1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 23
Axe-age, sword-age, shields are cleft asunder,
Wind-age, wolf-age, before the world plunges headlong
“The Seeress’s Prophecy,” The Poetic Edda
Capital of Lower Silesia
Gretchen Richter distrusted airplanes. Deeply. In part, that was because the first time she ever flew in one it crashed upon landing, but for the most part it was due to her idiosyncratic theological views. Those stemmed from her life experience, which precluded the possibility that the Almighty Lord was a just, kind and benevolent God. While still a teenager, much too young to have committed any serious sins, she’d seen her mother abducted, her father murdered and she herself subjected to gang rape followed by forced concubinage.
The most benign term that could be applied to any deity who allowed such things–even ordained them, if the claims that he was omnipresent and omnipotent were to be believed–was “capricious.”
She’d ridden in airplanes since that first flight, several times. And from the moment her aircraft lifted into the air until the moment it taxied to a halt after landing, the thought that God was capricious never once left her mind.
Her misgivings were not ameliorated at all by the most common explanation of the presence of evil in a universe created by an omnipotent Creator: God moves in mysterious ways. To Gretchen, that truth was self-evident. Which meant that at any moment one was riding through the sky in an airplane, God might very well muse to Himself: Oh, this is silly. People can’t fly–and down you went.
Nor were the unnatural machines safe once they had landed. No one could say when God might decide that a propeller should start up again just when someone walked by–and off went their head.
Her head, to be specific. So after Eddie Junker brought his plane to a standstill and shut off the engine, she not only waited for the propeller to stop moving but waited until the passenger had emerged and had walked safely past the possibility of decapitation.
She had nothing against Noelle Stull–indeed, her few encounters with the woman had left her favorably disposed toward her–but if anyone was going to suffer God’s mysterious ways on this clear, bright and chilly November morning, let it be the woman who had so rashly tempted Him rather than her.
When Noelle reached her she said, smiling: “I’m flattered. I didn’t expect the Lady Protector of Silesia herself to come out to the airfield to greet me.”
Gretchen smiled back, but did so while shaking her head. “Actually, I didn’t.” With her chin, she gestured toward the pilot, who had just come out of the cockpit and was now on the ground. “I came to see Eddie. He’s got–should have, anyway–information I need immediately.”
Noelle’s brow was creased with a little frown. “You still didn’t have to come all the way out here. I’m sure he’d bring it to you right away.”
“Probably, but he might not, too. Denise is in town, don’t forget.”
Noelle’s brow smoothed out again. “Ah. I hadn’t considered that. You’re right.”
Gretchen slapped her stomach, reveling in the restoration of its normal flat and firm state. “Besides, I enjoy moving around easily again. I just gave birth recently.”
“I heard. And the baby is fine, I take it?”
“Oh, yes,” Gretchen replied casually. Then, smiled. Noelle had the half-quizzical, half-worried expression on her face that women who’d never yet given birth had when discussing the matter. Some women, anyway.
Eddie had almost reached them. Glancing back at him, Noelle said: “I’ll on my way then, since I assume you’ll be wanting to talk to him privately. Am I correct that that’s our transportation into town? If so, I’ll wait for you there.”
The vehicle she was pointing to was a large carriage–more like a wagon putting on airs than a real carriage–standing just off the airstrip. The teamster driving it was slouched in his seat; clearly a fellow who saw no reason to let an idle moment go to waste when he could be napping. The four horses attached to the carriage were like-minded, except for the one who was shortening the grass in the vicinity.
“There’s no reason you can’t hear what Eddie and I will be talking about,” said Gretchen. “In fact, it’s probably a good idea, since it may have a bearing on whatever mysterious mission brought you to Breslau.”
Noelle tried to look innocent. “Mysterious mission…?”
Gretchen sniffed. “Why else would you be here?”
Eddie came up. After glancing back and forth from Noelle to Gretchen to assure himself that Noelle would be privy to the conversation, he said: “Francisco agreed. Any mission you want, including combat sorties.”
“Still with no time limit?”
“None. Understand, though, that he might recall me from time to time for a mission of his own. But he said he’d try to use commercial air transport if he needed it.” Eddie smiled. “My boss isn’t much fonder of flying than you are. Although he disguises his unease a lot better.”
Gretchen saw no reason to dignify that with a comment. She just used her chin again to point to the carriage. “Let’s be off, then.”
Within an hour after they arrived at the town hall, everyone whom Gretchen thought needed to hear whatever Noelle had to say was present–and one whom she didn’t think was needed at all.
That was Denise Beasley, who vigorously pressed her status as Francisco Nasi’s agent to shoehorn her way into the meeting room. Gretchen thought her arguments were flimsy, given that Nasi already had an agent present–Noelle Stull, who was the very person at the center of the affair.
But… She didn’t feel any great need to exclude Denise, either, so she let her stay. When she told Noelle she was doing so, Noelle pursed her lips for a moment and then shrugged her shoulders. “Sure, why not? I always felt bad anyway that we hadn’t–” She shook her head. “Never mind that.”
Eddie was with Denise. He had enough grace to claim he should be present since it was likely his pilot’s skills would be needed for some portion of Noelle’s proposal, instead of presuming on his status as another of Nasi’s agents.
“All right, everyone,” Gretchen said loudly. “Settle down. Noelle, you have the floor.”
The slender American-cum-Bohemian-noblewoman-though-still-an-Austrian-resident rose and stepped forward where everyone in the room could see her. Noelle hadn’t decided yet whether she’d become a citizen of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Cold-blooded political considerations propelled her in that direction, but habit and sentiment were holding her back.
She was an American, dammit. Had been all her life until that preposterous Ring of Fire had put her in a fantastical situation. True, she’d gotten a husband out of the deal. Still…
“What I’m about to say has to remain a secret. No one in this chamber can repeat any of it to anybody not here already.”
She swiveled her head slowly, taking a few seconds to give everybody present a stern look.
Until she got to Red Sybolt, who was rising to his feet. “In that case, Noelle, I don’t see any reason for me and Krzysztof and Jakub to stick around. Not that any of us has any trouble keeping our mouths shut when it’s necessary, but this won’t be any of our business, so–“
“Red, please sit back down. This matter does concern you. That’s why I asked Gretchen to summon you here.”
Gretchen had wondered about that, but she’d done as Noelle bade her. This was getting more interesting by the moment.
Red shrugged and sat back down.
“I need to start by giving you all some information. The two youngest of the Austrian royal siblings–Archduke Leopold and Archduchess Cecilia Renata–never got out of Vienna before the Ottomans seized the city. Their fate and whereabouts have remain unknown since.”
She paused dramatically. Gretchen was a little amused since Noelle was not naturally suited to dramatic pauses. She look more embarrassed than anything else.
“Except to a few people. Of whom I am one. They are still… well, you can’t say they’re ‘free,’ since they’re trapped in Vienna. But they’re not captives. The Ottomans have no idea they’re still in the city.”