1636 The Vatican Sanctions – Snippet 09

Chapter 6

The heavy, muffled tread on the stairs suddenly became sharper, louder as a blond head with a pageboy haircut crested the floorboards where the attic communicated with the rest of the house. Another head, black-haired and tousled, followed. Brenguier waved a hand over the lip of the stairwell, signaling that he would remain below, on the lookout.

The two Swiss were in ratty garments that might once have been military uniforms. The blond one waved off the stares from Gasquet and his group. “Pontifical Guard rags. Don’t laugh; they got us in.”

“That and the choir boy who thinks he’s our leader,” the other added. “Hard to believe he can be stupid enough to think men of our experience would follow him here to try to commit holy suicide by pledging ourselves to a doomed pope.”

The first shrugged. “He’s from a known family. That means something to lots of people. Sure meant something to the armored fools who saw us through the toll-gate today.”

Gasquet leaned his left shoulder against a rafter. “Not all of the pope’s men are fools. Don’t underestimate them.”

The blond one looked at him. “So who are you?”

“I’m Gasquet. The man who’ll be giving you your orders.”

The one with the tousled hair started to push forward. “Hey, who do you think –?”

His friend held him back. “So you’re the one getting instructions from Rome.”

Gasquet did not need to answer, so didn’t. “And who are you?”

The blond one, realizing that there was not going to be any congenial give-and-take, evidently decided to stake out his own territory by making the limits of his deference clear: he grabbed a chair, swung it under him, sat. “I’m Norwin Eischoll. My companion is Klaus Müller. There are four more of us who were sent to join the choir boy as cover for our mission. Two others attached themselves along the way. Their papas were not former Papal Guards; they were just hoping to hire for coin and see Italy. But I think we may be able to convince them to consider joining our mission for a better sum.”

Gasquet shook his head. “I don’t have any money for more sell-swords. If you bring them around, you’ll have to pay for them out of your own pocket.”

Norwin smiled. “Will I? If the enemy doesn’t take care of them, I can shortly afterwards.”

Gasquet nodded slowly, returned the smile, thought, He’s practical, focused, ruthless. He’s a good addition and will control the Swiss well. And he’s too dangerous to be left alive once we’re done. Probably thinking the same about me. Well, that’s the nature of our business. “And how did you get the weapons through the gate?”

Norwin shook his head. “We didn’t. Instead of meeting the contact to get them, we got message indicating that security was too tight at the Pont Battant, and they were being brought in another way.”

Gasquet waited. “And?”

“And what?”

“What’s the other way?”

Norwin smiled. “You’re not the only one getting confidential messages, Gasquet. We were assured they’d be ready soon enough. The day after we secure permanent lodgings, Klaus here is going to go to the fountain of Neptune in front of the Carmelite abbey at noon and stand there for ten minutes with a big, uneaten roll. And then he’ll return to us. A runner will come to our rooms by the end of the day. He’ll have the location of a dead drop for all subsequent messages.” Eischoll’s smiled broadened. “From the look on your face, it must sound familiar.”

Gasquet was suddenly glad that the orders from Rome had been very explicit about him being in charge — because he would not have liked having to vie for control of the operation with Norwin Eischoll. “Somewhat.”

“They’re a pain in the ass,” Müller pronounced loudly.

Gasquet squinted at him. “They are the only way we can be safe from each other.”

“What do you mean?” he asked before he saw Norwin’s stone-hard expression.

Too late not to embarrass your leash-holder, Müller, Gasquet exulted silently. “I mean,” he said in a languorous tone that left enough space for everyone to mentally insert the implicit addition of “you dolt” after the first two words, “the same puppetmaster is pulling our respective strings through different channels. And since he is getting reports on each of us from the other, he will know — immediately — if either of our groups fails to obey orders and follow the plan. If it was just one of us in contact with a controller, how could Rome be sure of knowing if we were betrayed from within, or discovered and eliminated? Hell, the opposition could then use our codes to tell our puppetmaster just what he wants to hear, while nothing of the kind would actually be going on. But with two of us, reporting on each other to the same puppetmaster, he has independent confirmation of our obedience.”

Klaus had only blinked twice during the explanation. Gasquet had expected more. Perhaps the big Swiss was not so much stupid as impatient. “Still don’t like it,” he grumbled. “It would be easier if we were all one group, with one set of orders.”

Norwin jumped in before Gasquet could, evidently determined to end what was, for his side, an exchange which featured the mental capabilities of his underling in a most unflattering light. “Klaus, there are seven men in this room. Add our seven, then maybe some more. Much more likely that such a large collection of men, without apparent employment, would be noticed swiftly. Besides, one team had to prepare the ground here, and the other had to contact the choir boy and prompt him to get moving in this direction.”

Gasquet nodded, determined to keep any hint of admiration out of his voice or face. “And you were that prompt?”

Norwin shrugged. “It had to be someone who knew the cantons, who knew where to find and how to poke old grievances.”

Gasquet nodded indifferently, determined not to show any of his curiosity. How had Norwin been recruited? How had Borja been made aware of his existence? Gasquet would never know, any more than Norwin would ever be allowed to discover how Borja had come to retain Gasquet. Or how Borja had known, even before the actual mission was revealed, that Gasquet was familiar with Franche-Comté, fair with a pistol, good with a sword, and quite capable of leading men who would have to be retained and constrained during a long preliminary period of inactivity. Which was finally — finally — coming to an end.

“And you,” Norwin Eischoll asked with a jut of his chin, “How many more do you have stashed away in the city?”

“Enough,” Gasquet answered, wishing the answer was more than enough. “Several of whom you’re going to encounter tomorrow if you got the invitation you were supposed to get for St. John’s cathedral.”

Norwin sat up slightly. “So you’re going to be there, too?”

“Not exactly, but four men I’ve been controlling will be. One word of caution: for the first few seconds, keep a firm hold on your choir boy’s collar. Don’t let him run and play with the grown-ups until you have some targets.”

“That sounds ominous.”

“It won’t be for you, not if you keep your own men back.”

“Anything else?”


Norwin rose. “We need to have a contingency in case one of our two groups, or their controllers, are compromised.”

Gasquet nodded. “Sensible. Here’s what we do: every day we hang a different garment out to dry. Tomorrow a sock, Wednesday a hat, Thursday one glove, Friday a shirt, Saturday pants, Sunday a cape. We each send someone walking by our lodgings — and we’ll know yours soon after you move in — every morning. If any other garments are seen, or if a garment is seen on the wrong day, or there is no garment hung out at all, it means that group is not able to comply and must be considered compromised. The first order of business will be to drop a message to any controller we have left; they’ll pass along new instructions, including if and when we reapproach the compromised team. After that” — Gasquet shrugged — “we’ll have to react based on the circumstances.”

Eischoll nodded. “We need to be getting back.”

“Yeah,” Klaus muttered, “to report our failure at finding lodgings. Freiherr Ignaz von Meggen will be most disappointed with us.”

Without offering or receiving a wave of farewell, the two descended the stairs.

Donat crossed his arms. “Well, that was interesting.”

Gasquet was already scribbling a message in code. “I suppose. I just wish we knew more about them.”

“I’m sure they feel the same way. And with good reason. They have no idea where we’re from or who we know here.”

“True. But other than our basic weapons” — Gasquet glanced at the loose pile of swords, wheel-locks, and daggers under a leak-proof table in the center of the room — “it’s us who are waiting for them to deliver.” He held the message out to Chimo. “Run to the drop with this, and bring back the one that Peyre saw there already.”