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The Company Men

Christopher James Weber


"I do not like dank dark forests, you arrogant English ass." Liam Donovan cursed as he ducked low on his horse to avoid being hit by a low branch.

"I suppose you would be happier strolling down some gentle, sloping, Irish hill, heather in the air and all that?" Thomas North ducked the same branch. The two had been riding in the German forest for the better part of an hour and were beginning to look much the worse for wear.

"Just so," the bulky red-haired Irishman agreed appreciatively. "A civilized geography, that."

"No cover for miles in any direction, conducting secret business for all to see, and practically begging for some government busybody to interrupt with soldiers. No wonder your people lost every war."

"July, 1921," Donovan said coldly.

"Yes . . . Well, plenty of time to worry about that one later," the tall pale Englishman replied in a huff.


* * *

"I do not care for this, Tom," Donovan said. They had finally arrived at the designated meeting point, a quiet bank of the river Saale just south of Jena and hopefully out of sight of prying eyes.

"I do not care for it either. Lynch is your friend, I remind you."

"What exactly is that supposed to mean?" Donovan asked.

"The last time we had less than legal dealings with one of your close personal friends from back in Eire, we had half the Imperial army chasing us with the other half wagering on our method of execution."

"What was the good money on?"

"Shot while trying to escape."

Donovan smiled. "Ah. I love the classics."


"Here he comes," said North, when he sighted the small boat by its lamp. "Just like an Irishman to be late."

"He's from Kerry; it's to be expected. Sean Lynch! You demon-spawned son of a whore! Over here!"

"Liam Donovan, you great building-sized bastard. And the right bastard North! Milordship." Lynch bowed with a generous wave as the boat eased gently onto the shore.

"Men have been killed for speaking less," said North dryly.

"Many men in my home have been killed for much less," replied Lynch, shrugging. "Oddly enough, by men who spoke very much like you. But that is a separate issue. Let's to business."

The wiry Lynch disembarked and once on solid ground pulled the boat until it was securely ashore. He then reached into the boat to remove a canvas sheet from several boxes.

"Explain to me again how you acquired these goods, Lynch?" North asked suspiciously.

"The usual way—I stole them. And don't give me that sour look, North. I know you're not above such things."

"True. I'll still need a better explanation that that."

"Ha!" Lynch puffed out his chest in annoyance. "But of course he does! He's an Englishman. He steals by native right; others must justify themselves. Well, North, these goods were once the proud property of one of the wizard Americans. A `survivalist,' as they call them, by the name of Newman. Sadly, the good survivalist did not live up to his name. My associates encountered him while he was trying to make a supply run to Jena for food. He even spoke German fluently, but, alas, his boots were a giveaway. A dead giveaway, you might put it."

"Why do all Irishmen insist upon bad puns?"

"We are a literary people, North, for which you should be grateful. The Irish saved civilization, you know. The Americans even have a book about it in their town library."

Irishman himself or not, Donovan was as suspicious as his partner. "I had thought all the survivalists were brought in. Certainly a ruckus would have erupted with this Newman's disappearance?"

"I doubt it," Lynch replied, rubbing his heavy beard. "This one had been in hiding a long while. His lair was a thing of beauty. When we looted it we found a number of items that I would be more than happy to sell to my good, close, friends. Have you the money?"

"Aye." Donovan patted the purse at his side, which emitted a distinctly metallic sound.

"Let me see it then."

"Of course." North nodded gracefully. "After we see the guns and ammo."

"All we have seen so far is a few crates," added Donovan, with a very false grin.

"O boyo. I can feel the trust in the forest." Lynch removed the top of the first crate to reveal dozens of cardboard boxes and tossed one of them to North. North opened up the small box and pulled out a nicely ordered collection of up-time bullets in the .308 caliber. Satisfied, he sealed the box and tossed it back to Lynch, who quickly reinserted the cartridge box in its crate.

"The rifles?" North asked with a little more trust.

"Let me at least see the money. There are two of you, after all, and only one of poor me." In the lamplight, Lynch's face bore a passing resemblance to that of a pleading beggar. It was all North could do not to laugh out loud.

Donovan waited for the signal from his partner. When North nodded, he removed his purse and loosened the leather strap until the pouch revealed numerous gold coins.

"The equivalent of two thousand dollars gold, don't mind the coinage," said North with a wry grin.

"I usually try not to. Ten rifles, all in good working order. Examine one yourself." Lynch opened the second crate and removed a single rifle from the company of its fellows and handed it over.

While North was not as expert on up-time weaponry as he was in seventeenth-century sword and pistol, he knew enough to verify it as an example of the quite ferocious and lethal weapons the Americans had brought back in time with them. He loaded the second bullet taken from the cartridge box with a smooth, fluid motion and aimed it toward the opposite river bank. A squeeze of the trigger yielded a single loud shot, with a corresponding splash of mud and water.

"Now that you have alerted every man within ten miles, may we hurry about this?" His face sour, Lynch took the rifle away and resealed the crate.

"The third box? Your description back in the Thuringen Gardens was rather vague."

"Ah, but this is the interesting one, laddie. This Newman fellow he had his own little alchemist operation. Making something called nitroglycerin. Fantastic stuff! But be careful and I suggest you don't test this one out, it is . . ."

"Rather temperamental, yes. I have read about nitroglycerin."

"Then you will forgive me if I don't pry this one open and ask that you wait to do so until I have rowed myself downstream. I believe we have established trust, aye? I have to think about my children."

"You don't have any children, Sean." Donovan handed over the pouch of gold.

"I might someday." Lynch winked as he took the gold and hefted its contents for the most cursory of examinations before placing it in his clothing.

"The nitro is in twenty glass jars, with as much padding as I could insert. Remember to take it slow and easy, lads. If you hear the glass rattling, I suggest you start praying for your one day of heaven, before the devil finds you dead." Lynch stepped back in his boat and removed the lamp from its stand, leaning down so that he could get a closer look at what he was moving. Just then a rifle shot rang out in the not-too-great distance.

North, instincts screaming "trap," immediately pulled out saber and pistol and turned to Lynch. But Lynch was searching just as furiously for the source of the noise and making no threatening moves. The Englishman told his partner to remain watching Lynch and then moved off into the forest. Stalking quietly through the woods, North searched for several minutes and listened carefully for any approaching interlopers. When none were immediately forthcoming he returned to the waiting boat, with Donovan's pistol drawn in Lynch's direction. Paranoia was a survival trait both admired and respected in the other.

"Bit of a busy secluded forest we have here, lads, do we not?" said Lynch nervously.

"Some hunter or kinder playing at being a soldier," said North curtly, not wishing to remain any longer. "Let us finish this."

"Then come and help me, lads. The crates are heavy and I don't have the leverage inside the boat."

Donovan holstered his weapons and walked to the rim of the beached boat, grabbed one side of the box he knew contained the bullets, and helped heave it out, handing it to a waiting North. The second crate of rifles was handled in like manner and North carried it stoically over to the waiting packhorses. Then, with careful and meticulous effort, the three of them lifted the crate of nitro out of the boat. Waiting until the other was ready, the two mercenaries slowly carried the crate away from the boat and gently settled it onto the soft ground.

"A little help pushing off would be appreciated," said Lynch, as he sat down and manned his small boat's oars.

The two complied, heaving the boat off the mud and into the river with a placid ripple. Lynch began paddling away and then gave an enthusiastic wave. "A pleasure doing business with you!"

North watched the pucklike man float downstream and then turned to the three crates, and one crate in particular.

"You realize that we are both completely daft."

"Utterly and totally," Donovan agreed. "How are we going to get that devil's brew back to our camp?"

"One excruciatingly cautious step at a time. Come on then."

The two lifted the crate carefully onto the packhorse. While Donovan held it secure, North went to retrieve the ropes necessary for lashing.

"Keep it steady," said North.

"I am."

"No, you're not. It almost slipped!" snapped North.

"Well, if you would hurry up. . . ."

"I am not the one who has to have two hours just to wake up in the morning."

"Not all of us are sons of Satan with iron constitutions."

"You can not blame me for who my parents were."

"Oh, yes, I can."

"Piss off."

"Go fornicate a sheep, you—watch out!" Donovan screamed. The nitroglycerin crate slipped out of the lashings and fell to the ground.





No boom?

"Liam . . . why are we not blown into little pieces scattered across half the continent of Europe?"

"Two possible explanations for that, old friend. Either we were blown into little pieces and scattered across half of Europe and this is hell, which we are destined to share together—which would most certainly fit my preconception of that place. Or the second explanation . . ."

Donovan leaned down to examine one of the shattered glass jars emitting a distinctive noninflammable odor. "The second possibility is that we are very much alive and you are never going to let me forget about this one."

North leaned down next to his partner and picked up one of the intact glass jars. No, it most certainly wasn't nitroglycerin.

"Newman's Own, Fra Diavlo: Hot and spicy," the Englishman read, before tossing the glass jar hard across some nearby rocks. He quickly rushed over to the two other crates, ripping open the covers. Inside the first was sand and rocks, which North was sure was the same weight as a crate full of ammunition. The second crate yielded something slightly different. Rocks and sand.

"But . . . but we saw the rifles. You fired one of them!" Donovan said angrily.

"Did we see the entirety of those crates, Liam? No, we saw what he wanted us to see . . . in the dark. He must have switched them while we were distracted by that rifle shot. One of his accomplices . . . Signaled by the lamp being lowered . . . In our hurry to get out of here we simply grabbed the boxes he indicated and didn't think to look any further. I thought it was too good to be true. Lynch had one rifle and box of ammo and that's all we needed to see. There was never any survivalist, no weapons cache, never was any nitro, just a crate full of glass bottles meant to keep our minds on the consequences if we dropped it."

"Probably for the best then . . . if it had been nitro we would be . . . That damned Kerryman! I am going to kill him slow, going to rip his balls off with my bare hands!"

"No doubt."

"How can you be so sodding calm about this?"

"I was just admiring the irony of the situation," said North, shaking his head.

"What irony?"

"We got conned."

"Aye. So?"

"We got conned . . . by Paul Newman's own."

"Aye?" Donovan nodded, still waiting for elaboration.

North sighed, rolling his eyes. "You cultural barbarian. We are making a trip to the video library when we get back. Bog Irishman probably wasn't even aware of the reference when he planned this. But one has to appreciate the skill and intelligence it required to pull it off."

Donovan glowered, first at North, and then in the direction Lynch had disappeared in.

"Oh, we're still going to kill him," said North, merrily nodding his head. "Slowly, painfully, and any other way we can think up. Still, the irony!"



"Are you kidding?" Mike Stearns' eyes scanned the members of his cabinet sitting around the table before coming back to his secretary of state.

"I'm afraid not, Mike," replied Ed Piazza. "In hindsight we shouldn't be so surprised. This would be right about the time we should have expected them. Time enough for the news to get there and them to get here. The world's a big damn place here in the seventeenth century."

"The Mughals," Stearns mused. "The freaking Mughal Empire."

"We don't know that for sure, it's just one guy and a wild story," cautioned Piazza.

"I don't believe that and neither do you, and even if . . ." Stearns shook his head. "We can't take the risk. If this guy is an official representative of the Mughal Empire, the opportunity is too great—potentially, at least—for us to ignore."

"Ignore, okay," agreed Frank Jackson, "but what can we do? Mike, Innsbruck is hundreds of miles away deep into Hapsburg territory. For us to do it would require a massive military undertaking, and we don't have the forces. Nor is Gustavus Adolphus going to give us anybody, not with war breaking out with the League of Ostend."

"And if our little rescue mission comes a cropper, we will have a whole heap of trouble with the southern principalities," commented Piazza. "We're just starting to be on speaking terms with some of them. Our army traipsing through will kill that pretty effectively."

"We have to do something," said Quentin Underwood. "The merest possibility of establishing favorable trade relations with them is something we have to pursue. Christ! Forget France. Except for maybe the Ottoman Turks and the Chinese, the Mughal Empire is the greatest power in the world right now."

"So we have to do something, but we can't do what he asks," said Stearns. "Not directly, anyway."

Harry Lefferts cleared his throat. He was not normally a part of cabinet meetings but Mike had asked him to sit in, since he'd had a feeling Harry's expertise might be called for. "I know a guy. Well, two guys."


That afternoon North and his partner sat in the converted office to discuss the week's business. The farmhouse that served as the Albernian Mercenary Company's corporate headquarters was not an illustrious affair. It was, however, located near enough to Grantville that the town's amenities were always at hand. But also far enough away for several hundred armed men to drill without upsetting the neighbors' delicate sensibilities too much. The former owners originally had no inclination to sell. But there are very few of life's problems that couldn't be solved with an influx of cash, which the two expatriates had sufficient in supply.

The houses and barns were only enough to keep a few extended families, really a miniature village. Since acquiring the property, the company had been building outlying barracks to house the men. But a shortage of bricks had halted construction three quarters of the way to completion and it was a good thing much of the company was away on assignment. As it was, some would probably have to make do with tents when the heavy snows began.

"What do you have to report?" asked North.

"The merchant caravan from Prague came back safe and sound, despite the recent unpleasantness. It appears `state of war' is a rather flexible viewpoint for them. Two minor fights with Bohemian highwaymen, but nothing Hastings couldn't handle." Donovan glanced at the barely legible account Hastings had turned in. "There was a spot of trouble collecting our pay but Hastings handled that manner in his usual subtle way."

"I told you hiring him was the right decision. There is no reason for you to dislike him so much."

"The man is a drunk. After he collected the gold, his men had to carry him back to the farm from the Thuringen gardens. Five of his men."

"So he is a drunk. As opposed to which other of our sergeants, I might ask? Besides, he does his best fighting when he is drunk. You should know that."

"Don't remind me," said Donovan, rubbing his chin and wincing at the memory.

"You know how to handle Hastings," said North quietly as he worked out the kink in his neck.

"Of course. I fine him two weeks pay, as usual. He is now seven weeks behind in his pay . . . as usual. At this rate he will be in servitude to us for his entire lifetime and never collect a coin aside from what he can pilfer from our contracts."

"Huh," North grunted. "Don't let the Americans hear, they are rather touchy about slavery."

"Speaking of which, I finished talking with the gunsmith and we can take possession of seventy-five more flintlocks along with forty thousand rounds of ammunition. We still have a sufficient supply of gunpowder and our own mill should be running in a few weeks. Schroeder says he can begin production by November."

"You are still not happy about that, are you, Liam?"

"It seems to me a frivolous expense."

"I cower in fear of the Irish hordes and their double-entry bookkeeping." North sat up from his desk and tossed the valuable up-time composition notebook into his partner's lap.

"I was being serious, Tom," said Donovan, carefully returning the company's ledger books to the desk.

"So was I." North shuddered appropriately at the memory. "We have been through this time and again. The cost is great but I deemed it necessary. We are in the middle of a war. And we need an independent supply. If we don't have a bottleneck on saltpeter, probably we will end up selling it to the government at three times profit."

"What is more likely is that once production is up and running, Stearns will seize the mill as a `vital military asset,' under their law of eminent domain. And we will be out the huge expense."

"You, sir, are a pessimist. By that time we will have secured all the up-time weapons we need. And we won't need raw gunpowder any longer."

"At which time you will ask me to build a cartridge factory."

"Liam, you are not exactly the paragon of capitalism yourself."

"I do not know what you mean."

"You recruited another fifteen men today," North responded coldly.

"So I did. And?"

"Are any of them between the age of fifteen and fifty?" With a booming economy, and those not involved in a trade enlisting in the regular army, their private mercenary company did not exactly have first choice on who it hired.

"Some," Donovan stalled, suddenly very interested in the cleanliness of his fingernails.

"And I see they had about forty camp followers between them."

"The lasses can be cooks and washerwomen," said Donovan stoutly. "The lads will help in the fields. We need them, Tom. The farm was supposed to be a secondary income but it is turning out to be quite a secondary expense."

"My shirts are washed so often the stitching is coming loose. Oh, I know, they can sew it back up again too. My meals are served promptly. Six times a day. And I can even take a ride in my own fields with Ariner a whole ten feet before tripping over some brat."

"Winter is coming," said Donovan, halting his friend's rant cold.

"We haven't the space," complained North.

"We will. We have plenty of timber about. The newcomers will build their own barracks. It won't be a proper residence but it will do. It is probably what we should have done from the beginning, instead of trying for brick."

"Most of them will desert come spring."

"Probably, but we will still have the buildings they constructed when they leave, and think of the good this charity will do your soul. Which is badly in need of it, let me tell you. I believe the up-timers call it good karma."

"Karma? Where the hell did that come from?"

"India, I believe."


"North and Donovan have been together several years now," said Harry Lefferts. "They met originally in Amsterdam, when the Dutch sent out the call for any mercenaries in defense of their independence from Spain."

Piazza grunted. "That would have been after the truce between 1609 and 1621 broke down, I assume? They must be old-timers."

"No, they're both in their late twenties. Once the truce was over and Spain attacked again—just another part of the mess we call the `Thirty Years War'—the Dutch needed as many mercenaries as they could get. As young as they were, both were intelligent and rose pretty quickly within their mercenary company. And somewhere in the course of it, they got to be good friends."

"An Englishman and an Irishman?" asked Quentin skeptically.

Harry shrugged. "For being from different countries, fighting a war to defend yet another, they had a lot in common. Liam had been tossed out of the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin when it was found out his family was Catholic. The authorities were so pissed off by his false application that he had to get out of Ireland altogether. He landed on the Continent with an extensive knowledge of languages, the classics, and histories, but with barely a penny to his name."

"And North?" asked Mike.

"North left England for less, ah, austere reasons. He's nobility of a sort, being the third son and seventh child of the minor baron of Kirtling. The first son inherited the title and lands. The second son was expected to enter either the army or navy, to defend the glory of England. The third son, if a lord was so fortunate, was usually sent off to the clergy."

Something in Harry's expression caused a little chuckle to ripple around the cabinet room. Harry smiled. "Yeah, that's about right. The Anglican Church doesn't expect chastity. They allow clergy to marry, after all. But they still weren't willing to elevate somebody like Tom North to the holy orders. I guess he had quite a reputation. If he'd been the son of a duke or a more powerful lord, special arrangements might have been made, but . . . he wasn't. And while he was a bit better funded than Donovan, I guess his father made it clear to him not to return home for a good long time. So, Thomas North was alone in a foreign land before finding Liam."

Harry shifted in his seat, trying to marshal his words. "Normally, you'd think, an Irish Catholic intellectual and an English Anglican nobleman would not have much to do with each other. But after discovering each other in a Dutch gaming parlor they found out they did share one fundamental characteristic that surpassed all borders and religions. They like money, and plenty of it, and between the two of them they're pretty good at figuring out how to get it. Since then, their noble quest took them here and there, to whoever was the best paymaster at the time. Eventually they wound up in the Clancy mercenary company loosely connected with Tilly's army back when it was rampaging across Germany. By then, Thomas had risen to command one of the detachments of fifty men used to scout about the flanks of the army." Harry cleared his throat. "This fortunate assignment enabled them to make their unofficial transfer an easy business."

The President of the United States rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "Don't tell me."

"Yup," said Harry, now grinning. "After they heard reports of the newcomer Americans and our effectiveness in the field—not to mention the usual fabulous tales of our wealth—the two of them packed their bags, decamped in the middle of the night, and set out for the, ah, promised land."

Still staring at the ceiling, Mike closed his eyes. "Promised land," he murmured. "Out of idle curiosity, when did we decide to pave the streets of Grantville with gold? And how come I haven't noticed any special abundance of milk and honey around here lately?"

Judging that the question was rhetorical, Harry pressed on. "So, the two of them headed directly toward what most in their situation were taking their distance from. Look, Mike, whatever else, these two guys aren't stupid."

Mike opened his eyes again, still keeping them on the ceiling. "No, apparently not. And, of course, once they got here they wouldn't have had any trouble getting work. In fact, if they're as literate and multilingual as it sounds, they probably did pretty well."

"They loved the place," said Harry. "Believe it or not, what really charmed them the most was our libraries. They both love to read. And, in North's case, I think he loves movies even more."

Quentin Underwood grunted. "They still sound like scoundrels to me."

Harry made a little wiggling gesture with his hands. "Yes and no. I sure wouldn't nominate either of them for the Mr. Morality contest, but they're really not that bad, Quentin. Sure as hell not compared to most longtime mercenary soldiers. The Croat raid last year even instilled in them a mild sort of patriotism, I guess you could call it. Mind you, I think they were mostly determined to keep the libraries intact."

Again, he shifted in his seat. "After the attack, they also decided to go back to the mercenary business. That was because—"

Mike brought his eyes down from the ceiling. "Yeah, I understand. After the Croat raid we relaxed our earlier restrictions on letting mercenary companies operate in our area, as long as they had our seal of approval. Did they ever consider just joining the regular army?"

Harry glanced over at Jackson. "Mike, joining the army was never really an option. And it's just as well, frankly. Either one of them, much less both together, would have sent even Frank into orbit."

"They have a good reputation, professionally speaking," said General Jackson. "I agree with Harry that I wouldn't have wanted to touch them in the regular army. But we've used them for a few courier runs and, mostly, for providing protection for supply trains when our own people were stretched too thin. They always did the job, no complaints or problems, and at reasonable rates. I also hear they do guard duty on local properties and run protection for a few merchant caravans in and out of CPE territory as well. They haven't lost a single one far as I know, and we have a few less highwaymen and bandits to deal with thanks to them." He grimaced slightly. "Of course, they're one step removed from bandits themselves, but all experience shows them to be loyal—as long as they get paid."

"All right," said Stearns, massaging his head. "Harry, do you think they can hack it?"

"Well, Mike, they've been fighting wars since they were in their teens and have more practical experience than everyone in this room combined. In their own way, they're pretty good." He hesitated a moment. "Maybe a bit rambunctious."

"Damn good cardplayers, if nothing else," said Frank.

Mike looked him, surprised. "When did you start playing cards?"

Jackson shrugged. "I don't. But Henry Dreeson says they're damn good. He's played cards with them several times at the Gardens."

"Where?" asked Underwood, coming alert. "In the main rooms or—"

Jackson grinned. "Quentin, when does Henry ever play cards in the front rooms?"

There was a moment of silence. To everyone's surprise, once Grantville eventually bowed to reality after the Ring of Fire and the enormous influx of immigrants and lifted its up-time restrictions on gambling, the town's elderly mayor had been revealed as a card shark. He'd become something of a legend in the area's gambling circles. If North and Donovan were able to keep up with him in the back rooms of the Gardens devoted to serious card playing . . .

Stearns came to a decision. "All right, Harry, bring 'em in. If I remember right, Donovan handles most of the business side of things, so I'll talk to him about the contract. In the meantime, I want you to take our guest out to their place and see if he approves. And I want you to personally oversee as much as you can."

Harry nodded, got up, and left. "Now," said Mike, "let's move on to the next item on the agenda."


The cabinet meeting eventually broke up. Mike stayed at his chair, frowning a little.

"Becky's situation bothering you again, Mike?" asked Ed Piazza, when they were alone in the room. He knew Stearns was worried about his wife, trapped in the siege of Amsterdam.

Mike shrugged. "Yeah, sure, it always does these days. At the moment, though, that's not what I'm fretting about. It's what Harry said, at the end there."

"What? His recommendation of North and Donovan?"

"Not that so much. I agree they're probably the best fit we have for this peculiar problem, much as I hate to admit it. But it's how he described them at the end. `Maybe a bit rambunctious.' "

Piazza smiled ruefully. "Coming from Harry, that's a little rich."

"Still that's not what's eating at me. It's that he hesitated before he said it."

Piazza's smile went away. "Oh, Christ."


The Friday night game was perennially held at nine p.m. every Friday in a backroom of the Thuringen Gardens. The game could very well go on all weekend, with small fortunes being won and lost. Of course the same players wouldn't necessarily keep at it all weekend. Busting out or cashing out, they would quickly be replaced by another eager sheep waiting to be fleeced.

"One card," said North as he discarded onto the felt. "And I still say he was and will be a lunatic."

"Two cards," said Donovan when the deal came to him. "He is one of the finest Irish writers that ever lived or will live."

The other players received their cards, sharing knowing looks with their fellows on what was to commence, almost as much a tradition as the game itself.

"James Augustine Aloysius Joyce," said North, annunciating the first syllables like he was giving orders on the battlefield. "The only reason you like him is because you share a name."

"That is not true."

"At age twenty-four he renounced his Roman Catholicism and left Ireland forever. Yet `history' considers him a champion of those two groups. Bet twenty dollars."

"Call," said Henry Sims, tossing a few chips into the center. "I have to agree with Mr. North here. I had to read Ulysses in college, a terrible experience."

"See? Our shire's senior dentist and a man of learning agrees."

"Call," said Donovan, biting his tongue.

"And his punctuation was atrocious," continued North. "Raise twenty."

"Fold," said Sims.

"Fold," said Henry Dreeson.

"He was an artist," said Donovan.

North sniffed. "He was a lazy little git who could not be bothered to learn the English language, raise fifteen."

"I know what you are trying to do." Donovan tossed more chips into the center. "Call."

"Do you now?"

"You are trying to anger me, to involve emotion in the game, to get me to bet heavily so that you can `clean me out.'"

"When I read Finnegan's Wake, I wanted to put a bullet in my brain and have one of my own. `Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the'—with no period at the end of the novel, I might add."

"He was making a point."

"No, the point is, he did not make a point. Raise twenty."

"That is a fine way to end a masterpiece, and if you did not have the intellect of a flea you would understand. Call. It will not work this time because I know you're bluffing."

"Am I now?" asked North condescendingly.

"Yes." Donovan smirked. "You are shuffling your cards back and forth. It is your tell. Call and raise twenty. We have reached the table limit, I believe."

"I leave aside that you have just proved how amateur a player you are by telling me that. There is one thing that you forgot, old friend." North pushed most of his remaining chips into the center. "I knew you recognized that tell three hands back. The one I lost for a whole five dollars. I used it this time to draw you in. The rant on James Joyce just came from the heart. Full house, ladies over threes."

"Damn!" Donovan threw his three jacks down on the table in disgust.

North laughed as he reached out to scoop up his winnings.

"Ahem!" A female voice intruded. North turned to Veronica Dreeson, who had constantly, and without saying a word, kept in the game, pushing forward chips to the end. North had disregarded her as a nonentity since she was very new to the game.

"I am not sure about four fives," said Veronica sweetly, "but ace is high card, yes?"

"Well . . ." North sat back in his chair and took out a cigar. "That's embarrassing."

"You won, honey, you can pick up the chips now," said the mayor of Grantville to his wife.

The German matron grabbed the chips just a shade too quickly for her naiveté to be anything but an act.

"Ha!" exclaimed Donovan. "The great and powerful Thomas North of Kirtling. Fleeced by a tough old German biddy!"

"Quiet," growled North, as he counted up his few remaining chips, a pile significantly shorter than when he walked in this night.

"Nobleman, warrior and son of warriors, captain of mercenaries, captain of industry. What do you have to say now?" sneered Donovan.

"Saint Patrick was an Englishman," replied North.

"Oh, burn in hell, heretic scum!" screamed Donovan in disgust at the disgustingly true statement. He jumped up from his chair and slapped the cigar out of North's mouth.

"Kiss my arse, papist dog! Those are fifty florins a box!"

North threw the first punch. Within seconds, he and Donovan were on the floor doing their best to knock each other senseless. Good friends though they were, poker was as cantankerous a subject between them as literature.

"Should we, um . . . try to halt the counter-reformation?" asked Dr. Nichols, as he stepped uncertainly into the room and around the combatants to buy in for the game.

"Probably," mused Henry Dreeson. "I'm sure it's listed in my civic duties as mayor somewhere. On the other hand . . . Watch the elbow, Liam!"


"That one looked like it hurt a bit," said Henry Dreeson, wincing and turning to his wife. "Dear, maybe you shouldn't be here. Ruffians."

"Why not? Is good fight," replied Veronica. "Twenty dollars on heretic scum."

"Done," said Nichols. "Liam's got fifty pounds on him."



"You suck!" shouted North.

"It occurs to me that we should ask them to take it outside," said Dreeson. "No need to deprive the rest of the town of this show." Like most of the up-timers in the new booming Grantville, the town's mayor had developed a blasé attitude toward tavern brawls as long as weapons weren't used.

"Very civic-minded of you," commented Sims approvingly.

At this point Donovan got far enough disentangled to give his partner a good right hook. North was dazed from the blow, and Donovan, not really intending to do serious damage in what was basically a nice bar fight between friends, let him clear his head. North was going about it in a funny way, though. He was moving his tongue around inside his mouth and making all sorts of strange faces. Donovan was about to ask what was going on when North spit out a small object in the general direction of the card table. It landed next to Henry G. Sims, D.D.S.

"Is that my incisor?" North asked the dentist curiously.

"Um." Sims gave the object in question a quick, expert examination. "Yes, it is, Tom."

"Do you . . ." North turned ominously toward Donovan. ". . . have any idea what I had to go through to have that put in the last time? At the very least you should know what it cost!"

"Now, please, Tom, it was just a bit of sport. No need to get angry. Keep your temper."

"My temper . . ." North belted Donovan with a powerful uppercut, knocking the man unconscious to the floor. ". . . is kept right where it belongs."

"That's the one good thing about being dentists and doctors in a boomtown," said Nichols, as he handed over his lost twenty dollars.

"It's a growth industry," Sims agreed.


* * *

Driving took on an entirely different meaning when it was a horse that had to be driven instead of an automobile. A horse in many cases is smarter than a man and it required little steering to find its way back to the stable. The difficulty arose however when the passenger kept falling off the horse, seatbelts being impractical additions. North, not one to let his good mood be dampened, picked up his friend, dragged him back on top of his horse, remounted his own and began leading them both back to the farm.

"Soldier, oh soldier!" North began his song.

A-coming from the plain
He courted a lady for honor and for fame
Her beauty shone so bright
That it never could be told
She always loved the soldier
Because he was so bold.
Fa la la la, fa la la la

Soldier, oh soldier,
It's I would be your bride,
But I fear of my father
Some danger might betide.
Then he pulled out sword and pistol
And hung them by his side
Swore he would be married,
No matter what betide.
Fa la la la, fa la la la

Then he took her to the parson,
And, of course, home again
There they met her father
And seven armed men.
Let us fly, said the lady,
I fear we shall be slain
Take my hand, said the soldier,
And never fear again.
Fa la la la, fa la la la

Then he pulled out sword and pistol,
And caused them to rattle,
The lady held the horse
While the soldier fought in battle.
Hold your hand, said the old man,
Do not be so bold.
You shall have my daughter
And a thousand pounds of gold.
Fa la la la, fa la la la

Fight on! said the lady,
The portion is too small!
Hold your hand, said the old man,
And you shall have it all.
Then he took them right straight home
And he called them son and dear
Not because he loved them,
But only through fear.
Fa la la la, fa la la la!"


The "Bold Soldier" had carried North to his corporate headquarters and the sound of his approach drew little attention. It being Friday night in Grantville, one or both of the proprietors of the Albernian Mercenary Company usually arrived half in the bag. North gave his horse to the night groom. Then he walked over to unceremoniously push his colleague off his horse before giving the reins of Donovan's mare to the groom as well.

Still tonguing the gap in his only recently repaired teeth, North had no inclination to drag Donovan into his bed and was quite content to let him sleep in the stable. He was halfway to the house, passing the scattered campfires of his men, when he noticed an unusual sight in the doorway.

North considered himself a man of the world. He had traveled extensively, and seen many things and many peoples. Never before, though, had he laid eyes on the manner of man in front of him. Even in the poorly lit evening it was apparent he wasn't European. Nor was he dark enough to be a Numidian.

His apparel was also extremely foreign. It was in stark contrast to the heavy northern European clothes. It provided scant protection from the chills of autumn, though the man didn't seem to mind. Judging from the stern look on his face and the easy manner in which he rested his hand on his sword, North doubted the man would mind taking on all the armies of hell and all the angels of heaven besides. Immediately North placed the stranger in his carefully selected group of people he had no intention of aggravating. Despite his occasional brawling, he was really quite conservative when mortal peril was evident.

That peril was even more evident by the presence of Captain Harry Lefferts. Not so much the man himself. North knew him well enough not to be afraid of the good captain on general principles, like a number of other down-timers were. What did worry him was the presence of a very wicked grin on Harry's face.

"I am Salim," said the stranger in exotically accented English, when North approached. "Personal servant and sowar to the Subadar, Baram Khan, ambassador-at-large from Shah Jahan."

"But of course you are," said North, taking in the long title along with the exotic guest.

"I would speak with Donovan. This one told he is one I arrange mercenary contacts with. Men here told us he would come soon."

"Mr. Donovan is . . . unavailable at the moment. My name is Captain Thomas North. I am his partner and I lead the company's operations. Please—step into my office." North waved graciously toward the door.



It began long ago and far away. But the story was not really that strange to North for its beginning. A little under two years ago the town of Grantville flashed upon the world stage, literally. It took months for this news to filter to the major population centers of Europe, but filter it did. And soon enough, representatives, diplomats, scientists, theologians, and—especially—adventurers of every kind came rushing to the future town of Americans. But while Europe might have considered itself the center of the world, it was not the world. Indeed no empire in Europe could claim the title of greatest, not even Spain or France.

It was the Muslim Mughal Empire of northern India that probably held that title, although the Ottoman Turks and Ming Chinese might have disputed the point. At times the Mughal emperor in Agra had more cavalrymen under arms than the entire population of some European principalities. India's culture was illustrious and ancient. The Mughal military was a mighty force, possessing gunpowder in most cases much before Europeans. Indeed, at times, most of Europe's supply of saltpeter needed to be imported from Mughal territory.

There was great wealth there, also, in specie and jewelry—but much more importantly, there was trade. The Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, they all came. India had always known traders from the west, and paid them little mind. And then the Portuguese arrived in 1498, and this time it was different. India now became a much more integral part of the world economy and entire regions depended upon the export and import of goods to Europe for their survival. For a hundred years the Portuguese held a monopoly on Indian trade and fabulous wealth flooded into the coffers of Lisbon. Soon enough, though, the other powers of Europe were not content to let Portugal enjoy her monopoly. The Dutch and English, among others, began sending trading missions to treat with Mughal ports.

To maintain their trading monopoly, the Portuguese fought the other Europeans wherever encountered. And, in typical Portuguese fashion, attacked Mughal shipping and installations as well, in a blundering attempt to force the Mughals to expel the other European trading companies. The Mughal emperors were understandably displeased with the Portuguese arrogance, and they flung open their ports to their enemy's enemies. Soon enough, the Portuguese were outcompeted by the shifty northern European merchants and facing unfriendly Mughals in India, Portuguese trade subsequently dwindled to a pittance.

This by no means precluded further infighting between the English and Dutch merchants, coreligionists though they may have been. Whole fleets were lost to "privateers" or even flagged vessels in combat with each other. Trade was money and money was power, a commodity that all wished to hold a monopoly on. And they tried any and all means to curry favor with the Mughal rulers.

One of those means was to tell tales of the astounding new occurrence in central Germany and to provide a thumbnail sketch of its wonders.

Shah Jahan was no fool. Already wary of the European interlopers' maritime superiority, he was not content to allow them unilateral access to sciences from the future. And especially not to allow them to feed his people that information on their terms, and to their benefit. So, eight months earlier, he had dispatched one of his myriad relations on an expedition west in order to establish contact with Grantville on his own terms. Salim had been posted to the expedition as he had had dealings with the English factory at Surat and was one of the few Mughals who spoke their language. Under the guise of the hajj, Baram Khan and his throng of servants had ventured to Mecca. But instead of returning home, he had gone forward to Cairo. A Venetian galley had then been hired to carry them across the Mediterranean to the European mainland.

All through the expedition, the emperor's gold and reputation had smoothed the way. Hiring local interpreters, guides, and transportation was easy. Gold was always a universal language and there were local potentates aplenty willing to show the emperor's representative hospitality.

Shortly after entering the Alps, however, the hospitality had turned excessive. In an isolated manor near the city of Innsbruck, every attempt to leave the hospitality of their Austrian hosts had been shuffled aside. There was always another social event they insisted Baram Khan needed to attend. Then the horses went lame, the provisions sour.

Soon enough, Baram Khan attempted to force the issue and found that he was under virtual house arrest. The eighty men in the expedition made too large a force to slip away during the night—but one man might, and Salim was chosen. A veteran of several wars in the Deccan, he knew how to take care of himself.

His German was nonexistent, and his English practically useless in that region. After a week of effort all he had accomplished was to send a message to a Mughal agent in Cairo informing him of the situation, which had a slim chance of actually arriving and slimmer still of traveling all the way to the emperor. His only option was to continue on with his master's assignment as best as possible, and bring whatever he could back home. He attached himself to a merchant's caravan and after many days of travel arrived in Grantville.

His arrival in Grantville was a surprising situation, to say the least. He was welcomed, of course, but his problem was not something that could be solved with a flick of up-time technology like others could. No . . . this was something that required old fashioned down-time skullduggery, which had led him to the Albernian Mercenary Company.

* * *

"So. Let me sum up the situation, if I may," said North, sipping some imported Ottoman coffee in his office. "You want me to take my company, an extremely small one by the measure of our day, across more than two hundred miles of war-torn Europe. Some of it torn up by a side who doesn't like my side very much, nor apparently yours either. To rescue an Indiaman from forces unknown. You do not know how many soldiers the enemy has, what type of incarceration your master is held by—indeed, you do not even know if he is held at all by this point. He might well be rotting in a grave. And if this rescue is done, I have no more assurance that I will be paid my quite substantial payment, aside from the word of a servant."

"Yes," Salim replied blandly.

"That's not strictly true," Lefferts interjected. "In the interests of diplomacy, Mike has agreed to underwrite this expedition at cost. So anything you get out of the Mughals at the end, Tom, will be pure gravy. He wants to talk to you guys about it in the morning."

"Well, that's a little bit better. Still . . . basically, the mission is: storm the castle; save the king."

"He is not king," said Salim. "But the rest, yes."

"Riiight . . ." North hesitated for a moment while he contemplated. He contemplated only long enough to appraise the cash value of the expensive adornments the Mughal wore like so many glass beads.

"I like this one," he said cheerfully, thumping his hand on the desk. "We are going to have so much fun."


"Ten thousand—all in advance," said North the next morning, in Stearns' office. Ed Piazza and Frank Jackson were present in the room also.

"Did you expect me to say, `Ten thousand! We can almost buy our own ship for that!' " The President grinned, fully understanding the reference.

"Well, I had to try. Fine then, make me an offer I can't refuse."

"Spend whatever you need on whatever you need—within reason—to provision yourselves. Supply receipts to the department of state along with appropriate wage slips. It should be recouped if this is successful. Salim told me the Mughal expedition was more than adequately financed. As far as profit goes, you can present a separate bill to the ambassador once he is safely in Grantville."

"More paperwork." North shook his head, sighing.

Stearns chuckled. "I didn't peg you as the corporate , , , executive type. More of a hands-on kind of guy."

"Which reminds me, I shall require guns. Up-time ones, and as much ammunition as you can spare. We, ah, have had a bit of trouble acquiring enough on our own. This bold endeavor has a much better chance of success if we have a few force multipliers."

Stearns turned to Jackson. "Frank?"

"Do your guys know how to use them?" asked General Jackson.

"I said we had difficulty obtaining enough, not any. I have seen to it that enough of my men are fully cross-trained on all the ones we have acquired. And many served in your army at one time."

"I can probably scrounge up enough for a platoon. Presupposing, of course, that we get them back."

"Of course you will!" replied North indignantly. "Do I look like a scoundrel?"





"Tom, have I mentioned today that you seem to be dafter than usual," said Donovan, as the two made preparations later that day.

"Once or twice a minute since you woke up this morning."


"Time enough for ranting later, old friend," North interrupted. "Now we need to be about preparations, we need to leave as soon as possible. Winter is coming, as you constantly remind me. How many men do we have for assignment, leaving aside those new `recruits'?"

"We still have most of the fool Von Fellenburg's finest," Liam replied, not happy at the thought.

When the two had established their mercenary company, they had ample funds but that alone was not enough to draw enough men to their flag. They had something of a name in the mercenary community, and a few came to the service of the Albernian Mercenary Company. But the bulk of the initial forces were from the fool Von Fellenburg's Finest, a rather pretentious nickname the two had given a Swiss mercenary company whose captain was killed several weeks after the two began recruitment. Whether his death was due to malice or a "training accident" had yet to be proven conclusively. He had not been an officer who was well liked by his men. Regardless of that, though, the stout Swiss mercenaries had reorganized themselves and required a new one, likeable or not. But they were soldiers all, not officers, and were quite willing to let others make key decisions for them so long as the pay came on time. So North had folded about seventy of them into the company, much to Donovan's derision at the inclusion of so many Calvinists.

"We have fully cross trained them on the new weapons haven't we?" asked North trying vainly to find the appropriate file in his cabinet.

"Yes," said Donovan, handing it over.

"Fine, then." North grabbed it. "We will take the first five squads. If fifty men cannot handle this, the entire company couldn't. Do we have enough horses?"

"Barely. They are rather scarce lately."

"Well, it's the war, you know. Ammunition?"

"Powder and two-hundred shot for each musket. The special ammunition is what presents difficulty."

"We'll take all they gave us. We'll need all the firepower we can acquire. But you are right, it doesn't seem to be enough. What about alternative supplies?"

"I am working on that, the usual channels along with all the usual unusual ones. But it doesn't look good, certainly not before we leave."

"Well it can't be helped . . . or can it? Ha! Look what is coming our way." North pointed out the office window into the courtyard.

"Mother Mary, not him again," said Donovan in disgust as he turned to see out the window.

"Him" was the duo's watcher, the "military liaison" who had been saddled upon them when their operations began, as the necessary prerequisite of operating in the CPE. Private armed forces were something the government was concerned about. Lieutenant Lawrence Quinn, veteran of the West Virginia National Guard, was a nice enough human being when he wasn't on the job. But judging from his face, he was not here on a social call.

The American curtly nodded to them both as he came in the door. "Hello, North, Donovan."

"Lieutenant Larry! Just the man we have been waiting to see." North got up to shake the American's hand furiously before directing him to a comfortable leather chair across the desk from him.

"Another two solders have reported their up-time weapons and ammunition stolen," said Quinn, cutting right to business.

"Those German brutes will sell their soul for another mug of beer." North shook his head sadly. "It's terrible."

"You wouldn't happen to know anything about those black-market guns, would you, Tom? General Jackson mentioned to me today that you had acquired some."

"Not a thing, sorry to say. But it's fortunate that you came here. It turns out we need a significant supply of .308 caliber bullets."

"Would those bullets be for the rifles I see that pair of troopers are practicing with over there?" said the American, with a wave toward the firing range. "Oddly enough, the same make of rifles reported stolen."

"Of course not!"

"Do we look like black marketers to you?" asked Donovan, scowling.

"I won't tell you what you look like to me, officers and gentlemen and all that." Quinn got up from his chair. "Don't go anywhere."

"Where would we go? We love it here!" protested North, as he watched the lieutenant leave the room. "You filed off the serial numbers I hope?" North asked quietly, leaning close to Donovan.

"I cannot recall. My memory has been rather spotty today . . . for some reason."

"That's a pity."

The bulk of the company's gunpowder weaponry were newly manufactured flintlock muskets, which was already a significant jump ahead of any other contemporary weaponry the mercenaries might face. But North and Donovan had also engaged, through a variety of means, to acquire some up-time weaponry.

Quinn shouldn't have been on their case quite so much, since the sum total of up-time weaponry the pair had pilfered wouldn't have filled a Grantville native's gun cabinet. But ever since losing half a month's pay to North one Friday night, the lieutenant had been not too figuratively grinding his teeth at the two.


Keeping in character after several minutes' inspection, the American returned with an unpleasant look on his face. "You know, I can probably dig up the original up-timer owners to identify the stolen merchandise," Quinn announced.

"And what if you could? We did not know we were dealing in stolen goods. We purchased them from a reputable dealer. What was his name, Liam?"

"Um . . . Hans."

"A reputable dealer named Umhans. Sadly, I believe he has since left for Magdeburg."

"If you run quickly you can catch him," Donovan offered.

"I'm not going anywhere," said Quinn firmly. "I see you're loading up the wagons. It looks to be a big deployment."

"We are going to Innsbruck, rescue mission."

"Hapsburg territory, behind enemy lines," Quinn elaborated.

"Which is why we need those bullets so badly, my friend," said North. "You are our military liaison, so liaise."

"The Mughal thing? Every reputable mercenary company in the area would have turned that contract down. I'm not at all surprised you took it. Oh, hell, I'll see if I can dig up a case here or there."

"Bless you, lad," said Donovan.

Quinn shrugged. "I have to go with you on this one. Lefferts and later Jackson both had me under the grill most of the morning. Ordered me to liaise a little more personally. You two could get into all sorts of messes without supervision. And we do not need an international incident right now."

North leaned back and eyed his partner. "Does not his concern for us lowly down-timers give you a warm feeling in the chest, Liam?"

"Deep down in the cockles, Tom," Donovan agreed. "We should be leaving in two days, so make whatever preparations you need."

"I'll be here," said the American, and then he exited the building once more.

"I do believe that boy thinks this is going to be pleasant," said Donovan.

"He scolded and scowled too much," North agreed. "He wanted to come along. Shocking, really. An officer and gentlemen by act of Congress abusing his own position just so that he can go out and have some fun."

"The youth today," said Donovan, shaking his head at a man who couldn't have been two years younger than him.

"Well. Weapons, ammunition, food and water, tents and horses, and myriad other munitions."

"All we need now is a plan."

"Don't worry, I have a plan."

"Oh, a plan has he?" asked Donovan, rolling his eyes.

"Oh, it's a good plan. But first, I need money, so hand over the key."

Donovan gave over the key to the gun safe the Irishman had acquired to act as the company's vault. Once he had it open, North sifted through the dollars, guilders, pounds, livres, and florins, but hesitated over a package on the second shelf.

"Feminine hygiene product? What the bloody hell is this doing in there?"

"It's a currency," said Donovan defensively. "Worth more than its weight in gold. And what do you need the money for, anyway?"

"Well, when we get there we will need to improvise. But I imagine we will need a distraction, and or a large hole put in a large wall. So I am going out to obtain some explosives."

"We are not talking about a few guns, Tom. You can not just steal explosives."

North took a handful of gold coins, weighed them in his hands, thought better of it, and added a few more. "Of course not. That's why I need the money." North grinned as he shut the safe's door.


"You have a very nasty look on your face, Liam."

"I don't like this one, Tom, for all the risks." Donovan shook his head. "Why are we doing this?"


"We have money."

"Lots of money," North clarified.

Donovan sighed loudly. "Sometimes I wonder about Englishmen."

"Ha! Liam, do you know why Englishmen exclaim `Mother of God' during moments of particular awe?"

"I assume it's out of respect for the virgin."

"Ridiculous. Are we wretched papists? No, no. The Madre de Deus was a Portuguese carrack captured off the Azores one fine summer day in 1592, by a six-ship squadron under the command of Sir John Burrough. When she was brought into Dartmouth harbor she was three times the size of anything an Englishman had ever known. Sixteen hundred tons. In her belly were wonders beyond description but I will try to enumerate them for you. Gold, silver, pearls, amber, jewelry, diamonds, tapestries, bolts of calico, four hundred and twenty-five tons of pepper, forty-five tons of cloves, thirty-five tons of cinnamon, cochineal, mace, nutmeg, benjamin, ebony. Every merchant, thief, jeweler, fisherman, and man jack within fifty miles ran for Dartmouth harbor to help out in the looting. The queen of course wanted her share and many of those adventurous looters lost their heads for their impertinence. One hundred and fifty thousand pounds was eventually garnered for the crown but the entire ship was conservatively estimated to be worth one million pounds. Near enough the sum of the exchequer for 1592. One ship . . . and it equaled all the treasury could spend in that year.

"Very shortly thereafter, English merchants began expeditions to the source of this wealth. India, and the spice islands further afield. And in 1600 Elizabeth chartered the East India Company, and every year those bastards lucky enough to have bought stock get richer off trade beyond even our wildest dreams. Regardless of whether we get paid or not after this, I believe having a favor owed by the Mughal emperor's representative is a very valuable thing."

"One million pounds," Donovan said in awe.

"One ship."

"I suddenly feel much better about this, Tom."

"I thought you might."


After an hour's ride, the two entered a small farm on the other side of Grantville. It was nowhere as extensive as their own, merely an isolated ramshackle residence away from the city. But the purpose of that isolation was remarkably similar. The owner didn't want to upset the delicate sensibilities of the neighbors. Because the former postal worker was now in the business of making bombs.

While the place seemed busy enough, with many minions scurrying about, a man in authority was not readily apparent. North dismounted from his horse and took out a cigar for the wait. Tobacco had been readily available to Englishmen since Raleigh; most, however, smoked it in pipes or used it as snuff. During his sojourn on the Continent, North had acquired a taste for rolled cigars in the Spanish fashion.

"That," said an American voice, "is a very bad idea."

North turned around to see a tall and girthy silver-haired American with a stolid, unpleasant look on his face.

"So said King James, my dear Garland Alcom. But he is dead and I am not. So I will enjoy my good cigar."

"I meant that's a bad idea because we're dealing with items that get temperamental around flame. So put that out, you stupid limey. Before you blow us to the moon."

"Those things will kill you, you know," said Donovan with a smirk.

A bit hastily, North extinguished his vice. "This dynamite of yours. We require some."

"And we'll need someone to help us," Donovan added.

"What are you doing for the next few months?" asked North.

"I'm busy. And you have to pay for the dynamite."

"Well, of course we will pay you. We are not thieves, after all." North tossed a substantial bag of gold into Alcom's hands.

"Lately," muttered Donovan under his voice, remembering the source of the gold. "That still leaves the other matter."

"I've got a few Germans I trust."

"No up-timers?" North asked with some alarm.

"It's the war, you know." Alcom led the two toward the shack.


"I don't have near enough to mass produce," said Alcom, "but I get enough to put out a steady supply for a few people I trust. Which begs the question: how did you find out?"

"For a people that enjoy usquebaugh so much there are some of you who cannot handle alcohol well. How many sticks have you?" asked Donovan.

"All told, about four cases of twenty, carefully wrapped and settled in sawdust."

"And the explosives expert?" North asked.

"I wouldn't call any of these guys experts. But they know how to transport it, and how to insert a blasting cap."

"Very well then, let's see them," said North.

Only five men were assembled for inspection, and like most private industries in and around a Grantville at war, were made up of the very young and very old. Two boys in their apprenticeships, two gnarled old men, and a lone strongman in his midthirties. At first, North was going to chose him automatically as the man most fit, but then he took a long look at the fair-haired man. While he was a fine specimen of strength, North had to wonder for what reason he was not grabbed up by the army or some other group. And what was most telling was the lack of any sort of mark or wound on him. A man that had never made mistakes or fought in battle does not have anything to learn from. In the end North turned to a gray-haired Teutonic fellow in his midfifties standing with his hands behind his back.

"Do you speak English?"

"Ja," the man replied.

"Why do you work with dynamite?"

"To feed mein kinder."

"You can feed them just as well doing something considerably safer. Why do you really work with dynamite?"

"God create world, someday God destroy world. I help. Very devout."

North smiled crookedly. "How many fingers do you have?"

"Nine." The German held up his hands to prove it.

"Oh, I like him," said North, turning to his partner.

"What ever happened to the idea of buying American?" asked Donovan derisively. "Quality craftsmanship and all that?"

"Don't be prejudiced, Liam."

"Fine." Donovan sighed, giving in to the inevitable. "I like him too."



The contingent of the Albernian Mercenary Company left soon enough for Innsbruck with little fanfare and less notice. The company made good way until reaching the Alps, but then it was a slog before they were able to reach the outlying regions of Innsbruck. Slipping the company through hostile territory was not unduly difficult. It was an age before nation-states and protected borders with major internal policing. The only thing that could have threatened them was a significant concentration of troops, and such armies were blundering affairs that were easy to avoid.

Unfortunately, that did not mean they could be avoided entirely. Fifty horsemen with only four wagons drew attention. The number of troops could mean one of two things. First, that it was a small but extremely valuable merchant shipment. Or, second, that it was the supply train of a military expedition. Either likelihood meant that scouts were dispatched to ascertain the group's identity and purpose before their long journey was over. No significant force could really be assembled quickly enough to stop them, but North was not at all surprised to wake up one morning to his picket's cry of alarm.

Out of his pallet in a flash, North armed himself with saber and 9mm pistol. He checked his weapon, grabbed his eyeglass, and then made way for a good vantage point. Donovan, Quinn, and Salim soon joined him and they all looked at the assembled host.

The situation was not too desperate. Only about a hundred men were evident, which meant two hundred probably opposed them. No artillery; and while some of the infantry carried matchlocks, most were pikemen. Probably some local lord's swift and reckless response.

"Riders approaching," said Donovan, as he looked through his own binoculars. "Looks like a parley . . . God save Ireland! Look at the flag."

Most fighting forces in Europe had a flag to rally behind and follow into battle, even most mercenary companies. The Albernian Company's own was, like its founders, a mix, showing the English Saint George's flag and the Irish flag of Saint Patrick with a certain colorful Latin phrase that was just as well left untranslated. The approaching force had its own standard, and it was one well known to North.

"Steiner," North muttered. "Why did God have to send us Steiner? What did we ever do to God?"

Quinn chimed in. "Who is this Steiner guy?"

"One of the better mercenary commanders Europe has produced lately." North's answer was totally drained of humor.

"Friend of yours?" asked Quinn.

"Once," North replied. "No longer."


With a minimum of preparation, North mounted Ariner and, along with Donovan, Quinn, and John Hastings, sergeant of the company, he rode out to meet his foe. It was possible Steiner did not know the nature of their mission and North thought it best Salim should be left behind on the off chance his presence could be kept a secret. When they reached an approximate midpoint, North dismounted and took out a slender green bag from his saddle. From it, he removed an up-time item that had caught his fancy some months before. It was a green cloth folding chair, lightweight and easily transportable. It was meant for hunting, camping, or some up-timer activity called "tailgating." North sat down on the device—called, ironically enough, a "captain's chair"—and rested his arms on the armrests while leaning back with all the majesty he could muster. Despite the loss of his valuable up-time sunglasses earlier in the year, North was the epitome of cool.

When Steiner arrived, North gave him a small nod, like any proper sprig of the nobility holding court. "Captain Steiner, so good to see you again. How have you been?"

"Captain North," Steiner nodded. Even with the advantage of the imperious height of his horse, he was not quite achieving the same effect of magnificent indifference North was accomplishing. "I have been doing very well, thank you. Better than you, from the looks of things. How many men have you in your company, North? Fifty?"

"At present? That sounds about right."

"Impressive enough . . . for a patrol. I have four hundred here."

"You have two hundred here, only some of which are equipped with firearms. And no artillery."

"That will be here shortly."

"That is a matter of opinion, one which I do not hold."

"You will not reach Innsbruck or the Mughal," said Steiner casually, showing North that he knew of the other's destination and purpose. "My employers will not allow that."

"And who are your employers?"

Steiner shrugged. "Men with money, who else?"

North was silent, taking a moment to measure his opponents from up close. As always, Steiner had chosen good men for his lieutenants. All were obviously veterans, from the manner they held themselves. They outnumbered him four to one and had the advantage of being on their home territory. They were close to supply and shelter, while North's own wagons were already more than half empty. There was one advantage North held, though. He got up from his captain's chair, folded it, and returned it to its bag, tightening the drawstrings shut. When he reached his horse he retrieved a similar bag with captain's chair written on it and turned to Steiner.

"You know where I have spent my last few years, Steiner?" asked North.

"Among witches and wizards, I have heard."

"That's right," said North. "They are witches and wizards, indeed, and they have wonders beyond your dreams. This is one of them, a silly little thing that they didn't even make themselves, but some poor peasant in Cathay did. But you see the quality, the workmanship—here, feel how light it is. Think of its uses on campaign. If they put so much effort into something as silly as this, think of what they have done to their weapons? We here do not have all their secrets, nor even a tenth measure. But we have enough to destroy your force ten times over. You were my friend once and I owe you for your tutelage. So take this gift from me, Steiner, and please do not come across this field."

"I will thank you for the gift." Steiner leaned down from his horse and took the thing, then handed it to one of his lieutenants. "Along with everything else from your dead bodies."

"Not even going to ask me to retreat the field?" North's tone seemed genuinely aggrieved. "You are just going to slaughter me?"


"Why? We have no women, and we travel light. No loot worth talking about."

"This parley is over!" said Steiner harshly. He turned his horse around and trotted back to his own forces.

"Well, that went well," said Quinn sarcastically. Then, seeing Donovan extract a bundle from his saddlebags, he squinted. "Where the hell did you get that?!"

"Around," said North, as he lit one of his cigars. "Tell me, Lieutenant Larry, does your watch still work?"

"Yes," replied the American, uncertainly looking at his wrist.

"Good." North leaned over with his lit cigar. "Would you be so kind as to start your stopwatch, then? Right . . . about . . . now." A slight fizzling noise began.

"I think we had best be going before Steiner begins his advance," said Donovan.

"I agree. That's a good plan."


"This has to be the most stupid, idiotic, harebrained plan I have ever heard," said Quinn scathingly. "It will never work! How can you know when he is going to send men across that field?"

"Hair brained?" North shook his head. " `Okay,' I have `picked up' a `whole bunch' of slang, aphorisms, and American English vernaculars. But someday, someone is going to have to explain to me what hairy brains have to do with anything."

"It's from one of Shakespeare's plays," Quinn replied sullenly.

"Really?" North's eyes widened.

"Yes. Henry VI, I think."

"Well. That's embarrassing."

"We do not have to know exactly when Steiner will come," Donovan explained. "But we do have a fairly good idea. He has certain . . . eccentricities, when it comes to battle. All that is necessary is that the device goes off before his men cross the field and not after. And I believe we can accomplish that."

"Hastings!" bellowed North in his command voice.

"Yes, boss," Hastings replied.

"Ready the quaker gun."

"Yes, boss."

"You have . . ." North grabbed Quinn's arm to examine the time. "Two minutes and thirteen seconds. Assuming that Alcom's product is as reliable as he claims, which it almost certainly is not."


The Albernian Mercenary Company was primarily a horse-drawn affair. It didn't have capacity or, truth be told, ability for artillery. What the company did have in significant supply was sneakiness. Dragged along in one of the wagons was a section of scrap plastic pipe painted black. Hastings went about attaching the pipe to two wheels and a chassis, so that the pipe would look from a distance like a very respectable artillery piece. It was then placed in front of the company in direct line of sight of the enemy forces. In the barrel of the pipe was a witch's brew of gunpowder and inflammable materials that would produce a quite spectacular bang and a cloud of smoke. The pipe was elevated and the "gunner" made ready to fire.

Steiner's troops began their advance. It appeared the mercenary commander hadn't embellished all that much after all. A full two hundred infantrymen emerged from the timberline and were marching toward the Albernian camp with a hundred horsemen ready to chase down any of the Albernian forces that tried to run. The Albernians were dragoons; they rode horses into combat and fought while dismounted. They would stand little chance trying to escape proper cavalrymen on the wrong side of two-to-one odds.

If this didn't work . . .


"Five seconds!" shouted Quinn as he read the stopwatch on his wrist.

"Fire!" shouted Hastings. The cannon spewed forth an impressive noise and an even more impressive cloud of what appeared to be gunsmoke. Now all that was necessary was to wait for the timed fuse to ignite the dynamite, and the approaching forces would assume they were under heavy fire.

"Two seconds plus," said Quinn, looking at his watch with a mild smirk. "Four seconds plus . . . six seconds. I told you this wouldn't work."

"What the hell was that dumb German bastard's name anyway?" North asked his partner.

"I cannot remember but I am going to go over there and—"


"—give that splendid German fellow a mild lecture on punctuality," finished Donovan.

The explosion was impressive enough. But it detonated almost forty yards before the approaching force, doing very LITTLE, if any, damage to the enemy.

"What the hell did that accomplish except convince them our targeting is lousy?" demanded Quinn.

"Scare them a bit," said North simply. He watched the lines continue forward. "Hastings! Reload."

"Reload what? We only laid one charge when we were out there," said Quinn.

"Timeo danaos et dona ferentis," North replied, keeping his eyes on the enemy.


"Bloody ignorant Americans. Ask the Irishman. He is always glad to show off his education."

" `I am wary of Greeks, even bearing gifts,' " Donovan supplied the translation.

"I don't understand," said Quinn.

"So much is obvious." North took out a watch of his own.

"Why did you ask for my watch if you already had one?"

"Because this one . . . was already counting down," said North, carefully examining the display. "I certainly hope Alcom's timers are better than his timed fuses."

"It had better be," said Donovan. "We only had the one."

North looking up from his watch. "Now should do, Hastings."


The second explosion was a bit more timely and substantial. It appeared that the enemy lieutenant who had received his superior's gift for safekeeping would be conversing with his superiors in the afterlife. Laced with scrap ball bearings, the explosion ripped a hole in the enemy formation, killing and wounding dozens in a very close approximation of a claymore mine. It showered detritus of various forms high into the air. A fairly sizable chunk flew so far as to land a few paces away from North and his officers.

"Was that part of a horse?" Quinn asked in mild shock.

"Mother Mary, I hope not!" replied Donovan.

"Snipers engage! Musketeers! FOOORM RANKS!" shouted North. "Prepare for volley fire! Riflemen, independent fire at will. Cavalry, mount up and prepare to engage. Sergeant Hastings, take command of the detachment. Stand ready, men! He's only a Prussian!"

It was all over within ten minutes.

* * *

To Steiner's credit, they kept coming, which was at the root of their destruction. The twin explosions had indeed been frightening but no soldier under his command would shy away from the fight. And while courage was hanging by a thread, it did remain. Courage might have impressed an opposing swordsman, pikeman, or even arquebusier. But a .308 bullet fired from a distance was supremely indifferent to it. The Albernian troops with ten modern rifles picked off approaching troops one at a time. And while attrition was slow, it was adding up. By the time the enemy line approached anywhere near effective firing range, they had also been within range of the opposing line of Albernian musket men. Then they came within range of the fifteen of them who were armed with up-time pump-action shotguns, loaded with slugs. The shotgun volleys ripped into the enemy like a scythe reaping wheat, with a rate of fire far beyond anything possible with seventeenth-century weaponry. Steiner's surviving mercenaries managed only two coherent volleys before retreating the field in a mad rush trying to escape.

At that point twenty horsemen under Hastings armed with up-time handguns charged after the enemy and harried the force for well over a mile. Those armed with edged weapons were easy enough to avoid and those with firearms hadn't the time to reload—while the Albernians had multiple rounds in their weapons, with reload a second's effort.


"Well . . ." said North, after most of the fighting was over. "That was fun."

"No, that was expensive," grumbled Donovan. "We have probably just expended almost a third of the entire company's supply of up-time-compatible ammunition. We won't recover a lot of the brass on this battlefield to reload. And while we have scattered this force, we have probably not killed or wounded more than a fourth of them—with God knows how many more still out there."

"Liam, lighten up," said North. "You should think instead of the fine loot we'll obtain from Steiner's camp."


"Fucking Steiner!" exclaimed Donovan in outrage. "He used to be better than this."

"I doubt he had anything to do with it, Liam. You know how a routed army can be. Besides, this looks to have been the work of only one man, anyway." North cast a cold eye on a nearby corpse. The man's head was lying several feet away.

"Every mercenary with a horse fled the field when the outcome was apparent," said Hastings, looking at the same corpse. "The remaining foot soldiers scattered to the four winds. But not before this bastard . . ."

"Well, what can one expect?" said North. "This area is the provinces, for all intents and purposes, with knowledge of other regions slow to filter in. New discoveries are years old when arrived. Local potentates and princes of the church tell their people that Grantville and its denizens are servants of Satan and practitioners of the dark arts. Mercenaries are a normally phlegmatic group of men and not prone to hysteria. But they do have the occasional fanatic or maniac in their midst. And such a man, seeing the blows just delivered, would assume it was the devil's work."

Most of the camp followers were gone, taken away by Steiner's men as they retreated. Not all. Those that could not be taken away—or those whose man lay dead on the field—had been left behind. But one particularly pious mercenary had not been content to allow that. He'd apparently gone about ending women's lives so that they would not be tainted by the minions of Satan. North had found him severing a woman's head with a saber, screaming in one of the European languages he didn't speak. Not that he'd spent much time trying to translate, of course. North had removed the man's head a lot more efficiently than he'd been removing the woman's.

"Tom," Donovan interrupted. "We have a survivor, found in the woods. She, um . . . couldn't get far."


It was immediately obvious why. The Spanish-looking girl, once the dirt was removed, would be quite a beauty. This possibly explained her current predicament. While far from her due date, the girl was obviously pregnant.

"And what the hell are we going to do with her!" said North abrasively, to which the girl visibly flinched. Likely she didn't understand English at all. But the tone could not have eased her disposition.

"We are miles away from any village, none of which are likely to take her in or treat her well. We must take her with us," said Donovan resolutely.

"Brilliant! You bastard of a Celt! They know we are coming! We are now in hostile territory, have yet to achieve our goal, and when and if we do get the Mughal back we are going to be chased all the way back to the CPE on the wrong side of astronomical odds. And you want to weigh us down with a pregnant whore? Who is just as likely to get shot or worse as reach Grantville safely?"

"Yes, I do."

"I've already done my good deed of the day," said North, with a nod toward a steadily cooling body.

"Winter is coming."

"Oh, sod off! You're not Sancho and I'm not from La Mancha. We're mercenaries, damn you! We work for money not glory and song, you . . . you . . ." He ran out of steam.

North sighed, shaking his head. "Fine. She's small, at least. We can fit her in the back of the wagon with the rest of the dynamite." He stalked away in the direction of Ariner. "And if the stuff is as unstable as I suspect it is, let it be on your head."

"Bless you," said Donovan, smiling.



Turning around and abandoning the contract was never even discussed, despite the change in situation. Leaving aside the huge expenses already incurred, North had given his word and that still had some value.

Within two days the company had reached its destination and met with another surprise.

"Salim," said North crossly. "Is that well-dressed Indiaman riding in the valley by any chance the one we have been slogging through the mountains and fighting for in order to rescue from incarceration and almost certain death?"

"Yes," the Mughal replied.

"Perfect. Just perfect."



"That's a big cat." North backpedaled away.

"Apologies, but Baram Khan does not travel anywhere without him," Salim explained. "Is a white Bengal. Very rare. Very tame, I assure you."

"Tame before or after he has lunch?" Quinn asked, making sure to keep his distance.

"Usually both," said Salim.

"Just tell me what has been going on during your absence," said North.

"My master wishes to speak to me alone."

"Tell him we have come a long way and I do not think it unreasonable to be part of this conversation."

"My master is . . . displeased with decision to bring you here. He wishes to speak to me alone," repeated Salim calmly.

"Displeased . . ." snarled North. "I lost five brave men coming here!" He sighed, reaching into his pocket for the watch. "One hour. I'll be waiting.


"Hastings scouted out the residence our Mughal was posted to," said Donovan, as he sat down next to North. "The townspeople tell us there used to be many more but there are about ten guards that we can see now. Their purpose seems more keeping the townspeople out than the Indiamen in. Hastings also managed to secure another sixty horses. You do not want to know how. But that will still not be enough to saddle every member of the Mughal expedition. Assuming we will be leaving with them at all. I left Salim and he was being bellowed at quite fiercely."

North puffed on his cigar. "Walkie-talkies are wonderful, are they not? Tell me, old friend, what is that word the Americans have for this sort of situation? I seem to have forgotten."

"Clusterfuck," Donovan supplied.


Salim approached the two. Following behind him was Baram Khan, the man for whom all this was for. "Captain North?"


"My master wishes to know if this is truth." Salim handed a book to the Englishman.

It was an up-time volume, something titled India Britannica by a certain Geoffrey Moorhouse. It was remarkably informative. A picture of the Indian Mutiny, with sepoys being fired out of canons for the insolence of demanding independence. Another of redcoated British lines, pristine, stalwart, crushing the motley native ones. One of a pasty-faced European couple being waited upon literally hand and foot by several dark-skinned natives. Pictures worth a hundred thousand words. The once great Indian Mughal Empire reduced to that.

"This does not have to be the truth," said North, directing his comments at Baram Khan. "It happened long ago and far way, in another universe. In this one, with proper planning, it never will."

North waited for the translation.

"You are of these people, yes?" Salim asked for his master.

"Who gave this book to you?" North replied, trying to avoid the question.

"You are of these people. Yes?"

"That book is not the whole truth," said North resolutely.

"It written by British learner at Oxford school."

"How could your master have read this book? Who provided the translation?"

"Grantville is city of Americans, yes, Americans vassals of British, yes? Heirs of men who did this." Salim took the book back with a sudden movement.

"Salim, I need you to translate for me. Please do the best you can," said North, frigidly extinguishing his cigar, an act he only performed during moments of great concentration.

"It is true that in a possible future my people invaded and conquered your people. As it is true your own people did the same to the Hindus under Babur and Akbar and continue now under Shah Jahan. Such is the way of things in times past, and likely for a good long while yet. I make no excuses for my people, as I am sure you make none for your own.

"I am not a servant of my king; I am a servant of myself. I work for money, that is all you are to me. Politics and ideology have nothing to do with it. I came here to secure your release. Now you must ask yourself, why? Why am I necessary? Why were you kept against your will? Why were you given this book? The translation? Is that translation valid? Why, after reading this book, were you released and allowed the run of the grounds? People act out of their own self-interests. In whose interest is your manufactured animosity toward Grantville? And is that hatred in your own best interests, and in that of your emperor's? From what I understand he sent you across half the known world to discover the truth. He ordered you to learn from that truth, and to bring back that truth to him. I suggest you do so, Subadar Baram Khan. My officers and I will await your answer here."

Baram Khan and Salim departed, along with the servants. North patted his chest and was supremely irritated to discover that his last cigar had been disposed of in order to hold a solemn conversation.

"All right, change of plans," said North jerkily, missing his habit. "We only promised to retrieve Baram Khan and return him to Grantville. We said nothing about what condition he is in when he arrives. So. Here's my new plan: we shoot the Mughal, feed him to the cat, bring the cat back to Grantville and have him stuffed for display in the office as a reminder to us never to take on any more rescue missions." North finished with a questioning look and outstretched hands. "How is this a bad plan?"

"Well . . ." Donovan contemplated for a moment. "We could develop the reputation of feeding our clients to tigers."

North rubbed his chin. "A cogent point. But that's a long-term issue, Liam. We are thinking about the immediate problems right now. Do you remember—"

North was interrupted by Hastings' galloping approach.

"Must you arrive so audaciously every time, John?" asked North in a snit. "Would it be so much to ask for you to calmly ride in and give good news instead of shouting that the world is about to end?"

"Yes, boss. Cavalry from the south!" shouted Hastings.


"His flag, along with another I do not recognize."

"How many, and how soon?" North started walking toward his own horse.

"Some hundreds. An hour, no more."

"Get over to where the Indiamen are being billeted. Roust out every man. Tell them to leave everything behind but their lives."

"They have ten guards."

"Take twenty men."

"Yes, boss."


"Enough!" shouted North, losing his temper. "Do you hear that sound, Baram Khan? That distant rumble is the sound of a thousand angry men coming here because of you. My company cannot remain here any longer. You must do what you must. Which would you rather have? A journey to Grantville following your emperor's orders, or to continue your long stay here, living on another man's whim?"

"We will come," Salim said for his master, after a hurried consultation.

"God be praised. Or Allah, if you prefer. Hastings! Get them moving!"


"We have hundreds of miles to safety. They'll chase us down," said Quinn.

"We need a choke point, something to delay them," added Donovan.

North was studying the map. "There is a bridge here on the Inn, with no other bridge for many miles upstream or down. We'll lead the pursuit there, and then blow the bridge. They will have to spend hours backtracking, and by that time we will be well into the mountains. We bloody their nose at every pass, valley, ford, rock, and boulder. The plan is not as elegant as I would like, but it will do."

"Our supply of ammunition is a finite one," pointed out Donovan.

"It will last long enough for us to get within range of one of the CPE's military detachments. You have the radio frequencies, I assume?"

"Yes," Quinn replied, studying the map himself. "But these local maps aren't always accurate. What if the bridge isn't there? Or there's another one nearby?"

"What did you say?" North asked with a smile.

"Suppose the bridge isn't there, Captain Courageous?"

"No! Do not get him started on that," Donovan pleaded.

"Oh . . . oh, why you have to hit me with them negative waves so early in the morning?" demanded North, in a fairly good impersonation of a New Jersey accent.

"It's midafternoon," Quinn replied, confused.

"Always with them negative waves, Moriarty! Always with them negative waves! Why can't you say something hopeful and righteous for a change? Huh? Why can't you dig how beautiful it is outside? Think positive thoughts. Think that bridge will be there and it'll be there. It's a muda butafull bridge, and it's gonna be there."

"Someone please explain to me what's going on," said Quinn nervously.

"Video rentals," explained Donovan. "May they burn in hell forever."

"Woof woof woof!" North barked playfully.


"With a Sherman tank?" said Quinn.

"And country music," added Donovan. "He now always quotes from his films when he is nervous. But this one is particularly bad. He has a cousin named Sutherland and is convinced the man is one of his distant relatives."


It was a sad thing, but North was fighting in one of the most beautiful areas he had ever seen. England claimed a few "mountains" but they were nothing like the Alps about him. It seemed grossly unfair that very shortly mortal men would stain God's perfect green earth with their blood.

The company had reached the bridge in time, thanks to the benefits of a head start and a total disregard for farmers' lands. Johan Brecht, the German explosives expert, had gone ahead and laid the charge. Alas, he'd used up all their explosives in doing so. Meanwhile, securing the Mughals' release had been remarkably easy. The men stationed at the makeshift "prison" had not been not ready for a heavily armed and determined force of mercenaries to come bursting through the doors. The Mughal expedition had been given horses where possible. Baggage was left behind where practical. But that still left a number on foot—and an army's march was determined by its slowest members.

"There is something odd about this scene," said North, as he looked at the column. "John Ford would have had a fit, if only because he couldn't film in Monument Valley. A wagon train of Indian Indians, heading north, led by a North, to a boomtown of central German Americans."

"God is prone to whimsy, as you have often said," commented Donovan.

"Funny you should mention that, since he has played another joke on us. Johan tells me that after he has laid out all the bundles in the necessary places he only has enough wire left for a short fuse."

"How short?" Donovan asked suspiciously.

"Very short. Someone has to stay to light it. There should be enough time to get away from the blast."

"Should . . ." mused Donovan. "I've always distrusted that word."

"Should," North reiterated firmly.

"This is not a movie, Tom, and you are not some Austrian muscleman. You have a business to run. Give the job to one of the minions; that is what they are for."

"I thought you were the one who placed a higher value on human life?"

Donovan shrugged. "None of them are my friends. Besides, they're mostly Calvinists. Predestination, you know."

"Who do we have that I can trust to do this?"


"Hastings is a drunk."

"He does his best fighting when he's drunk."

"Yes, well. We ran out of liquor a hundred miles back, and he has a family back home. He has to feed them, fix seven sets of teeth. Speaking of which, you still have your own appointment with Dr. Sims, don't you?"

"Yes, took me months, and I had to reschedule around this trip. Why are you ask—"


North gave his friend a powerful blow to the head and knocked the Irishman to the ground. It was not enough to render him unconscious, but Liam was not able to resist North pushing him into the back of the wagon with the Spanish girl they had rescued earlier. North removed Donovan's pistol and ammunition and then closed the latch.

"Take the cost of the repairs out of my share of petty cash—and take care of that girl!" North bellowed, as he ordered the teamster forward and saw his friend driven away.

"Quinn, I want you to take command of the column till Liam is up and about. Drive them fast and hard. Do not stop till the horses are ready to die. I will give you as much time as I can. If the ambassador gives you much more trouble—shoot him."

"Shoot him?" Quinn asked disbelievingly.

"Diplomatically, of course. Trust Hastings, he knows what he's doing. John, I will need a squad."

"First squad!" Hastings bellowed.

"First squad has too many old married fathers," North interrupted, with a sigh.

"Third squad! Exchange weapons, fall out, and form on the bridge!"

"North . . ." Quinn said shaken.

"You had your adventure, lad. Something to tell your grandchildren about, assuming you can find a girl to propagate with. Now get out of here, you American whelp. Brecht! Are the explosives ready?"

"Yes, Captain. Excellent, good very work, sir. Fifteen seconds, big boom." The German chuckled and headed for the demolitions wagon.


The bridge was two hundred feet across the fast-moving Inn. Autumn in the Alps was not a temperate climate. If the approaching troops attempted to ford the river around the destroyed bridge, most would die of hypothermia before reaching the other side. Assuming the bridge would be destroyed, of course. While the sticks of dynamite certainly seemed impressive enough, North was not at all enthusiastic about his chances. The bridge was made of solid and sturdy stone and the "explosives expert" did not have great experience in the field. But every once in a while all men were capable of great things, if the reigning deities gave them their extra special attention. . . .

"I swear to God, and any others that might be listening, that if I live through this I will never, ever, make fun of Germans again," said North solemnly.


What little cover could be quickly manufactured on the bridge was, and third squad took position behind it. Already the forward scouts of the pursuing army could be seen. A few rifle shots downed a few scouts and the rest scattered. But they were harbingers of a much larger force and would return. North was checking his weaponry and experienced a moment of panic when he thought he did not have an item to light the fuse. He quickly found his Zippo in a pocket, though. Manufactured in Bradford, Pennsylvania, it was one of the few up-time devices that was easily supplied and virtually immortal.

North saw the last of the column heading away, but Salim approached the bridge. "My master wishes to know what is happening," the Indiaman said.

"I suspect he could not care a whit. But since you seem interested, I will tell you. You and your master will ride safely away. Then, a very large group of very angry men are going to come galloping down upon me. And I will stop them with ten men of my own."

Salim did not seem to doubt North's determination, nor that of his men. Already the ten riflemen were securely behind cover, removing ammunition from their bags and setting the bullets up for easy reload. Salim had fought in many wars and battles and he certainly knew what the new weapons were capable of. But he also knew what many hundreds of soldiers were capable of.

"Are all men from your island so mad?"

"It's the rain," North explained tersely.

"Captain, they come!" one of the mercenaries yelled nervously when he saw troops appearing, a fact North was already well aware of.

"Fire on targets of opportunity, conserve ammunition. When I signal, teams of two will retreat off the bridge to safety while others cover them until all are off. Remember your numbers. Take cover, and watch your arses!" North took his own advice and sheltered behind one of the commandeered wagons that had been emptied and left behind for this purpose. The wood wouldn't stop a modern rifle or a local cannon, but against matchlocks it should suffice.

"Shouldn't you be going?" said North, when he noticed Salim wasn't moving.

The Mughal pulled out an up-time pistol—North could only assume it was recovered from a dead Albernian—and unsheathed his substantial sword.

"I thought I was mad," said North with a sardonic grin.

"Someday, I will tell you of monsoon."


"Who the hell does he think he is, John Wayne?" Quinn asked angrily. "Why couldn't we just blow the bridge and book it?"

"Time," Donovan mumbled through a bruised jaw.


"Bridge blown, they go around. But if we wait, they attack bridge, lose men. Blow bridge with them on it, many die. Maybe Steiner, with luck. Might stop them. We need time for the column to escape."

"So he's going to wait till the last possible moment, constantly under fire, and set the fuse when they're crossing? He'll be lucky to survive."



"Tell me something, my new friend," said North as he fired off another double shot with his 9mm.

"What would you like to hear?" The Mughal took careful aim with his own weapon and fired one of his scarce bullets.

"I should be uttering some epic epitaph at this moment, being the hero of this piece and all that. But the only thing I can think of is `long live the king.' Normally good enough but . . . well, if the truth be known the current one is a useless little prat. Have any alternative?"

"Allahu Akbar," the Mughal supplied.

"Catchy. What does it mean?"

"God is great."

"If He gets us out of this, He most certainly is." North ducked for cover when he saw the enemy infantry formation on the south bank preparing for another volley. Their fire was ineffectual, most not even reaching North's position. But they were getting closer.

"Well, at least there are no windmills about," said North, glumly leaning against the wagon.

"There is one over there." Salim pointed to a structure in the distance.

"That was a rhetorical statement." North squinted to see that it was, indeed, a windmill. "But—ha!—it figures."

After several more minutes of battle, the riflemen of third squad had taken a significant toll on the approaching troops. The effective firing range for the American hunting rifles was far greater than the muskets they faced. But the rate of fire was now dwindling off, along with the supply of ammunition, and the opposing mercenaries were gradually gaining ground. It was time to think about getting out.

"Begin retreat to the horse holder!" North ordered. "Two by two! First pair, move!"

Return fire briefly intensified as Albernian mercenaries ran away from the center of the bridge to the shore. They then took position and reciprocated for their fellows until there was just North and Salim located next to the fuse. With several dozen horsemen about ready to charge against them.

"Should we not detonate now?" Salim asked, expending one of the last bullets in his automatic.

"Not yet," said North, as he took out the last cigar he had found in his saddlebag and lit it. He could see the troops massing on the other side with the minute figure of Captain Steiner in the distance. North didn't have to imagine the look on his adversaries' face; he knew it well from past experiences.

"You must," said Salim, uneasily taking another glance from cover to review the increasingly deteriorating situation.

North shook his head in disagreement. "I would not be able to live with myself if he couldn't see the smirk on my face."

"You are a madman."

"That is a separate issue. This is a matter of honor."

"We are being shot at."

"You worry too much. Most of them are matchlocks, they couldn't hit an elephant at this dist—ahh!!"

North clutched his leg in pain. It was just a flesh wound through the meat of the thigh, and, fortunately, the bullet had passed through and wasn't left lodged inside of him. Still, North wouldn't be running anywhere soon. He leaned over the wagon and saw soldiers rushing onto the bridge. He fired off again and again until his automatic was empty in an effort to dissuade them.

"Get going!" North ordered Salim.

"Can you walk?"

"No," said North, after an attempt to support his weight on his leg.

"Can you swim?"

"More or less."

"Swim with current, let it carry you away. Cold water will help stop the blood flow." Salim took North's fallen cigar and lit the fifteen-second fuse. "Disgusting habit. Go with God, Thomas North."

Salim grabbed the Englishman and heaved him over the side of the bridge, following right after him.



Fifty-five days after departing, the contingent of the Albernian Mercenary Company returned home, after a successful mission, and twenty-eight percent casualties. Winter was upon them and the cold northern European climate was not a welcome one for the visitors from India, a fact that was made known by Baram Khan to the company on a number of occasions.

"If he had kept at that any longer, you might have had a discipline problem," said Lawrence Quinn from atop his horse.

"If he had kept at it any longer I might have allowed one," grunted Liam Donovan. "Salim?"

"Yes, Captain?"

"Your master has still not changed his mind?"

"I am sorry, Captain, no."

"Very well, then, there is still the matter of our fee. Ten thousand pounds, or its equivalent in some reasonably hard currency. I understand he likely does not have that now. So a note for that amount or the equivalent in rupees to be drawn upon in Surat will be acceptable. We can sell the note to the East India Company."

Salim took a moment to converse with his superior. The senior Mughal listened with an impassive look and then was startled, probably when the figure was mentioned.

"My master says, `I had no idea it be that much. I won't pay it.' "

"Somehow that is what I thought he would say. Boys! Help the Subadar find his purse."

"This is a terrible affront to the dignity of my master, and an unforgivable insult," said Salim, as he calmly watched everything of value be stripped from his master's body and those of his more affluent-looking followers—of whom Salim was not a member. "I should also perhaps tell you that he keeps many gemstones hidden in his turban."

"Thank you," nodded Donovan.

"Quite welcome. If we do not see each other again, I would like to say, I am sorry about your friend. I waited as long as I could."

"I know, just . . . Just do not believe everything in that book."

"What I believe does not matter."


"Was your stay here productive, Ambassador?" Ed Piazza asked Baram Kahn.

His question was translated by Salim but no reply was forthcoming.

"Your accommodations? I must apologize. We usually don't host dignitaries of your stature."

Again, silence.

"And I must apologize for that mercenary company, but what can one expect from hired thugs? We did not at the time have the troops to send to your aid. But I can extend to you now the services of one of our Marine cavalry platoons for your further travels. The Continent is currently—"

"That will not be necessary," Salim interrupted. "Arrangements for travel have already been made."

"Yes," said Piazza dryly. "I have no doubt they have been."

"We will of course return to Grantville on our homeward journey. My master expects that with foreknowledge you will have sufficient facilities available for his use upon our return."

"And then we discuss the other issues: treaties, trade agreements, establishment of formal diplomatic relations."

"Such issues will be discussed at a later date," Salim agreed solemnly.

"Yes, I'm sure they will." Piazza nodded stiffly. "Good day to you then, Ambassador, Salim, and we eagerly await your return."


"You were right, Liam, he's been gotten to," said Piazza over a drink in the Thuringen Gardens later that evening after the Mughal expedition had left. "Of course, you didn't help matters with your bill collection."

Donovan grinned. "We pride ourselves on our subtlety."

"The only consolation I get is that any repercussions are years . . . maybe decades, down the line. It won't help the enemy in the here and now."

"There was no changing his mind?"

"Would you? His reaction is perfectly understandable, given what was done to his nation. On another issue: General Jackson has been on my case; the weapons he loaned you were . . . ?"

"Lost in the chaos of battle."

"Of course," Piazza said, thereby giving his official stamp of approval on that version of events. Something told him he might have call to send for the men of the Albernian company in the future.

"There must be something that can be done," muttered Donovan.

"What? An `accident' on the road?"

"It would solve the problem."

"We don't play that game. Word would get out; it always does." Piazza downed his beer. "I'm sorry about Tom, Liam. His death wasn't worth it."

"They never are," replied the Irishman, ignoring his own drink. "He knew the risks."

"If the outcome had been better we could have arranged a citation. He was technically working on government contract. But as it is . . ."

"Keep your medals. You may run out before this damn war is done."


The corporate headquarters of the Albernian Mercenary Company was beginning to look worthy of its name. Snows were on the ground, a chill was in the air, but all of the buildings were now completed. The company even had a Christmas display, a salvaged string of multicolored lights nailed around the front of the main building. After some initial misfortunes, the power lines had been extended to the farm from the Grantville power plant.

A lone man walked into the settlement from the Grantville road. He was bedraggled and unkempt, bearded and while possessing a small limp he still had a bit of a swagger about him. He approached a collection of Germans busy emptying the business ends of several bottles of local beer. The men did not give the stranger a serious glance. With the winter months upon them all manner of men were trying to get recruited into a business that would house and feed them, let alone provide a nice chunk of financial security.

"Wie heist du?" the stranger asked one of the heavy drinkers.

"Hans," the German replied, his attention focused elsewhere.

"Hans . . . ?"

"Hans Grünwald."

"Danke. You'll fit right in here, Hans." The stranger clapped the German on the back before entering the building without asking permission to do so.


* * *

"I'm sorry, sir. He just barged in here asking where his humidor was. Then called me a haiku-writing motherfu—"

"That is all right, Mr. Geller, I know this person. Why don't you get some sleep?" Donovan ushered the recently acquired servant out the door. Entering the inner sanctum, he spied a disheveled man fumbling about the office, searching, hair tousled, beard overgrown, and with a wild look in his eyes that would have frightened lesser men. "You're a son of a bitch. You know that, Tom."

"My cigars, my movies, and my books, damn you." Thomas North sat down in the house's study with a bottle of alcohol and a glass and set his feet on the desk. Donovan would have to have the chair cleaned, as North's mud-covered clothes were clearly leaving behind stains.

"You expended your entire supply on campaign and did not purchase any more from the Spaniard. The tapes are in a box in storage. And the books I plain and simply stole. The cost of doing business. I would not have done it except I had a report a few weeks back that you were in town for a few hours and then disappeared again. And without even leaving a note! It irritated me."

"I had business." North took a heavy drink, and then coughed. "Jesus! What is this?"

"Arrack, and he turned water into wine. The Indiamen did that with dates, though I would not call it a miracle. It was, um, part of our fee. They did not seem to want to leave much behind like we had asked them to."

"I have been drinking for a very long time. I was weaned on wine. In my entire life, that has to be the absolute worst drink I have ever imbibed."

"More?" Donovan asked, ready with the bottle.

"Yes, please," replied North, holding up the glass and leaning back in his chair.

"I really did miss you," said Donovan as he poured. "Since that day on the Inn it felt like a part of me was torn away."

North snorted. "You can stop prancing about the issue, Liam! I kept your precious magnum safe. Spent every bullet in it on my way out, but the pistol is in my kit in the corner." North pointed with his glass.

"Oh, thank heavens," said Donovan, very visibly relieved. "I would never be able to replace it."

"How many men did we lose?"


"Some of them left families, I assume. Did we take care of them like we planned?"

"More than we planned. I established the Thomas North Memorial Scholarship Fund, which someday might even be used. But since you were so damn discourteous as to show up alive I am changing the name to the J.A.A. Joyce Foundation for the Arts. I better not get any argument."

"Wouldn't dream of it." North drank again from his Venetian glass.

Donovan pulled a chair from the opposite side of the desk to sit next to his friend facing the window. The two had a view of some of the holiday revelry outside.

"So where did you go?"

"You know where," said North, looking away and putting his boots on the desk.

"How was the city?"

"Same as always."

"And the apothecary, what exactly did you pick up from him before you left again?"

"Heard about that, did you?"

"He was initially reluctant to talk, but I bartered away some of your trinkets."

"Powder of diamonds, if you must know."

"White arsenic." Donovan cocked his head appraisingly. "That is a very painful death."

"Yes it was."

"Did he deserve that?"

North shrugged. " `Deserve' is irrelevant. It was business."

"Was it?"

"Yes, did you not find it odd? How a book so carefully crafted to engineer Mughal animosity to the English-speaking peoples would find its way to Baram Khan?"

"I did, actually. The entire trip home."

"It was not part of some citizen's private library, nor was it part of some nation's stockpile of stolen up-time books. It was from the Grantville public library. When I flipped open the cover I saw the checkout date. One week before Salim arrived. I assure you, my disheveled appearance has less to do with the road and more to do with the severe scolding I received from the librarian when I returned that overdue book."

"Someone is running an operation right in Grantville, then," Donovan mused. "The cardinal?"

"Not personally; he's not a superman. As much as we like to blame him for everything, he could not have done this. But that does not mean it wasn't one of his agents here."

"Someone with enough initiative and flexibility to get that book and get it translated."

"Not even most of it translated, the pictures would have been enough. The Union Jack flying on flagstaffs and mastheads from the Indus to the Ganges."

"Mother of God. Trade. That is what this has all been about."

North nodded, taking another heavy drink from the arrack. "We stole it from the Portuguese, who stole it from the Arabs. And the French tried to steal it from us back in the other world. This time they mean to succeed. The Mughal expedition had to make its way to Grantville through Ottoman territory. The French are the only power in Europe that has any real dealings with the Turks; the resident French agent must have heard. And the Ottomans would have been worried, don't doubt it for a minute. The Mughals have recently been more powerful, with the fabulous wealth their region produces. A Mughal empire with a few new technologies and tricks . . . and advance warning of what's to come. Particularly with mad Aurangzeb coming to the throne in a few years.

"The French heard, or a Frenchman heard, at any rate. And he halted Baram Khan enough so that the proper propaganda could be produced. The French are not in India at all right now, you know. Not yet. Their company has not been chartered, Dupleix has not even been born. Imagine it with me, Liam. You are Mughal, from a noble family, from an illustrious and powerful nation. And some slimy frog comes up to you. `Listen, my friend,' " said North in a bad French accent. " `Look at what these bad Englishman will do, hey. I will not lie to you, have my people ever lied to you? No. But have theirs? Think about what I have said, we mean you no harm, you are not a prisoner, come and go as you please.'

"It was an effective little operation, I have to admit. Soon enough, John Company would not be allowed to trade anymore. Only French ships and factories. No India trade of textiles, no East India trade of spices, no China trade of silk and tea."

"Unless a tainted Baram Khan was prevented from returning home," concluded Donovan, understanding what his friend had done.

"Indeed. It is remarkable, really—they put all their eggs in one basket. There really was no true second in command. Salim eventually convinced the man who took over to return home with what they had and come what may. I don't know what the results will be, but at least we have some time."

"Salim convinced him? I would think he would be displeased with your treatment of his master."

"Not as much as you might think. Some bad blood between them, apparently, and he particularly did not mind after I delivered a few choice books to him on Indochina. Heaven help me when that she-daemon at the library finds out."


"The early years, with the French. No need to confuse the issue with that later idiot American enterprise. I then sent a rather long missive off to one of my uncles in London who is on the board of the company. Informing him of the situation and giving my advice. With any luck his response will reach India before any possible French response. Things might be different this time. Quiet trade, that's really all we should be after. From all the books I have ever read, military occupation of India was never a paying prospect.

"I wish I had not had to. I tried, but the Mughal made up his mind before even arriving in Grantville and the few days he spent here only let him find what he wanted to find. The men who did this were very, very good. He just couldn't get it through his head that he was being manipulated. A fault not uncommon to the Mughal ruling class, I imagine."

Donovan cleared his throat. "Yes, well, that might have been partly my fault. There was a sort of, ah, problem with our bill. He was possibly . . . annoyed at us."

"Hastings handled the manner in his usual subtle way, I suppose?"

"Poisoning a man for international trade?" said Donovan, shaking his head. "It does not seem right."

"We did a guy in Antwerp for twenty guilders. When we catch that bastard Lynch, we'll do him for free. This one died for hundreds of millions and the future of Britain."

"Your country," said Donovan harshly.

"Yes. My country, as often as I try to ignore it." North looked at the arrack in his hands. "This bottle seems to have died a much honored, though deserved death. Do you have something with more alcohol content?"

"Moonshine," said Donovan, lifting up another bottle from the shelf. "I have no idea why they call it that, except if you drink it in the morning you won't wake up till the light of the moon. A letter came for you while you were away."

"From my lord father?" North asked, taking the bottle.


"He sent me one before we left also."

"He wants you to return home, I imagine."

"Things are happening in England, things are changing, and men of my skill and temperament are needed. It's probably for the best."

"You really believe that?"

"Yes, I do." North stared off into space. "These Americans are all going to get themselves killed anyway. How much cash do we have in the coffers?"

"Most of our wealth is invested," said Donovan mildly. "Steel, bricks, glass, even sewing-machine companies. Most of the rest is in the bank."


"Seven thousand pounds."

"I'll take six thousand of it. You keep the rest, Liam, along with the company. You can even change the name if you like."

"Have a nice life, then, Tom."

"I thought, for a moment, that you might come with me. But—"

North was interrupted by the opening of the study door. Then entered a Spanish beauty substantially less pregnant than the last time North had seen her. He turned to Donovan with a raised eyebrow.

"Meals are now served promptly seven times a day. Join me for one last."

North looked for a moment like he would refuse, but it had been a very long time in between filling hot meals, and once the smell hit him he could not refuse. He reached for the tray.

"What is her name, by the way? I don't usually ask, but I am trying to change, near death experience and all that."

"She never told us her real name. Too ashamed I suppose, probably some don's daughter. I started calling her Dulcinea and she usually answers to it now."

"You must be joking." North lifted the first mouthful to his lips.

"Sadly, no. What is also sad is that I did not know your intentions, so I could not lace the food with a sedative."

"What are you talki—oh, shit."


* * *

What . . .

Who . . .

Fucking Irish.

North woke up, facedown on a cold concrete slab. With an effort, not helped by a minor hangover, he sat up to examine his surroundings. Though North had always somehow managed to avoid this place, he had little doubt that he was secure behind the bars of the Grantville city jail.

"Wakey wakey," said an American-accented voice.

And goddamn all arrogant Americans, which includes the whole bloody lot!

"You are enjoying every minute of this, aren't you?" said North, when his vision cleared enough to see who it was.

"You betcha," replied Dan Frost with a sardonic grin. "Ever since that time."

"I have told you again and again, Chief Frost, I have no idea how that manure got on your squad-car seat. But you should never have tried cutting off the drinks anyway. Closing time, ha! What an absurd notion!"

North massaged his throbbing head, then raised his voice. "Illegal search and seizure, unlawful incarceration! I demand my constitutional rights!"

"That is funny on too many levels to describe right now. But all your rights have been respected, Englishman. You have been arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment for drunk-and-disorderly conduct."

"Shouldn't I have been conscious for my trial? And what about legal representation?"

"Yes, well. It's the war, you know. We all have to tighten our belts and cut corners on frivolities. And there really was no question about your generally drunk-and-disorderly habits."

"Generally drunk and dis . . . which was I specifically charged, tried, and sentenced for?"

"A fight that resulted over a card table one Friday night. With one Liam Donovan."

"He started it," North said, like a petulant child.

"But you threw the first punch."

"Did not!"

"Mr. Donovan is a very prominent local businessman, and he filled out all the proper forms for a complaint. We also have witnesses. Would you call our very own mayor a liar? Shame on you." Frost was unable to contain his amusement. "He and his lovely, mild-mannered wife were very upset at you."

"She won the bet! And since when has D and D been a six-month crime?"

"Normally it's not, but you engaged in a flight from prosecution. We can't have that."

"Oh, kiss my arse. Liam probably filled out the complaint an hour ago. I want to speak to the mayor; I want to speak to the President!"

"Both of them are too busy. Besides, I value their health too much to risk them dying of laughter. Certain folks around here—several thousand, I imagine—have been waiting ages for this to happen to you. There is someone here, though, who will speak to you."


"Liam Aloysius Donovan!" shouted North, wringing the bars of his cage when his friend came into view along with John Hastings. "This wasn't funny in Rotterdam and it's not funny now! Get me out of here!"

"I am afraid I can't do that," said Donovan, after taking a moment to ascertain that the bars were sturdy enough to hold North's temper.

"Do you have any idea what I am going to do to you when I get out of here? And I will get out of here. Just like I escaped from Rotterdam, Preston, and half the stockades in Germany!"

"I have a fairly good idea. I still remember . . . parts of Rotterdam."


Donovan frowned. "That's a silly question. It was payday and the merchants from the West Indies had just arrived with a shipment of rum."

"I mean why put me in here?"

"I believe the term is called `reeducation,' although in your case it is probably misapplied. I am not certain there is enough education in your background to be reed. But I left some reading material under your bunk, anyway."

North took the time to lean over and extract the books from their place and examine the titles. "The Isles: A History. The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. The English Civil War and Restoration." Scowling, he tossed the books onto the bunk. "I've read them all and a dozen more like."

"Then read them again. You will have plenty of time. We are building something here, Tom. Leaving aside that we are one of the fastest growing new companies of a new nation, this country is something worthy of loyalty. Not one populated by ignorant half-naked savages too busy warring on each other to prevent another people of ignorant clothed savages from invading them."

"My home needs me. My father has sent for me."

"Fuck you, Lord North. Your father sent for you because you have money and skills at war. Two things you were considerably lacking when you left home. I am not content for you to destroy what we have worked for and go back to being the unknown and unwanted third son of an insignificant country baron."

"Don't you get it, you dumb bog Irish idiot? I want out! I am tired of this. I killed a man, not in battle but in a fucking garden! He was an arrogant git who probably deserved death, yes, but one who was just trying to serve his country. And for what, for money! I was raised to be better than that. Chivalry, charity, good queen Bess. For England, Saint George, and Harry! Reading Le morte bloody d'Arthur!"

"Damn strange stage in your life for a crisis of conscience."

"I was dying. Never quite went . . . all the way to dead, but I was very much dying in that river. It made me examine things, and I did not like what I saw."

"For what it is worth," said Donovan, stepping closer to the bars, "I think you're a good man. An Irishman almost, plenty of Norman Anglos who were changed under the right tutelage, you are no different. Behind all the bluster and bravado is a good man. In this whole, long, stinking war you were always one of the best of us. Never raped a woman. Never took more than the peasants could bear when you needed it, and paid when you had it. Yes, you killed a man, you have killed many men. So have I. That one, though, was a tool of the French and would have made them much more powerful than they already are. On the whole they are not a bad people; you and I have known quite a few good ones. Not even a bad government, certainly nothing like what this land would know in a few hundred years. But they have made themselves the enemy of this little principality we have made our home in. And in a Europe populated by nations motivated by greed, land lust, and rational self-interest, these people are trying for something better. And are worthy of defense."

"Lord God! An Irishman named Quixote." North held his head in his hands.

"It is not an impossible dream," said Donovan sympathetically.

"I am going to get out of here. In a damn sight short of six months!" screamed North, regaining his resolve.

"Oh, of that I have little doubt." Donovan smiled. "We have a new contract and I expect to be away for several weeks. Hopefully, by that time your temper will have improved. I have made a suitable arrangement with your jailer, and he will allow one of our secretaries to bring you all the papers you will need to manage the business while I'm away. The secretary will probably be Dulcinea, though I do not think I have to worry about her virtue." Donovan dinged the iron bars with his knuckle. "This cell should present enough difficulty even for you."


"Forms, books, payroll, resource allocations, and cost-benefit analyses. It occurs to me that we have been going about this the wrong way. In your movies it's always the Irishman that is the reckless, feckless, happy-go-lucky fellow. And the prim and proper Englishman that keeps him in check. I want to go out and have some fun for a change."

"I will need to write to my father; he will be expecting it."

"I took the liberty of doing it for you. I fancy my forgery of your signature is well-nigh perfect, as much practice as I've had." Donovan extracted a handwritten piece of paper. "Ha hum . . . To, Dudley North, third Baron North, Commissioner of the Admiralty, Ely Manor, Kirtling . . . Dear father . . . Fuck off . . . Signed, Captain Thomas Xenophon North of the Hibernian Mercenary Company. Wayne Manor, Grantville."

"Of the Hibernian Mercenary Company?" North demanded icily.

"You said I could change the name." Donovan folded the note and put it back in his pocket.

"He will never believe I sent that."

"Is it not how you responded to him the last time he wrote you?"

"No!" said North hotly. "I was eloquent. You poxy bastard."

"I'm sure."

"De Valera was an American, and probably a Frenchman before that!"

"A hollow and transparent attempt to anger me. Read the books; think about what I have said. Talk to a few of the Americans on a subject other than cinema or high-stakes poker. Try politics for once, though a word of advice . . . not while drinking. And Edmund Burke was an Irishman."

"Sod off!"

"And so was the duke of Wellington. See you in a few weeks." Donovan bowed to his partner and left him to his incarceration.

"Hastings!" North pleaded, before the other man could leave as well. "You are an Englishman. Do not leave me here, man! Please, I beg of you."

"I am sorry; I cannot."

"Hastings! I am your captain and I order you to have me released!"

"Sorry, boss." Hastings pointed with a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the door. "He is the one who hands out the gold now."

"What gold? You are months behind in your pay!"

"Not anymore. I have been promoted. I am Lieutenant Hastings now. Good-bye, boss."

"Hastings . . . Hastings!"

North was left alone. He spent a brief moment examining his cell and was impressed. It was not the shoddy affair he had been interned in before, but a professional and near escapeproof prison. All bluster to the contrary, he would be here a while.

Bowing to the inevitable, North reached under the cot and inventoried his options.

Not bad, really. The histories, of course. Several novels, Adams Smith's Wealth of Nations, a discourse on international relations, and a green ledger book that apparently held the Albernian company's fourth quarter books. Even a supply of cigars had been included.

"Damn you, Liam Donovan, to the seventh concentric ring of hell!" North screamed to all and any who could hear him. "I hate paperwork."

Then, sighing happily, he lit his first cigar in months.

Chief Frost's growling voice rolled down the corridor. "No smoking in the jail."

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