"You've got to be kidding."

Anne Jefferson looked around the table in the big dining room of the USE's embassy in Amsterdam, at each of the other people sitting there. Immediately to her left sat Rebecca Abrabanel, the ambassador of the United States of Europe to the United Provinces. Sitting next to her, at the end of the table, was her husband Mike Stearns. Mike was the prime minister of the USE, and had arrived in besieged Amsterdam only two days earlier, in a daring airlift that still had the entire city talking—as it did the Spanish army camped in the siege lines beyond.

He and Rebecca were holding hands, clasped on the table. To Mike's left sat Jeff Higgins and right next to him—directly across the table from Anne—sat Jeff's wife Gretchen Richter.

Finally, at the other end of the table facing Mike Stearns and just to Anne's right, sat Adam Olearius. As of the day before, Anne Jefferson's new fiancé. He'd finally proposed, and she'd taken all of two seconds to accept.

"This is a joke, right?"

That was more in the way of a firm statement than a question.

Silence.

"This is a joke, right?" she repeated. Her voice rose with the last word, a firm statement transmuting into a real question.

"A joke. It's got to be."

Desperation was creeping into her voice.

Anne now glared at Mike Stearns, her glare almost instantly being transferred to the handclasp.

"Stop holding hands with your wife!" she snapped. "It's disgusting."

Mike's eyebrows went up a little. Rebecca's went up quite a bit more.

Anne's jaws tightened. "Fine," she said, through gritted teeth. "It's not disgusting, it's aggravating. But that expression on Mike's face is disgusting. We all know you're getting laid since you flew into Amsterdam in that reckless flying stunt of yours, Mike. You don't have to be so infuriatingly smug about it."

Rebecca's eyebrows came back down, and a very serene expression came to her face.

"You!" snarled Anne. "That expression is even worse!"

Rebecca smiled—very serenely—and replied:

"I will point out that I have also sat for a portrait, in the interests of the nation."

"Baloney! You just sat for that stupid portrait Mike keeps in his office in Magdeburg so he'd be able to keep admiring you after you left for Amsterdam. Don't give me any crap about 'the national interest.' And—"

Her voice was rising again, as desperation returned. "—you didn't pose half-naked."

Across the table from her, Gretchen Richter sniffed. "Half-naked, nonsense. The proposal was clearly explained. By the time the portraits are finished, you will be modestly garbed in various banners. To be sure, Rubens and Rembrandt and the Hals brothers will see you half-naked while you pose, but so what? They're artists. They don't count. Besides, Rubens has already seen you half-naked, plenty of times. Half, did I say? Nine-tenths naked."

Anne's glare at Gretchen made the one she'd bestowed on Mike and Rebecca seem like a fleeting glance of mild disapproval.

"So why don't you do it, then? The whole damn world has seen you half-naked!"

Gretchen sniffed again. "Don't be ridiculous. Only the Spanish army camped outside in the siege works and maybe half of Amsterdam's residents."

"Pretty much all of the city's residents, sweetheart," said her husband mildly. "It was a very popular, ah, tourist attraction while it lasted. I think the only ones who didn't come for a look-see were some old crones, and some of the preachers. Well, a few of the preachers."

Jeff didn't seem aggrieved any, though, at the thought of tens of thousands of people having gazed upon his wife's naked breasts. Actually, he seemed a little smug about it himself. Given Gretchen's bosom, that was perhaps understandable.

"You didn't answer my question!"

Gretchen shrugged. "I offered. They turned me down." She gave Mike and Rebecca a dismissive glance. "They said I wouldn't be the appropriate model for the purpose."

"Not hardly," drawled Mike. "The Spanish would have had conniptions. So would the prince of Orange, for that matter."

His eyes grew a little unfocused, as if he were contemplating something in the distance. "Now that I think about, I doubt Gustav Adolf would have been any too pleased, either."

"Kings." Gretchen's tone was icy. "Wretches, all of them. That fat Swedish bastard is depending on the Committees of Correspondence to keep his new little empire for him when the fighting starts up again next spring. But God forbid he should admit it."

Rebecca cleared her throat. "As it happens, Gretchen, I did pass your offer on to the cardinal-infante. The reports I've received indicate that Don Fernando was rather intrigued by the idea. But, not surprisingly, his advisers were adamantly opposed."

Her eyes moved back to Anne Jefferson. "You, on the other hand, are most acceptable to all parties involved. Especially with Gretchen as the alternative. You are a nurse, after all, a healer. Not a revolutionary agitator with a reputation for being distressingly quick with her revolver."

"Nine millimeter automatic," corrected Gretchen. "I don't like revolvers. Rate of fire is too slow."

"It's a conspiracy!" wailed Anne.

"Well, sure," said Mike. "How else would you pull off a stunt like this?"

In a tavern not far away, four men sat around a small table in the corner, hunching their upper bodies forward in the way men will when they conspire.

"So he's agreed, then?" asked Harry Lefferts, the leader of the little group.

The man to his left nodded. Donald Ohde, that was, the Scot-born German who served as the financier for Harry's special team. Or the "dog robber," as Harry called him.

"Oh, sure. He's always short of money, and his brother Frans even more so."

"It'll take everything we've got in the way of specie," cautioned the man across the table from Harry. That was Paul Maczka. Like most of the men in Harry's team, he was of hybrid origin: in his case, part-Polish, part-Saxon. And, like every single one of them, an adrenaline junkie addicted to adventures. But he tended to be very conservative whenever financial matters arose.

Harry waved his hand. "It's only money. We're not giving up any of the essentials."

Ohde nodded. "I told Hals. No up-time guns, no dynamite, nothing. Just money." He sneered, slightly. "Artist. Didn't even know what dynamite was, I think."

But Paul was not one to give up easily. "You can't get food, shelter and transport with weapons," he pointed out. "Not unless we're going to rob our way across to England, which would be stupid. We need some money."

The fourth man at the table spoke up. "We'll have lots of money once the deal closes. Ten times what we've got now. More than that. Enough to turn this shoestring operation into something out of a James Bond movie. Too bad they haven't invented jet skis yet. We could afford enough for all of us."

Gerd beamed. "Imagine the sight we'd make! Blowing our way up the Thames thumbing our noses at King Charles' soldiers."

Gerd went all the way back to the formation of Harry's special team. So, of all the down-timers there, he more than any of them could claim to be an "old Grantville hand." But it hardly mattered. By now, all of Harry's commandos had seen plenty of up-time films.

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- The Grantville Gazette Staff