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The buggy was running good. The open exhaust behind Trent’s head roared into the night with just the right tone, a low rumble with a harsh rasp at the end of the note. It sounded right. The breeze in his face over the windscreen felt great. Trent Haygood was motoring toward home after visiting what he considered a rather pretty Polish down-time girl. He was driving briskly, relaxed, and thinking about the pretty blonde with green eyes, cute accent, very nice figure, and even a fair brain. Not that he was over-thinking the brain thing.

The headlights illuminated his path as he worked his way up Route 250. He barely slowed the last few hundred yards before the turn onto his street on the outskirts of town. He geared down, and began to make the turn. He was going to move in a nice simple arc, and zip down the street to his driveway.

As he turned the buggy into the corner, he saw movement in his path, and a flash of clothing.

“Shit!”

Trent tossed the buggy sideways with a quick flip of the wheel and managed to miss the man. He still hadn’t touched the brakes. If he had, he would have ploughed straight into the pedestrian. The tires were squealing as the buggy slid sideways.

He corrected, and now the buggy was slewing back in the other direction. Anticipating the spin, Trent flipped the wheel quickly back, jammed on the brakes while putting the clutch in, and let his buggy slide in a controlled spin, harmlessly down the center of his street. His three-quarter rotation put him facing the side of the road. He smelled the rubber from the tires. Expensive and irreplaceable tires. The buggy came to a stop. He was pissed. Unbuckling his seat belts, he leapt out of the vehicle and headed towards where he had last seen the pedestrian.

As he strode back to the corner, he saw the man standing on the gravel shoulder, slack-jawed. In the diffuse light of the headlights, which were pointing in the wrong direction to see him clearly, Trent saw a short man, who from the look of him was a down-timer, wearing the uniform of an officer. He appeared to be in shock. “Great,” Trent thought, “just what I need. Some big shot down-timer getting’ all pissy. Wonderful.” He towered over the man. Trent finally stopped in front of him, took a breath, and clenched his teeth into something resembling a smile. He needed no more problems with the police, after what was being called the “Horsepoop Pursuit” concluded with the pursuing squad car half-full of horse manure.

“Hasn’t anyone ever told you to not stand in the street after dark?” He asked as civilly as he could manage. Which was not very.

“How did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“How did you control that—that vehicle?”

“It’s a damn good thing I did, ‘else y’all would be a bug in my grille.” He inhaled slowly, and then let his breath out. Slowly. “What the hell were you doing standing in the middle of my street?”

“You are still in the army, is that correct?”

“Yeah.” Trent decided the shortest answer is the best when dealing with “Army” questions.

The officer, a colonel Trent could see now, stood up straight and looked Trent in the eye. “I was not certain at first, but I am now. I think you would be perfect. Report to your commanding officer first thing tomorrow morning, at zero seven hundred hours.” The colonel smiled. “And that is an order, Corporal Haygood. Good night.”

****

“You will stand up straight when I am taking to you, Haygood. Dammit, you are still in the army and I am giving you orders. So pay attention!”

Trent Haygood chewed on his lower lip and nodded.

“Can’t hear you, Haygood!”

“Sorry, sir. I mean, yes, sir.”

His CO at the Grantville radio school looked at him with frustration. Karl Orht was a down-timer. Trent knew he transferred from Magdeburg, where he learned up-time soldiering, as well as up-time style ass-chewing, from Admiral Simpson. And Orth looked grumpy this morning. “You were never much of a soldier even when we were in a first-class shooting war. Since you’ve been here in school, you’ve spent more time building that damn buggy of yours than you have learning CW. You are not a good radio operator, Haygood. Do you know that?”

Trent began to feel perspiration bead on his forehead. “I have made passing grades, I believe, sir.”

“Barely, Haygood. Barely. And you will graduate in a couple of weeks, assuming that you don’t screw up again.”

“I hope so, sir”

Orth’s tone softened. “Why did you pick this assignment, Trent? Why radio?”

“Well, sir, it is the wave of the future. Radio techs are going to be in incredible demand when we finally stop the wars. It would be a good way to earn lots of money, sir. And when I broke my ankle during the battle, it was about the only duty I could do.”

“Do you like it, Haygood?”

“Sir?” Haygood swallowed and began to sweat again. Things were going so well here in town. He had his garage, the car/dune buggy he built and was racing around the streets when he could. He had started to build a couple more cars for customers, and he had made a fair number of dollars when he taught Herr Gribbleflotz to drive. When that word got around, he was certain that he was going to have a lot of customers who wanted to learn how to drive. And now, in this office, it sounded a lot like he was about to get transferred to some other duty. Obviously the CO was setting him up for something. But what?

“I said, do you like it Haygood? Are you paying attention to me, son?”

Trent brought himself back to the present. The crappy, unpleasant, seventeenth-century present. With little to keep him interested, and even less to be excited about. Especially when he thought about the future he could have had—

“Haygood!”

“Sir!”

The man’s expression softened again. “I asked you if you liked it.”

“It’s okay, I suppose. I mean, well, radio is important. And with my ankle. Well, there is not a lot I could do running around in the army hauling a rifle, sir.”

“Honestly, Haygood. I know your old man is one stubborn SOB. It’s obvious that apple didn’t fall far from the tree, by God. Just give me the answer that’s true, don’t try to guess what I want to hear.”

Trent shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. “Well, sir, I . . . I suppose the answer is no. I don’t much care for it.” He stood up a little straighter and added, “Sir”

The CO looked at him square in the face, and smiled. “Finally. We’re making some progress. You don’t like radio.” The bulky man waited for an answer with a raised eyebrow.

“Well, no, sir. Not very much.”

“Very well.” There was a smile on the man’s face that Trent found a little too gleeful. “Have some new orders for you. You will need to be fully certified in CW before you leave here, but these orders are going to be a little more to your liking, I think.”

“Am I being discharged, sir?”

The CO laughed a long time over that one. Trent slumped.

As the CO finally got his laughter under control, he moved around his desk and put a hand on Trent’s shoulder. “Son, you are being re-assigned, and your name came right to the top for this special assignment.”

“Sir? That sounds like a load of—well, it doesn’t sound likely, sir.” Trent quickly faced forward again.

“Seems your little buggy is getting famous. As are you.”

“Me, sir?”

“Yes, Trent. You.” The man returned to his desk, rummaged for some papers, and sat down. “It seems that while you were running that buggy of yours around, you happened to buzz past a few highly placed down-timers. ‘Course you can’t take a shit in this town anymore without running into a handful of highly placed down-timers. But you, umm, let’s say, attracted someone’s attention. At the time it was brushed off as a crazy up-timer, but when the emperor’s son in Vienna hired a couple of up-timers and bought a sports car, well, it seems that lots of royal courts want their own automobile or two to race around in, and an up-time crew to run it for them. So you are volunteering for special duty. As a member of the USE army, of course.”

“Special duty? Sir?”

“How do you feel about the Spanish Netherlands, Haygood?”

****

The Netherlands, as it turned out, were not all that bad. At least, once he got there. Which he finally did when the war was over. Trent had trouble keeping track of which war was which. But one or more of them ended enough for him to get there. For Trent, the wars in this century all kind of ran together after a while. One after another. After another. After another. But he didn’t care all that much. He had cars to play with.

There was the delay with plagues, of course. After almost two and a half years of building and buying cars and parts, scrounging tires, tools, and equipment, crating it, shipping it all across Europe, setting up in The Hague, fixing all of the shipping damage, training assistants, and finally getting the little dirt track built where the driving could take place in a reasonably safe manner, he could kick back a little, and relax. Hard work never bothered Trent, but it was nice to have the end in sight, a goal that he could sit back and admire a bit while he had a beer or three. Finally.

It was a late afternoon in the fall, warm for the lowlands, in the infield of the racetrack not far from the center of Brussels. It was a sandy area, and Trent was sitting on the front porch of his garage, drinking the third or fourth of his hard-earned beers, and feeling rather satisfied. He purposefully built the garage area with a porch. Sipping his beer, Trent reflected this wasn’t exactly what he had planned for himself before the Ring of Fire, but in this universe of kings, queens, plagues, non-stop wars, way too much religion, and a whole lot of folks who thought they were way better than anyone else, he was doing okay. Nobody was actively trying to kill him in some war, plenty of girls—but no girlfriend, enough business going on the side to create a good income, a couple of guys who were starting to understand the buggies and the cars, things were honest-to-God-damn-good.

And then he met her.

She got out of her carriage, ignored the footmen and the carriage driver, in fact she seemed to ignore everything around her. She looked down her nose at the entire world, and expected it to get out of her way. Her slightly pursed lips, combined with her “look-down-the-nose” would plough a furrow through any crowd. It was working so well that Trent figured it would work on animals and insects to boot. She stepped up onto the porch, expertly tossing skirts to the side to take the stairs, and stopped directly in front of Trent. The haughty look on her faced changed only a little with the addition of a slightly raised eyebrow.

“I am the Countess Kristina von Bulow, Trent Haygood. I am sure you have heard of me.”

TQGplcTrent paused. Allowed one of his eyebrows to elevate slightly. He had been around the court of the King in the Netherlands for over a year now. He was learning to not stick his foot in his mouth too badly. There had been a challenging learning curve, to be sure. For instance, he now understood he couldn’t just call any dandified, limp-wristed, piss-ass, lisping courtier with a sword an insulting name without consequences. He discovered that during his first month. As a result, he now took lessons every other day from the court fencing master, just in case his sarcastic hillbilly humor was misunderstood. Again. Trent pushed back his baseball hat, (Chevy, Heartbeat of America) lowered his beer mug, and studied the woman who was addressing him. He made a decision not to stand up. He usually hated this type.

“Nope. Can’t say that I have.” He paused a moment to make sure the woman understood the pause, and then added, “Ma’am.” He was disappointed when she didn’t even harrumph a little.

“Then that is your mistake, Mr. Haygood. I am well-known at court, and have the king and queen’s favor, above many. You should keep yourself informed and updated on the goings-on at court, who is in favor, who isn’t. There is much I can do to help you, Trent. Improve your dismal standing at court for one thing.”

She certainly seemed sure of herself, Trent had to admit. And she didn’t come right out and demand a ride in one of the royal cars or one of his buggies, as was the usual approach for one of the court hangers-on. And Trent wasn’t easily given over to handing out rides in vehicles that technically didn’t belong to him. There was a lot of money tied up in these things, and if he granted a ride to everyone who wanted one, there wouldn’t be any gas, tires, oil, or anything else left when someone from the royal family truly wanted to go driving. Not that he was against giving a pretty young lady—well, the woman in front of him was not that young, but still pretty, in a well-shored-up sort of way—a gentle ride in the Ford Crown Victoria he brought along from Grantville. The king really liked the name of that car, and it wasn’t one of the old police cars. This one had belonged to some old man in town, and the thing was still in great shape. Plush seats, AC, nice stereo, wire wheel covers . . .

“Mr. Haygood, are you listening to me?”

Trent blinked. “Umm. Not really, no.” He sipped his beer again.

“You really should listen to her, you know. She is trying to help you. And lord knows you need the help.” That new voice came from the guy who had appeared at her side on the porch. He was bulky, looked like he was strong at one time, but was now going soft, mid-thirties, and no hair on his head. Eyebrows with a Van Dyke beard and mustache, and that was it. The rest was a cue ball. He had piercing blue eyes and such a level of earnest sincerity in his voice that it was arresting to Trent.

“Why do I need help?” He was beginning to wonder why they hadn’t asked to see the cars yet. Usually they did that first.

“The queen likes you, Trent. Do you know that?”

“Well, she has told me that. She is a natural, picked up driving the buggies like she’s been doing it all her life. I rather like her too.” For a royal he added, into his beer mug.

Kristina paused. “Do you mind if we sit down?”

“Uh, no. Go ahead.”

“Thank you. Trent, this is my associate, Bryan DePayne.”

“Hello, Trent,” DePayne said sincerely. DePayne didn’t have that courtier swishiness about him like some of the other ones Trent had met. Some of the Spaniards in the court carried swishiness about them like a badge of honor. DePayne gave the impression of a regular sort of guy, not a puffed-up hanger-on. “Solid” was the word that came to mind with this guy. Trent nodded to him.

Von Bulow continued. “We understand up-timers are rather direct people, and I have been told that you prefer people to be direct, Trent, so I am going to lay this out plainly and simply. We have been sent by the queen, who as I said, likes you and what you have done, to improve your standing in the court.”

“I really don’t care about my standing in court all that much, Miss Von Bulow.”

“Countess.”

“Countess?”

“You need to address me as Countess Von Bulow.”

“Uh, okay.”

“Okay, what?” DePayne asked with sincerity. He had a way of peering out from behind her that was a bit disconcerting.

“Okay . . . Countess?”

She leaned back in her chair and put her hands together. “Very good, Trent. Thank you. We are going to improve your life here in Brussels, at court. Make it much better that it ever was. You will be more engaged, more involved, and have a much higher level of prestige within the court than you could have ever imagined.”

“The queen sent you?”

“She asked us to help you.” DePayne nodded vigorously in support, and Trent had an image of him as a dog wagging a tail, if he had one. Which Trent decided he might. The image of a bald, Van-Dyke bearded dog wagging its tail made Trent smile.

“Well, if the queen says so, then I guess I need to pay attention.”

****

The rest of the afternoon was wasted with what Trent felt was a whole lot of bullshit. It was sophisticated bullshit, full of gilt, fine languages, hand-waving, and perfume, but bullshit all the same. Trent admired a certain amount of bullshit, if it was done well. And these two were absolute professionals. Trent smiled, nodded in the affirmative, listened, allowed them to schedule a tailor for some fittings, it seemed his Torbert overalls and T-shirts were not appropriate for wearing when seen in public. He had better clothes for his court appearances, but for just hanging around the garage he dressed much as he always did, with work boots, T-shirts and the down-time copy of overalls that were called Torberts. His remaining blue jeans he saved for special occasions. Down-time girls had a hard time resisting a man in a good pair of Levi’s. But, a new wardrobe was called for—nay not called for, a new wardrobe was decreed! And etiquette lessons were scheduled. Trent had taken such lessons when he was first posted here, but he patiently allowed the pair to lecture him some more.

But never once did they ask to take a ride in a car, or a buggy, or even to see the garage area. Trent wondered about that. He looked at his watch. It was getting late. He noticed, very briefly, as DePayne’s eyes flicked to his watch, a quick hungry flick of the eyes. A working wristwatch was a very valuable thing, and it was the first tiny indication Trent had that there might be more to these two than met the eye. But then again, that pretty much defined life at court. Which is why he hated it.

****

Trent drove his buggy into Brussels the next day, to his favorite machine shop/hardware store/blacksmith/fabricator to meet with Nulens Ruff. Ruff’s shop provided the royal garage with all of the bits and pieces that maintaining a fleet of ageing and hand built vehicles required. It was a win-win, as the information flowed from Trent as he required parts, then into the knowledge base of the team at Ruff’s shop, and then on into the local and national economy.

It was also handy, in that Nulens was Trent’s handler. Handler, as in spy. Trent was, after all, still technically in the army. The time Trent spent in the shop office, one-on-one with Nulens wasn’t all about discussing suspension design or shock absorber rates. But it was a perfect cover. Nulens was connected to the Nasi clan, somehow. Trent didn’t ask how. And he had been here in Brussels for years. And he wasn’t Jewish, as far as Trent knew. And he ran one hell of a good shop. He had taken to the new technology coming out of Grantville almost immediately, and Trent noticed he didn’t just ape whatever tech he came across. The man was smart enough to adapt it to his own level of fabrication and production.

“May as well play along, for a while. I will see what I can find out for you.” Nulens Ruff was the antithesis of a burly blacksmith. Slight and soft-spoken, he wore wire-rim spectacles. He was fastidious in his manner and his shop showed it. It was one of the reasons that Trent liked his shop. Nulens nodded at Trent. “Yes, play along. But be careful, court is full of want-to-be courtiers, and those who may have some sort of agenda. I will let you know if I find out anything about them. You know, Trent. We have always wanted you more involved in court activity. This may be your opportunity to become more involved, or more influential. The voice of an up-timer carries weight, more than you realize.”

“Yeah, right. I’m sure it does,” Trent replied with more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “But I’m not really sure if my opinions on tire wear, or the fact that I can’t get the wheel bearings I need out of Grantville, influence a damn thing. And I’m not going to talk about foreign policy, or domestic policy, or any kind of policy when there are folks around who know a whole lot more than me. Hell, Nulens, I’m just a wrench-turning guy from the backwoods of West Virginia. Not some royal advisor. I never even bothered to vote back home.”

“They listen to you more than you realize, Trent.” Nulens pushed his wire-rimmed glasses back onto his nose. “And even if they don’t, who knows? Maybe something you say will have an influence, a positive one, on what they do.”

“Okay. I will take another set of etiquette lessons from this Kristina Von Bulow—excuse frickin’me, Countess Von Bulow—maybe this hardheaded hillbilly will learn something.”

****

The lessons went on fairly routinely for a couple of weeks, with Countess Von Bulow and Bryan DePayne. When the queen eventually sent a messenger to him that she wanted to go for a driving lesson in one of Trent’s motorized buggies, Trent thought he would try out some of his new lessons on the queen. Trent actually rather liked the queen. Maria Anna was a looker, and physically athletic, unlike some of the more rounded girls in town. He tended to go for the twentieth-century look with his girls, while the down-timers were more favoring to what Trent would have called “chubby.” To each their own, he figured.

So for the first time, he tried his new courtier bow to the queen, and the proper greeting, “I am so grateful to see you again, Your Majesty.”

“Trent, it is time to go driving. I have had a very stressful week, and I want to go fast. Very fast. Let’s go.”

TQGbggTrent stood up straight from his bow. She had that look in her eye, that look that Trent had seen before. It must have been a very bad day. He smiled. “Buggies?”

She smiled a crooked smile. “Buggies.”

Moments later they were both strapped into the little modified two-seater ATVs, and went tearing around the track, spewing sand and dirt out behind like a pair of giant roosters. The Buggies, as everyone called them had started out life as ATVs. Trent had modified one into a cross between a dune buggy and an ATV for his own use, and the design caught on. There were a lot of ATVs in Grantville, and he ended up building a handful of them for customers and for himself.

The queen was a little rusty, and it took her a couple of laps to really start to tear it up. Trent drove his buggy beside her, pacing her, showing her the fast way around the tiny track, ducking under her in some corners, passing her on the outside on some corners, allowing her to pass him, then re-taking the lead as she followed. He pushed hard, and she was able to keep up with him. They tore around the track for nearly an hour, until Maria Anna finally pulled off into the pit lane. Trent took another lap at top speed, tail hanging out as he drifted the car around the final set of turns, until he grabbed the brakes and hauled the small car behind Maria Anna, who was just climbing out of her buggy. Her safety straps dangled to the side as she pulled her helmet off. Her grin was ear to ear.

Trent hopped out and pulled his own helmet off. “Damn, Your Majesty! You were hauling ass today!” They were both standing by the cars; the retainers and Trent’s mechanics hanging back. Trent would many times offer critiques to the queen, and others had learned to keep their distance until the conversation ended.

“That was very good, Trent. I needed that after this week. It is so exhilarating. I try to explain the feeling to my court, but the closest I can come is horseback riding. But you have so much more control and so much more power. It is only you and the machine.”

Trent could only match her grin. “I understand, Your Majesty. Nothin’ better. You know, you are still a little heavy on the throttle mid-corner in the south turn.”

“I keep forgetting that the tail out is the fastest way around, not just mashing down on the throttle. I want to go faster, all the time.”

“Sometimes you need to go a little bit slow, to go faster.”

“I know, Trent. I know. You have told me many times.” She grinned while shaking her head, a mix of fun and frustration.

“Your Majesty, you’ve done this driving thing for what, eight months now? And in that time, you have done more performance driving than a lot of folks who have been driving their whole lives have done. You are a natural at this.”

The queen nodded. “You know, Trent. People compliment me endlessly; tell me how good I am. But you have also told me, at least when we first started, how terrible I was, and how worried you were that I was going to damage the equipment or myself. You have always been quite forthright with me, Trent. It is one of the things I like about you.” She glanced at the group of hangers-on, courtiers, and townsfolk who gathered for the session. “When they compliment me, there is an agenda. With you, not so much.”

Trent felt himself blush. “Thank you, Your Majesty. I just like this stuff, and I like it when someone else likes it too. Especially in this time and place.”

“Thank you, Trent Haygood.”

“You’re welcome, Your Majesty!” Trent actually didn’t mind bowing his head, just a little bit.

****

Another month went by, and Trent got used to having the Countess Von Bulow and DePayne hanging around the garage. He eventually gave them a ride around town in the Crown Victoria, and they fell in love with the car, asking about how fast it would go, how far it could go without stopping, and DePayne just about wore out the electric window mechanism on the side where he was sitting. He let DePayne try to drive it a few feet, and the man was such a clod with the controls that Trent forbade him from attempting to do it again. DePayne agreed as Trent’s quick action saved them from what would have been a minor accident. Von Bulow was simply not interested.

“So, on a full tank of fuel this remarkable vehicle can travel something like three hundred and fifty miles, at least?” DePayne was shaking his head in amazement. “On just nineteen gallons of fuel?”

Trent shrugged. “On the old interstates, it could be a good 400 miles, and cover that in less than six hours. But here? With these roads, and the lower grade fuels? We are lucky to get ten miles per gallon. But this car can haul ass when it needs to. Plenty of room, and most of the roads in the country around here are pretty good. I can get cross-country a lot faster in my buggies, but this will still do better than any horse. And it’s a hell of a lot more comfortable.” DePayne continued to play with the power window. Up. Down. Up. Down. Trent sighed. “Bryan. Please. You will break it.”

“This car is so cool!”

“Great, Bryan. Maybe sometime I will take you for a ride and you can hang your head out the window.”

“That would be wonderful!” Trent could almost see his tail wagging.

****

A couple of weeks later, Trent had his head buried under the hood of a Chevy pickup truck that he had dubbed “Frankenstein.” The truck made the trip from Grantville to Brussels as part of the king’s fleet. The truck was in a fire before the Ring of Fire, and was abandoned when he bought it with royal dollars. Somehow it hadn’t gone to the scrap yards for steel production like so many others. All of the wiring, the ignition system, the battery, the interior, seats, just about any soft part or electrical part was of down-time manufacture. The engine, transmission and body were all up-time. The metal parts had survived the rather severe fire. Everything else was re-created from scratch. He was looking for a short somewhere in the down-time wiring. Fuses were not in great supply, and the short circuit was one that only happened sometimes, not all the time. So he was deep in thought when someone quietly whispered into his ear.

“May I speak with you, Trent? Alone?”

Trent twitched, and promptly bashed his head on the hood. “Dammit!” He turned and was face to face with Von Bulow. She smiled at him. Then she placed her hand on his upper arm, and stood a little close. Certainly closer than she had ever been. Trent glanced around the garage, and there was nobody else there. The countess made him uncomfortable. He rubbed his head where he bashed it on the hood.

Von Bulow looked at him with a pout. “Did that hurt? I am sorry, Trent.”

“Not too much, no. I was just—”

“Working hard, as usual.”

“Yeah. Well.” He pointed back under the hood. “I’m kind-a busy here, Countess. Tracking down an electrical problem, takes some concentration.”

“Trent, I would really like to speak with you.” She stood even closer, and began to gently stroke the growing goose egg on his skull. He turned to face her, his back to the fender of the truck. She leaned into him, brushing her hips against his as she stroked his head. “Does that hurt?”

“Uhh. No.” He paused a moment and thought. “Well, yeah. A little.”

She pouted again, and continued to gently stroke his head. “Does this feel better?”

“Uhh. Y-Yeah.”

She smiled at him, and looked down demurely. Her hand left his head, brushed across his face, and then rested lightly on his chest. She then looked up at him. “I have been watching you, Trent. You are special.”

“And I have been watching you too, Countess.” Her eyes flashed up to him. There was a darkness in them, Trent decided. Pretty, intelligent, hopeful, but at the core deceitful. He knew she was up to something. Nulens Ruff had told him that the only von Bulows he could find were in Schleswig-Holstein, which even he knew was nowhere near Bavaria, and there was nothing on a Kristina. That didn’t mean she wasn’t who she said she was, but it didn’t confirm it either. He knew it was more than sex, whatever it was she was after. And he knew, with all certainty that it wouldn’t turn out good. It never did with this sort. He smiled back at her after a moment. “You are special, too.”

Her smile widened, and she pressed against him fully. “I knew you would say so.”

Trent smiled back. “Forget it, Countess. I’m not your type.”

She stepped back, and her eyes flashed. “What do you mean? You prefer those tavern girls in town to me? I have watched where you go, Trent. Those girls in the taverns, trollops for the most part, whores otherwise. I am far more worthy of you.”

Okay, he thought. She’s been following me. Crap. What the hell is she up to? God, I hate court life, hate it, hate it, hate it. All I want to do is work on cars and drive fast. And for that, I have to deal with crazy women . . .

“Trent, are you listening to me? I am far better for you than them. More to your station, more to your kind.”

Trent had had enough. “Countess. I didn’t ask you to come here. You just came.” He stopped and put down the screwdriver he was using, and stepped away from her. He was angry, and he didn’t want to start waving around a screwdriver and give the wrong impression. He began to pace, and he raised his voice in frustration. “You are up to something.” He pointed at her. “You all are up to something. Everyone in that whole damned court. You are all full of shit. Some sort of agenda. Some sort of angle. Wanting favor. Wanting a leg up for your family. Wanting something for nothing. And I’m tired of it, lady. Countess. Duchess, princess. Whatever the fuck you are. Because I don’t care. You know why I don’t care? Why?” He turned to face her. Her face was a mask. A porcelain mask. No expression, just blue eyes staring at him, dead. It spooked him momentarily, until she allowed a little anger to show through the mask. “Those tavern girls.” He pointed towards the center of town. “Local girls. Sure they have an agenda, some of them. Sure they would love to snag some rich up-timer. I’m not stupid, lady. Don’t make that mistake. But they are who they are. What they are. No bullshit. Simple agendas. So as far as I am concerned, they are one hell of a lot better than you, Countess. If that is what you really are.”

Her face went back to the mask, the anger shoveled behind it. “I don’t think you are stupid, Trent. Naive, yes; spectacularly so. Stupid, no.” She sighed, then looked at him with what might have been sadness. “And I am a countess.”

****

It was a week later that he finally figured out what they were up to. But like most lessons in the here-and-now, it didn’t come easy. He came back from a night on the town in his buggy, and pulled it into the shop like he always did. Cars were much easier than horses that way. You could come home at two in the morning, feeling little pain from the evening, and just park the damn thing. No taking off the saddle, no putting the damn thing into the stall, no brushing it down, no removing the tack and putting it away. Just park it. He really hated horses. Slow and stupid, and a shit-ton of work. Crappy brakes. Plus, he rode like a sack of potatoes.

As he was climbing out, he saw von Bulow standing in the lamplight by the big Crown Victoria. “Hello, Trent.”

He stood next to the buggy, listening to the engine make quiet tink-tink sounds as it cooled. “Countess . . .”

“Well, at least you learned that from our lessons. My proper address.”

“So, why are you here?”

She motioned him over. “Let me show you.” He walked over to the big Ford, and she opened the passenger side door. The interior lights came on, and Maria Anna sat in the back. The queen’s hands were tied behind her, and she was gagged, seat belts snugged down, but conscious. Her eyes flashed as Trent looked at her first, and then back to von Bulow. He sensed someone come up behind him, and felt a blade go to his throat.

“DePayne.”

“Trent.”

Trent slowly turned to von Bulow. “So, what is it? What’s the game?”

“We are going to take the Crown Victoria. You are going to drive us to Ostend, by the sea. It is about fifty miles. You will do it before word of the missing queen reaches there.”

“I don’t even know if the roads will take this car. It’s big. Much bigger than a buggy—” He felt the knife tighten on his throat.

“Get in and drive.” He felt DePayne grab him by the back of the neck and steer him toward the driver’s seat. His grip was like a vise. “I have the route.”

They piled in while Trent started the car. “It needs some gas. The gauge is only at a quarter tank.”

Von Bulow was sitting behind him. “We have already taken that into account, Trent. I have two of the spare cans in the trunk, an extra ten gallons. We have plenty of fuel. Let’s go.”

He started the car, DePayne got out and opened the doors to the garage, and Trent pulled out. He glanced in the mirror as DePayne closed the doors behind them, and then adjusted the mirror to look at von Bulow. She smiled at him, and leaned forward. She held a six-inch dagger in her hand, and playfully touched his earlobe with it. “Trent, I am quite good with this. I can kill you and the queen in a moment, if I wish to. So do as you are told, and you may survive.”

DePayne piled into the car, sitting heavily and fumbling with his sword. Trent noticed it was impossible for the man to fasten his seatbelt with the sword and belt. There was a pile of papers on the dashboard. “Take the north road out of the track, and head for the village. We will go through the center of the village. It will be deserted this time of night. Everyone knows this is the king’s car and will get out of the way. Your buggy drives in the night have shown the local populous that much, Trent.” He laughed for a moment. “I have the rest of the route plotted out here. I have been working on it for weeks. They’ll never catch us, and Maria Anna will be on a ship before they know she is gone.”

The big car eased out of the now unmanned gate, and towards the small village nearby. This was a route Trent knew well. The headlights illuminated the absolute darkness of the seventeenth-century night. It was not only quiet, but deeply dark. Trent glanced at the clock on the dash, and it showed three AM.

“This is why you came on to me, finally. You wanted me to be here, with you, tonight. Keep me in bed, keep track of me, and keep me ready to do your bidding.” Trent glanced in the mirror to try and catch a glimpse of von Bulow’s face in the darkness. He heard DePayne snort derisively next to him. “You wanted to make sure I came home in time.”

“Drive, lover boy.” DePayne was no longer a puppy dog. He was turning into a nasty bear-baiting dog, the kind that snarled and bit, when the bear wasn’t looking.

TQGfrdThey drove on through the village, and he took the main road to the west. The car had a small compass display stuck to the windshield, and it was reasonably accurate. Trent knew the nearby roads, and some of the other more distant roads. He also knew that many were impassable to the big Ford. The big sedan didn’t have the ground clearance of the buggies, didn’t have the turning radius, and was just too damn wide for some of the bridges. Shipping the vehicles here had been a nightmare, and he knew that a cross-country run, at night, at speed, was going to be challenging. “Slow down, you are coming to a turn.” DePayne growled at him. “We had to make a bridge here, in the field. Follow that chalk line.” Powdered chalk had been dusted down in a line for the car to follow across a pasture. The pasture ran alongside a creek, and the headlights showed a new set of planks, placed across the creek. “The bridge for the road isn’t wide enough. This is. Drive across it slowly.” Trent squared the car up with the temporary bridge and eased the car across. He felt the planks dip and clatter, but it more than held the load. Trent figured they were slightly more than two tons of weight. He eased the car off of the bridge and then up a small sloped embankment. The rear tires slipped a little, but he had enough forward momentum to pull them up to the crest. He followed the chalk lines back to the main road.

“You have been planning this for a while, countess. That much is clear.” Trent glanced in the mirror, looking at the countess and the queen. The queen was watching carefully. Her eyes met with Trent’s for a moment. He nodded imperceptibly. An instant later he felt the cold edge of the dagger under his earlobe.

“Trent. Don’t be a hero. It isn’t in you. You don’t join, you don’t participate. You don’t become part of something. It’s because you are a loner. And loners aren’t heroes, Trent. Loners are not part of something greater than themselves. No reason to be heroic, except when it comes to themselves. And if you behave, you will live.” She played with his earlobe again with the tip of the dagger.

“And Maria Anna? What of her?”

“You can go faster here, for three miles the road runs straight and clear.” DePayne shuffled his route notes and shifted in his seat sideways, facing von Bulow. “We are right on schedule. We will be in Ostend in less than an hour, we should be able to get up to fifty miles per hour on this road, Trent. So step on it.”

Trent looked in the mirror at von Bulow. “And Maria Anna?”

“She is going to end up back in Bavaria, to answer for her crimes.” Trent shifted his gaze to the queen, who was staring straight ahead. “We will meet a vessel in Ostend, and from there we will be out to sea. We will eventually make our way back to Bavaria, where I will claim what is rightfully mine, once again.”

Trent eased the speed of the car up to near fifty, and focused on the road ahead. The car danced in the ruts, but the soft suspension and wider tires made it controllable. It was a broad lane, by down-time standards, with mature oak trees on either side. It looked like an alley, the faster he went. It was wide for wagons drawn by horses at walking speed, but for the big Ford, at speed, it was deceptively narrow. He let his vision go as far down the road as he could. “Any turns coming up? I don’t want to fall off the road.”

DePayne looked at him, grinning. “You stop, you die. Very simple.”

“So, why? Why are you doing this, Countess? What’s to gain?” He glanced in the mirror quickly, searching for her eyes. He found them. Her porcelain mask was back, but the eyes were calculating. His eyes flicked to the road ahead, and then back to her, feeling the road as much as seeing it.

“My father.” Trent put his eyes back to the road, and then noticed DePayne stir next to him, turning to look at von Bulow. DePayne was turned nearly two-thirds around in his seat to look at the countess. Trent brought the speed up slightly. The oak trees whizzed by. The car danced.

“Kristina . . .” DePayne cautioned.

She held up her hand. “It doesn’t matter now, DePayne.” She shifted in her seat and leaned up to speak to Trent. “My father was a great man. But what she did to him was criminal.”

“What did she do?”

“She killed him. Oh, not with her own hands, but by her negligent, selfish actions. When she ran away from her responsibilities, her commitments, there were many that were thought to have helped her. And my father was one of those who were caught up in Maximillian’s nets of vengeance and suspicion. We lost everything. Everything that should have been mine. You asked me if I was a countess once, Trent. And I was a countess. We had lands, respect, position. All destroyed by her.” She pointed casually with her dagger. “And I intend to bring her back to pay for her crimes, and to set right that which was taken from me. So you see, Trent, I have every reason, every right, to do whatever I need to do, to return this woman back to justice. You have no idea how many died because of her selfishness. Her inability to do her duty, her weakness.” She spat the word, and then looked directly at the queen. “Maria Anna isn’t fit to be queen of a pigpen, much less the Spanish Netherlands. My father was a great man.”

Trent looked at the trees going by. With his right hand, he reached down and snugged his seatbelt as tight as he could. He then placed both hands against the bottom of the steering wheel. In one rapid motion, he tapped the brakes to settle the front of the car to give the front end additional grip on the rough surface, and snapped the wheel to the right. He hit the massive oak tree at about forty miles an hour, and he centered the tree immediately in front of DePayne. The impact was massive.

One of the lessons that Trent always tried to teach down-timers was about the damage that was created by high-speed impacts. As speed went up, so did force. An impact while walking hurt. An impact while running hurt a lot more. At five times running speeds, the impacts became fatal. Since down-timers had little experience at these sorts of speeds, the concept of the impacts, and the damage they could do, it was something they just couldn’t grasp. Trent tried to get down-timers to wear seatbelts all the time. They almost never did.

The nose of the big Ford hit the tree in the center of the headlight on the passenger side. The car began to crumple as it folded around the tree, the sheet metal deforming first. The rest of the car slowed slightly, and the airbags went off. They did DePayne no good, as Trent had a fleeting image of him flying out of the car to impact against the oak tree with a wet “thwock,” and the body pin-wheeling into the darkness.

Trent felt pain in his foot as the engine and transmission hit the tree, and the heavy components displaced backwards into the passenger compartment, folding under to absorb the crash. He was dazed by the airbags. He was vaguely aware of the car rotating off of the tree to his left, still continuing after the immediate impact. He felt another thump and then it was very quiet.

He smelled gas and engine coolant. He unfastened his seatbelt and looked around him. Taking inventory. His foot hurt, and looking down he could see why. It was turned at a right angle to what it should be. The foot well where the pedals were was about half the size it should be. Somewhere in the accident the brake pedal had impacted his foot. The headlight on his side of the car still worked, and it illuminated up into the tree, casting a harsh yellow light over everything. The left blinker was on, flashing steadily. His vision was clouded and his ears were ringing from the airbags going off. His wrists burned. He looked around for Maria Anna. She was still belted into her seat and was clearly unconscious. Von Bulow was nowhere to be seen.

Trent tried to open his door, but it was stuck. He could see the start of a small fire under the hood, probably a result of the fuel injection system leaking onto something hot. It wasn’t large, and he wasn’t particularly worried about it. He had seen several cars burn to the ground, and he knew he had time. It wasn’t going to explode like in the movies.

He also knew he had time before his foot really started to hurt badly. He had broken it once while marching when he stepped into some sort of European gopher hole, and ended up missing some battle that everyone always talked about. So he crawled over the back seat to get Maria Anna. He could see she was breathing. He unfastened her seatbelt and began to drag her out of the driver’s side. That door was already open. He looked around for von Bulow again.

Half crawling and half limping, he pulled Maria Anna away from the car onto the far side of the road. He grabbed his pocketknife and sliced through her bonds. He kept a spare blanket and a first aid kit in the trunk of the big car. Limping badly, as his foot started to hurt by now, he opened the trunk. The rear of the car was elevated, and the front was pointing down so he had to reach up to get into the trunk. He was met by the smell of gasoline. One or both of the cans had ruptured in the trunk. He grabbed the blanket and the first aid kit and began to attend to the queen. He elevated her feet with the blanket and opened the first aid kit. He heard a moan from the queen, and her eyelids fluttered open.

“Can you hear me? Maria Anna? Can you hear me?” He used some of the gas from the blanket, and waved it under her nose like smelling salts.

There was another small moan. “Yes, T-Trent. What happened? It was so fast.”

“I wrecked the car. On purpose. DePayne is dead, and I don’t know where the bitch is.”

“She’s dangerous. Watch for her.” The queen struggled to sit up.

“Take it easy. It was a big hit. But I knew you were belted, and they weren’t. It had to be fast enough to take them out, but still not hurt us. Looks like I was a little faster than I wanted to be.” The queen fell back, and Trent cradled her head. “You might have a concussion, Your Majesty. Don’t try and sit up.” She moaned and made a confused gesture with her hands, then put her head back down.

The car had started to burn a little more by now, as the plastics under the hood caught fire. It was a very up-time smell, burning plastics. Trent heard a cry for help. It was faint. He winced as he made his way back to the car and peered inside. “Hello? Countess? Are you in there?”

“Down here, in front, I think. I-I’m trapped.” Trent peered into the front seat. Somehow in the accident von Bulow ended up on the floor of the front passenger seat. She was now wedged between the floor and the distorted front seat, her head facing up and out as she tried to wriggle her way free. One arm, the left one, appeared to be still stuck. Trent crawled into the back seat, and leaned forward, with both arms extended to pull her out. The fire was growing and the smell of gasoline was strong. Stronger than it should be. That’s when Trent remembered the two cans of gas in the trunk.

“I need to get you out of there! Grab my arm.” She reached, but couldn’t get a good grip. The interior started to fill up with smoke as the plastics and the wiring under the hood began to aggressively burn. Trent knew he was running out of time. He leaned further over the seat, crying out in pain as he put pressure on his damaged foot. “Grab my arms, I’ll pull you out!”

He could barely see, but suddenly von Bulow’s left hand was free. And it held the dagger, which was streaking towards his throat. He jinked back, and he felt it tick into the side of his jaw, and saw his blood spray before his eyes. “Fuck!” Trent realized that by shouting, he knew his throat hadn’t been cut. He put his hand to the side of his face, blood oozing between his fingers. “What the hell’s the matter with you?! I’m trying to save your life!”

She laughed at him. He couldn’t believe it. Laughing. “You are so, so naive, Trent Haygood. You think you are so smart. But you don’t understand us at all. You up-timers are all the same. You don’t get it. You don’t get how we think. You are trying to save me. I have no life left to save, you fool. I am nothing. The only thing I have left, is for you to die. He could feel the blood continuing to ooze between his fingers, and he felt woozy. The smoke thickened, and he began to cough.

“You have got to get out . . .” Cough cough. “. . . Now!” He reached across one more time, taking care to keep out of range of the dagger. He could see she was truly pinned under the dash. “Give me your hand.” The dagger whipped through the smoke towards his fingers. He tried again, and the dagger swept by again. His foot slipped to the floor and it went squish as gas from the cans began to run down into the passenger compartment from the trunk. He tried one more time, and was met by the swish of a dagger once again. He crawled out the door to the ground, moving away from the car, one hand still on his neck. He felt the whump, the movement of air, and the flash of heat as the gasoline ignited. The car became a fireball.

Trent remembered the scream of the burning von Bulow for a very long time.

****

“I was a fool to trust her, but she was very, very good. We began by taking walks in the evening, in the gardens. She had a good mind, good ideas—or at least was well-coached. How is your foot coming along, Trent?”

“Better, Your Majesty. I’ll be on crutches for another couple months at least. The last time I did this it took a while to heal. Is that when they grabbed you? During an evening walk?” Maria Anna and Trent Haygood were sitting on the porch to the garage. He drinking a cold beer, and Maria Anna was sipping wine. He rubbed the scar on his neck.

“You know you cannot talk about this, Trent. This is, as you Americans say, “classified”. Word cannot get out about a kidnapping attempt on me. I ask you this as a personal favor to me.”

“I think they know about it, at least now. My people in the USE, anyway. The guards for the garage were killed. Car wrecked the same night. My intelligence people will figure it out. And if they don’t get some kind of report from me, then they will get all wigged out. So I gotta. But I will tell them to keep it need-to-know only. Sorry.”

Maria Anna nodded. “I appreciate your discretion and honesty, as always, Trent.” There was a pause and they looked at the sun, setting across the porch, and casting long shadows through the wood trim. “This is nice here.”

“Thanks. You paid for it, Your Majesty.” Trent smiled at her.

“You seem different, Trent. Something has changed.”

“Never killed anyone before, for one thing. I know it was necessary, but, still, first time. And something tells me it won’t be the last.” He took another sip, this one much longer.

“There is something else. What is it?”

He sighed. “I think I am beginning to understand something. Something about this time. People are different. I mean I have always known they were different, you know. I’m not totally stupid. But I thought they were the same. Different clothes, different hairstyles, technology, but still the same people. People are people. And in a lot of ways, they are. But on the other hand, there are some things that are so damn different. The way folks think, the value of life, rights of common men. I mean, you ask somebody where they are from, and they answer with who they belong to. I mean they don’t say, I’m from Brussels, they say, I am baron Fredric’s man, or some such thing. On one level, I knew that. But until I met Countess Kristina Von Bulow, I didn’t realize the difference. She was her position, a countess. She wasn’t separate from it. Deep down understanding, you know?” He shrugged. “Does that make any sense to you?”

The queen nodded. “You are very wise, Trent Haygood.”

“Now, Your Majesty, I like you and all, but don’t go blowing smoke up my butt. I’m just a wrench-turning hillbilly from West Virginia”

They raised their glasses, and continued to watch the sunset.

****