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March 1635

Chapter 4


"You know, Ruy, this guidebook is next to useless," Sharon Nichols remarked. She'd had the thing sent all the way from Grantville, one of a very small number of guides to foreign cities the Appalachian town had had before the Ring of Fire. It was, if anything, worse than useless. Apart, that is, from the slightly amusing coincidence that the USE's new embassy in the eternal city was just up the street from where the up-time embassy of the United States had been. Or would be. Or something.

"My lady speaks the truth, as ever. What need have I of maps and rutters and"—he sneered, as magnificently as only Ruy could—"Guidebooks, when I have but to know I am in your presence and can therefore never be lost?" He composed his face in a smile of such seraphic contentment that it was all Sharon could do not to crack up there and then.

As it was she chuckled, and hugged his arm where it was through hers. "There are times, Ruy, when you verge on the impossible." She looked up into his face again, and saw the beatific countenance had returned to the usual impish grin. A grin that made it difficult, sometimes, to remember that he wasn't just old enough to be her father, he was actually a couple of years older than her father. And was still recovering from a severe abdominal injury to boot. Technically, at least—the most she'd ever seen was him wincing a little getting up.

That was Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz. Somewhere close to sixty years of age, he still thought getting into a sword fight against six-to-one odds was a perfectly reasonable proposition. Of course, he'd spent most of those sixty years fighting in Spain's wars and skirmishes on three continents and had survived everything that had been thrown at him. Come right to it, he'd put four of his six opponents down before they got him, leaving the other two for Sharon and Billy Trumble to deal with.

She'd found his courtship hard at first, perfect seventeenth-century gentleman though he was in that as in all things. She still found the memory of Hans painful, even now nearly a year and a half after his death, and with all the things that had happened since. Life did, indeed, go on, but at its own pace, and she hadn't been ready. And there, if you wanted to see a bright side, was the real beauty of Ruy. Old enough and scarred enough himself, he'd understood perfectly and been patient. Then, just as she was being relieved of her duties at the Venetian embassy by the new resident down from Magdeburg, the Day had come. A Day that merited a capital letter when she thought about it. The Day that fell a year and a day after Hans had died protecting Wismar from the Danish invasion fleet. The day she'd promised Ruy an answer to his marriage proposal.

By the Day there had been no doubt. By then she'd found a new life of her own, as a trader, diplomat and—as she thought of herself—medical missionary to the surgeons and physicians of down-time Italy. She'd also had months of Ruy's charming company to make her answer a foregone conclusion.

That just left the wedding to plan. Which reminded her, they'd come for this walk out of the new embassy—recently upgraded from a consulate by Sharon's arrival as ambassador—for a reason. The fact that Rome had been remodeled in the time between now and the future date at which this dog-eared guidebook had been written had somehow let her get sidetracked. In fact—

"Ruy? Are you trying to distract me?"

Innocence personified, cherubic this time. If, that is, you could imagine a cherub with conquistador mustachios. And wasn't that a laugh—almost the first thing Ruy had done in his military career was a term of service as an actual by-God conquistador.

"Don't give me that look, Ruy! You've been trying to duck out of planning our nuptials ever since I said I would marry you."

He had the good grace to look abashed. "Sharon, I confess, it is true. I am a simple man. For me it is only you that matters. Alas for my unpretentious nature."

Sharon snickered, and Ruy responded with a look that was old-fashioned even for the seventeenth century.

"Alas, as I was saying, for my unpretentious nature, it is only proper and right that all proper ceremonies should attend such a beautiful bride. Alas, for my grasp of these matters is not all it should be. I am but a poor, untutored Catalan country gentleman—"


"It is true!" His face was a study in wounded innocence. "What do I know of protocol and precedence and, what is the word you use, showers? Sharon, my love, truly I would also like to see the day of our marriage executed with all proper ceremony. But I have every confidence that, even as far as we are from both our homes, we can secure the services of very good people—"

Sharon raised her eyebrows. This was a new one on her. She'd thought he'd been being his usual testosterone-driven self and trying to duck out of Gurl Stuff.

He paused and grinned. "Sharon, the sacrament of marriage is simply the outward sign of the grace of God. Like all outward signs there are people who make an art of it. Neither of us is without means, let us simply have—" he gave a languid wave, the perfect courtier for a moment—"Everything."

"Not quite everything, Ruy," Sharon chided him. "That would be tasteless."

Another joke that had quickly grown old and comfortable. She was so much more restrained than he was, more moderate. Putting Ruy and "moderate" in the same sentence just wouldn't do at all. She suspected that if he truly did let rip on their wedding plans, well—she had visions of cardinals, probably even the pope, dragged in at gunpoint to officiate. A lightning raid on the Vatican, to secure St. Peter's for the ceremony. And Ruy, grinning at the altar rail with a ring he'd stolen for her from—

She quashed the thought. They had come to the Piazza di Spagna, which to Sharon's disappointment had yet to have the Spanish Steps installed. Then she realized that thought had led to another. "Ruy? I've been talking about who I can get here to our wedding. How about you? Who will you want to invite?"

He stopped, remained silent, and turned around on the spot taking in the view of the piazza. He sighed gently. "This is a thing of some sadness for me, Sharon. I have passed many years in this world and made many enemies and many friends. And many of those friends, too many as I now recall, cannot come to our wedding."

Sharon realized, not knowing quite how for nothing showed on the old soldier's face, that Ruy was close to tears. She stepped closer and hugged him. His embrace in return was fierce and strong, like everything about Ruy. And yet there was that core of grief and burden, at being what he was not and the pretense that made his life possible. On top of which, the friends he must have buried, and the wives. Somehow she felt it would not be right to cry for him, though. Don Quixote-on-steroids that he was, a weeping Dulcinea did him no justice at all.

"And I suspect most of the enemies couldn't come even if they wanted to, hey?" she said, quietly. Ruy could see through flattery, and took it in the spirit in which it was intended.

He stepped back, holding her at arm's length by the shoulders, grinning fiercely. "Those few that live would not dare!" he sneered, surfing over a moment's melancholy on a wave of braggadocio. "But there are some few friends remaining who might yet come to see me marry again. I shall write letters, a chore I have, I confess, avoided until now. The pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, but I find it considerably more tedious to wield."

And wasn't that the truth. It wasn't until they were living under the same roof on a semiformal basis that Sharon had discovered that there was more to being a swordsman than just owning a sword. Or, even, a couple of swords. Ruy's career had seen fashions in dress and military swords change several times. He had kept up with fashion, but seemed unable to bear to part with old weaponry. Racks of the things, and other weapons besides. Had Sharon not known that Ruy hailed from a rural region, she'd have pegged him for a hillbilly from that alone. His collection of lethal hardware was eye-popping stuff that was cousin in spirit to the racks of guns one still saw in the backs of trucks around Grantville and the arsenals many of the townsfolk maintained beyond anything they could ever actually use.

And all of Ruy's weaponry, apart from a few collectors' pieces, was used, some of it to the point of near collapse and most with at least one outrageous story attached. A fair bit of it was for ornamental as well as lethal purposes, too. He had more dress swords than Sharon had dresses, although she was working on remedying that condition now that the actual cash from the previous year's trading successes in Venice was starting to filter through.

"I think," she said after they had strolled along in companionable silence for a while, enjoying the sunshine and the street bustle of Rome in the spring, "I'll see what the hired staff at the embassy know about whatever the local version of wedding planners might be."

"Most excellent, my heart. You may approach the day of our nuptials knowing that matters are in professional hands, and I in the sure and certain knowledge that I merely need stand in place and recite my lines in order to have my heart's desire."

Sharon decided on a change of subject. "We've not heard back from the Vatican about a proper meeting, yet," she said.

"I misdoubt you will, my lady. His Holiness could not refuse to receive your credentials as ambassador, but more would be inopportune."

"Mike and Don Francisco warned me as much. Not that we've a lot to talk about with the pope, as it happens. It'd just be nice to do some proper ambassadoring to go with all the other work we're doing here."

"If I may make the pretense of being a judge of diplomatic skill, your other work is no cause for modesty, Sharon." He wagged a finger at her. "Let it not be said that the ties you make and break in this city do less than the utmost good for your country."


"Deserved flattery, for your modesty, becoming as it is, ill-serves your talents and finer qualities. I, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz, say it is true."

She slapped his arm. "Enough, already," she said. "I'll get a swelled head."

"Ah," he said, after a few moments' more stroll. "Here is a contact that, if it is offered, you should cultivate."

They were passing the Palazzo Barberini, much of which was shrouded in scaffolding and busy with workmen. It was a constant reproach to the Barberini pope Urban VIII that his relatives were leeching on the church's revenues for projects such as the grandification of their house in Rome, a project that would result, according to Larry—now Cardinal—Mazzare, Grantville's former catholic parish priest, in the place having been one of Rome's foremost art museums outside the Vatican when the then Father Mazzare visited it in the twentieth century.

"I've thought about trying to get a foot in that door, yes," Sharon said.

"Most astute," Ruy said, "indeed—"

Sharon cut him off before he could deliver another dump-truck load of praise. "—as I was saying, I was thinking about getting a foot in that door, but I figure that whatever's holding the pope back's got to be holding his relations back as well."

"True. Although I suspect that there are younger members of the family—Antonio Barberini, for example—who might be less constrained. A matter, of course, for your judgment."

For a wonder, he seemed to be offering plain and simple advice, not heaping on the praise and flattery that Sharon, for all her protests, secretly rather enjoyed. Perhaps he genuinely was trying to hint that she could make an end run around the official attitude of noncommittal that the Vatican's equivalent of the State Department was maintaining.

The year before, when there had only been a consulate relaying radio messages from Magdeburg and the Low Countries, there had been messengers to and from the Vatican the whole time. Of course, between the business with Don Fernando and the pope's refusal to help Spain by interfering in Naples, Spain was profoundly annoyed with the pope. Not least because of what it cost them to move as many troops as they had in to Naples and Calabria—and what it had cost them to get the duke of Osuna to desist from open rebellion was anyone's guess, as was how firm his newfound loyalty to Madrid might be. And what with all those troops in Naples right now, His Holiness was probably a little more nervous of Spanish displeasure than he'd been before he'd had a medium-sized army just across the border "suppressing internal dissent."

"Well, maybe," she said, as they came level with the grand entrance of the palazzo. "For the moment, I don't really have any reason to be urgent about cultivating any contacts there, so it can wait a while. Maybe we can invite this Antonio—he's a cardinal, isn't he?—to some function or other just to test the waters. Meantime, I've got other chickens to pluck. This stuff about Cardinal Borja, for one. And getting married to a disreputable old Catalan, for another."

"Ah, wounded to the quick," Ruy groaned.

The Piazza Barberini, as the guidebook named it—Sharon wasn't sure if it bore that name quite yet, although the palazzo had been there long enough that it might—gave on to several little side streets that looked as though they might prove to be a shortcut through to the neighborhood where the USE embassy now stood. The road that should have led directly there seemed not to have been built yet. According to the guidebook, Mussolini, Napoleon and Victor Emmanuel had remodeled large amounts of Rome among them. So the relationship between the street plan in the back of the guide book and the streets Sharon and Ruy were actually walking was sketchy at best.

The attempt at a shortcut turned in to a rather confusing series of lefts and rights through increasingly narrow streets—alleys, to give them their right name—and it became obvious that even in the good parts of Rome there were places where the company was less than congenial. Sharon had no particular difficulty with that. While she had grown up in a nice part of town, her dad's ghetto clinic had been a place she'd gone with him from time to time. With him being so familiar with that kind of neighborhood Sharon had never really gotten the idea that the other side of the tracks was alien territory. So she wasn't more than mildly concerned—it being a bright morning, after all—until Ruy halted in mid-chat and stopped her with a hand on her arm.

"A moment, Sharon," he murmured, and then in two quick and surprisingly silent strides was at the mouth of a side-alley between two buildings, scarcely three feet wide. She just about caught the glint of his dagger and the blur of his arm reaching round the corner and suddenly Ruy was swinging around and bringing a roughly dressed individual with him into the middle of the narrow street they had been walking down.

He had one hand in the guy's collar and was jabbing the pommel of his dagger into the guy's arm just below the shoulder. "Good morning!" Ruy said, brightly, once the scream and the stream of Roman vernacular had subsided.

Another burst of obscenities.

"If you are going to follow us and work your way around to ambush, friend, be less clumsy, hey?" Ruy said, in Italian with a distinct flavor of gutter. Sharon had heard him address merchants and doctors and minor nobility in the floweriest formal phrases. She'd had no idea that he was also fluent in the kind of language she'd heard the stable hands at the embassy using.

"I wasn't doing—" The protestation was choked off in a strangulated squawk as Ruy flicked the tip of the dagger up the guy's face and held it, unwavering, maybe a quarter-inch from a wide, staring eye.

"Nothing?" Ruy finished for him. "Then why did I just have to make you drop that blade?"

Sure enough, there was a knife in the gutter. Maybe four inches of cheap metal, bright and worn-down from years of sharpening. With that, he had to have intended to simply stab Ruy straight from ambush—using it to merely threaten a man with three feet of Toledo steel on his hip would have been suicide.

"Nk," said the would-be mugger, who Sharon saw was probably only about fourteen or fifteen.

"Don't hurt him too badly, Ruy," Sharon said, "he's probably starving. In fact, here," she reached in to her purse and pulled out the little .38 she usually carried these days. "No, hold on—I—" She fished about again and came up with a few small coins. "Get yourself something to eat. You look like you could use it."

"Her copper or my steel," Ruy said in a mild tone, releasing him.

The mugger took the money and ran like hell.

"A nice touch," Ruy said, "with the pistol."

Sharon grinned back. "Would have been if it'd been intentional. It's just that I keep it on top of everything else."

"Also nice. Now, I believe that if we turn left at the end there, we will be back on the Via Veneto."

They passed the remaining half hour of their stroll with inconsequentialities and pastries they bought from a street vendor, and returned to the embassy in time for a mid-morning coffee.


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