1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 20


Frank Stone raised himself to look toward the door of his prison cell.

Unfortunately, he forgot about the ring finger he had recently lost from his left hand — an experience which the brutalized nerve endings obviously recalled quite clearly. He hoped that, despite his moan, he had merely sunk back down to the floor. However, the small but strong arms around him, and Giovanna’s worried face hovering over his, seemed to suggest that he had fallen. Probably blacked out.

“Shhh…do not move, Frank.”

“Is he still there?”

“Our visitor?” She looked back toward the door, where a shadow lurked almost unseen behind the narrowly set bars of the observation panel. “It seems so. Strange: he does not move. Makes no sound.”

“So it’s probably not Captain Castro y Papas, then.”

“No, it cannot be him. He always comes in and talks.”

“And checks you out.”

“Frank! I am your wife!”

“Hey, as long as you’re not interested in him, it’s okay by me. He’d have to be blind — or neutered — not to notice you. And if it keeps bringing him back with boiled water and fresh dressings for this” — he raised his hand; the pain made him repent it — “he’s welcome to look.”

“I think the pure spirits he brings have also helped. Despite the pain, there is only a little infection around the edges of the wounds where — where –”

“– Where my ring finger and wedding ring were. Yeah. That wound could have become pretty nasty.”

Giovanna raised her head. Her eyes were not entirely unlike Frank’s memory of the up-time Sophia Loren’s, and were every bit as fiery. “It could have meant your death: likely, given this sewer in which they have put us. Do they not know who you are? Do they not know that your father is now one of the wealthiest men in Europe? Do they not know –?”

“Honey, whether they know all that or not, I think it’s pretty obvious that they don’t care. Which is kind of what worries me the most.”

Giovanna stared (as she often did) at his second-generation flower-child nonchalance. “‘Kind of worries you’? Husband, love — it means they are insane! Insane! They care nothing for anything else in the world, or surely they would be treating us, or at least you, differently.”

“Well, we’re sure not at the top of their priority list,” Frank conceded with a grin. “But I don’t think we’re at the bottom, either.”

“No? And why not?”

“Well, we’re alive, aren’t we?”

Giovanna pouted, not eager to concede the point. “This is true,” she said after a time. “But then why –?”

Noise at the door. A key scraped its way into the unoiled lock. The half-rusted fixtures squealed and then groaned as the door opened. Two laborers — obviously impressed Romans, judging from the soiled state of their half-ruined clothing and resentful backward glances — entered, bearing two small boxes, the kind used for shipping light cargos.

Giovanna stood. “What have you –?”

“Signora,” said the shorter, older one of the pair. “To speak to you means my death. Apologies, but I have a family.” He jerked through a very abbreviated bow and backed out, his silent assistant just behind him.

The door closed. Frank was mildly surprised that it didn’t burst into self-consuming flame, given the glare that Giovanna had fixed upon it. “Spanish bastardi, terrifying even the lowliest –”

“They’re moving us.”

She stopped, looking at her husband, who was staring down into the boxes. “Moving us? Where? Why? How do you know? What is –?”

“Gia, darling, light of my life, heart of my heart—I can only answer one question at a time.”

For whatever mysterious reasons Frank’s wife did anything, she now decided the time had come to throw her shapely, olive-toned arms around his neck and snug her small, but even more shapely, body tight against him. This, despite the fact that he was lying down, his broken leg stretched out as straight as possible. The result was a swift, strange mix of bodily pain and bodily pleasure.

“I love you, Frank.”

“I love you, too.”

“So, here is the first question you must answer: how do you know these old clothes in dingy boxes mean they are moving us? Perhaps they are simply giving us new clothes instead of allowing us to bathe.” She wrinkled her nose; in the weeks they had been in this hole, they had twice been given buckets of reeking water to clean themselves. Soap was apparently an unthinkable luxury or not a substance known to their jailers. Probably why, when Giovanna now called them “filthy pigs,” it sounded more like a loathsome description than a figurative epithet.

Frank, using his unmauled hand, raised himself up to poke around in the box containing male clothing. “Two hats, shaving bowl — but no razor, of course — nightshirt, and this.” He held up a crudely fashioned combination walking-stick and crutch.

Giovanna frowned. “Yes, these are things we do not need here. Some you would simply not wear, such as this nightshirt. Really? In this damp? But Frank, could it not also be that they simply grabbed an armful of the things they have stolen from houses and threw them into a box, thinking we will make whatever good we can of it?”

Frank shook his head and started holding up items from the other, female-themed box. “Nightwear again, a woman’s hat, hair combs, and” — he splayed the last object out wide — “a fan? For down here?”

Giovanna’s dark eyes focused intently. “Yes. More than chance objects, I think. But why move us now?”

“Hmmm. I wonder if our unseen visitor can tell us.” Frank turned to look for the half-seen shadow beyond the grated aperture in their prison door.

But the shadow was gone.


Cardinal Gaspar de Borja y Velasco heard a faint scuffling behind him. Ferrigno. Of course. As timid as always. Shuffling his shoes to announce his presence. Must I be served by mice, rather than men? “What is it, Ferrigno? Come, be quick about it; I am busy.”

“Your Eminence, the — the man from Barcelona has arrived.”

Borja’s eyes crept to the dial set into the roof of the portico just beneath his windows. Hmm. This fellow was more than punctual; he was about ten minutes early. Yet word had it that he had arrived in Rome three days before he had contacted Ferrigno to make an appointment. A strange inconsistency of behavior.

Borja turned, barely noticing Ferrigno’s small, spare form. “Show him in, but wait outside. I wish private speech with this man.” The cardinal moved to a position behind his desk and affected to stare out the window, half-presenting his back to anyone who would come into his chambers through the main doors.

Time passed. Borja grew impatient. What was keeping this fellow? First, he did not present himself promptly for an audience with his superior, then he was early for his scheduled meeting, now he loitered in the hallway: what inconstant nonsense was this? Turning, Borja resolved to —

Borja blinked. A man — evidently, the man — was standing only two feet beyond the front of the cardinal’s desk.

Borja sputtered in surprise before he spoke, which compounded the annoyance he already felt. “What do you mean, sneaking up upon me rather than announcing yourself? What are you? An assassin?”

The man shrugged. “Yes.”

Borja was too surprised, and also too chilled, to register any new measure of annoyance. This man — sent, he had it on good word, at Duke Olivares’ specific behest — had made no sound, was not dressed as a courtier, made no flourishes. He stood, in loose, dark clothing, without any perceivable motion. Like an automaton of some kind, waiting to be set into motion. If amusement, fear, joy, exultation had ever registered in the calm, hazel eyes that were now fixed upon Borja’s own, those emotions had left no lingering sign of their passage. Borja swallowed, licked his lips. “And you are, eh, Señor –?”

“Dolor. Pedro Dolor. At your service, Your Eminence.”