1636 The Vatican Sanctions – Snippet 01


Eric Flint and Charles E. Gannon



April 29, 1636

We are the fruit thereof

Silhouetted by the light he carried to lead the way, the bent man glanced back at Wilbur Craigson and pointed at the crudely mortared wall. Hunching further to keep from grazing his shaggy head against the ceiling, the aged fellow gestured toward the mismatched bricks repeatedly, as if seeking to underscore that it was, in fact, a wall of particular excellence or significance. Which it certainly did not appear to be.

After checking to see that Craigson was paying attention, his silent guide moved closer to the old brickwork, gnarled hands moving toward it as if trying to conjure forth a spirit of the earth.

Craigson produced the sap he had been carrying in his left pocket and, in one smooth motion, smashed it across the lower rear of the man’s head. Who — long gray locks bloody in the light of the falling lantern — fell, nerveless as the rocks in the wall.

Craigson quickly scooped up the guttering lantern, then produced a much smaller lamp which he had been hiding in his long cloak. He advanced the wick, lifted the lamp as the flame grew, examined the man’s wound, checked for a pulse: yes, faint but steady. Craigson set his lamp down carefully, unsheathed a long, well-made dagger, and quickly and expertly cut the man’s jugular and carotid. With both severed, he estimated that his guide would exsanguinate within two minutes. At the very most.

He retrieved the purse of silver that the fellow had received from Craigson earlier that day, reached for the bag of lime he had secreted in the windowless room some days before, and began spreading it upon the body.

By the time the wick was burning down, Wilbur Craigson was done and had propped the corpse up against the wall which abutted the one that had been the object of their visit. Dusting his hands off, and then grabbing a handful of bagged sand to scour away what little blood had spattered on them, he walked to the wall, inspected it briefly, found the section the man had been indicating when felled. Satisfied that it was adequate for his purposes, he turned, preparing to dim the light and return to the streets of Besançon. His rent for this mostly useless storage room, paid four weeks in advance, ensured that the owner would not trouble him to relocate, nor come knocking: with the city virtually overrun by villeins, aristocrats, and all social stations in between, it had been feasible, if unusual, that the room had commanded any rental interest at all.

Exiting and cinching the door closed behind him, Wilbur Craigson produced the crude iron key and fastened the equally crude iron lock. As it snapped shut, he reflected that he was becoming either dangerously sentimental or cavalier: he had used his given name when introducing himself to this man.

He had, after all, been grimly certain that the knowledge of it would die with the old fellow. But still, Craigson had long experience with just how profound the vicissitudes of fate could be: using his real name was a wholly unnecessary risk. So why had he done it?

Was it because he was finally drawing close to vengeance he had been nursing for almost two decades? Or because his poor guide had not deserved the end to which he was to come? The end which Wilbur foresaw from the moment he located him in the worm-eaten flop house, paid for with meager savings from a life of hard work he was no longer fit and able to perform?

Wilbur Craigson pocketed the key, turned, resolved not to use his given name — and risk discovery — again, not until his retribution was concluded. Which meant that now, as he prepared to return to the streets of Besançon, he would have to readopt the identity and name that he had assumed for so long it felt more natural than the one he had been born with.

It was time, once again, to become Pedro Dolor.



May 5, 1636

In verses wild with motion, full of din

Chapter 1

Sharon Nichols peripherally detected a hint of motion in the sky and scanned above the low, tiled roofs that screened the Doub River from view. Just to the right of St. Madeleine’s gothic steeple, a small oblong was descending from the low clouds, like a bit of gray fluff sheering off from the cottony white cumulus. That was probably the dirigible they had been waiting for. Probably.

She turned toward her husband, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz, who was deeply involved in a discussion with two recently arrived Burgundian guards who were not from Besançon themselves. They were still getting used to distinguishing local peddlers from the regional traders who, for three weeks now, had been rigorously screened before being allowed into the main city. More and more of them were being turned back across the old Roman bridge into the less densely built, and less affluent, district on the other side of the Doub: the Battant. As security tightened, more were forced to remain there, resolving themselves to trade as best they could in the markets that had sprung up between the margins of that district’s curtain walls and the vineyards which surrounded them. Which in turn meant that lodging — even in barns and hastily improvised shelters — had become exorbitantly expensive, if available at all.

Of particular annoyance to Ruy and the various officers of the city’s temporary and multitiered security forces were the new arrivals who (daily, it seemed) attempted to pitch tents, erect market stalls, or both, along the margins of a field in the north reaches of the Battant. But as surely as those hopefuls arrived, they were just as surely shooed away; that enticing stretch of close-mown grass was the marshaling field of the city’s makeshift aerodrome. The dirigibles — inbound mostly from the United States of Europe, but also from the Lowlands, Bergamo, Venice, and even Austria — had been arriving with increasing rapidity through the month of April. However, even as May brought improved weather, the rate at which the comparatively well-heeled air travelers arrived had begun to diminish.

Sharon turned back toward the north, marked the progress made by the gray oblong, which was now close enough to see in greater detail. Its lines were more trim than most of the airships which had been arriving, and there were more catenary wires draped across its back to hold up a larger and more enclosed gondola beneath it. It trailed less smoke, which meant that it was not running a burner to keep the envelope inflated with hot air; the only fuel it was burning was to power the lawnmower engines that spun its propellers. As it angled lower, toward the pennons flying over Besançon’s walls, she had no doubt left: this was definitely a hydrogen airship — and therefore, the one they had been waiting for.

Sharon turned toward her husband. “Bedmar’s here.”

Ruy glanced at her, a smile creasing lean cheeks already well-equipped with wrinkles. Thirty-three years Sharon’s senior, Ruy’s face was the only physical signifier of his age. Almost wasp-waisted and with an erect bearing that connoted both vigor and long decades of service to the Spanish crown on five continents, the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes and deepening smile lines merely made him look mature. And if there was any gray in his mustache or painstakingly styled beard, she could not see it — although Sharon did wonder if the occasional glints she noticed there were the reflections of pomade or the start of a few telltale strands of silver.

His eyes briefly left hers, scanning the sky. “Yes, my love. At last, Bedmar arrives. The old scoundrel.”

Which, had Ruy been anyone else, would have been an outrageously disrespectful comment. Alfonso de la Cueva-Benavides y Mendoza-Carrillo, still referred to by his former title, the Marqués de Bedmar, was now the cardinal-protector of Spanish Lowlands and also Philip IV’s ambassador extraordinary to that same turbulent state. And, just a year ago, Ruy had been his adjutant, right-hand man, intelligencer, and senior bodyguard, as he had been for more than a decade before marrying Sharon. Consequently, he had an easy familiarity with Bedmar that few others enjoyed. But neither he nor Sharon were certain of the cardinal’s attitude toward Pope Urban and his summons to an ecumenical colloquy in Besançon.

Ruy placed a strong, sinewy hand on his wife’s full arm, left it there, a faint additional pressure conveyed through the palm. “I reiterate, my heart, that you need not be here to meet the cardinal.”

“And I reiterate that as the USE’s papal ambassador, and sponsor for this event, it is my duty to receive him.”

Ruy’s smile became slightly strained. “He is no more or less a cardinal than the others whose arrivals you have missed.” A genuine twinkle rekindled in his eye. “Unless, of course, your ulterior motive is to press him to divulge the details of my behavior before I met your magically-redeeming self. Before I can swear him to secrecy, that is.”

Sharon smiled. “Ruy, I can find out about that at any time, if I want, and without the cardinal’s help. Of which you are aware. So here’s what I do want to know: why are you trying to get me to leave before he arrives?”

Ruy, who was usually compliant in the extreme, frowned slightly. “My beauteous wife, despite your many charms — those both subtle and bountifully obvious — I am compelled to confess that I am no more likely to be distracted from my curiosities than you are. You have not yet explained why you feel the need to be here to receive Bedmar. But let us make a happy truce: to promptly and frankly reveal our concerns to each other.”

“Fine. You first.”

Ruy may have suppressed a sigh. “You are a hard taskmaster, beloved wife. Usually, I take singular joy in that quality of yours –”

“Ruy, are you capable of conversing without flirting?”

“With you? I fear not, my love, but I shall endeavor to do so now. To answer your query, I fear for your safety.”

“My safety? From whom — or what?”

Ruy shook his head. “That is another question. First, I shall have your answer, my love.”

Sharon smiled, worked in a coy upturn of the left side of her mouth, saw Ruy respond, but without any perceptual loss of resolve. “Okay, okay.” She let the smile drop, kept herself from biting her lip instead, glanced at the rapidly descending airship. “It’s important that we — the USE — engage Bedmar officially. As quickly as possible.”

Ruy shook a remonstrating index finger when he saw that Sharon meant to let that suffice as an answer. “My delightfully shrewd wife, that answer is no answer, for the same could be said of any of the cardinals and other religious luminaries who have already passed through this gate.” He gestured briefly at the archaic archway near which they stood: the Toll Gate. It was also referred to as Porte Boucle, since it was the one means of entering the core of Besançon, or colloquially, the Buckle. The Old Town of the city sat between the curving banks of the Doub which, here, were bent in the shape of an oxbow, or, as some preferred, a buckle.