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Chapter 11

Ambassador Sharon Nichols entered the Palais Granvelle preceded by Marine Captain Taggart—a formality, really, since the place was practically crawling with the Wild Geese and no small number of the Hibernian Mercenaries. Of all the places in Besançon, none were more secure at this moment, because Pope Urban VIII was on the premises.

She made her way across the entry hall, toward the staircase at the far side. Ruy was standing at the center of the broad first landing, the place from which speakers usually made public announcements to gathered guests. He smiled warmly when he saw her, but kept at least half of his attention fixed upon the speech of two well-attired besontsins who were leaning in towards him conspiratorially: junior members of the town council, if Sharon remembered correctly.

Servants—long since vetted and selected from the palace’s core staff—moved briskly to and fro, traversing the hard stone floors as loads from the main kitchen crisscrossed with furniture being reshuffled out of the great salon, which was the room selected for today’s preliminary gathering of all the cardinals who had come to Besançon. Taggart made to block the traffic to facilitate Sharon’s progress, but she stopped him with a small wave. For what seemed like the first time in a week, she was not in a rush and she wanted to savor that feeling. She was quite sure it would be over all too soon.

As she started up the steps, Ruy hastily nodded his thanks to the two besontsins and gestured toward his approaching wife. The young men turned, were quite surprised, then bowed and muttered respectful greetings to the USE ambassador before descending the stairs at a brisk pace.

Ruy moved closer, so that when she set foot on the landing, she was almost in contact with him. Well, part of her, anyway. Ruy’s smile turned into a mischievous grin.

Sharon rolled her eyes. “You are incorrigible.”

“Indeed I am! It is the greater part of my charm.”

Sharon managed to restrict her reaction to a smile, rather than the snort of laughter that was her first reflex. “Then heaven help you.”

“Heaven is my only help when it comes to retaining any decorum when so close to you, my love. And even heaven’s power is not so great that I can be assured of remaining in control of my actions.”

“You don’t give up, do you?”

Ruy’s frown was histrionic. “My heart, you married a soldier—a latter day conquistador! Surrender is not a concept we understand. And certainly not when the object of our desire—and yet also veneration—is so perfect. And so very close.”

“Ruy, stop it. No, I mean it. Now, what were those two local politicos talking to you about?”

“Ah,” he said, eyes averting in some mix of despair and disappointnment, “these days you only come to me to discuss our duties. And at nights—at nights you do not come to me at all, anymore! What, then, is a conquistador to do?”

“Ruy, you were the one who put the security protocols in place. You’re the one who put yourself in a windowless, subterranean cubicle next to the pope’s. And put me in almost equally protected quarters. But at least I have a window.”

“To which I would come every night, if I could, and serenade you.”

“Why? To scare the stray cats out of the cloister?”

Ruy looked as if he might actually have taken some small part of that retort seriously. “Is it my fault that God chose to give me the arm of a swordsman rather than the voice of a courtier?”

“Not your fault at all, Ruy—and better still he gave you two hearts: a lion’s for the times when you are fighting, and a lamb’s for the times when you are just being my husband. Now, don’t get all sentimental on me. Let’s get through the business; it looked like those two were delivering a report.”

“My wife is not merely a gentle-tongued poetess who extols my humble virtues, but also a hard taskmaster. Very well. Yes, it was a report. A preliminary report, to be precise.”

Sharon lowered her voice. “On the assassins?”

“Yes. So far, we have little in the way of identification.”

Sharon frowned. “That’s a strange way to put it. Usually, someone is identified or not.”

“Exactly. But this is a middle case. None of the senior Burgundians recognized any of them from the weeks of security screening. But several militiamen think one or two of them look familiar.”

Sharon felt her frown deepen. “Familiar how?”

Ruy leaned closer: for the sake of secrecy or salaciousness, she wasn’t entirely sure. “Familiar in that they may have had run-ins with the local watch on prior occasions.”

Sharon pursed her lips. “Not arrests, just run-ins? That would mean something like suspicious behavior, petty burglary, a bar-fight, right?”

“Yes. And I have the same reservations as it sounds you do, my love: it is a long step from petty crimes to assassinating a pope.”

“So what are you doing?”

“I have charged younger Valençay, Léonore, to gather senior members of the watch and militia over the course of the day, and have them view the bodies. Hopefully, we shall find someone who recognizes the bodies. That should produce a list of known associates. From there, we may hope for information on their recent activities, the places they habituate, where they dwell.”

Sharon frowned. “This is not what I was expecting to hear.”

Ruy nodded slowly. “Nor I. Common rogues, such as these seem to be, are not typically proficient with crossbows, and would hardly think to improvise firebombs.”

“Or to have such a sophisticated plan. They must have observed how we’ve used the sedan chairs like a shell game. The way they hit the first one with the crossbow, and then cleared the way to bomb the second: not amateur hour.”

One of Ruy’s eyebrows rose in response to the unfamiliar up-time colloquialism. “As do you, my love, I find some elements of the attack suspicious. Or at least worrisome.”

Sharon’s eyebrows went the opposite direction: they lowered. “Like what?”

“Let us consider the two reasons for them to conduct the attack. The first is money. If so, then why has their hirer not paid for better or more assassins? Anyone who truly wishes to slay the pope knows they must have deeper pockets than this. The second reason: personal motivation. But where is the sign of that? Those who kill to make a statement usually bring something to leave behind, a token or manifesto or some other suggestion of the grievances that compelled them to act. Lastly, the crossbowman on the Black Gate should have escaped.”

“Yes, but his ladder fell.”

“Indeed it did, my love. And ladders do indeed fall from time to time. More frequently if they are used by careless workers. But when ladders fall, they make a noise. And if it is a crowd that knocks them over, then there is usually a shout of alarm.” Ruy stroked one mustachio slowly. “So where was the sound, either of the fall or of the crowd?”

“Are you saying you think someone deliberately removed the ladder so the crossbowman couldn’t get off the top of the Gate?”

Ruy shrugged. “It would be a possible solution to the conundrum. But if so, it begs other questions, such as: why would anyone involved in the assassination want to strand the man up there? To make sure he could not get away, could not become a loose end?”

Sharon shook her head. “No, because there was no way to be sure that he would be killed simply because he was unable to get down. He might have been captured instead.”


“So what are you saying, Ruy? That the one who killed him was in on the plot, to make sure it was covered up?” She started. “Von Meggen? Really?”

Ruy shook his head. “No, my wife, I cannot envision it either; your incredulity is well placed. I spoke to that boy—well, young freiherr, I suppose—and he is as true and ardent a fellow as I’ve ever met. The kind who get themselves killed for their ideals too soon to learn to temper their fine beliefs.”

“And so, become safely jaded like some hidalgo I’m acquainted with?” Sharon made sure her smile was as private and warm as a touch to his arm.

Ruy nodded. “You chide me for fun, my love, and yet, what you say is true: Ignaz von Meggen’s head is still full of tales of noble deeds and high-minded sacrifice. He would cut his own throat before he would become part of a plot against the pope.”

“Then maybe the ladder was just removed by some mistaken workman, or your own security?”

Ruy sighed. “Not my security. I have made the inquiry of them all. So a workman? But during the mass, while the waiting crowds would have hemmed in any bystanders? And I cannot imagine it to be a random act: why would a passing person take it upon himself or herself to remove a ladder when there might indeed be someone atop the gate?”

“I don’t know; you tell me.”

“I wish I could, my lustrous love, but I cannot. And that is what I find worrisome about the attack. No matter what hypothetical plot I construct, I can find none that explain all the facts as we have them. Hopefully, we shall identify the corpses of the attackers and find new paths to new answers. And now, I believe your duties are about to commence.”

“What do you mean?”

Ruy glanced meaningfully behind her, toward the entrance. “Bedmar has just entered with his retinue.”

“Bedmar? The gathering of the cardinals is not due to start for another half hour.”

“That is correct, dear heart. And that is as His Holiness wishes. They have matters to discuss, these two.”

“And so Urban asked me here to do what? Serve as a referee?”

“I suspect much more than that. After all, the might of the United States of Europe figures crucially in both their strategies, I’m sure. And by bringing you to be part of this meeting, they make you party to whatever plans they might agree upon.” His smile almost became sad. “You are not here to be a referee, my love. You are here to complete their intended troika.”

A familiar voice hailed them from the left hand of the split staircase. “Ambassadora Nichols, you must promise to cease distracting your husband: I require his full attention upon the safety of my person!” Urban descended, two Wild Geese in front of him. His nephew Antonio and the Jesuit father general superior, MuzioVitelleschi, followed close behind the pope. After them came Larry Mazzare.

Ruy bowed. “Your Holiness, my wife is as blameless as she is peerless. It is I—still a weak-willed swain at heart—who cannot restrain myself.”

“Now that is plain truth, plainly told,” announced another voice, this one approaching across the entry hall. Sharon turned: Bedmar was approaching, flanked by Achille d’Estampes de Valençay and Giancarlo de Medici.

Sharon bowed to Bedmar and the two tigerish cardinals accompanying him, reflecting that all three of them were certainly more reminiscent of the lion than the lamb. “Your Eminences,” she said slowly.

Bedmar’s answering smile was mild. The other two looked at each other in good-natured surprise, as if uncertain to receive the title as genuine or a jest. “We are still in pectore, Ambassadora Nichols,” murmured Giancarlo, “and so, remain incognito.” There was a twinkle in his eye as he said it, nothing flirtatious, but she did wonder how his rumored proclivities as a womanizer would fit with his new position as a cardinal. Well, it’s not as though it seemed to constrain the behaviors of the others very much, so there was probably not much to worry about, there.

Urban arrived on the landing, received their devotions without ceremony, and led them all off to the side, to leave the center of the lower staircase unobstructed.

Bedmar looked around, raising an eyebrow. “I understand the amenities here are somewhat limited, but surely, a room with ten chairs can be arranged.”

“Surely it can,” Urban answered with a smile. “But surely the cardinals about to arrive will be as curious and jealous as ever. So I propose we have our meeting here.”

Giancarlo frowned. “Here? On this landing?”

“Of course. Who would suspect us of having a sensitive conversation here? But we will not be interrupted because the rest will be escorted to the great salon.”

Bedmar smiled. “And so there will be no sign that we had a private meeting, the content of which would spawn endless conjecture, and the fact of which would spawn resentment.”

“Resentment?” Achille d’Estampes de Valençay echoed.

“At not being included,” Mazzare explained with a wry smile.

Achille stared at the up-time cardinal, then at the pope. “In truth?”

Bedmar put a hand on his shoulder. “You shall learn, my good fellow and soon, fellow-eminence, that if a church father is doomed to spend eternity in hell, it is most likely the sin of envy that shall send him there. Or vanity.”

Sharon did not add “or venery,” but would have liked to. Seeing the pinched expression on Vitelleschi’s already wizened face, she suspected he might have been thinking the same thing.

Urban folded his hands so that they were hidden in the folds of his long-sleeved cassock. “I appreciate your coming to converse before our brethren arrive in their full number, Cardinal Bedmar.”

Bedmar bowed slightly, slowly. “When the Holy Father calls, his flock attends.”

Urban smiled. “Not so uniformly as one might hope, these days.”

Bedmar sighed. “There is much confusion in Mother Church.”

Vitelleschi’s chin came up. “His Eminence will pardon my plain speech, but I perceive it is weakness, not confusion, that afflicts too many of our number.”

Bedmar’s eyes measured the old Jesuit. Although not a cardinal, as the father-general of his order, Vitelleschi was a force to be reckoned with. “After the treachery and fratricide that struck at the very heart of Mother Church, it is only natural that there should be much fear, as well.”

Vitelleschi’s chin went higher. “That red biretta you wear, Your Eminence, is the same color that adorns much of your cassock. You know what it symbolizes, of course.”

“The blood of Christ.” Bedmar sounded as though he was growing impatient. Which was easy enough to understand; Sharon doubted she’d appreciate being lectured to by a wizened old Jesuit.

Vitelleschi’s pause was just long enough to convey the swift impression that Bedmar had answered incorrectly and that the Black Pope was laboring to find a suitably tactful method of correction. “I am sure that too is intended to be part of the symbology. However, when Pope Gregory X dictated that scarlet should be the color of a cardinal’s garments—at the Council of Lyon in 1274—he emphasized a different reason: that it symbolized the wearer’s willingness to shed his own blood for the faith.” Vitelleschi may have sniffed slightly. “Apparently, that interpretation—and expectation—is no longer uniform among the consistory.”

“And yet,” Urban murmured with a glance at the aging Jesuit who resembled a frail whippet with the disposition of a pit-bull, “Cardinal Bedmar’s presence shows the opposite extreme: profound courage.”

Bedmar’s eyes fell at the comparison. “You Holiness knows I was not in Rome; I was in no immediate danger.”

“No immediate danger, no, but in your case, it continues to grow every day. In part, I asked you to come before the meeting to express my appreciation for the delicate nature of your position. You provided indirect aid to the ambassadora and other up-timers who were in Italy around the time of Galileo’s trial. Indeed, you were generous enough to allow your longtime aide to marry that same ambassadora.”

Bedmar’s smile matched Urban’s. “As if I have ever been able to stop that Catalan mule from doing anything he set his mind upon.”

Ruy pushed back his moustaches, and Sharon discovered that she was smiling despite herself.

“And yet,” Urban continued, “there is a serious side to those events. You, an intimate of Philip’s court, a grandee, and former general of his tercios, have not only remained friends with a hidalgo who turned his back on Spain to marry an up-timer, but, by coming here, signal your loyalty to Prince Fernando, who has proclaimed himself king in the Lowlands. I imagined that you might anticipate a daily struggle to remain in Madrid’s good graces. So I was not absolutely sure you would come.”

Bedmar straightened his shoulders, folded his own hands, and looked up squarely into Urban’s face. “His Holiness is considerate indeed to foresee and sympathize with the challenges of my position. However, he has overtroubled himself with that worry Presently, Philip would find it inconvenient to press the matter of dominion over his brother.”

Antonio Barberini shook his head. “It is a wonder that Philip tolerates Fernando’s declarations and New World enterprises at all.”

Urban smiled at his nephew. “Of the many things that kings and popes have in common, Antonio, this may be preeminent: never give a vassal an order that they will not obey. You will then either be forced to unseat the vassal, thereby weakening yourself both by loss of an ally and the resources needed to unseat him, or you will elect not to do so and thus appear weak. Which is even more costly, in the long run.”

Antonio spread his hands. “But King Philip must certainly see the eventual trajectory of his brother toward the United States of Europe.”

Urban nodded. “Unquestionably. But it is also true that Philip and Olivares have seen and made much history, are seasoned enough to know that events may so conspire to make a confrontation with Fernando unnecessary. What if his Dutch partners fall to bickering among themselves and weaken? What if Fernando’s cooperative projects with them in the New World founder? What if the USE or Grantville are crippled in a possible war with the Ottomans? In each case, the present circumstances which make a rupture between Madrid and Brussels seem inevitable could suddenly be undone. And if that should come to pass, then Philip will be glad for not having warred upon his brother. Which would not only cost him dearly, but further isolate Spain and make his branch of the House of Hapsburg eternally loathed by the others.”

Mazzare nodded. “Yes, Your Holiness. However, with every passing day, it seems that any change in the likely course of events would need to be increasingly dramatic if conflict between the brothers is to be averted.”

Bedmar answered with a blithe smile. “I could not agree more, my dear Cardinal Mazzare. And so, here I am.”

Giancarlo de Medici shook his head. “And openly, too? Are you so willing to annoy Philip?”

Bedmar shrugged. “It is a far better strategy to annoy Philip than alarm him. To explain: by coming here openly, I have no doubt annoyed him, but he will also not be particularly worried. He might wish that I had chosen not to attend at all, but he will neither be surprised that I did nor fail to understand it. However, if I were to begin skulking about, trying hide my attendance here, Philip would become alarmed. Kings, and particularly Spanish ones, operate from the assumption that the more highly placed one of their subjects is, and the more secretive they become, the more likely that they are trying to conceal treason. Besides, I must come when His Holiness summons me. I am, after all, the cardinal-protector of the Spanish Lowlands, and so, representing the faithful of Flanders is required by my first loyalty and oath: to God and His Church.”

“A priority with which Philip might contend,” Urban quipped with a smile. “Albeit silently.”

“Silently before his courtiers and ambassadors, perhaps, Your Holiness. But not in privy council. From my own days at the Escorial, I may assure you of that.”

Urban’s smile dimmed somewhat. “With so many of your brothers here, it is also my intention to address urgent matters touching on the future of Mother Church, once the colloquium has ended and its other attendees have departed.”

Bedmar’s own smile actually widened. “Holy Father, it would be strange indeed if you did not also take this opportunity to hold a Council of the consistory. Given last year’s events in Rome, it seems essential.”

Urban’s smile matched Bedmar’s as he turned to glance at Vitelleschi. “As I predicted, even without the faintest intimation of our intent, Cardinal Bedmar would know we planned a Council.”

Vitelleschi nodded.

“However,” Bedmar added, “what I do not know—indeed, what none of us know—is how many cardinals have escaped Borja’s agents and survived to attend?”

“And why is that important?” Vitelleschi asked archly.

Bedmar smiled patiently. “Father, the Jesuits have been an eminently practical order since their founding. Indeed, had they not been, they would not have had one tenth the success they have enjoyed around the globe. And so, I press the practicality of my question to His Holiness: how many of us are there? Enough to make a stand—or just enough to make for a memorable collection of martyrs?”

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