1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 02


The proprietor of the rustic Crotto Fiume leaned a bit closer to Tom Simpson and almost crooned: “Are you sure you won’t have the soup, Signor? It is a local specialty: black cherry and game. A favorite of men who are large like you — who are so, so . . . robusto.”

“Oh, puh-leeze,” Rita Simpson whisper-groaned down at the tabletop.

As much to taunt his wife as satisfy the culinary curiosity that the stew’s description had piqued, Tom assented. “Si, grazie.”

Brego,” replied the innkeep, cook, and owner — for that was the arrangement in most of these small, informal crotti — who bowed himself out to prepare their meals.

As soon as he was gone, Rita leaned against Tom’s Herculean bicep, “My robusto hero,” she cooed, “He can eat with the best of them.”

And while it was true that Tom had a healthy appetite, the era into which he had been thrown — the end of the Thirty Years War — had also trimmed off any small residual fat that might have originated with meals taken in the fast-food eateries and saturated fat emporiums of the very late Twentieth Century.

Melissa Mailey looked at Tom and seemed less amused. “Did you really have to have the soup?”

“Uh . . . no, but it sounded good. And I get to see all of you roll your eyes.” He leaned back, stretching his immense arms outward from his even more formidable chest and shoulders.

“I’m not rolling my eyes,” Melissa’s voice was devoid of jocularity. “I’m worried about our rendezvous.”

“What? You think the soup takes half a day to cook?”

“No, Tom: I think that we should not spend a second more in towns than we must — not since leaving Lombardy, at any rate. We don’t have a lot of friends in these parts.”

James Nichols broke open a small loaf of bread, not much bigger than his thumb: it sent up a fragrant puff of steam. “Now, Melissa, we’re on neutral ground, here. Chiavenna is an open city.”

“Which is a very nebulous term here, James. This isn’t simply Casablanca with the Alps instead of the Atlantic, and with snow instead of sand. These folks don’t define ‘neutral’ they way we do, and they’ve not had much success with co-dominium — excuse me, tri-dominium — arrangements like this one.”

Diminutive Arcangelo Severi leaned over so that he could see past James’ large, prominently veined black hands to the people further down the table. “The Signora Mailey, she speaks correctly.” Two weeks on the road with the group had almost ironed the idiomatic peculiarities out of his English — almost, but not quite. “The Spanish now guard Chiavenna instead of the Milanese? It is a black wolf replacing a grey wolf: same breed, same teeth, just a slightly different coat.”

“And the French observers are hardly our friends, either.” Melissa tapped her fork for emphasis. “Officially, we are still every bit almost-at-war with them as the Hapsburgs.”

“Well, not with the Austrian Hapsburgs, at least,” temporized James. “And they also have a guard detachment here, right?”

“Yes, comprised of about a dozen reprobates that the commander down in the Valtelline didn’t want rousting Protestants any more.” Melissa sniffed. “So he sent them up here, a region where almost six hundred Protestants were massacred only fifteen years ago. Another typically deft move by another typically tactful servitor of Imperial Viennese spleen and incompetence.”

Tom smelled a medley of rich foods approaching as the door to the kitchen opened. “Aw, c’mon, Melissa: the Austrian Hapsburgs are a country mile better than the Spanish. And their new ‘Emperor,’ Ferdinand III, is way more open-minded than his parochial pappy. You know as well as I that there have been plenty of positive overtures traded with Vienna in the past year.”

“Wonderful,” was Melissa’s wooden reply, as their meals — cold wheat polenta shot through with small chunks of cheese, boiled potato, spring vegetables, and what looked a lot like salami — emerged from the kitchen. “I’ll be charitable and assume our diplomatic nattering with the Austrian Hapsburgs is the promising harbinger it seems to be. But what good does that do us here?”

James smiled sideways. “You sound nervous, hon.”

“I am.”

“A shame. And you always lose your appetite when you’re anxious, so I’ll just help you with th –”

James’ reach for Melissa’s plate was deflected by a prim and well-aimed slap at his hand. “I’m not that nervous. But I am dead serious. And I hope that doesn’t prove to be an ironically apropos choice of words.”

A multi-vocal and multi-lingual exchange which was more of a mélange than their entrees poured out of the kitchen door as a young fellow brought them their drinks. Waves of Italian splashed against two dialects of Lombard, all capped by a gull-like screeching in Romansch. At an adjoining table, two men ceased their mutterings in Savoyard French in an attempt to eavesdrop. They gave up as the babel of languages became too fluid and dense for untangling. At which point, Arcangelo leaned forward, and under the cover of the multi-tongued cacophony, stressed at both Tom and James: “You will do well to heed the words of the Signora Mailey. We should have simple food only.”

Tom slurped his thick soup with defiant gusto. Nichols smiled and spoke around his mouthful of polenta and cheese: “Relax, Arco: with the exception of the high-protein fodder selected by Captain Kodiak, here” — his merry eyes flicked over at Simpson’s immense torso — “we bought the cheapest, least conspicuous meals that would also sustain us for the last leg of our journey.”

Si, true, it only cost a few quatrines more, but maybe it would have been better to buy food we can carry, hey? So that when the cardin — eh, when our ‘last companion’ arrives, we can leave molto presto.”

Tom chewed a piece of what tasted like smoked venison. “Why in such a rush now, Arco? I would have thought you would have been more nervous on the way up here.”

Arcangelo shrugged. “Before yesterday, we were on lake boats with a dozen other foreigners, all bound over the Alps. Some were even traveling without the benefit of a native to guide, and speak for them, such as I have done for you.” His smile, gap-toothed, was nonetheless full of quick, light charm. “So: from Garlate, to Lecco, to Como, then up the Mera to the north end of Lago Mezzola; it was a long day, but still, only one day. Thirty of your miles, at most. And a boat owned and crewed by Bergamaschi, so except when paying the tolls, when did we even see the Milanese?”

Tom felt the eyes of the other Americans focusing on spare Arco as he spoke, realizing just how much more than a simple native guide he was. He had come to them from their fiscal partners in Venice, the Cavriani family, and that clan’s proclivities for subtlety, mild self-deprecation, and invisible shrewdness were rapidly becoming evident in the almost elfin Arcangelo.