1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 47

1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 47

Which was made even worse when Noelle leaned over and patted her under the chin. “Now, dear–cheer up. If Artemisia Gentileschi were here she could do another great portrait of you. Only we couldn’t call it Steady Girl, we’d have to call it… Help me out here. Gloomy Gamin? Bummed Out Babe? How about Melancholy Maiden?”

“I am not a maiden!”

“Well, that’s true. Back to the drawing board. I know! Artemisia could call it Discontented and Downhearted, Though Only Eighteen.

“Nineteen!”

Trenčín

Royal Hungary

Austrian-Hungarian Empire

The barge owner proved to be correct on at least one count. There was indeed a wainwright in Trenčín who had the skills and materials to repair the broken axle. And the sons and apprentices to do the work.

The problem now became what the prospective customer lacked, which was a suitable form of payment.

Noelle–Lukasz, officially, but everyone soon dispensed with that formality–began by dickering with the wainwright, based on the assumption they’d be dealing in Austrian currency. Since they were, after all, in Austria.

“That money can’t be trusted anymore,” said the wainwright, shaking his head. “It’s probably adulterated. If the old emperor was still on the throne, I’d take it. But with this new one… Who gave part of Austria to the dirty Bohemians and let the stinking Turks take Vienna?”

He gave the coins in Noelle’s hand a look of great disdain. “I don’t think so. For all I know, a month from now that money won’t be good for anything except skipping it off the water for amusement. Very slight amusement which ends very rapidly. No. I need payment in something I can trust.”

Noelle instantly decided that offering Bohemian currency was inadvisable. So she offered USE dollars.

“That stuff is paper,” sneered the wainwright. “No, I want money. Real money. Gold or silver.”

They had silver other than the reichsthalers, although not gold, but Noelle was reluctant to part with it. They didn’t know yet who they might have to bribe once they got to Vienna, and the likelihood that Ottoman officials would accept payment in Austrian, Bohemian or USE currency seemed…

Low.

But, in the end, she had to relent. The only alternative, which was raised by the wainwright’s wife, was that she pay them with the large and obviously expensive earrings she was wearing.

That, she refused to do. First, because they were a wedding gift from Janos. Secondly, because they didn’t know yet who they might have to bribe once they got to Vienna, and the likelihood that Ottoman officials would accept payment in fine jewelry was…

High.

Long before the dickering was completed, Denise was back in the cabin, which was more comfortable and warmer. Well, not as cold. The cabin had been unloaded from the barge and was now sitting on the dock. Happily, the dock at Trenčín had a functional if crude hoist which they’d been able to use for the purpose of unloading the cabin. At Žilina, they’d had to load the cabin onto the deck of the barge by hand, which had not been a lot of fun.

For other people. Denise hadn’t participated because she’d suddenly realized that maintaining her cover identity as a Polish nobleman’s squeeze precluded her being able to do manual labor in public. There might be Turkish spies watching them. Not likely, but who knew for sure? Best not to take chances.

Lukasz joined her not long afterward. She wasn’t entirely pleased at his presence. On the positive side, she’d have someone to talk to. On the negative side, she was holding a bit of a grudge against the hussar because in some indefinable she figured he was partly to blame for the fact that she had to pose as his slut.

Denise was not stupid; far from it. She knew perfectly well that blaming Lukasz for the situation was illogical. But she had a teenager’s conviction that a girl should never let logic get in the way of a good grudge.

They talked about the weather. On the one hand, Denise thought that was kind of pointless since the forecast ran from “cold and miserable” to “freezing cold and really miserable.” On the other hand, the topic suited her mood, which ran from “grumpy” to “sullen.”

****

Eventually, Noelle struck a bargain with the wainwright and fruitful labor began. Say this much about the region’s inhabitants–they all seemed to be on the morose side, but they weren’t incompetent. The bargeman had gotten them down here intact, and the wainwright got the wagon fixed in a reasonable amount of time.

Unfortunately, “a reasonable amount of time,” given that they didn’t start until mid-afternoon, meant that the ambassadorial mission had to stay over in Trenčín for two nights. Most of the party–all of the cavalrymen escorting them, the teamsters and Jakub–camped out in the town square. They tried to wrangle space in the Rathaus but the town council stoutly refused unless they paid in silver, which Noelle stoutly refused to do.

Then, when they started setting up their camp in the square, Trenčín’s officials began making noises about payment. But at that point the escort started getting surly and the town council (wisely) decided that having a dozen really surly cavalrymen in town wasn’t worth what they were asking for. They were Slovenians, to make things worse. Everybody knew that folk was barely civilized and prone to violent outbursts.

Lukasz, Noelle and Denise, however, had to rent a room in one of the town’s taverns. They were charged what Noelle considered an outrageous price, but at least the tavern keeper was willing to accept Austrian reichsthalers.

The worst of it was that the three of them had to share a bed. Lukasz stoutly offered to sleep on the floor, but Noelle nixed that idea.

“You never know. There might be Turkish spies about. If they spot the supposed head of the mission sleeping by himself on the floor, our whole cover is blown.”

“How would they see into this room?” Denise demanded. She pointed a finger at the room’s only window, which was small and covered with a curtain. “Even if something–like what? a brisk wind in here? Which I don’t think has seen a waft of fresh air in years–blew the curtains aside, so what? I’ll bet you dollars for donuts that glass is so lousy you couldn’t see through it anyway.”

She marched over and drew the curtain aside. “See?”

The window panes were, indeed, suitable for letting light in but that was about it.

“I don’t care,” said Noelle. “I’m not taking any chances.”

And that was that. Noelle didn’t look like it, but Denise had been with her in a lot of hairy situations and knew the woman well. She had a steel spine.

So, they slept in the bed, all three of them. Gallantly, Lukasz took the worst spot, crowded up against the wall. Denise hoped Noelle would accept the middle spot, but, as she feared, Ms. Superagent insisted that if Polish spies spotted the arrangement they’d know something was amiss. What sort of arrogant, self-centered Polish high nobleman would sleep next to his wife instead of his concubine?

It’s not fair!

But she made the complaint only to herself. Denise couldn’t stand people who whined at every little thing. Having to crowd into a bed between a hussar who’d been perfectly courteous to her and a woman whom she admired and respected was hardly the worst thing that had ever happened to her. And being only nineteen, she was sure and certain that lots of worse stuff–way worse–was bound to happen to her in the future. She wasn’t the carefree, happy-go-lucky numbskull she’d been at the age of eighteen.

Still, it sucked. Lukasz snored. So did Eddie, but Eddie’s snore wasn’t too bad. Sometimes it was almost cute. The hussar snored exactly the way you’d expect a hussar to snore.

But eventually morning arrived, and before the sun had risen very far they were back on track. Their teeth rattling as the wagon made its way down a road that was possibly the worst excuse for a “road” that Denise had ever seen.

Her mood fluctuated between “dolorous” and “aggrieved.” This was supposed to have been an adventure.

“Are we there yet?” she whined.

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