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Chapter 7


When Sharon came in to her office after breakfast there was, as usual, a stack of paperwork waiting with Adolf Kohl, her German chief of staff, clucking over it.

"This uppermost packet, Fräulein Nichols," he said, tapping a bundle of papers wrapped in ribbon and sealed with a blank seal, "was brought to our door by a street-boy who says he was given a few coins to deliver it by a man he did not know. The boy demanded an assurance that it be given into your hands directly you had finished breaking fast before he would leave, Fräulein. The remainder is invitations and routine correspondence from yesterday's deliveries and mails, for which I have taken the liberty of having draft replies prepared."

He hovered, plainly intrigued by the mystery. Before he'd been hired by the USE's infant State Department he'd been a foreign-correspondence clerk for some middle-ranking noble or other. The novelty of dealing with actual matters of an actual state still hadn't worn off, quite, and years of a light and boring workload had left the gangling, nervous Saxon with a tendency to cluck like a mother hen when business departed from the utterly routine. It was a mark of the man that while Sharon had managed to get him, in private, at least, to unbend a little as to the Your Excellencies, he couldn't seem to bring himself to address her as informally as by her first name.

"You haven't looked to see what it is?"

"Fräulein Nichols!" he exclaimed in genteel horror. "This packet is most clearly marked private and for the attention of the ambassador."

Sharon kept her face as straight as she could and picked up her letter-knife to open the seal. "Well," she said, "let's see what was so all-fired mysterious it couldn't have been delivered by a proper messenger."

Pretty much everything else that came arrived with either a liveried man carrying it or one of the more-or-less professional messengers who carried things around any town of any size. So that much about this packet was unusual. Sharon unfolded the wrapper and noted that it contained a couple of dozen sheets of high-quality paper, closely covered in an elegant penmanship. She looked closer. It was all in Latin. She sighed. That wasn't a language she had a good grasp of, although a year spent speaking almost nothing but one dialect of Italian or another had given her a leg up on learning it. She sat forward at her desk and began puzzling it out to see if it was worth getting a better translation.

By about halfway down the first page, she realized that it almost certainly was. And that the radio guys up in the attic were going to be damned busy tonight.


Don Francisco Nasi waited on the sofa in Mike Stearns' office for the report he had prepared to have the impact he was predicting. It had been something of an effort for him to get an unscheduled meeting with Stearns, as the increasing pressure on the office of the Prime Minister of the United States of Europe was filling the man's day from end to end and frequently had him burning the midnight oil. The appearance of free time in the prime minister's daily schedule of meetings was a rare event, and it was only the sheer unwontedness of Nasi needing more than his usual twice-a-week briefing session that had persuaded Stearns' secretary to squeeze him in between one meeting and the next.

They were not in the usual conference room—the office staff was taking the opportunity to get that cleaned out and ready for the next session—but in Stearns' actual working office, which had come to remind Nasi of the kind of room his relatives in commerce and legal practice tended to inhabit: filing and paperwork on every surface, and a complete nightmare for the cleaning staff wherever you looked. The office of a man, in short, who toiled hard at important work and was usually too busy to pay much mind to the details, and furthermore did not make life any easier for his staff.

Even so, Stearns managed to be more effective in his role than most of his equivalents. A willingness to work hard—the contrast with Sultan Murad IV of Nasi's own personal acquaintance was striking, and Murad had the entire Ottoman Empire to run—and to get much of the work done himself set him so far apart from other rulers as to defy comparison. It also made Nasi worry, for he had come to think of Stearns as a friend and, in the two years of their acquaintance, Stearns had visibly aged.

Which made bringing him this latest piece of information something of a trial for Nasi's conscience. Although a sly grin seemed to be—

Mike Stearns chuckled. "You know, Francisco, there are some aspects of twentieth-century spy mastering you've missed."

Don Francisco Nasi raised an eyebrow and tilted his head to one side. He recognized that tone. Mike Stearns, prime minister of the United States of Europe, had a decidedly odd sense of humor. He waited for the punch line.

"Well," said Stearns, leaning back from the report—a report that, by rights, should have been still smoking, so fast had it come from the Secret Service Cipher Office via Don Francisco's own team of analysts—"Seems to me there's one thing about this source that's missing."

"And?" Francisco saw no reason to uncrook the eyebrow.

"Needs a codename. Something with a hint of mystery about it, something that sounds like it belongs in a Len Deighton thriller."

"Let us by all means call him Harry Palmer, then," Francisco said, pleased that he hadn't missed a beat.

"Truce," Stearns said, holding up his hands. "This time, you were ready for me. Still, a name would be good."

"I prefer not, Michael, truly I do. While a codename is a useful administrative convenience within my office, I prefer the reports that come outside that office not to have any identifier on them beyond what is in the product itself."

Stearns gave a low whistle. "Every time I think I've reached the limits of your paranoia, Francisco, you still manage to surprise me. Still, your department. What do we know about this source?"

"Well, he has sent us one message so far, sent anonymously to our embassy at Rome. A plain packet, according to the description, handwritten in Latin. The contents are all about church politics, and he seems to have gotten us the outcome of a curia session a day or two ahead of our regular channel, and a lot faster since that channel sends his dispatches by courier rather than straight to the embassy."

"Well, that's helpful, I suppose."

Francisco pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment. "I can't help thinking, Mike, that whoever it is knows about how radio works."

"Hmmm. I wouldn't worry about that too much, Francisco. I think it's past time we started assuming that was a blown secret. We've used it too much in ways that give the game away. Tell the truth, I wish I'd sat on Sharon Nichols and her schemes in Venice, except they were doing us so much short-term good that I didn't think about the long-term security risk. And I should imagine that the Vatican and Don Fernando's people have leaked like crazy."

Francisco gave a loud and theatrical sigh, and said nothing.

Stearns snorted. "Can it, Francisco. All we really needed was a head start, and the giant stone towers bought us one. Even now that they've figured out radio is portable, they've still got to reverse-engineer it. You've seen the reports, only a handful of spark stations on the air yet, and most of those not very good. Don't forget the other part. We can hear their radios, but they can't hear ours. We've still got an edge, just not a secret edge. Anyway, back to this guy in Rome. When I get to the bit of your report headed "Analysis," what am I going to find?"

"We think it should be treated cautiously." Francisco decided he should accompany that with a grin.

Sure enough, Stearns rewarded him with The Look. "Our taxpayers fund your salary for what, exactly?"

Francisco chuckled. "Oh, all right. There are a lot of reasons to treat this with suspicion, frankly. A source that simply walks in off the street and assists us without asking for reward? Baffling, at best, since treason is never undertaken lightly."

"Treason?" It was Stearns' turn to raise his eyebrows.

"Treason," Nasi affirmed. "Our best guess is that the author of this packet, and by all means let us call him Señor Palmer, is Spanish. And since the Spaniards are the strongest national grouping in Rome if one treats the Italians as a lot of disparate subgroups, that makes the giving of insights into their thinking and perceptions to us treason. Information to the enemy. Also, he seems to be hinting that he is both inside Borja's confidences and working for Osuna. Since as far as we know Osuna is barely a hair's breadth short of open rebellion, it seems that our man is at least twice a traitor and since he has not asked us for money, I have to wonder why it is he is doing this."

"You think that a traitor's motives have to be clear and comprehensible, and preferably base and dishonest, before you'll trust them?" Stearns' smile was growing wryer by the second.

Nasi nodded, acknowledging the hit. "Actually, that is a good, if cynical, way to put it. Certainly not the words of a simple Roman centurion, I would say." He paused, to let Stearns mime taking a hit. Their trading of barbs between the paranoid spymaster and the cynical bare-knuckle politician had long settled down as their running joke. "I would not say it was always required, though. It is just that this is either the clumsiest piece of disinformation I have received in my office in months or we are dealing with a man of genuine principle. And those, as we both know, are deadly dangerous creatures."

"True. You can always trust a dishonest man, where you can never tell what an honest man will do."

"Virtue is messy stuff, Mike," Francisco said. "If Señor Palmer can bring himself to treason for the greater good, what else will he stoop to?"

"I see your point. So you don't trust him when he says that Borja means to do something bad in Rome?"

"Actually, that's an area where I do trust him. As much as I'd trust him if he had said the sun would rise in the east tomorrow. It's obvious, Mike. What concerns me is his hinting that Borja means to depose Urban VIII by some means."

"Is that even possible?"

"It might be. Popes have been deposed and have even abdicated. I took the liberty of having one of my people who happens to be Catholic consult Cardinal Mazzare yesterday. The cardinal is well up on his church history, and he says that there have been something like thirty antipopes, the last of them only two hundred years ago, and while in the history-that-was there never was another, there's no reason why there should not be. I understand the laws on papal elections were tightened some years ago so as to make disputed elections all but impossible, though, so we need not concern ourselves overmuch with the possibility of an antipope."

"Without killing Urban VIII, surely that's the best Borja can manage? I don't know much about the Catholic church, but I do know that popes reign until they die." Stearns was riffling the pages of the report as he spoke. "Do we really think that Borja means to have Urban assassinated?"

"Truly, I do not have enough information yet," Francisco said. "And it is not limited to assassination, I fear. Cardinal Mazzare was able to cite at least one papal abdication. Urban could be forced off his throne by some means."

"Impeachment?" Stearns began stroking his chin. "I know that was a live issue when we left the twentieth century—"

"Impeaching the pope?" Nasi frowned. "Cardinal Mazzare did not mention—"

Stearns waved his hands. "Sorry, no. The Clinton business, I meant."

"Ah, I do recall that, yes." Nasi had studied that part of the twentieth-century United States's political history with almost as much interest as he had Nixon. There were some remarkable parallels with events in his own homeland, with the exception that there impeachment resulted in the offending pasha or vizier feeding fishes in the Sea of Marmara. "How does it bear on the situation in Rome?" he asked.

"Well, it doesn't, really, except that it's sort of the first thing I thought of when you said the word 'impeachment.' " He snorted. "I guess there's sort of a parallel, though. If Borja's as peeved at the pope as this suggests, and God knows the man has been peeved at the pope before, and vice versa, he might be looking for something, anything, to get Urban out of office."

"You think he might be looking for a—what was her name—Monica Lewinsky?" Nasi found it an amusing thought, but the days of popes openly maintaining mistresses were long over. He couldn't be sure but that the last one hadn't actually been Alexander VI, who had been Cardinal Borja's ancestor, or a great-grand-whatever uncle.

That was good for another chuckle from Stearns. "Maybe. I think the real issue will be something a bit more theological, or possibly just plain failure to agree with the king of Spain. Or—I dunno. Any clues from Señor Palmer?"

"Not really. He hints at dark deeds afoot against the papacy, and also hints that Borja has bought Osuna off so as to have a free hand, but says nothing specific."

"Can we ask for more?"

"He gave us no means to get back in touch with him, alas. I have some good people in Rome, in the embassy and—elsewhere. We could run this one as quite a useful agent, on either side of the balance."

"With a pinch of salt for the moment, then?"

Nasi nodded. "I think so. It puts a name to our prediction of a backlash within the church after the Galileo affair, and as it happens that name was on the top of our shortlist."

Stearns nodded. "Consequences if he succeeds?"

"A papacy hostile to our interests. Almost what we expected to deal with when we were first beginning, until Urban began positioning himself as strictly neutral—which, as you have remarked before, says a great deal from a man who is technically supposed to be on one side of a conflict. Only slightly worse than we might have expected had Mazarini not intervened as he did, and so effectively. That was unexpected, and very fortuitous."

"Sure as hell was. Crowned heads of Europe with no figleaf. Heh. Still, what can Borja do against us?"

" 'How many divisions has the pope?' " Nasi quoted. "In this day and age, several, but they are not first-rate troops and they are a long way away. Indeed, if it comes to the worst, not even well-positioned to defend Rome itself without several weeks' notice. The issue, I think, is a moral one. There are some rulers—none of the principals here in Europe, but a number in the second echelon and lower—for whom the backing or otherwise of the pope will weigh on their consciences heavily enough to provoke concrete action. And, of course, it will create problems here in the USE between the different confessions. If the Protestants can accuse the Catholics of divided loyalties—" Nasi left that hanging. There was a demarcation point beyond which problems ceased to be his responsibility and became somebody else's.

Stearns drummed his fingers on his desk. "Probably. Can't think of a damned thing we can do about it from here, though. Any suggestions?"

"Other than waiting for more messages from Señor Palmer? No." Nasi had been mulling it over all night, had finally slept on it, and woken none the wiser.

"Hmm. Need to think on it, then. While I have you here, the message which Sharon sent straight to me. Don't tell me you don't read them."

"It wasn't marked private, Mike," Nasi said, smiling.

"True. Seems our ambassador thinks her prime minister might stop some of her wedding guests going down there for the nuptials. Like I could stop Rita doing anything she set her mind to." Stearns snorted. "Sharon's not the only one does as she damn well pleases. Ain't no wonder those two got to be such friends at college. The pair of 'em are . . ." Stearns waved a hand, as if trying to grab the word out of the air.

"Ladies who know their own minds?" Nasi offered.

"Ornery cusses, is more what I was thinking. James says he figures the only way to get his daughter to do anything is to forbid her from it, and Rita's the same. How safe will they be, Francisco? Professional assessment?"

Nasi had already thought this one through. "On the journey? Just a matter of enough guards. Any one of seven mercenary companies locally would be trustworthy and adequate to the task. Exactly the kind of work they like, as well, since it pays them to avoid trouble. I can let Rita have a list of worthwhile captains to approach. I assume they will not travel on state business and permit you to send Marine horse with them?"

"It might be that there's something for them to do in that line, but I'd rather not. Rita needs a vacation—"

"As do you, Mike," Nasi put in.

"—I know, and I'll rest when I leave office," Stearns went on. "I don't think they'll need diplomatic immunity. Unless you've got a different assessment?"

Nasi waved a hand in the air. "Three months ago, I would have put it at no foreseeable risk. Now? Rome's mob is a paltry thing, compared to the likes of the arsenalotti, but still capable of storming an embassy. That is the risk, you understand, for the persons and property of ambassadors still remain sacrosanct to official action. It remains to be seen whether what Borja is planning will stir up popular passion to the point of street violence. I personally doubt it, but it is not a point on which I count myself an expert."

"Borja himself?"

"Unlikely. On his record, he is not a clever man. He's impulsive, tactless, high-handed and with more amour propre than is good for a man in his position with his responsibilities. Whether he is stupid enough to include an assault on embassy property with his machinations, I very much doubt."

Stearns nodded. "So what you're telling me is that you don't have enough information to justify a decision to recall Sharon out of danger so she can get married in Grantville and incidentally keep my sister from traveling to the other end of Europe in the middle of a war?"

Nasi folded his hands and looked piously toward heaven. "Mike, I am sure she will be a good and dutiful woman and do as her husband commands her."

Nasi watched with satisfaction as his chief cracked up altogether for a few moments. "Seriously, Mike, my gut feeling is that there is less to the situation in Rome than meets the eye. There will be trouble in the church government, of that we may be certain. Urban's position may well become difficult, if not untenable, but that will take months, if not years. I feel sure that Olivares is making the opening moves in a game that will see his master in control of the papacy, but I cannot see any workable plan he might have made which would result in fighting in Rome within the next year. Our people there should be safe."

Stearns sighed. "Well, I guess that's as much reassurance as I'll get. If your people have the time, though, could you see that Frank Stone and the Marcolis get watched? They're a lot more vulnerable now that they've moved down there, and having someone who might warn 'em to get out ahead of trouble just might save their necks. And I really don't want to be the bearer of that bad news to Tom, really I don't."

"It should be simple enough to arrange. In truth, our people in Rome have precious little to report on much of the time in any event. I am sure they can spare a little time to report on the Committee of Correspondence there a little more closely."

"How are they doing, out of curiosity?"

"Well, as it happens. I shall have the reports collated for Friday morning to let you have a fuller picture. Now," Nasi said, rising, "I have intruded enough on what I am sure is a busy day. You have all the facts at our disposal on the situation in Rome ahead of your meeting with Wilhelm tomorrow, and I feel sure he will ask."

Stearns frowned. "You haven't . . . ?"

"Watergate? No. I have simply made a point of studying the man's political style, much as I have yours, and I feel there are some matters in which he is quite predictable."

Stearns' frown evaporated. "Reading up on your next boss, Francisco?"

Nasi wagged a finger. "Now, now, Mike. That is not guaranteed, and mine is a political appointment. I may well be unemployed soon after you are."

Stearns snorted. "Sure. He's got a lot of respect for your talents, as it happens, and is comfortable enough with the idea of court Jews that he'll almost certainly leave you where you are."

Nasi clapped a hand to his breast. "Such a relief. I fret at the thought of losing my munificent salary."

In truth, Nasi did not do his job for the money. He'd been a rich man when he came to head the USE secret service and would leave office just as rich. He kept enough of the salary he was paid to cover his expenses and used the rest as a discretionary fund for the more delicate operations whose appearance in a departmental budget report under their own names would be embarrassing at least and disastrous at worst. No one could accuse him of hiding expenditures, though. Think of it though he might as the government's money, he was legally and morally spending his own cash on government business. Sometimes he wondered how his successor would manage without that little extra to draw on. Between that dodge and a few others such as the Congden library, still going strong after nearly a year, he managed to spend his departmental budget several times over and still have a reserve arising when he made sure that he spent the official allotment to the cent.

Stearns knew it as well. He laughed out loud. "Be off, go do something nefarious and I'll see you on Friday morning. I have a small pack of aggrieved noblemen to either appease or stomp on, I forget which."

Nasi took his leave and returned to, as it happened, arrange the subornment of a Saxon quartermaster. Quite nefarious enough to fulfill the letter and spirit of his orders, he felt, and it gave him plenty of appetite for supper.


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