1636: The Ottoman Onslaught – Snippet 58

Chapter 28

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.