1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 28


May-June 1635

The universe, cleft to the core


“Ambassadora Nichols!” The embassy runner, Carlo, sprinted inside the house’s courtyard from his customary position at the front gate. Sharon Nichols turned, alarmed at Carlo’s volume. The modest compound they’d established outside Padua was too small to require that much vocal energy — unless it was to announce trouble. Her concern faded as she noticed Ruy’s unruffled calm; he indicated the relaxed postures of the Marine guards standing within the shadow of the main gate’s archway. Two of them leaned out a bit, the tilt of their heads suggesting modest interest in some exterior object.

Ruy began striding toward the arch. “It seems we have visitors, my love.”

“Seems so.” Which could only mean one thing, given her renegade embassy’s incognito location in the Paduan countryside —

Harry Lefferts breezed past the Marines and then planted himself at the entry to the courtyard, thumbs in his belt. “Damn,” he said, looking around. “This place sucks.”

Sharon smiled. “It’s good to see you too, Harry.” She walked into Lefferts’ brief hug as Ruy’s left eyebrow rose slightly. She turned, gestured to her husband with almost courtly grace, “Harry, this is my husband, Señor Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz.”

Harry cocked a grin and stuck out a hand. “Heard a lot about you.”

“And I about you.” Ruy’s hand was in the American’s with an extra measure of speed and sureness.

“And so our two legendary warriors meet at last. Now, who’ve you brought with you, Harry?”

“The whole damned Crew.” He grinned. “And more than a dozen of the Hibernian Mercenary Battalion.”

Sharon craned her neck. “I don’t see them.”

Ruy put a hand on her arm. “And, for now, you will not, my dear. During the last radio exchange with Señor Lefferts’ group, I instructed that they bivouac in the copse by the stream, about two miles west. We do not want to attract more attention than we must.”

Harry snorted as he looked at Nichols’ husband. “Y’know, you should just call me Harry, because there’s no way I’m going to remember that long moniker of yours — Ruy.”

Ruy smiled. “As you suggest, ‘Harry.’ Since your name was appellation enough for one of the most gallant kings of England, then I presume it is sufficient for you.”

“Well — just barely.” Harry’s smile matched Ruy’s.

In the meantime, another traveler appeared in the archway. His greeting was in sharp contrast to the casual up-time reunion: the man gave a small bow.

Harry hooked a thumb as the newcomer approached. “This is Don Estuban Miro.”

Sharon extended her ample hand and found it being shaken by a longer, fine-boned one which was closer to the color of her own than it was to Harry’s. Miro was a man of slightly more than medium height, well-formed and fit but without the aura of “soldier” about him. But as he said, “Pleased to meet you, Ambassador,” Sharon was struck by how, upon looking at his face, she spontaneously recalled the bookish phrase “intelligent eyes.” Because Miro’s certainly were. It was hard to say what made eyes look “intelligent” exactly, and because of that, it was sometimes tempting to think that it was just a literary convention. And it was certainly true that there were some folks who were quite intelligent, but whose eyes gave no clue of it.

But nevertheless, Estuban Miro had intelligent — remarkably intelligent — eyes. She could tell that these were eyes that missed nothing, and yet revealed even less of what went on behind them. Sharon was fairly sure that she, Ruy, and the surroundings, were all being swiftly examined, but she couldn’t see him doing it.

Ruy’s reaction to Miro was quite novel. His own assessing gaze evolved into a sly smile as he extended his hand. “Viaje largo?

There might have been a momentary flash of surprise in Miro’s eyes. If so, it was there and gone so quickly that Sharon could not be sure. The smile on the newcomer’s face was a match to Ruy’s as he responded, “Com ho saps?”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Okay, guys, if you’re gonna start in with the Spanish, can you at least translate for those of us who almost flunked it in ninth grade?”

“That is not Spanish.” The voice from behind was mellifluous, yet firm. Sharon turned. Three figures in cowled friar’s habits had emerged from the small cottage in the courtyard.

“No, not Spanish,” Harry agreed with a nod. “But I can’t place it. How about you, Father?”

Sharon couldn’t resist a half-smile. “Harry, I believe the proper form of address is ‘Holy Father.'”

“Holy Father?” Harry gawked. “As in, the pope?”

The hooded figure so labeled nodded and drew back his cowl. “The language your friends are speaking is Catalan. I am not well versed in it, but Ruy asked our newcomer if he had had a long journey. And our newcomer asked in return ‘How did you know?’ — meaning I presume, ‘How did you know I was Catalan?'” The face that had been concealed by the hood was well-advanced in years, worldly, patrician, and subtly aristocratic. It was not, in any way, a face that blended well with the garb of a rustic friar. Nor did the gesture of the slightly raised hand and proffered ring.

Miro bowed very low. “Your Holiness,” he said.

Urban VIII’s brow rose slightly.

Miro provided the explanation with yet another small bow. “Your Eminence, kneeling and kissing your ring would be inappropriate in my case.”

Urban’s brow became level again and he nodded.

Ruy exclaimed, as if suddenly solving a puzzle. “Ah! So, that’s the accent! You are Mallorquin, and a xueta.”

Miro nodded.

One of Harry’s eyebrows climbed. “My-orkeen? A zhoo-wayta? Now does some one what to fill me in?” And then, remembering the pope, he removed his hat. “Pleased to meet you, Your Holiness.”

Urban’s smile was benign and a bit bemused.

Ruy was providing explanations. “Señor Lefferts, in your many travels, I am sure you have heard of Mallorca, the main island of the Balearics. It is several days’ sail due east of Barcelona. Their language is mostly Catalan, but a distinct dialect. And the xuetas –” Ruy’s brow dipped slightly “– are its Jewish population, who were compelled to profess themselves as Catholics. It is awkward to say more about their circumstances in — in the present company.”

Urban’s smile dimmed, but he nodded. “A tactful close to that unfortunate topic, Señor Casador y Ortiz.” He shifted his eyes back to Miro. “And is this all your party that will be staying with us here?” Sharon frowned, wondering. Urban sounded oddly expectant, and a bit wistful, too. What or who was he expecting? This was the full complement that had been approved for —

But a third figure — lean in a dusty habit — advanced through the shadows of the archway. Sharon realized the cleric’s gait was familiar a split second before she saw the face. “Larry — Cardinal — Mazzare! What the hell are you doing in Italy?”

“Collecting dust from every road from here to Bergamo, I think.” Larry Mazzare, the American village priest that Urban VIII had appointed the cardinal-protector of the United States of Europe, closed the remaining distance with a smile, arms out for the slightly distant embrace that was his wont.

Sharon held him back after a moment, staring at him. “Damn it, Larry. Does Mike know you came down here? No? Oh, hell, Larry. When Stearns hears about this, he’s going to have your –”

“Melissa already warned me about my impending castration. But I suspect His Holiness might be willing to intercede on my behalf and explain to Mike that my travel here was necessary. More necessary than a layperson might readily imagine.”

Urban VIII came forward. “That is so very true. Lawrence, it is wonderful to see you here. Quite wonderful indeed.”

Mazzare kissed the proffered papal ring while the pontiff seemed to restrain himself from putting an approving — and relieved? — hand upon the up-timer’s head. As Mazzare straightened, the smile returned to Urban’s face — the slightly mischievous version the pontiff reserved for conversations with his intimates. “Evidently, Cardinal Mazzare, my connections to the Heavens rival those of your marvelous radios.”