1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 43

1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 43

“It’s not a ‘him,’ it’s a ‘them’,” said Jozef. “You both know just as well as I do that a cabal of grand magnates must have ordered it done. They wouldn’t have done it themselves, of course, but men like that know men who know where to find assassins–and they certainly have enough money to pay for it.”

Kowalczyk frowned. “That was my suspicion also–still is. But what I can’t figure out is why they would do it. The Grand Hetman was a law-abiding man. He posed no threat to them.”

Kaczka was always the quicker-thinking of the two men. He slapped the table–not in anger, but in the way a man emphasizes an idea that has just come to him. “No, that’s it, Caspar. They would have wanted the Grand Hetman killed because he was law-abiding–and they plan not to be. That’s why they needed to get him out of the way.”

Again, Kaczka and Kowalczyk exchanged glances. Then, looked at Jozef.

“This is leading up to something,” said Kowalczyk. “Come out with it, Jozef.”

He made a quick decision. He hadn’t intended to go any further this first day than collect information. But his instincts–say better, his extensive experience as a spy and secret agent–led him to believe that the two other men at the table were ready for what he had to propose.

“Have you ever heard of the Galician Democratic Assembly?”

“No,” said Caspar.

Czeslaw nodded. “They’re the rebels in Lviv, aren’t they? Someone told me they declared themselves a konfederacja recently. But that’s all I know, and I wasn’t sure if it was true anyway.” He shrugged. “You know how wild rumors spread. And Galicia’s far away.”

In for a penny, in for a pound, as the up-timers would say. The saying didn’t make any sense, but the spirit of it was clear. Once again, Jozef made a note to himself to find out why Americans compared a coin to a unit of weight. Because a penny was such a light coin? Maybe Christin would know.

“Galicia’s far away, but Krakow isn’t,” he said.

Caspar and Czeslaw both frowned at him. “It’s not close, either.”

“Must be…” Caspar waved his hand in a vague gesture. “What? Five hundred miles?”

He used a Polish term for the distance, but Jozef automatically translated that into the distance measurement used in the USE, as best he could. By now, he was more accustomed to the up-timers rigorous system than he was to the archaic and imprecise Polish way of calculating such things.

“More like three hundred miles,” he said.

“What’s a–?”

“A mile is how they measure big distances in the USE, Caspar. I use it because it’s more accurate than the way we do it.”

Again, the two men frowned in unison. “And how do you know–“

“It’s time for the two of you to hear my story. A lot’s happened since I saw you last.”

****

It took him quite a while before he was done. Long enough that he was starting to worry that his companions had drunk enough beer to get fuzzy-headed.

In fact, Caspar and Czeslaw were pretty fuzzy-headed by then. On the other hand, liquor often lent courage–and once a man made a pronouncement, he was loath to retract it even after he sobered up. (Women, in Jozef’s experience, were more astute about such things.)

“Here’s to the revolution,” Caspar proclaimed, raising his freshly-filled mug of beer. Fortunately, the tavern was noisy and he didn’t say it in a loud voice. So if anyone noticed the three men clanging their mugs together, they would have simply taken it for everyday good cheer.

The mug-clanking was followed by the traditional swigs. Then Caspar set his mug down on the table with a thump and said: “There’s someone you need to meet. As it happens, he should be here any time, since his shift is almost over.”

“That’s stupid, calling it a ‘shift’,” said Czeslaw. “He’s still a prisoner, you know.”

“A technicality, that’s all. How long has he been here? More than a year, isn’t it?”

“He’ll have a guard. Probably two,” cautioned Kowalczyk.

“And so what? If it’s Androsz and Woitek or Zygmunt and Malosz, they drink by themselves.” Czeslaw took another slug of beer. Then, shrugged. “If it’s Kuźmin and his brother, that’d be a problem. But we’ll just have to wait until tomorrow.”

****

The guards who accompanied the mysterious prisoner into the tavern turned out to be the harmless pair of Zygmunt and Malosz; who, just as Caspar had predicted, went off to sit by themselves at a table in a corner. The table was much too far away, in the din of the tavern, for the guards to hear anything being said at Jozef’s table unless everyone started shouting.

Before the prisoner had even taken his seat, Jozef knew he was an up-timer. He couldn’t have explained why he knew that, exactly. But he was very perceptive about such things, as you’d expect a spy to be, and unlike most down-timers he’d spent a lot of time around Americans.

He waited until the man sat down before saying: “You’re an up-timer.” It was a statement, not a question.

The man stared at him. The expression on his face combined defensiveness with belligerence.

“What’s it to you?” he demanded. “And who the hell are you, anyway?”

The up-timer was a young man. Jozef estimated that he was in his mid-twenties, although you had to be careful about judging age with Americans. Most people who met Christin thought she was five to ten years younger than she actually was.

“Think of me as a friend,” he said. “A friend in need, yes–but I think you need some friends also.”

The up-timer looked quickly at Caspar and Nowak. “What’s this about? And I repeat–who is this guy, anyway?”

Jozef began to explain.

****

By the time he finished, the young American still had a combined expression on his face, but the combination had changed. There was doubt and suspicion in his face–but there was also hope.

“My wife gave birth, just a short while after I got captured,” he said. “His name’s Mark, like mine. Not Mark, Jr., just Mark. My wife told me in her first letter she did that because she thought I was dead. He’d be a year old by now. I’ve never laid eyes on him, not once. Don’t even have a picture of him. If Stephanie tried to include one in any of the letters she sent me–and there were only three that got through, the last one almost three months ago–the damn Poles swiped it.”

Caspar looked offended, although it was obviously a pose. “Us? You accuse us of being thieves? You should rather look to those dirty Germans squatting in their trenches outside the city walls. The letters have to go through them first, you know, before they come to us. One of the dirty pigs probably stole the letter to burn it, giving him a little heat while he shivers out there.”

That was wishful thinking, for the most part. By now, almost fourteen months after the siege of Poznań had begun, the USE troops had fairly good quarters. Very good ones, by siege standards. The trenches were now just defensive positions. No one actually slept in them. Few of them even slept in tents, anymore. Jozef knew that General Torstensson had had wood-walled bunkers made for his soldiers, with solid roofs. Say what you would about the damn Swedes, they knew how to wage war.

The up-timer, whose name was Mark Ellis–Mark Johnson Ellis, to be exact–ignored Caspar’s badinage. The hope in his face was fading, and the suspicion swelling stronger.

“How do I know any of what you’re saying is true?” he demanded. “How do these guys”–he jerked his head, indicating the two Polish radio operators at the table–“know either, for that matter? You could be… I don’t know. Somebody’s spy. A provocateur.”

Kowalczyk started to object but Jozef interrupted him. “No, Caspar, it’s a fair question. Which I can answer–but not until tomorrow. We meet the same time here? Yes?”

The two radio operators and the American looked back and forth at each other. Then, Ellis shrugged. “Yeah, sure, as long as the damn Poles don’t decide to mess around with my schedule–which they do, from time to time.”

“Stop whining,” jeered Caspar. “The last time that happened was… what? Four months ago?”

“Still.” Ellis looked a bit sullen.

Jozef finished his mug and rose to his feet. “Tomorrow, then. There is someone you need to meet.”

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