1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 06

Tom looked up from the blood-like spatter on the ground, glanced behind them, then toward the Viale Maloggia. He tore off his cloak and threw it aside: “We’ve got to run. Fast. Now.”

“We just were running,” complained Melissa, her hand on her side, one corner of her mouth wrinkled in the attempt to suppress what Tom guessed was a wind-stitch.

“We run or we fight.”

“So what are we waiting for?” asked Melissa, stretching her long legs northward to run parallel to the bending course of the Mera.

Four minutes of near-sprinting put the sound of the whistles a little further behind them. As they panted to a halt in front of their taverna, the whistles of the town watch stopped abruptly.

“They found the cloak,” panted James. “Figuring out where to search next.”

“I will get Matthias –”

“I am here,” said the young German from one of their windows on the second story. “I just reestablished contact with Padua, and am in the middle of sending an update to –”

Tom shook his head. “Break down the radio, Matthias. Keep the up-time transmitter separate, in your pack. I’ll send Arco and the ladies up to help you load our –”

“No need,” he assured them as he detached the wire he had hooked to a roof-tile as an antenna. “All our bags are packed. Trail gear only. Everything else I have left under the beds.”

“Matthias,” gasped Rita, “how did you know to –?”

“Why, Frau Mailey suggested I have our gear ready, in the event that the rendezvous would be — what is your word? — ‘compromised.'”

James straightened up. “It’s great to have a girlfriend who’s always thinking.”

“Particularly when no one else bothers to. Matthias, are you just about through?”

“Yes; could Herr Severi lend hands?”

Arco was inside before Matthias had completed the request.

Rita looked back down the road. “How long do you figure we’ve got?”

Tom shrugged. “Could be as much as ten minutes. They’ll have to gather together, see how many searchers they’ve got, and then eliminate which ways we definitely didn’t go. We’re near the northern limits of the town, here, and the lack of walls is a big help, but if we’re not moving soon –”

Matthias and Arco came bustling out the door, the latter adding, “Our account is settled, with a tip to encourage the owner’s tardy mention of our lodging here.”

“Excellent. Now, Matthias, dump the batteries in the river.”

“What? But Captain Simpson, they are priceless –”

“And make sure the jars break on the rocks. Everything else that will sink goes in the water as well. We can’t afford any extra weight and I don’t want them to learn that we had a radio. Did you get a general signal out?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And were the conditions right for it to be heard in both Padua and Chur?”

Matthias shrugged as he sent the battery-jars crashing down among the rocks of the Mera. “It is a good time for a signal . . . I think.”

Tom led them into a sustainable trot. “You think?”

Matthias shrugged as he jogged. “You can never know for sure, Captain.”

Well, that’s just great,

thought Tom as he noted the cardinal already laboring to maintain the pace, and Melissa putting on a pain-proof, but increasingly pale, face.

Just great.

* * *

Odo leaned back from the radio, frowning. “No, Ambassador: it is neither a failure, nor meteorological interference. Matthias simply went off the air — like that.” He snapped his fingers sharply.

Sharon tried to keep the frown off her face. “Was there any word, any warning that –?”

Her husband put a fine, but very strong, hand on her shoulder. “Beloved, there was no warning. And nothing you could do that you have not already done.”

“I could have listened to you a week ago, Ruy, when you warned me against setting up this rendezvous. Getting our five people over the Alps is tricky enough with Spanish and Milanese troops watching the alpine approaches from Lake Como to Chiavenna. I should never have agreed to burdening them with the exfiltration of Cardinal Ginetti, as well.”

“My heart, it is most difficult to refuse a pope, particularly when his reasons are so compelling.”

A soft voice from the doorway echoed Ruy’s logic. “Indeed, Ambassadorra Nichols, the fault — if any ill has befallen your father and your friends — is entirely mine.”

Sharon turned, wondering — given the very dark black complexion she had inherited from her father James Nichols — if the flush of heat she could feel in her face produced any visible sign. “Your Holiness, my apologies. I did not know you were standing there.”

“Hovering unseen outside doorways is, alas, a bad habit. It also provides much information one would otherwise not have.” Pope Urban VIII smiled. “I’m sure this bad habit had more to do with my becoming Pope than any worthiness in the eyes of Our Savior.” His tone was jocular, but shaded with penitence, also. Urban had been more somber since his rescue from the Castel Sant’ Angelo by Ruy and Tom. Or perhaps it was a result of learning that over a dozen cardinals who had been his friends, or at least allies, had been disappeared, and probably killed, by the Spanish invaders, based upon the thinnest of pretexts or, in some cases, outrageous prevarications. Urban seemed to feel their losses keenly, as though their deaths were an indictment of failure on his part.

Which, Sharon realized, was how Maffeo Barberini — now Urban VIII — had been brought up to think in relation to his allies. “Pontiff” had been a late addition to his many titles; first scion and incumbent head of the powerful Barberini family had been roles he inherited upon his birth. He had been trained to think in terms of stratagems against hereditary enemies, and sinecures for loyal vassals — and his ascension to the cathedra of the Holy See did not diminish his adherence to that modus operandi. Urban VIII, never forgetting his family or friends, had left a legacy (well-recorded in the up-timers’ books) of shameless nepotism — for which he was infamous, even among the many early modern popes that had been known for it.

But now, Sharon wondered, did she see some signs of regret? His brother Francesco was among the cardinals who had been slain attempting to flee Rome. His nephew, Antonio, had made good his escape to Sharon’s refugee Embassy by only the slimmest of margins himself, and would not have succeeded at all had not her husband Ruy chanced upon him while he was trying to find a way to escape the city’s walls.

Urban’s hands were folded passively on the front of his cassock. “I shall pray for your friends and father, Ambassadorra. I owe them all a great debt. And, in the case of Thomas Simpson, I owe him my very life — along with you, Señor Casador y Ortiz. If it was not for your bold rescue from Sant’ Angelo, the rubble of Hadrian’s tomb would surely be my burial mound, now.”

Urban extended one hand, placed it so briefly upon Ruy’s still down-turned head that it seemed but an extended touch. Then he turned and left. When Ruy rose, his face was transformed — utterly open, utterly without pretense — rather like a man who remembers, for one brief instant, the innocent hope and faith he had as a young boy. Sharon felt the strangest rush of both tenderness and arousal, seeing him so stripped of his façade for that moment — and then Ruy as she knew him was back: he smoothed aside one wing of his mustaches and turned to her, his dark brown eyes glittering and alert. “We should send word to the exfiltration team in Switzerland,” he said.

“Word to –? Yes, of course!” Sharon turned to the waiting radio operator. “Odo, raise the exfiltration team. Let them know that contact has been lost with both the group they are to extract and Colonel North’s security detachment. They may have been monitoring and heard it themselves, but it’s also possible that the signal didn’t get through to Chur.”

“And is there any other message for Chur?”

“Yes. The extraction team there is to start for the rendezvous point now.”

“Ambassador, it will be night before they arrive. And if they reach the site early, and must loiter –”

“Odo. I understand the risks. To all three groups. But if Dad and the rest are on the run, they probably won’t be able to signal again. So we’ve got to consider the abrupt end of their transmission as a call for extraction.” She drew in her breath. “Send the message to Chur — and tell them to move as fast as they can.”