1636: The Ottoman Onslaught – Snippet 60
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.”
“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.