“You look tired, Melissa,” said Judith Roth sympathetically. She gestured to a luxurious divan in the great salon of the Roth mansion. “Please, have a seat.”
Melissa Mailey went over to the divan, hobbling a little from the effects of the ten-day journey from Grantville, and plopped herself down. Her companion James Nichols remained standing, after giving the couch no more than a quick glance. Instead, his hands on his hips, he swiveled slowly and considered the entire room.
Then, whistled admiringly. “Well, you've certainly come up in the world, folks.”
Judith smiled. Her husband Morris looked somewhat embarrassed. “Hey, look,” he said, “it wasn't really my idea.”
“That's it,” scoffed his wife. “Blame the woman.”
The defensive expression on Morris' face deepened. “I didn't mean it that way. It's just . . . ”
The gesture that accompanied the last two words was about as feeble as the words themselves.
“The situation,” he concluded lamely.
Nichols grinned at him. “Jeez, Morris, relax. I understand the realities. What with you being not only one of the King of Bohemia's closest advisers but also what amounts to the informal secular prince of Prague's Jewry. Half the Jews in eastern Europe, actually, from what Balthazar Abrabanel told us.”
Looking a bit less exhausted, Melissa finally took the time to appraise the room herself. And some more time, appraising Morris' very fancy-looking seventeenth-century apparel.
Then, she whistled herself.
“Et tu, Brutus?” Morris grumbled.
“Quit complaining,” Melissa said. “That is why you asked us to come here, isn't it? With ”˜Urgent!' and ”˜Desp'rate Need!' oozing from every line of your letter.”
“Asked you,” qualified Nichols. “Me, he just wanted to come here to give some advice to his fledgling medical faculty at his fancy new university. I'm just a country doctor.”
“From Chicago,” Melissa jeered. “South side, to boot—which has about as much open land as Manhattan.”
James grinned again. “Oh, you'd be surprised how much open land there is in Chicago's south side. Vacant lots, I'll grant you. Nary a crop to be seen anywhere except the stuff handed out by drug dealers, none of which was actually grown there. My point remains. I'm here in Prague as a modest medical adviser. I'm not the one who just landed a prestigious position at Jena University as their new—and only—”˜professor of political science.' I'm not the one Morris asked to come here to explain to him how to haul eastern Europe kicking and screaming into the modern world, which is one hell of neat trick seeing as how that half of the continent didn't manage to do it in our old timeline.”
“They got there eventually,” Judith pointed out mildly.
Melissa's expression got very severe. “Yup, sure did. In most places, because Stalin forced them to, after World War II.”
James looked surprised. “Since when did you become a Stalin fan?”
“Not hardly,” said Melissa. “He was a monster. But I'm not blind to historical realities.”
She leaned forward a little. “Poland's the center of the problem—and the opportunities—here just as it was in the world we came from. A brilliant nation, in lots of ways, but one that was completely crippled by three factors.”
Now she began counting off on fingers that looked far too elegant for a former sixties radical. “First, they were dominated by the szlachta, a huge class of noblemen that, for my money, ranks as the sorriest and most worthless aristocracy in the historical record. They paralyzed Poland politically for centuries with their petty self-interest, greed and pretensions. In the real world, their so-called ”˜Golden Freedom'—which some people even have the nerve to claim was a form of democracy which it only was in the same sense that South African apartheid was ”˜democratic' provided you belonged to the master race—”
James and Morris were frowning, trying to follow the convoluted presentation, but Melissa continued blithely onward. “—simply made them patsies for every nation surrounding them. All a Russian tsar or Prussian king or Austrian emperor had to do was keep a few szlachta on the payroll to guarantee that their absolute right of individual veto meant that Poland couldn't do anything effective politically. Secondly, and largely as a result, Poland was locked into a form of serfdom that was every bit as bad as anything that ever existed in western Europe in medieval times. In the sixteenth century—less than a hundred years ago, in the here and now—Poland was one of the centers of the Renaissance. Two centuries later, it was one of the few countries in Europe that managed to wind up poorer and with fewer and smaller cities that it had when it entered the so-called ”˜early modern era.' And with its industries in decline, to boot. That's because the nobility, especially the great magnates, locked the whole nation's fortunes to the Vistula grain trade. They believed in ”˜King Grain' just as vehemently as the slaveowners in the American south believed in ”˜King Cotton'—or those stupid rich bastards in Argentina believed in ”˜King Beef.'”