1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 35


Ferrigno sidled carefully into Cardinal Gaspar de Borja y Velasco’s immense office and cleared his throat. “Señor Dolor has arrived. Most punctually. He has brought an associate. Should I have the second man wait outside?”

Borja nodded, and experienced a sensation that he did not recognize for a long moment: a brief pang of fear. Fear? Fear of a subordinate?

But, Borja admitted, Dolor was not the average subordinate. He was not merely unusually efficient and egoless; he was — well, unusual. And the first inquiries Borja had made about him among his senior officers, and those Spanish cardinals who kept close tabs on the coming and goings and changes in Philip’s Court, had provided no useful information: a few had heard his name. None knew anything about him.

Dolor was the very antithesis of Quevedo, who had been happiest when everyone knew his name, his deeds, his fame. Francisco de Quevedo y Villega had been an insufferable braggart, relying upon — and endlessly crowing about — his twinned gifts of inspiration and improvisation. Alas, he had had a reasonable foundation upon which to build his flights of self-congratulatory fancy: his 1631 comedy (he usually neglected to mention his co-author Mendoza) Who Lies Most Thrives Most, had been concocted in a scant twenty-four hours for Philip IV’s Saint John’s Day fete, and debuted in the shadow of the Prado. However, Quevedo afterward demonstrated even greater inventiveness in finding opportunities for bringing mention of this triumph into almost every conversation.

Dolor was, in contrast, a nonentity, a shadow — and twice as disconcerting because he was. Borja turned to face the door as the man in question entered. His bow was deep enough to be adequate, but not an iota more. “Your Eminence,” he said quietly.

Borja remained seated. “Señor Dolor. You have new information?”

“And activity reports.”

“Such as?”

“The doctor assigned to the prisoners indicates that he believes Frank Stone is now well enough to be moved about freely without danger to his leg. We are preparing their next and final point of incarceration now, as well as the special move whereby we will transfer them to that place.”

Borja tidied several papers peevishly. “I indulge you in this, Dolor, because of your proven competencies in other regards. I do not see the purpose of all this moving about. We could have left them in their first prison safely enough. It is, after all, the kind of dank hole they deserve, and escape was impossible.”

“Escape will be impossible only if we take strong steps to make it so.”

“So you tell me. Could we not make this simpler? You may have more men, if you need them. Many more.”

“What I need, Your Eminence, is your patience and your continued trust. Stearns will make an attempt to free Stone and his wife. Indeed, I believe some of my new reports tentatively confirm that such plans are afoot.”

Borja sat up straighter. “Explain.”

“It seems that most of the USE force that aided Simpson’s group outside Chiavenna did not withdraw at all, but came south, and entered Venetian territory. We found evidence they used a trail to skirt south around Chiavenna itself and then followed the lakes down in the direction of Bergamo.”

“And so you conjecture –?”

“That at least some of those troops intend to come here, Your Eminence.”

“Even if that were true, what could such a small group hope to accomplish against a strongly held palace?”

Dolor shrugged. “You heard what happened at the Tower of London?”

Borja frowned. “So you believe that the USE, that Stearns, is foolish enough to send this, this — Harry Lefferts — here? To free Stone’s son? That would be madness.”

Dolor nodded, but his comment did not gush with ready agreement: “I’m sure the English thought the same thing. But rest assured, Your Eminence, the steps I am taking currently will prevent a repeat of the Tower of London debacle. I am more concerned about the possibility that some of these troops have been sent to the Venetian Republic for purposes of protection, not assault.”

“So you still do not believe that Ambassador Nichols and the remainder of her staff will fall back upon their larger embassy in Venice. Why?”

“Because they have not done so yet.”

“What? You have confirmed this?”

“I have.”

Borja waited for the explanation, then realized Dolor’s laconic tendencies would require prompting by a direct request: “How do you know?”

“I have agents in place there. And as of two days ago, there was still no sign of the ambassador or any of her known associates at the Venetian embassy.”

“As of two days ago? How did you get this report so quickly? Have you procured radios of your own?”

“No. My Venetian agents located and secured the confidential services of the owners of two dovecotes, one in Venetian territory, one in Bologna. The terminus on the Roman end is a day’s ride into the Lazio, but between the two, the birds provide us with coded intelligence that is only two days old.”

“Impressive,” admitted Borja, who also found Dolor’s almost mechanically perfect foresight more than slightly disconcerting. A man like this could become dangerous to whomsoever he chose. The cardinal smoothed his robes and reflected: he would have to be very careful about what he chose to discuss with Pedro Dolor in order to minimize his own future vulnerability. “And so if the remnants of the USE’s Rome embassy are not going to Venice, what do you suspect they are doing?”

“I suspect that they are establishing a new secure site. Which is why I suspect many of the USE troops who rescued Simpson are now in Italy: to become the defensive force for Ambassador Nichols and whoever is with her.”

Borja did not like the sound of that last clause. “And who do you think might be with her? Urban?”

“It is possible.”

“Why? Do you suspect that Urban had a secret arrangement with these Satan-spawned up-timers, that there was prior coordination between them?”

Dolor frowned. “Coordination? No, nothing formally prearranged. Had that been the case, Urban would have been evacuated earlier, probably in conjunction with the embassy’s own personnel.”

“So why and how would Urban have gone over the border into Venetian territory and joined the ambassador?”

“There are many possible reasons, but this much is clear: if Urban has indeed escaped, where would he go besides Venice? Spain has dominion in Naples and Milan. The Lazio is subject to our searches and patrols, and he would be a fool to stay so close to Rome. Tuscany would be the sheerest stupidity; Maffeo Barberini made enemies of the Medicis early in his papacy. Bologna is too diffident and splintered for him to be sure that he will not be betrayed to you. And the Papal States are weak, and the papal troops will not eagerly support a pontiff who cannot pay them and whose status as pope grows ever more questionable.”

Borja frowned. “Which leaves us with Venice.”

Dolor nodded. “Yes, Venice. Where the USE already has an embassy. Where Frank Stone’s father has growing business relationships and influence. Where they would find it particularly easy to land their largest plane — the one that sets down on a cushion of air — directly on the lagoon.”