1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 28
He smiled, and his face seemed to lose about twenty years of age and forty years of disapprobation. “I fear I was no angel myself when I was young.”
Fakhr-al-Din wasn’t particularly old by up-time standards, being only in his early sixties. But down-timers gauged these things differently. Any number of them could and did live into their seventies and eighties, and some into their nineties. But as they drew near to the Biblically stipulated lifespan of threescore and ten, they tended to become fatalistic on the subject of age.
“We wish to propose an alliance, Emir.”
The years of age returned. “For what purpose?”
Mike began to explain.
Rebecca’s meeting with the rulers of Tuscany was a relaxed affair. Perhaps that was due to the fact they were meeting in the open air, in the spectacular Boboli Gardens adjacent to the Palazzo Pitti, which served as the residence for Florence’s ruling family. More likely, Rebecca thought, it was because for all practical purposes the meeting was between women.
Yes, a man was present at the meeting–no less a figure than the Grand Duke himself, Ferdinando II de’ Medici. But Ferdinando’s great passion was not politics but new technology. That had been true even before the Ring of Fire and had become something of an obsession since. The moment he learned that the diplomatic delegation from the USE had brought a radio to give to the Tuscans and Rebecca handed him the manual of operation–already translated into Italian, conveniently–he’d had no interest in anything else. So while he stayed in his seat with his nose in the manual, Rebecca discussed affairs with his wife Vittoria della Rovere. And they did so in the course of a stroll through the gardens.
The grand duke’s wife had considerable influence in Tuscany’s political affairs, though in her case it was tightly focused. Vittoria was a devout Catholic, and she had been determined to attach Tuscany as closely as possible to the church. When Cardinal Borja had carried out his coup-in-all-but-name and Pope Urban VIII had barely escaped Rome with his life, Vittoria had become a partisan for the pope in exile. That partisanship had only increased and become fiercer after Urban was murdered.
But that was something she and her husband, who sided with her although he didn’t share the same fury, had to keep hidden for the time being, as much as possible. Borja and the Spanish who ruled half of Italy had enough on their plate already to want to avoid a war with Tuscany. But if the Medicis made too much trouble, that could change. In the meantime, the grand duchess was keenly interested in forging good if discreet relations with the United States of Europe.
Hence the very pleasant reception she gave Rebecca. If Vittoria was dismayed that her guest was Jewish, she kept it to herself. Rebecca suspected the grand duchess found that reassuring, actually, since there was little chance Rebecca could be an agent of another faction within the Catholic Church.
“I will need to consider your proposal,” said Fakhr-al-Din. “It is not something I can give you an answer to immediately.”
Mike nodded. “Of course, Emir.”
“How long can you stay in Tuscany?”
“There is no set time by which I need to be back. The siege will be lifted for a time, since Murad will need to winter over his forces in Vienna.”
With a finger, Fakhr-al-Din summoned one of the servants standing next to the door. “Make ready a suite for the general,” he commanded. Then, eyed David Bartley.
“He does not need to remain in Florence,” Mike said. “We’ve discussed enough of Major Bartley’s logistical plan already.”
Given the small dimensions of the room, there was no chance the servant hadn’t heard their entire conversation. That had made Mike uncomfortable, but by now he was accustomed to the habit which seventeenth century grandees almost invariably had of ignoring the presence of servants when important matters were being discussed. When he’d been prime minister, his chief of intelligence Francisco Nasi had taken full advantage of that careless practice.
The Druze emir must have sensed Mike’s discomfort. After the servant left, he said: “You need not worry, General Stearns. All of my servants belong to Druze families closely bound to my own Ma’an family.”
As if treason isn’t something done by insiders. But Mike kept the thought to himself. So far they’d only discussed the broad elements of Mike’s proposal, including the part David Hartley would be playing. He’d said nothing at all, for instance, of bringing Admiral Simpson and the Baltic fleet into the Med.
They were still at a political stage of the negotiations. When and if it became time to discuss operational matters, he’d insist that the meetings be kept completely private.
“We can have a suite prepared for you,” Vittoria said to Rebecca, as they concluded their stroll through the gardens. They were approaching the figure of the grand duke, who was still sitting on the same bench and still had his nose in the radio manual.
“One of the ones with a private bath,” she added, smiling.
The smile seemed quite innocent, diplomatically speaking. As if the woman who was pointing out the amenities was not fully aware that Jewish custom was to bathe more frequently than Christians generally did. Rebecca wouldn’t be at all surprised if they had dinnerware in the palace appropriate for kashrut as well. The Medicis were nothing if not sophisticated, and while much of Italy was hostile to Jews, Tuscany was more liberal. Some Jews were politically prominent and a larger number were important to the duchy’s financial affairs. Rebecca would not be the first Jew who’d enjoyed the dynasty’s hospitality.
The Catholic church was just as powerful in Italy as it was in her native Spain, but Italians did not share the typical Iberian obsession with “Judaizers,” also known as marranos, “Secret Jews.” That was because the Italians had been more humane–or simply smarter–and had not emulated the mass forced conversions that the Dominicans had carried out in Spain and Portugal at the end of the fourteenth century.
If you don’t force Jews and Moslems to hide their religion, then you don’t have to be worried about secret Jews and Moslems, do you? It ain’t rocket science, as her husband Michael would say. But he had a much greater aptitude for politics than most people did, including most rulers.
“No, thank you,” she responded. “I need to get back to the USE as soon as possible. The radio operators will stay, of course. But I do have one favor to askâ€¦”
If there had been anyone watching the day the USE delegation arrived–which there probably had been–they would have seen five people leave the airfield along with their luggage and equipment of some kind. Four of them would have been men, all of them in uniform. The big man who seemed to be their leader wore a particularly floppy hat that made his face difficult to see, but was obviously the famous Michael Stearns. Obviously, if for no other reason than the proprietary manner in which his beautiful wife held onto his arm as they walked away from the plane.
Very beautiful wife, as said all the tales about the famous Jewess, Rebecca Abrabanel. If any watching spies had been male–and most spies were male–they would have spent most of the time they had available to study faces studying hers.
If there was anyone watching on the morning the delegation left–and there probably was–they would have seen only three people return to the airfield. The same beautiful woman–no doubt about it, since she wasn’t wearing a veil of any sort–and the same two men in uniform. One, slender and quite young. The other, the big fellow in the floppy hat. That would be General Stearns. Had to be, for his wife had the same proprietary grip on his arm.
Once in the air, the Florentine nobleman who’d been posing as Mike Stearns proved to have none of the up-timer’s anxieties–and had the privilege of riding in the front seat, as Mike had done himself. He’d have to make his own arrangements for returning to Tuscany, but he wasn’t worried about that. He was a self-confident man who’d traveled a lot, and the grand duchess had provided him with ample funds for the purpose.
For the moment, he was just enjoying himself, looking out the window.
“Oh, look!” he exclaimed.