1636 The Vatican Sanctions – Snippet 02

Sharon sighed. “Bedmar’s a diplomatic lynchpin. He answers to both Madrid and the Church. And those two authorities are diametrically opposed over the topic Urban is going to bring up here in a few days.”

Ruy nodded slowly. “Which is hardly news to me, my heart. So you must be aware of a new complication, since Bedmar’s attendance effectively affirms that he has moved from Philip’s orbit into that of his brother, Cardinal-Infante Fernando — or, I should say, Fernando, King in the Lowlands, since that is the title he now goes by.”

A title likely to plunge the House of Hapsburg into a civil war. Damn regal pride! “It’s not that there’s new uncertainty, Ruy. It’s that we have news that Bedmar probably hasn’t heard yet.”

Ruy’s unblinking eyes were patient but insistent.

Sharon made sure her voice was so low that almost she could not hear her own words: “Madrid is not likely to see any silver from the New World, this year.”

“So bad a year in the mines?”

“Ruy, I’m not talking about a reduced shipment. I’m talking about no shipment.”

Ruy’s eyes widened slightly. He leaned back slightly, coming fully erect. “Ah. I see. Yes, that could change things.”

“Yes, it really could. So, now: your turn. Exactly why am I in danger meeting the cardinal?”

“The danger is not to you, specifically, my heart. It is because you will be close to Bedmar.”

“And that will do what? Make some old geezers in Madrid angry at me? Well, more angry at me?”

“No: it will place you where an attack on Bedmar may become an attack upon you.”

“An attack? On Bedmar? Here?”

“Beloved, whose very breath is as air to me, we are not here only to guard Pope Urban.” He waved his hand to take in the many layers of security. “Cardinal Borja may remain upon the papal throne he usurped in the Holy City, but his reach is long and he may not be done with killing cardinals. And Bedmar may be a target of special interest. Even though Madrid has washed its hands of Borja, Philip might still provide Borja with the encouragement — and perhaps the means — to dispose of a mutually disloyal Spanish cardinal.”

Sharon nodded, scanning the long line of waiting commoners, and the much shorter and better dressed “fast lane” that had been set up for dignitaries, aristocrats, officials, and known couriers. People she had presumed to be bored a minute ago now looked carefully expressionless, as if attempting to conceal their true purpose. The irate looked personally and immediately dangerous. And visitors from afar radiated danger, their calm faces hiding agendas as undiscoverable as the imaginary weapons buried in their towering piles of chests and traveling cases.

Which is all total bullshit, of course. Sharon took a deep breath.

“I am sorry if I have distressed you, my lovely wife,” Ruy murmured.

Sharon smiled, put a hand on Ruy’s, which had never left her arm. “I overreacted. Like a dope. But I also needed that reminder of the danger that may lurk around us. You’ve been screening visitors for so many weeks now, and with so little alarm, that I guess I just got used to it.”

In point of fact, she realized with a second look and a start, Ruy’s security precautions actually had changed from what she had first seen five weeks ago, when the first of the representatives to Urban’s colloquy had begun to arrive. The primary screening was still being conducted by the local militia. They spoke the local patois, often knew the families of vendors and tradesmen, and were able to joke about recent events. It was both a casual and efficient means of sorting out the known persons from the unknown.

Never far off from the militia, but always standing two or three paces away from the line itself, were Burgundian regulars. Or so they called themselves: to Sharon the lack of national uniforms among the armies of Europe made it impossible to keep them apart or to really think of them as true soldiers at all. They almost all had off-white (or maybe just dingy) shirts and dark trousers. Their only definitive identifiers were their arm bands or tassels of orange and dark teal: the colors of their ruler, Grand Duke Bernhard Wettin. Originally a German duke, he had essentially stolen a number of provinces at the end of the abbreviated Thirty Years’ War, collectively labeled them Burgundy, and ruled there only because, as the old axiom had it, might makes right. And he still possessed the greatest might in the region.

The Burgundians’ equipment was dated: brigandines that had seen better days and shabby old swords. But soon Sharon overcame the initial impression of anachronisms on parade and perceived the methods in the madness that had inspired Ruy to assign the regulars to this duty. Although few were besontsins, they still knew the local patois and could easily follow what was transpiring between the militia and the throngs attempting to enter the city. On the other hand, few had relatives here and so were not merely at a physical remove, but a socially impartial distance, from the often impatient crowd. Lastly, since any problems were likely to start with a physical altercation of some kind, their armor and swords were significant disincentives but divorced from any possible escalation to firearms. On the other hand, if a troublemaker in the line did produce a hidden gun…well, there were other forces to deal with that.

Lurking less obviously near street corners, the walkways down to the quay, and around the gate itself was a far more professional and uniform set of soldiers: the Irish Wild Geese. Commanded by Owen Roe O’Neill himself, several had been on hand to fight off Urban’s would-be assassins last year. Well trained with both swords and pistol, their heavy, custom-built pepperbox revolvers rode at their hip, occasionally clacking against their cuirasses. The almost uniform light eyes and fair hair that peeked out from beneath the brim shadows of their capeline helmets marked them as strangers to the region, as did their language: a mix of English and Amideutsch that labored up through heavy brogues. They were watchful and serious, befitting their new status as the Pope’s Own: the Holy City’s Swiss Guard had almost all been slain during and after the siege of the Castel St Angelo.

Last and least obvious of all were the figures only visible as half seen shadows in a few ground-floor doorways, on a few balconies, and a single silhouette holding a long, thin-barreled rifle up in the bell-tower of St. Madeleine: two squads of the crack Hibernian Mercenary Battalion. Officially soldiers of fortune, they were under exclusive contract to the up-timer-dominated government of the State of Thuringia-Franconia and had proven their worth several times in Italy and Mallorca during the previous year. Wearing buff coats tailored after up-time military style, they remained all but hidden, their individually crafted Winchester .40-72 lever action rifles and percussion cap revolvers usually well out of sight, both to retain surprise and avoid attracting undue notice. Two on the closest balcony were hunched intently over a small box: a primitive portable radio, several of which were being used by Ruy’s security assets to keep each other apprised on traffic and individuals of interest throughout Besançon. And almost invisible at this distance, the silhouette in the bell-tower continued to turn slowly, one hand holding unseen binoculars to his eyes while the other cradled the rifle with a long tube atop it: a scope.

Ruy had been quick to see the advantages of the Hibernians’ up-time methods, particularly those made possible by multiple portable radios. But this layered security approach also brought a problem that was equally anachronistic — and familiar to Sharon: turf wars.

The local cops — the militia — were ticked off that the State Troopers — the Burgundians — were really calling the shots. They were annoyed, in turn, by the President’s Secret Service — here, the pope’s Wild Geese — who could interfere whenever they wanted to. But even those professional bodyguards had to coordinate with the Hibernians, who were the equivalent of a SOCCOM unit possessing the demeanor of the SAS. Who all ultimately answered to the national intelligence apparatus: Ruy and his immediate lieutenants. Just like home.

Or maybe not. Sharon could feel her smile droop as she noticed anew the shabby pomp of the sun-bleached national and city pennants that fluttered all around them, the omnipresent stink of both equine and human wastes, the borderline malnutrition in many of the less-well-attired persons in the crowd, their yellowed and crooked teeth, and the paucity of signage that sported words in addition to simple icons.

No, Sharon reflected, suppressing a shake of her head, this isn’t home. And not because the conditions here are worse. In a lot of ways, it’s better. Hell, I’d rather be burned for being a witch than for being black. But this will never look normal to me, to eyes that grew up filled with images of a world almost four hundred years further along than this one, no matter its own ugliness and horrors.

She turned, back toward Ruy, watching him receiving reports, giving orders, shuffling his men around with the surety of a master chess-player navigating a practice match. To him, this was all a brave new world of wonders: he marshaled forces by radio, had a .357 magnum in a shoulder holster, had seen the surface of a moon through a telescope, had watched a video of El Cid, and had dipped into dozens of up-time books with the same luxuriant delight evinced by a man of humble means who suddenly finds himself furnished with unlimited aristocratic delights and diversions. And yet, as he often and emphatically pointed out, the greatest gift that the future had conferred upon him was his beloved wife.

Who, for one small moment, envied that her husband was enchanted and excited by changes that seemed only wondrous and future-looking. Because for a foresightful up-timer, not only was this world a vast slip backward in health, in justice, in safety: it was also ingenuously caught up in the first, misleading blush of enthusiasm for all the improvements that had come from the future. Soon enough, Sharon feared, the long-term consequences of those changes would be felt, and a backlash against the new would arise. As it always did.

A door, groaning heavily on its hinges, opened slowly behind her. She glanced back, wearing a small, reassuring smile by the time she turned to face —

Larry Mazzare, Cardinal-Protector of the State of Thuringia-Franconia, emerged from the combination toll- and customs-house that extended away from the southwest side of the gate. Two Wild Geese flanked him as he squinted into a beam of sudden sunlight; the clouds were finally parting.

Larry had aged since they had arrived down-time, five and a half years ago. There was more gray in his hair, more lines on his face, and his simple Sunday-black had been traded for the heavy and many layered raiment of a post-Renaissance cardinal. A trade he had not welcomed, and which he did not maintain at home, but here, in Besançon and on the pope’s business, he had little choice. He noticed Sharon, nodded at her, at Ruy, and asked, “So…he’s here?”

Ruy nodded. “Yes. Bedmar has landed. He is on his way.”