“So, what you think?” asked Piccolomini. The Italian general from Florence who was now in Austrian service raised his cup.
The man sitting across from him at the round little table in the small but very crowded restaurant frowned down at the cup in front of him. He'd only had a few sips of the dark liquid contained therein. He still didn't know what he thought of the stuff—and he certainly would never have ordered it himself, as expensive as the concoction was.
His name was Franz von Mercy. He came from a noble family in Lorraine, not Italy as did his table companion. But in other respects, they were quite similar. Like Piccolomini, von Mercy was a general. They were long-acquainted, as well, almost if not quite friends.
There was one critical difference between them, however, which explained part of von Mercy's skepticism toward the black substance in his cup. Octavio Piccolomini was gainfully employed—very gainfully, by the Habsburg ruler of Austria—and von Mercy was not.
In fact, he was not employed by anybody. Just a short time earlier, he'd been in the service of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. But after the traitor Cratz von Scharffenstein surrendered the fortress of Ingolstadt to the Swedes, von Mercy had taken his cavalrymen and fled Bavaria. He'd known full well that, despite his own complete innocence in the affair, the murderous duke of Bavaria would blame him for the disaster and have him executed.
So, he'd come to Vienna, hoping to find employment with the Habsburgs. But he'd been turned down, with only this bizarre new hot drink offered by way of compensation.
He looked up from the cup to the window. He'd wondered, when they came into the restaurant, why the owners had defaced perfectly good window panes by painting a sign across them. And he'd also wondered why they chose to call their establishment a café instead of a restaurant.
Now he knew the answer to both questions.
“God damned Americans,” he muttered.
Piccolomini winced at the blasphemy, even though he was known to commit the sin himself. Perhaps he felt obliged to put on that public display of disapproval, since he was now quite prominent in the Austrian ranks. They were, after all, right in the heart of Vienna—not more than a few minutes walk from either the Stephensdom cathedral or the emperor's palace.
“Damned they may well be,” said Piccolomini. Again, he lifted his cup. “But I enjoy this new beverage of theirs.”
“Coffee,” said von Mercy, still muttering more than talking aloud. “We already had coffee, Octavio.”
His companion shrugged. “True. But it was the Americans who made it popular. As they have done with so many other things.”
He set the cup down. “And stop blaming them for your misfortunes. It's silly and you know it. They had nothing to do with Scharffenstein's treason—they certainly can't be blamed for Maximilian's madness!—and it's not because of them that the emperor decided not to hire you. That, he did for the same sort of reasons of state that have led rulers to make similar decisions for centuries. About the only connection the Americans have to the affair is that they've provided us with a rather delicious new expression for it.
“And speaking of delicious . . . ” He paused while he picked up the cup and drained it. “I happen to love coffee, myself. The expression is ”˜cold-blooded,' and it's pretty apt.”
He gave his fellow officer a look of sympathy and commiseration. “Tough on you, I know. Tougher still on your men. But look at it from Ferdinand's perspective, Franz. He's expecting a resumption of hostilities with the Swede and his Americans by next year. No matter how badly Maximilian has behaved and no matter how much the emperor detests him, do you honestly expect Ferdinand to take the risk of escalating the already-high tensions between Austria and Bavaria by hiring a general who—from Duke Maximilian's peculiar point of view, I agree, but that's the viewpoint at issue here—has so recently infuriated Bavaria?”
He shook his head and placed the cup back on the table. “It's not going to happen, Franz. I'm sorry, I really am. Not simply because you're something of a friend of mine, but—being honest—because you're a good cavalry commander and I'm sure I'm going to have need of one soon enough.”