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Chapter 10


Frank groaned to himself. The two idiots who were insisting on a fight were heading for the door. He heard Giovanna's voice at his shoulder. "Can you stop them?"

"Don't think I can," Frank said, without taking his eyes off them for a second. "They seem to be dead set on a fight."

"This is the third time since we opened," Giovanna hissed. "Someone is bound to notice, and there will be trouble."

Frank nodded. "I just don't think I can stop these guys short of picking a fight myself." The pair were edging toward the door, neither willing to turn his back on the other. Frank had a vague notion that duels were supposed to be more formal than this, with seconds and meeting places to go to at dawn. Just taking it outside seemed to be a bit informal to Frank. Although taking it outside proved to be a bit difficult with neither guy willing to turn away from the other for even a split second. And that door was none too wide—Frank wondered how they'd negotiate that one. Maybe they'd have the fight right in his doorway.

Just then the door opened. There were two figures silhouetted against the early afternoon sunlight. One man, one woman, which calmed Frank's fears of a watch raid. The man stepped inside first, followed by the woman, and Frank's guts solidified and sank. Ruy and Sharon. Somehow, his instincts for when he was well and truly busted started screaming. He was not supposed to be running a wild-west saloon. Pull yourself together, he said to himself, this is your place, not theirs.

Ruy looked from one side to the other, taking in the two lefferti and their crowd of onlookers, and then settling on Frank. "Trouble, Señor Stone?" he asked, his gravelly voice even and calm.

"Couple of guys got a problem. They were taking it outside," Frank said, trying to sound nonchalant.

One of the would-be combatants seemed to take offense at the interruption, and let out a few choice Italian oaths. "Mind your own business, old man," he snarled.

Oops, Frank thought, with a slight buzz of guilty pleasure. He'd never seen Ruy in action, but he'd heard the story.

Ruy's face broke into a grin. "But I am minding my own business, signor," he said, in fluent Italian. "There seems to be a problem in the place of business of a man my intended is pleased to call a friend. This makes him my friend also, and a friend of Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz shall have no problem without my utmost efforts to solve it."

The other lefferto, apparently forgetting his quarrel for a minute, turned to point his knife at Ruy. "Butt out, old man, or your business will be imitating a gutted fish."

Ruy sighed deeply, converting the movement into a smooth draw of a sword and dagger. Both of them very, very sharp and, for all the golden curlicues about the hilts, very efficient looking. "It may be," he said, "that you are skilled enough to gut me like a fish."

There was a flash of a blade through the air between Ruy and the lefferto who had spoken, and Frank could have sworn Ruy—a man in his fifties at least—had blurred as he moved. Ruy was back on his spot, the tips of his blades rock-steady, before the lefferto yelped and dropped his knife to grab his hand and clutch it in pain. Frank could see blood already starting to seep between the fingers of the gripping hand.

"But I doubt it," Ruy continued. "And even if you did, my intended is here. I have been present when she totally disemboweled a man. And you can see that she has already been busy today."

Frank looked. Sharon's dress wasn't just in some dark pattern. There were definite bloodstains all down her front. Frank hoped, fervently, that she'd been rendering emergency medical assistance. He'd heard what she'd done in Venice, too.

The lefferti clearly got the message. The one Ruy hadn't stabbed in the hand very slowly and carefully sheathed his knife. "Signor," he said, "if I have caused offense to you, I most humbly apologize. I shall go elsewhere and await the man with whom I truly do have a quarrel." With which he went to the door, giving Ruy and Sharon—especially Sharon—an ostentatiously wide berth. The other guy snatched up his knife and scuttled after him.

The rest of the room let out the breath they had all been holding. It came out as a collective sigh. Ruy sheathed his dagger, flourished a handkerchief to wipe his sword point and sheathed that weapon as well. Frank couldn't help seeing a big, mad, feral tomcat, preening after a victory over some lesser moggy.

"So," said Ruy Sanchez, grinning and swaggering in a way that Frank thought was indecent in a man older than his father, "who do I have to kill to get lunch?"

"Man, that's gruesome," Frank said, once Sharon had told the full story of her events of the morning and gotten on the outside of a pizza. Not that the bloodstains down her dress hadn't told a tale all by themselves. Benito had been sent over to the embassy to get her a change of clothes. While she could get away with walking around the Borgo filthy with someone else's dried blood, she had to go through a whole other class of neighborhood to get back to her embassy and the stains would cause comment at the very least.

"It might so easily have been worse," Ruy said over his wineglass. "Fortunately, their commanding officer was killed quickly, before he could compound his errors."

"Frank," Sharon said, "were you involved?"

Frank shook his head.

Sharon gave him a hard stare for a couple of seconds. "Frank Stone," she said at length, "if I find out that there's even the slightest hint of you even stretching the truth on this one—"

Frank held up his hands. "No, scout's honor, I swear. For crying out loud, Ms. Nichols, we're less than a quarter-mile from the Vatican here. It ain't much further to Inquisition headquarters. My record isn't exactly spotless, but jeez, give me some credit for not being totally retarded, hey?"

Sharon seemed to accept that. "I don't want to see you get in trouble, Frank. Not again. And I don't want to see you mess things up for anyone else around here, least of all me. I'm supposed to be an ambassador, and I really don't want to have to explain away another serious incident."

"Not on my account, you won't," Frank said. "Look, we serve meals, we serve drinks. We have a singers' night every Tuesday, and Dino and Fabrizzio are organizing a soccer league. We're getting a free school organized. We've got pamphlets on hygiene, basic medical care and technology as well as political affairs—and I make sure to keep those a little on the vague side. Stress on Italian unification, run pretty lightly when it comes to the role of Vatican."

He decided to leave unsaid the fact that Massimo's pamphlets ran a lot more toward the inflammatory side. Frank didn't write those himself, after all. Nor did he see any point in dwelling on the minor absurdity involved in stressing Italian unification while not directly attacking the Vatican, seeing as how Frank knew and the pope knew and three out of four urchins in the streets in any town in Italy knew perfectly well that uniting Italy would require dismantling the Papal States. Life was full of quirks.

He didn't think Sharon was really fooled by the act. But then, Frank didn't think the pope was, either—yet; so far at least, Urban VIII had chosen to look the other way. Frank was pretty sure that as long as he kept the appearance of the Committee of Correspondence in Rome reasonably mild mannered, Urban would figure that the benefit of having them active in the city outweighed the disadvantages. That was a tactic Mike Stearns had recommended to him, in one of the letters he'd sent Frank.

. . . as long as you don't rile them too much, in ways they can't ignore, it's often handy for an establishment caught in the middle to have a devil to counterbalance the deep blue sea—"deep blue sea," as in "Spanish Armada." Just don't be stupidly provocative, and remember that time is on our side.

Frank had been much impressed by the letters. Partly, because it had never really occurred to him that somebody like President Stearns actually thought about these things. Mostly, though, simply because Mike had taken the time to write them in the first place. That was as good a reminder as any that "Mr. President," under the fancy suit and the slick manners, was undoubtedly the most radical politician in Europe. Mike Stearns just wasn't dumb about it, the way Giovanna's father and uncle were.

So, he plowed on stoutly, doing his level best to exude the aura of responsible reformer rather than wild-eyed radical. "When we get a bit of a stake together we're going to start a credit union, maybe a groceries co-op. I know the Inquisition's looking for any excuse to land on us, and I'm not going to give 'em one. I've had quite enough time in Inquisition jail cells for one lifetime, thanks."

"Most wise, Señor Stone," Ruy said, "but you are still at risk. It will be said that you were responsible for the bravos we saw today."

"I can't much help that," Frank said. "Thing is, I've spent as much time as I can hereabouts making as many friends as I can. We get a good crowd in here most of the time. Those two idiots you saw weren't typical by any means. I reckon we've got a couple of dozen character witnesses any day of the week, if we need 'em."

"Not of so much use in a political trial," Ruy said. "But you say you know the Inquisition is looking for an excuse? How do you know, if I might inquire?"

Frank grinned. "Told you, we've got a lot of friends here. One of those friends has a relation who's on the staff with the Inquisition, a clerk or something, and we get passed a warning. They don't want to do anything this soon after the pope made it clear he wanted us left alone. I figure as long as we keep our noses reasonably clean, they'll keep their hands off."

Ruy turned to Sharon. "You remarked earlier that we might have been looking at only one end of the problem? It is my opinion, my dearest, that young Señor Stone is looking at the other end, and possibly also missing something."

"Well," said Frank, mildly annoyed that Ruy was talking about him like he wasn't there, "I figure since lunch is on the house anyway, you might as well fill me in on what I'm missing, hey? And maybe there's something I've heard down here on the wrong side of the tracks that you'll find useful."

Ruy nodded. "An offer most nobly made, Señor Stone. Perhaps there may be some useful exchange to be made. With your leave, Sharon?"

"Unless there's some reason why the Committee can't help the USE's intelligence network, go right ahead, Ruy."

"The first thing," Ruy said, refilling his wineglass, "is that I will warn you to be circumspect. It may be that this warning is not needed, for you have already been the victim of an agent provocateur and seen the chicanery of a true master of the art of deception. But I will repeat it: spycraft is not a trade easily or quickly learnt and you should not attempt more than you are confident is within your skills."

"I'd figured as much," Frank said. "So far it's just been listening to gossip and making sure folks know there's a drink on the house if they've got news for us. Nothing much, really."

"Most wise, if I may make so bold. However, you will not have heard that Cardinal Borja has returned to Rome?"

"I hadn't," said Frank, puzzling for a moment to remember who that one was, and then—"Spanish cardinal, right? He was at Galileo's trial. He's an Inquisitor, no?"

"He is indeed. And he was ordered out of Rome last year but came back. Your local gossip will not have heard that he is in his villa outside Rome receiving a great many visitors, including many high-ranking priests, bishops and cardinals."

"You got a handle on what he's up to?" Frank asked.

"Not as yet," Ruy said, gesturing with his wineglass. "It may be that the worst he can do is to frustrate and thwart His Holiness in revenge for the slights he suffered and the See of Rome's refusal to obstruct Don Fernando's marriage. That is, as you may imagine, causing consternation among the Catholic powers."

"I can see that. But why would he be hiring mobs to cause trouble in the street?"

"I'm guessing," Sharon said, "because someone didn't want to play ball with him. So he organized that little party just to let 'em know what's what—and if you guys get blamed after last year's fiasco, so much the better."

"Just so," said Ruy. "I have agreed, if permission may be obtained from my former master, to look in to the matter as it appears on the streets, as all our existing sources and spies are concentrated among the notables and prelates of Rome. So if there is anything you might hear, Frank, about who is hiring mobs, and on behalf of whom they might be doing it, that information would be most welcome. For our part, it may well be that we will hear sooner than you might if the Inquisition is in danger of growing a pair of cojones. You might need warning to leave town in a hurry, eh?"

Frank nodded. "I'll keep an ear out. Just don't expect anything spectacular, okay? I get what comes in the door and what Giovanna picks up when she's out buying groceries and such. We're not really professional spies, you know?"

"True," Ruy nodded. "But on occasion the kind of thing you hear will be of more use than what the professionals gather. Do not underestimate your worth, Señor Stone."

Frank grinned. He could recognize flattery when it came his way, but since he figured he was getting the better end of this deal, in the shape of a possible warning if things were going to go horribly wrong, he didn't mind. A warning, he realized, he might well need quicker than he would otherwise. Sharon and Ruy coming in all bloody had clean driven it out of his mind, but now was as good a moment as any to crack the good news.

"Well, thanks for the compliments, Señor Sanchez," he said, "but there's something else involved, another reason why I can't exactly go haring off being a spy and all, and why I've really, really got to be careful about staying out of trouble. You see, I'm going to be a daddy."

"Bravo!" Ruy beamed, leaning over to clap him on the shoulder. "Let me be the first, Señor Stone, to wish you every joy of this happy event. But where is your beautiful wife? I, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz, must not be found wanting when there is a lady to be congratulated!"

Sharon was slower off the mark. "Frank . . . I mean, when? How soon? Where's Giovanna?"

"Here, Dottoressa Nichols," Giovanna said, coming over with a plate of pastries. "I see my husband has finally remembered that we have some slight news to tell." She gave Frank a friendly poke in the ribs. "I think perhaps three months? So six to go."

"You're looking well on it," Sharon said. "Any sickness? You don't seem to be starting to show yet."

"No, I seem to be lucky with the sickness. I felt a little ill in the mornings at first, but not recently. And it is showing, a little, but not in this dress. My tits, though!"

If there was one truly disconcerting thing about having married a working-class Italian girl, it was the utterly straightforward way she spoke about—

"—and when Frank tried to squeeze them, I nearly punched him. I think I did deafen him, I screamed. So tender."

"Well, that's normal," said Sharon.

Frank almost cringed. Across the table, Ruy shrugged and gave him a look that, in international cross-time Guy Code said, women, eh?

Giovanna nodded. "I thought so, I spoke to some of the other ladies around here. But I would know one thing, Dottoressa." A note of suspicion crept into her voice. "Frank tells me that the up-time doctors say that a pregnant woman must have no wine. Is this true?" She made it sound like they'd recommended she stop breathing.

"Well . . ." Frank guessed immediately that Sharon had run in to this particular piece of stunned disbelief before. "Strong drink isn't good for your baby, no. On the other hand, there's not much else that's safe to drink, and a dose of flux will be worse. How much do you drink, normally?"

"Normally? Watered wine when I eat. From time to time, beer."

"You shouldn't be doing too much harm, then. Try drinking cool boiled water instead, though, when you can have that in place of wine." Sharon pursed her lips a moment, then went on. "If we were somewhere with a good, clean, water supply, I'd say leave the wine out altogether, but around here you're probably better off with wine in your water if you can't get boiled. But definitely stay off the grappa, you hear?"

"Yes, Dottoressa," Giovanna said.

"When you've got a moment, drop by the embassy and I'll give you a checkup. I've usually got some spare time in the mornings. Shall we say Friday, about nine? We can arrange regular checkups after that. Make sure you're coming along well, and all."

"I could not impose, Dottoressa."

Sharon held up a hand. "No, Giovanna, it's not an imposition. I've been meaning to hold some free clinics anyway, build up some good will. You can be my first patient."

"If you're sure . . ." Frank said, although it was purely for form's sake. Despite Giovanna's insistence that she was from tough stock and wouldn't "faint like some useless noblewoman," he got the cold sweats sometimes, watching her carry on working. And proper up-time medical care was beyond price, as far as he was concerned. He'd had to live without medical insurance for most of his life, and had discreetly found out what doctors in seventeenth-century Rome charged. The prospect of getting an up-time trained nurse for free was too good to pass up. And it meant they had a regular contact with the embassy as well.

"I'm sure," said Sharon, in a tone that permitted no further protests.

Just then Benito came in, breathless. It looked like he'd run all the way to the other side of town and back. "Hi Frank, Giovanna, Dottoressa, Señor Sanchez," he said, trotting up to their table with a parcel done up in muslin under his arm. "I got the signora's fresh clothes."

"Thanks, Benito," said Sharon. "Frank, if I can have the use of somewhere to change?"

"Sure. Go out back of the bar and pick a room. Giovanna'll give you a hand if you need it."

"Thanks." Sharon got up and left for the back rooms.

"The dress was not all I got," Benito said. "See!"

He held out a piece of paper. "Someone gave me a flyer. I couldn't read all of it, but it looks like someone else is starting a Committee."

"Thanks, Benito," Frank said, taking the paper. "Where'd you get it?"

"Some kid was handing them out on the Via Crescenzio. I took one as I went past." Benito shrugged. "I didn't recognize the guy, though. Just some kid, probably handing them out for a mouthful of bread." A year ago, Benito had been that kid, or very much like him.

Frank nodded. "Thanks again. Go get yourself a cold drink, you look like you could use it." As Benito excused himself, Frank turned the paper over a couple of times—cheap rag paper, smeary printing—looked at the text and whistled. Then, grimaced.

This had the authentic smell of Problem. "Well, here's your first piece of intelligence from the Committee, Señor Sanchez," he said, handing the handbill over.

Ruy looked at it, holding the paper at arm's length. "I take it you did not print this?"

"Nope. Although some of the quotes on there are from Massimo's early stuff. Back before we persuaded him to tone it down a little."

Ruy chuckled, but there wasn't much humor in the sound. "Tell me, Frank, how would you go about proving you did not print this?"

Frank had been annoyed. Edging toward angry, even. Ruy's question made him realize that he might have, all unknowing, ended up in serious trouble. "My word of honor?" he tried.

Ruy had the grace not to laugh out loud. "That might actually work, you know. The standards of proof before the Inquisition are quite high, and they have strong rules of evidence. One of which, alas, is putting you to the question to see if you stick to your story under threat of torture."

"Can we complain that someone's passing themselves off as us? Protest now that that stuff—" Frank waved his hand at the leaflet, which had taken all of Massimo's more inflammatory stuff and combined them into one absolute scorcher of a broadside "—is nothing to do with us?" A thought came to him. "Maybe if we demand they do something about these frauds?"

Ruy threw back his head and laughed. "Truly, that would be a rare jest! Who knows? It might even work."

Frank grinned back. "Hey, don't knock it. If it's dumb but it works, it ain't dumb." Then he pulled his face straight. "Seriously, Señor Sanchez, I think the main thing in our favor at the moment is that we don't have a printing press yet. It's due to arrive soon, I'm told, but for the time being all the propaganda we've got is what we brought with us, and we've had to pay printers to get flyers done for this place."

"I hope for your sake you are right, Frank. For now, perhaps you might try an indignant protest to the authorities. If nothing else, they will not be expecting that. Although whoever produced this also knows about the efforts of Messer Marcoli in Venice, and can readily send in a few samples for them to compare with." Ruy's tone was serious, too. It looked like he had recognized some of Massimo's choicer phrases right off the bat, which left Frank with the uneasy feeling that some bright guy at the Inquisition could easily do the same thing.

Frank nodded, and picked the leaflet back up. "Well, maybe I can talk us out of that situation. After all, this stuff is mixed and matched from a lot of different broadsides and pamphlets, you know. If I point out that whoever prepared this edited it to distort our message, we might be able to get away with it. I dunno, though. Massimo's pretty fiery in the original Venetian as well."

Sharon came back just then. "Ruy, if you guys are finished, I'd like to get back to the embassy. I've got some meetings in the later part of this afternoon, and I'd like to see what we've got on file that we might have missed about what happened today."

"The most pleasurable of duties calls me away, Señor Stone," Ruy said, rising to his feet. "Perhaps I might visit you again in a few days and we can compare notes over a convivial glass of wine?"

"Sure thing, Señor Sanchez. Don't be a stranger, by any means."

"Thanks for lunch, Frank," Sharon said. "Come on, Ruy."

After they had gone, Frank rounded up the others from their various chores. "Guys," he said, "Committee meeting. We have a problem . . ."


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