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Eric Flint

"I still can't believe I did that," said Anne Jefferson, studying the painting. It was obvious that she was struggling not to erupt in a fit of giggles.

Pieter Paul Rubens looked at her, smiling faintly, but said nothing. He'd gotten a better sense of the way the woman's mind worked, in the days he'd spent doing a portrait of the American nurse, even to the point of understanding that for her the menial term "nurse" was a source of considerable personal pride. But he still didn't fool himself that he really understood all the subtleties involved. There was a chasm of three and half centuries separating them, after all, even leaving aside the fact that they were—at least officially—enemies in time of war. If not, admittedly, actual combatants.

The sound of siege cannons firing outside reminded him of that enmity. For a moment, the big guns firing at distant Amsterdam caused the windows in the house to rattle.

The Jefferson woman heard them also, clearly enough. Her grin was replaced by a momentary grimace. "And back to the real world . . ." he heard her mutter.

But the grin was back, almost immediately. "It's the pom-poms and the baton," Jefferson said. "Ridiculous! I never even tried out for the cheerleading squad."

Rubens examined the objects referred to. His depiction of them, rather. The objects themselves were now lying on a nearby table. They weren't really genuine American paraphernalia, just the best imitations that Rubens' assistants had been able to design based on the American nurse's description. But she'd told him earlier than he'd managed to capture the essence of the things in the portrait.

"Coupled with the American flag!" she half-choked. "If anybody back home ever sees this, I'll be lucky if I don't get strung up."

The English term strung up eluded Rubens, since his command of that language was rudimentary. He'd spent some months in England as an envoy for King Philip IV of Spain, true, during which time he'd also begun painting the ceiling of the Royal Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. But he'd spent most of his time there in the entourage of the English queen, who generally spoke in her native French.

However, he understood the gist of it. Jefferson had spoken the rest of the sentence in the German which they'd been using as their common tongue. Jefferson's German was quite good, for someone who'd only first spoken the language three years ago. Rubens' own German was fluent, as was his French, Italian, Latin and Spanish. Not surprising, of course, for a man who was—and had been for several decades now—recognized by everyone as the premier court artist for Europe's Roman Catholic dynasties, as well as being a frequently used diplomat for those same dynasties.

"Do you really think they will be offended?" he asked mildly.

Jefferson rolled her eyes. "Well, if anyone ever sees it I'll probably get away with it just because it was done by Rubens. You know, the Rubens. But they don't call them 'hillbillies' for nothing. Seeing me half-naked, wrapped in an American flag and holding pom-poms and a cheerleader's baton . . ." She brought her eyes back to the portrait, and shook her head ruefully. "I still don't know what possessed me to agree to this."

"Indulging a confused old artist, shall we say?" Rubens smiled crookedly. "You have no idea what a quandary your books from the future pose to an artist. If you can see a painting you would have done, do you still do it? When every instinct in you rebels at the notion? On the other hand . . ."

He glanced over his shoulder. His young wife Hélèna Fourment was sitting on a chair nearby, looking out the window. "Who knows? I may still do the original portrait, with her as the model as she would have been. But this seemed to me an interesting compromise. Besides . . ."

His eyes moved to the portrait, then to the young American model. "I was trying to capture something different here. Hard to know whether I succeeded or not, of course. You are such a peculiar people, in many ways."

Hearing a small commotion in the corridor outside his studio, the artist cocked his head. "Ah. Apparently the day's negotiations are concluded. Your escort is here to return you to Amsterdam. It has been a pleasure, Miss Jefferson. Will I see you again some day?"

Anne went over to a side table and began gathering up her things. "Who knows, Master Rubens? We might none of us survive this war."

"True enough. Even for those of us not soldiers, there is always disease to carry us away. So—please. Take the portrait with you."

She stared back at him over her shoulder. Then, stared at the painting.

"You've got to be kidding. That's . . . a Rubens." For a moment, her mouth worked like a fish gasping out of water. "The only place you find those in the world I came from is in museums. Each one of them is worth millions."

"You are no longer in that world," Rubens pointed out. "Please. In this world of mine, you will do me the favor. And—who knows?—perhaps the portrait will somehow help shorten the war."

He took it off the easel and presented it to her. Hesitantly, Anne took it.

"You're sure?"

"Oh, yes. Quite sure."

* * *

After Jefferson left, Rubens turned to his wife. "A pity she is such a skinny thing," he murmured. "Of course, she wouldn't let me portray her breasts properly anyway. Odd, the way their American modesty works."

Fourment simply smiled. It was a rather self-satisfied smile. She was even younger than Jefferson, had a bosom that no-one would describe as "skinny," and there was nothing at all odd about the way her modesty worked. In her world, she was a proper wife and always properly attired as such. In her husband's world, she was whatever he needed her to be.

"When are you going to do The Three Graces?" she asked. "Or The Judgment of Paris?"

He shrugged. "Perhaps never."

Fourment pouted. "I thought I looked good in those paintings!"

Rubens didn't know whether to laugh or scowl. In another universe, those paintings would have been done in the year 1638. Bad enough for an artist to be confronted with illustrations of his future work. Worse still, when the wife who served as the model for them began wheedling him about it!

In the end, he laughed.

* * *

Another man was scowling.

"I still don't like the idea," Jeff Higgins grumbled, as he and Anne Jefferson brought up the rear of the Dutch delegation returning from the parlay to Amsterdam. "And Gretchen'll be having a pure fit."

"She'll get over it," Anne said firmly. "Look, I had orders. So there's an end to it."

She gave Jeff a none-too-admiring sidelong glance. "How is it, three years after the Ring of Fire, that you still can't ride a horse?"

Jeff gave the horse he was mounted on a look that was even less admiring. "I don't like horses, dammit. I'm a country boy. The only breed of horse I recognize is Harley-Davidson."

"You own a Yamaha."

"Fine. I'm a traitor too."

"Give it a rest, Jeff!" Now Anne was scowling. "I had orders."

"Mike Stearns is too damn clever for his good," Jeff muttered.

"So run against him, the next election."

Jeff ignored the suggestion. His head was now turned to his left, where the Spanish batteries were located. "Well, at least it looks like they've stopped firing. I guess we'll get back into the city after all."

"Like we have every other time. You're paranoid. And what are you complaining about, anyway? I'm the one who has to ride a horse carrying a great big portrait. The only thing that's saved me so far is that he didn't have it framed."

Jeff looked at the portrait Anne was balancing precariously on her hip. He couldn't see the actual image, because it was wrapped in cloth.

"I can't believe it. A Rubens. When are you going to show it to us?"

Jefferson looked very uncomfortable. "Maybe never. I haven't decided yet."

"Like that, huh?" Jeff's scowl finally vanished, replaced by a grin. "Gretchen won't let you keep it under wraps, you know that. She'll insist on that much, at least."

* * *

When Rubens was ushered into the small salon which the Cardinal-Infante used for private interviews, Don Fernando rose to greet him. The courtesy was unusual, to say the least. The Cardinal-Infante was the younger brother of the King of Spain, in addition to being the prince in all but name who now ruled the Spanish Netherlands. People rose for him, not the other way around.

But he was a courteous young man, by temperament—and, even for him, Rubens was . . . Rubens.

"What is it, Pieter?" asked Don Fernando.

"Thank you for responding to my request so quickly, Your Highness." Rubens reached into his cloak and drew forth several folded pieces of paper. "After Miss Jefferson departed my studio and returned to Amsterdam, we discovered that she had left this behind. It was lying on the side table near the entrance."

The Cardinal-Infante frowned. "You wish me to have it returned to her? Forgive me, Pieter, but I'm very busy and this hardly seems important enough—"

"Your Highness—please. I would not pester you over a simple matter of formalities. Besides, I'm quite certain she left it behind deliberately." He gestured toward a desk in the corner. "May I show you?"

The Spanish prince nodded. Rubens strode over to the desk and flattened the papers onto it, spreading out the sheets as he did so.

"She is a nurse, you know—a term which, for the Americans, refers to someone very skilled in medical matters. But I'm quite sure she didn't draw these diagrams. That was done by a superb draftsman. Not to mention that the text is in Latin, a language I know she is unfamiliar with."

The Cardinal-Infante had come to his side, and was now bent over examining the papers. As was to be expected of a royal scion of Spain, Don Fernando's own Latin was quite good.

"God in Heaven," he whispered, after his eyes finished scanning the first page.

"Indeed," murmured Rubens. "It contains everything, Your Highness. The ingredients, the formulas, the steps by which to make it—even these marvelous diagrams showing the apparatus required."

The Cardinal-Infante's eyes went back to the lettering which served as a title for the papers. How to Make Chloramphenicol. 

"But can we trust it?" he wondered.

Rubens tugged at his reddish beard. "Oh, I don't doubt it, Your Highness. I realize now that was why she agreed to pose for me, even though it obviously made her uncomfortable. That strange American modesty, you know. Scandalous clothing combined with peculiar fetishes regarding nudity."

The Spanish prince cocked his head. With his narrow face, the gesture was somehow birdlike. "I am not following you."

Rubens shrugged. "Over the days of a sitting, an artist gets to know his model rather well. Well enough, at least, to be able to tell the difference between a healer and a poisoner." He pointed to the papers on the desk. "You can trust this, Your Highness. And, in any event, what do you have to lose?"

"Nothing," grunted Don Fernando. "I'm losing a dozen men a day to disease now. Mostly typhus. We can test it on a few of them first. If we can make the stuff at all, that is."

"That's no problem, I assure you." Rubens hesitated a moment. "We're in the Low Countries, you know. Not—ah—"

"Benighted Spain?" The Cardinal-Infante laughed. "True enough. Outside of Grantville itself—maybe Magdeburg too, now—there is probably no place in Europe better supplied with craftsmen and artisans and workshops."

The two men fell silent, looking down at the papers.

"Why?" the Cardinal-Infante finally asked. "From what you're saying, she could hardly have done this on her own."

The continent's greatest artist pondered the matter for a moment. Then, shrugged. "Perhaps we should just tell ourselves they also have peculiar notions of war. And leave it at that."

"That won't be good enough, I'm afraid." Don Fernando sighed. "I have no choice but to use it. But . . . why do I have the feeling I'm looking at a Trojan Horse here?"

Rubens' eyes widened. "It's just medicine, Your Highness."

The Spanish prince shook his head. "Horses come in many shapes."

* * *

Gretchen was, indeed, still in a steaming fury. "Why don't we hand them ammunition as well?" she demanded.

Anne was tired of the argument. "Take it up with Mike, dammit! I was just doing what he told me to do, if I ever got the chance."

Gretchen stalked over to the window of the house in Amsterdam where the American delegation was headquartered. Along the way, she took the time to glare at the wife of the man in question.

Rebecca just smiled. Diplomatic, as always. "It's not just the soldiers, you know."

Diplomacy was wasted on Gretchen. "You propose to tell me that? I am the one who was once a camp follower, not you!"

Gretchen was at the window now, and slapped her hand against the pane. Not, fortunately, quite hard enough to break it. "Yes, I know that three women and children die from disease in a siege, for every soldier who does. So what? It's the soldiers who do the fighting."

Rebecca said nothing. Eventually, Gretchen turned away from the window. To the relief of everyone else in the room, her foul humor seemed to be fading. If nothing else, Gretchen could always be relied upon to accept facts as given.

"Enough," she stated. "What's done is done. And now, Anne, show us this famous portrait."

Anne fidgeted. Not for long.

"Do it!" Gretchen bellowed. "I will have that much satisfaction!"

* * *

After the portrait was unveiled and everyone stopped laughing, Gretchen shook her head.

"You coward," she pronounced. "If we're to play at this posing game, let us do it properly. I will show you."

* * *

The next morning, Rubens was summoned by the Cardinal-Infante to that area of the siegeworks where the Spanish prince was positioned every day.

Once he arrived atop the platform, the prince handed him an eyeglass and pointed toward Amsterdam.

"This, you will want to see."

After peering through the eyeglass for a moment, Rubens burst out laughing. "That must be the famous Richter."

He lowered the eyeglass. "No odd modesty there. What a brazen woman! And I see she's read the same books I have. One of them, at least."

Don Fernando cocked his head. "Meaning?"

Rubens pointed toward the distant figure of Gretchen Richter, posed atop the ramparts of the besieged city. "That's a painting that will be done—would have been done—two hundred years from now. By a French artist named Eugène Delacroix. It's called Liberty Leading the People. And now, Your Highness, with your permission, I must gather my materials. The opportunity is impossible to resist. What magnificent breasts!"

The Cardinal-Infante's eyes widened. "You will not give it the same title!" The words were half a command, half a protest. "Damnation, I don't care if she's naked from the waist up and waving a flag. She's still a rebel against my lawful authority!"

"Oh, certainly not, Your Highness. I'll think of something suitably archaic."

A moment later, Rubens was scampering off the platform, moving in quite a spry manner for a man in his mid-fifties.

The prince sighed, and gave in to the inevitable. "Tell the batteries not to fire on that portion of the city's defenses, until I say otherwise," he told one of his officers. He smiled ruefully. "Hell hath no fury like an artist thwarted."

After the officer left, Don Fernando went back to studying the distant tableau through the eyeglass. A magnificent pair of breasts, indeed.

By the time Rubens returned, with his needed paraphernalia, the prince of Spain had made his decision.

"You will call it The Trojan Horsewoman," he proclaimed. "That seems a suitable title, for a portrait depicting what has become the most peculiar siege in history."


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