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Steps In The Dance

Eric Flint

"Stop whining, Harry," said Anne Jefferson. "If I can do it, you can do it."

"No way am I posing half-nekkid," growled her male companion. He gripped the rifle with both hands, as if ready to deal with any threatening horde.

Any horde.



Famous artists.

"Ha! The truth about Macho Man, exposed to the world at last! A coward. A craven." Anne swiveled her head to give him her best sneer, even if it was mostly wasted in the twilight. The lamps which were starting to be lit in front of the taverns on the street in Amsterdam didn't yet add much to the illumination.

"I'm not a coward," Harry Lefferts insisted stubbornly. "And I'm not cravin' anything at the moment except relief from pushy women."

He tried a lusty grin, directed at Anne. Alas, it was a pale version of her sneer.

"Not relief from all women, o' course. Just pushy ones. If you were to change your ways ..."

"I'd call that a nice try, except it's so feeble." She tried to stride forward, but the combination of the absurd sorta-wedding dress she was wearing, the cobblestoned street, and her seventeenth century Dutch version of high heels caused her to stumble.

Fortunately, Adam Olearius was there to catch her arm and keep her standing, if not exactly steady. He'd been walking alongside her ever since they'd left the USE embassy, as he listened to the repartee between Anne and Harry.

Smiling, as he did so. By now, several weeks after Harry's arrival in Amsterdam, Adam had long since recognized that Harry was not a rival, despite the young American's seemingly irrepressible flirting. In fact, he'd rather come to like the man, even if he was a little scary at times.

Scary this time, too, in a way. Adam had been keeping an eye out for the possibility that Anne might stumble, which Harry had not. Adam had a very personal interest in the young woman, and was more familiar than either of his companions with the hazards of negotiating the streets of the era. The cobble-stones as such hadn't caused Anne to stumble. Rather, her shoe had skidded in the material covering one of the stones. There were unfortunate consequences to using horses for transport in cities.

Partly, too, because Adam Olearius was a more solicitous man by nature than Harry Lefferts was or ever would be. And finally—being honest—because he was not pre-occupied with the prospect of shortly becoming the model for one of the half-dozen most famous artists of the time. Of all times, actually, judging from the American history books Adam had read.

So, he'd been half-expecting the stumble, and was there almost instantly. But Harry was only a split-second behind him. Somehow, he managed to shift his grip on the rifle and his footing in order to seize Anne's other elbow, with such speed and grace that Adam was not really able to follow the motions.

In the three short years since the Ring of Fire, Harry Lefferts had become a rather notorious figure in certain European circles. For several reasons, one of which was his skill as a duelist. Seeing the way he moved, Adam had no trouble understanding the reason.

Yes, frightening, in its way, especially given the man's incredibly sanguine temperament. Fortunately for the world, Harry was also—as a rule—quite a good-natured fellow. He was not actually given to picking fights, Adam had concluded, after observing him for several weeks. He was simply very, very, very good at ending them—and instantly ready to do so if someone else was foolish enough to begin the affair.

That notoriety, of course, did not fit well with Harry's official role as a combination "secret" agent and what the Americans called a "commando." Anne Jefferson had teased him about it.

The other two women in the USE embassy in Amsterdam had not. Rebecca Abrabanel had subjected him to a long, solemn lecture on the subject. Gretchen Richter had subjected him to a short and blistering excoriation.

Blistering, indeed. Adam happened to have been there himself, to hear it. The expression one of the up-timers had used afterward struck him as most appropriate. She really peeled the paint off the walls, didn't she?

Had she been a man, her tirade might have led to a challenge.

Although ... perhaps not. Adam was pretty sure that Gretchen Richter was one of the few people in the world who intimidated Harry Lefferts. If not as proficient as he was with weapons, she was every bit as ready to employ them—and with attitudes as sanguine as his, and then some.

There was more to it, though. Adam knew, at least in its general outlines, how Harry had first met the woman, very shortly after the Ring of Fire.

"Shithouse Gretchen," was the way Harry sometimes referred to her, when she'd done something to get on his nerves. But he never said it in front of her—and there was always more than a trace of grudging respect even when he did. In the end, for all his often-debonair manners and the way he was idolized by a number of young European gentry and noblemen, Harry Lefferts was a hillbilly and a former coal miner. Getting one's hand dirty, and being willing to do so, was something he deeply respected.

Oddly enough, Harry's thoughts seemed to have been running parallel to Adam's. After Anne's footing was steady again, Harry released her elbow and went back to his grumbling.

"And why me, anyway? Shithouse Gretchen's built like a damn brick shithouse. And she's willing to pose."

"Don't be vulgar, Harry," scolded Anne.

"Who's being vulgar? The truth is what it is. Those tits of hers would intimidate a Playboy bunny—and it's not as if she's kept them under wraps. Not hardly. Not after she posed for Rembrandt."

He barked a laugh that was half-sarcasm, and half genuine humor. "Ha! You watch, Anne! Give it a century or two and that damn painting will be hanging in the Louvre. Or the—what's it called?—that famous museum in Spain. The Pardo, I think. Lines of tourists a mile long all shuffling past to stare at the world's most famous tits."

Olearius suspected he was right. He'd seen the painting himself, on the two previous occasions when he'd visited the mansion where the Spanish had set up their headquarters for the siege of Amsterdam. The enemy commander, the cardinal-infante Don Fernando, had it prominently displayed in his salon.

A bit odd, that was, given that the painting romanticized Don Fernando's stubborn Dutch opponents. Rembrandt's whimsical version of the future painting by Eugène Delacroix which would have been called Liberty Leading the People depicted a bare-breasted Gretchen Richter holding a flag on the ramparts of Spanish-besieged Amsterdam.

Had the Spanish commander of that siege been a different sort of man, Olearius would have assumed nothing more was involved than any man's interest in such a remarkable female form. But ...

No, that wasn't it. To be sure, for all his slender, red-headed boyish appearance, Don Fernando was a very vigorous man—and not one upon whom his official title as a cardinal weighed any too heavily. But he was no bumpkin, either, easily distracted by mere lust. Olearius was quite an experienced diplomat, and he'd already come to the conclusion than Don Fernando was as shrewd as any prince in the long and successful history of the Habsburg dynasty. If Don Fernando had chosen to have that painting prominently displayed in his headquarters, there was a political reason for it.

More likely, several reasons. Don Fernando could be surprisingly subtle for such a young man.

"Shit," Anne muttered. Olearius glanced over and saw that she'd finally spotted the cause of her mishap. They'd reached a well-illuminated corner and the contents smeared across the sole of her shoe and partway up the sides were now easily visible and quite evident.

"Yeah, sure is," said Harry cheerfully. "Look on the bright side, though. It's just horse-shit. Someday I'll tell you about the time Gurd and me had to wade through—naw, it's too disgusting."

He started to reach for the handkerchief he had in his pocket, but Adam had already drawn out his own and offered it to Anne.

"Thanks," she said, smiling at him warmly. But the smile vanished as soon as she spotted the men starting to spill out of the tavern on the corner. "Oh, damn, here they come. Stand in front of me, guys. Appearances Must Be Maintained."

Adam and Harry moved to block her from the sight of the night watchmen emerging from the tavern. Adam, with a solemn demeanor. Harry ... not.

"Stop grinning, Harry," Anne hissed, as she stooped down to clean off her shoe.

"Can't help it," he insisted. "Besides, don't get paranoid. I'm not grinning at you, I'm grinning at the flag that guy is carrying."

Olearius had noticed it himself. Anne glanced up from her labor.

"Why is a Dutch soldier carrying a U.S. flag?" she wondered.

"It's a real one, too," Harry said. "Old one, I guess I oughta say. Not the NUS flag. Fifty stars."

He seemed genuinely aggrieved. "Damn. They musta got it from Grantville. Some bums will sell anything."

"They might have made it themselves," Adam pointed out. "Holland is a textile center, after all, and Amsterdam has plenty of seamstresses."

The mystery was solved, as soon as the night watch came up. One of them extended the flag to Harry. "You will need this," he explained, in heavily accented English.

"Why?" Harry asked, as he took the flag. He used the Dutch word. One of Harry's many talents was a proficiency with languages, and his Dutch had gone from non-existent to semi-passable in just a few short weeks.

Semi-passable, at least, for practical purposes like ordering beer and getting directions. There was not much chance he'd be able to argue pre-predestination with Dutch theologians, even assuming Harry had any desire to. A proposition about as unlikely as a wolverine becoming an opera enthusiast, in Adam's estimation.

The night watch soldier shrugged. "Word came from the Spanish to send one with you. The artist requires it, apparently."

That still left the mystery of where the flag came from. But the night watchman answered that also. Smiling, he added: "We took the one from the tavern wall. Make sure you bring it back. The owner had it made himself and he likes to keep it up. He thinks it's a good luck charm."

"Well, sure," replied Harry.

* * *

Getting through the walls of Amsterdam was easy, of course, with the night watch leading the way to the gate. Getting through the Spanish siege lines beyond to the cardinal-infante's headquarters ...

Proved to be not much more difficult. Spanish officers were waiting to guide them through the maze of trenches and earthworks, all Castilian hidalgo courtesy. They were respectful toward Adam, even more respectful if openly curious toward Harry, and, of course, almost effusively gallant toward Anne.

There was no fear, here, that she might stumble on treacherous footing. The Spanish had even laid planks through the trenches, solely on her behalf. Even if she had stumbled, the press of officers around her would have prevented any undignified fall.

"Bunch of leches, you ask me," Harry muttered at one point to Adam. "You better keep your eye on them."

Olearius shook his head. "Even granted that the Castilian reputation is well-deserved, that's really not what's involved here. You forget, Harry. Anne is the one who gave them the chloramphenicol. The formula, at least. Someday, that might very well saves their lives, and those of their families."

That brought a scowl to Harry's face. "I still think Mike was crazy to give it to them."

Adam couldn't resist. "Surely you won't vote for Quentin Underwood in the next election? He shares your opinion, I'm told."

The scowl deepened considerably. "Not a cold chance in hell. I don't care what fancy positions the bum occupies in the here and now. Far's I'm concerned, he's still the stinkin' manager of the stinkin' mine I used to work in. Sooner vote for the Devil."

He spread the scowl around. "Or one of these damn hidalgos, come down to it. Betcha they never heard of `forced overtime.' Still ... Mike was crazy," he concluded stubbornly.

There was a time when Adam Olearius might have agreed with him. But his experiences as a diplomat from the duchy of Holstein during the siege of Amsterdam had led him to develop a great respect for the acumen of Mike Stearns and his Sephardic wife. However much Stearns' surreptitious delivery of the formulas for antibiotics to the Spanish might violate the usual notions of strategy, Olearius had decided that the tactic was a splendid illustration of one of those up-time saws he'd become fond of: crazy like a fox.

Lesser statesmen simply thought to defeat their enemies. Stearns was seeking to shatter them into splinters, and turn half the splinters into his allies. Or, at least, sideline them into neutrality.

He might very well succeed, too, Adam thought. How else to explain this night's peculiar expedition except as one more step in an intricate diplomatic dance? A four-way dance, at that—Stearns, his wife, the Prince of Orange, and Don Fernando—and one being invented on the spot.

Five-way dance, really, since the cardinal-infante had to maintain his own sure-footed steps when it came to the reaction of the King of Spain and his notorious chief adviser, the Count-Duke of Olivares.

They arrived, finally. By now, the night had settled in, and all that illuminated the Spanish headquarters were sconces and lamps. A multitude of them—with what seemed like mirrors on every wall to enhance the lighting.

Amazingly, on the pristine flooring of the entrance salon, Anne stumbled again. But the cardinal-infante himself was there to catch her.

As gallant as any of his officers, he set her back upright with nothing more than a cheerful laugh. As if the younger brother of the Spanish king took assisting common women for granted.

He probably didn't look at it that way, however, Adam reflected. Whatever the Americans themselves might think, or say, or write—or even, astonishingly, practice at least most of the time—the aristocracy of Europe had generally come to the conclusion that they qualified as nobility.

Why not? In the end, if you stripped away all the trappings and the mythologies, the nobility of Europe owed its present exalted position to the crude fact that its ancestors had been the toughest men of their time. That, or the richest, or both. Today, three years after the Ring of Fire, only a handful of lunatic counts and the emperor of the Turks—who was known as Murad the Mad—tried to deny that the up-timers were both mighty and wealthy.

Hearing a little stir behind him, Adam turned and saw that four Spanish officers were clustered around Harry. They were frowning at him, and he was responding with a scowl of his own.

Harry had quite a formidable scowl, too. Fortunately, he was not stupid.

"I was told to bring the rifle," he said, almost snarling the words. In perfectly fluent Spanish, not to Olearius' surprise, albeit with an accent that had more in it of Italy than Castille. He'd originally picked up the language in the course of his journeys with Mazarini, Adam guessed.

"It's not loaded, you—" Fortunately, again, Harry left off the rest. He simply, with a quick and smooth motion that made his proficiency with the weapon obvious, drew the bolt and exposed the empty chamber.

The Spanish officers clustered around him still more closely. Now, however, with professional interest in the exotic up-time rifle, rather than suspicion. They began peppering Harry with technical questions, which he answered readily.

Much more readily than Olearius would have expected, in fact. He suspected that was another subtle step in the dance.

"This is the same sort of rifle that shot Wallenstein at the Alte Veste?" asked one of the Spaniards.

"Pretty much," Harry replied. "The caliber's slightly different. This is what we call a `30-06.'"

The four officers eyed him closely. "Could you make such a shot?"

Harry hesitated, for just a split second, before answering. Male pride at work, probably. Then, chuckling, he shook his head.

"No, I couldn't. I'm a very good shot, but Julie Sims—Mackay, now—is just plain out of my league."

"So it is true? It was a woman who fired that shot?"

"Sure was." Harry held up the rifle a moment, as if studying it. "With this, and me shooting it ... I figure I could hit a target up to five hundred yards. Maybe six."

The cardinal-infante had come over himself to follow the conversation. Olearius saw him frown for a moment, as he made the necessary mathematical translations into Spanish distances.

The frown was replaced by a look of keen interest. "That far? Our siege lines are within that range. Some of them, well within. Yet you have never shot any of my soldiers."

Harry gave him a look that Adam found it difficult to interpret. Complicated, it seemed to be. There was something in there of menace, something of calculation, something of cold amusement, and ...

Yes, exasperation.

So. Another step in the dance—and, as with so many, one that the dancer found too fancy for his taste.

Luckily for Europe, Olearius mused, Mike Stearns and not Harry Lefferts was the choreographer here.

The cardinal-infante tossed his head a little. "Tomorrow morning, we will see."

Don Fernando called over his shoulder to the servants against the far wall. "Up in my chamber. There is a old hunting hat in the wardrobe. The one with the red stripe, not the blue one. Bring it down here."

One of the servants sped on his way. All graciousness, now, the cardinal-infante bowed slightly and waved his hand toward a wide door on the side of the salon. "Please, come. Rembrandt is waiting."

The sitting was the usual tedious business. The night watch was kept waiting, while Rembrandt concentrated on the portrait of Anne and Harry Lefferts. More precisely, the portrait of Anne, a slim and attractive figure in a white gown, gazing serenely at the flag draped over her lap. All that would ever be seen of Harry was a grim and menacing figure standing guard with a rifle beside her and off to the side, but one whose face was mostly concealed by a "Caterpillar" cap.

Harry had insisted on the cap, as a condition. Gotta keep my anonomaly as a secret agent.

Rebecca Abrabanel had burst into outright laughter, hearing that. Even Gretchen Richter had smiled.

"Okay, so I know I'm not pronouncing it right," Harry grumbled. "It's still true."

"It is not that!" Rebecca held a hand over her mouth to restrain any further laughter. "It is just ..."

"Ridiculous," Gretchen finished for her. "Preposterous comes to mind, also."

Her smile was gone. She didn't quite glare at Harry. Not quite.

"Ridiculous," she repeated, almost hissing the word. "After the public duels you've fought—not to mention the bastards you've probably left scattered across half of Europe. Secret agent, ha!"

She began taking toddling little steps across the main salon of the USE embassy, waving her hands like a small child. "You will see! `Mr. Secret Agent,' soon pursued by a horde of infants. `Papa!' `Papa!' "

That started Rebecca laughing again. Even Harry had smiled.

"Still," he insisted, after she was done. "It's the principle of the thing."

* * *

But perhaps it was just as well, Olearius concluded by the end of the evening. Rembrandt had managed to sketch enough of the portrait for the Holstein diplomat to get a sense of the thing.

Yes. Anne, in that white gown—the purpose for which was now clear—would be the center of it. Anne, with her pretty young face, and serene expression. Holding the flag the way a young expectant mother might hold a quilt she was making for her coming child. With that dark, grim, faceless, frightening figure in the background—all painted in dark colors, except for a gleaming flash from the rifle barrel—to serve the more observant eye as a reminder.

Yes, splendid. All the more so in that Olearius was quite certain that the cardinal-infante had commissioned the painting. Unlike The Trojan Horsewoman, this was not a project that Rembrandt had dreamed up himself and then foisted onto a reluctant patron.

A reminder—but to whom? The Spanish soldiers? The cardinal-infante himself?


Or, perhaps, someday he would send it to his older brother. As a way to ameliorate the anger that was already coming from Madrid; or, at least, provide himself with an excuse.

"Done, for tonight," Rembrandt pronounced. As courteous as ever—the great painter was an accomplished diplomat in his own right—he smiled at Anne and Harry. "Tomorrow evening, the same time?"

"Of course," said Anne cheerfully.

"Sure," muttered Harry. Finally, seeing that the damn artist had set aside his brushes, he removed the cap.

Don Fernando had left the studio, soon after ushering them into it. Patron of the arts or not, watching a sitting was a boring business. In any event, as commander of the Spanish army that had overrun most of the Netherlands, there were always pressing demands on his time.

But he was there, punctiliously, to see them off.

"Tomorrow morning," he said to Harry. He lifted his hand, holding a battered old hat. "I will have this placed somewhere visible on the siege lines."

"Sure," muttered Harry.

* * *

The first shot came just a few minutes after daybreak.

"He missed," said one of the cardinal-infante's officers, with great satisfaction.

"Wait," cautioned Miguel de Manrique. Unlike the officer who had spoken, the cardinal-infante's chief lieutenant had experience with the Americans. He'd been in command of the Spanish troops at the Wartburg.

Don Fernando gave him a questioning eye.

Manrique waved his hand. "The weapons are not magical, Your Highness. At this range, even the wind matters. Remember—all accounts we've gotten are agreed—the Sims woman missed her first shot at Wallenstein also. So let us wait."

Perhaps two seconds later, the hat went sailing off the wall it had been perched upon. A moment thereafter, they heard the sound of a distant gunshot.

An aide ran to retrieve the hat. When it was brought back to the cardinal-infante, he saw that a bullet hole had been added to the crown.

"Yes," he said. "A splendid painting. I shall have it hung in the main salon."

A few nights later, when the sittings were finally done, Don Fernando had a few last words with Harry.

"That peculiar request you made, two nights ago."

Harry inclined his head, smiling.

"I investigated. It is indeed true that you killed no one coming into the city."

The smile vanished. "Had orders," Harry growled. "Stupid as they might be."

"Yes." The cardinal-infante was smiling, now. "I suspected as much. Very well. When the time comes, send me word and I will see you—and your men—safely through our lines. To wherever else you might go—and do note that I neither ask nor make any conditions. Except a promise that you are not going to Spain."

"Nowhere near Spain. Ah, Your Highness. My word on it."

"That's done, then." Turning to Anne and Olearus, the cardinal-infante smiled still wider. "You look splendid in that gown, Mademoiselle Jefferson. May I hope to see you in it again, someday?"

The long hours of sitting seemed to have fixed serenity upon the young woman's face. She simply inclined her head toward Olearius and said, "Ask him."

"Ah ..." said Adam.

Diplomacy was called for, here. An intricate dance, with steps of its own.

"I certainly hope so," he said.

Anne nodded, as serenely as ever. "Apparently, yes, then."

"Jesus," grumbled Harry. "Can't anybody around here do anything straight-up?"

As one person, a nurse from America and a diplomat from Holstein and a prince from Spain gave Harry Lefferts an identical look.

What a barbarian.

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