1636 The Vatican Sanctions – Snippet 18

Von Meggen had rejoined the rest of the prospective Swiss Guards at the base of the cathedral steps. After a few moments of conversation, those who truly shared his hopes began smiling and nodding; the others, led by Eischoll, evinced muted versions of similar interest. Some were markedly better actors than their fellow-conspirators.

Müller frowned. “So they — we’re — all part of the Papal Guards, now?”

Gasquet looked sideways: it was hard to believe that he, a Prouvènço, knew more about the formalities of that process than a Swiss. “No. In a situation like this, there is usually a review of all prospective guards by a direct papal representative or the pope himself, since the old commander is dead. I suspect your young idealist’s happy news is that the pope has agreed to his proposition in principle.”

Müller nodded. “Okay. But will it happen in time?”

Gasquet shrugged. “As far as I can tell, we’re not in any rush.” Von Meggen’s group started moving away from the steps of the cathedral. Gasquet looked back up toward where Sanchez had been watching; that window was empty, now. “Apparently the Catalan didn’t see anything worth investigating.” Which was probably no surprise to him; only rank amateurs would have attempted to contact von Meggen immediately upon his exit from St. John’s. But it would have been equally amateurish not to keep an eye out for such a suspiciously-timed meeting, and whatever else Sanchez was said to be, an amateur was not among the labels affixed to him.

It was also not the sign of an amateur that three draped sedan chairs were now nearing the cathedral steps to fetch the pope, rather than a single open one. Von Meggen saw the approaching procession, conferred quickly with Eischoll, who nodded vigorously and assisted him in not only stopping the rest of the Swiss, but arranging them in a rough cordon along the likely exit route of the pontiff. As they did so, the sedan chairs and their bearers made their way up the steps and into the cathedral, one after the other.

“A shell game?” Müller wondered with a frown.

Well, he wasn’t completely dense. “It is how they move the pope around the town, on the rare occasions that they do.” What Gasquet did not add was that, over his weeks of watching, he suspected that, on some occasions, and between certain locations, the sedan chairs were nothing more than a decoy. The last three hundred years of Besançon’s history had been rife with changes in rulers, in laws, in tolerance for different faiths. It was rumored that hidey holes and secret passages had been constructed and then forgotten by generations of refugees, informers, spies, and heretics, only to be rediscovered by thieves, murderers, and black marketeers.

However, whatever truth there was to such tales, and whatever shadowy pathways might exist, that knowledge was now possessed almost solely by the less savory local elements, with whom Gasquet had minimized contact. After all, if they were willing to take coin to assist him, they’d be at least as likely to take even more coin to betray him. So the possibility that the pope moved through unseen tunnels on occasion remained a tantalizing, but unconfirmed suspicion.

The first of the sedan chairs emerged from the cathedral, surrounded by a mixture of Burgundian soldiers and Wild Geese. As it started down the stairs, the troops in the square started pushing back the crowd — including the Swiss, who seemed more than mildly affronted. But that was of no concern: Eischoll had competently shepherded von Meggen’s group to the correct spot.

When the second sedan chair did not appear, Gasquet granted that he was dealing with true professionals and that his crossbowmen never had a chance to attack two targets at the same time. By returning to the safety of the cloister singly, no assassins could hope to have better than a one in three chance of attacking the correct chair — assuming the pope was in any of them. But no matter: the crowd was dense, the babble of voices loud, the potential for confusion greatest. Gasquet picked up the stick-mounted mirror, slipped it into the sunlight, tilted it in the direction of the top of the Porte Noire.

Müller, following the angled flash, tensed expectantly as a faint silhouette rose into view atop the ancient Roman gate. The outline was that of a kneeling man, training a crossbow down at the sedan chair. When it released, no sound rose above the general din of the faithful multitudes straining for a view of Urban, the incarnate link between God’s divine and mundane kingdoms.

The quarrel ripped into the low-center of the sedan-chair’s front drapery, made a tearing sound as it buried itself in whatever chair was behind it. The sudden agitated swirl of the pierced drapery and the panicked flinch of two of the bearers, triggered an immediate chorus of cries, shrieks, and gasps. Half of the crowd’s heads and torsos began twisting spasmodically, wrenching around in attempts to discover where the shot had come from.

The Wild Geese were far more focused. The tall dark one who had been leading the escort gestured high, beyond the front of the sedan chair. Two of his men quickly pointed toward the silhouetted attacker, who was clearly working to reload the crossbow. The leader leaned back toward the cathedral’s doorway: probably calling out the location so it could be relayed to whatever Hibernian snipers were in the vicinity.

In that second, dozens of the crowd had rushed toward the sedan chair, some in an apparent reflex to help their possibly stricken pope, others with the wide eyes of those drawn by the anticipation of a ghoulish spectacle. They came up sharply against the Burgundians, several of whom seemed to misinterpret crowd’s reaction as an assault, or at least, a complete disregard of their authority. Weapons were raised; one or two fell. Shrieks of agony and howls of outrage added to the bedlam.

At that moment of perfect chaos, four men broke free of the crowd, two carrying crossbows, two more producing suddenly smoking containers. The crossbowmen kneeled, fired. One of the Burgundians in the path of the other two assassins fell limply; the other staggered back, dropping his sword to lock his hands around the quarrel protruding from his left leg.

The sudden attack caused a brief, stunned ebb in the uproar — but then it rushed back in, redoubled and horrified.

But not before the other two assassins charged along the path that had been cut by the crossbowmen and reared back to heave their smoking jars up the stairs toward the cathedral’s doorway.

Von Meggen and Eischoll charged in from the side, tackling them. One of the bombs simply fell and rolled away, the burning rag stoppering it flaring irregularly. The other one was just leaving its wielder’s hand when von Meggen tackled him. The firebomb wobbled into the air, landed on the stairs between the sedan chair and the thinned cordon of Burgundian soldiers: flaming oil splashed out in every direction. One of the Burgundians’ tabard began smoking and hissing; the rent drapery of the sedan-chair torched with a sharp, breathy whoosh!

As fire leaped along the frame of the sedan-chair as if it was seasoned kindling, the rest of von Meggen’s Swiss caught the two crossbowmen, who, apparently startled by the swift response, dropped their recocked crossbows and tried to press back into the crowd to avoid seizure. Before they could do so, the Swiss had pulled the assassins down and hands began rising and falling in the scrum beneath which they were buried. Two of those hands held knives.

As Eischoll performed similar, and quite practiced, execution upon the bomb throwers, von Meggen raced to the nearest crossbow, scooped up one of the quarrels that had been abandoned, fitted it, and raised the weapon toward the silhouette atop the Porte Noire.

That attacker had already fled to the northern side of the gate, but then stopped as if surprised, as if he had prepared a method of escape there but now found it mysteriously gone. He began running back across the top of the Roman arch, making for a nearby roof.

Von Meggen gauged carefully, fired — and missed. As did the rifle that spoke from the cathedral’s bell-tower at almost the same second; stone fragments spat out from the top of the arch. The assassin sprinted harder.

Von Meggen seemed to be so absorbed with cursing himself that it took a moment for him to realize that Eischoll was beside him, handing him the other crossbow: loaded. Ignaz von Meggen did not even smile; he grabbed the weapon, raised it, aimed, and fired.

The assassin let out a faint cry. Hit just below the hip, he staggered, and pitched over the far side of the arch. Eischoll shouted for the Swiss to follow him, and with blades out, they rushed toward the twitching body that was face down on the street cobbles. The ones who reached it first were the older impostors whose knife work was every bit as swift and efficient as Eischoll’s had been.

Müller was silent for a long moment, did not notice that Gasquet was already returning the telescope to its case and policing the area to make sure they had not left any spoor to mark their position. “Were they your men?” Müller asked in a voice of almost childlike uncertainty.

“They were. We must go. Now.”

“Yes. But — did you really think they could succeed?”

“At killing Urban? It was possible, but unlikely.”

“Then why –?”

Gasquet rounded on the Swiss. “To give young Freiherr von Meggen an opportunity to prove his and his mens’ loyalty to the pope. And now, they’ve demonstrated their eagerness to risk their lives in his service.”

“So…so, you meant to kill your own men?”

Gasquet sneered as the crept toward the edge of the roof that faced away from the cathedral. “If by ‘my men’ you mean those ill-trained cutthroats I retained a week ago with a few silver pennies and a few flagons of wine, then yes, I did. Now, hurry, or I may begin considering a similar fate for you.”

As Müller complied hastily and Gasquet gauged the jump down to the ground, he thought, As if I’m not already doing exactly that, you Swiss oaf.