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St. Pietersberg, Netherlands

Midsummer’s Eve, 1636

The road into Maastricht wound along between the river and the foot of the steep-sided hill. Joris de Groon was perfectly content to trail along at the end of the party—the half-dozen men weren’t raising enough dust to matter, and it mercifully left a little distance between him and Capitán de Douane Dirk van der Valk. He nudged Aart Boegens and spoke out the side of his mouth. “Look at the way that fat blowhard struts along. I think that fancy title ‘Captain of Customs’ the Spanish gave him has gone to his head. Now he’s got his big plumed hat to wave around and that silver-hilted sword to play with.”

Aart winked back at him. “Maybe so, but he does well enough at finding taxes and contraband and anything else that looks a little out of order. And when the state makes money, he makes money, and when he makes money, we make money.”

“Please. You’re spouting the obvious, just like he loves to do all the time. Do you suppose he’ll tell us lowly ignoramuses in another minute that the sun has gone down behind the hill? Or just go off on another one of his long-winded rants against the Remonstrants and anyone else who doesn’t bend the knee to Rome?”

“He might, he might. Huh. What’s he stopping for, do you suppose?” The baas was off to the side of the road, half-stooped over, moving crabwise toward one of the openings in the side of the hill, a natural cave, not one of the stonecutters’ tunnels.

“Ha! See that?” Van der Valk was pointing his rigid finger down at the dirt in front of the cave entrance.

One of the men up front moved in. “What, Captain? I don’t see anything.”

“Exactly, Burchgert. Light your lantern and hand it to me. All of you, attend. Look here.” In another moment the whole party was gathered around the area he encircled with his arms. He swung the lantern around over the spot. “See, swept smooth. No footprints. There should be footprints, every child within a day’s walk must know of this place. Someone wants to hide that they were here!”

“The French smugglers?”

Joris let off a quiet snort, too low to be heard more than arm’s length away. How could anyone know whether they’re French or not? But it didn’t matter. If there were smugglers, that was good enough, and it was plain enough by what had been showing up in the town markets that there were smugglers.

“Who else could it be? This must be where they hide the contraband and stolen goods, until they can dispose of them. Dirty outlanders! They steal work from our guilds, from all of us. Now secure your gear so it doesn’t clink, and follow me.” He rose to his feet and gave his sword an experimental tug, making sure it was free in its scabbard, then primed his pistol. Well, that was sensible enough. Every now and then in a band of smugglers you met a few who had reason not to be taken alive. Some of them weren’t much different from pirates.

Van der Valk led off. The roomy chamber they entered was mostly as it had been since the beginning of the world, except for the floor, worn smooth by feet and wheels passing through since before the Romans came. Much of the rock overhead looked like it had melted and run like wax. In a few places some long-forgotten quarryman had split a block away.

Ccvs It was near the back of the cave that a squared tunnel, high enough to stand up in, led away into the silent darkness. It was just about wide enough to haul out a block of building stone on a handcart. There was a scraped place in front of it that might have been recent. The captain looked at it with a rumble of satisfaction, and turned to face the men. “We will have to leave the pole arms here.”

Joris looked at the narrow passage and hid a grunt. Tell me something I don’t know. Better leave your hat, too.

Tedium descended. Chalk an arrow on the wall at each turning, to show which way they’d come. Write a number over it, for how far. Some of the chambers were huge, where the quarrymen had found big pockets of good building stone. Some of the passages were barely wide enough to get through, snatching with claws of fractured stone at van der Valk’s fine wool coat, not to mention his lace cuffs. Reach a dead end, backtrack to the last unsearched branch, begin again. Joris put more attention into making sure he didn’t get separated from the party, than anything else.

****

By midnight Dirk van der Valk was getting frustrated and impatient. There had to be something here in this ancient labyrinth, he was sure of it, but the lamp oil was starting to be a concern. He was on the point of ordering a return to the outside through one of the nearer entrance tunnels they’d explored, when there was a faint sound. He threw out one hand, fingers spread, palm down. Silence. He put his hand to his ear. A rhythmic tapping? Maybe dripping water, but . . .  He led off again, stepping as softly as he could, pausing often to listen. It got louder as they got closer, and presently he could hear a soft tootling. They’re having a celebration? Made some big profit? He resisted the urge to rush ahead. A few steps further on . . .

He spun around and held up his hand, then beckoned the men to come close, so they could hear him whisper. “Quiet, there’s a light ahead. Cover the lanterns.” From here, a soft chanting from several voices was audible. He strained to hear. After a minute or so, he’d heard enough to be sure—it wasn’t Dutch. Certainly not Latin. Nothing he could recognize. Slowly, silently, he drew his sword. His men readied cutlery and cudgels, according to what they had. He crouched as low as he could without smudging his clothing on the tunnel floor, and peered around the turning. There was someone on guard, but watching whatever was happening among his friends, not looking outward. Foolish. He motioned Aart forward, and pointed to the sand-filled stocking hanging at the man’s belt. Aart nodded, sucked in his breath and squeezed past, and cat-footed ahead. Presently he dragged an unconscious man back to the customs party. Dirk stepped over the fellow in the narrow passage and waited until the rest had followed.

He edged around the last turning and prepared to charge—from here on, surprise would depend on speed, not silence. He stepped full into the candle-lit chamber, and froze for an instant in utter astonishment.

The place was as big as a tavern’s main room, and twice as high. There was some sort of a crude painting on the far wall. But the people—

CdncA man wearing nothing but a magnificently horned stag-headdress completely enclosing his own head, rampant in his nakedness, and a sinuously weaving woman bare except for a matching doe’s-head, were dancing clockwise to the beat of the music, facing each other across a knee-high stone platform spread with fragrant pine boughs and deerskin robes. Flowers showed around the edges. Their intention couldn’t have been more obvious. Five large green candles burned at equally spaced points on a circle drawn around them. Along the walls a dozen or so white-robed figures with wreaths of oak leaves on their heads stood in pairs, one playing a wooden whistle, one tapping his fingers on a small hand-held drum, and the rest holding torches aloft.

Dirk involuntarily focused for an instant on the strawberry birthmark between the woman’s breasts, a birthmark that stirred a memory—and recovered his voice enough to bellow one word—”Abomination!”

The chamber erupted in shouts and scurrying. In an instant it became clear that the place was anything but a dead end; the celebrants disappeared in two different directions. The turn in the narrow passageway behind Dirk delayed his men just a few moments too long. It didn’t help that Dirk wasted a couple of heartbeats frozen where he stood, squarely in front of the passage. By the time the chase was well under way, the slam of a heavy door echoed through the tunnels, and a bolt thunked into place somewhere.

The priest and priestess, if that’s what they were, weren’t so lucky. The time they needed to get the clumsy headdresses off so they could bolt was time they didn’t have. Dirk shouted, “You two damned witches stand fast! Don’t move, or I’ll shoot.”

The “stag” had both hands on his headdress, pushing at it and trying to get it off, and looking like he was sizing up his chances. The woman snatched hers off. She just glared at Dirk with an expression of distaste.

“Lucia?” van der Valk blurted. She was one of the serving girls at an inn in town. “What are you doing here? How could you do this?”

She snorted. “They pay a whole lot better than you do, Customs Captain van der Valk. And he doesn’t slap me around, either. Besides, he knows what a man is supposed to do and he keeps doing it until I’m howling with joy.”

Dirk felt his face turn to flame. He stepped forward and slapped her. “You will burn in hell for this disgraceful travesty, you filthy hoer!”

Lucia shrugged and wiped the blood off the corner of her mouth. “So, I am a whore? Why not, when it pays? And you know all about that, don’t you?”

Captain van der Valk struck her back-handed and knocked her down. The stag-headed man started to move forward with a wordless shout. Van der Valk stuck the pistol against the snout of the headdress. “One more move and I’ll blow your perverted head off. Now get that obscene thing off.”

The man pushed straight up a couple of times, and finally it came free. Jan Marten van der Meulen, a supposedly respectable member of the lens grinder’s guild, stood looking Dirk in the eye. “Do you mind if we get dressed?”

Dirk threw the man his best glare. “No, I certainly don’t mind you two idolators getting properly dressed. And then, after we search this place for contraband, you are coming with us. Aart, go back and secure that other one.”

 

The Maastricht prosecutor’s chamber

A few days later

The room wan’t particularly comfortable. It was cramped and cluttered, if anything, and the whitewash showed the soot of many candles. It had south-facing windows, which was good and bad; it was well-lighted, but hot.

Van der Valk’s meaty hand smacked the chair arm. “In the name of Heaven, Aanklager van Loo, what is responsible for this damnable delay? What possible doubt can there be that these heksen we caught in the caverns should be burned and their goods forfeited? They were in the middle of a Black Mass!” He gave no thought at all to his daughter-in-law’s remonstrance only the previous day that a man of his age and girth ought to have more sense than to indulge in fits of rage.

Prosecutor van Loo sniffed. “Witches conducting a Black Mass, you imagine? Do you even know what is done in a Black Mass, good captain?”

“Ah, not precisely, no.”

“Well, I do, and those two don’t. If the third one your man sapped hadn’t awakened and scurried away during the confusion, I doubt he would have known, either. I have had occasion to study the literature on the subject. The candles weren’t even the right color. And meanwhile, your public rantings have so inflamed everyone who has even heard of the affair that I can scarcely manage to conduct a proper investigation. My guards have more work keeping the town rowdies out than the prisoners in.”

“Investigation? Why not just put them to the question? Nothing could be simpler!”

The prosecutor made a brushing-away gesture. “Simple, but not particularly useful. Have you read Spee’s Cautio Criminalis? No, I see by your face that you have not. The rack and thumbscrew are a simple way to get them to denounce whatever enemies they might have, or just shout names at random to get the pain to stop. And I think you might now be counted among their enemies, eh?” He cocked his head to one side, with a tight smile.

Dirk’s stomach flip-flopped for the merest instant. Was that was a threat? No, it could be no more than a jest. He shifted in his chair. “Well, what are you doing, then?”

“I’ve looked closely at what was around that stone altar, and in the nearby parts of the cavern. That wall painting could conceivably be a depiction of Pan, if you squint the right way. My men and I have minutely examined their quarters and van der Meulen’s shop. The town watch is mostly local men; they’ve heard things about Gronsveld customs, where van der Meulen comes from. They are following up and keeping an ear on tavern chatter. There is great doubt in some circles that witchcraft even exists, but I would very much like to know the precise nature of this secretive folk whatever-it-was that you stumbled upon.”

“Surely you haven’t been taken in by his absurd protestation of innocence!”

“Not without corroboration, no. In my position I expect to be lied to.”

Dirk looked at him. Did his bland expression and posture convey a studied insult?

Van Loo went on, “And there are wider implications to be looked into. The drum and the whistle you brought in are Irish, at least in form. You didn’t notice that, and you a captain of customs? It certainly riveted my attention. If Archduchess Isabella’s Irish followers have their noses into hidden doings hereabouts, I would very much like to be informed. I have written to the capital for what light they may be able to shed on that aspect.” Van Loo rose. “Now, I have other business to attend to. Kindly attend to yours. I believe you still have unfinished business with an enterprising crew of smugglers?”

Dirk smacked the chair arm one more time with his closed fist. “You dawdle. I shall be making a report to higher authority, and it will no doubt be forwarded higher yet.”

Van Loo harrumphed. “As you will.” And pointed to the door.

Words were already forming in Dirk’s head.

 

Coudenberg Palace, Brussels

Several days later

Adriano Navarro glanced with pride for just a moment at the fine new silver-mounted mechanical pencil cradled in his right hand—the latest and most refined of its kind from Essen. Much more satisfactory than the old sort of pencil. He slid the letter from the Rotterdam harbormaster sideways in the clipboard he held in his other hand, so he could make some marginal notes as he walked. Clipboards were such a great convenience, why had no-one devised them before the Americans were thrust so unwillingly into the world?

The surroundings were elegant enough. Even this far from the formal audience chamber and the grand entrance hall, there were touches of gilt on the wall sconces and the benches where visitors awaited their appointments with the staff. He paid them no mind. With a few minutes free, he had the thought of stepping outside to enjoy the sight of the gardens before the day got hot, while he finished putting down his thoughts. He had nearly reached the door, navigating by peripheral vision, when a voice came from over his shoulder.

“Señor Navarro, a moment, please. His Majesty’s private secretary sends these to you, and asks that you take care of the matter. Quietly, if at all possible.”

Adriano put on a cordial expression and turned around to look old Gonzalo Mendez full in the face. There were those among Their Majesties’ courtiers who gave even the most senior clerks no more attention than pieces of furniture obstructing their passage. Not Adriano. He knew full well that little of importance happened in the court without their knowledge—and the knowledge of those who treated them with just the proper degree of recognition.

Adriano looked doubtfully at the ribbon-tied packet of papers the man took from under an elbow and thrust into his hands. Slipping the top sheet out and unfolding it, he scanned quickly through the body. He looked back up with raised eyebrows. “This, Gonzalo? Public turmoil in Maastricht and accusations of witchcraft? Quietly?”

Gonzalo favored him with the merest hint of a bow. “I have heard His Majesty speak highly of you. No doubt he has utter confidence in your ability to manage this . . . what did his secretary call it? . . . this unfortunate perturbation of the public tranquility.”

Adriano let a sardonic tone creep into his voice. “There is a lesson, my friend, for this knotty tangle, apparently, is my reward for earning the king’s confidence. How delightful!”

The clerk grinned back. “The lesson, I should think, is that by untangling such knots you keep your admirable place at court.” He stepped back and cast a meaningful eye up and down the Italian silk and Flemish lace of Adriano’s apparel. “By the way you dress, you seem to prosper by it.”

“It satisfies me. Well. This is not something to be managed at a distance. I must go myself, and by the look of this, I must go today. You know the proper clerk to make the travel arrangements?”

“I shall see it is done, Señor Navarro. For yourself only, I assume?”

“For myself, a pair of level-headed soldiers who will quiet any trouble and not stir up any of their own, and a certain corporal I have in mind who has a fine way with people. When he deftly turns wandering visitors away from a part of the palace they should not enter and helpfully gives them directions to where they want to go, they scarcely realize they were stopped by a man ready to bloody his sword. I take leave of you now, for if I am to have such paragons, I must go pay my respects to the Captain of the Guard.”

 

Maastricht

 

Adriano left Corporal Loosvelt in charge of settling the party into their lodging and went straightaway to call on the local prosecutor. Van Loo shook his hand and gestured him to a reasonably comfortable chair. A glass of wine would have been nice, or even small beer, but after all, he had not sent notice ahead. On to the matters at hand, then. “So, Mijnheer van Loo, I understand there have been further developments since your inquiry and Mijnheer van der Valk’s report reached us?”

“Yes, Señor Navarro. Van der Meulen’s wife Grietje Osterhoudt declares she will throw him over, legally or not. And it wasn’t the revelation of his mere presence at the affair that made her boil over with such force, it was his, shall we say, prominent position in the thing. She is most intolerant of adultery, that woman, and she has a fine command of invective. I was altogether impressed. His claim to her of being away negotiating business on that particular night has entirely unraveled—for this year and the previous three.”

“Mmm. She seems not to have known of it, then.”

“No, she thought he was only out drinking somewhere. But the Gronsveld villagers apparently did know. They showed little excitement when word went around. A few have visited him in jail, and shown an attitude of sympathy.”

“Implying that it’s well-known among them, and likely nothing new. I note your skepticism of the captain’s dark accusations, but it would be best to know the full meaning of what he found.”

Van Loo tapped his fingers on his cane. “Well, there, we might have a small bit of luck. Van der Meulen’s grandmother in Gronsveld is sometimes not altogether in touch with the world’s affairs, shall we say, but she likes to talk, she likes sympathetic company, and she likes good drink. And one of my men saw a sly expression cross her face when she heard what her grandson had been doing. There is a part-time watchman who has a cart business, and his work sometimes takes him there. He’s quite the story-teller, even sober. I think she might find him pleasant company for an afternoon.”

Adriano chuckled. “Ah. That would be a fascinating conversation to listen to, but I suppose a Spanish courtier would not be the sort of audience to encourage her to speak of these matters. Still, if good drink might loosen her tongue, perhaps the bottle of French brandy I have in my baggage would be worth the sacrifice. With a change of clothes, Corporal Loosvelt can go in my place and help keep the conversation going. He can gossip with the best of them, when duty demands.  With a little luck, they can bring us her tales of what happens on Midsummer’s Eve.”

“Good, good, they can set off in the morning. And what of the Irish?”

“A most interesting question, Mijnheer van Loo, to be sure. Her Highness the Archduchess knows nothing of any Irish troops coming to Maastricht, even in passing. She was puzzled when I asked. I have sent an inquiry to their commanders, but heard nothing yet. I shall inform you when I do, never fear. And now, if you don’t mind, I would like to meet your talented lens grinder.”

 

Gronsveld

Bright and early

Isak Haeften pulled up his cart just outside the village until the old woman was out of doors and could see them coming. Meanwhile, he and Anthonij Loosvelt passed the time talking about Boskoop; if the corporal was going to play the part of a relative from Haeften’s home town, it would help to know something about the place. Away in the fields, a soft breeze stirred the ripening crops.

As soon as the cart came abreast of her cottage, she called out a greeting. It was the most natural thing in the world to halt the horse again and slip on the nosebag. It was a fine sunny day to dally around the doorstep by her kitchen garden and fall into a pleasant chat. By good fortune, none of the neighbors were close enough to caution the old woman against talking of private matters in front of a stranger.

She looked well enough, aside from a slight stoop and not very many teeth.

“And who is this, Isak?”

“My third cousin Anthonij, Grandmother. We were home for a short visit, just in time for Midsummer Festival. It was wonderful. We had a maypole for the children, just like the English do. But they have theirs earlier, you know.”

“Maypoles and things, eh? Oh, yes, we have things for the children too, but that’s not all. Oh, no. Why, I remember, when I was a young girl and first betrothed, we had this dance we did.” A quick smile passed across her face. “But that was not for the children to see. No, they wouldn’t have understood.” There was a happy lilt in her aged voice.

The conversation was wandering already, but that was all to the good. Loosvelt pasted a bright smile on his face. “A dance? What sort, Grandmother?”

Her face and posture changed, as if in her mind she was back in those days. “Well, we . . .”

The conversation wandered some more. After a while she brought them inside to share a little small beer she had. They shared a little brandy. It came back to the dance again. All the while, Isak listened politely and made cheerful noises from time to time. What she was saying mostly agreed with what the two prisoners had protested to van Loo. Finally, he decided to risk probing a little. “It sounds like a very charming old village custom. Jan Marten says it has come down from before the Romans came.”

She sat up straight and made a sharp gesture in front of her face, like brushing away a fly.  “Pfff! From before the Romans, he says? Oh, the things somebody has been filling his head with! No, no, my great-grandmother was there when it all began. She was young then, and her friend Agnes was the cause of it all. A young fellow was after her, you see, and she wasn’t taking him seriously as a suitor. But she had this romantic streak, a head all full of fairy tales and such. So he took bits of the fantastic Carnival costumes, and old legends and things he said he read in a book in Leuven, and whatever else he could find that sounded mysterious, and maybe a little schnapps? Yes, yes, a little schnapps, for certain. Nothing as good as this, I’m sure.”

She held out her cup for another finger of brandy. Loosvelt poured for her.

“Oh, thank you.” She sipped. “And so he arranged everything, and decorated the cavern, and invited a few friends to make it a celebration of Midsummer’s Eve. There was music and dance under the old wall painting. Maybe it meant something once, I don’t know. And she danced it with him. And came home happy and betrothed. They married in late summer. It’s said they needed to. And ever since, whoever’s being betrothed that year, we have the Midsummer’s Eve dance. Even more fun, since the time that Irish tinker lost everything he had in a dice game. I remember that year, so long ago. Such fun we had! He played for us, and we feasted him. And the music has been better ever since.”

Oho! And that’s the other mystery solved! But Isak knew better than to interrupt with more questions, he just smiled and kept listening until she took a pause.

“Oh, that all sounds like such a happy custom, Grandmother. And if nobody is betrothed when the night comes?”

“Well, then, sometimes a new married couple.”

“And if there isn’t one?”

She cackled and winked. “Someone always finds a way to have the dance. As you said, it’s a happy custom. And what do they do in Boskoop?”

 

Maastricht

Early evening

The chamber was a bit crowded with the four of them in there. Corporal Loosvelt found it easiest to lean back against the closed door.

Haeften spread his hands wide, in an almost Gallic shrug. “Mijnheer van Loo, Señor Navarro, there is much less here than meets the eye. A long time ago somebody found a clever way to get a girl naked.”

By the time Loosvelt and Haeften got done explaining, van Loo was tapping away on the top of his cane, looking more and more thoughtful. Adriano sent him an inquiring lift of an eyebrow.

“The difficulty, Señor Navarro, is that they have broken no laws, or at least none we don’t wink at in the inns and brothels. Yet with the great disorder van der Valk has stirred up among the rabble in his efforts to raise a clamor for a witchcraft trial, I hate to imagine what would likely happen if I simply turned them loose. It would be heresy by any standard, even the standards of Jews and Turks, if they actually thought they were invoking some pagan deity. But all they were doing was carrying on a salacious mockery of imagined ancient revels.  It amounted to no more than Carnival, carried to an extreme. Though even if it were otherwise, if I understand the king’s policy of religious toleration—”

“Ah, that was only meant to keep the peace between Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, so the realm could be strong. And in any case, his policy is tolerance, not outright protection of anything and everything. The expense would be unmanageable. So would the political consequences.”

“Mmmph. And so we come back to the simple matter of restoring the peace. The city could hardly afford to protect them indefinitely.”

Adriano settled himself further back into his chair and laced his fingers together across his belt. “So, we, too, must think creatively. My instructions were to deal with the matter quietly, above all. It occurs to me that if they somehow found themselves in the United States, it would put an instant end to any concern over spurious cries of witchcraft.”

Van Loo looked startled. “You refer to last year’s rampages against their witch hunters? True, if any still live, they must cower under their beds from the fury of the mob.”

“Precisely. So, perhaps a mysterious escape and a swift flight to parts unknown might be the quietest manner of bringing this contrived turmoil to an end. Someone at the jail might perhaps be a little inattentive tonight or be bothered by some sort of distraction, hmm?”

Van Loo cocked his head. “Such things do happen, after all. But what of their goods and settling matters between van der Meulen and his wife and son? I suppose they could manage the shop without him, but . . .”

“Details. But details are important, of course. Shall we set about deciding who does what? And then you might direct me to that inn where they have the radio. I will have some things to set in motion elsewhere.”

 

The van der Meulen house

Midnight

It took a good deal of knocking on the shop door to rouse the lens grinder’s wife. When Grietje Osterhoudt finally opened the door, she erupted with monumental fury at the sight of her husband. Adriano cut through the diatribe with his best palace-trained voice of command. “Enough, madam. There is business to settle now.”

The word “business” might have gone a long way toward interrupting the torrent of words. No doubt his aristocratic dress and posture contributed to catching her attention, not to mention van Loo and Haeften right behind him each holding a lantern. As for his military contingent, he’d detailed them to make certain the serving girl had no difficulty collecting her possessions and outstanding wages from the inn.

“Now kindly allow us to step inside, so that it all doesn’t have to be discussed in the street.”

“What—”

They slipped in past her. Haeften quietly closed the door.

“Now, to business. It has been decided that you will have the dissolution you demand. And Mijnheer van der Meulen will be leaving. Before dawn. You and your son are to have the shop, and your husband is to have his personal possessions, for which we’ve brought a cart to carry them away to the river landing, where a barge already awaits. And all the money there is in the house. He will need it for traveling expenses.”

“What? All the money? But—”

“If you need money for immediate expenses, sell something. You have a just complaint against your husband, but that doesn’t extend to leaving him penniless until he can find work in a foreign land. And if you have anything else to negotiate, do it in the next hour, for you are not likely to see him again. At least, not unless you travel abroad.”

Jan Marten half-raised one hand. “Grietje, I’m sorry, I—”

“Sorry? Sorry? I don’t care how sorry you are, I could put up with you telling me you were away on business when you were really out drinking somewhere, but now I find out you were about to plunge yourself into that whore while I—and how long has that been going on? If you’re going to pack up and go, just do it.” She turned her back.

Jan Marten started up the stairs, with Haeften behind him carrying an armload of sacks.

****

Departure went quietly enough to satisfy anyone. Haeften drove the cart to a landing outside the town, by a roundabout route well clear of the more disreputable drinking places. Adriano bade a cordial farewell to him and the prosecutor, and turned to board the barge.

The trip of a hundred miles or so down the Maas to Willemstad might have been a pleasure excursion in other circumstances. The weather was certainly fine. But Adriano’s charges were in no frame of mind to appreciate it. He was happy enough to see it come to an end.

CcstrIt was close to mid-day and near the end of flood tide when they tied up to the Danish coaster Ebeltoft in midstream. The anchor was already hove short and the topsails were draped loose in their buntlines, ready to let fall. Someone looked down over the rail. “Hello. You are?”

“Adriano Navarro, of Their Majesties’ staff.”

“Good. We are ready for you. I am the mate, Knud Bang.” He made a hand signal to someone on deck, and more heads appeared. The boatswain and a couple of the hands were brisk enough hoisting Jan Marten’s baggage aboard on a line dropped from a yardarm. They didn’t even need the line for Lucia’s; she had her clothes and back wages and little else.

After that, boarding took only moments. Adriano stood in the waist, looking around. Van der Valk started sputtering again. “I still don’t see why there was any need for me to come all this way. It will take days to get home to Maastricht.”

“I told you, my men and I are not returning that way, we’re going by sea from here to Antwerp and then up-river to Brussels. Van Loo and the city officials will need your report that the banished pagans have actually left the realm. Now, go see that they are berthed and their effects stowed, will you?”

Van der Valk went below, muttering, “I still don’t see . . .”

Adriano turned to the mate. A smirk flashed across the man’s face, and vanished again into blankness just as quickly. He held out his hand as Adriano reached into his purse for a sheaf of Wisselbank notes, already counted. “Herr Bang, here is the fare stated in your radiogram. Passage for three, to Hamburg.”

Bang counted the money, and nodded.

Adriano stepped to the ship’s side, descended the rope ladder, and tossed up one more bag to a sailor at the rail. Settling himself in the barge, he nodded to the craft’s captain. The rivermen gave way. Corporal Loosvelt turned to Adriano in surprise. “Isn’t Mijnheer van der Valk still on board?”

“You are perceptive, my friend.” Adriano turned to face the ship, raised one arm with the elbow level with his waist and his forearm straight up, and waved his palm three or four times toward the watching mate. A child’s gesture. Bye-bye.

The mate returned the gesture with a grin, and stepped up to the poop deck. “Man the windlass.”

Loosvelt had a confused look on his face. “But why—”

Adriano smiled. “You wish to make yourself more valuable? To rise in the royal service?”

“Well, yes, of course.”

“Then listen and learn. Much new information has come into Their Majesties’ hands these years just past, concerning the power and wealth of nations. I was called to record some of the discussions. They have determined that to hold their position, they must make the realm strong. For it to be strong, it must be prosperous. And prosperity comes from business—the craftsmen and farmers who make things, and the merchants and financiers who get them from where they are to where they’re wanted. What business desires above all is predictability. Therefore our rulers desire that they pay their taxes and fees at rates proclaimed in advance, and not be drained at a whim by whoever can lay his hands on a bit of power. And thus they can reasonably reckon the profit to expect by what they do, and be encouraged to continue doing it.

“Whatever the sincerity of his loudly proclaimed faith and orthodoxy, van der Valk’s hope was to get for himself whatever he could whenever he could from those he denounced. This is not in keeping with the new policy. What is particularly objectionable is the injury and damage he caused all around him by the disorder he incited. He would not have changed his ways, and he was no asset to the land or the crown. And so his traveling bag that I just tossed after him has in it a radiogram from the capital dismissing him from the royal service, with my signature and seal attesting to its authenticity.” He stopped for a moment, and gave Loosvelt a little smile. “Of course, this leaves an opening in the customs service. Are you an honest man?”

****