1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 10


Miro stood and nodded to Virgilio. “Thank you, Signor Franchetti.” Miro turned to face his hosts. “Gentlemen, I must ask you to excuse me: I have some technical matters to attend to regarding our airship.”

“All is well, I trust?” Jenatsch’s nose now looked like the beak of a stooping hawk, ready to pounce on important new information.

“I will learn soon enough.” Miro smiled. “The first time we arrive in a new location, there is always the matter of fuel quality to be considered.”

“Are you saying our oils are inferior?” Ziegler had folded his arms again; preemptive indignation was writ plain across his broad and full-fleshed face.

“Not at all, but each town’s are distinctive. Since they are made from different substances, they burn a bit differently. And depending upon how much ethanol — eh, pure spirits — we can find, that also impacts how best to mix the fuel so our engines consume it most efficiently.”

Mollified, Ziegler’s arms relaxed. “I see.” Clearly, he did not. Jenatsch on the other hand, seemed to get the gist of it. Miro foresaw that, in the commercial negotiations of the months to come, the two of them would reprise this juxtaposition of ill-concealed incomprehension and silent perception many, many times.

Rising, he nodded to them both. “I thank you for the dinner and conversation. My factor will meet with yours tomorrow morning, then?”

Ziegler returned his nod. “As we agreed.”

Jenatsch’s nod was slower. He smiled: “Safe travels in Italy.”

Miro managed not to let his surprise show. “Auf Wiedersehen, mein Herren.”

Once the door was closed behind them, Franchetti turned to Miro. “How did the small one know that we are about to travel on to Italy?”

“He doesn’t know. He guesses it, and was probing to watch our reactions. He was also letting me know that he does not believe your reason for interrupting the meeting.”

“That one is too smart.” Franchetti began descending the stairs into the commons room of the Grosse Hart.

“I’d be far more worried if he took pains to conceal his intelligence from us. If a man like Georg Jenatsch believes you to be a possible enemy, he will make himself unreadable. He will not let you know how smart he is — or what he conjectures.”

“So this means –?”

“It suggests — and only that, Virgilio — that he is at least provisionally thinking of us as allies. And, not wanting to be taken lightly, or undervalued, he is showing that he is not a man to be underestimated nor trifled with. Which he would not be doing if he felt fully secure in his current position.”

“Is he not the political leader, up here?”

Miro smiled as the noise of the tavern rose to meet them. “He is, as much as anyone can be in this loose federation. And if he can legitimately represent himself as having brokered a new relationship with up-timers — in the form of an agreement with President Piazza of Thuringia-Franconia — it will solidify his claim to that leadership.”

Miro walked over to a large corner table, where a handful of locals were frowning over their cards. A newcomer in a mix of up-time and down-time garb grinned predatorily over the top of his own hand. Miro suddenly understood where the American term “card-shark” had come from. “Harry,” he said.

Harry Lefferts grinned wider. “Just a minute; I’m fleecing a few more alpine sheep.” Those members of his rag-tag special operations group who had accompanied him to the Grosse Hart — Gerd, Paul, Felix — smiled also.

“Harry,” Miro said quietly, “we don’t have a minute.”

The betting was concluding. Harry’s smile. “Oh? Then I’ll be there in half a minute. Just enough time to finish out this one last hand.”

Miro shrugged, looked at the three members of Harry’s infamous and effective Wrecking Crew. “Gentlemen, your presence is required immediately.” He did not bother to look at Harry again, but exited. Behind him, he heard urgent whispers in the strange part-German, part-English dialect that had been dubbed Amideutsch.

Franchetti fretted. “Why does he do that?”

“Do what?”

“You know what I mean,” muttered Franchetti, “defying you. Not disobeying, exactly. But not behaving as he knows he should. As he has behaved on missions before this one.”

“Well, I suspect one of the reasons is that he’s usually not had to work under supervision. The head of Grantville’s intelligence community, Francisco Nasi, told me that Harry follows orders best when he is given great freedom in deciding exactly how to carry them out. But that was not possible this time.”

Si — and the other reason for his insolence?”

Miro looked at his master pilot and blimp builder. “Why, probably because Harry wanted my job, Virgilio.”

“What? But he’s — he is a condotierre, not a man of affairs.”

Miro shrugged. “He thinks otherwise.” And in his hearts of hearts, Miro could hardly blame Lefferts, could even imagine the Americans first thoughts when receiving the news that he was not in overall command of the mission: I am not so much younger than this Miro fellow — who arrived, unknown, in Grantville only a year ago and is now giving me orders. Who meets with Ed Piazza in closed sessions from which I am politely excluded. I have been a good soldier who has succeeded at every task; I have won the acclaim of young emulators all over Europe; I am bold and strong and intelligent. It is I who should have been placed in charge of this mission: not this usurper, this lately-come Estuban Miro.

But if Harry had thought such things, they had not settled and festered as jealousy. Estuban Miro had smelled the corrosive musk of envy before, and there was none of it wafting about Harry — although he could hardly have blamed the up-timer if there had been.

* * *

There was, however, the faint odor of schnapps about Harry as he arrived — the last of the Crew to do so — alongside the already inflated blimp. He was passing out some shared winnings as Miro began his update for the rest of the group, amongst whom there was now a quiet figure in a monk’s habit, hood pulled low. “Ambassador Nichols’ radio message was quite clear; we cannot wait until morning. We must get under way now.”

“I thought flying in the later part of the day can be dangerous,” commented the only other up-time member of the Wrecking Crew, Sherrilyn Maddox.

Franchetti jumped in. “Here, in the Alps, it is madness. We will probably have calm air when the sun begins to set, but we will not reach the Maloja Pass until night-time. So we will be flying in the swiftly changing alpine air currents — and without light. Don Estuban, I know Ambassadorra Nichols was adamant, but –”

“She was not merely adamant: she gave a direct order, and we will follow it.”

The hooded figure nodded silent agreement.

“And do we know why we are being invited to be the guests of honor at a suicide party?” When Harry Lefferts drawled his absurdities that way, even Miro had to smile.

But only fleetingly. “Yes. Contact was lost with Captain Simpson’s party. Abruptly.”

The cocky expression swept off Harry’s face, replaced by fell intensity. “When?”

“About twenty minutes ago. Franchetti was minding the radio at the time, monitoring the traffic between Chiavenna and Padua. Captain Simpson’s radio operator was sending out a good signal — and then nothing. Dead air.”

Franchetti nodded vigorously. “Si. At first I think, ‘maybe a sudden weather change between here and Chiavenna.’ After all, it is the Alps. But then comes the message from Padua. The ambassadorra, she had clear reception of the same signal but heard the same thing: the transmission ended sharply, and did not resume. No interference, no increase in static. They went off the air.”

Sherrilyn Maddox, Harry’s former gym teacher, looked at her ex-student and gritted her teeth. “Shit.”

Harry nodded. “So they didn’t even give the pick-up signal.”

“No: this is what you and Ed call an ’emergency extraction.'”

“Except there may not be anyone at the rendezvous point to extract.”

Miro nodded. “That is entirely possible. We do know that Captain Simpson’s group made contact with Cardinal Ginetti, but they could have been apprehended while doing so, or shortly thereafter.”

“And what’s the big deal with this cardinal, again?” asked Harry. “Why’s he worth the extra risk?”

“Cardinal Marzio Ginetti is prefect of the Pontifical Household, secretary of the Sacred Consulta, and papal legate to the Austrian Court. Which means that he’s a close confidante of the pope.”

“And therefore, on Borja’s hit list,” Sherrilyn supplied with a glance at Harry.

“Thanks for telling me what I already know. I mean, why rescue Ginetti specifically: there have got to be a dozen Italian cardinals in the same situation.”