Chapter 1. The Map
“This is absurd,” said Morris Roth, as forcefully as he could. He had a bad feeling that wasn't very forceful at all, given that he was wearing an absurd costume—he thought it was absurd, anyway, although it was just standard seventeenth century courtier's clothing. The entire situation was absurd.
A bit desperately, he repeated the statement. “This is absurd.” After a couple of seconds, he remembered to add: “Your Majesty.”
Fortunately, Wallenstein seemed to be in one of his whimsical moods, where the same possible slight that might have angered him at another time merely seemed to be a source of amusement. General Pappenheim—damn his black soul to whatever hideous afterlife there might be even if Morris didn't believe in hell in the first place—was grinning outright.
“Ah, Morris. So modest!” Pappenheim's scarred face was distorted still further as the grin widened. “How can you claim such a complete absence of heroic qualities? You! The Don at the Bridge!”
Morris glared at him. “It was just a job that needed doing, that's all. So I did it. But what sort of lunat—ah . . . ”
Calling the King of Bohemia a “lunatic” to his face was probably not wise. Morris was nimble-witted enough even under the circumstances to veer in midstream. So to speak.
“—what sort of misguided and misadvised person would confuse me with a blasted general? Your Majesty, General Pappenheim, I am a jeweler.”
“What sort of person?” asked Wallenstein, chuckling softly. “A lunatic, perhaps. The same sort of lunatic who recently proclaimed himself King of Bohemia despite—yes, I will say it myself—a claim to the throne that is so threadbare it would shame a pauper. But who cares? Since I am also the same lunatic who won the second Battle of the White Mountain.”
They were in the small salon in the palace that Wallenstein favored for intimate meetings. He planted his hands on the armrest of his rather modest chair and levered himself erect.
“Levered” was the correct term, too. Wallenstein's health, always delicate, had been getting worse of late. Morris knew from private remarks by Wallenstein's up-time nurse Edith Wild that she was increasingly worried about it. Some of the new king of Bohemia's frailty was due to the rigors of his military life. But some of it wasn't. Wallenstein, unfortunately, was superstitious and still placed great faith in the advice of his new astrologers—including their advice on his diet. Morris had once heard Edith mutter that she was this close—a thumb and fingertip indicated perhaps an eighth of an inch—to getting her revolver and gunning down the astrologers.
It was not an inconceivable thought, actually. Edith was quite ferocious, in her own way, as she'd proved when she'd shot dead the assassination team sent to murder Wallenstein last year. The reason Wallenstein had “new” astrologers was because they'd replaced some of the old ones who'd been implicated in the plot.
“A jeweler,” Morris repeated. Even to his ears, the words sounded like a whine.
Pappenheim waved his hand airily. “And what of it? Every great general began his life as something else. Even a baker, perhaps.”
Morris glared at him again. “'Began his life.' I am in my fifties, for the love of God.”
“Don Morris, enough,” said Wallenstein firmly. “Your reluctance to assume the post of general in my army simply reinforces my conviction that I have made the right decision.”
“Why, Your Majesty?” demanded Morris, just as firmly. One of Wallenstein's saving graces was that the man didn't object to subordinates challenging him, up to a point, provided they were polite about it. “My military experience is limited to that of an enlisted soldier in the American army of another universe. What we called a ”˜grunt'—with exactly the connotations you'd expect from the term. To make things worse, I wasn't even in a combat unit. I was essentially a quartermaster's clerk, that's all, keeping military supply records.”
Smiling, Wallenstein looked at Pappenheim. For his part, Bohemia's top general still had the same wolf-like grin on his face.
“Limited to that? Oh, surely not, Don Morris,” said Pappenheim cheerily. “You forget the Battle of the Bridge. Which you led—not even you will deny that much—and which has since entered the legends of the Jews all across eastern Europe.”