1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 03

Whose description of their earlier journey continued unabated. “And yesterday, we walked along with scores of others, following the Mera road up here. But we were already in Milanese territory, so no checkpoints, no further tolls. I’m not sure we even saw a soldier.”

“We saw two.” James Nichols’ tone was not confrontational, but quite sure. “One as we got started in the morning, but he was looking north, up the valley, and not along the road. Then another just as we passed the intersection with the Via Valtelline. He was on the crest of a defile, watching the road.”

Si, with a few cavalry out of sight in the defile below, I’ll wager.”

“That’s not a bet; that’s a certainty. But I must say, Arco, you are starting to seem more like a — well, yet another Cavriani factotum, not a guide.”

Arco smiled. “A guide? I never said I was a guide.”

“Yes, you did. You just said –”

“I said I was sent to guide you on your journey back to Grantville. To guide — that is a job, an activity, not a title. I have never claimed to be a guide.” Interestingly, as Arco moved into what should have been the trickier lexical ground of argumentation, his English became more self-assured and fluid. No, definitely not a guide after all.

“And so now you’re all jittery, Arco? Why?” Rita was, somehow, never so charming as when she was utterly direct. Or so it seemed to her still-infatuated husband.

Signora Simpson, it is our last, eh, ‘fellow-traveler’ that worries me. This decision that the ambassadorra Nichols sent yesterday — that we should wait for him to meet us in Chiavenna, in this crotto — this I do not like.”

“Why?” Rita persisted. “The cardi — the friar was intercepted when he arrived in the Valtelline from Austrian territory, before he had even sent word of his return to Rome. As far as Borja and the rest of Philip’s papal usurpers know, he’s still on Legation business in Vienna.”

“Yes, so it would seem. But answer me this: how did the ambassadorra know where to find him? And in the middle of his journey through the Alps?”

“She has sources who were intimately — and officially — familiar with the friar’s estimated progress and itinerary.”

In that moment, the full cleverness of Arcangelo Severi was revealed for a split-second: his eyes were as clear and sharp as a mousing cat’s. “Yes, I . . . see,” he confirmed for himself and everyone else with a tight little nod: he had pronounced “see” as “See.” As in “Holy See.”

Damn it, from just that one little tidbit of data — that Sharon has officially reliable sources on the probable actions of the cardinal — Arco figured that we’ve got Pope Urban stashed near Padua with the rest of the Embassy staff that high-tailed it out of Rome when the Spanish invaded. Pretty clever ‘guide’, we’ve got. Easy to underestimate, too. Which makes him doubly valuable to the Cavriani, I’ll bet.

Tom leaned back, the last of the black cherry-and-game soup reflecting up like inky blood from the reservoir of his large spoon. “So, Arco, does knowing the source of the ambassadorra’s knowledge make you a little less worried?”

“No: it makes me a little more worried. Well, no — a lot more worried.”

“What? Why?”

Melissa answered Rita before Arco could even open his mouth. “Because anything one side does know, the other side could know. Can we assume everyone associated with our former Rome Embassy — and our Embassy in Venice — is unbribable? And that the papal troops who are no doubt traveling along with the friar are equally virtuous? The bottom line is this: there are too many places where a leak could occur. Our Ambassador’s very authoritative official source is also far too important to keep his own correspondence. And it’s not as if he was in any position to simply drop in on the friar himself to send news of this rendezvous: he had to send a courier.”

James Nichols shrugged. “At least the Embassy is communicating with us by radio: that’s half of the potential intelligence leaks eliminated.”

Rita was frowning at Melissa. “So you think that the ca — the friar — could be intercepted before he gets to us?”

“Maybe. Maybe killed outright; it’s what Borja reportedly did to sixteen other ‘friars’ in Rome just a few weeks ago. Or maybe our friar will be apprehended, questioned to see who he was planning to meet here in Chiavenna.” Melissa’s gaze made a significant circuit of the table.

“Or he might have simply been followed,” put in Arco, “which would be the worst. If our foes were that clever –”

The door to the crotto creaked open slowly and a soldier sauntered in. A buff coat, a saber, one pistol on his belt, but the bandolier and high boots said “horseman.’ He wore no colors or livery — typical for armies of the period — and hadn’t as much as a colored armband to suggest his allegiance. But, if the message passed on by James’ daughter Sharon was accurate, he would be a guard dispatched from the papal troops to provide the friar with an escort over the Austrian Alps and down to Rome.

The trooper’s eyes swept the room, rested on the table of locally-garbed up-timers for a moment and then narrowed when they reached James Nichols. It was hard to tell if his expression was smile or sneer; perhaps a bit of both. He gestured for a small, rotund man to emerge from behind his shielding bulk. “I’ve eaten in this crotto before, friar. I can vouch for the food and prices” — he turned and started out the door — “but not the company. Arrivederci.” In exiting, he signaled the need for a hasty departure to a similarly equipped trooper just beyond the door, which he closed after himself with a tug at its rough iron handle.

The friar actually flinched as the heavy timbers slammed home with a drum-like boom. He stood wringing his hands, looking at them. Tom wondered if he was about to start crying.

In that second, Arco was on his feet, face bright, wide smile revealing an impressive collection of teeth that had evidently resisted the normal genetic command to follow a common scheme of alignment. “Friar Luigi, Mamma sends you warm wishes, and hopes for your health. Now, sit with us and share our meal.” A bit overcome, the man in the friar’s robes allowed Arco to guide him to the table. He looked at the up-timers as if they might make him their next course at dinner.

“Please, Friar,” said Tom, “have a seat. And please, I presume you will accept our hospitality, particularly since Brother Michael sends his regards?”

The Friar heard the slight emphasis on “hospitality” and then looked up quickly at the mention of “Brother Michael.” “Yes . . . yes; I will. I am glad — very glad — for your invitation.” Small, clever eyes assessed the proximity of Tom and Rita, quickly determined the implicit relationship to be spousal, and then his eyes shifted to Rita, alone. “Tell your family — particularly Brother Michael — that his hospitality honors me.”