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Chapter 9

Estève Gasquet peered through the 4x Dutch telescope. The security cordon around the majestic doors leading into St. John’s Cathedral had not visibly changed. General control of the crowd and a few lower-sensitivity access points to the building were being covered by a special detachment of army guards. Gasquet did not recognize any of them from the patrols he had observed at the city’s walls, towers, or gates. These were apparently picked troops, now serving as living barriers.

Positioned back from them, and only half-seen, were three-man teams of the Wild Geese. And although it was a certainty that troops of the Hibernian Mercenary Battalion were someplace nearby, Gasquet hadn’t been able to spot them. They were probably in similarly-sized groups, hidden in positions from which they could respond rapidly, or as individual marksmen in concealed perches.

Beside Gasquet, Klaus Müller grunted something about breakfast. Estève ignored him. It was a bother to have the big Swiss along at all, but it was unavoidable. Only one of the Swiss could reasonably claim to be ill on the very day that Ignaz von Meggen meant to present his scraggly band of hopefuls to Urban. And of course Eischoll had to be there to control the others’ reactions in what might prove to be a situation requiring both prudence and delicate timing.

Gasquet snugged the telescope’s eyepiece tighter. Müller was certainly not up to that job. He was about as subtle as an irritable bull and was large enough to look out of place among the other smaller, and in some cases, teenaged hopefuls. So, leaving him out of today’s proceedings kept the group of would-be Swiss Guards looking a bit puny, a bit impoverished, and so, a bit pathetic. The less seriously they were taken, the less scrutiny they were likely to attract.

“Do you see them yet?” Müller sounded eager, as if this was some kind of parade.

“No.” Gasquet watched the crowds pouring in through the Porte Noire, filling the square that radiated out from the cathedral’s steps. This wasn’t just any morning mass; it was being offered by Urban himself, and the faithful were emerging to get their extra bit of holiness. He suppressed a sneer. As if a pampered, nepotistic, noble-become-pontiff could confer extra holiness upon anything. All just part of the pious charlatanry that Estève Gasquet had left behind years ago, along with the family and farm upon which he’d grown up.

If he had been a superstitious man, Gasquet might have seen the sudden increase of morning light as a deistic reply to his atheistic contempt: a golden beam sent to seek out and reveal hidden assassins such as himself and the Swiss oaf whose stomach was now grumbling louder than he was. But no, it was just the sun rising above the overlapping silhouettes of Mont St. Stephen and Gran Bregille behind them. “Move back a bit,” Gasquet muttered.

Müller wriggled to the rear, into the deeper shadow cast over them by the blank northwestern wall of the cathedral’s impressive canon house. Lying on the flat roof of a shed built up against it, they were functionally invisible. Anyone looking in their direction would be staring almost directly into the rising sun, while they remained within the crisp-edged, ink-black shadow of the house’s peaked roof.

Conversely, their vantage point, while not particularly high, gave them an unobstructed line of sight to the cathedral’s open doors ninety-five yards to the west, and an almost complete view of the Porte Noire one-hundred twenty yards to the north.

The view from the small roof also confirmed that the windows of Le Boucle were overflowing with flags and pennants, as if in preparation to celebrate some festival. The new flag of Burgundy was particularly prominent, a reversion to the one that had existed before the French crown’s fleur-de-lis and the Hapsburg white and red had been added to it. And the colors of the old flag—diagonal stripes that had originally been blue and gold—had been subtly reshaded into the teal and orange hues of Bernhard’s own House of Wettin.

A minor commotion at the Porte Noire drew Gasquet’s attention. A group of men bearing makeshift wooden crosses were struggling through the crowd there. Gasquet fixed his telescope upon that area and adjusted the focus; Ignaz von Meggen’s face swam into view, his most ardent—which was to say, genuine—followers close behind him. Norwin Eischoll and the rest followed in their wake.

Whatever von Meggen was saying, the crowd grudgingly parted before him and the cross he held aloft. In surprisingly short order, he made it to the foot of the stairs and began calling up to the Irish Wild Geese. From a concealed position, another of their number stepped out: tall, slim, red hair glinting in the sun. Owen Roe O’Neill. He stared down, discovered the source of the commotion, and his shoulders slumped slightly, as if in resignation. He patiently listened to von Meggen, whose erect posture and visibly corded neck suggested a passionate appeal.

O’Neill looked away once or twice, nodded about as often; it was fairly clear that he was not enjoying this part of his duty. At all. Eventually, von Meggen finished. O’Neill looked over his shoulder, exchanged quick words with some unseen party in the cathedral’s narthex, then turned back, put his hands on his hips, and stared down at von Meggen.

The crowd had grown silent.

O’Neill hung his head and motioned with one hand for von Meggen to ascend the steps. But when the rest of the Swiss made to follow, O’Neill’s stance changed instantly to one of readiness: the other Wild Geese snapped-to, as well. His command, “Hold!” was clearly audible despite the distance. The rest of his instructions were not, but their content was clear: the rest of the Swiss reversed their course and stopped in a knot at the base of the cathedral stairs. At which point, von Meggen was waved up. But before the young freiherr entered, O’Neill made him pause again. Two of the rank-and-file Hibernian Mercenaries emerged from the cathedral. They searched von Meggen’s person in a brisk, efficient fashion that told Gasquet that this simple act—checking for concealed weapons—had been strategized and trained, just like the rest of their actions.

Evidently the significance of that was not even lost on Müller. “If it comes to it, those soldiers will be men to be reckoned with.”

“And that is one of the reasons we are watching them, studying them.”

“So that we might better fight them when the time comes?”

Dolt. “No. So that maybe, we will not have to fight them at all. They are creatures of training and habit. That may show us ways to avoid, or trick, them.” Gasquet ignored Müller’s increasingly puzzled frown, raised a hand to mute the question that was struggling toward enough coherence to push past his lips. “Your idealistic von Meggen is being allowed inside.”

“Yes, but he’s the wrong man. He doesn’t want to kill the pope; he wants to protect him.”

If there was a just god or a useful devil, he would certainly have picked this moment to strike Müller down for stating the obvious, an activity that was just one step above buggering goats, in Gasquet’s opinion. “The moment the guards intercepted your friends, it was clear there would be no killing of a pope today, no convenient shortcut. And frankly, we held out no real hope of doing so.”

“Then why are we—?”

Gasquet did not have the patience to let Müller finish. “Von Meggen is getting a new, essential weapon for us. We call it ‘trust.’” The vapid expression on the Swiss’s face told him that explication was required. “If von Meggen seems genuine, they are likely to grant his request to consider making you all members of the Pontifical Guard. However, if your fellows aren’t allowed to swear their service today—well, then our job becomes more difficult.”

Müller nodded: possibly he comprehended, possibly he just wanted to act as though he did. “So when will we find out which it is?

The doors to the cathedral began closing. Gasquet squinted at the shadows cast by the sundial in the enclosed gardens of the cloister just north of the cathedral. “About an hour now.”

“And until then?”

Gasquet pulled a stick-mounted mirror and a whistle out of his satchel and laid them in ready reach. “Until then, we wait.”

The choir began to sing, and the sun edged higher.

* * *

The sun dial was touching the nine-thirty mark when the last notes of the concluding hymn suddenly increased in volume: the cathedral doors had been opened once again.

Müller’s head snapped up. “Now what?” He sounded groggy.

“Now you stay awake. Things should start moving pretty quickly.”

Crowds were pouring out the doorway, quickly ushered aside to make a path for those who were following, and also for three sedan chairs approaching from the cloister.

“For the pope?” Müller wondered aloud.

“That’s what our crossbowmen have been told.”

“Crossbowmen? Where?” Müller rose slightly, head swiveling through the points of the compass.

Gasquet reached over, pulled him down. “Remain hidden, oaf. Our job is to observe, only.”

As the crowd filed out, the army guards turned their heads slowly, dutifully, in a dumb-show of ostensibly scanning for suspicious characters or weapons. However, as the volume of the exiting faithful began to taper, one of the Wild Geese extracted a golden-haired man from the line: it was von Meggen. Again he was searched, thoroughly but without the same rehearsed precision demonstrated by the Hibernian Mercenaries, and then released. But as he went slowly down the steps, he cast an expectant gaze back up over his shoulder.

The Prouvènço swung his Dutch telescope up along the path of von Meggen’s glance and discovered Sanchez himself staring down from between the shutters of a narrow window, probably on the staircase that led up to the rather alarmingly tilted belfry.

Müller’s gaze had tracked along with the aim of Gasquet’s telescope. The Swiss apparently had very keen eyes. “That’s the Catalan, Sanchez.”


“Well, what is he doing up there?”

“Looking for us.”

“What?” It sounded as if Müller had swallowed his tongue. “Us?”

“Not you and I specifically, you dimwit. But persons like us.”

“Like us? What do you mean?” If Müller was insulted by Gasquet’s characterization, he gave no sign of it.

Gasquet was grateful that his impatient slip hadn’t angered the Swiss, since there was little enough trust or amity between the two groups involved in the plot as it was. “I mean that they are clearly interested in watching whom von Meggen joins as he exits, or if someone is loitering around, watching over him. They—or at least the Catalan—are not entirely certain he is acting genuinely; they are prudent, watching any person who tries to get direct access to Urban. They cannot afford to simply accept any such overtures as innocent, not without being watchful for signs that it is part of a broader ploy.”

Von Meggen had rejoined the rest of the prospective Swiss Guards at the base of the cathedral steps. After a few moments of conversation, those who truly shared his hopes began smiling and nodding; the others, led by Eischoll, evinced muted versions of similar interest. Some were markedly better actors than their fellow-conspirators.

Müller frowned. “So they—we’re—all part of the Papal Guards, now?”

Gasquet looked sideways: it was hard to believe that he, a Prouvènço, knew more about the formalities of that process than a Swiss. “No. In a situation like this, there is usually a review of all prospective guards by a direct papal representative or the pope himself, since the old commander is dead. I suspect your young idealist’s happy news is that the pope has agreed to his proposition in principle.”

Müller nodded. “Okay. But will it happen in time?”

Gasquet shrugged. “As far as I can tell, we’re not in any rush.” Von Meggen’s group started moving away from the steps of the cathedral. Gasquet looked back up toward where Sanchez had been watching; that window was empty, now. “Apparently the Catalan didn’t see anything worth investigating.” Which was probably no surprise to him; only rank amateurs would have attempted to contact von Meggen immediately upon his exit from St. John’s. But it would have been equally amateurish not to keep an eye out for such a suspiciously-timed meeting, and whatever else Sanchez was said to be, an amateur was not among the labels affixed to him.

It was also not the sign of an amateur that three draped sedan chairs were now nearing the cathedral steps to fetch the pope, rather than a single open one. Von Meggen saw the approaching procession, conferred quickly with Eischoll, who nodded vigorously and assisted him in not only stopping the rest of the Swiss, but arranging them in a rough cordon along the likely exit route of the pontiff. As they did so, the sedan chairs and their bearers made their way up the steps and into the cathedral, one after the other.

“A shell game?” Müller wondered with a frown.

Well, he wasn’t completely dense. “It is how they move the pope around the town, on the rare occasions that they do.” What Gasquet did not add was that, over his weeks of watching, he suspected that, on some occasions, and between certain locations, the sedan chairs were nothing more than a decoy. The last three hundred years of Besançon’s history had been rife with changes in rulers, in laws, in tolerance for different faiths. It was rumored that hidey holes and secret passages had been constructed and then forgotten by generations of refugees, informers, spies, and heretics, only to be rediscovered by thieves, murderers, and black marketeers.

However, whatever truth there was to such tales, and whatever shadowy pathways might exist, that knowledge was now possessed almost solely by the less savory local elements, with whom Gasquet had minimized contact. After all, if they were willing to take coin to assist him, they’d be at least as likely to take even more coin to betray him. So the possibility that the pope moved through unseen tunnels on occasion remained a tantalizing, but unconfirmed suspicion.

The first of the sedan chairs emerged from the cathedral, surrounded by a mixture of Burgundian soldiers and Wild Geese. As it started down the stairs, the troops in the square started pushing back the crowd—including the Swiss, who seemed more than mildly affronted. But that was of no concern: Eischoll had competently shepherded von Meggen’s group to the correct spot.

When the second sedan chair did not appear, Gasquet granted that he was dealing with true professionals and that his crossbowmen never had a chance to attack two targets at the same time. By returning to the safety of the cloister singly, no assassins could hope to have better than a one in three chance of attacking the correct chair—assuming the pope was in any of them. But no matter: the crowd was dense, the babble of voices loud, the potential for confusion greatest. Gasquet picked up the stick-mounted mirror, slipped it into the sunlight, tilted it in the direction of the top of the Porte Noire.

Müller, following the angled flash, tensed expectantly as a faint silhouette rose into view atop the ancient Roman gate. The outline was that of a kneeling man, training a crossbow down at the sedan chair. When it released, no sound rose above the general din of the faithful multitudes straining for a view of Urban, the incarnate link between God’s divine and mundane kingdoms.

The quarrel ripped into the low-center of the sedan-chair’s front drapery, made a tearing sound as it buried itself in whatever chair was behind it. The sudden agitated swirl of the pierced drapery and the panicked flinch of two of the bearers, triggered an immediate chorus of cries, shrieks, and gasps. Half of the crowd’s heads and torsos began twisting spasmodically, wrenching around in attempts to discover where the shot had come from.

The Wild Geese were far more focused. The tall dark one who had been leading the escort gestured high, beyond the front of the sedan chair. Two of his men quickly pointed toward the silhouetted attacker, who was clearly working to reload the crossbow. The leader leaned back toward the cathedral’s doorway: probably calling out the location so it could be relayed to whatever Hibernian snipers were in the vicinity.

In that second, dozens of the crowd had rushed toward the sedan chair, some in an apparent reflex to help their possibly stricken pope, others with the wide eyes of those drawn by the anticipation of a ghoulish spectacle. They came up sharply against the Burgundians, several of whom seemed to misinterpret crowd’s reaction as an assault, or at least, a complete disregard of their authority. Weapons were raised; one or two fell. Shrieks of agony and howls of outrage added to the bedlam.

At that moment of perfect chaos, four men broke free of the crowd, two carrying crossbows, two more producing suddenly smoking containers. The crossbowmen kneeled, fired. One of the Burgundians in the path of the other two assassins fell limply; the other staggered back, dropping his sword to lock his hands around the quarrel protruding from his left leg.

The sudden attack caused a brief, stunned ebb in the uproar—but then it rushed back in, redoubled and horrified.

But not before the other two assassins charged along the path that had been cut by the crossbowmen and reared back to heave their smoking jars up the stairs toward the cathedral’s doorway.

Von Meggen and Eischoll charged in from the side, tackling them. One of the bombs simply fell and rolled away, the burning rag stoppering it flaring irregularly. The other one was just leaving its wielder’s hand when von Meggen tackled him. The firebomb wobbled into the air, landed on the stairs between the sedan chair and the thinned cordon of Burgundian soldiers: flaming oil splashed out in every direction. One of the Burgundians’ tabard began smoking and hissing; the rent drapery of the sedan-chair torched with a sharp, breathy whoosh!

As fire leaped along the frame of the sedan-chair as if it was seasoned kindling, the rest of von Meggen’s Swiss caught the two crossbowmen, who, apparently startled by the swift response, dropped their recocked crossbows and tried to press back into the crowd to avoid seizure. Before they could do so, the Swiss had pulled the assassins down and hands began rising and falling in the scrum beneath which they were buried. Two of those hands held knives.

As Eischoll performed similar, and quite practiced, execution upon the bomb throwers, von Meggen raced to the nearest crossbow, scooped up one of the quarrels that had been abandoned, fitted it, and raised the weapon toward the silhouette atop the Porte Noire.

That attacker had already fled to the northern side of the gate, but then stopped as if surprised, as if he had prepared a method of escape there but now found it mysteriously gone. He began running back across the top of the Roman arch, making for a nearby roof.

Von Meggen gauged carefully, fired—and missed. As did the rifle that spoke from the cathedral’s bell-tower at almost the same second; stone fragments spat out from the top of the arch. The assassin sprinted harder.

Von Meggen seemed to be so absorbed with cursing himself that it took a moment for him to realize that Eischoll was beside him, handing him the other crossbow: loaded. Ignaz von Meggen did not even smile; he grabbed the weapon, raised it, aimed, and fired.

The assassin let out a faint cry. Hit just below the hip, he staggered, and pitched over the far side of the arch. Eischoll shouted for the Swiss to follow him, and with blades out, they rushed toward the twitching body that was face down on the street cobbles. The ones who reached it first were the older impostors whose knife work was every bit as swift and efficient as Eischoll’s had been.

Müller was silent for a long moment, did not notice that Gasquet was already returning the telescope to its case and policing the area to make sure they had not left any spoor to mark their position. “Were they your men?” Müller asked in a voice of almost childlike uncertainty.

“They were. We must go. Now.”

“Yes. But—did you really think they could succeed?”

“At killing Urban? It was possible, but unlikely.”

“Then why—?”

Gasquet rounded on the Swiss. “To give young Freiherr von Meggen an opportunity to prove his and his mens’ loyalty to the pope. And now, they’ve demonstrated their eagerness to risk their lives in his service.”

“So…so, you meant to kill your own men?”

Gasquet sneered as the crept toward the edge of the roof that faced away from the cathedral. “If by ‘my men’ you mean those ill-trained cutthroats I retained a week ago with a few silver pennies and a few flagons of wine, then yes, I did. Now, hurry, or I may begin considering a similar fate for you.”

As Müller complied hastily and Gasquet gauged the jump down to the ground, he thought, As if I’m not already doing exactly that, you Swiss oaf.

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