1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 31


Two days later, Estuban Miro stifled a yawn as he waited for Tom Stone to arrive back at the embassy in Venice. Word had it that the American pharmaceutical magnate had stayed late over on the mainland in Mestre, personally attending to what he had dubbed a “quality control problem” in one of the new jointly owned chemical refineries he had founded in the past half year.

Ironic, since Miro had been in Mestre himself last night. But not wanting to waste the early hours of the day, he had left both Lefferts’ Wrecking Crew and North’s Hibernians slumbering as he emerged into the predawn glimmer to catch the first available boat from the mainland, which the locals dubbed Terraferma. So he was among the first visitors to arrive on Venetia, that day. And what did he get for all his troubles? A reasonably cushioned chair and a small cup of passable coffee as he waited for the USE’s ambassador to Venice to return. Eventually.

Miro stifled another yawn. He’d been working on a sleep deficit for the past two nights. In Padua, he had tried to excuse himself from the dinner table early, pleading his early departure the next morning. Somehow that never happened; every time he started to rise, someone refilled his glass, or asked a question, or embroiled him in a debate. In short, no matter how Miro had tried to get away from that spattered, partially charred, richly served table of good cheer, he couldn’t make good his escape. Probably just as well. While it was superficially just a meal with intelligent companions, it had also been a rite of passage.

Among the up-timers, it had been a kind of assessment concluding with a provisional adoption. Mazzare’s cordiality had deepened into potential friendship over the course of their joint balloon journey from Jena to Chur, and the up-time cardinal’s opinion obviously held great sway with both Sharon and Ruy.

But it had probably been more crucial in securing the benign toleration and cooperation of Father-General Vitelleschi and Cardinal Barberini. Miro had been thoroughly briefed on the former before arriving in Italy. A reputation for stern measures and judgment in his professional life had colored the depictions of Vitelleschi; he was purported to be humorless and vinegary. As Miro had learned, this was a profound misperception. In some ways, he suspected Vitelleschi might have had the most incisive and even blasphemous wit of them all; he just elected not to show it. The younger Barberini had imbibed many of the prejudices of his patrician class: a lack of ease around Jews, a reluctance to have dealings with them. But his uncle’s cosmopolitanism had also rubbed off on Antonio Barberini, who, over the course of the evening, warmed to Miro and his wry interjections.

But Urban — he was the hardest of them to figure. Possibly, because he is most like me, thought Miro with a smile, thinking how that observation would have scandalized every Catholic in the room. With the probable exception of Urban.

For Urban VIII’s was a face and consciousness that had very obviously been washed by many waters, not all of which had been pure or calm. He loved life, enough so that he did not ruin his existence by being desperate to retain it above all other things. Yet he also was intrigued by the possibility of what lay beyond. Urban’s speech and attitudes did not reflect a rigid expectation of the shape that Heaven or Hell might take, nor the face of God or the malice of Satan. Before he had become a pope, he had been Maffeo Barberini, head of his powerful family, a creature of his time, versed in arts and letters and the lofty heresies of the Greeks and Romans. No, Pope Urban VIII was not a simple man, and his thoughts and plans clearly moved on many levels simultaneously.

When the dinner group had finally pushed back from the table in search of their beds, Miro was glad to have stayed awake so late; it had been crucial for him to be accepted by these groups with whom he would now be working. But he also dreaded rising the next day, and riding to Venice.

Or rather, to Mestre. The entire traveling party — numbering almost thirty — was hot, dusty, and parched when they reached Mestre just before sundown. It had made no sense to push the horses any harder, and the timing had not been fortuitous. The last boat to the main island was a black shadow receding into the lagoon’s red-orange reflection of the sunset sky. That had meant retracing their steps away from the dockside, until they found a predictably over-priced, under-staffed inn in which to spend the night.

A night that had been all too short: five hours after finally settling in, the inn’s ostler had jostled Miro awake, as he had requested. Morning ablutions, a quick walk back to the docks, waiting for the first ready boatman — and now, here in the embassy, wondering about the odds of getting a second cup of coffee before —

Tom Stone came up the stairs two at a time, one top-tuft of hair truant from the rest of his somewhat trimmed gray-silver mane. He got to the top of the stairs, saw Miro, frowned, and then his brows rose. “Oh, yeah. Right. You’re the guy. Miro. From back home. Sorry I got delayed — uh, detained. I was over in Mestre helping out my partners.”

“Yes. I was told. I wasn’t waiting long.” Miro rose, put out a hand, smiled. “Mr. Stone, I’m Estuban Miro.”

“Yeah, yeah. I got the messages about you from Grantville. Great to meet you.” The hand-shake was vigorous; unpolished, yes, but very enthusiastic and genuine.

Stone waved off the help of one of the waiting embassy staff, opened the door to his office himself, and apparently presumed Miro would follow without invitation, as if he was simply an acquaintance who had come to call at his home. Miro trailed along. He was impressed at the size of the chamber but doubted Stone had anything to do with the opulent décor incorporating tasteful Renaissance hints and flourishes. Tom flopped down behind the plateau that was his desk and smiled at Miro over the top of it. Then, his hand halfway through waving his visitor toward a seat, Stone reconsidered the arrangements with a frown; he quickly rose up, came around and sat in a chair directly opposite the one Miro was already standing behind.

“No desks today,” Stone explained. “At least not with someone from home. Hey, have a seat; take a load off, Don Estuban. You’ve come a long way without a lot of rest, from what I hear.”

Miro smiled. “That would not be an exaggeration.”

“Want some breakfast?”

“Thank you, no; I had a light meal before coming here,” Miro lied, hoping that the sudden contradictory growl from his stomach remained inaudible to Stone.

Apparently it did. Tom replied with the strange, neck-bobbing nod that was his wont, and looked uneasily out the window. “I don’t mean to rush you, Don Estuban, but –”

“Mr. Stone, there is no need for apologies. If I had family members in the clutches of Borja, I would want to get down to business, too.”

Tom smile gratefully. “I’m glad you understand, Don Estuban, really I am. I don’t want to seem rude but — well, Frank and Giovanna are on my mind. Pretty much all the time.”

Miro noticed the faint blue rings under his host’s eyes but said nothing.

“So what’s the plan?”

“First, Mr. Stone, have there been any further developments? I haven’t received a situation report since Chur.”

Stone went back in his seat with a sigh and a grimace. “No. No ransom demands. Not even anyone to talk to. The Spanish ambassador here claims ignorance of Borja’s actions. ‘Course, he’s probably telling the truth; seems all the Spanish big shots in Italy were taken as much by surprise by Borja’s actions as was Rome itself.”

Miro nodded. “Unfortunately, with no remaining embassy in Rome, we are unable to get any new information on the situation there. Even Don Francisco Nasi’s intelligence networks have gone silent. We cannot tell if they have been discovered and eliminated or are merely unable to send messages because of the political and domestic chaos prevailing in the city.”

Tom nodded. “So — what’s the plan?”

“I don’t know.”

“Wait a minute. Mike radioed that you were in charge of the rescue operation –”

“I am in charge of the mission sent down here to Italy, but that mission has three separate mandates: protect the pope, recover your son and daughter-in-law, and coordinate with you. I only know the specifics of the objectives I am to be directly involved in. Harry Lefferts is in charge of the rescue operation, and I must remain unaware of his plans.”

Tom nodded again. “Yeah, yeah. Compartmentalization of information, right? So even if someone grabs you, you can’t tell them anything about any of the other plans.”

“That is correct. And that is why you will no longer be hearing from the ex-Roman embassy after it relocates.”

“What? Not even by radio?”

“Not routinely. Other than brief, coded status reports at prearranged times, radio communications will be of an emergency nature only.”


“It is unlikely, but the Spanish may have procured radios. If they have, it is even more unlikely but still possible that they have acquired a working knowledge of signal triangulation. Which could lead them directly to the pope.”

“Whoa. Signal triangulation is a bit out of the Spaniards’ league, isn’t it? Hell, it’s out of our league, I thought.”