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1635 The Papal Stakes: Chapter Five
Last updated: Wednesday, July 4, 2012 09:59 EDT
Miro stood and nodded to Virgilio. “Thank you, Signor Franchetti.” Miro turned to face his hosts. “Gentlemen, I must ask you to excuse me: I have some technical matters to attend to regarding our airship.”
“All is well, I trust?” Jenatsch’s nose now looked like the beak of a stooping hawk, ready to pounce on important new information.
“I will learn soon enough.” Miro smiled. “The first time we arrive in a new location, there is always the matter of fuel quality to be considered.”
“Are you saying our oils are inferior?” Ziegler had folded his arms again; preemptive indignation was writ plain across his broad and full-fleshed face.
“Not at all, but each town’s are distinctive. Since they are made from different substances, they burn a bit differently. And depending upon how much ethanol — eh, pure spirits — we can find, that also impacts how best to mix the fuel so our engines consume it most efficiently.”
Mollified, Ziegler’s arms relaxed. “I see.” Clearly, he did not. Jenatsch on the other hand, seemed to get the gist of it. Miro foresaw that, in the commercial negotiations of the months to come, the two of them would reprise this juxtaposition of ill-concealed incomprehension and silent perception many, many times.
Rising, he nodded to them both. “I thank you for the dinner and conversation. My factor will meet with yours tomorrow morning, then?”
Ziegler returned his nod. “As we agreed.”
Jenatsch’s nod was slower. He smiled: “Safe travels in Italy.”
Miro managed not to let his surprise show. “Auf Wiedersehen, mein Herren.”
Once the door was closed behind them, Franchetti turned to Miro. “How did the small one know that we are about to travel on to Italy?”
“He doesn’t know. He guesses it, and was probing to watch our reactions. He was also letting me know that he does not believe your reason for interrupting the meeting.”
“That one is too smart.” Franchetti began descending the stairs into the commons room of the Grosse Hart.
“I’d be far more worried if he took pains to conceal his intelligence from us. If a man like Georg Jenatsch believes you to be a possible enemy, he will make himself unreadable. He will not let you know how smart he is — or what he conjectures.”
“So this means –?”
“It suggests — and only that, Virgilio — that he is at least provisionally thinking of us as allies. And, not wanting to be taken lightly, or undervalued, he is showing that he is not a man to be underestimated nor trifled with. Which he would not be doing if he felt fully secure in his current position.”
“Is he not the political leader, up here?”
Miro smiled as the noise of the tavern rose to meet them. “He is, as much as anyone can be in this loose federation. And if he can legitimately represent himself as having brokered a new relationship with up-timers — in the form of an agreement with President Piazza of Thuringia-Franconia — it will solidify his claim to that leadership.”
Miro walked over to a large corner table, where a handful of locals were frowning over their cards. A newcomer in a mix of up-time and down-time garb grinned predatorily over the top of his own hand. Miro suddenly understood where the American term “card-shark” had come from. “Harry,” he said.
Harry Lefferts grinned wider. “Just a minute; I’m fleecing a few more alpine sheep.” Those members of his rag-tag special operations group who had accompanied him to the Grosse Hart — Gerd, Paul, Felix — smiled also.
“Harry,” Miro said quietly, “we don’t have a minute.”
The betting was concluding. Harry’s smile. “Oh? Then I’ll be there in half a minute. Just enough time to finish out this one last hand.”
Miro shrugged, looked at the three members of Harry’s infamous and effective Wrecking Crew. “Gentlemen, your presence is required immediately.” He did not bother to look at Harry again, but exited. Behind him, he heard urgent whispers in the strange part-German, part-English dialect that had been dubbed Amideutsch.
Franchetti fretted. “Why does he do that?”
“You know what I mean,” muttered Franchetti, “defying you. Not disobeying, exactly. But not behaving as he knows he should. As he has behaved on missions before this one.”
“Well, I suspect one of the reasons is that he’s usually not had to work under supervision. The head of Grantville’s intelligence community, Francisco Nasi, told me that Harry follows orders best when he is given great freedom in deciding exactly how to carry them out. But that was not possible this time.”
“Si — and the other reason for his insolence?”
Miro looked at his master pilot and blimp builder. “Why, probably because Harry wanted my job, Virgilio.”
“What? But he’s — he is a condotierre, not a man of affairs.”
Miro shrugged. “He thinks otherwise.” And in his hearts of hearts, Miro could hardly blame Lefferts, could even imagine the Americans first thoughts when receiving the news that he was not in overall command of the mission: I am not so much younger than this Miro fellow — who arrived, unknown, in Grantville only a year ago and is now giving me orders. Who meets with Ed Piazza in closed sessions from which I am politely excluded. I have been a good soldier who has succeeded at every task; I have won the acclaim of young emulators all over Europe; I am bold and strong and intelligent. It is I who should have been placed in charge of this mission: not this usurper, this lately-come Estuban Miro.
But if Harry had thought such things, they had not settled and festered as jealousy. Estuban Miro had smelled the corrosive musk of envy before, and there was none of it wafting about Harry — although he could hardly have blamed the up-timer if there had been.
There was, however, the faint odor of schnapps about Harry as he arrived — the last of the Crew to do so — alongside the already inflated blimp. He was passing out some shared winnings as Miro began his update for the rest of the group, amongst whom there was now a quiet figure in a monk’s habit, hood pulled low. “Ambassador Nichols’ radio message was quite clear; we cannot wait until morning. We must get under way now.”
“I thought flying in the later part of the day can be dangerous,” commented the only other up-time member of the Wrecking Crew, Sherrilyn Maddox.
Franchetti jumped in. “Here, in the Alps, it is madness. We will probably have calm air when the sun begins to set, but we will not reach the Maloja Pass until night-time. So we will be flying in the swiftly changing alpine air currents — and without light. Don Estuban, I know Ambassadorra Nichols was adamant, but –”
“She was not merely adamant: she gave a direct order, and we will follow it.”
The hooded figure nodded silent agreement.
“And do we know why we are being invited to be the guests of honor at a suicide party?” When Harry Lefferts drawled his absurdities that way, even Miro had to smile.
But only fleetingly. “Yes. Contact was lost with Captain Simpson’s party. Abruptly.”
The cocky expression swept off Harry’s face, replaced by fell intensity. “When?”
“About twenty minutes ago. Franchetti was minding the radio at the time, monitoring the traffic between Chiavenna and Padua. Captain Simpson’s radio operator was sending out a good signal — and then nothing. Dead air.”
Franchetti nodded vigorously. “Si. At first I think, ‘maybe a sudden weather change between here and Chiavenna.’ After all, it is the Alps. But then comes the message from Padua. The ambassadorra, she had clear reception of the same signal but heard the same thing: the transmission ended sharply, and did not resume. No interference, no increase in static. They went off the air.”
Sherrilyn Maddox, Harry’s former gym teacher, looked at her ex-student and gritted her teeth. “Shit.”
Harry nodded. “So they didn’t even give the pick-up signal.”
“No: this is what you and Ed call an ‘emergency extraction.’”
“Except there may not be anyone at the rendezvous point to extract.”
Miro nodded. “That is entirely possible. We do know that Captain Simpson’s group made contact with Cardinal Ginetti, but they could have been apprehended while doing so, or shortly thereafter.”
“And what’s the big deal with this cardinal, again?” asked Harry. “Why’s he worth the extra risk?”
“Cardinal Marzio Ginetti is prefect of the Pontifical Household, secretary of the Sacred Consulta, and papal legate to the Austrian Court. Which means that he’s a close confidante of the pope.”
“And therefore, on Borja’s hit list,” Sherrilyn supplied with a glance at Harry.
“Thanks for telling me what I already know. I mean, why rescue Ginetti specifically: there have got to be a dozen Italian cardinals in the same situation.”
Miro shook his head. “Not any more. As of last week, the suspected total of cardinals that are missing — and probably dead — rose to sixteen. Borja was evidently quite thorough.” He looked to the hooded figure, who nodded once.
Juliet Sutherland, the Crew’s other female member and a woman of many roles, breathed in sharply: “Bloody hell.” She wasn’t a Catholic — exactly. But she wasn’t anything else, either — exactly. Or so it seemed. Miro couldn’t figure her out any more than he could the rest of the Crew — and he had given up trying to do so. Accepting the group’s dynamics and identities was a whole lot easier than trying to understand them.
“Yes: Borja has eliminated the great majority of Urban’s most reliable and trusted allies in the Consistory. That’s why Ambassador Nichols added Ginetti to our extraction list, and had him rendezvous with Tom Simpson’s group in Chiavenna. If the cardinal had actually reached Italy, it is unlikely he would have survived a week. Possibly not even a single day. So, at the pope’s behest, a confidential courier intercepted the Ginetti during his journey westward along the Valtelline and redirected him to the rendezvous in Chiavenna.”
“Which now sounds completely fubarred.” Harry finished. “Ten to one the courier wasn’t so confidential after all and they put a tail on the padre.”
Miro nodded. “That’s the most likely scenario. And if Simpson’s group survived being discovered, they will be making best speed for the default extraction site, just a few miles west of the Maloja Pass.”
Harry grabbed a taut catenary cable and hopped into the dirigible’s gondola. “Then what are we waiting for? Let’s ride!” He held out a hand for his ponderous backpack.
Miro shook his head. “Light pack only.”
“What? Wait a minute, you said –”
“Harry. We thought retrieving Tom Simpson’s group would be a leisurely pick up. Franchetti, me, two of your Crew as security, and the rest of you to stay here. But now we — well, you — could have a real fight on your hands. That means the whole Crew is going to have to deploy for the rescue. It also means that there won’t be enough room for us on the return. And any of us who wait for a day or more in the Val Bregaglia probably won’t evade the Spanish long enough to be around for a second pick up. So whoever doesn’t get extracted by the blimp will need to immediately press on to reach Ambassador Nichols and her staff in Padua.”
“So we’re going to Italy on foot.”
“I’m afraid so.”
Harry shrugged. “Well, that means forty-pound packs, max. Combat load only. And it means leaving a lot of our support equipment back here.”
“Yes. But it will follow us down. Eventually.”
Harry looked up. “Eventually may not be good enough, given the fuse burning on this mission. Frank Stone’s wife Giovanna is now — what? Five months pregnant, almost? I can work a lot of miracles, but jail-breaking a mondo-pregnant lady ain’t one of them. So we don’t have a lot of time to wait around. So gear that gets to us ‘eventually’ is gear we’re never going to see again. A capeesh?”
“Yes, I understand,” said Miro, who very nearly did not: the deformed Sicilian dialect that Harry had heard in American gangster movies was barely recognizable as Italian. “But whether or not the gear gets back to us in time, the dirigible must take Ginetti to a safe haven immediately. That means the balloon’s next flight after Chur must be to Grantville. So we won’t have access to the dirigible — or the equipment — for at least two weeks. Possibly more.”
“Well, that’s just great.” Harry hopped out of the gondola, seized his backpack, started pulling out non-essential items and making a semi-neat pile. “So we go in all teeth and no tail.”
“As usual,” commented George Sutherland, Juliet’s immense husband. “Do we at least know whether the security unit already in the valley has secured the extraction site yet?”
Miro shrugged. “So far, we haven’t been able to raise Colonel North. Nor has the ambassadorra’s radioman. Of course, they may be on the move and unable to send or receive.”
“So we don’t know where anyone else is?” Harry spat. “That’s great; just great. This operation hasn’t started, and already we’re scattered and screwed.”
“As usual,” added George once again.
Thomas North squinted, trying to get a better look at the roofs of Soglio about three miles ahead to the west, and further down the slope of the Val Bregaglia. “What is it, Hastings?”
“Sir, some of the men are asking to stop and fill their water skins.”
“They’ve drained them? Already? They filled up only a few miles back in Vicosoprano.”
“Yes, sir, but it’s a hard march.”
“My, my. Then perhaps all of them should have, as children, simply accepted the life of leisure and independent wealth that was no doubt their birthright. Ah, but the siren song of the mercenary life was evidently too strong for them to resist.” North did not smile while he made this response. “Besides,” he added grudgingly, “if they put any more water in their bellies this quickly, we’ll lose some of them to cramping. And while I would be delighted to indulge their masochistic impulses, I suspect that we will all be needed at the extraction site. And as quickly as possible.”
From the corner of his eyes, North saw Lieutenant Hastings shift from one foot to the other. “Sir, it’s not as if we actually heard the extraction code given. We just got a few garbled signals. That’s all.”
“Yes, Hastings — that’s all. But that’s why I possess the lofty role and rank of colonel and you are but a lowly lieutenant. Who has been evidently been promoted above the threshold of his ability, I might add.”
“Your confidence in me is always inspiring, sir.”
“Ah, and now irony, too? I’ll make an officer of you yet, Hastings. Tell me, Lieutenant: what information can we be certain of, despite the ‘garbled signals’ of which our radio operator could make no sense?”
“I beg your pardon?”
North folded the spyglass, handed it to his batman, faced Hastings. “Lieutenant, for the last three weeks, we have been winding our way through Grisons and the Graubünden, not quite showing the USE flag in the region, but making no secret of the fact that they are our exclusive employers. And in all that time, how much radio traffic have we received? Or heard?”
“Three messages to us, sir. Maybe four or five others. Mostly from Ambassador Nichols’ dislocated Embassy in Padua.”
“Yes: at least, we think that was the source, since those messages were almost as badly garbled as this last bunch. So given the general scarcity of radio traffic, what do you make of today’s flurry of activity?”
“That something important is happening, sir.”
North sighed. “Hastings, your hypothesis is almost as inspired as the conjecture that maybe — just maybe — night follows day. Well, you’re not to be blamed, of course: you are only a lieutenant, after all. Whereas I am a colonel — a near-divinity. And here is what I divine from the clicks, hissings, and scratchings that have afflicted our radio-set today. First the group we are to extract is on the air with something that sounded like a routine update: it had that tempo. But rather concluding with back and forth housekeeping to fix a time, frequency, and cipher for their next sitrep, the comchatter ended quickly. With, I think, a time being set.”
North felt the weight of command heavy upon his shoulders. “No, Hastings. There would have been a triple confirmation of extraction. The pattern and rhythm of the exchange was all wrong for that.” Hastings blinked, said nothing. North pressed on. “Logically, they were establishing a near-future call-back time. Probably because the group in Chiavenna was about to make contact with its newest member, a rather important ‘friar’. Then a long wait. Then a brief exchange — and then nothing. There were repeated, unanswered comm-checks from Padua — or so it seemed. Then more coded comm traffic — between Padua and the airborne extraction team at Chur, I’m guessing. Lots of it. So, Hastings, what do you make of it all?”
“That there’s trouble with the group in Chiavenna? That something went wrong when they went to the scheduled meet with this Friar Ginetti? And that they are moving to the rendezvous and unable to communicate anything further?”
“Bravo! There’s hope for you yet, Lieutenant.” North frowned sadly. “Well, actually, there isn’t any hope for you, but I can’t stand to see you sulk, so I lied. Now, have the squad leaders employ the necessary invective and make the suitable threats so that we can pick up our pace. And I’ll let the men stop to piss, but not to drink any more. They’d give away our approach with all that water sloshing in their guts.”
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