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1635 The Papal Stakes: Chapter Two
Last updated: Monday, June 18, 2012 14:12 EDT
The proprietor of the rustic Crotto Fiume leaned a bit closer to Tom Simpson and almost crooned: “Are you sure you won’t have the soup, Signor? It is a local specialty: black cherry and game. A favorite of men who are large like you — who are so, so . . . robusto.”
“Oh, puh-leeze,” Rita Simpson whisper-groaned down at the tabletop.
As much to taunt his wife as satisfy the culinary curiosity that the stew’s description had piqued, Tom assented. “Si, grazie.”
“Brego,” replied the innkeep, cook, and owner — for that was the arrangement in most of these small, informal crotti — who bowed himself out to prepare their meals.
As soon as he was gone, Rita leaned against Tom’s Herculean bicep, “My robusto hero,” she cooed, “He can eat with the best of them.”
And while it was true that Tom had a healthy appetite, the era into which he had been thrown — the end of the Thirty Years War — had also trimmed off any small residual fat that might have originated with meals taken in the fast-food eateries and saturated fat emporiums of the very late Twentieth Century.
Melissa Mailey looked at Tom and seemed less amused. “Did you really have to have the soup?”
“Uh . . . no, but it sounded good. And I get to see all of you roll your eyes.” He leaned back, stretching his immense arms outward from his even more formidable chest and shoulders.
“I’m not rolling my eyes,” Melissa’s voice was devoid of jocularity. “I’m worried about our rendezvous.”
“What? You think the soup takes half a day to cook?”
“No, Tom: I think that we should not spend a second more in towns than we must — not since leaving Lombardy, at any rate. We don’t have a lot of friends in these parts.”
James Nichols broke open a small loaf of bread, not much bigger than his thumb: it sent up a fragrant puff of steam. “Now, Melissa, we’re on neutral ground, here. Chiavenna is an open city.”
“Which is a very nebulous term here, James. This isn’t simply Casablanca with the Alps instead of the Atlantic, and with snow instead of sand. These folks don’t define ‘neutral’ they way we do, and they’ve not had much success with co-dominium — excuse me, tri-dominium — arrangements like this one.”
Diminutive Arcangelo Severi leaned over so that he could see past James’ large, prominently veined black hands to the people further down the table. “The Signora Mailey, she speaks correctly.” Two weeks on the road with the group had almost ironed the idiomatic peculiarities out of his English — almost, but not quite. “The Spanish now guard Chiavenna instead of the Milanese? It is a black wolf replacing a grey wolf: same breed, same teeth, just a slightly different coat.”
“And the French observers are hardly our friends, either.” Melissa tapped her fork for emphasis. “Officially, we are still every bit almost-at-war with them as the Hapsburgs.”
“Well, not with the Austrian Hapsburgs, at least,” temporized James. “And they also have a guard detachment here, right?”
“Yes, comprised of about a dozen reprobates that the commander down in the Valtelline didn’t want rousting Protestants any more.” Melissa sniffed. “So he sent them up here, a region where almost six hundred Protestants were massacred only fifteen years ago. Another typically deft move by another typically tactful servitor of Imperial Viennese spleen and incompetence.”
Tom smelled a medley of rich foods approaching as the door to the kitchen opened. “Aw, c’mon, Melissa: the Austrian Hapsburgs are a country mile better than the Spanish. And their new ‘Emperor,’ Ferdinand III, is way more open-minded than his parochial pappy. You know as well as I that there have been plenty of positive overtures traded with Vienna in the past year.”
“Wonderful,” was Melissa’s wooden reply, as their meals — cold wheat polenta shot through with small chunks of cheese, boiled potato, spring vegetables, and what looked a lot like salami — emerged from the kitchen. “I’ll be charitable and assume our diplomatic nattering with the Austrian Hapsburgs is the promising harbinger it seems to be. But what good does that do us here?”
James smiled sideways. “You sound nervous, hon.”
“A shame. And you always lose your appetite when you’re anxious, so I’ll just help you with th –”
James’ reach for Melissa’s plate was deflected by a prim and well-aimed slap at his hand. “I’m not that nervous. But I am dead serious. And I hope that doesn’t prove to be an ironically apropos choice of words.”
A multi-vocal and multi-lingual exchange which was more of a mélange than their entrees poured out of the kitchen door as a young fellow brought them their drinks. Waves of Italian splashed against two dialects of Lombard, all capped by a gull-like screeching in Romansch. At an adjoining table, two men ceased their mutterings in Savoyard French in an attempt to eavesdrop. They gave up as the babel of languages became too fluid and dense for untangling. At which point, Arcangelo leaned forward, and under the cover of the multi-tongued cacophony, stressed at both Tom and James: “You will do well to heed the words of the Signora Mailey. We should have simple food only.”
Tom slurped his thick soup with defiant gusto. Nichols smiled and spoke around his mouthful of polenta and cheese: “Relax, Arco: with the exception of the high-protein fodder selected by Captain Kodiak, here” — his merry eyes flicked over at Simpson’s immense torso — “we bought the cheapest, least conspicuous meals that would also sustain us for the last leg of our journey.”
“ Si, true, it only cost a few quatrines more, but maybe it would have been better to buy food we can carry, hey? So that when the cardin — eh, when our ‘last companion’ arrives, we can leave molto presto.”
Tom chewed a piece of what tasted like smoked venison. “Why in such a rush now, Arco? I would have thought you would have been more nervous on the way up here.”
Arcangelo shrugged. “Before yesterday, we were on lake boats with a dozen other foreigners, all bound over the Alps. Some were even traveling without the benefit of a native to guide, and speak for them, such as I have done for you.” His smile, gap-toothed, was nonetheless full of quick, light charm. “So: from Garlate, to Lecco, to Como, then up the Mera to the north end of Lago Mezzola; it was a long day, but still, only one day. Thirty of your miles, at most. And a boat owned and crewed by Bergamaschi, so except when paying the tolls, when did we even see the Milanese?”
Tom felt the eyes of the other Americans focusing on spare Arco as he spoke, realizing just how much more than a simple native guide he was. He had come to them from their fiscal partners in Venice, the Cavriani family, and that clan’s proclivities for subtlety, mild self-deprecation, and invisible shrewdness were rapidly becoming evident in the almost elfin Arcangelo.
Whose description of their earlier journey continued unabated. “And yesterday, we walked along with scores of others, following the Mera road up here. But we were already in Milanese territory, so no checkpoints, no further tolls. I’m not sure we even saw a soldier.”
“We saw two.” James Nichols’ tone was not confrontational, but quite sure. “One as we got started in the morning, but he was looking north, up the valley, and not along the road. Then another just as we passed the intersection with the Via Valtelline. He was on the crest of a defile, watching the road.”
“Si, with a few cavalry out of sight in the defile below, I’ll wager.”
“That’s not a bet; that’s a certainty. But I must say, Arco, you are starting to seem more like a — well, yet another Cavriani factotum, not a guide.”
Arco smiled. “A guide? I never said I was a guide.”
“Yes, you did. You just said –”
“I said I was sent to guide you on your journey back to Grantville. To guide — that is a job, an activity, not a title. I have never claimed to be a guide.” Interestingly, as Arco moved into what should have been the trickier lexical ground of argumentation, his English became more self-assured and fluid. No, definitely not a guide after all.
“And so now you’re all jittery, Arco? Why?” Rita was, somehow, never so charming as when she was utterly direct. Or so it seemed to her still-infatuated husband.
“Signora Simpson, it is our last, eh, ‘fellow-traveler’ that worries me. This decision that the ambassadorra Nichols sent yesterday — that we should wait for him to meet us in Chiavenna, in this crotto — this I do not like.”
“Why?” Rita persisted. “The cardi — the friar was intercepted when he arrived in the Valtelline from Austrian territory, before he had even sent word of his return to Rome. As far as Borja and the rest of Philip’s papal usurpers know, he’s still on Legation business in Vienna.”
“Yes, so it would seem. But answer me this: how did the ambassadorra know where to find him? And in the middle of his journey through the Alps?”
“She has sources who were intimately — and officially — familiar with the friar’s estimated progress and itinerary.”
In that moment, the full cleverness of Arcangelo Severi was revealed for a split-second: his eyes were as clear and sharp as a mousing cat’s. “Yes, I . . . see,” he confirmed for himself and everyone else with a tight little nod: he had pronounced “see” as “See.” As in “Holy See.”
Damn it, from just that one little tidbit of data — that Sharon has officially reliable sources on the probable actions of the cardinal — Arco figured that we’ve got Pope Urban stashed near Padua with the rest of the Embassy staff that high-tailed it out of Rome when the Spanish invaded. Pretty clever ‘guide’, we’ve got. Easy to underestimate, too. Which makes him doubly valuable to the Cavriani, I’ll bet.
Tom leaned back, the last of the black cherry-and-game soup reflecting up like inky blood from the reservoir of his large spoon. “So, Arco, does knowing the source of the ambassadorra’s knowledge make you a little less worried?”
“No: it makes me a little more worried. Well, no — a lot more worried.”
Melissa answered Rita before Arco could even open his mouth. “Because anything one side does know, the other side could know. Can we assume everyone associated with our former Rome Embassy — and our Embassy in Venice — is unbribable? And that the papal troops who are no doubt traveling along with the friar are equally virtuous? The bottom line is this: there are too many places where a leak could occur. Our Ambassador’s very authoritative official source is also far too important to keep his own correspondence. And it’s not as if he was in any position to simply drop in on the friar himself to send news of this rendezvous: he had to send a courier.”
James Nichols shrugged. “At least the Embassy is communicating with us by radio: that’s half of the potential intelligence leaks eliminated.”
Rita was frowning at Melissa. “So you think that the ca — the friar — could be intercepted before he gets to us?”
“Maybe. Maybe killed outright; it’s what Borja reportedly did to sixteen other ‘friars’ in Rome just a few weeks ago. Or maybe our friar will be apprehended, questioned to see who he was planning to meet here in Chiavenna.” Melissa’s gaze made a significant circuit of the table.
“Or he might have simply been followed,” put in Arco, “which would be the worst. If our foes were that clever –”
The door to the crotto creaked open slowly and a soldier sauntered in. A buff coat, a saber, one pistol on his belt, but the bandolier and high boots said “horseman.’ He wore no colors or livery — typical for armies of the period — and hadn’t as much as a colored armband to suggest his allegiance. But, if the message passed on by James’ daughter Sharon was accurate, he would be a guard dispatched from the papal troops to provide the friar with an escort over the Austrian Alps and down to Rome.
The trooper’s eyes swept the room, rested on the table of locally-garbed up-timers for a moment and then narrowed when they reached James Nichols. It was hard to tell if his expression was smile or sneer; perhaps a bit of both. He gestured for a small, rotund man to emerge from behind his shielding bulk. “I’ve eaten in this crotto before, friar. I can vouch for the food and prices” — he turned and started out the door — “but not the company. Arrivederci.” In exiting, he signaled the need for a hasty departure to a similarly equipped trooper just beyond the door, which he closed after himself with a tug at its rough iron handle.
The friar actually flinched as the heavy timbers slammed home with a drum-like boom. He stood wringing his hands, looking at them. Tom wondered if he was about to start crying.
In that second, Arco was on his feet, face bright, wide smile revealing an impressive collection of teeth that had evidently resisted the normal genetic command to follow a common scheme of alignment. “Friar Luigi, Mamma sends you warm wishes, and hopes for your health. Now, sit with us and share our meal.” A bit overcome, the man in the friar’s robes allowed Arco to guide him to the table. He looked at the up-timers as if they might make him their next course at dinner.
“Please, Friar,” said Tom, “have a seat. And please, I presume you will accept our hospitality, particularly since Brother Michael sends his regards?”
The Friar heard the slight emphasis on “hospitality” and then looked up quickly at the mention of “Brother Michael.” “Yes . . . yes; I will. I am glad — very glad — for your invitation.” Small, clever eyes assessed the proximity of Tom and Rita, quickly determined the implicit relationship to be spousal, and then his eyes shifted to Rita, alone. “Tell your family — particularly Brother Michael — that his hospitality honors me.”
The friar who was in fact Cardinal Ginetti was probably not a man of action or courage, but he — like the rest of the cardinals Tom had met — was clever and subtle. Two sentences had been exchanged each way and they had already established each others’ identity, that asylum was being offered by Rita’s brother Mike Stearns — Prime Minister of the USE — and that it had been accepted. But for anyone not aware of the precise identity of the group around the table, the exchange would merely have sounded like a meeting that mixed old friends with new acquaintances. Either way, the contact part of this rendezvous went easily and quickly enough. These little cardinals are pretty smooth operators. Now, time to pay the bill and stroll back to the –
The door opened: a medium-sized man stepped in, closed it, a broad brimmed hat pulled low, covering the upper half of his face. His clothes were simple, but made for travel: they might be well-worn, but they were not worn out. There was no sign of a weapon on his belt or in the loose folds of his cloak, but his flowing attire would make it entirely possible to carry a large dagger completely undetected. The proprietor came rushing out: the Babelesque debate in the kitchen flooded briefly into the room before he shut the door. “Signor — mangi? Food?”
The newcomer nodded, murmured a request, and took a seat at one of the two remaining tables, the one closest to the group. He turned his hunched back toward the up-timers in an apparent effort to afford both parties some modicum of privacy.
It was, even to Tom’s untrained eye, all an act. Judging from the long, significant looks he got from both James and Melissa, he was not alone in his assessment. Well, we never planned on this, at least not so quickly after meeting the cardinal. Whoever this guy is, he must have been right on the ‘little friar’s’ tail. Which means Melissa was probably right: someone dropped the dime on our rendezvous with His Eminence. And with this new guy’s big ears only a few feet away, we don’t have any way to come up with a plan on the sly. He probably speaks the whole gamut of local languages: Italian, Lombard, Savoyard, German, Romansch, maybe Romlisch. And since he obviously knows that we’re the folks he’s looking for — James’ dark black skin was, to put it lightly, distinctive in Alpine Italy — this guy was probably chosen, in part, because he speaks English, as well. So how do we –?
But James was smiling. “ooD-ay oo-yay eak-spay ig-pay atin-lay?”
Damn, but Doc was smart. “I an-cay.”
Arco, for the first time in Tom’s acquaintance of him, looked utterly flummoxed.
Melissa looked like she was swallowing lye with every word she uttered. “Oo-yay av-hay an an-play?”
James nodded. “Tom, ell-tay Arco out-abay oor-yay ick-say other-May.”
Wha? Oh, I get it.
Tom rose, head hung a little. The crotto‘s newest patron shifted slightly, probably trying to use his ears to gauge what the movement behind him was and it if represented potential danger. Tom drew out the chair at the end of the table next to Arco, who had recovered enough to feign understanding of the pig-latin gibberish flying past him. “Arco –” said Tom with feeling.
Rita’s foot tapped against Tom’s ankle. Okay, I guess I was going over the top, already. Hell, my idea of method acting is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whom he almost resembled, physically. “Arco, did I tell you how sick my mother is?”
One micro-second of confusion flitted across the young Venetian’s face, which then became a study in heart-felt compassion. “Tom, I am so sorry. I had heard she was doing poorly, but I had no idea –”
Under which James muttered. “Ore-may of em-thay in the eet-stray.”
Melissa nodded tightly. “No oubt-day.”
Tom hung his head as the proprietor brought his newest patron a bowl of the same black-cherry-and-game soup. “She’s so sick,” Tom sighed mightily. “I should return home at once, but — leaving here is so hard. How can I possibly go?”
That line — consistent with the “sick-mother” act, but also a pertinent question about the tactics of exiting the crottoearned a broad smile from Melissa.
“Om-tay oes-gay irst-fay. I’ll et-gay the oor-day. James ext-nay. We eer-clay the eet-stray and un-ray. Okay?”
Tom nodded at Melissa’s plan, but made the nod also look like he was simply harmonizing with Arco’s consoling pat on the back. “So, how do we start you on your way home, Tom?” Arco asked. But as he spoke, he leaned in James’ direction.
Who said: “Arco, I believe that fellow behind you just insulted Tom’s mother.”
Arco’s head snapped up straight, as though startled, but his eyes were bright with shrewd amusement. He turned, shocked, in the direction of the apparent patron behind them. “How dare you! Tom, do you know this suino? Do you hear what he said about your sick mother?”
Tom looked up from under ominous brows at the same moment the newcomer turned around, stunned: evidently, it had taken him a second to realize that the outburst behind was both aimed at, and about, him.
Arco’s outburst flowed on like an alpine cataract. “He calls your mother a — a puttana del diavolo! Merda! I will –”
The other patrons looked up, aghast. The fellow’s mouth leaked food forgotten in mid-chew and his eyes widened: partly in surprise, partly in fear.
Because Tom was up and moving. With reflexes so fast that they were incongruous in so large a man, he had jumped out of his seat and closed to combat range even as the startled faux-patron was rising from his chair. A denial was half out of his mouth, but his lowering brow suggested a dawning realization that he was being suckered.
Or rather, sucker-punched. Tom’s right fist came shooting straight out from his shoulder, landing with a sharp crack on his target’s somewhat pointy jaw. The much smaller man went straight back, unconscious as he hit the table, sending his own bowl of soup and beer flying up in a cascade of chunks, dark red broth, and foam. “Bastard!” shouted Tom, who, feigning sudden emotional distress, moved quickly for the door, his apparently solicitous companions rising to follow and comfort him.
As he reached the door, Tom snaked the Hockenjoss & Klott revolver out from under his cloak, cocked it, and nodded Melissa toward the door.
“Tom?” Rita whispered, not noticing that the dark red broth had splashed along the left-hand side of Tom’s cloak.
“You’re a lousy actor, darling”
“I know,” Tom said as he nodded at Melissa Mailey to yank open the door. “Now, here we go.”
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