November 28, 1636
Daniel von Block sat dangerously close to his fireplace as he read again the devastating letter in his hand. He couldn’t believe it . . . your unethical behavior during the mural competition has brought into question your judgment . . . Frau Schlosser was pulling her commission because she believed that Daniel had broken the rules by spying on his competitors. Two other patrons had pulled their commissions as well for similar reasons, and now here he sat, in his apartment above his art gallery and studio, watching his dreams flicker away in the hot firelight.
“I am sorry, my love,” his wife Sophia said. She sat close to him, nursing their new baby girl, Ursula. “I do not know what to say.”
Daniel shook his head and dropped the letter into the fire. He watched it burn. “There is nothing to be said. My best commissions are gone, and we are low on funds. It is going to be a long, cold winter.”
And perhaps a cold spring and summer as well, for word would surely spread. “Block is untrustworthy. Block is a fool, Block is unethical . . .” Unethical. He had been called many things in his life, but unethical had never been one of them. The thought of it almost made him cry.
The year had started with so much promise. He and Sophia and their son Benjamin had travelled to Grantville so that Daniel might study and learn up-time painting techniques. Their time there had been informative and tumultuous for sure, but short-lived. After a few months, they had come to Magdeburg to put down roots and to start a new art gallery and studio, so that Daniel might become an important figure in the ever-growing and changing art world of this new timeline, now becoming heavily influenced by Cubists and Surrealists and Impressionists, and many more.
Daniel had also hoped to make amends with his son Emanuel for being absent through most of his childhood and for being a poor husband to Emmanuel’s mother before she died. But that had ended tragically in Emanuel’s death. Because Daniel had saved Gustavus Adolphus and Princess Kristina in the process, he had been honored, ennobled, and given this apartment and studio. By the end of the summer, he was flying high. The commissions were rolling in, so much so that he had to take on students. And then the Magdeburg Arts League hosted a competition, wherein a wall at the new Opera House would be painted with a glorious mural depicting the Ring of Fire and its consequences. Daniel had, of course, entered the competition, but it had all gone terribly wrong from there. And still, all of his efforts to locate his son Adolf had come to nothing–a very expensive nothing, at that.
“Is there anything I can do, Herr Block?”
Ursula Jacobsmeyer came to stand next to Sophia. She had been a student of his, and they had named their girl after her.
Daniel shook his head.
He stood and walked over to a pot of tea kept warm on the stove. He poured a cup. “Just make sure you take all of the Schlosser sketches that you did before you left. I am sure she will be calling upon you and Frau Gentileschi to finish the commission.”
Artemisia Gentileschi and her team of women artists had won the competition and were now firmly on their way to becoming the best-known artists in Europe. Ursula Jacobsmeyer had chosen to become a part of that team. But Daniel held no grudge against her or her decision to leave his studio. That was my fault, he thought. I am innocent of everything else that I have been accused of, but not that.
“What are we going to do, Daniel?” Sophia asked, pulling baby Ursula away from her breast and settling her to sleep on the pillow in her lap. “We are running out of money.”
She didn’t have to tell him that. He looked at their books every day. “I know, I know. We still have some small commissions. They should hold us until January. And Melchior and Konrad are still with us. That is a blessing, though I don’t know what I will have them do, with no work coming in.”
“I can speak to Frau Gentileschi for you,” Ursula said. “The mural is going to be a big project. Perhaps you could work on it with us. Perhaps–”
“No!” Daniel said, louder and more forcefully than he wanted. He shot a glance toward his baby to make sure she was still sleeping, ignoring the scowl Sophia gave him for his volume. “I will not intrude on your work. You won fairly and honorably. I will not play second-fiddle, as they say, to the victor. Please allow me to maintain some of my dignity and pride.”
Or pig-headedness, as Sophia might call it. Daniel was certain that she liked the idea, given the expression on her face. He knew that eventually, arthritis and old age might confine him to being an assistant–a mere paint mixer for a younger, more vibrant artist. But not yet. He hadn’t gone to Grantville just to learn up-time techniques. He had gone there to find out how history had treated his work. What he discovered had terrified him. None of his work had come through the Ring of Fire. No prints, no mention whatsoever of Daniel Block the painter in any history or coffee table books showcasing Baroque painters. Nothing. It’s as if he had never existed. He had decided, then, to change the course of his own history.
“If you will not accept Frau Gentileschi’s offer, then you may have to become a court painter again,” Sophia said.
Daniel huffed. “Who is going to hire me now?” Then a light came on in his mind. “Wait.”
He put down his tea and went to his corner desk. He sat down and pulled out the top drawer, rummaging through scraps of paper and old, worn paint brushes until he found a letter that he had tossed in there almost three weeks earlier. He opened it and read it again, mouthing the words instead of speaking them. Then he said, “Yes, this might work.”
“What might work?” Sophia asked.
Daniel held up the letter. “I received this letter a few weeks ago. I put it aside because I was so engrossed by the competition, and of course I had hoped . . . well, there was no possible way I could respond favorably. Thankfully, I did not burn it. Duke Frederick of Mecklenburg-Schwerin has invited me to do a portrait of his family–several portraits, in fact.”
Sophia furrowed her brow as if trying to pull a memory deep from her mind. “Didn’t you once tell me that you hated Duke Frederick? That he was a drunkard and foul-tempered? And didn’t you also tell me that you had grown to hate doing portraits of spoiled, coddled children?”
Daniel nodded. “That sounds like me. But we are out of options, my love. The threat of imminent poverty when one has a family to care for can temper one’s opinion about anything or anyone, no matter how vile.”
Sophia thought for a moment. “Surely he has gotten someone else to do it by now?”
Daniel shrugged. “I could send a letter to find out, I suppose, but I would prefer to go there in person, since I was lax in responding. A personal visit would be better received for future considerations, even if he already has someone else in mind.”
“Sophia is in no condition to travel, Herr Block,” Ursula whispered, running her fingers gently across baby Ursula’s small, soft head. “Winter is coming. Snows will be here soon. And Christmas.”
“I will go,” Daniel said, and then, when he saw Sophia blanch at the notion that she would be left alone with both children, added, “and I’ll take Benjamin with me. That will get him out from underfoot–and anyway, I suppose it will do him good to see how a court painter works. His own sketches have improved of late.”
Indeed they had. Ever since Daniel had agreed to paint Superman in the corner of the mural sample, showing his son various brush techniques, proper pigment application, and how to mix paints to make new colors, Benjamin had taken a real interest in canvas work. With Daniel’s guidance, the five-year-old was secretly working on a drawing of his mother and baby sister, in comic-book style, which he hoped to present to Sophia on Christmas Day. Daniel looked over at his son who was sitting close by, his nose in a copy of Hansel and Gretel that they had picked up in Grantville, seemingly oblivious to his parents’ financial woes. Oh, blissful youth . . .
“I don’t know,” Sophia said. “I don’t like the idea of taking him out of school for so long. He’s been doing so well. His reading has improved, and his math. Why can’t you take Melchior or Konrad with you?”
Daniel shook his head. “We still have commissions to finish, and on time. I cannot risk their delay. No, they must stay. Besides, what can Benjamin learn from books that he cannot learn in the field? Come now, my love, this may be our best chance. A commission such as this would help dull people’s memories of recent events.”
Sophia looked uncertain.
He worried that she was experiencing what up-timers called postpartum depression. She had been very quiet of late, and she always seemed tired. Only when Ursula came to visit did her spirits pick up. Daniel was grateful for that.
“I’ll check in on them while you’re away, Herr Block,” Ursula said, coming to his rescue. “You will be sure to come home promptly when the commission is complete, yes?”
“Oh, certainly. It will not be a long trip. You are right. Winter is fast upon us. I will go to Schwerin Castle to seed the ground, if you will. To see if the duke is still interested, and to do some sketches to find out what he likes and does not like. I will also, of course, need funds for supplies. Over the winter, I can prepare canvases and at least start on backgrounds. Then I’ll make arrangements to return in the spring for sittings. I will be back before Christmas.”
He could tell that Sophia did not like the idea, but what other choice did they have? They could tough it out, bear the brunt of a cold winter, and perhaps come out all right in the end. But that was a risk, and one he had no intention of trying. Puttering along at a trot would not win the race, and he would be damned if he would give up now that he had made such great strides in establishing himself as an artist of significance–one to be remembered this time. It was a risk to go north to Mecklenburg, indeed. But it was an even greater risk for him to do nothing.
“All right,” Sophia said, trying to be brave. “I suppose this makes sense. But come home soon, my love.”
“I will.” He leaned over and kissed her forehead, ran his finger across baby Ursula’s sweet cheek, and then began planning aloud. “We’ll leave in two days. But I’ll need new supplies, some new brushes. Oh, and pencils . . . and charcoal as well. And lots and lots of paper. The duke has a large family.”
November 29, 1636
Benjamin placed his neatly-folded shirts and pants into his bag, on top of his underwear and socks. The clothing was more formal than he liked, but he would be staying in a palace. And apparently, one must dress as if for church when one stays in a palace.
It would not be a palace like the one in Magdeburg, which he had been to several times. No, it would be far less grand, and of course he wouldn’t know anyone there. Father had said there would be other children–the duke had many–but would they play with him? Would they like him? Would they like superheroes?
He frowned. It was the up-timers who brought the superheroes with them. Perhaps the duke’s children wouldn’t know about them yet. How could he explain to them about Superman and Wonder Woman? Would they like the Hulk? Would they believe him if he tried to explain about Iron Man? He wasn’t sure he understood Iron Man. Could up-timers really make such a suit? Could they make one for him one day?
A gentle rap on his door startled him.
“Benjamin?” Ursula said, as she looked in on him. “Are you not packed yet? It’s nearly time for bed. You and your father leave early in the morning.”
“I was just . . .” He looked uncertainly at the small stack of comic books on the shelf next to his bed and reached a hand out to touch them.
“Ah,” she said. “You were thinking about taking them with you?”
Benjamin nodded, looking at her for guidance.
Ursula frowned for a moment and said, “Do you know, I think you had better leave them here. It will likely snow, and they might get wet.”
Benjamin smiled and nodded. Of course, he couldn’t risk damaging them. And maybe he could draw pictures for the other children, if they were interested.
Benjamin closed his bag and set it on the chair near the door, and then went with Ursula to say goodnight to his parents and his new baby sister. Then he returned to his room, said his prayers, and reached for the lantern to extinguish it. His hand froze a few inches away, and he frowned in thought for a moment. He pulled his newest comic book from under his pillow and slipped it from the plastic sleeve his “Uncle” Rice had sent it to him in from Grantville. The cover showed his second-favorite superhero–the Hulk–fighting with someone in a red-and-black costume. He flipped it open and soon came to a section that showed the Hulk being badly hurt.
Benjamin wanted more than anything to read it right then, but soon Ursula or his father would come to check on him and make him turn off his light. He sighed in frustration. He tucked the comic back in its plastic sleeve, and after a moment’s thought, he rolled it up and slid it into the case that held the drawing he was working on for his mother for Christmas. He would bring them both with him to the palace, where he could draw and read while his father did drawings of his own.
Finally, he turned off the lamp and settled into bed, wondering for the thousandth time why they had to leave now. He wanted to be with his mother and help with his new sister. And he wished, most of all, that his parents weren’t so sad and worried all the time. His father had said this trip would help. He rolled over, trying to get comfortable, and worried some more.
At last, he fell asleep, and soon he was dreaming. He was a superhero: he could fly, and lift heavy things like buildings and horses, and he was paid so much money that his parents never had to argue again.
Schwerin Palace, Mecklenburg-Schwerin
Adolf Frederick I, Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, was what an up-timer would call a “horn dog.” He certainly was not stingy with his seed, as Daniel’s father might say in various drunken stupors when he was railing against royalty, excess, and privilege. But to Daniel–seeing the duke’s six living children gathered around, and with a newborn in the arms of his second wife–all these children meant money, and lots of it.
“You realize, Your Grace,” Daniel said, ten minutes into their discussion, “that including all of your children and your lovely wife, the Duchess Marie Katharina, in one portrait constitutes an enormous effort on my part, one that I am certainly willing to undertake. But you are also asking for up-time techniques to be included, which will require additional time and effort to blend seamlessly.”
Duke Frederick raised his hand. “I am not interested in blending, Herr von Block. Perhaps you misunderstood my letter. I wish to have four separate portraits of my family, so that they may adorn the walls of a new art gallery that I’m having built alongside the chapel. When finished, it will contain the bulk of the archducal collection. Your paintings of the emperor were most impressive. They were bold, exciting, and since we are–whether we like it or not–well beyond the Ring of Fire, there is nothing we can do but embrace the change. At least when it comes to cultural elements. I want Schwerin to be a cultural center for years to come. To do that, it needs art and artists. I wish to start with portraits of my children.”
In his mind, Daniel danced a Schuhplattler. Gold coins fell from the sky. He tried containing his joy and said, “Yes, Your Grace. I will happily help you achieve that goal. What types of portraits would you like?”
Duke Frederick sighed deeply, rubbed his face, and folded his arms. Then he said with authority, “I want a Cubist piece. A Surrealist piece. And, for the traditionalists, let’s do something appropriate to our own time. They call it Baroque, yes?”
“I haven’t decided on the fourth. Perhaps Neo-Expressionism?”
Daniel winced. “Your Grace, Neo-Expressionism is a bit radical. Colorful, yes, and very emotional. But perhaps too emotional, too challenging for the general public. Fauvism would be a better approach I think. Very similar, but easier to interpret. Or maybe better yet, Impressionism?”
Daniel did not know if the duke was familiar with any of these up-time styles, but the fact that he knew Neo-Expressionism . . . well, he knew the term, and perhaps he had even seen an image or two from a Grantville book that had gotten into public circulation, or had travelled to Magdeburg to see some of it himself. But Daniel doubted that the man had taken much time to understand any of it. Did that matter? As an up-timer might say: When they pay, they say.
Duke Frederick shook his head. “We do not have to make that decision today. The question before us now is, can you do the work?”
Daniel took a moment to look over Duke Frederick’s children. They were a pleasant bunch, if not a little bored sitting here listening to a conversation that they likely did not understand or care about.
The oldest, Christian Louis, was only thirteen. The youngest, Juliane Sibylla, was not even one. They’d rather be anywhere but here in this drafty room, listening to their father prattle on and on. But they would make good models, and Daniel was already rolling around ideas in his mind: how to pose them, where to paint them. Tallest to shortest, the girls on the left, the boys on the right? Many, many possibilities.
In his mind, their cute little faces began to warp and twist into surrealist globs, oozing down glass pedestals. Their eyes became boxes inset with more boxes. Their tiny mouths plumped to heart shapes in blues and greens, their limbs elongated spider-like, until they weren’t even human.
“Yes, Your Grace,” Daniel said. “I can certainly do the work.”
“But there is one matter I wish to discuss, if I may.” He paused, watching the duke’s expression carefully. Then he continued. “Winter is here, and it will be impossible for me to accomplish anything substantial on the portraits themselves before Christmas. So, what I propose is that I spend the next two weeks working on sketches that you can review and ultimately approve. Once that’s done, I will return home, where I can spend the next few months preparing canvases and backgrounds and doing some preparatory paintings to test colors and composition. And then, come next spring, I will return and begin the final work on the portraits themselves.”
Duke Frederick frowned. “You and your son are welcome to stay as long as necessary to accomplish the work.”
Daniel nodded. “Yes, and I will gladly do so next year. You see, my wife Sophia has recently given birth to our first daughter, and she’s not entirely well. She’s still weak and a bit overwhelmed. For the next couple of months, it is important that I be there.”
Daniel looked at the Duchess Marie Katharina, whose expression was one of understanding. If it was her decision, he’d have had this agreement immediately. Juliane was her first child, and she, like Sophia, was probably not coping as well as the duke would like to think. She was definitely more physically fit than Sophia was, and the birth had happened earlier in the year, so the roughest months were behind her. But having to raise a child in a household of six stepchildren, even with so many governesses, nursemaids, and servants, had to be difficult.
Still frowning, the duke began to speak: “Well, that is not what I–”
His wife gently placed her hand on his arm, and he turned to her.
“Surely,” she said, “a short delay can’t hurt, and he will be working on the paintings while he’s at home.”
He smiled at her and patted her hand. “All right. Yes. If we can come to an agreement on the sketches by the twentieth,” Duke Frederick said, “then very well.”
Daniel cleared his throat. “I have one more request, Your Grace?”
“As stated in your letter, you have agreed to a small advance to cover materials and travel expenses. But may I request double the advance? Money is tight these days, and well–”
“You ask a lot for a man who ignored my letter for weeks.”
Daniel paused, looked into Duke Frederick’s eyes, and said cautiously, “Yes, Your Grace, and I apologize for that. All I would require is an additional amount equitable to the work that I accomplish on the sketches and to help me and my family support ourselves through the winter before I return in the spring. Double the advance would more than suffice.”
It was a risk being so direct with the duke, but what choice did he have? If he returned to Magdeburg with little money, then what was the point? He might as well not return at all.
Duke Frederick took his time making a decision, letting Daniel fret while His Grace studied him for a moment. Finally, he said, “Very well. You may have your double advance. But I have one condition of my own. The fourth portrait will be Neo-Expressionism, and I will not discuss the matter further. Also, you will paint an additional portrait of my lovely wife in a manner of my choosing at some point in the future.”
Daniel nodded. “Very well, Your Grace. I accept the commission.”
“Good,” Duke Frederick said, a smile crossing his thin lips. “Let’s get to it, then.”
Schwerin Palace, Mecklenburg-Schwerin
Daniel von Block glared at the paper before him, furious. The duke had asked for a cubist painting of his large family, and yet objected that the sketches were too blocky and not representative enough.
“You cannot see my children in these slashes, or my wife’s beautiful eyes.”
Yes, that’s because it’s a cubist style, you blockhead, Daniel had thought–and barely stopped himself from saying aloud. We need the money–we must have it, he reminded himself again and again. I must be patient.
He sighed deeply, set the drawing aside, and began again. What was needed was a sort of soft, almost impressionist cubism, rather than the stark, very geometric cubism he’d started with. He considered the works of Jean Metzinger and Picasso’s early Cubism: two-dimensional portrayals with simple shaded colors and shapes. He added much more definition to the faces, to please the duke, while rendering bodies in basic, gently curved shapes. The rich, sinuous curves of draped fabrics that were common in much contemporary painting were discarded in favor of straight lines and basic shading. In the background, he allowed more austere, abrupt lines and darker shading. Angular shapes indicated depth and texture and light.
The sketch began to show a complexity in its layered effects that astounded him. He found that, to his surprise, he actually liked it better than his first sketch, and Daniel scolded himself for his impatience. He did, indeed, need to hurry to get back to his wife and daughter, but he also had to do work that was worthy of him–and of the princely sum he had been promised. Furthermore, he needed to do work that would inspire others to commission him for similar projects. He must provide for his family. He must be the man and the father he’d failed to be with his first wife and children.
And with that, he thought of Adolf, and felt a stab of guilt and longing. Would he ever find his son? Would Adolf speak to him, if he did? They hadn’t spoken in years, and how old would he be now? Twenty-five, twenty-six? Daniel was embarrassed that he didn’t know for sure.
He realized, at last, that the sun was nearing the horizon, and he hadn’t yet made time to work with young Benjamin on his art project. He wasn’t half done with this new sketch, but it would have to wait.
He called to Benjamin, who came in from the next room with an open comic book in his hand. There was a character on the front–with a black-and-red suit and black eyes–on top of a green mountain of a creature.
“Ah, reading more Spiderman comics, are you? How’s the web guy doing?”
“Um, it’s not Spiderman,” Benjamin said, uncertainly. “Kind of like Spiderman, but . . . not very nice.”
“Oh? Well, maybe you should put it down for a while, and we can work on your drawing for your mother?”
Benjamin instantly beamed, said, “I’ll get it!” and ran back to the other room.
Daniel set his sketch aside and lowered his easel so the two could work together. He pulled up a chair for himself and sat to one side. Benjamin was soon back, and they set up his half-finished drawing together.
Benjamin had much work to do, Daniel thought, with a twinge of guilt. He must make more time–while somehow also finding time to complete the sketches and, more to the point, get them approved. The duke was not the most difficult person he’d ever done work for–he was usually sober, had never (yet) screamed at him, and seemed unlikely to try to punch him. But he was demanding and contradictory, and, like many of his fellow down-timers, the duke found the up-timers’ art styles less appealing in practice than in theory.
Benjamin pulled on Daniel’s sleeve, nudging him back to the work at hand.
Daniel smiled and put his arm around Benjamin’s shoulders. “Yes! So, what’s next, do you think?” He nodded to the drawing, which was a multi-panel comic showing Sophia and Benjamin’s sister Ursula. In the drawing, Ursula was much older–about Benjamin’s current age–and she was wearing a cape. “Have you decided what her superpowers will be?”
“Yes!” Benjamin said, with a proud smile. “She’s going to be able to fly, so she can help look for Adolf for you, and she’s going to be super strong and super-fast, so she can help mama and me with the chores.”
Daniel looked at Benjamin, amazed. Such a kind boy. “That sounds wonderful, my son. Wonderful.” He hugged him and blinked back the tears in his eyes. And yet, it was more than time for him to realize that Benjamin listened when he and Sophia spoke to each other–and that he understood when there was trouble. He squeezed Benjamin’s thin shoulders. “So, what will you put in that panel?” he said, pointing to the one after baby Ursula revealed her status as a superhero to her mother.
Benjamin pulled out several smaller sketches he’d made, trying to perfect each panel before adding it to the larger drawing. The boy was struggling with both hands and feet, as most young artists did, and he had no concept of depth and perspective. But those things would come, in time. Daniel forced himself to focus on helping Benjamin improve in small ways, while leaving him to do the work at his own pace and his own level. It was quite a charming project, really, and Sophia would be delighted with it. Yet he couldn’t help wishing he could redo it, to make it genuinely perfect–and perhaps have Melchior–his most talented student–color it in.
But that was precisely the sort of thing, he finally realized, that would break Benjamin’s heart. If only he’d had such wisdom while raising Emanuel and Adolf. If only he could start over with them both. But it was far too late for that.
Daniel watched Benjamin work, mostly in silence. He offered advice sparingly and made mental notes about what to work with him once this project was done.
The boy worked with a focus and seriousness that he admired. Daniel himself had been far less committed at the boy’s age. Where would he be now, he wondered, if he’d taken his art so seriously at such a young age?
After almost forty-five minutes, it was too dark to work, and time for him to prepare for dinner.
Benjamin finished putting his drawings away just as one of the governesses, a young lady named Laura Böttcher, came to lead him to his evening meal with the other children. She curtsied to Daniel solemnly and smiled at Benjamin, who immediately launched into a monologue about his art project. She took Benjamin’s hand, and they walked down the hall together, as she told him how wonderful it was that he was such a serious artist, and how proud his mother must be. Daniel could hear the pride in his son’s voice as they vanished from sight.
Daniel, glowing with pride himself, dressed in more formal attire and went to join the Duke, his wife, and a small group of guests and respected employees, such as his architect, his eldest son’s tutor, and of course, his court painter, Daniel himself. Meals were typically rather dull, but the food was outstanding–enough so that he thought guiltily of Sophia and the plain fare that sustained her. Perhaps the duke would allow him to bring her and Ursula when he returned? But no–they must remain to look after the studio and the students, and supervise their work, to the extent she could. They would simply have to bear the separation–but perhaps not for much longer.
Schwerin Palace, Mecklenburg-Schwerin
The duke had approved the re-done Cubist sketch without a single change, to Block’s relief and delight. He’d decided to follow that up with the sketch for the Baroque painting, which he judged would be the easiest, in some ways, though more technically demanding.
He settled the whole family–with the eldest son’s tutor as a stand-in for the duke, and the baby’s nursemaid as a stand-in for the duchess–in a large room, where he’d carefully, with the assistance of a small group of servants, arranged furniture for over an hour that morning. The youngest children were supervised by two of the governesses, to keep them as still as possible. They held toys, instruments, and, in one case, a small dog who was proving troublesome.
His immediate goal was to get a general sense of positioning, both of furniture and limbs. The background could wait, but he wanted clarity on what would be visible and what not, given each person’s size and posture. The youngest of the children squirmed, of course, as he had expected. But all of them seemed bored.
The tutor was quite focused on attempting to charm the nursemaid, and Daniel had to tell him repeatedly to resume the position he’d set him in. In fact, he was nearly as difficult a subject–to the nursemaid’s apparent annoyance as much as his own–as the child holding the squirming dog.
At last, after nearly an hour, the dog nipped the small boy–John George–and ran for his freedom, the boy following. John George hollered at the dog, and the governess hollered at him and followed.
Others began to rise, and Daniel groaned. He had hoped to make more progress, but at least he had a solid beginning. “All right, all right. Let’s all take a break, hmm? And then—” He turned to the remaining governess. “—if you could bring the three youngest back in a few minutes? I will finish with them quickly, I promise.”
She agreed and departed with them to find a snack and have a quick romp in the nursery. Daniel watched them go and sighed deeply. He was grateful to have only two at home, though he worried for the baby, of course. And in spite of the work a larger family entailed, he was torn by the desire for more children and his fear for Sophia if they did. Even with the up-timers’ medical expertise, childbirth was still horribly dangerous.
And then the Duke, unexpectedly entered the room, his booming laugh echoing off the walls. “Block! My good man. How goes the sitting? Your models seem to have vanished.”
Daniel smiled, doing his best to appear at ease. “We’re taking a small break. I’ve got a good start on the Baroque portrait, though it’s only a very rough sketch at this stage.”
“Oh?” the Duke said, and roughly pulled the easel around toward himself, nearly tipping it over.
As Daniel helped him settle the sketch, the duke stepped closer and peered at it, frowning.
“Rough indeed,” the duke said. Then he smiled and clapped Daniel on the shoulder. “Not to tell you your business, but I think you may have forgotten something.”
“Yes?” Daniel said.
“They have no faces,” the duke said and roared with laughter.
As close as he was, it was clear from the duke’s breath that he’d been drinking–a lot.
Daniel tensed, forcing the smile back on his face. “Ah, yes. I’ll be sitting with them in small groups later, and I’ll sketch in basic features then.” There was no point to that except to please the duke. He’d paint them all later in person, but most people needed features in order to be comfortable with a sketch. It was something all artists learned early in their work.
“Well, well, back to it, then!” the duke said, and walked unsteadily back the way he’d come. “Mind, you tell me if they don’t behave, the little devils, and I’ll teach them to obey you!” He roared again with laughter and soon was gone.
Daniel reminded himself not to complain about any of the children, no matter how casually, however much difficulty he might have. He didn’t know much about the man, but Daniel well remembered a time in his distant past when he was himself a different man. He had complained to one wealthy patron of his son’s refusal to sit still and found the boy terrified and clearly in some pain when next he arrived for a sitting. The boy begged to be allowed to stand, and Daniel readily agreed, painting as quickly as he could and carefully ignoring the tears that ran down the boy’s face. He’d not risk that again—not for anything.
It had taken a very long day of work and sittings with the smaller groups, but by early afternoon the next day, the Baroque sketch was complete. He stood waiting with some trepidation for the duke to examine it, knowing that his time was short. If he had to redo this drawing, he might well fail to return home until after Christmas. Ursula had made it clear, as had Sophia in her own quiet, uncomplaining way, that he was needed and missed. And Benjamin hadn’t failed to let Daniel know he missed them, as well–and perhaps especially his young sister.
He studied the sketch, continually reaching to make some small adjustment before stopping himself. The sketch was fine–quite good, in fact. The duke would like it or not, depending on his mood, he supposed.
Finally, he heard heavy, rapid footsteps. As the duke entered the room, he looked harried and distracted. “You have another one ready?”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Daniel smiled broadly and made a grand gesture, trying to exude pride at the work. Presentation could sway others’ attitudes about art, particularly when the viewer was in any way uncertain of his own powers of judgement.
The duke stood and stared at it for a couple of minutes, pursed his lips, and said, “Yes, that’s fine.” Then he turned to Daniel and said, “Where are you on the other two sketches? I imagine they’ll be more difficult?”
“Perhaps,” Daniel said, trying to cover his dismay at so dismissive an acceptance. It was good news, but a bit deflating. “I have some ideas for both. What I’d like to do is offer some very rough sketches to see if you like my approach before doing full sketches?”
“Yes, yes, very good. Well, let me know when you have something.” The duke turned abruptly and strode off, Daniel staring after him.
It had been a success, clearly, but . . . He wondered if there was anything wrong that he should be aware of, but put the thought from his mind. There would be nothing he could do about it if there was.
He put the sketch into his case and tidied up, determined to spend what good daylight remained with Benjamin, guiding him through some lessons on shading and helping him with his Christmas gift. The drawing itself was done, and he’d begun coloring it in the day before. Before they left, he expected, the drawing would be complete–and not a moment too soon.
Daniel would think more about the Surrealist painting later. It had been troubling him for days–even in his sleep. He’d become convinced that the duke would want something both attractive and representative, while also being surreal, and figuring out how to accomplish that would be no small task.
Schwerin Palace, Mecklenburg-Schwerin
Daniel made one last pitch for Fauvism over Neo-Expressionism, showing Duke Frederick samples of Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault’s work from a book that he had brought along. Intransigent as ever, the duke refused, and Daniel didn’t press his luck any further. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Neo-Expressionism–in fact, he liked it quite a bit–but in truth, he had never been tasked to try his hand at it, and he feared the outcome. It was in some respects very similar to Fauvism, but it had a darker, more brooding quality that he didn’t think would work well with the brightness and hope of young children. The matter was closed, however, and at the end of the day, he’d figure it out. What mattered more now was getting the Surrealist piece correct.
Going with a Salvador Dali look was too easy, and frankly, growing dull in Daniel’s mind. These days, he found great potential in Max Ernst’s work. The fact that Ernst was German made it even better. So many up-time styles were the result of French or Spanish or Italian visionaries. Why not give some attention to the German perspective? They were in Germany, after all. But as he and Duke Frederick flipped through his book, looking at a few samples of Ernst’s work, the duke did not seem impressed.
“I like it,” he said, “but all the people are naked.”
Well, not all of them, but Ernst definitely had an affinity for unconventional portrayals of nude bodies.
The duke pointed to a very radical portrayal of a woman’s face. “Breasts for eyes? A woman’s Scheide for a mouth? Titillating, but not appropriate for my family, hmm?”
The piece in question was called What Men See, and Daniel appreciated the sexual political statement being made. He wouldn’t mind trying his hand at something that controversial in time, but not today.
Then he remembered what the French LeNain brothers had done with some of their work for the mural competition, and flipped to a page earlier in the book. He poked a stiff finger at El Greco’s Concert of Angels. “What about something like this? I’ll use more conventional El Greco representations of body poses and facial expressions and blend it with the absurdity of Max Ernst. Something like this . . .”
Daniel put the book down and picked up his sketch pad. He blew dust from the tip of his charcoal pencil and began.
He started by drawing an isometric square in the center of the pad. He then drew lines through the square to form a grid, with every other square penciled black. “The world is a chess board,” he said, putting the finishing touches on it, “and you and your wife are opposing pieces in Das Spiel der Familie, The Game of Family.”
He put Duke Frederick on the side of the black pieces, as the king, drawing him tall and thin, his arms fanned out like peacock feathers, lording over the board like a menacing presence. Images of Benjamin’s comic books came to Daniel’s mind as he filled out the duke’s face with dark smears.
He did the same for Duchess Katharina, she the opposing queen on the white side, her form just as tall and thin and brooding as the duke’s, but with baby Juliane strapped to her hip, blaring a small trumpet.
“And now for the children . . .”
In the center of the board, on various spaces, Daniel placed quick representations of each of the duke’s other children. A knight. A bishop. A rook. Several pawns. Each one’s body shaped in the traditional El Greco style with faces angelic and perfect as the duke might want. And on the side, a few farm animals watching the game, some cheering for a victor, a cow chewing his cud, a horse with glasses reading a newspaper, a dog the size of a pony sleeping soundly.
Daniel flicked away a few trace pieces of charcoal, blew the pad clean, and turned it around for the duke to get a better look. “What do you think?”
Duke Frederick sat there speechless for a long moment. Daniel began to worry, suddenly remembering that the duke had said that he didn’t want any blending of styles. But, hey, he was the one who had rejected Max Ernst’s depictions of people. What other option did Daniel have but to experiment? Another long moment passed, then the duke finally nodded. “Okay, good. I like it. But . . .”
“But what, Your Grace?”
“Can you make me look . . . perhaps, less menacing. And more handsome?”
Daniel nodded, forcibly holding back a smile. “Certainly, Your Grace.”
Schwerin Palace, Mecklenburg-Schwerin
Getting the Neo-Expressionist sketch approved was easier than Daniel had expected. Perhaps Duke Frederick was making a statement with his swift agreement, accepting the first concept submitted (“No mere court painter is going to tell me what styles I should like!”). He wouldn’t put it past the duke to behave in that manner. But in truth, Daniel was pleased.
He had put forward a sketch showing a mix of Georg Baselitz (a key member of the so-called Neue Wilden movement of Germany), and Anselm Kiefer, with his dark, brooding, earth-tone imagery. Baselitz was famous for hanging his portraits upside down, so Daniel did a simple sketch of the duke’s entire family hanging like fruit from a tree branch, all angles sharp and threatening, with just a touch of red and green interlaced between Kiefer’s pitch-black shadows. The duke loved it, and so it was concluded: All four sketches were approved. Time to go home.
But a letter had arrived for him moments ago, and Daniel now sat in his and Benjamin’s small room, letting the hastily written words bang around in his mind:
Come to Grabow. I have news of Adolf’s whereabouts.
Apparently, word of his and Benjamin’s trip to Schwerin Castle has spread quickly. Daniel didn’t know whether to find that professionally encouraging (he was important enough to elicit such tracking) or disturbing. The words in the letter certainly filled him with dread. Dread and hope. Hope because of the idea that he might soon reconnect with his son Adolf after so many years. Dread, because the man who had written the letter was no friend.
“What does it say, Papa?” Benjamin asked, craning his neck to read the letter.
Daniel turned the parchment a little to keep his son from seeing what it contained.
“Is it from Mama?”
“No,” Daniel said. “From an old friend.”
He hated lying to his son, but Benjamin was too young to understand what his father had been like in his youth. The sweet boy didn’t know the kind of drunkard he had been and how quickly he had chosen violence over restraint to carry his message to perceived enemies. But the man who had written this letter knew. And perhaps he wants to settle old scores. Perhaps this is a trap.But, the potential reward outweighed the risks.
Daniel folded the letter and tucked it into his vest pocket. “Gather up your things, my boy. And pack up your drawing for Mama carefully. We’re going to make a brief detour on our way home.”
Despite warnings of a snowstorm on the horizon, coming in strong from the northeast, Daniel and Benjamin packed their cart, bid the duke, the duchess, and their children a more-or-less fond farewell, then headed toward the town of Grabow. It wasn’t very far from the castle, and with any luck, they’d make it there before the snows piled high. Benjamin was happy to be going home; he missed his mother and baby Ursula. But he was still grumpy and whiny the entire trip.
“When are we going to get there?” he asked more than once. “Why did we have to leave today? John George and I were going to play army men. When are we coming back? When . . .”
On and on and on it went.
Before long, the snows began as a light dusting, then changed to a strong, steady fall by the time they reached the town.
Though he was chilled and damp, and his bones ached from the bumping and swaying of the cart, it was quite beautiful in Daniel’s eyes, the world being shrouded in fine white flakes. He thought of Norman Rockwell’s Deadman’s Hill and Claude Monet’s Train in the Snow. Wonderful portrayals of life in winter. Daniel smiled as he took it all in. In spite of his discomfort, he realized that he’d be having quite a pleasant ride, if it weren’t for the incessant complaints of the five-year-old by his side.
As they rode into Grabow, Daniel yelled, “Silence!” loud enough to attract the attention of passers-by.
Benjamin was taken by surprise and cringed as if he were bracing for a blow.
That made Daniel even angrier. As he slowed the cart to a halt outside of a likely-looking tavern, he said, “Wait here–and I don’t want to hear another word out of you!”
Daniel secured lodging. Though they were crowded with travelers seeking shelter in the storm, it wasn’t difficult to secure a room once he told the woman who owned the place who he was and that he’d been commissioned by the duke. Still, he paid twice what a room would normally cost, for what he learned would be the tavern owner’s daughter’s room. Daniel ignored a nasty look from a woman who was seeking a room as well. Under normal circumstances, he might have stepped back and given her deference. But, not tonight. Tonight, he needed to know that he and Benjamin would be safe from the storm. Tonight, if God were kind, he’d learn of his son Adolf’s whereabouts. Nothing could be allowed to interfere with that goal.
They secured their horse and cart in the tavern’s stable. Another expense, but an unavoidable one. They unloaded their things and went to the room, which was small but cozy.
An awkward silence fell between them. Benjamin had indeed shut up, but Daniel could tell that he was about to burst into tears. Benjamin wasn’t used to his father being harsh; he didn’t know how to react. Daniel suddenly felt terrible. He wasn’t mad at Benjamin, really. Sure, the boy had been difficult on the trip, but what he was really angry–no, scared–about was the meeting with that man. He looked down at his hand. It was shaking.
Daniel broke the silence first. “We’ll have a little dinner, and then I have to go see a man about your half-brother, Adolf.”
Benjamin looked up from the bed. He was holding a comic, but too upset to really read it. “Where are you going?”
Daniel pointed to the window. “Just a little ways down the street.”
“I want to come with you.”
“No! You stay here. You work on your drawing for your mama. You don’t have much more to do. I’ll only be a little while.”
A tear ran down Benjamin’s cheek. “I don’t want you to go.”
Daniel sighed deeply, containing his frustration. “This is important, Benjamin. It’s about your brother.” He pulled the man’s letter from his vest pocket, smoothed it out, and handed it to his son. “The address is on this paper. If you need me for something–something important–you go downstairs and tell the tavern keeper. She will get word to me. Understand?”
Benjamin pushed the paper into his pocket.
Daniel could see that Benjamin understood, but he did not want to agree. Finally, the boy nodded. Daniel smiled and said, “Good. Now come on, let’s get something to eat.”
Benjamin closed his comic and got up. Daniel offered him his hand. He took it.
“Why are you shaking, Daddy?”
Daniel did not answer.
It had been almost an hour already, and Benjamin was afraid. Not just because his father had been gone so long–that was bad enough–but someone was shouting in the next room. He couldn’t understand the words, but he understood the anger well enough. And he understood the crash of something slamming into the wall and breaking. He also knew that there was no lock on the door. And perhaps even worse, there was something in the comic book he was reading so dreadful that even the Hulk, he feared, could not survive.
He dropped the comic on the bed and picked up the tube that held his drawing. He wished more than anything that his mother were there with him. She was always so calm–calmer than his father. She made even the loudest, most terrifying storms fade away.
And then he thought about his father once more, and suddenly he was even more afraid. His father had been so secretive and so upset about his trip through the snow. He’d only seen him that upset once–when Benjamin’s brother Emanuel had died. Was it possible his father was in danger now?
There was another, even bigger crash in the room next door, and the wall bowed under the pressure. Benjamin let out a squeak in fear, and then grabbed his coat and ran out the door, still clutching the drawing in its tube. He would find his father, and he would not leave his side.
The storm wasn’t so bad when Benjamin burst through the tavern’s door and onto the street. It was still snowing, but he could see well enough to cross the street and start heading in the direction his father had pointed.
He trudged for some time in that direction–maybe fifteen minutes? He wasn’t sure. It was rough going through the deepening drifts, and the wind and snow had picked up again. He looked around, and back the way he came, but wind-blown ice stung his eyes. He could barely see ten feet in front of himself–and then a few moments later, the snow swirled so thickly he was nearly blind.
He gasped, struggling to keep from crying. He had to be brave and calm. He thought of Ursula and how she always urged him to take a deep breath and think before he acted. She was always so strong.
And then he remembered: his father had given him that slip of paper showing the address where he could be found. Benjamin carefully slung his drawing tube over his shoulder using its long leather strap, as he pulled the paper from his pocket. He opened it and–the wind gusted and tore it from his grasp.
He lunged at it, but the wind whisked it away. He ran, stumbling, in the direction he thought it had gone. He had to find it. He had to.
Benjamin continued for some time to struggle and jump through snow that kept piling higher, determined to keep going–for Ursula, for his mother, for his father. For Superman. For the injured Hulk, whom he so admired. But at last, he creaked to a halt in deep snow, exhausted. He was wet from sweat, which he knew was dangerous–and lost. Hopelessly lost. He waited, chilled, hoping–praying–for the wind to ease and show him where he was. But even when the wind did slow down, he could barely see anything but snow.
Finally, in an all-too-brief lull, Benjamin saw an odd shape ahead, through a small patch of trees. It was square, squat, and leaning, like maybe a broken-down old shed. He started moving toward it, terrified he would lose sight of it. He couldn’t let that happen.
After a few steps, he stumbled into a tree branch–not very hard, luckily, but enough to make him wary of the rest. He moved a little slower after that, holding his hands forward so he could feel his way through branches that tried to claw at his arms and his neck.
After an unbearably long, slow slog, with leaden, nearly-numb arms and legs, and feet he could no longer feel, he got to the odd shape, burrowed down through the snow, found a door, and pushed his way into the small shelter.
He collapsed onto a dirt floor littered with leaves, sticks, and broken bits of equipment: a bucket with a hole in it, some boards, rotten lengths of rope, some harness long past use. And–he gasped as he saw it–a ratty blanket with holes and stains. It would do.
He closed the door he had entered through, allowing only a faint light into the cramped space, and quickly stripped off his shoes and wet socks, wrapping his legs and feet in the blanket. It was wool–it would warm him, though slowly. He hoped.
And in the meantime . . . he knew his father would come looking for him. Sooner or later–and hopefully sooner. His papa would rescue him. He smiled and sank back, exhausted. He relaxed, snug in his frozen cave, his breath puffing clouds of steam into the air. His eyes began to close, and his breathing deepened.
And then he sat up with a gasp. “No, no,” he said. “I must not. I must not sleep.”
He had heard the tales–from his mother and father, from Ursula and her brother Melchior, and even from Gustavus Adolphus himself. Everyone knew of someone who had died in the snow–trapped, lost, and exhausted. Someone who just stopped to rest for a moment. He must not allow himself to sleep.
And now that he thought about it–how on earth would his father find him? He’d barely found the shelter himself. His father would have no way of knowing where he was.
He dug about in the shelter, looking for something he could use to make a signal. A pole, perhaps, or . . . something. But there was almost nothing, and what was there was so old and crumbling. He groaned.
“What can I do? What can I do?” he whispered to himself, shivering. He took a small clump of snow and stuck it in his mouth. He knew it would only make him colder, but his mouth was dry. He winced as he felt stabs of pain in his feet, but realized with relief that it meant they were warming up.
If only, he thought, plucking at the blanket over his legs and feet. It might make a good enough banner to catch someone’s attention–but he needed it. Desperately.
He shifted, and the tube at his back clunked against his elbow. His drawing.
He pulled it around and looked at the case. By itself, he knew, it looked much like a tree branch. By itself, it would be no use. But with the drawing…
He groaned again, louder. Not his drawing. Not the drawing that he had spent so many months on–planning, sketching, coloring. It was a masterpiece–even the Duke had said so. And his mother would love it.
He thought about it for a minute and sighed. Yes, she would have loved it. She would have cried at the sight of it, and she would have treasured it forever.
Benjamin opened the case, pulled out his drawing, and studied it for a moment. He remembered folding paper to make fans with Ursula once, and the paper had been so strong when it had been folded.
He got started, making the same sort of folds. And as he worked, tears gathered in his eyes, and dripped down on his work of art, his work of love, causing the ink to run. But it didn’t matter, not anymore. He knew his mother would cry far more and far longer if his father returned home without him. His father would, too. Being found was all that mattered now.
Daniel had stopped at another tavern–this one far seedier than the one he and Benjamin were lodging at–on the way to his appointment. He needed a little something to steady his nerves. But only one, he promised himself. Only one, on a night like this.
The place looked better and larger on the inside than he’d expected. After a pause to look around, Daniel headed to the bar and asked for a pint. He was surprised to see the proprietor wearing a Grantville High School T-shirt.
“You are from there?” Daniel asked, pointing at the shirt.
“You bet!” the man said. “The name’s Emmett Rawls, but most folks call me Swooser. Don’t ask why.” He laughed at that. “My wife Ida finally talked me into moving out here. She had family in Grabow, way back. On her mother’s side, I think. And you know, I’ve always wanted to run a bar, and we got this one for a song. Kind of tired of just being a handyman around Grantville.”
At that moment, an old man slumped at the end of the bar slid off his stool and crashed to the floor.
“Psshh,” Swooser said. “Barflies! They’re the bane of my existence.”
A younger man came through a door into the main room, and Swooser waved at him to toss the drunk outside.
“Ah, sir,” the young German said, “it’ll be the death of him if I do.”
Swooser groaned. “Of course, of course.” He shook his head. “This weather . . . Toss him into an empty stall in the barn. Leave him a bucket, and throw a horse blanket over him.”
Once the door was closed on the two men, Swooser leaned his elbows on the bar and asked Daniel if he’d ever traveled to Grantville.
The men spent the next hour sharing stories and discovering all the people they knew in common. Daniel’s “only one beer” turned into two, and nearly three, but Swooser saw him hesitate.
“Need to stop?” Swooser asked.
“Ja, ja,” Daniel said, wincing.
Swooser set a glass of water in front of him instead, along with some crackers. “Those’ll dry you right up, and the water will give you your energy back. Just like magic,” he chuckled.
They chatted for a few more minutes, until Daniel knew it was time to go to the meeting he both longed for and dreaded.
He and Swooser shook hands warmly and promised to stay in touch, and Daniel headed out into the now-even-nastier snowstorm.
Daniel found the house easily enough, and his old “friend” welcomed him with apparent pleasure. But that pleasure quickly turned to rage.
Daniel ducked the first blow, but was not prepared for the next. The knuckles of the large man calling himself Linus found his kidney, and Daniel fell to the floor, wincing in pain. The man stood over him, breathing deeply, his foul breath stinking of bad meat and stale beer.
“I should have killed you that night,” Linus said, all disheveled and looking like he was about to strike again. “You broke my nose.”
Daniel huffed. “An improvement overall, I would say, in your looks.”
Before Linus could strike again, Daniel lurched to his knees, driving his fist into the man’s crotch, doubling him over. Daniel scuttled back to let the man drop to the floor.
Daniel tried getting up, but Linus’s fat hand swung out and grabbed Daniel’s boot, taking him down again. Daniel kicked out, got free from the man’s grasp, and found his footing on the other side of the table.
“Enough of this,” he said, trying to catch his breath. “We are both too old for this kind of foolishness anymore. I did not come here to fight.”
Linus rose slowly. The grimace on his face made it clear to Daniel that he was struggling to keep from vomiting. The flintlock in his hand made it clear that he meant business.
Daniel put up his hands. “Don’t be a fool, Linus. You’ve always been a son of a bitch, but you’ve never been stupid.”
“Yes, yes,” Linus said, wavering on weak legs. “I should have killed you that night. You stole my money, my woman. You broke my nose. Why should I not kill you now?”
Daniel thought of his son Benjamin, and his wife and baby girl. He forced the fear out of his voice and said coolly, “Many people know where I am, and with whom. Did you really think I’d come here without protection? You would be hunted down and killed if you harmed me. As you no doubt know, the emperor is a friend of mine. He would see you dead for it.”
Keeping the pistol trained on Daniel’s head, Linus said, “I hope you brought money with you.”
Daniel nodded. “Yes. I have some.”
“Of course. You are Duke Frederick’s whore now, aren’t you?” Linus lowered the pistol, stumbled back into a chair at the table, and plopped down with all his weight. The chair groaned beneath his girth. “A lot of talk about you on the wind, Herr von Block. A king’s whore. A duke’s whore. You’ve spread yourself thin these days, eh? But still making that money.”
Daniel risked taking a seat at the table. He wiped wet hair from his face, stretched the muscles in the right side of his body. “I’m staying busy, if that’s what you want to know. But I didn’t come here to discuss my personal activities. Do you or do you not have information about Adolf?”
Linus chuckled beneath a cough. “I do. In fact, I saw him with mine own eyes.”
“Where is he?”
Linus shook his head. “You will not get any information until you give me what I want.”
“And what is that?” Daniel asked, his heart catching in his throat.
Linus set the pistol aside, far out of Daniel’s reach. He tapped a thick finger to his nose. “I’m gonna smash that precious sniffer of yours. And then, as the blood pours down your face like it did mine, you’re going to apologize.”
They stared at each other for a long moment. Memories of that night years ago rolled through Daniel’s mind. Everything Linus said was true.
That night, he and Linus and a few others were playing cards in a tavern much like the one up the street where Benjamin was waiting. Cards were played. Beers were consumed. Women were poked and prodded, tickled and kissed. Words were exchanged. Threats. The next thing Daniel knew, his honor was being impugned, his profession insulted. “No useless court painter will cheat me at cards and steal my woman!” Fists were introduced, chairs were destroyed, and it all fell apart. Next thing Daniel knew, he was waking up with a sore, puffy face, blood on his knuckles, and a barmaid named Bernadina in his bed. Daniel couldn’t help but smile at the memory. At least the night had ended well.
“There are a lot of things from my youth, Linus,” he said, “that I’m not proud of. That is one of those nights. I was a foolish, impertinent boy. I admit that humbly. But I am not that boy anymore, I can promise you. And neither are you, if I may say, judging from your appearance. You are as old as I am, and you are fat, and you are drunk. You have a pistol, yes, but I have speed. If it’s money you want, I can’t afford much, but I will give you what I can spare. If an apology will sate your anger, you may have that as well. But neither you nor I are walking out of here with broken bones tonight, my old friend. And I will not–”
A hard, rapid knock came at the door. A woman’s voice cried out. “Herr von Block! Herr von Block!”
Daniel went to the door quickly, shoving past Linus. He ripped it open and got a gust of cold, wet snow.
It was the lady tavern keeper. “Herr von Block. Your son, is he here?”
“What? No. I thought–he’s not at the tavern?”
She shook her head and groaned. “You must come quickly.” She shivered. “Someone saw Benjamin run out over an hour ago. When we realized it, we looked for him, but we could not find him in this ghastly blizzard.”
Daniel shook his head, his heart once again catching in his throat. He turned back to Linus. He took a few coins from the bag of money the duke had given him and tossed them onto the table. “Here, this should cover any debt I still owe you. And I apologize–for everything. But I must go. . . I must–”
He didn’t say another word, nor did he wait for Linus to tell him what he had come there to find out. None of it mattered now.
He followed the woman out into the blizzard.
“Benjamin!” Daniel bellowed over the roar of the snowy wind. “Benjamin!”
The tavern keeper and some of her other patrons had come out to help in the search. But so far, nothing. It was hard to know where to start, where to look. The wind gusts were so strong, the snow piling so deep, who could say where a child Benjamin’s age would have gone? Daniel figured not very far, though it seemed the opposite. He had shouted and shouted his son’s name until his throat was sore. Where are you, boy? Where?
He stumbled to his knees, and the lantern he was carrying almost fell into the snowbank. He saved it at the last moment, grateful for good reflexes, but he felt spent. His face was numb from the cold, his fingers bone-white and stiff. He closed his eyes and tried to let tears come, but he was shivering too strongly, the frigid air drying his eyes, making his chest hurt.
I’m in no shape to be out here, he thought, selfishly thinking of himself at this moment. But that had always been the problem with him, hadn’t it? From the moment he could hold a brush, from the moment he realized that he had the talent to take paint and shape it into majestic landscapes, into inspiring Biblical scenes, into bright, beautiful faces for kings and queens to adore, it had always been about him. Him!
Even after he had gotten older, married Sophia, had a new son, had travelled to Grantville and decided to turn his life around, still it was always about him. And now, nearly a year later, he was crouched in a snowbank, one son dead from gunshot wounds, one son perhaps hopelessly out of touch, and his other son missing in a blizzard. How had it come to this? Perhaps it would be best to just lay here and let the snow cover him and be lost in the quiet desolation of winter.
He knelt there for a few minutes more, before realizing that the wind was dying down. The buildings–that had been all but invisible moments before–stood out clearly in the dim light reflecting off the snow. With renewed hope, he shook his head, stood up, blinked the snow from his eyes, raised his lantern, and looked at the landscape around him.
Peppered with shops and homes, trees and fences, small hillocks, and all of it covered in a fresh, quiet blanket of white. A warm sensation touched his heart, as he imagined it all a blank canvas. Oh and what he could do with a blank canvas, what wonders he could work if given time and imagination.
In the distance, he could hear the patrons of the bar calling for his son, and their chorus of voices sounded like wind chimes, echoing through the woods.
There was another sound on the wind. Faint, distant, an intermittent flapping, like a tarpaulin striking a hard surface. He adjusted his coat and brushed the snow from his face and hair. The wind shifted again, and this time, he heard the flapping more prominently, coming from the woods, from the direction of the wind.
He began walking in that direction, down a bank of snow, into a speck of narrow woods that lay wedged between rows of houses. On the canvas in his mind, he drew in trees and rocks, and all the things that one might find in a sliver of wood like the one he was entering. It made sense to have a fence here, a gate here, a small barn just there. It was a mundane, simple sketch, a calm pastoral image unmarked by the harshness of winter. Without the snow, he could see the landscape, could see the path that a young boy like Benjamin might follow. He stopped halfway through the grove, leaned against a tree, and listened.
The flapping sounded again. Daniel tried looking through the darkness, covering his eyes from the wind blowing them dry once more. It was not a skill that he had mastered–listening–but it was one that he needed to draw on now. He waited, letting the wind shift from his face to his back, face to back, until he pinpointed the direction of the sound.
Perhaps this flapping sound would be nothing, but in his mind, he imaged it to be banners of a great army, all accoutered in their finest wargear, facing insurmountable odds across a field of fire. He imagined those banners waving in wind as strong as that in his face, and he penciled in scores of them on great polearms. And then his mind shifted to something more practical, something easier to imagine in terms of his son. That is why I am out here, isn’t it? To save my son, to think of him, and only him.
And so he did, and those war banners turned to capes of red and green and white, just like those superheroes he had seen on dozens of comic books they had gotten in Grantville. They were long and silken, and flapped behind Superman and Batman and Thor, and scores of others. The flapping became stronger, and Daniel picked up his pace, now stumbling through the snow at a trot, gripping his lantern tightly, and letting the stark branches of the trees he passed scratch his face and arms.
Then he saw it, faint and dull through the distance. A banner–no, a canvas. No . . . a piece of paper with bright colors, thick and pleated to make it stand up to the wind, waving valiantly from the top of a dark shape through the trees. He moved toward the shape, toward the paper. He squinted again, and finally saw the full extent of the object.
It was Benjamin’s drawing. There was no doubt. The red of Sophia’s dress, the gold of baby Ursula’s cape, waving there in the wind, all tattered and torn.
Daniel’s heart leapt into his throat. “Benjamin!” he screamed, stumbled forward, picked himself up, then reached the tiny shed where the drawing waved. He tore it down, and Benjamin’s carrying tube fell with it, along with a rock that had held it tight against the rickety roof. “Benjamin!”
He ripped open the rotting door, and there he lay: his son, pale and shaking beneath a ratty blanket.
“Papa!” Benjamin said, his body shaking violently.
Daniel set the lantern aside, fell to his knees, and scooped him up, hugging him closely. “Thank God, you are safe. Are you hurt? Injured?”
Benjamin shook his head. “No, P-papa. I am okay. But I’m c-c-old.”
Daniel nodded, but his inclination was to scream, to shout at his son, Why did you go out into the snow? I told you to stay inside! But his relief at finding Benjamin alive overwhelmed him. “You are safe now. We will get you out of here and somewhere warm.”
Daniel pulled him from the shelter.
Benjamin saw his drawing, long rips along its length, snow smearing the paint. “It’s ruined. My drawing is ruined. I have nothing for Mama now.”
Daniel hugged him even closer. “Don’t you worry about that, young man. Your mama will love it more than anything else in the world. And you will make a new and even better one, and I will help you do so. Okay?”
Through his shivering and sobbing, Benjamin nodded, and held his father tightly.
Daniel carried Benjamin through the wood, up to the road, and back to the tavern where they were staying, calling out to the other searchers as he went. They all joined him in front of the tavern’s hearth, with their hearty congratulations, where Daniel set Benjamin to get warm and dry, and bought him a drink: this time, fresh cider.
Daniel was ecstatic–and both pleased and wary when Linus joined him by the fire.
“You found him,” Linus said, with no emotion.
Daniel nodded, wrapping a clean, warm blanket around Benjamin. “I did.”
Linus grunted. “Very well. Here,” he said, holding out his hand.
Daniel put his hand out, and Linus dropped coins and a small piece of paper in it. “Here, take back your damned money. I guess you’ve suffered enough tonight.” He shoved past Daniel, then turned and said finally, “And I suppose I’ve been a fool for bearing a grudge so long. I’ll let you off this time, Herr Block, but I swear to you and God above, if I ever see you again, all bets are off.”
Daniel watched Linus leave the tavern. He pocketed the coins and opened the paper. On it was the name of his other son and the street address of a town in a country hundreds of miles away.
“What is it, Papa?”
Daniel folded the paper and smiled. “It’s our next project after we finish in the spring with the Duke. We have another trip to take, my boy.”
“Southeast,” Daniel said, imagining the moment when he could introduce his two sons to each other and make his family whole again, with a deeper sense of joy than any work of art had ever brought him. “To Hungary.”