1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 18


“Well, I guess that was just about a perfect L-ambush. And improvised on the spot, no less.” Harry Lefferts seemed very pleased with himself as he and Sherrilyn emerged from the woods and strolled into the small clearing that had been the dirigible’s original extraction zone.

The airship was now resting on the ground; every thirty seconds, Franchetti goosed the burner, sending a long blast of heated air up into the envelope. He turned to Miro and North: “We go soon, si? I waste fuel to keep the dirigible in readiness.”

Harry looked at the casks of fuel stored at the midsection and ends of the gondola. “I thought you brought extra juice.”

Si, but ‘extra’ is not ‘endless.’ And flying back could be difficult. We may have to land and take off again — at Bivio, I think. And that will make returning to Chur a very close thing.”

“Land again? Before Chur?” Sherrilyn asked, reloading her shotgun. “Why?”

Franchetti shrugged, with a dubious look in Miro’s direction. “I am not sure I want to try to go all the way back through the Sur Valley in the dark. It was bad enough in the day.”

Cardinal Ginetti got more pale, if that was possible.

Miro nodded, stepped down from the gondola as the Crew hauled out their packs. “I agree with Franchetti: you cannot fly that route at night. The air-currents around the Lai di Marmorera and the Sur are too unpredictable, and you would have to fly to twelve thousand feet to be safely above them. It is too risky. Better to stop at Bivio, at the south entrance to the valley. This part of our mission is to ensure that Captain Simpson’s group returns safely to the USE. Having them killed during a daredevil return flight would rather defeat the whole purpose, no?”

Lefferts nodded, smiling. “Well, at least I don’t have to take the slow ride back like Ms. Mailey here.” Melissa Mailey was limping out of the wood line, supported on either side by members of North’s detachment.

The former school-teacher responded archly: “A nice, slow ride will suit me just fine, Harry.”

Lefferts shrugged, caught the Crews’ collective eyes, tilted his head back in the direction of the cart-track.

As he took his first step in that direction, North asked, “Here now; where do you think you’re going?”

Lefferts stopped. “Uh . . . there’s a lot of handy gear back there. Word is, its owners don’t have any further use for it, so –”

North shook his head. “Not this time.”

“Colonel North, last I checked, you were not acting commander of this operation. He is.” Harry pitched his chin in Miro’s direction. “And I don’t hear him making any noise –”

“Harry Lefferts, you will not loot the dead.” Somehow, Melissa Mailey raised herself up to an imperious height, despite being propped up by North’s men. “Let’s ignore the odious habits of your trade for a moment. Remove gear from that many bodies will take time that we do not have. I doubt this sleepy valley is accustomed to ferocious nighttime firefights, so I’m going to propose the outrageous deduction that news of it will spread quickly. Back to Chiavenna and the Spanish. Who will come here swiftly. So, if we are to leave a false trail that encourages our enemies to conclude that, despite the local reports, this was a relatively mundane ambush — one conducted without the aid of an airship, for instance — then there’s no time for looting. Furthermore, those persons who are remaining behind to travel overland to Italy must start on their way immediately. That includes you, if I am not mistaken.”

Harry smiled respectfully at his old history teacher’s arch remonstrations. When she was done, he shook his head and sighed. “This is twice, now, I’ve had to rescue you Ms. Mailey. And you always spoil the fun. C’mon folks –” he gestured to the Crew –“we need to police our own brass, at least.” He and the rest of the Crew left at a trot.

North looked after them, then turned toward Miro. “I do not believe we’ve met, sir. Colonel Thomas North, Hibernian Mercenary Battalion. I believe it’s time to put our respective halves of the operational coin together. What are your further objectives?”

Miro nodded, explained. “Well, as you heard, the dirigible will retrace its path: back east to Vicosoprano, then a short hop north over Cassacia. From there, a rising buttonhook westward will put the blimp into the Val Maroz, then north over the Septimer pass and to a landing on the outskirts of Bivio.”

“Will they need to take on extra fuel, there?”

“I suspect so. Besides, Franchetti will not want to fly again before dawn. And I doubt there’s enough fuel on board for him to reinflate the balloon and make it the rest of the way to Chur.”

“So tomorrow morning he’ll have to toddle down into Bivio and try to find — What do you burn in that thing, anyway? Spirits? Oils?”

“Yes, and it uses a lot, very quickly. Luckily, they won’t need very much to get from Bivio to Chur. But then again, there probably won’t be much fuel to be had in a remote alpine lake town in May.”

“I suppose not. Sounds like they’ll be lucky to get airborne again after a one day delay.”

“I’m guessing two. But from Bivio, it’s not even two hours to Chur, more fuel and the route home.”

“Which is –?”

“Chur to Biberach, then Nuremburg, then Jena. Probably two or three days between each connection.”

“The delay at each point is to be spent getting more fuel?”

“No, we prepositioned enough. But weather and other factors could easily delay the airship that much. Besides, I find that overestimating obstacles is generally a better operational model than underestimating them.”

“Agreed. And for those of us who remain behind?”

Miro brought out a map: it was an exact copy of an up-time document, right down to its “Baedecker” logos. “We are here.” He pointed just east of a tiny dot labeled Piuro. “We will head back toward Chiavenna –”

North’s eyes widened. “I beg your pardon, did you say ‘back toward Chiavenna?'”

“Yes, but I reemphasize: we are heading toward Chiavenna, not to it. Instead, we are fast-marching two miles back to the west, to this place marked as Santa Croce.”

“Why there?”

“Do you see the southwest line that comes down from Santa Croce?”

“I see a southwest zigzag.”

“Yes, well . . . that is a mountain trail which cuts through to Berzo, here, on the Mera, just south of Chiavenna.”

“So we take a nice, long, and rather steep, walk in the woods to avoid delivering ourselves into the hands of the people who would like to make us the central attraction at their next auto-da-fe.”

“No, I suspect they would reserve that for me, alone. You, they would simply execute. Maybe torture and execute. Hard to say.”

“Yes. But why do you presume they would reserve the delights of a personal bonfire as your special reward, Mr. Miro?”

“Because, Mr. North, I am a Jew.”

“Ah.” The Englishman’s eyes were bright. “A so-called ‘crypto-Jew’?”

Miro was surprised. “Yes. I was not aware that the writings of twentieth century historians were among your reading interests.”

“I am nothing if not eclectic. Please continue.”

Miro decided he liked North, whose sardonic British wit was not entirely out of step with the less arch, but no less ironic, traditions of Talmudic humor. “So we emerge at Berzo, where we will immediately find honest work as the honest security escort of an honest merchant caravan, that just happens to be heading south. And which just happens to be waiting for us in Berzo.”

“And how do we come by all these fortuitous — and honest — opportunities?”

“By having one of Europe’s most widespread mercantile facilitation families as our trusted partners. More specifically, Cavriani agents are in charge of the caravan waiting in Berzo.”

“I see. And then?”

“We travel south along the banks of the Mera until we come to the ferry wharf at the northern edge of the Lago di Mezzola.”

“I take it that there, although in the very belly of Milanese control and watchfulness, we will serendipitously discover and book passage aboard an honest barge captained by an honest ferryman.”

“Your powers of foresight rival those of the Old Testaments prophets, Colonel North. Once on Lago di Mezzola, there is little chance that we will even come into contact with any Milanese patrols. The north-south traffic along the lakes there — from Mezzola to Como to Lecco to Garlate — is too valuable for the Milanese to close against all Lombard and Venetian access. So we shall make our way down those interconnected waterways until we disembark at the southern tip of Garlate. There is an ‘open-town’ custom there, much as has been enforced in Chiavenna since the Spanish and French renounced their squabbles over the Valtelline. From that town, it is a short ride across the border into Venetian Lombardy.”