1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 27

“The worst of what you have heard is nothing less than the truth. Spain — the Spain in their world, and the Spain in this world — both used you abysmally. I can attest to what the up-time histories claim regarding our motivations in the two decades before this one; you were maintained here in the Low Countries primarily as a threat against the English. You were useful leverage against London, which wanted you kept here to fight against the Provinces, rather than back home, making more trouble in an already restive Ireland. However, many of us also believed that the Spanish crown would eventually make good its debt of honor to you, would help you reclaim your homeland.”

“But, in the up-time world, that did not happen.” Sean’s coda was a whisper.

“Correct, Doctor. The Philip IV of the up-time world never repaid Spain’s debt of honor. Rather, starting within a year of this date, he would begin spending your tercios like water in a new war against the French. By 1638, in that other world, four out of every five of you was dead or disabled. The remainders he moved to Spain, and poured into the maw of a Catalan revolt. You died there, John O’Neill. So did my godson.”

John apparently did not understand that Isabella was doing more than explaining, or even confessing. Her self-recriminating candor indicated that she, and evidently Fernando, had decided to set a course very different from the one that had led the Wild Geese to their grisly ends in the up-time world. Deaf to that nuance, the earl’s face was white as he leaned over the table, fists trembling atop their shimmering reflections in the dark, lacquered wood. “So my father — he died for nothing? After all the loyalty he showed you, all the sacrifice for his faith, for your damned Hapsburg pride –”

Isabella shocked the room by standing and remaining steady as she looked down the table at the earl of Tyrone. “Hugh O’Neill was loyal to himself, first and foremost. You barely knew your father; I did, quite well. He was proud, Machiavellian, brilliantly manipulative, terribly intelligent — but not as intelligent as he thought. Or rather, he had grown accustomed to believing that, almost every time he entered a room, he was the smartest, shrewdest man in it. And that may have been true back in your homeland; I cannot say. But not here on the Continent. His abilities were noteworthy, but they were not unique once he found himself among councilors and captains who routinely navigated the treacherous world of court intrigues and the stratagems of empires. It took him years to realize that Rome was not a wellspring of support for your cause: it was flypaper. The Spanish court and cardinals strung him along with vague promises and hopes — anything rather than having Hugh O’Neill return to the Low Countries, for once there, he would press the matter of invading Ireland.”

“Which was in Spain’s interest!” John O’Neill’s eyes were those of a man watching the bedrock truths of his world dissolve into gossamer and mist.

Isabella sat down and then smiled; her expression was not condescending, but was perilously close to pitying. “No, Conde O’Neill, that is precisely where you are wrong. The Irish were more useful kept sheathed as a perpetual threat, rather than brandished as an instrument of war. Had you invaded Ireland and won, you would still have become a drain on the Crown’s treasury. How would you have held your homeland against English counterattacks without constant, and increasing, Spanish support? All very expensive, my dear Conde O’Neill. But keeping you as a threat in the Low Countries, while also using you as loyal mercenaries whose arch-Roman Catholicism made you perfect instruments against the Protestants of the Provinces? Now that — that — was a bargain.”

Johnnie’s mouth worked uselessly for a moment. “You lied to us.” He sounded like a little boy.

Isabella’s face changed. “Some of us did — but not all of us. Like me, most of us simply wanted more favorable circumstances before you commenced your quest. So, yes, I spoke against the halfhearted invasion plans my overly optimistic nephew occasionally dangled before you.”

“And now, knowing how we’ve been used, even betrayed, what can we trust in?”

It was Fernando himself who answered that question: “You may trust that I am not my brother.” The king in the Low Countries’ eyes had become hard. “I give you my word that we shall not forsake you. And plans are afoot to make good the arrears in your pay, with rich garnishments in recognition of your long service. But I cannot promise you a triumphant return to Ireland. Not now, maybe never; I am not Spain.”

Owen ran a finger across his lip. Well, at least Fernando wasn’t a blatherskite. He was like his aunt, in that way: they both gave you the truth, even when it put them in a hard position.

The king in the Low Countries had not paused. “But the future must wait. Presently, you are the best captains we have to find Urban and to plead with him to accompany you. Not only are you men of title and martial prowess, but your people’s respect for the pontiff has ever been exemplary. No true pope has ever feared his Irish flock. They might be impetuous, but they have always been loyal.”

“A reputation that might not work in our favor, given Borja’s apparent motives in Italy.”

Fernando nodded at Sean Connal’s observation. “Among Borja and his intimates, this might be true. But among the Spanish rank and file? The Irish are held to be doughty fighters and loyal to Spain, primarily because you are obedient to the Church. The common foot soldier will not reflect upon how, at this moment, loyalty to the Church might mean — for the first time in both your memory and theirs — disloyalty to Spain.”

John O’Neill’s eyes roved across the Hapsburgs sitting at the head of the table. “So. I’m to accept that the old dream — of Ireland beneath our feet again — is dead.”

Maria Anna’s voice was gentle. “Let us say that now you are being honestly told that it is a dream that might take generations to realize. If ever.”

John nodded. “I’ve no quarrel with what His Highness has said. Truth be told, I prefer plain speech, hard and true. Better than easy promises of paradise just around the bend. But as I’m earl of my people, then I’d be knowing one more thing: with our pay in arrears, how are my men to keep their families fed? How is it that you propose to pay for our future with you?”

Rubens leaned forward. “That –” he said, glancing at the Hapsburg troika at the head of the table “– is a matter being addressed right now. As I understand it, the projection is that the king in the Netherlands will not only be able to pay you, but exceed — far exceed — your old rate. But it may take a year to achieve this. In the meantime, we will victual your families out of military stocks, if necessary.”

“Most reassuring. But how — how — will you pay us, next year? Where will the new money come from?” John had never shifted his gaze to Rubens, but kept it on the Hapsburgs.

Isabella sniffed. “Do you really need to know?”

“Aye, I do. You said it yourself: we’ve been played the fool for twenty years now. Perhaps we were partly to blame, settling for promises without worrying over the details. Well, now I’m worried over the details. Where will you find this money?”

Isabella’s eyes narrowed. “Do you believe I would lie to you, that I would sully my honor over such a filthy business as the coin we put into hands that wield swords for hire?”

Owen started. “We are no mean sell-swords, you Grace. Have your Irish tercios ever failed you? Have we ever changed sides? Have we ever been less that exemplary in our valor?”

Isabella’s expression softened as her eyes shifted toward Owen. “No, and I repent my harsh words. But let me ask you this in return: although I have not until now been able to speak openly about Spain’s use of its Irish Wild Geese, have I ever worked to your detriment?”


“Not so far.” John’s voice sounded as surly as he looked.

Isabella’s eyes — and words — shifted back over to him sharply. “Then do not insult me by doubting my word that we — the Hapsburgs of this land, and this time — will make good our promises. Projects are in hand that will provide us with coffers deep enough to retain your peerless service for years, for decades, to come.”

Owen suppressed a small smile. Heh — a slap on the wrist and a pat on the head, all in the same sentence. “Your Grace, one item remains unresolved.”


“What would be the best day for us start for Rome?”

Isabella’s smile was wry. “Yesterday, Colonel. Yesterday.”