1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 24
“How did they manage that?” asked Eric Krenz.
“There are secret cellars beneath a detached and no-longer-inhabited wing of the royal palace,” Noelle explained. “They managed to get there before the palace was overrun by Turkish troops. They’ve been in hiding there ever since.”
Again, she paused. She seemed to brace herself, as well. For what? Gretchen wondered.
“They are not alone, thankfully,” Noelle continued. “They have two companions with them. The American girl Judy Wendell and one of Francisco Nasi’s agents, Minnie Hugel–“
It was no wonder Noelle had braced herself. Gretchen’s ears were ringing from Denise Beasley’s shriek of joy and excitement. She might have suffered a permanent hearing loss.
Denise leapt to her feet. “You’re planning a rescue mission! That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? I’m going! I volunteer! I’m going!”
“No, you’re not.” That came simultaneously from Noelle and Gretchen.
“Why not?” Denise demanded.
“You can’t pass as a down-timer,” Noelle said. “Your teeth are too good.”
“Oh, bullshit! It’s a myth that all down-timers have crooked teeth. They don’t. Hell, Noelle, your own husband has good teeth.”
Gretchen weighed in. “That’s beside the point, Denise. Leave the teeth aside–yes, you’re right that not all down-timers have bad teeth.” She left unsaid the fact that her own teeth were actually in better condition than those of most up-timers.
Which turned out to be a waste of modesty, since Denise immediately pointed at her and said: “Yeah, no kidding, Gretchen. Your own teeth look great. Especially to men. ‘Course, that’s partly ’cause they’re preoccupied ogling the rest of you or trying not to.”
Gretchen liked Denise–quite a bit, in fact. But, dear God, the girl could be exasperating.
“Yes, and that’s the problem,” Gretchen said. “You have a lot of nerve, Denise, accusing another woman of being too attractive to men. You?”
Denise scowled. “Hey, it’s not my fault most guys can’t think with their brains instead of their dicks.”
“I didn’t say it was. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the moment you enter Vienna you’ll be drawing the attention of every janissary in the city. Half the court eunuchs too, probably. You’ll be jeopardizing–“
She broke off abruptly. Everything had just come into focus.
She looked at Denise; then, at Red Sybolt and his companions. Mostly, she looked at Krzysztof Opalinski.
Who was in every measure and respect a perfect specimen of the Polish and Lithuanian szlachta.Tall, ruggedly built–no one would have any trouble picturing Krzysztof as a winged hussar–even moderately handsome. More importantly, he carried himself with the indefinable air of someone who’d been born to a high station in life, even though he was now a political radical who had eschewed all such aristocratic pretensions. Done so in his conscious mind, at least. But he couldn’t help maintain habits which were so deeply ingrained he wasn’t even aware of them.
“That’s why you wanted them to stay, isn’t it, Noelle?” Gretchen said. “You want to send a delegation from the Galician rebellion to the Ottoman court. With Krzysztof Opalinski as the leader of it. No one will think that’s unusual. Every realm in Eastern Europe, no matter how small or shaky or haphazard, sends an embassy to the Turks. And they almost always accept them, even if they don’t take them very seriously. If the Ottomans check–which they might since they have good intelligence services–they’ll soon find out that Opalinski is a notorious radical even though he was born into one of Poland’s most prestigious noble families. In which case…”
She looked back at Denise. “It would actually make sense for Denise to be part of the mission. Someone like Opalinski would very likely bring a beautiful concubine with him–“
“Hey!” Denise protested. “No fucking way!”
“And the fact that she’d distract Ottoman officials and soldiers would be entirely to the good.”
Denise’s mouth had been open, ready to issue further objections. But by the time Gretchen had finished, her mouth was clamped shut. Then, after perhaps two seconds had elapsed, she said: “Well, okay then. I’m for it.”
She glanced at Krzysztof. “As long as it’s just for show. No funny business.”
Throughout, Noelle had been staring at Gretchen, with a deep frown on her face. Clearly, she hadn’t thought of that angle.
“Gretchen, are you sure…? I’d been planning to go myself. Posing as Krzysztof’s wife. I’m a reasonable age for it–a few years older than he is but that’s not unusual–and unlike Denise”–here Noelle smiled, a bit ruefully–“men usually don’t have any trouble not noticing me.”
She opened her mouth and pointed into it with a finger. “Even got crappy teeth.”
Actually, they weren’t that bad, certainly not by down-time standards. Her parents hadn’t had the money to pay for orthodontic work, so Noelle’s teeth weren’t all even and straight the way the legends proclaimed up-time dentition to be. But she’d still gotten reasonably frequent care from a dentist. None of her teeth were missing or badly-colored.
Jakub issued a sarcastic-sounding snort. “Not a problem. You go as the wife and she”–he nodded at Denise–“goes as the concubine. Sitting on either side of His Exaltededness in his carriage. You think a great magnate of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth has any shame or scruples regarding such matters?”
Sitting next to him, Krzysztof shook his head. “I agree that’s not a problem, but it’s still not possible.”
Red had started shaking his head at the same time. “Sure as hell isn’t. Noelle, your plan overlooks a critical problem, which is that we–especially Krzysztof–need to get back to Lviv. Pronto. This fancy-titled ‘Galician Democratic Assembly’ of ours is still rickety. A lot of what holds it together is just the prestige of having an Opalinski in the leadership.” He glanced at Jakub. “Sure, me and him have good organizational skills, but…”
By now, Jakub had joined the head-shaking. They were like a little a cappella chorus. “He’s right, Noelle. People back in Galicia are willing to bide their time until we get back, given the nature of our mission here. But if they find out that Krzysztof’s gone off on what you up-timers call a wild goose chase, many of them will conclude he’s given up on the revolt and almost all of them will be disheartened.”
Noelle stared at him. Clearly, she hadn’t anticipated this problem. She must have thought the prospect of getting on very good terms with the Austrian-Hungarian dynasty would be enough to persuade them to join in.
But Gretchen had been thinking ahead and the solution was obvious to her.
“We just need to get Lukasz to agree to do it,” she said. “He looks enough like his brother to fool the Ottomans, unless they have an agent in Vienna who’s personally familiar with Krzysztof. Which I think is very unlikely.”
Noelle looked at Krzysztof. Who nodded his agreement.
“The truth is, Lukasz could do it better than I could,” he said. Then, with a little smile: “You should see him when he puts on what we called ‘the Opalinski Bravura’ when we were boys. No magnate is more magnificent, at least in his own mind.”
Jakub and Red both nodded as well, continuing the chorus. It was all Gretchen could do not to laugh.
“Okay, then,” Noelle said. “But will he agree to do it?”
Gretchen shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ll ask him.”
She came back a half-hour later. “Lukasz says he’ll do it–but he’s got one condition. We have to drop the charge of espionage against Jozef and let him go.”
“No goddamn way!” That came from Eric Krenz.
“Goddamn blasphemer!” Denise exclaimed. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
Thereby exhibiting the very first sign of religious sentiment Gretchen could ever recall coming from the girl.
“You just want to get Minnie out!” chided Krenz.
“Well, yeah, of course I do. She’s the best friend I ever had. You still committed blasphemy and nobody should take the advice of a blasphemer.”
She turned to Gretchen. “So let him out.”
A struggle ensued, between the girl’s mind and her heart. It was the most amusing thing Gretchen had encountered that day.
“Please,” Denise added, looking like she was sucking on a lemon.