1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 26

“Your esteemed Father Luke Wadding possesses a further quality that, in both this world and the up-timers’, made him anathema to all the papal parties, even though he was much admired by the individuals comprising them.”

Sean Connal nodded. “Integrity.”

“Yes. History shows that he was famous for speaking his conscience, even when it would have been far more politically prudent to trim his sails in the direction of one political faction or another.” Isabella paused. “Cardinal Borja will not trust such a man, particularly not if he suspects that Urban has already made him a cardinal in pectore.”

John went back slowly in his seat; the intricate strands of the noose that might be gathering about Luke Wadding’s neck were now clear to him.

“Yes,” nodded Rubens. “Borja wishes no opposition. He is ensuring that his new Consistory of Cardinals will have no voices that oppose his own. Wadding, if made a cardinal, would never remain silent or accept Borja’s atrocities –”

“– making Wadding a natural ally of Urban. Even if he doesn’t know it.” Owen shook his head.

“Just so. And this brings us to your final task in Rome. It concerns a related, but more — nebulous — objective.”

Owen frowned. “And what is that, Your Grace?”

“We would ask you to stay alert for any word on the location or condition of our Holy Father.”

“Of course, Your Grace.” But wait, that hardly needs to be made an assignment; we’d be doing it anyhow, given all the chaos in Rome. So why even bring it up as –? Oh. I get it. Owen pulled himself out of his thoughts and became of aware of the room again.

Isabella, eyes still on his, nodded. “Yes. We want you to seek word of Urban. With exceptional vigor.”

“And if we learn of his whereabouts?”

Fernando cleared his throat sharply. “Then, if you feel you can do so without being observed by any persons who report to Cardinal Borja, you are to endeavor to seek an audience with His Holiness the pope and offer to escort him here. For a visit.”

Owen wondered if he had heard correctly. “A…a ‘visit’? Here?”

Fernando smiled. “Your hearing is, evidently, unimpaired by your many years before the cannons, Colonel.”

Owen slumped back in his seat. Well, Mother o’ God and dancing dogs…”Your Highness, such a visit is hardly a casual day-trip. It’s a far journey, from Rome to Brussels. And with some potentially annoyed nations in the way, I might add.”

Fernando’s smile widened. “You will not be expected — you will not be allowed — to convey the pope here yourselves. You are merely to become his guardians, escort him to Venice, and send swift word through the doge. We shall make the necessary arrangements.”

“I…see. Again, your pardon, but won’t that message take weeks to reach you by boat?”

“I do not recall asserting that the message would come to us by boat, Colonel.”

And then Owen knew: up-time radio. There were sets operating in Venice, and there were sets in the Lowland as well. Each of the Hapsburgs had their own, it was rumored. And if the USE were to provide additional aid in operating the devices, or even relaying the signals —

“Yes,” nodded Fernando. “You see it now. Excellent.”

The earl of Tyrone hunched forward. “Any of these missions could become a very perilous business, Your Highness.” He paused, studying the many scars on his hands. “If our Spanish allies prove to be uncooperative, we’d find ourselves a bit outnumbered.”

Fernando’s nod and expression were somber. “Unquestionably. But my aunt has procured some tools that may improve those odds.”

“Really?” John sat up, as eager as a boy on Christmas morning.

Isabella looked down the table at Sean Connal, who stood, brandishing a cumbersome looking pistol with a huge cylinder in place of its barrel.

Owen frowned; he had seen this weapon before. “That was the weapon that foiled the assassination attempt at Preston’s camp two weeks ago,” he recalled aloud.

The surgeon nodded. “Yes, a pepperbox revolver. They are being paid for by Her Grace, the archduchess, and built in accordance with ideas that the earl of Tyrconnell brought back from Grantville.”

Owen ignored John’s resentful mutter and stared at the pistol instead. It was, without question, the ugliest weapon ever conceived. “It fires five times without reloading, if I recall.”

“More likely to kill with its looks than its bullets,” grumbled John.

“It’s quite effective,” Connal observed calmly.

“Hugh O’Donnell can keep his tools and lectures on effectiveness. Me, I’d like a little style, as well.”

“Yes,” Isabella snapped, “there’s the wisdom of my beloved Spain, imbibed in full by her servitors. Let us choose style over progress. Let us all be sure to have the latest boots and saddles — and all well-polished — as we ride down into the merciless maw of history and are consumed at a gulp.” A roomful of surprised eyes turned toward her. “It is the journey my brother Philip has embarked upon, with Olivares as his footman to light the way into black oblivion.” She snapped a single, gnarled finger down upon the tabletop for emphasis. “Philip has more resources than the rest of the nations of Europe combined, or very nearly so. Does he use it to adopt the up-time radios? No. Their wondrous medicines? No. Their aircraft and steam engines? No. Their weapons? Only those which are modest improvements upon those already in his arsenals. I am sixty-nine and even I — an old, feeble, cantankerous woman — see the need to invest in the changes the Americans have brought. It hardly matters whether we like them; the changes are here permanently. And we will either master, or be mastered by, them.”

“Sounds just like her Irish godson,” muttered John in an aside to Owen.

Isabella’s ears had evidently remained as sharp as her tongue. “Or perhaps the absent earl of Tyrconnell sounds like me. Perhaps it is simply true that great minds think alike.” She left unspoken the unflattering comparison she was implying between the missing Hugh O’Donnell and John O’Neill.

But John did not miss the intimation; his lips tightened, became thin. “Ah well, this pistol is wonder of modern weaponry, I’m sure. But where is its much-praised advocate and originator? I’ve not seen much of the earl of Tyrconnell, these past weeks. Oh wait, now I’m remembering. He left Spanish service, didn’t he? Sent back his knight-captain’s tabard in the Order of Alcantara, as well as renouncing his Spanish citizenship and position on His Majesty’s Council of War. Ah, but he’d have to, wouldn’t he? All those honors are a bit hard to keep when you also decide to tell the king who raised you up that, no, you’d rather not be a member of the Royal Bedchamber anymore.”

Owen, struck dumb by John’s titanically insolent counterattack on the archduchess, held his breath. It was well known that Isabella’s godson — Hugh Albert O’Donnell, earl of Tyrconnell — was the brightest beam in her eye and had been ever since he had been made a page in her court more than twenty years ago. But then, less than a month ago, O’Donnell had abruptly quit her service, and, along with two companies of his men, had vanished. The rest of the Irish tercios had awaited the inevitable torrent of angry invective as the spurned rulers of the Spanish Low Countries raged at the disloyalty of their favorite son. But that never happened, and in that strange silence, the Irish Wild Geese had hatched more than a few explanatory speculations, some of which had bordered on the surreal.

But now, here was John, not merely gesturing toward that mystery like the unacknowledged elephant in the middle of the room, but stabbing at it with poison-tipped words. Owen finally dared to look down the table toward Isabella, prepared to witness the end of three decades of her throne’s help to the expatriate Irish, sure to be consumed in a blaze of exceedingly justified royal wrath.

But Isabella was calm and collected. Indeed, for an instant, she did not seem a frail old woman in her late sixties; she was the high and Imperial Infanta again, the daughter of Philip II and a force majeure when her passions were aroused. Her voice was more terrible for being so level. It was not conveying opinions; it was declaring truths.

“Conde O’Neill, since you have elected to speak with such remarkable candor, I shall follow your example. My godson, the earl of Tyrconnell, traveled to Grantville when none of you would — despite his having recently lost his wife, and only son, in childbirth. He learned many things among the up-timers, and this weapon is one example of that learning. But more importantly, he learned about the collective future of the Wild Geese and their tercios in the Spanish Low Countries. About which you have heard some rumors, I believe.