1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 21

Pedro Dolor. The Rock of Pain. Yes, Borja could believe that well enough. Almost certainly a nomme de guerre, albeit an oddly understated one. Borja considered: he had been prepared for another Quevedo, who had been part playwright, part bon-vivant, part agent provocateur, part adventurer, part duelist, and wholly a self-satisfied and supercilious popinjay. But what stood before Borja now was not merely a different creature from Quevedo, but his very antithesis. Dolor was all — and only — business, and fell purpose; he radiated it like the reaper no doubt radiated chill.

Borja looked away from those unblinking eyes and out the window; yes, he had wanted a serious, competent man to replace Quevedo. But this? In beseeching God for a new covert facilitator, he had perhaps gone too far in requesting a person of radically different characteristics. Is this the cross you would have me bear, my Lord? To never have assistants who evince a happy balance of abilities and traits? Must I always endure the challenges of such extremes of temperament?

Borja squared his shoulders and faced Dolor again. “So, Señor Pedro Dolor. You come well recommended from persons attached to the court at Madrid, and especially by the count-duke Olivares. Yet those recommendations are notably silent insofar as particulars are concerned.”

“Particulars, Your Eminence?”

“Yes. Specific examples of your accomplishments.”

“Your Eminence will, I am sure, understand that part of the reason His Majesty’s confidantes value my service is that I am not only efficient, but discreet. So discreet as to be invisible, one might say. That invisibility is, I suspect, the factor that has earned me most of whatever modest regard I might enjoy.”

Borja nodded, stared. Despite the groomed diction of Dolor’s explanation, there was no hint of self-satisfied cleverness, not the faintest suggestion of irony or of professional pride. And his explanation was as logical as it was succinct. He was a strange creature indeed to emerge from the underworld shadows cast by certain courtiers at Madrid. Borja resolved to make a few surreptitious inquiries regarding his origins: perhaps that would shed some light on the man’s most singular demeanor. “So, have you reviewed your resources?”

“I have, Your Eminence. They are most adequate. And I have taken the liberty of bringing some assets of my own.”


“Reliable persons who specialize in the kind of work I perform, Your Eminence.”

“And so you feel capable of meeting the two primary challenges I am setting before you?”

“The matter of securing the hostages is well in-hand. As soon as they are moved –”

“Moved? I gave no authorization for them to be moved!”

“Your Eminence, since arriving in Rome, I have seen how many heavy burdens are daily upon your shoulders. Or do I misperceive?”

Borja raised his chin in what he hoped was a pose of noble resolve and manly forbearance. “You do not misperceive. Continue.”

“Therefore, it seemed prudent to begin serving you in the same manner whereby I have rendered service to various persons of the court, some of whom are close to the king. Very close to the king.”

Very close to the king. Dolor could not have been clearer had he simply said, “I work for Olivares. Regularly.” Borja nodded. “Go on. In what special manner do you serve these personages?”

“I minimize their burden of oversight, Your Eminence. Which also makes it far easier to act not only with great discretion, but with few traceable legal connections between myself and my employer. Which—for reasons of both international seemliness and the health of one’s soul — is a distance and measure of autonomy my prior clients have been happy to allow me.”

Borja nodded and thought, now I have seen everything. An assassin-philosopher, whose concerns extend to both matters of diplomacy and protecting the souls of his employers from the sins of his deeds. “So you have ordered this young heretic Stone and his anarchist wife to be moved to a deeper dungeon?”

“Not at all, Your Eminence. Indeed, that would be run counter to my plans. Having observed them, I think that a dramatic change is wanted in their circumstances. This is not a kindness, Your Eminence, but a stratagem, which I will explain at length, if you so wish. However, for now, I wish to address your concerns regarding the more challenging matter of assessing if Urban VIII still lives, and if so where, and then, ultimately, reclaiming him to the Holy See so that he may answer for his purported collusion with heretics and sworn enemies of Mother Church.”

Borja felt heat in his face. “‘Purported’ collusion? Do you question his guilt?”

Dolor neither cowered nor became confrontational. “I do not question — nor do I presume — anything, Cardinal Borja. I simply observe that, until you have convened the Consistory to hear the charges, and a court to assess guilt and deliver a verdict, Urban VIII’s crimes technically remain ‘purported,’ do they not?”

Borja tried to look imposing, but feared that he might have only effected a bad-tempered sulkiness. “In time of war, with traitors all about, a man — even a man such as you, Señor Dolor — takes risks when splitting legal hairs in favor of rebels and heretics.”

“Now, as always, I refrain from intemperate behaviors or claims.”

Borja considered that comment. He could not determine whether Dolor meant it as an oblique accession to the cardinal’s warning, or a defense of his original statement. In which lay the comment’s disturbingly elegant ambivalence. “So, let us return to the matter of my troublesome predecessor.” Borja watched carefully; to call Urban his “predecessor” was a test, for it was not technically accurate, either. But he needed to be sure that Dolor was a loyal operative, not a legal stickler. Indeed, any impulse toward such formal proprieties could become a considerable liability to Borja later on.

But if Dolor nursed any reservations regarding Borja’s presumed ascension to the cathedra, the agent showed no sign of it. “Urban VIII’s location and apprehension — if he is still alive, and not buried beneath the rubble of the Castel Sant’Angelo — is a difficult task. Much hard work will be required. And some luck, also.”

“Luck? Are you saying this task is beyond your skills?”

“Your Eminence, I am saying that while no sparrow falls — or hides — without God’s awareness, mortal man has no such omniprescience, for he is not omnipresent. And finding a single man is not an easy a task. How many persons have seen Urban VIII — or any pope — close enough to be able to make a positive visual identification? And I am quite sure Urban will no longer be wearing the raiment and accoutrements of his holy office; he will be plainly dressed and adorned. And, if he did escape Rome, I suspect he has had some extraordinary help in remaining hidden.”

“Extraordinary help? From whom?”

“From the up-timers and their allies, Your Eminence.”

“Have you heard rumors that he is with them, then? Have you already made this much progress?” Borja could not stop himself from leaning forward in sudden, savage hope.

“No, Your Eminence, but it seems a logical deduction. The reports from those troops who were at Hadrian’s Tower at the time of the explosion suggest that there may have been one or more up-time weapons used to defend the walls and, later, to clear the path of Urban’s presumed escape. But this is hearsay, and many who might have been more reliable witnesses were sent skyward with the stones of the Castel Sant’Angelo, or buried under them.”

“So what do we do?”

“We continue our search on all fronts, Your Eminence. Your men continue to excavate the ruins in search of Urban’s corpse. At the same time, we search for the missing cardinals — particularly the last of the Barberinis, Urban’s nephew Antonio. And also for the members of the USE embassy that left Rome. Finding them is likely to be much easier, and will almost certainly give us a sure path to Urban.”

“Very well. Now, my secretary informed me yesterday that you sent word of having uncovered new information regarding this recent fiasco in Chiavenna.”