1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 23

“Yes, but what of the one who survived, the one that Simpson reportedly knocked senseless during an argument in the crotto?”

“As feared, he escaped. From the beginning, the authorities leaped to the conclusion that the one survivor was a victim, not part of another plot. Consequently, he was not watched carefully enough. A moment’s inattention on the part of his warders and he was gone, back to whoever holds his leash. But I think we can be sure of one thing: if these armed, nameless men were indeed following Ginetti, assassination was not their primary purpose.”

“What? Why do you think this?”

“Because they could probably have overcome Ginetti’s guards easily enough on the road. A preliminary night ambush at some lonely spot in the Valtelline, and then Ginetti’s weakened party would have been easy prey on a subsequent day. No, I believe these confidential agents were not there as killers, but as coursers; they were sent to put pressure on Ginetti, or perhaps, on whomever he was traveling to meet. If some of Ginetti’s party had died, I’m sure that would not have bothered their employer. But what the seeming assassins did accomplish — even though they died without inflicting any injury whatsoever — was to create a local furor and propel the up-timers into desperate flight. Which our soldiers responded to. And, as these things usually do, the entire situation soon spiraled out of control, ripe with possibilities for becoming a debilitating international incident.”

“A pity we cannot discern more than this. I would like to have interrogated the survivor of these unknown agents.”

“Your Eminence, I think you are fortunate that such an interrogation is now beyond our power.”

“And how could interrogating the agent of an unknown, but obviously inimical, political entity be detrimental to us? I should think you, who traffics in secrets for a living, should understand that information is the most important tool at our disposal, the sword we wield with rapierlike precision to frustrate our foes’ shrewdest gambits and deepest plots.”

“Yes, Your Eminence — but just like that rapier, information is a double-edged sword. And if my guess is right, had the agent revealed the identity of his employers, it could have had disastrous effects upon our alliance with the French.”

Borja felt his mind spin purposelessly. “The French?” he heard himself say.

“Yes, Your Eminence. For I believe these purported assassins were sent by the French — but not Richelieu. I suspect the assassins were told they were getting orders from Paris, but that the actual hiring agent was a member — or simply a proxy — of the Huguenot radicals, possibly the same ones who were behind the attempt on Urban last year.”

“But what would the Huguenots gain by having us believe that the French crown had sent assassins after Ginetti?”

“I believe that was only part of the Huguenots’ motivation. Let us consider the events more broadly. In being compelled to foil the presumed assassins, Simpson’s party attracts attention to the fact that the USE is sending its nationals home through Milanese, and therefore nominally Spanish, territory. Not exactly a violation of law, but then again, Simpson’s party was not traveling openly. They did not declare their identity and presence freely, and were thus traveling without the papers they needed. A wise choice: we would probably have put them in the same dungeon as Signor Stone. At the very least, we would have detained them for an extended period. They represent immense leverage for us.

“Now, had we managed to interrogate the misinformed survivor of these assassins, I suspect they would have told us — erroneously — that they were instruments being wielded by Richelieu’s hand, poised in yet another perfidious attempt to kill Michael Stearns’ relatives and friends. And in the same instant, we would come to believe that the French cardinal’s hand was also trespassing upon our territory, and doing so in a manner that violates the agreement we have with the French in Chiavenna: that they have unrestricted right of passage and trade, but that military and legal matters are to be referred to Milanese authority.

“Of course, Richelieu would legitimately deny his involvement. Naturally, we would not believe him, and would close Chiavenna and the passes to both the French and the USE. The incident would put the League of Ostend in jeopardy and could even lead to separate — maybe even coordinated — USE and French action to reopen the transalpine trade routes. It would certainly give both of them cause to support the interests of both Venice and the Swiss provinces of Grisons in the Val Bregaglia, and the Valtelline as well. And we can no longer count on regional support from our former allies in Tyrol, not since its regent Claudia de Medici has made overtures to seek membership in the USE.

“In short, any successful investigation into the origins of the assassins following Ginetti would have obligated us to pass information to Philip that could have resulted in a disaster for our already overtaxed empire. We were most fortunate, then, that the up-timers — and the confidential agents who were following them — all escaped or died.”

A moment after Dolor stopped speaking, Borja felt the world resteady itself around him. That the Earth had such devious minds in it was unsettling to him. Such intelligence ought to be a tool to enable direct, manly action, not serve as the handmaiden to conniving plots and perfidies. But, since that was not the case, he was quite glad that Olivares had sent him Pedro Dolor. “Well, then, it seems that God has smiled upon us in this matter. Or, to indulge in one of the up-timer’s sayings, these two wrongs — our failure to apprehend the up-timers and also to retain custody of the last assassin — have made a right. You are dismissed, Señor Dolor.”

The man bowed and exited.

As he left, Borja murmured, almost as an afterthought, “Vaya con Dios.” He doubted there was any chance of that being the case.


As Pedro Dolor exited Borja’s office he was still stifling the urge to rebut the cardinal’s penultimate insipidity. No, two wrongs did not make a right. In Chiavenna, there had been two signal failures that, this time, just happened to cancel each other out in terms of any larger political damage. It was luck. It was certainly not the sign of insuperable Spanish supremacy, nor the hand of God working in its favor: just blind, dumb luck — of which they were running out as quickly as Philip’s treasury was running out of reales.

Upon reaching the cavernous vestibule of Villa Borghese, in which Borja had first established his headquarters, and then residence, Dolor was joined by a short, swarthy man. No more than 5′ 4″ in height, but almost as wide in the shoulders, he emerged from the shadows of one of the many colonnaded galleries. He fell in step with Dolor. “Well?” he asked.

Dolor shrugged. “Borja’s cautious but tractable. His unwillingness to get his hands dirty by giving orders that directly violate his vows and Christian piety will make him easy enough to manipulate. That, and his numerous insecurities.”

“Another fool in a red robe and hat?”

“No, he’s no fool. But he’s out of his depth and unwilling to admit he’s a murderer. Like most noblemen, he’s accustomed to having other people not only do his dirty work, but take the guilt — legal and religious — upon their own backs. He wants to reap the benefits of actions in which he refuses to take a part or take responsibility.”

“The way you say that –”


“It sounds like you know the type well. From personal experience, perhaps.”

“It doesn’t matter how I know the type. But I know this, too: Borja’s dangerous. He’ll be careful not to compromise himself by bringing me into his complete confidence, and he’ll throw us to the wolves if there’s any blame to be taken. So we’ll be careful. And I don’t need to enter into his confidences to do my job.”

And thereby, thought Dolor, to get what I really want.