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Chapter 1

Sharon Nichols peripherally detected a hint of motion in the sky and scanned above the low, tiled roofs that screened the Doub River from view. Just to the right of St. Madeleine’s gothic steeple, a small oblong was descending from the low clouds, like a bit of gray fluff sheering off from the cottony white cumulus. That was probably the dirigible they had been waiting for. Probably.

She turned toward her husband, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz, who was deeply involved in a discussion with two recently arrived Burgundian guards who were not from Besançon themselves. They were still getting used to distinguishing local peddlers from the regional traders who, for three weeks now, had been rigorously screened before being allowed into the main city. More and more of them were being turned back across the old Roman bridge into the less densely built, and less affluent, district on the other side of the Doub: the Battant. As security tightened, more were forced to remain there, resolving themselves to trade as best they could in the markets that had sprung up between the margins of that district’s curtain walls and the vineyards which surrounded them. Which in turn meant that lodging—even in barns and hastily improvised shelters—had become exorbitantly expensive, if available at all.

Of particular annoyance to Ruy and the various officers of the city’s temporary and multitiered security forces were the new arrivals who (daily, it seemed) attempted to pitch tents, erect market stalls, or both, along the margins of a field in the north reaches of the Battant. But as surely as those hopefuls arrived, they were just as surely shooed away; that enticing stretch of close-mown grass was the marshaling field of the city’s makeshift aerodrome. The dirigibles—inbound mostly from the United States of Europe, but also from the Lowlands, Bergamo, Venice, and even Austria—had been arriving with increasing rapidity through the month of April. However, even as May brought improved weather, the rate at which the comparatively well-heeled air travelers arrived had begun to diminish.

Sharon turned back toward the north, marked the progress made by the gray oblong, which was now close enough to see in greater detail. Its lines were more trim than most of the airships which had been arriving, and there were more catenary wires draped across its back to hold up a larger and more enclosed gondola beneath it. It trailed less smoke, which meant that it was not running a burner to keep the envelope inflated with hot air; the only fuel it was burning was to power the lawnmower engines that spun its propellers. As it angled lower, toward the pennons flying over Besançon’s walls, she had no doubt left: this was definitely a hydrogen airship—and therefore, the one they had been waiting for.

Sharon turned toward her husband. “Bedmar’s here.”

Ruy glanced at her, a smile creasing lean cheeks already well-equipped with wrinkles. Thirty-three years Sharon’s senior, Ruy’s face was the only physical signifier of his age. Almost wasp-waisted and with an erect bearing that connoted both vigor and long decades of service to the Spanish crown on five continents, the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes and deepening smile lines merely made him look mature. And if there was any gray in his mustache or painstakingly styled beard, she could not see it—although Sharon did wonder if the occasional glints she noticed there were the reflections of pomade or the start of a few telltale strands of silver.

His eyes briefly left hers, scanning the sky. “Yes, my love. At last, Bedmar arrives. The old scoundrel.”

Which, had Ruy been anyone else, would have been an outrageously disrespectful comment. Alfonso de la Cueva-Benavides y Mendoza-Carrillo, still referred to by his former title, the Marqués de Bedmar, was now the cardinal-protector of Spanish Lowlands and also Philip IV’s ambassador extraordinary to that same turbulent state. And, just a year ago, Ruy had been his adjutant, right-hand man, intelligencer, and senior bodyguard, as he had been for more than a decade before marrying Sharon. Consequently, he had an easy familiarity with Bedmar that few others enjoyed. But neither he nor Sharon were certain of the cardinal’s attitude toward Pope Urban and his summons to an ecumenical colloquy in Besançon.

Ruy placed a strong, sinewy hand on his wife’s full arm, left it there, a faint additional pressure conveyed through the palm. “I reiterate, my heart, that you need not be here to meet the cardinal.”

“And I reiterate that as the USE’s papal ambassador, and sponsor for this event, it is my duty to receive him.”

Ruy’s smile became slightly strained. “He is no more or less a cardinal than the others whose arrivals you have missed.” A genuine twinkle rekindled in his eye. “Unless, of course, your ulterior motive is to press him to divulge the details of my behavior before I met your magically-redeeming self. Before I can swear him to secrecy, that is.”

Sharon smiled. “Ruy, I can find out about that at any time, if I want, and without the cardinal’s help. Of which you are aware. So here’s what I do want to know: why are you trying to get me to leave before he arrives?”

Ruy, who was usually compliant in the extreme, frowned slightly. “My beauteous wife, despite your many charms—those both subtle and bountifully obvious—I am compelled to confess that I am no more likely to be distracted from my curiosities than you are. You have not yet explained why you feel the need to be here to receive Bedmar. But let us make a happy truce: to promptly and frankly reveal our concerns to each other.”

“Fine. You first.”

Ruy may have suppressed a sigh. “You are a hard taskmaster, beloved wife. Usually, I take singular joy in that quality of yours—”

“Ruy, are you capable of conversing without flirting?”

“With you? I fear not, my love, but I shall endeavor to do so now. To answer your query, I fear for your safety.”

“My safety? From whom—or what?”

Ruy shook his head. “That is another question. First, I shall have your answer, my love.”

Sharon smiled, worked in a coy upturn of the left side of her mouth, saw Ruy respond, but without any perceptual loss of resolve. “Okay, okay.” She let the smile drop, kept herself from biting her lip instead, glanced at the rapidly descending airship. “It’s important that we—the USE—engage Bedmar officially. As quickly as possible.”

Ruy shook a remonstrating index finger when he saw that Sharon meant to let that suffice as an answer. “My delightfully shrewd wife, that answer is no answer, for the same could be said of any of the cardinals and other religious luminaries who have already passed through this gate.” He gestured briefly at the archaic archway near which they stood: the Toll Gate. It was also referred to as Porte Boucle, since it was the one means of entering the core of Besançon, or colloquially, the Buckle. The Old Town of the city sat between the curving banks of the Doub which, here, were bent in the shape of an oxbow, or, as some preferred, a buckle.

Sharon sighed. “Bedmar’s a diplomatic lynchpin. He answers to both Madrid and the Church. And those two authorities are diametrically opposed over the topic Urban is going to bring up here in a few days.”

Ruy nodded slowly. “Which is hardly news to me, my heart. So you must be aware of a new complication, since Bedmar’s attendance effectively affirms that he has moved from Philip’s orbit into that of his brother, Cardinal-Infante Fernando—or, I should say, Fernando, King in the Lowlands, since that is the title he now goes by.”

A title likely to plunge the House of Hapsburg into a civil war. Damn regal pride! “It’s not that there’s new uncertainty, Ruy. It’s that we have news that Bedmar probably hasn’t heard yet.”

Ruy’s unblinking eyes were patient but insistent.

Sharon made sure her voice was so low that almost she could not hear her own words: “Madrid is not likely to see any silver from the New World, this year.”

“So bad a year in the mines?”

“Ruy, I’m not talking about a reduced shipment. I’m talking about no shipment.”

Ruy’s eyes widened slightly. He leaned back slightly, coming fully erect. “Ah. I see. Yes, that could change things.”

“Yes, it really could. So, now: your turn. Exactly why am I in danger meeting the cardinal?”

“The danger is not to you, specifically, my heart. It is because you will be close to Bedmar.”

“And that will do what? Make some old geezers in Madrid angry at me? Well, more angry at me?”

“No: it will place you where an attack on Bedmar may become an attack upon you.”

“An attack? On Bedmar? Here?”

“Beloved, whose very breath is as air to me, we are not here only to guard Pope Urban.” He waved his hand to take in the many layers of security. “Cardinal Borja may remain upon the papal throne he usurped in the Holy City, but his reach is long and he may not be done with killing cardinals. And Bedmar may be a target of special interest. Even though Madrid has washed its hands of Borja, Philip might still provide Borja with the encouragement—and perhaps the means—to dispose of a mutually disloyal Spanish cardinal.”

Sharon nodded, scanning the long line of waiting commoners, and the much shorter and better dressed “fast lane” that had been set up for dignitaries, aristocrats, officials, and known couriers. People she had presumed to be bored a minute ago now looked carefully expressionless, as if attempting to conceal their true purpose. The irate looked personally and immediately dangerous. And visitors from afar radiated danger, their calm faces hiding agendas as undiscoverable as the imaginary weapons buried in their towering piles of chests and traveling cases.

Which is all total bullshit, of course. Sharon took a deep breath.

“I am sorry if I have distressed you, my lovely wife,” Ruy murmured.

Sharon smiled, put a hand on Ruy’s, which had never left her arm. “I overreacted. Like a dope. But I also needed that reminder of the danger that may lurk around us. You’ve been screening visitors for so many weeks now, and with so little alarm, that I guess I just got used to it.”

In point of fact, she realized with a second look and a start, Ruy’s security precautions actually had changed from what she had first seen five weeks ago, when the first of the representatives to Urban’s colloquy had begun to arrive. The primary screening was still being conducted by the local militia. They spoke the local patois, often knew the families of vendors and tradesmen, and were able to joke about recent events. It was both a casual and efficient means of sorting out the known persons from the unknown.

Never far off from the militia, but always standing two or three paces away from the line itself, were Burgundian regulars. Or so they called themselves: to Sharon the lack of national uniforms among the armies of Europe made it impossible to keep them apart or to really think of them as true soldiers at all. They almost all had off-white (or maybe just dingy) shirts and dark trousers. Their only definitive identifiers were their arm bands or tassels of orange and dark teal: the colors of their ruler, Grand Duke Bernhard Wettin. Originally a German duke, he had essentially stolen a number of provinces at the end of the abbreviated Thirty Years’ War, collectively labeled them Burgundy, and ruled there only because, as the old axiom had it, might makes right. And he still possessed the greatest might in the region.

The Burgundians’ equipment was dated: brigandines that had seen better days and shabby old swords. But soon Sharon overcame the initial impression of anachronisms on parade and perceived the methods in the madness that had inspired Ruy to assign the regulars to this duty. Although few were besontsins, they still knew the local patois and could easily follow what was transpiring between the militia and the throngs attempting to enter the city. On the other hand, few had relatives here and so were not merely at a physical remove, but a socially impartial distance, from the often impatient crowd. Lastly, since any problems were likely to start with a physical altercation of some kind, their armor and swords were significant disincentives but divorced from any possible escalation to firearms. On the other hand, if a troublemaker in the line did produce a hidden gun…well, there were other forces to deal with that.

Lurking less obviously near street corners, the walkways down to the quay, and around the gate itself was a far more professional and uniform set of soldiers: the Irish Wild Geese. Commanded by Owen Roe O’Neill himself, several had been on hand to fight off Urban’s would-be assassins last year. Well trained with both swords and pistol, their heavy, custom-built pepperbox revolvers rode at their hip, occasionally clacking against their cuirasses. The almost uniform light eyes and fair hair that peeked out from beneath the brim shadows of their capeline helmets marked them as strangers to the region, as did their language: a mix of English and Amideutsch that labored up through heavy brogues. They were watchful and serious, befitting their new status as the Pope’s Own: the Holy City’s Swiss Guard had almost all been slain during and after the siege of the Castel St Angelo.

Last and least obvious of all were the figures only visible as half seen shadows in a few ground-floor doorways, on a few balconies, and a single silhouette holding a long, thin-barreled rifle up in the bell-tower of St. Madeleine: two squads of the crack Hibernian Mercenary Battalion. Officially soldiers of fortune, they were under exclusive contract to the up-timer-dominated government of the State of Thuringia-Franconia and had proven their worth several times in Italy and Mallorca during the previous year. Wearing buff coats tailored after up-time military style, they remained all but hidden, their individually crafted Winchester .40-72 lever action rifles and percussion cap revolvers usually well out of sight, both to retain surprise and avoid attracting undue notice. Two on the closest balcony were hunched intently over a small box: a primitive portable radio, several of which were being used by Ruy’s security assets to keep each other apprised on traffic and individuals of interest throughout Besançon. And almost invisible at this distance, the silhouette in the bell-tower continued to turn slowly, one hand holding unseen binoculars to his eyes while the other cradled the rifle with a long tupe atop it: a scope.

Ruy had been quick to see the advantages of the Hibernians’ up-time methods, particularly those made possible by multiple portable radios. But this layered security approach also brought a problem that was equally anachronistic—and familiar to Sharon: turf wars.

The local cops—the militia—were ticked off that the State Troopers—the Burgundians—were really calling the shots. They were annoyed, in turn, by the President’s Secret Service—here, the pope’s Wild Geese—who could interfere whenever they wanted to. But even those professional bodyguards had to coordinate with the Hibernians, who were the equivalent of a SOCCOM unit possessing the demeanor of the SAS. Who all ultimately answered to the national intelligence apparatus: Ruy and his immediate lieutenants. Just like home.

Or maybe not. Sharon could feel her smile droop as she noticed anew the shabby pomp of the sun-bleached national and city pennants that fluttered all around them, the omnipresent stink of both equine and human wastes, the borderline malnutrition in many of the less-well-attired persons in the crowd, their yellowed and crooked teeth, and the paucity of signage that sported words in addition to simple icons.

No, Sharon reflected, suppressing a shake of her head, this isn’t home. And not because the conditions here are worse. In a lot of ways, it’s better. Hell, I’d rather be burned for being a witch than for being black. But this will never look normal to me, to eyes that grew up filled with images of a world almost four hundred years further along than this one, no matter its own ugliness and horrors.

She turned, back toward Ruy, watching him receiving reports, giving orders, shuffling his men around with the surety of a master chess-player navigating a practice match. To him, this was all a brave new world of wonders: he marshaled forces by radio, had a .357 magnum in a shoulder holster, had seen the surface of a moon through a telescope, had watched a video of El Cid, and had dipped into dozens of up-time books with the same luxuriant delight evinced by a man of humble means who suddenly finds himself furnished with unlimited aristocratic delights and diversions. And yet, as he often and emphatically pointed out, the greatest gift that the future had conferred upon him was his beloved wife.

Who, for one small moment, envied that her husband was enchanted and excited by changes that seemed only wondrous and future-looking. Because for a foresightful up-timer, not only was this world a vast slip backward in health, in justice, in safety: it was also ingenuously caught up in the first, misleading blush of enthusiasm for all the improvements that had come from the future. Soon enough, Sharon feared, the long-term consequences of those changes would be felt, and a backlash against the new would arise. As it always did.

A door, groaning heavily on its hinges, opened slowly behind her. She glanced back, wearing a small, reassuring smile by the time she turned to face—

Larry Mazzare, Cardinal-Protector of the State of Thuringia-Franconia, emerged from the combination toll- and customs-house that extended away from the southwest side of the gate. Two Wild Geese flanked him as he squinted into a beam of sudden sunlight; the clouds were finally parting.

Larry had aged since they had arrived down-time, five and a half years ago. There was more gray in his hair, more lines on his face, and his simple Sunday-black had been traded for the heavy and many layered raiment of a post-Renaissance cardinal. A trade he had not welcomed, and which he did not maintain at home, but here, in Besançon and on the pope’s business, he had little choice. He noticed Sharon, nodded at her, at Ruy, and asked, “So…he’s here?”

Ruy nodded. “Yes. Bedmar has landed. He is on his way.”

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