expensive in terms of labor lost. If the postal agent could be believed, and the dye-maker thought he could, there would soon be special boxes in place all over the city where a pre-posted parcel could simply be dropped off for delivery. Fifteen minutes work for an artisan's wife or apprentice—perhaps only five or ten—instead of two hours or more.

"I'll buy a sheet, then."

"Splendid. Which one would you like?"

The dye-maker's eyes widened. "I have a choice?"

"Certainly," said the postal agent. "I told you. Any of the portraits is valid. All that matters is that it's the same blonde. She's the nurse, you know."

The dye-maker and his wife nodded. Anne Jefferson was quite well known in the city. Almost as well known as Gretchen Richter, in fact.

"Well . . ." The dye-maker stood up a bit straighter. "We should take the colors of Orange," he said stoutly.

"No," said his wife. "That portrait, she's showing too much skin. And who's Rembrandt, anyway? Never heard of him."

She pointed to the sheet with Rubens' version. "That one. He's famous and most of our trade is with the south, anyway. The cardinal-infante's colors are sure to be welcome in Brussels. Catholic or not, the linen-makers there are better business for us than these tight-fisted bastards in Amsterdam."

"Done," said the postal agent, reaching into his parcel and hauling out a pot of glue and a brush. "Oh, yes, I failed to mention that the pots and brushes all come with the initials of the artists. Whichever one you'd like."

"Rubens, of course," sniffed the dye-maker's wife. "The Hals brothers are drunkards and ne'er-do-wells. And nobody's ever heard of this Rembrandt fellow, whoever he is."

"Rubens it is, then."

* * *

"You're feeling better about the whole thing, I see," said Adam Olearius.

Anne smiled. "Well, yeah. From what I hear, the stamps are selling like crazy. Hands across the border, and all that." Then, quietly: "If it'll keep a few more people from getting killed, it was worth it."

"Might keep a lot of people from getting killed," her fiancé mused, sitting on the divan next to her. "Well, not by itself, of course. But along with all the rest . . ."

He lifted his shoulder in a little shrug. "Hard to know, of course, as it so often is with diplomacy. It's always a gamble."


"God damn," hissed Harry Lefferts. "Talk about a long shot paying off!"

He and Thorsten and Gerd stared at the pile of coins Donald Ohde has spilled onto the tavern table. Spanish silver, most of it, the best currency in Europe. But there were plenty of gold pieces mixed in with the lot. Some of them were probably adulterated, but with that big a pile it hardly mattered.

They did not bother casting glances around the tavern to make sure that no one was observing them. No doubt there was a footpad or two among the crowd in the tavern. But by now, weeks after their arrival in Amsterdam, no footpad or cutpurse in his right mind—no gang of them, either—would even think of crossing Harry Lefferts and his wrecking crew. The only difference between the way they gauged the matter and Mike Stearns did, was that professional cutthroats knew that Harry & Company were the most frightening pack of bandits on the continent. That they might be something else as well was irrelevant, from a criminal's standpoint.

"Time to get out of town, then," said Harry. "Before the storm hits."

Ohde frowned. "There will be no 'storm,' Harry. I can assure you that the Frenchman was most satisfied with the transaction."

"Who cares about him? Sooner or later, Anne Jefferson's going to wonder what happened to the originals. We don't want to be anywhere within miles when that happens. Trust me."

Thorsten Engler looked skeptical. "Come on, Harry. She's just a nurse. Gretchen, yes, we'd be in real trouble."

" 'Just a nurse,' " Harry mimicked. "Yeah, fine—but she's a West Virginia nurse. She's Willie Ray Hudson's granddaughter, fer chrissake. Got cousins—first, second, third, you name it—all over the hills and hollers. At least two of them are serving in the Thuringian Rifles and another one is downright crazy. Marcus Acton, Jr. Got in a fight with him once. I won, but it was touch-and-go. Just as soon not do it again."

He started scooping coins and shoveling them into his money pouch. "Come on, guys, fill 'em up. I want to be halfway to the Channel ports before Anne figures it out, and we find ourselves in the middle of a down-time version of the Hatfield-McCoy feud."


"They did what?" shrieked Anne.

Mike Stearns flinched from the blast. "Just what I said. They finagled three out of the four originals and sold them to someone. For a small fortune, what I hear."

Anne's face was pale, her expression a combination of shock, outrage and fury. "How did they get them?"

Mike grimaced. "They just bought them outright from the Hals brothers. Those two are always strapped for cash. Rembrandt told me he let them have his for free, once they explained what they wanted it for."

"That stinking bastard!"

"It is a good cause, Anne. The one thing about Harry is that you can trust him to be honest. Well, okay, in a Robin Hood and Jesse James sort of way. He's not really what you could call an upstanding citizen. But he's not a thief, either. That money will go to spring our people out of the Tower."

The last sentence put something of a damper on Anne's gathering fury. She knew all of the people imprisoned in the Tower of London herself, after all. Two of them were friends of hers.

"Well, yeah, fine. But. Still."

After a few seconds' silence, she hissed: "One of these days, I swear I will kill that son of a bitch."

Mike pursed his lips. "You'll have to take a number. By now, the line's probably up to a hundred or so."


After Mike left, Anne turned to Olearius and he gave her a comforting embrace.

"At least Rubens didn't sell his," she whispered. "I'm glad for that. He's always been my favorite."

Adam said nothing, judging it to be an unwise time to explain that Rubens had sold his original. He'd sold it to Olearius himself, and for a token sum, once Adam explained his purpose.

But now was not the time to get into that. The portrait was safely stowed away, in a place Anne would never think to look.

There was no hurry, after all, given his purpose. Adam would tell her in a few years, when the whole incident had faded into one of those more-in-humor-than-anger recollections for his soon-to-be-wife. By then, they'd have children; and, like any mother, Anne would be thinking about her children's prospects.

Which would almost certainly be splendid. The future was always unpredictable, of course. But Adam Olearius was quite confident that in any one of the possible futures he and his wife would find themselves in, being able to bestow onto their children an original portrait by Rubens would mollify his wife. Especially that portrait, as famous as it would soon be.

By then, it would be worth . . .

Who could say? A very great deal, certainly.

He wondered, for a moment, what would happen to the others.


Richelieu pondered the three portraits. They were magnificent, especially taken as an ensemble. Three portraits by three great artists, each of the same subject . . . 

To the best of the cardinal's knowledge, nothing like it had ever happened in the long history of art.

For a moment, he was tempted to keep them for himself. But, as always, duty triumphed.

"In the Louvre, Servien," he said firmly to his aide. "For the moment, we'll keep them here in my chambers. But once the work in the Grande Galerie is finished, we'll move them there. They'll form the anchor of the collection."

In another world, the royal castle known as the Louvre wouldn't become a museum until 1793, during the French revolution. But Richelieu, determined to see to it that the revolution never happened at all, had concluded that launching a museum much earlier would add to the grandeur of royal France. It was just one of many adaptations he was making to the new world created by the Ring of Fire.

"And the other matter?"

Richelieu continued his study of the portraits, for perhaps a minute.

"A good idea," he finally concluded. "No matter how the war ends. I have come to the conclusion that the more civilized the contest, the more advantageous is the position of France. This"—he gestured at the portraits—"was a very shrewd maneuver by our opponent. Best to respond quickly and in kind, I think, lest we seem churlish."

Servien nodded. "It will certainly please the city's artisans and tradesmen. It can take up to three hours to get a parcel properly sealed and certified."

"Yes, it will." Richelieu did not usually concern himself much with the sentiments of the merchant classes, since in normal times they carried little weight in the political affairs of France. But the war was not going as well as he had thought it would, and the king's younger brother Monsieur Gaston—treacherous as ever—was using the fact to undermine Richelieu's support in the aristocracy. Should the worst come to pass and a real crisis erupt, having the support and allegiance of the Parisian mob could be important.

"We'll have Georges de la Tour do the painting. I'll want the same model, you understand. Given the situation, Servien, that's essential."

"I'll see to the matter, Your Eminence."


Anne Jefferson sat at the same table in the embassy, staring at Rebecca. Mike was long gone from Amsterdam, by now, since the war was heating up again.

"You've got to be kidding."

"Not at all," said Rebecca. "The French are offering to pay for your transport"—she glanced at Adam—"and your husband's, and they'll put you up in chambers in the Louvre itself. It's mostly a royal palace today, you know. They're certain to be very comfortable quarters."

She made a little face. "Allowing for seventeenth-century plumbing. But you've been dealing with that here in Amsterdam, anyway."

"This is a joke, right?"


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