/ Language: English / Genre:adv_history / Series: Assiti shards

1635: The Papal Stakes

Eric Flint


Eric Flint, Charles E. Gannon

1635: The Papal Stakes

PART ONE

May 1635

The line of the horizon, thin and fine

CHAPTER ONE

Odo, the young German operating the radio, shook his head. “I’m sorry, Ambassador Nichols, but the signal has been lost.”

Sharon Nichols, displaced ambassador to Rome for the United States of Europe, edged so far forward that her ample figure began pushing into Odo’s incongruously wiry back. “Did Colonel North confirm that he was moving to the extraction point as quickly as possible?”

Odo shook his head again. “No, Ambassador. The frequency started becoming garbled before I could send those instructions. I shall try to raise Colonel North again.”

As the young miller’s son from Rudolstadt set about this task, Sharon’s husband and de facto chief of intelligence and security, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz, placed a hand on her arm. “My love, there is no cause for alarm.”

Sharon turned toward him, eyes bright, the smooth curves of her very dark face creased by lines of worry. “We’ve lost contact with Colonel North, who’s supposed to meet our team when it comes out of Chiavenna. A team that just happens to include my father, who told uspromised us-that he’d signal us by one PM today with a mission update. That update is already two hours late. So until I know that my father and my friends are with Colonel North’s forces and heading back to Grantville, every second of uncertainty is cause for alarm.” She turned back to watch Odo ply the various tricks of his arcane trade.

Ruy raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. In the last few weeks-weeks during which he and Sharon had married, fled Rome, and secreted themselves in this obscure inn near Padua-Ruy had learned that although his new wife had a fiery temperament (both in debate and in bed) she was not given to being testy. She was a large person in every regard: physiognomy, sympathy, forgiveness, and passion. There was nothing narrow about her.

So whereas her rebuff of Ruy’s reassurance might have seemed snappish to others, he knew better. He not only had intimate knowledge of Sharon, but insight accrued through three prior marriages and almost six decades of living. No, Sharon Nichols was not being testy; she was wracked by anxiety, exacerbated by the fact that she herself had agreed to send her father and friends into harm’s way.

Odo was shaking his head again. “Still no response, Dr. Nichols. And the noise around that frequency is not promising.”

“Did Colonel North say where he and his Hibernians were located?”

“They weren’t able to report their position, Ambassador. We spent most of our clear air-time trying to establish a mutually secure code.”

“What? Why?” Odo seemed to shrivel before Sharon’s growing tone and looming torso.

Ruy intervened. “Dearest, the code-checking protocols require absolute precision. If there are any missed symbols, the authentication must be deemed suspect. So with a bad signal it can take many minutes to confirm a secure transmission.”

Sharon collected herself. “Odo, when was the last time we had a precise location for Colonel North’s unit?”

“Two days ago, Ambassador Nichols. He and his men had just arrived in Silvaplana, having come down out of the Alps by way of the Julier Pass.”

“Then, if they’ve been making steady westward progress, they should be near the extraction zone now. Correct?”

Ruy saved the young radioman from his wife’s desperate glare one more time. “Near to the extraction point, perhaps. But we cannot know. They could not head toward it at best speed, my love. What if the extraction was not called for until next week? Why would two squads of mercenaries-who are known to work exclusively for you Americans-spend a week loitering about the western end of the Val Bregaglia? I doubt even so ingenuous a Spaniard as myself would believe them to simply be on an extended alpine fishing holiday.”

Sharon had to smile. But only a little. “Odo. Try again and see if you can raise my da-raise Captain Simpson’s group in Chiavenna.”

Ruy prayed that someone-anyone-in Chiavenna would respond this time. If they did, it would probably indicate that they had completed their mission in that factious open city and were ready to call for extraction.

But Odo was still struggling with the designated frequencies, all of which sounded like monsoons of static; the legendary vagaries of radio communication to and from Alpine valleys were dominating the day. “No response on any of the primary frequencies, Ambassador. Shifting to check the emergency backup frequencies.”

Ruy, seeing his wife’s breathing increase, murmured words only she could hear: “My love, you must be calm. Your staff all looks to you; if you panic, they shall surely do so, also.”

She closed her eyes. “I know, Ruy. But it’s my dad out there, and Rita, and Tom: all the up-time family and friends I have left in this-in your-world. I should never have had them stop in Chiavenna. Never.”

Ruy ran what he hoped was a soothing palm down her firm arm until he could hold her hand-low, where no one might see. Feeling his fingers, she clutched hard, almost as a frightened child might have. And in that hungry grasp-so incongruous in his strong wife-Ruy found the answer to an aspect of up-time behavior that had perplexed him for many months.

Despite the advantages in technology and knowledge enjoyed by the up-timers-the twentieth-century Americans who had become time-stranded refugees in seventeenth-century Germany-they often seemed paralyzed into inaction by fear of loss. It was not cowardice, for even the most stalwart up-timers evinced this tendency. So Ruy had been unable to conjecture a common cause for this up-time trait until, just three days ago, during a radio communique with his wife, Prime Minister Mike Stearns of the USE had used the phrase “risk aversive.” Ruy had understood the term’s meaning, but only now-triggered by the clutch of his wife’s hand-did its underlying emotional contexts become clear.

In the up-timers’ world-that of the rather improbable year 2000 AD that had been home to the even more improbable democratic republic of the United States of America-almost all risk had been reduced dramatically. War, shipping, mining-even flying huge rockets to the moon-had to satisfy safety requirements that were almost comical by Ruy’s standards. For people born in his time, great undertakings inevitably involved great risk. The seas routinely swallowed sailors, the mountains buried miners, and pestilences and famine took their toll upon all the children of the Earth, no matter their location or station in life. Life was a gamble, at best.

But not in the twentieth century, evidently. When a child or a mother died during birth, it was deemed an uncommon tragedy. In Ruy’s world, the same event was simply a reminder that the attempt to create life often ended in death.

The up-time elimination of risk had even extended to war itself. The Americans’ medical knowledge and practices made many mortal wounds survivable. Ruy himself was alive only because of these up-time skills. A lethal belly wound from a sword-he had been horribly outnumbered by those assassins, after all! — had turned out to be simply a morning’s challenging surgery for the second, or maybe only third, ranking physician among the three-thousand-plus up-timers.

Ruy looked over at the third-ranked surgeon who had performed the medical miracle to which he owed his continued existence and smiled. Sharon Nichols was a medical prodigy in this world. The surgery that had saved Ruy had been performed before the cream of Venice’s medical community, ensuring her immediate stardom as a Dottoressa of international renown. But in the world she had come from, she had held a relatively lowly post, furnished with a suitably humble label: she had been an Emergency Medical Technician. But, being the daughter of the greatest doctor now alive-her ex-street thug, ex-Marine Corps father, James-had no doubt given her advantages and experience beyond those normally possessed by other EMTs. Or so Ruy presumed.

However, regardless of their skills, the up-time physicians routinely cursed themselves upon losing a patient, as if they expected the power of the Creator Himself to be manifest every time they treated a patient. And this, Ruy realized as his wife continued to squeeze his hand tightly, was the key to the up-timers’ “risk-aversion”: they had become utterly unaccustomed to taking the chances that were unavoidable in this “down-time” world. Most of the threats they faced now had been eliminated by the sciences of their future world, so they had to continually remind themselves that they were dwelling in a much more dangerous time-and that adjustment did not come easily to most of them.

As an attitude, it shared common psychological roots with the frustration he had observed among many of the more accomplished up-timers. Although they did not intend to demean down-timers or the technical limitations of the world of 1635, one could often hear Americans mutter deprecations upon its crude tools, interspersed with bitter longing for the devices of the future. Except, of course, that the future they remembered would never come to pass, now. In their world, no American town had ever arrived in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War, radically changing its outcome, and the history and technology of Europe along with it. So whatever the coming days held, they would not lead to the future the Americans had come from. Their own arrival had undone the possibility that the world they called home would ever exist.

From out of the radio’s washes of static emerged a single, clear click. Ruy felt his wife’s hand flex quickly-and then grow still, tense, as two more, longer clicks sounded, followed by a rapid patter of them as the interference diminished to a sound more akin to bacon frying in a distant room.

“Is that them-the group in Chiavenna?”

Odo smiled. “Yes, it’s my friend Matthias.”

Ruy smiled too, half out of his own gladness, half simply to see his wife’s radiant joy and relief. “What is Matthias sending, Odo?” he asked.

“That they are still in Chiavenna. The rest of the group is on their way to the rendezvous point with the cardinal.”

Ruy raised an eyebrow. “Well, our courier apparently caught up with the cardinal while he was still traveling along the Spanish Road in the Valtelline. Meaning that the holy father’s information was accurate.”

“Accurate enough to save the cardinal’s life,” appended Sharon. “And he might be the only cardinal loyal to the pope who’ll be saved, at this rate. Unless, maybe, some of the other cardinals which Borja has ‘disappeared’ might still be alive somewhere, waiting for-”

Ruy shook his head. “Kings, like criminals, cover their misdeeds with great finality, my beauteous wife. And Borja is both a king of the church and a criminal of the basest kind. He will not leave any evidence if he can help it.”

The room was still. The threat to the lives of the incognito refugees who were with them here outside Padua-Pope Urban VIII, his nephew Cardinal Antonio Barberini, and Father Vitelleschi, the father-general of the Jesuit Order-seemed suddenly very close. Glancing at the countryside outside the room’s small window, Ruy found it distressingly easy to imagine it filled with shadowy assassins and informers. The sooner they could get His Holiness on one of the up-timers’ wondrous airplanes, the better.

Odo leaned forward as the snarling static returned. “Matthias indicates they have not been detected by the Spanish or Milanese on their journey north, and that they will depart as soon as-” He stopped, moving his head quickly from side to side.

“As soon as what?” Sharon tried to sound calm; Ruy was sad to admit that his beloved was failing miserably.

“I could not make it out; I’m only receiving fragments now. And given the trapdoor codes built into this cipher, I cannot be sure if the letters I think I’m hearing are still accurate. I might have missed a trapdoor character.”

“Which changes the code, right?”

“Yes, Ambassador Nichols. But, from the rest of the message, I would say that Captain Simpson’s group plans to leave Chiavenna immediately after meeting the cardinal.”

Ruy’s and Sharon’s eyes drifted to the window; the sunlight was no longer yellow, but late-day amber. “That had better be one quick meeting,” observed Sharon.

“Do not worry, my love. I’m sure all will go well.”

She half turned, looking at him over her thickly graceful shoulder. “Oh? Really? And why would you say that, Ruy?”

Ruy shrugged. “To ease your mind, love.”

She touched his arm lightly, then turned back to encourage Odo to check other frequencies.

As Ruy studied his wife’s wide, watchful eyes in their fixation upon the radio, he silently conceded that Sharon was, of course, entirely correct: his assurance that “all will go well” was merely hopeful nonsense. The simple truth of the matter was that he hoped all would go well.

But of course, it rarely did.

CHAPTER TWO

The proprietor of the rustic Crotto Fiume leaned a bit closer to Tom Simpson and almost crooned: “Are you sure you won’t have the soup, signor? It is a local specialty: black cherry and game. A favorite of men who are large like you-who are so, so… robusto.”

“Oh, puh-leeze,” Rita Simpson whisper-groaned down at the tabletop.

As much to taunt his wife as satisfy the culinary curiosity that the stew’s description had piqued, Tom assented. “ Si, grazie.”

“ Brego,” replied the innkeep, cook, and owner-for that was the arrangement in most of these small, informal crotti — who bowed himself out to prepare their meals.

As soon as he was gone, Rita leaned against Tom’s Herculean bicep, “My robusto hero,” she cooed, “He can eat with the best of them.”

And while it was true that Tom had a healthy appetite, the era into which he had been thrown-the end of the Thirty Years’ War-had also trimmed off any small residual fat that might have originated with meals taken in the fast-food eateries and saturated fat emporiums of the very late twentieth century.

Melissa Mailey looked at Tom and seemed less amused. “Did you really have to have the soup?”

“Uh…no, but it sounded good. And I get to see all of you roll your eyes.” He leaned back, stretching his immense arms outward from his even more formidable chest and shoulders.

“I’m not rolling my eyes.” Melissa’s voice was devoid of jocularity. “I’m worried about our rendezvous.”

“What? You think the soup takes half a day to cook?”

“No, Tom: I think that we should not spend a second more in towns than we must-not since leaving Lombardy, at any rate. We don’t have a lot of friends in these parts.”

James Nichols broke open a small loaf of bread, not much bigger than his thumb; it sent up a fragrant puff of steam. “Now, Melissa, we’re on neutral ground, here. Chiavenna is an open city.”

“Which is a very nebulous term here, James. This isn’t simply Casablanca with the Alps instead of the Atlantic, and with snow instead of sand. These folks don’t define ‘neutral’ the way we do, and they’ve not had much success with co-dominium-excuse me, tri — dominium-arrangements like this one.”

Diminutive Arcangelo Severi leaned over so that he could see past James’ large, prominently veined black hands to the people farther down the table. “The Signora Mailey, she speaks correctly.” Two weeks on the road with the group had almost ironed the idiomatic peculiarities out of his English-almost, but not quite. “The Spanish now guard Chiavenna instead of the Milanese? It is a black wolf replacing a gray wolf: same breed, same teeth, just a slightly different coat.”

“And the French observers are hardly our friends, either.” Melissa tapped her fork for emphasis. “Officially, we are still every bit almost-at-war with them as the Hapsburgs.”

“Well, not with the Austrian Hapsburgs, at least,” temporized James. “And they also have a guard detachment here, right?”

“Yes, comprised of about a dozen reprobates that the commander down in the Valtelline didn’t want rousting Protestants any more.” Melissa sniffed. “So he sent them up here, a region where almost six hundred Protestants were massacred only fifteen years ago. Another typically deft move by another typically tactful servitor of Imperial Viennese spleen and incompetence.”

Tom smelled a medley of rich foods approaching as the door to the kitchen opened. “Aw, c’mon, Melissa: the Austrian Hapsburgs are a country mile better than the Spanish. And their new ‘Emperor,’ Ferdinand III, is way more open-minded than his parochial pappy. You know as well as I that there have been plenty of positive overtures traded with Vienna in the past year.”

“Wonderful,” was Melissa’s wooden reply, as their meals-cold wheat polenta shot through with small chunks of cheese, boiled potato, spring vegetables, and what looked a lot like salami-emerged from the kitchen. “I’ll be charitable and assume our diplomatic nattering with the Austrian Hapsburgs is the promising harbinger it seems to be. But what good does that do us here?”

James smiled sideways. “You sound nervous, hon.”

“I am.”

“A shame. And you always lose your appetite when you’re anxious, so I’ll just help you with th-”

James’ reach for Melissa’s plate was deflected by a prim and well-aimed slap at his hand. “I’m not that nervous. But I am dead serious. And I hope that doesn’t prove to be an ironically apropos choice of words.”

A multi-vocal and multi-lingual exchange that was more of a melange than their entrees poured out of the kitchen door as a young fellow brought them their drinks. Waves of Italian splashed against two dialects of Lombard, all capped by a gull-like screeching in Romansch. At an adjoining table, two men ceased their mutterings in Savoyard French in an attempt to eavesdrop. They gave up as the babel of languages became too fluid and dense for untangling. At which point, Arcangelo leaned forward, and under the cover of the multi-tongued cacophony, stressed at both Tom and James: “You will do well to heed the words of Signora Mailey. We should have simple food only.”

Tom slurped his thick soup with defiant gusto. Nichols smiled and spoke around his mouthful of polenta and cheese: “Relax, Arco: with the exception of the high-protein fodder selected by Captain Kodiak, here”-his merry eyes flicked over at Simpson’s immense torso-“we bought the cheapest, least conspicuous meals that would also sustain us for the last leg of our journey.”

“ Si, true, it only cost a few quatrines more, but maybe it would have been better to buy food we can carry, hey? So that when the cardin-eh, when our ‘last companion’ arrives, we can leave molto presto.”

Tom chewed a piece of what tasted like smoked venison. “Why in such a rush now, Arco? I would have thought you would have been more nervous on the way up here.”

Arcangelo shrugged. “Before yesterday, we were on lake boats with a dozen other foreigners, all bound over the Alps. Some were even traveling without the benefit of a native to guide, and speak for them, such as I have done for you.” His smile, gap-toothed, was nonetheless full of quick, light charm. “So: from Garlate, to Lecco, to Como, then up the Mera to the north end of Lago Mezzola, it was a long day, but still, only one day. Thirty of your miles, at most. And a boat owned and crewed by Bergamaschi, so except when paying the tolls, when did we even see the Milanese?”

Tom felt the eyes of the other Americans focusing on spare Arco as he spoke, realizing just how much more than a simple native guide he was. He had come to them from their fiscal partners in Venice, the Cavriani family, and that clan’s proclivities for subtlety, mild self-deprecation, and invisible shrewdness were rapidly becoming evident in the almost elfin Arcangelo — Whose description of their earlier journey continued unabated. “And yesterday, we walked along with scores of others, following the Mera road up here. But we were already in Milanese territory, so no checkpoints, no further tolls. I’m not sure we even saw a soldier.”

“We saw two.” James Nichols’ tone was not confrontational, but quite sure. “One as we got started in the morning, but he was looking north, up the valley, and not along the road. Then another just as we passed the intersection with the Via Valtelline. He was on the crest of a defile, watching the road.”

“ Si, with a few cavalry out of sight in the defile below, I’ll wager.”

“That’s not a bet; that’s a certainty. But I must say, Arco, you are starting to seem more like a-well, yet another Cavriani factotum, not a guide.”

Arco smiled. “A guide? I never said I was a guide.”

“Yes, you did. You just said-”

“I said I was sent to guide you on your journey back to Grantville. To guide — that is a job, an activity, not a title. I have never claimed to be a guide.” Interestingly, as Arco moved into what should have been the trickier lexical ground of argumentation, his English became more self-assured and fluid. No, definitely not a guide after all.

“And so now you’re all jittery, Arco? Why?” Rita was, somehow, never so charming as when she was utterly direct. Or so it seemed to her still-infatuated husband.

“Signora Simpson, it is our last, eh, ‘fellow-traveler’ that worries me. This decision that the ambassadora Nichols sent yesterday-that we should wait for him to meet us in Chiavenna, in this crotto- this I do not like.”

“Why?” Rita persisted. “The cardi-the friar was intercepted when he arrived in the Valtelline from Austrian territory, before he had even sent word of his return to Rome. As far as Borja and the rest of Philip’s papal usurpers know, he’s still on Legation business in Vienna.”

“Yes, so it would seem. But answer me this: how did the ambassadora know where to find him? And in the middle of his journey through the Alps?”

“She has sources who were intimately-and officially — familiar with the friar’s estimated progress and itinerary.”

In that moment, the full cleverness of Arcangelo Severi was revealed for a split-second: his eyes were as clear and sharp as a mousing cat’s. “Yes, I…see,” he confirmed for himself and everyone else with a tight little nod: he had pronounced “see” as “See.” As in “Holy See.”

Damn it, from just that one little tidbit of data-that Sharon has officially reliable sources on the probable actions of the cardinal-Arco figured that we’ve got Pope Urban stashed near Padua with the rest of the embassy staff that high-tailed it out of Rome when the Spanish invaded. Pretty clever “guide,” we’ve got. Easy to underestimate, too. Which makes him doubly valuable to the Cavriani, I’ll bet. Tom leaned back, the last of the black cherry-and-game soup reflecting up like inky blood from the reservoir of his large spoon. “So, Arco, does knowing the source of the ambassador’s knowledge make you a little less worried?”

“No: it makes me a little more worried. Well, no-a lot more worried.”

“What? Why?”

Melissa answered Rita before Arco could even open his mouth. “Because anything one side does know, the other side could know. Can we assume everyone associated with our former Rome embassy-and our embassy in Venice-is unbribable? And that the papal troops who are no doubt traveling along with the friar are equally virtuous? The bottom line is this: there are too many places where a leak could occur. Our ambassador’s very authoritative official source is also far too important to keep his own correspondence. And it’s not as if he was in any position to simply drop in on the friar himself to send news of this rendezvous: he had to send a courier.”

James Nichols shrugged. “At least the embassy is communicating with us by radio; that’s half of the potential intelligence leaks eliminated.”

Rita was frowning at Melissa. “So you think that the ca-the friar-could be intercepted before he gets to us?”

“Maybe. Maybe killed outright; it’s what Borja reportedly did to sixteen other ‘friars’ in Rome just a few weeks ago. Or maybe our friar will be apprehended and questioned to see who he was planning to meet here in Chiavenna.” Melissa’s gaze made a significant circuit of the table.

“Or he might have simply been followed,” put in Arco, “which would be the worst. If our foes were that clever-”

The door to the crotto creaked open slowly and a soldier sauntered in. A buff coat, a saber, one pistol on his belt, but the bandolier and high boots said “horseman.” He wore no colors or livery-typical for armies of the period-and hadn’t as much as a colored armband to suggest his allegiance. But, if the message passed on by James’ daughter Sharon was accurate, he would be a guard dispatched from the papal troops to provide the friar with an escort over the Austrian Alps and down to Rome.

The trooper’s eyes swept the room, rested on the table of locally garbed up-timers for a moment and then narrowed when they reached James Nichols. It was hard to tell if his expression was smile or sneer; perhaps a bit of both. He gestured for a small, rotund man to emerge from behind his shielding bulk. “I’ve eaten in this crotto before, friar. I can vouch for the food and prices”-he turned and started out the door-“but not the company. Arrivederci.” In exiting, he signaled the need for a hasty departure to a similarly equipped trooper just beyond the door, which he closed after himself with a tug at its rough iron handle.

The friar actually flinched as the heavy timbers slammed home with a drumlike boom. He stood wringing his hands, looking at them. Tom wondered if he was about to start crying.

In that second, Arco was on his feet, face bright, wide smile revealing an impressive collection of teeth that had evidently resisted the normal genetic command to follow a common scheme of alignment. “Friar Luigi, Mamma sends you warm wishes, and hopes for your health. Now, sit with us and share our meal.” A bit overcome, the man in the friar’s robes allowed Arco to guide him to the table. He looked at the up-timers as if they might make him their next course at dinner.

“Please, Friar,” said Tom, “have a seat. And please, I presume you will accept our hospitality, particularly since Brother Michael sends his regards?”

The friar looked up quickly at the mention of “Brother Michael.” “Yes…yes; I will. I am glad-very glad-for your invitation.” Small, clever eyes assessed the proximity of Tom and Rita, quickly determined the implicit relationship to be spousal, and then his eyes shifted to Rita, alone. “Tell your family-particularly Brother Michael-that his hospitality honors me.”

The friar who was in fact Cardinal Ginetti was probably not a man of action or courage, but he-like the rest of the cardinals Tom had met-was clever and subtle. Two sentences had been exchanged each way and they had already established each others’ identity, that asylum was being offered by Rita’s brother Mike Stearns-prime minister of the USE-and that it had been accepted. But for anyone not aware of the precise identity of the group around the table, the exchange would merely have sounded like a meeting that mixed old friends with new acquaintances. Either way, the contact part of this rendezvous went easily and quickly enough. These little cardinals are pretty smooth operators. Now, time to pay the bill and stroll back to the The door opened: a medium-sized man stepped in, closed it, a broad brimmed hat pulled low, covering the upper half of his face. His clothes were simple, but made for travel; they might be well-worn, but they were not worn out. There was no sign of a weapon on his belt or in the loose folds of his cloak, but his flowing attire would make it entirely possible to carry a large dagger completely undetected. The proprietor came rushing out: the Babelesque debate in the kitchen flooded briefly into the room before he shut the door. “ Signor — mangi? Food?”

The newcomer nodded, murmured a request, and took a seat at one of the two remaining tables, the one closest to the group. He turned his hunched back toward the up-timers in an apparent effort to afford both parties some modicum of privacy.

It was, even to Tom’s untrained eye, all an act. Judging from the long, significant looks he got from both James and Melissa, he was not alone in his assessment. Well, we never planned on this, at least not so quickly after meeting the cardinal. Whoever this guy is, he must have been right on the little friar’s tail. Which means Melissa was probably right: someone dropped a dime on our rendezvous with His Eminence. And with this new guy’s big ears only a few feet away, we don’t have any way to come up with a plan on the sly. He probably speaks the whole gamut of local languages: Italian, Lombard, Savoyard, German, Romansch, maybe Romlisch. And since he obviously knows that we’re the folks he’s looking for- James’ dark black skin was, to put it lightly, distinctive in Alpine Italy — this guy was probably chosen, in part, because he speaks English, as well. So how do we-?

But James was smiling. “ooD-ay oo-yay eak-spay ig-pay atin-lay?”

Damn, but Doc was smart. “I an-cay.”

Arco, for the first time in Tom’s acquaintance of him, looked utterly flummoxed.

Melissa looked like she was swallowing lye with every word she uttered. “Oo-yay av-hay an an-play?”

James nodded. “Tom, ell-tay Arco out-abay oor-yay ick-say other-May.”

Wha-? Oh, I get it. Tom rose, head hung a little. The crotto ’s newest patron shifted slightly, probably trying to use his ears to gauge what the movement behind him was and it if represented potential danger. Tom drew out the chair at the end of the table next to Arco, who had recovered enough to feign understanding of the pig-latin gibberish flying past him. “Arco-” said Tom with feeling.

Rita’s foot tapped against Tom’s ankle. Okay, I guess I was going over the top, already. Hell, my idea of method acting is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whom he almost resembled, physically. “Arco, did I tell you how sick my mother is?”

One microsecond of confusion flitted across the young Venetian’s face, which then became a study in heartfelt compassion. “Tom, I am so sorry. I had heard she was doing poorly, but I had no idea-”

Under which James muttered. “Ore-may of em-thay in the eet-stray.”

Melissa nodded tightly. “No oubt-day.”

Tom hung his head as the proprietor brought his newest patron a bowl of the same black-cherry-and-game soup. “She’s so sick,” Tom sighed mightily. “I should return home at once, but-leaving here is so hard. How can I possibly go?”

That line-consistent with the “sick-mother” act, but also a pertinent question about the tactics of exiting the crotto — earned a broad smile from Melissa.

“Om-tay oes-gay irst-fay. I’ll et-gay the oor-day. James ext-nay. We eer-clay the eet-stray and un-ray. Okay?”

Tom nodded at Melissa’s plan, but made the nod also look like he was simply harmonizing with Arco’s consoling pat on the back. “So, how do we start you on your way home, Tom?” Arco asked. But as he spoke, he leaned in James’ direction.

James said, “Arco, I believe that fellow behind you just insulted Tom’s mother.”

Arco’s head snapped up straight, as though startled, but his eyes were bright with shrewd amusement. He turned, shocked, in the direction of the apparent patron behind them. “How dare you! Tom, do you know this suino? Do you hear what he said about your sick mother?”

Tom looked up from under ominous brows at the same moment the newcomer turned around, stunned; evidently, it had taken him a second to realize that the outburst behind was both aimed at, and about, him.

Arco’s outburst flowed on like an alpine cataract. “He calls your mother a-a puttana del diavolo! Merda! I will-”

The other patrons looked up, aghast. The fellow’s mouth leaked food forgotten in mid-chew and his eyes widened: partly in surprise, partly in fear.

Because Tom was up and moving. With reflexes so fast that they were incongruous in so large a man, he had jumped out of his seat and closed to combat range even as the startled faux — patron was rising from his chair. A denial was half out of his mouth, but his lowering brow suggested a dawning realization that he was being suckered.

Or rather, sucker-punched. Tom’s right fist came shooting straight out from his shoulder, landing with a sharp crack on his target’s somewhat pointy jaw. The much smaller man went straight back, unconscious as he hit the table, sending his own bowl of soup and beer flying up in a cascade of chunks, dark red broth, and foam. “Bastard!” shouted Tom, who, feigning sudden emotional distress, moved quickly for the door, his apparently solicitous companions rising to follow and comfort him.

As he reached the door, Tom snaked the Hockenjoss amp; Klott revolver out from under his cloak, cocked it, and nodded Melissa toward the door.

“Tom?” Rita whispered, not noticing that the dark red broth had splashed along the left-hand side of Tom’s cloak.

“Yes?”

“You’re a lousy actor, darling.”

“I know,” Tom said as he nodded at Melissa Mailey to yank open the door. “Now, here we go.”

Eric Flint Charles E. Gannon

1635: The Papal Stakes-eARC

CHAPTER THREE

Tom Simpson leaped out into the cool alpine air, the cap-and-ball revolver ready in a two-handed grip. As he drew a bead on his first target, he saw exactly what he had expected to see.

Four armed men-medium-to-large in height and build-were positioned around the entry to the crotto. Because they were in a public street, they were not in combat-ready postures or positions. Neither were their weapons; the tools of their grim trade were concealed in their cloaks, or by their bodies. And while Tom wasn’t a great shot, at these ranges-six to twelve feet-he didn’t need to be.

Tom started firing, double-tapping as he went. His first target was not the closest of the thugs, but definitely the most dangerous, already raising a double-barreled flintlock fowling piece that had a menacingly short profile. Tom’s first shot missed completely but the second. 44 caliber bullet punched a red hole in the man’s chest. He went down without a sound.

Sidestepping to clear the doorway, the American shifted his aim to the big swordsman who was even now rushing forward, blade rasping out of its sheath and reflecting the failing sunlight. He fired two more shots from the H amp;K revolver, both of which went higher than he’d aimed. That was the adrenaline at work, making his motions jerkier than he’d intended them to be. Tom understood the reaction and had tried to be ready for it. But “being ready” simply wasn’t a substitute for the constant training that special forces and assault troops underwent. He was an artillery officer, not accustomed to fighting at close range with a pistol.

Luckily, the “miss” didn’t matter. The first shot struck the thug high on his forehead. The ball gashed open the flesh and ricocheted off the skull, throwing the man’s head back-and leaving his trachea exposed to take the second ball full on. He fell backward, out of the fight and mortally wounded.

Tom had only two rounds left. He felt a moment’s sharp desire for an automatic pistol with a large clip-and an even sharper desire for a twelve-pounder loaded with canister.

Doc, you better be out here when you’re supposed to be…

Tom made a split-second decision to fire his remaining two rounds at one assailant rather than trying to take down both men. He simply wasn’t a Wild West gunfighter-as demonstrated by the fact that only one of the four shots he’d fired so far had hit precisely where he’d aimed it.

He chose the smaller of the last two, whose double-barreled snaphaunce pistol was almost leveled at him. He fired twice again-and was dry.

The choice to double-tap his third target saved his life. This thug had been the furthest off, and Tom’s first shot went a little high and wide: it only grazed the assassin’s shoulder. But that had made the target flinch; he discharged both barrels a split-second too early. One round cut a seam in the back of Tom’s boot; the other bullet spanged and whined off the center of the flagstone he was straddling.

As it did, Tom’s second and final shot vented the bottom of his target’s left ribcage. The assassin doubled over and went back with a shuddering moan. But the last of the ambushers was racing in, saber poised to start swinging through a lethal arc. Despite Tom’s ex-football-player reflexes, amplified by military training and combat, there was no way he was going to be able to Three sharp reports split the air just to Tom’s left: James Nichols had finally entered the firefight. His first shot missed entirely and his second shot inflicted a minor flesh wound in the man’s side. The wound wasn’t fatal. Just a crease, really, that might have broken a rib but hadn’t done much more damage. But it stopped the man’s charge long enough for the doctor to steady down and fire a third, careful shot. That ball struck the man squarely in the chest and he went down as if he’d been struck by a mallet.

“Damn, getting rusty,” muttered the ex-Marine from just behind Tom’s shoulder. He grinned suddenly. “Being honest, my street gang training didn’t really emphasize marksmanship.”

Tom barked a little laugh. Like him, Nichols was no master of the handgun. The doctor had been trained as a sniper when he was in the Marines-with a proper damn rifle, with a proper damn caliber and real by-God telescopic sights.

“Two out of three shots on time and on target are plenty good enough for me, Doc. Let’s get moving.”

Tom’s wife Rita emerged from the Crotto Fiume, which was still silent. The muttering and then shouting of the startled clientele would start soon enough, no doubt. “Done making noise out here, honey?” Rita asked. Despite the levity of the words, her voice was shaky.

“I sure hope so,” Tom replied. He also hoped his own voice didn’t sound as shaky as his wife’s-but he was pretty sure it did.

Rita shuddered as she started stepping over the bodies. “I’m never going to get used to situations like this.”

“And you shouldn’t,” put in Melissa Mailey, who emerged from the crotto, towing the shocked cardinal. “Accepting bloodshed is a necessary part of being human; failing to notice it means you’re becoming less than human. No offense, James,” she added with a glance at her Vietnam-veteran life-partner.

“None taken,” James murmured as he snatched up the double-barreled fowling piece, searched for ammunition, and kept a swivel-necked watch on both ends of the street. That didn’t deter him from some gentle teasing: “Of course, darling wife, your own rhetorical peacenik robes are starting to fray at the edges.”

“They’ve been reduced to threads and lint by living in this century,” Melissa responded grimly. Changing the direction and tone of her voice, she urged the cardinal, “Step quickly, Your Eminence; we need to move rapidly now.” The small, pudgy man nodded unsteadily, looking rather pathetic in the nondescript friar’s garb.

Bringing up the rear-and scattering coins, apologies, and wildly implausible explanations in their wake-Arco Severi closed the door gently and turned toward them, smelling of old garlic and fresh sweat. “ Merda,” he breathed, “what now?”

“Now,” said Tom, snapping up his pistol’s barrel assembly so that it closed upon the fresh cylinder he had loaded, “we run.”

The small cardinal’s voice quavered: “Won’t that attract attention?”

“Your Eminence,” Tom said through a patient smile while wondering if the cardinal could run, “we’ve fired almost ten shots. We are leaving four attackers dead in the street, and one unconscious in the crotto. I think we’ve probably attracted about as much attention as we possibly could. Speed is our only friend, now.”

And setting his actions to match his words, Tom Simpson began running in the direction of the Mera River, trying to put aside the growing feeling that the pine-carpeted alpine peaks that soared up at every point of the compass-except due south-were closing in on, and even over, them.

They stayed close alongside those buildings whose shadows were already long enough to start creeping up the opposite facades. Two blocks shy of reaching the river, Tom turned left, leading them into a small lane that paralleled the main road-the Viale Maloggia-which wound out of town to the northeast. It followed alongside the Mera, which, although merely a shallow gorge at present, had been a white-frothed flume only one month earlier, due to the spring Schmelzwasser that had come rushing down out of the swollen mountain cataracts.

As the rest of the group caught up with him-Melissa wheezing almost as much as the cardinal-Tom looked downstream toward the town’s center: no reaction from there, yet. Good: with any luck, they might “Tom.” Melissa’s voice was very calm, low-pitched. Which meant disaster on the hoof.

“What is it?”

She pointed down. “That.”

Tom and the rest followed her finger: a dark, brown-red stain was collecting near his feet, dripping down from his traveling cloak. As a watch whistle shrilled back near the crotto, Rita stepped closer to her husband, her worried eyes scanning his body.

Tom shook his head. “But I’m not hit.”

Melissa nodded. “Of course you’re not. That’s not your blood; that’s your soup.”

Soup? Tom stared at the stain, remembering the flurry of action-and wide spray of soup-that had immediately preceded their exit from the crotto. We’re going to be tracked-tracked and killed-because I chose to have the soup? Had the situation not been so desperate, he would have laughed. His life-and the lives of his wife, his friends, and charges-now hung in the balance because he had chosen to have a bowl of soup.

Tom looked up from the bloodlike spatter on the ground, glanced behind them and then toward the Viale Maloggia. He tore off his cloak and threw it aside: “We’ve got to run. Fast. Now.”

“We just were running,” complained Melissa, her hand on her side, one corner of her mouth wrinkled in the attempt to suppress what Tom guessed was a wind-stitch.

“We run or we fight.”

“So what are we waiting for?” asked Melissa, stretching her long legs northward to run parallel to the bending course of the Mera.

Four minutes of near-sprinting put the sound of the whistles a little farther behind them. As they panted to a halt in front of their taverna, the whistles of the town watch stopped abruptly.

“They found the cloak,” panted James. “Figuring out where to search next.”

“I will get Matthias-”

“I am here,” said the young German from one of their windows on the second story. “I just reestablished contact with Padua, and am in the middle of sending an update to-”

Tom shook his head. “Break down the radio, Matthias. Keep the up-time transmitter separate, in your pack. I’ll send Arco and the ladies up to help you load our-”

“No need,” he assured them as he detached the wire he had hooked to a roof-tile as an antenna. “All our bags are packed. Trail gear only. Everything else I have left under the beds.”

“Matthias,” gasped Rita, “how did you know to-?”

“Why, Frau Mailey suggested I have our gear ready, in the event that the rendezvous would be-what is your word? — ‘compromised.’”

James straightened up. “It’s great to have a girlfriend who’s always thinking.”

“Particularly when no one else bothers to. Matthias, are you just about through?”

“Yes; could Herr Severi lend hands?”

Arco was inside before Matthias had completed the request.

Rita looked back down the road. “How long do you figure we’ve got?”

Tom shrugged. “Could be as much as ten minutes. They’ll have to gather together, see how many searchers they’ve got, and then eliminate which ways we definitely didn’t go. We’re near the northern limits of the town, here, and the lack of walls is a big help, but if we’re not moving soon-”

Matthias and Arco came bustling out the door, the latter adding, “Our account is settled, with a tip to encourage the owner’s tardy mention of our lodging here.”

“Excellent. Now, Matthias, dump the batteries in the river.”

“What? But Captain Simpson, they are priceless-”

“And make sure the jars break on the rocks. Everything else that will sink goes in the water as well. We can’t afford any extra weight and I don’t want them to learn that we had a radio. Did you get a general signal out?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And were the conditions right for it to be heard in both Padua and Chur?”

Matthias shrugged as he sent the battery-jars crashing down among the rocks of the Mera. “It is a good time for a signal…I think.”

Tom led them into a sustainable trot. “You think?”

Matthias shrugged as he jogged. “You can never know for sure, Captain.”

Well, that’s just great, thought Tom as he noted the cardinal already laboring to maintain the pace, and Melissa putting on a pain-proof, but increasingly pale, face.

Just great.

Odo leaned back from the radio, frowning. “No, Ambassador, it is neither a failure, nor meteorological interference. Matthias simply went off the air-like that.” He snapped his fingers sharply.

Sharon tried to keep the frown off her face. “Was there any word, any warning that-?”

Her husband put a fine, but very strong, hand on her shoulder. “Beloved, there was no warning. And nothing you could do that you have not already done.”

“I could have listened to you a week ago, Ruy, when you warned me against setting up this rendezvous. Getting our five people over the Alps is tricky enough with Spanish and Milanese troops watching the alpine approaches from Lake Como to Chiavenna. I should never have agreed to burdening them with the exfiltration of Cardinal Ginetti, as well.”

“My heart, it is most difficult to refuse a pope, particularly when his reasons are so compelling.”

A soft voice from the doorway echoed Ruy’s logic. “Indeed, Ambassadora Nichols, the fault-if any ill has befallen your father and your friends-is entirely mine.”

Sharon turned, wondering-given the very dark black complexion she had inherited from her father James Nichols-if the flush of heat she could feel in her face produced any visible sign. “Your Holiness, my apologies. I did not know you were standing there.”

“Hovering unseen outside doorways is, alas, a bad habit. It also provides much information one would otherwise not have.” Pope Urban VIII smiled. “I’m sure this bad habit had more to do with my becoming pope than any worthiness in the eyes of Our Savior.” His tone was jocular, but shaded with penitence, also. Urban had been more somber since his rescue from the Castel Sant’Angelo by Ruy and Tom. Or perhaps it was a result of learning that over a dozen cardinals who had been his friends, or at least allies, had been disappeared, and probably killed, by the Spanish invaders, based upon the thinnest of pretexts or, in some cases, outrageous prevarications. Urban seemed to feel their losses keenly, as though their deaths were an indictment of failure on his part.

Which, Sharon realized, was how Maffeo Barberini-now Urban VIII-had been brought up to think in relation to his allies. “Pontiff” had been a late addition to his many titles; first scion and incumbent head of the powerful Barberini family had been roles he inherited upon his birth. He had been trained to think in terms of stratagems against hereditary enemies, and sinecures for loyal vassals-and his ascension to the cathedra of the Holy See did not diminish his adherence to that modus operandi. Urban VIII, never forgetting his family or friends, had left a legacy (well-recorded in the up-timers’ books) of shameless nepotism-for which he was infamous, even among the many early modern popes that had been known for it.

But now, Sharon wondered, did she see some signs of regret? His brother Francesco was among the cardinals who had been slain attempting to flee Rome. His nephew, Antonio, had made good his escape to Sharon’s refugee embassy by only the slimmest of margins himself, and would not have succeeded at all had not her husband Ruy chanced upon him while he was trying to find a way to escape the city’s walls.

Urban’s hands were folded passively on the front of his cassock. “I shall pray for your friends and father, Ambassadora. I owe them all a great debt. And, in the case of Thomas Simpson, I owe him my very life-along with you, Senor Casador y Ortiz. If it was not for your bold rescue of me from Sant’Angelo, the rubble of Hadrian’s tomb would surely be my burial mound, now.”

Urban extended one hand and placed it briefly upon Ruy’s head. Then he turned and left. When Ruy rose, his face was transformed-utterly open, utterly without pretense-rather like a man who remembers, for one brief instant, the innocent hope and faith he had as a young boy. Sharon felt the strangest rush of both tenderness and arousal, seeing him so stripped of his facade for that moment-and then Ruy as she knew him was back: he smoothed aside one wing of his mustaches and turned to her, his dark brown eyes glittering and alert. “We should send word to the exfiltration team in Switzerland,” he said.

“Word to-? Yes, of course!” Sharon turned to the waiting radio operator. “Odo, raise the exfiltration team. Let them know that contact has been lost with both the group they are to extract and Colonel North’s security detachment. They may have been monitoring and heard it themselves, but it’s also possible that the signal didn’t get through to Chur.”

“And is there any other message for Chur?”

“Yes. The extraction team there is to start for the rendezvous point now.”

“Ambassador, it will be night before they arrive. And if they reach the site early, and must loiter-”

“Odo. I understand the risks. To all three groups. But if Dad and the rest are on the run, they probably won’t be able to signal again. So we’ve got to consider the abrupt end of their transmission as a call for extraction.” She drew in her breath. “Send the message to Chur-and tell them to move as fast as they can.”

CHAPTER FOUR

“So, you see,” said Estuban Miro to the other two men, “the USE in general, and the State of Thuringia-Franconia in particular, is most interested in discussing mutual political and fiscal interests with the powers here in Chur.”

The more animated of the two men leaned forward eagerly, dark hair framing a pale, deceptively soft-featured face, out of which shone two very dark, but very bright, eyes. “And what- specifically what-would those interests be?”

Miro looked into those intense, unblinking eyes and thought: yes, this was the Georg Jenatsch he’d read about in the Grantville library, the man who killed a political rival with a savage axe-blow and then left the corpse pinned to the floorboards.

Well, Miro amended, it hadn’t been Jenatsch himself who’d swung the axe that killed the night-shirted Pompeius von Planta as he stood, stunned, in his castle’s main bedroom suite. At least, that’s what the later histories of the up-timers claimed. Most of them, that is.

Either way, Miro was fairly sure that anyone foolish enough to ask Jenatsch about it now would get their hair parted in a similar fashion. Jenatsch, despite his charming public persona, sent out an aura of mortal determination which radiated a message best verbalized as: do not toy with me; I shall kill you, if you do. This man might well be a patriot, but he was also a creature of immense ambition and ego: no slights were forgotten, no vengeances left untaken.

“Herr Miro, your expression is-whimsical?” Jenatsch’s prompt was polite and sounded casual. Indeed, a person less versed in the nuances of negotiations and personalities might have attached no special significance to it. But Miro had maintained the secrecy of being a “hidden-Jew”-a xueta from the Balearic island of Mallorca-for ten years while trading with the nobles of Spain and Portugal and around the far rim of the Mediterranean; he did not miss the intent focus behind Jenatsch’s inquiry. The Swiss powerbroker knew that whatever thoughts had flitted through Miro’s mind a moment ago could provide him with valuable insight into his interlocutor.

But Miro had dealt with far more subtle negotiators than Jenatsch, and waved a dismissive hand. “I was distracted for a moment, trying to decide which of our mutual interests I should present first.”

Jenatsch’s smile said he knew that Miro was lying. Miro returned a smile that congratulated Jenatsch on the correctness of his perception, and assured him that no further insights were to be gained from this line of inquiry. The third man in the room stared at them with the stolid, unimaginative detachment of a very capable factotum who had absolutely no imagination, and even less awareness of social subtleties.

This third man, a burgomeister who was also the hand-picked representative for the Bishop of Chur, set two meaty fists squarely upon the table. “I presume these mutual interests have something to do with your-unusual-method of transportation, Herr Miro.”

“Indeed they do, Herr Ziegler. The airship by which my party traveled here is merely the first of many which will be traversing the Alps to facilitate the USE’s business in Venice.”

Ziegler’s brow lowered a bit. “So. Given Venice’s traditional support of Reformists in the Valtelline, this is to be a relationship favoring Protestants? Hardly a surprise, since the Swede is your king.”

Careful, now. Miro spread his hands. “First, we hope to trade with Tuscany and Rome, as well as Venice. If Rome is difficult to trade with at this moment-well, that is hardly our doing.”

Ziegler almost winced: only arch-Catholics-the kind who daily hungered after any excuse to go abroad at night and string up their Protestant neighbors-found Borja’s recent occupation and sack of Rome to be anything less than ghastly. Ziegler was not of this extreme papist stripe; indeed, few in the Alps were. But that had not prevented bloody sectarian massacres from creating deep chasms of mistrust in the region, particularly where Miro found himself now: the capital of the Gray Leagues, or Graubunden, of Grisons. Originally a promising social experiment in both democracy and religious tolerance, the last fifteen years had seen the coalition erupt into vicious religious warfare, largely through the machinations of both the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs. In the “old history,” the one the Americans’ books depicted, further wars had been fought here, with the French driving out the Spanish this very year. But in this world, with France and Spain ostensibly at peace, that course of events had been derailed. All parties were now in historical and political terra incognita, and deeply suspicious of all the impending possibilities.

Miro continued his soothing explication. “Also, it would be precipitous to dismiss the religious toleration espoused in the USE as merely a facade. It is quite genuine. Yes, Gustav is a Lutheran, but he is also a wise ruler, wise enough to arrive at the same conclusion the peoples of the Graubunden did centuries ago: that a federated state, with religious toleration guaranteed by law, is the only way to end sectarian strife.”

Ziegler did not look fully convinced, but did look at least moderately comforted-enough to go ahead with business, at any rate.

Miro extended another tidbit of polite gratitude. “I would also like to express my thanks for gathering the supplies we requested earlier this month, in anticipation of our visit.”

“The lamp oil and pure spirits-you use these to power your ‘blimp?’”

“Yes, Colonel Jenatsch, that is correct. However, only a small part of the fuel goes to the actual propulsion. Most is used to generate the hot air that causes the vehicle to rise from the ground.”

“So without the fuel-?”

“The vehicle would be useless, immobile.” And Miro and Jenatsch exchanged another significant look, which amounted to Jenatsch indirectly signaling that he understood the vulnerabilities of the blimp and the need for Chur’s cooperation, and Miro affirming that he had no interest in being evasive or withholding information.

“The under-hanging part where you sit-the gondola? — seems to be rather small to make much difference to commerce. When you arrived today, I counted only ten persons, and it was crowded, at that.” Ziegler had removed his fists from the table in order to fold his arms.

Miro nodded. “It is small. And it is useless for cargos that are of great volume or mass. But Herr Ziegler, consider the small items that constitute much of today’s commerce: the ‘new’ commerce as it is being conducted in Amsterdam, and Venice-”

“-and Grantville.” Jenatsch’s smile was feral.

“-yes, and Grantville. It is a commerce in people, documents, bank notes, specie, books, plans, samples, chemicals, medicines, key ingredients. Imagine being able to issue timely market instructions to a factor in Venice in one or two days. Radio, if you have one, will become a possibility in the coming years-but even coded messages are no guarantee of confidentiality. On the other hand, the blimp is available right now and can transport high-value items a hundred miles in three hours, leaving a safe margin for operational error. I already have the first dozen flight manifests completely booked.”

“Will not weather prevent the flying of this blimp?”

“If it is severe enough, yes. Which is why we advertise two or three days per hundred mile journey: that represents a safe average.”

“That is also not much faster than a man on a horse.” Ziegler looked a bit smug.

“True enough, but that is a good day on a horse, and a very bad average for the blimp. But tell me this, Herr Ziegler: when was the last time a man on a horse made thirty-three miles a day over the Alps? And without the slightest vulnerability to bandits? That’s what the blimp assures: absolutely direct travel, completely free of banditry, from city to city-no costly adventures on the road. And it seems that travel through the passes south of here now frequently involves just such adventures.”

Ziegler frowned, but not out of anger. Miro had struck a responsive and very pertinent chord. Travel south from Graubunden was no longer a simple proposition. The once modestly populous valleys were now home to as many recent graves as people: accompanying the wars and purgings that had scourged Grisons in the past fifteen years, the Plague had swept through the region twice. Thriving towns were now shadows of themselves. Many smaller villages stood vacant, ruined by the harsh, battering winters. In this comparatively barren environment, bandits increased, but plied a sparse trade, made especially brutal and indiscriminate by the lack of prey.

But the source of this cycle of misery lay in the fact that all the major passes down to Italy funneled through Chiavenna, which was controlled by Graubunden’s arch-nemeses: Spain and Milan. Austria had also contributed to the Chur’s woes in the 1620s, but had become steadily less energetic in imposing its will upon Grisons. And, at the start of the decade, the inhabitants had been cheered by rumors of French aid.

But, in this world, Richelieu’s much-vaunted plan to send the duke of Rohan into the Valtelline-thereby seizing the only overland connection linking Spain to her forces in the Low Countries-failed to materialize. Jenatsch, an ardent supporter of Rohan’s campaign and presumed leader of France’s allies in Grisons, had watched these plans evaporate like morning mist once the arrival of the up-timers and their strange town from the future became widely known. The Spanish-French animosity diminished and ultimately transmogrified into the uneasy entente that allowed them to cooperate in the destruction of the Dutch fleet off Ostend in 1633. Like all contracts between thieves, their so-called League of Ostend was certain to unravel-sooner, rather than later. But in the meantime, Grisons continued to suffer under foreign interference or direct control.

So, naturally Georg Jenatsch was interested in any new stratagem for freeing his homeland. And for making himself a national hero in the process. Jenatsch’s monomania in pursuit of those objectives made him capable of changing his alliance, religion, and even his own traits-as the up-time histories attested. But Miro, meeting this man with whom he had cautiously corresponded for months, was satisfied that he had correctly identified the one character-trait of Jenatsch that was as steady as a lodestone and which made negotiations with him relatively predictable: he was far more famous for his decisiveness than for any deep wells of patience. Jenatsch was not mercurial, but he hadn’t the taste for long games or the temperament for waiting upon fickle fate to provide him with a tool to achieve his ends. An active and victorious new international force such as the USE was almost sure to catch and kindle his interest.

And, unsurprisingly, it obviously had. But he was too accomplished a statesman not to stringently critique the deal Miro was proposing. “So let us say that we become a part of your growing network of-do you call them ‘airing-domes’?”

“Aero-dromes,” supplied Miro mildly.

“Yes, ‘aerodromes.’ To have such a facility here is clearly advantageous for you: Chur is the most convenient way-point over the Alps. As I understand it, our location is valuable because it is less than one hundred miles from Biberach, on the north shore of the Bodensee, and also less than one hundred miles from Bergamo, in Venetian Lombardy. And so, perhaps more people of note will visit Chur, spend a bit more money. But how does this benefit us beyond that modest increase in trade?” Jenatsch smiled; he knew the answer, of course, but he wasn’t going to agree to the deal without suitable promises from Miro. And of course, Ziegler still had to have to have it spelled out for him.

Miro pointed to the opened letter before Jenatsch. “President Piazza’s letter outlines the general defense benefits rather comprehensively, I think.”

“I would have preferred a few more specifics, as well.”

“Please understand, Colonel Jenatsch, we must walk a thin line if we are to ensure that our relationship does not bring you more problems than it solves. Yes, Gustav Adolf has approved using Chur to facilitate our current operations into Italy. And yes, President Piazza has indicated that some of our proceeds from establishing your town as a transport hub would allow us to base a dedicated mercenary company-exclusively contracted to us-in Chur to secure it from foreign intrusions. But a more overt, national alliance would call attention to itself, and your most dangerous foes would not miss its significance.”

“That will occur anyhow, as your ability to balloon directly into Italy becomes more clear to the Spanish.”

“It is true that they may become annoyed by that, but not so much to mount an attack on you.”

“Why not?” Ziegler threw his considerable bulk forward aggressively. “Are you suggesting they will sit idly by while this new trade route opens up?”

“Yes, that is exactly what I am suggesting.”

Clearly, this was not the answer Ziegler was expecting; his bulk fell back in surprise. “Why?”

“Because the Spanish-of all the powers of Europe-have shown the least understanding of, or interest in, the new economy that air travel will enable. Their banking methods are hopelessly archaic and filled with exclusions and restrictions that ensure that their nation’s power remains firmly in the hands of the hidalgos, the upper classes. They do not know how to grow wealth-and therefore, will not even understand the value of this new route of exchange. Not until it is too late.”

That brought a grimly satisfied smile even to Ziegler’s face. But this time, it was Jenatsch who held to the prior point like a bulldog: “However, this still means that there will be no direct military alliance between you and us. And, for us, that means no offensive to liberate the communes that are still in Austrian or Spanish hands. So we might be a bit safer, and a bit more wealthy, but still crushed by foreign occupiers in many of our regions.”

Miro smiled. “But for how long?”

Jenatsch looked suspicious. “What do you mean? Do you propose that Heaven will deliver us? God alone knows how often and ardently I have prayed for divine deliverance-”

— Miro reflected that Jenatsch might even be telling the truth “-but no angels have come to drive out the invaders. So what mysterious power are you suggesting will deliver us?”

“Not a mysterious power: just simple geography. The geography of realpolitik.”

Jenatsch blinked at the unfamiliar term, even though it was in his native German. “What do you mean?”

Miro pointed to the map on the table, located at their equidistant center. “What do the Hapsburgs call the Valtelline?”

Jenatsch frowned; he clearly did not appreciate any discursive approach that left him feeling as though he was being schooled. “It is the transalpine part of what they dub the Spanish Road. As you well know. From Chiavenna to Tyrol, it is how the thrice-damned Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs exchange troops and goods. It is also a barrier against similar north-south exchanges for the rest of Europe.”

“And which Hapsburg activities has it enabled in the last ten years?”

Jenatsch considered. “The wars in Germany: what the up-timers call the Thirty Years’ War. Also, the Spanish campaigns against the Dutch.”

“But what has happened to those activities?”

The smile returned to Jenatsch’s face; Miro could well imagine that savage expression glaring at him over the glinting edge of an axe.

Miro explicated the obvious for Ziegler’s benefit. “Spain’s adventurism north of the Alps has all but vanished. In the Low Countries, the infante Fernando increasingly turns his back on Madrid; his brother the king seems no more eager to send new troops to him than the new ‘King in the Low Countries’ seems to have them. Besides, any further influx of Spanish troops would make his partner in the Provinces, Frederik Hendrik of Orange, exceedingly nervous. Possibly warlike.

“And with that old papist firebrand Ferdinand of Austria dead,” Jenatsch said with satisfaction, “his namesake son and successor is pursuing a more moderate course of action.”

“Much more moderate. Particularly since his sister married Fernando, who rescued her from a war zone with the assistance of an up-time aircraft. Indeed, after the recent war with Bavaria, one could almost call the relations between the USE and Austria cordial. They are at the very least quiescent. And if Wallenstein can be induced not to encroach southward across the Austrian border from Bohemia, I very much suspect that the worst of the middle European wars are behind us-with the greatest loser being Spain.”

Ziegler looked baffled. “Spain? What do you mean? Other than losing a few tercios, how has Spain suffered so greatly?”

Jenatsch’s predatory grin was back. “Our visitor is talking about losses in influence, not men or money, Herr Ziegler. This new Austrian king has allowed his relations with Madrid to cool, has tacitly approved Fernando’s claim in the Low Countries by allowing his sister to marry him without challenging the legitimacy of the title and land he claims. And this is why Spanish movement through the Valtelline has diminished so greatly in these past two years.”

Miro nodded. “You see the rest, of course.”

The blank look on Ziegler’s face was the antithesis of the cunning insight on Jenatsch’s. “Of course. Spain holds its Road in the Valtelline, but feels less need for it. Its value as a conduit is lost; its value as a defensive blockade, interposed between the north and south extents of Europe, diminishes also. With its treasury ever-more overdrawn, Philip of Spain-or rather, Philip’s puppet-master and lap-dog, Olivares-will withdraw most of the investment required to retain the Valtelline. And when their alliance with the French finally unravels, as it must-”

“-you will be able to stand aside, and let the weak French and Spanish alpine forces exhaust themselves upon each other.”

“At which point, the USE will intervene and help us take back all our lands!” Jenatsch’s smile was shadowed; he wasn’t in jest, but he knew he had gone too far, intentionally so. He was testing Miro.

Miro smiled. “That last projection is beyond current consideration, Colonel. But the rest of what you envision seems very likely to transpire within the next several years. All you need to do is save your treasure and energy, and await the inevitable. The USE presence in Chur will disincline any trifling adventurism by Spain or France. And you, I’m sure, will give them no reason to do so. In the meantime, we will increase regular overland trade to Chur as well.”

Now Ziegler sat up straight again; the discussion had moved back into familiar territory, for him. “How so?”

“I am even now negotiating to establish a proprietary trade link over the Bodensee between Buchhorn and Rorschach.”

“And why is this trade route useful to you?” Ziegler’s brows were beetled in intense suspicion. “It has been of only marginal interest to the Germans, up until now.”

“In addition to various resources and goods common in the Alps but somewhat scarce in Germany, we can provide Graubunden with finished goods from northern Europe without adding on the tariff costs incurred when they pass through Constance or Zurich first. But also, we must have a way of ensuring that there is always enough fuel on hand here in Chur, and a regular schedule of overland portage is the most prudent way to do so.”

Ziegler actually rubbed his hands together. Jenatsch at last leaned back, his eyes almost blank, his imagination no doubt racing inward along spider webs of new, interlocking schemes and stratagems. “So Herr Miro,” Ziegler exhaled, “which of our alpine goods most interest your-?”

There were two slow knocks on the door, followed by three, staccato raps.

Miro held up an apologetic hand. “With your pardon-” Over his shoulder, he said, “Enter.”

Virgilio Franchetti, Miro’s senior blimp pilot and builder, stuck his head in the door. “Don Estuban, you asked to be informed when the fuel test was complete.”

This was a complete and utter fabrication; the fuel mixture had already been tested and set. This phrase was, instead, a prearranged code to inform Miro that new priority orders had been received over the radio, orders that required immediate action.

Which was simply another way of saying: there is a new crisis brewing.

CHAPTER FIVE

Miro stood and nodded to Virgilio. “Thank you, Signor Franchetti.” Miro turned to face his hosts. “Gentlemen, I must ask you to excuse me; I have some technical matters to attend to regarding our airship.”

“All is well, I trust?” Jenatsch’s nose now looked like the beak of a stooping hawk, ready to pounce on important new information.

“I will learn soon enough.” Miro smiled. “The first time we arrive in a new location, there is always the matter of fuel quality to be considered.”

“Are you saying our oils are inferior?” Ziegler had folded his arms again; preemptive indignation was writ plain across his broad and full-fleshed face.

“Not at all, but each town’s are distinctive. Since they are made from different substances, they burn a bit differently. And depending upon how much ethanol-eh, pure spirits-we can find, that also influences how best to mix the fuel so our engines consume it most efficiently.”

Mollified, Ziegler’s arms relaxed. “I see.” Clearly, he did not. Jenatsch on the other hand, seemed to get the gist of it. Miro foresaw that, in the commercial negotiations of the months to come, the two of them would reprise this juxtaposition of ill-concealed incomprehension and silent perception many, many times.

Rising, he nodded to them both. “I thank you for the dinner and conversation. My factor will meet with yours tomorrow morning, then?”

Ziegler returned his nod. “As we agreed.”

Jenatsch’s nod was slower. He smiled. “Safe travels in Italy.”

Miro managed not to let his surprise show. “ Auf Wiedersehen, mein Herren.”

Once the door was closed behind them, Franchetti turned to Miro. “How did the small one know that we are about to travel on to Italy?”

“He doesn’t know. He guesses it, and was probing to watch our reactions. He was also letting me know that he does not believe your reason for interrupting the meeting.”

“That one is too smart.” Franchetti began descending the stairs into the commons room of the Grosse Hart.

“I’d be far more worried if he took pains to conceal his intelligence from us. If a man like Georg Jenatsch believes you to be a possible enemy, he will make himself unreadable. He will not let you know how smart he is-or what he conjectures.”

“So this means-?”

“It suggests-and only that, Virgilio-that he is at least provisionally thinking of us as allies. And, not wanting to be taken lightly, or undervalued, he is showing that he is not a man to be underestimated nor trifled with. Which he would not be doing if he felt fully secure in his current position.”

“Is he not the political leader, up here?”

Miro smiled as the noise of the tavern rose to meet them. “He is, as much as anyone can be in this loose federation. And if he can legitimately represent himself as having brokered a new relationship with up-timers-in the form of an agreement with President Piazza of Thuringia-Franconia-it will solidify his claim to that leadership.”

Miro walked over to a large corner table, where a handful of locals were frowning over their cards. A newcomer in a mix of up-time and down-time garb grinned predatorily over the top of his own hand. Miro suddenly understood where the American term “cardshark” had come from. “Harry,” he said.

Harry Lefferts grinned wider. “Just a minute; I’m fleecing a few more alpine sheep.” Those members of his rag-tag special operations group who had accompanied him to the Grosse Hart — Gerd, Paul, Felix-smiled also.

“Harry,” Miro said quietly, “we don’t have a minute.”

The betting was concluding. Harry’s smile. “Oh? Then I’ll be there in half a minute. Just enough time to finish out this one last hand.”

Miro shrugged. He looked at the three members of Harry’s infamous and effective Wrecking Crew. “Gentlemen, your presence is required immediately.” He did not bother to look at Harry again, but exited. Behind him, he heard urgent whispers in the strange part-German, part-English dialect that had been dubbed Amideutsch.

Franchetti fretted. “Why does he do that?”

“Do what?”

“You know what I mean,” muttered Franchetti, “defying you. Not disobeying, exactly. But not behaving as he knows he should. As he has behaved on missions before this one.”

“Well, I suspect one of the reasons is that he’s usually not had to work under supervision. The head of Grantville’s intelligence community, Francisco Nasi, told me that Harry follows orders best when he is given great freedom in deciding exactly how to carry them out. But that was not possible this time.”

“ Si — and the other reason for his insolence?”

Miro looked at his master pilot and blimp builder. “Why, probably because Harry wanted my job, Virgilio.”

“What? But he’s-he is a condotierre, not a man of affairs.”

Miro shrugged. “He thinks otherwise.” And in his hearts of hearts, Miro could hardly blame Lefferts, could even imagine the American’s first thoughts when receiving the news that he was not in overall command of the mission: I am not so much younger than this Miro fellow-who arrived, unknown, in Grantville only a year ago and is now giving me orders. Who meets with Ed Piazza in closed sessions from which I am politely excluded. I have been a good soldier who has succeeded at every task; I have won the acclaim of young emulators all over Europe; I am bold and strong and intelligent. It is I who should have been placed in charge of this mission, not this usurper, this lately-come Estuban Miro.

But if Harry had thought such things, they had not settled and festered as jealousy. Estuban Miro had smelled the corrosive musk of envy before, and there was none of it wafting about Harry-although he could hardly have blamed the up-timer if there had been.

There was, however, the faint odor of schnapps about Harry as he arrived-the last of the Crew to do so-alongside the already inflated blimp. He was passing out some shared winnings as Miro began his update for the rest of the group, amongst whom there was now a quiet figure in a monk’s habit, hood pulled low. “Ambassador Nichols’ radio message was quite clear; we cannot wait until morning. We must get under way now.”

“I thought flying in the later part of the day can be dangerous,” commented the only other up-time member of the Wrecking Crew, Sherrilyn Maddox.

Franchetti jumped in. “Here, in the Alps, it is madness. We will probably have calm air when the sun begins to set, but we will not reach the Maloja Pass until nighttime. So we will be flying in the swiftly changing alpine air currents-and without light. Don Estuban, I know Ambassadora Nichols was adamant, but-”

“She was not merely adamant: she gave a direct order, and we will follow it.”

The hooded figure nodded silent agreement.

“And do we know why we are being invited to be the guests of honor at a suicide party?” When Harry Lefferts drawled his absurdities that way, even Miro had to smile.

But only fleetingly. “Yes. Contact was lost with Captain Simpson’s party. Abruptly.”

The cocky expression swept off Harry’s face, replaced by fell intensity. “When?”

“About twenty minutes ago. Franchetti was minding the radio at the time, monitoring the traffic between Chiavenna and Padua. Captain Simpson’s radio operator was sending out a good signal-and then nothing. Dead air.”

Franchetti nodded vigorously. “ Si. At first I think, ‘maybe a sudden weather change between here and Chiavenna.’ After all, it is the Alps. But then comes the message from Padua. The ambassadora, she had clear reception of the same signal but heard the same thing: the transmission ended sharply, and did not resume. No interference, no increase in static. They went off the air.”

Sherrilyn Maddox, Harry’s former gym teacher, looked at her ex-student and gritted her teeth. “Shit.”

Harry nodded. “So they didn’t even give the pick-up signal.”

“No: this is what you and Ed call an ‘emergency extraction.’”

“Except there may not be anyone at the rendezvous point to extract.”

Miro nodded. “That is entirely possible. We do know that Captain Simpson’s group made contact with Cardinal Ginetti, but they could have been apprehended while doing so, or shortly thereafter.”

“And what’s the big deal with this cardinal, again?” asked Harry. “Why’s he worth the extra risk?”

“Cardinal Marzio Ginetti is prefect of the Pontifical Household, secretary of the Sacred Consulta, and papal legate to the Austrian Court. Which means that he’s a close confidante of the pope.”

“And therefore, on Borja’s hit list,” Sherrilyn supplied with a glance at Harry.

“Thanks for telling me what I already know. I mean, why rescue Ginetti specifically: there have got to be a dozen Italian cardinals in the same situation.”

Miro shook his head. “Not any more. As of last week, the suspected total of cardinals that are missing-and probably dead-rose to sixteen. Borja was evidently quite thorough.” He looked to the hooded figure, who nodded once.

Juliet Sutherland, the Crew’s other female member and a woman of many roles, breathed in sharply: “Bloody hell.” She wasn’t a Catholic-exactly. But she wasn’t anything else, either-exactly. Or so it seemed. Miro couldn’t figure her out any more than he could the rest of the Crew-and he had given up trying to do so. Accepting the group’s dynamics and identities was a lot easier than trying to understand them.

“Yes: Borja has eliminated the great majority of Urban’s most reliable and trusted allies in the Consistory. That’s why Ambassador Nichols added Ginetti to our extraction list, and had him rendezvous with Tom Simpson’s group in Chiavenna. If the cardinal had actually reached Italy, it is unlikely he would have survived a week. Possibly not even a single day. So, at the pope’s behest, a confidential courier intercepted Ginetti during his journey westward along the Valtelline and redirected him to the rendezvous in Chiavenna.”

“Which now sounds completely fubarred.” Harry finished. “Ten to one the courier wasn’t so confidential after all and they put a tail on the padre.”

Miro nodded. “That’s the most likely scenario. And if Simpson’s group survived being discovered, they will be making best speed for the default extraction site, just a few miles west of the Maloja Pass.”

Harry grabbed a taut catenary cable and hopped into the dirigible’s gondola. “Then what are we waiting for? Let’s ride!” He held out a hand for his ponderous backpack.

Miro shook his head. “Light pack only.”

“What? Wait a minute, you said-”

“Harry. We thought retrieving Tom Simpson’s group would be a leisurely pick up. Franchetti, me, two of your Crew as security, and the rest of you to stay here. But now we-well, you — could have a real fight on your hands. That means the whole Crew is going to have to deploy for the rescue. It also means that there won’t be enough room for us on the return. And any of us who wait for a day or more in the Val Bregaglia probably won’t evade the Spanish long enough to be around for a second pick up. So whoever doesn’t get extracted by the blimp will need to immediately press on to reach Ambassador Nichols and her staff in Padua.”

“So we’re going to Italy on foot.”

“I’m afraid so.”

Harry shrugged. “Well, that means forty-pound packs, max. Combat load only. And it means leaving a lot of our support equipment back here.”

“Yes. But it will follow us down. Eventually.”

Harry looked up. “Eventually may not be good enough, given the fuse burning on this mission. Frank Stone’s wife Giovanna is now-what? Five months pregnant, almost? I can work a lot of miracles, but jail-breaking a mondo-pregnant lady ain’t one of them. So we don’t have a lot of time to wait around. So gear that gets to us ‘eventually’ is gear we’re never going to see again. A capeesh? ”

“Yes, I understand,” said Miro, who very nearly did not; the deformed Sicilian dialect that Harry had heard in American gangster movies was barely recognizable as Italian. “But whether or not the gear gets back to us in time, the dirigible must take Ginetti to a safe haven immediately. That means the balloon’s next flight after Chur must be to Grantville. So we won’t have access to the dirigible-or the equipment-for at least two weeks. Possibly more.”

“Well, that’s just great.” Harry hopped out of the gondola, seized his backpack, started pulling out nonessential items and making a semi-neat pile. “So we go in all teeth and no tail.”

“As usual,” commented George Sutherland, Juliet’s immense husband. “Do we at least know whether the security unit already in the valley has secured the extraction site yet?”

Miro shrugged. “So far, we haven’t been able to raise Colonel North. Nor has the ambassador’s radioman. Of course, they may be on the move and unable to send or receive.”

“So we don’t know where anyone else is?” Harry spat. “That’s great; just great. This operation hasn’t started, and already we’re scattered and screwed.”

“As usual,” added George once again.

“Colonel?”

Thomas North squinted, trying to get a better look at the roofs of Soglio about three miles ahead to the west, and farther down the slope of the Val Bregaglia. “What is it, Hastings?”

“Sir, some of the men are asking to stop and fill their water skins.”

“They’ve drained them? Already? They filled up only a few miles back in Vicosoprano.”

“Yes, sir, but it’s a hard march.”

“My, my. Then perhaps all of them should have, as children, simply accepted the life of leisure and independent wealth that was no doubt their birthright. Ah, but the siren song of the mercenary life was evidently too strong for them to resist.” North did not smile while he made this response. “Besides,” he added grudgingly, “if they put any more water in their bellies this quickly, we’ll lose some of them to cramping. And while I would be delighted to indulge their masochistic impulses, I suspect that we will all be needed at the extraction site. And as quickly as possible.”

From the corner of his eyes, North saw Lieutenant Hastings shift from one foot to the other. “Sir, it’s not as if we actually heard the extraction code given. We just got a few garbled signals. That’s all.”

“Yes, Hastings-that’s all. But that’s why I possess the lofty role and rank of colonel and you are but a lowly lieutenant. Who has been evidently been promoted above the threshold of his ability, I might add.”

“Your confidence in me is always inspiring, sir.”

“Ah, and now irony, too? I’ll make an officer of you yet, Hastings. Tell me, Lieutenant: what information can we be certain of, despite the ‘garbled signals’ of which our radio operator could make no sense?”

“I beg your pardon?”

North folded the spyglass, handed it to his batman, faced Hastings. “Lieutenant, for the last three weeks, we have been winding our way through Grisons and the Graubunden, not quite showing the USE flag in the region, but making no secret of the fact that they are our exclusive employers. And in all that time, how much radio traffic have we received? Or heard?”

“Three messages to us, sir. Maybe four or five others. Mostly from Ambassador Nichols’ dislocated embassy in Padua.”

“Yes. At least, we think that was the source, since those messages were almost as badly garbled as this last bunch. So given the general scarcity of radio traffic, what do you make of today’s flurry of activity?”

“That something important is happening, sir.”

North sighed. “Hastings, your hypothesis is almost as inspired as the conjecture that maybe-just maybe-night follows day. Well, you’re not to be blamed, of course: you are only a lieutenant, after all. Whereas I am a colonel-a near-divinity. And here is what I divine from the clicks, hissings, and scratchings that have afflicted our radio-set today. First the group we are to extract is on the air with something that sounded like a routine update; it had that tempo. But rather concluding with back and forth housekeeping to fix a time, frequency, and cipher for their next sitrep, the comchatter ended quickly. With, I think, a time being set.”

“For rendezvous?”

North felt the weight of command heavy upon his shoulders. “No, Hastings. There would have been a triple confirmation of extraction. The pattern and rhythm of the exchange was all wrong for that.” Hastings blinked, said nothing. North pressed on. “Logically, they were establishing a near-future call-back time. Probably because the group in Chiavenna was about to make contact with its newest member, a rather important ‘friar.’ Then a long wait. Then a brief exchange-and then nothing. There were repeated, unanswered comm-checks from Padua-or so it seemed. Then more coded comm traffic-between Padua and the airborne extraction team at Chur, I’m guessing. Lots of it. So, Hastings, what do you make of it all?”

“That there’s trouble with the group in Chiavenna? That something went wrong when they went to the scheduled meet with this friar? And that they are moving to the rendezvous and unable to communicate anything further?”

“Bravo! There’s hope for you yet, Lieutenant.” North frowned sadly. “Well, actually, there isn’t any hope for you, but I can’t stand to see you sulk, so I lied. Now, have the squad leaders employ the necessary invective and make the suitable threats so that we can pick up our pace. And I’ll let the men stop to piss, but not to drink any more. They’d give away our approach with all that water sloshing in their guts.”

CHAPTER SIX

The north-leaning shadows of the Bregaglia Mountains were starting to crawl across the Mera River; the sun was moving swiftly down toward the alpine peaks in the west, Chiavenna already lost in the gloom at their feet. Tom paused and let Rita move abreast of him. She glanced up-way up-at him, quizzically. “Honey,” he whispered to her, “you set the pace. I’m going to the rear. To push ’em along and keep us together.”

Rita turned as she strode ahead with a longer gait, inspecting their column. “Yeah, we’re starting to straggle out a bit.”

You, wife, have a talent for understatement, thought Tom as he peripherally saw Melissa and Cardinal Ginetti lagging yet again. Worse yet, the two of them slowed the group down even more by eliciting excesses of solicitousness. James Nichols was capable of a better pace, and, as an ex-Marine, he certainly knew how crucial it was that they maintain one. But the primal call of protecting one’s mate trumped training and logic, and Melissa, given her feisty personality, was neither the easiest nor most receptive person when it came to assistance.

The cardinal was simply not cut out for even this modest hike. They were two miles east of Chiavenna, well within the mouth of the Val Bregaglia and passing the thundering cataract of the Acquafraggia, which was perched over them to the north. The upward slope of the narrow valley was modest, here: not more than a five percent gradient. But the road meandered around copses and over meadows, rather than sticking close to the straight, rocky banks of the Mera, which had already narrowed considerably.

Tom had considered leaving the road at the small village of Piuro, but ultimately decided against it. The group needed speed more than stealth, and the open pastures reached all the way from the the river to the steep slopes on the north side of the valley. Although the pastures presented rolling contours to the aesthetically inclined gaze, they looked like an extra aerobic workout to Simpson’s utterly practical eye.

Even the winding country lane became more taxing when the river road joined with it shortly beyond Piuro, where the three locals they encountered all stared in surprise at James (and the rest of the group too, for that matter). Now, only ten minutes into the countryside, Melissa and Ginetti were already fighting to keep up-and failing. Tom, his long strides cut in half as he assessed the situation, had now fallen back to the rear of the group.

Melissa looked up, annoyed, a sweaty gray-brown bang hanging down across her severely straight Boston-Brahmin nose. “Yes, Tom, I know: I’m going to get everyone killed.”

“Now, Melissa-”

“Don’t ‘now, Melissa’ me, Tom. It’s true. James gave up denying it about half a mile ago. Now, he just tries to change the topic.”

Ginetti panted out his own opinion “I mean no offense in contradicting you, signora, but it is clear that I am the cause of our troubles, not you. I walk even more slowly. Let us be frank: if I had not met you in Chiavenna, you would have been allowed to pass over the Alps unmolested. As it is, I fear we are lost.” Shivering, for he was clearly not a particularly brave man, Ginetti presented his solution in a rush: “If I am to fall into the hands of Borja anyway, at least you might escape. I might be able to draw them off by taking a different course-”

Melissa stopped and stared down at the cardinal. “With respect, Your Eminence, that’s ridiculous.” Ginetti stopped and stared back; quite possibly, he had not been addressed in such a firmly remonstrative tone since his boyhood. “First, they will not stop following us just because they capture you. I wouldn’t stop, if I were them. After all, we are murderers in the eyes of Chiavenna’s authorities. And if the confidential agent following you-the one Tom decked in the crotto — has played his cards right, he’ll be following along, too. After all, if his masters only wanted your head, Cardinal Ginetti, they could have collected it long before you reached Chiavenna.”

“You overlook that I had four guards. The agent in the crotto may not have been courageous enough to-”

“Counting the agent they sent into the crotto to keep any eye on you, there were five men following you. So they had you outnumbered. Had they wanted, they could have eliminated one or more of your guards during a night ambush and finished the job on a subsequent day. No, Cardinal, they want us, too. Dead or alive, perhaps, but I suspect they’d prefer alive. We’d be much more useful-and informative-that way.” She raised her head, breathed deeply, and accelerated her flagging stride again. “No, we are all in this together. And that means you and I have to step lively, Your Eminence, because escape is our only acceptable option.”

James nodded. “And so far, luck is with us.”

Tom couldn’t figure that one out. “Seems today the only luck we’ve had has been bad.”

“Look, Tom: if the local garrison back in Chiavenna were seasoned pros, they’d have caught up with us by now. Sure, our trail ended at the Mera, but they must know we didn’t head west; to do that, we’d have had to double back past the crotto itself. And what for? To go straight up a big-ass mountain, through pine forests and toward god knows what? That’s not a bad plan; it’s no plan at all.

“And I doubt it took them more than ten minutes to figure out that we hadn’t crossed to the other side of the Mera; we’d have been seen going over the bridges. Besides, that’s the more densely populated side of town: lots of well-trafficked piazzas. Where we don’t exactly blend in. Particularly me. And certainly not when we’re running for our lives.

“So ten, maybe fifteen minutes after they found your cloak, they would know that we either fled to the north or the south. So maybe they had to split up into two search parties, but any way you slice it, we’re lucky we’ve gotten this far without any sign of-”

Over the stony roar of the plummeting Acquafraggia, Tom thought he heard a faint prapf! — and the next moment, he felt a burning stripe across his left buttoc k. Damn it, he thought as he staggered, more from the pain than the grazing rush of the musket ball fired at long range, hit in the ass again?

Grinning because he could still find humor in the situation, Tom did not fall, thanks to the ready hand of Matthias, their geekish down-time radio operator. Who asked solicitously, “Can you travel, Herr Kapitan?”

Tom nodded, saw Matthias’ relieved smile-and then another musket ball went neatly into the down-timer’s right temple. It came out above his left ear in an eruption of bone and brains at the same moment that the weapon’s report reached them. Which meant that some of their pursuers were much closer than they had thought.

“Run!” Tom shouted at the top of his lungs. “Everyone! Now! ”

On the one hand, Miro was glad for the tail wind out of the north. Keeping a good distance from the alp known as the Tscharnoz to the west, Franchetti was catching at least seven miles per hour of free forward speed. That made it possible to throttle back the four, thirty-horse-power up-time mower engines propelling the dirigible, and thereby, save a considerable amount of fuel.

The downside of this situation was that it put Miro, along with two thirds of the passengers, downwind of the motors. Along with the burner, these engines left little doubt as to the origins of their fuel.

“Damn,” said Sherrilyn, wrinkling her nose. “Smells like a dead sheep. Being cremated in its own rotting fat.”

“Yeah, a sheep that died eating codfish,” Harry expanded.

“Who washed it down with the nastiest rotgut ever brewed from Satan’s own piss,” added Juliet, with a punctuating shriek of disgust and despair.

Donald Ohde shrugged. “Ah…I’ve smelled worse, I have.” They all looked at him. “Can’t think where, though.”

“Matija’s drawers,” Felix sneered.

“Your obsession with my drawers-and their contents-is ungodly, you sodomite.”

Gerd, not to be left out, looked up, sleepy-eyed as ever. “Get a room, you two,” he advised. Then he sent a questioning glance toward the up-timers of the Crew. “I think that line is from a movie we have seen, ja? ”

George Sutherland, one arm around his wife, the other gesturing grandly at the white-fanged Alps surrounding them, exclaimed. “It’s a fine day to be flying, here over the very roof of the world, with all my friends.” He sucked in a great lungful of the noxious fumes. “And so refreshing, too.”

Miro wondered if the banter ever-ever-stopped. Sometimes, it abated, but rarely and not for long. It seemed to be an essential part of the social glue that held the Wrecking Crew together. Which, he supposed, made it a good thing. But he was outside of it, just as he was outside of their circle.

Franchetti shouted at Miro over his shoulder. “Don Estuban, look ahead.” He cocked his head toward the horizon. “Do you see it? The Lai di Marmorera?”

Miro squinted. A smooth curve of deep ultramarine nestled between close-set mountains some miles ahead. He pointed at it over Franchetti’s shoulder. “In that valley, you mean?” Frankly, it wasn’t a valley so much as it was a flat-bottomed gorge.

“ Si; we head there. Then south to the Septimer Pass. We have gone more than half the way. Almost two-thirds.”

Harry had come to stand alongside Miro. “What are we looking at?”

Miro pointed again. “The Lai di Marmorera. Beyond that lies Bivio and the Septimer Pass.”

“Lake Marmorera?” Harry’s brow wrinkled, one eyebrow shot up, and in that moment, Miro saw why the young rogue had so scored so many amorous victories across the Continent in the past two years. “I thought we were going over something called…eh, the Marmelsee.”

“Same thing,” shouted Miro. “The names change from language to language up here. French, German, Italian. Some rarer languages, too. And dialects mixing them all together.”

“Chaos,” pronounced Harry. Then with a smile, she said, “Sounds like my kind of place.”

Thomas North peered out through the trees; two primitive carts creaked over a low rise to the east and were lost to sight. He waited a moment, then waved the first squad forward. The men advanced just beyond the edge of the tree line but stayed well within its lengthening shadow. No sign of reaction from the outskirts of Soglio, which was upslope to the north. Behind them, less than thirty yards to the south, was the Mera. Pine-lined at this point in its course, it chattered over rocks down toward the next town: Castagena.

“It’s fortunate we’re moving so close to dusk. Easy to stay hidden, this way.”

North turned to looked up at the very tall, very broad-shouldered Hastings. “Fortunate for movement, perhaps. Hardly ideal for a rendezvous, though. You have the crossbow ready?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And the signal bolts?”

Hastings nodded and watched as the first squad started trotting down slope, slipping beneath the sleeping brows of Soglio. “Shall we follow, sir?”

North, chewing his lower lip lightly, nodded. “Pass the word: weapons out, but no firing except at my orders. We’ve only got two miles left; let’s not cock it up by having someone mistake a squirrel for a Spaniard.”

North, up-time 9mm automatic in his right hand, signaled with his left to the second squad. Along with him, they emerged from the black shadows of the woods into the gray shadows beyond its margin and moved quietly down the hill after their comrades.

The approach of hooves told Tom Simpson that he had been right to remain behind and lie in wait; if he didn’t slow the Spanish down here, they would overtake the group within the hour. Now, if only he could keep his separation from the others from becoming truly permanent…

Tom eased open both frizzens of the double-barreled fowling piece that, in any self-respecting Western, would have been called a “coach-gun” and checked the powder in the pans. It was still dry, despite the mists generated by the cataract thirty yards farther along the track to the east. Working around to his right, which was also the upslope side of the immense tree that he was sheltered behind, Tom leaned out for a quick peek.

Four horsemen, coming in a one-two-one sequence. Not as dispersed as bred-to-the-saddle cavalrymen would have been, the two in the middle were all but riding abreast. But the arrangement did suggest the competent training that was the norm among Spanish troops, which these were, judging from their helmets.

Tom leaned back behind the tree-no sudden motion now-and took a deep breath. He had been in several memorable gunfights over the past few years. The most recent involved shooting his way out of the Castel Sant’Angelo while rescuing the pope. However, this time he was alone and heavily outnumbered. As the first horseman drew abreast of his position, lazily riding point toward the dull thunder of the alpine cataract, Tom took consolation from the fact that the noise muffled other sounds like a great blanket. This, along with the shadows in which Tom was hidden, amplified the efficacy of his one great advantage: surprise.

Timing the approach of the next two riders by recalling their separation from, and projecting back from the current position of, the first, Tom now leaned slowly around the down-slope side of the tree. The Spanish riders, about twelve yards away, did not see him. He counted through two more seconds, brought his weapon up slowly, waited for the pair to reach a range of about eight yards. When they did, he aimed low, and squeezed the first trigger.

The weapon sounded like a small cannon going off. The far horse, the one on the right-hand side of the road, caught the great mass of the shot in its chest. The creature screamed, went down frontwards, spilling the rider roughly onto the road. The second horse, hit by two, maybe three, balls in the breast and the foreleg, staggered then reared desperately.

Aiming slightly higher, Tom squeezed the other trigger.

The second blast did not seem as loud, probably because he expected it. This charge of shot caught the same, stricken horse in the side as it was wheeling in panic, its rider hauling at the reins in an attempt to control it. The ribcage of the animal rippled under a spatter of bloody eruptions; a similar splatter of red appeared between the rider’s hip and kidney. Together, man and beast fell sideways.

Tom did not see them hit the ground. Dropping the shotgun, he leaned back behind the immense tree-trunk and snatched up his waiting cap-and-ball revolver. His back covered against fire from the rearmost rider, he drew a two-handed bead on the point-man, who had pulled his mount around and had his wheel-lock pistol already in hand, looking for the source of the attack.

Tom fired, resteadied, fired, resteadied. Just before he triggered off a third shot, he saw that he had hit the target with his second bullet: the rider flinched as a dull red puff momentarily obscured his right clavicle. Probably aiming at Tom’s muzzle flash, he discharged his own weapon in unison with Tom’s third shot.

Which cut through the Spaniard’s diaphragm and dumped him out of his saddle; his return shot hummed into the upslope forest to Tom’s left, snapping twigs as it went.

A moment later, Tom heard the report of another wheel lock. He simultaneously felt and heard a thump deep in the tree behind him. No time to waste.

Tom leaned around the darker, upslope side of the tree, drew a bead on the last horseman, who had already yanked a second pistol from his saddle-brace. Tom fired; the Spaniard fired. They both missed. The horseman reached for his next pistol; Tom fired again. Another miss-but it grazed the horse’s flank, causing the creature to rear and the rider to consider the rate of fire he was obviously facing. He pulled his mount around and sped back the way he had come, riding low and forward in the saddle.

Rather than waste a shot, Tom ran into the road, pistol up and ready. The first rider who had gone down was dead: the open eyes, staring almost straight back over his shoulder, bore witness to his snapped neck. The lead rider-the third Tom had shot-was not moving, nor was he making any noise audible over the perpetual rumble of the cataract. Although neither of the point-man’s wounds had been instantly fatal, the odds were good that his fall from the horse inflicted a concussion. Which was a lucky bit of mercy, since the gut wound inflicted by Tom’s third bullet promised a long and miserable death.

But the second rider Tom had shot, the one who had gone down sideways with his mount, was pinned under his dead horse, groaning and bleeding heavily.

Tom approached, then stopped. For a long second, he could not form any thought other than this is not how it’s supposed to end. This wasn’t part of the plan. They were supposed to die. Or, if I was unlucky, flee. But not this.

The Spaniard had evidently heard Tom’s movement; he struggled to turn his head, to see who might be coming. That attempt to turn had evidently required a reflexive twisting of the lower back: the cavalryman screamed in agony.

That shook Tom out of his stupor. He reached the wounded man in two long strides. Careful not to look him in the eyes, the up-timer snugged his revolver’s barrel under the soldier’s chin and pulled the trigger.

Tom did not hear the report; did not stop to look at the body; did not remember clambering up the slope and on to the game trail by which he had doubled back to set up this ambush. Up until now, he’d always felt like a soldier. Now…he tried not to think of himself as a murderer.

The complement in the gondola had grown very quiet. Alps this big, when seen close up, were no longer scenic, were no longer even majestic: they were ominous gargantuas. The figure in the hooded clerical robe stood very still at the rear of the gondola, watching the towering monsters slide slowly past.

Angling to enter the north of the Sur Valley from the east, Franchetti had swept around the Piz d’Err with about one thousand yards to spare, and well under the level of its 11,080 foot peak. But as he drew closer to the Marmelsee, he seemed to be struggling to maintain a steady course.

“What’s wrong?” Miro shouted above the engines.

“Nothing, Don Estuban.”

“Virgilio-”

“Well, the air currents are-are hard to predict here. The drafts around these mountains, they can speed up very quickly.”

Miro looked up at the next alp in the line of snow-and-stone giants arrayed in a frozen, southward parade; this one was even taller, more jagged. Miro pointed. “And that one is called?”

“Piz Calderas.”

Gray horns and fangs protruded from its upper reaches; lower down, where they were, the topography was less forbidding.

“And isn’t that one the Matterhorn?” Sherrilyn pointed across the valley and the Marmelsee, where a great monolith of stone was now framed by the rapidly setting sun. She sounded almost giddy; she seemed to be the last passenger whose enjoyment of the trip was undiminished.

Miro smiled. “No. That is Piz Platta.”

“What?” Sherrilyn sounded personally affronted. “That’s a rip-off! It’s a, a…a damned look-alike. A fake.”

Miro’s smiled widened. “Can God steal a creative property from himself? A worthy question for Talmudic scholars, though I suspect-”

Franchetti’s “Don Estuban!” was uttered in the very same second that the gondola seemed to plummet away from under them. Miro fell to the deck, glad not to be falling further. Franchetti was giving orders to Gerd and Donald, who were his assistant engineers on this trip. Donald opened up the burner, which sent a hoarse, bright roar of flame up into the dirigible. A wave of sultry warmth washed over the gondola. At the same time, Gerd was adjusting the engine pitch for a steep climb.

Between the two adjustments, Miro expected the blimp to shoot higher. Instead, it laboriously crawled upward. Miro rose, crouched behind Franchetti, and smelled the sour stink of sudden, panicked sweat. “Virgilio, what is our situation?”

“I–I am not sure, Don Estuban. One minute I was correcting for side draft. The next a slight updraft, then a gust came down off the peak, hard. It is the air over the lake, near dusk. With the temperatures changing this quickly-”

“-wind directions and speeds are changing just as quickly.”

Harry Lefferts spat over the side of the gondola. “Damn it. I knew this was a lousy idea. Flying just before sunset: it’s nuts.”

Miro watched the steep sides of the Piz Calderas come closer. “Virgilio, is it wise that we-?”

“Don Estuban, the air is calmer here, farther away from the surface of the lake. I think we can probably-”

Then they were shooting upwards, rapidly closing with the Piz Calderas. “What the fuck-?” shouted Sherrilyn.

Miro knew better than to interrogate Franchetti, who was trying to both save their lives and adapt to conditions he had never encountered in the more predictable flying conditions of central Germany. Besides, Miro had a pretty good idea of what the problem was.

They had entered a fierce new westerly draft. Glancing across the valley, Miro guessed it was produced by the funneling effects the two immense alps he saw there: the Piz Platta and its northerly partner, the Piz Arblatsch. Winds from the west were pinched between the peaks and accelerated, as would a stream of water that is forced to flow through a narrow tube. Entering the valley, the airship had been north of the draft. And later, until it struggled up out of the downdrafts over the lake, the balloon had remained under the air current. But rising up had brought them square into the blast, which had not only removed the downdraft effect, but was pushing them sideways, toward a high-altitude impalement upon the snowy spikes of Piz Caldera.

Except not all those lethal projections were clearly snow-marked, Miro realized. “Virgilio-!”

Franchetti saw the daggerlike horn of dark-gray rock that jumped out of the shadows at them. Probably the morning sunlight had melted it clean, allowing it to lurk, camouflaged, in the shadows of dusk. As they sped sideways to meet its disemboweling slice, sure to shred the gondola and drop them thousands of feet to their collective deaths, Miro watched Franchetti struggle to get the airship down and out of the cross-valley draft. And that was when he realized that, instead, they had to “Climb!” shouted Miro. “Pitch engines for rapid ascent; throttles wide open!”

“Wha-?”

“Do it!” roared Miro, who leaped over to the burner and opened its choke to full burn.

No longer trying to fight back down into and through the cross-current, the sudden increase in both lift and upward thrust pushed the dirigible suddenly higher with what seemed like a hop. Piz Calderas’ granite claw reached out for them — and bumped lightly against the bottom of the gondola, before they soared up beyond it. They were still angling toward the higher reaches of Piz Calderas, but without the same powerful side draft. They had also climbed over the most intense core of the winds. Behind Miro, people began to breathe again.

Franchetti turned; his brow was as wet as if he emerged from the lake they were now angling back toward. “Don Estuban, I-thank you. Merde! Just thank you.” From the other end of the gondola, Miro was pretty sure he could hear the robed passenger murmuring what sounded like a prayer of thanks.

Miro sank back into a seat and then felt something thump against his back. He turned around just as George Sutherland’s big, meaty paw landed for a second friendly pat. “Not half bad, Don Estuban, not half bad.”

Harry, too, was smiling at him. Indeed, they all were. Miro nodded, smiled back and stared once again across the valley at the alps that had almost killed them.

CHAPTER SEVEN

North watched the light dying in the narrow strip of sky that looked down at them from between peaks that soared up and away like walls reaching to Heaven itself. Then he lowered his gaze to peer beyond the edge of their sheltering copse, following the track that descended toward the western extent of the Val Bregaglia.

But before the valley dipped down to where the Mera picked up speed and spread wider and shallower, the wagon track passed before the door of the humble church and cottages that comprised the hamlet of Castagena. Where, evidently, a wedding had run late; a dozen revelers were still milling about. Half seemed to be trying to tidy up the area and hush the other half. Who, for their part, seemed unwilling to realize that the festivities had ended.

North drew a deep breath. “Pass the word: as soon as the last of these bloody merrymakers have cleared off, we travel weapons out and at the trot. We have to move swiftly to the extraction site and establish our defensive perimeter in the dark. Not a simple exercise.”

“And still no way to know if there will be anyone there to be extracted.”

“Yes, a bit problematic, that.”

“How long do we wait at the extraction site, Colonel?”

North gave Hastings a sour look. “Until it’s time to leave. How the hell do I know how long we’ll have to wait?”

Nichols put a hand on Tom Simpson’s arm. “Hold up, there. Let me look at that wound, again.”

“Doc, we don’t have the time-”

“There’s a lot of things we don’t have the time for. You bleeding to death is on the top of the list. Now stand still.”

The rest of the group moved on ahead. Melissa’s iron determination had kept her going-that and the decreased pace that Tom had set. Rita and Arco were taking turns all but carrying Ginetti as they made their way upslope around a hamlet that made tiny Piuro look like a bustling metropolis.

Tom looked over his shoulder. “Is it bad?”

“Not bad but messy. And unlucky. This musket ball reopened the grenade wound you picked up while rescuing Urban. I’ve got no way to stop the bleeding out here.”

“Can’t you-I don’t know-bind it?” Tom felt idiotic even as he said it.

James Nichols’ long silence made him feel even more stupid. “Tom, just how would you propose I bind a lateral wound on a single buttock?”

“Okay, dumb idea. Look, we don’t have much farther to go. On the far side of the hamlet-Villa, I think they call it-the Mera widens out. There’s a light forest hugging the north bank. When we get beyond that forest, we’re at the rendezvous point. So listen: you go on ahead and-”

Tom felt James’ shoulder muscles, corded with age but still strong, slip under his right armpit and hoist. “Nope. You’re coming with us.” Tom rose to his feet, wobbled.

“Pain?” asked Nichols.

“Naw, just dizzy.”

“That’s the blood loss.”

“Blood loss? What, do I have an artery in my ass?”

“No, Tom. But you’ve been pushing yourself over hill and dale for hours now, and even slow bleeding is going to make you light-headed and weak.”

“Not a good time for those symptoms,” Tom observed, trying to move without Nichols’ help, but not succeeding brilliantly.

James Nichols paused, lifted his head to hear over the Gallegione cataract crashing down from the heights ahead and to the north. “No, not a good time at all.”

Tom had heard it too: the fraction of a shouted order. In Spanish, and farther back along the wagon track they had been following.

It had become so dark that Miro was uncertain how Franchetti was flying. The last light glimmered off the Lunghinsee, far to the left. The lake was the source of the River Inn, a distinction that conjured images of a broad expanse of water, cascading over rocks in a flume that would eventually reach the sea. But in actuality, the Lunghinsee was a puddle compared to the Marmelsee. It was small, stark, and alien: an absolutely unrippled mirror surface, held in the grip of mountains as barren as those of the moon.

The dirigible dipped sharply; Miro and the other passengers braced themselves, but Franchetti’s explanation-shouted over the engines-put them back at ease. “We have gone over the Septimer Pass, which is just above seven thousand, two hundred feet. The last alps of the Oberhalbstein Range are now behind us to the left, the west. We now head down into the Val Bregaglia by turning west at Vicosoprano.”

“And we should be at the rendezvous in how long?”

“I cannot say until we see what the winds are like in the valley. But about half an hour. Sooner, if conditions are good.”

Miro turned to the Wrecking Crew. “Ready your weapons.”

North hissed at Hastings as he went past. “Keep your squad away from the banks of the river; there isn’t enough tree-cover there.”

Hastings looked dubiously overhead at the stars that were beginning to shine through the dusty-rose and mauve of late dusk.

North grumbled as Hastings opened his mouth to reply. “No, Lieutenant, it’s not as dark as you think. Not so dark that buckles and barrels won’t catch a bit of light and alert the Spanish. That’s why our men’s rifles went back in their cases for the nonce. The Spaniard is not always imaginative, but he’s a steady, seasoned soldier. If you get lazy, he will teach you the error of your ways: a lesson that might end with you waking up in Heaven. Or in slightly less lofty regions, in your case.”

“Yes, sir.”

“No heroics, Hastings. When you get to the edge of the woods overlooking the cataract, set up a loose skirmish line that extends upslope thirty yards from the cart-track.”

“Sir, this being spring in the Alps, there could be several mountain run-offs, so how can I tell which-?”

“Hastings, this is a genuine cataract. Flows all the way down from the peak of that alp”-He pointed up at the pink-tinted snow-cap of the Piz Gallegione, towering over them just to the north-“so I don’t think you’re going to miss it. Although, in your case-”

Hastings cleared his throat. “And you’ll be in reserve behind us, sir?”

“Yes, but I’ll be down two men. They’ll be detached to make contact with the airship when it arrives in at the extraction site. And while we’re waiting for Captain Simpson’s group to arrive, do see if you can keep from getting killed, Lieutenant. It would take an unreasonably long amount of time to train someone to replace you. Given the high caliber of your skills, I estimate it might even require two days. Now go-and remember: even with the countersign, it’s going to be difficult distinguishing friend from foe in this light. No eager trigger-fingers.”

“Yes, sir.” And Hastings was gone, a shadow consumed by shadows.

North looked out over the broad spread of the Mera, smooth and quiet here, though he could make out two pinpricks of yellow light just beyond where the river gathered together and, swollen by the cataract, plunged down once again. Probably oil lamps in upper story windows of Villa, he thought. But five years ago, my eyes were keen enough that I wouldn’t have had to guess. I’m getting old, damn it. Old.

Hell, next month, I’ll be halfway through my thirties.

Tom ran, limping, to join the rest of them at the edge of the fuming torrent that swirled down into the Mera at the northeastern edge of Villa.

Rita and Arco, supporting Ginetti on either side, ventured into the swift current, stumbled, righted themselves, and then fell again, going down to their knees.

“Shit,” swore Rita, grabbing after the limp cardinal.

“ Merde,” echoed Arco.

A light came on in a second story window of the largest house in Villa.

Now, reflected Tom, things are likely to get very interesting.

As the airship passed over Castagena, Franchetti started leveling out from his descent. The Val Bregaglia was almost flat here, allowing the Mera to fan out. Miro, hand upon the covered bull’s-eye lantern that was to serve as a landing light, started looking for the prearranged extraction zone, a meadow just north of where the river widened Melissa, forgetting her own infirmities, jumped over to help the cardinal back to his feet; James scrambled into the water after her A musket discharged from within the confines of the town. The ball struck one of the rocks flanking the ford, pieces of stone spalling upslope. The miss had been well wide of the group that was struggling over the shallows in the dark, but it was close enough to be worrisome. Orders were shouted in Spanish. From back along the upslope path they had followed to get here, a whistle shrilled in answer.

Tom dropped into a crouch. He exhaled through the sudden flare of pain that blossomed as his right buttock hyperextended. The Spanish were coming from two directions. One group had followed the upslope trail, which put them due west. The other group-probably the larger of the bodies of troops-had stayed on the wider, better track that wound through Villa; they were approaching from the southwest. Probably at a good clip.

Tom pulled out his revolver, checked that the priming caps were snugly seated. Not long now.

Having just settled his squad within the trees one hundred yards west of the extraction zone-about a third of the distance to Villa-North tilted his head to listen. Yes, that was a musket report, which came across the sluggish water like a sighing pop! “Damn it.”

The colonel’s batman, Finan, scuttled over. “Sir, what is it?”

“Did you hear that?”

“Hear what, sir?”

North closed his eyes, remembered a particularly apt American exchange, reprised in so many of their movies. “I have good news and bad news.”

“Sir?”

“The good news is that Captain Simpson and his party are still alive, and are, in fact, quite close.”

“And the bad news is-?”

“That we’re not alone. Send a runner to Hastings: positive target identification before firing. It’s going to be close.”

As Finan disappeared into the murk, another two shots came faintly over the water.

Very close indeed.

Harry Lefferts stood. “Okay, that wasn’t ‘just my imagination.’ Did you see the flashes?”

Miro nodded. “At the western end of the wide part of the river, near the Piz Gallegione cataract.”

Harry turned. “Listen, we’re not going to be able to run over there in time to save them, not if we land here at the extraction site.”

Miro nodded again:; Lefferts’ assessment was inarguably correct. “So where’s Colonel North?”

“If he’s here, he’ll be somewhere between the extraction zone and the anticipated contact point.”

Miro peered at the thin woods. “I don’t see anything there.”

“Of course not. North is good: you won’t see him until he wants you to.”

“So what do you recommend?”

Harry frowned, considering. “North will stay under cover until we signal. But with a firefight in progress, we’d be stupid to follow the original plan to hover out over the river. And he’d be stupid to give away his position before seeing us. So we have to change the plans. We have to send the first signal. We shoot the first whistle-bolt.”

Miro met Harry’s eyes. He saw eagerness but no berserkergang, no indication of a battle lust that might impede judgment. He looked over Lefferts’ shoulder at Matija. “Shoot the bolt.”

Tom couldn’t see the Spanish approaching, but he could hear them. Muttered orders, whispered acknowledgements, occasional rustling and soft footfalls: the sounds of a stealthy platoon advance.

The only other two shots the Spanish had fired were blind misses, meaning that the first shot’s proximity had probably been the result of luck, not skill. Probably a Hail-Mary discharge in the general direction of the voices heard at the ford.

Which the last of the group had almost traversed. The cardinal had cleared the rocks on the other side, hanging like a drowned rat between Rita and Arco. Melissa was finally picking her way out of the churning white melt-waters, too-and then she went down, quick and hard, with a most improper and biologically implausible oath.

The timing was unfortunate. James had just turned to start back and help Tom across. Hearing Melissa’s sharp cry, Nichols spun and caught her arm before the rush of water could carry her under and away. Pretty damned spry for a guy in his sixties, thought Tom. But as James helped Melissa hobble up out of the frothing current, he glanced back over his shoulder. His eyes-desperate and apologetic-met Tom’s.

Tom Simpson nodded his understanding and approval; a man’s first duty was to his woman. Nichols faded into the trees on the far bank, working as a human crutch for Melissa. It was obvious that her ankle was at least sprained, maybe broken.

Tom looked at his black-powder revolver, wished it was any one of a half dozen up-time weapons he had used in the past three years. But that kind of armament had been deemed both unnecessary and too unsubtle when they set out on this journey. Back in safe, sunny Padua. Back before they were given the additional task of rendezvousing with a renegade cardinal who had the physique of a couch-potato.

Tom hunkered down behind the largest rock he could find, took the cap-and-ball revolver in both hands-and heard a strange bird call over the water. Wait: was that-?

North held up his hand. “Was that a-?”

Finan nodded. “Sounded like a long-winded whip-poor-will to me, Colonel.”

The signal. The dirigible was here.

“Fire our bolt,” he hissed urgently at his batman. “Right now, out over the water.”

Lefferts was focused in a way that Miro had never seen before. Now he understood why, despite his swagger and reputation for occasional impulsiveness, Harry had been so successful on operations like these. “Franchetti,” the up-timer said, “keep us close to the slope, inside the shadows if you can.”

“ Si, but where am I-?”

“Look dead ahead, due west, just upslope of where the cataract hits the river. You see that small pasture?”

“Near the abandoned farmhouse?”

“Yeah. Can you put down there?”

“Well, yes, but-”

“Do it. Now.” Lefferts turned to the rest of his Wrecking Crew. “Well, folks, it might be a hot LZ. Ready for some fun? ”

Tom Simpson heard a second strange birdsong-the whistle-bolt countersign-respond promptly to the first and allowed himself a small smile. Well, I just might get out of this alive, after all…

Four shots sputtered from between the buildings in Villa; two more came from upslope, flashes marking their sources within the tree line. Most of the balls missed by a reasonable margin; one thumped into a decayed tree trunk lying in front of the rock behind which Tom had taken cover.

But then again, I might not.

North stood as the runner he sent to the front rank returned. Before the winded fellow could speak, the colonel gave new orders. “Back you go. Tell Lieutenant Hastings that he has a new relief force coming in on his right flank.”

“A new relief force? Where from, sir?”

North pointed upward. “From thin air.” He motioned for the rest of his squad to get their rifles out of their all-weather hide cases. “Ready on the line,” he ordered, as he readied his up-time nine-millimeter pistol.

Franchetti screamed, “Pitch the engines down! Full braking thrust!”

Miro complied, yanking the engine angling bar up sharply. The props rotated into an earth-aimed attitude, slowing the descent. The gondola came to an unsteady halt, a mere four feet off the ground.

Juliet-a short, round woman-looked dubiously at the gap that Lefferts, Gerd, and Sherrilyn had already jumped down.

“C’mon!” hissed Lefferts, before disappearing into the downslope tree line, with the Gallegione cataract roiling and crashing on its downward tumult about thirty yards to his right.

George Sutherland hopped to the ground-lightly for a man of his size-and held up his arms for his wife. “Down you come, dear.” He said it as if she were descending from a coach after a ride in the country-which is how she exited the airship.

Franchetti glanced back. “Don Estuban, we should-”

“Yes-yes, Virgilio; take us back to the extraction point.”

As Miro and Franchetti swiveled the engines into a down-draft position again, and throttled the burner up, the dirigible rose and swung away from the small meadow.

In the back of the gondola, the one remaining passenger started praying in Latin.

Tom let the first tactical probe get within twenty-five yards before he fired four times, quickly. Of the three approaching Spaniards, two fell: one, howling and writhing; the other, silently and limp. Having finally given away his position, Tom ducked, just in time to hear a ragged crackle of musketry from both the hamlet and the upslope trail. Perhaps a dozen balls spattered Tom’s sheltering rock, the rotted log, and the ground nearby. Many more hissed into the white, whirling veils of the cataract and beyond, into the trees.

Tom popped up, saw a thin horizontal line of gun smoke diffusing slowly in his direction. He also saw the last Spaniard advancing on his flank, hunched low, pistol and sword at the ready. Tom fired twice at the skirmisher, turned and jumped into the stream, hopping and struggling his way across. The Spaniard’s pistol, and a more distant musket, discharged behind him; either Tom was not hit, or he did not feel it. Either way, he continued his uneven progress across the ford, wondering how long the gun smoke would obscure the vision of the Spanish line, and how long it would take them to reload.

Harry Lefferts was so focused on finding a way to get closer to the cataract that he was completely surprised by the buff-coated man who rose up in front of him. Jerking to a startled halt, Harry squinted into the near-dark: the man’s weapon was an immediate giveaway as to whose side he was on.

Harry moved the barrel of the down-time box-magazine Winchester away from his belly. “Wondered where you guys were,” Lefferts drawled.

“Waiting for you.”

“Oooh, snappy. I like that. You also just about scared me out of my pants.” He looked the mercenary up and down. “You’re pretty damned good. Wanna work for me?”

The man shrugged. “I like my boss.”

“I pay better.”

“I doubt it. And I’ve got a family. Lieutenant Hasting is just down the slope.”

“No time to find him. How are you deployed?”

“Loose skirmish line from here to the river to cover Captain Simpson’s group as they come up the track.” As if to emphasize the harried approach of that group, a clatter of musketry rose above the dull thunder of the cataract.

“Any force closer to the ford?”

“No. None to spare. We’ve only got two squads.”

“You’re only one squad, here. Where’s the other?”

“Landing zone security and uncommitted reserve.”

Harry scowled a little. Frequently, the word “reserve” translated as the hiding place for cowardly commanders. “I see Colonel North is sitting this one out.”

“That’s not how we see it.”

“Well, we can debate that over a beer some time. We’re going in.”

“In? In where?”

Harry pointed in the direction of the recent fusillade. “In there.”

“You’re going to attack the Spanish?”

Harry smiled and waved for the Wrecking Crew to follow him southwest, angling to follow the upslope limit of the woods. “Not directly.”

Tom reached the other side of the ford just as the muskets started sporadically barking at him again. However, from the sound of it, most of the Spanish were giving chase, not stopping to reload. In the dark, any gunfights at ranges greater than ten yards were pretty much pointless.

Feeling solid ground under his feet, Tom up and sprinted forward, following the cart-track. The pain of his reopened wound returned sharply, now reaching up into his lower back. When the shooting had started, adrenaline had swept the discomfort away, but that relieving rush was gone; soon, he’d start limping, stumbling He heard movement upslope, some yards beyond the trees linking the track.

Impossible. There had been no way to cross the cataract higher up; how could the Spanish have anyone on his northern flank?

Desperate, and experiencing true panic for the first time in many years, Tom Simpson found another surge of strength which sent him dashing forward along the track.

Lieutenant Hastings watched the man and woman help the little priest stumble past his position, and right behind them, an odd couple indeed: a fit, yet clearly older woman with a useless, dangling foot, being almost dragged along by a fit, but equally aged Moor. And, still farther back along the track, another very large silhouette was emerging from the darkness…

Corporal Eugenio Morca de Torres clambered out of the frothing current, cocked his miquelet musket, aimed after the fleeing figure, then lowered his weapon. Cono, the big American was fast, even when wounded. He waved for his men to follow and ran in pursuit.

Harry skidded to a halt, five yards from where the woods ended at the cart-track. He saw a figure running down there, heading towards North’s forward skirmish line. A big figure. Tom Simpson. Had to be.

Catching a tree branch to slow himself, George Sutherland readied his up-time shotgun, tracking back along the route of Tom’s retreat. Troop sounds-a platoon or more moving quickly-were growing loud enough to rival the cataract back there.

Harry shook his head. “Not yet.”

Lieutenant Hastings saw that the approaching figure was the large up-timer, Tom Simpson. He was limping and staggering, now, probably both wounded and exhausted. And behind him, only twenty yards or so, the first of the Spanish were visible. And one, in the lead, was stopping, raising his arms…

…drawing a bead?

Lieutenant Hastings brought up his Winchester and yelled, “Get down, Simpson. Squad, fire at will!”

Tom heard the British accent, almost sobbed in relief, and dove forward with the same gusto and abandon that had propelled him into Ohio State’s end zone when it had been fourth quarter, two minutes left on the clock, and fourth-down-and-goal-to-go from the three-yard line.

Corporal Torres felt the men on either side of him go down, and discharged his musket in the direction of the small and ominously rapid muzzle flashes. Up-time weapons or copies-no doubt about it. But the range was close, and he had fifty men. And since one of their quarry was obviously a Moor, it seemed only right to cry, “Santiago and at them!” Dropping his spent firearm, Torres sprinted forward. Drawing his sword, he swept it back in readiness…

“Now,” said Harry calmly.

Five yards beyond the upslope trees that lined the cart-track, the nine members of the Wrecking Crew unleashed a near-uniform volley from their trademark pump shotguns. With the center of the ragged enemy column now directly abreast of the Crew, the carnage was startling. More than a dozen Spaniards sprawled, theirblood black in the early moonlight.

The lethal, hollow-tube sound of the shotguns’ cycling actions-the dull ker-throonk of rounds being fed back and up from under-barrel magazines-offered a faint counterpoint chorus before they roared again. Other sounds of twentieth-century slaughter added to the waves of sound, echoing off the rocks of the Val Bregaglia several more times before giving way to absolute silence.

CHAPTER EIGHT

“Well, I guess that was just about a perfect L-ambush. And improvised on the spot, no less.” Harry Lefferts seemed very pleased with himself as he and Sherrilyn emerged from the woods and strolled into the small clearing that had been the dirigible’s original extraction zone.

The airship was now resting on the ground; every thirty seconds, Franchetti goosed the burner, sending a long blast of heated air up into the envelope. He turned to Miro and North. “We go soon, si? I waste fuel to keep the dirigible in readiness.”

Harry looked at the casks of fuel stored at the midsection and ends of the gondola. “I thought you brought extra juice.”

“ Si, but ‘extra’ is not ‘endless.’ And flying back could be difficult. We may have to land and take off again-at Bivio, I think. And that will make returning to Chur a very close thing.”

“Land again? Before Chur?” Sherrilyn asked, reloading her shotgun. “Why?”

Franchetti shrugged, with a dubious look in Miro’s direction. “I am not sure I want to try to go all the way back through the Sur Valley in the dark. It was bad enough in the day.”

Cardinal Ginetti got more pale, if that was possible.

Miro nodded and stepped down from the gondola as the Crew hauled out their packs. “I agree with Franchetti: you cannot fly that route at night. The air-currents around the Lai di Marmorera and the Sur are too unpredictable, and you would have to fly to twelve thousand feet to be safely above them. It is too risky. Better to stop at Bivio, at the south entrance to the valley. This part of our mission is to ensure that Captain Simpson’s group returns safely to the USE. Having them killed during a daredevil return flight would rather defeat the whole purpose, no?”

Lefferts nodded, smiling. “Well, at least I don’t have to take the slow ride back like Ms. Mailey here.” Melissa Mailey was limping out of the wood line, supported on either side by members of North’s detachment.

The former school teacher responded archly. “A nice, slow ride will suit me just fine, Harry.”

Lefferts shrugged, caught the Crews’ collective eyes, and tilted his head back in the direction of the cart-track.

As he took his first step in that direction, North asked, “Here now; where do you think you’re going?”

Lefferts stopped. “Uh…there’s a lot of handy gear back there. Word is, its owners don’t have any further use for it, so-”

North shook his head. “Not this time.”

“Colonel North, last I checked, you were not acting commander of this operation. He is.” Harry pitched his chin in Miro’s direction. “And I don’t hear him making any noise-”

“Harry Lefferts, you will not loot the dead.” Somehow, Melissa Mailey raised herself up to an imperious height, despite being propped up by North’s men. “Let’s ignore the odious habits of your trade for a moment. Removing gear from that many bodies will take time that we do not have. I doubt this sleepy valley is accustomed to ferocious nighttime firefights, so I’m going to propose the outrageous deduction that news of it will spread quickly. Back to Chiavenna and the Spanish. Who will come here swiftly. So, if we are to leave a false trail that encourages our enemies to conclude that, despite the local reports, this was a relatively mundane ambush-one conducted without the aid of an airship, for instance-then there’s no time for looting. Furthermore, those persons who are remaining behind to travel overland to Italy must start on their way immediately. That includes you, if I am not mistaken.”

Harry smiled respectfully at his old history teacher’s remonstrations. When she was done, he shook his head and sighed. “This is twice, now, I’ve had to rescue you Ms. Mailey. And you always spoil the fun. C’mon folks”-he gestured to the Crew-“we need to police our own brass, at least.” He and the rest of the Crew left at a trot.

North looked after them, then turned toward Miro. “I do not believe we’ve met, sir. Colonel Thomas North, Hibernian Mercenary Battalion. I believe it’s time to put our respective halves of the operational coin together. What are your further objectives?”

Miro nodded and explained. “Well, as you heard, the dirigible will retrace its path back east to Vicosoprano, then a short hop north over Cassacia. From there, a rising buttonhook westward will put the blimp into the Val Maroz, then north over the Septimer pass and to a landing on the outskirts of Bivio.”

“Will they need to take on extra fuel, there?”

“I suspect so. Besides, Franchetti will not want to fly again before dawn. And I doubt there’s enough fuel on board for him to reinflate the balloon and make it the rest of the way to Chur.”

“So tomorrow morning he’ll have to toddle down into Bivio and try to find-What do you burn in that thing, anyway? Spirits? Oils?”

“Yes, and it uses a lot, very quickly. Luckily, they won’t need very much to get from Bivio to Chur. But then again, there probably won’t be much fuel to be had in a remote alpine lake town in May.”

“I suppose not. Sounds like they’ll be lucky to get airborne again after a one day delay.”

“I’m guessing two. But from Bivio, it’s not even two hours to Chur, more fuel and the route home.”

“Which is-?”

“Chur to Biberach, then Nuremburg, then Jena. Probably two or three days between each connection.”

“The delay at each point is to be spent getting more fuel?”

“No, we prepositioned enough. But weather and other factors could easily delay the airship that much. Besides, I find that overestimating obstacles is generally a better operational model than underestimating them.”

“Agreed. And for those of us who remain behind?”

Miro brought out a map, an exact copy of an up-time document, right down to its “Baedecker” logos. “We are here.” He pointed just east of a tiny dot labeled Piuro. “We will head back toward Chiavenna-”

North’s eyes widened. “I beg your pardon, did you say ‘back toward Chiavenna’?”

“Yes, but I reemphasize: we are heading toward Chiavenna, not to it. Instead, we are fast-marching two miles back to the west, to this place marked as Santa Croce.”

“Why there?”

“Do you see the southwest line that comes down from Santa Croce?”

“I see a southwest zigzag.”

“Yes, well…that is a mountain trail which cuts through to Berzo, here, on the Mera, just south of Chiavenna.”

“So we take a nice, long, and rather steep, walk in the woods to avoid delivering ourselves into the hands of the people who would like to make us the central attraction at their next auto-da-fe.”

“No, I suspect they would reserve that for me, alone. You, they would simply execute. Maybe torture and execute. Hard to say.”

“Yes. But why do you presume they would reserve the delights of a personal bonfire as your special reward, Mr. Miro?”

“Because, Mr. North, I am a Jew.”

“Ah.” The Englishman’s eyes were bright. “A so-called ‘crypto-Jew’?”

Miro was surprised. “Yes. I was not aware that the writings of twentieth-century historians were among your reading interests.”

“I am nothing if not eclectic. Please continue.”

Miro decided he liked North, whose sardonic British wit was not entirely out of step with the less arch, but no less ironic, traditions of Talmudic humor. “So we emerge at Berzo, where we will immediately find honest work as the honest security escort of an honest merchant caravan, that just happens to be heading south. And which just happens to be waiting for us in Berzo.”

“And how do we come by all these fortuitous-and honest-opportunities?”

“By having one of Europe’s most widespread mercantile facilitation families as our trusted partners. More specifically, Cavriani agents are in charge of the caravan waiting in Berzo.”

“I see. And then?”

“We travel south along the banks of the Mera until we come to the ferry wharf at the northern edge of the Lago di Mezzola.”

“I take it that there, although in the very belly of Milanese control and watchfulness, we will serendipitously discover and book passage aboard an honest barge captained by an honest ferryman.”

“Your powers of foresight rival those of the Old Testaments prophets, Colonel North. Once on Lago di Mezzola, there is little chance that we will even come into contact with any Milanese patrols. The north-south traffic along the lakes there-from Mezzola to Como to Lecco to Garlate-is too valuable for the Milanese to close against all Lombard and Venetian access. So we shall make our way down those interconnected waterways until we disembark at the southern tip of Garlate. There is an ‘open-town’ custom there, much as has been enforced in Chiavenna since the Spanish and French renounced their squabbles over the Valtelline. From that town, it is a short ride across the border into Venetian Lombardy.”

“How many of us are in the party?”

Miro had to double-check the numbers. “You, me, twelve of your men, the nine members of the Wrecking Crew, and our chaplain.”

“Our chaplain?”

“Yes,” said a new voice. “That would be me.”

Melissa Mailey looked up sharply at the sound of that voice, which came from the last, cloaked passenger who was descending from the airship. “Larry?”

Father-now Cardinal-Lawrence Mazzare let the hood of the habit fall back. His smile was thin. “Guilty as charged.”

James Nichols, who was helping Tom Simpson gimp toward the airship, almost dropped the wounded ex-halfback. “Good God, Larry, how did you get Stearns to go along with this?”

Mazzare shouldered his own modest pack. “I don’t believe in starting arguments I can’t win.”

James’ realization was almost a whisper. “You didn’t tell him.”

Melissa’s jaw dropped, a thing very few of them had ever seen. “Sweet balls,” she swore earnestly. “And he will sure as hell have yours, Larry.”

Miro got the impression that His Eminence Mazzare’s momentary silence was due to the pious suppression of a swarm of scrotal puns and testicular one-liners. “He’s welcome to them if I can accomplish what I came for.”

“Which is?”

He turned a patient glance on Melissa. “Do you even need to ask? And I’ll remind you that not all of the people gathered here have equal measures of information. Most of the security troops don’t even know where we’re going next. And they certainly have no idea who you were protecting in Padua. Wherever possible, Mike and Sharon Nichols have kept people in the dark on that.”

“In which benighted group the good father must regrettably include me,” put in North with a tone that was the very model of drollery.

“And it is best to keep it that way for now. What, precisely, have you been told, Colonel North?”

“When President Piazza contacted us, we were already seeing to-erm-‘security matters’ just south of Nuremburg. He retained us immediately and ordered us to deploy with all haste to Chur, as an escort for a shipment of high quality fuels. Which, unless I miss my retroactive conjecture, were for the airship, here. We were then ordered to move down into the Val Engadine via the Julier pass. We received updates for this extraction mission by radio, on the way. As to what comes next? We were simply told to be ‘flexible,’ but also to anticipate further field operations without refit or resupply. Which it sounds like we’re about to do.”

“Yes, you are,” answered Mazzare. “And about which you have no speculations?” Miro thought that the up-time cardinal’s eyes might have twinkled.

“Speculations? Me?” North seemed positively affronted. “Sir, I am a simple soldier. I have neither the intellect for speculation, nor the taste for it. However, if I did have the intellect-and the taste-for speculation, I would be tempted to conjecture that with one cardinal desperately being extracted from Italy, and another one desperately trying to get into Italy, there is some popish tomfoolery afoot. Additionally, given Cardinal Mazzare’s special relationship with the missing-and-possibly-dead Pope Urban, and Cardinal-oh, excuse me- Friar Ginetti’s long-standing friendship with and service to that very same pontiff, I might surmise that the pope is indeed much more ‘missing’ than ‘dead.’ And in consequence of that surmise, I might indulge in a few even more outlandish guesses.”

“Such as?”

“Such as this: that the little wet cardinal who’s about to take a balloon ride is doing so because he is not only at risk, but may be needed to effectuate the convening of the Cardinals’ College outside the boundaries of Rome. And this: that the other cardinal who is now trying to get into Italy is doing so in order to confab with, and maybe attempt to influence the opinions of, the missing pope. For surely, with this jolly monster Borja capering about in what’s left of the Holy See, the legitimate pope’s next decisions and actions will determine the future of the papacy and Roman Catholicism to a wholly unprecedented degree, even in your own history. But of course, I am but a simple soldier, and do not speculate about such things.”

Mazzare smiled. “Of course you don’t.”

During North’s detailed recitation of the speculations in which he had pointedly not indulged, Melissa Mailey’s gaze had come to rest on Miro. “You’re pretty new to be taking on this kind of initiative, don’t you think, Don Estuban?”

“I’m sorry; what do you mean, Ms. Mailey?”

“Coordinating the assets for all the messy work that needs doing in sunny Italy: that alone is a lot of responsibility for a new guy. But bringing Father-Cardinal-Mazzare here without Michael Stearns’ express authorization? Well, I just hope you aren’t exceeding the bounds of whatever authority you might have been given.”

Miro shrugged. “Don Francisco Nasi assured me otherwise. And while President Piazza did not explicitly request that I take Cardinal Mazzare along, he made many noises about separation of church and state, his lack of authority over the ideas and actions of priests, and the fundamental freedom of personal conscience. He then invoked a number of very similar, passages from the governing documents of your once-and-future United States. When I bluntly inquired if I was therefore permitted to bring Cardinal Mazzare with us, President Piazza made all the same noises all over again.”

“I see,” Melissa said with a tight smile. “From the sound of it, I think it’s only suitable to welcome you to the club, Don Estuban. Fair warning, though: the membership dues can be pretty steep.” She indicated her sprained ankle and winced.

“I am used to high-stakes gambles for worthwhile causes, Ms. Mailey.”

Her smile relaxed, became open, almost warm. “Thank you for the rescue, Don Estuban, and good luck in your travels.” Then, without missing a beat, she growled at the two mercenaries to make more haste in helping her up into the gondola.

Miro smiled after her, then turned back to North. “So, simple soldier, you’ve seen my half of the operational coin. What does yours look like?”

By way of answer, North summoned Hastings to him with a crooked finger and started rapping out orders. “Lieutenant, as arranged, I am leaving a reduced squad with you. Retrace our route back eastward through the Val Bregaglia-but with less care for leaving spoor. Give the Spanish a good trail to follow, but nothing too obvious. When you reach the Maloja Pass, muck about meaningfully on the near bank of the Silsersee.”

“Uh…why, sir?”

“To make it look like you either had a raft waiting, or found a path along its banks. That should convince your pursuers that you’ve headed back into the Val Engadine.”

Hastings clearly hated saying it again: “Uh…why, sir?”

“Because,” North exhaled slowly, “the other end of the Engadine is in Tyrol. Tyrol is, or at least will soon be, part of the United States of Europe. Logically, the Spanish will expect this group of USE nationals to make toward that safe haven. So we’ll let the Spaniards chase their own tails a while, and hopefully induce them to overlook the tiny fact that we used a dirigible to get the group out of the region entirely. I suspect they’ll be too arrogant to stop and chat with the locals long enough to discover that some of those sheep-sodomizing worthies might have seen a flying sausage cruising about their valley this night. After that, the trail will be too cold to follow, even if they could.”

Hastings shrugged. “Very well, sir. But where do we go?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Once you’ve left trail sign on the banks of the Silsersee, you double back through Cassacia into the Val Maroz and up over the Septimer Pass. Then via Bivio back to Chur. Where you will await further orders.”

As Lieutenant Hastings disappeared, North turned to Miro. “And now you have seen my rather uncomplicated half of the coin. Are we ready to begin our hike? I rather expect the Spanish will send another detachment up here when the first fails to return. Besides, it’s almost certain that some of the men in that detachment made their escape and will bring the news even if the local Spanish authorities are lackadaisical. There’s no way to be certain of killing everyone in an ambush done in darkness.”

“I agree,” answered Miro with a nod. “Let’s get our people moving then, Colonel.”

CHAPTER NINE

Frank Stone raised himself to look toward the door of his prison cell.

Unfortunately, he forgot about the ring finger he had recently lost from his left hand-an experience which the brutalized nerve endings obviously recalled quite clearly. He hoped that, despite his moan, he had merely sunk back down to the floor. However, the small but strong arms around him, and Giovanna’s worried face hovering over his, seemed to suggest that he had fallen. Probably blacked out.

“Shhh…do not move, Frank.”

“Is he still there?”

“Our visitor?” She looked back toward the door, where a shadow lurked almost unseen behind the narrowly set bars of the observation panel. “It seems so. Strange: he does not move. Makes no sound.”

“So it’s probably not Captain Castro y Papas, then.”

“No, it cannot be him. He always comes in and talks.”

“And checks you out.”

“Frank! I am your wife!”

“Hey, as long as you’re not interested in him, it’s okay by me. He’d have to be blind-or neutered-not to notice you. And if it keeps bringing him back with boiled water and fresh dressings for this”-he raised his hand; the pain made him repent it-“he’s welcome to look.”

“I think the pure spirits he brings have also helped. Despite the pain, there is only a little infection around the edges of the wounds where-where-”

“-Where my ring finger and wedding ring were. Yeah. That wound could have become pretty nasty.”

Giovanna raised her head. Her eyes were not entirely unlike Frank’s memory of the up-time Sophia Loren’s, and were every bit as fiery. “It could have meant your death: likely, given this sewer in which they have put us. Do they not know who you are? Do they not know that your father is now one of the wealthiest men in Europe? Do they not know-?”

“Honey, whether they know all that or not, I think it’s pretty obvious that they don’t care. Which is kind of what worries me the most.”

Giovanna stared (as she often did) at his second-generation flower-child nonchalance. “‘Kind of worries you’? Husband, love-it means they are insane! Insane! They care nothing for anything else in the world, or surely they would be treating us, or at least you, differently.”

“Well, we’re sure not at the top of their priority list,” Frank conceded with a grin. “But I don’t think we’re at the bottom, either.”

“No? And why not?”

“Well, we’re alive, aren’t we?”

Giovanna pouted, not eager to concede the point. “This is true,” she said after a time. “But then why-?”

Noise at the door. A key scraped its way into the unoiled lock. The half-rusted fixtures squealed and then groaned as the door opened. Two laborers-obviously impressed Romans, judging from the soiled state of their half-ruined clothing and resentful backward glances-entered, bearing two small boxes, the kind used for shipping light cargos.

Giovanna stood. “What have you-?”

“Signora,” said the shorter, older one of the pair. “To speak to you means my death. Apologies, but I have a family.” He jerked through a very abbreviated bow and backed out, his silent assistant just behind him.

The door closed. Frank was mildly surprised that it didn’t burst into self-consuming flame, given the glare that Giovanna had fixed upon it. “Spanish bastardi, terrifying even the lowliest-”

“They’re moving us.”

She stopped, looking at her husband, who was staring down into the boxes. “Moving us? Where? Why? How do you know? What is-?”

“Gia, darling, light of my life, heart of my heart-I can only answer one question at a time.”

For whatever mysterious reasons Frank’s wife did anything, she now decided the time had come to throw her shapely, olive-toned arms around his neck and snug her small, but even more shapely, body tight against him. This, despite the fact that he was lying down, his broken leg stretched out as straight as possible. The result was a swift, strange mix of bodily pain and bodily pleasure.

“I love you, Frank.”

“I love you, too.”

“So, here is the first question you must answer: how do you know these old clothes in dingy boxes mean they are moving us? Perhaps they are simply giving us new clothes instead of allowing us to bathe.” She wrinkled her nose; in the weeks they had been in this hole, they had twice been given buckets of reeking water to clean themselves. Soap was apparently an unthinkable luxury or not a substance known to their jailers. Probably why, when Giovanna now called them “filthy pigs,” it sounded more like a loathsome description than a figurative epithet.

Frank, using his unmauled hand, raised himself up to poke around in the box containing male clothing. “Two hats, shaving bowl-but no razor, of course-nightshirt, and this.” He held up a crudely fashioned combination walking-stick and crutch.

Giovanna frowned. “Yes, these are things we do not need here. Some you would simply not wear, such as this nightshirt. Really? In this damp? But Frank, could it not also be that they simply grabbed an armful of the things they have stolen from houses and threw them into a box, thinking we will make whatever good we can of it?”

Frank shook his head and started holding up items from the other, female-themed box. “Nightwear again, a woman’s hat, hair combs, and”-he splayed the last object out wide-“a fan? For down here?”

Giovanna’s dark eyes focused intently. “Yes. More than chance objects, I think. But why move us now?”

“Hmmm. I wonder if our unseen visitor can tell us.” Frank turned to look for the half-seen shadow beyond the grated aperture in their prison door.

But the shadow was gone.

Cardinal Gaspar de Borja y Velasco heard a faint scuffling behind him. Ferrigno. Of course. As timid as always. Shuffling his shoes to announce his presence. Must I be served by mice, rather than men? “What is it, Ferrigno? Come, be quick about it; I am busy.”

“Your Eminence, the-the man from Barcelona has arrived.”

Borja’s eyes crept to the dial set into the roof of the portico just beneath his windows. Hmm. This fellow was more than punctual; he was about ten minutes early. Yet word had it that he had arrived in Rome three days before he had contacted Ferrigno to make an appointment. A strange inconsistency of behavior.

Borja turned, barely noticing Ferrigno’s small, spare form. “Show him in, but wait outside. I wish private speech with this man.” The cardinal moved to a position behind his desk and affected to stare out the window, half-presenting his back to anyone who would come into his chambers through the main doors.

Time passed. Borja grew impatient. What was keeping this fellow? First, he did not present himself promptly for an audience with his superior, then he was early for his scheduled meeting, now he loitered in the hallway: what inconstant nonsense was this? Turning, Borja resolved to Borja blinked. A man-evidently, the man-was standing only two feet beyond the front of the cardinal’s desk.

Borja sputtered in surprise before he spoke, which compounded the annoyance he already felt. “What do you mean, sneaking up upon me rather than announcing yourself? What are you? An assassin?”

The man shrugged. “Yes.”

Borja was too surprised, and also too chilled, to register any new measure of annoyance. This man-sent, he had it on good word, at Duke Olivares’ specific behest-had made no sound, was not dressed as a courtier, made no flourishes. He stood, in loose, dark clothing, without any perceivable motion. Like an automaton of some kind, waiting to be set into motion. If amusement, fear, joy, exultation had ever registered in the calm, hazel eyes that were now fixed upon Borja’s own, those emotions had left no lingering sign of their passage. Borja swallowed, licked his lips. “And you are, eh, Senor-?”

“Dolor. Pedro Dolor. At your service, Your Eminence.”

Pedro Dolor. The Rock of Pain. Yes, Borja could believe that well enough. Almost certainly a nomme de guerre, albeit an oddly understated one. Borja considered: he had been prepared for another Quevedo, who had been part playwright, part bon-vivant, part agent provocateur, part adventurer, part duelist, and wholly a self-satisfied and supercilious popinjay. But what stood before Borja now was not merely a different creature from Quevedo, but his very antithesis. Dolor was all-and only-business, and fell purpose; he radiated it like the reaper no doubt radiated chill.

Borja looked away from those unblinking eyes and out the window; yes, he had wanted a serious, competent man to replace Quevedo. But this? In beseeching God for a new covert facilitator, he had perhaps gone too far in requesting a person of radically different characteristics. Is this the cross you would have me bear, my Lord? To never have assistants who evince a happy balance of abilities and traits? Must I always endure the challenges of such extremes of temperament?

Borja squared his shoulders and faced Dolor again. “So, Senor Pedro Dolor. You come well recommended from persons attached to the court at Madrid, and especially by the count-duke Olivares. Yet those recommendations are notably silent insofar as particulars are concerned.”

“Particulars, Your Eminence?”

“Yes. Specific examples of your accomplishments.”

“Your Eminence will, I am sure, understand that part of the reason His Majesty’s confidantes value my service is that I am not only efficient, but discreet. So discreet as to be invisible, one might say. That invisibility is, I suspect, the factor that has earned me most of whatever modest regard I might enjoy.”

Borja nodded, stared. Despite the groomed diction of Dolor’s explanation, there was no hint of self-satisfied cleverness, not the faintest suggestion of irony or of professional pride. And his explanation was as logical as it was succinct. He was a strange creature indeed to emerge from the underworld shadows cast by certain courtiers at Madrid. Borja resolved to make a few surreptitious inquiries regarding his origins: perhaps that would shed some light on the man’s most singular demeanor. “So, have you reviewed your resources?”

“I have, Your Eminence. They are most adequate. And I have taken the liberty of bringing some assets of my own.”

“Assets?”

“Reliable persons who specialize in the kind of work I perform, Your Eminence.”

“And so you feel capable of meeting the two primary challenges I am setting before you?”

“The matter of securing the hostages is well in-hand. As soon as they are moved-”

“Moved? I gave no authorization for them to be moved!”

“Your Eminence, since arriving in Rome, I have seen how many heavy burdens are daily upon your shoulders. Or do I misperceive?”

Borja raised his chin in what he hoped was a pose of noble resolve and manly forbearance. “You do not misperceive. Continue.”

“Therefore, it seemed prudent to begin serving you in the same manner whereby I have rendered service to various persons of the court, some of whom are close to the king. Very close to the king.”

Very close to the king. Dolor could not have been clearer had he simply said, “I work for Olivares. Regularly.” Borja nodded. “Go on. In what special manner do you serve these personages?”

“I minimize their burden of oversight, Your Eminence. Which also makes it far easier to act not only with great discretion, but with few traceable legal connections between myself and my employer. Which-for reasons of both international seemliness and the health of one’s soul-is a distance and measure of autonomy my prior clients have been happy to allow me.”

Borja nodded and thought, now I have seen everything. An assassin-philosopher, whose concerns extend to both matters of diplomacy and protecting the souls of his employers from the sins of his deeds. “So you have ordered this young heretic Stone and his anarchist wife to be moved to a deeper dungeon?”

“Not at all, Your Eminence. Indeed, that would be run counter to my plans. Having observed them, I think that a dramatic change is wanted in their circumstances. This is not a kindness, Your Eminence, but a stratagem, which I will explain at length, if you so wish. However, for now, I wish to address your concerns regarding the more challenging matter of assessing if Urban VIII still lives, and if so where, and then, ultimately, reclaiming him to the Holy See so that he may answer for his purported collusion with heretics and sworn enemies of Mother Church.”

Borja felt heat in his face. “‘Purported’ collusion? Do you question his guilt?”

Dolor neither cowered nor became confrontational. “I do not question-nor do I presume-anything, Cardinal Borja. I simply observe that, until you have convened the Consistory to hear the charges, and a court to assess guilt and deliver a verdict, Urban VIII’s crimes technically remain ‘purported,’ do they not?”

Borja tried to look imposing, but feared that he might have only effected a bad-tempered sulkiness. “In time of war, with traitors all about, a man-even a man such as you, Senor Dolor-takes risks when splitting legal hairs in favor of rebels and heretics.”

“Now, as always, I refrain from intemperate behaviors or claims.”

Borja considered that comment. He could not determine whether Dolor meant it as an oblique accession to the cardinal’s warning, or a defense of his original statement. In which lay the comment’s disturbingly elegant ambivalence. “So, let us return to the matter of my troublesome predecessor.” Borja watched carefully; to call Urban his “predecessor” was a test, for it was not technically accurate, either. But he needed to be sure that Dolor was a loyal operative, not a legal stickler. Indeed, any impulse toward such formal proprieties could become a considerable liability to Borja later on.

But if Dolor nursed any reservations regarding Borja’s presumed ascension to the cathedra, the agent showed no sign of it. “Urban VIII’s location and apprehension-if he is still alive, and not buried beneath the rubble of the Castel Sant’Angelo-is a difficult task. Much hard work will be required. And some luck, also.”

“Luck? Are you saying this task is beyond your skills?”

“Your Eminence, I am saying that while no sparrow falls-or hides-without God’s awareness, mortal man has no such omniprescience, for he is not omnipresent. And finding a single man is not an easy a task. How many persons have seen Urban VIII-or any pope-close enough to be able to make a positive visual identification? And I am quite sure Urban will no longer be wearing the raiment and accoutrements of his holy office; he will be plainly dressed and adorned. And, if he did escape Rome, I suspect he has had some extraordinary help in remaining hidden.”

“Extraordinary help? From whom?”

“From the up-timers and their allies, Your Eminence.”

“Have you heard rumors that he is with them, then? Have you already made this much progress?” Borja could not stop himself from leaning forward in sudden, savage hope.

“No, Your Eminence, but it seems a logical deduction. The reports from those troops who were at Hadrian’s Tower at the time of the explosion suggest that there may have been one or more up-time weapons used to defend the walls and, later, to clear the path of Urban’s presumed escape. But this is hearsay, and many who might have been more reliable witnesses were sent skyward with the stones of the Castel Sant’Angelo, or buried under them.”

“So what do we do?”

“We continue our search on all fronts, Your Eminence. Your men continue to excavate the ruins in search of Urban’s corpse. At the same time, we search for the missing cardinals-particularly the last of the Barberinis, Urban’s nephew Antonio. And also for the members of the USE embassy that left Rome. Finding them is likely to be much easier, and will almost certainly give us a sure path to Urban.”

“Very well. Now, my secretary informed me yesterday that you sent word of having uncovered new information regarding this recent fiasco in Chiavenna.”

Dolor nodded. “As first suspected, Cardinal Ginetti has escaped, along with the up-timers. He was sighted by an ally in Chur.”

“And has it also been confirmed that the rest of the fugitives were originally members of the up-time embassy that was previously here in Rome?”

“Yes, Your Eminence. The Moor who attracted general notice in Chiavenna was the famous up-time doctor, James Nichols. The very large man who figures so prominently in the combat reports matches the many descriptions we have of Admiral Simpson’s son Thomas. We have less concrete reports of the women, but their descriptions conform to what we expected: that Simpson’s wife Rita and Nichols’ aged concubine Melissa Mailey were traveling with them. All four are reported as speaking the up-time dialect of English.”

“And there was another with the party, no?”

“At least one, possibly two. The other we know of spoke fluent Italian, but we lack any reliable data on the younger man who remained mostly at their inn. He might have been the one shot through the head just beyond Piuro, or that might have been a fifth person, who could have been part of the embassy staff.”

“‘Could have been’? Did we not have informers among the embassy staff? Did we not compile a list of its personnel and servants?”

“The Church did, Your Eminence, but that information gathering was carried out by the Jesuits. Who are, of course-”

“Yes, yes; the Roman branch of that order is in Urban’s camp more than ever, and are still taking orders from that cadaverous old wolf Vitelleschi. So, since the Jesuits are no longer serving the true Holy See, we do not have a complete list of the embassy staff.”

“That is correct.”

“Well, very little of this is new information, Senor Dolor. I fail to see why you alerted my secretary that you had new facts pertinent to the events in Chiavenna.”

“I come to those now, Your Eminence. The surgeons have completed their post mortem examination of the soldiers slain along the banks of the Mera, just east of the Gallegione cataract.”

“And?”

“What the surgeons found corroborates the accounts we received from the handful of survivors. Our soldiers were all killed by up-time bullets or balls, or close copies thereof.”

“So the up-time fugitives had help?”

“A great deal of it, apparently. All the survivors report that the speed and regularity of the enemy gunshots were unprecedented.”

“Again, indicative of up-time weapons.”

“Exactly. And we recovered these-”

Dolor stretched out a hand and laid three objects on the center of Borja’s desk. Two were finger-sized brass tubes, sealed or capped on one end. The other was broader, shorter, but again made of brass: rather like a small toy drinking cup for a little girl’s doll. “And what are these?”

“These objects are called cartridge casings. These two”-he pointed to the longer ones-“are for a rifle or carbine with a bore size that the up-timers call forty-seventy-two.”

“So this is up-time ammunition?”

“Not exactly. Although the design of the ammunition and the guns which fire it are of up-time origin, we are fairly sure that these cartridges are merely copies of the originals. They were made in this world, and use black powder rather than the powerful up-time explosive compounds. This means they generate less power. This would therefore also suggest they were not used in a self-loading gun-which seems to require that extra power-but rather, in one which requires physical manipulation after every shot. Our confidential agents in the USE report that there is one such weapon that is being regularly constructed in this bore-size: it is called a Winchester 1895.”

“And what is this squat cartridge casing’?”

“This is even more interesting; this is the casing of a shotgun shell.”

Borja scowled at the unfamiliar term.

“It is their term for a fowling piece, Your Eminence, although they often load it with heavier shot, for large game or humans. It seems that after the combat, the force which rescued Simpson’s group combed the area to retrieve as many of these spent casings as possible. A prudent step, but in the dark, impossible to perform perfectly.” He indicated the three cartridge casings.

Borja nodded, then realized the deeper mystery latent in Dolor’s report. “And what made you request the more detailed autopsies, and close surveys of the ambush site, Senor Dolor? Indeed, it seems you had already begun to suspect intervention by USE forces equipped with up-time weapons.”

Dolor shrugged. “How else could we have lost so many men in a night engagement which lasted very briefly? And how is it that so few of our men survived long enough to close and bring their swords into play?

Borja frowned. “A full company of our own troops could exert such a force of musketry, I imagine.”

“Yes, Your Eminence. One Spanish company might- might — have enough firepower to kill half its number of men in so short a time. But that company would have to boast many other abilities, as well. It would have to be a company that was capable of almost invisible movement, since there was no earlier or subsequent report of any unit moving in the Engadine or the Val Bregaglia. It would have to be a company that-unless it had access to an up-time radio-magically knew when and where to meet Simpson’s suddenly fleeing group. It would have to be a company that could vanish into thin air immediately after the ambush, for the trail leading beyond the Silsersee was clearly a false lead. And lastly, it would have to be a company that, in the course of all its actions, left no more signs or spoor than might two squads.

“Your Eminence, we do not possess a company that could do all that. But a few squads of well-equipped up-timers or their trained proxies could do so, particularly if they had already been briefed on Simpson’s group, and were following contingency plans to aid it in the event of an unexpected crisis.”

Borja rubbed his prominent chin. “So you believe up-time radios were involved, as well?”

“The coordination of our foes precludes any other alternative. How else can we explain Cardinal Ginetti’s sudden change of itinerary? How did he know to meet Simpson’s group in Chiavenna, and where and when to do so? How else could the rescuing forces know when and where to meet the group, once it was fleeing? But in addition to radios, the up-timers were also equipped with an unusual amount of good luck.”

“How so?”

“Your Eminence, I suspect that the troops that rescued Simpson’s group were already in the area when they were needed. It takes weeks for the USE to send operatives from Grantville to the Val Bregaglia. So how do we explain the presence of these rescuers in the Val Bregaglia at the very moment they are needed? Not in response to anything we have done; Michael Stearns and his advisor Nasi would have had to dispatch them southward toward the Alps the very minute they learned of our attack upon Rome. But why would they do so? Out of some vague notion that their troops would simply prove useful somehow? To act on such an impulse, Stearns and Nasi would have to be either fortune-tellers or fools-and they are neither.”

“So you are saying that the forces that rescued Simpson’s party were already en route for another, specific purpose, and they just happened to be on site when needed?”

“It is hard to envision anything else, Your Eminence.”

“So why were they there?”

“Discovering the answer to this is a critically important task, upon which I will concentrate all my skills.”

“Very well. There remains one other mystery I would have answered, though.”

“Yes, Your Eminence?”

“These confidential agents who picked up Ginetti’s trail even before he arrived in Chiavenna, and who Simpson and his group killed at the crotto — who were they working for? Not us, as first suspected?”

“No, not us. And I fear their actual employers shall never be known. The four bodies left in our possession were searched for identifying papers, or other suggestions of their origin, but there was nothing.”

“Yes, but what of the one who survived, the one that Simpson reportedly knocked senseless during an argument in the crotto?”

“As feared, he escaped. From the beginning, the authorities leaped to the conclusion that the one survivor was a victim, not part of another plot. Consequently, he was not watched carefully enough. A moment’s inattention on the part of his warders and he was gone, back to whoever holds his leash. But I think we can be sure of one thing: if these armed, nameless men were indeed following Ginetti, assassination was not their primary purpose.”

“What? Why do you think this?”

“Because they could probably have overcome Ginetti’s guards easily enough on the road. A preliminary night ambush at some lonely spot in the Valtelline, and then Ginetti’s weakened party would have been easy prey on a subsequent day. No, I believe these confidential agents were not there as killers, but as coursers; they were sent to put pressure on Ginetti, or perhaps, on whomever he was traveling to meet. If some of Ginetti’s party had died, I’m sure that would not have bothered their employer. But what the seeming assassins did accomplish-even though they died without inflicting any injury whatsoever-was to create a local furor and propel the up-timers into desperate flight. Which our soldiers responded to. And, as these things usually do, the entire situation soon spiraled out of control, ripe with possibilities for becoming a debilitating international incident.”

“A pity we cannot discern more than this. I would like to have interrogated the survivor of these unknown agents.”

“Your Eminence, I think you are fortunate that such an interrogation is now beyond our power.”

“And how could interrogating the agent of an unknown, but obviously inimical, political entity be detrimental to us? I should think you, who traffics in secrets for a living, should understand that information is the most important tool at our disposal, the sword we wield with rapierlike precision to frustrate our foes’ shrewdest gambits and deepest plots.”

“Yes, Your Eminence-but just like that rapier, information is a double-edged sword. And if my guess is right, had the agent revealed the identity of his employers, it could have had disastrous effects upon our alliance with the French.”

Borja felt his mind spin purposelessly. “The French?” he heard himself say.

“”Yes, Your Eminence. For I believe these purported assassins were sent by the French-but not Richelieu. I suspect the assassins were told they were getting orders from Paris, but that the actual hiring agent was a member-or simply a proxy-of the Huguenot radicals, possibly the same ones who were behind the attempt on Urban last year.”

“But what would the Huguenots gain by having us believe that the French crown had sent assassins after Ginetti?”

“I believe that was only part of the Huguenots’ motivation. Let us consider the events more broadly. In being compelled to foil the presumed assassins, Simpson’s party attracts attention to the fact that the USE is sending its nationals home through Milanese, and therefore nominally Spanish, territory. Not exactly a violation of law, but then again, Simpson’s party was not traveling openly. They did not declare their identity and presence freely, and were thus traveling without the papers they needed. A wise choice: we would probably have put them in the same dungeon as Signor Stone. At the very least, we would have detained them for an extended period. They represent immense leverage for us.

“Now, had we managed to interrogate the misinformed survivor of these assassins, I suspect they would have told us-erroneously-that they were instruments being wielded by Richelieu’s hand, poised in yet another perfidious attempt to kill Michael Stearns’ relatives and friends. And in the same instant, we would come to believe that the French cardinal’s hand was also trespassing upon our territory, and doing so in a manner that violates the agreement we have with the French in Chiavenna: that they have unrestricted right of passage and trade, but that military and legal matters are to be referred to Milanese authority.

“Of course, Richelieu would legitimately deny his involvement. Naturally, we would not believe him, and would close Chiavenna and the passes to both the French and the USE. The incident would put the League of Ostend in jeopardy and could even lead to separate-maybe even coordinated-USE and French action to reopen the transalpine trade routes. It would certainly give both of them cause to support the interests of both Venice and the Swiss provinces of Grisons in the Val Bregaglia, and the Valtelline as well. And we can no longer count on regional support from our former allies in Tyrol, not since its regent Claudia de Medici has made overtures to seek membership in the USE.

“In short, any successful investigation into the origins of the assassins following Ginetti would have obligated us to pass information to Philip that could have resulted in a disaster for our already overtaxed empire. We were most fortunate, then, that the up-timers-and the confidential agents who were following them-all escaped or died.”

A moment after Dolor stopped speaking, Borja felt the world resteady itself around him. That the Earth had such devious minds in it was unsettling to him. Such intelligence ought to be a tool to enable direct, manly action, not serve as the handmaiden to conniving plots and perfidies. But, since that was not the case, he was quite glad that Olivares had sent him Pedro Dolor. “Well, then, it seems that God has smiled upon us in this matter. Or, to indulge in one of the up-timer’s sayings, these two wrongs-our failure to apprehend the up-timers and also to retain custody of the last assassin-have made a right. You are dismissed, Senor Dolor.”

The man bowed and exited.

As he left, Borja murmured, almost as an afterthought, “ Vaya con Dios.” He doubted there was any chance of that being the case.

As Pedro Dolor exited Borja’s office he was still stifling the urge to rebut the cardinal’s penultimate insipidity. No, two wrongs did not make a right. In Chiavenna, there had been two signal failures that, this time, just happened to cancel each other out in terms of any larger political damage. It was luck. It was certainly not the sign of insuperable Spanish supremacy, nor the hand of God working in its favor: just blind, dumb luck-of which they were running out as quickly as Philip’s treasury was running out of reales.

Upon reaching the cavernous vestibule of Villa Borghese, in which Borja had first established his headquarters, and then residence, Dolor was joined by a short, swarthy man. No more than 5’ 4” in height, but almost as wide in the shoulders, he emerged from the shadows of one of the many colonnaded galleries. He fell in step with Dolor. “Well?” he asked.

Dolor shrugged. “Borja’s cautious but tractable. His unwillingness to get his hands dirty by giving orders that directly violate his vows and Christian piety will make him easy enough to manipulate. That, and his numerous insecurities.”

“Another fool in a red robe and hat?”

“No, he’s no fool. But he’s out of his depth and unwilling to admit he’s a murderer. Like most noblemen, he’s accustomed to having other people not only do his dirty work, but take the guilt-legal and religious-upon their own backs. He wants to reap the benefits of actions in which he refuses to take a part or take responsibility.”

“The way you say that-”

“Yes?”

“It sounds like you know the type well. From personal experience, perhaps.”

“It doesn’t matter how I know the type. But I know this, too: Borja’s dangerous. He’ll be careful not to compromise himself by bringing me into his complete confidence, and he’ll throw us to the wolves if there’s any blame to be taken. So we’ll be careful. And I don’t need to enter into his confidences to do my job.”

And thereby, thought Dolor, to get what I really want.

CHAPTER TEN

“So, you’d send us traipsing off to Rome, then?”

“Those are your orders.”

“It’s a fool’s errand-and I’m no fool.”

Owen Roe O’Neill suppressed a gasp at John O’Neill’s truculent retort to the infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, Archduchess of the Spanish Low Countries. Owen had known Isabella-his nominal employer and the aunt of King Philip IV of Spain-for thirty years, so he was fairly sure that he knew what was coming. The infanta would tell John O’Neill that if a journey to Rome was indeed a fool’s errand, then she had found the perfect man for the job. She would then probably unleash a stream of even less oblique, yet still elegantly vitriolic, barbs at John, third earl of Tyrone. Who would probably understand about one half of them, but would certainly tweak to the fact that he was being insulted. Again.

Owen was wondering if the time had come to risk John’s resentment and intercede, but Pieter Rubens did it for him. “Come now, I know what you fear, Conde O’Neill. You fear that with you and Owen gone from your camps, and the earl of Tyrconnell unavailable-”

“-more like deserted-”

“-that Thomas Preston will be the sole acting colonel for the archduchess’s four Irish tercios.”

“Aye, that’s the heart of it, Pieter.”

Isabella, still flushed by walking from her nearby chambers to the wood-paneled library in which they were meeting, threw her cherished up-time fountain pen down in impatience. “Oh, not this again. When will you Wild Geese stop your sectarian honkings?”

Irishmen who fled English oppression to serve on the continent as mercenary soldiers were often dubbed “Wild Geese.” From most mouths, and at most times, the term enjoyed a cachet of grudging admiration. At other times and from English mouths, not so much.

“We’ll keep making noise as long as that sassenach Thomas Preston is in regular correspondence with his masters in London, Your Grace.” John O’Neill’s response was a mutter.

The room’s tall double doors opened. King Fernando entered with a dense retinue of guards, his increasingly lovely and curvaceous wife (or so it seemed to Owen) on his arm. All but Isabella rose; being Fernando’s aunt, and infirm besides, relieved her of that obligation. Fernando motioned them back into their chairs and seated his wife, but remained standing next to his aunt. “The doors are not as thick as you might believe,” he said to no one in particular. “So let me assure you, Conde O’Neill, that Colonel Preston is not an enemy agent. And his cross-Channel contacts do serve a useful purpose.”

“Which is?”

Rubens took up the thread smoothly. “There is the minor matter of his being a known correspondent with various moderate parties in London. As a result, he is often tentatively approached by the less-schooled Anglo-Irish spies working for King Charles. This allows us to keep tabs on this lower tier of confidential agents. But more importantly, Colonel Preston is an emergency communications conduit.”

“A what?”

John O’Neill did not have his late father’s keen mind and rapid wit. Bold, brave, competent, John was a steady enough colonel for his own tercio-but that was, Owen had to admit, the ceiling of the third earl of Tyrone’s abilities. Which he made painfully obvious when he repeated, “What do you mean, an emergency communications conduit?”

Rubens’ tone was patient, and Owen thought he heard a measure of pity behind it, as well. “Given his part-English heritage, Colonel Preston serves as an unofficial back-channel through which we maintain contact with various persons in London, including high-placed members of the court.”

“Which persons?” John asked.

“That varies with the political climate across the Channel,” Fernando said calmly, “and is not a suitable topic of conversation in this chamber, at this time.”

Even John O’Neill seemed to get that hint.

“At any rate,” finished Fernando, “Colonel Preston is to remain here in overall command of the tercios while you travel to Rome.”

Owen cleared his throat; the king looked at him. “Please, continue your discussion as before. I am not here to hold court.”

Owen nodded and turned his eyes back toward Isabella. “Your Grace, it seems that our party to Rome is rather, well, top-heavy in senior officers-including one of the last two estranged heirs to the royal titles of Ireland. This struck us as…well, strange.”

Isabella sent a small, encouraging smile down at Owen; he felt as though he’d been patted on the head. “Of late, I have had much complaint from the senior officers of my Irish tercios that they are in want of vigorous action. Being an old woman who hopes to die peacefully in her bed-and until two years ago, thought that end imminent-I profess no understanding of this ardor for war. It seems a blight upon the males of our species and particularly strong in those who come from the island of your birth, Colonel. So, since you and your young cousin the conde O’Neill have chafed at the bit of the peace that now reigns in the Low Countries, this was the first assignment which promised to sate your appetite for risk and adventure. I except you from these characterizations, of course, Doctor,” she concluded, sending a broader, warmer smile farther down the table.

Sean Connal, surgeon in the Tyrconnell tercio and the third representative of the Wild Geese, nodded in gratitude and smiled back. “Thank you, Your Grace. However, I too must ask-Rome? Now? When it is in chaos?”

“My dear Dr. Connal, that chaos is precisely why you must go to Rome, and go now. We cannot send a large mission without drawing undue attention, even if, as Spain’s nominal vassal, our personnel would arouse no suspicion. And since you may have need of giving orders when there-of commanding Spanish troops to let you pass, to stand aside, or even to release possible prisoners to you-we cannot send men of lesser rank. And the conde-the earl, in your styling-holds the title of a lineage well-regarded in all Hapsburg territories. That high authority may be much needed where you travel.”

Owen wondered if that summary wasn’t a bit optimistic. The Spanish respected the Irish of equal rank in most professional regards, but not in social or bureaucratic matters. Equals on a battlefield or in a tavern, perhaps, but not in a ballroom or an audience chamber. But on the other hand, the fame of John’s late father, Hugh O’Neill, was particularly conspicuous in Rome, where he was buried along with various family and followers. He, his kinsman Rory O’Donnell, the prior earl of Tyrconnell, and their lieutenants, had journeyed as political supplicants to the Eternal City after fleeing Ireland in 1607. Most never found the means to leave again. Instead, they found the miasmic fevers of Rome and died, almost to a man. Hugh O’Neill outlived them all-but even his facile, ever-plotting mind had ultimately been thwarted by age, infirmity, and exclusion from the chambers of the powerful. He died all but forgotten, living on the charity of his patrons in Rome.

Owen looked over at Johnnie O’Neill: he’d been forgotten, too, most notoriously by his father. That lack of attention had not merely been a sign of his sire’s disinterest, but the man’s legendarily cold shrewdness: even in childhood, it was obvious that John had not inherited the most illustrious O’Neill’s intellect. Just as clearly, however, Johnnie had received a full measure of the man’s restlessness and spleen, so as both a youngster and a young man he had wanted action and little else. Now, it was pretty much the only thing at which John excelled; he had not been a patient child and had become a decidedly impatient man.

“There is, of course, another reason we are sending the two of you,” continued Isabella.

“Yes, Your Grace?”

“Do not be coy, Owen Roe. Your and the conde’s skill with weapons is peerless, and that could become an important factor in the success of your mission.”

“I thought Rome was in the hands of our Spanish comrades.” This time John’s tone was slow and assessing.

“It is.”

John thought that over. “I see.”

And Owen was glad he said no more; anything else would have been akin to poking a stick into a beehive. Technically, brothers Philip IV of Spain, and Fernando, the former cardinal-infante of the Low Countries, were indissolubly linked as part of the greater Hapsburg hegemony that straddled Europe like a colossus.

Or had. It seemed the colossus had become decrepit in some places and fragmented in others. Ferdinand III of Austria had not taken the steps necessary to become the next emperor of the Holy Roman Empire; that meant he had all but ceded the lands he had lost to the armies of Gustav Adolf. Ferdinand had also stood aside when the same Reformist forces battered down Maximilian of Bavaria, formerly a close ally and an ardent fellow Catholic. Then Philip IV’s own brother-Fernando, the cardinal-infante-had received title to the Spanish Low Countries from Isabella, and in short order, had proclaimed himself “King in the Netherlands”-a dubious title, since he was ostensibly subject to another king. Specifically, his brother in Madrid.

The consequences of all this internecine strife had been slow but certain in coming. Spanish reales had now ceased to flow into Fernando’s coffers. The new king in the Low Countries was thus hard pressed to maintain any tercios-such as the Irish-that were not paid directly by Philip. Madrid’s mood was not improved when Maria Anna, sister of Ferdinand III of Austria, eloped with Fernando when he borrowed one of the Swede’s up-time airplanes to spirit her back to the Low Countries. The once unified monolith that was Hapsburg power in Europe was undergoing troubling reconfigurations. Consequently, even a person as politically disinterested as Johnnie O’Neill understood that yesterday’s friends might easily transmogrify into tomorrow’s enemies.

Sean Connal’s youthful baritone rolled the length of the table. “So, Your Graces, I take it that the exact nature of our actions in Rome will be determined by the conditions we find there.”

Fernando exchanged an approving look with his wife, who inclined her head to indicate their collective royal pleasure with the young surgeon. “This is nicely put, Doctor; I was not informed you were as deft with words as you are with a scalpel.”

“My lady the Queen is as kind as she is eloquent. And generous. I have not yet had the honor of expressing my personal thanks to her for arranging my attendance at several of the medical practica offered by Lady Anne Jefferson. I wish I had a year to study under her tutelage.”

“How charming; she used exactly the same turn of phrase when remarking how much she would have liked to keep you on as a student. But it seems other duties must take precedence, now.”

“Yes, so it seems. But we have yet to learn what those duties are, other than to journey to Rome. And once there-?”

For a reason Owen could not quite ascertain, the royalty in the room became faintly uncomfortable. Rubens, after waiting a long moment, evidently concluded that this bit of business had been left for him to handle. “We are concerned for the safety of one of your countrymen, Father Luke Wadding. We feel that if all of you were to exhort him to do so, he would agree to depart from the Irish College in Rome.”

John’s head came up; one of Connal’s eyebrows did the same. Owen Roe leaned forward. “Father Wadding is in danger? From whom?”

Rubens looked for help from the Hapsburg end of the table but found none. “Consider the angry crowds in Rome, the violence of the occupation, the disorder. Amidst all that chaos, hunger, and desperation, almost anything could-”

“No.” The voice was John’s: firm, assured, decisive, like when he was on a battlefield. “Rome would never harm Luke Wadding. I’ve been there, and have studied”-he stumbled past that dubious claim-“with some of the fathers who are now teaching at the college at St. Isidore’s. So let me tell you how the Romans feel toward Father Luke Wadding. When they see him, they don’t hail him by any of his titles; to them, he’s not ‘Guardian of the College,’ or ‘Procurator,’ or ‘Reverend Father.’ He’s just Padre Luca. They say it without bowing, but with smiles as big and bright as rainbows. Which is just how he greets them. There’s simply no reason to be worried about his safety in Rome.”

“Yet, we are worried,” announced Fernando, his face suddenly longer than usual.

“But from whom does he need protection?”

“From my brother’s servants.”

Now it was Owen’s turn to goggle. “What? The Spanish would harm Wadding? Your Highness, he studied in Salamanca! He was well-known in Philip’s court-”

Isabella leaned forward, her face pained-rather the way it is when a parent must admit they have a destructive or truant child. “My nephew Philip was-unwise-in electing to give Cardinal Borja such wide discretionary powers. In fact, there is rumor that the many of the cardinals who were killed ‘resisting lawful arrest’ during the attack upon Rome were slain by Borja’s agents.”

“What were the crimes of these cardinals?”

“What indeed?” answered Isabella, who looked at Owen directly, her face as hard and lined as slate.

Owen gaped for a moment before easing his jaw shut. So they had all been assassinated? Upwards of a dozen cardinals? Was Borja mad? And if he was, that could even mean-“What about the pope? Is there word whether he still lives?”

“That is not known. And is yet another topic for us to discuss. However, insofar as Father Wadding’s safety is concerned, part of our worry arises from the fact that the Franciscan College at St. Isidore’s was built and endowed by Ludovisi money.”

Owen shook his head; the family politics of Rome were well beyond the scope of his knowledge.

Queen Maria Anna provided the rest. “The Ludovisi family and its cardinal have a long, friendly affiliation with the Barberinis. And particularly with Maffeo Barberini-Pope Urban VIII.”

“Oh,” said Owen. “I see.”

“Yes,” nodded Isabella, confirming the magnitude of both Borja’s monstrousness and pettiness. “Now, if it was my nephew the king who was overseeing the situation in Rome, there would be a comparatively even hand guiding the actions of the tercios, inquisitors, and confidential agents. But with Borja in command-”

The whole room had become glum. In the up-timer history books, the name Borja was remembered-in its Italianate form “Borgia”-for treachery and murder, particularly poisoning. That, at least, had been the height of the family’s infamy in that world, but here “Still,” Owen protested, “Wadding is primarily a scholar. And he’s a staunch Counter-Reformationalist, besides. Surely Borja wouldn’t arrest him simply because his college was built with money that came from a friend of the pope.”

Isabella inclined her head in agreement. “No, probably not. But there is an added complication.”

“There always is,” observed Sean Connal with a faint smile.

Isabella darted a glance at him; Owen couldn’t tell if she was annoyed or delighted. Probably both, knowing her. “We have it on relatively good authority that in the past year, Pope Urban created a number-an unprecedented number-of cardinals in pectore.”

John O’Neill fumbled after the Latin. “ In pec — what?”

Oh, Johnnie, Johnnie, you have to do better than that. Owen furnished the translation. “It’s what we call ‘close to the chest,’ Lord O’Neill. Popes can create cardinals without consulting the Consistory. Because these cardinals are not revealed to anyone else, they are considered hidden, or held ‘close to the chest.’” He turned toward Isabella. “So why was Urban creating cardinals in pectore? Do you suspect he was preparing for this kind of attack?”

Another smile from the archduchess that might have been a pat on the head. “We do not know, but it seems logical, in retrospect. After all, word has it that he consulted the up-time histories on the future of his papal tenure, and just beyond, very closely.”

“And how does all this concern Father Wadding?”

“It turns out that Father Wadding was the first Irish cleric ever to receive votes to be made a cardinal. It did not go through for political reasons. I suspect those same political reasons could make Borja fear Wadding now.”

Sean Connal nodded. “That makes sense.”

“Not to me it doesn’t,” John snapped across the table. “I know Wadding, and so must Borja. Father Luke will not lick the boots of heretics, and that’s well known by his friends in Madrid-”

“-who are not in Rome to help him,” soothed Rubens. “I have had occasion to scan the relevant histories. Wadding did indeed have many admirers among the Spanish Party in the Consistory, who appreciated his eloquent Counter-Reformation writings. But Wadding was also liked by Urban, who supported the expansion of his church, St. Isidore’s, and the Irish cause. As you all know. Yet, despite having friends in both circles, he never attracted the support necessary to become a cardinal.”

“Bigotry,” declared John O’Neill. “The same bigotry that kept the Curia from taking my father seriously when he begged them-”

“No,” interrupted Isabella. “The danger to Wadding does not stem from bigotry; it stems from fear.”

That stopped O’Neill as surely as if he had run headlong into a brick wall. “Fear? The Spanish cardinals-and Borja- fear Father Luke? But-?”

“Your esteemed Father Luke Wadding possesses a further quality that, in both this world and the up-timers’, made him anathema to all the papal parties, even though he was much admired by the individuals comprising them.”

Sean Connal nodded. “Integrity.”

“Yes. History shows that he was famous for speaking his conscience, even when it would have been far more politically prudent to trim his sails in the direction of one political faction or another.” Isabella paused. “Cardinal Borja will not trust such a man, particularly not if he suspects that Urban has already made him a cardinal in pectore.”

John went back slowly in his seat; the intricate strands of the noose that might be gathering about Luke Wadding’s neck were now clear to him.

“Yes,” nodded Rubens. “Borja wishes no opposition. He is ensuring that his new Consistory of Cardinals will have no voices that oppose his own. Wadding, if made a cardinal, would never remain silent or accept Borja’s atrocities-”

“-making Wadding a natural ally of Urban. Even if he doesn’t know it.” Owen shook his head.

“Just so. And this brings us to your final task in Rome. It concerns a related, but more-nebulous-objective.”

Owen frowned. “And what is that, Your Grace?”

“We would ask you to stay alert for any word on the location or condition of our Holy Father.”

“Of course, Your Grace.” But wait, that hardly needs to be made an assignment; we’d be doing it anyhow, given all the chaos in Rome. So why even bring it up as-? Oh. I get it. Owen pulled himself out of his thoughts and became of aware of the room again.

Isabella, eyes still on his, nodded. “Yes. We want you to seek word of Urban. With exceptional vigor.”

“And if we learn of his whereabouts?”

Fernando cleared his throat sharply. “Then, if you feel you can do so without being observed by any persons who report to Cardinal Borja, you are to endeavor to seek an audience with His Holiness the pope and offer to escort him here. For a visit.”

Owen wondered if he had heard correctly. “A…a ‘visit’? Here?”

Fernando smiled. “Your hearing is, evidently, unimpaired by your many years before the cannons, Colonel.”

Owen slumped back in his seat. Well, Mother o’ God and dancing dogs… “Your Highness, such a visit is hardly a casual day-trip. It’s a far journey, from Rome to Brussels. And with some potentially annoyed nations in the way, I might add.”

Fernando’s smile widened. “You will not be expected-you will not be allowed — to convey the pope here yourselves. You are merely to become his guardians, escort him to Venice, and send swift word through the doge. We shall make the necessary arrangements.”

“I…see. Again, your pardon, but won’t that message take weeks to reach you by boat?”

“I do not recall asserting that the message would come to us by boat, Colonel.”

And then Owen knew: up-time radio. There were sets operating in Venice, and there were sets in the Lowland as well. Each of the Hapsburgs had their own, it was rumored. And if the USE were to provide additional aid in operating the devices, or even relaying the signals “Yes,” nodded Fernando. “You see it now. Excellent.”

The earl of Tyrone hunched forward. “Any of these missions could become a very perilous business, Your Highness.” He paused, studying the many scars on his hands. “If our Spanish allies prove to be uncooperative, we’d find ourselves a bit outnumbered.”

Fernando’s nod and expression were somber. “Unquestionably. But my aunt has procured some tools that may improve those odds.”

“Really?” John sat up, as eager as a boy on Christmas morning.

Isabella looked down the table at Sean Connal, who stood, brandishing a cumbersome looking pistol with a huge cylinder in place of its barrel.

Owen frowned; he had seen this weapon before. “That was the weapon that foiled the assassination attempt at Preston’s camp two weeks ago,” he recalled aloud.

The surgeon nodded. “Yes, a pepperbox revolver. They are being paid for by Her Grace, the archduchess, and built in accordance with ideas that the earl of Tyrconnell brought back from Grantville.”

Owen ignored John’s resentful mutter and stared at the pistol instead. It was, without question, the ugliest weapon ever conceived. “It fires five times without reloading, if I recall.”

“More likely to kill with its looks than its bullets,” grumbled John.

“It’s quite effective,” Connal observed calmly.

“Hugh O’Donnell can keep his tools and lectures on effectiveness. Me, I’d like a little style, as well.”

“Yes,” Isabella snapped, “there’s the wisdom of my beloved Spain, imbibed in full by her servitors. Let us choose style over progress. Let us all be sure to have the latest boots and saddles-and all well-polished-as we ride down into the merciless maw of history and are consumed at a gulp.” A roomful of surprised eyes turned toward her. “It is the journey my brother Philip has embarked upon, with Olivares as his footman to light the way into black oblivion.” She snapped a single, gnarled finger down upon the tabletop for emphasis. “Philip has more resources than the rest of the nations of Europe combined, or very nearly so. Does he use it to adopt the up-time radios? No. Their wondrous medicines? No. Their aircraft and steam engines? No. Their weapons? Only those which are modest improvements upon those already in his arsenals. I am sixty-nine and even I-an old, feeble, cantankerous woman-see the need to invest in the changes the Americans have brought. It hardly matters whether we like them; the changes are here permanently. And we will either master, or be mastered by, them.”

“Sounds just like her Irish godson,” muttered John in an aside to Owen.

Isabella’s ears had evidently remained as sharp as her tongue. “Or perhaps the absent earl of Tyrconnell sounds like me. Perhaps it is simply true that great minds think alike.” She left unspoken the unflattering comparison she was implying between the missing Hugh O’Donnell and John O’Neill.

But John did not miss the intimation; his lips tightened, became thin. “Ah well, this pistol is wonder of modern weaponry, I’m sure. But where is its much-praised advocate and originator? I’ve not seen much of the earl of Tyrconnell, these past weeks. Oh wait, now I’m remembering. He left Spanish service, didn’t he? Sent back his knight-captain’s tabard in the Order of Alcantara, as well as renouncing his Spanish citizenship and position on His Majesty’s Council of War. Ah, but he’d have to, wouldn’t he? All those honors are a bit hard to keep when you also decide to tell the king who raised you up that, no, you’d rather not be a member of the Royal Bedchamber anymore.”

Owen, struck dumb by John’s titanically insolent counterattack on the archduchess, held his breath. It was well known that Isabella’s godson-Hugh Albert O’Donnell, earl of Tyrconnell-was the brightest beam in her eye and had been ever since he had been made a page in her court more than twenty years ago. But then, less than a month ago, O’Donnell had abruptly quit her service, and, along with two companies of his men, had vanished. The rest of the Irish tercios had awaited the inevitable torrent of angry invective as the spurned rulers of the Spanish Low Countries raged at the disloyalty of their favorite son. But that never happened, and in that strange silence, the Irish Wild Geese had hatched more than a few explanatory speculations, some of which had bordered on the surreal.

But now, here was John, not merely gesturing toward that mystery like the unacknowledged elephant in the middle of the room, but stabbing at it with poison-tipped words. Owen finally dared to look down the table toward Isabella, prepared to witness the end of three decades of her throne’s help to the expatriate Irish, sure to be consumed in a blaze of exceedingly justified royal wrath.

But Isabella was calm and collected. Indeed, for an instant, she did not seem a frail old woman in her late sixties; she was the high and Imperial Infanta again, the daughter of Philip II and a force majeure when her passions were aroused. Her voice was more terrible for being so level. It was not conveying opinions; it was declaring truths.

“Conde O’Neill, since you have elected to speak with such remarkable candor, I shall follow your example. My godson, the earl of Tyrconnell, traveled to Grantville when none of you would-despite his having recently lost his wife, and only son, in childbirth. He learned many things among the up-timers, and this weapon is one example of that learning. But more importantly, he learned about the collective future of the Wild Geese and their tercios in the Spanish Low Countries. About which you have heard some rumors, I believe.

“The worst of what you have heard is nothing less than the truth. Spain-the Spain in their world, and the Spain in this world-both used you abysmally. I can attest to what the up-time histories claim regarding our motivations in the two decades before this one; you were maintained here in the Low Countries primarily as a threat against the English. You were useful leverage against London, which wanted you kept here to fight against the Provinces, rather than back home, making more trouble in an already restive Ireland. However, many of us also believed that the Spanish crown would eventually make good its debt of honor to you, would help you reclaim your homeland.”

“But, in the up-time world, that did not happen.” Sean’s coda was a whisper.

“Correct, Doctor. The Philip IV of the up-time world never repaid Spain’s debt of honor. Rather, starting within a year of this date, he would begin spending your tercios like water in a new war against the French. By 1638, in that other world, four out of every five of you was dead or disabled. The remainders he moved to Spain, and poured into the maw of a Catalan revolt. You died there, John O’Neill. So did my godson.”

John apparently did not understand that Isabella was doing more than explaining, or even confessing. Her self-recriminating candor indicated that she, and evidently Fernando, had decided to set a course very different from the one that had led the Wild Geese to their grisly ends in the up-time world. Deaf to that nuance, the earl’s face was white as he leaned over the table, fists trembling atop their shimmering reflections in the dark, lacquered wood. “So my father-he died for nothing? After all the loyalty he showed you, all the sacrifice for his faith, for your damned Hapsburg pride-”

Isabella shocked the room by standing and remaining steady as she looked down the table at the earl of Tyrone. “Hugh O’Neill was loyal to himself, first and foremost. You barely knew your father; I did, quite well. He was proud, Machiavellian, brilliantly manipulative, terribly intelligent-but not as intelligent as he thought. Or rather, he had grown accustomed to believing that, almost every time he entered a room, he was the smartest, shrewdest man in it. And that may have been true back in your homeland; I cannot say. But not here on the Continent. His abilities were noteworthy, but they were not unique once he found himself among councilors and captains who routinely navigated the treacherous world of court intrigues and the stratagems of empires. It took him years to realize that Rome was not a wellspring of support for your cause: it was flypaper. The Spanish court and cardinals strung him along with vague promises and hopes-anything rather than having Hugh O’Neill return to the Low Countries, for once there, he would press the matter of invading Ireland.”

“Which was in Spain’s interest!” John O’Neill’s eyes were those of a man watching the bedrock truths of his world dissolve into gossamer and mist.

Isabella sat down and then smiled; her expression was not condescending, but was perilously close to pitying. “No, Conde O’Neill, that is precisely where you are wrong. The Irish were more useful kept sheathed as a perpetual threat, rather than brandished as an instrument of war. Had you invaded Ireland and won, you would still have become a drain on the Crown’s treasury. How would you have held your homeland against English counterattacks without constant, and increasing, Spanish support? All very expensive, my dear Conde O’Neill. But keeping you as a threat in the Low Countries, while also using you as loyal mercenaries whose arch-Roman Catholicism made you perfect instruments against the Protestants of the Provinces? Now that- that- was a bargain.”

Johnnie’s mouth worked uselessly for a moment. “You lied to us.” He sounded like a little boy.

Isabella’s face changed. “Some of us did-but not all of us. Like me, most of us simply wanted more favorable circumstances before you commenced your quest. So, yes, I spoke against the halfhearted invasion plans my overly optimistic nephew occasionally dangled before you.”

“And now, knowing how we’ve been used, even betrayed, what can we trust in?”

It was Fernando himself who answered that question: “You may trust that I am not my brother.” The king in the Low Countries’ eyes had become hard. “I give you my word that we shall not forsake you. And plans are afoot to make good the arrears in your pay, with rich garnishments in recognition of your long service. But I cannot promise you a triumphant return to Ireland. Not now, maybe never; I am not Spain.”

Owen ran a finger across his lip. Well, at least Fernando wasn’t a blatherskite. He was like his aunt, in that way: they both gave you the truth, even when it put them in a hard position.

The king in the Low Countries had not paused. “But the future must wait. Presently, you are the best captains we have to find Urban and to plead with him to accompany you. Not only are you men of title and martial prowess, but your people’s respect for the pontiff has ever been exemplary. No true pope has ever feared his Irish flock. They might be impetuous, but they have always been loyal.”

“A reputation that might not work in our favor, given Borja’s apparent motives in Italy.”

Fernando nodded at Sean Connal’s observation. “Among Borja and his intimates, this might be true. But among the Spanish rank and file? The Irish are held to be doughty fighters and loyal to Spain, primarily because you are obedient to the Church. The common foot soldier will not reflect upon how, at this moment, loyalty to the Church might mean-for the first time in both your memory and theirs-disloyalty to Spain.”

John O’Neill’s eyes roved across the Hapsburgs sitting at the head of the table. “So. I’m to accept that the old dream-of Ireland beneath our feet again-is dead.”

Maria Anna’s voice was gentle. “Let us say that now you are being honestly told that it is a dream that might take generations to realize. If ever.”

John nodded. “I’ve no quarrel with what His Highness has said. Truth be told, I prefer plain speech, hard and true. Better than easy promises of paradise just around the bend. But as I’m earl of my people, then I’d be knowing one more thing: with our pay in arrears, how are my men to keep their families fed? How is it that you propose to pay for our future with you?”

Rubens leaned forward. “That-” he said, glancing at the Hapsburg troika at the head of the table “-is a matter being addressed right now. As I understand it, the projection is that the king in the Netherlands will not only be able to pay you, but exceed-far exceed-your old rate. But it may take a year to achieve this. In the meantime, we will victual your families out of military stocks, if necessary.”

“Most reassuring. But how- how- will you pay us, next year? Where will the new money come from?” John had never shifted his gaze to Rubens, but kept it on the Hapsburgs.

Isabella sniffed. “Do you really need to know?”

“Aye, I do. You said it yourself: we’ve been played the fool for twenty years now. Perhaps we were partly to blame, settling for promises without worrying over the details. Well, now I’m worried over the details. Where will you find this money?”

Isabella’s eyes narrowed. “Do you believe I would lie to you, that I would sully my honor over such a filthy business as the coin we put into hands that wield swords for hire?”

Owen started. “We are no mean sell-swords, you Grace. Have your Irish tercios ever failed you? Have we ever changed sides? Have we ever been less that exemplary in our valor?”

Isabella’s expression softened as her eyes shifted toward Owen. “No, and I repent my harsh words. But let me ask you this in return: although I have not until now been able to speak openly about Spain’s use of its Irish Wild Geese, have I ever worked to your detriment?”

“No.”

“Not so far.” John’s voice sounded as surly as he looked.

Isabella’s eyes-and words-shifted back over to him sharply. “Then do not insult me by doubting my word that we-the Hapsburgs of this land, and this time-will make good our promises. Projects are in hand that will provide us with coffers deep enough to retain your peerless service for years, for decades, to come.”

Owen suppressed a small smile. Heh-a slap on the wrist and a pat on the head, all in the same sentence. “Your Grace, one item remains unresolved.”

“Yes?”

“What would be the best day for us start for Rome?”

Isabella’s smile was wry. “Yesterday, Colonel. Yesterday.”

PART TWO

May-June 1635

The universe, cleft to the core

CHAPTER ELEVEN

“Ambassadora Nichols!” The embassy runner, Carlo, sprinted inside the house’s courtyard from his customary position at the front gate. Sharon Nichols turned, alarmed at Carlo’s volume. The modest compound they’d established outside Padua was too small to require that much vocal energy-unless it was to announce trouble. Her concern faded as she noticed Ruy’s unruffled calm; he indicated the relaxed postures of the Marine guards standing within the shadow of the main gate’s archway. Two of them leaned out a bit, the tilt of their heads suggesting modest interest in some exterior object.

Ruy began striding toward the arch. “It seems we have visitors, my love.”

“Seems so.” Which could only mean one thing, given her renegade embassy’s incognito location in the Paduan countryside Harry Lefferts breezed past the Marines and then planted himself at the entry to the courtyard, thumbs in his belt. “Damn,” he said, looking around. “This place sucks.”

Sharon smiled. “It’s good to see you too, Harry.” She walked into Lefferts’ brief hug as Ruy’s left eyebrow rose slightly. She turned, gestured to her husband with almost courtly grace, “Harry, this is my husband, Senor Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz.”

Harry cocked a grin and stuck out a hand. “Heard a lot about you.”

“And I about you.” Ruy’s hand was in the American’s with an extra measure of speed and sureness.

“And so our two legendary warriors meet at last. Now, who’ve you brought with you, Harry?”

“The whole damned Crew.” He grinned. “And more than a dozen of the Hibernian Mercenary Battalion.”

Sharon craned her neck. “I don’t see them.”

Ruy put a hand on her arm. “And, for now, you will not, my dear. During the last radio exchange with Senor Lefferts’ group, I instructed that they bivouac in the copse by the stream, about two miles west. We do not want to attract more attention than we must.”

Harry snorted as he looked at Nichols’ husband. “Y’know, you should just call me Harry, because there’s no way I’m going to remember that long moniker of yours-Ruy.”

Ruy smiled. “As you suggest, ‘Harry.’ Since your name was appellation enough for one of the most gallant kings of England, then I presume it is sufficient for you.”

“Well-just barely.” Harry’s smile matched Ruy’s.

In the meantime, another traveler appeared in the archway. His greeting was in sharp contrast to the casual up-time reunion: the man gave a small bow.

Harry hooked a thumb as the newcomer approached. “This is Don Estuban Miro.”

Sharon extended her ample hand and found it being shaken by a longer, fine-boned one which was closer to the color of her own than it was to Harry’s. Miro was a man of slightly more than medium height, well-formed and fit but without the aura of “soldier” about him. But as he said, “Pleased to meet you, Ambassador,” Sharon was struck by how, upon looking at his face, she spontaneously recalled the bookish phrase “intelligent eyes.” Because Miro’s certainly were. It was hard to say what made eyes look “intelligent” exactly, and because of that, it was sometimes tempting to think that it was just a literary convention. And it was certainly true that there were some folks who were quite intelligent, but whose eyes gave no clue of it.

But nevertheless, Estuban Miro had intelligent-remarkably intelligent-eyes. She could tell that these were eyes that missed nothing, and yet revealed even less of what went on behind them. Sharon was fairly sure that she, Ruy, and the surroundings, were all being swiftly examined, but she couldn’t see him doing it.

Ruy’s reaction to Miro was quite novel. His own assessing gaze evolved into a sly smile as he extended his hand. “ Viaje largo?

There might have been a momentary flash of surprise in Miro’s eyes. If so, it was there and gone so quickly that Sharon could not be sure. The smile on the newcomer’s face was a match to Ruy’s as he responded, “ Com ho saps? ”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Okay, guys, if you’re gonna start in with the Spanish, can you at least translate for those of us who almost flunked it in ninth grade?”

“That is not Spanish.” The voice from behind was mellifluous, yet firm. Sharon turned. Three figures in cowled friar’s habits had emerged from the small cottage in the courtyard.

“No, not Spanish,” Harry agreed with a nod. “But I can’t place it. How about you, Father?”

Sharon couldn’t resist a half-smile. “Harry, I believe the proper form of address is ‘Holy Father.’”

“ Holy Father?” Harry gawked. “As in, the pope?”

The hooded figure so labeled nodded and drew back his cowl. “The language your friends are speaking is Catalan. I am not well versed in it, but Ruy asked our newcomer if he had had a long journey. And our newcomer asked in return ‘How did you know?’-meaning I presume, ‘How did you know I was Catalan?’” The face that had been concealed by the hood was well-advanced in years, worldly, patrician, and subtly aristocratic. It was not, in any way, a face that blended well with the garb of a rustic friar. Nor did the gesture of the slightly raised hand and proffered ring.

Miro bowed very low. “Your Holiness,” he said.

Urban VIII’s brow rose slightly.

Miro provided the explanation with yet another small bow. “Your Eminence, kneeling and kissing your ring would be inappropriate in my case.”

Urban’s brow became level again and he nodded.

Ruy exclaimed, as if suddenly solving a puzzle. “Ah! So, that’s the accent! You are Mallorquin, and a xueta.”

Miro nodded.

One of Harry’s eyebrows climbed. “My-orkeen? A zhoo-wayta? Now does some one what to fill me in?” And then, remembering the pope, he removed his hat. “Pleased to meet you, Your Holiness.”

Urban’s smile was benign and a bit bemused.

Ruy was providing explanations. “Senor Lefferts, in your many travels, I am sure you have heard of Mallorca, the main island of the Balearics. It is several days’ sail due east of Barcelona. Their language is mostly Catalan, but a distinct dialect. And the xuetas — ” Ruy’s brow dipped slightly “-are its Jewish population, who were compelled to profess themselves as Catholics. It is awkward to say more about their circumstances in-in the present company.”

Urban’s smile dimmed, but he nodded. “A tactful close to that unfortunate topic, Senor Casador y Ortiz.” He shifted his eyes back to Miro. “And is this all your party that will be staying with us here?” Sharon frowned, wondering. Urban sounded oddly expectant, and a bit wistful, too. What or who was he expecting? This was the full complement that had been approved for But a third figure-lean in a dusty habit-advanced through the shadows of the archway. Sharon realized the cleric’s gait was familiar a split second before she saw the face. “Larry-Cardinal-Mazzare! What the hell are you doing in Italy?”

“Collecting dust from every road from here to Bergamo, I think.” Larry Mazzare, the American village priest that Urban VIII had appointed the cardinal-protector of the United States of Europe, closed the remaining distance with a smile, arms out for the slightly distant embrace that was his wont.

Sharon held him back after a moment, staring at him. “Damn it, Larry. Does Mike know you came down here? No? Oh, hell, Larry. When Stearns hears about this, he’s going to have your-”

“Melissa already warned me about my impending castration. But I suspect His Holiness might be willing to intercede on my behalf and explain to Mike that my travel here was necessary. More necessary than a layperson might readily imagine.”

Urban VIII came forward. “That is so very true. Lawrence, it is wonderful to see you here. Quite wonderful indeed.”

Mazzare kissed the proffered papal ring while the pontiff seemed to restrain himself from putting an approving-and relieved? — hand upon the up-timer’s head. As Mazzare straightened, the smile returned to Urban’s face-the slightly mischievous version the pontiff reserved for conversations with his intimates. “Evidently, Cardinal Mazzare, my connections to the Heavens rival those of your marvelous radios.”

“Unquestionably true, Your Eminence, but why do you remark upon it at this particular moment?”

“Because in my recent devotions, for every one prayer I offered in the hope that you would be prevented from shouldering the perils of journeying to Italy in such troubled times, I confess that I uttered two far more emphatic appeals that you would be able-and blessedly foolish enough-to do so.” He took both of Larry’s hands in a surge of gladness and what looked very much like profound gratitude.

Sharon suddenly felt as clueless as both Harry Lefferts and Estuban Miro looked. “I’m sorry, Your Eminences, but I’m not sure I’m reading between all the lines here.”

Mazzare turned solemn eyes upon her. “Sharon, a pope who sits in the Holy See has the power to control the rate of change within the Church. A pope who has been driven from his seat upon the cathedra has no such luxury. He may have to act swiftly, without enough time to deliberate upon the full consequence of every decision. But Mother Church is eternal, so no choice is a simple one. And if the pope’s utterances are explicitly ex cathedra — are canonical proclamations, despite the physical absence of the throne for which they are named-then they are as eternal as the Church itself.”

Mazzare turned a gaze that was part searching and part sympathetic upon a nodding Urban. “And, unless I am much mistaken, His Eminence must now make a fateful choice on how to proceed from this point. Specifically, who he now embraces as allies, who he does not, and why, may dramatically and forever change the Church.”

One of the other figures that had emerged from the cottage came closer; it was Muzio Vitelleschi, father-general of the Jesuit order. His thin lips quirked in his tightly trimmed gray-silver beard. “Such insight would have made you a worthy member of the Society of Jesus,” he observed in a crisp, clear voice. “But you will help no one if you starve to death, Cardinal Mazzare. Unless I am mistaken, supper is almost ready.”

“It is?” asked Sharon of Carlo and two of the embassy’s domestic staff who were hovering nearby.

“It most surely is,” assured Ruy with a faint wink. “Even if it is not.”

“Oh,” said Sharon. “Yes. It is. How forgetful of me. Gentlemen, Eminences, please allow me to show you to our dining room. Such as it is.”

“And excuse me while I ensure that we are not troubled by any unexpected guests.” Ruy was gone with a flourish and a tight about-face toward the gate-guards; the move had the grace and ease of an athlete in his prime. Sharon watched her husband walking for another moment and decided that he was one fine figure of a man. Even from behind. Maybe particularly from behind. Yes, he was one fine “Ambassador?” Miro’s voice was a gentle reminder, rather than an inquiry.

“Right. Allow me to show you the way…”

Harry ladled what he called “gravy” on top of his second helping of millet polenta and resumed his seat at the kitchen table beside Sherrilyn, who asked, “So what have you learned from the Marines?”

“Not much,” he admitted sourly. “Their captain-Taggart-gave me a good run-down on the parts of Rome that visitors don’t see.”

“Which are the parts where we’ll spend most of our time, right up until we rescue Frank and Giovanna.”

“Yeah. Particularly Juliet.”

Sherrilyn rubbed her knee absently. “Why her?”

“Because if I’m right, we’re going to need a lot of local help and intel to make any plan work. And the rest of us shouldn’t just sit around nearby, trying to hide, while Juliet’s working her magic on the locals. So we’ll stay somewhere outside the city.”

“Is Juliet really up for this? Is her Italian that good?”

Lefferts stared at his former teacher and short-duration lover-both a long time ago: “You heard her bartering in the market at Brescia. And she can out-Italian the Italians when it comes to volume, plate-throwing rages, and merry-making. They all spend about five minutes arguing with her and then they all love her. What’s to worry?”

“That’s fine when we’re in friendly territory, but in Rome-well, that’s enemy territory.” Sherrilyn rubbed her knee more assiduously. “They might be a little more suspicious there.”

“Suspicious? Of what?”

“Well, Juliet doesn’t look very Italian, you know.”

“Yeah, having functioning eyes, I noticed that right away. But I don’t think that matters so much here. Italy’s got lots of folks from all over. And Rome is more of a hodge-podge than anyplace else. Besides, you just know that Juliet will concoct a cock-and-bull cover story that will, as always, amaze the natives.” He scraped at his plate. “I’m gonna finish up here and compare the domestics’ assessments of Rome with Taggart’s.”

“The workers here are still the same bunch that came with Sharon from the embassy?”

“Yep. She and Ruy kept the whole gang together.”

“Why?”

“Security. By the time they got to the first place where they really stopped running, — an inn right outside Padua-all the folks still with Sharon knew, one way or the other, that they had the pope, the father-general of the Jesuits, and the younger Cardinal Barberini traveling with them. Couldn’t exactly let that kind of information go wandering off, could you?”

“No, I guess not.” Sherrilyn shifted her knee fretfully; the hike down from the Val Bregaglia had played havoc with her old sports injury. “So what, specifically, are you hoping the workers can tell you that Taggart couldn’t?”

Harry grinned. “They can fill me in on the lefferti — my adoring public.”

“Your misguided adolescent Harry-wanna-bes, more like. What are you looking to do, boost your ego?”

“I wouldn’t have to if you’d help me reclaim my sense of masculine prowess, Sherrilyn.”

“Ah, give it a rest, Harry.”

“‘It’s’ been doing nothing but resting since we left Grantville.” Harry saw her look. “Okay, since Biberach, then. But I only had one night with the burgermeister’s daughter. Whereas with you, I could look forward to many-”

“Cut it out, Harry. I’m serious. What are you trying to find about the lefferti?”

“Okay, just deflate my ego-and everything else. Look: we’re going to need to have the latest word on the street when we get to Rome. The lefferti were pretty much poor teenagers who wanted to be toughs, get a little respect, acquire that kind of rogue-do-gooder sexiness that you’ve always found so appealing in me-”

“Down, dog. You’re humping the wrong tree. For real now, Harry; you think the lefferti can help?”

Unfazed, Harry started scraping together the last of his polenta while eying the still-steaming pot. “Yeah, for real. The city is occupied right? It’s going to have Spanish patrols, command posts, strong points, weak spots, black-market connections with anyone handling provisioning for the invaders: the whole nine yards. We’re going to need all that information. And we might need the lefferti ’s hands and bodies, too.”

“What? Harry, the lefferti are really just kids-”

“Pretty old kids; some of them are in their twenties. And they’re not shrinking violets, either. But I’d only use a few of the older ones in any actual attack. I’m thinking most of the lefferti would be far more useful providing us with a diversion.” He stood up, stretched, scratched his back. “Well, it’s time to debrief the staff.”

“And to see if there are any comely wenches among them?”

Harry affected deep emotional injury. “If I do so, it is only because you reject me so continually and completely.”

Sherrilyn smiled. “Oh, get the hell out of here,” she said to his receding back.

CHAPTER TWELVE

As Larry Mazzare had suspected, once grace was said and dinner was served, things became much more informal. Urban waved a freshly cut, steaming piece of bread in the air, distributing the aroma. “There are advantages living out in the countryside. Like this bread. Wonderful. Not so carefully made as the loaves prepared for our discriminating palates in the Vatican. And because of that-wonderful.” His eyes seemed to lose a little focus, to veer into a reminiscent trance; it was sometimes easy to forget that popes had once been little boys, too, eagerly awaiting a fresh loaf from a country oven. Of course, for Urban-Maffeo Barberini-that country oven would have been located in a palatial family villa. But still, the pleasures and recollections of childhood had a distinctive sweetness, no matter the socioeconomic strata of the one who possessed them.

Urban’s voice brought Mazzare out of his reveries. “You have been very quiet, Lawrence, even for you. Tell me: what is on your mind?”

Mazzare smiled. “Farmhouses and villas, Your Eminence. Of which this is a most unusual specimen. How long since you relocated here from the taverna outside Padua?”

Sharon Nichols furnished the answer. “We got here almost two weeks ago. We didn’t dare spend much time at that taverna.” She speared a sliver of roast chicken. “Too much traffic, and we were way too large a party. As soon as we found this place, we paid our tab and hit the road.”

“And it looks like you kept almost all the staff with you.”

Ruy smoothed one wing of his mustache farther out of the way of his inbound fork of green beans. “Not ‘almost all’ the staff, Cardinal Mazzare: all the staff.”

Mazzare nodded. “Yes. Of course.”

Ruy matched the cardinal’s nod. “The stakes are simply too high. Which is why, of the various choices put before us by the Cavrianis’ agent-”

Ah, that’s their local contact, then. Of course.

“-this house seemed the best.”

“The best?” Mazzare looked uncertainly at the dingy walls and the smoke-darkened ceiling and rafters.

Miro set down his knife. “I believe Senor Casador y Ortiz is referring to its innocuousness, rather than its appeal.”

Ruy nodded. “Yes. This house was twice emptied by the plagues that swept through Venice late last century. It stood vacant for almost a decade. Then a family tried to ‘break the curse’-and all died from yet another malady. From what we heard, I suspect typhus, but the local peasants are now convinced that the hand of divine judgment lies heavy on this roof.”

Mazzare looked around. “You must have had a lot of cleaning up to do.”

Vitelleschi sounded as if he had bitten into a loaf and found half a wiggling worm in the part he still held. “In service to the pope, I have traveled and dwelt in many places that could not be accurately described as civilized. Amongst them, this house still proved to be the nadir.”

Antonio Barberini, the young and rather doughy cardinal who was Urban’s nephew, shuddered. “Borja came to Rome and successfully drove us out in a day; we came here and are still trying to evict the roaches and rats.”

Mazzare found that his appetite had waned. “So how long do you believe it is safe to stay in this villa? Or is it a farmhouse?”

“I guess we’d call it a hybrid property-and we stay no longer than we have to,” Sharon answered. “When you meet with Tom Stone in Venice, Don Estuban, he should have a more remote spot selected for us.”

Miro inclined his head. “It shall be my first item of business with him. But would he not already have sent word if he had found something?”

Sharon frowned. “Yes, which has me more than a little worried.”

Ruy slipped an arm around her shoulder. “Such matters take time, and cannot be rushed,” he soothed. “After all, what would one answer if asked, ‘why such a hurry to find a country villa?’ I think we cannot safely respond, ‘ah, well, you see, we must have a house in which to hide a pope.’”

She smiled. So did Urban. Mazzare suspected that the brief lip-crinkling of Vitelleschi was a sign of amusement, also. “At least,” Mazzare offered, “it is a little easier to hide in this day and age. The depictions of a person being sought aren’t even as good as the ‘wanted: dead or alive’ handbills that were used in my world in the American West.”

“Truly? Even with your wondrous photography?”

“Photographs-or rather printing them out-was too expensive in frontier areas. Besides, even if the likenesses I’ve seen resembled His Holiness-and they don’t-not many people are willing to post them. Italy’s ardent Roman Catholics have no desire to turn their pope over to anyone, let alone a brutal usurper like Borja.”

“They might, if he offers a reward that piques Italy’s equally ardent greed.” Vitelleschi’s rejoinder was the crisp, arid declamation of a dedicated moralist.

Mazzare shrugged. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.” He turned toward Urban. “Either way, Your Holiness, we must announce that you are alive, and we must do so as quickly as possible. Every day we are silent increases the likelihood that Borja can finally break the will of Rome’s people, and can bring more of the Consistory’s remaining fence-sitters aound to supporting him.”

Sharon pursed her lips. “I hate to ask this, but might it already be too late? I mean, has the belief in the rightful pope been so badly shaken that the people are already looking elsewhere?”

Vitelleschi’s voice was firm with professional conviction. “No, Ambassadora Nichols. For a while, the people will simply be shocked. And then they will be outraged. Only once that rage has passed could it be said that we have waited too long.”

“And not having my body to parade will cause a long delay indeed,” Urban observed. Then, with his small, trademark smile, he said, “One should not choose a new pope before the old one is dead. After all, two popes at once? If Mother Church is the bride of Christ, we would be inviting our Savior to become a bigamist.”

Cardinal Barberini guffawed so suddenly that he almost choked on his chicken; Ruy managed not to laugh, but his smile was almost as wide as his mustache. Miro politely looked elsewhere to conceal whatever expression passed over his face. Vitelleschi looked like an offended school marm determined not to acknowledge the witty quip of a prized, but occasionally mischievous, charge.

Mazzare managed to keep his smile wan. “And that observation also highlights something about Borja’s probable intents.”

Urban sobered immediately. “You mean, that as in your American West, I am wanted ‘dead or alive’?”

Mazzare shook his head regretfully. “I suspect Borja is less interested in the ‘alive’ option. Given the fate of the cardinals in Rome, I presume he would prefer you were killed attempting to resist the lawful agents of the Church.”

“Strange. I would have thought the lawful agents of the Church would still be my agents.”

Mazzare returned Urban’s small smile. “Yes, I would have thought so, too. But we up-timers have a saying: possession is nine-tenths of the law. Borja possesses the Holy See, even though you possess the pontifical title. Unless you were to walk right back in there and order him out, your absence from the Holy City complicates any assertion that its agents are your agents.”

“Quite right. So, just as it is universally known that Borja now possesses the Vatican, it must become just as widely known that I still possess my life.”

Sharon tapped an index finger meditatively against the much-stained tabletop. “I wonder: should we use the Committees of Correspondence to spread news about your survival, and to confirm the rumors of how all the cardinals were killed in cold blood?”

Miro frowned. “If you choose to do so, I recommend you release the information all at once, and through written materials cached at a drop point that the Committee members are informed of later on.”

“Why?”

“Because, if Borja now has someone working for him who is more professional than Quevedo, the Committees will be under surveillance. Any direct contact will surely lead assassins to wherever you may hide. Consequently, your contact with the world must be outbound only, and never suspected as coming from your embassy. Any inbound traffic is too perilous to countenance.”

Ruy nodded. “Don Estuban could not speak more truly or wisely, my heart. I have some-small experience-with this kind of affair. If Borja is willing to spend enough reales to maintain constant surveillance, his agents could snatch up any person arriving at the embassy in Venice, or the Committees, who is suspected of bearing messages from you.”

Vitelleschi’s eyes were emotionless. “And, as Senor Casador y Ortiz might confirm, Borja’s agents will be neither gentle nor patient in the methods they use to extract information from your couriers.”

Sharon shuddered. “Okay. No Committees, then. Or a one time news-blast, at most.”

“Yes,” her husband agreed, “I think it would be wise to limit it to that.”

Urban sighed. “Your talk is most prudent, and most upsetting. I can accept a death sentence upon my head, but I have great misgivings about how my presence endangers my best and truest friends, who’ve aided me, unasked, in this dark hour. My heart tells me-”

“Your heart tells you how to behave as a man, Your Holiness, but you must rely strictly upon your head when deciding how to act as pope.” Vitelleschi somehow combined shadings of both compassion and remonstrance in his otherwise dry voice. “Even our friends here-most of whom are not Catholics-still understand the great urgency of keeping you alive, of keeping the papacy from falling into the hands of that monster Borja. And besides, do you really think that if you took flight it would save them? Tell me, Senor Casador y Ortiz: in your experience of such matters, how would Borja’s agents alter their search, if they were to somehow learn that His Holiness had departed from your protection?”

“It would have no effect upon them, Your Eminence. Except to make their job easier.”

Urban, who was schooled in the intricacies, but not the gruesome particulars, of espionage, leaned forward. “Explain this if you would, my son.”

“I am honored to be of service to Your Holiness, but it is my deep shame to possess the needed expertise in these matters.”

“Please continue,” the pope instructed.

Mazzare felt, rather than saw, some weight seem to rise off Ruy’s shoulders, as if it was a burden he had become so accustomed to carrying, that he no longer heeded it. The Spaniard sat straighter, prouder-if that were possible. “Here is what would happen if you left us, Your Holiness. If they were to find this place, but after you departed from it, Borja’s agents would torture every individual-no matter their age or sex-for any information as to your possible whereabouts, companions, preparations, anything of relevance. And then they would put everyone to the sword and the house to the torch.”

“To conceal their misdeed.”

Ruy nodded. “But even if they found and slew you first, they would still attempt to determine and annihilate the place from whence you had fled.”

“Why this needless barbarity?”

“It is not needless from their perspective, Your Holiness. Consider: you might have left further instructions here, or key correspondence with princes and ministers inimical to Borja. You might have been gathering evidence that would incriminate him, gathering secret support from those cardinals who are not yet willing to decry him publicly. In short, why should Borja believe that all the damage you could do him will die with you? It might well have been left with your intimates, before you struck out on your own. And so he would come here, interrogate, torture, and slay-without exception and without mercy.”

The room was very still. Mazzare, like everyone else, was staring at Ruy, whose dark eyes seemed to be seeing inward as well as outward. “I, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz swear that this is true.” But this time, he uttered his trademark oath quietly, almost like a prayer.

Or a confession.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Two days later, Estuban Miro stifled a yawn as he waited for Tom Stone to arrive back at the embassy in Venice. Word had it that the American pharmaceutical magnate had stayed late over on the mainland in Mestre, personally attending to what he had dubbed a “quality control problem” in one of the new jointly owned chemical refineries he had founded in the past half year.

Ironic, since Miro had been in Mestre himself last night. But not wanting to waste the early hours of the day, he had left both Lefferts’ Wrecking Crew and North’s Hibernians slumbering as he emerged into the predawn glimmer to catch the first available boat from the mainland, which the locals dubbed Terraferma. So he was among the first visitors to arrive on Venetia, that day. And what did he get for all his troubles? A reasonably cushioned chair and a small cup of passable coffee as he waited for the USE’s ambassador to Venice to return. Eventually.

Miro stifled another yawn. He’d been working on a sleep deficit for the past two nights. In Padua, he had tried to excuse himself from the dinner table early, pleading his early departure the next morning. Somehow that never happened; every time he started to rise, someone refilled his glass, or asked a question, or embroiled him in a debate. In short, no matter how Miro had tried to get away from that spattered, partially charred, richly served table of good cheer, he couldn’t make good his escape. Probably just as well. While it was superficially just a meal with intelligent companions, it had also been a rite of passage.

Among the up-timers, it had been a kind of assessment concluding with a provisional adoption. Mazzare’s cordiality had deepened into potential friendship over the course of their joint balloon journey from Jena to Chur, and the up-time cardinal’s opinion obviously held great sway with both Sharon and Ruy.

But it had probably been more crucial in securing the benign toleration and cooperation of Father-General Vitelleschi and Cardinal Barberini. Miro had been thoroughly briefed on the former before arriving in Italy. A reputation for stern measures and judgment in his professional life had colored the depictions of Vitelleschi; he was purported to be humorless and vinegary. As Miro had learned, this was a profound misperception. In some ways, he suspected Vitelleschi might have had the most incisive and even blasphemous wit of them all; he just elected not to show it. The younger Barberini had imbibed many of the prejudices of his patrician class: a lack of ease around Jews, a reluctance to have dealings with them. But his uncle’s cosmopolitanism had also rubbed off on Antonio Barberini, who, over the course of the evening, warmed to Miro and his wry interjections.

But Urban-he was the hardest of them to figure. Possibly, because he is most like me, thought Miro with a smile, thinking how that observation would have scandalized every Catholic in the room. With the probable exception of Urban.

For Urban VIII’s was a face and consciousness that had very obviously been washed by many waters, not all of which had been pure or calm. He loved life, enough so that he did not ruin his existence by being desperate to retain it above all other things. Yet he also was intrigued by the possibility of what lay beyond. Urban’s speech and attitudes did not reflect a rigid expectation of the shape that Heaven or Hell might take, nor the face of God or the malice of Satan. Before he had become a pope, he had been Maffeo Barberini, head of his powerful family, a creature of his time, versed in arts and letters and the lofty heresies of the Greeks and Romans. No, Pope Urban VIII was not a simple man, and his thoughts and plans clearly moved on many levels simultaneously.

When the dinner group had finally pushed back from the table in search of their beds, Miro was glad to have stayed awake so late; it had been crucial for him to be accepted by these groups with whom he would now be working. But he also dreaded rising the next day, and riding to Venice.

Or rather, to Mestre. The entire traveling party-numbering almost thirty-was hot, dusty, and parched when they reached Mestre just before sundown. It had made no sense to push the horses any harder, and the timing had not been fortuitous. The last boat to the main island was a black shadow receding into the lagoon’s red-orange reflection of the sunset sky. That had meant retracing their steps away from the dockside, until they found a predictably over-priced, under-staffed inn in which to spend the night.

A night that had been all too short: five hours after finally settling in, the inn’s ostler had jostled Miro awake, as he had requested. Morning ablutions, a quick walk back to the docks, waiting for the first ready boatman-and now, here in the embassy, wondering about the odds of getting a second cup of coffee before Tom Stone came up the stairs two at a time, one top-tuft of hair truant from the rest of his somewhat trimmed gray-silver mane. He got to the top of the stairs, saw Miro, frowned, and then his brows rose. “Oh, yeah. Right. You’re the guy. Miro. From back home. Sorry I got delayed-uh, detained. I was over in Mestre helping out my partners.”

“Yes. I was told. I wasn’t waiting long.” Miro rose, put out a hand, smiled. “Mr. Stone, I’m Estuban Miro.”

“Yeah, yeah. I got the messages about you from Grantville. Great to meet you.” The hand-shake was vigorous; unpolished, yes, but very enthusiastic and genuine.

Stone waved off the help of one of the waiting embassy staff, opened the door to his office himself, and apparently presumed Miro would follow without invitation, as if he was simply an acquaintance who had come to call at his home. Miro trailed along. He was impressed at the size of the chamber but doubted Stone had anything to do with the opulent decor incorporating tasteful Renaissance hints and flourishes. Tom flopped down behind the plateau that was his desk and smiled at Miro over the top of it. Then, his hand halfway through waving his visitor toward a seat, Stone reconsidered the arrangements with a frown; he quickly rose up, came around and sat in a chair directly opposite the one Miro was already standing behind.

“No desks today,” Stone explained. “At least not with someone from home. Hey, have a seat; take a load off, Don Estuban. You’ve come a long way without a lot of rest, from what I hear.”

Miro smiled. “That would not be an exaggeration.”

“Want some breakfast?”

“Thank you, no; I had a light meal before coming here,” Miro lied, hoping that the sudden contradictory growl from his stomach remained inaudible to Stone.

Apparently it did. Tom replied with the strange, neck-bobbing nod that was his wont, and looked uneasily out the window. “I don’t mean to rush you, Don Estuban, but-”

“Mr. Stone, there is no need for apologies. If I had family members in the clutches of Borja, I would want to get down to business, too.”

Tom smile gratefully. “I’m glad you understand, Don Estuban, really I am. I don’t want to seem rude but-well, Frank and Giovanna are on my mind. Pretty much all the time.”

Miro noticed the faint blue rings under his host’s eyes but said nothing.

“So what’s the plan?”

“First, Mr. Stone, have there been any further developments? I haven’t received a situation report since Chur.”

Stone went back in his seat with a sigh and a grimace. “No. No ransom demands. Not even anyone to talk to. The Spanish ambassador here claims ignorance of Borja’s actions. ’Course, he’s probably telling the truth; seems all the Spanish big shots in Italy were taken as much by surprise by Borja’s actions as was Rome itself.”

Miro nodded. “Unfortunately, with no remaining embassy in Rome, we are unable to get any new information on the situation there. Even Don Francisco Nasi’s intelligence networks have gone silent. We cannot tell if they have been discovered and eliminated or are merely unable to send messages because of the political and domestic chaos prevailing in the city.”

Tom nodded. “So-what’s the plan?”

“I don’t know.”

“Wait a minute. Mike radioed that you were in charge of the rescue operation-”

“I am in charge of the mission sent down here to Italy, but that mission has three separate mandates: protect the pope, recover your son and daughter-in-law, and coordinate with you. I only know the specifics of the objectives I am to be directly involved in. Harry Lefferts is in charge of the rescue operation, and I must remain unaware of his plans.”

Tom nodded again. “Yeah, yeah. Compartmentalization of information, right? So even if someone grabs you, you can’t tell them anything about any of the other plans.”

“That is correct. And that is why you will no longer be hearing from the ex-Roman embassy after it relocates.”

“What? Not even by radio?”

“Not routinely. Other than brief, coded status reports at prearranged times, radio communications will be of an emergency nature only.”

“Why?”

“It is unlikely, but the Spanish may have procured radios. If they have, it is even more unlikely but still possible that they have acquired a working knowledge of signal triangulation. Which could lead them directly to the pope.”

“Whoa. Signal triangulation is a bit out of the Spaniards’ league, isn’t it? Hell, it’s out of our league, I thought.”

“Not quite, and between up-timer defectors and all the down-time radio operators you have trained that have since left your service, the Spanish could easily gather the resources necessary to get an initial sense of the embassy’s final hiding place if it sends radio transmissions. Which reminds me; might I have the list of new safe houses compiled by Giuseppe Cavriani?”

Tom took a sealed scroll from his desk and handed it over to Miro. “Just what Nasi asked for: three locations, all vetted and brokered by Giuseppe Cavriani himself. I haven’t broken the seal; no one other than he knows the locations.”

“Excellent. And the arrival of your large airplane, the Jupiter?”

Tom slouched in his chair and picked distractedly at threads that had come loose from the upholstery on the armrests. “Next few days. Maybe next week.”

Miro tried to keep the frown off his face. “I see. Problems?”

“Seems so. That damn Monster’s landing gear are turning into maintenance pigs. Or so they tell me.”

Miro wasn’t quite sure he had parsed all the slang correctly. “I beg your pardon?”

Tom uprooted one of the threads abruptly, seemed to regret it. “The Monster-which is what most of us call our big, four engine transport, the Jupiter-has got air-cushion landing gear. It was the only approach that seemed workable when we were building it, and it also allowed us to use any body of water as an airfield. Cool idea, huh?”

“Huh,” agreed Miro, trying not to sound confused.

“Yeah, well it was great until this ‘ACL gear’ started failing maintenance checks. Every time that happened, they had to take it off-line-they had to ground it-and fix the problem. Now, it’s grounded more than it’s flying. Not that I see why the Monster is needed down here.” He cast an appraising glance at Miro.

Miro smiled. “I’m not allowed to talk about that, at this point. Compartmentalization of information, I’m afraid.”

Tom grumbled but smiled back. “Yeah, I figured. Although I figure maybe you’ll use it to get the pope out of Italy. And I figure that maybe, once Harry springs my kids, it would be a lot easier to fly away from Rome than elude overland or maritime pursuit.”

Miro merely nodded. Well, so much for having any major operational surprises up their sleeves. Although, truth be told, if he were the Spanish, he would be expecting these gambits, anyhow.

Tom was still staring at him. “You know, I hear rumors that you have a balloon. That that’s how you came over the Alps.”

“There are so many rumors, these days, it’s hard to know what to believe.”

“I got this rumor from some folks here in Venice, folks who are thinking of trying to build one of their own. Seems someone’s ex-seaman son has given up sewing sails and has instead been stitching seams for an airship’s envelope up in Grantville for the past eight months. Seems the guy paying him is one Don Estuban Miro.”

Miro sighed. “It seems that we live in a very small world, indeed.”

Tom smiled. “Sorry to pop your balloon, so to speak.”

Miro’s stomach growled again. So audibly that Tom Stone noticed. Miro waved away any concern. “That was merely distress at your unforgivable pun, not hunger, Mr. Stone.”

“Tom.”

“Very well. Tom. And I am simply Estuban.”

“Great.” Tom rang for breakfast before Miro could object-who silently blessed him. “Listen, Estuban, I was thinking. If the Monster doesn’t get here on time, or gets gummed up or something…well…”

“Yes?”

“Well, what about your balloon?”

Miro shook his head. “I am sorry, Tom, but no, my balloons are completely insufficient for any of the tasks you are envisioning.”

“Whaddya mean? They got you over the Alps, didn’t they? You and the Wrecking Crew, who usually come pretty heavily armed.”

“Yes, the balloon got us over the Alps, but at a rate of only one hundred miles per day, and only thirty miles per hour.”

“What? Why so slow?”

“Tom, these are hot air balloons. They consume fuel at a prodigious rate. Most of our cargo space is fuel tankage for the burner, so that we can keep the air in the envelope hot enough.”

“And why so slow?”

“Hot air has much less lift than the other balloons you were familiar with, such as the Hindenburg and the others which used hydrogen. So hot air balloons can’t afford the weight of a full internal frame. Without that frame, the balloon deforms at higher airspeeds; it begins to flatten at the nose, buckle, veer off course. It is an inherent limit of the technology, Tom. I am sorry.”

“Well, can’t we build a better balloon? Something like the Hindenburg?” Seeing the look on Miro’s face, he added, “But smaller, of course.”

“I’d like to, Tom. But hydrogen is a dangerous substance. As I’m sure you’re aware.”

“You’re not talking about the flammability issues, are you?”

“Not directly. From what I’ve read, and from the up-timers I’ve talked to, the real danger is the brittlization.”

Tom nodded. “So, you’ve done your homework.” He considered Miro for a long moment. “I get it. This balloon of yours: this is just Phase One, isn’t it?”

Miro tried not to start in surprise. He rarely misgauged people, but he had mistaken the profound informality of Tom’s thought processes as diagnostic of the classical “narrow genius.” That kind of prodigy who was a wonder in regards to his own field, but disengaged from others. Now Miro saw this was not the case with Tom Stone: there were simply a few areas in which this up-timer was profoundly disinterested-or that he found downright aversive-and so he avoided them. But the idea of ballooning was apparently of interest to him, at least enough to leap ahead and see where Miro was going, what he intended. “Yes, going to hydrogen balloons is indeed my next plan. The hot air balloons are simply the first step. They will get a network of mooring towers and aerodromes established, will acclimate people to the notion of flying. But after that-”

“Sure,” said Tom with a lazy, but also canny, smile. “Everyone will want to sail in the clouds: the ultimate, natural trip.”

Miro felt, from the emphasis Tom put on the word “trip,” that he was not simply referring to a journey. “You sound interested, Tom. Personally.”

Tom rocked his feet from side to side. “Yeah. When I was just a kid, I was cruising through the Southwest. Doing my Jack Kerouac thing. Saw a bunch of balloons go up. Drove over. Traded some strictly medicinal cannabis for a ride. Man, oh man.” Tom’s eyes looked out the window, but were clearly seeing another time and place. “The colors, the shapes, the desert. Like another planet. Didn’t need the weed, you know?”

“Uh…no, I’m afraid I don’t.”

Tom blinked out of the recollection, sat a little straighter, grinned sheepishly. “’Course you wouldn’t; how could you?” His eyes became very intent. “Listen, Estuban. I’ve been watching my friends in Grantville build planes, and I’ve been amazed, just amazed, at what they’ve been able to do. But no matter how many they build, there’s always a need for more air transport. Any kind of air transport, even if it’s slow and with limited range. And the people here-you down-timers-can’t really get in on the airplane-building action, not for years, anyway. But balloons are simpler, and they can be made here.”

“Which is why I built one, Tom. And why I’m building more.”

Tom smiled. “See? It’s like synchronicity; you were meant to be here, for us to talk about airplanes but wind up talking about balloons. I’m going to talk to the people trying to build them here in Venice, if it’s okay with you. Your people have the experience now, but this city has money-lots of money-and resources. And I’ve got some myself, you know.”

Miro smiled. “Yes, I’ve heard.”

Tom nodded. “You and me, Estuban, we’re going to help people sail in the clouds. And we’re going to rescue lives while we’re at it.”

“You mean quick responses to medical emergencies?”

“I mean more than that, Estuban. Think of it: my drugs carried on your balloons. We learn of an outbreak of plague, of typhus, and BANG! — ” Tom hammered the desktop with the flat of his hand; Miro almost jumped “-we’re there, with drugs in hand. If the epidemic is in a single town, we surround it and wipe it out. If it’s coming at us like a wall of fire, we land in front of it and build a fire-break of immunity. Estuban, we could save thousands-millions! — of lives before we get to the middle of this century.”

Miro nodded. “Yes. But do remember this, Tom: balloons could carry payloads other than life-saving drugs. Much more unwelcome payloads.”

Tom’s eyes darkened. “Yeah. There’s that.” He rocked his big feet back and forth again. “I like that you brought that up, Estuban. A guy just in this for the money would have tried to leave that under the rug. Not you. You’re okay.” The feet rocked one more time and were still. “Listen. After you’ve sent that scroll on its crooked way to Sharon, you have some business in town, right?”

“I do.” Miro’s breakfast was borne in by a young man so discreet as to be almost soundless and invisible.

Tom nodded approvingly. “Good. Hang out a bit. See the sights. Lemme think on this balloon business a little. We’ll talk soon, okay?”

“Okay,” repeated Miro around a mouthful of eggs.

“Hey,” remarked Tom, “breakfast! That’s a great idea you had.” Tom jumped out of his chair, calling after the young attendant who had delivered it.

Miro, mouth still full, was unable to point out that it had been Tom’s idea, after all.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Harry Lefferts contemplated the largely abandoned shore town to the north, passing quickly now that the galliot ’s crew had stepped the sail and laid hands to their oars.

Stepping closer, Sherrilyn offered, “Penny-or pfennig — for your thoughts?”

Harry nodded at the gray, crumbling buildings and the few fishing boats moored at a single, listing pier, dark with age. “You know what that is?”

“Uh-a hard-luck fishing town?”

“That, oh-former-teacher-of-mine, is Anzio.”

For a second, the name didn’t register with Sherrilyn. Then she turned and gawked. “You mean, as in the big World War Two battle? That little shit-hole? That’s Anzio?”

“Yup,” said Harry.

“Robert Mitchum,” said Thomas North quietly, from his position farther down the port-side gunwale, almost at the taffrail.

“Huh?” said Sherrilyn.

Harry smiled broadly. “Yeah! That’s right! Mitchum starred in the movie. How’d you know that?”

North sent a long sideways look at Lefferts — Who remembered. “Right. You’re the movie-nut.” He turned to Sherrilyn. “If it has a war, or a gun, in it, and it came back in time with us, Sir Thomas North has seen it.”

Sherrilyn poked him in the ribs and muttered, “Harry, you want to maybe muzzle yourself on the Ring of Fire references?”

Lefferts smiled. He shrugged off her concern but noticed North look away sharply. “What, you’re worried, too?”

North nodded slowly. “Granted we haven’t heard any English spoken on this boat. But that means very little, and this is a very small boat.”

“God, I’m surrounded by nervous biddies and worriers.” Harry smiled.

North shrugged. “Worrying is the very heart of an intelligence officer’s job, Harry. Although you will remember that I advised against taking me along in this capacity. Several times.”

Harry’s smile widened. “Yeah, well, I ignored you.”

North was looking over the side again. “Then, in my capacity as your intelligence officer, I strongly urge you to be a little more careful with your references. Or at least the volume with which you utter them.”

“Fair enough,” said Lefferts. He looked forward over the straining backs of the rowers-most from Rimini, like the ship-at the hazy outline of their destination. A tower, maybe two, a fair number of medium-sized ships at anchor. A lazy little port, far away from Spanish held Ostia and the Rome-wending Tiber River. Lefferts turned toward the rest of the Crew, who, just behind him, were lounging (and in some cases, napping) amongst their duffles and bags. “Okay, everyone, look lively and have your gear at hand. We’re coming up on Nettuno.”

North found disembarking at Nettuno to be a leisurely affair. The customs inspection was mostly an excuse for an inspector to come aboard with two surprisingly congenial guards and exchange news, gossip, and gripes about The Current State of Affairs. In the time it took for the galliot — the Piccolo Doge — to have its cargo cleared, several small fishing ketches had come and gone. The passengers-the Crew and North-excited a little more interest, but certainly no suspicion. The customs officer was charmed by Juliet’s mastery of both proper Italian and more salty idiom; he didn’t even bother to approach the others in the group after she explained that they were all traveling together.

Nonetheless, North breathed a sigh of relief when the inspection party guided the Doge to her designated mooring and left. Lefferts came over and clapped a hand on the Englishman’s spare shoulder. “What? Nervous again, Limey? I thought you were a steely-eyed commando type.”

“I remain so by remaining alert, Harry.”

“If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll wait to get to Rome before I commence any heavy-duty worrying.”

“You might want to reconsider that decision. Did you notice those two guards?”

“Yeah. What about ’em?”

North lowered his voice. “They were papal troops.” Harry frowned, considered.

Sherrilyn merely shrugged. “Last I checked, that means they’re on our side.”

“Does it?”

“What do you mean?”

North nimbly hopped over the side and came to a sure-footed landing on the modest stone pier. “I mean, what do we really know about the loyalty of papal troops right now?”

“We know it’s to Urban,” replied Sherrilyn as she grabbed her bags and emulated North’s debarkation.

“That’s what we saw in Rimini,” agreed North. “But here, closer to Rome, and with Nettuno pinned between it and Osuna’s Spanish tercios in Naples, I’m not so sure their loyalties will be the same. Or at least, not as fervent.”

“Yeah, but these guys didn’t look or sound too fervent about being friends with the Spanish, either.”

“No, Ms. Maddox, they didn’t. They’re probably getting leaned on by the Spanish.”

“But not constantly. There’s not a Spaniard in sight, here.”

“Which is why we avoided Ostia and the Tiber. Those wharves are going to be swarming with Borja’s forces.”

Sherrilyn shrugged. “Right. That’s where the trouble is, so we came here instead. What’s to worry about?”

“Ms. Maddox, at the best of times, Italy is a hotbed of contending factions. Which in turn spawn a lively network of black marketeers, con artists, turncoats, and informers. They don’t have to like Spain to be trouble for us. They only have to like Spanish reales.”

Harry, who had been watching the exchange like a silent referee, nodded decisively. “Okay, Colonel North, I see your point-and it’s a good one. We’ll assume that we’re under observation at all times. Now, while Juliet finds us a cart and some mounts, why don’t you stay here with the equipm-uh, luggage. Although you seem to speak pretty fair Italian, yourself.”

“Enough to get in trouble, get a drink, or get-” North stopped and shot a quick glance at Sherrilyn, annoyed at the possibility that he might be blushing.

Harry was smiling broadly, now. “I want to hear the end of that list, North!” And with that, he swaggered off into the narrow streets of Nettuno. Young boys stared admiringly after him; it was that effect that had spawned the lefferti trend in the first place. No small number of young women stared after Harry as well, albeit with long, steady gazes that were quite different from the lively displays of boyish emulation.

The strange parade that was the Wrecking Crew disappeared around a corner, Juliet already asking for directions in a shrill Florentine accent.

Three days later, Thomas North found himself in a hazy, oppressive stable. The smell of rotted dung and old hay was so dense and pungent that he imagined he could actually see the stink-a humid miasma of ordure-hanging in the air.

A gust of cool relief washed over him as one of the large doors opened slightly. In slipped Matija and a powerfully built man of medium height, aquiline nose, and lightless black eyes. The man took a second step forward; Matija sealed the door quietly behind them.

Lefferts was already on his feet, hand extended. The smaller man took it slowly, carefully, as if unaccustomed to the greeting. “You’re Romulus?” Harry asked.

“It depends. Who are you?”

“I am Vulcan. Live long and prosper.”

Near the opposite end of the Crew’s rough, sprawling arc, Sherrilyn groaned in what sounded very much like agony.

“What is wrong?” asked Donald Ohde.

“Have you ever seen Star Trek?”

“No. Just war movies. I haven’t seen many of your old television shows.”

“Lucky you.” Sherrilyn turned back to Harry. “Really? Did you have to?”

Lefferts shrugged. “Hey, in this world, everyone would naturally guess that a guy code-named Romulus would meet someone called Remus, right? Except us. So that’s a good code, I figure.”

Thomas, who had occasionally watched the crew of the fictitious Enterprise go boldly where no men had gone before, had to admit that Harry was right: it was a smart code, here.

Romulus had watched the entire exchange with little comprehension and less humor. “You have not been followed here?”

“Not that we can tell.”

“You took precautions?”

“Yeah. A couple of times, we left one person as a lag-behind watcher. And we have binoculars.”

“You have what?”

“Uh…they’re like a really good telescope. We kept watch behind us, usually as far as a couple of miles back. Nothing.”

The man nodded. “Very well. Don Taddeo Barberini sends his personal greeting, and apologizes that he cannot accommodate you in the palazzo itself. It would be-imprudent.”

“For all of us,” Sherrilyn agreed. “We thank the duke for arranging these lodgings.”

“They are humble but will arouse no suspicion, and thus ensure that our rendezvous will remain unseen. Before discussing the situation in Rome, the duke has asked me to confirm that his uncle Maffeo and brother Antonio are still alive.”

Lefferts nodded. “Both the pope and the cardinal are healthy and safe.”

“The message we received from them seemed genuine, couched in phrases and with references that only they would know. But one can never be too careful.” Romulus inclined his head. “The duke also wonders if you would be so kind as to satisfy one other curiosity of his: by what path did you come to Palestrina and what did you see along the way?”

Sherrilyn looked up. “Any particular reason why he wants to know?”

“There is no cause for alarm, signora, but the duke now keeps all his men here in Palestrina. If one ventures out, one might run afoul of a Spanish tithing detachment. Or other potentially dangerous groups.”

“Such as?”

Romulus shrugged. “The liveried men of rival houses. With Barberini’s fortunes at such low ebb, we must be careful. Our neighbors could transform into wolves. Compared to three months ago, we are easy prey. And of course, who can really trust the papal troops? And now-your journey?”

“Yeah, sure. Colonel North is our intelligence officer, and gives great reports. Tom?” Harry’s eyes sparkled mischievously.

North suppressed a sigh. “After making landfall at Nettuno, we traveled by cart and mount to the east, where we picked up the Appian Way at the end of the first day. From there, we followed the Roman Road north until reaching Velletri, where we took the cart path to the northeast. Travel was slow, but that route kept the Alban Hills between ourselves and Rome, which we deemed prudent. That brought us here: three days travel, including this one.”

“Any sign of the Spanish?”

“Happily, no, but one of the villages we passed had been visited by a foraging unit from Rome. No one killed, but a few farmers were roughed up when the Spanish impounded all the grain.”

Romulus nodded. “This is an increasingly common story. Borja is sending foragers throughout the Lazio, rotating their destination to distribute his policy of public rapine with the greatest possible equity.” Although the man did not smile, Thomas was fairly sure he had intended his last comment as a sardonic witticism.

George Sutherland’s question came out more akin to a growl. “Is there any resistance to these thieves?”

Romulus turned to look at the immense Englishman. “Very little. None that is serious. Complaints, rather than conflict.” The man shrugged. “The farmers and mayors of the Lazio just hope Borja will depart. If he does not, they will need to be in his good graces. It is a most unsatisfactory situation.”

“Sounds pretty calm, too.” Lefferts was rubbing his jaw.

“Yes. Too calm, for our tastes.”

“How so?” asked Sherrilyn.

Romulus’s eyes seemed to glint for a moment, despite the dull light of the oil lamps. “Barberini’s other uncle-the late cardinal, Francesco-was followed out into the countryside by Borja’s thugs, taken prisoner, and then cut down when he ‘attempted to escape.’ Many of the duke’s friends from other families were slaughtered in a similar fashion. Rome grumbles. But does nothing.”

Thomas was careful to keep the tone of his inquiry interested, rather than critical. “What would you have Rome do?”

The black eyes flicked over at him. “A good question.”

Harry sat on the edge of the cart they had purchased in Nettuno. “I suggest that we do one job at a time. Once we’re done getting our friends out of Borja’s hands, I’m hoping my boss sends us back to help you with the situation here in Rome. So the faster I get the first job done, the faster I can get to whatever comes next.”

Romulus nodded. “I will tell you all that I may about Rome.”

Harry nodded. “Good. Let’s start with the basics: do you know where Frank Stone and his wife, Giovanna are being held?”

“Yes. They were recently moved to the palace now occupied by the Family Altemps. Not the main Palazzo Altemps, you understand.” Seeing the unanimous confusion on the faces before him, Romulus attempted to help. “This is the palazzo that was originally built by Scipione Borghese.”

That explanation only generated more confusion among the Crew. North sought clarification, “But wouldn’t that make it the Palazzo Borghese?”

“No, no; it’s-”

“It’s what our book calls the Palazzo Rospigliosi,” announced Sherrilyn, holding up a book with a bold-colored cover, titled in large letters: Frommer’s Rome. “Not too far from the actual Palazzo Borghese. Which is Borja’s own lair, if our information is correct.”

Romulus nodded. “Yes, this is all correct. Your friends were moved to what you call the Palazzo Rospigliosi a little more than a week ago.”

“Have any of your people been able to contact them?”

Romulus did not hide his incredulity. “Signor Lefferts-I know your name, since your reputation and style precedes you-we no longer have any informers in such places. Those few that we kept in the staffs of other families, as they certainly kept their own among ours, are no longer safe to contact, even if we could. It is the lefferti who keep us apprised of events in the city.”

“So,” Donald Ohde sounded amused, “Harry’s fan club of Lefferts-wanna-bes still exists.”

“Yes, but in drastically reduced numbers.” Romulus hesitated. “Many were killed in the initial attack. Many more were hunted down.”

“Why?”

“They were known to be helping your embassy, at least indirectly.”

Harry took the news with, for him, a notable lack of reaction: he seemed oddly still. “I see. And what have they reported about the conditions under which Frank and Giovanna are being held?”

“Not much. Frank was evidently wounded; some injury to one hand is speculated, and he has either lost a leg, or at least temporarily lost the use of it.”

“Damn.” Lefferts kicked at a tuft of hay. “That complicates things. What about Giovanna?”

“She was not injured, but of course is carrying a child. She is now four to five months pregnant.”

“Gotta move fast,” Harry muttered to no one.

Romulus stared at him. “‘Move fast?’ Signor Lefferts, do you have any idea how formidable a structure the Palazzo Rospigliosi is?”

“No.”

“It is very formidable. Very large. Many, many halls, rooms, salons.” He looked around the stable. “I mean no disrespect, but your group seems very small for the task.”

“Maybe. But there are a lot of ways to stage a prison break. And not all of them require a frontal attack with superior numbers. As a matter of fact, that’s the kind of strategy we always try to avoid.”

“Well, your methods are none of my business, but I must point out: we do not know where in the complex your friends are being held.”

“Do you have a map, a floor plan?”

“Not such as you mean. We have only a few crudely mapped sections that former servants have been able to describe from memory. And I would not approach the present servants for additional information, if I were you.”

“Why?”

“They might be cat’s-paws, bait. Most of the servants live on the premises. This is not uncommon; it aids in the security of any palazzo to minimize traffic from the world beyond its walls. However, if they suspect that any group-rescuers such as yourselves, for instance-is trying to gather current intelligence about its interior-”

“Then they might put a tail on any servants leaving the premises, track them to a meeting with my people, and preemptively hit us before we can hit them.”

“Precisely.”

“Well,” mused Harry, rubbing his chin, “looks like this might be a worthy challenge for the Wrecking Crew, after all.”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Ferrigno sidled carefully into Cardinal Gaspar de Borja y Velasco’s immense office and cleared his throat. “Senor Dolor has arrived. Most punctually. He has brought an associate. Should I have the second man wait outside?”

Borja nodded, and experienced a sensation that he did not recognize for a long moment: a brief pang of fear. Fear? Fear of a subordinate?

But, Borja admitted, Dolor was not the average subordinate. He was not merely unusually efficient and egoless; he was-well, unusual. And the first inquiries Borja had made about him among his senior officers, and those Spanish cardinals who kept close tabs on the coming and goings and changes in Philip’s Court, had provided no useful information: a few had heard his name. None knew anything about him.

Dolor was the very antithesis of Quevedo, who had been happiest when everyone knew his name, his deeds, his fame. Francisco de Quevedo y Villega had been an insufferable braggart, relying upon-and endlessly crowing about-his twinned gifts of inspiration and improvisation. Alas, he had had a reasonable foundation upon which to build his flights of self-congratulatory fancy: his 1631 comedy (he usually neglected to mention his co-author Mendoza) Who Lies Most Thrives Most, had been concocted in a scant twenty-four hours for Philip IV’s Saint John’s Day fete, and debuted in the shadow of the Prado. However, Quevedo afterward demonstrated even greater inventiveness in finding opportunities for bringing mention of this triumph into almost every conversation.

Dolor was, in contrast, a nonentity, a shadow-and twice as disconcerting because he was. Borja turned to face the door as the man in question entered. His bow was deep enough to be adequate, but not an iota more. “Your Eminence,” he said quietly.

Borja remained seated. “Senor Dolor. You have new information?”

“And activity reports.”

“Such as?”

“The doctor assigned to the prisoners indicates that he believes Frank Stone is now well enough to be moved about freely without danger to his leg. We are preparing their next and final point of incarceration now, as well as the special move whereby we will transfer them to that place.”

Borja tidied several papers peevishly. “I indulge you in this, Dolor, because of your proven competencies in other regards. I do not see the purpose of all this moving about. We could have left them in their first prison safely enough. It is, after all, the kind of dank hole they deserve, and escape was impossible.”

“Escape will be impossible only if we take strong steps to make it so.”

“So you tell me. Could we not make this simpler? You may have more men, if you need them. Many more.”

“What I need, Your Eminence, is your patience and your continued trust. Stearns will make an attempt to free Stone and his wife. Indeed, I believe some of my new reports tentatively confirm that such plans are afoot.”

Borja sat up straighter. “Explain.”

“It seems that most of the USE force that aided Simpson’s group outside Chiavenna did not withdraw at all, but came south, and entered Venetian territory. We found evidence they used a trail to skirt south around Chiavenna itself and then followed the lakes down in the direction of Bergamo.”

“And so you conjecture-?”

“That at least some of those troops intend to come here, Your Eminence.”

“Even if that were true, what could such a small group hope to accomplish against a strongly held palace?”

Dolor shrugged. “You heard what happened at the Tower of London?”

Borja frowned. “So you believe that the USE, that Stearns, is foolish enough to send this, this-Harry Lefferts-here? To free Stone’s son? That would be madness.”

Dolor nodded, but his comment did not gush with ready agreement: “I’m sure the English thought the same thing. But rest assured, Your Eminence, the steps I am taking currently will prevent a repeat of the Tower of London debacle. I am more concerned about the possibility that some of these troops have been sent to the Venetian Republic for purposes of protection, not assault.”

“So you still do not believe that Ambassador Nichols and the remainder of her staff will fall back upon their larger embassy in Venice. Why?”

“Because they have not done so yet.”

“What? You have confirmed this?”

“I have.”

Borja waited for the explanation, then realized Dolor’s laconic tendencies would require prompting by a direct request: “How do you know?”

“I have agents in place there. And as of two days ago, there was still no sign of the ambassador or any of her known associates at the Venetian embassy.”

“As of two days ago? How did you get this report so quickly? Have you procured radios of your own?”

“No. My Venetian agents located and secured the confidential services of the owners of two dovecotes, one in Venetian territory, one in Bologna. The terminus on the Roman end is a day’s ride into the Lazio, but between the two, the birds provide us with coded intelligence that is only two days old.”

“Impressive,” admitted Borja, who also found Dolor’s almost mechanically perfect foresight more than slightly disconcerting. A man like this could become dangerous to whomsoever he chose. The cardinal smoothed his robes and reflected: he would have to be very careful about what he chose to discuss with Pedro Dolor in order to minimize his own future vulnerability. “And so if the remnants of the USE’s Rome embassy are not going to Venice, what do you suspect they are doing?”

“I suspect that they are establishing a new secure site. Which is why I suspect many of the USE troops who rescued Simpson are now in Italy: to become the defensive force for Ambassador Nichols and whoever is with her.”

Borja did not like the sound of that last clause. “And who do you think might be with her? Urban?”

“It is possible.”

“Why? Do you suspect that Urban had a secret arrangement with these Satan-spawned up-timers, that there was prior coordination between them?”

Dolor frowned. “Coordination? No, nothing formally prearranged. Had that been the case, Urban would have been evacuated earlier, probably in conjunction with the embassy’s own personnel.”

“So why and how would Urban have gone over the border into Venetian territory and joined the ambassador?”

“There are many possible reasons, but this much is clear: if Urban has indeed escaped, where would he go besides Venice? Spain has dominion in Naples and Milan. The Lazio is subject to our searches and patrols, and he would be a fool to stay so close to Rome. Tuscany would be the sheerest stupidity; Maffeo Barberini made enemies of the Medicis early in his papacy. Bologna is too diffident and splintered for him to be sure that he will not be betrayed to you. And the Papal States are weak, and the papal troops will not eagerly support a pontiff who cannot pay them and whose status as pope grows ever more questionable.”

Borja frowned. “Which leaves us with Venice.”

Dolor nodded. “Yes, Venice. Where the USE already has an embassy. Where Frank Stone’s father has growing business relationships and influence. Where they would find it particularly easy to land their largest plane-the one that sets down on a cushion of air-directly on the lagoon.”

“And so you believe Urban hopes to escape that way?”

“It is the only way out of Italy that Spain’s forces cannot block. And the up-timers would be most eager have Urban VIII further indebted to them.”

Borja’s affirmation was guttural. “And it would give Urban the excuse he has always wanted to consort freely with them and their heretical Swedish overlord. Urban may have been sitting upon the cathedra, but he was always ready to get down on his knees whenever the Swede deigned to dictate policy to Mother Church. But no longer.”

If Dolor was moved by the stirring rhetoric, he gave no sign of it. “In short, Your Eminence, we will need to remain watchful in all places, but particularly Venice, while your men continue to dig through the rubble of the Hadrian’s Tomb. If, upon turning the last stone, they still find nothing, and my confidential agents have also found nothing, we will need to revisit our course of action in this matter.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that if Urban was blown into small pieces, how will we ever know that was his fate, rather than an escape? We may have to accept that God has decided to deny us certainty.”

“Your point is well-taken, Senor Dolor. But this is my decision: we will search for Urban VIII until his body is found. Or our savior comes again.”

“Your Eminence, that could be an expensive proposition. Very expensive.”

“I need no schooling in the expense of such operations. But more to the point, I am quite expert in appreciating the methods required to pursue the enemies of Mother Church. And of all possible enemies, the most dangerous are traitors. So if we must keep a day and night watch upon the USE’s Venetian embassy, then we must. No matter the cost.”

“Constant, close surveillance would probably be detected, and thereby, defeat its own purpose. Happily, I also very much doubt it is required, Your Eminence. Has there ever been an embassy in which there is not at least one individual willing to sell important information for the right price?”

Borja smiled tightly. “Foreign offices are rarely schools of virtue. So, let us presume you are right: that the ambassadora Nichols is sheltering Urban and others of his retinue. Then why have the Americans not already flown down in one of their massive, heretically named Jupiter airplanes?”

Dolor frowned, nodded. “I have wondered the same thing.”

“And your conclusions?”

“Let us call them my conjectures. It could be that the Americans intend on doing just that, but either do not have all the desired passengers in hand yet, or are simply keeping them in an undisclosed location until the plane arrives. At which point they see to it that the passengers will arrive in Venice just before the plane departs, in order to make a quick escape.”

“You must take preventative steps against such an eventuality.”

For the first time, the faintest hint of a smile rippled at the corner of Dolor’s mouth.

“Ah. So this is already in hand.” Borja smoothed his cassock again. “Do you have other conjectures?”

Dolor pursed his lips for a moment, then said, “Not exactly, but I am troubled by the number of USE troops that apparently headed into Italy after the action outside Chiavenna. Why bring in so many security personnel if Ambassadora Nichols’ important guests are soon to fly away in an airplane? And why send Simpson and his rather important companions home though a risky transalpine route first, rather than waiting for the plane? And why not escort Ginetti down here separately for the same aerial extraction?”

“Perhaps the USE’s large aircraft cannot be spared for a trip to Venice.”

“I think not, Your Eminence. Even though the largest aircraft are in constant demand throughout the USE, the events here must certainly warrant the speedy redeployment of at least one of their Jupiters.”

Borja frowned. “Yes. It is strange, all this running about when they have these wondrous aircraft. There is something missing here. What do you think it is?”

“I do not know, Your Eminence. But I begin to wonder if one of our central assumptions might be flawed.”

“What do you mean?”

“Can we be sure that Urban does indeed, wish to depart Italy at this time? Even if he means to leave eventually, is there anything he might achieve by delaying that departure?”

Borja scoffed. “You need not trouble yourself with that baseless speculation, Senor Dolor. The man who has forever soiled the papal title ‘Urban VIII’ remains the back-stabbing, nepotistic, heretic-lover who was born under the name Maffeo Barberini. And you may be sure that his nature will not change: he will forever love his pretty furnishings and his Church-wrecking cronies almost as much as he loves spending money like a drunken sailor. But he loves one thing more-far more-than any of these.”

“And what is that, Your Eminence?”

“His contemptible hide. The man is a coward, has always wrung his hands looking for peace and accommodations when it was clearly Mother Church’s duty to wage war to protect her interests and her flock. He is a coward and a turncoat and will flee behind his Swedish pimp’s skirts at the very first opportunity.”

Dolor had raised one eyebrow but said nothing.

Still caught up in his ire, Borja snapped, “It that all?”

Dolor nodded. “Yes, Your Eminence.”

“Very well. Keep me apprised of any new developments. You may go.”

As Pedro Dolor emerged from behind the absurdly tall doors of Borja’s office, the short man who had accompanied him on his first visit to the Villa Borghese rose from an upholstered chair farther down the hall. When Dolor reached him, the fellow fell in beside his captain, observing, “If Borja is going to converse with everyone as though he is issuing a public declaration, he needs to get thicker doors.” Dolor did not answer; they walked on together for a few more steps. “Does he really intend to kill Urban?”

“Borja has reportedly killed sixteen cardinals, although some may only be languishing in hidden dungeons. Either way, he does not seem like a man who stops at half measures.”

“Maybe not, but he does seem fond of putting a legal gloss on his atrocities. As I hear it, all those dead red hats were killed resisting arrest. Funny: I didn’t think there were that many brave cardinals in the whole Church.”

“There never have been and everyone knows it. And of course Borja would prefer Urban VIII dead rather than alive. As you probably heard, he wants to keep searching for him until we find the living man, the dead body, or the returned Christ sitting on top of the Sistine Chapel.”

“So do we recruit for a full search of Venetian territory now, and-?”

“No. We don’t have any intelligence to act upon yet. We don’t even know where to look.”

“But you just said that Borja ordered you to-”

“Dakis, when your lord tells you to kill a pig that’s ruining his vines, you do his bidding, but you don’t consult him about how to do it. Like as not he’d steer you wrong or get you killed. That’s why the best lord just gives you the order and leaves you to your business.”

“And is Borja such a lord?”

“No, but we’ll make sure he behaves like one.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

“There’s the Laguna Veneta.”

Klaus nodded at his copilot’s announcement. He measured the Jupiter Two’s sideways drift again, then began the long, lazy bank that would bring the four-engined aircraft 180 degrees about. When the turn was completed, they would be set up at the head of a landing run that would end near the litter of small islands that sheltered Mestre’s far western warren of docks and warehouses.

As they started over the lagoon, well to east of Venice itself, Klaus called for a wind check. Arne was a little slower in making his reports than most junior copilots, but he was never wrong; he would have been typecast as the tortoise in any staged rendition of Aesop’s fable of that creature’s race with the rabbit. “Two knots from the southeast. Very steady.”

“Good.” And it was. Landing the Jupiter in Venice was, in some ways, very easy: the lagoon was a large, calm body of water which made it particularly friendly to the immense plane’s unusual air-cushion landing gear. But if the winds were running in off the Adriatic as they often did, and were strong, then it was safer touching down from the north approach; a nose wind increased lift and was a little more forgiving with the air-cushion landing gear.

And Klaus Kohlbacher was happy for any little advantage. Having started his aviation career flying on smaller craft with conventional, wheeled landing gear, he had never taken to the ACLG. Of course, he had always kept his misgivings to himself; there weren’t a lot of jobs for pilots, to put it lightly. And being a pilot had become his dream the first time he saw one of the up-timers’ wondrous aircraft: to make his living among the clouds as a “knight of the air,” as his enthusiastic young nephew put it. So Klaus had resolved never to voice any reservations that might reduce the confidence his employers placed in his abilities.

But sometimes, it had been hard to contain his misgivings about the Jupiter-or more particularly, its landing gear. Flying the aircraft was, admittedly, the aerial equivalent of piloting a river barge; it was ponderous and did not respond well to frequent or abrupt course changes. But the Jupiter was strong and steady and surprisingly reliable for such an ambitious multiengine design. So what if she wasn’t a high-spirited and agile Arabian mare? She was a sturdy and strong Percheron.

“Surface conditions?” Klaus asked as their turn brought them around to the south of the island of Venice itself, where galleys and noas and carracks and billow-sailed sloops jockeyed for berthing positions in what, at this altitude, appeared to be a graceful but very slow dance.

“Water surface is smooth,” answered Arne. “Nothing more than wind ripples.”

Which meant all signs were good for the southern landing approach, which would put them just a few hundred yards away from the shallow ramp leading up to the new hangar and shop facilities. “Excellent. We will be landing from the south. Test the blower motor.”

Arne nodded. “Testing blower motor.” He checked that subsystem’s dials, and threw the starter switch with the choke set wide open.

A faint, thin vibration added itself to the customary thrums, growls, and jiggles of the immense aircraft.

“Blower motor tests as ready; shutting off.”

The blower motor, which had started its up-time existence spinning the blades of a lawn mower, slept again; the faint vibration disappeared.

“Confirm bearing for final approach.”

“Confirmed.”

Klaus nodded and brought the plane out of its long banking turn, nose pointed north toward the low, rambling wharves of Mestre. As soon as the level indicators settled, he checked the slight leftward drift and started easing the four-engined biplane down toward the blue-green water scudding past below.

Although Tom was the one who had asked for the meeting, he arrived twenty minutes late. Miro rose to greet him.

“Hey, Estuban; you’re here early. Or am I late?”

“I don’t really know,” Miro lied.

“Oh, damn. So I am late. Sorry. Seems I’m always running behind now.” Tom looked out over the Laguna Veneta, which seemed to gather itself to the foot of the belvedere-crested villa upon which they stood. His eyes got dreamy, the way Miro noticed they did when he hovered on the edge of an up-time reminiscence.

“Y’know,” Stone drawled, turning his whole body toward the water, almost as if he were addressing it, “I used to hate wearing watches. Seemed that everywhere you looked, up-time, there was a clock. Telling you how many minutes you have left before you have to do this, or do that, or wake up, or go to sleep. No freedom, man; slaves to the clock. But when we got here-”

He raised his wrist; the up-time watch upon it looked like a strange bracelet with a cheap inset stone of grayed onyx. “This thing used to tell the time, do simple math like a computer, record notes: everything. Funny. I hated it, only wore it occasionally. Mostly to please my boys, since they were the ones who gave it to me. But when I got here-it was like a treasure.” He looked at the face of the watch, which Miro knew was made of the unusual up-timer material known as plastic. “But now it’s dead. No batteries for it. Never will be, either. And still I wear it. Like a gift from the ancient astronauts; like I’m a cargo-cultist of my own making.” He realized even before seeing the carefully blank and patient expression on Miro’s face, that he had lost the down-timer in the dense verbal thicket of his own esoteric references. “Sorry. But look, here’s lunch”-cheese, loaves, and sausages were arrayed on the table-“and we’ve got the best seat in the house.” He pointed out over the lagoon. “Have you ever seen one of these Monsters land?”

“No.”

“Quite a sight, even from this distance. There it is now.” Tom pointed to the south, where a cruciform speck was easing from a long sweeping turn into level flight.

They were both silent for a time. Tom looked at his shorter companion and smiled, a bit crookedly. “Aren’t you going to ask me?”

“About what?”

“About the balloon project we were talking about.”

Miro shrugged. “I presumed that if you wished to discuss the matter, you would bring it up. There is no reason to rush.”

“See, Estuban, that’s what I like about you. One of the things I like, anyway. You’re not like other businessmen. Here in Venice business is all very cordial, all very careful, and always in play. You never talk about anything without talking about business, too. ‘And your family, are they well?’ sounds like someone just being friendly and concerned, but it’s also a way of finding out if you’re distracted, if your focus on some upcoming deals is wavering, if you’re contemplating pulling back from commerce for a while. But with you, it’s different.”

Miro shrugged. “I am not Venetian. And I am not here as a businessman. Except opportunistically, peripherally.”

“See, they don’t have any ‘peripheral’ business, here. In Venice, you may not even be in business-but you still are. You’re a soldier, a judge, a scribe, a navigator? Fine, but that’s not just your profession; that’s also your basis of barter. Everybody is looking for a little fee if you want access to what or who they know. Seems to be the Venetian way.”

Miro smiled. “It does indeed.”

“Guess you’ve dealt with it a lot over the years, huh?”

“Some,” Miro understated mightily.

“So about the balloons…”

Klaus watched the airspeed indicator fall slowly, felt the slight increase in leftward drift even before Arne reported: “Wind rising a little; now at three knots. And coming about. More from due south.”

Of course. Intermittent sciroccos and the Adriatic’s own peculiar weather and currents were adding to the fun. Nothing stayed very steady very long over the springtime waters of Venice.

The drift diminished, but the right-rear tailwind was now starting to boost the Monster’s airspeed, even as her leftward drift decreased. Just what you want during a landing: shifting winds.

He throttled back the engines a tiny bit, brought the nose up a degree-a little earlier than he’d intended, but he had to counteract the accelerating effects of the tailwind…

Miro watched the speck wobble a little as it seemed to settle itself into a straight run, growing slowly larger as it drew closer to the surface of the water.

“First I had to find out which people might be interested in balloons here in Venice. Turns out there are a lot of them, and all with different reasons for wanting to get involved. It also seems there have been foreign agents here, nosing around.”

Miro nodded. “There’s a great deal of foreign interest in balloons. Hardly surprising since nations without up-time engines can start a blimp-building program and still hope for a reasonable chance of success.”

Tom nodded. “From what I hear, you even helped the authorities in Grantville nab an informant. An industrial spy, as we used to call them.”

Miro raised an eyebrow. “And where did you hear that?”

“Oh, the Venetians are pretty well informed. And there were some follow-up inquiries made down here. The authorities thought it was pretty strange that although the spy you found in Grantville was Venetian, and was returning here, he was not working for any local factors. That worries them.”

“As it should. If either the Mughals or Ottomans were seeking access to balloon technology, they would move it through the Mediterranean. Given the disruption in the rest of Italy, Venice is the most likely conduit. Particularly given its unofficial, arm’s-length trade relations with Istanbul.”

“Yeah, I think that’s what they were fretting over. That, and having too much competition in building the balloons. Although a lot of the locals aren’t envisioning airships for transportation, but for coast-watching and mapping.”

Miro nodded. “Logical.”

“So you saw this coming?”

“It was a distinct possibility. And those activities don’t require large, or even powered, dirigibles. Just a stationary one-man rig, tethered to the ground.”

“Yeah, that’s what they were saying. Given the piracy problems all along the Adriatic, they’ve already got potential interest and permissions from Ravenna, Rimini, and Ancona and are talking with communities on the Dalmatian coast. I suspect they’d send some out to their island possessions in the Aegean, as well.”

Miro nodded. “And I’m glad to see that someone obviously read the letter I wrote them about mapping.”

“ You wrote?”

Miro smiled. “I just sent along some observations. Specifically, that given the low cost of its operation, and its stationary position, a balloon is vastly superior to a plane when serving as a cartographic platform. This is not the case when one has much ground to cover, of course. And given your photography, perhaps this was not so true in your up-time world. However, here, and in terms of constructing a detailed map of a limited region, a man in a balloon will be far more accurate and can easily recheck his measurements.”

Tom rubbed his chin. “You know, I was talking to some of my advisers-”

— Which, Miro knew, probably meant his very business-savvy down-time wife, Magda “-and they say there could be a lot of money in this cartography business. A very lot of money.”

Miro nodded. “Naturally. The Venetians I corresponded with already understood the military advantages of having precise maps with topographic renderings. And it only took a little extrapolation for them to foresee the balloon’s wider benefits in regard to surveying, prospecting, land and water management, road development, and engineering. And the uses to which they put the balloons will not only prove their utility, but whet the similar appetites of other nations.”

Stone watched the Monster growing larger. “Yeah, before long, everyone is going to want high-quality maps. Of course, the big countries will only buy a few balloons each, with one held back as a prototype for copying. But by then, we’ll have sold dozens.”

“We?”

“Sure, ‘we.’ You don’t think I’m going to sit on the sidelines, do you? My wife-er, advisor-speculates that we might make even more money by offering tutoring on aerial mapping methods.”

“Strange.” Miro rubbed his chin. “I was under the impression that you were not overly concerned with making money, Tom.”

“I’m not, but how else are we going to fund the first airborne ambulances and antiepidemic airships?” He smiled. “The Venetians like that idea, too.”

“I was not aware the Council of Ten had adopted such humanitarian attitudes.”

“Oh, they haven’t. But they realize that after the first few models are flying, almost every country is going to want at least one of their own. Probably a lot more, over time. And then I showed them your map of how to link the major cities of Europe together with flight legs of less than one hundred miles. Man, their greedy little eyes lit up like sparklers on the Fourth of July. They’re pretty eager to have a business meeting. But I put that off. I hope you don’t mind.”

Miro nodded, understanding. “Of course. First things first. And getting your son and daughter-in-law back is the first thing.”

Tom nodded and looked out over the water, clearly working at keeping the worry out of his voice and his eyes. “Yeah. And now that the Monster is here, we should be one giant step closer to achieving that.”

The tailwind was holding steady, at least: no significant changes in speed or direction. Klaus made a last inspection of the stretch of water leading to Mestre: cleared of traffic, as arranged earlier, and no sign of large debris, new obstructions, or choppy cross-currents. Perfect.

“Arne,” he said, watching the rpms of the four tachometers, “inflate the bag.”

Arne flipped the switch to the blower motor.

In the belly of the Monster, the blower’s old lawnmower engine growled into life. But the blades it spun now were those of a big attic fan, designed to move air, not cut grass.

The sudden rush of air pushed the leather “bag” out from the small, front-lipped recess in the Monster’s fuselage. Spared the constant wear of flapping in the air-stream by this small windbreak, the tough, heavily-stitched and reinforced leather now extruded from the Monster’s belly, and in doing so, revealed that it was not so much a bag as it was a skirt. But, rather than rustling like the fabric of a skirt, it creaked and clunked: the typical sounds of its deployment, heard only faintly in the cockpit.

So neither Klaus nor Arne had any way of discerning the slight change in the skirt’s behavior as it entered the air stream. Although frequently restitched and painstakingly watched for wear, the repeated soakings and dryings of constant salt-water landings had cost some of the pleats most of their flexibility. Like the spines of old men forced to jump up to attention, several of the most desiccated pieces of leather resisted. The sustained pressure on the stitchings, which struggled to keep the stiff pleats in trim with the flexible ones, lasted a moment too long: two of the desiccated lacings snapped. That gave the rushing wind a gap, which it exploited ruthlessly; a few more lacings weakened, and a bronze restraining rivet popped free, allowing the tearing to continue, almost up to where the skirt attached to the belly of the Monster.

With no further resistance to the varied buffetings of the air stream, the leather plenum bag, which resembled a half-donut when inflated, now moved freely, flexibly, in the wind. But it was no longer the prim, conventional skirt it was supposed to be; a provocative slit now went from bottom to top at its back…

Arne looked up. “What was that?”

“You mean that little tug?”

“Yes.”

Klaus shrugged. “Once a bag has been in use for a few months, they start doing that when you push them out into the air stream.”

Arne nodded. “Yes. Okay. This is the leather-wear the instructors talk about?”

Klaus nodded. “It’s been taking more and more maintenance hours to keep the bags within safety limits.” He didn’t add that he had now heard three different ground crews muttering about those limits, wondering if they were really cautious enough.

Arne looked at the airspeed indicators again. “That bump seemed a little longer, though.”

Klaus thought so too. “Probably nothing,” he said, reassuring himself as much as Arne. “Probably the bag was just a little stiff coming out. That cold alpine headwind on take-off could have made everything a little less flexible.”

Arne nodded. Klaus couldn’t tell if the young junior copilot was genuinely convinced by this explanation, or was just being polite and agreeable. Like everything engineered at-or beyond-the limits of the currently available materials, the air cushion gear was quirky, finicky. Sometimes it made odd sounds; sometimes it got a little temperamental. But so what? It worked, didn’t it?

Klaus cut the airspeed a little more, brought the nose up, watched the water come closer…

Just as the wind indicator dropped to zero.

Suddenly. Just like that. A calm cell, courtesy of the unpredictable marriage of the sirocco and the Adriatic.

Without the tail wind, the airspeed dropped: not much, but quickly, and at the penultimate pre-landing moment. To compensate, Klaus juiced the engines, brought the nose up a little more. But he couldn’t hold that attitude for long, not with the Monster’s long tail stretching so far aft of the air cushion skirt and center of gravity.

“There will be a real bump now,” he commented with a thin smile.

“Yes,” agreed Arne, just before they made contact.

Or should have. Instead of the breathy flounce of coming down on a fully inflated bag, there was a hiss, a burbling, and a lurch to the left rear. The Monster’s tail section veered closer to the water, the left horizontal stabilizer almost grazing the surface.

“Bag failure!” snapped Klaus.

To his credit, Arne reacted without delay, helping maintain trim as Klaus re-gunned the engines, not quite rising off the surface of the water, but not coming to rest on it, either.

“Still dropping on the left,” observed Arne.

“Give me a little more thrust from the outer portside engine.” Klaus cheated the stick and pedals, giving a little more lift to that side.

Meanwhile, the burbling and complaining beneath them increased.

“Klaus…” began Arne.

“Oh, hell,” breathed Tom as the Monster landed, shuddered, pulled up, seemed like its nose was no longer in precise alignment with its direction of travel.

“What has gone wrong?” Miro managed to swallow after he asked the question, realizing how terrible it was to watch a flying machine in such obvious peril. Particularly one as large and powerful as the Monster, which, if it truly crashed “Don’t know. Wind maybe. But no, it seems calm. Probably that damned air cushion gear.”

Miro was surprised at the vehemence with which his normally calm companion invoked the name of the landing gear. “I was not aware you had such misgivings about…”

But Tom wasn’t listening; he was watching what might well be a disaster approaching. And if it didn’t slow down soon, the disaster might well land straight in their laps.

“Distance to the land ramp?” Klaus did not dare take his eyes off the instruments or his senses away from the delicate balancing act he was maintaining between the pitch and yaw improvisations that kept the Monster moving forward.

“Five hundred yards. Maybe six hundred.” Arne’s voice was taut.

Klaus knew they weren’t going to make it; every time he backed off the engines, let the Monster settle a little more, he could feel more of the skirt shredding, felt the lift diminish from the already crippled leather-bound plenum chamber that was his landing gear. Besides, the underside of the Monster would bottom out on the ramp even if he could get that far, possibly ruining the airframe. But if he cut the speed down far enough for a stop, he’d bite the water, possibly digging in the nose-and again, ruin the aircraft.

He glanced up to take his own bearings, saw the villa that the USE had purchased for the support of its Venetian air operations dead ahead, the smooth water that surrounded it on three points obscured on the left by the weed-choked shallows.

The weed-choked shallows…

“Arne, I want three, short, evenly pulsed revs from the starboard engines.”

“But Klaus-”

“Just do it.”

The roar to the right increased and died as quickly as it had risen. The plane tilted to the left again, but Klaus cheated the controls, kept both the tail and left wingtip from digging in-and the craft had altered its course by five degrees or so to the left, pushed in that direction by the lopsided engine thrust that also helped them maintain altitude and extend the time they were airborne.

Another momentary roar of the engines on the right. Then a third and longer pulse “Arne, bring it back!” Klaus shouted, as he struggled to keep the Monster’s nose up, its tail out of the water, and its wings level-more or less.

“Klaus, we’re almost into the weeds!”

Klaus nodded tightly. “Because that’s where we’re going. Depth here is about-what?”

“Less than three feet.”

Klaus started easing off the engines, started to let the nose down ever so slightly.

“Airspeed looks good,” Arne gulped out.

— Just as the remains of the skirt made contact with the water. A high-pitched burbling rose beneath them. Klaus gauged what resistance was left in the compromised plenum chamber, let the Monster travel forward another few seconds, and peripherally watched the passing weeds begin to slow in their rearward rush, enough so that he could start to make out individual fronds and stems.

“Two feet of water, no more,” Arne rasped.

Klaus sighed and let the Monster settle down on what was left of her air cushion landing gear, cutting the engines.

For a moment, the leather held-a last moment of increased pressure in the bag as the fuselage came closer to the water’s surface-and then it let go with a blast. A wash of sharp slaps and bumps announced its tattered chunks flying up against the fuselage.

Without power, the nose came down more quickly-but at just the same moment, the tail’s horizontal stabilizers slid slowly into the water, and the lower wing kissed down as well. Arne killed the blower motor a moment before its spinning blades snarled into contact with the weed-choked swells of their landing zone.

Klaus watched the weeds and rushes collect before his slowing craft like an impenetrable wall And then realized that the Monster had come to a stop. And was sinking.

Before stopping at a depth of fifteen inches.

Tom’s mouth was still open. “Did you see that?” he murmured at last.

As if I could have missed it? “Er…yes. This catastrophe makes our plans quite-”

“No, no-did you see that piloting? Man, whoever that guy is deserves a medal. Hell, if Mike or Ed or someone doesn’t give him a medal, I’ll make one especially for him. That was incredible. That plane should have crashed at least three times. Maybe four.”

Miro was perplexed. “But it did. Crash, that is.”

Tom turned. “That was not a crash. I mean, yeah, technically, I guess it was. But it was a crash landing, and a damned good one. A real crash is-well, you’d know it if you saw it. The pilot loses control, and the plane goes in. There’s a big blast from the impact alone, even if there’s no explosion. Pieces everywhere. Usually not many survivors. If any.”

Miro looked at the plane, sitting in the shallows, half-hidden by the weeds, which were already still again. “Very well. But unless I am much mistaken, that plane is not going to be useable any time soon.”

Tom nodded, then looked sideways at Miro. “Eh, Estuban, about that balloon of yours-”

Miro smiled. “I learned, while masquerading as a Christian plying the trade routes of the Mediterranean, that one should always have multiple contingency plans. I have now learned that the same is true when one is an intelligence officer overseeing a field operation.”

Tom smiled back, relieved. “So your balloon is already back in Jena?”

“Actually, I had it return to Grantville, where it is now being refitted and loaded. There were personnel there I thought we might have need of. As well as equipment. And now, I suspect, repair parts for the Jupiter.”

“How soon can it be back here?”

“That is always weather dependent, but on the average, not more than two weeks’ travel time.”

Tom nodded. “Now let’s hope something doesn’t break on your balloon.”

“Yes, indeed. Although, it must be said: there is far less to break on a dirigible than an airplane.”

“No lie,” breathed Tom with a nod, and another glance at the Monster’s vertical stabilizer, sticking up from the weeds like a large, dull-colored shark’s fin. “I also hear you can burn just about any fuel in your balloons. Including fish oil.”

“Yes, although I will not vouch for the downwind appeal of such a ride.”

Tom’s grin was very wide. “Might as well tell you, I’m pretty much sold on the whole balloon thing. Even given the fact that someone-well, everyone, probably-is going to use it to drop bombs. I thought about that a lot, but I still think airships are going to do more good than harm.”

“Often, that is all we can ask for in life.”

“Oh, we can ask for more; we just don’t get it, usually. So what do these balloons cost to build? About a hundred thousand USE dollars?”

“Yes, but if you’re proposing a partnership-”

“I am.”

“-then I would rather we do not use your money to build more of the hot-airships.”

“No?”

“No. In the next few years, I will make enough of those to meet the first wave of demand. Which will be brisk, but moderate; it takes people time to get used to new ideas.”

“And then what?”

“And then we will unveil the next generation of airship, the one which we will finance with your investment.” Miro smiled, looked into the sky, and imagined it filling with traffic and commerce in the decades to come. “Because that model will get its lift from hydrogen, not hot air. And that, Tom, that will truly change the world.”

“This changes everything.” Rombaldo de Gonzaga tapped his spotless fingernail upon the worn wooden tabletop like a slow, soft metronome.

Giulio, who was still out of breath from running to their rented house with the news, expelled words between his gasps: “How…so…Rombaldo?”

Rombaldo de Gonzaga suppressed a sigh. It was trying, working with amateurs, but the job in Venice was a large one, needing many hands and feet and eyes. Fortunately, his master back in Rome-a displaced Cypriot named Dakis-had no shortage of scudare and reales to pass around. “With the USE’s plane damaged, they cannot remove Urban anytime soon. Nor will the aircraft be a part of any plans to rescue Stone’s son in Rome. That gives us more time. That, in turn, makes our job easier. And Cesare, be sure this news is passed along to the dovecote for immediate relay. They will want this report in Rome as soon as possible.”

Cesare Linguanti, a small man who rarely spoke, rose and left, making the smallest of nods toward the largest man at the table.

That man, Valentino-who denied having any other name than that-took a small sip of his wine. Valentino always had a glass of wine in hand: the one glass that he nursed all day long. “The Americans, they will repair the flying machine, if they can. And if Giulio is right, it does not sound as though the failure was catastrophic.”

“Yes,” nodded Rombaldo. “We will need to mount a watch on the plane, as well as the embassy and the USE’s known agents. Indeed, we will need to hire many more men to watch and search. And others to wield weapons, when the target is located and the time comes.”

“They will need to be special men,” commented Valentino. “Not many Italians are ready to kill a pope.”

“There may not be many,” answered Rombaldo, “but when the pay is high enough, you’ll find men enough.” He leaned back with a satisfied smile. “More than enough.”

Sharon found Mazzare sitting quietly with Urban. They did that a lot, these days. They didn’t seem to say a lot. It was like watching dogs or cats who are new to the same house; as if they know their lives are now entwined, they start spending time together. It was both acclimation and the growth of a new camaraderie, all rolled into one.

They looked up as Sharon entered the trellised shade of the courtyard’s arbor. She set her shoulders squarely. “It seems like we’re going to be staying a little bit longer, after all. The Monster has crashed.”

Mazzare looked up, startled. “Was anyone-?”

“No. They brought it down safely. But they’re going to have to replace the landing gear.”

“And that will take how long?” asked Urban.

“I’m not exactly sure, Your Holiness. I know a lot more about fixing people than I do about fixing machines. But given the parts and getting the plane out of the water and all the rest-well, I’d be surprised if we were ready any sooner than six or eight weeks.”

Urban leaned back and placed his palms firmly on his knees. “Well, that settles the matter.”

“What matter?”

“The matter of whether or not I should leave Italy just yet. In my pride, I failed to leave this matter in God’s hands. But it seems our Savior has decided to take the decision from me-perhaps to remind me I always had the option of relinquishing it into his care.”

Sharon blinked. “Your Holiness, I don’t understand.”

“I should not leave Italy, at least not yet. Not even if your plane was ready to fly tomorrow. Not until I know where I should go.”

“And what will determine where you should go?”

“Why, by learning what I am supposed to do next.”

Sharon shook her head. “But how many choices do you really have?”

“That,” said Urban with a sly smile, “is what I will learn in the coming weeks-and why I am so glad you came, Lawrence.” Urban smiled, rose, and headed back in the direction of the kitchen.

Sharon looked at Larry Mazzare. “What does he mean, that this is ‘why he’s so glad you came’?”

Mazzare shrugged. “It means-well, it means I’m just glad that Thomas North left his his Hibernians behind in Venice, because we’re going to need all of them to secure the new safe house that Miro set up for us through the Cavrianis.”

Sharon nodded, but pressed the point. “You still haven’t answered me: what can Urban do here that he can’t do back in the USE?”

Mazzare looked at Sharon. “He can decide whether he should go there at all.”

“What? Why?” Sharon was becoming annoyed. Not only did she still not understand what was going on, but her ignorance had her repeating herself.

“Sharon, Urban was driven out of Rome, fled for his life. Everyone in Italy can understand why he’s no longer sitting in the Holy See. But if he leaves the country now, that will be his choice. And he’s worried-rightly-that some people may feel he’d be turning his back on both his duty and the Church.”

“But he can’t achieve anything here except waiting around for assassins.”

“We know that, he knows that, maybe even this whole country knows that. But knowing that a course of action is wise doesn’t necessarily make it acceptable. And a pope is both a symbol and a representative of God. Now hear me out: I’m not requiring you to believe that yourself, just to accept that many, many others do believe it. You’ve heard the expression ‘trust in God,’ right?”

Sharon put her hands on her generous hips. “Yes. Of course I’ve heard it. As you know.”

“Yes, I do. But you’ve never heard it the way people here, of this time, hear it. For most of them, that saying isn’t a euphemism, isn’t simply an exhortation to believe that somewhere, somehow, there might be some divine providence that will make everything all right. Here-in this time-there is nothing vague or ambiguous about trust in God. It’s presumed that there is a personal God who sees and judges all actions. And for Roman Catholics, it furthermore means that the pope is God’s divinely inspired voice and representative on Earth, and is therefore symbolic of the dignity and righteousness of that godhead.”

“So you’re saying that if Urban runs, he’s indicating that he doesn’t have faith that ‘God will provide.’”

“That, and he will be doing a great indignity to his holy office.”

“Which will make Borja look strong and resolute?”

“Well, he’ll still be seen as a monster, and mistaken in his methods, but unimpeachable in his dedication to the primacy of the Church and the dignity of the papal tiara. And in these times, that means a lot. Quite a lot, actually.”

“So either Urban stays and gets martyred for no real purpose, since no one has the power to unseat Borja. Or Urban leaves and gets-what? Relieved of his popish duties?”

“Something like that. But I think there’s a third choice, and I think that’s what Urban is focused on.”

“Oh? And what is that?”

“Knowing he has to leave eventually, I think Urban is determined to make his ultimate destination a statement of resolve that outshines the fact of his departure. Urban cannot be seen as retreating; he has to attack Borja, albeit on a different front.”

Sharon felt her thoughts twirl helplessly. “Attack Borja? Where? How?”

Larry Mazzare smiled his lip-crinkling smile. “That,” he said with a long exhale, “is probably exactly what Urban wants to determine before he leaves Italy.”

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

They pulled beyond the ramshackle piers and neglected sidings of Porto before the captain of the Savoyard barque-longue brought his long, low ship over to the right bank of the Tiber where barges were clustered. His mixed crew of French, Corsicans, and Savoyards jumped over to the makeshift wharf when they were within four feet, counter-pushed with poles, and dropped hawsers into the narrowing gap between the hull and the siding.

The final payment for passage had been handled when Ostia came into view, with John O’Neill counting out the silvers with the regretful intensity of a miser. So now, gear and pack in hand, Owen Roe O’Neill and his fellow Wild Geese departed the boat with a few halfhearted waves; they got few enough in return. The crew hadn’t been unfriendly, but the language overlap had been sketchy. Owen knew enough French to get by, as did Sean Connal. The doctor had quickly become the ship’s favorite, mostly because of his craft and his willingness to tend to the small crews’ minor ailments.

The crew’s standoffishness had no doubt been reinforced by John O’Neill’s loud and resentful commentary upon the doctor’s plying of his art: not in terms of his efficacy, but generosity. Specifically, the earl of Tyrone made it known that Connal’s services should rightly have been offered in trade, to offset the cost of their passage. In fact, that was a fairly customary exchange, but the doctor had provided his services without striking such a bargain. He maintained that it was better to earn a little genuine good will than the price of half a fare. For his part, Owen agreed with the young doctor, but Johnnie O’Neill had made some sharp comments about Connal’s undue presumptions of independence, and that the group’s current circumstances did not allow them “the largesse of such gestures of noblesse d’oblige.” That imperious pronouncement also seemed to exhaust the earl’s supply of French phrases.

Connal had merely remained silent, as had the watching crew, who thereafter kept their affairs well separate from those of their Irish passengers. They weren’t unfriendly, but distant. Particularly when interacting with John.

Owen hefted his pack higher; well, that was the nature of the man. Certainly not the easiest to serve under, but by no means the worst, either. And now they had to set about finding a barge to take them the rest of the way upriver to Rome.

There was a fair amount of Spanish soldiery about, but their loose ranks were already loading on the gathered barges. Seeing the gear and pennant of the Wild Geese, a few of the Spaniards hailed the Irish, curious as to their land of origin. The answers got a few cheers, a few strange looks, one or two shrugs, but nothing negative, since the Irish mercenaries of the Spanish Low Countries were a well-known military fixture. And after all, they had returned the hails in Spanish. Had the answers been in English, or had their names been of the Anglo-Irish variety, Owen wondered what their reception would have been. Cool, at best, he conjectured.

As the barges carrying the Spaniards pulled slowly away from the wharf, Turlough Eubank returned from the cluster of Italian barges.

“What luck?” asked John.

“None, m’lord. Seems the barge master I spoke to is already waiting on a shipment of grain.”

“They could have a long wait.”

“No, sir. It’s a Tuscan ship, due here any hour.”

“And this barge master won’t take a few extra coin from us to change his plans?”

“He’s under Spanish contract, sir. Provisions for Rome, y’see.”

“Hell and be damned, is every bloody ship here under Spanish contract?”

Owen toed a bit of stray oakum with his boot. “Could well be, Johnnie. And if the rumors on our ship had even a passing acquaintance with the truth, Florence is sending down as much grain as the Spanish will buy. At regular rates.”

“So now Tuscany is Spain’s lap-dog, as well?”

“Maybe. Or maybe cheap Tuscan millet is the price the Spanish are demanding in exchange for another de Medici redcap.”

“So Borja’s selling cardinalships, now?”

“Ah, Johnnie, it would be strange if he didn’t. That’s how the game is played down here.”

“Well, the game stinks like a steaming melder, it does. Eubank, go check with the last barge. Maybe the Good Lord will smile on some honest Catholics, for a change.”

“As you say, m’lord. Oh, and Dr. Connal sent word: now that we’re on land again, he’ll be demonstrating the new pepperbox revolver while we wait.”

“Oh, he will, will he?” muttered John, who rose and stalked inland, where half of the men had gathered near a vacant farmhouse set back from the banks of the river. Suppressing a sigh, Owen followed along.

Five red roof tiles were propped up on a chest-high wall that paralleled the derelict farmhouse. Sean leveled the nose-heavy pistol and started firing. The reports were sharp and barely a second between each one. On all but the fourth shot, one of the tiles exploded into a shower of dust and fragments.

Although the range was only ten paces, Owen silently conceded that this was some pretty fair marksmanship. Particularly for a physician.

Apparently, John was not disposed to make the same concession. “I think you missed one, Doctor.” John had probably intended his tone to be droll, but it had verged over into smug.

Connal did not turn. Instead, his hands moved quickly, unseating the currently loaded cylinder, swapping in a fresh one from a leather chest-pouch of sorts. He locked it in place with a quick twist of a frontal knob, and expertly popped five percussion caps onto the cylinder’s five ignition ports (which, Owen had learned, the up-timers rather provocatively called “nipples”). The doctor thumbed back the hammer even as he raised the weapon, aimed, and fired.

The last tile vanished in a spray of pieces.

“My apologies about that straggler,” he said as he turned to face the earl of Tyrone. “I’ll be tidier next time.”

One or two grunts of amusement from the watching Wild Geese faded quickly enough when John sent an annoyed glance in their direction. “Not so fast reloading as you made it sound, Doctor.”

Connal nodded. “You can cut the time down by two-thirds if the percussion caps are already seated on the fresh cylinder. But carrying it that way can result in some misfires; the jostling can unseat or even ruin a cap. Not likely, but possible. Logically, it also creates a small chance of an accidental discharge while you’re carrying the cylinder on your person, but that would be quite a fluke.”

“And when did you learn to shoot like that, Doctor? Not while you were rehearsing the Hippocratic oath, I’ll wager. Indeed, if you shot much better, I’d have to suspect it was the hypocritic oath.”

There was a single, half-hearted snicker; the tone of the jest had been a bit more accusatory than it was jocular.

But Connal merely smiled. “Well, contrary to common belief, I was not destined to the medical arts from the crib onwards. Couldn’t figure what trade to follow for the longest time-not until I was, oh, at least two years old.” Smiles sprang up, as well as one stifled giggle. “Sad to say, but I was a late bloomer.” His concluding confession got a few outright laughs-and a darker look from John.

“So you thought you’d be soldiering, then?”

“As I said, I didn’t know. But when I was first at university in Leuven, Hugh-er, Lord O’Donnell, came to visit occasionally. Visiting the old alma mater, as it were. Taught me to shoot.”

“Why, of course he did. No doubt paid your way at the university, too, I’ll wager.”

“For the space of one semester, yes, he did.”

Which only made O’Neill’s face darken again, this time with a scowl. Johnnie didn’t like anyone allied with, or in service to O’Donnell much better than he did the “ sassenach ” Irish such as Preston. But his distaste for all things O’Donnell was in many ways the more embarrassing of his two prejudices: antipathy toward the “Old English” Irish had long, nationalistic roots. But his dislike of the O’Donnells stemmed from a much less noble trait: jealousy, plain and simple.

But John’s focus on the gun had apparently distracted him from his resentment. “So how does this eye-gouging piece of rubbish work, Doctor? I’ve seen one or two of these up-time revolvers. They’re all pretty complicated pieces of machinery.”

“This is much less so,” Connal explained. “The weapons to which you refer require exceptionally fine tolerances, since the cylinder holding the charge, or ‘cartridge,’ must align precisely with the weapon’s single barrel.”

O’Neill scowled. “But that thing has five barrels. All as one piece.”

“Exactly. This means that each of the chambers is designed exactly like a self-contained barrel and breech. They are arranged in a pentagram, as you see.”

“There you go: witchcraft for sure.”

“Hardly,” smiled Connal. “Just as with the up-time revolvers you’ve seen, when you pull back the weapon’s hammer-or, in this case, a larger crossbar-it rotates the cylinder.” He demonstrated; the weapon made a monstrous clacking sound as the cylinder turned. “The percussion cap of a new barrel has now moved into the position occupied by the last one. When the trigger is squeezed and the hammer falls, it ignites the charge in the new barrel. You can fire five times before reloading.”

Owen nodded. “But I’ve heard Dutch clockmakers complain that when they try to copy up-time devices like this, they can’t make the springs strong enough. How did you avoid that problem here?”

“The gunsmiths used larger, cruder springs, which led, in part, to the cumbersome size of the weapon. The only spring that still has a great deal of resistance upon it is the one that turns the cylinder. And if that breaks-” He manipulated a small knob protruding from the end of the cylinder, as if unlocking it, and then turned the entire unit by hand. “Still quite a lot faster than having to reload after every shot.”

John was clearly working at keeping the scowl on his face and his growing interest off. “Sure and it’s the seventh wonder of the world, Dr. Connal, but you’ll not get me to use one of these monstrosities.” But Owen knew otherwise: he could hear the reluctant fascination in the earl of Tyrone’s voice.

“That will be as you wish, Lord O’Neill. But you might wish to reconsider. The hammer is large and heavy so that a rider can manipulate it easily, even with a gauntlet on.”

“So that’s why it has a crossbar all the way across, rather than a single hammer?”

“Exactly. It’s easier to get a hold of. And given the springs used, it is easier to cock the weapon with a whole-hand pull on the crossbar.”

Owen considered carefully. “Yes, and it would also be useful if you’re trying to cock the weapon on horseback. You could even snag the bar on a saddle-hook and push the whole weapon downward to prime the action.”

“True enough, but there’s a more important advantage to the crossbar. Look at the vertical thumb tab at the center of the bar. What do you see?”

John squinted. “Hmmm. There’s a small hole, right where the tab and the bar meet.”

“Precisely. Just before it meets the crossbar, the vertical tab splits into two parts, rather like a Y standing on its head. The resulting triangle-the space between the arms of the upside-down Y and the top of the crossbar-is left open. If one aims through that aperture-what the up-timers call a ‘peep sight’-you’ll see a small bead at the end of the barrel that is ready to fire.”

Owen nodded. “So when the bead is on your target, and also in the center of the peep-sight-”

“You are properly aligned.”

“And how accurate is it?”

“Like comparable flintlock pistols, its accurate aimed range is just under ten yards. However, if loaded with a charge of four single-aught pellets, the odds of scoring at least one hit on a target at twenty yards is almost fifty percent.”

“Useless until you’re almost at sword range,” griped John, even though he hadn’t taken his eyes off the weapon for about a minute.

“Aye, but most useful in trenches. Or in a city,” emended Owen. “Particularly with five barrels. So it’s a smoothbore then, Doctor?”

“Yes; the bore is almost half an inch. Properly charged-the craftsmen are still experimenting with ‘sabots’ that the up-timers use to increase the velocity of smaller bullets-a shot from this weapon will routinely penetrate a steel cuirass at ten yards.”

Eubank approached from the wharf. John raised his chin. “What’s the word, Turlough? Will we be walking to Rome, then?”

“Only if you get seasick sailing upriver on the Tiber. Imagine my shock when the last bargeman said he could take our custom.”

“Sounds too good to be true,” speculated Owen with a long look at Turlough.

“Well, Colonel, on my mother’s grave I swear it’s true. But it’s none too good.”

John cocked his head sideways. “And why would that be?”

Eubank shifted his feet uncomfortably. “Seems the bargeman’s most recent passengers left the boat a bit of a mess.”

“Ah,” exhaled Owen. “Gypsies?”

“ Sassenachs?” asked John.

“Goats,” Eubank replied. “Far too many goats.”

Harry Lefferts peeked out from under the hood of his monk’s habit as the wagon rocked and then jolted sideways. The yellow-tan dust settled long enough for him to see green fields. In the middle distance, those expanses gave way to vines and olive trees that straggled up a low, rocky ridge. It was the same scenery that Harry had been watching for two days now, ever since they began their westward travel on the Via Prenestina. At the start, near Palestrina, the land had been less flat, so there had been more trees and vines, and occasional expanses of scrub given over to goats.

But other than that, not much to see. One or two of the Wrecking Crew had perked up when they passed near the old Roman aqueducts. Sherrilyn had been particularly enthusiastic. Gerd had counterpointed her exclamations with sharp, snorting snores from the rear of the wagon. Disguised as a motley assortment of clerics, farmers, and teamsters, their load of wheat and rice provided an effective layer of concealment under which they had secreted their equipment and weapons. And those who did not look at all like the locals had to keep themselves more completely concealed most of the time.

In Harry’s case, this meant nearly head-to-toe covering around the clock, since, having been the visual as well as behavioral inspiration for Rome’s lefferti, he was conspicuously recognizable in this region. Which meant that he had come to learn that monks’ habits were not comfortable; in addition to being itchy and rough, they were beastly hot. It had taken a while for the slight increase of traffic to register through the heat-drowsy boredom into which Harry had sunk. He leaned back toward the driver’s seat and drawled. “Are we there yet?”

He could hear Sherrilyn’s grin as she interjected, in a shrill hausfrau voice from the other side of the wagon. “Zip it; we’ll get there when we get there.”

Romulus, who clearly did not understand the up-time reference to admonishing whining kids in the back seat of a car, did not find Sherrilyn’s retort humorous. He merely shrugged. “See for yourself.”

Harry turned and tipped up the rim of his habit’s hood. In the distance, so flat on the land that the Tiber was invisible from this modest height, the greater edifices of eastern Rome rose up through the city’s own mid-morning haze like a gang of hunched gray giants. Red tiled roofs tilted this way and that around their bent knees. The road they were on apparently led toward the lap of one of the closer stone edifices. Harry nodded at it. “That’s the gate?”

“The Porta Maggiore,” muttered Romulus as he pulled the wagon to the side of the road and coaxed the pair of rickety old horses to a halt, “or the Porta di Santa Croce, as some prefer. At any rate, now that I can see it, I have reached the point beyond which I may not be seen.” As arranged earlier, he handed the reins and long switch over to Matija.

Harry nodded his thanks to their taciturn guide, and smiled. “Not welcome in Rome?”

“Not until the occupiers leave. I will remain at the appointed place for four days. If I have not heard from you by then, I will return to Palestrina, presuming you have no further need of my services.”

“Yeah, we may take a boat straight back.”

“Or you may be dead,” added Romulus philosophically. “ Arrivederci.” Hat pulled well down beneath his eyes, the man whose real name they had yet to learn walked back the way they had come.

The wagon rumbled into motion again, setting up a drift of dust that hung in the air for a few seconds. When it settled, Romulus was nowhere to be seen, although the road ran on so straight and far that it seemed to disappear into the infinity of its own vanishing point.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

John O’Neill was able to keep back the tears until the barge drew round the last bend in the Tiber and he saw the Ponte Emilio, which Romans were now starting to call the Ponte Rotto, or Broken Bridge. It had been broken forever, like most things in Rome, but there was something particularly forlorn about it now. Its single proudly-carved arch, the only one remaining, now led boldly to nowhere. As if cut by the cleaver of a giant, the bridge no longer spanned the Tiber, but stopped in its midst; there was no way to tell whether it commemorated a dream abandoned before completion, or one that had fallen into decay.

John wiped his eyes on his sleeve and wondered at the changes that had come over Rome. He had only spent a few weeks there, and his ostensible reason for going-studies-had been both a threadbare excuse and a dismal failure. But the city had left its mark on him, had whispered to him of empires. And with all the exuberance of youth, he embraced only half of the timeless lesson about empires: that they did indeed rise. The sad truth that empires also fell was of concern only to those who were born to be beaten, who lacked the valor to take what was theirs, who doubted that God was on their side and guiding their sword and scepter.

Luke Wadding, along with the other priest-lecturers at St. Isidore’s, had striven, mightily, to temper Johnnie’s embrace of such mundane glory and destiny. They offered him visions of the divine Empire of God and Trinity, of the Christian conquest of hearts not bodies, of the power of the cross-and yes, the pen-over that of the sword.

But John O’Neill, third earl of Tyrone, had remained dubious of these pacifistic pieties. For him, the story of God’s role in the fate of man lost its appeal after the Old Testament, and did not regain it until the records of the Crusades. His one complaint with military life was that there was entirely too much thinking and talking over what to do, and how to do it, and who might be angered. Soldiering was in the doing of deeds, not the conceiving of them. And, being a soldier born and bred, he knew well enough how and when to act.

But seeing Rome this way-sullen, gray, singed around the edges-left him uncertain how to act or feel. Rome had never been a quiet city, or a clean city, or a kind city. It had been loud and crowded and tempestuous-but it had always been very much alive. The average Roman never stopped long enough to look at the monuments of their past; they were too busy scavenging them for pieces with which they could build their future. John liked that about Romans, and so the ruins had never seemed sad or melancholy.

Until now.

As the barge moved toward the left bank, making easier headway in the lee of the current that accelerated as it swept around the Isola Tiberina on both sides, Owen Roe came to stand by his first cousin, once removed. “Are you feeling quite well, Johnnie?”

John nodded. “My body is fine, but my heart; my heart… My God, look what they’ve done, Owen. The Spanish bastards. First, playing us as fools for years, and now this. Look at all the burned houses, the broken walls. It will be years-no, decades-in the fixing. Damn us, damn me, that I ever served the Spanish. If I could do it over again-”

“Calm now, Johnnie. As Isabella said, not all the Spanish meant to mislead us. Just as I doubt many of the Spaniards arrived in Rome thinking they’d do this-” He glanced in the direction of the decapitated bulk of the Castel Sant’Angelo.

“No, maybe this wasn’t what they intended, or even what they wanted, but they did it right enough anyhow, didn’t they?

Owen shook his head as the barge bumped to a stop against a row of hawsers and the warm-weather stink wafted down to them from where the effluent of the Cloaca Maximus dumped the city’s wastes into the Tiber. “Can’t say that we always made much better distinctions than the Spanish did during our own campaigning, Johnnie. I’m sure enough regretting things we did in the Provinces. Orders notwithstanding. Might well have been the same here.”

“Maybe,” said John, watching a half-dozen morion-helmeted occupiers stagger off in the direction of the Borgo, bottles of wine dangling loosely in their fingers. “But I’m not exactly sensing an undercurrent of regret.” He hopped over the low gunwale of the barge. “Have the men gather their gear and be ready.”

“Are we in a rush, John?”

“Aye. We need to find lodging, rest, and then move as soon as possible.”

“Why?”

“Why?” John looked around at the sagging skyline of Rome, the almost empty streets. “Because that damned battle-axe Isabella was right about something else: if the Spanish did this to a lovely old city, who knows what they might do to a lovely old priest like Luke Wadding?”

Once the door closed behind the invariably sour doctor, Frank turned to Giovanna. “See? I told you my fever was gone.”

Giovanna-small, dark, curvaceous, part-Madonna, part-hellion, and just starting to show-pouted. As only she could. “So. Very well. Maybe he is right.”

“He is a doctor,” Frank pointed out.

“He is a Spaniard and a tool of the Inquisition,” Giovanna countered.

“Okay, so he’s one of the bad guys, but he seems pretty conscientious. And besides, I think they want me well enough so they can move us again.”

She eyed the valises and chests that had been brought in during the doctor’s visit. “Because they gave us some containers in which to put our clothes?”

Frank shrugged. “That. But only partly. I was thinking more of the good doctor’s visits. Four in the past week, one of which was yesterday, and then today’s. That’s not just medical prudence; that’s a detailed assessment of our readiness to relocate. That’s why he wanted to examine you, too.”

“The pig. As if I would let-”

“I don’t think the Spanish brought any midwives with them, Gia. And I don’t think they’re going to permit any contact between us and the locals. They’ve created what we used to call an information firewall.”

Giovanna’s wonderful, alluring pout was back. “What does this mean, an ‘information firewall’?”

“It means that they are making sure that there’s no communication between us and the outside world. I’ll bet even the guards are specially selected for this duty: probably bunked apart from the others, so that there’s no word of us even in barracks gossip-which frequently winds up repeated in bordellos.”

Giovanna’s head rose to a condemning (if modest) height upon her shoulders. “And how would you know what transpires in bordellos, husband?”

“I read about it. In books. A long time ago. Before I hit puberty. When I was thinking of becoming a priest.” She couldn’t help but smile. “Is that okay, then?”

“Just barely,” she allowed, and then curled up against him like a cat that has decided to use its favorite person as a private cocoon.

After they had enjoyed that closeness for a few minutes, Frank stirred a bit. “Hey. I’d better start packing.”

“You? And what makes you think you are ready to pack chests and valises?”

“Gia, I’m not a cripple-”

“No, but you could be!” She got off him like a cat, too: one fast jump and she was four feet away, glaring down, hands on hips. “You will not put weight on your leg. Not yet. No, do not argue. This is not open to discussion.” And with that, she turned her back on him sharply and set about the task of packing their sparse belongings with an energy that would have put a sugar-infused ten-year-old to shame. After a time, once her histrionic ire had abated a bit, she asked over one hurrying shoulder. “Why do you think they are moving us again?”

Frank shrugged and put his arms behind his head. “Not sure.”

“Do you think it is to make us harder to find? Are they playing a version of-what have you called it? — the shell game?”

“Yeah, but every time we get moved, it calls attention to us. And why move us during the day?”

“I do not know. Could they mean to advertise our presence in Rome?”

“I don’t know.” Frank sat up, feeling irritability attach itself to him like a small dog that had affixed itself to his trouser leg. “Damn it, I just don’t know anything, sitting here. Which is the worst part of being a prisoner. It’s not so much that you can’t get out, but that you have no knowledge of what’s going on out there-” he waved a hand at a wall “-and no way to let them know that you’re in here. Wherever ‘here’ is. It makes me feel, well-I don’t know: helpless.”

“Well, you are not helpless. You must be strong, so first you had to regain your health. And you have accomplished that. Almost.”

“Yeah, well I’m not as strong as you, yet.”

“Of course not. You never will be. I am a woman. Except for your arms and chest, we are in all ways the stronger sex. We can endure far more than you can.”

Frank discovered that the way she said it-gaze imperious, head and shoulders back, and therefore, other anatomical highlights thrust forward-had been at least as arousing as it had been informative. Almost before he was aware of it, Frank’s body pushed forward its own, suddenly awakened anatomical highlights.

Giovanna noticed the reaction with a smile. “We can endure more of that, too. Much more.”

“Don’t I know it.”

“Stop! Stay where you are! You will not move! Not without your crutches. And if you are very cooperative, I may agree to test your-endurance-tonight. All in the interest of ensuring your return to health, of course.”

“Of course.” He loved it when she smiled that way: the sweetness of an angel infected by the leer of a demon. And a hotter temper than the two put together. But it wasn’t just temper: it was passion. Passion “Frank! No! And I mean it! Now, we must think what to do after you have made your recovery.”

“What to do?” He looked at the walls. They were clean, with some reasonably comfortable pieces of furniture pushed up against them. But they were still prison walls. “I think it will take us a pretty long time to tunnel out of any prison. Hey, maybe that’s why they move us, to make sure we don’t make too much progress digging our way out with the soup spoons we’ve cleverly hidden from our warders…”

Giovanna grinned widely and Frank decided, for probably the third time that day, that he really did love her wide, full, lips. “Very funny, Frank. You do have a way with words.” She thought. “Which is probably the next thing you should be doing.”

“What?”

“Writing. For the cause.”

Frank stared at her. At times, she was very much activist Antonio Marcoli’s daughter: passionate, charismatic, and wildly impractical. “Uh…Gia, assuming I could even get writing materials, just how do you expect me to get the word to the waiting masses?”

She ignored his gentle facetiousness, rode over it with a raised chin. “The greatest revolutionary tracts have often been written by person unjustly imprisoned by an oppressive state.”

Hmmm…maybe not so impractical, after all. “Okay, but there are problems.”

“There always are. We shall overcome them. What are they?”

God, how he loved her. “Well, let’s see. There’s the whole ‘nothing to write with’ challenge. And once I’ve written something, how do we keep it? And if I’m writing revolutionary tracts, I’m not sure that liberal-minded jailers like our Inquisitional pals will do anything other than carefully file it in the nearest live fireplace. And then there’s the little matter of what to write: I don’t think my inner author is very inspired-or even alive.”

“See? You have already detected the major impediments to this plan. That is half the battle; now, we only need to solve them.”

Only need to solve them. As if real-world situations were like Rubix cubes; you just fiddle with them long enough and eventually, they work out. Unfortunately, the real world was full of changing conditions and changing minds. And not all problems had solutions. But, he had to admit, the notion of writing a revolutionary tract while cooped up had a kind of romanticism to it-probably because his leg felt better, they were warm and well-fed, and their accommodations were no longer shared with several families of rats. Absent any one of those improvements, and the whole enterprise would probably seem a lot less diverting. But for now, Giovanna had a point: it was something that he could do, and he’d read more than once that lethargy was a prisoner’s worst enemy. So it would be good to have a project, and this one promised to be challenging enough. If only there was some way to…

“Signor and Signora Stone?”

Frank woke from his daze, found Giovanna, eyes opened wide, pointing at the door. Castro y Papas, she mouthed silently.

“Hello?” Frank responded.

“It is I, Don Vincente.”

He was actually Don Vincente Jose-Maria de Castro y Papas, captain in the Spanish Army of the Two Sicilies. And not at all a bad guy, considering it was he who had taken Frank prisoner. “Yes?”

“I regret troubling you, Signor Stone, but I must enter.”

“Come on in, then.”

The Spaniard, a well-formed man hovering at the edge of his thirties, opened and flowed through the door with an elegant efficiency of motion. If Spain’s fathers hadn’t made him a swordsman, he could probably have become one hell of a dancer. His calm-always calm-brown eyes surveyed the scene. “I see you have already begun to pack. Most excellent. I am sorry for the inconvenience, but we must move you. Yet again.”

“Yeah, about that: what’s with all the moving? We still like the view from this room.”

Castro y Papas glanced briefly at the windowless walls. “Despite the singular charm of the scenery, we must house you elsewhere.”

“‘House.’ What a lovely way of saying ‘imprison.’”

Castro y Papas may have blushed a bit; it was hard to tell, given his complexion. “It is good to see you have kept some sense of humor about your situation, Signor Stone. I have not been able to do so.”

Frank immediately felt sorry for the captain. He noticed that even Giovanna looked away as the Spaniard’s tone conveyed bitter regret. And Frank suddenly realized why the regret was so bitter: because, clearly, Don Vincente was not allowed to show any more overt sympathy than he just had. Even that measure of commiseration was probably tantamount to treason. Or maybe heresy. In Borja’s army, the line separating the two seemed less than distinct, at times.

“Hey, listen, Captain, I’m sorry if I got a little snarky, there-”

Don Vincente’s left eyebrow rose. “‘Snarky’-I do not know this word. It is dialect? Scottish, maybe?”

“Uh…maybe. I really don’t know where it came from. It was a word we used up-time. It means-oh, I don’t know, ‘testy’ and a little rude, I guess.”

“Ah. But ‘snarky’ sounds more appropriate somehow. Perhaps because it sounds so similar to ‘snarl.’”

You’ve been a pretty good guy-as oppressive conquerors go, that is.”

That brought a smile to Castro y Papas’ face. “I endeavor to be the nicest villain that I may be,” he explained with the intimation of a flourish. “And I am truly sorry you must be moved again. And that I may not tell you why. In part, because it would be a violation of orders.”

“And the other part of your reason?”

“Is that I really do not know why you are being moved. I have only suspicions. I may safely say that your situation, both in terms of immediate security and larger political implications, is being handled at the very highest levels. Directly.”

Well, no surprises there. “You mean the same levels that gave orders for you not to accept my surrender when you showed up at my bar with a cannon?”

Castro y Papas considered his response carefully. “I was not present when those orders were issued, but my commander tells me that both directives came from the most senior command echelons here in Rome. But it was fortunate that events transpired such that you were taken prisoner.”

“Yeah, I’ve wondered about that. You, uh, skated pretty close to the line on that one, didn’t you?”

“If I understand your idiom correctly, I may only say this: I scrupulously found a way to obey the letter of the law. And yet, miracle of miracles, here you are!” His concluding smile was both mischievous and-what? Vengeful? Vengeance against whom? Against whoever had given him orders that he had openly professed were devoid of honor? Because honor clearly meant a great deal to Captain Vincente Jose-Maria de Castro y Papas.

Behind Castro y Papas, his apparently inseparable sergeant, an independently minded fellow answering to the name of Ezquerra, appeared in the doorway. “I am told that the coaches are here, Captain.”

“Coaches?” Frank wondered aloud, conducting a quick survey of their sparse worldly goods. “I’m thinking the two of us and our goods could all fit in a donkey cart, with room to spare for two of your guards.”

Castro y Papas smiled. “My sergeant is so indiscrete that I sometimes think he must be working as a foreign agent provocateur and informer within our ranks. Ezquerra, perhaps you would like to share with us the final destination of each of the coaches?”

“I’m sorry; I cannot oblige you in this, Captain.”

“And why is that?”

“I was not told the destinations.”

“You show entirely too little resourcefulness and energy to work as a spy, Ezquerra. I suspect you shall be no more successful in your new covert endeavors than you are as a sergeant.”

Ezquerra almost bowed. “The captain’s wisdom is widely renowned. Even unto the end of this street.”

Don Vincente was clearly trying very hard to suppress a smile, and Frank discovered-suddenly, impulsively-that he was no longer merely sympathetic to this nice enemy; he actually liked him. Which could be dangerous.

Perhaps Giovanna had felt the same thing, or had simply seen the reaction flow through Frank’s features. She shut the last trunk with a sharp crack and announced, “We are ready. If we must go, let us go.”

As the coaches lined up in broad daylight, and with full-length blinds and canopies erected to obscure the identities of whoever might be handed up into each vehicle, Don Vincente was conscious that he was grinding his teeth.

Audibly, apparently. Ezquerra coughed lightly. “This must be the best-publicized secret prisoner transfer in Roman history.”

Castro y Papas nodded sharply. “Yes. Which I do not like at all.”

“Well, who wants to share in a secret that everyone knows?”

“This isn’t incompetence, Ezquerra. This is an occasion where Napoleon’s axiom does not hold.”

“Who is Napoleon?”

“A famous up-time general who advised, ‘Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.’ Except the flaws of this prisoner transfer are not the product of incompetence: they reek of malice. Or rather, malign plotting. These instructions we were given-to follow at a distance and remain watchful for any attempts to surreptitiously follow the coaches-means that our masters are trailing the hostages like bait in the water. Which could get the two of them-no, the three of them-killed.”

“By whom? Their own people?”

“Sergeant, how long have you served before the cannon?”

“Almost an hour now, sir. Or perhaps eight years. Honestly, I’ve lost track; serving under you is such a singularly pleasant experience, that time just seems to fly by.”

“So, you have been a soldier for a lifetime and a half. And so you have seen how often casualties are inflicted upon one’s own side: inaccurate fire, confusion, poor visibility. The causes are legion, but the lesson is all one: if weapons are used, people die-and the wielders of the weapons rarely, if ever, have complete control over who dies.”

Castro y Papas jerked his head at the second coach. “They are playing passe-dix with the lives of hostages whose safety is their responsibility. One of whom is a woman with child.” Don Vincente spat. “It is a stain upon the honor of every one of us who must take part.”

Ezquerra shrugged. “Maybe, but would you not agree that it is also a clever plan?”

Castro y Papas sighed. “Perhaps. If the audience for which they intend this show is here to see it.”

“And do you think they are?”

Don Vincente sighed. “We shall find out soon enough, perhaps.” He snagged the reins of his horse, jumped a foot up into the waiting stirrup, and mounted with fluid ease.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Sherrilyn’s voice was calm. “The carriages are moving.”

“Is Juliet back with her street-urchins?”

“Harry.” An English-accented mezzo piped up from below. “I’m right down here in the street.”

Thomas North smiled. What ears that woman had! There was no under-the-breath spousal grumbling in big George Sutherland’s house, that much was certain…

Juliet added, “-and I am currently surrounded by eager palms that want to be filled.”

“With bread?”

“No. With quatrines.”

“Robbers.”

“They take after their idol, Harry ” — Who smiled. “Okay, give ’em what they want. We can’t lose track of Frank and Giovanna, now-whichever carriage they turn out to be in. This could still be our opportunity to grab them.”

Thomas suppressed a start of surprise. An opportunity to grab them? There were four carriages, one with the Barberini family crest stained with the brown-maroon of dried blood, all starting out from the front of Palazzo Rospigliosi. All had opaque leather blinds bound in place to cover the windows, and each had a cavalry escort. North failed to see how this was an opportunity to retake the hostages.

Thirty minutes ago, when the first of the carriages and cavalry began pulling up in front of the palazzo, Harry had started issuing preparatory orders for ambushing what he presumed would simply be a well-escorted prisoner transfer. But he had also had the foresight to suggest that Juliet should summon the young minions she had recruited over the past two days, in the event that there was more than one potential target to keep track of. The youngsters had responded swiftly; since many of them were related to lefferti- both alive and dead-they were glad and excited to do something that might injure the Spanish.

And it was now obvious that today, Spanish security was not merely going to be the product of strength, but guile: the carriages were arranged to move separately, rather than en convoy. Thankfully, Harry was a flexible tactician; he now revised his earlier orders with admirable dispatch. “Sherrilyn, take your team up to the roof; use the flue to relay reports down to me here. The rest of you”-his gaze took in the remaining members of the Wrecking Crew, except Thomas-“get down to the ground floor. And be ready to split up; we may have to follow more than one of those carriages.”

By the time Harry was done giving orders, his binoculars were already back up to his eyes. And Lefferts’ very next word told North that his own fears regarding the Spanish plans had been vindicated: “Shit.”

North was pretty sure of the answer, but asked anyway. “What’s happening?”

“Two of the carriages are heading northeast, toward the Quirinale. The other two are heading south; they’ll pass right under our window.”

“Probably making for the Corso. Harry, if these pairs split up”which they will — “we’re not going to be able to chase all of them.”

“Damn it,” muttered Lefferts. “I just didn’t expect them to play ‘shell game’ with us.”

“Yes, a bit unsporting. And even if we could follow them all, there’s no way any of the groups doing so would be large enough to mount a successful ambush and retake the hostages.”

Harry thought for a moment and then leaned over toward the fireplace, shouting up the flue. “All right: here’s the new plan, Sherrilyn. You keep eyes on the targets as long as we can. I’ll watch from here, too, but will mostly be coordinating with our guys on the ground floor. Juliet’s kids should be able to keep up with the carriages easily enough to see where they all go. Rome’s widest streets are still none too wide, so they’re not going anywhere too quickly. When we’re no longer able to keep track of them from this vantage point, we’ll choose the most likely shell under which the Spanish have hidden the hostages and go after that one.”

“Carefully,” amended North.

“Not so carefully that we’re too late to strike, if the opportunity presents itself.”

Thomas nodded, but thought: if it’s not already too late.

“Well, spank me hard and call me Sally.” Sherrilyn saw her team, Felix Kasza and Donald Ohde, start slightly. She smiled. However profane the men of the Wrecking Crew thought themselves-and they had good reason for that self-image-they were always startled when a provocative new colloquialism came from Sherrilyn.

Donald recovered first. “What’s up?”

“Not our odds of grabbing the hostages,” Sherrilyn answered. She pointed, keeping her eyes planted on the binoculars. “One coach is going northeast along the Via Recta, but it looks like it’s preparing to turn left. Probably to head north along the Strada Felice. Another carriage has gone west. I can’t see it just now, but-yeah, there it is, turning right to get on the Corso, heading north.”

From down below, Harry’s annoyed shout hooted out of the flue at her right elbow. “Sherrilyn, you seein’ all this?”

“Yeah, I’m seeing what you’re seeing and more.”

“What’s happened to the two that just passed beneath us?”

Sherrilyn pivoted on her heels, scanned with the binoculars, and caught sight of the boxy carriages swaying into and out of view beyond the buildings to the southwest. “They’re still going southwest along the Via Recta-no, wait; one has just veered into a small westbound street.”

“What’s over there?”

“Nothing. They’re probably taking a shortcut to get to the Strada papale.”

“And the other?”

“Looks like they’re following along to the end of the Via Recta. Again, nothing much in that direction, unless they’re looking to get to the Via dell’Aracoeli. And-wait a minute.”

“What?”

Sherrilyn strained her eyes; were those two mounted men, far behind the last carriage, also following it? They just seemed like ordinary travelers from the look of it, but No. She caught the glint of a light steel gorget when the one closer to her vantage point turned to look behind and his collar gapped, revealing the neck armor beneath. Now that she knew what to look for, she could see the telltale signs of a plainclothes tail. The overstuffed saddle bags that probably concealed weapons, the buff gloves, the way they sat their horses: they were military.

And they were now looking with increased interest at two of Juliet’s child-recruits. Looking at them very attentively as they followed along behind the coach, playacting the part of a lord and lady. The two horsemen urged their mounts into a slightly faster walk, peering at the two nine-year-olds more closely. And mouth suddenly hanging open, Sherrilyn realized why:

My god, those horsemen are not merely security; they’re the watchers for anyone who tries to follow the carriage surreptitiously. They’re watching for us.

“So, we’re busted? Totally?” Harry rubbed his chin meditatively.

Sherrilyn nodded. “This shell-game they staged: it was a set-up. To see who, if anyone, would follow.”

“Pretty crafty,” admitted Harry.

“More than that.”

Harry turned to look at North. “What do you mean?”

“I mean this tactic of theirs was damned near oracular in its presumptions. Here we are in Rome, conducting reconnaissance preparatory to a hostage rescue. First they give us exactly what we want to see: the hostages, about to move into the open. But then they throw us what you Americans call a ‘curve ball’: our objective, although right under our noses, is now moving in one of four possible directions. Thereby baiting us to make a weak attempt to get the hostages now, either by hitting all the coaches, or by striking blind at one or two. At the very least, they figure we might reveal ourselves by following a little too eagerly, a little too closely. All staged so they can either strike us preemptively, or at least get a look at our methods and some of our personnel.”

Harry frowned. “Are you saying we’ve been ratted out?”

“Eh? Oh, you mean an informer from our side?” North shook his head. “No, I very much doubt that.”

North felt Sherrilyn’s eyes studying him closely as she asked, “Why do you doubt it?”

North had to think that through: his tactical instincts had raced ahead of his deductions. “Any informer who knows enough to betray us would have solid information regarding our numbers and our general appearance. Whoever is behind this shell game ploy would have used that information to craft a more precise plan to lure us into killing range.

“I suspect he anticipates that someone will try to rescue Frank and Giovanna, and that they will logically be sent by the USE. But beyond that, I doubt he has anything more than guesswork, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wrecking Crew is high on his list of probable rescuers.”

“Then he’d have numbers and identities, right there.”

“Maybe. But from what I heard during my own travels, Harry, intelligence on the Wrecking Crew is pretty sketchy other than that you are its very visible and distinctive leader. How many members the Crew has, and how consistently you all operate together, is unclear. For instance, people in London are convinced that Julie Sims is a part of the Wrecking Crew, thanks to that sharp shooting during the Tower of London escape.”

“A classic, that one.” Harry beamed at the walls in happy reminiscence.

“Yes, the talk of Europe. Which unfortunately, may be hurting us now.”

“Whaddya mean?”

“Well, commando teams are useful, in large measure, because they are covert. Covert, as in unseen and unknown.”

Harry frowned. “I guess I see your point. We’re not exactly an unknown quantity.”

“Harry, I think it might be worse that that. It’s possible that whoever is running the show on the other side of the curtain may have made a study of your methods. Let’s ignore your technological edge, for a moment. None of your strikes to date could be pulled off without a great deal of advance reconnaissance. That means you, or your agents, observe a target before you strike, often for a long time. That means you are in your area of operations well before you drop the hammer.”

Harry nodded. “And so, the guy running the show for the Spanish today put out Frank and Giovanna as bait, figuring that even if he didn’t know where we were, that we’d be somewhere close by, probably watching. Maybe being tempted to do something stupid.”

Thomas nodded. “That’s the gist of it.”

The Crew, sans George and Juliet, had been silent throughout the quick council of war that had been summoned on the rooftop. It was Donald Ohde who looked out over the half-classical, half-ramshackle Roman cityscape. “So do we know anything else?”

Sherrilyn had taken another quick, four-points-peek with her binoculars. “The coaches are moving pretty slowly, except the one that went north on Strada Felice in the direction of the Pincio.”

“Toward the old embassy and the Palazzo Barberini,” nodded Harry.

“Yeah. They’re moving at a pretty good clip. Juliet’s kids are not going to keep up with that one. Besides, the farther north they go, the more sparse the crowds and the houses. The kids are going to start sticking out more, particularly when they have to start running to keep up. And they’ve been told not to be obvious, so I think we have to assume that they’ll stop following that coach any minute now.”

“Does that coach seem to be in more of a rush than the others?” Thomas could hear the predatory anticipation in Harry’s tone.

Sherrilyn shrugged. “Hard to tell. Maybe they are. But it might just be that there’s a whole lot less traffic out there. So it might be that those Spanish want to move faster, or simply that they can move faster.”

Donald Ohde nodded. “And the other coaches?”

“I’ve lost sight of the two that went south and west.”

“Any guess where they might have been headed?”

Sherrilyn consulted her map: a tangled composite of modern and recent cartography. “The first one which turned off the Via Recta could follow along the Strada papale, or might be making for the Ponte Sisto, and over the river into the Trastevere district. It’s a rat-warren over there. The one that went south-that’s even harder to say: maybe toward the Forum, maybe toward the new palazzi north of the Jewish ghetto, maybe all the way to Isola Tiberina. Again, a maze.”

Harry nodded thoughtfully. “And the closer one that went north?”

Sherrilyn raised her binoculars in that direction. “Still on the Corso, moving slowly.”

“And the kids got chased away from that one?”

“Yeah, the outriders seemed to assume that our kids were beggar urchins, trying to trail along and stick out their palms at the quality when they finally got wherever they were going. So we’ll have no way to know if that’s the one carrying Frank and Giovanna.”

Thomas cleared his throat. “I would make one addition to Ms. Maddox’s summation. We cannot actually be sure that Frank and Giovanna are in any of the coaches. Our informer in the Spanish command indicated that this transfer was taking place, and we have certainly observed movement consistent with a transfer. But how do we know-know for sure-that, in the end, the hostages really have been relocated? Or that they were conveyed to a new prison by one of the four coaches? As far as we know, they could have been sealed in an old barrel being removed for disposal from a rear entrance.”

Harry nodded. “Okay. That makes it imperative we get a pair of eyes on each of the wagons we can still see to follow. So we’ve got to put a new tail back on the northbound wagon. The same goes for the one that’s headed for the Pincio along the Strada Felice. We’ve at least got to have someone trail them in an attempt to determine-even if it’s after the fact-where they deposited their passengers. If they’ve got passengers, that is.”

Donald shouldered his gear. “Right. Teams?”

“Juliet stays behind here. The kids will eventually return and make their reports on the southerly wagons, and they’ll all want their quatrines. And she’ll need to set up some occasional watches on wherever those southbound coaches dropped off their passengers.”

“I’ll tell the missus.” George started down the stairs.

“Not so fast, George; tell her on the way out.” Harry turned to Thomas. “You, Sherrilyn, and Felix will follow the coach going north along the Corso. When you find where it has stopped, break off, and head east to rendezvous with us one block west of Palazzo Barberini. The rest of us will fall back on that point as soon as we’ve finished following the coach heading toward the Pincio along the Strada Felice.”

“They’ve got a long head start on you, and that’s quite a walk.” Thomas considered the manpower in each group. “Why so many people in your group, Harry?”

“Because”-and Lefferts started shouldering his own gear-“I’ve got a funny feeling about that coach heading to the Pincio. There isn’t a lot up there.”

“So?”

“So, they must have anticipated that that one would move faster. And if Frank and Giovanna are in one of those coaches, that’s the one they’d want to make sure we can’t cut off. And oddly enough, the coach heading to the Pincio is the only one of the four that is arguably getting away. I find that-” he turned and smiled like a wolf seeing a lame rabbit “-suspicious. It could be an opportunity, too. If they get a little too cocky, if they think they’re safe and out of our reach, well, I want most of the Crew’s manpower on hand to take advantage of their mistake.”

Thomas nodded. Yes, that all sounded good, and maybe Harry was right. But on the other hand, Lefferts was counting on the kind of slipup that Thomas doubted their opponent would make. Their unknown adversary seemed too methodical to create a situation in which the hostages would be easily snapped up by the opposition.

“We’re moving.” Harry headed for the stairs. “Now.”

“Are you sure this is the place?” Owen asked in a low voice.

John O’Neill looked up at the second story of the unfamiliar house. “I think so, but I’m not sure. When I was here, students stayed back there.” He waved farther down the street by which they had approached St. Isidore and its college, which was only a small wing added onto the church’s rectory.

O’Neill looked up beyond the steep, flanking steps at the porticoed white facade of the church: two tall openings framed an even taller, wider archway that was in line with the doors. Bordered on three sides by the lush green vegetation of the largely unbuilt Pincio, Luke Wadding’s Irish College looked unchanged from when he had visited it, shortly after its opening ten years ago.

Owen’s voice was still low, but was now worried, as well. “John, we can’t stay here. It’s too open, and we’re too many not to attract attention. Besides, the place is thick with Spaniards.”

John frowned. Thick with Spaniards? Hardly. Well, not so much. But, now that he looked closer, beyond the two at the entry, and the two he’d seen leaning in the shade of the portico’s arches, there were several more that appeared occasionally in the windows of the rectory and annex. Not exactly patrols, or at least not strict ones. Just a continuous presence, moving irregularly through the whole complex.

“John-”

“Yeh, yeh. I’m cogitating, Cousin.”

“Well, do it quickly, Johnnie. I think we’ve attracted the attention of the guards at the gate.”

“Aye, so we have. Well, there’s nothing else for it then. You stay here. Stay in the house, actually.”

“In this one just behind us?”

“Of course.”

“The door is locked.”

“And you’re a mighty fellow. Besides, it seems like classes have been suspended. There’s been no sign of the students who should be running in and out of here, and no fires or domestics preparing dinner. Just wait until I’m distracting the guards at the church’s main gate before you bust into the house.”

“You’re going to distract guards at the main gate? John, what are you going to do?”

“Use the only kind of power these Spanish are likely to understand. Synnot, McEgan: with me.”

“What? John-”

But John was already walking briskly across the Strada Felice, approaching St. Isidore’s along a small side-road from the west. The two morioned Spaniards at the gate exchanged long looks. One of them took a step forward, a hand raised. “ Non si puo. ” The Spanish guard’s Italian was ragged. “ Chiesa chiusa.”

“ Hablo espanol bien.”

The Spanish looked at each other again, clearly surprised.

Keeping to their language, John continued: “Besides, I doubt St. Isidore’s is closed to me.”

“And who are you?”

John produced his travel papers and a copy of his commission. “I am Lord John O’Neill, the third earl of Tyrone, Colonel of tercio O’Neill under Archduchess Isabella of the Spanish Low Countries. Etcetera etcetera etcetera. But most important, I am an old friend and student of Padre Luca. Whom I wish to see.”

Again the Spanish looked at each other. One more time, John thought, and it wouldn’t even make for a good comedy routine, anymore. “Is he expecting you?” one of them finally asked.

“I don’t really know,” John lied with a smile. “A letter was sent, but delivery is a little uncertain these days.” He gestured at the skyline; the tattered silhouettes of burnt buildings, and their pervasive smell, were unmistakable.

The Spanish nodded. “Yes. This is true. If the conde will be pleased to wait for one moment, I shall sent word to Father Luke tha-”

John brushed past the man, putting on haughtiness like a heavy cloak. “I will announce myself. I have not traveled so far, through such filth, to wait like a boy on the doorstep.”

He could hear the rapid conference fading behind him, and then one set of footfalls growing louder. “Lord, Conde Tyrone-please. We have orders. We cannot allow you to pass us without-”

“Well, then, don’t allow me to pass you. Come along. Announce me as I arrive, if you must.” Clearly not what the Spaniard was going to suggest, but perhaps a course of action he could accept, rather than contradicting or denying a noble a second time.

True to form, the Spanish trooper strode briskly ahead. Behind, John heard the other one exclaim, after them, “Roberto, no! You cannot take him in-” And, soft and almost inaudible behind that exclamation, John heard the pop of a flimsy lock being broken. Which meant that Owen and the rest of the Wild Geese were now in the abandoned dormitory, having done so while the last guard’s back and attention were turned away.

O’Neill reached the stairs that led up to St. Isidore’s entrance and started up, suddenly feeling ten years younger, possibly because of the memories of the place, but more likely because he was breaking rules and taking chances.

Sherrilyn, her short hair tied back and hat pulled low, turned right off the Via di Condotti. She was not following the coach itself, but had insinuated herself into the clutter of reintegrating traffic the vehicle left in its wake, trying to ignore the growing pain in her knee. And as soon as she swung around the corner, and assessed the carriage’s status on the northbound stretch of the Via di Ripetta, she resisted the urge to dodge right back. That was too obvious, so she crouched down, as if searching for a dropped coin. Then she stood, making sure her back was now to the carriage, and limped back around the corner.

And almost ran into Thomas North in the process. Who looked down at her knee. “Have you injured yourself, Ms. Maddox?”

“Just an old sports injury. I’m fine. Here’s the situation: the coach has drawn up in front of the Villa Borghese. If anyone was riding in it, we’ve come too late to see.”

“And you are so pale because-?”

“Because the whole damned street is filled with Spanish troops, checking people. Checking everyone who stands still long enough to be checked, from the look of it.”

“And not from any pain in your knee?”

“Listen, shut about about my knee. I’m fine.”

Felix Kasza licked his lips. “With all the Spanish in the next street over, I am thinking it is time to leave, then?”

North nodded. “I’d say so. As I recall the first briefing with Romulus, it was believed that Frank and Giovanna’s first prison was close to the Villa Borghese, wasn’t it, Ms. Maddox?”

“Yep,” she answered, “they were penned right under Borja’s very feet, some thought. Are you thinking they’ve been brought back there?”

Thomas North frowned as they started to amble casually away from the corner. “No. I don’t think so.”

“Why?”

“It just doesn’t feel right, not the sort of thing our opponent would do. Ask me ‘why’ again later; my brain may have caught up with my instincts, by then.”

“What gives, Harry?” The outdated up-time expression sounded comically awkward coming from Matija. “Those three fellows just walked right past the guards and into St. Isidore’s Church.”

Harry pocketed the small field glasses. “Not quite, Matija. The leader got stopped by the two guards at the gate, spoke with them a bit. Then he breezed past them.”

Gerd smiled. “And one of them ran after him like a little bub, trying to make him stop.”

“Hmmm. I don’t think it was quite that clear cut. Looks like the two Spanish guards wanted to stop him, didn’t have the authority to do so, and now one of them is ‘escorting’ him in.”

“Leaving only one guard at the gate,” Matija pointed out.

“Yeah, but there are others near the entrance to the church, and a few more stalking around inside the buildings attached to it.” Harry considered his surroundings: his team was in a side street, one block north of the Piazza Barberini, across from the Capuchin monastery. Beyond that dour building there was a scattering of marginally inhabited cottages, and then St. Isidore’s, all of which had their backs to the extensive fields that radiated southward from the Villa Ludovisi.

Donald Ohde made a clucking sound with his tongue. “Okay, Harry, what are you thinking?”

“Well, a couple of things. First, I’d like to find out who that guy was, dropping by for a visit just now. This location is off the beaten path for the high and mighty, up here at the green margins of the Pincio. Clearly, he had rank, but just as clearly, the guards didn’t know him. That’s an odd combination, out here.”

“You thinking he’s somehow connected with the mastermind who ran the shell-game with the carriages?”

“Could be. Don’t know why else they’d get high-ranking but unfamiliar visitors out here just before dusk.”

“Okay, but if he’s got that kind of rank, why’d he come on foot?”

“Yeah, I’ve been wondering about that. And the gear of those three guys didn’t look right, either. I mean, it could be Spanish, but it’s not like what we’ve seen down here. Their leader seemed to carry a heavier sword than the Spanish use, these days.”

“Yeah, and his pal with the very red hair and very pale skin didn’t look like any Spaniard I’ve ever seen. None of them did, in fact.”

“Which makes it all the more interesting. And possibly, very significant. After all, just because the Spanish have a criminal mastermind working for them now doesn’t mean they hired from in-house. Their evil genius could be foreign talent.”

“True enough,” drawled Ohde. “After all, look at us.”

“You look; my eyeballs have already had their quota of ugly for today.”

“Yeah, we love you, too, Harry.”

“I think the phrase you’re looking for is ‘abjectly adore.’ But enough sweet talk; I’m thinking that we couldn’t have asked for a better tactical situation.”

“How do you mean?”

“One guard is off the gate. If we move fast, we can get in.”

“What?” Ohde sounded surprised. “Get in? How?”

“Gerd is going to walk past the church, eyeball it a little, just enough to get the last guard’s attention. That’s when the rest of us slip between the cottages north of the monastery and angle around behind the back of St. Isidore’s. From there, we slip into the rear of the annex and take a look around.”

Donald Ohde was frowning. “I guess the real question I should be asking is, ‘why?’”

“To see if there’s any sign that this where they’re keeping Frank and Giovanna.”

“Here? With this low security?”

“Yeah, low security-which invites us to assume that the Spanish couldn’t be hiding them here, right? Our opposition might use that kind of ruse: make the real prison look weak- so weak that we would dismiss it as a possible site. So we’re going to check it out. If it’s a dry hole, we withdraw and rendezvous with Sherrilyn’s group when they’re done chasing after the carriage heading up toward the villa Borghese. And maybe, when we’re inside the church, we might see something that tells us whether Mr. Non-Spanish Boss-man is just a random visitor, or someone who was involved in setting up the trap they laid for us today.”

“And if he is?”

“Then we’re in a perfect position to follow him when he leaves the church. And we’ll take that opportunity to show him the hospitality of a small room without windows until we get some answers from him.”

Big George Sutherland shrugged and pointed out, “Harry, that Boss-Man also walked like a seasoned soldier, and had the gear to go with the gait. It might not be so easy to compel him, and his bodyguards, to accept your invitation.”

Lefferts smiled up at George. “Yeah, it’s harder to grab eggs when you can’t break ’em. But we’re no slouches ourselves. And with any luck, the whole Crew will be together by the time Boss-man decides to head off into the sunset.”

“Which might be soon,” observed Matija, looking up at the rapidly dimming western skyline.

“Good point. So let’s move. Gerd, I think it’s about time for you to take a stroll past the church…”

CHAPTER TWENTY

Father Luke Wadding entered the rectory in a rush. Spare, soft-eyed, and already white-haired, his face seemed to radiate equal measures of surprise and delight. “My dear Tyrone, how good to see you! Had I known-”

John waved aside the pleasantries. “Father Luke, we’re not going to have to go through another long period before you start calling me ‘John’ again, are we?”

Father Wadding-counselor to popes, rector of the Irish College at St. Isidore’s, famous theologian, and lightning rod for Church matters touching upon Ireland’s exiles-blushed. John smiled. Padre Luca was indeed unchanged: just as humble and accessible and plain in his manners as he’d ever been. “Very well-John. And Father Hickey is going to be delighted to see you, I know.”

John felt a sudden pull in his chest, fought down a lump in his throat. “He’s still here? I was worried that maybe-”

“Still here; couldn’t get rid of him if I tried. Not that I ever would. Now, John, do have a seat. Tell me how things are in the Low Countries, and how-”

John stared at the waiting chairs, then at the two Spanish guards. “Er, Father…” He shifted languages. “I will speak in Spanish so your protectors understand this clearly. I am here on Fernando’s business, concerning sensitive interests of Spain. But I am unable to speak of these matters except in private. So I would be grateful if your men would be willing to wait here while you and I retire to a more private venue.”

“Alas, unless we were to sit on the edge of my own bed, this is as private a place as I can offer. But here now,”-Wadding looked at his guards-“surely you know of the earl of Tyrone, of the Irish Wild Geese? With him here, I have nothing to fear. In his presence, I am guarded as though by my own nephew. So kindly wait in the church; I shall be quite safe.”

These two Spanish guards also exchanged long looks. John almost rolled his eyes. Oh, please, please, sweet Jayzus; not another pair who specialize in eyeball dancing…

The older of the two guards began to stammer out, “P-Padre Luca, we d-d-do not wish to d-displease you, but-”

“Your orders are to ensure that I am guarded by the might of Spain at all times, yes?”

The stammerer nodded.

Wadding gestured toward John and then Synnot and McEgan. “Well, here I am: protected by the might of Spain. Indeed, by one of its most famous warriors and two of his best soldiers. So, your orders are fulfilled. If you wish, bring your lieutenant and I will explain the matter yet again.”

The two guards looked at each other, traded shrugs, and filed out.

John smiled after them. The moment they were beyond earshot, he gestured quickly at Synnot. “Watch the door. Tell me if someone’s coming. If they are, stall them. We’re not to be disturbed. McEgan, down to the kitchen with you. Tell them there’s word that the cistern behind the apse has been defiled, maybe poisoned.”

“Why the kitchen?”

“Because they cook with that water, and because the cook sends meals to guards at their posts. So he’ll know where they are, and when he sends word of the cistern, that will pull many, maybe most, of the guards off their rotations. Which is just what we want: no unnecessary obstructions on our way out.”

Wadding was openmouthed when John turned back to him. Then the priest’s mouth shut and brows lowered. “John O’Neill, what errant nonsense are you up to now?”

“Not nonsense at all, Father. You need to come with me. Now.”

“I do not, and I will not.”

“Father, tell me something: why are you up to your neck in Spanish soldiers?”

For the first time in John’s knowledge of him, Wadding looked away from an incipient staring match. “Cardinal Borja expressed apprehension about my safety.”

“More likely he’s worried about how you jeopardize his.”

“John, perhaps you are succumbing to the Roman fever. Or maybe standing close to cannons for fifteen years has damaged more than just your hearing. Because a bit of clearheaded logic will tell you that there’s no way on earth that I could jeopardize Cardinal Borja.”

“Oh, you can, Father; you can jeopardize him on Earth, and in Heaven too, unless we’re wrong in our guess.”

“Who’s ‘we’? And what guess?”

“Jesus on the Cross, but you always were a great one for turning ev’ryting into words and more words, Father.”

“And you were ever a blasphemer. A bad habit you’ve not managed to break, I see. And I’ll hear your confession for it. But first I’ll hear answers to my questions. Who is making these absurd claims about the threat I pose to Cardinal Borja?”

John settled his temper. Father Luke was as mild as a kitten-until you raised his ire. And if you did raise it? Well, John had repulsed siege assaults that hadn’t been quite that fierce. “Father Luke, you have many friends who are cardinals, am I right?”

“Well…yes.”

“And how many of them have you seen since Philip’s troops arrived in Rome?”

Wadding darkened. But then he smiled.

“Have I said something funny, Father?”

“No. But ten years ago, you hadn’t the patience for irony. Or indirect argument. Very well, John. You make a point. As a rule, I’d not judge the actions of a cardinal, particularly when there’s so much wild rumor abroad. But it’s plain there’s been abuse of power, here.”

“Plain? Plain? Yes, Father: plain to a blind man at the bottom of an oubliette, even.”

Wadding closed his eyes. “John, these are evil times, no question. But what would you have me do?”

“What I asked you to do at the first: come with us. Now. It’s the right thing. And it’s the safe thing, before Borja realizes he can’t trust you either.”

“Can’t trust me? Even if he couldn’t, why should he care? Why would-?”

“Because if the pope made you a cardinal in pectore, and Urban is, then you’ll have a vote on the Consistory. And Isabella knows you well enough to know you’ll vote your conscience if it comes down to having to choose between Urban and Borja.”

John had never witnessed Luke Wadding speechless. Somehow, it was even more unnerving than being the object of his wrath-an experience with which John had a reasonable familiarity. When Wadding spoke, it was as though he were in a daze. “So, that’s the ‘they’ to whom you’ve been referring: the infanta and her nephew, the king in the Low Countries.”

“Yes. And they’re not alone in their opinion regarding Borja’s intentions.”

Wadding closed his eyes. “So they must suspect that Borja is guilty of much of what he’s been accused of, here.”

“Much. Perhaps all.”

Wadding opened his eyes. “For Borja to have done what you accuse him of would mean he is insane. I know the man; he is not insane.”

“Father, I’m not here to argue his sanity, or anything else, for that matter: I am charged to bring you out of Rome.”

Wadding stood. “And I may not leave. There are issues that have not been considered: students and clergy who are in my care, and scholarly matters, as well. There are also archives here, crucial to the history of Mother Church, which could be lost if-”

“Damn it, Father Wadding, you are coming with me, if I have to take you out of here at gunpoint-”

“Well now,” drawled a new voice, also in English, “you might not want to make threats when you’re at gunpoint yourself.”

John started, jumped up, hand halfway to his sword when he saw a wide, but unusually thin-walled, black muzzle aimed straight at his eyes. And the face behind it seemed to match descriptions he’d heard of the much-storied and infamous “Harry Lefferts, or I’m a caffler!”

Harry stared at the unfamiliar term, couldn’t suppress the slight pulse of gratification that went through him at being recognized, and raised his gun meaningfully. “Well, I’m not saying yes or no, but who the hell are you, and why are you threatening this priest?”

The fellow Harry was questioning-the foreign Boss-man who had breezed past the guards at the gate-did not seem particularly daunted by the barrel that tracked with him. “Where are my men? If you’ve done them ill, I swear by Christ Almighty, I’ll-”

The priest was on his feet. “Enough blasphemy, John O’Neill, or I’ll strike you here and now.”

Harry and Donald exchanged glances, eyebrows climbing high, before the priest turned on them. “And I do not recall inviting you gentlemen into the rectory. And I’m thinking that you did not simply walk past my guards, or the earl’s.”

Boss-man was an earl? Named O’Neill? The earl of Tyrone? But what the hell was he doing in Rome? Wasn’t he supposed to be commanding a tercio for-?

“My men: where are they?” said O’Neill. It wasn’t a request. Even though the earl of Tyrone was looking down the barrel of a twelve-gauge shotgun, it was still a demand.

Harry waggled the gun a bit. “Do you know what this is?”

“Aye. And do you know how much shite you’re standing in this very moment?”

Lefferts smiled. “You have a point there. We hadn’t planned on stopping in, certainly not for this long. But when all the good father’s guards went rushing outside to the cistern, it was easy enough to slip in, sneak through the pantry, and find our way here.”

“Where you hoped to discover what?”

“Our friends. Or someone who might know something about them. Like you, maybe, Earl of Tyrone. So tell me, are you the mastermind in charge of intelligence operations for Borja, by any chance?”

That query produced the most unusual-and uncomfortable-reactions yet. Wadding tried, unsuccessfully, to conceal his surprised smile; John O’Neill, seeing it, flushed hot red. For a moment, the tense, armed stand-off in the room became secondary to what felt to Harry like an up-time reality TV moment, where one family member revealed the other’s faults in front of total strangers. So John O’Neill isn’t a mental giant or a spymaster. Brave, though: damned brave. Well, no reason to leave him embarassed, Harry “Okay, I get the picture: you’re not the guy we’re looking for. Which is more than fine by me. Hell, too much thinking spoils a man of action, eh, Your Earlship?”

The change this brought over O’Neill was nothing short of miraculous. The pugilistic stance and pugnacious expression evaporated. “Right enough. Now look, I’ve got little time as it is, and Father Wadding here needs to come with me for his own good, so I’d best-”

“Whoa, whoa. Slow down there. Last I heard, the good Father doesn’t want to go with you.”

“Perhaps,” said another voice, accented similarly to John O’Neill’s “but you’ll not be involved in the decision one way or the other. And be very careful as you turn-you and all your men.”

Harry obeyed, turning carefully. He discovered that no less than six soldiers, in buff coats and capelline helmets similar to the earl’s, had eased silently into the rectory’s antechamber. They had evidently entered through the doorway leading out into the small arboretum that was tucked against the building’s north side. They were all carrying what looked like primitive, oversized pepperbox revolvers; about half of them were aimed at him. And Harry thought:

Well, this sucks.

Owen Rowe O’Neill tried to make sense of what he was seeing: one of John’s escorts-big Synnot, no less-had been disarmed by the newcomers, hastily bound, and left behind like a sack of potatoes in the antechamber. These newcomers were obviously not Spanish, but then again, they were not obviously anything. They were deployed like soldiers, or raiders, but they evinced no uniformity of equipage whatsoever. Except, that is, the up-time weapons they were all holding. And these firearms were not the exorbitantly priced and notoriously unreliable copies that were as obvious as they were rare. These up-time guns were the real business, from the look of them. But that implied- no, no time for hypothesizing.

“You.” Owen jabbed the muzzle of his pepperbox at the youngish fellow who seemed to be the leader of the newcomers. “Why are you here? Be quick in answering; the guards will be back soon enough.”

“They are here already, Senor,” amended a new voice, in English, but with a heavy Spanish accent. “Drop your weapons. All of you.”

Owen and his Wild Geese turned. Standing wide-legged and with a clear field of fire upon both groups of intruders, was a young Spanish officer flanked by two guards, all with guns out and ready. They had evidently followed along right behind Owen and his men over the front grounds and through the small arboretum.

Owen calculated. If he rushed the Spanish, his own men would certainly have time to take cover and then their pepperboxes would carry the day, at this range. If he was less suicidally minded, Owen might live by dropping flat, but then some of his own men would surely get cut down, possibly leaving the newcomers in charge of the situation. And if he waited Spaniard lifted his snaplock pistol impatiently: “Senores, I will have either your weapons, or you, on the ground-now. Juan, inform Sergeant Juarez that we have discovered a plot to-”

A hint of movement-a tall, stealthy figure-flitted up to the rear of the young Spanish officer, who must have seen the quick shift of focus in Owen’s eyes; he spun.

Or tried to. Behind the triad of Spaniards, the wraithlike form resolved into a man, up-time pistol already hovering at the rear of one guard’s head. There was sharp report, then, as the gun re-angled slightly, another report. The first man had barely started falling as the second bullet exited the young officer’s skull just above his ear, a jet of blood tracing the projectile’s trajectory.

The second guard, his rifle turning through a longer arc, had almost completed spinning about when another weapon spoke twice from farther down the arboretum’s path. The last of the three Spaniards doubled up around the first slug, and slumped over limply when hit by the second.

The unseen gunman emerged from the concealment of the arboretum’s vines. But no, Owen realized: it wasn’t a gun man.

It was a gun woman. The realization of which made Owen’s jaw sag.

Sherrilyn almost grinned when she saw the look on the faces of the pepperbox-armed gang that had sneaked in just ahead of them. “Keep those hands up, mister,” she said to the one who had been talking. “Same goes for your pals.”

“Eh?” he answered.

Thomas North pushed past the still-stunned down-time leader, nine-millimeter pistol secured in both hands as he moved quickly to link up with the rest of the Crew and Harry — Who sounded genuinely grateful. “Well, Thomas, you sure are a sight for sore-”

“Make your apologies, later, Harry. Right now, we-”

“Hey, I wasn’t apologiz-!”

“Well, you should be. First things first: what the bloody hell is going on here?”

Sherrilyn waved Felix and Gerd-whom they’d met just south of the rendezvous site-toward the guns of the nine buff-coated intruders: Irishmen, from the sound of them. As the two of them collected the weapons and held the Irish at gunpoint, Sherrilyn joined the group clustered around the door into the rectory.

Things had gone deadly quiet as soon as Thomas had opened his mouth. The other Irish fellow in the rectory-medium-sized, built square and deep in the chest, but light in the hips and legs-was looking at Thomas as if he had just devoured a newborn infant. “Feckin’ sassenach. Of course. Here with some up-time mercenaries to assassinate Father Luke, using the chaos of the moment to sneak in and kill ’im.”

For a moment, the whole Wrecking Crew was speechless. “What?” Sherrilyn finally squawked, “What the hell is he talking about?”

But the Irishman wasn’t finished. “Well, yeh bastards, you’ve put your foot in it now. Drop your weapons or I’ll call the rest of the Spanish on you so fast that-”

Harry didn’t shout often, but when he did, it was a sharp, cutting baritone: “Shut up! Those gunshots have called the Spanish better than you could have. Now, the way I figure it, we’ve got maybe ten seconds. So hear this: I don’t know what the hell a sassenach is, but I’m here on orders from the USE. And I’m not here to kill the priest. Hell, I don’t even know who he is. But you want him out? Fine by me. Because right now, if we don’t work together, we’re all going to die together.”

The irate Irish earl frowned more deeply but looked less homicidal. On the other hand, at the arctic rate his mood was changing “Agreed!” barked the other Irish leader, the taller one who had been in Sherrilyn’s sights. “We work together, leave together, sort it out afterwards.”

“Done,” said Harry — Just as the first of the Spanish came charging in through the same doorway that Harry had used, the one that led back to the staff quarters and the kitchen in St. Isidore’s annex.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

John O’Neill, still half-blind with rage and distrust, had taken a step closer to the sassenach — who turned away, and leveled his up-time pistol at the oncoming Spanish. Two ear-splitting snaps-reports, but so unlike the hoarse, throaty roars of muzzle-loaders-dropped the first Spaniard who came through the door, a middle-aged man with a sergeant’s sash. The three with him brought up their own pieces, but the wide-barreled carbines of Lefferts and one of his men were already trained on the doorway. Their discharge was thunderous, painful within the close, walled space-and John checked to be sure that the weapons had not, in fact, exploded. But the effects were clear enough: the cuirass of the first Spanish soldier was riddled by holes, and, as he went backward, a wide spray of blood preceded his fall. One of the two behind him must have picked up a ball, as well; his left arm buckling as the impact pulled him in that direction, the Spaniard’s own piece discharged, sending a lead ball spalling off the antechamber floor, through a window and whining out into the arboretum. The discharge of the second up-time weapon-another of these slim yet monstrously powerful musketoons-followed an eye blink behind the first. It made a red ruin of the wounded soldier’s head and arms, and must have clipped the third in the leg; he dropped with a moan. That sound was cut short by a single shot from the woman-the woman? — with Lefferts’ band; the Spaniard crumpled backward.

John knew he should act, should do something productive, but for the moment, all he could do was think: A woman? John had heard the rumors, but refused to believe them. A woman? Traveling with soldiers-no, raiders-in the field? How did they all-?

Noise. It came from just beyond the side-door of the rectory, the one that led out into the small garden that was tucked into a small niche between buildings of the annex. The Spanish would have had to climb a wall to get there this quickly, but “Lefferts, Owen-here!” John was moving as he snapped the order, leaping to the side of the door, drawing his sword in the same motion.

The door burst open even as he landed beside it. He saw a pistol in his face, snapped his wrist to convert his sword’s unsheathing into an abbreviated back-handed cut. Blood sprayed into his face at the same moment that thunder and powder-grit exploded against his reflex-shut eyes, and sent a bolt of searing lightning across the top of his right ear.

Which no longer worked.

He noticed.

As he fell.

Backward.

And landed with a crash that he felt rather than heard, but it jarred him out of his daze.

Just in time to gasp as someone fell on top of him. Weapons were discharging above and around John as he pushed the person-well, the body-off of him. Judging from its half-severed hand, it was the corpse of the Spaniard-the captain of the guard, from the look of his blood-spattered gear-who had almost shot him in the face. But John’s sword slice had not been what had killed the hidalgo: three perfectly round holes in his cuirass were clearly the cause of death. And the only person near enough to have done the shooting was the woman, who was already stepping sideways to get a better angle out into the garden. Staggering forward one step, John surveyed the situation out there, saw a knot of swordsmen entangled just beyond the door, and smiled.

At last: the perfectly uncomplicated and spine-tingling rush of combat. Oh, how I’ve missed it he thought, as he headed for the melee with great, bounding strides…

At least that bigoted Irish bastard isn’t dead; there would’ve been hell to pay for that, reflected Thomas as he swapped magazines and took stock of the situation.

In addition to the three Spaniards he and Sherrilyn had gunned down, four more had been killed coming in from the kitchen and pantry area, and three more by the rectory’s garden door where-for some idiotic reason-the earl and a few of his bog-hoppers had gone outdoors to have a little sword fight. But Matija and Sherrilyn were moving in that direction, too, and they’d be sure to make a quick end of that little machismo-induced melee. Of greater concern was the doorway that led from the rectory anteroom into the short corridor leading to the apse of the church. That was where most of the on-duty guards would no doubt fall-back, make a plan…

Which would involve a flanking maneuver. Probably making use of the same arboretum through which North had entered, since it was easily accessed from the front of the church. But that flanking move would be a feint only. The widest, yet shortest approach route was through the anteroom corridor linking to the apse “Harry-”

“Yeah, I know. You take Felix and George, as well as any Irish that aren’t needed in the rectory, and cover the corridor to the church. Donald, Gerd, and I will set up a cross fire in the arboretum; they’ll be coming that way, too.”

Thomas waved to George. “You heard Harry; on me, Sutherland. And you-” he turned to a particularly well-groomed Irishman who had just recovered his pepperbox revolver “-how are you with a sword?”

“I’m better with a scalpel.”

Thomas stared, then realized, judging from the easy, elegant diction, that this “bog-hopper” was telling the truth. “Then get in the rear, Doctor, and order your two mates here to cover this door. Swords and pistols, and stand to the side until I say; they’ll come hard, when they do. George, Felix, either side of the door. Shotguns out, pistols ready. Doctor, do be good enough to watch the door leading back into the main annex. If you detect any-”

Shotguns started firing rapidly out in the arboretum; the fast-paced BOOM-thra-thunk-BOOM-thra-thrunk sequence was consistent with a rapid pumping of double-aught rounds downrange.

Thomas edged close to the apse-hallway door, cheated it open a sliver And saw the double-doors at the apse-end of the corridor swing wide, the Spanish bursting through them three abreast, swordsmen in the lead, musketeers behind.

He let them come half the twenty feet. Then he pulled open the antechamber door. Too far into their charge and too far away from cover to settle in for a gun battle, the Spanish came harder, the musketeers shouting for clearance, hoping to get a shot.

Thomas leveled his pistol and said, “Now!” He aimed at the point man, but did not fire. Felix and George leaned around the door jamb and started pumping shotgun rounds into the Spanish at a range of eight feet.

The first rank went down as a wave of tattered and bloody corpses, revealing the second rank, one or two of whom had taken minor wounds from the. 33 caliber balls that that slipped between the bodies in front of them. At their center-and now clearly revealed for Thomas-was the target he expected to find: the career NCO, a little salt mixed into the pepper of his campaigner’s beard. That career soldier had realized any spot in the first rank was suicide, but had also known he had to be present to press home the charge. He had to get in among the enemy with both a sword and tactical acumen that had been honed by decades of experience. He, the seasoned Spanish sergeant, was arguably the most potent weapon of the epoch, having been forged along a bloody trail that stretched from Madrid to Maastricht to Macau and back again.

Thomas, with an easy easy but firm grip on the nine-millimeter, let the tip of the bead rise up into the v-notch of the rear sight, saw the sternum line of the sergeant’s cuirass aligned there as well, and squeezed the trigger. And again, for good measure.

The sergeant went down.

Sic transit gloria mundi est, reflected Thomas.

As the next rank closed in, Thomas stepped back and the Irish jumped up, pepperboxes thundering. Still giving ground, Thomas started targeting the musketeers between the heads and shoulders of the Wild Geese.

The Irish-credit to be given where credit was due-seemed to intuit the overall strategy. After littering the doorway with Spaniards, they too backed up to the let the last of them rush into the antechamber.

Felix and George’s reloaded shotguns thundered into that press from either side. The space was suddenly choked with falling bodies, helmets, weapons, and blood. A nuisance, really, Thomas conceded as he found an opening and fired two quick rounds at one of the musketeers hanging back at the church doors — Who fell. Two of his comrades ducked behind the walls of the apse; an equal number snapped off return shots. One musket ball hit the doorjamb, another hit one of the last Spaniards still standing.

“Cover! Back!” ordered Thomas, obeying his own command.

George, Felix, and the Irish tucked back out of sight in the antechamber, although not before one of them took a ball in the upper leg, and another was clipped near along his left calf.

Harry’s voice came from behind. “Thomas, hold them here.”

He turned and nodded at the American who was leaning in through the arboretum doorway. Harry returned the nod, motioned for Ohde to stay in a covering position and led Gerd forward at a crouched sprint, sticking close to the side of the church and making for its entrance. A reciprocal flanking action: just as Thomas would have done himself.

“Now what?” asked the Irish surgeon from where he was staunching the one Irishman’s thigh-wound.

“Now, we play peek-a-boo with the musketeers.” Thomas leaned out, took a shot at nothing. Ducked back. Then he edged the rim of his helmet out beyond the doorjamb.

Two musket blasts responded, one of which sent a ball whining into the rectory itself, eliciting a mighty, if indistinct, oath from one of the Irish who had evidently finished amusing themselves playing at swords in the garden.

Thomas studied the litter of Spanish equipment at his feet, saw an undischarged musket, toed it to one of the Irish pistoleers in the antechamber. “Shoot it,” he said.

“At what?” the Irishman asked, puzzled.

“At the Spaniards in the apse.”

He took a quick squint around the corner. “Can’t see ’em.”

“You don’t have to. Just shoot in their general direction. Keep them busy.”

“Why?”

“You’ll see. Well, more like ‘you’ll hear.’ Now be a good fellow and shoot at nothing, please.”

The Irishman shrugged, sensibly did not expose more than the barrel and his right eye, fired, and hit the lintel of the door into the apse.

“See,” asked Thomas, “now how hard was that?”

“Harder to understand than do-sir,” came the answer. “What the bollocks good is it to-?”

The sudden multiple shotgun discharges within the church sounded like a short, intense bombardment by light artillery. Wonderful acoustics in these Italian churches, reflected Thomas, as he stepped out into the line of fire. He considered whether or not it would be prudent to swap magazines again. He became aware of someone staring at him: the Irishman with the discharged Spanish musket.

“So all we were doing-”

“-was keeping the musketeers in the apse focused on us, yes. And making sure there was plenty of noise covering the approach of our counterflankers. The Spanish had no way of knowing that all their own flankers had been cut down so quickly by Harry in the arboretum. So we just had to keep them from glancing back at what they thought was their secure flank-the front door of the church-long enough for Harry to make his counterflanking strike there. Now, relieve the doctor at the annex door; he has two wounded men to tend to.” North headed back toward the rectory.

John managed to stand up a little straighter when the sassenach came back into the rectory. Father Wadding had grown very quiet, staring round at the bodies littering his sanctum sanctorum. Owen approached, asked, “Father, I’m sorry to have to ask, but is this all of them?”

“What do you mean?”

Owen bit his lip before continuing. “Is this the full lot of the guards? Are there any more?”

Father Luke stood suddenly, and John saw that the infamous Wadding ire had ignited. His dark eyes seemed to stab into Owen. “Why do you want to know, Owen Roe? Haven’t you slaked your thirst for blood just yet?”

Owen looked away. He was afraid that if Wadding saw the look in his eyes the priest would know that he’d already given the order to have any surviving enemy soldiers slain. He’d disliked giving that order, but hadn’t seen any choice. They simply couldn’t afford to leave any eyewitnesses behind.

It was a moot point, in any event. From their actions, it was obvious that Lefferts had given his own people the same order. Father, “he said, quietly, “we didn’t want this to happen. But it has. And now we must leave. But we can’t know how to do that most safely until we know if there are any guards left.”

“Ah, so you need to know how many you have yet to hunt down? Well, there might be some hiding under the altar. It’d be a fine place for the crowning glory-or should that be gory? — of his unholy bloodbath. This is a church, blast you, a church! It is sacred, a sanctuary for all who come within its walls. And you have-”

The up-timer woman spoke. “Father Wadding. You are certainly right. And I think we should hear everything you have to say. But if there are any guards left, they could be running for help. From what we’ve seen of this area, the Spanish have a lot of troops billeted just north of here, in the Villa Ludovisi. If that’s right, they will have heard the shooting and will come to investigate, sooner or later. I’m betting on sooner. But if someone runs from here to tell them what happened, their response time will become ‘right now.’ So please, for the sake of our survival, let me put this to you: other than the ones you see here in the rectory, we’ve accounted for about thirty more guards. Is that the full complement?”

Wadding’s shoulders slumped. “I believe so. Most of them, for a certainty-but I do not keep close track of their numbers. And there are always some coming and going, delivering messages, taking a day or two of leave, or taking an hour or two to pursue other-pleasures.”

Harry entered, hearing the end of the report. “I think some soldiers and one or two cooks may have run off right at the start of the fight, but they won’t be able to report anything specific that would identify us. I kept Paul stationed out back, watching for leakers who did see something and who might head toward the Ludovisi place. He’s still there, and waved all clear. As long as we get out of here quickly, we should be all right.”

John remembered to wipe his sword-on a Spaniard-before sheathing it.

“You would so defile the dead, you young scut?”

John stared at Wadding, and remembered the resentment he’d often felt for the man before. “I’m thinking I’d rather you go back to calling me ‘Don John,’ from here on in, Father. And I’m not in the mood for one of your pious lectures. Where are the domestics, and the other clergy?”

Wadding had drawn up to his full height. “We only had two servants working here, now. And only one was in today. Who no doubt had the good sense to flee when the firing started. And no, he will not go to the Ludovisi Villa; he lost half his family to the Spanish. He will want-need-to avoid questioning upon the events of this day.

“I sent the students and the other priests to Gondolpho, where the Pontifical Irish College has a house for religious retreats. Only Father Hickey remains here with me.”

“Who is, I think, approaching,” reported Connal, from the antechamber.

Sure enough, Anthony Hickey hobbled into the rectory. Although only two years older than Wadding, the years did not rest lightly upon the priest. Arthritis had already struck permanent, gnarling blows against Hickey’s knees and hands, and his lank white hair fit all too well with his much-lined face.

But John hardly saw all that. This was Father Anthony, the priest who had always been more sympathetic than strict, more paternal than profound. Yes, he was an excellent scholar, but he had been better still as a surrogate uncle to the young heir of the great and impossibly detached Hugh O’Neill. A father who had never had time for or interest in this son, who some had snickered was “Johnnie-come-lately…and — slowly.” A father who, in the eight years he lived in Rome, never once summoned the boy to his home, and hardly ever wrote him a letter from the time that he was deposited with Archduchess Isabella at age seven.

John felt his command persona fall away, and did not care in the least that it had: “Father Anthony,” he said. And opened his arms.

The frail priest doddered toward him. But somehow, when he got there, despite John’s slightly greater height and much greater mass, it seemed that it was Father Anthony who enveloped the earl in a great, fond hug, rather than the other way around. After a few moments, John realized that the room had become very still. “Father Anthony,” he repeated; his eyes stung a bit.

“Ah, Johnnie,” breathed the priest. “You’ve not changed.” He looked around at the bodies for the first time. “What a hash,” he breathed. “Johnnie, did you have to?”

John hung his head. “It was them or us, Father. Not what we wanted. We thought to nick the two of you out of here with a piece of paper and a wink, as it were. But-” He looked at Lefferts, who looked away. “-but things didn’t work out that way. No evil intended by anyone, Father, but it happened nonetheless.”

“Man always runs afoul of man’s plans.” The priest nodded, looked at the group, smiled at Owen, with whom he had a passing acquaintance, and the other Wild Geese in the room. But the smile dropped away when his eyes found the Wrecking Crew, first resting upon Harry, then Sherrilyn, then Thomas, then George, and then back to Harry. “Johnnie, who are these-persons?”

“Eh-chance met fellow-travelers, Father.”

“Travelers? Why ‘travelers’?”

“Because we’re leaving now, Father. All of us. You too.”

“With them?”

“With all our friends,” John amended, earning a small smile from Harry.

Anthony looked at the Wrecking Crew yet again, and, alarmed, looked back at his old pupil and unofficial charge. “They’re friends, are they? So are you consorting with the Devil, now, Johnnie?”

John sighed. “I just may be, Father; I just may be.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

The up-timer security precautions surrounding access to their aircraft facilities in Mestre had been challenging to navigate, Valentino admitted, but time and luck had been on his boss Rombaldo’s side.

As Valentino tugged his uniform coat straight, he conceded that the up-timers had an almost impossible job maintaining tight security around their flying machines, simply because the complicated vehicles needed so many mechanics and support crew. In addition, there was a constant running back and forth by special artisans who manufactured precision replacement parts, including screws and bearings. With all that traffic, flawless base security was an impossibility.

But as it turned out, there had been an even easier way into the USE’s waterside airplane repair and refitting complex in Mestre. Although the aviators themselves oversaw most of the primary engine and structural repairs, they had almost a dozen assistants. Classified into two strata, mechanics and junior mechanics, it was they who did the physical hammering and lifting and replacing and tightening and loosening. All under the watchful eyes of the two aviator-mechanics.

However, in just the past week, one of the senior mechanics had announced his departure. He had apparently been offered a position with a firm determined to build airships; they needed a person with extensive knowledge of, and experience with, up-time engines. In addition to even better pay, it was the chance of a lifetime: the mechanic, a down-timer, was now going to work as a senior, hands-on motor expert.

Predictably, one of the junior mechanics was be bumped up to fill this hole, and that in turn put a hole in the roster of the junior mechanics. With the Jupiter’s support staff thus down one man, the aviators had interviewed a number of the more experienced technical assistants: a glorified term for the even larger work crew that fetched parts, maintained regular supplies, and ensured the safe storage of fuels and lubricants. The inevitable result: one of these was promoted to become a new junior mechanic. And this meant that someone had to be brought in to become a new technical assistant, which was itself understood to be an apprenticeship position. Which, for Rombaldo, had been the operational equivalent of finding a diamond under his pillow.

Having comparatively modest entry requirements, the position of technical assistant had been a perfect fit for any one of a dozen persons a local underworld chief had markers on. In the juridical parlance favored by the shady lawyer retained by this underworld chief, these were persons who were susceptible to extortion, due to their prior misdeeds-the evidence of which was now in the underworld chief’s hands, thanks to some tips by the shady lawyer. Rombaldo had purchased the marker on one of these compromised individuals: a rakishly handsome thirty-year-old precision tool-maker who had indulged in a rather torrid affair with a slightly older woman, a fading beauty who had married well above her station. To a brother-in-law of one of Venice’s august Council of Ten, no less.

The arrangement was simplicity itself. The tool man-a nickname which became a predictable source of bawdy humor, given the nature of his indiscretions-would apply for the position of technical assistant. If successful, he would then follow a few simple instructions. He would, on completing his assignment for Rombaldo, receive the incriminating evidence on him back into his hands. No doubt he would burn those damning (and deliciously indiscreet) letters as soon as he received then. And would just as surely rush to reassure, and possibly reembrace, the nervous Venetian trophy-wife, who would once more be secure in the unassailable esteem-and legally-filed will-of her elderly spouse.

Rombaldo had been forced to purchase the tool man’s letters for the exorbitant sum of three hundred lire. However, it was a crucial resource and worth the great price, much like any other valuable commodity.

And so, thought Valentino, to business. He looked over at one of Rombaldo’s better local hires, a cheery fellow named Ignatio who enjoyed a good joke and the occasional torture of hijacked house pets. Valentino nodded approval of Ignatio’s matching uniform. Arguably, it looked even better on this new henchman, who had served briefly in the militia. Ignatio had not joined those ranks out of civic-mindedness, of course; it had been for the quite lucrative black market contacts he made there.

Valentino glanced at their papers, fakes which had been quite challenging for Cesare, Rombaldo’s forger, to duplicate. The up-timers had evidently employed a few rather clever tricks in the crafting of them, but Cesare had painstakingly overcome the difficulties. Valentino now passed the fruits of those labors to Ignatio. He stared at them. Valentino shrugged. “Our lives could depend on these papers. I thought you might like to check yours, at least.”

Ignatio shook his head. He smiled, but also blushed. “No need. I can’t read.”

“Oh,” answered Valentino, who pocketed the papers and suppressed his admiration for Ignatio’s honesty-all the more because he concealed his own illiteracy with shamed diligence. He led them out of their rented room, down the stairs, and toward the door that would put them upon the streets of Mestre.

And in plain sight of the up-timers’ aircraft repair compound.

Valentino arrived at the gate, hand upon sword, a firm, almost grim look plastered on his face. The face that stared back at him was fair, sunburnt, topped by auburn hair scorched into red-gold by the Italian sun. The uniform of a USE Marine from the embassy detachment was unmistakable. Two of his comrades cradled carbine versions of their army’s standard flintlock; the posture was not threatening, but their weapons could easily be swung into a ready position.

“Business?” asked the one at the gate.

“Extra guards for the compound,” Valentino answered in Italian. “Sent by the Arsenal.”

The freckled nose of the guard quirked a bit at the stream of clearly unfamiliar words. “ Arsenal? Garda? You help USE?”

Valentino nodded twice, severely. “S i. Garda. USE.”

The gate guard nodded. “Papers.”

Valentino presented them, saw the other two guards studying him. And he thought: Now I’ll find out if I got enough of the bloodstains out of this shirt. Pity that it took a knife in the neck to kill the real guard sent by the Arsenal: messy business.

But in a country full of stained clothing, whatever telltale marks there might have been on Valentino’s uniform excited no particular interest by the guards. The one with the brown-red hair opened the gate, returned their papers, pointed ahead and then made a leftward hooking gesture with his hand. “Take the third left. Dritto. Sinistra.”

With an abbreviated salute, Valentino entered the compound, Ignatio close behind him.

“So you understand your duty?” the Marine asked Valentino, speaking with a faint German accent.

“Yes. We walk the parmenter-”

“Perimeter.”

“ Si, yes, ‘perimeter.’ One of us inside, one of us outside. I walk in this direction, like the arms of a clock; my man goes against the clock’s direction. Yes?”

“Yes. So why don’t you start your firs-wait a minute; here comes the last of the fuel. Stand here for a moment. Guard the other barrels.” The Marine left to speak with a startlingly handsome man who was pulling a safety-railed handcart loaded with six casks that, even at this distance, gave off a distinct petroleum smell. It was equally obvious, from the descriptions Valentino had been given, that the glorified fuel stevedore was none other than the Tool Man.

The other Marine inside the building wandered over to Valentino and his partner. “So you’re from the Arsenal, eh?” he asked, a good-natured smile creeping on to his ruddy face. This one spoke with less of an accent; was either Scottish or Irish, Valentino guessed.

“ Si, Arsenal.”

“Drinking mate of mine serves the same masters, richt enuf. Would you know Roberto Giacomo? Fine husky lad about yea tall?”

“No capito; no understand.” Valentino lied. Just what he needed: some overly friendly pigeon who happened to know someone in the Arsenal.

“Well, I can try my Italian,” said Mr. Friendly in a fair approximation of the Venetian dialect. Wonderful. The buffoon was a linguist on top of it. This was just getting better and better. And Ignatio was becoming visibly anxious, which in his case meant an increasing likelihood that he was going to do something singularly violent and stupid.

“ Per favore,” called the first Marine from over by the fuel casks, “help us? Per favore?”

Valentino almost thanked the man for providing an excuse to get away from his chatty fellow guard. The Venetian thug stepped lively to the hand-cart and helped to keep it from tipping as the German-accented Marine and the Tool Man turned it. He then laid a thoroughly unnecessary steadying hand on the cart’s rail as they wheeled it over alongside the other three, similarly loaded trolleys; he was happy to be doing anything other than fending off friendly inquiries about Arsenal troopers from the Scotsman.

“That finishes it,” affirmed the senior German marine with a curt nod. Turning back to Valentino, he said, “Now then; vee shall measure the time of your watch from-”

Tool Man coughed lightly. “Sir.”

“Yes?”

“The fuel: you must sign to confirm receipt of it. And you, too,” he said, speaking over the shoulder of the German to the Scottish Marine, who approached readily enough.

The German Marine was looking at the proffered papers with a frown. “I have signed these papers before,” he declared. “When you brought the first handcart. Surely you remember? When you knocked on the door, vee-”

The Scotsman was now leaning over to stare at the papers himself, his back fully exposed. Valentino looked over at Ignatio and nodded.

The knife in Valentino’s forearm scabbard slid down quickly and smoothly into his palm. He hopped, light as a dancer, to a position directly behind the German. The trick to this maneuver, he had found over the years, was to do everything at once, rather than in sequence.

So he simultaneously grabbed a fistful of the Marine’s medium length hair with his left hand and pulled sharply backward, even as his right hand came up and drew the plain, quillonless blade sharply across the German’s arched neck.

Blood sprayed out over Tool Man, who gasped and stumbled back against the trolley, eyes bulging. The German tried to struggle, but at the end of the neck-slicing sweep, Valentino gave a quick, well-practiced flip of his wrist; the point of the knife dug in just before it cleared the ear, clipping the carotid artery. The blood spray, which had already started diminishing, briefly surged again before the German lost strength, swayed, and fell over in the rapidly widening red pool.

Which was when Valentino realized that Ignatio was having some unexpected trouble: the Scotsman had apparently spent some time wearing armor in the field, and had retained some of those old habits. A light gorget, unseen beneath his collar, had intercepted enough of Ignatio’s identical slash so that the resulting wound was serious, but not immediately debilitating. Now the big Scot had Ignatio’s knife-hand in one powerful, meaty paw, and was steadily moving his own right out of his assassin’s weaker grasp. Toward his pistol.

Valentino assessed, measured, leaped and struck out straight from his shoulder with his own blade.

It entered the Scotsman’s back at a right angle to, and left of, the spine, just under the scapula. It plunged in so hard and fast and level that the edge of the handle almost pushed into the wound.

The Scot quaked once, a groan dying out of his chest as he swayed, and then fell forward, heart pierced from behind.

Ignatio’s grateful smile annoyed Valentino, who snapped, “Quick! Close and lock the main door!”

Ignatio complied quickly. In the meantime, Valentino stripped off his Arsenal uniform and glanced at Tool Man. “You have the change of clothes for us?”

“Yes, right here.”

“Good. Lay them out on the floor. Quickly.”

“Yes, but what do we-?”

“There is no ‘we,’ here. I tell you what you do. First, break open the smallest of the fuel casks and spread the contents around. Stave in a few of the others.”

Ignatio had returned, a grin on his face. “Now what?”

“Strip. Wipe off any blood. Then get into those clothes.”

“Which are-?”

“Which are what porters wear here in the compound, as well as some of the technical assistants.”

“And then?”

“And then watch the door.” Valentino turned to Tool Man, saw that he was almost done spilling out the first container of gasoline into a wide puddle. “You.”

“Yes?”

“There is another way out of here, yes?”

“Yes, a side door. Over there. Only big enough for one person.”

“Does it lead to the alley I saw between this warehouse and the next?”

“Yes.”

“Excellent. That is how we are leaving.”

Tool Man looked suddenly relieved. “Thank you.”

“Why?” asked Valentino, as he pulled a pre-cut fuse out of his discarded pants pocket and snatched up the Scotsman’s pistol.

“I–I thought you were going to kill me.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I saw your faces. I did not think you would let me live.”

“Old wives’ tales,” scoffed Valentino. “If we went around doing that, we couldn’t very well successfully blackmail people to help us, could we?”

Tool Man looked even more relieved.

Valentino used the narrow end of the pistol’s ramrod to unseat and tear up the currently loaded charge. Once it was loose enough, he shook it out upon the floor. “Ignatio?”

“Yes?”

“Is our way still clear?”

“Yes.”

“We’re leaving by the side door. But we won’t start running until the chaos starts. Then, we’ll just be a few more workers rushing to get out the gates.”

“Hey, yeah. That’s smart!”

Valentino managed not to roll his eyes. He made sure there was ample powder in the pistol’s pan, closed the frizzen, cocked the hammer. “Here,” he said to Tool Man, “take the other end of this fuse. Now, walk away, toward the fuel, pulling it out straight.”

Tool Man complied.

“Now, lay the fuse down along the floor. Make sure the last two inches are in the puddle of fuel.”

Again, Tool Man did as he was told.

“No, no,” said Valentino with a shake of his head, “you’ve done it wrong.” He walked over, kneeled down, made sure an extra half inch was immersed in the gasoline. “There, that’s right. Do you see the difference?”

Tool Man nodded.

“And don’t forget,” Valentino added as he stood up, “we need to keep those false papers you brought.”

“Why?”

“Best you don’t know.” Valentino pointed. “You left them on the trolley, there.”

Tool Man turned around to look at the indicated spot. As he did, Valentino slid out his dagger again and jabbed it into the back of Tool Man’s neck, just below the base of the skull. As the first spasm went like a wave down the body, Valentino re-angled the last bit of his thrust higher, pushing the point so it went up under the skull’s occipital shelf.

Tool Man fell over, quaking.

Valentino wiped his knife on the body. “You know,” he observed sagely, “a lot of those old wives’ tales are true.” He rose, walked to the dry end of the slow-burning fuse and kneeled down, calling to Ignatio. “Are we still clear?”

“No one in sight.”

“Then get out the side door and stay in the shadows. Now.”

As Ignatio complied, Valentino scooped the powder from the pistol’s extracted charge into a small pile, mounded up over the dry end of the fuse. Then he leaned the pistol over toward it, so the frizzen was almost in contact with the loose powder.

He heard the side door open and Ignatio’s footfalls recede through it.

Valentino squeezed the trigger. Without a charge in the barrel, the weapon simply made a hoarse FARAFF! when the striker hit the powder in the pan, which flared out and down to touch of the powder atop the fuse.

Valentino stood there long enough to make sure the fuse had caught. Then he turned and sprinted for the side door.

Tom Stone handed another cup of coffee toward Miro, who only shook his head, eyes upon the disaster taking place across the lagoon.

The embassy’s veranda afforded them an excellent view of the black plume of burning petroleum. Of course, everyone in Venice could see that. But from the veranda, they were also able to discern the fierce, bright flickers at its base. Meaning that, since the flames were visible from this distance of almost three miles, it was, in actuality, nothing less than a full-blown conflagration. In leaden silence, they continued to sip coffee and contemplate the unfolding of the infernal spectacle before them.

As Tom put his cup back upon the table, a mushroom cloud of seething, yellow-orange flame roiled up, momentarily obscuring the dense black smoke. But even as it threw its defiance at the sky, the fiery fist curled over on itself and died.

“That would be last of the gas still in containers,” Tom observed calmly.

Miro nodded, waiting, counting the seconds. Just as he reached fifteen, a low roar reached them. It peaked as a kind of hoarse imitation of a siege gun volley, and then dwindled back down to nothing.

The gulls, attention focused on the scraps that might be available from the humans on the veranda, continued wheeling in their disinterested arcs.

“Well, I’d say we’re pretty much screwed,” Tom commented, sipping at his third cup of coffee.

“We haven’t seen the flare signaling ‘plane lost,’ though.”

“Not yet. But there’s no knowing if the fire will reach the plane itself. If they followed my instructions, they moved the fuel to the warehouses furthest away from the hangar. But a fire like that-” He put down his coffee and rubbed his eyes with both hands. “Estuban, given the message Harry Lefferts sent yesterday, I have to admit: I’m getting pretty worried. I should never have let Frank go to Rome.”

Miro spoke softly. “Unless I am much mistaken, you could no more have compelled him to remain here than you could have brought yourself to issue such an ultimatum. You may have chosen to craft your family along atypical lines, Tom, but since you love and respect each other, they must have been good lines.”

“Yeah. Maybe. But right now, those lines are all pointing at the same destination: disaster.”

“No, I do not think so.”

Tom looked over, eyes controlled-probably trying hard not to indulge in false hopes, Miro guessed. “Really? You mean we have some good news, for a change?”

“My balloon will get here within the week. Certainly before the Wrecking Crew returns from Rome.”

“Empty handed,” Tom amended glumly.

“Not quite. They don’t have Frank and Giovanna, but they gathered essential information, which all indicates that they will need extra resources for the job. Extra resources which are coming in on the balloon.”

“Yeah, Estuban, but not all of the resources you wanted; the repair parts for the Monster took precedence. Now we’re not going to be able to get it airborne until we get some more fuel down here. Which means another balloon ride.”

Miro nodded. “Yes, Tom. I know. I wish we had another balloon.”

“You and me both. Listen: I’m not annoyed at you, Estuban. You’ve been a life-saver in all this. Where would we be at this point if we didn’t have your balloon?”

Miro shrugged. “In a few years from now, we wouldn’t have to be depending on a single balloon. Or, even if we were, we wouldn’t be restricted to such small payloads.”

Tom shrugged, somewhat distracted. “Well, even the hydrogen design is no bigger than the one you’re using currently.”

“True. But size is not what determines payload.”

Tom nodded, snapping out of what Miro guessed was the trance of an increasingly worried parent. “Sorry; yeah, of course. With more than three times the lift of hot-air, hydrogen is going to really boost how much mass even a balloon of the same size can carry. And since you don’t have to carry fuel for a burner that keeps the air in the envelope heated, you free up a huge amount of the carrying capacity-volume as well as mass-for cargo. About nine tons useful payload instead of the current limit of just under one ton, if I remember the design specs.”

Miro smiled. “I see you’ve been doing some extra reading.”

“Always do, before I get involved in money stuff.”

“A smart investor always considers the investment carefully.”

“Well, yeah, that too. But that’s not really what I meant.” Tom’s big feet started their customary rocking. “Making money is just not that important. Money comes, money goes, and it’s bullshit when it’s around. Makes people sick in their heart and their head. But right now, it seems there’s no choice but to live with it. So if I’m going to get involved in something where I have to worry about how much money I am going to contribute, and what it’s going to be used for, I look really carefully at what I’m buying. I mean, is the project worth all that worry? Is it going to make that big a difference?” Tom’s feet stopped imitating a pair of big, matched metronomes. “Your balloons are worth it. Until I had read through the specs of the hydrogen airship, I didn’t realize just how much they’re worth it. And I’ve got to have a concrete understanding of those details before I can bring myself around to getting involved on the money side of a project. Because if I didn’t, then when all the shit about costing and pricing and amortization of assets begins-and it always does-then I’d get disgusted and walk away. What keeps me committed to a project is what it’s about, what it’s achieving. The money stuff-win, lose, or draw-just makes me want to run the other direction.”

Miro shook his head and smiled. “Tom, did you ever read the Talmud?”

“Uh, some. Not much. Long time ago. Why?”

“Because although you could not sound less like it, some of your opinions about money-about everything worldly, for that matter-are very reminiscent of its wisdom.” Miro sighed, as he looked at the black plume that no longer had any visible flames at its base. “I’m relatively sure that my childhood rabbi would find as much to disapprove of in me as he would find salutary in you. No doubt he would suggest that God destined our paths to cross so you could improve my materialistic soul.”

Tom scoffed. “Well, first off, you’re not the materialist you think you are. I see your eyes when you talk about those balloons. I know a dreamer when I see one, man. I’ve been looking in the mirror a long time, you know.” Tom grinned sheepishly. “And if you were all about money, you wouldn’t be down here on this ‘at cost’ gig, overseeing the rescue of my son and the safety of the pope.”

“And a shining success I’ve made in both cases,” Miro grumbled.

“Okay, Estuban, now let’s not talk pity-party shit, okay? If anything, I was the one in a god-damned rush to get Harry to Rome; you were the one who wanted to wait for a few more resources, in case the job was ‘more problematic.’ Your very words. Your only problem is that you listened to a distraught father and let Harry flex his authority muscles, instead of laying down the law. But you’re the new guy, and Harry has a lot of successes, so basic human dynamics got in the way. And your instincts about those dynamics were not bad ones, either. Besides, I’m sure Ed Piazza and Don Francisco gave you a few sermons on being a team player, and the problems of having authority over people who really didn’t know you, and who had a pretty good track record of getting things done on their own. Probably said something like, ‘don’t think of yourself as a leader; think of yourself as a coordinator.’”

Miro kept his face blank; actually, Piazza had used the term “facilitator” rather than “coordinator,” but in every other particular, Tom Stone’s rendition of Miro’s sessions with Grantville’s intelligence cadre was eerily accurate.

“And as regards the pope, you’re doing the best job anyone can. You’ve got more security forces inbound, and the safe house will be ready in a week. And that”-he pointed at the pillar of smoke-“probably couldn’t have been stopped. Again, you called the event before it occurred. ‘Too big and too much traffic to be secured properly.’ That’s what you said when we walked around the compound after the crash, figuring out how to protect the plane from Borja’s saboteurs.”

“Being right doesn’t help if you aren’t effective, too.”

“Man, you sound like some kind of business school hard-ass, now. Listen: you want to beat yourself up? Fine. But do it on your own time, and know- know — that it’s all bullshit. You did what you could. You protected the plane. They got the gas.” Tom shrugged. “They’ve got professionals, too. Which is another prophetic point you made the day you got here: ‘just because you can’t see enemy, doesn’t mean they’re not here.’”

Miro nodded. “And have been here for weeks, probably. This was simply the first time they had to tip their hands. If they hadn’t acted, we’d have had the plane working again within a few weeks and removed the pope. Or could have quickly extracted the Wrecking Crew a day’s sail beyond Ostia after a successful rescue in Rome. Now, without a plane, we’re the ones racing against the clock, not them.”

Tom nodded back at Miro. “But, thank the Great Pumpkin, we’ve still got your balloon, because if we didn’t, it would be ‘game over, man.’ So-” Tom leaned forward, fists resting gently on his knees “-what’s the new plan?”

PART THREE

June 1635

A thousand screams the heavens smote

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Thomas North watched the dark shape of the boat emerge from the morning mist that lay upon the Laguna Veneta like a carpet of gray cotton. “They’re here,” North called over his shoulder. The sounds of meal-taking in the small pilgrim’s refectory behind him diminished, succeeded by the clatter of plates being collected and removed for washing.

Sherrilyn came to stand beside him. “Can you see who it is?”

“I can barely make out the boat.” Thomas smiled. “But if you’re willing to make a wager-”

“With a sneaky bastard like you? Never.”

Thomas grinned, remembering how, just five days earlier, she had actually out-bluffed the redoubtable Harry Lefferts during a marathon session of five-card stud. Despite the excellent sailing characteristics of their lateen-rigged boat, they had nonetheless spent half a day lying becalmed just south of Bari, waiting for a favorable wind that would bring them to the eastern side of the Adriatic and the northerly current that predominated there. Toward the end of that game, she’d taken the hand on a busted flush, eliciting groans and howls from Gerd, and Paul, the only other members of the Wrecking Crew to leave Rome. These sounds of distress had so alarmed the crew of their small Dalmatian gajeta that the first mate had rushed over to see who’d been injured.

The card-playing had also been an icebreaker for increasing interaction with the Irish Wild Geese. However, with the exception of Wadding, who had apparently learned the rules simply by watching a few hands, they became more perplexed as the play progressed. The earl of Tyrone had pronounced the game as a debased variant of primero and turned his back upon it. Owen Roe-a bit more congenial than his young earl, and far more even-tempered-unsuccessfully tried to understand it as a new form of the English game brag. The other Irish might have found some interest in the game, but, between being poorer than indigent church mice, and more interested in chatting up the up-timers, their focus strayed from the rules and the cards.

After that, the stormy Adriatic had kept them busy, scudding too close to the Dalmatian coast, beacons warning them away from headlands at the last safe minute on more than one occasion. Thomas suspected it was more the extraordinary competence of the crew-a mix of Croats, Ragusans, and Italians-that had saved them in these instances: their knowledge of the coast was uncanny, even at night.

The Venetian lagoon had marked the abrupt end of the crew’s collective navigational knowledge, but one of the Italians had shipped out from piers on the Lido on two prior occasions, and so was able to guide them to their destination: San Francesco del Deserto, a small islet just north of St. Erasmo. There had been some debate over that choice; Harry and North had wanted to head straight in to Venice itself, simply because they knew of no other way to contact Tom Stone and the embassy. Wadding, in his typically quiet way, had pointed out that if Borja was indeed guilty of all that he seemed guilty of, then the main island would be watched by his confidential agents and should be avoided. Thomas had been pleased, but not entirely surprised, at Wadding’s revised opinion of the political realities in contemporary Italy. The boat ride had provided ample opportunity to disabuse good Father Luke of his rather optimistic hopes that Borja’s worst atrocities were, in fact, simply malign propaganda.

Once apprised of the trail of evidence that connected the assassinations, disappearances, and almost capricious slaughter of civilians to Borja’s decrees, Wadding’s nimble and nuanced mind quickly became an invaluable asset. Their current billet was a case in point: only Wadding had known about the small Franciscan monastery on the islet of San Francesco del Deserto. It was a place that had few visitors, and all of those came for purposes of hermitage or induction. It had no commerce, the monks acquiring their scant needs from the smaller, rustic islands nearby. A perfect place to arrive in Venice and yet remain unobserved and quite comfortable.

Bog hoppers or not, North admitted, the Irish were masters of surreptitious activity; they had little choice, given the stern occupation under which they struggled. Not that North would ever say so aloud, but he was of the opinion that his own countrymen had really gone too far in the subjugation of Ireland, and that there was now no way to reverse the situation, much less undo the damage. Of course, the Irish weren’t exactly shining exemplars of Christian charity and restraint, either. North suspected that when the parable of “turn the other cheek” was read out in Irish churches, the priests half-leaned out of their pulpits and whispered sotto voce behind a confidential hand, “except when the barstard is a feckin’ sassenach, o’ course.” Such were the contextualized pieties of the Emerald Isle.

But also, such were its lessons in subtlety. At Wadding’s instruction, a sealed message had gone out yesterday at dawn, entrusted to the order’s youngest novice, who was traveling to nearby St. Erasmo for provisions. While there, he had sought and found a slightly younger childhood friend who was also an aspirant to the order. A brief chat after morning prayer, a blessing, and a lira, and that young aspirant was on his way to the main island to pass the ciphered message on to the couriers’ collective that handled afternoon deliveries to the USE embassy.

And apparently, the message had reached the desired parties. Hopefully, it had also avoided detection by Borja’s many agents. But even if they had intercepted the communique, it would do them little good. The cipher was a disposable code, and was only one of the ways in which the monks had protected the message. Only a priest familiar with the legends of St. Francis, who had reputedly made a hermitage on the islet where they were hiding, would understand the allusive and symbolic cant in which it was written.

But even if Borja’s agents somehow managed to decipher all of that, they would only have learned that Ambassador Stone and Don Estuban were requested to travel to San Francesco del Deserto this morning. How they would get there was a matter left to those summoned. They had no doubt employed a variety of precautions, probably involving a rendezvous of boats in the predawn, to defeat interception. And if Borja’s minions decided to land on the islet itself and attack Thomas turned around; Owen Roe O’Neill was inspecting his pepperbox revolver. Standing by his side, the earl of Tyrone was scowling at the weapon, muttering that a sword was the proper weapon of a warrior and a man. Harry Lefferts had just finished reassembling the shotgun he’d field-stripped after racing through his breakfast. More than half a dozen of the Irish, seasoned in the Low Countries campaigns despite their scant years, lounged about the kitchen door. Dangerous men in a fight, they huddled there like so many young boys, hoping for the favor of an extra roll or rasher of bacon from the indulgent friar-cook. Surveying this array of both mechanical and human weapons, Thomas North couldn’t help smiling at the thought of what a bunch of assassins would encounter if they foolish enough to attack this island. A fitting line from one of the up-time movies he had memorized suggested itself: “Go ahead; make my day.”

“Well, are you coming- sassenach?”

Thomas North looked up and found Owen Roe O’Neill looking at him. With a smile. “That would be ‘Lord Sassenach’ to you, cultchie.”

“And that would be ‘Lord Cultchie’ to you, Lord Sassenach.”

North couldn’t help smiling back. “It seems we have come to an agreement on the mutually odious nature of our relationship.”

“So it seems. Now, are you coming, or are you planning on sneaking off and stealing the sacramental wine when no one’s about?”

“You mean they leave it unlocked?”

“Only because they don’t know about you. Come along, then.”

Miro leaned back when North had finished giving his report. He looked at Tom Stone, who waved the four USE Marines out of the room to join the four already outside. He looked down the table at the O’Neills. John looked back, expressionless. Owen waited a moment for his earl to act, and then nodded at the Wild Geese, who joined the Marines. Miro nodded his thanks to Owen, who nodded back. John looked sideways at his much older cousin, annoyed.

Tom Stone cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to clear the room, but we’re going to start talking plans. Seems like the moment to minimize the number of people hearing them.”

John O’Neill crossed his arms. “I can trust my men. To the death.”

“I believe that, Lord O’Neill, but tell me this: do they ever get drunk? Talk in their cups? Do they keep track of who’s new in a shared billet and who isn’t? Do they remember that every innkeep, serving girl, farrier, stable hand, prostitute might be a potential informer? Because only people who can maintain that kind of highly suspicious frame of mind should be in this room.”

Which made Miro reflect, and not for the first time, that perhaps the earl of Tyrone himself should not be present. But such an exclusion was a diplomatic impossibility.

John seemed a bit mollified by Tom Stone’s explanation, but not much. It was Wadding who found a way out of the growing silence. “Ambassador Stone, we are grateful that you agreed to meet us here on such short notice. It seems we have a number of mutual objectives, and I thought it wise for us to confer on how we might best combine our resources to achieve them.”

Tom Stone glanced at Miro, thereby signaling that, as the ambassador, he was handing off the meeting to the acting chief of local field operations. Miro knew that Tom didn’t much like ambassador-ing, particularly not under these conditions. But protocol demanded his presence. John O’Neill, one of the two exiled princes of Ireland, had asked to meet him, and besides, any conversation that involved rescue plans for his son and daughter-in-law was a conversation Stone had insisted on being a part of, damn it.

Miro leaned forward. “Father Wadding, as I understand it, you were the objective of the Colonels O’Neill.”

“Technically, yes-but in actuality, that mission was just a stalking horse.”

“You mean, if the O’Neills were apprehended in Rome, they could honestly claim that they had been sent after you, without alerting Cardinal Borja to the fact that they were also attempting to rescue the pope.”

“That is correct. A venal sin concealing a mortal sin, as it were.”

“I see. Now, about the mortal sin to which you refer-”

The earl of Tyrone leaned forward aggressively. “Just say plain: do you have Urban in your care or not?”

Wadding looked at the earl, made a gesture of patience, possibly also indirect admonishment; there was clearly history between those two.

Miro looked at John O’Neill directly and answered, “Yes; the pope is under our protection.”

The Irish in the room stopped as though frozen. The Wrecking Crew’s representatives weren’t much less surprised.

Wadding was obviously the trained negotiator among the Irish; he was the first who recovered enough to ask, “Not that we are ungrateful for your extraordinary candor-but why did you tell us?”

“Because, unless I am very much mistaken, you had already guessed as much.”

Owen hid a smile; John’s expression softened; Wadding looked at Miro as if he had discovered a fascinating clue to a puzzle. “And how did you surmise this?”

“By having a long acquaintance with human nature, Father Wadding. From what Colonel North has reported, this doctor of yours who stayed behind-Sean Connal, the representative of the earl of Tyrconnell-spent the days before you left Rome asking the Wrecking Crew to join him in speculating upon Urban’s whereabouts and fate. An innocent enough question, and perfectly reasonable, since it is on everyone’s minds and lips. But the Wrecking Crew’s command staff noticed that Dr. Connal did not as frequently engage them on this same topic.”

“From which you draw what conclusion?” asked Owen with wonder in his voice.

“Why, that Dr. Connal quickly discerned who in the Wrecking Crew could keep a secret and who couldn’t. So he concentrated his attention and efforts upon the Crew’s rank-and-file members, where he surely discovered the telltale signs of persons who suspected far more than they were willing to reveal. He no doubt communicated their identities to you three before you left him behind in Rome.

“That way, on your sea voyage from Rome to Venice, you had ample opportunity to continue those discussions with these more susceptible members of the Wrecking Crew. It hardly mattered that their speculations were neither specific nor detailed-because they arose, in large part, from wondering about the orders they were receiving and the indirect clues they were sensing from their commanders. Of course, they still felt the need to deny any relevant knowledge-but every time they squirmed, that meant you were possibly hitting close to the mark you were seeking: inferential data on the status and whereabouts of Urban himself.”

John and Owen exchanged very long looks. Wadding smiled slightly. “Don Estuban, you do indeed seem an astute observer of human nature, but were these projections the sole source of your deduction?”

“Not at all, merely the hub of the wheel, so to speak. It also made sense that you would naturally begin to wonder about our ‘possession’ of the pope on your own. After all, if the pope’s whereabouts and fate were unknown, then why would the USE deploy its most renowned team of commandos merely to rescue an ambassador’s son? I mean no offense, Mr. Ambassador, but the fate of the pope has immense and even global implications. It is only logical that the USE would devote its best rescue team to the task of locating and retrieving him, if such action was necessary; the demise of Urban VIII would mean the ascendancy of Borja. That would be disastrous for our interests, as well as those of our allies.”

Miro pointed at the O’Neills. “So after the two of you encountered the famous Harry Lefferts and his band in Rome, determined to rescue Frank Stone, you had to eventually conclude, ‘If the USE can spare the Wrecking Crew to retrieve young Stone and his wife, they must already know that the pope is either dead or safe.’ And safe would naturally mean ‘under USE protection,’ at this point.”

Owen and John exchanged yet another long look. Wadding rubbed his rather pointy chin.

“So,” Miro concluded, “remaining coy about the pope’s status would only be an insult to your intelligence. And that would undercut our ability to exchange information freely and plan for joint operations. For, as I understand it, Lord O’Neill, you have said it might be in the interests of your employers and your own countrymen to help us rescue young Mr. Stone and his wife.”

“Could be,” John answered, with a sly smile at Harry, who answered with one of his own. And in that moment, Miro saw that making allies via realpolitik was only half of the earl’s motivation for offering assistance; he, too, had fallen victim to the Harry Lefferts Charisma Effect. Not like an abjectly adoring schoolboy worshiping a sports hero; more like a peer who had met a kindred-spirit that was also a freer spirit, one who lived a life of action and adventure unconstrained by the responsibilities of a prince. But that would only be part of John O’Neill’s motivation “Could be that lending a hand to you is also the only way for me to fulfill my main mission, as well.” John explained. “Now, I’ll confirm something that you’ve probably deduced: we are charged to bring the pope to the Low Countries, to Fernando and Isabella. And I’m betting you won’t go along with that, not right away. But good will starts somewhere, am I right? And besides, unless I make you happy, you’re not going to consent to have two of my men appointed as Urban’s personal bodyguards.”

Miro blinked. “I assure you, Lord O’Neill, the pope has a sizable security contingent. And it will be expanding very soon again.”

“I thought no less. But I am not talking about mere soldiers. I am talking about personal bodyguards. My men will go wherever he does, ready to fight and die to keep His Holiness safe at all times. That’s the kind of protection we were charged to provide. I would satisfy those orders-at least in part and in spirit-by providing two of my men for that service.”

Miro looked at the earl of Tyrone, saw that this decision had come as much from his heart as his head. Miro instinctively understood that this was an important moment, a test of sorts. “Yes. Agreed,” he announced firmly.

The earl’s broad, and frankly surprised, smile made him look almost boyish. “Well, perhaps we’re going to get along famously, after all.”

“It would also be helpful,” mentioned Owen Roe, “to relay this news to the Low Countries. We had thought to send signals through the Venetian network, but if you were to be so helpful as to use your radio to-”

“Colonel O’Neill, your arrival here”-Miro made sure his glance included Wadding-“was already communicated to Magdeburg and Grantville last night. I suspect it has been passed on to King Fernando. We will append the rest later today. Along with a formal request that Fernando grant you permission to aid us in retrieving the hostages.”

“And you will include a report on the welfare of the pope?”

“That,” answered Miro through a long exhale “is unfortunately not within my purview. However, not only will I urge that the king in the Low Countries is informed of Urban’s status, but I suspect that my superiors are already similarly minded.”

Thomas North cleared his throat histrionically. Miro smiled at him. “Just jump in, Colonel North.”

“Thank you, Don Estuban. Although I sympathize with the desire to inform select persons of the continued well-being of the pope, I feel duty-bound to point out that there is no way to be absolutely sure that, once transmitted, the message will remain-er, fully secure within its intended circle of distribution.”

My, Thomas, what big intel-speak words you use. Probably either heard them in a movie, or read them in an up-time political thriller. But, on the other hand, North clearly had a head for genuine intelligence and counterintelligence operations. “I agree with you, Colonel North, but I think the damage done by such a leak will not significantly impact our other plans. Soon Borja will have fully excavated the rubble of the Castel Sant’Angelo. We know they will not find Urban’s body there, nor any traces of one. They may find, however, spent shotgun shells, but again, no sign of a shotgun or the person who might have wielded it. They will deduce that Urban was rescued by agents of the USE. So, even if Fernando’s court in Brussels leaks the intelligence, it will only tell Philip’s spymasters what they would very soon have learned for themselves.

“Consequently, I think that sharing the information with our new allies’ liege as a sign of the growing trust between us and the Low Countries is far more important than a few extra days of secrecy. Just as I wanted to make it clear to our new Irish friends that we are willing to help them fulfill their bodyguard assignment, at least until the pope decides to leave Italy.”

Wadding leaned forward, surprised. “Don Estuban, do I correctly infer that the pope’s continued presence in Italy is not merely because he is waiting for you to repair your plane?”

“That is correct, Father. Pope Urban is weighing all his options, and their consequences, very carefully.”

“I would be grateful to sequester myself with his Holiness to offer any services I might in the course of his deliberations.”

Miro smiled. “Easily granted, also-since that was the pope’s wish, as well.”

“The pope? Requested me?”

“Just as soon as he got the message that you had arrived here.”

Wadding, imperturbable up until this moment, suddenly seemed impatient to leave. “Upon concluding our business, I shall pack immediately.”

“Patience, Father; joining the pope is not easily done, and it is a one-way trip. You will not be able to leave him until such time as he departs Italy. Any traffic to or from his safe house is just what Borja’s agents will be watching for.”

Harry leaned forward. “Let’s steer back to the really time-critical issue: the rescue. Just before we left Rome, we learned from informers that the Spanish have relocated Frank and Giovanna to the Palazzo Mattei.”

Tom Stone squinted. “The what? Where’s that? Never heard of it.”

Wadding answered. “It is a fairly recent construction, just east of the Ghetto and the Tiber. It is a large complex of palaces and houses that takes up a whole block: an insula, as the Romans call it. However, whether you plan to rescue your friends by stealth or by a trial at arms, it will not be easy in such a large place. At the very least, you will need more men to attempt it.”

“Which,” resumed Harry, as if on cue, “is why I’d like to pull a few Marines from the embassy, so that we’ve got enough-”

Miro shook his head. “No, Harry, we can’t do that. At no time would it be advisable for us to use our Marines, but now, with Borja’s agents watching us and looking for Urban, it’s out of the question.”

Harry jerked a thumb in Thomas North’s direction. “Then what about some of his guys?” North looked startled, seemed ready to bristle.

Miro jumped in. “Again, Harry, I just can’t-”

“Look. I hear you’ve got a regular balloon service working here. So how about I take, say, three or four of the Hibernian Company, and you bring down their replacements on the balloon?”

Miro didn’t like the sound of that for a number of reasons. First, he wanted to keep the security forces as dense as possible around Urban. Second, it was clear that North and Harry had just recently buried a methodological hatchet over the operational cause of their first meeting with Wadding and the Wild Geese. North had been annoyed that Harry had been, to use his words, “cowboying” when he entered St. Isidore’s, and Harry had retorted that if it hadn’t been for his initiative, they wouldn’t have their new allies at all.

But on the other hand, in this matter, Harry was inarguably right: he just didn’t have enough trained manpower for the rescue. And the Wild Geese, while a significant addition, were not the full answer on their own. Besides, Miro had kept four of the Hibernians here in Venice, rather than with the pope, just in case something came up. Something like this.

Miro spread his hands wide upon the table. “Very well, Harry. I will authorize the release of four Hibernians to assist with the rescue operations. However, I am placing them directly under Colonel North’s personal command.”

Harry nodded. “Sure. But, fair warning: on these jobs, formations sometimes get a little messy. It’s hard to keep coloring inside the lines when things get exciting, if you know what I mean.”

“I understand that during combat operations, the command structure may need to be fluid.”

“That’s all I’m asking.” Harry beamed. Thomas North, conversely, looked much less than pleased. Well, they’d have plenty of time to iron out any persisting difficulties later on…

“We also have to head back to Rome quickly,” Harry continued.

“Why?” asked the earl of Tyrone; his tone was one of curiosity, not umbrage.

Tom Stone raised his chin. “My daughter-in-law is due sometime in October. I know down-time women are pretty tough customers; I’ve seen plenty of proof of that. On the other hand, we’re not talking about normal circumstances. I figure a rescue could get pretty kinetic: running, jumping, ducking, climbing, crawling. That’s not what any doctor ever ordered for the third trimester.”

Harry nodded. “Yep, and the longer we wait, the bigger a problem Giovanna’s speed and mobility limitation becomes. So, since we’ve got the extra troops we need right here in Venice, and since the crew and ship that brought us here were pretty trustworthy-”

Miro shook his head. “We’ll retain them, but they are not the ones who will convey you to Rome; that will be done by a special ship and crew that you will meet at Ravenna. We will send your current ship after you, as a back-up.”

Thomas North tapped the table restively. “Ravenna isn’t really a port, Don Estuban.”

“No, it’s inland a bit, but ships stop at the fishing village close to it. The vessel we’ve engaged is a barca-longa, single-decked and with especially reliable crew. They are part ex-Arsenal, part Napolitano expatriates. They’ve got a reasonable proportion of military experience, no love of the Spanish, and a bit of experience in the ‘small trade’ business.”

“Black market?” translated Harry. “Outstanding.”

John O’Neill raised an eyebrow. “You like traveling with tinkers and thieves, do you, Harry?”

“Hell, I travel with you, don’t I?” But Harry’s smile made the jibe a jest between comrades.

“Seriously,” Harry answered, “that new ship sounds perfect, Estuban. Those guys will have exactly the skills we’ll need, including being Italians without any connections to Rome.”

Miro nodded. “And since half of their generous pay is contingent upon your healthy return to Venice, your safety and interests will become their interests. They will be alert to subtle treacheries that might elude the notice of non-natives. Now, have you had a chance to look at the communiques we received from the team you left behind in Rome?”

“Briefly,” responded Harry with a shrug. “Looks like Mr. Donald Ohde is becoming a pretty fair hand with a radio.”

“Yes. He reports that they’ve found sufficient vantage points for observing the Palazzo Mattei. And Juliet is developing quite a following among the local youngsters.”

“Well, a little cash buys a lot of good will in lower-class Rome, right now. Things are pretty sparse, there. So by the time we arrive-using a different entry method-she should have a good observation network set up. Watching the palazzo’s provisioning deliveries as well as their guard rotations will give us the real numbers of the troops we’re facing. Also, with Juliet talking to the servants, we should manage to get a good map of the internal layout.”

“That last factor is what concerns me, Harry. Donald’s messages indicated that there weren’t many servants to speak with, as though the domestics are being kept in the Palazzo Mattei at all times. If that is the case, how will you get a workable floor plan?”

“Oh, Juliet will find someone who can draw us a map, I’m sure.”

Owen frowned. “And why are you so sure?”

Harry shrugged. “Because there’s always a loose end, like a former scullery maid who had to leave employment when she got pregnant, and who can now use a few lire in exchange for a few lines drawn on a piece of paper. Never fails: there’s no way to sew up all the folks who know what the inside of a building looks like. And Juliet always finds them. Always. It’s her super-power, you know.”

“Eh…yes, of course.”

“Her what?” inquired Wadding.

“I’ll explain it later, Father,” Sherrilyn assured him. She turned toward Miro. “Juliet’s also busy rebuilding the ranks of the lefferti, from what I understand.”

“Yes, although that was already half-accomplished by the time you arrived. Juliet’s been learning that, due to their martyrdom in the early days of the occupation, being one of the lefferti became a symbol of underground resistance among Rome’s younger men. So there are a lot of new lefferti already available. They are also more political now. Not more informed about politics, but certainly more motivated by political issues such as the Spanish occupation of Rome. And, increasingly, Madrid’s control over Naples and Sicily.” Miro looked around the table, noted the new frown on North’s face. “Colonel? Something to add?”

“Something to ponder. Specifically, how much of our future plans we should share with the prince of Palestrina and with Romulus? Do we let them know when we’ve returned to Rome? It would be good to have the extra support, and an alternate escape route or safe haven if a maritime extraction goes pear-shaped. But…”

Miro nodded appreciatively. “Yes: ‘but.’”

Harry sat up straighter. “‘But’ what? You can’t believe Romulus is a turncoat.”

Thomas shook his head. “You’re right; I think we can trust Romulus. Whoever the hell he is. But can we trust everyone in the chain linking us to him? And him to Don Taddeo Barberini? And all of the duke’s advisors?”

Owen’s frown was thoughtful. “Is some past event feeding your suspicion, Thomas?”

“‘Suspicion’ is too strong a word. Let’s just say I entertain the possibility that it wasn’t mere chance that we were conveniently on hand to witness the shell-game that Borja’s spymaster staged on streets of Rome, using the two prisoners as the pea. Indeed, if word had come from Palestrina that we were in country-”

Harry nodded. “-then Borja’s henchman would have had enough time to set up what we saw, hoping we’d tip our hand reacting to it. But since we stayed out of direct contact with the duke during our one-night stay in Palestrina, the opposing spymaster’s informers couldn’t get any detailed intel on us. Just that some group was bound for Rome and probably for the purpose of rescuing the Stones.”

Sherrilyn considered. “And so Borja’s folks quickly came up with a plan to bait us into doing something stupid.”

“I’m not sure that plan was developed quickly, Ms. Maddox.” North studied his own, steepled, fingers. “The complexity of the operation we saw in Rome, and the surety with which it was mounted, make me suspect that our ‘opposite number’ had the whole ruse in readiness. As I remarked in Rome, it is hardly a stroke of genius to expect that the famous Wrecking Crew might be sent to rescue the prisoners. So he only had to wait for one of his wide net of informers to provide him with credible intelligence that we were in the area. And if his informer was indeed somewhere inside the household of the prince of Palestrina, Taddeo Barberini, it tells our opponent something else, now that I think of it.”

Miro blinked. “Of course; it suggests-doesn’t prove, but certainly suggests-that Urban is alive.”

“What?” John O’Neill looked from one to the other. “Why?”

It was Wadding who answered. “Because Taddeo Barberini is another of Pope Urban’s nephews. So if the pope was dead, or even if his location was unknown, how reasonably could Harry and the USE presume he would cooperate? But the USE operatives did go to his domain, and Taddeo did cooperate. That suggests that the USE and the duke have some other, common cause-which would logically be the safety of the duke’s uncle, the pope. Which would in turn dispose Taddeo Barberini to assist a USE rescue team when it arrived near Rome.”

“He might be motivated by revenge, too; his oldest brother, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, was cut down like a dog.” John sounded both defensive and truculent.

“Yes, my lord,” Wadding replied mildly, “that could be his motivation. But I am familiar enough with the reputation of Taddeo Barberini to know that, like the other nobles of the Lazio, he will not endanger what power and possessions he has left simply to indulge a thirst for personal vengeance. He is too shrewd for that. Indeed, he might have personally preferred to remain wholly uninvolved in the Wrecking Crew’s rescue attempt; any hint that he helped Borja’s enemies could incite disastrous reprisals. No, I suspect Borja would read this as I would: Taddeo Barberini felt obligated to aid and abet representatives of the USE because they have, and control the fate of, his uncle the pope.”

Owen let out a long-held breath. “So, Father, you believe that Borja already knows that the pope is alive and in USE custody?”

“As Colonel North observes, the aid the Wrecking Crew received from Palestrina does not prove anything about the pope’s fate. However, it suggests certain probabilities, among which the holy father’s continued survival in a USE sanctuary ranks very high indeed.”

Sherrilyn looked grim. “So the assassination clock has started ticking for the pope.”

Miro turned toward her. “The clock is being wound, but I don’t think the countdown has begun yet. If Borja’s agents cannot find an eyewitness to indicate that the pope is alive-and we have taken measures to prevent that-then they must build their case for his survival upon telltale bits of data and evidence. Like this one. They have no doubt come to provisionally believe that Urban is alive and in hiding with us, but when all the evidence is circumstantial, you must accumulate a great deal of it before you are satisfied you have proven your hypothesis.”

Harry leaned forward. “Estuban, leaving aside hypotheses for a second, I’d like to touch on a few facts. Fact: I brought Gerd back with us because he’d like to get his hands on some lively chemical substances, if you catch my drift.”

“I suspected as much. Ambassador Stone?”

Tom smiled. “Sounds like my boys. They experimented with a lot of exothermic substances when they were younger.”

Harry smiled back. “So I recall. So can Gerd have the run of your warehouse?”

“Well, it’s not like we’ve got a munitions stockpile. But I’ll set him up with a list of what’s on hand. He can choose from the menu.”

Harry nodded. “Great. Thanks. Estuban, how much more gear can you bring in on your balloon?”

“Nothing, not before you leave again for Rome. The balloon is already en route with repair parts for the Monster. It’s also carrying fuel and a few more Hibernians, who will now simply replace the ones you are taking to Rome. After that, the balloon’s next cargo run from Grantville has to be gasoline for the Monster. We’ll fit in some extra cadre as well, but that’s a full load, too.”

“Cadre? How many? And who?”

“I’m not sure how many seats will be available on that flight, but, with all the Hibernians deployed to protect Pope Urban, and with Colonel North attached to the Wrecking Crew for the duration, I’ve decided to bring down the ranking Hibernian officer in Chur, Lieutenant Hastings, to help command the papal protection detail.”

Harry nodded. “Okay. What about radios? We left one behind with the team in Rome, so now we’ve only got our backup. Is there another we can pull from stores?”

“Yes, and I have more on the way.”

“Any of them voice-grade?”

“Surely you jest. Morse code works just fine.”

“Yeah, fine-and slow. And hard.”

“Well, the other sets are far too big and fragile for you to be able to transmit on the move. Besides, a slow radio connection is at most an operational nuisance, not a crisis.”

“We’ll also need money.”

“That’s already been drawn and is waiting for you. We’re only providing Roman and Tuscan coins. That way, the money’s origin won’t draw any attention, or tip off anyone looking for a USE operations team based out of Venice.”

The room remained silent for three seconds. Miro wasn’t about to wait until someone thought of something else; there was simply too much work still to do. He stood. “Very well, I believe that takes care of the primary business. I will remain in Venice until the fuel arrives.” He looked at Harry. “By that time, with any luck, you will have rescued the Stones and be on your way back here. Father Wadding, you will be escorted to the pope with all dispatch, but please forego leaving this island until then. Anyone who arrives in Venice and associates with us will almost certainly acquire a tail who works for Borja. Lord and Colonel O’Neill, if you would be so good as to accompany me now, we will compose a joint communique to your lieges in the Low Countries, and see to any refitting needs you might have.” He stood. “Gentlemen and Ms. Maddox, Ambassador Stone and I are compelled to depart within the hour, so my last words to you must be these: good luck and godspeed.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Frank Stone looked out the window and down into the smallish courtyard below. Fairly new in construction, it was well maintained, with deep, porticoed balconies at the back. At the front, a modest gate led to the streets, which, if he craned his neck, Frank could see disappear into Rome’s Jewish Ghetto.

“It’s nice having a view,” he commented.

“It would be nicer if the view was nicer,” Giovanna retorted, but, smiling, came over and put her arms around him. Her growing bump now made itself felt whenever she hugged him. “Nicer still if I was tall enough to see it.” Then, distracted, she turned back toward their bedroom. They had two rooms now, a fine bed, windows, and meals fit for nobility. Well, minor nobility, at least. Indeed, Frank could still smell the remains of lunch: a light stew, mixed greens, and “I wonder if there’s any vinegar left?” said Giovanna in a suddenly distracted voice.

Frank relaxed his arms, let her move out of his hug and into the other room, her fine nose almost twitching in search of piquant delights. Frank smiled; then, remembering her latest pregnancy cravings, almost retched: the vinegar on the potatoes had been quite reasonable-but mixed straight into the pear preserves?

From the next room, he heard the irregular clatter of his wife rooting through the crockery, a pause and then a satisfied, “There you are. Now, where is the cheese?”

Frank felt his stomach spasm, and he looked out the window again. Not much to see, down in the courtyard. And then he noticed: not only were there no servants running about, and no porters lugging their various burdens, there weren’t even any guards. “Hey, Giovanna, have you seen any guards today?”

“No, Frank,” came the response, muffled by what was obviously a very full mouth. “I didn’t see any yesterday, either. At least, not in the courtyard.”

“Maybe it’s a sign that there are negotiations under way for our release. You know, make us happier campers before they return us?”

“Perhaps.”

“And maybe that’s why we’ve got the view. Maybe it’s not just so we can see out, but so some of our folks can see us. See that we’re healthy, happy: all that good stuff that my dad would want assurances about. And I don’t think he’d trust their say-so. He’d want our representatives to see it with their own eyes.”

“Perhaps.”

“Well, whatever the reason, it sure is a dramatic change from our prior circumstances. And as changes go, it sure is nice.”

“Hmm,” was Giovanna’s subvocal response, which terminated in a gulp. “Too nice, maybe.” A pause, then an almost comically diminutive belch. “I do not trust it.”

Frank smiled. “Honey, you don’t trust anything.”

“And you, my love, trust too many things, too much.”

There was a knock on the door.

“Speaking of which-” Giovanna let her voice trail off.

“Signor Stone?” called a voice from the hall. “Are you still interested in the walk I have arranged?”

“Yes, I am. Just a moment.” Leaning heavily on his cane, Frank poled over to the iron-bound door and tugged it open. Captain Vincente Jose-Maria de Castro y Papas was ready with a bow and flourish that was actually fairly understated, considering some of the extravagant courtly salutes that Frank had witnessed among Spanish officers.

Frank looked behind the captain. “No Sergeant Ezquerra?”

“Ah, it pains me to report that the lout is up to his excessive eyebrows in paperwork.”

“Why does it pain you?”

“Because Ezquerra cannot read.”

Frank guffawed once. “Damn. I sure walked into that one.”

“Pardon?”

“Uh…I stepped right into your joke-trap.”

“Ah, yes. You are kind to pretend amusement at my so-called witticisms. And to inquire after the sergeant.”

“As men go, my Frank is the model of kindness,” Giovanna said from the other room. “Indeed, he is too kind. I, however, am not.”

The captain looked at Frank cautiously. “I will presume, then, that Signora Stone still does not wish to accompany us on our stroll?”

Giovanna had appeared, hands on hips. “You presume correctly, Captain. Now go. The longer you wait here, the longer it is until I get my husband back.”

“I assure you, I will return him back here quickly, and certainly at the first sign of fatigue.”

Giovanna retreated into the other room. “What a charming lie, Captain. Enjoy your stroll.” The sounds of eating resumed.

As the door closed behind them, the captain observed, “The signora has an excellent appetite.”

“I heard that!” came her voice from the other side of the door.

Castro y Papas’ eyebrows raised.

Frank smiled. “Her appetite is pretty good, but her hearing is amazing.”

The larger, central courtyard of the main Palazzo Mattei-the Palazzo Giove-was imposing, with serried ranks of flowers bisecting the quadrangles fitted between the various buildings. They walked in silence for many minutes, the faint hum of bees and flies stilling and then resuming as they passed each of the garden’s colorful, and carefully tended, beds.

“Vincente-may I call you that?”

“Yes, or course. And shall I call you Frank?”

Stone nodded. “Thanks for suggesting this walk.”

“It is my pleasure.”

“Is it? I mean, don’t get me wrong; it’s nice, but it’s not exactly regular duty for Spanish officers, is it?”

Vincente smiled. “No. It is not. But it is pleasant. And you may be sure of this, Frank: I will not lie. Not even in little things.”

“Then just why is it that we two are taking a stroll in the garden?”

Vincente sighed. “Because, as your lovely and very intelligent wife has already surmised, I am to encourage you to trust me.”

“Can you really tell me that?”

Vincente raised an eyebrow. “I just did, didn’t I?”

“Well, yes, but-”

The captain snickered. “Ah, Frank, you are so earnest. It is a charming trait, really. Indeed, I think if we share too many such walks, the machinations of my superiors may reverse themselves.”

“What do you mean?”

“Why, that I will come to like and trust you, Frank. Which it is never wise for a captor to do. He who imposes his will must never feel empathy or sympathy for those upon whom that will is imposed.”

“That sounds more like training for a slaveholder, than a soldier.”

Vincente nodded. “That is because, in our service, it is often the same thing, particularly in the New World. If it is true that the Spanish Empire is the largest the globe has ever seen-and that is true-it is also true that we are the least welcome in more of the places that our flag flies than any empire before us.”

“Which bothers you.”

Vincente shrugged. “Somewhat. Conquest is our way of life. It may not have always been thus, but it is now. And it is the way of the world, as well: the law of nature. The strong always dominate the weak. But I wonder about-well, the limits of imposing dominion.”

Frank paused to admire a bush filled with bright vermillion flowers. “Actually, in our up-time world, I think we pretty much learned that it’s a slippery slope. Once you get started-once you say to yourself, ‘I’m stronger, so it’s my right to take what I want’-there’s really no stopping yourself. Before long, you’re taking everything that isn’t nailed down. And then, even the things that are. Because where do you stop? Once you have dominion over other peoples who never wanted you on their land in the first place, you’ve got to be ready to kill to keep what you’ve taken. Which means killing people who just want to stay in their own homes, keep their own goods, speak their own languages, and live their own lives without answering to a conqueror. Oppression is an all-or-nothing deal, when you get right down to it, because soon enough, even mercy becomes a luxury a conqueror can’t afford. Mercy only enables further rebellion, defiance, hope. And so there you are: master of the world, but the price you have to pay for it is every bit of mercy, justice, and honor that was ever in your soul.”

It looked like Vincente had flinched at each of the three words Frank had stressed: mercy, justice, and honor. After five more steps the Spanish captain commented, “I think this walk has become a bit less nice.”

Frank shrugged. “Sorry, but that’s the truth as I see it.”

The captain shook his head. “I was not complaining. ‘Nice’ walks are pleasant, but they are-well, eminently forgettable, no? One looks at the flowers, listens to the birds, blinks up at the sun, and says, ‘ah! How pretty!’ Fine enough, and wonderful for children. But I would have my walks be times for thinking, for speaking frankly, for exploring the ground that lies between us-both the similarities and the differences. A ‘nice’ walk I would enjoy and forget. I will not forget this walk.”

Frank smiled. “You know, you’re a pretty okay guy, Vincente-for a domineering creep, that is.”

“‘Creep’?”

“Uh…a creep is a jerk.”

“‘Jerk’? I thought this word described a motion.”

“Oh. Yeah. Uh…oaf.”

“Ah! Heh. Heh heh. I am not so okay as you think. You should pay more heed to your clever wife.”

“Oh, I pay plenty of attention to her. But my dad taught me something long ago that I’ve found is usually true-true almost as often as anything is, when it comes to human nature.”

“So? And what is this paternal wisdom?”

“That people live down to, or up to, your expectations of them. If you believe people are fundamentally good, many, even most, of them strive to be so. And if you think everyone’s a, a-”

“-a creep?” supplied Vincente.

“Yeah-a creep-then they tend in that direction.”

“That sounds very idealistic.”

“Well, that’s my dad for you. And here’s the realism part, I guess. His caveat to this was that it’s always a lot harder-a lot harder-to believe the best of people. After all, we’re constantly hurting each other, being selfish, being-well, creeps. But if you persist in believing that people are better than that, a lot of them turn out to be. And they remember your faith in them, and repay it. Many times over.”

Vincente was very silent for a long time. “That,” he said slowly, “is either the most foolish philosophy I have ever heard, or the most dangerous.”

Frank stopped. “Dangerous?”

“Yes, of course it is dangerous. Is it not obvious? Kings, captains, and domineering creeps like myself rule through fear. We compel obedience through fear of our reprisals, fear of our discipline, fear of our disapproval. Your philosophy would undermine the instigation of such fear. Oh, there will always be plenty of brutes willing to resort to the lash and the oubliette, but one cannot run an empire with brutes. They lack the brains and the nuance for command. Higher faculties are required among the cadre, who must have a more evolved understanding of, and instinct for, the nature of the human heart. And that would be the hole in the dike of the dominators, no? For happily, persons gifted in human perception also tend to have souls that possess the same weaknesses they perceive and exploit in others. How would such domineering souls fare, faced with masses of the oppressed who still insist upon appealing to their best natures?”

“Dude, you are so channeling Gandhi, now.”

“I do not understand what those words mean, and your smile is worrisome of itself, Frank. But, I must ask: if this philosophy is so powerful in your world, then why was your time wracked by wars that make ours look like mere squabbles?”

“That,” Frank admitted, “is truly the bitch of the situation.”

“Eh…you are allowing that yours is a flawed philosophy?”

“Let’s say I’m admitting that we were still working on it.” They’d neared the end of their circuit of the gardens and were angling toward the door that led back to Frank’s room.

Castro y Papas was clearly trying to find a tactful way to carry forward the discussion. “I mean no offense, but if in your world you were still working on achieving a society based on this philosophy, after centuries of effort, might that not indicate that its goal is illusory, is impossible?”

Frank shrugged. “Maybe. So does that mean you are saying that Christ was a liar?”

Castro y Papas missed a step, stood straight, offended. “What?”

“You heard me. What about turn the other cheek, only throwing the first stone if you’re without sin, the last being first and vice versa, rich men having to wiggle through the eye of a needle to reach the pearly gates? Is that all just so much crap? Because that’s pretty much the same message as the one my dad drummed into us, when you get right down to it.”

The captain did not move. Then he opened the door out of the garden, and stared at Frank. “This was not a nice walk,” he mumbled, “not a nice walk at all. Shall we do it again, same time tomorrow?”

When Dolor entered, Borja greeted him familiarly, offering him a seat. Dolor simply shook his head, and stood, hands clasped behind his back. And Borja felt the anxiety that this apparently emotionless man always aroused in him. In a world where men were influenced by their wants or fears, how do you influence a man who has none of either?

“Our plans for the hostages are now complete, Your Eminence. All is in readiness.”

“Yes, yes, but my concern is not over the hostages. They are a minor detail. I must have a resolution in the matter of Urban; I need action, if action is required.”

“So. You are now satisfied that there is no body in the ruins?”

Borja looked away. “Not yet.”

“Really? My sources tell me you have finished your search. Indeed, they tell me that you ended the search just before the last rubble from the explosion was to be removed.

“And of course, there is another piece of interesting circumstantial evidence: The body of Quevedo.”

“And how does Quevedo’s miserable corpse bear upon the matter of whether Urban was rescued or remains within the rubble?”

“The manner of his death strongly suggests the former.”

“What do you mean, ‘the manner of his death’?”

“Your Eminence, I took the liberty of examining the body. Whoever killed him bested him in a sword fight.”

“So you are implying-”

“Who but the Ambassadora’s husband would have had the weapon and the skill and the proximity to inflict such a mortal wound?”

“But,” protested Borja, “but he is old.”

“If it is the Catalan we suspect, then I would not presume that age predicts infirmity. And there is corroborating evidence.”

Dolor reached out his hand and placed several spent shotgun shells on the table. “I had two of my men carefully continue the excavation of the general area where Quevedo’s body was discovered. These small objects had, of course, been ignored during the main excavations, lost in mounds of small stone and debris. But this leaves little doubt: Urban was rescued. Successfully. And Quevedo evidently died trying to prevent it. What I am less than certain about is why, just when the dig seemed on the verge of providing concrete evidence, you elected not to complete it.”

Borja said nothing. How much had Dolor guessed? “You have your own conjectures on the matter, naturally.”

“Only one, Your Eminence. Not that it would apply to you. And it is purely hypothetical, of course.”

“Of course. Pray share it.”

“It seems to me that if one were to consider the current mood among the remaining cardinals of the Church with a jaded eye, their desire to see Urban stripped of his pontifical robes is less ardent than one might have hoped.”

Borja said nothing. He also carefully controlled his impulse to fold his fingers into white-knuckled fists of rage. The cowards! Who would have thought that half the Consistory would fail to follow his lead in calling Urban to account for his malfeasance and his willing collaboration with the enemies of the church? Their indifference was tantamount to treason.

But Dolor had not even paused. “In such a political climate, where strong action against Urban is far less certain to be supported, it is perhaps increasingly desirable that the pope not be discovered. Not alive, that is. Better for the Church and its true servitors that he should remain missing, or be discovered after his demise. This would be most helpful in quelling any uncertainties about succession. And it would help the Church to rebuild its unity without any lingering-impediments.”

Borja swallowed. “An interesting theory. Complete fantasy, of course.”

“Of course. But at any rate, it also shows how the apparent rescue plans being crafted by agents of the USE to retrieve Senor Stone and his wife do, ultimately, connect back to the search for Urban.”

“Oh? How so?”

“Let me show you.” Dolor reached out his hand again. More spent shotgun casings clattered down on the table. Mixed in with them were almost a dozen smaller, and precisely machined, cartridges. Just looking at them, Borja could feel the encroachment of the up-time Earth: it was there in the eerie, perfect symmetry of their shapes.

Borja nodded. “From St. Isidore’s, I presume.”

“Precisely.”

“But I do not understand. The USE agents must have known that the hostages were not there. Why would they take such a risk, and reveal themselves as they have, at St. Isidore’s?” He gestured toward the latest crop of casings.

“I have been wondering the same thing. I have concluded that they were not alone at St. Isidore’s, and that whatever other group they met-either by design or chance, either beforehand or at the Church itself-were the ones who actually commenced the attack.”

“Why do you think there was another group involved?”

“Several reasons, again deduced from a close study of the bodies. Several of our guards were killed by sword wounds. Very heavy rapiers, or possibly sabers. This is not consistent with the USE raiders known as the Wrecking Crew; they vastly prefer up-time firearms. It is where their primary advantage and expertise lies. So did matters become so dire that they had to resort to swords, or did the swords belong to someone else?

“Additionally, almost half of our troops who apparently tried rushing the antechamber by way of the corridor from St. Isidore’s apse were killed by these.” Dolor dumped another load of metal on the table, but this was a collection of very contemporary, albeit very deformed, bullets.

“This is, once again, definitely not consistent with the weapons the Wrecking Crew uses. And since they had little to gain by absconding with the two priests, Wadding and Hickey, I must conclude that the Wrecking Crew were not the catalyst for what occurred at St. Isidore’s. They were merely facilitators.”

“But for whom? And why?”

“I have no basis for conjecture; there are too many unknowns. But there is one last, tantalizing fact: the entirety of the combat was conducted within the street-side buildings, or in the interior grounds. How did the attackers get there, then? No guards were killed at the gate, or even in the portico; indeed, it seems as if those guard posts were abandoned. Yet it makes absolutely no sense that the members of the Wrecking Crew would have been allowed past the guard at the gate, or admitted beyond the portico at the top of the main stairs. It is as if the enemy forces were first detected when they had already gotten inside the rectory. Then, all the guards contracted on that point and were defeated in detail.”

Borja waved his hand in irritated disgust. “Senor Dolor, I cannot begin to tell you how very tired I am of these up-time-led brigands slaughtering our men and suffering no losses in return.”

“I quite sympathize, Your Eminence. But strangely, I believe this may now be working to our advantage.”

“What? How?”

“Overconfidence, Your Eminence. If the Wrecking Crew was involved in the events outside Chiavenna, and has now stormed a church in the middle of a Spanish-held city, I suspect they are quite pleased with themselves. So pleased that perhaps they will begin to assume that they are undefeatable. If so, that is exactly the species of pride that goeth before a fall.”

Borja smiled. “Yes, so it is written. And your new plan for securing the hostages-?”

“-is crafted to take advantage of that first deadly sin, Your Eminence: pride.”

“Very good. But I still do not see how knowing that the Wrecking Crew is tasked to effect the rescue of the hostages helps us in our attempt to-‘locate’ Urban.”

“Your Eminence, if we can trick the Wrecking Crew into making a mistake, we might be able to take prisoners who know where Urban has been sequestered.”

Borja spread his hands out on his desk, unconsciously mimicking a gesture he had seen cats indulge in when crippled prey lay between their paws. “Then the sooner they make their attempt, the better. For all our plans.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Old Mazarini brought out Antonio Barberini’s bags as he joined the group gathered in the courtyard. There was an ironic appropriateness to the timing of their departure, thought the young cardinal. It is just as we are leaving that the late-spring flowers are finally coming into full bloom, that the first berries are ripening enough for the table. A table which will be empty once again tonight and who knows for how many weeks, months, years to come.

It was a melancholy thought, young Cardinal Barberini conceded, one he would not have had two months ago. Two months before this day, Antonio Barberini was fussing over the arrangement of newly acquired paintings in his family’s grand palazzo, just south of the Pincio. Now He looked around the courtyard. The Marines and Hibernians were checking the belly-straps on the pack-mules, ensuring the right marching order for optimal security, awaiting final orders. The children, families, scattered menials who had made the journey with them were waiting in preassigned groups, somewhat anxious but not nervous or terrified: not like those first, terrible days fleeing from Rome.

Antonio turned back to look down the inviting paths of the country arbor. No overly precise cutting and trimming, here. This was a working garden, a place that fed people, sheltered them, gave them a place for quiet conversation, reflection, repose-all while providing scents that lulled one into a doze as surely as the warm sun that shot through the filigree of leaves and vines.

Barberini smiled. Who would have thought it-least of all him! — that worldly, cosmopolitan, refined, even effeminate and spoiled (it was said by some) Antonio Barberini would come to so love a country garden? So love it that what he imagined he would miss most about Rome-the luxury of his apartments and salons and life in Palazzo Barberini-never troubled him once. Instead, he felt strangely, even gladly, distant from that life of opulence and glory-or more accurately, vainglory. His existence there had been aesthetically refined, very pleasing to the senses-but could one call an environment filled solely with inanimate objects truly beautiful? Were paintings and poses in marble greater than the things they represented?

Two months ago, he might have assayed an argument in support of that claim, suggesting that art was not merely the preservation, but the amplification, of the perfection of form. But now he knew differently. This place-the children playing foolish games that parents did not notice, the bees buzzing in the arbor, the strong flanks of loyal horses, and the faces of stern men sworn to protect lives they had come to know and value-this was beauty. And there was no way to freeze or capture it, let alone amplify it; it was as great a beauty as life itself-and just as inevitably fleeting. And if it was to endure at all, it would not do so as frozen physical forms, but in the memory of a human heart.

In this case, in the awakening heart of Cardinal Antonio Barberini.

“So you will miss it, too, Nephew?”

Antonio started, found his uncle the pope standing behind him, dressed in clothes that marked him as nothing more than a moderately well-to-do townsman.

Urban gestured behind them. “This farmhouse, I mean.”

“Yes, Uncle, I will miss it. Very much.”

Urban VIII stared around with the same wistful look on his face that Antonio imagined was on his own. “It is strange, is it not, how we humans strive to refine ourselves, to build new achievements upon those past, to accrue piles of ducats, attain fame, create a powerful family, even build an empire-only to find our true happiness in the quiet of a shady garden and solid peasant food?”

Antonio, listening to the tone, detected reverie, not discovery. “So this has happened to you before, Uncle. This kind of rustic self-discovery.”

Urban smiled, nodded. “Oh, yes, my boy. Often. But it changes every time. The first time, I was not much older than you are now. It came as a great surprise. And it taught me much. Now, it comes as a reminder. A blessed reminder of what really matters. Of our place in the universe. For very soon, I will need to make decisions that touch upon the difference between the world we encounter with our head, and the world we touch with our heart. And I must seek a way to reconcile the two.” He turned to Antonio and smiled. “With your help, of course.”

“Of course, Your Holiness. But I doubt that I alone will be able to-”

“Oh, it will not be you alone, Antonio. We will have many friends to help us, including some who will meet us upon the road to our new home.”

“Which is where, Uncle?”

A new voice intruded: “In an area called Molini. It’s a small mountain valley northwest of Laghi, up in the hills between the Treno-Adige river valley on the west and the Asiago plateau to the east.”

The Barberinis turned to look at Larry Mazzare. “It sounds remote,” commented the pope.

“That is a profound understatement, Your Holiness.”

“Ah. Excellent for our purposes, then. And I suppose it has been the subject of your occasional private discussions with the ambassadora and her husband?” Urban’s eyes twinkled, but Antonio heard the probe, and the implicit remonstrance: You wouldn’t keep secrets from your pope, now, would you, Lawrence?

Cardinal Mazzare did not exactly look sheepish, but he no longer looked as relaxed as he had a second ago. He had his mouth open to make what promised to be one of his carefully measured replies — when another voice came from out of the arbor. “No, Your Holiness. I would not ask Father Mazzare to withhold information from you.” It was the ambassadora, who was-herself, no less! — carrying a sizable traveling bag in either hand. “But I did ask him to delay doing so until we were under way. I would appreciate it if you did not share the information with anyone else. Anyone. I repeat: I would really appreciate it.” The extraordinary emphasis that the ambassadora put on the word appreciate made it sound like something just shy of an order, the violation of which would entail dire consequences.

“Of course, Ambassadora Nichols. We do not wish to jeopardize anyone’s safety.”

The ambassadora smiled; it was genuine, if a bit rueful. “I am very glad to hear that, Your Holiness, because it is your safety that we are ensuring with the secrecy. I doubt very much Cardinal Borja would be quite so interested in the rest of us.”

It wasn’t exactly a remonstration, but it was as pointed a reminder as Antonio had ever heard uttered to his uncle.

Urban only smiled. “The ambassadora’s candor is refreshing. And apt. I do understand the situation. Quite well. Tell me: is there any further word on the saboteurs of the airplane in Venice?”

Emerging from the arbor behind the ambassadora, and carrying enough personal weaponry to equip at least two squads of soldiers, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz dusted pollen off the shoulders of his buff coat. “No word, Your Holiness. Not that we expected it. Borja’s dogs are well-trained. And after Quevedo, it seems he has chosen a far more capable kennel-master. This one is dangerous, Your Eminences; he strikes seldom, but carefully. And now he is waiting, no doubt, for some clue that will reveal our location.”

“But this has been prevented by your prudence.”

“As much as possible, Your Holiness.”

Urban raised an eyebrow. “And what measure has remained beyond your remarkable abilities at ensuring Our security?”

The Ambassadora stood very straight. “Unfortunately, your own request, Your Holiness. Specifically, that Father Wadding be sent to join us. I understand that it is an urgent matter for the good of the Church, but from a security standpoint, it is a bad move. I will freely admit that I was against it. I mean no disrespect to the well-being of the Church or to Your Holiness’ wishes, but quite frankly, it risks both of those things.”

Urban nodded. “And who prevailed upon you to permit it, then?”

The Ambassadora smiled at the two men-Ruy and Mazzare-who stood flanking her. “These two idealists. They both seem to understand the necessity of Father Wadding’s presence more than I do.”

Urban’s eyebrows raised. “Indeed? I am not surprised that Lawrence did; it is simply a logical extension of the same wisdom and love of Mother Church that brought him down here despite the perils of the journey and the destination. But you,” he said, turning his attention upon Ruy, “Senor Casador y Ortiz, I was not aware that the intricacies of theology and canon law were among your very many wonderful talents.”

The Spaniard inclined his head. “Your Holiness, I fear I would find myself well schooled by the average cockroach in such lofty matters. But the Irish priest is well known in Spain. He studied at Salamanca, and went on to a lofty position there before being a presence in Philip’s own court. He is known for his wit, his kindness, but above all, his piety and integrity. And he is among the most respected of his order. Should you therefore intend to hear counsel from the many voices and perspectives of the Church, he would seem a likely choice: a respected and famous Franciscan known for his long and warm relationship with Spain’s clergy and court. With Father Wadding as part of your deliberative council, no man may say that you surrounded yourself only with voices that echoed your own thoughts and preferences.”

The young fellow named Carlo came running up. “Ambassadora, the master of horse, he tells me we are ready to leave. We only wait upon you and the blessed fathers.”

“We are coming, Carlo. Go run through the houses now; bring anything you find that has been left behind. Then come back to me.”

“Yes, Ambassadora Nichols.” And Carlo was off as if shot from a cannon.

But the ambassadora was looking at her husband, who was staring at the line of horses, mules, and carts. “What is it, Ruy? Something wrong?”

“Something we cannot fix. Not yet.”

The ambassadora shrugged. “We only have the soldiers we have. Don Estuban radioed that more are on the way.”

Ruy sighed. “I hope they will be enough.”

Antonio looked between the frowning faces around him. “Well, what of the Marines from the embassy? If more soldiers are needed, cannot they-?”

But the Spaniard was shaking his head. “It would not be advisable, Your Eminence.”

“Are they not loyal?”

“Indeed. Almost to a fault. But they are most certainly under observation. If any number of them were to depart the embassy, they would be followed. Discreetly. Perhaps at the distance of a day’s journey.”

“Then they could lose those who are trailing them, no?”

Ruy sighed again. “I wish it were so simple, Your Eminence, but no, not if the men following are capable. Four mounted Marines must camp, must cook, must get provisions, and may need to seek lodgings; they will be seen. And the embassy’s Marines are almost all men of Scotland or the Germanies. In dress and appearance alone, they attract notice, but when they open their mouths to speak Italian-” Ruy’s summation was an expressive roll of his eyes.

“Then how will Father Wadding be brought to us at all?”

“First, he has not visited the embassy, and so can not be followed from there. Second, just this morning, I believe, he has commenced the first leg of his journey: westward via boat, up the Po River. Neither he nor his companions will leave that boat, nor moor it at a pier or dock, until they are at least fifty miles west of Venice. Upon coming ashore, they will immediately travel northward, overland. When they have made rendezvous with us, Father Wadding’s escorts shall return by horseback. With any luck at all, this will put them well outside the observation of Borja’s Venetian agents.”

Antonio clapped his hands. “So there is nothing to lead them to us. Indeed, your precautions are so complete that it seems impossible that they shall ever find us!”

But the Spaniard was shaking his head. “No, Your Eminence; we are merely ensuring that Borja’s agents will be much delayed in finding us. But they will not fail to ultimately learn our location. Our objective is to make it so difficult that, by the time they do locate us, we shall have departed our new safe house for a place of permanent safety, far beyond their reach. But determined assassins such as Borja’s will not rest. If led by a patient, thorough man, they know that it is only a matter of time before some clue falls into their ever-watchful, waiting hands.”

Antonio, cursed with a vivid imagination and visual inventiveness, could suddenly see outlines of those waiting assassin-hands flexing fitfully, impatiently, within the shadows of the farmhouse’s familiar doorways, arbor, sheds. “Perhaps we should repair to our mounts now,” he suggested, licking his suddenly dry lips.

Rombaldo de Gonzaga almost spilled his very expensive coffee when Giulio came sprinting into his private chambers, as flushed and excited as ever. “The fisherman reports movement near the island monastery, Rombaldo.”

Hmm. Sooner than he had expected. The up-time commandos and their allies had only arrived in Venice-well, at San Francesco del Deserto-a few days ago. And now they were already on the move again. “What movement?”

“The fisherman we have watching the island says that early this morning, the Dalmatian gajeta that brought them here set out to the south. I do not know more than that. But the fisherman sent his assistant to follow that boat, thinking its departure might have been meant to draw him away.”

“And?”

“And he was evidently correct. Only two hours later, a rowboat was brought out from the cover of bushes and several persons left the island.”

“Where did they go?”

“They met and transferred to a ketch of shallow draft in open water of the lagoon. The ketch made for the west; the rowboat returned to the island.”

Rombaldo thought carefully. The gajeta was probably not merely a decoy; the smart move would be to give it a legitimate task, as well. But it was also harder to follow. He didn’t have enough boats at his disposal to track multiple targets. So there was probably little he could accomplish other than sending a prompt report back to Dakis that the Wrecking Crew was apparently on the move again.

“The gajeta was heading south, you said?”

“Yes, Rombaldo.”

So. South. Well, that didn’t reveal much. Except that it seemed unlikely that the Wrecking Crew was going to reinforce whatever security was safeguarding Urban. So, as expected, they were probably returning to Rome. But why not go directly out of the lagoon into the Adriatic? It would have been harder to follow them, then…

Unless, of course, they intended to change boats before they got to Rome. A prudent step, but difficult to arrange on such short notice. Unless, that is, the change was going to take place fairly close to Venice, someplace the USE planners could inform quickly by sending a mounted messenger or a fast boat ahead, farther down the coast. Hmmm-farther down the coast…“Giulio, first message. To all our agents farther down the coast, particularly in Ravenna and Rimini. They should be watching for this gajeta. It might rendezvous with another boat. Probably a slightly larger one. There’s a bonus for any report that reaches me within twelve hours of the sighting.”

“Yes, Rombaldo. Anything else?”

Well, of course there was something else; they had to determine what the second boat, the ketch, was up to. A rowboat leaves the island of the Franciscans and transfers its passengers to the small, shallow-hulled ketch. Which heads due west. Now that, Rombaldo reasoned, might have something to do with his target, the pope.

Might he be stashed someplace on the west shore of the lagoon? No. Too close. Although very unexpected, it was also too bold a move; a little bit of bad luck and the pope’s life would be forfeit. No matter how much security Urban had, it was better for him to be well-hidden, than well-defended. That meant he’d be found in a modest compound, not a bristling fortress. And anything less than a fortress was something that Rombaldo could overwhelm with sheer numbers, if it was close to Venice. But the farther away the pope’s sanctuary was from Venice, the more ground Rombaldo’s men had to search and the more scattered they became while doing so. That, in turn, made it increasingly unlikely that whatever band of searching assassins found Urban would also be large enough to overcome his current protection.

So, by process of elimination, the enemy’s smart move was not to gamble on sequestering the pope close to Venice, because he would not only be easier to find, but because Borja’s hired men could be more easily and swiftly summoned to converge upon, and overwhelm, such a target.

Meaning that Urban was out in the countryside. Maybe up in the mountains, by now. Logically they would want a remote area; a city is full of eyes, and you have no way of knowing which pair is looking for you. On the other hand, an isolated farm or villa-probably one abandoned or infrequently visited-would be perfect. No one had business going to such a place, which meant that any approach would be immediately noticed and engaged. So, if the boat was carrying someone or something to the pope, then its westward course across the lagoon should logically be bringing it closer to that kind of remote sanctuary.

So they were making for the Po. It was the only logical answer. The boat moving westward-small, with a shallow draft-would be ideal for a long upriver journey, eliminating much of the need to fret over navigating shallows. And it would, of course, be hard to follow. Particularly if they had set in enough provisions for their entire journey, thereby obviating the need to put in at any of the towns along the banks of the Po.

But logically, once they left the boat, whoever was on it would wish to move quickly. Meaning they would need to either purchase mounts, or, more likely, have them already waiting in a prearranged point. And from there, they would almost certainly head farther north. Farther west was pointless; it put them even deeper into the much-trafficked east-west agricultural and commercial belt that followed the Po River valley all the way out to Lombardy. Farther south put them beyond the protection of Venice’s borders and just that much closer to Rome’s reach. On the other hand, Venice had some truly remote areas in its northern territories, where the land rose up-first as hills and then small mountains-to meet the Alps.

So: “Next message, Giulio. We need our agents in Mestre and Vincenza to spread out along the Po. We need at least one in each of the towns on the north shore that have stables of reasonable size. They are to seek the ketch and watch for its passengers to transfer to mounts. They will do so quickly; they will not spend a night in the town.”

“Rombaldo, this will take some time to arrange. By the time the messages are sent, received, and the agents change position-”

“Yes, Giulio, I’m well aware of this. Which means, unfortunately, that our agents might arrive after the boat for which they are searching. So they cannot simply go to the villages and sit by the side of the Po, staring, hoping to see a ketch. They will need to make surreptitious inquiries about recent arrivals, mounts that were recently purchased or stabled there, strangers passing through-some of whom will certainly not be Italians. And yes, it will take time, but we are not in a hurry. Thoroughness, not hastiness, is our best ally right now.”

“It shall be as you say, Rombaldo. And if the ketch’s passengers are located, should our men ambush th-?”

“Absolutely not. They are to follow, observe, and report. That is all. These travelers are not our targets; they are our guides. We would be fools to slay them before they lead us to our ultimate objective.” He waved Giulio out. Then, as an afterthought, he added, “Also, be sure to give the fisherman three extra lire. He showed cleverness and initiative.”

Giulio stopped and cocked his head. Rombaldo almost laughed; the scrawny Paduan looked like a quizzical spaniel. He asked, “A bonus for the fisherman, Rombaldo?”

“Yes. Why? What were you expecting?”

“Well, that we’d cover our tracks like always. That we’d kill him.”

Rombaldo frowned. “Kill him? Good grief, no.” Then he shrugged, “Well, at least not yet.”

It was not at all fair, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz decided. Not fair at all.

He looked over the ears of his horse and saw his beautiful wife reach down to give yet another child a turn riding behind her. In the time that he had known her, Sharon had become only a passably capable equestrienne. But otherwise, each passing day seemed a divine ordination upon the further growth of her other, peerless gifts. For Ruy, every moment of existence also allowed him to see more clearly how she was the very acme of charm, wit, kindness, beauty, and-and — yes. And. That. Ruy sighed. Three days upon the road and two evenings spent in the even less comfortable fields had taken their toll on Ruy’s naturally ebullient spirit. Not because of the onset of saddle sores, or the monotonous food, or the omnipresent dust that coated body, mouth, and nostrils. Being a veteran of innumerable campaigns, he no longer noticed such discomforts. No, Ruy resented the absence of a bed. And privacy. Specifically, the bed and privacy that he and his bride of less than two months had enjoyed at the farmhouse.

It had not been a wonderful bed; it was cranky and had needed a thorough dosing of DDT before it was vermin-free. And it creaked. A great deal. But that was part of what he missed. Say what one might, a creaking bed was rather like an orchestral accompaniment, and Sharon Nichols had shown, in the past weeks, that she was a virtuoso performer.

It just wasn’t fair, Ruy concluded.

“A real for your thoughts?”

Ruy looked up from his funk, smiling, simply because the sound of Sharon’s voice always made him happy. “You might not approve,” Ruy warned her.

“Try me,” she said with a smile that was more than half-leer.

Ruy glanced behind. The pope sat his horse comfortably and loose-limbed; Vitelleschi sat his like a long-necked scarecrow without joints.

“You might approve, my heart, but I sincerely doubt that the pope would.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think Urban VIII is a prude. But Vitelleschi-brrrr. I suspect he thinks holding hands is the equivalent of fornication.”

“Hmf,” moped Ruy. “Well, I certainly don’t.”

“No,” she agreed with a smile, “you certainly don’t.”

“Heart of my heart, it is more than a man should be asked to bear, this abstinence. To touch your beauty, to experience your vigor, it brands a man’s soul. It creates a hunger that knows no surfeit. It afflicts me with fantasies and daydreams of delights that are bestowed by an angel with the impulses of a demon.”

“In short, you miss the bed.”

“Ah, the bed,” Ruy sighed, shaking his head. “I remember it almost as if it were yesterday.”

“It was. Well, the day before yesterday.”

“Is it so? Then why does it already feel like a century of centuries?”

“Ruy, don’t herniate your flattery muscles, now. And besides, being on the road is a source of adventure, of new opportunities, new places-new beds. “She poked him, her lips curving slighly.

His eyes widened, then narrowed to match the salacious smile that he could feel growing on his face. “It may be true that variety is the spice of life, but I was not done savoring all the many flavors of the farmhouse. And its bed. Which lifted you just high enough, when you lay full upon it, that I was perfectly positioned to-”

“Ruy. You are not going to talk about that here.”

“Ah, so now you fear that Urban will overhear?”

“That. And I need to keep my head on my business.”

Ruy effected an epic sulk. “I am your business.”

“You most certainly are, you old goat. You are the business I want to get down to. Which is precisely why I’m going to ride ahead of you now.”

“To separate yourself from me? I am wounded, wounded unto death.”

“Really? Wounded to death? You? All of you?” Her challenging gaze drifted south of his belt for just a second; he quite literally rose to the challenge.

As she turned away, Ruy protested to the listening skies. “I am lost, utterly lost. My heart is owned by a cruel temptress who has no pity upon my desperate condition.”

Looking back, Sharon smiled. The sensuous curve of her lips seemed reprised in her shoulders, her arms, her hips, her bust. “So your condition is desperate?”

“Despite enduring a thousand battles and a hundred wounds, never have I been in more pain. I, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz, swear that it is true.”

She raised her chin in a histrionic huff. “I’ll bet you say that to all the girls.” And with a twitch of her tail that matched her spurred mare’s, she moved farther ahead.

Smiling more broadly, Ruy spurred his own charger, keeping up with her. But he was careful not to draw abreast of, or pass, her. No, he must not pass her.

Because he liked the view from back here. Very, very much.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

The room stank of chronically unwashed bodies and the proximity of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto, from which rubbish was removed infrequently. At best.

Tom watched Juliet finish her wine. She placed the sturdy flagon down upon the table and, despite her almost parodically curvy bulk, she belched demurely. Then she stood up and whistled, once, shrilly, followed by her cry of “Benito?”

From out of the milling crowd of young men in the front room, a tall gangly adolescent with a bad facial gash and missing one ear loped over. His face was a study of dedication bordering on adoration: “Yes, Signora Sutherland?”

“Time to send all the young bucks along to their billets now, lad. Get Giovanna’s relatives to help you.”

“Her brother Fabrizio, he’s here. But her cousin Dino is upstairs, fetching-you know, ‘him.’”

Thomas North smiled tightly. Him, indeed. But it was true enough that Harry’s fame in Rome was such that the mere mention of his name and rumor of his appearance could create problems. Fortunately, this was working in their favor, now. Since they had removed Wadding weeks ago, there had been an imaginary “Harry Lefferts sighting” almost every other day. The authorities had apparently pursued these rumors vigorously at first. Now, they simply ignored them. Which was good; although the returned Wrecking Crew took meticulous care not to interact or even be seen by locals, even at night, they could not afford a slip-up. Whoever worked for Borja was looking for them; no reason to help the bastard do his job.

Juliet was rolling her eyes over Benito’s report. “Yes, of course, Dino is spending an extra minute basking in the glow of the Great Man. So get Piero to help you, instead.”

“ Si, Signora, we shall have the room clear in thirty seconds. No more.”

“You have them trained pretty well,” North observed when the youngster had left.

“No training required, Lord North.” Why she, alone of the Wrecking Crew, insisted on retaining the use of his title was beyond him. But he wasn’t going to attempt dissuading her. He had learned that Juliet Sutherland was not merely determined, she was a force majeure. In this case, her resolve was quiet, rather than loud and brash, but no less tenacious. She was probably going to call Thomas “Lord North” until the day he-or she-died.

“What do you mean, ‘no training required’?” North sipped at his well-watered wine.

“Well, I’m exaggerating a bit. But just a bit. The only boys who will do the work we require are poor. And the only ones