Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

1636: The Ottoman Onslaught: Chapter Twenty Eight

       Last updated: Sunday, December 25, 2016 08:05 EST



Dresden, capital of Saxony

    Gretchen Richter looked from Jozef Wojtowicz to the two small children at his side — the girl was holding on to his leg with both hands — from there to the large fellow named Lukasz Kijek who had accompanied him back to Dresden, back to Jozef, to the children again and back to Jozef.

    “I am provisionally willing to accept the idea that you rescued these children from their destroyed village even though I have never previously gotten any sense that you cared for children at all.” She lifted her shoulders in a minimalist sort of shrug. “But I long ago learned that most people have unseen depths so it is possible. I am also willing to accept — very provisionally — that you just happened to run into your old friend Lukasz Kijek wandering around in Breslau even though your explanation as to the reason for his being there is ridiculous.”

    She now shifted her scrutiny to the Kijek fellow. “If he is a grain merchant then I am the queen of Sheba. Within three seconds of entering this room he had positioned everyone in his mind, especially the three men with weapons. So had you, but you told me you’d been trained as a hussar. He is some sort of soldier, and one with a lot more experience than you’d expect of such a young man.”

    She now looked back at Jozef. “I don’t mind that you’re lying to me since it has been clear for some time that there are things you’re being secretive about. Up to a point, I don’t mind people hiding things from me. Whether or not we have now reached that point is what needs to be determined.”

    The boy standing next to Jozef, who’d been fidgeting all the while she’d been talking, erupted in protest.

    “You shouldn’t call Uncle Jozef a liar! It’s not right! And it’s true what he said! He found us after the soldiers killed everyone in our village! And then when four of them tried to attack us he killed them all!”

    Jozef rubbed his hand over his face.

    “Killed four of them, did he? All by himself. Why am I not surprised?” She shifted her eyes back to Lukasz. “And you, grain merchant. How many men have you killed in the course of plying your peaceful trade? And please spare me tales of fighting off bandits. Bandits do not rob grain boats.”

    By now, Eric Krenz and both guards standing at the door were on full alert. Gretchen made a little waving motion, indicating they should stand down. “Everyone relax. I am not making any accusations, I just dislike being taken for a fool. What I really want to discuss with you, Jozef, is the report you brought back. If we subtract all the business involving the tall blond cold-eyed fellow with the big shoulders and the still posture, how much of what you told me is true?”

    To her surprise, the big “grain merchant” answered the question. It was the first time he’d spoken since he’d come into her presence.

    “All of it’s true,” he said. He spoke Low German, not Amideutsch, and his accent was something of a cross between Prussian and Polish. “Except for the part about me, which you’re right about. I’m not a grain merchant and never have been. I’m a hussar.”

    “Why did you lie, then?”

    “I wasn’t sure of my reception here if you knew who I really was.”

    “There is only one way to find out, isn’t there?” She now scowled at Krenz and the two guards, who’d started to edge closer again. “I said, relax. They’re not going to attack me — and even if they did, so what?”

    She slapped the table that she’d been sitting behind when the two Poles came into the room. It was big, heavy — and interposed between her and them. “By the time they could get around this or move it aside, I’ll have shot them both dead.”

    The Lukasz fellow gave her an intent, quite interested look. “With what?”

    “This.” She brushed her vest aside, exposing the 9 mm pistol in its shoulder holster.

    “That’s a very impressive-looking gun. An up-time model, if I am not mistaken.” He actually did sound very impressed. “But your tactics are flawed. I wouldn’t try to move around the table or push it aside, I’d just ram it straight into you. Pin you against the wall with it. Crush you, probably. I’m very strong; even stronger than Jozef.”

    “I don’t doubt it, but you underestimate my powers of concentration. I’d still empty this whole clip into you and Jozef even if you broke my ribcage. I wouldn’t miss many shots, either. Maybe not any. I’ve become very good with this pistol.”

    The evenness of her tone seemed to impress him even more.

    “Be afraid,” she heard Wojtowicz mutter. “Be very afraid.”

    His friend Lukasz’s lips twitched. “I’m beginning to understand why you said that.”

    “Enough of this,” said Gretchen. “Tell me who you really are and we’ll just have to see what happens.”

    “I’m Lukasz Opalinski — yes, that’s the Opalinski family — and a hussar in the service of Grand Hetman Stanislaw Koniecpolski.”

    Wojtowicz rolled his eyes. “We’re fucked.”

    “That makes you the sworn enemy of the emperor of the United States of Europe, Gustav II Adolf,” said Gretchen. “I would have you arrested even though I strongly disagree with the emperor’s policy toward Poland except that you’re also the brother of Krzysztof Opalinski, who is an associate of the highly respected Red Sybolt –”

    Eric Krenz spluttered a little laugh. “Highly respected by whom?”

    Gretchen gave him a cold eye. “By me, for one — and every right-thinking member of the Committees of Correspondence.” She brought the same cold eye to bear on Opalinski. “Both of whom are known to be agitating for democracy in Poland, which means they are more likely to be enemies of King Wladyslaw than the USE, which in turn means that your position here is complicated and hasty action would therefore be a mistake. So.”

    She pointed to some chairs lined up against the wall facing the room’s windows. “Pull up some chairs. We need to talk.”

    As they did so, she looked at the two guards by the door. “I think it would be awkward to have Administrator Wettin present at this discussion. And it would only distress him. So one of you step out in the corridor and let me know if you see Ernst coming this way.”



Brussels, capital of the Netherlands

    Amsterdam was a bust, for all the reasons they’d made Rita come on this stupid trip which was still stupid even if they’d been proven right.

    “It’s fucking ridiculous,” she grumbled, as they got off the train. “They’re building the airship in Holland, right? At Hoorn, north of Amsterdam. All the artisans, all the equipment — the money guys, you name it” — she waved her free hand toward the north while she wrestled her valise off the rail car, stubbornly ignoring Heinz Böcler’s offer to help — “they’re all up there.”

    She lowered the valise to the ground. It might be better to say, got it down with a more-or-less controlled drop. The thing was down-time made, which meant it was very sturdy but not what you’d call lightweight.



    “So why the fuck are we all the way down here in Brussels?” she demanded.

    That being a purely rhetorical question, Rita moved right on to providing the answer without giving either Bonnie or Heinz so much as a second’s pause in which to insert a response. “I’ll tell you why. Because in the seventeenth fucking century — no offense, Heinz; you’re okay but your time period sucks — you can’t chew gum without getting His Royal Uppitiness to sign off on it.”

    She paused for a breath of air, her hands planted on hips, and surveyed the train they’d arrived in. It consisted of a very primitive more-or-less open air steam locomotive hauling five equally primitive if not quite as open air coaches, all of it traveling on a single heavy wooden rail with — in some places; not others — thin iron plates attached to the top of the rail to cut down on wear and tear. The locomotive and all the coaches had outrigger wheels which ran on the side of the road to maintain balance. They reminded Rita of nothing so much as the wheels on Conestoga wagons she’d seen — once in a museum; a jillion times on TV.

    Heinz had told them that the design was a variation of the nineteenth century Ewing system that had been briefly depicted in one of the books in Grantville. It moved very slowly, not more than ten miles an hour and usually less. But even at that speed, if you keep it up around the clock, a train can travel quite a ways. The distance from Amsterdam to Brussels was less than one hundred and fifty miles. Theoretically, they could have made it less than a day.

    In the real world, it had taken them a little more than two days. The steam engine had had problems. One of the outrigger wheels had broken, almost derailing that coach — not theirs, thankfully. At several places along the way the track had gone askew. Still, it had been kind of interesting and it beat riding horses or (still worse) being hauled in carriages.

    They hadn’t intended to make the trip on a train at all. The original plan had been to use one of the hot air dirigibles built by the same consortium that was building the hydrogen one. But there were only two of the airships, one of which was in Copenhagen, and the one that was available had promptly suffered engine failure — and of a fairly catastrophic sort. They’d managed to get the problem under control before the boiler exploded, but two of the crew had been hurt and the engine was pretty much a complete write-off.

    They could have waited for the airship in Copenhagen to return, but that would have taken a few days and in any event none of them were too keen on riding through the air in a small basket right after seeing how another basket had just gotten partially parboiled.

    There was this to be said for the seventeenth century. It made you reassess the way you calculated risks. Riding halfway across the Netherlands on a dinky one-rail train that was kept from falling over by a wooden wheel sounded just peachy.

    “Oh, quit crabbing, Rita,” said Bonnie. “You’re just cranky because you’re nervous.”

    “Well, yeah. No kidding. The last time I got dragooned into being Ms. Well-Connected Ambassadress, I got pitched into one of the world’s most famous prisons. They kept me there for a whole year. I wonder what’s waiting for us here in the Netherlands. That stands for ‘Low Countries,’ you know. They say it’s on account of the elevation but you gotta wonder a little. Dungeons have a low elevation too. ”

    “Speaking of ambassadors,” said Heinz, “here comes your greeting party.”

    Rita looked in the direction he was indicating. “Jesus H. Christ,” she said. Rita had little truck with down-time sensibilities on the subject of blasphemy. “That mob needs a damn train their own selves.”



    A mob they may have been, but they were a courteous one — excessively so, in Rita’s opinion, although she didn’t make any objection. She didn’t, for two reasons. First, because despite her frequent complaints and protests, she understood that her job on this mission was to be a di-plo-mat, the dictionary definition of which included: “a person who is tactful and skillful in managing delicate situations, handling people, etc.” Second, because it is hard to be rude to people who are being nice to you. A few people can manage it — more than a few, if they have the benefit of New York or Paris training — but most can’t. Rita was in the latter category. There were some disadvantages to being brought up in a place like West Virginia.

    When she — she alone, Bonnie and Böcler having been deftly peeled away by courtiers — was brought into the presence of Archduchess Isabella, Rita found herself being quite disarmed. Most people can manage to be polite, with a little effort. The archduchess, when she was inclined to do so — which was not always, by any means — could turn it into an art form.

    She was one of the Grand Old Ladies of the European aristocracy, as grand as it can get short of being an outright queen — and for most of her life, Isabella had actually wielded more real power than all but a handful of queens in the continent’s history.

    She was known as Isabella Clara Eugenia of Austria, although she’d been born in Segovia and was an infanta of Spain. Her father had been King Philip II — yes, that Philip II, the one who launched the Armada against England and whose reign was considered the heyday of Spanish power. His empire had included territories on five of the seven continents, lacking only Australia and Antarctica, and the Philippine Islands had been named after him. The reference to an empire upon which the sun never sets, which most Americans attributed to the English empire of a later day, was originally coined to refer to Philip’s.

    Isabella’s mother had been no slouch in the royalty department herself. She was Elizabeth of Valois, the daughter of Henry II of France and Catherine de’ Medici. Isabella’s other two grandparents had been Emperor Charles V and Infanta Isabella of Portugal, on her father’s side.

    While still in her twenties, Isabella Clara Eugenia had been a contender for the throne of France, being advanced for that position by the Catholic party that controlled the Parlement de Paris. In the end a different contender seized the throne, the Protestant Henry III of Navarre, who converted to Catholicism after supposedly making the famous quip “Paris is well worth a mass” and became Henry IV of France, the founder of the Bourbon dynasty.

    As if in compensation — it was really just another move in the constant strife of dynasties — Isabella was given in marriage to her cousin, Archduke Albert of Austria. The representatives of the two Habsburg branches were given the Netherlands over which they would rule jointly. She was thirty-three years old at the time.

    The marriage was a happy one, except for the fact that all three of their offspring had died in childhood. Their joint rule inaugurated a period of relative peace and prosperity in the southern Netherlands, and it was during that period that the great age of Flemish art began, with their patronage of such figures as Peter Paul Rubens and Pieter Brueghel the Younger.



    Albert died in 1621, ten years before the Ring of Fire. Isabella then joined a religious lay order but continued to rule the Spanish Netherlands — the area that the up-timers would think of as Belgium and Luxemburg — until her nephew the Cardinal-Infante Fernando reunified the Netherlands during the Baltic War, whereupon she delegated her power to him.

    Her formal power, that is to say. Nobody had any doubt at all that Isabella continued to be a major player in the continent’s power struggles.

    She was a few months shy of seventy years old when Rita Simpson met her in Brussels. In one of the many, many, many examples of the so-called Butterfly Effect, she had now lived three years longer than she would have in the universe which sent Grantville through the Ring of Fire. And, despite her constant declarations of infirmity and predictions of her imminent demise, seemed as much a force of nature as ever.



    Rita never had a clear memory of what she and Isabella talked about in that first meeting — first audience, rather. The archduchess said nothing at all concerning the matter that had brought Rita and her companions to the Netherlands, or anything else that could be considered business. The occasion was purely personal and informal, insofar as the term “informal” ever applied in the presence of Isabella. Even with members of her immediate family, the archduchess maintained a certain reserve — a guardedness, if you will, which was the product of a lifetime spent both watching and participating in the game of empire.

    Rita spoke no blasphemies and used no terms not blessed by Good Society. And for a wonder, enjoyed herself.



    Rita’s verdict on the encounter, as told to Bonnie and Heinz right afterward, was simple and quite West Virginian.

    “I liked her a lot. She’s a nice old lady. Not gathering any cobwebs, though, I’ll tell you that.”



    Isabella’s verdict on the encounter, as told to King Fernando and Queen Maria Anna right afterward, was simple on the surface but not below, and quite what you’d expect from a Spanish infanta whose daddy had ruled in five continents.

    “She’ll do. She’s not her brother, of course. Thank God. But she’ll do.”



Dresden, capital of Saxony

    By the time Gretchen finished probing Jozef and Lukasz to see what they might have left out of their report, inadvertently or otherwise, she and they were sitting at the table rather than standing. Several other people had joined them there as well: Tata, Eric Krenz, the CoC leader Joachim Kappel, and the Vogtlander Wilhelm Kuefer.

    She leaned back in her chair, with both hands planted on the edge of the heavy table, and gave the two Poles a long, flat-eyed, considering look.

    “All right,” she said abruptly. “You need to tell me what you are willing to do for Saxony” — there was a slight stress on Saxony — “and what you are not willing to do. Before you begin, I will make clear that I do not expect you — either of you, not just Lukasz Opalinski — to do anything that could be considered opposed to Grand Hetman Koniecpolski.”

    “Anything opposed to Poland,” Jozef immediately countered.

    “That’s too broad,” said Gretchen. “Pissing outdoors could be considered opposed to Poland because the wind might blow foreign piss onto sacred Polish soil.”

    She leaned forward, still with her hands planted on the table. “What do you really care about King Wladyslaw, Jozef? Or that pack of squabbling szlachta who’ve made the Sejm a byword for incompetence and selfishness?”

    Neither Jozef nor Lukasz said anything, but they both had mulish expressions on their faces.

    Gretchen shook her head. “And they say we Germans are pig-headed. Fine. I will narrow this down still further. What I want you to do is go back into Poland and spy for Saxony” — again, she emphasized that name — “with particular regard for seeing if Holk has any plans to extend his depredations into my province.”

    My province. Gretchen was guessing, but she thought that proprietary term used in such a vaguely monarchical manner might help reassure the two Poles. The Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania was what Americans would call “an odd duck.” It was partly a monarchy and partly an aristocratic oligarchy, with the royal side providing the form of the realm and the oligarchy its real content. But you could never forget what made Poland so unusual, politically — its aristocracy was a far larger percentage of the population than in any other European country. One in ten Poles could — and did, most surely — call themselves szlachta. Even if, as was very often true, they were not significantly richer nor in possession of more land than their commoner neighbors.

    Coupled to the peculiar privilege of Polish aristocracy called the liberum veto, which allowed any member of the Sejm to single-handedly nullify any proposed legislation, the end result was a nation whose real affairs were almost entirely managed by way of informal and unofficial channels. People had fierce loyalties to each other, but that abstract entity known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth got little of it, for all the sentimentality that was so common in Polish politics.

    She was pretty sure that most of Lukasz and Jozef’s real attachments were to the person of Grand Hetman Koniecpolski — with whom Gretchen had no quarrel. The war that Gustav Adolf had started against Poland was his war, as far as she was concerned. One Swedish Vasa butting heads with a Polish member of the same family for reasons that meant little or nothing to Germany’s common folk.

    Let them play their stupid royal games up there by the Baltic. Gretchen’s concern was with Saxony.

    Lukasz and Jozef looked at each other.

    “Okay,” said Jozef, after a few seconds. “But only as it concerns Saxony and Holk!”

    He raised his forefinger in admonishment. Lukasz’s came up to join it. “Only as it concerns Saxony and Holk!” he echoed.



    Afterward, when they had left the Rezidenzschloss and the two Poles were alone, Jozef shook his head. “That was very rash, what you did. Telling her who you really were.”

    Lukasz shrugged. “She’d already figured out we were lying about something. Aren’t you the one, o great spymaster, who keeps telling me that the best way to cover up a big lie is to confess to a small one?”

    Jozef frowned. It was true that he had said that — yes, often — but…

    “What really matters here is not my true identity, Jozef,” Lukasz continued. “It’s yours. It’s one thing for Gretchen Richter and her comrades to know that I’m a hussar in service to the Grand Hetman. It’s another thing entirely for them to discover that you’re his nephew and his spymaster in the USE.”

    “Well. True.”



    “We can’t trust them!” Eric protested. “Especially now that we know Jozef was lying to us all along.”

    Gretchen studied him for a few seconds, her expression impassive. Then she shook her head. “What does trust have to do with this?”

    Eric stared at her, then at Tata. Then, shook his own head. “Sometimes, Gretchen, you’re a little scary.”

    “You just noticed?” said Tata.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image