Back | Next

Chapter 5

As the sand in his hourglass passed the two-o’clock mark, Javier de Requesens y Ercilla put down his midday meal—a small, fantastically expensive roll—and glanced up at the thick, almost basilicate, bell-tower of St. Paul’s. When he had started reviewing the reports to synopsize for his next transmission to Madrid, it had been eleven AM. The tip of the church’s shadow had been upon the sill of his window as he opened the cedar shutters upon a day in which the sun proved elusive, capriciously flitting in and out of the clouds like a coquette changing dance partners at a court ball.

However, despite his lesser grandee origins, Javier had not spent much time at any court or attending balls. Which was a pity, because he was quite sure that his graceful footwork, deft conversational skills, and ability to convince dull social superiors that they were in fact every bit as fascinating and compelling as they believed (or hoped) themselves to be would have won him much favor in any of the ducal courts or even those at Madrid itself.

He looked out his window, ostensibly the best view (and room) in L’Auberge de Boucle d’Argent. Beyond St. Paul’s bluff sides and steeple, beyond the curtain wall that encircled Besançon, he stared at the northern horn of the River Doub’s oxbow curve. The water was streaked and speckled by white, there: the current picked up speed as it flowed around the corner and made for the Pont Battant. It was truly a shame, he thought with a sigh, that instead of a life as a courtier, he had be compelled to make his way in the world by serving as an incognito factotum for any one of a dozen intelligencers to whom Olivares commended his services. His education at Salamanca and facility with languages made him an excellent foreign agent, and his aristocratic background and ambitions made him somewhat less susceptible to outright treachery, although it was presumed that a man in his position would of course accept the gratuities and gifts that, in any other line of work, would have been known by a more distasteful (if accurate) term: bribe.

It wasn’t very hard work, gathering intelligence and relaying orders with reasonable subtlety. And what was often the greatest inconvenience of all—relocating and establishing a legitimate reason for being in the environs to which he’d been assigned—had been unnecessary this time. One of Olivares’ innumerable international intelligencers had been tasked with developing a portfolio on the new power in what had formerly been the Imperial city of Besançon, but which Bernhard had then grabbed during the extraordinary cascades of unforeseeable developments that had followed the up-timers’ arrival at more or less the epicenter of the Thirty Years’ War. It had been, in their world as well as here, not so much one war as a flurry of separate disputes that roared, sputtered, and roared again in rhythm with the changing fortunes and desires of various states and faiths, all of which draped themselves in high-sounding language and testimonies of holy purpose.

But by late 1634, those guttering fires had all but burned and Bernhard Wettin seized Besançon as his capital. That it had been, for centuries, a free city of the Holy Roman Empire under the protection of the Hapsburgs had not served as a brake upon his ambitions.

Subsequent political events proved Bernhard’s usurpation to have been as canny as it was bold. The city had passed from Spanish to Austrian oversight at the end of the last century, and the Austrians were now preoccupied with the looming likelihood of an Ottoman incursion. Between that concern, their decision not to garrison the city with foreign troops, and the expanses of very rough—and unallied—terrain between their country and Burgundy, the Austrians had accepted its loss with something approaching aplomb.

This put the onus of a decisive reaction back upon Spain’s shoulders. But the same turmoil that had allowed Bernhard to grab Franche-Comté had cut the famous Spanish Road which had led from Spanish holdings in Italy all the way through to the Lowlands. Now interdicted at multiple points by multiple potential antagonists, Madrid had conceded that for any foreseeable future, and perhaps for all time, the overland artery that had fueled her European possessions with the blood of once-feared Spanish tercios had been irreparably severed.

However, that did not mean Spain ceased to have any interests in Besançon. There was no shortage of Spanish money and trade still invested in the city, as well as loyal allies who lamented the recent, final passing of the Hapsburg dominion over the place. And besides, Bernhard was unlikely to remain sated with the scope of his conquest for long. Like a shark, he was likely to die if he did not keep moving and devouring more of the land that provided the sustenance sought by all rulers: resources, taxes, young men who would take an army’s coin.

And so, Javier de Requesens y Ercilla had arrived in Besançon in late September, 1634, shortly after the open hostilities between Bernhard’s forces and those of the Swedish general Horn had diminished to sullen border-watching and occasional skirmishes when patrols by overly ambitious young officers blundered into each other. War was, Javier affirmed as he ordered the reports he had been busy emending for maximum brevity, a very foolish business.

However, if it were not for the acquisitive nature of kings, who knows what employ he himself might have? He was but the fourth son of a branch of the Requesens that had watched their fortunes fall along with their increasing distance from the House of Zuñiga, one of the twenty-five families made Immemorial Grandees of Spain and a frequent source of Madrid’s leading ambassadors and intelligencers. Indeed, if Philip IV had not called Don Pedro de Zuñiga out of retirement in 1632 to provide a practiced Anglophone perspective upon the newly arrived up-timers, Javier feared he might have wound up overseeing some miserable collection of fincas where tenant farmers tilled the soil on one of his family’s dwindling tracts.

But Don Pedro had remembered the Zuñiga connection to both the Requesens and Ercillas, and discovered Javier: a suitably tactful individual, fluent in four languages, and eager to advance but without the delusions of grandeur that would make him more a liability than an asset. And so he had been plucked from his nuclear family’s fate of increasing obscurity and became an object of pride. His branch of the Requesens might still be counting fewer silver coins every year, but one of their number was once again carrying out important business for the Empire, had put the family name on the lips of counselors and courtiers in Madrid. In the status-obsessed society of seventeenth-century Spain, that was almost as good as currency itself.

Javier glanced at the sundial; it would be time to turn on the radio soon. But not to communicate with the obscure factotum that Zuñiga trusted with matters in Besançon, but to his second, surreptitious employer: Cardinal Gaspard de Borja y Velasco. How the would-be pope learned of Requesens’ fortuitous presence in Besançon was as great a mystery as how he had learned, earlier than most, of Urban’s presence in the town. But that was immaterial to Javier. Borja paid good coin for the simplest of services: to relay reports from, and convey coded orders to, some creature of his who was currently in the city.

The sand in the glass ran out with the invariable appearance of suddenly increased speed. Javier reflected that life probably felt like that, too, when one came closer to its end. He reached over, turned on the radio, waited for the first signal, and hoped the earlier clouds did not portend difficult weather to the south and equally difficult transmissions. If so, he might be here for as long as four hours, working the same signals over and over again until the messages were complete. The mere prospect of such a dull routine drew forth a great sigh from him, and Javier de Requesens y Ercilla freely admitted to himself that he sighed a lot. It was, after all, the inevitable burden of a refined and sensitive soul such as his.

The radio crackled and began emitting a stream of coded signals, the first of which was a cipher that indicated that he was to receive a message before sending his report.

Javier rolled his eyes. More work. Well, at least the signal was clear, so he might not have to endure the additional burden of suffering through the monotony of oft-repeated messages.

* * *

Estève Gasquet glanced at sudden movement in the narrow street that separated his attic rooms and the small chapel that stood beside the entry to the Hospital of the Holy Spirit. It was one of his men—Peyre, from the size of him—who disappeared beneath his field of view, no doubt soon to pound up the narrow and rickety stair. Sure enough, the accomplished Pyreneeian strangler’s heavy tread began thumping closer. Which meant that an incoming message from Rome was likely.

Gasquet turned his back to the narrow dormer window, wishing he could shut out the smell of fish and infrequently removed garbage that were the hallmark aromas of the hospital district: an overcrowded cluster of shabby buildings shoved up against the walls separating them from the quays where the northern curve of the Doub’s oxbow bent the river and accelerated its flow toward the bridge. Still, as flophouses went, this was better than most. It was clean, if dingy, and while the neighborhood was anything but appealing, it was mostly safe. The much maligned Protestants of the city had increasingly drifted into this quarter since the failed Huguenot attack half a century ago, paying a price in prejudice for an incident that few of them had supported, much less welcomed. Those Jews who did not make their living out in the Battant congregated here also, probably because the presence of the hospital seemed to prick the consciences of most of those whose prejudices might boil over into violence. Somehow, the typical bigot’s dusk-stimulated appetite for thrashing or raping a few nonbelievers was undermined when they could hear the Hospitallers just a few doors away, murmuring vespers and beseeching the Holy Spirit to fill them with greater depths of charity and humility. Gasquet did not quite sneer at that thought: what idiots they all were, one half sacrificing themselves to help those half in the grave, and the other half risking violence without any hope of gain. All fools driven by ideas, beliefs, urges as insubstantial as the dead ancestors who had imposed these rituals upon them, rather than inculcating them with an appreciation for the only thing that mattered, the only thing that was tangible in this material world: material gain.

Beyond the old sheet that he had hung as a privacy blind—no sane leader ever lived without some physical boundary that reminded his men of the separation in their status and station—Gasquet heard Peyre emerge into the attic, breathing heavily. “News,” he gasped.

Estève pushed around the side of the sheet, strode toward Peyre. “Let’s have it, then.”

“Two things,” Peyre panted. “There’s a message at the drop.”

Gasquet nodded, glanced at the smallest of his six men, Chimo. “Get it.”

The little Catalan was on the narrow stairs and heading down before Peyre could wheeze out. “Not yet.”

Gasquet frowned. “Why?”

“You’ll want to send a message of your own. Now. Before decoding the new instructions from Rome.”

“I’m guessing that’s due to the second bit of news you have for me.”

Peyre nodded, finally straightening back up. “The Swiss. They’re on the way.”

“All of them?”

“No, no. Just the ones who know to look for us. I saw them all come into town a while ago. They split into two groups to look for lodging. One group is headed this way.”

“So they found the message drop outside the Battant. Good.”

“Very good,” Peyre suggested. “Word is there are no rooms left in the Buckle. Everything is taken. Stables, attics, cellars.”

Gasquet’s lieutenant, Donat Faur, drew alongside, nodding. “Makes sense,” murmured Estève’s fellow Prouvènço. “The militia has been warning people that, after today, there will be no new entries allowed.”

“You mean they’re closing the city?” Chimo squawked.

“No,” Peyre corrected irritably. “Anyone who has been allowed to enter up until now is either known personally or has been given a written pass with a seal. Same thing for boats on the Doub: they either have papers or they have to find mooring over in the Battant. The last of those permissions were issued today. And anyone with a pass has been told to expect to be detained at the Porte Boucle until someone can be found who remembers providing them with the pass. Personally.”

“So we won’t be sneaking anyone else into the city by using a ‘borrowed’ pass, then,” Faur muttered with a bitter smile.

“Not unless we want to attract attention. No: we have all the forces we’re going to have.”

“Which is why I figured you’d want to speak with the Swiss, find out how many more bodies we can count on.”

Gasquet nodded, heard faint voices in the street, threw back his privacy sheet, glanced down.

“Looks like they’re here. Brenguier,” he said, gesturing to the swart, rangy Occitan lounging in the far shadows. “You speak the best German and spent time in Geneva, so you’ll meet them downstairs. Make your greeting of them public, like they’re friends, people you’ve known for years.”

Brenguier nodded, shifted the scabbard of his large dagger to his back, pulled his loose shirttails over it, and pattered down the stairs quietly.

Chimo chewed determinedly on one unwashed cuticle. “I hope there are lots of them.” He looked around the attic. “But then they won’t fit.”

Gasquet managed not to roll his eyes. “They are not staying with us. We need to stay separated until we act. We will coordinate through drops, but we have to set them up first, get an idea of their numbers, agree upon a new code.”

“Why? No one’s found our messages, so how would the pope’s men know our code?”

Donat breathed deeply, as if sucking in an extra reserve of patience for Chimo. “No one’s found our messages so far as we know. But if they have, then now is when we must change the code: the one time we will see our allies and make our plans face to face. Otherwise, if the opposition has deciphered the code we’ve been using thus far, they would begin learning our true intents.”

“Yeah, okay—but wouldn’t it be safer not to meet at all then? Just to tell them to use a new code when we put out the next drop?”

Gasquet heard the sound of more feet mounting the stairs; three pairs, if he was correct. And he did not want Chimo to still be displaying his ignorance—and stupidity—when the Swiss came through the door, so he explained the matter sharply: “We don’t have any jointly agreed upon drop point in this city, dolt, so how would that work? And even if we did, how would they know the first message from us wasn’t actually from the opposition, using our code, to trick the assassins among the Swiss to reveal themselves?”

Chimo’s mouth was hanging open slightly. “But—”

“No more questions, Chimo. We don’t have the time to get it all through your thick skull. Now, we meet our allies.” Which means I have another job to do: to let them know that I’m in charge, and that they’re here to follow orders, not give them.

Back | Next