Frederica the Great
The emissary from the Austrians arrived just after Field Marshal von Schwerin’s funeral. It was raining and bitterly cold, so I had taken to wearing a large grey over-coat over my tracksuit that Frederica’s quartermaster had provided. I must have looked rather outlandish, because on our walk back to Glogau’s town hall — where we would be convening with the Austrian’s representative, I received some odd looks from Frederica’s honor guard, the Life-Hussars. I then realized that their disapproving looks might also very well be because that I had already managed to piss off their commander, Brigadier General Hannah von Zeiten, with effortless ease. I had heard that immediately following our dinner, she stormed into Frederica’s tent and nearly resigned on the spot.
Hannah stared at me with black eyes that possessed an abyss within them. As we approached the town hall, I attempted to make nice. The occasional smile I gave her compelled her to spit on the ground. I tried — at least.
Upon arriving to the town hall, we were brought immediately to the executive chamber by the town’s mayor. Waiting for us there was Austrian emissary, clad in a red-and-white sash with various silk fineries. The Austrian diplomat began immediately after we had sat down. His portly framed lurched forward as I spoke. He had a gruff look about him, and eyed me just as cautiously as he did the firebrand that sat on Frederica’s right.
“My name, Queen Frederica in Prussia, Elector of Brandenburg — is Italo Barberini, chief executor of the Saxon Circle Diplomatic Office of the Holy Roman Empire. I am here because my lady, the Empress, your liege within the Empire, has requested a ceasefire. I was instructed by your representative in Vienna that you would amenable to signing one, so I am here to work out the particulars.” Each word that exited his mouth had a certain measure to it — as if he knew the value and intonation of word perfectly in this performative sentence. This must be what 18th century diplomacy truly was — and why it was considered such an art form at the time.
“Correct,” Frederica began, ever his match, “I have reclaimed my birthright, passed to the Hohenzollern family after the death of the last Piast prince of Silesia and wrongfully occupied by her Majesty’s predecessor, Joesph. I see no more reason to pursue any type of further conflict.”
“I would like to remind her Highness — politely — that Imperial inheritance clauses supersede last will and testaments, and since Silesia at that time was a vassal state under the Crown of Bohemia, it was rightfully annexed by his Majesty Giuseppe, and that the Estates General of Silesia approved this. You invaded and occupied rightful Imperial lands and the level of deference being shown to you is—”
Frederica held up her hand, beckoning the diplomat to cease.
“—I would remind you that your understanding of history failed to acknowledge that Silesia is not Imperial land by right — it is technically territory that belongs to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth de jure, and was ruled by Polish royals until the succession controversy. As a titular vassal in Royal Prussia to the Kingdom of Poland, I have reclaimed this territory to administer on behalf of the Commonwealth.”
“The King in Poland, Elector Augustus of Saxony, is also the Empress’s vassal.” Barberini reminded. Augustus was an enemy of Frederick, and was undoubtedly threatened by his more powerful Northern neighbor. He also could never truly marshal the Polish nobility in any meaningful way. He was a King in name only. Was he the same in this world?
“This may be so, but that does not interfere with the validity of our claim. We are the only of the three monarchs that you have mentioned that carry Piast blood in our veins. The land is ours.” Frederica’s use of the royal ‘we’ was a bit — unsettling. This girl who had I come to call my friend putting on the true trappings of royalty was still a fresh and rather uncomfortable experience to witness. Perhaps because it confirmed how truly different we were. Was the General right in her appraisal?
“Regardless, Her Majesty the Empress Maria Theresa has instructed me that she will be willing to allow you to temporarily occupy Lower Silesia on her behalf. Following the cession of hostilities with the French, the Empress will happily present the case to the Inheritance Commission in Heidelberg.”
“That is acceptable. I look forward to the hearing.” Frederica replied briskly.
“I have with me documents that lay out such a scenario.”
Barberini snapped his fingers, and a young servant boy appeared with a small book that contained the particulars of the ceasefire.
“If you could review that and sign it within twenty-four hours, I would be most appreciative, your Majesty.”
“I trust it contains no Italian flourishes of the Latin.”
“I assure you that there are none. It is written in French, as your Highness prefers.”
She flipped through the booklet, and seeing that it was indeed composed in beautiful French script, she smiled.
“I will return to this to you within the day.”
“Many thanks, your Highness. I am glad the rain did not hamper the success and ease of these peace talks. And with that—”
“Why would it?” Frederica cut in.
“I’m sorry, your Highness—“
“What would the rain matter?” She pressed.
“—I suppose it wouldn’t, your Highness.”
“You’re dismissed, Sir Barberini.”
“Your Highness.” Barberini waddled out of the room looking rather peeved.
Frederica turned to me after the diplomat left.
“Can you read French, Adrian?”
“Pea—sant” Zeiten whispered.
“It’s alright, Hannah can’t either.” Frederica said with a smile. “I prefer to write my orders in it, so you’ll need a personal secretary.”
At this General Zeiten bit her lip.
“A-Are you sure, Frederica?” I was at peak embarrassment. My one asset was knowledge, and to be lacking in something that was so essential in the 18th century wasn’t something that sat particularly well with me.
“Yes! I’ve got just the person, I think.” Frederica said with some “When you report back to camp, I’ll have her sent to your tent.”
“Correct, I want you to take a look at it if you can. The secretary can translate it into whatever language you’d prefer.”
It then occurred to me that we were holding this conversation in German. I didn’t realize I could speak German, but the words seemed to make sense, and the words that exited forth from my lips were undeniably of a Saxon variety. But could I read it? I didn’t know.
“Does she know English?”
“You speak English?”
“I do, fluently.” I figured I didn’t need to explain what the official language of the United States was. Or how I wasn’t sure how I was speaking German right now. Some things are best left unsaid.
“Well, I’m sure Françoise is quite capable. She’s written books before.”
I tossed that name in mind for the two hours it took to wrap up affairs and return to camp.
Françoise looked at me as if she had just seen a lost puppy. She was a small girl with a bookish look about her, accentuated by round reading glasses and quill feathers she carried between her ears. Being pitied by the 18th century equivalent of a fellow nerd made me feel even more pathetic. She introduced herself as Françoise-Marie Arouet — and that since Frederica called her Marie, I was welcome to as well.
“You are Frederica’s new companion?” she asked, analyzing me up and down with darting eyes. “The one who took the martial’s baton at Mollwitz?”
“I am.” I replied, getting used to the appellation.
“Oh, good. I was hoping you were the one. It’s difficult to keep track of Frederica’s military friends these days. They have a habit of dying.” Marie offered matter-of-factly.
It occurred to me at that moment that perhaps Frederica’s circle wasn’t as exclusive as I had been led to believe. I didn’t have time to dwell on it, however, as my new personal secretary began to question me incessantly.
“You’re the one who claims to be from the future, correct?” she asked intently.
“From 2017, specifically.” I add.
“T-then may I ask you a specific question about that era?” She asked, growing more furtive with each passing moment.
“What do you know about a writer named Voltaire?”
What kind of question was that? It occurred to me that Voltaire was popular in his own day as well. Was this a test — to see if I was really from the future?
“Oh he’s well known. We read Candide and Maid of Orleans during school.”
Marie’s eyes widened.
“H-how? I—I haven’t published the Maid of Orleans, nor is it even finished — and C-Candide is just an idea in my journal. How did you know those things?!”
“I don’t think Voltaire actually ever finishes the Maid of Orleans. We only read like a piece of it in a textbook. It’s kind of just a fragment.”
“Yeah, the real-life girl its based it on dies and he can’t write it ever again, something like that.“
“Again, you’re asking me to remember a really dry, boring writer from three hundred years ago. I don’t really have much an opinion of his work, because I don’t think it’s really that good.”
“Yeah, it’s just very typical 18th century stuff. Everything’s trotted out in front of you like the reader’s dumb, and then all of it relies on basically suspending so much of your disbelief you get taken right of the story. Most of the writers from that era, I think are like that. Although I like Rousseau, his stuff is very punchy, very conscious.”
As I spoke those words, Marie’s face twisted and contorted, eventually resulting in her jaw falling a bit after I mentioned Rousseau. After I was finished, I watched her fume up in anger.
“I— I have never been so insulted in all of my life! I will you have know — first off — Voltaire is not a man! It’s is not a man’s birth name, or surname — it is completely gender-neutral! I don’t know where they get off claiming that I’m a man.”
Was this girl seriously claiming to be Voltaire?
“S—Second, I am not about to have my efforts run roughshod on by some sort of cretin like you, who travels around looking like some sort of circus clown in that baby blue getup! I have had my plays performed in Paris to sold out crowds, and have hosted the greatest intellectual salons of this age before I turned twenty-four. And I have had to endure the past year of exile for those great convocations, finally ending up here — personal secretary for the Queen of Prussia’s new favorite toy., who insults me! A—and for you to name my greatest rival, as if you are completely unaware — do not pretend to claim that you are from the future — you are a spy, sent to torture me by that damned noble Jacques, who is in league with the de Rohans! I— I—“
Ir was at that moment that I realized that I was talking to this world’s Voltaire.
“—Don’t get me wrong, you’re very important! I just am not a fan!” I stammer out.
“I am important?”
“Y—you’re considered the greatest satirist of the century.” I realize at this moment Swift might be considered more important, but I’m not about to walk that one back.
“Oh, and what works am I known for in that regard?”
“Um—-“ at this I plunged into the depths of my memory, attempting to recall.
“Well, Candide, obviously. And… your plays are remembered as well, the one on Oedipus and Mohammed, I think!” Now I’m really just digging from what trivia I can recall.
“—I — you really are from another time, aren’t you?”
Seeming satisfied, she turned back to her work. After flipping through several handwritten pages, she nodded and then tossed the sheets, bound with string, onto my bed.
“There’s an abstract of the treaty. Frederica decided that I should accompany you three tomorrow to do any other translation work for you and the Brigadier.”
I skimmed the pages, written in concise and clear English — the terminology was a bit dated with all the thous and thys, but I could certainly get the gist of it.
“By the way, Marie — would you mind if I asked you a question?”
“Ask away, Baron von Wust.”
“Um — Adrian is fine — if I may—“ I began, stammering away as it occurred to me what a foolish question was brewing in my head “—Why is Frederica assigning one of the greatest writers in the West to be my secretary? Shouldn’t you be— I don’t know, writing something or being at court in Berlin or Potsdam?”
“Court?! — There is no court, Frederica holds court is the campground.”
“You know what I’m getting at, don’t you?”
“I do — and yes, Frederica would probably prefer me to stay back at the capitol, but I won’t have it. You see — I got involved with — um, a shady business deal so I could put together a play — that Frederica was so graceful in helping me out of. I insisted I pay back my debts, and here I am. Lieutenant Marie Voltaire, pretending my hardest to be a Prussian.” She added a German salute.
It then occurred to me that my Lieutenant Colonel’s commission must have been extremely meaningful of Voltaire couldn’t brush past the first rank.
“And you’re sure you’re okay with it?”
“Of course! Anything to return a favor to a friend.”
“And you’re fine with being my secretary?”
“If I must translate for a cretin, I must translate for a cretin.” she said matter-of-factly.
It just then occurred to me that every woman I had run into here was utterly disagreeable.
“Make sure to read that briefing. I hope it’s not too boring.”
“You’re never going to let me live that one down, huh?”
“Not a chance!” She said with a flourish. Gathering her writing utensils under her arm, she made her way to the tent flap. Turning to me one last time, she looked at me dead in the eyes.
“We shall see about the Maid of Orleans.”
Following my chat with Marie Voltaire, it struck me that it might not be wise to give every figure of historical significance I ran into their condensed biography upon first meeting them. I must have left quite the impact on her with that exchange of words last night, as she arrived in camp looking thoroughly tired and ragged. Even Frederica noticed, and the reddened face of the Prussian Queen indicated that she thought something was up.
“My guards told me that you returned from Baron Wust’s tent at a late hour, Marie.” she began suddenly as myself, the Queen, Voltaire and Zeiten began our ride to the Glogau’s Rathausplatz. The Queen didn’t sound amused.
“T-The Baron and I — conversed about—“ Voltaire paused with a yawn, which really gaslit Frederica, “Various topics relating to t-the state of… literature in his time.”
Frederica’s eyes shot over to me.
“Oh, do tell Us the gist of it, Adrian.”
Was I just royal “we”’d?
“Well,” I began after scratching my chin reflexively — “I think Marie was concerned about the posterior of her works.”
“What about Marie’s posterior?”
A bit tired myself, I almost began an analysis of the glimpse of Marie’s supple, firm buttocks that I sampled as she exited my tent the previous evening. But realizing immediately that Frederica’s temper was rising — so much so I could just short of smell the smoke from her tears — it occurred to me that I might have committed a Freudian slip.
“A—Ah — I should’ve said posterity.”
“Posterity?” Frederica’s eyes were still darting back and forth from me to Voltaire, who was nearly falling off her horse while dozing.
“Um — yes, Voltaire was wondering how her works were received in my era.”
“The era in which I am a man?”
“Voltaire is too, coincidentally.” I offered with outstretched hands.
“Voltaire — a man?!” At this Frederica began to laugh heartily — as if she had entirely forgotten about the saucy implications of me and Voltaire alone in a tent the evening before. It was rather amusing — the whole affair, from Frederica’s jealousy to her quickness to humor at the thought of Voltaire’s gender.
“It s—eems absurd to me a—s well, your Maje—sty.” Voltaire said through slurring lips. She must have been working on Maid of Orleans the entire evening.
“You know what they would call Voltaire if she were a man?” She asked me as she rode up alongside me, running an elbow into my side.
“I’m not sure, Frederica.” I said in-between gasps.
I couldn’t help but giggle at Frederica’s kitsch joke.
“We’re quite the cornucopia,” I offered.
“Oh — you and Voltaire?” Frederica asked, suddenly growing serious.
“No, I was thinking us four.”
As we continued on prattling, we crossed the city gate. Crowds of soldiers and civilians gathered to gawk and mill around us as we approached the Rathuasplatz.
“What am I, then?” Zeiten butted in.
“Um, a rhubarb.” I said after a moment pondering. Zeiten seemed to use all of her mental capacity to figure out why I had chosen such a plant.
“Why a rhubarb?!” She snapped back, assuming it must have been an insult.
“Well, you’re tall and red and if you get pissed off, you’re quite poisonous.” I noted with a shrug. Frederica was again reduced to a laughing mess, her blonde hair thrashing about her face as she chuckled.
“He’s got you pegged, Hannah!” Frederica shouted, “What am I, Adrian?”
For a moment, I lost myself in Frederica as I tried to put to mind what sort of noble fruit she could be. Her now messy blonde hair waving about in the wind, her slender but healthy frame modestly tucked under a simple officer’s field tunic that was probably a size too small. Her thin legs held in tight breeches tucked under her jodphurs. She was no doubt beautiful, humble, kind — the model of European beauty but also a fierce amazon in her own right — and the mental match of any man. Lost for a time in this creature of contradiction — it then occurred to me, the image overtaking her face and leading me to blurt out suddenly:
Frederica has refused to talk to me for the past hour. It didn’t take much to realize I had thoroughly insulted her womanhood by comparing her to that most unaesthetic of vegetables. It occurs to me know that I should have probably mentioned my intent behind this comparison — her monologue about the virtues of the food — it’s quiet splendor and innate usefulness and hardiness — had nothing short of inspired me. But I can’t imagine any woman that I knew in this era or my own that would like to be compared to one, regardless of its virtues.
And I had blathered out those words in front of her friends, who both looked at me as if I was some sort of heartbreaker.
We entered the executive chamber of the Rathausplatz in damp spirits. So damp, in fact, that I almost didn’t notice that the layout of the room had been changed over the course of the previous day. I’m usually sensitive to these kind of changes because in my own time, I lived with a mother who likened herself to be an amateur interior designer — and would constantly be changing the layout of my bedroom to fit her seasonal vision of feng shui. And this room that we had met in just the day before had been given the same treatment. Now the table, which had been initially laid out in the rear of the room, was now much closer to the door, and had its left side facing a grand window that looked out into the nearby merchant guild’s headquarters across the open air plaza. We were seated with our backs to the window, which was left open, exposing the room to a cool breeze. Frederica was given a seat of honor in the table’s center, with two adjoining chairs on her left and right at equally spaced intervals.
The issue was, of course, was that Voltaire was now in our company.
“Ah, the esteemed literati Voltaire has so kindly joined us.” The diplomat, Italo Barberini mentioned as he entered. He seemed a bit stiff.
“Please, ladies — take a seat. We shall get a chair for Baron Wust from storage presently.”
Barberini nodded at a manservant.
“There’s no need—” I noted. “My leg fell asleep on the ride up, I’d prefer to stand.”
“I—if you insist.” Barberini replied uncomfortably, stroking his goatee.
I leaned at the windowsill and stared out into the Rathauspltaz as Barberini discussed the particulars of the treaty. I noticed that he constantly was glancing up at me — and it was at that moment that it occurred to me that something was off. The decor of the room — the positioning of the chairs and Barberini’s incessant sweating all were warning signs — but to what?
“I— I’m glad we are able to c—conclude these p—proceedings so efficiently.” He said, his eyes on me and not Frederica. “B-but it occurs to me that I have left my Royal Seal in my quarters. Allow me the opportunity to retrieve it.”
Barberini quickly shuffled out of his seat and skunked his way to the door. And it was at that moment that I saw it. The glint of a telescopic sight. A familiar sight to those who’ve played enough first person shooter games.
No response. It then immediately all came together. This was no peace accord. This was an assassination attempt. And this was certainly not in the history books.
No response. If I didn’t do something here, I would be doomed. My single, currently pissed-off advocate would be felled by a rifled musket shot.
No time. I dove headfirst into Frederica, who had just gotten up from the chair. The sound of a gun firing rang out from the bell-tower of Merchant Guild headquarters.
And at that moment I felt something tear through my shoulder.
I couldn’t reply. I opened my mouth but only a cry of pain escaped my lips. My eyes turned to my right shoulder. There was a marble-sized hole in it, producing a great deal of blood.
Was I going to die here?
I couldn’t reply. What was there to say? My eyes turned to Frederica, who had tears in her eyes. I felt a force press down on my shoulder. Frederica’s hands, covered in my blood. I was in trouble, wasn’t I?
“Adrian, you idiot!” Frederica was hysterical.
No time to reply. Only to laugh. I craned my neck to Zeiten, who was in the midst of a Mexican standoff with Barberini.
“Pull the trigger, you cut of veal.” She commanded the portly diplomat, who was producing a pool of sweat on the floor. “You’ve only got one bullet, so make it count.”
Barberini wheeled his gun towards me and Frederica. And then, back towards Zeiten, who had taken a step forward. And then back to Frederica. And then back to Zeiten, who took another step forward and was now very much at point blank.
“Point it at Frederica again, Mortadella.” she ordered, this time bellowing. I saw the corner of her eye. It raged with fire redder than her bob-cut hair. “Because when you do, I’m coming.”
Shaking, Barberini turned the gun not to Frederica, but his head.
“Y—you won’t take me alive! You need me alive to ransom to the Empress!”
Zeiten began to laugh. And then she quick-drew her pistol and sent Barberini to the floor with a bullet. Clutching his gut, he writhed in pain, cursing in Italian.
“You’re not gonna rob me of the pleasure, Papa Barberini.”
Lording over her prey, the predator gloated incessantly before wheeling her boot around. Then, in an orgy of movement, the spur of her jodhpur met his temple. Barberini rolled no more. I felt something rise up in my stomach. Was it blood, or vomit?
My vision began to haze. I saw the Brigadier pull the pistol from Barberini’s dead hand. Frederica called out to me. The servant boy, on his knees, crawled over to Zeiten, offering himself to her in surrender. She fired a bullet into the back of his head.
Before losing consciousness, I heard her say:
“Get him out of here, Frederica, Voltaire! Leave the gunman to me.”