"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.

Mongols.

Huns.

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."

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- The Grantville Gazette Staff