1636 The Atlantic Encounter – Snippet 10

Chapter 6

Paris, France

If Étienne Servien had learned only one thing in the service of the crown, it was that men were subject to many perils, and that many of them ultimately proved fatal.

It seemed trite to think of men’s lives that way, like playing cards discarded on a table, like coins spent in the market, like wooden soldiers in the hands of a child: but it was nothing if not apt. To the great gamblers, and the great generals, most men were exactly that: elements of a wager, resources to be put at risk, pieces on a battlefield…better that they not put a face on such things, placing their sentimentality or mercy in the path of their duty and desire.

Far better not to think about it at all.

Servien picked up the letter from his escritoire and walked to the window. There was a bench seat there, giving him a fine view across the broad avenue to the street below, where there were people he would never know, engaged in pursuits that some great gambler or great general — or, quite possibly, his proximate employer, the Great Cardinal — might even now be directing, obstructing or abetting. The sun rose, the sun set: and life went on.

He unfolded the letter, and in the slanting light of the afternoon sun, reread the beginning of the text.

 Most esteemed Monsieur,

In accordance with your direction and advice, I have been observing the ship under renovation in Hamburg Harbor. She is a former Baltic trading vessel, roughly one hundred fifty tons, under the command of a Dutch sailing master named Claes Maartens. The ship is to be named Challenger, which name seems to hold special significance for up-timers; Le Défi might be a suitable translation. There are two Americans associated with the vessel — one who has been on hand for some time named Gordon Chehab, and another who arrived just this week — his brother Peter. I am sure that they have been charged with some special mission, since they have discussed matters privately away from the ship — I regret that I was unable to overhear the import of their conversation.

The younger brother is a soldier of some sort; the elder is not — though I am as yet unaware of his area of specialty, since he does not appear to have the habits and skills of a seaman. It is possible that he will command the expedition.

Essentially knowing himself to be a pawn in someone else’s hand, Servien felt a sympathy for his agent, the Alsatian Stephane Hoff. He had been plucked from the streets of Paris, trained and refined from the raw material that Servien had found: the dross separated and discarded, the gold burnished.

With an indication that there was some project underway in Hamburg, he had suggested to Cardinal Richelieu that it might be worth placing a set of eyes and ears to learn what it was about. His Eminence had given it scarcely a moment’s thought and waved his consent, as if it was of no consequence.

As if it was indeed a chess piece or a wooden soldier. Which — to Richelieu, at least — it was.

There had been a handful of letters. They were carefully written, as if Stephane believed that Servien could see through any dissembling, or that he would not be compensated if the information was insufficient. Falsehood, Servien would not tolerate: but the cardinal, and thus the cardinal’s servants, were generous when it came to intelligence — particularly when there might be danger involved. True, Stephane had not exactly volunteered to be an agent; true, the assignment to Hamburg might be less preferable than one in his adopted city of Paris, the center of the universe as far as Servien was concerned — but still, Stephane was useful, and capable, and might be suitable for greater and more responsible tasks.

He set the letter aside. It had been three, almost four weeks since it had arrived, and there was no message since. He had perhaps been captured, or even killed. There were so many perils…and so many of them fatal.

He knew what Père Joseph, Cardinal Tremblay, was likely to say: What can you expect? He has no loyalty except that which you buy.

He thought he knew what His Eminence was likely to say: The man was of no consequence. A street-beggar converted into a spy? I have paid to teach him his letters, to educate him with skills that would serve me well — and now he has gone. Find another, and perhaps I shall open my purse again.

No loyalty, Servien heard again in his mind. Of no consequence.

Stephane was gone: no trace of him was left behind. The up-timer ship Challenger was gone as well, cleared from Hamburg Harbor a little after Stephane’s last letter, bound for God only knew what destination. The Baltic, perhaps, to aid somehow in the war effort. The Mediterranean, to interfere with the mess in Italy. Or Spain. Or England, or Scotland, or…

Two up-timers: a fine sailing-ship, a special mission, possibly some manner of Grantvillieur technology aboard.

It was far short of the fount of information Servien had hoped to provide.

* * *

When the summons did come, Servien anticipated his master’s disappointment at the best, and his anger at the worst: not over Stephane, he supposed, but at the lack of up-to-date information on this up-timer expedition. Cardinal Richelieu was unhappy with intelligence that was out of date or unimportant, and God help the messenger if it was wrong.

As a good servant, however, and as an intendant who had kept his head — and his position — for some time, he was a keen observer. Thus, when he was bid to come to Richelieu’s reception room, he took note of every detail that might provide him with information as to the current circumstance, and to his master’s state of mind.

To his surprise, in the grand — and as yet incomplete — hall that led to Richelieu’s public chambers, he noted the presence of a young, well-dressed nobleman, leaning against a pillar, clearly bored and somewhat out of sorts.

“Ah,” he said at Servien’s approach. “If it is not our good Cardinal’s carrion bird.”

Servien did not choose to respond, but wondered to himself why the man was there. The man was a dandy, and conducted the life of a bon vivant, a ladies’ man; his name was de la Marche — Phillippe de la Marche — a younger son of a wealthy blue blood, too youthful for politics and too undisciplined for the Church. He even had a nickname, perhaps one that he had arranged to be bestowed: Le crève-coeur — Heartbreaker.

“Tell me,” de la Marche said, standing straight and ambling directly for him, “what is on your Master’s mind?”

“I do not take your meaning, Monsieur.” Servien changed his pace and direction slightly, so that he could reach Richelieu’s chamber quickly and more directly.

De la Marche was a step ahead, and positioned himself so that Servien would have to go right past him.

“Of course you take my meaning,” he repeated. “You understand me very well, little man. Very well indeed.”

Servien sighed. He looked up the hall and noted a red-tabarded member of the Cardinal’s Guard, the handpicked soldiers directly answerable to Richelieu; after a moment he caught the man’s eye. He made a gesture — passing his right hand over his right ear, and returned it to his side.

De la Marche took no notice. “I wish to know why my friend and patron has been summoned to the…Illustrious Presence.”

“I am sure I do not know.”