1636 The Vatican Sanctions – Snippet 14

Chapter 8

Having completed the entry code, Pedro Dolor stepped back from the door to the rooms he had taken for a year’s lease six months ago.

Laurin, whose underground infamy as an assassin ranged from Paris to the Pyrenees and beyond the Piedmont, smiled faintly around the corner of the door as he opened it precisely six seconds after Dolor had completed the complex pattern of taps and knocks. Dolor entered, checking to the opposite side as he did so.

Radulfus, a marksman from some god-forsaken high Alpine valley where even mountain goats refused to live and where the humans were still using names from the Middle Ages, swung his heavy double-barreled shotgun away, his finger carefully outside the trigger guard. He nodded solemnly. Which gesture Pedro returned. Radulfus, who offered no nickname and refused to be assigned one, took no joy in killing; he simply wasn’t fainthearted about it, either. He was different from the others, being neither an assassin or a mercenary, nor even an intelligencer. But his family needed money and had little use for the popes, kings, or other mortal men who hoarded coins and held themselves to be something more mighty and privileged than they were. He didn’t speak much of any language other than some strange variety of Romansch that probably dated back to Roman times, but he nonetheless had made his simple philosophy quite clear when, during one fireside discussion on the road to Basel, he had pointed at the ground and said, “All men go there. So all should be same here.” Even had Dolor been the kind of man disposed to debate, he admitted he could have found little to dispute in Radulfus’ worldview.

The second floor of the building was entirely theirs and, in the rearmost of the three in-line rooms, Dolor heard the muffled stutter of the radio set. He moved in that direction, calling as he went, “Who’s signal are you hearing, Rombaldo?”

His Bolognese lieutenant, who had overseen the pursuit of Urban the prior year, held up a hand as Dolor entered. “It’s the Spanish dandy.”

“Reporting to Rome or Spain?

Rombaldo turned to face him. “Rome. Again.”

Dolor nodded, quietly pleased with the local fruits of his planning. Even by the time Pedro Dolor had visited Besançon late last October, Javier de Requesens y Ercilla had evidently been all but forgotten by Olivares and the grandee intelligencers who had sent him here. Dolor had spent that first visit to Besançon using his own radio to monitor the young fop’s communications, all in the simple code typical of low-importance Spanish information gathering.

Today’s transmissions were in a more complex code, but it was one that Dolor was quite familiar with. After all, it was he who had all but put the operator in Rome — Bruno Sartoris — in front of Borja’s radio. In his last visit to Rome, it had been child’s play to present reports in such a way that they highlighted the cardinal’s need for a radio operator. Maculani had long before come to understand the profound, indeed indispensable, advantages of nearly instant communications and had pressed for the adoption of the new technology, despite Borja’s reluctance.

That had allowed Dolor to remain casual, almost detached in the ensuing debate. So, when Borja finally relented, he had no reason to suspect that this was precisely the outcome that Dolor had sought. More to the point, Borja had no reason to suspect that when he solicited Dolor’s recommendation for a radio operator, Dolor’s suggestion was shaped to be optimal to his own, rather than the cardinal’s purposes.

Neither Borja nor Maculani had enough competence in the new technology to know what set of operational protocols would be most advisable nor, most pertinently, what codes were most likely to be secure. So of course they had to ask Bruno Sartori for his recommendations.

And Dolor, in his earlier contact with the Venetian (who he had heard was interested in employ, and met, strictly as a professional courtesy), had been sure to ask pointed questions about the young man’s expertise and experience in ciphers, particularly in light of the proficiency of the USE’s codebreakers. Sartori was, of course, flummoxed, then panicked, and Dolor could see the fear building in his eyes: fear that he would never again find work operating a radio.

But Dolor made sure to mention what codes he felt were state of the art, and would be available to Sartori if he were fortunate enough to find himself in Spanish employ. And of course, sure enough, those were the codes that, months later, the professionally lethargic Venetian suggested to Borja and Maculani. Codes with which Dolor was so familiar that he suspected he might be able to transcribe them in his sleep.

Javier de Requesens y Ercilla was contacted soon after by Sartori, using the frequencies and times Dolor had provided to Borja. Who promptly retained Requesens at a handsome rate and told him to expect a gift which would facilitate their business relationship. A day later, Borja transmitted suitable instructions to Spanish agents in Basel, and, a day later, the necessary code book was wending its way to Besançon, where Rombaldo was already on site, ready to eavesdrop on the “secure” signals between the Spanish fop in Besançon and the Venetian reprobate in Rome. Dolor had now compiled almost two whole months of their transmissions. Which had been his objective from the start.

None of this had been too difficult to foresee or achieve once it was determined where Urban had gone, after his escape from the tiny thorpe of Molino last July. While Borja, Olivares, and others spent lavishly — and futilely — hiring agents to monitor suspicious activities in likely capitols and offer suitable bribes, Dolor had strolled into Besançon in October and, within a few hours, confirmed his largely a foregone conclusion that this was indeed where the renegade pope was hiding.

Predictably, the other searchers had allowed their deductive process to be unduly influenced by their own political presuppositions. Dolor, who was now sitting behind Rombaldo and listening absently to the continuing stream of clicker activity from Rome, could no longer count the number of times he had seen that particular brand of professional myopia undo otherwise sound operations. In this case, all the powers that had reason to locate Urban began with the assumption that, as a key political figure, he would seek shelter and alliance with one of his autocratic peers, and therefore, word of his arrival could be discovered in the court of the one he had selected, even if he was not physically ensconced there. Or, just as likely, that he would be sequestered under a false identity in some remote citadel controlled by the crown itself.

Dolor did not consider those conjectures implausible, but elected not to start from that basis. Rather, his investigation immediately went to the tactical forensics of the failed attempt to assassinate Urban.

The farmhouse-villa where Urban had been hidden was the only major establishment for miles around and difficult to reach. Untenanted for more than a year, local laborers stopped in every few weeks to make sure that nothing catastrophic had befallen the place. Consequently, in the wake of the failed assassination attempt, the wagons required to remove over eighty corpses had to be hired from farms as far as fifteen miles away. Similar arrangements had to be made for the wounded.

Consequently, even though the casualties had long since been removed when Dolor arrived under an assumed identity, the surrounding countryside was still a-buzz with talk and rumor of the battle at Molino. It was, after all, the most important and exciting regional event in living memory, perhaps ever. Dolor’s quiet demeanor, complete self-assurance, omnipresent guards, and heavy purse loosened the lips of most of the region’s worthies. None of their accounts agreed on all points, of course, but by patiently recording and examining the tales of each, a serviceable composite emerged.

Firstly, the after-action report of the conditions at the villa itself confirmed the accounts of the three surviving assassins who had been foolish enough to flee back to Rombaldo. The battle had been fierce, and at least fifty of the assassins had died or been mortally wounded in the attack. By process of elimination then, approximately thirty of the defenders had been lost also. And it was likely that most of their wounded had survived owing to preferential treatment, so that meant the wagons who bore casualties to sources of better care were carrying persons loyal to Urban.

Dolor simply followed the trail of reports inspired by the passing of the wagons. He was able to track them southward, all the way out of the mountains. Shortly afterward, most of the wagons turned back, and Dolor found the reason easily enough. In a deserted meadow, thirty one marked graves surrounded a makeshift shrine. Just beyond them and behind a tangled copse, a mass grave humped up as if the earth wanted to vomit back the fifty-odd assassins no doubt lying at the bottom of it. The remaining wagons — leased from an actual hostler, now, not hires from mountainfolk — pressed on toward Vicenza, just over thirty-five miles west of Venice. However, before reaching the city, the mounted — and well-armed — party that had been following the last of the wagons split off to the west.

Dolor followed both leads. As expected, the wagons that had entered Vincenza carried the wounded defenders, escorted by a few junior down-time members of the USE embassy staff. The mounted group had swung to the west and had ridden hard. More than a few stable owners fondly recalled the lack of haggling when they charged exorbitant prices for watering and feeding the horses, and for remaining at a distance from the main body of their customers.

That trail led him to the Berici hills, where other news strongly suggested that Urban had not, in desperation, fled to Venice, a city notorious for its resistance to, and occasional antipathy towards, pontiffs. Instead, in the early days of August, the locals witnessed a great manmade balloon, trailing smoke and moving slowly under its own power, as it passed overhead, heading in the direction of one of a leading noble’s estate. Within a day, the dirigible retraced its aerial path, but then disappeared into the west, rather than the northern haze out of which it had come. Approximately a week later, the same or another airship repeated the cycle of the first, arriving from the north but departing to the west. After that, a much reduced mounted party made its way to Venice and the embassy there. Given Spain’s many sources in that city where bribery was not merely a way of life but an art form, it was simplicity itself to learn the identities of those persons: all USE Marines or other mere functionaries that had been attached to the USE’s embassy to Rome.