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1636: The Ottoman Onslaught: Chapter Twenty Three
Last updated: Thursday, November 24, 2016 08:32 EST
Because the city had been ravaged by plague a few years earlier, Wroclaw’s population had declined since Jozef Wojtowicz had last visited it as a boy of twelve. The population had been somewhere around forty thousand people then; today he doubted if it still had as many as thirty thousand. There were empty buildings everywhere he looked, many of which had badly deteriorated. Still, the city showed plenty of signs of life. He thought it was probably growing again, in prosperity as well as population.
And, again, he was unhappily aware that little if any of the improvement had been due to King Wladyslaw or the Sejm. The emergence of the United States of Europe as a powerful realm in central Europe had brought most of the chaos unleashed in 1618 to a halt. The economy of the area had started rapidly improving as a result, partly driven by the influx of up-time technologies and financial methods.
Wroclaw was a mostly German city, and had been since the Mongol invasion four centuries earlier had destroyed the original Polish settlement. The ties of language as well as kinship made it easier for the city to absorb and reflect the growth taking place to the west. That had been true even when neighboring Saxony had been ruled by the Albertine branch of the Wettin dynasty, whose last elector had been John George. Now that it was for all practical purposes ruled by Gretchen Richter and her CoC comrades, Jozef expected western influence to expand even more rapidly.
Which was something else he had mixed feelings about. On the one hand, he approved of most of that influence. The thing that bothered him was that very little of it was Polish in origin. Still worse was that, so far at least, he’d seen no indication that Poland’s rulers were receptive to it, other than in some narrowly military applications.
Jozef didn’t consider himself an intellectual — certainly not in the pretentious manner that the hothouse radicals he’d encountered in Mecklenburg used the term. But unlike most members of his szlachta class, he read a great deal. Partly that was due to his own inclination; partly to his responsibilities as the central figure in Koniecpolski’s espionage operations in the USE. Among other things Jozef had made a point of reading were the history books regarding Poland the up-timers had in their possession.
There weren’t many of them, unfortunately. Grantville had been a small town. Although its population had a fair number of residents of Polish origin, none of them had been recent immigrants. Such people had an attachment of sorts to their Polish ancestry, but it was sentimental in nature, not analytical, focused heavily on the Pole who had been the then-in-office pope and a trade union leader named Lech Walesa. They knew little of their homeland’s history prior to then, and much of what they thought they knew was inaccurate or downright wrong.
Still, there had been a few books in Grantville. The one he’d found especially helpful was Norman Davies’ God’s Playground, a two-volume history of Poland. The second volume was not particularly germane, since it covered the period after 1795 — a date in the universe from which the Americans had come, whose ensuing history would now be completely different. But the first volume had been enormously enlightening — so much so that Jozef had paid to have a copy of it made and sent to Stanislaw Koniecpolski.
Had the Grand Hetman read it? Probably not. Jozef loved and admired his uncle, but he was not blind to the man’s limitations. On a battlefield — at any time or place in the course of a military campaign — Koniecpolski’s mind was supple and resourceful. But when it came to political affairs, social customs and economic practices, the Grand Hetman was set in his ways. Nothing Jozef or his friend Lukasz Opalinski said or did seemed to have much effect on the man’s attitudes.
Since Jozef hadn’t been able to figure out any way to meet surreptitiously in a city to which both he and Lukasz were foreign, he’d seen no reason to even try. Better to have two obvious strangers who apparently knew each other to meet openly and even volubly in the city’s central square in the middle of the day. The very public nature of the encounter would do more to allay possible suspicion than anything else.
The fact that Jozef had two small children perched on his horse would help as well. Whatever dark and lurid images Wroclaw’s residents might have of what spies and other nefarious persons looked like, a young man accompanied by two children would not be one of them.
Thankfully, when Lukasz appeared in the square he was not wearing anything that indicated he was a hussar. He was armed with both a saber and two wheel-lock pistols in saddle holsters, but that would not arouse any suspicion since he’d obviously been traveling and the countryside could be dangerous. Jozef’s friend was an intelligent man, but he’d spent all his life in the insular surroundings of Polish nobility, an environment that scrambled the brains of most of its denizens. In his more sour moments, Jozef thought the flamboyant wings that hussars liked to attach to their saddles when they rode into combat said more about the contents of their skulls than anything else.
They met in the great market square known as Rynek, in front of the Gothic town hall that the city’s Polish residents called the Stary Ratusz and its German ones called the Breslauer Rathaus. They were not far from the Oder, but the river couldn’t be seen because the square was lined with buildings. The area was busy, as it always was on days with good weather.
Other than some passing glances, however, no one paid them much attention. Just to further allay whatever vague suspicions might arise, Jozef made it a point to dismount not far from the stone pillory positioned southeast of the town hall where miscreants were flogged. Would a criminally-inclined person dawdle in such close proximity to the scene of his own possible mortification? Surely not.
Pawel slid off the horse, allowing Jozef to dismount. Once he’d done so, he reached up and lowered Tekla to the ground. By then, Lukasz had dismounted also.
“So these are the children, eh?” The big hussar leaned over, hands planted on his knees, and gave them both a close inspection. Solemnly, they stared back up at him. “They don’t look much like you, Jozef.”
“Very funny, Lukasz. Just the sort of dry wit one expects from a scion of one of Poland’s most noble families.” He looked down at the children, waved in Lukasz’s direction, and said: “This is Lukasz Opalinski. He’ll be taking care of you from now on.”
“No, Uncle Jozef!” Cried out Pawel.
“Noooooooooooo!” Was Tekla’s contribution.
“This is not going to go well,” Lukasz predicted.
“I don’t care,” Rita said. “I’m staying here with you.” Her voice started rising as she came up on her toes. “I do not want to go to fucking Amsterdam. It’s halfway across Europe, for Chrissake!”
Tom Simpson was better versed in geography than his wife, as you’d expect of a field grade army officer. Measuring Europe in its longest dimension, from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Ural Mountains, the distance was a little over three thousand miles — call it an even three grand, for the sake of simplicity. The distance from Regensburg to Amsterdam was
Somewhere between four hundred and five hundred miles, Tom estimated.
Call it five hundred.
“It’s actually not more than one-sixth of the way across Europe, hon,” he said mildly.
“That’s how the crow fucking flies! I’m not a crow — and you said yourself we don’t have a plane available, which means –”
She began counting off on her fingers. Thumb. “First, I’ve got to ride a fucking horse all the way to Bamberg. Forefinger. Then — if it’s working, which half the time it isn’t because it’s got to cross the whole fucking Thüringer Wald and something’s always breaking down — I’ve got to take a train to Grantville. Middle finger. Then, I’ve got to take another train all the way to Magdeburg.”
“Oh, hell, Rita, that’s not more than –”
“Shut the fuck up! I’m not finished.” Ring finger. “Now I’m stuck on a barge wallowing down the Elbe for hundreds of miles –”
“It’s maybe two hundred, tops.”
“Like I said! Hundreds of miles. Then –” Little finger, triumphantly raised above her head. “I’ve got to get on a fucking boat and sail all the way down from Hamburg to the North Sea and all the way around half of Europe — okay, fine, a third of Europe — to get to Amsterdam.”
She lowered her hand. “And all this for what? Buying or leasing a fucking blimp about which I know absolutely squat. That’s why you’re sending Heinz and Bonnie. They know what to look for and what to look out for. About all I know about stupid fucking blimps is that they’re big, they’re clumsy, and they fly. Sort of.”
Not for the first time since they’d gotten married, Tom was grateful that he’d been blessed with a phlegmatic temperament. Rita had not been so blessed. She was extremely affectionate, generally easy-going, and in most respects a delight to be around. But when she got agitated — as her brother Mike had once put it — her hills rose high and her hollers sank low. And she hollered a lot, with a liberal use of the Old Tongue.
It was no use pointing out that by now Rita actually had a lot of experience with dirigibles — more than enough to know perfectly well that they weren’t looking for “blimps.” It was true that Heinz Böcler and Bonnie Weaver knew more than she did, especially about some of the mechanical issues involved. And while none of the three had any experience with hydrogen-filled balloons, both Heinz and Bonnie had studied up on the subject while Rita had pointedly refused to do so.
All that was beside the point — and Rita knew it perfectly well. She’d spent a whole year locked up in the Tower of London because of what she herself sometimes called the Early Modern Era Realities of Fucking Life.
“Nobody is going to sell or lease a brand new hydrogen-lift airship to a pastor’s son and an up-timer with uncertain credentials,” he said. “Not unless they plunked down enough gold or silver to cover the entire cost, which we don’t have. That means we’ll have to use credit, which they don’t have and you do.”
“Are you fucking kidding? I don’t have any income worth talking about and you get paid what that cheapskate emperor scrapes up now and then.”
Actually, by seventeenth century standards the army of the USE paid its officers and enlisted men reasonable wages and paid them reasonably on time. Granted, “by seventeenth century standards” was a bit like saying that by alley cat standards the garbage can behind June’s Diner held gourmet food.
Tom shook his head. “That’s got nothing to do with anything and you know it as well as I do. What matters here is that” — he started counting off his own fingers, also starting with his thumb — “First, you’re Mike Stearns’ sister. Second, you’re Admiral Simpson’s daughter-in-law. Third –”
“Fuck all that! I don’t care!”
He left off finger-counting in order to run said fingers through his hair. “Yeah, but King Fernando will care, and Queen Maria Anna will care, and Archduchess Isabella will care, and while whatever Dutch financier you wind up having to deal with might not care he will care that the Royal Trio care. Half of being a successful businessman in the here and now is staying on good terms with Their Majesticities.”
Rita glared at him. But she didn’t say anything and she’d stopped cussing, so he figured they were making progress.
“I don’t know what to wear,” Bonnie Weaver said. Whined, rather. She had her hands planted on her hips and was studying the contents hanging in her closet. Which had seemed adequate enough, the day before, but now seemed like a pauper’s hand-me-downs.
A royal audience, for Pete’s sake. What do you wear to a royal audience? More to the point, how do you get around the fact that you obviously don’t have anything suitable for the purpose?
Johann Böcler looked up from packing his own valise, which he had spread open on the bed. As was often true of the man, he had a frown on his face. If anyone in the world had a temperament that was the exact and diametrical opposite of Alfred E. Neuman’s, it was Johann Böcler. The man could and did worry about everything.
That could have driven Bonnie nuts except that Heinz, unlike most worrywarts, never took it out on the people around him. And he didn’t worry about anything that didn’t have a clear and practical focus — as the very bed his valise was on demonstrated.
Bonnie and Heinz had started sharing that bed as soon as she accepted his betrothal. From the standpoint of seventeenth century German custom, that settled the issues of moral propriety. Whether or not Heinz’s Lutheran deity took the same relaxed and practical attitude toward the matter was unknown, and would presumably remain so until Johann Heinrich Böcler became one with eternity. But that problem was neither practical nor focused so he didn’t worry about it.
So, very pleasant and often delightful nights she’d been having, lately.
“What are you concerning yourself about?” he asked. “All you need — all we need — for the moment is clothing for travel.”
“But When we get to Amsterdam — Brussels is what I’m actually more worried about — it’s a royal court, Heinz! — then what am I going to wear?”
He squinted at her, as if he were studying a puzzle. “Why are you worrying about that now? When we get to Amsterdam, we’ll buy whatever we need for Amsterdam. When we get to Brussels, the same.”
She transferred her exasperated hands-planted-on-hips glower onto Heinz. “And with what money, pray tell?”
He shook his head. “What does prayer have to do with it? The Lord does not provide such things. But our employers will.”
He dug into the valise and came up with a thick envelope. “In here, I have letters of recommendation from David Bartley, Michael Stearns, Jeffrey Higgins — there’s even one from President Piazza, although it’s just in the form of a telegram. But that should be good enough.”
“Letters of recommendation are one thing. Hard cash is another.”
The squint deepened. A puzzle, indeed. “No one at this level pays for anything with cash, Bonnie. If you tried, in fact, you’d be immediately suspect.”
She stared at him for a moment. Then, pursed her lips. “Do you mean to tell me that I’ve entered a world where if you have to ask what something costs you can’t afford it anyway?”
“I have no idea what that means. And it doesn’t seem to make sense in the first place. If you have to ask what something costs then you are being careless because you should have found out before you asked.” He dug into the valise again and came up with a much, much thicker envelope. “In here I have all the specifications we need to acquire a suitable airship for a suitable price. I don’t expect to ask anything except the projected date of delivery.”
He could take practicality to extremes, sometimes.
As Jozef rolled up the antenna he’d run out of their window earlier that night, Lukasz read the message.
Again. He wasn’t really “reading” it any longer, he was just gloating over it.
“To Dresden! A city I’ve always wanted to visit!”
Grand Hetman Koniecpolski must have had his radioman right by him, because he’d given them a response within half an hour.
Lukasz to stay with you. Go back to Dresden. Children will be safe there. Report again when possible.
“And sieges are so boring. You have no idea, Jozef.”
“I’ve been through a siege, thank you. In Dresden, as it happens. I wasn’t bored at all. I was terrified the whole time.”
Lukasz looked up from the radio message in his hand. His lip was already curling into a proper szlachta sneer of disdain.
“Of that Swedish oaf Báner?”
Jozef finished rolling up the antenna. He went to hide it away in his saddlebag, being careful not to wake the two children cuddled together on a cot in the corner.
“Oh, I wasn’t concerned about Báner,” he said. “I was worried about Gretchen Richter.”
“Pfah!” Lukasz’s lip curled still more. “A woman!”
Now finished with the saddlebag, Jozef came back across the room and gazed down upon his friend.
Jozef had spent a lot of time in Grantville, much of it watching the “movies” the Americans had brought across time and space. He liked most of them and adored some.
“Be afraid, Opalinski,” he said darkly. “Be very afraid.”
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