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Chapter 6

The heavy, muffled tread on the stairs suddenly became sharper, louder as a blond head with a pageboy haircut crested the floorboards where the attic communicated with the rest of the house. Another head, black-haired and tousled, followed. Brenguier waved a hand over the lip of the stairwell, signaling that he would remain below, on the lookout.

The two Swiss were in ratty garments that might once have been military uniforms. The blond one waved off the stares from Gasquet and his group. “Pontifical Guard rags. Don’t laugh; they got us in.”

“That and the choir boy who thinks he’s our leader,” the other added. “Hard to believe he can be stupid enough to think men of our experience would follow him here to try to commit holy suicide by pledging ourselves to a doomed pope.”

The first shrugged. “He’s from a known family. That means something to lots of people. Sure meant something to the armored fools who saw us through the toll-gate today.”

Gasquet leaned his left shoulder against a rafter. “Not all of the pope’s men are fools. Don’t underestimate them.”

The blond one looked at him. “So who are you?”

“I’m Gasquet. The man who’ll be giving you your orders.”

The one with the tousled hair started to push forward. “Hey, who do you think—?”

His friend held him back. “So you’re the one getting instructions from Rome.”

Gasquet did not need to answer, so didn’t. “And who are you?”

The blond one, realizing that there was not going to be any congenial give-and-take, evidently decided to stake out his own territory by making the limits of his deference clear: he grabbed a chair, swung it under him, sat. “I’m Norwin Eischoll. My companion is Klaus Müller. There are four more of us who were sent to join the choir boy as cover for our mission. Two others attached themselves along the way. Their papas were not former Papal Guards; they were just hoping to hire for coin and see Italy. But I think we may be able to convince them to consider joining our mission for a better sum.”

Gasquet shook his head. “I don’t have any money for more sell-swords. If you bring them around, you’ll have to pay for them out of your own pocket.”

Norwin smiled. “Will I? If the enemy doesn’t take care of them, I can shortly afterwards.”

Gasquet nodded slowly, returned the smile, thought, He’s practical, focused, ruthless. He’s a good addition and will control the Swiss well. And he’s too dangerous to be left alive once we’re done. Probably thinking the same about me. Well, that’s the nature of our business. “And how did you get the weapons through the gate?”

Norwin shook his head. “We didn’t. Instead of meeting the contact to get them, we got message indicating that security was too tight at the Pont Battant, and they were being brought in another way.”

Gasquet waited. “And?”

“And what?”

“What’s the other way?”

Norwin smiled. “You’re not the only one getting confidential messages, Gasquet. We were assured they’d be ready soon enough. The day after we secure permanent lodgings, Klaus here is going to go to the fountain of Neptune in front of the Carmelite abbey at noon and stand there for ten minutes with a big, uneaten roll. And then he’ll return to us. A runner will come to our rooms by the end of the day. He’ll have the location of a dead drop for all subsequent messages.” Eischoll’s smiled broadened. “From the look on your face, it must sound familiar.”

Gasquet was suddenly glad that the orders from Rome had been very explicit about him being in charge—because he would not have liked having to vie for control of the operation with Norwin Eischoll. “Somewhat.”

“They’re a pain in the ass,” Müller pronounced loudly.

Gasquet squinted at him. “They are the only way we can be safe from each other.”

“What do you mean?” he asked before he saw Norwin’s stone-hard expression.

Too late not to embarrass your leash-holder, Müller, Gasquet exulted silently. “I mean,” he said in a languorous tone that left enough space for everyone to mentally insert the implicit addition of “you dolt” after the first two words, “the same puppetmaster is pulling our respective strings through different channels. And since he is getting reports on each of us from the other, he will know—immediately—if either of our groups fails to obey orders and follow the plan. If it was just one of us in contact with a controller, how could Rome be sure of knowing if we were betrayed from within, or discovered and eliminated? Hell, the opposition could then use our codes to tell our puppetmaster just what he wants to hear, while nothing of the kind would actually be going on. But with two of us, reporting on each other to the same puppetmaster, he has independent confirmation of our obedience.”

Klaus had only blinked twice during the explanation. Gasquet had expected more. Perhaps the big Swiss was not so much stupid as impatient. “Still don’t like it,” he grumbled. “It would be easier if we were all one group, with one set of orders.”

Norwin jumped in before Gasquet could, evidently determined to end what was, for his side, an exchange which featured the mental capabilites of his underling in a most unflattering light. “Klaus, there are seven men in this room. Add our seven, then maybe some more. Much more likely that such a large collection of men, without apparent employment, would be noticed swiftly. Besides, one team had to prepare the ground here, and the other had to contact the choir boy and prompt him to get moving in this direction.”

Gasquet nodded, determined to keep any hint of admiration out of his voice or face. “And you were that prompt?”

Norwin shrugged. “It had to be someone who knew the cantons, who knew where to find and how to poke old grievances.”

Gasquet nodded indifferently, determined not to show any of his curiosity. How had Norwin been recruited? How had Borja been made aware of his existence? Gasquet would never know, any more than Norwin would ever be allowed to discover how Borja had come to retain Gasquet. Or how Borja had known, even before the actual mission was revealed, that Gasquet was familiar with Franche-Comté, fair with a pistol, good with a sword, and quite capable of leading men who would have to be retained and constrained during a long preliminary period of inactivity. Which was finally—finally—coming to an end.

“And you,” Norwin Eischoll asked with a jut of his chin, “How many more do you have stashed away in the city?”

“Enough,” Gasquet answered, wishing the answer was more than enough. “Several of whom you’re going to encounter tomorrow if you got the invitation you were supposed to get for St. John’s cathedral.”

Norwin sat up slightly. “So you’re going to be there, too?”

“Not exactly, but four men I’ve been controlling will be. One word of caution: for the first few seconds, keep a firm hold on your choir boy’s collar. Don’t let him run and play with the grown-ups until you have some targets.”

“That sounds ominous.”

“It won’t be for you, not if you keep your own men back.”

“Anything else?”


Norwin rose. “We need to have a contingency in case one of our two groups, or their controllers, are compromised.”

Gasquet nodded. “Sensible. Here’s what we do: every day we hang a different garment out to dry. Tomorrow a sock, Wednesday a hat, Thursday one glove, Friday a shirt, Saturday pants, Sunday a cape. We each send someone walking by our lodgings—and we’ll know yours soon after you move in—every morning. If any other garments are seen, or if a garment is seen on the wrong day, or there is no garment hung out at all, it means that group is not able to comply and must be considered compromised. The first order of business will be to drop a message to any controller we have left; they’ll pass along new instructions, including if and when we reapproach the compromised team. After that”—Gasquet shrugged—“we’ll have to react based on the circumstances.”

Eischoll nodded. “We need to be getting back.”

“Yeah,” Klaus muttered, “to report our failure at finding lodgings. Freiherr Ignaz von Meggen will be most disappointed with us.”

Without offering or receiving a wave of farewell, the two descended the stairs.

Donat crossed his arms. “Well, that was interesting.”

Gasquet was already scribbling a message in code. “I suppose. I just wish we knew more about them.”

“I’m sure they feel the same way. And with good reason. They have no idea where we’re from or who we know here.”

“True. But other than our basic weapons”—Gasquet glanced at the loose pile of swords, wheel-locks, and daggers under a leak-proof table in the center of the room—“it’s us who are waiting for them to deliver.” He held the message out to Chimo. “Run to the drop with this, and bring back the one that Peyre saw there already.”

* * *

Returning from his evening constitutional, Javier de Requesens y Ercilla tossed his hat on the waiting hook, was delighted to see it alight as he meant (which happened about two out of every five times, but that was only an incentive to further practice!), and congratulated himself on the elegant simplicity of the drop points he had arranged. In the course of his walk, he always made sure to step in some mud (at least, he always hoped it was mud), which necessitated him to stop and use his walking stick to dislodge the worst of it from the sole of his shoe. He always did so by leaning against one of three shingled buildings. There, while ferociously jabbing at the sole of his shoe with the walking stick in his right hand, he sneaked a finger beneath the edge of one of the shingles. Thus he would detect—and if so, remove—a narrow reed of just enough girth to hold a coded message from the operatives that Borja had presumably seeded here shortly after learning that Urban had taken refuge in Besançon. Each day of the week meant a different shingle to check and of course, most of the time, there was nothing to be found. But this day, although he had not expected any reply to his message until the next morning, he found a message tube already waiting for him.

His own, earlier message had also been picked up, albeit at a different location: a tavern whose name advertised its illicit backroom services with suitably obvious subtlety: L’Anguille Vernie, or “The Varnished Eel.” Javier had, in his earlier days in Besançon, made this establishment a regular stop on his tours of the wharfside precincts. After a few predictable and tiresome intimations about the special menu available in the back rooms, the owner had mostly ignored him, accepting that he was simply another regular, although an odd one: why would a gentleman of means spend his time in a place frequented by wharf-hands and river-boat crews?

The answer was that Javier had learned long ago that places such as L’Anguille Vernie were precisely where men of middle station pursued whatever vices they found most irresistable. And, with little to accomplish in what was then a new town to him, Javier de Requesens y Ercilla had the luxury to unobtrusively and patiently observe the habits and peccadilloes of its clientele.

Usually, it only took a few trips to discern the men whose vices put them in potentially compromising situations. Usually, they were superficially upstanding persons who resorted to such shady environs to conduct discreet affairs. This was almost a sure sign of a jealous wife at home, one who would not accept the dalliances to which so many others consigned themselves. And therefore, a source of leverage. Better still if the man had married above his station and the wife possessed the majority of their property or funds. And best of all if she was homely, a hellion, or both: in short, best if her likely response to adultery was not to kick her husand to the curb and dispossess him of both means and good name, but rather, to hang on to him and her proud reputation and fragile self-respect with the tenacity of a bulldog.

Such men were remarkably easy to suborn if approached correctly. In order to maintain their mistresses without also alerting their wives to their indiscretions, they could hardly devote huge sums to their illicit enterprise. In families of great wealth, this was rarely much of a concern, but where resources were tight and pretensions were high, there tended to be necessarily close accountings of resources, leaving the reprobate husband with meager coin to pursue his amorous adventures.

Enter the well-funded and mild-mannered stranger, Javier de Requesens y Ercilla, who began by commiserating with the husband, then lending a small sum, then larger ones. In short order, the drinking companions became debtor and creditor.

In such circumstances, Javier rarely needed to reinforce the carrot of his generosity with the stick of implicit social ruin. The adulterous husbands perceived readily enough that, if they refused to do this foreign gentleman a few simple and mostly legal favors, then he might stop providing them with the funds to pursue their affairs. Worse yet, he might, in person or by factotum, show up on their doorstep, on a day of his choosing, and ask for repayment of just a small portion of what had been extended in good faith to the man of the house. Who would, in the wake of such a revelation, be unlikely to remain the man of that house very much longer.

So it had been at L’Anguille Vernie. The one surprise had been the identity of the man Javier suborned: the owner himself. Strangely, men who ran such discreet dens of licentiousness behind the facades of legitimate businesses were often married to forceful women who helped manage the illict activities, and thereby, kept an eye on their husbands. After all, if it fell to a husband to strike up and then oversee cooperative relationships with those ladies whose backroom activities made the establishment so profitable, there was every likelihood that he might be inveigled into receiving recompense in something other than the coin of the realm. Trade in kind, as some called it. Conversely, wives were, as a rule, invulnerable to the special charms and talents of such ladies and kept the business relationships truly business.

Except, in the case of Jules, proprietor of L’Anguille Vernie. He had taken a headlong suicidal plunge into a relationship with one of the ladies who less frequently served his back room clientele. His wife, probably lulled into a false sense of security by having overseen the less savory aspects of his business for almost twenty-five years, missed the subtle cues of affection—genuine affection—between the two. She would surely have detected a woman of salacious proclivities, but Jules’ inamorata was shy, almost retiring, possibly pushed into this means of securing coin as a bitter last resort.

And so Javier secured not only a willing and fully cooperative pipeline to a great deal of the town gossip and waterfront contraband, but a perfect overseer for the message drops he left for Borja’s operatives. After all, only amateurs and fools used the same location for both ingoing and outgoing messages; why double the traffic to a single site when trying to remain unnoticed? So, once he had Jules under his thumb, Javier no longer sullied himself by visiting L’Anguille Vernie himself, but sent runners—young lads, usually—to deliver tubes, packages, bottles: anything that could hide a coded message. Within hours, Jules would deposit the container in the overgrown window-box shaded by the sizable roof overhang at the rear of the tavern. It was a gathering place for drunks and vagrants, a melange of desperate and odorous humanity that the town watch never bothered, so long as they kept to their own private sewer of despair.

Turning up the wick on the lamp that had been lit when the innkeeper had left his meal ten minutes earlier, Javier at last studied the note he had found under the Monday shingle.

A minute later, he frowned and pushed his dinner aside, annoyed that it was getting cold and would get colder still before he was done. He carefully set up his radio, checked how much charge was left in its cumbersome batteries, and commenced tapping the emergency code to alert Rome to the fact that he needed to make an unscheduled transmission and that they should signal their readiness to receive it. He used this protocol very rarely, reasoning that it was all too easy to become the boy who cried wolf too readily. But this night, he was sure that Cardinal Borja would want the news that had come to him.


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