“I have news,” Lukasz Opalinski announced, as soon as his friend Jozef Wojtowicz entered the room which served Opalinski as a combination library and small salon.
Jozef closed the door behind him. “What could be so urgent that I had to drop everything and come here all the way from Poznan? Two days it took me, in this horrid weather.”
“Oh, that's nonsense. Spring has arrived, you sissy.”
“There is snow on the ground, Lukasz. And it's cold. Especially spending two days on horseback. More than two, in fact. I couldn't make it here by nightfall yesterday and had to spend the night at an inn a few miles away. A very wretched inn. Even the hogs at the place were miserable.”
“Well, of course it's cold and there's snow on the ground. We're still in March—but! The equinox was four days ago. So we are well into spring.”
“And you haven't even offered me a drink yet.”
Opalinski waved at a nearby side table, quite heavily laden with bottles of various kinds of liquor. “Help yourself. But when did you start drinking in the morning?”
Wojtowicz took a seat on a chair not far from the divan where Opalinski was lounging. He did so without giving the side table so much as a glance.
“I fear for my chances at beatification,” he explained, “should I add excessive drunkenness to my other vices.”
“I'd say those chances are so close to non-existent it hardly matters.”
“You never know. And I repeat, what is so urgent?” Wojtowicz gave Opalinski's hands a flamboyantly intense scrutiny. Which was perhaps peculiar, since the hands held nothing by a few sheets of paper. “So urgent, I now notice, that apparently you haven't been drinking this morning. Despite the fact that your own chances for beatification rank somewhere below Attila the Hun's—albeit, yes, I'll give you this much, higher than that of the average Polish magnate.”
His wealthy friend chuckled. “That last witticism is closer to the mark than you realize.” He gave the sheets of paper in his hand a little jiggle. “I just got a report from one of the spies I hired at your recommendation—at a frightful cost, I might add.”
Wojtowicz shrugged. “Good spies are expensive. There are plenty of cheap spies, of course. If you ever find one who isn't completely useless—and usually a double agent—please let me know. And what does your costly but effective spy tell you?”
“He found out who assassinated Bohdan Chmielnicki. As well as who gave the order.”
“As to the last . . . Samuel Laszcz, would be my guess. Failing that, one of those headstrong Radziwills.”
“Mine, too—but we'd both have been wrong. No, it was Janusz Tyszkiewicz.”
Wojtowicz's eyes widened. “The voivode of Kiev? But . . . ”
“Yes, I know. But that suggests involvement by the crown. Given the king's favor to the Catholic church and the fact that Tyszkiewicz is a Catholic partisan.”
“Say better, a Catholic fanatic.”
Opalinski looked down at the papers in his hand. “But there's more. According to the spy, the plot was the product of a cabal between Tyszkiewicz, Samuel Osinsky—he's the Seneschal of Lithuania, no less—and none other than Jeremy Wisniowiecki.”
“Wisniowiecki? He can't be more than twenty-three or twenty-four years old.”
“Not even that. He's twenty-two.” Opalinski grinned. “A bit young, one would think, for this sort of scheming. But perhaps he drinks in the morning.”
Wojtowicz turned his head and spent a few seconds examining a painting hanging on a nearby wall. There was nothing unusual about the painting. It was simply one of many portraits hanging on the many walls of the Opalinski castle at Sierakow. All of them depicted various members of the illustrious family going back several generations.
Some of them had even been illustrious in truth. A goodly number more had been pure wastrels. Being born into one of the great Polish or Lithuanian magnate families automatically gave a young man a political and military career in the Commonwealth, unless he was an outright mental defective—and provided, of course, that he desired such a career. The same exalted status also gave such young men the opportunity to pass through their entire lives doing absolutely nothing useful and productive, but simply enjoying themselves.
A great many made that choice—and were then, typically, the most vociferous defenders of the rights and privileges of the Commonwealth's nobility. And the most savage when the lower classes presumed to challenge them, or were even too loud in their complaints.
Jozef had disliked the type even as a boy. Partly, perhaps, simply because he did not have their option. As an acknowledged bastard of a great magnate family, he had been given many opportunities and privileges which would have been denied to him had he been a commoner. But, still, he was a bastard. He was allowed to work in fields reserved for the szlachta—but he was expected to work.
Being fair to himself, though, Jozef was almost sure that he would have chosen a productive life devoted to the good of the Commonwealth even if he'd been legitimately born. Even, he liked to think, if he'd been born a commoner—although in that case, of course, his options would have been far more limited.