1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 30


As Larry Mazzare had suspected, once grace was said and dinner was served, things became much more informal. Urban waved a freshly cut, steaming piece of bread in the air, distributing the aroma. “There are advantages living out in the countryside. Like this bread. Wonderful. Not so carefully made as the loaves prepared for our discriminating palates in the Vatican. And because of that — wonderful.” His eyes seemed to lose a little focus, to veer into a reminiscent trance; it was sometimes easy to forget that popes had once been little boys, too, eagerly awaiting a fresh loaf from a country oven. Of course, for Urban — Maffeo Barberini — that country oven would have been located in a palatial family villa. But still, the pleasures and recollections of childhood had a distinctive sweetness, no matter the socioeconomic strata of the one who possessed them.

Urban’s voice brought Mazzare out of his reveries. “You have been very quiet, Lawrence, even for you. Tell me: what is on your mind?”

Mazzare smiled. “Farmhouses and villas, Your Eminence. Of which this is a most unusual specimen. How long since you relocated here from the taverna outside Padua?”

Sharon Nichols furnished the answer. “We got here almost two weeks ago. We didn’t dare spend much time at that taverna.” She speared a sliver of roast chicken. “Too much traffic, and we were way too large a party. As soon as we found this place, we paid our tab and hit the road.”

“And it looks like you kept almost all the staff with you.”

Ruy smoothed one wing of his mustache farther out of the way of his inbound fork of green beans. “Not ‘almost all’ the staff, Cardinal Mazzare: all the staff.”

Mazzare nodded. “Yes. Of course.”

Ruy matched the cardinal’s nod. “The stakes are simply too high. Which is why, of the various choices put before us by the Cavrianis’ agent –”

Ah, that’s their local contact, then. Of course.

“– this house seemed the best.”

“The best?” Mazzare looked uncertainly at the dingy walls and the smoke-darkened ceiling and rafters.

Miro set down his knife. “I believe Señor Casador y Ortiz is referring to its innocuousness, rather than its appeal.”

Ruy nodded. “Yes. This house was twice emptied by the plagues that swept through Venice late last century. It stood vacant for almost a decade. Then a family tried to ‘break the curse’ — and all died from yet another malady. From what we heard, I suspect typhus, but the local peasants are now convinced that the hand of divine judgment lies heavy on this roof.”

Mazzare looked around. “You must have had a lot of cleaning up to do.”

Vitelleschi sounded as if he had bitten into a loaf and found half a wiggling worm in the part he still held. “In service to the pope, I have traveled and dwelt in many places that could not be accurately described as civilized. Amongst them, this house still proved to be the nadir.”

Antonio Barberini, the young and rather doughy cardinal who was Urban’s nephew, shuddered. “Borja came to Rome and successfully drove us out in a day; we came here and are still trying to evict the roaches and rats.”

Mazzare found that his appetite had waned. “So how long do you believe it is safe to stay in this villa? Or is it a farmhouse?”

“I guess we’d call it a hybrid property — and we stay no longer than we have to,” Sharon answered. “When you meet with Tom Stone in Venice, Don Estuban, he should have a more remote spot selected for us.”

Miro inclined his head. “It shall be my first item of business with him. But would he not already have sent word if he had found something?”

Sharon frowned. “Yes, which has me more than a little worried.”

Ruy slipped an arm around her shoulder. “Such matters take time, and cannot be rushed,” he soothed. “After all, what would one answer if asked, ‘why such a hurry to find a country villa?’ I think we cannot safely respond, ‘ah, well, you see, we must have a house in which to hide a pope.'”

She smiled. So did Urban. Mazzare suspected that the brief lip-crinkling of Vitelleschi was a sign of amusement, also. “At least,” Mazzare offered, “it is a little easier to hide in this day and age. The depictions of a person being sought aren’t even as good as the ‘wanted: dead or alive’ handbills that were used in my world in the American West.”

“Truly? Even with your wondrous photography?”

“Photographs — or rather printing them out — was too expensive in frontier areas. Besides, even if the likenesses I’ve seen resembled His Holiness — and they don’t — not many people are willing to post them. Italy’s ardent Roman Catholics have no desire to turn their pope over to anyone, let alone a brutal usurper like Borja.”

“They might, if he offers a reward that piques Italy’s equally ardent greed.” Vitelleschi’s rejoinder was the crisp, arid declamation of a dedicated moralist.

Mazzare shrugged. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.” He turned toward Urban. “Either way, Your Holiness, we must announce that you are alive, and we must do so as quickly as possible. Every day we are silent increases the likelihood that Borja can finally break the will of Rome’s people, and can bring more of the Consistory’s remaining fence-sitters around to supporting him.”

Sharon pursed her lips. “I hate to ask this, but might it already be too late? I mean, has the belief in the rightful pope been so badly shaken that the people are already looking elsewhere?”

Vitelleschi’s voice was firm with professional conviction. “No, Ambassadora Nichols. For a while, the people will simply be shocked. And then they will be outraged. Only once that rage has passed could it be said that we have waited too long.”

“And not having my body to parade will cause a long delay indeed,” Urban observed. Then, with his small, trademark smile, he said, “One should not choose a new pope before the old one is dead. After all, two popes at once? If Mother Church is the bride of Christ, we would be inviting our Savior to become a bigamist.”

Cardinal Barberini guffawed so suddenly that he almost choked on his chicken; Ruy managed not to laugh, but his smile was almost as wide as his mustache. Miro politely looked elsewhere to conceal whatever expression passed over his face. Vitelleschi looked like an offended school marm determined not to acknowledge the witty quip of a prized, but occasionally mischievous, charge.

Mazzare managed to keep his smile wan. “And that observation also highlights something about Borja’s probable intents.”

Urban sobered immediately. “You mean, that as in your American West, I am wanted ‘dead or alive’?”

Mazzare shook his head regretfully. “I suspect Borja is less interested in the ‘alive’ option. Given the fate of the cardinals in Rome, I presume he would prefer you were killed attempting to resist the lawful agents of the Church.”

“Strange. I would have thought the lawful agents of the Church would still be my agents.”

Mazzare returned Urban’s small smile. “Yes, I would have thought so, too. But we up-timers have a saying: possession is nine-tenths of the law. Borja possesses the Holy See, even though you possess the pontifical title. Unless you were to walk right back in there and order him out, your absence from the Holy City complicates any assertion that its agents are your agents.”

“Quite right. So, just as it is universally known that Borja now possesses the Vatican, it must become just as widely known that I still possess my life.”

Sharon tapped an index finger meditatively against the much-stained tabletop. “I wonder: should we use the Committees of Correspondence to spread news about your survival, and to confirm the rumors of how all the cardinals were killed in cold blood?”

Miro frowned. “If you choose to do so, I recommend you release the information all at once, and through written materials cached at a drop point that the Committee members are informed of later on.”


“Because, if Borja now has someone working for him who is more professional than Quevedo, the Committees will be under surveillance. Any direct contact will surely lead assassins to wherever you may hide. Consequently, your contact with the world must be outbound only, and never suspected as coming from your embassy. Any inbound traffic is too perilous to countenance.”

Ruy nodded. “Don Estuban could not speak more truly or wisely, my heart. I have some — small experience — with this kind of affair. If Borja is willing to spend enough reales to maintain constant surveillance, his agents could snatch up any person arriving at the embassy in Venice, or the Committees, who is suspected of bearing messages from you.”

Vitelleschi’s eyes were emotionless. “And, as Señor Casador y Ortiz might confirm, Borja’s agents will be neither gentle nor patient in the methods they use to extract information from your couriers.”

Sharon shuddered. “Okay. No Committees, then. Or a one time news-blast, at most.”

“Yes,” her husband agreed, “I think it would be wise to limit it to that.”

Urban sighed. “Your talk is most prudent, and most upsetting. I can accept a death sentence upon my head, but I have great misgivings about how my presence endangers my best and truest friends, who’ve aided me, unasked, in this dark hour. My heart tells me –”

“Your heart tells you how to behave as a man, Your Holiness, but you must rely strictly upon your head when deciding how to act as pope.” Vitelleschi somehow combined shadings of both compassion and remonstrance in his otherwise dry voice. “Even our friends here — most of whom are not Catholics — still understand the great urgency of keeping you alive, of keeping the papacy from falling into the hands of that monster Borja. And besides, do you really think that if you took flight it would save them? Tell me, Señor Casador y Ortiz: in your experience of such matters, how would Borja’s agents alter their search, if they were to somehow learn that His Holiness had departed from your protection?”

“It would have no effect upon them, Your Eminence. Except to make their job easier.”

Urban, who was schooled in the intricacies, but not the gruesome particulars, of espionage, leaned forward. “Explain this if you would, my son.”

“I am honored to be of service to Your Holiness, but it is my deep shame to possess the needed expertise in these matters.”

“Please continue,” the pope instructed.

Mazzare felt, rather than saw, some weight seem to rise off Ruy’s shoulders, as if it was a burden he had become so accustomed to carrying, that he no longer heeded it. The Spaniard sat straighter, prouder — if that were possible. “Here is what would happen if you left us, Your Holiness. If they were to find this place, but after you departed from it, Borja’s agents would torture every individual — no matter their age or sex — for any information as to your possible whereabouts, companions, preparations, anything of relevance. And then they would put everyone to the sword and the house to the torch.”

“To conceal their misdeed.”

Ruy nodded. “But even if they found and slew you first, they would still attempt to determine and annihilate the place from whence you had fled.”

“Why this needless barbarity?”

“It is not needless from their perspective, Your Holiness. Consider: you might have left further instructions here, or key correspondence with princes and ministers inimical to Borja. You might have been gathering evidence that would incriminate him, gathering secret support from those cardinals who are not yet willing to decry him publicly. In short, why should Borja believe that all the damage you could do him will die with you? It might well have been left with your intimates, before you struck out on your own. And so he would come here, interrogate, torture, and slay — without exception and without mercy.”

The room was very still. Mazzare, like everyone else, was staring at Ruy, whose dark eyes seemed to be seeing inward as well as outward. “I, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz swear that this is true.” But this time, he uttered his trademark oath quietly, almost like a prayer.

Or a confession.