Saint George Does It Again!

 

June 1635, Grantville

Svetlana Andreyevna was caught up in a most delightful dream. Yesterday she’d married the man she loved and they’d spent the night making love. She snuggled up to her lover.

Suddenly she was totally awake. Yes there was a naked body in bed with her, but it wasn’t, couldn’t be, Jabe McDougal. Terrified of what she’d see she slipped gently away from the warm naked male body she’d been all but wrapped around. From six feet away, with one hand on her dressing table and the other grasping her hair brush as a weapon, she was able to identify the man—John Felix Trelli.

The same John Trelli who’d been her escort to Jabe’s wedding. The same John Trelli she’d been trailing along behind for months while he helped sell war bonds. The same John Trelli who’d never even tried to flirt with her. She dressed quickly and retreated to the door, her eyes never moving from the pulse she could see beating at his throat at less than a third of her own heart beat. He had to still be sleeping. Nobody could fake that low heart rate. In the near silence of the room she could hear the gentle rumble of a cat purring. But that was impossible. There was no cat in the room, just the slumbering form of John Trelli, known to some as Puss.

Svetlana carefully closed the door and walked off. Hopefully John would take the hint and remove himself before she returned. She shook herself. How could she have been so foolish as to make love to John, a virtual stranger? She’d been distraught, but surely not that distraught? Unfortunate memories of the previous evening flashed past her eyes. Someone she didn’t know had thrown herself at John, and he had taken advantage of her distraught state. Svetlana nodded. Yes, it was all John Trelli’s fault.

July 1635, Grantville

Sveta swung her head to see how the new hairstyle moved. Not sure what she thought about what she was seeing in the mirror, she turned to the three girls who’d dragged her to the beauty salon. “What do you think?”

“Katy’s done a great job,” Janie Abodeely said, referring to the beautician who’d been working on Sveta’s face and hair for most of the morning. “You look absolutely scrumptious.” Julia O’Reilly and Diana Cheng nodded their agreement.

Sveta badly wanted to believe her friends, but the way she’d been brought up, without a woman’s influence, meant she’d never learned how to be a woman. In the mirror, she compared her appearance against her friends. She decided that she looked quite passable. She wasn’t as beautiful as Julia, who was an acknowledged beauty, but she was at least as good-looking as Janie and Diana. She sighed. She’d love to be exotic looking like Diana, or at least have hair that same beautiful raven-black color, instead of the sort-of-pale-honey color she was cursed with.

She leaned closer to the mirror, to better inspect Katy’s handiwork. The eyebrow plucking had been painful, but nowhere near as painful as having her body waxed had been. However, she couldn’t complain about the results. She reached out for Katy and hugged the tiny—at least compared to her—beautician. “Thank you, Katy.”

“It was fun,” Katy said.

“Like exploring uncharted territory,” Diana suggested.

Katy giggled. “Now remember, Sveta, you need to take proper care of your skin and hair.”

Sveta sighed. This new look was going to be expensive to maintain. Maybe she could . . .

“Don’t even think about it,” Julia said. “Just pay the nice lady so we can find you some clothes to match your new look.”

The “nice lady” was Frau Trelli, the owner of Carole’s Beauty Salon. It had been Frau Trelli, John Trelli’s aunt, who’d first introduced Sveta to his cousins Julia and Janie. Sveta couldn’t understand why Frau Trelli was being so nice to her. If there was anybody who knew that the supposed relationship between her and her nephew was nothing more than a face-saving exercise, it was Frau Trelli. She had barely had anything to do with John since Jabe McDougal’s wedding to Prudentia Gentileschi. For moment—a very brief moment—Sveta felt guilty about that. John had been the perfect camouflage for her distress when the man she loved married That Female. But it was only a brief moment. Then the memory of how he’d taken advantage of her when, distraught that Jabe was forever denied her, she threw herself at him surfaced, and she was able to firmly suppress the guilt.

“I bet she’s thinking about Puss,” Julia said.

Sveta looked at her friend. Why was Julia thinking that she’d waste a moment thinking about John Trelli? She knew there was nothing going on between them.

“Okay, okay, George then,” Julia said, holding her hands up defensively.

The reminder that she’d jokingly said her pet name for John would be “George” lifted her spirits. She wondered how he was enjoying that nickname.

Magdeburg

“You got yourself your own pet, George?”

Puss looked away from his horse, who was thoroughly enjoying his dust bath, to the source of the comment. The speaker was another sergeant in his platoon, and the smirk on his face told Puss that the story had made its way to Magdeburg. Not that he was surprised. It had been too good to expect his family to keep it to themselves.

His Aunt Carole had delegated him to act as the absolutely gorgeous, as opposed to merely sensationally beautiful, Corporal Svetlana Andreyevna’s escort to a wedding, and she’d objected to using his nickname. Instead, she’d insisted that her pet name for him would be George. That wouldn’t have been a problem. He’d been called worse things. However, her comment—some might even call it a joke, but in his experience, Corporal Andreyevna didn’t do jokes—neatly paraphrased the Abominable Snowman character from the Bugs Bunny video she’d just been watching with Aunt Carole’s daughters. Anybody familiar with the video, and his cousins had made sure plenty of people were made familiar with it, could easily make the connection between Corporal Andreyevna’s throwaway comment and the Abominable Snowman’s speech. That had been the source of a lot of male envy. Most guys would be happy to have Corporal Andreyevna pet and hug them.

What most of them probably wouldn’t know was the source material for that cartoon was John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and any pet falling into the character Lenie’s hands tended to be petted and hugged to death. He hadn’t bothered to bring that up, because he knew the response would have been “but what a way to go.”

For a brief moment the memory of the wedding night surfaced. That had been great. Waking up alone in Svetlana’s bed the next morning hadn’t been. Not that he’d been surprised that she’d left. She’d probably been too embarrassed to talk to him. She’d certainly done her best to avoid being alone with him for the rest of his leave. Ah, well, he’d never really believed such a gorgeous girl could really be interested in him.

August 1635, Grantville

Sveta lay on her bed in her tiny room in the woman’s quarters and waited for the nausea to fade. When it did, she carefully slid off her bed. She was supposed to be meeting her friends after work, but the way she felt, she’d rather not. Unfortunately, if she didn’t turn up they’d come looking for her. Even a locked door wouldn’t stop them—Diana had demonstrated how insecure her room was just last week by picking the lock in less than a minute.

When she joined her friends, Julia swept Sveta into her arms and hugged here. “You look like death warmed up,” Julia said.

“Julia,” Janie protested.

Sveta savored the comfort of the hug, something else that had been lacking in her life until . . . okay, she admitted it to herself, until she met John Trelli and his family. She gently pushed Julia away so she could greet Janie and Diana. “I almost didn’t come, I felt so sick after work.”

“You really don’t look too good,” Janie said.

Julia pouted. “That’s what I said.”

“Have you vomited at all?” Diana asked.

Diana was on the medical program, training to eventually become a doctor, so Sveta forgave her the technical language. “No, I haven’t puked. I just don’t feel well. It’s probably something I ate.”

“I guess that means no night on the town, so how about coffee and a roll at Cora’s?” Julia asked.

Sveta was all for that. “I’m sorry I’m such a party poofter.”

“Pooper,” Janie corrected. “It’s party pooper, and you aren’t. You can’t help it if you don’t feel well.”

Sveta let Julia drag her back for another hug before they joined Janie and Diana on the short walk to Cora’s.

She managed one step into Cora’s before the smell hit her. Diana guided her into an alleyway where she puked up her guts.

“Is she all right?” a breathless Julia asked.

“It depends on what you mean by all right,” Janie said. “What was it, Sveta, the smell of the coffee?”

“Coffee with milk,” Sveta said. Even the memory of the smell had her trying to puke again.

“What’s the matter with Sveta,” Julia demanded.

“This is purely a guess mind you,” Diana said, “but, I suspect Sveta is suffering NVP.”

“What the heck’s NVP?” Julia asked.

“Nausea and vomiting with pregnancy,” Diana explained. “It’s not something you’re likely to meet in your veterinarian training.”

“Morning sickness? You’re saying Sveta’s pregnant?” Julia asked.

“In the balance of probabilities, it is a definite possibility.” Diana put an arm around Sveta and hugged her. “Could you be pregnant?”

Sveta swallowed. Yes, it was possible. She nodded.

“Do you know who the father is?” Julia asked.

Sveta’s head shot up. “How dare you . . . ”

“I’ll take that as a yes, then. Next question, is it Jabe?”

Sveta glared at Julia. She, like the other two girls, knew Jabe was the man she loved. But Julia’s face only showed sympathy. She ducked her head. “No.”

“If Jabe’s not the father, then who is?” Julia asked.

Sveta kept her head bowed. She didn’t want to admit anything about that night.

“Come on, it has to be someone,” Janie muttered. “Oh, hell . . . ”

Sveta met Janie’s eyes. Why was she looking at her like that?

“Puss?” Janie choked out.

“Puss? You think Sveta did it with Puss?” Julia demanded.

“You did it with Puss? Why?” Janie asked Sveta. “You told us you barely know him.”

“After the wedding. I was upset, and John escorted me home.”

“And you made love with Puss?” Julia demanded. “Even though you were in love with another man? How could you do that to him?”

Sveta didn’t like the accusing looks being sent her way. “He was the one who took advantage of me. I didn’t know what I was doing.” She all but shouted the last sentence.

“Are you feeling better now?” Diana asked.

The voice of reason penetrated, and Sveta relaxed. She did feel better. “Yes.”

“Then I suggest we move this little discussion to somewhere other than right outside Cora’s.”

That was an exaggeration, they were actually in the alleyway beside the café that was the gossip capital of Grantville, but Diana’s point was well made. Sveta knew there was going to be enough talk about how she bolted after putting one foot across the threshold. “Where?”

“Lacking the other interested party, I think we should drop in on Auntie Sue,” Janie said.

“John’s mother?” Sveta shuddered. Frau Trelli knew her story. She knew that being escorted to Jabe’s wedding by John had been a face-saving exercise. What was she going to think of her?

Janie nodded. “His mom and dad are going to have to be told at some stage, unless you intend getting a termination . . . ”

It took a few seconds for Sveta to mentally translate the meaning of the English word. She looked at Janie aghast. “I’m not a baby killer.”

“Then we go to Auntie Sue’s.”

Sveta slumped, defeated. “Very well.”

“Hey, it’s not as if you’re going to your funeral. It’s just bad luck that you got pregnant. You must be a real Fertile Myrtle to conceive first time,” Julia said.

“Julia!” both Diana and Janie cried.

“Well, it is unlucky,” Julia protested.

Sveta made eye contact with Janie for a moment, then dropped her head. It was if the other girl was reading her innermost secrets.

“On the other hand, if they did it more than once, without contraception, they were playing with fire,” Janie said.

Sveta ran her tongue over suddenly dry lips. She couldn’t bring herself to say the words, so she gave a single nod.

“Was he any good?” Julia asked.

The eager curiosity in Julia’s voice shocked Sveta. How could she ask such a question at a time like this?

“Julia O’Reilly, how could you ask such a question?” Janie demanded.

“You want to know if he learned anything from Donetta, just as much as I do.”

“Still, you shouldn’t ask Sveta a question like that!”

“All right then, how would you ask her?”

Sveta stared at the squabbling girls. Who was Donetta, and what was her relationship to John?

On the Saxon Plain, somewhere near Zwenkau

Puss was feeling particularly unloved. His patrol had been assigned to directing incoming troops to their forming up areas for the battle everyone knew would happen tomorrow. It had been a long and dusty day as thousands of men and horses kicked up the dust as they walked past his checkpoint.

He stepped away to let a wagon proceed and fumbled for his water bottle. He shook it gently as he pulled it from his belt webbing—about a third full.

The first mouthful was used to rinse away the dust. Then he drained the bottle. He wiped the moisture from his lips with the sleeve of his combat jacket while he fumbled the canteen back into its pouch. “What a lousy day.”

“Just think of what tomorrow’ll be like, Sarge,” Corporal Lenhard Poppler said.

Puss scanned the landscape. If it wasn’t for the crushed grain, trampled down by thousands of men and horses, it would be a beautiful scene. By this time tomorrow it would be completely different.

Grantville

 

“Surely I should wait until I’m sure?” Sveta protested as Julia hammered on the door of John’s parents’ home.

“You’ve showing the same symptoms Alice and Judy did when they were at about the same stages of their pregnancies,” Janie said, naming her sister and sister-in-law.

“Besides, Diana says you’re pregnant,” Julia said.

Sveta was about to question the logic behind that statement when the door opened.

“Hello, girls. What brings you round this way?” Suzanne Trelli asked.

A strong hand grabbed Sveta’s wrist and dragged her up the steps. “Sveta’s got something to tell you, Auntie Sue,” Julia said.

“Then you’d better all come in. I’ll just put the kettle on.”

“No coffee,” Julia called out to Suzanne’s back.

“No coffee it is,” Suzanne called over her shoulder before hurrying off.

“Why did you have to say that?” Sveta demanded of Julia.

“Do you want a repeat of what happened at Cora’s?” Julia asked. “You know, throwing up at the smell of coffee.”

She shuddered at that memory. “No, but what is Frau Trelli going to think?” Sveta asked, wringing her hands.

“Under the circumstances, Sveta, I think Auntie Sue might just think that you’re pregnant,” Janie said.

“You really should thank Julia for preparing the ground for you,” Diana added.

She was hustled into the house and along to the kitchen where she was seated between Julia and Janie.

Suzanne placed a plate of dry crackers in front of Sveta. “Try some of these, you might find that they help.”

Sveta stared blankly at Frau Trelli. How were dry crackers supposed to help her? She glanced around at her friends. As she made eye contact with them, each in turn smiled and nodded. Unfortunately, Sveta had no idea what message they were trying to communicate to her.

“I’ll make it easy for you. You, or at least our budding doctors, think you’re pregnant.”

Sveta swallowed. Guilt had her starting to blush. She dropped her head in shame.

Suzanne lifted Sveta’s head so their eyes met. “And the reason you want to tell me you’re pregnant is because John is the father, yes?”

She didn’t actually want to tell Frau Trelli that, it was more a matter of having to.

“Oh, you poor thing.” Suzanne reached down and pulled Sveta into her arms. “And John so far away when you need him.”

It was too much. Sveta burst into tears in Frau Trelli’s arms. Later, when she emerged from her crying jag, she discovered she’d been abandoned by her friends.

“I sent them home. It’s not as if you need their moral support anymore.”

Sveta dipped her head back into Frau Trelli’s shoulder. This time she felt the damp and backed away. “Oh, I’ve made you all wet.”

“I won’t rust,” Suzanne said, pulling Sveta back into her arms. “Let’s make ourselves a nice cup of catnip tea and find somewhere comfortable to sit and chat.”

That sounded good to Sveta. Achat sounded a lot friendlier than a talk. She helped Frau Trelli load a tray with a teapot, some cups, saucers and spoons, and the plate of dry crackers, and then followed her into the living room.

Somewhere near Zwenkau

Puss snuggled inside his sleeping bag, inside his bivy-bag, under the star filled sky. Beside him, Corporal Michael Cleesattel was snoring quietly under a couple of military issue blankets.

Puss was having trouble getting to sleep. Everybody believed there was going to be a great battle tomorrow, and you could write a book about all the battles he’d managed to miss for one reason or another.

He hadn’t graduated until 1632, so he missed everything before that. When he tried to enlist to fight he’d been given some rubbish about the needs of the service, and sent to train as a military policeman. Okay, so at nearly six foot, he was significantly taller than most down-timers, and he had earned a junior black belt from the martial arts school in Fairmont where Sensei Karickhoff—the then head instructor of the army’s unarmed combat school—had taught, and he could ride a horse, and he was a pretty good shot with a hand gun and rifle, but they weren’t good reasons for assigning him to the military police.

To make matters worse, he’d graduated from training and immediately been posted to Erfurt, just in time to miss the Croat raid on Grantville. All around him people were getting combat experience and being promoted because of it. Heck, he’d even managed to miss the big battle at Ahrensbök because he’d been posted to the backwater that was the Wietze oil facility, and then he’d been away escorting an oil shipment to Magdeburg when the French raided the place.

With his luck, he was likely to miss tomorrow’s battle as well, although he didn’t know how Murphy was going to arrange that, not with them being so close to the front line.

Grantville

Sveta snuggled under the covers of her bed in the woman’s quarters and let her hands drift down to her belly. Was it really possible that a new life was growing there? That she was really pregnant? If she was, there would finally be someone of her own to love and be loved by. She’d never again be alone and unloved.

The crack of dawn the next day, somewhere near Zwenkau

Puss walked out of the briefing tent ready to swear and curse. He held on to his disappointment until he joined his patrol. “We’re assigned to road watch around the field hospital.”

Corporal Lenhard Poppler looked westward, towards the area where the field hospital was still being set up. “That’s what, two miles behind the lines.”

“About that,” Puss confirmed.

“Great move, Sarge. How’d you manage to score us that assignment?”

“Just lucky, I guess.”

“I like your luck, Sarge,” Michael said. “Long may it last.”

With the rest of his patrol nodding their heads in agreement, Puss choose not to voice his opinion of his luck. Murphy had struck again.

Grantville

Sveta was dragged out of a deep sleep by someone knocking on her door. It was way too early to be her wake up call. Then she realized it wasn’t the manager’s voice asking if she was awake, it was John’s mother. “Coming,” she called as she slid out of bed and grabbed a bathrobe. She was still fumbling with the waist tie when she opened the door.

“Oh, good, you’re awake,” Suzanne said as she pushed past Sveta into her room.

Suzanne’s husband leaned against the door frame and smiled sympathetically at Sveta.

“You can’t stay here,” Suzanne announced. “Felix, why are you standing at the door? Put the cases on the bed.”

“Suzanne’s decided that you should move into John’s old room,” he explained to a confused Sveta.

Suzanne looked around Sveta’s room before turning to her husband. “If you’ll wait outside, I’ll pack Sveta’s things while she dresses.”

The door closed behind Felix and before she knew it, Frau Trelli had splashed some water into the washing bowl and was pushing Sveta towards it.

“Now you just follow your usual routine, and we’ll have everything packed in no time.”

“But you don’t want me to move into John’s old room,” Sveta protested.

Suzanne rested her hands on her hips. “You really think I’d make the effort to drag Felix here at this hour of the morning if I didn’t want you to live with us?”

Herr Trelli had seemed very relaxed about being dragged about at this time of the morning. From her limited knowledge of family life, the mothers of illegitimate progeny of the household’s male members weren’t exactly welcome in the family home. Frau Trelli however, took her silence as agreement.

“Right, so what’s your problem?”

Sveta tried to blink away the tears that were starting to form in her eyes. “John and I aren’t together.”

“You’re having John’s baby. You can’t get any more together than that.” Suzanne reached out and dragged Sveta into an embrace. “There, there, it’s not so bad. John’ll do the right thing by you.”

The “right thing” was marriage. Sveta knew that. But she didn’t want to marry a man she didn’t love. She wanted to marry Jabe. But that wasn’t going to happen. She wanted to try and explain how she felt, but Frau Trelli’s kind eyes stopped her.

Suzanne pulled Sveta close, and she buried her face in Suzanne’s shoulder. A hand held the back of her head while another gently patted her gently on the back. “Come on, we have to finish your packing before Felix gets tired of waiting, and you still need to get dressed.”

Later that day, somewhere near Zwenkau

Puss took off his wide-brimmed hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve before replacing it. Then he took off his dark glasses and admired the dust that had collected on them since he last cleaned them. He’d long since stopped cursing his luck, and moved on to thanking whatever entity was responsible for keeping him away from the battlefield. The sight of wagon after wagon of wounded men rumbling past had cured him of ever wanting to be caught up in a battle.

A medevac wagon was approaching from the hospital. Puss put his glasses back on and stepped out onto the road to stop the traffic so it could join the flow of vehicles heading for the front. As it rumbled away, Corporal Thomas Klein handed him a mug.

“Fresh brew, Sarge, you drink that while I take a turn.”

Puss was happy to step off the road and savor his mug of coffee without too much dust getting mixed with it. His eyes followed the long column of vehicles threading into the distance. It was a pity he wasn’t an artist, because that long column of vehicles approaching the field hospital under a red sky would make a brilliant memorial to the battle.

Grantville

Sveta sat cross-legged on the bed in the bedroom of her child’s father, hugging the large, well-loved teddy bear that had been sitting on the bed. Frau Trelli had taken her to see Dr. Shipley for a pregnancy test. The test would take a few days to give a result, but the doctor had indicated that everything pointed to her being pregnant, and that, if Sveta was sure about the date of conception, could expect to deliver in March of next year.

She snorted. As if she was going to forget the day the man she loved married another. Still, she had a letter she had to write. She slid off the bed and carried the teddy bear to the desk where John must have sat to do his homework in times past. Together they wrote a letter to John.

A few days later, outside Leipzig

Puss was lying comfortably on the ground, his back supported by his saddle, and the brim of his hat pulled over his eyes. His personal kit was laid out beside him, ready to be loaded at a moment’s notice onto Thunder, who was lazily picking at the pile of hay cut from one of the trampled fields.

“Mail for Behrns, Cleesattel, Klein, and Trelli.”

Puss tipped back his hat and searched for the source of the call. Seeing the company clerk, he did up his webbing and picked up his rifle before walking over to the mail cart.

There was the usual CARE package from his family, and a single letter. He accepted them and returned to his kit, where the vultures were already circling.

Puss attempted to ignore them. Instead of opening the CARE package, which was what Corporals Klein, Poppler, Cleesattel, and Behrns were interested in, he studied the letter. Normally the family included their letters in the packages, so who was writing to him? A quick glance on the back only added to his confusion. The return address was his parent’s house in Grantville. Well, there was one sure way to learn who the letter was from. He used the blade of his clasp-knife to break the seal.

He didn’t read far before he froze in abject terror. He blinked a few times before re-reading the first sentence.

“Something wrong, Sarge?” Michael asked.

Puss folded the letter so Thomas couldn’t read it over his shoulder. “Sveta,”—it felt funny using Corporal Andreyevna’s nickname—”is pregnant.”

“Oh, like, wow. How’d you manage that?” Lenhard asked.

There was a yip of pain from Lenhard as Michael clipped him across the ear. “The usual way, dummy.”

“But he’s not even betrothed to the girl,” Lenhard said. “Are you?” he asked Puss.

“No.” From the cultural awareness module of his military police training, Puss knew that a certain amount of latitude was permitted to betrothed couples. However, good girls did not let things go too far until they were betrothed.

He read the rest of the letter. Sveta certainly hadn’t wasted any words. She’d said what she had to say, and then asked him what he intended doing. There was nothing about how worried she was about the situation, but she had to be. Babies were expensive, and a single mother had a lot of obstacles in their way. Well, he knew what he had to do, and he didn’t need the fact that she had moved in with his parents to tell him what it was. “Looks like I better ask for leave so I can get home and marry Sveta as soon as possible.”

“Don’t like your chances,” Hermann Behrns said. He glanced around. “Anybody here like the Sarge’s chances?”

Three shaking heads told Puss that none of them liked his chances of getting leave. He folded the letter and tucked it away. If he couldn’t go to her, maybe there was an alternative. “Then I better have a few words with the chaplain.”

“He won’t be able to get you leave, Sarge,” Hermann called to Puss’s back.

Grantville

Felix gave Sveta a sympathetic shake of the head as he laid the mail on the table in front of his wife.

Suzanne quickly sorted out the mail, sliding letters across the table to the down-time sisters who were more daughter substitutes than boarders, and her husband. There was nothing for Sveta.

She hadn’t expected anything either. Who would write to her here? Certainly not John. Not yet, anyway. She knew from her job with the Joint Armed Services Press Division that it could take a week just for her letter to get to him.

“You’re looking happy, Elisabeth,” Frau—call me Sue—Trelli said to the eldest of the boarders.

Elisabeth Müller held up her letter. “My book has done better than expected, and Frau Fröbel says they are planning a second printing.”

Suzanne clapped her hands. “Congratulations.” She hurried around the table to give Elisabeth a hug.

Sveta felt a stab of jealousy watching the easy affection between Frau Trelli and the older girl. She wished she could reach out to Frau Trelli like Elisabeth, but she felt too embarrassed, guilty, and a bit of a fraud. It wasn’t as if she was in love with John. She was just pregnant with his child.

Then Suzanne opened the letter from John and read aloud what he had got up to since he last wrote.

Even Sveta managed to smile at some of the things he and his men got up to, although, if one was to believe John, it was mostly his men getting into trouble and him getting them out of it. The letter opened a window on the world of Sergeant John Trelli, soldier, and introduced her to someone completely different from the man she’d shepherded around war bond rallies.

****

Sveta received a reply to her letter three days later. She retired to her room where she cuddled the teddy-bear while she prepared herself for the recriminations she was sure were to be heaped upon her.

Tears began to trail down her cheeks as she read the letter. John was being so understanding. He was even willing to marry her, if that was what she wanted. After talking to Janie and Julia, she’d been almost hoping that he would insist on them marrying. At least that would indicate some interest in her as something other than his child’s mother, but there was nothing to suggest that he might love, or even care for her. She buried her face in the worn fur of the teddy-bear and cried.

Eventually the tears stopped, and she was able to return to John’s letter. There were promises of financial support, and that he wouldn’t pressure her to make a decision. There was also a separate piece of paper a lot smaller than the main letter. Sveta cracked a smile after reading it. It certainly deserved it’s “destroy after reading” heading. John’s mother—and he freely admitted it—would surely be tempted to kill him if she ever saw what he’d written about her. She hid that page in her Bible and prepared to share the rest of John’s letter with his parents.

“It’s only what I expected of John,” John’s mother said as she passed the letter onto her husband.

John’s father took the letter and read it. “I’m sure he does want to marry you, Sveta.”

“It’s good of you to say that, Herr Trelli. But we all know that the only reason we’re talking about marriage is because I’m pregnant.”

“We’d be happy for you to marry John even if you weren’t pregnant,” Suzanne said.

****

A week later a package in heavy bond paper was delivered to the Trelli residence. Sveta waited for Máma, as she now called John’s mother, to open it, but instead she slid it across the table to her. She accepted the letter knife from Máma and broke open the heavy wax seal.

There was a covering letter from a lawyer in Leipzig, a copy of John’s will, and two copies of a marriage contract. She passed them all over to John’s father, whom she’d started calling Pápa.

“John has made arrangements for the pair of you to marry by proxy,” Felix said.

“Is that legal?” Suzanne asked.

John’s father nodded. “According to John’s lawyer, all we need is for Sveta to sign the contracts before witnesses, and exchange vows with John’s stand-in.”

Sveta bit her lip. “I will need my father’s permission.”

“Where does he live?” Felix asked.

“He lives in Savonia, near the fortress of Olavinlinna, in Finland.”

“That doesn’t exactly sound like we’d be able to send him a letter and get a reply in a few days time.”

“No.” Sveta knew exactly how long it could take to get news in and out of Savonia, except in winter, when the lakes and rivers froze, making travel so much easier. She’d made the trip herself on her way to Grantville. “At this time of year, it could take four weeks just to get to the fortress from BorgÃ¥.”

“And BorgÃ¥ is where?” Felix asked.

“It’s a port on the Gulf of Finland, about thirty miles east of Helsinki, the modern capital of Finland.” Before Pápa could ask the usual question, Sveta continued. “Helsinki’s a lot smaller than BorgÃ¥. King Gustav I created the town nearly a hundred years ago in an attempt to challenge the Hanseatic city of Reval, and it hasn’t done very well.”

Suzanne ran a hand through her hair. “You could send him a letter, but, if it’s going to take over three months to hear back . . . ”

Sveta saw where Máma was looking. Her hands fell protectively over her belly. John’s mother’s meaning was obvious. She’d certainly be showing in three months time.

“Is your father likely to raise any objections to you marrying John?” Felix asked.

Sveta shook her head. John’s family was Catholic, but her father wasn’t sufficiently interested in her to care about that.

“Right then. Sveta, you write your father asking his permission, and thanking him nicely for giving it. We’ll post that off and set about posting the banns.”

“And I’ll start planning the wedding,” Suzanne said.

****

Later that evening Sveta entered the kitchen with the letter for her father. It’d been a surprisingly easy letter to write, but while she’d chewed over how to explain becoming pregnant to a man she wasn’t even betrothed to, she’d been reminded of something Julia had said.

She walked over to the table where Máma had spread out the contents of a large cardboard box, and sat opposite her. “Máma.”

Suzanne looked up. “Yes, dear?”

“Who is Donetta?” Sveta didn’t like the look that flashed across Máma’s face. It looked too much like she’d bitten into something sour.

“Where did you hear that name, dear?”

Sveta recognized evasion when she heard it. Did that mean Donetta had been someone important in John’s life? “Julia was asking me what it was like making love with John, and Janie was telling her to stop embarrassing me, but Julia said Janie wanted to know if he’d learned anything from Donetta just as much as she did.”

Suzanne stared at Sveta, her eyes opened wide for a moment before she blinked and shaking her head. “No, they couldn’t have, neither of them would have been more than thirteen or fourteen.” She smiled ruefully at Sveta. “Sorry, ignore what I just said. Madam Donetta Leasure née Frost had an affair with John right under her fiancé’s nose a few months before they were due to marry. Things got a bit messy when her fiancé realized what was going on, and we had to ship John out of town until after the wedding for his own safety.”

Sveta couldn’t imagine a man marrying a woman who had a relationship with another man while they were betrothed, not unless there was a good reason. “Was her family very rich?”

“Donetta’s parents? They run the tack shop in town.”

So, if her family wasn’t rich, that only left one reason why the man had married her. “Was she very beautiful?”

“She certainly thought so,” Suzanne snorted. “You don’t need to feel jealous of Madam, dear. She and her fool of a husband were left up-time.”

Sveta wanted to protest that she wasn’t jealous, she was just curious. She was left wondering what John had felt for Donetta. “Thank you for telling me. What is it you’re doing?”

****

Back in her room Sveta pulled out her Bible and searched for the “destroy after reading” letter. When she’d first read it, she’d thought John was just making jokes at his mother’s expense, but now she realized that John just knew his mother.

She glanced down at the list again. After two hours spent flicking through the wedding file Máma had been putting together ever since the birth of her first daughter, Sveta now understood his warning that his mother would insist on a “white wedding with all the trimmings.”

 

September, somewhere en route to Poland

Puss sat in his tent looking at the photographs of the wedding. Sveta looked beautiful. The white princess-style off-the-shoulder dress suited her and he was glad that she’d let his mother have the wedding she’d dreamed of giving his sisters. Losing both of them left up-time had hit his mother hard, which was one reason he’d been sure she’d willingly accept Sveta. That Sveta was carrying her first grandchild had just been the icing on the cake.

And speaking of icing on cake, Mom had sent him a piece of the wedding cake. He savored it as he bit into it. It was a proper fruitcake, and mom had remembered to cut him a piece with plenty of marzipan. While he let the almond flavored icing dissolve in his mouth he checked the rest of the photos. His old friend from school, James Warren, was there with his wife Kelli, and their new baby. He was glad James had accepted his request to be his stand-in; there was nobody he trusted more, and if James had so much as thought about giving Sveta more than a peck on the cheek, Kelli would have decked him.

The thought made him smile. He was getting very possessive about his Sveta. It’d just be nice if he could believe she felt the same about him. But he knew she had only married him for the sake of the baby.

Two weeks later, outside Åšwiebodzin, Poland

Puss took advantage of the short break to sort through the latest package from home. There was the usual re-supply of the essentials—cake, coffee, cookies, sugar, hard candy, and toilet paper—as well as some writing paper, pens and ink. But more importantly, there were letters from home. Puss distributed everything else amongst his belt webbing and saddlebags, but kept the letters separate. He selected Sveta’s and pushed the rest into a jacket pocket.

Breaking the seal he was soon back in Grantville watching the movie made from a screenplay he’d written while he was on the war bonds treadmill. According to Sveta, and she would know, as she’d had the task of typing up his hand-written drafts, they’d actually followed his final screenplay relatively closely. Even to the extent of actually filming the finale at the very castle he’d used as his model. He just wished he’d been there with Sveta to see it.

“Trelli, get your men together.”

The sudden thump on his back brought Puss back to the present. “What’s happening?” he asked as he hastily folded Sveta’s letter and put it safely away.

“Some of the auxiliaries and men of the Gray Adder have run amok and are sacking the town.” Sergeant Johannes Cöper, the platoon sergeant, didn’t seem too concerned that the Finnish auxiliary cavalry attached to 3rd Division had run amok, but he was clearly upset that proper USE soldiers had joined them. “The general has ordered the division in to deal with them.”

Puss glanced in the direction of Åšwiebodzin. It wasn’t as if there had been a long siege or anything that would normally justify sacking the place. He turned to ask Sergeant Cöper some more questions, but he’d already moved on, which meant he’d better get a move on himself. “Behrns, Cleesattel, Klein, Poppler, get your gear together and saddle up.”

****

They entered Åšwiebodzin behind the division’s own cavalry. The MPs didn’t do any fighting; the cavalry did all of it. They just got to pick up the pieces.

Puss badly wanted to throw up, but he had nothing left in his stomach. The dead adults had been bad enough, but the children had been much worse. Why would anybody want to bayonet a baby? He rewrapped the baby in its swaddling and placed it beside what he assumed was his mother, who’d been raped and murdered. He stepped back, and as he looked down upon the dead mother and son, he thought of Sveta and their baby, and he wanted to kill those responsible.

But that wasn’t the worst. That came when he found a girl who couldn’t have been more than eight. She was naked, battered and bruised, bleeding from both the vagina and anus, and white with shock. He’d carried her shivering body to the first aid station the medics had set up in the town square. She didn’t make a sound the whole time. He wasn’t even sure she knew what was happening to her.

****

Puss hadn’t felt anything when he helped lead the twenty, mostly still drunk, rioters who’d been caught in the act to the fence line in a pasture just outside Åšwiebodzin. There, he’d helped tie the prisoners to the wooden fence before retiring behind the firing line. From there he’d watched the executions by volley gun before advancing to supervise men of the Gray Adder regiment as they collected the shredded remains of their former colleagues and dumped them into the mass grave they’d dug earlier.

It was different when it came to the officers. For a start, they were to be executed by a regular firing squad made up of members of the volley gun batteries.

Ex-Captains Hermann auf der Mauer and Traugott Nachtigall were lined up either side of their commanding officer, ex-Major Johannes Dietrich.

“How can you allow this travesty?” Johannes Dietrich demanded as Puss checked the bindings holding him against the wood support. “We did nothing wrong.”

“The men went mad when a sniper murdered Colonel Küster,” Hermann auf der Mauer said.

Puss ignored the comments, but Traugott Nachtigall took offence at his silence. “You rear end mother-fucker, what do you know of war? I bet you’ve never even been in combat. What right do you have to judge us?”

For a moment he saw that eight-year-old girl again. He looked at the ex-captain, and then to his own officer. “The prisoners are secure, sir.”

“Very good, Sergeant. Retire your men behind the line.”

Spittle from ex-captain Nachtigall struck Puss and mingled with the blood of an eight-year-old Pole. He looked up at Nachtigall, who seemed proud of his small victory. Puss gestured for his men to leave before following them.

Grantville

In the glory days of 1633 and 1634, the Grantville office of the Armed Forces Press Division had boasted over a dozen staff members, but those days were long gone. Now, the permanent staff consisted of Lieutenant Johann Dauth, the three radio operators who maintained a 24/7 radio watch, and three enlisted women who rotated the position of front desk receptionist while doing their real job of composing press releases and running them off on the duplicator machine for distribution to the local media.

There was some kind of bug going around, and the office was down to a skeleton staff, meaning, instead of getting out of the office over lunch, Sveta had to stay in the office. She’d just settled her mug of hot soup on her desk and sat down when Lieutenant Dauth burst out of the radio room waving a printout.

“Magdeburg’s just passed on a story from Scoop claiming USE troops are sacking a surrendered town in Poland.”

“Scoop” was the nickname of twenty-year-old Ambrosius Weineck. He had made every effort since joining the Fightin’ Flacks (as some called the reporters of the military’s press office) to portray himself as the next Ernest Hemingway. He’d earned the nickname for producing a rather long list of “scoops” that weren’t.

Her lunch forgotten, Sveta reached for the paper Johann held. A quick skim—and it was a very quick skim—Scoop must have outdone himself in the brevity of the story he filed with headquarters in Magdeburg. “It’s a little light on any details. Have headquarters heard from Dirk and Werner?” she asked, naming the two competent reporters the department had with the 3rd Division.

“Not a whisper.”

Johann looked ready to pull his hair out, and Sveta couldn’t blame him. Either Dirk and Werner hadn’t filed anything because there wasn’t anything to report, or they were in the thick of it, getting the real story. There was however, another possible source of information. “What are the Times and Daily News getting?”

In theory, the press office shouldn’t know what was in the stories the reporters working for the two main Grantville papers were sending over the radio, however, the office had the use of a computer, and the geek responsible for maintaining their computer system had cracked the newspapers’ codes. With their computer and their own radios monitored 24/7, the press office was able to read the stories the reporters were filing well before the papers’ editors did.

“They haven’t sent anything yet,” Johann said.

“So either Scoop’s gone off half-cocked again, or they’re busy chasing the story.”

Johann nodded. “I’m sure the boss has already ordered Scoop to get some details.”

“What do you want me to do with this?” She waved the printout.

Dauth sighed. “Try and work your usual magic on it so we’ve got something for a press release.”

It was a tall order, but Sveta rolled a fresh stencil blank into her typewriter, and after reading the cable again, started typing.

****

Over the course of the day reports reached the office that confirmed Scoop’s original story, and then some. Sveta was typing out yet another update press release when Johann walked quietly up to her desk. This was unusual, as throughout the day he’d announced each new development as he bounced out of the communications room.

She reached up for the papers he held, but Johann pulled them away. “Dirk’s filed an interview with your husband. It’s pretty graphic.”

Having given her a warning, Johann obviously felt free to let her read the story. At first sight, it was a mass of red pencil where parts he didn’t want her to include in the press release were marked. Naturally, she started to read those areas first. She bolted for the bathroom.

“Can you write it up, or do you want me to do it?” Johann asked from the bathroom door.

Sveta rinsed her mouth to get rid of the bile taste and splashed her face with water. “I can do it, but can I call John’s family first to let them know he’s okay?”

“Sure, make your calls, but keep them short. We may need to keep the phone free.”

She asked the Fluharty Middle School secretary to pass on the message to Máma that she’d heard that John was okay after the recent fighting in Åšwiebodzin. She did much the same with the secretary at the SoTF State Technical College, where she left the same message for Pápa. Then she settled down to work the terse filed cables from Werner and Dirk into press releases.

The standard press releases were easy to write, but translating the interview with John into something for general consumption was difficult, as she kept visualizing what John must have seen.

October, 1635, the south bank of the Odra river, near Zielona Gora

Puss was, as usual since Åšwiebodzin, keeping a watchful eye on the remnants of the Gray Adder regiment. He had been thinking about what happened. Not so much the actual rape, loot, murder and burn that the men had engaged in, but more the message General Stearns’ reaction would be sending to them.

“Lieutenant, I’ve been wondering if the general did the right thing at Åšwiebodzin by punishing the officers.”

“I wouldn’t worry about them, Trelli. They had it coming,” Lieutenant Heinrich Diefenthaler said.

“I wasn’t thinking of the officers, sir. I was thinking of the men who weren’t caught in the act. Shouldn’t we be trying to bring them to justice?’

“To what purpose, Trelli? By his actions, General Stearns has ensured that such an event won’t occur again.”

“Why not?” To Puss the problem was obvious, but then, he’d read all of his sisters’ college psychology textbooks and anything else he could find to try and understand Donetta Frost’s motivations for the affair she had with him.

“I’m sure every officer in the 3rd Division is now planning on imposing stiff discipline so that their men don’t run amok and get them strung up in front of a firing squad. But what about the common soldiers? All they’ve learned is that as long as they don’t get caught, they can get away with murder. Heck, they could take advantage of the precedent, and use it to get rid of unpopular officers.”

“Trelli, you have a nasty mind,” Lieutenant Diefenthaler said. “A very nasty mind. It could become a downward spiral. The officers make themselves unpopular by imposing stricter discipline, so the troops retaliate by going crazy.”

Puss nodded. That’s exactly what he’d been thinking. “So, do we start searching out the instigators and bring them to justice?”

“I’ll pass your concerns on to Captain von Frankenberg, Trelli.”

“Thank you, sir.” After Lieutenant Diefenthaler walked off, Puss returned to watching the men from the Gray Adder. The regiment was largely recruited from Mecklenburg, where the CoC columns had been involved in some pretty nasty fighting during Operation Krystalnacht. One could almost suggest that they had been predisposed to running amok and committing atrocities even before Šwiebodzin. There had certainly been enough of that from both sides in Mecklenburg. All they’d needed was a trigger—like the death of their commander at the hands of a sniper—to send them over the edge.

Grantville

Sveta’s friends came bearing gifts. She met them at the door and shepherded them along to her room.

“How’s the baby? Janie asked.

Sveta patted her bump. “It’s started to move.” She was reminded of the first time she felt her baby move a couple of weeks ago. Until then she’d been on tenterhooks. Too many well-meaning (or maybe, just mean) people had talked about the risk of losing a baby before the second trimester. Apparently, once a baby started to move, you were less likely to miscarry. Although, having sent that reassuring signal, it would have been nice if it could stop kicking every time she managed to drop off to sleep.

“Is it moving now?” Julia asked.

Sveta reached out and pressed Julia’s hand against her abdomen.

“Oh, it kicked. That’s so cool. Diana, you have to feel Sveta’s baby moving.”

“How are you feeling, Sveta?” Diana asked, letting Julia guide her hand.

“Remarkably well, much to the disappointment of the doomsayers.

“Mom was like that,” Janie said. “A bit of morning sickness early on, then nothing for months.” She sent Sveta a wry grin. “But I don’t think you’ll be able to avoid backache as you near term.”

“How did your mother cope with that?” Sveta asked.

“She had Dad to give her massages. Oh, I’m sorry, Sveta.”

Sveta waved away Janie’s concern. She had a husband, but would he even want to touch her? She sighed and picked at one of Diana’s cookies. “John’s feeling overly concerned about money again.” Sveta shook her head. “So what if we can’t afford our own home? Lots of children continue to live with their parents after marriage.”

“Not Americans,” Julia said. “They want their own space, away from their parents.”

“Space? Always this need for more space. What about the support of your family?” Sveta shook her head. “And anyway, why is John so worried? With the price people are paying for up-time guns, he’s got a small fortune in this room.”

“You haven’t suggested Puss sell some of his guns?” Julia demanded.

“Not yet.” Then she noticed the horrified looks on her friends’ faces. “What did I say?”

“Blasphemy!” Julia said.

“Double blasphemy,” Janie agreed.

“Sveta, a West Virginian’s guns are sacrosanct. Some of them are family heirlooms,” Diana explained.

“There are families in Grantville where their guns are worth more than their houses, but they would never sell them,” Janie said.

“So, no selling his guns?” Sveta asked.

“Not unless you want to really make Puss angry,” Julia said.

“Or you’re really desperate for money,” Diana added.

Zielona Gora

Street fighting sucked. Puss sat with his back against the wall of a building and checked his weapons. He had a service issue Sharps carbine clone, and a pair of stainless-steel Ruger Vaquero Cowboy Action revolvers in.45 Colt he’d owned for years, a copy of a Gurkha Kukri knife one of his dad’s friends had made out of an old leaf-spring, and a bag of grenades. The rest of his patrol was similarly armed, but with their own choice of fighting knife, and a pair of the service issue cap and ball revolvers in place of the Rugers.

The grenades had had proved a godsend in the battle so far. They were modeled more on the WW2 German “potato masher” than the American “pineapple” grenades, but they were miles ahead of whatever the Poles were using—probably the old spherical ball type where you had to physically light the fuse before using. At least the USE grenades could be ignited with a simple pull of a string.

Puss saw the signal from the captain of the company his patrol had been attached to as a sort of fire-support team. That meant they were ready to enter the street. He slung his carbine and raised his head to check on the target. It was less than thirty feet to the building. “Grenades.”

Five men pulled grenades from the sacks each of them carried. Almost as one they checked the target, pulled the friction-igniter strings, and with covering fire from Captain Casper Havemann’s rifle company, lobbed their grenades towards the target, before dropping behind cover.

Seconds later, the air full of dust and smoke, Puss and his patrol went over the wall they’d been hiding behind and, with more covering fire, ran for the building.

Puss was the first to reach the building. He dropped his shoulder to barge open the shattered door, and he was in the house. With a Ruger held before him in a two-handed grip, Puss advanced into the building. This was the part of street fighting he really didn’t like. The enemy could be anywhere, and a grenade dropped from above was almost impossible to avoid.

They cleared the ground floor first, stopping only to tear down the smoldering drapes to prevent a fire. Then, with the rest of his patrol providing backup, Puss advanced up the narrow staircase. It was a bit like playing paintball back up-time, except hits were likely to hurt a heck of a lot more. At the top of the stairs he lobbed in a grenade—no sense taking risks. He followed up the blast, to find the space empty.

Puss smothered the smoking embers before they could catch anything alight while the rest of the patrol checked the other rooms. Other than the men on the ground floor, this house had been empty.

With the first house secure, a section from the infantry company flooded in and started to tear an opening in the attic space dividing wall. When they broke through Puss lobbed a grenade through the opening, and quickly followed the blast. With the top floor cleared the infantry followed a constant flow of grenades down the building until it was clear. In this way they made it to the end of the street without exposing themselves to fire from snipers.

The other side of the street had been taken out by another platoon of Captain Havemann’s company, making the road in between relatively safe. Puss and his patrol sat on the steps of one of the row of houses they’d taken and took the opportunity to reload their revolvers and have a drink. They watched Captain Havemann led his headquarters section to the rubble at the end of the street, where he could plan the next step of their street clearance operation.

BOOOM! BOOOM! BOOOM!

All hell broke loose as the Poles fired a massive artillery barrage along most of the front. Cannon balls tore into buildings and rubble began to fall from the damaged walls. Debris from a critically damaged building fell onto the headquarters section. Two survivors of the collapse started pulling away at the rubble. One fell to sniper fire, but the other managed to pull Captain Havemann from the rubble and drag him to cover.

“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Puss could already sense the company wavering around him. Havemann was a man with a towering presence. Just having him walk along the line gave his men confidence. Unfortunately, the reverse applied if something happened to him.

“Take this and give me covering fire.”

“What the hell?” Lenhard Poppler started to ask as Puss thrust his carbine at him. “You goddamned idiot!” he shouted as Puss sprinted towards the fallen officer.

Puss used a feet-first baseball slide to take cover beside Captain Havemann and the man who’d dragged him to cover. A quick glance at the size of the lumps of masonry covering the rest of the headquarters section told him that these two were likely to be the only survivors. The private was a weed of a man. How he’d managed to drag the captain, who was easily twice his weight, to cover was anybody’s guess. The man was still bleeding, but he’d done his best to staunch the flow from the captain’s injuries.

The Poles were intensifying their fire around where Puss was huddled, but contrary to what Corporal Poppler thought, he wasn’t a complete idiot. He emptied out his bag of grenades and started lobbing them over the rubble. For a few seconds he had a screen of white smoke from the black powder grenades. “Go!” he screamed at the private, while he dragged Captain Havemann over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift and sprinted back to Corporal Poppler.

Eager hands relieved Puss of his load, and he took his carbine back. “Who’s in charge?”

Hermann pointed to a lieutenant taking cover in a doorway. The man was signaling everyone to pull back. Unfortunately, most of the men weren’t taking any notice. They were looking at Puss. Right now, he was the person they were most likely to take orders from. Puss took his lead from the lieutenant and signaled them back. Over the next hour the company made a fighting withdrawal, until they were back where they’d started that morning.

Grantville

The knock on the door was a bit more impetuous than most callers to the Trelli residence used. Except of course, when the call was urgent. The household froze, knives and forks poised in the air. Slowly all eyes congregated onto Pápa, who smiled ruefully around the table and laid his knife and fork on his barely-started dinner.

“I’d better see who that is,” he said as he pushed back his chair and headed for the door.

The rest of the household was silent. Sveta could almost feel covert glances in her direction. An unexpected caller at this hour could only be bad news, and the most likely bad news was that something had happened to John. A sudden burst of activity from her baby just reinforced her concern.

Pápa appeared at the dining room door. “It’s Ernst Schreiber, from the Grantville Times, with a photographer. John’s okay, but he’s been a bit heroic, again.”

Sveta looked past Pápa. She knew Herr Schreiber from her work. She also knew what not a lot of people didn’t—that Ernst Schreiber wrote the Times‘ famous, no, make that infamous, Rodger Rude column. “What do you want?”

“Sveta!”

“Sorry, Máma.” She pointedly didn’t include Ernst Schreiber in her apology.

“Just a few photographs of Sergeant Trelli’s family and maybe a few words . . . ”

Whatever Ernst had intended saying was lost in the ringing of the phone. Felix, already on his feet, answered it. “We know. Herr Schreiber, from the Times has just shown up—what was that? We should expect to hear from the Daily News as well? Thank you.”

Felix Trelli hung up the phone. “That was your office, Sveta. Lieutenant Dauth wanted to warn you that Scoop has filed a story about John.”

“Scoop!” All the terror she felt about when Ernst knocked on the door found an outlet in that scornful word. She turned on Ernst. “You’re trusting something Scoop filed?”

Ernst shrugged. “It’s a good human interest story. Local boy haul’s officer from the jaws of death, then leads the officer’s command in a fighting withdrawal. The press office in Magdeburg has confirmed enough of it that we intend running the story.”

If the press office in Magdeburg was confirming anything Scoop filed . . . Sveta swallowed bile at what that suggested. Suddenly there was a brilliant flash of light. Blinking furiously, Sveta tried to focus on Ernst’s photographer. “Did you just take a photograph?” she demanded.

It was a bit of a redundant question, as Jacob Fiedler was already swapping out the spent bulb in the flash unit he’d just used. He nodded anyway.

“Don’t even think about doing that again.”

“That’s not very nice, Frau Andreyevna. Jacob’s just doing his job. We just want a bit of human interest to accompany the main story.”

“What is the main story, Herr Schreiber?” Felix asked.

 

Next day

“ST. GEORGE DOES IT AGAIN!” The headline in the Grantville Times blared out in seventy-two point letters.

Sveta stared at the photograph under the headline. Whoever it was who said a picture was worth a thousand words had something like that photograph in mind. Even after being screened so it could be printed in the paper, you could sense the urgency as the man ran out of the cloud of smoke carrying a man over his shoulders while helping another limp to safety. It was bad enough he’d earned a St. George Medal saving some people from a rabid dog, now he had to risk enemy fire to rescue some soldiers as well.

“Why would he risk his life like that?” she asked Máma.

“Because that’s the kind of person John is.”

Sveta was close to tears. She was learning to admire the man she was married to, and the silly fool seemed intent on getting himself killed. “I wish he would stop. He’s going to get himself killed if he keeps this up.”

“Have you ever thought that maybe John doesn’t think he deserves you, and that if he proves he’s a good soldier, he might be more worthy of you?”

Sveta was stunned by the suggestion, and burst into tears. “But he’s given me a family.”

Suzanne reached out and stroked Sveta’s hair. “I don’t think John knows how important a real family is to you, Sveta. I’m reminded of something Betty told me John said back in June, when he first took you around to her place. Do you remember what he said when she suggested that he escort you to Jabe McDougal’s wedding?”

Sveta tried to remember back to that horrible day. Slowly the words came back to her. “That a girl with my looks could have anybody she wanted.”

“Have you ever wondered what John might have been thinking when he said that?”

Sveta had totally forgotten that conversation. She thought about it now, and came to a surprising conclusion. “John thinks I’m pretty?”

Suzanne grinned. “A bit more than pretty. You’re a very beautiful girl.”

Sveta thought of the most beautiful girl she knew. “As beautiful as Julia?”

“At least as beautiful as Julia.”

“Oh!” Sveta had never really seen herself as being beautiful. She knew she was better than passable, but beautiful was always what other people were called, never her. “More beautiful than Donetta?”

Immediately Sveta wished the name unsaid. She glanced at Máma. There was moment of shock, and then a smug smile appeared on Máma’s face.

“Madam’s beauty was barely skin deep, Sveta. Your beauty runs deeper, and will last longer.” Then Máma enveloped Sveta in a massive hug. “Don’t worry, darling, everything’s going to turn out all right.”

Sveta luxuriated in Máma’s embrace. She was happy Máma had accepted her. And even happier that her baby would be born into this wonderful family. Now, if only this war would end . . .

****

 

 

 

Share