1636 The Vatican Sanctions – Snippet 15

So: of the two choices that Urban had open to him — to escape to Venice and from thence by sea versus heading north over the Alps — the pope had chosen the latter. But he had also chosen to avoid the perils of the road, both coincidental and intentional. Instead, he had made his way north by balloon. Which meant he had enjoyed the continuing — and intensifying — help of the USE and its leader, Gustav Adolph of Sweden.

After that, it was fairly simple to deduce the ultimate terminus of Urban’s journey. There was no way for him to travel without security forces. Those forces would surely be commanded by Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz. That, in turn, almost certainly meant they would be accompanied by the faux-hidalgo’s wife, Sharon Nichols, the famous up-timer surgeon who also happened to be of African descent and therefore was widely and readily recognized in all the cities large enough to boast an aerodrome in which a dirigible might land and be serviced.

Dolor had not even needed to travel to each city along the way. The small number of cities with aerodromes, the limited number of dirigibles traveling between them, and the small number of passengers they were able to carry had already made them routine objects of intelligence reporting. Accordingly, Spanish sources in each city along the only two possible paths over the Alps — either via Brescia and Chur or via Belluno and Innsbruck — were quickly able to eliminate one of the paths. No such unusual party descended at Belluno or Innsbruck, which made perfect sense with what had been observed: the inbound dirigibles had used those stations on their southbound route, but had not returned that way. Following their customary circuit, the airships had left Berici heading west to Brescia and then north to Chur, which did indeed report that the persons of interest had in fact landed there and were rapidly serviced for their next flight. Of even greater significance, they were apparently escorted by one of the USE’s even more rare fixed-wing aircraft.

The rest was child’s play, so long as an investigator once again eschewed the political presupposition that northbound travel meant that Urban had thrown his lot in with the USE and its Lutheran monarch, Gustav. There was a slim possibility that Urban might have entertained the possibility of his seeking refuge with Fernando in the Spanish Lowlands (and it would have made more sense in a variety of both practical and political particulars), but a quick check of the dirigible’s activity after descending from the Alps into Biberach put paid to that notion. The dirigible that landed there never did complete the rest of its circuit, but fell off its regular route for several weeks. The answer why was quick in coming: Spain’s intelligencers in Basel reported the development of an airfield well outside the city. Since the USE’s airplanes had flown in there once or twice, it was presumed they were simply grooming the landing strip for more routine operations.

Dolor suspected, and discovered, differently. The USE had apparently expanded their lease of the airfield to include dirigible operations. The one that had carried Urban to Biberach had smartly refueled and quit the easily observed string of known aerodromes, arriving instead at Basel. After which it remained there for two weeks and departed in no particular hurry, and with no persons of interest, back toward Biberach. And so the trail was lost.

At that point, finally, political sensibilities became a serviceable compass. Why would Urban go to Basel? And where did he mean to go overland from there?

In regards to the second question, one generality was utterly certain: Urban did not intend to go far. He had shown the good sense to avoid traveling on the ground, where the chance of serendipitous sightings and hastily arranged enemy ambushes grew exponentially with every passing day.

Remaining in Basel itself was out of the question. Neither the USE nor any factions friendly to it had any real power there. Paris would require weeks of travel and was a politically dubious choice. Spanish Flanders remained a better choice but was much farther still. Bavaria, while Roman Catholic, was a state under siege by the very forces that had spirited Urban away from certain death on no less than three occasions, now. Austria was a Hapsburg stronghold, and although increasingly at odds with the dominant Spanish branch of the family, would logically be unwilling to shelter and thus, possibly go to war over, a pontiff that Philip wanted removed. And if Urban actually sheltered with any powerful Protestant king in any largely Protestant land, it was doubtful that he would be able to attract and retain the support he needed to ultimately restore himself to the cathedra or so demonize Borja that almost all of Roman Catholicism would raise a hue and a cry against him.

So, by process of political elimination and limited overland footprint, Dolor placed his bets on Burgundy and Besançon. An almost violently Roman Catholic city in an equally Roman Catholic region, the most Protestant thing about it was its newly self-appointed Grand Duke Bernhard Wettin, whose pressing concern was a way to bring increased religious tolerance to his potentially restive population. That, of course, put him on a social path quite similar to that espoused by the up-timers, with whom he had various arm’s-length dealings. Furthermore, he had just recently married the Catholic regent of Tyrol, Claudia de Medici, whose territories were now one of provinces of the United States of Europe. If there was a polity of more serendipitously mixed demography, pedigree, and alliance, Dolor could not think of it.

And there was another benefit, of course. Bernhard’s grasp on Burgundy, while not tenuous, was anything but assured. Consequently, he craved both safety and legitimacy — and what answered both those needs more than protecting a pope? When it came out — as it was always intended to — that he was sheltering the pontiff, he would become a pivotal political figure, one who could not be counterattacked too freely or fiercely for fear that it would be seen by other nations as an attempt to take hold of Urban’s fate and so, wrest broader political leverage.

So without any undue haste, Dolor and Rombaldo had traveled by coach to the last post-stop outside Besançon, entered on foot, and within hours, saw signs that spoke volumes to those who knew what to look for. The small up-time presence had not grown overtly, but signs of their influence had: their elite troops — the Hibernian Mercenary Battalion — were not a prominent presence but were in all the places one would expect to maintain sufficient overwatch and security. A significant detachment of Irish Wild Geese were there also, and it was quickly confirmed that they were commanded by no other than Owen Roe O’Neill, who had been conclusively implicated in the first attempt to rescue Borja’s young hostages last year, and were almost certainly involved in the successful second raid in Mallorca. Sharon Nichols, USE ambassador to Rome, and her husband, Ruy Sanchez, were personalities who could not easily stay hidden or out of marketplace or barroom conversation. So it was that all the expected and inevitable signifiers of Urban’s presence were found within the first day.

The rattle of telegraphy ceased. Rombaldo turned with a smile. “Rome says — ”

“That Borja’s assassins are to make contact with a new provider here in Besançon: a second contact who is arranging for the ‘tools’ they shall require.”

Rombaldo folded his arms, leaned back. “Sloppy. Well, inelegant, at least,” he amended seeing Dolor’s slight frown. “Like you always say, if you’re going to leave a trail, just leave one.”

Dolor shrugged. “Yes, if most of your people are professionals. If they’re not” — his glance roved quickly across his own men: Laurin, Radulfus, Martius, and Giulio — “sometimes it is better to keep the most sensitive matters in a second pair of hands, until the very last moment.”

Rombaldo smiled ruefully. “So that’s why you’ve kept the chest locked since we finished training south of Basel.”

Dolor nodded, rose. “And now it is time for us to unlock it. When they act, we, too, must be ready.” He walked to the chest closest to his own bed, palmed a small, flat skeleton key out of an almost invisible slot in his belt buckle, and opened the chest. The others in the room, hearing and seeing the motion, laid aside whatever they were doing and came to stand around as Dolor swung back the heavy lid.

They stood there gaping as Dolor knelt down, making sure that the contents were in proper order. Martius, a thoroughly nondescript thug from the back streets of Zurich, giggled in what sounded like fetishistic anticipation.

The dozen grenades were still snug in their respective compartments. They were ovals, longer than the spherical designs typical amongst down-time armies. Although they were patterned after models seen in up-time books, they were filled with black powder, meaning that they could not generate the same high pressure explosions. However, the weaponsmiths that Dolor had set to the task had determined that the black powder would do its best work if more tightly contained inside a shell more robust than those used currently. Also, its surface was marked by a grid of deeply scored lines which, had one looked inside, were reprised on the interior of the weapon’s body, as well: all so that it would fragment more evenly, generating a more predictable and lethal spray of shrapnel.

Dolor nodded to Rombaldo who reached in and lifted out the grenades like a crate of oversized eggs. Underneath were four black powder revolvers and three double-barreled shotguns, two of them matches for the one in Radulfus’ hand. Those three were all copies of the fourth that lay in special, reinforced padding, away from the others. It was the weapon that had been lost by one of the up-time armed Wrecking crew when two of them dropped through a hole they had blown in the roof of the Insula Mattei during the failed Roman rescue attempt. The heavy, overbuilt copies made from it had been expensive and painstaking enough, but it was the ammunition that proved to be the almost insurmountable challenge.