1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 40

Without realizing what she was doing, Denise had consigned herself to rigid sequestration for the entire journey; what some Muslims (and Hindus, he’d heard) called purdah.

But he said nothing. First, because the net effect would be exactly what Lukasz foresaw: her costume would indeed make her guise very believable. But it would do so upside-down, you might say–or inside out. Denise would have to be kept completely out of sight so that their hosts would think that a beautiful young woman was inside the carriage. And if by chance (or by foul design by some enterprising young lad) she was actually viewed, her appearance would add credibility and luster to the charade.

Mostly, though, he said nothing because Jakub was an Orthodox Christian and none too devout about it. It was going to be a rough trip, especially when he had to ride inside the carriage. He had no objection at all to being pleasantly distracted along the way by Denise’s appearance.

He’d have to keep her from realizing it, though. The girl was fierce.

Ottoman siege lines southeast of Linz

About three miles from the confluence of the Danube and Traun rivers

Murad began the withdrawal after the third snowfall. As with the first two, not much snow fell. But those had melted within a short time and this one looked to be staying for the winter. He’d only kept his men in the siege lines this long because he judged that if he retreated to Vienna too soon the army’s morale would suffer.

It was a slow and careful withdrawal, since he had to keep his troops in position to repel any sortie the enemy might attempt.

By now, the sultan knew that the commander of the forces opposing him was the king of Sweden, Gustav Adolf–or Gustavus Adolphus, as he was sometimes called.

The kâfir king also claimed to be an emperor, but Murad paid no attention to that absurd pretension. There were only two real emperors in the world, himself and the ruler of the Mughal Empire in India. (The Chinese might also have a real emperor, from the rumors, but he had too little information to know one way or the other.)

Gustav Adolf’s imperial royal claims might be specious, but Murad did not underestimate his military ability. By all accounts, including those of the sultan’s own spies and agents, the Swedish king was the best general among the Europeans. Only a fool would behave carelessly withdrawing an army from such a man. True, the Ottoman army was bigger than the forces Gustav Adolf commanded; much bigger. But a big army trying to withdraw from a siege is an ungainly and clumsy beast.

It took four days, but eventually it was done. Within two weeks–perhaps only a week, if all went well and the weather didn’t turn bad–the army would be safely back in Vienna.

Breslau (Wroclaw)

Capital of Lower Silesia

The polyglot force that had no name beyond “Ulrik’s army” set out from Breslau two days after the mission to Vienna left the city.

This evolution was even more chaotic than the one in Brno had been. Australopithecine, at best. But its commander didn’t share Morris Roth’s anxieties. The Danish prince was a calm-headed and imperturbable man, as he’d demonstrated during the Baltic war when he led the attack on Simpson’s fearsome ironclads.

Perhaps more importantly, the officer he’d come to trust and look to for advice was even calmer and more imperturbable than he. The Dungeon Master, his men called him. Ulrik had looked up the reference. Would a good Dungeon Master allow his players to miss an engagement?

It didn’t seem likely. Colonel Jeff Higgins would see to it they got to Woźniki in time.

Vienna, official capital of Austria-Hungary

Now under Ottoman occupation

“I’m telling you,” Judy insisted. “This time it’s for real. They said the rescue mission was underway.

“‘Underway’ could mean anything,” countered Minnie. “They’re probably just trying to maintain our morale. The mission is ‘underway’ because they’re still planning.”

“You’re too much the skeptic,” said Cecilia Renata. “I think that comes from only being able to see the world through one eye.”

“That helps, yes. I’m not subject to optical illusions so much. But I’m a skeptic mostly because my first memory in life was of the wife of the farmer I was bound out to because I was an orphan assuring me the food was going to taste good and there would be plenty of it. The first claim shaded the truth and the second one eclipsed it altogether.”

“Enough,” said Leopold. “We need a new game.”

Judy decided to leave off the dispute over the message. What would be, would be. They’d know sooner or later.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” she said, looking around the cellars. There wasn’t much to see, beyond the few yards around their circle. They only had one candle lit. Most of the cellar they were in was in darkness.

“And you came up with…?”

“I did an inventory of our candles. We’ve still got a ton of them–plenty to burn half a dozen at a time instead of the one or two we usually do.”

“And this is needed because…?”

“Hopscotch.” She explained the game. It didn’t take long.

“I’m against it,” Leopold said immediately. “The last time you came up with one of these overly-energetic American games–‘Hide and Seek,’ wasn’t it?–when I was It and trying to find people I almost fell into the hole.”

He pointed toward the entrance to one of the adjoining cellars. You could barely see it because of the poor lighting, but anyone of them could have found it if they’d been blindfolded. By now, they knew these cellars very, very, very, very well.

“The one in there.”

“Which shall not be named,” Cecilia Renata proclaimed immediately.

“The shit hole,” said Minnie. “I’ve got to say I’m with Leopold on this one, Judy. Hopscotch, in a dark cellar–five, six candles, it doesn’t matter; it’ll still be dark.–you’re just asking for trouble. Especially in the vicinity of plumbing–ha ha ha–left over from the Dark Ages.”

Rome, Italy

“And you are certain this comes from the Sublime Porte?” asked Cardinal Borja.

“Certain? That is too strong a term, Your Eminence. We are dealing with intermediaries here. But I can think of no one else who would be interested in such an outcome. Not this interested, at least.”

The agent extended his hand, in a gesture that combined presentation with a certain amount of caution. So might a servant present a dish of food to his master whose taste he wasn’t sure would please the finicky fellow.

He wasn’t all that cautious, however. Borja had employed the agent on several occasions, so he’d come to know him rather well. The cardinal was not a man with highly discriminate tastes, especially when it involved his own political ambitions.

The cardinal gazed out the window of his palazzo, his lips pursed. After a few seconds, he said musingly, “We have nothing to lose, after all, if the attempt fails. Even if Tuscany suspects us, what could they do?”

The agent wanted the commission, because he was short of funds and had creditors who were… vigorous. But he’d learned that playing the devil’s advocate was usually the most effective tactic at this point.

“The payment they offer is not great, Your Eminence. You could almost say, disrespectfully low.”

Borja shook his head. “That does not particularly concern me. What’s important is that we will have opened a liaison that may prove fruitful in the future–and they will owe us a favor, not we them.”

Now he sat up straight. The agent recognized the motion. The cardinal had traits which made him a difficult employer. But indecision was not one of them.

“Set it underway,” Borja commanded. “Use an intermediary yourself, however.”

The agent kept from smiling. He’d had no intention of doing otherwise, since he was no fool. Assassinations failed more often than they succeeded, in his experience. And the repercussions could be severe.

He didn’t expect they would be this time, it was true. The target was in no position to launch a counter-attack, even if he survived. Still, why take chances?

“It shall be done as you command, Your Eminence.”