1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 19

“How many of us are in the party?”

Miro had to double-check the numbers. “You, me, twelve of your men, the nine members of the Wrecking Crew, and our chaplain.”

“Our chaplain?”

“Yes,” said a new voice. “That would be me.”

Melissa Mailey looked up sharply at the sound of that voice, which came from the last, cloaked passenger who was descending from the airship. “Larry?”

Father — now Cardinal — Lawrence Mazzare let the hood of the habit fall back. His smile was thin. “Guilty as charged.”

James Nichols, who was helping Tom Simpson gimp toward the airship, almost dropped the wounded ex-halfback. “Good God, Larry: how did you get Stearns to go along with this?”

Mazzare shouldered his own modest pack. “I don’t believe in starting arguments I can’t win.”

James’ realization was almost a whisper. “You didn’t tell him.”

Melissa’s jaw dropped, a thing very few of them had ever seen. “Sweet balls,” she swore earnestly. “And he will sure as hell have yours, Larry.”

Miro got the impression that his Eminence Mazzare’s momentary silence was due to the pious suppression of a swarm of scrotal puns and testicular one-liners. “He’s welcome to them if I can accomplish what I came for.”

“Which is?”

He turned a patient glance on Melissa. “Do you even need to ask? And I’ll remind you that not all of the people gathered here have equal measures of information. Most of the security troops don’t even know where we’re going next. And they certainly have no idea who you were protecting in Padua. Wherever possible, Mike and Sharon Nichols have kept people in the dark on that.”

“In which benighted group the good father must regrettably include me,” put in North with a tone that was the very model of drollery.

“And it is best to keep it that way for now. What, precisely, have you been told, Colonel North?”

“When President Piazza contacted us, we were already seeing to — erm — ‘security matters’ just south of Nuremburg. He retained us immediately and ordered us to deploy with all haste to Chur, as an escort for a shipment of high quality fuels. Which, unless I miss my retroactive conjecture, were for the airship, here. We were then ordered to move down into the Val Engadine via the Julier pass. We received updates for this extraction mission by radio, on the way. As to what comes next? We were simply told to be ‘flexible’, but also to anticipate further field operations without refit or resupply. Which it sounds like we’re about to do.”

“Yes, you are,” answered Mazzare. “And about which you have no speculations?” Miro thought that the up-time cardinal’s eyes might have twinkled.

“Speculations? Me?” North seemed positively affronted. “Sir, I am a simple soldier. I have neither the intellect for speculation, nor the taste for it. However, if I did have the intellect — and the taste — for speculation, I would be tempted to conjecture that with one cardinal desperately being extracted from Italy, and another one desperately trying to get into Italy, there is some Popish tomfoolery afoot. Additionally, given Cardinal Mazzare’s special relationship with the missing-and-possibly-dead Pope Urban, and Cardinal — oh, excuse me — Friar Ginetti’s long-standing friendship with and service to that very same pontiff, I might surmise that the pope is indeed much more ‘missing’ than ‘dead.’ And in consequence of that surmise, I might indulge in a few even more outlandish guesses.”

“Such as?”

“Such as this: that the little wet cardinal who’s about to take a balloon ride is doing so because he is not only at risk, but may be needed to effectuate the convening of the Cardinals’ College outside the boundaries of Rome. And this: that the other cardinal who is now trying to get into Italy is doing so in order to confab with, and maybe attempt to influence the opinions of, the missing Pope. For surely, with this jolly monster Borja capering about in what’s left of the Holy See, the legitimate Pope’s next decisions and actions will determine the future of the Papacy and Roman Catholicism to a wholly unprecedented degree, even in your own history. But of course, I am but a simple soldier, and do not speculate about such things.”

Mazzare smiled. “Of course you don’t.”

During North’s detailed recitation of the speculations in which he had pointedly not indulged, Melissa Mailey’s gaze had come to rest on Miro. “You’re pretty new to be taking on this kind of initiative, don’t you think, Don Estuban?”

“I’m sorry; what do you mean, Ms. Mailey?”

“Coordinating the assets for all the messy work that needs doing in sunny Italy: that alone is a lot of responsibility for a ‘new guy’. But bringing Father — Cardinal — Mazzare here without Michael Stearns’ express authorization? Well, I just hope you aren’t exceeding the bounds of whatever authority you might have been given.”

Miro shrugged. “Don Francisco Nasi assured me otherwise. And while President Piazza did not explicitly request that I take Cardinal Mazzare along, he made many noises about separation of church and state, his lack of authority over the ideas and actions of priests, and the fundamental freedom of personal conscience. He then invoked a number of very similar, passages from the governing documents of your once-and-future United States. When I bluntly inquired if I was therefore permitted to bring Cardinal Mazzare with us, President Piazza made all the same noises all over again.”

“I see,” Melissa said with a tight smile. “From the sound of it, I think it’s only suitable to welcome you to the club, Don Estuban. Fair warning, though; the membership dues can be pretty steep.” She indicated her sprained ankle and winced.

“I am used to high-stakes gambles for worthwhile causes, Ms. Mailey.”

Her smile relaxed, became open, almost warm. “Thank you for the rescue, Don Estuban, and good luck in your travels.” Then, without missing a beat, she growled at the two mercenaries to make more haste in helping her up into the gondola.

Miro smiled after her, turned back to North. “So, simple soldier, you’ve seen my half of the operational coin. What does yours look like?”

By way of answer, North summoned Hastings to him with a crooked finger and started rapping out orders. “Lieutenant, as arranged, I am leaving a reduced squad with you. Retrace our route back eastward through the Val Bregaglia — but with less care for leaving spoor. Give the Spanish a good trail to follow, but nothing too obvious. When you reach the Maloja Pass, muck about meaningfully on the near bank of the Silsersee.”

“Uh . . . why, sir?”

“To make it look like you either had a raft waiting, or found a path along its banks. That should convince your pursuers that you’ve headed back into the Val Engadine.”

Hastings clearly hated saying it again: “Uh . . . why, sir?”

“Because,” North exhaled slowly, “the other end of the Engadine is in Tyrol. Tyrol is, or at least will soon be, part of the United States of Europe. Logically, the Spanish will expect this group of USE nationals to make toward that safe haven. So we’ll let the Spaniards chase their own tails a while, and hopefully induce them to overlook the tiny fact that we used a dirigible to get the group out of the region entirely. I suspect they’ll be too arrogant to stop and chat with the locals long enough to discover that some of those sheep-sodomizing worthies might have seen a flying sausage cruising about their valley this night. After that, the trail will be too cold to follow, even if they could.”

Hastings shrugged. “Very well, sir. But where do we go?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Once you’ve left trail sign on the banks of the Silsersee, you double back through Cassacia into the Val Maroz and up over the Septimer Pass. Then via Bivio back to Chur. Where you will await further orders.”

As Lieutenant Hastings disappeared, North turned to Miro. “And now you have seen my rather uncomplicated half of the coin. Are we ready to begin our hike? I rather expect the Spanish will send another detachment up here when the first fails to return. Besides, it’s almost certain that some of the men in that detachment made their escape and will bring the news even if the local Spanish authorities are lackadaisical. There’s no way to be certain of killing everyone in an ambush done in darkness.”

“I agree,” answered Miro with a nod. “Let’s get our people moving then, Colonel.”