Magdeburg, June 1636

 

Rebecca Abrabanel greeted Dr. James Nichols at her front door.

“James, please come in,” she said, standing aside to let him in.

In a room on the floor above them, her children, Sepharad and Baruch, were playing with a new friend: five-year-old Benjamin Block. It sounded as if they were going to crash through the ceiling.

Nichols chuckled. “You have a full house today, it sounds like.”

Rebecca nodded. “The children have a new friend from Grantville. A young boy who likes superheroes. He is introducing them to the Man of Steel.”

She closed the door behind them and invited James to follow her into the front parlor. “In a way, that is why I have asked you here.”

“Oh? Is the boy ill?”

“No, but I am concerned about Gustavus Adolphus.”

“He is improving, every day. But . . .”

“Yes,” Rebecca said, nodding. “But by how much? Michael is worried. He tells me that the king is moody and restless.”

“He is that. It's difficult for him to find time in the day to rest. People are pulling him in every direction, and of course he lets them. He can't stay out of the game for long—always has to know what's going on, always has to put himself into the fray, you know. It would be good for him to find some peace and quiet. But try telling him that.”

“Yes,” Rebecca said, “however, I think I may have a solution for you. Come.” Rebecca led James into the next room. “Allow me to introduce Daniel and Sofia Block.”

After they shook hands, Rebecca continued. “Daniel is an artist who has just arrived from Grantville with Sofia and their son Benjamin. . . .  That is who you hear bouncing around upstairs. Daniel has been studying the history of up-time painting techniques with Elaine O'Meara. He has come to Magdeburg to open an art gallery and, in time, teach a new generation of artists some of those up-time techniques . . .  to get a jump on history.” She smiled. “And as part of that plan, he came to me with letters of introduction from Elaine, as well as Ella Lou and Clyde Rice, and we have come up with a plan that I think you would find agreeable. Daniel?”

“Thank you, Rebecca,” Daniel said. “Dr. Nichols, let me explain a little about my past. In my youth, I used to travel Europe as a court painter, visiting royal families in Mecklenburg, Bamberg, Stettin, Luebeck. I was pretty good, too, I don't mind saying. But when I visited Grantville recently with Sofia and Benjamin, I discovered that no trace of my existence came through the Ring of Fire. Nothing. Not even my name. It was a depressing revelation, that my body of work was so insignificant in history that it deserved no mention in the texts. Have you ever experienced something like that?”

James shook his head. “No, sir, I can't say I have.”

“It's not a feeling that I would wish upon an enemy. And so I've resolved to change history, Doctor. As Rebecca has said, I've studied up-time techniques, and I want to paint Gustavus Adolphus again. I've done so in the past, extensively, however I no longer have contacts within the king's court. I came to Rebecca hoping she could present me to his majesty—but first, of course, I also wished to see if he was well enough to sit for me.”

“Yes,” Rebecca said, “and I thought this would be a good opportunity for the king to have a few hours a day, several days a week, perhaps—whatever is medically advisable—to sit in peace and quiet without the stress of dealing with his advisors and foreign dignitaries. Since Daniel has painted him before, the king may be more agreeable to it, and it would not seem so much like babysitting on our part.”

James chuckled and poured a cup of tea. He took a sip and said, “He will probably accuse us of that anyway, no matter what we do.”

“He may accuse if he wishes,” Rebecca said, “but we have his best interests at heart. And that, he cannot deny.”

James huffed. “Don't bet on it.”

A rumble came from the stairs as the children barreled down and ran through the living room. Sepharad and Baruch were chasing Benjamin, who wore a red cape and shouted, “You can't catch me. I'm Superman!”

They all laughed together, and when the children disappeared into the dining room, James said, “Gustavus thinks he is Superman, but I can assure you, Herr Block, he is not.”

“Then convince him that this is for his own good,” Rebecca said.

James crossed his arms and stroked his chin. After a long moment, he nodded. “I will try. Honestly, I think it's a fantastic idea.”

“Thank you, Doctor.” Daniel said. “I'm in your debt.”

****

Emanuel Block engraved a child's name on a small silver cup while his mentor and father-in-law, Peter Schwend, looked on.

I hope he does not see the tension in my shoulders, Emanuel thought, as he tried to hold the burin correctly, as Peter had instructed. Hold it too tightly and the work, the engraving, might be too deep. Hold it too loose . . .  But it was difficult to focus today. All his concentration was on a crumpled letter in his pocket. He tightened his grip on the tool and squinted into the letter “L” that he was trying to finish. He placed his thumb in the appropriate place, pressed the burin's tip into the silver, and moved it slowly.

Ach, Scheiße!” Emanuel growled, as his wet palm slipped and the burin cut a gash across the silver cup. He hurled the tool at the wall, straightening as the burin clattered to the floor. He turned to his father-in-law, grimacing. “Why, Papa? Why now, after all this time?”

Peter sighed and shook his head. “I do not know, my son. But perhaps time has taught him to better appreciate his older children.”

Peter smiled, and Emanuel's anger subsided a little. The mild, grey-haired old Pole had become like a father to him—far more so than the man whose name was signed on the letter in his pocket. The idea of that man coming back into his life now was, frankly, unthinkable.

“I want nothing to do with that . . . Abschaum,” Emanuel said, pulling the letter from his pocket. “My mother might well still be alive if he hadn't been so busy trotting around, running errands for his noble friends in the hope that they'd hire him to paint pretty pictures. And then, if he'd been a decent man—a family man, like you—he would have cared for his sons, instead of pawning us off on his brother while he went off and romanced that bitch, Sofia.” He shook his head and removed the silver cup from the vise that had held it while he worked. “Schwiegervater, I'm sorry. I'm letting my emotions distract me from my work. I will fix this, and burn this damn letter, and that will be an end to it.”

Peter smiled and, stepping closer, touched Emanuel's shoulder. “Don't worry about the cup. I know you'll have it done with your usual skill before Herr Adelson comes to collect it. As for Herr Block . . . I would ask you to reconsider.”

Emanuel frowned and opened his mouth to speak.

“Yes, yes, I know,” Peter said, holding his hand up to stop him. “But Herr Block is well-connected. You saw in his letter, he has already begun to seek an opportunity to paint the king himself. For my sake—for the sake of my wife and your mother-in-law, Anika—and most of all, for the sake of our dear Marija, I would ask you to try to make peace with him. It may prove . . .  useful in the future.”

Emanuel hesitated only briefly before—however grudgingly—agreeing. He had always found it difficult to refuse any request from his father-in-law, especially where Anika was involved. She had been far kinder to him than he had even hoped.

“You do me proud,” Peter said. “You always have. My sweet Marija gave us a great gift when she became your wife, bless her soul.”

After a moment of silence passed, Peter returned to his work in the storeroom, and Emanuel took the cup to another bench, where he began to erase the damage his errant burin had done. He was only halfway finished when he saw movement outside and looked up.

A particularly heavy wagon rattled past, bearing what appeared to be large barrels of wine. He watched the horses strain in their harnesses for a moment, and had just started to turn back to his work when he caught sight of a tall, stout man standing across the street. Though the man's face was in a dark shadow, Emanuel could tell instantly . . . it was his father, Daniel Block.

Scheiße,” Emanuel whispered. “Why now? Why at all, old man?” But he remembered his promise, and the great debt he owed to Piotr and Anika Swędrzyński—Peter and Anika Schwend, as they were known in Magdeburg—who had treated him like their own son, both before and after the murder of their daughter, his precious wife.

The energetic, laughing Marija would more than likely have given him a son or daughter of his own by now, had that Swedish bastard Gustavus not betrayed the city by failing to protect Magdeburg five years ago, as he'd promised to do. And Emanuel would never have left his wife and child for extended periods of time just to seek fame and money. A real man took care of his family. A decent, honorable man worked hard and stayed at home to raise his children.

Emanuel watched Block cross the street carefully and walk toward him, marveling at how kind the years had been to this man, who so richly deserved suffering for all the pain he'd caused. Emanuel wished briefly for a runaway horse to come and trample Block under its metal-shod hooves, before he put down the silver cup and went to the door to greet the man who had once been his father.

He could tell from the look on Daniel's face as he stepped inside that he did not recognize his own son. Emanuel struggled to conceal his fury as he spoke: “I received your letter. I was not expecting to see you so soon.”

“Ah!” Daniel said, and paused as he studied Emanuel's face. “You are . . . tall. Taller than I expected.”

“Taller than you,” Emanuel said.

Daniel smiled awkwardly. “Yes. Well, I was hoping . . . Sofia and I would be pleased if you would join us for supper on Friday evening. It would give you a chance to meet your half-brother, and you can tell us what you've been doing these past few years.”

Emanuel paused long enough to swallow the words that demanded to be spoken—damning his father, his new wife, and their child. “I will come,” Emanuel said, knowing how cold it sounded. How rude. So be it.

“Yes. Good. Well.” Daniel held his hand out stiffly and, after an uncomfortable pause, Emanuel took it.

Emanuel heaved a heavy sigh of relief when his father left the shop. Watching through the window, he saw Block do the same, and he felt, for just an instant, a sort of sympathy for the man.

It was a feeling that passed quickly.

****

Two days later, at nearly two in the afternoon, Daniel hurried across the square toward the royal palace. He was carrying two large, heavy books that his dear friend Elaine O'Meara had given him before he left Grantville two months earlier, and a small box of pastries, sent by his wife, Sofia. He was hoping, albeit with great apprehension, that Gustavus would approve of the up-time painting styles he wanted to use—and perhaps a pastry or two would sweeten the king's mood if he was not, at first, convinced.

He saw Rebecca Abrabanel just as she saw him and waved, with a relieved smile on her face.

“My dear,” he said to her as he joined her on the broad steps of the palace, “my apologies if I am late. Sofia would not hear of my leaving without a box of her pastries for the king, and they must be prepared with great care.”

“No, Daniel, not at all—you are right on time. Come!”

As they made their way into the palace, Daniel was surprised to see boards, what looked like sections of walls, and various ropes and other material in parts of the corridors, and he remarked that he expected to see the palace in better condition.

Rebecca smiled. “Yes, it is intended to look as though construction is still continuing.” At Daniel's surprised look, she continued. “These items are intended to slow movement through the palace.”

They paused at one wholly-blocked passageway. Rebecca nodded to a uniformed soldier who studied Daniel carefully, as if to memorize his face, before nodding to two men to clear the barrier.

“All is well?” Rebecca asked the soldier.

“All quiet, ma'am,” he said, nodding to them both as they passed.

Daniel said, “I wasn't aware of such a threat . . .”

“Oh, it is mostly precaution. I think it is unlikely that assassins would try to infiltrate the palace itself. But, better to be too cautious than too little, yes? There have been reports lately of spies in Magdeburg, Poles maybe, and of course you know of the attempt on Kristina's life not long ago, and the murder of her mother. These are dangerous times.”

Daniel nodded and said nothing more, as they made one more turn and reached the well-guarded outer doors of what Rebecca had told him was the king's favorite room in the palace—a large, bright, and airy circular space. It had been formally given the dull name, The Blue Room, for the color of the walls, but it had become known as the Aerie. After two guards made a cursory search of their possessions, they were let into a small antechamber.

One of the king's bodyguards greeted them. “Herr Block,” he said, “I am Cathal Tolmach. Whenever you are with the king, I or another of his personal bodyguards will be in this room at all times. If you have any difficulties, the king's doctor can be summoned at a moment's notice. You need only shout or come outside, and we will send for him immediately. Ja?”

“Yes, good,” Daniel said. “Do you anticipate any problem?”

“No, no. However, it is always wise to be cautious. Now, just one moment. I will see if his majesty is ready.”

After a minute, Tolmach returned, smiling, and nodded to Rebecca. Daniel was interested to note that she seemed to relax.

At Daniel's questioning look, she whispered, “He is in a good mood right now,” then led Daniel into the Aerie.

He had no idea what to expect from the king. The man had been friendly though often abrupt and moody when Daniel had painted him previously, but now with his injuries, Daniel could not be sure the man would even recognize him. The dampness of his palms told Daniel he was even more nervous than he'd realized.

It was a mild shock simply to enter the chamber, as it was big and grand and bright, in stark contrast with the sometimes narrow hallways and the dim antechamber. Daniel was momentarily stunned, but quickly realized the dazzling effect was intentional. Not merely to make the king seem more grand, but to help protect him. And then, though he'd only just begun to take the room in, he was greeted with a booming call: “Daniel! Rebecca! Welcome.”

The king rose stiffly and with a frown, steadying himself on a chair that was conveniently located to his left. He held his hand out, beaming.

Daniel stepped forward and was relieved at the king's vigorous shake—and even more so by the words that followed.

“My old friend, it is a pleasure to see you again.” He smiled at Rebecca. “I understand you've been enlisted to help keep me still while I'm regaining my strength, hmm?” At Rebecca and Daniel's looks of surprise and discomfort, the king scoffed. “Did you really think I wouldn't realize what you were up to? Hmph. I didn't hit my head that hard. No indeed.”

He opened his mouth to continue, but Kristina dashed into the room, interrupting him. “Rebecca! Captain Barth told me you were here. Don't you agree that it would be a good idea for me to learn to fly an airplane? Ulrik disagrees, but I'm sure you think I'm capable of it.”

“Ah . . .” Rebecca said, hesitating for just a moment. “I believe you would be a fine pilot, my dear, but you know all of our planes are needed for government business. It would not do to reserve one simply for your amusement, would it? Or to risk its damage?”

“But I wouldn't break it!” Kristina said, scowling. “And then, if we ever needed to go to a meeting or to make a dramatic getaway . . . although, I suppose I can see your point. Oh! I'm sorry,” she said, looking at Daniel. “We have not met.”

Gustavus cleared his throat and made the introductions himself, explaining why Daniel was there. When he finished, Kristina's eyes widened and she said, “And have you accepted?”

Gustavus shook his head. “Not yet.”

“Oh, you must, you must!”

Daniel saw an opportunity. “Perhaps you would enjoy looking at some pictures. I brought them to show His Grace. These books contain images of paintings that many famous men and women would have painted hundreds of years in the future!”

“Oh, yes! I would love to see them!”

Rebecca, seeing she was no longer needed, excused herself and departed.

One of the king's guards brought a small table over, and Kristina sat beside her father as Daniel turned the pages.

Daniel spoke in enchanted tones of the styles, the effects, the wonders they saw: lush, golden landscapes; bizarre and beautiful clothing; charming scenes of common life; and then, of course, page after page of the finest surreal, cubist, and abstract art.

Kristina alternately squealed, cooed at, and scorned various styles, before settling on Winslow Homer's Snap the Whip. “This one, this one—there is something . . . it's as if those boys are going to run right off the paper. How on earth?

“Oh! Could you paint us like this? Father and Ulrik and I? And then, perhaps, one of me on horseback—like this.” She flipped the pages quickly but carefully, until she found Eugène Delacroix's La Liberté Guidant le Peuple again.

Daniel cleared his throat. “Well, perhaps not just like that,” he said, admiring the dark but powerful painting—and flag-bearing Liberty's bare breasts. “But in that style, certainly. However, I thought I might begin with a portrait of His Grace, perhaps set in this very room.”

Kristina agreed instantly, her face coloring slightly, which led Daniel to believe the girl was also “in on” the plan to use the sittings as a way of keeping her father still.

“The only question,” he continued, “is what style to use.” He looked at them both, but gave particular attention to the king, who had been mostly silent while Daniel showed them the books.

Kristina opened her mouth, but the king spoke first. “I would prefer, in general, to be recognizable—and not melting or drooping, I think. Yes?”

Daniel beamed. “Indeed. I thought I would begin with a more traditional approach, but, perhaps, brighter colors and more flowing lines—if you will agree?”

Both Daniel and Kristina looked at the king intently. Kristina turned puppy dog eyes on him, and Daniel bit his lip to keep from laughing. What could a father possibly say under such conditions?

Gustavus sighed deeply. “Very well. I place myself in your capable hands, Daniel Block.”

Kristina clapped, and Daniel nodded his appreciation. With the books set aside, he recalled the box of pastries that sat in waiting on a nearby table, and the three of them enjoyed Sofia's creations as the king asked Daniel about his family and his work.

“How beautiful!” Kristina said, as she licked the delicate swirl of icing from the top.

She was so distracted by the sweet, gooey, crispy delicacies that Daniel thought she was ignoring everything he and her father said, until he mentioned his son, Benjamin.

“How old is he?” she asked, interrupting.

“He's almost six.”

“You must bring him with you,” she said. “They hardly ever let me leave the palace right now. It's quite dull. You will bring him, won't you? We should have great fun together. And . . . more of these,” she added, as she scooped up another sweet.

Daniel promised and, noting that the king was beginning to look tired, suggested he begin his painting in three days. This would give him time to mix paints and prepare a suitable canvas.

The king agreed and, as he shook Daniel's hand, added, “It is good to see you again, my friend. It's a reminder of a simpler time . . . and, perhaps in some ways, a better one for us both?”

“Perhaps, Your Grace,” Daniel agreed, thinking he would give up Sofia and Benjamin for nothing, but that he would change a great many things about his past if he could.

****

A young, pleasant-looking woman met Emanuel at the door. She beamed when she saw him. “Emanuel?” she asked.

He responded with a tight smile and a kind word. He'd practiced. He bowed slightly, removing his broad-brimmed hat. “I presume that you are Frau Block?”

“Do call me Sofia,” she said, and moved out of the way to allow him entrance, wiping her hands on her apron. “Please, come in. I'm so glad to meet you finally. Daniel has spoken of you often.”

I bet he has. He stepped in, careful not to scrape his new boots across the floor. He smelled dinner. Chicken, or maybe pheasant. Boiled cabbage, and something sweet above it all. He took a deep breath and followed her into a small, but comfortable room.

“Would you like something to drink? Wine?”

He nodded. “Thank you.”

She smiled again, and Emanuel realized that Sofia was barely older than he. Disgraceful! he thought, trying hard to contain his disdain for the whole situation. She had probably been one of his father's whores. He'd gotten her pregnant and then had felt sorry for her . . .  or for himself, more likely. Why he hadn't just walked away and left her destitute, Emanuel couldn't say. Perhaps the great Daniel Block had seen financial gain in marrying her. Emanuel fought the urge to turn and walk away. Instead, he watched his father's young wife pour wine and offer it up in a glass of sparkling crystal.

“Thank you,” he said, tipping the glass up and drinking it in one gulp.

She offered another, but he refused, stepping back a little as dust from the rafters drifted down in a cloud from some commotion in an upper room. Sofia laughed. “That's Daniel and Benjamin. They're playing basketball.”

“What?”

“Oh, it's an up-time sport,” she said, removing her apron and folding it neatly. “Benjamin made sure he grabbed a hoop and a ball before we left Grantville. Small ones, of course, since the actual game is played with a large rubber ball that could break things if tossed around in an apartment. Have you ever been to Grantville?”

Emanuel shook his head.

“You'd like it, I think. An interesting place. The people can be a little . . .  strange in their thinking, but interesting to be sure. No doubt your father will talk about it tonight.”

Your father. “Yes, I'm sure he will.”

Sofia called for Daniel and Benjamin to come down and greet their guest, and they trundled down the stairs, sweaty, huffing and puffing, Daniel's lined face all shining and red. He wiped his hand on his shirt, offered it to Emanuel, and said, “Hello, son. I'm glad you are here.”

Emanuel took his father's hand limply, but his focus was on Benjamin, his fair-haired half-brother, standing next to their father in the same kind of loose, worn clothing. Up-time clothing, no doubt, all bright in reds and blues, with some kind of English words and symbols on the front.

Benjamin smiled and offered up what he was holding. Emanuel took it. It was a ball, soft and smooth.

Emanuel squeezed it.

“It's foam rubber,” Benjamin said, in a sweet, high-pitched voice. “The up-timers brought it through the Ring of Fire.”

“Emanuel,” Daniel said proudly with a wide grin, “meet your brother, Benjamin. Benjamin, this is your brother Emanuel.”

“Hi!” Benjamin said, giving Emanuel a little wave.

Emanuel smiled, charmed in spite of himself. He knelt down and ruffled his fingers through the boy's hair. “Nice to meet you, Benjamin.” He pulled a small silver animal from his pocket—a trinket he'd made for practice that morning—and gave it to him. “This is for you.”

Benjamin rolled it over and over in his hand. “What is it?”

“A fox.”

“What do you say?” Sofia came into the room carrying a roast chicken on a simple platter. She placed it on the middle of the dining room table.

“Thank you.” Benjamin beamed and hugged Emanuel.

Emanuel nodded. “It's my pleasure.”

Sofia led Benjamin out of the room to clean up, leaving Daniel and Emanuel alone. A long, tense moment passed in silence between them. It was Daniel who spoke first.

“Have you seen your brother Adolf recently?”

“Not in several years. Wherever he is, I'm sure he's worshipping God.”

“Yes, he was always quite devout.”

Emanuel grit his teeth, smiled subtly. “Well, at least he found a worthwhile purpose in life.”

If Daniel felt insulted, he did not show it. Instead, he placed his hand on Emanuel's shoulder. “So have I, son. So have I.” He gestured toward the table. “Please, sit down. We have much to discuss.”

Sofia and Benjamin carried the rest of their meal to the table and took their seats. Benjamin said grace, and then they began.

It was good food. The chicken was well-cooked and nicely-flavored. Sofia told him that she'd used a seasoning salt from Grantville, something brought from up-time that was a special gift to them from their hostess, Ella Lou Rice. It was a “McCormick” seasoning mixed with salt, she said, but she only had one bottle, so she used it sparingly. The sauerkraut was served with bits of pork for flavoring. That left it a little bland in comparison, in Emanuel's opinion. The bread was especially good. A recipe that she had gotten, she said, from the Rice family as well.

As they ate, Daniel and Emanuel spoke about the years since they'd last seen each other. Daniel spoke extensively about the up-timers and their painting techniques, and—beaming with pride—of Benjamin. Emanuel told Daniel about his late wife and his new family as well, slipping once and referring to Peter as “Papa.” He felt a surprising twinge of guilt when he saw Daniel wince and tried to harden his heart to it.

Sofia spoke, too, telling of her childhood in Rostock and marveling about the many machines and strange ways of the up-timers. Finally, Sofia brought out a small tray of kipferls with cinnamon dusted on top. Emanuel had two of them.

“I have some good news,” Daniel said, finishing off the last treat. “The king is going to let me paint him again. And this time, I'm going to use up-time techniques that I learned in Grantville.” Daniel waved his hands in the air as if he were wiping away a cloud. “A whole series, painting him in various styles. I'll start off basic, you know, creating something in a style that he understands better, using the techniques of our time—called Baroque, by the way, by up-timers—but with some changes, and then I will finish off with styles far more bold. Cubism, Surrealism. What do you think?”

Emanuel shook his head, reluctant to say the next word. “Father . . .  I don't know what you are talking about. I've never seen these art styles before.”

“Ah, of course, of course. Come! I will show you.”

Daniel got up from the table and walked into the next room.

Emanuel followed. Perhaps I should know them, he thought. Magdeburg wasn't too far from Grantville, and a lot of what had come through the so-called Ring of Fire had made its way to the city. Technologies, foods, clothing, other political and social changes that were making their way all across Europe. But, over the last few years, he had spent his time just trying to survive, trying to help keep his wife's family alive and well after the “king's” deceit, that Swedish son of a—

“Look here!” Daniel pulled an oversized book from a shelf, opened it, and took a seat. Emanuel sat down beside him.

Daniel flipped through the book quickly, stopping occasionally and pointing to one full color picture or another. He paused at a painting of a group of contorted women, titled Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, painted by a Spaniard named Pablo Picasso, which he said was an example of Cubist artwork. “I love Picasso, although some find his work repulsive.”

He pointed out a work by Juan Gris called Portrait of Picasso. “Don't you think this would be a perfect way to portray the king?”

Emanuel looked at it carefully, letting his eyes work through all the sharp angles of the print, the confused, almost angry contortions of the painter's face, the mutilation of his hands in a series of overlapping squares that hacked off fingers. The image was ghastly, inhuman, almost satanic. Emanuel felt ill, wanted to leave the room, but fought the urge. The idea of cutting off Gustavus' hands appealed to him, in a way, but these new art forms that his father now claimed to embrace were awful and unworthy of a gifted painter. And he could not deny that his father had genuine talent.

Daniel turned then to the Surrealist chapter, almost giddy with excitement when he pointed to a painting of melting clocks. “It's called The Persistence of Memory,” he said, “by Salvador Dali. He's another great, I must say. His Ecumenical Council is my favorite, but I'm afraid I don't have a picture of that one.” He turned another three pages, stopped, and pressed his finger on a small etching. “Now, this woman is a genius. Dorothea Tanning's Etched Murmurs. Isn't it delightful? Such simple lines, but with so much emotion . . .”

Emanuel saw anything but emotion. The pure white shape of a headless woman with large breeding hips, seemingly being accosted by some brown ghoulish imp, while some kind of demonic one-eyed beast looked on lazily from the side. Emanuel turned his face and huffed. “Disgusting! You should close your eyes to such childish nonsense.”

“No, my eyes have been opened,” Daniel said, shutting the book and setting it aside. “Grantville helped me to see the light. It is perfectly fine to show man in an exalted state, in a perfect reflection of God. That is what we Baroque painters have been doing. I will not disparage our work. But that's only half of it. Art cannot be confined to the perfect, the unblemished, the ideal. It must embrace the grotesque as well, to peel away the masks that we place upon ourselves. How many paintings show the scars, the wrinkles, the pimples? That is the truth, that is life, and there is more life portrayed in a simple bowl of fruit than in all the magnificent paintings in the Sistine Chapel.”

Emanuel jumped up, accidentally striking the book and knocking it to the floor. “Why did you invite me here? Why are you showing me these things?”

Daniel's expression grew serious. He stood, took a deep breath, and said, “I want you to be my partner in all this.”

Emanuel shook his head. “What are you talking about?”

“I want you to paint the king with me. I'll teach you these techniques, and we'll do it together. And when the series is done, we will open an art studio and gallery, and Gustavus Adolphus' portraits will be displayed proudly on its walls. We'll teach a new generation of students, get a jump on the future. We can even design new techniques, start a whole new artistic movement. You have a good business sense, and you're a fine painter yourself. With my financial partner in Grantville, and my new commission, we can't fail. Emanuel, your talents are wasted in that silver shop. You were made for something bigger, bolder. What do you say?”

Emanuel scoffed. “My talents are not wasted. Peter has spent years training me. He says I have real talent—that I will be a great silversmith. He has been . . . a great father to me, as well.”

Emanuel could see that his words struck home.

Daniel swallowed hard. He forced a smile and said quietly, “I know I have been a poor father. My . . .  youth was difficult. But I've changed, Emanuel. You may not believe me, but it is true. Sofia has changed me, Benjamin has changed me. I want to do right by them. And I want to do right by you, finally.”

Emanuel could see tears welling in Daniel's eyes.

“I'm asking for a second chance, my son. Will you give me one and work with me?”

Emanuel stood there, silent for a long time, until Benjamin and Sofia wandered into the room. The sight of the three of them together made his stomach churn. He imagined his own mother there, tried to picture his brother Adolph and himself together with her and Daniel. His father . . .  a man so quick to anger in his youth that it was a wonder he never struck their mother. That was the one redeeming quality in the man: he had never been violent with any of them. But how could he? He was never there. What could a father do that was worse than to never be there? The irony of it—that he, himself had been away making a delivery of a set of engraved silver goblets when Magdeburg fell . . . it almost overwhelmed him.

“No,” he said. “No, I'm sorry, but I have a job. I have a life that satisfies me. Go on and do what you are going to do, and good luck to you. You must leave me out of it.”

He expected anger. Instead, Daniel Block nodded. “Very well. If you change your mind, though, my door is always open.”

Emanuel nodded and was suddenly exhausted. He bade them good night.

Sofia handed him his hat, and he stepped out into the night air with great relief.

As he walked across the dark street, Emanuel wiped tears from his eyes and tried to drive the image of his wife's bloody face from his mind.

He failed.

****

Daniel began to paint the Aerie room on his canvas while waiting for the king to join him. His goal was to capture the sunny glow that Winslow Homer had so skillfully added to the grasses and the clothing of the boys in the painting Kristina had admired, and the Aerie was awash with that perfect golden afternoon light. He shifted his easel slightly to capture more of that light, and worked more yellow and white into the edges of the blue paint he was mixing on his palette.

He knew in his bones that the king would be pleased with the painting—it would make him appear more vital and alive than anything Daniel had painted before. Both the king and his people needed an image that was bursting with vigor. Daniel's only question was, how should he paint the king? What pose, what emotion should he express? Should the king appear stern, fearsome, bold? Or kind, jovial, relaxed? The answer would come as he worked—it always did. In the past, he had shouldered aside such impulses and painted the static, staid portraits that were expected of him. But now? Anything—anything—was possible.

The door let out a creak, which was followed by the booming voice of the king: “Daniel, my friend! At last, I have broken free of my counselors—though I suspect they called a halt to our meeting only because my cousin Erik had threatened to behead the lot of them if they kept me talking past five.”

Daniel set down his palette and brush and returned the king's greeting. The king asked after his family, and Daniel beamed with pride as he spoke of Benjamin's drawings. “I can see already, Your Grace, that he shares my talent. And he loves looking at the paintings in my books. He will do great things, that boy!”

“You are lucky in your son,” the king said, “as I am lucky in my daughter. She will be a formidable queen one day, God willing.”

Seeing the king's frown, Daniel thought about the murder of Kristina's mother and how close she and Ulrik both had come to dying, just a few months earlier. Daniel said, “I hope all is well in your domains,” hoping it would prompt the king to speak on other matters.

“Ah,” the king said as he settled into a chair that Daniel had carefully placed for him. “Well, that is a long story, indeed. Please, continue if you wish,” he said, gesturing toward the easel.

Daniel picked up his tools and returned to his work as the king commenced what became a tale of dizzying complexity. Daniel was soon lost in a dense thicket of names and relationships. He had once been intimately familiar with the details, if not the personages, of Gustav's political world. But now? He hadn't realized just how much he'd missed and forgotten in his years away—and of course the makeup of Gustav's domains was much changed now.

Though reluctant at first to display his ignorance, Daniel asked the king to tell him about the situation in Saxony, which he'd heard little about in the past month. He was relieved when the king spoke with some enthusiasm for almost an hour about the intricate dealings there and the difficult personalities involved. Gustav seemed pleased to speak with an outsider for a change.

Before the king was done explaining the details, the door creaked again. One of the guards opened it, and Kristina dashed in, laughing. “Father, do you—oh!” She stopped, placing a small hand over her mouth. “Oh, I didn't realize. I'm interrupting. My apologies.”

“Yes, my dear,” the king said, “but perhaps an interruption is just what we need. I have been boring poor Daniel with politics for two hours now.”

“Oh, that's very cruel of you, Papa,” she said, smiling.

“Daniel,” he said, “Come, rest for a few minutes.” He gestured to another chair nearby, and Daniel set his brush and paints aside. “Now,” he said to Kristina, “tell me what you've been doing.”

“Ulrik and I went for a carriage ride with Carolyn and Thorsten. Ulrik is teaching me how to drive”

“Oh?” the king said, frowning.

“Yes, well, he wouldn't hand over the reins completely, but he let me guide the horses. They were so quick to respond to my movements. They were quite frightened once—we came around a corner and three rabbits ran out from behind a bush—but they settled down quickly. It was so much fun, and so lovely. I wish I could see the river from my rooms.” Kristina continued to describe their adventures, including a picnic in a grove near the river, before she seemed to remember something and scanned the room quickly. Her whole face brightened as her eyes lit on the small box sitting on a table nearby. “Oh! Is that . . .”

Daniel smiled, his eyes twinkling. “It is, indeed. Please, enjoy.”

She dashed over and scooped up the box, then returned to her seat beside her father. She opened the lid. “Oh, yum! So beautiful.” She shared out the small pastries Sofia had baked that morning, and they were silent for a moment as they enjoyed them.

“She is most talented, this wife of yours,” Gustav said. “I'm surprised you aren't the size of a horse by now.” Gustav ate the last bite of his treat. “You must bring her to meet me soon. And your boy!”

Daniel hesitated for a moment, thinking of Emanuel, before realizing he meant Benjamin. “Yes, of course, Your Grace. I'm sure they would both enjoy that.”

Kristina looked into the box, considering. “There are three left. May I bring some to Ulrik and Baldur?”

“And the third?” her father asked.

She smiled. “Well . . .”

The king laughed. “Yes, my dear, of course. Off with you! Enjoy. We will talk more later.”

As the door closed, the king shook his head. “She has borne her losses well, I think. I just hope she has no more to bear for many years.”

In the solemn silence that followed, Daniel returned to his easel and took up his brush again. “Your Grace, I have been wondering. All of the security measures. Do you expect an attempt on your lives? The Huguenots, perhaps? The Poles?”

“Ah,” the king shrugged. “One never knows. It seems unlikely, but then I thought Stockholm would be safe—and I certainly never imagined anyone would attempt to harm Kristina's mother. I hope and pray, for Kristina's sake, that we are being overly cautious, but better that than not cautious enough. As it is, I'm sure no one can reach us here.”

Daniel nodded, but was distracted by the firm set of the king's shoulders. It was the perfect posture to show Gustav II Adolph's courage and his resolve. Daniel set his brush aside and focused on capturing the pose on the paper he'd brought for sketches, and was pleased by the results. When he was done, he began to ask the king another question, but noticed the look of fatigue on the man's face.

It was time to stop for the day.

****

Emanuel knew him only as Anatol. He was a thin, churlish man, always eager to drink and smoke too much. But when his mind was clear and his breath pleasant, he was good with a pistol and with a knife. And he had come to Magdeburg to avenge Poland.

They sat around a small three-legged table in the back of Peter's silver shop, their faces illuminated only by a candle burnt nearly to the end. Emanuel chewed on a stale piece of bread crust and listened to them speak ill of the king. He shared in their hatred, but he remained silent, listening intently as they proposed one idea after another. He had heard it all before, many times over the years. He had pitched in as well, speaking angrily of how he was going to wrap his fingers around the Vasa's meaty neck and watch in triumph as the life slipped out of the man's deceitful eyes. Those had only been fantasies. There had never been a real opportunity to do such a thing. But now? Perhaps there was.

He had remained taciturn since his return from dinner with his father. Peter had asked him multiple times about the visit, prodding for information. Emanuel had responded truthfully—describing the meal, Sofia and Benjamin, the conversation about up-time art—but had never come out and specifically said that his father had won the commission. And he definitely did not discuss the offer that his father had made to him. That was the opportunity that they had been looking for; that was their way in. So, why had he not said anything?

“I have men keeping an eye on the palace,” Anatol said, waving pipe smoke out of the candlelight, “checking to see when and if the Swede ever shows his ugly face. Nothing so far. Counselors have come and gone, USE government officials, and the princess has been seen on occasion, but not the king.”

“Perhaps a staff person, or a counselor would be good to drop,” said Peter. “That would clearly send a message.”

Anatol nodded. “That would get their attention, but it might also make the king behave even more like a turtle. Although . . .  my men have seen that Jewish bitch from time to time.”

“The Stearns woman?”

Anatol nodded. “It would not be too difficult to take care of her.”

“That would cause a lot of strife, Anatol, perhaps more so than killing the king. Her up-time husband would drench the earth with the blood of thousands if she were to be killed.”

Anatol chuckled. “All the more reason to consider it. Turn the high and mighty Mike Stearns into a bloody and vengeful tyrant—then see how quickly the USE falls.” He turned toward Emanuel and puffed out another cloud of smoke. “What do you say to that?”

“I say that I'm not interested in killing a woman. That bastard Gustavus is the only target I care about. Policy emanates from him. The real power lies with him.”

“Then we need your help!” Peter growled, slapping the tabletop with his palm.

It was the first time in a long while that Emanuel had heard Peter raise his voice. Usually so calm and unassuming, almost lethargic—to hear him now in such a froth made it clear to Emanuel that his father-in-law was more than frustrated.

“We need to know what Daniel Block told you. Did he, or did he not, get the commission?”

Emanuel sighed deeply. “Yes.”

“Why has it taken you so long to say so? Is my daughter, your late wife, not worthy of justice? Did you not swear upon her broken body that you would avenge her?”

Emanuel groaned. He could still see her lying in the shattered and smoking remains of the comfortable apartment they shared with her parents—could still smell the smoke and the blood. . . .  Her arm had been thrown up, as if to block a terrible blow. When he drew her arm down, the sight of her face—what was left of it—had overwhelmed him. He would give anything to have been there with her, even if it meant joining her in death.

Emanuel drew a deep, shuddering breath. “Yes,” Emanuel said, “she is more than worthy. Still. . . .  So he has a commission to paint the king. So what? How does that get us closer to Gustavus?”

Anatol chuckled once again. “Clearly, you are not an assassin.”

“No, I'm not. I'm an artist. I create, I do not destroy.”

Anatol's smile subsided, and he grew solemn. He placed his hand on Emanuel's arm. “Trust me, my friend. I understand what you're going through. My father was a devil of a man, who tried too late in life to make amends. He failed, and good riddance. But I know what's going on inside you. I know the pain you must be feeling, the confusion. But don't look at it as destroying a life. Look at it as creating peace . . .  peace for the thousands of families whose sons and daughters were butchered in these streets when Gustavus abandoned them. Look at it as creating peace for the tens of thousands who lost brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, when he invaded Poland. His death will create far more than it will destroy. We have an opportunity here to change history, just as the Americans have tried to do ever since the Ring of Fire. You have an opportunity here to do a great service for all of Europe. Will you help us?”

The room grew silent. Emanuel stared into the flickering candlelight, avoiding Peter's and Anatol's eager eyes. Despite his little speech, Emanuel thought it was unlikely that Anatol cared about changing the world. All he cared about was money. Someone, somewhere, was filling his pockets with coin, making this whole deadly endeavor possible. Who was it? Peter had not said anything about that. Perhaps he didn't know, or perhaps he, too, was withholding information. To protect or to deceive? The answer was not clear. But Emanuel knew this much: Peter wanted blood spilled in exchange for his daughter's death.

And so do I.

“All right. I will do what I can to help you kill the Swede.” He turned to Anatol. “What do you want me to do?”

 

Magdeburg, July 1636

 

Daniel used one of his finest and smallest brushes as he added detail to his painting of the king's ornate jacket. It was richly embroidered in an array of colors and tiny seed pearls, and it had been terribly time-consuming to paint. Normally, he could have sketched the design and done the painting when he was alone, but today, in particular, he felt he should stay and keep Gustavus as still and quiet as possible.

When he'd arrived almost an hour earlier, the king had been bellowing at his cousin, Colonel Erik Haakansson Hand, about the Polish Sejm and their arrogance, their stupidity, how their heads would decorate the walls of the very palace they stood in before he would bow to their outrageous demands. Hand had tried to calm him, but the King was in one of his rages, and would not be stilled until he had cooled his temper through its exercise.

Daniel had previously wondered aloud to Rebecca if it wasn't just as well to let him vent his anger from time to time, but she said the up-timers claimed that rage became a habit, the more you expressed it. The only way to really cool his temper would be to teach him to control it—and no one was fool enough to propose trying to do that.

The shouting had stilled for some minutes when Hand came out to send one of the guards for a cool towel and a drink for the king. When he set eyes on Daniel, he beamed. “Ah, perfect. Just the distraction he needs.”

“You're sure it wouldn't be better for me to come another day?”

“No, no, your timing is perfect.” Hand waved at Daniel to go in while he waited for the guard to return.

Daniel entered the Aerie with no small amount of trepidation. He had never been subjected to the king's temper himself, but he had seen it often enough, and in the king's still-weakened condition, it made him more than nervous.

Gustav turned his head when he heard Daniel, preparing to speak, but his frustrated look turned to relief when he saw who had entered. “Daniel, my friend, it's good to see you. I'd forgotten you were coming.” He looked around the room uncertainly, his face pale and drawn. “Shall I . . . would you like me to move?”

“Oh no, there is no need, Your Grace,” Daniel assured him. He would indeed have preferred the king in a different area of the room, as the light was far from ideal where he was currently seated, but he wouldn't think of asking him to move. Gustav looked exhausted.

As Daniel set up his easel and prepared his palette, Hand returned, placing the king's wine on a table beside him and offering the cool towel. Gustavus took it from him and waved his hand, dismissing his cousin without a glance. Though Daniel did not know Hand well, the look of relief on the man's face was unmistakable.

“You will tell me when you're ready, yes?” the king said, placing the towel across his forehead and eyes.

“Oh yes, not to worry. This will take a few minutes yet.” And he made sure it took several more than it needed to, until the king put the towel down on the table without prompting. Only then did Daniel take the canvas and place it on the easel, removing the drape that protected it between sessions.

As he was finishing the lace at the king's collar, Kristina entered, hesitantly. Seeing her, the king waved her in, and she sat beside him. They spoke softly and briefly as she ate one of Sofia's delectable pastries, licking the icing delicately from her fingertips.

Daniel had never seen her so quiet and soothing, but he found himself thinking how lucky a man Ulrik was to find himself so kind a princess to ally himself with. She was in many ways far from the sort of person he envisioned when he thought of royal young ladies.

Soon after, she departed, and a few minutes after that, the king's eyes closed and he slept. Daniel painted on, knowing his presence helped keep the outside world from troubling his king.

****

Emanuel waited in hiding until his father had left his apartment and disappeared down the street. Then he knocked on the door—softly at first, then harder.

He asked himself again, Why am I here? He knew the answer to that question, but had considered leaving twice. He knocked a third time, and Sofia answered.

“Yes?” She didn't recognize him at first. Why would she, with his hat pulled down against the afternoon sun, his face unshaven. Then her eyes lit up and she smiled. “Emanuel. Nice to see you again, but I'm afraid your father is not here. He's out with Benjamin. They are trying to get more painting supplies.”

“Actually,” he said, “I was wondering if I could speak to you . . .  if you have a moment.”

She seemed surprised at that, but nodded. “Of course.” She stepped aside, holding the door open. “Won't you come in? I'm sorry for being unprepared for guests. I'm in the middle of baking.”

“That's quite all right,” he said, and followed her into the kitchen. The heat of the oven made the room nearly unbearable. He took off his hat. “Smells good. What are you making?”

“Pastries,” she said, wiping her hands on her apron and pulling out a chair at a narrow table. “For Daniel's next sitting with the king—and bread for our meals. Please, sit down. Would you like something to drink?”

“No, thank you,” he said. “I just wanted to come by and apologize to you about my curt behavior during dinner the other night. It's just that, well, it has been a while since I've spent time with my father. I was just, just—”

“It's all right, Emanuel. I understand. Daniel has told me about how he was back then. But he has changed, I can tell you that. He's a good father to Benjamin. Good to me. He really wants to make a good life here in Magdeburg—and he very much wants you to be a part of it.”

“It would seem so,” Emanuel said, sniffing the air. “Are those the same pastries we had the other night?”

“No,” Sofia said. “They're different, but I'm sure you'd like them. I believe they're cool enough now. Would you like one?”

Emanuel nodded, and as she began to swirl white icing on the top of one, he continued to ask questions. “Are Daniel and the king getting along?”

“Oh, yes. The sittings are going very well. Daniel has painted him before, you know, so it's like they're old friends.” Sofia laughed. “Well not exactly, but to hear Daniel talk, it's like they're brothers.”

Brothers . . .  “Very nice. I bet the king sends his best carriage to pick him up.”

“No. Daniel prefers to walk. It helps with his arthritis.”

“Yes, but it's pretty far, through unsavory neighborhoods.”

“Not at all. He likes to go through—”

And she laid it all out for him: the route, the time, everything.

Emanuel nodded and smiled, attentive to her every word, asking a question here and there—simple, innocent questions that his father's new wife happily answered without a second thought.

Sofia set a small plate of decorated pastries in front of him. “They're still a bit too warm for proper icing,” she said, “but they should still taste good.”

Emanuel studied them carefully. They were beautiful, each round pastry with a halo of icing dripping down the sides. “You have a knack for baking. They're lovely.”

“Thank you. Daniel may be an artist with paint, but I'm an artist with icing.” She beamed, picked up the nearest one, and held it out to him.

Emanuel accepted it and took a bite. The pastry was still warm, and practically melted in his mouth. The cinnamon was divine, but the icing was the key. It mixed with the cinnamon and the buttery pastry to create a sweet, tender flavor that he had not experienced often. “Perfection,” he said, finishing off the last bite.

Sofia smiled. “The king seems to think so, as does the princess. Daniel tells me that they sometimes eat the whole box before the sitting is finished. Daniel suggested I make a second box, but I refused. The purpose is to help the king get better, not make him fat. Besides—”

She went on talking about other things, but Emanuel was not listening. He licked icing from his fingers and stared at the plate of pastries. He stared and stared, and a thought came to him. An idea.

A plan.

He stood up abruptly, perhaps too abruptly. He calmed himself, put his hat back on, and cleared his throat. “Well, you are busy, Sofia, and I don't want to keep you any longer. I will leave now. I thank you for your hospitality, and I wish you all the very best.”

“Oh, wait,” she said. “Take some pastries with you—for Peter and Anika, yes?” Sofia took a small box from a stack on a shelf in the corner and put six of the treats into it, tying the box with string to make it easier to carry.

Sofia placed the box into his hands, and he gave her a tender hug.

“Will you come again soon, when Daniel is here?”

He nodded. “Of course. Good day now.”

Emanuel departed, walking down the street with a grim smile on his face that he could no longer contain. It was a good plan—an excellent plan—and one that Peter, his true father, would approve. And yet, the cost would be so great for his other family, Daniel's family, in the end.

He shook his head to clear it, the sweet taste of cinnamon and icing still strong in his mind. He must stay focused on the mission. For Marija. For all of them.

****

Three days later, Emanuel watched from the corner of a building, the thick crowds of the market pressing around him, making him feel small and obscure. The man that he watched pick his way through the crowds could not see his son, could not begin to know what was about to happen.

Emanuel's eyes were not the best at this distance, but he squinted and made out the details of what Daniel Block was carrying. In this right hand, he held a compact box of smooth green material, with black snaps on the front; a sketch pad was thrust underneath his right arm; and in his left hand, Daniel held a small box of a size and shape that Emanuel recognized instantly.

Emanuel looked across the street to his right. Peter Schwend stood there, with his arms crossed. He nodded. Emanuel nodded in kind and pulled his hat down lower. He breathed deeply, paused a second, then stepped out into the moving crowd.

He walked casually, slowly, allowing the throng to divide and make way. He had already planned his approach, the speed of it, the angle. He could afford to be patient. He needed to be, for his heart was pounding, his breath coming in short gasps through dry lips, his hands shaking. To make a mistake now would be unthinkable. If I fail . . .  but no, he would not. He could not, for there would never be an opportunity this good again.

Beneath the wide brim of his hat, he eyed his father closing on him. Emanuel quickened his pace, pushed his way through the last few passers-by that did not move fast enough for his liking. One cursed him, but he ignored it, kept his head low, and moved quickly.

He could see the worn edges of his father's sketch pad, the green box in his right hand, the other neatly tied box in his left.

He took the last few crucial steps, tucked his chin down, and Slam! Right into his father's left arm, sending the box of pastries to the ground and his father tumbling back. His pad and green box fell as well, with sharp slaps against the cobbled street.

The crowd spread out, allowing room.

“I'm so sorry, sir,” Emanuel said in his most sincere voice. “I did not see you—”

Their eyes met, and Emanuel looked amazed. “Father! I'm surprised to see you here. Are you all right?” Emanuel helped his father steady himself, meanwhile keeping him looking away from the direction he knew Anatol would be coming from.

While they spoke, Anatol swooped in behind them, fast and precise, knelt, and switched the pastry boxes.

Then he was gone.

“Yes, yes, I'm fine” Daniel said. “No harm done. I'm surprised to see you as well.” Daniel looked around for his things.

“What are you doing here?” Emanuel asked, reaching down for his father's pad and green box, looking quickly left then right, then down the way Anatol had fled. He let the green box slip from his sweaty hand and knelt down to pick it back up.

“I'm going to a sitting with the king,” Daniel said, settling his pad under his arm and then taking the green box. “And what brings you to this corner of Magdeburg?”

Emanuel cleared his throat. “Oh, I was nearby, delivering a repaired locket for Peter.”

Emanuel knelt down and picked up the new box of pastries, a sigh of relief washing over him. It's done. He cleared his throat again. “I . . .  I wanted to speak to you sometime about the offer you have made me. I came by your apartment the other day.”

“Yes, Sofia told me. You have changed your mind?”

“Well, I'd like to talk more about it. See what you have to say. Perhaps I was wrong in my abrupt refusal. You are my father, after all. I should give you a second chance, at least, to plead your case.”

Daniel smiled and placed his hand on his son's shoulder. “I'd like that. Shall we speak later this week? I'm afraid I have to rush off right now, but—”

“Yes, I'm busy, too. Here,” Emanuel said, handing over the box, “don't forget your pastries.” He smiled. “The king would be disappointed if you did.”

Daniel accepted the box and tucked it under his arm. “Yes, well. We will speak again soon.”

Emanuel watched as his father slipped away into the crowd. He smiled, but his heart sank. What if my father eats them as well? He had not considered that. A lot of people could eat them, even innocent people around Gustavus that did not deserve to die.

Emanuel groaned. Who around the king did not deserve to die? And how many innocents have died because of this Swedish king? And yet . . . Does my father deserve to die? Does he? Emanuel no longer knew the answer. But, no matter. All chance of rebuilding the relationship was now as dead as if he, himself, lay dead in the market square.

“Goodbye, Father,” Emanuel whispered, then turned and walked away.

****

When Daniel arrived for his next session, he was relieved and delighted to hear laughter coming from the Aerie. The king, Kristina, and Ulrik he recognized. But there was another voice with them that he did not know.

The guard on duty stepped into the room and almost immediately returned and waved for Daniel to enter.

“Daniel!” the king said. “Come, we have been talking about you.”

“Oh?” he said, surprised.

The king waved him into a chair and Daniel sat, after first passing the small box of pastries to Kristina, who took them with alacrity.

“Yes,” the king continued. “Kristina has suggested that you paint the three of us as circus performers. She herself would swing on a trapeze. Ulrik would stand poised to catch her as she flies through the air. And I, of course, would ride an elephant.”

“Oh, and Baldur could be a lion tamer!” Kristina added, giggling.

“I should like that very much, Your Highness,” the other man said, half bowing to the princess.

Ulrik gestured to the other man. “Baldur is my advisor and my guard,” he said to Daniel, starting to say more, but seeming to think better of it.

Kristina paused after untying the string around the box of pastries, clapping her hands and bouncing in her seat. “I want to be painted in a ballerina's costume, standing high above the ground. Can you do that, Herr Block?”

“Of course, Your Highness. That would be delightful.” And it would give him an opportunity to experiment with light, movement, and color in new ways.

“But can you paint an elephant?” the king asked.

“Well,” Daniel said, frowning, “I don't see why not. I could get some additional pictures from my friends in Grantville, to make sure I get the scale and proportions correct.”

“Do you know,” the king said, as he took the box to select a pastry of his own, “I think I'm actually beginning to like the idea: Me on an elephant.”

“Odd,” Kristina said, as she took her first bite. “The icing swirls are different.”

“Hmm?” Daniel said, still imagining a royal circus.

“And they taste different, too. Bitter.”

Daniel looked into the box and froze, stunned. Indeed, the icing swirls were different. Not the pattern that Sofia had perfected, but messier, and the pastries weren't quite the right shape. Plus, they were in perfect condition, not a crumb out of place. But how can that be? They had gone flying out of his hand when Emanuel struck him in the market, crashing to the cobblestones.

Daniel looked at the pastry in Kristina's hand and remembered Emanuel's odd nervousness in the market square, peering off into the crowd, fumbling with his box of paints. He looked at the one in the king's hand. These were not Sofia's pastries. What, then, were they? And why?

Scheisse!” Daniel leapt forward, slapping the pastry from Kristina's hands as she prepared to take a second bite.

“Herr Block!” Kristina said. “What on earth?”

He ignored her and lunged toward the king. Ulrik tried to intercept him, but Daniel put out his arm, and slapped the pastry from Gustavus' hand, shouting, “Poison!”

Baldur snatched the box from the king's lap and held it out to Daniel who was now being restrained by Ulrik. “Herr Block, what are you saying? Is there something wrong with these? Are these not of your wife's making?”

“Dear God in Heaven,” Daniel said, as Ulrik released him. “No, they . . . oh. Oh, dear God.” Daniel spun and threw himself at the door, wrenching it open, shouting for a doctor. “Poison! Tell the doctor it's poison! Bring him quickly. The princess—she's . . .  oh, dear God. No!”

The king was at his daughter's side when Daniel turned back to the room, the men in the antechamber practically exploding into a frenzy of activity.

“How do you know the pastries were poisoned?” the king said. “How can you be certain? Perhaps your wife ran out of an ingredient, or measured something incorrectly. Perhaps she ran out of time to do the icing as neatly as usual.”

“No, Your Grace,” Daniel said, shaking his head. “I ate one this morning. They were precisely as they always are. And . . .”

“And?” Baldur prompted, the pastry box still in his hand.

“I was in the crowded market this morning, on my way here. My . . . a man—he knocked into me. Everything fell. He helped me up, but the box was out of my sight for a moment. I did not check the pastries before I came in here, but when Kristina opened the box, they were in perfect condition. That's not possible . . .  they must be—”

“Damn!” Baldur said, as the door crashed open again.

The doctor—a tall, thin man who Daniel had never seen before—burst in and immediately went to Kristina—asking her questions, examining and smelling the pastries. He gave orders, and men rushed out to retrieve hot water, blankets, a bucket, and other supplies. The rest of them, he ordered out—except for the king and Ulrik, neither of whom would have left regardless.

One of the guards drew Daniel outside the room, and he went willingly, his mind racing. What was going to happen to the princess? Was it truly poison? And could Emanuel, his son, his own flesh and blood, truly have done so horrible a thing? There was only one way to know.

He turned and made his way out of the palace. No one thought to question his movements, and Daniel was soon walking swiftly through the streets of Magdeburg, heading for the silver shop where he hoped he would find Emanuel. There had to be some reasonable explanation for all this.

There had to be.

****

“Emanuel!”

Daniel didn't bother to see if the door of the shop was unlocked. He slammed into it with a heavy shoulder and crashed through into the dimly lit shop. His son stood behind the counter with an older man who was reading a paper. The older man stumbled back, fear on his face. He looked left, right, not certain what to do.

“Emanuel,” Daniel said again, stumbling breathless across the floor, knocking over a silver candlestick. He pointed a rigid finger at his son. “Why did you do it? Why?”

Emanuel set the cup down. “What did I do?”

“You poisoned the pastries!”

“Run, my son,” Peter said to Emanuel, dropping the paper and pulling a pistol from behind the counter. “Go now.”

Emanuel shook his head defiantly. “No. I do not run like the coward Daniel Block. I have nothing to fear, nor anything to hide. I am proud of what I've done!”

“It is true, then.” Daniel had hoped that his accusation was false, but in his heart he'd known the truth. There was no other explanation. “The princess . . . . She's just an innocent girl. How could you, of all people, do such a thing?”

“Innocent?” Emanuel shook his head. “Oh, no. What will that innocent young girl do when she takes the throne? Will she break her promises like her father and let thousands die? Will she invade countries on a whim and kill even more? There is not one drop of innocent blood in her tiny body. She has done nothing yet, perhaps, but she will. It's in their blood. At least now, she can harm no one.”

“Your plan did not succeed, Emanuel. I knocked the pastry from the king’s hand. He did not take one bite. And the girl may yet live.”

Emanuel howled with rage, grabbing a burin from the counter and hurling it across the shop. “Then you have failed twice: first as a father, and now as a man.”

Daniel took another step forward, but stopped as Peter held up the pistol and aimed it at Daniel's chest. “Let me help you now, Emanuel. Give yourself up. Confess your crime, and I will speak to the king on your behalf.”

“Go, my son. Run!” Peter yelled as he cocked the pistol.

Emanuel laughed. “You may tell the king for me to rot in hell!”

At that moment, Baldur and two of the king's guards rushed into the shop. Baldur held a pistol of his own, and the guards carried muskets.

Daniel turned and held up his hands. “Baldur, please. Don't shoot. He's my son.”

“Surrender,” Baldur said, gasping. “Surrender peacefully in the name of Gustavus II Adolphus, or we will take you by force.”

“You will never take my son,” Peter said, turning his pistol toward Baldur. “Dla Polska!

Baldur pulled his trigger first and fired a ball into Peter's chest, causing the old man to fire his pistol into a beam overhead.

“Father!” Emanuel screamed, trying to catch Peter as he fell, but his father-in-law slipped through his hands and dropped hard to the shop floor.

“Stop, Baldur, please!” Daniel said. “Don't kill my son!”

From behind the counter came a roar—a deep, sorrowful bellow. Emanuel rose up, a knife in his hand, his face twisted in rage. “I will kill you all,” he said, jumping atop the counter, lunging over it like a bull. “Zabiję was wszystkich!”

Daniel fell back, slipped on the fallen candlestick, and crashed to the floor, as the bullets from the guards' muskets slammed into Emanuel's stomach and legs. Emanuel wavered, dropped the knife from his shaking hand, then fell to his knees.

Daniel lunged forward, caught his son, and laid him down on the floor. “Oh, Emanuel. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. This is all my fault. I should never have left you and Adolf and your mother alone. I was a terrible, terrible father.”

Emanuel coughed up a gout of deep red blood. “We have made our choices, you and I,” he said. “You must live with yours, as I will die with mine. I did this for Marija, for the dead of Magdeburg, for Mother.” He coughed again, writhed in pain, settled, then said, “Say goodbye to Benjamin for me.”

Daniel nodded, stroked his son's face, and watched him die.

 

Magdeburg, August 1636

 

Daniel von Block stood next to Rebecca Abrabanel and Dr. James Nichols outside the newly-built shop door, as the line of spectators waited patiently to get their first glance at Daniel's paintings of their king. He had finished six in total, and now they covered the walls of his new shop. They were not for sale, as they would be returned to the king once his show was closed. But Daniel planned a series of smaller paintings of the royal family, and those he hoped would find many buyers—in Magdeburg and beyond. For now, though, he simply hoped his work and the new styles he had experimented with would find many admirers.

“It is an impressive showing,” Rebecca said, looking down the sidewalk. “But, of course, who would not come out to see their king in such unusual depictions?”

“Yes,” Daniel said, nodding. “It took a little while to convince him. I'm very grateful that he agreed.”

“Well, he has much to thank you for,” said James. “You saved his life—and Kristina's.”

Daniel, heavy-hearted, shook his head. “No. I almost cost them both their lives. The doctor told me that there was enough monkshood in those pastries that, if Kristina had eaten even half of hers, she would have died. If the king had eaten all of his, he would have died as well. And I delivered them to the palace myself.”

“But that was not your fault,” Rebecca said. “The king clearly does not blame you. He said himself that he would have come to your opening if the other Polish spies connected with Emanuel and his father-in-law had been caught. And you know, once Kristina's illness had passed, she was her old self again, was she not?” She took him by the arm and gave it a comforting squeeze. “The king has ennobled you, he has purchased this shop for you—'The Daniel von Block Studio and Art Gallery'—and he has given you his patronage. Now, you can really begin to make that difference in the art world that you speak of. Not even Peter Paul Rubens can make such a claim.”

Daniel showed a faint smile and tried to accept her compliment gracefully, but it was less than a month ago that he had lain in the middle of that floor, now freshly cleaned and waxed, holding his dying son and praying to God to take him instead.

He had thought at first to decline the king's offer of the shop once it lay cold and vacant, Emanuel's mother-in-law having returned to her family in Poland. It had felt odd and morbid, in a way, to be in the shop—as if he were returning to the scene of the crime over and over again. But he had finally accepted the king's gracious offer. He had found no more suitable location, and the need to settle on a studio and a new home for his family was becoming more urgent. At first, he'd feared that Sofia had somehow been poisoned as well, in the days after the attempt to kill the king. He'd been relieved and thrilled beyond measure to learn that the cause of her sickness was a new child on the way.

The shop also appealed to Daniel because he wanted something to remind him of Emanuel. A remembrance of the first time they had spoken in the shop not long after he had arrived in Magdeburg. That was the memory he held close to his heart: that faint yet hopeful moment when reconciliation seemed possible, before it all fell to ashes. That was the memory he wanted to keep forever.

“Can I cut the ribbon, Papa?”

Benjamin appeared in front of him, reaching for the scissors that Daniel held in his right hand. He smiled and handed them over. “Yes, you may.”

Benjamin took them and walked back to the golden ribbon that had been set up in front of the shop's open door. They watched as Benjamin, in his most majestic, powerful Superman voice, proclaim the grand opening of his father's shop. The crowd listened intently and then clapped as Benjamin cut the ribbon and let them inside.

“He is a wonderful little boy,” Rebecca said.

Daniel nodded. “He will surpass me in time, I'm certain. And I will be here to see it.”

They followed the crowd in, and Daniel looked at his paintings on the wall. One showed the king sitting proudly in his chair, portrayed in the perfect ideal of the Baroque style, but with brighter colors and a more powerful pose.

There was another that used thick, purposeful brush strokes: an Impressionist version of the king's face, unfocused yet serene, confident in its sun-brightened ruddy tones.

There was a charcoal sketch of him and Kristina arguing, both standing toe to toe, neither giving ground.

There was a Surrealist portrait showing Gustavus' face melted onto a broken shard of mirror where it transformed into an older, wrinkled version of himself, looking back through segmented doorways to images representing his past deeds.

There was a Cubist canvas, where the king's various angles portrayed the seven deadly sins in shades of brown and red.

And there was one on the wall behind the counter: a huge depiction of a splendid circus, the crowds mere tiny ovals of various blondes and browns and reds, their smooth, blank faces gazing toward Kristina swinging on a trapeze, ready to leap into Ulrik's outstretched arms, Baldur taming a lion with a whip and chair, and Gustavus II Adolphus astride a majestic trumpeting elephant, the king's patchwork coat a star pattern showing all the colors of the spectrum.

“How in the world did you get him to agree to that?” Rebecca asked, pointing at the circus painting.

Daniel shrugged. “He insisted.”

“What is it called?”

“The only thing I could think of,” Daniel said. “The only thing that seemed to fit this man of steel, this larger-than-life persona: The Multi-Colored King.”

****