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My name is Roger Crowley, formerly of Hutton Manor in England. I shall not say which county, for fear of embarrassment, save to say it lies in the North.

From my Lady Mother, Alys Hutton, I inherited a small manor house and estate, in such a state as to make the rents little more than a token after the period of her wardship with my father’s family, my father’s extravagant ways, and the time of my own wardship to a neighbor with numerous sons to place. There had at one time been a second estate that had been sold to pay some of my father’s debts. From what I know of my father, Hutton might well have been lost as well except for the fact my maternal grandfather’s will prevented its sale.

From my father, the younger son of a gentry family wealthier than my mother’s, I inherited nothing material except debts that included several mortgages on Hutton, and the set of jousting armor from the time of Good Queen Bess that my father had died in (jousting while drunk is never a good idea). In case you, dear reader, are wondering, my mother died bearing me.

It was in this situation, far from uncommon, that I found myself ejected from my guardian’s home with my pockets to let, as the expression I’ve since learned goes. So I did what I thought to be the sensible thing, and approached my father’s older brother in the hopes that he might be able to help.

The only thing I received from my uncle, Sir James Crowley, baronet, was a cold message from his manservant to go away and never come back. Having vague memories of my father, I imagine my uncle’s language was less polite than that. So I went to the only other relative I knew of, my mother’s cousin John.

VF-mnrhsJohn Hutton, being a man of God (and luckily I encountered him in public or I probably would have received treatment similar to Sir James’s), and aware of his reputation, invited me to dinner and to stay a while at the vicarage, which was kept in better order by his wife than the conditions I had found at Hutton Manor.

“So, nephew (John insisted on calling me nephew, and also that I should call him uncle), here you are all grown and come into your estate. I’m surprised your guardian didn’t arrange your marriage,” he said jovially after dinner.

At this point I feel I should pause and explain a little about the English custom of wardships. When a gentleman or nobleman dies his children become wards of the crown, even if their mother is still living. Only the oldest son or the daughters if there isn’t a male heir are subject to the wardship system, younger siblings without inheritance rights are unimportant. Because the monarch doesn’t want the responsibility for raising a lot of children, the wardship, or guardianship, of the child and control of the child’s estates were granted as gifts to reward followers or sold to the highest bidder. Such was my mother’s and my fate. My mother’s wardship was sold to my father’s family, the Crowleys, along with the right to determine whom she would marry, which is how she came to marry my father. My own marriage had not been taken care of by my guardian, though he had been glad enough to plunder what remained of my inheritance.

“My guardian didn’t have any daughters, Uncle,” I said. Which was partially true, my guardian had had a daughter he had betrothed to my Crowley uncle’s son, so while he had a daughter, she wasn’t available. Since I’d never liked her, it was no loss.

“Nor any kinswomen glad of a lusty young husband with two fine estates, eh?” He waved his tankard in my direction, before pouring himself more ale.

“One estate heavily encumbered, Uncle,” I reminded him, as though I hadn’t already told him several times.

“A point, definitely a point.” He sighed into his ale. “Ahh, for the times of King Hal! A gentleman was a gentleman then. If one’s estate was in trouble you could find a place in a wealthier man’s household. And Great Harry always had a war or two going for a young man to gain a fortune and favor. Queen Bess was harder, when I recall those knights Essex made in Ireland!”

“Well, England is lacking in wars to make one’s fortune these days, sir,” I said. “Though I once hoped . . . When one of my guardian’s sons was sent to Oxford and to the Inns of Court . . .”

“For both you’ll need money, and for the Inns and to practice afterward, patronage.” He shook his head. “For entry into the Church, you’ll need money and patronage too. Going into trade requires an apprenticeship and capital. Best stick to soldiering. Not in England, as I said, no wars here. No border raids with Scotland, not with Stuart on England’s throne, and Ireland’s a waste. No, lad, the best thing to do is to find a war on the Continent.” Uncle nodded sharply and poured himself more ale as if that solved all my financial problems.

However, I had already considered this path, and had taken some time on my journey to seek out advice from those who knew what a mercenary’s life was like and what would be needed. Some may think this strange, but I’d always liked knowing what I was getting into, a habit that would save my life more than once later in life.

“Soldiering costs money too, Uncle. Equipment, travel, and I’m told mercenary companies want a fee when you join as an officer. Also, some companies and employers want references.”

My uncle groaned and pouted at the now empty ale pitcher, his mouth sinking into his jowls. “Woman!” He shouted at the door, “more ale! My kinsman is thirsty! Ah for the days of King Edward. All a gentleman needed was his sword and horse and he came back from France a rich man.” Then he peered at me. “You’ll need someone to look after your estates while you’re away.”

I sighed, unsurprised at what John Hutton was implying. All I meant to anyone was my land it seemed. I had little doubt that if I was gone more than a year or two, my “uncle” would claim my inheritance and if I returned it would be to find myself dispossessed. However I had anticipated this after my inquires and thought of a plan on my way to my uncle’s vicarage.

“You know, Uncle, I might decide to settle on the continent or die in battle. Maybe it might be better for me to sell up here in England now rather than chance to fortune. You wouldn’t happen to know how to sell my land?”

Uncle choked on his ale and his face turned red as I pounded his back.

“Sell! Sell Hutton Manor! My grandfather’s legacy! Are you mad, boy?”

“Needs must, Uncle. The manor may not fetch much in its present condition, but I can hope for enough to get started as a soldier of fortune at least. I figure a couple hundred pounds should set me up.”

Uncle had settled down as I spoke and had begun chewing his lips thoughtfully, just as I had hoped. His living was not a rich one, but I guessed that since he seemed reluctant to believe me about the full extent of damage to the estate, he would be more than willing to part with the money I needed to leave in exchange for the land I could not manage.

So the deal was struck and I left England.

****

It was early 1633 when I arrived in the mysterious new town of Grantville as an agent of the Medici and Robert Dudley (self-styled Duke of Northumberland). The Medici, like every other noble or royal family in Europe, were interested in what the future town could tell them about the future of their dynasty as well as new technology to advance their various interests, but as Lord Robert’s man I was to focus on shipbuilding and maritime technologies.

“I want to know about affairs in England as well, Crowley,” the duke had said. “True, I left a mess there, but if there’s any possibility of regaining my family’s estates there and recognition of my titles, I want to know.”

My career as a soldier of fortune had not lasted long. I had managed to keep body and soul together long enough to reach Tuscany and enter Duke Robert’s service, but I had no taste for killing and looting and was frankly bad at it.

Duke Robert had agreed at our first meeting. “You’re a thinker, Crowley, not a fighter. Not a bad thing to be in general, but not good for a mercenary. Did you know Thomas Cromwell, King Harry’s man, got his start as a man of affairs? Well, let’s see what you can do for me along that line.”

The ships that fascinated Duke Robert turned out to be a source of interest to me, but it turned out my true talents lay along the lines of business and finding information useful to Grand Duke Ferdinando and Duke Robert. Eventually I prospered enough to consider marriage, but before I could mention a bride to my patron, I was sent to Grantville.

I will skip my impressions of the place, as I’m sure many others have expressed similar views, save that it was a joy to find such a place where information was so readily available for the asking. That said, I believe my first introduction to the lady at the library is one worth recording.

“Crowley? R. Crowley?” The librarian laughed so hard she doubled over and tears flowed from her eyes. “Not Rawdon, by any chance?”

“No, Madame, my baptismal name is Roger,” I said confused. “I was named for an ancestor who was believed to have come over with King William I.”

The woman wiped the tears from her eyes. “No chance of your having a wife named Rebecca or a brother whose name begins with a P?”

I shook my head, still confused. “No, Madame. I have neither a wife nor a brother, I am an only child. Though I do have a cousin named Preston, who will one day inherit a baronetcy if he hasn’t already. His wife’s name is Jane, though.”

The woman collapsed into laughter again, and after she introduced me to Vanity Fair, by a Mr. Thackeray, I understood and we had a good laugh together. That book eventually became one of my favorites and I paid to have several copies made, and one sent to my Crowley cousins in England. They were no doubt shocked to hear from someone they’d thought dead.

I have always been fond of reading, and during my time in Grantville I spent every moment I could spare perusing their fiction selection until duty necessitated my removal to Magdeburg and the navy yards run by Admiral Simpson. My favorites were the works by eighteenth and nineteenth-century English authors, though the novels of Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens were enjoyable and I was intrigued by the idea of the descriptions of gentleman’s clubs that had existed in London up-time. Like the Parisian coffeehouses that I’d visited on my way to Firenze.

As an agent of a foreign power, albeit one that had little to no diplomatic relations with the CPE or later the USE, I was not allowed inside the dockyards to tour the ships except on the one day after Hans Richter’s death. What a death that was! Saddening for his betrothed and family, but I felt the same stir in my gut as I had had when reading about the brave archers of England during the wars in France during the reigns of Edward III and Henry V.

****

It was in 1634 I met Sophia Proehl in my favorite print shop, looking over the latest selection of up-time novels with her mother. This print shop specialized in reprinting up-time fiction as well as down-time written short stories, which made it more like an up-time bookstore. I knew the owner well, and the shop was one of my recent investments as well as my secret vice.

Years later I can still see Sophia, her warm brown hair shining in the afternoon light as she and her mother pored over a volume. After introductions, it turned out to be a volume of science fiction unknown to me.

“It involves dragons and humans working together to fight a dangerous enemy,” Sophia said. “Mama and I have been taking turns reading the story out as each chapter is printed, but we like the regency romances too. Papa says they’re just what I should be reading while he’s looking for a husband for me.”

Madame Proehl’s mouth tightened at this forward behavior, but she turned to me with a smile. “Does your wife care for reading, Master Crowley?”

“I am unmarried, Madame. Until lately I’ve not been able to afford to marry, but at the moment, should I find a bride acceptable to myself and my patron, Sir Robert Dudley, also known in Tuscany and the HRE as the Duke of Northumberland, I can support a family in Tuscany. All of the young ladies I met in Tuscany were Roman Catholic, and since I was raised and confirmed in a small parish church, I lean more toward the Protestant branch.”

“Oh.” Sophia and her mother frowned. “We are Calvinists,” Sophia remarked, trying to look casual.

“Then you’re new to Magdeburg? I regularly attend the new Calvinist church here when I’m in town. I tried the Lutheran church when it was first built, but the Calvinist minister is more to my taste. Then I was at the Catholic church when Cardinal Mazzare was enthroned, but then so was practically all Magdeburg! A friend of mine swears he saw Chancellor Oxenstierna.”

Both women smiled, obviously relieved, and my heart swelled to know I was back in favor with this lovely young woman and her mother.

“Yes, we’re new to Magdeburg,” Sophia said. “My papa is a merchant and my brother, Lucas, is in the army.”

“You must both be very proud of your brother and son. I remember my own short time as a mercenary only with thanks that I survived.”

Before Sophia could reply, her mother intervened. “Sophia, my dear, it is time we were about our other errands. Master Crowley, it was nice to meet you.”

With that they left, but that was not the last time I met Sophia. That Sunday I was presented to Master Proehl and became a regular guest at Sunday dinner. Master Proehl was an honest gentleman whose interest in the new technologies was practical, and his advice on the amount of investment needed to build up an industry with down-time resources was incredibly helpful. If he didn’t know an answer to a problem, he could usually point me in the direction of someone who did.

****

Late in 1634, my growing affection for Sophia and her family led me to the thought of quitting my place with the Medici and Duke Robert and emigrating permanently to the USE. In Firenze (Florence), I was a servant of a great man and subject to his whims, a man moreover who was the servant of another. If they died, and the encyclopedia stated Duke Robert would die before the Medici Grand Duke, I could lose everything if I didn’t find a new patron. Also, in Firenze I needed my patron’s permission to marry, and I doubted a German Calvinist merchant’s daughter would gain the approval of my Catholic duke, even if he had converted to Catholicism to obtain a divorce from a wife he hated (much like Henry VIII in reverse).

But if I was going to stay in the USE without Duke Robert’s patronage, I would need an occupation. Soldiering didn’t appeal to me, and while exploration did, it wouldn’t allow me to have a home. Flying was out, I was told at the recruiting office, the air force had more pilots than ships especially with the enthusiasm following young Richter’s death. Plus I was the wrong physical type. I was able to send the recruiting materials I was given to Duke Robert, who was just as fascinated by flying. Grand Duke Ferdinando also expressed an interest after the Cardinal-Infante flew to the rescue of his archduchess. Anything a Habsburg had a Medici had to at least equal, Duke Robert wrote wryly.

“The pictures and plans from up-time you’ve sent of the machines have offended the grand duke’s artistic sense, not to mention his purse. The medical texts and formula for the plague medication you sent from your first trip to Grantville have been well received, and gained me an increase in favor with His Highness, an increase I gladly pass on to you in the enclosed letter of credit.

“I agree the balloons are a better prospect, but again the trouble is money. You have told me several people are already developing this technology, and it does seem like a good idea to invest in such a venture once it has proved itself.

“What Firenze (meaning His Highness), needs is a proven technology it can invest in now for little capital that will reap huge rewards soon and will give the Medici what the Americans call an edge over everyone else.”

When I read this, I shook my head in exasperation. I had done a lot of research into various technologies the Medici might be interested in, and every time the same answer came back, give us something ready-made, beautiful, and, oh yes, profitable. I knew from the man I had invested some of my personal funds with at OPM and from Master Proehl there was no such thing.

That led me back to my increasing desire to leave Duke Robert and the Medici’s service. Thinking of the money I had invested, I asked about the possibility of employment at OPM, and was turned down.

“It’s not because you’re a down-timer,” the man said. “But we have so many applicants that we can train them from scratch, that means we don’t have to waste time retraining.”

I looked into several other businesses in the growing financial and legal community and met with similar rejections, but I didn’t take it to heart. While I was still paid by Duke Robert I was making a decent living even with the high cost of living in Grantville and Magdeburg. But it was now 1635, my patron was due to die in 1649, and I wasn’t getting any younger.

****

That was when I met Waldo.

“My real name’s Hans Saupe, like Hans Richter,” he said as we sat in the Thuringian Gardens the first night. “But I like Waldo better. Makes me different from all the other Hans in Germany. I thought of going by Han Solo like the warrior in Star Wars, but that’s no name for a comedian. So when I heard about the Waldo character, the up-time jokes about waldos, and then there are the Walloons who simply beg to be laughed at, I couldn’t resist.” At my look of puzzlement, he said, “you know the children’s books, Where’s Waldo? And a waldo seems to be some kind of mechanical thing no one can describe.”

“But a comedian?” I asked. “Isn’t that like a court fool? Why would anyone who’s not a dwarf want to be a fool?” Waldo (the person I was talking to) was normal-sized and exceptionally thin with light blond hair. After I went to the library and found the Where’s Waldo books I realized my friend did look something like the character. I also arranged for one of the books to be copied in color to send to the grand duchess of Tuscany who loved puzzles.

“A court fool is entertainment for the aristocrats, my friend. An elitist exploitation of those who are physically imperfect, and yet God’s creatures. No, in line with the principals of the Committees of Correspondence, I want to entertain the masses!”

If I have not yet mentioned the Committees so far in my narrative, it is not due to any disagreement with their goals on my part. I found many of their ideas laudable, though I didn’t say so in my reports to Duke Robert or His Highness, and I like many of the people I’d met who were involved, especially a certain merchant’s daughter. Her parents seemed to welcome my suit until the idea of my carting their daughter off to Tuscany came up and I hadn’t seen her since the last time I’d been in Magdeburg.

“But how can you entertain the masses, Waldo? This isn’t like up-time where there are, what did they call them—sitcoms?—on the television. You’d need more than just yourself for those, and no one seems to be interested in reviving them. And no one has a working television outside of the Grantville area. Most, if not all, taverns want singers or musicians for their customers, not comedians.”

Waldo’s normally cheerful expression fell, and he nodded. “Up-time they used to have these places called ‘comedy clubs’ where people would go to be entertained by comedians and drink. I want to start one, but the money . . .”

“I don’t think it would work, my friend,” I said. “Land is too expensive in Grantville. Not to mention that between them, the Gardens and the club across the road have all the town’s business. Magdeburg is full of traditional German taverns and none of the people there want entertainment that I can tell. I looked into the situation here and in Magdeburg when I thought I might be able to start a gentleman’s club for government representatives.”

“A gentleman’s club? You mean one of those up-time places where women take their clothes off and dance?” Waldo asked, looking interested.

“No, that wouldn’t be allowed by the CoCs because it would be exploiting women as prostitutes, and the father of the girl I might marry didn’t like it either. He’s a strict Calvinist. What I had in mind was more of a place where politicians and businessmen could meet and discuss affairs in . . . shall we say more elegant surroundings than a tavern? According to the up-time books, London was quite famous for them in about two hundred years from now. The members had to pay a fee to use the facilities, but they could eat there, gamble, read the newspapers, and meet people of their own standing.”

“Sounds like something the CoCs would object to, Roger, at least in the USE. What about starting one in London like the books, or that Florence place you talk about?” Waldo rubbed his closely cropped hair under the striped hat he’d gotten to look more like his model.

“The girl and her family are in Magdeburg, for one thing. And for another, starting a place for people to gather and discuss politics in Charles Stuart’s London or Medici Firenze is frankly suicidal.”

“I like that name you have for Florence, Firenze. Firenze, frenzy . . .” Waldo chuckled drunkenly. In my own less than sober state, it seemed funny to me and soon we were both laughing like madmen.

“Lunatics.” Waldo howled. “Walloons! Lunatic Wallooooons!”

****

“Why can’t you join Papa’s business, Roger?” Sophia asked me the next time I went to Magdeburg for Duke Robert. This time the duke wanted me to discuss trade in parts for steam ships for the Arno, and I had spent hours with some of the engineers working on merchant steam ships for the Elbe and Denmark trades. Sophia’s father was one of those investing in the business and had invited me to dine with them.

“You keep saying you want to leave the Medici and the duke, but you’ve been saying that for years and you are no closer to doing so! Join Papa, Roger and we . . .” She stopped, because I hadn’t actually proposed marriage.

“Sophia . . . What about your brother? Lucas may be with the army now, but someday he may want to come home and join your father. How would he feel to find a stranger had taken his place?” I said trying to calm her.

Sophia puffed out her checks and scowled at me. “You mean you won’t because you’re a ‘gentleman’ and I’m nothing more than a tradesman’s daughter! Just like Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, you think my family’s beneath you!”

VF-fnnI reached over and tugged playfully at one of her curls. “More like Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, only I’m Fanny and you’re Edmund Bertram. Though Lizzie Bennett’s a better match in temper for you, Sophie. I may have been born a gentleman with an estate, but it’s gone so long ago I don’t even remember what it looked like. No, sweet, like my fictional kinswoman, Becky Sharp, I’m stuck in service until I can find something better. I’ve got some savings and investments, but with my expenses I don’t have enough to leave the Medici and Duke Robert. Besides, I did talk to your father and he said unless I can contribute something more to the business or start one of my own there can be no talk of marriage.”

Her eyes brightened. “So you do want to marry me!”

I laughed and stole a kiss. “Yes I do want to marry you, and not for your dowry. But we both know there won’t be a wedding or a betrothal until I can support you without having to carry you away to Tuscany. And with the business with Borgia and Spain, I’m afraid to go back to Firenze. But I don’t know where to turn.”

I felt my heart twist with despair and wondered if Becky Sharp had felt this hopelessness as she wandered around Europe trying to escape the Marquis of Steyne. “Maybe I should try to start that gentleman’s club after all,” I said to myself aloud.

“You couldn’t in Magdeburg,” Sophia answered practically. “We discussed this with Papa and that weird man with the hat that came with you . . . you remember Waldo. The CoCs won’t like a club that excludes people even if it’s because of money. Besides, new taverns open and close in Magdeburg all the time. You need something special to make a go of a tavern. Better to invest in Papa’s riverboats.”

It was then the idea hit me like a bolt of lightning.

****

“A riverboat tavern? With gambling and entertainment? Are you crazy?” Sophia’s Papa, Georg Proehl, stared at me over his ledgers as if I had just turned a different color and sprouted horns. “It’ll never work.”

“Sir, it might. I read in Grantville about the towns in their former country called Las Vegas and Atlantic City where people went to gamble. And I’ve read all about the boats that used to travel up their ‘mighty Mississippi.’ People traveled from place to place on them, the gambling and entertainment was just to make the ride more pleasant, which made them more popular until technology put them out of business. There were also places that licensed riverboats as gambling dens because they weren’t allowed in the cities.”

Proehl frowned. “It’s an idea. . . . But it would require money.”

“Everything requires money, sir. But some people would try it once for the novelty and if it doesn’t work you still have the boat. If we made it look like one of the historical American riverboats some of the up-timers might even patronize it, maybe even Mrs. Simpson.”

Proehl’s eyes lit up. “Mrs. Simpson? The Lady of Magdeburg? You know her?”

“I met her at a party once. She knew a great deal about Duke Robert’s father the Earl of Leicester, and was curious about my patron. She also . . . well, I feel justified in calling it an interrogation . . . interrogated me about the grand duke’s art collection, which was well known up-time. If we did the thing with class, as the Americans say, she might show up at the grand opening . . .” And bring some of her wealthy friends, I thought. “We might also be able to get my Tuscan patrons to invest, too, sir, if we propose our boat as a prototype that might draw visitors to Firenze.”

Proehl snorted. “Not with the current political climate. Nothing is more unhealthy for travel than the threat of the Spanish Inquisition headed by a Borgia.”

“Which is why they may invest in development here in Germany and then import it to Firenze. The duke of Northumberland is passionate about every aspect of sailing and the grand duke would love the idea of artistic boats along the Arno like the gondolas in Venice.”

Proehl nodded, but looked only slightly convinced. “And what’s your part in this business, Roger Crowley? As a silent investor, or . . . ?”

“I think I might be suited to managing the business. I’m better at finances and research than running a boat or a tavern, especially since I’ve only been a passenger or a patron,” I said, standing straight and thinking of the training Duke Robert had given me over the years in managing his financial affairs.

Proehl agreed with the idea enough to consent to my conditional betrothal (meaning no going through the window) to Sophia, pending approval by my patrons to the riverboat project. While my letter (partially sent by radio) was making its way to Firenze, I returned to Grantville to do some research.

****

“Look girls, it’s Crowley!” The librarian who’d introduced me to the Thackeray book smiled and nudged her friends at the reference desk. “So what’s it to be this time Captain? The MIT blackjack team’s manual for counting cards? Or the Apollo rocket for that Medici duke of yours?”

I laughed with the ladies, remembering all too well the eccentric (even by the new down-time Grantville standards) artistic requests the grand duke had wanted me to get for him (personally I thought the glass pyramid someone had put outside the Louvre up-time hideous and cringed to think of something like that in Firenze).

“Actually, Madame, this time it’s riverboats from your Old South I’m interested in.”

“Ooh, Ol’ Man River!” She smiled, and I thought guiltily of Sophia. I really did love her more than any of the other women I’d dallied with over the years in France and Italy, and the thought of losing her for a flirtation . . .

“Old Man River? I thought you up-timers were Christian?”

She laughed and wagged a finger at me. “We are Mr. Crowley. Now, you know where to find the researchers, and while you’re at it go and see if we’ve got a copy of Showboat. That’s the last I’ll give you for free, Hot Stuff.”

VF-shwbtI didn’t find a copy of Showboat at the library (I learned at least that it was one of the up-time musical comedias), but one of the musical performers in Grantville not only had a sound recording and a booklet for the play, but also let me borrow her video player to see a record of a movie that had been made.

As I heard the deep voice of the Moor singing “Ol’ Man River,” I felt a thrill in my heart that I had never felt at one of the Medici musical evenings. Just as an aside, I am not generally fond of music except drinking songs, and I’ve been told that though I sound in tune in my head, I make cats in heat sound good. As Showboat wasn’t one of the comedias the Hapsburgs had sponsored yet, I sent copies of the music to Grand Duke Ferdinando and Duke Robert with pictures of costumes and the picture of the red and white paddle wheel boats like the one I proposed to turn into a tavern. I felt sure that after they’d seen the comedia, they’d send me funds to test my idea on the Elbe for Arno tours of Firenze.

****

“No! Papa would never have agreed to that!” Sophia shouted, rising from her chair, her kerchief balled in one hand. “Papa would never have shut Roger out of the business like this, he . . .” She collapsed into tears, not looking up when I pried the sodden kerchief out of her hand for a fresh one.

“Nevertheless, Miss Sophia, that is what your father did,” Kaspar Ritter said. It may have been my imagination, but I could almost see a smile on the man’s narrow mouth. “The business and all its assets are to go to Lucas, if he’s still alive, your dowry, of course, will be provided when you become betrothed to a . . . more suitable man.”

“More suitable as in ‘not an Englishman,’ I take it,” I said coolly. Ritter had never looked at Sophia that I knew of, as far as I knew, the man was a confirmed bachelor who lived alone in lodgings near the Proehl shipyard and he’d never set foot in the Proehl house until he’d come with a group of workmen bearing Proehl’s body. An apoplexy, they claimed, but Sophia said her father had been as healthy as the up-time saying about horses.

“A man who can control Miss Sophia’s fits and starts in a proper manner,” Ritter said stiffly. “And will accept her despite her small portion. You should know, Master Crowley, that the business is by no means doing well . . . ever since the end of those navy contracts and of course that ridiculous boat you convinced the master to build . . .”

“Nonsense,” Sophia said firmly, from her kerchief. “The business has never been better! I should know, Papa gave Roger and I the books to study when we were negotiating the steamboat tavern contract and our marriage contract. He said he wanted full disclosure so that Roger and I knew exactly what we were risking. My dowry and most of Roger’s capital is in our steamboat and we took out a loan from Grantville to cover what Papa invested in the project. And I know Papa invested monies with OPM and in a trust in Grantville for Mama.”

“Sophie, love, I’m sure . . .” I said as Ritter’s face hardened.

“You see what I mean, Crowley? This girl needs a man who can control her, not pander to her. I want you out of this house and . . .”

“You have no right to throw Roger out of this house!” Sophia shouted loud enough to be heard in Paris, and certainly loud enough to disturb her mother, resting above. “He is my fiancé and this is my mother’s house. If Mama wants Roger to leave she doesn’t need you to act for her.”

“I am only acting according to your father’s wishes, as stated in his will, to act for you and your poor mother in your brother’s place during this time of crisis, Miss Sophia. Now, Master Crowley, I insist you leave at once.”

“As my betrothed says, until someone says otherwise, this is her mother’s house and I need do nothing by your command. Furthermore, I have a contract with Proehl Shipyards, Master Ritter, that entitles me to a say in the business, as an investor if nothing else.”

“And I, Master Crowley, have Master Proehl’s will that leaves everything in my control until Lucas Proehl appears, or more likely, is declared dead. And that includes Miss Sophia and her mother.”

With that Ritter stood and stomped out of the room. I called after him, “Master Ritter, if you truly have Master Proehl’s will . . . or any other document permitting you to control anything, you’d better be prepared to show it!”

My only answer was the sound of the front door slamming shut. As soon as he was gone, Sophia threw herself into my arms. “Roger, what are we going to do? You have a contract for the steamboat, but Papa’s business! If that man takes over . . .”

“We’re going to do what we can. You are going to go through the papers here at the house and see if we can find a will, or something, anything, to prove Ritter wrong. I doubt he’ll show up with whatever he has, and it might be a good idea to go to the courts. I suspect something’s seriously wrong, Sophie, if only we could prove it.”

Sophia pulled herself out of my arms. “And how am I supposed to start a law suit with the best lawyer in the city gone after my feckless brother? And who will look after Mama while she’s grieving for Papa? I can’t manage alone, Roger!”

“I’ll speak to a woman I know and get her to help you with your mother and the house while you’re busy. Then you’ll have a shoulder to cry on when you need it,” I tried to reassure her. Frankly, I was just as hurt and confused as Sophia and her mother. In the short time I’d come to know him, Georg Proehl had become like the father I’d always dreamed of, and I wanted to crawl in a hole and cry myself out.

“Oh, you know a woman who can help, do you, off the top of your head?” Sophia put her hands on her hips, looking as though she didn’t know whether to cry or scream.

I kissed her quickly. “Not that kind of woman, Sophie. I won’t pretend to be an innocent, but I don’t court a lady while bedding someone else. I thought you knew . . .”

Sophia gave me a quick kiss back, and a faint smile. “I do, but it never hurts to remind you, you’re my man. And I intend to marry you, Roger Crowley. I set my mind to it the moment I saw you, and I will not be thwarted. Tomorrow if you’ll have me.”

I wrapped my arms around her tightly, never wanting to let go. “I would have you for a wife any day of the week, Sophie, but I won’t ruin your reputation by marrying so indecently soon after your father has died. I need you to stay here, fight Ritter, and care for your mother while I’m gone.”

Sophia’s arms tightened around me and I gasped for breath. “And where are you going, Roger?”

“I’m going to find Lucas,” I said grimly, hoping the young man wasn’t lying in his grave.

****

I hadn’t really expected that finding Lucas Proehl’s direction would be easy.

In the short period of my pre-Ring of Fire mercenary career and association with the Medici’s mostly mercenary army in Tuscany, I knew most company commanders were hardly literate and some too fond of drink to remember names.

The post-Ring of Fire USE army was hardly an improvement when one is trying to find someone who is in the army when you aren’t even a citizen.

“I understand, Master Crowley, but regulations don’t permit me to tell you where this man’s unit is operating even if I knew,” the clerk said angrily. “Especially since you’re not a citizen of the USE,” he continued, glaring at the up-time style business card I’d had made up with the Medici and Warwick coat of arms. “Even if I knew, which I don’t. This isn’t up-time where we can communicate with every company almost instantaneously.”

“But I’m not trying to communicate with every company in the army, just with one man at a supply depot,” I said wearily. I’d been winding my way through the USE establishment for nearly a week now, if one included the amount of time I’d spent trying my social connections for information. “Look, if you can’t tell me where Lucas Proehl is stationed, can you at least give me something official from the army as to whether he’s alive or dead? And information as to how I can contact him or his superior officer?”

“If this Proehl fellow is dead then the family will be officially notified as soon as we receive instructions to notify them,” the clerk said between clenched teeth. “We do not hand out notices that a soldier is alive, especially as he may be on a sensitive assignment. As for communications, we are not the army post office. Any letters you have to send to a soldier can be sent through them.”

“And how will I know where to direct a message if I don’t know where the person I’m sending to is?” I asked reasonably.

“The post office will direct it to the appropriate place,” the clerk said, still angry. “Now if you please sir, move aside and let the other people in line be attended to.”

A murmur of voices sounded behind me, echoing the clerk’s sentiments. Eager to avoid being mauled by the small crowd behind me, I turned and walked out.

****

“No, Master Crowley.”

I gritted my teeth as I stared up at the guard. Mutt wasn’t the smartest man Master Proehl had employed, but he was certainly the largest, and right now the most stubborn. “Look, Mutt . . .”

The giant growled like the dog he called himself after. “I said no, Master Crowley. Master Ritter gave orders.”

“Oh, he did, did he?” I felt my hands curling into fists, even though it would have been suicidal to hit this giant of a man. “He doesn’t have the right!”

Mutt shrugged. “I don’t know about that, Master Crowley. I only know who pays me.”

Before I could respond, Ritter stepped out of the office building. Even from the gate to the yard I could see him smile as he gestured for the two large men to follow as he walked toward me. Neither man was as large as Mutt, but together the trio out-massed me by a considerable amount.

“Is there a problem here?” Ritter asked smoothly.

“Master Crowley wants to come in, sir,” Mutt said dully. “I told him your orders . . .”

“And I was telling him you don’t have any right to keep me out, Ritter,” I said, trying to keep my temper.

Ritter smiled and extended his arms to take in his three giants. “I have the right of muscle, Crowley. Unless you have Lucas Proehl or a court order in your pocket.”

“You know I don’t, Ritter. At least not yet. But as I said last night, I do have a contract with Proehl Shipyard and under that contract I have the right . . .”

“You can see your abortion of a steam boat from here,” Ritter gestured toward one of the slips. I could just see the skeleton of the main deck rising above the small paddle wheel. “But you’re not going to enter the yard, much less the office to conduct a ‘search.’ If you want to see your accounts I’ll bring them out to you, but set one foot inside my shipyard and you’ll be spending the night in a jail cell instead of with Sophia Proehl.”

I have always thought of myself as an even-tempered man who didn’t take pleasure in physical violence, but I admit I had not enjoyed many things so much as when my fist connected with Kaspar Ritter’s face. It made the cracked ribs and other bruises I acquired from Mutt and the other toughs more than worth it.

As I was picking myself up from the ground after being pummeled by Mutt and his buddies I was accosted by a policeman.

“We’ve had a runner from the yard, saying you were trying to force your way in, sir,” the senior officer said awkwardly.

As a whole, I didn’t trust police. There was nothing like the well-ordered up-time force anywhere in the world except Grantville, or even their predecessors the Bow Street Runners from Georgian England or the Victorian “Bobbies” founded by then-or-not-yet-born Prime Minister Robert Peel. In seventeenth-century England and especially Firenze, law enforcement meant men in livery with pikes, and you were lucky if they didn’t ram them up your arse or chop of your head regardless of who was in the right. But the reputation of the up-time style Magdeburg police was definitely an improvement and gaining ground.

“My name is Robert Crowley and this is my betrothed’s late father’s shipyard. I also have a contract with the shipyard for a tavern-steamship and the manager of the yard is refusing to let me, my betrothed, or her mother in for any reason without the heir.”

“And where’s he,” the officer asked.

“The army, I’m not sure where he’s stationed. Look,” I said as a thought occurred, “I don’t suppose if I got my prospective mother-in-law or my betrothed you’d be willing to help us get in?”

The officer scratched his head thoughtfully. “I don’t know about that, I just got told to come over and arrest some weirdo who was trying to force his way into the shipyard. Nice man, Master Ritter, always has a tip for a fellow willing to spend a little extra time around here, but it sounds strange not letting the owner’s family in. Where’s the owner, Proehl, is it?”

“Master Georg Proehl, that’s right,” I said, but I was suspicious of anyone who thought Ritter ‘a nice fellow.’ “Master Proehl died suddenly at the shipyard a few days ago, as I said, I’m betrothed to his daughter Sophia and naturally I’m worried about my family.”

The officer nodded. “Not to mention your investment, but you’re right. This is sounding stranger by the minute . . . I think you’d better come down to the station and speak to the chief.”

****

“Oh, must you go?” Madame Proehl wrung her hands, no doubt upon the verge of yet another bout of hysteria as the three of us sat down to dinner. “There can certainly be no need, the army will locate him surely, there can be no occasion to suppose the letter you were so obliging to post for us will go astray. And with the up-time police involved . . .”

“True, Madame, but I should feel I am failing in my duty to you and Sophie if I did not make every effort to locate Lucas for you. The intelligence you were so obliging as to give me, that Lucas was on the eastern front when last you heard of him, gives me great hope that I’ll be able to find him and obtain leave for him to return to Magdeburg.”

“But how will you manage to get to the front lines as an agent of a foreign, if neutral party?” Sophia asked. “I can’t hope you’ve become a USE citizen, at last, and joined the army.”

I sighed. Even after all the time we had been courting Sophia seemed reconciled to my decision to delay formal commitment to the country, in my heart, I counted myself a citizen of. “I have secured temporary employment escorting a shipment of goods to Berlin with one of your father’s old business acquaintances. One of his men joined the army and he was glad to take me on. That will get me near enough to the army’s lines that I can make inquiries for Lucas.”

“And who’s to watch out for us while you’re off searching, pray,” Madame Proehl shouted hysterically before throwing her spoon down and ran out of the room crying.

“Mama’s not wrong, Roger. You’re needed here to keep pressing Ritter for access to the shipyard and help me search through Papa’s papers. You know while I understand the financial aspects quite well, I think, you know the law better.”

Standing, I pulled Sophia to her feet and kissed her softly. “We’ve no proof to show the police or a magistrate that Ritter is lying, and unless we do it seems we won’t be able to gain any without Lucas. I spoke to another lawyer after I went to the Army office and he agreed to see about getting a temporary restraining order or an injunction to get you into the shipyard. . . . The police were helpful, even if there may not be much they can do.”

“But you don’t know what Lucas looks like,” Sophia started, but I stopped her, knowing she was about to propose accompanying me.

“But Master Kirchner does, Sophie, and so does the army. All will be well,” I said soothingly.

Sophia pulled away from me. “Don’t you treat me like a child, Roger Crowley! You know I can handle a horse and an up-time pistol just as well as you can, for all that you’ve been a mercenary!” Tears started flowing down her cheeks. “Oh, you will go all right! Go and find some other woman, prettier than me with a large fortune, someone who’s not a merchant’s daughter, or get yourself killed, and I’ll be left to marry some old fat merchant recommended by the pastor with a bald spot and twelve children who will treat me like a . . .”

Putting my hands on either side of her face, I kissed her softly. “That won’t happen, none of it. First, there is no one prettier, with a better fortune, or anything else. You are the woman I mean to marry, whatever else happens.”

“If you really cared for me, Roger Crowley, you’d marry me before you leave,” Sophia said, but I could see a smile in her eyes.

“Sophie, I’m going on a small trip to find your brother, not a quest for the Holy Grail. I promise I will return to you and we will marry. You have my pledge, my most solemn word of honor. But I want our marriage done properly and not in a manner that will cause gossip so close to your father’s death.” Leaning forward, I touched my forehead to hers briefly, before giving her another kiss. I understood her fears, but I consider myself an honorable gentleman, or at least as honorable as any man might be in the presence of a pretty woman, and I was determined to treat Sophia with the utmost respect whether she willed it or no.

Then Sophia coiled her arms around my waist and pressed her body to mine. In her worn every-day gown I could feel the rough band of her petticoat and the long line of her body. She gave me a smile that could only be described as wicked.

“In that case, my husband-to-be, may I invite you through my window?”

It would have taken a man with the strength of Hercules or Samson to refuse such an offer.

****

It was five months later that I returned to Magdeburg with Lucas Proehl and Master Kirchner.

“I’m going to use up all my leave traveling,” Lucas grumbled after separating from Kirchner.

I sighed. Lucas’s commander had granted him an extended leave, no doubt glad to see the young man leaving his unit for an indeterminate amount of time. Lucas was a good enough fellow, but interested more in dreaming and making grandiose plans than accomplishing anything.

During our journey west I’d spent more time chasing him from place to place in the various towns we’d stopped in than actually traveling. One time I’d lost him in a town that was no more than half a dozen houses only to find him (hours later) with some of the local nobles nearly half a day away (in the wrong direction) at a fox-tossing contest. That he’d taken the championship and hefty purse had not helped my temper, nor had his promise to reform, which had only lasted until the next town and the next fox-tossing contest.

In the meantime, I’d heard nothing from Sophia about how she was getting on with Ritter, or whether Duke Robert and the Medici would support our steamboat tavern.

Finally, we reached the Proehl house and stopped. The house was dark, which was expected as it was late, but what I hadn’t expected were the boards nailed over the windows and the sign on the door.

“Lucas, hand me my lighter,” I said, turning to my brother-in-law-elect. The up-time lighter had been intended as a gift for Duke Robert, but before I could send it on I’d come to depend on it, and had even found a way to get it refilled with igniter fluid. Lucas fumbled a bit, but handed it to me and I held it as close to the sign as I dared.

 

FORECLOSURE

This property is now owned by the Abrabanel Bank

Trespassers will be prosecuted

 

“What does it say, Rog?” Lucas asked. I hated when Lucas called me that.

“It says that the Abrabanels have seized the house, probably for non-payment of the loan they made to your father, sister, and I. Which makes no sense, I spoke with Master Abrabanel myself before I left Magdeburg and he agreed to defer payments until your father’s estate was settled.”

Lucas shrugged. “Well we can’t stay here tonight. Do you want to see if Master Kirchner will put us up or go to a tavern? We could also try the Higgins Hotel.”

I gritted my teeth at Lucas’s seemingly utter lack of concern over his mother and sister’s fates. Magdeburg was nowhere near as large as Firenze or some of the other Italian city-states, but there were still a lot of people. I’d read about amoebas in one of the Grantville science texts, and ever since then Magdeburg had seemed to me like that. Finding my Sophia and her mother . . .

“I think we’d better go to a tavern. That way we can get something to eat and see if we can’t find your mother and sister before we see what’s going on with the Abrabanels. Master Abrabanel’s a busy man and it might be several days before we get a chance to meet with him.”

Lucas visibly brightened at the mention of a tavern, but I was sure he had every intention of slipping away the moment my back was turned. And people say up-time army life instills discipline, I grumbled to myself.

****

“Roger! Where have you been old friend?”

I smiled as Waldo strolled up to me with an attractive girl on his arm. He looked prosperous, his striped wool hat (blue and orange) clashed with his pink and yellow striped sweater (over-large and vertically striped) and blue pants, but the entire outfit was clearly of up-time manufacture even if they didn’t look anything like the book character.

“I’m well as I can be, Waldo. May I introduce you to Lucas Proehl?”

Waldo smiled and pumped Lucas’s hand. “Charmed to meet you, Lucas. I’m sorry about your father and your family’s other troubles. Your sister is a charming lady, a perfect match for our Roger here!”

Lucas smiled and agreed, though he looked rather stunned by Waldo’s outfit. As Waldo and his still-unnamed girlfriend sat, I had an idea.

“Waldo, you know a lot of people . . .”

“Sure do! Did you know I met the up-time ballet mistress last week? We came this close,” he held two of his fingers close together, “to signing a contract for me to represent her company.”

Lucas whistled softly, but I was more skeptical. Waldo was becoming good at finding jobs for performers, but I doubted something like the up-time ballet needed him since their sponsor was none other than Mary Simpson.

“Waldo. You wouldn’t know what happened to the Proehl house?”

Waldo’s expression became grim and his girl pressed her body against his until it looked like she was trying to be absorbed by him. “I know, all Magdeburg knows. The Grantville bank people came and tried to evict Madame Proehl and your Sophia, but someone from the Abrabanel bank stopped them or tried to stop them. The bank people shut down the Proehl Shipyard too, and there was a scream about that from the men.”

My heart sank as I heard this. Something was seriously wrong. The only reason for a foreclosure was if one of the loans Proehl had taken out had defaulted, and that was impossible. Like many merchants in Magdeburg, Proehl senior had preferred to deal with a local banker, in this case the Abrabanels. The only reason Sophia and I had gone for a loan with the Grantville Bank was the hope of impressing Duke Robert and the Medici, and our loan wasn’t secured with the Proehl’s house. . . .

But that loan wouldn’t start coming due until the new steamboat tavern was in business. . . .

“Why would the men complain?” Lucas’s voice interrupted my thoughts.

Waldo shrugged. “When the bankers closed the shipyard, the workers lost their jobs. Of course they’d complain. I heard a few of them found jobs at other yards and some joined the navy, but most of them are still in Magdeburg and unemployed.” He pushed the girl away from him slightly and rubbed his head. “As if we need more unemployed people in Magdeburg. I also heard the police were all over that place for a while, but in the end there wasn’t anything they could do with Ritter gone.”

I leaned forward and pushed my tankard of ale toward Waldo. I was getting a definite knot in my stomach. “What about Ritter? The shipyard manager?”

Waldo took a deep drink and shrugged again. “No idea, but then I haven’t asked. I was there when the bank men closed the yard, and I heard some of the men demanding money and cursing Ritter.”

Definitely not good, I thought. I needed to talk to Sophia, and the sooner the better. “Waldo, where are Sophie and her mother?”

“One of the new apartments. I heard Abrabanel set it up. I can show it to you in a bit.” Waldo poured himself another tankard from the pitcher and pulled the girl against him. I watched, itching to grab Waldo and march him out of the tavern. My girl was somewhere in this city and in trouble while my friend sat there drinking.

“So what’s with the clown outfit?” Lucas asked Waldo.

****

“It was Ritter,” Sophia said to me the next day. We were sitting in the tiny, but comfortable apartment my friend Hiram Abrabanel had helped Sophia find for herself and her mother using the letter of authorization I’d left for just such an emergency. “He entered into loans in Papa’s name using our house and the shipyard as collateral. As the daily manager of the shipyard he had Papa’s authorization, or at least he made the Grantville Bank believe he had the authorization, Master Abrabanel and I aren’t quite sure about which yet. Then he took out other loans in Papa’s name to pay those loans and consolidated them, and repeated the whole process until nobody could possibly follow the trail.”

Sophia rocked back and forth and I rubbed her back. “You’ve done wonders, love, tracing what you have. You accomplished more than I did, I just brought your brother home.”

I nodded toward the tiny kitchen space where Madame Proehl was watching Lucas eat with all the attention of a mother who hasn’t seen her son in over a year. She looked like one of those up-time paintings, holding a spoon on her hip, the other hand holding a plate with more food. My own reception from Madame Proehl had been cooler, which I understood once I learned Sophia was pregnant.

“Master Abrabanel and I searched Papa’s office once the bank closed the shipyard, and we found . . . The lawyer refused to speak to me once you left . . . and the policeman who came over was kind, but Ritter seems to have burned all his bridges and vanished,” Sophia continued, absently.

“You found nothing except what Ritter wanted you to find, Sophie. I’m guessing you found loan papers with your father’s signature on them, pledging the shipyard and your house as security.” I rolled my hand into a fist and continued to rub her back. I could see the pattern now, and guessed what was coming.

“Mama and I questioned the security men and some of the other workers. They said Ritter read from a paper he claimed was Papa’s will giving the shipyard to him . . .” Sophia closed her eyes.

“And since they had no other information to tell them it was a fake they did what they were told and kept us out on the orders of their new lord and master. Did Ritter actually pay them what he promised or did he renege when he grabbed the cash and left for parts unknown?” I said angrily.

Sophia turned to me in surprise. I guess she had been so caught up in the telling that she had forgotten I had some experience with fraud. I did after all work for the Medici, however indirectly, and fraud hadn’t just been a way of life for them. American stereotypes of Italian mafia had had their ‘godfather’ in Lorenzo the Magnificent (de Medici) and his contemporaries.

“He paid the security men something to keep me out while he went through Papa’s papers and got rid of anything that would save us. He probably paid the lawyer you found me too. Master Abrabanel has been kind, and the money you lent us . . .”

I reached over and put a finger over her sweet lips. “Gave, Sophie. You are my wife in all but ceremony, which I intend on correcting tomorrow, and there is no reason you should not have management of what is ours. After the wedding, you and I will make an appointment with Master Abrabanel and see what we can recover.”

“But what about Ritter?” Lucas shouted from the kitchen. “The bastard stole my inheritance! He should hang!”

“And what do you suggest we do about him, Lucas?” I asked angrily. “Yes we could prosecute him, if we could find him. But would we have a chance of winning? As Sophie said, Ritter left a paper trail showing that your father took out multiple loans and then defaulted. Can we prove Ritter was responsible? Can we prove that Ritter wasn’t left the shipyard in your father’s will like he told the yard workers, or that your father gave him control of the shipyard in your absence like he told us? If we don’t have evidence against Ritter, we shouldn’t waste money we don’t have.”

Lucas scowled and Madame Proehl looked disgusted, but neither argued further. I wrapped my arm around Sophia and pulled her close, wanting the reassurance of her presence to calm my own anger. I knew what it was to lose one’s inheritance to unscrupulous men, men who were supposed to safeguard it, and face ruin.

But this time I was not going to face it without family.

****

“I agree with your brother-in-law, Master Proehl,” Hiram Abrabanel said. “Finding Ritter and prosecuting him for fraud would be a waste of time and money.” The aesthetic-looking Jew gave me a sharp nod. The two of us had worked together closely during my first months in the USE, the CPE as was, and had been able to do each other a few good turns since.

“What we need to do,” Sophia, now Sophia Proehl-Crowley to my delight, said, “is figure out how to recover as much as possible, Lucas. Both my husband,” she paused to preen, and I couldn’t help the proud grin that blossomed on my face, “and I told you this several times.”

Hiram smiled and stroked his thin beard. “Yes, Madame Proehl-Crowley. At your suggestion, the Abrabanel Bank purchased both your father’s house and the shipyard. The house is something we would like to dispose of as soon as possible, if you and your husband wish to purchase it?”

“How much?” I asked. We needed the space with Sophia and I, her mother, and brother (at least until he returned to his unit, if he did) were squeezed into the little apartment, even by down-time German standards there wasn’t enough room to swing a cat. “And for that matter, Hiram, what about Madame Proehl’s assets? I understand by up-time rules, a lender cannot attach a trust until it ends or the principal if the trust is a spend-thrift trust . . .”

Hiram smiled. “Yes, well while the SOTF, the location of the trust, does use those laws, the late Master Proehl put those sums in Madame Proehl’s name. That means, since the USE does not recognize that a wife is necessarily responsible for her husband’s debts in all cases, Madame Proehl’s jointure is safe from our seizure or seizure from the Grantville bank. If Madame wishes to contribute to the purchase of her old home it is possible, but I do not recommend her bearing the entire cost.”

“I want nothing to do with that place,” Madame Proehl snapped. “I would not give that man the satisfaction of spending a single coin on something he took from us. The apartment I have now is sufficient for me and Lucas, but Sophia and Roger need a place of their own with the baby coming. Finding an apartment nearby with Roger’s money should not be a problem for them. What I care about, Master Abrabanel, is the shipyard. My husband built it and then rebuilt it when Tilly burned Magdeburg, and it’s my grandchildren’s inheritance.”

“Yes,” Hiram nodded and continued stroking his beard, thoughtfully. “Well, at Madame Proehl-Crowley’s suggestion, the Abrabanel bank bought the shipyard from the Grantville bank . . .”

“And it’s been sitting there losing money since it’s been shut down, Hiram,” I pointed out. “The yard had more contracts than Sophie’s and mine for the steamboat tavern, and even if you reopen it today you’ll have to pay penalties for the time lost due to the shut down and the time it’ll take to hire workers. Hiring workers will take the longest, you don’t want Ritter’s men back even if everyone Proehl had on staff was available.”

Hiram sighed. “True. However, I’ve already set the hiring process in motion, on Madame Proehl-Crowley’s advice. You are truly a fortunate man, Crowley, truly, my friend. If Madame was still unmarried . . .”

I chuckled and put my arm around Sophia. “You’d have to be unmarried too, Hiram. And don’t the Ten Commandments have something specific to say about coveting another’s wife?”

Hiram chuckled. “They do, they do. But Moses did have to take what the up-timers call a bar exam twice. Who knows, maybe that was one answer he got wrong on the second try.”

I laughed, and got cross looks from the others.

“You’ll need someone with experience to manage the business,” Madame Proehl said decidedly. “My Lucas knows how to run a shipyard, he helped his father for years. He can always quit the army, I’m sure they’ll understand that Lucas is needed at home.”

I shared a wry look with Hiram and Sophia. I doubted Lucas was capable of running a market stall, much less a complex operation like a shipyard. I’d seen and helped with the arrangements in Firenze for Duke Robert enough that I knew I wasn’t up to managing such a business on my own, and I was sure Sophia and Hiram agreed. Sophia . . .

“What about Sophie, Hiram? She knows the business and is great at accounting. I could manage the workers, I know enough about shipyards to do that. Then Lucas would be free to return to his unit.”

Lucas nodded vigorously at my suggestion, even if my mother-in-law looked offended. But then, I knew Madame Proehl had no illusions about her son, even if she wouldn’t admit it in public.

“And what,” my mother-in-law said stiffly, “is Sophia supposed to do about the baby, Roger? A woman who’s just had a baby isn’t up to hard work, and she’ll have to care for the child after it’s born. Not to mention the housework. Then there’s your steamboat tavern. What are you going to do once it’s finished?”

“Mama,” Sophia rubbed her belly, which was definitely showing, “I’m not due for approximately four months! And there’s no reason I can’t do the accounting work from home like Papa did sometimes and when I’m lying-in, Roger can bring things home for me every day. A lot of women have jobs and families, and if Roger thinks I can do it I don’t see why you should object! The USE needs Lucas back at his post if that’s where he wants to be.”

Hiram nodded and reached over to pat Madame Proehl’s hand. “We’ll get no use out of the young man if he doesn’t want to participate, Madame, I know from personal experience. As for the steamboat tavern, well I think it is a good investment. The business prospectus Madame Proehl-Crowley showed me is promising, and your family is well poised to take advantage of the new tax advantages for promotion of the arts. . . . But I get ahead of myself. What I propose is a partnership for the shipyard with myself as a representative of the Abrabanel Bank, who as Master Crowley points out, has already lost a significant amount of money because the Grantville Bank shut it down. And as for the steamboat tavern, I would like to invest, regardless of what the Medici and the duke of Northumberland ultimately decide.”

“Have your cousins in Firenze or Venice heard anything from Duke Robert?” I asked, worried. There hadn’t been any messages from my erstwhile employer while I was away searching for Lucas, or more worrying, my retainer. By my calculations, I was owed quite a lot by now.

But Hiram shook his head. “Nothing about the grand duke or the duke of Northumberland, which I find as troubling as you, Crowley. The grand duke is technically still a vassal of the Habsburgs of Austria, the emperor of Austria-Hungary as is, but with Spanish troops all over Italy I doubt the dukes can afford to invest in any enterprise in the USE. My advice is to gently cut your ties with Tuscany, and seek other investors here.”

That made sense, but it hurt. Duke Robert had helped me a lot when I arrived in Tuscany, virtually penniless and without any contacts. He’d helped me learn languages, the Tuscan and Venetian dialects of Italian as well as the dialect spoken by the court in Vienna, and High German. He’d sent me to men to learn commerce and the law, sponsored me at the Medici court. . . . But Sophia and our child were my future. So I nodded at Hiram and leaned forward.

“All right, let’s talk. We split the yard fifty-fifty with a buy-out provision, right?”

Hiram smiled, leaned back in his leather chair, and steepled his hands.

****

“Rebecca, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

“Amen,” I said, my heart swelling as Pastor Schaefer made the sign of the cross on my daughter’s forehead. I was a father and a husband, and the thought made me dizzy. What kind of father would I, who had little or no memory of my own parents, make?

“You should have named her Waldina or Waletta, Roger,” Waldo said as he clapped me on the back. “Much better than Rebecca. Not,” he said, looking at Hiram Abrabanel, “that’s there’s anything wrong with naming your daughter after Senator Stearns.”

“Waldo, if we wanted to name my daughter after you,” Sophia said, “we would have named her Hannah. Your real name is Hans after all.”

Waldo put his nose in the air. “Waldo is my stage name! Performers have them all the time. And since you and Roger hired me to find and manage talent for your tavern, as well as being an investor and your daughter’s godfather . . .”

“Miriam is a much better name,” Hiram Abrabanel said. “It’s a form of Mary, so it’s good for a Christian or a Jew. She can be named for the daughter of Moses and the mother of your messiah all at once. If my wife ever blesses me with a daughter . . . Not that I mind being a sponsor before God to your daughter, Madame Proehl-Crowley.”

VF-bck“Being an investor and godfather doesn’t mean we’re going to name our daughter after a cartoon character,” I told Waldo, as I took the baby from her grandmother. “And we didn’t only name Rebecca for Senator Stearns, we named her for a character in the book we’re going to name our steamboat after. Who better to be the heiress of The Vanity Fair, than a sharp Becky?”

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