1636 The Vatican Sanctions – Snippet 11

Chapter 7

With the sun burnishing its rippled surface, the Tevere River seemed to move more slowly, like a flow of indolent, cooling lava that was not in a particular rush to go anywhere or do anything.

At least that’s how it appeared to Cardinal Gaspar de Borja y Velasco from his window on the highest floor of the Palazzo Borghese. Everything in Rome seemed to move slowly, from its resentful population to the sluggish tempo of trade, to the rebuilding of those parts of the Holy City that could, in fact, be rebuilt at all.

As to the lethargy of the population, that was no mystery to Borja. He had been in Italy long enough to recognize the signs of decadence and hedonism when he saw it. How else could it be that the direct inheritors of the glories of Rome were now unable to rise up as an equal to any modern nation, were unable to establish even one colony in the New World, were incapable of perceiving his own ascension as but their own first step on the road to new prestige and power? Granted, those heights would be dictated and groomed by Spain, but with the proper coordination between the secular capital of the Christian World — Madrid — and its spiritual citadel — Rome — what could such an alliance not accomplish? Perhaps the Italians did not wholly lack vision, but in their current, debauched state, they had lost all the vigor of their Roman forebears.

The slowing of trade was indicative of the greater, more expansive rot abroad in the world: namely, the so-called Reformation of the Protestants. And their mortal sin was infinitely worse than the venal sloth and venery which afflicted Italy: it was blasphemy and heresy, aimed like another spear at the side of the crucified Christ. Lacking only horns and tails, the fallen princes of Germany and Scandinavia had conspired with the perfidious Jews to ensure that commerce to and from Rome had all but ground to a halt. And leave it to the carping town fathers of the so-called Eternal City to repeatedly and obsequiously maintain that the drought of goods and capital in their streets was not due to a Protestant conspiracy, but rather, fear over the “uncertain conditions and laws” which now prevailed.

As if there was anything uncertain about Rome under the redoubtable hand of Cardinal Gaspar de Borja y Velasco! All could rely upon his swift and decisive — if need be, brutal — enforcement of not merely secular law, but holy writ. When push came to shove, he did not leave such matters solely to the bribable magistrates who were likely buggering young boys beneath their robes of office. No, the next pope, Gaspar de Borja y Velasco himself, occasionally made the time to ensure that justice was done throughout his city, no matter the cost; of this, they could be sure.

And of the delays in rebuilding the Holy City? Well, that was simply an effect brought about by the confluence of the first two causes: Italian sloth amplified by the Protestant embargos that made it difficult to pay local workers. Who, in typically decadent fashion, refused to work for credit and the promise of bread in the meantime. Similarly, the masons and architects complained of the lack of necessary stone, mortar, tools, and manpower to rebuild or create new edifices approximating the shattered grandeur of the Castel St. Angelo and Hadrian’s Tomb. So of course they all had to be forced to do their jobs, often with firm prodding from Spanish halberds. And if the workers and stone were both weak, and the latter often collapsed and crushed the former, well, was that his fault or problem? All creatures had their appointed place in God’s creation. His was to propose; theirs, to dispose. His to rule; theirs to obey. It was astounding that they were such dull creatures, unable to see even that simple and inevitable hierarchy in the order of things. Hard to believe that their ancestors built aqueducts, invented wonders, and conquered almost the entirety of the known world. Oh, Borja lamented silently as he took another sip of rioja and contemplated the apathetic and insolent river of fading fire, how the mighty have fallen. Sic transit gloria mundi, indeed.

“Your Eminence,” a familiar voice called from the entry.

Borja did not bother to turn, simply raised a hand and curled his fingers inward. “Come, Maculani. Share a glass of wine with me.”

“I thank Your Eminence for the kind offer, but may not partake. Not while we are still receiving transmissions from Besançon.”

Borja closed his eyes to gather both strength and patience, then turned. “They are still tapping away at each other over the Alps, then?”

Maculani, a solid body surmounted by a square face with intense, bright eyes, nodded. “They are, Your Eminence. We have received word that the assassins our agents solicited in Luzerne have, as hoped, arrived in the company of this fellow von Meggen.”

Borja leaned forward eagerly. “Excellent. When will they act?”

“There is no word on that yet.”

“Well, have you pressed them, Vincenzo?”

Maculani bowed slightly. “Even now, the radio operator is conveying your desire for the swift finalization and execution of our plan. We should have the answer within the hour, if the transmitting conditions hold that long.”

“They had better hold that long,” Borja grumbled, before realizing that what the radio operators called “atmospheric conditions” was not a variable subject to human control, and that God might take a dim view of a cardinal — even a favored one! — railing, no matter how indirectly and unintentionally, against acts of divine will. But blast it, why could that will not have delivered the functionally apostate Urban into Borja’s righteous and eager hands by now? Why did the Lord Himself seem intent on making the campaign to save his own Church on Earth so convoluted and filled with frustrations? Borja reflected that if one broke apart the letters of his surname, one could spell “Job” and still have an “r” and an “a” left over. Perhaps, he thought, putting down his wine, there was a lesson in that.

Maculani stepped closer. “Is there anything else I may do for Your Eminence?”

Borja rose. “Pray for favorable conditions between here and Besançon. Every day that Urban is able to sow his heretical dogma in both innocent and infernally-motivated ears, the more damage suffered by Mother Church.” Borja stared at Maculani, who stared back, unafraid. The cardinal smiled. “Your father was a bricklayers, was he not?”

Maculani frowned. “Yes, my father laid brick, Your Eminence. Indeed, for a time, so did I.”

Borja nodded. “An honest occupation. Would that more of the consistory who now support Urban had a similar background. Their nobility is simply a mistake of birth, rather than of character developed through labor and perseverance.” It occurred to him that he, and his core supporters — the Spanish Cardinals, as they had been called for centuries — were as much, if not more, the scions of aristocratic privilege. In an attempt to leaven that nagging hint of irony, Borja added, “After all, our savior was a carpenter.” But somehow, that didn’t quite have the effect he had hoped for. The opposite, perhaps. No matter.

“Yes, Your Eminence,” Maculani answered in a carefully neutral tone. Which was unlike him, but the bricklayer-become-bishop seemed perplexed by the profoundly philosophical direction of Borja’s discourse.

The cardinal turned to look at the Tevere again. “You know, Vincenzo,” he sighed, “it is a daily wound to me that I have not the power to make you a cardinal. Yet.”

Maculani — with a surprisingly quiet, almost stealthy, tread — came to stand alongside him. “I am aware of and humbled by Your Eminence’s kind opinion of this servant of Mother Church. But my lack of a biretta is but a small consequence of Urban’s continued obstruction of your path to the cathedra. The great danger lies in his continuing ability to create what others still see as legitimate cardinals, and so, to reconstitute a consistory of those who are foolish enough to take his side. Thankfully, the radio gives us the ability to direct the means whereby that flow of new cardinals may be cut off.”

Borja nodded, but found he was no longer seeing the Tevere’s bronze glow. Now, rekindled memory repainted it a sullen gray-blue, flecked with ice: rare, even in early February. But the winter just past had been cold for Rome, and, on that particular day, Borja had chosen against continuing to look out through the large, expensive panes of the glass window. He had drawn the thick curtains closed once again, thereby cutting off the chill that radiated from it.

Maculani had been there, as now, taking notes. The matter being discussed was too sensitive to entrust to mere scribes. Borja had learned that the hard way when, just last year his secretary Ferrigno had been caught passing information along to the so-called Lefferti — the revolutionists who had styled themselves after the up-time assassin and adventurer, Harry Lefferts. Happily, in the end, they had been slain in the hundreds, Lefferts himself nearly caught with them.

And the architect of those victories over the up-timers, as well as the sleuth who had uncovered Ferrigno’s treachery, had stood before him, radiating no more warmth than the wintery Tevere: Pedro Dolor. Who had, but a moment before, brought news of Urban’s new location and with it, a powerful argument for Borja to adopt a device he detested and instinctively distrusted: the radio.

“So, how is it that you happen to have an agent with a radio in Besançon, Señor — er, Don Dolor?” Borja did not approve of promoting commoners so easily to titles, but it was the fashion in which Olivares’ increasingly rare letters to Borja referred to this operative, and there was no point in doing anything that might annoy the count-duke.

Dolor shook his head. “My agent is not in Besançon, Your Eminence.”

“Then how can he make so confident a report of Urban’s presence there?”

“My agent has been tracking various signs of activity involving movements by the elite forces with which the USE is likely to protect Urban. He was in Basel when he got word of this colloquium that Urban is convening in Besançon.”