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Chapter 8

Having completed the entry code, Pedro Dolor stepped back from the door to the rooms he had taken for a year’s lease six months ago.

Laurin, whose underground infamy as an assassin ranged from Paris to the Pyrenees and beyond the Piedmont, smiled faintly around the corner of the door as he opened it precisely six seconds after Dolor had completed the complex pattern of taps and knocks. Dolor entered, checking to the opposite side as he did so.

Radulfus, a marksman from some god-forsaken high Alpine valley where even mountain goats refused to live and where the humans were still using names from the Middle Ages, swung his heavy double-barreled shotgun away, his finger carefully outside the trigger guard. He nodded solemnly. Which gesture Pedro returned. Radulfus, who offered no nickname and refused to be assigned one, took no joy in killing; he simply wasn’t fainthearted about it, either. He was different from the others, being neither an assassin or a mercenary, nor even an intelligencer. But his family needed money and had little use for the popes, kings, or other mortal men who hoarded coins and held themselves to be something more mighty and privileged than they were. He didn’t speak much of any language other than some strange variety of Romansch that probably dated back to Roman times, but he nonetheless had made his simple philosophy quite clear when, during one fireside discussion on the road to Basel, he had pointed at the ground and said, “All men go there. So all should be same here.” Even had Dolor been the kind of man disposed to debate, he admitted he could have found little to dispute in Radulfus’ worldview.

The second floor of the building was entirely theirs and, in the rearmost of the three in-line rooms, Dolor heard the muffled stutter of the radio set. He moved in that direction, calling as he went, “Who’s signal are you hearing, Rombaldo?”

His Bolognese lieutenant, who had overseen the pursuit of Urban the prior year, held up a hand as Dolor entered. “It’s the Spanish dandy.”

“Reporting to Rome or Spain?

Rombaldo turned to face him. “Rome. Again.”

Dolor nodded, quietly pleased with the local fruits of his planning. Even by the time Pedro Dolor had visited Besançon late last October, Javier de Requesens y Ercilla had evidently been all but forgotten by Olivares and the grandee intelligencers who had sent him here. Dolor had spent that first visit to Besançon using his own radio to monitor the young fop’s communications, all in the simple code typical of low-importance Spanish information gathering.

Today’s transmissions were in a more complex code, but it was one that Dolor was quite familiar with. After all, it was he who had all put but the operator in Rome—Bruno Sartoris—in front of Borja’s radio. In his last visit to Rome, it had been child’s play to present reports in such a way that they highlighted the cardinal’s need for a radio operator. Maculani had long before come to understand the profound, indeed indispensable, advantages of nearly instant communications and had pressed for the adoption of the new technology, despite Borja’s reluctance.

That had allowed Dolor to remain casual, almost detached in the ensuing debate. So, when Borja finally relented, he had no reason to suspect that this was precisely the outcome that Dolor had sought. More to the point, Borja had no reason to suspect that when he solicited Dolor’s recommendation for a radio operator, Dolor’s suggestion was shaped to be optimal to his own, rather than the cardinal’s purposes.

Neither Borja nor Maculani had enough competence in the new technology to know what set of operational protocols would be most advisable nor, most pertinently, what codes were most likely to be secure. So of course they had to ask Bruno Sartori for his recommendations.

And Dolor, in his earlier contact with the Venetian (who he had heard was interested in employ, and met, strictly as a professional courtesy), had been sure to ask pointed questions about the young man’s expertise and experience in ciphers, particularly in light of the proficiency of the USE’s codebreakers. Sartori was, of course, flummoxed, then panicked, and Dolor could see the fear building in his eyes: fear that he would never again find work operating a radio.

But Dolor made sure to mention what codes he felt were state of the art, and would be available to Sartori if he were fortunate enough to find himself in Spanish employ. And of course, sure enough, those were the codes that, months later, the professionally lethargic Venetian suggested to Borja and Maculani. Codes with which Dolor was so familiar that he suspected he might be able to transcribe them in his sleep.

Javier de Requesens y Ercilla was contacted soon after by Sartori, using the frequencies and times Dolor had provided to Borja. Who promptly retained Requesens at a handsome rate and told him to expect a gift which would facilitate their business relationship. A day later, Borja transmitted suitable instructions to Spanish agents in Basel, and, a day later, the necessary code book was wending its way to Besançon, where Rombaldo was already on site, ready to eavesdrop on the “secure” signals between the Spanish fop in Besançon and the Venetian reprobate in Rome. Dolor had now compiled almost two whole months of their transmissions. Which had been his objective from the start.

None of this had been too difficult to foresee or achieve once it was determined where Urban had gone, after his escape from the tiny thorpe of Molino last July. While Borja, Olivares, and others spent lavishly—and futilely—hiring agents to monitor suspicious activities in likely capitols and offer suitable bribes, Dolor had strolled into Besançon in October and, within a few hours, confirmed his largely aforegone conclusion that this was indeed where the renegade pope was hiding.

Predictably, the other searchers had allowed their deductive process to be unduly influenced by their own political presuppositions. Dolor, who was now sitting behind Rombaldo and listening absently to the continuing stream of clicker activity from Rome, could no longer count the number of times he had seen that particular brand of professional myopia undo otherwise sound operations. In this case, all the powers that had reason to locate Urban began with the assumption that, as a key political figure, he would seek shelter and alliance with one of his autocratic peers, and therefore, word of his arrival could be discovered in the court of the one he had selected, even if he was not physically ensconced there. Or, just as likely, that he would be sequestered under a false identity in some remote citadel controlled by the crown itself.

Dolor did not consider those conjectures implausible, but elected not to start from that basis. Rather, his investigation immediately went to the tactical forensics of the failed attempt to assassinate Urban.

The farmhouse-villa where Urban had been hidden was the only major establishment for miles around and difficult to reach. Untenanted for more than a year, local laborers stopped in every few weeks to make sure that nothing catastrophic had befallen the place. Consequently, in the wake of the failed assassination attempt, the wagons required to remove over eighty corpses had to be hired from farms as far as fifteen miles away. Similar arrangements had to be made for the wounded.

Consequently, even though the casualties had long since been removed when Dolor arrived under an assumed identity, the surrounding countryside was still a-buzz with talk and rumor of the battle at Molino. It was, after all, the most important and exciting regional event in living memory, perhaps ever. Dolor’s quiet demeanor, complete self-assurance, omnipresent guards, and heavy purse loosened the lips of most of the region’s worthies. None of their accounts agreed on all points, of course, but by patiently recording and examining the tales of each, a serviceable composite emerged.

Firstly, the after-action report of the conditions at the villa itself confirmed the accounts of the three surviving assassins who had been foolish enough to flee back to Rombaldo. The battle had been fierce, and at least fifty of the assassins had died or been mortally wounded in the attack. By process of elimination then, approximately thirty of the defenders had been lost also. And it was likely that most of their wounded had survived owing to preferential treatment, so that meant the wagons who bore casualties to sources of better care were carrying persons loyal to Urban.

Dolor simply followed the trail of reports inspired by the passing of the wagons. He was able to track them southward, all the way out of the mountains. Shortly afterward, most of the wagons turned back, and Dolor found the reason easily enough. In a deserted meadow, thirty one marked graves surrounded a makeshift shrine. Just beyond them and behind a tangled copse, a mass grave humped up as if the earth wanted to vomit back the fifty-odd assassins no doubt lying at the bottom of it. The remaining wagons—leased from an actual hostler, now, not hires from mountainfolk—pressed on toward Vicenza, just over thirty-five miles west of Venice. However, before reaching the city, the mounted—and well-armed—party that had been following the last of the wagons split off to the west.

Dolor followed both leads. As expected, the wagons that had entered Vincenza carried the wounded defenders, escorted by a few junior down-time members of the USE embassy staff. The mounted group had swung to the west and had ridden hard. More than a few stable owners fondly recalled the lack of haggling when they charged exorbitant prices for watering and feeding the horses, and for remaining at a distance from the main body of their customers.

That trail led him to the Berici hills, where other news strongly suggested that Urban had not, in desperation, fled to Venice, a city notorious for its resistance to, and occasional antipathy towards, pontiffs. Instead, in the early days of August, the locals witnessed a great manmade balloon, trailing smoke and moving slowly under its own power, as it passed overhead, heading in the direction of one of a leading noble’s estate. Within a day, the dirigible retraced its aerial path, but then disappeared into the west, rather than the northern haze out of which it had come. Approximately a week later, the same or another airship repeated the cycle of the first, arriving from the north but departing to the west. After that, a much reduced mounted party made its way to Venice and the embassy there. Given Spain’s many sources in that city where bribery was not merely a way of life but an art form, it was simplicity itself to learn the identities of those persons: all USE Marines or other mere functionaries that had been attached to the USE’s embassy to Rome.

So: of the two choices that Urban had open to him—to escape to Venice and from thence by sea versus heading north over the Alps—the pope had chosen the latter. But he had also chosen to avoid the perils of the road, both coincidental and intentional. Instead, he had made his way north by balloon. Which meant he had enjoyed the continuing—and intensifying—help of the USE and its leader, Gustav Adolph of Sweden.

After that, it was fairly simple to deduce the ultimate terminus of Urban’s journey. There was no way for him to travel without security forces. Those forces would surely be commanded by Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz. That, in turn, almost certainly meant they would be accompanied by the faux-hidalgo’s wife, Sharon Nichols, the famous up-timer surgeon who also happened to be of African descent and therefore was widely and readily recognized in all the cities large enough to boast an aerodrome in which a dirigible might land and be serviced.

Dolor had not even needed to travel to each city along the way. The small number of cities with aerodromes, the limited number of dirigibles traveling between them, and the small number of passengers they were able to carry had already made them routine objects of intelligence reporting. Accordingly, Spanish sources in each city along the only two possible paths over the Alps—either via Brescia and Chur or via Belluno and Innsbruck—were quickly able to eliminate one of the paths. No such unusual party descended at Belluno or Innsbruck, which made perfect sense with what had been observed: the inbound dirigibles had used those stations on their southbound route, but had not returned that way. Following their customary circuit, the airships had left Berici heading west to Brescia and then north to Chur, which did indeed report that the persons of interest had in fact landed there and were rapidly serviced for their next flight. Of even greater significance, they were apparently escorted by one of the USE’s even more rare fixed-wing aircraft.

The rest was child’s play, so long as an investigator once again eschewed the political presupposition that northbound travel meant that Urban had thrown his lot in with the USE and its Lutheran monarch, Gustav. There was a slim possibility that Urban might have entertained the possibility of his seeking refuge with Fernando in the Spanish Lowlands (and it would have made more sense in a variety of both practical and political particulars), but a quick check of the dirigible’s activity after descending from the Alps into Biberach put paid to that notion. The dirigible that landed there never did complete the rest of its circuit, but fell off its regular route for several weeks. The answer why was quick in coming: Spain’s intelligencers in Basel reported the development of an airfield well outside the city. Since the USE’s airplanes had flown in there once or twice, it was presumed they were simply grooming the landing strip for more routine operations.

Dolor suspected, and discovered, differently. The USE had apparently expanded their lease of the airfield to include dirigible operations. The one that had carried Urban to Biberach had smartly refueled and quit the easily observed string of known aerodromes, arriving instead at Basel. After which it remained there for two weeks and departed in no particular hurry, and with no persons of interest, back toward Biberach. And so the trail was lost.

At that point, finally, political sensibilities became a serviceable compass. Why would Urban go to Basel? And where did he mean to go overland from there?

In regards to the second question, one generality was utterly certain: Urban did not intend to go far. He had shown the good sense to avoid traveling on the ground, where the chance of serendipitous sightings and hastily arranged enemy ambushes grew exponentially with every passing day.

Remaining in Basel itself was out of the question. Neither the USE nor any factions friendly to it had any real power there. Paris would require weeks of travel and was a politically dubious choice. Spanish Flanders remained a better choice but was much farther still. Bavaria, while Roman Catholic, was a state under siege by the very forces that had spirited Urban away from certain death on no less than three occasions, now. Austria was a Hapsburg stronghold, and although increasingly at odds with the dominant Spanish branch of the family, would logically be unwilling to shelter and thus, possibly go to war over, a pontiff that Philip wanted removed. And if Urban actually sheltered with any powerful Protestant king in any largely Protestant land, it was doubtful that he would be able to attract and retain the support he needed to ultimately restore himself to the cathedra or so demonize Borja that almost all of Roman Catholicism would raise a hue and a cry against him.

So, by process of political elimination and limited overland footprint, Dolor placed his bets on Burgundy and Besançon. An almost violently Roman Catholic city in an equally Roman Catholic region, the most Protestant thing about it was its newly self-appointed Grand Duke Bernhard Wettin, whose pressing concern was a way to bring increased religious tolerance to his potentially restive population. That, of course, put him on a social path quite similar to that espoused by the up-timers, with whom he had various arm’s-length dealings. Furthermore, he had just recently married the Catholic regent of Tyrol, Claudia de Medici, whose territories were now one of provinces of the United States of Europe. If there was a polity of more serendipitously mixed demography, pedigree, and alliance, Dolor could not think of it.

And there was another benefit, of course. Bernhard’s grasp on Burgundy, while not tenuous, was anything but assured. Consequently, he craved both safety and legitimacy—and what answered both those needs more than protecting a pope? When it came out—as it was always intended to—that he was sheltering the pontiff, he would become a pivotal political figure, one who could not be counterattacked too freely or fiercely for fear that it would be seen by other nations as an attempt to take hold of Urban’s fate and so, wrest broader political leverage.

So without any undue haste, Dolor and Rombaldo had traveled by coach to the last post-stop outside Besançon, entered on foot, and within hours, saw signs that spoke volumes to those who knew what to look for. The small up-time presence had not grown overtly, but signs of their influence had: their elite troops—the Hibernian Mercenary Battalion—were not a prominent presence but were in all the places one would expect to maintain sufficient overwatch and security. A significant detachment of Irish Wild Geese were there also, and it was quickly confirmed that they were commanded by no other than Owen Roe O’Neill, who had been conclusively implicated in the first attempt to rescue Borja’s young hostages last year, and were almost certainly involved in the successful second raid in Mallorca. Sharon Nichols, USE ambassador to Rome, and her husband, Ruy Sanchez, were personalities who could not easily stay hidden or out of marketplace or barroom conversation. So it was that all the expected and inevitable signifiers of Urban’s presence were found within the first day.

The rattle of telegraphy ceased. Rombaldo turned with a smile. “Rome says—”

“That Borja’s assassins are to make contact with a new provider here in Besançon: a second contact who is arranging for the ‘tools’ they shall require.”

Rombaldo folded his arms, leaned back. “Sloppy. Well, inelegant, at least,” he amended seeing Dolor’s slight frown. “Like you always say, if you’re going to leave a trail, just leave one.”

Dolor shrugged. “Yes, if most of your people are professionals. If they’re not”—his glance roved quickly across his own men: Laurin, Radulfus, Martius, and Giulio—“sometimes it is better to keep the most sensitive matters in a second pair of hands, until the very last moment.”

Rombaldo smiled ruefully. “So that’s why you’ve kept the chest locked since we finished training south of Basel.”

Dolor nodded, rose. “And now it is time for us to unlock it. When they act, we, too, must be ready.” He walked to the chest closest to his own bed, palmed a small, flat skeleton key out of an almost invisible slot in his belt buckle, and opened the chest. The others in the room, hearing and seeing the motion, laid aside whatever they were doing and came to stand around as Dolor swung back the heavy lid.

They stood there gaping as Dolor knelt down, making sure that the contents were in proper order. Martius, a thoroughly nondescript thug from the back steets of Zurich, giggled in what sounded like fetishistic anticipation.

The dozen grenades were still snug in their respective compartments. They were ovals, longer than the spherical designs typical amongst down-time armies. Although they were patterned after models seen in up-time books, they were filled with black powder, meaning that they could not generate the same high pressure explosions. However, the weaponsmiths that Dolor had set to the task had determined that the black powder would do its best work if more tightly contained inside a shell more robust than those used currently. Also, its surface was marked by a grid of deeply scored lines which, had one looked inside, were reprised on the interior of the weapon’s body, as well: all so that it would fragment more evenly, generating a more predictable and lethal spray of shrapnel.

Dolor nodded to Rombaldo who reached in and lifted out the grenades like a crate of oversized eggs. Underneath were four black powder revolvers and three double-barreled shotguns, two of them matches for the one in Radulfus’ hand. Those three were all copies of the fourth that lay in special, reinforced padding, away from the others. It was the weapon that had been lost by one of the up-time armed Wrecking crew when two of them dropped through a hole they had blown in the roof of the Insula Mattei during the failed Roman rescue attempt. The heavy, overbuilt copies made from it had been expensive and painstaking enough, but it was the ammunition that proved to be the almost insurmountable challenge.

Although several of the shells had been made from the odd material that the up-timers called “plastic,” most were down-time replicas in brass with crimped tops. Like the guns they were intended for, they were heavy and fabulously expensive, each each fitted with a French-manufactured primer that had cost its weight in silver. Slightly more, actually. However, the first copies of this kind of shell—the up-timers dubbed it “buckshot”—did not function properly; the shot emerged with only a fraction of the force generated by the down-time reproduction cartridges. At which point, Dolor instructed the gunsmith to dissect one of the few, precious intact rounds of ammunition.

What they discovered both amazed and bemused them. They had presumed that, like all other up-time cartridges, wadding played little or no role. But in the shotgun shells, particularly the ones loaded with black powder, the wadding proved to be both comparatively extensive and subtly complex: without it, the individual projectiles did not exit the barrel in a reliable pattern or with optimal force.

The four Hockenjoss & Klott percussion cap revolvers—all from the original manufacturer—had been comparatively easy to procure. One had belonged to the young male hostage, Frank Stone, taken from him when he surrendered in Rome. Another other had been snatched from a dead Marine by one of the few assassins who escaped the failed attempt on Urban’s life in Molini. He had carried it back to Rombaldo along with his report, too naive or stupid to foresee that his faithful return would ultimately be rewarded with a garotte: one less trail that might lead back to the masterminds who had planned the attack. The last two had been acquired through careful and quiet negotiations with private owners, always conducted through intermediaries.

Dolor stood and moved back from the chest. “You know which weapons are yours. Clean them. Then practice loading and unloading until you may do so as swiftly as you did when we finished training south of Basel. Use the blanks we have for that purpose: do not handle the actual ammunition.”

“When will we use them?” breathed Martius eagerly.

“Soon enough,” Dolor replied and drifted back to the radio. Sitting, wondering if Javier de Requesens y Ercilla would send a reply, Dolor let his hand slip inside his dark charcoal-colored cloak and check that his private weapon—the one that only Rombaldo knew he had—was situated properly under his armpit. He ran his finger over the top of where the shrouded hammer rested against weapon’s frame, the smooth up-time metal always a wonder to touch.

Some might have considered the weapon a battle trophy—he had come by it in the process of defeating the Wrecking Crew—but Dolor took no pride in possessing it. He had taken it from the body of one of the Crew’s two female members: a heavy Englishwoman by the name of Juliet Sutherland. She had been shattered beneath his cavalry’s hooves and would have died a long painful death. He had approached her with the one percussion revolver he’d had at the time—Frank Stone’s—and, looking in the direction where Harry Lefferts was hidden with a sniper rifle, Pedro Dolor put a single bullet into the back of her bloody and partially crushed head.

He could have made it a second quicker, so that it could only have been read as a mercy killing, but that would have been leaving a tactical and mental advantage unused. He had wanted Lefferts to see what had become of his fine plan, what it had done to his followers. Lefferts, while skilled, was still an amateur then, and such a scene was likely to send him either into a killing rage that would have delivered him neatly into the hands of Dolor’s waiting troops, or would have broken his spirit, which would have been almost as useful in the long run. However, there was evidence that Harry’s reaction followed a third and far more dangerous course: he learned from it, and resolved to learn more, to become a true professional. Unfortunate, since Dolor was not in the habit of trying to improve his enemies. However, that was an occasional and inevitable consequence of the job, and at least if he ever faced Lefferts again, he had the advantage of knowing that the up-timer would be more careful and so, more formidable.

The pistol he had later recovered from her body was called a snub-nosed revolver; it had a perversely short barrel, upon which was engraved the legend “S&W .357 Magnum.” However, the short barrel, like the shrouded hammer, meant that the weapon was very unlikely to snag on clothes when drawn from a concealed holster and its cartridges made it unusually powerful for so small a gun. Consequently, the reason Dolor kept it for himself was probably the same one that had led Juliet Sutherland to choose it. Because her role in the Wrecking Crew usually involved interacting with people at close ranges, she did not frequently use a gun, but when she needed a weapon, its effect had to be shatteringly decisive.

Once again, ammunition had presented a special challenge. It was hard to find, even the down-time manufactured cartridges that were of distinctly diminished effectiveness. But even so, the quality of the reproductions turned out by the German gunsmiths was worth the two gold escudos he had paid for each shell. Fitted with a lead bullet scored by a cross-cut tip, even the black powder rounds were devastating when used against unarmored targets at point-blank range.

He turned. His associates were splitting up, each retreating to a separate corner or bed to commence cleaning their weapons, several of them lavishing more tender affection upon these tools of mayhem than he had ever seen them express toward any living creature. He had been right to deny them ready access to all but one of the weapons during the weeks of waiting; they were like children, unable to keep from fiddling and fussing over their new toys. The likelihood that one of their number would have cleaned a weapon too close to an open window or would have decided to carry one concealed, just once, out into the street, was too great to have risked over the past six weeks.

The telegraph began its muted chattering once again; Javier de Requesens y Ercilla was giving Borja his money’s worth and more than, self-importantly reporting minutiae that could not conceivably have any bearing upon the tactical and operational concerns of Rome’s newly arrived group of thugs-turned-assassins.

Dolor felt one urge to smile ruefully, another urge to smirk, but suppressed both. Instead, he looked out the window into the fading light, his eyes following the dusk-silhouetted steeples and roofs of Besançon. It was a pleasant enough view, actually: a second story vantage point with few obstructions despite being one of a tight cluster of buildings served by an equally tight tangle of narrow streets—alleys, really—that were nestled near and behind St. Peter’s church. The rent was surprisingly low because the building backed on the parish’s graveyard, with all but one of its window looking out over that dismal view. The other—not much more than a shuttered slit bored out of the wall to provide a cross-draft—gave unto an almost lightless alley.

But Dolor had been particularly pleased by the space, not only because it was both central and yet comparatively inaccessible, but because if he and his men had to flee, he had a ready warren of small streets into which they might disappear. Or, if the night was moonless or overcast, they could also use the main windows to hop down onto the roof of a first story extension and then slip over the low cemetery wall to flee through the tombstones, as invisible as ghosts.

Dolor heard Rombaldo—it was his tread—leave the main room and enter the one where the telegraph kept up its fitful rattle. “So, the self-satisfied dandy is once again playing at being an intelligencer, at earning his coin.”

Dolor nodded.

Rombaldo shifted uneasily, as he often did when Dolor did not take up a proferred entree to conversation. “Of course, we might have learned of the arrival of Borja’s new assassins a little earlier, if we had ever figured out where Javier the Fop was leaving and getting his drops.”

Pedro did not even sigh in disappointment at Rombaldo, who, try as he might, never quite got the hang of genuine intellience work. “We did not need to know, before or now. Requesens sends everything of value to Rome and we have the codes. Obversely, shadowing Requesens to learn the locations of his drops would only have given him the chance to spot us, to learn that someone was already watching him.”

Rombaldo’s reply came after a pause and was pitched in a lower, stubborn tone. “Well, if we knew where he drops instructions to his sell-swords, we’d at least know about their plans ahead of time.”

Dolor turned and looked at Rombaldo. “We already will. Unless you think Javier will show enough initiative and impertinence to issue any such orders himself.” Rombaldo shook his head. “So whatever Borja’s group does, we will hear it first from Borja.”

Rombaldo nodded, met Dolor’s eyes for another moment, then looked away and walked back into the other room.

Leaving Dolor alone. As he preferred.

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