1636: Mission To The Mughals – Snippet 04
Hamburg, United States of Europe
The door slammed behind Papa, ending another pointless argument.
At least the rooms they were renting were nicer than their usual, giving him a room of his own for his childish sulk. Monique sighed. Gervais had been in a funk since they’d been forced to leave Geneva, bickering with both Bertram and her at nearly every turn of the road from there to Hamburg.
Bertram shook his head. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
She smiled. “Please, Bertram, you needn’t apologize for Papa’s childish behavior.”
“If there is fault to be found, it’s with Papa. He just isn’t happy unless he’s working on — or in the hunt for — a wealthy mark.”
“I know, and I’ve been keeping him from pursuing hisâ€¦natural inclinations since Geneva.”
“Your payment for our travels and promise of an offer of employment areâ€¦unprecedented in Papa’s experience. Makes him nervous, waiting for things to turn sour when he’s not running a con on someone.”
“There is a reason confidence is the name of the games Papa and I play. One must have it, or the mark will start to pick at the threads weaved to manipulate them. The mark must also have confidence in what the player presents as truth, or they don’t do as the player desires.
“Papa owes you, so he can’t run a game on you. His confidence suffers as a result.”
“But I don’t see him as in my debt.”
She smiled to take the sting from her next words: “Doesn’t really matter what you think about it. We might be confidence players, but we’ve our own set of scruples.”
“What do you suggest I do?”
“What is this employment you mentioned, this work that might be — how did you put it? Oh, yes: ‘suitable to our talents and skills’?”
Bertram smiled. She liked it a lot. It made his normally-unremarkable face light up, his brown eyes shine.
“My relation will tell all, tomorrow.”
“Teasing a woman that way is most unkind.”
“I’m sorry,” he said for the second time, “but I was given strict instructions.”
“You don’t trust me?” she asked, pouting in the manner she knew gave rise to urges he was uncomfortable with. She had, in the months since he’d rescued her from the Bishop of Geneva’s dungeon in Annecy — where she’d been kept by the Bishop as surety against her father’s compliance in the bishop’s plot to undermine the Calvinist faith — come to realize Bertram was far more knight than knave. And this despite the gift for guile he’d shown in telling the bishop outlandish lies, even to the point of claiming service to Cardinal Richelieu. That internal knight made it difficult for him to look on her as a woman who might entertain his affections, not out of a sense of obligation to her rescuer, but out of desire for the man himself.
His serious tone surprised her. “I do, just as I trust that I will not want to feel my relation’s ire, should he discover I’ve been speaking without leave.”
* * *
“How much?” Monique heard her father ask again.
It all sounded terribly exciting to Monique. Hoping to keep her father from ruining it, she spoke up. “Papa, you heard Don Francisco very well!”
Her father ignored her, asked Nasi, “But why us?”
Don Francisco set aside his glass of wine and leaned forward. “Because you like money and we’re offering a great deal of it?”
Monique had to agree with the USE spymaster on that point: Aside from the actual payment, the offer included a tiny percentage of profits from whatever trade deal was agreed to, an incentive that could prove profoundly profitable. Yet Gervais was acting as if it were nothing special. She couldn’t let him get away with it: “Even without the promised percentage of trade, it’s more than we made on our best five jobs, and in just three years. It took us the better part of two years setting up for the Turin caper.”
“No,” Gervais hiked a thumb at Bertram, “why us?”
“You’re smart, have useful skills, are adept with languages, and most importantly: you’re eminently available.”
“When I agreed to work with Bertram I thought we’d be in France, maybe the Papal States — not half-way round the world in heathen India.”
“Muslim India, really,” Nasi said. “Mughals are Muslims, somewhat like those of my former home, though they’re not terribly oppressive of other religions just nowâ€¦”
Gervais sniffed. “I know the Mughal rulers are Muslim, thank you very much. But I am also told there are lots of Hindus in positions of power and prestige.”
“And rich, Papa, don’t forget: fabulously rich,” Monique added. Appealing to Papa’s greed usually worked.
Gervais turned on her, “Oh, no, don’t you try and play to my greed, that’s what got us here in the first place!”
“If I may, Gervais: Bertram’s bit of fast-talking was effective in freeing your lovely daughter,” Nasi said. Monique’s smile at the complement died as Nasi went on, “But it also destroyed his cover. Every priest that travels through the bishopric gets an earful, and every one of them has sent letters to their friends to be on the lookout for you.”
“So? You do know I’m a thief, right? I’ve always had nobles and churchmen after me.”
“But you aren’t just a thief, are you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Nasi’s thin smile sent a thrill of alarm down Monique’s spine. “Only that I know a little about the where, the who, and the what of your studies. Not to mention how they ended and why you took to a life of crime.”
Gervais sat back, face gone whiter than just about any time Monique could remember, save when he’d seen her in the tiny cell in Lyon.
Nasi wasn’t done: “Frankly, your skills at alchemy will provide a useful and legitimate reason for you to gain access to the court.”
“All right, I’ll be useful,” Gervais looked at Monique, “and I know how much I owe your man Bertram here, but there’s no reason my daughter should be exposed to su–”
“Papa!” Monique snapped.
Nasi continued on the heels of her outburst. “She’s an adult, Bertram speaks highly of her abilities, and there’s a good chance that you’ll need her to gain you access to people that men would be killed for even trying to lay eyes on. The harem-bound ladies of the court are powers unto themselves. If Monique wants to go, she’ll be welcome, and just as well-compensated as you.”
Papa opened his mouth to speak but Nasi held up a hand to silence him. “In the final analysis, while I think the mission might need your collective resourcefulness in an emergency, it’s still a trade mission, not one of your criminal enterprises or,” he looked significantly at Bertram, “some effort at espionage against an enemy power.”
Gervais shook his head, a legitimately sad look on his face. “Do you have any idea how many of the Dutch return from trade in the East? Because I do! When in Amsterdam I watched the widows cry for lost husbands every single time a ship made port. On those occasions they actually made port!”
Nasi shrugged. “While your concerns are certainly valid, the Dutch did not have the advantages of medical care the up-timers brought us.”
“I don’t want my daughter dying on some foreign shore, some exotic illness eating her alive.”
“Not when the outbreak in Milan could have killed us both with a perfectly home-grown plague,” Monique drawled.
Gervais was struggling to find an answer to that when the door opened and a tall couple walked in. If their height wasn’t sign enough, Monique identified them as some of Bertram’s up-timers as soon as they smiled. No down-timer’s smile ever displayed so many even, straight, and above all, white teeth.
Nasi climbed to his feet and bowed in courtly fashion over the woman’s hand. “Frau Totman.” The woman was extremely tall and expensively-dressed, if skinnier than Monique knew most down-time men preferred. The man with her was enormous. Monique wondered if he was another athlete like Tom Simpson who played that bizarre American game called “football.”
“Don Francisco,” the man said.
“Herr Totman,” Nasi returned with a smile, continuing around the circle of seats to make introductions. Both seemed at least as young as she was, though Bertram had said it was hard to tell with most up-timers.
Once everyone had taken seats and been introduced, Rodney Totman spoke. His English had an accent Monique had never encountered before: “Don Francisco, was that French I heard as we came in? Sounded heated.”
Nasi nodded, “Gervais has serious reservations about Monique participating in our trade mission.”
Priscilla Totman looked at Gervais and asked in heavily accented French: “Maladies?”
Gervais nodded emphatically.
Priscilla continued in that strangely accented English, “Forgive me, but I have exhausted my French.”